Ghost Stories from The Big Easy to London

“Travel is educational; it teaches you how to get rid of money in a hurry.”

 ~ S. Barry Lipkin

 I don’t care what happened to the Minnow, I love those three hour tours. When I land in a new city I sign up for a day tour. I see things that I want to go back to or spend more time at. In Rome, Lisbon and Madrid, I joined groups of tourists out of the city by bus. Washington DC and San Francisco have trams. Double-decker buses in London, Manhattan, Shanghai let you get on and off in. You can tour downtown Atlanta on a Segway. But I’m particularly fond of those two to four hour walking tours that show off gardens, old houses and historic landmarks. And for someone who travels alone, it is a good way to see the city and meet new people.

On a lark in New Orleans, I signed up for a ghost tour in the French Quarter. The tour started after dark and we met on a street corner. It was a sweltering July evening, even after the sun was down. The guide was dressed for the macabre with white face paint, black hair, a filmy black gown and blood red fingernails that matched her lips. Before we started she admonished us gravely that this was a very emotional tour. Looking us each straight in the eye, in her most solemn tone, she said that those “sensitive to the spirits” often fainted.

I think I laughed out loud.

She turned out to be a consummate story teller, invoking visions of the departed on every street corner of “Ol Nawlins” I figured her for an out of work actor, who would not be unemployed long. Her eyes glowed with hatred for a merciless killer. When she described a chase through the dark streets, you thought you heard footsteps on the cobblestones. When she spoke of voodoo priestesses, the hair on the back of your neck stood up. A partygoer’s high pitched laughter became a distant scream. It was spine-tingling.

I don’t remember the particulars of any of her stories, just that each was more riveting than the last. I didn’t care if the stories were true. Who would let the facts get in the way of a perfectly good story, anyway?

Near the end of our two hour tour, the guide was gesturing to an upstairs window, telling a tale of a blazing fire and describing how many jumped to their death. Her story was so enthralling that I easily visualized the flames. That why I didn’t see the movement of the woman next to me. I heard her fall facedown onto the cobblestones.

I consider myself a good person. I’ve had first responder training and generally launch into action at the first sign of injury. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but my first thought was not about this woman’s safety. What I thought was, “Wow, This girl is good.”

And I was hooked on ghost tours from then on.

But, I told you that story, so I could tell you this one.

I was sure that the London ghost tour would be the best yet. I actually signed up for two tours to be sure I didn’t miss a great experience. The first was a Jack the Ripper Tour. It had been a sunny November day, but the weather accommodated by turning misty as dusk. Following the footsteps of one of the world’s first documented serial killer was thrilling. While the tour guide was not as dramatic as the one in New Orleans, her subject matter was genuine. The information made more chilling by the fog and her cold, frank delivery. I slept with the light on that night.

The next night was the City Ghost tour. Our tour guide was rotund with a cockney accent, red nose and easy laugh. He explained that he worked as a bus driver through the day so he knew the city and could really show us all the places that mattered. It became clear quickly what mattered to him, though. Every stop on the tour went like this:  “Well now, over ‘ere something really ‘orrible ‘appened many a year ago. People bloody died and all. Really grisly business. I don’t remember all the details, but…’ey look!  Ere’s a pub!” This wasn’t the kind of spirits I was looking for. In fact, this wasn’t a ghost tour, it was a pub crawl. And the guide was (surprise!) well known at each bar. They began pouring his pint before he even sat down. And he didn’t have to pay like the rest of us. Making the best of it, I ordered a pint at the first couple places, but I’m not much of a drinker.

When our guide ushered us to the fifth tavern, he exclaimed we were in for a real treat. “The owner see, he’s a real fancier of Sherlock ‘omes. Ee’s got a museum ‘o sorts upstairs, made up to look just like ‘omes’ study. Why,  ee’s got things up there that old Sherlock hisself owned.”

“Sir,” I frowned. “You do realize that Sherlock Homes is a fictional character, right?”

“Oh, is that right, Love?  Well, cheers!” and with a smile, he emptied his glass.

I took the Tube back to my hotel. I don’t mind being told stories; I just want to be able to believe they might be true.

Too old for hostels, Prague 2009

When I was in college I dreamed of grabbing my backpack and traveling through Europe for the summer, staying in hostels, sleeping on trains, exploring the world. Maybe some of the rich kids got to do that, but all I got were the stories. I went to school on scholarships and hard work. No job was too small, either. I sold shoes, was a magician’s assistant, posed for art classes (this was the Midwest. I was fully clothed, Mom), and sang at college dinners just for the leftovers.

But the college days are far behind me now. I no longer have to count out pennies and check under the sofa cushions just to go to the grocery. I am now older, wiser and, most importantly, able to afford international travel. I started by booking tours that included hotel, food and a guide. I learned a lot. I had a great time. But eventually, I wanted to go out on my own, like I would have done in college, if I had been able. I want to backpack Europe!

I knew there were going to be issues when I signed up for an on-line hostel booking service and couldn’t give my real age. Not because I was lying about my age, but because they didn’t have an option for anyone born before 1970. That’s younger than the age I lie about being! But despite this, I managed to book a hostel in Prague, The Golden Sickle, because it was located well and I thought the name was reminiscent of Russian occupation.

When I arrived, the hostel mistress asked to see my passport. This is completely normal and I thought nothing of handing it over. Her English was fair, certainly adequate for us to conduct a simple transaction like renting a bed. My Czech was nonexistent. She started writing down some information from the passport, then stopped abruptly and set up. First she looked at me. Then she looked at the passport, then back at me. And back at the passport. Then she got up and went into the back room, taking the document with her. I could hear her having a discussion in Czech. There was silence. The head of a young woman peered around the doorway at me wearing a weak smile, and then disappeared. More talking. Then a young man looked through the door at me and half-heartedly waved before disappearing. More talking. Finally the three of them came out of the back room as a group and stood before me.

Now I was worried.

“We wondering, yes?”

“Is there a problem?” I asked. I said it slowly and clearly while trying to look very innocent and open.

“No! No problem!” They were emphatic in a way that lets you know that there is indeed a problem.

‘It is, how you say, date?”

I’m a liberal person, but going on a date with three strangers was out of the question!  I decided to go with the only safe response I could think of. “I don’t understand.”

They lay the passport in front of me and pointed at the birth date. I assured them this was correct. More talking ensued. I heard them use a word that sounded like “star-ray”. Perhaps they thought I was a famous actress, a movie star?  I smiled confidently. Between them, they must have decided that everything was OK, because they processed my passport and showed me to my room. I quickly unpacked, grabbed my guidebook and figured out how to get to the Old Town section. My map was in English, but the street signs were all in Czech. A quick reference showed me that the Old Town was called, Staremeska, pronounced STAR ray MAY ska. Wait a minute!  If “meska” means “town” then “stare”, must mean…..old. Ick.

I shook it off. After all, isn’t age and wisdom appreciated more in Europe? Probably they were just discussing how to properly accommodate someone of my stature and….ah… well, maturity level.

That night, I found that 8 “lovely lads of the UK”, as they described themselves, had moved into the bedroom next to mine. Since we shared a kitchen and bath, I made sure to introduce myself. They were polite, but it was quite clear that they had a big night of drinking and carousing ahead of them. In the states, not one of them would have been old enough to drink legally, but I didn’t question it, being unaware and unconcerned of the legal age in the Czech Republic.

I was sound asleep when they returned to their room at 3:30am. There was laughing. Something that sounded like bottles were knocked over. Someone stumbled. There was more laughing. And then I heard one of the boys clearly say, “Shhhhhh! That old woman is probably asleep next door.”

I didn’t realize anyone else had moved into the hostel. I rolled over in bed and made a mental note to meet the old woman and make sure she was comfortable.

As I drifted off to sleep, the last thing I remember thinking was, “Hey! You don’t think they meant me, do you?”

The next night, I officially changed their names to the “loud lads”. They turn up their music and start drinking early in the room. It was their taste in music that I hated most. Isn’t rap dead yet?  Can’t it go the way of disco? I used earplugs, a pillow over my head and a sleeping pill, but I heard the pounding of the bass music until they finally went out around 2am. Just as I’d drift off, I hear a loud crash. It sounded like they were demolishing the room.

As it turned out, they were only demolishing the furniture. The next morning, their bunk beds were reduced to kindling. The boys draped around the room, presumably where they had passed out, in variously states of undress. Worse yet, their underwear and towels were spread over the kitchen counter. And they looked like they were very used. I wouldn’t have fixed cold cereal in that kitchen. I would be going out for breakfast. When I entered the bathroom for a shower, I found the shower walls were missing.

When I passed the 24/7, Non-Stop, “We Never Close” front desk, no one was there and it was locked up tight. In truth, no one had been there for at least 10 hours. I left a note saying that I would need to change rooms that evening and they just might want to assess the damage.

That night I was moved to another wing where 7 Italian men were staying on a temporary construction job. I had been assured all of them were “older”, but not one of them could have been over 27. I got a chance to look them over fairly closely because none of them wore shirts and they all shared in the cooking duties. When I correctly identified the pasta dish as gnocchi, they sat me down and filled a bowl for me. I was in heaven!  Beautiful men who cook!  Who cares that they didn’t speak a word of English?  Mostly they smiled at me, winked at me. It was lovely.

It was only later that I remembered they were calling me “all’anziana”. Old Woman. They were gone before I realized that they were just being kind to their elders.

The day the Italians left was also the day the loud lads left. I could tell because two workmen arrived to rebuild the bunk beds and shower. It makes me wonder what it takes to be thrown out of a hostel.

The place was empty until the last night of my stay. I had gone to bed at 10:30p because I needed to be up early for my morning flight home. At 11pm, just as I was falling asleep, two girls will luggage that out weighted them came into the room. I have no idea why they had to share a room with me since there were so many empty rooms, but that was the key they were given. I greeted them explained that I had to be up early and asked them to keep it down. They responded in English, so I believed they had understood the situation and I rolled over to go back to sleep.

I expected them to need a few minutes to get situated—either to get ready for bed or more likely to go out for the evening. I had hoped that they would make some attempt to be quiet, but they talked non-stop, simultaneously, in Spanish. And they kept getting louder and giggling. After about 20 minutes, I asked them if they could keep it down, I really needed to sleep. One of them said, “No entiendo inglés” but then they both giggled in a way that led me to believe they understood perfectly.

I put my finger to my lips and said “Shhhhh” as the universal sign for silence. I also put in earplugs but they didn’t help much. The talking continued. They could not have been listening to each other, because they were both talking at the same time and all the while zipping and unzipping their suitcases. What could they possibly be doing?  There was nowhere to hang clothing, no lockers, not benches. But the zipping, unzipping and rattling of plastic continued.

After midnight I again requested they be quiet. This time they acted like I didn’t exist. I was beginning to sleep from sheer exhaustion when I realized that I had heard them same this same phrase several times “mujer mayor.” It took me awhile but eventually I realized they were talking about me. I sat up in bed and loudly and clearly said, “NO the old woman is NOT asleep. And the Old Woman will be getting up at 4am which is just a couple hours from now. And I promise you that I will be as noisy then as you are from NOW ON.”

Since they shut up, I’m certain they understood perfectly well.

I was quiet when I got up the next morning, dressed. But just for good measure, I slammed the door on my way out.

Puerto Rico: Glowing water and bad Spanish

Puerto Rico Oct 2007

First, I spend the night in the rainforest. What was I thinking? I came out dirty, hungry and a bit shaken.

I drove este (east) toward to Fajardo. I stopped at a McDonald’s that had a sign saying Desayuno (breakfast). Back in the states, I never go to McDonald’s, but those golden arches can seem like a little bit of heaven when you’ve slept badly, feel grungy, injured out of place. I ordered the mucho grande desayuno with cafe con leche e azucur (The big breakfast, coffee with cream and sugar). I have trouble learning words in another language, but can always remember how to order coffee. I have my priorities.

How did we get along before cell phones? Over the pancakes and eggs, I arranged a guess house, ferry ride and evening excursion. In another hour I was at Fajardo. The ferry office had a sign saying they were closed for lunch from 11a to 2pm. It was 10:30a, so naturally, the door was locked.

I decided to wait at a small café next door. A beautiful boy waited on me. H/she had long flowing hair, false eyelashes, a complexion I envied and a midriff top that showed a stylish tattoo on his lower back that clearly extended MUCH lower. By signs I ordered a rum punch. Fajardo is a dirty, scruffy town and I would not have ventured out on its streets at night. Maybe not even on a dark afternoon. Being a cross-dresser in such a place takes more guts than I will ever process. H/she also sang along with all the songs blasting too loudly on the speakers, so it was a pleasant, free show. And the rum punch was superior and only cost $2 for a tall glass! (At the pricy hotel the week before the rum punch was terrible and cost $10)

I left my car in a parking lot that my Lonely Planet guide had assured me was safe, loaded my backpack with snorkeling and swimming gear and one change of clothes. At two o’clock I was near the front of the line for my $2 ticket when the window opened. The ferry arrived minutes later and it was clear that they would load and leave long before the 3pm departure time advertised. It must be the only transportation in the entire Caribbean that runs early. Judging by the pushing and shoving, all the locals knew it. I was just lucky to make it on. The boat was full to capacity and gone by 2:45p. Never trust the advertised time.

I was headed for a guest house on the Island of Vieques (pronounced vee AY kes) an hour ferry ride from the main island of Puerto Rico. Zoni del Toro, met me at the ferry and we zoomed up the hill to the Sea Gate Guest house. Zoni and her new husband, Jeff, manage the hotel for Penny, who started the place in 1977. Penny also started the local Humane Society and the animals clearly spill over to her property. I lost count of the dogs and their ailments. This one was blind. That one missing a leg. But they were good natured. I had a room on the lower level that was still slated for remodeling and did not yet have air conditioning. With two fans pointed directly at the bed, it was not an issue. I napped for an hour before my publico (taxi van) picked me up.

The driver spoke little English, but Zoni had told him where to take me. He serenaded me most of the trip in lieu of conversation. I believe he was signing love songs but they might have been songs about stupid white women who wander where they don’t know the local language and really ought to know better. You can never tell. Hispanic men sing loudly, often and unashamedly. I find it endearing. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the State’s, not enough singing.

The end of the line was an empty stretch of highway. I find it interesting that a man who cannot speak my language when we start, can always speak it well enough to negotiate a $9 fare. He made a sign for me to wait and said, “hombre con barcos”. Fortunately, barco is one of the 20 Italian words that I know and it means boat, so he was saying “man with boat” which pointing out the time on his watch. I had no cell phone service, so I just had to trust him. I was five minutes early, which i island time is a 20-minute wait. Sure enough a truck trailing a load of kayaks pulled off the road.

Tanto was my guide and his English was perfect, possibly better than mine. We waited together in the cab of his truck while the rest of the group arrived, slapping mosquitoes. My combination of DEET, lemon grass and citronella oil was clearly more of a pheromone than a repellant. Tanto, like most of the local men I met, had children he was very proud of. And like most of the men I met, he didn’t live with them. But he assured me that he saw them “often”, sometimes three times a year.

We were going to the BioluminescentBay, locally called MosquitoBay. Both names are descriptive. While these single-celled, bioluminescent creatures are found all over the ocean, this bay is one of the few places in the world where they are in great concentration. There are about 750,000 in each gallon of sea water. When pressure is applied to them they light up as a defense mechanism. We took kayaks to the middle of the bay and as soon as we got 10 yards from shore, the paddles were backlit as I slipped them into the water. We tied all the boats together in the middle where the water was the deepest, about 14 feet. Tanto gave us a brief talk, mostly about conservation and the delicate ecosystem that depended on the red mangrove and clean water. He indicated that gasoline and diesel boats were ruining similar bays around the world.

Then he told us to go swimming. Well, someone had to go first, so imagine my unladylike dismount from my kayak into the water. It was considerably worse later when I had to get back into the boat. The more movement, the more light. The more you struggled, the brighter spectacle you were. I was quite a spectacle.

The BioBay was amazing and you cannot describe it accurately. It is something you just have to experience. Every stroke of your arm into the water is illuminated. Every scissor kick, radiant. I made snow angels in the water. Wiggle your toes and see them glow beneath you. I never tired of simply cupping water into my hand and watching it run down my arm, diamonds cascading over wrists and elbows. Because of the red mangrove, which desalinates the water, the salt content of the bay is more than 4X that of the open ocean, so I didn’t need a life jacket. From now on I will refer to my body fat as a flotation device and be proud that I am so well prepared.

Traveling alone may sound scary or lonely, but it makes it easier to meet other travelers and locals. This evening I got to do both. Teegray and Gregore, who were members of the tour group, turned out to be staying at my same guest house. They had a friend Luis who lived locally and was starting a Public Radio station. Luis picked us up and we all went to dinner at one of the only restaurants open in Isabel II in the evening. Luis was handsome, gregarious, engaging and very interested in discussing politics. Puerto Rican’s are very political. Almost every conversation included politics and they get a 90 percent turnout at elections. Luis believed in the independence of the island from the US, but didn’t expect to see it in his lifetime. Despite the second class status, under-representation and uncertainty of citizenship, there were enough advantages keeping them tied to the States.

For dinner I had mofongo again. I ordered it almost every night, but it was never the same twice. The dish starts with mashed, unripe plantains. Sometimes fried, sometimes with onion, or garlic or chicken. At every restaurant I went to I was always told that “the mofongo is good here, but my mother’s is better.” In the South, your mother’s fried chicken is best. In Puerto Rico, it’s the mofongo. This evening I ordered it with seafood and was served a green lump with tentacles. I ordered another glass of liquid courage before trying it. But the octopus was quite tender and the dish was very good despite its odd appearance. In addition the local beer, Medalla, was cold and reasonably priced. The locals take their beer and coffee seriously. Coffee is served very hot and very strong with lots of sugar on the side. The beer is very cold and many varieties are bottled in small serving sizes, 10 oz or less, so that they stay cold to the end of the glass. Even in a shack that serves beer along the side of the road, you can expect a chilled glass. I am not much of a beer drinker, so the Medalla tasted like Miller Lite to me, but I would never tell the locals.

I slept late the next day, and hardly noticed the crowing chickens over the fans in my room. I arranged a publico to take me to Mosquito Pier, and was completely alone for two hours snorkeling. It feels very odd to have someone you don’t know in an unmarked taxis drop you off in the middle of nowhere with only the promise to pick you up again. But I’ve seldom had an issue with this method. If you pay when they drop you off, they assume you will pay on the other end too, and they show up. Sometimes even on time.

The snorkeling was great and could only have been better if I had taken a boat to a coral reef. So many interesting fish to see, most of which I can’t name. There were parrot fish and one puffer that was too inquisitive for my tastes. I enjoy snorkeling because I like to hang out at the top of the water and just watch. I don’t touch things, sort of an aquatic voyeur. The puffer must have been very nearsighted and kept getting right up to my face mask. I thought they were supposed to be afraid of me? Schools containing thousands of one-inch long minnows would part just barely enough for my body to slide through, never touching a single fish. Sea stars slowly crawling across the sea grass. And I saw more jelly fish than I was comfortable with. My theory is that unless the water is crystal clear, if you can SEE the jelly fish you are already too close. The water was murky, and the transparent jelly is hard to see if you are more than a yard away. Impossible at 3. I watched from as close as I dared as they undulated through the water. Hermit crabs, a sea slug, and fish with yellow tails and purple faces. On the shore was a millipede 8 inches long. So much life.

Isabel II (pronounced EE sah bel  se COON dah) is a sleepy town. Not much to do here. There are chickens, horses, dogs, cats running wild everywhere. I suspect most of the traffic accidents involve barnyard animals. In the morning the roosters are so loud that I can’t imagine needing an alarm clock. The locals say that everyone eats arrzo con pollo, rice with chicken, every day, often 3 times a day. They also say that the cock that crows the earliest, is the best tasting…and the next one for dinner.

The barnyard animals may not have been contained, but there were plenty of fences, some with razor wire. Petty crime is high and all the houses have bars on the windows. The nicer homes have security gates. Yet the cars are unlocked, often with the keys inside. The theory goes that you leave vehicles unlocked so no one will break into it to find something to steal. And you don’t leave anything in the car worth stealing. They don’t worry that the car will be stolen since you can’t take a car far away on an island that is 23 miles by 3 miles where everyone knows you and is probably a relative. Of course that doesn’t apply to a tourist’s rental car. It is always open season on tourists. I was told that if a group of young men stopped me and asked for my money, just to keep 5 or 10 dollars in my pocket to hand them, explaining that I had no more. This would satisfy them as they were looking for drug money. Begging tourists is also popular, even among the employed young men.

After walking around town for the afternoon, I went back to the guest house and was immediately invited to share a meal of paella and wine with Penny, her family, the workers that were remodeling the rooms, plus everyone staying at the Sea Gate. Such great conversation, but tough to follow in English, Spanish and Japanese. The paella was beautifully arranged and the evening sky clear. As night fell, bats flew nearby and kept us relatively clear of mosquitoes. The various dogs and cats cleaned up anything that dropped to the ground. I clapped along to a singer on a guitar. A perfect evening.

Jeff, the manager, told me that he’s originally from New York and had simply come to Puerto Rico for a visit. He took the ferry to Vieques to swim in the BioluminescentBay, expecting to return that night. He was halfway across before he realized that the boat didn’t return until morning. He called every hotel in his guidebook and the Sea Gate was the only phone that was answered. (I had the same experience)  The conversation was short. “OK,” Penny said. “I think I have a room. I’ll call you right back.” And Penny promptly hung up without saying goodbye, leaving Jeff to wonder what to do. But Penny did call back with arrangements for everything. She gave him the description of two people on the boat that would take him to dinner, then to the Bio Bay and back to the hotel for the night. Arrangements are casual. Jeff said he took one step onto the island and felt at home. His stay extended to three days. When he returned to NY, it just didn’t feel right, so he arranged his affairs and came back permanently. He had been the manager for less than a year and married his girlfriend Zoni on the grounds the previous June. The wedding sounded so romantic and they were clearly very much in love.

After dinner, I was taught to play dominoes, or at least how to lose at dominoes. It is a serious game here. The old men sit in the square at night and argue loudly over the tiles. Cheating is expected and I was told the number one rule was never to trust anyone. I learned the rule first hand when the man who was instructing me, coached me to lay down a domino tile that allowed him to win. When I reproached him he looked at me innocently and said, “But I told you never to trust anyone.”  The whole table had a laugh at my expense.

The next morning I boarded the ferry reluctantly, after promising to come back. The water was such an amazing shade of blue. While I took several photos, none can represent how lovely, how perfect it was. I reclaimed my car and drove to Ponce.

It took me ALL day to get to my hotel in Ponce (pronounced PON say) on the south side of Puerto Rico. I underestimated the distance and amount of traffic. But the roads were in better condition and better marked than I would have guessed. And since I paid no less than 4 tolls in the 130 miles, they should be.

Drivers here are clearly trying to win some award for worst operating practices. They will get my vote. Stop signs, even lanes, are treated as a mere suggestion. Actually stopping at a 4 way stop sign is taking your life into your own hands. Stop lights are observed slightly better. Often if someone was going to ignore a stop sign, they honked their horn. I don’t remember that in the driver’s manual. These are fearless drivers. I was passed me on the left with oncoming traffic while I was signaling a LEFT turn. And because I was expecting it, it didn’t even surprise me when it happened. In fact, I may be the only person who used turn signals. Puerto Ricans seem to be offended by them and will speed up and cut you off if you signal to change lanes. It happened enough times that it could not be a mistake. In a bar that evening I was told that what they hated was indecision. Someone who put on a turn signal was just thinking about moving. If you are changing lane, change.

So I got to Ponce, but overshot the downtown because, once again, I expected it to be bigger. I later realized that the tiny sign was on a different corner than the one I passed and there were trees blocking my view of the fountain. I got lost. Very lost. My Spanish is poor, to put it gently. I’ve learned to say, “Permisso senior. Soy predida. Donde esta el centro?”  (Excuse me sir. I’m lost. Where is downtown?)  I actually picked a hotel in the downtown area because it was the only place I knew how to ask for in case I got lost. But I don’t know enough Spanish to understand what is said back to me. My method–which I cannot recommend–is to just go in the direction they point and maybe try to figure out the next one or two thing they say to do. If I can understand a street name or light (la luz) I do that. I’m OK with directions like turn “right” (derecha) but it sounds too much like go “straight” (derecho). And I have a mental block for the word for “left.” Once I’ve driven as far as I can understand, I stop and go through it all again with the next person. It can take forever to get where you are going, but at least you keep getting closer to the hotel. Most of the time. I had a map to point to, which helped, or would have, if any of the streets had been marked.

Finally the fourth person I stopped was a police officer. I understood by signs that I was close to my destination, but it was hard to know how to turn because of all the one-way streets and pedestrian areas, which were not indicated on my map even if I could have figured out where I was. The officer pointed at the stop sign saying “pare”, which must be the Spanish word for stop since it is on all the signs. “Pare. Uno, does, tres, derreche.” Which I took to mean, go three stop signs and turn right. He tried to say more, but my eyes glazed over. I thanked him profusely, “gracias, gracias”, and turned to go back to my car. Then with no accent in his voice whatsoever he says, “You know, this would go a lot easier in English.”  I almost fell over it was so funny. It was clear that he had done this a lot, his idea of a joke on tourists.

This happened to me repeatedly in Ponce. Someone would indicate they spoke no English, but later after we had made our transaction, they corrected my Spanish, usually speaking English with less of an accent than I have. At the Post Office, the gentleman at the desk started asking me in Spanish the contents of the box I was posting. “Dona para mi madre. Cafe e dulches, solo.” (A gift for my mother. Coffee and sweets only. At least that’s what I tried to say.)  After we completed the transaction, he said, “Hey, by the way, ‘dona’ is Italian. The Spanish word for gift is ‘regalo’.”

How lovely that I can improve my Spanish and serve as comic relief for the natives.

You can only learn another language by making lots of embarrassing mistakes out loud and letting someone correct you. At a restaurant in Old San Juan, I ordered eggplant stuffed with chicken. I got the last part reasonably close, rellenado con pollo. But whatever it was I said in place of the word for ‘eggplant’ must have been offensive. The waitress blanched and the bartender was laughing so hard he spilled the drink he was pouring. Based on their response, I guessed that I had said something questionable about their parentage. I got flustered and reverted to Italian to apologize. My Italian language skills are even worse than Spanish, but I made a lot of mistakes in Italy and had slightly more practice begging forgiveness in that language.

But there is also magic in being that vulnerable. People know you are trying to communicate with them and they try too. It brings out the best in people. The answer to world peace could be found in this.
So I found my hotel, just as the downtown was closing along with all the museums I wanted to see. I only had two more days in Puerto Rico and unless I wanted to leave early the next morning, I was going to have to spend one of them here.

I stayed at the Hotel Bélgica, The Belgium, just off the square. I got up early and had breakfast across the calle (street) at the Gladiolas Cafe. The town square is called Las Plaza Delicias, The Plaza of Delights. Lots of shopping available, but mostly trinkets made in China, too tacky to find in a Wal-Mart. Good thing I’m a lousy shopper and only wanted to buy the coffee and sweets for Mom. The plaza has a Catholic church, of course, which was under construction, of course. Right across the street was a Church’s Fried Chicken, which seemed sacrilegious somehow. The remainder of the plaza is a park with a large marble fountain with lions, several statues and the Parque de Bombas, an ornately painted red and black firehouse that seemed completely out of place and not at all functional. I went to a couple museums which were pleasant enough, although it would have been more enlightening if I could read the Spanish signs.

Ponce was named for the first Spanish governor of the island, Ponce de Leon, the same guy from my high school history books who didn’t find the fountain of youth. Ponce is located on the Southern coast, the Caribbean side, of the island and is quite warm, even in October. Very warm. OK, hot. By lunchtime I retreated to my hotel for a cooling shower and turned down the A/C and took a nap. This is not a climate for pasty, paunchy white women.

The next day I drove back to San Juan by a new, well-marked highway, but paid over $10 in tolls in the 1.5 hour drive across the waist of the island. It was $2 alone just to cross the bridge to the airport. The locals probably knew the way around and only tourists paid the tolls.

I have a fear of being late for any appointment, but especially for planes. I was early enough to sit at the bar and have a few drinks. I ordered my first when the fire alarm went off. No one moved. It continued for over 15 minutes. The bartender said it happens all the time, probably someone smoking in a bathroom. The noise was louder in the hallway, herding customers into the bar and the place filled up. I stuffed my ears with a napkin and had another drink to take the edge off.

My bags went right through at the airport with no issue. My locks were not disturbed. I was surprised since I had brought a souvenir I had not expected:  one of their oversized cockroaches in my backpack. It was smashed paper thin, and quite dead, which is the only way I like my cockroaches. At home in the privacy of my own bath, I got a look at my naked body in a well-lit mirror. In addition to the cuts from the rainforest and bruises from falling, I had roughly a million bug bites. Only some of them could be attributed to mosquitoes. Maybe I don’t want to know.

Don’t Pet the Mongoose

I’m not fearless, but I wasn’t that worried about camping overnight in the Puerto Rican rainforest in 2007. I am an experienced backpacker and I’m used to camping by myself. But when I entered the Bosque National, the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Park System, it just made sense to ask what hazards I should avoid.

The charming woman at the desk who helped me fill out my camping permit, which was in Spanish. I asked if there were any unusual hazards to avoid. She didn’t even look up. “Don’t pet the mongoose.”

Pardon?

My first thought was that this was a euphemism for something that I wouldn’t want explained in front of my mother. But she was perfectly serious. There are no snakes, no large carnivores to be wary of.  Few plants and even fewer animals are poisonous, and those only if you are silly enough to eat them. The problem was mongoose. Mongoose (mongeese? mongui?) are not native to Puerto Rico, which is unfortunate enough, but the population is infected with rabies. Naturally secretive creatures, you usually never know they are around. If I saw one, I was to consider it a sick animal.

Well, I was trying to cut back on mongoose petting anyway.

The other information she gave was that I was the only camper that night in the 28,000 acre forest, which really should have been my first clue that this would go badly. I confess, that I was distracted, because she said that they “closed the rainforest at 6pm” so to make sure I was inside the gates by that time. I had no idea that one could close a rainforest. Do the tree frogs get evenings off? She also mentioned, almost in passing, that I needed to camp 30 feet off the trail.

Since there were absolutely no facilities and the rainforest would be “closed” in about an hour, I quickly bought an assortment of local snack foods and bottled water from the gift shop. I stuffed the white paper bag into my backpack and was off.

The park is known locally as El Bosque, The Forest. It has trails that are marked with the familiar brown park service markers with distances in kilometers. Puerto Rico is near the Equator, so nightfall is around 6pm, regardless of the time of year. It was already past 5pm when I hit the trail and I knew the moonlight might not pierce the canopy. I didn’t have a moment to lose.

My plan was to hike to the first clearing where I could get off the trail and set up camp. Like I said, I am an experienced camper. An experienced deciduous forest camper, I should say. I camp often in North American forests, so I didn’t anticipate any issue with getting 30 feet off the trail. I was wrong. After hiking 5km on a narrow, slippery path, I had not found a single area clear enough of vegetation to even step off the path. As a girl from the Midwest, it is ingrained in me to follow the rules. I felt I had to camp off the trail, but it was getting dark and by now the gates we locked behind my parked car. I picked a relatively clear area and I tried to push my way through the tall grass and vines. Within three yards, my legs were hopelessly tied up in vegetation. When I finally extricated myself I was bloody, my forearms and lower legs a mass of superficial cuts. Those innocent looking grasses were knives. Even the ferns were serrated.

Even without the vegetation, walking off trail was hazardous. I stumbled over tree roots, pot holes and vines. Standing still wasn’t an option either. The ground was such a sponge that if you stood in one place for just a few minutes, you’d be in a puddle. Tent camping was hopeless! If I had brought a tent I would have walked back to my car and slept in the back seat. (Of course I would have lied about it later to make a better story!) Luckily, I had brought a hammock. It had mosquito netting and a tarp I could rig over the hammock for protection from rain. Even though I felt guilty, I slung the hammock diagonally across the trail. I rationalized that since I was the only person camping that night, it wouldn’t inconvenience anyone if I blocked the path.

It was on the dark side of dusk when I finished setting up the hammock. I crawled into the mosquito netting with little white bag of snacks. The first thing I tried looked like a bag of potato chips, but made from plantains, cassava and yucca. There was an overly sweet guava paste and a nut bar with coconut. All were quite good. I shoved what remained back into the bag and placed it in the top of my backpack, which lay beneath me under the tarp.

I was set for the night, except that is was now only 7pm, pitch dark, and I was still wide awake. As I lay listening to the noises of the night, it hit me for the first time that I was completely alone and no one knew where I was camping in this vast forest. The only sound I could identify for sure were the tiny coqui frog, singing koh KEE koh KEE koh KEE from every scrap of vegetation. I’m sure the natives are used to it and think of it as the background noise of the island. I had thought the sound was “cute” at the hotel when I could just hear them between the songs of the band or above the ocean surf. Trapped in the dark with millions of them, it was oppressive.

I tried to relax, but everything was so unfamiliar. I couldn’t see a single star through the forest canopy and there was nothing else to concentrate on but the unfamiliar noises. Nearby was perhaps a bird with a fast coo coo. The wind picked up and the trees creaked and swayed, eerily. Occasionally a limb would fall, crashing through the canopy. At least I hoped that’s what the sound was. There was unfamiliar rustling in the grass, squeaks and squawks in the leaves and the drone of insects.

Birds began fluttering in the trees overhead. It sounded like one flew right above me. Another landed on the ground nearby. I like birds. The thought of birds flittering about was pleasant and comforting. Well, it was pleasant for about three minutes, which is how long it took me to realize that the sounds couldn’t possibly be birds. Birds simply don’t flutter about at night. That could only be…..

(…If I could invent a gadget to improve the human body it would be an emergency “stop” button for your brain. Generally, the truth is a good thing, but this was one of those times when working out the correct conclusion was not going to improve my situation. Alas, the Brain Emergency Stop has not been perfected yet…)

…Bats! The only thing that flapped and flutters at night were bats. I’m calmer than most women around bats. I’ve encountered them in caves and am not frightened that they will get into my hair. In Wisconsin I learned to love the tiny creatures that ate their weight in mosquitoes. But in my frantic state, I was trying to remember if Puerto Rico had vampire bats? And all bats can carry rabies and other diseases. The more I listened, the larger they seemed. I was defenseless with nothing but a thin piece of nylon hammock between my backside and any of a number of rabid, monster-sized, vampire bats! I was sick to my stomach with fear.

Every few minutes there would be a new sound I couldn’t identify, leaving my heart racing and the metallic taste of adrenaline in my mouth. There was no light. If there had been a moon, it’s light would have been blocked by the leaf canopy. All I had was a small flashlight, whose light didn’t reach far into the darkness. It was too far to walk out safely on the narrow, treacherous path. I knew intellectually that it was safer to stay put, but every muscle in my body wanted to run. Sleep was impossible, but I needed to calm myself before I had a heart attack. Or wet my hammock.

That’s why I was so relieved when the fireflies came out. They gave me something to look at and concentrate on besides “things that go bump in the night”. The Puerto Rican lightening bugs were far more agile than any I’d seen growing up in the Midwest. First one firefly, then another landed on my mosquito netting. How interesting, I thought. I can get a closer look! Two more landed. A dozen. Two dozen. I became concerned. At four dozen, I had visions of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Bird, but with lighted insects. I was Tippi Hedren and I couldn’t remember if she survived the film. Would I? I was trapped. The fireflies continued to gather. Would screaming just bring more? Could they sense fear?

It took a minor lifetime, about 20 minutes, to find the cause: My cell phone! The blinking light on the Blackberry phone was almost the same color they glowed. These were male fireflies who had mistaken the flash for a the call of a female. My cell phone had been accidentally programmed to say, “Hey, Sailor” in Firefly-speek!  I turned off the phone and they flew away within 3 minutes. Back on, they returned. I was Dr. Doolittle, even if all I knew how to say was “Come hither” in Firefly-eese. I would have continued it for hours, except the rain chased them off permanently.

My heart rate was back to normal, but I still slept poorly. When I did sleep, I dreamed that people were trying to cross the path that I was blocking. Between my sense of guilt and the unfamiliar sounds, it was a long night. At first light, I stumbled out of the hammock.

After a call of nature, I went for sustenance. I reached for the little white bag at the top of my backpack for water and the last of the snacks. Or at least I tried. The white sack now consisted of the two handles on top, the bottom, and gaping holes where the sides should have been. The culprits were two of the largest snails I had ever seen. Their shells were easily 4 inches in diameter. I could see the slime trail where they had oozed up the side of my backpack in a beeline—or what must serve as a beeline if you are a snail—directly to the bag. Ewwwww. I guess bleached, white paper is junk food for snails? How had they even known it was there? I tossed them outl and reached for the bag again. But the sight of the second largest cockroach I have ever seen (Costa Rica still holds the record!) made me lose my appetite completely. Once your snacks have been slimed by snails and trod on by huge cockroaches, they lose their appeal.

And just to add insult to injury, it started to rain again.

I packed up in the rain and started back to my car. It had been slick hiking in, but with more rain, the trail was perilous. I fell several times adding bruises and mud to my lacerations. Even without a mirror I knew I looked bad. When I reached the parking lot, day trippers shielded their children from me and pushed them down the trail to get away. Stay away from the crazy lady, children.”

Looking like a madwoman has its advantages, though. It gave me enough privacy to change my shirt and clean up a bit before I got into my rental car.

Later that night in a bar, several locals laughed heartedly at my story. They admitted that camping in a tent, 30 feet from the trail in a rainforest is a joke befitting the Puerto Rican sense of humor. Only a gringo from The States would try such a stupid thing. They assured me it was all in fun and congratulated me on lasting the night alone. They even bought me a Medalla, the local beer, to celebrate. To show there was no hard feeling, I bought the next round. After a couple more beers, it did seem funny. Not subtle, but funny.

And like all good jokes, they are better when you pull them on someone else. I wonder if my brothers want to go camping in the rain forest.

Souvenirs from Costa Rica

When you go on a bus tour you think you are told you’ll be traveling with a group. But that’s not how it starts out. Initially, these are individual travelers, all there for their own reasons with their own needs and agenda. It takes time and shared experience for these individuals to coalesce into one group.

I am not a shopper. When I travel, I try to get something for my mom. If I see the right thing, I’ll get a gift for my brothers or nieces. For myself, I try to only buy one thing, as a memento. I save my money to get the one piece that really speaks to me. In Turkey, I bought an amazing rug. In Prague, I got a clock that was a replica of the Astronomical clock in the Old Town Square. Ideally I want something useful and beautiful to remind me of my travels when I get back to the day to day grind.

But some items are more memorable than others.

One of the first trips I took was to New Orleans. I was practically penniless, and arranged the trip during July because it was the cheapest time to travel. Despite 100 degree weather and relentless sun and humidity, I was hooked on travel for the rest of my life. At the time, I was limited to window shopping, but I fell in love with the leather masks. They weren’t unreasonably pricy, but I didn’t even have a credit card then and I certainly didn’t have the cash. I left them in the shop. Years later, I was still thinking how much I loved the molded leather female faces. I vowed that I’d eventually own one.

More than a decade later I was in Costa Rica. It was day three of a nine day bus tour. We’d stopped to stretch our legs on a mountain top. Naturally, there was a gift store. There always is. And just as naturally, we all took a look. Inside were the usual trinkets for tourists: T-shirts, sarongs, mugs. Nothing I wanted. But then I saw her from across the room. This was more than just the leather masks I had seen in New Orleans—this was a sculpted female torso. The molded leather was a partial nude, almost life sized. Her face and shoulders were covered by a leather “wrap” that parted to expose both breasts and stayed opened rather lower than the belly button. It was more than I usually spend, but 5 minutes of haggling brought the price within reason. Because the figure was so, bare, I also discussed packaging. They assured me it would be “no problem” to put the nude in a bag. This was a family tour and I didn’t want to shock anyone.

They took the figure to the back room to package her while I went to ask the driver, Jorge, if he would let me store the figure under the bus. It all seemed like such a simple transaction. What could go wrong?

I realized later that I should have been more specific about what I meant by “packaging.” When the leather nude was delivered to me, she was in a bag as promised. The bag was a completely clear and hid absolutely nothing. In fact, the plastic, pulled tight across the bare breasts, made them even more exposed. No problem, I thought. She’ll be stored under the bus, no one will see. I can just pick her up at the end of the trip and have her boxed to send home.

But I hadn’t accounted for the passionate, hot blood of our driver. Jorge instantly fell in love with the form. He changed from a humble bus driver to a Latin Lover. He was enchanted. Such a beautiful piece of art should not be kept below with the luggage. “The bus is not full!” he exclaimed. “She must ride with us!” He would see to her personally. He swooped her lovingly into his arms, carrying her like a bride over the threshold, and carefully secured her in the empty jump seat beside him. I was too stunned to protest.

Our rest stop was over and people returned to the bus. It was nearly impossible for to miss the new arrival, but the driver personally pointed her out to every passenger, as his “novia.” He petted her. He smiled and winked. He stroked her. It was obscene.

What had once looked like art to me, now resembled a leather, sex doll. I was mortified.

The retired couples took the figure in fun. They chuckled and moved on to their seats. Maybe this wasn’t a big deal. We were all adults, right?  Well, no, we weren’t all adults. The tour had two children, Josh a boy of 12 and his 9 year old sister Megan, both home schooled and presumably sheltered. They were the best behaved kids I’d ever seen, not to mention polite, intelligent and likeable. Even during long days on a bus, they never complained. What most amazed me was that, unlike my brothers and me, they actually seemed to like each other. What if I scarred them for life?

And now they were climbing the stairs. Jorge was introducing Josh and Megan to his new girlfriend. I wanted to hide. Maybe if I just acted cool about it, it would all blow over?

But I’m not cool. I mouthed, “I’m so sorry” to their parents who stood behind the children, eyes wide. It was hard to know how they would react. It could go either way.

Josh finally left the front of the bus and began walking to his seat, looking right at me. “So that’s yours?” Josh asked, wide eyed.

I shook my head, “yes.”  But what I thought was, “Guilty”.

“She’s NAKED!”

The entire bus burst into laughter. Jorge spent the rest of the trip leering at her.

I don’t think Josh was scarred. My leather form is a lot less revealing that prime time television. Though I was bothered when Jorge insisted on personally keeping the figure in his room each night, “for safety,” he said. I don’t even want to know.

The incident turned out to be the thing that united us into a group. The bus would be rolling along through endless cloud forests with poor visibility, or we’d be standing in a long line waiting for dinner. And someone would break the silence with, “She’s NAKED!”  And we’d all laugh. I mostly stopped being mortified and enjoyed it along with everyone else. As a group, we decided to call her Costa Rita.

It was the two little words and a shared experience that united us into a group. And it was funny every time. Even if the joke was on me.