Saturday, February 14, 2015

Remembering Our Best Valentine's Day Gift: Meeting Frank Brown

Frank Brown, Craig, Steph, B.B. King, and Kevin on B.B.'s bus
North Shore Music Theatre 5/21/05
It was 11 years ago today that we met a dear friend who enriched our lives immensely in the year and a half that we knew him.  We had our web site for travels but not our blog back then, so I never really got a chance to write much about our friendship online. I tried soon after he passed away in 2005, but it was too painful and fresh. But it seems that now is the perfect time…as it makes us smile thinking of him on Valentine's Day. So here is an edited compilation of our journals from the time we shared with Frank. Happy Valentine's Day!

Craig and I are big fans of the blues as a musical genre. We have traveled to Memphis and Chicago on several occasions to explore the blues roots / culture there, and we have seen many blues performers in concert in the Boston area. In early 2004,  our local newspaper ran a story called “Blues Traveler” about an elderly man named Frank Brown who was a retired bus driver for B.B. King and James Brown. Frank was originally from Mobile, AL, where his family still lives. But he had moved up north after retiring due to diabetes-related complications, and was currently a resident in a nursing home about 5 minutes up the highway from our house. It was a very interesting article, and since he had no family up in Massachusetts, we thought it might be fun to set up a visit with him, to get to know him and talk about our mutual interest in the blues. Having had two grandparents in nursing homes for an extended time, I knew how important visitors can be to someone’s morale.

We sent a letter to Frank at the nursing home, introducing ourselves and requesting a visit. A few days later, on February 13, we got a phone call from Frank, who was eager for us to come for a visit. Craig and I have never really been into celebrating Valentine’s Day. It seems like a Hallmark holiday, and our relationship is no more special on Feb 14 than it is on any other day of the year. But we thought it might be a nice day to visit Frank, so we told Frank that we would come by the next day.

As soon as we met Frank, he immediately won our hearts. He was chatty and clever and had a great sense of humor. At first we weren't sure when he was putting us on and when he was serious. As time went on, we grew more used to his sense of humor, but there were still times when we weren't quite sure. I think he liked that.

Frank’s memory wasn’t what it used to be, and he was often confused, but we enjoyed chatting with him and hearing stories about the old days, when he drove James Brown’s tour bus, and subsequently drove B.B. King, first in a Cadillac and then in B.B.’s tour buses. He used a walker to get around these days, and he nicknamed it his Cadillac. Frank referred to B.B. simply as "B". Our visit flew by and Frank asked us when we would be coming again.

From that day on, we were hooked. He got under our skin. Visiting Frank on Sunday afternoons became our weekly ritual. During the week he would call us on the phone just to say hello. When we talked to him on the phone, we could hear the smile in his voice.

We would bust him out of the nursing home to take him out to eat when he was in the mood for some southern soul food (Redbones for fried catfish and hushpuppies, Bel Air Diner for liver and onions), and we would take him to blues concerts. Frank referred to us as his "ace boon coons". But he could never seem to remember our names. He called Craig "The Boss" and me "Mama." As time went on, he would start calling Craig "Sherlock" for his ability to locate items that Frank had misplaced. Then he started calling him "my lawyer, for reasons unknown to us. He had nicknames for his nurses, too. One he was especially fond of was called "Rolls Royce."

Frank would always argue with us when we tried to pay for anything. “You ain’t got no grown up son named Frank Brown that you got to pay for.” Craig said “You’re the 80 year old black son we never had.” Frank thought that was hysterical, and it became our little inside joke.

We asked Frank about his family in Mobile. He told us about his wife Beatrice and their daughter Bernice, a jazz singer. However, he only ever talked about them in the past, and sometimes the information he recounted was contradictory, so it was difficult to know whether he still maintained a relationship with them. He got us in touch with his sister Eloise in Mobile, and we corresponded with her via letters and phone calls about Frank's health. She was very sweet.  We tried to locate Bernice, but we were unsuccessful.

In addition to driving musicians, we were always finding out about other jobs Frank had held. He had worked on a banana boat, at a state mental hospital, at a funeral home, and at Mardi Gras selling roasted peanuts. We're sure the list goes on and on. When he was younger, he excelled at football and participated in boxing as well, but gave it up because driving was his passion and he couldn't train and drive at the same time.

When we would visit him on Sunday afternoons, he was usually watching church services on TV. He would marvel at how much a particular preacher "walked the floor," delivering a particularly animated sermon. We told him that we had seen Al Green preach in Memphis. Frank couldn't believe that the same Al Green he used to know could ever be a preacher. We assured him that it was true. Frank also liked to watch Red Sox and Patriots games. Other times when we would visit, the TV would be off and he would be listening to blues CDs.

B.B. King 4/30/04

B.B. King and Frank Brown
Casino Ballroom, Hampton, NH 4/30/04
Frank was always in the loop about when B.B. King was playing in the area. We took him to Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom to see B.B. King on April 30.  During the concert, Frank sat there and at times it was hard to tell if he was even paying attention. Then, once an old song started, Frank just looked at Craig and burst into song. His intonation was correct and he even had the little parts right where B.B. stops and says something in the middle of the song. Frank was so sweet and people around us were smiling at him as he sang.  One stranger came up to Frank and shook his hand and said that he liked how Frank dressed and he looked good. Frank talked to some of the crew and told them that he wanted to talk to B.B. By this point Frank was very animated, dancing in his seat, shaking his hands around, etc. 

A bouncer came over and told us to wheel Frank to the side of the stage. We went behind the small barricade and waited near the exterior wall, near the elevator. B.B. did an encore, and we watched it from side-stage. Were we going to actually meet B.B. King? My knees were literally shaking. Then at the end of the show, B.B.’s entourage cleared the exit aisle (we were the only ones allowed to be there, even the backup band was cleared away) and they wheeled B.B. right towards us. One of B.B.’s guys shone the flashlight at Frank so that B.B. could see him. B.B. lit up immediately. In all of the commotion, Frank couldn’t tell where to look and even as B.B. grabbed his hand he was looking elsewhere. B.B. said “Frank, Hi Frank! I’m right here. Don’t you recognize my voice?” We turned Frank’s attention to B.B. and they shook and then held hands. I asked B.B. if I could get a picture of the two of them together. He said “If you like”. I took the photo and B.B. talked to Frank for a minute. B.B. called him "Big Brown." 

Then it was obvious that B.B. had to go; fans were congregating near where we stood, hoping for autographs, and the entourage needed to get B.B. safely downstairs and out to his bus. As they wheeled him away, B.B. looked me right in the eye and said “Thank you.” He then looked Craig right in the eye and said the same. B.B. King was thanking us for something? We were the grateful ones...he had made Frank so happy! And it was such an honor for us to get to meet him as well. It was really nice to see that the love and respect that Frank has for his friend and former employer was mutual.

They wheeled B.B. onto the elevator and as it was descending he looked at us and waved. We asked Frank about the nickname "Big Brown". He said that B.B. had called him that since their first meeting. Frank was on cloud nine for the rest of the evening!

Buddy Guy 8/27/04
Frank Brown and Buddy Guy
Backstage, Casino Ballroom Hampton, NH 8/27/04
On August 27 we drove Frank up to the Casino Ballroom in Hampton, NH once again, this time to see Buddy Guy. Buddy had befriended Frank back in the early years when Frank was driving B.B.  When we got to the venue, I spoke to Buddy Guy's road manager and introduced Frank. The road manager went backstage, talked to Buddy Guy, and came back to tell us that we could go backstage before the show. As in right now.  (The show was a double bill with Robert Cray, and Buddy Guy was on first).

Once again, my knees started to knock. We followed him and a security guy behind the little barricade, past a rack of Buddy’s trademark polkadot Stratocaster guitars, and into a little tiny room. There was a purple velour chair, on which Buddy Guy was sitting. We walked in and there was barely room to maneuver the wheelchair. Buddy was stylin'. He was wearing a monochrome striped black suit, white and black wingtips, and a white hat. On one hand he had a large ring that spelled out “Blues” in diamonds. On the other hand was a ring with “BG” in diamonds. “Frank! What you doing in that chair? Ain’t you pimping no more? The last time I saw John Lee he was in a chair but on the stage he was dancing around. He said he couldn’t be seen in a chair in front of them ladies.” He asked Frank how he was, and Frank said fine. He said that he’s living in a hospital, and we explained that it was a nursing home. Buddy asked if they treat him well there and he kinda shrugged. Buddy continued “Well, we ain’t gotta talk about that." 

They started talking about a lot of mutual friends who had passed away, and Buddy told Frank to be thankful that he’s still around. I asked if I could get a picture and Buddy posed with an arm around Frank. Buddy seemed genuinely happy to see Frank. He introduced Frank to some of his entourage, saying that Frank used to drive around B. when B. was “like this” (holds his hands up to indicate skinny figure). I asked when he started driving B.B. because Frank couldn’t remember. Buddy said it must have been around ’56 or ’57. . 

Members of his entourage came in and said that we needed to leave so that  Buddy could prepare for his set. But Buddy was very generous with his time, and continued talking to Frank, insisting that we could stay longer. Craig and I started to get a bit antsy, knowing that Buddy had to get on stage very soon. Buddy signed a CD for us, and we thanked him and said goodbye, wheeling Frank back out to our seats.

A few minutes later,  Buddy came on stage and played an awesome set. Partway through the set, he stopped and said “Throughout my life, ladies and gentlemen I’ve met some very great people who helped me with my career. And the first time I ever met B.B. King" (the audience applauds) "he had a bus driver and his name is Frank and they brought him in in a wheelchair tonight and he said 'I had to come and see you Buddy'." He had the audience give Frank a hand. He asked where Frank was sitting. I stood up and pointed to him, and Frank waved. Everyone around us was waving and cheering. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, Buddy Guy then asks for a hand for “the people that brought him here tonight”. And there was another big round of applause. "They rolled him in and I said Frank, you know when I met you there was a lot of blues players living that’s no longer with us and you still and you still here so let’s be thankful, Frank, alright?" He asked for another hand for Frank, which the audience heartily provided. "And I’m gonna do this for Frank anyway.” He launched into a great version of "Drivin' Wheel". From that point on, people were coming up to Frank, shaking his hand, patting him on the shoulder. A  man that used to live in the same building, some other acquaintances, a girl who worked in the gas station 30 years ago and whom he brought to see B.B.. a guy who “plays bass”. (During Robert Cray’s set he was onstage and turned out to be Robert Cray’s bassist!) Frank was truly touched, and wanted to thank Buddy for such a nice tribute. I told the drummer to pass along his thanks. As we left and crossed the street to the car we heard someone say “There’s Frank!” and pointed in our direction. Frank was a rock star that night, and he talked about it frequently for the rest of his life.

B.B. King 9/2/04
Frank Brown and B.B. King on B.B.'s bus
FleetBoston Pavilion 9/2/04
On September 2, we took Frank to the FleetBoston Pavilion to see B.B. again. This time Frank's contacts at B.B.'s management company had provided us with backstage passes, and we might get the opportunity to visit B.B. on his tour bus!

As usual, all of the ushers fell in love with Frank and he always had someone to chat with. The Muddy Waters Blues Band played first, followed by Elvin Bishop. Next was Shemekia Copeland. Frank had known her late father, Johnny Clyde Copeland. Then Dr. John did a set. During one of the intermissions a man walked by, saw Frank, exclaimed "Mr. Brown!" and immediately went to get his mother. It turns out they were old friends of Frank's. They wound up sitting in the empty seats next to us for B.B.'s set. B.B. put on a great show. Frank sang along to "Key to the Highway" and "Rock Me."

The show ended at around 11:15 and we headed over to the backstage access area (to the right of the stage).The guy in front of us got on the bus, and I followed, with shaky knees. I climbed the steps and then turned around. Craig and one of B.B.'s entourage were helping Frank out of the wheelchair. and onto the bus. I took Frank's hand and guided him back to where B. was sitting on a leather couch. I said, "This must bring back memories, being on the bus, huh, Frank?" He agreed.

At this point we could see B.B. and I said "There he is, Frank!" B. said "Big Brown! How are you?" He asked Frank to sit down and Frank was a little confused and kind of tried to sit on the table. B said "Frank, man, you're grabbing my computer!" and told him to hold out his hand and feel where the seat was. B. shook both of our hands and said "Thanks for being kind to my old friend. We had lots of good times together." Frank took a seat right next to B.B.. Craig sat on the other side of Frank. I was still standing, but B.B. said "Please. Sit down." and I squeezed in. B.B. reached behind him and turned down the volume on the stereo. We said that Frank had a lot of stories about his days on the road and B said "And they're all true!"

I asked if I could get a photo of the two of them together and B.B. said sure. He leaned in to Frank and put his arm around him and I got a nice closeup shot of the two of them. It was really great to see B.B. in his own element where he could be himself. Seeing him sitting in his own bus, calmly receiving everyone, being a gracious host and oh so friendly and low key...he was a joy. We were really happy with the way the whole evening turned out. Frank didn't talk much (he doesn't like to interrupt other people) but it seemed like he enjoyed just being there in such close proximity to his good friend. B.B. signed some photos and gave us a couple of B.B. King lapel pins. When we were leaving (with some encouragement from Craig) I asked B.B. if I could have a hug, and he said of course. I gave him a big hug and told him that Frank is our good friend and we love him. B.B. said "He's a good man. He's a good friend of mine. He took good care of me."

One day we invited Frank to our house for dinner. At the time, Craig’s brother Steve and his kids lived upstairs in our house. Frank was a bit concerned and asked if Steve would mind him coming over to the house. Naive as we are, we didn’t understand what he was getting at. We asked what he meant, and he said, “Well, sometimes, neighbors have a problem with someone like me…” and he trailed off. Only then did we realize that he was talking about racism. Having always lived in this area, we hadn’t even considered this as a concern. It saddened us that his experiences growing up in the South had led to this kind of concern, and we assured him that our family and friends would welcome him with open arms.

When he came over that day, he surprised us even more. I was flipping through a coffee table book of photographs of blues musicians. When we got to Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Frank said “I worked for him too!”

On the subject of photographs, Steve had given us a coffee table book of Beale Street photos. In there, we found a photo of B.B. King with his first tour bus, in front of the King's Palace Cafe. The photo shows his entire entourage and 2 bus drivers. We wondered whether one was Frank.  Then out friend Francis gave us a book of the music photographs of Ernest Withers, an acclaimed African American photographer who photographed the Civil Rights struggle, as well as the Memphis music scene and the Negro Baseball League. The credits listed the people in each photo, and there was his name: Frank Brown!
Is that The New England Patriots #80 Troy Brown?
Nope - it's 80 year old Frank Brown!
October 2 was Frank's 80th birthday. We wanted to do something special.  He had once admired my Patriots Super Bowl Champion shirt, and had asked why I hadn't bought him one. I told him that we hadn't even met him yet at the time of the last Super Bowl. (He always thought he had known us for much longer than he actually had.) But I had stored it in my head and thought about getting him some sort of Patriots clothing. It dawned on us that not only do the Patriots have a Brown on their team, but he is number 80! So we got Frank a Troy Brown replica jersey for his 80th birthday. I looked all over for a bakery that would sell sugar-free cakes, but came up empty. So I bought a sugar-free cake and frosting mix at the store and made a chocolate 2 layer cake. We went to visit Frank in the morning on his birthday, as we had a wedding to attend in the afternoon. Craig read Frank the card that we brought: “80 years and a million memories.” “And a million miles,” Frank replied. He was thrilled by the Patriots jersey, and we also gave him an alarm clock with large digits as he was having a hard time seeing his previous clock. We each had a piece of cake, and though it looked rather amateurish, Frank sang its praises and thought it was delicious.

Frank wanted to go to the movies sometime. We asked what kind of movies he liked. "Oh, everything. Westerns..." Hollywood isn't putting out too many westerns these days, and we didn't want to take him to anything he might find offensive (he was a spiritual man), so we decided to sit back until the time was right. That time came when the Ray Charles biopic "Ray" was released. Perfect! He had known Ray Charles. Of course he had.

So we took him to the movie theater.  I asked Frank if he wanted anything and he deadpanned "tonic and gin". Then he asked for a diet coke and a hot dog. He was quite pleased.  He couldn't believe the size of the theater even though it was a small one.  At the end of the movie Frank seemed sad. He told Craig it was a shame Ray got into drugs because he could have had the world. I asked how he liked the movie and he said something to the effect of "more or less" He said he thought it was a little confusing (I think it had to do with the flashbacks).
Christmas dinner 2004
We invited him to Craig’s parents’ house for Christmas dinner.  The whole family really enjoyed meeting him.  Frank was just watching as everyone opened their presents, and occasionally, when Craig was free to watch, I would pass Frank a present.  He was guessing all of the presents but wanted me to open them for him. He correctly guessed several boxes of handkerchiefs. I handed him a T-shirt and he said “What football player is this?” I said it wasn’t football but baseball. “Red Sox?” he asked. I said Red Sox World Series Champion with all the players’ names on it. He looked at it and smiled. I made him hold it up for a picture. He guessed that the next gift was a dress shirt. It was indeed - a pimpin' purple shirt. He said it was beautiful and he hoped that it would fit. We said that Sherlock Holmes had been on the case and had checked out his size. He said that he was surprised that Sherlock Holmes picked out a shirt like that. I said that Craig had determined the size, but I had picked out the shirt. He said that  made more sense. We then gave him Craig's parents' present: fancy sugar-free chocolates. He was happy and asked me to pick one out for him to eat. I said “Do you want milk chocolate or dark chocolate?” He said “I want one like me.” I said “sweet dark chocolate, then.” 

We enjoyed a nice roast beef dinner which Craig's mom had prepared. It was delicious, and Frank was so  appreciative of a home-made meal. (He never enjoyed the food at the nursing home).  Ever the generous spirit, Frank was genuinely saddened by the fact that he had no gifts to give to the family. We assured him that his presence was all the gift any of us needed.

Frank was so happy when we brought him back to the nursing home that he was singing in the elevator

He laughed when he got to the nurses' desk.  They asked what had gotten into him, and he said “I had some great scotch!’ We said “Oh no you didn’t! Don't get us in trouble!” and the nurses laughed and said they wouldn’t tell anyway.

Shemekia Copeland 2/25/05
Shemekia Copeland and Frank Brown
RegattaBar Cambridge, MA 2/25/05
On February 25, we took Frank to see Shemekia Copeland at the RegattaBar. As she sang, she was about four feet directly in front of Frank. We could tell immediately that he was enjoying himself. He kept raising his right hand and he was practically dancing right out of his chair. At one point Shemekia introduced  "Love Scene" by quoting a line from the song “Is anyone out there capable of giving me high romance on a foreign train?” Frank raised his hand and she saw him and burst into a smile saying “He wins. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.” It was obvious that he was having a blast. He couldn’t sit still. Near the end of the show he asked me if I shad seen her daddy [Johnny Clyde Copeland] perform. I said I had only heard him on records. Frank said that he used to do a little boogie. Shemekia sang "2 A.M." and asked everyone to sing along with the chorus at the end. Frank was singing away. “It’s 2 A.M.!” It was so cute.

After the show, we bought Frank Shemekia's CD "Wicked" so that she could autograph it for him. Shemekia saw Frank and said, “Well hello. Thanks for coming.” He asked if she knew who he was. She said she thought she remembered seeing him before. He said that he knew her dad and that he used to drive B.B's bus. She said that she toured with B.B. in the summer and we said that we had seen her with him. She signed the CD’s and I asked if she could pose for a photo with Frank. She put her arm around him and I got a cute photo.

B.B. King 5/21/05
Steph and B.B. King on B.B.'s bus
North Shore Music Theatre
Beverly, MA 5/21/05
Frank Brown, Craig, Steph, B.B. King, and Kevin  on B.B.'s bus
North Shore Music Theatre
Beverly, MA 5/21/05
On May 21, B.B. played at North Shore Music Theatre. We managed to get front row tickets because we were members of the theater. The theater is round and the stage rotates, so we didn't always have a front view of B.B., but we still had a great view of the entire band and their very entertaining performance.

We all really enjoyed the show. When the opening notes of “Please Accept My Love” started up, I leaned over to Frank and said “I remember when he did this song last time, you really sang along!” Frank turned and laughed, and Craig jokingly looked at me like I was being an instigator. As soon as B started singing “I don’t even know your name, but I love you just the same”  Frank was belting it out right along with him. And Frank knows all of the little intricacies, all of the little starts and stops, all of the interruptions. It was great. B.B. was facing the other way for pretty much the entire song, otherwise we have no doubt that he would have heard Frank singing along.

The stage manager told us that B.B. was ill with a cold, so it was doubtful whether he would feel well enough to receive visitors after the show. We knew that Frank would be extremely disappointed if he didn't at least get a chance to say hello, so we kept our fingers crossed.

After the show, it was pouring rain. We were told that we would be able to get on the bus, so we walked outside and boarded the bus. We were very grateful that despite not feeling well, B.B. was still being very generous with his time. Our friend Kevin worked for the North Shore Music Theatre at the time, and he was at the show as well. He knew all about our relationship with Frank, but had never met him. So we introduced them, and Kevin was able to accompany us onto the bus.

The interior of the bus was very plush and comfortable. B.B. was seated at the back on a leather couch. He had a table with his laptop set up in front of him, and there was a stereo and X-Box behind him. Frank sat down on a couch on the left, perpendicular to where B.B. was sitting. We tried to convince him to scoot over next to B., but B. said to let the pretty lady sit next to him, so I said thank you and sat. Craig sat on the other side of Frank, and Kevin sat at the little booth opposite B. B kept saying “Big Brown, how’s Big Brown? You’re looking a lot better than you did the last time that I saw you.” Frank asked if B. heard him singing and B. said that he couldn’t hear anything from onstage. 

It was very cool because it was just the four of us and B. It was very hot on the bus, and B. apologized saying he didn’t want to melt the lady, but he wouldn’t apologize to the men. He called to someone up at the front of the bus and asked him to turn the thermostat down to 75. We are sure this was due to the fact that it was a rainy spring night and he was already sick with a cold,

He has two drivers for each bus. He keeps the people closest to him on this bus, and there are two drivers for each so that they can go any time. But he looked at Frank fondly and said “But he used to do it all. That’s why I always take care of him and give him a present."  Craig said that Frank really treasures those memories with B. B said that they had a lot of history together and have been friends for a long time. “But they weren’t only good times. They didn’t always treat us nicely.” 

And he suddenly looked serious. I showed him the picture of the old bus. B. glanced at it very quickly, recognized it, and said “That’s it. That’s his bus.” He was obviously familiar with the picture. Craig pointed to the drivers and said “And Frank said one of those is him.” B. looked again quickly at the photo and confirmed it.

B. said that he doesn’t fly much any more because it is just too much of a hassle, having to take off your shoes, jacket, and cap, plus checking all the equipment etc. He said they strip you down until you’re wearing nothing but underwear. 

At this point a couple of other people had gotten on the bus. Kevin offered to give his seat to one of the guys who had just arrived, but BB said “no, first come first served.” I asked if we could get a picture. I snuggled up next to B and he linked arms with me. Kevin took a pic of me with B but the flash was off. I fixed it and one of the other guys who had just gotten on offered to take it. We got all of us in the picture, with Kevin sitting on the floor in front. I felt like I was practically sitting on B (it was very crowded to get us all in the picture) but Craig said that he didn’t think that B minded.

B. mentioned that he wished we could sit and chat longer, but he needed to see other people. He joked that the bus was too cramped and maybe some day when he made some money, he’d be able to get one that had room for everyone. After the picture we were gathering our things to go. I got the letter and gave it to B.B. saying “I wrote this letter to you explaining Frank’s situation these days, so you can read it if you want to…” and he said he would. He then said “While you’re here Frank…” and he got a little sony digital camera out and said he wanted to take a picture of Frank. Craig and I tried to lean out of the way, but B said “it would be better with the pretty lady in it.” So Craig and I leaned in close to Frank and B took the picture. He was pleased with how it came out and showed it to us. Wow, B.B. King took a picture of us!! Frank mentioned that we were his best friends next to B. B said that was nice and it was good to have friends, and at that point Craig saw him take the letter, which had been sitting on the couch next to him, and put it on his table next to his computer.

As we got Frank up and ready to go, B.B. thanked us for bringing Frank. He looked at me seriously and said to take care of him.  I thanked him and he said it was a pleasure. It took a while to get Frank up to the front of the bus,. When we got to the front of the bus, the driver helped us to get Frank down the stairs.. Another arm appeared from outside, guiding Frank down. It turned out to be Evan Goodrow, the opening act. Craig thanked him, shook his hand, and told him he did a great set. 

This would be the last time that the two old friends and colleagues would see one another. Frank grew ill in the summer of 2005. He told us that he wanted to be buried in Mobile next to his mother, but he was worried that it wouldn’t happen. We promised him that we would see to it that he was buried with his mother one way or another. It was as if that thought gave him peace, and he passed away soon afterwards.

On Wednesday August 10, we got the call from the nursing home that Frank had passed away peacefully in a chair in the TV room. We made a few phone calls and headed down there as soon as we got the message. The nurses had not let Frank leave yet; they had kept him in his room so that we could say goodbye. We were left alone with Frank and we said goodbye and told him that we would see him in Mobile. One way or another, we would make sure that he made it back to be buried with his mother. And we would travel down there for the services. 

After Frank's death, we were in touch with some of his other friends in the area. We met Bob and Angela, who had been really close friends with Frank for many years, and had helped to get him admitted to the nursing home when he had no longer been able to live by himself in his apartment. They decided that they would go to Mobile for the services too. We met up with them at their house for dinner prior to the trip. They were very nice people and we shared a lot of memories about how Frank had touched our lives. We were sure that Frank would have been happy that we got to know each other.

We made all of the arrangements with the local funeral parlor: delivering Frank's clothes (including a B.B. King lapel pin we had gotten from B.B. himself), and arranging for them to transport Frank to Mobile, where he would be picked up by the funeral parlor down there.

We were in touch with Eloise (Frank's sister), and we got an unexpected phone call from his daughter  Bernice. They told us that the services would be on Saturday the 20. We made hotel reservations and booked flights for Friday the 19th with Bob and Angela. We stayed at the Marriott, and after running into Danny Glover in the lobby, Frank's daughter Bernice (also known as Karmilla Ali for her jazz singing career) and her partner Don arrived. We sat with them on couches in the lobby and enjoyed drinks. It was so nice to meet them.
Angela, Bob, Bernice (Karmilla Ali), Don, and Craig
Marriott Mobile 8/19/05
I ran up to the room to get the photo album that we had made for Bernice. She looked through the pictures and we started to talk about Frank. She and Don were so nice, and it was obvious that they were happy that we had made the trip. We took some photos and enjoyed chatting. Bernice and Don had printed up memorial programs for the funeral. She had brought us a copy to show us. While looking at it, Craig noticed his name. This was Bernice's surprise: she wanted Craig and Bob to speak at the funeral. Craig was quite honored, though a little unprepared. But he was happy to be given the opportunity to give a tribute to Frank in front of Frank's friends and family.

I didn't really sleep very well overnight. Seeing Frank for the last time today would be difficult, and the anticipation led to a restless night.  We drove to Bernice's house and waited until the limo arrived to pick her and her daughter up. We then followed the limo to Eloise's house. All of the family started to assemble and cars were lining up ready to make their way to church. Everyone we met we extremely nice and welcoming to us. We went into Eloise's house. After talking to her on the phone and corresponding via letters, it was really nice to finally meet her. We also met Frank's brother David, who wouldn't be attending the funeral due to health and mobility issues. We went back outside and met Bernice's 14 year old daughter.

All of the cars followed the limo in procession to the Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church. We parked the car, and everyone stood in line in front of the doors of the church. The immediate family went in first, and then the rest of the line followed. Frank was laid out in the front of the church.He looked very stylish in his suit and favorite pink shirt. He had his B.B. pin on his lapel, and we knew that there was also a backstage pass in his coat pocket. It was our little secret.

We paid our respects and met Frank's 93-year-old wife Beatrice. We sat down in a pew a couple of rows back on the right-hand side of the church. There were several large flower arrangements, and from our seat we could see that one of the biggest ones (an arrangement of tropical flowers) was from B.B. King. A man came over and told Craig when he would be speaking. The funeral started at around 11 o'clock. There was a small choir. Bernice's friend sang some beautiful solos, including a very touching version of "I'll Fly Away.". It was a very moving ceremony, and it viewed Frank's passing as a "homegoing celebration." It was really quite inspiring. Craig and Bob spoke about their friendship with Frank, and Frank's nephew who had once visited him in Massachusetts several years ago also spoke. They read some sympathy cards aloud. The service ended at 12:30, and we joined the automobile procession to the cemetery.

Frank was driven to the cemetery in a very styling white hearse. We smiled and knew that he would be pleased to be traveling in such style.There are two cemeteries across the street from one another on Virginia St. in Mobile. Frank was being buried in the smaller of the two; the black cemetery. There was a small tent over his gravesite, so that people could stand out of the stifling heat of the mid-day summer sun. We saw the headstones for Frank's father, Frank Brown Sr, and Frank's brother John Thomas. Frank is the eighth and final person in the family plot. It was very hot, and they were handing out bottles of water. The graveside service was very brief. We each took a silk flower from the heart-shaped arrangement as a memento. 
Bernice's son, Frank's widow Beatrice, and Bernice (Karmilla Ali)
Frank's brother-in-law Joe, Frank's sister Eloise, and Frank's nephew Jerome
We went back to the church hall for lunch. There was a punch bowl full of lemonade which was very refreshing after being out in the heat. They were serving fried chicken, homemade macaroni and cheese, green beans, potato salad, and rolls. It was delicious. We sat at a small table with Bob and Angela, Eloise, Joe (the widower of Frank's sister Rebecca), and nephew Jerome sat with us. We reminisced about Frank. Eloise and Joe told us that he used to deliver fish on a motorcycle, and we talked about how he used to sell peanuts at Mardi Gras. Eloise said that when Frank was younger and wanted to go somewhere, he would "hobo the train." Joe asked us what our plans were for the evening. He lives across the street from Eloise and was going to have a fish fry. He invited us. We were quite touched and accepted the invitation. 
Saturday night fish fry at Joe's
Saturday night fish fry at Joe's
We arrived at Eloise's house shortly before 7. Eloise and her daughter Patricia directed us across the street to Joe's house. We went inside and immediately recognized the house from a bunch of Frank's Christmas photos. It turned out that when he came to visit Mobile, Frank stayed with Joe. We saw Joe and he was genuinely happy that we had come by. We went out to the garage where some of the younger generation were frying catfish fillets in a turkey fryer. Charlie was battering and deep frying the fish. Another guy told us that he used to drive Frank an hour to the Florida border to buy lottery tickets. Both men raved about Mobile's Mardi Gras, and sincerely invited us to come down. Everyone treated us like family and the Southern hospitality was overwhelming. We were honored to be included in their family party.

Back inside Joe's house, everyone gathered around the table to say grace. We all held hands. As guests, they insisted that we eat first. The food was delicious: the fried catfish fillets, decadent macaroni and cheese, rolls, potato salad, corn, cole slaw, and fried chicken. We washed it down with red Kool-Aid.  They had a hodgepodge of chairs, but insisted that we sit on the leather couches on the back porch to eat, and they asked the younger kids who had been sitting there to vacate their seats. We protested, but they insisted.

Frank's family served us some warm poundcake, and soon Bernice and Don arrived. I talked with Don, who had literally been up the entire night before printing out programs for the funeral. I also talked with Joe,  who said they tried to get Frank to move to Mobile in '99, but Frank wouldn't do it because all of his friends were in Massachusetts. Joe said that meeting us and Bob and Angela, he understands. . We gave Bernice Frank's photo albums. She sat with us and flipped through all of them, and thanked us very much for getting them to her. We got ready to leave, and people came out of the woodwork to say goodbye to us. We got lots of handshakes and hugs, and they thanked us for taking care of Frank. Joe said that we would never understand how much it meant to them that we came down for the funeral. I think we understand; it means just as much to us that they all treated us like family. Don walked us to our car, and we left at 10:30.

We stopped at Bernice's house on the way back. Her house was really nice, and historic too (it had slave quarters in the back).  She said she had something funny to show us. Our sympathy card had arrived in the mail today. Bob and Angela gave her theirs in person today. It was the same card. And we had written almost identical messages inside. "It must be a white people thing," joked Bernice. We got a good laugh out of that.

It was hard to believe Frank was gone. He had suggested car trips to Mobile in the past (he was no longer aware of how far away it was), and we wanted desperately to tell him that we had finally made it to his old home, that we had met his daughter and the rest of his family, that they had welcomed us with open arms, and that we had some massive southern feasts in his honor. Sunday afternoons would not be the same without visiting him.

The following weekend., Hurricane Katrina hit Mobile. We had learned at the funeral from the family that Frank's nickname had been Stormie. We thought of the irony of the fact that a huge storm hit the city a week after Stormie returned home.
Ernest Withers shows his photo of B.B. King's bus, featuring Frank
at Ernest Withers' studio on Beale St., Memphis TN 8/5/06
A year later, in August of 2006, we traveled to Memphis. While there, we arranged a meeting with Ernest Withers, the Civil Rights-era photographer who had taken the iconic photo of B.B.'s first bus. We told him the story of our friendship with Frank, and how we would love to purchase a copy of the photo from him. Our friend Kevin, who had met B.B. with us at the North Shore Music Theatre, was with us. As a professional art director and an avid photographer, he found this meeting to be the highlight of the trip. "How does this stuff happen to you?" We told him that Frank was looking down on us, still working his magic. 

And we know he still is today.

Frank's headstone, photo courtesy of Bernice

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Trading Turkey for Guinea Pig: Thanksgiving in Ecuador

Since our dear friend Marty is not in St. Thomas this Thanksgiving, we decided to take a year off from our annual Thanksgiving trip to St. Thomas. We traded turkey at the beach for guinea pig in the mountains and visited our compadres in Morochos, Ecuador instead.

The whole family met us at the airport with roses
Steph and Sisa on the ride back to Morochos
Craig and Tayanta on the ride back to Morochos
The whole family took the 2 hour ride from their village to the new Quito airport to pick us up on Thanksgiving afternoon. They always dress the kids in traditional clothes when they go into the city, so it was adorable to see 6-year-old Sisa, 4-year-old Yupanqui, and 2 1/2-year-old Tayanta dressed in their traditional outfits, waiting for us with 2 bouquets of roses. The kids' mom Aida was there, as well as her dad Antonio and his wife Rosa.
Antonio and Yupanqui provide music while Sisa and Tayanta dance
We drove back to the house, where we immediately noticed the new addition: a 4-month-old baby cow. We were greeted by Max, their friendly old dog, as well as Chipi. the new kitten. We got settled into the adorable casita that they built for us (with a bedroom and a bathroom with a hot water heater - heavenly on chilly mountain mornings) and then joined the family in the main house. Antonio, who works professionally in a traditional Andean band called Chaski √Ďan, got out his violin and played a tune while Yupanqui accompanied him on the recorder.  Sisa and Tayanta joined hands and danced. Antonio then gave Yupanqui and Sisa a chance to try the violin.

Before we knew it, dinner was ready. The family knew that today was a holiday in the United States, so they prepared something very special: cuy (guinea pig). This is a traditional Andean food which is eaten on special occasions. We had eaten it at Sisa and Yupanqui's baptisms, and during the village's 76th anniversary celebration this past May. This was a guinea pig that they had raised and prepared themselves, and we were very honored that they prepared something so special in our honor.

Craig plays with Tayanta and Yupanqui while Rosa crotchets hats
Sisa with Chipi the kitten

Yupanqui, Sisa, and Steph
This was the first time in which our visit did not coincide with a special occasion within the family or the community. It was a peaceful, relaxing few days in a very beautiful location. Most of the days were sunny, and the sun was warm. It was cool when the sun was behind a cloud or when it got dark for the evening. We enjoyed seeing how much the kids had grown. Sisa, at only 6 years old, is the eldest child. She helps the adults with chores and sets a good example for her younger siblings. She enjoys school and is doing well.

Yupanqui is now 4, and he is a little chatterbox. He is an active and sweet little boy. He has a good attention span for doing activities. He does not especially like preschool, but he is learning in spite of himself.

Perhaps the greatest transformation we saw after 6 months away was in the youngest, 2 1/2 year old Tayanta. She prefers to be called "Mi Nena" ("My Baby", a nickname coined by Yupanqui when she was just an infant). She was completely blind from birth to 6 months, at which time she had her first surgery which restored her sight. Since then she has had a second surgery, and has a pair of thick glasses which, as a two year old, she seldom tolerates. But despite still being nearsighted, she obviously sees well enough to get around. She is at the age when babies sometimes have stranger anxiety. But not so with her. She literally welcomed us with open arms, giving hugs and kisses and sitting on our laps as often as our godchildren Sisa and Yupanqui. She talks often and sings happily. What a little miracle she is!

Rosa prepares to dispatch the rooster
We had purchased some baby chicks for the family back in May. They have since grown into 5 chickens and two roosters. Rosa dispatched of the two roosters during our stay. It is difficult to see an animal killed, but as meat-eaters we feel that it is our moral responsibilty to come to terms with it. We must acknowledge that an animal gives its life for our sustenance, and we are very grateful. The roosters provided some deliciously fresh chicken soup, as well as legs, thighs, breasts, and feet (which Tayanta especially enjoyed). Nothing was wasted, as entrails were fed to the kitten.

The view behind the homestead
Tayanta, Steph, Sisa, and Yupanqui walking to church
Tayanta and Aida walking to chirch
Antonio's mother, known as Abuelita, though she is actually the great-grandmother of the little ones, was always around, tending to the cows during the day, and cooking over her fire in the fireshed in the evenings. She only speaks Kichwa, so we are unable to communicate beyond smiles and waves, but she is always cheerful and makes us feel very welcome.

Abuelita tending the fire
Antonio practices the sax
Vaquita, the 4-month-old baby cow
Yupanqui and Sisa
Steph and Tayanta selfie
One adorable anecdote about Tayanta: We were eating breakfast and Tayanta sneezed. I said, "Salud". the Spanish equivalent of "Bless you," literally "Health." This is the same expression used for "Cheers." Tayanta heard me say this and immediately held her glass of juice up in the air, and repeated "Salud!"
Craig plays with Sisa and Yupanqui
Knowing that Craig has Multiple Sclerosis, the family used traditional natural medicine to try to improve his condition. They applied a natural balm to his left knee and massaged it. They said that the knee felt "cold". Then for three nights in a row, they wrapped his left knee with aliso leaves while he slept, with instructions to wash it in hot water in the morning. Then the discarded leaves were to be burned in the fire. On the final night, they put boiling water into a plastic tub which contained leaves. They had Craig sit with his feet above the water on a little stool. They then wrapped his legs in a  blanket and he sat there in his mini-sauna for 6 minutes. They then removed the blanket, stirred up the leaves, replaced the blanket , and had him sit there for a few more minutes before bathing his knee in the water. That night, they wrapped his knee with different leaves.  His knee felt great by the end of the trip! They also provided him with medicinal tea when they noticed that his right hand was a little bit unstable. They are always looking out for us!

When Yupaqui was having stomach troubles, they prepared a medicinal tea for him and Antonio gently rubbed a smooth volcanic stone over his stomach to take away the bad energy.

Saying goodbye to Rosa, Sisa, Abuelita, and Yupanqui
On the day that we left, Tayanta had an appointment with an eye doctor in Quito for a check-up, and to schedule her third and final surgery within the next few months. Because of this, Aida, Tayanta, and Antonio rode with us in the van. Sisa ran home from school at 10 o'clock to say goodbye to us. It was difficult to say goodbye to Rosa, Sisa, Yupanqui, and Abuelita at the house. Sisa and Yupanqui were a bit standoffish as they were upset that we were leaving.

Saying goodbye to Tayanta, Aida, and Antonio at the airport
We really enjoyed getting to spend quality time with the family, playing with the kids, soaking up the beautiful pastoral mountain scenery, eating the delicious food that Rosa and Aida prepared, and sleeping soundly in our comfortable little casita. It was an excellent Thanksgiving, and we give thanks for our extended "family" in Morochos!

Saturday, December 06, 2014

China 2014

We had an awesome trip to China in October!

Since Blogger sites are not available in China, and we want our new Chinese friends to be able to see our photos and journal entries, I am not going to spend a whole lot of time writing this trip up on the blog. I will focus on getting the web site updated, since it can be accessed in China.

So here are some of the photos and descriptions that we have posted on Facebook, and be on the lookout for updates to our main site soon!

Back from an amazing trip to China with Myths and Mountains, Inc. We had an unheard of 4 straight days of blue skies and sun in Beijing! The people were absolutely wonderful, the sights were fascinating, the food was delicious, and we loved our city guide Alice!

Temple of Heaven
Tienanmen Square, decorated with a giant flower basket to celebrate National Day

Beiguanfang Hutong, Beijing
An historical neighborhood featuring narrow alleyways and traditional houses with shared courtyard space
Approaching the Forbidden City
Forbidden City

Enjoying the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. We took a ski lift up to the Wall, hiked from tower 4 to 24 and back, and then took a toboggan (alpine slide) back down.
Summer Palace
Cool graffiti art at funky, industrial art enclave 798 in Beijing, The whole place felt rather subversive, and wasn't what we expected to find in China. Really fun pop art installations and interesting gallery space in decommissioned factories.
Sunset through the Bird's Nest (Beijing National Stadium)
Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing, where we sampled deep fried starfish and scorpions,
The scorpions were a yummy fried treat
The starfish not so much. Like Samantha Brown said in one of her China travel shows when she tried this, I felt like a demented fairy godmother.
Sunrise over the Shijia Hutong in Beijing, taken from our hotel room at the charming and lovely Red Wall Garden.
Saying goodbye to our awesome friend and city guide Alice before flying south to Guizhou.
Leg two of our China trip brought us to the southern province of Guizhou. We flew from Beijing to Guiyang., where we met our phenomenal guide Wang Jun and our friendly driver Mr. Zhou. We spent two nights at the lovely Hotel Sheraton Guiyang.

Jiaxiu Tower was originally built during the Ming Dynasty in 1598. No intellectuals from Guizhou had ever ranked first in the scholarly examinations which took place in China. The tower was built as a place for the intellectuals to get together and study. After its construction, Guizhou produced two number one scholars.

In front of the huge Mao Tse Tung statue in the People's Park in Guiyang. It's one of the few Mao statues left standing in China.

Stage shaped like lusheng flutes in he public square in Guiyang (across the street from the Mao statue)

Qingyan Ancient Village is a walled city originally built in 1378. At one point it was a garrison where 300,000 troops were stationed to squash a minority rebellion. Now it has been restored for tourism, and contains many interesting shops and restaurants. The architecture was quite beautiful, and we enjoyed exploring, shopping, and eating lunch.

Shrine at Qingyan Ancient Village

Wang Jun was able to arrange a visit to a local family's home, so that we could learn more about how modern Chinese people live in Guiyang. Seven and a half year old Sara and her mother and grandparents were lovely hosts, and were quite hospitable to us. Sara even played the piano for us! We are very grateful to them for opening up their home and family to us. We really enjoyed meeting them
Our next stop in China was Kaili, also in the southern province of Guizhou. This is an area where many ethnic minority tribes live. There are 56 ethnicities in China. The Han Chinese make up 93% of the population, and the other 55 ethnicities make up the remaining 7%. A lot of the tribes in this area specialize in various very detailed embroidery techniques.

Our driver Mr. Zhou and our guide Wang Jun eating lunch in Kaili 

Burial mound and traditional house in Shiqing Village, where the Small Horn Miao practice silk felt (applique) embroidery.

The square next to our hotel in Kaili. There are lots of activities set up for children here, They can drive around in little motorized cars and bikes, play in sandboxes and bouncy houses, and ride small amusement rides. And at night lots of people get together to do group exercises and ballroom dancing. We spent a lot of time here and everyone was very friendly and curious about us, as this province doesn't get many American visitors.

Miao couple in Weng Xiang Village who demonstrated their amazingly intricate folded embroidery techniques. The lady showed us the festival clothes she had made for herself, which was made of 800,000 folded silk triangles! They also showed us the yellow silk cocoons that they use to make the silk.

Folded embroidery, Weng Xiang Village

Kaili Sunday Market

Hiking to Matang village

A Geija woman demonstrates wax-resist batik. She melts a mixture of paraffin and bees wax, and then uses a tool made of copper and bamboo to draw intricate freehand designs on cloth. She will then dip the cloth into indigo dye. When it is done, she will melt off the wax, and the fabric under where the wax had been will show through as white. She gave me a lesson and let me try, and it was very difficult!
Langde Village was the first minority village to open to western tourism in 1980. They maintain their traditional building style, with houses made of fir trees. The village was founded in the 14th century. The oldest house standing today is 200 years old. This village was one of 2 places in Guizhou to host the Olympic torch relay in 2008

Yang Da Lu's residence in Langde Village. He was a leader in the Miao rebellion (the uprising at the Incense Pot mountain) and is revered by the people of the village.
Here we are at Xu's Embroidery Boutique, where Mrs. Yong (center), an embroidery expert, gave us a fabulous lecture and demonstration of many of the local embroidery techniques. We enjoyed looking at her collection.

Mrs. Yong's prized 200 year old jacket made with the thread splitting embroidery technique. One strand of silk thread is split into 13 separate strands! It was incredible!

On the bridge at Zhenyuan Ancient Town

Zhenyuan Ancient Town, a 1600 year old ancient village surrounded by a river. This is now a popular holiday destination for Chinese tourists. It is gorgeous

Zhenyuan Ancient Town now houses lots of interesting shops and restaurants

Everything is lit very beautifully at night at Zhenyuan Ancient Town. It cycles through various colors, and the reflections in the river are amazing
Zhenyuan Ancient Town: this is a 600 year old temple complex built into the mountainside caves. It is very unique because there are three religions represented in one complex: Budddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

China Part 4:  We drove for approximately 4 hours to get from Kaili to Libo, where there is a UNESCO World Heritage site called Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot. It is a beautiful area where you can hike on nice paths to view rivers, gorges, waterfalls, karst mountain peaks, 19th century bridges, and wildlife. It is an area populated by the Yao ethnicity.

Craig at the Da Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot
Turquoise-colored river and small waterfalls at the Da Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot

Steph at the Da Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot

Craig and some inebriated newfound friends that we met while eating dinner in Libo. They were all extremely friendly and took dozens of photos with us on their smartphones. The gentlemen on the far right and second from the left were staying at the same hotel as us. and joined us for breakfast the following morning.

Traditional dancing at the Yao village

Granaries in the Yao village, elevated to keep the grain away from rats
Xiao Qi Kong ("Small Seven-hole Bridge") at World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot.

Marshes in the Xiao Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot

Craig at Crouching Dragon Pond, in the Xiao Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot
Craig and Wang Jun on the shuttle bus at the Xiao Qi Kong section of the World Heritage Libo Zhangjiang Scenic Spot
Kids in the park across from the Sanli Hotel in Libo. A movie was being played on a huge TV screen, people were doing group exercises to music, and there was a bouncy house and sandbox for the kids. These kids were so excited to have their photo taken that a security guard even came over to see what all of the ruckus was about. D'oh!!!

China Part 5 w/ Myths and Mountains, Inc.

This portion of the trip focused on the Dong ethnicity. Up until 400 years ago, the Dong were miscategorized as a subgroup of the Miao. Since then, they have been identified as their own unique culture. The Dong are known for their weaving.They dye cloth in indigo for coloring, then stiffen it using either pigs' blood or steamed buffalo skin and buffalo blood. They then use egg whites to make it shiny.The result is a tough black material which feels a little bit like an animal hide.
Their architecture is well-known for their roofed bridges (called "wind and rain" bridges there, or what we would know as a "covered bridge" in New England) and drum towers. Drum towers traditionally housed a drum at their apex to warn of invasion or announce important news. The drum tower was a meeting place. There was a fire inside and 4 fir tree trunk columns in the middle to represent the seasons and 12 on the perimeter to represent the months, Men would meet here to socialize and play chess, and courtships would happen here as well.

The Dong also perform extraordinary polyphonic singing along with traditional dances.

Zhaoxing Dong Village
Tang An Dong Village
Ma'an Dong Village

Drum tower and wind and rain bridge in Zhaoxing Dong Village

This is the largest Dong village in China - 1000 households and around 6000 inhabitants.

There are 5 drum towers and wind and rain bridges in the old section of town. These structures are around 200 years old. In the old days, each belonged to a different clan.
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

The traditional architecture of Zhaoxing Dong Village — in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

A man with his horse in Zhaoxing Dong Village
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Polyphonic singing at the Dong cultural show at Zhaoxing Dong Village. Singers frim this village won an international singing contest in Paris!
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

With one of the performers from the Dong cultural show at Zhaoxing Dong Village
Entrance to Zhaoxing Dong Village lit up at night

Drum Tower, Tang An Dong Village
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Tang An Dong Village, which had beautiful views of rice terraces.
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Little girl helps her mother and grandfather in the fields in Tang An Dong Village
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge outside of Ma'an Dong Village

The largest wind and rain bridge in China. It is over 64 meters long, and was built in 1916 spanning the Linxi River.
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Dong Cultural Show in Ma'an Dong Village
Men and women in traditional dress play lusheng flutes.
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Village men constructing a new drum tower out of fir in Ma'an Dong Village. A mixture of age-old and modern techniques. Having come from families with an interest in woodworking, we found this fascinating to watch.
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Drum tower in Ma'an Dong Village
— in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

Locals teach Craig to play a lusheng flute in the in Ma'an Dong Village drum tower — in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.

China Part 6 w/ Myths and Mountains, Inc.

Our guide Wang Jun told us that this would be our most difficult day yet. We would need to hike halfway up a mountain to get to our hotel, and then continue up to the summit for a view of the famous Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

We were a bit nervous, as he said it was steep, and the weather was warm. Craig had been doing great so far on this trip in spite of his MS, and we wanted to it to stay that way.
Wang Jun also warned us that there was a high probability that we might not see anything. The valleys get fogged in and the last 2 times he brought clients in, they hiked to the top and were unable to see anything through the fog.

But our luck held out once again! We were pleasantly surprised by the trail. We were expecting to have to slog up steep rice terraces similar to what we had done in Vietnam. But there were actually stone stairs that went the entire way up to the summit. It was steep at times, and the sun was warm, but there was shade from various hotels, shops, and restaurants which lined the paths.
Before we knew it, we had arrived at the hotel. That wasn't so bad! We checked into the lovely Starwish Hotel, got settled, and then walked the remainder of the way up to the summit.
The weather was beautiful, sunny, and clear, so we had a perfect view down to the 400-year-old rice terraces. We spent some time up there enjoying the view and eating ice cream. We met a family of Chinese tourists (mother, father, daughter, and grandmother).

At the summit admiring the 400-year-old rice terraces — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

Rice terraces viewed from the summit — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

Rice terraces viewed from the summit — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.
As we were hiking back down to the hotel. the mother and grandmother were renting some Miao traditional clothing and having their photos taken in front of the beautiful backdrop of the rice terraces, They called to me to join them, which I did. A woman dressed me in a metal headdress and traditional long skirt and blouse. The photographer positioned me in different poses, and I felt like a model. It was a lot of fun. Craig took some photos, but I also bought a few photos that the photographer had taken. They printed them out for me and laminated them.

Striking a pose wearing traditional Miao clothing in front of the rice terraces — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

Being photographed in traditional Miao clothing with my new friends — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

The next morning we hiked up to the summit one final time. It was another clear day and we were able to enjoy the gorgeous view once again. After that, we spent our final afternoon and evening in Guizhou at the Hot Spring Hotel. The hotel had a beautifully landscaped area outside with stone pools of varying temperatures. It was incredibly relaxing. We spent some time enjoying the hot springs in the afternoon. Craig was very careful not to overheat, so as not to aggravate his MS at the very end of the trip. We didn't go into the hottest pools, and he made sure to get out every so often when he was getting too warm.

Craig enjoying the hot spring at the Hot Spring Hotel
— at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.
Then we had a farewell dinner with Wang Jun and Mr. Zhou at the hotel restaurant. Wang Jun had brought a bottle of GRETA WALL [sic] cabernet. Soon the entire lazy susan on the table was filled with food - enough for a banquet. Wang was feeling relieved that he had succeeded in his self-imposed challenge to never repeat a dish in our time with him, and had gone all out. It was bittersweet to have our time with them come to an end. We had all had so much fun together, and we vowed to return!

Farewell banquet with Mr. Zhao and Wang Jun — at Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

After dinner, Craig and I took a final dip in the hot springs before a short night of sleep (we had to get up at 5 a.m. the next morning for our flight to Beijing).

China 2014: Final Installment w/ Myths and Mountains, Inc.

We said goodbye to our most excellent guide Wang Jun and safe, reliable, and friendly driver Mr. Zhao at the Guilin airport. We had grown very close with them in the past couple of weeks, and it was bittersweet to say goodbye.

Saying goodbye to Wang Jun at the Guilin Airport — at Guilin Airport.

Saying goodbye to Mr. Zhao at the Guilin Airport — at Guilin Airport.
Before boarding our flight to Beijing, we met professional basketball player Hassan Adams in the airport. Extremely friendly and humble guy.

Professional basketball player Hassan Adams was in Guilin for a tournament. He used to play for the NBA and now plays in Venezuela. He was one of the only other Americans we saw at Guilin airport, and we had a nice chat. Since several Chinese people had wanted pictures with me because I was so much taller than they were, I told Hassan that I wanted a photo with him to prove that I met someone taller than me in China. When Craig got our picture together, many Chinese passengers rushed over to snap photos of us with their cell phones as well. — at Guilin Airport.

It would be our final night in China, and a city guide would be meeting us at the airport and taking us to dinner. As we exited the airport, facing right into a bright wall of windows, we could see a silhouette waving furiously. It was Alice! She hadn't been our scheduled guide, but when that guide wasn't able to make it, Alice happily substituted for her. It was so nice to see her and to be able to tell her about our adventures in the south.

We went back to the Red Wall Garden Hotel, checked in, and then headed out to our farewell dinner. The restaurant was usually 30 minutes from the hotel, but the rush hour traffic meant that it took us almost 2 hours to get there. But when we arrived, it was well worth the wait!
The Bai Family Restaurant is amazing! The staff are dressed in Qing Dynasty clothing and their goal is to make you feel like an emperor / empress during your meal. We had many attendants waiting on us, and we ate in a fancy private compartment on their beautiful, lantern-lit grounds. The dinner was fantastic:

We are greeted as we arrive at the Bai Family Restaurant — in Beijing, China.
We had incredibly tender veal morsels served with scallions, a very flavorful donkey stew (our first time eating donkey), bean greens, which Alice said she grew up with on her family's farm in Inner Mongolia, taro with blueberry sauce, imperial cakes, egg fried rice, kung pao chicken, and white fungi soup with dates.

Dinner at the Bai Family Restaurant, where servers dress in Qing Dynasty garb and treat you like royalty! — in Beijing, China.
After enjoying a lovely meal with Alice, we walked around the grounds taking some photos, and then drove back to the hotel.

Alice and Craig with the staff of the Bai Family Restaurant — in Beijing, China.
A woman with a red paper lantern escorts guests onto the Bai Family Restaurant's gorgeous property — in Beijing, China.
Bai Family Restaurant gardens — in Beijing, China.
The next morning, a guide named Karen brought us to the airport. Our non-stop flight on Hainan Airlines' 787 Dreamliner left Beijing at 2:15 p.m. and arrived in Boston at 2:45 p.m. the same day. On my watch, only half an hour had elapsed, but we had flown for 12.5 hours! Good old International Date Line! That will mess with your brain!

Crossing the International Date Line! We arrived in Boston 30 minutes after we left China, although the flight was 12.5 hours long.
— at International Date Line.

It was a fantastic trip, and we are so grateful to Myths and Mountains and all of their colleagues in China for making it possible! The whole trip was so easy, smooth, and convenient, we plan to return to China very soon to see Wang Jun again and to hit some of the other tourist highlights that we didn't get to see this time (pandas, terra cotta warriors, Yangtze River cruise). Affordable non-stop flights make it very convenient!