Headed to Namibia (1/31/15)

It is frustrating the responses I get for being from Mississippi, all around the world. Here are some real responses I’ve gotten to the “Which state are you from?” question.

“Like… The, uh, river?” (Rarely said with certainty.)
“What’s that?” (Rarely said with tact.)
“I see you are wearing shoes!” (Yes, I am, in fact, not barefoot and pregnant. Gold star for your observation skills. Now go away.)
Oh, that’s where the slaves went.” (Compliments of a little Irish granny who has lost her filter.)
“I saw on Top Gear they really hate gay people there.” (I can see this is going to be a fun conversation…)
“Like the film Mississippi Burning! Is it really that bad…?” (Ditto above.)
“Wasn’t there a big storm there recently?” (They mean hurricane Katrina, and their sense of time is loose.)
“You can’t possibly be from Mississippi. Where’s your accent?” (At home, which is the same place you left your manners.)
“I’m sorry.” (I wanted to punch the Yankee that said that. Instead I opted to lecture her.)
“I LOVE jazz!” (This is by far the best option.)

However, Ish, (my boss Zena’s friend who keeps the books on the farm in South Africa) gave me a new one as we drove to Bloemfontein. “Isn’t the Ku Klux Klan from there?” I was surprised by this and embarrassed not to know the answer. (It’s Tennessee, I now know.) At the time I said, “either Mississippi or Arkansas…” I must apologize to my second home, Arkansas, for throwing you under the bus. Ish and her husband were driving to Bloem for their granddaughter’s birthday party and offered me a ride so I could catch a plane to Namibia the next day. We had an interesting conversation about race in the southern US with a few comparisons to South Africa. I was not as frank as I wanted to be, but Ish had the most fair opinion I had encountered since arriving to this country.

In the backseat with me was Malephoi, a 10-year-old friend of the birthday girl. We talked about fashion (hair styles, what colors I’ve dyed my hair, which ear piercing hurt the most, favorite colors in general), her Sesotho name and English name (Juliet) as well as how people mispronounce both, learning to swim, and how many countries we can name. She was bright and made for truly delightful conversation. When I clarified that I am from the U.S. and not England like she thought, Malephoi said, “Is Obama really your president? I thought that was a joke.” She told me a mixed race person is called “colored” here, which made me squirm even though it is the correct term.

That night I took a quiz and named 136 counties. I texted Ish to tell Malephoi, who (with much prompting and correcting) named 15 countries in the car. She was so much fun to talk to and learn from. AND she shared her candy. What a Class A Kid.

In Malephoi I had a clever kid to talk to, whose ignorance of Mississippi was an easier obstacle to overcome than a misinformed stereotype or inappropriate question could have been. Sometimes skipping “where are you from?” can pave the way for a proper conversation.


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Hello old friends!  Y’all may have noticed I haven’t blogged in, oh, two months or so.  Europe was not awash with daily new experiences the way Kyrgyzstan was, and I think I ran out of steam a bit.  I’ll try to backtrack and write some posts about what I was up to, but my primary concern is this: AFRICA.


Yep, pals, McKenna is in Africa.  I bought a plane ticket on a Sunday, I flew out on a Thursday, I arrived on a Friday.  At each of these stages I mused, “But surely I won’t actually make it.  Like, there’s no way I’m actually going to Africa.”  But I made it!  More specifically, I made it happen!  (Happy dance ensues.)  Let me catch you up to date on my time in the biggest city in South Africa.  Its population is around 3 million people, or as I have been thinking of it, the ENTIRE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI.  The horror!


I arrived to Johannesburg (which I call Joburg like everybody else, and some people call Jozie) and was wiped out from 24 hours of international travel.  It took no time at all to get from the plane through immigration.  Learning from my experience in Ireland (where I overshared and was barely let in the country) I answered the question, “What is the purpose of your visit?” with one word, “Tourism.”  A lie if I ever told one; I regret nothing.  Once I got where a driver was supposed to stand holding a sign with my name and saw none, I found an ATM and was unable to take money out of my debit card.  No matter, I have a second.  That failed also.  Well, never fear, for I have a secret weapon, my so-called “Emergency Credit Card” from Dear Old Dad.  Which, frustratingly, also was unable to work.  But I am an international traveler, and I always have a plan!  That’s not true.  I rarely have a long-term plan, but I do have mad problem-solving skills.  I took the last of my US Dollars to a counter and swapped them for just enough South African Rand to get me to the hotel.  That is, once I found my pre-arranged taxi driver.


I tromped over to the payphones where I would call my hotel and ask where he was.  If I could only get the damn payphone to work….!  I had to ask for help in interpreting which of the numbers were required when dialing a South African number from inside the country.  Payphone: 1.  McKenna: zip.  I got through to reception and they had my taxi driver call the phone I was standing at.  He said he was wearing a red shirt and jeans by the Christmas tree.  I found him and introduced myself.  Walter, as he’s called, has brilliant white teeth that stand out against his dark complexion, and eyes that dance.  We talked and laughed the whole thirty minutes it took to drive me to the hotel.  We discussed his taxi business and how he lived apart from his fiancé for a few months before insisting she move to Joburg with him.  He has two girls under the age of 10.  Considering that’s more personal information than I got out of most of my colleagues in Ireland, I began to suspect I would like it here.


Once at the hotel I met the receptionist, Angelique, and crashed in my room.  I finished a hat I’d been knitting (which is useless, as it’s 85° outside), watched too much news about the hostage crisis in Paris, and ventured out for food (once my parents fixed the problems with my cards – it’s so nice to have boots on the ground).  A gentle rain started out the window.  I did the only sensible thing and played this song for myself.



Walking past reception after eating my takeaway dinner Angelique called out to me and said, “Do you think money can buy you love?”  I said, cheekily, “It depends on your definition of love.”  She asked, “Do you think money can buy you happiness?”  Sensing this was a more serious conversation, I said it can certainly buy peace of mind, but happiness is another thing entirely.  Angelique continued to explain that people who dress well are treated with respect in shops, which she equates to love.  She also pointed out how insulting it is that people like Angelina Jole and Brad Pitt have adopted children from Africa instead of their own countries.  Angelique’s mother took in “stray kids” as she called them, and Angelique would complain that with too many kids over for dinner she didn’t get enough to eat.  Her mother would reply, “You are bigger than they are.  You can have more for breakfast,” and never turned away a child who showed up at supper time.  There I was, minding my own business, not even operating in Nosy Anthropologist mode, when this amazing woman starts a genuine philosophical conversation with me.  I went to bed very happy to be in such a friendly place.


After completely sleeping through my alarm for the first time in my life, I visited a friend with the same scholarship who is working at a lab in Pretoria.  My taxi driver on the way to the train station and I discussed the typical tourist paranoia and fear of walking places even around the hotel which is very safe (hence why I picked it).  My comment was, “I am a woman, and I am traveling alone.  I have to go out by myself, it’s just a fact.  But I don’t have to go out by myself at night.”  Her response was, “Oh definitely don’t do that!  You aren’t stupid!”  It’s so nice to have my common sense validated, and by a local too.  The train to Pretoria, which is the administrative capital of South Africa, was uneventful.  Lunch with Alison, however, was not.  We sat outdoors at a Greek restaurant with a bottle of wine to share and ordered our food.  After it arrived, half a dozen bees descended upon us.  Alison was the president of the bee-keeping club at Hendrix; I am deathly allergic to bees.  At first they were just buzzing around us and I was aware but not panicking.  Then they were on my food and I left them alone.  It was when two landed on my hand that I squeaked, “Alison, help…!”  She carefully scraped them off me and onto her, all the while analyzing what would be drawing them to our table.  What a scientist, what a friend, what a gal.  We were left in peace once we finished our food.  I am not ashamed to say there was definitely an extra glass of wine I hadn’t planned on drinking in order to cope with the situation.


That afternoon we walked around Pretoria and discussed what our different travel styles and experiences had been like.  There isn’t much to look at except statues, old colonial buildings, and a market we stumbled upon.  Since Alison has been in Pretoria nearly three months I used her as a resource of the two main white groups here and asked, “Do we read as English or Afrikaans?”  Her reply was perfect, “No, McKenna.  We read as tourists.”  Sensible shoes, quick-drying clothes and small backpacks…  Touché.  I really enjoyed catching up with someone else who has been in travel mode for six months like I have, even if she has been looking at mushrooms instead of horses.


Having had a history class on South Africa, I thought it would be beneficial to see the Apartheid Museum the next day to jog my memory.  Down at reception I asked Angelique to call me a cab to take me there.  When I first walked up she said, “Yes ma’am,” and ducked her head respectfully which completely threw me off.  I jumped and said “I call YOU ma’am, you don’t call ME ma’am!  You’re older than me!  That isn’t how we do it at home!”  She rolled her eyes and I realized I may have accidentally entered myself into a complex racial scenario without a road map.  The moment passed but I still felt awkward.  Angelique suggested I take a tour of Soweto (which stands for South-West-Township, one of the poorer areas).  I had already decided that I was not interested in poverty tourism as I saw it, and tried to politely point this out.  I would not want tourists of Mississippi to flock to the Delta and ride in air conditioned cars, looking at the impoverished conditions safely outside their window before being driven back to a cushy hotel.  Apparently I have it all wrong.  She passionately told me that Nelson Mandela lived in that area, the Soweto uprising took place there, and it is so full of history that, “Nobody comes to South Africa without going to Soweto.”  I was convinced, and she arranged for a tour guide to take me for a good price.


Alfred picked me up at the hotel.  We chatted on the drive to the Apartheid Museum where I had about an hour and a half to wander around.  There wasn’t particularly anything that was new to me considering the semester I spent studying, but it was definitely a good idea to visit.  I think more than sadness, my primary emotion was anger.  In one room there were screens with different apartheid-era politicians (white, of course) who were justifying the system of racial segregation and oppression.  I would spend a minute or two in front of each one and then walk away in disgust.  I have heard all of their arguments before (I can’t even write them here, they make me so irate), and it sparked an interesting comparison of segregation in Mississippi to apartheid in South Africa with Alfred when I returned to the car.  His advice was, “It is in the past.  We must not forget it, but it is in the past.”


In Soweto I saw Mandela’s house, closed mines, a tall building used for bungee jumping, the largest hospital in South Africa, where Winnie Mandela currently lives, one of the soccer stadiums built for the World Cup, and Hector Peterson square.  Hector Peterson was a 13 year old boy who was killed during a student protest against learning Afrikaans, which was seen as the language of oppression.  The iconic photograph of an older boy carrying his body gained international attention.  Alfred also, spur-of-the-moment, drove me to his own house because we were nearby.  We turned off a partially paved road onto splitting and cracked dirt road which was full of potholes.  As with all of the other houses I’d seen in the area, there was a large fence around his property.  Nobody was home so we just drove past.


Hector Peterson


On the ride back to the hotel, our discussion ranged from children’s obsession with McDonald’s (including anecdotes from him about how his grandkids love it, and various nicknames for the chain around the world), to which culture group “owns” English (I’ll give you a hint: my answer was not Queen’s English), and the tragedy of Africans who were shipped as slaves to the Americas.  The last conversation made him even angrier than our talk about apartheid.  There was a brief burst of passion as he said one day he was thinking about it and wanted to go find some white people to hurt, but he didn’t.  That wasn’t awkward for me at all…  Alfred quickly switched back to his subdued yet chipper self as if nothing had happened and I humbly agreed that it was a terrible fate.  Before I let a kind and understanding black South African get away from me without me doing some anthropological digging, I asked him if I had offended Angelique by protesting when she called me ma’am.  He said that, since she works in the service industry, that is probably how she addresses everyone.  She was likely surprised by my protest, but she would get over it.  Score, I didn’t put my foot in my mouth too badly!  I enjoyed spending a few hours with a resident of Soweto (he was surprised and impressed that I knew what it stood for) and I’m glad Angelique insisted that I go.


Before I leave you, friends, let me get you up to date on the number of marriage proposals I have had in my life/this year: three.  Bek told me he wanted to marry me, conveniently leaving out what that would do to poor Chris my “fiancé” *cough cough.*  I had to block him so that he cannot call me anymore and regretfully inform him that we are just friends and I wouldn’t be talking to him for a while.  A European man in a hostel in Portugal who has spent too much time in India asked “Are you married?” when he’d known me for mere hours.  I later told him that my mom has said I should find a cat-man who can cook for me – but I said this as he was cooking for me.  He slyly looked at me and said, “I think you should know…  I like cats.”  How do you shut that down?  He was already cooking me Indian food!


And last but certainly not least, my South African proposal.  I was eating dinner alone at the restaurant next to my hotel, as one does.  (I told Michael one time “It isn’t eating alone if you have a book with you.”  She laughed at me.  Apparently that doesn’t count.)  A clearly drunk man wandered over to my table holding two beers and set one down.  Within two minutes of chatting, he said, “You look like my next wife.”  I was dumbstruck.  How forward can you get!  He asked for my phone number, which, luckily, I didn’t have one yet.  My phone was in my lap so he thought I was lying to him.  Failing that, he asked me to, “Come to my office tomorrow, where we can talk about EVERYTHING.”  I politely declined, saying I was getting on a plane to Bloemfontein the next day.  (No matter who I tell, this triggers the reaction of, “Bloemfontein?  Why?  What the hell is in Bloemfontein?”  It is a rather rural place…)  A few minutes later he begged me to visit him at his office, clearly having forgotten my VERY GOOD and VERY TRUE excuse that I would be leaving Joburg.  We went through this cycle a few more times over the next 20 minutes.  I pointed out that “My fiancé *cough cough* is in Arkansas.  He is very tall.  And strong.  And, need I mention, would not approve.”  (Thanks Chris!)  This did not deter the very drunk man.  Instead he said, “You are beautiful, and very smart.  In my culture, you would be worth many cows.”


Not bad for my third day in the country, eh?  I might have peaked too early.  Whatever happens next, it was definitely worth coming to Africa in order to get a compliment like that.  Over and out.


McKenna, She Who is Worth Many Cows

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Moving to Iceland and a Horse Roundup

Chris and I had some more low key hanging out in Reykjavik until we both had early buses to different places.  It was a perfect few days so the goodbye actually wasn’t all that awful!  I napped on the bus up to northwest Iceland, the village of Varmahlið, which has 140 people.  My host Pétur picked me up at the bus stop/gas station/grocery store/buffet.  We met his fiancé Heiðrún at the house and I shared stories about Kyrgyzstan before she went to work at the hotel.  I followed Pétur around as he trained a few horses and I was in awe at the process.  I only have a theoretical working knowledge of how one trains a horse and it was amazing to see it in person.  My mind was a bit blown, which is an excellent and familiar feeling these past few months.


Once again, I was well and truly happy to move in to a room of my own.  At this point in my journey it is September 19, or 10 weeks in to my trip In France I moved every 1-4 days over the whole month, and I was totally over the unpack/pack/repeat.  Similarly, I was ecstatic to have a household with a friendly cat.  Snotra (pronounced Sno-tra, not Snot-ra) and I became great pals right off the bat.


That night, Pétur offered to share the steak he was cooking.  When I mentioned I am a vegetarian, I’m pretty sure he was so shocked that his eyebrows disappeared in his hairline.  (Later they asked me why I’m a vegetarian and he tried to persuade me by saying, “Well, Jesus ate meat.”  Little does he know just how unconvincing an argument that is for me.)


It was Petur’s birthday on my first day, and there was a live music show in town.  Their name is Ljótu Hálfvitarnir, which translates to “The Ugly Halfwits.”  They had ridiculous outfits and played fun folk Icelandic music, but in between songs they made jokes which were presumably hilarious (I’ll never know because it was all in Icelandic).  At times, I was the only person in the place not singing along to the particularly well-known ones.  They almost started singing an English song (500 Miles by the Proclaimers) but they stopped halfway through as a joke.  One of them was a wind instrument player and he had the tenor sax out for one song which made me happy.  It was a great first night.  The remainder of the weekend passed in a lull as I tried to get used to the rhythm of the house.




If you, dear reader, think I am a crazy person for going to Iceland in September and October, then let me explain first that you are not wrong, but also that I had my reasons.  In the north of Iceland where I’d decided to stay, many farmers put their horses in the same valley for the summer and collect them four months later in preparation for winter.  This roundup is called réttir, and I wanted to be in Iceland for such an event.  The local roundup took place one week after I arrived to the farm.  I had one or two days of getting used to the daily routine of breakfast, muck stalls, lunch, follow Pétur around lending a hand, coffee break, muck stalls, dinner.  After that, there was a Norwegian journalist, Mette, who was staying with us and attending the réttir in the weekend.  She is highly interested in the topic of horse meat and I learned a lot about it because of her probing questions.  It is a part of my research project that I have been tentative in exploring because of how difficult it is for me to process.  I’m not going to go into much detail for the sake of my American audience (I don’t want to shock my mother or Amy Russell).  However, the breeding industry of Icelandic horses requires for the least promising individuals to go to the slaughterhouse, otherwise farmers do not make much profit by keeping all of the duds.  It is efficient, but still breaks my heart a little bit inside.  That is exactly what I came to Iceland to learn about.

IMG_3395  IMG_3412 IMG_3470

Over the next few days Mette and I went to different pastures to photograph herds of horses (stallions one day, mares and foals the next), walked to a nearby waterfall, stopped in the next city for me to get some warmer clothes, and team-interviewing the legend of Icelandic horses Tölty, the man in the trailer below.  He is Heiðrún’s brother and international Icelandic horse competition winner.  Watch the trailer, but have tissues close by.



The Friday before the Saturday réttir, I drove all of us to a small horse competition that was just for fun.  There was an obstacle course that two different men rode a horse bareback through.  It involved picking up a pillow from the ground (which the horse was not on board with) and then picking up a beer, riding around for a bit, chugging it, and setting it back on the chair that they found it.  Then there was a rodeo clown type skit with two young men dressed as women and riding horses very badly, falling off, and being unable to get back on (which is ridiculous because these are pony-sized horses, but don’t you dare call them a pony!) and a girl rode over and stole their horses.  There was some singing, since this region is known for horse breeding and group singing, and then was a pace competition.  When people brag about the Icelandic horse, they talk about the five gaits: walk, trot, tölt, pace, and gallop.  Well this was a competition (which included Tölty and Pétur) for the fastest pace over a set distance and it was quite fun to see.  In tölt the rider hardly moves in the saddle, but pace is a bit bumpier.  Mette and I waited for our Icelandic hosts to finish up talking to all of the other spectators, and an incredibly drunk man came over to me and spoke Icelandic.  I said, “Nope!  English!”  He continued to be unintelligible, and I felt incredibly awkward and uncomfortable.  The only thing I could understand him say was, “Why not?” so I decided to literally run away.  Feet, don’t, fail me now!  My feet don’t fail me now!  At one point later I hid behind a pillar and then Mette as he wandered over to my hiding place.  Mette was already my friend at this point after three straight days of hanging out, but she really endeared herself to me when I loudly whispered, “Don’t move!” and half-crouched behind her.


The next day was the RÉTTIR!!!  We woke up early and drove to the valley where the horses stay.  Since Mette was there on journalistic business, we drove to where the herd was waiting and met some of the people who had organized the event.  The anticipation was thick in the air, and once it started I was able to help produce this video by filming the water scenes:



That really does explain what the rest of my day was like.  Mette found some Norwegians she knew so I was an honorary Norwegian for a day, which I really enjoyed.  They were all so friendly and said I had to come to Norway to see their horses!  One day I’ll make it over there (spoiler alert: I make it over there!).  I bought an Icelandic sweater because I was chilled (which contributed to being mistaken as an Icelander many times in the rest of my trip).  I’d stepped into a large hidden puddle of water when Mette and I were running around filming horses, and I was unaware that I had been a slight bit grumpy due to the cold; the sweater solved that.


I so enjoyed watching the roundup.  There was this interesting dichotomy of wild vs domesticated/tame, because the horses that were allowed to run free all summer are suddenly put in a corral and sorted out by the farmers.  It also was a traditional event which has been molded to fit the tourists.  Thirty years ago the locals would go get the horses and then stick around to drink and sing, but now some of them get the horses from the valley and put them closer for the tourists to help round up.  There were only 420 horses this year which means there were more riders than horses that they were gathering!  It was a lovely day.  I can’t believe that in the past year I googled “Icelandic horses,” learned about the réttir, was awarded the Watson, found a farm in the right region, and actually attended it.  There have been ups and downs, but it really is a charmed life I’m leading right now.


Happily moved in to a CLOSET, with HANGERS, and my Icelandic sweater.  It’s the little things in life.  Over and out.

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An Accident Waiting to Happen

I remember many things about my trail ride on 11/11/14.  The one thing I don’t remember is hitting my head.

I had a beautiful ride that afternoon.  I had stumbled upon a Norwegian woman with Quarter Horses, and in a fit of trust she suggested I borrow her horse to go riding alone in the woods without a helmet.  This situation sounds like a recipe for disaster…  And yet it wasn’t.  We ambled along, the horse and I, while I composed a song whose lyrics went like this: “How the hell did I find myself here? / What the fuck is happening? / Is this real life? / Pinch me, I’m dreaming.”  It was exciting to find myself in such a bizarre set of circumstances, enjoying the Norwegian woods from the back of an American horse whose temperament was just as I remembered from my own horses: comfortable and lazy.  It was bliss.

Back at the home of my host, Mette (who I’d met in Iceland), asked if I wanted to ride her horse alone?  I had ridden her new eventing (a sport which includes dressage, jumping, and cross-country racing) horse, Cayenne, yesterday with Mette riding a different one.  That was another fantastic ride even through the drizzling rain.  Having felt so immediately at ease with Cayenne the day before, I gladly agreed.  This way, Mette could get some work done, and I would be happily entertained by one of my favorite pastimes.  Win/win/win.  We went to the stable and saddled up, making sure to put reflective gear on both me and the horse since it was an hour before dark.  Donning Mette’s helmet, I set off for the same trail we had taken the day before.

Cayenne was noticeably less relaxed than the day before, but not worryingly so.  We rode up the road to the entrance to the park, and if she was less willing to go around the traffic barrier and terrifying boulder than the day before, then I didn’t blame her.  We rode through the woods and encountered two pedestrians and their dogs, which Cayenne (having been scared by a charging dog before) stopped and watched rather than any other bad behavior.  We turned around after having ridden for 20 minutes, so that we could conserve the light for our ride home.  I admit now that I am a poor judge of how much light is left in autumn in Scandinavia.  In Denmark, I had to walk in the dark for a half hour back to my car after walking in the woods.

When we were nearly out of the park, we crossed a bridge and turned a corner to see a strange sight.  There was a man with a flashlight and a dog with a blinking red light on his forehead.  Knowing Cayenne’s nerves, and since it was twilight to boot, I stopped her so she could get a good look at what was approaching her.  She backed up a few steps in fear and the dog barked and began to chase her.  We bolted back over the bridge, me unstable in the small English riding saddle, but yelling for her to stop and using all of my horse expertise to convince her that sprinting up the trail was not in her best interest.  I managed to stop her and turn her around to see that the dog was no longer in pursuit.  The man had his dog on a leash and had moved into the woods to get out of our way.  Unfortunately to the horse brain, now the dreaded Predator was lurking in the woods.  I managed to communicate through my anger that I only speak English, was his dog safely on a leash, and maybe he shouldn’t do that ever again.  At this point I noticed beyond the bridge was another man with two dogs.  I asked him to put his dogs on a leash if they weren’t already and he continued on his way.  Cayenne was understandably spooked, and I was proud of her for listening to me in the first place.  We walked past the scary dog in the woods with minimal snorting.

I never saw the horse coming.

Behind us we both heard the sound of a running horse.  It did not register anything special to me, but to Cayenne, they weren’t just running, they were running from something.  She already had first-hand confirmation that there was at least one Horse Monster in the woods, and she did not need any more convincing.  She sprinted with less warning and faster than I have ever experienced.  The second man with two dogs was further up the path and I yelled at him to get out of the way (though I did not remember this until two hours later).  I knew with a certainty that I was on a runaway horse who was not amenable to any of my demands, and this was the most dangerous experience I’ve ever been a part of.  After passing the man but not running over him or his dogs, I remembered the traffic barrier and “terrifying” rock at the park entrance.  I tried even harder to get her to stop but to no avail.  There was nothing for me to hold on to in the saddle, and I lost my balance when she slowed down upon noticing the barrier.  Within a few steps I had almost gotten myself seated back in the saddle.  Too frightened to actually stop, she gathered her strength and jumped the meter-high obstacle.  When we landed, I was hanging on her neck with the reigns still in my hands.  For a few paces I attempted to simultaneously stop the horse using the reigns and get back in the saddle, all the while thinking of where we would go if I actually managed to stay on her.  Which, I did not.

What I remember from the fall is this: Impact on my left hip, thinking “I’m going to have to get back on the horse” which did not last long as I felt the blinding pain in my back and hip, and then remembering that I should not stand up.  I had entirely forgotten the hiker with his two dogs as well as the rider of the horse and became immediately terrified that nobody would find me, and I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone to go look for Cayenne.  I did however remember the first dog but had forgotten it was leashed, and, though I was screaming for help, became almost as frightened that the dog would find me and bite me while I was unable to run away.

It felt like an eternity, but the two men with dogs found me (without their dogs, though I did not notice or wonder about that until much later).  They bombarded me with questions in Norwegian until they understood I was American.  I think for every question they asked, “Are you ok?  Did you hit your head?  Do you need an ambulance?”  I responded with one of my own, “Can you find my horse?  She’s my friend’s horse, can you go look for her?”  Eventually a girl walked over leading a horse and I asked, “Are you what scared the shit out of my horse?”  I never did get an answer to that…  I asked her to search for Cayenne and she agreed.  Some time later she returned with another horse (I wondered at how strange a view it is to see a horse from the position of lying on the ground) and said her friend had seen Cayenne running.  Did I want them to follow her?  Uh, what a dumb question, the answer is yes.  Please find the horse.

The first man called the emergency number while the second called Mette.  I was asked what hurt, how I fell, did I hit my head?  Eventually they asked me to stand up and I became nauseous.  This development provoked even more questions about my head and I vehemently responded, “NO.  I did not hit my head.”  They asked my birth date and social security number.  I rattled off the first easily but paused to recall my 9-digit identification.  It was decided for me that the second man, whose car was in the parking lot I had fallen in, would drive me to the hospital.  With one man on each arm, they helped me walk to the front seat, and off we went.

My rescuer was named Paul.  We drove to Mette’s house and met her outside on the road.  I cried and apologized for losing Cayenne, and she told me not to worry.  She stayed behind to look for her and Paul agreed to drive me the rest of the way to the hospital.  He was a fantastic conversationalist, and I wished I’d met him in better circumstances.  We talked about his grandchildren, being left-handed, practicing English, my scholarship, and how pretty the Norwegian woods are.  He told me Cayenne would be fine and had probably walked home already.

At the hospital, I laid down on a couch and dictated my personal information to Paul for the paperwork.  I was given acetaminophen in the triage room, sat back down in the waiting room, and then put in an emergency room to wait for the doctor.  At this point, we had gotten a call from Mette that Cayenne had indeed walked home and been caught, and a wave of emotion washed over me.  In past situations, I have had a calm head in stressful times, but that persona had vanished.  Feeling slightly better than the first shock of terror and pain, I began to hide my discomfort in humor.  I think every sentence from my mouth was an attempt to make Paul smile.  Mette came to the hospital just as the doctor showed up and I said goodbye to Paul, who had patiently waited with a stranger he’d met in the woods an hour before.  Since my hands were scraped up we exchanged an odd left-handed handshake.

The doctor was a bit full of himself and swept in the room saying, “Hello, my name is such and such, and I am the doctor.”  I replied just as darkly, “Hello, my name is McKenna, and I am the patient.”  He did not smile at my hilarious effort, bastard, but instead said that a smiling patient is his favorite kind.  Clearly he was unaware as to my coping mechanism.  He asked me loads of questions, starting with “Did you hit your head?”  I said no, once again vehement.  By examining me and moving my legs painfully all around, he concluded I had not fractured my hip in the fall but did have massive bruising.  After checking my wrist he said it was unlikely to be fractured.  But since I was nauseous, I probably had a concussion.  I was so surprised but who am I to critique the doctor?  He then handed me acetaminophen and hydrocodone for pain, and I snapped at him that if he’d read my chart he would know that I was allergic to codine.  He looked slightly ashamed and said, “Thank you for telling me.”  Thank god it wasn’t a bigger concussion or I might have added “stopped breathing” to my list of aches and pains.

Mette paid for my hospital bill (I didn’t have a wallet on me) which was surprisingly cheap.  We drove home and that is the point at which I remembered running past Paul (for the second man with dogs was Paul) in the woods.  Nausea plus forgetting a part of the accident made the doctor’s diagnosis of concussion seem more likely to me….  And then I saw the helmet.  “I didn’t hit my head” my ass.  These are not the scrapes of a life-saving helmet, but there are still obvious scratches all around the front and side of the helmet.  I did not remember rolling at all but the helmet and unexpected bruising this morning confirm that.


I took unnecessary risks by going out on a quarter horse with no helmet in unfamiliar woods carrying no cellphone.  I did not think it unduly risky to ride a horse for the second time, wearing a helmet, in the same woods as the day before.  As a competent rider, I was able to quiet a horse after we were chased by a dog, and it was the unfortunate circumstances of the failing light and being surprised by other horses around a corner that set off Cayenne in the end.  I suppose I can end with the platitude that I will be more careful in the future, but I am generally a very careful rider.  I visited Cayenne today and was not unduly upset.  I think I will be more nervous of dogs in the future, but so will she.  It is amazing that she and I are both, on the whole, unhurt by the terrible experience.  I thank my body for all it has put up with and am grateful that it was not worse.  I am a bit impressed that I was able to stay on a leaping horse, but not so much that I’ll try to incorporate jumping into my riding routine any time soon.

I think what I will end with is this: do not trust someone, especially me, when they say, “No I definitely did not hit my head.”

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As Aurelion pointed out, “Sometimes the cheapest flight is not the best.”  I woke up at the buttcrack of dawn and walked out of the apartment in Paris to find a taxi waiting for me, just as I had arranged.  But then a second taxi showed up… I believe the internal monologue of my panic went something like this: “Shitshitshitshitshitshit.”  I walked to the first taxi just as other people were getting out of it, which solved my conundrum.  At 5:30 in the morning it was startling!  I wish I could say getting to the plane was uneventful, but I was so tired (and at one point distracted by three American guys who really liked my cowboy hat) that I took the shuttle in the wrong direction of my terminal not once, not twice, but three different times.  Sometimes the cheapest flight is not the best.  Lesson learned.  I also forgot my hat in security and ran back two minutes later for it.  Doh.

On the flight to Reykjavik, I realized I hadn’t done quite enough research about the place that I was going.  Feeling guilty, I watched all of the touristy-aimed promotional videos about the different regions of Iceland and was disappointed that none of them said anything about horses!  Poor marketing choice.  I met Chris Johnson in the airport and was greeted with a penguin wave before I got close enough to tackle him in a bear hug.  We got bus tickets from the airport to the city and as SOON as we walked out of the door we were hit by a fierce gust of wind and freezing rain.  I most definitely squealed loudly, and someone walked past us and whispered ominously, “Welcome to Iceland.”

We checked in to the hostel and had a miniature investigation of the tourist street of Reykjavik, including a purchase of beer bottle moustaches.  It was so nice to have someone to be weird with.  Highlights of Reykjavik besides getting to be consistently strange include walking to the Grotta light house, figuring out the bus system, going to geothermally heated pools three times, history museum of Iceland (pretty small since there have only been 1000 years of occupation), hiking on Viðey island, and having a fancy schmancy Indian restaurant dinner compliments of the Johnsons.  We also saw a seal out in the harbor and hung out with it for 10 minutes.  He would dip down under the waves and pop up again and we’d walk to where he was to say hello again.  It is possible we named him George.


My favorite part was the day trip outside of the city.  If you go to Iceland, you have to see the nature!  At the first stop everyone went inside for a tour of a geothermal plant, but Chris and I stayed outside and played on the moss and lava.  It was definitely more fun and the moss gets to be a foot deep in places.  All of the other places we stopped were beautimous: a crater we hiked around (and I learned Chris is part mountain goat), a cute waterfall, Geyser, Gullfoss, and Parliament plains.  The latter is the rift between the North American and European plates which causes a huge cliff to jut out of the landscape, which is where the Icelandic tribes used to gather once a year.  Our tour attempted stop to pet Icelandic horses at one point and Chris and I use teeth and a barbed wire fence to cut an apple in half, but then we realized the horses were behind another fence and too far away.  We stopped later and gave it to a different pasture of horses, and there were two men with cowboy hats that stopped with us as well.  I was too shy to talk to the cowboys. Who knows where that came from.

Eat your heart out.  Enjoy the photos of the sites we stopped at on our tour: The crater, Geyser, Gullfoss (golden waterfall), and Parliament plains.


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Final France

Once in Caen, I walked to the house of my new Couch Surfing host, a girl about my age who lives with her parents and is working at a booth at the WEG.  They were immediately pleasant and welcoming, and I settled into a room for the next few nights.

My host, Marie, was also a vegetarian and we discussed that amazing veggie burger that we have both discovered in the Games Village.  I didn’t have anything planned so I went to the ticket booth to see if there were any more tickets for the individual vaulting finals.  As I was walking there, someone in a different line said she had an extra ticket if I wanted to buy it, since she wasn’t sure if there were any more for sale.  I jumped on that, and barely cared that she charged me 4€ more than she paid for it….  Still worth it!  This event, while still vaulting, was a freestyle which showed off each athlete’s strengths.  I had seen many of the women perform a few days before, but all of the men were new to me.  It was like watching someone dance on the back of a horse, occasionally throwing in a trick riding move of jumping off the horse and back on in the same movement.  The women’s winner, Joanna Eccles, is definitely deserving of the title and it is not her first win at the WEGs either!  The male silver medalist, Nicolas Andreani, was French and was dressed up like Einstein.  I thought he fell off which would have been major points off, but either it was part of his routine or he covered it so well that people fell for it.

I wandered over to a short music festival that had a woman with gray hair and sunglasses playing the bari sax as backup in the band.  I was so excited.  I then was able to talk my way in to the evening part of the vaulting, since my ticket said “Vaulting PM” but was only technically supposed to work for the Freestyle and not the Team event.  I was reeeeally impressed that it worked out and I got to see the team vaulting, which is like gymnastics/dance/cheerleading on horses.  Usually they have young girls, boys, or small women at the top of their pyramids and that person is called the “Flyer.”  Below is the French team, who came in third but I think did the best job.  Their Flyer is 13 year old Robin Krausse and he was pretty damn good.  It was so much fun to see what new (to me) things people do with horses!  Humans are a creative bunch.

I had taken a bike from my hosts in order to get to the games and ended up biking home in the dark, wearing all black (none of that was intentional guys).  I did get lost for a bit but I found my way and learned a valuable lesson:  one cannot ride a bike and read a map at the same time.

The next morning I biked to the course for carriage driving and only got minimally lost.  This event, again, blew my mind a little bit.  There were many different areas with different types of obstacle tests (at least 7 that I saw).  I camped out at the first one I saw for quite a while and got to move closer and closer as other people migrated away.  From that vantage point, I could see the left and right lead horses split a pole if they were not entirely sure which direction the driver was telling them to go.  If they whole team went the wrong way it was really hard to get the trap to back up but if just one or two of the horses did then the horses carefully backed up and went the right way through the obstacles.  It was a complicated pattern, which didn’t help matters.  I moved to see all of the other tests and my favorite one, besides my starting point, was the one which involved a water course.

I’m not ashamed at all to say that I went back to the Games Village for another one of the fantastic  veggie burgerrrrrrs.  I had one last horse event in store at the WEGs.  There is an English educator who has a program called Horses Inside Out in which she paints different body parts on the horse and does demonstrations.  In this particular one, she painted the bones of the horse for a dressage demonstration.  In a nearby tent there was footage of a horse painted with the digestive system and an explanation of how to keep horses healthy.

It was my last day and I spent a lot of time sitting on the grass reminiscing about all of the different forms of horsemanship I had seen in France thus far competitions and side-shows: para-dressage, show jumping, both individual and team vaulting, carriage driving; horse ball, exhibitions at two breeding grounds, horses used as garbage trucks, police horses, medieval war reenactors, trick riding, horse training “at liberty,” and horses used as educational tools.  Then there were the random things like the small man with the team of six miniature horses pulling his carriage, the pony that had dragon wings painted on his side for photos, or the horse with a floor-length mane that posed seated in a chair for photos.  For each of these performances, I encountered something completely different from my own way of relating to horses, and I sometimes questioned the ethics of their training methods or even the event itself.  All in all, there is even more variety and creativity in horse performance and competition than I expected.  I left my last day at the World Equestrian Games satisfied that, even if I didn’t get to shadow or interview any competitors, my eyes had still been opened to some of the wonders of the horse world.

Even if I was done with the WEGs, I wasn’t quite through with horses in France.  My friend Karel (remember her from other posts?  Friendly French girl who was a WEG volunteer) offered for me to come visit her home in Brittany.  We drove to the west of France, stopped at the house to pick up the dogs, then went to the stable for her to ride her horse.  That was the first time I’d seen a horse on a treadmill.  After seeing such high-class competitors with their fancy horses and their difficult disciplines, it was refreshing to see a normal person in an average barn loving her FREAKISHLY TALL horse.  Over the next three days we saw someone else ride her horse (as a potential candidate for borrowing him while she studies abroad), walked around adorable Breton villages (Douarnenez and Locronan), played in the sea with the dogs, and watched a lot of Friends together.  It was delightful for someone who was a stranger two weeks ago to let me have a glimpse of her life, and it didn’t hurt that there was also sunshine, horses, dogs, and the sea.  I lost a foot race to a dog named Jazz, squealed as I stepped on too many squishy things at the beach, played a new card game, and learned to say marc’h (horse) in Breton.  It was such a change from the hyper-formal competitions I’d seen, but primarily I had fun in seeing what someone else’s “normal” consists of in everyday life.  I was sad to say goodbye to my friend when she took me to the train station, but that is the nature of my life right now.  I’m not sure if it is getting easier as I go along.


Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle in Locranan

Back in Paris, this marks the first time I’ve gotten to say goodbye to new friends and then see them again!  Remember the friendly, impressively hospitable couple that I met in Kyrgyzstan?  I hung out in a park by the Louvre waiting for them to get home from work, and then we went for a really fun dinner (but I can never seem to represent great conversation into even a decent blog post).  Since I had missed the Louvre my previous time in Paris, Aurelion and I went and saw all the highlights.  I also got a chance to see the view from the top of the Notre Dame, saw Guardians of the Galaxy (first movie theatre outside the U.S. for me!) and had a meeting with a fellow horsey anthropologist I’ve found online.  It was a happy few days in Paris, primarily because I had such warm companions to share it with.  As much as I was enjoying the sun and culture of France, I needed to move on to somewhere further outside of my cultural and temperature comfort zone.  Next up, Iceland.

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Haras du Pin (is pronounced in no way like it’s spelled)

I had tickets to jumping (yay!) but lived pretty far away from the city center (boo!) so it took me an hour by tram and bus to get to the arena.  As it turns out, watching show jumping is stressful for me.  For the jumps that I had the best view of, I would get a knot in the pit of my stomach as soon as the horse’s feet left the ground that only untied itself when their hooves returned to terra firma.  It was exciting to hear the audible groan from the crowd (in an otherwise solid minute and a half of silence) whenever a competitor knocked down a fence.  I had learned already that “oxer” is the type of jump which is longer, so I at least had a word for that.  Otherwise I observed that the first three jumps seemed the simplest, and the most difficult looked to be those which were spaced the closest since that required the strides be just right in between.  The worst performance I saw involved someone knocking down six fences in their course.

I hopped on one of the WEG shuttles to the Games Village, where I stopped in at the Ariat boot booth.  The week before I showed them my shoelace keeper which had busted in Paris, and they said to stop by later to see if they can replace it for free.  That was ample incentive to get me to drop in, and . . . They replaced the boots for free!  I am very pleased with their commitment to their product and my satisfaction as a customer.  I have no idea if it was my backstory (I’ve had the shoes less than two months, and they really need to make it another ten before busting) that got me the swap, but I highly appreciate the result.  Now my black boots match my black cowboy hat, and I feel one step closer to a wardrobe that clashes less horrendously.

After lunch of the best veggie burger ever, I watched a women’s competition of vaulting in which they all performed the same routine on horseback.  To the uninitiated, (as I was a few days before) equestrian vaulting looks like a combination of interpretive dance, gymnastics, and trick riding.  The vaulter, lunger (person making the horse go in a circle) and horse all enter the ring together, the music starts, and the vaulter trots out to the horse.  I say “trot” because they run alongside the horse mimicking his stride before grabbing handles and hoisting themselves up on his back.  I was amazed throughout every rendition, even though I had no idea what criteria was used to determine an excellent performance.  My favorite vaulter was a Russian woman, and I got chill bumps watching; she wasn’t even in the top 10.  Even though the routines were identical, I was never bored.  I left the stadium that afternoon quite content with my level of knowledge of vaulting, which was limited, but astounded by the beauty of a woman standing up on the back of a galloping horse.

I made the trek back to the apartment and chatted with my host, who was writing a fanzine in preparation for an anime convention.  Karel picked me up, and we drove an hour away to Haras du Pin, one of France’s national stud farms.  They are responsible for the upkeep of French breeds, like the “Selle Francais” or the French saddle horse, Percheron, and Norman Cob.  They also have some Anglo-Arabs, Arabians, Lippizzaner’s, etc.  Karel has a friend from her old stable that works at the stud farm now (Tiphaine), and we were invited to come visit for an evening.  We noticed the friend’s phone was turned off once we reached the town, and we didn’t have directions to her house.  Since it was such a small town, we drove to the Haras and asked of the first person if they happened to know where Tiphaine kept her horse…?  Surprisingly, that worked, and we found her and her puppy at her stables.  We drove a few minutes to Tiphaine apartment, which is a five minute walk away from her work.  Taking the puppy, Joey, with us, we walked to the grounds and received an unofficial (French) tour.  I saw the backstage area of the school, where people learn to be horse trainers, carriage drivers, and saddle makers.  This was the location of the cross-country eventing about a week before, and I learned that a horse died after he crossed the finish line.  More on that later.  Another girl came over to hang out and, since I couldn’t understand French, I spent most of the night stalking the kitten and trying to convince him that he loves me.

Karel had work the next afternoon, so we went to the Haras for the museum, grabbed lunch, and she went on her way.  Getting lunch was a bit difficult since the Haras is in a town of less than 400 people, but after driving literally in a circle, we found a restaurant.  I got dropped off at the apartment with the puppy and the kitten, who is by this point a fan of McKenna.  I was in hog heaven.  Later in the afternoon I had a formal tour of the grounds in which I learned that the Haras was founded in 1715, they currently have their first woman director, and that the Percheron was mainly bred for meat after the advent of the tractor.  In the evening there was a going-away party for the students (misspoken as a “go-away party”) in which I chatted with a French/Irish woman who is a vet at the Haras and her husband is a trainer.  I was also befriended by a gray-haired man, Gilles, who rides dressage and show jumping, and was one of the flag bearers for the opening ceremony of the Games.  He said the most profound thing about the Percheron: “If we do not eat it, the breed will disappear.”  As mentioned in the tour, the French people did not know what to do with their large breed after they were replaced with farm equipment.  Gilles indicated that people were invested in their draft horse but, like many people in the 1940’s, did not know what their horses would be used for in the future.  Other solutions included breeding shows, competitions, police work, and pleasure riding.  Farming for food would never have crossed my mind, but I am sure it is not a unique resolution.

I left the party early due to the limited number of English speakers, and grabbed the kitten from off the roof before I went to bed.

It was my last day at the Haras.  I watched a riding presentation which had two horse trainers doing some trick riding stuff, as well as an exhibition of the French breeds which are maintained there.  My friend Gilles from the night before was showing the Selle Francais (French Saddle Horse) in dressage alongside a woman who rode side saddle.  She made it look SO COOL.  Since I wrote far more of my thesis than I’d planned on the influence of side saddle on women’s relationships to horses and freedom, it was a treat to see a woman ride (and jump) competently and make it look easy.

Tiphaine was in Caen for the day and offered to drive me to the train station when she got back that night, but she got stuck in major traffic.  She called a friend to come get me, and I was driven by the assistant director of the Haras to the train station.  It was quite fun to pick her brain about how the eventing had gone the week before, how she likes her job, etc.  I asked the question I don’t particularly enjoy getting: “Do you ride every day?”  Instead of grumbling like me that she doesn’t have the time but she wishes she did, she replied, “Yes, I have to!”  Her horse is kept in a stall and only turned out for part of the day, and if she does not ride him, then he does not get enough exercise.  In that way it is somewhat of a chore to ride, instead of a treat.  I do believe that is the kind of interesting difference I am meant to encounter on this Watson year.  Over and out.

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