Search This Blog

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Kidnapped: Part Three

We have nothing planned today other than Anthony has to work and we have to drop him off.  None of us are doing well.  I am not sure how Anthony is going to make it through his day of responsibilities.  Our heads require sunglasses and the uber-tint on Rob's rental is more than welcome.  We load up into the car, Dax takes the passenger seat as the local navigator and size considerations matching comfort, and Anthony and I are in the back.  We drive down the steep and one 180 degree turn driveway out to the main road.  We are angled at about 30 degrees obscuring any sort of line of sight for the driver.  Dax, repeating "no", "no", "no", until the coast is clear and "go" when it is clear. We are off.  

As we drive I am amazed Rob can function at all.  Then watching the roads and the other drivers I am more amazed that he is willing to drive here under any circumstances.  The rules of the road are understood differently here.  We make our way into Santa Ana with Dax pointing and leading our way from the passenger seat.  We pull into a roundabout at which point Dax directs us to stop on the side.  We are in the middle of the roundabout when Anthony jumps out and bids his farewells.  I am not sure I am processing any of this correctly.  

As we drive Rob and Dax are talking about the safety of the area and dropping one liners that instill a background fear in Rob and I.  We see a pick-up truck with a simple one bar steel cage stilted above the bed holding in five or six machine gun toting, green clad, black ski mask wearing standing passengers.  The masks draw my eyes to theirs as they round the about.  The car is silent.  For some reason that either doesn't need any explanation or there isn't one to be had.

We stop at a petrol station to pick up tonights rations of cigarettes, water, and beer.  The door to the convenience store is opened by the free hand of a uniformed shotgun toting door attendant.  There are guns everywhere here.  I mean everywhere.  There are several different uniforms accompanying the guns and as many different types firearms brandying about.  Apparently security is a top concern here in El Salvador. Whose or what's security is unknown but it is a top concern.  I don't know what the U.S. State Department is going on about.  How can anything possibly go wrong in this country with the sheer volume of firearms.  No one would dare do anything illegal here because everyone has a gun.  At least that is my understanding of the Second Amendment rights advocates if taken to the logical conclusion:  Give everyone a gun and nothing can wrong.

We move along up the road to some ruins near Santa Ana and park.  Again, Rob with his awareness heightening comments prods us to either gather everything up or hide them somewhere within the car.   Dax the local, doesn't say anything to soften the ominous statements and compiles or agrees with every statement.

We get out and head into the ruins of El Tazumal in Chalchuapa.  Smaller than anything I have seen yet but still just another testament to how large and pervasive early American civilizations were. This one is completely open to climb and we do as much as the mid-day's heat and the late night hang over will permit.  We pose for a few pictures meander through the small attached museum.  Look at the cemetery next to the ruins.  

Rob asks the local sitting at the gate who was buried there.  The response is "Warriors".  Rob asks if the winner of the games or the losers of the game were killed and buried here.  The answer is "Both".  Sometimes I feel people just make things up when they don't know the answer.

We move back into town and decide to hit up the mall.  Dax has to deal with some mobile plan issues, Rob is looking for some cheap clothes and I am tagging along.  Again, guys with guns, on bikes, on foot and in cars.  The trip is short, we eat in the food court, some uninspired fried chicken, and we are back to the Villa for some rest that will hopefully clear the remaining clouds from last night.

The rest is welcome, and the blazing mid-day heat is giving way to an evening cooling trend.  Tonight is Maria's youngest son's ninth birthday.  As such there is a fiesta at the pool next to our accustomed tables.  There are children and parents everywhere.  Along with the children at the party there are a couple sitting with us.  Some of Dax's nephews and a friend, Enrico, who is ostensibly 21, but I cannot see him being a day over 16.  Kids everywhere. Cesar offers up free pizza to the table, Rob has his own stereo piping in music from the inter webs and like last night everyone is playing DJ.  

Rob and Dax intermittently sing along with the song, and I don't mean mumble through until the chorus, I mean sing with all force every single word.  It comes out Rob has a band back in Ottawa and loves to sing.  It occurs to me they are just waiting for the kids to clear out before heading to the function room where a full on Karaoke get up is set up.  

As suspected, after we have many drinks the children pass on their well wishes and are escorted home by their parents.  The function room now only has a handful of people including Maria and the DJ.  Rob waists no time as soon as the DJ finishes holding over until there is another volunteer, Rob is up there.  It takes him just a few seconds to decide on a song and he nails it.  Rob is an entertainer and loves being on stage and has a great voice.  Not to be outdone, Dax is next on deck and like Rob, nails it.  Nothing held back.  The two go back and forth for a half a dozen songs, occasionally trying to prod me onto the stage.  I am having nothing of it.  I assume this is the typical Karaoke scenario where there is a finite list of songs in a three ring binder that one picks from.  I never find anything I am inspired to sing, and so far everything has been in Spanish.  I don't see how this could possibly happen.  I have mustered the courage to karaoke only one other time in my life.  I do not have the inherent showmanship that Rob and Dax are displaying nor the ear or voice.

The night goes on, the drinks flow, and eventually Dax has to get his nephews to sleep and Rob calls it a night.  I stay to finish my beer and Maria is now front and center.  She sings a song, an American song that I recognize and haven't heard forever: "Losing My Religion" by R.E.M..  Something comes over me.  There is an outside chance I may find something to sing.  I go up and sit next to Maria as she is finishing her song and I realize that all this is being driven by YouTube.  Just about every song on earth can be found on YouTube with words overlaid complete with bouncy ball and no one singing.  When did this happen?  This seems like a game changer in the world of karaoke.

Next thing I know I am singing "Sax and Violins" by the Talking Heads, "Vincent of Jersey" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters, "Soul to Squeeze" by Red Hot Chili Peppers.  Maria even forced me into the singing a six minute duet - "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen.  This is the most I have ever sung into a microphone ever in my entire life and other humans were actually in the room to witness it - all three of them - all three complete strangers.  Even more surprising they didn't leave immediately or at all for that matter.   

What has happened?  What are these vicious captures doing to me?  What kind of mind games and torture am I being put through.  This is only the second night, how much more of this can I take before I am no longer myself?  How long before I am completely transformed by the El Salvadorian Syndrome.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Frog: ???? - 16 -May-2017

It is with great sorrow we announce Frog passed away while traveling in New York in the early morning hours of 16-May-2017. 

Frog's actual date of manufacturing is unknown, but he entered our lives in 2007 by jumping out of our friend's purse onto our dashboard.  Ever since Frog has been our faithful and eager traveling companion.  A passionate traveler, Frog visited at least 30 countries and all 50 US states.  While he may be one of millions, he was always one of a kind to us.  Frog was great listener and also always welcomed conversation. He was never afraid to meet new people despite his crippling shyness which prevented him from talking to too many people.  Frog loved any sort of pool of water, regardless of how big, small, dirty, fresh or salty.  Frog always enjoyed life, occasionally dipping in a Monaco or glass of Champaign, he even found his way into a few pub 'lock-ins'.  Frog had a wonderful sense of humor and was always playing practice jokes on his friends, and by far his favorite game was "Find Frog".

Frog loved traveling, the thrill of flying, the chaos of buses, but by far his favorite place was on the dashboard of any car, looking straight forward as the world came flying straight at him.  

All the joy, calmness and peace conveyed through his unwavering honest smile will always be missed and forever remembered.  

Rest in peace, my dear friend.

A private ceremony will be held in Wyoming.  Please do not send flowers or gifts.  I you would like to help celebrate Frog's life please post stories and pictures to:

Find Frog: Final Edition

Saturday, May 13, 2017

This is Frog,

playing a toad on the internet in Melbourne Royal Botanical Garden.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Kidnapped: Part Two

After a brief pause, we pull to the right up a steep drive, that I couldn't see, and then make a switchback turn again to the right and out of no where we are parked in front of Villa Napoli: my lodgings.

I feel safety.  A sigh of relief as I pay the taxi the agreed upon price.  I walk past a table of three people sitting at a table next to the pool.  They were loud and jovial listening to their music pumped through a portable speaker. In the lobby I am met by Maria.  She is anticipating my arrival and made short work of the logistics and quickly moved onto the hospitality. 

"Are you hungry?"
"Yes."  It is approaching 10 pm and I have not ate since noon, and I have been burning nervous calories which I feel is more exhausting than physically expending calories.
"We are ordering pizza in a bit if you would like that or you can have a tuna sandwich."
"Tuna sandwich please."  The pizza offer sounds like a communal endeavor and I would rather collect my thoughts in peace and try to get to sleep soon.
"O.K. Cesar will show you your room.  Get settled in and come back up here for dinner."

Cesar is a slim young man with a dark complexion and an easy smile that is welcoming.  He silently picks up my bags with a timid smile and leads me out of the lobby.

My room is down two outdoor flights of stairs. To the right of the first flight is the sitting area where the other three are sitting and conversing beside the pool. To the left is a large flat top that doubles as bridge and roof between the main house and a second building where Maria and her friends are enjoying their evening.  Then past the drive and another room is the second flight of stairs that opens up to a nice large covered veranda.  Cesar leads the way through one set of doors that opens up to a large sitting room with a fireplace and on into another door labeled Firenze that is my room.  The room is very large with a large king size bed, large dark wood wardrobes and desk, colorful paintings, venetian masquerade masks and a large wooden cable spool that looked a bit out of place, yet somehow fit.  Cesar with few words explains the amenities and excuses himself.  I collapse on the bed and sigh again, but for real this time, a big sigh of relief.  At least I have this enclave of Italy nestled away in El Salvador to collect myself.  The lodgings are some of the best and most economical that I have had in a long time.  Things change at borders.  Imaginary lines separating people and governments can have profound affects.

Comfort settling in, the hunger creeps toward the front of my thoughts.  I wander back up to the sitting area and Cesar greets me and offers me a seat at the empty table next to the pool.  As I sit he lays out the cutlery and napkin quickly followed by a toasted tuna sandwich and offers a beer, which I gladly accept.  Tuna fish sandwiches are always a gamble in my book with the type of odds that create large Vegas style casinos.  However, the house lost on this one.  The sandwich was warm and buttery and the tuna was laced with spices and vegetables to create an perfect flavor with only subtle hint of fish that so often overwhelms a tuna sandwich.  The beer is cold and goes down easily.  

After the sandwich and beer, Maria comes back out and asks if I would like a pupusa.  I have no idea what it is, but I agree.  She asks if pork is O.K., and of course it is.  Minutes later I am presented with a cheese covered pork filled thick corn tortilla type bread.  It is delicious: no hesitation or qualifications.  By far the most delicious thing I have ate since Mexico that is only made better by another beer.

After eating enjoying the end of my second beer I am pulled out of my internal monolog by one of the three gentlemen sitting next to me:

"Hey buddy, if music is too loud let us know."  I am a bit startled, this is the first English they have spoken all night.
"No no, it is fine, I am enjoying it." 
"Cool, how is your evening going?" and before I could respond, "You are more than welcome to join us.  Here have a beer."

Pondering my early night in, I accept and join them.  A quick round of introductions and I find, the English speaker, Roberto, or Rob, is originally from Dominican Republic, but currently lives in Ottawa. He is jovial and has that well kept suave look about him.  Dressed in a simple black t-shirt, hair neatly kept short, thick dark eyebrows framing his brown eyes and the type of guy that would never leave his habitations without a dash of aftershave or cologne.  He is cool.  

Rob met one of the other guys, Dax, in the Dominican Republic and are life long friends. Dax is in many ways the opposite of Rob.  He is a heavy man and is more comfortable in loose and baggy clothes.  He leans forward for comfort and engagement.  But his weight isn't the first thing you notice.  Dax has a smile on his face from ear to ear and easily laughs and is the first to crack a joke. His joviality twinkles from his inner being through his eyes casting a glow on everything he sees.  Finally there is Anthony who works in the El Salvadorian government.  He is friends with Dax and knows Rob from his previous trip to El Salvador.  Anthony is the pendulum that swings from high energy and outgoing to distressingly somber, serious all the way down to tears in a side conversation.  The transitions between states are instant.  He only has the 'intense' setting.  

Rob is down for a month visiting Dax.  This is Rob's second month long visit to El Salvador.   

After introductions the conversation flowed among the three and limped along with me. Rob was the bi-lingual bridge between me and the others.  Anthony's English is about as good as my Spanish which isn't saying much.  Dax's English is better, but has the quality of someone who studied English for a long time, but never consistently used it and hasn't used it at all recently.  The words eventually bubble up to match his thoughts.  We talk about travels, of course politics and Trump specifically; yeah who would guess right?  Rob would occasionally leave to get more cigarettes, beer or whatever leaving me with the other two to figure out communications.  The cadence of the conversation was driven by who was at the table and the topic.  At times the three would spin off and just talk as if I wasn't there and I attempted to glean as much as I could, other times it was a full on UN translation session performed by Rob.  Music was constantly changing everyone taking turns picking something.  Cesar was stopping in and stepping away as Maria called him away.  The night rambled on for hours measured by wine, cigarettes and beers.  So much for an early evening.  

We are wrapping up the evening and Rob asks: "So how long are you staying?"
"Just tonight and tomorrow night."
"Why so short?"
"Well my plan is to hike the volcano tomorrow and move on."
"It is a big world and I want to see it."
"So you don't have to leave?"
"No, but my plan was to go to this volcano tomorrow and move on down the road.  Hey why don't you come with me to the volcano?"
"Where is it?"
"I am not exactly sure, but I think it is close.  I see they have a bus that we can take."
"Oh, I have a car. I rented one for the entire month." Rob then stops and goes full on Spanish with his friends. After a lengthy back and forth and somewhat heated conversation he comes back with, "We can't do it tomorrow.  Stay an extra day and we can do it Friday.  I'll drive."
"Hmmm, O.K., Cesar, do you think I can stay an extra night?"
Cesar responds by screwing his eyes up into his head as if to consult the Villa's diary or possibly his Spanish-to-English dictionary and responds by giving a mostly sure answer of "Yeah, can be possible."

Through the alcohol haze, the cigarette smoke clears and it is settled; this evening is over, we are hanging out for a couple of days. I have been kidnapped - held against my will by new bonds of friendship.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Find Frog in the center of Australia

Frog chilling in Erldunda, Australia which is considered the center, or close enough.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Kidnapped: Part One

To protect all those involved the names in the following story are fictional and some or all of the events conveyed may or may not be complete fiction.  

So I see Nicole off at the airport and I make it to the bus stop in Guatemala City.  A flood of emotions is coming over me, the strongest being fear and with it comes a realization; I am codependent.  For me, this is a shocking realization as I have always considered myself fiercely independent.  This is the first time in a long time that I have traveled alone in frightening lands.

The U.S. State Department travel advisory for El Salvador published 15-January-2015, starts out with: "The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens that crime and violence levels in El Salvador remain critically high, and U.S. citizens traveling to El Salvador should remain alert to their surroundings."  Then it continued with some softer words, "Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit El Salvador each year for study, tourism, cruise ship visits, business and volunteer work.  There is no information to suggest that U.S. citizens are specifically targeted by criminals; however, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country."  The travel warning then goes into some current and historical crime stats, typical crimes; kidnappings, hostage situations with lack luster conviction rates and then goes into detail regarding places and situations to avoid, and specific examples of gang related actions.  It is a bleak outlook softened by the one statement about tens of thousands safely visiting.   

I am legitimately on edge and going it alone makes me realize how much comfort I had with Nicole by my side and how much of that 'warm blanket' feeling I take for granted.  I realize how much I rely on her judgement to balance my own.  

I resolve that this is an opportunity for growth and have plans to spent two nights in Santa Ana just outside of San Salvador.  Get there tonight, climb a volcano the next day, then move on.

After a nice tipico lunch at the Tica Bus stop everyone is boarding and I am in the back seat.  It smells a bit blue (if you have ever ridden a Greyhound bus you know what blue smells like), other than that this is the type of scenic cruiser I am hoping for.  I settle in for the four hour ride. Well I think it is only going to take four hours, five at most, and it ends up being six hours, one of which was at the border crossing.  

We hit the border crossing at night and everyone is shuffled off the bus into the dark dirty street.  Like Guatemala, numerous people are holding large wads of colorful cash offering poor exchanges, just sitting around, or tending to smoldering coals releasing smoke into the stagnate night air as they offer up meals for money to the transitory.  Dogs shifting freely back and forth across the border between numerous machine gun armed guards.

I fall into line behind the rest of my fellow bus-itizens, and I am in the back of the line waiting my turn while trying to inconspicuously ignore the raggedly dressed man screaming from the El Salvadorian side of the border barn like structure. Once processing through one queue is complete we turn around and fall into the next queue directly behind the first.  

The bus driver is on the other side waving those who have successfully cleared the queues back onto the bus.  I really hope he recognizes me.  I am no longer at the back of the line due to others flowing across the border, and I really hope he knows where his lines stops and the other starts.  A couple, two people in front of me, is having some issue beyond a language barrier.  The bus driver swoops in to intervene and the couple is escorted off with the bus driver out the long way of the barn.  Oh, I hope he comes back.  Next is a family of four and they are paying up their dues only to find they are two dollars short (yeah I know, odd right, dollars? - El Salvador's official currency is the US Dollar, I am sure glad I still have some of Norma Roses proceeds in my pocket).  After a minute of back and forth between the family patriarch and the border officer it is clear the rules are inexorable or at least the guard is intransigent.  I reach into my pocket and pass along the missing dollars.  The father thanks me and moves down the long end of the barn with his family.  

Oh man, do I have enough now?  The sun-parched man continues to rage and is slowly but consciously stumbling toward me as I work out my entry into El Salvador.  The bus driver is no where to be seen.  The armed guards remain staring out into the distance right through the walls of the barn.  Is this how it ends?  I dig through my backpack and find the requisite dollars to get my stamp.  Rather than confronting the approaching screaming man to the right of me I turn back into the line and walk around to the other side to make a quick exit down the length of the concrete barn in full view of the machine guns and guards.  Luckily the bus is obviously situated just outside and the driver is opening the bus door as I exit the border control barn.  This isn't how it ends, but my nerves are on end and 'lucky' for me I still have at least an hour before Santa Ana.

I am dropped of somewhere on the edge of Santa Ana, conveniently right in front of a giant hole in the sidewalk. As I am about to step into the earth's crevice to grab my suitcase, I hear the bus driver scream and warn me.  I catch myself just in time to jump into traffic prompting the bus driver to scream again.  What the hell is wrong with me?  I collect my bag and start looking for a taxi.

I have a hotel lined up but never thought of lining up transportation from the bus stop to the hotel.  In retrospect I am sure it was possible, but I never thought through the steps and executed.  I see a rotund man wearing a collared polo with the iconic polo man covering his left chest leaning up against a nice Lexus lazily saying "Taxi".  I approach him and show him the hotel name and address, he nods in acknowledgement and we agree upon a fare.  Then we walk about 30 meters away from the Lexus into some run down, every window tinted, red beater of a car.  Eh what's in a car anyway?  Who needs a Lexus? Well except a cabbie trying to solicit riders at a late night bus stop.  

I get into the back of the red car and the tint on the windows is clearly not intended for night.  It is impossible to see anything out of any window, except the windshield.  We burn out of the parking space kicking up rocks and dust to hit the road at a reasonable speed and start our 20 minute drive.  Twenty minutes go by and the city has come and gone.  The darkness is overwhelming between the sheer lack of light and the heavy window tint.  My nerves are getting the best of me.  What sort of discretion did I use before getting into this stranger's car?  None.  

We pull off to the side of the road.  To the right I make out a steep hill.  To the left I can barely make out a small rubbish pile on fire at what looks like the entrance to a corrugated steel shanty town.  I see nothing that resembles a "Villa". So this is how it ends?  Am I going to get shot and that is it?  Am I getting kidnapped?