Call Me El Gid: Chapters 11 – 20

Chapter 11: International Criminals

June 28, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

After our fellow tourist flashed us, it seemed we had plumbed the depths of the best that Tikal had to offer. It was time to head back to Belize City. The return trip was the same as the one that brought us to Guatemala, except in reverse: lonely dirt road, elk-sized potholes, sun beating down on gorgeous scenery.

Some miles from the border, we came across a guy hitchhiking. We stopped and picked him up. Bad idea, right? Two obvious tourists, not speaking the language, miles from anywhere, stranger hitchhiking. You couldn’t make up a better, find-their-bodies-in-shallow-graves scenario. Except later in the trip he may have kept us out of jail.

Everything was going great. The guy was pleasant, spoke English really well, which was helpful, and was a doctor headed from one place to another.
The problem started at the border.

First it turned out that our passport stamps were screwed up. On our way into Guatemala, we had somehow managed to be stamped OUT of Guatemala and INTO Belize before we had even, to our knowledge, stepped OUT of Belize and INTO Guatemala in the first place. This caused confusion on our way out. According to our passports, as reviewed by the Guatemalan border officials, we already were out. To this day, I don’t know how that happened. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to trouble them too much.

The second problem was worse, however. We had, apparently, taken the rental truck into Guatemala without a permit.

Keep in mind, we had showed up at the border with the truck. In the fucking truck. We had told the border officials we had a truck. The border guard had looked at our paperwork, and then looked at us, sitting in the motherfucking truck, and waved us across the border. No one, not nobody, not ever, not one single lousy son of a bitch, had mentioned a fucking word about us needing a permit for the truck.

Apparently, we did.

What followed next probably took 15 minutes tops but seemed like several tense hours of hostage negotiations to me. Our negotiator, of course, was the doctor we had given a lift.

I can still see him, a little bigger than most folks we saw, sitting at a folding table, across from two border officials, more or less scrawny and dressed in the ubiquitous jungle fatigues green, heads together, talking.

There was talk of confiscating the truck! I kept trying to wrap my head around that concept. How would we get back to Belize City? How would we pay the rental company for the damned thing? I didn’t have enough underwear in my bags to cover that scenario. It seemed that the penalty was far in excess of the crime.

Finally, the discussion turned to the matter of a simple penalty. Of course, we said yes. I assumed it would be exorbitant, since it was a substitution for taking the truck. But having no choice, we agreed. I waited anxiously for our savior to negotiate the fee, mentally counting up just how many pairs of boxers I could fill with shit and still have a clean pair for the flight home.

Finally, after being a walking flop sweat tornado for what seemed like forever, came the good news. I don’t know how many pesos it was, or what the exchange rate was, but the penalty, when finally levied, was 25 bucks American.

Holy shit! From taking the truck to 25 dollars. The wave of relief that flowed off my body was palpable, and strong enough that I am sure it knocked over trees in the jungle for miles around. We quickly paid the penalty, got in the truck, with our savior still along for the ride, as far as I remember, and accelerated into Belize, never looking back.

I have often wondered if it was a scam of some sort, and if so, was the hitchhiker in on the deal? When he was talking to the border guards, was he saying, “Officers, these are just stupid gringo tourists who made a mistake. Why don’t you just charge them a penalty and let them move on?”

Or was it, “Hey Jesus, Roberto. Got a couple more suckers for you. I’ll give them the line about taking the truck and they will be shitting so much out their shiny white gringo asses, that they will gladly pay a fine. We charged those backpackers last week ten bucks, but I think we can get 25 out of this pair. Good? Tell Aunt Rosita I’ll see her Sunday.”

I like to think it was the former. Just a bureaucratic misunderstanding, partly our fault for not knowing we needed a permit, with an intervention on our behalf by the Guatemalan Good Samaritan. But given how the world works, it could easily have been the latter. I don’t know which it was. I never will.

Chapter 12: Random Jungle Animals

June 29, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

When we weren’t scuba diving or exploring the strange niches of Tikal, we were traveling around to different ruins and wildlife sanctuaries in Belize. Most of my memories of are various animal encounters. I couldn’t tell you what order we did these things if my life depended on it. But they were pretty cool, and all of them were firsts for me.

At the Cockscombe Basin Forest Reserve (jaguar sanctuary) north of Placencia, in the southern part of Belize, we stayed in a cabin that had more insects than your average college entomology lab. Except these were alive, and it felt like they were crawling all over us all night. To avoid the cabin as long as possible, we sat outside by a campfire. We had gone there to see jaguars, which we did not, but that night I saw something that I suspect is a once in a lifetime event.

The bug infested cabin was built on cinder blocks. For some reason, my attention was drawn to some bug – no idea what it was – hanging on the cinder blocks. All of a sudden, a tarantula jumped out of a hole in the cinder blocks, jumped onto the bug (tarantula mouths are kind of underneath their heads, in non-entomology terms), presumably gobbled it up, and retreated back into the hole. It was over in the blink of an eye.

Mexican red-rumped tarantulas are the most common tarantula in Belize (yes, I just googled that), so I will assume that is what I saw. It was the first time I had seen a wild tarantula, and certainly the first time I had seen one capture prey. I just happened to be looking at that spot when it happened.

We also visited the Chan Chich Lodge, which required flying in a one-propeller, three-seater airplane over the jungle. It was a lovely place – several cabins and a dining hall – and lots of wildlife viewing. The Lodge offered several day trips to view wildlife. We picked the Tapir trip. The Lodge’s bus dropped us off at a trailhead, with instructions of where to walk to get to a watering hole frequented by tapirs.

We didn’t see any. We saw hoofprints. We smelled them. We heard them. But we didn’t see a single one. We sat by a pond full of floating logs for several hours, trying to sit still so as not to tip off the tapirs to our presence, but having to constantly wave our hands to avoid having all our blood drained by the mosquitos. No tapirs. And it took us the full time we were there to realize that the logs were, in fact, crocodiles.

Howler monkeys are not large creatures. The largest ones are probably less than 25 pounds. They just sound like a cross between Sasquatch and a dragon ripping your grandmother to shreds. They are loud. They are fucking freaky sounding. They are cute little things. We saw them at the Community Baboon Sanctuary, in Bermudian Landing, where we slept in a bamboo hut. The hut did not keep the mosquitos out. And the mosquito coil that smelled like burning tires, with instructions written in Chinese, didn’t seem to help either.

Needless to say, it was not a restful night. Between the beasts outside the hut sounding like they wanted to feast on our blood, and the ones inside the hut that were doing just that, sleep was elusive. Still one of the coolest animal adventures I have ever had, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I am not sure which sanctuary it was, but at one of them Amy and I went on a hike into the jungle and were sitting by stream, just resting. Enjoying the leafy stillness. The murmur of the stream. We heard rustling in the bushes, and the muffled thud of small hoofs on mud. A tiny deer popped out of the jungle, splashed through the stream and disappeared back into the jungle on the other side., as if it was running for its life. It was. A moment later, a small jungle cat, in hot pursuit, did the same. A moment after that quiet descended again.

I have no idea what they were, or who won that race, but it was the only time in my life I have seen a wild cat trying to catch its dinner, and I remember it like it was yesterday.

The other adventure we had on that trip involved visiting Chetumal, Mexico, at Belize’s northern border. It was Easter weekend, and everything was closed. Everything. I do not recommend.

Chapter 13: Skydiving

July 1, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

The thing that surprised me the most about skydiving was the absolute silence of it.

When you are a young, foolish college student and one of your roommates asks, “Do you want to go skydiving?”, the only acceptable answer is “Yes.”

I was a freshman at Michigan State (the pre-Nassar years!) and sharing a room on the second floor of Holden Hall with two guys named Tom. Tom and Tom and Jerry. In a room about the size of my dining room. Yes, jokes were made. Incessantly. Constantly. Until the novelty wore off.

It must have been spring of that year, when someone else on our hallway suggested we go skydiving. So, of course we did. About 5 or 6 of us.

The nearest airfield where you could take lessons and go skydiving was 30 minutes away, in a town called Charlotte, Michigan. Ironically, it was the town where I had just graduated from high school several months prior. Let’s just say that I knew how to get there.

The day of the dive was a combination of training and terror. How to pack the chute. How to land and roll. How to pull the emergency chute if your main chute did not open. All the things that could go wrong. I remember that there were a lot of them!

The terror, of course, was the idea of jumping out of the fucking airplane. As it turned out, the jumping itself was not so scary. But the anticipation was.

After hours of training, it was time. We piled into a small plane, with the pilot and the jump master, and after trundling down a rough grass strip for an eternity it finally lumbered into the sky. I remember they told us horror stories of chutes opening in the plane, getting sucked out the door, and pulling the poor person wearing it through the wall of the plane, with messy results. I don’t remember what they said to do to avoid that, but I know I did it with great enthusiasm.

Some people do their first jumps tied to a jumpmaster. You go out of the plane together, and the beginner is shackled to someone who knows what the hell they are doing. That has to be the sensible way. That is not what we did.

We had the rip cord attached to our chutes, with the other end clipped to the leg of the pilot’s seat. When you hit the end of the cord, it pulled out a small puffy chute thingy (I am pretty confident that that is the proper technical term for it). The small puffy chute thingy catches the air and slows down, and as you drop away from it, it pulls out the big main puffy chute thingy, otherwise known as the parachute. The cord was maybe 12 feet long, so you hit the end of it in a nanosecond, and all the rest happens soon thereafter. What was probably a 10 second drop, at best, only seemed to last 100 days.

As we were getting into the plane, the jump master asked who wanted to jump first, so that person could get in last, and be nearer to the door. I raised my hand. I like to think I was being brave, but really, I just thought that however terrifying it would be to jump first, sitting there watching 5 other people go first, one after the other, would be worse.

The first plane I jumped out of was pretty simple. You sat in the door of the plane, legs dangling. When the jump master gave the command, you turned to face the front, basically resting on your left hamstring. When he said “jump,” you just dropped out, arching your back. When I went, the jump master got a little behind on his commands, and we were getting out of the zone I needed to jump from. I thought I would have a few seconds to get settled, but no sooner had I sat down than he yelled at me to turn and jump.

So, I did.

I thought that I would feel like I was falling. The ground, about 3,000 feet below, was so far away, however, that it was essentially hypothetical. At that height, there was no reference point to measure progress against.

When the chute fully deploys, you stop. Quickly. Gravity being what it is, the chute, which is itself falling, can’t pull you upward into the sky. But the stop is so sudden that it feels like you are jerked roughly back the way you had just come. You stop. And swing back and forth a little, until the weight of your body settles below the chute.

And then silence.

I thought I would hear the plane. I thought I would hear the air. Instead, it was preternaturally silent. Maybe a rustle of the parachute edge as it luffed in and out. But mostly nothing. No wind rushing. No airplane. Just gorgeous, delicious silence.

And then the ground.

The chute has toggle cords to steer it, and it was easy to find them and start angling toward the landing zone. I missed it by a mile, of course, landing in a field several hundred yards away. The ground came closer. I looked at the horizon, bent my knees, hit and rolled, and came to rest back on terra firma. Except my adrenaline kept me hovering 10 feet off the ground for the rest of the day. Somewhere I have a photo of me and one of my companions, jump suits partly unzipped, parachutes balled up in our arms, complete and total elation on our faces.

I did do it once again. A couple of weeks later. Just two of us that time. That day the process to get out of the plane was different. In that plane, the pilot locked the wheel. You stepped onto a little step on the wheel strut with your right foot. Then crossing your left foot over, you stepped onto the wheel. Then, working your hands out onto the strut that held up the wing, you let your right foot hang out into space. At that point, I was totally outside the airplane, all my weight on one foot, on the airplane wheel.

When the jump master said to jump, you simply let go and pushed back. Into the void.

Chapter 14: Black Bears and Northern Lights

July 2, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

It must have been after my sophomore year at Michigan State that a bear ripped my tent to shreds in the Canadian Rockies.

I was well on my way to becoming an accidental zoologist when I saw a flyer for a several week summer course on natural history, held on site, while camping, in Banff, Jasper, and Kootenai National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. Of course, I enrolled.

Transportation was not provided; we had to get there on our own. I had a little white AMC Sportabout, and before I knew it, four of us were crammed into the thing for the 2,000-mile drive from East Lansing to Banff. My companions were Peter (my tentmate), a woman named Pam, and another woman who was a shy Michigan farm girl. I don’t recall her name, but I do remember that she turned beet red when the four of us went skinny dipping one evening. The trip was long, and crowded, and we slept one night under some farm equipment at a John Deere dealership in one of the big square states we passed through.

The Canadian Rockies were simply stunning. Our days consisted of trips to various natural wonders, followed by lectures around the campfire. We saw lots of wildlife, mostly Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep. I had a magical moment at one campsite, when I wandered off to delight in a sudden snowstorm and came face to face with a big bull elk. I was in a clearing, and he was peeking out of the trees at the edge of it. We stared at each for several minutes, from about 100 feet away, snow swirling around us, until he snorted, breath misting in the cold air, stamped his feet and crashed back into the forest.

And then there was the bear.

We had been away on a day trip, leaving the campground zipped up tight. We returned to find several tents knocked over by a bear. Most of them had a little damage. Mine was destroyed. Just flattened. The poles snapped in two. Rips in the tent. The little fucker had dragged my rainfly several feet away. The bear-paw-sized rips convinced me that the little fucker was actually a pretty big fucker, and we were damned lucky the bear hit the tent during the day, and not at night when we were sleeping in it.

It took Peter and I several creative hours making tent pole splints out of extra tent stakes and taping up the rips before we could sleep in it again. It was always misshapen after that. It lurched to one side, the zippers barely worked, and it looked like a giant had taken a big shit and then stepped in it. It was always, after that, my bear tent.

But it worked. It worked well enough for Peter to fuck Pam in it one night, while I lay next to them pretending to be asleep. It was always, after that, my bare tent.

On the way home, the same four of us piled back into the Sportabout. On the trip to Banff, we had driven through the United States. Coming back, we went across Canada, entering the U.S. at Sault Ste. Marie and heading straight south from there.

We all needed to get back to East Lansing pretty quickly, so we agreed to drive nonstop, each of us driving an 8-hour shift while the others slept. I took the midnight to 8 a.m. shift both nights. They were easily two of the most mystical nights of my life.

Both nights, I found Canadian folk music stations on the radio, so about every third song was Gordon Lightfoot, who I really like. Both nights, for hours on end, as I barreled east across the Canadian prairie, my passengers asleep around me, the sky was illuminated by the brilliant swirling dance of the Northern Lights. A celestial lightshow just for Gordon and me.

Chapter 15: Buckner Cave

July 3, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

This is a story about spelunking. It is also a story about a failure in leadership. My failure. A failure that I have still, almost 35 years later, not come to terms with.

When I was in law school at the University of Michigan, I worked at the Outdoor Recreation Center. In addition to renting equipment for camping, rock climbing, and other adventure sports, we also led trips. Including spelunking trips near Bloomington, Indiana.

I had explored a lot of caves in that area when I was a Park Naturalist prior to law school (see Chapter 3) and had led teenagers on trips there. It was fun to be able to continue that while at U of M.

One of my favorite caves was Buckner Cave. It offered a lot of challenges, including narrow passages, crawling through low-ceilinged rooms, and if you could wriggle up a cork-screw shaped pipe into the bottom of a crater, you could travel in an interesting 3-D loop. Thus, the problem.

Anyone in the U of M community could sign up for our trips. At the pre-trip meeting of participants for a trip to Buckner Cave, one of the women who had signed up was considerably overweight. I can’t remember her name but for this story, I will call her Mary. In my day-to-day life, I could give a shit. But the trip was through a cave. It involved tight spaces. Mary was large. What to do?

In our presentation, we emphasized how small the passages were. The hard physical work it took to navigate the cavern. How small the passages were. The long day we were going to have. How small the passages were. Did I mention how small the passages were?

Our non-subtle ploy did not work. I had serious concerns about whether Mary was physically able to make it. Yes, I know, weight does not necessarily equate to out of shape, but she seemed out of shape as well. As a leader, what do you do in that situation? Let her go on the trip despite the risks? Have a private conversation and tell her the trip is not for her? I still don’t know.

In any event, she did not drop out.

The spelunking day started out okay. You enter the cave by walking down into a big hole in the side of cliff. You are immediately enveloped by cool air and a smell I have never smelled anywhere but in a cave. Somehow moist and dry and musty and muddy all at the same time. At the bottom of that initial cavern was a little tunnel, at ground level, on the left side. To enter the main cave system, you had to lay down on your belly and slither through and then crawl under a low ceiling for several feet before the roof opened up above you.

That part went all right. Very tight for Mary, but okay. In fact, most of it was okay. We made our way through the different rooms, crawled through mud, clambered over boulders, and slid down a wall, headlamps illuminating the misty gloom. Ultimately, after several hours in the cave, we arrived at the bottom of the corkscrew. It we could go up it, we would have completed the loop, and be relatively near the entrance.

We couldn’t do it. Mary couldn’t do it. We explored it from every angle, but she could not, would not, fit up the corkscrew. My co-leader and I discussed what to do. Should we split the group up, and send those who could fit up the corkscrew and out, while one of us backtracked with Mary? We decided it was too dangerous to separate the group. We all backtracked.

It was hard. That wall we slid down? We had to climb up it. I have memories of us making a human pyramid and essentially pushing Mary up it by sheer force of will. I have to give Mary credit though; she was exhausted and embarrassed, but she never uttered a single word of complaint. I thought she displayed a stunning amount of fortitude during the whole adventure.

Then came the exit tunnel. Crawling in was a little hard, because you had to dive in headfirst and bend under a rock. Going out, you had to crawl up a little, and that rock hung down like a dagger, partly blocking the tunnel. As a geometric matter, it was just more difficult. It required more leeway. Leeway that Mary did not have.

I had serious concerns about how we would get her out. To mitigate the risk, I had everyone else go out first, until just Mary and I were left in the cave. Regardless of what happened, I couldn’t abandon her in the cave, so I made her go first. That meant if she got stuck, I was trapped in the cave behind her.

She started crawling into the tunnel. We were all tired, but Mary was exhausted. Just flat out knackered. She edged into the cave an inch at a time, like a hundred-year-old sea turtle beaching itself to die. Another inch. Another. So tired she could hardly move. But slowly making progress.

Then her ass got stuck on that hanging rock. I can still see it. Mary filling that tunnel from side to side and from top to bottom. All I could see was Mary’s ass and that stone dagger digging into her left butt cheek, impeding all forward progress. The only thing to do, so to speak, was to take matters into my own hands. I had Mary rest for a few minutes, and then told her to give it one last push. As she dug her toes in and strained forward, I put my hand firmly on her left cheek, into her left cheek, really, until my palm hit bone. Then I summoned the strength of the ancestors and pushed with all my might. Her ass popped out from under the stone and our group pulled her the rest of the way out.

There is something about leaving a cave and smelling the sweet outside air after several hours underground. In all the years I went spelunking, no breath every tasted as sweet as the air that rushed in after Mary’s ass slid through. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, slithered my way out, and we slowly shuffled out of the cavern and into the late afternoon sun.

Chapter 16: New Delhi Fourth of July

July 4, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

After seven months living in India researching my master’s thesis, I was tired of the place. It was grand and historic and majestic and welcoming and diverse and beautiful. I had adventures that were indescribably fantastic. The trip changed my life for the better. It was also crowded and hot and chaotic and cruel and bureaucratic and ugly. I was ready to head home.

I was attending the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources but residing in India on a program run by the University of California, Berkeley. There were maybe 8 of us graduate students in the program, scattered around the country. The Indian government had rejected my first research proposal, so I had to start over, joining the program a couple of months after it started, and missing all the orientation sessions. Most of the group had spent 6 weeks at a hill station, being tutored in Hindi, then a few more weeks in New Delhi having seminars. And then they moved in with families.

I arrived in New Delhi on a Friday night, stayed at a YMCA for the weekend, moved in with a family on Monday, met my academic advisor at the Indian Law Institute on Tuesday, and started my research on Wednesday. It was quite a culture shock, but I adjusted pretty well, overall.

I lived with a family in East of Kailash, a neighborhood in New Delhi, from December to early May, I suppose. They were pleasant enough, but not welcoming. The last couple months of the program I really felt like I no longer belonged. In the country, and in the family’s home. I had finished my research. I had traveled by myself. I was waiting for Amy to graduate from U of M and join me to travel for the summer. I was lonely, and horribly homesick.

That’s when I discovered the American Center Library associated with the U.S. embassy. In a world that was becoming more and more foreign to me, it was a haven. A lifeline. It was quiet. It was cool. I could read U.S. newspapers that were only a day or two out of date (this was before the public internet, laptops, and smart phones). I felt like the U.S flag waving above the building meant something. And if I remember correctly, the library was where I heard about the 4th of July picnic at the U.S. embassy.

Amy finally arrived. We visited a tiger sanctuary in the foothills, stayed on a houseboat in Srinigar in Jammu and Kashmir, tried to breath non-existent air in Leh in Ladakh, and toured the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar. I will tell about those stories in later chapters.

We were back in New Delhi, soon to leave the country for further travel in Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. I was tired, and homesick, and ready to go. But it was the 4th of July. Having nothing else to do and nowhere else to be, we went to the picnic at the U.S. embassy.

I think there was a band and speech by the Ambassador. I don’t remember fireworks. Lots of other Americans either living in India, or like us, just passing through. It was a little oasis, with people whose language I spoke and whose customs were baked into my bones. Usually when traveling in a foreign country, I stay a little bit on edge. It might be lovely, but it is not your home. For that
afternoon, though, I was home and I desperately needed to be.

Most of all, there was American food.

I had enjoyed the food in India. The curries, the nan, the paneer, Gulab Jamun – sweet balls of dough soaked in rosewater. You had to look for what you wanted, though. If you wanted beef, you had to go to a Muslim restaurant. If you wanted pork, a Hindu one. Once a month or so, my friends and I would go to the Marriott hotel for an American meal. Pricey, but satisfying. I also enjoyed the drinks. If memory serves, Pepsi and Coke were both banned from India at that time, so the market was full of local variants, like Thums Up (cola) and Mirinda (orange). They were good. But they were not Coke. No hotdogs. No Ruffles. Not much in the way of American style desserts.

It was all there at the embassy, though. Ballpark franks in soft buns. Grilled cheeseburgers dripping grease. American potato chips. And ice-cold Coke. Ice cream. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it. I would never have believed that food from home could be so satisfying. Until a few days later, when we landed in Bangkok, Thailand and I ate about 8 Dunkin Donuts in one sitting. That’s a story for another time.

Chapter 17: “To Strive, to Serve and not to Yield”

July 7, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

When Annie fell, and a boulder three feet in diameter rolled onto the trail right in front of her, I thought it had crushed her legs.

It was the summer after I graduated from high school, so 1978. I worked part time my senior year and had saved up the money to go on a three-week Outward Bound course in the Sangre de Christo mountains in Colorado.

It was in many ways, a foundational experience for my life. I was traveling on my own for the first time and camping in the Rockies for three weeks. Simply put, it was heaven. There is a lot to tell about those three weeks – the pot dealers in Denver; the YMCA in Denver; the run across the desert into the mountains, antelope springing ahead of us; the three days we spent without eating, just thinking about life. The night we watched the stars from our camp at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Maybe in later chapters.

Our instructor was a guy named Buck. He was probably in his early 30’s, square face baked ruddy by the mountain sun, and an earring in one ear before that was really mainstream for men. When it was a signal that the earring wearer was gay. This led to much speculation amongst our group. I didn’t sense that anyone cared, but you needed something to whisper about when you are camping for three weeks with a group of strangers. The debate bubbled into the open one evening toward the end of the trip, when the other leaders took turns roasting each other. To roast Buck, they performed a song that they had written, the most memorable lines of which were “something something something Dear Buck, does your earring mean that you don’t prefer cunt?” A memorable night for a relatively sheltered 18-years-old me.

In any event, Buck was a great leader, and guided us through rock climbing, rappelling, and high-altitude camping, with no one getting hurt. There was a close call though. On one particular day, we split into small groups and had to hike a specified route, hopefully finding our way back to the base camp. My group had four of us in it; me, two other guys, and a woman named Annie.

We were probably at the half-way point of our hike, traversing the face of a rocky slope high on a mountain face. There was a bit of a trail marked by cairns, but we were mostly finding our way across a field of boulders. The sky was a bright mountain blue. Annie was in front, picking out the path across the rocks. I was in the back. With no warning, a stone that Annie stepped on rolled out from under her and went crashing down the hill, making her fall onto her butt with her legs in front of her. That wasn’t the bad part.

The bad part was that there was a boulder above Annie; a boulder that had been held in place by the stone she stepped on. When the smaller stone fell, so did the bigger one. A big round boulder three feet in diameter crashed onto the trail right in front of Annie. Right where the rest of us supposed her legs to be.

I think all of us immediately started scenario planning in our heads. If her legs were crushed, how would we get her out? Could we even move the boulder? It was a big mother fucker of a rock. Would two of us go for help? One of us? Would she die there on that hill at 10,000 feet on a sunny Colorado day?

Fortunately for Annie, when she fell onto her butt, she fell with her legs bent up to her chin, and not stretched out in front of her. The boulder had missed her toes by an inch. She was fine. She was shaken, and I think all four of us had shit our pants, but she was fine.

The wheel of time turned, and the trip came to an end. My parents had moved while I was in Colorado. They had dropped me off at the airport in Michigan and picked me up at Dallas-Fort Worth. After a short visit at their new home, I made my way back to Michigan and started my freshman year at Michigan State (Side note: that was the year Magic Johnson led MSU to the NCAA basketball championship).

A couple of years later, I was in a Wilderness Survival class at MSU. In one of the first classes, the professor asked if anyone had been on an Outward Bound course. I raised my hand. Someone sitting behind me and on the other side of the room raised theirs as well. The professor was talking to me about it a little bit, so it was a few minutes before I got a chance to turn around and see the other Outward Bound alumni.

It was Annie.

We talked a little. I think we may have grabbed a coffee one day. We had little in common. I think she dropped the class and I never saw her again. But I will never forget that afternoon in the Rockies when I thought she lost her legs but didn’t.

Chapter 18: Out of India

July 12, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

I was an ugly American the day we left India. I admit it. I am not proud about it. More than thirty years later, I still cringe at the memory, which has its own little shrine in my brain.

The research in India for my master’s thesis had lasted for eight months. Amy had been able to join me for the last several weeks. It had been a fabulous trip in a country full of remarkable history, vibrant culture, exotic wildlife, and friendly people who took care of me. It had also been a draining trip in an insular land weighted by poverty and bureaucracy, still darkened by shadows of the raj, where, some days, it was punishingly hard to get things done.

Our last day was one of those days. I don’t even remember most of what went wrong. Looking back, I suspect it was the heat, negotiating with a cab driver, a lengthy process of checking in, and another lengthy process to exchange money. There was something about not being able to take rupees out, but the airport shops not making change. I don’t recall the breadth of it. But I do know that by the time we were at the airport, waiting for our flight, I was out of patience, annoyed, and about to erupt.

It was a rupee note that set me off. In India, at that time, stacks of bills traveled around stapled together. Not banded. Stapled. To open the bundle so you could use the money required you to rip the bills off the staple, leaving a hole in the bill from its inaugural use. Was that official bank practice, or just how the local merchants operated? I don’t know. I do know that virtually every rupee note, of any denomination, that passed through my hands was branded by a tear where the staple once gripped it.

All well and good. Except that if the rip was too big, some vendors would not accept the money.

So, there we were, at the gate, needing something to eat. And, I had a few rupees left, which I was trying to spend. Easy solution to both problems. Buy a snack; use the rupees. It didn’t work out that way. The vendor examined the rupee notes I gave him and turned up his nose, handing it back.

‘Broken,” he said, referring to the too large staple hole in the note. “No good.”

That was it for me. I Hulked out. I ripped the rupee note into shreds, flinging it at him across the counter, telling him, in my most heinously arrogant American imperialist tone, “your fucking money’s not worth anything anyway.” In reply, he took an American dollar bill from the till, ripped it in pieces, and flung it at me. “YOUR fucking money isn’t worth anything.”

We glared daggers at each other, nostrils flaring, testosterone sluicing off our bodies and pooling in puddles on the floor.

I turned and stalked off, rage coming off me in waves, lobbing profanities over my shoulder if I know me.


Not my proudest moment. Not by a long shot.

I later apologized to the man and gave him my remaining rupees to make up for the American dollar he ripped up. Then somewhat, anticlimactically, we got on our plane for Bangkok.

In the realm of easy customer service, Thailand was everything that India was not. Within an hour of landing, we had collected our luggage, stored a bag at the airport, changed money, confirmed our ongoing flights, and were on a bus to the guest house we had booked. That’s when the reverse culture shock set in.

It had been hard going to India. There was little to no Western food or amenities there. Few, if any, American chains. It was, in many ways, undeveloped. Or at least un-Americanized. I thought it would be hard getting used to that, but it actually had not been. I missed things, of course. But I felt like I belonged there.

Still, I had been away from western food for eight long months, and I missed it. Pizza. Good burgers. Spaghetti. (In all fairness, though, the best chocolate cake I have had in my life was at a little wagon near Dharmsala). I didn’t realize how much of American life I missed until we got to Bangkok and it was available again.

I celebrated by going to Dunkin Donuts and eating nearly a dozen all by myself. Also, not my proudest moment.

What happened at a Swenson’s ice cream parlor a few weeks later was far better. That’s a story for tomorrow.

Chapter 19: Ice Cream Parlor Adventures

July 13, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

We got engaged in a Swenson’s ice cream parlor in Bangkok, Thailand in the summer of 1989.

After arriving in Bangkok from New Delhi, we did some sightseeing in the city. We didn’t stay there long. It was a fascinating fusion of ancient and modern, but it was big and crowded with lots of traffic and too many donuts. We had heard about the beauty of Chiang Mai, farther north, so decided to head there.

We booked the bus tickets from our guest house. The day of our trip, a van showed up. The driver found us in the hotel and made sure we and our bags were safely on the shuttle. When we got to the bus station, he loaded the bags on the bus, and literally taking us by our hands, led us onto the bus, found our seats for us, and made sure we were sitting in them. That’s the kind of customer service you got in Thailand.

That was before the attendant on the bus gave us box lunches, drinks, and hot wash cloths. There was even a TV on the bus showing movies from the trip. They were in Thai, so we mostly watched the lush scenery roll by instead.

What I remember most about Chiang Mai was the street food. More than one night our entire dinner was grilled pork on sticks and pineapple. The street vendors started with a whole prickly-skinned pineapple, and in what seemed like three quick slashes with a machete, would have it skinned and diced and in a plastic bag. Which they would hand to us with a pair of wooden skewers to poke and eat the pineapple. Never have I had pineapple that fresh and sweet and juicy before or since.

After much debate, we went on an adventure trek with a local company. It involved some hiking and rafting on a raft the guides made with bamboo that they cut and strapped together. On one rapids, as we bumped up against a cliff, the front of the raft tipped under the water and so did I.

I clung for a moment to the rock face, fingers fiercely but futilely gripping small bumps. Then the water scraped me off like a reef ripping a barnacle off a boat. I was underwater for what seemed like a long time, but was probably a couple seconds, as the river washed me downstream. The rapids were short and the water below them was calm, and I soon popped up and took a much-needed breath.

I seem to remember that Amy was already on top of that cliff when I went through the rapids, and since we only had one raft, I am not sure how that happened or if I am remembering correctly. The panic of being under water and not knowing when I was going to emerge is something I have not and will not forget.

That trek also included a visit to a monk who had supposedly been sitting under a tree for the last decade or something. If I remember it right, Amy was not allowed to visit the monk, what with being female and all. But a couple guides and I did. It was supposed to be spiritual but was sadly not for me. Just a guy in a saffron robe under a tree. Nice guy, and we talked a bit, but I felt no closer to the spirit world afterwards.

(Side note, my daughter has also been to Chiang Mai, having spent 3 weeks there after her freshman year of college, volunteering with an elephant sanctuary there. If it were not for this cocksucking virus, she would be there as I speak, because the company who runs those trips hired her to be on-site staff in Chiang Mai for this summer).

In any event, after wringing all the experience and pineapple juice that we could out of Chiang Mai, we made our way back to Bangkok, and started to prepare for our next stop: South Korea. We had one last day in Bangkok though, so signed up for a bus tour of Buddhist temples in the city. The tour ended, as they do, in a government sponsored gem and jewelry store.

We decided to take the plunge. After quite a while of haggling, we left the shop with an engagement ring made of sapphire so deep blue that it was almost black. My wife likes lots of kinds of jewelry, but has never been a fan of diamonds, not even for her engagement ring. And of course, the sale included two golden wedding bands. I think all three rings cost about 400 bucks American.

After we finished the purchase, we went across the street to the aforementioned Swenson’s, had ice cream and got engaged. We wear those same wedding rings to this day, more than 30 years since that afternoon in Bangkok. Somewhere over the years, Amy lost the engagement ring. But she’ll always have my love.

Chapter 20: Movie Stars

July 27, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

My daughters and I were extras in the HBO movie Game Change, about the 2008 Obama vs McCain election. We even made it into the trailer!

Back in the day, my oldest daughter Reiss, an actor, had a talent manager. Not too much came of it. She received some decent training, had some auditions, and was part of a crowd scene in a Nike commercial that aired in Europe.

But one day, while I was walking Bella, I got a call from the talent manager. She said HBO was looking for families to be extras for a scene in Game Change and wondered if Reiss and I would like to participate. I asked her if my youngest daughter, Sadie, could join us. She said yes, and that sealed the deal.

One early morning, Reiss and Sadie and I headed to the Six Flags amusement park, just outside of DC, in MD. When we got there, we were directed where to park and where to go from there. It was an interesting walk. Cameras and cables were laid out all over the place. Official looking people with headsets and clipboards running around. It was a little thrilling to be on an HBO movie set, even as an extra. We ended up in a room with about 100 others. There was not much to it, but there was a table with water and snacks.

After a little while the movie people came in to talk to us. They took six volunteers to be on a roller coaster all day. And they headed off. The rest of us lined up to get our positions.

We totally lucked out. They handed us a balloon and an empty soda cup and told us to head to the far back of the set. When they yelled action, we were supposed to walk toward the front of the set. They had a big elevated camera on a boom, high above the crowd, and we were just supposed to walk downhill toward it, and keep going past it, before we stopped.

This part of Six Flags had been set up to be the Alaska State Fair, with games and booths lining the path. So, as we walked, we were supposed to amble through the fair, browsing the booths. An Alaskan dad and kids out for a fun day.

They had us do a dry run 5 or 6 times. They yelled “Action.” We ambled. They yelled “Cut.” We returned to our position. Easy. A little boring, actually. Our agenda changed though, the first time they ran a take with the star, Julianne Moore.

As it turned out, she was playing Sarah Palin. Her position was at the downhill end of the set, right in front of the camera. Of course, being the star and all. The real action of the scene was a couple seconds long. Julianne’s cell phone rang, she answered it, and said, “This is Sarah.” Cut. End. That’s it.

But the plot thickened! As it turned out, as we ambled downhill, through our faux-Alaskan colleagues, browsing the fake booths, we ended up directly behind Julianne when she said her line. Like 15 feet behind her. As in, we-will-be-on-camera-if-we-are-here-when-she-answers-the-phone behind her.

The lights flickered on in our brains. Our plan was hatched. We resolved, come hell or high water, locusts or dragons, tornados or hurricanes, we would be in that spot when Julianne/Sarah answered her phone and uttered her now infamous line. And we were. Every take.

I think we did 5 or 6 takes with Julianne. One time, when I was walking back past her to get into position, she looked up and caught my eye. I said, “Good morning.” She said it back. I assumed we were not supposed to annoy the talent, so I left it at that. I have never been a big celebrity hound, and would not have known her if she walked into my kitchen and sat down for dinner, but it was cool, nonetheless, to be three feet from a movie star, exchanging pleasantries on a movie set on a beautiful blue-skied day.

That was it. We ran the scene a few times, they checked their film and called it a day, and we were home by early afternoon. A couple weeks later, we each got a check for about $50. It was $65 minus the talent manager’s take. I have, ever since, described myself as a professional actor. There is no offense meant to people who really ARE professional actors. Who have dedicated their life to their craft. I have the utmost respect for them. Actors are the bravest people I know. But I was on camera and I did get paid, so in the recesses of my brain, fermented my whole life in a brine of wry humor, I am, in fact, a professional actor.

We went home. We waited. We forgot about it. Months later, I was on the computer, checking the headlines, when an article from Politico came up. The trailer for Game Change had been released. I eagerly cued it up.

What we didn’t know, that day at Six Flags, was exactly what the scene was. Sarah Palin answers the phone. Big deal. What I learned watching the trailer was that that phone call was when John McCain (played by Ed Harris) called Sarah Palin to ask her to be his running mate in the 2008 election! It was a big scene. And we were in it.

I watched the trailer. At about 25 seconds in, Woody Harrelson, as John McCain’s campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, tells McCain – “If you are going to seriously consider the Governor of Alaska you have to call her now.” Screen cuts to black. Phone rings. Sarah Palin’s head fills the screen, surrounded by blue sky and the good state-fair-going people of Alaska. She says, “This is Sarah.”

Behind her, on the left side of the screen, a tall bearded man walks with two girls. One holds a balloon. They pass behind Sarah, moving left to right across the screen. They disappear behind her big head for a moment, and then emerge on the other side.

Yes, it was us. In our major motion picture debut.

Sadly, despite hours waiting by the phone, Hollywood producers have not called. But one time a friend of my called me to say she had watched Game Change on an airplane and had seen us in it. So that was pretty cool.

The trailer is below. Our starring roles begin about 25 seconds in.