Friday, May 17, 2013

Apollo, Aphrodite and Acrocorinth

Acrocorinth, Greece 1994

The park bench was hard. Tossing and turning offered little relief or hope of achieving any level of comfort. The larky park gardener, by means of loud spritz from the garden hose, the scraping of garden tools on cobblestone and the violent, unnecessary rustling of tall bushes, looped wide circles around me ensuring that I wasn’t getting any sleep. My efforts of achieving some degree of slumber before the 7am bus to the Doric Temple of Apollo became increasingly futile. I looked at my watch.  It was 4am.

As the seconds crept by, the gardener’s racket became progressively more melodic which I’m sure I could chalk up to some innate, self-preserving, mental condition that converts cacophony into music. I began looking around the garden in the town square. I tried to concentrate on the perfume of the roses and the smell of the water from the gurgling fountain all the while attempting to ignore the buzzing of mosquitoes that sounded like diesel-powered buzz-saws in my ears.

I sat up; coming to the realization that sleep was now just a dream. I looked over at my travel buddy, who seemed dead to the world just a few benches down from me; mouth gaping open, mosquitoes kamikaze diving his face. At least one of us was getting some rest. I decided to simply watch the gardener who was slowly winding the garden hose with its angry, hissing leak. Every few seconds he would shoot me a disapproving glance under a scrunched and furry-eyebrowed brow, condemning our intrusive, backpacker ways of commandeering an empty bench in lieu of a more costly bed at a local hostel. I looked at my watch. 4:12am.

7am we found ourselves to be the first and only individuals in line at the bus station ready to purchase our tickets to the Doric Temple of Apollo. The vapid man at the ticket counter blankly stared at us through the worn glass doors of the tiny station and we in turn, stared back in our sleep deprived delirium; weeble-wobbling zombies wearing cock-eyed sunglasses. After a few minutes, he opened the door and we crept in to purchase our tickets. Soon afterwards a bus huffed and snorted to a stop in front of the station and we climbed aboard its empty innards. Save for us, the bus remained empty as we rumbled at break-neck-speeds in typical Greek fashion to the ruins that awaited our exploring.

Not twenty minutes later, the bus spun around the cul-de-sac outside Apollo’s temple, hissing and groaning to a jarring halt. Stepping out into the sunlight we were greeted by the Doric columns of the temple bathed in a warm golden glow, a soft sweet breeze that tussled the vibrant poppies at the base of the protective gates, and a sign that stated that the site would open at 11am. The bus peeled out behind us. It was 7:32am.

A quick, numb, survey of our surroundings established the absence of any sort of civilization bringing to mind the question of why the bus came out here at this time at all...

We did however notice the fortress on the mountain a few miles away. The fortress was Acrocorinth. The pre-Christian walls crowning the mount added to by Byzantine, Frankish, Venetian and Turkish occupation. As the song goes, time was on our side, and so was adrenaline due to the lack of sleep.  So, with a silent nod, we ascended the mount to the fortress.

It too was closed. Behind the massive, black, wrought iron gates that towered above us was the caretaker’s house. I yelled a few times to see if anyone was there and as I leaned on the bars, they opened with a low groan. I looked at my buddy and with a shoulder shrug, we entered the fortress.

With some apprehension about trespassing on national monuments, we made our way between the main towers and into the heart of the fortress. It was deserted. Doors were swinging open in the breeze and free for entry. There were remains of churches, mosques, houses, fountains and cisterns. I cursed myself a few times for not having a more powerful flashlight or a length of rope to climb into some of the structures shrouded in cavernous darkness.

Photo by Antonio D. Paterniti
We climbed higher along paths on the edge of the monolithic mountain that were lined with golden weeds rustling in waves beneath the morning breeze. On the highest of the two mountain peaks lay the remains of a marble temple dedicated to Aphrodite along with remnants of a more modern church.

Photo by Andrew Crocker
As we rounded the perimeter of the fortress we noticed two people by the entrance. Like children caught where they shouldn’t be, we dropped to the ground and observed them from behind a fallen wall. There was a man in a business suit with rolled up charts or maps and a women similarly attired and equipped. They made their way across the courtyard area and then disappeared in the maze of fallen stones and buildings. Slinking like thieves we made our way back to the tower gates and slipped out into the dusty parking lot that remained deserted except for the two cars presumably belonging to the man and woman we had just eluded. It was 10:42am.

The once lifeless cul-de-sac in front of Apollo’s temple was now stuffed with buses and tourists scampering about, loading film into cameras, reviewing maps, chasing uninterested children and adjusting the position of knee-high black socks. With a sigh we walked into the midst of this contrary situation. We would not be able to  wander and wonder quietly through these ruins as we did through the fortress on the mountain. We would have to share this site putting aside our exploratory covetousness.

Once inside we bifurcated ourselves from the crowd and found what used to be a garden, at one time full of lush foliage and artesian springs, now arid and covered with layers of sand and crumbled history. Beneath my shuffling feet, a speck of bright green appeared. Kneeling, I began brushing the dirt aside revealing a multicolored mosaic tile floor. We stood and looked at our find; a glittering array of patterns and colors hidden under just centimeters of ancient dust.  The sun's rays sparkled upon the tiles again after perhaps thousands of years.

Photo by Andrew Crocker
As we walked away, I could hear children running, then skidding to a scraping halt and yelling out excitedly: “Look what I found!”

Friday, January 13, 2012

My Review of La Sportiva Nepal EVO Mountaineering Boots - Men's

Originally submitted at REI

A pinnacle of mountaineering footwear! Light, warm, Nepal EVO Gore-Tex® boots by La Sportiva are the choice for serious climbs.

Loved them on The Mountain

By Steeper than Tall from Baltimore, MD on 1/13/2012


4out of 5

Sizing: Feels true to size

Width: Feels true to width

Pros: Good Cushioning, Stable, Comfortable, Durable

Best Uses: Backpacking, Cold Weather, Mountaineering

Describe Yourself: Nomad

Was this a gift?: No

I have size 13.5 feet, wide across the toes, yet not a high volume foot. These boots fit great (size 48)! I usually find boots that fit heel to toe, but most boots have too much volume even with extra socks/liners.

Minimal break-in (walking up and down flights of stairs for a few months) then the first time they hit dirt/snow was the climb up Mt. Rainier. Wore them with a thin sock-liner and "mountaineering" thickness wool socks. Had to stop and re-lace only a few times. Zero blisters. I was especially worried about this due to my short break-in period, but not a single blister.

Climb was early June, about a foot of snow dropped before our ascent, but feet were warm when moving (but not hot and my feet tend to over heat in tennis shoes!). Toes would get cold when we stopped for more than a few minutes, but would warm up quickly. Overall great boots, very comfortable, can't wait to use them again.

At the top of Disappointment Cleaver


Tags: Rainer, Picture of Product, La Sportiva Nepal EVO GTX, Using Product, Disappointment Cleaver


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Sisters of Sichili

Livingstone, Zambia July 2005
I stood over the two nurses who were hunched over the dual-view microscope resting on a tiny plastic stool in a lab not much bigger than most people’s bathrooms.        They were attempting to maneuver across the myriad of lines and squares of the counting chamber to perform a manual, immune cell counting test we were implementing.   “God Bless them,” is all I could think.       Just the day before, they didn’t even know how to turn the two-headed contraption on; much less find their way across the maze of grids on the slide.
“The Sisters ar’ere for you.”     The Irish accent belonging to Sister Mary Courtney said to my back.   I turned and thanked the tiny Sister as she nervously wrung her hands in her usual fashion giving her quick, and awkward flash of a smile.   I smiled thinly back, and went out to the courtyard where tiny, be-speckled, Franciscan Sister Cruz Josephine from India stood, looking flustered.
“Hello Sister,” I greeted her.
“Hello Doctor, so sorry to keep you waiting.”     She said with a bubbly smile inconsistent with her present state, “the car is in the garage - the ‘diff went out on our way down from Sichili.”   Her Indian accent bobbed along her words.   She shook my hand and flopped down on the bench where patients normally wait.
“No trouble at all, is there anything I can do?”   I said, not really knowing what I could do to fix the “’diff.”
“No, no, the car is in the garage and we are borrowing a car from the Diocese.”   She said, fanning herself with a tiny hand, “we will leave around 13:30, is that okay, Doctor?”   She said, appearing almost embarrassed.
“No, no problem at all, but I’m not a Doctor, I’m just a lab technician.”  I stated, almost ashamedly.

“Oh! So, sorry Doctor!”   She said, and giggled again, covering her mouth with her hand.
Another minuscule Indian Sister, Sr. Mimi, came in and also shook my hand.
“So, Doctor, we will go now and collect you at 13:30.”     She stood and shook my hand again.
“Yes, okay, please let me know if I can help in some way.”   I said again, truly not knowing what I could do.
She smiled at me as if saying, “What could you possibly do, but thank you.”     And then went out to a small white pick-up truck that was idling beyond the wrought iron gates.
I went back inside to the lab where the nurses were still crouched over the microscope yelling, “left, left, left, you’re out – three lines, you are out, OUT!”   I stood there for a moment and sighed, “great job ladies, practice, practice, practice.”   They looked up for a second, both of them beaming, “thank you Doctor.”   I’m not a Doctor, I thought to myself in vain.
Sister Mary Courtney nervously came by again, “You’ll be joinin’ us for lunch, won’t ye?”        She said, wringing her hands.
“Ah, yeah, yes, thank you Sister.”     I stated, feeling the writhing and gurgling in my stomach as it protested at the thought of a morsel of food plummeting into its turbulent acidy depths.     Recently, while at another site, I became severely ill, hospitalized, lost 40 pounds in a week: the taste of bile still tainted my tongue.
“Good!”   She said with a quick smile and scuttled away.
“Left, Ok! Right, right, right…” came the familiar chanting from the lab.   At least they were trying, I thought to myself.
Sister Mary Courtney sped through downtown Livingstone, her chest mere inches from the steering wheel of the pick-up truck as her head craned toward the dashboard.
We arrived at the convent after a series of jarring turns and abrupt stops where she muttered to the on-coming traffic that seemed to recognize and fear her as they spotted her behind the wheel.
A parade of tiny nuns came out to greet me, each in turn shaking my hand and commenting on tall I was. “Is your girlfriend tall too?”
“No, she’s tiny,” I said and they all giggled approvingly.
“Her name is Maureen!”   Sister Mary Courtney proclaimed proudly.

“Like Maureen O’Hara!”   Another thumb-sized Irish nun professed. They all giggled and asked a deluge of questions about my tiny girlfriend.
After lunch, the Franciscan Sisters arrived at the convent in a taxi.
“Sorry Doctor, but can we collect you at 14:00 or 14:30?”   Sister Cruz asked looking at me over her gold-rimmed spectacles.
“Of course, please, thank you. Anything I can do?”   I asked sheepishly again.
“No, no, we’ll be back!”   And they rushed back into the cab and left.
“Well, Christophe can take ‘ye back to the Care Center to wait for the Sisters.” Sister Mary Courtney said from behind me.
“Okay, thank you.” And we were back in the truck, frightening on-coming traffic, where it became apparent that Sister Mary Courtney taught him how to drive.
The afternoon passed quickly and the same pick-up the Franciscan Sisters had in the morning came to a halt on the dusty road outside of St. Francis Home Based Care Center.   The driver came in and asked me if I was ready to go.   I grabbed my bags and walked to the truck. In the open bed, was a refrigerator strapped to the roll bar, cases of soda, boxes, a mattress and tiny Sister Mimi, wind-blown and covered with a striped sheet.
“Sister!”   I stated, astonished that she was traveling in the truck bed.
“Let me sit in the back!    Please, sit up front!”   The cab of the pick-up truck could maybe fit the driver and another person as it too was packed with supplies.
“No, no, no!” She protested.  “You sit up front!”  This argument went back and forth for a while, she kept pointing to her dark Indian skin telling me that I would fry back there and that she was used to the sun.   “I’ve never traveled this way before! It will be an adventure!”   She said and laughed.
“Well, I’ll switch with you soon!   Please at least take my hat!”   I said as I handed her my dusty hat, “it will at least keep the sun out of your eyes!”
“No, no!”   She protested again.
Sister Mary Courtney came out with a huge umbrella, “Sister, please, take this for the sun!”
The Franciscan Sister laughed, “no, no, it will blow away in the wind!”   She argued again, but then eventually took the umbrella.
“Okay, but if you won’t go up front, I’m coming back there with you!”   I stated firmly, hoping I wasn’t being disrespectful.   I gave her a bottle of water and argued some more, but then crushed myself into the cab of the truck.   We spun around and turned onto Mosi-o-tunya road heading back into the center of Livingstone.
A few seconds later, Sister Mimi was banging on the side of the truck. “Dear, God," I thought, "she’s being crushed by cases of cola."     The driver swerved into a gas station and came to sudden jarring halt where I could hear all the contents of the truck bed grind forward.
I leaned out the window, “Sister, are you okay?”
“Don’t forget the other Sister at the Diocese!”   She yelled – all I could see was her tiny hand flailing over the side of the truck.
“The other Sister?”   I thought to myself, “are we going to strap her to the hood?”
We arrived at the Diocese in another fury of dust where Sister Cruz awaited attempting to stifle a laugh at the sight of us.
I quickly started to get out of the truck, but without warning the driver slammed the truck in reverse, dragging me for a few feet as I grabbed onto the open door.     Sister Cruz walked to the truck and shoved some more bags of groceries into unavailable spaces. She and the driver kept slamming the bench seat until the supplies were awkwardly distributed and the seat could rest squarely against the back wall of the cabin.
“Okay Sister, scoot over, I’m coming back there with you!”   Another torrent of protests lashed at me and I dejectedly walked back to the front.  Sister Cruz and the driver were squished in the cab.  My comment of “move over bacon, here comes sizzle-lean,” garnered a blank stare from the both of them.   I shook my head and squeezed myself next to Sister Cruz who was sitting almost side-saddle to allow the driver to use the gearshift.   After slamming the door against my side several times before it actually locked, we tore out of the Diocese parking lot.
“Coke, Fanta?” Sister Cruz asked me.

“Huh, wha… oh, no, I’m okay, thank you.” I said, not sure I could even maneuver myself to bring a drink to my lips.
“Coke, Fanta?"   She said again without missing a beat.
“Coke."     I said, realizing I wasn’t getting away without having a soda.

Photo by Antonio D. Paterniti
She instructed the driver to stop at a little convenience store and I opened the door so that we could spill out.
As Sister Cruz went into the store, I again tried unsuccessfully to get the Sister in the truck bed to switch seats with me.   Shortly after my ineffective persuasion, Sister Cruz returned with a bag full of sodas.
“Cake!” She said brightly and we crunched back into the truck. A few yards later, we rolled into a parking spot in front of a bakery.
Again, we attempted to gracefully step out of the truck in a bizarre tangle of long legs and habits.
“Oh, those cakes are nice!” Sister Cruz stated as she looked at the display case stocked with sugary sweets, cakes, and doughnuts. “Pick something!” She said with a big happy grin.
“Oh, Sister, nothing for me, thank you,” I said pitifully, “my stomach has been off for some time now, I’m…”
“I think it will be okay,” she cut me off with an air of divine providence, “ice cream!” She darted toward the gurgling soft-serve machine. Sichili Mission Hospital being 6 hours away from civilization, these bi-weekly jaunts into town were a rare chance to indulge in sugary sins.
However, for me, the thought of something cold or sweet hitting my churning innards gave me nightmarish images of bush breaks with shrub brush and serpents.
Before I could say no, she handed me a cone piled high with soft serve vanilla and chocolate laced ice-cream. I smiled uncomfortably and bee-lined it to the truck, giving it to the wind-blown Sister in the back. She smiled and formed her lips into a tiny “o” at the sight of the ice cream.
I turned around and there stood Sister Cruz with two cones in her hands. She handed one up to me and I took it with a muffled sigh.
Once again we were crammed in the cab of the truck and zooming down the road. The now softer-than-soft-serve ice cream cone was millimeters from my lips – not because I was contemplating eating it, but because my arms were resting on my knees that were pushed against my chest.
“Eat! It’s nice!” She said as she lapped happily at her cone.
The driver too, was enjoying his ice cream. I assumed the Sister in the truck bed was too as she rattled around, the cone swaying opposite the movement of her tongue.

“My stomach… it’s…” I started.
She squirmed her free hand over to my ice cream and made a sign of the Cross over it.
“There, I Blessed it. Eat.” She said and went back to her cone.
Well, I’m in God’s hands now, I thought.   And I ate, and it was good.
As we rumbled along the road, and I tried to explain, innocently, to an inquisitive Franciscan Sister why I had a steel bar rammed through my tongue, the sun began to roll towards the horizon.
The first check-point guard we arrived at asked us to give a ride to a friend, just until the “No Name Lodge” a few miles away. The friend hopped into the truck bed and for a second I was surprised that the Sister didn’t make him come and squeeze in with us.
The “No Name Lodge” appeared rather quickly and we pulled over allowing our extra passenger to get out.
I leaned out the window and started, “Sister…”
“No!” Came a tiny yell.
I tucked back inside and we were off again.
“Let us pray.” Sister Cruz said.
I felt as if I had just walked into a crowded room naked. My eyes darted around seeking some form of escape, but then I succumbed and bowed my head. She prayed for the journey and the driver and for my visit to Sichili. We recited the Lord’s Prayer (whew- one I knew) and then I stumbled through the Virgin Mary Prayer, where for some reason Sister Cruz would always leave out the word “womb” in “Fruit of your [womb], Jesus." Then she started singing. The driver knew the words – I just kept forming the word “watermelon” with my lips while uttering no sound.
“Sing a song in your language [Italian]!” Sister Cruz said to me excitedly.
I didn’t know any songs in the key of panic. I raked my mind for some hymn that I knew, knowing I knew none and suddenly remembered the song we sing on Christmas Eve. A processional song sung as a statue of the Baby Jesus is paraded through the house, by the youngest of the family, welcoming Him into the home. I figured, it’s in Italian so if I screw it up, they’ll never know.
So there I was, flying down a highway in Zambia, with two Indian Franciscan Nuns and a Zambian driver, signing Italian Christmas songs. I could rest assured that I never saw that one coming.
“I love Christmas songs!” Sister Cruz stated, clapping her tiny hands together.
Star of Wonder, Star of Night…” she began.
I suddenly remembered my college choir director saying I had the best range he had ever heard, gained some courage, and belted out a particularly croaky, “Star with Royal Beauty Bright…”
I thought it best to leave it there and simply state the titles of other Christmas Carols I liked. This seemed to appease Sister Cruz and we drove in silence for a while, a big smile on her face as she twirled her rosary 

Photo by Antonio D. Paterniti

We quickly came to the turn that would begin our 100 kilometer drive to Sichili Mission Hospital. The road was comprised solely of fine white sand. Sister Cruz told the driver that it was time for a bush break and we pulled off to the side of the road. The door opened with a pop and I creaked out, Sister Cruz following. She went back and laughed at the Sister sitting in the truck bed; the sheet had tangled up around her and wisps of her hair were sticking out as if she had just been dumped out of a clothes dryer.
I reaching into my bag for my safety goggles, put them on as well as my jacket, and jumped into the truck bed with the Sister.
“Well, if you won’t go up front, the least I can do is keep you company.” She laughed as I put on the silly clear glasses and settled in with her on the mattress.
Soon we were driving again, great plumes of white sand blowing behind and all over us. As the Sister covered her mouth with the sheet, I fished in my bag for my bandana. For the rest of the drive I looked like a reject from a B-grade cowboy movie. At least I gave the kids a laugh as we lumbered past small thatched-hut villages.
The undulating journey soon met darkness as the sun was absorbed by the horizon. Luckily, the moon was out and shone brightly across the clear night sky giving us a dim view of the arid country side. The truck’s taillights blasted a red glow against the wall of dust that followed and sometimes covered us. As we wound along the sandy road, the darkness would erupt in hot orange glows from bush fires set to help fertilize the sandy soil. Flames lapped at the sides of the truck as we sped along, swishing from side to side as the tires tried to grip the ever-shifting sand.
The three hour drive on the sand road ended abruptly as we entered the series of buildings that made up Sichili Mission Hospital.
“We made good time!” The Sister bouncing beside me said. It was 21:15. Despite the slow driving and the darkness, it did not seem as if we were on the road for long. However, my aching tail bone quickly reminded me that, we had in fact been in the truck for six hours.
A few sparse fluorescent lights guided us to the convent where we stiffly unloaded the truck. Inside, a few dim blue lights cast a disorienting glow across the rooms of the convent.
“We are on solar back-up now,” Sister Cruz stated as she took grocery bags into the cavernous kitchen, “the lights are dim, but better than nothing!” She giggled again and disappeared into the darkness outside. A pair of equally tiny nuns came out to help us with the supplies.
“This is Doctor Ahn-toe-knee,” Sister Cruz proclaimed, “he is a laboratory technician!” I’m not a doc… nevermind.
“Oh, hello Doctor,” the two nuns said in unison, one continuing in a cough where I could hear the phlegm rattle in her ribs, “you are most welcome.”
“Thank you, thank you!”  I said and proceeded to bang my head against every door jamb we went through as they seemed designed specifically for the 5 foot tall nuns and not my 6 foot 5 inch frame.
The table had been set for dinner. Nine place settings awaited eight tiny nuns and me.   However, only myself and the two Sisters I traveled with sat down at the table.
“Fish?” asked Sister Cruz as she placed a piece of dried fish on my plate. They had already heard my woes about my stomach, so I figured I would just deal with it in the morning, as usual.
“Let us Pray.” The Sister I shared the truck bed with began. Her prayer issued like someone was typing it out – she would say a few words, stop, say a few more words, stop in mid sentence, start and stop again.
“Eat!” Sister Cruz ordered cheerily. “His tummy is not well.”
A collective, “awww” came from the group of Sisters I had not noticed gather at the door. “I’m not a Doctor,” was all I could think.
“The chickens are all dying.” Stated a Sister at the door, “they are coughing and then…” she cocked her head to the side and stuck out her little tongue. In a distant part of the convent, I heard a coughing I knew didn’t belong to a chicken.
“Bad, bad, bad.” Sister Cruz said as she ate.
After dinner, the Sisters walked me across the moonlit compound to a guest house that had been prepared for me. “Watch your head,” Sister Cruz said as I came suddenly inches away from an electrical cable anchored into the ground. She raised the fluorescent light she carried, illuminating the cable connected to a pole. “How tall are you?” She asked as we scuttled along the sand.
The guest house was inviting and empty. They showed me to a room and then to the bathroom. The tub seemed as though it had never been used.
“You will come to the Convent in the morning for your shower.” She told me. “We will boil water for you; otherwise it’s only cold water here.”
“Sleep well and don’t forget to turn out the lights!” She looked at me over her glasses and smiled. “See you in the morning.” I thanked them and thumped my head on every door jamb back to my room.
I lit the candle on the nightstand and settled in to read a chapter from my book (the third Harry Potter). The bed was firm and felt fantastic against my aching back. Finishing my chapter, I blew out the candle and fell asleep.
About 4am, I awoke to the sound of something rustling in the room. Immediately, in my minds eye I ran through all the critters that could possibly squeeze through the cracks beneath the bedroom door – a snake? No, they shouldn’t be up at night. A large bug of some sort? Very possible. An anorexic monkey? They were in the trees outside.
Cautiously, I sat up and flicked on the light. I stared around but saw nothing immediately. Then I heard the rustling again. It sounded like someone shaking a plastic shopping bag, but the only shopping bag I had was full of water bottles and on the small table and it was not moving.

Again, I heard the rustling and saw my duffel bag quiver. I raced through the images in my mind’s eye – did I bring something from Livingstone without realizing it?   Should I just start beating the duffel bag?   What if whatever it is can jump for eyeballs? I twitched forward an inch. A tiny mouse popped its head out of a small unzipped section of my bag. It stared at me with its beady black eyes and wiggled its whiskers. Well, I had never thought of a mouse. Seemed so anti-climactic. I twitched forward again and it shot out of my bag and scurried under the bedroom door. Looking around the floor for any other toe-nibbling rodents, I got out of bed and unzipped the bag. The mouse had found my energy bars and had helped itself to the different varieties. No wonder it moved so fast.
I hung the bag on the coat hook behind the bedroom door and went back to sleep.
Morning found me standing in the Convent laundry room next to a make-shift cement shower stall staring at two buckets.
“Hot water and cold water.” Said Sister Cruz as she pointed to the buckets. The fact that one was steaming and one was not was not the cause of my confused look. The fact that a small congregation of nuns was standing in there with me, was.
“Okay, so take your bath and then breakfast.” Sister Cruz left the room. I turned to look at the other nuns.

They simply smiled back.
“Hot water and cold water.” I said pointing at the buckets as I tried to figure out how to convince them for a moment of privacy. They nodded and smiled back.
“Hmm,” I sighed and looked back at the buckets. When I looked back up, they were all gone. “Sneaky little nuns…”
It doesn’t seem like a complicated endeavor, but getting the right proportion of cold and hot water to ladle across your skin is trickier than it appears. A few tries and a few burnt patches of flesh later I was enjoying a proper washing.
After breakfast, Sister Cruz took me over to the main hospital compound, where I again greeted every door jamb with the top of my head (even though I ducked sometimes).
We made our way toward the lab and were greeted by a Doctor, some clinical officers, and the laboratory technician I had met earlier in Lusaka. “This is Doctor Ahn-toe-knee – the laboratory technician from I-H-V!” Sister Cruz announced.
“I’m not a Doc…”
“Hello Doctor!” They all greeted me, shaking my hand.
The lab was sparsely populated with equipment, but clean and well organized. I penned my way through my lab assessment, and then explained what would be happening once equipment was brought in and set up. The older lab tech was hard of hearing and would answer everything with, “yes, please,” and then proceed to ask me the question I had just answered. After some pantomime and scribbling notes on a pad for him, he seemed confident about what would be happening in the lab. The biggest concern, of course, was power. The entire hospital was run on solar power with a diesel generator supplying a mere two hours of electricity in the evenings. The rest of the time, the weak solar batteries provided enough energy to power a calculator through 2+2.
After tea-break we crowded into Sister Cruz’s office to watch a video illustrating a manual cell counting procedure. We watched it a few times and then entered a lengthy discussion about the theory and methodology complete with drawings and more miming for the hard-of-hearing lab tech. Lunch approached and Sister Cruz asked me to give a presentation about the procedure to some of the other clinical officers and hospital staff. I gladly agreed and enlisted the aid of Mr. Likando, the lab tech I had met in Lusaka. I said that I would talk about the methodology and he could relay the actual steps of the procedure, as they would occur in the lab on a daily basis. This would help him learn as well as teach the procedure. Beaming, Mr. Likando ran off to prepare his presentation.
Back at the Convent, Sister Cruz asked me to see the pictures I had taken on our journey to Sichili the day before. After a lunch of chicken (store bought, not cough- killed), rice and “poh-tay-toes”, we congregated in the Convent living room. I switched on my laptop which flickered to life displaying the portrait of my girlfriend I had as my desktop background.
“That’s his girlfriend!” Sister Cruz stated with a giggle to the other Sisters.
“She’s nice – like you!” She said to me and the entire room erupted in adolescent giggles.
The slide show had everyone laughing, including the Sister who had traveled in the truck bed the entire way. I copied the pictures onto their computer and it was soon time to meet for the presentation.
The conference room slowly filled with hospital staff, clinical officers, lab techs and the Doctor. I told him that if he would like to add any details about the clinical picture concerning HIV and CD4 counts, that he was most welcome. Shyly he smiled and said that I would do fine with the help of Mr. Likando. As everyone settled down, I began with drawings on the chalkboard of what exactly a CD4 cells was, it’s components, role in the immune system and why doctors needed to know someone’s “CD4 count.” Using the example of CD4 cells being the “generals” of the immune system and how they “order” other cells to fight infections seemed to bring a gleam into the otherwise waxen eyes of the group. People were now smiling and nodding, pointing to the chalkboard and drawing representations of what they were learning with their fingers in the air, for those next to them who seemed less sure. People understood! It was a glorious sight.
Then the first words out of my Likando’s lips were, “Cytospheres are inert latex spheres coated with a murine monoclonal antibody specific for the CD4 cell surface antigen.” Although absolutely correct, I could hear the understanding in the room grind to a halt and slam into a proverbial brick wall.
“Ah, tiny footballs (soccerballs) made of rubber, which stick to CD4 cells…” I attempted to clarify as I scanned the sea of blank faces. Some people seemed to be able to wrap their minds around that one, but continued to look at Mr. Likando as if he was speaking in tongues.
“Thank you, Doctor,” he said.
I rolled my eyes and asked him to please continue but try to keep it simple. The rest of his presentation went well; he knew the procedure and could explain it thoroughly, at least to other lab techs.
After the presentation, we engaged in some lively discussions where some of the hospital staff asked pertinent questions about Anti-Retroviral-Drugs, the different lines of regimes, and patient care in general. The Doctor helpfully chimed in and the sea of smiling faces told me that some valuable knowledge had been shared and gained.

The 16:30 bell clanged in the distance and I thanked everyone for coming, also thanking the presenter and the Doctor for their contributions. The Sisters gathered around me full of smiles thanking me for what I assured them was the very least I could do.
Sister Cruz gave me a tour of the hospital, taking me through the sparsely populated wards, past the operating theatre and finally to meet some patients in the isolation ward. Most patients sat up in bed and gave big smiles that seemed to contrast with their weakened conditions. Others simply turned their heads to see who was at the door and then slowly turned back to their pillows. I wanted to be able to say, “I am a 

Photo by Antonio D. Paterniti
Sister Cruz suggested we visit the Fathers who recently returned from a conference, so we made our way across the compound to their quarters. We developed a following of children who swarmed around us - chattering, smiling, jumping and shouting. “They say you are very tall.” Sister Cruz said with an innocent smile.
Father Kasmir stood outside waiting for us. He was a tall, barrel-chested man, with a military style crew cut, chain smoking cigarettes and cackling through crooked, yellowed teeth. He crushed my hand in a shake and invited us inside. We sat for a while exchanging curious anecdotes and complaining about politics until we were joined by another Father. He was thin and soft-spoken and had many concerns about the power consumption of any machines that we would introduce better care for the patients. After a while, we just sat in silence, stifling yawns, and then Sister Cruz said that we should be going. We bid farewell and received a blessing for my travels in the morning.
“Dinner is at 20:00!” Sister Cruz reminded me as we parted ways – she heading toward the Convent and I for the guest house. I sat for a few minutes simply to take in the days events, and then made sure that I was packed for my journey in the morning.
20:00 hours came sooner than I realized and I headed toward the convent. The moon was out again, bathing the loose sand in bluish light; the silhouettes of the trees creaking softly in the gentle breeze.
The Convent was dimly lit again, but music could be heard from inside. The Sisters were watching a video slide show, that Sister Christine, one of the teachers, had made of her travels from India to Sichili. The pictures showed families and friends gaily dressed in front of Churches, monuments and other buildings.
“Sister Christine will be leaving us at the end of September.” Sister Cruz said, trying to mask the sadness in her voice with a forced smile. The power suddenly went out and we were momentarily in darkness until the solar batteries kicked in, filling the bulbs with their familiar feeble glow.
We ate dinner quietly; everyone seemed tired and introspective.
“We will miss you, Doctor.” A young Sister said to me. Her eyes catching the faint glow from the light above.
“I will miss everyone too,” I found myself saying and perhaps surprised myself that I was being truthful. So many times, we just say what people want to hear – I know I’m guilty of it.
“Coke?” Another Sister asked me, almost as if trying to change subjects.
“Ah, sure, yes… thank you.” I stammered.
After dinner, Sister Cruz grabbed her light to walk me back to the guest house. I assured her that I would be okay because the moon was very bright. Almost as if doubting me, she stepped outside to judge for herself.
“You have an alarm?” She asked me.
“Yes, yes I do.” I replied quickly, almost as if responding to a question from a superior officer.
“Good, be here at 04:45 for breakfast. The driver will be leaving at 05:00.” She said in her sternest tone.
“Oh-dark-hundred.” I said, quickly realizing that it was an American saying that would need explanation.
“It’s a military term for really early.” I said quickly.
Her head cocked to the side and I saw her scrunch her forehead.
“We will miss you terribly, Doctor.” She said quickly.
I shook her hand and thanked her for everything and told her that I too would miss them, but that I was returning in November.
She smiled in the moonlight and bid me goodnight.
My friend the mouse came early that night. After some cold-hearted attempts to crush it behind the wardrobe, it skittered away to let me sleep.

The morning came quickly and I numbly made my way to the Convent with my gear. The Sisters had packed me some apples and a sandwich for the journey, reminding me that fruit would be good for my tummy.
I thanked them again and reminded them that I would bring pictures in November. “Write us! Keep in touch!” They said happily.
With a smile, I crammed into the tiny cab of the pick-up and waved good-bye as we turned onto the sandy moonlit road back to Livingstone.