Sunday, December 26, 2010

Greece: Getting Even

     Odysseus left us with one blind mother-fucker of a problem.

     Lynn glared at me from behind eyes as sharp as Polyphemus’ teeth. Clearly, this was all my fault. I had chartered the boat. I had given the captain a heart attack. I had no regard for Lynn’s life and the fact that she probably enjoyed having one. It was my fault, too, that we were playing death or dodge with a blubbering one-eye-holed giant dressed in a stinky loin cloth. And if she died, her blood would be on my hands. Just, not for very long.

     “This is no time to be mad, Lynn, duck!”

     I darted away from the monstrous hand, tripped gracelessly on a lamb and tumbled to a halt inside a giant wheel of cheese. If I could ever use a bath. Lynn fared better in her escape and now cowered behind an immovable jug fortress. I licked feta off my lips.

     Polyphemus lifted his incredible honker into the air and sniffed. This was no room of subtle odor and yet the acrid stench of one girl’s fearsweat left a faint overtone, a scent only the most discerning olfactory organ could sense.

    But sense it he did. A putrid smile arced across his flat lips. He approached her sideways, the way my brother used to when he thought he was being crafty in stalking Cat’s jerking tail. They had that same malicious grin.

     He pounced, his arms tree trunks dislodged by a hurricane, wrecking everything in their path. The protective jugs toppled and crashed into the center of the room, spilling wine and vinegar and olive oil and exposing Lynn to the monster. He had her. Her retreat was blocked.

     It was then that I did the stupidest thing I’d ever done in my life.

     “Hey!” I shouted, “I’m over here.”

     He turned as quick as Black Swan-Natalie Portman and in a voice colored by the foul stench of his breath incanted some gnarled version of Greek my way.

     “Yeah, that’s right. Over here.”

     In Greece, it’s not a good idea to have an itinerary. Distance seems to have no relation to time in these windswept islands, just ask Odysseus. Dude took like ten years to go from Italy to Ithaca. That’s a distance of just over 500 miles. He could have walked home in a month but when you’re sailing around the Mediterranean you have to be prepared to go where the wind and waves take you. You need to be ready for anything. You need to keep your wits about you. You need to be the man with the plan.

     I’m afraid I lacked both the man and plan in that recipe. I just had a disregard for my own safety and a big mouth.

     The giant took one step towards me. Then, another. On his third leg-plant he splashed down into the mess of wine and oil he’d split all over the floor. He slipped and despite his attempt to windmill his arms and catch his balance, crashed with a resounding crack as the back of his skull collided with the rock floor of his cave.
I climbed out of the cheese.

     Polyphemus was dead. He had breathed his last breath and eaten his last Greek.

     I watched him for a long time but there was no rise and fall in his chest and on a frame that big it’s hard to miss an inhalation. Stumbling towards the enormous corpse, I failed to notice the trail of blood that poured from his skull into the red wine lake. I righted myself, but the sticky slop of dead Cyclopes was already stuck to the cheese and my skin.

     When the others came round, asking, not doubt, if someone was attacking their brother, they found me standing triumphantly on Polyphemus’ head, covered in feta and the blood of the son of Poseidon.

     I froze, hoping to go unnoticed, but it’s kind of hard to be invisible when you’re standing on the face of a dead Cyclopes. For a moment, no one moved. They stared at me in silence with their binocular monovision. I stared right back at them. Lynn squeezed her eyes shut and tried to make the lot of us vanish from existence. 

     Then, a miracle. Clapping. More clapping. A resounding applause. Polyphemus’ brothers lifted us high and paraded us triumphantly into CyclopesVille to celebrate our heroism.

     The body of Polyphemus provided a feast the likes of which I had never seen before (and I certainly hope I will never see again). How we ate and danced and wiled the night away in story and song.

     Through a series of gestures, the Cyclopeses told the tale of Unlikable Polyphe, the Unavoidable Bellyacher. It had been more than three thousand years since Odysseus had tricked him out of an eye and a dozen lunches and he still moaned about it in unending self-pity. When the weather grew hostile and the flocks thinned to dangerously few sheep, Poly pouted his massive lips and threw rocks into the sea. When the harvest time came and everyone from the littlest clops child to the bendiest Cyclopes elder came out to join in the work, Phemus drank himself silly and made crying sounds long into the night. He thought of Nobody and himself. He never offered to help clean up after a party. He sang out of key as loud as he could. In short, nobody liked him.

     Wanting to commemorate our fateful journey, I handed my camera to our gracious host, Thyallus. 

Lynn, Polyphemus and me.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Kenya: Getting Around

     I used up the majority of my vomit tickets when I was a very young child in the backseat of a car. Every person, I believe, is given only a set number to use at their leisure. After that, better hope its digestible ‘cause that’s the only way it’s coming out.
Future movie star/skunk. Mom: is that Dennis behind us?

     Once, when I was three or four, I told my step dad I want to be an actress. I pointed at Sesame Street and I said I was going to be those kids: doing up my buttons, counting to ten in Spanish, over-under-around-the-tree-and-into-the-burrow. I had a calling on my playhouse phone. Oscar-the-Grouch was on line two.

     “Sesame Street is in New York,” my step-father grumbled.

     I’m three. I don’t know where New York is.                   

     “It’s about a three day drive.” He rolled over and buried his face under the pillow.

     Three days? In a car? Was there an eighth circle of hell?

     Dream deferred.

     The memory of long drives haunts me still. To this day, I can’t stomach the backseat. Real or remembered, the nausea returns. It’s a ghost of my past that I will do anything to escape. I drive when I can. When I can’t, I sit shotgun.

     This has its plusses and minuses.

     I get to see where I’m going. I get to take interesting (if bouncy) driving videos. I get to not get sick.

     But I have to see where I’m going. And sometimes it’s better not to know.
A bus skeleton.

     Here, the big rigs play a mean game of chicken. The forest eats the evidence: charred skeletons of busses, a suitcase thrown clear, a rock painted red. All gone within a month. What the starvingly poor citizens don’t pick clean, the powers of rust and sun and rain (never, but in excess) will.

     I sink into the front seat and watch as the truckers face down the busses. My imaginary steering wheel, the one I grip in bloodless fists, is powerless. Good thing, I guess, I’d probably steer us right over the cliff in my desire to chicken out.

     After a month, you stop wearing your seatbelt. I mean this figuratively. In the United States, I can’t sit in a car without belting myself in and pulling the strap tight. Doesn’t matter I’ve only climbed in to smoke a bowl; it’s going to be a safe journey. But there aren’t always seatbelts in the rest of the world.

     The first few days are the most painful: I reach for an absent safety restraint and feel the lack of it on me the entire drive. “I’m going through the windshield,” I whisper sweetly to myself in a mad mantra. Time turns down the volume of reason, though and soon enough I forget to reach for a belt even when it’s there.
Okay, here they're stopped but they drive this way too.

     But the sight of that truck aiming its fat-grill-face right at mine is enough to make me call up the distant memory of click-it or ticket and I latch myself in.

     Then I remember trying to use a seatbelt on a certain island I used to live on. My driver stopped, actually stopped, in the middle of the street and turned to me.

     “Take that off. No seatbelts in my car. Too unsafe.”

     “Seatbelts are too unsafe?”

     “We go over the edge and you gonna wanna be able to jump through that window.”

     “Oh, well I hadn’t thought of that.”

     So I stare down at the cliff side and then into the trucker’s headlamps and unclick.

     Click, unclick.



     Which feels worse?

     The next time I buy a long distance ticket I specify a window seat. In the back please.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Belize: Getting Localized

     I frowned into the empty beer bottle. Filtered through the glass, the world around me shimmered in an unappealing shade of brown. This was no starry kaleidoscope that I gazed through, no, this was the gritty lens of too much to drink and not enough to do.

     The bar had no walls, just a roof of palm fronds to hide us from the sun. We rested on dirty couches, flopped across them like rag dolls. Hell, we might have been rag dolls.

     My assistant, Zoe, came out from under her arm. “Where did we go wrong?”

     I stared at her through the bottle but didn’t offer an answer. For me, the downfall of the evening had been the after party: up until six, never long without a beer, smoking an angry joint. Oscar had left early but I was so busy rambling some nonsense about aquaponics to a couple of American kids that I didn’t notice for hours. When I thought to look for him again, a drunk girl pet me on the head sadly. “He’s gone, sweetie. I’m sorry,” she cooed.

     Zoe hadn’t fared much better. She’d left the bar on the back of Luis’s motorcycle, her arms strapped around him like foreshadowing. But he’d dropped her off at the hotel and left alone.

     I could offer no explanation. I sat across from Zoe in the morning-after-after-party bar and shook my head.

     “Men have it easy.”

     Zoe grunted in reply.

     “I can’t shop for sex. I can’t rent a local for the night.”

     I stood and walked to the edge of the shade. There, before me: a beacon of hope; a sign of better times to come.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Comoros: Getting Lost (in translation)

     Obviously, English is not the language of the people here. I'm no stranger to poorly translated signs and directions, but the odd thing about this is that English isn't even the secondary language in this country. French is.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ecuador: Getting Back

I am the one your parents warned you about; the one who was forbidden in your house. "That one's trouble," your father would say to your mother and she would nod slowly in reply. I have invented the following games: Face-First Downstreet Toboggan, Dodge-Bike!, Fire Wars, Skate-Boxing. I have played none of these but slunk away like a sly raccoon post injury. I am the bad influence.
I'm winding my way along the equator, snaking north and south of this invisible division. Which way will the water whirl now? I wonder, but there is no time to circle a stick into a miniature maelstrom to find out; the rapids propel us onwards in a mad cocaine-infused rush. This river does not rest.
I grip the oar so tight I feel I might break it. My heart has not slowed down since morning and I find little comfort in the glaze that seems to eternally cover the eyes of my guide. Is he bored? High? Unaware of the danger? Undisturbed by it? Impervious perhaps? He sits on the back of the boat and steers in silence, leaving Iona and I to guess at when to paddle into danger and when to hide out against the floor of the boat.
Iona has a baby monkey stuffed into her shirt. We're smugglers, pirates; an unsavory lot with a bribed local guide and an inflatable boat. We sense danger all around us though no one knows what we're doing. This monkey is quiet. Sh. Sleep, baby, sleep through the class four rapids.
I haven’t a clue what I'm going to do with this monkey once I escape the country. Right now, I'm more concerned with that waterfall up ahead.
"Hold on to your monkey-baby, Iona, we're going over."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Kenya: Getting There

“Get inside the bag,” my mother told me.

Lost, we drifted along in the sea of duffels. We’d pulled them off the shelves with reckless speed, emptying the shelves, and now they had us surrounded. The bag I’d bought myself was not good enough, my mother and aunt told me. I came to its defense, but they didn’t want to hear it. Even my best friend shook her head at me and sided with my family. The bag would have to be replaced. We’d been out shopping all day. My brain hurt. My stomach growled.

 “See which one feels bigger.” With that final order, my mother turned away to take a phone call.

I lowered myself onto the floor and got inside the bag.

Scrunching down to a size extra small, twisting this way and that, I did my best to get both my legs inside at once. My defiant limbs would not comply.

“It’s way too small,” I reported out. Mom was still on the phone. Val laughed and pulled the next bag alongside, hoisting me up out of the luggage by my wrists.
It's hard to take your own picture while in a suitcase.

“Ooo, much better,” I reported, enjoying the roomy sack. We took the blue one.

There is a certain irony to the tale of my mom asking me to pack myself in the suitcase, because it seems after a few days helping me prepare that she wanted most was to pack herself, to hide out in my luggage and come along.

She did. She packed herself in the tiny bottles she used to transfer all my liquids and in the unending stream of “Did you think of’s.” She packed herself in the long lists of supplies and in the way she refolded all my shirts. She packed herself and sent me off into the world to explore.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mozambique, Getting Localized

“What time does the bus leave?” I ask, first in English, then in Portuguese.

The woman behind the counter shrugs. “You want a ticket?”

The bus depot at the entrance to the market.

She hands a scrap of paper to me through the open window. My misspelled name and the number 3 are written on it. This is my ticket. No one will ever ask to see it. “Yellow bus. Over there.”

I follow the direction she’s pointing in and see that my backpack is already climbing aboard—so much of my time travelling is spent chasing after my luggage.

Splashing through the sloppy grey muck into the barefoot crowd, I follow my bag. When I reach the bus, the driver holds open the passenger door for me.

“Please,” he indicates, offering the coveted shotgun seat, “Please, it is raining.”

“What time do we leave?” They strap my backpack to the roof, covering it up cozy under a waterproof tarp next to a basket of chickens.

He shrugs as well. “When the bus is full.”

I never get a straight answer about how many tickets there are left to sell. We could be waiting on one; we could be waiting on sixteen. We could be waiting here in the gray marketplace all day and into tomorrow. A wait of no less than an hour (and probably no less than five) seems likely, so I wander off into the muck in search of something to eat.

This isn’t my first time in this town. The gloomy streets carry a familiarity; a sense of coming home. I’d arrived in the country a month earlier and set up camp for the first time on the other side of that big red and white building. This was where I first braved street food (it was midnight, I was wasted) and where I slid behind some boxes and into some benevolent stranger’s home to watch the football match on an eight inch black and white TV. I’d felt welcomed here. I couldn’t have picked a better jumping off point for this strange new land. Perfect but for the mud.
That red and white building, there.

It doesn’t often go a day without rain in this part of the country. It’s a cold misty rain, too, like back home on the ever wintery slopes of Mauna Kea. Neither the vibrant paint slapped up on leaning shacks nor the eclectic cloth the women wrapped themselves in could put a dent in the gray. When it rained, the colors melted.

I try to find the hole in the wall I ate at last month, the one with spicy, boiled egg soup. I remember giving directions to a friend who’d lingered in the market that day: “Walk towards the hotel. Okay. Now, look for a green door. No, there isn’t a name. There’s no sign. A green door, yes. Turn into the alley and come in through the opening in the wall. Okay, I see you.” How had I even stumbled inside?

Up and down the familiar foreign street I walk and yet no sign of soup. I slip inside another unmarked restaurant and order up a bowl of what they have.

I call the waitress-chef-owner-mother back once more. “And a beer?”

She laughs at me, a strange woman drinking alone, and happily delivers what I need to fend off the rain.

To say that time does not exist in this place is incorrect. There is a rhythm to life here that escapes me because I am too stupidly dependent on a watch to tick the seconds of my life away. Technology has superseded my heartbeat.

I sit and eat a bowl of rice, dipping into my small allotment beans every few bites. I try to slow down to Africa Time as I do on every visit to this continent. The beer helps. It dulls the sharp edges of my otherness.

From somewhere deep within me: How long has it been? I should check on the bus.

Relax. You’re on Africa Time now. Have another beer.
It really does taste good.

I listen to the second set of instructions and ponder the cookbook I’ll write for my favorite chef back at home. I even snap a few photos of the meal in between swigs of beer.

It strikes me as odd that a people so small in stature should only bottle alcohol in extra-large, village-sized containers. Are they hiding giants?

Beside me, a young man about my age starts chattering in English. How many houses do I own? How many cars? How many servants do I have? How much money do I make? The myth that American streets are paved with gold persists. It’s our own fault: tourists arrive, reach into magical pockets and pull out handfuls of money and candy and pens: wizardry.

I ask him to teach me the names of the animals and he laughs uproariously each time I try. He could be telling me the words wrong, telling me that the word for leopard is lion or suitcase or sex, but I think he just sees it as yet another magic trick. Step right up, step right up, fifty cents to view the woman with white skin who speaks Swahili. Genuine, real live, Swahili speaking American.

What time is it?


I take his picture; show it to him. He wants me to come back and give him a copy. I lie and tell him I’ll try.

Finally, full to the brim with two beers that equal five, I slosh my way back outside, spilling lager from my joints.

The bus has left.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Kiribati: Getting Back

Hector is an SUV: sporty, tough, powerful and a fuel-guzzler. He gulps his power drink by the gallon and seems to keep going strong no matter how much of the hard stuff he has in his system. Shot for shot he has no rival. Hector is either drinking or sleeping.
I turned to reply but he was gone.

I teetered atop my stool, empty basket of shark tacos still in front of me. Cannon fire  blasted across the midline of my brain. The heat and the hangover played tricks on my eyes, splitting the Mai Tai before me into two wavering cups of alcohol.

“You’d better catch up,” Hector chastised, sucking down his own second drink and heading off to pee in the ocean, still wrapped in the bloodstained sail.

There really were two drinks sitting before me.

“You’ve really done some job on that boat,” announced the man who mounted the stool next to mine. It was the same gold-skinned beach-frolicker Hector and I had tried to flag down that morning while we drifted helplessly in the center of a pack of sharks. The man’s skin glowed through the fabric of his white swim shorts and I did my best to pretend I couldn’t see the shadow of his penis through them. Once you’ve noticed a penis, it’s all but impossible to unnotice it.

I picked up the Mai Tai with a renewed interest, both for the something it gave me to do with my hands and the excuse to stare down into it. “I don’t know what happened,” I said into the ice cubes, sneaking a quick leftward glance (yup, that’s his penis), “It’s hard to remember yesterday.”

His laugh was a quick burst of sound so loud it made me jump. “Ha! You don’t know how you busted your mast in half? Crack! Straight through! Pow!”

“Nope,” I replied. Was there a clearly marked escape route? Last thing I needed with this headache was to get trapped in a conversation that utilized sound effects.

“Well, Bunnie and I are headed back the main island in an hour or so. We can give you a lift, and tow you’re boat in. We woulda helped if we’d have known you were actually in trouble. You know, I could really go for a scotch. They got scotch here. Hey, barkeep. You got Chivas? Yeah? Get me one: on the rocks. Bam! What a beautiful day.”

I need to escape from this vacation.

“Hey, hey, hey, Bunnie, baby, this is that girl with that boat we saw. What’d you say your name was?”

“Uh, Crystal.” I turned back to him. A woman who could have passed as an anime character draped her twig-arms around his bare chest. She too was clad in white and her nipples poked out at me through the three-inch triangles of bikini she must have taped to them. Why bother, people?

“Name’s Paul Ketner, Venture Capitalist. This is Bunnie. She’s a model. What is it that you do?”

 “I’m a writer. Fiction and travel narrative, mostly. Occasionally film and television scripts.”

Bunnie sucked on her teeth and used Paul’s glasses as a mirror.

Grabbing on to his drink, Paul leaned back and  scratched his crotch, nodded at me. “So you’ll let us give you a lift?”

Bunnie and Paul or one last, long swim. I wanted to live. I really did.

“Hey, man, your balls are showing,” Hector announced, slapping Paul on the shoulder.

Paul laughed like a maniac. “I know it! WOO! South Pacific! You wearing a toga? What’s that? Blood? Fuck man! Awesome!”

Paul led us aboard his yacht and proceeded to give us the extended tour. There were many details and histories I won’t trouble you with now. It was worse than watching video of other people’s kids on an iPhone.
The good ship Venture Capitalist
Eventually, our broken shell of boat was tied to the stallion yacht and we were on our way, sailing away from a sinking sun and into the darkness of yet another night voyage. I let the evening wash over me thought back over the last few days and my incredible knack for getting into every sort of trouble with my swarthy man-friends. Hector had a knack for chaos. It was the reason that I despised traveling with him and the reason that I kept calling him up time and again. There is something exotic about him, something magnetic the way—


Wait a minute.

Where’s Hector?


I climbed the ladder to the bridge but Paul and the Bunnie were utilizing all the available space. This ship has autopilot right? Is that the word for it on a boat?

“Hector?” I repeated, opening the door to the lounge and stepping across the threshold.

Inside, the lights twinkled like a thousand stars in the glass of the fully stocked bar. Hector, now dressed in one of Paul’s suits, spun on top of one of the bar stools, grinning that crazed smile of his. I swallowed the urge to collapse into a panic attack and approached. That's when I saw that Hector sat in front of a pile of white powder.

“What the fuck?” The words flew out of my mouth like an autonomic reflex.

Hector slid down from the stool, pushing his fingers into my lips. “Sh. Sh, sh, sh sh,” the shooshing teetered on the edge of laugher for a moment, but then regained its composure, “Shhhhh. They have blow.” He whispered loudly into my face, his mouth incapable of closing. It was like staring down a lion.

“Yes, I can see that.”

“You totally have to do a line. Oh my god. Best idea ever. Come on, I'll get it ready for you.”

“Are you out of your mind? Did they share? Do they know you're down here?”

“Let me just get this nice and straight for you and then, whoosh, you can come to the party. Snort this cocaine. Do it. Best idea ever.”

“They're gonna come back down here. That guy say he was a venture capitalist? What the fuck does that mean?”

“Best. Idea. Ever.”

“Isn't a venture capitalist like a modern day gangster.  Is that an entire duffel bag full of coke? Holy shit. Are they trafficking? Put it back.”

Hector's teeth gleamed out at me from behind lips pulled too tight. A ring of white sparkled around his dark irises. He might have fallen out of a horror film and straight into my life. “Dude, you gotta do this blow with me.”

“Give me that,” I squeaked, snatching the duffel from the bar top and sliding the loose powder into it. “The last thing we need right now is for the two of them to come down here and realize you're stealing their coke.” I looked around for a place to stash the bag, now zipped up tight. Over in the corner next to the other couple dozen seemed like a good place for it. “Damn it, Hector.”

“No, I'm serious. I'm totally serious. Look at me. Am I serious? Yes. Snort that.”

“Fuck me.”

“If you don't do this line of coke, nobody will and then they really will come down here and know that we stole their drugs and kill us and have sex with our skulls.” He laughed, more hyena than man and balled and unballed his hands in the neurotic need to continue moving. “That's why you totally gotta do that coke.”

“You make a compelling argument,” I lied, but I knew I’d have to humor him.

“Can I tell you something?”


I leaned over the edge of the bar and stared down at the line of cocaine. I’d seen it done once before, and even then the jester who attempted it failed. That wouldn’t stop me, though. I blew at the line with my mouth while pretending to snort it into my nose. Definitely not as easy as it sounds. About half of the drug ended up in my face, and though I jumped up and tried to wipe it away, it was too late. My nose was going numb.

“Ha ha ha ha ha!!!” the hyena cackled.

I quickly brushed the rest of the powder from the counter and, grabbing Hector by the arm, fled the scene of the crime.

In the soft glow of evening, Hector put his arms around me, more half-Nelson than hug. “You're my best friend ever,” he said, “I just want you to know that.”

“I sincerely hope not.” I couldn't seem to stop brushing my face off. Would they see the telltale dust littering my skin, confessing in my stead? There’s still more on me. Still more drugs. Have to get them off.

“We should go swimming.”


“Not now. Later.”

“Okay, later.”

A few hours later, safe in the hotel lobby, Hector and I returned what was left of the catamaran. Hector kept dipping his fingers into his pockets, rubbing them against his gums each time and sucking powder out from under his nails.

“I’m really sorry about this,” I told the man who held my credit card as collateral, “I’ll pay for whatever repairs you need to make.”

“She’ll pay for it,” Hector confirmed, “The mast is broken. She’ll pay for it.”

“I’m really sorry. I’m not sure what happened.”

“The mast broke,” Hector reminded me.

“I’m sorry.”

I signed the credit card slip and agreed again to pay for all the repairs. When I looked up, Hector was gone.