Paving Paradise – When the gringo trail becomes a tourist turnpike

“I remember when (insert place name here) wasn’t so crowded with sun-screened tourists following flag-waving guides while wearing their brand new white sneakers and color-coordinated new clothes.”

It’s also before the local economy and standard of living improved in your former tropical paradise.

20150205_070717Backpackers are to wonderful places what Richard Florida’s creative class is to inner cities.

They pioneer, they enjoy, they establish communication. They’re comfortable with the triple-tiered pricing structure in many places – a price for locals, another for ex-pats and reasonably fluent backpackers – and the highest for tourists. Then they get pushed out by the money-spending classes looking to be cool while visiting “cute” places they’re clueless about. But if you’re a local business and these people are spending money, it’s worth spending a bit of your own for a bilingual sign over your door.

Between the penny-pinching backpackers and the over-spending tourist invasions you’ll usually find missionaries. While many of them provide healthcare, water filtration systems and similar good things, many others simply want to sell their brand of theology. One of the first signs a town is turning is when church bells and evangelical PA system prayers start overwhelming crowing roosters and barking dogs. I don’t know if a cock crowed three times before the land transfer to the church. Read More

Catholic priests – notes from inside the tribal compound

Probably the biggest scar I carry from those days of Catholic school and church is a metabolic revulsion to getting out of bed before the sun’s been up an hour. Blame it on my altar boy days serving 6:45 Masses where I walked on icy roads in freezing rain to unlock an unheated, barely candlelit church before I knew how good coffee could be. Once things were set up – and before the priest arrived – we did learn how that tooth-decay sweet altar wine was a helpful antidote to the cold. Other than that, I survived in pretty good shape.

Lots of priests passed through our lives in those days, some left their images on my developing brain – Read More

Send money, guns and…exit visas

Years ago, before Costa Rica’s advertising and publicity machine kicked into high gear, I was staying in a hostel that happened to be a few doors down from the Nicaraguan embassy, which was a good distance from embassy row. Members of the Nicaraguan opposition took over the building. The Nicaraguan government said it wasn’t their problem, since the building was in Costa Rica. The Costa Ricans said that the embassy was Nicaraguan property, so it wasn’t their problem, either. The only problem the rest of us had was navigating our way through the cable-strewn camp of bored, card-playing news crews. So what’s a revolutionary to do when nobody cares about your demands and the pizza place on the corner stops delivering because you’ve run out of money? Settle for a coach-class seat to Havana.

Whether you’re on your own or with a group, it’s usually a good idea to have a backup plan and budget. Read More

Sullivan in exile

I remember old Mr. Sullivan, walking down a former country road with his ancient dog and a bottle sticking out of the brown bag in his overcoat pocket. Rain or shine. Winter or summer. Same heavy overcoat. Same aging dog. The same route. Different bottles. Talking to anyone he encountered – and to himself when he was alone.

He was alone a lot, even with other people around. His home, or rather the place where he had a room and a bed, was his daughter’s house. In the little bit of time he spent there he found himself surrounded by his daughter’s over-solicitous smothering, the grandkids’ noise, toys and television, and his son-in-law’s dutiful grunts as he negotiated kids, honey-do’s and dinner before settling into an easy chair in front of an evening’s television therapy.

In the old country of his memories: his wife is dead, his children moved to America, his friends and neighbors dispersed from towns, parishes and pubs to “communities” and duty-bound children. The lucky ones, writing him in increasingly shaky scripts, remained in their homes, walking their fields, roads and villages just a bit more slowly than they’d done most of their lives. True, the population was younger, but he remembered himself as a young man chatting with the old ones in the towns and pubs. One season’s growth usually overlapped the next season’s by some undefined period of time.

Uprooted from his native turf and transplanted across an ocean into a greenhouse of suburban cul-de-sacs circling to nowhere, he walked til he found roads to somewhere. Past the freshly-sprouted shopping malls and fields paved over for parking he found a few of the old towns that used to be the only towns.

He found himself in these towns. Mom and pop businesses hanging on by the loyalty of their dwindling patrons, people whose days were built on relationships rather than transactions, living lives instead of schedules. Dublin-1008-084 copyPubs were in his past, but the owner of the Formica diner looked the other way when Sullivan sweetened his coffee from his pocket. And occasionally he’d join the shrinking group of old guys at the front window table as they solved the problems of the universe and traded lies about their exploits in better days.

I moved on in my life, to another place. Construction changed the old one-and-a-half lane road to four lanes. His dog died. The old towns sprouted art galleries, ice cream shops and martial arts studios. When Sullivan could no longer walk, they planted him in a wheelchair, where he fertilized himself. At some point they planted him.

In foreign soil.

Home: refuge or prison?

At the time, I was young and saw, but didn’t really feel, the tragedy. Today, I see a tragic pattern, understand and feel too well why my neighbor left us.

Envision, if you will, a young suburb. In the days before we coined the term ex-urb, freshly paved streets and newly minted split levels spilled onto too-small century-old roads. General stores and local suppliers doing better than ever because the new retail infrastructure that would bankrupt them is still in the future. Schools still smelling of fresh paint and floor wax. All the new residents with jobs, families and loyalties somewhere else. Neighbors were nice to have, nice to talk about, but there really wasn‘t a lot of unscheduled time for another unaffiliated loyalty to evolve. Read More

Home was a basement and a city’s sun

Mrs. B loved her sun – we’d squint and find somewhere else to go as the hot western sunset aimed down the narrow alley into our eyes. She’d come out from her basement kitchen to absorb its beam, silhouetting a cross on the concrete wall behind her. Depending on what she was wearing, it occasionally looked like her shadow followed her with angel wings of its own.

My front steps in those days before window air conditioners. Mrs. B’s were down an alley to the left.

Inside, a framed calendar page showed a thatched cottage and colorful garden from a place she called home. But when we asked, “Isn’t this your home, here?” She smiled, hugged us and said, “Of course it is. I picked this place just so I could be with each one of you.

We had no idea what she was talking about – and really didn’t care. She was our friend’s mom, the building super’s nice wife, the lady with the funny accent that didn’t quite fit in to the neighborhood mix of Irish and American English. And those words that didn’t mean the same to her: A jumper was what we did from the tall wall to the sidewalk, not what we wore. Our families told us she was a war bride, whatever that meant. To us, it meant that she grew up far away and that Mr. B brought her home from the army, like our dads brought home green coats and blankets. Read More

How do you draw the sound of snow?

It stops falling with little taps before it melts on parts of my coat. Just sits and collects on other parts. Simply touches and sits on branches around me. Becomes one with unfrozen stream water. Bundled up and walking the traces of a trail through a Rocky Mountain forest, my clothes are too thick to let me feel the magic that’s falling. It’s not silent when it touches me. But there’s no other sound. No wind, no sky. Just an all-encompassing peace. How do we draw the sound of what we see, what we feel, what we want to feel, of who we are?

There’s a song here. A melody I haven’t heard before and won’t hear again – each snowflake is its own never-repeating note. And as with all music, half of all its melody and meaning is between the lines. Do we know how to listen? To quietly punctuated silence?

Lyrics? Not in a language I know. Words are the jello mold we use to squeeze our experiences and emotions into a form we can feed to others. Is it possible to share rather than feed? Can we, do we, share without words?

I look up. Feel the snow on my face. Take off my gloves, feel it on my hands. Palms and backs respond in their own ways. The back of my hand seems to have less feeling.

I’m sampling and scoring the notes by feel, by rhythm. There’s no time signature I recognize. I’ll need to move from human time to tree time, or maybe snow time. I’ve done it before, and it’s magic.

A nearby tree just shed a load of powder from her branches. She’s still shaking like a dog shedding water. Now it’s safe under there, but I won’t hug or destroy her peace. It’s nice simply standing under her protection. Her aura of slowing drifting snow enhances the sky borne flakes.

I’m in a sensory concert hall. And just like any other concert, I need to surround myself with the musical experience. But it’s hard turning off all those other thoughts that play competing sounds all day long, in the multiple formats our task- and people-centered brains have become addicted to.

I need to spend more time here.


M-16’s, minefields and bar fights, oh my!

We’re all tourists and travelers of one sort or another – through life. On this planet. We share our journeys with many people. My life has taken me to wonderful places where I’ve spent wonderful times with wonderful people. To me, experience is more important than all the views and all the stuff that winds up cluttering our homes. To borrow the name of a show I was in years ago, You Can’t Take It With You.

If we’re all tourists, how are we different? There are many people who are happy and satisfied exploring their own lives and immediate environments. Then there are the clichéd tourists who exaggerate national stereotypes [insert your favorite story here]. These are the voyeurs who look without seeing, observing but not absorbing the lives of others through a lens they’ve paid to look through. Whether they’re pointing and loudly talking about the locals as if they weren’t there in another country or in a city neighborhood in their own land, they treat neighborhoods, houses and residents like museums and shops that are there for their amusement, much like a holographic television show. Read More

Where nobody knows your name – or wants to.

There’s a bar in a town along the gringo trail where, if you’ve spent a few nights there over the years, the owner/bartender/every-other-job-doer knew your drink, your favorite snacks and where you’ve been. But he never asked your name – nor did anyone else at the bar. But we knew most of each other’s stories – and there was rarely too much exaggeration because we’d all been to most of the places and occasionally bumped into each other a country or so away.

I stopped in when I was passing through town a few years ago. The food was still mediocre. The beer warm, as usual. If he knows you’re a beer drinker, it would be open on the bar by the time you get there. Really doesn’t matter what it is – Gallo, Brahva, or Dorada. You’ll get whatever he’s got in stock, which means whatever he could pay the deliveryman for that day. You really don’t want the wine. It’s worse than cough syrup. But we kept coming back for the owner, a local guy with a wonderful sense of humor who never forgot a face and carried on simultaneous conversations in at least four languages. Fluently. He knows which patrons don’t like the local dogs at their tables and which ones make sure the dogs don’t starve. Oh, and there’s the internet. Let me re-phrase that. A Wi-Fi sign. Newcomers had already paid for their beer when they got around to asking for the password. He gave them some random digits and, when they found nothing happening, told them the router must be down tonight [same as every other night]. Read More

Lost my passport – and had a great day!

I lost my passport.   (Insert long string of appropriate words here. They follow the Macarena-like search of every pocket on your body and in your bag, while you’re in an elbow-to-elbow-crowded launch crossing a lake, about an hour from where you probably left it.)

Have you ever had that gut feeling you should pay attention to something, ignore it and then feel the shit after it hits the fan? Passport security is something I’ve learned to take seriously over the years. So, when I arrived at Las Pyramides in Guatemala last month, I asked them to keep my passport in their safe, even though I knew I’d be in a very secure environment. There was that feeling in the back of my mind that I’ve learned to pay attention to. I retrieved my passport the day I was leaving.

Anyway, after a good breakfast at my favorite restaurant (, I said goodbye to everyone and went down to the dock. Halfway across Lake Atitlan that little voice whispered, no, shouted at me, “Where’s your passport?” I got off my water-borne chicken bus at the next town. When I told the driver why I was leaving early, he didn’t charge me for the distance we’d gone. I waited 25 minutes for a launch going back where I came from [and another too-long time on the water, wanting each stop to go faster, followed by the walk from the pier]. Read More