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TALES OF AN IKUT SWAMI



CRISTINA KESSLER



Book cover design by Frank Welffens

Photography by Cristina Kessler





Copyright © 2018 Cristina Kessler

All rights reserved.

ISBN-10: 0692089497

ISBN-13: 978-0692089491 (Cristina Kessler)





ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


There are many people to thank who have made this book possible. First of all, thanks to my true love Joe, who gave me a chance to travel the world, and make a difference in my own small ways. Thanks to Steve Katona who really encouraged me to write this book; thanks to all my women friends like Valerie Dickson-Horton and Paulette Nichols who I met in far-flung places as they dedicated their lives to making a difference; thanks to my mentor and inspiration, Patricia Lee Gauch, who started me on the author’s path; thanks to my talented friend, Karen Jones Meadows who inspires me as an artist and compassionate soul; and thanks to my good friend Frank Welffens, the creator of and phenomenal web master who has made for me the world’s greatest website and who formatted, designed and encouraged me every step of the way to produce TALES OF AN IKUT SWAMI.


And lastly, thanks to the women of the world, who would make it a safer and saner place if we were in charge.


ALL OF YOU ROCK!




FOREWORD

Feasting on Cristina Kessler’s cornucopia of cultural adventures is the perfect nourishment our connection-starved humanity craves. Her vivid, hilarious, cheer and tear inducing, wrenchingly honest recounts of traipsing throughout the world is at its core an exceptional husband wife love story, while a euphoric celebration of accidental and intentional bonding with diverse women resulting in unpredictable escapades and outcomes. A self-styled global ambassador with an iconoclastic flair and flare, Cristina’s persistent bravery and willingness to delve into physical and emotional terrains most of us don’t know exist, and if we do, avoid, is her hand holding offer to transcend our limited understanding of the preciousness of every person, and an invitation to embrace opportunities to live and give from the heart, changing the world one idea and one relationship at a time.


Karen Marie Jones Meadows

Karen Marie Jones Meadows is the writer and performer of a one-woman play, Harriet's Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman.


INTRODUCTION

St. John, Virgin Islands

2017


When I was 12 I was hit by a car while riding a bicycle. It was four days before beginning seventh grade and I was escorting my younger brother Brian on our bikes so he could get a haircut. One second we were racing along and the next I was on the hood of a car and looking through the windshield at three screaming guys. Once the car finally skidded to a halt I flew through the air and landed like a sack of potatoes on my head. I’ll always remember leaving my body to watch in a circle of strangers as I quacked like a duck and spasmed in the road. It definitely was a day that changed my life. As a result of eight knee surgeries over 15 years I spent about eight years on crutches.

Crutches probably saved my life, because who knows what trouble I would have gotten into with two legs, no cast, and no crutches. I wasn’t the dream patient. In fact, I once cut a cast off while my parents went on a cruise. The replacement cast I made was so thick it broke the doctor’s saw. Another time I got caught climbing out my bedroom window in the dead of night. My boyfriend was holding my cast and crutches on the deck as I worked my way out the window. When my mom turned on the bedroom light he dropped everything and ran, leaving me straddling the hard window sill, one leg in and one casted leg out.

The dumbest thing I did was riding on the handlebars of a bicycle while my sister Susie pedaled, and her friend Donna was on the seat. We crashed, but I managed to leap gracefully off the falling bike and land on my good leg, balanced on my crutches, unscathed. Susie and Donna were not so lucky. When my mom asked how I got to the crash so fast I displayed my crutch running skills. You can imagine my shock when 50 years later she suddenly said, “You were on the handlebars weren’t you?”

“Are you gonna ground me?” I had to ask.

Between random acts of foolishness, I did something that really influenced my life choices forever. One summer while all the other kids raged around the neighborhood, I read the complete set of LANDS AND PEOPLES ENCYCLOPEDIA. I read about the “Fuzzy Wuzzies” of Ethiopia – which goes to show how long ago this was. (They are now called by their correct name, Afar.) I read of lemurs in Madagascar and the temples of Thailand, the King of Swaziland and the Inca Trail in Peru. And, I’ve seen all of them, including meeting King Mswati III twice after he wrote the foreward to a kids’ book I wrote about conservation in Swaziland.

But, back in the '60s, while in high school, when I slapped shut Volume XYZ of LANDS AND PEOPLES, I knew I would grow up to be a traveling fool and a writer. And that’s exactly what I am.

I left the states in 1973 as a Peace Corps Volunteer going to Central America. I knew that I was going for more than two years, but I didn’t know how. Just knew it would happen. Joe and I met in Peace Corps training in Puerto Rico. It didn’t take long to realize how much we shared – especially the plan to see the world. He was assigned to Peru and I was assigned to Honduras, so I went to Tegucigalpa and he headed to Lima. Seven months later he transferred to Honduras. When I had the chance to move to the Bay Islands and said Joe and I should go together, the Peace Corps said, “Only if you’re married.” So, we decided to get married for one year — 44 years ago.

From 1973 through 2001, we spent 28 years in Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean, in fact on all seven continents. After five years as volunteers (1973 – ‘78) in three countries (Honduras/Peru, Kenya and the Seychelles), we took our $18,000 Peace Corps readjustment allowance and headed to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost town in the world. We traveled for three and a half years, with the only constraint being that we had to be in southern South America during their summer. We were open to all possibilities, and there were some amazing ones along the way that couldn’t be planned or anticipated.

Eventually the trip took us from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean back to Africa and 1,000 miles on a paddle-wheeled steamer down the Nile through Sudan. We spent seven months on a yacht in the Caribbean then headed to Venezuela. From there we started a two-year trip through South America that included five months on an uninhabited island in the Galapagos tagging turtles for the Darwin Research Station. When that rare opportunity was finished, we hit the road again, taking only public transport or hitchhiking from Ecuador to southern Chile, where we caught a ride with the Chilean Navy to Antarctica!

We traveled on the Piloto Pardo, an 81-meter icebreaker. My first step on the frozen continent came from a helicopter that was on the ship. During our three-and-a-half-week trip I hugged a penguin, drove the icebreaker to win a bottle of whiskey, and climbed up to the crow’s nest 81 meters high. And, I danced the night away drinking Scotch on the rocks (broken from passing icebergs) with the officers. While I was dancing, Joe would go to bed. The officers on the ship started calling him Poca Pila – Low Battery. That was until we were caught in the shower together… Once we returned to Chile, it took another nine months to wander our way back up from Tierra Del Fuego to Ecuador. In Quito we had to admit that the funds were finally finished when we had only $18 left.

My in-laws provided tickets to New York, thinking we were finally ready to settle down, but how wrong they were. Within 10 days Joe had a job with CARE, the relief and development non-governmental organization, and we were on our way to Sierra Leone, and so began my life as an Ikut Swami.

To date, I have been to 110 countries and learned seven languages along the way. (I’d say there are only two and a half that I still speak.) And everywhere we went and lived I had the privilege of meeting, knowing, helping, laughing and working with local women. And we always had some type of connection as women, no matter how different our lives, skin colors, and education were.

The first time I heard the words Ikut Swami I was not a happy camper. We had just arrived in Lombok, Indonesia, and Joe’s secretary, Winarte, had taken my passport for a visa. She brought it to the house and we were looking at it together. Proudly she pointed out the Ikut Swami phrase. “That is your occupation,” she told me.

“Does it say writer/photographer?” I asked seriously, for that was what I planned to be.

“Oh no, it’s better. It says Follows the Husband!”

The silence that followed was extremely heavy, finally broken by my shrieking voice when I said, “I don’t think so.”

Huffily, I asked her, “Do you think that’s good?”

“Yes, very good. It’s what a wife does.”

“Take it back,” I said. “They can put None or Nun for all I care, but Ikut Swami must go.”

She looked at me with sadness and said, “So sorry, but it cannot be changed.” Her expression left no doubt that I was the craziest orang puti — white person — she had ever met.

Obviously, the visa title was a done deal, and I knew I’d have to suck it up. I’m not sure exactly how many months it was before I started to calm down about it. And then after accepting it, I found myself astounded that I was even beginning to like it! When I thought about my life up until then, it was mainly true. Not in Peace Corps, but when we traveled for those three and a half years. Organized Joe always knew what bus to catch, road to stand on, and cheap hotel to check out for the night, which allowed me to be Cruiseamatic Cristina. The freedom it gave me was astounding.

Upon reflection, I realize that following Joe to Sierra Leone let me re-invent myself for my first re-incarnation. I began writing for kids for the first time in magazines like HIGHLIGHTS for CHILDREN and STEPPING STONES. My specialty was cross-cultural articles about kids in other countries, giving my readers trips to other worlds long before they had a passport. It was great and the beginning of a writing career that has produced five picture books, three Young Adult novels and three non-fiction books.

When we moved from Makeni, Sierra Leone, to Indonesia and the island of Lombok, the first island east of Bali, I knew I was going to try something different. There I got to be an undercover spy for The Star Report, which rated hotels around the world. That was a sweet job. I stayed in fancy hotels and wrote reviews. That led to writing the in-house magazine for the Sari Pacific, a 5-star hotel in Jakarta.

My first book, a coffee table book, LOMBOK – JUST BEYOND BALI, was published while we were there. My photography and text research took me to the remotest parts of Lombok, always escorted by Pulu, a young man from the tourism department. Traveling in Lombok meant visits to isolated villages, because that’s all there was. My sudden arrival met with mixed reactions — mainly negative. Most kids had never seen an orang puti before and weren’t happy. Panicked kids fled screaming, which led to frosty receptions and dangerous situations which meant we left quickly. And I got to all these places because I was an Ikut Swami.

The second time in Honduras, which followed Lombok, I wrote educational materials for a large agricultural NGO, and wrote my first YA novel, which is set in Sierra Leone, NO CONDITION IS PERMANENT. Ah, yes, free to pick what to pursue because I was an Ikut Swami.

Eventually, I would be a lot of things. In Niger, I did program evaluations for groups like Christian Children’s Fund. While we were there I wrote my first picture book, ONE NIGHT – A STORY FROM THE DESERT. That was followed by my second picture book set in West Africa, KONTE CHAMELEON – FINE, FINE, FINE!

After Niger, we took a seven-month trip to the South Pacific to renew our travel skills, then headed to Mozambique where Joe would be the Country Director for CARE. In true Ikut Swami style, I sat back and watched before deciding what to do. I discovered Swaziland, right next door, to be a great relief hatch from life in war-torn Mozambique.

Life in Mozambique was extremely challenging. Civil war raged for our first year, and so all travel outside of Maputo was in small airplanes, often single-engine. We had to fly high enough to stay out of rifle range, and land low and fast to avoid being shot. Swaziland was a great discovery, and soon I was visiting its wildlife parks as often as possible. I eventually wrote and photographed a non-fiction book for kids called ALL THE KING’S ANIMALS – THE REINTRODUCTION OF ENDANGERED SPECIES TO SWAZILAND. That’s what an Ikut Swami can do. I also wrote JUBELA, my third picture book. It’s a true story about a baby rhino adopted by an old matriarch rhino when his mother was killed by poachers.

Sudan was next, and it was definitely one of the more challenging places we lived. We had been there in 1978 as wanderers and traveled the entire length of the Nile in Sudan from Juba in the far south, to Wadi Halfa on the Egyptian border, in a style of travel that I certainly won’t ever do again. In 1978, Sudan was a land of proud and happy people, and nearly everyone we met felt sorry for us that we didn’t live there. The Sudan we encountered 20 years later was war-torn and divided. Sharia Law ruled the land, and Khartoum was a much more somber spot.

Secret police lurked in front of our house, and scoring a beer was a real logistical event. While there, I was a full-time writer of picture books and travel articles. And every few months, I’d host an international women’s potluck dinner and dancing party. Women from all over the world, including a few fearless Sudanese women, dressed in their very finest gowns and head ties (and me in my boring Western pants and tops) came with a dish to share after a good hour’s worth of dancing. Dining was followed by a few more dances, and what had started at 5:00 was over by 8:00. I loved those nights, and they carried on to Ethiopia and Mali.

I guess you could say that as an Ikut Swami in Sudan I was an author and a women’s party planner. It’s also where I wrote MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER’S GOURD, my fourth picture book, which is set in Sudan.

Ethiopia followed and was the most exciting and professionally rewarding of all. Teaching a writers’ workshop for the British Council set me on a path I never could have imagined. I met Rahel Mekuria, and together we became a force to be reckoned with. Other dynamic Ethiopian women joined us in our endeavors, and together we founded a bi-lingual magazine called Women to Women or Seytoch le Seytoch in Amharic, which was years ahead of its time. The magazine was published by the British Council and distributed for free all over the country.

It was written by Ethiopian women for Ethiopian women, in English and Amharic. I was the English Editor, Rahel was the Editor-in-Chief, Mulu Mabeta was the Amharic Editor and Shitaye Astawes was the feature writer for articles about disabled women, and editor for the section. We tackled everything from health issues to women’s rights to education and a debate page. We celebrated professional women and women helping women to help themselves. We rocked! The magazine was published twice a year for four years. But that wasn’t all we accomplished.

I met Shitaye through Rahel. I had told Rahel one day that I had some crutches to give away (yes, another knee operation) and asked if she knew a woman who needed them. Rahel went to her good friend Shitaye, and when she told her about me giving away a pair of crutches she asked to meet me. It wasn’t the reaction I expected at all. All four feet, three inches of Shitaye was full of indignation. In a matter of moments, she said, “You either give a lot or give nothing. One women with good crutches will be robbed for them – so either do a lot or do nothing.”

“So, I’ll do a lot,” I said.

Rahel clapped and said, “That we will!” and Women on Wheels was born. With the help of my sister, Dianne Warren, WOW eventually got 3,020 women off the ground, but that’s a whole different story. And all of this happened because I was an Ikut Swami, free to decide what to do wherever we were. FREE!

Mali was our last CARE post and international stop. While there I wrote my second and favorite YA novel, OUR SECRET, SIRI AANG, set in Kenya. I also taught writing workshops to kids and adults and did a little more consultation work as a program evaluator for small international NGOs. I began writing for in-flight magazines on Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines. And, we traveled to Timbuktu four times, the setting of my last YA novel. Life as an Ikut Swami was still treating me well.

From the Sahara, we moved to the sea. St. John, to be exact, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Joe had left CARE after 20 years for a job as the president of a small NGO called Friends of Virgin Islands National Park. Ikut Swami is still my style, and here I have taught writing workshops, from Let’s Make a Picture Book for kids to a memoir writing class called Senior Moments for adults; been the Resident Author in the local elementary school; traveled the world as a visiting author; written for travel magazines; and finished my third YA novel, TROUBLE IN TIMBUKTU.


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