Sexy Croatian Hostel Worker

ImageThe day was dreary. Gray skies reflected the tones of the streets and buildings below. Light rain fell frequently, interrupting our sightseeing attempts. Even on a sunny day, Zagreb, the Croatian capital, was an awkward conglomeration of old and new. Ancient churches and tiny, bowed-roof houses were interspersed with flashy, modern shopping centers. Most of the inhabitants wore muted colors and unfriendly expressions. So I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say the girl who worked the front desk of our hostel was the highlight of my visit.

Although our hostel was in a less-than-memorable, kind of worrisome part of town, it was still pretty nice. It had new and well-kept rooms, a nice kitchen and a basement with a TV and many DVDs. The oddest element was the seemingly unnecessary amount of staffers always gathered around the front desk. They appeared to outnumber the guests; it sometimes seemed Andrew and I were the only people staying there. This was fine by me – it gave me better odds with the young woman employee.

Image

Old homes next to new ones in Zagreb

We had seen her while checking in our first night. She stood out amongst two middle-aged men and younger male workers. With dark hair and brown eyes, she stood against the back wall in slim-fitting blue jeans and a black sweater. One of her forearms crossed her midsection, supporting her other arm, which held a cigarette. Occasionally, she’d bring it to her lips, enlivening the embers for a moment before exhaling without effort. As she watched us, she shifted her weight between legs, causing her hips to sway ever so slightly. Andrew, of course, didn’t notice any of this, being happily pre-engaged. But I was enamored.

The cold and rainy October weather forced us to spend the night watching movies in the basement. When we got hungry, we headed to the lobby for a dinner recommendation. To my great delight, she was sitting behind the counter, smoking a cigarette. Upon hearing our request, she walked around the counter and handed us a menu for takeout pizza. This was an ideal choice for the wild and crazy night Andrew and I were planning in the basement. Yet, as we looked over the menu, we noticed it was written in Croatian. “Excuse me miss, do you mind telling us what some of the ingredients are?” I asked. She smiled and walked over to me. Putting a gentle hand on the menu, she leaned over it and, in the process, began leaning against me. “What would you like to know?” she asked looking up at me. Shocked to be touching this sultry foreigner, I was momentarily speechless. “Well, okay, what does this mean?” I finally asked, pointing to a random word. “Thees one is mushroom… and thees one is tomato.” As she spoke, her body pressed against my side. I glanced back at Andrew to make certain it wasn’t my imagination. He just stared back in wide-eyed confirmation. “Ummm and what about this one?” I asked, pointing to the side of the menu farthest from her. She leaned against me harder before looking up and saying, “Thees one, thees one is onion.” Then I fainted.

Okay, I didn’t faint. But I was fully stunned with my momentary good fortune. She sounded like a sexy temptress from a Bond film and smelled like angel wings and cigarettes. It is, by far, the best food ordering experience I’ve ever had. And as we devoured the pizza back in the basement, I knew I had to get back up to that front desk.

Image

Andrew peering out from behind a statue of a woman that looks nothing like the woman I hit on at the hostel

In Europe, Andrew typically served as a loyal and obliging wingman. This mission, however, I decided to embark on alone. Although I didn’t expect anything and lacked a coherent plan of action, I knew it was time to go. Andrew held down our spot in the basement (in case there really were other guests lying in wait to claim our couch and pizza), while I ventured up the stairs into what would become one of my most ill-fated attempts to gain the favor of a female.

I don’t recall how the conversation began; all I remember is how it ended. Whatever the initial subject was, I eventually ran out of normal things to say. So, naturally, I brought up the Yugoslavian War. Smooth, I know. But it was so strange speaking to a civilian woman in her early twenties who had witnessed war. So, I asked if she remembered the rocket attacks on Zagreb. “I was a little girl, but I remember…” she began. Now, if movies had taught me anything, all I had to do was ask one more marginally prying question. This would assuredly launch her into a sorrow-filled personal anecdote, which would conclude with her weeping in my comforting embrace. So I made my move. “What was it like?” I asked. She considered the question for a moment. Then she spoke. “It was horrible, many people died.” A silence passed. After a few seconds I realized it wasn’t merely a dramatic prelude to the story – she was finished. Only then did it occur to me it was a dumb question; it just took her curt answer for me to understand. My mind raced for a good response, but all that came out was an awkward “Ohhh.” She lit a new cigarette and began shuffling through some paperwork on the counter. “Well,” I said in resignation, “I best be heading back to the basement, Andrew’s waiting.”

“Howww’d it go?” Andrew asked from the couch. “I was doing pretty good… until I brought up the war.” I responded. “Oh no,” he said, a bit disappointed, but mostly amused. After recounting my abject failure, we spent the remainder of our evening drinking warm Croatian beer and watching movies. I learned a lesson that night and have removed tragic conflict from the list of possible topics to discuss while trying to impress foreign members of the opposite sex.

Reviewed and Edited by Simone Fraid

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Cuy: One Man’s Pet is Another Man’s Dinner

ImageBefore setting off for Ecuador, each of us made a mental list of things we wanted to do, try and see. Trevor sought the 100+ foot monument of the winged Virgin Mary of Quito. Wesley wanted to scurry around some Incan ruins. Shane hoped to be involved in some sort of volcanic disaster. I, not so secretly, wished to be kidnapped by paramilitaries and taken into Colombia, where I would make jungle animal friends and finally learn Spanish before my eventual escape. Some goals, I admit, were more realistic than others. But, we all shared in one profound desire – to eat Cuy, or as it’s known at PetSmart, Guinea Pig.

Image

Marcos Zapata’s 1753 painting of the Last Supper in Cusco.

Before it became a modern companion for suburban children, cuy (pronounced coo-wee) was a cultural delicacy of this region. Domesticated from a native rodent, the animal was a valued food source before the Spanish arrived. When my parents visited Peru in the early 1980’s, they stood in a cathedral in Cusco staring at a depiction of the Last Supper. In the center of the painting, in front of Jesus, was a little guinea pig on a golden platter. Endorsed by Chirst, cuy remains an important meal to people of the Andes Mountains… and standout novelty cuisine to four guys from Texas.

ImageAs we drove through the Andes during our first week in Ecuador, we scoured the roadsides for cuy. Yet, every time we found some, it either wasn’t cooked yet or we had just finished a meal. Towards the end of the trip, our scanning became more frantic. Once, Trevor swore that he saw them out on a spit, but we found only a pig and chickens roasting – no cuy. We mocked him for days, but this only strengthened Trevor’s resolve. After a few more unconfirmed sightings, he finally made a positive ID right off the Pan-American Highway, north of Cuenca.

ImageRain splattered our windshield as I pulled off the busy road. The four of us dashed across the street towards two women, tending the open grills. There, we found a giant stuck pig, two chickens, and, sure enough, a well-roasted guinea pig. Trevor celebrated and began to scold us for doubting him as the younger woman approached. We pointed at the big rodent. She acknowledged our order with a slight nod and led us to a table on a covered porch.

ImageI’m not sure if health codes are a ‘thing’ in Ecuador, but if they are, this small eatery wouldn’t meet even the laxest standards. Stray dogs with swollen udders wandered under the table between our legs. The silverware looked hastily washed and the water that washed it was probably just as suspect. It was the sort of place our guidebook recommended against. Wesley even witnessed one of the women spill a bucket of cabbage and walk away, leaving it sprawled out upon a dirt floor. We never knew what happened to all those veggies, but we could guess.

As we waited for our food, the older woman took a gas blowtorch and seared the outsides of the roasting pig. While watching in awe, we heard the unmistakable sound of a chicken call. Not a ‘cluck, cluck,’ rather a more urgent ‘be-kah!’ This certainly wasn’t a rare noise in a country where chicken is served for breakfast. But, as we looked around, we couldn’t locate the source of the commotion until Shane noticed a moving potato sack. As he pointed it out, the bag, tied shut with twine, went motionless. We all watched, listened and waited. Finally, the chicken sounded off again, while the bag lurched forward and jostled back and forth. About this time, our curiosity shifted from the captive chicken to our table – the food had arrived.

ImageThere it was – a single cuy – split in two and set out for us on a decorative plate. The roasted critter halves lay side by side, with their little appendages still attached and sprawling out over the edges of the dish. Feet, ears and head were intact. But the fur was all gone, as was its once jolly disposition. It looked like a former pet pulled from a house fire. Each piece was cut in two, so Wesley grabbed a top and I took the bottom. Shane and Trevor did likewise. It felt a little weird, but I remembered the story of that painting in Peru and thought WWJD?

After exchanging the kind of looks people share before entering a muddy body of water, we each tiptoed into our given sections of the creature. Yes, we were all a bit apprehensive, but if anyone was completely grossed out, they hid it well. We had traveled too far to chicken out now. Speaking of which, I won’t say ‘it tasted like chicken,’ because it didn’t. Its flavor sort of reminded me of rabbit, which sort of tastes like salty turkey to me. During the meal we conversed a little, but directed most of our attention to the task at hand. Trying to avoid any still-attached organs and limbs was a challenge; this wasn’t food you could blindly consume. Indeed, sorting through all its little precious guinea bones was difficult, but it was well worth it.

Image

A woman carrying a bushel of grass and weeds on her back: food for her cuyes.

Health concerns aside, it was fascinating to eat at this roadside spot. Within a small space, there were animals in nearly every stage of food production – free roaming, captured, slaughtered, cooking and on the dinner plate. It felt a long way from America, where we tend not to leave heads on anything we’re about to consume. I guess it helps maintain the delusion that the meat products we ingest come from neatly proportioned, plastic-wrapped packages from the grocery store, not creatures that could once be considered cute.

In Ecuador, they know damn well what their food is and where it comes from because they still have an intimate relationship with the entire process. So I suppose decapitation is an unnecessary step – there’s no need to pretend what’s on your plate didn’t used to be a guinea pig. And for us, there was no pretending either; we were, at last, devouring our collective wish. And now, if any of us are ever on a first date that’s going too well, we have a perfect story to tell.

Reviewed and edited by Simone Fraid

Posted in Stories, Travel Tangents | Leave a comment

Overnight in the Clouds: Welsh Hiking

AndrewRockStriking a pose he must have seen in an REI calendar, Andrew stood on a large rock, scanning the valley below with his hands at his hips and his feet spread to support the weight of his backpack. I turned and looked the other direction, up the mountainside. Lost was perhaps too strong of a word; I knew where we were. I just didn’t exactly know where we were going – a fact, I feared, Andrew was beginning to catch on to.

The start of our hike

The start of our hike

While Andrew continued gazing off over the rolling Welsh countryside, I consulted my map. And by map, I mean the pictures of a map I snapped in an outdoors shop while the owner was looking the other way. In haste, I zoomed in to the section of the National Park we were in. Some of it was blurred and all of it was in Welsh, a language formulated mainly from random spoonfuls of alphabets cereal. I squinted and tried to make out the topo lines. “Are you sure this is really a trail?” Andrew shouted up to me. “Positive!” I yelled back. I put my camera away and pointed out a new direction of ascent. “It’s this way,” I said. I wasn’t lying. It was a trail…just not necessarily one used by humans. We had, mind you, long since left the realm of people and were now strangers in a land of sheep. But this gave me confidence; I figured if those dumb animals could climb the mountain, then Andrew and I would at least have a sporting chance.

Leading the way, I zigzagged, backtracked and frequently stopped to behold the ascending ridge before me with increasing bewilderment. “Don’t worry,” I said, sensing Andrew’s apprehension. “We just have to keep to the middle of the ridge and we’ll be fine.” Whether he believed me or not, Andrew nodded then continued to follow. Despite the unfriendly terrain and ambiguity of our route, the scenery was undeniably grand. As we rose higher up the mountain, it only became more fetching . The trees had disappeared, leaving only waving yellow clumps of grass to keep the rocks company. Sparse pockets of sunlight dotted the dramatic slopes and the highland lakes were perfect mirrors to the sky.

SungrassWhen not clambering over outcroppings, we were often navigating through bogs. I went through great pains to keep my feet dry, daintily prancing from rock to rock over soggy areas. But it was all in vain. At one point, I took a long bound from a rock to what I hoped was solid ground. Alas, my foot penetrated the earth like a spoon into Jello. I was halfway up my calf in mud before I yanked my leg out. As I cursed, Andrew took immediate delight in the situation. (It was okay though, I’d get him back later… by putting sheep shit in his sausage roll. Speaking of which—Andrew, you were right, it did taste funny.)

SheepPondBy early afternoon, the ridge leveled off and we began walking upon the gently undulating spine of the mountain. With this, a more pronounced path formed that included real human footprints! The excitement was short lived, however, as it led strait toward another obstacle. A stonewall stood over six feet tall, solid, without an obvious weak point and topped with an uninterrupted dressing of long, sharp slabs of stones. Spanning as far down either slope as far as the eye could see, it looked impenetrable. We regarded it in awe for quite some time.

blockedMost impressive, however, was the thought of how much effort must have been put forth in building it. In Scotland we toiled for a day, digging up a 10’x10’ pile of stones, moving them no more than 45 feet and placing them in a crude pile. The work we did would have probably accounted for about 1/10,000ths of the total labor need to erect this wall. God knows when or why it was built, but I’m sure of this: whoever constructed it was intent on keeping somebody out or something in. Trying to climb over it looked about as dumb and dangerous as climbing over razor wire.Wall

Luckily, in all his genius, modern man invented stairs and ladders. We were on the other side in 30 seconds.

Shortly after, Andrew and I began another steep climb straight up through shattered piles of rocks. The mountain was now fully covered in shadow and the temperature dropped accordingly. We had come prepared with heavy jackets. Unfortunately, we did not have the same foresight when it came to bringing enough water. Though we weren’t going to die of thirst up there, we weren’t exactly thrilled about the prospects of drinking from the sheep ponds. We did our best to conserve liquid as we crept higher, toward an unseen summit and a shelf of low cloud.

TheRoadAfter toughing out the last few hundred yards, we reached a round-topped high point. Our reward was instant. We could see Tryfan, an unmistakable feature on my “camera map.” Dominating the landscape, the gray horn of granite rose from the valley and joined our ridge with a sweeping saddle. At its base was the main hiking route, made visible by an outstretched conga line of bright windbreakers snaking skyward. I looked back at Andrew and beamed as though I had always known our location. We dropped our packs, claimed the area as our campground and ate lunch. Then we left our backpacks and joined the procession of tourists up to the top of the windswept mountain.

DSC_1898That evening, we sat outside our tent above a low veil of clouds and relished our surroundings. We watched the clouds wash over valleys, funnel between mountains and, finally, disappear out over the distant glimmering Irish Sea. Where our exact location on the map was, the driving question throughout the day, now seemed trivial. What did it matter? The view from the mountain on the next range over would be just as impressive. What was more important, we came to recognize, was where we weren’t. If we had taken common advice, we’d be in a place that was neither remote nor obscure, neither distant nor compelling. We’d be home – a wonderful place to be following an adventure, but rarely a place for one. Yet, instead of sitting in a florescent-lit office in Dallas trying to solve a spreadsheet problem, we were sitting atop a mountain in Wales trying to figure out if the small ponds below us had drinkable water. As the last colors of the evening dulled around us, we realized that years from that moment we’d be at work, in a car at stoplight, or at home in front of a computer, wishing we were back there, having trouble navigating up a pathless mountain, not quite knowing where we SheepTentwere going.

Reviewed and Edited by Simone Fraid

 

Posted in Stories, Travel Tales | 3 Comments

Marooned at Twilight Cove: Western Australia

I have an uncanny ability to turn peaceful outings into dangerous ones. I’m also quite skilled in convincing others that joining me on these endeavors is a good idea. By the time two French couples and I reached the resort town of Esperance, Western Australia, I hadn’t endangered myself or others for nearly two weeks. So, it’s fair to say I was overdue.

One afternoon, the five of us drove above the empty beaches of the Southern Ocean, looking for a spot to relax. We stopped at a place called Twilight Cove. There, rock outcrops and dunes encased a half-moon beach of white sand. Hiding nothing beneath them, the cove waters were clear and turquoise. In the center of the modest bay, a jumbled mass of granite formed a small island. Immediately, the girls laid out towels on a large flat rock. I stayed on my feet, looked at the sun and then back to the little island. Relaxing was the obvious choice, but there was that island sitting smugly out in the bay, mocking me. What was I supposed to do?

At first, the other guys in our group, Damien and Sofen, were reluctant to come along. But, after grossly exaggerating the benefits of my island-conquering mission (I may have hinted at treasure), I convinced my friends to commit. In ceremonious fashion, the three of us leapt off a small boulder into the ocean. As Damien took off for the island, I yelled for him to swim further to the right, in order to compensate for the current. But Damien didn’t hear and Sofen followed his countryman.

Swimming away from the coast, we soon found ourselves above a deep channel. My thoughts turned to sharks as the ocean floor grew distant beneath our flailing limbs. As the swim progressed, Damien and Sofen fell behind in their strokes and drifted further from me. I swam harder until reaching an outlying rock some fifty feet from the main island. Although it wasn’t the most inviting spot to crawl out of the sea, I latched onto the large piece of granite and looked back. The blinding sun reflected off vacant waters; there was no sign of my French companions. Were they in trouble? Stranded? Eaten?

I spent an anxious couple of minutes alone, straddling a large boulder just above the lapping waves. Then two silhouettes appeared from behind the island’s massive rock face. I shouted, trying to direct them away from the water-bashed rocks, but they didn’t hear me – Sofen swam right into the dangerous waters. The current matched his every stroke as I watched his bobbing head move further away and closer to the rocks. Meanwhile, Damien managed to reach my sea-battered perch, but had trouble getting on. I helped him up to a more stable position, but the waves were relentless, frequently overtaking the rock and washing Damien back into the choppy sea. Thrusting out my arm, I’d pull him back up, allowing him to cling to the rock until the next big wave.

By the time Sofen reached our rock, both of my friends were exhausted, distressed and on the verge of panic. I saw flashes of genuine terror run across their faces. It almost felt like we had just abandoned a sinking ship in stormy weather, they, my faithful crew, and I, their brave captain. But that feeling was fleeting. In actuality, they were two misguided French guys and I was an American with no maritime experience and little common sense. But by this point, it was clear even to me: we had done a really dumb thing.

Knowing that staying put was no good, I still wanted to swim to the main island. From there, I hoped to find a more suitable place to enter the water for the return swim. (So, yes, I wanted to swim towards the island in order to eventually swim away from it. Trust me, it made sense at the time.) After scanning the steep shoreline, I spotted a section where the island sloped gently into the water. Although the current seemed less formidable, it still looked pretty risky and out of the realm of what I’d conventionally consider a good idea. Near my desired destination was a large crack where incoming tides shot white water ten feet into the air. It was not an area I wanted to get swept into, to say the least.

This time, my French friends declined to join me; I couldn’t blame them. As I stood up and peered down into the deep waters below, I saw giant schooling fish and large black shadows on the bottom, which I had to assume were just rocks. I swear I’ve jumped off forty-foot cliffs with less hesitation – I had to really psych myself up for the swim. Finally committing, I dove head first into the rough water. I swam with hurried and erratic strokes, until I neared the algae and snail-covered black base of the island, where a wave washed me up onto the heap of stone. Then, much like the crabs that were scattering everywhere, I made a mad scramble to get off the tide-polished portion of the granite. Once on dry ground, I gave a victorious wave back to my marooned French pals. They didn’t share my excitement.

My new plan was to reach the highest point on the island where I could scout the best location to re-enter the ocean. Unbeknownst to myself, this feat required crossing several tight chasms between huge boulders. Many of the cracks plunged several stories into dark sea-filled abysses. And the tops of each boulder were rounded like the tips of giant fingers. So when making the jumps, maintaining forward momentum wasn’t just a good idea, it was the only non-lethal one. As it turns out, the only thing dumber than swimming out to this island was climbing to the top it.

From the summit, I saw my friends still clinging to the same rock. I got their attention and they indicated that they were about to try swimming back. I scampered around to find a good point of entry. But this part of the island sloped into the sea at an angle too steep to climb down, but not steep enough to leap from. As they jumped back into the ocean, my search became more frantic. With no luck, I ran back to the top. Damien and Sofen had turned into little black dots in the expanse of water that separated me from shore. Panicking at the thought of being left out there alone, I ran down the face, and about fifteen feet above the water, leapt into the waves.

Upon hitting the sea, I thrashed, kicked and pounded the water like it was out to get me. I only looked up to take the occasional breath and confirm that I wasn’t paddling in circles. My desperate swimming approach was neither wise nor graceful, but it caught me up to Sofen in due time. He, too, was struggling and tired. “Don’t leave me,” he said before admitting his deep fear of sharks. Like any captain would, I stayed with him until, eventually, we crawled out of the sea onto white sand. Damien had also reached the mainland further down shore. I sprawled out for a moment, rested my cheek on the sand and recognized that it was a small miracle that no one drowned. The three of us walked over to the women, who were still lying out on the rock. One of the girls laid on her front side motionless; the other stirred to life, sat up and said, “So how was the swim?”

Reviewed and edited by Katie Chassaing

Posted in Stories, Travel Tales | Leave a comment

Bayou Country: Welsh, Louisiana

Our station wagon came to a rattling stop alongside a curb in Welsh, Louisiana. My cousin Wesley and I stepped out into the humid August air squinting and slightly confused. Our clothes were mismatched and awkward. Our skin was coated in a sticky cocktail of sweat, sunscreen, sand, DEET and dead mosquito parts (the end result of a failed attempt to sleep on a beach without a tent). We were a sight to behold. But in all fairness, we were in perfect complement with our vehicle. Wesley’s 1987 dijon mustard-colored Volvo station wagon, which barely clung to life, was our primary mode of transportation. A baby blue fiberglass canoe dating back to the late 1950’s, which was tied to the roof, was our second.

We had come to this part of Southwest Louisiana for one reason – to attempt an overnight canoe trip in a remote backwater bayou. We had the name of a particular bayou and instructions to inquire further at the Welsh City Hall, the building standing before us. We hesitated outside for a moment, knowing we were in no shape to go inside any government office. I was half expecting to get shooed out the door and kept at bay with a garden hose until the sheriff arrived. Instead, we were greeted with smiles, Cajun accents and directions to a place called Lacassine bayou.

We thanked them, and upon their suggestion, ate lunch at an excellent establishment called Cajun Tales Seafood. The meal and service left us in high spirits, until we exited the restaurant to a tumultuous downpour. Inclement weather isn’t the most ideal time to begin an overnight canoe voyage in an unfamiliar swamp. But then again, I’m not sure there’s a right time to begin an overnight canoe voyage in an unfamiliar swamp. It didn’t matter; we were determined to canoe – rain, shine or violent lightning storm.

For the moment, we drove out of the storm and followed the directions to a place called Lorrain Bridge*, where stout pillars supported the low wooden structure across the mid-sized Lacassine Bayou. Bald Cypress trees draped in Spanish moss lined its edges. There, the lazy brown water of the bayou met the cypresses at their knees and seeped into the surrounding dim swamps filled with duckweed, gators, and God knows what else. This was the quintessential piece of Louisiana we were looking for.

Thunder crackle overhead as we loaded up the canoe with dry bags, firewood, water, and whiskey. As the storm caught up to us, rain peppered the river water and distant wind chimes resonated off the old bridge, adding a metallic eeriness to the air. I climbed to the back of the wobbly canoe and Wesley pushed us off the small boat ramp into the bayou. We looked on as the Volvo disappeared behind the first bend. Thunder, again, grumbled above us. Wesley and I looked skyward and then exchanged uneasy smiles. As the bayou closed in around us, the friendliness and hospitality of Welsh already seemed like a distant memory.

The swamp was filled with odd noises, odder smells and all sorts of life forms, little of which you’d want to sleep next to. Giant spiders camouflaged into tree bases and more colorful varieties suspended themselves in the open air above. Some spiders even ran atop the duckweed in the most stagnant areas, diving under the water when our canoe slid past. Most logs floating in the water turned out to just be logs. But when they didn’t, the bottle of bourbon shifting around the bottom of the boat served a more medicinal purpose. And as we continued downstream, I swear the alligators got bigger.

As is customary with our canoe trips, Wesley and I got into a fight about paddling. For the record, neither of us actually knows what we’re doing, but we’re both certain we do. And having just seen a movie featuring a canoe chase scene, I was sure I had the edge in this one. “Alright Wes, lets paddle together now, and stroke, and stroke…” Either out of incompetence or spite, likely the mixture, Wesley ignored my instructions and stuck to his own erratic pace. “Damnit Wesley! You’re speeding up on purpose!” I’d yell. He began his rebuttal when, thirty feet away, the water along the shore split with a worrisome violence as something large and black thrashed its way below the surface. That shut us both up.

We tucked our elbows in as the canoe rocked from the advancing ripples. For a moment, the bayou calmed and we drifted uncontrolled over the motionless water. Then, an alligator’s head surfaced just beyond Wesley’s paddle. Instinctively, we let loose a series of girlish screams until it disappeared below the water in another bout of splashing. Again, we froze and waited. At any moment, I expected to feel a bump below my feet. Next, I’d see Wesley go flying from the boat. After flailing through the air, he’d hit the water and get torn apart. But, this wasn’t a bad horror movie, so we didn’t get attacked, Wesley didn’t get eaten and we never saw that gator again. The bayou water, once again, laid still and a quiet moment passed. Then Wesley spoke up. “You know… if you slowed your strokes down, maybe you’d stop getting my back all wet every time you change sides.”

 That night we camped on an old fishing dock constructed on a big bend in the bayou. Wesley and I built a fire near a “no trespassing” sign, drank more cheap bourbon and jumped in the canoe for a final excursion at dusk. Using a flashlight, we scanned the swamp for gator eyes. This activity entertained us until we saw how far we had strayed from our dock. Looking back, tiny flames flickered against the wooded backdrop and reflected off the water. The sky above us had faded from a light blue to black and a different set of noises filled the cooling air. Night had fallen on Lacassine Bayou and made us realize just how alone we were. As the feeling sank in, we decided we had had enough alligator encounters for the day. So, Wes and I rowed back through the dark waters to our swamp home.

The next day we arrived back at Lorrain Bridge by mid-morning. With an additional coat of sweat, grime, and swamp water on our bodies, we walked towards the restroom and hoped to find showers. A voice interrupted our focused strides. “Glad to see y’all!” A gray haired man exclaimed from his porch. “My wife asked me earlier this morning, ‘have them boys in the canoe come back yet?’ We was start’n to get consoyned.” This was both odd and comforting. Odd because we had never seen these people before in our lives, but comforting because someone was looking out for us. After a day filled with alligators and a night in the swamp, it was good to be back in the company of Cajuns.

A local with his catch of Alligator Gars. This man and his friend cleaned them with a rusty hatchet and told us they were making 'gar-balls.'

*The original structure of Lorrain Bridge was built around 1900 and was used as a crossing for cattle drives in the 1940’s. Sometime later, a barge that was a bit too large took out the bridge. It was recently re-constructed and once again joins the two Parishes of Jeff Davis and Calcasieu.

 

More information found at http://home.centurytel.net/lorrainbridge/index.htm

Reviewed and Edited by Katie Chassaing.

Posted in Stories, Travel Tales | 3 Comments

Less than savvy: Tangiers, Morocco

I try not to be the stereotypical stupid tourist when I travel. Before I go somewhere, I look into guidebooks, consult friends, websites – you name it. I do all of this so that when I arrive in a foreign land I don’t look completely ignorant. I do it so when I visit somewhere different, I don’t make rookie mistakes. I do it so when I’m immersed in another culture, I don’t act like a dumbass. But, sometimes, despite my best efforts, I do anyways…

It was evening in Tarifa, Spain. My friend Justin (pictured above) and I were relaxing on the 3rd-story rooftop of our hostel. Gazing south, we watched large freighters pass through the 8-mile gap between two landmasses. We were sitting on the southern tip of Europe. Beyond the ships and low clouds to the south were the mountains of Africa, rising abruptly from the Strait of Gibraltar. As the sun set on the Atlantic, the distant lights of Morocco flickered to life. Tomorrow we were crossing that narrow strait and heading towards those lights. Tomorrow we were going to Africa.

Looking back, I saw details of the Spanish coast disappear behind a white wake and sea spray. The ferry was fast; in thirty minutes our boat was docking in the blue-watered Moroccan port of Tangiers, a place often cited as ‘difficult’ to visit. There, the competition to get tourist dollars is particularly fierce. Every guidebook warns visitors extensively of faux guides and swindler’s tricks. They also say to always pretend you know where you’re going, even when you don’t, lest you get taken advantage of.

The Old Quarter from above

On shore, we did our best to feign confidence and follow directions to our hostel. Yet, our best led us into a maze of crowded narrow corridors, with no end in sight. So when two men appeared and offered their assistance, we promptly disregarded all previous advice. “The Dar Jameel, we’ll show you. Follow us.” Justin and I looked at each other, shrugged and followed the men. To their credit, they led us right to our hostel, the Dar Jameel – a peaceful refuge from the crowded streets. After unloading our belongings we found the two men were still outside, waiting for us. They introduced themselves as Achmed and Achmed and offered to show us around the city.  Again, we agreed. Guidebooks, as it turns out, really aren’t much help if you ignore them.

Following our new ‘guides,’ we headed towards the old Casbah. We passed carts overflowing with flatbread, hoards of curious children and vendors selling an array of fragrant fruits and vegetables, half of which resembled props from Star Wars. We were in a sea of people shouting Arabic and moving about as if standing still was frowned upon.  Tangiers was exotic, exciting, and well past overwhelming.

A less hectic corner of the Medina

Shortly thereafter, the Achmeds led us into a shop filled with a multitude of rugs draped over tables, hung on walls, and rolled into any available space. The storeowner appeared from the shadows, greeted us like old friends, brought us sweet mint tea and began a well-orchestrated sales pitch. First, he cloaked Justin and me in silk sheets so that we’d resemble Bedouin people… or so I guessed. “Now you look like Jesus in the desert,” the large Arab man proclaimed with a smile. Although I was satisfied with my resemblance to Christ, I was still leery. Maybe it was because the man bore an uncanny resemblance to Stromboli, the Disney villain who deceived, caged, and, presumably, had his way with Pinocchio. Or maybe it was because, ultimately, I knew he was after our money. Either way, I was uneasy of such kindness.

The salesman laid out many Berber carpets before us. Indeed, they were all stunning. Yet, I had no intention of buying one. This didn’t bode well with Stromboli. “My friend, tell me which one you like, and I will help you,” he would say. “They are very nice, I just have nowhere to put one,” I’d say back. “Just let me help you,” he would insist.  When he realized I wasn’t swaying in my position, he became angry. “Do you not like these carpets?” He barked. “No I just, ugh…” As I trailed off, my eyes began to wander around the shop. We were a couple of stories up inside a narrow building with very few windows. There was only one downstairs exit and the rooftop walls were embedded with shards of broken glass. We were trapped inside a carpet shop with an angry Disney villain.

Stromboli then turned to Justin, who had expressed interest in a small rug. After a long, heated negotiation, they arrived at a reasonable price. But, wishing not to spend money, Justin had left his credit card in our room. “No problem my friend, Achmed will take you back to get it,” the salesman said. So Justin headed back to our hostel with one of our guides, leaving me alone with 1000 carpets and a puppet rapist.

Becoming separated from your travel companion on your first day in Morocco was not suggested in our research. And, I may be wrong, but I don’t believe being alone in a dimly lit shop with a large, erratic stranger was either. But, there I was, twiddling my thumbs and hoping for Justin’s return. Twenty minutes passed and still no sign of him. I grew nervous. Stromboli sat at a large desk at one end of the room, staring forward with a stern expression. “What a dumb idea this was,” I thought. I had no real clue where I was in the city, nightfall was approaching and the only person I knew on the continent had run off with a guy named Achmed. Then, just as I contemplated heading to the roof with the most magical-looking carpet and taking my chances, Justin returned with his credit card. Immediately, the smile returned to Stromboli’s face. I’m thankful Justin bought the carpet. I guess he thought it was better to leave the shop with one rolled up in hand than rolled up in one.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the streets with the Achmeds in a state of combined awe and suspicion. In the early evening, they took us back to our hostel. Our guides then invited us to go to their place for dinner. They both seemed like nice guys, and they were probably on the level, but we had taken enough risks for one day. We thanked them, gave them each a generous tip and said goodbye.

That night we sat on the roof of the Dar Jameel, which had a near panoramic view of the city, and smoked hookah. At first, the many mistakes of the day occupied my mind. It was unnerving to think of what could have happened. But as we continued smoking hookah, the sun inched towards the sea and a breeze blew in from the mountains. Now, to the north, the lights of Spain appeared. They were as distant and strange as the lights of Africa had been the night before. As I marveled at the difference a thirty-minute boat ride can make, my thoughts finally settled. Then, only one occurrence kept drifting back to my mind…

After leaving Stromboli’s, we stopped to rest near an old church when one guide walked up with a smile and pointed towards the cemetery. There we saw two tortoises doing it in the slow, strained way only large-shelled reptiles can. We, too, smiled and laughed. Justin and I were sitting in a church garden, with two Muslim men named Achmed, in North Africa, watching tortoises plow in the shade of a tombstone. While it stands as one of the oddest moments I’ve ever witnessed, there was something innately comforting and familiar about the situation: no matter where you are, what culture you’re from, and how many stupid things you’ve done in a day, animals having sex is always funny.

Reviewed and edited by Katie Chassaing

Posted in Stories, Travel Tales | Leave a comment

Braemar, Scotland: Oh, the life we led

I never thought I’d hear the phrase “yes, the milkman should be coming Tuesday” used in normal conversation. And I certainly never imagined hearing the words “oh, I think I may have left them in the castle” spoken in sincerity. But, then again, I never thought I’d get to spend over two weeks in the Scottish Highlands.

I met Kat during a tour of Western Australia. She was short, Scottish and hilarious. We got along instantly. Though we had discussed Andrew and I visiting her in Scotland, we never actually ironed out the details. I was under the impression she lived in the city of Aberdeen, where we could stay with her for 3 to 4 nights tops.  “Well, I was actually hoping you guys could stay for a couple weeks,” Kat told me over the phone. “Yeah, I live with my parents in Braemar, a small village in the Highlands. Oh, and I think I’ve gotten you two some work at the local pub.” Kat explained further. I was stunned. Multiple-week stay? Pub work? The potential to reenact Braveheart? It all seemed too perfect.

By the time we arrived in the UK, I was used to the trials and tribulations of international travel. Australia had made me accustomed to problems, which I expected on a daily basis – almost to the point of becoming suspicious when nothing went wrong. So it’s not that I didn’t believe Kat, but I didn’t.

Andrew and I arrived late one night in early September. With our full backpacks, we stepped out of an empty bus onto a dimly lit cobblestone street. Kat, who met up with us in Aberdeen, led us up a small hill to a cottage on the edge of the village. A sign outside the stone house read “Birchwood.” Inside we met Kat’s parents, Andy and Sheila Anderson. They greeted us as if we were their long-lost prodigal children and insisted we sit down for sandwiches and lentil soup, even though we had already eaten.

After supper, the Andersons showed us to our separate upstairs quarters. Each was complete with a comfy bed, thick blankets and sinks with separate hot and cold water faucets. I found Andrew that night wandering the halls, also in shock with our undeserved good fortune. “I bet we’ll find a body in one of these closets,” he whispered. I, too, had the feeling that we had been lured into something. At the very least, they had to be religious fanatics. Yes, that was it. Andrew and I were their cult’s hope to bring new seed into a bottlenecking gene pool. Being the larger physical specimen, Andrew would certainly be the first to get raped. His girlish screams would alert me in the night, giving me time to slip out the window and flee to the highlands. Comforted by my plan and chalking Andrew up as a loss, I went to sleep.

Andrew's room

The next morning we discovered Birchwood used to be a bed and breakfast, which the Andersons had stopped running just a few years before. So, as it turns out, their stellar hospitality wasn’t part of an elaborate plot to kill, eat or take sexual advantage of us. Sheila and Andy were just really nice people, who were accustomed to treating their guests like, well, paying customers. Except Andrew and I weren’t paying customers, we were freeloading bastards.

Every morning there I would wake up well rested, before making my way to the window. Yawning and stretching, I’d draw back the curtains and let light pour into the room, exposing views of roundtop mountains covered in green grass and purple heather.

Looking down upon the village of Braemar

My first meal of Haggis!

After putting on pants, I’d wander downstairs to the breakfast table to find our places set with elegance and care. At the center of the table, there would be a spread of granola, yogurt, bread, butter, jam, fruits and decorative jugs containing fresh milk and orange juice. Compared to my house back in Texas, where granola only comes in bar form and napkins are reserved solely for special occasions, this was lavish.

“Good morning Eric,” A cheery voice would say. Sheila would then round the corner with an empty tea glass. “Did you sleep alright?” she’d ask. “Oh, yes ma’am, thank you.” I’d respond. “Is Andrew having a lie-in this morning?” Sheila would inquire further. “Well, I haven’t seen him emerge yet.” I’d answer with a mouth half-filled with toast. “Oh, make sure when he comes down you let him know there’s more pomegranate juice in the fridge.” She’d say before disappearing out the door. Five minutes later, I’d hear the distinct sound of large, bare feet advancing on a wooden floor. Andrew would enter the kitchen and ease into his chair. I’d watch him begin methodically organizing his breakfast. Eventually, Andrew would look up at me with sleepy eyes and a compact, but deeply satisfied smile. Then he’d cram an entire piece of toast in his mouth and I’d go back to reading the paper. That was how our mornings in Scotland began.

After a few days of this treatment, we made it our mission to repay them through chores.  We came up with a list: vacuuming, tidying the separate guesthouse, tending to the garden, chopping wood, sheep hunting, etc. I even offered to clean the local castle (with one of those fancy feather dusters I’d assume) where Sheila worked. They claimed they didn’t want us to lift a finger, but it’s possible they knew we’d cause more harm than good. Either way, even offering to do the simplest of tasks like cleaning the dishes was met with a “don’t be ridiculous” type of response. I recall after one delicious meal of freshly caught salmon, we were even told to stop thanking them.

Though I embraced the luxury of our situation, my subconscious could never quite come to terms with it. Every morning I still half expected to wake up on a stained mattress in a shitty hostel surrounded by a collection of random men. Those mornings were, indeed, yet to come. But, for the time being, every day I woke up to more comforts and hospitality than seemed possible.

Andy, Kat, and Sheila Anderson

Now, make no mistake, our time in Breamar wasn’t just one big slumber party. Kat, Andrew and I had many adventures and lively times involving camping, backpacking, bagpipes, whiskey, a royal hunting party and the Queen. And those tales are soon to come.  But, my point is, if we wished to spend each day filling the time between meals by reading, napping and farting on nice furniture, we could have. A few times we did. It was strange how everything worked out and so little went wrong. Honestly, I believe the worst news we heard during that entire two-week span was “I’m afraid all there is for pudding tonight is raspberries and cream… I’m terribly sorry.”

Reviewed and edited by Katie Chassaing

Posted in Stories, Travel Tales | 3 Comments