Dubai, Taiwan, and the Philippines 2017

Two years ago I traveled to Chile and Argentina for one month. When I returned, I felt a desire to be far more proactive in my lady searches. Only a couple weeks after being home, I joined and once again began the joyous activity of meeting ladies. Nothing scandalous happened.  It was as if there was some sort of invisible Puritan chaperone present. That said, my Puritan chaperone was at least accepting of the diverse backgrounds of my match.ladies (I’ll sell you that domain for $450). In order of their appearance, I went out with a Dominican, a Vietnamese, a Jewish American, a Chinese, and finally a Filipina. This was not intentional on my part. It just so happened that ladies outside of my cultural sphere found my receding hairline a must. But with my fifth date, my Puritan chaperone fell asleep and got drunk; for this fifth and important lady became my wife, a wife I like to call Pam.

For our honeymoon, we decided to visit Dubai, Taiwan, and her home country of the Philippines. The previous year we visited the Philippines where I met a battery of her relatives (which you can read about here) and was looking forward to my return.

Our trip was delayed a day due to a nor’easter rudely dumping about a foot of snow on our plans. This actually worked out okay since it allowed us to enjoy a classic New England winter day filled with snowshoeing, snow blowing, red wine by a fire, and a viewing of the recent cinematic remake of The Magnificent Seven. The next morning my neighbor brought us to the train station for which she received a bottle of red wine because in New England, in the winter, everything but our cars run on red wine.

After 12 hours of flight, we went from arctic conditions of snow and five-degree temperatures into a dry, comfortable 77 degrees in Dubai. This was our first time in the Middle East and given the recent travel bans enforced by the Trump administration, I was a little hesitant to come here. This concern quickly melted away as Pam and I boarded an immaculate, modern, and polite subway and found ourselves travelling through a city equally clean, modern, and polite.

The business hub of the Middle East, Dubai is an interesting place. The first hysterical thing we noticed in our hotel’s neighborhood was a concentration of Filipinos beaten only by Manila. They seemed to be working in every shop and hotel we passed. As it turns out, they represent about 21% of the city’s 2.4 million inhabitants. Pakistanis come in around 20%, Indians are also close to this number, and those actually from the UAE represent a small amount. As you looked around this modern, expanding city, it was hard to believe only 40,000 people lived here in the 1940’s. It was also hard to determine which came first: the modern day Dubai or George Lucas’s Coruscant.

Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Some animated Burj.

Later in our hotel room, Pam and I somehow pried ourselves away from an 80-minute nap that could have gone on for a lifetime. We took the Metro south to visit the manmade island of Palm Jumeirah. We boarded a monorail that travelled along the spine of the palm tree-shaped island. One quirky thing we noticed in some of the subway cars was the existence of a pink line on the floor with instructions dictating that women and children should be on one side of the car. At first pass, some women may not like this sexist segregated approach but believe me, the women’s portion of the car was consistently less populated and less odorous. I was always packed in with many dudes that together, smelled like some nervous unpopular geek’s armpit. In the ladies area, there was always enough room to ballroom dance or play roller derby.

On our way back, we ate across the street from our hotel at a wondrous Arabic restaurant named Al Shami. It was populated largely by locals and offered the best pita and hummus I’ve ever tangled with. After eight or nine hours of fairy tale sleep, we buffeted in the lobby. As I only do on my multi time zone trips, I drank coffee like a disgruntled high school teacher ten years from retirement in hopes of attaining that unspeakable kind of regularity, for during international travel, it seems your only two options are: 1) no movements or 2) movements beyond calculation.

We took the metro south, over Dubai Creek, disembarked and walked through the old quarter of the city that had been restored to the point it felt like we were walking through a museum. In a small souvenir shop, they were selling some Iraqi paper currency that had Saddam Hussein’s picture on it. I assume Saddam was alive during the initial circulation of the bills. He probably though it was very sexy to have his face on money. He probably could have gone up to anyone, grabbed the money out of their hands and screamed, “It’s mine!” But what he should have realized is that 99 times out of 100, if your face is on a monetary note, it probably means you’re dead. That said, let us consider it a bad omen to put our faces on money.

Gurl in the old town.

After paying way too much for coffee and tea at the well-known Arabian Tea House Café, we winded our way through the ridiculously packed Dubai Museum. Pam and I then braved the gauntlet at the Old Souk or market where shop owners aggressively sought our business. For whatever reason, it was the guys selling cashmere scarves that were the most ferocious. One would have thought or hoped that their disposition would have been as gentle and glorious to the touch as the fabric they were selling. The only way to get through this area was to pretend you were a hot chick determinedly walking through the halls of high school as dirty nerds approached you with invitations to a semi-formal dance. You had to keep your head down, walk fast and avoid eye contact. A couple days later, we made the mistake of entering a tiny jewelry shop in the same market and as we tried to leave, one of the employees literally stood in our path in the doorway.

Gurl in a lamp shop.

The more I walked around Dubai, the more I knew something was missing. It took me a few days but I finally realized what it was: I did not see or hear one single dog in the five days we were there. As far as cities go, this was a dramatic first. There were, however, many stray cats. Although I saw no rats, I saw rat traps everywhere. Perhaps the city encourages the stray cat population as a way of punishing the rat population.

Later the next day we went on a desert tour with Arabian Adventures. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Pam and I shared a Toyota Highlander with a Turkish couple and two young ladies from India. I looked around the inside of the vehicle and noticed two things: the handles above the windows were broken off and there were roll bars inside, reinforcing the top of the car.

When we eventually made it to the desert and our driver Sherin was unleashed, it became clear to me why the handles were missing and the roll bars were present. He drove up and down sand dunes in a way that caused legitimate fear. It was fantastic. What an incredible job these drivers have. All at the same time, they get to drive a car in a way we have always wanted to drive a car and they get to scare tourists. Fortunately, I had read a review on TripAdvisor that warned me not to eat a big meal before the desert drive. This turned out to be sound advice.

Then our Toyota and about 25-30 other Toyotas just like ours then pulled into a desert camp next to some large sand dunes. When we got out of the car, sand seemed to quickly find its way into every uncovered part of my body. It instantly made me appreciate the various desert outfits one might see on the desert planet of Tatooine. Until now, I thought the outfits were one of style and attitude but it turns out they are high in functionality due to their ability to protect you from sand.

Our desert camp and way too many Toyotas.

Pam and I grabbed some snowboards from a large bin and slowly climbed to the top of a large sand dune. Soon we found ourselves “sand boarding” down the dune at a pace that bordered awkward. Somehow I managed to make it all the way down the hill to the sound of a golf applause which originated from 15 or so spectators. When Pam reached the bottom, we took a very short ride on a smelly camel that was foaming at the mouth.


As the sun began to set, we first sat down in a large area and smoked a large apparatus called shishe which resembles a hookah. As the day faded, the many lanterns became more prominent. In the center of the camp was a huge carpet where a beautiful and exotic desert lady belly danced for a good 20 minutes after we finished our delicious meals.

Trying to get lit on the crazy desert bong but failing miserably.
Desert lady danced so fast at times she became pure energy. Lit up sand dunes in the background at no extra cost.

Soon after Sherin drove us back to Dubai and began to tell us how the UAE, particularly Dubai, is one of the safest places in the world with an incredibly low crime rate. He spoke proudly of the cleanliness of the city, the kind nature of the police, and the absence of taxes! There seemed to be sales taxes but apparently there’s no personal income tax. Gorgeous dancing ladies, no taxes, and desert drives that make you barf…whoever would have thought that heaven is located in the Middle East?

With all of this I have mentioned, I am forced to say that Dubai is an excellent place for Americans to start with the Middle East. Much of the Middle East seems perhaps a little too dicey for the average tourist. Given this and the fact that some Americans have a subconscious (in some cases, very conscious) aversion to Middle Eastern Muslim culture, Dubai makes the perfect place to experience that culture on its own turf. By doing so, I believe the average American will find themselves with an improved regard for Muslims in general.  And as a bonus, every person I spoke with had an impeccable handle on the English language.

The following day, Valentine’s Day, Pam and I metro’ed south to the Mall of the Emirates which boasted of an indoor ski hill. After looking at this novelty through a glass window, I noticed the novelty of it melting for me so we headed north again, bought some gifts in the old market and enjoyed a profound, romantic, multi-layered buffet at a noteworthy Japanese restaurant.

This is just silly.

The next morning, we went to the airport and boarded our flight to Manila. Waiting to pick us up was Pam’s mother, Andrea, and her driver/employee Marlon. On the way to the house we bought a sinful amount of food for only $12 at a restaurant that was supposed to be fast food but due to the longer waiting times, should more appropriately be called “moderately-paced food”. Because Pam and I are now romantically legit, we were shown to our own room at Andrea’s house. With barely the strength to cuddle, I did my best to satiate Pam’s ravenous cuddle needs before descending into a sleep so deep you could have fallen from the sky into my sleep and survived.

Although it was only Thursday, the next day was easy like Sunday morning. It was pure joy to return to the Philippines and the reassuring domestic surroundings of Andrea (and yes, because Pam and I married, I now get to respectfully refer to Pam’s mother as “Andrea” – membership has its privileges). After a few hours of little more than existing, Pam and I rode a tiny motorbike into town and did laundry. I was yet again receiving caring glances from some of the locals in this non-tourist town that pleasantly reminded me of my white skin. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy Los Baños. It’s filled with a wide array of regular Filipinos doing regular things.

In the evening, Pam, Andrea (love being able to do that), and I visited Laguna Hot Springs as my enjoyment of it last year was well known. To remind you, this is the large spring bath that contains a hot spring at one corner where small tilapia fish kinkily nibble on your legs and feet. On the opposite corner lies a massage/bathing area where, if you’re lucky, the sturdy lifeguard will come off his throne and give you a vigorous massage bath for the world to see. I indeed was again victim to this man’s rough cleaning to the point I began to wonder if I somehow offended his unborn children.

The next day we rose at 3:45 AM and drove to the airport where we boarded a flight to Cebu with Pam’s sister Nikki and her four children: Diego, Bea, Kiara, and Siri. Cebu is one of the southern islands of the Philippines known for its beaches. We stayed on a tiny 25-square mile island named Mactan, right off the coast of and connected by two bridges to Cebu. Mactan has the distinction of being the most densely populated island in the Philippines.

That’s right, I bought a whole other airplane seat so dolly could have her own.
Okay, I guess I can see why some people become vegetarians.

The drive from the airport was a parade through an unbroken chain of tiny, rudimentary structures built close to the street. Makeshift motorized tricycles, pedicabs, small jeepneys or converted bus/vans, and people littered the street, causing our journey to be slow. The other thing that littered the area was litter. Not only was it a shame, it seemed an integral part of life here. After passing through the recurring scenes of relative poverty, we made it to the end of the island and a gate that lead into our hotel, Cordova Reef Hotel.

The hotel was an example of a slightly unfinished grand gesture. The raw building blocks of luxury were present but it lacked the organized execution. We soon discovered this 30 to 40 year old resort was built by a crony of former President and Dictator Marcos. The place seemed to reflect the time that this extremely controversial leader reigned and his abrupt departure. Now the new owners seemed barely able to maintain this old, wondrous, half-baked vision that flew too close to the sun.

The bathrobes were worn and tattered. The impressive stone work was cracking at the seams. The plumbing fixtures were old and caked with minerals. An original, built-in hairdryer hung on the wall and seemed to be designed with the intent of drying the hair of Buck Rogers. The sheets were provocatively thin from overuse. That said, our rooms were giant and the grounds peaceful so our stay remained positive.

On the way to dinner in pedicabs. Diego is psyched.

The next day we hired a boat that took us to a couple islands where we enjoyed snorkeling and eating. In the evening we ate at a small Swiss Italian restaurant that surprisingly offered some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had. The owner was a Swiss gent in his 60’s that was full of intelligence and theories that flirted with conspiracy. He claimed Hitler died at 100 in Argentina so perhaps you can decide how conspired his theories are.

At 6:30AM the next day, Pam, Diego, and I embarked on a grueling four-hour drive that took us on, yet again, a never ending trip through Filipino suburban chaos through the main island of Cebu. Our driver exercised equal parts of death wish behavior and fighter pilot control as he passed and dodged through a non-stop, four-hour river filled with every mode of human travel one could conjure.

Our destination was Kawasan Falls where the three of us unnecessarily risked our lives in a canyoneering adventure. After four hours of a near death van ride, jumping off cliffs seemed the logical next step. We met the guide at his house and then went three to a motorcycle on a 20-minute ride that somehow managed to maintain the same frivolous, cavalier view on life that defined things up until now. We slipped and struggled our way up sloppy, muddy mountain roads to the start point of our hike.

Twenty-five minutes later, our hike took us to a beautiful blue river located in a canyon whose cliffs ranged from 10 to 90 feet. The first jump into the river was next to a waterfall and appeared to be about 10 feet. Although not very dangerous, the first jump did still cause the inexperienced to pause. In front of us was a group of what looked like six young professional Filipinos from Manila. The last one of the group was incredibly scared and took a good five minutes at the edge to summon the stuff needed to plunge.

I jumped quickly but not without a tiny moment of hesitation. Although the intent was to build up gradually to higher jump heights, the highest jump happened to be right in this area so the guide beckoned me to do it. We climbed the 60 feet and again he nonchalantly asked me to jump. I politely told him I was not ready to tease gravity so boldly and declined. He then said okay and leapt off the cliff sideways with a scream like a complete lunatic and finally dove into the water with the familiarity one would have when opening a door.

With our life jackets on, we floated and swam downriver, going over natural slides formed by years of flowing water carving and smoothing out the rock. Every few minutes there were opportunities to further test our courage. Thankfully, the jump distances were increasing in a succession we could handle. In feet, the jumps roughly went as follows: 10…15…25…28…35…and finally 50! I’ve never cliff-jumped before so I looked like a nervous malfunctioning young girl with every jump except my last. That’s right, my last jump was performed with the panache and grace of a 13-year old boy that just received a “B” in wood shop.

Some pictures from Kawasan Canyoneering’s website to give you beauties an idea of what we were dealing with:

This is how the guides would jump off the cliffs. Maniacs.

All nonsense aside, it is hard to describe how wonderful it felt to successfully manage my fear. The sense of accomplishment at the end of the day was one that lingers still. If corporations, schools, and other organizations could somehow overcome the looming, potentially devastating degree of liability associated with this dangerous activity, they would find an amazing team-building activity that builds confidence and teaches one how to overcome doubt and fear. I told my recently added nephew of 16 years, Diego, how impressed I was that he made all of these jumps. I’m fairly certain I would not have done so at his experimentally young age, a point further proven by the fact he appeared to be the youngest person on this fairly busy tour. And to the issue of age, Pam and I appeared to be the eldest of all the jumpers at the experimentally sexy ages of 42 and 43.

It should also be noted that I found it hard to visually judge who would jump easily and who would find the process challenging. If you saw some of these brave jumpers walking on the street, you may have thought they would not have jumped off of a milk crate. You would have been fooled by their apparent softness and goofy walk. Or you may have made the opposite miscalculation. Taking part of the canyoneering tour was a very athletic, muscular, tan guy in his 30’s. When not at the cliff’s edge, his demeanor was confident and almost cocky and macho. When he was at the edge of the bigger cliffs, his struggle was clear.

This is one of the problems of being super fit that no one talks about: everyone looks at you and thinks you fear nothing and will attack any physical challenge without hesitation. At one of the 30-foot jumps, we were required to walk into it and jump out so we wouldn’t hit anything on the way down. This made the jump scarier. This poor macho man kept pacing back and forth from the edge and did his best to mask his fear while trying to coach himself into jumping. Finally, he peered over the edge and saw a woman swimming in the pool below. He shouted down to her, “Hey! You! Did you do this jump?!”

“Yes!” she shouted back.

With this he winced as his male pride just took a stab to the heart. I couldn’t tell if he was more upset that a woman made him inadvertently look like a pansy or if it was the simple fact that he asked her. By asking her, his doom was sealed. The only way to recover his manhood was to jump…which he did and he survived but not without allowing me to mock his paper-thin macho.

The final nugget I will leave you with on the canyoneering adventure was the almost macabre setting of the last jump. The final 50-foot plunge was located at Kawasan Falls which was a half mile or less from the main road which meant you had lots of people swimming, eating at rudimentary outdoor restaurants, and viewing the falls. This made Kawasan falls and the large pool around an intersecting point where the softer race I just described clashed with the more gnarly, battle-tested crew that fought and jumped their way through hours of river, jungle, and canyon. Because of this, the final jump had the feel of gladiators risking their lives in front of a privileged decadent class of patricians below who looked on, eagerly hoping that one of us would hit the water sideways with a loud slap.

Back in Los Baños, the Pamper (Pam) and I made every effort to relax after our most energetic sojourn in Cebu. We again took to the ancient but operational little motorbike through the cinematically crowded main street of Lopez Avenue. After dropping off 16 pounds of laundry that was eventually washed, dried, and folded for $4, we bought enough home-cooked food from a nearby restaurant to feed about four or five adults for $6! My American handyman salary continued to make me feel like Gordon Gekko at his most sinister peak.

Later in the day, we enjoyed massages from Minda, a masseuse that frequently visits Andrea’s house. How much does an incredible, hour-long, deep tissue massage from this skilled masseuse cost? Six bleepin’ dollars! Reason enough to visit the Philippines. Last year, Minda got wind (metaphorically) of my temporary inability to “move product” so while she massaged me, she began to rub my chin with three fingers and with a thick Filipino accent and limited English explained “for constipation”.

The following day, Pam, Andrea, and I boarded a boat to visit the historically rich and significant Corregidor Island. It was first named and armed by the Spanish in the 1500’s and served as a vital defense mechanism through WWII. It was captured by the Japanese from the Filipino-American forces in 1942 but was then recovered in 1945. Ten minutes before departure, for no apparent reason, various crew members began dancing in the aisles. Perhaps more impressive was the fact they were smiling during the act.

Once on the island, we boarded a trolley bus where we met our amazingly witty, sharp-tongued guide Armando. I was overjoyed to see how far he was willing to take a joke. At one point, he had us step on to a massive gun one by one. As we did, he pointed out the large counterweights that stabilized the weapon during firing, “You can see the 60 tons of counterweights…” at which point a large chubby gent stepped onto the gun platform, Armando added, “make that 61 tons.”

It’s like a weird casting picture for a lady auditioning to be in the opening credits of a James Bond film that was rejected but should have been accepted.
Get a job.
A large gun on Corregidor Island.
The small craters in this large gun supposedly caused by white phosphorus bombs that burned through metal.

Not all of his anecdotes were sassy though. He did share with us a touching story about how on one of his hikes through the island a few years ago, he found some dog tags of a fallen WWII American soldier. Armando somehow got these tags to the soldier’s last surviving relative, his younger sister who was now in her 80’s. The sister wrote Armando, thanking him, and telling how she was only 15 when her 19-year old brother died in the war. No one knew exactly where he died but now, 70 years later, the sister finally knew he died on Corregidor.

Mile Long Barracks – actually 1520 feet long and bombed to the point only this skeleton remains.
Sonny Crockett has his own battery on Corregidor. I never found Battery Tubbs though.
You’ve been warned.

Later on, we visited the location of the Japanese memorial. The first line of it read “A tribute to the brave Japanese…”. Interestingly enough, an American WWII veteran was on one of Armando’s tours some years ago and went over to the memorial , took out a pen knife, and scratched out the words “brave” and “Japanese”. He then supposedly proceeded to urinate on the memorial. When Armando confronted the man, the man explained he was a POW in a Japanese camp. Every day, he had to bow to a prison guard who then returned the bow with a full force slap in the face. If any prisoner was too weak or sick to work, he was slowly bayoneted to death. The American veteran said he had to helplessly watch several of his close friends be killed in this manner.

Here you can see the words scratched out on top, to the right side.
If you feel like you are about to have an extremely important, historical moment in your life, make sure you’re well-dressed and holding a pipe since they may eternalize that very moment in a statue.
The dock that General MacArthur reluctantly left Corregidor Island from during the Japanese invasion. Shortly after, he uttered his famous words, “I shall return.” Here we have Pam looking for General MacArthur to return. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that he returned 72 years ago and the war is over.

The final stop was Malinta Tunnel which actually was a massive complex underground network of large tunnels that could fit up to 8000 men. As the Japanese attacked, American and Filipino forces shuttered themselves inside these tunnels for five months, often without electricity and surviving on limited supplies. When the American Filipino forces fought to retrieve the island three years later, it became the Japanese’s turn to hide in the tunnels. When it became clear they were about to lose the island, 2000 Japanese soldiers committed mass suicide by lighting a mixture of gas and napalm. Surrender was not an option.

Our next dramatic stop in our honeymoon was Taiwan. Even the getting there of it was dramatic due to the revelation at the check-in counter that Pam needed a visa to get into Taiwan! Damn it. Upon reflection, I handle one of our first f@$#-ups as a married couple quite well. Part of me wanted to yell at Pam for not having her needed documentation in hand but perhaps the recent trip to Corregidor forced me to keep this relatively tiny debacle in perspective. The short of it was that Pam had to stay in Manila while I went ahead to Taipei. Once she obtained her recently expired US visa from her house, she was able to gain entry to Taiwan. I know this sounds illogical but it’s the way it is. It felt wrong to leave Pam in Manila but we were trying to minimize the costs of travel changes and we were practically certain Pam would be able to follow me to Taiwan the following morning.

On the way to the airport, we saw this weird scene: a guy hastily strapped to a truck frame, whizzing down the highway. Our driver said this is how a nearby truck manufacturer tested their vehicles before completing them.

Taipei struck me as a reasonably modern, clean, possibly cosmopolitan city. The 25-mile highway from the airport to Taipei was a spectacle in itself. On the ground was a major highway with three to four lanes in either direction that was then flanked by an impressive two-lane skyway that often rose to eight stories above the ground. Also a spectacle was the popular male hairstyle of a near shaved head on either the temples alone or the temples around to the back. In either case, the shaved area was not the least bit tapered into the longer hair on top so the resulting look was a bunch of bald men walking around with shoddy toupees or what I like to call the Taipei Toupee. Maybe that’s how Taipei got its name: combining Taiwan and toupee…Taipei.

Once Pam arrived the next morning, we took a high speed train down to Taichung where we picked up a rental car and drove it to our incredible little boutique hotel, Skylight B&B, on Sun Moon Lake. Sun Moon Lake is home to the Thao aboriginal tribe that has been slowly and effectively marginalized in some ways by the Taiwanese government. It used to be that much of the land around Sun Moon Lake could only be owned by the Thao. The government eventually eroded this policy and now the more progressive Taiwanese have moved in and developed the area. Good to know the natives get screwed no matter where you go.

On the left we have a genuine smile in reaction to a genuine pout on the right.

Everywhere you looked, there seemed to be owls. They were in all the shops. One of the buildings even had an owl-designed top to it. The reason for all the owls is as follows: they’re paying homage to an old legend. The legend tells of a girl who disgraced her family with an unwanted pregnancy. They banished her to the forest where she eventually died. A hunter soon found her body, quickly went to the town, delivered the bad news to the parents, and told them they should retrieve the body so that they could bury it. When they went to the forest, the body was gone. In its place was an owl. From that point forward, every time a woman became pregnant in the village, an owl would appear on the top of the house. It was believed the owl was there to protect and bring good fortune to the expecting mother and her child.

Our incredible room at Skylight B&B with windows on three sides of the bed (kinky).
And our bathroom with Pam waving through a window that looked into the room (also kinky).

The more time we spent in Taiwan, two things continued to become blaringly obvious. The first was that the Taiwanese are generally quite friendly, eager to help, and engaging. Struggling to make sense of a menu in a restaurant void of even a morsel of English, a man immediately sensed our dilemma, came over to us and happily assisted our food order. The Taiwanese came across quite different from the Chinese. Their temperament struck me as more laid back. Although, I only speak two words of Mandarin, I can detect the different treatment the Taiwanese address this complex language with; it’s much softer and often at a lower volume.

The other thing Pam and I noticed is that I am one of very few white people on this jazzy island. My pale skin and red/brown/blonde/gray beard garners many double takes from the population, especially the cute children who have gloriously not yet learned the accepted international limits of staring at a foreigner.

A view from a restaurant where little to no English was spoken.

Pam and I continued our eastward campaign through narrow, twisting, ascending roads that rose so high they would have frightened us for days had we been able to see through the fog. To cap off the experience, we sat in 90 minutes of stand still traffic, or “pee-bottle” traffic as I call it since you are in traffic so long, you must pee in a bottle.

Part of the traffic cause was revealed at the peak. Due to our elevation, there were tiny bits of snow here and there. Obviously a somewhat rare occurrence for the average citizen of Taiwan, cars were pulled over everywhere as children and adults alike did their best to harvest the few precious bits of snow. I’m not sure how the craze began but it became clearly stylish to make small snowmen and place them on the bottom of your windshield or atop your vehicle. Long before we reached the top, many cars passed by us with these little white beasts hitching a ride.

After a top shelf drive through Taroko Gorge, we landed at our guest house, Li Wu Zuo Cun B&B. From there, we went to track down dinner, and for the second time, we were given directions to a couple restaurants that either didn’t exist or were mysteriously closed. We did stumble upon a tiny local place that again allowed us the pleasure of trying to place an order with menus that contained no English or pictures and staff that contained no English or pictures. Through a waitress’ scan and translate app on her phone and me pointing at other patron’s food like a maniac, we were able to get that dinner thing done.


Two other things I’ve noticed in Taiwan: 1) I’m the only person drinking beer wherever it may be that I find myself drinking beer and 2) the garbage trucks sound like ice cream trucks; they play loud happy music as they roll down the streets collecting trash.

We ascended high on a mountain and took a picture of our car far below (circled in pink).
Sea cliffs and interracial romance.

When we arrived, Daro the husband seemed a touch agitated. A couple days later, his welcoming, kind wife May informed us that Daro’s ancestors were part of the Taroko aboriginal tribe. This tribe used to celebrate and reward when males would cut off other people’s heads. Perhaps this explains Daro’s agitation. Perhaps he is annoyed that modern lawmakers typically make no legal allowance for head removal. Either way, I was glad this story was channeled to us the day we checked out. And upon reflection, besides his extremely short-lived sour mood, Daro was nothing but civilized and gentile during our stay. Not once did I see a head rolling around on the floor.

After a three-hour standing room only train ride from Hualien to Taipei, we returned to our original hotel, The Bee House, a nifty little hotel outfitted in a well-orchestrated bee theme. Although ultimately undesirable, it would have been clever if their wakeup call was simply releasing a hive of angry bees into your room. Pam and I walked around the city and through a night market hosting innumerable street vendors offering delicious food borne illnesses. Pam and I settled on a Korean restaurant that served food in hot pots that remained too hot to eat from the first bite through the very last.

A quick aside, it appears that old people are allowed to cut lines in Taiwan whenever they wish and no one challenges it. Who knows, maybe old people in Taiwan carry weapons and curses that scare the remaining population into accepting their illegal line cuts.

Wholesome artwork in an elevator.

Our last day in Taiwan started with a visit paid to a park/memorial/museum dedicated to Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang Kai-shek was a Chinese military and political leader from 1928 through 1975. In addition to fighting Japanese advances, he spent most of his career battling the Communist movement within China and was forced to do so from exile in Taiwan from 1949 until his death in 1975. We were able to take in the well-rehearsed if not robotic changing of the guard that started with an almost comical, slow procession of three soldiers on a lower floor to an elevator. The same slow, odd procession carried out of the elevator a few floors up to relieve the current guards.

Inside the Chiang Kai-shek memorial.
Changing of the guard.

After getting into a silly fight about shopping that made Pam cry, we acknowledged our over-traveled conditions and continued our walk through the city. Taipei appears to be a never-ending collection of shops that approach the impossible in terms of quantification. I couldn’t help but ponder the average life expectancy of these shops. And I don’t know how exactly you could describe the location of them since getting to many involved hidden alleys, dimension portals, and luck.

Lungshan Temple, Taipei
A wonderful sign on a Taipei subway car.

Back in the Philippines, Pam and I decided to take a day trip to a nearby resort by the name of Hidden Valley Springs. Although it was a mere five to six miles away as the crow flies, the drive there took over an hour due to the garden variety of wild elements that make up any Filipino land travel experience: back roads that feel like private driveways, Jeepneys slowly heading in and out of traffic, motorized tricycles and motorbikes darting in all directions. Per usual, the overcrowded, hectic life just bleeds right into the streets without any distinction.

At one point, a guy was rotating all of his tires on a part of the road that was perhaps initially intended to be another driving lane but has since been usurped by all imaginable activities except driving. Absent from the man or any of the passerby’s was a concern over the inconvenience that may have resulted from this roadside activity. Further down the road, a man stood in the potential travel lane, facing the oncoming motorists, holding a puppy with one hand high in the air, offering it either to the passing cars or the traffic gods. The moment was like some twisted, backward version of when Simba was lifted high in the air in Lion King.

Hidden Valley Springs was for the wealthy Filipinos, Chinese, and Korean tourists. It cost about $50 to simply spend the day (to spend the night, it cost $300 or the cost of 50 massages). This allowed you to swim in their naturally sourced pools located in the jungle and to swim in their generous buffet lunch. One thing I found amusing was a sign located at all of the pools that said “No Spitting On The Pool”. I later found out that this sign was directed mainly at Chinese tourists who apparently like to fill their free time with spitting on/in pools.

A couple days later, Pam and I enjoyed a fantastic party held in the honor of our recent award-winning marriage at her aunt’s charming function facility. I put together a slide show containing pictures from our small wedding and from various points in our lives. For good measure, I included a picture of myself dressed as my Barry Tattle character. Thinking it would garner a lively reaction from the crowd, people digested the image  in quite an average, serene manner as if to say, “Oh, it’s world famous Barry Tattle. I guess it makes sense to have his picture in a marriage-themed slide show.”

This picture is to remind myself I now have Asian in-laws too! Great! Kiara’s turn to be psyched.
Come on Pam.

It was also at this party that one of Pam’s cousins taught me some unbelievably offensive words and phrases in the language of Tagalog. He had me repeat them to a large group of Pam’s Filipino relatives ranging in age from 20 to 80 and each one nearly crippled themselves with laughter as I nonchalantly stumbled my way through this foreign-tongued filth.

Two gents that are simultaneously smoking cigars and smoking hot.
Hear no fella, see no lady.

The next day Pam and I drove south to the touristy lake area of Tagatay. Her friends were kind enough to get us a room for a night at a nice boutique hotel that offered powerful views of Taal Lake far below. As part of our stay at the Theodore Hotel, we also had a couple’s Swedish massage. We were both thoroughly scandalized by two ladies whose hands were equal parts busy and strong. As Pam said, a massage was needed after this massage. These ladies were out for blood and my butt apparently (gurl helped herself to more handfuls than anyone I’ve ever dated).

The next day we drove down to the lake. As we turned down the road, a man ran over to our car trying to sell us some sort of tourist service. We said no thank you and after 25 minutes of descending and winding roads, we reached the shore road that wrapped around Taal Lake. The very moment we turned onto this road and drove along the shore, men morphed out of nowhere like agents from The Matrix from both sides of the road, screaming out “BOAT RIDE!”, trying sell us boat rides through the lake. I had not experienced such an aggressive tourist gauntlet like this in the Philippines. One guy that drove towards us on a tricycle holding a sign that said “Boat Ride” shouted those words as we passed him. He then turned his tricycle around and began chasing us!

Later, when we parked our car at an incredibly dumpy and ill-maintained park, more of these tourism hawks attacked the instant we opened the car door trying to sell us a multitude of tourism services. Everywhere I went, I felt like someone stapled a raw steak to my face and threw me out into a pack of hungry dogs.

Nothing to see here…just a couple of modern lovers in Tagatay.

The next day I left the Philippines and began a door-to-door trip home that took 30 hours, 22 hours of which was in an airplane. Sadly, I had to leave my lady behind as we frustratingly continue the battle of gaining an H1B visa that will allow her to live in the US and work for Boston University. Although Trump may have thrown us a nasty curve ball into the H1B visa process by suspending the expedited H1B visa that Pam is pursuing, my take on the immigration process is that it stinks no matter who is in office and the more you play by the rules, the more you get punished.

There were no tears when we parted at the curb outside the airport but when we spoke on the phone right before I boarded the plane, she cried to the point I began to wonder how she hadn’t short-circuited her cell phone. It was the second time I made her cry on the trip but for very different reasons. Later she texted and reassured me that her condition had vastly improved.

As I told her she should, she soon immersed herself in a sea of positive distractions back in the Philippines. Activities like preparing a mini science course for her mother’s Montessori students, Tai Chi, visiting her sister’s family in Manila, meeting with friends, Zumba, and others have kept my lady in good form. We continue to remain in touch and look forward to the day we get to exercise our God-given rights as a married couple.

Portugal, Spain, and Sweden 2011

Monday, December 19th

After spending 10 months hunting the elusive comedy career yeti in the London jungles, I decided to end my campaign and head back to Boston.  I had heard rumors of this beast and even caught a brief glimpse of her on top of Audition Mountain but I had not the patience or mountain climbing equipment necessary to continue my pursuit. But before my return to Boston, I made it my duty to perform a month tour of Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Florida and then onto Boston.  And by Florida, I don’t mean the sensational vacation destination of the town Florida, Massachusetts.

On the day of my departure, on the way to the airport, I met my friend Howard for tea at the café called Eat near the Holburn tube station in London.  Howard has produced a few of my videos and a radio show pilot that I was neatly a part of.  Although it was cold and raw outside, the front double doors were open.  After obtaining permission from an employee, I closed the doors but the well-dressed, coldly attractive manager lady promptly opened them again.  She repeated this action again after someone else closed the doors.  As the chill barged into the café, I began to suspect that this café was a training ground for James Bond movie villains that would learn to be immune to pain and suffering.

Howard and I left the café and gave each other a hug that was heterosexually balanced with a gloved handshake.  I then made my way to Gatwick Airport and boarded a plane to Faro, Portugal which, per my instructions, located itself on the southern coast of Portugal.  Once in the Faro airport, I took a bus into the city and to Hotel Sol Algarve, my elaborate camping tent for the next two nights.  I entered my tiny room that seemed to be intended for 2-dimensional people or small ghosts.

Eager to eat, I recklessly left the hotel without a shower and found a nice restaurant by the name of Tasca Do Ricky.  Upon entering, I saw only one group eating at a table.  As I walked further, one of the men eating stood up from the table and approached me.  I was surprised and cautiously psyched that a random customer was so vested in my Tasca Do Ricky experience that he decided to show me around.  It turned out that I had won the Tasca Do Ricky lottery since this was Ricky himself.

Winning the TDR lottery was no small thing.  As I was the only customer, Ricky made my face sample so much food (half of which was not charged for).  Before my main entrée of grilled sea bass, he peppered me with bread and olives, tasty carrots, sardines and after dinner was complete, he gave me some of his wife’s homemade chocolate.  Throughout the meal, Ricky and I chatted like chat champs.  When I told him I was a comic, he told me some joke that a Portuguese comedian did that involved comparing his guy device to a cinnamon stick (whatever it takes, people).  So basically, Ricky was a walking, talking high-5.

I settled up with Ricky and wandered the quiet streets of this small city like a hooker that is terrible at attracting customers.  I then returned to the hotel and did the sleep thing.

Tuesday, December 20th

Some days you awake and today was no different.  It all started with a free continental breakfast on the ground floor.  No morning eating awards were in danger of being won by this continental cruise.  And the sign that told me that all food must eaten in that room had little effect on me for a ham sandwich and apple awesomely made their way into my pocket, soon to become “lunch”.

I was taught by the best at a young age to exploit buffets.  When driving to Florida, my father liked to get on the road right away in the morning without even entertaining the thought of breakfast.  It made me think he was made of some strange matter that only needed coffee and maybe a vodka and tonic if there was time.  When finally we did stop for food, we would stop at an all-day breakfast buffet where my five older siblings would instruct me on the art of maximizing your buffet experience: putting biscuits in purses, fruit in pockets, pancakes in mouths….it was guerrilla eating at its finest.

I then walked around the city and purchased some necklaces for my little nieces.  My thought was to tell them I got the necklaces from a lovely princess I met near a mountain lake in Portugal and that the necklaces give you the power to slam dunk.  I haven’t made any decisions on this so this might change.

From there, I took the bus to Faro Beach and walked a couple miles down a long thin peninsula.  On my walk up the beach, I passed by a guy that was taking pictures of a girl dressed in a tiny sweater, a thong and rubber boots.  She would jog down the beach 30 feet while the fella took pictures, walk back and repeat.  No matter what the situation: studying in the library, a sex scandal, farming after heavy rains…this lady’s outfit had it covered.  I’m not going to lie, she looked good in her thong, classy even but it was those rubber boots that made her appear to be an alien space traveler who came from the Slut System.

On my way back, I walked along a boardwalk that took me by tiny residential cottages and shacks, many of which were a mile from the road, making this the place where pizza delivery men go to die.  Further down, I stumbled upon yet another photo shoot on the beach but this one was of a fully clothed young couple in love.  It was as if some wholesome Christians decided to protest the alien, rubber-booted slut.  Pictures were taken while they lie in the sand and sometimes touched.  The whole scene made me never want to fall in love again.

Viewing a flamboyantly sexual photo shoot followed by the repressed Christian rock photo shoot left me a hungry man so it was off to Tasca Do Ricky for one last meal.  This time I ordered a dish whose name escapes me but I’ll describe it now: a sandwich filled with chorizo sausage, beef, and ham, topped with an egg, coated in cheese and resting in a pond of some illicit gravy with a side of fries.  When I was done, I felt the need to go to confession.  With every bite, I was half expecting the devil to handcuff me to a supernova.  I finished up, said “peace out” to the Ricker and enjoyed a professional-strength sleep.

Wednesday, December 21st

Holy crap!  The last day on Earth!  We’re all going to die like gnats on a light bulb…oh wait, that’s next year.  Once calm, I breakfasted and boarded a bus to Sevilla.  In Sevilla, I checked into a room in Pension Vegara that was somehow smaller than my one in Faro.

Just like my visit in 2001, I decided to stay in the maze-like, charming neighborhood of Santa Cruz where roads are more like very narrow hallways, sometimes not more than four feet wide.  I then walked to a car rental agency to pick up my car and drop it off at a parking garage because that’s what I like to do: rent cars in cities with tiny, undrive-able streets and pay to park them in a garage.  Silly things aside, I planned to leave Sevilla the next day and actually saved $100 by renting the car a day earlier…so lay off!

I then walked around some more, stopping at small store to buy a Romeo y Julieta No. 3 Cuban cigar and smoked while deciding to trade my walk in for a stroll.  Eventually I ended up in a restaurant named Catalina and took down some tapas that were so good; they made me like people again.  Afterwards, I sat in the corner of a small bar with a beer and wrote these words like some kind of tiny, tortured, aspiring writer.  Sleep.

Thursday, December 22nd

This morning I ate some breakfast at La Decana.  Upon sitting down, I noticed a very repetitive, annoying sound.  I looked at the TV and there was live coverage of the Christmas Lottery.  With most lotteries, some stiff chooses a number, somebody wins and you move on with your life.  With this lottery, there were two enormous cage balls with several hundred balls.  Two children would remove a couple balls and sing the numbers in a simple melody and repeat this procedure until the little stinker’s lungs gave out and two new children were installed for this same purpose.  Not only was there a large audience watching this event but it went on all day and was being broadcast on multiple TV and radio stations.  I don’t know what the prize was but I hope it was not having to listen to that repetitive child number chant ever again.

I then hopped in the car and drove south towards Vejer de la Frontera.  On the way, I get to see something that perfectly captures the idea of how Spaniards are more laid back than most.  Ten feet from the highway was a guy taking a piss.  The great thing was that had he moved an extra five feet away from the highway, he would have been hidden from view.  His spy-like method of concealment was merely turning his back to the oncoming cars.  Good thing there weren’t any Roman emperors driving down the road behind him or that show of a turned back could have gotten him killed.

Soon after seeing the one-man rest stop, I made it to Vejer de la Frontera.  I checked into the lovely and yes, cute small hotel or “casa rural” named Casa Leonor.  One of the owners, Paco, showed me to my room and looked exactly like a Boston comic named Chris Pennie but the Spanish version complete with a mustache and a small triangular patch of hair that clung victoriously beneath his mouth.  This small patch of hair looked like a yield sign and that’s exactly what one must do when presented with such a mustache: you yield to the stache or get run down like a golf cart pulling onto a highway right in front of Optimus Prime who’s in 18-wheeler mode doing 120 mph.

After rapping like a native with Paco.  I walked around this absurdly picturesque whitewashed town that was perched on a hill and full of tiny streets and alleys.  I went to the top of Casa de Mayorazgo and savored some Top 40 views of the town and surrounding areas.  Back at Casa Leonor, I wrote my words with the TV on and let me tell you, Texas Walker Ranger is just as lethal when it’s dubbed in Spanish (more so even).  I also think that Chuck Norris was given a brand new pair of jeans for every scene.  They look like an artist’s perfect rendering of jeans done with a brand new navy blue magic marker…flawless and crisp.

I then erratically walked around like a ball in a pinball machine, looking for a place to eat.  I found a very average place that gave me bread (which I didn’t ask for) and charged me for it (which is very beat).  All of this equals a very scientific and dependable equation for “no tip”.

Afterwards, I went to a great theater/performance hall next to my hotel to take in some flamenco Christmas music.  There were a large ring of musicians that took turns singing in the traditional flamenco style.  Another noteworthy element to the night was the older hombre walking around with a gray mustache and massive yield sign on his chin.  In the midst of watching this passionate display of Jesus’ birthday music and yielding to the great gray tache, I struck up a conversation with a baker named Juan Ramon.  As great as the chat was, the peak of the experience was the combined Flamenco clapping that Juan Ramon and I executed.  We parted ways and I made it sleep time.

Friday, December 23rd

This morning, Paco made me a nice simple breakfast and helped me locate a few points of interest on my map.  He also indicated a great place to watch the sunset.  Only in Spain could a man tell you such things without it being a challenge to your masculinity.

I said thank you and walked over to a nearby “castle”.  After seeing a sign for the castle by an entrance, I went into a small courtyard and encountered no castle employees or any information on what I was looking at.  And from what I could tell, there were also entrances into people’s homes in this same courtyard.  Eventually I located a sign pointing me up some stairs so I walked up and found a bunch of crappy rooms, some of which were being repaired by workers.  The rooms looked like people had lived there anywhere between one month to 30 years ago. One room literally looked like a crack house.  There were a few pieces of old furniture carelessly placed throughout the space, a couple mattresses, a ladder and a TV so old, it looked like the original knights of the castle watched the 1284 Olympics on it.  Indeed, it was the strangest castle I’ve ever seen and made me understand why we don’t build them anymore.

But this is something so fun about Spain or at least this town.  As with Casa de Mayorazgo, it’s all so casual.  There’s little distinction between museum and someone’s private residence.  A small sign indicates there is a historical thing you can see on the premises, you go in and you end up in someone’s living room.

From there I headed over to my car.  As I walked down a tiny walkway in the old city, a man heading towards began to laugh.  I was the only other person there so I wondered if my fly was open or there was bird crap that was about to strike my awesome head.  Instead, he said, “¡Mira!” (Look!) and pointed down an alley that was only visible from his perspective.  There were three dogs hanging out, two of which appeared to be having sex for the first time in their lives.  They looked stuck together and pretty bummed out about it.  If they weren’t different breeds, I would have thought they were Siamese twin dogs.  I told the man that I was too young to see this (but in Spanish since I’m blisteringly international).  All that was left to do was to walk away from this unwanted dog sex so I did so and stepped into a market that was managed by a guy that looked exactly like David Cassidy (haircut included) but again, the Spanish version.

Once in my car, I drove seven miles south to the coast and walked around the desirable Trafalgar Beach.  While I sat at the point and ate/scribbled, a fog rolled in quickly, brushing my figure like a pickpocket and soon rolled away.  I checked my pockets and fortunately this frisky fog did not steal my wallet.  I then drove over to Palmar Beach, opting to walk in the sand without shoes like a poet.

When I returned to Casa Leonor, I showered, took in a few precious moments of Texas Walker Ranger, ate a meal nearby and walked over to Bar Topolino to watch some more Flamenco Christmas music.  Many of the town’s locals were standing just outside of the bar, around a fire while a large group sang, clapped their hands and played guitar.  Various people took turns dancing, making it a very special thing for a red-bearded gringo like myself to take in.  Beginning to feel like a Christmas voyeur, I decided to head home where I entered a final state of relaxation via the powers of “Nuns On The Run” (in Spanish).

Saturday, December 24th

This is my 38th Christmas on this handsome planet and the very first not spent in the same house I grew up in.  Although a touch sad (especially after my mother told me she came to the same realization after putting my Snoopy decoration on the tree that I made in kindergarten), I was looking forward to experiencing Christmas in a different place.  After breakfast and a long chat with Paco, I hit the road towards Zahara de los Atunes.  I walked around the small town and stumbled upon a large outdoor tent where the locals watched a live Christmas production composed of people dressed up in various Disney characters.  From what I could tell, the voices were prerecorded and played over a large sound system; a sound system large enough to support Santa’s big voice that sounded exactly like Jabba the Hut (HA HA HAAAA…FELIZ NAVIDAD, SOLO!!).

Next was Alanterra where I scaled a steep hill to a taster’s choice lookout point and lighthouse.  This action caused my body to heat up and I wanted to protect my forehead from the sun so I removed my shirt and wrapped it around my head, becoming the urban turban legend that you’ll someday hear about and wonder, “Is that true?  It sounds too crazy to be true.”  It’s true, folks.

Tarifa was the following stop whose historic, old district was much like Vejer but not as awesome since I was not staying there.  Although it was sunny, it was not clear enough to see Africa, only nine miles away.  This further proved my conspiracy theory that Africa is indeed an urban turban legend.  So off I was, back towards Vejer but made a stop at a tiny village named Bolonia where I sat by the sea and scribbled.  Chaperoning my writings were the town kitties and the town dog that attacked me with love.  All of these creatures orbited around me like canine/feline satellites.

I was also attacked by the smell of pot which, in Spain, is a smell more common than the smell of the Dewey Decimal System in a library.  As I walked down the beach, the dog followed me so I decided he needed a name.  I chose Menudo.  I’m pretty sure he liked it.  The two of us walked over to some Roman ruins that were only 60 yards from the ocean.  Unfortunately, these neat ruins that even included an old theater had a fence around the entire area.  However, Menudo was able to find a Menudo-sized hole in the fence that he exploited vigorously.  I initially wouldn’t have taken Menudo for such an ardent archaeologist but he seemed determined to examine (and probably pee on) the site.  Menudo and I sadly parted ways and in attempts to fill this new emotional void, I watched the sunset and made my way back to Vejer.

With all of the intention of going out to witness the midnight Christmas celebrations in town, I showered, read, watched a little “Groundhog Day” in Spanish but then fell asleep like a dream weaver that had woven too many dreams in one day.

Sunday, December 25th

I realize I didn’t have a chimney in my room nor did Santa have my forwarding address but I still expected to see some presents from the fat guy.  Fortunately, Paco was able to deliver some edible gifts in the shape of breakfast accompanied by some chat.  All of these chats were in Spanish so my mind had to be sharp like a chat ninja (a ninja that kills with a vocabulary blade, grammatical throwing stars, pronunciation punches and grenades).

Upon Paco’s recommendation, I decided to take a certain road south that lead to a desired seaside location.  I realized the road would get a tad rustic but I did not realize one would need an Imperial Walker to traverse it (if you don’t know what an Imperial Walker is, think of a huge robot horse that’s 15 stories high and doesn’t exist).

Somehow my car held together and I made it to a small parking lot where I left my car and walked along a path on top of a sea cliff.  On my way, I came across a guy staring at a cactus.  He pointed at the brush around the cactus that had been cut back and told me this was to allow this somewhat rare cactus to grow.  He was clearly psyched about this cactus and just as I was about to make fun of him, I remembered I’m a 38-year old guy that still watches the original Transformers cartoons.  Besides, it’s great to see someone stand up for the little guy, even if it is a cactus.  I finished my walk and returned to Vejer.

After napping like a Born Again Napper, I had an extremely mediocre tapas experience at some small bar.  With a partially nourished body, I decided to completely nourish my soul at an 8:00pm mass at an old church.  Although I didn’t understand all of the words, the mass was similar to any Catholic mass I’ve attended in the US.  Just when I thought I got through a normal mass, something slightly odd happened.  The priest went behind the altar and came back down with a fake, golden baby that looked like a rich, Victorian child’s toy.  Do you remember the lady in Goldfinger that was killed because she was coated in gold and suffocated?  Imagine if she gave birth to a baby right before she died and you would have some idea of what this baby looked like.

People lined up and kissed this baby, one by one, on its lower stomach.  As much as I love to kiss things, I stood off to the side and behind a pillar but I lingered for a moment to make sure this was happening.  After watching 20 or so people kiss the Goldfinger baby, I decided it was indeed happening.

The only logical thing to do was to drink some wine so I brought a bottle to the kitchen of Casa de Leonor and shared some chat and wine with Paco’s brother in law, Gustavo.  This was followed by sleep.

Monday, December 26th

I enjoyed my last breakfast chat with Paco, settled the bill and drove north through some very gnarly mountain roads.  I eventually arrived in a small town in the mountains, known as Grazalema which is also the name of the national park I was now in.  The town is perched up high, giving its peeps superb views.  Behind the town are peaks of rock, making the town look like something, as my guide book noted, from Lord of the Rings.  Perhaps it was time to put my Hugo Weaving forehead to use, become Elrond the elf and tell everyone in the town that we have to leave since we’re moving to a magical place to live forever (if this doesn’t make sense, just imagine more stuff that doesn’t exist).

After checking into the Casa do Piedras, I walked around the town and my ears were again touched by something that seems to be quite common in southern Spain and that is traditional music being played over prison camp-styled speakers in the plazas or older parts of town.  All the speakers and music are the same so I assume this is some town or government initiative.  Perhaps there’s subliminal messaging in the music that orders you to be awesome.  Well, it’s clearly working (I’m saying that I’m awesome).

When I returned from dinner, I decided to read my book in a common area by the fire.  Next to me was a German family composed of a couple in their late 50’s and two fellas in their early 20’s, sitting around a coffee table in comfortable, living room type chairs.  The weird thing was that the mother was reading a book in German to her husband and boys that were all warm and cozy underneath blankets. I was as if the power went out a year ago and reading became the last resort for family entertainment.  The fact that this intimate family moment was happening in such a common area made me feel like I was watching a play.  If all of this wasn’t enough to take me to 1930’s Germany, between all the German words I didn’t know, I often caught the words “Hitler”, “Stalin” and “nein”.

While this was going on, I was reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography while drinking some red wine.  And the funny thing was that I was reading a page where Nelson mentioned Hitler, helping create a perfect storm of a situation that would never happen again no matter what scientists or weathermen say.  All this action made Nelson and I quite tired so we slept (separately).

Tuesday, December 27th

After eating, I left the hotel and got to enjoy, for the last time, the weirdness in the front outdoor foyer which was a triple car seat from a caravan.  I have absolutely no idea why they would want this to be the first thing that their guests see but it gave the place a great post-apocalyptic flare.

I then drove through the towns tiny, narrow streets that gave one the feeling of being in the motorcycle game in Tron where you weren’t sure when you might run into a wall and perish.  Making it through, I pulled into a parking lot and hiked through some mountains for a couple of hours because it’s what my body told me it wanted.

Next, I drove 18 miles east to the neat town on a massive plateau known as Ronda.  In 2001, I traveled here so it was lovely to be back.  What was not lovely was the 100 Euro ($135) ticket I received for making an illegal left turn which did not seem to be posted.  I explained to the cop that I was lost, trying to make a U-turn and didn’t realize I couldn’t turn left but he wasn’t having it.  I didn’t fight him on it too much since he almost cited me for not having an international driving permit which technically you don’t need in Spain but if a cop wants to be a record-breaking douche about it, he or she can be.  Fortunately he backed off that point and required me to pay the fine immediately in cash so I had to follow him to an ATM, get 100 Euros and hand it to him.

Thank God I don’t smoke or smuggle weed since this experience could have been a hamster’s heartbeat away from the film “Midnight Express”.  I looked at my Nelson Mandela book and he said, “Cops are pretty shitty, huh?  Welcome to my world.”

Surprisingly, I wasn’t too pissed off about it and checked into my hotel.  To lift my spirits, I visited the same, great, little tea café I visited almost 11 years ago named Tetería Al Zahra and savored the same delicious Jamaican tea.  I highly recommend this jazzy brew whose components are vanilla tea, cinnamon and some sort of coffee liqueur.

Then, like a baby stroller with the brakes off, I strolled through the newer part of the city and over to the old where streets were narrow and touristy.  Between the old and new city is a massive 100-200 meter gorge with a river at the bottom.  The gorge averages 80 meters wide and is connected by three bridges, making it a fantastic place to dispose of heretics and salesmen.  I then ate lots of for $11, went home, researched my next travelling moves and slept.

Wednesday, December 28th

After eating a sandwich at a food place, I walked along the part of the city that lies along the edge of the cliff and savored this city’s ability to chill in such a precarious spot.  I then maneuvered my car west along some wild mountain roads that made me feel like a goat on wheels.

My plan was to stay in a town called Alora for the night so once I arrived, I walked around this town that was perched high on a hill.  On my walk, I climbed a hill to view an old castle.  In the small parking lot that provided a lookout point, there was a moldy old man that said many unintelligible things to me.  At one point, he pointed down the steep hill and over to a small settlement and said, “¡Discothèque!”  A dirty smile came over his face and he said “niñas” (girls).  As he kept repeating “discothèque” and “niñas”, he hit the back of his ears and made some odd motion with his right hand in front of his stomach.  He basically looked like a really perverted third base coach that was telling you to go for home and then have sex with something.

I’m not sure if it’s a government initiative to install a dirty old man in every tourist attraction parking lot whose function is to point you towards statutory rape opportunities but if it is, somebody may want to put that on the chopping block first when budget cuts are next discussed.

Perhaps it was that I felt nothing drawing me to this lovely town or perhaps it was my encounter with the rape sensei, but I decided to continue driving north 12 miles to a small village next to a dam in a valley, known as El Chorro.  I checked into a very unique hotel named Complejo Turístico Rural La Garganta which was once a flour mill.

My room was cooler than a go-kart.  It had a neat living area with a small spiral staircase leading up to my bedroom and bathroom.  The ceiling went all the way up to the roof, giving me that well-deserved cathedral effect that has eluded me up until now.  And the view was classy enough to take home to meet your parents: it lead down to a reservoir and accompanying dam and then up to some beefy mountains that clearly didn’t take guff from anybody.  The only thing that spoiled the view slightly were the heavy duty power lines that ran throughout the area that slightly diminished the beauty like a few acne scars on the face of a prom queen or a few gray chest hairs in a proud sea of brown on the chest of a youthful man-champ (don’t ask me how I know).

I then got back into the car and drove up a mountain that delivered a high-5 of a view and looked directly down on my hotel, giving me the sensation of a person that was in a hotel, died, started to ascend to heaven, looked back down and said, “Hey, that’s the hotel I was staying in before I died.”

I then cleaned my figure, wrote some words and looked for food which was found at a casual bar that was also part of a camping ground.  I ate my meal right between a wood burning stove and a couple guys playing pool because that makes no sense.  I couldn’t decide which thing warmed me more.  At one point, I had to move my chair so a guy could take a shot.  The only thing that could provide the perfect nightcap to this was watching a couple of “The Simpsons” episodes in Spanish.  It was at this point that the dream stork delivered a sleep baby to me.

Thursday, December 29th

I went back to my camping ground bar for breakfast and then drove east to Torcal Park to witness some strange rock formations.  I then headed south, then east, then north and then east again so I would have something to write about that would annoy my readers (and by readers, I mean Microsoft Word spellcheck).  The other reason I traveled like this was because it was the best way to reach my next destination, Capileira.  With an elevation of 1400 meters, Capileira is a tiny little village on the side of the Sierra Nevadas Mountains in a region known as Las Apuljarras.  I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to kick ass at this altitude but that was not the case.  Soon I settled into a simple hotel that, besides smelling like pesticide, wasn’t too bad.  Making up for the smell was the little veranda and stellar mountain view.

After walking around the village, looking for dinner, I decided to eat in the restaurant located in my hotel.  As I sat down to write in the bar area, I looked to my right and saw a beautiful rotating rack of CD’s for sale.  Although they were the kind of CD’s you would find in a vacant apartment, they were asking $10 each for them.  Most of the covers looked like the type you would find on a blog that is dedicated to crappy album covers.

This CD tower of power was next to a TV that sat on top of a freezer filled with various ice cream treats.  Next to that were two kegs of beer.  So basically, the purpose of this corner of the room was to someday explain to aliens why humanity failed after we went extinct.  Hanging from the ceiling were about 20 cured pig legs for sale.  Even though this is common in southern Spain, it’s still pretty damn weird and is probably the initial reason for vegetarianism.  And then…bed.

Friday, December 30th

This morning, I walked across the street to a small restaurant and made it happen with some breakfast.  And yet again, I was given a tiny tea.  I don’t know why, but every time I order a tea in Spain, I receive a thimble of liquid.  If two GI Joe action figures can’t bathe comfortably in my tea, it’s too small.

I checked out of my hotel and did a slammin’ five-mile hike that took me north of the village.  The halfway point was a tiny deserted collection of houses and buildings, tucked away in a gorge by a river that was built in the 1950’s for people working at the hydroelectric station located right next to the village.  Oddly enough, I didn’t see any Decepticons filling up any energon cubes which is weird because if you watch the cartoon, Megatron is a big fan of hydroelectric energy.  Wow, that’s two Hasbro references in one day – just trying to get them out before 2011 expires like some sad, neglected boloney in a convenience store.

After the hike, I bought some castanets for my nieces which will be well-appreciated by my sister and brother in law as they try to enjoy some quiet.  I then carried on south to the coast and then east to the small beach town of San José which is located in the National Park, Cabo de Gata.

I felt a tad like a tumbleweed (or a tumbledude) blowing through this semi-occupied town.  Without all the resort humans, all that remained was a skeletal crew of locals.  I checked into a hotel and walked around the town.  By the beach, I passed by a guy playing guitar for money with almost no one around.  As he played “All Along The Watchtower”, I wondered why he chose this sparsely populated town to play for money.  Maybe he played guitar for the government, had a great career playing guitar next to a toll booth coin catcher thing (which is great because people used to throw so much change into his guitar case by accident) but then he pissed off the wrong person and got reassigned to a ghost town.  Either that or he simply had bad judgment.

I then popped into a restaurant with, as always, Nelson.  He chose to remain in book form and watched me eat an okay meal and drink beer.  Back to the room it was for me for some of “The Housekeeper” in Spanish where I’m almost certain I saw Boston comedian Tony V briefly portray a bus driver.  Tony V is a very funny chap that was on an episode of Seinfeld and on the Discovery Channel so if you don’t know him, you should consider getting a life transplant.  I then slept (in English).

Saturday, December 31st

The last day of 2011 began with two fried eggs, bread and tea (just as I always envisioned it would).  I boarded my car which, by the way, has an engine so weak that it isn’t measured in horsepower.  Rather, it is measured in ant power or AP.  My Corsa is about 10 AP (bad).  I drove south to see some fairly secluded beaches known as Los Genoveses and El Monsul.

I then headed north to an old, semi-abandoned mining town called Rodalquilar.  The houses and mining structures were from the 1950’s and were in serious decay.  It was so funny to me how tourists were allowed to walk through the crumbling concrete structures and down cracked stairways.  One tiny little fart of an earthquake and this place would fall like a house made of wet crackers.

I carried on north through another beach town known as Agua Amarga where I saw the oddest RV vehicle of all time called the Tanis II by Steyr Puch Pinzgauer.  It looked like a lunar vehicle from the movie Moonraker.  It even had two rear axles for apparently no other reason than it looks really cool.  About 30 minutes later, I arrived in Mojácar, a cute old town atop of a hill that I also visited in 2001.

I settled into a room in a tiny hotel called Mamabels that had French doors which provided an electric view of the Mediterranean Sea.  It was Mamabel herself that showed to me her room.  Her real name is Isabel but when you remove “Isa” and add a Mama to the mix, stuff happens.  Mamabel was residing in the age territory known as “late 60’s to early 70’s” but still had a sense of style about her.  My retro-hottie radar indicated that she most likely took center stage in the Hot Show back in the day.  And I could be wrong but I could have sworn I smelled a faint trace of cannabis in the air.  Mamabel’s raspy voice convinced me she was smoking something.

After re-acquainting myself with the town, I went into one of the very few restaurants open.  The name was Rincón de Embrujo and I literally had the place to myself.  The agreeable owner, Antonio, was in the midst of making a meal for his sons but he was more than happy to personally make me a very tasty meal and converse with me about Mojácar, ladies and other crucial matters.  Upon finishing, I thanked Antonio for such a custom, unique dining experience and returned to my room.

It was about 10pm and the beginning stages of Mamabel’s private New Year’s Eve party downstairs.  I was not warned of this and when I decided to sleep, I was challenged to do so as music began to crank on a sound system that would upset the dead.  It was a professional seamless dance mix dating from the 80’s through early 90’s.

Before I go on, I need to tell you about Spanish pillows.  No matter the width of the bed, there is only one pillow that matches the width of the bed.  So the few times I’ve had a queen-sized bed, my head was resting on a very long loaf of pillow.  I’m usually not a fan of this pillow design but on this noisy night, it proved useful since I wrapped it around my head and achieved just enough sound proofing to sleep through Mamabel’s bash that went past four in the morning.

Sunday, January 1st

Anyways, after I woke and left to secure breakfast, I passed Mamabel who apologized for the noise.  I couldn’t believe this older kitty still had the powers to party like a teen (great name for a song, by the way – Party Like a Teen).  I then began to wonder if she was as old as I thought.  Maybe her partying habits made her appear older than she really was.  Maybe she was only 30.  Maybe I should hit on her.

I decided not to hit on her and did the next best thing which was eat some healthy snacks in Plaza Nueva while enjoying some great views and more stories about Nelson’s life.  I’ve noticed something about Nelson.  He just blah blah blah’s on about his life but he never stops to listen to what I’m going through.  I know he’s just a book but he should pay more attention to my life passages.

This was followed by some more strolling around and a small lunch at Rincón de Embrujo with Antonio again.  It was clear to me that today would be a lazy day so I napped, read some more and went back out to eat again.

This evening’s selection was a small establishment called Le Sartén which means “the frying pan” and this frying pan was frying up nothing but British ex-patriots.  The owners, Chris and Toni, were both from England as well and served up good simple food for low prices.  On my way out, I ended up getting into a chat with a gentleman from Manchester, England by the name of David.  He kindly bought me a couple beers which is always the right thing for anyone to do.  I asked him about the ex-patriot bar that I visited in 2001 called Tír na nÓg.  He told me it changed hands and that sadly, one if it’s more colorful patrons named Indy, passed away.

Indy was from Indiana and when I spoke with him 11 years ago, he wove some wild stories about gun-running, the CIA and other Tom Clancy novel-inspiring things.  These ex-patriot bars, especially in a small town like Mojácar, are always more entertaining than laser tag.  I always find that they’re basically like a living room for a small, tight community; a community that is living in a self-imposed state of isolation and loves talking to other English-speaking people.

Then there was Jimmy from Ireland/Scotland (who was psyched I was from Boston), Juliette who claimed to be David’s daughter (even though she wasn’t), her man Ron (complete with killer stache) and Paul (who was Irish even though he had a British accent).  Later on, a dude from Norway came in who, when he was in neutral state with his mouth closed, looked like a normal handsome gent but when his mouth opened, crazy teeth and wild words were the order of the day.  Once he discovered I was American, he asked if I could tell my government to stop messing with Norway or the world or something to that effect.  His drunken state and teeth that looked like a heavily bombed village made it hard for me to concentrate on what he was actually saying.

Paul began to intellectually tool on the guy so I figured it was a good time to make an exit.  I bid farewell to my new friends and headed towards Plaza Nueva in search of something sweet to eat.  I found a restaurant that was in the process of closing but two young Romanian waiters named John and Vasi were kind enough to stay open in order to equip me with a fine mint tea, an extra-large portion of tiramisu and a complimentary shot of Amaretto.  When finished with this effective nightcap of drink, food chat, I thanked John and Vasi.

So it was a great night, one in which I couldn’t go wrong.  Even though most everything was closed, I somehow found the right places that were waiting to give me exactly what I wanted.  I guess this is how Jedi’s always feel when they vacation.  Sleep.

Monday, January 2nd

After waking and breakfasting, I drove north towards Alicante which would be my exit point from Spain.  On the way, I stopped off at a natural park know as Sierras Espuña which is a tidy collection of small mountains.  Hoping to go on a noteworthy hike, I drove all around this stupid park finding no maps or information points so I was denied a hike that could rival my rugged nature.  To make matters lamer, once I reached the highest, deepest point in the mountains, my car started making a strange banging noise near the front driver’s side wheel.  This made my winding, steep, cliff-edge descent more exciting than putting wet bread in a toaster (and the toaster would be on).

I eventually made it out of the park safely and stopped for gas.  As I already paid a premium rate for a full tank of gas when I picked up my rental car and was told I could bring it back empty, I put a small amount of gas in.  Annoyingly, this car had the habit of taking a while to reflect the addition of gas so the needle did not move up (even though it should have).  As time went on, the needle never corrected itself and continued to go down to the point that I was now wondering how much gas was actually in the tank.  When I finally parked it at my hotel, a couple miles from the airport, the low fuel light had gone from steady to an angry epileptic seizure-producing blinking.

I checked into my hotel which I dubbed The Noise Inn since I could hear people thinking in the next room.  The walls were so ineffective at stopping sound I was convinced they were merely holograms.

Dinner was delivered to my body by Bar Avenida and for dessert; I chose something on the menu that spoke of cake, ice cream and whiskey.  The waitress brought me a premade ice cream thing in a dish.  She then took the top off of it, put it down in front of me and dumped a shot of cheap whiskey on it.  I was thrilled.  More sleep.

Tuesday, January 3rd

Even though my room was smaller than a geek, it was so perfectly faced south that I was able to watch the sun set the previous night and the sun rise this morning.  Because of this, my room became known to me as the High-5 Suite.

After a slim breakfast, I got in my car, excited to see if I would have enough gas to make it to the airport.  I did pass by a couple gas stations but did not stop as I was determined to make my fantasy of running out of gas as I hit the rental return garage a reality.  I would push this car to the airport if I had to.  The rental company would be lucky if there was a teaspoon of gas vapor in the tank when I was done with it.  I did make it to the airport with a few ounces left in the tank (damn it!) and boarded a plane to my next destination: Sweden (via Copenhagen).

When the plane landed, I walked over to the train platform and took a train over the ocean and into Sweden where my friend CB was waiting to bring me back to his house in Höör.  There waiting for our awesome arrival was CB’s wife, Margaretha.  This lovely 250-year old Swedish farm house that was full of warmth and Christmas decorations did slightly ease the pain of going from 15 days of pure sunshine with temperatures around 70 to a cold, cloudy, rainy, windy environment that struggled to get into the high 30’s.

As we always do, we enjoyed fine whiskey, food, petit cigars and remarkable conversation.  My theory is if you indulge in whiskey, cigars, red meat, cream sauces, wine, chocolate mousse and brandy as I did, some of these vices cancel each other out.  It seemed to work.  Zzzzzz…zzzzz…zzzzz…

Wednesday, January 4th

This morning brought a healthy breakfast that did not involve brandy or cigars.  As dull as that sounds, it was probably for the best.  The rest of the day was lazy.  I read.  I caught up on my sitting.  I think I walked in the woods for a while but I can’t be sure.  The purpose of the day was the evening when the decadence was eaten, drank and smoked.  To ease our digestion, “Broken Flowers” was watched on TV.

Thursday, January 5th – 8th

After breakfast, more sitting and more Nelson, CB and I did some food-shopping.  On the way back, we stopped into a small glass blowing studio by the name of Incendi Glasblåseri.  Here we met the owners, the lovely glass blowing couple known as Helena and Espen.  Espen asked CB and I to sit down while he made a glass bird right in front of us.  As he crafted the bird, he instructed us on the process and even asked me to help at one point which made the experience feel like my wildest, most opulent Science Channel fantasy come to life.

With the exception of the glass blowing and “Broken Flowers”, the next few days were like another Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day”.  Each day, I was like a plane joyfully caught in the same flight pattern that consisted of nothing but clear skies, zero turbulence and jazz winds (tail winds).  I’m still not able to discern where the cigars began and the brandy ended.  I think Nelson even got buzzed on some whiskey at some point.

One thing I must comment on happened on my final night.  As Margaretha, CB and I were sitting in the living room, pickling ourselves, CB heard footsteps in my bedroom upstairs.  CB thought it may have been a ghost since he believes the house to be haunted.

On the way up to investigate with CB, I looked for some sort of weapon in case this ghost was a burglar that could experience pain.  I settled on a cane with a metal handle since I like to attack ghosts with the one thing they’ll need most when I’m through with them.  As long as the ghost didn’t have a crossbow or bigger cane, I felt confident I could handle him or her in a fight.  But my chance to prove myself in ghost battle would have to wait for we encountered no life forces in the bedroom.

CB also told me that when their daughter Pernilla slept in the same bedroom, she sometimes heard someone chopping wood in the middle of the night, 15 feet away in the attached barn.  And while I slept that night, I dreamed that I was doing exactly what I was doing at that moment: sleeping in the bedroom.  But in my dream that now began to blend into reality, I felt and heard something crawling onto my bed.  I struggled to pull myself out of the dream but felt paralyzed as the presence drew closer.  Finally, I summoned all of my will and woke myself up to find nothing. Was this a ghost’s revenge for my potential cane attack?  If so, it worked marvelously since I never fell back asleep and took in about four hours of sleep total that night, giving my body a feeling the next morning that was squirrely at best.

So when the sun did rise on the 8th, I began my journey back to London where I stayed one night before flying back to the USA.  As I landed in Tampa, Florida, I realized that I had not been to the states in 11 months which made me feel like a drug czar trying to sneak back into the country to attend his child’s confirmation or something. I chose Tampa so I could visit friends there and then seamlessly move on to see my parents near Jacksonville.  On the 21st, I finally made it back to Boston where I began the grim task of figuring out what next to do with my life.

As CB drove me to the train station that final morning in Sweden, he told me that he once awoke in the middle of the night and saw what appeared to be two ghosts, an old farmer and wife, watching him.

“You must have been freaked out!  Were you awake the rest of the night?” I said.

“No,” CB replied. “I fell back asleep.”

“Well these ghosts sound like perverts to me.”

“Yes but Margaretha and I were not doing anything so it was alright.”