Taking travel to a new level is the goal for writer Lisa Alpine. Below, you’ll find three deliciously soulful memoirs from her collection Exotic Life: Laughing Rivers, Dancing Drums and Tangled Hearts, published by Dancing Words Press. Enjoy!
By Lisa Alpine
I was traveling over the Altiplano on a gravel road that snakes around Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. The Indians there are extremely poor and the environment absurdly harsh (13,000 feet elevation and freezing). There are no tourist facilities, so I spent the night in an Aymara Indian family’s mud brick hut. I was hungry. They invited me to dine with them.
They were eating what they ate every day of the year — chuños, tiny freeze-dried potatoes in weird mottled colors of purple, green, and red. The potato originated in South America, and there are more varieties in Bolivia and Peru than in any other part of the world. The dehydrated ones we were eating had been reconstituted with murky boiling water. No salt. No flavor. My hosts savored them. These puny potatoes were a main part of their existence. When they weren’t eating them, they were cultivating them.
“How are they harvested?” I asked to spark conversation among this very reticent and superstitious family. The mother, whose mahogany face was cracked and polished from exposure to extreme weather, told me, “We dig them up when they are ready and leave them on the hard ground to freeze. Then we go through the field in our bare feet and roll each one under our feet to remove the skin. We store them in baskets and they last a year.”
“Oh,” was my only comment. I looked down at her feet. They were blackened and cracked and had calluses as thick as history books. Maybe I did detect some flavor in my meal after all.
Little Chicken Bone
By Lisa Alpine
The dance student leaves my studio after a private class, and I turn my cell phone back on. It rings instantly. A man’s baritone voice queries, “Are you the daughter of Maxine Baker?”
“Why, yes, I am.” I had not been in touch with Maxine for several months. She had begun to call me in the middle of the night, buzzed on something, and would “share” convoluted secrets. Such as, “I think my mother was a prostitute.”
This particular secret was delivered late at night on the eve of my birthday and I thought, “It’s time to take a break and not see her for awhile.” I knew it was probably more of a belated drunken confession on her part than anything to do with her own mother.
The man on the other end of the phone line coughs and continues, “She is unconscious and dying at the convalescent home where I’m the chaplain — my name is Aaron. She has lived many, many days longer than the doctor expected. He can’t understand what is keeping her alive. Is there a prayer you would like me to say to her from you? A goodbye of sorts? It might make it easier for her to let go.”
I realize that maybe she doesn’t want to pass until she sees me one last time. I am her love child. Living proof of a broken heart many years ago.
“I’ll be there in two hours.” I hop in my car and zoom from my studio in Marin County up to Woodland, a dusty, Central Valley nowhere agricultural backwater town. The convalescent home is surrounded by gnarled, sprawling oak trees. It is 100 degrees in the shade.
The sidewalk is sizzling hot. Down a dimly lit corridor, past half-open doors leading to rooms that radiate a pulsing, underwater-blue glow quietly pregnant with the hushed murmurings of daytime TV, I find her small, linoleum-tiled room. Alone, on the polyester beige-sheeted bed, lies Maxine Baker.
Eighty-six years old, hovering on the borderline of death. She is unconscious. I place my hand on her narrow wrist. Under translucent-tissue paper skin, her pulse is beating stronger than mine. After spending time in silent dialogue with Maxine, my half-sister, Vicki, walks in. This is the first time we have met.
I was adopted at birth and never met my siblings. Vicki is warm and friendly and gives me a hug. We like each other immediately. Stories start to spill out as we hold hands over Maxine’s still body. I notice an imperceptible twitching in Maxine’s fingertips. Perhaps she is uncomfortable that truths are finally coming to light. Little dust-ball secrets she swept into dark corners of her life.
Two more half-sisters, Carole and Cynthia, both drably dressed in faded pink sweatpants, enter and the stories build and mount and shock and relieve. We all have snippets of our history that the others do not know. We stitch them together — ah ha’s escaping our inherited thin lips as the panorama of our mother’s alcohol-fueled roller coaster ride through life comes into focus. Maxine was a pretty good secret-keeper and a true Wild Woman. Or should I say, Wild Wanton Woman. She paid bills with her body — the PG&E man, the lawyer, the grocer. The sisters chuckle knowingly in unison.
They do not know that I have a full-blood brother who was also given away in adoption. This tidbit was accidentally revealed to me one time when I was visiting her and she gave the wrong date for my birth. “I was not born in 1950!” I exclaimed.
Before she caught herself, she blurted, “Oh that was the other baby.”
“What other baby?”
“You have a brother.”
The sisters are shocked. Just how many children had their mother given birth to? They tell me how she had danced with Fred Astaire. Maxine never told me this, even though she knew I’m a dance teacher. The sisters remember seeing her twirl around the dance studios with him. She was his Northern California dance partner. More chuckles and suggestive winks. I thought he was gay. …
So that’s where I got the dance bug. I show them a brochure of my dance workshops around the world. The cover photograph is me at Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, dancing with my arm gracefully arcing upward to the sky. They say in unison, “‘That is the exact pose Maxine would do right before she would pass out drunk.” Vicki continues, “Yeah, Little Chicken Bone, that was the signal she was going to keel over, so one of us would try and catch her when that arm would raise elegantly skyward. One time, before I could get her, she went right over the balcony.”
During our dialog, Vicki continues to call me “Little Chicken Bone.”
I’m mystified and ask, “Why are you calling me that?”
“Because until today, that was my secret name for you. I was there when you were born. I remember being in bed with Maxine when she went into labor with you. I was 4 years old and woke up one night soaked in blood. She had rented a room in a boarding house in San Francisco and we slept in the same bed. Until the blood was spreading everywhere, including on me, nobody had any idea Mom was pregnant.”
Vicki continues, “I ran downstairs and found the landlady, who called for help and then Maxine disappeared in an ambulance. I was told she had a chicken bone stuck in her throat.”
After a very dangerous delivery (years later, I interviewed the doctor and he remembers my legs being bent and deformed, and that my head was the shape of a zucchini because of the forceps delivery), I was born at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco on December 9, 1953. Maxine walked out and never even took a look at me. My birth certificate says my name is Baby Girl Baker (capital B, capital G, Baker). She vanished up to a trailer in the Sierra and the sisters didn’t see her for five years. They were raised by relatives and neighbors. I was adopted privately by a family who’s doctor had met Maxine’s lawyer at a roller skating rink during her pregnancy. …
Vicki then motions me into the hallway for a secret powwow. She leans over conspiratorially and whispers, “I think we have the same father.” I’m studying her closely; a short, tubby, brown-haired, brown-eyed woman.
She answers unblinkingly, “We look exactly alike.”
News to blonde, blue-eyed me, as I tower a good five inches above her head.
We then re-join the others over Maxine’s body. The eldest of the sisters catches my eye and says, “Do you know her spiritual beliefs?”
Reflecting on my first phone conversation with Maxine 14 years ago, I say, “Why, yes I do. That was the primary topic we discussed when I contacted her after searching for 10 years. We share the same idea that God is everywhere and in everything. Our liberal political beliefs are also the same. Weird! I didn’t know those were genetic.”
Carole peers at the others and nods to them while asking me, “Would you lead the memorial service?”
I gasp, “I barely knew her. How could I do that? She raised you all. Sort of. Why don’t you have Aaron, the chaplain who works here, do it? He seemed really nice.”
They look flustered. “Who is this guy, Aaron? The chaplain is a woman.”
“I don’t think so. It was a man that called me today to let me know Maxine was dying. Not a woman. His voice was really low.”
They look quizzically at each other and Vicki thoughtfully adds, “Well, she did have a really broad back.”
Leave it to Maxine to have the chaplain who was a man in the middle of a sex change. We sat around Maxine’s deathwatch and told stories, mending and hemming the torn mysteries that had kept us apart for 49 years. Not many adoptees get to be at their biological mother’s deathbed, or meet siblings who are so open, accepting, and forgiving.
Right before she died that night, she rose to the surface of consciousness long enough to utter one last word, “Ed.” My biological father’s name. A man she hadn’t seen in 49 years. Maxine once told me that Ed was the love of her life but he wouldn’t leave his wife even though Maxine had walked away from her marriage for him. Finally, she had slammed the door in his face when she was seven months pregnant with me. “I never want to see you again,” were her last words to him.
And she didn’t. But I am still here at her deathbed. Half him and half her. Both wild, both gone, both alive in me.
The Coptic Priest
By Lisa Alpine
While slaving away at a waitress job in Switzerland in 1973, I read “Exodus” by Leon Uris. The book ignited in me an overwhelming desire to go to Israel, so I saved my money and flew to Tel Aviv. Did I pay attention to the fact that the country had just been at war? No. Did I consider the impact of the recent terrorist massacre of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich? No. Did I worry when I arrived in Tel Aviv in the middle of the night and slept on the linoleum floor at the airport that the bullet holes strafing the wall above my head had been made within the last two weeks? No. I was 19 years old, blissfully ignorant, and heading for the Promised Land.
As the warm, caramel-colored Middle Eastern sun rose and bathed Israel in morning light, I hitchhiked to Jerusalem. I stayed at the Methodist hostel in the Old City and spent weeks wandering the alleyways, befriending Palestinian children, old Jewish guards, and Hasidic women at the hammam (public steam bath).
I wanted to explore the rest of the country and chose Jericho on the West Bank in the Jordan Valley as my first stop; it is considered by many to be both the oldest city in the world (dating from 7,000 BC) and the lowest city on earth (250 meters below sea level). I hitched a ride south with an Israeli in a noisy tin can of a car. He was horrified that I wanted to go to Jericho and adamantly refused to drive me from the highway into town. He said the Palestinians would rape and rob me and I would never make it out of there alive.
I had him drop me off at the junction and walked into the town of Jericho anyway. I bought plump dates and succulent oranges and sat on a bench, watching dilapidated produce trucks clunk by and short dark women in black dresses zigzag across the plaza, stopping to talk to one another. Jericho was bathed in amber light and warm sun. It felt good on that bench.
I found a guesthouse and rented a room. Then I went for a walk — still no raping or robbing. I walked to the end of a dusty road that led to a tall, mud-brick wall worn down by eons of wind and history. The air caressed my skin; a luscious scent wafted on the whispering silken breeze. The wall surrounded an orange grove and the trees were in full waxy white bloom. The hum of hundreds of bees called me. I scaled the wall, dropped down onto the blossom-covered ground and wandered amid the aisles of trees. The drone of the bees pulled me into a hypnotic state. I lay down, closed my eyes.
When I awoke, a dark-skinned man was sitting directly in front of me. He wore a keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian checked scarf, white and black like Arafat’s, and his eyes were bloodshot. He was squatting, arms crossed over his knees. He just stared. I was startled but felt calm. He was calm. He spoke in soft, guttural Arabic, lit up a big newspaper-wrapped spliff and offered it to me. I didn’t smoke pot and shook my head. He puffed away and conversed. I had no idea what he was saying but understood he was the orchard guardian. He left me there and I daydreamed as the hills wavered in the heat. It was a timeless, peaceful place.
This became my daily pattern. I wandered the dirt roads leading out of town to the encircling orchard walls of times gone by. I could smell the ancientness, sense the spirits of long-dead residents’ robes brushing by me, feel the splendor of great cities bordering the Jordan River. I was a captive of my imagination and I couldn’t get enough of that orange-blossom smell.
One day, as I peeked through a gate keyhole in wonder at a particularly fragrant orchard, a man peeked back. The gate opened and there stood the tallest man in Jericho with the biggest ears! He smiled at me and spoke French. Finally, someone I could talk to.
With a grand sweep of his arm, he invited me into his garden. The black robe he wore was frayed and dusty around the edges as it dragged on the ground after him. His orange grove had a unique feature — in the center was an ornate whitewashed church. I had been befriended by a Coptic priest and this was his residence.
We sat in the shade, drinking mint tea, discussing worldly affairs. He had been born in Egypt, where Coptic Christianity originated, and in the course of many exploits he traveled through the Sinai to Israel. His ears waggled as he talked. Suddenly, rocks hit the ground around us, disturbing the harmony of our garden idyll.
They were thrown by little boys on the other side of the wall who were walking home from school. The boys tormented the priest because he wouldn’t let them play in the grove. He scurried out the gate and chased them down the road, cursing them, his robes stirring up great billowing clouds of bone-dry dust.
This turned out to be a daily occurrence during our visits when I found myself in his garden, listening to stories of his very long life.
On Sunday I dressed up and went to church. I knocked on the wooden gate. The Coptic priest was splendidly attired in a clean robe. Massive ornate silver crosses hung around his neck, and his head was topped with a tall, pointed, stiff hat. He ceremoniously led me inside the church. It was dark and small, musty and mysterious; paintings of gilded saints loomed on the walls over the altar.
There was one other person inside, a wizened old lady in black, kneeling and praying. Audibly. My friend commenced the service by lighting a gigantic copper incense burner that he swung around and around. As it built up momentum, he circumambulated the miniature room. Billows of intensely pungent copal fumes filled the church. They became so thick, I couldn’t see my hand. The clouds of sickly sweet smoke wrapped around like a boa constrictor and choked me.
Through the haze I heard him chanting in a dominant voice. He refused to put down the incense burner. I was dying from smoke inhalation but felt obligated to stick it out and support him as part of his congregation of two — perhaps the only Christians in a sea of Muslims who would tolerate his penchant for ancient, murky rituals.
Two weeks passed, and another church service. I was becoming a fixture in Jericho. The women in town befriended me on my daily meanderings through the market and plaza. I became an object of lunch invitations and unintentionally initiated a town-wide competition to see who could make the most delectable Ma’aluba, a greasy lamb and rice dish that was not delectable at all since I was a vegetarian.
However, I could not refuse their hospitality, so I had lunch many times a day. These abundantly wide women wanted to fatten me up and marry me off to one of their sons who, luckily for me, were all off studying at the university.
As if part of the conspiracy to increase my girth, the Coptic priest was always plying me with drippy, syrupy sweets and tree-plucked oranges. In spite of this fact, we became good friends. I trusted him and he never took advantage of me. In fact, no one did.
I felt protected and watched over in Jericho. What more could one ask as a guest in someone’s country? I was not a woman to exploit, a pocket to rob, or an American to hate. I was just the blonde traveler from California sitting on a park bench eating dates, savoring the sweet, moist, nutritious fruits that have been nurtured for millennia in the oldest town on this earth.
Buy the book: Signed copies of “Exotic Life,” can be purchased for $14.95 including tax and shipping at www.LisaAlpine.com. It is also available in print on Amazon ($14.95); ebook editions on Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook ($9.99); and for the iPad ($9.99).