Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Great Haircut Stories

For the past several weeks, perhaps months, I’ve been busy with family, church, work, and a larger writing project.  Today, to help me unwind, I decided to share some important experiences related to my development and upbringing—important haircuts in my life.  For those of you who are kind enough to read my blog on at least an intermittent basis you may have read about my friend Brett’s amazing haircut experience in China during a beer festival.  If you haven’t read it, here’s a link to that adventure: “Living on the Edge: Brett, the CulturalWarrior, in China”.  I don’t think any of my experiences approach his in terms of raw shock and awe, but I think they’re informative, entertaining, and impactful.

First Haircut
Of course I don’t remember my first haircut.  I just remember my parents talking about it.  It’s been several years, maybe even a decade or two since they have mentioned it, but I remember it still.  The conversation between them would go something like this:

Dad: “Remember when you took Jarad in for his first haircut.”

Mom: “Yes, I remember.  You were so mad when they cut all of his curls off and they never came back.”

Dad: “He as so cute with curls.”

Mom: “I know.”

They would both sigh and look at me with a bit of regret in their eyes and shake their head sadly.  I’ve always wondered how cute I would have been if I had kept my curls.  Would I have been more successful, more personable?  Would I have had more friends?  Perhaps I would be a successful third term politician by now.  Instead I grew up missing the cuter Jarad I never really knew.  I like to think the loss of the curls made me a stronger person, that I was forced to work harder for what I have received.  My natural intelligence and work ethic were forced to the forefront of my personality as my natural good looks were somewhat diminished.  Like my parents I still sigh when I think about those lost curls.

Naval Junior Officer Training Corps and the Flat Top
As a young child I once talked my dad into giving me a buzz cut.  My mom hated it (probably because it reminded her even more of my lost curls).  Other than that one buzz cut I went years without an exciting haircut.  It was the same every time, with the perfect part on the one side.  If I got my part wrong, my mom either used a sharp-toothed comb to fix it or made me go try again.

Life changed when I entered the 8th grade.  My dad decided to up and join the US Navy at the ripe old age of thirty, pulling our family from quaint little Duchesne, Utah all the way across the country to Pensacola, Florida.  Eighth grade in Florida was painful.  Nobody really liked the kid from Utah with huge glasses and a perfect part in his hair.  My favorite places that year were in my dreams and at church. 

When summer rolled around I tried out for the freshman football team at the high school and was selected to play outside linebacker.  In order to fit onto the team and to deal with the hot, humid summer, I cut my hair quite short, not a buzz, but you know, very short.  It was nothing exotic, but practical.  As school started I was excited to register for the NJROTC classes, sort of follow in my dad’s footsteps and learn a little more about the military.  The NJROTC instructors were amazing.  They managed to convince me, and others lest you think I was alone, that it would be cool and patriotic to wear a uniform to school once a week while keeping a short haircut. 

Shortly after school started I was warned by one of the instructors during our weekly inspection that my hair was about due for a haircut.  My dad decided to take me to a local barber he had been seeing for a few months.  An older gentleman named Ivan owned the barbershop.  He had two other ladies who worked for him. 

As I sat down my dad smiled and said to Ivan and to me, “What do you think about a flat top?” 

Never before had I really considered a flat top haircut, but I liked the idea.  Ivan responded before I could.

“I think he would look great with a flat top.  He would have to get a special flat top brush to train his hair and to make it work.”

Ivan proceeded to describe the process of training hair to stand up.  As a new member of the NJROTC I was thrilled at the prospect of doing my own training.  Quickly I agreed.  It was refreshing to have the sides of my head shorn of hair.  Ivan used an old-fashioned straight blade razor to clean up the appropriate spots.  It took him some time to get the hair on top to the right length and even.  When he was finished, I thought I looked pretty good.  In short order I had my own flat top brush.

In fact, I still have a flat top brush to this day.  I think I’ve owned a total of two flat top brushes.  The last one I bought, and still use today, was purchases after I lost my first one when I was fifteen or sixteen years old.  My sisters think it’s a little gross that I still have the brush, but I love it, missing bristles and all.

For the next two years I met with Ivan and his straight blade on at least a monthly basis to keep my flat top in good working order.

Wild and crazy in the Basin – Or, Making It Up as I Go
After my sophomore year I moved back to Duchesne.  I kept my flat top for a while, but it wasn’t considered as cool as it was as it was in Pensacola, so I slowly let it fade.  Plus, it wasn’t a great haircut to have during the cold winters.  My first winter back, I went over to Roosevelt for work and decided to stop in for a haircut at a local barbershop on Main Street.  I had never been there before and didn’t really know anybody.  When it was my turn I sat in the chair, not sure what I wanted.  Looking up I saw that the place was full of fathers and sons waiting their turns.  None of them had anything too crazy, outside of maybe a lingering mullet, which was not considered extreme at the time (or even still).

I must have been bored and wanted to entertain the crowd because I told the barber I wanted something like a high and tight, but I didn’t want the hair shortened on top.  In fact, I wanted him to leave a distinct line like a bowl cut with the longer hair coming down to a point on the back of my head.  The barber asked me several times if I was sure that was what I wanted and if my parents would approve.  I told him I was spending my money and that they wouldn’t care, too much.  Also, I mentioned that I was from Duchesne and that I doubted my parents would come over to give him a hard time for giving me a crazy haircut.

It was obvious he was excited to do it.  I doubt he had ever given such an exotic haircut.  All of the boys and their fathers leaned forward in their chairs to watch, making comments to one another about what the barber was doing to me.  Some made it clear they didn’t approve of my deviant behavior.   Some of the boys, especially those younger than me, started to ask if they could get a similar haircut.  Discussions went back and forth as the barber did his work.

When I was finished I paid and walked out the door with fathers and sons still discussing the option of getting the same haircut and wondering what mom would say.  I hope some of them were brave enough to try it.  Of course, my dad didn’t love the haircut, but neither did I.  All of the joy was in being the center of attention and causing a little controversy.  Within a few days I had the back of my head fixed and the rest of my hair shortened a little.  I believe that was the only time I was considered a trendsetter in my life.  Whatever happened, I think the barber was excited to try something new.

The Russian Sporteevni’ and Karma
Learning to ask for a good haircut in a foreign country in a foreign language is a true challenge.  As a missionary I worked hard to make sure that I knew how to describe what I wanted.  By the time I needed a haircut I could explain how long I wanted it on the various portions of my cranium.  (For some reason all of us missionaries in Russia, at least the elders, loved to go to the beautician schools so we could get our hair cut by the young, pretty female students.)

At the time I was in Russia, the sporteevni’ cut was all the rage with the young men.  Basically, it was just a buzz cut.  Of course they loved to give buzz cuts because it was easy to do and easy to satisfy the customer.  Unfortunately a buzz cut did not fit with the grooming standards for missionaries.  We had to figure out how to describe what we wanted.  Failure to do so accurately could result in serious mistakes.

When I had been in the country for a year one of the newer missionaries asked me for instructions on how to get a haircut.  Honestly, I gave him the correct instructions and the correct vocabulary.  A week later we met up at a baptism.  We were standing outside the school, where the baptism would take place, in the cold winter air.  He was wearing his shapka and I could tell he wasn’t happy with me. 

Finally, he pulled his fur shapka off of his head and said, “Look at this!  Look at what you did.”

His hair, what was left of it, looked terrible.  I’m not sure what he told them, but my guess is that as he realized they weren’t doing what he wanted, that he kept trying to correct them.  The result was horrendous.  I apologized, trying to convince him that I had given him good instructions.  He didn’t believe me, but he did think it was kind of funny.

Skip ahead several months.  I was nearing the end of my mission.  The long Russian winter in Yekaterinburg finally had come to an end and I wanted a shorter haircut to match the weather.  Completely confident in my language abilities I went to a nearby barbershop and gave my customary instructions.  The girls asked if I was sure that I didn’t want a sporteevni’.  I assured her that I did not and gave my instructions again.

As she started to cut my hair, I relaxed.  The room was warm and the hands on my head felt good.  Within a few minutes I was mostly asleep as she cut.  Suddenly I realized she was asking me a question.  Without thinking too deeply about what she had said, I replied with a hearty, “Da, da!”

Immediately she ran the clippers across the top of my head.  Apparently she had asked one more time if I wanted the sporteevni’.  She must have been watching for a moment of weakness, probably because she had made some mistake.  Unfortunately the next day I spoke in a sacrament meeting the next day with our mission president in attendance.  I had to explain why my hair was not within mission standards to all of the missionaries, several of the members, and to the mission president.

I still fall asleep during haircuts sometimes.

What did you want?  What are you giving me?
I have worked at the Air Force Academy on two different occasions, as an active duty officer and as a civilian.  Both times I kept basically the same short, military style haircut.  There was a small barbershop in Fairchild Hall, the academic building.  It wasn’t manned all of the time, so you had to get on the schedule in advance in order to get your haircut.  One of the regular ladies in there was a bit on the eccentric and loud side of things.  She liked to complain loudly about everything in her life.  More than once I walked away when she was working, preferring to keep long hair for a day or two to the verbal assault.

One day I was down at the community center and decided to drop into the barbershop there to get my haircut.  Looking in I saw one of the other barbers, a guy who did a good job.  There was only one other person in front of me so I took a number and sat down.

The eccentric lady walked in and set up at her station.  She called my number.  Somewhat reluctantly I went and sat in her chair.  Before I was even sitting she and the other barber were in a heated discussion about coworkers and their upcoming schedule.  She didn’t say a word to me as she wrapped my neck in tissue and draped the cape over my shoulders.  I was waiting for her to ask what I wanted, when she just started to cut my hair with the clippers.  Within a minute or two, most of the hair on the sides of my head was completely gone. 

Suddenly realizing what she was doing, she stopped and asked, “What did you want done with your hair?”

Smiling, I asked in turn, “I don’t know.  What were you planning?”

She thought for a minute and said, “Well, I’m not sure but what do you think about this?”

Quickly she described what she had in mind, which luckily was almost exactly what I usually asked for anyway.  I agreed and she continued to cut, never apologizing or pausing again in her work.  Her conversation with her coworker picked up right where it left off.

It was kind of exciting not knowing what my hair was going to look like.

Where Has All the Excitement Gone?
I had my haircut this weekend.  It’s been the same for several years now, a military style haircut—short on the sides, with just enough length on top to comb it forward.  My mom’s part on the one side, like my curls, is gone.  I still enjoy having my head touched, rubbed, and scratched when I get a haircut.  Nothing exciting is on the horizon.

No, the most exciting thing this time and likely the next time is when I tell them that I have a mole on my head that they may want to avoid.  Always, they are so thankful for the heads up.  Sometimes I ask them to thin my thick hair, but I haven’t had to do that for a couple of years.  That kind of worries me.

Maybe one day I’ll shave it completely bald.  Going grey isn’t as exciting as I had hoped it would be, although the pace of conversion from brown to grey is picking up speed.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Blessing of Wonderful Teachers: A Look Back

Today I sent four of my six children to school—a high school sophomore, an 8th grader, a 5th grader, and a 2nd grader.  Next year we will have a kindergartner to add to the list.  This is also the beginning of our second year of 18 years of early morning seminary.  Last night, as their father, I had the special privilege of giving each of them a blessing as they go into another school year. 

Education is a wonderful thing.  I have thought much about the teachers who have blessed my life throughout the years.  Their efforts haven’t impacted only me but also the lives of my wife, my children, and others.  Much of my professional life has revolved around education. 

The following talk by Howard W. Hunter in a the April 1972 General Conference is a wonderful example of what teachers do, especially the great teachers.  I would encourage everyone to listen to or read his talk.  It’s only a few paragraphs.  The talk is titled A Teacher.

Elder Harold G. Hillam said the following about teachers:

“Everyone can remember a special teacher that has made a profound difference in their life.  I will ever be thankful to Miss Hamilton, my second-grade teacher.  She was also my Sunday School teacher.  I can still recall her saying, 'Now remember, always be a good boy!' and 'I am so proud of you.'  She always made me feel very important.  I grew to lover her, and I’m sure she loved me.  That school year was a glorious one.”

Looking back I thought on what I gained from each of my wonderful teachers in elementary school.  Here are a few things I’d like to share.

Mrs. Thompson, Kindergarten:
She was wonderful and gentle.  With skill and tenderness she taught a group of young children that school could be fun and exciting.  As one of her students she helped me through an embarrassing situation by making sure that no one else knew that I had an accident.  She taught me that there was compassion in the world outside of the home. 

Ms. Harris, Music and Resource Teacher:
She was an amazing piano player who loved to teach young children to sing.  I loved to sing the wonderful patriotic songs that she shared with us.  As she taught some of the songs she shared stories and the history behind the songs.  During first grade I was a bit lazy in my efforts to speak and a do a few other things.  I was identified as needing extra help and was put into Ms. Harris’ resource class with a few other first graders.  She was patient with me until she realized that I was just lazy, then she took all of the joy out of the experience and made me work up to my potential.

Ms. Bulloch, 1st Grade:
In first grade I struggled with my identity.  I loved learning but I also loved playing.  Often I played at the expense of other, more important things.  This desire to play likely contributed to my laziness described above.  One day another friend and I managed to embarrass Ms. Bulloch in front of the all of the high schoolers as she was forced to come find us well after our lunch recess had ended.  We were in the lunchroom entertaining all the big kids to include engaging them in a wicked food fight.  Despite my ability to make Ms. Bulloch angry, she worked hard to teach me that learning could be fun.  Several times I was surprised that she would be nice to me after some of the things I did and said.  I will never forget the day that she had me attend a parent teacher conference with my parents.  She was kind in speaking about my potential and brutally honest about my lack of performance and poor behavior.  After that conference I never wanted to disappoint her again.

Mrs. H, 2nd Grade:
Every student who knew her considered Mrs. H mean.  She was mean enough that I regressed and found some pleasure in acting out.  Whatever I didn’t like about her, she was effective at what she did.  That year I was proud of all of the things I learned to include my times tables.  I learned that writing the sentence, “I will not stick crayons in my nose or ears,” five hundred times is not fun.  Good behavior is its own reward.  She also taught me to laugh through adversity as she sat me behind a folding closet door in the middle of the classroom and taped my shut with masking tape.  That day I managed to loosen the bottom of the tape and make funny faces at a few of my friends around the edge of the closet.  Unfortunately, their reaction caused a few of them to join me in my punishment.

Mr. Hinton, 3rd Grade:
He brought a love of technology.  This was the first year that I ever used a computer.  We were some of the first students in the school to play Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego.  He taught us how to do computer programming.  One of our special projects was the year was to write and illustrate our own book.  We had our books published and put in the school library.  I still have a copy of the book on my shelf today.  The Three Kittens.  Mr. Hinton gave me a love of technology (a healthy love, not the kind to make me a programmer) and a love of writing.

Mr. Neria, 4th Grade:
Our class learned to laugh and enjoy life.  We laughed at things that were funny.  We laughed when things were difficult.  We laughed at our differences.  We laughed at our similarities.  He taught us to love and accept everyone.  He allowed us to express ourselves, but brought us back into line with a well-thrown piece of chalk to the head.  Some of us would get behind on our class work intentionally so we could spend recess in class to work on our assignments so that he could make us laugh more.  He taught us to enjoy life.

Mrs. Bowers, 5th Grade:
I loved to read before 5th grade, but I learned to love literature from Mrs. Bowers.  She taught us to use our imaginations because she used hers.  Nobody has enjoyed the book The Black Cauldron the way class did.  Her Gurgi voice is unforgettable.  She taught us what it means to give yourself fully to something the way she did for us whenever she was in the classroom.  Because of Mrs. Bowers I knew that I wanted to be creative, in my own way, for the rest of my life.  My youngest son loves to use the word epic to describe anything remotely fun or kind of neat.  I learned the true meaning of the word as I participated in her epic reading parties in class.  The combination of books, candy, and laughter was amazing.  Finally, she taught us that we live in a multi-cultural world where our differences should be celebrated and enjoyed.

Mrs. Seamons, 6th Grade:
This was a year of transition for me.  Mrs. Seamons was key to that transition.  She instilled a sense of maturity and purpose into my life.  Life had a greater purpose than just fun.  We must accomplish something with our time.  During that year we worked hard and learned.  It was that year that I was introduced to the wider world.  We learned about Europe and other exotic places.  I developed a burning desire to see the world and to get to know new people and languages.  That desire directly impacted my university education and career.

Mr. Foy, Mrs. White, and Mr. Caldwell:
These two wonderful principals and school secretary taught me how to square dance, waltz, and do the polka.  For one or two years I was on the school dance team.  All we did was go to Myton Elementary and maybe one other place to perform our dances, but it was an amazing experience.  It was the last time anybody actually thought I could dance.  Mr. Caldwell also coached our elementary basketball team and taught us how to play football.  He changed the way I watched football games on television.

I’m grateful for those who taught me and for those who are teaching my children today.  For the most part, I didn’t realize I was learning these lessons while in school.  Looking back, however, I can see clearly what they did for me.  They had a significant impact in my life, helping to make me better than I would have been without them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Letter to The Whitney Ranch Homeowners

Fellow Whitney Ranch Homeowners:

Tonight we made our voices heard loud and clear regarding the development at the corner of Sunset and Whitney Ranch.  Thanks to the efforts of some of our fellow, vigilant homeowners many of us have been made aware of the issue and have expressed our opinions clearly.  Based on our experience tonight, and common sense, it is clear that easily 80-90 percent of the homeowners share our opinion. The development will have a net negative impact on our community making it more dangerous and less accessible.

At this point the Whitney Ranch homeowners have only one guaranteed piece of leverage available to push back against the development—the easements on the monuments.  By refusing to allow the developer to make any changes to the monuments we will be protecting our identity and making it difficult for the developer to continue with his plans.  With the monuments in place as they are it will be difficult for the developer to place the desired signage for retail establishments and to make changes for the parking lot.

Currently there is some debate over who has the authority to make a decision regarding changes to the monuments.  Either the board can approve it or it must be approved by 67% of the homeowners.

Our discussion tonight should have been a collegial session with our board where we worked together to develop a strategy to protect our monuments and to fight back against the apparently illegal and unethical actions of the mayor and city council.  Unfortunately our board seems strangely disinclined to support our interests.  It is unclear to me why they would even consider surrendering our rights to the easements/monuments.  It is our sole remaining leverage point with the developer and the city and is clearly not in our interests.  We must ask the board and ourselves the following questions.

      What is driving their interest and why are they unwilling to jump on board with us? 
      Why would they consider giving up our right to control the monuments to the developer when it is clear that it is our only remaining guaranteed option of impacting the relations with developer?

Tonight our board president seemed inclined to dismiss the opinions of those homeowners who don’t usually attend meetings.  He repeatedly made reference to the fact that we are not the usual group that attends as though our opinions, therefore, matter less.  He seems not to understand that generally the homeowners trust the board to represent our interest on common, daily, and mundane issues.  It is normal and natural for more homeowners to become involved and vocal when the consequences of an issue at hand are this significant.

It is disturbing to me that our board president and other board members were unwilling to state clearly their position on the issue and to support our interests.  The talking points shared by the board president and the other member of the board indicated that they, for whatever reason, are unwilling to commit to protect our interests.  Again, with over 300 homeowners calling for protection of the monuments, as indicated by signatures gathered over a very short period of time, it is clear that the vast majority of our homeowners will disapprove of any move by the board to relinquish control of the easements or changes to the monuments.  Any assumption by the board to the contrary is disingenuous at best.

What can we do at this point?

1.     Follow up with our board to determine if they will take the actions we requested tonight
a.     To refuse to allow changes to the monuments
b.     To hire an attorney to file an injunction to stop the development while the actions of the city are explored by a competent attorney who is representing the interests of the homeowners.  Our board has a fiduciary responsibility to the homeowners of the association and should represent our interests to the best degree possible.  This fiduciary responsibility requires them to protect our financial interests as homeowners.  In this case our financial interest seems clear—to stop the development.
2.     Each day gather the signatures of more homeowners who are opposed to relinquishing our rights to the monuments to the developer.  Copies of those signatures should be presented to each of the board members each day leading up to the pending City Council meeting and beyond if necessary.
3.     Attend the City Council meeting on Tuesday, July 15th at 7pm.  We should attend to make clear that we do not approve with the development or the way it was approved by the City Council.

If our board refuses to act in accordance with the desires of the majority of homeowners and in our accordance with our best interest, then we may need to consider other options to keep our neighborhood safe and secure.

For more information, please go to  

- Jarad Van Wagoner

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Famine Diets: A Stupid Fad That Should Go Away

I am powerless to stop the madness, but perhaps I can make a difference for one or two people.  You see, at different times during human history our predecessors have faced famine.  During times of scarcity the human will to survive will push us to eat things that usually we would not eat.  Survival is a deep biological imperative that is nearly impossible to ignore. 

More than once I’ve heard someone say, “I would never eat that, even if I was starving!”

Obviously they have never starved.

The human race, however, has become confused.   Foods that once were considered nearly unpalatable and only acceptable in order to stave off death by slow starvation are now heralded as delicious and as delicacies.  People you have to stop living in a dream world where you think it’s okay to eat famine foods as part of your normal diet.

What?  You don’t know to which foods I am referring?  Well, let me walk you through the worst of them.

Underwater Insects/Bugs! 

It’s true.  People who would never consider making beetles, stink bugs, roaches, or grasshoppers a part of their normal diet are quick to eat the sea's equivalent of bugs.  Which ones, you ask!

-       Shrimp
-       Oysters
-       Clams
-       Crabs and Lobsters (Just because an insect tastes good doesn’t mean you should eat it.)

(Crustacean is Latin for aquatic insect.)

I’m certain the list is longer, but these are the primary offenders.  Do you really think that the first time a non-starving person looked at an oyster or a clam that they thought, “Oh, man that there looks tasty.  I think I’ll be the first ever human to put that in my mouth and chew?”  I don’t think so either.  My guess is that someone was near death before they tried it.  In fact my guess is that the scenario went down something like this.

A small, peaceful village a few miles inland from the ocean was in the throes of a five-year drought and famine.  What had once been a place of health and life was losing members to starvation and malnutrition everyday.  This famine was worse than any raids from the neighboring tribe of warriors. 

One day the chief’s wife said, “What kind of leader are you?  Your people are starving.  You must go and find them food.  We no longer have cattle to provide us milk and meat.  We no longer have water sufficient to grow our tasty vegetables and fruits.  You must go out to find us food.”

The chief accepted his wife’s words and his responsibility.  Gathering up his knife, a light blanket, and a small gourd filled with precious water, he left the village in search of food.  Within a short time he came to the shore of the sea.  His people had avoided the sea in order to be safe from other tribes in the area. 

No food was to be found along the shore.  All wild game had gone from the area and no nutritious vegetation was to be found.

Despair overtook him and he decided to drown himself in the depths of the sea.  He walked into the water feeling the sand between his toes.  His stomach throbbed and ached.  Thoughts of his starving family seared his mind.  Reaching into the water, he scooped up a handful of the sand and brackish water.  He felt something hard and rough.  He picked it up and pried it open.  Something living was inside, something grey and gooey and unhealthy looking.  He stared at it and wondered.

Reaching a decision he quickly reached into the water and sand again.  Within a few seconds he had found another and another.  With five or six of them in his bag he returned to the shore.  Sitting on the sand he stared at his catch. 

“Is it safe to eat them,” he wondered aloud.  Looking at the flesh he was unsure.  He figured it would either kill him or sustain him if he ate it.  Since death was imminent for him and his village, he elected to eat it.  To give himself the best chance of survival he built a small fire and roasted his six shells.

Sure that they were fully cooked, he pulled the meat out with his knife and stared at it as it hung there.  His mind battled with his stomach.  His stomach demanded that he eat it.  His mind refused, attempting to choke the stomach off into submission.  Having not real choice, he gave into survival and put the meat into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed.  The experience wasn’t pleasant.  When he was still alive after a few minutes, he ate another and then another.  It was more food than he had eaten in weeks.  Filled with sustenance, his body hungered now for sleep so he could digest the food.

The next morning he awoke.  Quickly he weaved a larger bag from branches and leaves so he could carry his catch back to the village.  For several hours he wondered up and down the coast, gather as many of the shells as he could.  With his bag full he headed back to the village.

Upon arrival he found the few remaining villagers gathered around the fire discussing how to give up and die.  They were shocked to see him, assuming he too had died.  Coming forward he spilled his bag on the ground, explaining what he had done.  His wife picked up a shell and pried it open.

Distraught at what she saw, she yelled at him, “What is this?  How can you expect us to eat this?  This will kill us as surely as no food at all.”

Another man, whose starvation must have been worse, rushed forward and grabbed the open shell from her.  He tore the top half off and scraped the meat into his mouth.  (And thus was born oyster on the half shell.)

All watched the man to see if he would die right away.  As the man reached for another it started a feeding frenzy and within minutes all of the flesh of the shells had been consumed.  None were impressed with the new food or its taste, but it did provide sustenance.  The next day they decided to move to the seaside to live off of the oysters until the famine ended and they could return to their normal food.

Skip ahead with me ten years.  The village chieftain has just returned from a trip to the site of their old village.  There he has found green grass and nutritious vegetation.  He asks the villagers to join him in a grand return where they can give up their reliance on the flesh of the shells.

Unfortunately, many of the villagers have forgotten the taste of good food and are now proud of their new diet.  In fact there is a faction that is preparing to take a shipment of shells inland to another tribe in hopes of trading for animal skins for clothing.  They pressure the chieftain into leading the trading party.

Upon arrival at the tribe’s village, they make an offer of the flesh of the shells in exchange for cow and deer hides.  The local chieftain steps forward to view the offering.  He pries open a shell to look inside.  With his discovery he assumes that the traders have come to poison his people in hopes of taking possession of their herds and gardens.  He orders the entire trading party killed.

While I don’t have proof that this is what happened, I’m sure it’s not far off from the truth.  Why else would someone eat something like seaweed, unless you were starving?

I am okay with eating such things when you are starving, but once you’re not starving, once the famine is over, please go back to normal foods.  Don’t try to convince others or me that such foods are normal.  They’re not.  Bugs and insects should be saved as a last resort.

(If I had time, I would discuss the consequences of losing the knowledge and ability to make fire.  Raw fish!  Really?  If you were dumb enough to lose the secret of fire, you should have been smart enough at least to pick it up again when someone else showed you.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Living on the Edge: Lost in the Bosporus and Robbed (Nearly) in Kazakhstan

This may be the last of my "Living on the Edge" series of posts for awhile, at least until I can get back overseas or hear some more good stories from friends.

Spontaneity is not my style, at least not in any type of grand gesture.  Planning for contingencies to ensure that I am where I am supposed to be when I am supposed to be there is a central to my modus operandi, especially when traveling overseas.  When I’m traveling alone, I build plenty of time into my schedule to be where I need to be.

So my own decision and actions shocked me that spring, but I’ll get to that in a moment.  I was in Istanbul for a quick overnight stay by myself.  I had just finished escorting a group of cadets through Vienna, Brataslava, Uzhgorod, Lviv (Lvov), Kiev, Simferopol, Yalta, and Sevastopol.  As the cadets traveled back I was heading to Almaty, Kazakhstan to explore the option of sending cadets there for language immersion or a study abroad program.

I flew from Kiev to Istanbul.  My arrival was memorable.  I speak no Turkish so I was hopeful I could communicate my needs sufficiently while in the country.  At the time my wife and I were huge fans of the television reality series Amazing Race.  The taxi scenes from the show played out in my mind as I walked out to find transportation to my hotel.  But, I was prepared.  I had the name and the address of my hotel printed with a basic map.  It was all in Turkish making it simple to communicate.  As I sat in the taxi I confidently handed the papers to the driver.

He looked at it for a few seconds.

“Do you know where this is,” I asked.

“Yes, yes, “ he answered nodding his head.

Quickly we pulled out from the airport.  Within five minutes he was on his cell phone with my directions in one hand asking someone for directions.  He obviously had no clue where we were going or how to get there, which was shocking since I had purposefully stayed in an area frequented by tourists so that it would be easy to find.

Eventually he found the general area and had some young boy run ahead of him to lead him directly to the hotel.

My hotel was in an amazing spot.  Within just a short walk I could see both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Hagia Sophia

Blue Mosque

My itinerary allowed me about 20 hours in Istanbul before my flight to Almaty.  With limited time I had planned two excursions near my hotel.  The afternoon I flew in I walked to the Grand Bazaar.  The place was amazing.  Somehow I made it out with some money left in my pocket.  That evening I had an amazing dinner in a small café not far from the Hagia Sophia. 

The next morning I had a delicious breakfast served buffet style at my hotel.  From there I went to the Spice Market.  After purchasing paprika, cardamom, saffron, Turkish delight, and other treats, I began to make the trek back to my hotel.  As I was walking along the waterfront I saw a boat ready to leave for a cruise of the Bosporus.  Looking at my watch, I realized that I had at least four hours before I would have to leave for the airport.  As part of my intel gathering the night before, and from speaking with friends, I had heard that some cruises last only a short time. 

Deciding to be spontaneous I purchased a ticket and got on the boat with my backpack and bags of spices.  It was an amazing trip as we headed out and made a few stops.  After about an hour I kept expecting us to turn back.  After an hour and a half of heading in the same direction, north toward the Black Sea, I began to lose all interest in the sites and the cruise.  As my anxiety increased I tried to find something in English that would tell me the course and schedule of the boat.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find anything.

Finally, I heard a female English accent coming from another part of the boat.  I drifted toward it hoping to ask some questions of a traveler with more experience in the city.  She mentioned to her friends that we were only one or two stops away from the last and the boat would turn around there.  Relief flooded over me, as it now appeared that I would make it to my hotel in time to get my luggage and go to the airport.  Then I heard say something to her friends about hiking to a nearby castle.

Unable to remain quiet any longer, I asked, “How long does the boat stay at the last stop before it starts the return trip?”

“Not long, “ she said.  “About three hours.  Just long enough for everyone to make the hike to the castle if they want.”

Panic hit.  I had no idea if I would make it back in time.  I walked around some more and heard someone mention that we would be stopping on the Asia side and that the taxis there would be few.  Listening I realized that I a few other travelers had made the same mistake as me.  They had got onto the wrong boat, the long cruise as it were instead of the short cruise.

As the boat approached the final stop, I was determined to be the first to any taxi that may be waiting.  I nudged my way to the edge of the boat with all of my bags in hand.  With the boat still a foot or two from the dock I jumped and ran up to the street.  There was one taxi ahead of me.  Looking back I saw a group of four or five people running for the same taxi.  It was too many to share a taxi so I didn’t wait for them. 

Out of breath I interrupted the lone taxi driver who was talking to some other locals.  Luckily I had a card with my hotels address and was able to communicate my need to hurry.  Now, I had years of watching movie and television scenes where the character offers the taxi driver more money to drive faster, but this first time that I did it and had results.  My driver flew down the highway, making detours here and there to void traffic snarls. 

We reached my hotel about thirty minutes after my planned departure time.  My driver agreed to wait while I ran in to check out and retrieve my luggage.  I’m sure the staff thought me rude as I ran past to my room and then ran back down, throwing my keys on the counter.

As fast as he could my driver navigated the streets to the airport.  Jumping out I paid him a prince’s ransom then dashed inside.

One more moment of panic hit as I watched the security personnel freeze on my suitcase after they had put it through the x-ray machine.  They began to speak briskly amongst themselves pointing at the bag and then at me.  At first I was unsure of the cause of the excitement, then I saw a sign indicating that travelers are required to announce if they have any type of knife in their luggage.  I hadn’t seen the sign and they had found my small pocketknife on the x-ray.

Finally one gentleman approached me, asking in broken English if I had a knife in my suitcase.  I answered affirmatively and tried my best to apologize, offering to leave the knife behind so I could make my flight.  He only nodded his head once, then turned away from me to confer once again with his colleagues.  Moments passed so slowly as I waited for some resolution, hoping I was headed to some Turkish holding cell.

In the end the same person approached me with a clipboard and asked me to sign my name.  Unsure what I was signing, I was a bit worried.  Maybe it was a confession to transporting something highly illegal.  I signed it anyway and waited for the consequence.  As soon as I had signed they grabbed me and pushed me forward, handing me my suitcase.

“Hurry, run, or you’ll miss your flight.”

Luckily I made it and jetted to Almaty for the second time in my life.
My flight landed in Almaty just before two in the morning.  I was sleepy and in a hurry to get to the Intercontinental Hotel as soon as possible.
Intercontinental Hotel - Almaty, Kazakhstan

Travel, especially overseas, demands an extra awareness of security.  Since I was traveling alone, I was extra sensitive to any threats or risks--arriving in the middle of the night only made the experience that much more exciting.  Security protocols in these countries encourages government travelers to take official, marked taxis and not take rides with individuals who are simply trying to make an extra buck with their own car.

Clearing customs and passport control with my luggage in hand, I stepped out into the public concourse to find several dozen individuals offering their services.  Looking around I found a young woman holding aloft the sign of the local taxi company.  She quickly made her way to me then led me outside to the waiting vehicles asking in English for my destination.

We stopped at a car that was full of four or five young men.  Security protocol, as well as common sense, dictates that riding with multiple unknown individuals may not be safe.  As I started to protest the selection of taxis, all of the young men except for the driver exited the car.  The driver, an ethnic Russian, came around to put my suitcase into the trunk.  I kept my backpack with me.

Crawling into the backseat, I hoped I could stay awake for the 20-30 minute drive into the city.  The lady communicated my destination to the driver and we pulled away.  Within 20 yards the car stopped, however, and a young Kazakh man in his early to mid-twenties got into the front seat.  I started to protest again when I heard the doors lock.  Looking at the car door I saw that the locks had been broken off so that I would be unable to unlock and open the doors on my own.

Immediately the adrenaline kicked in as I realized I might be in a dangerous situation.  The driver and his friend started to whisper to each other in Russian as we pulled away.  While I couldn’t make out what they were saying, I decided to make myself as undesirable a target as possible. 

I leaned forward, intruding on their conversation, and said in Russian, “Ah, the Intercontinental Hotel!  I’ve been there several times and can’t wait to get there again.  It’s only about 20 minutes away, right?”

My suspicions were rewarded, not in a delightful way, as they both looked shocked and concerned over my ability to speak Russian.  Glancing furtively at one another, they were trying to find another way to communicate.  I didn’t give them the opportunity.  I began to speak of my previous trip to Almaty and my familiarity with the area, although I may have made it sound like I had been there several times.

I was unsure if their plan was simply to shake me down for extra cash, rob me, or something worse.  As I spoke with them I wished that I had moved my pocketknife into my backpack.  The driver repeatedly put his hand between the seats grasping what I feared maybe a gun, but I wasn’t certain.

In an effort to reduce the impact of any robbery or shakedown I always travel with the bulk of my cash hidden, with just enough on my person to hopefully appease any would be criminal.  I decided to make it clear that I had only limited cash and that I hoped it would be enough to pay for the taxi ride.  I promised that if it wasn’t enough I could get it out at the ATM at the hotel, knowing that most other ATMs in the city would be closed at that time of night.

They didn’t tell me how much they needed right up front, but said that it needed to be exchanged for tenge, the Kazakh currency.  I offered to make the exchange for my US dollars at the Intercontinental.  Instead they said they had a local place that was still open to make the exchange. 

Once again the adrenaline kicked up another level.  The plan would be either to get me to reveal how much money I had so they could shake me down or to straight up rob me or worse.  As we made a detour to their local currency exchange, I rummaged through my backpack for anything that might be used as a weapon.  My only option was a pen that I quickly tucked into my jacket pocket.  I also tucked $100 into my pocket to make the exchange.

We stopped along a street in an unidentifiable part of town.  The door was unlocked so I could exit and both of them escorted me inside a building.  Inside we approached a closed window in a hallway.  With both of them standing close enough to me to touch both of my shoulders, one of them knocked on the window.  A young lady opened it and quickly exchanged my dollars for tenge while the two looked closely at the money in my hand. 

As we walked back to the car I ran through various escape scenarios, wondering if I could get away and if I did if I would be able to contact the police or find another ride to the hotel.  Helped back into the car we drove away.

My anxiety increased as I wondered if we were headed to the hotel or somewhere else.  Both the driver and his friend continued to look back and forth at each other, obviously unsure of what to do.  Finally the Intercontinental Hotel came into sight.  As we pulled into the circular driveway out front, they popped the trunk of the car but didn’t unlock my door.  The bellboy came out from the hotel and pulled my suitcase from the trunk, then waited for me to pay my driver and get out.

The driver and his friend turned to look at me.  I don’t remember the amount the asked for in tenge but it was about the equivalent of $200. 

“I don’t have that much,” I said.  “I only exchanged $100 and I don’t have much more in cash.  I can get more from inside the hotel.”

I gave the driver what I had.

“Give us the rest now.”

“I don’t have it.”

At this point the bellboy had come to my door and was reaching out to open it for me.  The driver hit gas, pulling ahead several feet out of the reach of the bellboy.  I looked around and saw the security guard from the hotel take notice of my situation.  He began to walk out of the hotel in case his services were needed.

“Give us the money now!”

“I only have another $40 in US.  Will that cover it?”

The bellboy had almost reached the car again prompting the driver to pull away again quickly.  Now the security guard was aware of the situation.  He pulled his handgun and started to run toward the car.  The driver pulled further ahead.

“Give me everything you’ve got now!”

I pulled out the two $20 bills in my pocket and put it in his hand.

The door unlocked.

“Get out now!  Get out now!”

Opening the door I released my grasp on my meager pen that I fully intended on using as a weapon.  I grabbed my backpack and rolled out of the car that was already starting to move forward.  Both the bellboy and the security guard arrived in time to help me up off of the ground and escort me into the hotel.

Sleep didn’t come easily that night as I played through the scenario and what else could have happened over an over again.

The next day, after completing my business, I was supposed to fly back to Kiev to stay there for a few more days.  I had had enough.  After two weeks of constantly being on the move and the excitement of the previous 24 hours, I was ready to be home.  As quickly as I could I changed my flight back home via Amsterdam and Minneapolis.