At 40,000 Feet, No One Can Hear You Scream

In the lead-up to my trip, I approached the impending 10-hour Portland to Amsterdam flight with the same sense of doom that one might have when assigned to life imprisonment. It would be — by several hours — the longest flight I’d ever taken, and growing up the joke in Alaska was that Delta (Airlines) stood for Doesn’t Ever Leave The Airport.

Thus, I packed the following for the trip:

  • 15 paleo protein cookies made by Hadas (highly recommended).
  • Two pieces of chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces (also prepared by Hadas — hmm, I should probably get her a souvenir t-shirt or a matador or something).
  • Two apples, cut into pieces.
  • 47 hours of audio podcasts.
  • Every free new season TV pilot offered on iTunes.
  • Two New York Times crossword puzzles (Friday/Saturday).
  • A novel (purchased as a gift by Hadas — yeah, I’m going matador shopping)
  • My laptop computer, with 4-5 hours of battery charge.

I was essentially prepared for any contingency, including flight delays, bad weather or a hijacker diverting the aircraft to Jupiter.

But from the moment I entered the Delta gate, replete with black-turtleneck-clad agents moving the passengers through check-in with typical Dutch efficiency — and looking like extras from a discarded SNL Sprockets sketch — Delta was the model of smooth, easy air travel.

The A330 Airbus was well appointed and shockingly new. They hadn’t even taken the price sticker off the cockpit window. I had chosen a window seat on the theory that I could lean my head against it (the window, not the seat) and sleep, and when I got to my row there were a pillow and blanket neatly stacked under the seat belt. WHAT?

There was an in-seat TV center with free on-demand entertainment, dozens of the very latest movies to choose from, plus audio channels and television. They announced that they would be serving three meals — lunch, an overnight snack, and breakfast, plus myriad visits from the drink cart and duty free shopping.

It was kind of like my usual flights on Southwest, in the sense that both airplanes have wings.

There’s no getting around it, a 10-hour flight is just a long time to sit in an airplane seat. Luckily, with my iPhone and a hastily-downloaded selection of new fall TV pilots offered up for free on iTunes I had literally hours (2.5) of entertainment.

A Brief Review of the New Fall TV Shows That I Watched On the Airplane

The Mindy Project

FOX. Quirky doctor played by Mindy Kaling looks for love and career satisfaction while escaping the rapidly-deteriorating final season of The Office. She spends most of her time running barefoot from various hijinks directly into the hospital to deliver babies.

Pitch: It’s Mary Tyler Moore meets Scrubs!

How long they spent coming up with a name for the show: 1.5 minutes.

Of note: No laugh track comedy. Has anyone ever thought of adding a cry track to TV dramas? I think that would be awesome. There’s my billion-dollar idea for the day. Go get rich.

Emily Owens, M.D.

CW. Quirky first-year resident played by Mamie Gummer (no, she’s white) deals with the cliquish foibles of working at a hospital. Spends most of her time giving herself voice-over pep talks and hanging out with a cast of people who all look like they should have gone into modeling instead of wasting time at medical school. If my hospital had this many good looking people I would spend most of my time trying to injure myself.

Pitch: It’s 30 Rock meets E.R.

Likelihood of lasting past one season: Who knows? It’s the CW. It could run for 20 years even if nobody watches it.

Of note: Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Let’s just say it’s a “Comma.”

Made in Jersey

CBS. Quirky Italian-American Jersey girl goes to work as an attorney in a high-powered Manhattan firm, outsmarting the other lawyers through a combination of street smarts and Joe Pesci’s accent from My Cousin Vinnie.

Pitch: It’s Working Girl meets The Practice.

Name actor slumming back to TV and looking shockingly old: Kyle MacLachlan.

Of note: According to Google, this series was canceled yesterday after only two episodes. I could be the only person in America who watched it. And by “in America” I mean “Somewhere over Greenland.”


Quirky British detective, played by Jonny Lee Miller, comes to New York to solve crimes using only the power of deduction and the fact that the NYPD investigators are so profoundly inept that he looks like a genius.

Pitch: It’s Sherlock Holmes — in modern-day America!

Name actor slumming back to TV and looking shockingly old: Aiden Quinn.

Of note: The creators of the show are listed as Robert Doherty and Arthur Conan Doyle. I think they should go all Hollywood and list him as A.C. Doyle.

Meanwhile, back to the flight

Around hour four I started getting a really bad headache, and by hour seven I also was feeling completely nauseated. I don’t know if it was the airplane food, dehydration, the uncomfortable chair or Made in Jersey, but I felt awful.

By the time we (finally) made our descent into Amsterdam I felt like it was going to be a struggle to hang on without hurling.

Amsterdam looked green and pretty from the air. I also looked green and pretty. True story: As we were landing, the guy in the seat behind me turned to his companion and said: “So, where are we? Is this like Holland?” Crack a map, dude.

I shuffled off of the plane, feeling sick to my stomach, with a pounding headache. The Amsterdam airport is in English with Dutch subtitles, and I found my way through customs to my next gate. I would not learn until later that you go through customs only once when traveling within the European Union — when I got to Barcelona I was just able to walk off the plane and into Spain.

I had about an hour to kill so I took a photo to prove I had been in Amsterdam and then lay down at the gate hoping to settle my stomach and my headache. No such luck. Eventually I boarded a KLM flight bound for Barcelona, replete with KLM flight attendants wearing a shade of blue polyester that can best be described as “Baby bunting.”

We landed in Barcelona and I reclined on the world’s most uncomfortable airport seats at the gate, for two hours, until I felt able to move again. Then I picked myself up and caught the Aerobus into downtown Barcelona.

My apartment here (thanks AirBnB) is run by a delightful Argentinean expat named Martin who has been in contact since I reseved the place last month and who has been very helpful. For those who recall my adventures to Nicaragua earlier in the year, he also carries the advantage of being “Not a crazy person.”

The apartment is small and comfortable, with a beautiful view of the castle on Montjuich, a mountain overlooking the city. On arrival I walked two blocks to the grocery store to get supplies, then had a fitful night’s sleep as I tried to adjust to a nine-hour time difference.

Yesterday I explored the city, but we’ll save that for tomorrow’s blog when I’ll have more time to write and can update on which other TV series have been canceled. ¡Hasta mañana!

I Got My Deposit Back

I was worried that I wouldn’t have anything to blog about on my last night here. The last two days have passed uneventfully, with me mostly working during the day and walking around at night in the lovely evening air.

And then at 9:45 tonight, the landlord showed up.

He brought with him “Doug,” the expat Canadian who has lived in Granada for 12 years and is taking over property management duties. Doug had been by the house a few times in the last week to poke around and do minor maintenance and otherwise interrupt the peace.

The landlord proceeded to do an extended walkthrough of the casa, featuring the following:

  • Joked that the people next door had told him that they heard lots of glass breaking all week.
  • Joked that a piece of pottery had a crack in it and that would cost me $50.
  • Asked me if I broke anything.
  • Asked me if anything broke while I was here.
  • Asked me if anything in the house was broken.
  • Asked me if anyone urinated in the bed.
  • Carefully examined the insides of the kitchen cupboards, just in case I was smuggling the $1.49 set of dishes home to finally complete my Franklin Mint set of Crappy Plasticware of Central America.
  • Disappeared with Doug into the extra bedroom for 20 minutes for reasons that were never explained.

At the end of all this, he sat down and faced me, and in his speaking style that can only be described as “deliberate,” once again encouraged me to post a review of the house on the online rental web site, saying “It certainly couldn’t hurt.” Perhaps he may be underestimating my narrative skills.

In the end, I got my deposit back. Tomorrow I get picked up by a shuttle bus at 9 a.m. (I hope) and I will lock the front door and throw the keys through the bars of the front window. That’s how checkout rolls in Nicaragua. I am sorely tempted to break all the stemware and smuggle four giant ceramic chickens home in my luggage, but alas I don’t think I could bring myself to do it.

And so ends another trip. Walking home from trivia at the café tonight — I finished 4th of 6 after identifying a Bee Gees song as Captain and Tennille — it was fun to notice how different Granada feels after two weeks. My first nights here the town was foreign and confusing. I clutched my money tightly when I left the house and walked with my eyes darting from side to side, imagining that at any minute a stranger might jump out from a doorway and mug me with a rabid goat. Tonight, as I strolled about the town I felt carefree and happy, my laptop loosely dangling from a backpack on one shoulder. I felt safe, happy and peaceful. It’s always amazing how fast a new place can feel like home.

Until my next adventures, thanks for reading. It’s meant a lot to have you with me.

Granada Nicaragua
March, 2012 

Shirt Fishing

You know how you sometimes do something where you know it’s a bad idea but you do it anyway because you’re too lazy to do the right thing? No? Perhaps you don’t live in my head.

I had my latest willfully stupid moment yesterday when I did some laundry in the shower (that’s not the stupid part) and hung the laundry on the balcony railing to dry, thinking to myself “If any kind of wind comes up my clothes are going to blow off the balcony onto the adjacent roof.”

I should add that one of the hallmarks of Granada is gale force winds coming off of the nearby lake.

Sure enough, when I returned two hours later, my clothes were dry, and one of my shirts was taunting me from the adjacent rooftop. Ten minutes of shirt fishing later, I had my full wardrobe back. This casa has a suspicious number of available shirt fishing poles.

In other news, Roberta the housekeeper showed up yesterday and announced that it was to be her last day on the job. She had decided to start taking business administration classes in Managua, commencing immediately. She didn’t seem too broken up about surrendering her lucrative career in cleaning houses for lunatic American landlords.

She and I sat in the living room for a few minutes while she detailed her career plans. I nodded and smiled and interjected with the occasional “Sí” or “¡Como no!” to create the impression that I could understand more than half of what she was saying. Then I gave her a tip that was somewhere between “token gesture” and “my life savings.” I still haven’t gotten a strong handle on the exchange rate.

After sending her on her way to the big city, I walked over to get a foot massage at Seeing Hands Massage. This is an organization that trains blind people in developing countries so they can earn a living giving massages. The massage was on the upper balcony of the Euro Cafe, both me and the masseur in rocking chairs. It was a very excellent massage, and all of $6 for a generous 20 minutes. 

Today I took a sunset tour to Volcán Masaya, a semi-active volcano about a half hour from Granada. Despite assurances to the contrary, all the signage at the volcano led me to believe that the volcano might be more active than the tour company is letting on. Its last full-blown lava-spewing eruption was allegedly in the 1700s, but then they casually mentioned during the tour that there was some sort of “event” in 2001. I should mention that they insisted on pre-payment for the tour.

From the parking lot (or “Death staging area,” as I believe it should be known), we hiked up 170 steps to a cross overlooking the crater. It was a pretty spectacular sight, definitely showing the power of the previous eruption. The volcano was still steaming and bubbling and you could hear it rumbling down below. Our tour guide suggested we should sacrifice a virgin; there didn’t seem to be any candidates.

For the next hour or so we hiked around the various craters on the volcano, and like the tour participants themselves, some were more dormant than others. We watched a lovely sunset from the highest crater rim, with spectacular views as far as Managua and Lake Nicaragua.

As dusk settled in, we donned hardhats and flashlights (well, we didn’t technically “don” the flashlights) and hiked a through a copse of trees to the entrance for a lava tube. We spelunked our way a few hundred yards into the lave tube, with bats whisking over our heads as we walked. Deep inside the cave, we pointed our flashlights at the ceiling and saw bats hanging upside down by tree roots. I cannot even express how adorable this was.

After we left the cave we hiked back up the trail a little ways and detoured into the entrance of a smaller cave opening, where we sat quietly with our flashlights off as hundreds of bats flapped and whisked past us just inches from our heads. Every so often we’d turn on a light just for a second to see swarms of bats flying past. It was stunning.

Moments later we all trained our flashlights on a slow-moving Mexican porcupine, which was both adorable and very much not close to Mexico.

Our final stop on the tour was a chance to peer down into the main crater from the lower rim. At night, you are sometimes able to see glowing magma. Alas, we were not, but we still had to don protective gas masks just to leave the van. Even after just one minute outside the van wearing a gas mask, my lungs and eyes were burning from the sulfuric acid. This part of the tour wasn’t mentioned in the brochure. I don’t know how you say “irreversible respiratory damage” in Spanish.


I’ve been packing in the sightseeing over the last few days, since I’m leaving Nicaragua on Wednesday. Life is good. The power has stayed on. The internet has stayed up. The landlord has gone out of town. Even the mosquitos have done their part to make sure that I don’t ever get lonely.

I decided to pay a visit to all of Granada’s museums in one day. Luckily, Granada only has two museums and they’re right next door to one another. They’re also free and largely deserted. This makes it very easy to pack a day of high culture into about 45 minutes.

The first museum I visited is called Mi Museo, and it has four rooms exhibiting pre-Columbian pottery. I can report that pre-Columbian pottery definitely has more character than post-Columbian pottery, primary examples of which are exhibited at the Museum of Pottery Barn.

The most interesting thing at Mi Museo were a series of large burial urns created by the pre-Columbians. They are shaped like a pregnant belly, with decorations on the sides that look like fallopian tubes. The belief was that the people whose remains were interred in these urns would be re-born. The pre-Columbians thus demonstrated a grasp of human reproduction that was just slightly less primitive than that of Rush Limbaugh.

This was just the warm-up museum, because the main event was waiting for me next door — the ChocoMuseo. Yes, an entire museum devoted to chocolate.

After making the long five second trek to the adjacent building, I discovered that the ChocoMuseo had the complete history of chocolate, from its discovery by the Mayans, refinement by the Aztecs, flavoring by the Spaniards and bastardization by the Hershey company. OK, I made that last part up. But there was a lot of chocolate history. Purportedly, the Spanish were the first to figure out that chocolate would taste good with sugar in it. Apparently they had never spent time with a six-year-old and a handful of sugar packets at a diner.

There were also posters touting the health benefits of chocolate. From the museum’s perspective, chocolate is the healthiest substance known to man. And boy were they selling it without a prescription. They had chocolate bars, chocolate pieces, chocolate syrup, chocolate powder, extra-strength chocolate capsules. It was a chocopalooza.

I learned a lot about how chocolate is harvested and refined. The chocolate beans grow in giant pods, and are harvested, soaked, skinned, dried, hulled, roasted and crushed. I have no idea how the Mayans figured out that the big pod with the bitter seeds would be delicious after all this processing. They must’ve had a lot of spare time when they weren’t predicting the end of the world or building sets for Star Wars.

Naturally, the museum grows, processes and refines their own chocolate, so in order to do some quality testing I ordered a hot chocolate from the ChocoMuseo’s café. It contained one part milk and approximately 700,000 parts chocolate syrup. I considered whether it would be easier to eat with a fork and knife. It was also delicious. Sort of like Swiss Miss Instant Hot Chocolate but the exact opposite.

My sightseeing adventures continued today with a tour of Las Isletas in Lake Nicaragua. There are 365 (or so) islands near the shoreline of the lake, ranging in size from many thousand square feet to just a tiny rock jutting out of the water. They are all privately owned, and many of them have homes ranging from “quaint shack” to “Oh my God, I think that’s Johnny’s Depp’s vacation home!”

At the tour office I met a few of the other sightseers — a pair of gals from Sweden who are on a month-long trip backpacking around Central America, and a guy from London who wore an off-color t-shirt and complained about the quality of pizza toppings in Nicaragua. At the last minute, a group of three women and one man from Miami showed up, and they proceeded to spend most of the tour discussing the TV show Hoarders in loud tones.

We all piled into a tour van and made the 10 minute trek to the boat launch. There were a lot of random cows by the side of the road on this day. At the dock we climbed into the boat and our tour guide, Francisco, introduced himself. He was somewhat less garrulous than the last tour guide I had, by which I mean he occasionally stopped to breathe.

The isletas reminded me a little bit of how I imagine the Florida Everglades must look, only with fewer crocodiles. We boated through marshy areas, around small and big islands. Francisco pointed out many amazing birds — herons, kingfishers, ospreys, leggy shore birds and and the montezuma oropendula, a beautiful bird that builds spectacular hanging nests. Francisco made sure to point out that, unlike most birds, the male of the species builds the nests. The gals from Miami responded by discussing dead cat skeletons on Hoarders.

Francisco was a big fan of flowers. When he saw a flower he wanted to show us he would instruct the boat driver to pull over, and then he would pick the flower and bring it on board. By the third time he did this we were pleading with him to stop picking the flowers, but he wanted to show them to us up close and personal. I don’t know how many tours he gives per week, but he is personally deforesting Nicaragua.

A few minutes later we reached Monkey Island, where four spider monkeys were once deposited and now make their home. I half expected Francisco to spear a monkey and bring it aboard to show us, but instead he just tossed a half piece of fruit to one of the monkeys, who came running over excitedly when it saw the boat coming. The Hoarders gals took a break from discussing reality TV to coo over the monkeys, and the Swedish girls called out to the monkeys in Swedish. I suspect it was something along the lines of “Take a chance on me.”

After the monkey encounter we docked at a small island that contained a restaurant, macaw, parrot, two dogs and a pool. The Brit and one of the Miami gals went swimming in the lake, the Swedes sat near the pool drinking beers and I took a nap. I’m not a big swimmer to begin with, and considering the near-black murkiness of the lake, you couldn’t pay me enough money to go in there. Apparently the sharks are gone, however. Francisco said that some Japanese fishermen showed up a few years ago, caught 20,000 sharks out of the lake to make soup, and they (the sharks, not the Japanese) are only just now starting to come back near the mouth of the San Juan River, which is across the lake from Granada.

(If you just came here from Google, I can’t promise that anything in that previous paragraph is true. I’m paraphrasing a Spanish conversation carried on between a cheeky tour guide and two Swedish girls. Some details may be off.)

Eventually we piled back back into the boat and sat out in the middle of the very choppy lake for 20 minutes watching the sunset and getting rapidly seasick. We then docked and drove back to the tour office, stopping on the way to hop out of the van and photograph a Catholic procession, which apparently happens each of the 40 days leading up to Easter. Again, some of these details may be fuzzy, as both my Spanish and biblical knowledge are shaky.

I have another tour coming up on Sunday, and then a couple more days in Nicaragua before heading home. A last note: I discovered The Simpsons in Spanish on TV last night, and the voices sound just like the voices in English. It is hysterical to hear Bart Simpson sound like Bart Simpson, only in Spanish.


I’ve managed to go my entire adult life without ever having the power company knock on my door, demand payment and then abruptly shut off electricity to the house.

It took seven days for this to happen in Granada.

Some backstory:

Two days after I arrived here, a note from the electric company was slipped under the door that said — I’m paraphrasing from the original Spanish — “You must pay us three hundred thousand trillion Cordobas for your past due electric bill or we will shut off your power next Tuesday.” I dutifully reported this to the landlord and thought nothing further of it.

Two days later, a representative from the electric company came by in person and handed me a second note that said — in the most respectful Nicaraguan style — “Thank you for being such a wonderful customer. We very much appreciate the opportunity to serve you. It would bring great sadness to everyone in our office if we were forced to shut off your electricity next Tuesday.”

I reported this to my landlord as well. I personally handed him both notes on one of his many unannounced visits.

Today, at 10:37 a.m., they came and shut off the power.

It’s not like I haven’t gotten used to living without power here. Blackouts are a regular way of life in Granada, and yesterday had been the worst day yet. The power was out for a good 4-6 hours yesterday, so I spent the majority of the day in my favorite café near the Parque Central, sipping on orange juice, eating a spinach salad that contained 42 pounds of cashews (estimated) and availing myself of the free wi-fi.

The irony of having the power purposefully shut off today was not lost on me.

Luckily, when the power company employees came by with a truck, ladder and big official-looking wrenches, Roberta the housekeeper was here doing her semi-hourly cleaning, so she called the landlord on her cell phone and he said he would rush right over and take care of it. He and I may have different interpretations of the word “rush.”

I think I’m a pretty easy renter. I’m quiet, respectful, careful. I gently attack any bats in the house with pillows instead of, say, firearms. I really don’t ask for much more than peace, quiet and not having the utility company send people over to shut off the power. I’ve had good luck renting places over the Internet, but I should have listened to my instincts on this one. There was something a little bit off even before I booked this place. For instance, this was one of the emails from the landlord when we were going back and forth on dates and prices:

Because you seem a most desirable renter – conscientioius.intelligent.single and probably jewish like myself – i am offering you a (unrequested) discount of $—/week if you transfer the two weeks amount of —- or $—- within the next three  business days.

For an American, he sure writes like the guy who authors the Nigerian scam emails.

Moments after I sent payment, he responded with this note:

I have an unusal question for you,which has only arisen due to several
factors,but mainly two:
1) That I have been here since Nov 25 ,my return ticket is for Feb 18
BUT i have recently considered extending my stay either in my house or
elsewhere.. 2) That the house has two bedrooms, each one on a SEPARATE
FLOOR. My question is , Would you consider me staying in one
bedroom,you in the other  and sharing the rest of the house to SAVE
RENT MONEY (Id send a partial refund via paypal.) You can read all
about me on VRBO.COM.Also let me add I am not gay. If you have
some interest we can further discuss it AND YOUR REVISED PRICE. Also I
can call you from here for just 5 centsa minute. So let me know.
Do NOT feel any pressure concerning this. Your decision will have no
affect on anything. IT COULD WORK OUT WELL OR NOT WELL! If we were
incompatible Id move out quickly as I have various places i can stay.
If we share the house we will not enter one anothers bedroom, AND  I
will do my utmost not to be bossy or act like HEAD of the house. I am
a conscientious,careful person who has practised Buddhist meditation
for about 30 years.- so I am pretty aware and compassionate .
Also please note that a Cleaning lady will come in 5 days/week  from 9
to 11:30 and keep the house very clean.That should eliminate many
roommate type conflicts over sloppiness. She is nice person and does a
bang up job. She leaves rentors alone and just does her job. I pay for
her,you dont pay a cent.
So let me know and its entirely your choice-  plus if u r open to it I
suggest we have a 1 or 2 phone conversations.

I nixed this suggestion just as fast as my fingers could type. I had no interest in getting involved in Real World: Nicaragua with this guy.

Since I arrived here he has been by the house almost every day to drop something off, always without calling or emailing ahead. I just hear “Andrew!” through the open window and there he is. Two days ago he arranged for a backup property manager and another friend to meet him here, and they all hung out in the living room. Later he handed me his Nook e-reader and asked if I could figure out why it was dead.

So I wasn’t 100% surprised when the power company came by this morning to create my own personal blackout. In fact, I would put my surprise somewhere closer to 0%. I don’t know how things work in the states, but it turns out that in Nicaragua you have to pay your electric bill for all the months you have service, not just some of them.

Eventually, ninety minutes after the power was killed, the landlord showed up and explained in great detail how the electric company was in error, and swore up and down that the power would be back on that afternoon.

I took that to mean “some time in March.”

He also gave me the phone number of Roberta (the housekeeper) “in case some problem with the house” came up while he was out of town. The example he gave was a wild dog running around the inside of the house. He suggested this with an entirely straight face, and I’m pretty sure he was not kidding. He said it would be fun to watch Roberta chase a wild dog around the house, wouldn’t it? Roberta smiled in the manner of someone who was waiting to get her weekly pay from the gringo boss, but I’m pretty sure that Indoor Dog Wrangling isn’t among her Hobbies and Interests on Facebook.

After hanging around for an hour and asking if I’d be willing to receive the return of my security deposit by PayPal instead of by the cash I had paid, the landlord left and once again swore that the power would be back on that afternoon. Or maybe by the next day at the very latest. And by the way, he was leaving town for the rest of my visit.

Chance of me ever getting my security deposit back: 0%.

So I gamely headed back to the café for another afternoon of work, and when I returned to the casa around 4 p.m. you could have knocked me over with a wild poodle when I discovered that the power was actually back on. Figuratively shocking. Apparently the power company is wildly efficient when they’re, you know, providing power.

The bright spot in all of this is that I’ve become a “regular” at the café. The gal working the counter knew I’d be ordering an orange juice, and today I got it in a tall, sexy tropical glass, because I look like the kind of guy who would want an orange juice in a tall, sexy tropical glass.

The café is a nice place, with a huge open air courtyard in back away from the street noise. Last night, while working on my laptop, some Americans came around and said they were having trivia night and did I want to play? Heck yeah! There were four rounds, and the categories were:

  • General knowledge that Andrew knows nothing about.
  • Obscure 15th century Portuguese explorers.
  • Enrique Iglesias song lyrics that even Enrique Iglesias probably doesn’t know.
  • Rebuses that a five-year-old could solve.

I aced the rebuses, flailed on the rest of the categories, and came in a respectable fourth out of six teams. Since I was a team of one, I considered that a win.

One of gals running the trivia night stopped by to chat with me while I was in the middle of making up names that sounded like plausible 15th century Portuguese explorers (“Vasco de Ferens”) and I found out she was in Granada for six months with a program called Soccer Without Borders that teaches impoverished Nicaraguan girls that Americans don’t know the right word for soccer.

One last fun detail about Granada for tonight: There are very few cars here, but a huge number of people getting around on bicycle, especially teens. More often than not, there are two people to each bicycle, and often it’s (what I presume to be) a boyfriend and girlfriend. The boy pedals the bike, and the girl sits sidesaddle on the top tube in front. No helmets, of course. How this is not an unstable invitation to death is beyond me, but there are hundreds of couples riding around like this all the time, day and night.

For those keeping score, here are the updated odds of what I am most likely to die of on this trip:

Murder: .000001%
Donkey Trampling: 6%
Bicycle Collision: 8%
Taxi Collision (pedestrian): 7%
Taxi Collision (passenger): 10% 
Self-injury while attacking fruit bat: 12%
Lake Shark: 4%
Collision with housekeeper chasing wild dog in house: 9%
Unrefrigerated eggs from outdoor market: 29%
Jogging: 14%
Mosquitos sucking literally all of my blood out of my body through my feet: 11%


Bedroom Adventures

It’s been an interesting 24 hours in Granada.

Right now it’s 5:30 a.m. and I’m writing this in the darkness of the living room in my casa. I was awoken about 15 minutes ago by a giant storm — wind rattling the windows and rain pelting the house. I finally gave up on sleep and came downstairs to open the doors and windows, letting a cool(ish) breeze inside. After about a month of travel in Mexico and Central America over the last year, this is the first rain I’ve seen, and it’s a welcome change.

(Everybody in Portland just put their fists through their computer screens.)

I’m sitting in the dark because the power is out. This has stopped being noteworthy, as the power has gone out repeatedly over the last day. Yesterday it was out from about 3-6 p.m., and then it cycled through another hour of five minutes on and five minutes off. I’ve read that power outages in Nicaragua are a way of life, a combination of shaky infrastructure and lack of supply. Yesterday, during the first power outage, I went to the local lavanderia to drop off my laundry, and the employees were out front starting up a giant portable generator. Clearly this is not a one-time event.

Then again, four days ago the power company slipped a note under the door that said the electricity would be turned off today if they didn’t receive payment, and yesterday they delivered a follow-up threat, so it’s entirely possible that my landlord simply neglected to pay the electric bill. I won’t take this lying down. Somebody’s getting a sternly-worded review in the spiral-bound guestbook on the coffee table.

All of this pales in comparison to last night’s bedtime adventure.

As with every night, I brushed my teeth, went upstairs to the bedroom, closed the door, took off my clothes, climbed into bed, reached for the light switch and…


Was that a sound? Something in the hallway? It might just be the wind, or my imagination, or a creaky house, I thought to myself.


That definitely sounded like something. The walls here are pretty thin. Is it one of the neighbors moving around? I reached for the light switch and…

[Thump] [Flutter]

What the heck…?

Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw movement on the other side of the room. I climbed out of bed and turned on another light and…

[Thump] [Flutter] [SWOOP!] [DIVEBOMB!]


Yes, somehow a bat had gotten into my (not at all large) bedroom, and it was now swooping wildly in a panic around my head as I ducked and shrieked. The bat kept banging into the door looking for an exit and then flying back at my face, while I flailed my hands in front of me like a drunk, naked televangelist casting out demons.

I then performed the following three activities, in this order:

1) Grabbed my iPhone so I could capture this event on camera. First I tried a still shot, but I soon realized that a black swooping bat in a dark room was not going to be visible. Then I switched over to video mode and tried to follow the flight of the bat while simultaneously ducking and weaving out of the way. It became clear right away that not only was I going to fail in capturing any footage of the bat flapping around the room, but I was also most likely to accidentally capture footage of my own man parts flapping around the room. I am not Googling “drunk guy accidentally filming his own junk” to see if there is a salable market for this.

Just one of the quality action photos:

2) I put down the phone, and selected the most appropriate defensive weapon I could find — a pillow. I don’t think I have to remind anyone how effective this gambit has been in any number of vampire movies.

3) I began edging toward the bat, which was currently hanging on the wall above the door. I held the pillow in front of me and occasionally swung it in a manner that was intended to convey a combination of empathy and defensive menace. The bat took one look at the wild naked guy crab-walking across the room waving a plush bludgeon and high-tailed it for the ceiling, where it hung upside down and looked at me as if I were a lunatic. Bats are surprisingly good judges of character.

I managed to crank open the door, and as I slowly backed away the bat flew into the hallway. I don’t know where it went after that, because I slammed the door and waited for my heartbeat to slow from Defcon Hamster to normal. For all I know, the bat may have flown downstairs to eat my bananas and write a sternly-worded note in the guestbook.

To make matters worse, I awoke this morning with some itchy, swollen insect bites on my feet and hands, so clearly these bats aren’t doing their job of eating bugs in the house. If I catch malaria, dengue fever or any of the extensive catalog of tropical diseases warned about in the US State Department travel advisory, I know a bat that is going to be given a severe pillowing.

It’s Cloudy in a Cloud Forest

Yesterday I took a tour to Volcán Mombacho, the allegedly-dormant volcano that towers over Granada. The tour brochure suggested bringing walkable shoes, a jacket, mosquito repellent and water, advice that was soundly rejected by most of the rest of the tour group, to their later chagrin. But not by me. I also brought sunscreen, food, pens, paper, a GPS and a hat. It’s my Alaskan survival instinct. I cannot go to the mall without taking a week’s worth of freeze dried food and signal flares. Hadas will back this up.

Also: “Volcán Mombacho” would be a great name for a professional wrestler.

The tour was to begin at 9:30 a.m., and it was a short walk over to the office, where I paid the fee and met our guide, David (pronounced Da-VEED), and our driver, Javíer (pronounced Javíer). Another couple was also waiting there for the tour, a lovely young pair from London. We made introductions and the three of us piled into the back of a four-wheel drive vehicle that seats six comfortably. David told us we were going to pick up six more people.

We took a couple loops around Granda picking up the rest of the tour participants. The cast of characters included another young couple from London, a couple in their late 60s from the North Carolina coast, and a doughy couple from Atlanta that looked like a chunky Amy Adams and a dorky Phil Mickelson.

The nine of us were squeezed into the back of the 4WD vehicle on two benches that faced each other, a bit like a prison transport vehicle only with less random shivving. David launched into a lengthy and painstakingly-detailed explanation of what we would do on today’s tour, leaving out absolutely nothing. I’m not certain, but I think he was being paid by the word.

During the drive we all made introductions and small talk. One of the Brits played bass in a band. “Just like Sting!” said the grandmother from North Carolina. Dork Mickelson groused about trying to order breakfast in English. Apparently Nicaragua did not change its official language to English just because he showed up and wanted flapjacks.

After 25 minutes of driving, most of which was spent with David telling us what we were going to see on the tour, we reached the base of the mountain. Because the road up to the top is a narrow cobblestoned affair, we had to stop and check in at the main booth so they could radio ahead and make sure that nobody was coming down at the same time. We turned off the air conditioning (the engine needed all the power it could get), slid open the windows and cranked into first gear. Up the mountain we went. Thanks to the power of gravity, inertia and cobblestones, we got to know each other real well during the next 15 minutes.

David, who had given up the front passenger seat to Grandpa North Carolina, was now sitting in the back, and as I wedged into him like a teenage boy at a drive-in movie, we cheerfully conversed in my very bad Spanish. Eventually he decided to teach me some popular Nicaraguan slang aphorisms. Either my Spanish is very fuzzy, or Nicaraguan parents like to admonish their children: “The one-armed monkey that swims with a cat on its head, often enjoys licking peanut butter out of a horse hotel.”

About halfway up the mountain we reached our first destination, a coffee farm. There wasn’t anything we could actually see (such as farming, bean processing, roasting, separating, packaging, Starbucking, etc), but David gamely spent 15 minutes describing the process for us in painstaking detail, shouting to be heard over the bean sorting equipment that was in a building we didn’t have access to. We also got free samples of coffee to drink — neither I nor Sting are coffee drinkers, for those keeping score — and a chance to roam around the gift shop to purchase coffee beans, t-shirts or Nature Valley granola bars.

David and I popped into the bathroom at the same time, and he joked in Spanish that these were the nicest bathrooms in Nicaragua. Actually, I don’t think he was joking. They were wicked nice bathrooms.

We all piled back into the 4WD and continued our ascent up the mountain. After another 10 minutes we reached the visitor’s center, where we piled out for our hike around the volcano rim through the cloud forest. It was delightfully cool up at 1,000 meters, and also impenetrably cloudy. When clear, there is a spectacular view of Granada, Managua, Lake Nicaragua and many hundreds of square miles. We had a view of the following: clouds.

Gamely, we plunged ahead onto the trail, with David keeping up a running commentary about every plant in the forest. He spent a fair amount of time looking up into the trees to try to find us a sloth (spoiler: fail) and poking around in random bromeliads to try to find a salamander (spoiler: fail). He also pointed out a number of orchids, and seemed to be particularly interested in the tiniest of the tiny orchids, which he showed us with great gusto. I can report that a tiny orchid looks remarkably like “nothing.”

The niftiest thing we saw was a sensitive plant, the kind that folds up its leaves and retracts when you touch it, sort of like Little Shop of Horrors without the songs, dancing or Rick Moranis. We all got down and spent some time poking plants. I’m fairly certain we looked like morons.

Another development: socked in by clouds, and with the wind howling, it started to get rather cold. After suffering through 90 degree heat in Granada for four days it was pure bliss to feel the cool wind on my skin. The Brits, however, were shivering like they were in the Antarctic, and apparently none of them had heeded the direction to bring jackets. They were getting progressively more miserable, but gamely tried to put on a happy face as we reached an exposed overlook and stood in the howling wind to enjoy a spectacular view of the following: clouds.

Periodically we would pass another tour group and the guides would whisper to one another “Peresoso? Peresoso?” They really wanted to produce a sloth for us, but alas it was not to be. One of the tour guides was nicknamed Jackie Chan, because he bore a (vague) resemblance to a Nicaraguan Jackie Chan. David told us that everyone in Nicaragua has a nickname. We asked what his nickname was, and he sheepishly told us: Hombre Verde — Green Man. He asked if we could guess why. I figured it was because of his interest in the forests and plants, but it turned out to be because The Incredible Hulk was popular in Nicaragua when he was growing up and his friends used to call him David Banner. It’s a small world, folks.

As we stood around waiting for the clouds to clear (spoiler: nope), David didn’t hesitate to give us his opinions on a variety of topics including witch doctors, politicians and Costa Ricans. None of these were favorable. He also appeared deeply chagrined about the lack of a view, as if it was his own personal fault that a cloud forest was covered in clouds.

Toward the middle of the hike we reached the fumaroles, which are steam vents in the volcano. This immediately called into question exactly how dormant this dormant volcano actually is. One minute we were freezing our British tushies off, and the next minute we were standing next to a giant gaping hole in the ground with warm sauna-like air wafting over us. Let’s just say I’m not going to buy property on this mountain any time soon.

We then headed back toward the visitor center, passing through a narrow crevice that had been formed by an earthquake, to an overlook where we enjoyed a spectacular view of: more clouds.

The visitor’s center had a small snack bar and an impressive collection of dead snakes in jars, which made me lose interest in both snacking and hiking. [Note: Insert your own Samuel L. Jackson impression here.]

From there it was back down the mountain, accompanied by David’s running commentary on Nicaraguan food (the three local specialties are: nacatamales, a wholly-unique Nicaraguan version of the tamale; quesillos, a tortilla with cheese that you suck out of a bag; and vigorón, which is cabbage and pork rinds served on a banana leaf). David claimed that you cannot get good nacatamales in any restaurant, which makes me call into question its status as the national food.

Back at the tour headquarters I tipped David 200 Cordobas, which with the exchange rate works out to about .00000000001 cent per word.

That night, after a long nap, I went out for a walk around central Granada. I do a lot of walking at night in Latin America. It’s cooler and often hauntingly beautiful.

Today was a low-key day. I have a number of projects I’m working on while I’m down here, so I spent a good deal of time writing. At midday I ventured out in the sun to the supermarket and the Mercado to pick up some food and toothpaste and two different varieties of banana (cute and cuter).

Around 5:30 p.m. I made the world-class stupid decision to go for a run, figuring with the sun setting it must be cooler. It was not. It was 90 degrees. I huffed and puffed and sweated my way through a 3.5 mile run, to the bemusement of the citizens of Granada who made the international face for “What the hell is that gringo running around in 90 degree weather for?” It did not help that I was carrying signal flares.

Settling In

Here’s a handy tip for anyone traveling abroad: Do not read the US State Department Travel Advisory for the country you are visiting. Despite being considered by many to be one of the safest countries in the Americas, the State Department website has a laundry list of potential hazards, including:

  • Political demonstrations and strikes that occasionally become violent, including any of the following: tear gas, rubber bullets, fireworks, rock-throwing, tire burning, road blocks, bus/vehicle burning.
  • Armed robberies.
  • Kidnappings.
  • Sexual assault, murder, rapes.
  • Carjacking.
  • Freshwater sharks.

OK, that last one isn’t actually on the State Department list, but Lake Nicaragua (a 10 minute walk from my casa) is one of two lakes in the world featuring sharks. For those keeping score it’s the Bull Shark, an enterprising monster that is able to swim from the ocean, up many miles of rivers, until it reaches a lake where it can eat tourists while limiting its sodium intake. Needless to say I’m extra cautious when stepping into the shower around here, and if I come across a political demonstration I’m going to watch for burning sharks.

Possible source of political unrest. Look who’s running for Presidente:

Nicaragua is also the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, trailing only Haiti (the heavyweight champion of poor countries). Even with the shine they put on Granada for tourists, it still has a feel of poverty about it. Besides the obvious beggars in the streets, there’s just a sense that nothing is quite being kept up like it should. Mexico seemed like Dubai compared to here. Because of the vast wealth differential between the people of Nicaragua and tourists, petty crime such as theft and pickpocketing are said to be rampant. Notwithstanding all that, I’m of the mind that the vast majority of Nicaraguans are good, honest people, so I plunge ahead into crowds without being especially paranoid. So far everyone I’ve interacted with has been very nice, but I don’t go walking around flashing my gold chains and diamonds like I do at home.

Granada’s central point is the Parque Central, which is about four blocks from my casa. One of the quirks about this place is that there are no street addresses, so everything is described in relation to something else. For instance, my place is on “Calle Corrales, four houses toward the lake from the gym.” Everything is described this way. Finding specific businesses can be a bit of a challenge.

I like this address system, though. I think I’m going to start using it at home. From now on, address my mail to:

Andrew Berkowitz
45th Street
Three doors west of the the crazy guy who walks around with a military backpack while peeking in people’s garbage cans

Vancouver, Washington 

Yesterday I did some initial exploring, including a walk through the Mercado Municipal. This is a fairly massive open air market sprawling over several city blocks, some of it outside, some of it inside, and some of it under a mass of tents and awnings. I’ve been through there twice now, and each time I get lost and can’t find my way back to where I was before. The market has vendors selling everything from eggs to fruits and vegetables, to meat and sausage, to beans, rice, spices and fish. The fish section of the market is a smell I will not soon forget.

Need a whole pig’s head? Done. And also a pair of shoes and a bootleg CD of Celine Dion? No problem. It’s a mass of dark, narrow, winding passageways with everything you can possibly imagine. Very few tourists seem to venture in there; they seem to stick to the four block stretch around the Parque Central. As far as fruits and vegetables, there seems to be an abundance of onions, tomatoes and about 25 different varieties of bananas. Yesterday I bought some delicious mini bananas that taste almost nothing like the bananas in the US and are, to put it plainly, adorable.

Horse-drawn carriages are one of the primary forms of transportation. There are mercifully few cars in Granada, and most of those are taxis or motorcycles:

This morning I was awoken at 6:30 a.m. by a Catholic processional of some sort outside my window, complete with a giant crucified Jesus statue and accompanied by tubas, trombones and clarinets played by people who may not have technically played these instruments before this morning. I can sleep through a lot, but not amateur tuba hour beneath my bedroom window. Apparently the devout want to beat the heat. 

After a quick morning snack I went out for a walk down to the lake, which stretches as far as the eye can see. (Quick fact: It is the 19th largest lake in the world, the 9th largest lake in the Americas and the largest lake in Central America. Wikipedia did not offer a size comparison to Ricki Lake.)

There’s a long stretch of restaurants and bars near the lake, which were completely closed and empty at 7 a.m. In fact, the entire area was deserted. The lakefront area has the look of something that was hastily built without a lot of thought. For instance, there is a playground for children approximately every 15 feet, which seems excessive unless the entire town is under the age of eight. Also, they have entirely superfluous signs in front of everything. For instance, there was a sign in front of the playground that showed a picture of a playground, in case you couldn’t figure out what the swings and slide were by, you know, looking at them. And even more puzzling, a sign in front of an area for posting signs that showed that it was a sign posting area. I have a feeling that the designer of the lakefront area was Capitán Obvious.

I was hot and sweaty when I got back to the casa, and the internet was still out (and had been since the night before), so I took a shower and went to a lovely cafe to have breakfast and avail myself of some complimentary wi-fi. I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the exchange rate. It’s about 23 Cordobas to the dollar, and most of the conversions I make in my head are wildly inaccurate. My 87 Cordoba breakfast was about $3.80. The money here is gorgeous, which I guess makes sense because it’s essentially more decorative than functional.

After breakfast I did some more exploring of the town, arranged a tour to the top of Volcán Mombacho for tomorrow, and came back to the casa to get some work done. While I was working, Roberta the housekeeper came by to clean. She comes for an hour or more every day, which is wild overkill. By the end of my trip she will have spent more time cleaning this house than I’ve spent in total cleaning my own house over the last 20 years. She left this afternoon at 4:30 and is coming back tomorrow morning. I’m actually starting to feel panicky about messing up the house enough in the intervening 15 hours to make it worth her time. I may let a passing goat into the house for a nightcap.

The decoration of this house could be described as “Basic Chicken”:

The casa features a small (unheated) jetted pool in the middle of the living room. I have not yet been in it, but two Michael Phelps-sized cockroaches did laps last night:

Travel Day to Nicaragua

The alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. to start my long travel day to Nicaragua. Ordinarily, the only time I’m awake at that hour is to rush Hadas to the hospital, so I was a bit disoriented while getting breakfast and a shower. Luckily, one of us is a morning person. The other one of us is “me.”

Unbeknownst to me, the security line at the airport is crazy long for early morning flights. This was apparently beknownst to the TSA, as they had a large squad there to handle the rush, and I got to my gate with 10 minutes to spare. I was considering it a good omen that I didn’t leave anything behind at security, until I was walking away and a woman called after me to ask if the see-through ladies cosmetics bag on the conveyor belt was mine. Apparently I exude “transvestite.”

The first leg of my flight, from Portland to Denver on Southwest Airlines, was uneventful. It was my first-ever flight with wi-fi, something I had been looking forward to with great anticipation and which promptly caused me to fall asleep. When I awoke I fired up my iPhone just in time for them to announce that we had begun our descent and it was time to put away electronic devices. I remain zero-for-inflight-wi-fi.

My subsequent flights from Denver to Managua were going to be on Continental Airlines, which is now sort of merged with United Airlines and sort of not. I think it’s a common-law merger. Just to confuse matters, the actual reservation was made on something called Copa Airlines, which was being operated by Continental. I would describe the whole relationship as “Airline with benefits.” I put the odds of actually seeing a plane at around 50-50.

I had received cheerful automated emails and phone calls from Continental the day before telling me I could check in online, and when I did so they offered to email me my boarding passes. Sweet! The attached file they sent by email was a PDF that said “We can’t give you boarding passes because someone needs to check your passport.” Thanks guys. Most helpful attachment ever.

Their mobile site claimed that I could get boarding passes at any Continental kiosk, so I dutifully found a Continental kiosk in the United customer service area (of course) and started the check-in process. After verifying my flight information, the kiosk informed me that I should scan my passport. The only problem was I didn’t see how I could achieve this. I attempted the following maneuvers:

  1. Tried to insert the magnetic strip of my open passport into the credit card slot. Result: fail. Not even close to the right size slot.
  2. Tried inserting my closed passport into the other slot in the machine, which I realized (in hindsight) is the slot where the boarding passes come out of. Result: sheepish fail.
  3. Looking around to make sure nobody was watching, I tried holding my open passport up to the touch screen in case the touch screen also had some sort of scanner built in. Result: mortified fail.

It turns out that there is no way to scan your passport at the kiosks, but nobody bothered to tell the person who wrote the software (presumably the same programmer who devised a PDF attachment to say “This PDF does not contain your boarding passes, nyah nyah nyah”). So I pressed the cancel button and went to my gate to wait for a person to show up so I could show them my passport. Eventually I got my boarding pass. If anyone asks me, I’m telling them the kiosks are voice activated.

The flight to Houston was uneventful. I slept some more and decided not to pay $7.99 for in-seat DirecTV, as I have no need to see “Whitney” at 35,000 feet (or at any altitude, for that matter).

(Please note that the joke in the previous paragraph has now guaranteed that some poor schmo googling for “Whitney Houston” is going to land on this blog.)

Upon landing in Houston I texted my ex-Texan friend Donna, as is the tradition, and she texted back with the traditional desultory Houston remarks. That accomplished, I went to the next gate where they re-examined my passport to make sure it hadn’t expired in the time it took me to fly from Denver. It hadn’t. We boarded the plane for Managua and were off!

In-flight movie: The Big Year. I didn’t watch it, but I would describe it as 90 minutes of Steve Martin and Jack Black making funny faces at birds.

Other notable details about the flight:

  1. They served a meal. I didn’t know they still did that. It was some sort of “chicken” patty on a bun. I made a funny face at it.
  2. The couple sitting next to me were from Houston. When we landed, they immediately turned on their iPhones and ran up $42,000 worth of roaming charges before they figured out how to turn off their phones. I should add that, at takeoff, they interpreted the part about “Please turn off your electronic devices” to mean “Please check Facebook while the plane is accelerating down the runway.” That farm isn’t going to ville itself, apparently.
  3. As we were waiting to de-plane, the couple asked me if I was traveling alone and when I told them I was they informed me that I was going to get mugged and die.

Going through customs was a breeze, with a $10 fee for, I think, dealer prep. I had to fill out the usual forms promising that I was not bringing any livestock or more than $500,000 in cash into the country. I’m not sure what the ruling is on $500,000 worth of livestock. As usual I was the only traveler with no checked baggage (he said smugly), so I was first to pass through the final exit, where they x-rayed my backpack to make sure it contained no cows.

I needed to get to Granada, Nicaragua, which is about an hour from Managua, or 36 minutes by the insane taxi driver who brought me here. The taxi, which was in a state of repair that I would describe as “dis,” was going about 70 miles per hour where the speed limit was 70 kilometers per hour. It was like watching someone play a Nintendo game, only I only have one life. I got several lessons in advanced physics going through traffic circles at high speed. I was also half asleep at this point, which was probably the only thing that kept me from having a full-fledged panic attack. Flying through the Nicaraguan countryside at night while Adele blares from the radio is very cinematic.

We arrived in Granada and got to the rental house, where the landlord (an American, who lives down here part of the year) gave me an hour-long tour, which included details such as:

  1. Don’t let anyone into the house.
  2. Seriously, don’t let anyone into the house.
  3. The house — don’t let anyone into it.

I think with some judicious editing the tour could have been reduced to about five minutes.

He also mentioned that the place had been fumigated that afternoon, so I “might wake up to a lot of dead bugs on the floor.” And there was a spot in the roof where bats roosted, so I “might wake up to some bat doots on the floor.” (I’m paraphrasing.) In reality, I woke up to goats at the front door, though presumably not $500,000 worth.

Eventually, after demonstrating how to operate the keys and the locks (remarkably similar to keys and locks in the USA, I’m happy to report) he left and I was able to get some sleep.

The view out my front door:

A mule (or equivalent) pulling a cart:

The most cheerful funeral home sign ever. A smiling guy in a tuxedo leaping out of a coffin. He’s either thrilled to be dead, or pulling one rockin’ practical joke on his family:

Day 6: The Loooooooooooove Boat

I realized today that the word for “pulp” in Spanish is “pulpa,” not “pulpo.” Thus, I’m pretty sure that yesterday I ordered a glass of orange juice “with extra octopus.” Delicious.

Today was tour day, specifically the Outdoor Adventure Tour from Vallarta Adventures. Ziplining! Boating! Rapelling! Getting really wet! What’s not to love? I signed up immediately.

At 8:30 a.m. I caught a taxi to the marine terminal, paid the 20 peso entry tax, and proceeded to have my backpack searched more thoroughly than at any airport I’ve ever been through in Mexico. Apparently there is a bigger dinner cruise hijacking problem than I was aware of (“Meet our demands immediately or we start throwing chicken kiev platters overboard one by one!”).

There was also a large sign warning against the kind of dangerous contraband you cannot bring into the marine terminal, including drugs, guns and Welsh Corgis:

Just before our tour was to begin, a giant (and I mean GIANT) cruise ship pulled into the harbor. I guess I knew intellectually that cruise ships were big, but actually watching one pull into a tiny harbor is awe-inspiring. Somehow they managed to nose into the harbor (that’s the “bow,” for those who are nautically inclined), rotate 90 degrees backwards so the rear of the ship (nautical term: “the butt”) was facing us, and slide sideways up agains the dock. Then Julie did a line of coke and Isaac flirted with Melba Moore.

We were met by the first of an estimated 7,400 tour guides assisting us on today’s tour. Vallarta Adventures is very well staffed and efficient. The guide told us we were going to have the best tour in Mexico and encouraged us to go around and say hi to people we didn’t know. I introduced myself to various other people on the tour, which included:

  • Three women and a man from Holland, who spoke loud Dutch and smoked cigarettes before the tour began.
  • A family of four from Canada, including two teen daughters who had the “slightly-put-out-by-being-in-Mexico-instead-of-home-in-Calgary-at-the-mall” look.
  • Another couple from Canada.
  • Yet another couple from Canada.
  • Various American couples.
  • Two college girls from Loyola.

As is my custom on boat tours, I made a quick survey of the group to decide who I would eat first if we ended up stranded on a deserted island. I decided not to make a firm call right away.

We all piled into an inflatable speedboat with twin 200 horsepower engines and off we went. The boat flew across the ocean, offering a nice view of Puerto Vallarta. After about half an hour we arrived at the tiny village of Boca de Tomatlán (Spanish translation: “Nyah nyah, tomato face!”), a place that features about three houses and two pelicans. One of the Canadian girls pointed at a pelican and said “Look, a stork!”

We piled off the boat and our next welcoming guide informed us that his name was “Tomás Cruzero” (get it?) and he did a little comedy routine before dividing us into Team Awesome and Team Great and piling us into trucks for the next leg of our journey. I was on Team Great, along with the Dutch, the college girls, two of the less-annoying Canadians (by a hair) and a doughy couple from Ohio.

The trucks are converted 1968 military 4×4 Unimogs, with a raised chassis and what they describe as “extra cushioning.” They enjoy the smooth ride you’d expect of, say, a Volkswagen tumbling down an embankment, with the kind of quiet, emissions-free operation you’d expect from a 747 crashing into Chernobyl. Needless to say, the 30 minute ride up to base camp was nothing short of terrifying, especially once the Unimog turned onto a narrow dirt road that could only charitably be described as “a road.”

Reaching base camp, we stowed all of our personal belongings in a locker and were fitted with climbing harnesses and helmets. A team of six tour guides had us in very good hands, cracking jokes such as “The helmets aren’t for you — they’re to protect the trees,” and “Your harness is a Mexican diaper.” Five of the tour guides were Mexican, and one was from Canada. They all spoke English, and apparently I was a huge outlier by actually speaking Spanish. They asked me where I was from and I said “Portland, Octopus.”

For the first leg of our adventure, we walked over to the mule area (there is probably a name for a mule area) and were given quick instructions on how to operate a mule. I mounted my mule (so to speak) and away we went. It had approximately 399-1/2 fewer horsepowers than the boat that had delivered us to Boca de Tomatlán, but it gamely scampered up the trail thanks to (or more likely, despite) my expert mulemanship. One of the college girls was in front of me, but her mule-riding skills were clearly inferior to mine and eventually I passed her and led the mule train up the hill. I can report that my mule was sure-footed, even-tempered, able-bodied and did not throw me to my death into a ravine. Those are really all the qualities I am looking for in a mule.

After 30 minutes we reached the end of the mule trail, and I bid my mule a fond farewell. It was time for ziplining. I am not super-awesome with heights, but when I saw how much redundant safety equipment was being used, I decided to temporarily suspend my terror. The first zip line was 800 feet, and I’m proud to say that I did not scream like Dakota Fanning, or suffer the ultimate fail of not making it to the end of the zip line.

The key to ziplining is to keep one hand gently on the rope, which you use to prevent yourself from spinning around (unless you’re into such things). You can also use this hand to brake by pulling down on the rope, but brake too soon before the finish and you end up coming to a halt and having to suffer the embarrassment of hauling yourself hand-over-hand backwards to the finish platform. One of the college girls experienced zipline fail twice, as did Dutch Mom.

With six tour guides in our party, several would go ahead and several would stay behind to make sure that everyone got through all of the ziplines. They were very efficient, and at certain points in the tour they would just clip you into something while you were standing around to ensure that you didn’t misstep and take the seven second vertical tour of the canyon.

After four or five ziplines, it was time for the rapelling portion of the adventure. Following a quick demonstration, we stepped up one at a time to rappel down a large waterfall. It was wet, slippery and challenging. Being cat-like in my dislike for getting wet, I managed to only get soaked up to the knees in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.

Any lingering thoughts of staying dry went out the window, however, because the next zipline was a steep and direct plunge directly into a natural pool in the river. No steering. No braking, just a near free-fall into three feet of water. We all ended up completely submerged on the landing, and I got water up my nose, in my ears, and probably in other places. I am not a good swimmer, or even a good cannonballer.

We then had a free-fall rappel (straight down off a platform), a few rope bridges to cross, and then a final zipline and a short hike through the river back to base camp.

Back at the camp I changed into dry clothing, decided not to purchase a photo package showing me making “mule riding and zipline face” and piled back into the Unimog for the ride back down the mountain. On the way, we stopped at a tequila factory for a tequila tasting, in which everybody took shots of five different tequilas and then looted a 7-Eleven and overturned a burning car. No, I made up that last part, but it was enough tequila that if I’d sampled it I would have been rendered deceased. I am not a drinker, so only me and the Canadian teens (“Tastes like stork!”) abstained. The two college girls bought bottles to take home and a serious discussion broke out amongst the Canadians as to how much tequila they could take home without being subject to tax.

The boat ride back to Puerto Vallarta was very bumpy, as the afternoon ocean swells were in full swell, and between that, the mule ride, the Unimog, the Mexican diaper and the wet chafing I have to say that my butt (nautical term: “my stern”) is a little bit sore.

I caught a bus back home from the marine terminal and enjoyed watching the sunset while trying to guess how many days it will take my shoes to dry. I’m guessing “all of them.”