Thursday, November 23, 2006

My stint as a half-naked security guard

So what if the security guard at the guest-house shoots at tourists with his cap gun? He only does it because we know he's joking. Right?

That's why I love Nicaragua; even in its cities I felt safe. I treated myself to solo walks. Alone. Alone and thinking, my mother would have a heart attack.

The colonial architecture was stunning. So were the colours. And, the lifestyle. About a block from my guest-house, an abandoned, turquoise colonial-era building was "infested" with small green parrots. Parrots. Think about that.

Reveling in this sensation, but tired, my Australian travel-mate and I decided to stay in and rest, on our first night in this new city. We bought a bottle of the local brew to enjoy after hours in the common room of the guesthouse. Its windows opened to the street where a total of four security guards, seated in rocking chairs, protected the entrance.

At first I thought this was simply over-staffing, but each guard had hidden a bottle of beer behind his rocking chair. This wasn't an opportunity to analyze their staffing policies, it was a party. Within minutes the two guards who were actually on the job invited us to join them.

None spoke English, but they were happy to repeat themselves until I understood well enough to translate for my blonde, busty Australian friend. They were both surprised and delighted that we’d accepted. Offering us their rocking chairs, they ran across the street to ask the closed bar to reopen. I’m not sure if anyone paid for the drinks, but they were free for us, and the bar kept serving until we went to bed.

They asked the usual questions and teased each other about their competency, both as security professionals and husbands. They asked about my home in Canada (and whether it was really as cold as they say), and I asked about theirs around the corner. The guard seated closest to me argued that hammocks are infinitely more comfortable than beds. I heartily agreed, until I realized what he was getting at.

The city is safe, even for a tourist like you, he reassured me, checking out my legs. Of course it is safe, I said, hoping to change the path of the conversation. I carry this! And, I showed them the handmade catapult I'd picked up at the local market. Ultimately, I carried this weapon in my back pocket from Nicaragua to Panama. As was intended, they laughed at me. And then, they pulled their weapons.

Taking turns demonstrating how each was used, they had me both fascinated and nervous. I mean, they were drunk. Mostly, they used clubs and cuffs, but the head guard also carried a cap gun that he fired freely at hotel guests and passers-by.

Exactly then, a larger and drunker man stumbled down the road in front of us and toppled over. His nimble limbs bounced back from the dusty road when he fell and hit him in the face, adding insult to injury. The head guard rose to “address the situation” as the man unsuccessfully tried to stand. The borracho was twice his size, and we wondered what he could possibly do.

I was worried he would try to impress us with his authority, but that too was short-lived. His friends tapped me on the arm and, through their laughter, suggested I help him. One of the guards removed the shirt of his uniform and handed it to me. I put it on. It hung to my knees, giving the impression that I was without pants. Handing me his weapons, after a brief lesson on using the telescopic billy club, he urged me toward the scene of the crime.

While I feared this might qualify as a bad idea, I couldn't resist. Like a regular tough-guy, I walked to where the head guard was attempting to reason with the drunk. I arrived in my new uniform, my weapons hanging benignly at my side. As stunned as the guard, the borracho realized he was outnumbered, threw up his arms and surrendered.

Never in my life had I imagined having a man surrender to me like this.

Back at the guest-house, the remaining guards rolled on the sidewalk in hysterics. The drunk was none the wiser and we escorted him home, less than 30 feet away. The raucous laughter had wakened his wife and mother who now stood, annoyed and confused, to receive him in the doorway of their home.

Satisfied that we'd entertained the locals enough for one day, and having promised to join them again during their next shift, my Australian friend and I retired, leaving the dirty work to the professionals.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Welcome to Nicaragua. There are no seat belts to fasten.

Public washrooms were few and far between, but it seemed unwise to interrupt Nicaraguan police as they dragged a hand-cuffed man across the parking lot, kicking him in the ribs.

His partner, I assume in crime, was already subdued, and kneeled with his head hung in preparation for another blow. The beating had just begun. We were going to have to hold it, and look for another toilet.

It was only days after we’d been shot at in Honduras*, and I continued to travel with the same group; informal ambassadors of the Commonwealth with a collective sense of humour that ranged from dry to wry. Less than an hour inside the Nicaraguan border, we already joked about dodging bullets, but this scene in the parking lot left even the most seasoned of travellers among us affected. That’s right, we remembered. We need to be cautious of police, too.

Still, despite its reputation and a sour introduction, we believed we’d be safer and happier in Nicaragua. Already we’d noticed the relative absence of litter on the roadside and our moods were lifting. When we arrived in Managua and realized mojitos cost the equivalent of a Canadian dime, we indulged.

In the morning, parched, I would choke on gases at the rim of my first active volcano (temporarily overcoming my fear of death by fire), descend into a bat cave and take a tumble in guano (overcoming my fear of closed spaces and death by exposure to toxic feces), and spook myself in a Sandinista prison, as I imagined which graffiti was carved by prisoners and which by drunken teenagers after the fact.

That day I would learn that some of those prisoners met their end in that same volcano I’d visited earlier, and that their mothers still toss flowers to them. I would recall the shape of the crater and its sand and pebbles (as seen above), and reluctantly imagine sliding to the inevitable.

Leaving Managua, we asked around to determine which buses were heading south to Granada. It seemed we had our choice of decommissioned U.S. school buses, deemed unsafe for paved North American rural routes, but relatively fine for maximum speed and passenger capacity on winding dirt roads in Central America.

Always the cheapest option, these so-called "chicken" buses are notorious. Some attribute the moniker to passengers who board with small livestock. Others say it's due to the way passengers are literally packed in like chickens, until not another body can fit in or on the bus. Some argue it is because they ramble at maximum speed down the middle of roads, playing chicken like it’s 1956 in Middle America. As a seasoned passenger of these buses, I will argue it’s a little of each.

Taking deep breaths and mustering faith in humanity, we passed our backpacks to the steward whose mission it was to tether them to the roof of the old bus. We’d have to watch to make sure that they remained there at each stop. Bags go missing often and swiftly, but there was no room for them inside with the livestock. As it was, there was standing space only, and the ride would be a few hours long.

There were a few things I’d come to expect from Central America, and some inalienable truths I’d come to accept. For example, upon realizing there was standing room only, I knew someone would try to look up my skirt. Second, it would be assumed that I couldn’t understand what anyone said. And, once they realized, they would laugh and ask the usual questions. Where are you from? Are you married? Why not? Do you have children? Why not? When will you?

Because I believe people ask questions about things important to them, I always reciprocate. That, and I'm curious, too. I asked women about their own children, and whether they were married. I was surprised that, while many had long-term partners, there were also a lot of single mothers and unmarried couples. It was children that seemed most important, and on this subject the cultural rift between us was most evident. Upon learning my age, I felt I was looked on with pity. For the first time, I felt spinsterly.

Then, I would be told I am beautiful and that I have beautiful eyes because they are green. I returned compliments like I did questions if I was speaking with a woman and, if I was feeling saucy, sometimes if it was a man, which always made his friends laugh.

This brings me to the final inalienable truth: Travelling by local transportation in a country that is fairly new to tourism, where you are visibly different and culturally awkward means you are inherently entertaining. When travelling as a sunburnt group, this is especially true.

Music is everywhere, especially on buses and in taxis. Music in English, however, is not. So, when Stevie Wonder "called to say I love you”, so did we. By the end of the song, we’d developed a choreography and the regular passengers were embarassed for us. Fortunately, I have selective comprehension of Spanish - and, English for that matter.

[As a minor aside, did you know that each Central American country has its own term for "tourist"?]

Depending on the length of a particular "chicken" bus trip and therefore time for conversation, I could expect to be questioned about my companions, join in with poking fun at their sunburns (I was always very careful to avoid becoming pink myself), sample food brought from people's homes, speak of places to visit, and appreciate list upon list of names of emigrated relatives. This ride was no exception, and that leads me to the final inalienable truth: "Chicken" buses are the only way to travel.

* See the Sept 21, 2006 entry for the story of shots fired in Honduras

Friday, October 20, 2006

Spanish 101: Sex, drugs and masturbation

I’ve said things to Latin Americans this year that I would never intentionally say to anyone. I was fooled into thinking I could speak Spanish very early on in my altogether six-month trip throughout the region. As there was no shortage of encouragement and enthusiasm from the locals, my conversational confidence quickly surpassed my actual ability - a dodgy dynamic.

The following three anecdotes, in chronological order, will demonstrate how people with a little bit of knowledge can be more dangerous than those with none.

On asking an elderly woman first for drugs, then sex*:

My first significant blunder occurred my first solo day in Mexico. Determined not to be shy about speaking Spanish lest I get lonely, I went to the local market in search of souvenirs and unwitting practice partners. Starting with simple interactions intended to build my confidence, I stepped into a bakery and smiled at the elderly woman seated behind the counter. She threw me a familiar look that I now recognize as a mixture of amusement and dread – a common response to novices of the language. She'd correctly assumed I was about to blabber gibberish and expect a response.

I’d read of a delectable regional specialty, little coconut squares, but had forgotten what they were called. As I began to describe the dessert the señora’s jaw fell and she leaned forward to examine me. The look of amusement-dread contorted to total disbelief. At the time, I had no idea why.

Weeks later, as my skills had improved, I recounted the tale to Mexican friends in hopes of shedding some light. My pronunciation, they explained, was the culprit. Apparently, within seconds of entering the shop, I accidentally asked the señora for cocaine. Delicious sweet squares of cocaine that I’d read about in travel books. I love sweet cocaine, I told her, and I would like to learn how to make some myself.

Realizing I had no idea what I was saying, the señora began to laugh. Gaining momentum, she laughed until tears flooded the deep pockets of folded skin beneath her eyes and flowed over her cheeks, landing on the front of her blouse. That sort of laughter is contagious, and having acknowledged that I’d said something wrong, I adjusted my pronunciation through my own nervous chuckle.

True to my memory, I repeated the dialogue for my Mexican friends to help me understand where I may have gone wrong. Not so delicately, they revealed to me that I had stopped asking the señora for cocaine and asked instead for a vagina; a sweet square of vagina. Except, the way I asked for it wasn’t even that polite.

With this request, the señora surrendered to hysterics and, unable to catch her breath, laid her head on the counter, her face behind her arms. She could no longer speak. Tears streamed from her eyes; eyes that have seen 90 years of history pass, and still, I had the feeling I was the most ridiculous person she’s ever met. Her head still on the counter, she blindly waved me out of the store. Still clueless about the details of the interaction, I saw the coconut squares on my way out, and decided to pass.

*Those of you familiar with Mexican slang may be able to guess the words to which I refer.

On cross-dressing:

It was no secret. This Mexican bad boy from Tijuana was into me. It was also obvious that he would have been into me no matter what I looked like, smelled like, or said. I was a novelty. We’d met him and his friends earlier, at a town fiesta, and were, at this point, lounging on the beach. He spoke no English, and I still struggled with Spanish. Still, his intensity was unsettling and, since we’d planned to stay with the group for the rest of the day, I felt the need to break the tension and perhaps cool the train his thought was on.

Quick inventory of my limited vocabulary and key phrases left me with little to work with. I decided not to ask him where the bathroom was, not to ask him his name (again), and definitely not to ask him for another cerveza, por favor. Asking if he had any rooms or beds available wouldn’t serve my purpose either, so I decided to claim I was hungry. It was all I had left. The first time I said it, he just squinted and continued to invade my personal space. So, I said it again, thinking perhaps I’d pronounced it wrong. He chuckled a bit, and I think he asked me to repeat it. I tried my best, over and over. "I am hungry," I said. "I am hungry. Hungry. Me. Hungry."

He looked very, very confused. I patted my belly to get the point across. "Hungry. Me. I am hungry."

Abruptly, he launched himself away from me. I had not anticipated the effectiveness of my hunger tactic and was shocked. The bad boy looked terrified and stared at my bikini bottoms in disbelief.

The word for hunger, you see, is “hambre”. The word for “man” is “hombre”. For the record, the verbs are confusing, too. Here is what happened:

Tengo hambre means, “I am hungry.”
Soy hambre, mispronounced, means, “I am a man.”

I’d convinced the homophobic bad boy he’d been hitting on a man, and that man was me. Reversing the damage was likely the most uncomfortable act of miming in modern history.

On asking a classmate about masturbation:

I want to tell you that by the time I made it to Argentina, months later, I stopped embarrassing myself with incredibly inappropriate language mix-ups. But, I’m no liar.

Fellow North American and language student, my last victim was enrolled in my Spanish class in Buenos Aires. He was a little shy and lacked my, albeit pitiful, mastery of the language, so I tended to dominate the conversation. On this particular day, we were learning how to use more complex verbs; and how to use these teeny, tiny little words in front of those verbs that can change the entire meaning of what you say. I thought I understood and, to practice, began to ask the shy man questions about his hobbies and pastimes.

Finally finding the words to explain that he was learning to play guitar, he looked nearly discouraged when I posed another question. I asked him how often he played. This is where it gets complicated. The verb in Spanish, tocar, is used to describe the act of playing an instrument and also means “to touch”. And, when one of those teeny words I mentioned earlier gets in the mix, well, the context changes quickly.

The instructor’s face turned crimson and I realized what I’d said. She tried to find the politest possible words to explain the difference to me and to the student, who, although he didn’t understand the mistake exactly was already instinctively blushing.

I’d inadvertently asked the shy novice, “How often do you touch yourself?”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Nicaragua is coming

Prepare for a tale of unauthorized weapons [in the author's hands], surrender and, of course, mojitos and active volcanoes.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Cuba: A 36-hour fiasco

It wasn’t my idea. None of it. Not the trip. Not the tequila. Not the nudity. Nor was it my fault. Not the interrogation with Customs officials. Not the suntan lotion fight. Not the loss of the plane tickets or injuries sustained. I did, however, contribute.

It was a most unconventional trip. Upon accepting the offer, I knew it would be difficult to explain the impromptu weekend getaway (at an all-inclusive Cuban resort) to my friends and family.

I imagined saying, "Well, there’s this guy who knows people I know, who wants to take my friend and me to Cuba for the weekend, basically for free."

And, in response to their questions, answering:

"It’s an employment perk – he works for an airline."
"No, I don’t personally know him."
"No, there won’t be separate rooms."
"Well, he saw us at a gallery opening and thought we looked fun."
"No, not that kind of fun. I don’t think so anyway."

And then somehow justifying my decision to go.

My friend, Anna and I, of course, conducted an informal background check. We spoke with people who knew him relatively well, asked for rumours of possible misdeeds, and investigated his “My Space” online profile. Following a full-scale, covert evaluation of his creep-factor, we established it would be OK to go.

Our first actual encounter with Rick, at a local bar the night before our scheduled departure, allowed us to further scrutinize him and his possible intentions. Perhaps we were too trusting, perhaps too hopeful, or, perhaps we are simply good judges of character, but we confirmed the trip when he was kind enough to buy us a drink, but did not encourage us to drink too much.

Parting ways that evening, my friend and I joked about rumours this could inspire, and how annoyed his straight male friends must be that he is able to offer weekend getaways to women he meets. We were pleased with our spontaneity, confident in our decision, and curious whether he would regret taking us to the Caribbean.

True, we weren’t looking forward to the eight-hour overnight stopover in Toronto’s International airport, but we are hardy travellers and determined make the best of it, whatever “it” may be. Rick was equipped to help us do that. A frequent flyer, he knew which bars were nearest to the hotels served by the free airport shuttle bus. We passed a few hours getting to know each other in the netherworld of a Mississauga tavern and, two drinks later, we were better prepared to sleep in the airport and await the 4 a.m. check-in.

We didn’t know it, but it was then that the fiasco truly began.

Feeling very casual about the quick weekend jaunt, we piled our little overnight bags onto the conveyor at the airline counter in no particular order. We didn't pay attention to which bag was tagged with which name.

I slept through the entire four-hour flight, waking only once with Anna’s help to enjoy a spongy omelette. Exhausted as we disembarked, I imagined napping happily on the beach, pretending to feel guilty about getting too much sun, and gorging myself on the buffet.

This was my fourth trip to Cuba and I was comfortable with the stony stare of Customs officials and lengthy entrance procedure. I was prepared to collect the bags quickly, exchange money and head straight for the sand. I was not prepared for a two-hour interrogation.

Anna was the first to be searched. Rick was second. Following the flow of excited vacationers, as I’d done during previous visits, I headed for the exit. A Customs official stopped me and asked to see my papers. Apparently, the brevity of our stay had roused suspicion. My Canadian passport, valid for six years, expires this December. I’ve travelled a lot and, just this year, visited 10 Latin American countries, from Mexico to Argentina. The man in khakis asked me about every nearly illegible entry and exit stamp.

While my travel partners were still explaining the contents of their bags, including a copy of The Catcher in the Rye – an unfortunate choice of beach-reading for Cuba – I was escorted to a private room.

An officer with glittery, gold acrylic nails and a government-issue khaki miniskirt asked me to empty my bags. She flipped through my book, read my bits of paper, analyzed the contents of my make-up case and shook my bottle of ibuprofen. She questioned me in Spanish and recorded every mispronounced word I said. My answers, as innocent as they actually were, roused more and more suspicion.

She wanted to know if I was a journalist.
I'm not. Hmm.
Had I ever been to Cuba before?
Yes. Wrong answer.
How many times?
Three times. Wrong answer.
When was my last visit?
I can’t remember---a few years ago. Wrong answer.
Why did you travel so much this year?
To learn Spanish. Right answer.
Why are you only staying for the weekend?
Because we got a deal and it was really cheap. Hmmm.
And, why doesn’t your baggage tag match the one on your ticket?
I don’t know. Wrong answer. Shit.

I explained that our tags must have been switched in Toronto during check-in. She instructed me to find my travelling companions and retrieve their tickets to corroborate my claim. I re-entered the airport lobby and saw Rick still justifying his possessions and trip length. The Customs official with him called me over. Hablas español? Si, mas o menos.

In less than a minute I was able to explain that Rick was an airline employee. Thanks to me, he was released. I, however, was returned to the interrogation room, which I now shared with a foreign doctor caught importing a suitcase of pharmaceuticals. Another hour later, following full assessment of my capitalist-creep-factor, I was granted entry to the country. The doctor was released before I was.

We caught the last shuttle to our resort and I was disappointed to learn that this was no party bus. Anna claimed she intended to buy beer for the 45-minute ride while I was detained, but Rick thought it might be insensitive. We teased him about his poor decision-making skills and declared we’d never go on a free trip with him again. Engaging a beer-guzzling fellow bus passenger, I stated that some travellers were clearly more prepared than others. Buying in, the vacationer offered me a can of my own. Tepid and watery, my first cerveza was divine.

Our resort was the last on the circuit and our driver, anxious to end his shift, was stopped by the tourist police for speeding. The bus crawled the final 5 km, and we were relieved that the fairest resort of all would be ours for the remaining 34 hours of our trip. We intended to take full advantage of its virtues.

Within the first hour, we discovered fresh fish and calamari at the beach grill. Within the first two, we discovered that hotel staff allowed us to bring entire bottles of sparkling wine to the beach. Their leniency--- and the piña coladas, mojitos, daiquiris, white wine and tequila---inaugurated Stage Two of the fiasco. Let’s be reasonable, a 36-hour vacation does not afford time for moderation.

The buffet was delicious. Anna and I nourished our pancitas---literally meaning, “little breads” and synonymous with “little bellies”---while a group of plump Russian men eyed her from the adjacent table and mimed concern that our male companion might be dating one of us. Sharing no common language, Rick thought it best to mime that he was dating both of us and that we were, therefore, unavailable.

Not easily discouraged, the nearest Russian employed drastic and disturbing means to woo Anna. He unbuttoned his shirt and revealed a pectoral that was likely impressive during his weight-lifting career, but had long since retreated far beneath a fatty mound of hairy flesh. He flex-bounced this atrocity in her direction, smiling, until Rick reached over and poked it. The Russian struggled to express that he was not a homosexual, but that Rick probably was, and put his breast away. For the rest of the meal, they focussed their attention on the troupe of Colombian prostitutes that occupied a table in the opposite direction. We thanked Rick for the risk he took in defending our honour from these mafiosos.

Satisfied, we headed for the lobby bar to decide what to do with our one-night-in-paradise. As we settled into seats farthest from the merging gaggles of Russians and Colombians, the bartender declared it was “Tequila Time”. Lacking shot glasses, he improvised with champagne flutes, and refilled them in 10-minute intervals. I blame the bartender entirely for all events that followed.

We zigzagged to our room to freshen up and decide whether venturing to a salsa club was feasible. In the meantime, Anna discovered the comforts of the king-sized bed and fell asleep. Unsure about how to motivate her, I tried everything: reasoning, guilt, poking, wedgies; nothing worked. If comfort was keeping her in bed, I would just have to make her uncomfortable. That’s why I filled her ears with suntan lotion. No one wants to sleep with cream in their ears. Tequila was doing the thinking for me.

This friend, while petite, is a powerhouse. I hadn't anticipated the speed or violence of her attack, but within seconds the lotion was turned on me and my clothes were ruined. Collectively, we agreed that staying on resort grounds was the safest idea, considering the repercussions of “Tequila Time”. Swimming in the lake-sized pool---among its concrete islands and sculptures---was the new clandestine activity of choice. At other resorts I’ve visited, pools are off-limits at night and I wasn’t sure about this one. Just in case, we planned the outing as a stealthy, strategic operation; only, tequila doesn’t exactly make you smarter, or quieter.

We piled our clothes and shoes in the shadows behind the closed pool bar, and Rick ducked in to check the beer taps. Likely for the best, they were locked. We cautiously entered the pool and bobbed around for a while, but soon remembered how much better drinks taste when free, and headed to the bar in our suits and trunks, soaking wet.

“Were you in the pool?” asked the barman.
“Noooooooo. Nooooo-no-no-no,” I said, unable to think of any believable excuse for being wet.

He squinted at us, so I distracted him with conversation. I thought I was speaking Spanish, but thinking back, I’m not so sure. The mafia and prostitutes were nowhere to be seen and the bartender seemed a little lonely, which surely increased his tolerance for us. Soon another nightshift worker showed up and announced, “The name’s Willy, but you girls can call me Big Willy.” Apparently to justify the nickname, Big Willy propped a flabby leg atop the barstool beside me in what Rick later described as “an incredibly revealing, revolting position”. I didn’t notice. I was busy pretending we hadn’t been swimming in the pool.

Like divine intervention, a brief torrential downpour interupted Big Willy's wooing, and Rick realized we’d not only left our clothes behind, but also his digital camera. Running off to its rescue, he made it only a few steps from the bar before slipping on the wet walkway and falling to the ground. And there he stayed.

Concerned the bartender would deem us too inebriated to continue our evening, I dismissed the incident as normal, “Oh, you know, he just, um, falls sometimes.” The tequila was talking again. Realizing Rick wasn’t getting up on his own, Anna ran to check on him while I distracted Big Willy and the bartender with what remained of my conversational skills. “Nice tattoo,” I heard myself say in Spanish.

Rick rose and hobbled off into the rain with an injury that would leave him limping for a week. Apparently inspired by his misfortune, Anna skipped back to the bar and lay on the floor, laughing. Again I suggested this was normal. “She just, um, you know, likes it on the floor.” Then, as if it would enhance the credibility of my claim, I got down beside her and awaited Rick’s return. Tequila was now also doing the reasoning.

Convinced we'd duped the staff, we requested a final bottle of wine-to-go. It was the last that remained and, thinking back, I'm appalled they actually gave it to us. Confident that no one would follow, we headed back to the pool and I ducked into the shadows to remove my bathing suit. Tequila told me skinny-dipping was a treat to be discreetly enjoyed whenever possible. I believed it. I also believed that no one would know I was naked as long as I was immersed in water. Anna seconded my theory and we abandoned our last bits of modesty at the poolside, forgetting, of course, to take note of the location. Off we swam.

Rick also enjoyed the fruits of naked swimming, but was either gentlemanly or frightened of us, and he maintained a safe distance. Emerging from the water to retrieve the already-forgotten wine, he turned to avoid flashing us. It was then that he accidentally exposed himself to the bartender, who had thoughtfully delivered us an ice bucket to chill the wine. What service! Mentioning nothing of nudity, the bartender retreated. Rick scrambled to replace his trunks and warn us, but it was too late. By the time he found us, we had already succumbed to the temptation of the pool centrepiece---a large sculpture designed to look like a beach recliner. And on it we stood.

Four resort employees, all male, had gathered at the poolside and were calling us over. “Just act casual,” said the Tequila.

Since no one addressed our state of undress, I figured the friendly staff hadn’t noticed. “It’s really dark out; they probably just think you’re wearing a white bathing suit,” reasoned the Tequila again. I chatted in Spanish with the workers, I think, and vaguely recall a marriage proposal.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Rick reappeared with a vaguely panicked look on his face. “Listen to me. Put. This. On. NOW,” he said, placing emphasis on every word and handing me my bikini. I responded to his kindness and rationality by mocking him. Nevertheless, I donned my bikini bottoms underwater with relative ease. It was the top that was complicated. Anna had already replaced her own.

Completely covered, and convinced no one suspected anything less of us, we agreed with Rick’s suggestion that we return to our room and call it a night. Anywhere else on the resort and we’d be stuck talking with the staff. It seemed they liked us. As it was, they all insisted on escorting us back to our room. Someone had the presence of mind to grab our clothes, shoes and the wine. Once Anna and I were safely inside, the staff gave Rick an enthusiastic thumbs-up, for what their wishful thinking wanted to happen next. They couldn’t have been more misled.

Unconscious almost immediately, the wine untouched, we all slept soundly (very, very soundly) until noon the next day. Rushing to check out on time, we shook the leaves from our scattered belongings, stuffed wet clothes into our overnight bags and headed to the front desk, apparently looking our absolute worst. The receptionist avoided eye contact. Our return flight to Montreal wasn’t leaving until that evening, so we stashed our bags and returned to the beach to enjoy more grilled seafood and hair-of-the-dog, and discuss the previous night.

“You aren’t ever going to take us anywhere ever again are you?” Anna asked Rick.
“Are you kidding?” was his only response.

We napped in the ocean. We napped on the beach. We napped under the shade of the umbrella that tricked Rick into thinking he wasn’t turning a frightening and painful shade of pink.

Giving ourselves just enough time to get to the airport, we retrieved our bags and changed our clothes. During this process we realized no one had the plane tickets.

Staying only one night, we didn’t bother using the safe; we stashed the tickets on top of the television instead. Or rather, I did. I think that part was fine. It was the fact that no one picked them up in the morning before we checked out that created the problem. The cleaning staff must have thrown them out. We approached a security guard for help.

“Room 125?” he asked. I hadn’t told him. It was just as I’d feared; we were notorious.

He helped us double-check the room and our bags and called the cleaning staff---nothing. Shit. This was the beginning of the final stage of the fiasco.

With no alternative, we headed to the airport by taxi ($35 in Cuban Convertible Pesos---roughly equivalent to $40 USD), to convince the airline to let us on the plane without tickets.

There was another challenge. Cuba doesn’t stamp passports upon entering the country. Instead, tourist visas are issued on separate pieces of paper and collected when the visitor leaves. Our tourist visas were with our plane tickets. We had no evidence that we’d entered Cuba legally.

At this point, both Rick and Anna had nearly run out of cash and we all needed to pay a standard $25 tax to leave the country. There are no automatic bank or debit machines in Cuba, and none of us had valid credit cards to withdraw money. We pooled our funds and came out $20 short. After investigating all possible alternatives, we realized one or all of us, would have to remain in the country if we didn’t somehow procure the funds. I was already hoping it wouldn’t be me when Anna announced she would go to Havana. Tequila was, apparently, still doing some of our thinking.

Following the first stressful hour at the Cuban airport, an airline representative recognized Rick’s name from company files, and agreed to reissue our tickets. With this first problem solved, we focussed on the second challenge.

Most of the passengers had already passed through security into the departure lounge, and time was running out. I would need to swallow my pride and explain my ineptitude in exchange for sympathy and donations. I approached a young couple about to check in. As I listened to myself describe our predicament, I realized how ridiculous we were.

“I’m sorry,” said the man. My heart sank below sea-level before he continued with, “I only have $20 Canadian to give you. You’ll need about $5 more.”

I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d chosen the most stereotypical, overly-apologetic, eager-to-please Canadians in the airport. They felt terrible for not helping us enough. Then, they remembered the Cuban coins they packed as souvenirs and offered those to us, too. We had exactly the amount we needed. I asked for their mailing address so we could reimburse them upon our safe return, but they were so pleased with themselves for helping us, I don’t think they cared. We’d already given the couple a story to tell for years to come; one that would likely become more melodramatic each time it was recounted. They’d already started retelling it to us. It was a tale of three frightened fellow Canucks trapped in post-9/11 Castro-era Cuba. Remember that, Honey? Remember how we rescued them from Communism?

Relieved and grateful regardless, we announced the news to Rick like kids with candy, under the affectionate watch of our Canadian sponsors. He responded with, “We have a problem.” Shit.

The airline required $80 in cash for the new tickets. I scanned the airport for more potential donors and addressed the airline representative, “That is just not possible.” In a rare display of Cuban leniency, she agreed to bill Rick later. I think he’d been flirting.

Once again we were escorted to a special section of Customs, where we handed over our passports, questioned and told to wait. We waited and waited and wondered whether we’d miss the flight anyway. The Customs official returned with mere moments to spare and, with the familiar stony stare, handed us papers that legally excused our incompetence. We were instructed to exit through regular Cuban security one last time.

“You arrived yesterday?” asked the confused officer who collected my exit papers. “What can you possibly do in just 36 hours?”

Thankfully, my bloodshot eyes and the sorry state of my travelling companions answered for me. I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The "cosmic" power of suggestion

Long ago in Gotham, during an experimental personal-growth period, I arranged to visit a new-age healer---a well-off, middle-aged transient who would be in the city for only a few weeks, but would find time to help cleanse New Yorkers' muddy auras.

Hours before the meeting, I'd intended to call and cancel our session. I, of course, had no idea what a "session" involved, and for $300 USD I was willing to invest in the concept of time healing all wounds instead. She beat me to the phone and trumped my card. Apparently, she is a "seer" as well as a "healer".

She called my sublet home, located on the charming, but dirty edge of Williamsburg, and said in her charming yet authoritative voice: "What are you afraid of? Aren't you ready to face your future? Can't you deal with your issues?"

It wasn't that I really had any pressing issues to manage. I was happy. I was having an adventure in the city that never sleeps, except on the subway. My real issue was that I could think of more fruitful functions for my green American moolah. She gambled on my personality, and challenged me. It was a dare - and I fell for it. She pulled me in with her cosmic mind powers of manipulation. I was no match for her.

In my own defense, I thought this woman was legendary. I thought her mysterious Swiss abilities were known everywhere the L-train rumbled. A documentary was to be made of this woman's incredible will to survive and overcome all obstacles! This was a woman who ousted malignant tumours from her own abdomen with cosmic mindpower! Don't tell me you wouldn't find that inspiring!

Just don't. Please.

Surely, $300 USD would seem insignificant once I'd been healed! Or, maybe I would just walk away with an empty wallet and a tepid tale. I do believe in mind over matter, though. I admit it because I am not the first to admit it.

When my grandfather passed away, I inherited a leaning, dog-eared tower of his book collection. Among titles like: Geometry and Nature, and Natural Dyes and Edible Plants of the Northeast, two other texts mingled with the arts and sciences: Cosmic Mind Power Explained and, even more intriguing: Secrets of Cosmic Mind Power. All, of course, published in the Seventies.

I arrived for my appointment with an open mind and fat wallet. She welcomed me, explained the process and brought me into the bedroom where a massage table awaited my damaged aura.

Without touching me, she began examining fluctuations in my energies. Her hands hovered barely above my fully-clothed body. Her talent was not limited to seeing auras, but also to decode them. She would blurt out random words, and interpret my ethereal reaction. I was fascinated.

Although I was laying face down, with my eyes closed, I could sense the location of her hands at all times. My skin rose toward her in goosebumps. I was enjoying the cosmic voyage. I casually drifted into a space that allowed me to believe that this was something other than a hoax. She blurted out that I was a writer. I would write six books. To accomplish this, I would have to oust the word, "want" from my mind, like she ousted tumours from from her belly.

You either do it or you don't. Regardless of what "it" is, she had a point. Saying that you will do anything in the future is a waste of breath. Who knows if you'll do it? Who knows if you'll be hit by an SUV instead. You are or your aren't. You do or you don't. This cozy in between place where we like to dwell is the quicksand for progress and achievement. Stop talking. Start doing. It was quite a lecture, really.

She doesn't believe in predicting the future. She looks at your path, and then tells you what you are capable of doing if you get off your fat ass and scrub your dirty aura free of cosmic scum. My mom could have done the same. But, I don't trust her. She told me I was pretty when I was ten. I've seen the pictures. That woman is capable of deceit.

Any of my friends could have advised me as well. But, there is something intrinsic in the exchange of $300 that makes you want to believe you're getting your money's worth. I really wanted to believe - but, it was struggle. Then, she found my pain.

A combination of poor posture and computer work had resulted in a jabbing discomfort in my back. It had been there for months and it was affecting my life, and my moods. She found it. That was where I had been storing my negativity, and without physically touching me, she located it and repaired it - by drawing the cosmic goo of stress and doubt from me. I was going to have to have a shower when I got home, she explained, to wash all that crap off my aura. I was exhausted. I was dehydrated. I was spooked. I followed her instructions, drank some water and fell asleep.

For the first time in months, my back wasn't throbbing. I was amazed! Astounded! I was healed! I felt it was my cosmic responsibility to begin writing for a broader audience than my diary. I had to take this cosmic gospel and fly with it. Why the heck not?

So, if any more of you have some writing opportunities for this eager, penny-pinching wordsmith - bring 'em on!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Honduras: A tale of bruised knees, dead dogs and injuries not sustained

Somewhere under the roadside litter and lime-covered carrion, through the toxic clouds of burning plastic, somewhere away from the mangy dogs, and beyond the sexual advances of teenage boys, there is a gem of a country that I have yet to discover. But, please, be tolerant of my rant---being shot at was really the last straw.

I wasn't there for long, so perhaps I am not at all qualified to make any judgments about it. I'll just recount events that occurred this year, during Semana Santa.

Parts of the country are beautiful, indeed. For example, this is a photo of the sunset from Roatan, one of the famous Bay Islands.

In this photo, there is no evidence of events preceding it, and no hint of what was to come. This scene, alone, is beautiful. The context could have been better.

The beach from which it was taken was so infested with sand fleas that sitting on it was not an option. Perhaps the reason for this is that, unlike many other resort beaches, the coast here is not sprayed with poisons to keep the pests at bay. I can support that.

Nevertheless, I alternated with applications of sunscreen and insect repellent and escaped without a sunburn. The extremely itchy red patches were merely an allergic reaction to the fleabites. They would disappear within 72 hours, a few hours short of clinical insanity. And, considering the severity of my other experiences in Honduras, it seems petty to complain about the bugs.

My itinerary was more-or-less planned as follows:

Days 1 & 2: Visit Copan Ruins
Days 3 & 4: Travel to Roatan by bus and boat, enjoy beach
Days 5 & 6: Visit Comayagua and enjoy Semana Santa celebrations
Day 7: Depart for Nicaragua

I know, from experience, that nothing ever goes quite as planned, and I like that. But, I wasn't totally prepared for this:

Day 1:

Witness vultures devouring a dead dog on the way to the Copan ruins.

Listen to 90 minutes of culturally and sexually offensive jokes about Mayan women from hired local guide while visiting ruins.

Upon returning to hostel, observe that it took under 90 minutes for the vultures to completely devour the dog, save for its skeleton with which they were attempting to take flight.

Comfort less experienced traveller concerning dead, devoured dog.

Day 2:

Enjoy local beer and practice Spanish with locals in town square.

Resist advances from young men.

Refuse to buy cocaine.

Refuse to buy cocaine again.

Absolutely refuse to buy cocaine from the Honduran police station.

Return to hostel and realize the main gate is locked for the night.

Day 3:

Travel by hot, cramped bus to port.

Check baggage on boat, decide a cold beer would be dreamy, ask all dock workers, taxi drivers, restaurant staff and passengers, find none.

Board boat, notice local bar adjacent to dock house.

Steam across bay until dark. Attempt to collect baggage amid mosh pit of passengers, and realize dock workers gave me the wrong baggage tag.

Arrive at resort. Receive keys for the only room that is not beach front.

Accidentally knock anomalously large cockroach, while attempting to kill it, into travel partner's luggage while said partner is in the shower.

Break the news to her.

Day 4:

Wake up and go to beach, succumb to sand fleas.

Watch sunset. That part you know.

Go dancing and begin earning the year's worst hangover. (I blame this only on myself.) Stumble home with Australian and Irish travel friends.

Days 5 & 6:

Fall asleep on boat ride back to mainland, and reluctantly head to Comayagua for Semana Santa religious celebrations.

The processions really were beautiful, and the artistry of the colourful carpets of sawdust for "Christ" to parade over was spectacular.

We, a group of fellow travellers, were captivated until nearly 9 p.m. That is when we decided to stroll back to the hotel we all shared. By this time, I had grown accustomed to the ever-present pop of firecrackers in Central America. I am told this is a long-standing tradition, and a symbolic attempt to cheer up Catholicism's pouting saints.

Pop-pop-pop. Pop-pop-pop. With little puffs of smoke.

As we rounded the corner of the walled street in front of our hotel, I heard that familiar pop. But, just one. Pop. It was its singularity that was shocking. And I thought, as I turned my head in the direction of the sound: That's strange.

And I saw: A man on a bicycle coming toward us with his arm outstretched behind him, gun in hand, and people at the next intersection running.

And I thought: I didn't know guns actually smoked.

And I saw: The man's arm moving to our direction, pointing the weapon at us. The light from the street lamp transformed him into a beautiful silhouette.

And I heard: Pop.

And I thought, as I threw myself face-down in the street: This will probably hurt, but I probably won't die.

And I heard: Pop. And a whistle. Pop. And a whistle. Pop. And a whistle. And silence.

I lifted my head. There were six of us, and none of us had been hit. We had bloody knees and scratches, but that's it. No one had seen where the gunman went, so we walked the final half-block back to the hotel. The night manager was unaffected.

One of our group chose to watch TV, the newlyweds locked themselves in their hotel room, and I chatted with two other women until the adrenaline subsided and a headache replaced the void.

In the morning, others at the hotel asked us if we'd heard gunshots. I'd already been outside searching for casings. We heard gunshots. We saw the gun. That is all that really happened. Bad things happen, or they don't. Is there really any such thing as a close call?

Nevertheless, we opted to stay in and throw a hotel party the next night.
A toast was in order like never before:

Cheers to all the bad things that don't happen. May more bad things fall into this category.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Mexico: Free rides and rides of all kinds

After more than a month in this land of lime and chillies, Mexico can still surprise me. And, a few days ago I was taken for a ride I will not forget.

We started in Palenque, a jungle community in the middle of nothing but green and wilderness, spiced with ruins and the occasional poisonous creature. My friend and travelling companion, Christina, slept with a cobra in her room the night before, and the Howler monkeys roared continuously, nearly as loudly as the bullfrogs. Beautiful indeed, but the area was riddled with rich-hippies and pseudo-Hare Krishnas, so we opted to flee to the beach - partly so another friend could enjoy her last few days here under the sun before returning to the land of snowstorms and salted streets, and partly so our new friends, travelling Mexican artisans, could sell their wares. They make beautiful jewellery, and I'll be wearing some home.

We opted to hitchhike because collectively the 500 km trip would cost $500 USD, and catching "un ride" here is safe and certain, especially with two Mexican guys and five of us together at all times. We expected to spend the day on the backs of pick-up trucks, but ended up stranded at gas station about 80 km from our starting point.

No worries, though. Gas stations sell beer. Or, as our friends say: Very problem? Beer more. The longer we waited the drunker and more silly we became - harassing all those refusing to drive us. Then, with our minds properly lubricated, a transport truck pulled in to fill up and our fate changed.

During the next 5 hours, we rode backwards, drunk, for hundreds of kilometers. We really did. The transport truck drivers, you see, were delivering brand new cars to Mérida, for sale at legitimate dealerships.

And, I can now answer the age-old question: What happens to new cars before you buy them? Well, in Mexico anyway, some of those cars see plenty of rides before they ever reach the buyer. Rides of all kinds.

It began when one of our Mexican friends convinced the drivers to let us travel the entire way in a shiny new Camry, secured backwards on the bottom level of the enormous truck. We stashed our bags and climbed in. Bouncing down highway, my friends with the strongest imaginations pretended to drive, while the rest of us dozed in the back. Soon though, it became hot and stuffy in the Camry. As if they knew, the truckdrivers pulled over and came back to offer us a jug of water and the keys to the car. There was no reason, they said, that we shouldn't turn it on and use the air conditioning. I could think a few, but kept my mouth shut. There we sat in a running car on the back of a transport truck with a nice cool breeze, no longer sweating away that new car smell. We waited while the drivers siphoned gas from all the bottom level cars to sell at the corner store for a "cheap price". This side profit, we later learned, was slated for entertainment. One sin feeds another.

Off we drove, stopping only once more at a truckstop after dark, with the driver kicking us out of the Camry telling us he'd be done in 15 minutes, and disappearing into the vehicle with a plump truckstop prostitute. True to his word, we were ready to go in no time. God bless Mexico.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hitchhiking with Zapatistas

Before I came to Mexico, I spoke with my father about how much my mother worries unnecessarily, and we agreed that I am to email her about my adventures only after they are done and I am once again safe in an Internet cafe. Then, he mentioned the unrest in the southernmost state of Mexico, foggily recalling the Zapatista movement, and I decided to say nothing about Chiapas for the time being. Of course, the exact place my parents didn't want me to go is my favourite area in Mexico. And, I am once again safe in an Internet cafe.

True, Chiapas is dangerous. In San Cristobal, an old colonial city high in the mountains, the sidewalks are worn slick, and in the drizzle they take on properties reminiscent of a Slip and Slide. The count: I fell twice, and so did my travelling companion. Locals seem a little surer on their feet. The sidewalks are also only wide enough for single-file walking. Maintaining conversational flow requires that one of the chatters walk in the narrow street. Walking in a narrow street in a country that affords all vehicles the right of way over pedestrians is perhaps the most dangerous thing one can do in Chiapas. Watch out for killer bicycles.

The incredible and accessible culture in and around San Cristobal provided a good reason not to wake up with a hangover or stay out all night listening to live reggae. Instead, my travelling friend and I stayed in at night to debate international politics with amateur ambassadors from many countries of the Western slant. And, to plan the next day's excursion.

After visiting the Museum of Mayan Medicine and climbing hundreds of stairs to view the city from its highest point, haggling at the market for already underpriced textiles, and being awestruck in a Mayan church (which deserves its own entry), we decided it was time to venture to the Zapatista village that was rumoured among the more lefty travellers to accept visits from foreigners - a sort of model village designed to educate outsiders about the new approach of the Zapatistas.

We hailed a public truck in a busy market, on the periphery of the city, to take us there in the early afternoon, and rode more than an hour into the country side down terrifying winding and plunging roads. The roadside vistas punctuated by signs reading: You are now entering Zapatista territory.

Having met a Spanish national on the way, we three approached the farm-style gate and were immediately greeted by a guard in black balaclava, only his eyes exposed. He asked us what we wanted and we told him we were there to learn about their community and the movement. He nodded, asked for our passports and told us to wait. Several other covered men looked on and he disappeared into a small wooden building where, we later learned, he was asking permission for our entry. Upon his return we were escorted into another building for questioning. Several men entered the room, surrounded us and blocked the doorway. As much as I wanted to be comfortable and confident, being surround by black masks on the faces of warriors in a community established on reclaimed land, well, it's a little intimidating. Betraying me, my hands quivered. I reminded myself that the unknown is always the most frightening. And, that I was there in the community to make it known to me, to understand more. Besides, you don't have to see someone's mouth to know they are smiling. I relaxed. Then it was time. Time to be presented to the community government, or junta, for our education.

A guard led us to the small wooden house, knocked, and motioned for us to enter. Here we were interviewed a final time, and approved. During the hour to follow, we listening attentively to the manifesto, delivered by a female and male representative of the junta. Well, really he did all the talking, and she napped throughout a portion. Who can blame her, though? How many times can one hear a manifesto?

Satisfied with our behaviour and interest, the junta rose to shake our hands and we thanked them with the only Mayan words we knew. They set us loose in the community, encouraging us to take pictures and return to our countries to spread the word that they are a non-violent, peace-loving people. I thought about how worried my parents would be if they knew I was there.

The farming community was quiet and colourful. Most of the buildings were painted with images of people, representing all races and two sexes, happily together in territorio libre. But, unfortunately, I was preoccupied.
The entire ordeal had taken long enough that I could now think only of finding a bathroom. There was none to be found. We were going to have to ask the guards. Still in balaclava, several were napping on sheets of cardboard next to the road entering the village. Understanding the urgency of our plight, one guard took it upon himself to search the village with us to find one that was functioning. As we searched, we came upon two more touristas with the same problem. Soon, he had a trail of women chasing him through the farm village, trying to convince him that we were not adverse to peeing in bushes. Just in time, however, he located one and returned to his napping post. It had been a close call for some of us.

Later on, as we browsed the souvenir shop, we wondered how much of the day had been pageantry, and how much was inspired by the fact that they are still considered an illegal entity. We bought a coffee from the general store/cafe and asked when the last collectivo, or public bus, would be passing through. Per usual, no one really knew, and, as the sun was beginning to set we thought it best to head out.

We waited. And, we waited more. And, longer.

Eventually, we began flagging down pick-up trucks of workers and melons, asking them if they were returning to San Cristobal. None were.

We waited. We began wondering what it might be like to sleep in the woods in the southernmost mountainous region of Mexico. Too cold, we concluded.

Soon, a local man came to the roadside, smiled at us, flagged down a speeding Volkswagen Beetle and said, "San Cristobal?" Recognizing his clothes and eyes, we nodded and hopped in. The driver appreciated the company, and described to us his coffee exportation business, encouraged me to marry a Mexican, and debated politics with this Zapatista guard new friend of ours as we zipped over the same winding road that brought us there, usually on the wrong side.

Arriving safely in the city, we rushed to the bus station and caught the next ride to the jungle. We were set to arrive in the middle of the night, with no place to stay. If the trip continued like this, I thought, I won't be able to tell my poor parents any of it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Central Issue

I'm preparing to embark on what I hope will be a real adventure.

Following one month in Mexico, getting my tongue around the language and no doubt learning to curse like a streetkid, I'll be heading to Guatemala. There, I'll extradite my potty mouth, and make my way through Central America with a small group, hiking volcanoes as often as possible to justify bringing my boots at all. I will mistake Howler monkeys for Jaguars, as I hear most tourists do. Most significantly, I will overcome my semi-paralyzing fear of heights in the cloud forest canopy---on suspension bridges. I am hoping the view will pacify me. I might cry. That's OK.

I suspect the real challenge might begin when I find myself in Cost Rica. Alone. I will look back at the highways, the mountains, broken down buses, boats and cold-water-no-water guest houses that I just came from, and do it all over again. Me. Alone this time. I will already know the sound of the Howlers. I will know where the bus stations are in Nicaragua.

Or, maybe the hardest part of the trip will be boarding the plane to return to Canada. I guess we'll see.

Even though my looming birthday serves as a reminder that my "Twenties" are coming to a close, I have one favour to ask of you: Please. Please don't tell my mom.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Mo(u)rning coffee

I would sit here at my wooden desk with papers strewn as I am right now, sipping coffee from my grandmother's cup, the hand-potted one with the purple thistle painted on the side. The lamp in the corner glows yellowish, creating a little warmth in my chilly apartment. Outside there is freezing rain, and the light from the window is blue. It arrives as foggy clusters rather than rays. I've finished my toast and am beginning to come to terms with leaving my home this morning, as I do every morning I don't sleep through.

I would write a more complete and insightful entry in my journal. Probably one of the story lines I've mentally drafted while walking to and from the metro station each morning (meeting all the same faces in either direction). Maybe the one that moved me to tears, causing passers-by to think I'd had a really rough day at the office.

It's cloudy at 9:15 a.m. and I am already supposed to be at work, were it a regular day. Having given my notice of resignation weeks ago, I'm anxious for my last day to arrive. I remember praying for a nine-to-five job, and now, I don't want it anymore. No wonder the powers that be ignore my requests sometimes. I imagine them rolling their gargantuan eyes.

In a few moments, I'll publish this post and fix my hair. I'll brush my teeth, and make my way to the doctor's office and then the bank. Then, I'll go to work, thankful for the respite from routine.

And, thank you for the coffee date.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Winter details

I knew the night so well in Nova Scotia. I looked to the glow of the street lamp from my bedroom window to check for rain or snow streaking through the fog, powered by the open-ocean wind. I knew the persistent cling-cling of rope snapping against masts at the wharf.

Often I was the only one awake, unless the rest of the townspeople were laying awake in their beds like me, in the dark. From my vantage point I could see that the rest of the lights were out.

The wind rattled the old windows, and the hot water heaters popped as the pipes alternately expanded and contracted. My father breathed heavily in his sleep down the hall. I heard the television's high-pitched test-pattern screech, and wondered how my mother could sleep through it. I rose from bed to make my way down the winding staircase and turn off the TV. I kissed my mother's forehead and wished her a whispered goodnight, to fulfill my daughterly duty without waking her. Then, before returning to bed, I paused in front of the picture windows, looking seaward and seeing nothing. The old woodstove crackled, the fire glowed orange through its gaps.

I wondered what the rest of the world was doing, outside of this last jut of land before the Atlantic void, then caught a chill and wandered back to my crisp bed sheets, thankful that my mother hung them outside to dry despite the cold weather. They smelled like the wind.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Montreal to Mexico

Barrage of questions:

So that's it? You're just going to drop everything and head south for the winter to learn another language?

You mean to tell me, that you are going to leave a well-paying, resume-padding job on a whim?

What about your boyfriend? What does he think?

What about your classes?

Can you afford this?"

Answer: Can we talk about this when I get back in May? I'm really busy right now with Salsa lessons, studying Spanish conjugation and saving money for paradise.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

An open call for insight

It's exhilarating being on the edge of opportunity (and reason).

Do I give it all up for passion? Is it passion? Or am I following the emerging lines in my skin like a map away from here? The lines are carving their way over my arms, hands and the corners of my eyes as a reminder of where I've been, and where we're all reluctantly headed.

Am I really giving anything up? My boyfriend and appartment will still be here. As will my debt and birth certificate...and the two remaining classes I must complete before earning my second university paper. My stable, well-paying, resume-padding job will be gone before I've been there long enough to make it count. Oh, and my current employer is the husband of my previous employer. I might piss people off.

I am at a crossroads. This life of mine feels like the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books I loved so much as a kid. A cognitive therapist might actually blame those books for the adult I've become.

Do I drop everything for a few months and learn Spanish in Mexico? This is a call for help.

Ever want to influence a stranger's life? Now's your chance. I'm vulnerable.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Si, Mexico

I checked my messages as soon as I walked through the door, and chose to ignore those from credit departments. I opened my mail; there was a cheque in one envelope for more than I’d planned on. Rent. I can pay it.

Alone, in my clean and cluttered apartment, I exhaled: Yesssssssss.

With a quick finger calculation I determined how long it will take me to become debt-free. Another determined how soon I’ll be able to return to Mexico.

Welcome the New Year. My thoughts catapulted back to the beach at midnight.

Unpacking only those items I feared may have broken during my travels (una calaca for Dia de los Muertes, Banda CDs and sacred heart mirrors – yes, now you too can see yourself in the sacred heart of Jesus, even if your soul can’t).

Then, I called my girlfriends, grabbed a bottle of wine and the two Mescal samplers I imported as gifts and packed a clean pair of panties so I could stay at their house that night instead of mine. Mine was uncomfortably familiar. The panties, and the slice of pizza I choked down on the way, are the only evidence of any remaining survival instinct I had upon my return to Canada.

I’d been washing my hair with a bar of soap for three days. I left a little sand on the seat of each toilet I visited. My skin is a little browner, my freckles have gone mad, and my feelings fluctuate between intense excitement and profound loss, distracted only by my itchy scalp and oozing mosquito wounds. I needed to be with my friends. I needed to sooth my soul with red wine, the preferred treatment for moments like this in my home base, wearing more sand than make-up.

Although it was a short trip, a solid chunk of my heart stayed in Mexico, a little bit at each casa de huespedes, at each beach, on each boat and with each person with patience enough to help me learn Spanish and talk to me about Mexican history, politics and love and contradictions. In exchange for an intimate travel experience, Mexico tapped into my core and took a little more of it everyday. Perhaps this is why the Mexicans I met said Mexico has so much heart. They’re stolen from unsuspecting young women – and in Mexico they stay.

The last time I felt like this about a place, I moved to New York for three months.

Zihua, you turned me inside out. Once you have my heart, you can have the rest of me.