Before & After: Stories from New York, Edited by Thomas Beller

This anthology was required reading in son’s high school English.

The front cover:

The back cover:

How Iceland Changed the World: Introduction

Self has finished reading the Amanda Lindhout memoir (written with Sara Corbett), A House in the Sky. She decided she would just have to get it over with. She wasn’t even sure she’d have the stomach to read it all the way through, but the writing is amazing. That’s what amazing writing can do: it holds you hostage. Self spent the whole of this beautiful day (sun was shining, and it was NOT HOT) just racing to finish A House in the Sky.

There are some parts that, okay, made self laugh, like the part where Amanda and Nigel are being taken to yet another “safe” house. They were being held in separate rooms and when she sees Nigel, she notices Nigel is shirtless and wonders if . . . okay, never mind. Nigel was unmolested. Lucky for him, he was a man. They sort of respected him. There is a lot about her feelings for Nigel in this book, which adds to the sadness because . . . Amanda was clinging to him so hard, just to make it through, and Nigel was essentially helpless, and made a lot of promises he didn’t mean, because — hey, there were hostages!

Anyhoo, she’s alive, he’s alive, it’s all good.

Onward!

Self’s next book might seem like a strange choice, except that her son has gone there. To Iceland. All by himself. She found out recently.

And also, once, self spent Christmas in Paris, and the only other guests at her tiny hotel in the 17th arrondissement were a Filipino family who were on their way to Iceland for a family vacation, and came with tons of luggage.

Imagine the odds of two different Filipino entities meeting in a Paris hotel on Christmas day! And we didn’t even know each other from Adam! The three kids of the family ranged in age from — if self were to guess — five to 10. WHO GOES TO ICELAND FOR FAMILY VACATION. For that matter, who spends Christmas alone in Paris! But self wasn’t alone! She was with Francine and Francoise, who were so circumspect they never greeted her a Merry Christmas and acted like it was just an ordinary day! All they said to her that day was: “Madame, you must go to the Louvre. NO LINES TODAY.” Which turned out to be very good advice.

This is a very digressive post! Finally, the Iceland book:

Introduction:

The town of Selfoss is a rare find. Nearly all of the sixty-three towns and cities in Iceland were first established out of nautical convenience, in sight of approaching ships, but Selfoss sits inland, away from the stony coast. I grew up there, landlocked.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

World Food Programme, Mogadishu

Since everyone already knows what happens to Amanda and Nigel, the calmness of the prose is creating a very tight knot of tension in self’s stomach. She’s almost to the halfway point, and the pair are still gallivanting around Mogadishu.

pp. 120 -121 describes the World Food Programme in Mogadishu. Guess it would be too much to hope for this book to contain photographs; it doesn’t. Because self is intensely curious, she looked up Amanda and Nigel’s photos in news articles from the time: She finds a handful taken right after their rescue. Nigel went full-bore Muslim (did he have a choice?) and sported a long beard, mullah-style. Amanda’s covered from head to toe in dark, shapeless clothing, but her eyes are alert. Self also decided to check if the US still has an embassy in Mogadishu. It does!

A humanitarian organization named the World Food Programme is giving out food:

Because of the fighting, because of the pirates on the ocean and the bandits on the roads, food shipments came sporadically. There were days when people turned up only to be sent away.

When the gates opened, those who’d been waiting rushed forward. The noise amplified. Government soldiers used batons and tree switches to hold back the crowd. Children wailed. The men pushed and brawled their way toward the front, while the women in line remained poised in single file.

Once they reached the feeding vats, the men were given three ladlefuls of food; the women got two; the children one.

Night after night, Amanda types up her stories for a Canadian publication called the Red Deer Advocate. The idea of risking all and going to Somalia for the sake of a byline in Red Deer Advocate makes self want to cry. Did she tell the National Geographic team who she was writing for? Or would she have been too embarrassed?

The next chapter’s title is Taken, so self figures that’s when she finally returns how the operation went down. Amanda learns afterward that the kidnappers were watching the hotel, because they knew foreigners were there. They didn’t know who they would take, they didn’t know about the National Geographic team (National Geographic has to be thanking their lucky stars: if not for Amanda and Nigel, their team might have been the ones kidnapped)

Stay safe, dear blog readers. Stay safe.

Uneasy in Mogadishu

Airport security use whips to keep order in the Mogadishu Airport, one barely grazing Amanda’s head. Amanda’s traveling with her ex-boyfriend, who left his job as a gardener in Glasgow to have some thrills. But on the flight to Mogadishu, he projects uneasiness. Amanda’s managed to snag an actual assignment this time, but the organization pays for hotel, transportation and food only, NOT security. Since she is not completely reckless, she’s arranged for a private security firm.

Once on the ground, it is immediately apparent that Amanda and Nigel are rank amateurs. They’re targeted almost immediately, this Canadian woman handing out $5 tips and this Australian man tagging along to take pictures he can hopefully sell.

They are met at the airport. Aside from the driver, there are two other men who pile into the car with them, all holding weapons. They take off for Mogadishu at high speed, at one point passing “a pickup truck with four lanky teen-age boys riding in the bed, their arms clamped over a mounted machine gun that pointed like a spear out the back.”

And yet: “The city was beautiful despite itself.”

Self is beginning to understand how Amanda Lindhout survived her experience. But Nigel? The jury’s still out on Nigel.

It turns out there is only one private security firm, and they’ve assigned their best people to escort a team from National Geographic. Amanda and Nigel are assigned the B Team. One guy quits before he even meets them. That leaves ONE inexperienced guy to provide security.

Amanda asks the National Geographic photographer (who is French) what places they’ve been, and he politely but firmly declines to tell her because “In Somalia, you can’t do the same thing twice. They will catch you.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Kabul, Through the Eyes of Amanda Lindhout: 9 June 2005

Self hopes Amanda Lindhout became a travel writer, because her descriptions of Kabul are gold. She hitches a ride to Kabul with a man and his son who live in Peshawar but visit relatives in Kabul regularly.

I’d taken a taxi that day to a wholesale market area near the center of the city, which sprawled in all directions, straddling the banks of the Kabul River, devolving into a labyrinth of crooked alleys. I bought a plastic cup of raisins and apricots mixed with pistachios and honey-sweetened water and ate them with a spoon. I browsed through little shops. In one, I found a shelf stacked with bars of soap, their wrappers showing a photograph of a smiling woman’s face, except that every face had been scribbled over with a marker. This was a fundamentalist Islamic move, something the Taliban once enforced strictly. Any images of things made by Allah weren’t to be replicated by a human hand, because it counted as playing god. Amanuddin had explained it to me: it was okay to paint or print a photograph of a car or building but not a person or animal. Idolatry was a sin.

A House in the Sky, p.64

Girl Was Learning, Just Not Fast Enough

I tacked my way from Bangladesh into India by bus and train, arriving in Calcutta sometime in February and finding a room at the Salvation Army guesthouse, in the heart of the backpacker ghetto. After Bangladesh, India seemed more user-friendly but no less crowded. Children tailed me down the street, calling “Aunty, Aunty,” their palms held open for change. Men brushed up close, muttering “Ganja? Ganja? Hashish? Smoke?” I spent about two weeks there, volunteering at one of Mother Teresa’s charities, working the morning shift in the women’s wing of the Kalighat home for the Sick and Dying Destitutes, delivering tea and giving sponge baths to patients with tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, AIDS, and cancer, sometimes in combination. The frankness of it was galling, even nauseating at first, but slowly I relaxed. I would never be saintly like the nurses who staffed the place, but I tried at least to be helpful.

I was also getting used to being alone. What might once have overwhelmed me no longer did. I could read bus schedules, figure out the various classes of train tickets, ask for help when I needed it, sit in a restaurant and eat a meal alone without feeling self-conscious.

A House in the Sky, pp. 53 – 54

Lest we judge Amanda Lindhout too harshly, let us remember Daniel Perl, Stanford grad and Wall Street Journal reporter. Perl was lured in by the promise of an interview with an elusive target, and was kidnapped in Pakistan and subsequently murdered. He had lots more experience than Amanda. It made no difference. Amanda Lindhout emerged alive, and Daniel Perl did not.

“Are you sure you don’t want to just stay at the Sheraton?”

Yes, yes, stay at the Sheraton! self wants to scream at Amanda Lindhout.

Because, even though Ayelet Tsabari, in The Art of Leaving, takes a lot of risks, Amanda Lindhout’s risks are to the nth, on a whole other level. For instance, going to Bangladesh, where she knows no one. She really wants to go to India, but the flight to Bangladesh is cheap. So off she goes to Bangladesh.

On the flight over, she chats with “a middle-aged German guy” who says he goes to Dhaka all the time on business. While self’s insides are screaming “Watch out!” this man is met at the airport by a driver in an air-conditioned white mini-van and Amanda accepts a ride in his car. Considering that she is staying “at a twelve-dollar-a-night hotel” she’d picked out of Lonely Planet, Martin tells her that the ride would take “three hours and the driver would overcharge” by “virtue of” her white skin and gender. It turns out this Martin is a godsend, because he directs his driver to take her to her hotel, and when she gets out of the car he says, “Are you sure you don’t want to just stay at the Sheraton?” and she says “No, no, this is good!” Martin, bless his heart, presses a business card into her hand and says, “All right, then, call if you need anything.” And Amanda is immediately swarmed (which has happened to self: in the city of Taxco, Mexico, but at least there she had a companion, her Stanford roommate Sachiko; and also in some city in Himachal Pradesh whose name she completely forgets, and again in almost every other Indian city she landed in with the exception of Dharamsala, where she made the wise choice to stay in an inn inside a military cantonment)

From the moment Amanda alights from the German’s minivan, “every head on the street seemed suddenly to swivel” in her direction, and a man dogs her heels saying, over and over, “English? Hello? Hello, hello, hello?”

And yet this is nothing compared to what happens when she checks into her twelve-dollar-a-night Lonely Planet recommended hotel, and gets the third degree:

“For you?”

“For me.”

“Where is your husband?”

“I don’t have a husband.”

The man tilted his head. “Then where is your father?”

A House in the Sky, p. 46

Bless Amanda for being so bold. She refuses to lie. In India, because of self’s great age, and the fact that her itinerary included just temples — temples in the mountains, temples in the middle of a forest, temples whether Hindu or Buddhist or Punjabi — people just assumed she was dying and didn’t hassle her too much. Also, they assumed self was poor because she had no guide, and was always using public transportation.

Actually, it wasn’t just ordinary Indians who thought self was dying. Her friends, too, asked: “Are you sick?”

Wanting to go to Dharamsala means you are sick? Okay, then! Whatever works!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Amanda Lindhout, Backpacker

Amanda Lindhout makes enough money as a cocktail waitress to fund her first international trip: she and her boyfriend, Jamie, settle on Caracas, Venezuela, because flights to there from Calgary were cheap. Their only guide is a used copy of Lonely Planet (Really, she and her boyfriend sound so American, self almost titled this post Amanda Lindhout, American Backpacker. But they’re Canadian. Who knew Canadians could be so American, just sayin’)

Nothing bad happened to them in South America! This was probably the worst:

In our first weeks in Venezuela, Jamie and I walked miles, strapped sweatily into our backpacks, looking for low-interest money changers and two-star posadas that had morphed abruptly into massage parlors or motorcycle repair shops. We waited at a roadside bus stop in the withering heat only to learn hours later, bickering and thoroughly sunburned, that the Tuesday-afternoon bus to Caripe was now a Friday-morning bus.

A House in the Sky, p. 31

Lindhout reminds self so much of Ayelet Tsabari in The Art of Leaving. She has the same adventurous spirit. Think what might have happened if Lindhout had never gone to Somalia. Could she perhaps have written a travel book?

There were points in Tsabari’s memoir where self found herself getting really frustrated, because of the almost total disregard Tsabari had for her personal safety. She very well could have ended up like Amanda Lindhout, kidnapped for ransom. That she didn’t almost seems like sheer, dumb luck.

Here’s another passage on the further adventures of Lindhout in South America — can anything top this? It made her brave. Brave or foolhardy.

We pitched our yellow two-person tent in the backyard of a budget hotel for a week, striking a deal with the manager to use the bathrooms, paying under half the regular room rate. With the money we saved, we ate shark sandwiches and drank cheap rum at lunchtime.

A House in the Sky, p. 33

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

A Southern City

Self is still reading the Prologue of A House in the Sky, which has been stunning.

The detachment of the narrative voice is almost painful, it reads like Marguerite Duras.

Throughout, Amanda Lindhout worries about her fellow captive, Nigel, even though everything she goes through is twice as horrible as what Nigel goes through. She worries about him, because “they had been in love once.”

At one point, we were moved to a second-floor apartment in the heart of a southern city, where we could hear cars honking and the muezzins calling people to prayer. We could smell goat meat roasting on a street vendor’s spit. We listened to women chattering as they came and went from the shop right below us.

Self has been hearing about Amanda Lindhout’s book for years, but she only felt moved to read it when she saw a documentary on TV (It was an almost surreal experience: flipping back and forth between the Olympics to a survivor’s account of being kidnapped in Somalia)

It might make dear blog readers feel better to know that Amanda Lindhout’s mother, not a rich woman, was nevertheless able to scrape together approximately $700,000 (Canadian) and with this amount was able to negotiate for the release of not only her daughter, but Nigel as well.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

A HOUSE IN THE SKY, by Amanda Lindhout with Sara Corbett

Surely dear blog readers don’t need self to explain who Amanda Lindhout is. So she’ll just dive right in.

The narrative voice is strong.

Opening Paragraph (Prologue):

We named the houses they put us in. We stayed in some for months at a time; other places, it was a few days or a few hours. There was the Bomb-Making House, then the Electric House. After that came the Escape House, a squat concrete building where we’d sometimes hear gunfire outside our windows and sometimes a mother singing nearby to her child.

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