A Charmed Life

The dogs at the Rescue Center were lucky anyway. Almost all of them were not treated well at some point in their lives, most had been abused, and some had been tortured, but Mama Sara from Sicily had built an impressive little compound a few inches from the long empty beaches on Sri Lanka‘s southeastern coast, where all of the canines there can live like kings. There’s always plenty to eat, only Sara (the dog) has to have her meals…er… managed, because let’s just say she overestimates „the Worth of Girth“.

Mama Sara is generous in that regard, as well as with her love. In fact, on some days the only problems that might arise are the occasional fits of jealousy that overtakes some of the dogs, who jockey for the best napping positions as close to Mama Sara as possible.

The Sri Lankans employed there as cook and caretaker are competent and efficient. The woman whose name I’ll never be able to understand or pronounce takes care of all of the dogs‘ nutritional needs without tiring seven days a week, while someone called „Unkele“ – Uncle in Italian? – has a job not so clearly defined, but one he completes just as effectively. One minute he might be oiling door hinges, then he might put a new roof over some of the stalls, and every day around three he shepherds a gang of about fifteen of the forty-six dogs out to the beach to run and play for an hour or two.

The place is a veritable doggie heaven, so much so the question must be asked: What’s the catch? There has to be a bad side, right? I mean, other than the terrible pasts most of the dogs have endured. Well, I can’t think of one, that’s how well Mama Sara’s best-laid plans have worked out. But … there is a cloud hanging over the place, a topic I didn’t want to broach, one I couldn’t help wondering about.

Last Saturday Mama Sara coincidentally spilled the beans on just this subject, and I thought her story wasn’t only amazing, it deserved retelling.

2004. December 26th. The Tsunami. The worst catastrophe in the history of mankind. Over 300,000 dead. And here’s The Doggie Center not 200 meters away from the waterline, with dozens of dogs, some of whom in stalls, just waiting to be swept away.

What happened? This is the story of how three of Sara’s dogs died. They did not perish as you might have already pictured them to, though. There’s a world of difference.

On December 25th, Mama Sara was in her native Sicily, as her father had taken sick. His condition had improved enough, however, for her to make the return trip, and she spent the day getting ready to get to the airport, which would have put her right back in the Danger Zone on the 26th.

The phone rang. It was Sara’s mother. Her father’s condition had worsened, could she stay a little longer? Sara agreed. She had seen to it that her dog center was in good hands, and even left money so that nothing would lack. There was still the possibility of wiring more money should something go wrong, and Mama Sara trusted the people taking care of the house, so she felt comfortable with staying for a few more days.

Naturally, the next morning she was horrified to hear the news about the Tsunami. Anyone who remembers that day, or knows a little geography, or researches it, will know that the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka was nearly annihilated by the wave. Which also meant that the phone lines were down. It was days before she heard anything, and when she did the news was not good. Her house was gone, as if it were a sand castle. She hung up wondering about her dogs and the murky future.

A few days later, the next bit of news arrived from a more informed source. The house was fine. Not a single stone was missing. And, will wonders never cease, all of the dogs except two were accounted for. They had all been washed inland, and when the waters receded, they were deposited on the same land they had been on before the great wave hit. When Mama Sara finally returned to her oceanfront abode, the circle closed: she got to hear the story of the missing two dogs. The wave had washed these dogs not inland, but out to sea. Maybe it was just coincidence. Maybe it was an unimaginable feat of will power on the part of the dogs. Maybe a kindly fisherman recognized them and taxied them back to shore before disappearing and never telling anyone, but after hearing stories about how some of these fishermen set dogs on fire, or tie their legs together with wires and throw them in the ocean, I seriously doubt it.

Anyway, as the seas settled, regaining it’s usual rhythm and surge, one wave after the other pushed the landwrecked canines back to shore. They returned not fifty miles up the coast, or even onto either of the properties to the left and right of the center. They dragged themselves up out of the ocean and onto the same property they had been forcefully evicted from. I see them shaking themselves off, and then maybe going to scrounge for food. As always. Much like Sara (the dog) is doing now.

Now you want to talk about „A Charmed Life“? You want to talk about luck? Mama Sara and her dogs were rolling in it. I’d like to believe these strange and wonderful coincidences occurred simply because Sara’s heart (Sara the human) is open and warm and lets these things happen.

But, unfortunately, it would still be days before the lady of the house would return. The people taking care of the house in Sara’s absence had completed their few chores responsibly for a few days at least. But Sri Lankans are poor, and some poor persons have a difficult time dealing responsibly with a sudden influx of cash. The temptation got the better of them and they decided to throw a party or two. Why not? They had money (for once), and a beach house, why not make the most of it? They did. The partying continued until sooner or later, probably about the time the tsunami hit, it came down to a choice between spending money on dog food or party supplies. Guess which was chosen? By the time Sara was finally able to return, three of the dogs had starved, including an Indian wolf.

An Indian wolf, beautiful and regal. It was gone. This world could be such a great place, if we would only appreciate it a little. We’re not living in harmony with it, which is bad enough, but when you actively contribute to living at odds with it, it’s criminal. This world is an incredible, magical place, it’s us who are anything but. I’ll be impressed with all the accomplishments of business, science, politics, entertainment, etcetera, when you prove to me that another wolf like that is not going to die in a similar situation in the future.

In addition to the three starved dogs, Sara was forced to deal with the one and half bodies she found in her garden. But I still hope this report can and will be taken as a powerful argument for there being plenty of good in the world, and evidence that, once you’ve found your own special little path, this universe can work wonders in your favor, no matter who, or what, is swarming around you.

P.S. Anyone looking to support Sara and her efforts will be pleased to know that the good woman does NOT approve of monetary donations, despite my constant arguments in favor of them. Gifts of rice and the like are always welcome, as the dogs always seem to be hungry. Contact me here if you are interested in supporting a Bow-Wow or two!

My daughter, Mama Sara, my wife Kay, and some awesome dude

Shaving

            Or lack thereof.  I’ve begun to not shave my beard, as many of my favorite athletes don’t, until I’ve completed my special race. My favorite athletes, whose names I can’t remember but whose beards I strangely can, won’t shave their beards until they don’t win an important playoff series. For those of you just tuning in, that special race for me is the Ultratrail Mt. Fuji, all 168km (about 100 miles) and over 7000 meters (almost 23,000 feet) of elevation gain of her.  I even got a tattoo of that very special mountain, drawn by yours truly, on my back. 

            I haven’t shaved my beard in weeks?  months?  Here it is:

Manly, but civilized. Rugged, yet somewhat kempt.

What’s disappointing is that it looks considerably less cool than those wild beasts said athletes are draping their faces with.  Studies have shown that my beard’s cool quotient is a whopping 4.2% lower than the grubby face-varmints I’ve seen those millionaires wear.  All that hard work not remembering to cut and mow my mutant stubble for a result like this is just unsatisfactory.  If only I could ascertain the reason for this truly unfair discrepancy I could repair whatever atrocities I‘ve comitted to my mouth-marmot and maybe my wife would look at me again.

            I’m sure there’s pros somewhere who, for a shamelessly exorbitant price, would primp and prune my disshevelled jaw-disaster into a comely, more attractive version of whatever is now adorning the southside of my face, but those pros cost a pretty penny, so how’re poor guys like me and those millionaire athletes supposed to afford that?

            Wait, maybe instead of combing it and cementing it under eight pounds of beard wax, I should try a more battle-worn, frontiersy look:

Wild; feedom-loving patriotic beard. Or “rusted brillo pad” look..

Eurasia!  I’ve got it!  My wife’ll love it!

One other thing, though:  all this not working with my wretched monster-pelt better pay off!  I’m not spending all this time and effort not caring for my close-shaven face just to lose because other athletes do. Do they only play for the right to shave first? If I don’t win this race there’ll be hell to pay!

            Hmmm…hell….

            Maybe I’ll set fire to it if I lose.

            A..and maybe I’ll ask my wife what she thinks about me not washing myself until after the race..

The Worst Amusement Park Ride Ever: On a Sri Lankan Bus

If you’re ever down Sri Lankan way, there’s one displeasure you’re not going to want to make, and that’s riding a bus. Anyone who shuts themselves off to these wonderful, sublime moments of nausea and terror has not fully lived, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

The Sri Lankan buses are models of conservative, sober methods of trans-portation. Each is drearily garbed in fluorescent greens and blues, highlighted with light, almost timid strokes which gracefully form images of demons driving monster trucks over what might be unhinged chickens. Or sand castles. Or winged Nazis. Whatever. Apparently, not all buses are decorated in this fashion, only the “special” ones. I’m guessing at least fifty percent of the fleet is special.

We visitors from the West, who are used to buses clad in sober, find it difficult to adjust to these eyesores, whose colors and artwork are hardly ever seen outside of certain poorer sections of larger cities, like Bridgeport, Connecticut, of Monster Trucks trampling other cars or roaming the highways with eighteen wheels of gruesome mobile disagreeability. On the positive side, it’s good to see that the need for expression and the desire for works of art still exist; on the other hand, I feel bad for the sort of people who consider a hugely breasted, skimpily clad woman riding a mechanized dragon into a battle against spidery tigeroctopi as the ultimate heigth of art. Seething flames aside, I haven’t seen infantile storyboards like that since the Beetle Bailey cartoon strips.

I remember the flames from just about any of my visits to any Catholic Church.

I suppose “to each his own” is a positive, up-with-people motto to follow passing through his or her life; I try to follow it in a general sense. Unfortunately, living by this rule opens the door to this visual carnage, and one has still not set foot inside the bus. On non-market days the bus is relatively full, but the chances of getting a seat are relatively high. If that is what one really, really wants to do. The smells are omnipotent, and drive through any barriers you might have erected, such as thick cloths wrapped around the face and over mouth and nose, or the ability to not notice scents. Oh, how I yearned to be anosmic on a Sri Lankan bus! Even this, however, is not the worst thing about riding this moving jukebox. The bright colors outside extend to the innards of the vehicle, as bright greens and blues intertwine and reconnect to form spirals and thorn bushes, and all connect up front to pay homage to the driver or bus company’s god of choice: usually either Buddha or Vishnu (?) – the woman with ten or so arms and maybe three heads. I had trouble counting because the bus hurtled faster than sound and the shock absorbers were not…like, shocking. Most of the buses had shrines to said deities at the front somewhere, usually above the windshield, that hopefully did not hamper the driver’s view of the road. And most of these shrines were made from authentic plastic, or tin, and were covered in the same probably poisonous colors and paints that adorned the rest of the bus, as well as having the added bonus of one or thousands of colored, blinking lights around, over, under, and through them which also spread out like mutant pseudopods to every corner of the bus. These lights never stopped blinking or changing colors, even when the bus was stopped, and the key was removed, strongly suggesting an independent existence with ominous intentions, like tapeworms.

But this was still not the worst experience on a Sri Lankan bus. On market days the entire population of, like, 40 zillion Singhalese flock eagerly to those shops and vegetable stands located eighteen stops ahead of where we got on. On certain days we watched these “market buses” from afar, as they swung and swayed with arms, legs, and 95% of bodies hanging out of every opening of the bus, which left precious little room for things like air, and we rejoiced in the fact that we were not able to experience the same joys those passengers were.

Which was also not the worst experience on a Sri Lankan bus.

The main streets in Sri Lanka are ridiculously full, especially on Saturday evenings around 5 or 6, which is also when the electricity goes off because it is rationed here. So picture if you will a small city’s streets with pedestrians scurrying up and down both sides of the street like hordes of ants, as well as all of the bike riders, Tuk-Tuk drivers, stray dogs, cars, motorcycles, and small trucks, and now introduce these rainbow monoliths into the equation. Remember, there are no street lights because of the electricity being rationed. Also, there were no speed limits, at least none I could see, even in daytime. Also also, the bus drivers seemed determined to keep to their schedules, wherever they might have been-I never saw any- at all costs, and drove with a near maniacal aggression. I always wondered if any of them were able to keep to their schedules; despite their teeth- and gear-grinding driving styles never once did one of these buses arrive at the time we guessed it was probably supposed to arrive at, since there no schedules anywhere. In short, I found it nearly miraculous that dozens of these poor pedestrians weren’t mowed down by the buses every day.

There was one instance where I was standing on the bus up near the front-it was a market day and there was nowhere to sit-and I happened to glance at the ol’ speed-o-meter. The driver was really hurtling at over 90 Km/H (56mph). For comparison, the absolute highest speed a truck can comfortably travel on a German autobahn and feel relatively safe that he or she won’t get a speeding ticket is 90. And these maniacs are plowing through these crowded city streets faster than that.

That was definitely the second worst experience I had on a Sri Lankan bus.

The worst experience I had on one of these buses occurred daily, when the bus was either full or empty. It may have been morning or afternoon. It may have been 120 degrees out or, well OK it was always 120 degrees out. In every one of these buses a TV hung from the ceiling way up front there, and every day all day the same channel blared a never ending stream of Sri Lankan boy band videos. Remember DeBarge. Like, sing DeBarge. I think his first name was El. Seriously. Well, I can’t tell you what happened to him and his familyslashbandmates after America woke up and realized that they definitely and without a doubt absolutely sucked and they would never fall for anything that trashy ever again…

Musically, we’re more talented than any Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney-Rob Pilatus of Milli Vanilli

(Thanks to Josh Morrisey and The Strut for the image and quote)

…sending Debarge hurtling faster than a Bobby Hull slapshot into the Great and Bottomless Chasm where Americans throw all of their wastes of time. But I think I can tell you what happened to the family’s/bandmate’s nauseatingly trendy collection of 80’s and 80’s only synthesizers and electric drum kits. See, after the interest in this truly awful form of musical expression waned, presumably after two weeks of listening to nothing but “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul, something must have happened to these dinosaurs of musical accompaniment. I’m convinced America’s supply of synthesizers and electric drum kits were sent to underprivileged persons in poorer regions of the world, like the Super Bowl losers’ hats and T-shirts that say Champs on them-they were printed beforehand, are now useless, and must go somewhere.

Apparently, an entire industry exists in many Third World countries where mildly talented teenage boys and girls channel their inner Debarges (God what a horrifying thought!) and make synthesizer music that real people actually listen to! Like me on the bus in Sri Lanka because I have no other choice and would probably be stoned to death if I did what I wanted to do and what should be done-namely toss that accursed boob tube out into the grimy street where a different rainbow monolith, trailing ours by a barely measurable distance, can crush the thing into the Chasm, where it belongs.

It is our choice what we feed our mouths, eyes, and ears with. Perhaps a slight improvement in everything we ingest would help make our lives a little better-you are, as we all know, what you eat. At the very least it would make my life a little less painful-I’m eating your DeBarge too.

Did I mention that we were there for three weeks or so, rode the bus almost every day, had the same bus driver for almost all of those days, but never once saw him in a different set of clothes? Remember the smells I was talking about? All in all riding a bus in Sri Lanka is a wonderful experience for the whole family. I would definitely recommend it to a friend, especially my best friends Donald Trump and any New York Jets fans.

Wonderdogs Part 3: Revenge of the Canine Gods

In our last episode:

The time had come, however, to say goodbye and to move on to what would be, in many ways, our greatest challenge: taking care of two poodles. Yes, we’re cat people but we’re open to dogs, too, mostly. The more they bark, or bite, or don’t listen, or fuc_everything up the less so, but I believe I can speak for all of the members of our family when I say that poodles are the absolute dregs, not only of the canine world but also of the entire animal kingdom.

Some time ago I was delivering drinks, and one of my customers was an elderly woman who possessed four or five of these yipping, prancing, bouncing bundles of knotted, putrid-smelling hair. Before she paid for her drinks the universally followed procedure in her house was to give all of the doggies a treat. Like, ME! Me give poodles treats! When I found it difficult enough not to stomp on them and just get it over with. I said no, and I told her I had never liked poodles and wasn’t interested in rewarding them for being an annoying race of dogs. To which she replied that they were also God’s creatures. To which I laughed and said they were as much God’s creatures as a Ford Pinto; they’ve been bred way the hell out of Nature’s Plan a long time ago.

So, OK these Australian poodles were definitely dealt a crappy hand this time.

We slid down to the coast on an asphalt slide and took our positions in a fine house a mere 5-20 minute walk to the mighty Pacific, depending on whether the dogs were with us or not.

Missy was a twelve-year old poodle with luxurious and heinous-smelling black fur, and Roxy, also a poodle, was also twelve and her grimy-white fur had a fine brownish-purple tinge (naturally!?) toward the ends of her limbs. She took one look at us when we walked into the door and gave us a look that said, “we won’t ever be friends”-perhaps assuming that we wanted that-and disappeared under a bed at the back of the house.

Maybe she had seen me give her the selfsame look upon meeting her..

Something funny happened on day two or three, however. Roxy came out from her hiding place and decided to give us a chance. She also gave us several other looks which disturbed me; whenever we got close she looked as if she was expecting to get hit or bawled out. I didn’t like how things stood with the dogs and felt sympathy towards them-that’s saying a lot considering our preformed opinions toward their race.

We didn’t like how scared Roxy seemed to be, and we, as fitness trainers, felt especially uncomfortable with the information we received from the owners, that the dogs basically didn’t need to be walked. Yes, they were old. And just about totally stone deaf. And yes, neither was fit or able to move well, Roxy especially was overweight and couldn’t hang with Missy anywhere. Like many extremely overweight creatures on this Earth, she would lean way over to port or starboard to enable a paw to drag itself forward over the other side, because she just wasn’t able to pick ’em up and lay ’em down like you should.

We decided to take them for walks, and I started the next morning taking them for a stroll up the street and back – maybe a football field all told – and they enjoyed it. They didn’t enjoy it half as much as what happened the next day, however.

The next morning I took both of them down to the beach. Like, all the way down. It took hours. Once there, they both had a tough time getting across the dry sand, especially Roxy, but once down by the water … WOW! I don’t know the last time I’ve seen such pure, unfiltered, honest joy. I also don’t know if the dogs had ever seen the beach before, but, judging from their reaction, probably not.

Missy hopped around, seemingly unimpeded by whatever age or ? – induced injuries or restrictions she had. When I looked at Roxy, OK, my steely heart turned a little molten and went soft.. MAYBE! She was chirping! She couldn’t stop! God knows why, she was just basically standing there; but she could not stop herself: Yip! Yip! Yip! she went. I didn’t want to leave. I even baby-jogged a few feet in both directions and they both baby-jogged with me, Roxy chirping the whole time.

Can’t help including this here: GET UP AND EXERCISE!! It’s not just friendly advice but a heartfelt plea. Your body needs it! Your body wants it!! It’s the most natural thing in the world, except maybe sex and breast feeding, and if you don’t give your body the opportunity to exercise you’re not only doing it a great disservice, your body will sooner or later take active steps to wreak its revenge. So..

All in all we were in the house for two weeks or so, and most of the time it was a chore taking care of both of them: their bladders were weak and they couldn’t maneuver themselves up and down the back steps well to relieve themselves on the back lawn, so they let it loose on the back porch. Guess who got to clean that up?

But this joy that Roxy showed on that special day is something I’ll never forget. We would sit on the beach on subsequent evenings, all together, and Roxy would cuddle up real close to my leg. Even Missy joined in the act. They loved the beach. They loved us. They loved being alive. Neither seemed able to comprehend the luck they had at being “stuck” with us.

It was the reason we became fitness trainers in the first place: to unlock that same joy in people by showing them how rewarding exercise could be. By showing them a direction to go that was truly worth going in. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a reaction so well-expressed as Roxy’s on that day. And although my opinions about poodles hasn’t softened all that much since our adventures with Roxy and Missy, I haven’t been that well-rewarded by anyone, for anything, in a long time. And that’s definitely worth something..

Ko Phan-gan: The “Dark Side”

This wonderful little island off the Eastern Coast of Thailand is famous for its Lunar Night Parties, and a general festive attitude, but we’re going to leave that all for the kiddies still wet behind their ears and look at the lesser known attractions on the isle of pleasure, hence the “Dark Side” in the title. See what I did there?

To get to the island, assuming you’re on a budget, like us, you fly into Bangkok, find your way to the right bus station – good luck! – , ride a twelve-hour but very comfortable bus down South to Surat Thani, get on a smaller bus that takes you to the ferry, then hop on the ferry that takes you to the island in a mere two and a half hours. If you’ve got a lot of baggage, like us, this is all very stressful and exhausting, so pack wisely!

Did I mention that you’re not, technically “there”, yet? You’re on the pier in Thong Sala, most likely nowhere near your accomodations. Which means, just bear with it here, these are professionals and they know what they’re doing, you’re going to be herded to the left where a parking lot filled with pickups that have cages on the back and loading “space” on the roof awaits. You and the hundreds of others you came over with are about to be prodded, divided up and alloted places in any of these rickety modes of transport, inside these “cages”, which will most definitely be overloaded and the luggage on the roof, not tied down in any way, might arrive at your resort with you but if not hey! they or it are or is still definitely on the island so hang loose!

Getting there is half the fun!

Let’s suppose you’ve got all of that behind you; you’re next step, if you’re not really interested in getting effed up and all stupid is to get to the ocean, drink a delicious fruit beverage or shake, catch your breath, make your plan. We’re up here on the Northern side of the island, which is a little quieter, and has two very special hiking trails out the front door just waiting to be navigated.

Let’s hit it!

Before you go on either one of these hikes make sure you’ve got plenty of water and a sturdy pair of shoes. Good sneakers will do, just remember the going can get a little rough on some of the trails. And don’t forget your mosquito spray, your umbrella, your face-net, a good pair of UV resistant sunglasses, compression socks, eye black, wrist bands, breathable outerwear, sexy underwear, a butterfly net, a flare gun, a harpoon, shark repellant, a satellite dish, and a Uranium Pew-36 Explosive Space Mod-ulator. But half of that crap will do, too.

Bottle Beach

From us, which is like East of that town that starts with “C” – GOOGLE BREAK – Chaloklum, we head East and follow the lone road around the Northern side of the island until the road ends in a dirt parking lot with usually fifty-two motor bikes that tell you that you should have came earlier. There’s a handsomely carved stump there if you like that sort of thing – it really is impressively carved, and you want to follow the path behind it. The path bends immediately to the right, you’ll know it because you’ll ask yourself “How am I suppossed to get up there?”

After that the path will head up over the mountain, down the other side and to a beautiful, remote beach that was well worth the trip. The way there will be lined by dense undergrowth, beautiful tropical trees, the wonderful songs of dozens of tropical songbirds performing at an ear-splitting level (11 on your dial), very motivated crickets who refuse to be drowned out, if you’re lucky a few monkeys who won’t be impressed by much, and hopefully no poisonous snakes.

See, technically I didn’t take the path I should have tooken, er, taked, and wound up clambering rocks seaside until I realized I was getting nowhere and decided to head back. But I did find the correct path, and I know this is so because it was lined with beautifully crafted, handsomely adorned, environmentally friendly plastic bottles every 8 – 21 feet, hence the name: Bottle Beach. The path is also crossed in several places by clear mountain streams, the sound of each being so relaxing you won’t want to leave.

It is a truly majestic coastline with the Gulf of Thailand on one side and the mountains on the other, with everything in between draped in luxurious jungle green. Gonna try and make this trip once more and finally make it to that hidden beach. Wish me luck..

Khao Ra

This hiking trip was special. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I found my way there and back. From Chaloklum you head back down South on the main road, first you’ll see a sign for the Paradise Waterfall, then, after an incline, you’ll see a map on the right of the entire island. The road heads downhill to the South for a kilometer or two, then arrives at an intersection, where you’ll head to the left.

Before this intersection you might have noticed two dogs resting at the entrance to a road on your left, these are important later. After taking your left follow the road for I don’t think too much longer, where you’ll promptly see a sign for the Khao Ra Bungalows, and you’re practically there. Follow this dirt road all the way to the bungalows, but if you’ve come across those two dogs again you’ve gone about two or three hundred meters too far, so if you do see the dogs go down that street cuz it’s shorter. But only before.

Once you reach the bungalows, you’re not really at the bungalows, because you’ve got to follow this other dirt road up to the finally correct bungalows, where you park your camel or motorbike or whatever and pay your twenty Baht entrance fee, if someone happens to be there; there was no one there for us six, so we missed out our complimentary bottles of water.

Follow this “adventuresome” path up the hill to the water basin, where you’ll cross the bridge and head uphill on the main path. Shortly after you’ll see your first sign for “Khao Ra” that tells you you’re going the right way, and you can relax..

..your mind. Because around here that path gets challenging. The forest grows in on you and the roots and rocks provide for some uneven footing. After you get to the sign that says “1,5 Km”, things will get really inter-esting, the footing is treacherous and you’ll have to use the roots to help navigate your way up, and the trees to help pull you up, like some crazy Jedi Obstacle Course, so use the force. I find it helps if you keep your eyes closed. But only if you don’t move.

The joy you’ll feel at seeing the sign for one more Kilometer will only be topped by the joy you’ll feel when you get to the 500 meter sign. It is a true accomplishment to make it up to the top – it is a mountain after all. And once you’re there it will all be worth it, because the view is incredible, unless it’s cloudy, like when I was there. But I was there to train and run up and down the mountain, and not look at stuff, so..

Khao Ra is the largest mountain on the island, over six hundred meters high, and it commands a beautiful view to the North and to the West. There are also apes in the trees but you’ll be too tuckered out to raise your head to look at them so just listen to them screech. There is also a path somewhere that leads South to the very famous Phaeng Waterfall, which is definitely worth a trip, but if I’d have gone looking for it I’d still be looking and I might not be on the right island.

The way down is best taken very carefully, but if you’re feeling courageous you can try to bounce down like a mountain goat. I must warn you, however, I’m very super-fit and I stumbled two or three times. Maybe you’ll have better luck with your normal human-sized feet, my size twelve and halfs got stuck on all kinds of roots.

Once down I recommend you find somewhere to get some coconut water – in a real coconut!- and maybe some mangoes to replenish those electro-lytes. FAST! The climate tends to be really humid so you really need to think responsibly when it comes to exerting yourself, you just won’t be able to breathe as well as you’re used to, and it’s definitely advisable to always have enough to drink nearby. No, not that kind of drink, that comes later..

Wonderdogs, Part I: Spain

                                                                               Nov. 30th

Charlie and Peppa are the two superdogs we’re stuck taking care of here while the woman of the house is away on vacation.  Charlie is four, Peppa two, and both come from hunting stock (Peppa even more so – Charlie is more of a mongrel), and I would not give you this information if it did not play a role later in this story.

We’re supposed to take the dogs for a walk twice a day, as they are young and full of energy.  Once we’ll walk them on the leash just to stretch their legs and let them do their “duty“, and once we’ll let them run free, Charlie for the first half of the walk and Peppa for the latter, and hopefully they’ll be tuckered out enough then to lie around and leave us alone for a few hours.  I like cats.

Before I continue with the misadventures of “Chuck“ and “Peppermint“, let me draw a quick picture to show you what we’re up against:

The other day Charlie barked at the back door, wanting to be let in, but before I could reach the door, he heard something somewhere he needed to yowl at.  Moving out to the back porch, I watched Charlie and Peppa storm down the steps,  race across the back yard, bark at nothing I could see, and then begin to playfully maul each other.  I observed this nonsense for a little, then, as they tackled and bit each other, I whistled at them to come back.

They stormed back across the back yard, raced up the steps – each almost knocking the other back down in the process – and when when they got to me I yelled “Good dogs!!“ loudly and proudly, to which they jumped up and down excitedly.

On a whim, I yelled “Go get ‚em!!“ in my command voice, and wouldn’t you know it?  They stormed down the steps, raced across the back yard, barked at nothing, and then resumed gouging each other again.  There is no doubt in my mind I could have kept this up all day, but I had things to do.  I decided they were “mentally challenged“ and went back inside.

During our long walks, when we drive to the hills with them, the routine breaks down like this:  on the way there Peppa girlie-whines the entire time, we arrive and we let the dogs out, Charlie free from his leash at first and Peppa not.  If they’re both allowed to run free they won’t come back until 2035.  Charlie takes off – but only to pee his Three Drops – that’s his nickname:  every twelve meters three drops.  Charlie is a typical boy with no imagination of his own so he needs to play “fetch“ or he will short-circuit, maybe, and his peabrain will melt.  After anywhere from two to five kilometers, in which Charlie has fetched the stick at least one hundred and fifty seven times, and peed three drops another one hundred and six times, it’s time to switch.  The switch only goes smoothly if Charlie can be tempted to come back and enjoy a biscuit, while Peppa whines because she, too, wants to run free, because she wants a sixth biscuit, because she wants those scary afternoon clouds to go away, oh, she’s got millions of reasons to whine.  So they both get their biscuit, Charlie is leashed up, Peppa is released, and after one ear-piercing yelp, is gone.

One of the first times we took them for a walk we let Charlie “run free”, or: “run back and forth” free, and tried to grow ourselves accustomed to Peppa’s whining. “When do I get to run free?” she seemed to whine. And, “what if he never comes back?” Or, “Why does Thursday end in a ‘Y’?” Maybe. At any rate, on this day Charlie was gone a little longer than usual, which meant that Peppa whined ever more fervently, until finally O my God can it be yes it is! my friend has finally returned!!! And Peppa half-whined, half-cried, half-jumped up and down excitedly, which is a lot of halfs, and runned to greet her best friend heroically returning. Unfortunately, as I’ve implied, Charlie always has a fetched stick in his trap, and promptly drilled Peppa in the face with it. It could have been a real Kodak moment.

Peppa is a typical girl and has an imagination and knows what to do when she is not leashed up and doesn’t have to chase a stick, and does.

Back at the car later we wait anywhere from ten minurtes to an hour until the little lady notices she’s completely alone in the woods and makes her way back.  Did I mention I prefer cats?  See, Peppa likes to hunt, and as soon as she sees a blade of grass bent suspiciously, she’ll start yelping and “chasing the scent“.  Which can continue for a while. Once she disappeared into the bushes “chasing the scent“ and came back an hour later without her collar, which actually had been tight enough around her neck.  Wish I had a video of how she got that off!

The short walks are kind of amusing because Charlie has to sniff everything Peppa does, pee where Peppa has peed (three drops), and, when Peppa puts her front paws up onto a wall that marks property lines, he does to.  He could miss something.  They have also obviously never seen “Ghostbusters“, and aren’t aware of the dangers of crossing the streams, because they crisscross paths every eight minutes and get their leashes tangled.

The other day we came back from our long walk and about two hundred meters from the car my wife and a friend of ours got the dogs leashed up unusually early.  Peppa had come back and it had just worked out that way.  I had been hanging back with my daughter, and my wife and our friend were waiting for us, primarily because I had the car key.  When I finally caught up to them some two-odd minutes later both dogs went nuts, jumping up and down, Charlie putting his front paws up on my abdomen, then both of them cuddling excitedly around my legs, because even though I had been with them every step of the way for the last five kilometers or so, they had blinked, maybe, and apparently were somehow convinced they would never ever see me again but O Joy!!  there I was.

I like cats!

The all time low was near the end of our stay when my daughter and I took Peppa and Charlie, respectively, for their short walk. We made it along the path across the street for almost three kilometers before turning around and heading back, and, almost immediately, my daughter noticed others walking towards us. Upon seeing that they also had a small dog, I tightened my grip on Charlie’s leash. I had just enough time in that half-second to fall completely in love with what must have been the most beautiful puppy in the history of the, like, Earth, before Charlie decided to go for the kill. He tried to run – no dice. My grip was too tight on his leash. He really tried to run – no go! I had pulled the leash back so his front paws were no longer on the ground. Then he went completely apeshoot and started twisting and writhing – I felt as though I was trying to reel in a swordfish – and it was then that I felt his collar slipping. Gulp.

I couldn’t see anymore what the people were doing, or my daughter, and did the only thing I could think of, right as he tore himself away from his collar:

I sat on him.

Well, at least we had something to laugh about later. And the puppy was not harmed in any way , thank God!

The reason I’m going into such detail about the dogs is because I don’t really want to do my hill runs today and I want to procrastinate, and because even when their  A.Q. (Annoyance Quotient) is at its absolute zenith, I remember what it was like to be young.  Charlie, especially, is talented in this regard-he’ll pull and tug and grind his way forward when he’s excited, no matter the odds, no matter how steep the hill is, with a power my wife and daughter have trouble handling, and this reminds me of the power I have inside me to push and grind my way up over the odds and obstacles I face no matter how difficult they appear to be, if I only release it.  I just have to remain true to my roots, the way Charlie (and Peppa) are true to their hunting roots and are always ready to “give chase“.

But physically, as well, I’m tied to that youth, that power, and I’m forced to perform at the level of a .. what’s dogs?  times seven?  twenty-eight year old.   They’re both keeping me young and plucky despite how my wife’s training plan tries to age me.

So yeah, I’m grateful to these goofy Wonderdogs for helping me to achieve my goals and stay on course.

Did I mention that we caught Peppa the other day licking another dog’s feces?

I like cats.

Wonderdogs Part 2: Australian Remix

Teary-eyed, we left Charlie and Peppa behind us in Spain. Before we left, I sat them down and made a speech about how they will always stay in my heart, and how I would always honor their great unchained spirits, and how, when I dream of the things that fill every corner of my essence with joy, love, compassion, devotion, and tireless commitment – notice I’m leaving out “intelligence”? – that my mind would be painted with pictures of each of them, blah blah etc. Charlie was bored, and might have drooled. Peppa tried to slink away mid-speech; maybe she got into the peanut butter again. And felt guilty. Don’t ask.

We boarded a plane for Dubai. Just to say we were there. Then we boarded again for the long flight to Australia. Four weeks in Toowoomba! Who else can make that claim? Well, you know what they say: You leave two silly canines behind you in Spain, two more are waiting in Toowoomba. They all say that.

This was not to be a cakewalk. First, weighing in around forty kilos, looking like Charlie only with a little more pudge, a little less hunting pedigree, and an innocent “you can trust me” used-car salesman demeanor, there was Chopper. He was about nine and still active and alert, but not in a very good environment, emotionally speaking, because of his fellow canine-in-arms. Dog Number two, who happens to be very brown -just sayin’- was 1 and weighed, get this : sixty kilos. Max was a Rhodesian Ridgeback who was bred to, get this : hunt lions. At this point my wife decided “Get this : you’ll be walking Max”.

Poor Chopper! Anytime he wanted a pat or a cuddle or a treat there was Max, butting his big ol’ bull’s head in where it didn’t belong. Being a puppy, and having the power of an elephant and the violent athleticism of a charging rhino, and having beautiful dark-brown lachrymose eyes you can’t be mad at, Max garnered most of the attention, most of the tidbits, most of everything.

A great and typical Max story: one time I was in the bathroom shaving when Max came in wondering what I was doing in there. Unfortunately the first part of the bathroom is a little narrow for anyone not named Max. Or elephants. Max wandered in and noticed almost immediately that he would not be able to turn around, so he did what anyone would have done in a similar situation: he backed out.

Oh, Max, we miss you.

My favorite activity with Max would be eating on the porch, upon a table which is exactly the right size for every creature on Earth except Max. We would be eating, and Max would stroll over, looking for scraps, and Bonk! he’d ram his head on the table. Never fill the glasses too full when eating outside! Or else it’s Bonk! Splash! We always ate lunch outside- come dinnertime there were too many mosquitoes – and at every meal there Max would Bonk! his head at least twice. Since it was hot, he would sometimes seek the shade under the table, and oh! what fun that was when he discovered something interesting farther away there, and he would make the attempt to crawl under the crossbeams (?) of the table, or once, a chair! This would all end very badly, as if Max was trying on furniture as a kind of cape; I wonder if he even noticed the mayhem he was causing.

Sometimes we made the mistake of taking him for his walk too close to the midday heat, and he would come back to the house plum tuckered out, and when he plopped down his head would hit the floorboards so hard you could hear it anywhere, even down the street.

Max loved to play, and it was always a screaming laugh riot to play one of his two favorite games with him: 1), eating your hand. Most of the time none of us wanted to play “Hand-chomper Max”, so he would play anyway, and you’d have to wait until your hand was coated in enough of his stomach juices for him to get bored and quit. Game Nr. 2) was “Jump the human”, which has been played by dogs all over this planet for thousands of years but probably never with so much pain. Especially when Max jumps your back, and you feel layers of epidermises being exposed to our atmosphere like the innards of an onion while peeling. Fun!

Max also loved food, so when you weren’t looking you could bet he was pilfering goodies from the cat’s Automatic Cat Food Dispenser, from ACME, maybe, and more than once we found it empty. When he was bored he got his circus games mixed up and loped over to the cat to insert its’ head into his esophagus. He thought that was a swell game; the cat, not so much. But I don’t want to tell you about a cat-gargling dog. I wanted to talk about taking the dogs for a walk.

Taking Chopper for a walk was a chore in itself; he wasn’t afraid of anyone and had never been taught to heel or behave or not eat the chickens, etc., so if there was another dog or cat or bird somewhere he felt like he had to play the tough guy. My thirteen-year-old daughter was challenged more than once as Chopper got a head of steam real fast and went for something else in his line of sight; I was proud of her for handling him admirably. But Max was another story. You had to keep him on a very short leash, because if he were to get rolling then someone was going to get hurt. Usually me.

This lack of discipline was the reason you could never let either of them run around anywhere without a leash. I’m convinced there has been no drop-off in my ability to do pull-ups because of the effort and energy I was forced to expend trying to hold that Mack Truck of a dog back. I’m writing this about three weeks after we came out of a park and an aggressive dog behind a chicken-wire fence starting barking unexpectedly right up close, baring and gnashing his drool-coated teeth. Chopper and Max went right for him, and even though I was mostly ready for it Max yanked at his leash so hard I can still move my right middle finger only with pain.

Him being brown and clumsy, I liked to call him Marmadufus. Marmadufus and I went on a short (5K) run once that turned out to be my revenge tour with him. You wanna yank me around the neighborhood like King Kong dragging Fay Wray? Fine, let’s go Dawg!!! I kept it nice and slow; even though it was early it was already warm, and Max was not used to a steady pace over longer stretches. It was glorious! He stayed with me the whole time, hardly tugged at all, and the best part was that he LOVED IT! That’s the kind of exercise he signed up for.

Then we got back home.

I opened the gate. He dragged his heavy paws onto the property while I closed the gate. And that is where he collapsed, exhausted. I could barely get the leash off because he couldn’t raise his thick skull.

No más …

A touching moment with Max: We were relaxing in the living room, sipping on smoothies and watching our standard afternoon documentary when Max came in, ignored the room my wife had made for him at her end of the couch and plopped himself somewhat next to, but mostly on, because there was really no room, me. There he cuddled for the entire documentary, providing me with several numbed limbs and a deficit of oxygen that had me seeing stars.

A housewife’s nightmare: Much of the land is a rich, reddish kind of clay maybe that’s very dusty when it’s dry and very messy when it’s wet. Imagine what the living room looked like the day that began with a hard rainfall and continued with Max wandering through that wet clay before making his way inside to find a comfy place on the couch!

I like cats.

Our time with Max and Chopper was spent trying to get through these walks and dousing them with a Lavender Essential oil: for Max as a calming agent and for Chopper because of his B.O. Near the end of our time together, my daughter and I washed him on the patio, which he enjoyed so much he shook himself furiously when we were done, then went straight to the grass and clay to roll the stink back onto himself.

Yes, it was extremely challenging taking those two goons for their walks, especially cleaning up after one of Max’s “bombing missions”, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Youth is also a force of nature that must be, first and foremost, enjoyed, then dealt with and protected when a lack of discipline could prove dangerous. They both kept us on our guard and it was great to know they were getting the exercise they not only wanted but needed.

The time had come, however, to say goodbye and to move on to what would be, in many ways, our greatest challenge : taking care of two poodles. Yes, we’re cat people but we’re open to dogs, too, mostly. The more they bark, or bite, or don’t listen, or fuc_everything up the less so, but I believe I can speak for all of the members of our family when I say that poodles are the absolute dregs, not only of the canine world but also the entire animal kingdom.

But more of that in Part 3…

First Impressions – Down under

After two full grueling days of travelling halfway around the world we were promptly surprised to find absolutely no one walking around on their heads.  Strange.  We’ve begun to settle into our next housesitting gig near Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, Earth, and are fighting conflicting urges to vomit and or sleep.  Jet lag is harsh!

Australia is the same as everywhere else I’ve ever been but unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  Which is intelligent kind of.  See, they have the same things here they have anywhere else like boring houses in perfectly rectangular neighborhoods, bad drivers and tons of fat people, but the bad drivers are all on the wrong side of the road.  For example.

Plus the Youckaliptus trees.    I’m looking into our yard now at Eupalicktus trees towering all throughout the property, looking  elegant and statuesque, reaching immense heights and providing homes and food not only for the obscenely strange but totally cuddly koala bears but also possums AND NO SQUIRRELS!  You know a country is special if the trees are filled with koalas and possums but no squirrels. 

Dusk around the world  is known as „Mosquito Partytime“, but last night at dusk I was as  brutally mishandled as I’ve ever been by any insect before,  except perhaps that one time as a kid when I stepped on a bee‘s nest behind our house.  In three minutes my left foot was pocked by 12 bites, each larger than a dime.  We decided to enjoy Australia outside duroing the day, and went in.

Yes there are palm trees everywhere.  Not just on the golf courses.  Or the grounds outside a hotel.  They are also gargantuan, and appear to be healthy!  Not such a safe bet anymore..  But there are other tress here, too, like the Euckaliptiss trees reaching up to three hundred feet, if’n you balance a 230 foot long blue whale on top vertically.  Between these are smaller bushes and cool-ass mini bansailike trees  with fragile purple flowers and probably a name that begins with a „J“.  I’m guessing.  OK I’ve just Goggled the tree and I must apologize:  the flowers are „pale indigo“ and not purple.  Maybe I should’ve written the name down, too ( Jacaranda).  Another tree you probably won’t see anywhere else is the Sydney Blue Gum tree (seriously!), which rivals a sequoia in terms of girth and soars up to dizzying heights of forty or fifty meters.  Red Cedars almost as tall as the Blue Gum trees rise stately between palm and gum (?).  Other trees have leaves. And wood!

But the most interestingly alien thing about the country for me – and I haven’t technically seen a koala, a wombat, or a tasmanian devil yet, not to mention the lord’s faux pas : the duckbill platypus – are the birds. There’s green ones with red breasts or wings – I don’t have my glasses on- a kind of parrot that chirps like a rusty swing and looks marvelous darting through the backyard trees.  There’s a grayish-brown one who sings beautifully and whose name, after I gave  it one, is a „three – footed terd“.  Then these other vulturous type birds seem to be on everyone’s front lawn, they’re tallish and somber, dressed in white jackets with black sleeves and a black mask over their heads;  maybe they’re the undertakers of the avian world.  They have long, thin black beaks with which they pluck intestinal bacteria from lucky animals and birds who happen to be in front of them.   Maybe.   

We were lucky enough to recently hear a concert from probably the most famous of all Australian birds – the Kookaburra – and not be in an emotionally unstable condition, because I wouldn’t want to hear something like that and be suffering from acute coffee deprivation, for example.  The Kookaburra shows us what would happen if an ordinary monkey would be pumped full of cocaine and then given major amounts of laughing gas.  It’s amazing!  And  a great example of „sounding your barbarous yawp over the rooftops of the world..“

But last night we experienced something that really knocked our sox off.  An insect? maybe? started singing, a soothing sound somewhere between power drill and mutant cricket.  Another couple eight or so joined him and, seemingly absent of the need to, like, do something else, they proceeded to give a concert for two hours rivalling only one thing in terms of „Melodic Simplicity“ and „Noise“.   Of course I’m talking about the now infamous Vuvuzuela.

(VUVUZUELA sound at Capetown Stadium – World Cup 2010

Respek!  They’re in hallowed company!

Fantastic is the word I’d use to sum up my First Impressions here.   „More things in heaven and  earth..“  We really can’t believe we’re here.  It’s all so amazing, and I’m going to try and drink me a trough of Australian these next four weeks, and I hope I never get my fill..

Marvao — MARV – WOW!

MARV – WOW!   Hidden Gem on the Spanish/Portuguese Border

The house we’re staying in is about three kilometers from the Portuguese border, and the first time we were on elevated ground, and we looked to  the west, the town of Marvao was impossible to oversee.  Approxiamately seven kilometers over the border, this town and castle sit atop a larger, very steep hill in a position so..remote it made the town all but unconquerable in the Middle Ages; it’s remoteness lending it a heavenly, hypnotic quality.  The moment we saw it perched high on its mountaintop my wife and I said, „We have to go there!“

To arrive there, one must find the pretty but miniscule Portuguese town of Portagem, where a narrow but well-paved road snakes its way up the hill.  It’s advisable to park outside the town, under its imposing walls, as driving through the crooked, uneven, super-narrow cobblestone streets is a job best left to the pros.  An even better solution is to take the bus up from Portagem – the roads are tricky and stressful so let the driving be done by someone else.  Ththe buses are comfy and only cost about one euro and fifty cents roundtrip.

On quiet days, which is like, always almost, it’s great to visit the town and just discover at your own pace.  The shops, offering a wide range of local goodies from handmade  cork accessories: purses, hats, shoes, and bottles of liquor wrapped in cork  (Yes, you read that right: cork is huge here.), to seemingly hundreds of  products made with chestnuts:  cookies, beer (yum yum!), chestnut preserves and spreads; even the aforementioned liquor was a kind of chestnut schnapps.  Everything we tried was worth trying. Especially the beer.

One thing you must do on a quiet day, however, is visit the castle, if only for its amazing views.  The hill is, as said, very steep on all four sides, affording a view for hundreds of kilometers on a clear day.  It’s easy to see why Marvao was not easy to conquer, standing atop the battlements.  Just getting an army up the side of the hill must have been a stupendous accomplishment.

We were there on a quiet day, and we spent it checking out every nook and cranny of  he place, from the „outhouse“ behind the reception center to the cistern, where  the castle’s water could be stored for up tosix months, and where we tested our gothic singing voices (what a sound!), to the grainary, to the battlements at the far western, highest end of the fort.  A truly beautiful castle, but maybe the weather influenced our judgement –  the sun always seems to shine on Marvao. 

We also had the good luck to be in the area for  the „Chestnut Festival“, an exciting ethnic fest revolving around chestnuts – they’re big here, by the way, and we made sure to be in Marvao for that.  

One has no choice but to take one of the aforementioned buses up to the town from Portagem – the roads are only open to buses.  Yay!  No parking or traffic worries!  Once „topside“, most of the action runs alongside the northern side oft he town’s Medieval wall, but all of  the shops and restaurants are open and offer their wonderful array of chestnut and cork goodies.

There is one „huge“ tent around which much of the festival revolves, and a commercial building across the cobblestone street where dozens of delicious chestnut cakes are sold, and above which good wine – chestnut or not – is served.  If you like chestnuts you’ve landed in seventh heaven, and, if not, shame!!

Under the tent ethnic music throbs at ear splitting levels, despite the abscence of loudspeakers and, like, electricity in general, and especially when it’s the drummers‘ turns to play :

Big Headed dancers twirl dervishlike up on the stage and, as the day progresses, the „vibe“ tends to „loosen“, especially once enough chestnut beer and schnapps has been drained.  Many people are in costumes that range from the wierd to the ethnically chill, and just about everyone is helpful and friendly, even to those of us who don’t speak Portuguese and have forgotten most of their Spanish.  Which hardly anyone speaks, anyway.

Also in the tent are dozens of stands which sell so many kinds of chestnut based goods it’s mind-blowing:  chestnut cheese, cookies and cakes, preserves, beer and schnapps of course; even noodles.  It’s all very impressive and delicious, and most of the vendors are simple farmers, so the prices are WAY down to earth.

For me the best part of the Festival, though, was right outside the tent in a smallish open area surrounded by stands preparing and selling roasted chestnuts – for a dollar a bag!  These Stone Age prices put me in a good mood, but the music soon got me really going.  Musicians and dancers „collect“ here, all dolled up in the latest traditional ethnic rage, and begin to perform like no one you’ll see on TV.

They’re not getting paid.

They all do it for the fun of it.

Now, do a lot of the outfits and dance steps look a little „tacky“ in our eyes?  Maybe so, but to just stand there and munch on toasty chestnuts, and to watch the joy of especially the dancers that they’re not really able to contain – it makes the whole trip worthwhile.

These festivals, and these dances, are their fitness program (and, as a fitness trainer, I can attest that they’ll give you quite a workout!), their disco, and  a relationship building experience for teenagers who have never been in love, husbands and wives who need the dance to escape the boredom and dreariness of everyday married life, and fathers/daughters mothers/sons who just want to enjoy each other’s company.  The youngest dancers were maybe ten, the oldest maybe sixty-five, and everyone was light and nimble on their feet, and everyone was deeply happy.  Most were probably poor, but none looked it when they danced. In the energy of their dancing one sees real wealth, and, in the joy on their faces:  gold.

At the end of the day we stopped in our now favorite Marvaoan watering hole – the one with the parrot next to the bar – and drank ourselves a VERY respectable IPA or three that were brewed right there in Marvao.  The lively richness of this fruity, wonderful beer serves to underline and italicize the extraordinary uniqueness of this special place.

I know it’s remote; not many travellers manage to get on out that way, but I know where I’m going the next time I’m on the Iberian peninsula:  MARV- WOW!