To many, Buenos Aires means one thing: Tango! So local entrepreneurs have capitalized on it by selling tickets to "Tango Shows." I'm in!

To many, Buenos Aires means one thing: Tango! So local entrepreneurs have capitalized on it by putting on “Tango Shows.” I’m in!

If there’s one Spanish word that truly fits me, it’s Torpe. It translates to awkward, clumsy, or dull.

For example, a couple of years back, I was in London on business. I arrived on a Tuesday and stayed in Mayfair, a posh, but quiet neighborhood near Hyde Park. That night, I wanted the hustle and bustle of an international capital, so I hopped in a cab,

“Where’s the excitement?” I innocently asked.

The driver nodded, turned off his meter, and pressed the gas. “That seems strange,” I thought.

The next thing I knew, we were in a back alley (which, let’s face it, is most of London). The driver turned his car off, hopped out, and motioned for me to follow him through an unmarked door and up some stairs. Up we went . . . into a very sketchy “gentleman’s club.”

“This isn’t a safe choice,” I said to myself. Aloud.

I turned right back around and found another cab.

I’m also a bit dense. Because I asked the next driver for the same question.

“Where’s the excitement?”

I’d inadvertently discovered a secret British code phrase. If you ever want to find yourself in a seedy section of London, simply ask a cabbie for “the excitement.” I ended up in another darkened alley looking at another staircase. This time, the driver didn’t turn off his meter, though. So I paid him and walked the other way.

As President Bush once famously said,

“There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

By the time I got into a third cab, I’d learned the trick so I just asked to go back to my hotel. This would be a tame night, after all.

It’s no wonder that a night out in Buenos Aires reminded me of that night in London. At Argentina’s height, about 100 years ago, they sent their city planners to Europe to copy the best design that continent could offer. One can’t help but think of Paris when walking along the wide streets, of Berlin when looking at the Legislative Building, or of London when making a phone call.

For the record, I just used my cell phone.

For the record, I just used my cell phone.

That flashback to London began when a man picked me up in a van outside my hotel in Recoleta and drove me to Complejo Tango – the slightly cheesy, but wonderfully rich tango show in Belgrano that a friend recommended. It’s one of those touristy things that entrepreneurs in destinations like Buenos Aires have capitalized on: Everybody who comes to BA has to visit one of these shows.

Sure enough, it was on a sidestreet, through a door, and up some stairs.

Now, let me tell you what! This experience is 100%, doubtless designed for a date. I bet that no man has ever darkened those doors by himself. Until I did.

At 8:04, I was the only person in the dinner theater built for 100. So, when a waitress finally appeared, she offered me a table at the front. Stage right, just where everybody in the place could get a good look at me.

Forty minutes later, the ten other guests walked in (it’s the slow season here). They’d all paid for the extra hour-long Tango Lesson to start the evening. I opted against that extra dose of torpe. When they walked in, laughing about their fun time learning to tango, I could tell they were thinking:

“¿Pero, quién es este hombre torpe de los Estados Unidos en Buenos Aires?”
“But who is this awkward man from the United States in Buenos Aires?”

Finally, at 8:56 my first course arrived. This was turning into a long evening. The “cambalache” was a meat pie reminiscent of a sloppy joe, but wrapped up in carbohydrate. This was, for me, a good thing because I rather loved sloppy joe’s as a child, but rarely got to eat them. This first course was therefore a special treat. I decided to buy some time by taking pictures of my food.

It's a cambalache.

It’s a cambalache.

The second course, a steak, arrived at 9:02 p.m. It tasted like the Fourth of July. I finished it by 9:14. I wondered where the man who drove me here was. Could he just slip me out of here without anyone noticing? I mean, it was getting late. It would have been fine if the thing started at, say, three o’clock. I’m usually in bed by 8:30 (9:00 if there’s a particularly riveting story on Sixty Minutes).

Carne.

Carne.

At one point, all five couples were taking selfies. So I joined in. When in Rome!

Muy torpe!

Muy torpe!

Again, it would have been a lovely evening for a date, but with no one to talk to, it just dragged on. And on. And on. And then some more. Some activities, like skydiving, are fine by oneself. Others, like a romantic tango show in the heart of Buenos Aires’s Belgrano neighborhood are best enjoyed in the company of close compatriots. The night dragged on.

At 9:27, As I stifled yet another yawn, a cellist began to warm up. Now we’re getting started. A cellist! Bedtime is just around the corner!

By 9:38, nothing had happened, so I turned around. In the scheme of the evening so far, turning around was a highlight worth sharing with you. I caught a glimpse of a lady seated behind me. I spoke enough Spanish to understand that she said to her date, “Why is that torpe hombre there on the front row while we’re back here?” Envy, my dear, is an unattractive trait.

The couples, finally succumbing to the boredom that I began feeling hours ago started taking selfies in earnest. I used this as an opportunity to dash off to the bathroom. Again, on a night like this, a visit to the bathroom is worth writing about.

The clock struck 9:42. Nothing new to report. Like nothing. At all.

When I was a kid and finished a standardized test early, I’d try to list all of the states or their capitals or something. Guess how I planned to pass the next 20 minutes?

Oh wait! The dancers are here and they’ll pose for a picture with you. Who has two thumbs and needs something to do? This guy!

Caption NOT required.

Caption NOT required.

The waitress reappeared. This time she handed me a note in Spanish that I could not begin to decipher. I thought maybe she was asking for a tip so I pulled some cash out and handed it to her. She laughed and said, “No!” (But she took the cash, anyway). Then she walked to a nearby table with three ladies sitting at it. I’d missed them in my survey of the room. The waitress returned with another note, this one in very broken English:

“When you will come with us. Lunch. Dinner. Gracias.”

Turns out it was from a group of drunk Brazilians who wanted me to sit with them. I did. They spoke very little English, a lot of Portuguese, and some Sign Language. We simply smiled and laughed at each other. One woman grabbed my phone and appointed herself my newest Facebook friend. It was truly torpe.

At 10:07, the dancing began. There was far too much audience participation for my taste. Especially since I was the torpe hombre they kept dragging up on stage.

“But, I didn’t take the lesson!!” I’d say. That just egged them on…

This guy kept singing at me. I don't know why.

This guy kept singing at me. I don’t know why.

By 11:00, the show was over, I bid adieu to my new Brazilian friends, and was on a bus headed to my hotel with a couple from Germany on their honeymoon. All in, the show was entertaining. And certainly not in the way a seedy London “gentleman’s club” would have been.

It had been a long, torpe night.

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Graffiti was everywhere - especially along the riverfront. Some of it was really kind of beautiful, in a way.

Graffiti was everywhere – especially along the riverfront. Some of it was really kind of beautiful, in a way.

So, after risking life and limb in Paraguay yesterday, I decided to take it a bit easier in Montevideo, the capital of neighboring Uruguay. After checking into the hotel, I asked for a suggestion about where to eat that was nearby and open now. The “open now” part of my request seemed to be the most difficult. It would appear that eating dinner at 6:30 p.m. is an unusual thing here. Most Uruguayans, I suppose, eat much later. I’m not that fancy.

“There’s a great place over in the shopping mall. They have chicken. And steak. But be sure to get it ‘to go.’ They’ll charge you to sit at a table and you’ll save yourself quite a bit of money.”

Yes, you read correctly. I was sent to eat dinner in a shopping mall. The last time I found myself in a mall was in Hong Kong. And I didn’t care for it. I’ve done my best to avoid them ever since.

There she is. My big night out in Montevideo!

There she is. My big night out in Montevideo!

In this case, however, the experience was somewhat more pleasant.

When ordering food abroad, I find it easiest to sort of be “directed” to something. In other words, I want to get a sense for the local fare whenever possible. I try to avoid, for example, the hamburgers and fish-and-chips that most tourists seek. Often, it’s great. Other times, however, it’s been nothing short of horrific. Like guinea pig in Peru. Or raw whelk in Tokyo. Or “Rocky Mountain oysters” in Jackson Hole.

I think many people like flavors of home when they’re somewhere else. Unlike me, they don’t take risks with their stomachs. I suppose that’s why there’s almost always a line of people wrapped around the Olive Garden in Times Square waiting to get in.

“Hey, Billy Bob! We’re in New York City! Let’s get some Eye-Talian!”

“Great idea, Marge. I could go fer some endless salad and breadsticks!”

What a lovely view!

What a lovely view!

But, I digress. In this case, upon discovering the restaurant, En Fogo, I learned that the “quite a bit of money” to sit in the restaurant was a “cutlery fee” of about 35¢. I figured I could splurge so I chose a table with a view. Soon, the waitress appeared and said something, which I took to be the Daily Special. It sounded like it might have included the word “carne.” I said,

“Sí, Lo quiero. Y, uno copa de vino, por favor.”
“Yes, I want that. And a cup of wine, please.”

A few minutes later, a sausage showed up. It was kind of sad looking, really. Not only was it all shriveled up, but it looked like it had suffered a painful sunburn. So, away I went. It reminded me of a gas station hot dog. You know, the pink ones just past their prime? I figured a bit of ketchup would do the trick. And there was some on the table. It was in one of those plastic envelopes that are nearly impossible to open. Finally, I got it and doused my sausage.

Hmmm. I wonder why this ketchup is clear? Wait a tick! That’s not ketchup. The Spanish word for ketchup isn’t ‘vinagre.’ That’s the Spanish word for ‘vinegar.’

Whoops. I was now faced with eating a shriveled, pink, vinegar-laced sausage of unknown origin. I cleaned my plate, which was the signal for the waitress to bring another course. This one was kind of like a shish kebab, but without the Indian spices. And it was good. In fact, it was so good, I almost forgot I was in a shopping mall with a view of the food court. Wait, is that a Burger King over there? Yes. Yes, it is.

With a full belly, I thought I’d wander the shopping mall. Shopping malls in other countries are surprising in their consistency. For the most part they’re just like shopping malls at home. Or at least my memory of an American shopping mall — I haven’t been to one in a decade or so.

CAT: It was everywhere!

CAT: Proximamente! Coming Soon! I just know them for their earth movers. Apparently, they’ve branched out and now sell funny jokes that make beautiful people laugh.

The next day, I decided to expand my wandering beyond the shopping mall to explore the general vicinity.

They say one should avoid looking up at the tall buildings in a city because doing so labels you as a tourist and you’ll be mugged, kidnapped, and ransomed. In Montevideo, it’s tough to look anywhere but down. No one, it turns out, has the responsibility of cleaning up after the legions of feral dogs.

While walking around the area, I came across what I can only figure is the national car. Here’s a photo essay:

The national car is apparently a VW Beetle. There was one around every corner.

The national car is apparently a white VW Beetle. There was one around every corner.

Seriously. Lots.

Seriously. Lots of them.

I began to think it was the same one and I was being followed.

I began to think it was the same one and I was being followed.

But they each had different license plates.

But they each had different license plates.

Montevideo isn’t a large city, but I wanted to see more of it than my feet would allow so I organized a taxi to take me by the Legislative Palace and U.S. Embassy on the way to the airport.

Construction began in 1904. The building is where the Uruguayan Parliament meets. It's really stunning.

Construction began in 1904. The building is where the Uruguayan Parliament meets. It’s really stunning.

 

Hey! I also came across the U.S. Embassy!

And here’s the U.S. Embassy!

Just kidding. That's the real U.S. Embassy, there on the right.

Oh, wait! Just kidding. That’s the real U.S. Embassy, there on the right.

The driver, Julio, spoke far less English than I spoke Spanish. And he completely overestimated my Spanish. I think he was so excited to be a tour guide that he ignored my repeated requests to hablar despacio, por favor. I asked him to please speak slowly.

I think that, since I’d asked to see the Legislative Palace, he understood that I had an interest in government. So he pointed out what I could best work out to be every single government building in the city. I think, but can’t be sure, that he took government workers to be lazy fools because he kept pointing at government buildings, saying large numbers, and pretending to be asleep.

Julio asked me where I was from. “Carolina del Norte en Los Estados Unidos,” I said. He responded with “Muy loco.” and pretended to shoot a shotgun. I believe he confused North Carolina with Asunción.

In any event, he desperately wanted to ensure my comfort, which he accomplished by turning the volume up each time an English-language song came on the radio. Let me tell you, one hasn’t truly lived until one has ridden through Montevideo in a Volkswagen (of course) taxi with the Carpenters on full blast.

Buenos Aires, here I come!

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You don't know where I am? Don't feel badly. It's the capital of a landlocked country in South America.

You don’t know where Asuncion is? Don’t feel badly. It’s the capital of a landlocked country in the heart of South America.

“Let me put it to you this way: Do you have any hobbies?” I asked.

“Yes. I like singing and going to the gym. But at different times,” She said.

“Makes sense. Doing them both at once would be challenging, I guess. Anyway, as for my hobby, I go to new countries.”

That was the crux of my conversation with Belén in Asunción last night. A short conversation was the least I could do.

She’s responsible for saving my life, after all. 

It’s a question I often get when I’m traveling: “Why are you here?” But she asked it in a kind of sad way. Like she was ashamed of her home. As in, “Boy, this place is really awful. Why would anyone choose to come here?”

For good or bad, people rarely understand why I am “here,” wherever “here” is. 

This brief encounter occurred at Kilkenny, Asunción’s most popular bar. Ironically enough, it turns out the hottest bar in Paraguay is an Irish Pub, which, based on Belén’s opinion of her homeland is somewhat fitting, I suppose. If you really don’t care for the place where you live, it makes sense for your most popular hangout to seem like somewhere else. In this case, Ireland. 

So, why would I find myself the only Gringo in an Irish Pub in Asunción? Well, read on.

But first, please do allow me to take a step back and share how I first got here.

A few days ago, Joseph, an Uber driver, picked me up at my house in Greensboro before he drove me to the airport. I was headed to Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. Joseph is from South Sudan and was genuinely excited for me when I explained my goal of visiting 100 countries. He said,

“Wow! That sounds like an amazing adventure! I once had an adventure, too. I was escaping oppression in South Sudan when a wheel fell off of our train.”

“Wait. A wheel fell off of the train?” I asked.

“Yes! It was bad.”

“I’d say so.”

“People got hot so they jumped out of the train onto the Sahara. The sand was so hot it burned their skin off.”

Sure, that’s quite the adventure. But, my trips are typically a bit more tame than that. At least they have been up to now…

To get to Asunción, Joseph had to take me to the airport in Greensboro, NC where I hopped onto an airplane for Atlanta. Then, I took a bigger plane bound for Buenos Aires. Then, it was just a quick hop to Asunción. Twenty-four hours all in. Easy stuff. 

With about ten minutes before the final leg, I thought I’d check the Visa requirements for US Citizens entering Paraguay. Glad I did. Turns out, you have to pay US$160. In cash. {Ahem, corruption, anyone?}

I didn’t have any cash. I know, I know: “Who travels without any cash?” Me. That’s who. Lesson learned.

No big deal, though.

I went to the nearest ATM. It told me I’d overdrawn. Uh oh.

I went to the next nearest ATM. The same. Broke in South America didn’t seem like a good thing.

One more ATM. Again. I’m in hot water. But I hadn’t taken anything out in weeks! Surely, this wasn’t possible?!

How about that one? Over there! That one will be different! It has to work. At that point, a gate agent interrupted the dulcet tones of Taylor Swift and called my name over the loudspeaker with a thick accent, “Pasajero Broooooks. You must board immediately!” 

Game time decision: Should I stick around trying more ATMs? Or get on the plane with the risk of jail time in Paraguay?  I live dangerously, folks.

The airsick bag accurately reflected my experience.

The airsick bag accurately reflected my experience.

I’m not too proud to admit that I spent that flight freaking out.

Like most “worry,” though, it turned out it was merely misdirected imagination.

The first thing you see when you get off the plane in Asunción is an ATM. Inserting my card was difficult because I was nervously shaking. I typed my PIN, prayed, and received $160. Whew, turns out Paraguayan ATMs are better for me than the ones in Argentina. No jail time (yet).

The process of obtaining a Visa on Entry didn’t leave me with much confidence in the country. You walk up to a little cubicle, hand the guy the cash (Canadians get a discount, by the way. For them, it’s only US$135). The guy prints a sticker with your picture on it and he puts it in your passport. Good to go!

While this was not my car, there were a lot of them on the road. This one belonged to my friend the bride who you'll meet in a few...

While this was not my car, there were a lot of beetles on the road. This one belonged to my friend the bride who you’ll meet in a few…

Now, once I got through Customs, I faced the ride to my hotel. Let me tell you, getting into a car in South America is always a harrowing experience. Really, I mean it. But here in Asunción, they add guns. In that way, it’s kind of like Texas, but really south of the border. From what I could see, a lot of people had guns. And they were mostly big dudes. The kind of dudes with guns where you’re not sure which side they’re shooting for. So I chose to keep my head down. Which was difficult because there was so much commotion every time we stopped.

If you buy me a beer, I'll explain just how harrowing getting this picture proved to be. It's a post in itself that I'd rather not write....

If you buy me a beer, I’ll explain just how difficult getting this picture proved to be. It’s a post in itself that I’d rather not write….

You see, the driver had to make a ruckus at every intersection to keep kids from washing his windows and demanding dinero. At one point, I glanced up and saw an honest-to-God standing-room-only-bus-with-chickens. It was like something out of a movie. I’d heard of them, but had never seen one. I would have taken a picture, but the car was between a kid with a squeegee and a man with a gun.

One of my favorite take-aways from Paraguay was how much better their Bicycle Signs are.

One of my favorite take-aways from Paraguay was how much more literal their Bicycle Signs are than ours.

Finally, I made it to the hotel.

Despite the gunshots echoing through the neighborhood, I thought I’d head out for a little stroll (You’ve got to understand, I’m a seasoned traveler: I’ve been to Compton, Camden, and Texas).

And I’ll do just about anything for you, dear reader. I’ve got the grit and determination of a hardened journalist. I cut my teeth at my University’s student newspaper helping to publish hard-hitting stories under headlines like, “Dried blood, bandage found in dining hall meatloaf” and “Campus clocks toll irregularly.” I know what it’s like to chase a story.

So, I left my room, called the elevator, got in, and pressed the lobby button. As the door opened, there were cameras pointed at me. Wow! This is great. I’ll take a camera over a gun any day of the week! Guess they don’t get many tourists here in Asunción. Wait, who’s that woman in the white dress? Damn. It’s a wedding. I awkwardly walked through her special day. I hope she’ll remember me as that dashing young American man in cargo pants, just like those lovely brides who have the same memory of me back in Australia in 2012.

I asked the people at the hotel’s front desk where the best place to have dinner might be.

“Kilkenny! You have got to go to Kilkenny,” said the front desk clerk.

“Is that an Irish Pub? It sounds like an Irish Pub. I mean, I’ve come all this way. There’s got to be a better place than that?”

“No. That is where you want to go. Believe me. Nowhere else is as good!”

So, that’s what I did. I traveled 5,000 miles to Paraguay to pretend to be Irish. As I made my walk, the gunshots increased. I was thinking that this was not the cleverest idea I’ve ever had. But, I’d committed. Act cool, I thought.

Suddenly things started to seem even more weird (as if gunshots weren’t weird enough). Drivers honking their horns with reckless abandon. Passengers hanging out of car windows, shirtless. Women running down the sidewalk with tears streaming down their cheeks. People singing. What the hell have I gotten myself into?

The image is courtesy of Google and is a pretty accurate reflection of my time at Kilkenny.

The image is courtesy of Google and is a pretty accurate reflection of my time at Kilkenny.

Finally, I got to Kilkenny and bellied up to the bar.

“What’s happening?” I asked the bar tender.

“Paraguay just beat Brazil in the Copá Cup!” he said with a tear forming in his right eye.

Soccer is a big deal here. And when Paraguay beats Brazil it’s even bigger than that. Recognizing the importance of the moment, I asked for a menu with reverence.

That was when my new buddy Belén joined the conversation.

“Sounds like you’re not from around here. Where do you come from?”

“Los Estados Unidos.”

“I knew that. Listen to yourself talk. Where in the U.S.?”

“North Carolina.”

“Oh! I’ve been to Myrtle Beach.”

“That’s South Carolina. But whatever.”

Belén had to get to a baby shower (apparently they’re late-night activities in Paraguay), which was — thankfully — on the way to my hotel. She was kind enough to offer me a ride explaining that my decision to walk to Kilkenny was not my brightest.

It turns out that Brazil’s colors are yellow and green. Just like my shirt.

My life was quite literally at risk. I didn’t need to run into the wrong fan…

Go Team!

Go Team (on the right)!

Fortunately, I made it home alive. I would not leave again until it was time to fly out of Asunción to Montevideo. By the way, it turns out the Brazil Goalkeeper’s name is Jefferson de Oliveira Galvão. He goes simply by, “Jefferson.” That’s also my given name. The joke was not lost on the Paraguayans who saw my passport the next day. And probably explains why my suitcase was the last off the plane and my seatmate was a 300 pound woman. Thank goodness none of the fans with guns knew that little fact.

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[This is the first in a three-part series of posts about my most recent trip to Australia and Fiji. Here’s a link to the second one. And here’s a link to the third one.]

777

Thirty hours there. Twenty-five back. It’s a long trip…

I’m sitting on a Boeing 777-200 – essentially a huge metal tube – hurtling across the Pacific Ocean at nearly 600 mph. For the past ten days or so, I’ve been exploring slivers of New South Wales and Victoria in Australia, and Denerau Island in Fiji. All in, the trip home will take 25 hours (the tailwind saves five hours against the trip over!). That’s just enough time to start to write about the trip and, more specifically, the people I met…

I was with my buddy Trevor who hails from a small town in New South Wales called Ulladulla. Now, he and his wife live in Sydney.

By way of setup, Trevor is, at least by my definition, a true Australian: He’s tough as nails, finds humor in everything (especially when those things are American), and is intensely proud of his country. He’s also one of my best mates! It was a lot of fun traveling around his country with him for ten days. I hope you’ll come to like him as much as I do in these few stories…

“You’ll be lucky to survive the night”

I think most of us Americans know that the Outback Restaurant is not a good indicator of Australian culture. However, I have discovered that there are a few things every American (thinks he) knows about Australia:
• The toilets flush the other way
Foster’s is Australian for beer
• It’s a dangerous place

It turns out that only one of those things is true.

First, the toilets flush the other way because the jets point the other way. Despite what you heard in elementary school, it has nothing to do with the equator, the rotation of the earth, or gravity. For some reason, this unique misperception really gets Trevor worked up. I brought it up once, never to mention it again. Lesson. Learned.

As for the beer, the Aussies I met love it (so long as it’s not Foster’s). In the best of scenarios, asking for a Foster’s in Australia will get you a dirty look. In the worst (and in the right bar), there’s always the chance that you’ll end up with a black eye. It seems you’re safer asking for a Pure Blonde.

But that third thing: You know, that Australia’s fraught with danger. Well, that’s very, very true. In fact, on my first trip to Oz (in 2012), I was required to go through a Quarantine inspection. They wanted to check the bottoms of my shoes to ensure I wasn’t tracking in dangerous microorganisms. Fear not, there were none. As I was walking out, however, the officer called out to me,

“Hey!”

I quickly turned around, afraid I’d done something wrong before even leaving the airport.

“Don’t get bit,” he said.

That’s some seriously great advice. You see, what you’ve heard about Australia is true — everything is dangerous. And most things can kill you. Like the snakes and spiders, which are the most dangerous on earth. Heck, even the kangaroos can attack you with their tails. Although, the one I ran into seemed more interested in grazing than engaging my attempt to box him. That ‘roo was the exception…so, to be truthful, nearly everything is dangerous.

My attempts to engage were unsuccessful.

My attempts to engage were unsuccessful.

So, off we went, Trevor, his wife, and me on the road out of Sydney hurtling at some unknown number of kilometers-per-hour to visit Trevor’s parents in Ulladulla. It’s a beautiful small town along the coast of New South Wales, about three hours from Sydney by car.

The road to Ulladulla involved beautiful, pristine beaches like this one (with nary a footprint on it).

The road to Ulladulla involved beautiful, pristine beaches like this one (with nary a footprint on it).

Supper was ready when we arrived. And, after 30-hours of airplane food, I was ready for something great. Trevor’s mother certainly didn’t disappoint! It was so good! It felt wonderful to be 10,000 miles away from home and still feel like part of a family.

At one point during dinner I glanced down at my hand — I’m sure I wasn’t falling asleep from jetlag, but merely resting my neck. Anyway, I noticed a large welt. I immediately had a flashback to that Quarantine officer from 2012.

Forsaking appropriate dinner conversation in favor of survival, I asked with characteristically unmasked fear, “Hey guys! What’s this?”

“Oh! Looks like you already got bit.” Trevor’s emphasis on the already made me feel like it was inevitable, but that he expected more time to pass before it happened. I also thought I saw a smile forming.

Candidly, I was hoping to hear something like, “Would you like me get you a bandage?” Or, “May I check it out and see what it might be?” “Are you feeling okay?” Nope. That’s not what they say in Australia. The real empathy came from Trevor’s Dad who humorlessly said between bites of lamb:

“You’ll be lucky to survive the night.”

So, whether you blame my sleepless night on fear or jetlag, I don’t really care. Why? Because I made it! I knew I’d survived the night when I heard a crowing rooster! At 4:30 a.m.

Driving on the left side

Since I’d lived through the night, I figured I was invincible. So, when Trevor offered me the wheel of his car, I jumped at the chance. As you probably know, Australians drive on the left side of the road, which means their drivers sit on right side of the car. As you’re reading this from the comfort of your chair, it probably seems simple and straightforward. Believe me, dear readers when I say this — it’s not.

See, not only was everything backwards, but I also hate driving. This seemed like a bad choice by Trevor (and typical of an Aussie: Let’s put the American in danger and see what happens!). As I settled in and cranked the car, I suddenly felt like I was back in Driver’s Ed: Everything was new again. I got started. It felt okay. I was on a straight road. I even made a right turn. I get this. I’m good! Then Trevor dropped a bomb:

“There are a few roundabouts coming up.”

“Huh?”

“Oh. Yeah. Traffic circles. I forgot I have to translate for you.”

“No, I know what it is, but what the $%#* am I supposed to do there?!?”

I look happy because I haven't yet heard about the roundabouts.

I look nervously happy because I haven’t yet heard about the roundabouts. Shortly after this, I just looked scared.

Well, I felt like a cat who’d used up a few more lives by the time we got home. Somehow, I slipped through the roundabouts (errr…traffic circles) unscathed.

And I needed to survive, we were heading to Melbourne in Victoria the next day…

[This is the first in a three-part series of posts about my most recent trip to Australia and Fiji. Here’s a link to the second one. And here’s a link to the final one.]

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[This is the second in a three-part series of posts about my most recent trip to Australia and Fiji. If you missed the first post, check here. And here’s a link to the third one.]

Melbourne is covered in graffiti, some of which is otherworldly and off-putting.

Melbourne is covered in graffiti, some of which is otherworldly and off-putting.

After a short stay in Ulladulla, it was time to head to Melbourne where I’d sing for my supper. You see, Trevor was hosting a conference and he’d invited me to speak. It was, indeed, the reason for the trip.

Graffiti artists are constantly changing the fabric of the city's alleyways and blank walls.

Graffiti artists are constantly changing the fabric of the city’s alleyways and blank walls.

In Sydney, many of the old buildings have been ripped down in favor of new construction. In Mlebourne, on the other hand, the old-world architecture remains. Victorian buildings like this are everywhere, giving the city a very different feel from Sydney.

In Sydney, many of the old buildings have been ripped down in favor of new construction. In Melbourne, on the other hand, the old-world architecture remains. Victorian buildings like this are everywhere, giving the city a very different feel from its larger neighbor.

From the airport, we headed to the “club” where we’d be staying. Australians often eschew hotels in favor of “clubs.” These membership organizations include rooms for rent, restaurants, casinos, and bars. I guess they’re like country clubs in the states with a little more to them. I was fortunate enough to stay in one in Melbourne. On the way from the airport to our “club,” my mission in Melbourne became clear.

Most anyone who knows me, knows I’m from Greensboro, NC — born and raised. Have I lived there my whole life? No, not yet.

There on the side of the highway, bathed in beautiful glowing light, was a sign for one of Melbourne’s many suburbs: Greensborough. I knew I had to get there. I mean, here I was, a guy from one Greensboro visiting another Greensborough some 10,000 miles away. Visions of being welcomed by the mayor and receiving the key to the city danced through my head. I imagined my role as a local celebrity for a day. Of being lauded with my own parade. These visions were but flashes in my mind. And I wished to make them real.

Flinders Street Station is an example of the stunning old-world architecture for which Melbourne is known.

Flinders Street Station is an example of the stunning old-world architecture for which Melbourne is known.

So, following my presentation, I had a free day. I went to the Flinders Street train station to find my way “home.”

“Excuse me, ma’am. I’m trying to get to Greensborough because I’m from a town called Greensboro in the States!”

“Well, that sounds like a waste of time. Anyway, you know it’s spelt different, right?”

Forty-five minutes later, I hopped off the train and encountered my first fellow Greensboroughnian: A cross dresser who’s shirt read,

“They said I could be anything, so I became awesome!”

I couldn't NOT do this...

I couldn’t NOT do this…

Once I got a selfie with a sign that said “Greensborough,” I realized there was nothing for a tourist to do in Greensborough. So, I made the best of a bad situation: I took pictures of every sign that said Greensborough on it. In fact, I’d submit to you that I am now in possession of the world’s largest collection of pictures of signs in Greensborough, Victoria, Australia. I’m in talks with the National Museum of Australia. They don’t seem interested.

I got a bus that said "Greensborough."

I got a bus that said “Greensborough.”

I got a hotel (which is really a pub) that said "Greensborough."

I got a hotel (which is really a pub) that said “Greensborough.” Oh! And a “pokie” isn’t what you think, it’s a poker machine (a/k/a a slot machine).

I got the now-defunct Tattoo parlor that said "Greensborough."

I got the now-defunct Tattoo parlor that said “Greensborough.”

I got the restaurant that said "Greensborough."

I got the restaurant that said “Greensborough.”

I got the plaza that said "Greensborough." As an aside, the plaza plays prominently on the wikipedia page for the town, which speaks to just how (un)exciting the place is...

I got the plaza that said “Greensborough.” As an aside, the plaza plays prominently on the wikipedia page for the town. In fact, it even has its own wikipedia page

Anyway, I finally stumbled across a restaurant that was filled with stay-at-home moms and their children. This is truly a suburban community. I went in, ordered, and asked if there was anywhere in town to get a shirt that said Greensborough. The waitress laughed and walked away. Well that’s not exactly what I expected…

After she’d recovered, she returned, “Why do you ask?”

“Well, you see. I’m [feeling embarrassed, but won’t tell you that] from a city in the States called Greensboro.”

“Really? No way!? Hey, wait!”

I’m not going anywhere. I’m still waiting for my chicken sandwich. The manager came running up to me. He, thankfully, shared my excitement. Maybe I’d get my welcome parade, after all!

“I ain’t got a shirt, but here’s a card! You got one? I’ll hang it up on the wall! I mean, nobody comes to visit Greensborough. Ever.”

Sadly, I’d left my business cards at home. Unfortunately…I missed my chance at becoming minor local celebrity in Greensborough.

Instead, I’ll have to be satisfied with my extensive collection of photographs of signs that say Greensborough on them.

“Cure to cancer? Sure, I’ve got that. It’s Sudoku”

After my admittedly uneventful visit to Greensborough, I hopped the train back to Melbourne.

Late that afternoon, I checked out of my room and headed to the lobby where I thought I’d have some sparkling water (I was feeling very Continental) and read a chapter or two.

Immediately after sitting down, a fifty-something Malaysian man lumbered toward me trying to catch my attention. For a moment, I pretended not to notice. But, then, my empathy got the better of me…

This might seem strange to you. But it’s not that unusual for me, I seem to be a tractor beam for people – some of whom you might label “outside the norm.”

“May I sit down? You look like somebody who’s fairly interesting.”

Looks like I’ve got a lot to live up to here — fairly interesting? “Sure. What brings you to Melbourne?”

“I’m working on my next book,” he said clearly hoping I’d ask more.

I’ll bite. Experience tells me I shouldn’t. Usually conversations that begin like this one last entirely too long with no opportunity for an “out” or even a chance to contribute meaningfully. But, I’m a sucker so I’ll do it anyway. “What’s the book?”

“Well. I’m Dr. Jeff. The famous Sudoku writer.”

“Oh? You’re famous?”

“Yes. You haven’t heard of me? I write books about solving Sudoku puzzles. I’m here to finish my fourth one.”

Deep breath and here goes, “That’s interesting. Tell me more.”

He did just that. He told me a lot more. Relating everything to Sudoku. At one point, I thought the conversation was finally taking a turn when he started talking about diseases. Well, I was wrong. Because Dr. Jeff has the cure to every known disease. It’s Sudoku.

“What do you think of Obama?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked this question abroad. It’s more than I can count and there’s no good way to answer. The good news about this time? Dr. Jeff just connected the President’s Foreign Policy to Sudoku. Of course.

At about minute 37, there was a lull in the conversation,

“So I have a question. You and the puzzle writers. I mean, are you all like rivals? Do you do battle at conferences or something?”

“Oh! No! We’re very good friends.” He proceeded to whip out a number of Sudoku puzzle books his [alleged] friends had written. Including his personal favorite: An autographed copy of “Sudoku Hell.”

My question served as a reminder to him that I was there and that it would be appropriate to ask me a question or two, in the form of a traditional back-and-forth conversation:

“What do you do?”

“I’m in the training industry, Dr. Jeff.”

“Well, sudoku is wonderful for training…”

Ninety tedious minutes later, Trevor finally came out of the elevator. I jumped up and said I had to go. “Not yet! We need a selfie.” So, here’s the evidence that this actually 100% really did happen…

Yup. That happened.

Yup. That happened. If I look tired, it’s because the man beat me down.

And it was time to head to Fiji…

[This is the second in a three-part series of posts about my most recent trip to Australia and Fiji. If you missed the first post, check here. And here’s a link to the third one.]

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[This is the third in a three-part series of posts about my most recent trip to Australia and Fiji. If you missed the first post, check here. For the second one, click here.]

When my friends back home found out that I was going to Fiji, they were shocked. See, I’m not exactly a ‘beach-goer.’ As you’ll come to find out, it made this part of the adventure that much more interesting (and that much more painful…).

Yup. They serve Fiji Water in Fiji. But, as I learned, you don't want it "fresh" from the sink.

Yup. They serve Fiji Water in Fiji. And they have special Fiji Water holders. But, as I learned, you don’t want it “fresh” from the sink.

Having survived Australia, it was time to head to Fiji. Everyone we told about our next stop couldn’t stop gushing. Not about the beautiful scenery — Australians are used to beautiful scenery. It seems it’s not a big deal to them. What they were most impressed with is the friendliness of the people.

“’Bula!’ is ‘hello’ in Fijian and everyone says it with a smile,” we were told.

They also operate on a slower pace than most folks (i.e., me) prefer.

“It’s Fiji time, man! No hurry. No worry.”

That’s the standard way of saying, “I’m not going to get you what you want anywhere close to the time you want it.

When we arrived, the band struck up, a necklace of shells was slapped on my neck and we were whisked — at a remarkably slow pace – to the hotel.

Dinner in Fiji

When we finally arrived — the five mile journey took about forty minutes — it was time for dinner – we ate A LOT on this trip – so we headed to the Denerau Island Marina where there are a number of restaurants and shops. We sauntered into one and took our seats.

As you’d imagine, we were happy to be in this tropical paradise. It is truly beautiful and we kept asking ourselves how we could be so lucky?! Apparently, not everyone felt the same way…along came our waitress…

“How ya doin’?” Trevor jovially asked.

“Well. I got bills to pay, kids to feed, and then ya die. What do you want?”

“I’ll have the chicken schnitzel, please.”

But, for me, her warnings really served as prescient advice. Fiji, it turns out, is quite a dangerous place for a city dweller like me.

The bugs really took a shine to my sweet North Carolina blood. And the sun is particularly potent – especially when you go snorkeling without having seen the sun in half a decade. And, the coral can actually leap from the water and attack you. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

It isn't exactly an unpleasant place.

It isn’t exactly an unpleasant place.

Trevor and I rented a boat one morning. We wanted to see a couple of places. Like “Cloudbreak,” which is apparently the number one best surfing spot on the planet. Once we got there and watched a surfer take a wave, I pointed out to Trevor that this was the first time I’d ever seen surfing. He was shocked. Apparently seeing Cloudbreak is every surfer’s dream and here was I ignorant of the near-religious significance of these waves. Who knew?!

This uninhabited island was truly stunning. And it became ours for a few minutes.

This uninhabited island was truly stunning. And it became ours for a few minutes.

Once we’d seen enough surfing, which, for me, was a moment that occurred a few minutes before we started watching surfing, we set off for an uninhabited island. Considering 100 of the 300 islands in Fiji are people-less, this is easier than it may sound. Of course, it turns out there are no docks on uninhabited islands. Again, who knew?! So, we had to snorkel to the beach. That involved some deft swimming. Which is a challenge if you, like me, haven’t been in the ocean in a quarter century. I also learned that it’s important to follow Trevor’s advice.

As I struggled to walk through the water up to the beach, I couldn’t help thinking, “Boy! It sure is hard to walk in these flippers.”

At the same time, Trevor kept yelling “Walk backward. Walk backward! Walk backward, you idiot!”

As a land lover, it never occurred to me that these two things might be connected. His advice suddenly made sense when the coral jumped up out of the water and dragged me down onto it, I finally made the connection. Who knew?!

Despite my bloodied hand and newly formed limp, finally walking on that uninhabited island was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. In part because of its beauty, in part because we were the only ones there, and in part because of the struggle to get there.

I have no pictures from the island since my phone isn’t waterproof (c’mon Apple!). Although, I suppose it’s good to actually experience life with your own eyes occasionally rather than through a screen as you’re snapping pictures.

“Taste of Fiji”

After our morning on the boat, we felt all the more connected to Fiji. So, when we noticed that there was a “Taste of Fiji” dinner at our hotel, we signed up.

As it turns out, there’s a reason Fijian food hasn’t made the splash that, say, Mexican or Italian claim. In my experience, I could say it earned a spot among the three worst meals I’ve ever had:

A Bowl of Bottom Feeders.

A Bowl of Bottom Feeders.

For example, the opening course was a dish that translates, roughly, to “unidentified bits of bottom feeders.” It was more than disappointing. At least I liked the lime.

It was in the Singapore style, which I managed to avoid in Singapore for fear of the unbearable spice (spicy food scares me).

It was in the Singapore style, which I managed to avoid in Singapore for fear of the unbearable spice (spicy food scares me).

The main course was “mud crab prepared in the Singapore style,” which means spicy. It was good. If you like your crab to be unbearably hot and soupy. The spice was intended. I think the fact that the meat was liquified was an accident.

I looked up from the soupy mess that poured from the crab and saw Trevor laughing so hard that he was crying. I mentioned earlier that Trevor has a great sense of humor, but this was on another level.

“What’s so funny?” I hadn’t said anything ‘typically American’ up to that point.

Finally, he got control of himself about the time I’d cracked open another leg…

“A cockroach just crawled out of your crab.”

“Check, please.”

We skipped dessert.

It’s funny, you know. Australia is supposed to be dangerous and Fiji is beautiful. Well, the joke was on me. Australia was wonderful! Fiji, on the other hand, bit me, burned me, broke me, and deboweled me (no details here, but suffice it to say that  you’re supposed to use bottled water to brush your teeth).

Look, don’t get me wrong! There’s no doubt that Fiji is an incredible place and I’m a lucky guy to have been able to visit. Let’s just say this trip confirmed that I’m more of a city slicker than a beach bum. With that said, take a look at some of the incredible views…

A view of one of Fiji's outlying islands shows a reef like the one that leapt out at me.

An aerial view of one of Fiji’s outlying islands shows a reef like the one that leapt out at me.

Sunrises were some of the most beautiful I've ever seen.

Sunrises were some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

On our last night, a couple wed on the beach. They lucked out with an unbelievable double rainbow for their photo session.

On our last night, a couple wed on the beach. They lucked out with an unbelievable double rainbow for their photo session.

If the sunrises were beautiful, the sunsets were spectacular!

If the sunrises were beautiful, the sunsets were spectacular!

So, the takeaway? The slivers of Australia and the South Pacific that I saw were full of adventure and good times. Made all the better by getting to spend time with a good buddy like Trevor.

The people, as always, are what makes a trip memorable for me…

  • Trevor’s Dad (“You’ll be lucky to survive the night.”)
  • The Fijian waitress (“And then ya die.”)
  • Dr. Keow (“Cure to Cancer? Sure! It’s Sudoku.”)
  • The cross dresser in Greensborough (“They said I could be anything, so I became awesome!”),

It will be a long time before I forget the characters I met on this adventure!

[This is the third in a three-part series of posts about my most recent trip to Australia and Fiji. Here’s a link to the first one. And here’s a link to the second.]

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Peruvian Esteem

December 8, 2014

You can't throw a rock without hitting Inca ruins in Peru. Like these at Moray. The site was used by the Incan People for worshipping and/or agricultural research. Archaeologists aren't sure which.

You can’t throw a rock without hitting Inca ruins in Peru. Like these at Moray. The site was used by the Incan People for worshipping and/or agricultural research. Archaeologists aren’t sure which.

It’s taken me awhile to put pen to paper (or, more truly, fingers to keyboard) on this one. I’d love to tell you that there’s a simple explanation like I’ve been too busy. However, in all honesty, it’s been because there was something different about this trip. Something about the place that captivated me and almost defies words. Especially my usual curt words. Sure, we had our share of the kinds of experiences that I’m told garner the occasional chuckle from readers — but this sketch has a different kind of theme running through it. If you pick up on a subtle hint of awe, I did my job right.

Peru — the Sacred Valley in particular — has a certain mysticism to it.

The Sacred Valley is breathtaking, especially from above. It's sacred because it's so fertile.

The Sacred Valley is breathtaking, especially from above. It’s sacred because it’s so fertile.

  • Shortness of breath?
  • Numbness of the extremities?
  • Confusion?

Those are the symptoms of finding oneself in Peru’s Sacred Valley. At altitudes ranging from a cool 8,000 feet (or some number of confusing meters) to 22,000, it’s a vigorous mountain climb attempted by thousands of otherwise lazy tourists each and every day (up to 2,500 people enter Machu Picchu each day). The guides are trained in their universities to literally “walk slower for the tourists who aren’t acclimatized” to these altitudes. And boy was I grateful. Most of the negative effects are reduced for those who can respond, “Yes” when a guide says, “Did you get dee pill?”

“Dee pill” is a twice-daily prescription for a drug that causes the pH in your blood to increase, which through some trick of science means you can skip the headaches and nausea normally suffered by travelers at these altitudes. It also means you get the occasional and unpredictable tingling of your hands, feet, and (if you’re lucky) face. It became a sensation that we looked forward to.

Lima is a very modern city.

Lima is a very modern city.

We first arrived in the big city of Lima. A shocking (at least to me) 3,000,000 of Peru’s 10,000,000 people live here. Despite my less than stellar math education — which will play a character part in a few paragraphs — I can tell you that’s about 1/3 of the country. I can also tell you, based on personal experience, that the country’s educational system seems lacking in what I would call “Driver’s Ed.” Not since I was in Moscow have I seen anything quite like it.

I’ve had close calls in cars everywhere from Copenhagen to New York to – the worst – Moscow. It seems like people in nearly every big city take pride in their ability to say, “We have the craziest drivers.” I have always chortled. There was no chortling in Lima. These are some crazy drivers.

The Presidential Palace doesn't look like a rough place to live.

The Presidential Palace doesn’t look like a rough place to live.

What Flashes Before You When You’re Facing Death?

Let me share our near-death experience from Day One in Lima. It was 3:00 or so. We were wandering the streets exploring the five-hundred year-old Spanish Colonial architecture. Across the plaza, we noticed the Presidential Palace and decided to take a closer look. Being the extraordinary (and humble) gentleman I am, I led the way across the street practically draping my jacket over a puddle so that no shoes would get wet. As I was brushing off the brownie points I’d just earned from my jacket, I suddenly froze. Out of nowhere appeared some kind of unmarked Chinese-made delivery truck. They say when you’re near death, your life flashes before your eyes.

If it was my life that flashed, I really need to live more. What I saw was even more shocking than an unmarked Chinese-made delivery truck barreling toward me in a South American capital.

There, before us, was a completely, absolutely, buck-naked woman in her mid-seventies. I’ve seen a lot in my life. But I haven’t seen that before. Sure, there was this one time in Philadelphia where I saw a middle-aged woman changing her shirt in front of the LOVE statue in Kennedy Plaza, but that was just a shirt. This Limanite was completely devoid of clothing. Not a stitch. In broad daylight. In front of the Presidential Palace. No, she wasn’t protesting. She was just walking around wrestling with a burlap potato sack that said, “Fresco! Organico! De Los Andes!” or “Fresh! Organic! From the Andes!”

Thankfully, I have been forgiven for staring at this unexpected sight since it inspired both of us to run away from it — and the truck — saving us from being pancaked in Peru.

The food -- especially the fruit -- was delicious.

The food — especially the fruit — was delicious.

Which brings us to our experience in the Andes, away from the dangers of the Big City.

But first, let me explain that Lima is on the Pacific coast, west (1 hour by plane) from Cusco, the Incan capital. It, like the rest of Peru is in the same time zone as New York. Most tourists from the States come to Peru to see the Incan wonders of the Sacred Valley, culminating, of course, at Machu Picchu (correctly pronounced, as I learned, “Machu Pick-chu,” by the way).

A Confusing Past

So, this is Francisco Pizarro's body. You might remember him as the Conquistador who conquistadored the Inca civilization. That box to the left? That's where they put his head after they cut it off.

So, this is Francisco Pizarro’s body at the Cathedral in Lima. You might remember him as the Conquistador who conquistadored the Inca civilization. That box to the left? That’s where they put his head after they cut it off.

Our time in Peru left me with many questions about the unique and unusual history of the Peruvian people. It’s truly complicated.

So, imagine this: You’re sitting in your house minding your own business doing your normal activities like, say, watching Entertainment Tonight. All of the sudden a UFO shows up. So, your mayor does what she should do. She goes and says, “Hi. Welcome to our town!

Then, after that, the people in the UFO behead your mayor. And make you one of their slaves. You know, after they take all of your prized possessions, forbid you from speaking your language or going to your church, and begin marrying your children.

Well. That, my friends, is exactly what happened when the Spanish arrived in 1534. Except no one was watching Entertainment Tonight. It was, in a few small ways, a better time. 

I say it’s a complicated heritage because, not only did the Spanish conquer the ancestors of today’s Peruvian people, but they also infiltrated their DNA. Practically every Native Peruvian has both Inca and Spanish heritage. The Spaniards brought religion, food, language, blood(shed). They did it by conquering and nearly destroying most of the traditions.

Thankfully Quechua, the native language, and many traditions (including the beautiful worship of Pachamama — Mother Earth) remain in many of the rural areas where they were protected by the almost insurmountable landscape.

Dinner was a Pet?

The Peruvian ambrosia is, of course, Guinea Pig. I don’t know if it’s just for the tourists, although it seemed genuine: The act of eating Guinea Pig is held with a level of respect normally reserved for religious experiences. On the most special occasions, families will save their soles (1 sole = 33 cents) and buy a Guinea Pig for roasting.

A Guinea Pig awaiting a certain future. By the time of publishing, I'm nearly certain he's been done in.

A Guinea Pig awaiting a certain future. You can see the fear in his little eyes. By the time of publishing, he’s likely been done in.

Now, if you go to Peru and skip the Guinea Pig, you’re really not living. And I love living so what do you think I did?

Admittedly, after I ordered it, I was freaking out. Like completely freaking out. I recalled the time I ate the as-yet unidentified fish in Tokyo that caused me to nearly wretch all over one of Tokyo’s finest rooftop restaurants. This was a different experience altogether because I had the misfortune of knowing what was coming. I was absolutely 100% freaking out. As I sat there, white as a ghost, afraid I’d wasted a precious meal and might embarrass my country, I did my best to meditate and think about something — anything — else. I looked across the restaurant at the beautiful view of the Rio Sagrado (Sacred River). I thought about the amazing Incan ruins we’d seen everywhere. Nope. Nothing could get my mind off of what was coming: A class pet for millions of Americans was about to be dinner. Freaking. Out.

I recognize cultural mores are unique to each place. So, my definition of Guinea Pig is certainly not the same as my Peruvian friends, but this was tough. And it was about to be even tougher.

“DING.”

The cook rang the bell indicating that the little creature was ready to be delivered.

Our waitress knew exactly what was about to happen. She’d seen it many times before. In fact, she’s probably watching some other poor schmo from another country doing the same thing right now as you’re reading this. “Hahaha! I’ll have the Guinea Pig!” She knew the result when I asked for it with my hard US accent.

To say it tasted like chicken would indicate to anyone who’s had it that I didn’t get up the nerve to try it. I tried it. And it didn’t taste like chicken. It tasted like Guinea Pig. Like a spongy, sad meat that really had no business being eaten. The tiny little leg bones just made it that much sadder. The spongy, roasted meat was…I really can’t go on. I ate enough to say I’d done it and hid the rest under my mashed potatoes.

It was all the more real when some of my friends from home heard about what I’d done. They started sending pictures of their children petting their little furry Guinea Pigs. For the next several nights, I woke up in cold sweats with nightmares of little, cute, friendly fur balls named “Lollypop,” “Boo Boo,” and “Cream Puff” attacking me.

It’s a meal I’d rather soon forget.

The treatment of the chickens, on the other hand, is remarkable. They're given shoes.

The treatment of the chickens, on the other hand, is remarkable. They get shoes.

“Education is the Currency of Democracy.” ~ T. Jefferson

I’ve found that every trip takes on a life of its own. This one somehow focused on education.

Ollayntayntambo was also a pretty sacred site. It was on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and remains a must-do on the way.

Ollayntayntambo was also a pretty sacred site. It lies on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and remains a must-do on the way.

One day, we rode in a car for about an hour to a town called, Ollantaytambo, and then headed up, into the mountains for another couple of hours along an unpaved road that held onto the mountain by its gravelly fingertips. We passed women herding cattle and llamas. We dodged hippies. We saw the “real” Peru. (As a quick and worthwhile aside, there are a lot of hippies — mostly from the States — wandering around Peru. They sell bracelets made of string and look, for the most part, lost.)

Upon arrival, we walked into the classroom, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Excited about the opportunity to look, from a safe distance, at the kids as they learned their alphabet or whatever. When we walked into the room I immediately knew something was different. On the board: Advanced math. How did I know it was advanced? Because I’d seen it in college. It had funny shapes and really big numbers. Really big numbers. I didn’t understand. These were fourth graders.

And then, the students — these kids weren’t kids anymore — saw us. And suddenly their teacher lost control of them. They became kids again.

“Gringos!!!”

Our guide would later say, “Gringo is a term for foreigners whom we like. It’s not offensive.”

Right. Who’s kidding who? Aside from your excellent grammar, you’re wrong. But, whatever. Hat’s off to you for properly using “whom.”

These kids threatened me with their math. Once I’d moved passed their math skills, I saw their faucet-like noses. With a combination of yellow and red that belonged on a hotdog and not a nose, it was clear these kids were suffering with an epidemic of something I didn’t want. (In a bit of literary foreshadowing, I’ll share with you that I would get it. It set in on the flight back to the states and I was sick for a solid week.)

You can't see their runny noses in this picture. But believe me, they were juicy.

You can’t see their runny noses in this picture. But believe me, they were juicy.

“What have you brought me?!” They asked, not-quite in unison, but in nearly perfect English.

I looked at our guide. Then at the teacher. Then at the students. The teacher told them to start singing. One of the boys suddenly jumped up, vertically, I don’t know, maybe three or seven feet in the air pointed at his chair, pointed at me, and said, “Sientete!” I recall hearing that a lot in school when we were being disobedient. Fearing a demerit, I sat down. My knees were level with my chin in his tiny chair. One point for the boy, no points for me.

They began singing a song, which our guide later translated. My favorite verse went roughly,

“Airplane! Airplane! Bring back my girlfriend. She’s cheating on me. My family is so sad. I’m so sad that I kissed a skeleton. Airplane! Bring back my girlfriend.”

If you think that’s strange, just take some time with, “Humpty Dumpty.”

After their song, we passed out apples. They seemed pleased with us and, like any good performers, offered another tune in response to our apples, which, to them, were akin to a standing ovation.

Meeting these students was a great fortune. Seeing them light up when we walked in was awfully exciting. 

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is everything you could imagine. Seeing it was an inspiration and awe-inspiring. I can’t put words to it. So pictures will have to do. The only thing I will say is that it sat covered by dense vegetation unknown to anyone for five-hundred years. Which leads me to this exciting question: What else is out there waiting for discovery?

My take on the quintessential view.

That’s the quarry in the bottom left. You know, the quarry they used to make all of this. Based on the way the rocks are laid out, there was more to do when they abandoned the site to prevent the Spanish from finding it.

The quality of the construction was directly related to how sacred a particular place was.

The quality of the construction was directly related to how sacred a particular place was. We saw them cleaning these stones. They were using toothbrushes and toothpicks. No, not even kidding.

This trapezoid shape was everywhere because it stood the test of earthquakes. This niche would have been used to display religious idols.

This trapezoid shape was everywhere because it stood the test of earthquakes. This niche would have been used to display religious idols.

This door led to the Priest's house.

This door – again a trapezoid – led to the Priest’s house.

The Incan People held water in the highest esteem. Their mastery of its management is probably why so much of the site remains. In this view from above, you can see just how well they controlled its flow.

The Incan People held water in the highest esteem. Their mastery of its management is probably why so much of the site remains. In this view from above, you can see just how well they controlled its flow. The channels are about two inches wide.

It never stopped amazing me. They did this with sand and sticks. Sand and sticks!!

It never stopped amazing me. They did this with sand and sticks. Sand and sticks!!

Closing

In closing, we went because we’d never been. We’ll return because it’s amazing.

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If you said to me in August, “By the middle of September, you’ll be riding through the streets of Bogotá, Colombia in a cab listening to Frank Sinatra’s version of Jingle Bells,” I’d likely have said, “I’ll believe you up until the Jingle Bells thing.”

Well, you would have been right and I would have been wrong. Because that’s exactly what I was doing day-before-yesterday.

As I rode to the airport at the end of the trip, the music shifted to a Neal Diamond classic, “Forever in Blue Jeans,” and I began to reflect on my time in this amazing (and often misunderstood) city.

The flight to Bogotá is less than five hours from Atlanta.

The flight to Bogotá is less than five hours from Atlanta.

A few weeks ago, I contacted a consulting company down in Colombia because we needed a partner to deliver our company’s services in Latin America. Our firm has known these people for awhile, but, because I hadn’t met them personally, I decided to go down to do so. One of my colleagues here in the States asked if I was going to Bug-otta? No. So let’s clear that up first:

It’s Bogotá, not Bug-otta. And, it’s Colombia. Not Columbia.

Anyway, I arrived late on Saturday evening, which left me with a free day on Sunday to explore the largest city in a country in which the US State Department encourages visitors, “to exercise caution and remain vigilant as terrorist and criminal activities remain a threat throughout the country. Explosions occur throughout Colombia on a regular basis, including some in Bogotá itself.”

The Ciclovía is a once-weekly, well-marked pedestrian and cycling path around the City. Many other places around the globe have built their own.

The Ciclovía is a once-weekly, well-marked pedestrian and cycling path around the City. Many other places around the globe have built their own.

So, that led me to wander out of my hotel alone and unarmed to explore the Ciclovía. What, you ask, is the Ciclovía? Each Sunday from 7:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., many of the streets in downtown Bogotá are shut down to allow runners, cyclists, rollerbladers, and other exercisers to freely explore without fear of certain death from the unusually heavy and erratic traffic of the city. So, with nothing but my wits and a cell phone camera, I walked out of my hotel, rented a bike, and set off along the Carrera Séptima. After four hours, I’d seen a lot of the city, breathed in more than my share of soot, smelled the inevitable odor that results from cramming millions of people into a confined area (i.e., refuse), and earned a bad sunburn.

After that experience, I wanted to pick up a couple of gifts for friends. I did this with a visit to the Usaquén neighborhood, which on Sundays hosts a giant flea market. (As an aside, Sunday is the day to visit Bogotá — there’s a lot to do). People at the Usaquén market sell everything from Chinese copies of Colombian antiquarian treasures to genuine handmade crafts. I found a couple of things to buy including an intricate tree made from wire. I asked the vendor about it and her eyes got huge.

The photo doesn't do it justice. It's really something!

The photo doesn’t do it justice. It’s really something!

“How much?” I asked.

She stared back at me blankly. “Stella! Stella! Steelllllla!” she yelled. I half expected Marlon Brando to show up.

She kept yelling and eventually looked back at me, saying, “This made by someone else.” Her English outperforming my Spanish dramatically.

About that time, Stella arrived.

“Que?” she asked. Which was followed by a feverish and emotional exchange.

“How much?” I asked again.

“Uhhh. Errrr. 150,000. Es bery beautiful,” she told me.

She was right.

I nonchalantly reached for my cell phone and clicked on my trustworthy currency app. She wanted about US$75 for her creation.

Sometimes, it's good to be American.

Sometimes, it’s good to be American.

Meanwhile Stella and her friend were looking at each other with expressions that could either have been…

  • What kind of moron would actually buy this? or
  • Can you believe I’m about to sell this thing of great beauty that I poured my heart and soul into?!?!?!

I’m an optimist and prefer to see the best in people so I choose to believe the second. Now, I’m not saying that US$75 isn’t a lot of money. It certainly is. But, to get a thing of great beauty that Stella poured her heart and soul into PLUS make (what I can only assume was) a significant impact on her financial situation was worth far more than seventy-five bucks to me. So I pulled out my cash and gave her 150,000 Colombian Pesos. I hope she’s still thinking about me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her.

With play time over, it was time to get to work.

There were lots of police everywhere. Although, I got the sense I could have gotten away with anything if I'd been willing to part with some folding money.

There were lots of police everywhere. Although, I got the sense I could have gotten away with anything if I’d been willing to part with some folding money.

“In the dark times, when the mob ruled this country, they would plant bombs in cars. That was like 15 years ago. Don’t worry, you’re safe,” said my host. I reflected on the State Department warning as a heavily armed man and his dog were checking our trunk for a pipebomb. We were cleared to drive on.

On several occasions, I began meetings with,

“Lo siento porque mi Español es muy mal.”
“I’m sorry, my Spanish is very bad.”

The language barrier made meetings difficult. But, they would have been impossible without my new companion, Andrés the omnipresent translator. Seriously, this dude never left my side. He even went to the bathroom with me. If you’re ever in Bogotá and in need of translation services, he’s your man. As a head’s up, you’ll need to ask him not to follow you into the bathroom.

I was very tall in Colombia.

Andres and me. I was very tall in Colombia.

Fast forward to my last night in town when I realized I needed to get that tree home. Unfortunately, Andrés had left us so it was just me and my mono-lingual hosts. After a few days of hearing nothing but Spanish, my language skills had improved (slightly). As a matter of context, my language skills have always been terrible. In fact, in college, I took Spanish. The final exam required us to have a seven minute conversation with our professor. At the end of mine, she told me:

“Señor, you have no grasp of this language at all. None. But your accent is incredible!”

So, with that memory floating through my mind, I asked my hosts…

“Necesito un caja, por favor.”
“I need a box, please.”

Thankfully, I got it right.

We stopped in a couple of stores whose proprietors looked at us with judgmental faces and single word responses: “No.” That one translates with ease. Finally, we stopped in a third store. There was an exchange I couldn’t even begin to understand.

So…my hosts grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out onto the street.

This, I thought, is how it all ends?

How do I call the State Department?!

Turns out, I had nothing to fear. They were running after the garbage man who was literally folding up boxes and putting them into a dumpster on wheels that he pushed along the sidewalk. We slipped him a couple of (hundred) pesos, and gained permission to dig through his trash cart. Again, had you told me a few weeks ago (err..make that an hour before) that I’d be digging through a Colombian trash cart, well…I don’t know what I would have thought. But, I’ll do virtually anything for this blog so I went all in. I mean, I was in a suit climbing through the garbage. I think the suit’s done for, but it was worth it for you, dear readers.

You’ll be relieved to know that I found a box and my treasure made it home. It serves as a reminder of the people I met in Colombia.

I work very hard to understand a little bit about the people I meet on every trip I take. It’s why I love travel so much. Because of the unique nature of this trip, I was able to meet some amazingly accomplished people. My hosts arranged for us to, among other things…

  • Have lunch with faculty from one of Latin America’s leading business schools,
  • Talk with senior business leaders about leading Colombian companies, and
  • Meet people who are literally building this country.
Like this traveler, the Colombians have a huge load to carry as it relates to building a nation, but they seem eager and happy to do it.

Like this traveler, the Colombians have a huge load to carry as it relates to building a nation, but they seem eager and happy to do it.

And, my takeaway is that rarely have I come across a group so consistently dedicated to serving the greater good as Colombians. There’s a sense of national obligation that transcends our definition of patriotism. It’s not about placing a hand on your heart before a game. It’s not about fireworks on the Fourth of July. Instead, it’s about serving something outside of oneself. About building a country. Each business person I met said essentially the same thing, which was summed up very well by a CEO I met:

“Yes, I am interested in growing for my family, but I’m also doing this for my country. To grow Colombia and make it a better place.”

This uniquely Colombian trait is truly inspiring. I am so impressed with them that I can only hope they’ll remember me as something more than that American they saw dumpster diving.

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“Let’s do that on Monday,” I suggested in a meeting last Thursday. 

“Umm. That’s Labor Day. The office is closed. Right?” someone said with a tone of desperate hope.

She was right. I’d failed to load “National Holidays” into my calendar. As a result, I had no idea we could enjoy a long weekend until 48 hours before it began. That opened a world of possibilities. I Googled “Delta Route Map” to see where I could go. 

Contenders included

  1. Halifax, Nova Scotia
  2. Anchorage, Alaska
  3. Jackson Hole, Wyoming

It was my own Goldilocks moment: The first one was too close, the second too far, and the third…just right.

IMG_7214

This trip was much faster than it would have been only a century ago.

The trip took me from Greensboro to Atlanta to Salt Lake City and on to Jackson Hole. The most eventful leg by far was Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole. After refereeing a wrestling match between my bag and the overhead bin, I settled into my seat. Suddenly, the gentleman two rows ahead caused quite a kerfuffle. “What’s up with that,” I wondered.

Turns out he was ready for a refill. 

“More,” he commanded while waving an empty high ball glass in a pseudo-circle in front of him.

“Where’d you get that?” asked the youngish Flight Attendant.

“The Reskrant,” said the fellow. Also youngish.

“You mean you stole it? I can’t get you anything else.”

“Why not,” he asked.

“Because you’re inebriated,” she confidently responded. I heard her mutter, “And this is Salt Lake City.”

“Yup,” he said before donning his headphones and playing Boston’s Peace of Mind loudly enough for all of us to enjoy.

The Flight Attendant went about her business. So admirably, indeed, that following the safety briefing, our thirsty friend removed his headphones (forgetting to pause his music) and tried to tip her. She declined, “It’s against company policy,” she told me.

XXX

I was hopeful the guy wouldn’t cause too much of a ruckus so we could get in the air. Fortunately, he calmed down quickly.

Anyway, after landing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I climbed past the drunken gentleman who, despite a very bumpy flight, was now passed out.

From the airport, I took a cab for the 20 minute ride into town.

It turns out that 97% of Teton County is Federal land. What do you do when you’re surrounded by unbelievable natural beauty and have so little tax-generating private property? Pump in the tourist dollars, of course! And also, it turns out, get really rich people to move in. The County has the highest personal per capita income in the country ($132,728, which is greater than Manhattan’s $12o,790).

Hello Wyoming!

Hello Wyoming!

Thanks to the front desk clerk at the Wyoming Inn, I learned about the Start Bus, which is not frequented by Teton County’s rich and famous.

It’s a free transportation network that’s also a great way to make new friends. There was, for example, the guy who told me (and everyone else on the bus) without prompting that he’d been “legally dead 3 times.” He also shared with us that he’s “lived in Paella” along with another 37 states and 6 countries. In case there was some question, “I was completely twisted on cocaine for half of it.”

Mmmm. M&Ms.

Mmmm. M&Ms. Wonder if they were purchased locally or back in Paella?

There were a handful of places that I’d decided I wanted to hit up because of their positive reviews on Yelp. One of them was the Snake River Brewery. Fortunately, my busmate didn’t have the same idea. I grabbed a seat at the bar and ordered a hamburger and an IPA. Two guys from Denver and a local woman had the adjacent seats.

Unfortunately, I left my stickers at home.

Unfortunately, I left my stickers at home.

“Hi! I’m Camber, this is Chris and Dave. We just met. But they’ve got great energy.”

After earning her undergraduate degree, Camber became a journalist for the local alternative paper. She never left. But that’s not cutting it so she DJs weddings and waitresses at a Thai restaurant for extra cash. She’s got a sister who traps prairie dogs. Apparently that’s a thing. The sister’s temporarily laid up though because a prairie dog bite is bad. Very bad. Camber also just got a “Soul Reading” in which she learned about her past lives. Turns out she was on the wrong end of WWII. She didn’t go into detail, but did tell us — wide eyed — that it explains her fear of small spaces.

She had a lot to say. She must have been quiet in that previous life.

“After this, I’m going to Idaho for a potato digging party,” It was going to be a big night for Camber.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.

“I mean, we’re going to dig potatoes,” she explained with her hands. “It’s only like 20 minutes away or something. You guys should come. You’ve got great energy!”

Chris, Dave, and I made the right call. We passed. I headed back to my hotel room instead.

I spent the next day exploring downtown Jackson. When dinner time arrived, it was time to try another Yelp recommendation — the Rendezvous Bistro

Yes. It's stuck between the highway and the Hampton Inn.

Yes. It’s stuck between the highway and the Hampton Inn.

“I’m tryyyyying to decyyyyyyde what to drink,” says the woman seated at the table next to mine.

She asks to taste five different drinks including, but not limited to a local craft beer called Pako’s, the house Pinot Noir, and something called Wyoming Whiskey. I don’t know how she tasted anything after the fourth one. But, then again, maybe it wasn’t the flavor she was after. She settled on the Pinot Noir.

Anyway, the drinks menu proved more interesting than her date. She read it with the occasional editorial comment while waiting for her Pot Stickers to arrive.

“What’s this? A South African wine!? I’ve never even heard of that. How can they make wine in Africa? I mean, c’mooooooooonnnn. But I’ll try it.”

“May I possibly please have umm one more beer, please,” asks her husband. 

She’d ordered the beef, which she decided was overcooked after eating about half of it. Naturally, it needed to go back to the kitchen. Bold move, lady. Bold move.

I wish I had a wall big enough for this six foot thing of beauty. But, then again, I don't have $28,000 to drop on it.

I wish I had a wall big enough for this five foot thing of beauty. But, then again, I don’t have $28,000 to buy it.

I noticed a theme. There are many locals who, despite surviving on the dollars of tourists, seem to despise us. I overheard one woman at a restaurant I infiltrated called the Local Restaurant:

“I’m finally done with my freaking day of making caramel freaking macchiatos and iced freaking cappuccinos for people from freaking Idaho and freaking Colorado. It’s time for a beer. NOW!” There was a lot of rage there. I kept my head down and my North Carolina accent to a minimum.

An early morning had me in bed early, too. That means I missed out on seeing more drunk people.

An early morning had me in bed early, too. That means I missed out on seeing more drunk people.

My time in Jackson was great. Maybe it was a Labor Day thing? Maybe it was the free Lynyrd Skynyrd concert (that I missed) on Sunday night? Whatever the reason, it was a fun trip and, other than a couple of demanding restaurant-goers, everyone was in a great mood. Sure, there was an air of superiority given off by some of the locals (certainly not Camber), but that’s not so much my problem as it is theirs.

Next time I go, I’ll rent a car to explore. Jackson Hole is reminiscent of Queenstown. There’s plenty of adventure and beauty. Yellowstone’s just around the corner and The Tetons taunted me. But, I resisted and hopped back on an airplane a short 36 hours after I landed. Fortunately, everyone seemed sober on the return trip.

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Austin’s Tags

August 13, 2014

It’s called “The People’s Republic of Austin” because it’s Texas’s left-leaning pocket.

Residents of Austin take the idea of a food truck to a new level.

Residents of Austin take the idea of a food truck to a new level.

If Austin changed its name to “San Jose without the taxes,” it wouldn’t be too far off. It’s hard to miss the high tech scene as people in jeans and black t-shirts yell about their hot new apps over loud live music while drinking craft beers.

Not unlike my recent trip to San Jose, this visit to Austin had nothing to do with anything technological. I’m an old soul whose iPad sits silently by my bed where it — and its fully drained battery — has remained since shortly after I bought it. No, my trip was for a meeting of business colleagues in another industry. A close friend is a resident of Austin and inspired me to remain in the city for the weekend. He didn’t disappoint.

Based on the map, Austin looked like a very walkable city. But I tend to be sanguine about sauntering where I shouldn’t. For example, I once walked to work in Phoenix in July. That was ill-advised. The only positive outcome is that I now know that heat exhaustion is a real thing! People don’t walk through a desert. And when you add mile upon mile of hot asphalt, it gets even worse.

I should have taken a lesson from that experience. While Austin isn’t in the desert, it was experiencing an unusual heatwave with 100+ temperatures and high humidity. And, not only was the heat overwhelming in Austin, I wasn’t exactly walking through the nicest part of town. 

Indeed, I was heading to meet my friend when I faced a choice. Fight or flight kind of stuff. As I rounded a corner, I noticed a couple in the distance. A gentleman appeared to be walking slightly ahead of a lady. I assumed they were on a date gone wrong. A stroll along a tree-lined street turned into a sweltering walk in the noonday sun along a major interstate. Anyway, at 75 yards, the situation looked tame. At 50 yards, the lady seemed exercised about something. As the distance closed, I heard high-pitched yelling. Something slightly more baritone than a scream. As I got even closer, it became clear that the gentleman was walking ahead of the lady because she was hitting him. Repeatedly. Over and over again. With great force. Her yelling indistinguishable from grunts. She was quite angry. He seemed unfazed. 

Until she knocked his hat off. The camel’s back had been broken.

By this point, I was within a thumbnail of the tiff. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that my fight or flight response was to freeze. The gentleman turned toward his lady friend and, with vigor, requested that she, “Leave me ugrundi f*#$ alone, pwrathniguw.” 

She responded with, “Haku jaundice.”

Her response told me everything I needed to know. Thanks to mind and mood altering substances, the two were in a world not occupied by me. They had no clue I was there. Still, I avoided eye contact, gave a wide berth, and moved on at a good clip. “Welcome to your Austin weekend,” I thought.

Fortunately, that was my only run-in with the riffraff. For the rest of the weekend, we explored safe hipster bars with one-of-a-kind drinks and unusual interpretations of common foods. Chicken fried ahi tuna, anyone? 

Sadly, the only wildlife I saw was stuck to the wall.

Sadly, the only wildlife I saw was stuck to the wall.

The scene in Austin is hip, young, and full of fun. As an aside, should the city consider that for a tag line to replace “People’s Republic,” I will welcome a check. 

We enjoyed a thorough tour of Sixth Street, the hippest of the hip. Sixth Street left me with the impression it was favored early by downtown workers and later by a younger crowd.  Our tour concluded with a ride in a pedicab. It served our tired feet well. The poor dude pedaling, on the other hand, didn’t feel too optimistic about hauling two dudes. Can’t blame him, we are not a couple of hundred pound undergraduate women.

Bars on Sixth Street simply can't have enough taps.

Bars on Sixth Street simply can’t have enough taps.

We also visited Rainey Street, which had more of a “local” feel than Sixth Street. While Sixth Street was surrounded by hotels and curio shops, Rainey Street was filled with Austin residents. It’s here that entrepreneurs convert houses built in the 1930s into trendy bars and restaurants. Given a choice, I’d pick Rainey Street — although we didn’t try them, the food trucks looked impressive, too.

One house turned into the comfortable "Bungalow Bar."

One house turned into the comfortable “Bungalow Bar.”

And this one is waiting for conversion. And some sturdier walls.

And this one is waiting for conversion. And some sturdier walls.

Other than the couple on the date-gone-wrong and the pedicab driver, the people we met were excited about their city despite the unusual heat wave. Everyone was optimistic and seemed zealous about the assorted opportunities available to them in The People’s Republic of Austin. 

I can’t wait to get back!

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