Keep your firetruck away from my airplane

Firefighters. Not who you want to see on your flight.

When I walked onto the jetway this morning at 6:30 am, the flight attendant on flight 5490 asked me if I was comfortable sitting in the exit row and I smiled broadly, "Yes!" because exit row is spelled l-e-g r-o-o-m.

Not long after taking off the captain announced from the flight deck that the loud noise issuing from the aircraft, in case anyone was wondering, was a device that pops out to help with hydraulics when planes lose power.


Excuse me?


He assured us that we had power but couldn't fly all the way from Austin to Cincinnati with things popping out so we were going back to Austin just as soon as we'd flown around in circles burning enough fuel that the plane was light enough to land.

I put down my magazine where I'd seconds ago read the following passage -

Scared of swimming in large bodies of water? Quit worrying about snakes and start focusing your irrational fears on the rootless, carnivorous plants known as bladderworts

- and looked at the emergency exit door to my left.

"Shit," I thought, "I might actually have to use this motherfucker."

I studied the diagram of how to lift, pull, and twist the door to open it and then immediately started picking little yarn balls off my wool sweater like nobody's business. (Though it became the business of the guy sitting next to me when I accidentally jabbed my elbow into him as I went after a yarn ball under my arm).

I realized that I was engaging in a stress-related neurotic activity in public and while I was glad it wasn't the usual SRNA - pulling out the hair behind my right ear - I decided to cut it out.

When we landed there was a firetruck waiting on the tarmac with its lights flashing. The man with whom I'd broken the ice by giving him an elbow-shaped bruise leaned towards the window and said, "Look who's waiting for us."

All I said was, "Not cool," but what I was thinking was, "Those dirty liars in the cockpit said this wasn't a big deal."

He and I agreed it was probably either a procedural thing or the men and women of the airport fire department simply wanted a break from their pinochle game.

We waited around while fire and maintenance people trotted on and off the plane and did paperwork and fixed the popping thing so we could get a move on. Apologies were given several times on Delta's behalf for the inconvenience and we took off again.

I re-focused on my magazine and my row mate went back to his crossword puzzle but in no time flat there was a loud K-THUNK and he and I looked at each other as quickly as two people can possibly look at each other. I believe it is called SNAPPING TO ATTENTION. And thus the episode repeated, though this time Delta concluded that it would be better to re-route everyone on other planes.

I thought about fear and how, tiny yarn balls aside, I'm a pretty unflappable airline passenger, sometimes to the point of bring-it-on fatalism. I wondered how I got this way since as a kid I was ridden with phobia.

My mom will remember a particular trip to New York that she and I took when I was 10 years old and how much fun it was for her since I was terrified of 1.The plane 2.The subway 3.The elevator 4.The escalator and, most of all, 5. The hotel.

The hotel freaked me out so much that I can tell you now, 20 years later, that it was the Barbizon Plaza Hotel and our room was on the 36th floor. I KNEW that there was going to be a hotel fire that weekend and that I would be stuck on a ledge, hanging by my thumbs, having to jump to a trampoline with a target in the middle, 36 floors below.

I spent a considerable amount of time brooding over the directions to the stairwells posted on the back of our door and wondering if our bedding was flame retardant.

I also drew strength from imagining the scene in the movie Annie where little orphan Annie is suspended high on a bridge waiting for Punjab to rescue her from a helicopter. Yes, I did. In fact, I think I might have to remember that tactic for next time.


Gail goes fishing

There is this state in the union called Minnesota. (For more on how I really feel, please refer to entry 'You messed me up, Minnesota').

I just received a telephone message from my favorite Minnesotan, Gail, that was
garbled so I left her this message:

'Gail. What kind of crazy Minnesota stuff are you getting into? All I heard was ice skating or ice sculpting and $150,000. Call me back and let me know if you have $150,000 in your pocket.'

Gail called back to inform me that she had participated in an ICE FISHING EXTRAVAGANZA but that she didn't win $150,000, which is really too bad because she could have started a college fund for her future children or she and I could have gone on a safari.

Way to go, Gail. You're practically forcing me to buckle down and get a real job. In any case, Gail's conduct last weekend was that of a true Minnesotan: cute, lovable, endearing, and nuts.

The 16th Annual Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza consisted of 11,300 people gathering on a 250-acre patch of Round Lake ice.

From noon, WHEN THE CANNON WENT OFF, until 3pm, the contestants fished at their holes hoping walleye, perch, crappie, and tulibee would bite in weather that was significantly below freezing. If they caught a fish, they'd plunk it in a bag or bucket of water and hustle over to the weighing/judging tent to register it.

I threw a fit when Gail revealed that she didn't take any photos of herself on the ice but she placated me by talking about the fact that she was wore handwarmers, feetwarmers, and a backwarmer underneath her bundles of outerwear. Gail went toe to toe with guys like this for the big money.

Those with the largest fish of the day won true Minnesota prizes like a trucks, all-terrain vehicles, cash, fish trap ice shelters, and ice fishing suits (note: what?).

The guy in the middle of this photo, Christopher Smith of St. Cloud, won 100th place for catching a .38 lb perch and was awarded $10,000 cash. Goddamn.

But it wasn't just about wintery hijinks and getting rich.

As already noted, Minnesotans have heart and the Brainerd Jaycees are no exeption:
seventy percent of the funds benefited disabled campers at an outdoor recreation facility.

And you MIGHT also recognize the Jaycees as the organizers of the Great Northern BBQ and the 4th of July Corn-Feed. Maybe not.

You won't catch me at any ice fishing extravaganzas since I consciously steer clear of Minnesota in January but I'll now admire it from afar. Any gathering with rules like: No Spears Allowed. Ice Chisels Recommended and FAQs like Q: Can I pull canvas over my head for protection? A: No gets the Ronckytonk seal of approval, if not participation.


Dentists gone wild

I returned from Chimaltenango and said hello to the dentists who'd stayed at the clinic in Tiquisate. I asked them how their day was and one of them told me that they illicitly pulled a few of Luis' teeth. Luis is the soldier who guarded our door daily and ushered in patients. He also, conveniently, held the hands of a pretty young thing who was nervous about getting her teeth ripped out of her head and would feel ever so much better if a handsome boy in uniform pressed his palms into hers.

Luis is also the guy with the giant gun who one day sprinted down the main hospital corridor with his finger on the trigger. To what emergency he sprinted I don't know but he had a smile on his face the whole time. I found it unnerving but to him it was no big deal.

What was a big deal to Luis, though, was the fact that his teeth were rotten. He wanted our dentists to pull them but they weren't supposed to because he wasn't allowed to leave his guard post. EVER. There was also some arbitrary rule about how he couldn't continue his army service if he treated his problem. What?

Another translator, a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, said not to even bother deconstructing unreasonable laws. Just accept.

Luis, however, was tired of accepting and his teeth hurt like a motherfucker. He had a rebel streak and the day we were in Chimaltenango he organized his defiant act whereby one dentist stood on lookout for other soldiers while Luis took a shot of anesthetic in his gums. Under orders, the dentists began yanking furiously and got the teeth out in unheard-of timing, with not a peep out of Luis. And you know that hurt.

I was sent the following photos by Mark, seen here modeling Luis's gun, and I don't know about you but I get the feeling that THE DENTISTS WERE HIGH on disobedience. They were smoking rebellion and such elevated levels of giddiness led to all sorts of unorthodox dentistry. 


Meet Henry Elam

When Henry picked me up at 6 am from the Tiquisate hotel, I was under-caffeinated. I mumbled good morning to the dentists in the back of the minivan and slumped against the front seat. We scooped up pediatrician Dr. Mier and his wife, Rita, from the hospital and were off to Chimaltenango, to the home for disabled children.

I woke up quickly when we hit the highway. The roads are narrow, speeds are fast, and passing cars regardless of oncoming traffic is the norm, despite blind turns and way too many trucks that are plastered all over with the words INFLAMABLE.

In the front seat as designated navigator, I held a piece of paper with the map that had been hand drawn for us the day before: four town names with a black pen line squiggling between them.

Henry burned rubber.

I asked him, "Where'd you learn to drive like a Guatemalan?"

"Oh, I've been coming down here for twenty years now," he said, "And I've driven trucks for years at home."

Henry is 62 years old and a former 18-wheel Coca-Cola trucker, beef cattle farmer, and tobacco farmer. He's from Lexington, Kentucky and works part-time driving dairy products to Cincinnati for the Kroger company. His degree is in Dairy Science.

The first time Henry got on a plane to Guatemala he didn't know where the country was but he'd heard about the Children of the Americas medical mission from a woman at his church and signed up.

Late that afternoon, on the way home, I translated road signs for Henry that he'd gazed at for 20 years without understanding, and we both learned new words. Our favorite was tumulo.

The first time I read the sign TUMULOS AHEAD I admitted that I didn't know what a tumulo was and had to look it up. We found that it meant "hump".

"You're supposed to be the Spanish expert," he shot at me.

"Well, I'm sorry but HUMP hasn't come up that often!" I said.

Henry taught me how to flick someone off Guate-style as demonstrated above in the photo of Henry. When we got back to the hospital I told him that I needed him to give me the finger.

"I can't," he said, "I'm laughing too hard."

"Yes you can, Henry. I need you to act really pissed off at me."

Henry took a deep breath, took a step back, started walking towards me and said, "YOU MOTHERF-" and I snapped the photo.

Thank's for help me

I suspect this is what I sound like when I speak Spanish.

Fotos Guanacos

El Salvador, Central America


Bot Flies

One night in Tiquisate, over a dinner of beans, eggs, and Gallo beer, this story was told: Ana, a translator, had been camping on the beach in Esmeraldas, Ecuador when red sores developed around her toes. The sores swelled and grew pustules and Ana thought she had a strange case of foot acne. When the zits didn't go away after several weeks, she decided to pop them.

What she didn't expect was that WORMS SLITHERED OUT FROM UNDER HER SKIN.

"That is the most disgusting thing I can imagine," I said to mom

"What about worms crawling out of your eyes or mouth?" she replied.

You got me. But I kinda thought you had to be dead for worms to crawl out from your eyes. I was WRONG. Laurie, a nurse practitioner, piped up and said that it sounded like the work of a Bot Fly.

Bot Flies are big, hairy flies that sort of look like bumblebees but instead of flowers and honey, they glue their eggs onto mosquito abdomens and then slip into the people or animals that the mosquito bites. Inside, the larva grows for six weeks until it's ready to hatch into the world outside of our bodies. If, for some reason, you have a bot fly larva in you and you don't feel like waiting for six weeks to meet it, you do have options.

You can suffocate it. There's a breathing hole in the sore and you can:

1. Immediately apply Tiger Balm or Vaseline to every mosquito bite you get in the tropics thereby ensuring that the grubs choke to death before they can have their way with you.

2. Wait and see if it looks like there might be worms growing inside and then tape a cotton patch soaked in camphorated oil to your skin. Wait 8 hours, pull off tape, and there should be a dead worm at the surface.

3. Drink a bottle of Coca-Cola or whatever refreshment is available. Smoke a cigarette and then blow smoke into the bottle. Hold the bottle over the sore and wait for the larva to come up for air. Ask a couple of friends to help you push the worm out with your thumbs.

Note: May take more than one attempt.

Two other translators at the dinner table, Alysa and Nancy, knew someone else who had a Bot Fly in her rear end. She, too, had no idea that her butt had become a larval incubator until it stuck its head out and looked at her and husband. Apparently she didn't react too well.

If you were unfortunate enough to click on the eyeball photo above, you'll probably understand why, when I saw it on the web in an Antigua cafe, I yelled "Oh my God!" and twisted away from the computer with my hand over my eyes. The man sitting next to me leaned toward my screen and said the same thing in almost exactly the same pitch as I had. I don't know if his hands were over his eyes, too, since I was still twisted into a ball, lightly hyperventilating.

At that moment, I recalled a certain breakfast during my first year with the medical team in Guatemala, the breakfast where I first truly felt the divide between true medical professionals and part-time frauds and hobbyists like myself.

The night before, in the operation recovery room, a woman was sick and hurled up a bucket of worms. Yes, that's right. So many worms came out of her mouth from her stomach that the nurse ran and got a bucket.

I'm not saying that the nurse on duty LIKED the fact that someone did that on her shift, but she saved the bucket and told everyone about it at breakfast. And no one else besides me seemed to think that maybe breakfast wasn't the best time to be talking about it.

They were all excited and some of them found it professionally fulfilling to get up right then and go look in the bucket. Whereas I stared cross-eyed, drooling on my scrambled eggs, until I left the table. While I don't usually think I'm cut out for office work, my publishing desk back in New York seems mighty safe right now.

Coming soon: Stories about when we had to run to the hardware store because someone was getting their leg amputated.


COTA denistry clinic

On the three-hour bus trip from the airport to Tiquisate I read a book by Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination.

At one point I peeked over the shoulder to see what book the surgery resident sitting in front of me was reading. My reward for being curious was a glance into General Surgery Review and the following words jumping off the page: Abdominal Distention and Bloody Stools.

"Well, that was enough reality for that moment," I thought. "I think I'll just get back to seeing what Mr. Stevens was saying about poetry."

The first two times I came to Guatemala with Children of the Americas, I translated in the general clinic for nurse practitioners and doctors and had to re-examine how hardcore nurses are. Those ladies snapped on rubber gloves, give me a nod, and dutifully dug into the gnarliest, saddest, most gut-wrenching cases of disease and physical deterioration. I, on the other hand, faced the extreme moments fighting tears pooling in my eyes. Ultimately, I always exerted enough control to avoid insulting anyone or embarrassing myself.

This year I was assigned to work with the dentists, a group that traveled down from the University of Kentucky to extract teeth. Extract is such a vague word, however, really they were RIPPING teeth out. There were no gas masks and blissful unconscious states in this low-budget clinic; there were needles, novocaine, and pliers. And if I were a child - or let's be honest, who I am today - you would have had to club me over the head and dragged me into that room of piercing screams to get into my mouth.

The REASON for the dental visit, however, is that children in Guatemala evidently spend more time sucking on sugar cane and drinking soda than brushing so they end up with mouths full of rotting black stubs. It hurts, infection spreads, it's bad news. Enter the syringes and the shiny pliers. Six tables were set up in a auditorium separate from the hospital to try to prevent the screams from infecting the mood of the general populace. The kids came in by turn, passing the army guards with their fatigues and rifles at the door.

The kids listened to me explain that we'd stick a needle in their gums and inject them with something that tasted bad, that it would pinch, and that their mouth would go to sleep. I told them that they'd have to be very brave. Then a couple of giant strangers wrestled with the roots of their teeth while other giant strangers held them down. Traumatic, but with a good reason and positive result.


Pollo McFrito

Anyone looking for a reason to patronize McDonald's?

I've been searching for internet in Guatemala City and yesterday I walked to a mall near my hotel. I didn't see an internet cafe so I stepped into Radio Shack and told the boys behind the counter what I was looking for.

"There's internet at McDonald's," they said.


"McDonald's has computers?" I asked in disbelief.

They nodded yes. I don't know why I was in such shock but I was.


I walked back down the street to the McDonald's I'd passed earlier and didn't consider going into since I usually think McDonald's is only good for one thing, the bathroom. This time I went inside and ordered a caramel sundae that I didn't really want. I asked the cashier lady if I paid her to use the computers, gesturing to the two iMacs behind me, Ronald McDonald screensavers on both.

She explained, "You need to buy a meal to use the computer."

Oh, man.

She points to ten meal choices displayed on the wall.

I imagine the recently consumed Chile Relleno churning through stomach and stared off in the distance with a dazed look on my face.

"I'll have the Pollo McFrito, please."


This is where I start acting like I'm a doctor

Tomorrow I take the bus to Guatemala City to meet the Children of the Americas group I'm working with as a medical translator.

We'll be in Tiquisate and working all day at the city hospital so I will be out of cyberland until at least Jan 20.

Cuidense y'all.


Anacondas 2

Tonight Melissa and I settled in for the evening flick, a bootleg copy of Anacondas 2. Some of you may remember the first Anaconda in 1997 featuring Ice Cube, J.Lo, and Owen Wilson. This second masterpiece was directed by Dwight Little, who may be more renowned for his work on Halloween 4 and Free Willy 2. Hard to say.

Basically what happens is a group of very attractive and ethnically diverse group of scientists are hunting for the blood red orchid in the jungles of Borneo. The orchid blooms for a week every seven years and the sweaty sexy young searchers, sent out by a pharmaceutical company, must find the flowers in order to unlock the secrets of youth and immortality.

What they soon discover, as per the back of the bootleg DVD box is that:

The orchid is already being used by a denizen host of giant snakes to augment their strength, size, and vitality - not to mention their appetites.

No kidding! The size of the movie anacondas was horrifying. They were as long as the river was wide and with girths bigger than the biggest trucker-style beer bellies you can imagine. Huge.After awhile the silliness of the plot allowed me to loosen up, stop watching the snake scenes through a web of fingers, and begin to wonder if anacondas really grow that large, with or without the help of orchids.

Coco said sure, anacondas eat cows so it's possible. Melissa said she didn't believe it and I said that it looks like I have some research to do.

Results: Anacondas in tropical Central and South America have been sighted in the 30+ foot range for length, they can get as fat around as a grown man, and they are known to eat deer, pig, caiman (kind of a small crocodile) and fish.


I'm not a big fan of jungles. I'm first and foremost a fan of the coast and the mountains but all this hoo-ha about man-swallowing snakes has dredged up a memory from my brief journey into the outermost region of the Ecuadorian jungle.

If anyone has the photo of me running down the jungle path in my large, white grandma-style underpants after stepping in a spider nest and finding my legs covered black from toe to thigh by spiders please feel free to send it to me and I'll post it. I'm talking to you, Sara. After screaming at me, "Take off your pants, take them off!" and I tore my jeans off and started running, you took photos. I love my friends.

LOST: El Salvador

Yesterday I got to do several things that I really like:

1. Drink refreshing beverages out of plastic bags (yesterday was water but I've done beer and soda in the past)

2. Hike

3. Observe ineffective police in action.

A group of 30 of us planned to hike up the volcano of San Salvador. There were a bunch of university students, my hosts and former Bronx roommates Melissa and Coco, and Coco's friends from the youth group Movimiento Generacion 21. The hike was meant to last an hour and a half and the National Civil Police agreed to send a few officers to escort us for safety because in El Salvador you need this. At the last minute, one of the guys from the youth group didn't show, the one who knew the way to the top of the volcano.

"No te preocupes," said the policeman, "I know the route."

At the beginning of the hike, I was at the front with the policeman. He told me that he'd only been on the volcano one time before, on a motorcycle. I didn't find this alarming since surely the trail was marked and we'd follow it easily. I'm a sucker.

Within a half hour, the policeman couldn't keep up and had dropped to the back. We kept stopping so that the group could stay close together since it wasn't safe to have hikers at front alone in the brush. Three hours later the whole "safety first" angle had been dropped in favor of just either going somewhat UP, since we had been across, down, and around the mountain, scaling reedy open faces, and ducking through coffee farms and it didn't seem like we'd gained much altitude at all.

Here you will see Melissa not losing her sense of humor.

Four hours later we just wanted to get to the road we knew was on the other side of the volcano.

At one point a tiny indigenous man hopped past us carrying his own weight in flowers in a bundle on his back. He pointed us in the right direction and kept going. All this while the policemen happily carried up the rear, one of them listening to salsa music on the radio strapped to his shoulder.

FIVE HOURS LATER we made it.


Psychotic break watch: Day 1

Whether you are a marxist with camping skills or a Nazi looking for a fresh start, no place says "Hola!" like Latin America.

- Jon Stewart

Tomorrow I leave for two weeks in El Salvador and Guatemala. In the interests of safety, I spent $138 on chloroquine anti-malarial medication, also known as crazy pills, and promised my mother I would not befriend any gang members from the leading Los Angeles-based gang exports Mara 18 and Mara Salvatruchas (MS).

Notice I said nothing about EX-gang members. LOOPHOLE!

I almost didn't get malaria pills because one side effect - it's rare but it's there - is the psychotic break. I thought that maybe having a psychotic break would be more of a drag than having malaria. Until I talked to Sara who has actually had malaria. Sara told me that when she wasn't feeling extremely ambivalent about living or dying, her physical capabilities were this:

Hear a noise to the left and start to turn head in that direction. 45 minutes later head makes it all the way over. Have to use the toilet urgently, knowing you will soon shit yourself. Hour-and-a-half later make it to the bathroom, having shit yourself, but at least you're in the right place for round two which will start any minute.

That makes a psychotic break look pesky by comparison and far more interesting. So I took my first pill five hours and so far don't feel any more loopy than usual. The other best malarial travel advice I've gotten is to drink a lot like the British colonials in India who diluted the bitter anti-malarial quinine taste in tonic with gin.


I am learning so much on this drive from San Francisco to Austin. Example: I'd never before read the Hudspeth County Herald (Texas) or heard of Merle Lutrick, columnist.

In the most recent issue, Merle goes off on windmills which I love since I had JUST been thinking about windmills. Seriously.

Driving east from the California Bay Area, Route 580's hills are sprinkled with windmills. At least that's what I assumed they were.

I hadn't really seen windmills before and they are way more spiky and serious looking than the boxy Dutch things I associate with clogs and tulips. I wasn't even sure these things were windmills but they had blades and were turning in the wind. Therefore, windmills.

Hours later, on the stretch of I-10 known as the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway, there they were again, now spooky in the dark.

This is what Merle and her exclamation marks had to say, "You would never guess what has been standing in my living room since last night (Christmas Eve)!! - our surprise this year was an eight foot windmill. Yes!!"

Yes indeed, Merle.

Merle loves windmills. She grew up in the Texas panhandle where the breeze blows regularly and every farm had windmill power. After Merle married she got electricity, but until then she had a windmill. And until this Christmas Eve, she had been without one.

Suffer no longer, Merle, someone in your family kicks ass and got you the best Christmas present EVER.

Today's wind machines are fiberglass and the wind farms are clustered around smooth hills, open plains, and mountain gaps. California uses the most wind electricity followed by Texas, Minnesota, and Iowa.

And although only a teeny bit of the country's electricity today comes from windmills, Merle points out that not long ago they were a necessity, and for some people, something to get excited about.


This year I will express my patriotism

The Hudspeth County Herald is a newspaper out of Dell City, Texas. I picked it up at the Exxon station in Sierra Blanca the morning that Jimmy and left town as fast as one possibly can in a 17-foot truck and 10-foot long car trailer.

Why were we in a rush? I'll just say that we spent the night with my giant North Face backpack bracing the door for security and Jimmy banned any bare feet from touching the carpet. Sierra Blanca is not a dream resort. Unless you've always wanted to start in a horror movie.

Yesterday reading the Hudspeth County Herald was on my to-do list and I managed to wedge it in between margaritas and checking out the pool. The paper has a homey we-all-here-know-each-other vibe and is chock full of all sorts of information: recipes for taco meatball appetizers, a column by a man named Tumbleweed Smith (I am PRAYING that that is his God-given name), and a cartoon called Cowpokes.

There's also a message from The Heritage Foundation president about winning the war on terror and new year's resolution advice from Congressman Henry Bonilla. I don't do resolutions but in case anyone else is into that sort of thing, I'm here to tell you that he cautions you to be flexible.

Allow your resolution to grow with you throughout the year. Less specific wording such as "This year I will express my patriotism" provides room to challenge yourself to be creative with your resolution throughout the year.

The Congressman admits that there is value in standard resolutions such as losing ten pounds and keeping it off but thinks that perhaps we need to set our sights a little higher. So as to squeeze into the star-spangled clothing that we've grown out of perhaps?


Elvis box

Who moves across the country with an ENTIRE BOX of Elvis stuff?

Hint #1: The same person who has a Michael Jackson night light.
Hint #2: Not me

Though in no way am I opposed to entire boxes of Elvis stuff and Michael Jackson night lights.