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

Friday, April 24, 2009


One of the countries that I have been most excited about seeing is Namibia and I arrived early this morning. I took a 20 hour bus ride from Cape Town in the coldest frickin' bus I have yet ridden on. It was so damn cold, I only think I slept about 3 hours or so. I was literally shivering so hard, I couldn't sleep. And yes, I was wearing my fleece, jeans, and wool socks and boots.

I am not sure why I was so excited to come here before my trip. I had only done a little bit of reading about it (mostly about the Namib Desert, which I still am totally excited about -- great pics coming, I hope). I just had a good feeling for this place.

Its one of the only German colonies from the colonial period, where every European power was snapping up land everywhere (Germany tried to make up for this by snapping up a lot of land until the 20th century). It is interesting seeing road signs in German here.

I stayed too long in Cape Town, so I've decided on a whirlwind week here in Namibia. I booked a six day safari starting tomorrow. Three days in Etoshia National Park and three days in the desert. Here's hoping I get my first great shots in Africa.

I might, might be online in the middle of this trip. I think we spend one night at a hostel. Other than that, I'll be camping and off line. Hopefully this time next week, I'll be posting some good pictures for everyone.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Shag, Marry, Kill

So, in the post below (Cabo Polonio), I talked about a conversational game that I played with those Aussies and Kiwis -- Shag, Marry, Kill. One person names three people. Everyone else has to say which one of the three they would shag, which they would marry and which one dies. Very amusing conversations.

I didn't know how prevalent this game was until I was watching an interview on South African TV a couple nights ago. The host was interviewing some head honcho from one of the political parties down here (national election day is today). The interview was normal for a while -- what would you do about this and that problem if you are elected.

Then at the end, "OK, Mister Whomever, have you heard of a game called Mac, Marry, Flush?"
"Well, yes I have."
"Well then, I have three names for you." She then gave the names of the wife of the French Prime Minister, the wife of the Zimbabwian Prime Minister and someone else.

And the guy answered.

This isn't politics like back home. . .


Cabo Polonio, Uruguay

After hanging out for a few days in Montevideo, Uruguay’s somewhat sleep capital, I got talked into going to the tiny beach town of Cabo Polonio by a couple Aussies and a Kiwi. I had been hanging out with Liz, an Aussie, for a few days and she had heard about it from a couple other people when she was coming south from Brasil. The night before we left, we ran into Dave and Ben, each a chef from New Zealand and Australia respectively. We all had some beers at our hostel in Montevideo and they also said they had heard great things about Cabo Polonio and wanted to head there tomorrow.

That is basically how destination plans are made on the road, when you don’t make advance reservations. Intricate. Complicated. Well researched.

The three of them decided to leave on the 9 a.m. bus up the coast. I still had to pick up my Brasilian passport at the consulate sometime that morning, so I told them I would try to meet them there later than night or the next day.

I ended up managing to get a bus leaving at 1:30 that afternoon. It was supposed to take about four and a half hours, but because we made a number of additional stops, it ended up taking more like six hours. By the time we got to the bus stop, it was dark.

This normally wouldn’t be a problem at all, but Cabo Polonia is a bit of a unique destination. First, the bus doesn’t drop you off in town; it drops you off by the side of the highway at a gas station. From there, you are supposed to get a ride on a souped-up pickup truck with large tires capable of taking you over the sand dunes to the town, about 4-5 kilometers away. Second, there is almost no electricity at all in town – more on that in a second.

I knew both of these situations before I took off, but I was getting increasingly nervous after five hours or so that I might have missed my bus stop. At one of the stops, I got off and showed my destination on ticket to the bus driver unloading other passengers’ luggage. He didn’t speak English, but through hand signals, he assured me that my stop was still further down the road. My only other concern was whether the trucks ran people to the town from the gas station after dark. I assumed so, since there was scheduled bus service to there, but I wasn’t in the mood to sleep on a bench that night (or any night, really).

We got there, the bus driver called out “Cabo Polonio” loudly, smiling in my direction, and I hopped off the bus with another couple, which made me feel better about my chances of getting to town. It turns out that the truck service runs until 10 or 11 at night or so and there was a truck parked out front already half-loaded with others going to town. We bought our ticket, through our stuff into the truck bed, pulled ourselves up and got a seat.

The truck took off down a dirt/sand road towards the ocean. Through a guard station (its illegal for anyone to take any private vehicles out to the area, even residents) and then down series of roads through and past groves of trees and sand dunes. It was pitch-black, so the only things you could see were illuminated by the headlights of the truck. After ten minutes, the headlights provided a sight of the beach, accompanied sound of waves crashing.

Still not a light or building in sight. We drove down the beach for a bit and off in the distance you could see a lighthouse light sweeping around. Eventually, you also could see some small lights coming from what must have been buildings, about a dozen or so. As we got closer, some more lights became visible, but it was quite obvious this was going to be a different experience.

The truck eventually stopped in must have been the center of town, though you really couldn’t see a thing, because everyone got off. I had the name of the hostel that my friends were supposed to meet me at, but no idea of where it was in town. I asked the couple that had gotten on the truck at the same time as me whether they knew where they were staying tonight and they said they didn’t know. Some local approached the truck and told the couple that he had a place to stay (there are 3-4 small hostels here, but for the most part, you just rent one of the small houses from locals) and they turned to follow him. I was still asking people if they knew the way to the hostel I was looking for, Cabo Polonio Hostel. I asked the truck driver and he pointed off in the direction that the couple had walked off to.

Problem was that they had about a 50-yard head start and I couldn’t see them at all. I through my backpack on and took off at a fast walk trying to find them. . . and immediately tripped over a small little sand bump in front of me, face first into the ground, backpack somehow going up over my shoulders and head and almost pulling me over with it. An almost-full 180˚, with a half twist. The Russian judge only gave me a 6.2.

I got organized and took off after them again. My feet telling me I was walking down some sort of sand road. Hopefully able to remain upright. I caught sight of the local guy’s flashlight and caught up to them a few minutes later. The couple was looking at the local’s place (it turned out to be a small hostel) and I frantically went through my backpack with their flashlight looking for mine.

Knowing I was going to a town with no electricity, this item would have been a good one to put at the top of my pack. Once again, my planning skills shine.

The couple came back, said they were going to look at some other places, starting with the hostel next door. We walked over to the place and met the owner, a nice French-Canadian guy named Henri. There were 7-8 people, but none of my friends, eating dinner by candlelight on the front porch out front. As I continued to try to find my flashlight, the couple decided to move on. I asked Henri where the Cabo Polonio Hostel was and he said this was the place. As my friends weren’t there and the place looked much smaller than the pictures on the internet, I doubted it, but I needed to crash somewhere that night. I took a bed there for the night.

Henri showed me to my room and I dropped off my pack. I had finally found my flashlight by this point. He apologized and said that they had already cooked all the food for the night, so I couldn’t eat there, but there were some places to eat in town. He pointed off in the direction I came from and I walked back into the main part of town and found a spot to eat.

Though I had a flashlight, navigating even a small little town like in complete darkness was in interesting challenge on the way back, especially because I hadn’t had the chance to see the basic layout of everything during the day. I found my way back to the general location of the hostel and was guided the final bit of the way by the light of a television from the porch area.

Everyone was watching a movie playing on a 42 inch flat screen TV that was suspended over the end of the table by a jury-rigged system of ropes, tied into the ceiling. The TV was running on generator power and they were watching the DVD of “Wall-E.”

The next day, I woke up and stumbled out for breakfast. In the light of day, I verified that indeed this was the Cabo Polonio Hostel, as there was a large sign on the back side of the building proclaiming as such.
From Cabo Polonio

From Cabo Polonio
I think this means something like, "Freedom or Death."

I was the only one up and as I had coffee and toast with Henri, I complimented him on his place and told him I was surprised that he had a television here, since he didn’t have a regular source of power.

“O’. That’s not my TV.”
“Huh? Who’s is it?”
“Its Denis’ TV. One of the guests here. He brought it with him.”

Over the next couple days, I pieced the following together. Denis was from Montreal. The first time I asked him about the TV, he simply said he leaving in a few days and taking it back to Montreal for his kids. That confused me a little bit, because I didn’t figure that you would be able to get some great deal on televisions in South America – at least a deal worth carrying a large TV around with you on vacation.

I then figured that he was a regular visitor here, since he and the owner were French Canadian, and that knowing he was going to stay at this hostel for a few weeks, he just bought the TV at his last major town, so that they’d have some additional entertainment while here and then he’d just take it home, since he wanted a new TV back there anyway. So the next breakfast, I asked Henri if Denis was a friend of his from back home or a regular visitor.

“No. I have never met him before.” I asked what the story was about the TV. He said he wasn’t sure, but that Denis had showed up a couple weeks ago and after a day or two, asked if he could go back to his rental car and get his TV. He had been driving down to Uruguay from Brasil in a rental car and had the TV in the backseat. Henri told him that was fine and they then rigged up the rope harness for it. Henri didn’t know anything more than that. For what it is worth, he said he’d also never seen anything like it – though he didn’t seem nearly as intrigued as I was about this odd situation.

That might have something to do with Henri’s general outlook on life, probably best expressed each morning as we each began the day. We both started the day with coffee, toast and jam. He added to that hand rolling a good-sized morning joint, always nicely offering it to me after he took a few hits off it.

He was a very relaxed guy.

I had to ask Denis just a few more follow-up questions on the question of the TV. Later, I asked him when and where he had bought it. He looked at me strangely, as if the answer was obvious, and said “Montreal, about two years ago.” I thought it best to stop there, because I wanted to savor the incongruity of it all, without knowing for certain any more definite answers – though my imagination couldn’t have been any better than the reality.

He had brought a television down from Montreal for a couple month holiday in South America. He rented a car and didn’t have any definite plans on where he was going to go, but apparently he thought he might need a television somewhere along the way.

Luckily, he had stumbled upon Cabo Polonio. The road is rarely predictable and never boring.
From Cabo Polonio
The famous Canadian television.

From Cabo Polonio
The non-TV entertainment area.

So, if you want no distraction relaxation, Cabo Polonio is your spot, especially in the off-season, as when I was there. Here is a full list of your entertainment options during your stay here: work on a tan, walk on the beach, nap in a hammock, read, talk and drink. You can mix a few of those up and do them at the same time also.

At night, you can add to that list seeing more stars that you have ever seen in your lifetime – and maybe watching a movie on DVD, if there is a guy from Montreal visiting town.

During the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, December through February, it fills up a bit more with tourists. There are even some bars and restaurants that are only open for those few months. As we walked around town, we saw the shells of locations that get filled out with those places in the high season.

By the middle of March, the place had reverted to its sleepy form. I doubt there were 30 other tourists there.

Five of them were the people I hung out with for three days and two nights. I ran into Liz walking past my hostel the next morning on the way to the beach. She and Dave and Ben had rented a small house about 50 yards away from my hostel. She said they were partying so hard the night before, she was surprised I couldn’t hear them from my place.

Liz is from Western Australia, Perth to be particular about it. She was a travel agent back home and saved up some money to travel, quit her job, and flew to South America. She’d done Carnival and six weeks in Brasil, a bit of Buenos Aires, and was now back up in Uruguay. She was heading back down to BA for a bit and had a flight in a few weeks from there to Miami, where she was meeting a mate flying over from Australia for a Caribbean cruise. Then the two of them had a flight to Panama City and she had about six weeks to get from there to Las Vegas overland to meet another mate coming over. The problem was that she only had about $3,000 U.S for those two months. The flights were part of a round-the-world ticket, so they were paid for and the cruise was all-inclusive and paid for, but the six weeks from Panama City to Las Vegas were going to be interesting. She has promised to keep in touch and I am going to make her write up an occasional blog to post here with updates on how she is managing. From Vegas -- her round-the-world ticket was a bit strange -- she had to get back to Miami, fly to New York City, then she was meeting her sister somewhere in Quebec. Her sister is working in Canada and Liz is going to try to work there for a while, save up some more money and continue her trip in Europe.

Dave and Ben were the Kiwi and Aussie from the hostel in Montevideo. They were both trained and experienced chefs. Dave had spent parts of the last three years cooking on exclusive private yachts that went all over the place. Ben was going to make his first effort to latch onto a ship with Dave’s help and connections. They were headed to Spain after a few more months in South America, to catch the summer boating season in the Mediterranean. Both had been to culinary school and had about ten years experience cooking in various restaurants – and is almost always the case for Aussies and Kiwis I have met on the road, incredibly cool.

The chances of me not staying in New Zealand at the end of this trip lessen with each Kiwi I meet.

The afternoon that I coming in on the bus, they got there early and meet up with Mel and Marissa, another Aussie and Kiwi, and as is par for the course on the road, all seemingly become fast friends in one night. They both deserve a longer summary, but here is the short version for each: Mel was an Aussie with a perfectly lilting Aussie accent; Marissa was a stunning, auburn-haired Kiwi architect who had been working recently in London. Fun, interesting, beautiful – and there is just something about those accents. I wish that accent attraction worked in reverse, but I’ve yet to met anyone that says an American accent is sexy.

I was lucky enough to crash on in on their house parties the next couple of nights, though I always felt slightly like an outsider or intruder, because they had bonded so well.

Or I might have felt awkward because of how mind-numbingly drunk I got on the first night at their place. Ben had caught some 24-hour bug (Dave got it the next day and thankfully, none of the rest of us got it at all), so he slept through the entire day and night. Dave had decided he wanted to cook on an open fire for all of us. He tried to find some local fresh fish and surprisingly couldn’t find any. He settled for some great looking lamb and beef.

I wandered over to their place around four that afternoon and helped him (mostly watched, but put in a small enough effort to perhaps entitle me to that word – at least because I am the one writing the summary) make a roaring fire in a fire pit next to their house. Of course, we started drinking then, as manly men doing our parts as modern-day Prometheuses. By the time, Dave was feed the fire a few times and then let it simmer down into a healthy bed of coals, I already had quite a buzz on. I actually haven’t been drinking too much on this trip – much less than at home – so I am going to blame being out of practice. The girls arrived around sundown, when Dave was about ready to put the meat on the fire.

From Cabo Polonio

From Cabo Polonio

He grilled up the beef and lamb, did some sweet potatoes and regular potatoes up inside on the stove. Wine. Beer. It was a feast. Probably the best meal I had eaten in weeks.

After dinner the true drinking began, along with a game garnered to elicit some interesting drunken opinions: Shag, Marry, Kill. Someone came up with three people and you had to declare which one you would have sex with, which one you would marry, and which one was to die. I must say that Oprah, Rosanne and Queen Elizabeth stumped me for a bit. Obviously Rosanne must die, but the other two choices?! On the other side of the scale, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron and was difficult in the opposite respect. For the ladies, Heath Ledger (we were well into fantasy world at this point), Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe was quite the stumper.

I don’t remember the last few hours of the evening at all, except for a burst of extreme flatulence at one point – yes, I was on my game that evening. That may have been the point we decided to exit the small house and wander about town. I was quite happy to wake up the next day still with my camera in my possession. At least I didn’t leave it somewhere. And with a hangover commensurate with my evening’s level of debauchery (I love the definition of that from the thesaurus on this computer, “unrestrained self-indulgent behavior, or an instance of this.” Ahhhhh, that’s the word).

When I told my new friends I was going to blog a summary of the three days at Cabo Polonio, they made me promise to not give the following summary and use the term “typical Aussies and Kiwis.” And I won’t.

At the end of the three nights, there was a pile of empty bottles at the house. 24 bottles of wine. Two bottles of Bacardi (though one was not completely empty). One bottle of Cachaça, used to make Caipirinhas. And 15 or so bottles of liter-sized beer, though I think we had either returned some of the beer bottles to the store or thrown them out somewhere.

They all said that the first night, before I met up with them, was the biggest party of the three nights. I was happy I hadn’t found them that night – I don’t know if I would have survived another.

I will say “typical Aussies and Kiwis” in this regard – the five of them were some of the nicest, most interesting, and fun people I’d met in four months on the road. I hope it is not the last time I see any of them. In fact, while Dave was cooking and I was quizzing him about his experiences cooking on yachts, I made him promise to hire me on as a sous chef at some point in the future. He said he might be OK with that, but I’d have to give him half of my wages as a finder’s fee for the job.

I think I might be good with that.

From Cabo Polonio
The usual television at the hostel

From Cabo Polonio
View of town
From Cabo Polonio
Cow chilling on the beach

From Cabo Polonio
The way into town.

From Cabo Polonio
Main Street

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Safety on the Road

“What gives value to travel is fear.” Albert Camus

“The flooding of the foreign into our living rooms – our bedrooms – is not always conducive to a sense of calm; all the spirits we like to keep locked up – suspicion, defensiveness, fear – suddenly rear their heads. A stranger is always at our door, nowadays, with an offer, an inquiry, and we don’t know what to make of him. The Other brings alien rhythms, smells, and spices to the neighborhood, and we’re in the dark even when the room is brightly lit.” Pico Iyer

I am totally jinxing myself by writing this particular blog before I disembark the MOL Wish in Africa, but let’s risk it and talk a bit about safety on the road.

I don’t have statistics, but I bet that you aren’t much more likely to be a victim of crime in most of the places I will go to on this trip as I would be in New York City or Miami or Washington D.C. In fact, statistics might even show the opposite, I very well might be statistically safer in 95% of my trip that I would be if I instead had moved to Manhattan, but I do know that – you feel a hell of a lot safer at home.

Most of that feeling, I believe, is just a function of familiarity and language. If I am in D.C., I can understand what those kids on the corner are saying. If they are saying something about an idiot tourist or about a backpack, I have an idea they are talking about me. In San Jose, I have no idea what those three guys at the corner are talking about – so I usually give them wide berth, sometimes even crossing the street.

Engage in any sort of long-distance or long-duration travel (unless you are on a very high-end guided tour) and you will be guaranteed to have innumerable conversations about a variety of topics you never talk about at home: can’t miss sights, good and cheap places to stay, the current and previous state of everyone’s digestive tracts, and tales of theft and robbery.

I have been on the road for a short four months and I have already heard these stories:

“My laptop got stolen out of my backpack at a border crossing by the people working on the bus, when I wasn’t paying attention.”

“My nephew only made it as far as Columbia on his round-the-world trip because he got stabbed and had to come back home.”

“I got robbed in Managua, Nicaragua.” Not an unusual story, that is a bad town, but the details being, “by a cab driver that picked me up, took me to a dark road, and pulled a knife on me.” And I thought I had some bad cab drivers before. . .

I met a guy that got robbed in Nicaragua. At rock-point. Apparently, he was stumbling home drunk late one night and someone held him up by menacing a large rock. I am assuming he was too drunk to realize that running in that situation might have been effective. Or too drunk to run.

“I left my laptop under my bed for a bit at the hostel and got it lifted.”

I have met or heard of at least six people that have had their compact cameras pick pocketed off them, without any of them feeling or seeing anything.

And numerous stories of getting ripped off by various tour operators over promising and under delivering.

These are hints from various guidebooks that I have read:

“Carry a drop-wallet.” A drop wallet is one you keep in your normal back pocket with a bit of money and other personal stuff in there, so that pick pockets have a target to aim for. In the meantime, you carry your real money and credit cards in your front pocket or in a money belt. I had one at the beginning of the trip. . . but then I lost it. Seriously. It didn’t have anything important in it so I didn’t pay attention to it and I left it in my pants when I took them to a laundry.

“Never walk anywhere in this neighborhood at night. Always get a cab, even if you are only going 4-5 blocks.” This advice is excellent – unless the cabbie is the one that robs you.

“Try to get off the bus and watch your backpack in the cargo area at each bus stop.”

“Don’t take a night bus south of X town, because there have been reports of armed hold-ups of entire buses at night in the area.”

Some of the ways to stay safe are pretty basic. About 3/4s of the robbery or theft stories I have heard begin with, “so it was 3 a.m. and I was wasted.” Hmmmmmm. Methinks at that point, perhaps you might have been asking for what you got.

I am not a danger junkie. I didn’t embark on this trip with any intention of getting ‘close to danger’ and see how the adrenaline rush feels. I would just as soon come back after a year journey and have not a single exciting story to tell about getting robbed – unless by rock-point, I think that sounds pretty creative.

In reality, you are a bit of a target on the road. Gringo also says to people: “I have money and shit worth stealing.” That is, unless you look like those backpackers who never shower, have nasty dreadlocks and ratty clothes.

And I don’t care how safe it makes you – I’m not willing to go there.

A healthy dose of paranoia is good, but it is also tiring. Alert takes a lot more energy than auto-pilot. There are a variety of things that tire you out mentally on the road, but the need to be vigilant is certainly up there on the list.

You have to develop a mental checklist: money and ATM or credit card (if you need to carry one) goes in the same pocket every time; your iPod only comes out on long bus rides or in a hostel with a secure locker; on the bus, the iPod goes in the opposite pocket as your money; camera is always in the locked part of your backpack; laptop goes in the same place every time in the backpack and never gets brought out any place that would draw attention to it; passport, spare money, credit cards and such all are in the money belt (in my case, money necklace thing) – locked in backpack or locker when in a town and on a bus, around my neck, so that if they take the backpack, I have it on me; as soon as you check into any dorm room, you put all valuables into a locker, which is a pain in the ass if you check in late at night; back-up credit card and emergency money is not in your money pouch, it is in a separate place in your backpack; before boarding a bus, always put your rain cover over your backpack, so there is an additional level they have to get through to rifle through your stuff.

Developing routines is a mental necessity. If you don’t develop set routines, you will exhaust yourself constantly worrying about what you might have forgotten. “Did I leave my iPod in my backpack earlier, or put it away in the locker?”

I am going to be gone a year. Of course I am going to get robbed or be the victim of theft. Precautions and paying attention are great, but even if I was merely traveling in the U.S. for this long, I would expect to be the victim of crime. For me, being safe and prepared is a comfort, but to the same degree you cannot become a victim of safety paralysis.

I am carrying a really nice digital SLR camera. It’s a Nikon D80 with a 18-200 mm VR lens. I love my camera. Unfortunately, since it is a big SLR camera, carrying it around certainly makes you a target. I can upzip part of my backpack and make a small fanny pack out of it, so most times that I carry my camera around, I can keep it covered up in that.

When I was in Medellin, four of us were going to go to the bullfights one Saturday afternoon. I was staying in a hostel with Garret, the guy from Montana that was on the sailboat with me. I asked him if he thought it was safe to bring the camera to the bullfight. He said, “why else did you bring it with you?”

He was right of course. I by no means take it everywhere, but I did bring it to use it. If it gets pinched – well, so be it – as long as I did my part to be safe.

From Bullfighting in Medellin

From Bullfighting in Medellin

From Bullfighting in Medellin

From Bullfighting in Medellin


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Mexico City (this one has been waiting around for a long while)

I have kept a Mexico City roadmap in my backpack for all these months, because I was fascinated by the street names.

Most Latin American cities have a variety of streets named after important dates (assumably) in that country’s history. The Centro Historico district of Mexico City is no different: 5 de Mayo (even I got the significance of that one – though I still associate it more with a Corona commercial than its true meaning) and 16 de Semtiebre roads. A variety of roads named after other countries in Latin America: Republica de Uruguay, Republica de El Salvador, Republica de Brasil, Republica de Cuba (the Republic part would be news to most Cubans), Republica de Colombia, and so on. I didn’t notice a Republica de Estados Unidos, but since we had taken about a third of Mexico from them a couple hundred years ago, that didn’t exactly surprise me.

It was the other districts of town that I really found interesting.

The San Miguel Chapultepec area seemed to have all of its streets named in a military fashion: General Molinos del Campo, General Zuaza, General Leon, General Gomez Pedraza.

The Cuauhtemoc district had all its streets named after international cities: Londres, Liverpool, Tokyo, Genoa, Oslo, Copenhagen, Roma. Once again, no streets named after American cities. Hmmmmm. Liverpool and Hamburg get streets named after them (and pretty big ones in fact), but no Nuevo York or Chicago street?? I could understand why no Los Angeles avenue – we did sorta take California from them – but what about some cities east of the Mississippi?

Right across the Paseo de la Reforma was the Cuauhtemoc district with streets all named after rivers: Rio Nilo, Rio Po, Rio Tigris, Rio Elba, Rio Amazonas, Rio Sena, and . . . Rio Hudson. True, it was only one block long – wedged between Rio Panuco and Rio Lerma – but we made the map!!

The Polanco district was my favorite, all named after famous authors west of the Parque Lincoln (I feel pretty sure that was named after Abe) and famous philosphers and scientists east of that. To the west: Dickens, Moliere, Ibsen, Tennyson, Oscar Wilde, Julio Verne, Alejandro Dumas and Edgar Allen Poe. To the east: Galileo, Aristoteles, Hegel, Newton, Schiller. There did seem to be a bit of confusion on a street here and there in this district: Platon and Socrates streets were to the west and Hans Christian Andersen and Homer were to the east.

The driving was completely and totally insane in Mexico City, but I do have a soft spot for any city where I can get in a cab and say: “take me to Florence and London please – right on the corner will be fine.” Or perhaps “to the bookstore right there at Aristotle and Homer.”

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Sailboat Blog

The sailboat trip is just going to be one of those stories that desperately needs an editor in order to organize it into coherently. It’s a book story – too long for a blog – but enough people have asked after seeing the photos and video on Facebook, so I’m going to take a whack at it. I apologize in advance for this rough draft, but I think you will get the gist from it – and you should be planning on buying the book anyway.

If it ever gets published. Someone please find me an agent and/or publisher – I pay back personal favors in excellent wine.

My effort to circumnavigate the globe without leaving the ground almost ran aground before I left Central America. If and when you decide to go off on one of these personal odysseys, I suggest doing just a little bit of research before you set out. I, alas, hadn’t really done much of any research before I hit the road, as planning is not one of my fortes.

I had bought the Lonely Planet “Central America on a Shoestring” guide before I left (and also the South American one – I was the envy of the backpacker circuit in Panama and in much demand in the hostels for my South American guidebook). Ahhhh, but that I’d actually read any of the guidebooks before I left home.

I’d seen some TV special about some guy that took a motorcycle trip from Seattle to the tip of South America a few months before I left. Of course, the reason he was on TV was that he only made it overland to Columbia, got kidnapped there and spent two years in captivity before he was set free, but I ignored that part while I watched. I’d heard the Pan-American Highway went from Mexico to the bottom of Chile. I didn’t see this guy’s whole interview, but if he was on motorcycle, didn’t the road have to make it at least to Columbia? After all, he had got kidnapped there. Hell, I’d traveled on the Pan-American for a bit last year, when I went to Nicaragua. That highway, though a bit rough, had to go all the way where I needed to go.

I’d never heard (or read, obviously) of the Darien Gap.

The Pan-American does indeed run from Mexico to almost the bottom of Chile. . . except for a stretch south of Panama City to the Columbia border, called the Darien Gap. It is one of the wildest places on the planet – often compared to the Amazon or parts of New Guinea in that regard. There are no roads through it at all. You can partly explore it if you can find a good local guide that can take you via small canoe some of the rivers in the area.

Finding a guide and navigating the area is only a part of the problem. The bigger parts was whether you are willing to take the risk of dealing with hostile natives, narco-terrorists and members of FARC, the famous Columbian opposition terrorist group, who hides out in the Gap and also in southeastern Columbia. It’s a bad, bad place.

I was flipping through my guidebook somewhere in Honduras or so when I came upon this quandary. In most aspects, guidebooks will go out of their way to caution you about a certain route (“talk to locals, but it might be best to take day-time buses in this area, instead of going by night,” or “certain parts of town can be inhospitable – make sure to check with your hostel before you set out,” and so on).

The book was a bit more blunt for the Darien Gap, where I paraphrase, but the advice was pretty much “you are a gringo. If you go there, you will die. Find another route.”

Message received.

I did later hear a story about a gringo who spoke perfect Latin Spanish that made it through the gap by painting his entire body with the excretion from a local plant, which made his skin color appear to be similar to the natives living there. Although it surely would have been a good story for the book – and body paint does not scare me – I didn’t have time or the aptitude to learn Spanish.

Fortunately the guidebook said that there were plenty of sailboats that did a 5-day crossing from small ports just south of Colon, Panama (the entrance port to the Panama Canal on the Caribbean side) to Cartegena, Columbia. I had looked at the section on Columbia – at this point, I was beginning to realize some advance examination of places I was about to go to was a good idea – and Cartegena sounded like a fabulous place to visit. The guidebook said to check with fellow travelers and at the hostels for specific sailboats, because some boats (and captains) were maintained better than others and the local information would be more up to date than anything they suggested.

I was staying at Luna’s Castle in Panama City and talked to them about booking passage. They quickly shot down the idea of going to Cartegena. According to them, no sailboats were making the crossing, because the prevailing winds were blowing in the wrong direction and the open seas were too rough. They did know of one boat that might be leaving in two days to sail down the coast of Panama and to a port just over the Panama/Columbia border, but then you’d have to take some sort of ferry across a large bay to Turbo, which is on the mainland side of Columbia – and then a 14-hour bus to Cartegena.


I had no option. I had to get to Columbia and this boat was the only way there, except for the flight option, which was certainly out of the question this shortly into the trip.

They called the captain for me and reserved a spot for me on the boat. My travel friend, Linda, was on the other side of Panama, but she wanted a spot also, so we booked her up as well. Captain Marcus said to call in the afternoon the next day, so that he could tell me if they were playing on leaving the day after that or had to postpone for another day. When I called him as scheduled, he said we were going to leave the next day and that I should either meet him at noon at the departure dock or a couple hours earlier in Colon, where he was going to buy groceries before we took off.

I hopped on the train (my first on the trip – and a disappointment) from Panama City to Colon, met Linda there, and then we called Captain Marcus to come pick us up. When he showed up, he told us that he wasn’t going to captain this trip, but his trusted assistant was going to take charge. His trusted assistant’s wife was also going to join us and do all of the cooking. He said the boat slept eight and that there were only six people booked. The first night of sailing was going to be the only long sail – 12 hours – because the boat had just been in for repairs and was docked a little further north than usual.

No worries though, said Captain Marcus, the first night was the only night we had to sleep on the boat and after that, we’d be anchored at deserted islands every night and the boat had plenty of tents to camp out on the beaches under the stars.

I’ll break in at this point to ruin some of the suspense that I might apparently be trying to build up – I did have a good time on the trip. Don’t get me wrong, there are some downsides I’m going to be discussing in a bit, but all in all, the trip was pretty good. That being said, as I read the above paragraphs and remember the conversation with Captain Marcus, I can make this travel generalization: we are all willing to suspend disbelief in the effort to convince ourselves that everything is going to be great – even when confronted with obvious warning flags that should indicate otherwise.

After we stopped at the store to do the shopping for all the food and provisions for the eight of us (six passengers and the alternate captain and his wife) would need on the five day trip, Captain Marcus got a call on his cell that went something like this for my ears:

“Yes, this is Marcus.”
“Sure we have room on the boat. How many?”
“When can you get here?”
“OK. No problems.”
“Yes, that is plenty of time. We will wait for you.”

He turned to us and said, “Well, this is great. There are three other guys that are joining in on the trip. That means that everyone’s share for the groceries is going to be less. Great news!”

I’ll never be able to be a salesperson, for a few reasons. (1) I don’t like people nearly enough (2) I don’t suffer fools gladly -- though in this story, I am he -- and (3) I can make pretty darn good literal lemonade, but don’t do as well with the proverbial version when presented with the lemons of life. Captain Marcus? Lemonade, with an intoxicating kick.

Less cost for us? Yes. Then again, we had bought food for eight people. Now there were eleven (twelve actually, Captain Marcus forgot to mention that the alternate captain and wife were also bringing their kid). More importantly, the boat was supposed to sleep eight. We now had nine (the captain, his wife and the kid were going to sleep on deck or ashore, according to Captain Marcus).

Though Captain Marcus made it clear to us, “those guys booked last. All of you six get a bunk. One of them is going to have to get a spot on the floor the first night. But no worries, after that, everyone can sleep on shore in the tents. It will be great.”

I do admire salesmen.

Right after we finished shopping, we randomly ran into a passenger on his way to meet us at the sailboat. It was a guy named Garret from Montana and we was waiting at a bus stop right outside the store. He’d called in just that morning from Panama City to see if there was an opening (he was the 6th) and rushed over from Panama City.

Captain Marcus and three French passengers got into his pickup truck with all the groceries and headed to the boat. Garret, Linda, and I waited on the bus, caught it and 30 minutes later, we were at the tiny port town also.

The sailboat was named the Ailsa Craig. I actually had seen the Ailsa Craig. I was the only one on the boat, including its owner, who had seen it (Captain Marcus had bought the boat from a Scotsman a while back). It’s a small island made of granite off the western coast of Scotland, near the famous British Open golf course called Turnburry. On a horribly windy and rainy day at Turnburry some years ago, I shot a smooth 100. For those non-golfers out there, 100 is not good. In fact, it’s really bad. Ailsa Craig is right off shore and the local saying goes something like, “if you can’t see Ailsa Craig, the weather is bad, but wait for a few minutes, its changes all the time.” It didn’t change for me that whole round.

On the other hand, one of my favorite minor sports, and one of the few ones I like in the Winter Olympics, is curling – and every curling stone is made from stone quarried from Ailsa Craig. So the omens weren’t all bad.

In addition to his sailboat, Captain Marcus owned a small restaurant and hostel in the little port town we were leaving from (too small to find on the map, so I'm not sure of the name). An important member of the community. He was a French Canadian guy who seemed pretty excited about a lot of things.

Including cocaine. When we were waiting for his cook to bring us some burgers, he pulled Garret and me aside and said, “You guys do blow?” We looked at each other (we’d just met an hour ago), both shrugged our shoulders and said, “No. Why?”

“Because you can get some of the best cocaine in the world on these San Blas islands you guys are going to be sailing through. Straight up from Columbia. Pure. Very pure stuff. I’ve had clients before that have bought it in many places around the world, but they say the coke here is the best they’ve ever had. Little old local ladies will sell it to you, cheap, when you pull into some of the small local towns. Now look, if you want to use it – or smoke some good weed – you can get that there also – that’s perfectly fine by me, but do it on shore. Don’t do it on the boat, OK?”

Garret and I looked at each other and had one of those moments were you know exactly what the other person is thinking, the exact words forming in their head – what the hell was up with this guy? We turned back to him, nodded and told him, “Sure. Nothing on the boat. Cool.”

The last three guys showed up a couple hours later and we were ready to cast off. Captain Marcus had taken all of our backpacks down to the dock and he and the alternate captain had loaded them on board, along with all the groceries and the beer and booze that we bought here in port, once we realized we hadn’t gotten enough at the grocery store.

The three new guys were all Brits that were traveling separately, but met up on the road and were going the same way for a while. Rob had done South America before for a few months and had some great stories about things we needed to see in some of those countries – including the Columbian women. He’d apparently had a Columbian girlfriend for some months when he was down there. I didn’t think too much of it then, but a couple weeks later, I was really envious. His original travel plan was to take a Land Rover from London to Capetown with a friend of his, but his friend’s mother got ill and had to cancel. Rob sold the Land Rover and flew off to Central America for a while.

Adam was a great, great guy with horrible taste in music. I say that not because I thought he had horrible musical taste – we let him plug his iPod into a boom box on board and play his music a few times – and the resulting opinion of his music was unanimous. Mark was a few years older than those two and was on a trip from the U.S. to the tip of South America over about a year.

There was also a nice French couple whose names I never really did get – nor apparently did any of the English speakers get them either. I didn’t notice until someone else mentioned it on about day three of the cruise, but the two of them pretty much just stayed drunk the entire time. It was hard to tell, because they kept to themselves and were very quiet, but once someone mentioned it to me, I did notice that they always had a bottle of rum handy. Fredrick was another French guy on the trip. He was. . .well, he proved over six days to be excitable, unstable and perhaps a bit off his rocker. He was a truck driver back in France that spoke some English, just enough to confuse the heck out of you. From piecing together conversations he had with some of the others, I think at one point he was in the military and had done a lot of traveling in South America and Asia over the years. Or not. It was hard to tell.

Garret was a very cool guy from Montana. By far he was the one that pitched in and helped the most on the boat. Every time the anchor needed to be hauled up (the winch didn’t work), he volunteered. I helped him a few times with that chore and I can say with utmost conviction that I am a weak-ass mo’fo. He also ended up being the one that helped the most with trimming the sails, when the captain needed some help. In a short life, he’d done a lot of stuff – college degree in photojournalism, been on a fishing boat in Alaska, and he was currently a firefighter in the summer – one of the guys they send into the big forest fires for days at a time. He was thinking about doing the training to become a fire jumper, one of those guys they parachute into forest fires. He was meeting his brother, who was teaching in Ecuador, and trying out the surf in a variety of spots along the way.

Linda was one of the many Dutch that I’ve met so far on this trip. For a small little country of 18 million or so, they sure do travel a lot. I’ve certainly met more Dutch than Americans on the hostel circuit, which doesn’t speak very well of our traveling habits, in my book. She was taking six or so months to go through Central America and the northern part of South America. She’d actually run into Garret a week or so before in Panama and they had some mutual travel friends as a result.

So we piled all of our stuff in the Zodiac dingy and made multiple runs out to the sailboat to drop everything off. In the midst of this, I actually recall turning to Garret and Linda (who had already told me, a number of times, that she had a very weak stomach) and said, “Damn, I’m excited about this trip. I think it’s going to be great.”

Right about then, in the secluded harbor where the boat was anchored, I noticed that the winds were quite strong for such a sheltered place. I wondered for just a brief moment if that would make the open water a bit rough. Instead -- no shit -- I turned and said to them, “Feel that? Good sailing weather.”

I’m an idiot.

So we cast off around sundown on the first day for a scheduled twelve-hour, all-night sail. The boat was being powered along by motor to start with and all of us nine passengers spread out on deck to enjoy the ride. Between the Brits and Garret and I, we had probably bought about six cases of Panamian beer, Balboa. Good stuff. In the excitement at the beginning of a new adventure and in spirit of us conquering the sea, we decided that it was appropriate to start drinking right away.

The Brits and Garret and I spread out on the deck in the front of the boat. The sail was not unfurled; we were traveling on the motor. As soon as we left the harbor, the alternate captain headed directly into the incoming waves and we headed out to the Caribbean.

The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.

The boat was pitching back and forth as it hit the waves. I am horrible about judging wave height, but I would say there were four to six foot waves. In any case, big enough that you had to hold on to not get thrown around, or perhaps thrown off. We would hit a wave dead-on and spray would come up over the bow and drench the five of us up on the deck. We all thought it was a great adventure – conquering the sea, whilst stumbling up to the cooler tied down on the right side of the deck to get more beers. Linda and the French were down in the cabin or back at the rear of the boat near the captain, since that area was a bit protected from the elements.

Our group, manly bravado lasted about two hours. By then we were completely drenched. The sun had gone down and it wasn’t cold by any means, but it was a bit chilly, seeing as we were soaked. And it started raining on top of that. Most of the group went into the cabin. I took a seat under a tarp the captain had put up that covered a couple feet on the back side of the cabin.

We obviously weren’t making much progress at all. And the weather wasn’t letting up, in fact, it was getting a little rougher over time. Captain Ulysses told us that we were going to turn back, cast anchor back in the harbor, and get started around dawn the next day and make the long run all day.

That’s right. The alternate captain was a native Panamanian named Ulysses. No joke. After day one of sailing, I was just hoping that wasn’t going to be prophetic. I didn’t have time to wander the world for a decade – though I’m sure it would make for a classic book. I am thinking of a title. . .

The problem with going back was the bunk situation. Captain Ulysses, his wife and their kid go into the Kodiac dingy after we anchored up and motored off to shore to their house. The nine of us were left on board in a boat that frankly should not have slept more than four.

The bunking arraignments were as follows: the French couple got the cabin in front, since they were the only couple. That room had the only bed that could be considered a real one. There were two couches in the cabin and a table between them. One of the couches was a reasonable bunk; it was about 7 feet long and 2 feet wide. The other couch was curved, so you had to sleep in a “C” formation. In any case, both of those spots were OK. The Brits claimed those two spots between the three of them – the 3rd person (the loser in a game of rock, paper, scissors, which was pretty amusing), took some cushions and slept on the floor under the table. Then in the rear of the cabin there were two bunks that you crawled into on each side of the ladder that went back up to the deck. Both of these could be thought of most accurately as coffin beds. They were of a reasonable size, about 7 feet by 3 feet or so, but the ceiling and walls were right there. Once you were lying down, the ceiling was about 2 feet over your head. And both bunks were in the same area as the motor, so the smell back there was awful. Garret took one of those and Linda took the other.

Fredrick and I took the two bunks at the top of the stairs. There was a small enclosed area at the top of the stairs, before you exited to the open air of the back deck area. On each side of the stairs, there was a small area with a cushion on top of the fiberglass. Each was about 5 feet by 2 feet, so you couldn’t fully stretch out when you slept. And though this part of the equation didn’t matter on the first night, its important to mention that Fredrick shared that uniquely French trait (not all French, don’t get me wrong – on this trip itself, the French couple didn’t share this trait -- but I have run into more French of this trait than any other country) of never using deodorant. None of us were able to shower on this trip, but at the risk of offending any French readers of this blog, there was no one that smelled anything like Fredrick by the end of the trip. It was an indescribable odor.

Everyone was supposed to pitch in and help on the trip and I volunteered to cook dinner the first night. A basic spicy penne pasta with sausage. The kitchen was – well it was a bit sparse, even by a small boat’s standards. The pot and pan (yes, one of each) hadn’t been cleaned in quite a while. The single knife was covered with rust. Garret volunteered, as usual, to try to watch them off and scrape the rust off all of all of them, in an attempt to make them somewhat safe to use. An hour or so later, we had heaps of Italian food to chow down on. After the travails of the late afternoon and evening, it was a good way to finish the night.

The next morning, we got started around 7 a.m. for the 10-12 hour trip south to the Kuna capital of Porvenier. The Kuna are the indigenous group that live on the San Blas islands on the Panamanian mainland adjacent to the islands. The government of Panama pretty much lets the Kuna govern themselves, which probably helps explain why Captain Marcus was able to easily buy cocaine there. A few years ago, the Kuna kicked out all foreigners from the San Blas islands and prohibited any non-Kuna from owning property there. The woman are also famous for wearing quite colorful garb, including some wild leg wrappings. One of the other interesting things about how the Kuna live is that they pile their houses one on top of another on the few islands that they inhabit. The small inhabited islands have homes right up next to each other, with very little space in between. Of the 357 or so islands in the San Blas, the Kuna occupy about 50 of them. The rest of the tiny islands are uninhabited and look exactly like your image of a deserted island – or the island from the Bud Light commercials.

The seas were still rough when we set out that day. We ended up motoring the entire way down to Porvenir, never raising the sail at all (Captain Ulysses was a really nice guy, but I am not sure he was the best sailor in the world). The boat was rocking back and forth less than yesterday, but the effect on everyone was less than favorable.

For most of the day, Garret and I sat out on the front deck. Linda was in the cabin the entire day, throwing up with some regularity in the bathroom down there. The French couple spent most of the day in their room downstairs, though I think both of them threw up overboard a couple of times. The Brits likewise were downstairs almost all of the day.

By the afternoon, the stench of the cabin was beyond horrible. The air was completely stale down there, because we had to keep the windows closed, due to the spray of the water. I went inside exactly one time that day, to check on how everyone was doing down there. Bad, bad decision.

I didn’t know this about myself before then, but I apparently have a really developed sense of smell. I do not get seasick. I verified this not too long ago on a six-hour ferry ride from Venice to Croatia in very rough seas, where fully half the 100 passengers on board throw up the entire trip over. I didn’t even get queasy. In fact, the last time I threw up for any reason whatsoever was 23 years ago, my freshman year in college. Fall semester in my condo. The last time I was able to drink tequila. Ever since then, I have not been able to get it close enough to my mouth to drink it, because the smell of it makes me want to wretch.

Perhaps that should have been a clue on my sense of smell.

I went down to check on everyone mid-afternoon. I made it downstairs. Took about 5-6 breaths of “air” down there. Came back up on deck. And promptly threw up over the side of the boat. Twenty-three years of a solid stomach down the tubes.

That night we got to Porvenier, cast anchor, and went ashore to one of the islands to have dinner at one of Ulysses’ friend’s house. Ernesto was a wonderful Kuna guy who spoke excellent English, because he had worked for a number of years in Panama City (and hated it). This dinner was the first time he allowed any of Ulysses’ passengers to come to dinner at his house. Per his request, we each pitched in $1 to buy our food. He and his wife then proceeded to cook and immense amount of fish. We all feasted – filling up our recently emptied stomachs. It was such a fabulous night. Ernesto gave us a tour of his hut, which slept 14 people. It was built for $550, which is a considerable amount of money here. He was obviously, and justifiably, proud of it; he was the patriarch and ruler of this domain. Thatched roof. One big room. Hammocks for everyone, except him and his wife, who had a bed in side closest to the water.

Linda and Mark stayed ashore that night, along with Ulysses, his wife and their kid, so there was more room on the boat that night to sleep. I ended up sleeping on the deck for most of the night, so I could stretch out a bit. And a romance was born ashore that evening. Ulysses was hilarious on the boat the next morning: "Ummmmm. Those two were very loud last night," smiling broadly and pointing to Mark and Linda.

The next couple of days were basically the same: we would sail for 6-8 hours, drop anchor at some deserted island, swim, snorkel, cook out, laze around in the sun. And get up the next day, move along and do the same thing again. It was a nice and peaceful rhythm and the weather was great after the first couple days.

As Captain Ulysses manned the wheel, he would also simultaneously fish off the back of the boat. He had a spool of fishing line and a lure tied up to the end. He'd just hold the spool in his hand, let the line out, then troll. He caught about six fish on the 2nd to last day, to add to our dinner. Good stuff.

One day we stopped at a larger Kuna island to buy some more supplies (most importantly, we’d run out of beer and liquor). We walked around town for a bit, being trailed the entire time with dozens of children that wanted us to take their pictures and show them what they looked like in the LCD display. It was quite endearing. We ate lunch there and bought some really good bread and also some beer. There was only one kind of beer available in this incredibly-off-the-map place. Not Balboa, the Panamanian beer made a few hundred miles away, but Old Milwaukee.

Come this far, and I have to drink one of the worst beers in the world. I don’t even know if I can buy Old Milwaukee in Fayetteville, Arkansas anymore. But that is your only choice in San Blas islands.

We had a good chuckle about our beer plight, but it did lead to a really amusing scene two days later, right before we disembarked, when the Brits played rock, paper, scissors for the last, warm Ole’ Mil’.

On the last day of sailing, we had dolphins follow the boat on and off for a couple hours. Those animals are so amazing to watch in the wild. They would come up on the left side of the boat in a group of 8-12, swim with us for a bit, then jet ahead, make a wide sweeping left hand turn, then come up again and repeat it over and over again.

By the end of the trip – which ended up being seven days and six nights – I was exhausted, and frankly, quite ready to get off the boat. The passengers, with the exception of Fredrick, were great folks. I loved getting to know them and actually ended up traveling with Garret for another week or so in Columbia, but there were just too many people on the sailboat, at least for me. At the end, I was feeling a little stir crazy.

And speaking of crazy, when we finally got to the last little town in Panama, before you went around the corner a couple more coves to get to Columbia, Fredrick the Frenchman went totally and completely around the bend. For the entire trip, the Brits had been egging him on a little bit. A little version of the centuries-old British/French rivalry. There had been a verbal dust-up from Fredrick (initially called “Frenchie” by the Brits behind his back, which evolved to “Napoleon” and finally settled on “Napster” – short for Napoleon) about us eating too much of the food. Then Fredrick yelled at Rob for pissing over the side of the boat, though everyone was doing the same thing for the entire trip.

And lastly, and most crazily, as everyone was packing up their backpacks and hauling them on deck, he walked by Adam and bumped shoulders with him. Adam told him to calm down and that everyone would get off soon enough. Napster apparently misheard him and thought he was telling him to screw off or something like that.

So Napster reached over to the galley and pulled a knife on Adam, waving it in front of him, while yelling at him something along the lines of “I have friends in Bogotá. We will meet in Bogotá and settle this. No respect. No respect.”

It was an appropriately odd and crazy ending to a memorable trip.

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Great new blog

Part of the fun of traveling around and blogging has been meeting other people that are doing the same thing. The blogging community is large and growing. And there are some great, great writers out there -- some I've met in person on the road and some that I've been directed to by other people to read.

Here is one of them that needs to be on all of your bookmarks or must-read pages.

When I read about it, I thought the similarity of our blog names was interesting. Then I sat down and read a lot of the entries -- its great, great stuff. It started out as a blog of two traveling lawyers, but the only one left blogging now is Jodi.

Read it when you get a chance. Its excellent. I'm going to ask her to do a guest blog on my site here in the near future also.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bingo on the Bus

One of the small, unique aspects of riding the buses in South America is bingo on the bus. It didn’t happen on every bus, but I ran into it about a half dozen times.

The bus steward or stewardess (not sure what you are supposed to call them – I do know that flight attendants haven’t been stewardesses for quite a while – I had three dates with one back in the early 90s in D.C. and on the third date asked what it was like being a stewardess – I didn’t get a fourth date) would come down the aisle early on the trip and hand out a bingo card to everyone. Then he or she would go somewhere and call out the letters and numbers. Fifteen minutes later one of the passengers declared victory and their was polite clapping on the bus. Then the incredibly loud movie would usually start up on the television screens in the bus.

I never did play. I always figured that my Spanish wasn’t good enough and that when I thought “B36” was called out, it might have been “B16” and so on. I really didn’t want to be the gringo that called out “Bingo!” and when my card was quickly checked, it turned out that I had marked half of the slots incorrectly. Plus, I didn’t see the point – bingo has never been a game that has held much intellectual interest for me.

Late in the South American portion of my journey, I was mentioning bingo to some other travelers. They did speak excellent Spanish and told me that most times the winner got a free full-fare ticket to anywhere that bus company went to. Just yet another reason I should have worked on my Spanish before I came down here.



The MOL Wish docked in Rio de Janeiro before breakfast and after everything cleared immigration and customs, we had more than a half-day to explore the city. It is vast and huge megacity, with well over 7 million people in metropolitan area. The shipping agent set Alan and Cricket Jones and me up with a car and driver for the day, for $40 each. Pretty good price to get driven around all-day and taken where you want. He first drove us to the large football stadium in the middle of town, the Maracana, where the four – yes, four different, major football teams for one city – four teams play their games. I suppose it was the first stop on the tour because he was Brasilian. . . and their priority is, no doubt about it at all, football. We then went off to the top of the mountain with the famous statute of Christ overlooking Rio, Christ the Redeemer. It took ten years to make and quite surprisingly, there were no major accidents or injuries during construction. It is made out of poured concrete and covered with soapstone. It was completed in 1931, after nine years of construction. From the road below, you take a 20-minute trolley car ride up to the peak or take a taxi all the way to the top, which is 710 meters high. It is huge. And quite impressive. Not only up close, but also from the various places in the city that you can see it.

What surprised me when we got up there was how mountainous the immediate surroundings of Rio are. There are a variety of mountains that rise up from sea level to 200-300 meters strewn all over the place. From the top of Corcovado, the hill that the statute sits atop, you can see and entire city and its various beaches spread out before you. It is a truly beautiful sight. Off to your right is Ipanema beach, famous for the song ‘The Girl from Ipanema.’ To its immediate left is Copacabana beach, one of the most famous in the world. Unfortunately, as I have the uncontrollable jute box in my head, it almost goes without saying that I had that damn Barry Manilow song in my head all day. Then left of that is a 300-meter tall mountain that frames the entrance of the harbor and then Flamengo beach off to its left. The beaches seem to stretch as far as your eye can see. They basically take up almost every inch of shoreline of Rio. And they are deep – I’d say that all of the beaches are at least 100 meters deep, perhaps more. There aren’t any buildings that obstruct your view of the beaches and the ocean from the main road that follows the shoreline. The buildings are on the inland side of the road, then the road, then a walking and biking path, then the beaches. It is quite spectacular. From Corcovado, our driver then took us down past the major beaches. We got out and took some pictures. I verified that Brasilian women wear the tiniest bikinis known to mankind (unfortunately, as is always the case at the beach, many of them should have been wearing more clothing). And we then ate lunch at an all-you-can-eat seafood place that was a total tourist joint. Great food. Massively overpriced. But so cheesy it was almost worth it. Flamboyantly gay waiter who called himself MacGyver, dressed in a pirate uniform, as all the wait staff was. He didn’t really walk around, it was more a combination saunter/shimmy/dance effort. Though the Jones’ live in San Francisco, even they were impressed. Knickknacks were tied up to the ceiling – chairs, old lamps, various ropes and such. Basically it was Pirates in the Caribbean. Alas, without Keira Knightley (or Johnny Depp, for you ladies out there).

On the way back, we had the driver stop by a supermarket, so we could buy some munchies and stuff to keep in our rooms for the 8-day ocean crossing we were embarking on that evening. In addition to some chips and crackers, I bought a 12 pack of beer for my refrigerator.
I was unaware that bringing alcohol on board was a customs violation.

Our driver didn’t speak any English, but when we were putting our bags back into the car to head back to the ship, he grabbed the bag with the beer and put it under his seat. Then, in that sign language/part-real language thing that I’ve gotten moderately good at, he told me that we would have to sneak the beer past the security check points, so I didn’t get busted. I was hoping that the punishment for getting caught, after my pleading total ignorance of any knowledge of customs procedures, was merely going to be confiscation of the beer. I really didn’t want to think about any other alternative.

Of course, of the three ports I had been to on the MOL Wish, Rio was the only one so far that even minimally cared about security – those articles you have read about a fear of someone smuggling in a nuclear weapon through one of our ports?? Don’t know about the security when the ships get to the U.S. and off-load, but it didn’t seem to difficult to get anything on board out here.
We pulled up to the first checkpoint and our driver immediately hopped out of the car with our passports. The security person asked him to open the trunk, took a quick look inside, took the passports in to the office and we were on our way in a couple minutes. The driver got back in, pointed to the truck and the beer under his seat, smiled and basically said, “see, I know what I am doing.” I agreed.

Next checkpoint was even faster and then we got to the last one, quite close to the ship. There were two security guys in a car parked there. We pulled up and our driver was obviously asking to take us the last couple hundred yards to the stairwell (which was located behind a couple 18 wheelers and out of sight of the security people for my unloading of the contraband). It was obvious that these two guys wanted nothing to do with that. His car was not authorized to go any further.

Our guy kept on in a conversation with the two security guys that I imagined went something like this:
“Hey guy. You gotta drop them off here.”
“Come on guys, look at this lazy Americans. They don’t want to walk those 200 meters to their ship. Let me go.”

“Sorry. Rules are rules. This is as far as this car can go. Tell them to get off their pampered asses and walk. They are no better than anyone else having to follow the rules.”

“Guys, guys. I have been dragging them all through town for hours, pretending not to understand English while they prattled on about Rio, and their ship and traveling. I’ve played this perfect all day – my tip probably depends on this. If I have to drop them off now, it is going to cost me. Come on. 3 minutes. Do it for my wife and kids.”

“Christ, can you believe this guy Lennie?”

“Let him go George. What’s the difference to us? Hell, they might call their embassy and create an incident if we make them walk.”

“OK buddy -- 3 minutes. That’s it. And no way we are letting you carry their stuff up to the ship for them. They have to at least do that.”

“Ahhhhh. Thanks.”

And as I sit here and drink my Antarctica Cerveja Pilsen in my cabin typing this – I think this whole smuggling thing is quite worth it.

Cricket and Alan and on Copacabana (anyone recognize the last scene from ‘Fletch’?)

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