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


back cover



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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.


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.


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.


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.”


 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.


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.


“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.


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


La Ramie


I looked over my shoulder to see a young man in a scarf holding aloft a styrofoam cup. Our eyes met.

“…and orphans!” he added emphatically.

Behind him was a table with a couple of large thermos containers. A banner was flapping in the cold wind but I was pedaling too fast to read it. No matter, my girlfriend had already mentioned that there would be students on the University commons today, raising money for charity by selling one dollar cups of coffee. Poor Africa. An entire continent whose name was synonymous with suffering.

My girlfriend Hayley had gone back to college after an aborted first effort several years before which had left her exhausted and in debt. Now she was attending the University of Wyoming in Laramie. It had a decent Anthropology department and, perhaps more important to my girlfriend, it was cheap. The cost of living was also cheap in this dusty town on the high plains, but I couldn’t seem to find a job and soon realized that most of the local businesses were only interested in hiring attractive co-eds. In the end I settled for part-time work as a cafeteria server on campus (“You want fries with that?”). It paid the rent and put food on the table, but not much else.

The town olongf Laramie was named for the early nineteenth-century French trapper, Jacques La Ramie, who disappeared in the nearby mountains and was never heard from again. In its early days Laramie was like the Hollywood cliché of a lawless western town waiting for the man in the white hat to arrive and clean things up. It was run by three half-brothers who cowed the town through fear and violence, running crooked card games and demanding that settlers sign over their deeds or face the consequences. “Big” Steve Long, one of the brothers (and the corrupt town marshal), killed over a dozen men in gunfights. If that wasn’t villainous enough, they also ran a saloon known as the Bucket of Blood. The new sheriff arrived in 1868 and administered a rough justice by lynching them all.

In 1998 a different kind of lynching brought national attention to the town: the killing of Matthew Shepard. A University student, he was brutally beaten and left to die on the plains outside of town by two young hooligans who pretended to be gay in order to lure him into their car. Thematt incident resulted in the eventual passage of hate-crime legislation which bore the victim’s name, but it also brought out the crazies. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church made the trip to Wyoming to picket Matthew Shepard’s funeral with signs that read “AIDS Cures Fags” and “Matt in Hell”. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when, on another occasion while peddling through campus, I saw a small group of people holding a large sign that listed everyone who would burn in hell, homosexuals among them. They were only five or six in number, with an eight-year-old struggling to hold the unwieldy sign. They looked like extras from Little House on the Prairie with the men in suspenders and wide-brimmed farmer’s hats while the women wore bonnets and plain cotton dresses. This time I stopped and turned around.

“Have you people ever heard of Matthew Shepard?” I asked the group.

The nearest man broke his American Gothic pose and approached me with a smile. The rest of his clan became suddenly animated, closing around me and my bike for the not-to-be-missed opportunity to witness for the Lord. “Uh oh,” I thought.

“Yes,” he answered simply.

“Then you know that he was a student here?” I went on.


“And that he was killed because he was gay?”


I went in for the kill.

“So don’t you think your hateful rhetoric is inappropriate here?”

His eyes glossed over.

“God isn’t hateful. God is love,” he said, apparently perplexed.

I glanced at the sign, which was no longer wavering as the pre-pubescent God-botherer held it to my face with conviction and smirked at his first real faggot.

“Do you think Matthew Shepard is in hell now?” I asked, trying a different tack.


“So your God is a judgmental and spiteful God?”

He smiled tolerantly and nodded to one of his cohorts who produced a couple of brochures. Without another word he handed them to me and continued to beam happily. I was reminded of something I’d heard about the French, about how they regard a person who smiles too much as simple. I’d asked my mother about this and she’d confirmed it.

“Oh yes, that’s true. We make fun of people who smile for no reason. It’s not fair really, because Americans tend to smile a lot. But the French think that someone who smiles too much is an idiot.”

THE MOST DRAMATIC feature of Wyoming is its geology, and nowhere is this more evident than in Yellowstone. The hot spot that drives the Park’s thermal features originated farther west, on the Oregon-Nevada border. Some 16 million years ago the earth’s crust was sundered by a rare and unsettling event known as a flood basalt, in which a massive plume of magma detaches itself from the mantle and, like a lava lamp, slowly makes its way to the surface. Once it melts its way through the overlying crust and erupts the magma begins to ooze out over the surface, sometimes for thousands of years, dramatically altering the global environment. Some scientists believe there is a correlation between these rare events and mass extinctions. It was from this cataclysmic event that the Yellowstone hot spot was born, which continues to erupt in a desultory fashion every million years or so, punching through the earth’s crust as the continental plate moves over it. Looking at a map of volcanic eruptions over the intervening epochs one cannot help but think of some vast and hellish subterranean whale, surfacing periodically to spout fire and brimstone into a dismayed sky. Now there was a judgment day to get excited about.

Apart from that, life in Laramie was very much a snapshot of small-town America. Most people drove around in old pickups and lived in modest middle-class houses with trim lawns and white-picket fences. For me it might as well have been the moon. Right out of college I’d gone to work in a national park. I quickly fell into the seasonal lifestyle, moving from park to park while making the odd trip overseas. I lived out of my car and, occasionally, out of my backpack. Buying a house seemed absurd and children were the stuff of nightmares; they were something bad that happened to people who didn’t take the necessary precautions, like failing to wear a wreath of garlic when vampires are about. But now I was living in the midst of an unfamiliar suburban world and I’d lost the narrative of the national parks. Suddenly, there was no narrative at all.

This feeling of anomie was softened by the stories my girlfriend told me. She was studying Cultural Anthropology and would often relate the adventures of renowned ethnographers like Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss, and Margaret Mead, who spent time among isolated tribes of indigènes. I began to approach my new life in Laramie as a sojourn into the exotic as a participant/observer, but I quickly learned not to share my insights with Hayley because she would just roll her eyes and accuse me of cultural bias and insensitivity (“All I said was, that piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah…“). I found myself identifying with Napoleon Chagnon, an American anthropologist who was considered something of an enfant terrible in the scientific community. His willingness to try the hallucinogenic drug ebene when he was in the Amazon scandalized the missionaries, and more trouble ensued when his reports failed to comport with the sanitized narrative of the day that was being promulgated by his fellow anthropologists. The “noble savage” was no such thing. The savage, Chagnon discovered, was disturbingly like us.

MOST OF OUR NEIGHBORS were students, but the upstairs apartment had recently been rented to a meth addict who soon began knocking on our door.

“You have any DVDs I can borrow?” she asked in a raspy voice.

“No,” I lied.

“How ’bout your girlfriend?”

Hayley took over.

“Yes, I have some DVDs, but you can’t have them.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know you.”

“Aw c’mon, don’t be like that.”

“You just moved in,” Hayley explained. “For all I know you could be a meth addict.”

A few weeks later our neighbor disappeared, leaving behind nothing more than a few band-aids and scorch marks on the floor of her apartment, along with a month’s unpaid rent. She didn’t disappear completely though. One day Hayley and I spotted her in a thrift store as she was arguing with the clerk.

“This is a good sewing machine,” she rasped. “But it don’t have any thread. How ’bout giving me a break on the price?”

Hayley shook her head sympathetically when we left the store.

“You’re in pretty rough shape when you’re haggling for a better price at the Salvation Army,” she remarked.

Suddenly, working part time on the minimum wage didn’t seem so bad. Everyone we knew was in debt, either from college or drugs or the lousy economy. I began to think that I wasn’t the only one lacking a narrative, except in my case I was just treading water – most of these people were drowning. And so, after two years on the windblown plains of southeastern Wyoming, working a dead-end job and looking forward to nothing more liberating than Friday night happy hour, I realized that I had stumbled upon the new American Dream: bare subsistence.

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Posted by on October 12, 2014 in Uncategorized


La Baja

THE NEWS FROM MEXICO was rife with stories of beheadings as the drug war produced narcotraffickers as merciless as Aztec priests. None of this escaped the notice of my friends, who made sure to log their disapproval of my trip in advance in order to tut-tut with impunity over my headless corpse later. My girlfriend and I were planning to drive from Wyoming to Baja in her ancient Toyota, a vehicle that had previously belonged to a grandmotherly Floridian who’d taken care to decorate the interior with stickers of Jesus and Mary. They were optical stickers: if you looked at them from one angle you saw Jesus, and from another, Mary. One of the stickers – our favorite – was cracked and always looked like a bearded Mary. The mild paranoia that I was beginning to feel about this trip was further fueled by my boss, who hailed from Guadalajara and would make a point of periodically taking me aside to update me on the latest caveats about his country.

“Make sure all your papers are in order, like insurance and stuff, in case the federales pull you over, otherwise you’ll have to pay la mordida. And don’t buy cheap gas. Only buy premium. The cheap gas is, um, volatile.”

Oddly, the only ones who were cool with our idea of descending into the netherworld were my parents. Maybe they’d just grown accustomed to my periodic jaunts out of the country. More likely though, their concept of Mexico had ceased to evolve after the sixties, when trips south of the border brought to mind nothing more dangerous than “Montezuma’s Revenge”. In fact, the last time my parents went to Mexico was in 1967, and they’d gone to Baja as well (albeit no further than Ensenada, less than 80 miles from the US border, where the road ended). I was seven years old and brought back nothing but happy memories. One memory that stood out was when my older brother and I were playing on a rockymexico beach, setting off firecrackers. We attracted a few local kids who watched as we placed a small firecracker on a rock and lit it. As we moved a short distance away and crouched in the sand, a crab scuttled across the ledge and grabbed the smoking cylinder. It raised the explosive above its head triumphantly and backed into a crevice with its prize. We all exchanged surprised glances which quickly became smiles as we waited to see what would happen next. A sharp report came out of the recess, and when we reached inside we found nothing but a severed claw, still clutching the smoking remains of the firecracker. Our new friends looked at us with admiration and no doubt spoke of us in hushed tones later as los niños de la explosión. Those were the days.

Hayley, my girlfriend, just wanted to get out of Laramie. She was in her senior year at the University and hadn’t been able to do any traveling in years. She’d watched with a feeling of betrayal as I’d flown to Morocco without her the previous fall, and gave me venomous looks whenever I broached the subject of travel. “Don’t go there,” she’d warn, referring to both the topic and the destination.

At last, with the advent of Christmas break, we had the time to take a trip together. Limited only by a lack of funds, we settled upon Mexico by rattletrap car.

We reached Las Vegas on the first day after twelve hours behind the wheel. It’s a testament to how much we wanted to get away from Laramie that we put so much distance between ourselves and that town so quickly, but it wasn’t until southern Utah that we saw the last of the snow. More than any passage of time or state boundaries, this demarcation felt like the first tangible evidence of our successful escape. It also ushered in our first mechanical issue when smoke started pouring out from under the hood. Realizing that I would be responsible for half of any repair work the car might require on this trip, I had another bad moment to go along with the headless corpse scenario.

We spent the night in a hotel off the Strip, and the following morning we drove to an auto parts store for a free diagnosis. It looked like a small piece of tubing that connected the radiator to the overflow tank had snapped off, allowing fluid to drip on the hot engine. The salesman confirmed that this was indeed the problem. We were relieved.

“So you’ll need a new radiator,” he continued. “Cost about five hundred dollars with labor.”

“But it’s just a little piece!” Hayley objected.

“Yeah, but the radiator is all one part,” he explained, “so if a piece breaks off, you gotta replace the whole thing.”

All the savings we’d counted on by driving instead of flying suddenly vanished before our eyes. Hayley’s mood plummeted while I put on my mopey face. Even the crack-heads who were ambling on the sidewalk seemed to be sneering at us. We did the only thing we could: we found a bar and started drinking. After a couple of rounds Hayley became confident again.

“I can’t believe I need a whole new radiator. All I need is a piece of metal tubing and some epoxy. I can fix it myself!”

And she did.

With ten dollars worth of geegaws from the auto parts store she jury-rigged an ugly but effective bandage for the old Toyota and we were soon back on the road.

“Do you think it’ll hold through Baja?” I asked.

“I bought an extra plastic tube in case this one doesn’t hold,” she said.

Plastic? Won’t it melt?”

She shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out.”

We drove across the dry wasteland of Nevada and into the equally arid high desert of southern California until we ran out of America. Traffic slowed at the crossing station and we inched forward for the better part of an hour until at last we were released into Mexico. The road was flanked by concrete barricades and we could see nothing of the border town of Tijuana. As we scaled a steep hill on the outskirts of town the border fence came into view, tumbling all the way into the Pacific. All such barriers speak of exclusion; keeping the other out. I was glad to put it behind us and wondered if the people who lived within sight of this barrier felt insulted by its daily and unvarying snub.

American farmers and industrialists promoted Mexican immigration in the early 20th century in order to benefit from the cheap labor it represented. That changed during the Great Depression when the now-familiar refrain about Mexican laborers taking jobs from Americans and draining the welfare system was articulated. Mexican communities in the US were devastated as a forced repatriation program saw over 500,000 Mexicans deported from the United States. This policy was reversed during World War II when cheap Mexican labor came back in vogue. The Bracero program made it possible for Mexicans to work legally as short-term contract workers. Illegal immigration continued, however, since more people wanted to work in the US than were allotted by the Bracero program. This led to a joint US-Mexico program with the unfortunate name of “Operation Wetback”. Because of this punitive program over a million illegal immigrants were deported, with many of them sent deep into the interior of Mexico – regardless of where the workers came from – so as to make further attempts at re-entry into the United States as difficult as possible. This particular element reminded me of certain wildlife management policies I’d encountered while working in Yellowstone National Park. “Problem” bears who’d become habituated to humans and would frequent campsites in search of food were caught, tagged, and flown deep into the forest where it was hoped they would readjust to their natural way of life. Even in wildlife management circles this was considered a poor alternative to dealing with the real problem: our inability – or unwillingness – to share the park.

We flew down Highway 1. There was almost no traffic as the hazy beach rolled past and the sun sank toward the Pacific. It was getting late and we were beat, so we decided to stop at the first town on the map: Rosarito. It wasn’t much of a town, with broken sidewalks and boarded-up shops, but we were happy to finally be on foreign soil and were looking forward to our first meal in Mexico. As we strolled along the main drag we attracted the attention of panhandlers, all of them American. Their faces were hopeful and predatory as they sidled up to Hayley to give their pitch. It seemed odd that in Mexico, a far poorer country than the United States, all the panhandlers should hail from the north. All their stories were the same, too: “I just need a few dollars for bus fare to Cali…” But when I asked how they’d gotten stranded, or even why they’d come to Mexico in the first place, they became guarded and evasive. They gave me nothing and I reciprocated. Even after we’d begged off they continued to tail us in silence until the lights of a taqueria offered a respite. My boss had been very thorough in his caveats about Mexicans, but he’d neglected to warn us about the norteamericanos.

More than twenty years ago I’d bought a guidebook to Baja. It lay moldering in my parent’s attic for decades until its rediscovery on my last visit home. The same guide now provided information on this trip. The section on Rosarito was filled with the kind of gushing enthusiasm one now hears in reference to the up-and-coming resorts along the Riviera Maya: A few years ago, Rosarito was a quiet fishing village with a few taco stands… Until it was “discovered” by Hollywood stars and surfers and, eventually, the rest of North America. But judging from the condition of the town, and the fact that twenty years later prices were less than those quoted in the guidebook, Rosarito had fallen on hard times. According to the latest news stories, the peninsula was suffering from a one-two punch: fear of drug violence and the lingering effects of the financial crisis of 2007. It was the old aphorism at work: When America catches cold, Mexico catches pneumonia. Only this time, we were refusing to visit her sickbed.

The following day Hayley and I went to the tourist agency in Rosarito to get our passports stamped. The Free Zone, which extends from the American border to Ensenada, allows U.S. and Canadian tourists staying less than seven days to visit Mexico without having to obtain a tourist card. Since we would be traveling farther and staying longer, we had to pay $20 for the tourist card. Not a problem, except that the tourist agency was closed. A policewoman noticed us lingering at the door of the agency and informed us that we would have to drive on to Ensenada and get our tourist cards there.

So we moved further down the Baja, a peninsula that was for the first few decades after the Conquest an almost mythical region, luring the Spanish into exploring what they thought was a vast island paradise “peopled by black women, without any man among them.” The Spaniards were constantly embarking on quixotic adventures, seeking cities of gold, fountains of youth, and islands of receptive women. They wanted the adolescent fairytale: money, sex, and an endless youth to enjoy it all.

Traffic came to a standstill just before Ensenada because a part of the road – the entire cliff, really – had sagged several feet toward the ocean. Police were manning the spot where vehicles had to crawl up an incline to get back on the highway. The day after our passage the entire cliff collapsed into the Pacific, taking the road with it. I began to feel like a visitor in a haunted house, and the malevolent spirits had just slammed the door shut behind us.

Ensenada seemed like a nice enough town though, situated on a curve of All Saint’s Bay and surrounded by low, friendly hills. Hayley and I stopped by the Immigration Office and presented our passports to a white-haired man sitting behind a glass partition. He stamped mine, but handed Hayley’s back after giving it a cursory glance.

No bueno,” he said.

My girlfriend looked at her passport in disbelief.

¿Cómo?” she managed.

The agent shook his head sadly and waved away her attempts to hand it back to him.

No. No es bueno, señora.”

“But it’s a brand new passport!” she protested.

There was a lingering, uncomfortable silence before the agent took the passport once again and opened it. He pointed to the signature line.

Necesita una firma,” he grinned.

Hayley signed her passport and the agent genially stamped it, chuckling at his good joke.

Finding a hotel was easy once we learned to avoid the places that advertised rock-bottom prices, as those rates were “by the hour”.

Up to this point the trip hadn’t really jelled into anything. We were simply moving from place to place. Over time I’d come to expect my overseas adventures to have a theme, like the ancient history theme while trekking to Mayan ruins in Central America, or trying to be a freelance writer in southeast Asia. The theme for this trip became apparent the following day when Hayley and I drove over three hundred miles to Bahía de Los Ángeles on the Sea of Cortés. The theme was the apocalypse.

Truth be told, this theme had manifested itself slightly earlier in Las Vegas, when Hayley and I passed an evening by attending a show at Planet Hollywood called Zombie Burlesque, “a musical for the zombie apocalypse.” The crumbling town of Rosarito was another manifestation. As we drove south through deserted towns and long stretches of roadway specked with dead dogs and shredded tires, the only figures were motionless locals who watched our passing with dull interest. They gave the impression of patiently waiting for a blowout, a mechanical failure, or for a jury-rigged geegaw in the radiator to melt in the heat. At Cataviña, where we initially planned to stop for the night, the town (“in the middle of nowhere” according to our guidebook) offered nothing but one overpriced lodge and a couple of abandoned gas stations. There were a few enterprising zombies by the roadside, guarding a stockpile of barrels with a sign in English advertising GAƧ, but we were too smart for that ploy and drove on.

75As the sun reached the western horizon we found ourselves passing through a cactus forest. Strange trees topped with Seuss-like tufts bent themselves in yogic postures among the cacti. These were boojum trees, named after the animal in Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark, which caused people to “vanish away”. As darkness fell no lights came on anywhere around us. We traveled in silence along the lonesome road that connected one side of the peninsula to the other. At last the road began to drop toward the sea and a few lights appeared in the distance, huddled at land’s end. One of the lights signaled a small hotel and we gratefully stopped for the night at the humble outpost of Bahía de Los Ángeles.

As we strolled along the beach the following day it was apparent that the zombies had already cleaned out this part of the peninsula. The town had gone to seed: shuttered cafes shared real estate with empty RV hookup sites and a bay devoid of boats. The tourist office was an empty shell. An extinct volcanic cone rose over the extinct town. There was a large, octagonal building close to shore that might have been the scene of a last stand by the locals. Roughly mushroom-shaped with a wrap-around balcony, the former hotel still preserved an air of elegance. However, the tattered chain-link fence, boarded-up doors, and smashed windows testified to the futile last-ditch efforts of the occupants to keep out the hordes of brain-eaters. Other decrepit buildings along the beach still advertised cold beer and ice cream, but the birds took no notice. Hayley and I stopped into a small museum a couple of blocks inland, mainly because it was one of the few places open, and spoke with the American expat inside.

“Yes, times are bad right now,” she confirmed with a sad smile. “The recession is still hurting us and all the media talks about in the United States is the drug war. There’s no trouble here. It’s very safe. But what can you do?”

She informed us that there was no bank in town. No ATM, either. A few locals drifted in to chat, exchanging news of the latest attrition rates among their cohort and why it was taking so long to get cell phone service in town.

Mañana, they tell us. It’s always mañana,” they lamented.

We bought a bottle of Baja wine and settled into our room for the night. From our window we could see black vultures circling the lovely bay.

Leaving Bahía was a relief. It seemed to be one of those places where you either fled the decay or became a part of it. Crossing the peninsula once again we reached the shores of the Pacific and entered the Vizcaíno Desert. Already flat and featureless the landscape took a stark turn as black cacti appeared by the roadside, like remnants of a nuclear holocaust. The apocalyptic imagery was beginning to pile up, which was oddly comforting because it confirmed the aptness of the theme I’d settled upon for this trip.

The town of Guerrero Negro lay just across the 28th parallel, which divides Baja into northern and southern regions. Our guidebook noted that the town was “renowned for having the world’s largest evaporative salt works.” Perhaps “renowned” was too strong a word. It implied – like “famous” or “celebrated” – that people all over the world immediately nod with recognition at the town’s mention and say things like, “Ah, the evaporative salt works of Guerrero Negro, where the Salt Yeti still prowls…” However, next to the blasted wasteland of the Vizcaíno Desert, this quiet town lying a short distance from Scammon’s Lagoon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a charming and welcome haven.

One hundred years before the salt works were built, the nearby lagoons attracted another kind of industrialist: the whaler. In about five years these ships decimated the gray whale population, which came here to breed and calve. The outcome was predictable once these shallow lagoons were discovered by “the all-grasping western world”, in the words of Herman Melville. The lagoon has since returned to its former condition as a safe harbor for these cetaceans, albeit under the near-constant gaze of sightseers. The next morning, Hayley and I would be joining their ranks. It was my girlfriend’s birthday and I had the good fortune of being able to offer her an excursion on foreign waters to see a storied creature of the deep. A better gift than flowers, I thought.

We dressed warmly for the three-hour tour around Scammon’s Lagoon in a Panga outboard, a type of boat popular with both fishermen and Somali pirates. The day was cloudless and warm, the extra clothes were for protection against the cool breeze coming off the water. Joining us in the boat were ten other landlubbers who staggered aboard under the passive gaze of Luis, our captain, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Hugo Chavez, the late president of Venezuela. After making sure we all had our lifejackets on, Luis backed his craft away from shore and into the ruffled waters of the lagoon’s interior. Once the shore merged with the indistinct horizon we had nothing to look at but the sparkling waves. It was impossible to gauge our speed as we cut through the surface of this inland sea, and we fell into an easy reverie. Although the average depth of the lagoon was no more than 40 feet, there were far deeper channels cut by the fast-running currents below us. It was in these darker chambers one imagined the whales; lurking in silence, accustomed to the deep but cognizant of the light above. They were intelligent creatures and one had to wonder how they regarded us; if they saw us as gods. After all, we ruled the world where they drew their breath. They didn’t understand us, yet they didn’t seem to fear us either. I read about how they would occasionally approach the boats to take a closer look, the parents allowing their young to be touched by our alien hands. All this after we’d slaughtered them for centuries.

scammon's lagoonIt wasn’t long before Luis pointed from the stern, indicating a dark shape breaking the surface nearby. As it disappeared below the waves I could still see the exhaled mist of its breath lingering in the air. My first whale. The next one that came into view was even more theatrical, rising vertically to the surface like an immense, barnacle-encrusted buoy, pausing dramatically to scan the horizon before slipping back into the deep. We spent the rest of the afternoon chasing footprints: surface riffles left by the powerful up and down movements of their tails as the animals propelled themselves below us. The whales eluded us for most of the afternoon when suddenly we noticed a long, mottled shape gliding alongside the boat a few feet away. It matched our speed exactly, becoming more distinct as it ascended. Finally it broke the surface and spouted, revealing a black skin covered with clusters of star-like barnacles. Then just as quickly it dropped back into the sparkling sea.

“Did you see its eye?” Hayley shouted.

Everyone watched, fascinated, as the whale slowly cruised away, merging with the blue-green depths.

As if we’d received the benediction we had come for, the occupants of our boat seemed to relax. Like judgmental Old Testament gods we nodded to each other in silent agreement that this species should not be allowed to perish from the face of the earth. It had shown proper obsequiousness and had, perhaps, sacrificed enough. There was no need to be petty.

Sated, we parted ways, each striving through the seemingly infinite blueness to our common end.

Once more we ducked into the Toyota and left town. Again we crossed to the Sea of Cortés, continuing our zig-zag course down the peninsula. At the seaside town of Santa Rosalia the hills were blanketed with rubbish, as if the wind had carried all the plastic bags and other airborne debris from the mainland and deposited it here. It was New Years’ Day and everything was shut down, further adding to the bleak setting. We ventured onward and I began to wonder, in the words of Gertrude Stein, if there was any there there. At any rate we would soon have to start heading back; the halfway point of our vacation was fast approaching and we had a lot of ground to recover.

The town of Mulegé offered herself to us, sprawled along the banks of its namesake river. We drove slowly through the narrow streets of the quiet town, then followed the river to the sea as vultures noted our passage from atop crooked telephone poles. Along the way we spotted a row of lovely cottage-style houses lining the banks, and then saw the ruins of another row of cottages closer to the river that had been swept away in a hurricane. All the remaining houses were for sale.

We parked at a rocky beach where the Sea of Cortés washed aimlessly into Conception Bay. A cool breeze was blowing the waves ashore as we got out of the car and made our way to the water’s edge. Gazing past the breakers to the blue beyond we took our seaward peep and sighed. I found myself strangely satisfied, lingering pointlessly on the wet rocks as my girlfriend ran away from the stray dogs who chased her down the beach. I felt as though I were re-enacting the final scene in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Childhood’s End, when the earth is destroyed by its children as curious aliens watch from a safe distance, wondering what it all means. Our mission over, we, like Karellen the alien commander, turned our vessel around and started the long journey home.

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Posted by on June 20, 2014 in Uncategorized


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The Intangible Empire: Notes from a Vagrant Life

The Intangible Empire: Notes from a Vagrant Life

Here’s my most recent publication, featuring stories that were first posted on this blog. As my friend used to say, “Lots of twists and turns in life and still no end in sight…”

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Posted by on June 29, 2013 in Uncategorized