The Road to Hana

The Road to Hana
 
The title of this story may sound like it should be a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie, but it was just a little outing during our Honeymoon in 1996. We were staying on the beautiful island of Maui and were trying to do and see as much as we could.
 
When in Hawaii you really should do as the locals say and, “Hang loose brudda!” That means that it really doesn’t pay to try and do anything at all in a hurry, it’s just not going to work that way. Life on the islands was best lived “Aloha style” which is slow and easy.
 
We had been hearing about the “Road to Hana” in all the places that we frequented on Maui, and had seen several T-shirts about the road trip. Everyone said it was a beautiful drive and that “You can’t go back to the mainland without going to Hana.”
 
I looked at a local island map and measured it out using the map legend mileage key; it was less than 60 miles. That wasn’t very far and it was all paved roads, so we should be able to make the trip around Maui, see Hana, and get back in time to go out to dinner in Lahaina. The trip should only take a couple of hours.
 
It was around 11:00 a.m. when we left the hotel and started off on our road trip. Traffic was heavy everywhere we went, especially through the center of activity around the airport and commercial district; lunch time rush I guessed. We crawled along in traffic until we passed the business areas and then things opened up and we felt relieved; we didn’t come to Hawaii to sit in traffic all day!
 
As we entered the coastal highway (state highway 360) we saw our first sign for our destination “Hana 54 miles,” and the road was four-lane and nice. We followed the coast and made our turn southward going around the eastern side of Maui. Out in the ocean breakers of Maui’s north shore we saw some crazy surfers.
 
I say crazy, because there were big rock outcroppings sticking up out of the water and a rip tide that would either drown you, or throw you into the rocks. We watched one young fellow riding in on one wave and when another broke across it, he kicked over to the second wave. By doing so he avoided a deadly collision with some very unforgiving rocks by a margin so close, that everyone on the highway stopped.
 
We were sure that he would be crab bait, but he never even slowed down. It’s good to surf your own break, you know what’s up and what to avoid. It reminded me of shooting (surfing through) the pier at Dania Beach in South Florida. If you didn’t know it intimately, it was best to leave it alone.
 
I had just formed the idea in my mind that we were going to be in Hana in about an hour, when the next several road signs changed that thought completely. They came at us in such rapid succession that we could barely read them: ROAD NARROWS, SPEED LIMIT 35, ONE LANE BRIDGES NEXT 53 MILES, WATCH FOR SLOW MOVING TRAFFIC, WATCH FOR TRUCKS ENTERING HIGHWAY.
 
What had happened to our cool scenic highway? With a speed limit of 35 mph it was going to take a bit longer than I thought. Quickly, the road narrowed until it was only wide enough for two very friendly vehicles with no mirrors or door handles sticking out.
 
When the first sign stated, “ONE LANE BRIDGES AHEAD,” I had no idea that there were 54 one lane bridges in the next 53 miles. It became even more “exciting” as we saw that the road was (just barely) carved out of the side of the mountain.
 
State highway 360 followed the contours of the terrain with absolutely no thought of “level.” That word was evidently not in the vocabulary of the engineer who constructed the coastal road. If you were into thrill rides it might be considered kind of cool the way they made it. It was a roller coaster ride of unbelievable length!
 
It was in a way fortuitous that Anna was a photographer on this road of endless curves. Frequently she would get “woozy” from the back and forth motion of the car on the curves, blazing along at speeds approaching 20 mph, (sometimes we would go that fast, but not very often.)
 
I would find a place to literally jam the car into the bushes and stop, so she could recover. When I did so, she pulled out her camera and she forgot all about being sick. That camera worked better than any drugs we could have used for motion sickness.
 
She doesn’t have any trouble on airplanes and nothing happened when we went out on the water in a dive boat; it just seems to happen in automobiles on curvy roads. For whatever reason, we knew that it would happen and found ways to deal with it.
 
Somewhere about the half way point on “the Road to Hana,” there was a Botanical Garden on the inland side of the road (which even had places to park.) It was the Keanae Arboretum where there were plant representatives from all the Pacific Rim Islands and other countries which had influence on the development of the Hawaii that we know today.
 
There were many different varieties of trees and plants, but the one that impressed me the most was the species of tree known as the “Painted Eucalyptus.” These trees were tall (about 50-60 feet) and very straight in the trunk. There were no limbs until the top (or crown) similar in that respect to some of the pine tree species of south Florida.
 
The most interesting features of this tree was their absolutely smooth surface, and color marks like someone had gone wild in the forest with different colors of paint. Those marks were mostly vertical and the same colors were present on all the trees of this type. However, the marking pattern was individual to each tree.
 
After a brief stop we left the trees and continued our journey towards Hana. We discussed our options before pulling out onto the road and knew that the smart thing to do (time wise) would be to turn around and go back to the hotel. But, we were determined to reach our destination and refused to quit.
 
There were many more one lane bridges to go. At each one we were behind slow trucks and invariably encountered people blocking traffic standing in the middle of the road. They were tourists (just like us) and wanted to get a better look at each one of the thousands of little water falls that decorated the hillside. The problem was that the cascading rivulets were on every hillside, all the way down the fifty-four miles of road.
 
The tiny waterfalls were pretty, but they each looked almost exactly like the one before and the one after. I doubt that you could pick out one from another in the millions of photos taken of them. But hey, tourists are like that! That was also still in the time of film cameras and I can only imagine how much revenue those little trickles of water engendered for Kodak and other film developers. They were liquid gold!
 
Finally, the tiny community of Hana came into view. We had arrived, along with the many other “Hana Trekkers” that had been in a conga line all day. Anna decided that she was hungry, which was not unreasonable, given the amount of time since breakfast.
 
It was around 3:30 p.m. by then and as we meandered around the little village of Hana, we came to the realization that there really wasn’t much of a choice for dining. There was a little convenience store with packaged munchies, a couple of food stands (that were closed,) and then there was the Hana Hilton. So we opted for the Hilton.
 
The Hana Hilton was truly a beautiful place, located on some very breathtaking real estate, both from the stand point of view, and cost. The clientele was very exclusive and were most often flown in by helicopter to their private landing pad.
 
Some of their guests did sail in on their yachts, dropped anchor in the private cove, and were then picked up by Hilton speedboats. This place was a secret hideout for the rich and famous, or infamous as the case may be.
 
We were informed at the desk by a fellow who acted like he needed a bath after speaking with me, that lunch was over and dinner would not start “seating” until 5:00 p.m. … and me without my Tux! I was not impressed by his attitude.
 
As we were about to leave a younger, female “junior desk clerk” (according to her tag), spoke up, (a bit hesitantly it seemed, probably out of apprehension that her superiors would not approve) and said, “You can get snacks or maybe a sandwich in the lounge.”
 
“Lounge” being typical hotel speak for the bar. That would fit the bill rather nicely actually, a sandwich was more what we were after anyway. She asked permission to show us to the lounge and got a back-handed wave from the senior desk clerk. I apologized to her for any trouble that being nice to us might bring her. She just smiled.
 
It took forever to get waited on, and we got lots of strange looks from the bartender and staff, who finally broke down and got us some iced teas. We were determined to get something to eat after waiting all that time. A man and his family of six came in and sat down without any staff escort. They took one look at the menu and got up and left again; too pricey for that many folks on one ticket I guessed.
 
It was a good thing that we were prepared for “ridiculous” as far as price went, because two turkey sandwiches on sliced wheat bread (like from the grocery store) and two iced teas, with NOTHING else, cost over thirty ($30.00) dollars before the tip. It was a rare privilege, that dining in the Hana Hilton Lounge in 1996 … one that I shall not repeat.
 
After our “fabulous” lunch, we had one more destination to see. That was a place called “The Seven Pools,” which was a little further south along the road past Hana. It was reputed to be a favorite spot of the Hawaiian Royal family in their glory days.
 
We found the spot and it did indeed have seven (actually more) pools of water, which were rain and run-off filled on the upper ends, and tidal on the lower part. There was a bridge over the largest of the upper pools; actually it was highway 360, the same road we had been traveling on all afternoon.
 
This bridge was notorious for kids jumping off of it into the pool some 40 feet or so below. It looked like a great spot for it, providing the pool was deep enough, but I had no way of knowing that detail.
 
The only policeman that we had seen all day (on the entire trip) was parked on that bridge. He was hassling the kids and eyeballing the girls in their bikinis (I guess that’s the same wherever you go.)
 
There was a sign that read “No jumping from bridge” but it didn’t seem to stop anyone. Frequently we would see a group of kids gather in front of the cop to block his view while someone jumped; impressive team work for a bunch of kids. It was a very steep hike back up the trail on either side of the bridge to jump again, but the kids kept doing it.
 
It had been raining all day off and on and there were some pretty impressive waterfalls along the road south of Hana. Unlike the ones north of town, these were high volume gushers. We were concerned with a couple of those falls because we could feel the road shaking beneath us while we were in the car. We read later that a section of the road we were on collapsed.
 
That road really was single lane (as in one car width) from a point about three miles south of Hana; to much farther than we could drive in that rental car. It turned into jeep trail within a mile after Seven Pools. A friend, who rented a jeep while on vacation four years after we went, drove that “jeep trail” section of the road around the island. He said that he would never do that again as it nearly destroyed the underside of the vehicle.
 
We had to start back. I was concerned with our gasoline situation and the thought of driving that crazy road in the dark was not creating the mood of lighthearted fun that I had anticipated on this road trip.
 
I was pleasantly surprised by how much the traffic had lightened up on our return trip. It was much easier to see when someone was approaching the bridges that you were trying to cross. It was very, very dark on that road.
 
There was an unexpected plus to it being dark; Anna wasn’t bothered by the motion of the car at all… it must be a visual thing, like vertigo.
 
We made much better time going back to the Kaanapali Shores hotel and pulled in to the parking lot at 9:30 p.m. Our “couple of hours” road trip to Hana had taken us ten and a half hours. But, we still had time to visit our room and get to the hotel restaurant for some yummy cheesecake before they closed at 10:00 p.m.  
 
As for the trip to Hana, it was a “been there, done that” and you can bet your last nickel that we got the T-shirts, which read (and we understood why):
 
“I Survived the Road to Hana!”
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Avoiding a Greek Tragedy

Avoiding a Greek Tragedy
 
In 1982 I was in the United States Navy and stationed aboard the U.S.S. America CV-66, home ported in Norfolk, VA. Being stationed on the east coast of the USA, the usual six month deployment involved sailing the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, a trip through the Suez Canal, and the Indian Ocean.
 
This story is about just a tiny fraction of that trip, a liberty call (port visit) in the ancient land of Greece. Due to my relatively advanced years (being twenty-nine to the average sailor’s nineteen) I had a completely different expectation of what to do and see in Greece.
 
I was thrilled by the opportunity to see the city of Piraeus of “Never on Sunday” fame, then move on to the fabled city of Athens, of which I had read so much. To be able to stand on the Acropolis and see the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, and below the Acropolis, the theater of Herod Atticus, was like being able to live the books I had read. To the others from my ship, it was all about ouzo and hookers, if they could find some.
 
The flight operations immediately prior to our port call were a stressful mess of airspace restrictions and peacock demonstrations by both the Greek and the Turkish military forces. I had to invent methods to stack and hold aircraft so that I could keep them close enough to not run out of fuel, yet not violate the imposed (and exaggerated) foreign  no-fly zones.
 
My name for the spot, “the Aegean Triangle” became the standard and even appeared on briefing maps (although I saw no monetary gain from my creativity.) I heard that it was a beautiful location, but I never got to see anything but a radar screen for the entire time.
 
To say that my liberty expectations were high would have been an understatement. My enthusiasm had spread to other members of our group, although I had a sneaking suspicion that bottles of ouzo danced in their dreams… not Melina. That was OK with me, they could have all the ouzo that their little hearts desired; I didn’t want any of it. I would be happy to settle for the antiquity of the port city and Athens. I was going to get to see the Parthenon with my own eyeballs, and maybe even touch it, if that was permissible.
 
I could hardly stand the wait to board the liberty boats. It took more than an hour of standing in line, and we were almost at the front (of the line) when we started. I could not for the life of me, figure out what was taking them so long. The boats had been in the water for hours already, so it wasn’t that. They kept letting the officers go ahead of us (normal practice) and they seemed to be able to get on a boat and leave right away.
 
Finally the line started moving and we got onto a liberty boat, but only half of the normal load was allowed to board, usually a sign of rough water. When I looked out across the harbor from the top of the ladder, it was smooth, no waves, not even a ripple.
 
We were on our way at last, so the reason for the delay didn’t matter anymore… or so I thought at the time. The fact that it wasn’t raining (as had been forecast) was a happy bonus.
 
As we neared the beautiful port city of Pireus, I could make out more and more people around the docks. “How cool” I thought, “the people were turning out to welcome us. What a great place this was going to be.”
 
“Hey, wait a minute, isn’t that a hammer and sickle on that sign?” I said to the group in general as we neared land. We all started looking and spotted another one, and then more as we got closer.
 
The boat driver broke out his binoculars and looked the situation over and said, “Guys, them signs say Americans Go Home and Death to Americans, with Greek Communist Party logos all over them.”
 
We all said in unison, “Get us out of here” as the crowd pushed forward to the point that a few of them went into the water, pushed by the masses behind them.
 
The boatswain’s mate put the helm hard over and we took off across the harbor for the other side, where there wasn’t any crowd. He docked without incident and we could still see the crowd gathered on the main landing shaking their signs and waiting for the next boat.
 
That little landing that he took us to was where the officer’s all came ashore and they were nowhere to be seen. Usually there were a few (officers) waiting for their friends or wanting to go back to the ship but it was a ghost town all around that dock. There weren’t even any local residents in sight. The absence of people did nothing to ease the feeling that trouble was stalking us.
 
The radio in that liberty boat was inoperative for some reason so we couldn’t call back to the ship. To expedite things those still going ashore (most of us) got out quickly, while the remaining few who were fearful of trouble and wanted to go back out to the ship, eased aside (or kept their seats if they were out of the way.)
 
We shoved the boat off and the boatswain turned it towards home and kicked it hard (accelerated quickly.) He needed to get word to the duty officer aboard ship about the impending danger before someone got hurt by the mob at the primary landing site. They appeared to be worked up into a frenzy and ready to attack without provocation.
 
I told the group (I was the senior person present) that I felt it best to get out of Pireus as soon as possible, to which they all agreed and started trying to hail a taxi. It wasn’t going to be that easy we were finding out. Any cars that came by, taxi or otherwise, sped off at first sight of us.
 
I asked one of the guys to give me a cigarette and he said, “I didn’t know that you smoked cigarettes” while reaching into his pocket for his pack of smokes. “I don’t,” I said, “but I do speak, trade.”
 
Upon receiving the cigarette I walked over to a slender young man (wearing what looked like a waiter’s uniform) waiting at a marked bus stop, to see what I could learn. After conversing with the gent for a few minutes, I returned to my friends armed with new information.
 
The group of angry people on the main landing area was indeed the Greek Communist Party and there were over ten thousand members in attendance at this rally. They were armed with instructions to do harm to any and all American “dogs” that they could find.
 
The smoke that we could see behind the mob was coming from the burning overturned taxis that didn’t obey the “party’s directives” fast enough. Those directives were to not pick up Americans and to get out of Pireus until the American ships departed a few days from then. Those that argued, or didn’t leave quickly enough, became examples for the others.
 
That information certainly removed taxis from the escape equation and we were aware that it would only be a matter of time before renewed interest in our whereabouts caused some of the mob to come looking for us. Without liberty boats coming in the organizers would have to do something to keep the emotions high and the crowd stirred up. We would be that impetus.
 
Walking out of the area was do-able, but would not be fast enough to put the kind of distance between them and us that we needed. There was no liberty boat inbound that we could see (and we had a clear view all the way to the ship) so even if we had wanted to there was no getting out by sea.
 
Just as we thought that we were going to have to choose between running and swimming, a bus with “Athens” on the destination placard rounded the corner. I was already moving towards it when it stopped at the bus stop where the young gent I had spoken to had been just moments before.
 
The young man who had waited so patiently for the bus was no longer there, which made us all look around for where he went. One of the guys stepped up to the bus door and asked, “How much to Athens?” The driver replying in English said, “I don’t speak English.”
 
It was very plain to see that the poor man was scared, with sweat pouring down his reddened face and his eyes pleading for understanding. He did show great courage by waiting with his vehicle’s door open to us while we hesitated.
 
After explaining my plan “B” to the others, I approached the driver and tried speaking to him in Spanish. He cheerfully responded to that language and told me that the party had spies everywhere and if he spoke English with anyone at all (the man visibly shuddered) well, he didn’t want to think about it.
 
Our group quickly boarded with our bags and I cautioned them all to not say anything in English until we were clear of the protesters. The locals on the bus sat in their seats like stone people, staring straight ahead and behaving as if we did not exist. We knew that they were also very afraid of what might happen.
 
The bus followed the road around the harbor and I got very concerned with our direction of travel, as it took us right to the angry mob. I moved up right behind the driver and whispered in English where only he could hear, “You aren’t doing something that we will both regret are you?”
 
 
The look on his face told me that he understood my meaning, and he said, “No Sir, NO. The road to Athens lies there” and pointed to an intersection just before the crowd’s edge. He said, “Please Sir, make your friends to be small… that they are not seen and we all die.”
 
When I turned back to the others all of the American eyes were focused on me. I motioned to the guys to get down and they did it without noise or question. There were definite benefits to being trained military personnel.
 
The other folks on the bus remained as they had been. As they sat rigidly upright in their seats with their eyes staring straight ahead, not a sound came from any of them. It did occur to me that several of those people were old enough to have experienced WWII and I hoped that we weren’t causing them flashbacks and renewed distress (PTSD.)
 
As we passed the intersection, I saw the young man that I traded the cigarette to for information. He was obviously working the other side of the street this time, talking fast and pointing emphatically as he spoke, in the direction that we had just come from. The little weasel was most assuredly selling us out to look good to the Party. He did have to live there and try to stay alive after all, so you couldn’t hate him too much. Well, maybe we could. No one likes to be sold out.
 
We got by the intersection and the road turned towards Athens. When we got to the very next bus stop, all of the locals (to the last person) got off the bus. They all wished us good luck, in English, as they got off of the bus and walked away.
 
I went up to the driver with my hat in my hand and told him in English that he had done a very brave thing by helping us get away from that mob and if he wanted us to, we would get off of his bus and find another way to Athens.
 
As I had hoped, hearing that made his chest swell up and he said that he “Had to get us safely to Athens.” Those Greek men were worse than the Italians when it came to Machismo. I almost felt sorry for playing him that way… almost. I had no idea how else we would get to Athens or anywhere else for that matter.
 
The bus drove on with the driver singing a Greek song for us that we all nodded and smiled our way through, none of us understanding any of it. The driver was happy to have done a brave deed, but did caution us to stay away from the bus windows as much as possible. He didn’t want to get caught by traveling communist party members.
 
We arrived in Athens with no further incident and checked into “The Grand Hotel,” right on the main plaza of town. As I looked out my hotel room window, I could see it; The Parthenon! But actually going there would have to wait for one more night.
 
It had gotten dark and the Bell Captain advised us urgently that it would not be safe for us to be on the streets with all of the Party activity going on. The headquarters of the Communist Party for all of Greece was located across the square and people came and went from there twenty-four hours a day. We did discuss whether we should stay there or leave the city at first light to avoid causing some kind of international incident, but those were sailors and they loved trouble, so we stayed.
 
We ordered room service and watched TV in Greek; every show on that TV had at least one girl without her top on… which made us all wonder if we could get them to put Greek shows on our cable at home. There was also a lesson learned about deceitful practices perpetrated by hotel telephone operators. Know your connecting rates and all fees before you place a call from a Greek hotel. I ended up with a bill for $170.00 for a three minute call from Greece when I got home.
 
The following day we went out for breakfast at a recommended nearby international café where the food was good and reasonably priced. Then we walked over to the Parthenon, which was even more inspiring in person. I would not describe it as like the Sistine Chapel kind of eye-candy “wow,” but rather as an enduring kind of awesome.
 
It had stood for all this time, enduring weather, wars and political changes and was still the unchanged masterful piece of Architecture that it was. You could not fail to be impressed as you walked up the road to it.
 
My favorite feature of the whole complex was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which was a theater (built by the Romans in 161 AD) located off to one side of, and down the hill from, the Parthenon itself. It was carved out of the hillside, right down into a bowl shape that created a natural acoustical amphitheater. A whisper could be heard plainly, everywhere in the bowl.
 
The features of the theater were carved out of stone too. It even had stone seats and a stone stage. A lot of beautiful marble tile had been used originally and was replaced during the repairs made in the 1950s. When it was built it had a cedar roof that had no visible supports to block the view of the audience.
 
Historical entries claim that the acoustics were so good that a single instrument being played would fill the building (which sat 5,000 people) with sound. It was incredible and unlike anything that I had ever seen.
 
There was a local theater company that regularly performed Greek tragedies on that stage. Once a month they would do a Shakespearean tragedy, just because it was so awesomely cool to perform there. All of those plays were free to attend. Unfortunately there were no plays being performed the days we were there, or I would have gone and damn the Communist Party!
 
The following day several members (including me) of our party were signed up for a tour out into the countryside, if the upset protesters didn’t cause it to get cancelled.
 
OPA!
 
One of the least expensive ways to see a lot of a country and experience some of the culture was through organized tours sponsored by the ship’s Morale & Welfare department. They made group purchases and arranged everything way ahead of our arrival so really good deals were able to be made. There was no way an individual could get the same price breaks, which I had learned the hard way in a previous port.
 
The tour that I purchased was to the Treasury of Atreus, also known as the Tomb of Clytemnestra. This remained the largest beehive shaped tomb for over one thousand years after its construction in 1250 BC (until a larger one was built elsewhere.) It was quite a long bus ride out there and back, as we had to go to Panagitsa Hill in Mycenae which was a long way from Athens, especially given the conditions.
 
The most difficult “condition” was of course, that the Greek Communist Party was extremely active and had thousands of members well connected and willing to mobilize at a moment’s notice. They also hated Americans with a passion for reasons that I did not know. That disturbing dislike of our group could have ended our trip in an ugly way.
 
Our tour guide was a tiny lady named Delphina, who was in her thirties, maybe 4’ 10” and eighty pounds soaking wet. She was elegant, well mannered, impeccably dressed, and spoke multiple languages. Delphina also had an MBA from Harvard Business School.
 
The diminutive woman had been married right out of high school and was widowed after just a few years. She worked and went to University in Athens until she had saved enough money to achieve her dream. All of her teachers had said that the best business schools were in America and if you wanted to be the best, you had to go there to learn.
 
Armed with her savings and an intern job arranged by a friendly professor, she had gone to the US in order to go to what she felt was the best business school; Harvard.
 
Upon completing her MBA she returned to Greece (as was always her plan) to give the benefit of her degree and training to her country. The communists didn’t see it that way and labeled her a traitor for going to America.
 
She had lost her job in Athens when the rallies and rioting started because her company was afraid their building would be burned because she worked there. Her name was on the “enemies of the party” list circulated to all business owners and managers.
 
Delphina was quickly hired by the tour company the navy had contracted with due to her language abilities and detailed knowledge of the country. They made their money from tourism and they loved American dollars even more than Greek drachmas.
 
We loved Delphina; she understood American slang and was unruffled if an occasional cussword slipped as the guys talked. If only the communist guys would leave us alone.
 
Fortunately for us she had many relatives and friends in the area we toured, as we actually played hide and seek with several vehicles full of potentially violent protesters during our travels.
 
We toured the Treasury of Atreus and it was very impressive as a structure, but I was still as puzzled about it when we left. They had no idea who was supposed to have been buried in the tomb, or what had happened to whatever had been inside it. It apparently was cleaned out before the contents were recorded. This had to have been one of the quickest grave robberies on record.
 
Not far from the tomb site we parked the bus under a grove of trees and walked over a hill to the site of a small palace. That palace wasn’t on the tour list and was seldom seen by anyone other than the locals who lived around the area.
 
Delphina said that it was the ancestral home of her family which dated back hundreds of years. By keeping it off of the tours it suffered less damage from souvenir hunters. She was very worried that the communist group who was looking for us, would vandalize it terribly should they find it. We all stated to her emphatically that we would defend it should they arrive while we were there. That moved the tiny lady to tears.
 
The palace was not really a “structure” at that point. There were a few standing walls, several partial walls, and a complete foundation. Oddly enough their water systems seemed intact including wells, irrigation channels, indoor plumbing, and several baths.
 
The toilet and bathing areas attracted the most attention from the sailors and many wanted to sit on an ancient toilet. It was hard to comprehend what was so exciting about sitting on a stone slab with a hole in it. The young guys took each other’s photo sitting on the marble “thrones.”
 
Delphina explained the idea of the vomitorium to them, where the party goers would stick a feather down their throat, (or have a servant do so), to induce vomiting and thus be able to consume more food and drink.
 
The young men were mightily impressed with the “party attitude” of the old days. She asked me if she should tell them that it was just a misconception, and she had only told them this tale as a joke. I told her no; let them have their grand idea of partying people to remember. She just covered her face and laughed.
 
The scheduled meal stop had to be eliminated due to a large contingent of troublemakers waiting for us there. One must remember that this was prior to the advent of cellular phones being in everyone’s pockets. Tremendous effort was being expended by both sides to call land lines and then send someone out to notify the interested party. We were lucky that Delphina was on her home turf.
 
Delphina had been so taken by our offer to defend her family estate from harm that she called a cousin and arranged a meal for us at his restaurant; a business which was normally closed on that day.
 
We deliberately turned away from our destination on the main road in the area and then traveled via back roads to the house in the trees where said eatery was situated.
Immediately upon arriving the passengers offloaded quickly and were herded inside by a scared woman who turned out to be the owner’s wife. The bus was then taken around behind the buildings out of sight and the kids took brooms out to sweep away the tracks of the bus in the dirt. They had learned well from their grandparents who were Greek Resistance fighters in WWII.
 
Once inside we were seated at nice tables with linen table cloths and napkins, nice place settings, and a bottle of red wine on each table. The aromas coming from the kitchen were making us crazy with hunger even though we had no idea what we were being served.
 
The incredible meal they prepared for us was lamb and stuffed grape leaves with green vegetables and bread. Plus the aforementioned red wine which seemingly had no bottom to the bottles. Our hosts were very attentive and brought us new bottles of wine as fast as we drank the others empty. The Greeks loved their wine and so did we!
 
As we finished our meals, the owner and all of his family came into the dining room carrying musical instruments. As some began to play, the owner and his grown sons began to dance with their arms linked and shout, “OPA!” They switched directions back and forth and danced wonderfully well to the music.
 
The music stirred us and the wine removed what inhibitions “might” have been found in young American sailors. Everyone was singing (who knows what) and clapping their hands to the rhythm. Excitement was at its peak as the family tossed plates into the air from the stack they had brought from the kitchen and as they came crashing down everyone shouted “OPA!” 
 
It should have been expected; it had to happen as sure as rain falls down. As the loudest “OPA!” yet was yelled out, the room immediately filled with plates flying through the air.
 
Every occupant (myself included) of the tables around the room had tossed their plates into the air like the other plates had been. When we looked up from the sight of piles of broken china, the music had stopped and the owner looked like he had just been shot, such was the expression of disbelief on his face. 
 
We didn’t know that the family had put their best dishes on the tables in honor of our visit, nor did we know that only those participating in the dance were supposed to throw plates. They had brought out old, chipped plates for the entertainment and never anticipated our reactions. 
 
American military men were not ones to let anyone else suffer for their actions so all was set right with them in short order. Their good dishes had cost them the equivalent of about sixty U.S. dollars which was a tremendous amount to them in 1982, and something that they could not afford to replace. We not only paid cash for our meals, which gave them tremendous bargaining power in their market (and black market), but left them over two hundred U.S. dollars cash in tips. 
 
The man and his wife were both crying when we left and Delphina said it was because they were so happy. I’m not sure if that was happy for all of the cash, or happy that we were leaving. Either way, it was an experience that I’ll never forget. OPA!
 
After leaving the restaurant we arranged (with more off the record American dollars) for the tour bus to swing by our hotel in downtown Athens. We were very wary of trouble and made sure that one of our group stayed on the bus at all times (so the driver didn’t panic and take off), just in case the communists spotted us.
 
We successfully rounded up the other guys and our bags and departed the beautiful city of Athena. The return bus ride to Piraeus was quick and uneventful.
 
Arriving at the landing we surveyed the scene carefully for problems, but the crowd had all departed, leaving only a few burned taxis to tell the story of what had happened. We were assured by the driver that even those cremated cabs would soon be gone.
 
A liberty boat soon arrived to take us back to the ship where we reluctantly returned to duty. We were underway by 01:00 a.m. and steaming for Beirut…. again.
 
So that was Greece, where they wanted our American dollars, but not our physical presence. And it was old… very, very old. I wish that I had been able to spend more time there and see and learn more about their great civilization.
 
Epilogue
 
I never did get back to either Piraeus or Athens, Greece but I did learn part of what had upset the local population.
 
The U.S.S. Nimitz (CV-68) had preceded us into Greece and had two substantiated major incidents of harm/damage caused by American sailors. A sexual assault had taken place, and a hotel had been burned down by drunken sailors partying. Both incidents made the Greek national news but got very little (if any) mention in the U.S.
 
We (the crew of the U.S.S. America) were allowed to walk into the aftermath without warning. It is possible that the officers had been briefed (which would explain their vanishing acts) but the enlisted men were not. I only learned about it upon return to the U.S. and subsequently speaking with counterparts in the Nimitz crew.
 
To their great credit, the people of Greece that we met (other than the crazy communists) treated those of us in the group I traveled with, with respect and kindness and never once mentioned what the other sailors had done.
 
I have to wonder if in the moment where we destroyed their best plates those kind people were second-guessing opening their home to Americans and wanting to side with the communists who were hunting for us. I am glad that we made things right with them and I hope (thinking back) that those dishes were not family heirlooms.
 
We must never forget that there are always consequences to everything that we do. Even if we do not realize the fallout, those who follow in our footsteps may be harmed by what we have done. Compassion, tolerance, and understanding never hurt anyone.

Break dancing in Nice

Break Dancing in Nice

 

I was a sailor in the US Navy in 1984, stationed aboard the USS America (CV-66) which was home ported in Norfolk, VA. We were deployed on a six month cruise at the time of this story.

After a rigorous and trying tour of duty in the Indian Ocean and North Arabian Sea which had cost us both aircraft and lives lost, we passed back through the ditch (Suez Canal) and made for Naples, Italy.

 

We concluded a very short port visit there and then sailed for another “spin” around the eastern Mediterranean. These exercises maintained the required “military presence” that influenced diplomacy and brokered deals beyond the visage of the public. Finishing whatever the real purpose of that exercise was, we were finally ready for the destination that this story is about; Nice, France, by way of Monaco. 

Aircraft carriers are too large to dock pier side at most port facilities, and it was considered bad planning to put your primary warship in a “compromised” position in a foreign port. So, you “drop the hook” (sailor speak for park them at anchor) close enough to ferry the crew to the land, but in deep enough water to be able to get underway without the delay of having to maneuver through narrow channels. 

The anchorage at Monaco was quite close and afforded a lovely view of the city, the castle, and the Monte Carlo casino. Their harbor held many very expensive yachts belonging to the rich and famous from all over the world.

 

Our close proximity also allowed Princess Stephanie to ride around the ship on her personal watercraft, topless, and drive the sailors crazy who had duty and couldn’t leave the ship. She had a great time teasing the American sailors and made multiple circuits around the huge vessel wearing only tiny bikini bottoms, sunglasses, and a beaming smile. The Princess was definitely a sailor’s idea of the perfect goodwill ambassador!

The Monaco port call was unusually long at nine days and there are multiple stories to be told, but only one takes us to Nice, France. Like many of the stories I tell, it is complicated and winds around itself as it is revealed. 

My friends and I had originally planned to go to Cannes on the train, maybe even on to Toulon. That city (Toulon) was where one of our small escort ships had docked many times, and the crew told stories about how wonderful it was.

 

We were as flexible in our destination, as we were resolved to get away from the port city where 5,000+ sailors were making their presence known. I had done a tour (8 hour shift) as a Shore Patrol supervisor the previous night and I was definitely ready to be in a different city. Americans are brash and rude in general as guests in foreign lands, but sailors work hard at earning their reputation as ugly Americans.

Having gotten a few hours sleep after being relieved from my watch, I joined the others in line to get off of the ship. On a vessel carrying so many men getting ashore from anchorage is a much longer process than you might imagine, sometimes taking hours from getting into line until your feet hit dry land.

 

Once ashore, our journey took us to the Monaco train station, where everything is neat and organized and everyone is in a hurry. As we found out, French trains are the exact opposite of the Italian ones. Not only are they clean, but they are extremely punctual, running to the second. French train conductors will not tolerate any delay; if you were three steps away when the second hand on their watch hits 12, they would shut the door in your face. That exacting precision by the train system is how we ended up in Nice. 

Two of our party went to the restroom (never go anywhere alone!) and were just late enough returning to have the train doors close in front of them. Our plan should we get separated, was to go to the next station and get off and wait for our friends to arrive; which was precisely what we did.

 

You would think that we would be mad because of the inconvenience, right? Wrong, we were as happy as can be! Considering just such a problem in our discussions while waiting in line to get off of the ship, we had reached a deal that whoever caused such a delay would be required to buy the beer for the others that night. Hurray for punctual trains! 

When we got to the next stop, which was Nice, we got off of the train to wait. We knew that we had exactly 30 minutes to kill, so we decided to walk around the immediate area.

 

Nice was much friendlier than Monaco already, and we had only just stepped away from the train station. People would say hello to us and everyone returned our greetings. It was great to be away from the impact that so many sailors made on an area.

 

By the time our mates arrived we were sold on Nice and quickly convinced them to stay there. It wasn’t very hard to do really; I just mentioned that women sunbathed topless all along the beach there. Americans are so easy to amuse. 

It was getting late so we made our way to a hotel that was close to the beach (priorities you know) but not on the expensive boardwalk, and had vacancies. The proprietor was leery of allowing six Americans to stay in his hotel, having heard horror stories of property destruction and debauchery by our sailors in other ports.

 

I wish that I could say that the stories he heard were fabricated, but the sad truth was that they were based largely on fact. Our smiling faces and sincere reassurances that we were not “like that,” plus (mostly) the hard currency that we offered for three rooms, made our case. He did require us to go to the local bank and exchange our U.S. dollars for French francs to pay him though, as he was afraid of the exchange rate and possibly losing money. 

The next morning we woke to knocks on our door, which was the maid bringing us continental breakfasts. For Americans who traditionally eat such massive amounts of food at breakfast, the European version of the morning repast can be quite shocking.

 

Those “continental breakfasts” were puny little excuses for food all wrapped up in a cloth inside of a basket. In the basket were two croissants and two muffins, with two little pats of butter and some jam. Also on the tray were a little glass of juice and cup of coffee for each of us.

 

One friend said, “I don’t know why they bothered to tease us, if they weren’t going to feed us.” My roommate asked me if I was going to eat, and I said I would drink my juice and coffee. He didn’t hesitate for a second and scarfed down the bread, barely taking time to remove the little paper cup thing from the muffin.

We all met up in the lobby as planned and one of the guys asked the desk clerk where the best beach for “girl watching” was. The poor man looked at us kind of funny as he tried to process American English into French in his mind.

 

All of a sudden the light went on in his brain and he made the motions depicting a woman’s curves with his hands. The nodding heads indicated that he had the right idea, and it set him off into a barrage of French that none of us could follow, at all. His hands were gesturing this way and that way, and I am sure that he knew exactly what and where he was describing. We didn’t have a clue.

 

Looking at each other and reaching an unspoken agreement that it was no use trying to decipher his instructions, we backed towards the exit. Taking our leave, continuously nodding our heads and smiling our faces off, we hustled out the door. Our new friend just kept on talking and waving his hands like we were getting the picture.

 

We needn’t have worried, the beach was only a block away and the sun was shining. To sailors who spend so many days in the dark, everything is perfect when the sun is out!

This was the Cote d’Azur after all; the French Riviera. Nice was a jewel of beautiful landscapes, sparkling water, and ornate and elegant buildings. All along the coastline of the city ran a boardwalk for strolling, which the French do very well at all hours of the day and night. On the land side of this walkway were a couple of rows of parking, then a street and magnificent buildings housing hotels, restaurants and shops. The proprietors lived above their businesses we found later as we strolled in the evening and all of their lights were on and windows open.

 

It was the sea side of the walkway that interested my friends the most though; it was what swung their vote to stay in Nice after all. The beaches there are tiny compared to any U.S. beaches. There was a seawall all along the beach, with steps every one hundred feet or so for access. Morning was a good time for sunbathing it seemed, as there were many people all lined up in rows on the sand when we got there.

 

Of the six of us, only two had grown up in beach country; myself in Florida, the other in southern California. The remaining four were all from the inland cities. It was a full time job to keep these guys from drooling over the seawall as nearly naked bodies were on display everywhere.

As you are probably aware, many European women go topless on the beaches and the men are wise enough to keep their mouths shut and just enjoy the “scenery.” Not so with young American males. They had their cameras out snapping away and whistling at the ladies. More than once a disgusted woman grabbed her things and left. I was embarrassed by my friends’ actions, but they were unfazed by anything that I said to them about their behavior. Evidently admiring the view without being obnoxious was not encoded in their DNA.

 

People in Nice would come to the beach from work or wherever, in their regular attire. It was not the custom to wear bathing suits everywhere like it is in the US. So they changed right on the beach. The modest ones were very skilled at wrapping a large beach towel around themselves and changing clothes. Some only covered their lower half as they weren’t putting on a top anyway. A few were unconcerned about who saw what and just got naked. 

 

It was a member of that unconcerned category that finally broke the trance.

 

A very pretty, dark haired sun worshipper wearing a nice business skirt and blouse walked past us as we sat on the seawall. So graceful and slender was that new arrival that four of my companions (the city boys) fairly floated along in trail (reminiscent of Pepe Le Pew of cartoon fame), whistling and snapping their cameras. 

 

A spot on the beach sand was obtained and with back to the audience, the clothes started to come off. Out of a bag came a light blue towel with “Cote d’Azur” emblazoned upon it, which was quickly and expertly wrapped around the hips. Turning to face my friends, the top was playfully removed revealing no bra, and a very small chest. 

 

These young American sailors were actually leaning forward, cameras at the ready, full of anticipation as the towel was untied and the opening was teased, but not done. They called out for more, yelling “take it off” like they were in a strip club. Asking sweetly if they really wanted to see, the object of their lust took a couple of steps closer to them, and whipped the towel wide open.

 

Their cameras were flashing away, as they finally realized that dangling in front of them was a very large “man part” in all of its glory. The crowd of locals roared in laughter. What they had thought was a pretty lady, was definitely a pretty man, who dressed like a lady. Life was truly full of surprises for my young friends.

 

That very public education of my over eager shipmates somehow created a sudden craving for alcohol. My mates felt the need for beer and wanted to “get out of the sun.”

 

I believed that it wasn’t the sun that kept their faces red, but rather the thought of how to explain the photos they had just taken when they got their pictures back.

 

Our group split up at that point as my roommate and I did not want to get drunk, nor did we want to pay the high prices charged at beachfront drinking establishments. So, the two of us wandered inland, in search of a dining spot with better prices.

 

One thing is certain in France; you can always find good bread. We had not walked a mile from the shore when the aromas of freshly baked bread lead us by the nose (also a very cartoon like image) down a side street to a corner store.

A store by name, it was really a house with a room set up to sell goods out of. Mama baked bread in her kitchen and sold it, along with some fruits and vegetables from her garden that were sitting out on a counter. A small variety of cheeses and sausages were on a wooden block table along one wall. They had some generic wine (no labels) available by the glass or the jug. It was barely a store, and even less of a restaurant, but the place smelled delicious! I wanted to take a bite out of the air.

 

We purchased the best food that I had eaten in all of Europe, at that little store. The smell of the bread had me starving. They asked for 18 francs (the equivalent of two dollars) each (we gave them 20 because we thought that it was too little) and had all the bread, cheese and wine that we could consume as we sat at a table outside in the shade.

 

Papa kept refilling our wine jug and bringing out more cheese to “try”. Mama brought out more bread for us to take with us, because we “looked starved.” Eventually we had to cry “enough!” I felt like we were being adopted.

 

Before we took our leave from these delightful people, we asked them for a recommendation for where to get our evening meal near our hotel. They talked excitedly back and forth in French for a minute and apparently Mama won. The instructions were given and we were admonished repeatedly to not go there before 8 pm.

 

Rejoining our friends, still in the same bar that we left them in earlier, we hauled them back to the hotel for a nap and to clean up. They had mightily contributed to the local economy, settling a bar tab of three figures. All of their expenditure was for hard alcohol (not beer), which they had consumed in the same time frame as we had spent getting our four dollars worth. Just standing was a challenge for them; they definitely needed showers and a bed.

 

I was glad that we took the walk and not just for the monetary difference. In general, in bars the people who run them prey on those with addictions and weaknesses for alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, prostitutes, etc, it’s how they make their money. It was an uncomfortable atmosphere for me and doubly so as an American sailor; we seemed to have targets painted on our backs.

 

The people that we met running their little store were genuine and welcoming, making us feel at home and like we were almost family. Leaving them I felt refreshed and happy, instead of used and abused like my friends felt as we dragged them from the bar.

I was so eager to follow our dinner location instructions to the letter, that we didn’t even leave the hotel until 8:00 pm. The route to follow was easier than I had feared and we had no difficulty locating the small diner. The place was filled with locals and very busy.

 

The very attractive waitress who met us at the door was an aggressive “take no prisoners” type and seated us at an outside patio table for eight, telling us that if she needed the space, she would seat others with us. No one gave her any backtalk or made rude comments, which made me happy. I thought that perhaps they were still sufficiently humbled from earlier events. Or, maybe it was just that they didn’t recognize her from the beach that morning. She was one of the first girls we saw and did look different with her clothes on and her hair up in a twist.

 

Based on the recommendation from Mama at the store, I already knew what I wanted, even though I had never even heard of it before. I got the Spaghetti Carbonara with an egg on top. It was so good that I could have rolled in it! 

 

The others ordered different things, and some wine with their meals (I had water with lemon.) It was hilarious to watch the waitress at work. The guys would order the wrong wine for their meal and the young woman would throw her hand up in the air and say, “what, are you insane!” or call them “stupid little boys” and tell them which wine to order. She was having fun and the guys were in awe of her.

 

When I paid my bill, the waitress asked if I had had a good day. The quizzical look on my face made her laugh and she said that her mother (Mama from the store) had told her that some Americans boys were coming to dinner after 8:00p.m. She was very pleased to hear my praise of her mother’s bread and compliments about her family’s store in general.

 

She also remembered us from that morning at the beach and commented that I had hung back and kept my mouth shut while my friends acted like naughty children. Her laughter at the memory made me blush so much that my face was still red when I went back to the table. It was silly for me to be so embarrassed, I had done nothing wrong.

 

We left the little (in size) restaurant at about 10:00 pm, and the people were still coming in to eat. They did a booming business and were open from 6:00 pm until midnight, with mostly tourists eating early. The waitress said that they had to put people out at midnight every night because of their operating license which required them to close at that hour. To be open later required negotiating a new license which was very expensive.

 

As we left the noise of the restaurant, our ears picked up music that sounded strangely familiar. We followed that sound until we located the source of the music. It was coming from a dark structure in an even darker alley.

 

The beat was definitely coming from inside of what we guessed was some sort of nightclub for lack of a better description. Since there were six of us, wearing our badass big boy jeans (Americans are so full of bravado) we felt OK risking going inside. 

 

I half expected a panel in the door to open like the “speakeasies” of the 1930s and almost jumped backwards when a door that was fully half of the wall opened. A large young man with a hoodie sweatshirt and dark pants opened the door and shined his flashlight on us. 

 

“Americans!” he shouted into the building and we had dozens of instant new “best friends.” The tiny place (really a garage I guessed) was packed with at least fifty young French people and a few visiting Europeans who were in the know about where to find such clubs.

 

“Crank it up, crank it up, they dig it!” was shouted out by our doorman and the dance music that lead us there rattled the walls. This was a break dancing, hip hop Mecca for kids who loved American music and dance. Our blue jeans also made us instant celebrities.  Levi Strauss is a god to the youth of most of the world.

 

A couple of our American six were actually decent break dancers and did “bust a move” as the saying goes. The rest of us just kind of bopped along with the music and tried not drown in the free beer that was continuously shoved into our hands.

 

A competition was held and I have not seen better break dancing, even in the movies like “Electric Bugaloo”, etc. One guy had gloves on and his hood up with the drawstring pulled until you couldn’t see his face. This guy was incredible and had ALL of the moves, even spinning on the top of his head. He won first prize.

 

I asked a general question of the group around us as to why he covered all up. The hushed reply was that he was a gendarme, a policeman, and if he was caught here he would lose his job. It was strictly forbidden for him to participate and it was against the city ordinances to even have such dance parties. I had to ask as it was such a shock to me, “Do you mean that it is against the law here to dance?” They said, “Oui, the break dance is considered immoral. It is not America.”

 

We stayed with the illegal dance party until four in the morning and enjoyed ourselves immensely. After we left the party we went back to the hotel, got cleaned up, checked out, and went looking for an American sized meal for breakfast. One of the big hotels on the boardwalk had what we wanted, albeit for a large price.

 

Our train trip back to Monaco later that day was quick and easy and I had more adventures on other days.

 

I could not get over the idea that kids having fun dancing was against the rules, and it became “Break-the-law” dancing to me from then on. Some laws are just insane! Dance on kids, I’m with you! 

 

Pride is chewy

 While in the U.S. Navy I did have occasion to visit the city of Santiago de Leon de Caracas, or as we know it in our country, Caracas, Venezuela. 

 

Pride makes a strange meal 

It was the spring of 1984 and I was an air traffic controller aboard the USS America. We were participating in “Exercise Ocean Venture” in the Caribbean Sea in preparation for our departure across the Atlantic for duty in the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.

 

This phase of the big exercise was over and we were scheduled to go to Cartagena, Columbia for a port visit. At least we were, until just a few hours before we dropped anchor. It was a purposeful ruse; there were groups who wanted to cause us trouble waiting for us in Cartagena and we needed to fool them.  

 

I knew that we didn’t want to have a repeat of what happened in Greece in 1982 where 10,000 members of their communist party met us at the port city of Piraeus. That was a very ugly and dangerous time for both the American military crew, and the local Greek citizens who were just trying to make a living.

 

Along with a few other members of the CATCC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center) crew, I had decided to risk the local bus trip through the mountains from the port of La Guaira to Caracas. It was only seven miles or so, but had been known to have bandit problems, (or so our Lieutenant claimed). There was also the concern about being able to catch the right bus coming back, which was always a concern in any port visit.

 

Being the only person in the group who had any knowledge of South America at all, I was looked at as the “local expert” and questioned on the dangers.

My first caution to them (knowing this group as well as I did) was to tell them, “ALL of the hookers in Caracas have diseases!” After visiting the port of Mombasa, Kenya in 1983, and witnessing one of our own lose his manly bits to disease, you would think that they would listen to advice. Would hearing it from me make a difference to them? Probably not, they had their “sailor image” to live up to.

 

I had also warned my friends to heed the well published, “don’t drink the water” instructions, taking it further telling them to not drink any water that wasn’t from a bottle opened in front of them. It was common practice in many areas to “refill and serve” bottles of water from the local tap. This gave the illusion to tourists that they were drinking purified water, while saving the vendor money.

 

I stressed to them that it was vitally important to stay out of the water, be it swimming, wading, crossing, or splashing. The local rivers and streams were known to harbor blood parasites and they were serious business. You couldn’t see them, or feel them, but within twenty-four hours or so they would make their presence known in most unpleasant ways.

 

The waters were also rumored to host a tiny fish called the “toothpick fish” or more properly candiru. This tiny fish is well known to the indigenous people of the Amazon Basin (farther south) and you do not want to be introduced to it. If you want to know more about it, just search for “candiru” and I promise that you will have your legs crossed by the time you finish reading.

 

Today the area has efficient buses and even a subway in the city. At the time of our visit in 1984 everything was perpetually under construction, (according to the locals.) Many of the projects were started in 1983 and with the usual politics and conflicts delaying progress; it took years to finish them. 

 

The motorway (similar in appearance to USA Interstates) from Guairá to Caracas had multiple lanes for traffic, but at that time (due to construction) only one lane each way was open for business.

 

Our bus was barely a step up from the rural “chicken bus” that you see in movies (and is a very real thing, I have ridden them.) Fortunately we didn’t have to share our seats with livestock on that trip, but it was still a smelly experience. I don’t think the bus had been cleaned in a long time.

 

Because we had learned our lessons the hard way in other countries, we questioned the bus driver before we got off, about the where and when to catch a return bus.

 

We got the Venezuelan version of a definite maybe, “Quiza.” Which translated meant, perhaps. OK, so “maybe” we could find a bus back, and maybe we could catch a cab. Quiza indeed!

 

Not letting minor details stop you is something I learned early on in my travels. We scattered out across the city with a plan to meet back at the location where we “debarked” (got off the bus), at a set hour. We did have enough experience in wandering about in strange places to always travel in pairs or more. There truly is safety in numbers, it isn’t just a saying.

 

My amigo and I set off for the Las Mercedes district, known for its shops and galleries and the newly constructed Paseo Las Mercedes shopping mall. That’s right, a shopping mall, American capitalism had invaded Caracas! 

 

We walked for hours up and down city streets, talking with those people who easily recognized us as Americans and were willing to speak English to us. We both spoke a bit of Spanish, but I was very hesitant to give up my “edge” by making it known that I understood their words. It had served me well all over the world to operate this way. My companion on the other hand, was sure that he knew a lot more Spanish than he actually did. 

 

Along the way we picked up an “escort” of sorts, two gentlemen in dark suits (in 90F+ heat) who stayed well back, but went everywhere that we went. They also spoke to everyone that we did. Given my former life in the army, this made alarm bells go off for me. I found myself looking for exits and things to use as weapons everywhere we went.

 

My buddy Frank was oblivious to our “tail” and far more interested in trying the local beer. I knew that the local government “suits” (government and/or police) at least had sense enough to wear light colored clothing and hats. So that begged the question, “Who were these clowns?”

 

There is much more to tell about this adventure than I can put in a short daily blog, so I will cut to the title event and perhaps if there is sufficient interest I will write a longer, more complete version.

 

We were hungry and in search of a meal, preferably one that we could sit down to enjoy and had reasonable expectations of being safe to consume. To that I end I suggested the restaurant inside a big hotel that served international guests, the Intercontinental. 

 

Our dining attire was a bit “understated” shall we say, being blue jeans and sneakers. At least we had button up collared shirts on, which helped soften the look “a little”. I was just glad that we were not there at evening meal time. 

 

Americans feel that they can go anywhere looking like they just stepped off of the ball field, or the beach and that should be good enough. The common gringo attitude being, “Hey, you want my money, or what?” Never mind, it would take too long to explain.

 

The gentleman who greeted and seated us was tre elegant! He was the Maitre d’, and superbly dressed in a tuxedo with not a speck of dust on it, and not a hair on his head out of place. His manners were impeccable, and his accent barely perceptible as he spoke perfect American English (there is a difference) to us as he held our chairs and handed us menus.

 

Frank never heard a word that either of us said as he was lost in his own world, gawking at the décolletage of a beautiful woman seated at the next table. Our host deftly maneuvered himself around to hand Frank his menu and blocked the view, as much for the young lady’s comfort as to bring my companion back to earth. 

 

I ordered two bottles of agua con gas (carbonated water) for us to drink, as it was apparent that Frank had had enough beer already. The menu had different sections with different languages in it, the primary being Spanish, as that was the majority of their clientele’s language. 

 

My friend took my ordering of the water in that way, (agua con gas) as a requirement for speaking Spanish, and proceeded to ONLY speak his version of the language. A version which I am afraid would make his teacher want to issue a retroactive failing grade. I was embarrassed, but a little stuck too. So I ordered a carne dish and smiled my apology to the waiter as Frank took over. 

 

I looked around at the fabulous decor when Frank was speaking, really trying to look anywhere but at the waiter to hide my embarrassment. That was, until I heard the word anguila spoken as my friend read it off of the menu. “Medallones de Anguila“, the waiter read back questioningly, and Frank nodded his silly head like a bobble-head doll. 

 

I asked Frank if he was sure that he knew what he had ordered. He loudly said, “Hell yeah, Steak!” Frank then pointed to the listing under “Pescado“, which generally meant fish, but also related to other things from the sea which are caught and served. I debated trying to point out that beef steak entries would not be found listed under a seafood or fish heading, but it just didn’t seem worth the effort at that point.

 

A few minutes more and the Maitre d’ came to our table and speaking in beautiful English (one of the seven languages that he spoke fluently), asked us again if my friend knew what he ordered, as he did not want us to be unhappy with our meal. Frank puffed up like a peacock and got indignant at the idea, asking if our host thought that we were ignorant and could only speak “American.” The gentleman, obviously never one to get ruffled smiled graciously and said, “As you wish senor,” and walked away.

 

And so it was a far greater surprise for Frank than it was for me, when his plate of eels (anguila) arrived, on fire and being escorted by the Maitre d’, along with most of the other waiters, and a couple of guests who had heard about the order and wanted to see what happened. 

 

With great ceremony the creatures were expertly beheaded, split in half lengthwise, and served onto a plate of noodles in front of my, to use a British slang term, “gob smacked” friend. His mouth was completely opened as if in a scream that wouldn’t quite come out, and his eyes were fixed in that “deer-in-the-headlights” stare. My world for a camera! 

 

Being an American and never willing to admit defeat in any circumstance, my friend took up knife and fork and stabbed a piece of anguila and cut off a big chunk and plopped it in his mouth like he meant to do this all along.

 

The crowd around us cheered him on and walked away to go back to what they were doing. Frank chewed that piece of eel for a few minutes and finally got it swallowed. His eyes told the story that his mouth would not.

 

I ate my quite excellent meal in silence, and tried not to look at the ghastly eel mess on my dining companion’s plate. After letting Frank push his meal around the plate for a while I asked him if he was ready to go. The boy nearly turned his chair over in his haste to depart.

 

We paid the bill, which was very little money by American standards (less than two meals at McDonald’s.) I also left a generous tip on the table which is seldom done there I am told (not the custom), and we left the building. Around the very first corner that we turned my friend lost his lunch in an alley, and a lot of beer with it. Ah, the joys of traveling with sailors!

 

I guess anguila didn’t agree with him. 

 

We have all heard the saying that it is tough to swallow your pride.

 

It appears that pride truly does make for a strange meal and is very tough to swallow, and apparently, it’s even harder to keep down.

 

Epilogue

 

The return trip to our rendezvous point was largely uneventful and mostly required dragging a now lethargic Frank along by the jacket. He “decorated” the bus floor with more foul smelling eel and beer on the way back to port, just to add to the ambiance. I truly felt sorry for whoever had to clean that bus, assuming that they ever did so.  

 

There were other things about that trip that could be written, but that would require a “reader’s request” to get me to tell the rest of the story. The tale about being too proud to admit that you don’t know something has been told.