Patrick’s Story

patrick's story

Ten years ago, when I worked for Catholic Relief Services, I took a trip to Africa. The purpose was for me to visit programs, talk to the people who were a part of them, and come home to write stories that would encourage wealthy Americans to invest in CRS’ work.

I traveled to Uganda and Ethiopia. I met hundreds of people and I heard dozens of stories. They were stories of loss and suffering and joy and triumph. For the most part they were stories I treasured; stories to hold on to; stories to share when hope is a bird in a storm.

But there was one story I couldn’t retell, at least not willingly, not until it came heaving out with my sobs on a night when I couldn’t sleep.

It was a young man who told me the story – I think he was about 16 at the time. He said his name was Patrick. I was in a camp for internally displaced people (not the same as refugees: they hadn’t crossed their home country’s borders), in Gulu, Northern Uganda.

If you have ever heard of Invisible Children, you know something of the decades-long war in the north of Uganda, where Joseph Kony and his LRA have made terror their career. The camp was a safe haven (though not very safe nor much of a haven) for people whose lives had been destroyed by LRA forces.

Many of the people I met were former abductees who had escaped their LRA captors. I spoke with a woman who had endured gang rape, many times over, who escaped when she became pregnant, and who delivered her child alone in the bush while running away.

I met another woman whose lips had been cut off because the LRA caught her riding a bike. I saw people who had lost hands and ears for much the same reason.

And though those stories make my eyes well as I write, they don’t compare to the horror of Patrick’s story, which makes me reel even a decade after hearing it.

One night when he was around 12, LRA soldiers came to Patrick’s home. They killed his entire family and they abducted him to join hundreds of his adolescent peers as a soldier in their army.

Before becoming a soldier, he told me, you went through a process of indoctrination. They stripped away your ties to everything — your community, your peers, your identity.  And then they gave you a gun.

Patrick’s captors drilled into him that his gun was his only ally, his only family, his new identity, his everything. His life depended on it — and on his obedience.

All the boy soldiers were trained to accept the impossibility of an independent future. But hope springs eternal and there were still those who tried to get away. One day, a few boys in his group made the attempt. They were caught.

When the escapees were caught, they were brought back to the camp. Patrick and the remaining boys were forced to kill them. They were forced to dismember them, cook their flesh over a fire, and consume it from the skulls of the children who had, just day before, been their peers.

* * *

For a privileged white girl from the American suburbs, listening to Patrick’s story was shattering. It was terrible beyond anything I imagined possible.

But Patrick was matter-of-fact in his retelling. There was little emotion and no drama – it was his reality after all. He was a child who had lost everything and, in his emptiness, been forced to commit an act that could have destroyed his humanity forever.

Somehow, Patrick kept his humanity. He escaped and made it to the camp where he was working with a miracle of a Catholic nun to restore some sense of himself and his place in our world. The trauma he’d experienced had hollowed him, but there was enough of him left to strive for a future.

The night after I met Patrick, I went back to my room in a hotel that was so heavily guarded I was afraid. I was supposed to meet the rest of my co-workers for a big dinner celebration, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I stayed in and revised my notes and cried until I vomited. I slept and I dreamed terrible things, and at some point I was certain I’d heard the sound of gunfire.

I came home with this story buried deeply underneath so many others. I shared the other stories liberally, but this one, Patrick’s, I held within me. It had grieved me so terribly that I feared I would hurt others if I told it. I still have nightmares of skulls boiling in cauldrons over campfires.

But it’s been ten years and whenever this story resurfaces in my memory, it comes back fresh and it fells me with emotion. It is with me again now, as I am reading, over and over, new stories of refugees torn from their communities, stripped of their identities, striving in desperation to escape a reality that could destroy their humanity.

* * *

Patrick’s life was derailed by an army of terrorists, acting under the mantle of a distorted version of the Christian faith. The “Lord” in LRA stands for Our Lord, the one whose birth we plan to celebrate in a few short weeks. He escaped with his existence, and I hope he has carved out a new life for himself. Maybe he has.

As an IDP, a person displaced within the borders of his own country, Patrick wasn’t granted the official status of a refugee. His rights to resettlement in a safe territory aren’t even protected under international law.

“Refugee” isn’t a term thrown around loosely in international officialdom. When we discuss refugees, we are talking about people who have had to prove that they were forced by persecution out of their home country, with no possibility of living safely within their own borders in the foreseeable future. And then, to come to America, they have to prove that they don’t pose the same threat they are fleeing to others.

These are people who have been victimized, terrorized, forced from their homes, and left without a shred of hope of regaining the lives they lost. The only hope they have is found in the hospitality of other nations.

When we open our arms to refugees, we are opening our arms to women who otherwise would be brutalized, children who otherwise would be dead, young men who would otherwise be forced to fight against us. And when we shut them out, we do no less than send them to their deaths, at the expense of our humanity.

Celiac Dreams

For the last four years, I’ve been tortured by dreams.

Dreams about croissants, French bread, NY-style pizza, bagels and cream cheese. Dreams about ravioli, gnocchi, lasagna, and pierogis. Dreams about pie crust and pop-tarts.

Dreams about gluten.

Gluten is a miracle protein – it’s what makes our carbs so damn delicious. Its taste and texture are irreplaceable. If you have ever eaten a real, bagel-shop bagel, you have experienced the miracle of gluten. If you don’t believe me, go try a gluten-free “bagel.” You’ll never doubt again.

Gluten can also kill people.  For those of us with celiac disease, gluten triggers an autoimmune reaction that releases aggressive antibodies.  These antibodies are powerful, but not very smart: instead of attacking the trigger, they attack and destroy the lining of the small intestine. And since it’s the lining of the small intestine that absorbs nutrients – you know, the stuff that keeps people alive – gluten can make some of us very, very sick.

GLUTEN COMPUTER ANIMATED

In my imagination, gluten is the hapless catalyst of intestinal warfare, a clueless tourist in unfamiliar territory who somehow manages to leave behind a burning hell-scape. Not unlike like G.W. Bush in the Middle East, circa 2003-2009.

Four years ago, before my haunting dreams began, I made a bold announcement on Facebook. During the height of the gluten-free food fad, when it seemed like everyone I knew was giving up gluten, I declared for all my friends to see that nothing could ever make me stop eating gluten.

I loved gluten. I grew up being fed by Italian and Polish grandmothers. We’re talking homemade ravioli, gnocchi, and bow-tie pasta. Potato pancakes and pierogis. Bread – all of the bread. As a kid, I’d eat a loaf of Wonderbread – plain.

It wasn’t the wheat I loved – it was the gluten. It was what made all my favorite foods so good and I refused to believe that there could be any medical necessity to force me to stop eating it.

Even though I’d had stomach problems my entire life.

Even though none of the medical interventions of the previous 15 years had done anything to help them.

Even though I was kind of convinced that I had cancer because my guts were bleeding. A lot.

Shortly after I posted my heady declaration of gluten-love on Facebook, I went in for my third combined endoscopy/colonoscopy. In case you were wondering, that’s when they stick cameras in both ends to take pictures of your insides. It’s a barrel of laughs. Especially the preparation part, which almost certainly would have made it at least as far as the seventh circle of Hell if Dante had lived in modern times.

At this point, the results of that test are probably obvious: I have celiac. Gluten was, and continues to be, my enemy.

Giving it up was hard. It still is hard. There are times when I long for a piece of warm, crusty, yeasty French bread like a drowning man longs for oxygen.

I knew giving up gluten would be hard, but what I didn’t realize was that something else would be even harder – self-advocacy. When you have a food allergy or intolerance, it’s up to you to make sure you don’t get sick. You have to constantly ask about ingredients and how things are made.

You become the annoying person who grills servers at restaurants about whether or not the fries are fried in the same grease as the chicken tenders. You become the person at the party who doesn’t eat anything or who peppers their host with questions about what *exactly* is in that salad dressing.  You become the person who hovers over the single gluten free dish at potluck parties just to make sure no one contaminates it with a bread crumb.

It’s awkward.

And it’s even more awkward when you factor in the eye-rolling. Because gluten-free eating became such a trend, when you say you are gluten-free people assume you are just avoiding carbs to lose weight or “feel better.” I feel like I have to carry around wallet-sized pictures of my damaged guts as evidence that my dietary hypervigilance is necessary.

People also have a hard time understanding your deep-seated fear of cross contamination. And I get it – the idea that a crumb of bread can trigger a reaction sounds far-fetched. But it isn’t.

Last year, I had two experiences of “accidental glutening” within a six-month period. Both times were because of cross contamination. In one case, it was the seasoning on fries – the mixture contained a minuscule amount of flour, and the following week was agony.

During those six months, I lost some of my hair and most of my energy. I lost weight. A lot of it. People noticed. My delightful brother called me Skeletor. Others complimented me. It took all my willpower not to tell them that I was on a special diet called malabsorption, or, as I prefer to think of it, crapping out the calories. That as soon as my guts healed, I’d gain it all back, and then some, because that’s how the universe works.

It’s not a diet I’d recommend, unless you plan to purchase real estate in the public restroom market.

The moral of the story is this: celiac disease and gluten intolerance are real. Both can seriously damage a body. So when you’re with a friend at a restaurant, and she’s treating the server to the gluten inquisition, try not to roll your eyes. She’s not trying to be annoying. She’s not enjoying herself. In fact, she’s hoping against hope that the server doesn’t spit in her food. But she has to do it, because otherwise she might eat a molecule of gluten and be sick and balding for the next month.

mission accomplished

“Heckuva job, Brownie!”

 

 

 

The Things She Missed

Today is January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, the last day of Christmas. It’s also the 26th anniversary of my mother’s death.

And it’s the day my little girl got a letter from none other than Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I have written before, so many times, about my mother’s death. Writing is a way to track my grief, to understand how it has changed me, and how grief itself changes over time.

Grief never dies, but it does change. And as I have grown older, it has taken on a different focus: motherhood has taught my that my mother’s loss was greater than mine.

I lost so much time with her. For years, my life felt like a collection of moments that I didn’t get to share with her. Those moments still come, but now when they come I also feel the pain of the other side of loss. Her side.

Because she lost so much more. She lost time with me and time with my brother. She lost time with the grandchildren she never got to meet. She didn’t get to be there to see me graduate high school, or college, or graduate school. Or to see me get married, or to welcome the births of my babies. She missed milestones and all the little moments in between.

When your parent dies at the age of 42, there is a pretty good chance you will, at some point, think about yourself also dying at a young age. Especially once you are in the same phase of life your parent was in at the time of their death.

I’m in that phase now, and this is what I know: I can’t imagine any loss greater than losing time with my children.

Over the last two weeks, people all over the world have come to know a slice of my beautiful girl’s character and her beautifully unique outlook on life.

But my mother, the person my daughter is named after, missed it all.

I’ve been here, and as far as I know I will still be here for decades to come, watching my girls grow, experiencing the milestones and the moments in between. That is my greatest joy.

Today, my greatest sadness is for my mom, who has missed so much.

mom2

One Thing We Can Do

This is what happened last night when we elected Donald Trump to office:

We made women who have been sexually assaulted relive feelings of shame and impotence. We reminded African Americans who have been targeted, belittled, and ignored that their lives really don’t matter to some. We told immigrants and Muslims that they are unwelcome, mistrusted, and feared. We validated every cruel thing ever said to people with disabilities or differences. We made the LGBTQ community fear for their freedoms, their families, and their safety.

We let the bullies win.

There are many people in our country who are hurting. I’m one of them. It’s hard to feel optimistic about our future right now . So many people have fought so hard over the years to bring justice to those who are marginalized and victimized. It feels like we have just been pushed down a mountain whose summit we were about to cross.

I think many people in my generation felt as though our children would come of age in a society that was more tolerant, accepting, and understanding than it has been at any point in our history.  We thought we were working for change so they wouldn’t have to. It’s a crushing feeling to think we are giving our children so much less than what could be.

But – maybe they can give themselves the world they deserve.

I haven’t been able to hide my disgust for Donald Trump from my kids. I explained that it was because he is a bully and they understood. When my eight-year-old found out he won, she was crushed – kids don’t like it when a bully wins. As I was comforting her, I asked her if she knew what we, our family, had to do now. Immediately, she said, “No! We have to say no when he tries to be a bully.”

My girl is an expert at saying no. She says it with force and conviction: “NnnnnO!” She’s been saying it to me for seven years and has pretty much broken me with it.

She also knows what it means to be kind and inclusive. So do her sister, and her cousins, and her friends.

I’ve started to wonder if, even though this election taught them that bullies do win and can win big, maybe it will also teach our children that even the smallest act of saying NO! to injustice is winning too.

I’ve also started to wonder if building a better world on behalf of our children matters less than teaching them to make their world – the one they live in now – better. The world they create now is the world they will bring with them as they grow into adults.

I’m grieving for our country, and I’m panicking over the direction our social, economic, and foreign policy will take. My fear that our society is about to become much less stable hasn’t abated.

But woven through the sorrow and fear is a thin silver thread of optimism. So much is out of my power right now, but I can do one thing: I can continue to raise girls who say NO! to injustice.

Image from “I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark” by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley (illustrator)

 

 

 

 

 

The Box

johndenver-5

I have a memory of myself from when I was young, maybe eight or ten, sneakily (probably not so sneakily) playing my dad’s vinyl records on our old record player.

I especially loved John Denver’s album Poems, Prayers, and Promises. I remember lifting the needle to repeat one song (poem, really) in particular — The Box.

This poem might be the hippiest anti-war poem in existence — and I loved it. It made me feel all the feelings. I’d follow it up with Tom Paxton’s Jimmy Newman and My Son John and my little ten-year-old self would be lost in heaving sobs. (That’s normal, right?)

If you’ve never read the poem (you probably haven’t) it’s about a box “bound up with chains and locked with locks and labeled “Kindly do not touch; it’s war.”

I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to tell you that the box is opened and war comes out and it’s terrible for everyone, everywhere. But the poem ends with a hopeful note — all it takes to put the bouncing ball of war back in the box is wisdom. (I told you it was the hippiest poem ever.)

This poem came to my mind today, not in the context of war, though there is enough of that in the world right now.

It came to mind because over the last few months I have seen story after story about people associated with the KKK or the American Nazi party (or just your random unaffiliated white supremacist) openly and excitedly expressing their belief that a Donald Trump presidency will bring their views back into the mainstream.

I know these beliefs, and the hatred they contain, were never really shut up in any box. They’ve always been there hiding under the rug, and they will never be totally swept away. But until now, they were at least to some degree restrained. Not anymore – Donald Trump has not only welcomed these beliefs, but inflamed them.

I want Hillary to win this election for so many reasons. Above all I want her to win for this reason: because we can’t allow anyone to believe that there is a place in America for hatred — whether it’s of people whose skin is darker than ours, or whose religion is different from ours, or whose poverty or fear have driven them to our borders in desperation.

***

Because you know you want to read it…

 

The Box

John Denver

 

Once upon a time, in the land of Hush-A-Bye, around about the wondrous days of yore, they came across a kind of box, bound up with chains and locked with locks and labeled “Kindly do not touch; it’s war.”

 

A decree was issued round about, and all with a flourish and a shout and a gaily-colored mascot tripping lightly on before. Don’t fiddle with this deadly box, or break the chains, or pick the locks. And please don’t ever play about with war.

The children understood. Children happen to be good and they were just as good around the time of yore. They didn’t try to pick the locks or break into that deadly box. They never tried to play about with war. Mommies didn’t either; sisters, aunts, grannies neither. They were quiet, and sweet, and pretty in those wondrous days of yore. Well, very much the same as now, not the ones to blame somehow for opening up that deadly box of war.

 

But someone did. Someone battered in the lid and spilled the insides out across the floor. A kind of bouncy, bumpy ball made up of guns and flags and all the tears, and horror, and death that comes with war. It bounced right out and went bashing all about, bumping into everything in store. And what was sad and most unfair was that it didn’t really seem to care much who it bumped, or why, or what, or for.

 

It bumped the children mainly. And I’ll tell you this quite plainly, it bumps them every day and more, and more, and leaves them dead, and burned, and dying, thousands of them sick and crying. Cause when it bumps, it’s really very sore.

 

Now there’s a way to stop the ball. It isn’t difficult at all. All it takes is wisdom, and I’m absolutely sure that we can get it back into the box, and bind the chains, and lock the locks. But no one seems to want to save the children anymore.

 

Well, that’s the way it all appears, cause it’s been bouncing round for years and years. In spite of all the wisdom ‘wiz since those wondrous days of yore and the time they came across the box, bound up with chains and locked with locks, and labeled “Kindly do not touch; it’s war.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m With Her

 

im-with-grandma

If my grandmother were alive, today would have been her 97th birthday.

She’s been on my mind a lot the last few weeks, and not just because I always think of her in October. Whenever we draw close to election day, I remember her.

In 2004, when John Kerry was the D on the top of the ticket, I had election day Grandma duty. She was essentially wheelchair bound, and she had never been able to drive. So I had the job (and, I realize now, the privilege) of taking her to vote.

I remember pushing her awkwardly through the doors of the school where she voted. She had something to say about everyone and everything, because she always did, and she was making me laugh, like she always did.

As we waited, she reminded me repeatedly how she would be voting. I swear I can still hear her voice, with her Jersey City accent and her Baltimore hon –

“Make sure to put me down for the Ds! I always vote D. Those other guys – sheesh! To hell with them, hon.”

She was a low-rider in her wheelchair and disabled enough that she couldn’t stand at the voting machine. When we reached the booth, I had to actually cast her vote for her.

It’s a tremendous responsibility to place another person’s vote, and I knew it. In fact, I think I was more aware of it than she was. As I went through the ballot, I kept asking her, name by name, to tell me who she wanted me to select. She gave me a few specifics, but after a while she got cantankerous – “Does it have a D? Just vote for the D.” She yelled and waved a fist at me when we got to the school board section and I said she’d have to pick a name. (We left that one blank.)

After the final D was checked and her vote was cast, she and I headed back to her assisted living home. Her “I voted” sticker took pride of place on her chest – because she was proud. Really proud. I was with her partly because she refused to vote by absentee ballot. She wanted to be there, even if it meant she was directing someone else to push the buttons for her. And she wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon bragging about it to her friends.

My grandmother wasn’t well-educated. She didn’t approach elections as an intellectual. Her loyalty to the Democratic party wasn’t based in an extensive understanding of economic or social policy. Instead, it was based in her own experiences – of who came through for working class families like hers during the depression (FDR was her gold standard) and who, as far as she was concerned, continued to come through for the little guy over the decades. Grandma was solidly middle class for most of her life, but I don’t think she ever stopped seeing herself as a poor Italian girl with eight siblings from a run-down part of Jersey City.

When I took my her to vote all those years ago, Hillary was barely four years out of the White House – and grandma and I both wanted to see “those other guys” move out too. As luck had it, we lost, and they got a second term. Grandma didn’t live to vote for another president.

Hillary is back, fighting for the White House, and I wish more than almost anything that my grandmother could be here to vote for her. She’d have done it with pride, her “I’m With Her” sticker only slightly less important than her “I voted” sticker.

I also wish I could hear what she’d have to say about Hillary’s opponent – though I have a pretty good idea what it would be.

“This Trump character? Christ. What a shot in the ass.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15 Things I’d Rather Be Doing This Election Season

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but this election and the way it’s playing out in the media is turning into a shitshow.

So far in this election cycle, we have covered these issues: the size of Donald Trump’s “hands”, the way Carly Fiorina looks, Ben Carson’s pride in almost killing a friend. We’ve seen Ted Cruz cook bacon on a machine gun and audition for the Simpsons. A 15-year-old punked America by showing up as candidate “Deez Nuts” on a national poll.

And that was just during the primaries.

Now that we are in the general election campaign season, the bias in how each candidate is portrayed and the dearth of substantive dialogue on the issues that matter is astounding.

The candidate whose statements Politifact – an independent, Pulizter-prize-winning fact-checker – rated as half-true or better 72% of the time is being hounded by the narrative that she is a liar. The candidate whose statements are rated half-true or better only 30% of the time is seen as the truth teller.

This morning I did a Google news search and these were the top five results: an article with a lead line suggesting that Hillary is a liar for not disclosing her pneumonia diagnosis, followed by four more related to her health, how it affects her candidacy, and the boost it’s giving Trump in the polls.

Noticeably missing were any articles covering immigration, foreign policy, domestic policy, social policy, or any duty or function relevant to the job of being the president of the most powerful country in the world.

I lost my will to soldier on in following this election when I reached the fourth article of today’s search, which led with this: “Donald Trump is on course to become US President as voters’ fears over Hillary Clinton’s health grow, new opinion poll show.”

Maybe things will change as we get closer to election day.

In the meantime, here are 15 things I’d rather be doing than following the election:

  1. Watch a Caillou marathon
  2. Hang out in the bathroom with my child who requires an audience to poop
  3. Stick my hands in room-temperature standing dishwater
  4. Help my 8-year-old with her homework
  5. Initiate small talk with a stranger in an elevator
  6. Comb lice out of hair
  7. Negotiate a fight over which daughter had the privilege of being hit more times during a pillow fight.
  8. Did I mention third grade homework? That needs to be here twice.
  9. Take a road trip with whiny children in the backseat and my traffic-weaving, exit-speeding husband at the steering wheel
  10. Listen to my daughters assault me with reasons why the other one started it
  11. Listen to my husband chew
  12. Endure a full sales pitch from a telemarketer
  13. Talk to a door-to-door Mormon missionary
  14. Drive through a WalMart parking lot at 2 pm on a Saturday
  15. Watch a Caillou marathon, while combing lice out the hair of a pooping child and listening to the other one whine about homework

The sad thing is – I know I won’t be able to resist that primal urge to know what is going on, even if it’s coverage of an election starring a xenophobic, misogynistic, lying, bullying reality TV host with a significant chance of becoming our next president.

 

 

In Search of Los Pingüinos

penguins argentina 2

Photo by Craig Lovell/Corbis

My husband and I have a thing for penguins.  We freaking love them. We love everything about them, from their goofy walk, to their fluffy chicks, to the fact that their poop is pink.

So, when we moved to Argentina in 2002 as part of my grad school program, our biggest travel goal was to visit one of the nesting colonies of Magellanic penguins along its eastern and southern coasts.

baby penguins

I mean, come on. Look at these guys.

We researched all our travel options until we found one that seemed perfect – a three-week bus tour that would take us from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world.

The itinerary was incredible – we would see the Patagonian Desert, the lakes and mountains of Bariloche, Perito Moreno and the surrounding glaciers, and a forest of petrified wood. We would hop in and out of Chile along the way, and cross the Straits of Magellan before reaching Ushuaia. As we traveled back north, we’d stop in Puerto Madryn, to visit Punta Tumbo, one of the world’s largest Magellanic penguin rookeries. It was a dream come true.

But the best laid plans of mice and men do often go awry, and so it was with us and the penguins.

The first sign that our trip might not be the dream we’d hoped it would be came before it even started.

We were at the bus station, waiting at the terminal clearly indicated on our tickets, bags packed and ready to go. The bus never came. Worse, no one working at the bus station knew anything about it ever having been scheduled to come.

But we were 23 and hopeful, so we waited. We waited just long enough to catch the driver from our travel agency frantically searching for us. We had, apparently, gone to the wrong place. He rushed us into his car and drove wildly along a freeway until he pulled up behind a tour bus idling in the shoulder of the road. With traffic speeding past us, he hauled us and our luggage out of the car and onto the bus…

Where we were greeted by 28 pairs of angry, elderly eyes.

Our travel agent had failed to tell us in her rapturous descriptions of our trip that we would be making up the 15th couple of a tour booked by a grandparents’ club from the Buenos Aires provinces – and that the tour was embarking from their town, well outside of the city.

If you ever want to have the full “awkward American” experience, go to any foreign country and walk onto a bus full of elderly people who have been stopped on the side of a road waiting for you. It’s something you’ll never forget.

I would say that the second sign that fate was working against us was the first time our bus broke down, adding an extended visit to a gas station on the edges of the Patagonian Desert to our tour.

But that break down was nothing in comparison what happened some six hours later when the engine caught fire. It was the middle of the night, and we were evacuated to fields of scrub where my husband and I laid bets on who would be the first person to be eaten, Fargo-style.

The third sign we were doomed was when, after being rescued by a replacement bus, we learned that it was haunted. My husband and I called our ghost the Phantom Pooper because it enjoyed regularly clogging the bus toilet – which is something of an inconvenience when you’re traveling for 20-hour stretches in an almost unpopulated desert.

But we were young, and we laughed it all off.

Until the day we learned about the fish restaurant that had been featured on Channel 13.

It came up in a halting conversation with one of the grandmothers. There was this famous fish restaurant in Rawson, just south of Puerto Madryn, she told us, and we would be skipping our stop in Puerto Madryn so we could have lunch there.

Assuming we’d encountered a language barrier, we consulted our tour guide Oswaldo. The penguin trip had been advertised on the brochure – there was no way it could have been canceled and replaced by lunch at a seafood restaurant.

But it had been. The president of the grandparent’s club had seen a news story about this restaurant and as a group they decided that eating there would be more enjoyable than a visit to a major national attraction where you could see penguins and baby seals and maybe even whales.

punta tumbo

This, or lunch at a seafood restaurant. You pick.

My husband and I were crushed. Oswaldo tried to explain it away – there would hardly be any penguins there that time of year, anyway, he said, and this restaurant really was supposed to be very good. Besides, we could take a trip to see another rookery in Ushuaia.

So we bided our time, enjoying and appreciating the stunning, diverse beauty of southern Argentina.

laolao

It is pretty incredible. You should go there. But not with a tour guide named Oswaldo.

glaciar-perito-moreno-barco

Note: These are not my pictures. I can’t find ours. Just like we couldn’t find the penguins.

But when we finally reached Ushuaia, it was all about the penguins.

We arranged the excursion ourselves – a guided boat tour that would sail us around an island inhabited only by penguins.

When we arrived at the dock, we were told that the boat needed repairs. Twenty minutes, they said, and we would be on our way. We waited. And we waited. At four o’clock, the worst was confirmed – the boat was kaput; there would be no tour.

argentina_ushuaia_harbour_penguins_17

Gentoo Penguins of Ushuaia. The ones we didn’t see.

But, Oswaldo assured us after we returned to our hotel, all was not lost. There was one more stop along the way where we could take an excursion to the natural reserve at Cabo Dos Bahias, where we could see all the penguins a person could ever hope to see. He would take care of everything, this time, so there was nothing to worry about.

I think you can see where this is going.

When we reached the town where our last penguin hopes resided, we nagged the hell out of poor Oswaldo. We wanted to see some damn penguins, but it was more than that. It was us against Argentina and we were determined to prevail.

He purchased our tickets for us and said he would order us a cab from a company we could trust.  He promised to meet us in the lobby the next morning, to personally see us off. Everything would be taken care of. There was no way this trip would fall through.

It did. Oswaldo forgot to call the taxi company. He had also forgotten to wake up – until it was just late enough for us to miss the only tour on the only day we would be in a town close enough to visit the Cabo dos Bahia reserve.

It was over. It had been us against Argentina, and Argentina won.

cabo2bahias-1

Cabo Dos Bahias. I should be in this picture.

Later, toward the end of our trip, we visited a small museum of natural history. In this museum, there was an exhibit of penguins. Dead, taxidermied penguins. And as we observed it, one of the grandmothers grasped my arm and exclaimed,

“Look! You finally get to see your penguins after all!”