Saturday, April 30, 2011

Operation Special Baby House No. 40 and the Upsala Circus Juggling Balls

Initially I didn’t include my experiences with either the Special Baby House No. 40 or the Upsala Circus in St. Petersburg, Russia on my blog, thinking it wouldn’t be very Mother-Teresa-like to toot my horn over good works performed in a land far away.  But now I realize:  a) I’m a far cry from Mother Teresa; and b) the other people involved in bringing joy to kids in Russia deserve a shout-out before this blog comes to an end soon.  So here goes.

It all started back in the States.  I knew I was going to be in Russia for Christmas, so I thought, in the spirit of the holidays, perhaps there would be an opportunity for me to spread some holiday cheer there.  I started poking around on the internet and discovered that Russia has approximately 700,000 children living in orphanages.  That’s like the entire population of San Francisco.  And, I learned, many of the children are “social orphans,” meaning their parents are alive but have given them up for one reason or another. 

At the same time, on a website called, I ran across an organization in St. Petersburg, Russia called Upsala Circus.  Upsala is a German-based organization that works with disadvantaged kids in Russia.  Essentially, it takes kids off the streets and keeps them off by teaching them how to become circus performers.

On the orphan front, I agonized for weeks over what to do.  I knew I couldn’t go to Russia empty-handed with all those kids in need, but figuring out what to bring and how to bring it presented challenges.  I went on to a website called and found a list of orphanages, or so-called “baby houses,” in St. Petersburg.  There were dozens listed, but one in particular caught my eye.  It was Special Baby House No. 40 and, according to the website, it had over 60 children living there.  I was leaving for Russia on my 40th birthday, so I knew this Special Baby House No. 40 was the one.

I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida—and have many friends and family there—so I thought, since I’d be flying out of Tampa International, it would be neat to collect toys from St. Petersburg, Florida to bring to children in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Thus began Operation Special Baby House No. 40:  Love and Kisses from St. Petersburg, Florida; the “kisses” part being holiday-wrapped Hershey Kisses to bring along with the toys.  At the same time, the Upsala Circus responded to my inquiry and told me that the kids could always use new juggling balls.

A Florida family that helped.
I sent out a call for help to friends and family, and by the time I boarded the plane, I had a huge duffel bag filled with little dolls, Hot Wheels, Lego pens, Slinkies, harmonicas, wooden trains and planes, and the like, along with five sets of red-green-and-yellow juggling balls, courtesy of my sister in Cleveland.  The airline allowed me one free bag to check, and soon the collection was on its way to Russia.

Now here’s the problem I faced on the other side.  I never contacted the orphanage to tell them I was coming.  I only had an address and phone number, and I don’t speak Russian.  I just figured I would figure it out, and it would all work out once I was in St. Petersburg.

First night in the Russian St. Petersburg
By the time I reached Russia, though, I was feeling less confident.  I knew traveling in Russia was going to be tough, but I hadn’t expected it to be quite so.  For three days, the country just kicked my butt:  practically no one spoke English; I didn’t know the Cyrillic alphabet; I wandered through the streets constantly lost and falling down on the ice and snow; and it was freezing.  I couldn’t even find the supermarket that was supposedly just around the corner from my hostel.  How was I supposed to find this freaking Baby House?  By then I had learned from Google Russia that the Baby House was clear across the city.  But even if on the off chance there were actually street signs to guide the way, I couldn’t read them.

Plus I had another concern.  Something about the cold, harsh nature of Russia got me to worrying that maybe the people there wouldn’t take too kindly to a do-gooder American coming in with a bunch of toys for their orphans.  Or, worse, what if I couldn’t get the toys directly to the kids, and they fell in the wrong hands?

For three nights the balls and toys remained tucked under my bunk bed while I tried to think of what to do.  Finally, I went to my hostel administrator, Oksana, and confessed to what was under my bed.  At first I thought she looked angry-surprised, but then I saw she was actually choked up and speechless.  The next morning, she had the principal of Special Baby House No. 40 on the phone, and plans were made for someone at the hostel to escort me there in two days.

Meanwhile, I prepared for the Operation’s execution.  I bought transparent freezer bags and, with ribbon brought from home, worked an assembly line on the floor of my hostel, placing the toys and Hershey Kisses together in a bag, and then tying the bag with a ribbon.  I did this 69 times.  It took hours.  

Soon thereafter, Ksenia, another sweet girl working in the hostel, met me to take me to the Baby House.  Together we boarded the metro bound for Primorskaya, the last stop on the blue line on Vasilevsky Island, a suburb to the north of St. Petersburg proper.

We found the Special Baby House with the help of locals and walked up to find some kids playing outside on a playground covered with snow.  The first child to greet us was a little boy of about four.  His deformed legs and feet required him to use a tiny, green metal walker.  He walked up to us using it, wearing a huge smile.  The next little girl I saw appeared to have Downs Syndrome.  Soon I discovered that all of the children living in this particular Baby House were physically or developmentally disabled in some way. 

Ksenia and I were invited in to meet the principal, and then a member of the medical staff escorted us around to play Santa.  It’s hard for me to describe what happened next without becoming emotional.  The kids screamed with excitement and tore into their toys and kisses.  One kid went absolutely nuts over his new Slinky.  Several of them hugged and kissed us, and shouted “spasiba,” Russian for “thank you.” 

Ksenia with a very excited boy.

Outside in the play-yard a sweet little girl kept saying something to me in Russian that I didn’t understand.  Ksenia translated:  “She wants you to pick her up.”  So I did.  I felt such a rush of compassion for this little girl in a Russian orphanage whose wish was to be held by a stranger from America.  I didn’t want to let her go.

I left feeling completely stunned.  I was barely able to speak, which is not at all in my nature, as many of you know.  I went back to the hostel thinking of the visit constantly, and feeling grateful for the opportunity.

Ana and Oksana
Later in the week, Oksana drove me to the Upsala Circus to deliver the juggling balls.  I met Larissa, Upsala’s director, who told me more about the organization.  I learned that Upsala teaches the children in the program to give back; the kids themselves often perform for other disadvantaged kids and the elderly.

Oksana and I were invited to sit through the kids’ practice.  These kids—ranging from around 8 to 18—were absolutely fantastic with their tumbling, dancing, and gymnastic-like moves.  I was told that the group had recently received a donation of juggling balls in October from the First Lady of Germany, Bettina Wulff, and now my sister’s juggling balls were added to the mix.  The kids wanted to perform with their new juggling balls for us.  It was—in a word—cool.

Upsala kids with juggling balls from America.
Did all this bring me any closer to the gates of heaven?  Who knows.  I did spend several years as a corporate lawyer, so I’m not exactly sure where that’s going to land me.

But for the rest of my time on Earth, at least, I’ll never forget the looks on those kids’ faces in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Of course I’m thankful to all the people in the two St. Petersburgs (and to my sister in Cleveland) who made it all happen. 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Free-Bird Meltdown In Budva

The other day I packed up my backpack for the twenty-fourth time and headed down to the Autobuska Stanica (i.e., the bus station) to catch a bus to the next town in Montenegro called Budva.  Along the way I passed the fruit-and-vegetable vendor that I’d come to know over the past week.  Each day on my way to morning coffee in Kotor, I would stop and buy a plum, wish him a good morning, and then go on my way. 

I passed by him again on my way out of town Tuesday and decided to stop and tell him—in so many words, because he doesn’t speak English—that it was time for me to be moving on.  We shook hands, said goodbye, and I continued walking to the station.

The whole scene made me cry.  Tears began to spill from my eyes and roll down my cheeks on the way to station.  It took me by surprise. What is wrong with me? I wondered, as I found my bus, took a seat, and rode all the way to Budva, still feeling emotional. 

The weird thing is, it wasn’t like I was attached to the fruit-and-vegetable guy.  He was just a friendly fellow with whom I’d exchanged pleasantries over the past several mornings.  I don’t even know his name.  And to be honest, I suspect he was overcharging me for those plums.  So what was I crying for?

I arrived in Budva and it took some time to tramp across town and find my hostel.  Finally I located it, checked in, and dropped my pack next to my bunk.  I left soon after to begin exploring the town on foot with my familiar friend, the I-shuffle, in tow. 

Around halfway down to the Stari Grad, or Old Town, Free Bird came on.  And for some reason, that song, that day, triggered a complete meltdown in me just steps away from the beautiful Adriatic Sea.

The song begins with some whiny-guitar riffs, as if the guitar itself is telling a sad story, and then the lyrics begin: 

If I leave here tomorrow,
would you still remember me? 
For I must be traveling on now;
cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see. 

That’s when the tears started for the second time that day, this time even heavier than before, and I cried for what seemed like a long time.    I mean, Free Bird itself is almost ten minutes long, and by the time it was over, I was still blubbering.

I continued to walk along perplexed and finally asked myself—seriously, Travelarity, what gives?

And here was my answer:

As a long-term solo traveler, I think I’ve fancied myself a Free Bird of sorts, flying free all the time; sometimes, literally, all the way to the ends of the earth.  But now I don’t want to be Free Bird anymore.  I don’t want to fly free anymore.  The Free Bird is ready to land.  The Free Bird wants to go home. 

After twenty weeks on the road, I’m over saying hello and goodbye constantly.  I’m done turning strangers into friends, only to part ways knowing we’ll never cross paths again.  I’m finished moving from town to town, looking for the next hostel, checking in, making introductions, sleeping with different strangers every night.  

Tonight, in the bed next to mine, is a 22-year-old hockey-obsessed, French-Canadian “musicologist” on spring break from his university studies in Austria.  He sounds very interesting, and I’m sure he’s a very nice guy, but he’s a stranger.  And I don’t want to be with strangers anymore.  And I don’t want to make any more friends.

I want:  to be in one place; to sleep in the same bed; to shop at the same store; to live in one town; to have a routine; to go where people already know me; to say “see you later” and mean it.  I want the familiar.  Above all, I want my old peeps back.

This is not to say that I don’t cherish all my newfound friends.  Of course I do; especially Janine and Brittany, who, interestingly, adore and loathe pigeons respectively; Erika, the tattoo-artist-Ukrainian-implant who entertained me in Kiev; the two Phils and Emma from South Africa who made Bulgaria fun; Daniel who showed me Kosovo; Josh and Ned, who dispensed great love advice despite being half my age; Nic and Sofie, who offered great company and conversation at a time when I needed it; and the list goes on and on. 

And to be sure, I’m grateful for everything I’ve experienced along the way.  I’ve met countless and wonderful locals in the more than twenty cities I’ve visited this go-around—people far too numerous to name—and each person has enriched my life in some special way.

But it’s time.  Being away this time—and for this long; close to five months now—has shown me definitively what I want more than anything:  a home; community; permanence; my own loved ones; my own circle of friends; not to live out of a backpack; to shut down my storage unit; to maybe get a kitten.  (I said maybe; don’t go surprising me until I’m sure.)

At this moment a little over four weeks stand between me and my new-old life stateside.  Twenty-nine days—to be exact—before my non-changeable, frequent-flyer flight will carry me home to see my kin.  (Another homage to Skynyrd I couldn’t help.)

If I know time like I think I do, I know it's going to fly by.  In fact, these next four weeks will be a total joy; of that I'm certain.  I’ll be traveling on and seeing more places for just a little longer, just like Free Bird.  And then, before I know it, I’ll be back home. 

So it’s time for me to quit my weeping.  This is it.  End of drama.

But can I just say one more thing about Free Bird while we’re on the subject?  Guitar Magazine puts it at number 3 on the list of the Top 100 Guitar Solos of all time—behind Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption and Jimmy Page’s Stairway to Heaven—but I completely disagree with such a ranking.  I just listened to all three songs (because, of course, I have plenty of time for such things while I’m out here traveling), and I think, without question, Free Bird should be at the top; period; end of story. 

Perhaps it’s my southern-rock bias talking, but I don’t think so.  Come to think of it, I wonder what the musicologist in the next bed over thinks.  I’d ask him, but at the time of this writing he’s downstairs streaming the Montreal-Boston hockey game over the internet.  And I’m going to sleep now, to dream about coming home.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Essential Kotor-Fortress Climb Mix

I don’t wanna stop
‘Till I reach the top.
--Prince, Baby I’m A Star

I recently spent a week living inside the walled-in citadel of old Kotor, a medieval town—and current UNESCO World Heritage Site—that was protected by a fortification system containing all the things you’d expect to see in such a place:  ramparts, towers, bastions, gates, a moat, and a big castle-fortress sitting atop a mountain high above the city’s walls.

The mountain is named for St. John, and was first fortified by the Illyrians, a group of tribes that inhabited part of the western Balkans in antiquity.  Kotor changed hands many times over the centuries, at times falling under the rule of the Byzantines, the Venetians, and the Ottomans.  Various sieges by the French, Russians, and British occurred over the years, until finally Kotor was returned to Austria under the Congress of Vienna.  The fortress was abandoned following Austria’s loss in the first World War, and was thereafter occupied by the Axis powers during the second.  It was eventually liberated in November 1944.  Today it is part of Montenegro.

I found the architectural and military aspects of Kotor fascinating.  But from my own traveler’s standpoint, what all this meant was, I had another fortress on the horizon to climb.  I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the Kotor Fortress is, in essence, a straight shot up to the sky.  I couldn’t even imagine myself going up there.

 In Kotor I stayed in a hostel with a crowd of young, fit backpackers.  Each evening I would meet another fellow traveler who had climbed to the top of the Kotor Fortress earlier that day.  I’d ask him or her how it went, knowing soon it would be my turn.

“It was murder,” one girl told me through a British accent.  I watched her as she got up and walked across the common room into the kitchen to make some tea, and couldn’t help but notice her pretty-defined calf muscles.  “Murder” was not what I wanted to hear from this particular girl.

Day after day I put off the climb.  Finally my last night in Kotor arrived, and I knew the next morning it would be time.  I passed the evening organizing my backpack for the next day’s move to the next town, and also spent time making a special mix of music from my I-tunes library, specifically for the fortress climb.

I got up early and headed over to the entrance where I found two men packing mules with heavy stones to bring up the mountain.   I had heard that the stone stairway had crumbled in parts, and was currently being repaired.  I passed by the mules, paid the 3 Euro entrance fee, stuck in my I-tunes, and began the ascent up the stone pathway. 

Now, here’s the thing.  I’m no spring chicken.  And I’ve been in better shape in my life.  But to me, the climb wasn’t nearly as punishing as it was made out to be.  It was a hike, to be sure.  But to me, it felt good.  May I dare say it was even easy?

I think it was the music.  I just happened to pick just the right backbeats and chord progressions and baselines that pushed me all the way to the top of the mountain no problem, and barely even noticing the physical burn.  Rather than grueling, I found the whole experience exhilarating.

And so, for those who will have occasion to face the Kotor-Fortress challenge, may I suggest what I call: 

The Essential Kotor-Fortress Climb Mix

Jai-Ho, A.R. Rahman, S. Singh, T. Shah & V. Prakash (Slumdog Millionaire)
Sexy Bitch, David Guetta (featuring Akon)
All the Small Things, Blink-182
Short Skirt/Long Jacket, Cake
American Girl, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Semi-Charmed Life, Third Eye Blind
Greased Lightning, John Travolta (Grease)
S & M, Rhianna
Lady Madonna, The Beatles
Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Queen
Hash Pipe, Weezer
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Michael Jackson
Baby I’m A Star, Prince (Note:  absolutely essential toward the end.)

And last but not least.  When you get to within 100 meters of the base of the castle, and you see the tattered Montenegrin flag within striking distance, pause for a moment, put on Gonna Fly Now (the theme from Rocky) and push on.  You should get to the top just as the song reaches its dramatic end, in time to throw up your arms and jump around a bit just like Rocky did on those steps in Philadephia.  It's the best.

Unfortunately I don’t have any good advice for the descent.  My legs were like rubber and there was nothing I could do to stop them from shaking uncontrollably by the time I reached the bottom.  Seriously, I don't know how those mules do it day after day.  

And, finally, thanks to the men fixing the steps:

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Accidental Montenegrin Mountain-Climb-Easter-Breakfast-Car-Race

Last year if someone would have told me that this Easter Sunday I’d be in Montenegro climbing a mountain, sharing an Easter breakfast with strangers on their hillside balcony, and watching a mountain-track car race, I would have said—that’s crazy.  But that is, in fact, what happened.

Yesterday I left the hostel for my morning walk, feeling good.  Things have been feeling less of a slog lately, the book-writing’s going well, and perhaps most important, the mattress on my bunk bed this week has actually been comfortable. 
I set off on my usual route over to the far side of the Bay of Kotor and, along the way, decided to turn up a side street to see where it would lead.  The road began to wind up somewhat steeply, and soon I happened upon an ancient-looking church on the side of a hill.  I snapped a photo and kept going to see what else I would find.

The next thing I knew, I was climbing a mountain.  The road kept going up and up, switchback after switchback, and I kept turning corners to see where they would take me.  I was loving the feeling of climbing a mountain unexpectedly.  The problem was, I hadn’t yet eaten breakfast, and the climb forced me to drain all the water out of my little water bottle already.  I needed more in order to continue.

The road was totally desolate, but up ahead I spotted some people sitting on a second floor balcony of their hillside home in the distance.  I approached and held out my empty water bottle as if to say:  “Can you refill my water bottle, please?”  They waved me upstairs.

Once there, I found an older man and woman, and four younger adults, about to enjoy an Easter breakfast.  They had put out plates of prosciutto, salami, and bread, and were drinking traditional rakia.  They asked me to have a seat at the patio table, and the older woman brought out a platter of brown decorated Easter eggs and set them before me.  At first I refused to eat because I felt bad for crashing their breakfast, but they insisted.  I sampled a little of each thing, told them I think Montenegro is beautiful (which is true; I do), and snapped some photos.  I thanked them profusely for the hospitality and left to continue my walk up the mountain.

Over the next twenty minutes I started to suspect something was about to happen on this mountain.  Cars and motorcycles began to stream steadily up past me.  People would pull over at various points, get out of the cars or off their bikes, and sit on the sides of the mountain’s edges looking down, as if waiting for something. 

Finally I made it to the highest place on the mountain before the road began to descend.  I found a couple guys wearing official-looking reflector vests who spoke some English.  They told me that a big car race was set to begin.  It all started to make sense.  Back a little way I had seen a group setting up with a laptop and a camera next to a man standing near what looked to be some sort of finish line with a black-and-white checkered flag.

The finish line.
“So, it’s not safe for me to walk back down the mountain, then?” I asked, jokingly.  They told me the road would be closed until the race was finished after a couple of hours.  Might as well join the race fans, I figured.  I really had no choice.

I found a place on the mountain-side of the guardrail among the fifty-or-so  Montenegrin men set to watch the race on this part of the road.  From this vantage point we could see the roads winding up from below; each length of road was dotted with locals who turned out to watch.  I settled in for the mountainside Montenegrin version of NASCAR, completely excited.

Of course it didn’t take long for me to start chatting up the men along my guardrail.  One spoke good English, and he filled me in on what was about to occur.  The cars race up the mountain individually from the Kotor city center and are timed to where we sat near the finish line.  The cars then go back down the mountain and do it again, for a second chance at a better time.  The name of the race is Trojica, and it goes on for seven days in Montenegro at different locations.  There aren’t any official prizes, because the place is too poor for that, I was told.  Only a few drivers have sponsors.

I heard the loud vroom of the first car’s engine well before I saw it coming around the mountain.  It was the Serbian version of a Mini-Cooper-looking car, and was taking the hairpin turns way too fast to stay in control.  I saw it skid with tires smoking a couple of switchback roads below, and that’s when I realized maybe it wasn’t too smart to be sitting on an exposed mountain guardrail with race-cars whizzing by at top speeds.

Worried, I turned to my new friend—Daniel was his name—and said:  “What if a car crashes?”  I clapped my hands together loud to simulate a car crashing into us.  He pointed to the patch of land below our feet and suggested, simply, that in such case we should “jump.”  Made sense, I thought.

My guardrail seat.
What I saw next was completely amusing.  The cars coming up the mountain—every few minutes or so—were primarily a series of shitbox, painted-up old Yugos with powerful engines dropped in.  When the first one came up, Daniel turned to me and said, with an embarrassed tone, “Yugo,” perhaps guessing that I had been expecting to see some Ferraris. 

“We’ve got Yugos in America,” I said, sympathetically, trying to think of the last one I’d seen there.  Daniel smiled and said, “Bruce Willis; Die Hard,” referring to a Die Hard film that features Bruce Willis driving a Yugo.  That was not the first time I’ve heard that reference in the former Yugoslavia.  The people here are apparently very proud of that particular Hollywood cameo. 

Sprinkled among the Yugos were some old Fiats and Peugeots, and one Volvo too.  Toward the end of the first run I saw a Honda Integra coming up and, I don’t know why, but it made me exclaim I drive a Honda! to everyone sitting around me.  “A stick shift,” I added, like that would cause them to be even more impressed.  They nodded and smiled.

Sometime in the middle of the first run, an attractive young man walked up in a race-car driver jumpsuit and stood near us.  My new mountain-guardrail friends introduced me as "a woman from America."  I learned that this man was the driver of car number 51-0; the “orange car.”  I showed him that I had taken a picture of him in his car coming up the mountain.

After the last car came up for the first run, we all took a break while the drivers prepared to return down the mountain for the second run.  I began walking down the street toward the finish line in search of a toilet, and that’s when the driver in car 51-0 spotted me.  I waved to him and he, in turn, blew a kiss to me out his window as he drove by.  What a great day, I thought.

I rejoined my friends on the guardrail and watched the second run which, surprisingly, was just as exciting as the first.  A couple of cars stalled out on this one, and one crashed a bit into a mountain curve below.  When the last car reached the finish line, we all got up, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways.

Now I was tired, and completely dreading the long walk back down the mountain to Kotor.  I started the descent and then thought, what would really be great is to get a ride back into town.  I had nothing on me that anyone could steal, and in light of the wonderful day I had among warm, friendly, and generous strangers on a packed-out mountain, I figured, who’s gonna kill a hitchhiking tourist on Easter Sunday in little Montenegro right out here in the open

I turned around and started walking down the mountain backwards with my thumb out.  Most of the cars that passed were filled with passengers, so no dice.  But then, across the street, I spotted three young guys getting into a little white car, about to take off from the shoulder to descend down the mountain.  They saw me with my thumb out, and waved me over to get in.  The two in the front, I learned, were drivers from the race; one drove the souped-up Peugout.  "It's French," he said, and I nodded.  Needless to say, with a race-car driver behind the wheel, I was back down the mountain in a flash.    The guys dropped me in the city center and we all yelled Ciao! as I hopped out and waved goodbye.

I went back to my comfortable bunk bed for a little afternoon nap, and tried to think of a more exciting Easter Sunday as I drifted off.  I couldn’t.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Confessions Of A Traveling Clinton-Phile

I count a number of conservatives and Republicans (and perhaps even Tea-Partiers?) among my biggest blog fans, so it is with some hesitation that I write this post, for fear of alienating my base. But this is a blog, not politics, so I feel I must my write my truth and hope that the fans stick with me.  

And the truth is this:  I positively adore former President Bill Clinton, otherwise affectionately known as The Big Dog, The Comeback Kid, The Man From Hope, Bubba.  Most recently President Clinton’s been dubbed “President of the World,” and from what I’ve experienced, that’s actually not too far off base.  Out here he's considered an international political rock star, and from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Kasane, Botswana to—last week—Pristina, Kosovo, I’ve joyfully ridden President Clinton’s political-star coattails during my own journeys around the globe.

I started on President Clinton’s trail back in June 2007 during a visit to Vietnam.  I read in the Lonely Planet guidebook that President Clinton had visited a certain traditional Vietnamese pho restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly, Saigon) near the city’s main outdoor market.  After the visit, the owner renamed the restaurant Pho 2000:  Pho for the President.  Of course I high-tailed it down there at the first opportunity.
As an American, I felt funny traveling through Vietnam.  I didn’t quite know how I would be received considering historical events.  I was happy when I entered Pho 2000 and saw professionally framed pictures of Bill and Chelsea Clinton gracing every wall.

I spent time inspecting the photographs, and then ran across a framed Saigon Times article describing the President’s visit.  It said that President Clinton had, among other things, the pho ga, or chicken.  I sat down at a table and told my waiter:  “I’ll have what President Clinton had,” while pointing to it on the menu.  Bill also had fresh papaya juice, the article said, so I ordered that too.  Soon I was served a humungous bowl of the most flavorful Vietnamese pho I’d ever tasted, along with fresh papaya juice served from a coconut shell and straw.  It was thrilling.

What President Clinton had.
Later I would learn that President Clinton significantly contributed to normalizing relations with Vietnam.   In fact, Clinton was the first U.S. head of state to visit Vietnam since the end of the war. During his tenure, the economic embargo against Vietnam was lifted, diplomatic relations were restored, and the two countries signed a bilateral trade agreement.

Months later, on a visit to Kasane, Botswana, I learned that both Bill and Hillary had stayed in the Mowana Safari Lodge on a state visit in March 1998.  I was staying in cheaper digs—a campground on the outskirts of town—a couple kilometers' walk from the Mowana.  Of course, as soon as I dropped my pack in my tent, I started down the long, dusty road in the direction of the now-famous-for-the-Clintons'-visit lodge.  

In the lobby I found framed photographs depicting scenes from the Clintons’ visit to Kasane and the nearby Chobe Game Reserve (where I was headed too).  I went to the bar, whose veranda overlooked the peaceful Chobe River, and sipped a diet coke while the barman and I talked politics—both African and American.  I confessed my fondness for the Clintons, and asked where I might find the room in which they had stayed.  He walked me across the property and showed it to me.

On the door was a gold plaque that read:  “The Clinton Suite:  To commemorate President Clinton and The First Lady’s State Visit to Botswana, 30 March 1998.”  I snapped a picture.

The Mowana Safari Lodge.
The barman.
The Chobe River.
I enjoyed shooting the breeze with the barman, so each day I would stop into the Mowana for some more chat and relaxation by the river.  On my last day, the barman offered to ask the manager if I could go inside the Clinton Suite, and of course I jumped at the chance.  Together we walked to the opposite side of the lodge where a young woman met us with a key to the room.  I went in and sat on the bed where the President and First Lady slept.  Next I stepped inside the bathroom where I imagined Bill standing before the mirror shaving, or Hillary putting on some lipstick.

Where the Clintons slept.

Where the Clintons ???

I should pause here and add some context, so you don’t think I’m the biggest Clinton-phile freak on the planet.  The thing is, when I traveled around the globe in 2007, I was met with a barrage of anti-American sentiment from fellow travelers, the international media, and other forms of art and graffiti on the street. 

I remember feeling sad as I stood on the famous Falls Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland, taking in a mural depicting President George W. Bush as “America’s Greatest Failure,” while other tourists stood nearby bashing America.  I didn’t like to see the words “Fuck America” spray-painted on the side of Diocletian’s Palace in Croatia.  Even in Israel—America’s supposed BFF—someone had spray painted “Yankees Go Home” next to a hammer-and-sickle on a wall near the American Embassy. 

The Falls Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Anti-American graffiti in Croatia.

Near the American Embassy in Tel Aviv.
From these experiences and others I learned that, regardless of which political party has my loyalty, or with what government policies I agree, in general, America-bashing always stings, especially for an American traveling alone in the world.

Fast forward to Kosovo 2011.  I had heard from others that a major street in Pristina had been renamed after Bill Clinton, and also a statue was erected there in his honor.  There was also a rumor circulating that certain discounts around town could be had for people carrying American passports.  Of course I needed to experience this.

I rolled into Pristina and asked around the bus station how I could find Bill Clinton Avenue.  People smiled at hearing his name through my American accent, and helped me find the way.  Soon I was on a major boulevard where, ahead in the distance, I could see a huge billboard of President Clinton’s face smiling down at me.

I continued to climb up Bill Clinton (the street) and soon I was standing next to his statue, close to which an American flag was flying.  This is how I was welcomed to Kosovo.  I couldn’t have been more excited.  I spent almost a week in Kosovo basking in the nonstop America-lovefest which blossomed from certain decisions made during the Clinton Administration.  I loved every minute of it.  Just like Bill, I love to be loved.

So, yes, it’s a nice contrast to see, in foreign lands, a statue of an American president, people excited about a state visit, and presidential memoirs for sale in bookshops halfway around the world.  The fact is, in some places, Bill Clinton’s role as a respected past leader and current humanitarian has sometimes made things more pleasant for me as an American traveler.  And in the end, isn't politics all about what someone can do for me?  I'm sure that's what The Big Dog would say.

Clinton memoirs in a Hanoi, Vietnam bookstore.

Clinton memoirs on street in Kosovo.