Unsolicited Pleasures

It was my last week in Spain and I was in the midst of visiting all those places I had put off seeing since arriving there. Let me tell you that condensing fun into a tight and efficient schedule is the furthest thing from fun. When you live somewhere you don’t visit the local sights, you perennially put them off for a later date. Then, when a relative or friend comes to visit and inquires about a certain landmark you casually mention that it´s nice while offering vague insights so not to reveal your lack of knowledge. You use words like “breathtaking” and “enjoyable” and under no circumstances do you let the conversation continue further because that might lead to the discovery that you’ve lived in Ottawa for 22 years and not once have you been to Parliament, you fraud.

The reason I was visiting all these points of interest was that my friend had flown in from Canada, and insisted that we make the most of our trip. I was content with spending our time on the couch watching Spanish television but evidently, he was not. So that´s how I found myself trudging up a seaside mountain in the South of Spain on this fine day.

The hike traversed up a stony mountain and gave way to a beautiful vista over the Mediterranean Sea. Now because we had stumbled across the hike purely by accident, we were by no means well-equipped for the journey.  We had been indulging in a stroll along the beach when suddenly the trail emerged, almost ominously. There were no signs foreboding us of what was to come so we ambled on, without too much thought.

Well, the placid trail gradually gave way to a laborious and downright difficult climb. So as we tramped forward in our flip flops, we weren’t surprised to meet other flustered climbers, who had also been beguiled into thinking the hike was a leisurely seaside stroll.

We exchanged sympathetic glances with one man who made the dire mistake of assuming the path would be a nice place to walk his dog. He held a full-grown Labrador underneath one arm, with the other death-gripped onto a rope that was put in place to act as a railing of sorts. We came across anxious parents with carefree children playing dangerously close to the unguarded edges. One hapless couple even had a stroller with them, which they were lugging around the way two people might maneuver a picnic table. The whole thing was comically dangerous.

Fortunately, the lofty view from the summit was incredible. If you inched your way to the edge of the cliff, a sudden drop of a few hundred feet gave way to the most remarkable of ocean views. Even more entertaining was the fact that the rock on which we were perched was remarkably feeble. You could pick off the strata with your fingers and fling it over the cliff’s edge, where, a gust of wind would claim it, subjecting it to a few dozen flips and turns before smashing it onto the protruding rock below. All of this was great fun but nowhere near as diverting as what we happened upon next.

Throughout the mountain there exist a series of profound wells that tap into the sea far below. Being atop a mountain, we figured these wells to be spectacularly deep. So, curiously we ambled over to one and availed ourselves to a peek. It was a void, a black hole that appeared to continue on forever.

As you would expect, this large well caught our interest, so we searched for some stones to throw down, as a test. We looked around, but all the stones had been cleared of the area, evidently by people, no less interested than us, in the profundity of this enigmatic well. We agreed to disperse and collect foreign objects and rendezvous in five minutes with the clear understanding that under no circumstances was anyone to throw something down the hole without the others being there.

I returned first with an armful of stones, and since no one else was there, I decided to christen our new found well. I grabbed a moderately large stone from my supply and meticulously placed it in the air so it would fall straight down. I waited a few moments without so much as a sound, when, suddenly my friend Cole reappeared.

“You haven’t thrown anything yet have you?”

I was just about to lie when a huge noise came from the well, answering for me. Evidently, my stone had hit the bottom. With an echoing splash, we both hustled over and peered in. Then Cole threw a rock. Full seconds passed before we heard an enormous noise as the stone impacted with the water. We turned to each other and smiled as if we were both taking part in something rather special. Then Gus arrived, with a load of enormous rocks, boulders you might even call them.

“You guys haven’t thrown anything have you?”

“No” we pronounced simultaneously.  

Then Gus shuffled on over with the biggest of his surfeit of stones and hoisted it aloft. He gave us a look that suggested that something spectacular was about to take place then shot-putted it in. Again, full seconds passed before a rapturous splash boomed through the cylinder. We all shared a genuine smile.

We passed a short eternity like this, tossing stones of different shapes and sizes into the abyss and awaiting their impact. It was a grand way to spend an afternoon. I can honestly say I’ve never had so much well-induced fun.

At one point, Gus, who, let me just say is the smartest of us three, picked up two stones, one large and one small in comparison. He hoisted them over the well, turned to Cole and me and asked which one would hit the bottom first.

“The big one” I shouted, feeling proud to know such an easy answer.

Cole then turned to me and shook his head sagely.

“They’re going to fall at the same speed due to the acceleration of gravity ratio, it’s physics Ben.”

I was a little perplexed at what Cole had just told me so I turned to Gus for confirmation. At which point he simultaneously dropped the two stones and they fell in perfect unison the entire way down, before making one big splash. Physics.

So not only was this big hole providing me with diversion, it was educating me. How marvelous.

And so we spent a great deal of our day at the well, encouraging passersby to partake in the fun, which often they did, with youthful exuberance. We didn’t expect to pass our entire day at a national park being fascinated by a hole in the ground but that´s what was so. Sometimes the greatest pleasures in life are the unforeseen ones.

As we turned to make our descent down the mountain I turned to my friends and stated: “Well, we wasted the hole day here.”

The pun flew over both of their heads but Cole gave me a genuine response.

“Hey, I flew halfway across the world to see my buddy, and for some pure, raw experience.”

“And a big well is a raw experience?” asked Gus.

“It is.” responded Cole.

In a way, I knew what he meant. This was the kind of novel diversion that you sought after as a child. It was the kind of fun that could be improvised from any sort of foreign object, and it was the base of our friendship.  But as we age something happens to that youthful enthusiasm, and often it takes a foreign place or object, like a giant hole in the ground, to reinstate it.

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Someone’s Gotta Get Stabbed

The cookie in my fingers started to feel a bit feeble. I figured I had a few more seconds, tops, to retrieve the sunken cookie out of my coffee, lest the one in my fingers suffer the same fate as his fallen companion. I was seated at an outdoor cafe in Chiclayo, Peru, and was reading a Condorito (Little Condor) comic book in an attempt to improve my Spanish.

Now usually when my bloodstream is filled with caffeine, and I have an anthropomorphic bird teaching me life lessons, I´m pretty content. In fact, this little routine had become a sort of high point to my mornings. Not today though. No, today I was beginning to feel agitated because the party behind me couldn´t keep quiet. The caffeine was usually good for a quick boost to my serotonin levels but today it only seemed to aggravate me further. Furthermore, I didn’t understand the punch line to the strip I was reading. Something about a nymphomaniac psychiatrist who appeared to have lied about his credentials (the comics were marketed towards children but were astonishingly crude). Either way, I had had enough. I turned around to give them my best “Excuse me, please shut the fuck up” look when something stopped me.

The scene was rather volatile. This I hadn’t deduced from their banter because Spanish is a fairly animated language, to begin with. But now, facing the situation, I could tell it was on the brink of something violent. It must be noted too that this cafe was in a side alley, so the angry party of four had only one spectator, me. There was a young girl, maybe sixteen years of age, doing her paltry best to restrain an older gentleman who was evidently infuriated with a young boy, also of about sixteen years. The young boy was accompanied by an ancient woman who I took to be his grandmother.

Everyone in the party was shouting. I didn’t even bother trying to decipher what was being said and instead just sat back and let the situation unfold.

The man being restrained by the young girl must have taken note that he was being restrained by a young girl, and decided to break free and charge the boy. At this point, the boy reached into his pants and pulled out a machete, no less than a foot in length.

The man spotted the machete but had already gained significant momentum and thus found himself in a bit of a predicament. He was sprinting directly towards a keen blade and since stopping would leave him vulnerable, he gave a quick jab step, like Odell Beckham Jr. might, and bolted past the knife bearing boy and into the open street. The boy dashed after him, bringing the small-stage production to a much grander audience.

The man and his pursuer darted into another alley across the street, and immediately people began to follow, because if there’s one thing the Spanish love more than a siesta it’s the chance of someone getting viciously impaled right in front of them.

Now, this is when I realized I had been in South America far too long because my first instinct was to run and join the crowd, because hey, someone might get viciously impaled right in front of me. Unfortunately, though I hadn’t yet paid my bill nor used the restroom, which was half the reason I chose to get a coffee. In South America, public bathrooms aren’t so much rare as they are non-existent.

I practically threw my money at the waitress and made a beeline sprint to the bathroom. I quickly had a pee, then noticed the bathroom supplied soap. What a luxury. I lathered up, considered stealing the soap, decided against it, and then darted back out into the street. The crowd was there and was significantly larger, but was now accompanied by the police. Oh joy. I got there just in time to witness the whole party being escorted. The policemen were driving a pickup truck which I found to be a bit odd. The girl and the man were escorted into the back seats and the boy and the woman of about eighty were thrown heedlessly into the bed of the truck.

I approached the crowd and dutifully informed a few people that I had, in fact, witnessed the whole fracas unfold. This attracted a bit of interest but once the pedestrians realized I couldn’t offer a single detail as to why it happened or what was said, they willfully puttered off. I crossed the street again, moping and vexing my ineptitude with the Spanish language, then bought another coffee and pulled out Condorito from my backpack.

I recognized that I had just witnessed a once in a lifetime event and because of my inability to speak the language, I had been deprived of some of the situations subtleties. It was still a quintessential spectacle, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit robbed. It was like watching an amazing movie on mute. From that point on I vowed to engross myself in Español. All it took was someone almost getting stabbed to motivate me.

The Scrivens Brothers

Anyone who ever attended Sacred Heart Catholic High School knows about the Scrivens Brothers. Two corn-fed, rural-raised twins, who were trumped only in stature and intimidation by their younger brothers, the triplets. With shoulders like small trucks, and an inclination to use those shoulders as weapons while they walked the school halls, no one was safe from the triplets. Boys, girls, teachers, even the school priest I’m sure, had their backs slammed into a locker because they made the oh-so-common mistake of trying to use the hallways while one of the Scrivens brothers was in the building.

Now, there was never any sense of security in the halls of Sacred Heart for a number of reasons, but the most obvious being that there were five of these brothers, each just as ruthless as the next.

You may have successfully eluded through the hallway next to the tech room – you were more likely to find them here than outside Mrs. Curry´s Calculus class – where Mark was busy antagonizing some hapless soul, only to find yourself within a ten-foot radius of Paul. Big mistake.

“Whoomph.”

Your shoulder is sent flying into the locker as you hear the familiar sound of ligaments, bones, and ego shattering to bits. You look up to see a few sympathetic glances, but for the most part, no one sees, given that the beast without remorse could – and would – strike again at any given moment.

If you ever wanted to see the crumbling of social order, you only had to look at a school hallway occupied by one of these brothers. As soon as you saw a figure resembling a cement mixer in construction boots and a John Deere t-shirt turning the corner, the decorum and composure of a Catholic school were swiftly replaced by one pure, primitive instinct. Survival.

“Boom,” There goes Kevin Gaines.

 

“Thud,” A small grade nine girl hits the ground after brushing into the knee of Matt.
“Wham,” Mr. Picard gets flung into a locker.
I once chatted with one of my friends who had played hockey against the Scrivens triplets.
“It’s like the puck didn’t exist. You could remove the puck from the game and the Scrivens probably wouldn’t notice.” They were the original bash bros.

The absolute worst part about the brothers, however, was that adults were completely oblivious to their antics. This was because the only time parents would see the brothers would be at church, where the triplets were all altar-boys.

“What happened to your shoulder?” My mom would ask when I’d return home from school.
“Paul Scrivens pushed me into a locker”
“Paul Scrivens? The altar boy? I don’t think Paul would have done that intentionally. It was probably just an accident.”
“No, Mom, he walked from one side of the hall to the other, shouldered me into the locker, then returned to the other side and looked for his next victim.”
“Well that doesn’t sound like Paul Scrivens, are you sure it was him?”

She had a point. You never really could be too sure which Scrivens triplet was approaching you. And although all three of them had the capacity and willingness to make you into a human pancake, there were varying degrees to their demeanor. Matt was the closest to having the human emotion of empathy, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to keep a stiff shoulder if you got in his way. But still, he wasn’t a tyrant looking for conflict. In a way, you almost wished he was though because the anticipation of not knowing which of the Scrivens you were about to encounter made it all the worse. It was like playing a game of Russian-roulette with only one chamber missing a bullet. There was still a 2/3 chance you were hitting the ground. Not great odds.

As a student body, we were all exceptionally vigilant. Being in the hall meant making yourself vulnerable so no one dawdled on their way to class. Come to think of it, I think that´s why the teachers turned a blind eye to the antics of the Scrivens brothers; they had never seen such order. And they had their own little Gestapo to thank.

My constant apprehension began to feel wearisome. I had become tired of constantly having my head on a swivel and decided on a different approach. I would befriend one of the brothers, in the hopes that the group would leave me in peace. So when I signed up for senior football, the fact that Paul and Mark Scrivens lined up in the secondary, didn’t escape my notice. From then on we would be teammates, brothers of the gridiron, and instead of a firm shoulder, they would greet me with a casual head nod, or maybe even a “hey buddy.”

Eventually, as the season got under way, I became familiar with Mark and Paul, and the Scrivens brothers stopped shouldering me into lockers. And although I was forever grateful for that, I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated. The Scrivens had stopped hitting me into lockers, but every day at 3 o’clock they were given full freedom to flatten me into the hard dirt of the football field. I guess I hadn’t thought my plan all the way through, otherwise, I would’ve decided against playing Wide Receiver, the position that lined up directly across from Mark Scrivens.

Mark recognized early on that he was bigger, stronger and more aggressive than his inexperienced opponent and thus his job as DB didn’t really require much effort. He would jam me at the line of scrimmage and manhandle me for a few seconds before losing interest, similar to the way a cat might torment a mouse. Sometimes though I would sidestep Mark and catch the ball. On the rare occasion that that happened Paul would promptly fly over from his Free-Safety position and, without breaking stride, drop his shoulder pads directly into the soft tissue that surrounded my ribs.

As I awkwardly limped home every night after practice, my gait suggesting a bad case of early-onset arthritis, I would thank the high-heavens that the Scrivens brothers were now my friends, and I no longer had to face their abuse.

A Day with Texas´Most Wanted

On one especially hot day in July of last summer, I found myself walking through Big Spring, Texas. My plan of attack was to walk down to Highway 20, and from there hitch a ride up to Odessa. I was in the midst of trudging down the city´s main street, in the trancelike state I tend to adopt when walking long distances when I heard someone shouting.

“Hey guy,” the shout came from across the street.

Being the only person dim enough to be walking around outside in the heart of the Texas summer, I knew the shouting was directed at me. I looked over and a tattooed gentleman standing atop a roof signaled me over.

As I got closer I noticed that the tattooed man was not alone atop of his roof. Four or five other shirtless individuals, no less tattooed than he, were nonchalantly performing tasks with hammers and shingles.

Ah, roofers.

“What are you doing?” asked an especially inked fellow, evidently the one who had initially called me over.

“I´m walking to the highway” I responded.

This caught the attention of a few of the other workers. I could tell because they had suddenly stopped attending to their tasks, and were evidently trying to decide if what they had just heard was worth any further attention.

“Why?” he asked, a tad befuddled.

I began to think about how I was going to answer when he interrupted again.

“You want a job?”

Recession my ass.

“No, thank you though, but I really need to be making my way up to Odessa,” I responded

“How are you getting to Odessa?” came out as “How you gittin’ ta Dessah?”

“Oh I´ll just try and hitch a ride somewhere near the highway” I exclaimed.

This caught the full attention of the entire work crew.

“What?” asked the gentleman.

I frantically began searching for a way to tell my new friends that I wasn’t, in fact, crazy, and that I had been relying on hitchhiking for the last six months to get around. Suddenly I became very conscious of the five men staring down at me – literally and figuratively – when one of the workers positioned on the roof’s crest piped up.

“I´ll take ya” he proclaimed.

“What?” I croaked out.

“Yeah, I got a meeting with my parole officer in Midland so I´ll drop you off”

Before I could comprehend the significance of what was just said to me the initial gentleman interjected.

“Perfect, you can work half the day, make a little money, and ride up with Keith.”

And so I found myself atop a roof, in Big Spring Texas, pulling shingles, where, at the day’s end, I would depart for Odessa with “Keith.”

I began contemplating if this was, in fact, an intelligent decision. I knew I´d be taking a chance, with Keith. Who, let me just say was “All-American” in the sketchy department. But then again, I was sketchy and Keith would be taking a chance on me. Despite not having a mirror, I knew I looked and smelled like someone that Jeffrey Dahmer might associate with. Besides, hitchhiking had proved to be rather difficult in Texas, who knew if someone would pick me up.  So I said “to hell with it” and decided to take the ride.

As it turned out, the roofers were all quite friendly. The work was hard and the fiberglass from the shingles was forever penetrating into our skin, but it felt good to be earning some money. I felt like a productive member of society once again. It was also painstakingly hot. The black tar paper appeared to crave the sun´s attention, and the sun seemed more than willing to satisfy. We cooked like the contents of a stir fry until our fleshy pink backs had been seared to a nice candy-apple red.

At one point I inquired about the weather in Texas and to my surprise, the group became rather confounded. They acted as if I had inquired about the conditions in Honolulu. This I didn’t understand because one of the guys had told me that he had never left Texas, hadn’t even seen the ocean. This guy, who was similar in age to me, then answered.

“We don´t really know, we´ve all been in jail for the last few years.”

Ahh. Terrific.

Eventually, the conversation turned to me, and I was asked where I was coming from. I told them that I had spent the last six months backpacking around South America, but instead of getting the standard “Oh cool, which countries?” response, I was greeted with a very genuine “Why?” His tone suggested that I had just confessed to voluntarily peeling my eyelids back with a can opener.

“I guess I wanted to see the world” I responded.

Group consensus was that this wasn’t a viable motive, and the topic was then directed back to something more interesting.

Eventually, the time came for me to depart with Keith. I entered the front seat of his truck and we drove off. He turned on the radio to a country music station and we listened in silence for a few minutes before he turned to me and asked.

“You like country music?”

I did, but even if I didn’t I wasn´t going to tell him otherwise.

We rode in silence for a while until we arrived at a house, where we stopped, and were joined by Keith´s girlfriend Misty. All of a sudden Keith wouldn’t shut up. It was like he was a battery-powered toy and his girlfriend had turned the switch on. He was animated, he was witty, he was everything the previous Keith wasn’t, and it made me rather anxious. It appeared that Keith was rather excited to tell his girlfriend all about his new friend in the front seat.

“He was just walking down Simler and decided to work with us for the day. He´s from Kansas!”

“Canada” I interjected.

“Right, Canada, and he has a backpack with a tent and everything.” He rambled on.

Misty wasn’t listening, I wasn’t listening, but I don’t think Keith noticed, or he simply didn’t care.

And so, the ride dragged on just as the summer days in Texas do. The gregarious Keith continued his soliloquy, as Misty and I sat in silence, waiting – unsuccessfully – for an opportunity to enter the conversation. Unfortunately, Keith´s mouth was a faucet and his dialect held a steady stream absent of interlude. He also shifted between topics so rapidly that if finally, an opportunity did arise in the conversation to speak, your point was about three topics passed its prime, and was thus irrelevant.

Eventually, we reached Odessa, which Keith had called “The Murder Capital of Texas.” I really wished he withheld that remark though because I was to be camping there that night. I said my goodbyes and thanked Keith again for the ride. He really was a nice guy, despite what his file at the Texas State Police Department might say. He didn’t tell me much about his time in jail or his crime. All I found out was that he had tried to smuggle a copious amount of marijuana across the US-Mexico border. He told me that, had the border patrol officer not looked in the bed of his truck, he would be rich.

Had Keith looked in a mirror, he would’ve seen the type person who you distinctively do not trust, looking back at him. So it didn´t really come as a big shock to me a that the border patrol asked him to pull over to the inspection area. Furthermore, Keith was quite loquacious. I´m sure after being asked if he had anything to declare he stated that he did, taking a long and convoluted story that touched on a few topics before mentioning that he was, in fact, trafficking some narcotics, but to keep it on the low on account that it wasn’t exactly legal.

I´m not too sure what the logistics were, but either way, Keith ended up in a State prison and I ended up in the front seat of his car. Even more so, I´m glad that he didn’t feel it necessary to add first-degree murder of a Canadian hitchhiker to his sentence. And because of that, Keith is going down as an alright dude, maybe not in the books of the law, but in mine, he´s doing okay.

So by the off chance that you´re reading this Keith, maybe you´re doing alright for yourself, or maybe you´re back in the slammer. Either way, if you ever need someone to speak on your behalf, whether it be a reference for a job or a parole hearing, I would be more than happy to vouch for you. Texas forever.

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Rolling with the Waves

Life is all about rolling with the punches, this I´ve learned. How do you respond to a setback? You need to have a balls-to-the-wall attitude towards everything you do, and if things don´t work out you still maintain that mentality.

Here´s an example from today.

I was working until 3 pm, and upon finishing I would head to the ocean to meet a couple of the other workers, where we would go surfing. When 3 o´clock rolled around, I packed up my things, grabbed my board and shuffled on down.

Now, since the waves are so large on the Osa Peninsula, I have often found that getting past the breaking waves is, in fact, more difficult than the actual surfing itself. In fact, I’ve had sessions where I never make it passed the break.

So today, I entered the water, immediately getting my feet cut, scraped and battered by the thousands of baseball sized stones that are carried back and forth with each wave. This I’ve taken to be an unavoidable constant, a sort of penalty you pay in order to surf the renowned waves of the peninsula.

I ventured a few feet out, hastily hopped on my board, and started paddling. Almost instantly I was met head on by a wave and was thrown heedlessly back into the rolling rocks. With some fresh scrapes and bruises, I hopped back on my board and tried again, same result.

I watched how the Ticans (local Costa Ricans) approached the wave head-on. They would dive under and gracefully reappear on the other side of the wave a few seconds later. This I couldn´t seem to fathom, let alone master. Every time I attempted, I would be carelessly picked up by the wave and promptly deposited somewhere near the shore. So not only would I make no progress, rather I´d find myself back to where I started, usually with an unhealthy amount of seawater intruding into my sinuses. The whole process was quite disheartening.

I´d try to convince myself that I was just experiencing a series of abnormally large waves and try again. Same result. And again. Same result. And again. Same result.

Today alone I must´ve withstood a beating from sixteen different waves, all of which would bring me right back to my starting position, like some cruel board game.

Eventually, I decided that my fight against the ocean was a mismatch and that, giving up and retiring to shore might be in my best interest. But here’s the thing, just because you’ve decided to leave the water, doesn’t, in fact, mean you’re safe. You don’t get to decide when you’re done with the ocean, that’s her domain.

I was carried back and forth with the tide a few more times before I finally got my footing. At that point, I dropped my board which got sucked into the tide itself. Fortunately, it is attached to a leash which is attached to my ankle. That ensured that, when the tide came back in, the board came right back to me, knocking me off my feet in the process. I was once again sucked back into the tide and the punishment continued. I tell you I have never felt so helpless.

Finally, I made it to shore and positioned myself at what I thought was a safe distance away from the ocean. I stood there for a few seconds pondering my own incompetence when, as if trying to underscore my inferiority, a wave came crashing in, picking up a thick piece of driftwood and swiftly depositing it into my right shin.

“YEEEOOOOOW” I screamed out in pain.

I couldn’t believe all this was happening. It was like being a fish flopping around out of the water, but more pathetic.

I eventually retreated to higher ground where, as if nature itself was conspiring against me, I got my leash caught on a branch, and stepped on a cactus.

It took all my forces to retreat to the path that would lead my languid self back to the innocuous comfort of my room.

Before departing I stole one last glance at the ocean and took note that the waves had in fact subsided, if just for a few moments. Before I had the chance to dissuade myself I was in the water and paddling out. And here´s what happened next.

I caught a wave.

I mean, I surfed a wave, quite deftly too, I might add. Whereas before, all the waves I had ridden were caught head on, so the already broken wave would push me straight into shore, where, after a few seconds of stability, I would progress to standing.

This wasn’t like that.

This time I caught the wave on the angle, positioning myself always a few feet ahead of the crashing white cap, cutting and carving, and riding it all the way.  It was incredible.

I was in such an ecstatic state that I hardly took note of what one of the guys was trying to say to me.

“Viste el tiburón?” meaning “Did you see the shark?”

I didn´t see the shark, nor did I care that much. I had already fought a brutal battle with nature and persisted. I knew she could have vanquished me then and there, in a rather gruesome fashion I might add, but I think she had proved her point.

I´ve learned a lot of lessons in life through persistence. When life throws punches your way you roll with them.  You be smart, you be brave, and you take chances. And though you can´t avoid the trouble, the pain, the misfortune, or the discomfort, you can dictate how you respond to them. When your chin is held high, and your faith persists, that is when lessons are learned, clues are revealed, and growth is achieved.

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Racing Through the Andes: the Reaper Drives Standard

I had just received a job teaching English in a remote jungle town in Peru, and to reach the almost-isolated town I was forced to take a small transport van through the Peruvian mountains. The following is an excerpt from the trip.

“The route from Cusco to Quillabamba rivaled a vomit-inducing theme-park ride, minus the safety regulations. What first became very evident was that our driver thought himself the Mario Andretti of the Peruvian taxi industry. A point he was so keenly willing to demonstrate in areas where the rational human-being would think “I should probably be extra careful here.” And this route had them in abundance.
The route requires the driver to ascend a large mountain in a process that is agonizingly inefficient. The road stretches horizontally across the mountain until it reaches the other side, then loops around sending the driver back in the opposite direction, only slightly higher. If you were to step back and look from afar, the route would look to be a series of continuous S’s stacked atop each other, while slowly winding up the mountain. Five days a week, the route is tedious and painstakingly boring. Fortuitously, I was making the trip on a weekend and had the good fortune of driving with our friend the drag racer. Tedious and boring gave way to terrifying and downright dangerous.

Our driver’s erratic style suggested that he was trying to elude some threatening vehicle forever encroaching from behind. We accelerated out of corners almost as fast as we accelerated into them. A process that ensured I was quite familiar with my neighboring passenger, as well as the hard glass window on the other side. The ride was torturous. The only sound being omitted was a constant crying from a baby two seats ahead of me, who only sometimes stopped for a few seconds to throw up all over himself, but for the most part, it was a constant. The rest of us remained in that quiet, sullen state that humans tend to adopt during periods of prolonged suffering. No one snacked, no one talked, we just unanimously entertained the idea that death might, in fact, be looming.
On one of my all-too-frequent trips to the right side of the car I happened to catch a glance out of the window and what I saw was quite unnerving.  Rather, it was what I failed to see, that rose concern. There was an absence of, not only guardrails but any visual confirmation that we were in fact on a road. To peak ones head over was to look out into the void. This was a place where objects tumble and fall for periods of time that are inconceivable to anyone who isn´t educated in physics and classical mechanics. Once, while turning a corner that our driver friend hadn’t appeared to have taken notice of until the last microsecond, I witnessed a group of small rocks fly out into the abyss. I believe they are still falling to this day.

Every so often I would try to steal a glance at the ancient lady beside me to see how she was handling her affairs. She was by far the oldest and thus the most likely to die first in the car, should we arrive alive or not. I assumed she had some experience in the matter of confronting one´s own death so I tried my luck at giving her a sympathetic glance. I was hoping to start a conversation but every time I turned towards her I saw the same ambiguous look. This was the look of someone who was either plotting their own inglorious suicide or wondering what they were going to eat that night for dinner, I just couldn’t decipher her. So since I was confronted with an unnerving drop of considerable height to my right and an emotionally detached crone of impressive antiquity, to my left, I settled on keeping my eyes locked forward for the remainder of the trip.

At one point in the ride, our driver screeched to a sudden halt, sending all of us, nose first, into the seats in front of us. Fortunately, most of us were already acquainted with this process and had our arms cocked and ready to cushion the impact. Some of the more careless passengers, who made the timely mistake of tending to a puking baby, or blinking at the wrong second, were sent skull-first into what appeared to be a car seat cushion induced concussion. But that wasn’t important. What was important was that, to the disbelief of all of us, the driver had stopped the car, giving proof that if eleven people all pray simultaneously for something, even God can´t turn a blind eye.

To the implicit behest of the entire group, someone opened the van door. The girl, who was situated in front of me for the ride, fell out and instantly collapsed. She lay on the ground, defeated, for a moment then gradually began the ordeal of picking herself up. At some point during the process, she decided that the task wasn’t possible, or otherwise wasn’t worth it. She remained in a hunched position, on all fours, for a few seconds then dry heaved twice. Although we were all privately attending to our own wellbeing, this caught the attention of the entire van.  We had adopted the mentality and demeanor of a platoon and here was a soldier on the cusp of a breakdown.

The young fellow who she had been traveling with, after attending to his own convalescence, reluctantly approached his, what appeared to be girlfriend and helped her up. It must be noted that at the start of the ride I had keenly observed at how passionate and vigorous this couple had appeared. Flirting, tickling, and kissing had given way to suffering, moaning, and if the girls face held any indication of what was to come, vomiting. Gradually, and cautiously the girl was helped to her feet, where she stood, almost tolerably, for a few seconds, then, quite suddenly, her face adopted a look of severe discomfort, even more so than before.  A sense of trepidation held in the air as we awaited what was to come. If someone had dialed 9-1, in his phone for safe measure, I would’ve commended him on his sound judgment. But no one did that, we just waited.  Suddenly, her body sprang to life in a convulsive, spastic manner. Whatever lay in her stomach, it was beginning its ascent to daylight. Then, out came a burp. A burp, equally impressive in volume and duration. A burp, so undoubtedly similar to vomit that the two could pass for cousins. It appeared that the body had summoned vomit to make a timely appearance but a biological misunderstanding sent burp to answer the call. We were all quite grateful, but no one more so than the girl herself. The driver was insouciant about the matter.

It appeared the intention of our stop was to attend to a frail, yet animated old lady selling oranges and baked goods. What confounded me was that we were in the middle of the mountains, nowhere near any sort of established community, and here was a lady selling insipid treats from a basket. Who on earth was her market? I, myself, had no appetite whatsoever, and I knew any food ingested would, in minutes, be making its way back up but I figured a small purchase might defer our return to transit, if only for a few extra seconds. So I indulged and bought myself a mysterious looking cube with the texture and colour of dog shit. But if it kept me off the road for a few extra seconds, I was all for it. Gradually this notion became evident to the group, as just before departing, someone new would vocalize an insatiable desire for a squash based treat. I was starting to see why this lady was in business.

After everyone had stocked up on treats they had no intention of eating, and a few dozen pleas to hold off on leaving were ignored, we promptly and impetuously departed, but not before the old lady inconspicuously handed our driver a brown cube, which he devoured with a lingering appreciation. The driver then whispered something to the lady in Spanish. ¨Te veré en unas horas Mama¨, which translates to ¨I will see you in a few hours Mom.¨

Touché Peru.”

Apparently it does rain in Texas

When booking my flight to leave South America I noticed that I was scheduled to have a brief layover in Houston, Texas.

¨Interesting.¨  I remember thinking.

It must be stated that I have had a fascination of sorts with the state of Texas ever since seeing the movie Friday Night Lights. I explored my options a bit and discovered that, at no extra charge, I could turn my two-hour layover into a two-week layover. Done deal. I was beginning to consider myself a bit of a backpacking expert and figured a few weeks in a first-world country would be a walk in the park. Remember that phrase, it becomes quite ironic.

Now one of my quick discoveries upon landing in the Lone Star State was that I was by no means willing to spend $100 USD to spend a night in a motel. I had just come from the land in which a room would cost no more than $3, and even then I was hastily ready to decline if a more suitable option was present.

So my frugal nature dictated that I continue where I left off in South America. Hitchhiking between cities and camping in any spot I´d deem reasonable. This pertained, but did not limit me to, forests, fields, parks, hidden bushes, and in one of my lower moments, a small patch of grass behind a Dick´s Sporting Goods, which, to my sleepy-eyed discovery, bordered a set of train tracks, quite literally. So you can imagine my dismay when, at about 3:45 am, a freight train came barrelling through with the speed and noise of a Boeing 747. I thought it was the apocalypse. But even an early morning soiling and repentance wasn’t enough to deter me from my practice. I really am quite cheap.

The train was a one-time occurrence – thank the Lord – and more often than not it was the sheer pain in my joints and lower back that awoke me. And on a couple of occurrences, it was a pair of Texas Police officers who were wondering ¨just what the hell I was doing¨.

That was another thing, no one could grasp the notion that I was ¨Backpacking.¨ It just wasn’t a concept in the Great State of Texas. People were constantly offering me money or perishables due to the assumption that I was homeless, police officers were always questioning my motives, even bus drivers would inquire, with a sense of inquisitiveness, about the contents of my backpack. Then they would listen with utter fascination as I listed off my supplies.

I even met one gentleman, who at his behest, made me repeat what I was doing to an onlooker because he couldn´t remember the foreign and novel word he had just learned.

¨I´m backpacking¨ I stated.

¨That´s right, he´s backpacking!¨ He pronounced with conviction. I think he felt proud just to be associated with me. The whole state of Texas seemed to adopt this utter fascination with what I was doing.

My routine would include exploring different cities in Texas, in insufferable heat, then at nightfall, I would find a covert place to pitch my tent, and after a few hours of extreme discomfort, I would fall asleep. I would indulge in as much sleep as my uncomfortable body, or the Texas Police Department would permit me, before packing up my tent and doing the whole thing over again.

That´s why, on the morning of June 20th, I was surprised to be awoken, not by discomfort or constables, but by water. A whole shit ton of water.

I was camping in a park in San Angelo, like I had the previous two nights. The park was atypically verdant, with trees and a small pond. Through the park, there weaved a paved trail, that, by day, was occupied by families walking their dogs, cyclists, casual strollers and the like. The traffic was a constant throughout the day, but come nightfall it was barren. Thus, without too much hassle, I was able to wander into the shrubs and pitch my tent.

I asked an elderly couple who I caught strolling if the park was a safe place to camp, and they assured me it was. This had become an inherent concern of mine after discovering that someone had been stabbed, no more than 100 meters away from me, one night while I lay snoozing in a park in Dallas. The information was shared with me by two men the next morning at a local bus stop. We were awaiting the bus that would take us to the city center, and me the hell out of Dallas. One of the gentlemen – who had the good fortune of finding a place that supplied Rum Slushees at nine in the morning – pointed out crime scenes like they were landmarks worth observing.

¨Yep, someone got stabbed outside the 7/11 last night, and over there, there was an assault rifle attack in which eight people were killed…that was last week¨.  He retold the events with a level of concern that dangerously teetered along absent.

I was quite taken aback by this. These were scenes of violence of the highest degree, and I could throw a baseball from where I slept to either of the two.

The man continued ¨The Bloods have their territory up here, the Crips over there…but the worst gang of all, is the cops¨.

At this point the other man, who hadn’t mumbled a single word, began nodding vigorously in agreement. At that moment I made a pact to myself that I would 1) Get the hell out of Dallas and 2) Never camp again.

I camped that very next night. Apparently, the threat of imminent death is more appealing to me than parting with my money.

So, fortunately, when I awoke the morning of June 20th, it wasn’t to an assault rifle, or the Bloods or the Crips but to water. Lots and lots of water. The events proceeded as follows.

1:30 am – I awoke and took note that it was raining. I knew this on account of the water that was dripping on my face from a hole in the top of my tent. This was a tent that I was previously over-ecstatic to have purchased for a low sum of $34.99. I then took the hoodie I had been using as a pillow, put it on, mumbled a few incoherent profanities, then drifted back to sleep.

3:14 am – I rolled off my sleeping pad and into a quantity of water that a small child might go snorkeling in. I was then very much awake. With the water and the cursing becoming a bit more prevalent, I sat up and weighed my options. Suddenly a big flash of white light filled my tent, followed instantaneously by what could only be the sound of someone firing a nuclear warhead into a series of megaphones. At this point, I took note that I was in the midst, in the heart of the midst, of quite the thunderstorm. As if being tired, cold, miserable, and soaking wet weren´t enough, I now had to contest with the possibility of instant vaporization from one of the lightning bolts that accompanies TNT-on-steroids-type thunder.

From 3:30 onward I sat huddled up, cold, sodden, and tired. I did nothing but stare at my watch, awaiting daybreak or hypothermia. The latter sounding more and more pleasant as time progressed.

4:39 am – An apparent break in the thunder and lightning. The rain had also died down. It was still pouring by the standards of anyone who has ever existed mind you, but it definitely tempered. This was my window. I could see that. I would leave this park and go find a motel or hotel with towels and a warm shower, and I would pay whatever insurmountable sum they demanded. I didn’t care about the cost.

4:40 am – I recognized that the hypothermia had taken its effect on my judgment. This became evident upon discovering that I did not care about the cost of something for the first time in my life. I then recognized the urgency of the situation I found myself in.

4:43 am – after collecting my belongings and taking note that the ones who had the capacity to absorb water – which was most of them – had in fact done so, I shoved them carelessly into my bag, unzipped the tent flap, and stepped out. Although it was dark, I could tell something was askew. The foot that had stepped out of the tent was now submerged, along with half my leg, in water.

4:51 am – After packing up my tent, and breaking it in the process, I left my hallowed campground in search of the paved path that would lead me the fuck out of this park. I trudged through the shin-deep water towards where I knew the path was located. Being in shin deep water didn’t escape my concern, in fact, I discovered it to be rather odd since I was camping on a somewhat elevated mound. Gradually shin-deep water turned into knee-deep water which turned into waist-deep water. This was becoming rather disheartening. And to make matters worse, it appeared as if the lighting had returned in full force.

4:59 am – I arrived at where I thought the path to be. But instead of a path, there was a fucking river. This confounded me to a concerning degree. Had I wandered the wrong way after disassembling my tent? Had I mistakenly wandered into the pond? No, because I remember taking note of how the lights of the houses shone off the water. If I was in the pond where were the houses? Had I wandered into the forest and stumbled across another lake I hadn’t taken notice of earlier? Again, no not plausible. I wasn’t sure if I was disorientated or simply losing my mind on account of hypothermia. One thing I knew for sure was that dead or alive, I was leaving this park.

5:09 am – After wandering around aimlessly, wading through water, in search of a path that I wasn’t even sure existed anymore, I tripped on something that was unmistakably concrete. I had found the path. Submerged in water, the location was just a few steps further than where I had initially thought the path existed. So I wasn’t losing my mind, I was just trapped in a flood. Hooray.

Now my task became simple: follow the path until it leads you out of the park and onto the main road. The whole concept seemed so straightforward that I think I might have even shed a smile. So I followed the path, traversing the water until it led me around a bend, and into a river. A river with currents, literal currents that looked like they could wash away a village, or at least a 185 lb. me without so much as a wisp in the current. As if the sight wasn’t ghastly enough, a log, which I´m only assuming stood a proud tree just a few hours before, sailed by with a speed familiar only to those who frequent auto tracks. This was a tree who, undoubtedly, for the last few months, was praying for rain. Poor fucker, irony sucks. Then I realized those could’ve very well been my famous last words. If that tree wasn’t in the next state by now I would have knocked on wood.

Eventually, I was able to traverse the water with my pack over my head, whilst taking very small, yet careful steps. The water got deeper and deeper until it reached nipple-level and stayed constant. For that, I was very grateful. Eventually, I made it out of the park and to the main road. I knew there had to be a hotel somewhere so I picked a direction and started walking (left: because I shoot left in hockey).

Every so often cars would pass, and I would try to give them my most sympathetic look. Occasionally I would catch a glance of ¨Oh you poor soul, I hope you have somewhere to be tonight¨. More frequent was the look that said ¨Ha fucker, look how warm I am in my warm car, which I´m driving to my warm house, where I´ll sleep in my warm bed¨.  A few kind souls in a white truck even felt it necessary to slow down and flip me off. But more often than not people didn’t bother to look. Even a cop car passed without so much as a glance.

God I hate people.

At around 5:45 am I reached a motel. It was seedy looking, it was rundown and it was called Motel, just Motel. Perfect, I thought, it must be cheap. I bounded ahead with a sense of something that wasn’t quite faith but was stronger than hope.

I entered the lobby in a way that I assumed Jesus did upon returning from forty days in the desert. From the looks the staff gave me, I must´ve looked the part. I could tell they didn’t know whether to run and assist me or call the police. So I trudged my way up to them, making a mess out of their lobby on the way, and inquired about a room.

The cheapest room was to cost $75, and check out was at 11 am, which was five hours away. Although it included a breakfast, I couldn’t do it. I simply could not spend the equivalent of $100 CAD on a room I was going to spend all of five hours in. It had appeared that the warmth of the lobby was fending off the hypothermia and returning me to my old self once again.

What was then agreed upon was that the friendly staff would let me use the laundry room so I could dry some of my clothing. I shuffled over to the laundry room, with branches, leaves, and mud trailing in my wake. I put my clothing in the dryer and sat atop of it for a few conscious moments before falling, no collapsing, into a slumber.

The next thing I knew, I was being tapped on the shoulder, and I awoke to a creepy man in very close proximity to my face.

“Come with me” he whispered. “And bring your things”

I´m not sure if I was still half asleep, or just beyond caring, but whatever the motive, I followed the ominous man, who I recognized to be the custodian.

The man led me to a room, which he opened and gestured for me to enter. I did. It was a typical hotel room, clean, comfortable, and in surprisingly good taste. I was beginning to wonder why the janitor had brought me here when he spoke, interrupting my thoughts.

“I was watching you sleep, you looked pretty cold. Why don´t you sleep here for a while, and when you´re ready you can come down to the lobby for some breakfast.”

I was very much surprised by this. What did he say? I was watching you sleep? No, no after that. You can sleep here for a while? Yes, that´s it.

After some feeble protests on my part, I was encouraged, practically forced to go have a sleep. Which I did. It was comfortable, it was peaceful, and best of all it was warm.

After waking up, I packed up my sodden belongings and headed for the lobby to thank the mysterious janitor for his gracious hospitality. Unfortunately, though he was nowhere to be seen, and upon inquiring at the front desk, the receptionist told me he had finished his shift and gone home to sleep. True to his word though, the man had informed the receptionist, and at her behest, I indulged myself of the breakfast buffet.

So as I sat there, flooding my Texas state-shaped waffle with syrup, I wasn’t thinking of the irony that encompassed my breakfast plate, rather I was thinking of a man. One man, who, through one act of kindness, had changed a terrible situation and made it into a memorable one. For all the cars that drove passed that night, so long as there is at least one man like our custodian friend, humanity will be alright.

I stated earlier in this post that I hate people, and now I have to retract that statement and leave you with a new one.

I hate most people.

IMG_20160627_135418194_HDR

A sign I stumbled upon the very next day.