St. Nikolaus Day – Germany

MANNHEIM – Three whole days bedridden with a stomach bug, likely from a German sausage that didn’t sit well with me.

The last 48 hours on nothing but water with electrolyte tablets dissolved in it.

Welcome to Germany.

Outside my window, twin white smokestacks belch white steam into gray sky. Flat-fronted, boxy Mercedes trucks back in and out of work lots.

German zoning isn’t like American zoning. When I first got off the tram in this district with its manufacturing plants, factories, and construction yards everywhere, I thought I had been given the wrong address.

Surely, I thought, nobody lives here. They do, though. Couched between paved lots where cranes haul yellow girders skyward, surrounded by industrial buildings, vehicles, and smokestacks, there is a sturdy German apartment where I’ve got an Airbnb.

Get my book Odd Jobs & After Hours in audio, hardcover, or paperback here. It’s about drifting down the east coast of the USA chasing one sketchy, so-called opportunity after another.

I came to Mannheim to spend time with a friend from back home. She advised me not to bring up the fact that Germany is still not allowed to have a military. Apparently, her German fiancé reacted quite badly to this topic and spluttered about the small army and further rearmaments going on due to Russia and Ukraine. Don’t know much about it.

Not that I have anybody to talk to about current or historical events while lying in bed with a stomach bug.

But alone and woozy, I do have time to think about that no military, or small military rule. I mean, surely enough is enough by now, right? So much time has passed. So much cultural evolution has happened. Right?

Daylight breaks. It’s just below freezing outside. Lightheaded and extra cold after 48 hours without a bite of solid food, I layer up and begin the half-hour walk to the nearest tram station.

I step outside and inhale the fresh air. Scratch that, it’s not fresh at all, it all stinks of rotten eggs. The rows of factories all churn up groundwater and kick hydrogen sulfide stink into the neighborhood’s air every single morning. My stomach flips over. I shiver and try not to breathe too much.

As I cross the Alter Rhine, the rotten egg smell blows away, but the temperature drops sharply as I walk over the bridge. The Alter Rhines – leftover bodies of water created when the Germans straightened the Rhine.

After all, you can’t have a river running wherever it will, wild and free. That’s just unruly and disorganized.

The water-chilled wind rips through my peacoat and two sweaters. It’s so cold I might as well be out here shivering naked.

“Nein, nein! Du wirst dir das Bein brechen, wenn du das so machst!”

A work crew foreman is barking orders at a crew member who was about to drop down a manhole with a tool bag slung over his shoulder.

The workmen all wear rubber suits with reflective cuffs on the legs. Look at the rage on the foreman’s face. Listen to the murder in his voice. The wrongness in the work of his crew stinks like filth in his nose.

I shrug my head into my coat and press forward into the wind. The sky is gray. The water is brown. The old brick buildings have broken-out windows, walls with missing chunks, and exposed peeling plaster. Vines grow over bricks. The newer buildings feature the same harsh industrial angles you might see in any other city. This part of Mannheim is either old and abandoned or indistinct and unremarkable.

There is an underground tunnel leading to the train station across the street. The walls are covered in graffiti. Puddles and creeks of piss run down into the sewer grates. You have to pay to use the scattered public bathrooms around here. Men, women, and children alike all find hidden corners and go in the streets rather than cough up a half Euro for the pay toilets. I hold my breath and focus on making it to the other end of the tunnel to catch the train.

Train Ride

To be honest, I don’t have a plan. I just ride the train until the area out the window looks promising. The buildings don’t have signs. There’s no indication of restaurants around.

The train pulls to a stop with a cafe. Maybe they have soup on the menu.

I hop off the train and walk over to read the menu posted outside. I study it and work to remember my survival-level German vocabulary or decode what I’m reading.

Through the streaky brown glass, I see people inside smoking like it’s 1959. The woman behind the counter throws her hands up at me in impatient rage. I check to see if I’m blocking anybody’s way, but I’m not, I’m alone out here. Come on lady, can’t I read the menu in peace? Nobody else has ever done this? I lift a hand to thank and appease her and walk away. What hospitality! What warm hearts.

I should just go back to the Airbnb and sleep. I can make it one more day without eating. More than halfway there already. Though the hunger seems to double or even triple the cold weather.

Wonder if the cleaning lady is still there. She’s another figure who projected an air of silent, clenched rage. Her eyebrows tweezed to pitch-black perfection. Hair disciplined in a gelled black bun. A snarl in her mouth. The hard angles of her shoulders as she whipped dust out of the corners of the room. More disgusted than the foreman of that work crew. 

OK, what is with this place? My friend can’t hang out with me, I’m all alone. Can’t stomach the food, see a ray of sunshine, or even a smile for that matter. Yeah, I’ve changed my mind. No military for you sausage-fueled, shivering, snarling, barking little martinets. Who straightens a river? Leave it alone. Germany, your coldness, harshness, and anger are seeping into my blood like the windchill.

Back Home

The cleaners leave all the windows open, so even though I step inside I can’t really warm up yet. I leave my coat on. What’s this outside my door? There’s a chocolate Saint Nikolaus standing there. Wrapped in red tinfoil with gold crosses on his red hat and shoulders. I pick it up and stare at it.

It unbolts my brain for a moment. How many years since a Christmas at home? How many years more since a Christmas with magic? This little chocolate saint. Taking an auger to mood and memory.

I’m too old to think about stuff like that anymore! I’ve got to put this guy down. He’s dredging my spirit too much. I can’t be in a foreign country so woozy, witless, and starving that a chocolate saint can strip the years and makes me a kid again. I’ve got to get inside my room fast where I’m not exposed.

I text the Airbnb host, “thank you for the chocolate!”

She writes back, “It was left by Saint Nikolaus, of course!”

She adds a winking emoji.

Ah, you guys aren’t so bad. You’re the sweetest people ever. Sorry for what I thought earlier – the sausage-munching rage machine thing. I didn’t mean it. This chocolate is rich and delicious, and it’s the one thing I’ve had to eat all day. I eat it sitting near the radiator.

If ChatGPT Takes All My Jobs…

Things are mostly perfect. Mostly.

Chilling on a balcony, watching wooden fishing boats with tall prows on the North Atlantic from a surfing hostel in warm, sunny, breezy Taghazout.

The host gave me a speaker, and said he liked my music. I have this shaded seaside patio all to myself.

But you see…I’m reading about this ChatGPT thing. Watching some videos on it.

A year ago, AI could only write non-sequiturs that demonstrated there was no real mind buried in all the algorithms.

“Batman throws Alfred at the clue.”

Moronic sentences based on frequency of word use.

But now…now it’s good. Kids are making it write college essays for them. It can crank out an advertisement, an SEO article, a web page, anything I ever got paid money to write.

Non-sequiturs and headaches aside, it’s only a matter of time before employers figure out you don’t have to pay for ChatGPT’s health insurance. Plus, the technology will only get better going forward.

For now at least, Odd Jobs & After Hours isn’t bringing in enough to replace my “real” jobs. And now they’re building a robot to replace those.

Time to become something else.

But what?

Plenty of people did during the Industrial Revolution, right? Fair is fair.

But maybe…there isn’t a “something else” to become, and this ChatGPT thing signals the long, slow slide towards homelessness.

Sleeping in bus stops in the rain, wondering what happened to the guy with the laptop job surfing and partying across Europe, South America, and Africa, I mean, it’s not impossible, right? It’s not historically unheard of, it’s not –

“Tom! Tom! We must go to Agadir for a couple of hours. We leave you in charge of the hostel?”

I sit up and take off my sunglasses. Samad, the host of the hostel is peering around the corner, desperation in his eyes.

“Samad. I’m on vacation.”

“Yes, yes, of course, but for one hour, two hour, you answer the door if it rings, give new person towel from behind the desk, ask their room number and bring them there? We bring you anything you want from Agadir, anything to eat, drink, smoke, tell me and it’s yours.”

“Thanks, but I’m stocked up. I don’t need anything from Agadir.”

“Please, we are out of staff, and if you must leave, of course this is OK, but if you will be here with your music anyway…please?”

Seagulls crow and dive for fish.

“Ok, you got it.”

Samad clasps his hands in gratitude, and off he goes on his motorbike to Agadir.

Mostly, I hang out and do exactly what I was already doing.

One guest arrives in half an hour, and I bring him a towel and show him to room four. Easy.

Now as an American, you spend a ton of time around well-run businesses. You just do. And looking around at the surf hostel I now run, I consider everything that went wrong when I arrived.

The vision becomes clear: hire some of local women to do the towel and linen washing, get that running like a clock.

Spice and punch up the online description to sell the place on its ambiance a little better. Convince the building owner to spend a little more and therefore earn a little more, and not over-extend his two-man staff so much they have to ask some guest for help. I mean, from what I’ve seen Samad never sleeps.

Get my book Odd Jobs & After Hours here. It’s about drifting down the east coast of the USA chasing one sketchy, so-called opportunity after another. Get it in hardcover, paperback, or audio at the link.

Replace the hasty iPhone photos with something more cinematic. Get a staff schedule in ship-shape. Pay nice local ladies on the block for couscous dinners for the guests every night. Easy upsell.

Heck, get a live music night organized right here on this patio. There’s enough banjo and oud guys playing the streets for pennies. Let’s get those guys earning a little more too.

I’ll upsell guests on beginner surfing lessons. I am good enough to teach those now.

Let them build a robot that can do all those things at once.

And oh yeah, I’ll ferry to Spain often enough to dodge customs officials, because when you work abroad, tons of jobs will give you anything but a visa. As for a retirement plan, I simply won’t have one. As for the dentist, I simply won’t go. As for emergency funds, I will simply not have emergencies. That works, right?

Three hours pass, and Samad returns with potato chips, Kinder bars, and beer as a thank you.

Who knows?

Maybe there’s a future in this surf hostel thing. No more wandering, just pick a nice place and stay there. Give up my hard-earned freedom and return to long hours stuck in one place. Clean up after 4AM parties and surf whenever I carve out time and gather energy for it.

No matter how many times I tell the guest I let in and showed around I don’t really work there, they ask me for things all week long. Guess I’m hired.

Riptide & Camel Ride

Paddling, paddling like crazy in the foamy water and big waves off the shore of an African surf and fishing village called Taghazout in Morocco.

There’s no ATM in town, so you have to bike to the next village over to get cash. It’s just that kind of place.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I am convinced I can rip on a short board, so I have rented one along with a wetsuit, and I am getting churned, tumbled and plunged under waves like you would not believe.

This is session two for the day. Did one in the morning, and the sun is going down now. In a calm moment on the water, when I turn to face shore, the village is…gone. Only tan desert hills with dark green splotches of short juniper trees cover the landscape.

Get my book Odd Jobs & After Hours here. It’s about drifting down the east coast of the USA chasing one sketchy, so-called opportunity after another. Get it in hardcover, paperback, or audio at the link.

One mansion with a high wall and big tinted windows stands alone. North-ish of me, deep in the distant hills, there is a tiny stripe of white cubes. Buildings veiled by haze. Those cubes are the hostels, restaurants, cafes, and surf shops of Taghazout, where I am staying.

Miles and miles away. How did it get so far away so fast?

Those riptides are sneaky, treacherous entities, huh?

Nothing to do but start the long, slogging trek back in wet sand.

But wait, what’s this? A man in a blue robe and straw hat is napping between two camels in the shade of a dune. One camel is tan and one camel is white. The logical choice, the correct decision becomes clear.

What’s more, on impulse, I stuck 100 Dirham in the back pocket of my board shorts. That’s ten dollars in American money, and it is the key to unlocking this whole situation.

The guy with camels is named Hassan. The tan camel is Bolo, and the white camel is Carlos.

“Can we ride back to Taghazout?”

Hassan nods and grins.

“Even if I got this?”

I show him the surfboard. He looks at the cameIs and nods.

“Be careful,” Hassan says. “They spit.”

“Can’t be worse than my last wipeout. Imagine doing 20,000 ice cold neti pots at once.”

Hassan laughs.

“Clears the sinuses, though.”

I will be riding Carlos the white camel.

Hassan shows me the stirrup, a metal bar, and how to get up on the dark red, hand-woven, rug-like saddle.

Then Carlos stands up. Back legs first, and I’m pitched forward at a steep angle, gripping the surfboard under my armpit, lurching and staring at the back of Carlos’s long, hairy neck with its patches of knotted, dust-filled fur. Up go the front legs, and here we are. What an elevated view of the ocean and shore.

Hassan mounts Bolo, and we start towards Taghazout carried by the forward rock and roll motion of the indolent, dour lipped, heavily-lidded camels.

“I take your surfboard,” Hassan says.

I press the yellow board deeper into my armpit.

“No, I got it.”

“Please, I carry for you.”

“You wouldn’t ask a knight to let someone else carry his sword, would you?”

This, Hassan understands. He laughs and does not offer again.

The waves that plunged me under and rolled me all evening long are roaring to the left. The desert hills with their tent camps and RVs stand to the right. On a camel, wearing a wetsuit and surfboard, plodding back to where I’m staying.

It does make me wonder, if ever a term such as camel hypnosis was coined. How can it not exist? Drying out under desert sun, gently rolling along without so much as a car stereo to distract you.

“These guys must get great miles to the gallon.”

Hassan stares at me.

“Of water!”

Now Hassan stares at me while I laugh at my own joke. Nice, cool, we’re having a good time.

Eventually, when we arrive at the eroded, worn out, stone rocks that lead up to Taghazout, the camels kneel once more, again with their steep pitch forward.

“Thank you Hassan, and thank you Carlos.”

I unzip my wetsuit, find the soaked, but honestly still very crisp 100 Dirham note, and give it to Hassan.

It might be too much, it might be too little, but it’s all I have, if you know what I mean.

Caught Between Curfew & Culture | Colombia

I am doing the tightrope walk of organizing a date while sitting here under a plant that’s sprouting from a stone patio, with a view of the mild, mid-afternoon bustle of a middle-classish, family-friendly neighborhood, my back to the door of a $7 per night Airbnb in Colombia.

(In a cave with my book, Odd Jobs & After Hours. Get your copy on Amazon here.)

Food delivery guys on motorcycles with insulated red backpacks putter at slow speeds down the block. The U.S. Marine veteran in the room next to mine is also out on the porch. He is cursing the snot out of a video pundit on his iPhone, and chain-smoking.

And I am tapping, backspacing, Google translating, and double-checking my way through a Whatsapp conversation with a Colombian girl named Carla. We matched on Tinder.

Through clumsy, ham-fisted, beginner Spanish, I am laboring to achieve that detached yet interested, breezy yet clear, kind of gamesmanship that Whatsapp flirting requires. (What? You’re above it? You’re telling respond when you see a message and not when an appropriately coy period of time has passed? You get to the point and you don’t waste anybody’s time? I doubt that, friend. I doubt that very much.)

Ah, but Colombia! Colombia is a nation still capped by the cosmic dome of Catholicism. A people still cupped in the hands of God. Not like the bloated, broken, chimp children of the USA, desperate to suck all the money, food, and flesh they can into their faces while their little rock plummets through the void.

For this fundamental fork in our cultural backgrounds, when I asked for her address so I could send her a cab to pick her up, she snapped back, “A cab? To my address? I’m not a prostitute!”

Now, I thought I understood that in Spanish but I used Google translate to be sure.

I put the phone in my pocket, a take a walk around the block. When I get back to my Airbnb, there is another message from Carla.

“In the USA, the man can go over to a woman’s house for a first date, but it is different here.”

“I understand. I was only trying to offer you a ride to the restaurant.”

“Yes, I don’t have a bike or car, I need a ride.”

I set the phone down again. What’s caused by the language barrier here, and what’s her? Is it even worth the trouble of explaining to this…woman, that cabbie’s need, and actually outright demand, addresses? You can’t coo gently to them like homing pigeons, and let instinct guide them. Go where you feel, cabbie. She’s out there, somewhere. A new message banner appears.

“Can u send it here?”

She drops a pin at a cafe that logically must be within walking distance of her house.

“Yes. Does 6 work?”

“Can we do 8?”

“See you then!”

Time to whittle, time to pace, time to kick cans, and kill time.

But time does move on, and 8pm does arrive, and here I am in collared shirt and slacks, leather shoes, standing on a corner outsides a parrilla place.

Parrilla. It means grill. That seems kind of general. I read the Spanish menu posted outside the joint slowly, guessing my way through words I don’t know.

A cab pulls up to the curb, and out steps Carla, looking more or less like her pictures. Black hair, and good looking, like many Colombianas. Skittish steps. Darting eyes. (Is this neighborhood scary? Am I?)

We meet and do a quick cheek kiss. She laughs at my clunky Spanish. We get an outdoor table. I can pick out what she does: nurse, and share what I do: writer.

I manage to ask her what’s best on the menu, and she points to a mix of grilled meats over a bed of french fries. It has chicharrón, sausages, a grilled steak, some kind of sauce drizzled all over it. Peppers and onions in there, too. We get one of those and two mai tais.

Soon that becomes two mai tais for me, and one for her, because the bartender is quite talented, and all communication is a taxing effort.

She says something fast, something that ends in a rising, questioning tone.

“No sabo,” I say, and shrug. She bursts out laughing. I sip my mai tai, analyzing this. Smiling. Clearly, I am funny. And this is good. Right?

She types at blistering speed into Google translate on my phone. She shows me her English message.

“I can’t believe you said that!” it reads. “When someone speaks bad Spanish we call them no sabos. If you want to say I don’t know, say no sé.

I laugh and say no sé, no sé etching a deep, dark mental note.

The mixed grill over fries arrives. It’s a banger. Hot, fresh, and tasty.

We eat and chat about music, and movies, and work, and life, and English, and Spanish, and the USA, and Colombia. The mixed grill disappears, and the check appears.

Blue-raspberry and red raspberry lights blast through the windows of the restaurant. Sirens wail. The heroic Colombian police department is doing a slow, loud roll down the street. Restaurants and bars up and down the block give their lights the double blink.

“Curfew!” she says.

“For COVID?” I ask. She nods. Spanish roars out of a police megaphone. I check my watch. 10pm. A whole city on high school curfew hours.

I pay the check, and we’re out the door.

There are just so many cops! And that megaphone message, which is definitely enforcing curfew runs on a loop. People are vanishing left and right.

She tells me she needs a ride home, and I tell her I know. As I tap on my phone for a ride, she taps me frantically on the shoulder.

Two cars, two cars! You’re an honest woman, Carla, I got it, I know, we’re cool. The Uber I call for her arrives. And look at me, Captain Charming, I open the door for her. She sits in the cab, steps out suddenly, then gives me a quick kiss on the lips.

“Hide while your cab comes!” she says.

It’s interesting advice, probably wise. I nod.

Then I’m alone. It’s me, the law, and the great specter of COVID-19, making its deadly post 10pm rounds.

Giant potted plants line the outside of a hotel on a corner. I dart over, and crouch behind one plant before the police pass again. Red and blue lights wash around the round, matte ceramics of the plant pots, and shine through their spiky fronds. There’s that same megaphone message again.

The Uber driver sends me a message.

“Sorry! No rides after 10pm for COVID.”

No, that can’t be right. I try three more Ubers, but all decline. I try two yellow cabs. Same deal, no rides after 10pm.

I peek out from behind the potted plants at the empty street.

So here we are. It was 15 minutes to get here by car, which is (maps tells me) an hour fifteen by foot.

Hmm. Cops are out, I saw them tapping people on the shoulder to get them going on their way. Right now, the streets are empty.

What’s the move, here? Stick near buildings and start speed walking the hour fifteen back to the Airbnb?

It’s the only option, and I had better get going. Maybe I can periodically check to see if there’s a rogue driver looking for a final fair of the night.

I get going. Tap, tap, tap. Leather dress shoes, not too grippy, pretty hard-bottomed, on the empty street. Battery life dying fast. I take a notebook out of my pocket and copy down the street turns down in case the battery dies mid-journey.

Ten minutes into the walk. No signs of cabs or Ubers. Compliance all around.

Fifteen minutes into the walk, with the longest steps I can manage. Red and blue lights shine around the corner, so I step into an alleyway. The cops drive past while I’m crouched behind a dumpster. Then it’s back to hoofing it, to pitter-pattering along, making the big long trek home.

Twenty-five minutes into the walk, and 10 percent battery life left.

Ding! It’s a Whatsapp from Carla.

“Home safe! Smiley emoji. Thank you for lovely time. I’m going to bed now.”

And I look up at two stars, shining in the night between the buildings, and I take a deep, sweet, fresh, breath, and write back, “Happy for you! Sleep well.”

Then it’s back to the hike. Police sirens again. They’re getting louder faster which means that they’re not after me, they’re after a real crime. Right? I crouch next to a set of steps under an awning, and a squad car barrels down the street, sirens screaming.

Half an hour left to walk, and that’s easy, that’s doable, that’s practically recreational, but these dress shoes are hard as marble slates on the bottom, and they feel like they are too small now.

It’s around then I start turning over in my mind, “two cabs, you can’t ride with me then tell the driver where to go after, I’m home safe, I’m sleeping, that’s all that matters. I’m good! That’s all that matters!”

Not because I really mean it, but because it makes me laugh, and a little angry, and that keeps you going, going, going.

Phone is dead. Going off my paper directions. City zombies appear. There are maybe twelve homeless people in this next stretch of road. Swaying back and forth. Screaming into the night. I should take a right turn and try to get around them. But can I course-correct after the detour? Should I walk between them instead? They’re skinny, they’re not too dangerous. Right?

Or maybe…Or maybe they’re fueled by bitterness, hunger, and crack fumes, maybe they’re armed with shards of broken window wrapped in rags, and garden hoses with nails driven through the end to make spiky whips. Maybe they’ll smell Gringo on me, and descend like drooling junkyard dogs.

I take the detour, and trust I can still find my next turn.

My collared shirt is soaked with sweat. Feet still mad at me for wearing dress shoes for this unplanned hike.

Wait a minute. Who is this? One moped rider is going down the street. I step out and wave at him to come over. He’s a delivery driver going home. I can tell from the insulated red bag behind him. I hold up some peso notes and point at the address on my paper.

He gets it.

I climb aboard behind him, and he zooms through the final stretch of my walk-in about 7 minutes, even with a detour to avoid a police curfew checkpoint.

I thank him and hand him the pesos. I reach into my pocket for more to give him, but he refuses and drives home.

The veteran is still on the porch, still watching videos, still chain-smoking.

“Date go well?” he asks.

I do a quick recap of the date, the curfew, the trip back, and he finds the scenario hysterical.

“Put that story in your book!” he says.

Let myself into the room. Turn on the shower. Kick off the dress shoes.

I step into the cramped, narrow shower.

Didn’t get mugged! Didn’t get fined for violating curfew! Didn’t get lost. But wait. Did the date go well? Did I do OK? Was I weird? Ah, forget it.

No sé.

Epiphany in Medellin

***

Enjoy this story, and for stories you won’t find online, grab my book here.

Here I am, sitting on the stone tiles of a gated front porch on a block in Colombia, waiting on hold for a hospital back in the USA to send me written proof of a negative COVID test.

Not sure how often cops ask for proof of negative, but the Airbnb host told me to have something ready.

And she told me to practice saying, “I have proof I’m COVID negative,” in Spanish. Tengo prueba de COVID negativa. Or something.

I set the phone’s on hold jazz music to a quiet speaker setting, and watch the block wake up.

People aren’t going to work today. It’s Epiphany, and that’s a national holiday here. That’s when the Three Wise Men brought gold, Frankincense & Myrhh to baby Jesus.

There’s something about watching a day start in a foreign country that’s like seeing a play begin. Queue the woman shaking a washed blue shirt over her balcony and hanging it on a white line. Queue the couple opening the front door of the apartment and assembling a ramp over the steps for the man’s moped to drive down.

This morning, everybody is out on their apartment balcony doing chores or eating breakfast. Each of the four balconies visible is like its own world.

One with a grandmother-age woman and her daughter, one with a couple, one with a family of four, and one family of three, are all having a day-off kind of morning.

Instant coffee and a cigarette while leaning off the rail for one dad, pancakes and orange juice for the kids, and moms bustling around on mom business.

Colombia has barred travel again, but I got here just before the gates closed.

Now, I must stay in my Airbnb unless I can get proof of a negative COVID test. But the hospital’s hold music will not end.

No cabs run, and many restaurants are closed. I start to realize I may not be able to get a bite to eat today.

But no wait, look across the street. A few apartment doors to the left.

A woman is pushing an industrial grill out the door. She and a man walk a big striped restaurant sign out of their front door. The sign reads Donde Toby. (Where is Toby? That’s what that means, right? The street food place is asking me where Toby is? For its name?)

I can’t get over how different the apartments are here. You never think about building codes until you see what happens when they’re not there.

Each building is slightly different creating a patchwork of odd angles and different colors. Motorcyclists and moped buzz down the block.

A skin and bone man in a baggy polo and ripped jeans has two trash bags on his arms. He rifles through bags of trash left on the ground.

Around the corner, on a second story balcony, somebody is reading what must be the gospel through a megaphone. I can hash out enough Spanish to know it’s the gospel, and based on the day it must be the story of the Three Kings.

Black haired mothers in pandemic masks walk their children down the block. And underneath it all that hospital hold music won’t end.

And it’s times like these, hungry in a foreign country that’s closed most of its restaurants, unable to leave and delivery service on holiday, yes, it’s times like these that make you ask the big questions.

Such as, where is Toby?

My patio is four feet above sidewalk level, made of brick-colored stones standing behind a painted white iron gate. If I walk to the end of the patio, I can see down the street where the man is preaching. There are lush green mountains rising behind him. They are covered in mist, but in the morning you can see their looming, rolling shapes.

A voice crackles through the hold music. It thanks me for waiting and asks how it can help. I explain my situation.

Sizzling grill, Spanish megaphone sermon, the rising buzz of a motorcycle’s engine. Dogs yap. A little bit of rain comes and goes. It’s all a symphony nobody could ever write.

Bullhorn Morning | Colombia

Things Tourists Should Never Do in Colombia, Ever

***

Enjoy this story, and for stories you won’t find online, grab my book here.

A harsh voice amped up through the funnel of an electrical bullhorn wakes me up.

Hard Spanish syllables rattle the windows of every apartment on the block.

The fog of the night clears. Oh, yeah.

I’m waking up in Colombia today.

And there’s a lockdown in effect till Tuesday. Is that what the bullhorn is about? Is that how they enforce it here?

If so, this room feels as big as a milk carton.

The wall that faces the street is mostly a glass sliding door with a metal gate behind it, and a full-length curtain behind that.

One gust of wind with the glass door open, and the curtain would blow back and pedestrians could see you snoozing. It makes you want to hunch to the corners of the room. But I had the glass door shut all night, so that’s more of a theoretical concern then a pratical one.

There’s no AC in here, just a fan, a mini-fridge, a hot water kettle, and miraculously, a bathroom and shower crammed in there as well. The size of an airplane’s bathroom. All immaculately clean and well organized.

And the host put those beachy, barfy, housewarmers up on the walls, the wooden boards with golden letters reading, “Dream on, Wild Child” and “Home is Where I Hang my Hat”.

And speaking of messages, that bullhorn is back again. What is it saying? I don’t have the Spanish to understand it. I pull the white curtain with blue flowers on it just an inch, expecting to see a police car with a clove of bullhorns jabbering away on top of it.

It’s funny, no two apartment buildings on the street match. Far from uniform, utilitarian living complexes, it’s a series of brick or concrete or wooden sided buildings all with different shapes and designs. No two second story balconies are at the same height. A glance down the block and how it’s built is enough to tell you, the rules aren’t the same here.

Christmas lights and bows are on some of the balconies. A small black dog wanders through the street. The bullhorner is out of sight, but his voice echoes around some corner.

Tone-wise, the bullhorn voice seems sharp and official. What on earth could that be about? Stay in your rooms till Tuesday? That would make sense. Stay off the street? The street is empty, now.

(Or are they saying ‘we’re looking for that guy, the American who got here last night. Somebody knows where he is. No harm will come to you if you hand him over.)

The things movies will do to your head!

The bullhorn voice is getting closer. This time, I’m going to see the police car, or whoever he is, pass.

It’s not a police car. It’s not even a car at all. It’s a two-wheeled wooden fruit cart with a PA system mounted on it. There’s a suntanned, wrinkly, cranky dude pushing the cart through the streets, and finally, I pick words out of the garbled bullhorn noise. Papaya, guayaba, aquacate. Banana, mango.

Ha! Police. Lockdown. Silly me. Now to find a cup of world famous Colombian coffee.

To be continued

A Weird Thanksgiving Dinner from a Couple Years Back

Instant Pot Thanksgiving Turkey - The Washington Post

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***

Yeah, some year in my early twenties when I couldn’t scrape together airfare to fly home for Turkey Day, I had been hanging out with a crew of maybe four people, evenly split between guys and girls, because we all did Brazilian Jiu Jitsu together.

None of us had plans for Thanksgiving morning, being neither football watchers, Turkey Trotters, or Thanksgiving day chefs.

We had all kind of drifted in shouting distance of each other on the different lifeboats of our young adult lives. One guy slept on the mat of the gym, to give you an idea of our rootless and fleeting circumstances at that time.

Personally, I was renting some dim, roach-eaten Craigslist room in walking distance of the dojo.

We agreed to meet for a Thanksgiving morning roll, which is a sparring or grappling session.

The temperature had dropped to what counts as very cold in South Florida. The dojo was this dim, really beat down kind of place. I was new to the sport with all the tapping out and choking that comes with being a beginner.

Still, it was something to do, and we did it almost religiously. The guy teaching us spent two hours creating different grappling matchups and we all rolled ourselves to exhaustion.

Then came a small social poker game in which nobody wanted to show is or her cards.

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving dinner?”

“Me? Chilling. Eating. Probably going to call home. You?”

“Chilling. Eating.”

“You buy a turkey?”

“No,” I said. “To roast in what kitchen?” I didn’t have one back then.

“So what are you going to eat?”

“Um. Not sure yet. How about you, did you get a turkey?”

“A whole big turkey? For one person? Nah.”

Sensing the circumstances, I decided to tip my hand of cards first.

“Yeah, I don’t have any plans if you guys want to get something to eat after this.”

And the other three, in their drenched and dripping BJJ gis, kind of glanced up, then around at each other.

“You guys can come too, if you’re free, I know you probably have family plans.”

“No. We don’t,” said one, speaking for all.

“What place serves turkey dinner?”

“Nah, nowhere does. Let’s get Chinese”

But somebody was allergic to MSG, and she suggested Italian, which was met with major enthusiasm and agreement.

That’s how, two hours later, showered, Tiger Balmed, and thickly sweatered we all met up again in the outdoor garden of an Italian restaurant that I have never quite been able to find again. We chat about BJJ.

“When you’re being choked, you got to look towards the guy. Your natural instinct is to turn away, but that just deepens his grip.”

“Don’t let that knee sit on your stomach. Buck sideways, sharp as you can, early as you can. You’re just losing oxygen and energy if you don’t.”

Calamari arrived soon after red wines and winter cocktails.

“Just like the pilgrims had,” I said. Small laughter.

“And don’t push the other guy too far when you’ve got the arm bar, it’s just a rolling session, you’re not trying to break bones here. Expect that tap to come really soon.”

“At the end of the day, it’s about consistency. People think they’re good or going to be good, or supposed to be good at it right on day one, but no. Nobody is.”

Think I ordered the chicken parm at entree time.

“Just like the pilgrims had!” and the second time around, the line got a bigger laugh. Even from the waitress.

And then, came a second social poker game. See, we all probably wanted desert, but who wants to be the first so-called “warrior” to admit yeah, they wouldn’t mind wrapping up with a little cannoli or lava cake.

“Are we thinking about desert,” asked the waitress.

We look around. Who gave out first? Someone said yeah, and relief spread around the table. Yeah, we’ve been training hard.

“Could I please get the tiramisu?” I asked. “Just like the pilgrims ate.”

And the third time around, the line got the biggest laugh of all.

“It’s that special kind of joke,” I said. “The more you make it, the funnier it gets.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure about part,” said one girl.

But her girlfriend recently dumped her, so you have to factor that into her point of view.

My tiramisu arrived. Phenomenal stuff. They went heavy on the rum. House made mascarpone. We all ordered coffees, too.

I wonder where those people all wound up, I wonder where they all went. We didn’t stay in touch. I wonder if anybody but me ever thinks about our weird Italian food Thanksgiving dinner at that mostly empty restaurant after a long morning of trying to choke each other out. Hope they’re all doing well.

Landing in Colombia

10 Best Things To Do In Medellin, Colombia At Night: Blast | Trip101
Medellin at Night

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***

Rain splattering the windows of the airplane.

Dim purple and orange light shining through the little round window.

Going just by the big flat tarmac alone, Medellin, Colombia, looks like Miami, Florida.

I’m watching the tarmac for signs of Colombianism, you might say.

Meaning what? Meaning having seen tarmacs in England, Russia, the USA, and now Colombia, I always watch to see if they, for example, drive the suitcases in a different kind of tiny truck. Yeah, it just looks like more Miami for now.

A couple of friends of mine will be here in a few days. They’ve been before. They said I should come down this time. Just for a few stories. Just for a lark.

And as you do, I larked my luggage out of the overhead bin and larked myself out the double sliding front doors.

“Where you go?” asks a cabbie. And I set one bag down to fish an address out of my pocket, and he grabs my bag and starts stomping towards his cab, being the aggressive salesman he is. And wanting to keep up with my socks and underwear, I stomp after him to his cab. I mean, one ride seems as good as another.

He’s got this stick shift Hyundai. A ceramic Virgin Mary is glued to the dash in front of the passenger. Two rosaries are looped around her stand. He floors the gas pedal shooting between rows of waiting cabs and Ubers, and those rosary beads rattle against the dash.

We drive under palm trees and so far it is nothing I haven’t seen before.

But the cabbie is getting agitated over something.

“Get ready, get ready. Man, you gonna see something here, man!”

Whoosh! The treeline ends, and there is all of Medellin, a city built in a green valley. Yellow town lights run up the sides of purple mountains. Clouds drift in front of the tops of skyscrapers. A yellow biplane circles near the mountainsides.

“Hey! Where we going?”

I can’t stop staring.

“Where we going?”

I hand the cabbie the address of the Airbnb.

“I don’t know, I don’t know!”

I check the dash for a GPS. Nothing.

“Can you use your phone?” I ask.

“No card!”

That’s a shame. My own phone is dead as a brick. The battery decided it couldn’t hold a charge anymore sometime in the middle of my layover at MIA. The charger takes ages to wake it up, if it can bring it to life at all. Bad timing, you know, going to a foreign country, but you can’t put things off forever or wait till everything is perfect. Otherwise, you’ll never do them.

The cabbie barks, “Policia! Policia!”

Oh great. Meaning what? Get passports, bribe or bail money ready? Chuck this bag of coke out the window before he sees us?

There’s the cop in military green with a lime green helmet on a motorcycle by the side of the road.

But then the cabbie screeches the Hyundai to a stop in the dead middle of the road, and tells me to roll down my window. The cop is checking a phone in a heavily padded case.

“Hey, it’s alright, we don’t need to bother him,” I say. “We can go.”

The cabbie whips his hand in circles to tell me to roll down the window again. Grudgingly, I do. The cop looks up.

Cabbie grabs the address. He must be asking the cop how to get there in Spanish. The cop does some gesturing. Left at the this and right when you see that.

And bang, we’re off again!

“I would never, ever stop in the middle of the road to ask a roadside cop for directions in the US,” I say.

“No?”

“No, they’re by the road to give you tickets, you can’t just roll down your window and yell, ‘hey, where’s Dairy Queen?’ at them.”

“La policia es mi seguridad!”

Must be, “police are my security.”

His voice rises to a full bellow in this tiny cab, with just him, me & ceramic Mary. What I lack in Spanish, he’s making up for in sheer volume.

“¡La policía es mi protección!”

He thumps his chest.

Not in the milkiest suburbs of the states could you find this kind of confidence in the boys in blue!

“La policía no es corrupta!”

Not even a little bit corrupta? I’ll still keep my distance, you mad cabbie you!

We scream around a bend in the overpass. His whip the wheel & tilt the tires driving style makes this yellow cab shoot through the dark like a bullet.

But what incredible greed my eyes have for all things Medellin! The dance of mist over moonlit mountains, the jungle plants and flowers growing from every island in the road.

Has my battery pack brought my phone to life yet? I check it. Still dead. A motorcyclist appears in sideview mirror’s reflection.

“Phone down, phone down, other hand, no window hand,” yells the cabbie, who is now sweating heavily into his stiff-collared shirt.

He then mimes and chatters and explanation.

Medellin runs on motorcycles. They rule the streets by day. And sometimes, a motorcyclist will steal an iPhone right out of a driver’s hand, even at a full 60-70mph.

Which strikes me as a rather acrobatic, visually stunning kind of a crime.

Imagine, you’re rocketing along in the passenger seat of a cab. A motorcyclist’s image swells in the sideview mirror.

The biker’s shoulders dip left. His arm swipes through the window, scooping your phone right out of your hand, then zoom, he vanishes off into the night, carrying your drunk texts, your photos, your alarm clocks, your work email, your apps, your absolutely everything down into the underbelly of a world about which you know nothing, and if you’re lucky, you never will.

Anyway, my phone stays in my pocket for the rest of the ride.

Finally, the cabbie pulls off the highway into some side streets. The odd angles of apartment buildings are jammed together. They’re smaller, more cramped than you might see in the states. Everybody has a small balcony.

“Peligrosso, peligrosso,” the hoarse cabbie stage whispers.

There are enormous piles of garbage bags on street corners. Street art of the Joker, for some reason. Windows covered with large metal shutters, and bars. Doors made of solid metal. Possibly bulletproof.

And city zombies (they are in every city) shuffle around in a nearby park. Bug eyed, broken toothed, slack jawed and jonesing for poison, no doubt.

There’s a man with a shopping cart in a poncho and straw hat. There’s a woman in cutoff shorts, heels and a halter top. Nails a puma would envy. I don’t mean to make assumptions, but she probably has an engineering degree.

One rail-thin guy is standing in the middle of the street, arms crossed over his ribs. A cigarette burning in his fingers. He looks like one of the city zombies. The cab squeaks to a stop, and the cabbie shouts for directions again. This cabbie will ask anybody where a street is!

Three turns later, he drops me off at a place. This neighborhood looks a little better.

Iron gate painted white. A lockbox with a key inside. Luckily, I wrote down the code before my phone died.

The room is the exact size of a queen-sized bed. There’s a full-sized bed in the center. You have to scoot sideways like a crab to get around the bed to a miniature bathroom and shower.

Can you drink the tap water here? Folks back home told me no. I boil tap water in this electric kettle, and drink tea-temperature water, unmixed with anything.

But hey, I made it. Bedtime.

To be continued.

Jumping Out an Airplane

skydiver art | Art, Artwork, Moose art

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This tiny plane is climbing and circling higher and higher.

When I say tiny, I mean tiny. There are no seats. Just room for four people to sit on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. Two first-time skydivers practically on the laps of two instructors, crammed on the floor of the airplane.

Outside the windows of the cramped canister, we’re gaining altitude. Big, flat Florida is getting smaller and smaller. It’s an overcast day. We feel every lurch, every tilt, every time the plane tips its wings to turn.

“I know you’re the pilot but do you jump sometimes, too?” Dalina asks the pilot.

“He does, and he’s working now,” her instructor says.

She giggles and claps a hand over her mouth. A confirmed adrenaline junky, she’s practically bouncing off the cabin walls. She and I met when I was surfing, recently. And shockingly, this skydiving trip is the first time we’re hanging out.

And when the plane tips, the vast view of Earth itself rises up the windows, like when you tilt a glass of OJ and the juice runs up the side. Criss-crossing runways, a double baseball diamond, pine-green grassy fields, all rapidly shrinking.

Spiky heads of palm trees. Squiggly, slithering rivers. Roads, quiet, with few cars at this early weekend hour. The beach is misty. You can see the lapping shoreline, but you can’t pick out where the water stops and the sky begins on the horizon. It’s all one grey, foggy, shimmering sheet.

The beach hotels look like dollhouses. The propeller whirs & roars.

Man. Can’t believe I’m going to jump out of this tiny airplane. I have dedicated the past week to not thinking about it.

Now the moment is here. Back on the ground, when the pilot asked who wanted to jump first, Dalina and I both said, “me!” at the same time.

She tried to let me go first, but a, “ladies first” settled the matter. She’s sitting by the window now. It was actually open when we were starting to take off, but they rolled it down.

She and I kill time with some getting to know you chit chat, because after all, we just met by chance on the beach a couple of weeks ago when I was finishing up surfing. She sent me a message in the middle of the night making if I wanted to skydive. I answered yes, and woke up to a screenshot of skydiving ticket receipts.

The plane climbs in higher and higher circles.

Her jump instructor grabs the door handle and lifts it upward. The door rattles open, and there’s a great gaping hole in the airplane cabin, showing a view of wispy clouds & a forever of grey sky out there under the wing. The cabin is drowning in roaring wind, propeller whir, and shivering cold air.

Dalina puts a sneaker out on the metal step over the wheel with all 14,000 feet of air racing away underneath this Campbell soup can of an airplane.

“You’ve got this, you’ve got this,” I yell.

Dalina closes her eyes, and arches back like the instructor told her to do. And then her instructor grabs the doorframe and dives. And they’re gone. Vanished, so fast, and so far. It’s like witnessing an execution.

Scoot! Slide! My jump instructor is sidling on his bum over to the door. Fast. My hands grip my harness.

“Head arched back, feet together pointing back when we go!” the guy yells in Camel cigarette breath.

The wind speed makes putting my boot out onto the metal plate over the wheel like moving underwater. I fight the wind to shove my boot onto that rusty metal step.

Earth curvature, water bodies, moving mist, whipping clouds. Ocean below. System buzzing and clammy like it’s time to die.

View out the airplane: the thin body, and tail of the plane. The wing of the plane above me. Metal ridges, a coffee-color rust stain on the underside of the wing. A red stripe and a yellow stripe on the white wing. A row of white bolts.

Jump!

Stomach drops. Air roaring in ears. Whole body in free fall. Fighting air pressure to inhale thin air. Arms out like wings now. Giddy, terrified. Rushing at the misty morning ground. Like dropping from the top of the world’s tallest rollercoaster, but without the rollercoaster.

A flapping, unfurling snap of fabric overhead. A great jolt. And then silence. No more rush of air. Gentle, downward motion. I look up, and there’s the parachute, spreading overhead like a bodega awning.

“Don’t get scared, I’m going to make your harness a little more comfortable.”

He doesn’t even need to raise his voice anymore. It’s the type of sound quality like when you’re on a ski lift, chatting with somebody.

He unbuckles something on my harness and I drop down on one side. This feeling, I hate. I’m gripping my shoulder straps again. About to tell him not to worry about the harness. Imagine, he unbuckles the wrong thing, and I plunge away from him. There’d be nothing anyone could do. Then he unbuckles something on the other side and I drop-lurch down a little more. He’s done. The worst is over.

I’m swinging in this harness, thousands of feet in the air, with the purest, most unblocked, un-windowed view of a Florida field, town, and beach you could ever have.

We tilt way to the left. Glide in circles. Over a river. Over a highway. Back around towards the jump office.

Now lower, probably even with the height of a skyscraper’s top. Dropping down story after story towards the blown-around long grass in pine & grey colored fields. We swing out hundreds of feet over two big water towers. Then keep dropping.

“Point your feet straight out,” says the instructor. I do.

We circle down, fast now. Green ground skim-skipping away. And ground starts skidding under my calves, under my legs, bootheels skimming and skidding until I stop, watery & high-eyed, every nerve singing.

Stand & stretch. Can’t stop laughing. Glad I did it. Glad it’s over. Glad to be alive. Where am I? Turn, and there’s the one little trailer that serves as the office. I can hear soccer moms cheering their kids in the field on the other side of a chainlink fence. It is all very normal, but I am very different.

They ask me to go to the trailer and return my harness. I do. Weightless Dalina is slower to fall, she’s still gliding hundreds of feet above us.

“How was it?” the next two jumpers beg to know.

“You’ll love it, you’ll love it,” I tell them.

Dalina soon lands. We meet in the trailer with a hug & giddy, garbled recap. Then walk out on the sweet, solid, ground to find breakfast.

Waffle Home

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Three times, at three different locations I’ve seen Waffle Houses provide for a regular beggar.

The first was in South Carolina. Some sunburnt scarecrow hobbled through the door. A waitress tapped the manager on the shoulder. I assumed the manager had the tricky job of running off vagrants. Instead, she brought the beggar hashbrowns to go, and coffee with two sugars and three creams.

She knew how he took his coffee, which is how I knew he was a regular even though I was just drifting through town and never saw that location again.

On a second occasion, in Georgia, when a homeless guy wandered in, a cook shouted, “Dale’s here!” And Dale left with a plain waffle, a sweet tea, and a cigarette cadged off a landscaper.

Somewhere in the indistinguishable middle neck of Florida, another Waffle House manager did the same thing. Short on teeth, this beggar preferred grits.

Now it’s impossible that such a rule is written in any corporate booklet or slideshow, but some spirit of Southern Hospitality, maybe even Christian charity, does seem alive in Waffle House management.

At least, I choose to believe it is so, elbow to elbow with two friends in the yellow-orange light of a Florida location. There are a million like it, but this one is ours for now.

Which is not to say it’s all roses at Waffle House. Once, when served coffee in a mug with the last customer’s lipstick print on the rim, I asked the waitress, “what’s this?”

“Givenchy Dual-Tone,” she said. “Very in this year.”

She swept the mug away and came back with a clean one.

But thank goodness for soft yellow light. Sterile fluorescents are for jails, morgues, and public schools. Plus, they’re brutal on hangovers.

What better white noise than the vast metal field of the sizzling griddle to our right? Its sputtering fills the dead air in our sparse conversation. There’s nothing to say this late in the weekend but re-cap the events, the boozy barbecue, the lazy river, drinking card game, and the goofy volleyball game that would affront any decent volleyball rulebook. And now, mostly quiet, we wait for something to starch out the mean ghosts of white rum & tequila.

Speaking of which, our order has just arrived.

“They gave me a pecan waffle instead of peanut butter chip.”

“The cook probably read PC for shorthand. They scrambled my eggs over easy, too.”

The remember the poor, but forget my egg order.

“It’s all good.”

We eat. When Americans go abroad, even if they only eat healthy at home, even if they have sophisticated palettes, some night in their trip they will awake craving flavors such as these. The crispy hashbrowns. The greasy bacon. The artfully weak and endlessly replenished coffee.

It does a diner’s spiritual work, and that’s to feel like home, like a refuge, no matter where you are on the road.

If you’ll tolerate such a slim and esoteric category of analysis, if you have any patience for deaf cooks & sloppy dishwashers, if you’re attuned to any such thing, you must rate Waffle House poor in practice, but five stars in spirit.