The Bookshelf: Laura Hillenbrand

hillenbrandI am jealous of everyone who lives in a country with a movie theater. I don’t really like movies but this is one I want to see in the theater. Alas. Unbroken will remain in book form only for me, at least for the foreseeable future. I’m mostly okay with that. Movies almost always ruin the book. But still. When you love a book as much as I love Unbroken, you want to see the movie.

In place of watching the movie, I’ve been reading interviews with and profiles of the author, Laura Hillenbrand. And I’m even more amazed by what she has managed to do with both Unbroken and with Seabiscuit.

Laura suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and it is so serious she rarely leaves her house. She sometimes never leaves her room or her bed. She suffers debilitating dizzy spells and struggles to both read and type. She conducted much of her research for both these books via phone calls, emails, and people visiting her. For Unbroken, one man brought a World War II Norden bombsight and set it up in her kitchen so she could see how planes viewed their targets.

Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic sprinter-turned World War II fighter. His plane goes down over the Pacific and he miraculously survives on a life raft only to come to shore on a Japanese-controlled island. He is interred as a POW and endures unimaginable suffering. One aspect I enjoyed the most about this book was that Hillenbrand doesn’t end the story when Zamperini is released. She follows him and his fellow POWs back to the United States and chronicles the devastating aftershocks of what they experienced. But she still doesn’t end the story there. She takes the reader to the depths of human misery and brokenness and then, through Zamperini, she shines light on hope and redemption.

Seabiscuit was a race horse, tearing up tracks and getting injured and winning hearts, in the 1930s. An underdog champion, ridden by an underdog jockey, owned by an underdog businessman, trained by an underdog coach. It is an epic story of America and captures our love for the underdog. But the book doesn’t capitalize on the American sense of individualism. The way these men and women work together to overcome impossible odds is by doing together, drawing on the strengths of the others and remaining faithful when weaker ties would have shattered. In the middle of the Depression, when people needed something to cheer for, these unlikely heroes emerge and steal the heart of a nation.

What I’m reading this week:

Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee. How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. Christian and Muslim women came together in Liberia to end a brutal conflict.


Brain Child Magazine Am rereading an older teen issue, thinking about my own teens. One article talked about the status update on Facebook and when she first saw her daughter change it. Another is about the use of ADHD pills by non-ADHD diagnosed teens to use for studying enhancements. Excellent fiction pieces. Love it all.

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver, second in the Delirium series (confession, I am super-skimming to keep up with my daughter). The premise is that love is a disease and so at age 18 everyone gets ‘cured.’ Except, big surprise, the main character falls in love pre-cure and must find a way to both love and live. *for parents: there are swear words

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. Ashamed to say it has taken me this long to read this book but I’m so glad I finally started. Seems like an especially fitting week and time in our nation’s history.



Other Hillenbrand fans out there? What did you think of the movie? What are you reading this week?

What Angelina Jolie and I Have in Common

I love introducing new (to me) voices here and watching people connect and build community (like when my cousin in Alaska shares the words of my friend from Pakistan or a friend in Russia connects with a writer friend in Minneapolis). I’m honored to introduce Denise James and her blog, Taking Route, to Djibouti Jones readers. The site covers all things expatriate and travel-related and I think you’ll enjoy her words here. I appreciate her honesty about how hard it can be to be stared at, or to watch your kids be stared at. A friend of mine in Kenya once watched tourists frantically photograph her blond children while they played at a guesthouse as though they were on a safari. We should be respectful in how we photograph people and interact with them in our host country and we should expect the same, especially in terms of our children. Denise offers valuable tips for how to handle this kind of situation.

What Angelina Jolie and I Have in Common


Apparently, I’m important.  Or at least my kids are.

Me and Angelina

It didn’t take long in my host country to learn my family was a big deal. A very big deal. I stood, leaning against the guard rail at the airport, with a 9 month old in the Ergo and a 2 year old in the stroller, minding my own business and trying to stay awake after the 36-hour trip. What is happening? Why are so many people stopping mid-step and taking pictures of us?  This is so strange and creepy.

I slowly turned the stroller and myself away from the paparazzi so that I was facing the guard rail, staring at nothing and waiting exhaustedly for my husband to return from the ATM. I was hoping this movie-star-airport-photo-session was an anomaly. But, alas, no such luck, it was just the beginning.

Walking through the streets of Southeast Asia with 5 little white kids in tow causes a spectacle. My kids have learned if they stray too far ahead or lag too far behind that they are fair game for cheek pinches, head pats, and photo sessions. There’s NEVER a time we go out when we aren’t stared down, poked, prodded and filmed. I usually avoid looking up when at a restaurant. I’d rather pretend there aren’t a bajillion eyes glaring. Sometimes I feel brave and look up and engage in a stare-down competition with a complete stranger. Winner gets bragging rights. I usually win. Once a friend of a friend tried to befriend me on Facebook with my baby’s photo as their Facebook profile picture.  Huh? We need royalties.  I mean, we just met you.

My parents taught me at a very young age that pointing and staring were rude gestures and touching small children you don’t know should be avoided at all costs. This is an American value that is not shared with our host culture. I’m not going to lie, it can be hard. It can be draining. And some days it keeps me from going out of the house. It’s not only difficult for me, but for my children who are often treated as baby dolls rather than real children with real feelings and real emotions.

But aren’t I in this country to be a light and a joy and spread love? Yes. Yes, I am. But not at the expense of my children’s social and emotional well-being. We have had to set some pretty strong boundaries when it comes to our kids. We often disagree with what our neighbors deem appropriate. And we can’t be lax. It is our job to protect them no matter whether we are in America, Southeast Asia or Timbuktu.

Over the years we have acquired 3 main rules when it comes to our children’s interactions with strangers.

1)   No one has to pose for a picture with a complete stranger. If our kids are getting their photo taken and tell us it is bothering them, we will politely tell the person to stop taking pictures and move in between our child and the photographer. If someone actually comes up and asks for a photo we always defer to the children and ask if they would like to pose for a picture. Sometimes my daughters say “yes.” Sometimes “no”  My 8 year old son…he always says, “no.”

2)   We always break physical contact between a stranger and our child. End of story. For example, if we are walking down the street and someone grabs the arm of my child to talk to him I will gently move the stranger’s hand off my child and start-up an adult conversation. Sorry, that just isn’t appropriate and I want my children to always feel that their physical space is respected. I will not hand over my 1-year-old baby to a stranger just because they hold out their arms. Get to know us first. Ask our names. Let us know yours and then, maybe…maybe.

3)   Our children must greet adults in the culturally appropriate way when prompted by a parent.  If someone asks them their name (usually in botched English), we expect our kids to answer (some do better than others). How old are you? Same. Answer them. “Salam” greetings, where the child raises the adult’s hand to their forehead, is a respectful way to make acquaintance with an adult. These are all appropriate interactions with strangers when accompanied by my husband or me. Ways of showing respect that, even if my kids are uncomfortable with it, they still need to learn. How to meet and greet adults clearly and respectively is a skill that I think all kids need to acquire.

In reality, most folks in our host culture are kind and genuinely interested in friendship. They really can’t help but be shocked by our foreign faces and light skin. I try to keep that in mind. I also try to live by the words of my pastor back home: “Christians never have a reason to be unkind.” Living a kind life, especially when it comes to my kids, takes effort and supernatural strength and prayer…lots of prayer.

What about your family?  Do you have paparazzi?  How does your family cope with the similar situations?

DeniseBio PhotoDenise James is co-founder of Taking Route, a blog for expats “taking root while in route.”  When she isn’t writing you can find her planning sewing projects that never happen and watching Netflix.  She along with her husband and 5 children reside in Southeast Asia.  Connect with her at Taking Routevia Twitter, or join #TakingRoute #WeeklyPhotoPrompt via Instagram 

When I Am Weak

(a bit late, wrote this post two weeks ago, but other essays took priority. here’s how 2015 started for me)


December was, um, chaotic. Our coworkers were forced to leave suddenly due to a health crisis and won’t be returning. They had to sell and get rid of everything they have accumulated, pass on their work projects and contacts, and make sure they were staying healthy. Generally people take a few months to slip out of one life. They did it in less than two weeks.

Our kids at boarding school were home on break.

There were all those holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and Mowliid.

We received four interns who will work with Resource Exchange International for the next two years.

We had guests. 8 people (in groups of 2-4) for roughly 27 days total.

One night Tom drove to the airport at 2:00 a.m. and again at 4:00 a.m. and went back the next day to retrieve delayed luggage.

One night the kids went to bed with some people asleep on our couch and woke up to different people asleep on those same couches.

I or my husband have been to the grocery store every single day over the past five weeks.

There have deep valleys of grief as we said goodbye to good friends and valuable coworkers. There were heights of excitement and hope as we received new coworkers who have already become friends and got to see this country through their eager eyes. There were lots of tears, lots of laughter, lots of reshuffling and rethinking.

The first morning of 2015 I went for a run. I wanted to greet the new year on my feet, enjoying the outdoors, feeling strength flood my spirit. Not the strength that I possess on my own. I have seen over this past month that I possess very little on my own. But the strength that God provides. Because when I am weak, he is strong.

We have lived here so long now that it is possible some days to feel capable and competent. To risk falling into a Nebachudnezzar-like trap of pride. We speak the languages, we have meaningful work, good friends, an understanding of culture (though still much continues to elude us).

It has, honestly, been a while since I have been so acutely aware of my weakness.

One of the reasons we initially moved to Somalia in 2003 was because it was hard. Tom came home from a trip to talk with the University there about work and said to me, “It is too hard to live and thrive in Somalia. I think we should go there.”

I agreed.

Maybe we were crazy. Maybe we still are. But we knew that being in a place so wildly outside our normal would stretch us like nothing else we could imagine. It would force us to depend on a strength outside ourselves in ways we don’t have to in Minnesota.

There is a kind of joyful, adrenaline-filled, naive rush associated with being so far outside one’s comfort zone. But I’ve been stretched. My comfort zone has widened to include things that would have shocked me years ago.

This has been a time for more stretching, to widen that zone once again.When I look back I see the hand of God orchestrating our history and so I know that as I walk into 2015 already feeling that itchy-ache of stretching that it means he is doing something foundational.

After my twin pregnancy my stomach has remained a battlefield of stretch marks. After being stretched in Somalia and over 10 years in Djibouti, I know my life bears similar stretch marks. I fully expect the next season to contribute more marks. They are scars, yes, but they are also signs. And in them is a picture of faith and the handiwork of a mighty God who is always strong and who enters my weakest spaces and whispers, “You can rest. I am strong enough.”

On that first run of 2015, I saw the sunrise over Turtle Island. I have seen hundreds of sunrises over Turtle Island and they are all spectacular. This one took my breath away and left one word in my mind for the coming year.


Let’s Go Flaneuring in Cochabamba, Bolivia

Today’s Flaneuring post is by Dana Holzer and she walks us through Cochabamba, Bolivia. I just like saying that name, Cochabamba. Cochabamba.

Ah Cochabamba, Bolivia…we Montanans love you. A sprawling city of one million, where many languages are spoken in the roiling hot days and cool nights. You are hemmed in by Mt. Tunari’s peak of 17,000 feet and flanked by the largest Cristo statue in the world. Visitors quickly learn that in town the altitude is high enough and the sun strong enough that you’d better lather up with sunscreen and carry extra store-bought water.

cochabambaOur little neighborhood surrounds Parque Lincoln. Most weekends, photographers, wedding parties, folkloric dancers, semi pro video crews, and families with pets descend to the park to spend time together and to share a picnic meal. The many palm trees erupt in permanent firework shaped poofs, and the shrubs surrounding the historic fountains are trimmed to look like various animals: pigs, turkeys and ducks.

Our apartment building is a lofty white and orange stucco building with two friendly doormen, Edgar and Wenceslas. Each day we spend time talking with them while waiting for a taxi, or simply to get fútbal scores. Edgar has a quick smile and speaks Quechua and Spanish, whereas Wenceslas speaks Aymara and Spanish. When my kids have special holidays at their Bolivian school and dress up in traditional costumes, Edgar requests to have his photo taken with our family. Then he sheepishly asks for a copy to show his parents, with whom he lives. The doormen have difficult jobs, assuring security for the building which means hours of boredom, working 24 shifts in a teeny tiny room with no bed for the night. We bring fruit and baked goods to help them pass the time.


Across the street there is an old formidable brick wall enclosing our neighbor Hector’s farm. He grows lemons, fruit bearing cactuses, and his roosters are my son’s alarm clock. Hector’s wife sells a local specialty, Humintas (hot corn sweet pastries), fresh peach juice and Cokes on the weekends just outside their gate. The refrescos are poured into small clear plastic bags and tied around a straw to drink.

Sounds are important in our neighborhood. The gas truck delivering propane announces its coming with a loud clanging steel rod striking a round metal disc. A high pitched whistle signifies the knife sharpener is on his way. It’s a sound like no other; it begins as a shrill high note, then melodically tumbles down the octave. These men look as though they’ve emerged from the hills 100 years ago in their woolen vests and tire soled sandals.

The school building on our street is the site for 3 separate schools, including night school for adults. Thankfully it rarely rains in Cochabamba, because the roof leaks down onto the students. To notify the neighborhood of the upcoming school year a loud speaker blasts information for three days. A PA system is used on a daily fruit truck lumbering up and down the streets. These drivers sound violent as they shout out, “Manda, manda manda mandarinaaaaaá! The last “a” sound slides up five notes higher. The sounds are curiously like a very bad recording of a Muslim call to prayer.

Other treasures in our neighborhood include bustling fruit and veggie stand at a speedy rotunda underneath a sprawling giant tree. The two main women staffing the tienda work from 7 am to 7 pm. Giant avocados, passion fruit, potatoes, tumbo fruit and slices off of a giant pumpkin (the size of a small St. Bernard) are all for sale. Fresh, cheap and open every day.

Down the hill is our church, cobbled out of a rambling housing complex. The stucco walls are mustard yellow, and a thatched roof of woven leaves sneak in dust, dirt and rain. It’s said of Cochabamba that the air is so full of flying soil, that an airplane slams the dirt before it hits the ground.

cochabamba2Many Latin American people are known for extraverted gregariousness. Bolivians are much more reserved, which is not to say they aren’t warm. Kissing on the cheek or air next to the cheek happens perhaps 50+ times a day to greet friends, my dentist, my kids’ teachers, a new acquaintance. Sometimes when we meet new people, my kids are petted or stroked just like a cat. They are praised for their command of Spanish, and I am given the encouragement (also sometimes 50+ times a day) “poco a poco”, meaning little by little, you too will learn.

Women endearingly called cholitas are often seen outside, walking to and from their daily work. In the past they were only counted as house help and were routinely discriminated against. They have thick double braids to their waists and wear gorgeous velvet, knee length skirts with perhaps one hundred folds lengthwise in the dark fabric. Their broad straw hats are a stiff, woven white with plastic flowers on the brim. A heavy brocade cropped blouse is worn under a colorful blanket of sharp turquoise and fuchsia, tied around the shoulders. They literally carry the next generation on their backs. These beautiful women are like strong, silent sentries guarding modern people from forgetting their roots.

Dana W.M. Holzer is a Montanan who loves living in Cochabamba, Bolivia with her husband and two children. Working with a missions organization, Dana also writes for Montana Parent Magazine and for their family blog, Big Sky, Big World. Follow their (mis)adventures at Big Sky Big World.

Sneaker to Sneaker

Quick link: Sneaker to Sneaker in the Grand Bara Desert

I’m thrilled to be back at EthnoTraveler with this essay about a 15k race that unites a disparate nation. This was my fourth year of running but my first year of actually learning some of the history of the race.

This year in particular, perhaps because of the divisions in the broader world between cultures, nations, and religions, I was struck by the spirit of unity and camaraderie clearly evident during the race. It really was beautiful and inspirational to see people from such diverse backgrounds come together and support one another, encourage one another, serve one another. Its an honor to be allowed to participate.

grand bara1

Djibouti’s eclectic mix of cultures can be confusing, daunting, and inspiring. Somali, Afar, Yemeni, French, American, Dutch, Chinese, German, and so many other ethnicities and cultures intermingle here. The country is peaceful and progressive but nowhere is the camaraderie more stripped of cultural and political baggage than at the finish line of the Grand Bara 15k.

A desert 18.5 miles long and six miles wide. No trees or brush or boulders, not a sliver of shade. Dry, cracked clay packed tightly into geometric shapes and curling around the edges, up toward the relentless sun. To the east, a row of low mountains where wild ostriches roam. Running southeast, the highway to Ethiopia, currently under construction. Forever under construction. The desert winds, blistering sun, and massive transport trucks wreak havoc on the pavement and the sides of the road fall off in chunks leaving potholes large enough to swallow several goats…

Click here to read the rest of Sneaker to Sneaker in the Grand Bara Desert