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Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

June 8, 2018 2 comments

Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in the May-June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

“People need to understand [H-1B] is particularly vital for small states like ours where we’ve got low unemployment and a high need for STEM jobs,” says Amy Peck, an immigration attorney with Jackson Lewis, P.C.

One recent search on the popular monster.com job searching database revealed more than 30 software development jobs in Omaha posted within one month—jobs for a field where the overall unemployment rate is 1.6 percent.

That’s why many in IT or other STEM-related fields paid attention when, in July 2017, President Donald Trump signed the “Buy American-Hire American” executive order, which subjects already hard-to-obtain work visas to even greater scrutiny.

This was a blow to those employers recruiting skilled labor on H-1B visas. The visa allows for 65,000 employees to be hired from abroad and 20,000 to be hired from students enrolled in U.S. colleges (under the H-1B advanced degree exemption). More than 200,000 applications are expected for H-1B visas in 2018.The application process opens on April 3, and, if the trend continues as it has in the past several years, applications will only be accepted for five to seven days.

Unlike hiring an employee from the United States, when the start date is often two weeks from the acceptance of a job offer, the earliest an H-1 B-status employee could begin work is Oct. 1…if the application is accepted.

Fortunately, there are plenty of folks who can help navigate the legal system. On behalf of clients, Peck fields increasing government reviewer challenges.

One of the biggest impacts this executive order may make is that employees seeking an extension to an H-1B visa will now face the same scrutiny they faced to obtain the visa.

“When we file extensions on cases that got approved without challenge before, they now get challenged even though the facts have not changed,” Peck says.

That means an employee on an H-1B visa who has worked hard, innovated, and generated income for a company could be denied an extension and the company could lose an employee for no reason other than checking the wrong box
on the paperwork.

Each denied visa extension would cost a company a skilled, trained worker, filing fees, lawyer fees, and much more.

“This change is very disturbing to employers who want to keep a good employee but fear they may lose them during the extension process,” says Omaha immigration attorney Mark Curley. “Foreign workers feel less secure in their employment. They understand their H-1B extensions could be denied.

“Employers could lose a good employee after three years if [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] re-adjudicates the petition and determines the occupation or employee do not meet H-1B requirements…There is already a backlog in the employment-based green card process for applicants from India and China working high IT-related jobs in Omaha.”

“The H-1B is a specialty occupation visa with very specific requirements,” Peck says. “The job must require at least a bachelor’s degree in a specific field or related field. The government has certain wage levels you’re required to pay. A very sophisticated analysis goes into that.

“So, this is not something employers are eager to do. Often, it can be the last resort because they can’t get U.S. workers to do the job. As an economy we rely on this visa category in ways many people don’t want to admit and would like to deny.”

Vetting is done by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center officers. Requests for evidence usually challenge specialty occupation designations.

“We spend a lot of time and effort with employers to describe what the job is,” Peck says. “We cross reference that with the government database. Then we look within the company sponsoring the H-1B to determine if others in that job have a similar degree and we use that to support our submission. The vast majority of our cases are getting approved, but we’re having to really fight. It’s taking all of our skills, tools, and resources to maneuver successfully in this environment.”

First Data is among several Nebraska employers using H-1B visas due to a shortage of skilled U.S.-born workers.

“There’s a myth employers are undercutting the U.S. labor market by hiring H-1Bs, and it really isn’t the case because with H-1B labor there is a cost involved not present with a U.S. worker,” Peck says. “The filing fee alone if you’re an employer with 25 or more employees is $2,460. If you want your case expedited you add another $1,225—and then attorney fees on top of that.”

Pending federal legislation aims to further scrutinize H-1B visas.

“The practical effect will be fewer petitions filed,” Curley says. “It will decrease the number of foreign students who enroll in U.S. colleges and universities.”

One thing is certain. H-1Bs are a hot item—as a topic of business and political discussion.

Amy Peck


This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

Paradise In the Midwest – Okoboji attracts generations of Omahans


Paradise In the Midwest – Okoboji attracts generations of Omahans

©by Leo Adam Biga and Daisy Hutzell-Rodman

Originally appeared in May-June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

Some migratory Omahans make a tradition of flocking north to the freshwater oasis called Okoboji. This historic, former Native American encampment and hunting ground turned settler outpost and sport-commercial fishing haven in northwest Iowa features natural, glacier-carved lakes and plentiful beaches.

Okoboji, a 200-mile meander from the metro, has been an Iowa Great Lakes resort area for more than a century. Arrival of railroads in the early 1880s connected Dickinson County’s lakes region to the outside world as never before. Hotels stores, boatyards, and other attractions sprang up, catering to train and steamboat travelers. The Okoboji Store dates back to 1884 and Mau Marine, which used to be called Wilson Boat Works, has operated since 1884.

The lure (then and now): pristine waters, plentiful fishing, and getting away from it all with friends and family. Okoboji has survived high and low water levels, floods (including the Great Flood of 1993), droughts, the Great Depression, world wars, and cultural shifts.

Patterson Cottage, built late 1800s. Became known as “The Haunted House.” No longer standing.

Parasols and two-piece swimsuits gave way to Raybans, bikinis, and shorts. Big band swing bowed to rock ’n’ roll. Instead of transistor radios and hard-bound books, sunbathers now sport smartphones and Kindles.

As the area gained popularity, homes sprouted and amenities grew in this Great Plains getaway. A steady stream of cars follows I-29 or Highway 71 toward tranquility on any weekend during the summer. The area includes a chain of six lakes and 70 miles of shoreline that welcome about 1 million visitors annually.

Water sports abound. Beaches and docks attract sunbathers. Picnics, backyard barbecues, and house concerts lazily unwind. Campsites and nature trails offer roughing-it adventures. Local locales offer amusement, from roller coasters to theatricals. Plentiful dining spots and bars complete the scene.

Many making the pilgrimage own lake houses there, thus making them part-time Okobojians. In the post-war era, parents of the baby-boom generation built small cabins. As those baby boomers came of age and made money themselves, they bought the smaller homes and remodeled them or tore them down for new homes. The part-timers mix easily with “originals” and “old-timers.”

Denny Walker of Omaha long ago fell under Okoboji’s spell.

“There’s a real charm to it. You drive past cornfields and all of a sudden you get up to Okoboji and you’re struck by the beauty of it—the lake coves, the oak trees lining the shores, the clearness of the water, the clean beaches.”

Walker’s enchantment goes back to family vacations as a kid. He now shows his children the magic.

“My dream was to have a home in Okoboji, and now I’m living my dream,” says Walker, who built a cottage-style lake house with a big screened-in porch a decade ago.

His ’Boji fever sometimes starts before the season. Walker has hosted a “launch party” in Omaha at the hangar for his business, JetLinx, with Okoboji vendors and wares, as a season warmup.

He’s also among pilgrims with deep stakes who give back by serving on local boards.

“I’m really involved in the community up there,” Walker says. “It isn’t a job for me, it’s a passion, it’s a love for Okoboji.”

He is involved with beautifying the area and growing the art center’s endowment.

He also leads the fundraising campaign for the three-phase, $12 million restoration of the Arnolds Park Amusement Park. The first phase was completed last year, with more parking and upgraded bathrooms. The Maritime Museum expansion is nearly complete. The Iowa Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame will be upgraded. And the historic Roof Gardens is slated to be restored next.

Floete Mansion became the Okoboji Club. Built in 1911, destroyed by fire 1951.

The vintage Arnolds Park Amusement Park celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2015, and it continues to serve nostalgic fun with its traditional midway, classic rides, wooden roller coaster (The Legend is one of the world’s oldest wooden roller coasters, built in 1930), and Nutty Bars (the first Nutty Bar stand opened in 1945) much to the delight of all—including Omaha transplant Morris Caudle, who is watching a new generation experience the park with fresh eyes.

“My grandchildren, ages 12 and 14, announced to me [on Easter] that they had saved up their money so they can buy a season pass to Arnolds Park,” Caudle says. A 2018 season pass ranges from $90-$160. “They were really excited…I was really pleased.”

Caudle splits his time between Charleston, South Carolina, and the Okoboji home he built in 2007. Before building a home, he kept a condo at Okoboji. He’s board chair for the art center, which, he says, “is a major part of the community with its robust programming all year long.”

Omahan Julie Sudbeck comes from a family with roots going back four generations in the Iowa Great Lakes of Okoboji. Sudbeck grew up around the family business, White Oaks Bait Shop, which her parents bought in 1974. Julie herself worked as waitress at Koffee Kup Kafe at age 14, riding a moped to the job, and the next year as a “gas jockey” when her father was the general manager of Wilson Boat Works.

She and her parents moved to Omaha in 1987, but by 1989, they secured a summer place up north. After it flooded in 1993, the family rebuilt. Family members come from near and far to gather, often for long, lazy weekends before heading back to work and activities in Omaha. Julie can even take her great-nephews to the Koffee Kup Kafe for grilled ham and cheese or BLT sandwiches like those she once served to patrons.

Summers in Okoboji are a time for them to renew familiar bonds with shared activities.

Tudor House, Des Moines Beach. Still stands.

“It’s very rare somebody goes off to do their own thing,” Sudbeck says “It’s more like, ‘What are we all going to do?’ And that’s just it—we make the plans together, and we want to. That’s what it’s constantly about—the lake and your friends and family. You just can’t replace it.”

Speaking of their place on the lake, Sudbeck explains, “Where we live, there’s a whole shoreline of family dwellers. It’s their children and grandchildren. Everybody has a houseful. That is the common denominator—friends and family.”

Years of escaping to the lakes have fostered strong feelings of attachment to Okoboji. Sudbeck’s kids have never known summers without it.

“My children would be devastated if we didn’t have the lake house,” she says. “It’s a huge part of their life. I don’t think they’ve missed a Fourth of July in Okoboji.”

Caudle likes the rituals that accompany life there.

“Our lake season typically starts with the melting of West Okoboji, usually in mid-March or early April,” Caudle says. “Lake gulls show up for a feeding frenzy, joined later by white pelicans. It is a challenge to time our arrival just before the lake ‘turns over’ to see this spectacle of nature. As the days start getting longer and warmer, the opening process begins. Each family member has duties, and it is a race to see who gets their checklist completed first.”

After that, daily rhythms set the schedule. Caudle also appreciates the therapeutic value of the place.

“Old-timers feel there’s a magic to bathing in the lake. I do that from time to time. It’s a good cure for a mild hangover,” he says, adding, “I don’t need my blood pressure medication when I’m at the lake immersed in that tranquility.”

That laissez faire attitude transfers to even the most basic of needs. Dinnertime could be anything from a backyard barbecue with the family to a progressive dinner between many lakeshore residents.

Like Denny Walker, Caudle says he’s “made it a point to befriend the locals, understand their priorities, particularly the environment.”

Those priorities and those friends are part of how Okoboji keeps its charm. It’s a step back to a simpler time, and, after three decades of engaging in activities and making friends, Caudle says he and his wife “are more than just ‘summer people.’”

As far as Caudle’s concerned, Okoboji will be in his family for generations to come.

“That’s the plan. We would like our grandkids to have their grandkids to enjoy the things we do there.”

Same for Walker, whose kids and grandkids already relate summer and holidays to time in Okoboji. He can’t imagine a better sanctuary: “It’s a trip back in time. It’s a wonderful family place filled with memories.” 


Visit vacationokoboji.com and arnoldspark.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

All Wrung Out and Hung to Dry…

August 23, 2016 Leave a comment

All Wrung Out and Hung to Dry…

First off, blessings to all the Louisianans affected by the flooding. We were just down there before the deluge and troubles began, having driven through areas of Baton Rouge and surrounding towns and parishes en route to Pam’s family reunion in New Orleans, During our Southern Fried Love Road Trip II – link to my diary of that experience at https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/12/southern-fried-love-road-trip-diary-ii/ – we only got one whiff of the torrential rains that can fall there. As brief as our exposure was when caught in a blinding downpour on the Lake Ponchartrain Bridge, it was plenty enough to make us nervous. Can’t imagine living in areas so prone to flooding. But what I’m really sharing in this post are my gathering thoughts about the oppressive humidity of the Deep South. While in the midst of that sog and sap I couldn’t find words to do it justice, except a few choice curses. Not even for a time upon my return could I manage to describe it. Now that I have a semblance of my wits about me, I will try to articulate how all consuming it felt. I mean, I knew it would be hot and I thought I was prepared for what everyone told me would be a humidity unlike any I’d felt before, but I never imagined its thoroughly invasive properties. Every time I left AC environs for the outside my pores spontaneously opened to release at first a film and then a full cascade of sweat. It often felt as if I’d been caught in a storm. That none too comfortable sticky, clammy feeling is most unpleasant. It’s essentially walking around in damp clothes. i did find relief when infrequent breezes thankfully appeared to create natural air conditioning of the most refreshing kind.

 

 

After being subjected to that muggy climate I can see how the humidity itself may be enough to explain the origins of Southern Gothic literature with its hyperbole, histrionics, eccentrics, grotesqueries and magic realism. Then add to that voodoo, fundamentalism, evangelism, hellfire Baptist devotion, devout Catholicism, swamps, backwoods, plantations, chain gangs, football, jazz, blues, country and soul food, not to mention the legacy of slavery, the Confederacy and the civil rights movement, and you have the makings for high drama, combined with doses of the surreal and the supernatural. The stark rich-poor, urban-rural divide lends itself to tragicomedy. Just like the humidity, that rich broth of culture oozes out until it envelops you in a steam bath of pleasure and pain. Beads of sweat and drops of rain mark the spot. The myriad struggles and conflicts of that place find release in the grace of slow rhythms that the heavy, moist air seems to regulate. As a visitor, there is no mistaking you are in a Southern Realm or Southern State of Mind, and just to remind you that you’re far from home is that all pervasive, stifling veil of sodden heat you cannot deny or escape, except indoors.

Funny thing about that humidity is that as draining as it could be, it sure never dampened my appetite.

Then there’s an undeniable sultry quality to all the humidity down there. People wear fewer, lighter clothes down there and, well, you know…I swear I felt like going all Stanley Kowalski to my Stella, Pam, by stripping down to a T-shirt in the French Quarter and calling for her to come to me in her slip. Visions of high strung Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor characters and overwrought scenes and delusions of being a character in God’s Little Acre kept coming to mind. But that was the heat talking. Maybe that Rum and Coke, too. But just thinking and writing about the humidity now makes me breakout in a sweat, so give me another cold one and pass the pralines.

And somebody please hand me a fan – and a change of clothes. While you’re at it, if you have any of those battered, deep fried chicken livers we found at a roadside store, I’ll take me some of those, too. The key is to eat, drink and be merry and not let the humidity bog you down or bum you out. After all, when in the South, do as Southerners do.

Hot Movie Takes: In a Road Pic State of Mind – Favorite Road Movies and Ones Still to See

August 12, 2016 Leave a comment

 

 

Hot Movie Takes:

In a Road Pic State of Mind – Favorite Road Movies and Ones Still to See

©By Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Having taken back to back road trips this summer, the cinephile in me got to thinking about road trip movies and how intrinsically satisfying they can be. It turns out that I have seen and you likely have too many good ones. There is also a large number of must-sees I have yet to view. I have curated here a list of notable movies I have seen that meet the basic criteria for a good road trip pic. There are many such flicks with great reps that I haven’t seen and I’ve also made a list of those that I intend to catch up with some day. Among those I have yet to see that are considered seminal road pics are “Wild Boys of the Road,” Kings of the Road” and “Two Lane Blacktop.”

On the list of road pics I have seen, three are by Omaha’s own Alexander Payne: “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “Nebraska.” His “The Descendants” could be considered a road pic as well. There are some selections that might better fit other categories, such as “The Terminator” franchise, but they absolutely work as road movies, too. A more recent example of this blurring or melding of categories might be “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the preceding films in that series.

I purposely excluded from my listings some movies I’ve seen that I know fit the road pic theme, such as the Hope-Crosby series and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” because for my tastes anyway they just don’t work very well, at least not today.

For the following lists, the movies are ordered in a rough approximation of their release dates.

 

Among my personal favorite road pics are:

The Grapes of Wrath

Sullivan’s Travels

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Gun Crazy

La Strada

The Searchers

Thunder Road

North by Northwest

Bonnie and Clyde

Easy Rider

Five Easy Pieces

The Out of Towners

Man in the Wilderness

Harold and Maude

The Getaway

Paper Moon,

The Last Run

Scarecrow

Badlands

The Last Detail

Emperor of the North

Thieves Like Us

Harry & Tonto

The Sugarland Express

 

Two-Lane Blacktop

 

 

Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

The Man Who Would Be King

Freebie and the Bean

Sorcerer

The In-Laws

Rolling Thunder

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

Bite the Bullet

Handle with Care

The Blues Brothers

Melvin and Howard

Cutter’s Way

El Norte

Something Wild

Lost in America

Mountains of the Moon

Rain Man

Dumb and Dumber

Map of the Human Heart

The Straight Story

O Brother Where Art Thou

Three Kings

Joy Ride

Almost Famous

Aboout Schmidt

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Sideways

The Motorcycle Diaries

Little Miss Sunshine

Nebraska

 

Between both lists, that is the list of movies I’ve seen and the list of movies I haven’t seen, a surprising number were either shot or set in Nebraska or have production histories or back stories that intersect wth Nebraska, including the three Payne films as well as “The Rain People,” “Paper Moon,” “Badlands,” “Convoy” and “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar.”

When I sat down to start thinking about and researching the subject of this post, it became very clear very early on that there are more really good road movies than I ever realized. Many top directors have explored this genre or sub-genre. It makes sense, of course, because characters on the open road, whether on foot or in a vehicle or in a stagecoach or aboard a train or on horseback, make for kinetic cinema, particularly when the characters are framed in space against dramatic landscapes and backdrops. There is nothing more elemental in cinema than figures moving through space and going on some journey. When the context for that movement, journey, trip, quest or escape includes elements of time or danger, or when the stakes are somehow raised because of the dramatic or comedic situation, then we are pulled right along on that path with the protagonists. It only works though if the basic narrative exposition is compelling enough. We’re only invested in the road adventure to the extent we are made to care about the characters and their dilemma or objective. The best of these films depict human yearning and growth through the physical act of travel, which invariably means encountering some kind of obstacles or conflicts en route. In one way or another, all of these movies are about searches – internal or external – and moving on to some desired destination or resolution or state of mind. These stories tap into the human heart and mind in terms of what makes us tick. For these reasons and more, road pics done well will always be relevant and engaging.

 

 

Here are virtually all the road pic movies I’ve seen that I can recommend:

It Happened One Night

You Only Live Once

Stagecoach

The Grapes of Wrath

They Live by Night

They Drive by Night

Sullivan’s Travels

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Detour

Gun Crazy

The Wild One

La Strada

Westward the Women

Wild Strawberries

Thunder Road

North by Northwest

The Great Race

Bonnie and Clyde

The Rain People

Easy Rider

The Out of Towners

Man in the Wilderness

Harold and Maude

Five Easy Pieces

Duel

The Getaway

The Last Run

 

 

Scarecrow

Badlands

The Last Detail

Paper Moon

Emperor of the North

Thieves Like Us

Harry & Tonto

The Sugarland Express

Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

The Man Who Would Be King

Freebie and the Bean

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings

Sorcerer

The In-Laws

Rolling Thunder

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

Bite the Bullet

Handle with Care

Smokey and the Bandit

Mad Max

The Blues Brothers

Melvin and Howard

National Lampoon’s Family Vacation

Cutter’s Way

The Road Warrior

El Norte

Starman

The Terminator

48 Hours

The Sure Thing

Stranger Than Paradise

Paris, Texas

Something Wild

Down by Law

Lost in America

Wild at Heart

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Mountains of the Moon

Thelma and Louise

Rain Man

Map of the Human Heart

Crossing the Bridge

Terminator II: Judgement Day

Omaha the Movie

Dumb and Dumber

The Straight Story

Midnight Run

Flirting with Disaster

O Brother Where Art Thou?

Three Kings

Joy Ride

Almost Famous

About Schmidt

Terminator III: Rise of the Machines

Y Tu Mama También

Children of Men

Sideways

The Motorcycle Diaries

Little Miss Sunshine

Terminator Salvation

Nebraska

 

 

Here is a list of road pics I mean to get to one day:

Wild Boys of the Road

The Hitchhiker

The Wages of Fear

Journey to Italy

Il Sorpasso

Pierrot le Fou

Weekend

Wanda

Vanishing Point

Deadhead Miles

Two Lane Blacktop

Kings of the Road

Honky Tonk Freeway

The Living End

The Vanishing

Love and a .45

Vagabond

My Own Private Idaho

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

True Romance

Natural Born Killers

Get on the Bus

Smoke Signals

Central Station

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

In This World

Broken Flowers

Old Joy

Borat

Wendy and Lucy

Meek’s Cutoff

Mad Max: Fury Road

Grandma

 

 

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II

August 12, 2016 4 comments

 

French Quarter scenes

 

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II

From the land of Yes, sir…Yes, ma’am…and Y’all have a good time

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

After never being in the American South the first 57 years of my life, I made a purely pleasure road trip to St. Louis and Memphis  in June. My partner Pamela Jo Berry and I made the journey with her daughter Beaufield and Beau’s husband Rob and their baby boy Shine. We took in the National Blues Museum, the St. Louis Basilica and the St. Louis Fine Art Museum. We toured Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum. We checked out the Beale Street scene. Good food and music were plentiful.

On the way home we stopped in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Branson, Missouri for some more down home country sights and experiences. Then, just two months later, Pam and I headed to the South again – only this time to the Deep South for her family reunion. We traveled with Pam’s mother Janis and two of Pam’s sisters, Pat and Theresa, to Kansas City, where we rendezvoused with close family friend Jill Anderson. Caravanning with us in another car to K.C. were Pam’s nieces Ashley, Amber and Aubrey and nephews Christopher and Tyler. While the others flew from KC to the site of the reunion, New Orleans, Pam and I drove with Jill to The Big Easy. En route, we passed through Arkansas and Mississippi and made it to the epicenter of Let the Good Times Roll by way of Baton Rouge.

We just got back from four days and three nights in the tropical clime of that storied port city best known for its rich cuisine, jazz and blues music, raised cemetery plots, voodoo subculture and stew pot mix of French, African. Creole, Cajun, African-American influences and traditions. New Orleans is first and foremost a city of the waters – both ocean and fresh water – whose diversity comes to it from every nook and cranny courtesy the international boats that dock and disembark there. The heavily trafficked Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain all intersect New Orleans and feed the city with distinct elements of river culture, community and commerce.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we had to get there and our staging ground for the drive down south was Kansas City. On the ride into K.C. Pam, her sisters and mother would instantly react to any good soul, R&B and jazz tunes by swaying and grooving to the music. I am afraid that even sharing close quarters with four black women this white guy still didn’t acquire any soul, not even by osmosis.

We spent a night in K.C. at the industrial chic apartment Jill shares with her roommate Jake, who generously gave up his bed to us. That night in K.C. before splitting up the next morning for our New Orleans jags by plane and care, we all went out to eat. Walking to the bar-restaurant we passed through the lively Country Club Plaza district with its Spanish-style architecture adorning shops, galleries and eateries. We hadn’t walked more than a couple blocks when Pat, followed quickly by Theresa and ultimately Janis, joined a line dance in progress at a little open square that three DJs turned into an outdoor dance floor.

At the Granfalloon Restaurant & Bar everyone in our party except me went for the Taco Tuesday special. Always the outlier, I went for the Falloon Burger with its Angus beef patty topped by smoked cheddar and peppered bacon on a Brioche bun. This good eats was on point.

 

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Jill

 

 

Now let me share some more impressions and incidents from the rather circuitous path we followed in making our way down to the Heart of Dixie and that town of grassroots mystique called New Orleans, the original Crescent City. Instead of taking the Interstate, we opted to drive on a series of highways in a south by southeasterly direction. This meandering approach was a collective decision and included taking a scenic river path into New Orleans but as you’ll read that didn’t turn out the way we envisioned.

Well into our slog through Missouri and somewhere near the Arkansas border we happened upon an off-the-beaten-track Amish-run farmstead, where we stocked up on fresh fruit and veggies, including juicy, just picked Missouri peaches. A pit stop for gas and provisions turned up an unexpected delight when Pam spotted battered, deep-fried chicken livers and gizzards for sale as a uniquely Southern road snack. She and I both grew up eating those organ meats and so with every bite it took us back to our childhoods. I never did acquire an appetite for gizzards, but livers, well, that’s a whole other matter. These were just as they should be – soft and creamy inside with a flavorful not too crunchy breading on the outside. If cooked just right, as they were, it’s not an oily dish at all. Of all the good food we ate on the trip, and as you will read we ate some downright righteous stuff, the livers may have been the single best bite of the whole experience.

Traversing the surprisingly hilly country of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas we stopped to visit Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs. This impressive glass and steel structure sits atop native stone in a clearing amid forest. More than 400 windows provide a panoramic immersion experience  in nature that is both serene and sacred. Pam and I meant to stop there on our earlier trip down South but never made it, and so getting to see it on this trip was well worth the wait.

We stopped in Little Rock, where with more time at our disposal we would have visited civil rights memorials, but settled instead for dinner at Gus’s Famous Fried Chicken in the city’s downtown River Market district. The chicken comes spicy hot and it was better than average but not that much to brag about. Neither were the pedestrian sides. Our waitress was a bona fide Southern sweetheart who at one point sat herself down at our table for a down home, right quick break from being on her feet all day and a welcome to Little Rock how-de-do. Jill’s rental car got a less than how-de-do ticket violation for being parked in a spot where the citation read no parking is allowable at any time, This unwelcome surprise came despite no visible warning not to use that spot. The full lot’s only signage declared, “Public Parking.” Pam and I encouraged Jill to protest the ticket via whatever means the city of Little Rock allows. This wouldn’t be the last time Jill’s car attracted the unwanted attention of law enforcement despite our collective best efforts to obey the law.

We stayed a night at a Days Inn in Pine Bluff. All three of us skipped the promised complimentary breakfast after discovering it consisted entirely of white flour, sugar-based products that are no-no’s for people with diet restrictions like two of us.

Speaking of food, we had killer snacks on the ride down thanks to Jill, who packed a nice supply of her homemade vegan tamales featuring Jack Fruit and a yummy, spicy blend of seasonings.

Half-way on the aforementioned scenic river route in Louisiana Jill mapped out is when we realized we were lost or at least not where we should be because all we saw were flood control berms and heavy industry complexes. The sheer size and scale of operation of those various industry works were a sight to behold but decidedly not scenic. High above us ran conveyance systems from either side of the road. Do the overhead pipes carry water from the river to feed into whatever industrial processes are going on there? Don’t know. All I know is that whatever does happen at those plants is securely tucked away behind barbed wire and perhaps electrified fences. The giant works themselves, with their smoke stacks, cranes, valves and such, have a kind of heavy beauty to them in their interlocking tangle of mechanics and machinery, Not everything we glimpsed was so oppressive. There were a few roadside shotgun shack residences and bars. All through the parts of the South we traveled we saw lots of played out towns and abandoned structues that reminded me of what one sees trekking across Nebraska or any rural stretched. We did pass a raggedy plantation as well as some dreamland site full of white stone structures. Convinced we needed to ask someone where we were in relationship to the Mississippi River and to New Orleans, we pulled into an automotive and towing business called Joey’s on the side of the road and hollered at the first person we saw, who just happened to be Joey. In his thick Creole accent he informed us we were on the wrong side of the river to see anything remotely scenic and provided clear directions for getting us into New Orleans.

 

"Live like a Saint, Laugh like a Who Dat, Love New Orleans like nothing else." By popular demand, we have finally made a shirt of the quote on the wall at our Magazine Street shop. They are words to live by. Printed on Next Level tees for a curvier fit. Female size is a slight scoop neck. Pre-shrunk. Female sizes are a heathered grey tri-blend, Unisex are black cotton.:
New Orleans tagline to take to heart

 

We were no more than a few minutes traveling across the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway, which is the world’s longest bridge over a body of water with its nearly 24 mile span, when we hit rush hour traffic. Lake Ponchartrain is so immense and my sense of geography so poor, that I assumed we were over the Gulf of Mexico at that point. Then things really got interesting when a thunderstorm broke out and rain went from moderate to heavy to a torrential downpour. Visibility was reduced to a car or two in front of us, in back of us and on either side of us. Amidst all that gray and all those vehicles it was a claustrophobic inching along that tested faith and patience. Finally the shroud lifted and we got back to a semblance of normal travel speed. but bursts of jagged lightning bolts hitting a few hundred yards away made for an ominous arrival in our destination city. The Superdome loomed large ahead as we snaked our way through jam-packed streets to find the Embassy Suites on Julia Street, where we stayed three nights.

Over the next four days we ended up doing the French Quarter and French Market, but we avoided Bourbon Street. As a prelude to our first French Quarter foray the entire family gathered for the reunion took a riverboat cruise aboard the Steamboat Natchez. The food was disappointing but the cruise did give an appreciation for the grandeur of the river and for the scale of its commercial traffic as a bustling thoroughfare of ships and barges transporting people and provisions. Naturally, there was a “house” band entertaining us with old-timey jazz and ragtime music.

Our first truly New Orleans meal came at Peche Seafood Grill just a couple blocks from the hotel. Pam had a smothered catfish entree that she loved though I didn’t care for the red chili sauce that covered it. I had a killer gumbo with a scrumptious side of roasted beets and pistachios accented by fresh thyme.

Very near Peche is an Emeril’s restaurant and since we’re both big fans of his from watching cable cooking shows we decided to do dinner there one night. Eating at Emeril’s was hands down the best and most expensive meal we had on the trip. Trying to keep costs down, we both opted for the grilled salmon dish served on a bed of farro (a barley-like grain) and a tomato and corn chouchou, with some pickled string veggies tied in a bow atop the fish. The salmon was prepared perfectly, with the skin a nice black and crisp and the flesh moist and buttery. This was fine dining done right. The experience included at least four different wait staff who attended to us, each with a specific function, and somehow none made themselves obtrusive or a nuisance.

I forget what night it was down there, but Pam and I were walking back to the hotel after dinner and decided to explore a little bit and we heard, as you often do there, live music coming from somewhere. We followed the sound and before we knew it we were enveloped by a small marching band and their brassy instruments and dozens of rollicking merrymakers dancing to the joyous rhythms of When the Saints Go Marching In.

 

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Steamboat Natchez

 

The day of the cruise didn’t begin so well but it certainly ended nicely. Waiting in line to board the boat became a mini-ordeal because of the oppressive heat and humidity that left us from more temperate Northern and Western climes sodden messes. Hand held fans were our only relief until we got inside the AC of the dining cabin. After a pale imitation of Southern cooking for lunch we went outside to stand or sit along the deck. A cool spray of water got kicked up by the paddle wheel below and a refreshing breeze made being outside in New Orleans a comfortable time for once.

We no sooner clambered off the boat then we headed right for the French Quarter, where a Satchmo Summerfest featuring live jazz and a sidewalk art show of diverse work drew good crowds. There’s much to see and do in the Quarter, of course, and we stopped in a number of galleries and shops, including a praline shop whose proprietor was a very short lady speaking in a very big voice. Her natural amplification made it sound like she was speaking through a bull horn. Our walking party through the Quarter consisted of Pam and me, Pam’s sisters Cheryl and Veronica, and Pam’s brother John.

During the course of our adventures in New Orleans we passed any number of praline places but we never got any. We were both trying to be good with our diets in a place where the abiding philosophy is diets-be-damned. But we had moments of splurging with food and other things.

Our stroll through the Quarter and on back to the hotel seemed like a forced march at times because of he humidity. It clings to you as if you’re walking with a warm damp towel over your head.

If we ever get back to New Orleans, I would like to have more time to explore the Quarter and to peak into those distinctive, tightly packed homes and buildings with their multicolored pastel facades, arched entryways, cozy balconies, ample windows with shutters and interior courtyards.

We also never got around to visiting a plantation or a cemetery. Next time must-dos.

The French Market is a big bazaar off the French Quarter filled with commercial buildings and open air stalls. We perused its Flea Market, where you can find an impressive variety of cooked to order food, fresh produce, apparel, jewelry, art and a hundred and one other things for sale. Pam had some interesting encounters with a charismatic vendor there by the name of Stefano Velaska. The story goes he wound up in New Orleans after fleeing his native Czechoslovakia, where he purports to have been a wanted dissident. He has been a vendor at the market since 1990. He’s also a founding member of the Dutch Alley Artist’s Co-op located within a short walk of his booth. He makes and sells his own handcrafted jewelry. He apparently suffered heavy losses in the Katrina disaster. He likes to quote Tennessee Williams and whether serious or not, he tried to interest Pam in interesting me to visit NOLA’s red light district to marvel at if not sample the whores. She was not sure how to take that or what to do with it but he twice “propositioned” her with the suggestion, which coming from a mustachioed, heavy-accented, flamboyant man in a decorated top hat does make one wonder or pause. Not far from the Flea Market is the famous Cafe DuMonde and its signature beignet and coffee. The takeout and gift shop lines went on forever and the open air dining area was packed too but we managed to just walk right in and sit right down. These were our first beignets, the legendary doughy delights smothered in powdered sugar, and I must say they’re quite good but hardly the revelation I was led to believe. During our repast there two older women turned out in gaudy mardi gras garb sat at nearby table and Pam asked if she could photograph them and they complied. A great pleasure on this trip was that Pam took photos practically everywhere we went. She is a superb photographer who years ago made a name for herself for her photojournalistic and art photography before life intervened and she eventually dropped the camera and morphed into a mixed media artist. Seeing her little by little pick up the camera again does my heart good. We intend to work together on a project one day featuring her images and my words.

Joining us after awhile at Cafe du Monde were Pam’s sisters Veronica, Victoria and Cheryl. We found a neat little gallery featuring the work of an artist who’s also the gallery owner.

During our meanderings through the French Market we heard some good jazz being played by a variety of musicians, including a sidewalk trio of a young man drumming and singing, an older man blowing his trombone and a young girl tearing it up on the trumpet. They attracted quite a few onlookers and admirers. Count us among them, Pam got some great shots of them.

The big family gathering that reunion week was a dinner and dance at Mulate’s Cajun Restaurant. The staff put out a nice buffet spread highlighted by a great jambalaya and these scrumptious little meat pies. The main bill of fare though was the four generations of the Williams-Jackson family gathered for this celebration. Family and friends of family joined as one. Folks came from California, Nebraska, Missouri, Virginia and Georgia. Pam’s mom  Janis, who is called Mother by one and all, headed the program, assisted by her daughter Cheryl. A cousin of Pam’s named Alexandra from the Kansas City side of the family has a beautiful, trained singing voice and she treated us to a rendition of “Ave Maria” and a gospel hymn. An unannounced segment of the reunion dinner program featured Pam’s daughter Beaufield Berry and her man Rob Fisher ecchanging marriage vows before the assembled Williams-Jackson clan. They wanted to share their wedded union with the extended family. I happened to be holding their 2-year-old son Shine during most of the ceremony and while he was just fine he sure couldn’t understand what mommy and daddy were doing up there.

We baby sat Shine two nights there after long days when we knew we weren’t getting back out into the party fray. We left the late nightlife revelry to the younger folks. Besides, we have a ball with Shine, whose sweet joy takes the edge off everything.

Once in New Orleans we didn’t see much of our driver, Jill, but we did find out she got a parking ticket for an expired meter and then a tow boot put on her car, which is no way for a city to treat the visitors who keep its economy afloat. After that, we decided it was better to pay the hotel parking garage fee of $37 a day, which all three of us originally balked at, and we split the cost with her. It turned out to be cheaper than searching for the scant street parking available and then getting hammered by the parking Nazis there.

For our return journey back home we took a much more direct route. We won’t soon forget the stark landscape of Mississippi, the winding roads of Arkansas and the rolling fields of Missouri. We crossed some spectacular old bridges that are epic and sculptural in addition to being practical. We were passing through Cleveland, Mississippi this past Sunday when hunger overtook us and not knowing where to stop we took a flyer on the Southern Cafe & Grill, which to our delight offered the best roadside, all-you-can-eat buffet imaginable for $10.99. Everything in that buffet line was country soul food done right: greens, lima beans, green beans, mashed potatoes, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, both fried and broiled chicken and some wonderful chicken stew-like dish. All of it was down home, real deal, succulent pleasure personified. It was one of those, Now-you-can-take-me-home-Lord meals that just don’t come around that often. We knew we were in the right place when after church crowd began filing in – white and black – dressed in their Sunday finest.

We spent another night at Jill and Jake’s place in K.C. before heading back to Omaha with Beau and Shine. After two straight adventures in the South I really like it there. The humidity does a number on me but its doable. I like the people, the landscapes, the attractions and the lifestyle. Mostly, from what I could see, the South is, just like the Midwest and pretty much everywhere for that matter, made up of honest, hard working folks who don’t take themselves too seriously but who have fierce pride of ownership in the places they call home. They love sharing their culture with outsiders if you show genuine interest in it.

 

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Beau and Pam

 

As an interracial couple visiting the South in 2016 we don’t have to contend with the cruelties and dangers that mixed couples and people of color faced in the past. We never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome. Seeing Confederate flags proudly displayed in the windows of homes and on private flag poles gives a moment of pause but those sights are few and far between. Pretty much everywhere we went we were greeted with cordiality, kindness and politeness. We even got a compliment from some random guy in Eureka Springs about what a great looking couple we are. Pam, as often happens with her, was told more than once how beautiful she is and how lovely her clothes are.

We were in good hands with Jill behind the wheel and she’s great company. A very sweet and smart woman who doesn’t stand for any nonsense.

I don’t know when we will next get back to the South, except that Pam feels called to do some serious family research in Georgia, where there are mysteries in her family line she is bound and determined to unravel. Depending on what she finds, it could be the makings of a highly personal photo essay or book or film or all or none of the above. If we don’t make it down there in 2017, we do know the next family reunion is set for Atlanta in 2018, so one way or the other I will be posting a new installment of my Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary. Until then, I’m dreaming of that heavenly Sunday buffet and counting candied yams, not calories.

 

Flashback to June 2015: Visiting Africa with Terence “Bud” Crawford

June 14, 2016 1 comment

Flashback to June 2015: Visiting Africa with Terence “Bud” Crawford

 

Leo Biga’s Journey in the Pipeline; Following The Champ, Terence “Bud” Crawford, in Africa

©by Leo Adam Biga

These are stories I wrote about my travels to Africa with boxing champ Terence “Bud’ Crawford. The pieces highlight various facets of the two-week trip to Uganda and Rwanda. The first is for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) and the second is for The Reader (www.thereader.com).

In June 2015 I traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with the help of the Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Our travel party of seven included two-time world boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford of Omaha. I have been chronicling his rise to boxing prominence for four years and though he is a fighter through and through there is more to him than that. I have seen he has a real heart for his family and community as well as deep loyalty to those around him. He has single-handedly resurrected the sport of boxing in his hometown by fighting several title defenses here before huge crowds at the CenturyLink Center. He operates a gym that is a sanctuary for at-risk youth and young adults, providing them structured, positive activities that teach them lessons inside and outside the ring. Friends of Crawford have embarked on a major building campaign to renovate and expand the gym so that it can serve more people.

When I heard he had gone to Africa in August if 2014 I was intrigued. My interest grew when I learned he traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, two developing nations that have endured much conflict, killing and deprivation. Then I learned the story behind why he went and whom he went with and that motivated me to want to accompany him on the 2015 trip he was making to those same countries. It turns out that in the summer of 2014 Bud and his former fourth grade teacher at Skinner Magnet School in North O, Jamie Nollette, reconnected through social media. She congratulated him on all his success as a fighter and let him know how proud she is of him. When he learned what she does today as the founder and executive director of Pipeline Worldwide, a nonprofit that supports sustainability and self-sufficiency programs in Africa, he was fascinated to go to with her on her next trip.

For the African-American Crawford it was an opportunity to visit what he regards as the Motherland and to see how people there live. His first trip to Africa was indeed an awakening for him as he saw everything from people living in want and healing from trauma to people working regular jobs, going to market and living in comfortable housing. He visited villages and organizations that Pipeline Worldwide assists with funding to build fresh water wells and dormitories and to support programming that helps youth, women and families. He met survivors of civil war, abduction, abuse and genocide. He played with and comforted sick and orphaned children. He gave away lots of things. He also visited natural wonders.

I applied for and received the Andy Award grant from UNO to fund my way to Africa with Crawford, Nollette and four others for the June 1-12, 2015 journey. Our travel party saw everything described above and more. I was there to observe and report on it all. It was my first trip outside the United States and so it was naturally an awakening for me, too.

We met African, American and European program directors, educators, aid workers and humanitarians. We met survivors and perpetrators of violence. Crawford was feted as a visiting prince by sports officials who organized a press conference he handled with aplomb. We spent part of our time in urban centers and part of our time in rural areas. We shopped at open air markets and enclosed malls. We were treated to great hospitality wherever we went and we sampled all manner of the local cultures in the food and fashion and in the dance and music we were exposed to. We also did some service work at one stop. We went on safari and a gorilla trek. All in all, the two weeks added up to an eye opening experience that none of us will soon forget.

From a journalistic perspective, it was a challenge seeing so much in such a short time and capturing as much of it as possible. In my reporting I tried to be as faithful to the experience as time and space limitations allowed. The project did confirm what prompted me to go in the first place – that you should follow your instincts as a reporter and that you should stretch yourself beyond your routine comfort zones. I know I have grown as a result of the experience even if I can’t yet articulate how.

One of the takeaways from it all is that there are many Africans and non-Africans alike working hard to improve conditions and raise quality of life in the countries we visited. While I often felt like a tourist who was only glimpsing small aspects of life there at any given time, I do feel the totality of the journey gave me at least a rough appreciation for how people live.

And, as expected, traveling for two weeks with Crawford gave me new insights into him. I also developed a deeper appreciation for what Nollette and her Pipeline Worldwide does. If anything, the relationship between Crawford and Nollette has grown through their travels together. He helps bring awareness to her Pipeline Worldwide and the programs and projects it supports and she is helping lead the campaign to renovate and expand his B&B Boxing Academy.

There is another dynamic about the trip I made with them that is important to note. Six of the seven in the travel party are from Omaha. Four of us had never been to Africa before and in fact had done little or no travel abroad. Certainly our awareness of conditions, challenges and opportunities in those African nations was greatly increased by that experience and exposure. Eever since coming back I have been writing and presenting about the trip.

AFRICA TALES IN IMAGES
Here is a link to a video slideshow of the June trip I made to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with The Champ.

The visuals were edited, set to music, given movement and in some cases captioned by my friend Victoria White, an Omaha filmmaker.

NOTE: I am available to make public presentations about the trip.

BTW: My blog, leoadambiga.com, features many other stories I’ve written about Crawford.

 

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The Champ Goes to Africa

Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends

Two-time world boxing champ Terence Crawford of Omaha has the means to do anything he wants. You might not expect then that in the space of less than a year he chose to travel not once but twice to a pair of developing nations in Africa wracked by poverty, infrastructure problems and atrocity scars: Uganda and Rwanda, I accompanied his last trip as the 2015 winner of the Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Until now I’ve posted a little about the grant that took me to Africa along with a few pictures and anecdotes from the trip. But now I’m sharing the first in a collection of stories I’m writing about the experience, which is of course why I went there in fhe first place. This cover story in the coming July issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) emphasizes Crawford within the larger context of what he and the rest of us saw, who we met and what we did. Future pieces for other publications will go even more into where his Africa sojourns fit into his evolving story as a person and as an athlete. But at least one of my upcoming stories from the trip will try to convey the totality of the experience from my point of view and that of others. I feel privilged to have been given the opportunity to chronicle this journey. Look for new posts and updates and announcements related to this and future stories from my Africa Tales series.

 

 

 

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(Below is a text-only format of the same article)

The Champ Goes to Africa

Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally  appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

EDITOR’S NOTE:
Senior contributing writer Leo Adam Biga, winner of the 2015 Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, chronicles recent travels he made in Africa with two-time world boxing champion Terence Crawford.

Expanding his vision
Terence “Bud” Crawford’s rise to world boxing stardom reads more graphic novel than storybook, defying inner city odds to become one of the state’s most decorated athletes. Not since Bob Gibson ruled the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s has a Nebraskan so dominated his sport.

When Bud overheard me say he might be the best fighter pound-for-pound Neb.’s produced, he took offense:. “Might be? I AM the best.”

En route to perhaps being his sport’s next marquee name, he’s done remarkable things in improbable places. His ascent to greatness began with a 2013 upset of Breidis Prescott in Las Vegas, In early 2014 he captured the WBO lightweight title in Glasgow, Scotland. He personally put Omaha back on the boxing map by twice defending that title in his hometown before huge CenturyLink Center crowds last year.

In between those successful defenses he traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa in August. He went with Pipeline Worldwide co-founder Jamie Fox Nollette, an Omaha native and Bud’s fourth grade teacher at Skinner Magnet School. After reuniting in mid-2014, he expressed interest going to Africa, where her charitable organization works with partners to drill water wells and to support youth-women’s programs.

When I caught up with The Champ last fall, he left no doubt the impact that first trip made.

“It’s life-changing when you get to go over there and help people,” he says.

Nollette recalls, “When Terence left he had an empty suitcase. He left all his clothes, except what he was wearing, to a bus driver.”

“I just felt they needed it more than I did,” he says. ‘I just thought it was the right thing to do.”

Seeing first-hand profound poverty, infrastructure gaps and atrocity scars made an impression.

“Well, it just made me appreciate things more. It kind of humbled me in a way to where I don’t want to take anything for granted. I haven’t in my life experienced anything of the nature they’re experiencing over there. For one thing, I have clean water – they don’t have clean water. That’s one of their biggest issues and I want to help them with it. They appreciate everything, even if it’s just a hug or a handshake.”

Simpatico and reciprocal
Nollette says the trips and fundraisers she organizes raise awareness and attract donors.

Only weeks after winning the vacant WBO light welterweight title over Thomas Dulorme in Arlington, Texas last April Bud returned to those same African nations with Nollette.

“I told Jamie I would like to go back.”

He says locals told him, “We have a lot of people that come and tell us they’re going to come back and never do. For you to come back means a lot to us.”

“Just the little things mean a lot to people with so little, and so I guess that’s why I’m here,” Bud told an assembly of Ugandans in June.

None of this may have happened if he and Nollettte didn’t reconnect. Their bond transcends his black urban and her white suburban background. He supports Pipeline’s work and she raises funds for his B&B Boxing Academy in North O.

His first Africa trip never made the news because he didn’t publicize it. His June 1 through 12 trip is a different matter.

What about Africa drew this streetwise athlete to go twice in 10 months when so much is coming at him in terms of requests and appearances, on top of training and family obligations?

Beyond the cool machismo, he has a sweet, soft side and burning curiosity. “He really listens to what people say,” Nollette notes. “He wants to understand things.”

His pensive nature gets overshadowed by his mischievous teasing, incessant horseplay and coarse language.

This father of four is easy around children, who gravitate to him. He supports anything, here or in Africa, that gets youth off the streets.

He gives money to family, friends, homies and complete strangers. In 2014 he so bonded with Pipeline’s Uganda guide, Apollo Karaguba, that he flew him to America to watch his Nov. fight in Omaha.

“When I met Apollo I felt like I’ve been knowing him for years. I just liked the vibe I got. He’s a nice guy, he’s caring. He took real good care of us while we were out there.”

Bud says paying his way “was my turn to show him my heart.”

He respects Nollette enough he let her form an advisory committee for his business affairs as his fame and fortune grow.

Even with a lifelong desire to see “the motherland” and a fascination with African wildlife, it took Nollette reentering his life for him to go.

“Certain opportunities don’t come every day. She goes all the time and I trust her.”

His fondness for her goes back to when they were at Skinner. “She was one of the only teachers that really cared. She would talk to me.”

He needed empathy, he says, because “I got kicked out of school so much – a fight here, a fight there, I just always had that chip on my shoulder.” He says she took the time to find out why he acted out.

Catching the vision
Boxing eventually superseded school.

“I used to fall asleep studying boxing.”

Meanwhile, Nollette moved to Phoenix. On a 2007 church mission trip to Uganda she found her calling to do service there.

“It really impacted me,” she says. “I’ve always had a heart for kids and
I always had an interest in Africa.”

She went several times.

“There’s not really anything that can prepare you for it. The volume of people. The overwhelming poverty. Driving for hours and seeing all the want. I didn’t know what possibly could be done because everything seemed so daunting.

“But once I had a chance to go into some villages I started to see things that gave me hope. I was absolutely amazed at the generosity and spirit of these people – their hospitality and kindness, their gratitude. You go there expecting to serve and after you’re there you walk away feeling like you’ve been given a lot more. I was hooked.”

Bud got hooked, too, or as ex-pats say in Africa, “caught the vision.”

“I was very touched by the people and how gracious and humble and thankful they were about everything that came towards them. I had a great time with great people. I experienced some great things.”

Coming to Africa i: 
Uganda
For this second trip via KLM Delta he brought girlfriend Alindra “Esha” Person, who’s the mother of his children. Joseph Sutter of Omaha and myself tagged along, Julia Brown of Phoenix joined us in Detroit and Scott Katskee, a native Omahan living in Los Angeles, added to our ranks in Amsterdam. Nollette arrived in Uganda a day early and met us in Entebbe, where Bud and Apollo enjoyed a warm reunion.

The next seven days in Uganda, which endured civil war only a decade ago, were a blur made foggier by jet lag and itinerary overload. Dividing our time between Kampala and rural areas we saw much.

Roadside shanties. Open market vendors. Christian schools, clinics, worship places. Vast, wild, lush open landscapes. Every shade of green vegetation contrasted with red dirt and blue-white-orange skies. Immense Lake Victoria. Crossing the storied Nile by bridge and boat.

The press of people. Folks variously balancing fruit or other items on their head. Unregulated, congested street traffic. Everything open overnight. Boda bodas (motor bikes) jutting amid cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians. One morning our group, sans me, rode aback boda bodas just for the thrill. I suggested to Bud Top Rank wouldn’t like him risking injury, and he bristled, “I run my life, you feel me? Ain’t nobody tell me what to do, nobody. Not even my mom or my dad.”

Ubiquitous Jerry cans – plastic yellow motor oil containers reused to carry and store water – carted by men, women, children, sometimes in long queues. “All waiting on water, that’s crazy,” Bud commented.

Stark contrasts of open slums and gated communities near each other. Mud huts with thatched roofs in the bush.

Long drives on unpaved roads rattled our bodies and mini-bus.

Whenever delays occurred it reminded us schedules don’t mean much there. Bud calls it TIA (This is Africa). “Just live in the moment…go with the flow,” he advised.

In a country where development’s piecemeal, Apollo says, “We’re not there yet, but we’re somewhere.”

Africans engaged in social action say they’ve all overcome struggles to raise themselves and their countrymen. “I was one of the lucky few to get out (of the slums),” Apollo says. They want partners from the developed world, but not at the expense of autonomy.

Many good works there are done by faith-based groups. Apollo works for Watoto Child Care Ministries, whose campus we toured. Three resident boys close to Nollette bonded with Bud on his last trip. The boys joined us for dinner one night.

We spent a day with Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, whose vocational work with exploited females has won acclaim. Last year Nollette produced a video showing Bud training Sister for a mock fight with Stephen Colbert. This time, Nollette, Bud and Co. outfitted a dormitory for her girls in Atiak, where Pipeline built a well. Bud played music the girls danced to. They honored us with a traditional dinner and dance.

We toured Pastor Ben Kibumba’s Come Let’s Dance (CLD) community development organization. Bud and others gave out jerseys to kids.

Nakavuma Mercy directs CLD’s Thread of Life empowerment program for single moms in Kampala’s Katanga slum.

We met Patricia at Bless a Child, which serves cancer-stricken kids in Kampala, and Moses, who’s opening a second site in Gulu. We met young entrepreneurs Charles Mugabi and Richard Kirabira, whose Connect Enterprise and Chicken City Farms, respectively, are part of a creative class Pipeline partners with.

“One of the things I see is that you have a lot of young people with strong leadership skills and I want to be able to come alongside them and support them in their efforts,” Nollette says.

Apollo says Uganda needs new leadership that’s corruption-free and focused on good resource stewardship.

Nollette says she offers “a pipeline to connect people in the States with opportunities and projects in Africa that are really trying to make a difference in their communities.”

It’s all about leveraging relationships and expertise for maximum affect.

We met ex-pats living and work there: Todd Ellingson with City of Joy and Maggie Josiah with African Hospitality Institute.

Josiah offered this advice:

“A lot of times, especially we Americans come over thinking we have all the answers and we know how to fix all the problems, and really we don’t need to fix any of the African problems. They will fix them themselves in their own time. But come over and listen and learn from them. The Africans have so much to teach us about joy when we have very little, they have so much to teach us about what it really means to live in community, what it means to live the abundant life…”

Hail, hail, The Champ is here
Having a world champ visit proved a big deal to Ugandans, who take their boxing seriously. The nation’s sports ministry feted Bud like visiting royalty at a meeting and press conference. He gained extra cred revealing he’s friends with two Ugandan fighters in the U.S., Ismail Muwendo and Sharif Bogere.

“I want to come back with Ismail.”

Ministry official Mindra Celestino appealed to Bud “to be our ambassador for Uganda.” Celestino listed a litany of needs.

“Whatever I can do to help, I’d like to help out,” Bud said. “I’m currently helping out Ismail. He fought on the undercard of my last fight. We’re building him up.”

Bud won over officials, media and boxers with his honesty and generosity, signing t-shits and gloves, posing for pics, sharing his highlight video and delivering an inspirational message.

“For me coming up was kind of hard. You’ve got gangs, you’ve got drugs, you’ve got violence. I got into a lot of things and I just felt like boxing took me to another place in my life where I could get away from all the negativity. I got shot in my head in 2008 hanging out with the wrong crowd. At that time I knew I just wanted to do more with my life, so I started really pursuing my boxing career.

“I had a lot of days I wanted to quit. For you boxers out there this ain’t no easy sport. It’s hard, taking those punches. You might be in the best shape of your life, but mentally if you’re not in shape you’re going to break down.”

He emphasized how much work it takes to be great.

“Every day, any boxing I could watch, I would watch. I would take time out to study, like it was school. I would tell you to just work hard, stay dedicated, give your all every time you go in there and who knows maybe you can be the next champion of the world.”

He referred to the passion, discipline and motivation necessary to carry you past exhaustion or complacency.

“There’s going to be days you want to quit. Those are the days you’ve got to work the hardest. I never was given anything. I was one of those kids they said was never going to make it – I used that as an opportunity to prove them wrong.”

We did take time out to enjoy the outdoors, hiking to the top of Murchison Falls and going on safari at Paraa game preserve. I brought up the rear on the hike and Bud hung back to encourage me: “I’ve got you, Leo…you can do it.” On safari his fondest wish of seeing big cats was fulfilled when we came across two lion prides. He earlier spotted a rare leopard perched on a cliff.

Into Africa II:
Rwanda
Uganda still swam in our heads after flying into Kigali, Rwanda, a city less teeming than Kampala. Despite only a generation removed from genocide, urban Rwanda’s more developed than Uganda. There are even some street lights and stop signs, plus more Western-style construction. In the rural reaches, it’s a sprawling complex of hills and valleys unlike Uganda’s flatlands.

Our guide, Christophe Mbonyingabo, reunited with Bud at the airport.

Just as Bud was mistaken for Ugandan, Rwandans mistook him for one of theirs, too. He delighted in it, especially when residents tried engaging him in their language and he begged off, “I’m American.”

In both countries, access to clean water is a daily challenge.

“Whether you’re passionate about women or children or health or education, once a village gets access to clean drinking water, this very basic need, it just changes everything,” says Nollette. “If a village gets a well it all of a sudden gets a school, a clinic, some agriculture.”

We met young men hoping to make a difference when they complete their U.S. studies. Another, Olivier, lost his entire family in the genocide but has gone on to become a physician.

As Bud put it, we were “happy to meet new friends, new faces.”

Like the work Apollo does in Uganda, Christophe works to heal people in Rwanda. The eastern Congo native needed healing himself after losing his father and two brothers to violence there. He credits being spiritually saved with his founding CARSA (Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance), which counsels genocide survivors and perpetrators to find forgiveness. We met a man and woman – he was complicit in her husband’s murder and stole from her – who’ve come to a serene coexistence. They now share a cow.

All of us expressed awe at this turning-the-other-cheek model.

“They love each other, too, that’s the crazy part,” says Bud, though Christophe said not every survivor forgives and not every perpetrator makes amends.

Bud summed it up with, “Life’s about choices.”

We met a survivor widow for whom Pipeline’s building a new home.

Bud caught up with two boys he met last year. He nearly caused a riot when the gifts he gave and the backflips he performed were spent and a crowd of kids clamored for more.

On the drive into the hills, the stunning vistas resembled Calif. or Mediterranean wine country. It’s a sensory explosion of nature’s verdant, colorful abundance and folks plodding the roadsides on foot and bike, selling wares, hauling bundles, Jerry cans,. you name it.

Upon hiking into a pygmy village, a young woman, Agnes, impressed on us residents’ extreme poverty. Their subsistence living and limited water source pose problems. She shared aspirations to finish school. The villagers danced for us. Our group returned the favor. Then Scott Katskee played Pharrell’s “Happy” and everyone got jiggy.

Seeing so much disparity, Bud observed. “Money can’t make you happy, but it can make you comfortable.”

A sobering experience came at the genocide memorial in Kigali, where brutal killings of unimaginable scale are graphically documented.

Group dynamics and shooting the bull
The bleakness we sometimes glimpsed was counteracted by fun, whether playing with children or giving away things. Music helped. At various junctures, different members of our group acted as the bus DJ. Bud played a mix of hip hop and rap but proved he also knows old-school soul and R&B, though singing’s definitely not a second career. Photography may be, as he showed a flair for taking stills and videos.

In this device-dependent bunch, much time was spent texting, posting and finding wi-fi and hot spot connections.

On the many long hauls by bus or land cruiser, conversation ranged from music to movies to gun control to wildlife to sports. Apparel entrepreneur Scott Katskee entertained us with tales of China and southeast Asia travel and friendships with noted athletes and actors.

Bud gave insight into a tell Thomas Dulorme revealed at the weigh-in of their April fight.

“When you’re that close you can feel the tension. I could see it in his face. He was trying too hard. If you’re trying too hard you’re nervous. If he’s intimidated that means he’s more worried about me than I am about him. I won it right there.”

Our group made a gorilla trek, minus me. Even Bud said it was “hard” trudging uphill in mud and through thick brush. He rated “chilling with the gorillas” his “number one” highlight, though there were anxious moments. He got within arm’s reach of a baby gorilla only to have the mama cross her arms and grunt. “That’s when I was like, OK, I better back off.” A silverback charged.

Back home, Bud’s fond of fishing and driving fast. He has a collection of vehicles and (legal) firearms. He and Esha feel blessed the mixed northwest Omaha neighborhood they live in has welcomed them.

Nollette correctly predicted we’d “become a little family and get to know each other really well.” She was our mother, chaperone, referee and teacher. Her cousin Joseph Sutter, an athlete, became like a little brother to Bud, whom he already idolized. When the pair wrestled or sparred she warned them to take it easy.

“Stop babying him,” Bud said. “I’m not going to hurt him. I’m just going to rough him up. You know how boys play.”

Like all great athletes Bud’s hyper competitive – “I don’t like to lose at nothing,” he said – and he didn’t like getting taken down by Suetter.

Once, when Bud got testy with Nollette. Christophe chastised him, “I hope you remember she’s your teacher.” Bud played peacemaker when things got tense, saying, “Can’t we all get along? We’re supposed to be a family.” We were and he was a big reason why. “What would y’all do without me? I’m the life of the party,” he boasted.

Out of Africa…for now
As The Champ matures, there’s no telling where he’ll wind up next, though Africa’s a safe bet. When I mentioned he feels at home there, he said, “It IS home. I’m AFRICAN-American. It’s where a lot of my people come from historically down the line of my ancestors. Damn, I love this place. I’m just thankful I’m able to do the things I’m able to do. I can help people and it fills my heart.”

Our last night in Africa Christophe and Nollette implored us not to forget what we’d seen. Fat chance.

Recapping the journey, Bud said, “That was tight.”

Bud may next fight in Oct. or Feb., likely in Omaha again.

_ _ _

 

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I

June 1, 2016 4 comments

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I

©by Leo Adam Biga

Just got back mid-evening on Memorial Day from a one-week family road trip down South. We were two mixed race couples of different generations heading down to Dixieland. Beaufield Berry and Rob Fisher, plus their baby Shine along for the ride. Then there was Pamela Jo Berry (Beau’s mother) and myself. Pam and I rode shotgun with the baby while Rob and Beau took turns driving. Eight days and a couple thousand miles of travel is a lot for anyone, especially a 21-month old, but Shine was a remarkable trouper.

Our happy band of travelers pit-stopped in Kansas City to board a dog before wending our way in a southernly direction to our vacation’s first real destination, St. Louis. We toured the St. Louis Art Museum and the new National Blues Museum. The first rates 4-stars and the second 3-stars. Some in our party did the City Museum downtown. The single most impressive thing we did and viewed was tour the St. Louis Basilica a truly magnificent sacred structure that left us in a state of awe. I know, not exactly a fun thing to do, but meaningful and impactful, Immersed in that wonder. I swear that my soul stirred and my vision expanded.

Civil Rights Museum.
“I can’t explain how it feels to be here. I have goosebumps the whole time. I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m grateful…this is a must see. You HAVE to come here. They start at Africa and walk you all the way through.” –Beau

 

Lorraine Motel - National Civil Rights Museum

Lorraine Motel – National Civil Rights Museum

Graceland. ❤️❤️❤️‪#‎bucketlistchecked‬  – Beau

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“They ain’t playin with these collard greens down here.” – Beau

Enjoyed a great meal at Mango Peruvian Restaurant. The biggest impression we left with was how St. Louis, just like our Midwestern sister cities Kansas City, Chicago and Minneapolis and our Western sister city Denver, all have monumental public spaces. both indoors and outdoors, that Omaha sadly lacks. Those cities also retain much more of their historic buildings than Omaha and so the quality and the character of their architecture is much more compelling than what we have left. Our travel party of four adults and a not quite 2 year old comfortably shared a Residence Inn suite. Our shuttle drivers were ambiable men who gave us a few godo tips on where to go and what to do.

Memphis was next among our bucket list destinations and its mega attractions of Graceland and the civil Rights Museum provided two vastly distinct history experiences. Each in its own way and for its own attributes rates 5 stars. Graceland offers more than what any of us expected in terms of personalizing Elvis and his place in the collective popular culture consciousness. The Civil Rights Museum sensitively and intelligently blends the preserved Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated with a surrounding museum. The extensive exhibits walk you through the legacy of slavery from pre-colonial times all the way through to the Emancipation Proclamation and its messy aftermath. It informs you of the earliest efforts for equal rights that culminated in the modern civil rights movement. It takes you through the birth of that movement and King’s rise within it. It places you as well as any exhibit possibly could right in the thick of the protests, demonstrations, sit-ins and marches.

Beale Street proved surprisingly short but we consumed some mouth watering and flavorful food there, including a killer gumbo and some righteous greens and cornbread, and we caught some down home blues thanks to the Queen of Beale Street, Miss Ruby Wilson. Our waiter at B.B. King’s restaurant was a gregarious ambassador for the charms of Memphis, We stayed at an AirBnB-found private home in a quiet Country Club-like neighborhood. It was a spacious, comfy, unpretentious family dwelling with a great big old covered patio and deck we meant to do a grill out on but never quite got around to. If felt like a home away from home. The drive out of Memphis gave us a thrilling view between the Bass Pro Shops’ pyramid headquarters and the steel arched Hernando de Soto Bridge spanning a picturesque segment of the Mississippi River.
The only things I was sorry we didn’t make time for were tours of the legendary Sun and Stax Records.

 

Branson

-Branson MO Strip, Branson Attractions!:

 

Christ of the Ozarks ‪#‎eurekasprings‬

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We were to have continued south to Nashville, where we planned to do the Grand Ole Opry and some music studios, but our accommodations got double booked in a major AirBnB snafu. So in classic improv fashion we double backed and spent our last few nights on a lakefront condo between Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Branson, Missouri. It made for a nice Plan B compromise getaway within the larger getaway. Eureka Springs was a delightful surprise to us for its rich mix of historic buildings, eclectic architecture and hippie trippy vibe meets redneck kitsch. We were surprised too by the hilly, rocky terrain of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri that alternated with lush forests and big beautiful valleys. Saw far more Confederate flags and references to Dixie than we spied in Tennessee. As two mixed race couples down South we never felt uncomfortable, though the sight of those old wound symbols was a bit upsetting. But everybody we met, with very few exceptions, was friendly and inviting. Branson was far less visually and aesthetically pleasing than Eureka Springs, but in all fairness we only drove through its main strip or drag with all the theaters and shows. Our stroll time there was limited to another section of town devoted to shops and eateries. We mean to go back one day to take in some of those iconic Branson attractions.

Staying on that lake provided a tranquil respite to all the ferrying around from point to point. The only harrowing part of the whole trip was driving at night on dim-lit winding roads from Memphis to Eureka Springs. The weather the whole time we were away was moderate with plenty of sunshine and some stunning skyscapes and sunsets for good measure. The only inclement encountered happened on the return jaunt home between K.C., where we retrieved the dog, and Omaha, when we drove through a storm cell that kept opening up on us. Adding to the excitement of heading home was Beau, who is a playwright, fretting if she’d make it home in time for a 7:30 p.m reading compilation of some of her new work at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. Construction delays and storm surges worked against us before the road and the sky finally cleared and she made it back with plenty of time to spare.

 

Beau, Rob and Shine

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All in all, a good, positive, fun-filled bonding time and adventure shared by people who love each other. A much needed break from the grinding routine and rut. Thank you Beau for planning such a cool gypsy experience and for expertly changing things on the fly the few times when plans did go awry. You did a great job with the accommodations and making sure we all saw and did things that touched our hearts and expanded our minds. Thank you Rob for being our steadfast main driver and all around leavening agent with your good sense and humor. Thank you Shine for being the joyful life spirit who engenders love and trust. Thank you Pamela for being the Queen Earth Mother whose serene example of going with the flow became our team mantra. Thank you God for fending off the panic attack-like freakouts that have spoiled some of my travels. This was all good and easy going down,  just like a Southern Fried Chicken dinner smothered in homemade peppered gravy. A real Pot Liquor-rich flavored, stick-to-the-ribs good time.

 

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