Oscillations – Bolivia

Strong oscillations of fever and chills are swinging me hard and fast on the 6th floor of the Hotel Milton. The effects of the sun get worse the higher you rise from sea level and La Paz, Bolivia is the world’s highest capital at 13,000 feet. Consumed by the heat, I threw off the covers and in the next few moments I’m suffering teeth chattering chills as the sweat drenched sheets cool down. The ambivalence of hot or cold makes this illness twice as bad. Origins of this illness were a mystery, but I had a relatively strong suspicion that it came from the street food I ate on Calle Illampu a couple of days before. Street food is the best stuff you can eat or so I thought. It’s a long standing travel theory of mine that street food is generally safe because these folks are in the business of feeding their neighbors.  It’s hard to play fast and loose with food preparation when your customers aren’t anonymous. I just hoped that when Terry and Steven returned and found my body that they would agree on a Hemingway-esque story about how I died, preferably one that left out the punchline of “Yeah, he shit himself to death”.  Maybe they could even embellish some details…. I would have liked that.

* * * *

The central municipality of La Paz makes its home at 13,000 feet, but the airport is even higher at nearly 16,000. Being transplanted from environs closer to sea levels to half the height of cruising airliners made staying vertical in the Bolivian Customs and Immigrations line a genuinely monolithic struggle. The government officials were, as one might expect in a third world country,  fulfilling their duties at a glacial pace. Two hours ticked by from the time we landed, until our visas were stamped, allowing us to legally enter South America’s most impoverished country and into a taxi where we continued to gasp for air. It was 4:30 am.

Descending from the thin heights of El Alto to the thick, inky depths of the city proper was an astonishing experience in night gazing. It was as dark as coal with an immaculate, star filled sky and no discernible delineation of the heaven and earth. Where land should have started on the horizon there was only more perfect darkness punctuated by the occasional, solitary bright light from buildings perched on the sides of completely invisible mountains. It was nearly 360 degrees of stars and I could make up my own temporary constellations in those star filled mountains and they might have even had interesting names if only my brain weren’t so addled. Thankfully, as we lost altitude, we gained oxygen. Sweet oxygen that was full, rich and satisfying to the lungs, satiating to my brain and the rest of my tired body. Only then was I confident that I wasn’t malfunctioning in some way.

After securing rooms at the Hotel Milton, we slowly marched, especially up the stairs, to lapse forward into well deserved sleep. I woke up after a few hours to a gorgeous detonation of color and hue. On the street below blankets were spread out and the locals were selling oranges, lemons, handicrafts and housewares.

Saturday is a market day in La Paz and the next couple of hours were spent strolling by women wearing traditional highland indigenous fashions hawking their wares. “Hawking” might be a charitable description since these women were generally placid and just waiting for customers to walk up and buy. It was a nice change from most of my travels in the developing world where the autumn color of my skin subjects me to infinite, optimistic assertions of “I make you good deal!”.

 

Yeah, I bet you will buddy.

Once again my friend Steven Newman was with me as well as another friend, and fellow software engineer, named Terry Knowlton. Whereas I get really weary of the constant wails of locals trying to chat me up in order to part the fool from his money, Steven always has a smile and ready conversation. He isn’t afraid to look like an idiot, something I admire greatly. Terry, has a sterling resemblance to Hunter S Thompson when accessorized with the right hat, sunglasses and brandishing a Cohiba and that alone was an interesting spectacle. I wasn’t sure where he was in this street scene, and as it turns out later it didn’t matter because, as we later discovered, Terry possesses the navigation qualities of a spring Capistrano swallow. Steven was easy to find: a gentle, red headed giant making conversation with a cross legged indigenous vendor who was smiling and nodding her head because she was either agreeing with his witty banter or, more likely, was just nodding her head affirmatively at babble she didn’t understand which is the default mode of street sellers worldwide. It was a nice scene and I was reminded that success only comes when you’re open to others. I simultaneously resented and admired his cheerfulness, something that happens often when we travel together.

Steven and I turned a corner and witnessed a beautiful sight. It was a beautiful, bubbling stockpot with fresh chicken, potatoes, carrots and local spices all rolling in a boil and we only got hungrier the more we looked at it.  The elderly lady only asked three bolivianos a bowl and it was the best tasting 43 cents I have ever spent. The three bolivianos turned into six which later turned into nine.

 

Lost in our ecstacy of soup neither of us noticed Terry until he said “Hey guys”. He had, not surprisingly, found us. I expected him to say “We can’t stop here, this is bat country”. Again, the resemblance was impeccable.

* * * *

It’s 8:00 am. Where is Jesus? You know? Son of God?

I’ve never been this high without some sort of fuselage around me. Le Cumbre sits at a lung sapping five kilometers above sea level and light headed is about the last feeling I want at this moment. Jesus is here somewhere in the form of a statue with outstretched arms and I’d be happy to hug him back if I could only find him. I’m not generally a religious man, but a word with Jesus might be a good idea before I go screaming down, and hopefully not off of, the Yungas Road on my bicycle. The Yungas Road is better known as El Camino de la Muerte; the road of death.

It is not a marketing ploy, friend.

Before alternatives, it was estimated that 200 – 300 people a year die on the single track road that’s only about 50 miles long. In one year alone, 25 vehicles plunged off the road and into the arms of their savior. That’s one every two weeks. It’s easy to see why the Inter American Development bank christened it the world’s most dangerous road back in 1995.

There we stood on top of Le Cumbre pass, astride our bicycles with the snow coming down and Jesus was nowhere to be seen. Time to call out the celestial understudy: Pachamama, the goddess revered by the Andean people. With a touch of the pure grain alcohol to our lips and a little spilled on our tires, as is the custom when invoking Pachamama’s blessing, it was time to go.

We followed each other single file down the wet, frozen highway and for the first 10 minutes everything was fine.

 

And then the sleet started.

 

I was hoping that the descent out of the snow would be quick, but conditions turned treacherous as I pulled down my goggles, which were fogging up, and the ice started pelting my corneas (ouch!, ouch!, ouch!).

Was this ever a mistake.

No way was I was going to risk a catastrophe by trying to put my goggles back on so the regular process was to look ahead, endure the hideous sting of the ice pellets hitting my eyeballs and look away, hopefully not to wreck in the process. Descending down into the coca country, that’s how it went until we reached the police checkpoint where it would be quickly confirmed that we weren’t carrying drugs. Our collective gloves had small holes in them which rendered our hands to a solid, frozen state and it was hard to even know when I was successfully pushing the brakes hard enough to stop. Snow and ice by this time were melting on us and in cahoots with the water spray from the road we were saturated to our cores. Terry pushed his hands into his pants to warm up to which the tour guide, a quick witty Aussie name Marcos smiled and said, “Now’s not the time to be playing with yourself mate!”.  It got a pretty good laugh, but Terry was really feeling the pain of numbness, as we all were.

Only the first 14 kilometers of the road are paved and by the time we had descended that far the precipitation had stopped, but we were still sodden. The heavy, saturated coveralls were a heavy and uncomfortable liability and they had to come off. That felt countless tons better, but we were still waterlogged. Thankfully that would dry out during our ride relatively quickly all except for one part: our feet. The capillary action of our socks managed to bring the water all the way down into our shoes resulting in our feet becoming, and remaining nearly, 100% soaked until the end of the ride with every pedal downstroke, emphasizing an uncomfortable squish.

A few kilometers more of squishing along and at the top of the road we stopped. Before us lay the challenge. It was a thin brown line stretching into the distance, hugging the green mountainside.  It’s the longest and trickiest part of the road, a skinny dirt track of a road, about eight feet wide, with a 90 degree (sometimes less) cliff on your right and dropoffs to your left with no guard rails. Sheer drop offs that measure over 2000 feet where were were now. I was pretty confident in my brakes at this point and had the ride started here, I might have been more apprehensive. Regarding the Yungas road, I understand the “why”, as this was the only link between La Paz and Coroico for many years, but it’s the “how” that intrigued me.

* * *

Google “List of Bolivian military victories” and you don’t get much if anything. Bolivians are the Bad News Bears of the Latin American military league. With the exception of the war to gain independence from Spain (which they wouldn’t have won without the help of Colombian and Peruvian forces), Bolivia has been a naively optimistic country when it comes to military battles. Bolivia’s record is 1-4 on the battlefield and the last war was the most bloody.

The Chaco war between Bolivia and Paraguay was fought from 1932 to 1935 and the whole thing was about, and I know this will surprise you, oil.  Bolivia and Paraguay have one thing in common, they are the only landlocked countries in South America and that made getting arms something of a hardship since both countries depended on the goodwill of their neighbors’ access to the ocean. Both had previously had access to the water and both lost their access due to military conflict. Bolivia had a relatively lucrative mining industry and certainly a much bigger army than Paraguay so you might think that this would be a fairly easy walk in the park.

Nope.

External oil interests were convinced that there were oil deposits in the sparsely populated, hot and semi-aridlowlands of Gran Chaco, as area extending into both Bolivia and Paraguay. Echoing what is a modern routine, international corporations jumped into the fray and financially backed their dogs in the fight: Royal Dutch Shell funded Paraguay and Standard Oil stood behind Bolivia.  That tended to level the playing field a bit more, but there were two reasons why Paraguay would ultimately win the war. One, they were just plain better fighters. Two, having lost nearly half of its territory to Brazil and Argentina in the Paraguayan War, it viewed dominance of the Chaco as its last viable economic source and in no way could they allow that to fall to Bolivia. Paraguay was hungry.

And it didn’t fall to Bolivia, but it was a bloody war; the bloodiest of all South American conflicts with some estimates placing the dead at 130,000.

That brings us to the Yungas Road, Bolivia used the captured Paraguayan prisoners of war to construct it and it claimed hundreds of Paraguayan lives, but the lives being lost now are overwhelmingly Bolivian and they number in the thousands. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t claim a few American ones and we took off hoping to appreciate their sacrifice.

This was certainly a much trickier ride because the beginning of the road was quite muddy and momentary panics set in as I hit my brakes and still managed to slide a bit. It was short lived stretch of road to my relief and and it turned more into a gripping and gravelly roadway.

Over 2500 feet, nearly half a mile, is how far down the chasm plunged and I got queazy just looking over the edge. That doesn’t compare to what happened to some political prisoners though back in the 1980s. Latin America is full of political brutality and Bolivia is no exception. We were at a pass known as Martyrs of Democracy and it was here where several members of the opposition party met their end.  They were simply thrown off the cliff to plunge to their deaths.

Yes. Just like that.

That’s the way brutality works in Latin America. During the Guatemalan civil war, opponents were often taken up in helicopters and dropped into either volcanoes or into the open ocean.

Really? Does it have to be THAT bad?

 

Latin American conflicts remind us that sometimes fictional people are more real than actual humans who live and breathe.

 

For as big balled and hairy chested as “cycling down the road of death” sounds, you’d have to be pretty inept to plunge off the side, at least as far as bicycles are concerned, yet it has happened on a few occasions. Where motorized transportation is concerned is where it gets a little complicated. You drive on the left when coming down the road. This allows drivers to get a better handle on whether or not they are getting too close to the edge of the road. If you happen to be the driver descending the Yungas when coming upon an ascending vehicle, there is an added complication: you have to back up to a spot where the other vehicle may pass. Count me out on this. Even if you manage to stay on the road, there is a good chance that the road will crumble beneath you if you are too close to the edge putting you on St. Peter’s roll call. Drivers with years of experience have taken themselves and passengers to their deaths underestimating this.

 

When writing about the descent, it’s hard to come up with adjectives to convey the whole experience. It was indeed, an excellent ride and one that I highly recommend if you are willing to take the chance.  At the end of it all there’s a nonstop spaghetti buffet at the monkey preserve. If cycling 40 miles of this doesn’t do enough for you…..well…..

 

My first ziplining experience was in the Peten jungle of Guatemala and that was at a comparatively kindergarten sized 120 feet above the jungle floor and because you can’t see down to the actual floor, you don’t really get a sense of how high up you happen to be.  The Flying Fox completely dwarfed that experience by a factor of 10. You fly from peak to peak, above the valley floor at a height of 120 ** stories **. Speeds reach up to 60 mph and unlike the jungle zipline you can see

all

the

way

down.

 

There’s also another experience you get with the Flying Fox that catapults you from the ranks of merely crazy to the clinically insane: the superman harness. It’s a full body harness where your back gets strapped to the rollers that speed you down the wires.  It’s as close to bird like flying as the bi-pedaled get and if you find yourself in a suitably and mentally impaired state as I did apparently, and are comfortable with the possibility of lavishly wetting yourself with fear, excitement (or something else), I highly recommend it. I own a GoPro and decided to video the whole thing so that you, dear reader, may experience this for yourself.

 

Adrenaline flush adventures like skydiving and bungee jumping are not options for me now that I only have one kidney. It’s another essay as to why I don’t have my left kidney any longer but ole “lefty” was remembered and fondly thought of on this trip. Bolivia was country number 48 in my travels, and it was bittersweet getting my buzz on without lefty cheering me on and filtering the impurities in my system. I say that with all seriousness because while some people collect spoons and christmas ornaments wherever they go, I get drunk. I can hear the eye rolls now but this is harder than it sounds. I have been completely hammered in the bone dry Sahara in the Islamic republic of Mauritania and that is not an easy thing to do.

 

We survived the road of death again, this time going up as bus passengers and, of course, hammered. No, sledge-hammered.

 

***

At four AM Newman banged on my my door. “I don’t have an alarm and I thought I’d see if you were up” he said, smiling, chipper and ready to go. I had been up for about two hours when I felt a heaviness in my stomach as dense as a neutron star. A heaviness that progressed to diarrhea and if that wasn’t bad enough, the worst projectile vomiting I’d ever endured. We were supposed to start the three day, arduous Choro Trek through Bolivia’s Andean Cordillera Real and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it if this kept up. When I first started feeling ill I sent an email to my local friend Paul Osborne asking if he could get me Cipro and apparently something was lost in translation as he showed up with charcoal tablets. I quickly popped a couple.

 

We were supposed to begin at La Cumbre again and maybe if I had spoke with Jesus or Pachamama I would have made it. Sadly it was not to be.

 

In the taxi, Paul was sitting in the passenger seat and I was behind the driver, Steven was in the middle and Terry was on the other window. I would occasionally have to roll the window down and lurch, but one time too many I was not fast enough and managed to soak the car door, my arm and the back of the driver’s seat. Obviously I could not go through with the trek in this condition and when we got to La Cumbre I gave the guys my part of the expedition gear. I kept thinking “I could have made it” as I watched them walk away but in retrospect, it would have been a terrible idea.

 

The taxi driver didn’t seem at all upset that I ruined his taxi and he shuttled me back to the Hotel Milton free of charge.

 

I slowly plodded my way up to the sixth floor and the bed was so very hot from the high sun baking it all morning. It felt unbelievably nice and that’s where I collapsed into deep sleep and only got more ill.

 

The problem with having one kidney is that you can’t just take every drug someone hands you, NSAIDS like aspirin, are a definite no no. In hindsight, my desperate request to Paul to bring me Cipro was a terrible idea. I didn’t even know if I could take it so I emailed my nephrologist at Johns Hopkins.

 

And waited…

And waited…

And waited…

 

The waiting went on for a day and a half and my sickness only grew. By this time I would drift off to sleep, have a weird hallucinatory dream and wake up either frozen or incinerated. While I don’t remember precisely if my mother was riding a camel or a pterodactyl, the dreams’ vivid nature is something I’ll never forget. As far as sicknesses go in my travels, and I’ve had many, this one was a doozy.

 

My nephrologist’s email had great news, Cipro was fine and I wasted no time asking the front desk where I could find a Pharmacia. Través de la carretera; across the road. The cost for a 1 week treatment ? $1.75, and the effect was near immediate. Finally rest, finally no strange dreams. After a day of treatment, I was feeling well enough to go out into La Paz proper.

I never made it to Cordillera Real to go trekking so I’ll always have an excuse to go back.

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Une pluie de Sharp

Il pleuvait comme un fou quand je baissai dans le restaurant. Il n’était pas
la meilleure partie de la ville pour être en, mais il était proche de la gare.
J’avais faim, il était tard et c’était le seul endroit ouvert.
Le serveur était un homme âgé, un gars qui se cherche distingué. il
attention à sa toilette et vous pourriez dire qu’il était fier de son
travail. Il était hors de propos. Vous pouvez même l’appeler Garcon.

Il n’y avait personne d’autre dans le restaurant, sauf pour moi et il
se précipita et assisté à moi comme si je serais la seule gratuité de
le soir. Venez pour penser à lui, je pourrais très bien été.
J’ai commandé un gin tonic et il apporté de nouveau à moi en peu de temps
avec un panier de petits pains.
Le crépitement de la pluie terne devenait aiguë quand la porte s’ouvrit et je me sentais un
bref coup de vent Novembre. Elle marchait à travers la porte, tout à fait
littéralement un sac de dame avec un sac poubelle comme un poncho. Elle était petite,
plus comme le garçon et ses cheveux étaient blonds et emmêlés. Il n’a pas
semblent être dérangé du tout par sa présence. Elle semblait inoffensif
assez et que je n’étais pas inquiet, comme elle se dirigea vers ma table.
Elle s’assit, clignant des yeux plusieurs fois et regarda autour de
d’abord au pain dans le panier, puis à ce qui restait de mon gin
et tonique: quelques glaçons, un peu d’eau et de chaux.
Elle marmonna quelque chose dans un volume faible, je ne pouvais pas le faire sortir.
Pensant qu’elle pourrait avoir faim j’ai poussé le panier de petits pains à son égard
et elle semblait désintéressé. Elle murmura à nouveau et j’ai dit “Quoi?”.
Elle a explosé dans une inquisition incohérente: «Avez-vous votre baiser
famille ?! Avez-vous baisez votre famille ?! Le faites vous ?! Avez-vous? !!!! “. Elle attrapa
mon verre et bu ce qui restait et a déclaré: «Une boisson et je serai bien
pouvez-vous m’aider? “.
Le serveur est venu et l’a escorté jusqu’à la porte, tout en elle
répétais “J’ai juste besoin d’un verre”. Le serveur nous a dit “Je suis désolé Hillary
mais vous devez quitter “et la pluie grandi forte encore, et alors ternes
la porte fermée.
Je me dirigeai vers la porte et j’ai vu la dame alors qu’elle s’éloignait dans le
froid, la pluie battante. Le serveur nous a dit “Je suis désolé ce qui s’est passé”. il
n’était certainement pas très haut sur ??mon échelle de Richter dans la mesure étrange
rencontres allé. J’ai juste dit “Donc, vous la connaissez ?. Son nom est Hillary?”
Le garçon se tourna vers moi et dit: «Oui, je ne sais d’elle. Il ya plusieurs années, j’ai
le piano joué et Hillary chantaient. Nous avons fait cela pendant 17 ans, puis
un jour, elle a juste changé “.
Il regarda par la fenêtre et elle n’était plus en vue. Une lumière chaude
pluie forte est née du coin de l’œil gauche tandis que le froid
dehors oscillé sauvagement. Probablement un peu comme ses doigts utilisés pour faire
sur les ivoires, il ya de nombreuses années avant Hillary changé.

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Oh Kentucky…..

Currently I am traveling the world, a trip that now has me in the African country of Tunisia. Before that I was in Italy, France, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.

When you travel on trains, boats and buses in other countries the subject of where you are from comes up frequently. It also comes up in bars, restaurants and hotel where your accent marks you as a back roads ambassador of sorts. I have discovered this sterling fact, people know Kentucky.

Living in Kentucky there is an ever present and irritating realization that your fellow countrymen think of you as a backwoods hick.

It’s annoying, irksome and there’s only one thing you can do about it: embrace it!

The U.S. is a family of 50 states and some of us have reputations. Texas is big and boisterous while California is fairly liberal and laid back. Kentucky is thought of as being somewhat slow.

Take comfort in this: the only people who have these idiotic ideas about Kentucky are your fellow countrymen.

Traveling abroad when I mention that I am from Kentucky people always know something about my beloved state. I met a frenchman in Nice who, upon hearing I was from Kentucky, demonstrated that his iPod contained the entire Bill Monroe and Loretta Lynn box sets. An athletic Aussie pointed out that Kentucky is home to the Louisville slugger that he was so familiar with from years of playing softball in Melbourne. In Riomaggiore Italy a bartender asked me if I was from the same place as the other Louisville slugger Muhammed Ali. “No, but close” I said. In Ireland a local fellow there admitted that he enjoyed bourbon more than the famous Irish whiskey.

Did you know that after Kentucky bourbon makers finish with their oak casks that many of them are shipped to Ireland for Bushmills and other distilleries to age their whiskeys? It’s true, just take the Bushmills tour.

A Canadian journalist on the train to Genoa knew that Diane Sawyer was from Kentucky and his wife knew that George Clooney was from there too. I thought it appropriate to mention that the Clooneys are more than just George, there’s Nick and of course Rosemary. While on the subject of actors, let’s not forget Johnny Depp.

When mentioning the word Kentucky people mostly know of the Kentucky Derby. The most exciting two minutes in sports is famous the world over and another Kentucky dominated sport is becoming popular too: basketball. If you want proof of that just look at the last Olympics where the NBA staffed team famously lost it. It’s true that basketball is a great sport, but not the NBA stuff. The NBA is primarily composed of overpaid millionaires whose egos overwhelm the game and each other.

It’s college basketball where you find the kids playing their hearts out with grit and steely determination. It’s called March Madness for a reason and Kentucky basketball is as good as it gets. I am including Louisville too. (Note: the winningest teams in the NCAA from the Bluegrass. #1. Kentucky, #12. Louisville, #18. Western Kentucky, #50. Murray State)

Internationally known, Kentucky is a fine place with a rich heritage and people are aware of it. We have nothing to prove so why do we have this problem in the U.S. ?

That’s easy, jealousy.

If you were to ask me to name the definitive cultural points of Indiana or Missouri I wouldn’t know where to begin. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, there are entire countries that don’t have an easily definable culture like Canada. Ever hear someone say “Let’s go out for Canadian food?”. I didn’t think so.

By the way, the first cheeseburger was served in Louisville. Did you know that?

It’s painful to hear Kentucky constantly joked about and the best thing that you can do is to embrace it. When you do that you defuse everything. If someone starts joking about Kentucky, add your own joke. You should not give people the satisfaction of getting a charge out of you. You have nothing to prove.

I have to deal with this myself as an American. When traveling to distant lands you have to have a sense of humor. Oftentimes being a lone American within a group of locals I find that the laughs come more often that not at my expense at first. The key is not to get defensive or upset, but to join right in and and laugh along. After a few minutes people learn that Britney Spears does not define me or my culture.

Thank heavens.

Jokes about Kentucky do not define us either. Shake it off because you can’t change it. Then after the laughs just go back to demonstrating what Kentuckians  have an abundance of: determination and unbridled spirit.

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Bolivia. Mountain biking the Road of Death and zip lining

Hey friends,
I haven’t had a chance to get an essay together about Bolivia yet but I do have footage of some mountain biking and zip lining.


Night falls on La Paz.

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The Green Mountain State

My brother. Deer hunter, whiskey drinker, comedian…….and notorious non-adventurer.

Nighttime falls on the sleepy residents of the white, double-wide trailer on Kings Lake Drive….. or at least it should have been night. No, instead it’s the summer, the days are long and why in the blue blazes are we in bed when there is daylight to burn? The reason why Charlie and I were remanded to the custody of our Sears Roebuck and Company bunk beds is a mystery. Sure, we might have deserved it, but more than likely it’s because Dad just told us to go.

Dad was downright mean like that sometimes.

I remember those medium brown, laminated wooden bunk beds with their dark blue superman themed sheets very clearly. All around us were exquisite and spectacular walls of 1970s wood paneling and a poster of Starsky and Hutch which was ironic because we couldn’t even receive channel 32, the ABC affiliate.

All was quiet on the southern front and then the opening salvo rang out…
“Nebraska”, he fired …..
Flipping through my mental rolodex, this was easy …… “Lincoln”.
Hoping to trip him up I countered with “Kansas” and he was equally quick with “Topeka”. I used to have a problem with Washington, but thanks to a mental association with the “Olympic” muffler shop, he was doomed with that one.
We were well informed when it came to the state capitols with our dusk interrogations lasting into the civil twilight, but because we stuck with states and no territories or protectorates, it didn’t make for a very long Q&A.

Home of the “Fighting Syrup Gatherers” (Norm Peterson)

I always knew the chink in his armor, his Achilles heel, and in a show of superior air power I let loose: “Vermont”. Silence. Mission accomplished.

Today I likely would have prodded with common hints: “It’s the smallest capitol by population” or “it features a humid continental climate, with long, cold, and snowy winters, short springs and autumns, and warm summers”. Ok, maybe not the latter (Wikipedia), but definitely the former. I don’t agree with the latter anyway. I have lived in the northeast and I agree with the other famous description that Vermont is more like nine months of winter and three months of bad sledding.

After my Vermont volley, I usually slipped off to sleep, but, occasionally, if the batteries weren’t dead, I would tune to the voices in the ether from my father’s Zenith shortwave radio. Most of the time, I never understood what was being said through the low quality crystal earpieces, but I heard enough to fascinate me and state capitols were no longer enough. I needed the tongue twister that was Ouagadougou and the homonym confusion of Budapest and Bucharest. I needed the world.

Charlie, however, did not need the world and one night after exhausting the state capitols, I uttered “Albania” and he was at a loss. He wasn’t interested and I couldn’t get enough of it. Our futures were portended at that time: I would strike out into the world and he would become Switzerland: isolated and neutral.

* * *

Numbers.

Today is the 172nd day of the year and there are 193 days remaining in 2012. It’s June 21st and in the northern hemisphere this is the longest day of the year with more daylight than any other day. In the southern hemisphere this happens to be the day that has the most continuous darkness. Here in the north that day would be December 21 which is a day that some people say that the Mayans predicted as the end of the world. My Guatemalan friends say that the Mayans just calculated the calendar to December 21, 2012, said to heck with it and thought that it might make an awesome apocalyptic practical joke. “Ha ha, people will freak out over this”, they would say in their unknown dialect of Proto-Mayan.

Charlie won’t know the answer because his world ended on June 18, the 169th day of the year, when he suffered a massive coronary. He was doing the pool construction work he loved when my nephew Timmy had to rush him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

It’s fitting that the day of his funeral is the longest day of the year because it certainly feels like it. It’s nearly 100 Fahrenheit and dark. Very dark and sweltering. Tropic of Capricorn, Kentucky.

* * *

Charlie had his first heart attack when he was 18, something in retrospect that should have served as a warning. It didn’t. When we were younger we smoked and drank to an absurd degree. It didn’t matter what it was because we enjoyed getting drunk. He was always a fun drunk especially when he would attempt to sing Pink Floyd songs.

The effect of Charlie’s singing on dogs.

Charlie couldn’t sing.
Ever.
Period.

We changed over the years, but that’s inevitable when you come into being your own man. He was a Wild Turkey man, Rare Breed if possible, and I was a Woodford Reserve man. I stopped smoking, he didn’t. We had a fierce difference of opinion that we refused to cede any ground on: college basketball. I am a Kentucky Wildcats man and he, being the absolute low life pond scum that he was, liked the Louisville Cardinals. The last several years were good for me because I’d constantly prod him with “How’s Pitino working out for you sucker?”. I wish now he could have rubbed my nose in it, at least once.

We differed the most about the world. I would, and still will, go anywhere I have never been. I have been to just about as many countries as years I have been on the planet. I have been to just about as many states as the rings beneath my bark and that includes Vermont.

I love being on a plane, the smell of jet fuel, and landing somewhere completely new. I adore being immersed in cultures that are ridiculously different and the stranger the better. In my younger days there were periods when I was a stranger to the ground. Charlie was always the same when it came to exciting new places, “I’m not going anywhere I can’t drive”. I could never get him on a plane, but I almost did once: Van Halen was coming to New York and I promised to get him tickets, the rub was that he had to fly. Van Halen cancelled bringing my cunning plan to a screeching halt.

* * *

Fear the Turkey.

It’s about 5:20 am and the whipporwills are talking. There may be some owls in there too. At dusk and dawn, the wildlife is deafening in rural Kentucky: something you notice if you haven’t been around it in a while. We don’t have much wildlife inside the DC beltway.
All throughout the house, friends and family were in various poses in their sleep and/or drunken stupor. I’m in better shape, but only marginally. I stopped early and decided to sleep in the backseat of my rental car.

My mother is an Allen, a name that possesses some gravity in Trigg County, Kentucky. The Allens are a whiskey people with my grandfather Taylor being one of the area’s kings of the still. I know this because I got to drink part of his last batch of whiskey, clandestinely aged in my uncle’s basement for 40 years. I never met Granddad Taylor, but I did manage to channel his spirits right into my gut and it is the best whiskey I have ever had. I have to hand it to Charlie, Wild Turkey Rare Breed isn’t too bad except for this gargantuan hangover I have. It’s the kind of hangover that’s just disorienting and the taste in my mouth is horrible. I brushed my teeth, walked out to the back yard and saw the fire was still smoking. It was a good party, Charlie would have been proud. It’s time to move on to Mom’s for sausage gravy, biscuits and eggs and face the new day……….right after I console my liver which is sobbing uncontrollably.

* * *

Even after he’s been incinerated, Charlie is still a “fat boy” and I was surprised at how much his ashes weighed. I think it’s nice that he chose to be cremated and that speaks volumes about the impermanence of the whole thing: life. He and I agree on this. He decided to have his ashes split between a burial plot and under his favorite hunting tree because he wanted to let deer exact their revenge on his ashes (use your imagination). My brother, a comedian to his death.

Although I never talked Charlie into traveling with me, I did manage to take his son Wesley on a well deserved trip. For high school graduation I gifted him with a trip to Paris and we had a time that was absolutely spectacular and he deserved it. It would have been easy to quit high school and go after a GED, but Wesley wasn’t about that. He’s so much like my brother that way: not afraid of hard work, dependable to a sterling silver degree and a strong person when you need one. That’s especially important because of my niece, Tiffani. She’s got a good brother to help her through. My own father was a weapons grade dirtbag and I was pretty devastated when he passed on. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be Tiffani or Wesley right now….. or Charlie’s widow, my sister, Linda (yeah, “sister in law” but we don’t really make those distinctions in my family).

It’s been more than a month as I write this now and I still imagine that the next time I go back to Kentucky that I’m going to see him, he’s going to prod me into doing shots, I’m going to hem and haw and he’s going to take a deep breath, shove the Wild Turkey in my face and say “Don’t be a wussy, ya wussy!” (except he never said “wussy”, but something that rhymed very much with it).

* * *

It’s all at an end now. Something that’s driven home by my car getting loaded up with all the flowers at the funeral home. I don’t think it’s all going to fit. If anything, my brother was loved by a lot of people. Wesley and I are talking and he has fat boy’s ashes on his lap. I started to tell him the story about how Charlie and I would quiz each other on the state capitols and Wesley said “He did the same with me!” and we rattle off a few to each other and Wesley, like his father, is bull’s eye accurate. Nothing trips him up.

Wesley opened the box and we look at the ashes. I say “Vermont” and Wesley says “Montpelier”.

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Guatemala: Throwing Myself at the Ground and Hoping to Miss.

The Tyranny of the Zip Line. 12 Stories Up

The Tyranny of the Zip Line. 12 Stories Up

There is an art, or rather a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. I thought about this Douglas Adams quote as I wondered what the hell I was doing standing on a platform 12 stories up in the middle of the Peten jungle in Guatemala. It so green that it made my eyes hurt, a reality made possible by the circumstance. It was dead center of the rainy season filled, no doubt, with ubiquitous malarial mosquitoes and here in my harness, tethered to a steel cable no bigger than my pinky finger, I was trying to muster up the courage to throw myself towards ground and, hopefully, miss. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Part of me thought that it would be a fun idea to go flying through the jungle canopy, but standing on the platform polling which of my parts wanted to do this, they were conspicuously silent. Nary a peep.

I understand that things fall at 9.8 meters a second and accelerate at 9.8 meters a second or expressed as an equation: v = a * t. Standing there, and taking important height, weight and wind resistance factors into account, I quickly calculated that I’d hit the ground somewhere between “oh shit” and “fuck me in both ears, I can’t believe I’m standing here”. Anyone? Still, the multitude of parts was silent.

So much for flying like the angels. It’s easy for them because they are unburdened by an understanding of Newton’s second law of motion. I know I know, I’m stalling.

Worldwalk. Available at Amazon.com

Worldwalk. Available at Amazon.com

When I thought up this idea, Steven Newman was my first choice for travel companion. I know a lot of “travel people” and after a few drinks they think they are tough. Steven actually happens to be the genuine article. About 20 years ago he went on a very long walk.
Around the world.
Alone.
For four years.
Thrown in jail four times and nearly murdered on more than one occasion on his journey, he is either the stupidest person ever or the toughest person ever. I know for a fact that he’s quite brilliant so you can rule out the former. He is also lucky. Very lucky. Yep, just the kind of guy you want on an adventure. I have the unique honor of being his brother. Not his biological one, but his real one. The difference? He brings a lot of joy and respect into my life and that is a measure of true family. He was my hero, who became my friend who became my family. Pretty damn cool I’d say and today, years after first meeting, I am in no less awe of his achievement. Order his book “Worldwalk” when you can. Trust me, you’ll be in awe too.

Steven looked at me and said “we came this far, no sense in turning back now!”.

Shut up Newman. I’m still stalling.

* * *

We arrived the day before into the rain saturated metropolis of Guatemala City in pursuit of our guy adventure. When taking travel writing courses I learned that it’s better to use strong verbs than adjectives. The strong verb appropriate for this was “drench”. The rain drenched us unceasingly at first and then only slightly more mercifully as the day went on. Arriving in the morning, our bus to Flores didn’t leave for another ten hours so we had nothing to do except to explore Zona 1 in Guatemala City. Frankly, for this essay, there’s not a lot for me to say about Guatemala City. I have been to the capital numerous times and it doesn’t blow a lot of wind up my skirt. It’s never been a destination for me other than my association with friends who live here and I’ve always been on the way to somewhere else. There are two things that stood out during our exploration of Zona 1: no one was smoking cigarettes and every other store we encountered was a shoe store.

Sitting in a restaurant, having our bargain basement priced pollo and papas fritas, we were discouraged by the television news. It didn’t take a spanish major to understand that the situation throughout Guatemala was dire. The country was receiving unprecedented rains resulting in numerous landslides everywhere. At least two landslides ended with buses and cars being swept from the road, burying all souls on board. People were homeless and shelters in some places were overflowing. Earlier the massive rains resulted in entire buildings being swallowed by a sinkhole opening up in the relatively impoverished part of Guatemala City.

This is significant because these were not tiny sinkholes. In fact, even calling them sinkholes is a misnomer. Natural sinkholes generally form when heavy, water-saturated soil causes the roof of an underground limestone cavity to collapse, or when water widens a natural fracture in limestone bedrock. There is no limestone directly under the city. Thousands of feet yes, but not immediately adjacent. No, there is something much scarier closer to the surface.

Giant Sinkhole in Guatemala City

Giant Sinkhole in Guatemala City

Guatemala, which you may already know, is home to almost 30 volcanoes. Over time, and by that I mean tens of thousands of years, the country has been covered by layers and layers of pumice creating a not so solid crust that’s structurally similar to a sponge. Now imagine building cities on top of this surface. Cities that will not only suffer yearly rainy seasons, but cities that will also house millions of people, all using leaky plumbing that also erodes the land. What you end up with are the occasional euphemistically named “piping features” that open up to swallow everything built on top. Holes that are typically hundreds of feet wide and hundreds of feet deep.

Our mission? To traverse from Guatemala City north to the middle of the Peten jungle to Flores by bus and hitch another minivan to Tikal, a journey of about 12 hours.

We came this far, no sense in turning back now. Indeed.

***
Steven and I made it to Flores and amazingly in pretty good time considering the rains. There were numerous landslides to drive around but we managed to reach Flores and catch a minivan to Tikal in short order.
It was strange returning to Tikal again. My very first visit to Guatemala was to Tikal in 1990 and I immediately fell in love with this little country. I loved it so much that I went back two weeks later to explore Antigua. This was my sixth trip back and I never tire of this place. I don’t think I ever will.

It was a different time in Guatemala in 1990. A time of war.

The Guatemala Civil War lasted from 1960 to 1996. 36 bloody years that resulted in 40,000 to 50,000 people being “disappeared” (usually into volcanoes or the ocean) and more than 300,000 just being killed outright. When traveling to this remote outpost there was a real possibility of being robbed and/or murdered by the paramilitaries. Back then, Tikal was not quite as popular among tourists and I spent my entire time climbing all over the ruins with no one or no signs to to tell me what I could or couldn’t do. The government had other pescado to fry.

Tikal is massive. There are other contemporary Mayan places like Tulum and Chichen Itza that tend to get the publicity as the places to visit, but for my money Tikal is unbeatable. It’s the Maya equivalent of the old city. It’s downtown.

Once it was the headquarters of what was the most powerful Mayan empire of the day. It’s also the most understood since we know the details of the rulers and the investigation of the place has been extensive. Here some facts to scratch the surface. There are over 3,000 structures here, the vast majority of which have not been excavated. The largest structures are excavated and they are referred to as Temples I through VI. The monumental architecture dates back to the 4th century BC and apogee of this empire is best placed at 200 to 900 AD. The peak population was probably around 90,000 people. So where did they go? Who knows? It’s still a mystery.

Whether they starved, died or were taken home by the ancient astronauts, we do know this: the Spanish never conquered them. They were all gone by the end of the 10th century.

We also know this: they were a blood thirsty bunch of folk. You get a real keen awareness of this when noticing the sheer volume of sacrificial altar stones scattered throughout the complex. It made me wonder someday, while unearthing our civilization, if future alien civilizations will see our buildings and bridges and think “Wow! What an advanced people” and then they’re going to find the electric chairs and missile silos and think “Wow! What a blood thirsty people”. As a species, there are some things you can count on with us.

Regarding the Mayans, human sacrifice was downright mild compared to the Aztecs. Mayans would save the human sacrifices for big events like ill fortune, warfare and consecration of new leaders or temples.

Oh yeah, and they mostly used prisoners from neighboring tribes.

Temple I

Temple I

The main attraction is the Great Plaza. On the east and west stand Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar. 154 feet tall) and Temple II (Temple of the Mask. 125 feet tall). The North Acropolis developed into a funerary complex for the ruling dynasty. Each new royal burial would add a new temple to the top of the existing one. It is here you will find Temple 33 and in its substructure, a giant mask of Chaac. I had heard from a park ranger years ago that when prisoners were captured they were taken to see Chaac right before their execution. I must admit, looking at it gave me the chills too. It’s so damned intimidating.

Unlike 20 years ago, there are now wooden staircases to climb the structures. Staircases that, in the U.S., would immediately be declared hazardous and roped off. Built of untreated wood and maintained maybe once a year, I am reminded of another reason I love Guatemala. You can still die there fairly easily if you try. It’s a little terrifying at the time when you’re 90 feet in the air halfway up Temple V and climbing dubious 2×4 scaffolding.

There’s a lot to climb in Tikal and climb we did. Up all the temples and after a while the superlative adjectives just fail miserably. The Peten jungle is a beautiful place. From the top of Temple IV you can see that it’s jungle for as far as the eye can see and if you practice some mindful-awareness of your circumstances, you realize your tiny place on this earth. In that regard, it’s humbling, which is probably never a bad thing to be reminded of.

It’s also not a bad thing to be reminded that bug repellent can’t be slathered on enough especially during the rainy season. Every morning it was always the same routine: wake up and immediately survey the bed. Invariably there were splotches of blood where something feasted on me during the night. Bedbugs? Probably. All the bug repellent in the world didn’t seem to help my ankles which is where the buggers tended to bite. Steven however seemed to be immune. More of that Newman luck I suppose.

***
After a few days in Tikal we traveled back to Flores, the largest city in the Peten region with about 14,000 people. The old part of the city is on an island in the lake, Lake Petén Itzá, that’s connected to the mainland by a causeway. It’s not a very long minivan ride back to Flores and since our bus to Guatemala City didn’t leave until late we decided to go on a boat ride.

The Boat on Lake Peten Itza

The Boat on Lake Peten Itza

The boat ride, like most things in the developing world, was agreeably cheap at around 10.00 for us both. It was good to get out on the water and just smell the lake and relax. The experience was everything I could have wanted in a spur of the moment ride. Confident captain, a weather worn vessel with faded colors to match and a pleasant dusk to enjoy it all. I like being on the water for the same reason I like being on a bicycle, it’s just instant zen. I’m not sure how to otherwise explain it.

***

It was about 6:30am, in the mountains heading back into Guatemala City when I saw that familiar look of horror on Steven’s face. We apparently had a close call with a boulder, as if negotiating the maniacal traffic weren’t bad enough. The bus driver was apparently in some hurry to get back to the city and would drive at a terrific speed, missing boulders and other vehicles at the last second.

I’m not a generally religious man but trust me on this, if you want to get a close and personal relationship with (INSERT YOUR DEITY HERE), bus rides in Guatemala are a great way to do this. When I first started riding the infamous chicken buses I would nearly gouge holes in the seats from holding onto them so tight. They are not called chicken buses because people bring chickens on board, although that happens from time to time. They are so named because the drivers routinely play pollo with each other on the mountain passes. Most of the time it’s safe (?!), but it does result in the occasional fiery bus crash down a mountainside with near certain death for everyone involved.

Here’s the easy way to imagine it. Just pack a metal coffee can with small mice, nails, a little bit of gasoline and broken glass. Now set it on fire and slam that against a wall as hard as you possibly can.

Enjoy your bus ride!

***

Volcano Agua (Taken While Descending Volcan Pacaya at Dusk)

Volcano Agua (Taken While Descending Volcan Pacaya at Dusk)

Next stop for Steven and I was Antigua. We arrived no worse for wear in Guatemala’s third capital (the first two being destroyed), a beautiful place surrounded by three volcanic peaks. The most dominant one is Volcan Agua (12,400 feet) so named because an eruption in 1541 destroyed the original capital with a mudflow. It hasn’t been active for quite some time, but looking at it from Antigua, you are aware that it’s watching. Always.

The other two volcanoes are no slouches either. Acatenango is the tallest of the three at a little over 13,000 feet and it had its last eruption in 1972. Volcan de Fuego is famous for being constantly active at a low level. It consistently fires off every 15 to 20 minutes with a loud bang. It’s also the least imaginatively named of the three (Volcano of Fire).

Me on the street in Antigua

Me on the street in Antigua

Antigua is a tourist dream. Everywhere are cobblestone streets with buildings of Spanish Colonial architecture. At the center of it all is Parque Central (Central Park) at the center of which is a beautiful reconstructed fountain. Also in the park on this day were school kids practicing their English and they set their sights on Steven and I. They peppered us with questions like “What did you eat for breakfast?” and “What do you like best about Guatemala?”. They were so enthusiastic at having real Americans to practice on that turning them down was never an option.

Then there was Club Habana. I have two great weaknesses I submit to when in Guatemala: Cuban Cohiba cigars and Cuba Libres made with Ron Zacapa Centenario Rum. We were in Antigua for a couple of days and after walking around, people watching and seeing the sights we ended up at Club Habana smoking, drinking and listening to a Cuban duo perform. It felt like what a 1950s club in Battista’s Cuba would’ve felt like I imagined.

Antigua is a nice place, but it has a much darker side that hits closer to home for me.

I worked for two years as a volunteer IT director for a non profit in Washington DC: the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC). It was there I met and became close friends with Sister Dianna Ortiz. Sister Dianna Ortiz is an Ursuline nun and was at an Antigua convent in 1989 when she was kidnapped by a U.S. trained Guatemalan army captain and taken to the basement of Politécnica, a police training institute near the US Embassy.

It was there that she suffered horrific torture. She was shown a picture of a woman who looked nothing like her and asked if it was her to which she replied no. Each time she answered no she was burned by a cigarette ultimately enduring 110 burns by the time it was over. It was after this that she was repeatedly raped and tortured (details of which I can’t bring myself to write).

It wasn’t as if Dianna was some sort of radical. She was taken because she was a run of the mill Catholic missionary who was unfortunate enough to be in Guatemala at a time when the military was hell bent on scaring the church. Priests, nuns, and human rights workers were routinely tortured for decades in Guatemala with the sole purpose being nothing more than to terrorize entire trades.

Dianna’s torture included having to assist killing another prisoner. She was handed a knife and with a torturer’s hands around hers, the knife was plunged into another unfortunate female prisoner at the Politécnica. She endured being placed in a pit of dead and dying people that included other women and children. Her captivity lasted for 24 hours, but during that time she ended up losing all memory of her life up to the abduction. She was only released when the American leader of the torturers, a man named Alejandro, instructed the other torturers that they had made a mistake in taking Dianna. They had the wrong woman (as if there was a “right” woman to torture). They had taken an American nun and people were starting to ask questions.

While working at TASSC, I had the occasion to see Dianna talk about her torture which she managed to do fearlessly and I don’t know how she managed. Sometimes, when others were talking about her ordeal, she would just put her head down and cover her ears and it ripped me up to see her in that state. She told me that having to talk about it again only made her re-live the experience. She would say that she felt guilty for years after the abduction because she thought that she was somehow to blame. Her shame was made even deeper by having to endure an abortion because she was impregnated during her multiple rapes. This is how you can hate people you’ve never met and I hated these people for what they did to her.

She is hands down one of the bravest people I have ever met. Dianna later went back to fight with two lawsuits in Guatemala and one in the United States. Lawsuits with the intent of uncovering U.S. paperwork of her torture. The U.S. government is a major funder of the Guatemalan military and it should come as no surprise that the State Department did what they could to cover up her torture.

Famously in a 1996 interview on Nightline, Cokie Roberts came out and insisted she was lying even though there was ample evidence of her ordeal. It should come as no surprise that Cokie Roberts’ brother Tom Boggs, worked for the law firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow, a law firm that was paid by the Guatemalan military to promote a positive images of the dictatorship and death squads in Guatemala.

My experience with TASSC made me realize that it‘s true that sometimes fictional characters can be more real than those people with real flesh and blood. People are capable of unspeakable horror and some things I am just never going to understand in a million years no matter how hard I try.

You can see Dianna’s story here, at least the first part. You can see the rest of the series at YouTube, but better yet buy her book “The Blindfold’s Eyes”.

* * *

Dateline: the market at Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, or as the locals call it, Chichi. This market has been a trading place for hundreds of years, even before the Spanish showed up. There’s a little place where I like to stop and eat a traditional breakfast before taking on the shopping. It’s scrambled eggs and mozzarella rolled into tortillas and covered by a black bean mole sauce. It is a great meal that I love so much that even now I have it almost every morning minus the tortillas.

Masks for sale at Chichi

Masks for sale at Chichi

Chichi is a large market covering several blocks with narrow walkways and vendors everywhere trying to pull you in to consider their handicrafts. Everywhere you turn something catches your eye. It’s a detonation of color with emerald greens, royal blues, cherry reds, and other bright, indescribable colors competing for your eyes. The textiles are famously multicolored and you can buy them incorporated in thousands of different items from jackets and bags to hammocks and purses.

It’s dizzying to say the least. It’s a dilemma everytime: so many things for sale with so little time and baggage allowance. The haul this time? A couple of masks, a shirt and some small worry dolls. The idea is that you place them under your pillow at night and they take your worries away. I’m not holding my breath, but I like the thought.

***
Now I’m standing on the platform again. Thinking back to it all, it seems like a dream which I suppose it is. All phenomena is a dream, or the as the bible says when it remarks that “This too shall pass”. I hope that Sister Dianna remembers this but it’s important for me to remember this too while I am trying to throw myself towards the ground in my quest to miss. There’s an Aztec proverb….

We only come to sleep
We only come to dream
It is not true, it is not true
That we come to live on Earth

I am comforted by this as I jump up in the air, throw back my head and fly down the wire into the unknown. Indeed, I have missed.

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Owning a Piece of My Nightmare (Budapest, Hungary)

Hungary_flag

Russia celebrated a holiday on November 7 that under the Julian calendar, was in October. The holiday used to be called the “Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution”, but has since been renamed the “Day of Accord and Reconciliation”. That makes perfect sense as now we can only speak of the U.S.S.R. in terms of the deceased. November 7th would have been the 87th anniversary of the revolution that violently brought the Bolsheviks to power and proceeded to unleash the great experiment upon the now independent 14 republics that used to make up our former greatest natural predator.

My Bust of Vladimir Lenin

My Bust of Vladimir Lenin

If you can think of a better day than this to haggle over the purchase of a 60s era aluminum bust of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the father of this nightmare, I’d like to see it. You could say that my haggle session with shopkeeper Acs Ballint was ironic, but even with stretching its fingers and standing on its tippy toes, that adjective doesn’t quite reach. My childhood days were spent in a rural Kentucky community known as Kings Forest, a place of working class folks happy in their trailers set just off the gravel roads. It was also a community with its own peculiar brand of fireworks courtesy of the Fort Knox practice range, which was on the other side of Price’s Field, adjacent to our land. I went to sleep many a nights listening to the practice fire that would be for real should those commie bastards ever decide on any invasion type shenanigans and in that regard I slept like the dead. What did manage to keep me up was the stark idea that the Soviets had a bull’s eye painted on Fort Knox. Every kid in Kings Forest knew this to be a fact and it made for ludicrously thought provoking conversation at our Algonquin round table of nine year olds: the bus stop.

Here’s an example of an exchange between me and my childhood friend Philip Heacock…..

Philip: “You know if there’s a war, we’re gonna die first”

Me: “Really?”

Philip: “The Russians have a missile pointed right at Fort Knox and it’s going to blow everything up from here to Louisville”

If you doubt me, I have Philip Heacock ready to back me up that this ground breaking discussion actually DID happen.

Growing up with this looming spectre of annihilation was surreal to say the least. You can never really drive home the point to the kids today that in the not too distant past, we had an enemy equal to us that was, equally, bent on destroying us. No, talk like that just elicits quizzical looks not unlike those of a man who’s just witnessed a magic act of someone pulling a chandelier out of a walnut shell. Puzzling.

It was a time when you would watch the NBC Nightly News and were completely and utterly amazed that someone at risk of life and limb smuggled video footage out of the U.S.S.R.. They were always images of the type of a less than cheery Brezhnev at some reviewing stand watching numerous tanks and missiles drive by. Here’s a link if you’d like to re-live the time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeoIHxSaEaU&feature=related

Of course we never realistically had to worry about the threat of sleeping under the flag of the hammer and sickle since the Soviet Union was about as stable as nitroglycerin on a wagon train. Other countries were not so lucky and this haggle session was taking place in one of them: Hungary.

The lights went out on Hungary in 1944 when, after World War II, Europe was being carved up into spheres of influence by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Hungary, along with seven other eastern European states became satellite states of the Soviets: the fabled Iron Curtain or, officially, the Eastern Bloc.

My Communist Hungarian Visa

My Communist Hungarian Visa

Magyar Népköztársaság, the People’s Republic of Hungary, suffered the human injustices that we now know were commonplace in the satellite states and in 1956 the people were having no more of it. In late October of that year students decided to peacefully protest and among their demands was that the Soviets should leave. The police fired tear gas and then switched to live rounds. The Soviets, concerned that Hungary was not acting in a manner befitting one of its affiliates, decided to roll in the military in early November. It’s estimated that upwards of 20,000 people died in the uprising which one could assume probably didn’t phase Joseph Stalin all that much. He was, after all, the man who famously said that one death was a tragedy and a million was a statistic.

I thought about that earlier when walking around Budapest and stumbled upon the 1956 Hungarian Revolution Memorial, a bold headstone that had the numbers “1956” carved into it, surrounded by several Hungarian flags that had the coat of arms cut out. This was the common practice around the revolution since that coat of arms was a communist one.

Empires fail.

This was my second trip to Hungary. The first happened right after the communists fell and Budapest at that time was a filthy, polluted, corrupt place. It had a thriving black market in currency and taxi drivers were commonly moonlighting as police informants who were more than happy to entrap you. I didn’t think I would ever be back again and getting extorted for money twice didn’t enthuse me to any future prospects of returning. I was exceedingly happy that I did come back because the Budapest of today is a sterling example of a beautiful stately capital.

“Oh Lenin he’s a bad man. Very bad man”. Acs’ mother said as she reached down to pick up the aluminum bust of Lenin after noticing my interest in it. “Yes very bad” I muttered back all the while mentally appending “……. but very good for my collection”.

After agreeing upon a reasonable price and Acs agreeing to throw in several Soviet medals, the kind commonly given to the populace by the party, I went outside and continued exploring Budapest’s main shopping drag, the Váci utca.

In a way journeying to these places is a way to come to grips with my childhood nightmare and here’s the best part: I now own a piece of this nightmare….as does Philip Heacock. I made a point of sending him some of the Soviet medals.

After all is said and done the Hungarians have their preferred coat of arms back. It contains the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen on top. Before the communists took over Hungary this national treasure was given to American soldiers to prevent it from falling into Soviet hands. The place where this treasure was guarded? Fort Knox.

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Transmissions (Bluemont, VA., U.S.A.)

I wonder if anyone is even going to be up here?” I thought as I turned off the smooth glide of State Road 601 and onto the gravel lane leading to the Bear’s Den Lodge. I was driving straight into the heart of a thick summer fog. It wouldn’t be reaching too far to say that there was less vapor in my shower this morning.

The Bear’s Den Lodge is almost at the mid point of the 2,167 mile long Appalachian Trail, often called “the AT”. Originally built in 1933 as an opera diva’s hideaway, it’s one of the most impressive hostels in the Eastern Region with its grand fireplace and turrets. Yes, turrets. The lodge rests in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachian chain, 983.7 miles north of Springer Mountain in Georgia and 1164.7 miles south of Katahdin Maine. To reach the actual halfway point on the AT you just need to hike north to the Pennsylvania state line and go north a few miles.

I checked in at the front desk, paid the agreeably cheap $3.00 camping fee and went about setting up house. I was very impressed with how easy the whole process was. Feeling quite brilliant for the accomplishment I swam my way through the pea soup mist and into the hiker’s room in the basement, filled with bunk beds and the mountain fresh aroma of feet and Folgers.

Hikers look forward to the Den because the shower is strong and laundry is done for the insanely low price of $1.00 (folding costs an extra $1.00). There’s even a pile of donated clothes you can choose from and wear while your laundry is being done. The same kind of clothes you would see in a missionary style clothing drive in Borneo, mismatched colors and faded sports emblems on sweatshirts. The sheer mathematical number of original fashion statements one could make from the pile were, to say the very least, mind numbingly dizzy.

Ladies and gentlemen, the experience of dropping in on the Hiker’s Room never disappoints. On any given evening the room brings together a most diverse group of people. There were two hikers from Hawaii, one named Gandalf and the other some generic name that was reminiscent of the vague gnome-elf-Tolkien-Lord of the Rings vein that I know little of and frankly am quite happy to let stay that way. Two other men were there, one from Philadelphia and the other, parts unknown. All were as nice as pie and as sweet as syrup. ( I have come to learn that everything reminds you of food on the AT ). Talk soon turned to the trail and how tough the day was with the rain. Gandalf was a teacher who previously climbed Kilimanjaro and recounted his adventure. This was of particular interest to me since I was headed to Africa’s tallest mountain in a few months. Another hiker known as “Wildman” had also been to Kilimanjaro and, endearing me even more, Nepal! Who would’ve guessed that in the middle of nowhere would I meet someone who knows what it means to smell the scent of burning human bodies on the banks of the Bagmati river? Remembering some mulberry bushes outside Wildman ran out to get some. He brought in a handful and they were extraordinarily delicious. I was not, according the wild one, supposed to overlook the flavor of the stems. He was right.

You have probably heard of the trend amongst hikers of the AT: nicknames. Everybody has one on the AT and sadly you do not get to pick your own. I say sadly because I would loudly protest my inevitable moniker of “Camping Savant”. Hearing these guys talk, and by this time there were about six through hikers here, it was obvious this was not their first encounter. Some had known each other for several weeks as they alternated between walking behind and overtaking each other. They talked of other hikers like “Bramble” a former Army Ranger who was making the Scottish proud by hiking in a kilt. If anyone knew the particular plaid pattern, or more curiously if he was wearing anything underneath, they weren’t divulging the information. There was a hiker named “Homeboy” who never stopped to enjoy the vistas or scenery: he powered his way up the hills like a machine and scrambled down the hills equally quick. He had a habit of humiliating the present company by consistently overtaking them, leaving them in his dusty wake and he was, amazingly, 71 years young. After a short time another gentleman walked in looking haggard and worn out. His beard and moustache made him the twin of Cuban strongman Fidel Castro. Turned out he was a local man who shaved, showered and slept at the Bear’s Den because it was cheap. It’s tragic that he was not a hiker because given his appearance and the fact that he was obviously high on something other than life, I would’ve called him “High Fidel-ity”

Taking leave of the hikers I decided to go outside to my nylon condo and enjoy the night. When I left the room the party upstairs was still in full swing. A girl scouts troup shrieked up a prepubescent ruckus with at least one girl vowing to say up til midnight. Their party reminded me of times when my daughter Diana would have her little girl get togethers when she was ten. Know this: ten year old girls have a shrill shriek that nothing in nature or technology can or would want to duplicate. I perked up and was immediately quite happy that I was staying outside amongst the monsters. At least if they showed up at my tent I would know to direct them to the smorgasbord of giggly Girl Scouts through the Den’s front doors. Unfortunately, there would be no brownie troup for the imaginary monster’s dessert.

Outside the rain was coming down very gently and steady. Glancing outside I saw a sight I won’t soon forget: a foggy, ominous, verboten darkness . Werewolves howling on the Scottish moors kind of dread. Jack the Ripper stalking the London streets portent. The fog was moving rapidly across the land and the lights from the lodge pierced the milky mist, reflecting off the suspended drops giving an other worldly foreboding to the forest and everything in it. I half expected to see ghosts marching on top of the lodge battlements.

Thoroughly amazed with nature I settled inside my sleeping bag. I pulled out my shortwave radio, started tuning at random and engaged in re-experiencing golden technological moments from my youth in rural Kentucky. Being a geography enthusiast from a young age I still love to read about other cultures. The shortwave shifted that interest into fifth gear as I would listen to Voice of the Andes from Ecuador, the Voice of America from Europe and the BBC. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand half the things I heard, considering that hillbilly was my native tongue. I remember stumbling across a station that seemed to do nothing but criticize the United States. More interestingly was the fact that this station knew things that were not being reported in our own media. Events like the US Navy’s seventh fleet amassing off a small Caribbean nation. That station was Radio Havana from Cuba. It was the first time I realized that the United States was not universally loved. Those supposed news events on the Voice of America and other stations were, in fact, propaganda.

Lying in the tent I learned that President Ronald Reagan had died and from Radio France International no less. The news traveled from California to France and back to my tent high on a Virginia mountaintop . Continuing my journey I got re-acquainted with my old childhood friends. BBC, Radio New Zealand and Radio Japan were still there. Unlike during my youth there was a greater selection in the shortwave bands universe due to the fall of communism. I listened to Radio Prague and Radio Tirana: both stations that were broadcasting from places that previously were behind the Iron Curtain.

In my youth every thing about the Eastern bloc countries was mysterious. In Kentucky you never saw news footage from these places and one could only guess at what life was like there. One thing is for certain, those countries did take to capitalism quite well and I’m living proof, I was robbed twice in three days in early post communist Budapest. Although the Eastern Bloc is no longer mysterious there is still plenty of intrigue on shortwave. Progressing through the frequencies I ran across one old friend who was still very much alive and kicking: the shortwave numbers station. A mechanized female voice that just kept reading numbers: 63542..253455..12126..

Let me say this right now for the record, when you’re in a tent, alone in the woods, in the rain, in the middle of the night and you hear cold, mechanized reading of numbers in your ear, you are creeped out.

What purpose do these numbers stations serve? Are they numeric instructions to spies? Do numbers stations exist to spread deliberate disinformation? Probably both. These stations have been on the air for several decades now and many countries operate them including, allegedly, the US whose transmitter, if it does indeed exist, operates, according to some, just outside Washington DC in the hills of Virginia, maybe. The FCC will not confirm the existence of US numbers stations.

Some of the talent behind the number readings are legendary. There is the Lincolnshire Poacher of England’s MI6 so named because of the English folk song that plays on a calliope before he reads the numbers, ostensibly because the calliope sound allows agents to find the broadcast more easily . Other times you know something serious is being conveyed as happened during the aborted coup against Boris Yeltsin in 1991. Russian number stations just repeated the number “5″ over and over for hours. And the worst run of all? The Cuban stations. They operate on a shoestring and it shows. There have been times when the numbers feed and Radio Havana would overlap. What the Cubans lacked in tech savvy they made up for in sheer entertainment value. One reader, known as the Cuban babbler, would sing her numbers at dizzying speed. I could probably tell you more about the Cubans but by this time “High Fidel-ity” had retired for the night and wasn’t in a condition to answer questions.

Then there is WBNY the Voice of the Rodent Revolution. If you are lucky you might find them broadcasting at the 6950 Khz frequency on the US East Coast. Their transmissions open with the song Peter Cottontail followed by numbers and instructions read by either Commander Bunny or Melvin Mouse. The self proclaimed goal of the Rodents? To overthrow the ape-human rulers.

A grand daddy long legs resting on the tent above my face was the first thing I saw waking at 8:30 am in the new time zone I officially designate as the Appalachian Trail Time Zone (ATTZ). Everything happens very early in the ATTZ. Emerging from my tent I was greeted with an overcast sky and the air smelled fresh just as it should after a prolonged rain. I noticed the temperature was quite pleasant, not too hot or cold, and thought about how nice a day it was turning out to be as I started breaking down my tent. There was another climb going on in miniature on my tent. Two slugs were scaling their way up the fabric, at a glacial pace. I thought briefly about something I had heard about slugs: allegedly pouring salt on them will kill them slowly and you can hear them scream. In a previous time when I wasn’t aware of the infallibility of karma I might have tried it out. The slugs would live to climb Mount Kelty another day.

Firing up my stove I started boiling water for coffee and really began to realize what a wonder the modern camp stove is. It only took a few minutes to boil water for my coffee concentrate and in just a few minutes after that, I stirred up scrambled eggs to go into some egg and pre-cooked bacon sandwiches. I don’t normally eat eggs and bacon in the morning but some traditions just endure in the wild.

Taking the short connector trail from the lodge you soon come upon the AT and the Bears Den Scenic Rock Overlook. It’s quite a stunning view of the Shenandoah Valley and if you’re there on a clear day you can enjoy a most exquisite sunset.

My goal on this day was to head south on the AT to the Sam Moore shelter and return. It’s about six miles all together, but it’s six miles on what hikers call the “Rollercoaster”, one of the toughest parts of the AT that follows a route below the developed ridgeline and crosses a succession of side ridges and hollows in a long series of tiring ups-and-downs. It’s much more taxing than a linear, level six miles.

The AT through the rollercoaster is rocky and crossed with exposed tree roots. The trail was to serve as a walking meditation. Normally I cultivate a mindful-awareness through sitting meditation but that certainly isn’t the only way one can develop inner calm. Six miles of watching every single step has a way of being relaxing on the mind and brutal on your calves. The Blue Ridge area eastwards to Washington contains massive numbers of equally massive rocks weighing several tons. What catches the eye most immediately about these rocks is that there is oftentimes a layer of quartzite in them. Previously, very previously, about 550 million years ago, this area was covered by a shallow sea and sediments of sand, clay, fossil shells and mud started to accumulate. About 360 million years ago, probably before you were born, the continent of Gondawanaland decided to plant a hard and violent kiss against the North American continent, then part of the continent Laurasia, and the Appalachian Mountains were born from the collision. The Appalachians were of dizzying heights in those days, taller than the Rockies are today. Millions of years of rain and erosion have whittled them down, quite literally to molehills from the mountains they once were. The tallest peaks of Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania are rather close to each other with the tallest of the three being Spruce Knob in West Virginia clocking in at 4863 feet. That is a lot of wearing down, if you consider that there several peaks in the Rockies over 14,000 feet. If the dwindling remaining majesty of these peaks do not impress, then think about this, the altercation between the continents was so violent that the sand became quartzite, the clay became phyllite and the fossil shells and mud turned into limestone. That is how the quartzite sandwich came to be, it marks the violent altercation between continents. Even more remarkable is that this isn’t the first set of Appalachian mountains. Prior to the continental collision, they had been built previously to dizzying heights and worn down to mere hills several times.

A few miles into my walk I had to cross a stream. The trail has come right down to the water’s edge and sure enough there was a white blaze painted on a tree on the opposite bank. A part of me just wasn’t thinking clearly, of course the trail would cross a stream. Hopping from rock to rock, I managed to get across, dry boots intact only to be met a few yards later with the sight of two blowdowns blocking the trail. A blowdown is quite literally just that, trees that have been felled across the path. I had met a few through hikers by this time, all had warned me about the blowdowns. It was quite difficult negotiating them, I certainly had a new respect for those steadfast troopers that had to cross them hoisting heavy backpacks, especially since the blowdowns were on a section of the trail that was on a steep hillside. Barely climbing over the first one I soon realized the folly of not owning a trekking pole that many hikers use. They are so versatile for support, crossing streams, pushing aside obstacles, flushing grouse, snakes and other trail hazards. I quickly remedied my situation by breaking a stick from the first blow down and faster than a politician can deposit his bribe money, I was over the second blow down. I left the stick against a tree that was decorated with an AT blaze so that the next hiker might have some assistance across the blowdown, all the while knowing that the next hiker would probably be me on my way back to the Den.

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No Wise Men Here (Akjoujt, Mauritania)

Is there room at the Inn ? I don’t know, I’ll find out when I get there. There is no Mary tonight, just me and the baby Ped.

I am on the road from Atar to Nouakchott and it’s Christmas Eve. There is no opening of presents, there are no television specials, just my tiger and me in the middle of the desert.

Stopped outside a police check point I briefly slip off my shoes to feel the sand squish between my toes. There is a cloudless sky this night and heaven is above. I don’t see Santa, but then again Muslim and Buddhist children are disqualified from receiving presents. There are only countless stars and stretching my arms skyward I am for a moment a conductor between the heaven and earth.

The sky here is always spectacular. Paul Bowles was right. Every other sky is a mere faint hearted effort in comparison.

The baby Ped and I are following a star in night sky. It’s the one straight ahead. It is the glow from the flashlight of yet another Mauritanian police official demanding a bribe.

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The Night Train to Choum (Choum, Mauritania)

The iron ore train to Choum from Nouadhibou was supposed to leave at 4pm but didn’t get going until 8pm. It’s the longest train in the world clocking in at two kilometers in length. You have the option of buying a couchette, a regular sleeper seat or if you are clinically insane, you can ride in one of the open top boxcars that holds the iron ore for free.

I did not regret choosing the seat.

I wouldn’t call it anarchy, but riot would come close to describing the scene as the train stopped to take passengers. Shoving my way on board with my backpack, I plopped down in my seat and watched as the compartment filled up. When the seats were all filled others tried to wedge themselves in between passengers and no one seated was going to have any of that nonsense.

They may have been filthy and smelly seats, but by golly they were filthy and smelly seats only meant for one person.

I dozed off to sleep and awoke at 5:00am in the middle of the nicest snapshot you could imagine. In the narrow passageway on the train there were about 10 people gathered, some sitting down and they had a gas ring fired up! They were making mint tea on the train! Laughing, smiling, and smoking cigarettes they sure were a happy bunch. The host shoved a small glass of the tea into my hand, I took a sip, stood up and was struck by the scene outside.

It was dimly lit and I could clearly see a sand dune about 60 feet tall. The whole out of doors was encased in a thick brown fog. We were quietly rolling through a sandstorm, a fact I confirmed by poking my face outside where I received an exfoliation worthy of a pricy salon.

I finished my tea, gave the glass back to the host who then eagerly started another pot of what they call Moroccan whiskey.

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