Monday, December 26, 2011

Captain Mer's Guate Up-Date

The truth is, it's often hard for me to write about things when I am in Antigua.  There are the things I dare not write, to protect myself and all the others who are guilty.  And then there are the things that are just too near, too dear to write about as any attempt at linguistic capture would be so grossly inept as to embarrass me, if only in front of myself.  But here's a little update on the mundane, for you my sweet family, who wants to hear from me. 

I am staying with Christel in her lovely house next to the convent and the man with 40 poodles, although I suspect the number may have increased since last year.  Christel is painting like a mad-woman as she has a show opening in December at Panza Verde, possibly the best restaurant in Antigua.  Panza Verde is owned by a grouchy expat named Bruce, a retired Wall Street mogul.  Bruce has made a lovely gallery on the second floor of Panza where he showcases local artists.  I just went to an opening a few days ago and it was super - good art, decent wine, a cast of local and expat characters, the usual.  And last night I went to my second opening, for Mario, another local talent.  This town is full of talented artists. 

Last night we had our Christmas party and it was as brilliant as always.  Madeline and Shaun hosted and we drank and ate till dawn, as is the tradition.  Many of the Guatemalans came this year, after spending the day with their families.  Usually for Christmas it's just the expats and travelers, and then New Years it's everyone.  Ana, from Amsterdam, and Ivy and Tess Mix and their father, from NYC, all arrived at 10pm, in time to have a couple drinks before we all poured out into the cobblestone street to watch the City explode with fireworks at midnight.  It's like nothing I have ever heard or seen before, Guatemala on Christmas and New Years, every single street is littered with fircrackers and bottle rockets and the churches and city set off rockets using simple mortar launchers.  It sounds like war.  But it's not.  It's wild.  It's nuts. It's beautiful. 

And then we sang.  Ted and Eric played guitar, Mike and Brenden with their confident baritones, the party growing quiet as Eric sang Hallelujah. Christel, Ana and I ended the "night" by sitting on the terrace and watching the sun rise through the highland mist, illuminating patches of forest on the mountains - and then a huge rainbow shot up and we took it as a portent of good things to come in 2012.  We hugged and kissed and then crashed for half the day. 

And now we have a week to rest until the New Years where our little tradition is a long dinner and then to Cafe No Se just before midnight.

On Tuesday I am heading to Guatemala City with a crew of folks to see the art of a good friend, Juan Pablo Canale.  He has an exhibit in the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, which is a pretty big deal.  It's in Zone 1 of the City, the safest part of that crazy violent City.  The City scares me and I have heretofore avoided it except to catch a plane or a bus.  Folks here, both Guatemalans and expats, get desensitized.  They live here, and the extreme violence is just the norm and years of nothing happening to them personally brings them a confidence I do not share.  Alejandro, Astrid's boyfriend and now a dear friend of mine, will take us.  He grew up in the insanity of Guatemala City and I trust him the most to get us there and back safely. In Antigua, when Alejandro walks us here and there at night, he carries his gun, chambers a round when we step outside, removes it when we get to the restaurant or bar.  He is hyper vigilant, smart, grounded.  I trust him completely. 

More soon. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Panga Fishing the Pacific off Costa Rica

I think it's a fairly bright line, the one that separates those who fish and those who do not, those who think it boring, dirty, and cruel. I am, decidedly, one who fishes. 

Fishing in a seven meter panga in the tropics is hot, sweaty, wet, bloody, fish-gutty, expensive, unstable, uncomfortable, slightly risky, kidney-pounding...and it's one of my favorite things to do in the whole wide world.  Keep your grand boats you millionaires and billionaires, I am happiest in a small boat with the local fisherman, and so it was today.  Me and two Ticos who didn't speak a lick of English.  But with my bad Spanish and some charades, we got on very well. 

We pushed off the beach at 7am and headed south off Playa Negro where the first mate tossed the trolling rapellas over the gunwale, six rods total in the water.  Within minutes there was a fish on, a rooster fish, my first ever.  They give a couple quick hard fights and then tire.  I landed five in the first 40 minutes and so we started off with a bang.  Then it was calm for a bit before, at a slower pace, I landed five more roosters.  We kept two, they are good for ceviche.  We also caught two needle fish which are neither sport fish or good to eat.  I nodded an apology as they swam off to freedom. 

We saw bait balls, prey fish jumping and darting, breaching the water trying to avoid being eaten by something larger below the surface.  Then we saw the fins, bonito!  Incredible predators from the tuna family, these fish are great athletes and fun to catch, but not today.  We chased the frenzies but nothing bit our lures. 

Next, we headed offshore about ten miles to try for grouper in deeper waters.  On our way we saw dolphins and sea turtles and I smiled till hurt.  Just when the captain cut the motor the first mate swooped something up from the water and grabbed my hand and gave me a baby sea turtle.  So damn cute, and it was alive!  Maybe a day or two old.  Most baby turtles don't reach maturity, most are snacks and meals for other sea creatures.  I wished the little guy luck and gently slipped him back into the sea. 

The first mate baited two boat rods with 50# test, five hooks each, squid, and a string of heavy weights. We paid out the line to the bottom and did a drift run, bouncing our bait along the bottom, concentrating, thumb on the line, feeling for the nibble, and then setting the hook.  My first haul up was brutal.  I fancy myself a strong woman, but I had hooked three croaker fish and hauling 175 feet of heavily weighted line with three 15-20 inch fish on, well, it took me about 10-15 minutes to land those fish.  And then we did it again.  And again and again.  After a couple of hours of this I was exhausted.  I landed seven croakers and the first mate landed none.  I had a good day.

We reeled in our final drift and threw out the trolling lures for the long ride home.  No more hits, but it didn't matter.  I sat and watched the sea, felt the boat working, sea spray in my face, grinning, thinking of nothing and everything.  I stood up next to the captain at the wheel, quietly watching the waves, the perfect line that is a sea horizon on a calm day..."mi amor es el mar" I said without looking over.  "Yo tambien," he said, nodding and smiling.  And then we were silent for a good long time.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"I don't want you reeking up the car!"

I am in Costa Rica once again, staying with my dear friend Mary and her family.  I am still in my PJs, farting around on the internet, looking for things to do for the week I am here.  This afternoon Mary and I and her son Franco are headed to the Pacific Coast for a couple of days to sit in the sun, read, watch the waves.  I just asked Mary what time I should be packed and ready to leave.  Somehow that prompted the following conversation:

Mary:  "Mer, do you need to take a shower?"

Mer:  "No, I'll just go gross since we are going to the beach."

Mary:  "What?!  You haven't showered since leaving Oakland?"

Mer:  "Nope.  But we will be at the beach so I don't need to shower."

Mary:  "Are you kidding me?!" (motioning me to follow her into the bathroom) "That's gross! Get in the shower!  I don't want you reeking up the car!"

Mer:  "I don't stink (Mer smells armpit).  Seriously, I will shower tonight after the beach."

Mary:  (Pointing at the shower, determined mother expression, using a stearn voice)  "Marie, get in the shower."

Mer:  (laughing) "Are you trying to mother-force me into taking a shower?"

Mary:  (throwing hands up in the air) "Suite yourself.  You're just like my dad!  But here in Costa Rica we take at least one shower a day.  At LEAST!"  (laughing down the stairs away from me as I shouted after her, promising to wash my face and brush my teeth!).

Apparently, I am a stubborn ol' dirty bachelor.  And I am not going to take a shower before we go to the beach.  And it's been a very long time since I was chastised about my personal hygiene. 

True story.  I am so easily amused by the mundane.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Confessions of a Linguistic Dufus

I'm pretty good with the English language, unless you want me to spell, then I crash and burn. But I am an ok writer, an engaging conversationalist (so I'm told), and I am quick on my feet such that I have made a living using said language skills to help others. Simply put, I get paid to talk (and listen). But when it comes to other languages I am bewildered, lost, stunted, extremely slow on the uptake.

Five years ago I headed south to Guatemala to study Spanish and was overwhelmed, although I have slowly learned enough to coarsely navigate my way in Mexico and Central America. And with Spanish, things are familiar. I grew up in Southern, Ca, where Spanish and Latino culture are ubiquitous and the letter patterns and the sing-song cadence of the language are familiar. But the languages of northern Europe? They are alien to me in a whole new profoundly disorienting way.

Although I was completely lost with Danish I had my dear friend Astrid as my interpreter and she taught me a couple of words. First was "tak" which is pronounced "talk" without the "l" and it means "thank you." Thank you is something one wants to learn to say wherever they are. I also learned "hej" which is pronounced exactly like "hi" and means, well, hi. But the funnest part was saying goodbye in Danish which is hej hej, or hi hi, which in English sounds ridiculous. But I did engage folks, with a smile, a hi, a tak, and a hi-hi (my English translation) which made me laugh on the inside.

Having spent quite a bit of time around my Dutch friends Ana and Christel (in Guatemala) I thought Dutch might be remotely familiar when I landed in Amsterdam. Yeah, no. I spent a good 30 minutes in the airport staring at the train map trying to figure out where I was and what train I needed to catch. I finally made it to Central Amsterdam and decided, to make things easier, to take a cab to Ana's apartment instead of riding the trolley (my friend Ana would have picked me up but she was on a work concall with Australia).

Ana lives on Bilderijkkade Street and a cabbie with a thick Greek accent dropped me at the wrong address and was gone before I realized it - with a three euro tip, bastard. So it was that just before midnight I found myself alone on the street with no idea where I was. The street was quiet. No cabs. No people. I started wandering, dragging my suitcase behind me, wondering if I was in a "bad" neighborhood, feeling like a giant dork, thinking about whipping out my US cell phone and making a $15 a minute phone call to Ana to confess my lameness (and curse the cabbie). Then I saw some friendly folks walk out of an apartment building, they gave me directions and I was soon ringing Ana's bell. The street names have so many letters that even the cabbies get confused. Thank the cosmos everyone under 50 speaks English.

Our first dinner together in Amsterdam Ana and I went to a Spanish tapas restaurant and I was excited at the prospect of understanding some of the Spanish on the menu. But my heart sank when, after reviewing the fare, Ana explained that in Spain's Spanish a "tortilla" is actually an egg, a frittata kind of thing. What the hell? So Ana had to help me with the ordering of the tapas so I didn't end up ordering a pig head or something. Esta bien. And in my book, a tortilla is still a round, ground corn thingy, not an egg.

I have experienced this before arriving in France, the urge to respond with Spanish whenever anyone speaks to me in a language other than English - even if it's, like, German or something, I'll belt out a "yo no comprendo" (which ain't even proper Spanish). I reckon this is so because the only language I have attempted to study, other than English, is Spanish. In my simple mind any language foreign to me means I speak-a-the-Spanish. This has proved embarrassing for me more than once in my life.

When I landed in Paris, I was inclined to say "gracias" in response to the French folks and on several occasions (ok, many occasions) that impulse was made manifest. Gracias, I, the English speaker, said to the French waiter who just set down a glass of champagne in front of me. Seriously Mer? I mean I know "merci," but for the love of all that's holy I could not get that word all centered in my linguistic response groove until about day three in Paris. And when at last I finally stopped myself from this ridiculousness I would then just stand there, dumbfounded, trying to mine from my brain "merci" which was apparently still buried under a pile of graciases.

If you had been walking down Rue de Rossier a few days ago you might have seen me, walking slowly, eyes down, focused, repeating over and over again - merci, merci, merci, merci - as I tried to create some new linguistic neuronal pathways appropriate for the country I was currently wandering through. It worked. I started smiling and saying merci to everyone. That, and pardon. I also learned to say "excusez-moi, no Française" as I did not want to be the ugly American who presumes folks speak English in France. Most of them do not. In response, the French were damn nice to me.

Another interesting language thing I noticed on my travels is the differences in exit signs. In London they simply say "Way Out" with an arrow pointing to, I rightly assumed, the way out. In Denmark, Holland, and France the emergency exit signs are green with a stocky silhouette guy strikes me more as a "get the fuck out is this way" thing - follow the running man! And in Paris I finally deduced that "sortie" means "exit." But to me it had always meant "armed attack" and so at first I thought the signs meant "armed attack this way" and I was inclined to hastily go in the opposite direction.

But I managed. To not offend anyone. Or order a pig head for dinner. Merci.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sweet Vincent, Who Still Brings Tears to my Eyes

It's been happening for more than two decades, the tearing up when seeing a favorite painting in person, a painting I have admired in art books or college course slide shows. But Van Gogh seduced me at a young age, in my first art history class where we blazed through the Renaissance to mid-20th century modern all in one semester.

It was a combination of things that made him one of my favorites, but it started with a few specific paintings, before I knew anything about him. It started with color.  And maybe at some level, because of his style and subjects, I intuited his humanity, his compassion and respect for the poor, the hard working peasants. But as I remember it, it was first the colors. Night Cafe in Arles, The Bedroom, Stary Night, Sunflowers. It's an aesthetic that I now recognize, all those bright colors, the impressionistic style, sometimes cartooned a bit but always complex in some inexplicable way. It is a thread that runs through some of my favorites - Conrad Felixmüller's The Death of the Poet Walter Rheiner; Matisse's Red Room; David Hockney's Laurel Canyon. They've all moved me in a way that feels related. 

It was at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA, that I saw my first Van Gogh, the first time I was moved to tears. It was almost 30 years ago and I remember it vividly, Portrait of a Peasant, with paint so thick and textured it reminded me of peanut brittle, like you could break off a piece and take a bite. I remember standing there a long while, feeling awed, happy, sad, lucky, appreciative. And then there was Starry Night at the NY Met. It was 1989, my first trip to NYC, my first trip anywhere urbane outside of the LA art scene. And I was on a mission to see Starry Night. Again I found myself transfixed, humbled, appreciative standing squarely in front of the canvas, thinking of little, feeling it instead.

And a few days ago it happened again, Sunflowers in the National Gallery in London. I stood there grinning, holding the tears back, feeling lucky and alive.

And today, after almost 30 years since that first art history class, that first exposure to Van Gogh, I spent the afternoon in his homeland Museum, a whole building dedicated to his art, his influences, his story and lagacy. And again I teared up, Portrait of the Artist (1887-88, Paris) was the first. The painting stopped me in my tracks. And then The Bedroom, one of my all time favorites - the honest simplicity of the subject, a few mundane possessions all neatly in their place, the simple comforts of a bed, a chair, a coat, art on the walls - there is no excess, but the bright colors make it all cheery and comforting. At least to me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Coldcocked by Jet Lag

Considering most folks on this planet spend their days fetching water and looking for firewood to cook a modest meal, I sometimes feel guilty for kvetching about the problems that come from privilege. But hey, they're still problems. And mine is jet lag.

I have travelled quite a bit across the USA, taken red-eyes to NYC, Boston, DC, Miami. I have travelled south, red-eyes to Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, all of which have precipitated some fatigue and/or sleep weirdness. But never anything that a few beers with friends or a plate of ceviche and a nap couldn't cure. During all these trips I never travelled across more than three time zones. And when I am in NYC, I always stay up late with friends so it's less of an issue. But a direct flight from the US west coast to Europe has absolutely kicked my ass and I did not see it coming.

I now think being in three different countries in the first five days was a bad plan. And my Monday morning quarter-backing has me swearing I will never again take a direct 13 hour flight from San Francisco to London, or anywhere else on this globe, unless it's a damn emergency. I will be stopping in NYC next time - dinner and drinks with friends and a good night's sleep before hopping the pond. Even if it costs more time and money.

Since landing in London a week ago I have been sick, nauseous about 80% of my waking hours. And several times I have thought I was going to puke. And I am not usually a puker. I don't get seasick. I don't puke from booze (tequila has been a rare exception). Even when I am sick in the gut, I don't usually puke. But I found myself sweating and trying to think happy thoughts on the London underground while I also considered where to aim if nature demanded that I purge. And it happened again today while walking towards the Van Gogh Museum - the sweats, the "where could I most inconspicuously barf should I have to" thoughts,  I turned back towards Ana's apartment where I arrived with my stomach intact. So instead of contemplating the work of one of my favorite artists, I spent the day nibbling on crackers and reading, waiting for it all to pass, so to speak. Van Gogh would have to wait until tomorrow. By evening I was feeling better and Ana and I had a nice dinner (sans alcohol) at a sidewalk restaurant.

All this was starting to get me a bit concerned, thinking there was something really wrong with me, that maybe I have a bug that needs some antibiotics. I decided to google "jet lag" to see if that was possibly a factor. Um, yeah Mer, you pretty much got a bad case of the jet lag. My research revealed that all my symptoms could be attributed to the 'lag.

I've never thought much about jet lag, figured it was solely a sleep thing that I would quickly recover from with a couple of naps. Not so much. Jet lag is a real physiological disorder that can disorient and really fuck with a travelers body. And the fact that my first five days were non-stop running about, I didn't give myself a chance to recover from my 13 hour flight across eight timezones. And speaking of timezones, the experts say it takes about a day to recover for each timezone crossed. That would be eight days for me. I am on day seven. And I have a good feeling about tomorrow, day eight. It's Ana's birthday, Van Gogh is waiting, the weather is good, and I have taken two days to slow down and chill out. I think tomorrow peace will be declared, between my body and Greenwich meantime, plus one. I hope.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Dispatch from the Land of Natural Blondes

For my family, who all, god bless them, want to know some of the details of my adventures.

It has been a whirlwind so far and here's the quick and dirty. Landed in London and was by all measures jet lagged out of my mind. Slept little on the plane even with a sleeping pill...what with my large self in one of those Smurf-sized seats they put in airplanes for the to a Nigerian woman with a very different sense of personal space. Thirteen hours in coach is a unique kind of torture for those of us lucky enough to fly about the world yet silly enough to complain about it.

My sweet and generous friend Maria took the hour long train ride from London and met me at Heathrow and guided me back to London, to her apartment in fact where she put me up for two days. Maria is a gorgeous woman whose father is Guatemalan and whose mother is British. She grew up mostly in France but has a British accent which shocked me when I first heard it come out of her mouth in Guatemala. We chatted a bit and then I crashed and wrestled jeglag in the wee hours. Dear Maria took the next day off from work and we walked and walked all around central London. I was struck by how neat and orderly and huge the place is. The underground is immaculate, the streets are clean, the infrastructure is healthy, and the architecture gorgeous.

We spent some time in The National Gallery looking at some of my favorite paintings that I have only ever seen in books and art classes, including Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Chair. We sipped lemonade on the south bank of the Thames before heading to Camden Town to meet our favorite booze peddler (Ilegal Mezcal, of course) and Cafe No Se friend, Steve. Also met another member (Jen) of the Pamplona Pussy Posse (PPP), a self-named group of women who have been going to San Fermin for the running of the bulls for the last 20-30 years. We all met in a pub and drank. It's what you do on a Friday night in London. So I learned. And so we got pissed.

The next day I flew via Copenhagen to Aarhus, a City in northern Denmark where Astrid met me at the gate waving a small Danish flag. We drove to her father's house in the small town by the sea where she grew up, and behind her fathers's sweet little house we sat on the deck drinking Danish beer and talking till 3:30am. Back to Aarhus the next day for a fabulous time in Aros, the art museum, and some ambling through the narrow cobblestone streets. Then a dinner to rival any fancy SF restaurant. Creamed spinach with smoked salmon, beef so tender it melted in my mouth, all served in a quint old house that had been made into a restaurant.

Today we visited an 1864 Danish frigate preserved in Astrid's town. Of course a tour of a ship makes me happy. A stop at the glass museum and then we were off to the train station. I am headed to Copenhagen to catch a plane to Amsterdam where I will stay for a few days with my friend Annemiek before heading to Paris. It is Ana's birthday the 29th so I have lucked into helping her celebrate.

Now for the really down and dirty. I have been sick since I landed, nausea and severe diarrhea. Maria and Astrid say it could be jetlag but it has gone on for days now. I am just bucking up, enjoying myself despite the infirmity...and it is a relief to be staying with dear friends that I know from Guatemala, a place where everyone talks about poop as everyone gets the shits! I think it's the law.

More soon.