Thursday, October 30, 2008

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Thank God for the coconut guys on the streets; this place is HOT!  The coconut guys work the streets with their carts and cut open coconuts with machetes for refreshing beverages.  Aaahhh, the fresh juices... I guess I had forgotten what a ripe pineapple tastes like.  

In Santo Domingo, merengue dancing is popular too. Friends will be happy to know I resisted the urge on nearly all occasions to dance; good thing it was dark when I did. Last night, I took a stroll out for some entertainment. A dark cobblestone street took me past a magnificent cigar shop to a cafe that spilled out dancers and diners. I cannot remember a more joyous recent event. It seemed that they had no other relevant care in the world. One particularly well-dressed elderly man rose from his chair and walked over with some intent to a beautiful young woman. I thought for sure she would decline his advance, but she rose with a shining smile and took his hand. To my astonishment, they danced the merengue, and the unlikely duo stole the show. I would say that it was that moment when I decided to learn to dance. Well, if I do learn to dance, that may be the reason.

I took the opportunity to take some photos on Monday.  Here are some of what I found:

Other than the fresh juices, the food here was not overwhelmingly great. After disappointment with an overpriced goat osso bucco, and a few other dishes, I did have a delicious ceviche at a Peruvian place (couldn't resist) and a barbeque bacon cheeseburger at Hard Rock Cafe while I watched the World Series. Presidente seems to be the beer of choice, and you can get one at Hard Rock for $4 or at the park with a small plastic cup for $1. Rum and Cigars are big here too (NO, I DIDN'T BUY ANY CUBANS). Watch out in the streets and markets because people are very pushy!  "No, thank you, I don't need you to polish my rubber sandals." Taxi drivers, shoe shiners, tour guides, jewelers... all follow you around like puppies. My inner Obama told me I was being selfish and should spread the wealth, but I realized that's government's job and not mine.  

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Chew Softly and Carry a Wicked Flashlight

 Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Country number 19! Yesterday, I arrived safely in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. It was a very long bus trip, but luckily we had air conditioning and J-Lo in concert on video. You know, I think I like her better as an actress, but whatever. From just before the border, I noticed a couple of yellow butterflies that followed me for miles, kind of like the way that bird followed Eddie Murphy in Tibet. Therefore, I am certain I will be challenged to find another Golden Child somewhere in the Caribbean. I want the kniiiiife... pleeeeease. On the Haiti/DR border there is a rope, men with machine guns, aggressive children selling stuff you do not want, and a vicious mutant backhoe that nearly demolished an unwitting motorcyclist and company. Pretty effective, I must say. Homeland Security Sec. Chertoff and I are going to have a sit-down soon to mull this over. That is all I have to say about that.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Finally a city that makes Napoli look sanitary. Port-au-Prince is very dirty, not very charming, and smells of urine. It is a place where dogs and pigs live in perfect harmony rummaging through burning garbage on the street for food. People make strange noises at you and call you "blanc," ("whitey") as they look at you very peculiarly. Public transportation is a transformed pickup truck that seats twelve. At least you can sleep well at night, because the UN is the police.
Now that I have got you ready to hit up Priceline for your ticket to come for a visit, you should also know that there are some bright lights in this country (although not outside at nighttime). I was privileged to meet some great people, mostly Americans, who are in Haiti trying to make it a better place. I met a doctor who works to get people medicine and help in rural areas. There is a man who works to expose injustice, not to the corrupt authorities, but to the rest of the world. At St. Joseph's, where I stayed, Michael runs a home for boys. My group Hands On Disaster Response performs back-breaking work (ha-ha, yeah) moving mud to get people back into their homes and schools. Food-wise, I really enjoyed the fresh fruit, and I had a great Creole conch dish yesterday. So, if you want to be a do-gooder, Haiti may be for you. How is that for change you can believe in! I may have more thoughts on that later.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Change in Plans

Even though I have no idea how the World Series is going or anything else for that matter about the events of the world post- my October 20th edition of the Washington Post, I will use a baseball reference to say something I could have said very simply - I am on the DL. Yes, perhaps "down low" would be accurate as well, but more to the point would be "disabled list." Evidently bad backs and heavy-duty mud hauling do not work well together. Today I am back in Port-au-Prince recuperating. Due to the long distance between here and Gonaives, coupled with the fact that the shuttle "HODR Express" runs just two days a week, I have decided to alter the course of my trip. Isn't travel exciting!?! I do not even know where I will be tomorrow, but there is a good chance it will be to the east where I can utilize my Spanish skills - The Dominican Republic. Stay tuned. I'm off to get some creole food before dark. (I don't go out in Haiti after dark.) Luckily, here at St. Joseph's Home for Boys, an American doctor lady is also a guest. She offered to give me something for the pain. Since I am a long-time devotee of ER, I tried out my lingo,"I need a CT, an EKG, 20 of Demerol, and a full work up." I didn't say "stat" because they haven't said that on ER since the '90s, and I thought it would be rude.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What's a Bucket Shower?... Ohhh!

Volunteer Life in Haiti

Who knew you could take a shower with about two gallons of water from a bucket? Inconceivable! I'm learning all sorts of new things here! Like, you can find a neighborhood without Obama signs and stickers, and okra can taste good... no, really; we had a stew of it yesterday for lunch... and dinner. No wine yet, but there is a good beer called "Prestige" that I got from one of the street vendors after work. Pretty good. It was 50 gourdes. I had know idea how much that is, so I made that the end of my shopping for the day.
Yesterday's job was a school that had been flooded with about three feet of mud. I mostly hauled wheel barrels of "smudge." Since I am culinarily inclined, I liken smudge to chocolate cake batter, or perhaps a nice ganache. Smudge is fairly easy to dump, but it spatters so I kept my distance while the shovelers did their part. It is quite hot in Haiti. Who knew? Well, we all did. The best part of the day is when we get back to base and watch the sunset from our balcony. We cannot see the water, but at that point it is fairly cool, and breezy, and just plain perfect.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gonaives - Arriving in Haiti

It turns out there is food in Haiti, and I have yet to eat mud. It does turn out that the volunteers on site here have determined at least four classifications for mud, like the various words for "snow" an Eskimo might have. I arrived in Port-au-Prince yesterday and was met, as arranged by "a fat man named 'Big'" at the airport. I was escorted to another man who escorted me to a driver. I flashed a few of my minuscule French repertoire so that he knew everything better be on the up-and-up. Sure enough, he navigated me safely to where I was supposed to go. Driving is more like an X-game here, and I think they have taken the idea of carpooling to a new level in oddly-rigged vehicles that aggressively zip through crowded unkempt streets. Kind of makes those politicians sound a little silly about how our American roads are "falling apart." You want to see falling apart!?!? I'll show ya. We stopped briefly en route to my hotel, and two boys started tapping on my window, asking for some sort of donation. I just said, "No hablo ingles," and they just looked at me kind of funny. Finally, the one boy said, eerily, "I am sorry for you." All sorts of thoughts, mostly Ridley Scott Hollywood type thoughts, but we'll stay positive.
Today was not only a four-hour journey north to the dusty coastal town of Gonaives, but also my first day of work. My afternoon consisted of working with local Haitian teens to assembly line shovel and bucket out a three-room home from two feet of mud. Some of the standing water had little creatures living in it. Well, I'm tired and hot, so going to call it a night and think of something interesting to write for later.

Friday, October 17, 2008

How Do You Say "Trick or Treat" in Creole? - Off to Haiti

Well, I have not set foot in new country in two years. Other friends and family members have been to fun and exciting places like Iraq, Bahrain, Italy, etc... but I'm not marking any new territory! 
Monday, I fly to Haiti - Country #18!
I will be meeting up with Hands On Disaster Response in the town of Gonaives to work for two weeks where hurricane season has not been kind. I volunteered with Hands On, or HODR, last year in Pisco, Peru and highly recommend them as a charity or volunteer opportunity. Who knows what I will be doing, but when my boss asked me what I will be for Halloween, I told him "a mud-shoveler." He didn't get it.
One more night of work (here), and I'm getting everything together. I will be back, God willing, to the chagrin of most of my friends, on Election Day. If not, I will need one liberal Virginian to volunteer to stay home. Any takers?
In honor of Cristobal Colon, who sailed the ocean blue in 1492... and got lost nowhere near his destination... and "discovered" a new world already strangely inhabited by my ancestors, I head south to Hispaniola. If I, too, get lost along the way, keep an eye out for postcards with scents of Cuban tobacco. Or wouldn't it be funny if I ended up in the spice islands? If so, I plan to name the people I find "Haitians" anyway.
Au revoir!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Behind Enemy Lines - Boston, Mass.

I guess I was asking for it. Still basking in the glow of last Tuesday night's Lakers win over the Boston Celtics, I confidently went forth to spend 47 hours behind enemy lines. Everyone in that town wore either red (Red Sox) or green (Celtics), and many had new shirts that just read "BEAT LA!" I'm used to being a minority in everyday life because I speak English, but in Boston I felt very alone with my SoCal roots.

It was Thursday evening, and I had just finished an outstanding meal at Clio. I changed into my Lakers t-shirt, but thought it best to cover with a button-up just until I found a safe place to watch Game 4. There was a pretty cool pub named Daisy Buchanan's with plenty of televisions, and I didn't see too many jerseys... it looked fairly laid-back. Perhaps that was because the Lakers were still up by 20 points. Once inside and in a somewhat inconspicuous spot, I decided to show my colors. There was a unique disruption in The Force. The girl nearby, obviously looking to be noticed scoffed. The bartender attempted to charge me $40 for a $4 beer while struggling to keep his composure as a tipped employee obligated to keep certain things left unsaid. I was semi-politely admonished by several patrons that I "should be careful." What is this, the wild west?

At this juncture, I had reached the point of no return. I was proud of my team, and that was that. To their credit, many with whom I spoke were understanding (if that's not too strong a word) when I told them I was from Southern California and just there for a visit. They seemed to respect that. Well, I'm thinking "respect" might be too strong a word, too, because it wasn't long before the Celtics started scoring and the volume in the room got a lot louder and livelier.

Now in roughly 20 years in sports, both as a player and a coach, you learn how to lose with dignity. This... was something very new. Not only did my team lose, but they choked. And I was the only loser in the (very packed, at this point) sports bar. I heard it from EVERYBODY. "What happened to your boy Kobe?!!" "You guys suck! Ha, ha!!" "Better watch out!" This was a very peculiar situation. I decided the best course of action was to keep smiling and be very congratulatory; don't let anything bother you. I gave a few high-fives... "Good game! Good game!" I bought the guy closest to me a beer (but definitely not the scoffing girl). He said thanks and accepted, but also that "I won't protect you though." (He shook my hand when he left.)

I found that in the face of severe embarrassment, staying positive and resolute can turn a potentially ugly situation with an adversary into an ambassadorship of character and good will. Reading too much into it? Perhaps, but you try it.

Public Garden

Mark Wahlberg at The Happening premiere

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Home - Getting back to California

My friend told me that it's not a "vacation" if you are just going home for the weekend. I guess that makes sense. Things change all the time, but the beach seems to be the same. I can see how this place can be a get-away - a place to relax and see new things. That's a vacation. California is where I rather go to "get-back." Among all the constants there, such as the beach, In 'n Out, Mexican food, KFI's "John and Ken Show," family and old friends, there's always something new to this Golden State expatriate. Vacation or no vacation, I'm glad I took the weekend off.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Magnificent - An Evening at the Symphony

In a strange stroke of luck, I was called in to work yesterday morning, vanquishing any desires I had for spending all day in the library studying. Interestingly, I keep getting the nights off when there is music to be had. Last week it was Bon Jovi. But yesterday, I seized the unique opportunity to head up to Bethesda to listen to the work of Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony. It was quite the contrast with other nights out - this crowd was not too rowdy. There were no cell phone video recordings flickering about the arena (as lighters used to), no $10 Bud Lights in plastic cups... no piercings. I believe a good many in attendance may have known Beethoven personally. So, this is where the senior citizens go to party. Well, the lady to my right was probably about eighty years old, and I engaged her in conversation at the intermission. Among other things, she commented on how unique it was to have the composer, (of the second piece) Christopher Rouse, present while his creation had just been played. Of course, I tried to insert comic relief: "Oh, well the last time I was here, it was for Mozart... and he didn't come." "He didn't come... yeah, I heard that one coming," she told me. And they wonder why I don't go talk to them when other guys are hitting on them. I got shut down making small talk to a grandmother. Well, at least I didn't have to buy her a drink. After that, we made some nice conversation, but I steered clear of humor. Anyway, what a magnificent performance - perhaps some of the best music ever made or that will ever be made. And, since I am much faster without a cane or a wheelchair, I beat them all to the Metro. To be fair, though, I don't think they were racing.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Democratic Strategery - Election 2008

In honor of Super-Duper Tuesday, some suggested Democratic campaign slogans:

Vote Edwards - Democrats: Party for the little guy... oh, wait...

Hillary - Pledging to bring tolerance back to the White House

Hillary - If I can keep Bill Clinton in check, imagine what I can do to Putin

Obama - I'm not George Bush, and I'm not Hillary Clinton

Hillary - I feel your pain... here, watch; I'll cry

Obama - I've always been anti-war, but I'll bomb Pakistan!

Hillary - I intend to run on my record... look how good my husband was!

Obama/Clinton - Universal Health Care! Except for illegal immigrants

Obama - I promise not to push the wrong buttons anymore

Hillary - It's important to be ready for the presidency from day-one. It's all I've ever thought about; just ask the people of New York

Obama - Because sitting down with our enemies will help us win the War on Terror... "2009 Obama/Osama Summit"

Hillary - Barack and I have very passionate spouses... wait a minute... Where the hell are they anyway?!

Obama - Secretary of Transportation... Ted Kennedy!

Hillary - Sen. Obama, if "dance moves" define a "brotha" than you won't be the first OR SECOND black president.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sweet Carolina - Asheville, NC

Ever just take a drive and not know where you are going... with four days to spare? Of course not! Who does that?! Well, I do. I mean, my friend wanted to work for me... I end up with four days off... what's a guy to do? Well, I had been to New York recently, and I didn't want to get stuck in any snow, so I went south. Charlotte, NC was my first stop. It was largely uneventful, so with the good advice of a friend, I went to Asheville to see the Biltmore Estate. I thought I was just going to check out some house; you know - half hour, 45 minutes... tops. You need several hours to fully enjoy this, the largest home in the United States. It is the Vanderbilt home/"getaway" on acres and acres of land in the hills of western North Carolina. Built on turn-of-the-century railroad profits, this huge place is meticulously detailed and a wondrous creation. You have to see it for yourself because they do not allow photography inside.

Asheville is a nice place. The people are friendly. You can find some good food; I enjoyed The Corner Kitchen. There is a Thomas Kinkade gallery nearby. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring that extra $1000 I have laying around to buy a painting. It was great to look though. It was a bit chilly, but the warmth of the people and the pleasantness of the scenery made for a memorable time away from DC.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Crater Lake - 1925

My grandmother was always a great gift-giver. Not only were the contents of her gifts something great to receive, but she even took great care in the wrapping and made opening the gift a creative process. True to form, I received the gift of four black and white photographs in the mail the other day. They were a sequence of shots meant to be put together to form one larger picture. All together they form a beautiful panorama of Crater Lake in Oregon. The year was 1925. Photographer credit to Ella May Moeller.
Thanks Grandma.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Merry New Year!

Happy New Year!
It's always a unique situation to be working in a restaurant on New Year's Eve. Most people I know call it "amateur night" and would rather stay away from restaurants on this night. However, many others do enjoy letting loose and staying up late on the last day of the year. Some even spend a lot of money for a memorable night. But there is one lesson all of you "amateurs" should keep in mind when you are trying to impress your date(s) and/or friends with the best meal you can find... CANCEL YOUR RESERVATION IF YOU ARE NOT GOING TO SHOW UP!! You think, "well, they'll be fine... the restaurant will have plenty of people who want our table (or four tables, in this case), so I can't be bothered to call and cancel." Well, I was the schmuck on this special night who had... survey says!!!... two tables of two while waiting for my nine-top (table for 9) to show up. Not that I had other plans... actually, yeah I did - not to be working for nothing because some people don't have any manners. So I transferred my tables to my friend Martin, changed out of that costume, and grabbed some bubbly by 11:15. I would say the night got better, but it didn't actually until after I performed first aid on an over-served busser who was too drunk to know he was actually bleeding fairly profusely from his finger.

Well, it's a new year, and the consensus is that it has to be better than 2007. I'll go along with that (I've already perfected my zabaglione)... just as long as things go my way the first week in November. Conventional wisdom is that there is a lot of time between then and now, so I intend on working on some things in the meantime. First: my last class toward my Certificate in International Studies at SAIS begins this month. Should be fun.