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Pushing Up Tulips Part II

When my Greek grandmother passed away in December, she left my father her house in Tanzania. So in February we went to East Africa to sort out her affairs. This story is about our experiences and the drinks I tried along the way.

Bush Drinks

After the stress of the memorial, my safari-outfitter-gun-wielding-professional-hunter uncle Michel, youngest of my grandmother's boys, decided it was high time to escape to the bush. Under the convenient pretext of checking up on his hunting camps, we fled the oppressive heat of Dar es Salaam with my psychotic card reading uncle Mina, my cutthroat gem dealing uncle Dimitri, and my kind hearted wedding catering father.

Since Swahili culture considers uncles equivalent to fathers, every one of the aforementioned men regarded me as his daughter. Thus, I went to the Tanzanian bush with four Greek fathers: one who shoots things for a living, one who speaks to devils, one who buys rough jewels from thieves, and one who serves people food when they get married.

Along the way, my fathers fielded texts and phone calls from the Tanzanian Greek community notifying them of deaths. Each week, a few more elders succumbed to COVID-19. The Greek community is tight-knit in Tanzania. My Greek fathers knew all of the deceased. If that wasn't enough to inspire trepidation, Greeks are also some of the world's biggest hypochondriacs. When I got heat exhaustion from a day in sun, I was isolated to my room with cries of “Malaria!” and “Dengue fever!” and of course “Corona!” A global pandemic is exactly the kind of catastrophe Greeks are culturally prepared to obsess over.

Hypochondria aside, the far more powerful trait that runs in my father's family is stage four terminal ADHD. As soon as a tasty opportunity presented itself, the masks came off as though Coronavirus never existed. We visited a Massai market where fresh meat was being roasted outdoors. The masks disappeared immediately.

My hunter father shakes hands, COVID-19 style, with the cattlemen in the livestock enclosure (all the cows, apparently camera-shy, are standing off to the right where you can't see them).

Traditional fermented drinks were served at the market, the likes of which I had never imagined. We tasted banana millet beer that had the consistency of a melted smoothie full of seeds. I tried a medicinal fermented drink made from aloe vera and tree bark in a hut where elders took refuge from the sun. It was zingy and spritzy and I was the only one who remotely liked it. To me, it was invigorating. To my Greek fathers, it was simply bitter.

It wasn't that bad once you got past the bitterness. You know what was much worse than the fermented aloe drink? My hair. A bunch fell out after the fire, from stress I guess, so I cut it short to compensate and it looked even worse. God I'm glad it's growing back.

We arrived at the safari camp late in the afternoon. It was a high-end affair richly adorned with colonial nostalgia: cream colored canvas tents, Persian carpets, carved chests for our belongings, fruit baskets, and a full bar. Each of Michel's camps somehow manages to feel like an escape from civilization while still serving as an oasis of creature comforts. An oasis with everything from Beefeater to Kahlua. He keeps whatever his clients might want. The surrounding hunting concession, well protected by a full-time anti poaching team, is something of a wildlife sanctuary. Dik-diks, the world's smallest antelope, drink from the bird bath in the early morning. A family of cheetahs roams nearby. Countless horned species wander through the brush nibbling grass and flicking their ears. Giraffes, nervous of passing vehicles, gallop in slow motion.

Dik diks scattered and birds flushed at the sound of Greek arguments emanating from the camp's Dining Room.

Inspired by the day's tasting, I was dying to try Michel's spirits with some sounds. There was just one problem: I left my headphones in America (it was the right decision- I mean, if I were a poor street kid in Tanzania, I would totally steal a slick pair of bluetooth headphones). Not that I can't get some interesting effects by playing sounds of the tinny mic of a smartphone, but they're not the same, and I have to worry about people noticing. But hell, it was a beautiful evening and I had time on my hands, so I cracked open a bottle of Beefeater and I went for it. It took my Greek-African fathers about two minutes to notice something weird was going on.

“What are you doing?”

“I'm... trying this gin with some sounds. I have a brain abnormality that connects my senses so sounds distort how things taste and sometimes I sit down and play sounds to see what they do so I can, like, use this trait to my advantage somehow.”

Michel the Hunter made a joke by exposing an arm and slapping it. I replied, if you're going to make fun of me at least get your drugs straight. Stick out your tongue or mime like you're applying eye drops or something. Dimi the Gem Dealer made the same joke. I asked them how they could possibly come of age in the seventies and not know how acid is taken. Then I remembered they grew up on a farm in Africa.

On those peaceful nights in the bush, I slept better than I had in months. Even so, I found myself surging upright in a breathless panic when a bird cried in the pre-dawn. There were no nightmares, no delirious visions of wildfire. Just a body ready to bolt from sleep at the slightest provocation, to the confusion and disappointment of its brain. But I was surrounded by so much strange wild beauty, I refused to see it as a problem. I was still mostly sleeping at night, so why pathologize it when instead I could see it as... a superpower? I'd become a cool Hollywood trope. The one where a person or android has secret subconscious fighting abilities nobody knows about, and they become activated when they are in danger.

This was me. Not such a bad modus operandi when you have to worry about fighting bad guys. Kind of overkill when those bad guys turn out to be night birds.

We met with the local village to check up on a schoolhouse that was funded by father's Rotary club, where we were presented with gifts: jewelry for me and an ill-fated live goat for the whole family to enjoy later. The women tugged on my ears as they crammed ornate hand-made earrings into piercing holes I haven't used in years, to the amusement of everyone watching.

As someone who has done street drawings of people all over the world, I believe the most important facial expressions are universal. And I'm pretty sure the fourth woman from the left just landed an eye roll that would qualify her for the eye roll Olympics. Maybe it's because my earring holes were ridiculously tiny by Massai standards. Or maybe it's just because, while the woman in the foreground put earrings in my ears, someone in the background was rearranging the bones in my hand in order to squeeze it into a bracelet.

We drove dustily to a second camp near the foot of Lengai, a volcano considered the mountain of God by the Massai. The primordial landscape features mile-wide craters where ancient eruptions tore through the earth. We made a small pilgrimage to a flock of 20,000-year-old human footprints embedded in hardened ash on the shores of Lake Natron nearby, where I found a set that matched my tiny high-arched feet perfectly. We bought beaded bracelets from passing Massai girls. And we passed the hours catching up on life. Talking about my grandmother. Retracing the steps of our family and all of humanity.

Greeks are culturally obligated to play backgammon wherever they go, including the remote East African bush.

There was a time when my grandmother didn't live like an aristocrat, shouting for servants all day. According to her, it was good time. My grandfather mined mica in the Pare mountains for two years, where they lived in a tent with their first two sons. The Pare women felt sorry for my grandmother, so they instructed her how to build a proper home: a mud hut with a tin roof. She made it with her own two hands, and she even incorporated a window that an East Indian trader gifted her. She cooked over an open fire, and she hollowed out a giant anthill to use as an oven. Until his dying day, my grandfather said the best bread he ever tasted came out of that oven.

First photo: my grandmother the multi-talented, who entertained ambassadors and baked bread in a termite mound (not at the same time, but hell, I bet she could pull it off). Second photo: my father and myself with a giant termite mound where we found delicious edible mushrooms, an agricultural product of termites.

On quiet afternoons, she climbed a hill where a boulder overlooked the Massai Plain and the wind was high. There, she wrote letters to her estranged mother, which she cut into little pieces and released into the wind.

When we tired of wandering about, my Hunter Father took us to an unmarked hilltop that sits low upon the treeless ash flows, a quiet sanctuary far from coronavirus and wildfires and everything else that keeps us up at night, where we made a tame-fire and watched the sunset and thought about my grandmother and all the gifts and curses her generation left us, and my four Greek fathers broke into song.

Gems in the Rough

Our company split up in Arusha, where three of my fathers (including the real one) departed for Dar es Salaam, and I continued journeying through the countryside with my gem-dealing father Dimitri, who wanted to check up on his remote chrysoprase mine. Dimi spins money out of rocks by cutting business deals with all sorts, from petty thieves to powerful bosses. His first order of business was to reconnect with a wealthy group of businessmen in Arusha, each of whom wields influence over a fat slice of industry. Thus, I found myself at a dinner table surrounded by characters from The Godfather.

The richest man at the table was Arusha's premier gem dealer and my chrysoprase-mining-father's ally in business. I don't know what he would think of being written about in a blog, so I'll just call him Godfather. The table was decked out with the personal bottles of Godfather's friends, each with a name on it. They served themselves and each other while the waiter, who knew them all by name, sipped his own glass between orders.

What are we proving when we bring an expensive bottle to a table where the hierarchy of status shows in the drinks ordered? A glass can communicate things we dare not say out loud, whether they be messages of love or power.

The first thing Godfather gave me was banana beer, the drink of the working class, cents for a bottle. It tasted like bruised apples and sour beer. A bit like something old in the fridge. I could see how people might grow to like it, but the point of serving it was to frown upon it. To show the American what the poor people drink around here and sigh with dismay. To look down and behold the distance between those who drink banana beer and those who drink a this table. I plugged my ears when I tried it, to block out a fan nearby. Godfather asked the purpose of this. I explained as best I could, hoping against hope nobody would make any arm-slapping jokes. The whole table went quiet.

Godfather was intrigued. He wanted my opinion of more beverages. He summoned Macallan 12 with a wave of his hand. I told him, when I drink the Macallan near the whining motor of a fridge or an AC unit, the sherry barrel notes become like hot roasted nuts. Searing hot nuts that just came out of the oven in a plume of heat. Godfather was pleased. Next he beckoned for an Indian single malt by the company Amrut. It tasted like smooth leather and tobacco. I tried with and without my fingers in my ears and I told him the difference. He noticed that I drink whiskey neat or with just a couple drops of water. He confessed that he must always add both water and ice. Except when he drinks Macallan 21, the only spirit he enjoys neat. So he ordered that one next.

The 21 year old was smooth and easy, unlike any whiskey I'd had before. I told Godfather: I like this one better without plugging my ears. The little bit of background noise raises the alcohol burn, lending it a little more energy, a little more vibrance.

My jewel-cutting father Dimitri was so entertained by the whole interaction, he brought it up later on our dark drive into the bush. I had made an impression on those influential men. Good impressions are important in his line of work. Dimi walks a dangerous path in his business, always followed by those who lust after the Earth's sparkling treasures and the money they summon. Allies make the difference between life and death in a forest full of wolves.

We retreated to the distant mound where men in his employ haul green fragments out of the ground. From there, we drove to another business venture of the multi-business-man, a teak farm where he also rears Massai cattle. Everywhere we stopped, my shrewdest father dealt orders coldly to dusty workers and kept one eye over his shoulder for wolves. He noticed my tattoo and remarked that he would never get one, for if anyone were to put a price on his head, he must be prepared to dye his hair and disappear completely, his skin free of identifying marks.

My gem dealing father presents a rock containing raw chrysoprase, the same stone used in his bracelet.

The farm was where I met my favorite new acquaintance in years, an absurdly tame Massai steer named Vavi. And for those precious moments brushing the back of Vavi's head and listening to the wind in the teak leaves, the artifice of reputation didn't seem to matter much.

Massai cows are often identified by artful scarring. Vavi sported decorative scars down the length of his face.

Pieces of Home

It's amazing how time flies when you're mourning your grandmother, reconnecting with a dozen relatives you haven't seen for eight years, and fixing a house. Time was running out, so I seized upon the opportunities to do things that really matter. Having deep conversations with my cousins about love and life. Choosing a few items from my grandmother's house to take home with me. Drinking my way through nine Scotches with our expat neighbor.

A few of the bottles we enjoyed that fine evening.

Christian is a paleontologist who rents a house on the property with his family, and boy does he love Scotch. Like my Greek relatives with their Greek wines and spirits, Christian collects single malts as a way to stay in touch with his roots. He knows how Scottish geology influences regional differences in the spirits, and he's happy to share his knowledge over a glass of whiskey. We tasted through maybe half of them together with my Greek father Yiannis (yeah I have a lot of uncles), a science enthusiast and self-taught engineer who builds his own drones maintains all the family vehicles. He's the sort of guy who celebrates when a new rover lands on Mars.

In other words, it was a big nerd fest.

I generally have a better time tasting among scientists et al. It's never hard to explain to them what's going on with my brain. So I whipped out my phone and I flipped through all manner of noises with those Scotches. I found a sound that brought out soapy notes and a sound that sliced through them, a sound that made a peppery Glengoyne taste tequila-like, sounds that softened the burn and sounds that made the alcohol scream across my tongue, and by the time I was done, I was merry as a Scotsman and taking shit from my uncle for being such a lightweight.

I casually mentioned the night panics to Christian, a war veteran. I told him about the fire but noted that I'm getting better. I had an acute case, really it's no big deal, and it's going away, thank God, soon I'll be back to normal. Christian, who shoulders a heavy backpack of PTSD from his time in the service, gave me a long look. The kind that returns to you in memory much later. He noted that his worst symptoms didn't come on until long after he left the service. That's really unfortunate, I thought, that happens to some people. People who've seen far worse than I ever have. Lucky me, I'll be better soon. I kept my eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel and firmly denied that it might be a train.

Those spirited evenings of booze and friendship were good medicine. The drink has a way of dredging up honesty when you thought you had it all locked down, of drawing out stories you weren't otherwise inclined to share, and of inspiring a long ponder over things that stir in the heart when the sun is lost to another hemisphere and the night feels endless. Why do we drink? We drink for the shared experience. We drink to feel close to others. We drink to share, to revel, to experience, to show off. We drink to loosen up. We drink to remember the taste of something we love. We drink to unload our burdens. To shrug off our inhibitions. To sleep on the plane home, all restful and nostalgic.

Pushing up... tulips

Tulips, hyacinths, daffodils. In the yards of burned-down houses. All over Talent.

I found them everywhere. I would have expected the heat of the fire to kill the bulbs in the ground, but they survived. They lined stepping stone paths and they cued up along the borders of burned fences. The sight made me hopeful, which was good. It was April, the night panics were back with a vengeance, and I was trying like hell to borrow my way out of a hope deficit.

The first month after my return from Tanzania felt like a steady regression. I found myself waking up most nights in a blind panic, sometimes twice a night, jerking and gasping for breath in terror. In the daylight hours, my reclaimed motivation yielded to depression and a persistent sense of foreboding.

The weather was changing.

Fire season, once behind us, was now ahead of us.

The spring brought windy sunny days, and on those days I was all high voltage and exposed wires. You know the feeling. It's the same as when you have a near-miss on the road. You come around a corner to find some idiot in your lane passing in a no-passing zone, and you're forced off the highway in a cloud of dust. Your heart breaks loose and your head spins. The adrenaline rush charges you up, and the charge lasts for the rest of the day, long after you left the scene. Little things make you jump. You can't shake the danger feelings.

Now just imagine the feeling doesn't go away. It's with you literally all day, every day. You jump out of your skin when your partner hits a speed bump. You freeze up when you hear a siren. I tried to look unconcerned, but I just wanted to run most of the time and I felt like I might shout at the next person who asked me if I saw that text they sent several days ago. That feeling of urgency. Imminence. Tension. Apprehension. My brain was stuck in fifth gear. My blood pressure rose with the wind and I felt trapped even when outside. Sitting still stirred up madness and claustrophobia. But there was no peace in walking because nowhere felt safe.

All around town a fleet of backhoes was scraping up all the evidence of what happened, leaving behind nothing but sidewalks snaking around empty dirt lots. I knew it was progress, but it felt like the opposite. It felt like going backward thirty years in time or more, when those neighborhoods were fields, yet now the fields were without grass. They bore the footprint of something lost. Someone you want to mourn, but you can't remember their face exactly, and it hurts to see their image melt from your memory so fast. A part of me found an unlikely home in those ruined neighborhoods after Talent burned. Only there, surrounded by ash, did I truly feel safe from fire. After the backhoes cleared it all away, I just felt lost.

I tried staying in, I tried reading and playing video games and banishing all thoughts with Netflix binges. I tried taking long and aimless country drives, avoiding people, doing the few yoga poses I remember, sitting in the shower. No measure of CBD or meditation or happy movies before bed or alcohol could stop the night panics. Night panics stacked up on day panics, my excursions from the apartment became less frequent until I hardly went outside, and when I did, I ended up parked on the side of the road sobbing. It felt like stumbling backward down the stairs.

I remembered what Christian said about his PTSD. The symptoms were late-onset, appearing years after the experience that inspired it. I guess post-traumatic stress disorder isn't like a burn or a bruise, hot and painful at first but steadily healing thereafter. More like a custard that takes time to set.

Now I'm all properly diagnosed and working my way through therapy. I read a couple articles recently linking synesthesia with PTSD. It seems that being really sensitive to stimuli sets some people up for getting kicked extra hard in the brain by traumatic experiences. On panicky windy days, I look at my pale face in the mirror and wonder if I'll ever learn to ride this bucking horse I'm on.

I have realized with time that it feels much better to keep moving than it does to sit still. Once I'd pushed through the worst of my relapse, I set to writing distilleries, reading about whiskey, and searching for that next big opportunity. I made about a dozen of my own flavor standards by infusing alcohol with botanicals commonly used in gin. I've been tasting them with different noises to see what happens. And when I can't escape my fears, I turn up the volume of my headphones and charge the uphill road through Lithia Park until my heart outruns them.

My grandmother had advice for when things to terribly wrong: you should dance. This was the moral of one of her favorite stories, which she told me at least once every time I saw her. When she was in her teens, after a few embarrassing expulsions from Tanzanian schools, her father sent her away to a Catholic school run by a convent in Alexandria, Egypt. She hated it there, so naturally she entertained herself with small acts of rebellion such as pasting cut-outs of bikini models over some of the smaller depictions of the Virgin Mary. For this, the nuns punished her by forcing her to walk the streets wearing an ox's tail and a sign that read “I am the Devil's daughter”. At first she cried a lot, but then she remembered Zorba the Greek, and she felt inspired to make the most of her situation. She picked up her tail and danced in the street singing “I am the Devil's daughter.”

I found myself doing something similar on one of my adrenaline-fueled PTSD walks. A favorite song came into my headphones and I discovered that I had precisely zero inhibitions. Who cares what anyone thinks anyway.

Strange blessings came from unexpected places in the Spring of 2021. The tulips all over Talent, popping up in the ashy yards of burned down houses. The COVID19-denying president of Tanzania dying of (probably but they're not allowed to say) coronavirus, succeeded by his VP, Tanzania's first female president. On the home front, my sister refused to be defeated. While her body kept coming up with new ways to challenge her, she worked from home and discovered fun new hobbies at her kitchen table. And a hopeful email to a Portland distillery led to my first interview, then a second. I started work there in June.

And when April brought us sunny days dotted with puffy rain clouds, when the wind was low and stray raindrops glistened in the sunlight, I got my beloved sunshine without the trigger, and I felt happy in the here and now. And I was reminded that peace can still be found in these crazy times. You simply have to look for it in new places.

Since I wrote this, I've started working at Westward Whiskey in Portland, where I'm learning all about spirits and using my headphones for tasting on a daily basis. The trauma symptoms have improved enormously with therapy. And Tanzania is finally implementing some anti-COVID19 measures. Things really are looking up. Just don't spend too much time reading the news.


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