Wednesday, March 23, 2011


     It had been a long day and I did not want night-cake.

     At five in the morning, I’d checked out of my hotel, grabbed a taxi and headed down to the three-plane airport. The only flight leaving that day was due to depart at seven-thirty am, and I, in a misguided attempt to be thrifty, didn’t have a ticket. You see, when I left the nation’s capital for the beach town of Morondava, I’d assumed I would be taking the $30 bus back. The 16 hours it took me to wind my dizzy way across Madagascar, however, elicited a change of heart and I was now hoping to cough up $250 for a one way, 45 minute flight.

     But the airport didn’t take credit cards, the bank couldn’t process my Master Card and I was down to my last 100,000 ariary. Like it or not, I was taking the bus...

Visit to read the rest of this real life tale of cake!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Indonesia: Getting Wasted

Instructions for the use of this short story: This story can be read alone but is better if read as a part of a series. 1. Read Indonesia: Getting Answers, Indonesia: Getting Closer and Indonesia: Getting Through It. 2. Play the Music. 3. Read the latest installment. 4. Tell an unsuspecting friend to come visit. 5. Come back soon for more.

     The other side of the mountain was shrouded in clouds that hugged the earth as close as they could, mist kissing ground. On the other side of the cave, I found myself somewhere else; somewhere otherworldly. Kickstand opening automatically, the bike parked itself below the last lip of rock because it could not follow me here. Our journeys were no longer intertwined.

     I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I seated myself on the temple steps. Mysterious forces had pulled me along at an unreasonable pace all morning and now that my adventure was on a break, exhaustion smothered every muscle. I wobbled over to the old man, who waited with infinite patience.
     He smiled and indicated that I sit beside him and drink. Steam poured out of the cup he placed before me but it was unable to add heat or humidity to the already torpid atmosphere.
     It was too hot out here. My skin had been leaking a constant stream of sweat since I’d  arrived in this country and I glistened, almost salamander-like. Nothing was ever dry here. Between the water that poured out of me and that which had been deposited by the breath of the jungle I was swimming my way through Indonesia.

     I gazed into the tea cup but my will did not make it lemonade. It’s hard to imagine enjoying a steamy cup of tea in such a climate. It seems that tea is better enjoyed in cool, foggy regions where the chill from the air creeps all the way into the center of your bones. Nevertheless, I lifted my tea cup (so hot it left a red ring between my hands) and drank.

     Though the temperature of the beverage was surprisingly agreeable, the medicinal flavor nearly forced me to spit it all over my host. Out! shouted my brain and tongue in unison, but I kept my teeth firmly clenched around the offensively bitter drink and forced it down. There was something chemical about the flavor; something dangerous.

     I sipped while the old man and I did not speak to one another. In the West, we were having what would have been called a long and very awkward silence, but here I was learning to let the quiet happen. The spaces between words are not danger zones where accidents happen. There was no need to rush words out; they would come when they were necessary and important.

     While I sat sipping quietly on my horrid drink I tried to guess what might be in it. Lemongrass? Citronelle? Tree bark? Dirt?

     Once, a boyfriend brought home a white paper bag filled with tea he’d received from the acupuncturist. It was medicinal, he’d told me and so I dumped the contents out on the counter to see what it was made of. There were chunks of mushrooms, sticks, spongy flowers, small stones and curly bits of bark that had been stripped off tropical trees. I also found inch long pieces of something familiar that I couldn’t identify. The pieces were round, like a long, thin cylinder, and were covered with circular ridges that were spaced equally apart. I slid these pieces out of the pile of forest tea and put together the puzzle. When it was complete, I could see that these sections had once been an earthworm.

     On the temple steps, I tried to forget this story as I gagged, but you try not thinking about earthworm tea while you’re drinking tea that tastes like dirt. I forced myself to swallow.

     When I finished my cup, the old man did not pour me another. It was the first time I’d ever seen a cup run dry in this part of the world.

     “You are looking for something; that’s why you have come to me.”

     I wished that he knew because of some mystical force. I wanted him to have heard of my arrival from the gods; I wanted him to have had a vision of me riding up to his temple while he was lost in meditation. Nowadays, I knew, even mystics carried cell phones. The concierge at my hotel was likely the one who had notified him that I was coming, not, alas, a messenger from the spirit world.

     “I am looking for something.”

     “A pterodactyl.”

     Definitely the concierge.

     It sounded so ridiculous now that he said it. I laughed but nodded, “Yes.”

     “When you are ready, continue down the path.”

     He disappeared back into the temple, leaving me alone on the steps. The water from the air pooled into drops that slid down my skin. Watching it, I couldn’t help but feel like I was raining.

     When I finally pulled my attention away from my newfound cloudlike superpowers, the sky had shifted into indigo twilight: bottomless and bright.

     But that wasn’t right. I’d left early in the morning. It couldn’t have been much later than two in the afternoon. My gaze sunk onto the dirt path in front of me, where the colors of evening had also spilled. The ground rolled in purples and deep reds, like the sea when it robs the sunset out of the sky. It moved like the sea, too, in shallow waves that undulated in rhythm with my breath. Or had I adjusted my breathing to match the spacing between the waves of blue soil?

     It occurred to me, for a moment, that I ought to panic, but I’d used up my adrenaline in the cave and though the frightened thoughts were there, the chemicals had run dry. I thought of fear and did not feel it. This was probably a good thing; there was no way to rid myself of what I’d taken. What’s done is done.

     So, I let go. I let the fear slip beneath my conscious thought; I let the expectation evaporate into the clouds. I released my close association with my own body, and allowed the line between me and the world to blur. I let the magic back in; I forgot about cell phones and the loss of mysticism.

     And then I walked further into the jungle.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Palau: Getting Localized

A few yards down the road I saw a dog trying very hard to follow one of these rules while blatantly ignoring another of them. Look carefully. See if you can spot all three pairs of swim trunks (hint: only two pairs are being worn by humans).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Greece: Getting Sleepy

Instructions for the use of this short story: 1. Play the first song. 2. Read until you get to the second song. 3. Play that one. 4. Read the rest. 5. Repeat as needed.

Beetle Juice - Shake Shake Senora

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     There isn’t anything that quite compares to awakening from a pounce. There’s nothing subtle about this sort of shift from dreaming to wakefulness. One moment, you’re sound asleep and the next you’re staring into the eyes of someone who finds themselves bouncy-trouncy-founcy-pouncy-fun-fun-fun-fun-fun!

     Back at home, I have a cat who knows better than to play the role of the alarm clock. She sleeps or doses along with me until a change in the rhythm of my breathing alerts her to the fact that I’m no longer sleeping. And then, of course, I’m fair game.

     But I wasn’t at home. In fact, I was sleeping on an airbed in the bell tower of a run-down church on an island devoid of all human life.

     When I first opened my eyes, the green, translucent set of cat eyes staring back at me seemed too large to belong to a feline of normal proportions. I had to get grip on reality, shake away the hypnogogic vision and allow her to come into focus. The pounce, the 6:30am pounce means only one thing: that the cat expects breakfast now. The size of the cat demanding breakfast makes a difference, where the survival of the adventurer (here, me) is concerned.

      She had gotcha! written across her face, but as the sleep drained away from my head, her scale diminished and I could see that she was just a normal, cat-sized cat. Gotcha! and tiny cat teeth weren’t a cause for alarm.

      I raised a groggy hand to scratch between her ears, where the fleas had left scabs. She responded by sinking her paws right into my boobs, one on each side, pressing her whole weight onto the points that were her front feet. Squeezing each hand in turn, she did her best to work my nipples down underneath my rib cage, where they do not belong. I wish cats could understand how much that hurts. I pushed her paws away but each time I picked one up and placed it on more solid ground, she returned it from whence it came.

      After a moderate power struggle, she got the point and slipped between me and Lynn, who was still asleep beside me. She sat there for a few minutes, rubbing her nose against mine and sending her tail, whack, whack, whack, across Lynn’s neck. I still had my hand on her head and was just about to doze off again when a shrill voice brought me back around.

     The voice was Lynn’s. The words were, “Zombie cat! Zombie cat!”

     The cat turned to face Lynn and dipped her head closer to deposit a sweet kiss on the tip of Lynn’s nose.

     This affectionate gesture sent Lynn sliding off her side of the mattress and over to the wall, as far away as she could get from what she again identified as, “Zombie cat!”

     Miffed at the sudden disruption of the sleeping arrangement, the cat turned and climbed on top of my chest, prompting an almost immediate confirmation from me: “Holy shit! Zombie Cat!”

     I hadn’t seen her left side before this moment, and now that I did, I shuddered, trapped beneath the Zombie Cat. I wiggled to free myself, but she sent me such a glare that I froze up again, completely unable to extricate myself from under this black and white monster of a cat.

Beetlejuice Theme Song

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     “What the hell is wrong with it?” Lynn screeched, still pressed against the wall like a fugitive anticipating a bullet.

     Zombie Cat sat down and tucked its front paws underneath its chest, settling in and purring audibly on me.

     “Skin infection,” I diagnosed, completely trapped.

     Lynn, emboldened by her ability to walk around, leaned in a little closer, even venturing an ineffectual sniff in Zombie Cat’s direction. “That’s disgusting.”

     “Yeah, no shit. Get it off me.”

     “Un-uh. I’m not touching that zombie cat. Good luck, Captain.”

     She left me there. Lynn left me there with half a dozing cat draped across my chest.

     For five minutes that seemed no less than five hours, I worked to free myself. I squirmed, dragging my body out inches at a time, using my elbows for leverage. Zombie Cat remained on the bed, sinking on the slowly deflating hole I’d left by my absence. It sighed. Sleep on, Zombie Cat.

     I jetted down the stairs but came to an abrupt stop when I saw what Lynn did.

     Last night, under the cover of darkness, dozens of partially decomposed cats crawled from out of their graves. It must have been a full moon. Tiny headstones would have been lined up in front of mounds of disturbed earth. Somewhere, off in the distance, a crow. Then, that ominous still before a single paw breaks the surface of the soil. Another paw; entire cats, struggling to free themselves just as I had struggled under the weight of Zombie Cat. The camera zooms in, close-up on the half-eaten face of an orange tom, that one there, sniffing at Lynn’s toes. He meows a low, throaty sound that cats make only to be horrible. You know the sound.

     “Brains,” I yowled in my own horrid, throaty cat-voice.

     “Not funny,” Lynn reported. Then she punched me, just to get the point across.

     Everywhere there were cats: perched on stairs and windowsills and stone ruins that were crumbling to pieces as bad as the cats were. No cat was made from a complete set. Some were missing a leg, others an ear, most a swath or two of skin. Eyes had rolled away. Lips receded to leave toothy cat-grins stretched across their faces.

     In the distance, the boat bobbed gently up and down. We’d tied it up to what was left of the long-abandoned harbor. At least now we knew why the people had gone.

     “Just run,” I whispered and shoved Lynn straight into the mob of hobbling cat parts. More emerged from the ruins, climbing up from under the city and into our way, chasing and chasing and weaving in front of our feet even though we weren’t carrying any large boxes. We ran and the cats ran with us and just when we thought it was over, our feet splashed into the cool, blue Mediterranean sea and the cats stopped.

     We didn’t look back.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Kiribati: Getting Localized

     Peace never comes without a price. Perhaps if I'd have sprung for some I could have avoided the disaster that awaited me on the boat with Hector. But, no, like a fool, I decided not to buy it. I just don't have the kind of money peace demands.

Read the Kiribati trilogy!
Part 1: Kiribati: Getting There
Part 2: Kiribati: Getting Hungry?
Part 3: Kiribati: Getting Back

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Indonesia: Getting Through It

Instructions for the use of this short story: 1. Read Indonesia: Getting Answers and Indonesia: Getting Closer 2. Turn off the lights. 3. Play music. 4. Read, enjoy, comment, repeat.

     It was all downhill from here. No need to press against the pedals with burning calves; no need to work up a sweat under the heavy tropical sun. All I had to do was sit back and let the mountain pull me in.

     I had no poet Virgil to guide me safely through the descending levels of madness. It was just me, a 5-speed Huffy and the shadow of a dinosaur beckoning us on. The gears had been stripped off the bike and the front brake line hung loose off the handlebars, feeding into nothing.

     Speed is not something I usually lust after. I ride the brakes and I ski in the shape of a slice of pizza. The thinning brake pad on the rear tire needed to be preserved-for emergencies-so I let the acceleration take me. 
Ever-increasing speed has an almost animal sexuality. I might die soon so I’d better breed now, my womb whispered.

     Hush, I told it back.

     The path swerved along through thickening jungle, blotting out the rest of the sun. There were whole worlds up there in the canopy that I would never know. There could be a dog party going on, just twenty meters away, invisible beyond the leaves. Do you like my hat?
     This is the part of the movie where the heroine stupidly rides off on some frivolous quest, away from the protection of men, who know how to squeeze their hands into fists. No, no don’t go off alone, you think, safe in the darkness of the theatre, but there she goes, all wheels and hope, seeing life through the lens of a happy childhood. But there is a danger here on the fringe, as there is in all borderlands. The places of transition are home to the most monsters.

     I ignored all that. I was looking for monsters and trying my hardest to bring myself face to face with the impossible. My descent into my childhood subconscious was purposeful and systematic. Red riding hood to the wind.

     Eventually, the sky vanished completely and the world was made of me and trees. The road diminished until it was no more than a hazy line pressed down by a thousand years of infrequent feet.

     Unruly branches stretched down to scratch at my face and pull on my hair. Roots and stones jumped into my spokes. I did not slow for the jungle. I kept my mind on the sharp sword bill and the featherless paper wings I was after.

     My long coast came to an abrupt end when the path wound its way into the heart of the mountain. The one brake was not enough to stop the bike and so I bailed, leaping from the doomed device just in the nick of time. I landed in a springy pile of undergrowth which slithered and hopped away in a poisonous procession. 
Momentum pulled the bike along until it crashed against one wall of the cave, disturbing a swarm of sleeping bats just as I had disturbed the gaboon viper beside me.

     “Mind the bats,” the boy had said to me, but I didn’t mind the bats. I minded the cave.

     Rising from the jungle floor, I took a few shaky steps towards the cave and placed my toes up against the exact invisible line where the outside ended and it began. I stood like that on the edge of the choice for what seemed like hours. Inside the hole in the world, the back wheel of the bicycle spun around. It wanted to get going again. Through the darkness, the rest of the bike could not be seen. I hoped this wasn’t the reason I had packed a flashlight in my emergency kit, but damn it, I had.

     I wanted to spit at always be prepared. Would have been a great excuse to turn around right now. It was all just a dream. I had a lovely bike ride through the forest. I fought a monkey and the monkey won. I’ll have the nasi goreng and the gado gado. Extra peanut sauce, please.

     But I dug the stupid flashlight out of my day pack, swearing pretty much non-stop. LEDs do not do enough damage on darkness, but it really wasn’t the darkness of caves that bothered me, either.

     Eyes on the bike, I took one shaky step into the cave. And another. And one more.

     I used the same trick I do when I’m swimming by myself in deep water. I pick a point: a buoy, a kayak, a piece of coral breaking the surface or a tourist bobbing along on a pretty pink pool noodle in front of the Body Glove. If I can just swim to that point, then I’ll be fine. Nothing will eat me between here and there. I can’t consider the real size of the monster. I have to watch him only one scale at a time.

     Before I realized what was happening, I had the bike by the handlebars and was rolling it deeper into the earth.

     Just to that shiny bit there, the one sparkling like a frosted cake.

     Just to that collection of stalactites.

     Just to that pile of guano over there. (The bats were a welcome distraction. I stopped and watched them for a moment but then felt the dizziness all the way into my knees and I had to press on, tilting dangerously far head-over-heels.)

     Just to that terrifying giant cave spider.

     Just to the light. Just to the forest on the other side with the upside-down bowl of sky above me.

     And like that, I was on the other side of the mountain.

Photos by Connie Freeland, Ryan Marsh, Donna Newton and Crystal Beran.

Read the next part of the story: Indonesia: Getting Wasted