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The Mobile Lawyer -- One Lap, No Jetlag: January 2009

Friday, January 30, 2009

Strip Joint Night in Medillin

Medellin is the 2nd largest city in Columbia with about two and a half million people. It is most famous to Americans as the home of the Medellin cartel, the cocaine distribution outfit presided over by Pablo Escobar at its height in the 80s. He was finally killed after a large manhunt in one of the barrios in Medellin in 1993, after a big shootout with Columbian police, aided in the manhunt by U.S. Special Forces. (

After the weeklong sailing trip I took from Panama to Columbia, the first town I ended up in here was Medellin. Garret, one the fellow travelers on the sailboat trip, was headed this way also and he knew a couple other guys that were in town: Scott, a Canadian that is teaching here for two years and Morton, a Danish traveler.

On our second night in town, we decided to go get some cheap pizza around the corner and then go get some beers. Since Scott was the semi-local, we let him choose the location for drinks. It had been raining on and off all afternoon and he said that the nightlife scene would be fairly lame until the skies cleared, so he said we should go to the center of the city and just find a pub there for a couple cheap drinks.

We took a cab down there and walked around for a bit in the drizzle. The couple of places that Scott knew have down there weren’t open yet (it was only about 8 p.m.), so as we walked down another street, he said, “over there is a sort of strange strip club that I’ve been to once before. Looks open. What do ya think?” Morton had never been to a strip club in his life – needless to say, that was plenty of reason to go on in and Garret and I pretty much forced Morton into it.

As a side note, I consider myself a bit of a strip club connoisseur – and yes, I can handle the inevitable comments that will generate. In college, one of my good buddie (Ken -- I'm sure he will appreciate being named in this context), dated a stripper for about six months or so. Of course, our regular drinking establishment became her place of employment, as we were friends of one of the regular dancers. We got complimentary VIP cards, didn't have to pay cover, and most of the dancers would sit at our table and talk with us, while they waited to go on stage. Right out of college, I got a job working on Capitol Hill. One of the lobbyists that regularly worked our office was a guy named Jeff Trinca. He needed a Congressional staffer to accompany him to his favorite strip club, a place called Joanna’s, so that he could write the whole thing off as a lobbying expense to one of his clients. (though lobbying me was fairly futile, since I was only a low-level letter writer for the Senator I worked for). So every Friday afternoon, I had a “committee hearing” at about 2 that I needed to attend, assuming I didn’t have any real work to do. I probably went to Joanna’s with Jeff over a 100 times. Jump forward to my living in Fayetteville after law school – the closest bar to the condo that I owned was the strip club in town, about 50 yards from my front door. I made it by for a beer or three a few times a week. In between those regular stops, I’ve managed to survey clubs in a number of different places.

Amusing additional side note -- I had no idea we were going to a strip joint before we went out. When I packed, I pretty much randomly threw five T-shirts into my backpack. I thought all were plain, one color shirts with no writing on them. One of them is a blue T-shirt and I didn't notice it had a small logo on the top left side of the front of the shirt: Scarlet's in New Orleans. Its a strip joint, needless to say.

This was a whole new world from anything I’d experienced before.

The doorman frisked each of us as we entered. We went down into the basement of this building and grabbed a corner table. The place wasn’t too big, probably a capacity of 60 or so and it was pretty packed. The crowd was almost evenly divided between men and women. The reason for that was that it was part-strip club/part-regular dancing place.

Scott had given us the rough outline before we walked in, but it was strange to see it in person. Against the opposite wall from us was a very small stage, about eight feet by eight feet, where the stripper would normally be dancing. About three or four couples were up there dancing what appeared to be the salsa. Traditional Columbia music was blaring from the speakers in the room and couples were dancing, mingling and drinking. If Scott hadn’t told us this was a strip joint, we’d have never known. We drank a couple beers and caught up on all of our respective adventures in Panama. A few songs went by, then the couples exited the stage, some American rock music started up, and out came the stripper from a back room.

Now, the regular people and the stripper alternating on the stage was certainly a new experience for me, but about two minutes after the stripper took the stage, the music abruptly stopped, the lights came on, and the stripper quickly exited the stage and took a seat at a table next to the stage.

And down the stairs came a dozen policemen and women.

Now we were in new territory. First time I’ve ever been in the middle of a police raid.

Initially, we thought that the cops were there to arrest someone specifically. It looked like they went right up to one particular guy, and he stood up, turned around, and put his hands over his head. I said, “Morton, how cool is this? We get to see an arrest and you get your first strip club experience.”

But it turned out that this guy apparently had just gone through this drill before. The cops frisked him and he sat down. They then proceeded to frisk everyone in the bar, including the wait staff and bartender. . .except for us, the only four gringos in there. One of the cops came over to us while the frisking was going on elsewhere in the room and asked us for some identification in Spanish. Scott translated for us and he was the only one with any form of ID on him. He explained that he was living in town and the other three of us were just in town for a couple days. The cop just nodded and waved us off, in the unmistakable sign language that they didn’t care about us.

I’m getting pretty good at the sort of ¾ sign language, ¼ facial expression and the occasionally-understood-Spanish-word thing.

The cops finished their searches, didn’t arrest anyone, and then all trooped back up the stairs and left. We asked our waitress what they were looking for and she said she had no idea, though you could tell from her expression that this wasn’t her first time to be on the receiving end of a female officer frisking her on the job. One of the busboys came up to gather up our empty beers and said they were looking for guns or drugs. Seemed like a reasonable explanation.

And with that, the stripper got back up from her chair, retook the stage, the lights dimmed and she went back to work. Two songs and then she left the stage and went table to table to ask for tips from the audience (again, Scott explained the protocol to us). We each threw in 500 Columbian pesos or so – the current exchange rate is about 2000 pesos per U.S. dollar – when she came by. Then the local music started up again and the couples went back up on stage.

The whole thing was a bit surreal.

O’, but we weren’t done yet.

We left that place and caught a cab to a different part of town. The cabbie didn’t understand where Scott wanted him to drop us off and rather than try to explain it to him, we decided to get out near a local casino and ATM location, since Garret needed to get some cash (and I wanted to see if there was poker at the casino). Garret got his money and I verified there was a game I could play in the next night and Scott said, “Well, there is this other, very popular strip joint around the corner.”

At this point, Morton had gone from reluctant participant to avid fan. The rest of us felt like we sort of owed him another place, since he had been quizzing us about American strip joints and how they opporated ever since we walked out of the last one.

The second place was more ‘normal’ in most aspects: there were a lot of strippers milling about, very few couples in the crowd, fog machine, strobe lights, much bigger room and in the middle of the room, a 15-20 foot long glass stage, held up about four feet off the ground. It was about four or five feet wide and on each end there was a traditional stripper pole, but the two poles were connected to each other with a metal, ladder-like thing and there were two ropes also strung lengthwise on the outside of the ladder.

More about that later.

I say this strip club was more normal than the last one, but there was one rather large caveat to that proclamation – it was also a whorehouse.

Scott had never been to this place before, but some of his fellow gringo teachers had filled him in on the basic details. The strippers also turned tricks after dancing in some private rooms behind the bar area. According to his friends, the going rate was anywhere between $80,000 and $100,000 Columbian pesos ($40 to $50 U.S. dollars).

A couple interesting things about Columbia in this regard: (1) supposedly the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery of any country in the world – though Venezuela also claims that distinction, (2) I saw a lot of prostitutes in Panama as well and almost all of them were Columbian, according to the locals I was hanging with, and (3) apparently there is much less societal stigma about prostitution here – according to Scott, a good number of the prostitutes are just university students who do it occasionally for a little side money.

Looking around, I think I think one and three were probably true. About 80% of the women were artificially enhanced, though that’s pretty normal in strip joints in the States also, and although it did look like there was a fair number ‘professional’ working girls dancing, there were also a fair number that didn’t look like pros.

So we settled in and ordered our expensive strip joint beers -- $5,000 pesos each. Damn. Two dollars and fifty cents each. Two drink minimum. Jeez.

And out came the first dancer, and I shit you not. . . well, check that.

I’ve said for a long time that I want to make a CD called “Strip Joint Hits.” If you’ve watched any late night TV, you’ve seen the advertisements for CDs like “Mob Hits” and other themed typed CDs. There is a certain type of music that is played almost universally in strip joints, alternating between urban/rap/dance stuff and more classic, heavy metal stuff. I’m not a huge fan of the former, but “Love in an Elevator” by Aerosmith makes my “Strip Joint Hits,” as does “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, “Girls, Girls, Girls” by Motley Crew, “Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen, and some good 80s type stuff, like Frankie Goes to Hollywood doing “Relax.” You get the general point.

So the first girl comes up and starts dancing to. . . “Hotel California” by The Eagles. I think I can conservatively say that I’ve heard well over a couple thousand songs in strip clubs before – and it was the first time I’d ever heard this song in one. Besides it being a really horrible song to dance to, it is really, really long. In a US strip club environment that makes some sense, because the customers are coming up to the stage and tipping the dancers as they dance. Longer song = more time for tips. But here, you don’t go to the stage to tip the dancers, they come around to the tables after they get off stage and collect their tips. I was laughing my ass off.

And of course I figured that song selection could not be topped – until her next song cranked up. It was a medley of songs from the movie “Grease.” Yep. “The Grease Megamix: You're the One That I Want/Greased Lightnin'/Summer Nights.” As looked up and verified just now on

Alternative strip joint universe world was pretty much complete.

She came down off stage and we each pitched in about $1,000 pesos (50 cents each) to tip her, which appeared to be about the going rate after watching other locals tip. Another dancer came up and danced a few songs and we again tipped her about a couple bucks. We had to get some change for our bigger bills at one point, because we didn’t have any more thousand or two thousand peso notes for tip purposes.

I made Scott ask one of the dancers that looked like she was a university student what her price was for a “private room dance,” and she said $75,000 – or about $35 dollars or so.

Then the gymnast came on stage. She didn’t have the traditional Columbian look. She was blonde, for one. And didn’t have ‘store boughts,’ as I like to refer to them. But you could tell from the murmurs from the crowd as she came on stage, she was one of the prime attractions here.

The DJ seemed to use double the normal amount of fake fog/smoke to announce her appearance on stage and she began dancing – actually to some Columbian music, which was unusual. Basic pole work and prancing around the stage to start off with, but she then climbed up the pole and started swinging off the ladder suspended over the stage. She locked her legs over some of the rungs of the ladder and took off her top, hanging upside down over the stage. She swung from the two hanging ropes, did some slow back-flip type moves from the ladder to the stage a few times. Somehow she managed to get her skirt and G string off while suspended from the ladder also. This was some serious rope and ladder work.

As she came off stage, to a quite boisterous round of applause from the otherwise very quiet crowd, I turned to my three new friends and proclaimed, “I don’t care what you guys do, but I’m tipping her a full dollar!”

We decided to leave on that note – the night wasn’t going to get any better than that.

Postscript – I made Scott ask. She must have been had the highest rate in the whole place. $120,000 pesos. $60 U.S. dollars.


Dec 31st -- Bus to La Ceiba

When you are in a country where you do not speak the language, everything is just a little bit off. It’s hard to get into a comfort zone, because you really don’t have a good idea of what is going on around you.

After I took an afternoon to go see the Copan Ruins in Honduras, I decided to make the long haul all the way to Roatan Island in the Caribbean. I bought my bus ticket from Copan to La Ceiba (the port town where I would have to catch a ferry to the island) the night before – the person selling the ticket to me spoke a little bit of English. I thought they told me that the bus made two stops on the way to La Ceiba and that I would have to change buses one time. Since the ferry from La Ceiba to the island left at 4 p.m., I had to take a bus leaving at 5 a.m. to make it to the ferry.

I was getting used to early buses, but waking up at 4 a.m. is a tough one for me.

Got up early, walked down to the bus stop (I had learned by this point to fully pack the backpack the night before) and when I got there, I asked again about the stops and changing buses. I thought I got the same answer as the night before, when I bought the ticket. The actual printed ticket seemed to indicate the same thing: a stop in San Pedro at 8:30 or so, another stop in Tela and then arrival in La Ceiba at 11:30. I was pretty sure the bus change was in San Pedro.

The bus was one of the nice, big autobuses that I had mostly ridden on up to that point. After reading the guidebooks, I’m still nervous about checking my backpack onto these buses (and after hearing that my friend, Scott Luack,, had his computer stolen out of his backpack at a border crossing in Africa out of checked luggage), but you have no real choice other than to check a bag that big.

The bus stopped at San Pedro and we got off it, as I expected. There was enough time to get some coffee and some breakfast before the next bus got there to take us to La Ceiba. I was moderately nervous about where my backpack was being stored for the hour or so that we waited, but again, there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

A couple buses came and went. Every time the loudspeaker came on and people got in the queue (one of the many British terms that I really love), I would walk up to the person taking the tickets and ask “La Ceiba?” A shake of the head no and I was confident neither of the buses was mine.

Eventually, a bus pulled in and I understood it was going to my destination. I got in line and when I walked out there were two buses parked next to each other. Although one bus had a sign saying “Ceiba” on the front and the other had a sign saying “Tegucigalpa,” I wasn’t sure I was getting on the right bus until I showed the ticket taker my ticket and asked “La Ceiba?” When I got the nod and overheard another couple asking the same thing in English, I finally felt confident.

As to my backpack. . . who knows? There was a pile of luggage up against the wall of the station that someone was putting on the bus, but I didn’t see my pack in the large pile. I crossed my fingers and just hoped it made it.

The buses I’ve been on in Latin America (the nice ones, not the chicken buses) almost universally have their air conditioning cranked on as high as possible. Although for the most part you cannot find any buildings down here with air conditioning, and most of the people living down here go without it almost 100% of the time, it is as if the one time that its available – they’ve got to get as much of it as they can. You board a bus at your own peril, unless you are wearing long pants, socks and shoes, and some sort of sweater of fleece handy. It might be 95 degrees outside, but it’s likely to be 60 degrees inside.

And don’t get me started on the movies and/or music that is cranked up during the whole ride also. Bring earplugs or an iPod. Unless you really enjoy Jean-Claude Van Damme movies in Spanish, in which case will be in heaven.

In any case, the bus took off east, following the Caribbean coast. I was enjoying my book and my iPod. Time passed. I started looking at my watch. 10:30. 10:45. No stop in Tela. 11:00. 11:15. 11:30. Hmmmmm. Not only no stop in Tela, but now we were supposed to be at the final destination of La Ceiba. Noon. 12:30. 12:45.

Although I was almost 100% confident I was on the right bus, I started to have doubts. Mountains to the right? Check. Although I couldn’t see the ocean from the road, that meant that we were still likely driving down the coast, and not somehow back into the interior. Anyone else looking nervous on the bus? Didn’t look like it. Could I read any signs on the road, showing we might going the right way? Nope. My mind floated back to my backpack. Was it on the right bus, while I was on the wrong one?

At least I had my passport, some cash, a credit card and my ATM card on me. I could survive any small mishap with those.

Shortly after my mind wandered around the myriad of possibilities of how I’d somehow screwed this whole thing up, the bus pulls into the tiny bus station at La Ceiba. Apparently, there wasn’t some intermediate stop. Or we just skipped it. Who the hell knows.

I hopped a cab to the dock where the ferry was departing from. Got on the 4:00 ferry. Hit the island at 5:30 or so on New Year’s Eve. Took a cab to the far eastern part of the island to meet my friends Ian and Heidi at the hotel they had been at for the past few days.

As usual, I hadn’t booked a place to stay before I got there. Heidi had emailed me the day before and said there might have been a cancellation at the hotel they were staying at. When I got there, I met the owner and asked if she had a room for a few days. She looked at me incredulously and said, “you came to the island over New Year’s without a room?”


“Well, lucky for you, a couple was supposed to fly down yesterday for their honeymoon. The wife’s passport was due to expire in about three months or so, and after they flew down to Honduras, got off the plane, and tried to go through immigration, they got turned back and had to fly home (your passport has to be valid for at least six months after your arrival). So, they had to cancel their room yesterday. I don’t think there is another empty hotel room on the entire eastern side of the island – everything has been booked for weeks. You must be the luckiest guy in the world.”

Couldn’t say I disagreed.

It was a long, long day of traveling, but a heck of an ending. Traveling outside of your comfort zone is disconcerting. You never feel fully comfortable with what is going on around you. Am I safe here? Is this money changer ripping me off? Am I on the right bus? Will I be able to find a place to stay? Am I allowed to take pictures of the locals here? And so on.

But the disconcerting nature of it all is a good thing. It makes you much more aware of your surroundings. The things that you routinely pass by in your ‘normal life’ are things that you are forced to notice on the road. It can be extremely tiring, because you can rarely let your mind go on auto-pilot like you can at home. At home, I can drive home from work and not even consciously think of the route that I am on. Out here, you can’t walk three blocks to find a place to get a cup of coffee without marking landmarks on the way, to assure you can find your way back.

Why do I love travel? Because my senses are never more open and exposed as they are out here. The overload is amazing. Give me more. Lots more.
From Roatan Island

From Roatan Island

From Copan Ruins

From Copan Ruins

From Copan Ruins


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Off-line for a bit

I'm taking a 5 day sailing cruise down the Caribbean side of Panama to Columbia starting tomorrow. I'm assuming that I'll be offline for those 5 days (sadly, that's the longest I'll have gone without the internet in about 15 years).

I owe everyone at least 4 blogs when I get done. If I can power my laptop on the boat, I promise to get them written.

One of them is on my stay the last 3-4 days at Luna's Castle in Panama City. I interviewed one of the owners, Daniel, this afternoon -- took some pics of the place -- and will write up a review and some insights into owning a hostel, for those of you that want to contemplate running away from "the real world." I've loved my stay here -- it won't shock anyone that the review will be quite good.

P.S. Although I am really happy with my new tattoo. . . my timing for getting one probably wasn't the greatest. Instructions from the guy that did it for me, "put this lotion on every day, stay out of the sun for about a week and try not to get water on it too much for the next week also." And so. . . I booked a sailing cruise for the next 5 days.

At one point. . . not too long ago. . . I actually did think logically. In fact, very logically. Alas.

From Misc. Pictures

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Short (not) thoughts on a good dinner

I am overly verbose, both in person and in print. I shall attempt to keep this short, at least relatively so, for me.

Panama City seems like a great capital. The guidebooks say that it’s the most cosmopolitan and European of the Central American capitals, and I have to say that I agree after a brief look-about. A city well worth visiting.

I am writing this in a hostel in the old district in town. A place called Luna Castle, which is a great, large hostel full of lots of very friendly travelers, all much younger than me. As I write this, I am looking at a map of the world that is covering one of the walls in one of the community rooms on the main floor. I realize, looking at this map, that I have finally made it as east as Orlando. By the way – the map has lines on it for various sea-crossings: it is either 3,591 miles or kilometers from Buenos Aires to Capetown. That is a pretty good sea-crossing coming up.

One time in the not-so-distant past, I drove from Orlando to Fayetteville in one day, only stopping for gas and horrible fast food. It’s taken me slightly more than a month to make it that far east on this trip.

Funny thing is that everyone on the road thinks I am going way, way to fast. And I have to say that I agree with them. This trip should be more than a year, but more on speed and pace in a later blog.

And while I said I would attempt to be brief in this effort, I still have not yet written a word on my intended topic.

Checked into the Luna Castle about noon today. Met a fellow traveler here who was checking out as I was checking in. One of the very best people I have yet met on the road, so getting a chance to catch up for a couple hours while she waited on her bus was great – it gave the proper beginning to a good day.

I took a cab with her to the main bus station in town – for her to catch her bus and for me to take pictures of the local version of the chicken bus, which here are called red devils, which isn’t exactly the most reassuring nickname for a bus you might be traveling on. Not sure why those particular type of pictures make me happy, but after she caught her bus, I walked around the huge station – it is a massive shopping mall, bus station, and commercial center – for about an hour, just taking pictures of the buses. I have no doubt that the locals lined up for the cheap buses must have been looking at me and muttering to themselves while looking at me, “loco gringo.”

I am not entirely sure they are wrong.

After taking a hundred or so pictures there, I caught a taxi back to the old district and wandered around here for a while. It is apparently a part of town that only recently has started to be salvaged from crime and dilapidation. There are shells of buildings – literally shells; just the exterior walls facing the street, with rubble where the inside used to be – next to refurbished and beautiful buildings housing nice restaurants or hotels. It is an odd combination to see development immediately next to squalor, but you can tell that there is money coming back into this area – and with money comes police patrols, safety, and more money.

Tonight was the last night of the Panama Jazz festival, which was held on a plaza about three blocks from my hostel. I went through the security gates and metal detectors to get inside, walked around for fifteen minutes or so, quickly tired of the crowds and decided to find a place to eat dinner.

And I finally get to the point of my “short” blog. Dinner was a bit of a spurge this evening. I ate alone, my dinner companion being ‘The House for Mr. Bissau’ by V.S. Naipal, a Nobel Prize winner no less. One of my vows on the trip is to see if my brain can actually comprehend good, serious fiction. The jury on that quest of self-realization is still deliberating its final decision.

As I am want to do, side note: as I type right now at 9:00 p.m. in the hostel, there is someone playing a guitar in the other room. Not a bad tune. What is amusing is that there is someone one the kazoo accompanying the guitar and signing. That is less of a good thing.

I sat down to dinner at a place called Ego Y Narcisco (Calle 3a, Plaza Bolivar – if you are in the neighborhood and want to stop by for a bite to eat). It was an upscale Italian-oriented joint. Nice décor. Good lighting, though strange music piped in – instrumental remixes of Elton John songs and the like.

I ordered one of my favorites to start – ceviche. And this was proper ceviche. No shrimp – I hate shrimp ceviche; it doesn’t take enough of the flavor of the lime. Good, solid whitefish. Not sure what type, but it was excellent. Since this was an upscale place, it was served with aplomb – it was brought out in four flat-bottomed spoons sitting on a square plate. With it, I had a glass of dry, tasty pinot grigo.

I read my Naipal, drank my wine, and devoured my spoons of ceviche, while simultaneously people watching.

Dinner was a potato gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce. The single best dish of pasta I have ever tasted was a gnocchi at a place in Rome, on an island in the middle of the Tiber River. I love Italian food – about 3/4s of all the meals I make at home are Italian. I have never made gnocchi. Don’t know why. Have to rectify that when I get back.

This was not anywhere near the plate I enjoyed in Rome, but it was still quite good. As was the wine.

And as I sat there and ate my food, drank my wine, and watched a young couple at the bar look into each other’s eyes as they talked to each other – with that look that we all want to experience, even in a brief moment – I was content.

Contentment for me is a great feeling. It is not euphoria. It is not passionate. It is not one of the highest of all highs. It is a feeling of being at peace. Of knowing that the world is a good place and you are currently well placed in it.

I like that feeling.

Would I have rather been the guy at the bar, eighteen inches away from his girlfriend’s face, looking into her eyes as if all wisdom and excitement in the world was contained there, while they exchanged whatever thoughts they had on the day??

Probably. But this feeling is one that I uniquely enjoy. When it comes over me, I feel in balance. And I like it. A lot.

I should have bought the couple a glass of champagne as I left, but they didn’t need it. They had each other. And I had the memory of it all.


couple things

1 -- I need to write. Will try to do so tomorrow for sure
2 -- It has come to my attention that I posted the wrong web address to follow my progress on SPOT. For those of you that don't know, I have a GPS device where I can register my location. I am doing so every time I change cities. You can follow it at

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mexican/Guatemalan border crossing

Dec 27 – border crossing

Border crossings make me nervous. Although I’m not doing anything wrong or carrying anything illegal, I feel trepidation as I approach every single one of them. Even when I traveled to Europe, I felt the same things as I got off the plane, got my luggage and went to the customs area to cross into whatever country where I was arriving.

The Mexican/Guatemalan was an entirely different experience from any of my previous border crossings. As our van approached the border and you began to see Mexican soldiers carrying assault rifles, they looked like M16s. They were stopping northbound cars and trucks entering Mexico to inspect their passengers and cargos.

The sight of law enforcement folks carrying shotguns and automatic weapons is supposed to be a reassuring one – and you see them all over Central America, at banks, hotels, stores and so on – but it doesn’t really inspire me with much of a sense of confidence for my safety. Then again, I haven’t been robbed yet, so perhaps I should be a bit more open minded about the whole thing.

One of the reasons I always have a bit of angst as I approach border crossings is that I despise looking like an idiot. I have a fear that I’ve done something that is going to screw the crossing up – I don’t have the visa money in the right type of currency, or I’m supposed to be in another line than the one I’m in, or I need some sort of document that I haven’t gotten beforehand, or I didn’t get some stamp that I needed at the last border, or whatever.

For this particular crossing I had a specific worry – the Lonely Planet guide that I was using for Central America said that I needed to pay some transit tax to leave Mexico. It was supposed to be about $20 U.S. dollars or so. The book said that you had to purchase it at bank and if you didn’t have it at the crossing, you’d have to find a bank to pay it and get the appropriate document or receipt. When I entered Mexico from the U.S., I asked the border agents there if I needed to pay a “transit tax” because I was leaving Mexico and eventually going to Guatemala. The border agents said I didn’t need one. I asked a few fellow travelers about the issue and they all told me that I didn’t need it also.

The main reason I was slightly worried about it was that I was on a van with about a dozen others traveling from Antigua to Copan and I didn’t know what the van driver would do if I needed to go back somewhere and pay this damn tax. Or whether it would also foul up the crossing for the rest of the van. I asked one of the passengers whether she knew anything about it – she was an American studying Spanish in Guatemala and had come to Antigua for the weekend. She said she had crossed the border a couple of times and didn’t know anything about it.

The van pulled up to the Mexican immigration building. All of us piled out and got in line to get our passports stamped. The girl from Guatemala was a few people ahead of me in line. When she got up to the border agent, they had some sort conversation in Spanish – she was obviously asking him questions back about what he was telling her. He pointed to the left and she walked off that direction. The next few people got their passports stamped without a problem. I got up to the counter, handed over my passport, he asked me something in Spanish, I told him that “me no habla Spanish,” he pointed to the document that I got when I entered the country (they filled out some one page form and stamped it, instead of stamping my passport with the visa stamp) and said something that I translated as “you need to pay the transit tax” and pointed off to the left.

Luckily, the girl from Guatemala was over there when I got there and she was paying this mysterious transit tax. She was trying to get an explanation from the official in this building, but she never really got any solid reason for why just the two of us had to pay the tax. No one else on the van had to pay it. She at least explained to me how much it was and made sure I did the transaction properly. It was about $12 and I just handed over the cash, got my new stamp on my document, and went back in line.

After we left the Mexican immigration office we continued driving down the road towards the Guatemalan side of the border. Although it had a definite Latin American flavor to it, it started to feel like some modern version of an Indiana Jones movie – the scenes where Indiana Jones has arrived in some Middle Eastern city, with monkeys running around, people everywhere, organized chaos.

This had a feel like that for me – organized chaos. Although it looked completely chaotic, there was some sort of organization there. Its just that I had absolutely no idea what sort of organization it was.

There was trash everywhere. As we got closer to the border, and I imagined as we got further and further away from any remnants of governmental oversight, there were two huge piles of trash that were being burned, right by the side of the road. Piles of burning plastic bottles and other garbage spewing God-only-knows-what type of pollution and dioxins into the atmosphere is one of the signs I expected in a true 3rd world country, not Mexico.

It felt like we were in a no-mans zone between the borders. To be more specific, it appeared to be a no-law zone. Sort of a modern Wild West.

Well, frankly. Not THAT modern.

A rather large shantytown had taken root on both sides of the border. There was an open market than ran on for a half mile or so, selling everything you can imagine. Clothes, DVDs, bicycles, fruit, fireworks, and on and on. All of the buildings and market stalls looked like they had been put together in the most haphazard manner possible, and with the cheapest possible materials, many of which appeared to be ingeniously recycled from their original uses.

The van parked on the Mexican side. We all piled out, got out backpacks on, and started hiking up some street towards the border. When we got there, there was a big sign saying, “WECOME TO GUATEMALA.” It was the only English I heard from any official at the border.

We got in line to go through Guatemalan customs. Were surrounded by various moneychangers wanting to swap our dollars or pesos for the local currency. The Mexican van driver swapped out with our new driver on the other side. The Guatemalan guy made sure we were all in the correct line and told me that I didn’t need to change my money here (I didn’t remember from my guidebook whether this was one of the borders that it was good to use the border moneychangers or not). After we stood in the non-moving line for about five minutes, the new van driver grabbed up all our passports and went into the building to try to sort out the crossing.

Apparently he got something going properly. The line slowly moved forward. The guy behind the counter started calling out names of our group and as your name was called you went forward and got your stamped passport. You also had to pay him a couple bucks – although the guidebook said there was no visa fee at this crossing. As in one of my (many, many) favorite lines of Casablanca from Captain Renault, “well, I am only a poor corrupt official.”

Has a better movie ever been made? Every single line in that movie works. Go watch it again – it is one of the funniest movies of all time. “I am shocked. . . shocked that there is gambling going on in this establishment!”

In any case, our new driver/fixer shuffled us through the border crossing and then checked each of our passports to make sure that we were properly stamped. We got in our new van and then drove through the shanty town on the Guatemalan side.

My favorite image on that side: laundry out to dry. . . on top of a barbed wire fence.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Quick thoughts on chicken buses

I took my first chicken bus a few days ago. After taking a quick tour of a cigar factory in Esteli (unfortunately not my favorite, Padron) in the morning, I asked the people that did my tour where I could get a bus to Leon. They checked on their computer, pointed to one of the two bus stations in town on my map, and told me the bus left at 3 that afternoon. I had been riding on the nice, big, air conditioned (overly so) buses up till then, and assumed, since they looked up the schedule on the computer and told me there were only two buses a day to Leon that this was another one of those buses.

Au contraire, mon ami.

Got to the bus station around 1:30 or so and started looking for the ticket agent. Not a ticket agent in sight. Hundred or so people sitting around waiting for buses, mostly locals, on benches underneath a covered part of the parking lot, which appeared to be the "terminal". A few buses were parked there under signs that signified which towns they were headed to. I hopped into some little food shack at the station and choked down a pretty poor meal of fried chicken and rice and when I asked the people in there about the bus to Leon in my pigeon Spanish, they pointed to one of the buses parked outside (under a sign for Managua, of course).

I got on the bus, which, unlike the nicely painted chicken buses I took pictures of in Antigua, was just a plain old school bus, still painted its original yellow. There were a couple other gringos, actually a gringo and a gringa, sitting on one of the benches and asked them if this was the bus to Leon. They assured me that it was and I prepared for my first chicken bus experience of the trip.

So here are some things about chicken buses: they literally are old school buses -- I have no idea how thousands of these buses made it down to Central America, but they are everywhere. No air-conditioning, obviously. Sometimes a few of the windows will open up, but if you remember your old school bus, that just means an opening of about 1 foot by 2 feet -- don't want those kids falling out of the bus. They all have welded on a luggage rack that covers almost the entire roof -- if the bus is crowded, you are supposed to give your backpack for a guy up there to tie down for you. I really don't trust that process very much, but in this case, our bus was mercifully not very crowded, so I just put my pack in the seat next to me. The suspension, and roads for that matter, usually leave a lot to be desired. And normally, the bus will stop and pick up anyone flagging it down from the side of the road -- but this bus actually didn't make many stops at all.

In short, it is an experience. Not like I want to take them all the time, but every once in a while, it quickly brings you down to earth.

The ride was supposed to take about two and a half hours. I spent most of it talking to the gringa, a really cool girl from New Mexico (Tina). She was on a long Latin American tour. Luckily it wasn't overly hot, so the ride wasn't too bad at all. The bus wasn't very crowded at all, which was even better.

Although the trip wasn't that long in miles, probably 150-200 miles or so, it was long in duration, about 5 hours or so. There were a couple amusing notes from the trip. First, as usual for Nicaragua, the road was under construction. Every once in a while, the bus driver would pull off the road to some side road, cut out of the surrounding forest, that ran next to the road that was being repaved or whatever. What was amusing was that not all the traffic would divert to these side roads -- so that we'd be driving alongside the main road for a quarter mile or so and some other bus or car or whatever would be whipping on down the regular road, dodging construction equipment or potholes or whatever. Quite amusing.

More interesting was the transmission on our bus. About half the way through the trip, a loud squealing noise started coming from the front of the bus when we were in first or second gear. After a bit more time went by, the squealing seemed to expand to third gear as well. Tina turned to me and wondered aloud whether we'd be able to hitch a ride on another bus or car when, not if, this one broke down.

A few more miles down the road, the driver pulled the bus off the road. We were pretty sure this was the end of the road on this particular bus. The driver and his assistant, then got out some tools and a container of what we assumed was transmission fluid, opened up the hood and got to work. Considering they were prepared for this, it was obvious this was a reoccuring problem. And I'm no mechanic, but I don't think transmission fluid is the long-term solution to this problem. We were back on the road in about 20 minutes. . . and the squealing didn't start up again for at least 30 minutes after that.

We made it fine -- quite late, but fine -- and had a good laugh over beers about the folks that were destined to be on that bus when the make-shift repairs didn't work. Then we realized that we were jinxing ourselves with bad travel karma.

At least when it happens to me, I will be able to the point that I screwed up my karma.

From Chicken Buses
I wish our bus would have been this cool looking.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

San Cristobal to Antigua

If you are planning on doing much traveling in Central America, you are going to take some long bus or van rides. It just comes with the territory. What is amazing about most of these trips though is how few actual miles you cover for the amount of time you spend.

San Cristobal, in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, is about 500 miles from Antigua, Guatemala. The van ride took 12 hours. And that was over some pretty good roads, compared to what I am about to experience in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The bus ride cost the equivalent of $30 U.S. dollars.

The van picked me up outside my hotel room at 6 a.m. – if you are traveling down here, you are also going to have to get used to some early departures, my van from Antigua to Copan, Honduras leaves at 4 a.m. The driver drove around town and picked up the remainder of the passengers from other hostels and hotels and we were on the road by 7 or so. The van was a fifteen-passenger van, and we managed thirteen passengers, a driver and luggage in back.

A small aside here, as I am want to do. A few years back, I handled a personal injury case of a college age kid that was taking an overnight van trip from northwest Arkansas to Colorado, to go skiing with his church group. In the middle of the night, the driver fell asleep, the van flipped over, two people ended up dying and my client was pretty severely injured (but luckily had a full recovery). In researching his case, I came across a whole series of lawsuits in the U.S. about the inherent unreliability of fifteen passenger vans (my client was actually in a smaller van, so the research didn’t apply to his case). Suffice it to say that these large, fifteen passenger vans are quite unstable, top heavy, and prone to fishtail out of control and flip over at an alarming rate. As I recall, they now don’t sell these types of vans in the States to schools and such, because of all the injuries, deaths and lawsuits.

There are many times it is a blessing to have the variety of knowledge that I possess, as a result of my legal education and law career. In this case, I’d rather not have known that I was riding in a van that isn’t sold in the U.S. for safety reasons.

One hour outside of San Cristobal, nine of the thirteen passengers were sound asleep. It is odd that no matter where you are, being a passenger in a vehicle almost always makes one sleepy. One of the two girls in the front seats was awake reading, one girl was knitting in my row, one guy in the far back row was awake listening to his iPod, and I was awake watching the hills of southern Mexico roll by, with my iPod on of course – how travel was manageable before that miraculous invention is beyond me. Everyone else was sound asleep.

And I hope you don’t mind, but I think I shall take a different format for this particular blog and just relay some things I saw and experienced on this route, without making any effort to tie them up neatly in some logical pattern:

• The girl in the middle front seat next to the driver was Japanese. She had spent a year in Seattle learning English and was going back to the Guatemalan town of Xela to continue her Spanish studies, where she had about five months left, after finishing seven already. At one of the stops she told me all of that and when I mentioned that she’d been sleeping almost the entire time, she said she didn’t get back to her hostel until about 4 a.m. before the 6:30 departure.

The way she slept is the same way as most of us all do, when you are in seats that don’t recline. Her head would start nodding lower and lower and lower, then to the left, and then as low as it can physically go. She was out. As the van bumped along and turned this way and that, her head would slowly nod slightly up and down and left and right for twenty or thirty minutes or more. Then at some point, her head would bounce quickly back up to its normal position as she jolted awake. And then slowly nod lower and lower to start the process again. Over and over.

• A white girl in the row behind me had full-blown dreadlocks, down to the middle of her back, braided throughout with little beads and such. She was from Scotland and we talked over coffee at a pit stop later that morning about my golf trip there and how friendly the Scots are. She’d spent three months in Copper Canyon in northern Mexico, which I’d looked into in planning the initial stages of my trip – a place certainly on my to-do list when I get back. She told a few of us awake in the van sometime that morning a story about breaking her arm badly in Ghana a few years ago. She was riding a bike and got hit by a car and then run over by the front tires of a truck, which then stopped before the back tires ran her over also. Some of the locals pulled her out from under the van (a painful experience she’d like to forget) and took her to the local hospital, where she stayed for four days before flying home – to have the arm re-broken and reset in Glasgow.

While she was an interesting sort, I just couldn’t get over the juxtaposition of her appearance and her accent. Somehow the Scottish accent on a white woman with dreadlocks just doesn’t go together. For that matter, lets just go with – no dreadlocks on white people – I’ve seen the look on both black women and men, and it can look pretty good, but I’ve yet to see a white person that can pull it off.

• The two girls sitting on my bench were both from Spain. The girl next to me slept quite a lot on the trip. As we drove down the hills from San Cristobal to the Mexican-Guatemalan border, which is at a much lower elevation, the van snaked its way left and right, down and down. She was like a sack of flour and on every right turn the van took, she would tilt to the left, up against my shoulder, then back to the right as the van turned the other direction. Given the winding nature of the road, she swayed left and right rather rhythmically, almost like a human metronome.

• We drove past by scores of ramshackle little villages, made up of concrete cinderblock houses, almost all capped with plastic, corrugated roofs. Smoke rose from a number of them, as you realized that wood was their only source of both heat and of fires for cooking. Even on the main road, there were speed bumps every so often, so that the van would have to slow to a crawl to just ease over them. The houses were all in the valleys, while forested hills overlooked them. Well, mostly forested hills – some had barren patches, where they had clear-cut the trees. Those looked like someone with a beard had someone with a straightedge razor just do one swipe down the side of his face.

As we turned one corner, off in the distance on one of the hills, I saw a lone solitary, perfectly formed tree, placed upon the top of the ridge overlooking its brethren down below, so that its silhouette stood out beautifully against the light blue sky with two wispy clouds hanging off stilly to its right. It has the look of the tree that was in charge of the whole valley. The jefe. I wished I had some artistic talent at that point – it deserved to be painted.

• There is a hope that with the production of volume and time, that there will be improvement in my quality of writing and powers of observation.

• There are small fields of corn in almost every open space available. Now, in the middle of the winter, the corn stalks all stand empty and dead – a lifeless dull, light shade of brown – the color of weathered paper. They are completely withered and parched, only standing upright at all out of habit, ready to be plowed under to soon start the cycle anew.

There is something quite peaceful about movement overland. A feeling you don’t get by flying – the feeling that you are actually seeing the world – chewing up the miles slowly. Truly traveling. Quite peaceful.

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Random thoughts on a ferry ride

Jan 4 – ferry back to La Ceiba

On my first solo trip to Europe, I got road-weary after about a week or so. During my extended, experimental solo trip to Nicaragua last year, it was about three weeks or so. Tomorrow marks three weeks on the road on this long journey – and I don’t feel road-weary at all. Perhaps it is all the movement or perhaps it is that I’ve spent about half the time so far with friends that I already knew.

I am curious when that point will come on this trip, because it most certainly will come multiple times. Is it like the wall that runners hit when running long distances? When I push through it, will it provide some equal euphoria to what they experience?

And why is the phrase that someone “waxes lyrically?” I appreciate the sentiment – and I hope to have moments where my prose is described in such a fashion – but if you are writing something that is sad or depressing, shouldn’t the phrase be “waning lyrically?”

There are some words that only seem appropriate in certain parts of the world. I’m going to have to keep a list of them, as I think of them on this route, but two of them came to mind in the last few days on Roatan Island: torpid and languane (misspelled). Even if you have an extended high humidity heat wave in some location like Chicago or Boston, those two words just don’t feel like they would ever apply.

Back to the west again today and tomorrow. If my progress around the world is eventually going to be measured by traveling from the east to the west, as it must, if I am going to make a circumnavigation – I’m really not going to make much progress for another couple months.

My good friend, Tim, emailed me a few days back and had me look at the SPOT map to see how little progress east I had made so far. It made me laugh a little. More of a down-the-world trip that a round-the-world trip so far.

I can hear John Madden describing my trip so far, in the reverse imagery that he would use talking about a running back: “He’s just running north and south!! He needs to turn it up east and west – BAM – hit the hole and just start running downhill. He’s never going to outrun the defense if he just keeps running along the line of scrimmage.”

Waiting in the bus station for my bus from La Ceiba to San Pedro, about 3 hours down the road, where I am going to crash for the night, before the long day tomorrow traveling all the way from the Caribbean cost of Honduras to Nicaragua. In walks a huge, huge woman – 250+ pounds, easy. I silently mutter to myself: “please don’t let her be in the seat next to me on the bus.”

As I waited around, I started talking to an older couple from Pennsylvania that I had shared a cab ride from the ferry station to the bus station. He was American and she was originally from the Netherlands. As I listened to them talk to each other outside and then in the small bus station, it became clear that she was an unmitigated control freak. Told him what to do constantly. I’m not sure too many of you watch the Amazing Race, but she reminded me of the woman that made it to the final three with her husband – they were separated, but using the trip as some sort of exploration of whether they should get back together. My first and lasting though for that guy as I watched that show was, “run away. Run away quickly.” For this couple in the bus station, I imagined to myself that he thought it would be exotic and interesting to be married to a foreign woman, but has now realized that his life is a virtual living hell because of her.

One hour of listening to them was enough for me to draw this sweeping conclusion. Perhaps, just perhaps, I can have a tendency to leap a little quickly to conclusions. And right after I thought that, she upbraided him for knocking her book to the ground while she went to the bathroom and losing her placemark.

I also met a cool guy from Colorado that was just down to do some diving in the area. He gave me some tips on what to see in Peru when I got down there, as he had spent a month there not too long ago. All three things he mentioned were things I had read about and already wanted to do, but his descriptions added to me desire to hit them all.

And then I got on the bus. Seat 18. I knew who was going to be in seat 17 before I even got on the bus. And of course she was.