Saturday, September 29, 2007

Day 29 Continued: New Heights of Paranoia

A driver picks me up in Cape Town airport and drives me to the hostel in the tourist party-zone on Long Street. As we're driving in, there are townships filled with third-world corrugated housing on either side of the road. The driver warns me against wandering into those areas.

We get to the hostel. I start to get out of the car to pay him. He asks me to stay in the car and not flash around any money. (It's 4 in the afternoon.) This makes me a little nervous.

I go for a run, come back and shower and go to the local laundromat. Inside, there is a young woman who is either the owner or manager and her assistant. She is very nice to me and helps me with my laundry.
Three punks in their late teens or 20's are hanging out by the back door. They come inside and the woman suddenly isn't so nice. She exchanges some sharp words with them. It appears that they are asking her for some free stuff. The punks take turns taking out their cell phones, looking at the screens, and sending text messages. Eventually, they return to the back door. Variations of this theme repeat over the next hour. They come in and hassle her. She gets mad, they leave. I'm waiting for someone to pull up in a halftrack jeep and start shooting.

Back at the hostel, I get cleaned up, go out for dinner alone and come back. I'm checking e-mail in the TV room and a guy in his late 30's or so walks in. We start talking. He's a good guy. We'll call him Rob. We decide to go out for a beer. The bars are hopping. It reminds me of college spring break. Lots of drunk white guys singing and pumping their fists in the air. Then again, it doesn't. There are a lot of sketchy local punks on the street. There are inept looking folks in uniforms that say "security. I don't see any real police. This makes me a little nervous.

Rob and I have a couple of beers and two black women approach us. I talk to one who says she is 21 years old. She's attractive. We dance. She is a great dancer. We dance some more. She says she's from Nigeria and is visiting on vacation. She says she is staying with her sister, who lives about an hour away by cab. (Assuming that's true, it's probably about a $30 cab ride)

Over the next three hours, she says a bunch of things that give me pause:
- You must be careful.
- South Africans will rob you, stab you, and shoot you.
- They will put knock out stuff into your drink. They have HIV
- She says she was mugged at gun point and then again at knife point across the street from where we are sitting.
- She says her father back in Nigeria has two wives and 11 children
- She wants to be married by age 25 and have 6 children.

It is 3:00 am. The bar is open till 4:00 but she says she is hungry. As we leave, she asks me for 20 South African Rand (about $3) I give it to her. She gives it to the doorman. I ask what that was about. She says black women are not allowed in that bar. I make note of this. I've also noticed that she keeps getting calls to her cell phone. She talks in a language I don't understand.

Out on the street, she says she wants to get a cab to go to a restaurant. I'm not keen on getting in a cab and taking off with her. Also, I'm cheap and don't want to spend the money. I ask what is wrong with the restaurants that are right in front of us. She doesn't want to eat there. "

South African stand off.

She says it is time for her to go.
We go the cab stand.
I empty my pockets and give her 70 Rand for cab fare (about $10)

Costs for first night out in Cape Town:
Under $30, about the same cost as dinner and drinks for one in Boston
- 5 beers with tips (2 for me, 2 for Rob, 1 for my "date.") 100 Rand (about $15)
- my date (bribe for doorman, cab fare) 90 Rand (about $13)

Common Sense Acquired: Priceless

Day 29: Another Red Eye Flight

Today's Travel Plans

- Metro to Athens Airport
- 3 hour Afternoon flight to Madrid
(5-hour stopover)
- 10 hour Midnight/red-eye to Johannesburg
(2 hour stopover)
- 2 hour flght to Cape Town
Prebooked taxi to hostel

Change in strategy for overnight flight:
After consulting with the medical professionals here at Randys Travel Diary, we decide to double up on all sleep medications and libations. I get on the plane and swallow two Lunestra pills. When a flight attendant comes by offering drinks, I get two beers. I'm am sitting next to a cool woman about my age and we are yucking it up. I start to get very buzzed. We are about 3 inches from each other. I start to have untoward thoughts about her. I let the thoughts pass by like clouds in the sky.

Eventually, she says good night, rolls over, and falls asleep. There are no movies on the plane, so I try to sleep. I have fitfull, drug-induced sleep, interspersed with wakeful periods of racing, untoward thoughts.

The remainder of travel is uneventful, except for check-in for flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. The British Airways ticket agent doesn't recognize my ticket as a legit ticket. After 20 minutes of noodling around, I'm all set. (this concerns me: this woman at least spoke English. As I get into deeper, darker, non-English parts of my trip, ticket problems could become a real bummer.

Day 28: Return to Athens; Hostel Environment

My senses are assaulted on the trip from the Island of Karpathos to Athens

In the airport on the way back to Athens, I notice how badly the Germans dress. Most of the women dress like lesbians: butchy haircuts, shapeless pants. Most of the men take their cue from the women and also dress like lesbians. I see a guy wearing the same shoes as a girl I met on a recent ferry ride. I see men wearing capri pants that stop at their shins. (Disclosure: I will likely never been nominted for any haberdashery awards. Most of my girlfriends at one point or another have tried to revamp my wardrobe.)


On the subway from the airport to Athens, I'm sitting in a pod of four seats, two seats on one side with another two facing them. Naturally, the seat opposite me is empty. There is a cute, young woman sitting next to me and another across from her. The subway door opens and a supersized, middle-aged woman gets on. She zeros in on the seat opposite me. When she sits down, our knees are touching. I smile weakly.

-Then my eyes start to tear. My nose starts to run. I'm having trouble breathing.
-I start having flash backs to Vietnam (and I never even served)
-It's like someone ignited a bottle of toilet cleaner. The large woman is wearing an overpowering perfume.
-I take my hat off and hold it over my face like a gas mask.
-A brilliant white light is drawing me towards it; my life is flashing before me.
-Then before I know it, the trip is over

Hostel Experience: Good with a Few Quibbles.

I arrive at my first hostel. It is in a dark alley in a nice part of Athens called Syntagma. The desk clerk walks me to my room. The common areas remind me of a bombed out German bunker from a WWII movie. There is broken plaster all around and parts of the hallways need serious work. They appear to be taking this Greek ruins thing a little too far.

The bathroom also poses a bit of a challenge.
- There is no handle to flush the toilet. To flush, you have to remove the lid from the water tank on the back, reach in, and manually pull the lever. This is not something you want to do before eating dinner.

- Across from the toilet is a little sign that says "Do Not Put Any Paper into the Toilet." What if you have to wipe yourself? This starts to cause me some anxiety. Eventually, I work up the nerve to ask the night clerk.

"Üm, excuse. I have a rather embarrassing question," I say.
"You've come to the right place," he says in a heavy Greek accent.
"You know that sign in the bathroom about not throwing paper in the toilet? What if you, ahh, ummm, you know, have to wipe yourself?"
"Don't worry about a tiny piece of paper. Go ahead my friend. Enjoy."

On the upside, the room is decent.
It is 11 feet by 10, about the size of a small bedroom. The bed is a full-zized bed. But like the bed in Karpathos, it has a full-sized bottom sheet but two single sheets that you overlap for the top sheet.

Day 27: Chess Win; Certain Death on a Bike

Strong winds continue. Gusts to 45 mph. No wonder this island has only low shrubs and dirt. Most everything else has already been blown into the water.

I beat each of the German guys at the windsurfing center in chess. Both games were close. I take quiet pride in defeating them as they can both outwindsurf me -- one of them only learned a week ago.

Returning Rental Bike:

I have to return my mountain bike tonight. When I rode out to the hotel last week, I was on the side of the rode next to the mountains. Tonight I will be riding on the side next to the cliffs.

As I'm riding an peering over the 30- to 40- foot drop off on the side of the road, my fear of heights is activated.
- there are no guard rails
- there are no warning signs
- apparently, there is no Greek words for "no soft shoulder" or "falling over the edge will lead to certain death."
- there are no lights and it is getting dark.
- at least there is a full moon, so the authorities will be able to find my remains and return my bike before I get charged for an extra day

Fear turns out to be good for my cardiovascular system and I make it into town (9 miles) in 41 minutes. It took me 55 minutes to get out here. (However, I was wearing my 35-pound pack)

Nostalgic Experience #1: Cursing Waiter

I drop off my bike and go for dinner in Pighadia, the major town on Karpathos. After perusing the menu, I ask the waiter for an authentic Karpathos dining experience. "That's bullshit." he says. "There's no such thing, man. I'll tell you what to get." A rude waiter who grew up on the East Coast of the U.S. I want to get up and hug him. This is the first normal conversation I've had in over a week.

The Greeks and Germans I've met are nice enough, but there English is marginal. It's like I've been talking to third graders for 8 days. I also notice that my English ïs starting to deteriorate. I've started saying things like "the wind is not so very much good today."

Nostalgic Experience #2: Cab Ride
After dinner, I need to call a cab. My cell phone doesn't work out here. (actually, the $200 I've spent on setting it up for international calls has not been the best investment.) I buy a phone card. I can't figure out how to get it to work. I ask the guy who sold me the card to call me a cab.

The car arrives in minutes. There are two thugs in the car: the driver and a friend of his. I get in the car. Once we hit the mountainous, windy sections of road, the driver starts straddling both lanes. He starts talking on his cell phone. With the phone cradled between his neck and ear, he yells into the receiver in a language I don't understand. He must have been trained in Boston.

3:30 am Bug Attack:

The wind dies down and the buzzy mosquitos are back. I put on a bandana I purchased that has been treated with a bug repellent. I wear it babushka style and get back in bed. The mosquitos are unfazed.

I put on bug repellent with 30 percent DEET. Repellent has all kinds of scary warnings about getting it in your eyes, ears. It also recommends against sniffing it and putting it on your reproductive organs. Anything with that many warnings should work. It doesn't. Three hours of bug-infested, DEET-fumed, sleep. Surprisingly, I have no mosquito bites in the morning.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Day 25 and 26: Back in Business

Day 25
I'm still down for the count. There is a stack of mucous-filled tissues on my bedside stand. It is now about the size of a small snow bank.

Day 26 I´m back windsurfing. Today wind was blowing a steady 30 mph with gusts to 45 mph. I believe this is the windspèed where mobile homes and livestock become airborne.

Normally, I wouldn´t even try to sail in this kind of wind, but I paid 20 Euros a day to windsurf so I´m going to make the most of it.

Back in the room, any door or window left open, gets immediately slammed shut by the wind. It´s kind of fun.

This would be a good time to review this month´s windsurfing injuries:

1) bruise on head (right side)
2) bruise on head (left side)
3) stubbed big toe (blood under toe nail)
4) stubbed second toe (looks like I spilled blueberry yogurt on it.

Day 24: Yom Kippur; Our offices are closed

Got a cold.

Was going to fast but just ate lightly.

Weather has been colder than I expected, plus I´m wet most of the day from windsurfing. Air temps probably in the 70´s.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Day 23: Tonight's Dinner Special: Charades

It is the eve of Yom Kippur and I'm eating in the outdoor dining area. I ask the waiter, who is probably Greek, about the moussaka special. He says they're all out but they have a "wheel" stew.

The charade begins.

"What is wheel?" I ask
"You know 'beef,' 'chicken,' 'wheel.'
"lamb?" I ask.
"no, 'wheel.'"

He puts his index fingers up to the side of his head to indicate horns.

"'Deer?' 'goat?' 'wildebeest?'

"no, 'wheel."

The owner's daughter is nearby and I motion for her to come over.
She doesn't know what 'wheel' is either.

Finally, the waiter says that he just looked it up in the dictionary:

"v...e...a...l. You know, 'wheel.'"

Mystery solved. I order the seafood.

In the middle of the night I wake up with a sore throat and runny nose. I am about to get flattened by a cold.

Day 22: Monthly Travel Awards; Hotel Update; Energy Savings

Travel Awards

After 3-weeks, it's time to hand out some awards for best and worst.

1) Best-looking, under-aged, inn-keeper's daughter: Odeon Hotel, Athens, Greece
2) Best breakfast juice: passion fruit, Hotel Atti, El Yaque, Venezuela
3) Best throwing arm on an overnight ferry (female category): Russian Woman (see day 19)
4) Best view from a hotel room: Hotel Poseidon
5) Best airline: none
6) Worst airline: 3-way tie (American, Iberia, Laser)
7) Best smoke-filled health club: Joe Weider, Athens, Greece
8) Best politically incorrect foreign language insult: "cabrone", El Yaque, (literal meaning is "cuckhold." But means more like your significant other is leading you around by the short and curlies.)

After second night, I have a better feel for the hotel

My new room is excellent. I have a queen-sized bed -- I open my eyes and there's the Mediterrean.

Mostly German. Mostly middle-aged. Some expert windsurfers. I'm the only single person. (from what I can tell). In addition to German, most guests can speak English. A few speak French.

Breakfast: all you can eat buffet (included in room price)
Lunch and dinner are offered at reasonable prices.
- first night I had fresh fish for 12 Euro, large sized bottle of Heineken (2.50 Euro), greek salad (3.50 Euro), they also charge .75 Euro for bread (fleece artist waiter said this is common in Greece; I've yet to see it. total about 20 Euro plus tip;
- second night I had chicken leg (6.50), greek salad (3.50), Heineken (2.50), bread (.70) about 16 with tip.

Hotel manager said she thought I was Swedish. I don't know if that's compliment or not.
Was she referring to my exotic looks or "exotic" behavior, including:
- complaining about the bed,
- riding a bike instead of renting a moped,
- asking if water was safe, if it was safe to leave windows open, if I could put things in the safe.

European hotels are big on saving energy.
Here is a list of strategies I've seen that would probably never fly in the US:
- no electricity in the room until you plug the key into a special outlet in the room.
- hallway lights have motion detectors; they don't go on until someone is in the hall. (some bathrooms had this as well. A problem when lights go out because you're seated for a while)
- handheld shower heads that encourage a short shower.

Day 21: Windsurfing: Not Again!

I go to the windsurfing center for Chris Schill, the company I signed up with. (There have a separate cove for beginners.) I sense a familiar theme: I am the only customer and will be the only customer that week. Moreover, the weekly barbeque mentioned in the brochure has been discontinued.

Interestingly enough, in the beginners' cover there is another windsurfing company called Club Mistral. They have a fair amount of attendees. About half of them are women.

(Note: I initially tried to sign up with Mistral but it got too difficult. Like Chris Schill, Mistral is a German company. Like Chris Schill, their e-mail English wasn't very good. Being the thorough person that I am I had a lot of questions. Could I get my own room? Could I get a queen bed? Were there any mosquitos? Eventually, I think they got tired of my questions and quit responding.)

The wind in the beginner cove is very gusty and I'm falling a lot. The people from Mistral all appear to be laughing and having fun, probably from all the nonstop partying. I feel like I'm outside a chic club where they refuse to admit me.

Or maybe I'm just feeling kvetchy because of a lack of sleep as indicated in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Five-Day Sleep Deprivation Chart

9/14: Red Eye Flight from Venezuela to Athens
- shrieking babies
- coughing Spaniards
- time-zone change
*Upshot: 4 hours of broken, drug-and-alcohol induced sleep

9/15: First Night in New Time Zone
- wired till 1:00 am
*Upshot: woke for breakfast at 9:00 am next day, then back to bed till 2:00 pm

9/16: Second Night in New Time Zone
- mysterious full-body itching attack
- 2 mosquitos in room
- racing thoughts
*Upshot: 3 hours fractured, anxiety-ridden sleep

9/17: 18-hour Ferry Ride
- bunk too small for a 5-year old
- poor ventilation/second-hand cigarette smoke
- wheezing roomate
- met attractive Russian woman on deck at 2:30 am
*Upshot: no sleep, no action

Day 20: Karpathos day 1; Mosquito Bites of the World

The ferry ride is 18 hours as advertised. I arrive in Karpathos, which is the stop between Crete and Rhodes, at 4:30 pm. To save some money, I have decided to rent a mountain bike instead of a moped. My hotel is only 10 miles from the ferry and the windsurfing center is only 2.5 miles from my hotel. I consider myself in pretty good shape (though after smoking cigarettes and drinking scotch all night, I'm feeling a little queasy.)

I rent a mountain bike for 5 Euro a day. (the cheapest moped was $13 a day, plus insurance and gas. I didn't price those out. But I didn't want to spend as much on transportation as I did on a hotel) So I put on my 35-pound back pack and mount the bike.

One problem I hadn't anticipated: Like many Mediterranean islands, this ones is all hills. It takes me about an hour to get to my hotel. I am wiped out.

The Hotel Poseidon is quaint, a short walk to the water, has good food, but:
- the beds are too small (I request a room with larger bed. The manager says she'll one for me the next night.)
- there are no air conditioners or fans (you leave your doors and windows open so all manner of wild things can help themselves to your flesh)

After my first night in Karpathos, I've assembled this useful chart.

Figure 1: Mosquito Bites from Around the World

El Yaque, Venezuela
- itch: minor
- welt: none
- vector: mosquitos are fast and quiet, you don't know they've hit you till feel the bite or see them flying around the room bloated with your blood.

Athens, Greece
- itch: intense
- welt: large, red, angry
- vector: mosquitos are slow and quiet, so you can kill them before they bite.

Karpathos, Greece
- itch: minor
- welt: none
- vector: mosquito are faster than brethren in Athens, but slower than those in El Yaque. Note: these are noisy and the buzzing is very annoying.

Day 19: Ferry Encounter #2, the Mad Russian

After my brush with failure in the dining room, I go back to my room and try to sleep. Unfortunately, not only is the bed tiny, but the room is hot, and cigarette smoke is wafting in from somewhere.

Note: If you are getting the impression that I am a sleep hypchondriac, that's not exactly true. To quote my friend Gerry "I just need laboratory conditions to sleep."

I nod off till 2:30 am. My roomate is hacking and wheezing. I get up and go to the deck seats on the back of the boat. It's just me and a very attractive woman who is talking on her cell phone. I sit at the opposite end of the row she's in. She finishes with her phone and gestures for me to come over. Bingo.

She says she speaks Russian and German. However, she knows a few choice phrases in English, including those that every guy longs to hear:

"For tonight, only."
"Whisky, whisky.
"You look like Bruce Willis."

She finishes a cigarette and throws the butt overboard.
She lights another one.
I ask her for one. She lights mine.
Then she throws the lighter overboard.

I point to her and say, "Whisky, whisky?"
She gestures for me to stay in my seat and she walks inside.
She emerges with two Cokes and two cups with ice. Then she pulls out two nip-sized bottles of Johnny Walker Black and empties one into my glass. I add Coke. She does the same with her cup. Then she throws the scotch bottles overboard. She sucks down her drink and produces two more scotch nips from her bag.

As we drink, her English improves.
It turns out she knows a few more choice phrases that I misread:
"F#&! the money" (initially, I think, hmmm, may be she prefers quirky, interesting guys as opposed to who buy her lots of stuff. My kind of girl)

"F#&! you" This one she emphasizes with two middle fingers and points overboard.

Here is a brief summary of what transpires over the next 3 hours:
- She talks non-stop in Russian with some German thrown in. (Her favorite German word is "Sheisse." Sometimes she is talking to me. Sometimes she is talking at me. Sometimes she is talking to someone else that I can't see.)
- Periodically, she rubs up against me like a cat.
- Her moods swing from dancing, singing, and throwing things overboard to quiet and brooding.
- At one point we are in an embrace and I try to nibble on her ear. She turns away.

It is now 5:30 and I'm finally getting tired. In fact, I'm more tired than if we had spent the last 3 hours in adult situations. I tell her I'm going to bed and attempt to kiss her on the mouth. She offers her cheek. I give a light punch on the shoulder and say "nice meeting you buckaroo."

Note 1: This is a good time to introduce my "fish" theory of some men are attracted to certain types of women.
- Fish are not attracted to bait that is stable and swimming smoothly through the water.
- Fish are attracted to bait that is swimming erratically
- When it comes to women, I'm a lot like a fish.

Note 2: I asked two German guys who worked at a windsurfing center what "Sheisse" means. There is a long pause. The the younger finally blurts out "it means 'f#&!"

Day 18: Ferry; Female Encounter #1

After staying up most of the night in my Athens hotel, I am the first person to breakfast. I purchase all my tickets for the island of Karpathos and decide to take in some more Greek culture: a visit to the local gym.

The receptionist at the gym is pregnant and smoking a cigarette. I ask her if all the treadmills have their own ashtrays. She laughs and apologizes for smoking at the gym.

I go inside, the place reaks of second hand smoke.
Side note: when experts extoll the virtures of the Mediterranean diet, do they ever mention that it includes 2 packs of cigarettes a day?

The gym also doesn't supply towels. I have a nice workout and dry off using paper towels and the hair dryer. Very humbling.

I head down to the Athen's port of Piraeus for my ferry. I have booked a luxury class berth for 59 Euros (about $80). The only hitch: there are 4 beds in the room (two bunks.) I could be sleeping with 3 snoring guys in a tiny room. Then again, if the boat is relatively empty, I could have the entire room to myself.

On the boat, luxury class is referred to as "distinguished class." They've obviously go my number.

I go to my room. The beds are tiny. I have slept in bassinets bigger than this. Then a roomate shows up. (it turns out to be only the two of us.) He seems nice enough, drops his bag in the room, and we go our separate ways. The room also has small bathroom with handheld shower handle. How convenient, you can sit on the toilet and take a shower.

Four hours into ferry, first female encounter. There is a group of three women with backpacks. One is attractive. The other two I'm sure are very nice people. We're sitting on the back of the boat watching the sunset.

I go in to get dinner and one of the nice ones is ahead of me on the cafeteria line. She is speaking English to the Greek serving guy behind the counter. She is trying to find out what's in the different dishes. I make clever repartee. She laughs. We go our separate ways. I finish my meal and leave dining room to get a book to read. I come back. Her nice friend keeps turning around to look at me. (or so I imagine. She could have been practicing her spinal twists.)

The two nice ones get and leave. The attractive is alone at the table. I think to myself: what would my fearless friend Bob do in this situation? I grab my book and start walking towards the door and make sure to pass by her table. I ask where she is getting off.
"Sorry, I don't believe I know you," she says.
"Um, eh, um. You don't but I saw you guys around..."
We have the world's shortest conversation and slink off to my room. Thanks, Bob.

Note: Only thing I ever learned about trying to approach unkown women in a public place is to make sure it looks like you're on your way somewhere and talking to them on the way. You never, ever, want to walk up to them, chat, get blown off and have to walk back in direction from whence you came.

Day 17: Jet Lag; Ruins; Itching Attack

After sleeping till 2:00 pm on Sunday, I go to the Internet Cafe and write my blog for about 5 hours.

When I emerge, it is early evening, the night after election day and people are driving around the streets blaring their horns, flags hanging out of the car windows.

I decide to avoid the mobs, take in some culture, and go see the ancient ruins. Call me a Philistine, but I'm not all that impressed. It looks like a bunch of giant unfinished basements. Cultural highlights of the evening:
- some old dogs sleeping in one set of ruins.
- a clean cut, chubby middle-aged Australian guy playing guitar and singing "Like a Rolling Stone."
- a punky kid dressed in black with a t-shirt that read "Dead girls don't say 'no.'"

It is 1:00 am. I go back to my room to try to go to sleep. The next morning I have to buy tickets for an 18-hour ferry to a Greek Island called Karpathos and for my return trip by plane from Karpathos to Athens.

Back in the room, things get ugly. I see a mosquito and kill it. I go to shut off the lights and lie down. An hour later, full body itching attack. I get up and go to the bathroom mirror to look at myself. Only redness is on my wrist. But I'm itchy all over. I go back to my bed and pull back the sheets for signs of bedbugs. No signs, but wrist has a nice welt. Went into my medical kit and pulled out the hydrocortisone cream. I contemplate smearing it all over my body, but remember that the stuff isn't cheap. I put a little dab on my wrist.

I read David Guterson's novel "Our Lady of the Woods." (Second of his books I have with me. The other was great. So far, this one kind of sucks.

4:00 am, I try to sleep again. Anxiety attack and racing thoughts regarding:
- missing the ferry
- buying ferry and plane tickets that are phoney
- getting mugged in Bangkok by a girlie boy (Bangkok is notorious as a haven for guys who undergo sex change operation.)

Breakfast is at 7:30, so I only have a few hours to go. I go back to reading.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Greece: Day 16 How Baggage Gets Lost

Red Eye to Athens Final Leg

Madrid to Athens:
5-hour stop over in Madrid (I arranged my itinerary so all my stop overs are 5 hours. So far, that is just about enough time to clear customs and deal with other kinds of snags and have an hour to relax.

Airline: Iberia
Flight: 3 hours

How Baggage gets lost:

My pack weighs about 35 pounds. It feels like a lot more, especially taking it on and off in the airport.

As I'm on the breezeway boarding the plane, I'm thinking to myself I should have checked this thing instead of lugging it around. Then I notice the people in front of me are laughing and pointing to something on the pavement below us.

There is a road that goes around the Iberia terminal. In the middle of a road lies a suitcase. First, a small truck with an empty trailer for bags slows down so it can go around the bag. Skillful driving job. Unfortunately, some poor passenger's bag is still lying on the pavement. Then a security van drives by, again skirting the bag. Impressive: they've got a lot of good drivers, but no one who wants to stop and pick up the bag.

Next a small street sweeper type vehicle makes a slick maneuvre to avoid the bag. Who says the Europeans are all bad drivers? Finally, a fourth vehicle goes by and doesn't stop for the bag. We point out the bag to an Iberia staff person walking by. He couldn't have been less interested. I guess when they make those announcements about not leaving your bags unattended they're not talking to airline employees. I think I'll continue to carry my bag on the plane.

I get into to Athens airport, call my hotel on my cell phone and ask for directions using the subway. It turns out to be easy. Actually, getting around Athens is very easy.

My hotel (about $65 per night with breakfast) is in Omonia Square, the Athens equivalent of Time Square. Some divey but harmless looking porn shops, and lots of seedy little stores. Indian/Middle Eastern guys have spread their wares spread out on the street. (They sell everything from bras to shoe horns to steak knives. My bra supply is holding up well so I don't buy anything.)

The nicer part of town, Syntagma, is only a 15-minute walk.

Tomorrow (Sunday) is the Greek parliamentary elections. Citizens elect parliament. Parliament elects the president. Candidates have set up displays around town with music and audio visuals. People are roller blading, skate boarding, etc. After dearth of activity in El Yaque, this sensory overload.

I see what will likely be next big teenage hair style: a lot of the kids have moussed up their hair so the back is higher than the front. It kind of looks like they're wearing an enraged chicken on their heads. I won't be trying this anytime soon.

Day 15: Red Eye; WMDs; Baby Gross Out

I leave for airport at 10:30 am on Friday and will arrive at my hotel in Greece at 6:30 pm on Saturday.

I) Margarita to Caracas Flight: 1 hour
Carrier: Laser (local carrier)
Plane Leaves about an hour late

Baby Gross-Out:
I'm on the plane from Margarita Island to Caracas. Next to me is a woman with an infant. Baby is crying so she gives him a cookie. After about 5 minutes, the kid's face is covered in a pasty mixture of drool and cookie crumbs. Then he proceeds to wipe his goopy hands on the seat back in front of him. Then the mother takes the goey cookie stump from the child and takes a bite. I want to reach for the air sickness bag.

Plane arrives one hour late.

II) Caracas to Madrid: about 8 hours, red eye

Carrier: Iberia
Plane leaves about 30 minutes late.
Airbus with two aisles and 8 seats across. I have an aisle seat, which is what I always request.

I go through security to get on plane to Spain. I'm able to get bring my backpack on the plane -- something I couldn't do in the US. But going through the scanner, there's a problem with items I was able carry on in the US. Security makes me open my toilet kit and they take my little scissors and tweezers. I guess in Spain these are considered weapons of mass destruction.

We're finally ready to board and the flight attendants get on. I don't consider myself shallow person (though some might disagree), but this is the least attractive bunch of stewardesses I've ever seen. They're so ugly they could work for Delta.

We're about to board the plane when some folks in military fatigues rush into the breezeway that leads to the plane. Their uniforms say something about drugs. I have a small anxiety attack: if they take my Lunestra sleeping pills I'll be screwed.

They pat everyone down. It's like the restroom line in a bar: the women's line is a mile long and the guys are moving through quickly. I get patted down. It's the most action I've had in 2 weeks. My Lunestra is intact and I take one as soon as I'm on the plane. I notice a woman across the aisle pop something into her mouth as well. Then I notice there are three infants within two rows of me.

We take off. I sleep for about 1.5 hours then wake up. To kick start the Lunestra, I ask for a beer (they're free!) Note: Though it's fun, the management at RandysTravelblog does not condone or in anyway endorse mixing sleeping pills and alcohol.

I try to sleep again. One baby starts screaming. A second starts screaming. I notice the guy across from me is hacking and sneezing in Spanish. Woman behind me sneezes. I swear I feel little droplets on the back of my neck. I get up to go to the bathroom and wash my hands as if that is going to prevent a cold. I come back to my seat. The baby next to me is up and still crying. I make threating gestures indicating that if he doesn't knock it off, he's going to wake up with a pillow held firmly over his little face. He obviously doesn't understand English and keeps crying.

I take my notebook and start drawing up some proposed legislation: Anyone who insists of having children should keep them at home until they can sit quietly in public places, such as 8-hour plane flights.

We finally arrive at 8:15 am, Madrid time

Day 14: Last Day; El Yaque Recap

I went windsurfing and jammed a toe on my left foot. Toe is so purple it looks like it has a black eye. Hope it's not broken.

Was planning on sentimental good-by dinner at tiki bar. I get there at 8:30. They say the kitchen is closed and they're not serving anymore food. Theo engaged in animated conversation and doesn't look up. Sentimental guy that Theo.

I go back to the pizza joint and order my favorite dish: linguine with mystery seafood. I think it is octopus because there are usually little suction cups in the topping.

My favorite waiter serves me. The guy is about 60 with receeding white hair, medium dark tan. I like him because he acts as if he works in a Michelin-rated restaurant in Paris instead of a pizza joint in El Yaque. He does everything with a classy flourish.
- when my dish comes, he squeezes a fresh lime over it and then mixes up the pasta and juice. He moves his hands as if he were conducting an orchestra.
- when I'm done, he brings tooth picks (maybe he just gets grossed out watching me pick octupus out of my teeth with the tines of my fork)
- he brings complimentary liquer
It's nice to see someone who takes pride in a job they've probably been doing for years.

Unexpected dinner show:
The pizza joint is by the side of the main road and has some faux Roman pillars. Half way through my meal a dog wanders in. He heads to the pillar next to my table. He sniffs. He lifts his leg. I yell at him. He retracts his leg. He goes to other side of the pillar where I can't reach him with my butter knife. He finishes what he started.

El Yaque Recap:

I) Brushes with Death

- encounters with wild animals: Multiple
bats, ticks, poisonous toads, disease carrying mosquitos, feral dogs, scary grasshopper

- third world airplane flights with clear mystery liquid dripping from ceiling: 1

- food poisoning: 0

- bad water: avoided

II) Miscelleneous Health issues

- ibuprofen consumed: 24

- injuries: 2 toes stubbed, both healing

- hangovers: 1

III) Social life

- dates: 0

- drinking buddies I'll probably never see again: 6

- attractive bartenders I overtipped to flirt with me: 2

- attractive bartenders who turned out to be owner's girlfriend: 1

- unattractive bartender who flirted with me for free.

IV) Equipment Failures:

- waterproof bags to hold documents and cash while windsurfed that leaked: 2

- sunglass nosepad that broke off: 1 (repaired with Superglue)

Bottom line on El Yaque: I'd go back in a second
- Pros: inexpensive, good windsurfing, gorgeous beach, exotic location
- Cons: not much else to do besides windsurf during off season (when I went)

day 13: Sleeping Tips, Breast Update

- Serious wind today, about 20 to 25 knots. (I can handle 15 to 20 knots)
- I took a lesson on how to water start. With a little luck, I can new start in water up to my neck. I'm in the water and use power of wind to pull me onto the board.

I was out sailing when a storm came up. Winds over 30. Busted. I fell off board and couldn't back on. I just kept drifting. Luckily, wind was blowing onto the shore or you wouldn't be reading this. (I'm being a little dramatic) 15-year-old kid from windsurfing center had to sail my board back to the center. 20,000 bolivar tip for him.

Tip of the Day: How to sleep in the tropics.
1) lower mosquito net over bed. Trap two mosquitoes under net, where they feed on me all night.
2) crank up air conditioning to 60 degrees
3) put fleece sweater next to bed for use once room cools
4) brush teeth
5) brush sand off feet
6) get into bed and read until sleep comes
7) asleep by 11:00 pm
8) wake at 3:00
9) repeat step 6
10) sleep till 9:30
11) eat breakfast
12) get back in bed
13) repeat step 6
14) sleep till noon

Books I've read using sleep tips
- Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith
- Emerald Underground by Michael Collins
- Sick Puppy by Carl Hiassen
- West of ... by David Guterson

Breast update:
- proper slang: "cocos" Usage: "she has grandes cocos"
- most of breasts one sees on El Yaque beach are silicone, according to one expert
- interesting: you can't drink the water, but the women have breast implants. Interesting priorites.

Nature update:
I saw the world's largest grasshopper. It was at least 5 inches long, larger and heavier than a preying mantis. I tried to get it to move by touching it with my foot. It didn't budge. I decided to leave it alone.

Day 12: Sunbathing Tips from the Tropics

I guess I should be pleased. After almost 2 weeks of being in equatorial, retinal burning sun from noon till 5:00, I have no tan. Not a freckle. I'm as white as the day I was born.

I don't trust sunscreen. It seems to prevent sunburn but my skin still ends up looking pebbly and mottled, like ground beef. Also, after a day of sweating, ocean salt, and sun screen, I feel completely disgusting.

Here are some products I've used to cover myself instead of using sunscreen.
- Coolibar tights (supposedly SPF 50) Cost: about $50
Unfortunately, they are too short and stop at my shins. I cut the toes off a pair of ski sock liners to get full coverage down below my ankles.

- windsurfing booties to cover feet. Cost: about $50

- Windsurfing shirt (also SPF 50) has a pocket sewn in for waterproof bag with money and copy of passport)

- sailing gloves (Michael Jackson style with fingers cut off): about $30

- wide brimmed hat that won't sag over my face when wet. Hat is about the size of small garbage can top. Cost: about $30. (I couldn't find a good replacement before leaving, so I'm using a 2- year old hat that smells like an old gym sneaker.)

- #50 sunscreen for my nose and face (my only use of sunscreen, as everything else is covered) About $10

total cost for sunproofing: about $160

Day 11: Improvement Continues

Continuing to feel better. May be it was something I ate.

Late afternoon there is a dog barking incessentally. Unfortunately, I couldn't pack my baseball bat, so I run out unarmed out to see what's going on.

Some bitch had a litter of puppies and her and the father have moved in on our road, across from the hotel. Puppies are cute (they look like little piles of dust when lying in the road.) But they're probably rabid, so I don't pet them.

Social strategy: go to the same places and get to know staff and regulars or go to as many different places as possible?

Being creature of habit, I go back to tiki bar for dinner.
The scene:
- More expats, including some from last night.
- Theo buys me a beer
- one of expats buys me a beer
- We get into standard puerile guy talk. (anatomy: male and female, bodily functions, motorized vehicles. (As conversation deteriorates, Theo goes to sit with other customers.)

Day 10: Depression at the Door

Today's weather: 90's in the shade

According to guy at windsurfing center:
- we are 10 degrees from the equator
- in the spring, temperatures will hit 115 degrees

It's been about a week and a half of pretty much solo vacation and I'm ready to come home.
- taking naps after breakfast
- obsessively watching groups of people laughing and carrying on
- jealous of couples holding and hands and playing kissey face on the beach. (no matter how unattractive the woman is.)
- realizing only company I have most of the day is a fiberglass windsurfer.
- even changing money has lost its thrill. (to attempt to get myself out of funk, I went to minimart to exchange some Euros. The Euro is worth about $1.33, about 33 percent more than a dollar. But when I went to exchange a 100 Euro note, best I could do do was 460,000 bolivars (about 28 percent better than a dollar). Now I'm truly depressed.

This is the longest I've gone on a solo vacation. Last year, I went to Corsica and was ready to come home after 4 days. I can't even watch the Red Sox. Theo only has the US Open on the TV at his bar.

Alcohol-induced Moodswing: Feeling a little better
- I go to pizza joing for dinner (waiter brings me extra-large free shot of ouzo-like after dinner drink. He must be feeling sorry for me.)
- I go to tikl bar. Theo is there with a some local US expats. We yuk it up. (I learn why beers are so small: so they stay cold longer.)

Day 9: More Clausarado

Day 9: More Clausurado

Slow day
- no windsurfing
- no tiki bar
- swam in ocean for 30 minutes (watched a kid try to use a straw for a snorkle)
- math error cost me in calculating Internet use in the hotel. (I ended up paying equivalent of $25 for 3 days, but still better than going to local Internet Cafe and having 17 year old behind the counter capture my passwords. Ok, I'm a little paranoid.)

Clausurado signs all over store fronts. The sign is a 18 inch square white sign. Then the authorities ran what looks like white crime scene tape across the front of the store. Apparently, if you remove the tape before the Federales (organization is called Seniat), you're screwed.

A couple of stores escaped closure, both of them minimarts. Word on the street:
- one owner hid so tax men couldn't find him
- a couple of others were closed last month

I went to one to buy beer and met a former American who had been living in Venezuela for a while.
- he married a Venezuelan and has a kid. (he's about 50 years old, she's quite a big younger. They have a child. I guess there is still hope for any of use who are willing to relocate.)

After talking to several local business types and long time residents about Chavez and his proposed constitution and policies, here are a few highlights. (I take no responsibility for inaccuracies due to drunkeness, obtuseness, or senility)
- individuals will no longer be able to own or sell businesses. (instead you'll get a long term lease)
- employees will work 6 hours and get paid for 8 (this it to encourage full employment)
- people can only own 1 car. (I've always liked this kind of policy. A 20-year old millionaire athlete needs 10 cars about as much as he needs a dog-fighting operation.)
- schools will all become public schools (so everyone will be indoctrinated in the Chavez way)

Tip of the Day: Doing Laundry the Tropical Way

Being that it is typically in the 90's every day and that my back has turned into a zit field from the humidity, I do laundry every day. After experimenting with a few options the following technique has worked best:
1) get in the shower with clothes on
2) soap up as if you weren't wearing clothes.
3) rinse with clothes still on
4) take clothes off, wring, and hang outside on porch

Note: if clothes smell particularly gamey, pretreat by jumping in the swimming before showering.

Note: I have not tested this technique with dry-clean-only suits, cashmere sweaters, or expensive leather dress shoes.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Day 8: Clausurado, or My Encounter with President Chavez

Today, I learned a knew word "Clausurado" (shut down).

I´m at the windsurfing center and something is definitely wrong. The owner, a white woman I´ve never seen before, is nervously going through a stack of papers. A guy in a military uniform is standing patiently in front of her.

There is a similar scene at the tiki bar. There are no customers. Theo, the owner, doesn´t look happy and raises his eyebrows in that "what are you going to do" look as he walks by me.

There is no one windsurfing.
There is no one eating or drinking.

Turns out the Venezuelan IRS has descended on El Yaque and is shutting down virtually all the windsurfing places, bars, restaurants, markets, hotels, etc. for 48 hours.

Apparently, Venezuelans are not used to paying taxes and the government is cracking down. One business owner said that if the punctuation is wrong on your forms, your business gets shut down. Another said that if you do business with someone who hasn´t paid their taxes, you get shut down. Everyone seems to agree that in the long run this is a good thing for the country. I don´t mean to callous, but I´m only here for another week so my time horizon is on the short side.

So, the windsurfing center, has a large sign posted that says "Closurado."
My hotel "Clausurado."
Tike bar "Clausurado."

Fortunately, even though my hotel is closed, they are not going to kick me out and make me sleep in a dirty field filled with rotting fish heads. If there is no restaurant or food mart open, they will give me something to eat.

At least, I can still use the beach and ocean.

Day 7: Theo is Full of Crap

I want to go to a party that the owner of my favorite bar mentioned the previous day.
Owner´s name is Theo.
Party is supposed to start at 5:30 (if it´s going to happen)

I want jog Theo´s memory and to make sure he knows where to find me.
So, I stop by his bar when I take a break from windsurfing and say¨"hi."
He says "hi, how´s the windsurfing?"
I say "great, you should come out."
He says "Nah."
End of conversation.

No mention of party
No dancing bartenders
Theo is full of crap

After about a week of windsurfing, I´m improving. I´ve even created a little how to guide.

How To Windsurf
1) bring board to water´s edge
2) wave at kids to get out of the way.
3) kids come closer
4) wave at adults to get out of the way
5) adults wave back
6) attempt beach start, a move that could injure kids and adults alike (launch board, jump on board, fall off board. Kids and adults move away. Repeat)
7) Once on board, begin windsurfing
8) Attempt to turn
9) Fall off board and break equipment
11) Return to step one

Also, my Spanish is improving.

I´m practicing my beach start and keep falling. A group of women are laughing and jeering in Spanish. One of them calls out to me in Spanish.

I respond:
¨No hablas Espaniol. Seulemente "Ciao," "Quanto Questa," "Popsicle."

They´re not impressed and go back to talking amongst themselves.

Day 6: Live Slow

Apparently, the El Yaque motto is "Live Slow, Sail Fast." It´s on a lot of t-shirts worn by locals and visitors alike.

Today, I lived slow:
1) no windsurfing as hands and feet are sore from being saturated in very warm salt water for 4-5 hours a day. Skin is peeling off my feet because I wear neoprene booties to protect my feet from sun, sea urchins, street urchins, zebra fish, stone fish, sand fleas, glass, nails, falling windsurfing equipment and other dangers of the deep. The booties stay wet until I remove them, so its like soaking your feet in a warm salt bath for 4 hours -- skin gets wrinkled and soft and peels like wet paper.

2) went to tiki bar for a beer
- watched two cats fight
- watched two waiters fight
- watched 4 local police patrol the beach.
- went for an easy run

As I ran out of town, the scenery start to change to more of third-world trailer park look.
- dwellings with corrugated steel roofs, no doors, and large families staying in them.
- open fields strewn with garbage that smelled like rotting fish heads.
- dogs running loose
- barefoot kids running loose

Time for today´s big decision: where to go for dinner.

Two strategies to consider for meeting some people.
1) go to the same place, get to know staff and regulars
2) experiment with different places in hopes of meeting some people.

I choose option 1) and go to favorite tiki bar:
- food is good.
- you can order from the bar
(as a lone person, sitting at a table by yourself can be a real drag. Might as well put a sign on the table that says "the person sitting here by himself is a loser."
- Two very attractive bartenders. (they´re more than half my age and don´t speak any English. Yes, things have gotten that desperate.) One of them wears a flimsy more revealing outfit every night. Tonight´s outfit looks like a good breeze might rip the whole thing off her body.

There´s a guy sitting at the end of the bar. I´ve seen him before. He speaks English, as well as Spanish. We´ll call him Theo. He´s late 40´s early 50´s and chats with customers, goes behind the bar for occasional drink for himself. He is heavy set and smokes cigars. We´re both watching US Open on the TV. We start talking. Turns out he´s one of the owners. He talks about his adventures in Margarita (being ripped off in broad daylight, having prior businesses shut down, living last decade on this island.)

Then the girl in the revealing outfit comes over and sits on his lap. (I guess they´re not big on sexual harrassment down here.) Then she goes back to work.Then she comes back with something hidden in her hands. She shows him a beautiful, giant moth. She pets it. Instead of petting it, he gives it a nasty flick. Nice guy, this Theo.

She leaves and he starts talking again. He says that a bunch of local business owners and friends may be getting together the following night to drink and party. He says something about an exotic house, something about it being inside a giant tree. Then he invites me to join him and the gang. I have visions of a crazy Latin party with his hot bartenders getting hammered and dancing on the furniture. He says if it´s going to happen, we´ll need to leave around 5:30 the next day.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Day 5: Anxiety Level: Code Orange

Two concerns:
- Last night when I paid my check at dinner, I had to write down my name and passport number. (that was a first)
- This morning I went out on my litte porch and found two fat ticks. I´m on the second floor. How did they get up here? Is this some kind threat, kind of like the horses head in the bed in the movie the Godfather?
I imagine tick-borne diseases from down here are very potent and, comparatively speaking, make Lyme disease look like a mild case of the hiccups. I squash the ticks with my shoe.

Still figuring out air conditioning thermostat.
- it´s in centigrade (not too much of a problem)
- I set it to 20 (high 60´s) By 3:00 am room is so cold, I need to wear a fleece top
- I asked hotel owner for a blanket. He had to go into town to buy one. (I´m sure he´s not thrilled that one of guests had a/c cranked to the point where they need a blanket.)

Innovation of the day: new uses for a hammock

In my room there is a hammock that you can string up on the porch, lie in it, and let the mosquitos and ticks have their way with you. The hammock is a 4´ by 8´piece of reinforced cotton, kind of like a large, scratchy beach towel.
I have been using it for the following:
- to block mosquitos from flying under the door to my unit
- to wipe off my shoes and feet
- as a blanket (see air conditioning above)

I doubt they wash this thing, so I pity poor couple that wants to lie in the hammock and watch a romantic sunset, only to find that it is rank and slimey with foot grease and bacteria-laden dirt from the outside.

Day 4: Is Amoebic Dysentary spelled "oe" or "eo" ?

At breakfast, I throw caution to the wind and have cereal with milk.

Wind is good, 12 to 18 knots.

The windsurfing center offers free clinics three times each week. I go to the clinic. I´m the only one there. I get a semi private lesson.

My Spanish has improved. My vocabulary now includes the following:
La quenta por favor (check please)
Ciao (ciao)
Popsicle (popsicle)
Change money (change money)
Windsurf (windsurf)

Health update:
- mosquito bites: 3 (one mosquito still trapped in the bathroom. Kind of Mexican standoff. I can´t seem to kill it and it hasn´t bitten me.)
- blisters on hands: 1 small one, where I forgot to put duct tape.
- water situation:
*can´t drink from tap
*can´t get water in mouth when taking a shower
*use bottled water when brushing teeth and rinsing tooth brush.
*drinking out of the toilet is definitely out.

Question: how much water do you need to ingest to get sick? If you wash your hands, dry them, but then go eat a sandwich, are you asking for typhoid infection?

Day 3: When mosquitos attack

El Yaque, where I´m staying, is a town of extremes:
- world´s scrawniest kittens
- world´s most flea-bitten dog
- world´s smallest beer (a bottle of Polar Ice, a locally served beer, contains 222 centiliters. A stndard bottle of beer in the US is 12 ounce, or about 375 centiliters. I usually drink pints, which are about 500 centiliters.)
- world´s largest breasts (melones grandes, for those following along in Spanish)

I go to breakfast and eat with the English/Polish couple. I really don´t have much choice as there is no one else in the dining room. As usual, he is talkative and she is quiet. I figure either her English is poor or she doesn´t like Jews. Only thing I can get out of her is that she sells wigs for a living and doesn´t like living in London.

When I get back to my room, it is nice and clean. The maid has cleaned it and done a nice job, but it is filled with mosquitos. She must have left the door open while cleaning. For next 30 minutes I go about trying to kill the mosquitos.
The results:
- 3 mosquitos killed
- 1 trapped in bathroom
- 1 still at large.
I have visions of contracting a mosquito-borne illness and going home in a body bag.


No wind today, so we have to improvise:
- I want to go swimming but need to find a sun cover for my head that will stay on in the water. I go to local surf shop and ask for a swim cap. (these are tight fitting latex caps, somewhere between and shower cap and a condom.) They have nothing. I end up wearing my baseball cap on backwards and works fine. I swim for about 30 minutes.
- I buy a gallon jug of waters and use it as a weight for back and should exercises. I do push ups and then go the park and do pull ups on the jungle gym.

The Mosquito Net

This is to be my first night sleeping under a mosquito net. Reminds me of a scene from the movie "Emmanuelle," only there´s no Emmanuelle. Oh, well.

First, I patch holes in the netting with duct tape and scotch tape. Then I tuck the netting into the mattress on three sides, leaving one side open so I can get in. It works fine. In the middle of the night I wake up to mosquito buzzing noise. It is trapped outside the net, but keeps sniffing around the net for an opening. The bugger is more persistent than a dog begging for scraps at the dinner table.

Day 2: Money, Venezuelan Style; Nudity; Duct Tape

Slept well, alarm went off at 9:30, two hours earlier than I´m used to, but I didn´t want to miss free buffet breakfast which only lasts until 10:00.

1) Menu- fresh fruit: pineapple, watermelon, cantelope, and an as yet unamed fruit with deep red color like raw meat. Last fruit was some kind of melon and had a smokey flavor.- fresh juices: passion fruit (had black things swimming around in it that were either seeds or parasites.- milk, yogurt and cereal (I decided not to chance dairy products on first day)
2) "the crowd"Only other diners were a Polish couple (Marek and Ella) who had been living in London for a while. They had stayed here several times before.Turns out the hotel a total of about 6 guests. This is their low season.

Good news: there´d be no wild parties.
Bad news: there´d be no wild parties.

Marek and Ella gave me the low down:- where to get best rate on money changing. (official bank rate was 2150 bolivars per dollar. going street rate was 3400 bolivars per dollar. they said a local minimart paid 3800 per dollar. Before leaving on my trip, the Wall Street Journal had published an article about inflation and the black market in Venezuela.)- Illness and disease
*Him: following a hurricane, local beach was flooded with contaminated water. He went windsurfing and contracted a nasty ear infection. He took antibiotics he brought and it cleared up in a few days.
*Her: the had some kind of miscellaneous stomach problem. From the way she blushed when he mentioned it, I´m guessing she had gassy, fragrant diahrea. They suspected it was from a langustino dish at one of few clean-looking restaurants and only night spot on the beach. I would be eating there that night.

The Money Exchange

After breakfast, I went to the minimart, also known as a bodega. It was slightly seedy, poorly lit, small with packed shelves. Kind of similar to what you could find in my neighborhood in Somerville.

In the store, there was an innocent looking 20-something woman behind the counter, a large thug-like guy mopping the store, and another guy in the back talking to him. There were a few customers buying stuff. I went to a rack filled with American junk food, Mars bars, Cheese Doodles, Almond Joys. I studied the shelf intently waiting for the other customers to leave.
When the coast was clear, I went to counter and said in my best Spanish accent "Change money?"
She said: "How much?"
"100 US dollars"
"How many bills?"
She entered something into a handheld calculator and then showed it to me: 3800. I nodded ok. She said "wait few minutes."
I went back to the Mars bars.In a few minutes she gives me a nod and waives me over to the unused side of her checkout counter. Then she rummaged around under the change draw in her cash register. She counted out some bills and the recounted them into my hand: 380,000 bolivars. I recounted and gave her the 100 bill and threw the bolivars into a plastic bag I was carrying. I bolted from the store and didn´t look back. I imagine this is what it is like to buy crack in the Bronx.
*Side note: I booked the Venezuelan windsurfing portion of my trip through a US company called Vela in Oregon. In my trip confirmation letter, they said specifically that the staff in Venezuela prefers to be paid in US dollars.
*Another side note: in Spanish, "million" means "thousand." So the big joke is that everyone in Venezuela is a millionaire. Supposedly, next year the government will change the currency to eliminate all the extra zeros. Instead of using a 50,000 bolivar bill, they´ll have just a 50 bolivar bill.
*Last side note in the section: restaurants add 10% to your bill for service.

First Day Windsurfing

I show up to the windsurfing center. It´s on a nice beach with tiki bars and beach chairs all around. At first glance it seems to a happening scene. Lots of people drinking and wearing skimpy bathing suits. On closer inspection, I realize that most of them are married and have several unruly kids running around throwing sand at each other. Parents have drunk themselves numb and it´s only 11:00. Though bathing suits are pretty skimpy, no one is topless. (hanging out of biki tops, yes, but no nudity.) Only nudity: One little boy is running around naked.)

At the windsurfing center, I´m very flattered that they know my name and are expecting me. My swelled head is quickly deflated when it turns out that I am the only customer at the windsurfing center. Vela travel agent neglected to tell me that this was low season, meaning that this is low wind season and anyone with any sense waits till November. When I booked the trip in July and asked how many people would be down here, the agent said there would be some but that it wasn´t fully booked.

Still, the staff is helpful, the wind is strong (15 to 20 knots, which is plent for me). I ask if they have suggestions on how to avoid hand and finger blisters, the bane of all windsurfers. (I already use Michael Jackson style gloves the finger tips cut off.) Staff suggests using the gloves and applying duct tape to exposed part of fingers for protection. Full gloves apparently put a lot stress on your forearms and would cost 60,000 bolivars, are about $16, which is more than I want to spend. Luckily, I brought duct tape with me and I can mooch off the windsurfing club´s supply.

Dinner at a pizze joint, not the place on the beach, spaghetti bolognese and world´s smallest beer, 30,000 bolivars or about $8 with tip.