Unknown Destination

Death, baby! Death.

That’s what’s was on my mind here in the unmanly station of second seat on a moped hurtling down a rolling Colombian highway, somewhere in Medellín.

But beyond the mild seating indignity is the discomforting presence of twelve chainlink fence posts sitting in the truck bed to the front left of us.

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The posts in the truck bed are a mere arm’s reach away, as Colombian roads are much narrower than I-95, and the vehicles are smaller than the Ford F-150 by a long shot. The hollow ends of the fence posts are dark as gun barrels; they seem capable of lance-like flight at a sudden stop. This helmet with its scratchy visor simply isn’t enough.

Cars and trucks merge on and off the highway with all the order of popcorn kernels on a red burner rocketing upward to burst and bloom.

Now Colombia’s mountains are a joy to see, a delight to hike, and no doubt a thrill to motorbike through, but second seat gives you no control over your fate, it’s more of an act of surrender to each steep tilt and turn.

Why then, am I here? I was promised a monumental and world-famous piece of Colombian history, something I would never forget seeing. My friend and guide at the hostel, Andy, told me about it, but he didn’t tell me exactly what it was or where we were going. Who can say no to a mystery? Off we went.

We finally shoot off an exit and roll onto commercial streets, followed by a short road with little development on either side of it.

Surprisingly, we then pull into the parking lot of a church and park there. Where are we going? Confession?

We walk around to the back of the church to a cemetery.

“Now you will come face to face with a man who shaped this nation.”

We walk over well kept grass, then a border of black marble with white patterning, then a bed of white polished stones till we finally come to a black headstone with cursive gold lettering.

“Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria.”

Here they are, six feet below. The bones of a guy who drowned Colombia in blood. The wealthiest criminal in history.

Now here I am, a Gringo whose mental image of Escobar is the Netflix actor more often than his historical face, but our fellow visitor to the grave feels much closer to Pablo.

The other visitor is a bald, heavier guy in an old collared nightclubbing shirt, jeans, and black dress shoes. He is keying himself up, tipping forward on the balls of his feet, trying to absorb the atmosphere around the grave.

He speaks suddenly, his story bursting out of him like shaken up soda. Must be something about my appearance, because he knew to use English.

“I am Escobar’s blood,” he says. “I am his nephew.”

Andy the guide and I nod, and give him a little space.

“Yo brother, this guy’s trash,” Andy mutters to me. “Every bastard in Colombia calls himself the son of Escobar.”

Maybe he’s Pablo’s blood and maybe he isn’t, but pacing and prowling around the white stones on Pablo’s grave, the so-called nephew is surely hunting for a haunting, the type of haunting that will bring him, perhaps, a little respect.

Nephew baldy seems to think Pablo is Scarface or Don Corleone, the type of gangster he can admire on the far side of a flatscreen.

And admittedly, it is hard to process that here lies the grinning coke warlord who murdered nearly the entire Colombian police force in a single night and bombed randomly targeted pharmacies. After all, if Pablo couldn’t have the whole world, no Colombian could have baby formula. It’s difficult to believe it was all real, and not too long ago.

But if Escobar’s tomb by day is chilling and suspect, consider the following scene by night.


Same church, same graveyard, bright moonlight shining on the same white pebbles, and black marble border. But around midnight, a gathering begins. Do you hear the chainlink fence rattling? Figures in hoodies are clambering over it. There’s a low murmur of hoarse voices. Pablo’s acolytes are assembling for a street seance. Andy is hanging back eagerly yet uneasily, as am I.

The guys in hoodies walk up to Pablo’s grave, and unzip their backpacks. Out come clinking, tubular glass objects. A flick of a lighter, and orange firelight show some of the objects to be Virgin Mary and Lazarus candles, and others to be 40 malts. One incense stick in a sandalwood board with a curled end. Flame for wicks, for the incense tip, and a blunt which they pass to the left in their circle.

Now silly with liquor and screwy with weed, they sit in dark communion with Pablo’s bones. With enough chemical distortion, it seems believable that Escobar’s ectoplasm will ooze out between these white polished stones. He will give you a Mercedes and me a speedboat, and we will all live in penthouses. He will be our father, he will once more be El Patron. We have nothing and he had everything, and for that magic trick, we will ignore his every wrong.

Like for nephew baldy, Pablo is something of a folk hero to them. But if you ask most Colombians, under these polished white stones are the white coals of Hell.

Well, burn all the candles and blunts you want, it doesn’t look like any ghosts are coming out tonight. But what does manifest is sidelong looks, and a cold, weighty sense that Andy and I do not belong here.

So quietly, we leave.

Midnight at an Outdoor Gym in a Foreign Land

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After a few strong shots of (what’s that powerful pre-workout called? Ah, yes. Tequila.)

Yes, after a few shots of tequila, my friends and I are at an outdoor gym in the bustling, humid downtown of Medellin called Parque Lleras. It’s midnight.

The yellow streetlights are shining through the mist, and the whole wide nighttime world is a little silly and a little whirly. We’re capping off our first night out on the town. We’ve been holed up for COVID measures for a day or two, and now we’re uncaged and running a little wild.

The city is surrounded by rainforest landscape. Overhead, big green jungle palms are luffing a little bit. There’s a creek somewhere nearby. We can hear rippling water, but we can’t really see it.

Under the palms, there are barbells, pull-up bars, and dip bars. The weights have chains on them so you can’t steal them. All the metal bars are painted yellow. We’re in our night out collared shirts, dress pants and shoes. Not exactly gym wear, but who cares?

I’ve got a deadlift bar that’s linked to a big rattling chain running to the ground. I’m yanking the bar upward. We’re all counting each other’s reps in Spanish.

Uno! Dos! Tres!

Two Colombian gym bros are pumping chained-up barbells in the corner laughing at the drunken Gringos.

Cuatro! Cinco! Seis!

Then a new friend of ours, some mobile phone millionaire who expatriated, is wandering out in the middle of the road, walking off some soreness from the squat rack.

A yellow cab whips around the corner and screeches around him.

“What? Come at me bro!” screams the millionaire, arms spread out.

And what intoxicant can make a creature of flesh and bone look at two tons of 65-mile-an-hour metal and say, “come at me bro?” It’s Colombia. Use your imagination.

All is well once more, but we just have to keep it that way. It’s clearly time to go home, to get off the street.

We say sorry and gracias to the gym bros in the corner.

They laugh and say no, no, thank you guys.

And on that note, we stumble back to the apartment.

Master the Death Touch: A Guide to Middle School Martial Arts

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Many cultures develop their own martial art.

Some are ritualized and traditional, some are field-tested and highly practical.

One collection of non-lethal yet crippling techniques is taught and practiced beginning in middle school in the US.

Its practitioners diminish, but do not disappear through the college years.

In adulthood, the artform is often all but forgotten.

This martial art is yet unnamed, but recognizable by a few consistent techniques replicated in schoolyards and above-ground pools everywhere.

The Five-Star

Technique: The assailant opens his hand with five fingers spread (hence the name Five-Star) and delivers a whip-like smack across the back of his target.

Outcome: A bright red five-finger mark and fire-hot pain. This technique takes on a particular brutality in aquatic combat. Expect a pool noodle lashing in retaliation.

Notes: What makes the Five-Star insidious is that if delivered the proper distance from mom, the telltale red mark on the victim’s back will vanish completely before any tattling can be completed. It is a crime that disposes of its own evidence.

The Wet Willie

Technique: In this maneuver, the assailant wets his index finger with saliva and uses it as a poking weapon.

Outcome: Useful as an intimidator, the Wet Willie can clear a room with a single, threatening pointed finger.

Notes: In our pathogen-conscious era, it could work on full grown adults.

If you try this, you might get arrested, or you might feel like you have the Force from Star Wars. This is not legal guidance.

The Purple Nurple

Technique: The assailant grabs and tweaks the nipple of the target.

Outcome: Revulsion and recoil in the victim.

Notes: As with all techniques, this typically a man-to-man maneuver.

Guaranteed to be obnoxious.

The Noogie

Technique: The assailant executes a headlock, then rubs the knuckles of his free hand into the scalp of the victim.

Outcome: Red face, temporary hair loss.

Notes: If the Noogie is happening to you, the raid is over, your cabin is burning, and you are being scalped.

The Sack Tap

Technique: Assailant delivers a quick flick to the crotch of the victim.

Outcome: Victim doubled over.

Notes: A brutal technique, known to end friendships but also entire bloodlines. The Sack Tap is Old Testament warfare. It is against all Geneva Conventions.

The Defecator

Technique: Assailant makes blades of his hands by joining his fingers. He approaches his target from behind. He jabs the target just above the kidneys with his fingertips.

Outcome: When the target turns, the assailant explains the maneuver is supposed to result in the target defecating himself.

Notes: Ineffective by most credible accounts.

The Death Touch

Technique: Not recorded in detail by any credible source. The theory describes a nerve cluster in the foot which, if smashed with the end of a bo staff, will result in the instant death of the victim.

Outcome: Instant death.

Notes: The Death Touch is preached by the one kid with a rattail hairdo.

The one who carries a bo staff whenever he is allowed to do so.

Though mouthy, he will never demonstrate the Death Touch, despite pleas and extended sneakers from brave volunteers.

He will swear up and down he took a life at his last school, yet here he is, walking and breathing freely among you mortals.

Foolish doctors can not identify the Death Touch as the cause of death in autopsies, after all.

Now you are armed and ready for your life’s true calling; to fight with middle schoolers. Go forth; avenge yourself of the old wounds.

Vodka Shot Roulette at the Russian House of Austin

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They told me Austin was fun, and they didn’t lie.

I’ve flown in to stay with my friends Hutch and Rachel for half a week. The weather just turned cold, so we’re bundled up as we ride Birds, electrical scooters you rent with an app to take through a town. We’re zooming over smooth concrete sidewalk. Street lights light the way as their yellow bulbs zip past overhead.

If you move your hips like a surfer or snowboarder while you ride the scooter, you can sashay around divots and ledges in the sidewalk. The max speed is maybe 18mph. In the wide sidewalks of this clean, spacious city, it’s a great way to get around.

The Russian House

And where are we going? The Russian House of Austin, a restaurant with numerous depraved flavors of vodka. Infusions is the more correct way to say it, I guess. And that goes with a menu that has duck liver, wild boar dumplings, elk, borscht, and caviar from salmon, sturgeon, or beluga.

When we arrive, we’re brought into a room with a wooden banquet table, and benches to match. Overhead, there are paintings of peacocks, doilies, and masks in red and white patterns on the high ceiling. The light is warm, orange and dim. As Hutch, Rachel and I dump our coats, red-cheeked from the Bird ride, the waiter sets down three vodka shots, and a bowl of pickled beets and cabbage. There are slices of white bread on a wooden board, too.

We clink shot glasses and swallow down the vodka. It’s cold going down, but I feel warmth spreading out from my stomach soon. It brings on an appetite for the bread and pickled food.

The place is using QR code menus. I’m scanning through the options on my phone. There are maybe one hundred different vodka shot options. We start with cocktails. Mine is the Russian Rabbit, which has jalapeno, spicy pepper vodka, lemon and pomegranate juice.

“I’ve got an idea,” I say. “Let’s play vodka shot roulette. We each order the strangest vodka shot we can for the person to the left.”

Hutch and Rachel love the plan. Hutch is to my left, and he’ll be ordering for Rachel, who will order one for me. No we peruse the infusions looking for something truly suited to the recipient’s personality, like when you’re giving a gift.

Some of the infusions make me wonder how they’re possible. One is called cigar, which is both intriguing and scary. What will I get Hutch? Today was the first full day of my visit here in Austin. It started with numerous supplements, including mushroom extracts. That fact helps me make my decision.

I hope Rachel doesn’t pick anything too outrageous for me. Especially not the cigar one. I like cigars, but what if it tastes like dip juice? How do they make these shots, anyway?

I find a note from the restaurant on the menu. It says all vodka infusions are created by Chef Vladimir. The flavorings are natural. The base vodka is Kruto and Gzhelka.

The waiter comes back, fingers folded around his notebook. Have we made a decision, he asks in a Russian accent.

I order first. “Please bring this man the wild mushroom vodka shot,” I say, gesturing to Hutch. He laughs at the thought.

Hutch orders for Rachel. “Bring her cherry cayenne,” he says. Rachel has only recently discovered a taste for spicy food or drink, and she shivers at the imagined shot.

“And bring him the Cowboy,” Rachel says.

Oh no. The Cowboy is a vodka shot of beef jerky, Texas BBQ sauce, leather, charcoal, and yes, cigar.

“I thought you would order that one but I hoped you wouldn’t!”

I recently bought land in the middle of nowhere out west. The cigar, leather and charcoal shot was my obvious fate. No escaping it.

The waiter returns with a wooden board holding three shot glasses. There’s mine, reddish from the BBQ sauce. There’s a feint brown vodka for Hutch’s wild mushroom shot, and there’s a pinkish one for Rachel.

“Nostrovia,” says Hutch. We all throw the shots back.

The Cowboy gallops down in phases. First, I taste the BBQ sauce. Not too bad. Then my face shudders and my hands shake. Leather taste, like being punched with gorgeous vintage boxing gloves hits me. It’s not over, next comes a flavor like chewing beef jerky around a dead campfire. I take a breath, and there’s the cigar, yes, a little like dip juice, and a little like after you’ve puffed out cigar smoke.

We take bites of our appetizers of duck liver pate and cheburek, which is a Mongolian dish. It’s a crescent-shaped crispy dough filled with beef, pork and seasoned herbs.

I look down. I’m white knuckling the edge of the table. Hutch and Rachel aren’t much better off. The cayenne was far stronger than the cherry in Rachel’s, and the wild mushroom was rich with the earthy taste of fungus.

“Again,” I say. “Let’s do that again.”

“Reverse order,” says Rachel. Good idea. Hutch is ordering for me now, Rachel’s ordering for him, and I’m ordering for Rachel.

There are so many shots to choose from. How do I decide?

The waiter comes back, and it’s game time. “Please bring her the pineapple goat cheese,” I say.

“No!” says Rachel. “I can’t stand goat cheese.”

“Payback for the dip juice,” I say.

She orders the Nuclear for Hutch. No ingredients are given.

“It’s vodka and puddle from Chernobyl,” I say. “I bet it comes out glowing.”

Hutch orders for me. “He’ll have sea buckthorn.”

“What’s that?” I ask. “That sounds like there’s going to be a live anemone prickling around in there.”

“Hopefully!” Hutch says.

We order some entrees, too.

“Goat cheese,” says Rachel. “The worst.”

“I love goat cheese!” I say. Hutch is a fan of it too.

“It taste like a sheep’s butt. You guys like the taste of a sheep’s butt?”

“I don’t judge your weekends, why must you judge mine?” I answer. A laugh goes around the table.

The shots arrive, all a similar color this time.

We find our assigned sentences, and carry them out. A lifting of elbows, and three shots go down the hatch.

Sea buckthorn. What is it? Soy sauce and blueberry? Scratch that. It’s licorice and vinegar. No, more like seawater and cedar tree oil. Forget it. I have no idea what it is. I can’t come up with a combination to explain it. Some day, you’ll just have to try it.

Rachel is making faces from the goat cheese pineapple, and Hutch has broken into a full sweat.

“That is the single spiciest thing I ever drank in my life,” he says about the Nuclear.

Food has arrived to save us with saner flavors, and some meat and potatoes to soak it all up. Hutch has chicken tabaka, a Soviet dish with grilled chicken marinated in garlic and wine sauce, then pan fried in its own juices. Rachel has chicken kiev, a fillet pounded and rolled around cold butter, then coated with eggs and bread crumbs, and fried.

I have a bowl of wild boar dumplings, which come with cups of spicy tomato sauce and sour cream. You might imagine they’d be gamy, but they’re not at all. I like them.

After eating our fill, it’s time to explore the dessert shots. It’s a coffee vodka shot for Hutch, coffee and milk for Rachel, and caramel for me. Mine tastes like butterscotch sundae sauce with vodka.

Now we’re armed and ready to venture back out in the cold to go to the dance clubs.

Problem Solving Through New Mexico

New Mexico Dunes

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To solve trucking through empty desert with a bubble in one tire & no spare:

Don’t break down.

To solve a hole under the brake pedal:

Don’t step in it.

Sketchy truck paperwork?

Don’t get pulled over.

Camping alone in rattlesnake country?

Don’t get bit.

Relying on good luck in the last leg of the journey.

Get me there, get me there.

Bargaining with the big sky.

Remember the good (or OK) deeds I did and let me cash in on them like this: keep an angel’s palm over the bulge in my tire as I truck through this empty desert with no spare.

Let all the little things go my way.

Whether I deserve it or not. Irresponsibly planned as this trek was.

Let me get away with it.

At least till I’m surrounded by Sullivan’s & Walmart’s and not the smooth, red, dream-like lines of New Mexico’s desert.

Curves of rock & sand that go on forever.

By night, New Mexico’s desert is more like a giant geometry textbook than a landscape. Parabola dunes. Spherical moon. Clean & empty.


God must dislike such a prayer but…

Let me get away with it.

To be continued…