Back to the Future

 Street food from home...

Street food from home...

Returning to Vietnam after almost fifteen years feels like jumping off the diving board into the deep end of a pool.

At first, I was shocked at all the changes. Then, as I slowly drifted through, I felt the link between the past and the present. In the vibrance of the old city, they are truly merging.

One phenomenon is overwhelming throughout the country.

At the beginning of this millennium most people in Vietnam rode bicycles. In addition, there were around four million motorbikes. Today virtually every adult in the country owns a motorbike—there are over five million of them in the city of Hanoi alone.

As I walked the streets of Hanoi, trying to bring back old memories, instead I kept thinking about the contrast between two cities.

 Easy to tell the tourists…

Easy to tell the tourists…

It would be fun to see a graph comparing the number of bicycles in Hanoi and San Francisco over time. I am quite confident that today there are far more bicycles in San Francisco. And it is not, as it is in Hanoi, the poor people who are on two wheels. It is ironic that while at home we try to reduce the number of carbon-emitting vehicles, their growth in developing countries is explosive. 

The conical hat and the bicycle laden with goods are slowly joining the cyclos—the traditional three-wheeled taxis—as purely tourist attractions. Fortunately, street-food stands and house-front markets of all sorts persist in the old town. They are, however, getting squeezed out by chic coffee shops and boutique hotels.

It’s funny that people think San Francisco has changed incredibly over the last 15 years. You only need to go to Vietnam to realize that, in comparison, our pace of change at home is that of a snail crawling next to a leaping grasshopper.

 Luckily there’s still a bike repair guy on every corner.

Luckily there’s still a bike repair guy on every corner.

Nirvana in a Cup

 Distractions while on the hunt…

Distractions while on the hunt…

“You have to try egg coffee in Hanoi. It’s delicious.”

I looked up the best place to go, and found Café Giang near my hotel. I wasn’t a bloodhound on the trail, I confess; but I walked down the street and checked for the café where the address indicated. However, when I asked for number 39, one person pointed left, another pointed right. I got distracted by a group of men smoking a pipe made from a three-foot piece of bamboo. And then by women steering bicycles full of fruits and vegetables and endless commodities.

I never saw the café.

The next morning I decided to order an egg coffee at my hotel. I was staying at the Metropole, Hanoi’s most famous hotel and one of its most sophisticated. Its guests have included Graham Greene, Charlie Chaplin, and my personal favorite, Joan Baez. Surely they could handle an egg coffee.

The beautifully dressed young waitress was replaced by a gracious gentleman. He bowed and told me that, if I would wait six to eight minutes, he could bring me an egg coffee. When I asked if it took that long to make, he explained that he would have to find the place that makes them somewhere “in the garden.”

Ten minutes later I was sipping my drink. The presentation was sublime. A delicately framed candle burned in a translucent porcelain base, which supported a larger square bowl half-full of hot water. The coffee cup rested in the water. Every effort was made to keep it at the perfect temperature.

“How is it?” The waiter attentively asked.

“It is very nice.” I graciously replied. Graciousness is my tactic when enthusiasm is lacking. The coffee tasted like the Three In One instant coffee I make in my room when traveling in Asia: cloyingly sweet hot liquid with the underlying taste of caffeine.

“You know,” the man said, reading me perfectly, “I can tell you where to get a real egg coffee.”


“Yes, it is not far.”

He walked to the front of the restaurant, grabbed a small notepad and pen, and wrote down: Giang Cafe, 39 Nguyen Huu Huan. My friend, Catherine, had also recommended this spot, so it had to be.

This time I persevered. Fifteen minutes after I left the hotel, I scoured the side of the street where my map application sent me. Usually trustworthy, this time the app was way off. I crossed the road, walked up and down the other side of the block, and kept asking for number 39. Finally, someone spoke English and directed me almost next door, to a very narrow slot and then a stairway going up. I snapped a shot for future reference.

A group of Myanmar nuns I had been observing along the way followed me into the café. At tables that came to my knee, we sat down on chairs the height of a hiking boot.


After placing my order, I talked and laughed with the nuns, who were very happy to meet someone who knew their country. Hugs were soon being exchanged, and the nuns’ joy expressed through requests for photographs. Of me.

The café was reminiscent of a beatnik coffee shop in a rundown section of a large city. Mold competed with the paint on the walls. The furniture was something McDonalds should copy to get you out as quickly as possible. It would contort the average American into intolerable pain.

The egg coffee came in a simple cup with the café’s logo. It rested in a small bowl of warm water. It looked like a small latte with a murky design. When stirred, the froth was dense. The liquid below was black.

And then, a moment later, I was transported into my very earliest childhood. I closed my eyes and took one more tiny sip of the coffee.

Senses that hadn’t been tantalized in decades burst to life. I reached out and sent a text to my brother. The tiny chair I now sat on matched the one my baby butt had cuddled as I waited impatiently for my mother to finish what she was doing. Holding a bowl in her hand, she beat its contents so hard, she threatened to destroy the bowl itself.

Gogglj-mogglj— the j making the ending baby-soft—was our name for these beaten egg yolks with sugar, gentled down to a creamy thickness by my mother’s perfect touch. A tiny spoonful of it would roll through your mouth and line your throat with nirvana. 

Egg coffee was apparently invented in Vietnam during hard times when milk was hard to come by. My Mama’s treat had been made in a refugee camp where a similar scarcity of ingredients prevailed.

I did a search on Google. It turned out that something called Kogel Mogel was created out of scarcity in Eastern Europe and is still eaten by children in Poland today. I’ve never asked my relatives in Serbia or Croatia about it, but I certainly will. 

Hanoi and I have both moved far beyond our era of scarcity, but I have rediscovered a love affair with the token of gold that shined its light into my soul. 

 His father is the little baby.

His father is the little baby.

As I was leaving, I met the young man whose grandfather started the café. He pointed to his father, the baby in a portrait of the family. I will always remember Hanoi egg coffee as something his grandfather created for his father to keep him happy in hard times.

Sri Lanka Seaside


I sit watching the dawn rise over the ocean—always a different ocean—whose molecules perhaps touched my far younger self as I fished with my father. I sit here now, in peace, and contemplate the patterns left in the sand, the rocks in the water, the sound of waves. It takes but an instant to gain a freeing calm, a soothing generous gift from the earth.

I never had this sense of peace as a child. If I calmed down for one minute, a rock would push its way into my consciousness. A rock that needed to be dug up, retrieved, explored for urchins, thrown into the water; a source of chaos that my father eventually had to quell.

Today’s version of his daughter understands his need for those calm hours at the water. Comprehends that the long pole he carried was his guardian against interruption. That the fish we ate were merely an excuse, although a welcome one, for his pre-dawn slipping away from  responsibilities, for his hours spent alone. For his departure, for a while at least, from struggles: for his dive into peace.


And finally I think about the morning, while I was high in the Himalayas of northern India, that he rose for the final time in those predawn moments. A short time later he could’ve been at a beach like this one, whose water lapped his favorite city, his home, his San Francisco. He could have been hooking cornmeal balls carefully crafted the night before to tease the fish. 

Maybe he, or his spirit, did all those things. Maybe he is still doing them. Maybe it is him that I watch in the distance, hanging on to the pole that reaches over waves that lap the beaches of Sri Lanka. Maybe it is he who is watching over me, teaching me to enjoy life in a new way.

I can’t know for certain, because on that morning, while I slept in a tent beneath a 20,000 foot peak in the Himalayas, my father slipped quickly away.

I see a fisherman in the distance, and, as so often when I am again in the time zone of the land I explored as he, too, started exploring something new, my mind turns to Papa with an inevitability that is both familiar and soothing.


It could have been me


When I was six months old I was an enemy of two countries. 

Yes, that’s right. Six months old, and not hated by one country, but two. One of them declared me stateless and threatened to send me to the other. Possibly to death.

My father was Russian, and a refugee from that country and its 1917 Communist revolution. Had my grandfather not fled, he would have been executed. My father was a baby at that time, and grew up in what he thought was a safe haven — Yugoslavia.

My mother was Yugoslavian. Her childhood too included exile, from a part of the country given to Italy after World War I. She too thought she was living in a safe haven.

Both of them believed they were happy, secure, and financially successful citizens of their country.

But by the time of my birth in 1949, Russia and Yugoslavia and its communist dictators, Stalin and Tito, were no longer friends. Then it got worse.

Soon, Tito declared that all Russians in Yugoslavia were spies, and therefore enemies. These were mostly people who, like my family, had fled Russia 30 years earlier and were considered enemies in that land as well. So were their children, I guess. 

All of us were declared stateless, our nationality stolen from us with the swipe of a pen. If we waited too long, like some neighbors had, we could be sent directly to Russia. A one-way ticket to the gulags. The death camps of Siberia.

We fled, and ended up across the border in what is now Italy, but was yet another disputed territory. The city of Trieste was fought over by Yugoslavia and Italy for years after the end of World War II and was a United Nations protected zone. That, for us, was where Yugoslavia ended and the rest of the world began.

We arrived there in January 1950, along with thousands of other unexpected refugees, another flood bursting onto a world already filled with millions of the Second World War’s leftover lost and homeless. 

We were crowded into a place that — as I learned 40 years later — had been a concentration camp during World War II. We spent four years there.

People often feel sorry for me when they hear this and learn that I grew up in a refugee camp. But I was fortunate.

Today’s America makes me understand more clearly than ever how fortunate I was. I was not legal at the moment of arrival across that border. I was stateless and seeking asylum. 

I was an enemy of two countries before I could talk, or think clearly, or understand what a country was, or come close to comprehending the concept of an enemy.

I could have been separated from my parents at the border. I could’ve been sent back —although there was no “back” to be sent to. I could’ve been greeted by an administration like Donald Trump’s. The way my country is now greeting families just like mine.

Instead, I was welcomed by those who lived in the camp; I was carried in my mother‘s arms to the barracks where we would spend the next four years; I was loved by the homeless adults who surrounded me.

It was all a gift beyond imagining. Writing these very words has brought tears to my eyes. It has finally given me an answer to the question: “What comes to your mind when you hear about what’s going on at our borders, about the children separated from their parents?”

I realize that it could have been me.

The Zen of Photography

One of the first people who I studied photography with is Eddie Soloway. Eddie is primarily a nature photographer, and a very meditative person. One of the exercises he shares with students is going out to the beach at sunset.  

That sounds quite normal until you get to the important point  —  NO photographic equipment of any kind is allowed. The very thought of being on a beautiful beach at sunset with a group of photographers and without a camera seems anathema. It would be like taking a 10-year-old to a candy shop and not allowing them to buy any candy.    

Today, it is hard to imagine anyone on a beach watching the sunset resisting the possibility of taking a picture  —  since most people have their camera phone ever present. It makes the exercise take on an even deeper perspective. We are there defenseless, stripped of our ammunition. Forced to see, and feel, and absorb, and think.

I went with Eddie to Big Sur about seven years ago, when I realized that I was filling my camera with people as a consequence of losing my husband, Harold. It was as if I was replacing the man at my side with the humanity through my lens  — a safe way to fill an empty space.  

I came back from that trip with five images that line the wall of my living room  —  Zen abstractions of sand patterns  —  that help ground me every time I see them.  


I was hoping to find the feeling of peace that I found when I created the images in my living room, once more. 

A predicted storm was brewing as I drove down the coast, but it was calm in the trees. Arriving in the late afternoon, I drove directly to Pfeiffer Beach. As I neared the water the intensity of the wind increased to the point that when I paused to observe a pattern, the car rattled and shook. I looked around at the steep hillsides and decided it was the better part of wisdom to return with others at another time. That night I was deep in the forest amid giant redwood trees in a small wooden cabin. It was quiet and still, but I was not in the least relaxed.  

All I could think about was the calm before the storm. By early morning the streets of our town were flooded, but as yet there was no rain at Big Sur. I joined some friends at Pfeiffer Beach. It was hard to focus on photography as the wind howled, the waves churned, sand blew in my face and lens. Suddenly, I realized that a friend, Bernie, was floundering in the surf, trapped by the water while chasing his renegade camera bag. He fell on his hands and knees, struggled to rise, gazed helplessly as the bag moved past him and finally gave up and desperately scrambled out of the water. The event soured us on the beach and sent us back to our cabins in fortunate timing as the beach closed shortly afterwards because of landslides along the narrow access road.  

By Friday evening, the rain paused and we headed out to Garrapata Beach. As we descended the long stairway we realized the storm surge had the water covering the entire beach, even though the tide was theoretically halfway out. At sunset, I finally made my way down to what I thought was a dry beach. As I squatted to get an image a wave crashed into me. It was completely harmless and when it ebbed I was covered in foam, not water. Nevertheless, I climbed back up the hill. Saturday dawned bright and sunny, so I drove further south, heading for Point Lobos State Park, a famous photographic spot.  

As I neared, the orange barriers declared it closed as well. Apparently trees had fallen there as elsewhere along the coast. For sunset I headed back to Garrapata, and dropped to the gully filled with calla lilies. The torrent in the gully was by now passable, so I made my way across. As I rocked on the two final boulders prepared to leap to the sand, Eddie said, "Don't ruin that perfect beach."  

Where are you Burton Maxwell?

Tania pictured back row, third from the left. 

Publishing my book has led to many readings and wide ranging discussions. Recently, refugees and immigration have sparked much of that debate. People are curious about the impact of that experience on my life. One evening recently, the conversation moved to my upbringing.

We talked about my father’s fear for his children. His fear that growing up in America was not guaranteed. His fear that we would become refugees again. His fear of the seeming inevitability of continuous uprooting, of repeated exile.

I was asked at that reading, if that fear impacted me. Did I grow up fearful?

I acknowledged that rather than fearful, I grew up angry. Somehow I worked my way around to proclaiming myself a ‘badass.’

“And where did that stem from, your being a badass?” A friend asked. 

“The schoolyard.” The answer popped out, as surprising to me as to the others.

“The schoolyard?”

“Yes. I went to an inner-city school in San Francisco where I was one of the few white kids.”

“In San Francisco? Where?”

“On Hayes Street.”

I could feel I was losing them. Hayes Street is evolving into the height of chic. One restaurant after another is opening. The old freeway entrance has been converted into a lovely little park. The price of housing is skyrocketing. It’s hard to imagine my talking about an inner-city school in this context.

Yet, in 1960 we moved away from there into the foggy outerlands of the Richmond District to avoid an evolution of the city — sometimes referred to as ‘white flight‘ — which helped make me into someone tough enough to deal with the world, but made my father extremely uncomfortable. 

I am grateful for those years. I am grateful for whatever it is that turned me into a badass. In later life being a badass helped me deal with challenges that had more to do with being female in a man’s world than being a little white girl surrounded by tall black boys, but it was my black schoolyard mates who taught me to stand up for myself. 

I have almost moved out of that badass phase of my life, but it’s only because I rarely feel threatened. Age and success have rounded those sharp edges. But point your daggers at me, and you could still be sorry.

Growing up in San Francisco, I was happy in my tough schoolyard and my neighborhood. I admired my badass friends. More than that, I wanted to be like them.

Who wanted to be the smart white girl in that environment? The teacher’s pet. The goody two shoes? Not me.

And who, you might wonder, was Burton Maxwell?

Burton Maxwell was a cut up. A young lad from a tough family background who still came to school most days. He was tough in the schoolyard but laid low in the classroom, out of fear of being called on.

One day the teacher lived up to his expectations and called out Burton for raising hell in the back of the classroom.

Except it was both of us who were raising hell.

In a moment I can never forget, Burton looked at me. He stared just long enough for me to read his message. He may as well have put his hand on my forearm to keep me from speaking up. To keep me from taking responsibility.

I let Burton take the fall. 

Sixty years later I still sometimes troll the Internet looking for Burton Maxwell. I am looking for a 69-year-old man to apologize to. I am looking to see what happened to my friend, to the young boy who took a fall for a smart white girl who just didn’t quite fit in with her tough friends. Who, when push came to shove, chickened out and let a young black lad take the blame.

Tania, third row, fourth from left. Sherry Rowland, second row, fifth from left. Burton Maxwell, front row, fourth from left. 

My sense of inferiority lasted far longer than you might expect. I was a scholarship student studying Mathematics at U.C., Berkeley and working in the deli in my old neighborhood when Sherry Rowland walked up to the counter. I had been with my boyfriend Greg for several years by then, but was still—barely—a virgin.

Sherry’s round belly, on the other hand, announced the imminent arrival of her second child. The first raced around while she and I tried to figure out what she could pay for with her food stamps—then a new concept—and I snuck a roast chicken into her cart. 

You might think I felt smug and superior. That was far from the case. Still the foreign white girl, I was in awe of her maturity and experience. She was a woman and a mother and I a young and naïve schoolgirl. I knew I could never match Sherry in toughness.

I sit and stare at old classroom photographs, at an evolution. A class that started with two black kids in kindergarten ended with a black majority by the fifth grade, and lost almost all of us palefaces, including me, in the last year of grammar school. 

I see the three of us. Burton Maxwell—a sweet, smiling kid who doesn’t match the tough guy in my memory. Sherry—a defenseless little girl, not a world weary teenage mother of two. Me—a tentative little kid in a frilly dress her foreign mother made for her. 

And once again, I wonder. Where are you Burton Maxwell?

Read my latest book, Mother Tongue, to learn about Croatia, the Balkans, and my family history — following three generations of strong women. 

Are we related?

Truth is stranger than fiction. Once again.

It started off innocuously, with an email from The Economist.

Dear Armet Amochaev,

Welcome to The Economist. You can now look forward to independent thinking and a distinctive world view, every week. Your first print issue is on its way

Except I hadn’t ordered a subscription to The Economist and my name is not Armet.

I decided to ignore it, but the next email included Armet's address and a requested confirmation for the credit card charge. 

Having just spent days researching my father’s background in Russia, I was intrigued by this rare reference to our last name and forwarded the note to my brother Alex:

ME: 6/2
Thought you might enjoy this. Do you think I should tell them they have the wrong email address?

ALEX: 6/2
Sure. But maybe he’s related us. Can we get his email?

ME: 6/3
I doubt it — but we could find his house! It’s near Moscow. And I have figured out that there’s a train stop at the village father was born in, on the line from Volgograd to Moscow. Want to go next summer?

ALEX: 6/4
Maybe. Let’s see what develops. 

I then told The Economist about the error and in return got a robot who didn’t want to discuss the subject with me.

This is an automated response ...

That inspired me to check on Facebook, where I found an Armet Amochaev from the correct town and sent him a message asking if he had subscribed to The Economist.

He had, and had misspelled his last name in the email address. I did not find this surprising as transliteration from the Cyrillic is not an exact science. So we had an email exchange.

ME: 6/9
By the way, my family were Don Cossacks from near Urupinsk. I don’t suppose we’re related?

 My uncle's hand-drawn map from 1977.

My uncle's hand-drawn map from 1977.

ARMET: 6/9
Dear Tania, thank your a lot for the letter! It was my mistake, I wrote my email in a wrong way :) 

You know, I think that we're related. My grandfather was born in a khutor (a small village farm) near Urupinsk in 1935 and my ancestors also were  Don Cossacks. 

Tania, I've visited your website and will definitely read all your literary works and I'm going to start with the story of your first trip to your father's homeland. It must be very exciting! 

A few words about myself. I'm 28-years-old. I live in a suburb of Moscow and work in a road-construction business. I am very pleased to meet you!

ME: 6/9
Lovely to hear from you. My brother suggested I write you on the theory that we might be related. Our family are the only Amochaevs in America. 

I actually want to write a book about my father. I don’t suppose your grandfather is still alive or that you know what village they came from?

And I am impressed that a 28-year-old in Russia wants to read The Economist. I used to read it in my career as a business executive. 

ARMET: 6/12
Dear Tania,

I read your story in one breath. It made me excited and sad simultaneously. I'm excited because you mentioned some familiar places in the story. My grandfather was born in the collective farm "Serp i Molot" right near khutor Kulikov and stanitsa Jarizhenskaya (Ярыженская). I attached a piece of the map. Cossaks weren't allowed to live in their family khutors and villages because of the collectivization. 

But your story also reminds me about very dark times in our history. A civil war is the most disgusting thing that can be. My grandfather lived after those events, but there were rough times too: The great famine in the region in the '30s and WWII later. None of his siblings survived  and he didn't know much about his father. My grandfather was a very stubborn person. He managed to leave that place, worked and studied hard and become a major in the engineering troops. He served in many places in the Soviet Union and retired in Kharkov, Ukraine where he died eight years ago. I wish I could ask him more about the family story. Tania, I think we're related, but just from different branches. 

By the way, last September I was traveling to Urupinsk for a business purpose. I work in a company that supplies high-end equipment and technologies for construction. This region is getting more attractive for the agriculture business and the local road network is being renovated. Now there were none of my relatives there, but I visited khutor Amochaev. Now it's just two farms with no Amochaevs there. I also attached some photos from my trip. 

I think that writing a book about your father is a great idea! 

Now I'm  getting my executive master degree at the Moscow Higher School of Economics. I already have the engineering one and I do believe it will be useful for my further career. That's why I'm reading the Economist. Besides, I try to get information from different sources. 

ME: 6/13
I’m afraid your note brought tears to my eyes. I would definitely like to meet you someday, and it would be fun to find out how closely related we are. If you’re interested, I could get you a DNA test on ‘23 and me’. My brother and cousin and I have all done it, and we could see how closely linked we might be.

I was happy that he responded to say that he would be happy to see if the DNA test showed a family link. 

You never know what you might find in the junk email in your inbox! 

Read my latest book, Mother Tongue, to learn about Croatia, the Balkans, and my family history — following three generations of strong women. 

What's in a name?

"And her sister Tatiana is visiting from …" my stepdaughter Beth's voice flowed at me over the phone, but I lost track as I reacted to what I had just heard.

"Her sister's name is Tatiana?" I interrupted.

"Yes, isn't it a beautiful name?" Beth continued, oblivious to my reaction.

"Yes, of course it's a beautiful name. It was my mother's favorite Russian name."

"Oh really?"

"Yes. That's why she gave it to me."

There was a long silence. "That's your name?"

This was not a stranger I was talking to. My stepdaughter had been in my life for more than 30 years. We are very close. This was not about Beth's lack of attention or caring. It was about my total abandonment of the name Tatiana.

In San Francisco, in what we called 'American' school, Andrew Jackson — the inner city public school that I went to  — my kindergarten teacher had stared at the late enrollment form for Tatiana Anatolievna Amochaev.

"Oh dear," she said, kindly. "That name will never fly in this schoolyard. What do they call you at home?"


"Then that is what we will call you." And she wrote Tania in my school records, erased the middle name, and that's who I became. It's now on my passport, effectively formalized by my marriage certificate. Any of my Russian friends would know the derivation of the name Tania, but there was no reason for Beth to make that leap. 

"So who is this Russian friend of yours?" I eventually asked Beth.

"Oh, you remember, she lives in Aspen. Her grandparents were Romanovs. I think they might be princesses."

It was my turn to pause. Needless to say, Beth had never mentioned any connection between her friend and the royal house of Russia. I doubt she gave it much thought. 

Another light went off in my head. "Is her name short for Alexandra?" I asked. 

"Yes ..."

This was getting funnier. My brother Sasha's name is Alexander. 

"My grandmother was a Romanov too." I said, quietly.

"Oh. So you're a princess too?" It wasn't disdain I heard in Beth's voice; she was quite confident I was pulling her leg. She knew I was more tomboy than princess, and it was yet another name I had never mentioned. But it was true. 

"I'm afraid she was as far from being a princess as you could get. Her family were migrant workers, I think they passed through the village where my grandfather raised wheat ..."

"But her last name really was Romanov?"

It was that brief conversation that helped trigger my decision to use the nom de plume Tania Romanov for my writing. Now I am trying to research my grandmother’s family background, trying to learn why a family of freed serfs might carry the most regal name in the land. I'm afraid I am not making much progress.

 Daria Pavlovna Romanova Amochaeva with her family. My father Anatoly is the taller boy between his mother and father. Early 1920s in Serbia.

Daria Pavlovna Romanova Amochaeva with her family. My father Anatoly is the taller boy between his mother and father. Early 1920s in Serbia.

If anyone has any ideas on how to learn more about Pavel Romanov, probably from Tambov, who had a daughter named Daria in 1895, please let me know.

The weight of water

At the neighborhood water spigot by my homestay in the countryside of Zulu Land in South Africa, I found an unlikely spot to make friends.

I was talking to young Thandeka—who lived nearby and was carrying six large buckets to her house—when she turned to speak with an elderly gentleman I had already met a little way up the trail. We had shaken hands and chatted, as much as possible with no common language, for he spoke only Zulu.

“Who is that?" I asked after he left. 

“Oh that was Mistapha.”

A few repetitions later, I realized she was saying Mister Hlophe, and that he was her grandfather.

“But what do you call him in your language? Do you say grandfather?”

“Oh, I call him Mkhulu. That is grandfather in Zulu,” she explained. “Do you speak Zulu?“

I concentrated, wanting to get the one word I knew correct. 

“Crick!” I said. Her eyes opened wide, and I repeated: “Crick.”

She confirmed that I had said ‘piss off’ with a hand motion, then roared with laughter. 

“Do you know any more?”  

“Anything more polite, you mean?” I asked. “No.”

We almost rolled over laughing, which was serious, as she was carrying 25 liters of water—which weighs two pounds a liter—in a yellow bucket on her head. 

The next morning at six I went to bring her a gift, one of the little flashlights I carry with me on trips. I found her at home, already washing clothes, but happy to take a break and take a selfie with me—only after she wrapped her hair in a pink cloth, of course.  

 A selfie with Thandeka

A selfie with Thandeka

We were surrounded by dirt hills that jagged down to the creeks which wove their way throughout the territory. Rugged dirt tracks wound around where possible. Driving to nearby Sangoma Zulu’s house later that day, we wandered for 20 minutes by car so I could find the turquoise rondavels two minutes walking from the spigot, just beyond the drivable track where it dropped to a small stream that I could cross. Homes were scattered about and mostly in some stage of repair—or disrepair. Thatch roofs were transformed to metal, round structures replaced rectangular ones, and goats and chickens ran around. 

On my way home, passing the water spigot, I met Daphne, a 54-year-old, just as effortlessly flipping about 50 pounds of water onto her head as young Thandeka had. I couldn’t resist another conversation, and then wanted to give her a light as well. I had to follow her home to do that as she was quickly on her way.

She said she didn’t mind if I walked home with her, but warned me it was “not very nice.”

The quality of her home was hardly the issue, as she walked far past Thandeka’s house, then veered off on a narrow trail to the right. It sloped gently at first, then grew rough, watermarked, and steep. The issue was whether I could follow her or would slip and break my leg. She kept laughing and talking, then stopping and turning around, heavy bucket swaying, to make sure I was surviving. I was determined to persist and finally made it to the bottom.

She again veered to the left, but paused to point out a concrete structure off to the right. 

“Soon that will be my new home.”


“Yes,” she said proudly. “The government is building it for me.”

We didn’t get to pursue the subject, as she crossed a swampy spot with a few boards and quickly reached her current home. It was a small and crowded old whitewashed rectangle with a metal roof. I met her husband, who sat on their narrow bed eating an ear of dried corn and some maize, and the grandchild who sat on a cot across from him. Neither rose to help with her load. She was terribly excited and tried to get her three daughters to join us, but they were in bed behind a small door and couldn’t be bothered to get up, in spite of her repeated attempts.

Her son, a handsome young man we had met outside, came inside to chat. He was wearing a US Polo Association T-shirt whose incongruity with the scene made me visualize a lady in the South shoving unused clothing into her church’s contribution basket, shaking her head at the waste of this nearly new item sitting in her son’s drawer. I doubt she could envision its final resting place, but it was certainly appreciated here. 

Daphne joined her husband on the bed so I could take a picture of them, but it felt very stiff. Looking for a laugh, I tried my Zulu on him. 

“Crick,” I said.  They both roared with laughter.

 Daphne and her husband cracking up when I said “piss off“ in Zulu

Daphne and her husband cracking up when I said “piss off“ in Zulu

I couldn’t quite believe that this worked every time, but it sure did the trick. We talked a bit more, then I needed to get back to my breakfast. 

When I was ready to leave, Daphne came with me, telling me she had one more water container to bring from above.

 Daphne carries water back to her home.

Daphne carries water back to her home.

We talked about her life, and I learned that she brings all the water that the family needs. She cooks all the food. She shops for it. She cleans the house. She washes the clothes. She feeds the chickens. 

“What does everyone else do?” I asked.

“Sometimes they help.”

“I bet it’s not very often,” I said, jokingly, but I was not really joking. She sheepishly confirmed they didn’t help very often. But she never stopped smiling and laughing as we continued up the steep hill, having this discussion. There was no time for self pity with Daphne; just time to care for her world. 

“Does your husband work?” I asked.

“No, there are no jobs.” At this, she did look sad.

“Do your daughters or your son work?” They were all adults in their 20s and 30s. 

“No, there are no jobs.”

I wondered briefly why young Thandeka could carry six pails of water and wash clothes while Daphne’s daughters lounged about, but I had to let it go. 

As we passed her new house, I learned that the government builds houses for people who cannot afford to buy them. She had signed up six years earlier for the program, that it would have two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. It would be finished in a few months, and she was very excited about the move. We would see a fair number of these standard homes in our travels, and I got familiar with their layout. 

I was her first American and she asked about my husband and children and grandchildren. She hoped I liked her country. Unlike me, she was too circumspect to poke questions at my lifestyle, and I was too embarrassed at the differences in our circumstances to elaborate. But I plunged recklessly ahead with my own questions. 

“Will you have water in the new house?” I almost hated to hear the answer.

“No,” she said. 

“I’m sorry ...”

“But,” she quickly interrupted. “I am saving money and will run a pipe from the spigot to the house.”

“Do you have a job?” As no one else worked, I had assumed she didn’t either. 

“Yes, I take care of the old people.” She had a government job at the home for the elderly, walking and taking one of the pervasive mini cab taxis for almost an hour each way to work.  

“So you do everything in your house, you take care of everyone, and you have a job. The only job.”

“Yes ma’am,” she beamed.

All too soon for me, we were back at the spigot.

“This gift is tiny,” I said, handing her the small strong light. 

She fingered the light, pointed at a dark corner, and said, “It’s tiny, but it’s not a small gift.”

I decided I had to help get that water to a spigot in her house. 

The second time I approached the narrow trail down that steep slope to her house, I couldn’t make it even part way. My fear of falling increased with every step. Finally, I stopped just below the top of the hill and shouted her name several times. She appeared from the house and sped towards me. I asked if she would walk up the hill. A huge smile accompanied her “of course!”

She sped up to the top of the hill and we hugged. I slipped money into her hand. She saw only one of the denominations and burst into tears. So did I. We hugged again. And again. 

I made her promise me two things. One, that she would tell no one of my gift, and two, that she would make her children work.

She promised she would.

I made her repeat the second promise.

In my mind’s eye I see Daphne, still making breakfast and doing laundry while her family complains about the lack of opportunity. Not much has changed, except water runs from the tap inside the house, saving her an hour daily of risky climbing and backbreaking labor as she grows older.

I regret only that I didn’t give her something more. 

 A goodbye hug with Daphne. 

A goodbye hug with Daphne. 

Blinded by the light

It was early morning, a Sunday in mid-April on the coast of South Africa, in what was once known as Zulu Land. As the sun started to crest over the edge of the ocean, groups of believers gathered in welcome. Their religions combined Christianity with older, more primitive faiths. 

As that glowing ball was rising to eye level, a young woman separated herself and headed into the ocean alone. She clasped something in her arms and walked in a straight line toward the waves. Staring straight at that blinding light, she paused momentarily, then swung her arms high and released her sacrifice to the skies. Something small and ragged, perhaps a chicken, flew straight at the sun and then landed in the waves.


She rejoined a group that then formed a linked circle. They bowed their heads in prayer, then, as the sun moved higher, raised their joined hands joyously as if to invite God into their midst. 


Nearby, bodies dressed in white, braved an ocean dotted with surfers catching big waves. These were the Shembe believers, whose churches were under leafy trees with no walls or ceilings between them and God. They were both joyous and raw in their expressions of belief, and they danced with fervor.

There, in a vast ocean, they came to baptize not by gently tapping water on a forehead, but by dragging the incumbent through the ocean until his body writhed through the pain and suffering that seemed required to see God.  

I moved about these believers, sharing their experience, until my vision was blinded by the light of the risen Son. Or, more likely, for me, it was the light of the Sun that was blinding.