Lost in Iberia

Here are some choice photos from my last couple weeks hanging out in Portugal and Spain! The Disquiet International Literary Program is what brought me to Lisbon–and I had a blast with the other participants with all the events and bar nights–but I was also able to fit in a couple side trips too. It’s been pretty great to recharge spiritually before my first novel comes out in a few weeks. (Have I mentioned Kings of Broken Things yet? Order now!) On the spiritual restoration score, mission accomplished! But my body is a little beat up. So much fun though.


Europe Interrupted: My Weekend in Jordan

Sunset at the Dead Sea.

I met up with friend-of-the-blog Country Club Bill this weekend in Jordan, where he’s been the past couple weeks. While not on the itinerary going into this summer, the opportunity to check out Jordan during the first days of Ramadan was too good to pass up. Also, with my first month at Akademie Solitude coming to a close, it was nice to reconnect with a familiar face and take a second short-notice trip to the Middle East this half decade. (See: Tel Aviv, in 2011, for the other.)

-Started off with a couple days at a Dead Sea resort. Was unable to sink myself in the salty waters, which was pretty cool. Coated up with healing mud, so I now look much younger and vitalized. Probably the coolest part about the Dead Sea was how much little kids screamed after their parents forced them into the water. If you have any cuts or scrapes, the water really burns. My nipples were so chafed after twenty minutes or so. Plus, with the high saline factor in the water, it evaporates extremely slowly–so the kids couldn’t get the burning off. Really cool though. The sea itself is pretty narrow, and shrinking rapidly, since its feeder (the River Jordan) is all sucked up by local agriculture. A guy could probably float across over to the Israel side in an afternoon if he was so inclined. In lieu of that, the lights of Jerusalem were easily seen at night beyond a ridge on the other side.

View of Amman from Wild Jordan cafe, with the Citadel in the distance.
View of Amman from Wild Jordan cafe, with the Citadel in the distance.

-After dominating CCB at foosball, I felt pretty good about myself and considered trying to hustle some of the German guys who were at the health spa part of the resort. It’s a good thing I didn’t. (In full disclosure, CCB did win the billiards portion of our bar sports competition with a nice comeback effort in an epic 35-minute game of eight-ball. That’s one game, 35 minutes. It was not pretty.)

-Walking around Amman was great. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, this being my first time in the Muslim world, but everyone was really cool. Sure, walking around the Old City at midnight on the first night of Ramadan carries with it a fair amount of anxiety at first. (Is it okay to walk by the Mosque? Yes. Is it okay to take pictures? Apparently. Is the secular cafe we went to that serves food during fasting times and alcohol at night going to get shot up? No.) All of this amplified by the fact that there were a couple pro-ISIS rallies in Amman [CORRECTION: the rallies were in Ma’an, a city in a southern province that is known to be less stable than Amman.] the days before I arrived; with the ISIS advance on Baghdad being the very reason CCB was relocated to Jordan in the first place. So some vigilance was in order, sure. I feel like we stuck out quite a bit, although it wasn’t really a big deal in the end. We were respectful of them and they respected us. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is known as an exception in a region of great upheaval.

Food in the Old City of Amman is so good that it apparently made my right eye go lazy. It returned to its normal state after digestion.
Hummus at Hashem in the Old City of Amman is so good that it apparently made my right eye go lazy. It returned to its normal state after digestion.

-Hearing the muezzin’s first call to prayer from a minaret during Ramadan was amazing. We were out on the patio at Wild Jordan cafe, which has some of the best views of the city. Unforgettable.

-On my last night we returned to the Old City for some hummus and pickled veggies in an alleyway restaurant. I guess the big feasts don’t start until later in the month, but even the “snack” version was too much for us to finish. Jordanians sure can eat! We also stopped in at a speakeasy to watch some World Cup before I headed to the airport for my 330am flight back to Germany.

-Back to the grind here in Stuttgart now. My family is coming soon and they’re expecting a book when they get here. I’m on it!




An American Werewolf in San Salvador

View from the balcony at CCB’s apartment.

Last week I had the pleasure of heading down to visit my old friend Country Club Bill at his diplomatic post in El Salvador. It was an exciting trip. Some good times were had, a summary of which is below. I was surprised, pretty much daily, both by how modern and how impoverished San Salvador is. This was my first trip to a third-world country, so I was expecting some of this. Yet, it was still harder than I thought it would be to get used to some things. The smell of burning garbage, for one. El Salvador has some great people, though, and I really enjoyed my time there. Back in undergrad I did some study of the Salvadoran Civil War, so I knew a bit about how nasty things were down there back in the 1980s. Really, the country is pretty remarkable, even with the devastation of the civil war, and the gang wars that rage now.

Day 1 (Saturday): I flew in this afternoon, catching a nice 5:45am flight out of Omaha. Wasn’t too bad getting through immigration and customs, despite getting stuck in the gringo missionary line, and then bumped over to the non-English-speaking line at the last second for some reason. I didn’t have the address where I was staying, which caused them some consternation for a while. There was some negotiation, mostly trying to decide who was asking a question and who was supposed to answer. Finally, a senior agent stepped in to ask me if the friend I was staying with had a house or apartment. Apparently my answering “apartamento” satisfied them. They let me in. CCB said their version of Homeland Security leaves a little to be desired. Although arguing with dumb gringos all day will wear anyone out. …

CCB enjoying a few Pilseners at the Merliot Market.

Customs at the airport was pretty sweet. They had this set up with a traffic light. You held this button, after a few seconds the light either flashed red or green, depending on if your soul is bueno o malo, I guess. It was a pretty exciting ending to the process. I wish US customs had as much flair. … So in my travel-dazed confusion, going out to the Paseo El Carmen in Santa Tecla was quite an experience. I met the Salvadoran Getty Lee, then saw he and his band play a solid set of Rush and Van Halen covers and an Irish bar that served no Irish beer. It was pretty good actually. The quality of cover bands is far superior in Central America than it is in the states. … Was still getting used to the near constant presence of armed guards and armed police. CCB let me know that the armed guards are usually just window-dressing for new shopping centers and gas stations, uneducated locals paid to stand out front with a shotgun. (Although those shotguns occasionally go off accidentally, with hilarious results.) … Earlier in the night we watched the Notre Dame-Boston College football game from the patio of a mountainside Bennigans, overlooking the valley while fireworks randomly shot off. Sufficiently surreal for my first night in country.

The crater (cauldron?) at El Boqueron.
Day 2 (Sunday):  We took it pretty easy the next day. Hiked up El Boqueron volcano. Went to Merliot Market for chorizo y limonada. That night, trying to track down some pupusa, we ended up at some family night gathering at Plaza Beethoven. There was some pupusa to be had, with stuffed plantains. There was also some good hefeweizen and bratwurst, a bit surprisingly. (Maybe they saw me coming?) So we ate and drank and watched the karaoke pros entertain the crowd.
Soaking it up down at the beach.

Day 3 (Monday): We headed out of the city, out to Costa del Sol to celebrate Veteran’s Day with a crew of foreign service pros at a swim up bar and on the beach. Not too shabby, although the Pacific Ocean did its best to slam a bunch of volcanic sand into my ears. (A nice souvenir to bring home to Nebraska.) … On the way back from the beach, when we pulled off so I could relieve myself at a gas station, I somehow forgot that there would be an armed guard there. It was quite a shock when a young guy, shotgun in hand, popped out of the shadows to greet me, my belt half undone. CCB had a good laugh about it. Just because the guard’s pointing a gun at you it doesn’t mean he’s not a friendly. In fact, he was very encouraging, merely there to watch my back as I urinated on his gas station. … That night we went to Pampas Argentinian steakhouse. It was pretty good, although nothing close to The Drover. You do get a nice cup of broth when you sit down, however, to help fortify your constitution against the harsh plains. That’s a nice touch.

The scenic view of Ataco.

Day 4 (Tuesday): A day after private beach clubs and steakhouses, CCB decided we should cruise the Rutas de Flores up into the mountains and backwood villages. We found a Portland, OR-themed bar in Ataco. (Although the Salvadoran beer and sandwich with six different kinds of meat on it that I had for lunch didn’t make me feel like I was in Portlandia too much.) In Yuajua we saw the black Jesus statue and took a tuc-tuc car up into the mountains to see the waterfalls. I didn’t swim in the freezing water. The little kid between us two gringos in the back of the tuc-tuc was crushed on the rough passage, but he had a good attitude about it. … On the way back we stopped at Trench Town, a reggae and pizza club outside San Salvador. The bar staff was hopelessly disappointed in my inept pot-hipster handshake. Eh.

Fields of sugar cane with volcanoes in the background. It’s no corn fields and endless flat, but it was okay for a few days.

Day 5 (Wednesday): I twisted my ankle walking down the steps of the slick new shopping center where we had breakfast. Better there than on the edge of a chasm the day before, no doubt. I enjoyed the steers that grazed on the roadside medians around the airport. … Trying to order lunch at the airport Subway was maybe not the best choice by this point. With my accent and awkwardness, the vegetarian sub I tried to order turned into an Italian meat feast. I was just happy to get a sandwich at that point.

In sum, everybody was very nice; even if they were just happy to relieve me of a few centavos. Better than a lot of placed I’ve been, where they’ll take your money but refuse to be pleasant about it.