Quin's Progress


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Sorry, Starman

starmanThe Internet is full of reminders today that David Bowie died exactly one year ago. As if I could forget. Gentle friends, it’s time I came clean and confessed. You see, it’s my fault. I may have killed David Bowie.  Kind of.  Probably.  In a way.

I didn’t mean to! It was an accident, I swear. Let me explain.

img_0554One year ago today, I took the train from Zürich to Montreux, Switzerland, a charming, small town that spills down the side of a mountain into Lake Geneva. Montreux is a mecca for music lovers and historians, for many reasons. It is the home of the eponymous Montreux Jazz Festival, as well as the Montreux Casino (see box note, below), which sits right on the Lake’s edge, and used to house the world famous Mountain Studios where the likes of the Rolling Stones, Queen, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Phil Collins, Yes, Duran Duran, Sting, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, Marvin Gaye, and, of course, David Bowie came to record music history in relative peace.

img_0597The band Queen bought Mountain Studios in 1978 for tax reasons, and owned it until 1995. Queen had recorded many albums there, even before they bought the studios. Indeed, their album Jazz was named as a hat tip to the Montreux Jazz Festival. Queen and David Bowie—who lived nearby in Blonay at the time—wrote and recorded Under Pressure in a spontaneous, one-night jam session at Mountain Studios.

img_0860Freddie Mercury recorded his final tracks there in 1991, just before he died. They are some of his most emotional, transcendent vocal achievements; astounding, especially, given his weakened state. The cover of Queen’s subsequent album, Made in Heaven, features the breathtakingly powerful statue of Freddie that now stands on the shore of Lake Geneva at Montreux, “the place at which Freddie had written and recorded his last songs, and which had so inspired and influenced him.”

statue1statue2made-in-heaven

Now, Mountain Studios has moved, and in its former place inside the Montreux Casino is the Queen Studio Experience, an exhibition of a dizzying array of Queen artifacts, including the recording deck where Under Pressure and all of Freddie’s last songs were recorded. img_0795Proceeds from the Queen Studio Experience go to The Mercury Phoenix Trust, funding education, research and outreach projects fighting HIV/AIDS in honor of Freddie Mercury.

Okay, so…back to me killing Bowie.

img_0845A big fan of Queen, Freddie Mercury, music in general—and, of course, David Bowie!—I had to stop in Montreux for a few days on my way to the Matterhorn. As you can imagine, many of the lodging options in Montreux are music themed, for the entertainment of the thousands of visitors that come for the Jazz Festival, as well those, like me, who come to see the glittering shrine to Freddie Mercury that is the Queen Studio Experience. I stayed in one such place, the TraLaLa Hotel.

12552646_10207037227880867_4702047785080605022_nEvery inch of the TraLaLa is covered in music memorabilia and photos of music luminaries who have graced the shores of Lake Geneva at Montreux for the Jazz Festival. Each room at the hotel has a theme inspired by a particular musician. 12507253_10207037227520858_6530174264735288645_nGiven the fob on my room key, I thought I was going to sleep in the Prince Room (who, I swear, I did not kill).

But, lo! When I opened the door, I realized I was in the David Bowie suite. It was a special room, too, because Bowie is a very popular local figure around Montreux. Not only did he, as I mentioned above, live very close by in Blonay for many years, but, he married Iman in nearby Lausanne, and had a home there as well. mjf-poster-95He was good friends with Claude Nobs, founder and director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, and even designed the 1995 Festival’s promotional poster. He only performed at the Festival once, in 2002, but it was a very memorable show, locally, as he jokingly invited the whole audience back to Nobs’ house afterwards. So, it was an honor to stay in the David Bowie room, let me tell you.

12439140_10207037226880842_7070700296455231411_n 1234_10207037227400855_7926709277622535523_nDavid Bowie’s face was everywhere in this room, on the wall, the coasters, the Do Not Disturb sign. Most striking was the huge photo of Bowie that hung on the wall opposite the bed.

There he was, Mr. Z. Stardust and his spooky, different-colored eyes…staring intensely, right at me as I lay in bed, trying to sleep. (Yes, I know his eyes weren’t really different colors, but just looked that way because one pupil was dilated from an injury during a boyhood fistfight over a love triangle. But, still, it’s creepy when those eyes are boring holes into you while you are trying to sleep.) how-can-i-sleepI even posted on Facebook to my friends about it. They had a good laugh at me.

Sometime after midnight, unable to sleep with David Bowie staring at me, I finally got up and hung a blanket over the photo. And in the morning, it was all over the news: he was dead.bbcrolling-stone-bowie

Clearly, it was me! It’s my fault! I inadvertently voodoo’d David Bowie by suffocating his image with a blanket. How careless of me to not recognize the mystical musical and Bowie-specific vortex that is Montreux, and to do such a reckless thing there. To be fair, though, I didn’t know he was sick. No one did, he kept it quiet. But, still…I feel responsible. Go ahead and blame me, I deserve it.  I feel terrible.

So, I am sorry, Starman. I’d take it back, if I could, if it would bring you back to us. We miss you so much.  For what it’s worth, wherever you are, I don’t mind if you want to watch me sleep. I’ll keep the blankets on the bed this time, I promise.

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The Montreux Casino


purple The Montreux Casino has the added distinction of inspiring Deep Purple’s iconic hit Smoke on the Water. In late 1971, Deep Purple was recording at the Montreux Casino, where the Rolling Stones had a mobile studio at the time. On December 4, 1971 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention performed in the Casino’s concert space. During the performance, someone fired a flare gun and set the place ablaze. A spectacular conflagration quickly consumed the casino, as well as the concert space, studio and equipment inside (except, hilariously, a cowbell). Thanks to Zappa’s composure and instructions to the audience, everyone at the concert got out fairly unscathed.

montreux-fireThe sight of the terrifying inferno destroying the building and sending smoke and ash into and across Lake Geneva profoundly impacted Deep Purple’s lead singer Ian Gillan: “The wind was coming down off the mountains and blowing the flames and the smoke over the lake. And the smoke was just like a stage show and it was hanging on the water.” When Deep Purple resumed recording after the fire, in a makeshift studio in a room at Montreux’s Grand Hotel, Gillan penned the following fairly literal lyrics about the experience:

Smoke On The Water

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

They burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
Funky Claude was running in and out
Pulling kids out the ground
When it all was over
We had to find another place
But Swiss time was running out
It seemed that we would lose the race

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

We ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty, cold and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there
With a few red lights, a few old beds
We made a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know, I know we’ll never forget

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

journal-de-montreaxThe reference to “Funky Claude” in the lyrics is to Claude Nobs, the founder and director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, who was at the scene of the fire, reportedly running in and out of the burning building, helping concert goers escape.

Deep Purple returned to Montreux in 2006 to perform their most recognized hit at the rebuilt scene of its inspiration.

(For my email followers, click here for a video of that incandescent performance.)

zappaIn a final eerie coincidence, Frank Zappa—who was so instrumental in preventing many senseless deaths in the blaze that destroyed the Montreux Casino—died on December 4, 1993—the 22nd anniversary of the fire.


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Taking the High Road

img_1806Seasons Greetings and Salutations from South America, gentle friends!

Do you recall how I said, way back at the beginning of this sojourn of mine, that I was going to get myself admitted to the Travelers’ Century Club, if it is the last thing I do? No? Well, click here for a reminder. Anyhoo, I know I haven’t updated you in a while, but since we last chatted, I racked up some serious Century Club points. I need 100 points, based on their approved list of countries/territories, to be eligible to join the Centurions. According to my calculations, when I landed in Montevideo, Uruguay last month, that made Point No. 100. Woo-Hoo!

To mark this momentous occasion, I went on my old favorite, Fiverr.com, and paid a Ukrainian exotic dancer to write a celebratory message on her legs, and dance to tango music (which, according to the Uruguashos I met, is as much theirs as it is Argentinian).

(For my email followers, click here for video.)

She did such a nice job, I didn’t have the heart to ask her to re-do my Uruguay commemoration video with a song that wasn’t expressly about Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is just across the river, anyway. And, I do love the Gotan Project, especially, that song. So, we’ll just let that slide. Don’t want another Crazzy Man situation on our hands.

img_1963I was super happy to have an admirable place like Uruguay be my Century Club Point No. 100.  How do I love Uruguay? Let me count the ways. Named Country of the Year in 2013 by The Economist, this diminutive sovereignty, tucked into a lovely coastal nook south of Brazil and east of Argentina, has had its political troubles in the past, just like its neighbors. But, today, Uruguay is one of the most forward thinking, pragmatic, laid back, and downright grooviest places I’ve had the pleasure to visit. How so, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

img_1894Uruguay is just flat out beautiful. Beaches that rival California’s, wine regions and countryside that rival Tuscany. Who, aside from an alpine skier, could ask for more? You need a city? Montevideo is a mix of modern and classical, charming and cosmopolitan. There’s a renowned ballet, a vibrant theater scene, chic restaurants, and open-air tango in the park in the evenings. If it isn’t big enough for your shopping needs, Buenos Aires is just a short hop away by plane or ferry. And don’t forget about the chic, party central resort town that is Punta del Este, if you feel the need to see and be seen while you sun.

Nice racks out front, no?

Nice racks.

When you think of rural, agrarian South America, you are probably picturing Catholic and conservative, right? But, Uruguay is the least religious, most LGBT-friendly country in South America, and gay marriage, gambling, prostitution (but, not pimping or brothel ownership), abortion, and recreational marijuana use—ALL legal. Some call Uruguay the Amsterdam of South America.

mujica1

Jose Mujica

José Mujica, president of Uruguay from 2010-2015, when many of the laws were passed, explained that he and a lot of other Uruguayans didn’t necessarily personally approve of these things, but it was just stupid to deny reality and human nature. In an interview with the Brazilian news agency O Globo, he said:

We applied a very simple principle: Recognize the facts. Abortion is old as the world. Gay marriage, please—it’s older than the world. We had Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, please. To say it’s modern, come on, it’s older than we are. It’s an objective reality that exists. For us, not legalizing it would be to torture people needlessly.

img_1467As for legalizing marijuana, he said it was not to encourage marijuana usage as much as it was to pull the rug out from under the drug traffickers who were profiting from illegal sales of substandard weed imported mainly from Paraguay and Brazil.

Worse than drugs is drug trafficking. Much worse. Drugs are a disease, and I don’t think that there are good drugs or that marijuana is good. Nor cigarettes. No addiction is good. I should include alcohol. The only good addiction is love. Forget everything else.

Libertad o Muerte!

Libertad o Muerte!

Now, that’s a president I can get on board with. (See, here and here for some more pearls of wisdom from, and facts about, this wonderful, most groovy statesman.)  Under Mujica’s leadership, according to the New York Times, “Uruguay scores perfect 10s on the indexes of civil liberties and electoral process, a feat equaled only by Norway and New Zealand.”

img_2006Let’s see, what else? Uruguay’s entire coastline and territorial waters are designated by law as a sanctuary zone for whales and dolphins. Very cool. You can watch whales right from the beach on the east coast during calving season.

img_2024Uruguay is also at the vanguard of fighting climate change. In less than 10 years, they drastically reduced their carbon footprint, and shifted from predominantly fossil fuel energy sources to 95 percent clean, renewable energy, such as wind, solar and hydropower. Just for perspective, the world average for clean energy reliance is between 12 and 22 percent. Uruguay did all this without government subsidies or higher consumer costs. Go Uruguay!

img_1532Uruguay has great, affordable education and healthcare, and a comparatively well educated population. Primary education is compulsory and free, and public universities are free. It is the first country in the world to provide laptop computers to all school children in the state-run primary and secondary schools, through its 2006 One Laptop Per Child initiative. As to healthcare, the modern mammogram was invented in Uruguay, and Uruguay also produced Alejandro Zaffaroni, the man The Scientist called a “biotech superstar,” who contributed to the invention of the birth control pill, the nicotine patch, the DNA chip, and corticosteroids. Health care is good, and affordable. If you want, you can join a private hospital like you would a gym, pay a low monthly fee, and get all your care from that hospital.

On the practical side, the water is safe to drink (although, I think it tastes terrible), and there is good, fast, free wifi almost everywhere–even on city and long distance buses.

img_6421Finally, and perhaps I save the best for last, there’s the wine. Uruguay, pragmatic as always, knows it can’t compete by volume with the bigger wine producing countries, so it goes straight for the quality market. Uruguayan wines may not be the least expensive—though they are darned cheap compared to California wines—but, they are so reliably good, you could throw a dart at the wine list, blindfolded, and be sure of hitting a winner.

It stands to reason, then, that when deciding how to celebrate finally reaching Century Club eligibility, I thought about maybe taking a nice wine tour. You know, go out and wander the vineyards, tour some wineries, and toast to reaching this long sought after goal with a glass of good, Uruguayan Tannat. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

img_6551Who are we kidding, pot is legal there! This party called for some herbage!

Alas, while it is perfectly legal, as long as you’re over 18, to blaze up a doob in public, anywhere that it would be legal to smoke a regular cigarette, Uruguay’s marijuana law does not allow for sales to non-residents. There are no “brown cafes” like in Amsterdam, and only Uruguayans and legal residents can register to purchase pot at a pharmacy, or to grow their own. However, if a Uruguayan offers to share theirs with you, or gives you some as a gift, no problem. But, where’s a solo traveler with no friends or relations in the country to find someone willing to share? There are some “Bud & Breakfasts” out there, but what if you stay in a regular hotel or apartment? Enter MvD High.

img_1714MvD High is a tour company that works with one of Montevideo’s grower cooperatives to offer “Cannabis Culture” tours. Each tour includes “tastings” of the coop’s products as a gift from the hosts for learning more about Uruguay’s pot history and industry.

img_1424My guide, Marco, a literature professor and one of the managers of the coop, was incredibly well informed about marijuana laws all around the world. He was also one of the advocates who worked directly with Mujica’s government to draft Uruguay’s current legislation. He shepherded me and a very excited Brazilian accountant around the grow house, showed us the plants in various stages of development, and explained how the coop system worked.

img_1454Honestly, I would love to be able to tell you all about that, but, right afterwards, he took us to a lounge and let us try three different varieties of product, and after that, I just can’t remember much of the preceding details anymore. Incidentally, may I just say, to all those naysayers out there on the Internet saying, “yeah, Uruguay may have legalized pot, but their weed isn’t any good,” I say, poppycock! Sour grapes. That stuff knocked me on my ass. There’s a testimonial on MvD High’s website from a satisfied customer saying, “I will never forget this experience!” I wish I could say the same. I can’t remember half of what Marco told me about the different, cleverly named strains of marijuana plants, the new regulations, and the growth of the industry.

img_1503I do remember vividly, though, that this was about two weeks after the U.S. presidential election, and the first time since that night that the musculoskeletal knots, kinks and clenches that had become the seemingly permanent manifestation of my shock and horror over the election result had turned loose. Ooh, it feels so good when it stops!

img_1519After touring the grow house, Marco took us to have a symbolic toke on the steps of the Legislative Assembly building, where the law allowing marijuana usage was argued and eventually signed. “Taste the freedom,” Marco said as he passed the joint.

img_1520

Jiggers, it’s the Fuzz!

A pair of police officers on the beat walked past us as we sat on the steps puffing pungent pot smoke into the atmosphere, and my instinct was to tense up, hide the joint, and avoid their gaze. But, Marco just waved at them, and said, “don’t worry, we aren’t doing anything wrong.” It was an odd, but, nice sensation.

img_1535We then made one final stop, at Plaza Independencia, to sit in the park in front of the president’s office and have one last bit of ganja. Marco saved the best for last:  a variety he called “Dark Star,” because, he said, after that, everything would go dark. He. Was. Not. Kidding. It’s good that MvD High provides transportation back to your lodgings after the tour.

img_1598Left to my own devices, I probably would have just curled up under a tree in the park and succumbed to that sweet, beckoning, purple-tinged slumber that consumed the remainder of my afternoon. Thanks to Marco and crew—who also, very thoughtfully, provide an endless supply of bottled water and cookies to their herbally impaired tour charges—I made it safely back to my bed at the hotel before Dark Star took me deep into outer space.

img_1555img_1557 It was dark when I woke up, still high as a kite, and famished. And maybe paranoid, too, because, I went to brush my teeth, and became convinced that the cleaning lady had stolen all of my dental floss picks. Because, you know, that’s something people do. The street value of an open bag of dental flossers is through the roof, I hear. Of course, I felt like a proper idiot when I realized I had just upended the open sack of flossers in the larger bag that I carry my toiletries in, and they were all loose there in the bottom.

img_6470 img_6474I made a mental apology to the cleaning lady, and went out to forage for some food. Maybe it was just my state of mind at the time, but, I could swear, even the graffiti characters in the old city looked baked.

img_6476I was still hungry after dinner—or, more precisely, munchy—so I stopped and bought some potato chips and, for reasons that shall remain a mystery, FOUR boxes of Twinings Lemon & Ginger teabags.  I don’t know why, they weren’t even on sale.  When I opened my purse to pay, I found a plastic bag with two big buds of fragrant weed in there—a present from Marco. img_6657I didn’t have anything to roll it with, though, so, on the way home, I bought the tiniest, adorable water pipe from a kid in a Bob Marley t-shirt, who was selling incense and pipes on a blanket in the pedestrian street. Look, it’s barely bigger than a cherry! I don’t know why I bought that, either. It’s not like I was going to be able to take any of this stuff with me when I left the country.  Apparently, I buy stuff when I’m under the influence.

img_6435

Back in my hotel room, due to that delicious Dark Star nap I had taken in the afternoon, I was wide awake most of the night, munching on Serrano Ham flavored chips, and watching a marathon of “Acumuladores Compulsivos” (“Hoarders”) on cable. img_6479I have never watched, and would never watch, that show back home.  But, something about it being dubbed, badly, in Spanish, and the fact that I was still stoned off my caboose, made it strangely entertaining in a tawdry, escapist way that truly suited the day.

img_1549The next day, I awoke horrified to realize my whole room was powerfully skunky from that small bag of weed in my purse. Mindful of the hotel’s warning of a $200 fine for smoking in the rooms, I was frantic to get rid of the smell. I hadn’t smoked any in the room, but, I wasn’t sure that would matter to them. I stashed my stash in the minifridge, opened all the windows, turned on the exhaust fan in the bathroom, and hoped for the best. As long as the door to the minifridge remained closed, it was okay. But, open the door even a crack, and a great nimbus of pot odor immediately billowed out. This would keep me paranoid for the remainder of my time there, even though I rationally knew it was not contraband. That’s conditioning for you.

Mer-mom is not happy either about East Germany and Berlin being retired from the Century Club list.

Mer-mom is not happy about East Germany and Berlin being retired from the Century Club list, either.

I went down to breakfast, and pulled up the Travelers’ Century Club membership application on my laptop, so I could fill it out over coffee and post it right away. Much to my dismay, when I got to the part where you are supposed to check off your 100 places on their list of approved countries/territories, I discovered that they had decommissioned two of my points! The former East Germany (DDR) and Berlin used to count as a point each, but, with the reunification of Germany in 1990, those two places were merged with the former West Germany (BRD) into one big Germany entry, and retired from the list.

Not willing to go down without a fight, I emailed the organization and asked if I could still count them, as they were validly on the list when I was there in the mid-1980s. Seems only fair, right? They didn’t respond, though, and I’ve learned that in life, love, and the law, the lack of a “yes,” is a “no.” So, dang it, there I was, partying my buns off for finally reaching Century Club eligibility status, and it turns out I only had 98 points!

My disappointment is best expressed by these Christmas elves:

(For my email followers, click here for video.)

I don’t know why they are singing Happy Birthday. Maybe they thought, from my directions as to what to write on the sign, that this was to commemorate what would have been the birthday of someone who died at age 98? Who knows. Gotta love Fiverr.com.

img_1575

Lemon & Ginger tea, anyone? (Note the additional snacks in the background. Yeah.)

In any event, there you have it. Two more countries to go before the Century Club will have me. Still, I’ll always be grateful to Uruguay for showing me a heck of a good time in honor of what turned out to be the dress rehearsal. I’m not sure I’ll be able to top it when I finally hit 100 points for real. Either way, at least, we know I’ll have plenty of Twinings Lemon & Ginger tea for the celebration!


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I Am Still Alive

You guys, I have not perished, joined a cult, been in captivity, or gotten trapped under something heavy. I just caught a nasty cold basically the second I landed in Europe last Fall, and I couldn’t shake it the whole time I was there.  Writing while feeling lousy just felt like an extra chore I didn’t have the energy for. I apparently need clear sinuses to hear the muse! Anyhoo, I am fine now, still on the road, and will get back to my blog once I untangle my thoughts.  A lot has happened!

please-stand-by


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Vermicelli’s Venus

Botticelli's Birth of Venus

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

Aphrodite. Venus. Everyone’s favorite mythical goddess of love, sex, and all things sensual. Inspiration for innumerable classical works of art, including Botticelli’s masterpiece, The Birth of Venus—easily, one of the top three most commercially exploited images of the Italian Renaissance (the other two being Michelangelo’s David and da Vinci’s Mona Lisa).

Botticelli should have named his famous painting The Debut of Venus, or something like that, because it really depicts the goddess’ post-birth arrival on the scene, after she surfed around the ocean “like sea lettuce” on her seashell, according to The Anacreontea.

Painting by Melinda Copper. See: http://www.melindacopper.net/cat-gallery.html

Painting by Melinda Copper. See: http://www.melindacopper.net.

Had Botticelli instead painted the commonly accepted version of her mythical birth, the image would likely not have ended up being silk-screened on tens of thousands of t-shirts and coffee mugs today. Why? Because, that scene involved the cutting off of the evil god Uranus’ genitals with a serrated knife by his son, who then tossed the severed twigs and berries into the sea, where they swirled around for a while until they turned into a lovely maiden (as they do), who sprang forth from the sea foam on the island of Cyprus. Ta-da! Aphrodite. But, that’s more like Goya subject matter, if you ask me. Botticelli was a little too genteel for such carnage.

Ruins of the Sanctuary of Aphrodite in Kouklia, Cyprus.

Ruins of the ancient Sanctuary of Aphrodite in Kouklia, Cyprus.

In any event, the precise location our lady of the amputated junk is supposed to have risen from the sea, according to the ancient cult of Aphrodite, is a big rock on the southern coast of Cyprus, conveniently near where they built a massive temple in her honor around 1500 B.C. The mythical birth site inspires TripAdvisor contributors to reach into the profound, romantic depths of their souls, and wax poetic:

  • “there is a parking place and … [t]here were rocks but also some sand on the beach” — EdyT;
  • “nothing to see just a big rock” – jacyW from the UK;
  • “not very nice beach and horrible car park” – sleepycat from the UK;
  • “weird and ugly, lots of seaweed” – GezaS;
  • “it’s just a rock in the sea” – Droglis from Ireland.
This is where I was having breakfast.

This is where I was having breakfast.

I was laughing at these earthbound reviews over breakfast one morning while in Paphos, Cyprus, and the waiter asked me what was so funny. I showed him the reviews, and he grimaced, as though a foul smell had wafted past his nose. “These people don’t deserve the magic,” he said in his sunkissed Mediterranean accent. “When there is a rainbow, they probably complain about the rain.” And then he told me about the local legend, that if you find a stone on the beach in the shape of a heart, you put the stone in a hole or crevice on Aphrodite’s Rock, and the goddess will bring you love and passion within a year.

IMG_5039The site is easy enough to find, well marked, right off the coastal highway southeast of Paphos, and the car park, while nothing to write home about, was not horrible at all, contrary to what sleepycat from the UK might say. Access to the beach, however, was another story. I crossed the highway, and looked all the way up and down the road for an opening in the safety barrier that keeps people from careening off the bluff into the ocean. Not a break in the fence as far as the eye could see. The double-railed barrier was just high enough to be difficult to climb over, and just low enough that I wasn’t willing to try to wiggle under it. So, I opted for the trusty, grade school era, “dead man’s drop” method of clearing the obstacle, wherein you hoist yourself up on your hands, with the top of the bar at your hips, and lean over it until gravity tips you over and you feel yourself about to drop on your head on the other side, at which point you kind of flip your legs over and land on your feet.

Re-enactment of the Dead Man's Drop maneuver.

Re-enactment of the Dead Man’s Drop maneuver.

IMG_5027Not having performed this maneuver since the fifth grade, however, and not being 11 years old and 85 pounds anymore, mine was somewhat less graceful, vastly more painful, and the dismount resulted in the sacrifice of a sandal, and a pulsating hematoma on my upper thigh meat that’s going to look like a stained glass window in a few days. But, I had successfully reached the other side. It was only when I reached the bottom of the treacherous path down to the beach that I noticed the nice, flat, paved pedestrian tunnel under the highway to the other side. That would definitely have been easier, both on my body and my pride. Note to self for next time.

IMG_5009

This is where I clambered over the safety barricade.

I don’t know what all those curmudgeons on TripAdvisor were talking about. I thought this place was sigh inducing. Okay, the beach isn’t sandy, but the blue suede sea, checked by the rocks, enters the cove in voluptuous, rolling swells without breaking into waves, and just dissolves into the shore, never ceasing to be serene, gentle. Curved around the edge of the water, there is a narrow bed of some kind of reedy, gingery seaweed, just like the wavy, Titian-colored tresses of Botticelli’s Venus.

Aphrodite Rock1There it was. The birthplace of Aphrodite. The rock where she burst forth from a spray of sea foam. A place that countless devotees of the ancient cult of Aphrodite held holy, and where modern, lovelorn Cypriots come to pray for love. It does have a certain reverence-demanding quality to it.

IMG_5020I walked along the beach, up to the sandy part mentioned in EdyT’s TripAdvisor review. There in the sand, I saw where someone had placed a bunch of stones in the outline of a big heart. The waiter’s words instantly came back into my head: if you find a stone in the shape of a heart…. Was this what he was talking about? I couldn’t take any chances. So, I stripped off my clothes—silently confirming to myself that this was precisely why I wear my swimsuit under my clothes when I explore near any swimmable body of water—stashed them, my iPhone and my rental car key under a bush, and got to work.

IMG_5024

See the stones in there?

That heart outline was composed of about 20 stones in all, and some of them were about the size of a softball, so I couldn’t take them all in one trip. I took as many as I could in my hands and the bra cups of my swimsuit, and I swam out to the rock. I had to find holes or cracks in the rock that would accommodate each stone without it falling out in the tide and sinking, which was complicated by the fact that there were hordes of crabs living in most of the waterline level holes. I paddled, circumnavigating that big rock, buoyed up by the ocean swells, grabbing on and climbing at times, apologizing to the various crabs and sea monkeys I disturbed in the process, until I found secure homes for each one of those stones. It took me about six trips, all told.

When I finished, I just floated on my back in the cove, and laughed at myself for being such a silly, romantic dork. But, I say, better a romantic dork, than someone who can only see “just a rock” and a “horrible car park.”

Invasion of the Russians.

Invasion of the Russians.

Then, a big tour bus full of Russians showed up and invaded my peaceful scene, so, I rose from the sea like Venus, collected my things from under the bush, and took the nice, easy, non-contusion-inducing pedestrian tunnel back to the parking lot.

On my way back to town, I stopped to buy a bottle of water at a little roadside convenience store, and I noticed a framed photo of the Aphrodite’s Rock site behind the register. What caught my eye about it was that the central focus of the photo was not the big rock out in the sea, but another, bigger outcropping of rock that looked more like a separation from the cliff, that jutted out into the water, but wasn’t surrounded by the ocean. I got a vaguely sick feeling in my stomach.

Aphrodite Rock2“Excuse me,” I asked the cashier. “Which rock is actually the Aphrodite Rock?”

“This one,” she said, pointing to the central one on the photo that extended from the land.

“Not that one?” I said, pointing to the rock way out in the water, that I had just spent the last 90 minutes or so swimming out to and climbing on to plant little, stone love seeds inside of.

“No, it’s this one,” she said, tapping the photo to indicate the other rock that you can walk to without getting wet, or even taking your shoes off.

Aphrodite Rock3“Are you sure?” I gave her one last chance to show some doubt.

“Yes, it’s this one.” She was certain.

“Crap!” I exclaimed.

“What?” she inquired, a bit alarmed.

“Oh…nothing,” I sighed, and walked dejectedly away.

Story of my life. I go on a pilgrimage all the way to the church of the nativity of the goddess of love, and I end up mistakenly worshipping at an outbuilding. Disqualified on a technicality. But, then I had to laugh at myself again, when I remembered that the whole thing is made up anyway. The entire point of fixing a location for such a mythical notion is to give people—in times gone by, and now—a place that triggers for them an openness to the feelings represented by the goddess. When you look at it that way, it doesn’t really matter which rock I tucked those stones into. It’s really just all about deserving the magic.

Unretouched photo of the sunset that same night.

Unretouched photo of the sunset that same night.


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Midday Express

TissuesThere are a few cardinal rules of travel.  Number One on the list, in my opinion, is:  never pass up an opportunity to use the restroom, especially a clean one, because you never know when your next chance will be.  Number Two:  always keep a packet of emergency tissue in your pocket, for obvious, related reasons.  So, in my book, Rules Number One and Number Two are all about Number One and Number Two.  Sorry, I know it’s not sexy, but, ask any seasoned traveler if they disagree with me.  I don’t think they will.

IMG_7512Rather than put this next thing as Rule Number Three, I’m going to add it as a subpart to Rule Number Two, to emphasize its importance:  make sure to keep some single denomination coins or bills handy, because, in a lot of places around the world, the potty stop comes at a price.  I learned this lesson the hard way.

Rumi's Tombi

Rumi’s Tombi

I was in central Turkey, in Konya to be exact, to visit the tomb of the Sufi mystic, Rumi, and to see a “Sema,” the meditative ceremony of the Mevlevi, or “whirling dervishes” of the Sufi order.  Once Rumi and I had run out of things to talk about, I decided to take the bus to Cappadocia to see the early Christian cave dwellings among the peculiar “fairy chimney” rock formations.

My Steed

My Steed

I had read that Cappadocia is difficult to explore on one’s own, as everything is kind of far apart and difficult to find, public transportation doesn’t adequately cover the interesting parts, and rental car GPS units don’t have very accurate information for the area.  So, I hired a local driver.  Problem solved.

On the bus.

On the bus.

Before I left Konya, I sent a message to the driver to tell him which bus I would be on, so he could pick me up in the town of Göreme (part of Cappadocia) later that afternoon.  It was about a 4-hour bus ride, with some stops along the way.

IMG_6396

The ubiquitous Turkish tea.

The long distance buses in Turkey have “flight attendants” that push a cart up and down the aisle and serve drinks and snacks, including yummy Turkish tea.  So, by our second stop, I had to pee pretty urgently.  The driver pantomimed to me when I got off the bus that I only had five minutes.  I had already seen them leave one guy at the previous stop because he dawdled at the snack bar, so I scampered off, quick as a bunny, to find the restroom.  It was waaaay off behind the bus station, down a long path.  But, thankfully, I got there in time.  It was one of those squat-over-a-hole-in-the-ground deals, with no tissue, and pretty filthy, but I’m used to all of those things by now.  When nature calls, you do what you gotta do.

Turkish prairie, from the bus window.

Turkish prairie, from the bus window.

When I came out, there was an old man standing at the exit, holding a dish with a couple coins in it.  He wanted me to pay.  Excuse me?  Since when has one had to pay to use the bathroom at a bus station?  Transit depots are normally the one place you can be sure there will be no charge to use the toilet.  Furthermore, it wasn’t like it was a super luxe “comfort station” with Japanese robotic toilets that have white noise recordings and automatic bum-washers with scented blow driers, for which I would have been more than happy to pay.  It was a third-world latrine, buzzing with flies.  Nevertheless, had I had my purse with me, I would have paid him anyway.  But, I didn’t.  I realized I had left it on the bus, which should tell you just how badly I had to go!  I usually know better than to leave my bag unattended.  That should be Rule Number 1(a).

Cappadocia.

Cappadocia cave dwellings.

As I didn’t have time to go get some money and come back to him, I just brushed past the old guy, and made a run for it back to the bus.  The old man hobbled and yelled after me in Turkish, I imagine some very unflattering things.  I jumped on the bus, the driver closed the door behind me, and we drove off before I even got to my seat.  I felt kind of bad about stiffing the old guy, but what could I do?

"Fairy Chimneys."

“Fairy Chimneys.”

At the next stop, an hour later (and still two stops before Göreme, where I was supposed to get off), two men–one in a dark blue uniform-approached the bus and signaled the attendant.  He stepped outside, and some kind of discussion ensued, wherein the uniformed guy showed the bus attendant a paper.  Then, the  attendant got back on the bus, pointed at me, and motioned for me to get off the bus.  I shook my head “no,” it wasn’t my stop.  He knew this, because he repeated “Göreme” to me every time he did the passenger head count after a stop, while he was taking the tickets of the people who just got on.  And we weren’t in Göreme yet, I could see from the sign on the bus depot entrance.

P1220784

Cappadocia.

He nodded kind of vigorously and waved at me to get up and follow him anyway.  But, I was sure it wasn’t the right stop, so I shook my head “no,” again.  I wasn’t budging, no way, no how.  Then, the man in the blue uniform got on, and the attendant pointed me out to him.  Mr. Uniform pointed right at me, said something loud and authoritative in Turkish, and made the universal “get the Hell off the bus, NOW” hand signal.

Actual Turkish prison.

Actual Turkish prison.

Gulp!  I got up and started gathering my stuff, heart pounding.  CrapCrapCrap!  That old dude at the bathroom called the cops on me, told them what bus I had gotten on, and they were there to take me to prison, where I could pee for free for the rest of my life!  A thousand horrors flew through my head.  I’ve seen “Midnight Express,” and “Locked Up Abroad”–this was not good.  If I hadn’t have recently used the facilities, I would have done it in my pants right then and there.

Mehmet.

Mehmet.

But, when I got off the bus, there was a big, jolly, grandfatherly guy there with my name on a sign.  It was the driver, Mehmet.  The paper I had seen Mr. Uniform–the station agent, as it turned out–show the bus attendant was Mehmet’s sign with my name.  After they defibrillated me, and I came to and got back up off the ground, Mehmet explained that this stop was closer than Göreme to where he was that afternoon.  He had tried to call me to to tell me to get off the bus there instead, but had only gotten automated messages saying I was unavailable.  So, since he knew which bus I was on, he called the bus company and got them to give him the bus driver’s mobile number, so he could find out what time we’d be pulling in to that stop, and he just came and met me early.  I was not, it seems, going to jail after all.

So, the moral to this story, gentle friends, is:  just pay the Potty Man.  If you don’t, your guilty conscience is gonna getcha!

P1220891

Balloons over Rose Valley in Cappadocia.


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Get Me To The Church On Time! But, First, Let’s Swing By Starbucks

Daniel

Daniel

Punctuality is not one of my superpowers. Especially, in the morning. However, Daniel, my trusty friend and driver in El Salvador, always shows up right on the dot. On that sunny morning we were to head up to explore El Salvador’s famed “Ruta de las Flores” in the mountains outside San Salvador, I had not quite gotten my act together by the time he arrived to pick me up. So, I asked him to stop someplace to get coffee before we headed out of town.

Cafe“Someplace local,” I said. “I want some good Salvadoran coffee.”

“Well, most of the best coffee grown here gets sold to Starbucks,” Daniel responded.

“Starbucks it is,” I directed without hesitation.  And we were off for a cup of El Salvador’s finest.

Stbx

From the Starbucks App Store Locator. You can see I was in Nicaragua at the time, and the closest Starbucks was in San Salvador.

I do love Starbucks. When I’m at home, I go to Starbucks now and then, but I’m really more of a Peet’s girl, to be honest. Or Philz. But, I’ve never seen either of those outside the U.S. Starbucks, on the other hand, is in major cities in many far-flung parts of the world.  When I’m traveling, I generally prefer to go to local establishments, rather than an American export. But, once in a while, if a twinkle of homesickness flickers through me, or the road weariness sets in and I just can’t look at one more bowl of fish heads and chicken feet, Starbucks reliably functions as an oasis of familiarity. They are all exactly the same, the world over. I walk through the door, and it’s like being teleported home.

Mooncakes, at Starbucks in Bangkok.

Mooncakes, at Starbucks in Bangkok.

Even the different regional specialties in the glass case of pastries have a delightfully Starbuckian fungibility to them that renders them comforting.  Down to their baristas’ relentlessly hilarious inability to ever get my name right on my cup, Starbucks is an amiable constant in my life of ever-changing scenery. When I need it, it hits my reset button, and sends me back out into whatever world awaits outside, refreshed and ready for the next new adventure. Plus, there are some places (*cough*Southeast Asia, except for the former French colonies*cough*) where instant Nescafe with Coffee-Mate powder is what passes for good coffee, and that’s just not right. Starbucks is truly a beacon of caffeinated hope in such forlorn places.

But, back to El Salvador and the Ruta de las Flores, before I forget what I came here to tell you.

MapThe Ruta de las Flores—or, Route of the Flowers—is the sobriquet of a long squiggle of mountain road through El Salvador’s coffee country, and the five or so picturesque, colonial-era villages dotted along it. It’s a popular destination for a weekend drive, to poke through the artisan shops and historic churches, tour a coffee plantation, or enjoy a leisurely lunch in a flower-festooned courtyard restaurant.

Doing the whole route in one day is an ambitious itinerary, but that’s what I had planned. Due to my unplanned Starbucks run, though, Daniel and I were running a little behind schedule. Had we been on time, we would have long since whooshed past that uphill hairpin turn before that little, white hatchback conked out in the middle of our lane, right at the blindest point of the curve. But, we weren’t, so we hadn’t.

P1190872Traffic suddenly slowed way down to get safely around the disabled car and the two ladies nervously standing next to it. I was riding shotgun in our vehicle, so as we crept around them, my face came very close to the young woman standing next to the driver’s side door of the broken down car. Just as we passed her, she turned, and I caught her eye as she yelled, “Please, I need help!” (In Spanish, of course.  I’m translating all the dialogue in this story for you. It’s just one of the many services we offer here at the QP.)

StrandedNow, I’m no rookie traveler, so, of course, I know that stopping to help allegedly stranded strangers is a giant No-No, and a quick way to get carjacked and/or robbed in many places, including the U.S. I also know that, sometimes, the bad guys use pretty young women as bait in “broken down car” trap schemes, because people are more likely to stop to help them than some big, sweaty guy. So, the rule is, if you see a stranded motorist, unless you know them, you are supposed to call it in to the authorities—not stop to help. Right? Right. This apparently goes double in El Salvador, where security is something of an issue, especially on the highways.

But, you guys, you should have seen her. I got a close look at her face as we drove past. Her lip was quivering, her eyes were big as saucers, and the sun glinted off the rising tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. She was in obvious distress.

“Stop, Daniel, we have to help them,” I said.

“What? You want to stop?” Daniel hesitated, torn between his wish to do what I asked and his training/instinct prohibiting him from stopping for strangers.

“Yes, stop, they’re in trouble!”

P1190882

See the pearls?

Daniel pulled the car over and rolled down the window. The young woman approached, and we could see she had what looked like professionally done makeup, and her hair was delicately coiffed and arranged around a little tiara-like headband embellished with tiny pearls.

Daniel, helping move the wedding stuff to our car.

Daniel, helping move the wedding stuff to our car.

A bride! On her way to her wedding! The poor lamb had her bridal gown, veil, cases of champagne for the reception, boxes of decorations for the party, and various trousseau items, packed in the back of her car, which had given up the ghost in the middle of that blind curve on the way up the mountain. Neither she nor her auntie, who was with her, were able to get a cellular signal, and, per the prevailing road wisdom, no one was stopping to help them. They were stuck there, melting in the hot El Salvador sun, while her wedding guests were already starting to congregate in Ataco, the last town at the far end of the Ruta de las Flores.

P1190879

Loading the bridal gown into the van.

Normally, Daniel drove me around in a compact sedan.  But, as luck would have it, that day, the sedan had not been available for some reason, so we had a minivan with plenty of room to transport the ladies and all the wedding regalia. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe Not. Either way, I’ve never seen a more relieved person than that girl when we said we would take her and all the stuff to the wedding venue. Seriously, a picture of her pretty face at that moment in time should be inserted into the definition of the word “relieved” in all dictionaries.

P1190888Once all the wedding paraphernalia was loaded into the back of our van, auntie agreed to wait with the car for the help that would be coming as soon as we could contact someone. The girl, whose name we learned was Maricela, climbed in the van and tried to compose herself. She was shaking, overheated, and tears were about to ruin her beautiful bridal makeup. I pointed all the air-conditioner vents at her to cool her down, and gave her some tissue to dab her eyes.

“Don’t cry,” I said in as soothing a tone as I could muster. “They can’t start without you!”

“That’s true,” she laughed, relaxing a little.

P1190886As we chatted, getting to know each other and distracting ourselves from the Herculean job Daniel was doing behind the wheel to get us to the church on time, I asked how long she had been stuck there by the side of the road. When she said it had been about 20 minutes, I commented that her angels must be looking out for her, because if we hadn’t stopped at Starbucks before leaving San Salvador, we would have missed her. “I work for Starbucks,” Maricela said. I guess her angels have mermaid tails.

signMaricela eventually got a cellular signal, and was able to alert her waiting family and fiancé that she was, indeed, en route. “Yes, I’m on my way now. A tourist in a minivan picked me up and is bringing me. Yes, a tourist! I know, can you believe it?” Her fiancé, Rodrigo, asked to talk to me, and thanked me profusely, in perfect English, for rescuing his bride from the side of the road, and effusively promised that I would always have a place to stay in El Salvador from now on, anytime I wanted to come. I guess it really is unusual to stop and help stranded motorists there.

P1190903Finally, we arrived—on time, no less! Go, Daniel, Captain Punctuality!—and deposited the bride and all her things at the appointed place for her to get ready for the nuptials. Maricela, of course, insisted that Daniel and I come to the wedding. I was hardly dressed for it, but she was adamant. We were coming to her wedding.

Unroasted coffee beans.

Unroasted coffee beans.

We had about an hour to kill while the bride finished getting ready, so Daniel suggested we go take a quick tour of a coffee processing plant just down the road. It was interesting to see the process, from when the beans get delivered from the plantations, through sorting, fermentation, drying, to bagging.

Starbucks-bound.

Starbucks-bound.

The warehouse was full of large, stacked, burlap sacks of El Salvador’s premium coffee beans, ready for export. (They export all the best quality beans, and sell the runts and broken reject beans—which taste the same, but don’t look as pretty—locally.) I asked the attendant where those sacks of beans were headed. “Starbucks,” he replied. Of course. It was like Starbucks’ advertising department had purchased product placement slots in the movie of my day.

So cute.

So cute.

P1200084

Fancy!

Back at the church, Daniel and I sat in a pew about halfway back, on the aisle. The other guests filed in, all dressed to the nines—statuesque women in beauty pageant-worthy gowns, clean-shaven men, redolent of aftershave, in stylish, tailored suits, little boys pulling at their starched, white collars, and little girls in poofy, pastel, ruffled confections. And then there was me. Perspiring away in my khaki cargo shorts, a big, floppy, broccoli green, gauze tunic top, and dusty, clunky Birkenstocks. Fitting right in, as usual. Daniel was dressed professionally, so he was fine. But I stuck out like a sore, underdressed thumb. P1200175No one said anything to me, but from the looks I was getting, I could tell they were all thinking “What the heck is that tourist lady doing here? Can’t she tell a private event is about to take place?” Believe me, you ain’t seen no Stink Eye until you’ve gotten the Salvadoran Stink Eye. It stings.

Here comes the bride!

Here comes the bride!

But, then, Maricela came down the aisle on her daddy’s arm, as beautiful and radiant as any bride ever was. When she saw me, her face lit up even more, and she waved to me. She leaned in and told her dad “That’s the one who picked me up on the road,” and his face lit up, too, and he nodded to me. After that, everyone knew I was not some rude, foreign wedding crasher, but a bride-approved attendee of the event, who obviously just didn’t know how to dress for a special occasion.

P1200091The wedding was beautiful. Fireworks announced the new couple as they emerged from the church, and we pelted them with rice. Once outside, both mamas—the bride’s and the groom’s—and various family members, came up to thank and hug me, and make sure I was coming to the reception. P1200160Word spread like wildfire after that about the whole car breakdown debacle, and my role in it. I instantly went from suspicious interloper to celebrity. All my sartorial sins were absolved.

P1200198The reception was quite the fancy shindig. I would have felt really self-conscious in that setting, clad as I was, were it not for the nonstop stream of warm, friendly people coming up to make a fuss over me for helping Maricela, and hear my account of the harrowing rescue. Everyone embraced me so enthusiastically, I worried for a moment that maybe we should leave, so as not to draw focus away from the newlyweds. P1200255It was their day, after all. But, I shouldn’t have worried. The second lovely Maricela and her handsome new husband entered the room, the sparks of happiness emanating from them commanded all attention, as it should have been, and I was able to go back to inconspicuously snatching fudge-covered strawberries from the chocolate fountain table, unheeded by the crowd.

P1200227P1200213After Daniel had listened to me tell the story of rescuing Maricela for about the hundredth time, as soon as we had a moment alone, he said to me, in his soft-spoken, gentle way, “Miss Quin, you know, with all due respect, if I hadn’t been able to see that she was clearly a high class lady, from how she was put together, and how she spoke, I would never have let her in the car, no matter what you said.” So, there you have it, gentle friends. I was greedily basking in a shower of love, affection and gratitude for having bravely saved a damsel in distress on her wedding day, taking all the credit, and when all was said and done, it really wasn’t even my call. Sorry, Daniel! Thanks for looking out for me. I hope this post sets the record straight.

P1200197

Felicidades, you two! Remember to toast your 52nd wedding anniversary with some premium El Salvador coffee–from Starbucks!

On the drive back to San Salvador that night, I looked at my phone to check the time, noticed the date for the first time that day, and smiled to myself. It was my parents’ wedding anniversary. If my mom was still with us, it would have been their 52nd. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, a good sign for a long and happy marriage for Maricela and Rodrigo, for sure. There is, apparently, no traditional gift associated with the 52nd wedding anniversary, like paper, glass or silver, etc. So, let’s just say it’s coffee. Starbucks’ Reserve El Salvador Estate beans, to be exact.


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Tattoo d’Etat

BrainsI have not been in my right mind for quite some time, gentle friends. Before the amused chorus of “you don’t say” rises from amongst you, I should be clear, this time, I’m talking about the right hemisphere of my actual brain. You know how, apparently, the left side of the brain controls logic, reason, analytical thought, and verbal skills, and the right side is where creativity, art, music, imagination and rainbow unicorns live? Well, I’m a lawyer, so you know my zip code is on the left side of town. I’m all about words, not pictures. Recently, however, I decided to pay a visit to the other side, just to have a look around.

That is a banana blossom, about to be turned into a scrumptious salad by yours truly, in Cambodia.

A banana blossom, about to be turned into a scrumptious salad by Yours Truly, in Cambodia.

It all happened quite innocently, at first. As I’ve mentioned before, I love to take cooking classes. As most such courses focus on formulae (recipes) and technique mastery—i.e., science—my left brain stays comfortably in command, while my poor right brain stands off to the side, whispering ways to freestyle the recipe into something even more magical with other ingredients when I get home.

That's supposed to be a flower.

That was supposed to be a flower.

I took several cooking classes in Vietnam, and each featured a segment on fruit and vegetable carving to garnish the finished plates. I, of course, sucked at that part. I even cut the bejeesus out of my thumb while attempting to render a lotus blossom from the butt end of a carrot.

IMG_0791I do not like sucking at things. (Insert Beavis & Butthead snicker here.) Ordinarily, if I can’t do something well, I just avoid it. And, although one might argue that I could easily avoid fruit carving, something about it challenged me. I became determined to master at least one tomato or carrot flower, even if it killed me.

Suck it, bitches.

Suck it, bitches.

So, I hired myself a fruit carving sensei, and buckled down. And I must say, aided by good instruction and the proper tools (there are special fruit carving knives), as well as a bunch of practice, I got to where I could turn out a respectable variety of blossoms and woodland creatures from everyday items found in your local produce aisle. IMG_0788Not too shabby, eh? Remember me next time you have a buffet table to decorate for a bridal shower or red carpet awards show viewing party.

Emboldened by my admittedly moderate success at crafting fantasy vegenalia, I decided to take it to the next level: Tattooing.  On people, not fruit. Such an obvious next step, I know, forgive my prosaicness.

IMG_0589As I quickly discovered, tattooing isn’t something you can just sign up for at the Learning Annex and go do. The people in the industry don’t make it easy to get in—and they shouldn’t. Basically, the way to learn is to get an established tattoo artist to teach you, in an apprenticeship. There are some instructional materials available for purchase online, but I wanted to do it properly, so I wasn’t about to go to correspondence school. After much investigation and multiple inquiries, the tattoo masters at Bangkok Ink agreed to take me on for tutelage.

IMG_0740Bangkok Ink has a deep bench of really talented tattoo artists, including Krit, who specializes in traditional bamboo tattooing—no machine, just tapping the tattoo into the skin by hand with long needles. This guy does cleaner, more precise work in bamboo than most artists can do with a machine. It’s something to behold. They also have a relationship with a Buddhist temple, where sacred Sak Yant tattoos—done bamboo style, and supposedly embodying a sort of protective magic charm—are blessed by a monk, and sealed with a piece of gold leaf.

IMG_0743When they have room, Bangkok Ink also takes on students. It’s kind of a commune of learning, where all the resident tattooists take part in helping out the newbies. You can even learn bamboo tattooing from Krit, if you want, but I wanted to start with the modern machine style.

Bangkok Ink's guard kitty.

Bangkok Ink’s guard kitty.

I was so nervous. I had no idea if I was going to have any aptitude for this at all, and I sure didn’t know if I was going to fit in at the shop. I was the oldest person there by a good margin, and my image is pretty clean cut. I could just see the cartoon thought bubbles over their heads when I walked in that first day, words in Comic Sans font, saying “What’s that middle-aged Farang (Thai for ‘foreigner’) lady doing here? Someone give her directions to Starbucks.”

This thing scared the crap out of me every time I rounded the corner.

This thing scared the crap out of me every time I rounded the corner.

To top it off, the day I arrived, nobody knew who I was, because they had been expecting a man (I get that a lot because of my name), and Aum, the tattoo artist who was supposed to teach me, was in the hospital following a bad motorcycle accident. But, when the owner, Martin, arrived, all got sorted out quickly, another artist took over the task of instructing me, and I got down to work.

IMG_0602It was all very informal, but immediately hands on. My teacher printed out some illustrations of various things off the internet, handed me some special carbon paper, and told me to make a stencil of the image by tracing over it to get the carbon on the back side of the paper. My first several tries were dreadful, and I got purple carbon paper ink all over myself and everything around me. IMG_0597After I got a stencil of a big, cabbagey-looking flower sort of passably acceptable, she gave me a hunk of pigskin they got from the butcher, and showed me how to transfer the stencil ink to the pigskin using a tube of Mennen SpeedStick deodorant. Then, as the stencil dried, it was time to learn how to assemble and use the tattoo machine.

IMG_0605I labored over my first practice effort for almost five and a half hours. When I was done, hand cramped into a nautilus curl, Martin looked at my work, dispassionately said “not good enough,” and went on about his business.

My first attempt.

My first attempt.

I was so demoralized, I went home that night thinking, “what the hell am I doing here?” I was sure I’d made a huge mistake.

But, Day 2 went a little better. Same routine: pick an image, make the stencil, transfer to pig skin, and ink with the machine.

Day 2

Day 2

Bucket o' Pigskin

Bucket o’ Pigskin

It was still not something you’d actually want to put on a human being’s body, but nevertheless, some improvement was evident. Praise was received. I verily skipped home. Maybe I wasn’t going to suck so much after all.

Ugh.

Ugh.

Day 3, tried shading. Another disaster. I almost cried. Suckage, assured. Dragged my ass home in a funk. This endeavor was going to turn me bipolar before long.

Waf, the Phenom.

Waf, the Phenom.

It didn’t help my morale any that there was another student there, Waf, from Belgium, who started two days before I had, and on his third day there was already working on real live people, doing beautiful work. Min and WafIn fairness, he was an artist to begin with, so he already had the skill and confidence to gracefully create images. This was just a new medium for him. He was great, right out of the gate. And, so nice and encouraging to me, too, as I struggled along my much steeper learning curve.  If he wasn’t so nice, I’d have been really jealous of him.

L->R:  Aum, Tom, Ori and Waf

L->R: Aum, Tom, Ori and Waf

Two other guys—Ori and Tom—who were not beginners (at least, not by the time I got there) were also in residence.  When they weren’t cracking us up, they were spending some time polishing their already impressive skills, banking some experience, and developing their individual styles.

Ori, inking his own leg. And me, in the mirror.

Ori, inking his own leg.
And me, in the mirror, taking the photo.

When the shop was quiet, Ori would get bored and tattoo his own leg, while sipping a beer for the pain. And, can I just tell you, even though he was half in the bag, and all twisted up like that, his lines came out as clean and perfect as if he’d used a ruler. Dude is a natural.  (Click here to see more of his work.)

Practice, Practice.

Practice, Practice.

I, on the other hand, was clearly not a natural. You could just hear the rusty gears creaking in my head and smell the smoke coming out of my ears as I concentrated so hard on getting the lines even and the shading nice and feathery. My teacher was pretty laissez faire, which was probably good, as I get very frustrated and touchy when I’m having a hard time mastering something.

Hung prominently in the shop.

Hung prominently in the shop.

From the look of the work I was turning out, I was having a very hard time. The only thing I had any immediate gift for was creative draping of pashminas around the other guys’ more modest female clients who didn’t want to expose too much while they were getting worked on. A useful skill, sure, but not what I was there for.

IMG_0679But, around day 5, something shifted. Things started to click, and the machine felt more natural in my hand. I held it less tightly, and it flowed more easily over the pigskin, and suddenly, my lines looked better. The shading looked softer. The colors were going in nice and solidly. Day 5 was a good day, indeed. In fact, at the end of it, my teacher said I was ready to work on a person. IMG_0745I said no, I’m not ready. But, Pang, the manager came by and looked over my shoulder, clucked with approval, and went and put my name on the schedule board for a live, human model the following Monday.

IMG_0831I tell you what, if there’s anything that’ll motivate you to spend the whole weekend hunched over a piece of spoiling pigskin in the Bangkok heat practicing lining and shading, it’s the knowledge that some naïve kid who wants a free tattoo is going to be putting his pristine arm in your hands to indelibly mark for all the world to see. I didn’t want some epic tattoo fail ending up on the Internet—or anywhere else, for that matter—on my watch.

My walk to work along the Saen Saep Canal in Bangkok.

My walk to work along the Saen Saep Canal in Bangkok.

Monday arrived—Day 8—and I hadn’t slept much. I made sure to eat a good breakfast so my hands wouldn’t shake, and went to the shop to await my first victim. When he arrived, two hours late, I was nervous, but composed. He didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Thai, so Aw, the shop assistant, translated for us. The model was a skinny slip of a kid of about 20, and he indicated he wanted his tattoo on the inner side of his forearm, but he didn’t have any particular image in mind. I found that strange, but I had bigger fish to fry.

Aw, our trusty shop assistant, and interpreter.

Aw, our trusty shop assistant, and interpreter.

We sat down at the computer together and sifted through various tattoo styles until he saw one he liked: a neo-traditional pocket watch flanked by some roses. He was a toothpick, though, so the image wrapped almost all the way around his arm, and he refused to let me shrink it to fit the flat part of his forearm. But, as Tim Gunn says, it was time to make it work.

All stenciled up and ready to go.

All stenciled up and ready to go.

In those last few seconds before I touched the needle to his skin for the first time, I stopped to take a breath, and looked at his clean, smooth baby skin. It was never going to be the same again. Whether it would look like a poem or like tire tracks by the end of the day was up to only me.

Ori, fixing my cable.

Ori, fixing the cable.

Unfortunately, I was beset by technical difficulties, right away. The power cable to my machine was wonky, and I kept losing power. Ori fixed that for me.  Then, because of the location of the tattoo site, and the way we were sitting, my boob was in the kid’s hand the whole time I was working.  He didn’t complain, though, and I forgot about it after a while.  Also, because I was obsessively cleaning the skin as I worked, the stencil was rubbing off.

Yes, my boob is in his hand.

Yes, my boob is in his hand.

Aum, who had returned from the hospital a couple days before, was standing over me, his eyes still swollen and black from his accident, urging me not to stop, to just continue working freehand.

Half-way, and the stencil is rubbing off.

Half-way, and the stencil is rubbing off.

But, he had a whole lot more confidence in me than I did that I could do that without utterly defacing this child’s arm. So, I kept stopping, referring back to the printed image, and manually drawing the stencil back on. After about the fifth time redrawing the stencil, though, Aum was getting impatient with me, saying we were going to be there all night.

Finito!  My very first tattoo on a real, live human.

Finito! My very first tattoo on a real, live human.

I said an inner “TAWANDA!!” and did my best to finish the rubbed-off parts freehand. And, for a first effort, I think it came out reasonably well. Only took six hours. And, boy, did I sleep like a rock that night.

IMG_0876

Did that one, too.

The ensuing days were a flurry of sweet, tough, Thai kids happy to let me cut my teeth on them in exchange for free tattoos. Oddly enough, they usually didn’t have any specific image in mind when they came in, frequently saying “Up to you,” when I’d ask (through an interpreter) what they wanted. Up to me? Really? Well, then guess who’s getting a tattoo of a penguin in a hula skirt dancing on the tip of a giant corndog! That usually got them engaged in the image selection process pretty quickly. It also ensured that I ended up doing a lot of skulls flanked by roses. It’s a classic choice, easy to make on the fly.

The picture he brought.

The picture he brought.

What I gave him.

What I gave him.

BOOM!

BOOM!

In fact, there was only one time someone came in already prepared with a picture of what he wanted. It was a kind of rough illustration of a knuckle dagger that he wanted tattooed on his tricep, exactly as pictured, but embellished with some blood dripping from the blade.  I had to do an especially good job on this one, too, as my victim had absolutely gorgeous work done already by my comrades—mostly by Tom—and I didn’t want my contribution to the glorious canvas of his body to be an ugly toad. In the end, both he and I were very happy with the result.

The Shop.

The Shop.

IMG_0709Once I found my footing, just being in the shop was a blast. We had a mild, comic uprising when someone put techno music on, as it made everyone’s lines come out all uneven and bumpy. In fact, the only music no one ever complained about was Johnny Cash. I settled a mystery for those who thought the clients were sniffing glue for the pain during tattoo sessions, by imparting my earlier acquired knowledge of the universal Thai addiction to menthol nasal inhalers (they really are great if you are feeling dizzy from the heat or pain). MuralWaf painted fantastic graphic murals—his original wheelhouse—on the exterior walls of the shop. Tom would sing while he worked. Pang would bring us food, sometimes with chicken feet in it, that we’d eat at the picnic table on the patio, sometimes under the laundry strung up to dry. PicnicGroups of loud, vacationing blonde girls would come in groups of three or four, get matching tattoos, and squawk away at the top of their voices about their supposedly-wild-but-actually-pretty-tame sexual exploits in a manner clearly contrived to garner the interest of the guys in the shop, but that resulted only in us making vicious fun of them after they’d left. (Seriously, ladies…no one cares who you blew.) It was very colorful, in more ways than one.

Pretty sure that's research.

Pretty sure that’s research.

One afternoon, we were all absorbed in our respective projects, and out of the quiet, Tom said: “Do you guys remember that Friends episode where Phoebe and Rachel go to get tattoos?” Ori, without even looking up, answered, “No, I didn’t watch that show.” I, however, had actually just been thinking about that very episode a couple days before, so I chimed in with, “Yes! And Phoebe chickened out, and just had a dot on her collarbone, saying ‘it’s a lily, as seen from space!’” To which, Tom responded “No, it was ‘This is a picture of the earth from space!” Ori finally interrupted us and said, in a mildly exasperated tone, “No, it was: “It’s the way my mother sees me from heaven.” Tom turned around, eyebrow cocked, and answered, “I thought you said you never watched it.” Ori shrugged. “Well, I didn’t want to admit seeing it, but if you’re going to quote it, you should at least get it right.”

(If the video doesn’t show above, click here.)

The last one I did before leaving.

The last one I did before leaving.

As my time at Bangkok Ink drew to a close, it was clear to me that, although I had come a very long way from that first disaster of a cabbage flower on pigskin, I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go if I’m going to be anything but a dilettante at this. I am really hoping to get back there someday, to see how much better I can become.  I’m also looking into other places in the world where I can continue to learn and improve my skills as I continue my travels.  We shall see.

Words to live by.

Words to live by.  Written on the wall of the shop.

If I’m honest, though, I think it’s safe to say that, unlike Waf and Ori and Tom, I’m just not an artist. I sense that the best I’ll ever be at this is a competent technician. I’ll always have to farm out creation of the actual artwork to a real artist, or, you know…the Internet. I can live with that, though. I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ll just never really be completely in my right mind. I mean, brain.