Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition -- The Winners!

I hope you've been keeping up with this year's competition. We had an incredible variety of entries from almost all corners of the planet. Over 300 people from 43 countries sent in stories. Many of them, even though they did not make it into the semifinalist and finalist rounds, were memorable and very well written. Narrowing such a wide pack down to 30 semifinalists was very difficult, and shaving that number down to 10 finalists was Herculean.

Much thanks goes to Catherine Sweeney, this year's judge*. She loved all of the top ten entries, so it was very difficult for her to choose "winners". Winners, though, must be chosen in a competition. So here they are:

First Place 
A Leaf on the Wind by Joel Hindson (UK)

Second Place
Burning My Boots in Cabo Fisterra by Gabriella Brand (USA)

Highly Commended
Discovering Hen Rice in Viet Nam by Chris Galvin (Canada)
Sweet Homes by David Joseph (USA)
Crossing the Gibb by Gillian Brown (Scotland/Australia)

Readers' Choice Award
Discovering Hen Rice by Chris Galvin (Canada) 

The entries with the highest number of comments and hits divided by the number of days online: Barbara Amalberti's "Vientiane: Then and Now" (453÷54, 13 comments), Stacey Venzel's "On a Terrace in Peru" (458÷37; 18 comments) Maricarmen Ferrant's "A Vision Called Tutotepec" (688÷49; 9 comments), David Joseph's "Sweet Homes" (650÷43; 10 comments), and Chris Galvin's "Discovering Hen Rice in Viet Nam" (1432÷46; 18 comments). Barbara Vientiane is from Italy, Stacey Venzel from the USA, Maricarmen Ferrant from Mexico, David Joseph from the USA, and Chris Galvin from Canada. 

Again, thank you to everyone who entered the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay competition. Congratulations to the finalists and the semifinalists. As this is a free competition, you haven't lost. You've written, and I hope you'll continue to write. I'll be here next year, and I hope you'll participate again. As always it will be free.

Until next year . . .

I must be off,

*All entries were read blind by the judge, which means all authors' names were removed from the entries.


Christopher Allen is the 2015 recipient of the Ginosko Literary Journal's award for flash fiction. His work appears in Indiana Review, Night Train, Camroc Press Review, Contrary and over 100 other journals. Read his book reviews in [PANK), The Lit Pub, Necessary Fiction and more. A former finalist at Glimmer Train, Allen is also a multiple nominee for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. Originally from Tennessee, Allen now splits his time between Munich and Dublin. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Big Five

If you're planning a trip to a national park in Africa, have you saved room in your backpack for one of these?

If you haven't, you should--not because you'll look sexier but because you'll see sexier. I made do with my pitiful little Sony, so the quality of the photos below suffers in many ways. Many times I wasn't able to zoom in as much as I'd wanted to. Some photos are blurry, taken through the windshield of our vehicle. Disclaimers are boring, I know. I did do the best I could with the equipment I had. If you want to buy me that thing up there for Christmas, I won't stop you.

Before I set out on my South African adventure, I knew a little about South Africa. I knew of course who Nelson Mandela was, I knew that South Africa hosted a World Cup, that South African wine is pretty good, that Apartheid was over and that Africaans was the official language. I did not know anything about The Big Five. What a dunce.

The Big Five is all anyone ever talks about in South Africa. Forget Apartheid. There are shops called The Big Five (there are none called "Apartheid"). Every belt and bracelet in those shops has The Big Five on it. You can buy Big Five ashtrays and Big Five statues. Big Five dishtowels and Big Five chocolates. Big Five keychains and Big Five ties.

"Did you see The Big Five?" one of my students asked me this week when I got back to Munich.

"Oh goodness. You too? Was I the only one on earth who didn't know what The Big Five was?"

"Yes. So did you?"

"Do what?"

"See The Big Five?"

"Yes, I did--apparently."

"Ah," he said. "You had a really bad camera."


"Next time you go," he said, "you need to take one of THESE."

"I know!"

So what is The Big Five? And how did The Big Five come to be called The Big Five? Welcome to the motherload of knowledge, dear dear I Must Be Off! readers. You're about to learn so much.

Each of the animals making up The Big Five was chosen for its difficulty of hunting on foot. Not for its beauty or size but for how hard it is to kill.

The African Elephant --

Or in Africaans, the Olifant! I like olifant much better actually, so I'm just going to use it. The African bush olifant is the largest living terrestrial animal, males standing ten to thirteen feet at the shoulder and weighing 10,360–13,330 pounds; females are a bit more petite. Here is a picture of one I took at a watering hole. I'm particularly proud of how close I was able to get. I had to climb up in a very big tree to get this bird's-eye view:

The African Bush Elephant

The African bush olifant eats almost a thousand pounds of vegetation a day, yet only about 40 percent of this is entirely digested. Olifant poop is probably the most common sight in South African national parks. Easily reconizable, they are the bowling balls littering the roads.


The African Lion -- 

The African Lion
I just have to say upfront that I have not seen The Lion King; so when a helpful tourist pulled up to our vehicle and whispered "lion," pointing into the bush a million miles away, I wasn't exactly sure what I was searching for and of course not really sure why the guy was whispering. When I finally saw it, I was elated. My first sighting of a lion in the wild (well, it's a national park, but I assume there's no breakfast buffet or room service)!

As you can see on the right here, the African Lion has a bit of an attitude--King of the jungle and all. Sadly, this beautiful animal lives only around 14 years in the wild, 20 in captivity (where there is a breakfast buffet). There are apparently 12 subspecies and even a couple of hybrids with tigers. I'm thinking the fellow on the right here might be a hybrid with Donald Trump.

Lions are noctural or crepuscular hunters. They sleep a lot during the day, so I think we were lucky to get such a good picture of this one awake. He does appear a bit drowsy, though.


The Cape Buffalo --

The Cape Buffalo
The Cape buffalo is apparently--after the mosquito--the most dangerous animal in Africa, killing more hunters than any other animal. They gang up on hunters, so good on 'em. Maybe Walter Palmer will choose it as his next project. We can only hope.

Due to their extremely aggressive nature, they have never been domesticated. While the African buffalo is highly susceptible to disease, populations remain strong with around 900,000 animals worldwide. Here are a couple of them on the left.

I didn't know how dangerous the Cape buffalo was when I took this picture--hell, I didn't even know there was a Cape buffalo. Apparently, when I took this shot, I'd never been closer to death.

It bears mentioning here that you are not allowed to leave your vehicle in a national park. There are a few areas where you are allowed to leave your car, but of course there are also signs warning you that doing so might make you a lion's lunch. I rolled down my window to get a good shot of these beautiful Cape buffalo. It was exhilarating as most bone-headed things are. I'm lucky to be alive.


The African Leopard -- 

I'm going to quote straight from Wikipedia on this one because I didn't believe it myself until I read it here: "African leopards exhibit great variation in coat color, depending on location and habitat. Coat color varies from pale yellow to deep gold or tawny, and sometimes black [emphasis added], and is patterned with black rosettes while the head, lower limbs and belly are spotted with solid black." Sometimes black! It's quite possible that I've taken a photo of a very rare leopard. I couldn't see its belly to see if the requisite spots--or limbs--were there, but this one is definitely black. And look at those beautiful rosettes!

The African Leopard

Leopards are quite difficult to spot--pun intended. They're usually lounging around on trees, but this one was just lying there in the middle of the path in the Knysna National forest, which allowed me the rare opportunity of walking through a rainforest on my own with no guide--risking my life once more to bring you up-close images of The Big Five.

This brings us to the last of the The Big Five. It's actually two species.


The White/Black Rhinoceros --

I have to apologize for the quality of this photo. This prime specimen darted across the road before I could zoom in on it. I can't tell whether it's a white or a black rhino (maybe a gray one?), so I'm just going to let it be both. The collective noun for a group of rhinoceroses is a crash, which is my favorite bit of useless information today. You will seldom see a crash of rhinos since male rhinos--like many animals in The Big Five--are solitary creatures. A crash, mostly females, may consist of up to 14 animals.

The White/Black Rhinoceros

Interestingly, there's a theory that the "white" rhino was not named for its coloring but that "white" is actually a mistranslation of "wyd" from Africaans, which means "wide" referring to the rhino's mouth. This made a lot of sense to me because the German is Breitmaulnashorn (wide-mouthed rhino), and this was confirmed to me by a South African woman at one of our campsites. Wikipedia, though, says this is a bunch of bull. 

Have you seen The Big Five while visiting a national park in Africa? I'd love to compare pictures!

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared in Indiana Review, Night Train, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, Contrary, [PANK] blog, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, Bootsnall Travel, Chicken Soup for the Soul and over 100 other good places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011 and the winner of the Ginosko Literary Journal's Flash Fiction Award in 2015, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice.



Monday, August 31, 2015

An Island in the Baltic Sea by Pamela Hensley

My cousin Martin lives a clay-tiled house on an island in the Baltic Sea. Set back from the road, or what they call a road, a single lane of concrete slabs placed one after the other an axle-width apart, the house is one of four or five on a stretch of land above the shore. It’s summer and the wildflowers are in bloom, the colours like a Monet painting: poppy red, cornflower blue, camomile white, and the faded green of long, dry grasses. Martin sent me a text four hours ago, inviting my daughter and me to dinner. On bicycles, we rode from our rented cottage down the sandy path that winds through the wheat fields and joins with the lane that leads to his house.

Other guests arrive carrying bowls of lettuce leaves from their gardens, cardboard boxes of cucumbers, or freshly shelled peas. They greet us and kiss our sunburnt cheeks before leading us into the crowded kitchen where we lean against counters stacked with bone-coloured crockery, painted vases, open books, loose sheet music, cutlery, bread rolls, sliced watermelon, and cartons of dairy products. We talk and laugh as if we do this every weekend, but I have never been here before and I do not know my cousin. I look at his face in the grainy light to see what features I might recognize: a strong jaw line, a crooked smile, slate blue eyes behind dark-framed glasses. He is of my father’s stock, an ocean away, a generation removed.

My father and Martin’s mother grew up in northern Germany at the height of the second world war. Before my father turned fourteen, his parents were dead, his siblings scattered, his country devastated. He escaped to Hamburg, paid for passage on a boat, and sailed to Montreal. Martin’s mother, with whom my uncle Ernst was sent to live, soon married Martin’s father. They moved to Rügen, this farming island, so his father could take his first government post. Shortly afterwards, the Berlin wall went up and Martin came into this world.

After the men decide it’s time to grill the meat, Karen, Martin’s wife, calls me over to the window. I cannot help but like this woman. She’s a lightly-freckled, ginger-haired Saxon with a quick smile and a voice that sounds like home.

“Would you look at them,” she says, pointing to our children jumping together on a trampoline. They’re gangly kids at an awkward age, too tall for their motor skills. They’re bouncing wildly and acting silly, pretending not to be afraid. Karen speaks in a dialect I don’t always understand, but her face tells me everything plainly. We watch a moment longer before she goes back to the counter to arrange pastry on a baking sheet.

“What can I do?” I ask and am handed an electric mixer with brief instructions to mix mascarpone with quark and whipping cream. The other women decide to pick sour cherries in the yard so only two of us are left in the kitchen.

“Your hair is still wet,” I say to Karen, who smiles apologetically.

“We just got back. It was a quick swim.”

“We would have gone too,” I nod, “but we didn’t have our suits.”

“Oh, neither did we.”

I laugh and try to imagine myself swimming naked in public in front of friends and neighbours. Would I do it too, if I lived over here? I doubt I would be the exception. I turn on the mixer recalling last Sunday when I was introduced to Martin at his parents’ house, at the table where he ate his childhood meals. He seemed astonished to meet someone new, a woman from Canada whose father knew his mother when she was young. After coffee, he drove us in his black Mercedes to a thirteenth century church to view an art exhibit.

Dinner is served outside on a table covered with a blue damask cloth. While we feast, the light around us dims. The sky pales then turns purple then midnight blue. Beyond the yard is an expansive meadow, an hypnotic space of wild beauty over which the cormorants fly. After we finish, Karen gets up to light a cigarette while her son Max disappears. I pay no attention until minutes later I hear a startling sound, a single note of music, coming from above. It’s Max on the deck, a metal stand in front of him, a gleaming clarinet in his hand. He begins to play, and I think of conversations I overheard as a child about my father’s family. They couldn’t leave, they couldn’t talk freely, they couldn’t buy a car. In 1981, for the first time, my brother visited our uncle Ernst at his apartment in East Berlin. I saw a photograph of two of my cousins, little girls then, climbing on the shoulders of my 20-year-old brother, tall and tanned and muscular. They look happy, I thought and was surprised. As the air fills up with Max’s music, I sink in my chair and let the notes settle over me like a warm blanket.

We move inside when it gets too dark to see and settle on leather couches. While my daughter stretches out and falls asleep, Ernst passes around a box of chocolates. There are two generations next to me who lived through the fall of communism.

“How much has it changed?” I ask when everyone seems relaxed.

Martin’s father looks at me but doesn’t answer. “Not much,” he then says while Karen says “A lot”. We all laugh awkwardly.

“There used to be nothing in the shops,” Karen explains. “You would go to buy eggs and there weren’t any.”

“But we didn’t live much differently,” Martin’s father says. Indeed, they still live in the house where Martin was born, have the same garden, the same friends, the same interests. 

“But you have a business now,” I say. In 1991, Martin’s father left his government job to sell machinery to farmers on the island. Now he and Martin are co-CEOs of a company that supplies steel and other building materials, designs, and installations to companies all over the country.

“Yes. He works very long hours now,” Martin’s mother says. A guilty smile spreads across Martin’s father’s face as he tilts his head to look at his wife.

We talk some more and Karen asks: “What is your house like? Is it very big?”

It’s a little bigger than the house we’re sitting in, but not ‘very big’ by North American standards. “Big enough,” is what I tell her.

Martin smiles at me. “That’s a good answer,” he says.

We leave around midnight when Martin’s mother offers us a ride home. The whole way we don’t see another car and the darkness induces old dreams: if my father had never left Germany, who would I be now? Would I be living on Rügen, near Martin and Karen, among the wheat and the wildflowers? It’s been too quick, the way I’ve become accustomed to life on this pretty, strange island. I close my eyes and hear a clarinet’s note, clear and crisp in the cool night air. 

Pamela Hensley is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the Humber School for Writers. Recently, her fiction appeared in The Dalhousie Review and she received an Honourable Mention in the Hamilton Short Works Prize. She lives in Ancaster, Ontario where she splits her time between writing and managing a consulting company.