The Mobile Lawyer

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The Mobile Lawyer -- One Lap, No Jetlag: December 2008

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year's everyone

OK -- I'm exhausted. I had a 4 a.m. bus ride from San Cristobal to Copan, Honduras yesterday, and then a 5:15 a.m. bus ride today from Copan to La Ceiba, so I could catch the last ferry to Roatan Island, leaving at 4:30 p.m. to meet up with my friends Ian and Heidi for New Years.

As you know, I'm trying to do the "no reservations" thing for the most part. It looks like I'll have to make some exceptions occasionally (booking a room the day before or so), but for the most part, I'm going to try to stick to it. It is far, far less firm than the "no-fly zone" for the trip, but I'm going to try to keep both intact.

I'd emailed the hotel that Ian and Heidi were staying at before I left to inquire how booked up the island gets during this time of year. The owners said quite so. When I got off the boat on the island and hopped in a cab, the cabbie asked me what hotel I was going to and did I have reservations. I gave him Heidi and Ian's hotel name -- or what I thought was the name-- to meet up with them (and perhaps impose on their hospitality for a spot on their floor for the night) and he said I didn't have reservations. He told me the entire island was booked. Turns out I didn't remember the name right and had to stop into an internet cafe to look up the email they had sent me. I asked the internet clerk dude about any room openings he had heard of and he gave me an incredulous look as he said, "you didn't book a place to stay?" Pretty much the same reply from the next cabbie I got to Ian and Heidi's hotel.

Got to the hotel, got dropped off, the owner came out. I asked for Ian and Heidi. She gave me the room number. I asked about any room openings that she heard of and she said, "shockingly, yes. We have an opening here for a few days. Someone cancelled their reservations today."

Turns out some couple from the States had flown down to Honduras today. Got off the plane. Went through immigration here. . . . and found out one of their passports expire in four and a half months. You have to have a passport valid for at least six months after you arrive in Honduras to be allowed into the country. They had to board a plane back and fly back to the States immediately. Bingo -- room for me.

And its actually the room that Ian and Heidi stayed in the last few nights. They've moved to another room, because of the cancellation.

And now I'm off to have New Year's Eve dinner with my friends. Tired. Needing a nice bottle of wine. And a good meal. But with a place to sleep tonight. Livin' under a good star, I am.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Climbing Volcan Pacaya

I got into Antigua, Guatamala about dinner time the night before, had a little chow and a beer or two, and hit the sack in my first dorm room hostel of the trip. At about $7 dollars U.S. for the night, I figured it was time for me to get into the occasional hostel routine.

Five beds in my room, but the hostel wasn’t one of those ones where people stumbled into their beds at all hours of the night. I went to bed at about 10 or so and the last person in the room came in about 30 minutes later. While that wasn’t a problem, my bed was right up against the wall right on the street, so every sound, honk, and voice from the street was right next to me. And on top of that, it was a Saturday night and the band playing in the bar immediately next door to the hostel was prone to playing truly poor covers of Pink Floyd songs. “Another Brick in the Wall” really shouldn’t be played with in a hard rock style, with a Spanish accent.

In any case, over the breakfast the next morning, I had chance to sit and talk with two very cool people from Oxford, England. Michael was taking an extended trip through the U.S., Mexico and Guatamala. He’s been on the road for a few months now and was heading back to Xela (pronounced shell-a) later that day with his friend, Stella, to take three months of Spanish lessons. Stella had recently joined him in Central America and was going to head over to Xela with him to take a week or two of Spanish, before she had to head back. They told me that I really needed to take the afternoon hike up the Volcan Pacaya, which gets to the summit around sunset. They said the hike was moderate, but the views were great and you had a chance to get right up to the lava. I took a look at their pictures and decided to go that afternoon.

I booked the trip at my hostel, got into a van with nine others at about two in the afternoon, and our driver took us on the hour-long ride up to the volcano. The hike doesn’t go all the way to the top, but to the portion of the volcano that still has a lava flow coming out of it. I think the volcano is about 2,500 meters tall, and from the signs posted (with my not excellent Spanish), it looked like our hike was from about 1,800 to 2,300 meters or so. That didn’t seem too hard.

Our guide for the afternoon was a 73 year old local who could have sprinted up the trail. I realize I’m not in great shape, but seriously – having a 73 year old guy run circles around you really can set your ego back a bit.

From Volcan Pacaya

When you got there, you were surrounded by small children selling you a walking stick for 5 quetzals, which was about 60 cents. I bought one of those and also a bottle of water, got my camera situated in my fanny pack (or as my new English friends called it, booty bag – I do like that more), and proceeded to follow our guide up the trail.

I never saw him take one deep breath in the entire five hours we spent on the volcano.

I took my first after about 3 minutes of the hike.

The hike up took about an hour and forty-five minutes. The first ¾’s or so was through the forested part of the mountain. The trail was moderately steep – probably about a 25-30 degree incline. The path wasn’t the best and there was a lot of horse shit all over the place, because you could rent a horse to ride up the trail for 75 quetzals.

After little more than an hour you reach what you think, or hope, is the summit. There is a concrete building up there. Anyone on a horse has to dismount. It looks like the summit is just over the crest in front of you. At this point, I was dead-ass tired. Our guide stopped us and we took some pictures of Volcan Agua, which overlooks Antigua, off in this distance.

From Volcan Pacaya

Our guide then led us around the corner and we got our first glimpse of our final destination. It not only looked a pretty far way off, but it looked really, really steep (notice the people climbing up on the path to the right).

From Volcan Pacaya

As a sidelight, to cheer us up I think, our guide walked us out a different path over the volcanic gravel than the other guides were on. After we got a few hundred feet above the other groups, we then ran down the hill we were on, kicking up dust and such as we ran/slid down the hill. Being that I don’t speak any Spanish, I didn’t understand his explanation, but from the grin on his face, I took it that it was a fun little diversion to put a smile on our faces. It did – but they didn’t last long. It was time to go up the side of the volcano in the final push.

From Volcan Pacaya

The path up was really tough going. You were either walking on volcanic rocks, which was easier going, because they didn’t move as much (but then again, it was easier to lose your balance and take a tumble that you really, really didn’t want to take), or walking on small volcanic gravel. Most of us took the gravel route, which seemed safer, but every time you put your foot into the ground and pushed off from your bottom foot, the gravel would slightly give way. So essentially for every two steps you were taking up, you were making about a step and a half progress. And for anyone that has walked in deep sand, you understand how much it saps your energy – and frankly, I didn’t have a hell of a lot energy left.

Our group eventually made it up to the top and the reward at the top was certainly worth the effort to get there. We made it about 20 minutes before sunset, and although the sunset was obscured by clouds, the lava flow was fascinating. I was the only American in my group, and some Canadians, Israelis, and Swedes were saying that you’d never be allowed to get this close to lava in the States (or be able to climb the side of this volcano with no safety gear) because of liability issues. As a lawyer in the States, I can verify that – but I was glad I got a chance to take these pictures.

In short, for any others out there thinking about taking this climb, some advice:

• Be in pretty reasonable shape. If you aren’t in moderate shape, don’t worry about looking like a fool – take the horse ride up for the first 3/4s of the trail – the last ¼ is going to be work enough.
• Go ahead and buy the walking stick. I was pulling myself up the last part with the stick. By the way, you aren’t buying it – those same kids are waiting back at the bottom to beg the stick back from you. Since you’ve no need for it anymore, might as well give it back. It’s a rental.
• Bring a couple bottles of water.
• Obviously a camera.
• Bring some small flashlight for the walk down.
• It is winter now, but it wasn’t too cold at the top. Bring a light jacket or something for the walk down, but you probably are going to be pretty warm via the work-out anyway.
• Wear long pants and good hiking shoes. I saw a good number of scraped up legs from the volcanic rock and I can’t imagine doing the climb in sandals, as I saw a few people (idiots) wearing.
• And I would do the afternoon/sunset climb. They have one that leaves at 6 a.m., but you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere near the top by sunrise, and seeing the lava flow at night for a bit before you walk back down is great.
* O yea -- and bring some mashmellows to roast.

From Volcan Pacaya

From Volcan Pacaya

From Volcan Pacaya

From Volcan Pacaya

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New eyeballs

So, I am hopeful that after the article in today's newspaper, by the wonderful and talented Robin Mero, that I might have a whole new set of eyeballs following my trip. In their honor, I am taking the day off today in Antigua and writing all day. I think I probably have 3-4 blogs in me for sure, by the end of the day. Now all I need to find is some coffee shop with wireless access, so I can use my laptop.

In the meantime, since I am going to try to write a book about all of this and would actually like to see it published, I will ask you a favor. If you like the content here, I would appreciate if you would join up in one of two ways: on the right side of the main page on my blog is a "follower" list and a "Facebook" link. I think how these work (I should also spend some time today exploring the help feature in blogspot), is that if you join up, you will get notice when I post a new blog. From my point of view, it also gives me an idea of how many people are reading -- which right now is about 20 followers here and 150 or so on Facebook.

I sent an email out to the Facebook followers when I post a blog. If you'd like to be on my Facebook network, just search for me there and send a friend request with a line that you read about me in the newspaper. I think you can either search by my name, Michael Hodson, or by my email,

If you have any questions you'd like me to answer about any of this, or the trip, or have ideas of places I should go -- post them here as comments or on my wall on Facebook (so others can read them) or shoot me an email.


Friday, December 26, 2008

Mayans, Marriage, Coca-Cola, and Chickens

Today, I took a tour of a couple local Tzotzil Mayan towns near San Cristobal, which is the city in southern Mexico that I’ve been staying in for the last couple of days.

Our guide for the five-hour tour was Julio, a local Mayan (from a different group than the people we were visiting) who spoke excellent English. I seriously need to make an effort to learn a foreign language – everyone speaks my own language better than I do, and for most of them it is there 3rd or 4th language. It was Julio’s 3rd language. His native language was one of the versions of Mayan (his parents still won’t let him speak anything else in their home), his second language was Spanish, and his third was English. I think he spoke some French also.

Pictures of the people are prohibited in both of the Mayan towns we were going to visit, because they feel that pictures steal part of their soul. The guidebooks mentioned that you had to ask anyone in this area to take their picture before you did, and that there were accounts of people getting beaten up for taking unauthorized pictures.

In the first small village we went to, we went into one of the three room concrete homes to watch one of the local women weave and for Julio to give us a run-down on Mayan culture. The tour group obviously had some sort of deal with this family, so we were permitted to take some pictures inside the house.

The floor of the house was a well-poured and level concrete slab. The main room, where the woman was weaving, must have been the main sleeping room of the house. At night, cots or whatever were pulled out and the family slept there. In the front of the house, there was a small room that was dedicated to a Catholic shrine of various statutes of saints, lit candles and such. There was a sink and a bathroom, so the house did have indoor plumbing. In the back of the house was the kitchen – a room with a dirt floor, some benches, a couple tables and two open fires. When we first entered the room, we could see one of the fires in the kitchen, but we became much more aware of it about twenty minutes later, when the wind shifted, began blowing into the kitchen from the one doorway leading out to the back, and filled the house with smoke.

Julio ran down some of the highpoints of current Mayan culture, with emphasis on marriage rites. Apparently polygamy is alive and well in this region. If a wife could not produce a male heir after the first three or so children, the husband was free to go and purchase another wife, in order to get a son.

And purchase seemed the right term. The family sizes were large. Julio came from a family of twelve and he said that was about average. When a boy reached the age of sixteen to eighteen, his family would pick out a bride. Apparently, it’s not a total arraigned marriage, the prospective bride, and especially the groom, had a say in whom was going to marry whom. The going rate -- I like to think of it more of a dowry than a straight purchase -- was about $25,000 pesos ($2,000 dollars or so) and a cow. Or as Julio shrugged and said, “40,000 for a pretty girl. Go ahead and just take the ugly one for free.”

And I thought we overemphasized looks back in the States.

The lecture was good and fairly informative, but then there was a demonstration. Julio asked a married couple on the tour from Italy to play the bride and groom, me to be the godfather (in my case, think more classic Brando than Catholic please) and another woman to be the godmother. We then all put on traditional garb for the occasion of the wedding.

From San Cristobal

That is me on the right above. The Godfather.

From San Cristobal

There was a bunch of symbolism in everything we wore. I don’t remember too much of it. The groom’s hat represented the universe and the colored bits of cloth on the back of the hat were all good luck colors. The bride wears virginal white – and I think they actually mean that in this culture. Julio mentioned something about the girls being “protected” until they were married. Methinks the fathers might be a little rough on anyone prematurely deflowering one of their daughters.

The ruffles at the bottom of her dress represent one of the Mayan gods protecting her in her marriage. My headdress is a sign of intelligence – to keep my brainpower in there, I suppose. I guess I’ll have to start wearing hats more.

A very nice older gentleman took my camera from me as they put on the custom and took a few pictures of me in my garb. I so wish the other picture would have been in focus, because after Julio explained the basics of the wedding ceremony – which lasts for three full days – the Mayan family handed each of us a plastic shot glass of the local liquor, posch, which came in three colors. I chose red. We all toasted the ‘bride and groom’ and down the hatch it went. It wasn’t too bad, actually. Sort of a grain alcohol with a slightly fruity flavor.

I checked my watch. It was 10:45 a.m. A bit early for shots, but if in Maya. . .

A quick tour of the inside, open-fired kitchen. Some homemade tortillas. Much coughing from all the smoke and then we were off.

From San Cristobal

We then went to the much larger town of San Juan Chamula. I don’t have any pictures from this town, because Julio said we not only didn’t have permission, but that today and tomorrow were special days and that “there were many authorities around.” Apparently, they really take the no-picture policy seriously. You could tell from Julio’s facial expression that he was quite serious about it also. I wasn’t up for getting punched our or arrested, so you shall have to settle for my verbal descriptions.

At the end of the year, the local Mayan population elects new mayordomos, who apparently are the local elected honchos for political and religious purposes. We were there on one of the party days, where the exiting mayordomos were throwing a big public party for the town. There were a few hundred people out in front of the main church in the public square, some singing, fireworks – mostly very loud firecrackers, and religious chanting my the mayordomos to the observing crowd.

Julio led us inside the church, which was called the Templo San Juan. It was a fascinating combination of Catholic and Mayan inside and Julio filled us in on some of the local religious practices.

The one practice that San Juan Chamula is famous for, as written in the guidebooks, is that the residents drink Coca-Cola in order to burp, because burping helped evict bad spirits. As Julio explained more fully, the local shamans (I don’t think there were any Catholic priests) would take the pulse of someone and determine what illness or ailment they had. The most frequent remedy was that the parishioner was told to mix a combination of Coca-Cola and posch, the lovely local liquor I got a sample of earlier, and drink up. The resulting burps did indeed help rid of the body of what ailed you.

O yea – and you were usually also to bring a live chicken into the church and ritualistically sacrifice it by breaking its neck. In the church. Breaking its neck was to symbolize the breaking of the illness that you had.

One of my favorite aspects of this was why they were to use Coca-Cola. For this purpose it is referred to as the ‘black water of hell.’

Not sure that’s the same for Diet Coke though, so most of you are safe.

The inside of the church was white. White tiles on the floor. White washed walls. And white candles everywhere. Around the walls of the church were wooden display cases, encased in glass, with two to three foot tall, full-body dolls representing various saints. All of the cases were labeled, so you knew to whom you were praying – Virgen de Magdalena, Santo Thomas, Santo Marta, and so on. There were probably thirty of them or so. In front of most were tables that were filled with lit candles contained in glasses, most of which had some religious writing on the outside celebrating Mary. Most tables appeared to have about fifty or sixty candles on them – each table was entirely covered.

Pine needles were strewn about the floor of the church and there were about a dozen people on their knees on the tile praying in front of more candles that they had lined up on the floor and lit. Some were praying towards one of the display cases containing a saint and others were just out in the middle, praying towards the alter in the front of the church. Most had about 20-40 candles lit in front of them. Most also had bottles of Coca-Cola and some had eggs in plastic bags. I think Julio said something about the eggs, but I frankly don’t remember.

I was walking around the church with Elvira and Maaike (I hope I got those spellings correct), two beautiful women from the Netherlands that I’d been talking to on the tour. Taking it all in was a job for multiple people and multiple eyes. At one point I heard a cell phone ring, but didn’t think anything of it.

Maaike tapped me on the shoulder and pointed towards a Mayan guy who appeared to be in his mid-50s. I had noticed him earlier, because he had a most impressive display of candles lit in front of him on the floor – about 80 or so. He had been chanting some sort of prayer in the local language as I’d passed by him. When Maaike tapped my shoulder, I turned around and noticed he was the one whose cell phone had rang, and he was sitting there on the floor having a loud conversation with someone on the phone. It was apparent that it was just a normal, non-religious conversation. After three or four minutes of that, he got back on his knees and then started chanting or praying again – this time with the cell phone still open and up to his ear.

I’m guessing that someone couldn’t make it to church, so they called their prayer in. An idea for the rest of us?

As the three of us approached the alter in the front, we saw two woman down on their knees. One woman was chanting non-stop. I couldn’t understand whether it was one prayer over and over and over again or different content, but we watched her for over fifteen minutes and she never stopped. Why did we watch her that long?

Because the other woman was holding a small chicken by its hind-legs next to the praying woman.

The chicken was still alive. Every once in a while you could see its head move this way and that, but it mostly just laid there completely docile, as if it knew what was coming. Interestingly, there was one empty soda bottle next to the chanting woman and also one that was still full – but it was Pepsi, not Coke. In the Cola Wars for your soul, both sides are apparently equal combatants.

We waited for about fifteen or twenty minutes to see the climatic moment, but it never came. The bus was due to leave and so, alas, I did not get to see my first animal sacrifice.

Although the whole experience was quite interesting and a unique glimpse into a completely different culture, I felt like such a religious voyeur. It was odd seeing people performing their worship, obviously diligent and sincere and not an act for tourist consumption, while walking around their church watching them and wearing a fanny pack.

Or maybe it’s just that I always feel odd wearing a fanny pack.

From San Cristobal

Julio, our guide.

From San Cristobal

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Tony from Tuxtla

I met Tony in the TAPO bus station in Mexico City (there are four large bus stations in town). I was waiting for my bus to Oaxaca, which was scheduled to leave at 6:30 p.m. and didn’t arrive until about 1 a.m. ($388 Mexican pesos, which at 13 pesos to the dollar, was about $30 dollars U.S.). When Heidi looked up the bus schedules that morning, I was aiming for a bus that left at 4 p.m., but by the time I got to the station at 2 or so, that bus was completely sold out. Tony had been in the station since 7 a.m. for his 13-hour bus ride back to his hometown of Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital town of the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. His bus didn’t leave until 7 p.m., so he was going to do a smooth twelve hours in the station and then another thirteen on the road. He said that Christmas traffic was to blame and I didn’t doubt him, given the crowd at the station.

He spoke excellent English. For a number of years, he lived in San Luis Obispo, California, doing various jobs. When I sat down on the floor next to him, he immediately struck up a conversation on a variety of topics. In this situations, there are really only two possibilities – the person striking up a conversation is so boring or annoying that you have to make an excuse to get up and leave or they are interesting enough to make you want to talk to them for a couple hours.

One makes this decision in less than two minutes. Tony was definitely the later.

Tony had crossed the border a number of times, both legally and illegally. Before 9/11, he said he talked his way over the border at a crossing from Tijuana. The border agent stopped him at the crossing and asked for his passport. He spoke fine English, so he told the agent that he’d just been in Tijuana for a friend’s bachelor party the night before and that someone stole his wallet, so he didn’t have any ID. The border agent took Tony to see his supervisor, who was a blond haired, blue-eyed, attractive woman in her late 20s. Tony apparently flirted his way over the border. Whether true or not, I thought the spirit was admirable.

Dating was a subject he had some opinions on. It seemed that Tony was an equal opportunity dater. While in the U.S., he had a German girlfriend, one from London, and an Italian one. I asked if he’d had an American girlfriend, but he said ‘foreign’ women liked him more.

He had moved back to his hometown of Tuxtla a couple of years ago and was living with his girlfriend from Honduras (his luck with foreigners continued). They had just found out a couple of weeks ago that she was pregnant. He was quite excited about the whole thing, but he was a bit nervous that he hasn’t met her parents yet. He had been in Mexico City finalizing details of his second job, which was as a regional manager of some fast-food restaurants all around Chiapas. The prospect of making some reasonable money was exciting to him – he was saving up some money, so that he could buy some nice gifts for his girlfriend’s family before he went to meet them for the first time. His other job was as a recruiter to the local university.

He wants to go to law school in the near future (he appeared to be in his mid-20s), because he ‘wanted to make a difference.’ I may be slightly jaded about my profession, but I certainly admired his desire. He said the law school program was five years and that he could do it during the day, while keeping his manager job at night. The degree program was a combination of your undergraduate degree and your law degree. You could go on past that to get your Doctorate of Laws, which is actually what all of us lawyers in the States have (J.D. degree, or Juris Doctor).

As a side note, I had heard this Doctorate of Laws stuff a few years back, when I was visiting Germany. Apparently they have the same sort of split law degree education that Mexico has. Because I was a Doctor of Laws, they viewed me as some sort of impressive person. Occasionally when I mentioned to Germans that I was a lawyer, they asked if I had gotten my doctorate – as all of us U.S. lawyers had, of course I said yes. It didn’t mean much to me, but when I’m in Germany, I do want to be referred to as “Herr Doctor Hodson.” I take the respect any way I can get it.

In any case, back to Tony. He originally wanted to be a policeman, but after talking to a couple of his cousins, who were Federalies, he decided on law school. Apparently when he told his cousins that he wanted to be a cop in order to make a positive difference, they were less than impressed. They replied that he wasn’t willing to be a dirty cop, he’d probably be dead in a few years. Pretty much everyone who I talked to in Mexico felt that same way about the police. They were everywhere – I’d literally never seen more cops or cop cars in my life, anywhere – but there is still a huge crime problem all through Mexico.

When I asked Heidi about the strange dichotomy of seeing police everywhere and still having a very high crime rate, she replied, “most of the time, the cops are the ones causing the crime.”

Tony also liked to talk politics. He educated me a little bit about Mexican politics – he liked the new President, but there were already frequent rumors that he was being paid off by the big narco-criminals. He was also shocked that the U.S. had elected a black President over a white woman, Hillary, and a white man, McCain. The people he talked to in his hometown thought that it said a lot of good things about the States, that we’d been willing to elect a black man President. Can’t say that I disagree with him on that.

All of this conversation wouldn’t probably have meant too much to me, except that Tony went above and beyond in the middle of all this chatter. It was still a couple hours until my bus arrived and he asked if I had reserved a hotel room in Oaxaca for the night. I told him that I hadn’t yet, but I was going to go to the bus station’s internet café and see what options were out there for me, since I was going to arrive so late.

So I went to look up various hotels on the internet, sent some emails to some of them asking about rooms, and wrote down 5-6 telephone numbers to call, although I didn’t have a cell phone. While I sat there for an hour or so looking stuff up online, no hotel replied to my email, so I tried calling a couple of the hotels that had toll-free (800) numbers on pay phones. Even with my very, very rudimentary Spanish, I understood that they were booked and I didn’t know enough Spanish to ask for other hotel suggestions.

I went back to where Tony was waiting and asked him a favor: would be mind calling a few of the non-(800) numbers on his cell phone and ask them room availability for the night? He immediately said, “no problem,” and started dialing. He got me a room on his third call. He thought I was paying too much for the room (about $60 U.S.), but I told him it was fine, I just needed to make sure I arrived in the middle of the night with a place to stay.

I thanked him over and over and offered to buy him dinner for his favor, but he’d eaten while I was at the internet café. He said that he didn’t believe in karma per se, but that he thought there was no good reason to not be helpful to someone that needed some help.

It is really refreshing to meet truly nice people that are being good for no particular reason. I’ll never see Tony again in my life – we didn’t even exchange email addresses – but I’ll remember his as the first act of random kindness on my journey.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Quick comment on my book addiction

I may edit this later, but have about a half-hour to kill, waiting for my overnight, Christmas Eve bus from Oaxaca to San Christobal.

I have a moderately serious book addiction. Almost entirely hardcovers. I think I own about 800 or so. I am what I refer to as a ¨buy-three, read one¨ shopper. Best Buy is a dangerous spot for me to walk into, like most men, but and Barnes and Noble are even more lethal.

Some of my strange book rules (I will loan books, but only if these are adhered to):

(1) no bending back pages to mark where you are in the book. Rip off a piece of newspaper or something. Seriously, is it that difficult to respect a good book and the effort someone put into writing it?

(2) no putting the book face-down, opened, on some table or such to hold the spot you are at. Screws up the binding.

(3) don´t lose or destroy one of my books. I have a pretty funny story about this one and one of my ex-girlfriends. Still love her to death for many, many reasons, but what she had to go through to not violate this rule in law school is one of the reasons she is a great person in my eyes. Too long to tell now - will update later.

(4) writing in or marking down passages of your own book that are important to you is acceptable. Doing so in someone else´s book is obviously verboten. Yes, I know its odd that I can´t bend back a page, but can write in the book probably makes little sense, but these are my idiocencratic (spell check later) rules -- so deal with it.

(5) just because I like the book (or you do for that matter), doesn´t mean everyone else should. It is like my cooking. If I ask your opinion - I actually want your opinion. Don´t give me the pathetic, ¨I liked it.¨ Bow up and have an opinion. By the way -- that goes for my blogs and other writing. Praise is wonderful. Solid critique is even better.

I read 3-4 books simultanously. Its the modern ADD thing in me. I have a really hard time reading just one. One goes in the car, so I can have it handy when I go eat lunch by myself or have a half-hour to kill in a bar waiting on friends that actually work till 5 p.m. at happy hour. One goes on the bedside table, for reading before crashing. A couple others are strewn about whereever. I have at least twenty books on my bookshelves with bookmarks in them - reminders that my ADD nature ran out at that point, before I gave up (sometimes temporarily -- I´ve started some books a half-dozen times before finshing them).

On the road, my book obsession takes on another aspect: I hate carrying around a book that I´m fairly close to finishing. If I´m about to board a plane or bus or whatever and I´m not going to have access to my book stash in my suitcase or backpack, horror of horrors if the only book I have in my hands only has a hundred pages left to read. What the hell would I do if I finished it and didn´t have quick access to another.

Better to just start a new one and save the started-on one for later.

200 pages left in Bruce Chatwin´s ´What Am I Doing Here´for this bus ride tonight. I think I´m fairly safe.

Happy Christmas (Chanukah or Kwansa or whatever) and Merry New Year everyone. I miss you all. OK fine. I miss most of you.


Monday, December 22, 2008

My Stuff

Back when I was in college in Austin, Stevie Ray Vaughn would play four or five times in town. Austin was sort of his adopted hometown. He’d come in town and jam with local musicians and his brother at Antoine’s or some other great, small venue to see him. My roommate, Doug, and I would constantly say to each other when we heard he was going to be in town– “Damn. We’ve got stuff already going on that night. We’ll have to catch him next time he’s in town.” Then the guy goes off and dies in a plane crash before we ever got to see him live.

A few years back, I decided to start going to see musicians or comics I wanted to see, before the next plane crash, even if it entailed me paying a bit through the nose. One of my favorite comics is George Carlin. I got a chance I see him a couple of summers ago in Cape Cod before he died. It was a good, but not great, show. He came out on stage and began by arranging a bunch of papers on tables. He told the audience he was working on some new material and he liked to write out his new jokes in full when he tried them out, so he knew the ones that worked or not were because of the precise wording.

Some of the best stuff he did was reactions to the jokes that bombed. Although the show wasn’t the best I’d ever seen, he’s still a comic genius and I was glad I had the chance to experience him in person.

One of his best, time-tested bits is called simply “Stuff.”

“That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is. A place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much God-damned stuff, you wouldn’t even need a house. You could just walk around all the time.”

Here’s all the stuff I’m taking on my walk, from top left and on down in the picture:

EDIT: we weighed my backpack at Pete´s house. 35 lbs.

• Sandals
• Hiking-type shoes (un-pictured, wearing them)
• One pair shorts
• Five T-Shirts (two of the bundles and wearing one)
• Three pair boxers (wearing one)
• One fleece pullover (wearing it)
• One pair khakis
• One pair jeans (wearing)
• One belt (wearing)
• Mostly empty wallet (on me – for pickpocketers)
• One pair swimming trunks
• Two reasonably nice shirts
• Three pairs of socks (wearing one)
• Nine books – my addiction hits the road
• Neck Pouch, with passport, money, ATM card, credit cards
• SPOT GPS device
• Dirty stuff bag
• Pillowcase (to be stuff with clothes when needed)
• iPod
• Pouch with headphones
• One roll toilet paper – get ready for those squat toilets
• Sleep sheet thing in the green bag – for bad hostels/hotels
• Raincover for backpack
• Water purification tablets
• Dictaphone
• Flashlight
• Swiss Army knife
• Universal power adapter
• Cigars
• Sunglasses
• Alarm clock
• Travel battery for iPod
• Travel towel in case
• UV Water purifier
• Two bags of computer and photo stuff (chargers, cords, etc).

From Misc. Pictures

From Misc. Pictures

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fayetteville, Arkansas to Dallas, Texas

Day One of my trip was from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Dallas, Texas. My friend, Melissa, was going to Dallas on a ten-day vacation and agreed to drive me down and drop me off at my buddy’s house where I was staying down there.

I’d never driven with Melissa before. I was unaware of one of her peculiar driving rules: no speeding. No speeding at all. Ever. Now, I’m not normally one to condone rampant law breaking, but doesn’t everyone speed, just a little bit? I think the only two people on the planet that I know that doesn’t speed are my Uncle Tom, and now Melissa.

The odd thing to me was that when I asked her the reason behind her policy, she said it was on moral grounds. I would have figured it was based on a fear of getting a ticket. I offered to drive and she said no – I suppose she didn’t want to be an accomplice to my nihilism. For some reason, I found the whole thing very interesting. It felt bad to be so obvious in trying to rush her along a bit, since she was being so nice giving me a ride in the first place.

My only concern was that my high school girlfriend was throwing a little party in my honor in Dallas at six p.m. We were leaving Fayetteville at about 12:20 or so. The way that I drove, Dallas was about a five-hour drive. I was a little worried about being late for my own party.

As we were getting towards the Oklahoma border, the weather got pretty dicey a couple times. It was about 25 degrees and although the roads were in fine shape, we hit two or three small sleet storms. Luckily they were all short spurts, but when the sleet was coming down, it was instantly freezing on the windshield. Three good-sized wrecks on the highway held us up also. In these areas where it was sleeting, the roads were mildly treacherous.

Melissa did a fine job driving through it all, with some nervous chain-smoking thrown in there for good measure. And although we were under a no-speeding policy and ran across a couple patches of bad weather, we actually made reasonable time to Dallas, getting to my buddy’s, Bryant’s, house at 6:30. I had emailed ahead and let everyone know that I was going to run a half-hour or so late, so Elizabeth had pushed back the party to 6:30.

Bryant piled me and his wife, Tish, and two adorable kids into their Tahoe and we drove over to Elizabeth’s sister’s house, who was hosting the party. Tish told me that her kids were fascinated with my trip and sure enough, on the way to the party, Olivia and Audrey, who are about 5 and 7 years old, quizzed me.

“Are you going to Italy?”
“Not on this trip. I’m not going anywhere in Europe.”
“What about Paris?”
“Nope. Not this time.”
“I don’t think so.”

They interspersed the ‘where are you going’ questions with other logistical ones: Was I just taking the one backpack? How am I going to get money on the trip? What did my Mom and Dad think about the trip? Was anyone going to go with me?

They finally named a couple countries that I was going to go through, Mexico and Australia. They seemed quite happy that they’d nailed a few spots on my route map. They are going to vacation in Mexico this spring and I made them promise to email me pictures. I think they might be staying a slightly nicer hotel than I will be when I’m in Mexico. Just guessing.

I thought to myself, given their ages, that world geography and travel on this scale were still completely abstract concepts to them. I silently said to myself, “they don’t really have a clue of what I’m going to be doing for this year.”

Followed quickly by the voice in my head saying, “neither do you, you idiot.”

Sometimes the annoying voice in my head can be so brutally honest. And kinda rude.

The party was great. I got to see friends that I literally hadn’t seen in over a decade. Cullum, whom I think I’d last seen at his wedding in the mid-90s. Elizabeth, my high school ex-, her husband Mike, and her sister Rebecca. Colin, one of the few I had seen recently, since I play in a golf tournament with him and Bryant every year. Lael, my Facebook compadre. Rush, who I am almost positive I haven’t seen since high school. Janie, whom I think I last saw in college, when I used to edit her essays – though I still have no doubt she was, and probably still is, a much better writer than I. They’d all brought their kids for the pizza party and I got to meet all of them also, though I’d absolutely and completely fail a name test at this point. I didn’t feel like I had remotely enough time to talk to all of my friends, although I loved catching up with all of them as much as I could.

As soon as I walked into Rebecca’s fabulous house, I had kitchen envy. I love to cook. Until Rebecca’s house, I’d never seen a kitchen with enough countertop space – you just normally can’t have enough room to cut, dice, roll out dough, and do all the other prep you have to do when cooking, especially when you are as messy a cook as I am. Hers was the first kitchen I think that could handle my disorganization without coming up short. It also made me realize that I might go an entire year without cooking a single meal, which wasn’t something I’d thought about missing before then.

One thing that is interesting about seeing people after that long a time is how some people’s appearance can change so much over time and others barely change at all. I don’t think there is any rhyme or reason to it. I don’t know if I would have recognized Rush at all if I saw him on the street. On the other hand, Colin looks almost identical to when I met him twenty years ago. Its not as if change are good or bad – but seeing people after that long is such a reminder to yourself that you’ve also gotten older.

As if I need any more reminders.

In any case, I had an wonderful time. As I left, I made a personal vow to come back after the trip and try to see everyone again. That much time should never pass before seeing people whose company you enjoy. Everyone looked great, they were great, and they made me think of days long, long past.

Of course I forgot my camera. There’s nothing like bringing your nice camera on a world-wide trip – with the full expectation that it will be stolen at some point – and then forgetting to bring it to an event that you want to record with lots of pictures. Forgetful moments like that make me question whether I’ll actually pull this trip off.

This is also probably the first time since I was about 14 years old that I’m not carrying keys and a wallet. I’ve followed the advice of every round-the-world guidebook and a couple other people I know that have done similar trips and bought a neck pouch to hold my passport, money, and credit cards. I’m wondering how long its going to be before I stop reflexively patting my pockets to see where my keys and wallet are. I think in the two days on the road so far, I’ve had the quick, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I’ve lost my wallet about fifteen times.

I need to get into a routine as quickly as possible. A mental checklist that I have everything on me that I can run through quickly when I check out of hotels and such. For my adult life, I’ve usually run through this as I walk out of my house every morning – wallet, keys, watch, glasses. On this trip, I’ve only got the watch.

I need that new mental checklist soon.

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Preparations for the trip

Let’s talk about drugs.

Specifically, let’s talk about all of the immunizations and other medicines that I have, or will, take for this trip of mine. A few months before my trip, I made and appointment to go get my various immunizations from Dr. Hennigan’s office in Fayetteville. His office consists of a few doctors that are internal medicine and infectious diseases experts. I’ve really tried to live a life that wouldn’t get me into this particular waiting room.

When I got there, they had me fill out the doctor’s paperwork you fill out on any normal visit, with the exception that you were supposed to list of all the countries you were planning on visiting. Considering I’d estimated that I am going to go to about 40 or so, there wasn’t exactly room enough on the form to list them, so I just put down the general locations (e.g. Central America, west side of South America, south and east Africa, etc.).

I was shortly escorted to an examination room. My doctor came in with my paperwork and sat down. Doctor Lisa looked down at my forms, got the part outlining the countries I was going to on the trip and got quite visibly excited.

“Are you going around the world?” she asked.
“Yep,” I replied.
“How long are you going to be gone?”
“About a year or so.”
“Do you have it all planned out? Do you know all the places you are going to go and when?”
“I’m going to try to go around without getting on a plane or making any advance reservations. So, I’ve got a general idea of when and where, but I don’t precisely know. Pretty much what I put on the form is my plan, in general.”

She almost jumped out of her chair and said, “this is so exciting. I think you may be going to more places than anyone I’ve ever treated. Hold on, let me go get some maps.”

I don’t think I’ve ever had a doctor get enthused about treating me before this particular visit.

She came back with a stack of color-coded maps of various countries that might be on my route. The maps showed areas where certain immunizations or other medicines were recommended. They were quite detailed and she started going over specific countries and asked me the chances I’d be in such and such part of the country. Since I don’t have a specific plan, I couldn’t give her the detailed answers that she was looking for. I really have no idea if I’m going to be going to northeast Honduras, for instance. She settled for me throwing out a “very likely, possible, or not likely” reply to each area on her map that indicated some version of possible trouble. She also gave me some handouts on some of the various diseases I might be exposed to, explaining the symptoms, treatments, immunization possibilies and so on.

Here are some of the highlights: “Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertusis (Tdap) – Tetanus (Lockjaw) causes painful tightening of the muscles, usually all over the body. It can lead to ‘locking’ of the jaw so the victim cannot open his mouth or swallow. Tetanus leads to death in up to 2 cases out of 10. Diphtheria causes a thick covering in the back of the throat. It can lead to breathing problems, paralysis, heart failure, and even death. Pertussis (Whooping Cough) causes severe coughing spells, vomiting, and disturbed sleep. It can lead to weight loss, incontinence, rib fractures, and passing out from violent coughing. . .”

Sold! Give me that immunization, please.

I also got the Hepatitis A vaccine. I’d already gotten the three shot treatment for Hepatitis B a few years back when I was the Public Defender for our local Drug Court, so I didn’t need that one. The Typhoid vaccine also sounded like a good idea (“if untreated, it can kill up to 30% of people that get it.”).

The Typhoid vaccine was an oral vaccine that I had to take on an empty stomach every other day three times – take it, day off, take it, day off, take it. Dr. Lisa recommend I take it at the end of the day each time and also said it was recommended that I was alcohol-free on the days I took it. It took me about a month to find the time to work that into my schedule.

Then she pulled out a map of Africa and showed me the areas where I might contract Meningococcal disease (meningitis). It can come in a few different forms, but it is basically an infection of the brain and spinal cord. She said, “it doesn’t look like you are going to hardly any of these countries, but why don’t you read up on it and see if you want the vaccine, while I go get the malaria maps. It’s sort of an expensive vaccine, but it’s your call.”

Handout: “About 2,600 people get meningococcal disease each year in the U.S. 10-15% die, in spite of treatment with antibiotics. Of those that live, another 11-19% lose their arms or legs, become deaf, have problems with their nervous systems, become mentally retarded, or suffer seizures or strokes.”

Those are the statistics if you get it in the United States. And are treated for it.

Yea – I think I can pony up the $180 for that vaccine. Hell – if I’d read this pamphlet and I wasn’t planning on the leaving the U.S., I think I’d have insisted on getting the shot anyway.

Yellow Fever vaccine (“can cause: fever, jaundice, liver or kidney failure, vomited blood, death). Check.

Some of the maps she was giving me had titles that I wasn’t too enthralled with either. Take the Yellow Fever map of Africa for instance, which was titled, “Map 4-15: Yellow fever-endemic zones in Africa, 2007.”

Endemic is just not a word I am very fond of, at least when it comes to describing infectious diseases.

She then pulled out all of her malaria maps. Basically, I have to take a weekly pill when I’m in the malaria zones, which apparently includes my entire trip except for parts of the Middle East and also Australia and New Zealand. What I didn’t know was that there were different types of pills you had to take, depending on where you were. Luckily given my route, I’d only have to change types once. I’ll be taking one type of pill in Central America, South America, and Africa. Then taking another for Southeast Asia (and India, if I go there).

She also prescribed me a couple Z-packs, in case I got some bug on the road that could get knocked out with those antibodies. And she wrote a prescription for some anti-diarrheal medication.

All in all, between the doctor’s visit, the vaccines, and the other medications that I got at the pharmacy, I think I blew about $700 or so.

Best money I’ve spent in a long, long time.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Feb 2007 trip to Caymans

Blog – February 20, 2007

I have few goals in life. Some are big ones. Travel to as many interesting places as I can afford in both time and money. Build the one house I want to live in, on the land that I want to live on and be buried on. Write the book that I’ve had in my head now for about eight years or so. Live such that when I sit on the front porch in a rocking chair, as time approaches its end for me, that I am content with what I’ve done and left undone.

And some are not as big ones, but they are still damn important in my little world. For instance, I’ve gone through my entire life without buying a concert T-shirt. It’s a simple goal, but I need to make it through the rest of my life without breaking down and getting the “Police Reunion Tour ‘07” shirt that I’m sure will be calling out to me in a few months.

On that topic, one of my travel pet peeves, along with an accompanying life goal of mine, just struck me in the Charlotte, NC airport as I waited for my connecting flight to Grand Cayman. By the way, kudos to whoever owns or is in charge of the Charlotte airport – free interest access to anyone with a wireless connection. Most airports I’ve been in lately make you buy some one-day pass through one of the big telecom companies to use their wireless connection. They also had white, wooden rocking chairs all over the place for people to just sit and relax in. All in all, I’m now a fan of the Charlotte airport. Perhaps I’ll fly US Airways more often.

So in any case, tourists wearing T-shirts or sweatshirts or whatever article of clothing that advertise in some way to say where you are from – that indeed is the point I’m getting to slowly. And I simply cannot stand it. I literally grate my teeth when I see these people. It’s a goal of mine, similar to the no-concert T-shirt goal, to never be one of these ‘travelers.’ Whether it be the Yankees cap or the T-Shirt with “Chicago – the Windy City” or the sweatshirt with the Golden Gate Bridge and some catchy slogan for San Francisco under it, I cannot stand people that advertise where they are from, when they are going to somewhere else. The baseball cap bothers me less than the shirts or sweatshirts, but you get the point.

Are they so uncertain of themselves that they cannot feel comfortable going to another location without the mental safety blanket of having some visual reminder of home on them, apparently to reassure them when they are washing their hands after a trip to the bathroom that all is ok and they’ll make it back home safely in the end? Or is it that they are concerned that they are going to somehow look foolish as a tourist – not knowing how to properly hail a cab or not knowing the language or having to ask for directions or taking pictures of each other smiling in front of the fence at the White House – that they have to make sure, absolutely sure, that every native is 100% certain that they are behaving this way because they are not from here? “I promise I’m not this stupid at home, in Denver, where I’m the one in charge, but I’m just a tourist here. Sorry I got in your way, Mr. Local. Come visit me in the Rockies and we’ll show you what good living is all about.”

As I’m walking through the Charlotte airport, I stumble across perhaps the worst offense on this particular pet peeve of mine that I’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing. On the way to gate B5, I had to pass by gate B1. And at gate B1, there was a group, a large group, I’m guessing 20-25 people, waiting to board a plane to Nassau, Bahamas. ‘O they weren’t from Charlotte. No doubt about that. They were from Cordova, Alabama, catching their connecting flight. How could I know this? Professional sports’ team cap? College sweatshirts? High school logos on their shirts? Nope. None of the above.

They are all wearing identical T-shirts that say “First Baptist Church of Cordova, Alabama” on the front and on the back have “Nassau, Bahamas -- February 20, 2007” over the top of “First Baptist Church of Cordova” on the back. And it’s not just the 20-25 identical T-shirts. O no. Its far worse than that.

They are all bright yellow. Very bright. I’m talking about color-of-the-Sun yellow, which I guess might have been one of the points, since they were going to a sunny location. Maybe it was a reminder to each of them why they were going there. Maybe they just pointed to each others shirts to remind themselves where they were off to (or read it on the back of the next guy’s shirt).

What exactly were these people thinking? It kind of reminded me of the t-shirts that say “← I’m with stupid,” except in this case the message was more like “I AM stupid. . . .and I’m not alone.”

Did they all wear the shirts in case one of them got lost? “Look Sally, I see the rest of our people. We’re saved!” (Literally, if you buy the dogma). Did they work out some group discount at the hotel that must be proven upon check-in with identical uniforms? Do they make these shirts everywhere they go? Could I be happier that I’m not going to Nassau?

Got to my gate. Put on my headphones and flipped on my iPod. Opened my laptop and cruised the internet for a bit. Older gentleman sits down right next to me and starts reading the paper. At some point I take off the head phones to listen to a gate announcement. The guy next to me points to my iPod and asks me, “so, is that a music machine?”

Please tell me this stuff happens to you.

How cool. Our flight plan takes us directly down the Carolina coastline for at least part of this flight. Just looked out the window and there was an aircraft carrier steaming (except they use nuclear power now, so I don’t know what the equivalent term is) out to sea, accompanied by a couple destroyers. Makes me think I also want to look up our flight plan at some point. The Cayman Islands are basically right on the other side of Cuba, if you draw a line from where we just took off. I don’t believe US airlines can fly over Cuba, since our government has had this idiotic embargo in place for four decades or so now. Wonder which way we fly and how much time that adds to the trip.

Less cool is this over the loudspeaker: “You want to pay attention to this announcement if you paid more than $90 for your ticket today. If you apply for the US Airlines VISA card, you will receive 25,000 frequent flyer miles. That is the number of miles you need to redeem and get a free ticket anywhere US Airlines flies in the continental United States. The annual cost of the card is $90. So, if you think a ticket is worth $90, this is a deal you cannot pass up. Flight attendants will be by shortly to pass out applications for you to fill out.” I don’t think that was the pilot talking. If it was I wanna throw up even more than I already do.

So now I get to pay $9 to see a movie, and then get force fed ten minutes of advertisements before the previews (which are advertisements themselves, but at least I like those). Pop up ads on websites that launch into advertisements that block what you are trying to look at. Check out people at Best Buy trying to get me to sign up for four free issues of People. And then on this flight, I get a bag of mini pretzels and a Sprite from the waitresses in the sky – not exactly wowing me -- AND then, I get to have them stroll down the aisle and try to talk me into getting a credit card?? How about you stop merchandising for a while and just bring me a beer?

Flying over part of the Keys right now. They look so damn cool from above. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before. The other couple times I’ve flown into Key West have been at night. Quite a sight.

Land. Get a cab. I get the nice cabbie woman that has a Bible, some devotional book about living your life right and a cross hanging from the rear view mirror. O yea. And some pretty loud Christian music station going on. Thank goodness for the iPod and the noise canceling headphones again. At least I know who our co-pilot on this particular cab ride is. And she didn’t ask me to sign up for a credit card.

And now I finish typing this by the pool, with a drink in my hand, checking my email to make sure life in the real world is going well. And I don’t know how much I care. ☺

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