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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Into Venezuela

Click on the picture below to see my VZ pix


THE $220 NAP

1:48 pm Caracas, Today has been one of those travel days that

  1. make you wonder about the value of ever going beyond your own city limits and

  2. provide the raw wheat for the bread of tales to come.

Last night: Rand Ali is the guitar player for ANTI-EVERYTHING

, and one of my Trini heroes. (Read: one of the top ten nicest guys in the world. Right up there with Albert Schweitzer and those guys in Bulgaria who had a pet name for their washing machine).

He picks me up at Steve's mansion in Bumfuck T'dad... right next to Middle-of-Nowhere. It's a hell of a ride from Port of Prince to Bumfuck, but Randy does it. Then, back to pick up some other boys in the band, to their practice space, where they ask me to do some vocals for their next CD. They think my voice will be exotic. I can riff. Oh yeah, I'm not gonna pass that up. I haven't been on a record since Peter Peter use me for a BLEEDER something or other, right at the turn of the millennium,. It'll be great to scream again.

We do the the recording. Besides screaming, I play a news reporter in the midst of an urban riot. I also count off 1-2-3-4 in seven languages.

After the recording, we go for doubles, and then go to Randy's family's house. Here is Randy with his brother in a picture from yesterday's adventure: THE CURRIED DUCK CONTEST, not yet posted.

Randy moves into his brother's room. I have Randy's room, and can sleep... for 3 hours. At 4AM, the three of us get up, go to the airport. We part and I wait on line to check in for the flight to Caracas. Groggy, spaced, in a three-hours-of-sleep funk. I'm not having fun.

The line is not as long as the original NY check-in line, and it moves fast... until I get to the front zig of the roped zig-zag. At that point, the computer system stops working. The line stops. Dead. Nothing moves.

“Sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” comes the announcement, “we are having problems with our system. It should be up soon. Thanks for your patience.”

I put my hand to my stomach. I'm having problems with my own system. But it'll keep, I think.

With still enough time left to run through security and MAYBE buy a bottle of booze in the duty free shop, I finally get to the front.

I plan to stay with Johnny the Punk in Caracas, with a back-up family of Venancio, a couch surfer, in case Johnny flakes, or my luck continues. My luck does not continue... it gets worse. Much worse.

I do manage to buy a bottle of rum for the back-up family and make it to the gate slightly before the wheels lift off for their trip across a tiny section of water.

Ah Venezuela, the most beautiful girls in the world, they say. Stephen, my host family dad bought me some “Trinidad Viagra,” for the occasion.

“Works like the real thing,” he tells me. “You can hang your hat on it.”

“Oh yeah,” he tells me later. “You need to take only half a pill. Each one's a double dose.”

Good thing he told me, I think.

[ASIDE: My first plan was to take a boat to Venezuela. It's only 7 miles at the closest point. In New York, I did some internet research and found a boat that leaves once a week. A contact number and email address was listed. Some comments said the boat had been discontinued. I tried both contacts. No reply. So I opted for the plane.

In Trinidad, I discover that the boat does, in fact go, but the company never answers email, and rarely answers the phone. The boat costs about $100 round trip. The plane costs $400. I booked a no-refund ticket. I lost $300. It's a pattern you'll see repeated.]

The flight is only 1 ½ hours. I sleep for an hour of it. I've got a hotel reservation for the first night. A hotel looks better than some punk house in the “local address” section of the immigration form. Besides, Johnny said he wouldn't be home until 7PM, and I need a shower and a nap.

My body itches. The combination of peeling sunburn and thousands of mosquito bites makes me want to pull my skin off. Every day, I cover myself with poison. Every day dozens of mosquitoes find the spots I missed.

I don't get it. Nobody in Trinidad has screens. Neither hotels nor private residences. An island of mosquitoes. No screens. Maybe it's a religious thing. A superstition. God shouldn't strain himself entering your house. I donno. Maybe the locals don't get bit. Different diet. Different color skin. Mosquitos go for white meat, or currently red meat... payback for a relaxing day in the sun.

Before I get to the hotel, there are a few things I need to do at the airport. I want to use my ATM card to take out about $100. Then use the little cash I brought with me to change with Johnny's friends in town. The official rate is 2 Bolivars to a dollar. On the black market, it's 3 to one. Johnny said not to change much at the airport.

Besides withdrawing money, I want to eat something, get a Spanish-English dictionary, and buy a SIM card for my telephone. All of those things should be possible in the airport of any city of size. Caracas is some size. 5 million including the near burbs. I shouldn't have any trouble doing those things there. Right? Yeah, right.


That sign is posted next to a little corner table in “The Museum of the Sacred,” a small Catholic museum next to the largest Cathedral in Caracas. I write this while sitting on a concrete bench in the botanical garden. There are three other concrete benches. One is empty. One is occupied by the bags of a woman who sits on a giant leaf on the ground, resting her elbow on the bench. The third is occupied by a Japanese(?) woman and her Venezuelan paramour. The woman struggling in Spanish, but her arm on his shoulder, the way she crosses her legs, says more than her palabras.

Oh yeah, for the non-Spanish speakers amongst you:

In this oasis of peace, you (familiar you, like THOU) can sit to read, reflect. If you're a poet, write and inspire yourself. The silence and solitude will help a man find himself.

[NOTE: Any American in the 2008 who does not speak at least some Spanish ought to be ashamed. Even George W. Bush speaks Spanish, and he's an idiot.]

This little museum and this garden are the silence and solitude amongst a whole lot of... er... I think the technical term is FUCK UPS!

When I get off the plane, I carry my bags to customs. Only carry-ons. I know how to travel. I have one duty-free bottle of rum. I told you about it... It has a bonus.

Though I travel a fuck of a lot, I'm a nervous traveler. I hate airports. I hate customs and immigration more. I must not have an honest face. They stop me. Every time, every country. Strip search, or just pick a bag and open it. It's awful. I'd be the world's worst smuggler. So I declare everything. Red door. Green door. I go through the red door.

“I bought this tube of toothpaste in Canada,” I say. “Do I have to declare it?”

Usually, the inspectors are charmed by my honestly, and just laugh and wave me though.

Once I declared 5 bottles of rum coming back to the US from The Dominican Republic. You're only allowed 2... I wasn't going to try anything funny. The customs guard thought it was funny though. She smiled and waved me through. I always declare something.

I pass through customs. Hand in my form detailing how many cosmetics, how many electronics, how many books, etc. I tell her about the bottle of rum. It works, I think. The guard waves me through. Not very friendly. But no trouble either... I think.

I try to find the door to the main part of the airport. I have things to do. There is no door.

No exit sign. No SALIDA. Only a big blue-tinted glass wall.

“Como puedo salir?” I ask one of the many tan-clad guards.

She points to the glass wall. As I approach it, it opens.

On the other side are two uniformed men. Here it comes. I can feel it. One guy points to me, the other takes my back pack, which I am now rolling.

“You speak English?” he asks.

I nod.

“Where are you going?” he says.

When I was on my hike to the beach in Trinidad. The halfway point was clearly marked with a sign that meant. You've reached the top. It's all downhill from here. There should have been such a sign on the other side of that glass door.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


For an increasingly updated look at the PICTURES of my life in Trinidad and Venezuela, click on the picture below:

 According to the little digital clock in the corner of the screen. It is exactly Midnight between August 14 and August 15. I can't sleep. Last night, I slept 4 maybe 4 ½ hours. I never sleep the night before a trip. But this is two days. My brain's on fire. Maybe I have a tumor. Encephelitis. Something.

 Lately I've been... off. Ever since I had the worst hangover ever after spending a day with some Mexican punk rockers... The Sunday after-- they all slept on my floor. Were gone when I got up. Me? I couldn't move for more than 12 hours, except to expel some liquid or semi-solid... 

 Since then, I've been feeling nauseous at least once a day, and not too hot the rest of the time. Nerves I tell myself. I hope I'm right.

 It's strange that I would be a nervous traveler. I do so much of it. It's my passion, my life. But it's not the journey that's the passion, but the adventure. I hate airports: the expensive bad food, the security on security on security. The boredom, the clock watching. I'm usually hours early.

The planes are hours late. The weather forecast is thunder storms. Mmmm yeah!

 My apartment smells of cigar smoke from my nephew Kirk who'll be staying here while I'm gone. The plan was to have him move in on Monday, introduce him to the neighbors, show him the post office, take him to the bank, let him be seen with me. Ease him into it. Hang out a bit. I love the guy and don't get much chance to see him. Such was the plan. 

 I've seen him for 10 minutes... maybe an hour. I did get to introduce him to the post office staff and we went out for a Chinese dinner. No landlord. No neighbors. No hanging out. 

 In the middle of our Chinese dinner there were huge thunderstorms. CRACK! Torrential downpour. Like in the tropics. A welcome to Trinidad? Not New York weather. I bet it'll rain like this tomorrow morning. The flight will be delayed. Canceled. I'll miss the Trinidad connection. Be stuck in Atlanta. Moved in to the airport for a day.

 Where is Kirk he now? 12:07AM. The Shuttlebus is scheduled to pick me up in 4½ hours.Out for a walk? Comforting his girlfriend with a sick mother? Who knows? It's not his fault. There is no fault. It's only the way it works... or doesn't.

 It's been a hell of a summer. My mother died. Kirk's mom lost her apartment in The City and was traveling homeless, until recently. Now their car broke down and they're living out of boxes in New Jersey. A few hours ago, I called my long-time pal Helen on her birthday. The news? Her mother died in June. I hope G-d makes the big change on Rosh Hashona, before would be nice. This has not been a good year. (And there's still an election to go through!) 

  4:07PM (NY-- 5:07PM Trinidad) I'm in the air on the way from NY to Port of Spain (for some reason I keep thinking Port of Soul where does that come from?) Kirk returned at about midnight. We sat together for a quarter hour, waiting for the Airport shuttle that was only 15 minutes late. And the guy called to say he'd be late. It's not raining. The night is bracing. Not cool, but not warm. A perfect temperature. Something will go wrong.

 Kind of ridiculous to schedule a 4:30 pick-up for a 9:00 flight, right? Wrong! There are only 3 passengers on the shuttle. The trip speeds through queens. We arrive at 5:15. The airport looks more crowded than usual. There's a huge line at the ticket counter. I'm lucky. I have an e-ticket and only carry on luggage. I can check in by machine. Just run my credit card in the slot, punch in my flight number and read the information on the screen: 


 I try again. Same message. I get on the end of the line huge line-- extending way past the end of the barrier ropes. The thunderstorms of last night have caused dozens of cancellations. The people on line are waiting to talk to an agent to get rebooked as best they can. And then again there are those of us to just want to check in. I put my bags at the end of the line and walk over to the flight screens. I look for my flight number. I see the dozens of cancellations. My flight is not among them. It's not among the scheduled flights either. It's just not there. What can I do except wait on the line and see what's going on. I look at the clock on my cellphone. It's 5:30AM. 

 At 7:22 AM I reach the front of the line. 

 “No problem sir,” says the clerk as she prints out boarding passes for a completely different flight number. “Why didn't you check in automatically?”

 I don't hit her...

 I sleep about half an hour in the plane to Atlanta. I got another hour so far on this plane. That plus the 3 last night gives me a total of 8... combined over the last 2 nights. Aren't vacations to relax? Catch up on sleep? Yeah, right.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Trinidad-- The Hike

For an increasingly updated look at the PICTURES of my life in Trinidad, click on the picture below:

The hike:

I've been here 5 days already and haven't been to the beach yet. This is the Caribbean. It exists for the beach... and the girls. I haven't been to the girls yet either.

I complain about the former condition to Steve, my host.

“We're right near the beach,” he tells me. “ Less than 10 miles away. You can walk it.”

“Really,” I say. “Where is it?”

“Right back there.” He points toward the magnificent view from his back yard, “over that mountain.”

“Yeah right,” I laugh. “Like I'm gonna climb a mountain to go to the beach. Fuhgeddabouddit!”

“Don't worry,” he says. “There's a path. Not steep at all. It's a gentle slope. You can do it in two hours. I'll drive you to the start of the path. You'll have it to yourself this time of year. It's not raining very hard now, and it probably won't get worse.”

Like I'm gonna take him up on his offer to climb a mountain for 2 hours in the rain, through a mini-jungle, by myself.

“Okay,” I tell him. “Do we leave now?”

He nods. I pack my towel, sunscreen, mosquito spray, guidebook. I won't need anything else, will I? We get into his SUV and head to the outskirts of Gasparillo Village (Don't look on a map. You won't find it.) to the start of the journey. Steve is wrong about one thing. I'm not alone. Just starting the trek up the trail is a big local guy with a full salt and pepper beard-- and a machete. If you can think of anyone you'd LESS like to see starting a mountain hike, let me know. Until I hear from you, he's it.

Steve waves good bye and takes off in the SUV. The guy with the machete has already started the journey upward. I hang back a little. Give him time to get ahead and cut his coconuts or whatever else he plans to do. Then, I follow the little dirt path into the darkness of the rainforest.

The covering of the trees blocks most of the rain. Slowly I walk uphill. It's mud. Dirt mud. Clay mud. Rock mud.

Sweating, swallowing, I feel suddenly aware that there's one thing I forgot to pack. WATER. I'm losing it at a pound a minute, sweating it out on an increasingly steep and rocky path. I don't have water. What an idiot! I deserve to die.

Up, up, up I climb. The path twisting out of sight then reappearing ten, twenty, thirty yards away from where it should be. Up. Up. Up. Each turn looking like it should be the last. The downhill should start. NOW.

Suddenly, my head begins to throb. I knew it would happen. Caffeine withdrawal. So close to Columbia. Such strong ties with Jamaica. Yet people here don't drink coffee. You ask for it at a restaurant and you get a cup of hot water and a jar of NesCafe. I drink that, but it doesn't do the trick. I can't go long without coffee. Now I'm paying for it. It's my crown of thorns.

It's not only my head. My leg muscles are screaming. My feet muscles hurt. Nobody's feet muscles hurt. Maybe birds. They're gripping branches all day. But humans? Their FEET hurt, but feet muscles? How can they hurt? Who even knew feet had muscles?.

Plus, my throat is dry, parched in the sweaty mugginess. I can't work up enough saliva to spit. What an idiot! A days journey. Over a mountain. No water.


“You got any water?” I ask him.

“Man, I show you wawtah,” he says. “There wawtah here so clean, mahn. It right from de top of de mountain. Spring wawtah, mahn, I show you. You got cup?”

“Sorry,” I don't tell him. “Not only am I so mornic that I don't bring water on a hike over a mountain, but I'm too much of an idiot even to bring a cup.”

I shake my head.

“I show you,” he says, raising his machete.

OK. This is it. Chopped to pieces. The headlines in tomorrow's tabloids. Which part are they gonna send home to Dad? [Ouch! I just got bitten by another mosquito. I thought they weren't supposed to come out in the daytime.]

The man slashes with the machete and cuts a large leaf off a local plant. Then he sets down the knife and folds the leaf into a cup. He shows me how to hold it so it makes a kind of ladle. Then he takes me to a clear stream and motions for me to dip the leaf-cup and enjoy. I do. It's delicious, cold with a taste free of chemicals, or rot of any kind. I feel like drinking up the whole stream. Filling myself. Gorging. Sticking my head in and just sucking it up. But I remember reading someplace about all the bacteria you can't taste. How you should take a mouthful only. Then wait an hour to see if anything happens. Then, you can drink more. When you know it's safe.

I don't have an hour to wait. And I'm real thirsty. I'll drink 2 mouthfuls, no 3... or 4. Then, I'll just worry.

The machete man points up to something invisible off the path.

“I live up there, man,” he says. “I'll be leaving you now.”

“Is it much further to the beach?” I ask him.

He smiles. “Man, you're just at the beginning.”

I don't smile.

The path gets narrower and harder to follow from here. Sometimes, it's just a patch of green flatter than the green around it. Sometimes, it's an orange-red clay, looking more like a river bottom than a path.

Hairpin turn after hairpin turn the “trail” winds up the side of the mountain. Sometimes very up the side of the mountain. Like vertical up.

Gentle slope. That's what Steven said. Yeah right. Gentle for Sir Edmond Hillary maybe.

Except for the sounds of birds, and lots of insects, there's no fauna here. There's strange Ivy. And the weirdest most beautiful flowers

But this is a rain forest. There should be hanging Boa Constrictors. Jackals, I donno. There's... whoa... what's that? It's a crab. Here on way up the peak, where the air is thinner than my hair. A crab! Somebody's escaped lunch?

I imagine a camper or a local, living like the machete man, catching-- or buying a crab by the beach. Suddenly he trips, it falls out of the plastic back. Scampers away. And here it is.

I approach it. It backs up. Snaps it's pincers at me. Clicks its jaws. I take a picture and go on my way.

Upwards, ever upwards. Is this a joke? One of those mystery places where things seem to roll up inclines. An optical illusion. A mountain with no top. Just up up up. One direction... always.

What's that sound. Do they have rattle snakes in Trinidad? No. No. No. They have exotic birds. It must be an exotic bird that SOUNDS like a rattle snake. Sure that's it. There are no rattle snakes in Trinidad, are there? Well, are there?

The path has disappeared. My head is pounding. My legs are begging for relief. My thighs, my calfs (calves?), those muscles in my feet hurt.

My shirt is drenched. Not from the rain. The trees connect overhead. I have not idea if it's raining or not. The weather inside is pure wetness. Some state between rain and not rain. Rain without the drops.

My shirt is drenched from the inside. Dripping. I'm sweated out. Nothing left to sweat. Still the trail goes up. I look up and try to find the top of the mountain. There's green. Lots of green. Here and there is a spot of color. Beautiful color, but not a lot of it. Mostly green. I'm tired. Headached. Thirsty. Drenched in my own sweat. I'll find a log. Just sit down and die. End it all. Do the world a favor... up Ahead, there's a little clearing. A spot of light through the tree cover. A clearing before the continued trudge upward? Should I die here, or die in a spot of light through the green canopy?

I decide that the canopy would be more poetic. My spread-eagled body. Lying in shafts of sunlight, through the palm tree roof. Someone will discover my body. I have no ID. It might get stolen, right?

By the time they find me, Steve will have reported me missing. They'll figure out what happened. The papers will write about the middle-aged American punk rocker who died mysteriously in a shaft of light. He just lost his will to live.

I struggle to the clearing. At the edge, I see two parallel stakes and what looks like a

sign nailed between them. As I approach, I realize it IS a sign. Brown, with multi-colored lettering. There's an official-looking crest on top. After the crest, it says:


Look, listen and enjoy

the birds and wildlife you experience

on the trail

Then on the bottom, along with a logo:

Trinidad and Tobago prefers VISA.

Translation? It's all downhill from here!

Ho ho! I made it to the top! It's easy sailing from now on. Just a hop, skip and a jump, and I'm there. Easy as a beer piss. Yeah right.

The way down is treacherous. Slippery mud over slippery rock. Mini waterfalls down the path. Not a path, but ever increasingly a river.

Yep, that's me. Downhill, through the muddy bottom of a river. The only person on this entire mountain. If I break a leg, I'm dead. No one will find me for days. I'll be eaten by insects and escaped crabs. If I break an arm, I can make it. It would be one of those heroic-walks-through-the-jungle-with-a-broken-arm epics. I'll make the local papers. But a leg? Poof. I'm gone. Not poof either, but a long painful death. With no water except what continually drizzles on my slowly rotting corpse. Drizzle. Always drizzling. Leaking slowly off the canopy of trees.

I imagine that wiseguy from Port Of Spain, “Why do you think they call it Rainforest?” he'd say.

One kneehigh waterfall after the other. Me in the middle, trudging throuh the rapids, trying not to lose my balance. The water's getting deeper. There is no way in hell I'm going to live through this. Slipping downhill. In a rapidly rising creek, stream, river.

Out of my eye corner, I see a dog. No, 2 dogs. No, 4? 5? 6? A pack of dogs. Are they going to attack me? Finish me off. They're barking up a storm, running along the river that I'm trudging through. On the side. On the bank. Yeah! That's it! Shown by the dogs. There's space enough to walk up there. Out of the water. Just follow the dogs. Mud, not water. Downhill. Trying to keep the dog butts in view. Following that last tail. Down. Down. Better. Not good, but better. Down I go on a tiny ridge on the side of the river. Down. Down. Down. The ridge along the river BECOMES the river. I'm in it, again. Testing each stone to make sure I won't slip.

I stumble. Catch myself, jarring my spine but NOT BREAKING A LEG. Down. Down. I stumble again, falling forward into the water. I fall on my hands. It's okay. A little scrape, that's all. I DO NOT BREAK A LEG.

Suddenly, a bright light. A view through the trees. Water. The Caribbean. Right there, a glimpse through the branches. Then another. Sure enough. It's water. I'll be there any minute. Yeah right.

It dawns on me that when I look to the side I'm looking at THE TOPS of trees. Very tall trees. And, if I follow their trunks downward, I can see other trees beneath them. I'm going to die.

Down. Down. Down. I go. Pure Zen. Be here now. No thought to anything else except where each foot goes to prepare the way for the next foot. No future except the next step. My mind a zen blank except for the koan: IF I BREAK A LEG, I'M DEAD.

After a millennium of soaking terror, I come to another little clearing, and another little sign:

National Reforestation and Watershed
Rehabilitation Program
Our Environment. Our Forest. Our Life. Let's Conserve.

Translation: I made it!

The trail becomes a gravel path becomes the beach. I'm in a little town, with one of those beautiful colonial houses right at the corner. A kid plays by himself in the street. He's hitting at something with a stick.

“You going to the beach?” he asks.

“Yep,” I say.

“Just go to the end and turn right,” he says.

I do. On the way, I buy and drink a coke. The caffeine takes care of my headache as I head toward the beach.