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Getting the Shaft in Mexico

HAYLEY AND I MOVED SOUTH, trading the cold desert of Wyoming for the hot desert of Arizona. We traveled through more desert along the way, starting with the Red Desert near the Colorado border. Geologists refer to this region as an endorheic basin. Any rain that has the misfortune of falling here cannot look forward to a pleasant journey to the sea. It either seeps into the ground or it evaporates. The Red Desert is a miserly region of dry, high plains where bunchgrasses huddle against the wind.

Further south we passed through the Great Basin Desert, which splays across Utah and Nevada. Just the names of the vegetation make you want to reach for a glass of water: sagebrush, greasewood, saltgrass.

Continuing the journey we reached the Mojave, where the vegetation ‒ creosote, yucca ‒ sounds repulsive.

At the southern border we reached the Sonoran Desert, cactus country, where the vegetation inflicts pain. The names tell the story: prickly pear, coachwhip, fishhook. This was our new home. But Hayley and I were on vacation so we took the journey one step further, to the Chihuahuan Desert in Mexico where the vegetation becomes frankly hallucinogenic: agaves and peyote dot the land. It’s a sere landscape, like the Levant, where one imagines wild-eyed prophets emerging from the haze, walking on mirages of water. The Aztecs have an origin story that tells of a journey from the north. I like to think that it was an exodus from the Chihuahuan Desert where a stoned pre-Columbian Moses led his people to the promised land of Lake Texcoco and set about building his dream city to honor their bloodthirsty gods.

We were looking for the modern variant of the promised land known as the beach. The closest beach, at Puerto Peñasco, was known alternatively as “Arizona’s beach” and “the armpit of the Sea of Cortez,” neither of which sounded particularly appealing. Time constraints limited our options ‒ we had little more than a long weekend and didn’t want to spend too much time on the road. The previous year we’d gone to San Carlos, which was fine but “not Mexican enough” in Hayley’s view. We pored over maps of the inland sea, continuing the Spanish tradition of seeking solace in the New World, and finally settled upon Bahía de Kino.

“It’s popular with working families from Hermosillo,” she said, “but not Americans.”

So, in early May, we stuffed our backpacks and sailed across the desert in search of the sea.

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THE BORDER FENCE AT NOGALES was freshly garlanded with razor wire, shiny and chrome. We parked the car and walked through the baffle gate into Mexico where a long line of people were waiting to enter the U.S. A workman barreled towards me with a cart and had to veer around because I was rubber-necking. He was an old fart who yelled at me before pressing on. All I understood was the word Americano! A few onlookers laughed so I assume he’d said something like, “Great! Another fucking American wall!” or, “Do I need a fucking coyote to get past this American!” or, “Out of my way, American! I need to get these drugs to your country for a Cinco de Mayo party.”

Hayley put herself in charge of travel arrangements to Bahía. I assumed it was because she was, in her own words, “criminally cheap” and wanted to take the least expensive route. However, bus tickets from Tucson to Hermosillo were only $30 and we’d already spent that on parking in Nogales. I began to suspect that money wasn’t the issue. Hayley, a dirty liberal, could never entirely discard the notion that she was a relatively privileged norteamericana vacationing in a less fortunate country. By taking local transport, struggling with the language, and hoofing it, she was doing penance; cleansing herself for entry into the Promised Land.

Bahia de Kino and Isla TiburonI certainly felt like a penitent after ten hours of buses, collectivos, taxis, and tramps under the desert sun. The town was divided into two parts, Bahia Nuevo and Bahio Viejo. The driver waved us off in the latter and dropped our bags in the dirt. Shouldering our packs we wandered off in search of our casita. Being lost made me happy. There’s something about being a stranger ‒ not speaking the lingo and not knowing my way around ‒ that I find very appealing. Part of the appeal is the challenge, and another part is to see if anyone helps, because who wants to live in a world where people spit on strangers?

Thanks to some early-risers at a fish market we were directed to our hotel, which was hidden amidst a cluster of mobile homes. These were the seasonal haunts of nortamericanos who spent the winter here. Most of the residents had already flown home, but occasionally Hayley and I would make a rare sighting of a pale jubilado in a house dress and wide-brimmed hat, braving the sun for a peek at the boys of summer playing on the beach. Our casita was large enough for a Mormon family and the lack of furniture made it seem even larger. After dropping our packs we went out to explore the town, feeling light as air, but we were soon burdened by the unpleasant discovery that both of the town’s ATMs were out of order.

“How many pesos do you have?” I asked Hayley, who’d changed some money in Hermosillo.

“I dunno. A few hundred.”

I kicked myself for not changing money as well. At the time I thought I could get a better exchange rate than eighteen pesos per dollar because the official rate was closer to twenty.

“Maybe they take dollars here,” I suggested hopefully.

No one did. Hayley was right, this was a holiday destination for Mexicans, not gringos.

“I thought San Carlos wasn’t Mexican enough,” she said upon our return to the hotel ‒ which thankfully we’d already paid for ‒ “but I think this place might be too Mexican.”

On the plus side we were the only gringos in town. A scant two hundred miles from the border we felt almost as out-of-place as we did in Patagonia. After some searching we found a restaurant that accepted credit cards.

“It might cost us, but at least we won’t starve,” I said.

We ordered two plates of fresh-caught fish, seasoned with garlic and served over rice. It was a simple meal but one that found me several times leaning back in my chair to allow the flavors to finish seducing my palate. We quenched our thirst with several beers and decided right then that Bahia de Kino was just the right amount of Mexican. This was more than confirmed when the bill arrived: eighteen dollars.

“Imagine how cheap the street food is!” Hayley said with wonder.

We found out the next day when we had the good fortune of running into an OXXO employee who was willing to part with some of his pesos. He offered an exchange rate of eighteen to the dollar, which suddenly seemed like a bargain, and we made a beeline for the food carts.

333A few steps from the beach and shaded by a large and friendly awning was the best little clam shack in the Americas. Before we settled into our plastic chairs the patron, a woman who seemed bemused by our arrival, showed us the varieties of mollusk that were available that day, freshly caught from the bounteous waters of the Sea of Cortez. She also informed us that they didn’t serve beer but if we wanted cerveza ‒ or tequila or rum or whatever ‒ we could just walk up the street to the liquor store and purchase our own refreshment. Within a few minutes we had started on a six-pack and a basket of chips and salsa while awaiting the arrival of a dozen chocolatas. These large clams, chocolate in color, came to us as twenty-four appetizers served on the half-shell with salsa and a choice of lime or hot sauce. The entire meal cost five dollars.

Feeling satisfied and flush with pesos we strolled the beachfront shops, all within view of the pier where young boys launched themselves into the sea under the calm gaze of pelicans. Dense rows of ticky-tacky shacks sold a variety of shells: shell necklaces, shell bracelets, shell lamps, shell key fobs, animals made of shells, inner tubes shaped like shells, and jars full of shells. So it was no surprise that a plain wooden box caught our eye. Hayley opened it. Inside was a two-foot wooden penis. 334-ChoadContinuing the grand tradition of bad decision-making by intoxicated Americans in Mexico, I bought it. Hayley thought it would make a fine gift for one of our gay friends, so the shopkeeper rolled it in several folds of newspaper and handed it over with an expression of utter boredom.

We spent the next few days popping in and out of the water and sampling all the food on offer. I was reminded of a revelation I had while hiking in the Grand Canyon. After three days marching along the Tonto plateau with a full pack I’d begun the final sweaty slog back to the rim. As I reached the parking lot I seriously considered chucking my pack, my shoes, and my desire to ever hike again into the dumpster for good and all. Reduced to a desire for nothing more than the essentials, I thought, “The French are right to place so much emphasis on food!” Thirty years later I was of the same mind. All of my best travel memories involve food: that pot au feu in the Dordogne region of France; the tender filet with shaved truffles in Pula, Croatia; the painful, paradisal hot pot in Chengdu, China; that other filet in Argentina with chimichurri sauce… As my girlfriend says, “Considering how much you love food, it’s a wonder you don’t weigh 300 pounds.”

And then it was over. We’d spent our time in a calm eddy and now it was time to rejoin the current. I switched off my brain as we retraced our steps back to America. On the bus to Nogales I nodded off while counting cacti. Then we came to a stop and everyone got off. All the luggage had been tossed on the side of the road and a uniformed man was yelling at the passengers to claim their bags. We found our packs in the careless pile and followed the rest of the passengers into a small building that contained a machine that would be familiar to anyone in an airport. Hayley and I fed our packs into the baggage scanner and waited. I watched as my bag was pulled aside and a stocky official held it up.

De quién es este?

Then I remembered the penis.

I smiled sheepishly and stepped forward. The official, who already knew at least the outline of what I had in my pack, couldn’t suppress a grin as he called over the rest of his squad. They gathered around as layer upon layer of newspaper was peeled back until the polished shaft was revealed. They took a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship before one of them held it up to my face.

Esto es tuyo?”

Still smiling with my mouth tightly closed, I nodded. Suddenly Hayley blurted out, “It’s for his mother!”

Everyone looked at her.

Por su madre?” the official asked, confused.

I’m not sure how she thought that would make things better, especially since the situation was already comical. The guards proceeded with their job, tapping the wood to make sure it wasn’t hollow (and filled with drugs), before handing it back to me and wishing me buen viaje. For a lovely instant I was standing in a foreign country with an enormous cock in my hands, surrounded by smiling sunburnt men who patted my back with friendly, calloused hands. I felt, perhaps, in a small way, that I’d helped mend the frayed relations between our two countries.

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Posted by on July 24, 2019 in Uncategorized

 

In a Shithole Country: Lessons from Ethiopia

The next installment in my pocket series of travel books has been released.  In a Shithole Country, like Bullets and Beans, shows what we can learn from unexpected places when we bother to look beyond the headlines.  Ethiopia does not disappoint.

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Posted by on February 7, 2019 in Uncategorized

 

African Camelot

BY THE TIME WE REACHED GONDAR I felt like I’d found my sea legs in Africa, meaning that I’d adjusted my expectations downward and put my guard up. We’d only been in Ethiopia for four days and already I was on a diet of soup and tea. Still, once we’d located a hotel and gotten some rest I realized that I felt far better than I had a right to, considering the ordeal of getting here. The following day I woke feeling right as rain. Hayley, however…

I spent my first day in Gondar going from one pharmacy to another trying to fill the list that my girlfriend had given me when she woke in the clutches of whatever had doubled me over the previous day. “This will be worse,” she said, sounding aggrieved. “I always get it worse than you.” At least she didn’t have to travel with it, but finding the right drugs turned out to be more difficult than I thought. Despite my skill at charades the clerks never seemed to grasp the notion of diarrhea. They either shook their heads or tried to give me antibiotics. Finally, I ran across a pharmacist with rudimentary English skills. She looked to be about twelve years old. After my song-and-dance routine she nodded.

“It is from food?” she asked.

It could have been from anything, but I nodded.

She started to pull a box from the shelf when her assistant, a ten-year old, said something that made her hesitate. They argued for a minute and finally agreed on a different box. The pharmacist pushed it across the counter at me.

“No eggs,” was all she said.

I passed the instructions on to Hayley, who looked skeptical and Googled the medication.

“These are antibiotics,” she said, “and it doesn’t say anything about avoiding eggs.”

Nevertheless, she took her meds and stayed in bed the rest of the day, watching Ethiopian soap operas on the small TV in our room. I’d once read an essay about the appeal of soap operas in America, the gist of which was that they were a form of social control. Script writers were tasked with portraying people whose lives were such a godawful mess that viewers would be inclined to count their blessings and think twice before complaining about low wages and a lack of health care in their actual lives. Although we couldn’t understand the dialogue, Ethiopian soaps seemed to have the same guiding principle. The shows featured poverty, domestic abuse, and people who made such terrible, terrible decisions with their lives that a Sterno drinker would shake his head at their behavior and say, “You need to take a look in the mirror, dude.”

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The reason we’d come to Gondar was the castles. Four centuries ago Gondar was the capital of the Abyssinian Empire, although by then it was an empire in tatters. The kingdom had once ruled the Horn of Africa and held territory across the Red Sea in Yemen, until the rise of Islam cut off their trade and saw the overthrow of their colonies. Before long Muslim armies in Abyssinia itself began to threaten the last vestiges of the Christian empire, until the intervention of the Portuguese in 1543.

Europeans had long cast a hopeful eye on this part of Africa, a region they imagined was ruled by a rich and powerful king named Prester John. The legend was at least as old as the Crusades, when rumors of a Christian kingdom in Africa that was standing against the Muslim horde fired the imagination of the faithful. The legend was just as enticing in the 16th century when the Portuguese sought the mythical kingdom in hopes of creating a military alliance that would crush the Ottomans and their heretical church in a pincer movement. When the Portuguese arrived, however, they found a weak and besieged kingdom that could not even help itself.

Once the threat from Islam had been quelled the Portuguese set about making enemies of their new allies, demanding changes to the Ethiopian Orthodox church in order to accord with European Catholicism. Intransigent priests were tortured while Jews were persecuted and killed. Civil war threatened until the Portuguese were finally expelled, ushering in a renaissance for the Abyssinian Empire, or at least a period of relative peace during which the castles were built by rulers who rejected the intolerant policies of their former allies.

Despite knowing the history, the castles still looked incongruous in sub-Saharan Africa. This was partly due to the fact that they were built on a medieval European design, but it didn’t help when our guide made a sweeping motion with his arm and intoned, “Welcome to African Camelot!”

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The complex of half a dozen castles and outbuildings was situated within a walled enclosure on a bluff overlooking the city. The trim lawns and quiet paths were a welcome respite from the commotion outside. I enjoyed wandering the ruins as our guide filled us in on more than 200 years of royal Gondarine history (which followed the same trajectory as most Hollywood franchises: a strong start, several disappointments, and eventual abandonment of the entire project). The city did not go gently into the night, however. It was twice ransacked in the 19th century by Emperor Tewodros II who had moved the capital to Debre Tabor and apparently wanted to blight its predecessor. It was later targeted for jihad by Sudanese Muslims (“Mahdists”) and again put to the torch. Finally, in 1941, the city was bombed by the British as part of an offensive to oust the Italian fascists from Ethiopia. Given this litany of destruction it is remarkable that Camelot did not vanish into legend.

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Hayley was anxious to move on, having lost a day to illness, so I steeled myself for another ordeal. The guidebook led us to the general area of the bus station, but we couldn’t locate it in time and the sharks began to circle (“Where are you from? Where are you go?”).

We’d been having good results by ignoring their whistles, but Hayley accidentally made eye contact with one of them and that was enough encouragement for him to rush up to her side and pronounce himself our escort. She tried to ignore him but it was too late. He was on us like a dogged journalist, watching our eyes and trying to tease out our story.

“Taxi? Yes, I can get for you! Hotel? This way, this way! Bus? I will show you…”

We spotted the ticket office but when we tried to enter he wedged himself between me and the door.

“I will show you! I will show you!

Hayley suggested we duck into a juice shop and wait him out. He watched, sweating and confused, as we left.

“Where you go?”

We downed two glasses of fresh-squeezed juice, then made a dash for the ticket office when the coast was clear. But it was all for naught as none of the buses went to Axum.

“You have to go to the other bus station, south of here,” the clerk informed us. “Take the bus to Shiré, about 100 kilometers from Axum. From there you can get a shuttle the rest of the way.”

I felt like I was talking to Rube Goldberg: How needlessly complicated can I make this for you? So we hopped aboard a bajaj (a tuk-tuk) and soon found ourselves in another chaotic dirt lot filled with a variety of public transport options. We were instantly surrounded by smiling, helpful people who we ignored, and made our way to what looked like a ticket office. The clerk sold us two tickets for 100 birr each and we left, surrounded by scowling, frustrated people. It was a shame that you sometimes had to be cruel in order to protect yourself, but didn’t Whitney Houston say that that was the greatest love of all?

We flagged down a tuk-tuk and the driver asked for fifty birr, dropping the price to thirty birr when he saw my girlfriend’s eyes, then twenty birr as we began to walk away. His last offer, shouted as he cruised alongside, was fifteen birr. I climbed aboard and Hayley followed, annoyed that I hadn’t held out for an extra twenty-five cents. I’m pretty sure this is what she meant when she described herself as “criminally cheap”.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

Bullets & Beans: Lessons from Colombia

I’ve just released my latest book, Bullets and Beans: Lessons from Colombia, which includes the story “Searching for Godzilla” (see previous post).  The book covers a month-long trip to Colombia from the Amazon to the Caribbean, and a hike to the Lost City of Teyuna.  Piranhas, pirates, lost cities… what more do you want?  This edition is now available on Amazon.com.

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Posted by on October 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Searching for Godzilla

SOME TRIPS WERE MY GIRLFRIEND’S IDEA, others were mine. This one was all mine. Colombia offered everything from beaches to mountains to rainforest.  I made a list of things to do, including of course a visit to the Amazon.  Never enthusiastic about tropical heat or bugs, especially bugs, my girlfriend acquiesced to the trip rather than jumping on board. All my boosterism went out the window anyway once we arrived in the Amazon and started changing underwear on an hourly basis.  As it turned out, Hayley was the one who donned the explorer’s hat.

“I arranged for two nights in Puerto Nariño,” she informed me over dinner.

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I picked at my fried piranha, an angry-looking specimen that was perched on my plate like a fossil.

“Where’s that?”

“It’s a village about two hours upriver. Not a tourist town, a regular village.”

The guidebook disagreed with her assessment, describing the village as “rather touristy”, but it was also described as “the first tourism sustainable town in the country” due to its lack of roads and services. It was the kind of place, apparently, that welcomed tourist dollars without accommodating the tourists themselves. This was often the case anyway, Puerto Nariño had just decided to be up front about it.

The next day we squeezed aboard a longboat and experienced the famous monotony of the Amazon as we passed mile after mile of unchanging scenery. The greatest river in the world suffered the same fate as the greatest empires: it became bland through expansion. We traveled fifty miles on a river that coursed over four thousand. Francisco Orellana, the first European and perhaps the first human to travel the entire length of the river, did not lose his mind. For that, he probably had the native population to thank. Generally hostile, they kept him and his crew focused as their boats were under almost constant attack. Without their efforts, Orellana and his men would undoubtedly have died of boredom long before they reached the Atlantic.

There was a certain hostility about Puerto Nariño as well. Even the animals were dicks. As I walked to our cabana a scarlet macaw stepped onto the path in front of me and tilted its head in what was unmistakably a challenge. As I walked past it leaned over and sank its beak into my foot. I winced but kept walking as it turned its attention to Hayley. Their eyes met and she grabbed a broom. The macaw stepped aside grudgingly but watched her all the way to the cabana, then bobbed its head as if to say, “I know where you live.”

The monkeys were little better, scampering over the roof and scratching at our window screens like zombies. They had the run of the place and even the owner seemed to fear them.

“¡No los deje entrar!” she howled when we opened the door to her cabin.

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After paying for two nights we were informed that there was no restaurant and no food. We would have to walk to town for groceries. Just then it started to rain.

We followed her directions, navigating a slippery path to a sleepy community where all the shops were closed because it was the middle of the day. To be fair, I wouldn’t want to work in this heat either. We found a shop that sold bread rolls and on the way home we importuned a shuttered bakery to sell us a few eggs. Returning from the hunt, drenched but laden with food, we were greeted by the macaw which was perched on our cabana roof. It raised a foot as we approached, spreading wide its dinosaur-like talons, and stared at us. It was the avian equivalent of a gang sign.

Once inside, I opened the lid to the toilet and startled a frog. It launched itself onto the wall where it stuck like poo. After dinner we called it an early night, tucking the mosquito netting around our bed and drifted off to a chorus of displeased wildlife.

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The second person to navigate the length of the Amazon was Lope de Aguirre, who was fictionalized by Werner Herzog in his 1972 film, Aguirre: the Wrath of God. Aguirre came to the New World in his twenties and spent the next two decades as a conquistador fighting his own countrymen in the factional power struggles that marked the early colonial period in Peru. In the year 1560 he joined an expedition down the Amazon in search of El Dorado. Unlike Francisco de Orellana, a respected leader who was able Lope de Aguirreto maintain order on the river, Aguirre was a madman who quickly fomented a mutiny, killed his superiors, and seized control of the expedition. Fearing another mutiny he grew paranoid and set about thinning his ranks, murdering at least a quarter of his own men. He became grandiose and broke with the Spanish crown, declaring himself King of Peru and Chile. Accompanied by – and devoted to – his young daughter, he was like a psychotic Humbert Humbert, fleeing the authorities with his Lolita until cornered near the Orinoco River. In a final act, he stabbed her to death before he was captured and executed by royal troops.

In a missive written to the King of Spain and delivered after his death, Aguirre was unrepentant: I am certain there are few kings in hell because there are few kings, but if there were many none would go to heaven. Even in hell you would be worse than Lucifer, because you all thirst after human blood.

As Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

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 Determined to explore the river further, Hayley signed us up for an excursion that would be led by Luis, who worked at the hostel. He was something of a passe-partout, serving as translator, water-taxi driver, and tourist information clerk. While the owner of the eco-friendly resort barricaded herself from the outside world, Luis stepped in as our Amazonian Vergil.

He was, certainly, a low-rent Vergil. We piled into his longboat expecting to be treated to a leisurely tour of pink dolphins and tropical birds, but he cut the engine before we’d gone a mile and coasted to a river shack.

“Necessito gasolina,” he smiled.

We nodded and went back to dozing. A moment later there was a nervous cough.

Necessito gasolina,” he repeated, rubbing his fingers together.

I fished a 10,000 peso note from my pocket and Luis disappeared into the hut. A few minutes later he returned with a plastic tub, sloshing gasoline on the deck as he walked. He managed to get most of it in the engine and we set off again.

Puerto Nariño is located on a tributary river of the Amazon called the Loretoyacu. Luis kept the engine purring until we reached the confluence with the larger river, then hit the kill switch and began to whistle. He didn’t tell us why he was doing this, but it was understood that the sound was meant to attract dolphins. He posed theatrically on the stern, scanning the riffles and trilling softly. I thought about the winters I’d spent as a tour guide in Yellowstone and wondered what kind of sounds I would have made in order to attract bison and elk. Ineffective ones, no doubt. Our guide had apparently stopped in the one part of the river that didn’t have dolphins because they appeared everywhere else that day, surfacing like whack-a-moles first here and now over there but never long enough to capture on film. There would be a splash and we’d spin around in time to catch a flash of pink just as it disappeared underwater. They all seemed to arrive once Luis stopped whistling, as if they’d heard him but didn’t like his tune and were voting with their flippers.

Luis landed the boat, disturbing a swarm of yellow butterflies, and told us to get out. It felt like a punishment as we left the breezy river for the humid jungle, but Luis wanted to show us a “parasite tree”, a species of Ficus commonly known as the strangler fig. It spread throughout the forest with the aid of birds who carried its seed in their droppings, allowing the plant to gain purchase and eventually coil its tendrils around its unfortunate host like so many anacondas. The Ficus would then draw nutrients away from the tree until it died and decomposed, leaving only a hollow death mask in mock homage. This was the Amazon I came to see; not pink dolphins but murderous figs. It was the Amazon that Werner Herzog alluded to when he said, “The trees here are in misery, and the birds here are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain.”

Why was I attracted to the harshness of the jungle? I think it’s because I see the Amazon as the last great hope of nature against the onslaught of Man. Representing a kind of après moi la deluge moment before the great ice fields melt away. I want the Amazon to take us down, humble us, stop us before it’s too late. As a child raised on B-movies from the 1960s I keep hoping that one of these extractive industries will awaken a slumbering atavistic beast that will rise and wreak havoc on our reckless endeavors. Climate change is too slow. We need Godzilla.

Back in the boat Luis hugged the shoreline until he spotted a stream that meandered into the jungle. We pushed aside a soft crust of water plants, advancing slowly in semi-darkness as the green river narrowed and the trees touched overhead to form a tunnel. Luis cut the engine and we drifted to a stop. He then handed us a pair of branches and unwrapped a small packet of raw chicken, which he proceeded to dice into small pieces. Like riding elephants in Thailand or horses in the American West, piranha fishing in the Amazon is just one of those things that get included in every tour. I dropped my line in the water and sat back to enjoy a nap. Almost immediately I felt a tug and pulled a piranha out of the river. It was about the size of my hand, silver-colored with splotches of red around its mouth as if it had just torn apart some fresh prey. Its protruding jaw showed a row of sharp teeth as uniform as a comb. It grunted as I attempted to remove the hook.

“Careful!” Luis warned.

I dropped it back in the water and proceeded to pull out several more until all the chicken was gone, then Luis piloted us back to the main river and told us to jump in.

Hayley laughed. “It’s full of piranhas!”

“No, no. No piranhas here,” he said.

“What about candiru fish?” I asked, using my very serious voice.

“No candiru here.”

He pulled his hat over his eyes and settled into a corner of the boat. Hayley and I listened to the water lapping against the side of the boat for awhile, then jumped in. It was as warm as a bath. Dolphins continued to surface around us while egrets sailed overhead or stood motionless on the shore. Fish rose to the evening hatch as the sun sank below the trees, casting an orange glow on the clouds. The Amazon seemed determined to show us its Disney face.

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Posted by on June 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

The Boojum Tree

I’m pleased to announce the release of my fifth publication.  From its humble beginnings on this blog a few months ago to a fleshed-out book today, The Boojum Tree explores the seasonal life of employees in our national parks at a time when they are under assault by corporate America.  Travelogue, parable, and finally, a cautionary tale, The Boojum Tree is a remarkable view from the trenches of the gig economy.  I hope you all enjoy it.

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Posted by on October 24, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Haiti: The Girl Next Door

MY GIRLFRIEND AND I flew to the Dominican Republic in the spring for a short vacation before starting our summer jobs. Almost as soon as we landed, however, Haiti began to beckon us. It was not the kind of siren song one hears from places like Thailand with its romantic beaches or France with its alluring culinary offerings. Haiti called to us like a bad conscience, more of a haunting than an enticement.

You could not read about Haiti without hearing that it was the poorest country in the western hemisphere, that it was still recovering from the earthquake of 2010, or that the United Nations had been present in the country for over ten years on an extended “Stabilization Mission”.

“But we’re so close,” I said.

Hayley cut to the chase. “Then let’s go. We’ve been in the Dominican Republic for almost a week and all we seem to talk about is Haiti.”

It was true, Haiti was the elephant in the room. The DR was itself a poor country, but it had a thriving tourist industry and a stable government. Playing tourist on the beaches of the Dominican Republic, a few miles from a humanitarian crisis zone, somehow felt wrong. So we began looking into our options for travel across the border. Dominican buses traveled to two destinations in Haiti: Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien. That was the easy part. Finding a place to stay was more difficult. There didn’t seem to be any affordable options. The hostel sites were blank and the other websites offered nothing but luxury accommodations which all but screamed, “Your safe-house in Haiti!” We managed to locate a reasonably priced bungalow on the beach near Jacmel in the south, but when we contacted the owner for directions he sent us the following e-mail:

From Port-Au-Prince (PAP) take a taxi to the Jacmel Bus Station at Portail Leogane in PAP ($30 US). At the Jacmel Bus Station (in PAP) take a minivan or bus to Jacmel ($ 4.40; Peak Times: $6.70). The buses run from dawn to 6 pm and leave every 15 min. or so. During Rush Hour: The buses will stop at the PAP Bus Station on the outskirts of Jacmel. From there, travelers have 2 options: Hire a moto-taxi from the PAP Bus Station to Coterelle Breeze in Coterelle ($5.50), or hire a moto-taxi from the PAP Bus Station to the Marigot Bus Station in downtown Jacmel ($0.55). During NON Rush Hour: The buses will stop in downtown Jacmel. From the Marigot Bus Station, take a minivan (taptap) going towards Marigot ($0.90) or moto-taxi ($4.50). You are going to Coterelle which is right before Marigot. Ask the driver or a fellow rider to stop the taptap at the first gate on the right after Port Pigeons in Coterelle (about 5 minutes past Plage Ti Mouillage). It’s the only port in Coterelle so you could just say the Coterelle Port…

And it went on. Almost as an afterthought he suggested that for $50 he could send someone to meet us in Port-Au-Prince and walk us through the entire process.

We decided to head north to Cap-Haïtien instead. In every country that I’ve traveled there is a place which is nicknamed, “The Paris of so-and-so.” There was Buenos Aires, The Paris of South America; San Francisco was The Paris of the West; and Shanghai was known as The Paris of the East. The expression has been so liberally applied to so many places that it says less about the subject than its object, i.e., Paris is the center of the world. Nevertheless, I was surprised when I read that Cap-Haïtien was once known as “The Paris of the Antilles.” Was Haiti ever considered a five-star destination? Not really, unless you were an 18th-century French slave owner with a large sugar plantation. What a difference three centuries can make!

There was a direct bus from Santo Domingo to Cap-Haïtien so Hayley and I booked a next-day departure. We found a reasonably priced room at the grand-sounding Hotel Imperial for two nights and hoped for the best. The journey began in the early morning and we took our seats on the nearly empty bus, fingering our packs for reassurance: Tickets, check. Money, check. Rum, check. Our passports had been taken before boarding and we were told they would be returned to us at the border. Once we left the garbage-strewn cityscape of Santo Domingo the landscape became green and inviting. As we passed through this verdant country I thought about all the other countries I’d visited and how I only ever seemed to relax once I’d left the populated areas and journeyed to the remote regions. This was perhaps the motivation that drove humankind across the Bering Strait and allowed us to populate the entirety of the Earth: the search for a place to call one’s own. As the rum took effect and I began to wax philosophic about the destiny of Man, Hayley – a freshly-minted Anthropology major – scoffed at my theories and called me a racist.

We crossed into Haiti at the Massacre River, a large and mostly dry riverbed, where a tall, lanky man came aboard holding a brick of money. I handed him fifty dollars and received well over two-thousand gourdes in return. It’s a bit silly, but for me one of the great pleasures of travel is receiving enormous quantities of foreign currency in exchange for a few American dollars and savoring, albeit briefly, the illusion of great wealth (which is one of the reasons I don’t like traveling to England). Our passports were stamped and returned and we drove on. The first noticeable difference was in the architecture. Although most houses appeared to be little more than shacks with corrugated roofs, the more permanent homes resembled French cottages. Built from cinder blocks and uniformly gray, all were embellished with decorative balustrades and other ornamental touches which lent them a certain elegance, as if they were simply awaiting a final and festive dash of paint. A few miles from the border we found ourselves rolling through green fields with picturesque hills and mountains beyond. I could already feel my preconceptions fading, being forced aside by this pleasant scenery, but before I could say “What a lovely country!” Cap-Haïtien came into view.

4-Mapou River, Cap-Haitien

My first impression was of a place that had fallen apart. A place that no longer worked. There was a bunkered UN compound with blue-helmeted soldiers standing guard in watchtowers, their rifles held close to their chests, the walls around them crowned with barbed wire. Hazy hills enclosed a bay where a few barges lay immobile in the sea. Scattered palm trees rose above an empty beach that was no beach; it looked like a sidewalk after being violated by jackhammers. We crossed the Mapou River and stared down into a vast sewer. Floating trash extended from either bank and narrowed the channel to only a few navigable feet. The hills themselves were thick with flimsy homes as the outer slums crawled upslope, away from the city, like a wounded animal. Our bus was swallowed by traffic when it entered the downtown area. Motorcycles buzzed past like mosquitoes while tap-taps and trucks blared their horns impatiently or made their own lanes around us. I looked, appalled, at gutters that were nothing more than rivers of plastic waste, and above us French balconies clung precariously to buildings and threatened to collapse under the weight of residents who noted our passing without interest. Then the bus stopped. We’d arrived.

Frankly, I didn’t want to get off the bus. Cap-Haïtien had confirmed all of my worst fears about Haiti except the fear of violence, which is why I wanted to stay on the bus. Then I realized that Hayley was relying on me to take care of business here. In the Dominican Republic she had used her Spanish skills to translate for me. Now, in French-speaking Haiti, it was my turn. I grabbed my bag and hopped off the bus, landing in the middle of a crowd of young touts. Instead of descending upon me with offers of hotels, taxis, and “clean girls” as I’d anticipated, they stopped talking and just stared at me. I realized that they were just surprised to see a white face. It only took them a moment to regain their composure, and then the offers came. I said the name of our hotel and they shouted prices at me, which sounded extortionate, but only because the quotes were in gourdes.

“Five hundred!” the first one shouted.

“Four hundred!” another countered.

“I will take you there for three hundred!” a third offered.

There was no need to haggle. They were doing it for me. I simply took the lowest price and we dove into his car.

The Hotel Imperial was not far away, but our driver fought for every gourde of his fare. Traffic was so chaotic it was like being treated to a preview reel of potential ways to die. The scenery, however, was constant: a monotonous landscape of decay. Hayley and I had fallen into a silent reverie, common to edgy travelers and the condemned, so it came as a pleasant surprise when our taxi pulled into a shady courtyard in front of a peach-colored hotel with a pool surrounded by deck chairs. It hardly mattered that the pool was filled with greenish water and the air-conditioning in the room didn’t work. We were in Haiti, and we weren’t dead.

Hayley and I unpacked, showered, played cards, finished the last of our rum, and finally decided to explore the city. Hand in hand, like children, we sortied into the street. Everyone stared at us, even a group of ladies who were carrying enormous loads on their heads paused to watch us pass. A group of kids from a nearby school followed us, but kept a safe distance until they could goad one of their number into approaching us.

“Bonjour,” he said.

“Bonjour,” I said back.

He looked over his shoulder at his classmates, who urged him on.

“Give me money,” he said in English.

I smiled. “Pourquoi?”

He looked at his friends again and they ran off. Hayley gave him some candy and we crossed the street to a cafe.

Pushing open a metal door we entered a dirt-floored room with a few bored ladies sitting at flimsy plastic tables. They exchanged glances until one of them sighed and approached us with a menu, then slumped back in her chair. Hayley and I scanned the overpriced menu and wordlessly devised an escape plan. It seemed that in Haiti you either paid the tourist price or the local price. There was nothing in between.

I handed the menu back to the lady. “Maybe later,” I said.

She glanced at her cohorts and they smiled knowingly. I wouldn’t pay these prices either.

We continued down the street, hopping over broken pieces of sidewalk and trying not to breathe too deeply around the sewage channels. “What am I doing here?” I thought. Granted, that thought went through my mind everywhere I traveled, but it seemed to carry more weight here in the midst of such poverty. I did what any sane individual would do. I looked for a bar.

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We wandered the streets for an hour or so, meeting a motorcycle taxi gang who supported their families on a dollar a day and a few street hustlers who considered it a good day’s work if they separated a tourist from a gourde or two, and then returned to our hotel. We’d given up on getting a drink when we noticed that the hotel bar was open. The barman, a handsome man in his mid twenties, was chatting with one of his co-workers in Creole. As we approached he turned to us with a smile.

“Je m’appelle Gil,” he said, extending his hand in welcome.

I introduced myself and my companion.

“D’où venez vous?” he asked.

I told him we’d come from the United States and he asked if Hayley spoke French. When I said non he immediately addressed her in English.

“Is this your first time in Haiti?”

It is one of those nonsensical truths about the world that you often meet people in your travels who are far better educated or talented than yourself, people who should be lecturing you about your shortcomings, who are instead pouring you a drink or cleaning up after you.

Upon hearing her native tongue Hayley perked up and began to barrage him with questions about his country. As was her wont, she ignored any small talk and went straight for the larger issues.

“What do you think about the United Nations?” she asked.

He hesitated.

“I’m just wondering because we saw a UN compound on the way into town,” she added, taking a sip of Prestige beer. “Do Haitians like having them here?”

He looked around. You could almost see the disclaimer appear below his face: The views of the bartender do not necessarily represent those of the hotel or any of its affiliates…

“They have done some good things,” he said diplomatically.

“But…” Hayley prodded.

“But they should leave now,” he conceded.

“Why?”

“They are taking jobs that Haitians can do, and…” he glanced around once more.

Sensing his discomfort, I tried to change the subject.

“Did you feel the earthquake here?” I asked.

Both he and Hayley laughed.

“Port-au-Prince is over a hundred miles away,” Gil said.

“Yeah, James,” Hayley snickered, then leaned closer to the barman. “Anyway…”

So I shut up and let them continue.

Gil lowered his voice.

“They have killed our people,” he said. “Hundreds have been shot by the UN.” He noted our surprise and added, “You don’t hear about it in your press, but here it is common knowledge.”

This was explosive stuff. My inner journalist stirred to life and I decided to check on his claim. I discovered that what Gil said was not true. The reality, however, was worse. The UN had sent several international brigades into Haiti after the 2010 earthquake in order to provide aid and stability. One of these groups came from Nepal and brought, along with food and water, a deadly strain of cholera that ended up killing over 6,000 Haitians. Riots erupted when outraged locals learned who was to blame for the epidemic and over a dozen protesters were shot by UN security forces in the ensuing clashes. Despite its honorable intentions the international community was beginning to realize that getting involved with Haiti was like sleeping with a damaged girl: there was going to be drama.

I SAT ALONE in the dining room the next morning, waiting for Hayley to join me. Ceiling fans whirled noiselessly in the empty room while I jotted notes in my journal. The Imperial felt like one of those forgotten colonial enclaves you see moldering in hot countries the world over. The Imperial had never been a colonial haunt, it had simply gone straight to seed. The night before, Gil had made arrangements for us to be picked up by one of his friends on a motorcycle taxi. Our destination was the Citadelle LaFerrière. The Citadel is the largest fort in the Americas, constructed by Henri Christophe, a slave who became a general in Haiti’s war of independence against the French. After the war, the rebel general Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed himself Emperor. He was soon assassinated, but Henri Christophe followed his lead, proclaiming himself “King of Haiti, Sovereign of [the] adjacent islands, Destroyer of tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haïtian nation, Creator of her moral, political, and martial institutions, First crowned monarch of the New World, Defender of the faith, Founder of the Royal Military Order of Saint Henry.” He was an unpopular autocrat and, consumed by paranoia, took his own life.

Alexander arrived on his Haojin motorcycle and we climbed aboard. At first I wondered if the three of us might be too much for his Chinese bike, which was no more than a 250cc, but there were entire families packed onto similar bikes so I stopped worrying about it. Alexander, however, was in a bad mood. He managed to force an occasional smile but generally kept silent. I asked him to pull over at a convenience store so we could pick up some water and he followed us dutifully through the musty aisles without comment. I told him to grab something for himself. “C’est moi qui l’offre,” I told him. He scanned the cooler and pulled out a 22-ounce Red Bull, confirming my suspicion that he was simply hung over. We hopped back on his bike and Alexander wove his way expertly through Cap-Haïtien traffic, which was not as terrifying as I’d anticipated, not like Bangkok. Before long we were in the countryside and he opened the throttle. Hayley’s hair whipped against my face as we tore through a beautiful landscape of lush farmland.

It only took twenty minutes to reach the town of Milot at the base of the mountain where the Citadel was perched. Our white faces were spotted at once and an entrepreneurial assault was launched. Several motorcycles pulled up alongside us as we cruised through town and a young man shouted, “Bienvenu au Milot! Je m’appelle Joseph, votre guide pour La Citadelle!” We had found our guide, or rather, he had found us.

Alexander pulled into a parking area and seemed to enjoy our discomfort as we staggered backwards under a press of guides and merchants waving everything from sodas to wooden swords in our faces. Joseph elbowed his way through the group and grabbed my arm.

“Vous vous me souvenez? Joseph! Suivez-moi!”

He led us to the ticket booth where Hayley and I bought our entrance tickets and then he pulled us away to introduce another motorcycle taxi driver, which he said would be necessary for the steep climb up the mountain. Wherever we went we were surrounded by a throng of people shouting at us in French. Hayley looked at me with an expression that said, “Do you know what’s going on here?” I asked Joseph how much his guide service would cost, but before he could answer there was a heightened chorus of excited voices.

“Forty dollars!” someone offered.

“Thirty dollars!” another countered.

“Twenty-five dollars!”

“I need a guide that speaks English,” I said.

There was a noticeable lull and once again Joseph stepped forward.

“I will give you an excellent tour,” he said in English, “for twenty dollars.”

I got back on Alexander’s bike and Hayley took her seat on the other. Joseph led the expedition from his own chariot and we roared away under the midday sun.

The road was a steep cobblestone path that nearly destroyed my spine, but what a view! Mountain ridges undulated down to the sea, which was green and indistinct from charcoal fires, while a heavy sun forced all clouds from the bright blue sky. As we came to the end of the road we were again surrounded by desperate merchants. I wanted to buy something. I wanted to help. But they were hawking cheap souvenirs; shoddy hats and wooden swords emblazoned with the words La Citadelle or I ♥ Haiti. I couldn’t bring myself to fork out for this shit.

As Hayley and I dismounted to walk the final kilometer to the fort we found ourselves accompanied by an entourage of donkey dealers.

“You need!” they said.

“Very far!”

“Very hot!”

“You tired!”

“Good price!”

Hayley relented and rented a donkey. “I didn’t want a fucking donkey,” she told me later. “I just wanted to get everyone off my back.”

And it worked. Once a sale had been made the rest of the troupe dissolved away.

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The fort is usually described as resembling the prow of a ship, and that is an accurate description. It rises above the hilltop like a battleship cresting a wave and it would not seem unnatural if the entire edifice suddenly plunged toward the sea. There isn’t much to distinguish one fort from another, and like chateaux along the Loire Valley they all share certain accoutrements. The Citadelle was no exception. There were high walls with small windows, massive cannons on swivels and pyramids of cannonballs, and a drawbridge. Built to withstand an assault from the colonial French army, it was never put to the test, either because the French lost interest or because the fort was considered impregnable. It certainly seemed impregnable to me with its thick walls, inaccessible location, and the fact that it afforded a 360-degree view of the surrounding valleys. Not to mention the fact that it was a sweltering climb to the top. Even the ladies who carried tubs of chilled soda – no less an effort than soldiers carrying arms – took frequent rest stops in the shade.

Joseph began his monologue and I quickly lost interest when I realized that his spiel amounted to little more than a verbatim reading of the free brochure for the site. That may not be precisely true, but it was certainly delivered with all the enthusiasm of a waiter listing the available choices of salad dressing. Hayley was kinder and listened his speech, leaving me free to wander the grounds.

On our way downhill we crossed paths with a contingent of UN workers huffing under the weight of their weapons. At first I thought it was admirable that these workers were taking an interest in local culture, but why bring rifles? I later discovered that because of its elevation the hilltop was used as a radio tower for the UN. The rifles were apparently just for show.

Alexander sped us back to Cap-Haïtien, from farmland to wasteland. Back at the hotel we handed over the agreed-upon sum plus a generous tip. Alexander took the money with a smile and shook my hand. As I started to walk away he called me back.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Regardez!” he said, pointing to the exhaust pipe on his motorcycle.

There was a small section where the chrome was black.  Then he pointed at my feet.  I lifted one of my sandals and saw that the sole had nearly burned through.  I’d been resting my foot on the hot surface the entire trip.

“I thought I smelled something,” I said.

Hayley gave a droll shake of her head.  “Consider yourself lucky.”

And that was the lesson I took with me from Haiti.

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2015 in Uncategorized