Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Strange Thing...

A strange thing happened. I came home from work and it looked as though a folk band had exploded in my living room. A banjo and a slide guitar rested on the couch, another guitar leaned against the TV, a snare drum was propped up next to the coffee table and I had to step over a stand-up bass to get into my room. However, this in itself isn’t so strange. I live in a fairly bohemian household and I love the fact that various artists and musicians regularly stay with us. After I changed, the guys and I walked across the street to the field to toss the Frisbee around. As we were walking an old Asian woman approached us. Her white hair was haphazardly cut and she wore a thin-fabric top and slacks. A large square of gauze covered what I assumed was an injury on the front of her throat. Initially, I thought she just might be nuts. She swiveled her head looking not exactly at us but peering like a bird in our general direction. I’ll be honest… she was uncomfortable to look at. She was a walking reminder of my own fragility and the inconvenient fact that time is slowly stalking all of us. In our society rather than venerating our elders, it’s easier to act as if they aren’t there. Right or wrong, we value virility over experience and I’m as guilty as anybody.

At first it looked like we were going to walk by her without incident, but then she suddenly reached out and clutched Chris’ arm. Chris, the drummer of the band, was clearly uneasy with this woman touching him. As he squirmed like a toddler getting a haircut, the woman lifted one hand to her throat and said, “Will you help me? I’m blind.” Her monotone voice made me realize that the gauze on her throat wasn’t covering an injury, but rather a breathing hole and she was holding a talking valve in her hand. “Will you take me home?” she asked, still grasping Chris’ arm. “Um, well…” Chris said, trying to slip out of her reach, “I don’t really…” What a blind person with no voice box was doing in the middle of a field, I still don’t know, but she clearly needed help and it was just as clear that Chris wasn’t going to be the person to do it and the other guys were already starting to throw the disc around. Shit, I thought, taking a deep breath. “Where do you live?” I asked her. She transferred her talon-like grip from Chris’ arm to my own, as Chris gratefully slipped free.

She put her hand to her throat and said, “23rd and Massachusetts.”

“Okay,” I replied, “that’s not too far, only about a block from here.” It was hard to understand her as she talked through her valve, but I eventually learned that her name was Debbie. We walked very slowly along the path on the field through the shadow of the large brick building that houses the Northwest African American Museum. As we walked out the driveway toward the sidewalk on Massachusetts, I glanced back ruefully at my friends who were tossing the Frisbee back and forth without a care. ‘Sons of bitches’, I said under my breath.

As long as I can remember, I’ve had an unquenchable thirst to see the world. I always wanted to see what was around the next corner, to live in the next country and experience the next continent. I’ve never understood people who want to live in the same place all their lives. I’ve been fond of saying that every square foot on this planet I left unseen and every hand I left unshook in my lifetime were opportunities wasted. However over the past several months, a strange feeling has come over me. My wanderlust has started to feel strangely... quenched. This isn’t to say that I have no desire to travel anymore. There are still lots of places I want to see and people I want to meet. Once you start travelling, you can never really stop, but other desires have crept into my consciousness; weird things like wanting to sleep in my own bed and be near my friends and family. I know most people regard these feelings as part of growing up and really this should’ve happened back in the late 90s, but I never thought it’d happen to me and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. It could be that some of my good friends are getting married, having kids and seem content in their lives, but I feel like it started even before that.

“Where are you taking me?” Debbie asked, as we slowly stepped onto the sidewalk.

“You said 23rd and Massachusetts, right?” I replied, pointing (a useless gesture) to the intersection a half a block down the hill “that’s where you said you live.”

She nodded and seemed content as we made our way down the hill. I noticed as we walked she started to transfer more and more of her frail weight onto my arm. “Do you want to rest?” I asked about halfway down the hill. She nodded. I looked around, but there was nothing for her to sit on, so we just stood there. As she leaned against me, the bones in her ribcage pressed against my forearm felt like they could snap at any moment. After a couple of minutes, we started again and eventually we made it down to the intersection.

“All right,” I said, thinking our adventure was almost over, “which side of the street do you live on?” I was eying a likely building kitty-corner from where we were. An older gentleman was sitting on its stoop. He glanced over in our direction and gestured towards Debbie with my head, while trying to telepathically ask him, “Hey! Does she belong to you?” He just turned away. I sighed. “Where do you live, Debbie?”

“Where are you taking me?” she asked me again. ‘Crap,’ I thought. She’s addled. She doesn’t know what’s going on and we’re never going to find her house.

“I’m taking you home Debbie,” I replied as patiently as possible. “Where do you live?”

“On top of the museum.”

I began to spit and swear to myself. It had taken about ten minutes to get all the way down the block and it turned out that she lived on the top of the museum, which meant we’d have to go all the way back up the block.

Resigned, I turned us around and we started the slow trudge back.

I think the day I turned thirty I started to change. It definitely wasn’t immediate considering the night of my birthday I went out with a handful of aggressively drinking Irishmen from my tour group who shoveled so much alcohol down my throat that I had to sneak out of the bar shortly after midnight. But then the next day I quit smoking (more or less) and over the next few months I started to say things like, “The music is way too loud in here!” and “I’m kind of in the mood for a nice night in and a movie.” ‘What the hell is happening to me?’, I wondered. These days when I have a big night out, it seems like I go as much to prove to myself that I can still do it than just for the fun of it. A weekend in Vegas a couple of months ago almost killed me.

All of a sudden a ringing came from Debbie’s pocket. “Um… can I answer that?” I asked her. She pulled out the phone and handed it to me.


“Who’s this?” The man’s voice was gruff.

I explained that I had found Debbie wandering around in the field and I was trying to get her home. “Who are you?” I asked.

“I’m her boyfriend,” was his reply.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but that wasn’t it. A perverted thought of Debbie and her boyfriend going to prom flashed through my head. “Well, where are you?”

“I’m about three blocks south.”

“Can you come get her?”

“No,” he said. “Just take her home. She’ll be fine.”

“Awesome. Thanks for the call,” I replied, snapping the phone shut. “All right Debbie, let’s keep going.”

“Do you have a cigarette?” she asked.


“Why not?”

So here’s the thing. I’m not sure if my condition is permanent. Maybe I’m just tired from the stupid program manager job that I’ve been doing that’s required a ton of travel all over the US. I could very well wake up in a couple of months and decide that I absolutely have to go live in Mongolia. Who knows? But for the last couple of months I’ve worked in the office of my company and though I hated the job, I actually liked the routine. It’s been fun being around when somebody has a birthday. I’ve enjoyed hating Mondays and loving Fridays. I bought a bike that I ride to work. I helped my friend build a fence the other day in his yard… and I kind of liked it. What the hell is happening to me? I don’t know. Maybe as I get older I’m getting a better perspective on time. Maybe I want to build something of my own before it’s too late.

We finally made it back up the hill and into the parking lot of the museum. My friends were still playing Frisbee in the field and gave me a weird look as we shuffled by again. I just shrugged. We made it to her building and she gave me her key to open the door.

“So are you good from here,” I asked, holding the door for her.

“No,” she replied. “I need you to take me to 116.”

‘If you can’t get around in your own building, how do you end up in the middle of a field?’ I wanted to ask, but instead I just pushed the button on the elevator. The door opened on her floor and we shuffled down the long dingy hall. When we finally made it to her door, I opened it for her. A stench of long-hair cats and cigarettes drifted out into the hall.

“Have a nice day!” I said.

She shut the door behind her.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

In the cubicle and dreaming... Uyuni Salt Flats

I’m still in the cubicle with nothing to do… it’s Thursday, so I still have one more day to go after this one ends, and even more depressing than that, I still have more than a month to go. The sandwich guy is walking by as I type. He’s this random dude who sells sandwiches in the break room and he walks through the office every morning at this time calling out: Good Morning! Happy Thursday! ‘How does he know?’ I grump to myself. At least I know when he walks through that means only a half an hour until lunch. I sit back in my chair and stare at the royal blue screen of the Semtek program. Its color reminds me of perhaps the most vivid blue I’ve ever seen: the color of the water on the salt flats of Bolivia during rainy season…

I woke up that morning around 5:30am, which was no insignificant feat, considering I had gone to bed only a few hours earlier. I opened the clapboard door to structure Claire and I had stayed in and saw gray tendrils on the horizon.

“Shit,” I said to Claire. “We need to get going. Up and at ‘em.” I only heard a grumbled response, but I knew she’d be right behind me.

As hard as it was to get myself up, it paled in comparison to the task of rousing the group as well as the 4x4 drivers. The night before we had been up way too late obliterating bottle after bottle of cheap rum and cheaper beer. I particularly remember Neil and Tom’s impassioned renditions of Bohemian Rhapsody, Fat-Bottom Girls and other Queen favorites. Either one of those guys is hilarious when they’re on their own and sober, but get them together with a bottle of rum and you’ll literally be crying-laughing for hours.

Unfortunately, by 5:45am on a frigid morning all the hilarity had seeped away with the last drop of rum. I stumbled across the rocky driveway towards the main building. We had spent the night in the foothills on the shore of salt flats. The site was accurately called a refuge; cob buildings with aluminum roofs, no heating and electricity that only worked for a few hours every evening. I paused for a moment to admire the slowly fading, but still stunning nightscape. At over 10,000 feet there is much less atmosphere obscuring the sky than where sane people normally live and at that moment we were probably sixty kilometers from the nearest electricity so there was no light pollution to obscure the crystal clear canvas. The black blanket of night, gaudy with twinkling stars, draped all the way down to the straight-line horizon. The smear of the Milky Way was directly overhead. The sky was so perfect, it looked like a replica, as if God had woke up in middle of the night and thought to herself, ‘You know what? I’m going to bedazzle that shit.’

As I tromped into the main building, I decided to start with the drivers. Though they didn’t always agree with me, they at least had some obligation to do what I told them so I figured they’d be easier to get moving than my hungover group. I knocked on the door to their room and eventually I heard a shuffling behind the door. Finally it opened and one of the drivers, squinting in the light of my flashlight, said, “Si? Que es la problema?”

“There’s no problem,” I replied in Spanish, “but we need to get going. I want us to be on the flats for dawn.”

I’m sure after the late night, he went to sleep secure in the knowledge he’d have an extra couple hours in the morning as we slept off our hangovers and so over the next thirty seconds, it was interesting to watch the seven steps of depression start to play out on his face. Of course the first step was shock and dismay, which came when he realized this crazy gringo actually meant to make him get up at this ungodly hour. The next step pain and guilt (why did I ever agree to take this group?) came and then went quickly into anger and bargaining, which led to this exchange. “Amigo!” he half shouted. “We have lots of time before dawn.”

“Yes,” I replied, “but I want to be there for dawn, which means we need to get moving now.”

“I think if we wait one more hour it will be good, no?”

“Nope, now.” I said.

He hung his head as the next stage, depression, settled over him and I left him to work out the upturn, reconstruction and finally acceptance on his own.

The people in my group were not so easy to convince. Nobody had a real clear idea of why I wanted them up in the first place. They all had seen dawn before and had no real desire to see it that morning. I started cajoling, threatening and physically pulling people out of their beds. I told them it would be the best thing they saw during their whole four months in South America and if they missed it, they would regret it the rest of their lives. Of course, I had no idea if that was true. I had never been out on the flats for dawn and in fact never had heard of any other tours doing it either. However the rainy season in Uyuni only lasts a few weeks and in that time the normally bone dry, utterly flat landscape fills with about 2-10 inches of perfectly still water creating a mirror effect of ground and sky. Ever since I had missed it the year before because I was too lazy to go on the excursion (and I had already been on it several times before and had no reason to suspect it would be any different this time) I had promised myself I would not only go and see the water-filled salt flats, I would wake-up and see it a dawn! And since I wanted to see it, the group had to go too.

Finally after exhausting every trick in the book, I had everybody more or less up. The only person who I didn’t eventually get out of bed was Martin, who threatened physical violence against me and was one of the few people big and ornery enough to actually back it up. After a quick bite and use of the facilities (I seem to remember more than one person needing to regurgitate the fun from the night before) we piled into the 4x4s and drove out to the flats.

The fact was, the drivers were probably right. We could have waited another half hour or so to head out, but I was given some leeway because at least now everyone could see what I had been talking about. To our right it was dark, the brilliant stars still hung over the horizon, while to our left tendrils of pink were starting to invade the gray sky. Behind us rooster tails thrown high by our jeeps shattered the dark mountain outlines in the water’s reflection. We stopped about a half-mile into the flats and as the water settled around us to once again paint a perfect likeness of the sky above, we climbed on top of the 4x4s to watch the show.

It was bitterly cold and the smart people were bundled up in coats, thick sweatshirts and long pants. I on the other hand, had thought that maybe I would want to walk around in the water a little, so had dressed in my Evergreen State hoodie, shorts and havianas. That way I wouldn’t ruin my one pair of shoes. Shivering, we sat on the luggage racks, watching the glow slowly creep over the edge of the world. As it grew lighter, mountains appeared on the horizon along with low-lying clouds, but because of the reflection it was hard to tell which was which.

I wanted to get down and take a picture of the group huddled on the tops of the jeeps, but I was freezing and I wasn’t looking forward to walking around basically barefoot in the icy water. It was still pre-dawn and the color in the water was glorious. When I looked straight down, the water was a deep luxurious blue, but as my gaze lifted blue slowly faded to gray, before orange took over and gradually became deeper until the burnt sienna of the horizon. Then as my gaze continued up above the horizon the process reversed itself.

Finally, I couldn’t put it off any longer. It’s rare that you can capture the true beauty of a dawn or a sunset and often the better picture is what’s behind you, bathed in that beautiful soft light. So with that in mind and my camera in my pocket, I eased down into the cold water. Though the water only came up to my ankles it was still a shock just how cold it was. Immediately my toes were chilled to the bone. Close up, the water appeared milky with saline and I could feel the salty grit sloshing under my feet and between my toes. Walking in flops proved to be problematic as they kept suctioning to the ground underneath the surface, but taking them off was even worse because walking on the crystallized saline felt like walking on serrated knives. Eventually, keeping the havis on, I learned to walk on my tiptoes and made my way out into the water, leaving a little bubble trail behind me.

I walked out about twenty feet and stopped. My feet were so cold that I just wanted to get it over with. As I turned, perfect concentric ripples grew around me, slowly running towards the dawn, the dark, the mountains, the jeeps and everything else. Now that I was out there, I immediately knew that the shot wasn’t going to be as cool as I hoped. It was all right, everyone huddled together on reflecting jeeps in the pink light, but the real show was behind me. I snapped a couple of pictures and then went around to the other side and snapped a few so that the jeeps were shadows in front of the dawn, but nothing came out that great (and anyway all those pictures were lost along with every picture I took in S.A. when my computer and external hard drive was stolen two days before I came home… it was tragic and I don’t want to talk about it).

I climbed back up on the jeep and tried to swipe the layer of salt off my calves and ankles, while trying in vain to warm my feet. As is the case with almost any sunrise, the sun breaking over the horizon was anti-climatic after the spectacular pre-dawn. Still, we waited another hour or so before finally climbing back into the jeeps and moving on. I didn’t realize that people had been taking pictures of me when I was out trying to take ones of them, until later when I was looking through Michael Rimmer’s camera. Even on the small viewfinder of his camera, I could tell it was the most amazing picture that had ever been taken of me. It’s the one that hangs in my room today and the one that’s on the opening page of my blog. There were others taken while I was out in the water, but some how he framed it just perfectly. Every time I see that picture I’m immediately transported to that perfect moment in time.

Driving out into the middle of the flats in the daylight the water so perfectly replicated the blue sky and puffy white clouds that it felt like we were floating. We stopped and took a group picture, careful not to disrupt the water and the reflection was so distinct that you can pick each person out…

My phone rings and I am startled out of my reverie. “This is Mike,” I say, fumbling to get my headset on.

“Mike,” a voice says in my ear, “it’s Vickie from Harrisburg?”

“Thanks. Go ahead and put her through.” I wait for the line to change over. “Vickie, hi!” I say with enthusiasm that I don’t feel. “We’ve added a date in your area this fall, so I wanted to know if the Berkshire I is available…”

It’s Thursday… only one more day to go until the weekend.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In the cubicle and dreaming...

Right now I am sitting in a gray four by eight foot cubicle. I am surrounded on three sides by tables on which there are a variety of pens, pencils and highlighters. There’s a stapler, a masking tape unit with no masking tape and a yellow notepad. In the corner lies a large broken calculator with a big spool of accounting paper and an off-white surface that has yellowed over the decades to a shade best described as nicotine. The computer I’m typing on now is a Dell from the mid-nineties, which thankfully has been updated to include Microsoft Office 2000 (for future generations reading this account, the year is 2010). I have various file folders, papered in yellow sticky notes, sitting in stacks around my cubicle. I have a phone with a headset and strangely a boxy, black CD player that I don’t think works and even if it did, would be inappropriate in an office environment. I don’t know why it’s here. I have a coffee cup that I found in the break room. It’s purple and pink leopard print and has a caricature of an old woman in purple who is saying, “At my age I’ve seen it all, done it all, I just can’t remember it all.” It just happened to be the biggest cup I could find, but for some reason, people think it’s hilarious that I use it.

The dress code is formal. This means I need to come to work in a jacket and tie, though the jacket is strictly worn from the car to the closet in the hallway in the morning and draped over my arm as walk from the closet to my car in the afternoon. I’m not sure why it’s necessary. The women can pretty much wear whatever they want as long as it’s not jeans or flip-flops.

My job right now is to book meeting spaces and hotel rooms for seminars that will be put on by BER next year. I send the hotels an RFP (a request for proposal) by fax because when the program we use was made, the internet was still only being used by military. Once sales department in the hotel receives the fax, they send it back their proposal with all the pertinent info about their hotel. I then call them on the phone to confirm things and then finally enter it all into an ancient computer program named Semtek in the computer. There are a few more ins and outs, but it’s boring and you get the gist. The problem is that often I have a ton of down time while waiting for people to get back to me. For example, right now I’m waiting on the Holiday Inn West in Winnipeg to fax me back their RFP and it’s last one for this round, so I have nothing else to do (which is why I’m writing this entry). I’ve been so bored the last couple of days that I’ve been asking other people if I could do their work, but they’re mostly in the same boat I am.

My cubicle walls are only about 4 feet tall, so bored co-workers will stop by, lean an elbow on the corner of my pen and chit-chat. I also have the pleasure of sharing my cubicle space with my department’s fax machine. So all day, people come in and out, picking up faxes. It’s awesome.
Last Friday we had “party” in the break room where we celebrated all the May birthdays and anniversaries. Those who had anniversaries received certificates commemorating their valuable and loyal years of service to BER. There was a woman who was celebrating her tenth year, so she received a plaque. She seemed pretty happy about it, but I wonder what she did with the plaque. Probably decorated her cubicle I guess, but I have no idea what people would do with a certificate.

I know for many people, what I’m describing is normal. I’m only here for another month and a half or so, but there are people here who do this every single workday, week after week. This is their life. And believe it or not, I’m not knocking it, after all many of them seem happy. Their lives have a certain reliability that I envy. Trust me, it’d be lovely if I owned a house right now, had a family, a dog, and a car that was newer than this computer. But sacrifices were made… and it was worth it damn it! Because though I’m sitting in this cubicle, every so often I can drift off and memories swirl around my confined space. Right now, I can hear the chants, “Si se puede! Si se puede!” The deafening roar of the crowd still rings in my ears and the bleachers still sway beneath my feet…

I was on my last tour in South America. Perhaps some of you remember it as I chronicled the first half of the tour almost every day (if you forget and are interested, you can find it below). Early on in the tour we stopped in Buenos Aires where the best soccer team in South America plays, the Boca Junior. As most of my tour was made of rabid British soccer fans, almost everybody was dying to go see them play. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any games at home in the four days were there, so everyone was left disappointed, including myself because I had never seen them either. However two months later when we were in Puno, Peru on the shores of Lake Titicaca, I heard some exciting news. Boca Junior was playing Club Cienciano, the local Cuzco team in the Copa de Libertadores (a South American tournament) the next evening. Though we knew the game wouldn’t be nearly as good as it would’ve been in Argentina since Boca Junior playing Cuzco is about like the New York Yankees playing the Toledo Mudhens, every one was still pretty fired up for it. So the following morning, we woke up early and headed out. The drive time from Puno to Cuzco is about eight hours and the game didn’t start until four, so we should have had plenty of time to get to the game, though secretly I was a little worried. This game was the biggest sporting event ever to happen in Cuzco and out of the thirty-two people on the truck, twenty-eight wanted to go. I couldn’t begin to imagine where I was going to come up with twenty-eight tickets on the day of the biggest sporting event in Cuzco’s history.

Throughout the day the truck was buzzing with anticipation. We had probably ten or eleven hard-core soccer fans on the truck and they couldn’t stop smiling. Since the beginning of the tour we had been to two soccer games, both of which had ended in 0-0 ties. That night’s game might be lopsided, but at least we were finally going to see some goals. About an hour outside of Cuzco, the beer started to flow as everybody started to get ready for the game, but just then a bump came from under the truck, a strange noise started coming from the engine and the truck slowly ground to a halt. I’ve never seen faces fall so fast. We all jumped out, hoping Steve could get it back on the road, but it the end it wasn’t happening. I used somebody’s cel phone to call my boss in Cuzco and have him send a bus out to pick us up.

By the time we finally reached the hotel, it was almost halftime and amazingly the score was still 0-0. As I checked us in, the boys dejectedly slumped into the lobby couches and turned on the game. The stadium was packed. “Well that’s it boys,” I heard one of them say, “we’ll never get into that.” “Yeah,” replied another, “anyway it’ll probably just be another nil-nil tie.”

Once we had checked in, I made no promises, but said that if anybody wants to still go down to the game, I would take them and do whatever I could to get them in. Amazingly, only four of them took me up on my offer. The rest of the group decided to go get a pizza down at the main square in the old town, Plaza de Armas. I remember asking, “Are you sure?” and a couple of them hesitating, but then declining. A decision they would soon come to regret.

So five of us piled into a taxi and flew down to the stadium. I believe it was Neil, Martin, Jacob, Dave and I. When we first got there, I wasn’t hopeful. It wasn’t just the stadium that was packed, it was the entire surrounding area, but amazingly I found two tickets right off the bat. It was easy to give them to Neil and Martin as they were two of the biggest football fans I had ever met, and now I was a little more confident that I’d find tickets for all of us. “Boletos! Boletos! Necesitamos boletos!” I cried as we slowly circled the stadium. Soon, I realized that I must have found the very last two tickets to the game, because we went all the way around the stadium and there wasn’t one ticket to be found. I realized I needed to switch tactics. We started circling the stadium once more, only this time rather than looking for tickets, I started looking for the people guarding the door. Surely we’ll find somebody who would look the other way for a few soles, I thought to myself. Amazingly, we didn’t. A couple times we found people who told us they could get us in, only to be stopped by somebody higher up. How was this possible? I wondered. This is South America. Everybody’s on the take.

We had made it around the stadium back to main entrance once again and now I was getting desperate. The second half was just about to start. As I argued with the guards at the door, I noticed an old man with a cane watching me (I swear I’m not making this up) and as I went from guard to guard, he followed.

Finally, I turned to him and asked him in Spanish, “Can I help you?”

“You want to go into the game?” he asked.

“Yes, we would,” I replied, suspiciously.

“Okay, you give me thirty soles each and I will get you into the game.”

“Wait,” I replied, “You want me to give you ninety soles up front and then you’ll get us into the game?”

“Yes,” he said with a nod.

I turned to Dave and Jacob. “All right guys, here’s the deal. This old dude says he can get us into the game, but it’ll require 90 soles up front and I have a feeling it’s just as likely that he’ll disappear into the stadium and we’ll never see him again.

“Ah fuck it,” Jacob drawled in his west-Aussie accent, “it’s only ten dollars, hey. Let’s give the old fella a chance.”

Dubiously, we forked over the money. The old man told us to wait by a door off to the side and then he hobbled into the stadium. As we sat there waiting for him, we heard a cheer rise up from the crowd as the second half began. I started spitting and swearing. “We never should’ve given that guys our money!” Just as I finished saying that, the door opened and the old man ushered us in with a smile. We walked past five or six guards pointedly looking away and went through another door into the concourse. We were in!

As we climbed the concrete steps covered in plastic beer cups and red streamers, the din of the crowd grew to a roar and as we crested the top of the stairs, we emerged into a sea of Cuzco red. A soccer game in South America is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It is sports passion unbridled. Restrictions are unheard of on what you can bring into a stadium in Peru. You want to arc toilet paper and red streamers down on to the field? Do it. You want to bring in homemade bottle rockets to shoot them off from beer cans? That’s encouraged. You’ve spent weeks making a 150 ft long and 50 ft wide flag that will completely cover one section of fans? Unfurl that bad boy! Just go ahead and cover up those people sitting in that section, they won’t care, they’ll love it! What? You happen to have road flares in the back of your truck that burn Cuzco red? Bring ‘em in! Show your passion! This was the atmosphere that we walked into. On top of which, there was at least 50,000 fans crammed into a stadium built for 42,000.

Obviously, we didn’t have tickets for a seat, but we found an awkward place to sit on a stairway, but just as we sat down, the impossible happened. Cuzco scored! It was a header into the corner of the net and the place erupted. If I thought it was nuts before, now it was pandemonium. Everybody was jumping up and down, hugging one another. We didn’t sit down for the rest of the game. As the second half progressed, I started learning some of the chants and songs, like “Upa Upa Upapa! El Cienciano es el papa!” I also thought to myself, man those guys who didn’t come must be kicking themselves right now. Later I learned that they had gone to the pizzeria overlooking the plaza, but couldn’t get any service because all the employees were watching the game. All they could do is watch on in horror.

Throughout the game, it was clear that Boca was the better team, but every time they had a scoring opportunity, they either missed or the goaltender made an amazing save. As time wore on, Boca missed shot after shot and electricity seemed to start flowing through the crowd. Then around the Seventy-fifth minute Cuzco scored again. Now the tension was too much to bear. Up until then, we thought a tie would be the best result possible, but could it be that they were going to win? The man next to me was wearing a dirty white polo shirt and a red nylon hat pulled down over his brow.

“What a game!” I said, giving him a nudge.

He didn’t answer, but just shook his head and it was several seconds before I realized tears were rolling down his face into his thick brush of a mustache.

With less than five minutes left, Cuzco scored a third goal, the pent-up tension released and the celebration began. Random people were hugging me, now almost everybody was crying and there was a jubilation I had never experienced at a sporting event. It was the kind of elation that only comes when a large group of people wants something so much, but it just seems impossible… but then it does happen. The only thing I can relate it to is the feeling I had when I was in a bar full of liberals and Obama was elected… and if you think I’m being melodramatic, then you don’t understand the passion of South American soccer fans.

The time ran out and it was official. David had slew Goliath and we had been there! The boys and I made our way out of the stadium and because we were about six inches taller than everybody else, immediately found a euphoric Neil and Martin. “I have never seen anything like it, mate,” Neil declared. A brass band appeared from nowhere and we joined the local Cuzceños, dancing with joy.

We walked down to the main street to find cabs to go home, the brass band music still ringing in our ears, but it was immediately obvious that it wasn’t happening. There was too long of a line, but it didn’t matter. We went and bought large 1.5 liter bottles of beer and started on the twenty-minute walk back to the hotel next to Plaza de Armas. As we walked, we happily recounted the game and told stories about other events that had paled in comparison. When we turned up the wide Avenida del Sol, the main street leading up into the old town, we noticed the whole right side of the street was closed off, but I didn’t think too much about it. In South America eventually you find it’s far too time consuming to try and find an explanation for everything, so we just ambled up the middle of the four-lane road, happily swigging our cerveza. But then something weird happened; people started to line the street, slowly at first in one or twos, but soon there was a crowd, four, five or even six people deep. That’s when I realized I could still hear the brass band. It had been following us, and we turned to find that a whole parade had materialized on the avenue a couple of blocks behind us. People were carrying banners, playing instruments and dancing in the street. We waited for the parade to catch up to us and as we entered the Plaza del Armas, we found ourselves leading the triumphant parade from the stadium after the greatest sporting event of the city’s long history.

Meanwhile, and I can only infer what happened because I wasn’t there, the people from my tour who didn’t go to the game were finally eating their very average pizza that was cold in the middle. Even though they had a fine view of one of the most beautiful plazas in the Western Hemisphere, the mood at the table was decidedly depressed.

“Don’t worry mate,” I imagine Matt saying to Mike, “there’s no way they could’ve got in.”

“Yeah,” Mike replied, poking at his cold, rubbery pizza half-heartedly. “I still wish we could’ve been there.”

“Uh guys,” Grace said, pointing down into the plaza, where hundreds of fans had gathered. Around the corner of Avenida del Sol, came a brass band, ecstatic fans dancing around large red and white banners, and Neil, Martin, Dave, Jacob and I swinging our beers in time to the music, leading a parade of thousands into the square.

Matt peered down at the blissful grins etched on our faces. He shook his head and looked at Mike. “Bastards!” he swore under his breath

Suddenly, the music fades, the swirling colors vanish and I find myself back in my gray cubicle, staring at the royal blue screen of Semtek. I sigh… its only Tuesday.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Back in the Big Easy

New Orleans, LA

The first time I went to New Orleans I was 18 years old. I had already been working on the Mississippi Queen for a couple of months, but since I had begun, we had been cruising exclusively up on the Upper Mississip, the Ohio, the Tennessee and the Cumberland rivers. However all summer I had heard legends of the near mythical city that my fellow steamboaters referred to simply as “Nola” and so the first time we landed in the Big Easy, even though it was around 11am, I bounded into a cab and asked for Bourbon Street. When I stepped into the hot sun on Canal and Bourbon, I was immediately approached by an older black man with a red t-shirt hanging loosely from his shoulders. “Hey man,” he said with a wolfish grin, “I’ll bet you ten dollahs I can tell you where ya got yo’ shoes.” I recall thinking to myself, ‘I don’t think they even have Big 5 in Louisiana.’ I’m embarrassed to say I took and immediately lost the bet when he said, “Ha! You got yo’ shoes on yo’ feet.” That’s the kind of scam you fall for when you’re 18 and never been anywhere. He probably saw me from a mile away. Even disregarding that exchange, my first walk down Bourbon should’ve been a letdown. I strolled past the strip clubs and the dive bars, probably slurping on a ‘190’ or some other equally revolting frozen beverage. Everything looked grimy and depressing in the flat daylight. But I remember my eyes widening and my stride lengthening as a giddy shiver slithered up my spine. I’m not sure if it was the jolt of alcohol in the morning or the expectation of future events, but I have never failed to have that exact same reaction when walking on that street, even later when I realized that Bourbon is like the cup of sugar water you leave in the corner. It draws in all the dumb college kids and tourists and leaves the rest of the Quarter less burdened for everybody else.

Walking through the Quarter the other day for the first time since 2004, I feel that familiar joyous shiver. I’m walking with Tif, who worked with me on the CQ and had generously offered the hide-a-bed in the shotgun house she’s staying in a block off Bourbon. Tiffany is a one-of-a-kind. She wears funky clothes, has eclectic hobbies and has a mild form of Tourette’s which, here and there, makes her beep and squeak amiably. In most places she would seem eccentric, but in the French Quarter she fits right in there, and it seems like everybody knows her giggle and squeak. We walk down Toulouse past Bourbon and take a left on Royal. Imposing buildings with pencil columns and intricate iron balconies hover menacingly as we sneak up on the St. Louis Cathedral. Just before Jackson Square, we duck into Pirates Alley for a Bloody Mary. In most places, the jail that once held the famous pirate Jean Lafitte would be a museum, but in Nola it’s a bar where pretty girls in pirate gear sling drinks. We get our drinks to go (because you can do that here) and continue our stroll. We amble through Jackson Square past two-bit fortune tellers, palm readers and caricature artists and on down Decatur. We sneer at the tourists eating overpriced beignets at Café Du Monde, but I peer longingly into the Central Grocery, the only place I’ve ever had a real Muffaletta sandwich, but it’s just too early for that. We grab a couple of Irish coffees at the café where Tif works, curl back around and make our way into the French Market. We buy a pair of sunglasses and a couple of beers and saunter down the Riverwalk.

Even though I haven’t worked on the Mississippi since 2004, the swirling brown water still affects me the same way it did back 1995. The warm flush that comes over me has tinges of the Bourbon shiver only it’s combined with shutters of dread from working 14 hour days and then smell of old people fills my nostrils. I clear my confused sense by taking a long swig of beer and I lounge under the wooden gazebo sipping a beer while Tif shows me some of her tap dance moves and we trade calliope stories before we head back up to her house.

In the afternoon, the big game is on: Saints vs. Cardinals. If they win, the Saints have the opportunity to host the NFC Championship game for the first time, so we head back up Royal Street to the R bar to watch. We get there just as the game begins and the bar is already packed. The only seat we find is the corner of a pool table. In Seattle we are known to have some of the best fans in the NFL and I’m not prepared to say that New Orleans fans are better, but I will say that the ferocity of their devotion is admirable. People are dressed in costumes, have their faces painted and I think I’m the only person in the bar not dressed in Black and Gold. As one, the crowd sings with every touchdown, groans with every turnover and throws little yellow flags at the big screen with every penalty. By halftime there’s little doubt the Saints will win and Tif takes me around the corner to celebrate with some tater-tachos. Tater-tachos are exactly what they sound like: Tater-tots covered in nacho toppings… Glorious.

The Saints win and we head back down to a frenzied Bourbon street. At one point a second line marches by and we follow, dancing in the street behind a brass band. I haven’t second lined in a long time, but what I lack in rhythm, I make up for with exuberance. This is what I miss about New Orleans! Hmmm… dancing in the street…could this be the source of my Bourbon shiver? Or does it come from reconnecting with my good friends, as I will the next night? A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of expectations and what’s great about the Quarter is you never know what to expect. For example, you might think you’re just sitting down for a nice quiet lunch with a couple of old friends and then all of a sudden find yourself belting out Karaoke in a bar named the Cat’s Meow at 3am and then later redefining the word ‘reconnect'. A hypothetical situation of course. In the end, I think the joy of New Orleans is the limitless possibilities that are held in each day, each person and on every street.

What I (re)learned today – It’s always good to know a local. On Sunday Tif took us to this amazing bakery named the Croissant D’Or Patisserie on Ursulines St. As soon as I saw the line of locals out the door, I knew it would be good.

Actual product found in Sky Mall magazine – Peeing Boy Fountain. Nothing says class like having a statue of a little boy peeing into your pool. What makes it even classier is when purchase this item on an airplane. I think there might be a 20% discount when flying from Boca Raton to Newark.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Stupid Minneapolis (though it's partially my fault)

Minneapolis, MN (Temp. Hi/Low 1°/-12°)

“Uhhh folks, we’re just having a little difficulty with the jetway out there. It appears to be frozen solid, but if you just hang on a couple of more minutes, we’ll get you on your way. And again, we thank you so much for your patience.” I hate it when people thank me for things I haven’t given them yet. After working in hospitality for more than a decade, I understand the ploy and have used it myself plenty of times, but when I don’t have any patience left to give, it’s a little annoying. We had already sat on the plane for more than 45 minutes back at JFK then had waited for maybe 20 minutes at a different gate for another plane to move, so now I’m ready to get off the damn plane. Finally they finish defrosting the jetway or whatever, the door opens and the line starts to move. When I step off the plane and into the long tunnel leading up to the terminal, there’s a cold blast. It doesn’t even feel cold. It just feels like my bones are going to snap in half for a second. Up in the terminal, my presenter and I make the long walk down to the baggage claim. It’s already almost 8:30pm. We’re both tired and we just want to get to our hotel. She suggests that she wait for the bags while I go and pick up the rental car, so I head down to the tram.

I love the tram in the Minneapolis airport not for the comfortable seats or the sanitary looking poles, but for the woman’s voice that comes over the speaker. As I step onto her tram, her sultry tones remind me to hold on to the rail while it’s underway. She has a throaty European accent that isn’t quite British. She’s probably from somewhere like Brussels or Reykjavik, though I bet her family had a summer cottage in Cornwall where she learned English and the art of seduction from an ex-MI-6 agent named Portia. Her voice makes me want to sample fine cheese and luxurious chocolate-covered fruits – naked. Her voice is champagne. The tram comes to a stop, jolting me out of my reverie. As I exit, her voice tells me to enjoy my stay in Minneapolis. “Oh, I will sexy-voiced lady,” I think to myself. “I will.”

Except I don’t. As an executive member of the Emerald Club, the National Rental Car umm… club, I pass-by the counter and go out through the doors into the garage. The air is an aluminum baseball bat. It’s the kind of cold that turns your cheeks into leather and your nose hairs into tiny daggers. I fight through the frozen air and find the nicest-looking car in the Executive section, throw my carry-on into the back seat and hop in. Before taking off I look in my wallet for my Emerald Club card and my license, except my license isn’t there. I frantically search my pockets. “Oh there it is,” I think, feeling it in my pocket. But when I pull out the card, it has a Holiday Inn logo on it. Shit! I look everywhere, but it’s gone. It’s probably still in the seat I was sitting in back at JFK. No license, no rental car. I picture my poor presenter sitting outside the terminal waiting for me in the freezing cold with all our bags. I fight back through the cold air, cancel my reservation and run back to the tram.

This time I don’t find her voice nearly as sexy. Her accent sounds put on. She probably grew up in Minnetonka or somewhere in the slums of St. Paul (oh they’re there!). I bet she learned the accent from some vagabond Aunt who used to dance for pennies and cigarettes in a travelling vaudeville show. When not working fancy gigs like doing Airport Tram announcements, I’ll guarantee you she moonlights doing voice-overs for smutty late night commercials for 1-900 numbers to feed her diet of Snickers bars and meth. When I leave the tram, she has the nerve to tell me to enjoy my flight and come back soon to Minneapolis/St. Paul. “Not if I can help it,” I think to myself.

I find Leslie, my presenter, huddling outside with the bags, bravely waiting for my arrival. Luckily, she’s a super-laid back lady from Seattle and so she’s understanding and even sympathetic as we go find a cab to take us to our hotel.

(Yeah I know, not much of an ending. But what do you want to know? The cab overcharged us, we got to the hotel and checked in. Then I had dinner and went to bed.)

What I learned today - Always put your license back in your wallet after showing it to security!

Actual product sold in Skymall magazine - Orignal Backnobber II - I don't even care what this product is and how it works, but there are so many things wrong with the name I don't even have time go over it all. Okay just one - How can you call something the orginal, but then label it II? That like calling somebody John Davis II Sr. And I'm not even getting into the whole 'Backnobber' business!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Couple of Interesting Visits

Providence, Rhode Island

All right, so I’m back on the road after two and a half weeks of winter vacation. Most people work at home and then use their vacations to travel to some exotic location, whereas on my vacations, I go home. As far as exotic locations, well… you ever been to Albany? Anyway, I know it’s been a while since updated the ol’ blog, but in the month or so leading up to my vacation I was working on other projects. I promise to try to work on being more diligent in the near future, maybe.

Anyway, a couple of interesting things happened recently. First of all, back in November I met a couple of cousins. Now for most people this wouldn’t be much of an event, but for me though I have a grip of charming step-cousins over in Idaho, as far as full-blooded cousins go, I have a total of… 2. Yep I have 2 cousins and I had never met them, except for once when I was a baby. To be fair they live in Indianapolis and for most of my life I probably had a better chance of going to Ulaanbaatar than Indianapolis. However, I’ve been facebook friends with one and I had met my Uncle a couple of times and they both told me that if I ever make it to Indianapolis, I should come for a visit. Sure, I thought, if I ever make it to Indianapolis (though I do like saying Indianapolis… I even enjoy typing it – Indianapolis). Well, lo and behold, I got this BER job and what did it say on the schedule in November, but Indianapolis, so I arranged a visit. I must admit, I was a little nervous driving up to the house. If my cousins were weird, would that say something about me? I’m pulling from the same gene pool after all (or at least half of it). In the end, it turned out to be a perfectly lovely visit. I had a great time reacquainting with my uncle and his wife (my step aunt if you will) and getting to know my cousin Susan and her husband Leo, as well as Anne and her daughter (my second cousin). We even have plans to get together again the next time I make it back to Indianapolis… which is in a couple of weeks.

I also had a chance to visit my friend Cara up in State College, PA. It was another example of, “hey you should come visit the next time you’re in State College.” And me going, “Uh, well… I’ll be there in a couple of weeks, as it happens.” Cara was a girl who I dated while working at Club Med and like in too many of my relationships, we never really broke up, we just went in different directions. She went back to school in Pennsylvania and I moved to Mexico. These things happen. Anyway, I hadn’t seen her in about ten years and it ended up being a really interesting visit. She lives in a nice little town house just outside of town with her big, easy-going husband and her months-old baby daughter. Now I’m not at all speculating on what might’ve happened if Cara and I would’ve stayed together or implying anything in any way, but you know how sometimes there are forks in the road of life, and you wonder what would’ve happened if you zigged rather than zagged? My whole visit I kept having the weird feeling that I was walking around on the other side of that particular fork. I don’t regret any of the choices I’ve made (umm… for the most part), but it was cool to see what might’ve been.

What I learned today – Not all Comfort Inns are Sh*tholes, but the one in Providence, Rhode Island definitely is.

Actual product found in Sky Mall Magazine – Canine Genealogy Kit – For only $59.95 you receive a kit containing a cotton swab “that you simply rub against the inside of your dog’s cheek and then send to the lab in the provided envelope.” In merely three weeks the lab will send back DNA results along with an authenticated certificate of Ancestry. This product is just more proof that ever since the advent of fire-making tools and store-bought clothes, Americans have way too little occupying their minds.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Importance of Expectation

Bellevue, WA

It's been awhile since I posted, because I had a week and a half or so of fairly uninspiring stops. One unfortunate thing about this job is while I get to visit lots of different city, it's hard to write an entertaining piece about a city such as Omaha without coming off snarky, especially when I'm not even staying in Omaha (which I'm sure is perfectly lovely) but in some non-descript suburb of Omaha. Anyway, last week I got to stay in Rochester NY. Now I doubt that's inspiring much pitter-patter in your hearts, but I actually had a good time because I was staying in DOWNTOWN Rochester. The only thing I knew about Rochester was what my roommate Sparky told me (he's from nearby Syracuse) and he said that there’s this amazing restaurant called Nick Tahoe's Hots and they serve a world famous dish called the Garbage Plate. So when we arrived to our hotel, I threw my bags into my room and went for a walk in search for this supposed national institution.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations and how it often shapes the way we enjoy something. I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure there is a scientific ratio that describes our enjoyment of an event. Something along the lines of: Reality / Expectation = Enjoyment. For example: The other day I went to watch a movie called Men Who Stare at Goats. It starred George Clooney, Jeff Daniels and Kevin Spacey, actors who I respect and almost always enjoy. So you might say my expectation was pretty high. If I had to grade it on a 1 to 10 scale, I would say my expectation was about a 9. The reality was that it was a decent movie. It was funny, it had quality characters and though it kind of trailed off toward the ending, the plot was fun. So on a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate it at about a 7. That’s a fairly good score especially since I’m easily amused, yet I came out of the theater thinking, ‘Meh… it was all right I guess, but it could’ve been way better.’ So if you were to divide the reality score of 7 by my expectation score of 9, you would come up with an enjoyment score of about .78. And I’m thinking you need to have at least a 1 to really enjoy the movie.

Now compare that to when I saw the latest Indiana Jones movie. I went into that movie fully expecting it to be awful. The reviews were horrible, nobody I had talked to liked it and the only reason I even went was because of some wistful hankering for my favorite movie series from when I was a kid. So I’ll put my expectation level at about a 2. The reality was that it had over the hill actors, a ridiculous plot, geography that was dubious at best, and Shia Lebouf swing through the jungle with a troop of monkeys. Hmmm… so I’ll give it a 3. Yet somehow, I came out of the theater thinking, “Wow that was actually a lot of fun. I didn’t realize that you could survive a nuclear blast in a refrigerator and maybe there is a way to get from the Nazca Lines to Iguazu falls in a couple of hours driving a Jeep.” So there you go… my enjoyment score ended up at a 1.5. By the way, this theory works for almost anything: restaurants, hotels, first dates, whatever.

Sorry, I’ve noticed that I’ve digressed… I was talking about Nick Tahoe’s Hots for which my expectation was set pretty high. Walking up to it, I wasn’t exactly blown away. It’s basically just a greasy spoon set in a ramshackle brick building with a rusty metal sign informing the public that they now sell lottery tickets. It had a long Formica bar with fixed padded stools and huge grill maintained by crusty chef with a grey pony-tail. I ordered the Garbage Plate which is basically just a bunch of things mixed together on one plate. Mine had macaroni, fried potatoes and couple of cheeseburger patties. It was the kind of thing that would’ve been awesome after a 12 hour drinking binge or maybe if I had come upon it randomly, but at that point I wasn’t all that impressed. Once again, expectation triumphed over reality which left my enjoyment suffering. Ah well.

What I learned today: If you forget a book on a plane and they aren’t showing a movie (as many airlines aren’t anymore) and you’ve finished the crossword in the in-flight magazine, check out the bizarre products advertised in the Sky Mall magazine. It’s hilarious.

An actual product found in the Sky Mall magazine: Telekinetic Obstacle course. Yep that’s right! With this amazing product you can control a ball and make it work its way through an obstacle course by using only your brain waves. From what I can gather from the male model in the picture, you wear a silly head band and glare at a ball until it moves around a space agey-looking course. I don’t know what else to tell you. I told you these products were weird.