1. Dusty, a dog
June 6-21, 2002

I traded places with my brother at the airport.

My brother, Steve, is in the antiques business with my mom. They do their antique buying in France. Steve was leaving on a buying trip to France just as I was returning from there. Our mom dropped him off at the airport and picked me up at the same time.

Steve being away meant that I got to take care of his dog, Dusty. For two weeks, Dusty and I were constant companions.

Steve being away also meant that I had to take his place working at the antique shop.

I took Dusty to work each day. He lies on his cushion under the desk. Towards the end of the day, he’ll start growling softly whenever a customer walks in. He growls because he knows that as long as there are customers, he doesn’t get to go home. When you tell him to be quiet, he looks at you as if to say, “Okay, fine. But you want to leave as badly as I do.”

I love Dusty.

He’s the right size: medium. He’s the right breed: mutt.

He has short white hair with a few big brown spots and lots of tiny brown specks. He has a white, cropped tail and brown, floppy ears. He’s about 10 years old.

Dusty was abused as a puppy. So he’s suspicious of people he first meets, he worries a lot, and he’s a bit jumpy.

And he takes care of himself. For example, he rations his food, which means you can keep his bowl full and not worry about him overeating. (Unless you feed him people food, in which case rationing goes out the window.)

He’s allergic to flour. It makes him itch. Because he’ll often snatch up scraps of bread on the ground during walks, and because people sometimes give him bread without knowing his allergy, Dusty spends much of his life in a state of itchiness.

Dusty can be quite standoffish. In fact, he usually is.

He lives for his walks. He loves to smell plants and things on the ground. But, bless his little heart, he has no interest in sniffing anything above knee level.

He will patiently wait for you in the car. Just take him for a walk when you get back, and all is good.

During walks, he will pee in tiny squirts so that he can mark as much territory as possible. My mom finds this annoying. I, for some reason, think it’s kinda cool.

He only poops in out-of-the-way places.

He will not hesitate to protect you, but if there’s a garbage can or some obstacle he can hide behind while growling ferociously, he’ll make sure to take advantage of it.

He doesn’t kiss up. He shows affection only when he feels like it, or when he thinks you need it. Neither case is very often, but when you get that occasional lick from Dusty, it means something.

Dusty has the doggie vice of begging for food at the table. But he doesn’t whine. He doesn’t paw. He doesn’t jump up. He simply sits beside you quietly and rests his heat on your lap. It’s very endearing … and effective.

Each night, a little before bedtime, Dusty decides that he wants to play and will strongly encourage you to chase him around the house.

Dusty is stubborn, but he has an uncanny ability to know when he needs to behave. The best example was the time we took him onto the Metro in Paris. (Yes, we took Dusty to France. Every dog dreams of a trip to Paris, and Dusty happened to be hanging with the right crowd.) When we brought him on the Metro, we had to put a muzzle on him because there was a rule about that. Well Dusty did not like the muzzle at all. While on the train, he continually pawed at it trying to get it off. We could do nothing to stop him, and he was making quite a scene. Then we came to a stop and an armed squad of Metro Police boarded our car. Dusty took one look at these guys (who, I must say, looked pretty intimidating), and he immediately stopped his escape efforts.

When the police got off at the next stop, Dusty recommenced, and he actually managed to remove the muzzle. We later learned that the muzzle rule only applied to certain types of dogs. “Mutt” wasn’t one of these, so Dusty went muzzle-free on future rides and was happy as a clam.

By the way, Dusty loved Paris. Although he looked nothing like those foo-foo French dogs, Dusty’s standoffish demeanor allowed him to fit right in.

Dusty is getting old and achy, so he likes his cushion. Nonetheless, at the end of our second day together, when I went upstairs to bed, Dusty got up from his cushion and came upstairs to sleep on the floor next to me. I’m not used to such effort being made to sleep in my proximity, so I was both surprised and touched. For these two weeks, Dusty following me up to bed each night was my favorite part of the day.

(Yes, I’d bring his cushion up for him.)

While back home, I was able to have dinner a few times with Dave & Leslie and Bill & Gia.

Dave and Bill were two of my closest friends in high school.  After college Bill, Dave, and I started a little company called Outland which provided a way for people to play games with each other over the Internet. That was back when most people had never heard of the Internet … including me. Bill and Dave had to explain it to me.

Outland eventually grew into a company called TEN (standing for Total Entertainment Network) which later became pogo.com, which last year was acquired by Electronic Arts. It was an incredible 12 years. I should have been keeping a journal. The end result, though, was that now, during peak hours, there are close to 200,000 people playing pogo games at one time.

Through all this, my friendships with Bill and Dave just got stronger. Nearly every day we’d make time for our Peet’s Walk, where we’d walk a few blocks sipping fresh cups of Peet’s coffee and talking business.

Bill and Dave are still at EA.com, playing pivotal roles. I left at the end of last year. I miss the camaraderie and, of course, the daily Peet’s Walk.

While back home, I also had the chance to spend some time with Michael and Debbie. Michael and I have been friends, like brothers, since the fourth grade. After college he moved to Texas for business. A few years ago he moved back to California to be near his mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer. While here he fell in love with Debbie, and last year they got married. They are now living in Lake Tahoe. Michael’s mom beat the cancer and is doing great. Happy story. The happiest.

My friends have been busy. Bill & Gia have a newborn baby boy named Giles. Dave & Leslie are expecting a girl later this year. In the last 6 months, Bill & Gia, Dave & Leslie, and Michael & Debbie have all purchased homes.

Meanwhile, the most responsibility I’ve had has been taking care of my brother’s dog.

And writing this journal. So let’s get back to business and talk about our next adventure. We’re doing three back-to-back trips to Central America, all out of Miami. Here’s the agenda:

1. Costa Rica (June 22-27). We’ll be joining my cousin, Dan, to take surfing lessons inTamarindo, Costa Rica.

2. The Bahamas (June 28 – July 4). My brother, John, is the captain of The Avalon, a boat which takes groups on scuba diving and sailing trips into the Bahamas. John reserved the boat for himself for a week and invited 16 friends to join him to see what he does for a living. To say that John’s friends have been eagerly looking forward to this trip would be a vast understatement.

3. Guatemala (July 5-23). We’ll be accompanying Sara and Tricia. (You know Sara from our travels to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.) They’ll be on the Bahamas trip, and they invited me to join them afterwards to explore Guatemala. Strictly out of a duty to my readers, I said, “Yes.”

So … next stop, Costa Rica!

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2. Cousins in Costa Rica
June 22-27, 2002

I was going to Tamarindo!

I was excited because I would be seeing Costa Rica and learning to surf, but mostly because … I was going to Tamarindo!

When I was little, my dad would often make “Tamarindo & Soda” for us kids. This drink uses a sweet syrup made from Tamarindo trees. At the time, I didn’t know about the trees. I just thought of Tamarindo as something mysterious and exotic.

And now I was going there.

From San Francisco, I took a red-eye to Miami, then caught a morning flight to San Jose, Costa Rica, then puddle jumped to Tamarindo, a little town on the Pacific coast.

Dan met me at the hotel. Dan and I are what you call double-first cousins. We got that way because two brothers (our fathers) married two sisters (our mothers). So Dan’s father is my father’s brother and Dan’s mother is my mother’s sister. Whatever … it means we have the same four grandparents.

Every side of our family came to America from Piemonte, a region of northern Italy. The first one over was our great grandfather, Giovanni Beltramo. He arrived in the 1880’s and soon after opened a boarding house for other Italian immigrants. In addition to providing a place to stay, he would help them find jobs on the San Francisco peninsula.

One thing led to another, and, 115 years later, two of his great grandsons got to take surfing lessons in Costa Rica.

Coincidently, the town of Tamarindo is filled with Italians. They run hotels, restaurants, sport shops, etc. Supposedly one of the big landowners there was Italian, and, when he sold off his properties to be developed, he favored Italians. This was convenient for us because Dan speaks Italian.

On our first morning there, we stopped by the sport shop to confirm our surfing lessons for the week. When we told the guy at the counter our names, he said something to the effect of, “No way!” He then called over his buddy and introduced us to him. His name was Carlo. Carlo Beltramo.

Sure enough, Carlo’s family is from the same part of Italy as our great grandfather, Giovanni. Carlo informed us that most of the Beltramos from that area are related somehow. And so in Costa Rica, land of flying parrots and roaming iguanas, we ran into an Italian cousin.

That afternoon we went back to the surf shop for our first surfing lesson. We met Edward and Suzanne, a nice couple from Holland who would be taking lessons with us. The four of us waited for our surfing instructor, Manuel, known by the locals simply as “The Surfista.”

Manuel the Surfista made his entrance. He drove up on his motorcycle, 10 minutes late, with his girlfriend, Laura, clinging to his back, and his dog, Sly, chasing on foot. This, we would learn, is how Manuel makes all his entrances, although not always with the girl.

Manuel is 34 years old, 6 foot 4, and has long brown hair. He is an expert surfer, has a masters degree in Motion Sciences (don’t ask me what that is), and is an enthusiastic, competent instructor. Nonetheless, there is a reason that Manuel will never be taken seriously as a surfing instructor: he’s Italian. Italians aren’t supposed to surf. But more to the point, an Italian accent, combined with surfing lingo, sounds really funny.

Manuel’s girlfriend, Laura (pronounced L’hour-a, but better) is a cute twenty-something-maybe. She’s from Argentina, fleeing all the trouble over there.

Manuel’s dog, Sly, is a brown, one-year-old Doberman with floppy ears. Sly does several 2-mile sprints each day. That’s the distance between Manuel’s house and the surf shop.

We took our first surfing lesson. Here’s how you surf:

You lie face down on the board. You paddle out there.

There will be times when a big wave is about to break on you. These waves will, in an Italian accent, “kick your ass.” The result will be that you and your board get thrown backwards. At best, this means you lose valuable ground. At worst, it means you clobber some poor fool behind you.

So what do you do if a wave is about to kick your ass? Not what you would think. While pointed towards the wave, you flip over so that your board is upside down, with you under it, holding your breath and clinging dearly. After a moment of uncertainty, you will find that the wave is passing gently over you.

Now that you’ve saved your ass from being kicked, you are ready to catch a wave. When a suitable wave is about 30 feet away, start paddling slowly. Then paddle faster. Frequently look back to see where the wave is. When it’s really close, paddle like there’s no tomorrow. When the wave is starting to overtake you, you should feel a push. Now stand up.

To stand up, quickly push up from the board with your arms and arch your back. Then immediately pull up one knee and pop up to the cool, crouched position that you see surfers in all the time.

There are two keys to successfully standing up on the board. The first is to practice on the beach. The second is to always look up ahead. If you look down at the board, you will repeatedly lose your balance and fall. Then your instructor will call you a “boardwatcher” in a tone indicating that you are the lowest of surfer life forms.

Once you stand up, surfing is pretty easy. Just look the way you want to go and stay low.

But you should ignore me because I’m not qualified to be giving surfing advice.

I’m a boardwatcher.

But it was fun playing in the waves.

That night we ate dinner at a place called The Lazy Wave. Surfing, or at least trying to, works up an appetite. For appetizers, we had vegetable dumplings and chicken dim sum. For entrees, we had Dorado with a sweet and sour sauce and tuna with a Tahini sauce. (Tahini sauce, Dan tells me, is made with pressed sesame seeds. Dan is in the food industry, with a company called Instill that provides software for managing restaurant inventory. He’s also a gourmet cook. So I think we can take his word on the sesame seed thing.)

The meal was quite good. But here was an incident. While chewing on a vegetable dumpling, I bit into something hard. I spit it out to find a half-inch long, sharp piece of glass. How does a large piece of glass find it’s way into a vegetable dumpling? I would never find out. Or so I thought.

The next morning we went fishing. Geraldo the Fisherman took us out on his little boat. The highlight was watching a sailfish. It was repeatedly jumping into the air, a beautiful sight.

We did catch a fish. It was a 37 pound Red Snapper. Did you know that Red Snappers come in different colors? This one was orange.

While out on our little boat, we noticed a black cloud on the horizon. It started getting closer.

No, the weather was not getting bad. It was simply swarm of bees.

Killer bees.

Geraldo the Fisherman seemed genuinely concerned, and he made the little boat go as fast as it could away from the cloud.

We lived to surf again.

That evening after surfing, we invited Manuel to join us for a Red Snapper dinner. He recommended that we go to the Lazy Wave. We agreed. Surely the piece of glass was just a fluke.

We gave our snapper to the chef to prepare as he saw fit, then sat down with Manuel and Sly. Our waitress was none other than Manuel’s girlfriend, Laura. So the whole gang was there.

Sly was happy to see Laura and followed her around as she waited tables. I’d imagine that a waitress dropping a bunch of food because she tripped over her boyfriend’s dog would not go over very well with the chef. This did not happen, which is especially fortunate because Laura was already at odds with the chef. A couple nights before, she had gotten into an argument with him. According to Laura, the chef is a real hothead and, when he gets mad, he often breaks things in the kitchen.

Breaks things in the kitchen!

Our meal, which we chewed carefully, consisted of seafood fondue, fish cakes, and hearts of palm, followed by our Red Snapper – some of it grilled and some of it herb encrusted. There were no incidents.

The next morning we went on a jungle tour that included an ATV ride and a zip-line canopy tour.

The ATV ride was great, with lots of steep hills to climb and streams to cross. I will pass on to you this bit of common sense which escaped me the first time around: if you are wearing shorts on an ATV, and you cross a stream, and steam starts billowing from the now wet engine located between your calves, then, for crying out loud, pull your legs out away from the steam which, oddly enough, is really hot.

The canopy tour was fun. It consists of a series of trees with platforms in the highest branches, like dream tree houses. The platforms are connected by a taut wire, called a zip line. You wear a harness that you clip onto the line. You then raise your feet and proceed to slide several hundred feet, at considerable speed, to the next tree house. Around and below you are the treetops of the jungle, zipping by. If you were ever envious of Tarzan, you need to do this.

We went surfing again in the afternoon. By this time, Dan was standing up on the board pretty consistently. Meanwhile I was, well, you know … boardwatching.

We ate dinner at our hotel’s restaurant where we had the remaining snapper. They prepared one dish with a tarragon sauce and another with a lemon sauce. All in all, our Red Snapper served us very well. Even though it was orange.

After dinner we went to a bar that was having Ladies’ Night, which meant that women got free drinks. It also meant that nearly the entire town of Tamarindo was there, including Manuel the Surfista and Sly the Floppy-Eared Doberman. We talked surfing with Manuel, while watching Sly work the crowd for attention and food scraps.

Carmen and Melissa, two pretty, blonde, vacationing New Yorkers, were also there. But we didn’t know that.

The following morning Dan went fishing again, while I stayed and did laundry and e-mail. Dan caught a small Dorado.

At that afternoon’s surfing lesson, there were two new students. Guess who.

C’mon, guess.

No, it wasn’t Geraldo the Fisherman and Carlo the Cousin.

Yes, it was Carmen and Melissa, the vacationing New Yorkers who we didn’t meet the night before. After our lesson, Dan had the presence of mind to invite them to dinner to share in the Dorado. We told them that we’d be at the restaurant on the beach at the end of the road at 7:30 and that they should stop by if they felt like joining us.

Dan and I got to the restaurant at 7:30. We gave Dan’s Dorado to the waiter and requested fish tacos. Tacos would be easy to split up if our guests ever arrived. At this point we were giving them a 50-50 chance.

At about 8:00 the waiter asked, “Are you really going to be four people, because if not I’d like to move you to a two-person table.” By now we had given up on Carmen and Melissa, so we agreed to move. The new table had the advantage of being close to a window. Through the window I had a nice view of another restaurant on the beach just a cross the way.

Technically speaking, this other restaurant could also be described as “the restaurant on the beach at the end of the road.”

Whoops.

I walked over. Yes, they were there. They had already ordered dinner but said they’d meet us later for drinks.

Dan and I ate all the fish tacos on our own. Not a problem.

Carmen and Melissa came by after dinner, and we went to the bar next door. Carmen works at the United Nations, and Melissa works at an agency representing playwrights. You can’t get more New York than that. They were a pleasure to talk to.

As we said goodnight, I told them to check followingalex.com in a few weeks because I’d be writing about them. This is the first time I’ve used such a threat to increase readership.

The next morning I got up at 5:30 and made my way back to Miami. Dan was not leaving till the next day. I would love to have stayed, but it was time to meet up with my brother and friends for sailing and scuba diving in the Bahamas. It’s these kinds of tough sacrifices that make my current life of travel so challenging.

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3. The Crew of the Avalon
June 28 – July 5, 2002

Okay, here we go: a day-by-day account of a week spent with friends on a boat in theBahamas.

Day 1

Immigrations at the Miami airport was a zoo. I spent two hours squished in line, desperately hoping that no one would step on my toe (which I bruised while surfing the day before.)

I met up with part of our group at the airport. John picked us up and brought us to the Avalon.

The Avalon is a 65 foot charter boat set up for week-long scuba diving and sailing trips in the Bahamas. It’s owned by Lost Island Voyages and captained by John Beltramo, my brother. [John has since started his own business, Juliet Sailing & Diving.]

On a typical charter, John’s crew includes a dive master, a cook, and a first mate. But this week John chartered the Avalon for himself, replacing his normal crew with 15 of his friends. And so let me introduce you to the Crew of the Avalon:

Cap’n John. My brother. The most generally competent person I know.

Dad. John’s dad. (Mine too.) This was Dad’s first time seeing John at work as a captain. It meant a lot to both of them.

Tom. “Roommate!” Tom and I shared a cabin, so that’s how we greeted each other throughout the trip. Tom is the executive chef at a fine restaurant. And for one glorious week, Tom was executive chef of the Avalon. In addition to culinary delights, Tom brightens the world with a unique blend of genuine kindness and brilliant humor.

John L. John is gregarious, warm, and charming. And he’s a winemaker! More to the point, he brought to the Avalon two cases of his fine wine from the prestigious Cuvaison winery of Napa Valley.

Eddie and Brenda. This couple from Michigan was as an unknown factor. Only Cap’n John knew them, so they started as outsiders to the group. This condition lasted all of five minutes. Brenda was so likeable and Eddie so damn funny that they quickly became the social hub of the group.

Mike and Sara. You already know Mike and Sara from our trip to Eastern Europe. Mike was the de facto first mate because he was the only one with any sailing knowledge. Sara had the equally important role of providing the crew with “Fruity Tutti”, a drink made with red Gatorade powder, ice, and perhaps just a bit of alcohol.

Josh and Diane. A very nice, recently engaged couple. The original plan was for Josh to propose to Diane on the boat. But apparently he couldn’t wait. Or maybe he just felt it best to pop the question in a place that had exits not requiring a swim.

Jenny, Katie, Nancy, Nadine, Teresa, and Tricia. I am grouping all the single women of the Avalon together because it would take too long to describe how wonderful each one is. Instead I will just let you be overwhelmed by their sheer number.

Alex. The Cap’n’s brother. Me.

That’s the crew.

Once we were together on board, something became clear: there was a preponderance of bald heads.

Of all the men, only Eddie, John L. and Josh had full heads of hair. And so our first experience of Eddie was his steady stream of bald jokes. For instance, he pointed out that if we got stranded at sea, we would have no shortage of beacons.

Speaking of shiny objects, it wasn’t long until someone noticed my toe, which was now cabernet in color and very swollen. A debate ensued as to whether we should “lance it” to relieve the pressure. Eddie was the biggest champion of lancing it. To Eddie’s dismay, we decided to leave it alone.

We had dinner at the harbor, then slept on the boat.

Day 2

By late morning we were on our way. We crossed the Gulf Stream and reached Bimini. Bimini is a town on the Bahamian island closest to the states, about 50 miles east ofMiami. Ernest Hemingway hung out there lot, on account of the good fishing.

We docked and immediately set to work on a very important task: starting the barbeque. Eddie and Brenda had just gone hunting and brought a generous amount of venison tender loin, marinated in olive oil, corn starch, soy sauce, and garlic. That may not sound like much, but you didn’t taste it. (Actually, there’s a good chance you did. I keep forgetting that I’m not writing to a vast audience.) Anyway, it was incredible. I had no idea venison could taste that good.

By the time we finished dinner, it was midnight … time to go out.

We started at the End of the World and descended into oblivion.

The End of the World is a tiny bar with a sandy floor. The ceiling and walls are covered with undergarments left by patrons over the years.

The owner, Sharlee, is a friend of Cap’n John. Sharlee fed us drinks called “Backpacks.” I don’t know how they are made. Maybe there’s something different in it every time, hence the name.

It was at the End of the World that the crew of the Avalon began to let loose. Katie led the charge by doing a mock striptease on the bar.

We then walked over to the Compleat Angler. Yes, that’s how it’s spelled. Our walk coincided with a passing squall, so we were soaking wet by the time we arrived.

The Compleat Angler is a step up from the End of the World: they have pictures of Ernest Hemingway on the walls, not underwear. They also have a dance floor, and we were in the correct frame of mind to use it. It was here that John L. created The Bahamas Dance, which involves a synchronous, circular motion of the hands and hips. For the rest of the trip, the crew would execute the Bahamas Dance at appropriate times, with or without music, above or under water.

By the time we were kicked out of the Compleat Angler, the transformation was complete. The crew of the Avalon had bonded. It would be a good week.

Day 3

Time to go scuba diving. At our first dive site, there were two moorings.

A mooring is a line out at sea. One end is permanently secured to the sea floor with concrete and rebar, while the other end is attached to a buoy and floats on the surface. The floating end is a loop. To moor, a boat approaches the buoy, pulls up the mooring line with a gaff, and runs the boat’s bowline through mooring line’s loop. Presto, your boat is now parked. I mean moored. By adjusting the amount of bowline attached to the mooring, one can control how far the boat can drift.

After we moored, another dive boat named the Nekton Pilot arrived. The Nekton is a monstrosity of a boat, over twice the size of the Avalon.

The crew of the Nekton told us, “That’s our mooring. Use the other one.”

Cap’n John knew that the Nekton people did in fact install the mooring. He also knew that once someone puts in a mooring, it becomes public property and has no owner. But it wasn’t worth an argument, so we slipped the mooring and moved over to the other one, about 100 feet away.

John gave us the dive briefing. Each dive had a briefing where John told us about the site’s fish, coral, and points of interest. (John was a Divemaster before he became a Captain.) Because this was our first dive, he also covered some of the general stuff, like “Never touch anything!” He went on to say that if anything should go wrong up on the boat while he’s diving, someone should bang on the ladder with a dive weight. The ladder hangs off the stern of the boat and is used for divers to climb back in. Because the ladder is metal and goes into the water, banging on it with a lead weight is very audible down below. John said that if he hears the banging, he’ll immediately come back up.

The first half of us went on the dive. (Only half of us could go at one time because there wasn’t enough equipment for everyone to go at once.) I was on this first shift, as was Cap’n John, who would be accompanying two of the inexperienced divers.

Typically most of the excitement during a dive takes place underwater, not on the boat. Not this time. Here’s what happened while I was under water blowing bubbles …

When we started the dive, it was a bit windy.  The Nekton was leeward (downwind) of the Avalon. They had let out a lot of bowline, presumably so they would drift farther away from the Avalon.

This is a bit complicated, so let’s make a diagram.

Here’s the situation:

Wind —>

Mooring 1—line–>Avalon

Mooring 2—————line—————>Nekton Pilot

As you can see, the Avalon and the Nekton are a nice, safe distance apart. But then a squall came in, and the wind changed direction.

Let’s pause a moment, for drama, and imagine the two boats slowly swinging around their moorings.

Our next diagram is more exciting:

<—Wind

Avalon<—line–Mooring 1

Nekton Pilot<—————line—————Mooring 2

You see the problem here.

The Nekton, in all its monstrosity, laid up on the Avalon, breaking off a few of our lifeline stanchions and scaring the hell out of the Avalon crew.

Why was such a thing allowed to happen? Three reasons:

One – The crew of the Nekton was incompetent. They should not have let out so much bowline.

Two – The crew of the Nekton was incompetent. When the wind changed, they should have immediately winched up their bowline to pull themselves away from the Avalon.

Three – Cap’n John was scuba diving. Like I said, Cap’n John was scuba diving.

Unfortunately the crews of the Avalon and Nekton didn’t have the fancy diagrams that I’ve made for you, so it was not clear to them exactly what was going on. In fact, because the Nekton had swung around first, or maybe just because of some optical illusion, it looked to everyone like the Avalon was adrift and running into the Nekton.

Things really could have gotten bad if it wasn’t for the quick thinking and grace under pressure of the Avalon crew. What did they do?

They banged like hell on the ladder!

Eddie was first into action. He found a dive weight and swung it at the ladder’s hand rail. Mid-swing, the weight slipped from Eddie’s hand, and flew overboard. Not making a sound.

But Sara was right behind him with another weight. She handed it to Eddie, and he beat out the distress signal, while others joined in.

Cap’n John heard the call.

Within moments, John surfaced, climbed aboard, told everyone they could stop banging on the ladder now, assessed the situation, and released the Avalon from it’s mooring. The Avalon immediately drifted away from the evil Nekton.

Whew.

John then hopped into the dinghy and motored over to pick up the divers, myself included, who had surfaced after hearing the banging. A couple of our divers were still below, so one of the divers of the Nekton volunteered to go down and tell them to surface. When he found our divers, he used their underwater whiteboard to write a message. The guy from the Nekton wrote, “Your boat hit ours. Go up.”

What a lamo.

It was Katie’s whiteboard, so she gave it to Cap’n John, who later posed with it for a photo. “Your boat hit ours. Go up.” You just don’t see that too often.

Not much else that day compared in excitement. Theresa caught a barracuda, which we released because they aren’t good eating. (Note: They are, however, good AT eating. You should see their teeth!)

We had salmon for dinner. No, we didn’t catch the salmon; this is the Caribbean, remember. Tom came through with two nice sauces: a béarnaise and a tomato/chili sauce.

By now my bruised toe had almost returned to normal color, and it was no longer swollen. “I knew we should have lanced it when we had the chance,” bemoaned Eddie.

Day 4

We started the day with another dive. I saw a couple of parrot fish. I don’t have much to say about parrot fish. I could say that they look like parrots, but a) that would be dull writing, even for an amateur like me, and b) they only looked marginally like a parrots.

Mike made grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. Thinking back on them, it’s hard not to get philosophical about the importance of perfect grilled cheese sandwiches to the happiness of the universe.

Towards evening, while traveling to the next dive site, we played “The Buena Vista Social Club.” The Cuban music pleased half the crew and annoyed the other half.

Dad, as he did every evening, made appetizers with the salmon dip and clam dip that my mom had made for the trip. They were a huge hit, and over the week he must have made about 400 servings.

For dinner, we had chicken with curry sauce and Portobello mushrooms stuffed with veggies and breadcrumbs.

After dinner, we played AC/DC. This pleased the previously annoyed part of the crew and annoyed the previously pleased part.

Then Tom made Mai Tai’s and Sara made Fruity Tutti, and everyone was pleased.

We started playing a trivia game called “Battle of the Sexes.” There were a bunch of cards with questions, some for the boys and some for the girls. Cap’n John was the judge and asked the questions. As you might imagine, it became very competitive.

Things were getting intense, when John muttered, “I need a beer.”

I heard the call. I went down the steps to the refrigerator in the galley. I had a feeling about what John would say next, so I had made sure to get down there quickly. Sure enough, while I was opening the fridge, John yelled, “Which ever team gets me a beer first gets a free point!”

I smugly pulled out a cold one, popped the cap, and went to climb the steps to deliver my point-earning beer.

But there was a problem. The problem came in the form of Sara, who was now on the steps. I saw her look of excitement (when she thought she would be first to get the beer) change to disappointment (when she saw that I already had one) change to determination (when she decided to prevent me from getting up those steps.)

I lowered my shoulder and powered into her. She didn’t budge. Not an inch. I realized that there was no way I was getting back up the steps, for what Sara’s friends say is true: Sara is “freakishly strong.”

She must have seen the fear in my eyes because Sara took the initiative and grabbed the beer bottle. So we switched from a shoving match to a tug of war.

There we were, standing on the steps, each holding the bottle with both hands, pulling as hard as we could. Tell me if this was not an accident waiting to happen.

The tugging on the bottle caused some beer to spill out, making the bottle a bit slippery.

Yep.

Sara’s grip gave way first. I helplessly watched myself slam the beer bottle into my face, just below my eye. I flew backwards and landed in the galley on my back. Beer gushed into my eye and washed away a contact lens.

I don’t know who eventually got the beer to John, but it sure wasn’t me.

Not surprisingly, I was not the only one to get hurt during this comedy. At some point Katie had charged down the steps, slipped (on spilt beer, perhaps), and bounced the entire way down on her butt. The bruise that developed was truly phenomenal. I don’t know who eventually got the beer to John, but it surely wasn’t Katie.

Day 5

We spent the day swimming, canoeing, and diving.

The dive featured a spectacular cliff wall that started at a depth of about 40 feet and plunged out of sight into the depths below. Swimming along the edge of the wall provided an intense combination of fish, coral, and vertigo. Well, that’s what I was told. I turned left too soon and never found the wall.

After the dive we sailed to an offshore reef where we planned to do a night dive. We moored and waited for nightfall.

To pass time, someone made popcorn and was throwing pieces out to seagulls. It wasn’t long before we had attracted a flock of them. Meanwhile, Dad went swimming off the back of the boat.

I threw a piece of popcorn. The wind caught it, and it landed next to Dad. A seagull flew down right above his head and scooped it up from the water. Hmmm …

I grabbed a big handful of popcorn and started throwing pieces at Dad as fast as I could. Suddenly my father was being swarmed by diving seagulls. For some disturbed reason, I thought this was really funny. Perhaps I had been out at sea for a bit too long.

We didn’t go on the night dive. We got hit by a storm instead. Watching the lightning approach us was both beautiful and thrilling. There was no moon yet and no land in sight, so it was very dark. When lightning would strike, the sea would light up, revealing the imposing reef about 100 feet away. With each such strike, I had to remind myself that we were safely moored and not about to crash into the reef.

We finally gave up on doing a night dive, released from the mooring, and set off for an anchorage for some protection from the storm. Along the way we listened to the Braveheart soundtrack — very good storm music.

At one point the rain was so torrential that the group of us on deck put on our snorkels and face masks. We huddled together and posed for a photo. Silly, we were.

It was too rough to sit down for the planned leg of lamb dinner, so we had delicious lamb sandwiches instead.

We arrived at the anchorage. There were two other dive boats there, both from the company where Cap’n John used to work. John has a friendly rivalry with those guys, so it was important to him that we show that our boat was having more fun.

This was not a problem.

The first step was to play “Let’s Get This Party Started,” which had become our theme song for launching each night’s festivities. Cap’n John then broke out the little green glow sticks that we would have used for our night dive. (You wear the glow sticks so other divers can see you down in the dark water.) We danced on deck, shaking our little glow sticks. We then played “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie,” all of us singing along, waving our glow sticks in unison.

The other boats never had a chance. By the time we finished American Pie, their lights were out, literally. But we didn’t let that dampen our competitive spirit, and we danced and drank (Fruity Tutti, Rum, and even some of Dad’s Calvados) for several more hours.

The highlight was Cap’n John doing an exotic pole dance on the mast. It’s not surprising that a captain would know his boat intimately, but this was a real eye-opener.

We ended by joining in a big circle, arms around each other, swaying and singing to “Tuesday’s Gone” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Dad had hung with us the whole time, and having him with us in the circle made the moment truly special.

I went to bed with a completely healed toe, a minor black eye, and a Bahamas state of mind.

Day 6

After breakfast we good-naturedly BA’d the other boats and left the anchorage.

We went on another dive. While swimming around a corner, I nearly hit a resting Nurse shark. Nurse sharks are not dangerous, but they look mean, so it startled me.

That afternoon Brenda shaved Eddie’s head. This was a big deal. Remember how on the first day Eddie was giving us a hard time about hair loss?  Well by this point Eddie had become so close to the group that he made the ultimate sacrifice to be one of us bald guys. It was beautiful, man.

Never one to turn down a free haircut, I let Brenda do me as well.

That night we finally went on our night dive. We saw eels, sand rays, crabs, lobsters … standard fare for night dives. Mike, however, ran into something that was non-standard: a type of jellyfish known as a Sea Wasp. And it stung him.

Sea Wasps are aptly named because their sting causes real bad things to happen, such as fever, shock, and tortuous body cramps. After few agonizing hours, and several sweat-soaked t-shirts, the symptoms passed, and Mike was okay. Dehydrated, but okay.

Mike’s trauma coincided with his dinner clean-up duty. (We had a made a daily schedule for chores.) A theory was put forth that Mike intentionally put himself in the path of the Sea Wasp in order to get out of doing dishes. Hogwash. The real reason Mike let himself be stung was that he knew it would mean more journal time.

And it worked. Well done, Mike.

Day 7

Today’s dive (it’s the 4th of July, by the way) was the long awaited Shark Feed.

The sharks are fed by dropping a spear full of fish pieces (like a giant shish kebab) down a line to the sea floor. Because this is done often, there are always lots of sharks hanging around waiting for their next free meal.

The divers sit in an area off to the side and watch as the sharks attack the meat. It’s very safe … as long as you don’t decide to compete with the sharks for their meal. Which brings us to Orson.

Orson the Grouper.

If you know what a grouper is, then you know it’s a fish, not a shark. This puts you one step ahead of Orson.

Orson, at about two and half feet long, is an average sized grouper. But for a shark, which he’s not, that’s small. Nonetheless Orson the Grouper consistently takes part in the Shark Feed.

Orson’s approach is a bit different than the sharks’. While the sharks are circling around waiting for the fish to be sent down, Orson hangs out with the on-looking scuba divers. He picks someone in the middle and hovers right above their shoulder. In our group, he chose Mike, who had fully recovered from The Attack of the Sea Wasp. Looking at Orson the Grouper with the divers, you’d think he was just a spectator (or groupie, if you will). But when the fish kebab drops down, Orson charges in for his piece of the action.

Orson is pretty scarred up, but is in surprisingly good health.

Speaking of health, right before the shark feed, Cap’n John cut the side of his foot. There wasn’t time to deal with it properly, so he crazy glued it shut and wrapped it in duct tape. I never knew this was an option.

After the Shark and Orson Feed, it was, sadly, time to head home. John went to shore to clear customs. While waiting for John, we played on the boat’s rope swing. To use the rope, you go up to the bow, hold the rope, run off the side, swing out, and let go.

I had lunch clean-up duty, so I was down in the galley while people swung. At one point I heard a splash, then a big round of applause. Someone yelled, “Way to go, Mr. B!” I don’t know what Dad did on that swing, but it sure impressed everyone.

I finished clean-up and went up to try the swing. Eddie taunted me, saying, “Weren’t you a long jumper in college?” The taunting worked, and I set out to show everyone how this was done. My toe was fully healed and my eye was fine, so I was feeling good.

I gave myself an especially long run-up, tightly gripped the knot at the end of the rope, sprinted across the bow, and leapt into the air.

It was a good jump. I was flying. The rope tightened.

I kept going straight.

I hadn’t let go. Nor did the rope break. Instead, the knot I was gripping burst out between two of my clenched fingers. The rope shot back and got stuck on the top of the mast. It took 15 minutes to get it down.

It was embarrassing. And, as I would find out the next day, it broke my finger.

We made the crossing back to the mainland. As we approached Miami, we watched several 4th of July fireworks displays – a very nice way to be welcomed back.

Day 8

The Crew of the Avalon said their goodbyes and caught their respective flights home, everyone having had a wonderful time.

My fingers were very swollen, so John’s friend, Mark, took me to a clinic, where x-rays showed a hairline fracture. The doctor gave me a finger brace, so I didn’t have to resort to crazy glue and duct tape.

I went back to the boat and joined Sara and Tricia. The three of us would now begin our expedition into Guatemala.

Thank you, Crew of the Avalon, for such and incredible week. As Cap’n John would say …

Fair winds and following seas!

⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯

4. Guaté! Guaté! Guaté!
July 5-20, 2002

For two weeks, Guatemala had three more people.

With Sara’s freakish strength and Tricia’s uncanny sense of direction, I was in good hands. My only concern was not losing them. Fortunately Sara and Tricia are each 5’10, making them half a foot taller than the average Guatemalan.

We arrived at the Guatemala City airport. From there we drove to Antigua, about an hour away. Antigua is the country’s former capital, and, unlike Guatemala City, it is small and charming. The streets are cobblestone and the buildings are pastel in color with clay roof tiles. There are restaurants, hotels, and Internet cafes everywhere. And its high elevation in a mountain valley provides relief from the country’s heat.

Oh, and Antigua has a nice central park featuring a fountain with three stone maidens shooting water from their breasts. (Sara would be upset if I left that out.)

We began the next day with the traditional Guatemalan breakfast: eggs, refried black beans, fried plantains, and tortillas. We began most days this way.

We walked around Antigua, visiting various churches and ruins. We also toured the house of the avocado guy. If I understood correctly, the owner of the house made his fortune by bringing avocados to California. The interior is filled with antiques, while the outside is landscaped with gardens and fountains. It was very beautiful. And there was a nice portrait of the owner. He was holding an avocado.

The next day we left for Lake Atitlan, a beautiful mountain lake surrounded by three volcanoes.

There are two ways for a tourist to get around Guatemala: shuttles or busses. Shuttles are little minivans that you schedule at a travel agency. The shuttle picks you up at your hotel and you share it with other tourists.

The problem with taking a shuttle is that it’s one less opportunity to take a bus. AndGuatemala is all about the busses.

The busses are old American school busses (you know, the yellow ones) that have been turned into colorful works of art.

From what I can gather, each bus driver owns his own bus. He gives his a bus a name, like: “Esmerelda,” “Angelina”, “The Machine,” or “Sexi Girl.” Then he paints a mural all around the outside — anything from a jungle scene to a political cartoon. Inside, above the dashboard, he hangs random junk and/or religious icons. Throughout the bus he mounts speakers to blare his, usually eccentric, musical selection. My favorite is the carnival music. It just seems so appropriate.

Each bus driver has a helper. The helper does lots of things, but his main job is to squeeze through the crowded bus to collect the fares.

The seats on the buses are small, with little legroom. They were designed, after all, to seat two American school children. But you are in Guatemala now, so each seat is usually occupied by three adults, plus up to two children and/or chickens.

But we didn’t take the bus to Lake Atitlan. We took a shuttle. We were the only ones in the shuttle, so Sara and Tricia each got their own row, and I sat in front. The driver even stopped so we could have lunch at a restaurant! It was shameless.

We arrived at the shore-side village of Panjachel, where we spent the rest of the day. The highlight was watching some children playing soccer in front of a church. When traveling outside the U.S., you quickly learn that kids will play soccer anywhere. All they need is some sort of kickable ball and enough creativity to decide what a goal is. No one is too poor to play soccer.

We ended the day sitting on the shore of the lake, drinking a bottle of wine we had smuggled off the Avalon.

The next day we went to Santiago, a village on the other side of the lake. From there we planned to climb Volcano San Pedro and pay tribute to the deity Maximon. Roughly translated, Maximon is the God of Partying. He has a cult following called “The Brotherhood of the Holy Cross.” Each year a home in Santiago is chosen to house an effigy of Maximon. It is traditional for visitors to bring candles, cigars, or liquor to the effigy.

To get to Santiago, we took a boat across the lake. A cute little Guatemalan girl was selling shirts on the boat. This is not an uncommon sight. The women of Guatemalan still make, wear, and sell their traditional Guatemalan clothing. I was getting sick and had the chills, and so I bought a bright blue Guatemalan shirt and put it on for a little extra warmth.

Later I learned from our guidebook that it is disrespectful for tourists to wear the traditional clothing while still in Guatemala. So when I walked into the village, sporting my new shirt, I might as well have been wearing a sign saying, “I’m a rude tourist.”

Our guidebook also said that this village has had a problem with tourists being robbed.

We chose an inexpensive hotel on the outskirts of town. They made us pay in advance. Before going to our room, we had to wait 10 minutes for “the guy with the keys” to get back.

After settling in, Sara and Tricia went to pay homage to Maximon. Worshipping the God of Partying didn’t seem like the best path to health for me, so I stayed in the room and slept.

After a few hours of sleep, I woke up to the sound of the hotel buzzer. For some reason, there was a buzzer that would occasionally sound throughout the hotel. Anyway, when I opened my eyes I saw a figure darting away from my window. Someone had been looking into my room from the balcony that extended around the building.

Tricia and Sara came in a couple minutes later. After confirming that they had not been looking into my window, they told me about their excursion.

First they went to the house with the Maximon effigy and delivered their tribute of hard alcohol. Several members of The Brotherhood of the Holy Cross were there, sitting around the effigy, drinking and smoking. The effigy was smoking too … it had a lit cigar in its mouth. The cult members took the offering from Sara and Tricia and poured a few drops of the sacrificial liquor onto the effigy. They then kept the rest of the bottle for themselves.

Good gig.

After that, Sara and Tricia went to find a guide for hiking the San Pedro volcano. Our book said to hire an armed guide because robbers would sometimes ambush hikers. Plans with the guide, it continued, should be made discreetly so that no one knows when you’re leaving.

Sure enough, as Sara and Tricia were talking to the guide, they noticed two boys eavesdropping. Whenever Sara or Tricia would look in the direction of the boys, they’d duck behind a building. This was exactly the kind of thing our book warned about. As soon as the boys knew when our hike was, they’d run off and tell the would-be bandits. So Sara and Tricia called it off. We’d hike a different volcano later on in the trip.

We agreed to spend the night in Santiago, then leave in the morning. Sara and Tricia went to get some food. By this point I had developed a fever, so I stayed in bed, alone with my thoughts.

Maybe it was because of my fever, but my thoughts got a little carried away. Here’s how they went:

1. At what point did those two boys start following Sara and Tricia?

2. Our hotel must have had over 30 rooms. Would there really some “guy with the keys”, and would he really wander off with all of them? Or was it possible that the hotel was in cahoots with robbers, and they were stalling us to give the two boys time to arrive.

Our hotel had a few dozen rooms. Would there really be “a guy with the keys?” And would he just wander off with them all? Or might it be possible that this shady hotel was  they just stalling until the boys showed up to tail us?

1. Those boys had chosen us as targets for their bandit friends. Now that we weren’t going to hike the volcano, what would the bandits do instead?

2. Our hotel had a few dozen rooms. Would there really be “a guy with the keys?” And would he just wander off with them? Or were they just stalling until the boys showed up to tail us?

3. If the hotel staff was indeed in cahoots with robbers, then that stupid buzzer would be a perfect way to warn the would-be burglar that you were on your way back to your room. Was the person I saw in the window staking out our room? Was it a coincidence that the buzzer rang just as Sara and Tricia were on their way up?

4. It’s unusual in Guatemala for hotels to make you pay for your room in advance. Was the hotel making sure to get their money before we were robbed?

5. Tricia was dressed nicely that day, and I had been wearing my “Kick me, I’m a tourist” shirt. If I was choosing someone to rob, it would have been us.

When Sara and Tricia got back, I did my best to enlighten them with my paranoia. I suggested that we consider leaving right then, rather than spend the night.

But they would have none of it: a) we had already paid for the room, b) they felt perfectly safe, and c) the view of the lake was spectacular from the hotel’s roof patio, and they planned to spend the rest of the day there.

Two heads are better than one feverish one, so we stayed.

That night was miserable. There was a party outside our hotel, and it was a party like only Central Americans can do. Music was blaring, people were yelling, children were crying, dogs were barking, and roosters were crowing. At some point the party transformed into some sort of cult ceremony. There was spooky music, with men chanting. It was scary stuff. When that finally ended, a group of dogs howled until daybreak.

Yes, we were robbed that night, but only of our sleep.

My fever had broken some time during the dog howling stage, and by morning I was feeling a bit better. We took the first boat back across the lake, then began the return trip to Antigua. This time, we took the bus.

Actually we took four busses. At seemingly random places, the bus would pull over and the driver’s helper would tell the three of us to get out. He’d then climb up to the top of the bus and bring down our backpacks. He’d give us two of the bags, keep one, and start running down the street, yelling, “Antigua! Antigua! Antigua!”

We’d scurry after him and find ourselves at a new bus. We’d give our bags to the next driver’s helper who’d haul them up to the top of his bus while yelling, “Antigua! Antigua! Antigua!” We’d get in the bus from the back door and find just enough room to sit. The bus would take off within seconds of us getting inside.

This exact process happened three times in a row. It felt like a bus relay race, with us as the baton.

After spending the night in Antigua, the three of us split up for a few days. Sara and Tricia would be traveling to Livingston (an Afro-Caribbean town), Tikal (Guatemala’s most famous Mayan ruins), and Coban (known for a river which goes into a hole). Because I had already been to all those places during a prior trip to Guatemala, I decided to instead go see the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras.

After Tricia and Sara left, I spent a couple more days in Antigua getting well. I passed most of this time writing my journal entry about Dusty.

Nothing dramatic happened those two days, although I did accidentally drop my toothbrush into the toilet.

My journey to Copan began with a bus ride from Antigua to Guatemala City. When we departed, our bus was not quite full. As we drove through Antigua we picked up more people, with the bus driver’s helper leaning out the open door yelling, “Guaté! Guaté! Guaté!”

While we were at a stop sign, the driver’s helper suddenly jumped out of the bus and ran down the street. I looked out the window and saw that a lady with two big bags was a block and a half away, running to catch our bus. The helper guy reached her, grabbed the bags, and they both sprinted back to the bus.

They take their bus riding very seriously in this country.

In Guatemala City I stepped in for a quick lunch at “Pollolandia,” a fast-food chicken place. I got my food and sat where I could watch people on the street. As I ate, I listened to the music on the radio. For a little place with only half a dozen tables and one guy behind the counter, they had quite the sound system. Two huge speakers were facing out to the sidewalk, blasting tunes.

At the end of a song, the DJ came on and started talking. It was Spanish, of course, so I had no idea what he was saying. But it was clear what he meant when he whistled at an attractive women walking along the sidewalk.

Wait a second.

How’d the guy on the radio see her? I looked to my left and saw that the man sitting at the table on the other side of the room had audio equipment under his table, and he was talking into a microphone. This little Pollolandia franchise had its own DJ.

They take their music very seriously in this country.

My next bus ride took me to Chiquimula.

Guatemala has great names for their cities. And they have a very practical way of referring to each city by its first two syllables. My favorite name had been the market town of Chichicastenago, referred to as Chichi. But that was only until I learned that there was a place named Chiquimula (pronounced Cheekymoolah). I love this country.

I spent the night in Chiqui, then made my way across the Honduras border to Copan.

They have a nice collection of Mayan ruins in Copan. The difference between Tikal and Copan is that in Tikal the ruins are big and climbable (with steps), while in Copan the ruins are small and readable (with carved inscriptions).

Because my comprehension of Mayan hieroglyphics is even worse than my Spanish, I preferred Tikal.

After Copan I traveled back to Guatemala and went to a small town called Quirgua, which is near another Mayan ruins site. People who visit these ruins normally do a day trip. No one is expected to actually stay in poor little Quirgua.

I did.

For $6, I got a room with a shower and two fans. It was a hot night and I was sweaty from a day of walking and bus riding, so I was looking forward to a cool shower before bed. But the shower didn’t work because there was no running water that night. And 10 minutes after I went to bed, the power went out, so the fans stopped.

Oh well, so not everything in Guatemala works as well as their bus system.

I woke early and began my trek to the ruins a few miles away. I walked along an abandoned train track past some farms, then along a road through a banana plantation. I had a mile to go when I was picked up by a bus that shuttles field workers from the main highway to the plantation.

I toured the ruins, then began the trip back to meet Sara and Tricia at our Antigua hotel.

One of the busses back was especially crowded, and I had to stand in the aisle with a dozen other people. Apparently this was illegal because every so often the driver’s helper would yell, and everyone in the aisle would drop to the floor. The first time this happened, I thought someone had pulled out a gun. But once I realized we were just hiding from passing policemen, it became kinda fun. It was a good bonding experience for me and the locals.

Back at the hotel in Antigua, I asked the lady if my friends had gotten back. They hadn’t yet, but she had remembered my two tall friends. “Oh, las dos chiquas!” she had said, holding up her hand high above her head.

Las dos chiquas did return, and the next day we hiked to the top of Volcano Pacaya, an active volcano near Guatemala City. The best part was coming down. The rocks are loose and your feet sink 6 inches into them. If you walk, it’s very hard not to slip and fall on your butt. But if you just say “to hell with it” and start running down, it’s easier. And it’s a blast! Imagine running down a hill, where with each step you leap as far as you can. You couldn’t do that on a regular hill because you’d get going too fast. But here on Volcano Pacaya, you are slowed down by your foot sinking into the rocks; there is no pounding, and you can maintain a reasonable speed. It’s joyous.

Now that we had and seen Mayan ruins and climbed a volcano, it was time to go to the beach.

Our destination was the town Monterrico on the Pacific coast. We took a bus most of the way – until we got to a river without a bridge. We paid a guy with a little boat to take us across the river. We then found ourselves in a tiny little village where all the buildings were plastered with Pepsi signs.

Our next bus would not leave for an hour, so we ate lunch at the village restaurant. We had the chicken dish, our one option. I ordered a Pepsi, but they didn’t have any.

Once in Monterrico, we walked past the swamp, then along the beach to find a place to stay. We went to five different places in our search of the bungalows of least grubbiness. We found them and began our four days of enjoying the beach, seaside restaurants, and spiked fruit smoothies called “Licuados.”

These four days coincided with the 4 Day Mosquito War.

The mosquitoes attacked first. Our meager supplies of insect repellant were insufficient protection, and their attack was devastating. Most of the carnage took place on the legs of Sara and Tricia. It wasn’t pretty.

The next day we renewed our stores of insect repellant. We bought spray for our bodies and incense for our bungalow.

But it was not enough. If we were to win this war, we would need to take the battle them.

So the next morning, one of the local boys took Sara and me on a skiff into the swamp. Presumably we were going to see the Mangroves, but we were actually on a mission to strike at the breeding grounds of the mosquitoes. If we could take them out at the source, victory would be ours.

The plan was this: I would sit in front of Sara. As mosquitoes landed on me, Sara would smack them.

For various reasons, it was not a good plan.

We left the swamp demoralized. This was a war we could not win. And so we retreated back to Antiqua.

We spent our last day of the trip in Antigua, shopping and sight seeing. The next morning we got up at 5:30 and waited for the arrival of our shuttle, which we had reserved the day before. It didn’t arrive. After waiting half an hour, we gave up and found a cab.

Which just goes to show: when in Guatemala, do as the Guatemalans do … take the bus.

From the airport, we flew home to San Francisco. But before I conclude, there’s something I want to tell you: “I touched Miss Guatemala.”

I want to tell you that, but I can’t. Because I didn’t.

While in line at the airport ticket counter, we saw that Miss Guatemala herself was in line ahead of us. She was wearing a tight, slinky dress and adorned with her Miss Guatemala banner. Just like the bus drivers, she had a helper. Her helper was an older woman who carried the make-up bag and did all the talking.

Sara told me that I should go up and touch her so that I could say “I touched Miss Guatemala!” in my journal. I didn’t see any way of doing this without scaring the beauty queen and her helper, so I did nothing.

But a bit later, at the security check, I found that Miss Guatemala and I were about to cross paths, literally. We were both headed to the same metal detector. All I needed to do was keep walking as I was, and I would brush into her, if not outright collide.

It was a once in a lifetime chance.

My heart raced as I continued on my intersect course. We were just inches away when some hard-coded “always be polite” part of my brain took over. To my horror, I stopped.

Miss Guatemala walked right in front of me, untouched.

I was very troubled by this event. Or non-event, I should say. How could I take myself seriously as a journal writer if I let opportunities like this just slip right past. Why would anyone want to “Follow alex?”

Perhaps that’s why, after returning home, I accepted an invitation to Burning Man …

⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯

5. Burning Man
Late August, 2002

“Call me now –laura”

That was the subject line of the e-mail I was about to read.

Laura lives in New York. She’s a dancer and a model. When she’s not dancing or modeling, she’s traveling the world, adventuring.

Her e-mail said:

“alex–i will be coming out to Reno at the end of august for the Burning Man festival and thought since i’m so close to you i should swing by.

I had heard of Burning Man. It would be several thousand people camping in the desert, forming a temporary city, while vacationing from societal norms. There would be drugs, nudity, and general revelry.

Alice and Bernadette, two friends from pogo, had gone the prior year. They had been looking for other people from work to go. When someone suggested that “maybe Alex would go”, Alice and Bernadette only smiled. Clearly they felt that innocent, straight-laced Alex had no business being at Burning Man.

And I agreed.

But that was a year ago, back before the French coiffures, before the Parisian tutor, before the Budapest wedding, before Helga, before Prague’s bridge streakers, before swallowing glass in Costa Rica, before the Nekton Pilot rammed the Avalon, and before I blew my chance to touch Miss Guatemala.

–          The week-long event takes place in the high desert in Nevada on a flat, prehistoric lakebed.

–          About 30,000 people attend. The name given to the temporary metropolis is BlackRock City.

–          People are grouped into camps and sleep in tents or RVs. The camps are arranged in a semi-circle around a vast open space called the Playa. The Playa is about a mile in diameter and scattered with art displays. In the center of the Playa is The Man, a giant wooden statue that gets burned down at the end of the week.

–          Camps close to the Playa must be “theme camps.”. In addition to having a creative design, these theme camps often offer a real service, such as being a bar, a dance club, massage parlor, or just a place to relax in the shade.

–          No exchange of money is allowed. One must bring what they need to survive in the desert. The only things that can be purchased on the Playa are ice and coffee.

–          People get around by walking or biking. Motorized vehicles are not allowed unless they are approved as an “art car”, meaning they have been turned into something like you’d see in the Rose Parade or a bus station in Guatemala.

–          Dressing up in costume is encouraged. Many people forsake clothes altogether, opting instead to paint their bodies or go “au naturel.”

–          Each year Burning Man has a theme. This year’s theme would be “The Floating World”, so theme camps, art cars, and costumes were supposed to relate to things nautical or airborne.

I thought about it and said, “I can do this.”

And so I asked Laura whom she was going with. She said that a friend of hers was setting up a camp and that I was welcome to come too. She would forward the invitation, but she was worried that I might not be comfortable with all the drug-use and “running around being crazy.”

I read the invitation. The camp would be a theme camp. The theme would be “Pink Pussycats.” The public service would be in the form of a lounge. To describe the “Pink Pussycat Lounge,” I will now quote the invitation:
The Pink Pussy Cat is a lounge, shaped with maze-like corridors, about 70 feet in length – different doors access individual rooms of various sizes. The walls and floor are lined with pink furry fabric. The walls are rigged with thousands of pink Christmas lights creating a shadow-less-unilaterally-pink-fuzzy-womb–like environment.  One small room, however, whilst dressed exactly as the rest, will be all but vibrant green. The rooms have privacy, with either doors or beaded curtains.  Mirrors adorn their walls on all four sides, creating infinite viewing angles upon entering.  The lighting is uniformly pink. Sparse furniture, such as bean bags, ensures comfort. The end of the corridor will have a printed poetic text, inviting visitors to participate in liberating sensual experiments.  Third World and Trip House Music will play throughout, whilst different elements will be introduced randomly such as liquid, smoke, mist, moans. The entrance to the Pussy Cat is made of bristly foam, as if entering a car wash – cleansing inhibitions while protecting the inside from sand and dust.  The feel is randomly kitchy, sensual and trippy.

I thought about it and said, “I can’t do this.”

There is a big difference between ‘pink and fuzzy’ and ‘warm and fuzzy.’ And I didn’t even know what “kitchy” meant. But I slowly realized that I had to go. Saying No to this experience, whatever it was, would be inexcusable.

Now I had to think about costumes. Laura had already spent weeks hand-making her various pink costumes, and she made it clear that I should put some effort into mine too.

And so I went to a costume store and bought one of everything that was pink: a wreath of pink flowers, a fuzzy pink halo, a pink magic wand, pink sunglasses, a pink parasol, a pink lei, pink glow string, and a pink cat mask.

I also bought stuff that related to the theme of a floating world: a colorful Viking hat, angel wings, and a frog hat (a stuffed animal frog made into a hat).

I brought all this junk home and dropped it in a big pile in the corner. When Laura arrived a week later, she showed me her elaborate costumes. They were amazingly creative and intricate. I, in turn, showed her my untouched pile of stuff in the corner.

Laura still had work to do on her costumes, and, within a few minutes of her arrival, there were costume parts scattered across my entire floor. With Laura hard at work, I had no choice but to work on my costumes as well. I decided to turn my frog hat into a “frog on a lily pad” outfit. The frog would be on my head, the lily pad on my shoulders, with the rest of my body supposedly under water.

We spent the next day driving around San Francisco, shopping for needed costume parts, and then spent the evening working on the outfits.

That night I tried on my frog outfit. I had the frog on my head, with it’s legs dangling around my ears. I had 3 foot wide cardboard lily pad on my shoulders, covered with plastic leaves and white flowers. Under the lily pad I was wearing a grass skirt fastened about my chest. And a stuffed fish hung from my neck.

“Ribbit.”

We were now ready for Brigadoon, I mean Black Rock City, a place that exists only two weeks a year.

Lake Tahoe was on the way, so we stopped to visit Michael and Debbie. We saw their new house – a cute, very small cabin which they affectionately call “the Cabinette.” After dinner, Laura and Debbie went to bed. Michael and I stayed up half the night drinking Scotch. I was about to spend a week in a completely foreign environment, and so it was nice to first spend time with a good friend and a familiar vice.

We left Tahoe the next morning, stopping in Reno to pick up our 25 gallons of drinking water for the week. By late afternoon, we were in a long line of vehicles funneling intoBlack Rock City. At the entrance, we were met by a “Greeter” who asked if we were Burning Man “virgins”. If we were, we’d have to go through an initiation, such as rolling around on the desert floor. We were, in fact, virgins, but Laura warned me to say No, so I said No, and we went in uninitiated.

Using our map of Black Rock City, we drove to our camp site. We had to drive slowly so as not to throw up too much dust or hit a naked person.

By the time we reached our camp, I had become more comfortable with Burning Man.This was going to be 30,000 people acting crazy. No problem.

It was the 30 people in my camp that worried me.

When we arrived, construction of the Pink Pussy Cat Lounge was well underway. We ventured into the first room of the lounge. Plywood and pink fuzzy fabric were everywhere. We were met by Sebastian: 6’4, thin as a rail, wearing nothing but skintight leopard skin pants. He had a shaved head with a white Mohawk.

I had a sudden urge to get back in the car and drive home to Mommy.

We left the lounge construction site and walked over to the home camp, consisting of a canopied area surrounded by RV’s. The canopied area had a long table and chairs, a few lounge chairs, and a massage table. An exceptionally attractive woman was giving another exceptionally attractive woman a massage, while a group of guys at the table were smoking something that wasn’t tobacco.

I was offered some of the non-tobacco. I declined, as I’ve always done. When I was younger, I’d say no as a matter of principle. For the last several years, though, I’ve known that if the moment was right, I’d give it a try. But this wasn’t the moment. I was disoriented and paranoid enough already.

I then met Laura’s friend, Joe, who orchestrated the Pink Pussy Cat camp. He was friendly and looked pretty normal (he hadn’t yet dyed his hair pink).

The Pink Pussycats, as a group, were the most intimidatingly cool people you could imagine. Most of them were in their 30’s and from places like New York, L.A., andLondon. All of the women were gorgeous; most of the men had foreign accents. The Pussycats represented several entertainment industries, including music, movies, and even exotic dancing. They had names like: Jasmine, Sebastian, Claudius, Rachael, and Mikhail. They were edgy, sexy, and sophisticated. And they were here to party.

I could not have been more out of place.

I began setting up my sleeping area in a desperate attempt to stay busy. I was told to claim a spot in the camp’s big tent. Our camp had a big green tent like you’d seen in M*A*S*H. It was about 50 feet long. It contained old couches, grungy mattresses, and a professional stereo system. This tent was the “chill area” for the camp, as well as the sleeping area for the few of us who weren’t staying in an RV. To create my sleeping area, I dragged a mattress to the edge of the tent, then hung some sheets around it to create a little room.

That night most of the Pussycats went out on the maiden voyage of the Pussymobile. The Pussymobile was a flat bed truck with a bunch of couches on it, decorated with pink fabric and pink Christmas lights. My fellow Pussycats would pile onto the couches and drive around Black Rock City, stopping at whatever parties were worthy of their attention.

I wasn’t feeling socially equipped enough to join them, so I went for a walk instead. I went out into the Playa to see the Burning Man structure. Walking into the playa meant walking away from the campsite lights and into darkness. Other people were walking or biking around, some of them blending into the darkness, some of them holding little lights, and some of them garbed head-to-toe in neon.

The Burning Man statue was about 600 yards in. Along the way I stopped to look at a few of the art displays. The most impressive display was a grid of pipes with a few dozen blow holes along their tops. The pipes were piping gas, and immense flames, up to 8 feet high, would rhythmically burst out from the blow holes. There was so much heat generated that it was uncomfortable to stand closer than 20 feet from the exhibit. Nonetheless, there was some heat worshipper guy sitting on the ground 10 feet from the flames, meditating.

The Burning Man statue was a huge wooden stick figure of a man with his legs spread and his arms straight out to the sides. The statue was built on top a big wooden lighthouse. Five days later, as per custom, the entire thing would be burnt down.

I went back to camp and went to bed. The Pussymobile must have returned around4am because that’s when the huge stereo in the “chill” tent (i.e. my bedroom) was turned on, full blast.  The music continued till sunrise, as I lay there wondering what I’d gotten myself into.

The next day Laura and I went for a bike ride. (Our camp had about 8 old bicycles for anyone to use.)  We first went out into the playa, where we checked out a sculpture of a sea monster the size of a bus. But that was nothing. On the other side of the playa we happened across a 100 foot long, 40 foot high, yellow, rubber ducky.

We left the playa and rode around through the campsites. We stopped at a camp that had a trampoline. Laura did back flips. I just jumped around, concerned only with not knocking Laura off.

After that we stopped at a camp with a bar. We had some beer and danced with a woman named “Monkey.” We then rode back to our own camp.

I decided to move out of the communal Chill Tent and set up the tent I had brought. I chose a spot on the edge of our camp, behind the RV’s. With the help of Claudius, one of the Guys with Foreign Accents, I was able to set up my tent in a manner where there was hope of it not blowing away in the first dust storm. I now had my own place.

The canopied area of our home camp, between all the RV’s, looked like something from a movie set. And in fact, each evening, the place was transformed into a dressing room. The long dinner table was covered with make-up, body paints, costume parts, and props. Beautiful women, in various stages of undress, would scurry back and forth between the table and the RV’s. Or sometimes they’d peek their head out the RV door and ask you to bring something in for them. And let me tell you, venturing into the RV’s during the dress period was no job for the bashful.

Once everyone was dressed up, our camp became a surreal sight, filled with cats, butterflies, dancers, cowgirls, and the like. Tonight I was going out with them. I was a Viking, wearing a Viking hat, a fleece vest, and pajama bottoms cut off below the knees.

We piled onto the couches on Pussymobile and drove off into the desert night, just us and 30,000 other revelers. When we’d reach an acceptable spot, we’d pile out and either go dancing or stand around and chat. Some people just stayed cuddled up on the couches.

Most of the Pussycats were high on shrooms or ectasy. Me, I was limping along on one shot of vodka.

We were just leaving a place called Illuminaughty’s (one of the more popular dance camps) when the Pussymobile broke down. Although this didn’t seem to phase anyone, I took it as a sign to head home. So at 3am, I walked back across the Playa and found my way back to our camp.

Before going to my tent, I decided to take a peek into the Pink Pussycat Lounge. I mean that literally. You see, there was a secret viewing room accessible only by members of our camp. As it turns out, the mirrors in the lounge were one-way, and from this viewing room you could see into the padded, pink, fuzzy rooms. The creators of the Pink Pussycat Lounge said that it was meant to be a “social experiment” to see what people would do in such an inhibition-free environment.

It wasn’t much of an experiment because people did just what you might think. But this is a family journal, so I won’t go into it.

Anyway, after a quick “peep” from the viewing area, I went back to my tent

By 9:30 the next morning, my tent was hot. By 10am, it was unbearably hot, and I was forced to start the day.

I had crackers and cheese for breakfast. I did some reading, then spent some time cleaning up the camp, which was a disaster from the night before.

That afternoon, Laura and I went for another bike ride. Ingrid and Mike, two other Pussycats, came along as well. There were only four bikes left for the four of us, and one of them was missing a pedal.

I took the one missing a pedal.

It’s possible to pedal a bike with one pedal if the one pedal has a toe clip. This one didn’t. So I made a toe clip using wire.  It worked, but every so often the pedal would turn under my foot, which caused the wire to tighten. Before long, the wire was so tight around my foot that I lost circulation to my toes.

My misery was finally put to an end when the chain to the bike came off. With the bike now worthless as a pedaling device, I switched to using it as a kick scooter. I’d sit on the seat, rest one foot on the pedal, and push off the ground with my other foot.

After riding around a bit, we stopped for a break at a statue garden. A small part of the desert had been covered with grass sod, and a few dozen metal statues were on display.

After our ride, I went to find Alice and Bernadette, my friends from pogo. The name of their camp was The Deep End. It featured a Tiki Bar.

I found Bernadette. It was good to see her. After two days of Burning Man, I felt like Dorothy must have felt after two days in Oz. Talking to Bernadette was a return to normalcy.

Then she introduced me to Jessie, one of her flamingly gay campmates. He had just returned from a nearby camp where he had “gotten his butt kicked by a giant lesbian in a pool of pudding.”

The normalcy was nice while it lasted.

Alice wasn’t around, so Bernadette and I had a drink at the camp next door, at a bar called Pinky’s. Pinky’s featured a long bar with three brass poles. The poles were for patrons who felt inclined to perform striptease acts for the crowd.

Bernadette then took me down the road to visit Kelly, another former coworker from pogo. Kelly showed me her toothbrush cart. Apparently people at Burning Many often neglected to brush their teeth. So Kelly and her friend built a cart with water, toothpaste and dozens of toothbrushes. They’d be pushing the cart around Black Rock City on a mission of oral hygiene.

That night I was able to meet up with Alice. I’d known Alice since she joined pogo as a project manager 7 years ago. I remember how I thought she was smart, pretty, and worldly. She was also my age and single. And so I was afraid to talk to her.

Over the 6 years we worked together, living in the same soap opera that was our company, we became friends. We never dated, but getting a little drunk at company get-togethers and flirting with Alice was always one of my favorite things.

Alice and I left pogo at about the same time, for about the same reasons. She went off to become a mortgage broker. I went off to become a famed travel writer. And now, a year later, here we were.

I joined Alice, her husband, Nick, and a couple of their friends to partake in that night’s festivities. We rode bikes, taking turns using my one-pedal wonder. (After push-pedaling it around all day, my leg was starting to cramp up.)

We stopped by the Thunder Dome, a recreation of the jungle gym battle arena in the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome movie. There we witnessed two women swinging back and forth on rope swings, beating the crap out of each other with big padded clubs.

We found a place to dance for a bit, then continued to explore. We happened across a camp that had a long tunnel of lights. People at the entrance would hand you 3D glasses to wear while walking through the tunnel. It was like walking through a Kaleidoscope.

Toward the end of the night, we found a camp with some public sofas, and we sat for a break. Someone lit a joint. It was passed around. The joint got to Alice, and she took a hit. She then turned to me.

At 35 years old, I had finally reached a point where it was easy to decline. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t.

The next morning I’d run out of the cheese and crackers that I’d been eating for breakfast. I was left with a box of cereal and a carton of warm soy milk. I had never had soy milk before, and I didn’t know if went bad when warm. Burning Man was not where I wanted to find out.

Then I had an idea. I would do what I’d seen done in France … put coffee in my cereal rather than milk. I filled up my bowl with cereal and walked over to the Center Camp, where espresso drinks were sold. The Center Camp was a big circus tent where people did yoga, watched improvisational dance, drank coffee, or just lounged around. I stood in the long coffee line with my bowl of cereal. I was surrounded by naked people, painted people, people dressed like jellyfish, and the like, yet I was the subject of attention because I was holding a bowl of dry cereal.

I ordered a latte and poured it into my bowl, then sat down to enjoy my warm, highly caffeinated cereal. Several people commented on what a great idea it was.

That afternoon, our camp was hit by a dust storm. I was out walking around, so I saw the storm from a distance as it hit our camp. When I returned, my tent was covered with a layer of dust. But at least it was still there.

Tonight I’d be going out again with the Pink Pussycats. I’d worn my Viking outfit the last two nights, so it was time to move to my next costume: a Pink Pussycat Angel. I wore a pink cat mask, a pink tail made of plastic flowers, and angel wings. And I carried a pink magic wand with a sparkly star at the end.

I was very self-conscious in this costume, so I went to the back of my car and pulled out the bottle of vodka I had stashed there. Standing in the darkness, lit only by moonlight, I hoisted the bottle and took a big swallow. Some people were walking down the road nearby. If they had looked in my direction, they would have seen the silhouette of an angel taking a long swig.

We were getting ready to leave, and people were starting to board the Pussymobile, when I realized that I needed some tissue. So I scampered over to my tent and crawled in through the opening. I was half way in when suddenly I couldn’t go any further.

My wings were too wide for the tent opening.

I stretched for the tissue, but it was out of reach. I started to panic. I didn’t want to the Pussymobile to leave with out me, and yet a stubborn streak was insisting that I somehow get the tissue. Then I realized that I was holding a magic fairy wand. It was just long enough, and I was able to drag the pack of tissue to me using the star at the end of the wand. I was strangely proud of myself.

I caught the Pussymobile and went out for another night of partying.

I met a girl.

We had disembarked from the Pussymobile and were walking to a dance place. She was walking out of the dance place. I smiled at her. She said I had a nice smile. Before I knew it, I had turned around and was walking away from the dance place with her. After talking a few minutes, she said, “Well, I don’t want you to have to leave your friends.” She then hopped onto a passing art car. She looked at me, waiting to see if I would jump on too.

I froze, and the car drove way. I cursed myself the rest of the night.

The next morning you could find me back at the Center Camp with my bowl of latte and cereal. I was hoping to start a trend.

I spent the rest of the day walking around taking pictures.

Tonight was finally the night of “The Burn”, when the giant wooden statue of The Man is set aflame. This spectacle was, ostensibly, the reason we all were here. Laura and I, along with Claudia and Carlos, went out to join the throng of people forming a giant circle around The Man. There was an inner circle between the crowd and the statue, with a radius of about 75 yards. This area provided a buffer between the masses and the Man, while creating a stage for dozens of fire dancers to run around and frolic with torches.

After a long wait (made longer by the fact that Claudia was sitting on my shoulders), they set the Man on fire.

All hell broke lose.

Everyone rushed towards The Man, which was quickly becoming a towering inferno, and ran in a circle around the fire. People were half-naked, painted, and yelling wildly. We were like 20,000 natives on a war path.

Not only was I part of this rampage, but Laura, Claudia, and I (we had lost Claudio by now) were somehow on the inner ring of this circular stampede. Disturbingly, the circle was closing, pushing us closer and closer to the fire. The heat was becoming uncomfortable. I decided that this would be a dumb-ass way to die, so I led Laura and Claudia back to the outside of the circle.

Now that my life was not in danger, I was able to appreciate the incredible energy surrounding us. It was like a rock concert times ten. It was the climax of a week of revelry and anticipation. We ran around and danced amid the primal euphoria.

We then went back to camp, and I dressed up like a frog.

Yes, it was at last time to wear my Frog on a Lily Pad outfit. So I placed the frog hat on my head, put on the lily pad collar, strapped the grass skirt to my chest, hung the fake fish from my neck … and went out dancing with the Pink Pussycats.

Once again, they were all dressed to kill. With their perfectly painted bodies, tight clothes, and pink accessories, they looked like the cast of a Las Vegas show. And then there was me, a green frog on a lily pad that was rapidly falling apart.

Nearby, someone dressed up like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street had jumped up onto a stage. I was overcome by a strong affinity for the Cookie Monster, and so I jumped up on to the stage too, and we danced together. We were a hit, and a small crowd gathered around us, cheering us on and taking pictures of the Cookie Monster and his new frog friend.

And so, in this small way, I contributed to the spectacle that was Burning Man.

Ribbit.

The next morning, for the last time, I had my latte and cereal at the Center Camp. No one else was doing the same thing. So much for my trend.

After breakfast, I went over to the Deep End and said goodbye to Alice and Bernadette, then returned to my camp to help dismantle  our camp. I spent the rest of the day pulling off lights and pink fuzzy fabric from walls. Laura told me to make sure to wear gloves. Knowing what had been happening on that pink, fuzzy fabric, I took her advice.

That night a couple of the guys from camp started playing African drums. The music they made was very stirring. Something about the drums, more than anything in the last week, made my inhibitions melt a way. I danced like there was no tomorrow (which, from a Burning Man perspective, there wasn’t). During this last night, I finally became comfortable with the Pussycats. I still found them to be intimidatingly cool, but, in some weird way, I had become one of them.

The next morning I helped with more clean-up. One of the mottos of Burning Man is to “leave no trace,” and so I spent hours picking up tiny bits of fuzzy fabric from the desert floor.

Laura and I left that afternoon, joining a slow procession of cars, miles long. Black RockCity was disappearing.

Naked people were scattered along the way, waving goodbye.

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