Enrichment Voyage Dispatches (2012)

Notes from a voyage to ten countries. Here are all the published posts, in chronological order; more will be added as they're written over the next several weeks. To see them in their natural state, one post at a time, head over here.

Prelude to a Cruise

Location: Fort Lauderdale
Today's telling detail: Izzy's faint smirk

In a hotel lobby that embodies vacationing at its most melancholy--an out-of-order cigarette vending machine along one wall, a gift shop called Forget Something? along another--a rotund man with flat-top hair is calling out names of cruise ships. He speaks each one into his microphone with the fervor of a carnival barker, his pastel shirt sweaty from the strain of his enthusiasm.

"Okay, next up is The Infinity! Oooh, you folks are gonna love this. It's a great boat with really good food and eight restaurants. You'll eat very well, I'm telling you."

The barker's name is Izzy. His job is to gather the hotel's patrons and herd them into the white vans waiting outside. The vans will take us to the Port of Fort Lauderdale, just a few miles down the road, to our respective dates with the all-inclusive, sun-dappled, rum-punch, chaise-longue version of manifest destiny that is the Caribbean cruise vacation. Nearly all of the hotel's patrons, the shuttle driver from the airport told me last night, are on their way to or from a cruise ship. Fort Lauderdale is the biggest cruise port in the nation, he said, probably the world. For him--for everyone at this hotel--it's job security.

Izzy's expression falls when I inquire about my ship. "Yeah, that one, I've heard of it," he says with a facial twitch that I recognize as the customer service industry's mask for a sneer. "That's the educational one, right? It's not a real cruise ship."


Izzy is correct on both counts. The ship is called the MV Explorer and it's best known as the floating campus of Semester at Sea. It is 590 feet long and 25,000 tons--plenty big, to be sure, but notably smaller than The Infinity's 965 feet and 91,000 tons. And the journey upon which I am about to embark is not--as I will be informed repeatedly by various of my fellow passengers, most definitely not--a cruise. It's a voyage, if you please. Officially: an Enrichment Voyage. Over the course of the next twenty-six days, we'll visit ten countries and cover more than seven thousand nautical miles before disembarking in San Diego.

The Enrichment of the name will be provided by a wide range of workshops and lectures. The speakers include a wide range of deeply impressive people: bestselling authors, a Buddhist monk, esteemed researchers and academics from various fields. And the father of modern reality television.

And Julian Bond, the civil rights leader whose long line of credits includes being a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the chairman of the NAACP.

And Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

And then there's ... me. The resident travel writer. I'll be giving a few talks and leading some workshops on, well, travel writing.

I'm excited, even if Izzy is doing his best to dampen my mood. If I'm to be honest, though, I'm also slightly terrified. It's intimidating company, for starters--whimper-inducing, hypertension-creating intimidating.

I've also never traveled quite like this before. The only other cruise I've been on was a long weekend thing from Seattle to British Columbia and back, with my parents and my sister and her family. I passed the sixty hours or so (1) on deck, bundled in a jacket and shivering, as one does in the Pacific Northwest in October, and (2) indoors, in slow-motion pursuit of my just-learning-to-walk toddler nephews.

This Enrichment Voyage, I'm thinking, will be rather different, in ways that I can't even begin to comprehend. Longer. Sunnier. Lonelier, since I won't know a soul, and Maren won't be joining me for two weeks.

Izzy's disdain, oddly, has put me at ease. The impression he's giving me: It's a small ship. It's full of nerdy weirdos. I think: My kind of people. 


Over the course of the next three weeks and change, I will eat tamarind ice cream and kiss a fish and decline the opportunity to buy freshly-skinned iguana at a public market. I will go zip-lining and drum-hunting. I will meet impoverished children who clamor into boiling, sulfurous-steam-belching mud pits to gather hot clay for tourists. I will cry at the sight an unspeakably beautiful library. I will challenge Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to a game of shuffleboard. I will drive through active volcano zones and browse countless cheesy souvenir shops. I will fall in love with a city in Colombia, much to my amazement, and be terrified by a city in Panama and be exhilaratingly baffled by a city in Peru. I will become exceedingly fond of just about everyone on the ship--my fellow passengers, the crew, the staff.

I will give lectures about the art of storytelling, and then have genuinely amazing and odd experiences that defy easy retelling, as if mocking the very points that I was trying to make at the lectern. And in the course of the coming weeks, here on this blog, I will do my very best to recount them nonetheless.

Expect short posts capturing interesting moments or impressionistic snapshots of the ports, the people, the ship life. My goals: new material every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the next--count 'em--nine weeks or so. (If I say it out loud, it might actually happen.) And if you were on the ship, please feel free to chime in; I'd love to hear your comments and your own stories.

All right. Let's start the engine, untie the ropes, and get this voyage underway.

N.B. Just so we're clear, since I was a speaker, Maren and I were traveling as guests of the Enrichment Voyage, for which I remain profoundly grateful and about which I'm still kind of amazed. I mean: Julian Bond. Sandra Day O'Connor. And me. I still don't think that makes sense. But I'll take it. 

* * *

Part I: Strangers on a Ship

A scene of heartbreak: there are lines for a game (under the
stacked deck chairs) but it ain't shuffleboard.
Location: Nassau, Bahamas
Today's telling detail: Grid lines on Deck 7

The first day on the ship reminds me of my first day of college. A day full of potential, where the overwhelming newness of it all is made manageable by the realization that it's all equally novel and strange to everyone else. The strangeness and novelty are both ice-breaker and social-leveler. We're all in this together, a communal sense of discovery and confusion. We don't have any social networks already established. So ... will you be my friend?

I meet Mary and Kelly first, before we board the ship in Fort Lauderdale. They're a married couple from Charlottesville, Virginia (Semester At Sea is based there, at the University of Virginia) and staff on this voyage--she's the ship's librarian; he's the ever-patient computer lab guru. (Since they're probably reading this: Hi, Mary! Hi, Kelly! Did I get all that correct?)

We bond over, among other things, my quest for shuffleboard. Over lunch in the Garden Lounge, shortly after we board, I confess to them that for the last several weeks I have been telling my friends that my goal for this trip is to play shuffleboard with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. (Why? Because. Obviously.) Mary and Kelly think there might be a court, but probably no equipment. They would know: they've been on the ship before, as staff for Semester At Sea. As we finish our meals, Kelly says, with a gleam in his eyes, "Well, I know what we need to do next: find the shuffleboard court."

Off we go on our quest.


In the next day and a half, as I get my bearings and my sea legs, I will make other new friends in equally unexpected ways. (And hello to all of them who read this, too.) For example:

Barbara, who I meet the first night, while the ship is en route to The Bahamas. As I'm heading to the purser's desk to ask a question, I pass a group of several people chatting in Tymitz Square, the ship's central rotunda. A woman with short dark hair, who I guess to be around sixty, steps out from the group, holding a postcard. "Excuse me," she says as she hands me the postcard with a mischievous smirk. The postcard is a drawing of Manneken Pis, the symbol of Brussels: a small statue of a urinating toddler. Not at all coincidentally, he's in my book about traveling Europe. (Why? Because. Obviously.) I stare, speechless. When my brain finally unfreezes, I think: I have a stalker! and then, recovering, I think the more apt thought: This is one of the most thrilling, charming ways I've ever met someone. And she wouldn't have given me this if she hadn't really liked my book. We start chatting and she mentions that she's a Lifelong Learner--a Semester At Sea participant over 40 and not enrolled in a college but auditing the courses on the ship. Then she gestures to her friend Connie and says that they were about to head back to her room for some wine and cheese. Would I like to join them? Of course I would.

Chuck and Ce, who knock on Barbara's door just as we're trying to get a bottle of wine open. Chuck has the magic touch and gets the deed done. He's also naturalist and one of the other featured speakers. They've come to retrieve an ornate wooden bench Barbara has been storing for a mutual friend, but they stay for wine and cheese.

Mandy, a bartender at the Glazer Lounge, the large bar area at the front of Deck 7. I wander into the lounge while exploring the ship after saying goodnight to Barbara and company. It's a quiet space--empty aside from Mandy, who stands behind the bar. He's middle-aged, soft smile. His low-key demeanor and efficient movement when making my caipirinha indicates he's been doing this for a while. He has: more than ten years with Semester At Sea (caught up in conversation, I forget to write down the exact number). I ask if he has any particularly interesting stories, and he casually mentions a rogue wave. He has my attention. It was back in 2005. More than 60-feet tall. "I thought I was going to die," he says, slightly shrugging, the soft smile seeming to take on an edge of pain.

Erica, another author who will be speaking, and who I meet while we're working at one of the tables for passenger check-in the next day, in Nassau. We ask for everyone's ship IDs then cross-reference them with something on a printed spreadsheet and check a little box regarding something I no longer recall. One of the people we card turns out to be William Webster, the former head of both the CIA and the FBI, a fact that we learn from Sandra Day O'Connor, who is standing nearby. (All of this is true, I promise.) Later that night, we sit next to each other during the opening festivities and introductions. We turn out to have identical sense of humor--and, because of this, a tendency to lean over to each other and offer commentary regarding what's happening onstage. For the record, it's not all snark. But maybe, just maybe, there's a bit here and there, when deserved.

Jim & Adrienne, who sit in the front row of my first talk the day after we leave Nassau. They attend Erica's lecture that morning and befriend her; she tells them to come to my talk for more of the same sense of humor. They tell me I'd better be funny. I tell them to lower their standards. I'm only slightly joking, because the truth is, I'm nervous about this lecture. I know the basic material, but I've never given this given this talk before (about the social history of guidebooks). In fact, until about 3am this morning, it wasn't, strictly speaking, entirely written. But Jim and Adrienne laugh--at all the right points, even--and it seems genuine. Ditto for most of the other people in the audience.


One of the lines that goes over well is my comment about how, this being a cruise and all--"It's a voyage, not a cruise!" someone yelled from the back--I had hoped to play shuffleboard. With Sandra Day O'Connor.

What I don't say, because it's too painful, is what I discovered with Kelly and Mary that first afternoon:
There is no shuffleboard on the MV Explorer.

In my memory, as I stood on Deck 7, taking in the scene, I said it out loud, my voice edged with dejection, the words ragged and dragged out: "There is ... no shuffleboard ... on the MV Explorer." I was staring at a large rectangular grid painted on the ground. This was the possibly-a-shuffleboard-court thing that Kelly and Mary recalled from their previous voyages. It was a grid with numbered squares, yes. But it was empirically not a shuffleboard triangle.

My dream was crushed.

"Maybe we could get some chalk," someone said. "Or some tape."

"No, they probably won't let us do that."

My mind churned through the possibilities; it's still churning when I make that joke at the lectern. There has to be a way. My shuffleboard dreams may be only a few weeks old, but they will NOT ... die ... easily.  

* * *

Part 2: A Little Night Music

Location: At sea, en route from Nassau, Bahamas to Montego Bay, Jamaica
Today’s telling detail: The crowd’s sudden hush

The piano bar on Deck 6 is all but empty. There are about six of us, including me, Sandra Day O'Connor, and a few of her friends. No one else, possibly because many people are still in the dining room, just down the hall, lingering over the first of three formal dinners we'll have on this voyage. At least a few cruise-ship traditions/expectations/stereotypes have carried over to the MV Explorer, and formal dinners are one of them, even if "formal" here is defined fairly loosely. A piano bar is also expected, of course, although this one has a sign above the black grand piano labeling this a study area named after a Semester At Sea donor.

But for this voyage, at least, it's a real piano bar with a real pianist, David, an Englishman with a tan blazer, a grey mustache, and low-key demeanor, even when he's playing--no body-rocking showmanship here, just sublime music. That's not to say he isn't graceful--he is, emphatically, his hands flowing across the keyboard like water over rocks, effortless and mesmerizing. 

This evening, he's playing the classics. I think I recognize some Gershwin, some Cole Porter, maybe some Hoagie Carmichael, probably some Nat King Cole. But I don't really know. The songs sound awfully familiar to me though I don't recall the lyrics or the title of most--they're tunes I've heard in the background of countless movies, or maybe at my grandparents' house years ago, or possibly ... Well, I'm not sure where I've heard them, but some sort of Nostalgia Lobe in my brain is buzzing in the most pleasing way.

For a few numbers, David's wife, Leanne, joins him on vocals. She's every bit as good, her voice lush and, her phrasing expressive. She sings what she says is the first song she ever sang for David, “Embraceable You," and then we all sing “Ain't Misbehavin'." Well, everyone else sings, because they know all the words, while I kind of mumble until we get to the chorus and I join in, shyly: "Ain't misbehavin', sending all my somethingsomethingsomething!" 

A few people walk by, just leaving dinner, and sit to listen. Many of them are quite nicely dressed--men in suits, women in cocktail dresses, not the usual ship attire.

Leanne puts down her microphone and goes to sit down, to which Sandra Day O'Connor says, "You should go sing some more”

Leanne laughs and says the only thing you can say to that: “Yes, your honor.”

I see a large and especially well-dressed group coming down the hall, a couple of dozen students from Morehouse College, who are on the ship as a sort of December term. Several of the young men are wearing maroon blazers with the Morehouse insignia.

Leanne finally has permission to take a rest, and David is between songs. One of the Morehouse men asks if he can sing something. David shrugs. Sure, if it's a song he knows, too.

"How about 'Amazing Grace'?" asks the student. He's tall, in a black suit, with an orange and navy blue bowtie.

He picks up the mic and looks at the ground, suddenly nervous. I'm nervous for him. It's a song we all know and have heard sung brilliantly. No pressure.

He looks at David, takes a breath, puts the mic to his mouth, and closes his eyes.

What happens next will become shipboard lore for the next week. Did you hear about ... ? Were you there? Was anyone actually there? Did it really happen?

I was there. It actually happened. He was absolutely astonishing, his voice confident but with a plaintive edge, each word seeming to carry the weight of the world, but doing so beautifully.

Not a dry eye in the place by the time he got to the end of the song. He motioned to David to do it once more from the top, faster this time. More of a rollicking, gospel flourish. Our moist-eyed hush turned into an giddy buzz, all foot-tapping and body-swaying. And by the end, we were all on our feet, applauding with everything we had.

* * *

Part 3: Jamaica's Vital Signs

Location: Montego Bay, Jamaica
Today's telling detail: The rebar

We're only about a mile from the port in Montego Bay when we spot the first unexpected sign, on a street corner. It's not the content so much as the placement and the precise form that are striking: atop the crossroads sign at intersection is fully-formed, 3D, larger-than-life KFC bucket. As we drive on, into the urban heart of the town, we notice that seemingly every street sign has advertising space at the top, as  though the roads themselves are brought to you by Juci Patties or Rainforest Seafood.

On the outskirt of town, we stop at the Great River Bridge, where the eponymous river drains into the Caribbean. The area here is incredibly lush, in that tropical way: palm trees, sugar cane, all manner of tall grasses and trees that I can't identify, the whole backdrop a showcase of every conceivable size and shape of leaf, every possible shade of green, with the occasional grace note of bright pink bougainvillea.

This is what we wanted to see. There are six of us along for the ride, and when we got into the van at the port, we asked our driver and guide, Mark, to take us out of the city. We want to see more, we said: the remote villages, the overgrown hills, the potholed, precarious road less traveled. Mark is an an affable native of Montego Bay, casual but professional in jeans and a untucked white button-front shirt. I guess him to be around forty.

The Great River Bridge, is our first stop. We park down the road a bit, where the highway shoulder is wider, and as we walk back toward the bridge, we pause to take in the rest of the scene. There's a field with two small soccer goals and a pair of goats roaming around. There's a three-sided and slightly ramshackle hut that is empty now but evidently transforms into a restaurant later in the day--a hand-painted sign reads "Las Vegas Jerk Shop." Out front, there's a grill fashioned from the metal inner part of a car wheel; a piece of rebar bent in half sits on top. Mark says this is called a coal pot. When we drive back this way a few hours later, we'll see a few people standing in the hut and smoke rising from the coal pot, a large hunk of meat on the rebar.

What most intrigues me, though, are the signs by the bridge. One identifies the body of water: GREAT RIVER. The sign doubles as an ad for Grace, a large food manufacturer in Jamaica. (See the photo at the top of this post.) Across the street is a sign reading, "Welcome to St. James," the Jamaican province we've just exited (the country has fourteen provinces in all); as we crossed the bridge, we had seen an identical sign saying, "Welcome to Hanover." In each sign, the Os are Pepsi logos, and a photo of a glistening, oh-so-refreshing Pepsi bottle stands to one side of the text.

Throughout the next several hours, as Mark drives us around the region, into the mountains, along remote roads, we'll see this over and over: municipal signs of all manner doubling as billboards.

Our group includes four Enrichment Voyage speakers: me; Susan, the artist-in-residence; Bob, a writer; and Dean, an author and photographer. Dean tells Mark that he'd like to visit a school, as part of his ongoing work to document people and cultures--when he's back in the States, he does presentations to schools, showing pictures and telling stories about what life is like for kids in other countries.

Mark laughs slightly the first time Dean says this, but then shrugs. Sure, let's find a school. By now, he's gotten used to some of our goofier tourist requests and our interrogation regarding Jamaican culture ("What kind of fish is that guy carrying?" "Are there many shipwrecks here?" "Are the police corrupt?")

The security guard at the gate of Merlene Ottey High School greets us with a quizzical look, but she lets us in anyway, pointing us to the school office, a one-story building painted in the brightest of yellows, with a grey corrugated-metal roof. Beyond the office are a few slightly larger but otherwise identical buildings, with students in brown uniforms walking around the the campus.

Dean offers his spiel to the principal, works his charm, and we're in. We wander the grounds for a few minutes, escorted by the principal, who answers our questions and introduces us to students and teachers. We visit a shop class and a drafting class, where Susan chats with some students about their drawings. The principal is quick to point out that there's also a computer lab and the standard curriculum of math, science, writing. Her pride in the school is evident.

As we leave, I turn back to look at the school and see that a slogan has been painted  on a low wall in the courtyard between the classroom buildings. It says: "Determination to succeed through commitment and service."

We drive on, higher into the hills, farther along the winding, narrow roads, the encroaching trees often forming a deep-green tunnel. Every now and then, a few houses appear--and they really do seem to appear spontaneously: it's all leaves and branches, leaves and branches, and then a hut suddenly bursts from the undergrowth. Sometimes, they're clustered together, forming a village; other times, there's just a lonely abode perched on the edge of the road, dangling above the steep drop-off below.

More than a few of these buildings are pieced together with scrap lumber of varying conditions, and many of these are tiny--not just one room, but so small that if any adults sleep there, it'd have to be standing up or lying across the diagonal. And several of these huts--structurally questionable and with no nearby neighbors--bear bright-red signs with white text: "Top up your Digicard Here." There does not appear to be any other commerce going on inside the buildings--no items for sell, no services offered. Just an all-but-empty hut with a red sign.

I'm confused and intrigued. In my mind, where I'm from, "Cell phone store" equals "Gleaming Verizon storefront at the mall"--or, at the very least, "Phone card store" equals "Random convenience store that also sells a gazillion other things."

After seeing a dozen of these signs, I ask Mark. Are they really selling phone cards here? In these overgrown, rolling hills, where the houses are few, far-flung, and more than a bit ramshackle, do that many people have cell phones, let alone service?

Mark looks at me like I've asked the goofiest tourist question yet. "Yeah, mon," he says. "There's good coverage. People go to those stores to buy more minutes. We don't have contracts like in the United States--you just go to these places and get more time."

Near the end of our day of driving, Mark takes us into a posh subdivision overlooking Montego Bay. The housing here is considerably larger and typically surrounded by large fences.

Several of the houses appear unfinished. There's a complete ground floor--doors, windows, everything, and the places appear to be occupied. But it looks for all the world like the second story has been pulled off by some sort of impossibly precise tornado, which left behind only a forest of rebar protruding from the first floor.

We had seen this on the smaller houses in the countryside, too, over and over: one-story structures with rebar sticking out the top. But seeing them here, and feeling that same sense of confusion and wonder, is a good reminder that intriguing, unexpected, and culture-revealing things are to be found wherever you travel, not just the so-called "real" places out in the countryside, but even here in suburbia.

Of course, as Mark patiently explains, the second floor never existed. Yet. In someone's dreams, though, it does. The rebar is aspirational; it is the foundation of the future, the root of what's to come. Though it has no written words, this is the most important, telling sign we've seen all day. It says: When we have the money, we will keep building. And we know that day's coming, someday soon enough.

* * *

Part 4: Seasickness and Its Discontents

Location: At sea, in transit from Jamaica to Cartagena, Colombia
Today's telling detail: The bear

Sea legs, it turns out, are most definitely a real thing, but no amount of acclimation can keep you steady on your feet in ten-foot swells.

It's a day at sea, and walking has become an exercise in slapstick comedy; the floor is a moving target, never quite where our feet expect it to be. Our attempts to stay upright are an exercise in absurd ambulatory adaptation. Dramatic recreation:

Outside the piano bar, three generally spry Road Scholars in their 70s are amused and frustrated:

First Man: Everyone's walking like they're drunk! 

Woman: I haven't walked like this since I was 23!

Second Man: It's embarrassing--stone sober but I can't stay up!

The effects of the waves on our gait is embarrassing, but even worse are the effects on the inner ear. Where there are swells, there is seasickness, and there are a whole lot of green faces today.

One person I meet says that the guy in the neighboring cabin has been holed up all day, making all manner of loud noises of nauseated agony: "He sounds like a bear!" My own stomach is feeling a bit topsy-turvy, though I'm actually mostly functional, a pleasant surprise, given my generally impressive/alarming abilities as a nausea magnet, capable of finding queasiness in the unlikeliest of conditions.

The clinic gives out free Dramamine, which is generous if amusingly Halloween-like, although probably the guiding principle is not benevolence so much as the crew's understandable desire not to have the evening's entertainment be a show called "800 People Projectile Vomiting."

The ship has its own coping mechanisms: four-meter-long stabilizing fins that are deployed in rough seas. As they're being deployed, they make the most horrible noise, an ominous THUNK THUNK THUNK that reverberates throughout the ship, as conversations stop and eyes widen and, inevitably, some smartass starts whistling "My Heart Will Go On." We hear it several times throughout the day, and it's never less than bone-chilling, even after a nearby crew member has offered smiling reassurance that's just the stabilizers. Not everyone has gotten this information, though, and I hear several people speculating, passing along rumors that evidently make their way to the voyage's Program Director, Nathan, who prepares a special slide for the evening's pre-port discussion:

"Please don't worry," Nathan says, with a patient smile, to the assembled passengers. "We are NOT running over a pod of whales."

* * *

Part 5: Cartagena Dreamin'

Location: Cartagena, Colombia
Today's Telling Detail: The bookstore

It's sometime after the third or fourth hour of wandering and eating (and wandering some more and eating some more) that one of us puts our amused, slightly perplexed facial expressions into words.

"I really can't believe I'm in Cartagena," Erica says with a small laugh. "Eating tamarind ice cream." She stops in the middle of the sidewalk, ice cream in hand, and surveys the scene.

"It's pretty great," I reply. "This is ... not quite what I expected." I take another bite of my own ice cream--guava, because, like tamarind, it seemed an appropriately tropical choice.

Our two companions chuckle and nod in agreement, even Charlie, a history professor who's been to this history-rich city before. Keith's smile isn't quite as big and goofy as mine or Erica's are at the moment, but his wide eyes signal his glee. He's an entertainer on the ship, a comedian and magician, used to being on stage, and he has the most expressive eyes I've ever seen, every slight widening or virtually imperceptible half-wink telling a story of its own.

There's something surreal and wonderful about seeing a place for the first time and feeling that out-of-body sensation of questioning if you're really here, doing this thing, in this unfamiliar place--because you'd swear that thirty seconds ago, you were still at home, living out your everyday life. Your brain hasn't quite adjusted to being on the road; you still get a sort of Novelty Buzz from the newness and strangeness of it all. That Novelty Buzz is especially profound if you've stepped straight into this new world from a ship that is basically a continuation of life at home, what with all its cushy amenities and familiar language and potable water. And the Novelty Buzz is most potent--most brain-tingling, most mood-enhancing--when a place is drastically different from your expectations.

Let's just put it out there: I did not anticipate being completely charmed by a city in Colombia, especially not after last night's pre-port presentation, which included warnings that there had been explosions in the country. So, you know, watch out for that.

The fact is, in the Venn diagram of tourist expectations, there is no overlap between Daydream Caribbean City and Colombia. 

Well, I'm here to tell you: It turns out that when you're thinking of your daydream Caribbean city, you're actually thinking of Cartagena, Colombia. The Caribbean that doesn't exist outside of your daydreams and the Colombia that doesn't exist at all, if you go by news headlines and Hollywood thrillers (always such an accurate indicator of reality) are somehow manifest in a single municipality on the Caribbean coast. 

In fact, Cartagena will see your Caribbean Daydream Checklist and up the ante. For example, there are two forts because. Charlie, the history professor, excitedly tells us the town's decidedly siege-filled past, as we stand on top of the stone walls surrounding the old town--these walls were the first fortifications, built in the 16th century. They did the job for a while, Charlie explains: "The locals can't take it. But here come the English and the French, and they've a lot more firepower. So now we need a bigger fort." He points to the hill on the other side of the walled city, where we see a massive fort surrounded by angular walls, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. It's impossible to overstate how massive and intimidating structure this is--it's the Spanish Colonial Death Star. 

Charlie and Erica walk along the top of the wall of the original fort.

But for all that history and all those balcony-lined streets, it's a more discreet detail that sticks in my mind as the day's best moment, the town's most alluring feature. It's a small shop, part bookstore, part cafe, called Abaco. We nearly walk past it without noticing, but Keith is on the lookout for a place to get some water--it's a hot day--and spots the coffee shop display case just inside the front door. When he steps back outside, there's an Evian bottle in his hand and a look of delight in those expressive eyes.

"That's a really nice little place," he says to the rest of us. "You should go look inside."

The space is seriously not big--compare the footprint to a typical Barnes & Noble and it's probably not much bigger than, say, Self-Help or Teen Paranormal Romance. But there are very high ceilings, and large windows on the street side flood the room with light. A brick archway divides the room in two, and the bookshelves, stretching high above arm's reach, are tucked in a larger framework of exposed-brick walls, as though the books are revered icons on display in the niches of a church.

It feels like some ideal combination of library, chapel, and hip modern loft; an effortless blend of old and new, and crammed with books yet somehow uncluttered. We linger for several minutes, enjoying the calm and the utter charm of this store. Erica and I try to find our books, to no avail, although we do spot the Spanish translations of Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels. And when we return to the bustling streets and outside, we look back over our shoulders, slightly dazed, the Novelty Buzz in full effect. In this city of unexpected delights, this is the most surprising and wonderful of them all.

* * *

Part 6: Mr. Travel Writer Stays on the Ship

Location: Colón, Panama
Today's telling detail: the cookies

The most adventurous thing I did today was buy cookies. I risked my life to do this. And they weren't very good cookies. But they were the highlight of my trip to Panama, because I hardly saw anything in Panama--arguably, I saw nothing genuinely Panamanian. 

For all but a half-hour or so today, Mr. Travel Writer stayed on the boat.


There's an assumption among a large portion of the population that "travel writer" inherently means things like swaggering, adventurous, worldly, dashing. Streetwise. Wise, period.

Those people have not read my book. As I confessed there, well ...

I’m kind of a wimp. Trekking across Nepal holds zero appeal for me, and meditating in a forest sounds like a great way to get eaten by a bear.

Still true--even if, to be sure, I had made some small gains in the confidence and competence departments by the end of that trip.

Throughout the Enrichment Voyage--and at other readings and author events--I've had all kinds of people ask me for advice. Where should I go in this city? How do I negotiate with a cab driver? What are your tips for finding the best, most authentic [insert Cool Local Thing]? 

To which my first reaction is to think, "Hell if I know. You're asking the wrong guy."

But you can't say that when you're Mr. Travel Writer. People are counting on you, looking up to you for advice. You'll disappoint them and feel like a total phony if you confess that you're just as much out of your element as anyone else, just as inept at haggling with drivers and vendors, just as unsure which of those dumpy-looking streets will lead to unexpected delights and which one dead-ends at the Tourist-Hating Thugs Annual Convention & Ritual Sacrifice.

And you're just as susceptible to utter panic wisely-considered concern when warned about an unfamiliar town.


Here are some fun facts about Colón:

  • It's the Caribbean gateway to the Panama Canal, the port closest to the entrance. That's why you, the tourist, come here. No other reason. It's about five miles by sea from the industrial port of Colon to the front door of the Gatun locks.*
  • It's the third-largest city in Panama, if you believe Wikipedia, with a population of 232,748 (ibid).
  • As we learned in the pre-port presentation, Colón is the second most dangerous port on our voyage. (You are probably wondering exactly what we all were wondering: Hold on, then, what's the MOST dangerous port? And I, like the presenter, will keep you in suspense until we get there.)
  • It's a high-risk, low-reward sort of place. There were excursions you could book through the ship (nearly all of which were sold out by this point), but there was basically nothing to see in the town itself--no big museums or interesting historic districts or anything like that--and it's evidently pretty dangerous to walk around on your own, as a tourist. I talked to a few other people who had been there before, and they all shook their heads. Don't bother. Stay on the ship and catch up on your reading.
  • Proof of the high-risk part: I heard of only two people who decided to ignore all the warnings and walk around town (together). They were robbed at gunpoint. Not kidding. 
  • Proof of the low-reward part: If you go to the Wikipedia page listing the largest cities in Panama, there's a representative photo of each of the top four. The photo of Colón is billed as the "skyline," and the brightly-colored buildings in the foreground appear to be the most interesting and well-kept structures in town. Those are, in fact, at the cruise port, and that photo was clearly taken from a cruise ship. I know because I snapped that same shot from Deck 7. 
  • There is a casino at the cruise terminal, just out of the left side of the frame in that "skyline" photo. There's also a Radisson there. And some restaurants and souvenir shops and a large store offering electronics at discount prices. But let's go back to that first one: there is a casino right there, as if it say to cruise passengers, "Okay, look, we realize there's not much for you to see or do here, but we do want you to get off the ship. So, here. Have a casino."

Mr. Travel Writer did get off the boat. It wasn't the casino that attracted me. It was the souvenir shop. Mostly, I needed to get some COLON-branded swag for a friend who has a delightfully immature sense of humor and, as it happens, also has colon cancer. (For you, Ari, I braved the mean streets of the Cruise Terminal Mall. I thought about posing for a photo in front of a city sign, giving Colón a one-digit salute on your behalf, but there was an armed guard standing right there and, well, I didn't want to cause an international incident.)

So I bought a red baseball cap with large white lettering reading COLON. I got some postcards. I went over to the edge of the terminal area and stuck my head outside that invisible tourist-protecting force field and into the street; I lived to tell the tale. 

And I went to the local big-box grocery store, just to see how the average Panamanian--or rather, the sort of Panamanian who shops at a store in a cruise terminal--lives. I headed for the cookie aisle, because my goal had been to sample the baked goods in every country, and this would have to suffice for Panama. There were the full range of Oreos--double-stuffed, inside-out, Christmas-themed--next to the full range of Digestive Biscuits and shortbreads and the like. As with the rest of the store, the shelves offered an intriguing mix of European brands and American brands, all flashy logos and layer upon layer of plastic wrapping. 

After much searching, I found a package of cookies that appeared to be made locally. Or at least there was no English on the package, and the little discs were filled with guava, meaning tropical, meaning probably from around here, or at least trying to be, and that's good enough for now, because I'm hungry.

In all likelihood, there really are a least one or two interesting things to do in Colón. In all likelihood, not everyone there is carrying a gun.

But Mr. Travel Writer decided not to investigate.

* Some bonus fun facts for you: 

  • The largest vessels that can fit in the locks are called Panamax ships, and they're built specifically for the purpose of transiting the canal at the absolute maximum size. 
  • Panamax ships are 950 feet long by 106 feet wide. Or, to it another way, they're about 18% of a mile long.
  • Therefore, it would take 28 ships, lined up bow to stern, to stretch from the Gatun Locks back to the port.
  • A chase across 28 Panamax ships would make an excellent scene in a Bond flick. They could call it "A Man, A Plan," in reference to the famous palindrome. Or, if the plot involved purging the bad guys from Colón, the title could be "Colón Cleansing." (You're welcome.)

* * *

Part 7: In a Quiet Nightclub in the Panama Canal

Location: The Panama Canal
Today's Telling Detail: The lack of empty seats

Most days, the Glazer Lounge is all but empty in the mornings--but most days, we aren't going through the Panama Canal.

It's about 11:30am, and the Glazer Lounge is packed with more people than I've seen since karaoke night. This time, though, there is no off-key warbling of "Don't Stop Believin'" and there are no parents covering their kids' ears and eyes as college students do a grinding, grinning version of "The Thong Song." The room is library-quiet. Above the empty dance floor, a now-stationary disco ball provides the room's only slight twinkle of liveliness. Nearly every one of the red C-shaped cocktail-lounge chairs is occupied; the frosted-glass-topped tables are spread with books and maps and paper cups of coffee taken from the dining room early this morning and long-since drained. But to get up to throw it away would be to risk losing your front-row seat for ... 

... For what? We're anchored, waiting for our turn to proceed to the next lock. The landscape isn't changing and, anyway, a drenching rain limits the view, even if it does lend the nearby islands an ethereal quality--tiny, misty, jungly Lost Worlds in miniature.

Of course, that's not the point. We're in the Panama Canal. It wouldn't matter if visibility were all of two inches. We might not that be all that impressed if the Loch Ness Monster suddenly poked its head out of the water in front of us, followed by a flotilla of unicorns ridden by Elvis. Because, honestly, there's basically nothing that can top the very existence of the Panama Canal and our current presence inside it. 

The Panama Canal. The very thought of it is unreal. In size (the thing cuts across an entire continent), in water usage, history, in sheer ambition ... it's unreal. Even the seemingly minor details defy belief, like the fact that when you transit from the Caribbean to the Pacific you are, in fact, moving east. That can't be right. And those other ships passing by, the Panamax behemoths built specifically for this transit, their dimensions immense but calibrated down to the inch, to take up the absolute maximum amount of space in the canal locks. They shouldn't fit in that space. And those colorful cargo containers stacked high on the decks, a Brobdingnagian Jenga game designed by Mondrian. That's some CGI stuff, not reality.

When you're in the Panama Canal, there's really not much to see, which is perhaps the neatest trick of all. It's all so low-key. You'd think there would be fireworks, a laser show in the mist, a deep-voiced announcer proclaiming each ship's entry into the locks, followed by the chorus of "We Are the Champions." At least a neon billboard on the shore. That's how they'd probably do it back in the States, if we were building it now. 

I like it better this way, the unreal, ambitious project manifest in a way that makes your forget how unreal and ambitious it really is. We see only water, mist, trees, some other ships--the same sort of things we've seen basically every other day on this voyage. None of that has brought so many people to the Glazer Lounge before. 

But we need to be here, just like we needed to be out on the deck, in stomping through puddles, at 6am, as the ship approached the Gatun Locks, the canal's entry point. We need to be here not for the things we can see in a glance but for what this whole experience represents--in a large sense, we're here simply to know that we were here. In the Panama Canal. Verifying with our own eyes, that, well, yes. This thing. It's real. All those stories, all that ambition, all that history, all that turmoil ... all that stuff. It's crazy. It's borderline magic. And it really happened. And now, even in our own small way, reading a book in a hushed cocktail lounge, we're a part of it.

* * *

Part 8: My Kind of Party

Location: At sea, on the way to Guayaquil, Ecuador 
Today's telling detail: The beds 

One day, I arrive back to my cabin to find, in the little shelf above the cabin number on the door, a gray sheet of paper carefully torn from a notebook and folded in half, to roughly the size of an index card. I'm baffled. The only things typically left for me are the pastel-colored Daily Explorer pamphlets, which are distributed to all rooms and list important information like the next day's Cocktail of the Day and schedule of speakers. This is useful because it lets me know when to start panicking and finally finish preparing that speech by retreating to the bar with my laptop and ordering a Cocktail of the Day.

But this is more intriguing, less panic-inducing. On the outside of the little gray piece of paper, centered and in handwriting far neater than my own, it says:

Inside, again centered and thoughtfully laid-out, is an invitation. Wine, cheese & crackers in Chuck & Ce's cabin, just down the hall.

So it is that a few days later, there are nine of us crammed into a small room, drinking wine and eating snacks and having one of those conversations that pinballs gleefully from one subject to the next.

I've brought my own chair from my room, at the request of the hosts, and I sit wedged between the built-in desk and the end of one of the two twin beds that flanks the sides of the room. Si--short for Simon--leans against the desk; his wife, Bertie, sits on the other side of me, on one of the beds. In all, four or five people are seated on the two beds.

This packed-together set-up lends the party a agreeably familiar air: I think to myself, This feels like college. Well, aside from the boat thing and the better quality of booze. And the fact that the conversation includes moments like Si's story about the guidebooks.

"Have you ever heard of Baedecker's guides?" he asks after Barbara--my new friend who introduced herself to me with  Manneken Pis postcard--mentions that I'm a writer who used a vintage Frommer's guide to tour Europe.

"Of course!" I reply. "They were the first guidebooks to have brand cachet and real name recognition." I want to continue with all the fascinating details of the books' little-known role in history, like the infamous Baedecker Blitz during World War II, but I catch myself before my mouth and brain are off to their usual Awkward Anecdote Races. Party small talk, I think. Keep it simple.

"Yeah, I used to have a whole bunch of them,” Si says. “Old ones, too--from 1919. I bought them in New York in . . . I think it was 1936." 

It bears mentioning: I am the youngest person in the room by at least thirty years. And yet my presence feels entirely natural here--the conversation flow rapidly and easily, one moment contemplative, the next sarcastic, even ribald. 

We talk about Trader Joe's snacks and blue eye/brown eye experiments. We agree that peanut butter filled pretzels are sublime and that racism is, well, pretty damn horrible. Eventually, as often happens in conversations among strangers traveling together, the topic turns to places we've been, places we've lived. Two of the women are startled to discover that at different times, they each lived in Cambridge Bay, a small Canadian town in the northerly reaches of Nunavut.

The conversation ricochets again and we're talking about toilets around the world. We're making stupid jokes, telling stories that, in other settings--not among friends, in a small cabin on a cruise ship--would make any of us blush. I'm struggling to keep up, frankly, while Chuck and Barbara and Bertie toss one-liners left and right. 

"I was on a train in India a few years ago, there were some squat toilets," someone says. "This guy was using it, on this bouncing train, and while talking on his cell phone. I don't know how he kept his balance without two hands on the railing!"

"Well," says Bertie, with the confident cackle of someone who knows she's about to get off a crowd-pleasing line, "At least he wasn't texting!"

* * *

Part 9: I Kissed a Fish (and I Liked It), or Neptune Day is a Very Strange Tradition

King Neptune surveys his scalywag subjects.
Thanks to Dean Jacobs for the excellent photo.
Location: The Equator 
Today's telling detail: The long line to kiss the fish

When I heard that there was going to be some sort of ceremony when we crossed the equator, I figured there would be a good amount of droll pomp and circumstance, maybe a speech or two accompanied by boisterous cheering. I promised myself I would enjoy the moment and activities, and embrace the goofiness of it all as an active participant.

I had not counted on fish guts being involved in any way. I had certainly not counted on a bucket of green liquid--cold, frothy, slimy, noxious-looking stuff--being poured over my head, oozing its way into my every pore, its clammy tendrils matting my hair, pasting my shirt to my back, and making a particularly unwelcome pass below my waistband. Nor had I anticipated that I would not only volunteer for the experience but wait in line for it.

As I stand there, shivering, covered in goo--some of which, I have been told, once belonged to the inside of  fish--and standing next to two strangers in a similar state, I think to myself: this is how cults get started. Everything that follows only confirms this belief.

That's me in the yellow shirt, taking the Neptune Day plunge with my
fellow shellbacks. Thanks to Frank Murphy for the sweet action shot.
The three of us jump into the pool to wash off. When I clamor out, a beautiful woman dressed in a white robe stands next to a large, imposing man with green skin and wearing a crown--King Neptune, overseer of the ceremonies.

The woman in white waves a fish in front of my face and commands me to kiss it.

I demur, offering a sort of cheek-to-cheek nudge, like the French do. I'd rather not get too frisky on a first blind date, not just because it's a fish but because I know there are various mysterious illnesses are going around the ship, and I know the fish has had many suitors before me. As my eighth-grade health teacher might have put it, when you kiss a fish, you're kissing everyone the fish has kissed.

Suddenly the fish lurches toward me, aiming for my mouth.

"No, KISS it!" cackles the woman in white.

It's part of a tradition, I remind myself, followed immediately by the inner musing, for roughly the hundredth time this morning, that, man, do these ship people have some weird traditions, and, man, is this Neptune Day thing is the weirdest of them all.

They tell me it all goes back centuries--this is what seafarers have done forever to celebrate the equator crossing. I see this as proof positive that there is no surer recipe for bizarre, bad ideas than having lots of bored men in close quarters, removed from the rest of society. See, for example, Lord of the Flies, Animal House, or my high school soccer team bus. On an old-fashioned ship, you'd have the extra delirium-creating elements of malnutrition and not knowing if and when the map would simply run out and you'd be in real-life "here be monsters" territory. Given the circumstances, it's amazing, frankly, that they weren't doing this sort of stuff every single day, but managed to bottle it all up and wait for the equator crossing.

If you go read the Wikipedia page about "Line-crossing ceremonies," it's full of wry descriptions like this one from an officer on a ship called the HMS Blossom, observing a ceremony in 1825:

There were on board the ship a great number of officers and seamen, who had never yet gone South of the Tropics, consequently were to be initiated into the mysteries of crossing the Equinoctial line, and entering the dominions of Neptune; great preparations had been making since our leaving Woolwich, for an event which promised to some part of the crew great amusement, to the other great fear; many a poor girl at Woolwich, and at Spithead had been deprived of some part of her wardrobe, to adorn Amphitrite; from one a night cap and gown had been stolen, from another some other part of dress, and although I had no hand in it, I was as bad as the rest, for I was consenting thereto. An immense grey horse hair wig, sufficiently long to reach well down the back of Neptune, had been purchased in England by subscription, accompanied by a venerable grey beard to sweep his aged breast; a tin crown and a trident completed the regalia.
In many cases, though, the ceremony went way beyond silly costumes into straight-up hazing: beatings, tarrings, horrible stuff. In Charles Darwin's diary from his trip on the HMS Beagle, he recounts being shaved and put on a plank, at which point Neptune's minions
lathered my face & mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop. —a signal being given I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me & ducked me. . . . Most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths & rubbed on their faces.
So, hey, at least I've avoided that. And, I remind myself as I stand there on the pool deck, I've gotten conflicting information about the fish content in the green slime I've just washed off--some sources tell me there really are guts in there; others say it's just a few token drops of fish sauce in the whole big plastic cauldron. I never saw any actual internal organs slide past my eyes, so that's good.

But there is still a fish--a real, dead fish directly in front of me. It gazes back at me, its eyes amber circles with a black dot in the middle, glassy and unperturbed. Jaded fish, this one; been through a lot. "Dude, just do it already," it says to me. "Show me some lip-love. I'm not gonna bite you."

Everyone's watching. For the crowd, for the sailors who have had to endure far worse things, but mostly for my own sense of pride, it has to happen. I pucker up and lean in.

There were more odd Neptune Day festivities after the fish-kissing. And you can read all about them ... over on the Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day Facebook page. Or send me a postcard and I'll mail you Part Two. Yup, sorry, I'm going to make you work for it. 

* * *

Part 10: The Thrill of the Drum Hunt

This transaction involves a guitar, not a drum.
But that's not really the point.

Location: Guayaquil, Ecuador

Today's telling detail: Christián's amused and frustrated yelling into his cell phone 

It begins with the first person with whom Louis makes eye contact once he's off the boat. That's how his drum hunts always work. In this case, it's a customs official on the blacktop just off the gangway at the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador. And the official—a middle-aged man with owlish glasses and a chartreuse safety vest—is already on the task, talking on his cell phone, his tone all business. 

He snaps his phone shuts and turns to Louis. "The best place to find a drum is the Mercado Artesanal, in the middle of town. You can take a taxi there."


We need more information, so we ask another local standing nearby, one of the tour guides herding our fellow passengers into a white minibus. She says the same thing: Mercado Artesanal. 

"I like to triangulate," says Louis. Verifying the leads will keep us on track--we'll only be in town for a few hours, so we need accurate information. A third local at the pier says the same, so that settles it.

There are five of us along for the drum hunt; Louis Patler is our fearless leader. In his outfit of green t-shirt, khaki shorts, and running shoes, he doesn't look exactly conform to the fedora-and-machete stereotype of South American artifact hunters, although his attire is much far better suited for our specific type of fast-paced urban exploration. Louis is a social anthropologist and one of the speakers on the ship; his topics include "The Future of the Future" and—not really related to the rest of his lecturers--"Drum Hunting," a lecture he gave just a couple of days ago, while we were transiting the Panama Canal.

Louis's drum hunts are his introduction to a culture. Every culture has drums of some sort, he points out in the lecture, and each place typically has its own unique and traditional type. He has several drums on stage, all of which he's purchased on this very trip. He picks up a handsome, handmade wooden conga from Montego Bay, Jamaica, which he bought from a Rastafarian master drum-maker. It had been the guy's personal drum for years—the drum-hunting party had ended up at his house—and though Louis had admired the craftsmanship, he assured the charismatic drum-maker that, truly, he didn't need to buy it and take away this beautiful instrument that clearly had so much personal meaning. But the guy said, no, something told him it was time for a new owner. Louis should have the drum. Play it, cherish it. 

Louis has acquired dozens of drums over the course of his travels all over the world. But even though he loves drums, the real point of the hunt is not really to acquire an instrument but to see a new culture. It's an ice-breaker with strangers, it's the quest that serves as the framework for exploration, it's a way to see everyday life and meet people with similar interests. He puts the question to the audience: What's your quest? What do you want to find in each new culture? 

After the talk, I rush over to the lectern, all but elbowing people out of the way. I'd love to join him sometime, I tell him, trying hard to stay cool and suppress the eager, desperate, borderline petulant voice inside me: PLLEEEEEASE! TAKE ME WITH YOU THAT SOUNDS AWESOME LET'S GO RIGHT NOW.


There are no vans available for hire at the port of Guayaquil, evidently, only cars roughly the size of toasters. There are five passengers from the ship: Louis, me, Bill, Judith, and Suzanne. Not one of us is willing to miss this opportunity, so we cram into a tiny but well-kept sedan—Bill, Suzanne, and me in the back, Louis and Judity contorted precariously into the front as our driver, Christián, heads toward the market (which he, too, thinks is our best bet).

As we enter the market--a vast, modern warehouse space with warrens of shops selling clothing, bags, trinkets, and other merchandise--Louis instructs us in the fine art of seeking out the particular types of drums he wants, the older, more traditional ones. "I've learned to enter a shop and never look straight ahead," he says. Most people want the shinier, newer drums, so that's what the shopkeepers display most prominently. "I always look down low or up high." 

Now, if the words "Artisan Market" conjure images of, say, a woodworker hunched over a table, knife in one hand, intricately-carved piece of mahogany in the other, a pile of shavings growing below; or a weaver working at a loom, a brightly-colored blanket taking shape slowly but surely--well, if that's what you're thinking, you should probably give the Artisan Market in Guayaquil a pass. They have mass-made sweaters with ostensibly traditional patterns; they have mass-made maracas painted with the word "ECUADOR"; they have mass-made drums that are roughly the same general design as traditional drums, except they're much smaller and have your choice of such traditional motifs as Knockoff Sponge Bob or Bloblike Purple Thing With Teeth And A Tail--Oh, I Guess That's Possibly Barney.

There are bigger and better and less Barney-adorned drums, too, but they're all new. 

Christián is working the phone, calling everyone he knows who might have drum tips. And over and over, I see his face start to light up before he says, with a frustrated chuckle, “No, no! Estos son nuevos--el no los quiere. Solo viejo.”  Those are new. This guy wants old.


On our second pass down one aisle of the market, we strike up conversation with a shopkeeper named Carlos. He looks a little bit like Mandy Patankin (Inigo Montoya) in “A Princess Bride.” Again, the same result: nuevo, sí; viejo, no. But Carlos is intrigued by these odd, inquisitive tourists, and he and Louis strike up a conversation, with Christián translating. Soon, Carlos is on his phone. He has a friend who he knows will have a drum. And the friend does. He's on the other side of the country, but he can get the drum to us next week.

There's a collective groan. We don't have a week. We only have a few hours. Christián shakes his head, laughing again. He's a professional but incredibly low-key guy, early thirties, wearing the professional-but-low-key guy's uniform of short-sleeved checked shirt and jeans. He's also clearly very amused by his atypical tourist charges. By this time, we've talked to nine different people, either in person or on the phone. Louis's record on one drum-hunt is twenty-one people before getting a drum; the minimum was two.

We linger in Carlos's shop, and after a time, he pulls out a small guitar from behind the counter and starts strumming it. He offers to sell it, and it seems like a joke, but Louis says, well, okay. It's a nice little instrument—and, hey, it's better than leaving empty-handed. Louis insists that Carlos play one last song on the guitar, a sort of blessing before it's passed on to the new owner, as the music fills this otherwise quiet corner of the Mercado Artesenal and we all grin goofily, a sense of collective accomplishment and kinship.

Christián is still working his phone, and as we leave the market, he has a new destination in mind. He's heard there's a musical instrument store not far from here.

The Ecko Music Store. You have to check all bags at the
front so, sadly, I have no photos of the scenes inside.
As it turns out, the Ecko Music store in central Guayaquil isn't that hard to find. It's a big store, two stories, both lined with broad windows showing off the wares to passersby: guitars, drums, keyboards, amps. There's also a giant disco ball that marks the corner entrance. It's probably four feet in diameter, big enough to serve as an exercise ball for, say, a Shih-Tzu, with several much smaller disco balls orbiting along the equator. The whole disco solar system is suspended from the broad overhang of a roof that caps the two-story building.

On the second floor, a twentysomething salesman wearing a hot-pink polo shirt--his store uniform--is showing off keyboards to a father and his young teenage son, a budding rock star in tight red pants, a black t-shirt, and canvas shoes. The kid is wearing playing Pachelbel's "Canon" (of course) and messing with the various buttons and knobs above the keys, testing out the effects and loops. The salesman pushes one button and suddenly the song sounds like a trumpet with a drum-and-bass beat, but the kid scowls and shakes his head, reverting back to the piano. As Louis investigates drums, Christián makes a slow, shy, self-conscious lap through the keyboard section, cautiously looking at each one and its price tag; the cheapest one is $1,060. His daughter plays the piano, he says.

Louis finds a traditional drum, well-made … and brand spanking new. But he decides that's all right. It's well-constructed, gives a great tone. He tells the salesman he'll take it.

Downstairs, as we head toward the exit, drum in hand, we stop for a moment to observe another scene unfolding. A group of nuns in flowing white habits is chatting intently with one of this slick young salesman, all of them carefully examining a sound mixing board. We watch the nuns gesture, explaining their sound-mixing needs, and then we head back to the street, drum in hand.

* * *

Part 11: Scenes From a Park With 300 Iguanas

Well hello there. 
Location: Guayaquil, Ecuador
Today's telling detail: Those sinister eyes. Just look at them.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a tourist who enters across a park filled with 300 iguanas will ignore the signs saying "DO NOT TOUCH THE ANIMALS."

Officially, the park in the center of Guayaquil is called Parque Seminario. Officially, the main attractions are the statue of Simon Bolivar; the well-maintained stone paths and manicured lawns of refined urban parks everywhere; the large historic gazebo that host concerts by a municipal police band (every afternoon, I'm told). Officially, you're not supposed to touch the iguanas.

Hahahahaha. Right. To all of that.

Pretty much everyone seems to call it "Iguana Park." They're everywhere. They're the real stars here. And they're what brings in all the gawkers--both locals and tourists.

You can't really tell from this photo, but this tree is FULL of iguanas.
You are strongly advised not to stand directly below it.

Our taxi driver, Christian, had wanted to take us to the local history museum, across the street from the park, but we were disappointed to learn it was closed.

Kind of disappointed. Soooort of.

Okay, honestly, not really.

I mean, dude: 300 iguanas.

Christian looked on as we snapped our photos. All day, during our extended drum hunt and our later quest for lunch--during which we rebuffed his suggestions of international chains and their slick local knockoffs, because we didn't particularly want pizza and burgers but something just a tad more authentic and traditional--he kept offering us that most desired of travel compliments: "You're not like most tourists." Our egos soared.

In the park, though, he's openly laughing at us as we pose. "Now you are real tourists!"

We know. It's true. We can't help it. Sometimes, you have to embrace the goofiness of travel, the tacky tourist moments.

In case I haven't mentioned it: 300 iguanas.

And the thing about 300 iguanas is that the scene sounds cool until you consider the up-close realities, like the fact that holy crap those things are freaky. It turns out that as with all animals, there's a certain distance at which an iguana suddenly goes from interesting to terrifying--you cross what one might call the "Oh, HELL NO! Threshold." This distance varies widely by animal.

A Sampling of Oh, HELL, NO! Thresholds
  • Tiger: 68 yards
  • Dragonfly: 8 inches
  • Giant squid: 2 miles
  • Donald Trump: one continent
  • Goldfish: 0 Goldfish are harmless. Don't you dare ruin that for me by pointing out examples of ravenous, blood-sucking goldfish; I'll be over here with my fingers in my ears, LALALALA.
For iguanas, the distance is about two or three feet. From afar--even, like, ten feet away--they look regal and intriguing, always standing there, posing with their chins up, like a bald eagle or Christian Bale. At two to three feet, you start to feel your eyes get very wide and your sphincter loosens. You have sudden insights, like, Damn, those things look like dinosaurs. And I forget, was "Jurassic Park" a documentary? How fast, precisely, can they lunge? My buddy Ralph is standing next to me--if I push him in front of me, will they go after him instead? He's wearing zip-off nylon khaki pants, so he's basically asking for it, anyway.

Unfortunately, I had no nylon-khaki-wearing friend named Ralph along to protect me as I approached this scrum of iguanas:

Keep an eye on that cheeky critter directly under my butt.
This will become important very, very shortly.

As I started to squat--that is, just as I was crossing the Oh, HELL, NO Threshold--a woman in an official uniform yelled something at me.

I assumed she was shooing me away--but, no, she was offering to take the photo for me. I handed over my camera. "Kneel down," she commanded, in Spanish.

I knelt. Carefully.

"It's okay to touch them," the woman said, grinning.

Oh, hell, no. 

But she was waiting for me to lower my hand. And, really: I couldn't pass up the opportunity for officially-sanctioned--make that officially-mandated--iguana-petting. Very, very gentle iguana-petting. It had to be done.

As I was posing, I heard a voice behind me. "Dude, do NOT back up. And the second that photo's done, STAND THE HELL UP, nice and slow--there's one that's about to chomp on your butt."

I ignored the "nice and slow" part.

I later asked Chuck, the naturalist, if--you know, hypothetically, asking for friend--an iguana could've actually bitten off my finger.

"No," he said, face totally deadpan. "But it would make you wish it had."

So there’s a life lesson for you: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there’s not an iguana out to get you

* * *

Part 12: Lima's New Path

Location: Lima, Peru
Today's telling detail: The scene at the mall

In a park in the thriving Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, atop bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, there's a massive statue unlike any other I've seen in a city park: a much-larger-than-life couple making out. I mean, they're really going at it, in a way that would make you avert your gaze and think, "Get a room!" if they were actual sentient humans. Their much-larger-than-life arms are around each other, the man's much-larger-than-life shirt is removed (and, ahem, get your mind out of the gutter--I did not look at the relative sizes of anything else).  

Welcome to El Parque del Amor, dedicated in 1993. 

It was toward the end of a bike tour of Miraflores that we stopped here. Our guide, Jose, said that the statue and the park--which also features walls with mosaic inlays of quotes and poetry celebrating love--were inspired by the fact that coiled lovers are a frequent scene in Lima's parks. Other sources trace the origin to an observation from the Peruvian poet Antonio Cilloniz: "In the cities, they do not build monuments to lovers" but only to warriors. 

In either case, the citizens of Lima seem to be following instructions. As we biked out of the park, we went along a narrow path lined with eight benches. Seven were occupied by couples in getting cozy--and on the eighth sat a well-dressed young woman who seemed to be waiting expectantly.  

On one side of the park, there's a deep, wide ravine spanned by a bridge carrying cars and pedestrians across to the southern part of Miraflores (you can see the bridge in the background of the photo above). The sides of the bridge are hemmed in by tall walls of thick, transparent plastic, which curve back over the sidewalk, forming a partial tunnel that looks a bit like a massive hamster Habitrail. The barricades were erected to prevent jumpers--the bridge had become infamous as a suicide hotspot.

As Jose put it while we stood in the park: "If things don't work out here, you go over there."

It's the easiest cliche in the travel-writing playbook to juxtapose a place's contrasts: its old and new, its simple and extravagant, its melancholy and joy. Sometimes, there's no escaping this observation, though; to do so is to miss a genuine story.

In Lima, this sort of thing is everywhere you turn. Some are more telling than others. Other cities have their  romance/despair dichotomies, although Lima's park and bridge are particularly potent versions. And while it's initially amusing to see teenage boys skateboarding in a park that has floral re-creations of the ancient Nazca Lines, it's ultimately not especially interesting.

I mean, what's the story? "DUDE! Old ... and new! In one place! Where's my camera?!" There's no link, though, no accurate metaphor to be read into the scene; no narrative thread. It's A plus B without equaling C.


But in Lima, very often, the ubiquitous combinations tell all kinds of nuanced stories. Like the trees in El Parque Olivar. The area was a thriving olive plantation in the early nineteenth century, and after the Peru won its independence in 1821, the fleeing Spaniards chopped down many of the trees. But from these stumps grew new trees--often gnarled and Dr. Suess-looking, but objectively beautiful in their own way. 

Today, it's a preserved green space, one of the city's most beloved, where families go for picnics and tourists go for bike-rides. From an act of conquest grows a space of respite. That's a nice story. 

Far more powerful, though, are the scenes that show the ongoing reconciliation of a painful recent past--like I saw all over the place in Berlin, where flashy billboard rise directly over somber monuments and Checkpoint Charlie, that potent symbol of Cold War division, is now, to a large degree, just another kinda cheesy tourist trap.  

See if you can spot the telling detail in this photo: 

What you see here is the LarcoMar mall, which is built below street level, wedged into the cliffs of Miramar. This isn't the greatest photo, but if you click for the larger version, you'll see that the storefront in the middle of the image is Tony Roma's, the American restaurant chain. 

Keep looking for the telling detail.

Upper left. There are three people. Above them: a beaming cross. 

That cross is 50 meters high; it's on the hillside far in the distance. It was erected in 1998 on the occasion of Pope John Paul's visit to Peru--and it was constructed using materials from electrical towers that had been destroyed by the Shining Path, the militant group that terrorized Peru throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, and may be, as The Economist recently noted, "Still smoldering." 

"The terrorists used to bomb power facilities often," says Jose. "I would have to do my homework with a candle. My mother would be cooking in the dark." 

This not ancient history. Jose is fairly young, around thirty, and his memories of the Shining Path are vivid. He doesn't seem haunted exactly, but deeply frustrated, his typical smile and gleaming eyes turning into a more solemn mask. 

Things are different now. Not perfect, by any means. But connect those dots--the blackouts, the cross, the mall, and you have a complicated story that has unfolded over a short period of time, and continues to play out each and every day. 

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