Coke Addict Monkey Thieves

I had gone to Misahualli, Ecuador with a water engineer to bushwhack through the nearby jungle to find the source of a clean stream of water. Turns out the water wasn’t that clean.

DSCF0700So we spent some time in Misahualli. In the village square squirrel monkeys bounded about on balconies, roofs, and trees with no fear of the cars and people of the town. Every new visitor intrigued them, but the monkeys’ curiosity was not harmless.

cgYou see, the monkeys of Misahualli are heartless criminals. They steal. They’re interested in visitors because they’re scouting an easy mark.

The best thieves work in teams. One is the actual perpetrator and the other keeps watch. DSCF0772Or not…

Occasionally, the partner serves like a magician’s assistant by being a distraction. I was the sad victim of one of these clever plots even after I’d been warned.

“Watch your things closely here,” my friend told me. “They’ll take anything: hats, bags, food, or whatever they can get their hands on.” He seemed disinterested in the farcical performance going on around us, but he added, “And a little warning: if they do take something, you’re better off letting them have it. If you try to take it back from them, all of them will jump on you. Watch your things. They’re thieves. You laugh, but I’m serious. I was throwing a football with my son when a monkey intercepted a pass and scurried up the tree with it.” He laughed as he recalled what happened next. “It pealed open the football like a fruit. It didn’t like what it found inside and tossed it back.”

After a quick snack, I headed alone to the town square. I saw one monkey sprint down the plaza carrying high above his head a small bag of Doritos he had just swiped from the local market. He approached a bench, leaped several feet into the air, reared back and slammed the bag down with a loud pop. The chips spilled out and he and his friends gobbled up the nacho cheese goodness. These corrupted primates don’t subsist on bananas but on chips, candy, and soda.

I had a bottle of Coke and my camera to snap photos of the monkeys. I was tentative at first, keeping a safe distance. Slowly I moved across the plaza until a little devil raced by my feet and under a nearby bench. I took a video as it moved a rock from the ground to the bench.

What the hell is he doing? I thought. He was putting on a show for my benefit. Suddenly, his partner sprinted behind me and attempted to snatch my Coke out of my other hand. The bottle fell between me and the monkey. We stared each other down. I knew I could take the little critter, maybe scare him away, but I remembered what my friend had said. I didn’t want to end up under a heap of monkeys, scratching and clawing at me. Finally, it snatched the Coke and ran off. Then the fight ensued.

They understood the concept of a twist off, but couldn’t quite get it. Finally, they found a local sitting in the park. The monkey ran up to the guy, jumped on the bench next to him and placed the Coke between him and the man. The man looked at the monkey and shook his head like a parent disappointed in the antics of a child. Nevertheless, the man opened the Coke and gave it back.

coke addict monkey

Meet the Author

“The only way to get there is to pass through Griffin.  No one wants nothing to do with Griffin.”

Gabby arrived to the conclusion that she wasn’t going to get any help from the man in the orange hammock, but she felt it would be rude just to walk away.  The last customers of the day were loading their haul of junk into their pickup trucks.  She wondered how any of these items actually sold.  They weren’t really antiques as the sign advertised.  They were just unfinished, well-weathered pieces that had never seen better days.  “So once I get through Griffin, where do I go next?  Wait, Griffin’s a town, right?”

The man in the orange hammock sat up.  His face looked worn as if the sun had tattooed an old leather glove onto it.  He wore workman’s overalls and had an oval patch with “Dan” written on it in white, cursive letters.  “You ain’t curious why no one wants to go through Griffin?”

“I just assumed it was because it didn’t have a Dairy Queen.”

“Oh, it gots a Dairy Queen.  Fact, looks like any ordinary place.  But once you step outside, you’ll know you ain’t in just any ol’ town.”

“I don’t plan on staying.”

“Hah!”  His laugh was coarse and guttural.  “They ain’t gonna let you leave that quick, I promise you that!”

“Can you just tell me where he lives?”

“I can tell you, but you really need someone in town to show you.  It’s kinda complicated—a couple forks in the road, some landmarks that are tough to see.  That’s how it is in these neck of the woods.  Why you so bent on seein’ Mr. Salvador?  You an author, too?”

“Me?  No.  I’m a nobody.  At least for now.  But I’ve read some of his stuff.  Meet the Author was the one that did it for me.”  It was no exaggeration.  After reading that story she had to meet D.F. Salvador.  It was like her existence depended on it.  The story hadn’t answered any questions or exposed hidden truths, but it connected with her, like she knew exactly what the author had gone through in writing it.

“I read that one,” Dan said as he flicked a fire ant off his arm.  “There was a big to-do ‘bout that one ‘round here when it got published, you know, on account of the familiarity of it and all.”

Gabby thought about biting her tongue, but she couldn’t resist.  “I can’t help but notice, but in that story he had a guy in overalls on an orange hammock.  Did he base that character on you?”

“Nah.  I based me on that character.  Honestly, I don’t care for the man.  After the drought, he bought out my deeds forcin’ me out here to the fringes.”

“So you know where he lives?”

“Sure.  Right on the banks of the Oeeokee River.  If you can find it.”

Gabby pulled out her map and studied it.  “Now I know you’re messing with me.  There’s no Oeeokee River on the map.”

He tumbled out of the hammock and stretched his limbs.  “That’s cause it didn’t exist until Mr. Salvador moved in.”  Dan put his finger on the map, leaving an oily smudge where he dragged.  “He dug some trenches along here, moved some boulders around, redirected the flow of that other river you do see here on the map.  Made the old house riverfront property.  Suppose he wanted to make an oxbow, but I guess he didn’t have time to finish.  Problem is the Oeeokee ain’t got nothing to flow into, so it kinda bottles up and busts its banks whenever we get a good rain like we did last night.  Floods the place.  He’s always cleanin’ up the place, but the waters always comin’ in faster than he can clear it out.  That’s what happens when you fight nature’s course.”

“Does he live alone?”

“Yup.  He has some children in town, but he let go of them some time back.  You’ll probably run into them.  Griffin’s a small place.  Maybe they can tell you where to find him.”  He coughed out another laugh.  “You best be goin’.  Storm’s comin’ in.”

He seemed to be ushering her back to her car, now the only vehicle in the dirt parking lot, but Gabby felt somewhat compelled to buy something, at least for Dan’s time.

“How much for that Velasquez print?”

“Ma’am, that ain’t no print.  That is a genuine painting.  Lost Manyness, I think is what it’s called.  It reminds us of when we lost our many niceties.”

“It’s Las Meniñas.  It’s by Velasquez.  It’s like in every art book.”

“Then this Velasca fella’ must’ve copied this work here.”

“It was painted in Spain—”

“Still could’ve seen this one.”

“—like five hundred years ago.”

“How you know so much about art?  You an artist too?”

“Maybe I am.”

“Good luck findin’ your writer friend Mr. Diego Savador.”

Dan walked Gabby to her car, a shiny, new hybrid.  He held her door open as she got in.  She thanked him and said goodbye and tried to pull the door shut, but he held firm.  “They say he killed a man,” he said.

“Do you believe that?” she asked.

“The important thing is if you believe that.  You’re the one goin’ to see him.”  He finally let go of the door.  “But you can’t believe everything you read.”

Gabby pulled out of the dusty parking lot of the antique shop and followed the road north to Griffin.  When she rolled into town, she was struck by the familiarity of the places lining the main road—the pizzeria with the cartoonish pepperoni pizza missing one slice painted on the window, the coffee shop with the wrought iron cafe chairs on the patio—but they existed together like an impossible memory, incongruous with the reality she knew.  She had never been to Griffin before.

She stopped her car when she came to a red light.  She found it peculiar that there should be a stoplight at a point in the road where there was no intersection.  Minutes passed.  Was this what Dan had meant when he said the town wouldn’t let people go?  She was about to run the light when a sheriff’s cruiser pulled up behind her.  She waited longer.  He inched closer.  She didn’t know what to do.  The sheriff turned on the flashing red and blue lights, but she still had nowhere to go without running the light.   Finally, the sheriff pulled alongside her in the southbound lane where oncoming traffic would have been had there been any traffic.  He gestured for her to follow him to the Dairy Queen parking lot.  She followed.

She parked, rolled down her window, turned off her car, put her hands ten-and-two on the wheel, and waited.  The officer walked to her door and leaned in.

“You must be lost.  The road pretty much ends here, or a little ways down the road.  The only people who stop here at this light are people who are lost.  Everyone else just drives on through.  So, what exactly are you doing here?”

Gabby wasn’t sure if she’d done anything wrong.  “I don’t know exactly where I’m going.  I’m looking for a writer,” she said.  “D.F. Salvador.  Do you know him?”

“I sure do!  If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be sheriff!”

“Can you help me find him?”

The sheriff removed his cap and scratched his head.  “Well, you follow this road until it comes to a T-intersection.  Take a left…you know, it’s complicated.”  A few more cars pulled into the parking lot diverting the sheriff’s attention.  “I’m late for a town hall meeting, too.”

“At Dairy Queen?”

“You think we have a town hall?  Look, I’d help you, even drive you out there, if it wasn’t such a big meeting.  It’s our Third of May Celebration tonight.  You should stick around.  Bring your gun.”

“A gun?”

“Yeah.  Everyone fires off at midnight.”

“Wouldn’t that be the fourth of May?” she asked.  The sheriff began to slowly retreat toward the Dairy Queen, and Gabby wasn’t sure if he’d heard her snide question.              “Listen,” he said.  “If you’re looking for your author, just listen for water and head in that direction.  You’ll probably find him in the river.”  He backpedaled a little faster.  “Sorry, I can’t help you more—”

Gabby stepped out of her car and called out, “I heard he has family in town.  Do you know where I can find them?”

The sheriff laughed.  “Everyone in this town is related in one way or another.”  He pointed a finger pistol at Gabby and winked.  “But try to make it tonight.”  He disappeared inside the restaurant.

Suddenly, something prodded Gabby in the back.

She spun around and found a scraggy, one-legged man waving a crutch.  His other arm was in a sling, propped up at a 90 degree angle.  “You’re looking for Diego Salvador, aren’t you?” he said, falling hard back onto his crutch.  “Do not let him see you or he will use you.  He will, he will use you.  You know, he did this to me.”  His eyes were expressionless, but she quickly realized it was because he had no eyebrows.  He was painfully lacking.

“You know where to find him?” she asked.

“Last time I went looking for him, this happened to me,” he said, nodding to his limp arm.  “Here.  Take this.”  He held out the crutch.  “I need to give you something.  Hurry!  Take it!  Do you want me to help you or not!”

She put a hand on his shoulder and took the crutch.

He continued to hop around while he searched his pants.  He yanked out a gun.  Gabby recoiled, nearly making him fall in the process.  “Gimme my crutch,” he said.  He waved the gun wildly as he tried to balance himself.  “Here.  Take this,” he said, offering the gun.  “Trade.  Gimme my crutch.  Quick!  Before I fall and break my one good limb.”

She didn’t want it, but she she didn’t want to see him fall either.  And she certainly didn’t want the gun to go off accidentally, so she took it.  It felt warm and heavy in her hands.

“You seem like a nice girl.” the man said.  “You have a name?”

“Gabby.”

“You’re a lucky one, I can tell.  I just don’t want to see what happened to me happen to you.  It ain’t easy being half a man.”

She tried to hand the gun back to him.  “I’m sure he didn’t intentionally hurt you.”

He pushed it away.  “Are you his mouthpiece now?  He’s using you and you don’t even know it.”

“I don’t need a gun,” she said.

“Keep it.  I really have no reason for carrying it.  I guess I just had it for the celebration.”  He smile widely.  “But tonight, you’re the celebration.”

Gabby pulled the gun closer to her.  “I don’t know what you want me to do with this.”

“You’ll need it.  I’ll show you exactly how to get there, but first you have to promise to me to do something.”

She followed the directions, moving slowly down the path.  She had been warned not to startle him.  She had been warned not to step in his shadow or pass over his reflection.  The one-legged man had warned of many things, but the consequences of ignoring the warnings were vague.  As long as she beat the storm, which gathered strength at the edge of the tree line, she’d find him on the river, which would be the “safest place to confront him.”

It was when she felt the first twinge in her chest that she first turned around and assessed her progress, wondering if she’d be able to return the same way she came or if she’d even recognize the path from a flipped perspective.  Why had she trusted the one-legged man over her own instincts?  She closed her eyes and dampness closed in on her senses until it filled her body.  Thunder just beyond the tree line.  The natal smell of rain.  Water.  Water flowing.  She opened her eyes and followed the sound.  She hopped over prickly plants, trusting the stability of makeshift stepping stones.

Finally, a shallow stream swarmed around her ankles.  She’d reached the outer nerves of the Oeeokee River.  The little house was where she knew it would be, but she knew D.F. would not be inside.  Upriver, a cluster of boulders parted the river, unleashing rapids on one side and a calm flow on the other.  A small tree sprouted from the largest of the boulders.

She mapped her way there, choosing the flattest rocks and stones and imagining the occasional leaps and feats of balance that would be required to reach the cluster.  She knew she’d find him there on the other side of the largest boulder.

She moved quickly but quietly.  A few rays of sun broke through the clouds.  Her shadow danced along the boulders until her shape took form in the reflection of the river. She was aware of her pounding heart as she climbed atop the boulder.  She gave one final look at where she’d come from and she caught a glance of her reflection, full and colorful, in the river below.  She felt more resolute than ever as she pulled herself atop the boulder.

There he was under the shade of the tree, his back to her, his journal in his hands.  The rolling water obscured her footsteps as she crept up behind him.  Before she did anything else, she had to see what he had written.

On the page were two sentences and his hand hovered above, prepared to add more.  She moved closer to read what he had written.

The only way to get there is to pass through Griffin.  No one wants nothing to do with Griffin.”

            Then

Gabby arrived

The American Experience in One Patriotic Day

TO THE PROMISED LAND

After breakfast on the morning of the 4th of July, 1998, my buddy and I wandered over to the Capitol to survey the area and find the optimal place to view both the fireworks and the show.  Unbelievably, people had already laid down a few dozen quilts to mark off their saved spots.  Who were these people that had nothing better to do with their lives than sit out on a lawn in muggy heat for eight hours?  Surely, whatever they were waiting for was worth it if they were this committed.

We stepped over a knee-high wall and explored the terrain searching for any prime land that remained unsettled.  Though the best spots had been claimed, a few good areas remained.  If we’d waited any longer we might have lost out on a chance for a spot, so we hurried back to our apartment a few blocks east of the Capitol to grab necessary supplies.  Carrying just the essentials—a quilt, camera, tape recorder, Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment to help pass the time, and a cooler of beer—we headed west across a sea of grass to join the sweaty, huddled masses.  A furious land grab was inevitable.

The lawn in front of the Capitol was already twice as full as before, and the short wall that we had hopped just an hour before to gain access to the lawn was now reinforced by a five-foot fence.  A guarded narrow staircase leading over the wall provided the only access to the area. The crowds poured into the space and scattered to find spots to set up their temporary homesteads.  Somehow we found a perfect section that offered a clear view of the concert stage and the Washington Monument.

By five o’clock the lawn had become a patchwork quilt of patchwork quilts.  Beside us, only a tiny strip of unconquered grass remained.  I stretched my legs across this area trying hard to protect it.  Then came the family of six.

One of the little daughters complained, “There’s not enough room, Dad.  It won’t work.”

She was absolutely right but the dad insisted, “Oh, we’ll make it work.”  He bullied a group in front of us, who had been there since nine in the morning, into surrendering some additional land for his family.

I wanted to say something to halt their aggression, but I didn’t, and reluctantly watched as they made themselves comfortable at the expense of our own comfort.  An hour later fifteen of their relatives trekked across the dense landscape to join in the land steal.  It was physically impossible to fit any more people on that strip of land without invading our privacy.  The adults gently spread their quilts over ours while maintaining friendly conversation with us, but their children trampled over our quilts with no regard for our claim.  Eventually, we were crammed into four square feet of space.

This was not fair, I thought.  Why should I have to share my little parcel of the Mall?  We had sacrificed our day, battled heat, humidity, thirst, hunger, and dehydration so we could have our own little view of the majestic firework display, and here they came, freeloaders, arriving at the 11th hour to steal our fruits without putting in the labor.  They were probably proud of their opportunism, that they had played their cards perfectly and had nabbed a decent spot to enjoy the show while still being able to enjoy a little AC during the hottest part of the day.

When you think about it, there’s not much difference between an opportunist and a freeloader except that we celebrate one and detest the other, the real difference depending only on perception.  I decided not to make the distinction and allowed myself to feel happy for them.  Complaining would only make two unhappy groups of people.  I would find a way to enjoy the show, and if I could share this moment with a few others, so be it.

BORDER CONTROL

By 6:30 the umbrellas that once shielded the sun were now blocking a light rain that fell.  A lady settled on the narrow strip of grass behind us, careful not to intrude on our limited space.  She was waiting for her husband to join her, but by seven, the patrol on the border was turning back new immigrants to the lawn.  If someone from the lawn wanted to leave and return, they were required to obtain a password.  The password was Cheeto.

Eventually the rain waned and the concert began with a tap dance number starring Tony Danza and a pair of bright-eyed dancers.  Actually, I felt kind of sorry for them.  I’m sure they spent a lot of time preparing and synchronizing their steps, but in the age of Michael Flately and Riverdance, it just wasn’t too impressive.

Then came the longest rendition of the National Anthem that I’ve ever heard.

After Sha-Na-Na revived a couple of their tunes, Suzy Boggus approached the stage to sing Woody Guthrie’s socialist anthem.  About this time I noticed that our quilt had become a home to a couple of unfamiliar kids.  What the hell were they doing on our quilt?

This land is your land

                        This land is my land

                        From California

                        To the New York Islands

 

We sang along with the rest of the crowd as I wished I could sit on the cushy chairs in the roped off section in front of the stage, but this prime real estate was reserved for the politicians and VIPs.

 

                        This land was made for you and me.

 

THE GRAND FINALE

What we were all waiting for was the grand Russian overture, which signaled the climax of the American celebration.  When the cannons fired and the trumpets blared, we would instinctively search the skies.  We were treated to the whole 15-minute rendition filled with the unmistakably Russian folk themes.  (Personally I don’t mind this rendition, because the build to the climax is that much more dramatic, but starting in 1999, the National Symphony Orchestra apparently decided that most people would rather not wait for the payout, and now play the last three minutes and the most exciting bit of Tchaikovsky’s tune.)   Anyway, after the roaring cannons and blasting fireworks, the entire crowd joined in the singing of God Bless America.  After all the fighting and jostling for position, everyone was now cheerfully singing.  It was a chilling moment.  As much as we got on each other’s nerves, we seemed to have found a way to come together.

The song ended, and there was sweaty madness.  Thousands of people pushed towards the streets leaving behind a wasteland littered with beer cans, potato chip bags, and food.

An estimated 450,000 people filled the Mall on this 222nd birthday of our country, and we had been right in the middle of the melting pot of patriotic Americans.

My Best Photos from South America

Gallery

This gallery contains 23 photos.

 

Distracted Writing at a Coffee Shop

I was working on a novel filled with shady characters when a guitar/piano duet entered the coffee shop followed by their adoring fan.

She comes to support the two guys who are playing background music at a coffee shop at a volume so low you can only hear it if you’re sitting within five feet of them.  The guitar player is lightly finger-strumming on a nylon guitar and bobs his head in syncopation with the beat as if he’s feelin’ it even as the customers are barely hearin’ it.  The piano player tickles the treble, white keys while ignoring the black ones.  His left hand is dead in his lap.  Bashful musicians.  She sits and eats a sandwich.  Taps her feet to the staggered rhythm.  Sways to the beat.  Smiles.  Silently snaps her fingers in approval when a song finishes.  She is the only one listening or paying attention.  But she doesn’t feel awkward about it.  She is completely invested.  The guitar player text messages someone between songs while the piano player plays arpeggios.  When there’s a lull, she texts as well.  The piano player falsettos some Richard Marx and she laughs a cozy laugh, the kind that causes the shoulders to scrunch inward and the eyes to squint.  Next song she sighs, looks down in reflection for just a moment as if to regather her enthusiasm, then resumes her swaying for a little bit.  After this song she snaps with only one finger.  She’s fading, staring off into nothing, but still engages the guys with supportive smiles.  They’re why she’s here.  But she is the brightest star in the coffee shop.

 

The End of the World

El fin del mundo

On the road—in the buses, in the hostels, on the trails—we all have our Lonely Planets as our guide.  Most of us have backpacks that have been repaired multiple times.  We carry some of our indulgences whether they’re our music on our ipods, a box of our favorite chocolates, or a paperback book.  Some of us pack our memories and our dreams like bundles of laundry, only removing them every week or two until they get tossed back and buried under the heap.

I awoke early this morning, anxious to get a jump on hiking opportunities.  When I opened the door, the wind bit into my skin and a light snow fell, so I hurried across the courtyard toward the communal showers desperately hoping there would be hot water today.  I was in luck.  The warm water felt great, and I grimaced at the thought of going outside again.  Today was my last full day in Tierra del Fuego and I wanted to make the most of it.  I found a cheap flight that leaves tomorrow and makes a stopover in El Calafate before continuing on to Buenos Aires.

The manager of the hostel, who has grown to like me despite an angry outburst from my compatriot and former roommate, suggested I go to the national park, and she arranged for a shuttle to take me and a few other guests first thing in the morning.  There were no other guests in the cab.  When I arrived at the park, there were no guests at the park besides the campers who huddled together in their tents.  I was alone.  Most people did what you should do on a day with forty-mile-an-hour winds and subfreezing temperatures.  A few curious rabbits seemed amused by my presence.

There wasn’t enough snow to stick to the ground, but there was enough moisture on the lush, bent grass to soak through my tennis shoes.  But my luck had not faded.  The snow had kept away the crowds, and less than an hour into my hike, the clouds drifted away and the sun appeared.  It was perfect weather, and I was alone to enjoy its beauty.  Beautiful channels and lakes scattered over the landscape like footprints.  The scenery was dreamy with soft, pressed grass, snow-blanketed mountain tops, dwarflike trees, and countless patches of white orchids.  There is no better meditation than to be alone in nature’s glory, and I soaked it in for all it was worth.  By the time I reached the lookout point at Lapataia Bay, I was joined by a few dozen Japanese tourists in bright orange jackets who had been bused to this point at the end of Route 3.  They were all eventual passengers of the cruise ship docked at the port.  The jackets had been an added extra with the purchase of their fare.

I found a secluded spot to eat the lunch I had packed, a ham and cheese sandwich, my specialty according to my cousin Ana.  Even the most basic foods taste better in a perfect setting, and I savored each bite with unrestrained delight before moving on my way.  Beyond a grove of trees in another secluded area I discovered a familiar family—my Argentinean roommates.  They each greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and wide smiles, even the daughter.

“Would you like to hike with us?” asked the mother.  “We keep getting lost.”

We had rarely crossed paths in the room.  They were asleep when I returned to the room with Kate last night and I was up before them this morning, but out in the wilderness, it was as if we were lifelong friends.  I got them back on track and we walked and talked, climbing hills and tracing lakes.  Besides introductions, I had hardly used my Spanish since leaving Montevideo and talking to the mother and son gave me a great chance to practice.  The daughter, however, either raced far ahead or lingered way behind but wouldn’t join in the conversation.  Her reticence concerned me and I strode ahead to catch her.  “How are you enjoying the hike?”

She barely acknowledged me and gave me only a fleeting glimpse of her eyes.  Then I understood why she had shied away in previous encounters.  “I can’t hear,” she said pointing to her ears.  Her speech was rough but I understood well enough.

No problema,” I said.  “No hablo bien.”

This time she read my lips and laughed.  From then on she was more at ease.  After the park, we shared a taxi back to town and the mother invited me to join them on a catamaran in the Beagle Channel.  The boat had three levels and we chose a booth on the middle.  While we were still moored to the dock, the two teenagers explored the upper and lower levels.  My mind filled with expansive empty space.  I leaned my head against the window and gazed out at the shore as we finally drifted away.

End of the world, beginning of everything

A dark morning had turned into a perfect day.

Rainbow over the Beagle Channel