30 January 2007

Ikea Nesting Urges

MALMÖ—We made the pilgrimage to Ikea the other day. The vast box of its structure rose above a parking lot filled with sensible cars. Lena got a large, flat cart to push through the mammoth interior design store famous for its well-designed, reasonably priced wares of decent quality. Soon we were navigating a sea of sofas, taking the occasional rest break on likely looking candidates.
“You know this is a pretty serious relationship step,” joked Lena, “A lot of Swedish couples would never go to Ikea together until at least after they were engaged.”
I wondered if Ikea was a good place to propose marriage then. That maybe one could find a reasonably priced, well-designed ring, get on one’s knees by a dinette set and take one’s new, well-designed bride off to one of the fully-furnished apartment mock-ups and begin raising a well-designed family.
I saw a red throw pillow embroidered with the maze from Chartres Cathedral and thought it quite clever. In fact I had a sudden, almost overwhelming urge to buy it even though it would take up half my suitcase and despite the fact that Chartres is my favourite cathedral I don’t particularly like throw pillows. We kept walking and I wondered why Lena had insisted on the large cart. Her own apartment was well furnished and didn’t seem to need anything that couldn’t fit in a hand basket.
The open showroom floor morphed into complete, fully Ikeaized rooms and apartments and I was reminded of what Edward Norton’s character in the movie Fight Club had said about there being an “Ikea nesting urge.” My irrational urge to buy now mixed with commitment phobia panic which reached full-strength as the rooms morphed into the children’s department, complete with squealing little blonde Swede bundles that looked disturbingly like offspring I might produce.
Must buy, half my brain told me. Must run, screamed the other. I wondered if there were secret Ikea thought-control rays telling me to nest, to buy and when we entered housewares I picked up a metal mixing bowl and started to put it on my head to stop them.
“That’s not a hat,” said Lena, looking alarmed like maybe she hadn’t realized that Americans didn’t know the difference.
It occurred to me that I was trapped in the Land of Modular Living People – sort of like Pod People only better scrubbed and with cleaner lines but equally socialist.
We arrived at the cafeteria. “C’mon,” said Lena, “I’ll buy you some meatballs…”
The meatballs, potatoes and lingonberry jam were served by pretty, smiling blonde girls with blue head scarves. I think their nametags read 1Inga, 2Inga and 3Inga and that they had been grown in secret Ikea vats. But the meatballs calmed me down a little and I realized that in order to throw the thought rays off I had to buy something. I settled on a cheese slicer. Lena got some bag clips. They looked very small on the big cart. Finally we arrived at the warehouse.
The Ikea mode of shopping is as follows. You take one of the handy forms and an Ikea pencil. When you find the couch or table of your choice you write down the product’s number (each product also has a name, a real name, so that much of Sweden has bookshelves named Billy). In the warehouse you find Billy 1138 or whatever, stick him on your cart, take him home and assemble him yourself.
Lena found an empty aisle, sat down on the cart and told me to push. It seemed so anarchic that I wondered if klaxons would begin sounding and Ikea security forces would appear to enforce order. Still it was irresistible and I began slow then went faster and faster until she was laughing (almost) wildly. We traded places.
“Miss Philipson, take us out of dock, one-quarter impulse power.”
“Geek,” she said.
“Yep,” I replied, “Ahead warp-factor one…”
The G-forces pushed me back. “Looks like a cluster of Swedons ahead. Prepare those photon torpedoes we picked up back in the electrical department.”
“Like Klingons only better behaved.”
I thought that getting kicked out of Ikea would be quite a coup but no one seemed to notice our antics. Soon we were checking out. There were more of those red Chartres pillows giving me one more chance to buy but I resisted. Then I noticed a teddy bear had fallen into a bin of stuffed rats. It looked like Mr. Bear was getting eaten. I arranged the rats to enhance the illusion, adding sound-effects. Nooooo, Arrgggg, Ahhhhhh, Eeekkk…. Lena bought one of the rats. It looked good with the cheese slicer.
In the parking lot people were loading boxes into Saabs and Volvos.
“Saab,” I said, “Saab, Saab, Volvo, Volvo, Saab, Volvo, Saab.”
I’d developed a sort of compulsion, rather like hanging one’s head out the window and yelling mooooooooo everytime a cow is passed.
“Saab, Volvo, Volvo, Saab….”
“Yes, we really do drive them,” said Lena.
We threw our purchases in the back of her Ford Escort and drove home to Billy the bookshelf and, we’ll say, Sven the table, Olga the end table, Dave the floor lamp and some kitchen cabinets that had come with the apartment but looked suspiciously like an Inga.

You Knew I Was A Swede When You Picked Me Up

LUND—“So what do you think of Swedish music club?” asked Lena’s friend Gabriella.
I looked around at the casually hip crowd and didn’t see one person who would look particularly out-of-place at a Cleveland concert. It was an all-ages show at the Lund Cultural Center, a sort of hang-out spot, nightclub and center-for-the-arts wrapped into one. There was a triple bill including Sweden’s biggest up-and-coming hip hop star (I am fully aware how odd that may sound) Jason Diakite, and several other currently popular musicians including Lena’s childhood friend Mårton Dahl on bass.
I pondered Gabriella’s question for a while, trying to put into words both the odd familiarity of the place and the subliminal undercurrent of foreigness. “It really looks pretty much like a club in the US,” I replied, “only, uh, well, whiter…”
Earlier I had been trying to explain to Olivia Svenson, a celebrity gossip columnist for the magazine Click, how I found Sweden almost disturbingly unforeign. I hadn’t done too well there either -- the problem with these conversations being that they tend to fall into sweeping generalizations. Nonetheless I plowed forward, generally sweeping anything and anyone that came into my path.
“Well I haven’t been to Europe in almost 15 years,” I began, “But when I changed planes in Amsterdam I was immediately reminded of how, well, European everyone looked. The Swedes don’t generally look or act like that…”
Olivia seemed puzzled, “What is it we’re lacking then?”
“Not lacking,” I replied, “Not lacking at all unless you mean lacking sunken chests, funny clothes, bad attitudes and some nasty vices concealed as virtues…”
I realized I wasn’t exhibiting much wisdom or erudition. In fact my rather banal observations were making me insecure and tempting me to praise Sweden by blurting out some horrible nonsense like, “Well heck, pretty lady, far as I can see ya’ll are practically Americans!”
I was saved by a guy who interrupted to say he had lived for some time in Knoxville, Tennessee. Indeed, he spoke English with a sort of twang added to the usual melodic Swedish accent. At least, then, the conversation was switched to safer topics like US/Middle East relations… The Swedish Southerner did express being mystified by the current US President, then proved himself almost definitely not American by knowing the names of all the key cabinet members then surprised me again by saying, “We are alike, America and Europe. We stand for the same things, have the same ideals. You are, without a doubt, the most powerful country in the world and we need to work with you. America is descended from Europe so we are responsible for you; and you for us if the world is to be a free and better place…. But I’m glad they fired Rumsfeld…” I almost choked on my drink.
I went downstairs to the lavatory. There was a pack of Swedish teenage boys, shaggy haired and trying out the poses of what they imagined was adult confidence. One did his best imitation of a swagger, pointed at my camera and said something that I couldn’t understand. I was cornered in an underground bathroom in a strange country. I subtly shifted my weight to the balls of my feet, turned slightly sideways and wondered what the next move would be, got ready.
“Speak English,” I said.
“Oh,” he replied politely, “Where are you from?”
He looked delighted, “Do you know the Drew Carey Show? Have you been to Cleveland!? Anyway, I want to be a photographer and I wanted to know what you think of the Nikon D2x…”
I felt foolish having thought I was about to be mugged. We talked cameras for a while and I shot a few photos of them while they pretended to hang tough, flashing gang sign they’d seen in American movies. I went back upstairs and showed the pictures to Lena, “Aren’t they cute,” she laughed.
The band I was there to photograph came on. I took a deep breath and descended into the packed mosh pit. The music was good, high energy rock and rap. The kids cheered, waved their arms, pushed towards the stage and when they saw my camera, got out of the way to give me better angles. I’ve never felt so unmolested in a mosh pit in my life.
Over the next days I kept thinking about the question, kept trying to figure out why Sweden seems so familiar. Lena said that the man who’d lived in Knoxville didn’t have typical opinions of America so I decided to ask some people the question directly, to ask both about the character of their own country and their perceptions of America and Americans. Present at this admittedly uncomprehensive survey were Lena Philipson, Frederik Larrson, Olivia Svenson, Anna Palmehag and Martin and Hennie Ekelund. For the record, all but Martin’s wife Hennie are trained and working journalists.
“Sweden,” said Martin, “is a doing culture rather than a being culture. Swedes participate in a lot of organizations, volunteer for many things. Many people devote all their free time to organizational life and socialize through the organization.”
“We can’t just sit around and hang out,” added Frederik, “We need to do something. We believe we are the most modern country in the world. We had these peer study groups in which the workers educate themselves. We also have a lot of faith in our government. We trust them…”
“We actually do!” said Lena.
“It goes back to at least the 15th century. The farmers always had a lot of say as to what the kings did. The state was never the enemy of the people like in, say, Italy or France.”
“We do what the government says,” commented Olivia, “When I was a kid the government said it was good to drink milk. If you’re a kid you have to drink milk. I hate milk and had to take a note from my mother to school saying I didn’t like milk.”
“You don’t mean you’re allergic to milk?” I asked, “You actually mean you had to have a note from home just to say you didn’t like it?”
“They made me drink the milk,” added Frederik.
I had a feeling I was onto something, what I wasn’t sure, but it had to do with a basically homogeneous (or homogenized) culture. They never could make me drink the milk. But then the conversation shifted to America and Americans.
“They talk a lot but there isn’t much content,” said Olivia the gossip columnist, “I’ve heard they talk, talk, talk and you don’t get to know them anyway…And they’re cocky of course.”
“You don’t really meet that many Americans,” mused Frederik, “Actually the ones I’ve met are always very generous and open minded. But the ones I’ve met have been in Europe so maybe they’re more open to other cultures. Then again I’ve never been to America…”
“The American culture is so adopted in Sweden,” said Martin, “We take so much from them that sometimes we feel we need to push back from all this American culture. We adopt everything from you but then try to keep our distance.”
“Because it’s kind of embarrassing,” added Olivia, “Americanization, Americanized, are bad words, like we get fat, lay around watching TV and drinking Coke. But we loved your President Clinton here.”
“The Swedish people love Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Americans mocking Americans,” said Lena.
Hennie chimed in, saying, “I guess my impression is that Americans know most about themselves and not the world around them and that America has the idea it always knows what’s best for everyone. But in other ways you are all quite open and accept new people and ideas quite easily. Americans are friendly and easy to talk to but maybe not so easy to really know. They seem quite different, liberal in many senses but very Christian and fundamentalist.”
“Sweden is such a secular country,” Olivia explained, “We see on your television always the actor or singer or politician thanking God.”
“I actually find that very humble,” said Frederik.
“I guess it isn’t weird that Americans believe in something…” said Olivia as an afterthought.
“But it would be political suicide for a politician to thank God publically,” stated Lena.
“Oh yes,”said Anna.
“Absolutely,” said Hennie.
“Even for the Christian Democrats,” added Lena.
There was silence for a time while everyone seemed to digest the fact that commenting on entire cultures and countries is an interesting but perhaps essentially futile exercise -- that sweeping Swedes and Americans and anyone else into neat little piles was, perhaps, one step away from sweeping all of them into a dustpan.
“Everyone has an opinion about American society,” said Frederik, “but we get these opinions from the media and the media always generalizes. I haven’t got the complete picture of your society so I’m generalizing a lot. If you asked me about Norweigian society I might very well say, I don’t know, but about Americans we all have opinions.”
It was getting late and everyone had to work in the morning. We left Café Finn, said our goodbyes, exchanged plans for New Years’ Eve. Olivia hugged Lena, then me and said, “We like you very much.”

Herring On My Mind

LUND—The pickled herring comes in long, greyish white filets mixed with onions and scallions and carrot. We’d just bought it from a stand in the Saturday farmer’s market fresh from Gothenburg where I was told all the best fish in Sweden comes from. Lena cut it into chunks, placed a piece on a hard, dark cracker and handed it to me across the table. She poured glasses of a caraway flavoured drink called Skåne, raised hers and said, “Skål?” expectantly.
I looked at the quivering piece of fish flesh on my cracker and thought, “I can do this. I eat sushi, right? How different can it be?” She was still looking at me and I wondered if this was a Scandanavian initiation test -- that if I failed I’d me unceremoniously put on a plane and deported back to Ohio – that for years afterwards they’d be laughing across Sweden about the big strong American who quailed in the face of a harmless piece of pickled fish.
Do it for America then, I told myself, smiled and popped it into my mouth where it stayed on my tongue like, well, a second fishy tongue. Finally I chewed. Lena was already preparing herself another herring treat and pouring more Skåne. Hmmm, not so bad actually, I thought, not exactly a California roll, but not bad. She looked at me with a raised eyebrow.
“Very good indeed,” I said after rinsing my mouth with the caraway drink, “Why, I think I’ll have another!”
She smiled, “Most foreigners don’t like it.”
“Well I think it’s great. In fact I think I’ll try some of that Danish fish paste with caviar in the big toothpaste tube…”
“Oh, you don’t have to. You know, when I was in Peru even the cat wouldn’t eat it.”
“Well I’m not a cat, I’m an American,” I added, thinking that cats aren’t so stupid after all.
Before I left on this trip I took an informal poll amongst friends and acquaintances as to what they knew or wanted to know about Sweden. Everyone said it was a place they’d love to visit but knew very little about. If I’d asked about many other countries I would have gotten more detailed answers. France = The Eiffel Tower, Versailles, The Louvre, Notre Dame de Paris, French food, St. Tropez; India = The Taj Mahal, the beaches at Goa, curry, sacred cows, the funeral pyres on the Ganges, savage monkeys; Brazil = beaches covered in Brazilians, the Amazon rainforest, Carnival and etc.
But Sweden? When I’d say the word “Sweden” American’s eyes would light up. Everyone seems to be in love with Swedes even if they’ve never met one but the answers were vague as in, “….hmmmm, well, uh, blonde girls, uh, yeah, blonde girls! Oh, uh…Volvos, Saabs, Ikea….hmmmm, Vikings? Pickled fish? Cold? More blonde girls!...
It seems that in recent times the Swedes had been so competently civilized, vaguely socialist and quietly ordered that they had receded in American knowledge to a sort of Nordic fairyland full of light-haired people driving sensible cars through the snow whilst munching fish on their way to shop for cleverly designed, affordably priced furniture.
This impression of homogeneousness is not, in fact, all wrong. At present, however, Sweden is experiencing some social change. It seems upsetting to generations for whom the government has always provided a basically benevolent guiding structure and cradle-to-grave care. The Social Democratic party responsible for this fabled welfare state was recently voted out in favour of Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt and his conservative Moderaterna party who are drastically slashing the social programs for which Sweden is famous. Most Swedes I have talked to seem vaguely horrified, as if they had accidentally voted Republican in the last election and shake their heads in embarrassment when I point out that someone must have voted for the guy.
“Yes, well, people weren’t voting so much for him as they were voting for a change…” they reply.
I thought about our own recent elections and how so many Americans had done the same thing, voting not so much for the Democrats as against the Republicans, changing politics rather like Carrie Bradshaw and friends do shoes on Sex and the City. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, but I did gain a sort of perverse satisfaction from seeing the Swedes having done something illiberal and, at least in many eyes, not sensible.
But I was trying to write about food -- that thing we all need that defines culture and even politics, both in its form and use and, certainly in less fortunate countries, in its absence. Most Swedish cuisine is almost shockingly normal. It is relatively uncomplicated, straightforward and when you get by their predilection for pickled swimming things, uncommonly good -- rather like Volvos, Saabs, Ikea and the Swedes themselves.
We had dinner one night at the house of Eleena and Johan. Eleena Thelander is a self-described kitchen fascist. It is her domain and woe betide Johan should he get in the way or anyone who should refuse seconds on such flimsy excuses as being stuffed. The menu itself was remarkably ordinary: roast pork with brown gravy and prunes, boiled potatoes, green beans and purple, pickled cabbage. The resulting meal, however, was sublime. Stuffed or not I didn’t balk at a second or even third helping and Eleena finally relaxed, put down her carving knife and decided I was acceptable.
The same went for a meal a few days later at Lena’s mother’s apartment. There was a salmon and white fish stew that tasted almost like a hearty bisque, served with whole grain bread, a tasty cheese and washed down with plain mineral water. It was one of the best things I have ever eaten.
Lunch out in Malmö was the house special of meat loaf and roasted potatoes and if I had not gone on an active photo assignment shortly thereafter I would have slipped into an afternoon food-coma.
But of course I was missing that most famous of all Swedish culinary experiences: The Smörgåsbord. I suggested it to Lena one night, hoping I didn’t sound too much the tourist. I needn’t have worried.
“Oh yes, of course you must have the smörgåsbord. Well The Grand Hotel does a nice one, expensive of course or, well…”
“Well really we do it most often at home. You know, like a party. You wouldn’t mind having a smörgåsbord party would you?”
“Uh, no.”
So it was all arranged. Eleena came first, insistent that she make the meatballs, even allowing me to chop the onions. Then the Swedes began arriving, each bringing a special dish. There was ham with mustard, sausages and eel, cheeses and bread, hot cabbage and, fear not, herring aplenty. There was the aforementioned Gothenburger herring, herring in mustard, herring in cream, more herring and herring in pickled beat salad that pushed my courage to the breaking point. For desert there was rice pudding, thin heart-shaped ginger cookies, figs, dates and strong coffee. It was a merry gathering with the added treat of an American to scrutinize. I explained as gently as possible that I had no input into US foreign policy, that even when I go out with Condoleeza she insists on not discussing work and that George W. recently deleted me from his MySpace friends list after I questioned his immigration policies. I turned the conversation around and asked them about their Scandinavian neighbours. While I won’t detail their observations on Danes, Norwegians and Finns I will report that even Swedes have their prejudices.
In the end, however, all cuisine inevitably comes down to this… Eleena, Johan, their daughter Osín and newborn son Vile (it sounds better in Swedish) came over one night. We all were hungry and it was raining out.
“I want sushi,” said Johan.
“How about Chinese?” replied Eleena.
“Thai?” said Lena.
Eight-year-old Osín was unimpressed by all these suggestions.
“Well,” said someone, “How about MacDonalds?”
An embarrassed silence descended on the room and everyone looked at me, trying to gauge my reaction. But the night before I’d had a peculiarly American nightmare in which some long-haired Euro-hippie was trying to snatch away my Big Mac.
“Well,” I said casually, “I could go for a Big Mac, fries and a Coke.”
“Me too,” said Lena, “and an apple pie!”
Osín wanted a Happy Meal and Johan a hamburger and a Big Mac.
“I’ll have a Quarter Pounder,” said Eleena, which took me by surprise.
“You call it a Quarter Pounder?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, a slightly puzzled look on her face, “Of course I have no idea what a quarter pound is. We have the metric system you see….”

12 Minutes To Malmo

MALMO—The cobbled streets of Lund were shining with early morning rain. We hurried to the station to catch the 8:33 train to Malmo, dodging green city buses, bicycles and the other damp pedestrians heading to work or class or whatever errands brought them out at that hour in the cold, grey Swedish December.
The offices of Lena Philipson’s newspaper, The City, were in downtown Malmo, population 290,000, Sweden’s third largest city after the capitol, Stockholm, and Gothenburg. Lena had been working for the new daily tabloid as a news writer since The City had been started this past September. Outside of the Lund station she took a copy from a newsboy and leafed through it as we waited on the platform, examining the layout and the stories she had written the day before. The City is a free paper funded entirely by advertising, a relatively new concept in Swedish print media. It is a subsidiary publication of City Stockholm, itself only four-years-old.
It was a 12 minute ride to Malmo and a short walk through downtown to the building housing The City. I had first met Lena almost five years ago in Honduras. At the time I was working as Documentary Director for Orrville, Ohio based Central American Medical Outreach and she was researching an academic paper on domestic violence. We had done some work together then and kept in touch off and on, but the last time I’d seen her was outside of Copan. Before the bus took her away she’d said, “Goodbyes are always long in Central America…” In the intervening years I have had a long, continuing series of returns and goodbyes with that strange isthmus of crumpled land between continents, most recently for four months this past winter. I’ll be returning to El Salvador to continue a documentary project in March, but for now it was time to be in Sweden, see Lena and find out how the Swedes ran a newspaper.
At a door off the street she swiped a card and entered a code. We walked up a flight of stairs and at the end of a non-descript corridor she performed the same operation at another door. I was half expecting to enter the inner sanctum of the Swedish Secret Service but the door opened to reveal The City’s newsroom. It was a wide-open, well-lit space with blond wood floors and matching tables topped with new, large-screen i Macs. We put down our bags, she tapped her terminal to life and assigned me an unused workstation. Hanging over the news department was a long-handled toy battle axe and sword, perhaps to fend off critics and repel hostile news organizations but possibly a Damocletian editorial reminder that the blade may fall at any time.
Soon Jenny Nirfalk, the Local Editor in Chief swept in, calling Philipson and photographer Mörton Svemark in for the morning news budget meeting, graciously inviting me as well. We all energetically took notes though mine were on the decor as I understand Swedish about as well as I understand Quantum Mechanics and the mating habits of albino reindeer.
With the meeting done we drove to a local school. At first there was some tension between Svemark and myself. When first they meet, photographers are often rather like ill-tempered fighting cocks with their feathers put out-of-whack by the presence of another rooster, ie: how dare he be carrying a camera when I’m here!?!; Would you look at the size of his f2.8 400mm image stabilized lens, I don’t need that, I get close!; Oh, he uses an old Leica, well la di da…and so on and so forth. Svemark got it out of the way while we were walking through the parking lot.
“I’d never use a Nikon,” he said, “I can’t stand them.”
“Yeah, well I don’t like your Canon either.”
And with that established we got along just fine.
Lena was writing a story about the costs of vandalism to the schools and how the schools are working to overcome it. She interviewed the principal, a teacher and several students. What has struck me over and over is that Sweden seems the least foreign foreign place I have ever been, almost as if it were some part of Ohio with oddly named cities and an uncommonly high frequency of confidant blonde people practicing a strange language. The female principal looked very, well, principal-like, even down to her gestures and the Christmas tree lapel pin on her sensible-yet-stylish suit, speaking what even in Swedish sounded like soothing-to-the-media soundbites in polished Educationese.
I was told that this was one of Malmo’s poorer schools wherein about 80 percent of the students spoke Swedish only as a second language. Malmo has a large number of immigrants, many of whom are from the Middle East and parts of Africa. In fact for once I saw no blondes and a number of the girls wore Muslim head scarves. But for a school described as one of the poorer and more troubled it was almost spotlessly clean with no evident graffiti and nice wood floors in the common areas. The students Lena spoke with were eager to talk, slightly goofy in the way of 14-year-olds and polite and well spoken even if I couldn’t understand a word they said.
We returned to the office, had lunch with Tara Moshizi the stylish entertainment reporter and I sat down to interview Nirfalk.
“The challenge,” she said, when asked about running a new paper, “is to find a unique voice. The news-flow is the same for everyone so we have to do it our way, The City way. Our goal is to have direct contact with the readers, to find a real person behind each story. It should never feel like it’s written from some lofty point above. Metro, for example, is considered the serious paper, a lot of credibility, the middle aged man-in-a-suit, predictable and not quite boring…but almost. Then there’s Punkt.se that was also started in September. A reader’s survey we did described them as a teenager who skips school and doesn’t know what he wants. We’re serious but if there’s room for a smile we’ll give it to you…”
Her cell rang and she listened for a moment. “It’s Mörton, he wants you to go on assignment with him. It will be fun; we can talk later.”
I grabbed my camera bag and headed downstairs. As he drove, Svemark explained that local college students had built a 14 person, wood framed canoe as an interdisciplinary project and were launching it at 2 p.m. There would be photographers from other papers, Svemark said, but he had his own small fishing skiff moored nearby. We would do the competition one better, he explained with a fiendish smile, by shooting the action not only from an angle no one else could get but one that would put him, and by extension The City, in any photo taken of the canoe while it was in the water.
After bailing out accumulated rain we motored down to where the canvas-hulled craft was waiting on a pier. Soon, with much cheering, it was lowered to the frigid, dark green water. True to Mörton’s word there were several other photographers shooting photos of the launch and unhappy looks across at us. We smiled and waved. Fourteen students wearing warm clothes and homemade life-vests, climbed down a ladder and carefully into two rows. Even fully crewed the canoe had a high freeboard and appeared unsteady. And while the Swedes may be descended of Norse raiders, these 14 seemed less than Viking as they paddled awkwardly down the pier and back. We’d been out in Mörton’s skiff for over an hour, it was getting darker and colder and the wind had come up, raising choppy waves. Most of the crowd and other reporters left. We were putting our cameras away and getting ready to leave as well when the canoe suddenly flipped over, sending its crew into the icy water. Most, even heavily clothed, floundered to the dock but one girl called out for help. Mörton handed me his camera and gallantly pulled a cute blonde from the waves while I recorded it all. We deposited her on shore, retrieved the abandoned paddles, seats, hats and gloves then towed the capsized craft to the dock and headed for home laughing like madmen.
Back at the office Nirfalk looked at the photos, “You only save pretty girls, Mörton?”
“We let the ugly ones drown,” he deadpanned.
“Better pictures this way,” I added.
“Well, The City saves the day. Front page tomorrow. Andrew, you write the story, we’ll translate it into Swedish and you’ll get your Swedish byline. OK?”
“You got it,” I replied, sitting down at the i Mac.
I thought about my lead and took a drink of cold coffee. I typed a sentence, erased it and wrote a better one. I looked up. Lena smiled across the newsroom at me. I smiled back then finished my article. She finished hers. When we walked outside the nighttime streets of Malmo were shining with fresh fallen rain.

I Am On A Plane To Sweden

----------Compiled from fragments in my journal, 7/8 December 2007:

I am on a plane to Sweden. No, technically I am on a plane to Amsterdam after a plane to Detroit after leaving Columbus, Ohio. When I land at Schiphol I’ll then be on another plane to Copenhagen, Denmark and after that I’ll be on a train to Sweden. That’s the plan anyway.
I’ll start over: I am on my way to Sweden and on my way to see Lena nearly five years after she boarded a bus in Copan and left me in Honduras. Am I a fool?, I ask myself. Perhaps, but this is a trip I’ve imagined, wanted to make, ever since that bus pulled away.

1430 -- I had a surreal moment at the airport waiting for my first plane to leave. Over the last six years I have flown nowhere but Central America. I zoned out for a while, feeling the other travelers around me, smelling the airport smells. I looked out the big windows at the planes on the tarmac under the cold winter light and for a moment thought I was on my way to Honduras. In a brief hallucination I could smell the airport in San Pedro Sula where I would be landing. Already hungry I began salivating at the thought of the baleadas I would soon eat. That in six hours or less I’d be stepping into the heat and chaos and whirl of that world and soon would see volcanoes. I jerked myself back to reality. In six hours I’ll be barely over the Atlantic.

1510 -- I loathe these tiny commuter jets. I loathe takeoff and landing. The pilot jigs the aircraft into the sky quick and hard and four minutes later we are above the clouds. At takeoff I figure the thing will crash just off the runway, or soon after, and we’ll splatter into the suburbs ruining a lot of people’s day. Landing is even worse because of the cosmic teasing you get by almost making it. My body and soul fill with love and joy when my planes taxi slowly to their gates.

1745 -- taxiing towards the runway right on time. It is full dark outside and the day is strange and truncated. I got up at 0730, showered and Dad picked me up at 1100. It was snowing again as we left Wooster. Soon the sky cleared and it was a good drive to the airport. Now night has fallen and it was just this morning that I stood on my porch drinking coffee and waiting for my father to pick me up in his green Saab, thinking, “This is it. I’m actually going to Sweden to see Lena and I’m leaving in just a little while….”
To the West there is still the faintest light in the sky but to the East it is dark. The engines rev up at three minutes to 1800 and we begin down the runway, faster and faster until, there, we slip the surly bonds of earth and are away. If I had flown to Guatemala today I would already be at Mono Loco.

2420 (0620 Holland time) – Landing in half an hour. Tired. It’s my bedtime. Is this all madness?

O725 SCHIPOL INTL., AMSTERDAM – The people look, well, so darn European. You can smoke almost anywhere. I decided to have an espresso and realized I had no Euros (never have had any, this is my first time to Europe in 15 years). I saw an exchange kiosk and had a moment of trepidation thinking of how long it takes to change money at Banco de Occidente in Santa Rosa then realized it was quite a different banko. I went to the window and the transaction was over in 20 seconds with a thank-you in English. The coffee is good and a Babel of languages surrounds me. Some stylish girls are at the next long stainless steel and black vinyl table smoking cigarettes and drinking snifters of brandy. Did I say it was seven-thirty in the morning? Who knows where they’ve been though.

0900 – A long walk and a new boarding pass. Plane begins boarding soon. Day is breaking a European color of grey I haven’t seen in a long time. Raining. The color of travel.
If I said I wasn’t nervous I’d be lying. It has been almost five years since I’ve seen Lena and two weeks here in Sweden will be almost half as long as we knew each other to begin with. Just a Central American fling? But, no, I have never stopped wanting to see her and since she invited me to come it must be the same with her. In the end this is the only thing we can do. I said in an e-mail, not long ago, that I was a fool for not doing this before. She replied, “We were both fools.” Of course we might not have been ready before. Of course who knows if we’re ready now or even what ready is. Be that as it may I’ll be seeing her in a few hours. Now that it’s almost real I have no idea what to expect. What I hope is that we fall into each other’s arms and in love forever.
It is raining hard, straight down and steady. I have a large amount of strong coffee in my belly. I felt tired but am now wide awake. Denmark, Sweden, Lena here I come.

0943 – On board the plane to Denmark, seat 07A. A window seat, sort of, more in between windows really. I may be writing inane garbage but I want to write and record a lot, keep writing, not slack off on it as I am sometimes prone to do.
I wonder what she is thinking? Where is she? Is she on a train right now to meet me? How will we look at each other, to each other, after five years, on the other side of the world, on her home turf? Rain drips down the window like tears on a clear cheek.
1008 – Lining up… powering up, rising roar, slow-motion forward gaining momentum. We pull onto the runway and the turbines begin to scream, pushed back in the seat, faster and faster and faster gaining and lifting, airborne and wheels up. It is so flat down there, grey-green Kansas-flat with lots of water.
1010 – And the ground disappears into mist.

1105 – On the ground in Copenhagen. Lena is out there somewhere beyond passport control.

The Long Central American Goodbye

“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism – this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us; we lose our identity. The words of human love have been used by the saints to describe their vision of God; and so, I suppose, we might use the terms of prayer, meditation, contemplation to explain the intensity of the love we feel for a woman.”
--Graham Greene, ”The End of the Affair”

“Goodbyes are always long in Central America,” said Lena the Swede, leaning down out of the window of the running bus. Her long, straight, honey blonde hair cascaded down to form a cone with her face at the top. The bottom, widest part of the cone enclosed my upturned face and I lifted myself on the bus’ trim to kiss her one more last time. As if on cue, long after it was scheduled to depart, the motor revved up and the doors slammed shut. I stepped back and focused my Leica, took a picture of her smiling from the window and then another of the bus as it pulled away. Alone again.
I walked back to the Hospedaje San Jose where we’d shared the day and night together in Copan Ruinas. She was going back to Santa Rosa de Copan where I’d spent the last seven months and then home to Sweden after Utila. I was going back to Antigua, Guatemala where we’d just spent Holy Week and then on and up and, eventually home to Ohio.
The room was still mine for a few hours and I stripped and showered then lay back on the twisted sheets, lying on the cloth that still smelled of her, trying to conjure her back to me for a few moments, knowing the odds were we’d never meet again and to this day we never have.

Travel in this day and age, and for the most part for many years prior, is more an act of revisiting, of reevaluation, than of exploration in the classical sense. Perhaps the post-modern concept of internal exploration, of travel as self-revelatory, is so popular because most of everything has already been explored. There is still plenty of danger but no frontiers beyond those we create ourselves and we, the ostensibly civilized, mainly put ourselves in harm’s way out of sport: tying ourselves to big rubber bands and hurling our bodies off bridges, jumping from perfectly good airplanes, photographing other people’s wars and going to sports bars and cheering for the wrong team. Undoubtedly there are many square feet of the planet untrod by human feet but the fact is that human feet have trod probably not that many feet away and, if they haven’t, there is the bleak fact that wherever that might be—Antarctica perhaps—that there probably isn’t much there to see or discover (at least outside of very specialized realms).
True, unsullied exploration is mostly reduced to the most obscure and unreachable of places, the deepest caves in remote regions and the bottom of the ocean: both requiring highly specialized equipment and training. One might barely make the argument for certain areas deep in the Congo and Amazon although those are far from un-penetrated.
And there is space, the final frontier, where we need to go if we are to retain our humanity. But that will not be me and quite likely, not you.
For the rest of us, regardless of our fearless and intrepid natures, there is the rather depressing state of being suspiciously akin to over-monied adventure tourists who slide down ropes in the Costa Rican rainforest and shoot expensive cameras at still sort-of-wild animals in game parks. No matter how rough we travel with our quasi-religious shunning of the package deal we still are little more than tourists. And there is nothing, essentially, wrong with being a tourist as long as you admit it. We all need a vacation.
But, if we want to redeem our tourist status by having some sort of mission we have a two-fold task. There is the voyage of self-discovery with all its rather well-deserved trappings of new-age therapy and aimless, if well-intentioned, whale saving. And there is the reporter’s task of walking in the footsteps of the titans of old and showing the world as it now is and exploring how it has changed -- what it has become. This is an admittedly, wretchedly, post-modern task but a necessary one…doomed to repeat our mistakes blah, blah, blah if we don’t know, blah, blah, where we come from, blah. It is the task we have in this world, rarely brave and certainly not new. But it is our task, the mission we are left to fulfill. And we must. And it isn’t all bad.

These are my tales of a roughly five-year mission. From my first days in Central America I knew I had to return and after four trips that desire has only been diminished by the realization of how little time we get to explore this world and of how big the world is. William F. Buckley said that he’s been almost everywhere in the United States except the Southeastern corner of Oregon. I was just there and may very well never be back. I think of all the places I probably will never return to. Not so much the big ones, they are checked off the list anyway and I won’t be terribly disappointed if I never again see Mount Rushmore or Valley Forge or Versailles. I will be disappointed if I never see the Eiffel Tower again because that means I won’t have seen Paris again. But I won’t be disappointed if I never stop again at that gas station in central Alabama or southern Guatemala, though, over my travels, I have. But it is strange and somehow saddening that life passes and that once your feet trod in all those places and you passed by like a ghost, that lips you kissed are kissing someone else’s, that words of love and bravery fall like autumn leaves and are gone.

I woke early, that last morning in Santa Rosa, to the sound of shod hooves on cobblestones. I swung my feet to the cool tile floor, banged on Yoko’s door and heard her mumble, then showered and dressed. I went over my traveling kit, tightening straps and eyeing Yoko’s hard-sided suitcase with a loathing I normally reserved for communists and squirrels. I’d sworn up and down I would be no part of a traveling company that included a hard-sided suitcase -- let alone one owned by a five-foot-tall Japanese girl -- but I had no choice other than to abandon them both. That I couldn’t do. I had put myself in charge of getting Yoko and her boyfriend (now husband) James and myself from Central America back to Texas overland by bus. James was already ahead of us, having obtained lodgings in Antigua, Guatemala where we would stay during the medieval Catholic pageants of Holy Week. Lena the Swede would meet me there in a few days. She had left town a week before, holding me tight and saying, “I’ll meet you in Guatemala when I’ve finished my business in San Salvador.” It was a small example of what I loved about Central America and its heightened, Romantic sense of life. No one ever seemed to say things like that back in Ohio.
Yoko and I had said all our goodbyes in the nights before. My project with the medical group was done for the time being and Yoko and James had finished out their contracts teaching for the local bilingual school. I’d had my last beer at Lily’s with Dave and Red and Butch the gold miners, one of whom would soon be dead, and Lily had hugged me goodbye with all her 85 lbs. Tears streaming down her face had said, “Of all the gringos in Santa Rosa, I’ll miss you most of all, Andrew.”
“Don’t cry, Dorothy, I’ll be back,” I replied, feeling very Scarecrow and brainless and quite possibly a liar in my by now shapeless and worn clothes and hat.

So we left the apartment, caught a cab to the bus station and slipped away from our Central American home feeling like sneak-thieves in the white-hot morning. The bus pulled away and we were silent and sad. Yoko pulled down her fisherman’s hat and sulked and was still quiet when we changed buses at La Entrada where three years later I would have the best orange juice of my life with caged parrots and a beautiful Canadian girl I’d just only met and would then say goodbye to. The bus from La Entrada to Copan Ruinas was small and underpowered. Sitting across the aisle from us was an incredibly good looking gringo couple. They were dressed in expensive tropical clothes that seemed a bit worse for wear. Both had tinted sunglasses, his blue and hers yellow. They had heavy, hand-wrought silver jewelry.
The bus stopped every few hundred yards to let people off and pick up new passengers. I looked over at the handsome gringos and my keen reporter’s eye noticed they looked terrified. I followed the direction of their gaze, alert as always for trouble but saw nothing but a couple laughing farmers getting aboard. Then I saw what they saw: two very dark men in dirty shirts and frayed hats. Their smiles flashed with gold and from each of their hands dangled a wicked long machete. At the next stop a legless dwarf got on, scuttling up the aisle on strong arms like some campesino spider. He clambered up into the seat in front of them, popped his head over the seat back, cocked his hat and gave them a big gold smile. They shrank back, trying to make their big, strong bodies smaller. The legless dwarf said, “Hola!” in a cheery voice and the girl gasped. Her boyfriend clutched her hand and whispered, “I didn’t expect it to be this authentic.”
Other than a stoned iguana raising hell in Pedro’s Cantina back in graduate school it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. But I wasn’t in a laughing mood on that day and truth be told I was suffering from a severely atrophied sense of humor. Yoko and I were the old hands then. We’d seen a lot, in a minor sort of way, and felt like battle-weary soldiers coming to the rear from the front and these tourists thought they were at the front. I didn’t want to laugh, even at them, wanted rather to grab them both by the collars of their nice linen shirts and shove them off the bus into the path of an oncoming donkey. That, I thought, would have been funny. And so I am glad to report that, in the intervening years, my sense of humor has returned though images of Hospital Regional de Occidente continue to haunt my dreams.
In Copan we were immediately surrounded by boys and men trying to get us rooms at the hotels, take us to a bar, sell us crafts and I responded like I always do with a polite but forceful “NO”, making good use of my long gringo legs to get me the hell away from them. The problem was my long gringo legs were combined with some very short Japanese legs and a hard sided suitcase whose clever little wheels work well in tiled airports but not so good on cobblestones. I judged that it would be impolitic and quite likely to cause tension if I threw the thing off a nearby bridge so I carried it, cursing all the while and feeling bad at the same time because my American frustration was causing my unfailing polite friend a good case of Japanese guilt. Somehow we managed to struggle into Tunkul bar and shade and I bought two cold beers for us while Yoko went to buy tickets to Antigua. I nursed my Salva Vida, thinking it would be the last I would have, maybe forever. At the dusty border crossing I changed about $100 from Honduran Lempiras to Guatemalan Quetzals thinking I would undoubtedly get a better rate at a bank in the city later on. DO NOT MAKE THIS MISTAKE. A few days later, down to my last Quetzals, I went to the bank and felt my stomach sink at the look on the teller’s face. I was informed that maybe, just maybe, somewhere in the sprawling, dangerous metropolis of Guatemala City there might be a place that would exchange them. Where? No se. I don’t know. Next!
That meant I had to go back to the border to change them, which would have been an incredible, expensive annoyance except it meant I could go along with Lena when she had to return to Honduras.
I have an ability to meet a woman right before I am going to leave, or she is, or we both are. It tends to make for storybook romantic moments but as the years pass and it keeps happening, it leaves me feeling old and tired and just a bit shabby. Now I often am the envy of my married friends, they assure me that the grass is always greener, but I get the sneaking suspicion that by and large they are quite happy and I’m being used as an odd form of free entertainment. Sometimes, flush with adventure, I can sit and pat myself on the back, take pride in my eccentric life and resume, drink a toast to all the girls I’ve loved before, remember the magic moments with Blair or Lena or Katy or even those whose names I don’t care to remember.
I remember back, then, to Guatemala, waiting for Lena to finish that business in San Salvador and her finally arriving and moving into my tiny room at El Refugio. We went and stood on the roof and watched the sun set over the volcanoes and I held her from behind and listened as she told me she had missed me, sounding the tiniest bit angry with herself at having allowed a crack in her heart. We spent the few days in the whirling madness of Holy Week, she and I, James and Yoko, Juan Carlos and a parade of minor characters, making Sunday brunch and dancing in the hotel halls to Frank Sinatra singing ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ while dirge-like parades went by in sun-blotting clouds of incense. Of dressing for a party, she in a long wrap skirt and blouse, long hair pulled back from her forehead and a bare touch of makeup; I in a shirt and tie, slacks and fedora. We lay on pillows on a balcony, as if in some oriental harem, while a wizened French woman said goodbye to her friends, leaving the country the next day, musing on the cult of Maximon that she had adopted as her own religion. I think of that tiny room at El Refugio magnifying the intensity of being together.
And Lena had to leave, back to Santa Rosa and I had to change my money so we returned to Copan, she and I, waiting for our 0400 shuttle on dark Antiguan streets, bone tired from the last days, quoting song lyrics to each other to stay awake, she Anni di Franco and I Warren Zevon.
We had our one-more-night at Hospedaje San Jose, last Salva Vidas and Port Royals and expensive omelets for breakfast at the posh Hotel Marina the next morning. She boarded that bus and told me that goodbyes are always long in Central America. I’m still saying goodbye.

The Farthest You Will Go

“Most journeys begin less abruptly than they end, and to fix the true beginning of this one in either time or space is a task which I do not care to undertake. I find it easier to open my account of it at the moment when I first realized, with a small shock of pleasure and surprise, that it had actually begun.”
Peter Fleming, “News From Tartary”

TRUJILLO, EL ESPINO, WOOSTER, LUND — There comes a point in every journey when you realize you have reached the farthest point – that caught on an invisible line, everything from that point, no matter how much longer the trip lasts, will be somehow part of the return.
That farthest point contains elements of both sadness and of relief. Up until then the future is unknown, but after, although there are unknowns, adventures and dangers to confront, you have the image of walking back through your door, setting your bags down, of a long sigh.
I reached that point outside of Trujillo on the road to Santa Rosa de Aguan. I started too late in the day, I know now, to reach that small river town on the edge of the Myskitia jungle. I was alone, traveling without Katy, making my pilgrimage to the grave of William Walker that strange American adventurer, mercenary, visionary, revolutionary who had met his rather inevitable end before a firing squad on the beach at Trujillo. It was not a Katy trip, that one, searching out the fringe areas of the world and a long-dead man of questionable ideals. And in truth I wanted to be alone for it.
I got on the bus too late. They told me it was the one to Santa Rosa de Aguan but after only half an hour they dropped me off at a dusty crossroads. There was a rusted sign with the name of my destination pointing down a long dirt road through palm plantations. I thought it could not be very far away and so began to walk. I tried to whistle, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” to keep my spirits up and was very aware of how alone I was.
I walked and I walked and kept walking. It was immensely hot and incredibly quiet. A few times a truck or car would pass without slowing, adding to the dust on my clothes and face and reminding me of the one liter of warm water sloshing in my red Sigg bottle. I kept walking. Just around the corner I told myself, fighting back the doubt and fear and alone demons. I tried whistling again but Johnny was very far from home and the sound fell flat on the dusty road. I thought of bandits and jaguars and other horrors that might hear me coming and decided to march quietly.
Behind me I heard an engine and turned to see a high box truck heading my way. For the first time in my life I put out my thumb and it ground to a halt. The driver leaned over, opened the passenger door and I climbed up into the cab. I told him I was going to Santa Rosa de Aguan and he gave me a skeptical look.
“How far is it?” I asked.
“Twenty kilometers.”
I said a silent curse on the bus driver who had dropped me off in the middle of nowhere. The trucker began to drive and we tried to talk but my highland street Spanish and his coastal jungle Spanish meshed about as well as the gears on his old truck.
We settled into an uneasy silence until finally he stopped well short of anything like 20 kilometers.
“Well, I live here,” he said.
“How much to Santa Rosa?”
He quoted a price.
“And is there a hotel there?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. No.”
He might have been wrong but it didn’t sound good.
“Is there a bus back to Trujillo?”
“It already left. No more until tomorrow.”
I looked down the road and back the other way. I wondered what Paul Theroux would do and thought he would probably go on and write something charmingly bitter about the experience. Or not. You’re not Paul Theroux anyway I told myself, what does Andrew Tonn do? I had a bad feeling about going on.
“How much back to Trujillo?”
He thought a moment and quoted a high number. I had the money on me. Time was passing. He didn’t want to do it. He was a truck driver who’d picked up a lone gringo and now wanted to go home, have dinner, not transport me miles away for the few Lempiras he’s make over and above the expensive gas and time he’d burn.
Down the road a cloud of dust appeared. “It’s the last bus to Trujillo,” he said.
“Stop it!” I said. He jumped out and flagged it to a halt. I pressed a couple hundred Lempiras into his palm for my ride to nowhere and boarded the bus. The line caught and began dragging me home.

A few days later I stumbled back into the lobby of the Hotel Elvir in Santa Rosa de Copan where Katy was waiting for me. All the way back we’d exchanged expectant text-messages but when I arrived there was something in my haggard face, sunburned and thinner after a week that she didn’t like. We shared a perfunctory hug and she left for her Spanish lesson. We reconnected, however, and the trip was not even half over. From there we would go many places and be far, far out from anywhere we had ever been before. She was a good companion, loyal and true, waiting for me on a mountain path to catch up when my knees had showed their age, holding an umbrella over my head while I vomited in the rain after eating something bad, watching the lightening over Lake Atitlan and holding me in a succession of strange beds. But there was a feeling, when she looked in my eyes and saw something she didn’t like that I felt closer to Walker, for just a moment, than I did to her.

The months passed and there was Xela and Atitlan, Chichicastenango and San Andreas Xecul, Santa Catarina high in the mountains, Semuc Champey, Flores, Tikal and all those other places that recur in memory now and then. We returned to El Espino, El Salvador another time, days before our return to the States and there was a moment that was the farthest out for us. We went down the river to photograph and film the currileros, climbed back into the mangroves and when it began to rain got back to the boat just in time to wrap the cameras in my poncho. The boat kept going, out towards the Pacific and the surface of the river was like smooth grey velvet and the sky and rain almost indistinguishable from each other. The clouds came down to touch the trees and then ahead was a line of white Pacific turbulence separating the grey of the sky from the grey of the river. We landed on a sandy point where the last land met the ocean and at the farthest point dove into the breakers. When the boat returned us from that farthest point the rain had almost stopped and in the gathering night the jungle on either side was reflected in the glass-smooth river.
A few days later we were on a plane home. We ended the last bit of video tape as the sun sank blood red outside the scarred Plexiglas window, “This is Andrew Tonn, ‘and Katy Kropf” live from somewhere over the United States, goodnight, ‘goodnight.’”
A month or less after that we were at 12 Mile Beach in Michigan, on the southern edge of Lake Superior. The water was incredibly cold and clear -- a still and polished silver that sunset turned shades of crimson making the place look like a shore of some alien planet. I thought of destinations North and destinations South and thought, quite clearly for a moment, that this and there were the farthest we would go. I picked up ancient water-polished stones until my pockets were heavy with them and when the red ball of the sun had fully drowned and all was black we sat a long time by the fire until the cold of the summer night drove us to the tent.
More time passed and I celebrated, or mourned, another year of my life passing. And so came a Sunday, not so long after that, when she went to her Quaker meeting to hold things in the light and meditate in silence. When she returned she said, “I feel sorry for us,” and I said, “Why?” and she replied, “Because I have to break up with you,” and I said, “Why?” and she said, “Because we are not right for each other.” And I sat down and we were quiet for a long while.
That was not, in fact, quite the end. There were even some more adventures but those were, I suppose, the extended goodbyes of two people who had never done wrong to the other but whose time was coming to an end.
So, in the end, I left her at the Lansing airport where she was picking up a rental car. We drove for a while down the same highway, blew kisses into the wind, then she took her exit and I took mine.

14 January 2007

Speak Spanish In One Easy Lesson

“Compadres! It is imperative that we crush the freedom fighters before the start of the rainy season. And remember, a shiny new donkey to whoever brings me the head of Colonel Montoya!”
--Montgomery J. Burns

Do you want to learn Spanish but find all those tenses confusing? Are there cute Latina girls you’d like to talk to but all you can say is, “Chalupa and Taco Bel Grande?” Do you want to take a trip South-of-the-Border but don’t know the difference between a baño and a burro? Well you too can speak Spanish like a native!!! *
If you follow Andrew’s (Andres’) quick and dirty (rapido y sucio) Spanish course you’ll do just fine. I don’t claim you’ll be fluent but who needs to be fluent, you already speak English don’t you? And a recent survey shows that English speakers are not only taller, sexier and have better teeth than some other people in the world (not the original English speakers in the latter case) but have better indirect access to Weapons of Mass Destruction. In fact, to become the leader of the free world you don’t even need to speak English or Spanish all that well.
But on to Spanish. First and most importantly, you just need to be you. You have to be able to declaim, “I AM!” although unlike M. Descartes it might not be necessary to actually think. I am = yo soy. Good, now that you exist in Latin America you might want to learn your name. Michael = Miguel, John = Juan, Paul = Pablo, Juanita = Juanita and if you aren’t named any of those you’ll have to look your own up. Bear in mind, however, that many English (or Mongolian) names just don’t translate very well. But since you’re off on your South-of-the-Border adventure and thus probably consider yourself something of a mysterious lady or gent, what better than picking a whole new name. Be carefull, however, as not all words mean what you think they do. Take the story of a certain Peace Corps volunteer who had a name unpronounceable-to-the-Latin-tongue. She decided to go by the lovely moniker of “Paloma” which we all should know translates as the lovely “Dove” a suitably emblematic name for a person of peace if ever there was one. The problem, however, is that “Paloma” in Honduran slang means the genital parts of a male. This, while probably an accurate description of how much of the world views Americans, was surely not something she wanted. For six months everyone was too embarrassed to tell her she was introducing herself as “Penis girl” though not too polite to snicker when she did. By the time someone got around to breaking the news she was stuck with it. So to speak.
Now that you can say, “Yo soy Paloma,” and get a hearty guffaw you really ought to learn the words for you are, he/she is, we are, ya’ll are and they are. But since you aren’t paying me for this lesson you can look those up on your own.
In all your travels, peregrinations, wanderings and gallivants what do you really need? Not much. The air, such as it is, is free so all you really need is food, drink, lodging and transportation. Oh, and the bathroom. You will need that.

Donde esta? = Where is?

Comida = Food

Restaurant = Restauranté

Hotel = Hotel

Bathroom = Baño (Bahn-yo)

Coca Cola = Coca Cola

Beer = Cerveza

Pure Water = Agua Purificada

Ticket = Boletto

No Hablo Espanol = I Don’t Speak Spanish

Hablas Inglés? = Do You Speak English?

Mas Despacio = Slow Down

I want = Yo Quiero

I go = Yo Voy

Yo Necesito = I need

How much does it cost? = Quanto Cuesta?

Yes = Si

No = no

Room = Quarto

Money = Dinero

Hello = Hola

Goodbye = Adios

What is Your Name? = Como se Llama?

Hamburger = Hamburgueza

French Fries = Papas Fritas

Taco = Taco

Remember that restaurants are places whose business it is to exchange food for money, hotels exchange money for rooms, bus stations rides for money. You may well in fact be an arrogant gringo but don’t be so arrogant as to think yours is the first gringo ass to blunder in looking for these things waving an outdated copy of Lonely Planet and no more Spanish than it takes to order at Taco Bell.

Now, on to grammar. Spanish teachers would like to confuse you by claiming things called the conditional, present perfect, subjunctive and imperfect are necessary. First of all, why anyone would learn something called the imperfect is beyond me. Before I learn it I’ll wait ‘till it’s been perfected. The present is perfect enough. Yo soy, I am, right now. The future and past, however, can come in handy. Don’t worry however, you needn’t learn a bunch of confusing conjugations when those handy words “after” (despues) and “before” (antes) exist. It isn’t what they call an elegant solution but it generally works.

Oh, numbers. Numbers do tend to be important, so: uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, seis, seite, ocho, deis. That’s one through 10. Look up the others. Numbers, while being important are not so important as you’d think. You’d be surprised at, generally, how honest people are. Just hand them the bill and some money. Don’t worry, if it isn’t enough they’ll let you know.

A note on pronunciation: When in doubt add an “o” onto the English word and talk sort of like Speedy Gonzales. You’ll be surprised how often it works. Most importantly keep your temper, smile and never talk about anyone’s mother.

There you are. You’re just about ready for your adventure in the sun. All that’s left is vocabulary, you know, all those pesky words for things you already learned in what you thought was just quite-a-fine-language-thank-you-very-much. In the interests of space I can’t list every Spanish word. There are things called dictionaries that do that. Buy one. But here are a few more commonly used words that just might come in handy. Tienes suerte (good luck).

Quitapon = pompon for draft mules

Bombardeo de Rebote = skip bombing

Espeluznante = hair raising

Esperpento = monstrosity, freak

Cubre Sexo = G-string

Cucaña or Palo Encebado = a greased pole to be climbed as a game

Borborigmos = a rumbling of the bowels

Zumiento = juicy

Zurrona = a loose or evil woman

Zipizape = scuffle, row, rumpus

Chupaflor = hummingbird

Bravucon = fourflusher

Rompéatomos = atom smasher

Golosinear = to go around eating candy

* a native Ohioan

F---ing Monkeys

ANTIGUA – On a sunny day we pulled our bags onto the sidewalk from inside Posada Viajero. Waiting for our mini-bus to Guatemala City from Antigua we fell into conversation with the woman beside us.
Joan was from Washington Sates. She around 60 and had thinning, dyed red hair pulled back in a pony-tail. When she asked where we were going we answered Guatemala then Coban, and on to Tikal. She exhaled smoke from a long cigarette and said, “Ahhhhhh. Coban. Best orchids in the world. I love f---ing orchids. It feels so good to cuss. When I was there the park with all the orchids was closed.”
She said she had been to Tikal and we asked her of it.
“My favorite place…”
“Are there lots of monkeys?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” she replied, “I hate monkeys. Once I was in Nepal to see Indira Ghandi. Before she was assassinated of course. I was attacked by 15 monkeys. They attack in a wedge formation with the biggest monkey in front and the little ones behind. Maybe it’s some kind of training exercise. Anyway, there were monkeys all over me. A monkey bit me on the knee. Then I fell down a hill. F---ing monkeys…
“Ahhh, it feels good to cuss…
“Then this local woman put ground up corn and mud on my knee. When I came to Nepal I was afraid of getting parrot fever but after that I was afraid of getting monkey fever. In the States they probably would have amputated. I still have the scars. F---ing monkeys.”
She asked what we did. I told her I was a photographer. Katy told her and since Katy was a doctor Joan pulled down part of her clothing to ask about an old injury.
“I’m here to have an operation,” she said.
We asked her what for and said we thought it sounded serious.
“Yes, but I am thinking I should go back to the States,” she replied, adding, “I’ve got to get out of here… Ah La Vida Tropical. It kills your brain-cells. I’ve got to get out of here…”