07
Jul
13

A Field of Dreams

I shifted schools and neighborhoods throughout my childhood.  Whenever I became too much trouble, my family or the state transfered me with a new hope that the change would change me. I learned to find consistency within myself and comfort in anonymity, relishing the chance to blend into a new town. Now, I question whether I am running towards something or if I am escaping the ghosts of my past?  Regardless, this wanderlust led me to Honduras, a country I knew little about.  Specifically, I wandered to Roatan, a 30-mile island that until the 1990’s had no electricity.  The islanders still used lanterns and candles twenty-five years after we put a man on the moon.

An hour after disembarkation, I was snorkeling in the clear blue and green water surrounding me.  In town, everyone seemed to size up the new guy and the contents of his wallet. Salespeople catcalled me, offering useless trinkets and questionable trades.  The west end had one main street along the water. Shops, restaurants, hostels and inns, including mine, lined the island; along the ocean, worn wood docks reached out into the Caribbean. From one of these docks, I swam out four hundred yards only to float in the subdued quiet of a salty expanse. The water was completely clear. Underneath the surface, Wrasse and Tangs and a sea turtle made their routine commute from reef to sand. It was exhilarating, this solitude, where fear and excitement mirrored the ebb and flow of the tide. My grandmother taught me to swim this way off of Avalon NJ, far out and alone, and I thought of her as I dove under the water.  I reflected on the magnificence of nature, of how big the world is, of how small I am compared.

A view from the water, my first swim.

A view from the water, my first swim.

I got settled in and by the second day had made a few friends.  Ricardo was twenty-seven and from Venice, Italy.  A captain of a fishing boat, he planned on staying on the island for four months.  With his friends that were mostly Euros, and a few from mainland Honduras, he took me for a three-hour snorkel. When we got back, we laid on the dock and let the last of the Carribean sun dry us while we swapped stories in many different languages.  I was me again, all my stories fresh, and my new friends and I sat there talking until darkness came.

In the mornings, I was downstairs by 6 a.m. at an outside table overlooking the water and working on my book.  At 7 a.m. the staff would arrive and I would eat my breakfast at 8:30.  The staff at my inn began to take pride in keeping my tea hot and my table clear, as if now they too were helping me write.  I told them that if it sells, I would come to Roatan every year to finish another one.  We all smiled at this with an honest hope in our hearts and our eyes.

The sweet staff of the Splash Inn

The sweet staff of the Splash Inn

My mornings

My mornings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The rest of the morning was spent in the water and exploring the different beaches along the coastline.  In the afternoons I would take a shared taxi the four miles up the road to Sandy Bay, to the school I was volunteering at.  This ride was always beautiful and heartbreaking; Mango trees and tropical flowers adorned a land peppered with broken shacks and peopled with mothers carrying babies.  I would pass a school, one of the thirty-five on Roatan and the children would be dressed in their school clothes, blue skirts and white-collared shirts for the girls, the boys wearing pants.  They looked so dignified, but I soon learned how horrible the school system was. I was dropped off at the end of a long stone driveway and walked down the rocky path; Iguanas (the islands main dish) scattering from their sunny spots into the bushes as I passed.  The school was more of an after school study compound that was converted from a dive resort by two Americans. Cam O’brien and her husband built the PIER School and library to supplement the fragmented education the children often got.  I was immediately put to work and if I had arrived hoping to find any praise about how good I was to volunteer my time, I had come to the wrong place.  Cam was dealing with a lot of problems.

empty roadside stands

A coastline view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the kids being hit by their teachers, to the lack of electricity and no clean water, there were many obstacles to overcome.  Although it was half way through the school year, none of the kids on the island had any books yet.  The two ocean containers full of them had been stuck in the port with no one willing to pay the small fees to have them released.  I taught a creative writing class everyday from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. and then I played baseball with the kids for rest of the day.  They were shy at first but they warmed up quickly when they found out I was still a bit of a kid myself.  They liked to hear about Philadelphia and about my journey out of my neighborhood.  These kids lacked hope and reminded me of how I felt sometimes growing up, trapped, unwanted.  There were no jobs on the island, no future, and most of the kids did not believe they could ever make it better. Seventy-five percent of the island had less than a sixth grade education.  There was no reason to do better, nothing to strive for, no open roads.  The first day of class I had eight boys ranging from six to fourteen.  I told them we were going to write a poem for class and all of them giggled.   I then told them that writing poems got you pretty girls, and how pretty girls always liked the sad, romantic poets and wouldn’t you know it, the room went silent and I had eight new Shakespeares on my hands.  I had never been a teacher but I have always been a student, and maybe, just maybe I offered these kids some spark.

Future bards

Future bards

As the week went on, word got out that a gringo was teaching poetry and giving away free hats, and my class size grew.  We worked slowly through my creative writing lessons, in a tiny room with wooden floors and donated supplies, the windows and doors pushed wide open, the sweat dripping from every part of my body.  I wanted them to think and create, have them not just recite but invent, imagine.  I adored these kids, I craved their success. Even the bad ones, the ones that reminded me the most of myself, weren’t really bad but just didn’t get any attention at home and were crying out for it.

After class we headed outside to a long skinny baseball field surrounded by coconut and mango trees.  Our bases palm leaves, I  recruited the smaller ones for my team.  We played for two hours in the hot sun.  As the day wore on, I would look out and most of the team in the field would be far from their positions, standing somewhere in the shade.  The gloves we had were old and torn, the bats too small for some of the older boys, but, man, did we play.  I had to review some simple rules with them, like if a batter hits the ball and is running to first base, you have to tag him or throw it to first.   You cannot hit him with the hard ball as he runs by.  The kids became my favorite part of the day and a little girl named Alicia, who couldn’t speak English and became my sidekick, melted my heart as she followed me around the field.  When she batted, I would race out and hold the boys so she could get to base safely.  Afterwards, sweaty and hot, the kids showed me how to get hammonds, mangos and coconuts down. We smashed the coconuts on the tree and drank the fresh coconut water.  Where the hell was I?  I will always remember these baseball games, standing in a sort of centerfield, looking across to these kids on the brown clumps of grass and sand with the waters and clouds passing us by behind home plate. They had so little but they made it so much and their laughter in the late afternoon will echo inside me.

My favorite Alicia who is single handedly responsible for making me want to have girls.

My favorite Alicia who is single handedly responsible for making me want to have girls.

snacking on mango

snacking on mango

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I gave the children all I could by the time I had left: books and hats and footballs.  I left them my magazines, T-shirts and my favorite pair of running shoes.  I wanted to give them more for spending the time with me, and sharing these afternoons on their field of dreams.  Or was it their field, and dreams that I had brought with me to share with them?  I knew whatever it was I was not the same after each afternoon.  I was a little freer, a little clearer.  I thought about my grandfather looking down on us running those bases, all the anger and pain I once harbored evaporating like the sweat underneath our caps.  I could feel him. “Now that’s my boy, there’s the boy I always knew was in there.”

On my last day on Roatan, two Canadian girls asked me to join them for dinner.  I was tanned now, dark from a week in the water, unshaven and sad to be going home.  The three of us walked along the water, and far off to the north, lightning threatened behind big grey cumulous clouds.  At a small outside restaurant, we washed down roasted chicken with wine.  One was twenty-two and one was twenty-nine and we talked until the place closed and then took another bottle down a long dock.  We drank the cold white wine in the warm air, watching as the storm approached.  I told them about the kids and the school.  I would reach out to Cam and suggested they should stop by the next morning.  We walked home and said our goodbyes.

twilight

twilight

The next morning, the girls arrived and were happy to hear they would be welcome to volunteer.  I thought they were both even prettier in the daylight and was happy they would be going to the school on Monday.  We hugged goodbye. “Tell the boys I send a present for all my poets.”  One last gift I could give to the boys.

I said my goodbyes to the staff at the Splash Inn as my taxi waited and a light rain fell out on the water.  A waiter Keith shook my hand. “Sell the book my man,” he said in his Garafina accent.  “We want you back soon, you good man, you good.” He carried my bag down the four wooden steps and handed it to the cab driver.

I arrived in Houston to find that Kim Kardashian had had a baby.  I was sad to be home, empty and exhausted.

 

 

 

As of today the PIER website is down but if you are interested in the school or volunteering please contact me and I can point you in the right direction.  I know there are a lot of kids in need, at home and abroad, and that makes me sad.  I know Katherine and I will never be able to solve this problem, but every little bit helps, and if I can make one kid laugh their ass off for an afternoon, well, it is better then doing nothing.

Partners in Education – Roatan (PIER) www.PierRoatan.org
>>> Honduras Cell: +1 (504) 9657-9457
>>> VOIP: 484-653-5346

>>> USA MAILING ADDRESS
>>> PIER
>>> 191 Ferguson Beach Road
>>> Oswego, NY 13126
>>> PIER is a non-profit Honduran NGO. For tax deductible donations in the US, Brain Spaces, a 501c3 organization, accepts donations to fund PIER projects

11
Jul
12

Independence Day ( All men must make their way, come independence day)

In an attempt to be true to you and to myself I have to tell a different story than I usually tell.  I have told you of my love and my affection for my grandfather in some of my past posts and sometimes the romanticism of my words may cover up the other half of the story.  Recently I was home for the Fourth of July holiday and staying within those avenues, within those walls of my youth.  I don’t know when but sometime in the past two months I became a jogger.  A straight up Forest Gump and can run three to four miles before brushing my teeth.  (I know this is not that impressive but please note I have not always been the healthiest lad.) In the first few mornings of my trip home I would wake up early to the sounds of the American sparrows in the big Chestnut trees and the quiet hum of the air conditioner.  I would watch Katherine as I got dressed.  My aunt, who lives at my grandparents house now, had given us the master to sleep in, which of course was my grandfather’s room when he was alive.  I would take one last look in his mirror and then head out.  Narberth, Pennsylvania was were I came of age and I know those streets in my sleep. I lived there from ages12-14, important growing years for a young male. This day I ran down the tree-lined Wynnewood Avenue and passed the ball park where my grandfather managed young baseball teams for over fifteen years.  My aunt has this great picture of him in the dugout, drawing up the day’s lineup, cigarette in hand.  I ran past the train station, where my friends and I used to sit under the bridge and drink stolen beer, or where we would board for our many unauthorized adventures into center city Philadeplhia.  I rode that R2, R3 and R5 more by the time I was 14 than most businessmen.

I continued on my runs, up through downtown Narberth, past the old apartment of one of my first loves, Charity Brown.  I ran past her second story window where I would throw pebbles late at night and try to convince her to come out.  Like out of a story, this is where I sharpened my early age of romanticism; poems and pleads and walks home with her kisses still tingling on my lips.  It was good to be home and nice to run by the houses decorated with Fourth of July flags and Phillies gear.  I ran through the quiet neighborhoods, out past Merion Mercy Academy and turned back.  I ended my early morning excursions passing my grandfather’s deli, wanting to stop in and see if anyone remembered him.  I’d come up past his church, St. Margaret’s, and in the hot humid dawn of July think about the cold winter mornings he and I would go to mass, me, dying to get out as he prayed, probably for my dumb ass.  I ended the runs past my aunt’s old house on Price Avenue and think of her happy days there.  Her big house and big parties she would throw.  Eventually I came back down Sabine Avenue–how many nights did I walk down this street home?  My first experience of drinking, of sneaking out, of being with a girl.  Although these memories are thought of fondly now, I too have to think of my struggles and arguments with my grandfather.  My young hate and anger and his inability to quell it, to understand it as much as he tried.  You see, my friends, I aged him twenty years in five, and I always feel his health was compromised by me.  I still remember he and I wrestling one night on the floor of the dining room, my poor grandmother crying for us to both stop.  He was trying to teach me, to help me and, with my father no where in sight, I took my pain out on him.  My second day home this song came on my iPod. I literally just lost it. If I could have run back to my youth to apologize, to just tell him he was right and I was sorry, I would have, even if it was over four miles.

03
Jun
12

A memorable Memorial Day

Over the past eleven years Memorial Day has become more of a real holiday for me. We have been at war and it has directly touched many of us.  Memorial Day is a holiday to say thank you for the past, present and future sacrifice.

I always feel as though I have two real regrets in my life. One was a fight I was involved in in college which left an outnumbered kid badly beaten, and the other is that I never joined the military.
Unfortunately, I come from a direct line of “close but no cigar soldiers.” My grandfather was a Marine during WWII but was injured before seeing any action and my father was a reservist in Vietnam but he too never saw any war fronts. One of the only things I have of his is his army jacket with the faded black letters of Crowley across the pocket. I’ve always been aware of my family’s lack of duty. An “all bark and no bite” area for the patriarchs of my line. There was Uncle Bick who I always thought was the coolest growing up. He drove a Harley in my youth, and the stories of his two tours in Nam are whispered through the hallways of our heritage. He came back from his first tour, heard his younger brother might be drafted, and signed up again to take his place.  He was the one beacon, the one story I could tell about how my family contributed to the American cause.

My uncle Bick, Vietnam 1969

Now the family I married into is much different. Katherine’s father, one the greatest guys you have ever met, served in the Navy for over twenty years with action in Vietnam. His father was a Commander in the Navy who served in WWII and Korea and his two brothers spent time in Vietnam as a Marine and an Army soldier. My wife was born in Japan and really didn’t get to see her father for the first two years of her life. Over the seven years of my time with Katherine I have become privy to the military family. Not only do I get to hear the stories but I get to see first hand the sacrifices that are made by our soldiers and their families generation after generation. Now the combat is one thing, but the trials of the young families at home are equally impressive and important. Could I have done it? Could I have sacrificed my time, my youth, my life?  It’s easy to say “yes” from the beaches of California but it takes a real hero to board that plane or ship and say goodbye to the soil from which he sprouted.
This Memorial Day, Katherine and I flew to Louisiana and Mississippi to visit her father’s side of the family. Her grandmom, Grandma Dunlap, has become a very important person to me and has helped ease the void of the loss of my grandparents. Grandma Dunlap calls me an old soul. She and I correspond through letters and she makes me feel close to something, at peace with myself. On March 12, she turned 90, so Katherine and I took the long weekend to celebrate her birthday.
We flew into New Orleans at night, the most romantic American city in my opinion, and upon feeling that thick air we knew we were in the South. At the car rental counter, a pretty little Southern belle upgraded us to a 2012 Ford Mustang.

“Will thet be okayyy?” she asked in her Louisiana drawl. Katherine said the change was because they were out of smaller cars but I couldn’t help thinking it was my Yankee smile.

I do love the South: I love fried chicken, I love storytelling, I love history, I love Southern charm and I love vampires. Real ones, not emo ones.

We spent that first night and the following day in the crescent city, walking along the levee to Jackson Square, the French Market along Bourbon Street.
We drove out to the Garden District and Katherine without complaint followed me to the Lafayette Cemetery. This poor girl has followed me through at least 20 cemeteries over our years together. I find them beautiful, quiet, sad. We walked the shaded streets desperate to evade the heat and I led her to Anne Rice’s old house. I had brought “Interview with a Vampire” to read on the trip.

The secret garden at Lafayette cemetery

Lafayette cemetery # 1

My patient wife

Anne Rice’s old house. Yes, I have Interview with a Vampire in hand

We left town in the early evening and drove through the Southern night. I rolled down my window. Fuck, it’s humid. I rolled it back up.

We were on our way to spend the next few days visiting with Grandma Dunlap and Katherine’s uncle and aunt, Charles and Anita.

The first day in Mississippi, we drove Grandma down to the coast for some R & R on Saturday (that’s rest and recreation for all of you that don’t know the military lingo.)
Katherine’s grandmom lost her second house in Hurricane Katrina in 2005 after losing one in Camille in 1969. Katrina took her house that was a block from the beach in Gulfport, Mississippi. She owns the land still and after lunch and a quick swim in the Gulf, we went to see where it once stood. Grandma walked us around the lot, pointing at areas, telling us stories. Her pear tree was one of the few things to outlast the powerful storm and now flourished with 100 pears. Grandma and I picked four for me to take back to California and plant at our new house. These I wrapped securely as if treasure, something we will always have from her old house.

Grandma and the pear tree

Katherine and Grandma, a the space that used to have a house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some neighbors noticed we were there and the next thing I knew we were surrounded by her old friends. “Miss Susan is here.” “We miss you Miss Susan.” The afternoon was spent listening to pre-Katrina stories while a little girl of five, Abigail, followed me around taking pictures of me on her mom’s Iphone.
We said our goodbyes and headed back to Hattiesburg in the Mustang.  Grandma Dunlap insisted we take it for our adventure.

Grandma in the good old American Mustang

As an extra surprise Katherine’s Uncle Dave and cousin Howard drove down from Alabama. I could see the joy gleam in Grandma’s eyes as her family sat around her talking, catching up. We moved down the road to Aunt Anita and Uncle Charles’s house to make room for Dave and Howard which was okay by me because they live in a country mansion. Set on 10+ acres it has two ponds, a barn with stables and tons of space, freedom and wildlife. Uncle Charles took me fishing the next morning and I was like a regular old angler catching 15 fish in an hour. I even got Katherine in on the action (after her morning workout of course.) This chick is going to drop out a baby and hit a 5 mile jog that same day–I just know it.

Free advertising for my trainer

Katherine pulling up her first large mouth bass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent the afternoon lazily lounging around reading our books. I kept feeling like I could get used to this Southern gentlemen lifestyle, complete with drinking sweet tea and chewing sugar cain.
A good friend from college, Houser, drove down with his girl from Tuscaloosa where they are both in grad school for writing. Matter of fact he’s probably critiquing this right now and shaking his head. They came for dinner. I had not seen him since he was a groomsman in my wedding. He and I went to walk the grounds and catch up. The twilight had come and the sounds of the insects surrounded us as the air cooled. Two old friends, pals, living different lives on different coasts. The madness of the time we ran together trailing behind us as we walked through the woods.
“Do you want to sit on the dock?” he suggested.
We made our way out onto the old rotted dock. We thought we were smart because we only went about seven feet out as the planks got worse the farther out they were. No one had been on this dock since Reagan had been in office. We sat and drank our beers to a symphony of frogs, talking about old times, new times. Katherine appeared about 50 yards away. “Dinner is ready boys.” We stood up and started walking in. The second my foot was on solid land, I heard cracking. I looked back and there Houser stood, chest deep in the pond, holding his beer above water. We started cracking up as I helped him out. He was soaked, a whole section of five boards had collapsed. I managed to snap a picture after we got him, his phone and his smokes safely to land.

Indiana Greg

The dinner was wonderful, a shrimp boil and beef brisket. We all had a good laugh at Houser’s pre-dinner dip. The evening was spent as you’d expect. Cocktails on the porch, stories of the South, the military, future dreams and plans. The night closing in on us, reminding us that this could not last forever. Grandma told us of her life as a military wife with four young kids. Uncle Dave told us of his nights spent in the jungles of Vietnam where he would sleep almost naked so the lizards and termites couldn’t crawl up his clothes. Aunt Anita told us how much she always worried for her brothers when they were away at war and how important letters were. Jesus man, I hope people stop and consider sacrifice.We ended the night with some laughs and some hugs. It was midnight and everyone was tired except Grandma.

Our final morning was slow, Southern. Pancakes at Grandma’s, soft conversation and promises to return soon. Uncle Dave and I fixed her garage door. She gave me some books and some kisses on my cheek. We said our goodbyes and I hit it towards New Orleans. We had looked for a VA hospital to stop by and leave some cookies. When I was at Penn State on Memorial Day, I would bake cookies and take a hot girl or two to hand those cookies out at the VA hospital. The old vets loved it. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any on our route so Katherine promised me we could do it in June, when they weren’t expecting it. Basically I’m going to sneak attack some vets with a pretty girl and some cookies.  Also, I wanted to go to the Oak Alley plantation which was about 45 minutes past the airport towards Baton Rouge. This was the plantation in the film version of “Interview with a Vampire.” Plus, it looked beautiful online. I was flying in the Mustang until all of the sudden I saw the blue and red lights behind me. It wasn’t a Memorial Day parade either.
“License and insurance.”
“It’s a rental,” I said as I handed him my California license. He looked once at my license, once at the car and once at my gorgeous wife and he didn’t say another word. Four minutes later, he handed me a 300.00 ticket. Whatever. I looked at his name and it was Eddie Howie and I couldn’t help thinking of Ricky Bobby. We laughed and continued on.
The plantation was beautiful and, after getting some mint juleps, we walked the grounds. I love history and I love big houses, castles, manors and the like. We took the tour of the inside and the cool of the air condition was a relief. Although I grew up in humid Philly summers, my pretty wife wilts and melts.
Time was running out. Katherine said she would get our steed and pick me up at the top of the Oak Alley. I wanted to walk it once. I made my way down it, turning to take pictures. I crossed the road and climbed the hill that holds the Mississippi River in.  I looked down at the plantation and its beauty. A black guy was there with his young daughter and son. They played and giggled on the hillside.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” He said.
“Absolutely amazing,” I replied.
“I was here with my wife last year and I wanted to bring the kids to show them.”
“I can’t get over the beauty of it,” I said still staring at the plantation house. He and I sat next to each other on the hillside, the great Mississippi river blowing a sweet breeze across the back of our necks.
I thought about him, his children, this house, this country. I remembered all the lives we’ve given for Freedom. I remembered the pain and pride it is to be an American. I was glad to share this sight with this guy as it gave me hope. Hope for our country, our people and our memory of all our soldiers and their families that have lived and died so I could sit here, on this bank, next to this man, free.
Katherine pulled up in the Mustang and I stood to go. He stood quickly too as if I had awakened him from a dream. He held out his hand. “Travel safe,” he said. “You too,” I said, and we shook on it.

Oak alley plantation,

In the Oak Alley, mint juleps in hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In dedication to my father-in-law Lieutenant Commander Phil Dunlap, Uncle Steve Bickell, Patrick Igo and Sgt. Dan Mealing, as well all the men and women and their precious families, thank you.

22
Apr
12

Guinea pig is not as delicious as it sounds / Peru part 2

 Uncertainty filled my teenage years. I had fallen so far from the straight path that my family, especially my mom, didn’t know where to turn. At home I was toxic. The smile I wore in school was replaced by a war mask as I entered my house each night. My mom had two other kids to consider and she needed to cut her loses.

I began to fear the phone. In her search for help or a place to put me, from the Church Farm school to Valley Forge Military Academy, my mom was in constant contact with potential abductors. I would hear the phone ring and crawl to the top of my basement steps to listen. Sometimes, stricken with fear or overcome with anger, I picked up the phone and blared Metallica into it, forcing both parties to immediately end their call and hang up. Can you imagine how embarrassed my mom must of been. Now as I look back, (or watch Dead Poets Society,) I wonder what my path would have been had I gone to one of those schools. Would there still have been the trouble, the waves of my youth, the fights and nights of young love out under the East Coast moon?  Who knows where I would of landed or ended up. Maybe here. Maybe still in these mountains where I now stood. This is how I began day three, the hardest day of trekking on our itinerary.

Headed up

We had been warned of this day: 14 kilometers, 7 to 8 hours, most of it up, switchbacks that peak at 15,100 feet. That morning the sky cleared, a good sign. We set off after a hearty breakfast. At each lodge, several staff members would come out to the front door and wish us goodbye and good luck as we were leaving. It was a nice touch, creating an intimacy with the lodge. We started off as a group. Ian pointed up to the snowcaps: “that is where we pass.” Holy shit, I thought, where’s my horse?  As the first hour waned our group split. Kevin and his wife Sandra went ahead; their kids Callan and Conner, along with Craig, Katherine and I stayed in the middle and the Canadians dropped to the back. The morning grew hot and the landscape was green and muddy.  We began ascending a ridge and the group stopped for pictures. I decided to run ahead around a curve to take a leak.  Sandra who was about 100 meters ahead could see me running but could not see her kids around the corner. I stopped and unzipped and the next thing I know I have this mom {who is hot} running at me. WTF I thought. When she realized what was going on, she froze and swiveled around. Later that day we all had a laugh as she tried to explain how she thought one of her kids was hurt. I let it go but I couldn’t help thinking, Has the Crowley legend even landed in the Andes? My mojo rocking at 12,ooo feet +?

As the day wore on, the once energetic group quieted. Shadows of the huge Andean condor overhead were our only relief from a unforgiving sun and steep switchbacks.

The king of the Andes, Andean condor

Peruvians on the trail, there out of necessity, had to be saying, “Look at these assholes.” Katherine and I found a nice pace in the middle and Corinne, one of the Canadians, joined us. As we closed in on the Salkantay Pass the clouds covered us and the temperature dropped. We kept going up into the stoney gray. Warmer gear was put on, chapstick applied. The last half mile to the pass was brutal for me. Katherine, of course, scampered up it like a chestnut eyed gazelle.

Our first real mountain top, April 2012

Approaching the summit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We reached the top but it was cold. Pictures and congratulations went around the group. The family of four and Craig had already been waiting twenty minutes.Katherine and I held each other and looked down. Like July on the Masai Mara, here too I felt as though we were connected to the universe. That we were part of the sweat and sands that makes up the human history. We looked down from where we had just come, our past, to where we stood here. I wanted to tell Katherine how happy I was, how long the road had been. I wanted to tell her how much I appreciate her picking me up from my self pity and making me want to be a better person. I wanted to tell her many things but all I could do was smile and breathe it in.

We made it to our lodge that afternoon tired but accomplished. Pilar, the head of this lodge greeted us and quickly sent us off to get showers. Fresh popcorn cooked on the stove and a fire combated the storm that picked up outside. In a land of soft green, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, a storm hit just after our arrival, delayed by the gods. I watched Walter and Alejandro wrestle with the horses through the window as the rain drops raced down the panes.
That night after dinner, Craig, Conner and I played Risk as the girls feel asleep next to the fire. Craig and I drank two and a half bottles of Argentine Malbec. I stumbled to bed and my last thought was “Please do let me be hung over for the hike tomorrow.” 
I awoke and quickly checked for any signs of a hangover. I went out to the dining area and was greeted by Kevin and Craig. Our cook had set out some meats and fresh fruit; I quickly scooped a pile of watermelon onto my plate in an attempt to replenish and hydrate. Peruvian watermelon was sweeter than any I’ve ever tasted.
As we packed up to get on the road again I went through my day pack, preparing for the hours ahead. I had brought my grandfather’s ashes again with me as I’d done in Africa and in Oxford, England. It makes me feel good to take him with me and leave a little bit of him at the places I love, the places that he helped get me to. I carry him in a crude cream cylinder which I put duct tape to avoid any accidents. It is a comfort having him with me in my pack, exploring the road, the people. Corinne asked if my grandfather had loved Peru or traveling. I got a little teary because I didn’t know. As a selfish child you don’t dig deep enough into your hidden heroes until it is too late and they are gone. I knew he loved me.  When I caught my emotions, I said, “He would have liked to travel but had to waste all his money on my lawyers and my trouble. This is the only way I can pay him back.” It is true, for all the thanks that were never spoken he lives now in my energy and is given immortality on my pages.

This picture still makes me crack up, and miss him

Our trail for the day went down and we quickly dropped in altitude. You could feel the jungle air from the Amazon basin pushing up at us.  As we descended the vegetation grew thick. We took it easy, slowly walking and enjoying the world, the butterflies.

Our lodge that night was my favorite, set on a hill it overlooked the surrounding cloud forest and river below. Our cook had arrived before us and was preparing a Peruvian style BBQ by cooking our food in the ground with hot rocks. It was at this meal that the national food, guinea pig, was offered. Corinne dug right into to the BBQ’d pet that sat on her plate. I, on the other hand, let it sit too long on my plate and in my mind. When I finally took a bite I started dry heaving and my face twisted and turned like the transformation of Jekyll to Hyde. I think Katherine thought I was hamming it up for the table but I was about to throw up on Callan sitting across from me. I pretty much ate rat. Nasty little guinea pig.

Going for the guinea!

Lunch mountain style

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That afternoon the rain came again after we finished lunch. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed these afternoons.  A hike through the Andes completed, we would sit nestled in these cozy lodges, fireplaces burning, alone but with each other.  Our feet warmed as we read the day away entranced by a slow symphony of periodic rain.  Tomorrow would be the last day with Walter and the horses that carried our food and gear. Walter had become a good friend in a quick five days. Again, we couldn’t really communicate with words but through his eyes I saw we were the same. He was always smiling and I liked that. I could see he was alive. He pointed things out to me, hidden treasures in the Andes that most might walk right by. He was always patient with the group, always happy to stop for a photo. I wanted so much for Walter, hoped that his life was extraordinary . I wanted to give him the advantages I had in America without the pollution of our society, but wondered if my advantages were really disadvantages covered in cynicism.  His job is to walk a horse through the Andes, he had a wife, someone who loved him. He was eighteen and expecting his first baby, a boy. His satisfaction with life was found in his smile.  In one of the best decisions I’ve ever made I offered Walter one of the soccer balls I had brought. Ruben had told me how much Walter loved soccer.  The happiness that shone through my friend’s face as I handed him the ball will forever be emblazoned in my heart.  Two boys, from different continents, traveling on the same train of life, sharing a smile and a lust to live.

Walter came in and gave me a bear hug

pumping the soccer ball up, Ruben translating

Enjoying a joke

That evening, when the light began to fail, Walter, Alejandro and a few of the other guys kicked the ball back and forth as Katherine and I relaxed in the hot tub. “Miguel!” They asked me to play and I immediately thought of myself kicking their new possession off the cliff by accident. I declined. Surrounded by the warm water and cool air I closed my eyes and let their voices echo off of the surrounding hills. It took me back to Valleybrook, my childhood neighborhood,  and the echo of our young voices as we palled around playing basketball or street hockey in the third court. Trying to do whatever we could to make a stand against the dusk and street lamps, against time, against our fears and our future, against the dying of the light.

Rage against the dying of the light

Game on

10
Apr
12

tonight… we are young / Peru part 1

It is a little past 11 p.m. on Easter Sunday in Peru, and Katherine and I are heading home via Houston.  As if pushed from a dream into reality, I watch the full moon guide us back. She and I are both in agreement that this has been the best trip of our lives. Maybe we say this after every trip, maybe the freshness of the adventure makes me claim false truths. But, I’ll tell you this: if you really want to get a raw view of a land, walk straight down its belly and taste it. Forty-two miles through the untamed Andes, at times over 15,000 feet in the air. Six days of rain and sleet and a baking jungle sun. Savoring every step. Tonight, as we take off from a country that has become a intimate friend in a short ten days, we are young. Our memories of this trek will stay frozen in time, warmed by our recollection of laughter and preserverance, of freedom that cut through the Andean nights, forever young like the Winay Wayna orchid.

Forever young

I want to tell everyone and tell no one about this trip. Peru is not yet soiled by the outside world. Due to internal troubles in the 1980’s and 90’s, tourism is still new to the country. The feel was rustic and as I get deeper into our tale I will tell you about our horses and porters and cooks that traveled each day by foot with us. It was a expedition that harkened trips of long ago, of explorers of the past. There were a few points, a few steep inclines and early morning scenes, tea in hand as I overlooked the upcoming days terrain that I could feel old Hemingway looking down (0r up) at me, cheering me on, jealous and eager to get back into the action.

Early morning meditation

Peru was Katherine’s pick as she and I go back and forth when choosing our next destinations. As we headed for Peru and struck up conversation with our fellow passengers, I realized our recent excursions, Africa and now trekking through Peru, included us in a new sect of travelers. The hot blonde girl sitting beside me (I know, like Achilles I always seem to be graced by the Gods) was heading to Bolivia and Venezuela. The lady to her left was heading to South America for a month and Nepal in late August. Discussing our upcoming and past adventures, we dripped with excitement about life’s future possibilities. It was in this way, that I sat, on the edge of my seat, approaching Peru.

We arrived in Lima and spent the night there before heading to Cusco. This is where we were to begin our trip. I know I’m emotionally unbalanced because as we landed in those beautiful mountains and disembarked the plane, a single tear of excitement dripped down my cheek. How the fuck had I made it this far?  The mountains were beautiful and the sky and clouds matched perfectly with the plane we arrived on. It is on these occasions, when we arrive at a new frontier, that I fall madly in love with Katherine all over again. Without her, would this life be reality?

Our arrival in Cusco

We checked in to our hotel in Cusco and I found out, shit, I know some Spanish. I’ll have to thank all my Mexican friends back home. I quickly made friends with a bell boy named Roselvel and traded him a pack of gum for a bag of coca leaves. He taught me how to chew them and showed me how to make them into tea. “They help with the altitude,” he told me and I was happy to oblige as at a little under 12,000 feet, my breathing was suddenly labored. With a cheek full of coca leaves, Katherine and I headed out to explore this old city, high up in the clouds.
We walked down the old cobblestone streets, found the squares and marveled at the huge cathedrals. Peddlers and local girls in traditional garb tried to sell us handicrafts and posed for pictures.

Nap break

Katherine

making new friends

A cathedral in Cusco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had lunch and enjoyed some wine. We walked through the markets and gave out candy to the little kids on the street. The day was hot and the air thin. We wanted to head up to the artist district of San Blais. Below is an excerpt from my notebook that day that I wanted to share. This is rough, with no corrections and are just my notes from the afternoon.

San Blais Square

The afternoon sun spotlights us, making us feel warm in our new surroundings.
Dark brown eyes set in dark brown skin stare at us from underneath colorful cottons and wool.
The square is set up with merchants, biding their time and selling their goods. One plays a flute in the shade of the church.
Little children drip ice cream down their tanned faces, their reward for sitting patiently with their mother at her table.
Dogs lie about, unowned, uncared for as the artists with their greasy hair drip sweat into their canvas work.
At the end of the square sits a fountain with steps curling up either side. Katherine and I climb and look down onto the market. A hippie and his girlfriend ask me if I want to buy weed in Spanish. They think I am from Argentina. The sky is bright blue and the suns feels so close you could touch it.
A pink flowers sways in the shade as someone tries to sell me a ring.

Yeah for me

San Blais square

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were to meet our group that night at 7 p.m. in a local restaurant for a briefing before we depart the next morning. Katherine had set this all up through a company called Mountain Lodges of Peru or MLP. We had looked at our different options and decided against hiking the classic Inca Trail for a few reasons. First, we heard it was crowded and commercialized; second, it was only a four-day trek, and third you couldn’t shower that whole time. Now I know some of you may think less of us for wanting to shower every night, but oh well. MLP offers a six-day lodge to lodge trek, covering 42 miles and reaching the Salkantay peak of 15,500 which is 1600 feet higher than the highest point on the classic Inca Trail. Each lodge only held our group; besides our own porters and horsemen carrying our luggage, food and supplies, we only came across native Peruvians using the trail for their everyday life. We were one of the first expeditions of the year as the rainy season was just ending. At our group meeting, we met who were to become our partners, friends and teammates in the following days. There was a family of four from Arlington, VA, two Canadians from Edmonton and a solo guy named Craig who also was from Arlington. Together, with our two guides, Ian and Ruben, we were to set out on the road less traveled.

We departed the next morning at 7 a.m. and after picking up everyone at their respective hotels, we headed out of Cusco by bus towards Moyobata. I felt bad for seventeen-year-old Callan who was stomach sick; I can assure you the road was neither flat nor straight. About two hours in we stopped at Moyobata for a restroom, to tour the small village and to purchase some of the local products. It is in situations like this that I would like to remind my fellow 99 percenters that to a lot of the rest of the world you are the one percent. The things many of us Americans take for granted would be cherished items in these villages. It upsets me to think of the arrogance and self-entitlement I see in my own country from all levels of the social scale. Get a grip and try to do some good in the world or at least do us all a favor and shut up. But I digress.

After such a positive experience in Africa with the items we brought to give out, Katherine and I loaded up again on candy, Marvel comics and Disney princess pens and some more soccer balls. In Moyobata as the girls shopped and the guys took pictures I strolled around and tried to breath it all in. Despite what we would consider absolute poverty, I could hear laughter and feel the warmth throughout the neighborhoods. There was a balcony over one shop and a little girl played there. I got her attention and handed up a Starburst and pen with Cinderella on it. She smiled and stared at me with these big brown eyes: “Gracias”. Minutes later I felt a tugging at my pants, I looked down to see the little girl starring up at me holding up a pear. “Mucho Gracias senorita,” I said as I smiled at her. She forced the pear into my hand, giggled and ran away. Her mother smiled down on me from the balcony. I smiled and quickly turned as my face swells up with emotion. To have so little and to offer me a pear, a big delicious pear. It was here that my love for this country started.

From there we traveled to Sayllapta at 11,500 feet. We had a packed lunch overlooking the Andes and our whole group sat in awe of where we were and what we were about to do.

Our first lunch

We said goodbye to the bus that Sunday–the next time motorized transportation would be available to us would be the following Saturday. We started our hike, the family of four pulling ahead which would be a reoccuring theme for the trip. They were about 200 meters in front of us, then Katherine and I, Craig and Ian about 100 meters behind us, with the Canadian women, Corrine and Margaret pulling up the rear with Ruben. We hiked for about 3 1/2 hours, excited, inspired, in love.  We were really going to do this? Around 4 p.m. we came upon our first lodge, Soraypampa at 12,700 feet. We were greeted by an awaiting staff, relieved of our boots and gear and shown to our warm room. A jacuzzi was available outside and although exhausted we felt we deserved it. The moon was beginning to rise above the surrounding peaks and I just couldn’t have felt happier.

Our first lodge, well deserved

We feasted that night on roasted chicken and potatoes started off with a hot corn soup. Katherine and I had some wine and the days exertion sent us to bed after dinner. This would be the only lodge we stayed at for two nights and tomorrow we would go on a short yet difficult four mile acclimation hike to Humantay peak and its glacial lake. Most just sit on the shore at the top; I knew I had to dive in this icy water.

The next day we got to sleep in until 8 a.m. We didn’t. The group was up and ready, excited to begin. We set out from the lodge on a small path that led over the Rio Blanco. From there we headed up at a pretty decent incline. A light shower would fall every once in a while as we made our way up the hillside which was peppered with yellow mountain daisies and only shared with grazing horses. Our group was acclamating slowly, to the altitude and each other. Walter and his horse Pizzaro followed close behind but always pulling up the rear. He was in charge of following us with our needs for the day’s hike, water, our rain gear and extra tools.

Walter and his trusty steed Pizarro

I liked Walter from the first time I saw him. He and I could not communicate but he always smiled and that made me smile. When he would arrive at a stop or a break, close behind whomever was last in our group, I would yell out “Walter!” and hold up my hands. He would give me that big smile and a thumbs up. Over the next six days he would become one a my favorite new friends in Peru. We will come back to him and trusty Pizzaro.

Some friends, the thumbs up, and some snow capped Andes

We made the lake at about 11:30 a.m. and it was absolutely beautiful. Serene, pure, quiet, the lake sat beneath a huge glacier.A cold rain began to fall as Katherine and I, along with Callan, her mom Sandra and her dad Kevin, stripped down to our bathing suits to prepare for the plunge. Katherine had to go behind a rock to get into her suit and was actually standing in snow while changing. We were the first ones in and our bodies were in shock. I swam out a few yards and convinced Katherine to follow. We posed for a few shots, then quickly swam back in. My whole upper chest was numb. We dried off and got back into warmer clothes. The rain was still falling as we ate our snack in the company of the lake. As the adrenaline wore off, we all ate in silence, spending time with ourselves, with our spirits. We headed back to the lodge and arrived at 1:30 to a delicious hot lunch.

A mid mountain dip

Glacial lake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For an extra $60 per person we were offered horseback riding at the lodge for two hours. Uh, let me think about that, $120.00 for two hours of riding horses through the Peruvian Andes? Sign me the fuck up! Victor, a local rancher, showed up despite the forest rain at 2:30 p.m. with three horses. We were tired and wet but as soon as we saw those horses approaching youth came in for a night cap. Victor could not speak one word of English. We saddled up and smiled as consent.
Victor lead us up a mountain pass, turning around frequently to make sure we were following. He would point out things and speak in Quechua. Katherine and I tried our best to communicate. My horse’s name was Amida, Katherine’s was Deba and Victor’s Lemochello. The mountain side was beautiful and as the rain had let up different parts of the earth were steaming. We were surrounded by snow cap peaks on all sides and Cara Cara falcons flew overhead. The day was gray but our bodies were warm against the horse. Victor led us through some tight paths and across a few streams at which our horses drank. I asked Victor if we could go “mas rapido” and he smiled and led us back down to the dirt road that just the day before we had walked in to the lodge. We trotted and then galloped away from the lodge, Victor pulling up every half mile or so to make sure we all stayed in control. At last we turned around to go back to the lodge. It was here that my real ride began. It turns out Amida, like her rider, always likes seeing the end of her workday. This horse was a bullet and I rode her hard.  We flew down the road, into a meadow, over a stone wall.  Katherine said I held one hand in the air and was just yelling “Yah, yah, yah.”  The mountain peaks surrounded me as I flew across the terrain.  I had never ridden a horse like this and the whole ride seemed surreal.  It was my horse and me alone in the universe. Again, I felt that some of my dead heroes were smiling down on the scene.I gave Victor a few soles for a tip and an LED flashlight. He gave me a hug and the best horseback riding experience of my life.

Amida and I

Katherine and Victor

28
Mar
12

quick catch up part#2

Again, I have to begin by apologizing for my long absence.  We bought a house and have been working through the winter weeks trying to put it together and make it our home.  Besides our brief but immensely relaxing family Christmas in Hawaii, my weekends, as well as my wallet, have been spent on our new purchase. It is only now, as March roars on, that I can say things are finally getting settled.  I am going to attempt to get out three quick posts or so to catch up.

December was a blur.  We had just gotten into the house; it was bare, cold, a mess.  I must admit I am a little OCD so having everything out of order drove me crazy.  On top of this, I had committed a few nights a week to help a friend who owned a Christmas tree lot.  When I spoke to her in August, I had no idea I would be moving into my first house the same weeks she needed me.  Working a Christmas tree lot has always been my favorite job. In college, I came home every year from Penn State and worked hauling trees with my cousin Billy.  I spent the nights at my grandparents.  I can still remember my grandmother making me wrap my feet in plastic grocery bags before putting on my boots in the morning.  I thought this was ridiculous but my feet were always dry. Back East, the days on the lot were long and very cold, but the tips were generous. Billy even used to let us booze on the job.  I’ll tell you what, some of those nights my eyes would be twinkling like the festive lights that hung from the houses across the street.  I always made my  second semester money while honing my sales skills for the future.

I loved this job.  Working outside, the sap, the season, the sound of the saw as the excited family watched closely at a perfected fresh cut.  But while the East Coast was harsh, slinging trees in Newport Beach was practically luxurious… like getting traded from Cleveland to the world famous Philadelphia Phillies.  Although I was exhausted and my new house was in shambles, I felt that being back on the lot grounded me.  I was working hard, lugging trees, making some extra money and feeling free, channeling my youth.  Despite the 45 minutes commute from my new house and still working my regular job, there was a real feeling of satisfaction at the end of these long days. Driving up the 405 each night, I breathed in the smell of pine that dominated my car.

My mom came in the middle of December to stay for a few days before we all left for Hawaii.  In the past few years, my relationship with my mom has completely changed; there is no more lingering resentment on either of our parts, but instead we just laugh our asses off together.  She was our first extended guest in the new place. With depleted fiscal reserves and an outdated floor vent, we pretty much froze the poor thing by refusing to turn on our gas heater.  Still, she loved the house and I was proud to show her what we owned.  This picture I took of my mom as she tried to get a little sun before we left for Hawaii.  It is one of the most perfect pictures I have ever taken, and I will always remember her as she was at this moment: happy, relaxed, proud, at peace.

Me mom

Our Hawaiian Christmas included my mom, my sister and her husband, and Katherine’s whole family–thirteen of us in all, on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Although I love the ocean and the beach, I had never been to Hawaii before and was excited for our first truly relaxing vacation.  I brought some books, my mask and snorkel, ready for some pina coladas.

Without boring you with the whole trip I will just tell you that we had a blast.  I snorkeled every day, some days by myself. Our families all got to spend some quality time together. My sister and I hiked, paddle boarded, talked.  I have missed her and was glad to see how alike we still are.  In the end, it was the most consecutive days I’d spent with my sister and mom in over a decade.

I think there two very important things that came from this trip.  One, Hawaii, both exotic and safe, made me feel a little better about having kids.  I would be okay if Hawaii had to be our trip for a few years while our babies were growing. It was easy, fun, yet still felt like a trip.  The second thing, and more importantly, I really saw who my mom was.  I had such a good time with her, laughing with her, exploring the island with her. I showed her how to snorkel and even forced her to hike with me.  Remember, she has been diagnoised with MS since the 80’s so these were no small feats.  For the longest time I was embarrassed of her, embarrassed of her disabilities, of her quirks. Maybe it was because I was angry at her for my dad leaving or some stupid childhood bullshit like that.  Maybe I was never truly comfortable with myself.  But this trip changed that.  I found a new love for my mom.  One that said, Fuck it, if you think she’s a little quirky wait until you deal with me.  I realized she is one of the truest good hearts in the world.  She talks to everyone, she makes fun of herself, she’s interested in life and in learning something new everyday, “Michael, what’s in that building?” she asked one night as we drove through Honolulu.  We all started laughing; how would we even have a clue?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end it was a holiday that made me remember how damn lucky I have been.  Katherine and I both feel like we lucked out with the families we’ve had since birth and the ones we added when we married.  We were only missing my little brother and his family– he promised me he would be there next time.

A perfect kiss, on top of a mountain, in the middle of an ocean

 

 

23
Mar
12

some things you didn’t know about me

Long absence, many things to discuss.  I need to get my creative mojo flowing again.  I have missed writing the blog and have let it go too long so I decided to break the ice by telling everyone some things you didn’t know about me.  And, maybe some that you did.

I’m a secret Tracy Chapman fan, seriously.

If I could be any superhero it would be Batman, I like that he is a vigilante.

I love the colors and the pain of the Impressionist period.

My favorite flower is a Hyacinth because it reminds me of spring mornings in Valleybrook, where I grew up.

Hyacinth

My last meal would be my mom’s veal cutlets.

I saw my first Freddie Kruger movie in fifth grade at Mike Douthwaite’s house and literally was scared of the dark until I was 13. I seriously dreaded sleep and slept at the foot of my mom’s bed for all of 5th and 6th grade.  It was horrible.

Every time I land in London I listen to Radioheads High and Dry as I’m walking to baggage claim.

My favorite country visited, my senses say Italia but my heart says Kenya.

Kenya, Lake Nakuru, 2011

Rome, Spanish steps, 2006

My two movies are Legends of the Fall and Cool Hand Luke.

My favorite parts of a girl are her neck and her eyes, if she can smile through her eyes she has me.

I absolutely hate needles and sharks.

I love fireworks.

I’ve always loved the number 4 because of it’s shape.

I hate my nose.

I feel most free when I am traveling or swimming alone in the ocean.

The instrument that inspires me the most is the piano.

Kicking down some knowledge

I’m not scared of dying, just growing old.

The months I love the most are May and October and my favorite season is autumn.

My most cherished castle is the Chateau de Chillion on Lake Geneva which I have been lucky enough to visit in 2001 and 2007.

Lake Geneva, Switzerland

If it wasn’t for girls I would have frozen or starved, so I pretty much I am forever indebted to the fairer sex.

I consider myself a Romantic because I feel the love and the hate of the world at it’s truest extremes and I am constantly on the fence, and my groin hurts.

As always in this month, in memory of Alison, Nick and Badd.  I dance around my bedroom and scream this song.  Every word fits. This will forever be my song to you!

 

 

 

 

Maybe you’ll be out there on that road somewhere
In some bus or train traveling along
In some motel room therell be a radio playing
And you’ll hear me sing this song
Well if you do you’ll know Im thinking of you and all the miles in between
And Im just calling one last time not to change your mind
But just to say I miss you baby, good luck goodbye, bobby jean

 

 

 




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