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.