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travel

Stir Stick

Every few minutes, I wiggle toes inside boots and slap hands against thighs.

It’s cold — the kind of cold that makes hard work out passivity. I’ve been standing outside for an hour reading signs, and I’m frozen to the marrow.

January in Ukraine is serious business, the grey skies flattening landscape and mood, the sidewalks icy and treacherous. Before stepping out the door of my well-appointed hotel room, I’d had a bracing talk with the chandelier hanging over the queen-sized bed, looking to the ornate crystals for assurance that fleece tights under my pants would protect against the wind; that it was okay to step over the snoring homeless man who had set up a cardboard pallet on the landing between my room and reception; that my new map app would guide me to my goal; that the hungover smokers, empty beer bottles, and rotting garbage in the courtyard were welcome set decoration for a travel tale entitled “New Year’s Day in Kiev.”

Emotionally fortified, I had added a pair of socks over the tights, wrapped a scarf from chest to lips, snapped my new wool coat over a thick sweater, and crammed my beloved fur hat – the only thing to keep me warm in the steppelands of Eastern Europe – onto my head. The walk to Independence Square would only take twenty minutes, but since January 1st is a major holiday in former Soviet countries, I presumed businesses would be closed and planned to spend the entire day outside, exploring the parts of the city without walls.

An hour later, as I stand reading signs and tucking my hands into my armpits, I realize I was wrong: even on New Year’s Day, Kiev thrums. Certainly, some storefronts are shuttered, but the streets teem with people, and beneath the open air museum of Independence Square is, ironically, a shopping mall, every shop open for business on this first day of 2019.

Despite the cold, I am riveted by what I’m reading, warmed by outrage, annoyance, righteousness, the courage of the human spirit.

Initially, I am angry at news organizations in the United States for willfully failing the citizenry by neglecting coverage of major events around the world. Even the well-informed in America were largely unaware of the Euromaidan protests happening in this very square over the course of three months during the winter of 2013-14. Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we hear about tens of thousands of Ukrainians flooding this public space – constructing a tent city; starting an Open University, a grassroots library, a whimsical post office; demanding the resignation of the president; battling against government riot troops known as the Berkut? Why had we in the U.S. ignored this inspiring example of cooperative public opposition? Had there even been a quick moment on CNN’s scrolling ticker announcing 130 deaths in Kiev?

I’m disappointed at my ignorance. How dare I think I have a right to any opinion about my own country when I know so little about the larger context of our shared world?

Moving from placard to placard in the square, I read details about the Maidan protest, learning of President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal, at the last minute, to sign an agreement with the European Union agreeing to progressive reforms; instead, counter to the hopes and values of millions of Ukrainians, Yanukovych put his pen to a treaty with Russia, in the process accepting a massive loan and aligning his country with Vladimir Putin’s version of nation-building. While many in the eastern part of the country favored Yanukovych’s decision, the overwhelming reaction from the rest of Ukraine was a sustained “NOOOOOOO.” On the evening of November 21st, 2013, the word went out over social media: We are gathering. We are organizing. We have had enough of this government. Together, we will say no.

That night, 2,000 citizens gathered in the square where I stand shivering five years later, setting into motion a revolution that changed the country. Over the course of three months, the number of protesters swelled, and as community infrastructures emerged within the tent city, so did creative liberalizing movements. A piano was brought in. Lectures were given. Music and poetry events were scheduled. Paintings captured moments.

At the same time, the serious business of anarchy was also at work. Molotov cocktails were prepared, eventually hurled. Security forces were formed, their members later becoming part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces when Russia invaded. The guns, tear gas, tractors, tires, chunks of concrete that would allow the protestors to push back against government troops were stockpiled.

As I move around the signs in the square, absorbing the story of the Maidan and trying to stay warm, my respect for the protestors grows with every toe wiggle and thigh slap. The protest grew, and eventually nearly 100,000 fed-up Ukrainians filled this square, claiming the public space as ground to fight for, even during the most brutal months of the year. Their anger, their principles, their passionate insistence that they were through with oligarchies rendered inane talk like “Gee, it’s cold today.” Their sustained, ferocious, life-risking commitment to their cause highlights, in contrast, the Lululemonization of recent U.S. protests in which white women forget not all pussies are pink — although they remember to set down their lattes long enough to snap a photo to post later that afternoon.

Such thoughts are unkind and unfair to American protestors, of course, as all activism is innately performative, and I snort as I accept that I’m an asshole on every continent. But still. Coming from a country that expresses its dissent through #resist and rage-tweeting in response to a rage-tweeter, I am profoundly moved by the Maidan, in awe of how authentic – beautiful, even – the occupation of this square was, extracting sweat, blood, flesh from its participants. The power of the place is upon me. I snuffle as I read firsthand accounts that were shared online after violent clashes erupted in February of 2014, affecting snippets that countered the government’s “official” narrative of bad seeds gone rogue.

It feels wrong to be standing by myself in this place, the site of powerful collective action. While solo travel gives me the liberty to experience things on my own clock, in my own rhythm, the Maidan makes me wish for a partner, someone with whom to lock eyes in shock and amazement. I know I’m blown away, but I wish my reactions were layered with those of others — that I had someone to exclaim to, a companion in awe.


My phone is in my hand; I’ve been taking pictures of the signs, knowing I will want to review them later. Almost without thinking, I open the family chat that has accompanied me throughout my months away from home and start typing to my husband and children – “The people of Ukraine wanted the democracy and benefits of being European, not a return to authoritarian oligarchy, as seen in Russia. So they protested. The president bolted to Russia. Official word was that there had been a lawless coup d’etat. Truth was that the people of a country used their bodies and power of protest to insist on democracy. It’s all very moving.”

I don’t have international data. These messages will dwell in the limbo of “Unsent. Retry?” until I find wi-fi.

It doesn’t matter. I just need to feel like I’m telling someone about this place.


In February of 2014, the Euromaidan occupation of Independence Square reached its peak when government forces killed at least 130 protestors, igniting deeper, more widespread outrage amongst Ukrainians. As clashes intensified and the community established in the square literally went up in flames, the balance of power tipped in favor of the protestors: President Yanukovych was “extricated” from Ukraine with the help of Vladimir Putin and installed into a new life in Moscow; charged with treason and violation of the Ukrainian Constitution, he failed to attend his trial in Kyiv in the fall of 2018 due to knee and spinal injuries sustained while playing tennis.

While Yanukovych has been honing his backhand, Putin has been asserting Russia’s desire to keep a grip on Ukraine. On the heels of Yanukovych fleeing, tanks rolled into the Crimean region of Ukraine and annexed it as part of Russia. At the same time, Russia began pushing conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine, a war which, according to the Brookings Institution, has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past five years.

As my brain processes what I’m reading, I step gingerly across icy patches, trying not to wrench an ankle as I mull over the profound and continuing costs of the Maidan protestors achieving their goals. The Russian-leaning president was ousted. A reform-minded president was appointed by parliament. The people had risen up, banded together, and given their lives for their nation.

Standing in front of the last sign, rubbing the tip of my nose to restore sensation, I am possessed by emotion, by a single blunt reaction to all I have just learned: what those angry Ukrainians did in the bitterly cold months of 2013-14 was so badass it’s threatening to make me believe in something.

I will learn later from articles online that the impact of the Maidan went beyond ousting a corrupt president and rousing patriotism. For those who participated in the protests, the tip from passivity into action has had lasting consequences. One protestor, a woman who cooked for the demonstrators, Halyna Trofanyuk, reported to The Guardian that she was changed by the three months she spent living in the square.

“I used to be timid,” she says. “But you’d better not mess with me now. If necessary, I can get people behind me and convince them that you have to fight for what you need and not wait to see what others give you.”

People like Trofanyuk, people like the 130 who were killed by government troops, people like the man in a black ski mask who sat at an upright piano and banged out an incongruous song, people like the thousands of Ukrainians who heard something was going down in Independence Square – shit was getting real – and instead of watching to see what happened put on their hats and coats and added their bodies to the number –

Those people were so badass it’s threatening to make me believe in something.

But it’s cold. My teeth are clacking. It’s the first day of 2019, not 2014. There’s a heated shopping center below my numb feet, a bright, shiny place full of coffee shops and bathrooms.

So.

I pull out my phone, readying it to connect to wi-fi and send those messages. I walk through the sliding glass doors of the brand-new mall. And I turn my back on the frigid power of Independence Square to step into the familiar warmth of capitalism and public isolation from others.

Upstairs near a jewelry shop with hundreds of diamond rings glinting from their perches on black velvet, I sit on a tall stool, stir a packet of sugar into my too-hot cappuccino, and consider

fury,

violence,

sacrifice,

revolution and riots as agents of change.

Gnawing on my stir stick, I consider all the many things the Maidan might make me believe in.

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travel

Highlights

We recently returned from a family trip to Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia — meeting up with Allegra, who’d already been traveling by herself for six weeks. We flew from Minneapolis to Sarajevo, and she took the bus into Sarajevo from Montenegro; easily, beautifully, shortly after we checked into our apartment the first night, she pulled up in a taxi, tan, her hair lightened from weeks in the strong Turkish sun, and suddenly there we were, we four, together again, ready to push the unit of us into new spaces, new places.

And although the list below covers my personal highlights from our 17 days together, I could actually stop this post about “best moments” here, after typing the next few words: my favorite moment of the trip was when that taxi door opened.

Maternal mush aside, there were a host of other memorable, mind-blowing experiences we shared together. TAKE THIS, INTREPID READER:

    1. The Kravice waterfalls: Located about 40 km from Mostar — which helps you locate it precisely in your mind just now, doesn’t it? — this series of falls was easily my favorite “spot” on the entire trip. There weren’t too many people, although it did get more crowded as the day wore on, and there weren’t too many swimmers. After our initial “whoa, baby” shock when the falls first came into view, we took turns swimming out to the base of the pounding water, working our bodies against the strong counter-currents, and that was like no experience I’ve ever had. As Allegra and I paddled towards the first fall, the second, the third, the next, I was buoyed by wonder. By the time we left a few hours later, that feeling hadn’t subsided. Even now, weeks later, my strongest sensation when I think of these waterfalls is that of gratitude: we were so fortunate to be able to get ourselves to Bosnia; we were so lucky to have heard of this place; we were so fortunate that all four of us were strong, able, and willing. Sidestroking through that cold water, I was propelled by awe. 
    2. Cevapi: Is there anything more important while traveling than the food? To put a finer point on it, is there anything more important than food any day, anywhere? Oh, all right. I’ll give you “water.” Shelter. Love. The Netflix password. But food’s right up there, yes? That’s why I was so glad we tried cevapi our first full day in Sarajevo; it set us up to order it again and again throughout the entire trip — because our family has its values in order and, thus, is always enthusiastic about a heap of small grilled sausages stuffed into a bread pillowcase and sprinkled with sharp onions. 
    3. The view, breakfast, and coffee at our guesthouse in Mostar: The place we stayed in Mostar is best called “a hidden gem.” At first, the emphasis was on “hidden” since we circled through busy one-way streets a few times, the GPS always telling us we had arrived when basically there was no guesthouse or signage in sight. Finally, we spooled out of the busy center of town to a wider road where, after a few attempts at finding parking, we left the boys in the car while Allegra and I set off on foot so as to better explore the nooks and crannies that might yield GUESTHOUSE. Fortunately, the girl is a GPS whiz, and her phone turned us into a narrow slot and thirty feet into a dusty lot — and then, HAHA!, we saw a small sign for the guesthouse. Ultimately, it was worth the effort because our room had, hands down, the best view in all of Mostar, the balcony looking straight down the river at the famous, symbolic, and now-once-again-beautiful bridge.Listen, because we are budget travelers, we’re not used to nice things — but that view of the restored bridge, a bridge that connects the Muslim-dominant bank of the city to the Christian-dominant side, was the nicest thing, particularly because every time we looked at the bridge, we were reminded of the deliberate forgetting Bosnians are willing themselves to do in order to move past the trauma of war and genocide. In a country where every open meadow and every former soccer field is teeming with fresh, shockingly white headstones, looking at that rebuilt bridge reminded these heartsore American progressives that trauma is relative. And while the U.S. currently has a callous bully at the helm and is deliberately implementing policy that shouts “la-la-la” with fingers in ears to cover the pleas of the distressed, being in Bosnia made us blink slowly and repeatedly acknowledge: at least the U.S. is not engaged in civil war where neighbors are slaughtering each other. At least our soccer fields are still soccer fields. At least we can leave our houses and not get food only by sending out a runner in the middle of the night who, dressed in black, prays for invisibility. At least their aren’t snipers ringing our cities, ready to mow us down if we dare to open the front door. Looking at the people of Bosnia, not a one of whom lives unscathed, we took their lessons. …all of which is to say: the host at our guesthouse provided a tremendous and lovely breakfast each morning! And Bosnian coffee, for multiple reasons, is soul restoring. As our airport driver, Anis, told us: “In Bosnia, we love our coffee and have many cups each day. During the war, we missed it so much; we wanted it so much. So now, we have many cups each day.”
    4. Dating the Adriatic: The funny thing about Bosnia, geographically, is that it has only 12 miles of coastline (this is due to a convoluted historical agreement; read about it here). Due to this, people visiting Dubrovnik in Croatia engage in multiple border crossings since the Bosnian stretch of coast splits Croatia in half. No matter what country’s name is assigned to the coast, though, there is no denying that the drive is consistently breathtaking. In these next photos, you will meet my new girlfriend, and her name is Adriatic. We get each other. She’s holding my hand right now, in fact. Which is awkward ’cause I’m typing. *shucks off Adriatic in favor of QWERTY* 
    5. The roadside stands where all bottles were labeled with gold-penned script: They just kept coming, these stands did, along one stretch of road in, hmmm, was it Bosnia? It might have been Croatia (see previous mention of multiple border crossings in the same day). Let’s just say “former Yugoslavia” and call me right. At any rate, after we flew past the first twenty stands, we decided to pull over and see if there was any produce for sale that we hadn’t yet seen in the grocery stores; this strategy was loosely titled “My Queendom for Some Broccoli.” By the time we were done staring and considering and pointing and paying, we had a handful of bags and a lovely jar of Lemon-Lime juice, pulp a’floatin’.
    6. The Old Town in Sibenik, Croatia: Hey, look at this next one! I actually know we were in Croatia! I’m super sharp, see! To a one, the members of our family loved the historic apartment we booked in the heart of Old Town in the city of Sibenik. The streets are narrow, the vibe laid back, and the sculpted heads of benefactors decorating the facade of the cathedral totally rad. Even better: the crepe stand is open late, and when we initially couldn’t find the apartment, our host came out and stood on the street (“I will be by the cannons, wearing short blue pants made of denim”). Because I am a paragon of restraint, I didn’t even tell him that one of my mild-mannered husband’s most firmly held opinions is that men should not ever, no, not ever, wear jean shorts.
    7. The half-attentive waiter when we stopped for coffee in some random place, a guy with one quarter of one eyeball focused on our needs, a guy who failed to bring me the panna cotta I ordered, thus saving me from myself. Thank you, negligent waiter. I bet your panna cotta would have disappointed anyhow, especially because I would have gulped down huge mouthfuls of cigarette smoke with every bite, and even if the custard had been grand, I did JUST FINE WITHOUT IT. DOES YOUR ONE QUARTER OF ONE EYEBALL SEE ME BEING JUST FINE OVER HERE? I AM AN ACCOMPLISHED WOMAN WHO HAS GREAT EXPERIENCE DODGING FALLING PEACHES, SO WHY WOULD I NEED YOUR STUPID PANNA COTTA?
    8. Spontaneous finding of a cliff-side path: We loved Sibenik so much that it was hard to leave, hard to adjust our brains and hearts to the next location, in this case a “just fine” town named Senj. Again, in Senj, GPS got us within a few hundred meters of our booking, but after that, it took good old-fashioned rolling down the window and yelling to a frazzled-looking woman, “Do you speak English? No? Okay. Do you know where this apartment is?” while holding Byron’s phone up to her face. Important to any story such as this one is the fact that she didn’t know the location of Apartment Leona, nor did she know where Krcka ulica 2a Villa Nehaj, 2 kat was, but she did know an old guy in overalls across the street — did he have cement on his arms? was he building a retaining wall? was his name Grgur? — and so once she waved him over and three or four congregants had a lively discussion for a couple minutes, we received direction and the helpful advice of “big building” from Grgur and Frazzle, which allowed us to circle the streets a bit more before parking at a new apartment complex and wondering how we would ever know if we had arrived. Of course, as is the way 99% of the time with travel, it all worked out, and soon enough we were up a few floors in a spanking new IKEA-furnished apartment (Hey, Leona!), which actually proved a perfect counterpoint to the historical place in Sibenik. Even better was our discovery of a path running along the side of the cliffs edging my girlfriend. The ensuing ramble provided everything I could want from Senj.
    9. The food and fish in Piran: On the tip of a Slovenian peninsula is a town named Piran, a place described as “Venetian” since it’s just across the water from Italy and has, over its history, absorbed a great deal of culture from that neighbor. Since Piran is popular, it’s expensive, so we stayed in a hostel; the digs were rudimentary, but the guy at the front desk hooked us up with great recommendations, including one for the best ice cream I’ve ever had, and trust me, I’m a well-seasoned pro on the professional ice-cream-eating circuit. Piran also presented an opportunity for Allegra to use some of her gift money from friends Kirsten and Virginia — their urging being to use it for something in her travels that she would never do otherwise. Well. So. When we passed a shop where a few people were sitting comfortably on benches, having their feet nibbled by fish, it was a no-brainer. This was something she (and I) had always wanted to do, and it surely was something she’d never do without that money. Thus is was that the two of us sat, giggling, at 7 p.m., learning that this species of fish is originally from Turkey and lives for three years — although to be honest, one hungry guy took a look at my left big toenail and decided to throw his body out of the tank there and then. Most glorious of all was eating a cheap to-go dinner from a bakery while watching the sun set over Girlfriend.  
    10. Predjama Castle in Slovenia: So you know Rick Steves, right, O PBS Fans? And you either love him or hate him? We at our house decided some years ago to love him since our kid had taken a shine to his untroubled and informative travelogues. So we’ve all watched a whole lotta Rick Steves over here, and in our best moments, we sling a single backpack strap onto one shoulder, tuck a thumb into a belt loop, and make up closing-reel bloopers about public art. Hey, some families play banjo together; ours Rick Steveses together. Anyhoodie, one time Rick visited a place called Predjama Castle in Slovenia, and one other time, so did we. Built into the opening of a cave, parts of the castle itself constructed FROM the cave, the architecture of this place is stunning. Adding to its appeal is a system of tunnels running out the back so that residents under siege could still retrieve fresh food and toss a big nah-nah at their attackers. Most famous is a robber baron named Erazem who brazenly threw the pits from cherries at Fredrick III’s soldiers during a year-long siege. They got him in the end, though, as a servant sold Erazem out, raising a flag to notify the attacking troops when Erazem popped into the WC on the front of the castle. Fredrick’s men blew the bathroom to smithereens with a shot from a cannon, and Erazem never did get to finish reading that article about the best red-carpet looks at that year’s Oscars. Enhancing the wow of the castle itself was our lunch — goulash over polenta with a side of angel-pillow gnocchi– and our post-tour snack — cappucino and cream cake (kremsnita).
    11. Metelkova in Ljubljana: The first thing that struck me about Ljubljana was the graffiti EVERYWHERE. Every surface, from windows to walls to post boxes to light poles, has spray paint on it. The net effect is, naturally, somewhere between cool and grungy. Speculating about why this city seems to have more graffiti than any other place I’ve ever been, I announced, “I hope it’s a way of exerting freedom in a place that used to be quashed under authoritarianism.” I’m a real hoot to travel with, btw. Later that day, we did a free walking tour of the city with an excellent guide named Daniel (Me to Daniel at the end of the tour: “I told my kids that if you were my teacher, yours would be my favorite class.” See how well I follow my policy of Actually Say the Nice Things Out Loud to the People?). At the end of the tour, we lingered so as to ask Daniel a couple of extra questions. When I asked him why there is such an astonishing amount of graffiti in the city, he confirmed that, indeed, it is created by citizens expressing themselves after too many decades where they would be arrested if they so much as painted the letter “A” for “Anarchy.” (RIP, Sue Grafton) Continuing, Daniel noted that he doesn’t much like all the thoughtless, “do-nothing” graffiti, but he absolutely finds joy when it is art. Then he told us about a lesser-known spot in the city — “a former military barracks where artists began squatting after the fall of Communism” — and urged us to walk through it to get a taste of graffiti’s power when it’s done right. And so. At the end of our day, we found this artist’s community and wandered through. “Oh!” I thought, my heart filling. “Oh, oh, oh!” To see evidence that la vie boheme is thriving, that art triumphs over war, that the counterculture can be a force — well, it was the most beautiful balm.
    12. The fact that I can now spell Ljubljana without looking it up because I just say in my head “luh-jub-luh-jana,” and bam, all those letters line right up for me:
    13. And finally, perhaps most importantly, a major highlight for me of our trip to the Balkans was watching The Revenant on the flight home because I delight in any movie where Leonardo diCaprio doesn’t talk much:
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A Three-Hour Tour

True story: about three years ago, on some occasion when we were staying in a hotel–probably during a gloomy soul-suck of a February–we turned on the television to enjoy a bit of that glamorous thing called cable. On a very fine network, one devoted to aspirational lifestyles, house flipping, and hanging bamboo “art” in Vermont teenage boys’ bedrooms, we encountered a little-known program called International House Hunters.

The couple on the show were looking to buy a place in…

Nicaragua.

Before that seminal half-hour, Byron and I had never realized the beaches of Nicaragua were, um, there. Abstractly, of course, we realized Central American nations had coastline. However, the front parts of our brains had never registered that going to a beach in Nicaragua could be something around which people built vacations.

At some point during that show, perhaps during one of the seven commercial breaks, we looked at each other and agreed, “Hey, how about a beach vacation in Nicaragua some day?”

The realization of that agreement is currently happening.

Indeed, the second half of our trip to Nicaragua is all about relaxation and hanging at the beach. To achieve these goals, we took a taxi from the city of Leon to the fishing village of Las Penitas.

Pretty much, the village comprises native fisherfamilies, Canadian expats running restaurants, and leathery guys in dreadlocks holding a beer in one hand and a surf board in the other.

Quite purposefully, we decided to stay on the Pacific side of Nicaragua rather than transporting to the Caribbean coast. Our reasoning was partially that the trip would be more relaxing if we stayed in one area and partially because EVERYONE goes to the Caribbean coast for New Year’s. And crowds be big bummers for introverts who enjoy few things more than a good word puzzle.

So we’re spending four nights at one of the few Nicaraguan-run, Nicaraguan-frequented hotels in this area. Just out the door is the Pacific–where we can swim after the traditional breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), eggs, pancakes, sausage, and fresh juice; then, a few hours later, after lunch, we bodysurf again, getting a true feeling for the changing moods of the waves as related to low versus high tides.

During these days of chilling, we have had only one structured activity: a tour of the nearby nature preserve, Isla Juan Venado. The word “venado” means “deer,” so we toured, you got it: John Deer Island.

To be more specific, we spent a few hours in a small boat, chugging down a 22 km estuary (we only covered 8 km) before taking a short walk on the island itself, which is where six local families have dedicated themselves to preserving the turtle population and ecosystem at large. In this refuge, there is actually no control, oversight, or police enforcement of what’s been promised by the government on paper, so this small group of families is banding together to run whatever interference they can against the nature-destroying habits of the community at large.

A member of one of these families was our guide, Antonio.

From the moment we met him, we had no worries that he’d be uptight.

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Our tour started at 2 p.m., low tide, so Antonio had a couple of his guys on hand to wade the boat through the shallows, into the estuary.

Antonio’s guys were all I could have hoped for, as was Byron’s back sweat.

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For several hours, Paco and I sat behind Byron and Allegra, all of us marveling at the skill with which Antonio and his son, Alan, spotted wildlife while also navigating the boat. While we toodled along, they saw stuff in the branches that I couldn’t see at a dead standstill, squinting through my long camera lens.

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Random factoid: Antonio has nine kids.

His dad’s family had 25.

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Putt-putting our way down the estuary, stopping every few minutes to back up the boat and look carefully at a bird, a spider, an iguana, we were at peace.

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I’ll be honest, though: by the second hour, our rear ends were starting to ache.

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During our time in the boat, we saw Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Sandpipers, Mangrove Swallows, a Great Black Hawk, Pygmy Kingfishers, Royal Terns, Green Terns, a Yellow-Crown Night Heron, Blue Herons, Kiskadees, Boat-Billed Night Heron, Tri-Color Herons, Tiger Herons, Black Skimmers, plus others, but I’m not going to list them because birder people are a special subset of Internet troll, and the more I try to act knowledgeable about birds, the more they’re going to need to shout that a Green-Legged Wacky Doodle would never migrate through Nicaragua this time of year, and, well, I have too much rum to drink to have time for bird shouters.

So just look at the pictures, wouldya, and simply enjoy the fact that birds, no matter their names or traceable habits, are glory made manifest?

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At one point, as my gaze slipped down the roots of a red mangrove, admiring how they reach for the water, I was startled: inside the root system, as though held in a cage, was a man’s head.

Truly.

The rest of his body was beneath the water, save for his hands, which were busily peeling bright orange crabs off the roots.

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Three of us hoped we’d also see a crocodile or two on this tour. Antonio offered us the chance to go a couple kilometers further down the estuary, to the spot where they might be lolling.

I wanted to yell, “HELL, YES!” but Paco, all along, had not wanted to see a crocodile, and since–after the volcano incident–we’ve decided to listen to Paco’s instincts, we didn’t press the matter.

We can see a crocodile next time we come to Nicaragua to the small fishing village of Las Penitas and take a tour of the mangrove-lined estuary.

Or, like, somewhere else.

What we all did agree upon was stopping at the island where the turtles lay their eggs and where a few dedicated workers are overseeing their safety.

As we hiked to the place where the turtle project is happening, this woman passed us.

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She and some others were cutting down the tall grasses on this island–introduced by conquistadors who wanted something to feed their cattle, except then they never got the cattle there, so for centuries the grasses grow wild, unchecked–to use for repairing the roofs of their houses.

A few minutes beyond the grass-cutters was the turtle place.

The workers who dedicate their time and efforts to protecting the turtles don’t have it all bad, as their digs indicate.

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One nice guy dug into one of several bags of sand and extracted an egg. Apparently, each bag of sand contains a different hatch. The egg he let us hold had a small crack in it; the worker thought the turtle would be out by the next day.

A really big part of me wanted the turtle to bust through as I was holding its egg. I would have named it Yertle Murtle, Most Excellent Turtle.

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Then it was time to hop back in the boat, let Alan rev her up, and speed back to the village. As Alan threaded the estuary, dodging overhanging branches, rocks in the water, and curves, I leaned over to Paco and said, “Now THIS would be a great course in MarioKart: Mangrove Mayhem!”

Just as we neared the village, Antonio pointed out a few more birds, this time pelicans–and I know they’re pelicans, so shut up, you know-it-all birders–which were the perfect capstone birds to a wonderful, tweety, feather-filled few hours.

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Before we paid him and bid him goodbye, Antonio closed our afternoon with a rousing speech about how sad the future of Isla Juan Venado is. Many locals are only interested in stripping it of its resources, and Antonio explained that the island is also used sometimes as a place for boats with cocaine coming from Colombia to stop and replenish their fuel.

He pounded his heart a few times as he spoke, emphasizing that he and others needed to continue to care if a place as rare and beautiful as the mangrove estuary is to maintain its health for future generations.

We all have heard pronouncements of environmental doom so frequently that it’s easy to let them slide through our ears.

But then I think about the neon belly of the iguana, sunning itself on a tree. And I think about the delicate beauty of the Mangrove Swallows, like a treasured tea set. And I think about the way flocks of pelicans swoop together over the waves of the Pacific every morning, catching fish and making us freeze in our tracks, eyes to the sky.

And I am so glad for the Antonios of the world.
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…and the fact that he’s not alone. He’s got Alan. He’s got his other eight children. He’s got a few other families in the village who understand the importance of preservation.

And, of course, he’s got his guys.

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Not for the Faint of Heart or Soft of Skull

wp-1451256884187.jpgLooks like Byron’s playing dress-up.

Is he a coal miner?

Hobo?

George Michael circa 1983?

Or is there another explanation for the state of his face?

There sure is. Someone did this to him.

His name is Denis, and he was assisted by a compact second named Henri.

Denis and Henri led Byron–led all of us, plus a crew of others–up and then down the sides of the Cerro Negro volcano.

What’s bizarre is that we paid them money to do this to us.

By the time it was over, the lenses in our glasses were scratched, Paco had fought back the tears threatening to fall from his woebegone blue eyes, all our orifices were plugged with grit (note to self: form Grrrl band called Plugged with Grit), and I had experienced a moment suspended upside down in the air during which I felt certain I’d be spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair.

There aren’t many experiences in life that cause me to pronounce “I’ll never do that again,” but sledding down the side of a volcano is now one of them.

Once was more than enough.

It started when a nice guy in a van picked us up at our hotel. Then we were taken to the main office where we were corraled with a group of other tourists who thought being able to say “I sledded down a volcano” would impress the girls they were trying to pick up in bars.

That’s certainly why I did it.

As we all loaded into a bigger van for the one-hour ride to Cerro Negro, I should have been practicing saying in Spanish, “Is there an optician in the house? My glasses are broken.”

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The woman in front of Paco, the one with the cool Chinese character tattoos down her neck, opted to snowboard down the volcano. On the ride home, she told me she’d been very impressed with the flip I did and couldn’t believe I was walking. So maybe that’s my take-away from the experience: I am able to wow tattooed lesbians. It’s a very specialized gift.

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I have to admit that when we first pulled up to the volcano, I did gulp audibly. All along, Paco had been saying he didn’t want to do this. In the parking lot, he looked at the hillside and fought back tears, his soft cheeks flushing red. We assured him that one of us would be happy to hike back down with him, if he got up to the top, took a look at it, and really, really knew he didn’t want to do it. I brag about him every day, but still, I don’t brag about him enough: he’s a super smart, super intuitive kid. He knew.

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The guide insisted on taking a group photo. Such documentation could be helpful later, if bodies needed to be identified.

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Paco’s body language reveals nothing, right? We each had to carry our own board on the one-hour hike to the top. Byron carried two, his and Paco’s. When the hiking scene started getting truly gnarly, I understood that tenet of evolution about the benefits of choosing a hardy mate. Allegra and I could hardly handle our own boards once the gale-force winds started twirling us in their blender, much less two.

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The hike started hard, but, like, normal hard. Then it got REALLY hard–steeper, looser footing, and a crazy blustery wind that surprised even the guide. As Paco later said, “As soon as that wind started, I knew there would be a blog post coming out of it.”

 

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I actually loved the hiking, Even though I was sweating and panting and trying not to twist anything, it was good, honest, tromping work. Plus: the views!

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I want to type loudly that, much to Paco’s credit, he completed that hike up the loose volcanic gravel, in the heat and then with the loco wind. We all have things that challenge us, and for Allegra, this hike was fair game-difficult, but something that she could handle, even when she was staggering sideways, trying not to let her board be ripped put of her two-handed grip. But for Paco? This was a huge stretch. For the rest of his life, he should be proud that he dug down and found the strength to do it.

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This was during the part where we could even consider taking photos. Shortly after this, things changed, and a farm house from Kansas whirled by.

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Sometimes when I’m trying to put my phone away, I accidentally take a picture of my foot, and then later I realize it does a good job of showing the terrain.

So about those winds. This guy is just trying to walk and hang on to his board.
So about those winds. This guy is just trying to walk and hang on to his board. You can also see the brightly colored backpack he is wearing. We each had one, and inside was a totally rad uniform we had to put on once we reached the peak. You know, where we were the most exposed. We could not stand up to dress, or we would be blown over, and our boards would be snatched away by the winds. So we put on our jumpsuits, safety goggles, and gloves while holding down our boards with our rear ends. Good times.

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Allegra’s ponytail was an effective windsock.

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Eventually, looking like minions, oompaloompas, or members of Devo, everyone was ready to queue up. Paco was still sure he did not want to sled down–even though our training told us we could control our speed by digging our heels in and leaning forward to go slowly or leaning back to go faster. I asked the guide if Paco and I could just hike down the same route everyone was using for sledding. The kind guide, damn him, asked me Paco’s name, called him over, and took off, on foot, halfway down the slope. There, he planted the kid’s board like a bench, sat him down, and gave him prime viewing of the last few sledders. The two of them hung out together, united in sanity.

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As my turn neared, I considered the fact that the incline was 45 degrees in the bottom stretch. I considered how I hate speed. I assured myself I could dig my heels in, and it would be fine. I should have reminded myself that magical realism was born in Latin America.

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Allegra wasn’t actually doing the thing called enjoying herself. Neither was I when a wasp slipped inside my jumpsuit and stung me on the shoulder.

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The guide was so calm when he explained that a speed of 100 km/be was possible on a board in the lower stretch of the hill.

After Paco was halfway down the hill, hanging out with the guide, it was time for us to do this thing. Allegra went first. As I've noted, the girl is a real charger, not one to get rattled. She almost started crying as she tussled with the sliding loose rock as she attempted to get in her board. A few minutes later, when it was my turn, I experienced the same frustration and had a clear moment of gratitude that my legs are fit and powerful. Had I been any less of a beast, I'd be up there still, shouting that volcanoes spew magma but suck ass.
After Paco was halfway down the hill, hanging out with the guide, it was time for us to do this thing. Allegra went first. As I’ve noted, the girl is a real charger, not one to get rattled. She almost started crying as she tussled with the sliding loose rock as she attempted to get in her board. A few minutes later, when it was my turn, I experienced the same frustration and had a clear moment of gratitude that my legs are fit and powerful. Had I been any less of a beast, I’d be up there still, shouting that volcanoes spew magma but suck ass.

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And there she went, slowly, in complete control. This is how her entire ride went. She was not amused.

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Then I went. There are no pictures, only a report from Paco, there at the midpoint, that I was yelling “Whoa!” as I went by. From start to finish, my board and I screamed down the volcano. In the last pitch, the 45 degree part, I was desperate to slow down since all efforts to dig my heels in had been futile, so I leaned forward. That slight shift in weight at that angle and speed was nearly the death of me. In a hair of a second, I went over the front of the board, flipped legs to the sky while landing on my head, my spine compressing, and visions of paralysis streamed through the cinema of my mind. When I landed on my tush, I didn’t know what had happened or if I could move. After what felt like minutes, some of the people from our group called out, asking if I needed help. I did. Allegra, who had started her run a few minutes before me, had not yet reached the bottom, so she had no idea that anything had happened. Thus, it was a circle of strangers who surrounded me and listened to me say, repeatedly, “I just need my glasses. Can you look around and find my glasses? I can’t see without them.” Then, doi, I realized they were up on my forehead, under the shattered remnants of my safety goggles. One of the nose pieces had disappeared, and the frame was bent. I will need to order a new lens when we get home, but I had my glasses. Kind people helped me until Allegra and then the guide and Paco got there. My forehead had a few cuts, so the guide used the water in his bottle to have me wash my face four or five times, and then he sprayed me down with an antibiotic. I was so glad it was over.

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An hour later, back at our lovely hotel, the kids had some genuine fun, and I spent a few restorative hours on a deck chair–clearly necessary because when the van dropped us off, I was confused as to why they were letting us off at the wrong place, which they weren’t, and when we went into the lobby, I wondered why my family was acting like this was our lobby. Each of us had a long shower (when I was cleaning the black off my nostrils, I probed around inside and found at least five rocks. Seriously.), and we all came back to sorts, and Byron watched me anxiously for the rest of the day for signs of a concussion…and although if ever there was a day when I wanted a stiff drink, it was this one, I listened to my beau and refrained.

After all, he was kind enough to use his multiplier to straighten my frames before then chopping up an ear plug to provide my nose with some cushioning. Even more, he nodded agreeably each time I noted, "Sledding down a volcano? Now there's something I never need to do again."
After all, he was kind enough to use his multiplier to straighten my frames before then chopping up an ear plug to provide my nose with some cushioning. Even more, he nodded agreeably each time I noted, “Sledding down a volcano? Now there’s something I never need to do again.”

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Cocinar

There is a women’s cooperative in Leon, Nicaragua, dedicated to reviving and passing forward some dying indigenous history.

Specifically, they are working to preserve ancient recipes. First, they draw upon their collective knowledge of recipes, and then they teach each other. After that, they open their homes so that they can teach interested parties, often tourists.

Byron, a devoted cook, booked us a morning of learning from a woman who is part of this cooperative. Physically, he was almost acquiver with the anticipation. For him, to stand in someone’s kitchen in another country and learn what they do feels like a true Christmas.

Our lesson started when Dona Flor came to our hotel and picked us up. She spoke no English; we have limited Spanish.

With the “no worries” stroll of a Latin American, she led us to a nearby market, a crammed jumble of a place–as all good markets should be–the entrance to which we would never have noticed, had she not led us in.

At the first stall, Dona Flor bought cheese. In the traditional Nicaraguan breakfast, this cheese is fried. For the recipe she taught us, it was grated.

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Next, she bought some peppers.

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Do you see lemons?

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No, you don’t. ‘Cause ain’t none.

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Can Paco find a lemon? Paco cannot. Find none lemon.

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Oh, you can look and look, Waldo, but you will never find even uno limon.

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None lemons in hand, but plenty of other good stuff purchased, Dona Flor shepherded us onto a bus to her neighborhood. Not only was it properly rundown and creaky, central casting had been kind enough to send over a guy holding a live chicken.

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Once we reached Dona Flor’s part of town, we again followed in her thrall. At one point, Byron wondered aloud, “How would I say ‘shady side of street’?” But then, with that “no worries” stroll of hers, Dona Flor naturally migrated shadeward.

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When we got to her house, Dona Flor called out to her Mami to come open the gate. Dona Flor is 58; her husband died two years ago; she has two sons, one 28 and one 19. The 19-year-old is the father of her first grandchild. All of this, I learned during the bus ride. I don’t speak Spanish. In other words, World, go somewhere and don’t fret if you don’t speak the language. Just be ready to smile a lot and use huge gestures. Works for me.

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Once inside, we were seated at the dining room table and given cold water, which may have saved Paco from an early death. Kid gets hot.

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While we drank cold water, and Dona Flor bustled around in the kitchen, pulling out pans, prepping for us to enter, we listened to the sweet mewls and cries of her one-month-old grandbaby. I felt strongly that the baby wanted me to hold it. No one else seemed to speak Baby, though. They just thought she was crying.

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LET THE COOKING COMMENCE!

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The entree was a kind of stew called Indio Viejo (Old Man). Its base is a bunch of fresh masa diluted with water and beef stock. To start the dish, sautee some onions and peppers in oil. Then run out to the field and pluck some fresh masa off the nearest Masa Tree.

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Dona Flor’s kitchen is looong. I love the industrial scale hanging from the ceiling. I also am enough of an animal that I enjoyed the complete lack of dish soap or a cloth or sponge as she washed up a few plates.

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Remember the part about sauteeing onions and peppers? DUH.

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The fresh masa came in a plastic sack; there were about five palm-sized balls that Dona Flor smooshed up with some paprika, for color, before adding crema and beef broth.

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While the stew thickened, Dona Flor showed us how to make tosterones, which are twice-fried plantains. Can one ever fry a plantain too much? we mused, philosophically.

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After the initial frying, the plantains come out of the oil, put under a piece of plastic cling film, and smashed with a drinking glass. Allegra’s massive upper body strength overwhelmed one or two of the weaker medallions.

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Everyone took a turn at plantain smashing, for, as the old adage goes, “The family that smashes plantains together remains silent during long taxi rides together.”

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This is where Paco was sitting while the rest of us shredded beef and smashed plantains. He had to drink more water. Were you paying attention before? KID GETS HOT.

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I feel like we haven’t really stared enough at smashed plantains yet. So here.

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After a second frying of the plantains, the tosterones were done. At that same time, the Indio Viejo stew was also done (shredded beef and grated cheese were added midway in the process). Why, yes, that is fresh papaya/orange juice you see! All of it was so fantastic that it kicked even Paco’s sweaty softness into recovery.

Once we’d finished eating and paid Dona Flor, she walked us back to the corner to catch the bus back to our part of the city. Once it arrived, she gave a good shout to the muchacho handling the money, telling him to be sure we got off near the university. Friends, I kissed her goodbye. I did.

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I mean, the food was good and all, but you know what really restored Paco’s spirits?

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And now we have this recipe, written in Dona Flor’s hand, recording a recipe used by her great-great-great-great-a-hundred-great-grandmothers. It is the best possible souvenir.

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Faces of Nicaragua

As a family who doesn’t draw energy from the holidays but twirls with hands to the sky at the notion of taking a trip, the choice was easy:

we flew to Nicaragua for Christmas and New Year’s.

So far, we’ve eaten plantain chips and yucca; tried the famous seven-year rum; felt the bottoms of our feet chafe raw as they swell and sweat in the humidity; seen both tin shantytowns and a multi-story galleria; eased our bodies into the cooling blue of the swimming pool; lost and won at Farkle; sat dully for two hours as we ate fantastic steaks delivered to our table with terrible service; maneuvered a shopping cart through a standing-room-only grocery store on Christmas Eve; gotten dizzy from seven different salsa songs playing from seven different windows simultaneously; and enjoyed the colonial architecture in the city of Leon.

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Of course, for me, staring at facades affords a limited type of pleasure. Given an hour in a central square, a camera, and a chance to gawk at every pair of sandals, every cutie baby, every ice cream seller trying to make a few cordobas, I’ll take people watching any day.

Always, everywhere, it’s the people.1451098057674

The first night, when we flew into Managua, the shuttle for our hotel picked us up and transported us to the place where we could finally let our bodies–exhausted at 11 p.m. after a 2:40 a.m. wake-up–collapse.

The bell boy, a compact man of sixty, got his instructions from the woman at the reception desk, grabbed two of our three big bags in his hands, and marched us over, through, around, up, around again, and down before plopping us in front of a door. Looking at us, he gestured “You have the key?”

Key? No, no one had given us a key.

Sighging deeply, he grabbed the two heavy bags again, retraced the route back to the desk, and asked for clarification. Hands waved in the air, and he nodded in understanding.

Grabbing our bags, he led us off in the complete opposite direction, depositing us in front of a different door.

No, wait, what? Wrong room again.

The parade of us, led by a confused man trying to do right, wound back to the reception desk.

More pointing and hand waving. OHHHH! THAT room? OOOHHH!

Naturally, the correct room, which we landed at on our third attempt, required a climb up a set of stairs to get to the main door and then another climb up a second set once inside.

Somehow, despite how intimate we’d all become during our meanders around the property, he managed to ghost out the door before Byron or I could slip him the sweaty tips we’d been clutching.

Ah, people.

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The next day, at a gas station near our hotel, a station with an ATM inside of it, the kids and I perused the snack aisle and marveled at the bright, happy packaging. As I took out my phone to snap a picture of a package of cookies that promised to pack a real “ponch,” I saw a guy paying for gas look at me like I’d escaped from the zoo.

People.

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Later that day, during a two-hour shuttle ride from Managua to Leon, our friendly driver said a few words to us and then settled in to the road. We four craned our necks this-a-way and that for the duration, and I reflected more than once that I love it when people can be quiet together.

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When we arrived in Leon, we were greeted with great hospitality by the young woman working the front desk of our next hotel. As we waited to complete the check-in process, we sat in big stuffed chairs next to the foliage-full courtyard. Our hostess asked if we wanted coffee, and when I panted “Yes” and followed her to the pot, I saw that there was no cream or milk, which is a fundamental component of my java happiness.

When I asked this young woman if milk was possible, she said yes but then looked hard at me for a minute, wondering how stern was my stuff, telegraphing a certain concern: “But it will be from the refrigerator, so it will be very, very cold.”1451097318467

As we completed checking in at the Leon hotel, the proprietor arrived and came in to say hello. His glasses frames’ steel, rectangular, assertive funkiness marked him as European.

Indeed, he and his wife left France for Nicaragua three years ago. When I asked if they would ever return to live in France, he said, “My wife might, but I won’t,” thereby telling me more about his marriage than is usually gleaned in the first sixty seconds.

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As I continued to chat with the proprietor, I asked him why he would never return to France. His response:

“1. The president
2. The French”

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In the central square of Leon, a sweet-seeming man, wanting to practice the English he is studying at the university, attempted to engage Byron in conversation. The kids and I actively dodged getting involved, leaving poor Byron to riddle out whether “daughter” actually meant “wife” and wonder if he had suddenly landed on a Utah compound.

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Every time we enter or exit our hotel, the front gate is locked or unlocked for us by the woman working reception. The key hangs on the back of the big wooden door that can be closed at night. The whole system is so Old World charming that I’m thinking of looking for whalebone so I can start wearing stays.

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The Dutch-looking couple at the supermarket just beat a rundown-feeling Paco and Jocelyn to two of the last three cold bottles of Coke Zero.

Dutch-looking people are always exactly where I don’t want them to be.

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A Canadian guy who drank too much on Christmas Eve and paid too much for a bar of Hershey’s chocolate, if you ask him, which we didn’t, approached us as we sought a break from the sun on a shady bench.

I almost applauded when he used the most “oooo” vowel sound ever in “Google” and then ended the sentence with “eh?”

I was left feeling he wouldn’t have taken two of the last three bottles of cold Coke Zero, had he seen Paco and me wilting our way towards relief.

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The same waiter who paid us no attention for the two hours while we sat at a table in his section certainly had a full 12 minutes to discuss wine and the menu with the three young travelers who came in an hour after us.

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The filet mignon wrapped in bacon and topped with mushroom sauce, served with lassitude by the negligent waiter, was superb.

He’s lucky I do not take an excellent steak lightly.

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The British couple staying in the room above us appears to enjoy a rousing round of ten-pin bowling at 8 a.m., based on the loud rolling sounds echoing across their floor.

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When I’ve asked the night clerk at the reception desk for some ice, she disappears into the Employees Only kitchen, and after a twenty second silence, I hear her using what sounds like a pick axe to attack the glacier they apparently keep in there.

With the triceps she’s built up from the job, I daresay she could be a fearsome serial killer.

Good thing she weighs 80 pounds. Gives us a fighting chance.

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The Italian hotel guests spend, truthfully, six hours a day in their teensy suits, lounging next to the pool. Clearly, they need their fix of sun before returning to the gloomy skies of Tuscany.

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A woman who runs a “You think of it, we’ll fry it” joint a couple of doors down from the hotel was hanging out on the sidewalk, a boiling vat of oil doing its job on some plantains, when she tried to call our family in to eat. We smiled and kept moving, at which point she shifted into a technique wherein she labeled what had just walked by her door:”Mami! Papi! Ninos!”

Nailed it.

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The daddies in Nicaragua are very on the job with their kids. While the mothers hang off to the side or totter along in tandem on five-inch heels, it’s Papi who carries, chases, feeds tiny mouthfuls, plays hide-n-seek, and puts his hands on the baby.

So I guess what I’m saying is: hey, ladies, go ahead and have unprotected sex with a Nicaraguan guy.

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After shouting my order over the counter at a busy mom-n-pop store, the sweet mom, shoulder-to-shoulder with Pop, told me how much we owed her. To me, it sounded like “Some number, maybe a four but possibly a five at the end.” So I looked to Byron, who’s had some Spanish, but he hadn’t heard her. Then I looked to Allegra and Paco, both of whom are taking Spanish, and repeated what I’d heard. Since it had essentially become a game of Telephone, Allegra could only take a stab at what the cost was.

Still unsure, I turned back to Mom and Pop and held up my fingers, “A six and then a four?”

I was laughing, Mom was laughing, and so was the mustachioed guy to my left. He did a slow, mocking headshake, like, “Seriously, there are four of you, and you can’t figure out 64?” In return, before I considered it too deeply, I tossed him and elbow and gave him a good thump in the ribs.

In that moment, he felt like my brother.1451097772732So.

Yea.

Always, everywhere, it’s the people.
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Get a Job

Wayne County Community College

I slip into the high school classroom a few minutes late–hell if I could find Room 3031, tucked back there in the Foreign Languages suite. Since when do high schools have “suites”? Did the demise of the smoking lounge make way for the rise of the language suite?

Most of the chairs are occupied already, so I whisper “Excuse me. Sorry!” a few times as I step over legs, hunching, attempting to minimize my certainly-not-a-sophomore frame as it moves through the rows of plastic chairs. I don’t want to block anyone’s view of The Senora.

She’s sitting on her desk, carefully casual while welcoming both parents and students to the informational meeting about next summer’s travel abroad program. As my rump lands in an open seat, she is gesturing to a slide being projected on the Smart Board at the front of the room.

I’m a terrible audience member when slides are projected. Instead of taking in the information, I spend the time sitting on my hands so that they don’t wave wildly in the air. Were the presenter, upon seeing my raised hand, to call on me, I would become her least-favorite person in the room, for I would offer, a tidge too loudly, “You need an apostrophe at the end of students; it’s both plural and possessive, you see.”

Then, as long as I had the floor, I wouldn’t be able to refrain from, “Also, you need to capitalize europe. Names of continents are capitalized. I’m sure you knew that but somehow missed seeing it when you proofread the slides before tonight’s presentation.”

In the space of ten seconds, my helpful notes would freeze the presenter–who, let’s be honest, never proofread her slides–while simultaneously casting a pall over the room. Clearly, it’s essential that I sit on my hands during presentations, particularly those given by educators who can’t write a clean sentence.

It’s the least I can do, this business of refraining from blowhardy corrections, especially since, when I sign a field trip permission form, I edit the thing and send it back signed and with a full mark-up of the errors.

There is this: I give the teachers something besides the principal to complain about. You are welcome, The Principal. As a resentment deflector, I’m here for you.

So there I sit in the Spanish classroom, hands shoved under my glutes, taking in the scene. In under a minute, the feeling of restraining my impulses so as to not create trouble; the cloying atmosphere created by feel-good posters peppering the walls; the tension between wanting to chat with my neighbors while knowing I should pay attention to the teacher; the hope that if I hold one eyebrow down, I might learn to raise the other, elegantly, archly; the subcurrent of “I should care more about this topic than I actually do” making my shoulders sag; the drifting of my brain to Paisley Park and wondering if I will ever dance with Prince there,

all are eerily familiar hallmarks of time spent corralled in a hard high school chair.

Slumped on the plastic, resting cheek on fist, groaning inwardly at the hokey phrases The Senora has cross-stitched into the samplers that stretch across the whiteboard’s eraser tray, I am 16 again.

My eyes read:

Nice Cross Stitch

My mind responds:

Cross Stitch 16

No doubt.

I am the worst student in the room.

The other parents and the few random teenagers attending the meeting are into it. Naturally and easily, they are accepting and interested in the discussion about how travel abroad can create friendships for a lifetime. They jot down the suggestion that teens on the trip bring along $65-$100 per day for spending money, preferably on a Visa gift card. They ask questions about how many students will fit on the bus, the number of tour guides, the range of cell phone service. They nod appreciatively when The Senora assures them, a measure of scorn in her tone, that while the kids won’t be staying in five-star hotels, the accommodations will still be quite good: “It’s not like they’ll have a bathroom down the hall or something.”

A body language analyst’s dream, I fold my arms across my chest. Really? These kids will need $65-$100 per day for spending money? Certainly, I understand not all meals will be provided and that they might want to buy souvenirs. But $1000 spending money for a 16-year-old on a ten-day trip?

As the conversation continues, my arms tighten across my chest. My right leg crosses over my left knee.

Really? Parents and teen travelers are worried that the group from our high school will have to share a bus with groups of teens from other schools around the country? Really? They need assurance that a quorum of trained natives in each country will be handling the actual speaking and communication? Really? They despair that their family cell phone plan won’t cover unlimited daily conversations with their children?

My right foot twitches in the air.

Really? Everyone in the room is relieved that their kids won’t have to walk down the hall to use the toilet?

Hearing all this, my inner Sid Vicious loads up a syringe and methodically pushes the plunger into his rail-thin arm. Three minutes later, as he falls unconscious, his bladder releases, saturating the mattress in Room 822 of the Chelsea Hotel.

Sid may have escaped the meeting, but the rest of me remains alert, teetering between annoyance and amusement. Uncrossing my legs, I shift forward on the unforgiving chair, resting my heels on the book basket below, and apply myself even more fervently to archly lifting a single eyebrow. REALLY?

Well, yes, of course.

It’s not like my daughter attends a tough school. In fact, she attends a privileged, dominantly white, well-off school, the kind of school where taking a crew of kids on a trip to Europe (europe) is possible–expected, even. Of course these are the discussions that take place in the language suite at such a school.

And it’s not like I am truly stunned by the topics being discussed. All of it is standard stuff, aimed at promoting the trip as a safe, well-planned, positive experience.

Nor am I genuinely some sort of misfit in the crowd. In lifestyle, geography, background, and culture, these are my people.

The only thing that is a misfit is my attitude.

This is a common problem.

I can walk into a friendly meeting, an hour meant to clarify plans and answer questions, and within three minutes, my inner Sid Vicious is crawling on all fours towards a used syringe, praying to OD.

My attitude is a damn punk. The rest of me, at best, is aspirationally punk. I like thick-soled shoes, angry music, and a good Fuck You. But, really, to be honest? I’m not so much with needing to pierce, break, neglect, and savage things. I definitely don’t need anyone to whale on me in the mosh pit, either, because owie.

Instead, I’m a Privilege Punk, a woman who snarls in her head while swirling the nutmeg on top of her latte, a woman who reads about Henry Rollins and Black Flag while sitting in a bathroom full of Aveda products, a woman who blasts The Buzzcocks while typing feedback to students about their inability to follow rules.

Indeed. There is something annoying in the language suite at the parent meeting. ‘Tisn’t The Cross-Stitching Senora. ‘Tisn’t the assurances that our children will travel without stress. ‘Tisn’t the other parents, hoping to nail down the details so that they can provide their teens with something they, themselves, didn’t have.

Rather, the annoying thing in the parent meeting breezed in late, sat on her hands, and cheered for the unfolding tragedy of Sid.

It occurs to the annoying thing that maybe she can shape up. Stop pretending to be counter-culture simply because she’s okay with travelers walking down the hall to use the bathroom. Uncross her arms. Stuff her 16-year-old self into a locker.

For 15 bright, upbeat seconds, I do it. I become kind, open, receptive, connected. Instead of correcting The Senora’s slides, I try appreciating how much energy she is bringing to this end-of-day meeting. Even better, I realize that if I mentally white-out her hair and focus on only her face, SHE LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE MY SISTER. Same eyes, same skin, same everything. Whoa.

But then, peripherally, I see on the wall a poster of a kitty. Hanging in there.

In the same moment, someone asks a question about fundraising to offset the cost of the trip, and The Senora tosses up her hands and says, “Fundraising is totally possible. We did a couple things last year–I think five students worked the day we had a car wash, and they each made about $40.”

The car washers had made out better than the kids who volunteered to work at a protein shake shop a different morning–my girl included–each of them netting a cool $6 for their mornings’ efforts.

Continuing, The Senora announces, “I won’t be organizing any other fundraisers, but you could have a garage sale or come up with other ideas, for sure. Whatever you want to do, you should go for it.”

I find myself admiring The Senora in that moment. In a very passive Minnesota way, she is telling the fundraiser enthusiasts to fuck off in their efforts to take over her life by expecting her to orchestrate money-making activities for their kids.

Her message is slow to sink in.

“Have any of you done a pizza fundraiser before?” asks the brown bob next to me. “Like, on a Wednesday, the kids go work at Papa Murphy’s, and they get 5% of the sales.”

With great equilibrium, The Senora affirms, “Yes. I’ve heard of that. If you’d like to call Papa Murphy’s and arrange that, I’m sure some of the kids would benefit.”

The pizza fundraiser discussion gains momentum, with three other women chiming in, “They do something like that at Sammy’s, too” and “Oh, my son’s hockey team did that at Pizza Hut” and “I know Little Caesar’s has a link on their website for fundraising.” As their words fade away, they look expectantly at The Senora who, again, says, “If you want to call those places, you should. You can make a plan for the kids.”

The fact that no one in the room realizes they are being told to fuck off is beautiful. The Senora? Is kind of a badass. Suddenly, in her, I see a Nancy to my Sid.

For the first time that evening, I wish I had pen and paper to take notes.

With 95% of attendees still oblivious to the “Fuck you, fundraiser zealots” subtext, ideas continue to pour out.

To a fantastic degree, I am with The Cross-Stitching Senora: uninterested in, recoiling from, rolling my eyes at fundraising. C’mon over, Nancy; have a perch on Sid’s knee. It’s bony, and his wasted skeleton won’t be able to support you for more than a few puffs on a blunt before he sends you sliding to the floor, but c’mon over, Nance. Give us a cuddle.

The business of fundraising starts early in schools these days, when kindergarteners are sent home from school clutching packets of catalogs, order forms, and listings of prizes they can win if they are effective at emotionally blackmailing their grandparents into buying wrapping paper and frozen artichoke dip.

For the first few years, we tried. We blackmailed relations, guilted neighbors, convinced ourselves we NEEDED a little red clay thing to put into our brown sugar container so that it would stay soft.

The whole thing felt bizarre. Wrong. Bad. At some point, we decided to take a page from Sid’s book and “Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you ALIVE.”

We talked to our kids, explained why selling crap to people who don’t want it is disingenuous and a convoluted type of profiteering. We talked about understanding that schools’ budgets had been cut, and therefore families were being asked to contribute more. We talked about opting to write a check and drop it off with the nice lady in the front office. We talked about recycling the fundraiser packets the day they came home.

Without protest, we had complete buy-in on our new approach of, um, making anarchy and disorder our trademarks. Every last one of us was relieved.

So. No. To. The. Fundraising.

Thus, when our daughter approached us about going on this school trip next summer, we had clarity. The cost was not something our finances would bear. We would not be selling junk to help her raise funds. She would need to earn the money herself.

Because she is diligent and always on-task, she immediately started gaming out the finances. If the group of kids did fundraisers, she intended to participate. Until, well, she learned a big lesson after a morning of not really making protein shakes and not really making money. More fruitfully, yes, we would allow her to tap into love and apply that emotion to a grandma and step-grandpa. She could use some of last Christmas’ gift money from my mom; she could accept a generous check from my mom’s husband. As is the way with grandparents, they were delighted to be of help, and all the better that they didn’t have to order a clutch of holiday-themed dishtowels as part of the bargain. Their support would get her a quarter of the way to the final amount.

The next step was finding a source of income. Last spring, we drove her around the city, stopping at 20, 30, maybe 40 businesses likely to hire a 15-year-old. We brainstormed; we asked other teens; she made lists. Often, after working up her courage to walk into a restaurant or store and ask for an application, she came out empty-handed, explaining, “They only hire 16 and older.”

Eventually, she accrued a stack of applications, filled them out, returned them. She had an interview at Dairy Queen. Crickets.

Ah, but then. She scored an interview with a popular, established sandwich shop. The manager called. She would start the following week.

Throughout the summer and still, now, during the school year, my daughter works as a dishwasher. She scrubs the soup pots, carves the congealed cheese off the nacho plates, breaks the occasional pint glass. She clocks in and out. At the same time, she runs cross-country, does her homework, takes babysitting jobs. She deposits her paychecks into our bank account, from which payments for the trip are made each month.

She has sketched out her past and projected wages and will hit her target.

When she rides with her friends on a big bus through Italy, Germany, Switzerland next summer, she will have earned the hell out of that trip.

These are my thoughts as I sit in the Spanish classroom, watching The Senora duck while fundraising ideas are thrown at her. Only now, it’s not just the parents who are tossing out ideas.

Excitedly, a teenager in the room waves her hand. Frick. Is she about to point out that missing apostrophe on Slide One and steal my thunder?

Nope. She has an idea. For fundraising. Which she’s been doing for the last few months.

She’s been selling scented candles to friends and family and strangers who didn’t realize they needed more scented candles in their lives until she showed them her catalog of scented candles.

As this perky girl speaks, the Sid in the back of my brains reaches over Nancy’s slack body and grabs an unscented candle from the windowsill. Clicking his lighter repeatedly–damn thing’s about out of fluid–he gets enough spark to light the wick.

Then, locking eyes with the scented teen as she explains the details of Pumpkin Spice and Gingerbread Maple and Berry Trifle, Sid moves his palm over the candle’s flame. Holds it there. Watches, transfixed, as his skin changes shade.

Little knowing she’s engaged in a grudge match with Sid Vicious, the burbly scented candle girl wraps up her spiel. A minute later, The Senora wraps up the meeting. Licking his palm, Sid leans over and, with a puff, extinguishes the flame and his presence in my head.

Released from the room, I don’t need him any more.

What I need now is to get my bearings and look at my daughter’s daily schedule. It’s almost time for that night’s Open House to commence. I’ll be attending First Period (Honors English!) by myself, as my husband has a work commitment. He and I will hook up in Second Period, and by hook up, I mean HOOK UP.

Who says I can’t go back and do high school right this time around?

Fourteen minutes and two shortened class periods later, my husband and I wander the halls together, trying to find the stairs down to the band room. In the process, we pass the suite of language rooms.

Hissing to him, I say, “We gotta whizz through these hallways for a quick sec. I need you to stick your head into The Senora’s room and take a particular gander at her. Your job here is to hold up your fingers so that they cover her hair. Just look at her face. She totally has my sister’s face, right?”

SHE DOES.

Making goofy expressions at each other, feeling startlingly at home in the corridors of the high school, we grab hands and, like the head drum major and majorette, tumble down the stairs to band.

———–

A few hours later, I’m chatting with my daughter, debriefing her on the evening. Yes, I understand her feelings about her English teacher, noting that I do like the lady’s glasses. Oh, yea, we really liked her math teacher. And do not even get me started on the awesomeness of her AP U.S. History teacher.

Eventually, she asks what I learned in the parent meeting for the trip to Europe. ONLY THAT THE SENORA LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE HER AUNT. THAT’S WHAT. Oh, and also a few other things about buses and bathrooms. Plus, there’s a lot of talk of fundraising.

My girl and I take a quiet moment to roll our eyes and exhale disgustedly.

I mention the perky candle seller, which elicits an even more dramatic eye roll. “Yea,” my daughter tells me, “she’s been pushing those candles for months now.”

“I wanted to stand up and shout about the fact that scented candles are actually bad for you,” I added. “It was all I could do not to yell, ‘Those candles do terrible things to people’s lungs.'”

Feeling me, my daughter agrees. “She’s always talking about this fundraiser she’s doing, and I always want to tell her, ‘Hey, if you’re trying to earn money, here’s a tip:

…get a job.'”

And with that suggestion–one that recommends a very traditional path to success–I realize something.

In her willingness to challenge the dominant mindset, to question the legitimacy of group thinking, to look at her peers with skepticism, to reject the energy in the room,

my reliable, studious, self-disciplined fifteen-year-old

is a bit of a punk herself.

 

—————-

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I Bought from the Registry but Still Got No Invite

Nicki Hilton got married a few months ago to James Rothschild at Kensington Palace.

Bewilderingly, my invitation went missing in the mail. The USPS, she flounders.

It’s a shame my invite never plopped through the slot onto our front porch. Unquestionably, I would’ve gone.

And if I’d attended, not only would I have kept a strict eye on Paris during the reception (champagne + Paris = public boobs), I’d have been a hero of the day when Nicki’s cathedral veil got caught under the tire of a Bentley (Kanye’s) while en route to the ceremony.

Seeing the lace trapped under the tire, I’d have sprung into action, lifting the car with one hand while freeing the fabric with the other. With my third hand, I’d have waved at the paparazzi. Helpful life advice: always toss a saucy wave to the paps.

Freeing Nicki’s veil would have compensated for my near miss the day Isadora Duncan died.

I don’t like to talk about it–too soon–so let me leave the story here: sometimes I still have silk-scarf-rear-axle nightmares after which I jerk awake, only to discover I’m wearing my husband’s underwear around my neck. Wildly, I grope around the bed, trying to get my bearings, and before you know it, I’m clutching a handful of his fully exposed rear axle.

There are worse endings to a nightmare.

At any rate, had I been there, I would have been highly motivated to save Nicki’s veil from further molestation under that Bentley.

If only my invitation had been delivered.

To be honest, I’m starting to doubt the Hilton family’s affection. Things got really muddy between us in 2013 when Paris and Nicki’s younger brother Barron bad-mouthed former Parent Trap uber-star Lindsay Lohan, after which Lohan purportedly ordered an attack on Barron. Sweet seeping pores, but his face was bloodied. By thugs. Which I know nothing about. No matter what Paris said on Instagram. I couldn’t have been part of Barron’s beating. I was shoe shopping with Cher that night (nothing like new thigh-high boots to turn back time!!).

Given The Hiltons’ checkered history with The Jocelyn, I shouldn’t have been surprised a few months ago when I applied to become a blogger for the family’s hotels–yet, in response, received only the deafening sound of crickets sawing their legs together.

I wanted to be a Hilton blogger. The compensation would have been 15 days of free accommodations at Hilton Resorts. And I think we all know how I feel about a hotel because cable because someone else washes the towels because key card because ice machines!!!

When I wrote responses to the questions presented on the application, I truly tried. I stayed within the strict word limits. I attempted to convey an original voice while taming the loony. I played up Travels with Children. I aimed for adultish.

Yet: insect legs sawing together.

So. The Hiltons have rejected me despite my near rescue of Nicki’s veil.

Harrumph.

The great thing about having a personal blog is that I can go ahead and like myself even when no one else does. I can share my little travel stories in this space, and screw them Hiltons, especially Barron and his Lohan-bashing mouth.

Here, then, is everything the Hiltons don’t want (I mean, in addition to my presence at Nicki’s wedding. Which is why Paris’ boobs ended up in the punch bowl. The rest of her was still attached to them.):

 

Describe your favorite family vacation.

A few years ago, our family vacationed in Çirali, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Çirali is a remote village that has family-owned businesses lining a single long road. Other than that, there is only the sea. Every morning, we enjoyed breakfast in the pension’s courtyard while watching chickens cluck around beneath the quince trees. After finishing our tea, the four of us would meander to the beach. During the next few hours, we’d cover our legs in sand, play games in the water, and enjoy complete peace. For lunch, we’d wander down the road and find seats at our favorite restaurant; there, a teenage son would take our order while his mother cooked in the back. Fueled by gözleme (stuffed pancake), we would head back to the beach for more swimming, reading, and lounging. As the sun started to dip, we made our way into the ruins of an ancient Greek city, Olympos. One night, we had an after-dark adventure and hiked to see the Chimera; vents in the hillside allow small fires to pop up and then disappear–the stuff of legend! Ultimately, our family agreed: Çirali was the most relaxing, fascinating place we’d ever visited.

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Heaven.

 

Tell us about why you travel with your children. (Nice question, Hilton people: “Tell us about why…”)

Most fundamentally, we travel with our children because we want them to learn that material things come and go, but experiences belong to them forever. With every trip, our kids are exposed to culture, diversity, and history. From these exposures, they have learned appreciation of differences, rather than judgment. Travel has taught them to say “yes” to opportunities; they are willing to try new foods, hop on trams, or climb myriad staircases to the top of monuments. In addition, they understand the power a person has when in command of a language; at the same time, they know that amazing amounts of communication can take place without a common language. Yet another benefit of travel is that the long hours of waiting—at airports, for shuttles, for the next tour—help kids develop patience and coping. Ours know how to pull out books, play games, and people watch until the call of “It’s time. Let’s go!” Finally, they learn resiliency. I was never more proud of my daughter than when she was six and, nauseous from a winding road in Guatemala, vomited in the van. As she wiped her face, she asked, “When we get there, will there be monkeys?”

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Oh, there were monkeys.

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All kinds of monkeys.

 

Describe your travel personality.

When traveling, I try to release expectations and be flexible, open to whatever each day offers. If I have rigid notions of how things should be, then I will be frustrated, stressed, and disappointed when reality hits. Because I am also a dedicated traveler who wants to make the hours count, I sometimes have to be deliberate about conceding, “Okay, so this is how it is.” For example, when my kids were eight and ten, we were in Florence, Italy, having set the afternoon aside to explore the renowned Uffizi art gallery. When we got there, they were completely uninterested in looking at a single thing. In particular, my son announced he was done with museums and didn’t want to walk through any of the rooms, not a single one, nope, none at all. This attitude could have ruined the day. However, I looked at it from his point of view and understood. We had gone to many museums. He’d done his time. So long as he would wait on a bench while we explored, that was fine. Thus, my main memory of the Uffizi (and it makes me laugh) is of my children sitting slumped on a bench.

Okay, this is actually the Louvre, but you take my point.

 

Tell us about a time when something unexpected happened on your family vacation.

One summer, we took a road trip across the American West. At a campground in Casper, Wyoming, the romance of camping was quickly squashed when my husband was brushing his teeth near the fire pit, and a moth flew into his ear. Quickly, the moth worked its way deep into the ear canal; my husband could hear it fluttering inside his skull. First, we tried pouring some water into the ear, but all that gave him was a sloshy head. Then we tried pouring in some olive oil, hoping to convince the moth that there were better homes to be had elsewhere. No luck. Eventually, we shrugged, decided the moth had to sort itself out, and went on with our day. We drove to Thermopolis and took the kids to the dinosaur museum, but by late afternoon, the moth—still fluttering—was causing my husband pain. He ended up going to the clinic where an unflappable doctor inserted a long, thin tweezer into his ear, extracted the agitated moth, and plopped it into a jar while saying, “Happens all the time around here. Nice souvenir for you.” That night we opted to stay in a hotel.

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Give us the best travel tips for a family like yours.

  1. Bring snacks and books. A granola bar and Harry Potter have averted more than one crisis.
  2. Go to museums, but not too many. You’ll know you’ve hit the wall when your kids spend the entire time sitting on a bench.
  3. Embrace the full-on tourist experience (rides at Legoland, glass blowing in Venice, spinning on The London Eye), but also explore less-known activities—such as renting pedal bikes in Rome.
  4. Prepare kids for attractions. Use time on a bus ride or the night before to explain the importance of the upcoming sight. In a beautiful guilt trip, my daughter still claims that she didn’t understand the significance of The National Museum of American History until she saw a video at the end.
  5. Introduce your kids to local foods. After our kids ate baguette and macarons in France, they never looked at Lunchables the same way again.
  6. Don’t be daunted by bad weather. Even if it’s raining, you won’t melt.
  7. Travel to a variety of destinations, not the same place every year. While Mickey Mouse is charming, so is Machu Picchu. No matter where you take them, your kids will have fits and fun.

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Où est la baguette ?

 

So those are the responses that left the Hiltons unimpressed. For a long time, I wasn’t sure what they’d been looking for that I didn’t have.

But then I clicked over to look at their roster of bloggers.

A bunch of them are named Amy.

Mystery solved.

 

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Belize gas Guatemala Tikal travel

Two Weeks South of the Border: Part the End

The adventure continues and concludes in this installment, which ranges from ruins to Kaluha (words which also sum up my current existence). See how travel broadened this broad?
——————————————————-

After a few days in Belize, my sister, some other Peace Corps volunteers, Cute John, and I rented a “taxi” to take us to Tikal, Guatemala to see some Mayan ruins. Alwyn, our driver, didn’t want more than five people in his car, for the roads are nearly non-existent, and, as Carol Brady would have, he feared for his station wagon. Pointing out that Cute John was spun from nothing more than clouds, fairy wings, and cotton candy, we unwisely coerced Alwyn to allow a sixth in the car.

Tikal was 65 km (let’s call that 39 miles, roughly) from our starting point that day. It was a four-hour drive. To amuse ourselves, we ran through our repertoires of “theme songs from every tv show aired since 1970.” Only Cagney & Lacey stumped the crowd. As I’ve asked myself nearly every day since my adolescence, Where’s Tyne Daly when you need her?


My favorite moment of this journey was when the station wagon got stuck in a rut in from of 10 Guatemalan lads–lazing on the edge of a village well–just as we all reached the high point of the All in the Family theme song “Those Were the Days,” doing our best Edith Bunker impersonations. Jaws around the well dropped, and we set back Central American/North American relations hundreds of years, putting a particular strain on the coffee trade (you no longer have to ask yourselves, “Why can I only get an inferior cup of Sumatran java these days?” After hearing our singing, Guatemalans were thrown into a decades-long bean harvesting paralysis.)

Tikal itself is amazing. We hiked all over the ruins, ending with Temple IV, a building that loomed several hundred feet into the sky, reachable only by maneuvering a series of sideways ladders and grasping at tree roots. I nearly wept at the top for fear of the descent.

Fortunately, right then a group of senior citizens came huffing and puffing around the corner. I eyed them quizzically and asked, “Do you, by chance, know an alternate route down?” They did. All it involved was shuffleboard, ice sculptures, and me sitting on my tush and sliding down the hill).

Dusty and sweaty, we had lunch, bargained at the market, and began the drive home.

Oh. Did I forget to mention that this was the first weekend this particular border crossing between Guatemala and Belize had been open in some time? There’d been a ban because groups of banditos had been attacking tourist vehicles and “molesting” (in all fashion) gringos?

This concern was firmly tucked into the back of our collective head as we started the drive home at dusk. On the worst possible stretch of sheltered road, Alwyn, our driver, slammed on the brakes and yelled, “I smell gas!” Without another word, he hopped out of the car, dove beneath it, jumped out, ran to a nearby shack, and came back with a pan and a bar of soap. What an odd time for a sponge bath, Alwyn.

It turned out we had two dime-sized holes in the gas tack, holes that had been worn through when the tank came into repeated contact with the road as it worked through the ruts that day. Our supply of gas was in rapid leak all over the road. Keeping his head, and smelling of an Irish Spring, Alwyn went to work ripping apart the bar of soap and shoving it into the holes.

Villagers from miles around gathered quietly, silently, in a removed circle around us, watching, sharpening their knives, eyeing our flesh and firing up their barbeques. Cute John prepared to sacrifice his life in defense of the five gringas in his company from the line of men that slowly started snaking its way towards us. He, in other words, plotted the straightest line between himself and the camouflage of the jungle, knowing he could outrun us all.

In truth, we merely felt intimidated, and Alwyn saved the gas and the day. And I had a reflective moment of realizing my imagination was alive and turning cartwheels. We got home safely, gratefully.

The next Monday, Kirsten, Cute John, and I got back on another bus to return north to Corozal. During that bus ride, I finished reading GONE WITH THE WIND for the 32nd time. They all die, by the way. On the way back to Corozal, we spent an afternoon in the smoky, polluted capital, Belize City, where, as we tromped around, I missed squashing a dead rat that lay near a burning garbage heap. Good times.

For the rest of that week, once we got back to Kirsten’s house in Corozal, we visited my sister’s schools, where she was a teacher trainer. Cute John missed out on one day’s school visit, as he was vomiting blood all day, the kind of vomiting that tests the limits of one’s attractiveness.

The kids in the schools were a scream; the teachers were barely adequate. At the first school we went to, the teacher wasn’t in the classroom with her nine 3 and 4-year-olds. She was making herself some popcorn in a nearby building. As far as school supplies went, the only toys or creative materials any classroom enjoyed had been sent down by my sister’s friends and family. But what you can’t do with a little paper and tape…


At the end of the week, we accompanied one of Kirsten’s schools on a field trip to a resort called Don Quixote’s. A few of the kids, after much coaxing, would get into the water of the swimming pool there, on the top step of the shallow end. None would go into the nearby sea. Culturally, there is a fear of being wet, as it leads to sure death, apparently. My sister had already learned that, on the days it was raining, she didn’t even need to get up and visit her schools, as no one would be there.


Towards the end of the trip, Cute John went to Antigua, Guatemala, where the sight of his smile and the smell of his minty breath stopped traffic. My sister and I went to Chetumal, Mexico, where I got a cheap hammock and a wheelbarrow-sized bottle of Kaluha. From there, I took a bus alone back to Cancun and found the myriad “hey, baby” come-ons helped me decide to spend some quality time in my hotel room. In Belize, groups of men hanging out on the corner are known as the Leaky Tire Brigade because of the zzzekkksy “SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS” noise they make when a female walks by. By the end, I was able to advise my sister that, upon her return to the States, her biggest adjustment wouldn’t be to the vast amounts of produce available in the shiny grocery stores but rather to not being noticed and commented upon with every step in public.

Ultimately, on my last night there, as sweated and scratched at bug bites, I had an epiphany. my biggest point of pride from the whole trip was this: due to a sorry bit of mis-packing back in the States, I had done it all without deodorant.

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Belize bus Hard Rock Cafe Mexico Peace Corps travel

Two Weeks South of the Border: Part One

 

Guess who not only has 50 research papers to grade in the next week but also has the honor of serving as a witness in a big ole lesbian wedding extravaganzapalooza this weekend? I even get to give a toast at the reception (something along the lines of “May you always wear the same size and, therefore, enjoy double the wardrobe from this day forth”).

While I’m off grading and toasting, I leave you with the first installation of a travelogue written in 1990, when I was 22 and traveled to Belize to visit my sister, Kirsten, during her first tour as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. What you’ll read here is my 22-year-old voice, typed directly from a letter I sent out upon my return.

By the way, although most of my weeks in Central America were spent in Belize, I actually flew into and out of Cancun, as plane fare was drastically cheaper to that tourist spot. So don’t be confused: even though there should be, there’s no Cancun, Belize.

Here ya go:
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As I sit here wilting in a Cancun hotel, it seems as good a time as any to record my recent adventures. Actually, Kirsten asked me to compose some thoughts about my visit to Belize, thoughts that might supplement her less-objective observations. Seeing as she’s the sister who used to sit on me and engage her unwilling sibling in “let’s-see-who-can-slap-the-hardest” fights, I’ll comply with her request. Childhood conditioning sticks.

I flew into Cancun on February 19 and was met by our favorite Peace Corps volunteer. I’d been told by Mom that Kirsten’s hair was falling out due to the anti-malarial pills she had to take; my sigh of relief that she didn’t resemble Don Rickles was audible. You’ll be happy to know that our near 3-year absence from each other didn’t keep us from settling down in front of the t.v. as soon as we hit the hotel. We spent two nights in a gorgeous tourist haven on the beach, swam in that unnaturally aqua and clear sea, wandered the markets, drank the two twelve-packs of pop I brought on the plane as a gift, and, uh, watched t.v. Kirsten speaks Spanish like a native–all the cab drivers told us–so don’t let her beg off otherwise.

1990: The year when glasses frames and hoop earrings were literally interchangeable. Let’s all congratulate my sister, at this juncture, for getting contact lenses and leaving those specs behind. The earrings, however? Totally Beyonce in 2008. I was ahead of my time.

We also spent a rather depressing hour and a half at Cancun’s Hard Rock Cafe, stuck at the same table with a Canadian named Larry, a sorry and recently-separated 34-year-old chain smoker who wanted nothing more than to “party with some babes.” Unfortunately, Kirsten and I had to go back to the hotel and, you know, watch t.v.

Bravely, I wore a long white skirt to the Hard Rock, a place where the nachos have been known to attack lesser womenswear. The gladiator sandals I’m wearing, though? Totally Lindsay Lohan in 2008. Seriously, these photos are convincing me that I was a fashion visionary.

On the third day, a college buddy of mine, John (Juan) flew down to escape the boredom of a post-B.A. pastry chef’s position. We three hopped a taxi to Playa del Carmen, ate pizza, and then jumped on a boat to Cozumel, a little island town that, despite being overrun with gringos, feels like Mexico. We ate dinner at Carlos & Charlie’s, the type of tourist restaurant where, if you don’t seal your lips, you’re apt to find a tap of wine shoved down your throat. Kirsten charmed yet another waiter with her accent; I hear the pitter-patter of little accents already. The tables at Carlos & Charlie’s have butcher paper and chalk laid out for the customers’ doodling pleasure, so, somewhere in Mexico is a piece of paper that proclaims “Mi hermana habla espanol muy bien.” Look for it.

The next day, we taxied out to a resort/beach place for the day where Kirst and I snorkeled for the first time, shrieking with delight after we got over our initial fear of the big, bad fish right there, brushing up against us. We don’t even eat ’em, much less submerge our faces where they, um, do, you know, their business. John disappeared with a book for several hours, reappearing with tawdry tales of flirtation not fit for mixed company. That night we took our su8nburns to Neptuno, “the” disco, and shook our booties while the waiters shook their heads. They played “The Lambada” a kazillion times (the natives are wild for it, but because that dance has some barkin’ choreography, not a one can actually reproduce the moves they’ve seen in the video). I’m pretty sure if “The Twist” were spun at the disco, and Chubby Checker was yodeling away, yet everyone stood rock still, fingers snapping, agreeing “Muy groovy tune, Chubby.”

Adrift in a salt-water scrub, Nature’s Exfoliator

Finally, it was Friday, and we were ready to ease into Belize. To be honest, I don’t really remember what happened that day–it’s all a nightmarish jumble of hellish bush rides and bruised buttocks. What I do recall is surprise, surprise that there is a definite demarcation between Mexico and Belize (and, as I was later to find, Guatemala). Contrary to my expectations of “Central America as A Country,” we had to stop on each side of the border, fill out forms, go through customs, and get our passports stamped. It was in marked contrast to traveling in Europe, where the countries all seem to mesh together. And there’s a marked change in the look and feel of each country, althoug separated by only 10 feet. Many Belizian homes resemble the Clampetts’ shack before Jed struck Texas Tea, so you can imagine my relief when Kirsten told the bus driver to pull over in front of a relatively-palatial house. Indeed, Kirsten’s Belizian home is pretty nice, if you don’t mind only one sink in the place (in the bathroom; a kitchen sink is overrated), no hot water, and minimal water pressure. Sometimes I’d hold the handle down for a flush for so long that I’d have to go again before the bowl had emptied or refilled. Bathing in her house is best accomplished by heating a pot of water on the stove and adding that to a big bucket of cold water; it is a process called “mixing.” The next step is to take a little bowl, scoop it into the mix, and dump it over your head. I smelled of slightly-rancid yum on this trip.

Because my pal John reads this blog, I have carefully selected this photo of him for inclusion. He’s still that damn cute, even when–especially when!–he washes his unmentionables in the shower, as we had to in Belize.

The day after we got to Kirsten’s house in Corozal, we leapt joyfully back onto another thumpity bus and headed south to Cayo District where a couple other Peace Corps volunteers are stationed. We ate that night at an ex-British soldier’s restaurant where I tried my first Belizian beer and, indirectly, my first extended coupling with the toilet. It soon passed, in a manner of speaking, but it put a damper on the reggae/soca dance we attended that night. All of the songs at the dance were at least half an hour long, which not only gave us an aerobic workout but also allowed me to go have a squat and then come back to twirl, all during the same tune.

In any country, in any decade, sisterhood is not the suck. Unless you’re a Gabor.

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Up next: we run out of gas.

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