You Have Boyfriend? – Jordan, 2006

July 2006. Drew and I had just completed our short sojourn into Jordan.  In the space of a few days we managed to nearly plunge to our deaths near Petra, run out of oxygen on a SCUBA dive south of Aqaba, and acquire a particularly virulent stomach bug that actually caused at least one person to poop explosively on a wall while trying to get to a bathroom. I’m not kidding. At least four feet up. I won’t say who it was.

It was Drew. I’m sorry buddy.

So after spending two days in the fetal position, we decided it was high time to evacuate. Yeah, that’s a cheap poop-your-pants pun, deal with it, I’m not sorry. In our haste, we hired the first cabbie that would agree to drive us back to the border near Eilat. First mistake. If you’re going to take a cab across some seriously empty desert where nobody can hear you scream, maybe do a little more vetting than, “Eilat? Ok, let’s go.”

Our guy was a terrifying blend of stereotypes. There had to be at least a quart of gel holding his hair into some sort of Gladiator-esque coif. He had recently bathed in what may have been Brut (yeah, the cologne in the green plastic bottle), or possibly tear gas. His shirt was shiny enough to be used as an emergency signal to aircraft. As we got in, he put on his gigantic shades and pumped up the techno to 11 before peeling out in our shuddering chariot.

As we screamed through the scrubby hills of Western Jordan, our new best friend shouted questions at us over the deafening wailing sounds coming from the speakers behind our heads. Normal things, like, “Where you from, U.S.A?” and “What your name?” He seemed friendly enough, so we chatted a little bit to take our minds off the painful death that seemed to await us around every hairpin turn. “You have girlfriend?” As I remember, both Drew and I had recently experienced some sort of college sweetheart emotional demolition, and replied in the negative. “You have boyfriend?!” He screamed this one at us with intensity. When we both again replied in the negative, he raised his voice and bellowed “I have boyfriend!” Neither of us are homophobes, but something about the escalating intensity in the car was getting a little disconcerting. “ALL DAY LONG I AM F#$@ING HIM!” He punctuated his earsplitting declaration by pounding the dashboard with a swarthy fist. It had just gotten weird.

We tried to court silence by not responding, and it seemed to work until we passed a small Bedouin camp. A small flock of sheep caught our driver’s eye. “SHEEP!” We mumbled some sort of affirmation that they were indeed sheep. “WE BRING SHEEP IN TAXI AND F#$@ING THEM!” After comparing notes later, Drew and I confirmed that this was the exact moment where we both realized we made a fairly grievous error by getting into this cab. Our bewilderment and discomfort were only matched by our quiet resolve to not be turned into skin suits by Jordanian Buffalo Bob. We would not put the lotion on our skin! We would NOT do what we were told! We passed the next hour or so in silence, if you can call mumbled prayers for safe passage and thunderous techno beats “silence.”

Then, suddenly, in the distance we could see a grimy picture of King Abdullah shimmering in the midday heat. His ever-present bemused, kingly grin seemed reassuring, welcoming us to the border crossing.  We scrambled from the car, probably before Buffalo Bob had even hit the brakes. We narrowly restrained ourselves from kissing the  crumbling asphalt of the Wadi Araba. “You give me your email, I come visit you in U.S.A.?” Probably not buddy.

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Aotearoa and French Polynesia 2012

Stuck in the Middle With You – Israel/Egypt 2006

My aforementioned compatriot Drew and I spent most of the first half of 2006 planning an epic journey to India. School, already a low priority, took a backseat to countless hours of poring over the 1,220 pages of Lonely Planet’s tome-like production. Jaipur, Bangalore, and the Ganges dominated our every waking moment.

Our bags had been packed for weeks by the time school’s tentacles released us for the summer so, with arms aching from vaccinations ranging from Japanese Encephalitis B to Typhoid, we beelined straight for  the airport before our professors could say, “It was a blessing having you in class this semester.”

We spent our first day of freedom sitting in Newark, waiting to get our standby seats to Delhi. Our hopes were high at 10 AM when we found our empty gate, but they steadily dwindled over the next 12 hours as the ratio of turbans and saris to college backpackers spiraled ever-upward. As the plane began to board, we were despondent. There was not another Delhi-bound freedom bird for 24 hours, and our budget would realistically only sustain human life for about 17 hours in the United States. A taxi into the city was way outside our price range, let alone a place to stay. What were we going to do in Newark airport for 24 hours?! Then suddenly we heard it. “Mr. James and Mr. Her…hert…hirzz…please come to the check-in counter.” Our hearts leapt! We raced to the counter only to be greeted with the same look Julia Roberts received in Pretty Woman when she tried to buy some nice clothes. “Gentlemen, we have two seats available on this flight, but one is in first class and unfortunately you’re not dressed appropriately to take that seat.” Now this was a surprise, as we had worn jeans, collared shirts, and close-toed shoes in anticipation of the standby dress code. We were informed that first class standby required slacks which, oddly enough, we hadn’t packed for our month in India. With about 10 minutes to final boarding, we sprinted off to find slacks. We pawed through piles of golf shirts, I Heart NY t-shirts, and Lacoste polos…only to discover that there are no purveyors of men’s pants in Newark. As our ten minutes trickled away, we were outside at curbside check-in, trying to buy a Skycap’s pants, to no avail. The plane left without us, and we were stranded.

We abandoned our post at the Newark-Delhi gate and meandered aimlessly around the terminals, seemingly the only poor souls left in the building. Wistfully, we glanced up at the Departures monitors, envying our fellow travelers who had successfully boarded aircraft. Lisbon, London, Frankfurt…all had long-since slipped the bonds of New Jersey and winged off into the night. It was then that we noticed Tel Aviv, blinking seductively, “ON TIME.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Israel,” I said to Drew. “So have I,” he said. Ten hours later we stepped off El Al flight 728 into Ben Gurion International Airport.

Not in India.

Israeli customs did not appreciate the unplanned nature of our visit, quickly funneling us into the “possible terrorists” waiting area where surly Mossad agents repeatedly grilled us regarding our plans (we had none), how much money we brought (not much), and where we were staying (we don’t know, can you tell us how to get to Jerusalem?). Exasperated, but apparently reassured that we were not members of Hamas, our interrogators pointed us toward the bus station and set us free.

(Many adventures were had, future posts forthcoming)

We eventually made our way south, to the Taba border crossing into Egypt. As one might expect, the Israeli’s are somewhat intense on the subject of security, so we were thoroughly searched leaving the country. We also paid an exit tax, which I’d never heard of before and found very interesting. Paying to leave…the ultimate captive market. So we made it into the Egyptian side of the crossing, and just as we were about to leave the gate, we were stopped by a guard. He asked where we were going, to which we replied, “Cairo.” Upon a quick examination of our passports, the guard informed us that in fact we were not going to Cairo, and that we only had visas for Sinai. Actually I think that conversation mostly consisted of him pointing at our passports and saying, “NO CAIRO,” but in any case, back we went to Israeli security. We were thoroughly searched (again) and spent a short lifetime haggling with the guards to get them to refund our exit tax. I was not kidding when I said we were on a tight budget, and that 20 shekels would buy a couple days’ worth of falafel.

Wishing You a Great Journey...Back to Israel.

By the time we returned to Israel, it was late afternoon and the border was closing. The Israeli guards told us to get a Cairo visa from the Egyptian Consulate in Eilat and come back the next day. We’d taken a taxi to the border, as it was about 10 miles out of town, and when we’d arrived there were buses and taxis all over the place. Of course, at closing time, the only cars were the personal vehicles of the border guards, and they all drove away without making eye contact with the two forlorn Americans standing outside their closed up border station. So there we were, stranded, on the Israeli edge of no-man’s-land, no food, and no water. It was too far to walk, and night was falling. We found a beach vendor who was trying to close her stand before she too fled for the city, luckily she had one sandwich left and a bottle or two of water which we purchased for the price of a 2007 Toyota Prius…good thing we got our exit tax money back. We ate our sandwich and went for a swim in the Red Sea, which helped us avoid dwelling on the fact that we were an internet ransom video waiting to happen.

We eventually decided that we’d call this “camping” and decided we’d sleep on the beach. Israel felt like the surface of the sun during the day, so we figured that sleeping under the stars would be pleasant. False. Once the sun had finally slipped beneath the horizon it got cold. Really cold. Drew and I were still outfitted for India in the summer, so our clothing was somewhat less than adequate for any temperature under 100 degrees. Each of us had purchased a thobe and trousers at a Palestinian tailor’s shop in Jerusalem, so we put those on, wrapped ourselves in keffiyeh’s and tried to sleep.

My Thobe Guy

Other feeble attempts at keeping warm that night included, but were not limited to: burying ourselves in sand, trying to get into our backpacks, and shivering uncontrollably. Needless to say we arose the next day refreshed (sarcasm) and happy to be alive (not sarcasm). We also arose looking like sandy Palestinian hobos, which did not help us get a ride back to town.

Once we finally made it to Eilat, we spent most of the day playing cards with some Germans at the Egyptian consulate and stocking up on food and water for our second attempt at crossing the border. We were eventually successful in our quest to see Cairo, but that is a tale for another day.

So, in closing, let’s cover a few lessons learned for those of you who would like to cross the Israel-Egypt border on foot.

  1. Don’t do that.
  2. If you are determined to do it, get a Cairo visa in Eilat (playing cards with Germans is optional).
  3. Do not put on traditional Palestinian clothes and sleep outside with the bums.
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The Scared Ones Run First – Pamplona, Spain 2009

Have you ever seen someone’s face and immediately known what they were thinking? I have, and he was thinking “You are literally seconds from death.”

In July of 2009, I went to the festival of San Fermin with my friends Dave and Tanya, who happened to be living in Spain at the time. San Fermin is an 8-day tribute to, you guessed it Ron Burgundy, Saint Fermin, the co-patron saint of Navarre. Unfortunately for Fermin, he is rather overshadowed by the wild bacchanalian death race which occurs every day at 8AM during his festival, The Running of the Bulls. If you’ve never heard of the Running of the Bulls before, it’s exactly what it sounds like. People let enormous, violently angry Spanish Miura fighting bulls loose in the street, then they run from them. It’s pure genius.

We left Madrid for Pamplona with some of Dave’s co-workers somewhere around 2 AM, with the stated goal of finding a safe, preferably high, vantage point from which to watch white-clad revelers get demolished by fighting bulls. I say “stated” because I am pretty sure Dave and I knew from the get-go that we had to run. I also say “stated” because I’m pretty sure I told my Mother that very thing. “Of course I’m not RUNNING WITH THE BULLS Mom, that would be crazy! Don’t worry.”

Anyone who has ever ridden in a car, bus, airplane, boat, or any other method of effortless conveyance with me knows that I fall asleep when the key turns in the ignition, so I can’t tell you anything about the trip up. Plus it was dark. I awoke when the bus slowed down to enter Pamplona, which resembled a post-Apocalyptic zombie wasteland. There were mountains of empty wine bottles taller than our bus, and unconscious people littered the ground. Seriously, every single patch of flat ground had a person on it. Even the 2 foot wide divider in the road had people sleeping on it, their red scarves fluttering weakly in the dawn breeze. We pulled into the underground bus station/New Orleans Superdome, which was packed with cots and humans, many of them curled into balls on the asphalt. I kid you not, had we not been there for a party I’d have assumed that we had somehow missed news coverage of a giant earthquake and had walked into the ensuing humanitarian crisis.

We knotted on our jaunty red scarves and ventured forth to find the starting position, which would obviously be the best place to “watch”. City workers put up tall wooden barricades in the streets to keep the bulls on course, and ostensibly to protect people. Runners are the only people allowed inside the barricades, which mostly just means there are no EMT’s standing there to save you if you get ventilated by a bull. Festival-goers mostly use the barricades as grandstands from which to watch punishment get meted out to drunken Dutch college students who cannot run straight enough to escape the bulls. No cameras are allowed inside the barricades, I suspect because they’d find a lot of smashed people with one last really great close-up of a charging bull.

As we searched, the city began to shake itself out of its sangria-soaked stupor and a passing wave of white-clad hedonists swept us along with them, singing and shouting, marching into battle. By this time, there was no way we were not running. It was just way too exciting. We marched up and down the slick cobblestone streets of Pamplona until suddenly a group of police shut a gate in front of us. We turned around to go the other way, just as another group shut the gate we hadn’t seen at the other end of the street. They then started marching toward us menacingly. Chaos immediately erupted. A young Spaniard grabbed me by the shoulder and dragged me after him “We have to run! The police will take you away!” I thought, “This doesn’t sound right…but ok!” So we ran. We ducked under the barricades and sprinted away through the twisting alleys and plazas until we found more barricades, rolling under them and re-joining a new crowd of runners marching and singing. It was then that I turned around and realized that Dave was gone. Of the 4 of us that had made good our escape, there remained only myself and one of Dave’s friends. He said “Hang on, I’ll run back and see if I can find the guys.” And then it was just me, alone and unafraid. Ok, a little afraid.

I looked around and realized that we had somehow, in spite of our seemingly unplanned escape route, arrived at the front of the course, a mere hundred yards from the corner which housed the bulls’ pen. The people around me were not the sodden screaming masses of vacationing Germans we’d seen earlier, but a group of older Spanish gentlemen carrying newspapers…I guess they figured that while we waited to die they would do their Sudoku puzzles. They saw me eyeing them, and one of them began to explain how the next/possibly last few minutes of my life were going to play out. “When the bulls’ pen opens,” he said, “the handlers will send up a rocket, then there will be a second rocket to let the runners know that the bulls have entered the course.”
“Then we run?”
“Then we run.”
I asked why they’d brought newspapers, the man explained that they used the newspapers to extend their reach behind them, that way they didn’t have to turn their heads to see how close the bulls were.


You’re planning to be an arm-plus-a-newspaper from the business end of these F-150’s with horns? It was only then that I realized the gravity of my situation. I was right in the proverbial “kill box,” no barricades to protect me, surrounded by veterans of countless bull encounters, and I hadn’t brought a bull-proximity-detector/newspaper.

Standing in a sea of strangers, buzzing with nervous energy, a small quiet thought entered my mind. “I really don’t want to get gored by a bull today.”

That thought was cut off by a lone rocket streaking across the sky, the report echoing through suddenly silent streets. A wave of frenzied people came tearing around the corner and I prepared to flee for my life. My Spanish friend laid his hand on my arm, “wait,” he said, “the scared ones always run at the first rocket, the bulls aren’t out yet.” I stood there shaking my head with the Sudoku group as “the scared ones” fled around us. “PLEASE TAKE ME WITH YOU,” my mind screamed at their backs as they retreated to safety.

A second rocket hissed over the alleys, and this time the report was nearly drowned out by the thunder of hundreds of feet…and hooves.

A new crowd rounded the corner, different from the first. These men were running as if the devil himself was in pursuit, their brows furrowed with concentration as they coaxed every ounce of speed out of their legs. They did not shout or scream like the first group, instead conserving their breath to run. Then I saw them. Six bulls rounded the corner behind the runners, snorting and tossing their horns in fury. Every bit of adrenaline my body could produce flooded my system and my stomach dropped into my shoes. They blocked the alley from wall-to-wall, covering the hundred yards between us in seconds. As those Panzer-sized beasts thundered down the alley toward me, I struggled to put one leg in front of the other, scanning the barricade-bereft alley in front of me for any kind of protection. Nothing. We had somehow chosen the part of the course which consisted of nothing but cold unforgiving stone facades and locked doors. I saw a barricade about 20 yards up the street and urged my jelly-like legs into motion. At this point I could barely see, either due to extreme tunnel-vision or my life flashing before my eyes, I’m still not sure. It was like one of those dreams where you’re being chased and you can’t run. Except this was no dream. Somehow I managed to reach the barricades ahead of the bulls and reached out for them behind another runner, who somehow leapt 10 feet into the air and pulled himself to safety in the last available space at the top. There was nowhere to go. He looked down at me and I saw it. The Look. “You are literally seconds from death.”

I glanced over my shoulder to see a bull, well within newspaper range. I threw myself into the barrier, pressing every inch of my doomed body into the plywood, waiting to find out what a dragonfly in a bug collection feels like. Then suddenly it was quiet. “Hm,” I thought, “I always thought death would be louder…” Opening my eyes I discovered that the bulls had passed, and I was alive. My friend at the top of the barrier shook his head in disbelief. Apparently he was surprised too.

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Two Guys, One Mosquito Net – Peru 2009 Part 2

That night, Drew and I asked around about Batman at the communal dinner table. “Remember the group that got lost looking for frogs?” asked a ponytailed middle school biology teacher (we did remember that, in short, a group of people and their guide got lost, looking for frogs), “well, Batman is the guy they sent out to rescue the guides.” We were stunned because, as much as it pains me to say it, I’m pretty sure if we set the NORMAL guides and the Great One loose in the Amazon…the guides would find and eat Bear Grylls. So for this guy to be the guide rescuer…we’re talking about one hardcore Peruvian

So it was with not-inconsiderable apprehension the next morning that we boarded a small motorboat, two dugout canoes in tow. Batman sat silently in the bow, a Batman ballcap on his head and a razor-sharp machete in his hand.

On the Black Amazon

We motored upriver until the waters were too shallow for the outboard motor, at which point we tied the boat to a tree and set off in the canoes. Drew and I insisted that we be allowed to paddle, thinking with our Norteamericano muscles we’d arrive at our eventual destination much faster. Batman and Edson laughed, handed us paddles, and we were off. Our guides paddled steadily, the spade-shaped blades knifing into the water with this funny “plop, plop, plop,”, while Drew and I thrashed hopelessly trying to emulate them. About three hours later, we pulled our boats up to a small clearing and started building shelters to sleep in that night. We split palm fronds and laid them over a framework we built of branches and vines. Rarely have I felt more like Bear Grylls. It was around this time that we pulled out the mosquito nets that would become the most important part of our shelters. About 3 minutes later we realized that one net had a giant rip through the middle (which, if you’re unfamiliar with the purpose of mosquito nets, would render it slightly less-than-useful). So we’re left with two one man nets, and one 1.3 man net. Somehow, Drew and I end up sharing the 1.3 man net, while the two tiny jungle ninjas got their own nets, but how do you argue with the people who control your survival? We wouldn’t realize the import of this mosquito net deal until later. After shelter-building time, we went fishing for piranhas (Drew caught an electric eel), dropped one of the machetes into the piranha infested river, and cut down a palm tree with the remaining machete, +12 Bear Grylls points. Did you know that’s how we get palm hearts? It’s a lot of work, and a lot of wasted tree for salad garnish. An entire tree to get enough palm heart to dress one salad?

Once we finished with Lost Boys activity hour, we armed ourselves with spears, got back in the canoes and paddled all the way to China. At one point, about 3 hours after sunset I honestly began to contemplate the possibility that Batman and Edson had sold us to FARC and were taking us to some place in the jungle to begin our life as hostages of Colombian narco-terrorists. Drew and I had long since abandoned our feeble paddling efforts, as we could barely lift our arms above our waists. Edson and Batman kept up their steady “plop, plop, plop-ing” and we continued on our way to “go hunting.” Why they assumed there were only animals in Brazil, I’ll never know. After we had nearly circumnavigated the globe by canoe, we speared a small alligator near what I surmise was Vietnam, then paddled back to Peru and our little palm-thatched hovels that we’d built earlier. After building a fire (+4 BG points) we scaled and ate that delicious little alligator (+6 BG points, with a 3 point deduction for cooking the meat) and then retired to our hovel. When we crawled in, Drew and I quickly realized the import of the mosquito net distribution I mentioned earlier. I won’t disclose what it took to  make both of our overly large gringo bodies fit under our one mosquito net…but it rhymes with waytooclosetogether.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to sleep in a jungle, with another man almost sleeping on top of you, and a million nocturnal creatures partying outside your mosquito net, but it’s not easy. My sweaty feverish slumber was periodically interrupted by screaming animals eating one another, Drew throwing elbows like Randy Couture, and the terrible fear that my feet would get eaten by bugs if they extended beyond the confines of the mosquito net which was about 6 inches shorter than my body. As it turns out, I should have been more worried about my arm, which I had futilely attempted to position in such a way that I wouldn’t be completely spooning Drew. In my eagerness to put space between the two of us, I’d managed to roll my left arm against the mosquito net (which, again, if you’re unfamiliar with mosquito net operation, allows creatures to bite you through the net). When we awoke, I discovered that I’d been bitten by approximately 50 billion creatures, and was probably about a quart low of blood. I’m pretty sure the mosquitos were walking away from our shelter, so overburdened were they by my blood that they were incapable of flight. My arm was swollen to epic proportions, closely resembling a hot dog left in the fire by a 10-year-old Cub Scout.

The paddle back to the motorboat seemed to go quicker than the day before, but that may have been due to the fact that I’d lost more blood than a gunshot victim the night before. We arrived back at the research station just in time to make the boat heading back to Iquitos, crammed in between banana crates and gas cans, covered in mud and mosquito bites, completely and totally happy.

Lost Boys

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Be at the Boat at Dawn – Peru Part 1

So there I was, flying over the Peruvian Amazon.

At the time, I think I was most impressed that the Peruvians had been able to put their plane back together after it crashed in the Andes with that rugby team aboard, maybe you saw the movie

Seriously though, I saw duct tape on the wing and when they brought peanuts they also handed out parachutes.

In 2009 I went to Peru with my friend Drew. Drew and I have been through a lot together. As high school seniors, we had to share a child’s twin bed because we were scared that the giant German exchange student sleeping in the other bed would force us to be the little spoon if he caught one of us alone. We also got a horrible parasite in Jordan together during our first summer at college. More to follow on that. Jordan, not the parasite.

Back to the story, please stop distracting me.

So Drew and I were aboard this aircraft that was likely constructed sometime during the Korean War, and we were very aware of our tenuous grip on mortality. To distract ourselves, we struck up a conversation with the man across the aisle from us. As it turns out, this man was a professor of ethno-botany, headed deep into the Amazon to work with native tribes in order to help them protect their ancestral lands, very Indiana Jones…sans Nazis. Our plan was to get aboard an Amazon freighter and Huck Finn our way up to the Brazilian border. Significantly less noble, I’m aware. The professor, whose name escapes me…should have started this blog in 2009, acknowledged our half-baked plan, and then told us about a company he had worked with that would provide us with a guide and set us loose in the jungle to chase animals and do whatever it is we felt like doing. I am not sure how Professor X knew that he was talking to Bear Grylls‘ two biggest fans in the entire world, but he had us at “chase animals.” He offered to take us to the company’s office and to tell them we were his graduate students in order to get us a discount. We agreed.

So excited were we at our good fortune that we barely noticed the plane’s divebomber-esque approach to the runway, which was surrounded by burned and mangled aircraft and looked like an LZ that the Seabees had blasted out of the jungle in Vietnam. We did, however, notice the 3 firetrucks parked at the end of the runway, lights already flashing…waiting for our airplane. If you’re at an airport where airplane fires are so common that the firetrucks don’t bother leaving the runway or turning their lights off, you should probably worry. Welcome to Iquitos, the largest city in the world unreachable by road.

We caught the first bastard child of a motorcycle/rickshaw that we could grab and went directly to the offices of Amazonia Adventures. Offices may be an overstatement. We talked to a woman at a desk down at the docks. By about midnight we’d haggled our way down to $400 a piece for a boat ride into the Peruvian Amazon, beds, a guide, and food for a week. They only took cash, surprise. So we went to the ATM, where I made an interesting discovery. My ATM pin had changed. After numerous failed attempts to access our meager trip fund, we were left with two options: selling our bodies or convincing the guides to take us for free.

All the good hooking corners were already taken, so we moto-rickshaw’ed our way back to the docks to beg Amazonia Adventures to take us into the jungle on good faith. We sounded like desperate crackheads trying to score, “No we swear, we HAVE the money, we just don’t have it right NOW!” Either they believed us, or they pitied us, but the next morning we were on a boat, motoring 100 miles into the heart of the Amazon. At this point I was fairly sure that someone in Lima had purchased themselves a new four-wheeler on my debit card, but that could wait, destiny could not!

After hours of cruising through the setting for a South American Joseph Conrad novel, our jungle base camp came into view. Few moments in life truly exceed our wildest expectations, but this was one of those moments. It was like Swiss Family Robinson! If you’ve seen the classic Disney version (we watch it regularly) we were pretty sure there was going to be an ostrich race and possibly a battle with pirates.

Hello Perfect Moment

Our week in the jungle was glorious, and I’ll tell you all about it later, but right now I want to focus on the time we spent the night in the jungle with Batman.

Yeah. Batman.

I mentioned Bear Grylls earlier. It’s about to become relevant.

When we arrived at the stilt houses that comprised Amazonia Adventure’s jungle station we met our guide, Edson. Other people were meeting their guides at the same time and we could hear them all begging their guides to take them bird watching, or frog licking, or whatever. When Edson asked us what we would like to do, I think he was a little taken aback. “We want to survive,” we responded in unison. He looked even more shocked when Drew said, “Just take us into the jungle and let’s go nuts.” He promised to look into the possibility.

By the end of the week, we’d seen some pretty amazing things, but nothing that required our Bear Grylls skills. Alliteration. We asked Edson about our request to “survive”, and his reply was like music to our ears…ominous music.

“Be at the boat at dawn. Batman will be waiting.”


To be continued…


When in Rome…Don’t Drive a 12-passenger Van

The debate on how to organize the torrid tales that I’ve collected has raged on for about 2 days now…and let me tell you, it’s been heated.  I’ve asked a lot of people that know me, and I’ve gotten quite a few good suggestions. Write chronologically, write your best stuff first, go by continent, type of trip, in reverse order by literacy rate. All good suggestions, but they just wouldn’t be me. I’ll start this the way I start everything else, without any planning or organization whatsoever.

So, there I was…in Agrigento, Sicily.

Fortune and glory Shortround, fortune and glory...

We’d been working in Sicily for a while, and we (“we” being myself and a rowdy cohort of my buddies, not the royal “we”) decided that a day off was in order. Agrigento immediately jumped to the top of my list of places to see I when read about the abundance of Indiana Jones-fantasy-inspiring ruins in its Valley of the Temples. If you don’t like Indiana Jones, you might as well never read this blog again. Fair warning.

Back to the story. Please stop distracting me.

We travel around Sicily in these enormous Mercedes Monstrosities, pretty sure that’s the actual model name, which I’m fairly certain could accommodate most of the Chicago Bulls, both in headroom and seating. So we get ahold of one of these massive beasts and, with my chum Jeff navigating from shotgun with his t-Mobile iWish I Was an iPad, begin our pilgrimage to Indiana Jones Land, which is about two and a half hours from where we’re stationed.

Do not shrink me gypsy

Jeff’s refusal to get on the iWagon was likely to blame for the first problem we encountered, about 20 minutes into our drive. The iImposter’s navigation app failed to tell us that every Sicilian road for a billion miles was under construction on that particular day. Apparently, after 2000 years of coping with their pre-Roman infrastructure, the Sicilian Highway Department had decided to take a stand. Perfect time to join the 21st Century, thanks guys. On the bright side, every time traffic ground to a halt we were accosted by weird Gypsies selling pinwheels and other shiny baubles, so that was nice. After navigating endless miles of dusty Sicilian road construction, we finally reached our destination.

Aside from the weird modern statues of winged butts with faces in them, Agrigento did not disappoint.

Winged butt...with face

To all those of you with unfulfilled dreams of being a Nazi-fighting archaeologist, I highly recommend it. To those with different dreams… do whatever you want I guess.

I guess I should have warned you, the Valley of the Temples is not the focus of this story so much as the journey home. Maybe that’s why that clown Rick Steves has a travel show and I don’t. So, leaving. I corral my small herd of friends into the van and we decide to get something to eat before we start the Trail of Tears back to our base. As it so happens, Agrigento is perched on a very steep hill, much like many cities in Sicily. Pretty sure they didn’t build those with paid laborers, because no amount of money would have convinced any human being to carry building materials up these mountains.

Back to the story. Please stop distracting me.

By this point in our stay in Sicily, I’ve earned the reputation for taking these behemoth vans up roads much steeper and much more narrow than is prudent. So my friends begin to goad me, “Blake, I bet the best restaurants are at the top of this hill!” I don’t even flinch, up we go. Up and up and up. After numerous close calls and many irked Agrigento-an drivers, we reach a large parking lot at the base of the local cathedral. No restaurants. There are two roads leading away from this square, the road we’d just ascended, and a small unassuming goat path down the other side. Obviously we choose the goat path. By this point, I don’t even need my friends’ challenges, I’m boldly going where no 12-passenger van has gone before. The goat path is paved with the customary chariot wheel-scarred limestone that most Sicilian streets are made of, and the grade is a few notches below vertical. Once we start down, there’s no turning back. Barely wider than the van, this road takes multiple 90-degree turns (invisible from the top) and at one point I’m driving with two tires on a flight of stairs. My passengers are weak, scared…but not me. I confidently maneuver the Goodyear Blimp of vans down this street, until up ahead I see a small piazza. I’ve won. As we drive triumphantly into the square (with the mirriors folded in because the buildings are 2 inches from each side of the van) we notice a frantic woman shouting something at us from a second-story veranda. One of my compatriots scoffs, “What is that nut screaming about, can’t she see we already made it down the road?” It is then that we realize that the piazza that we had thought was our salvation might very well be our undoing. We’ve driven into a trap. This “piazza” is barely a driveway. My 7th grade YMCA basketball team couldn’t even play half-court on this thing. There’s no way we can turn around, we’re going to have to keep driving.

Descending the Goat Path Toward the Piazza of Doom

I start to sweat.

My buddy Nate hops out of the van to recon the area, we can see about 3 different roads leading away from the “square.” As he gets far enough from the van to see down the streets, he starts to shake his head incredulously. The roads are all more narrow than the van.

I start to sweat some more.

We’re going to have to go back the way we came.

My confidence is shattered.

My bravado is deflated.

There’s an Ethiopian guy next to my window.


Yeah, that’s right, somehow this creepy guy got right up to my window without me noticing. He starts talking to me in some moon-man language that I cannot decipher, and I decide he wants to help us turn the van around in this space about as large as…the van.

Everyone gets out to turn this thing around, but we’re all thinking one thing…there’s no way this van is turning around. We’re going to have to leave it here and take a cab home. By the time we get back to retrieve it (possibly with a helicopter) it’s going to be stripped of all valuables and up on blocks…possibly by this Ethiopian guy.

It takes two hours. Two long hours of lurching back and forth, 3 inches at a time. It’s like that scene from Austin Powers, except with an Ethiopian guy yelling at me, and some crazy witch lady still haranguing me from her balcony.

By the time we get this van turned around to travel back up the street, we’ve started to get calls from our boss. Did I mention that we were about 100 miles further away than we’re allowed to be? She tells us to come home…oh if we only could.

We fold the mirrors back in for the ascent, to be honest, I don’t want to see the destruction I leave in my wake anyway. This street, which only two hours ago seemed like such an adventure, has turned into a nightmare. I start up the hill. The van’s tires slip and smoke against the limestone, warning lights blink on the dashboard like satanic Christmas lights, but we are moving upward. Then we stop. We’ve reached the first 90-degree turn and now we’ve lost our momentum. At this point I’m pretty sure that the van is going to tip over backwards. Everyone but me and one navigator/spotter disembarks…ostensibly to help us make the corner, but I know the truth. They don’t want to explode in a fiery van crash when our Mercedes Hindenberg flips over and cartwheels its way down Mount Doom.

With white knuckles, I coax the van forward. The lights flash, burned rubber smoke fills the air, but we make it to the top. Everyone gets back in the van and we sail over the crest of the hill, triumphant…and about 3 hours late getting back to base…and we didn’t get to eat.

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After Much Deliberation

I’ve finally become a real person and started a blog.

After all the time it’s taken me to do this…I honestly can’t think of what would be best to write about in this first post. How anticlimactic. Watch this video while I try to think of a good story to tell you.