Saturday, November 15, 2008


By Graham

Poop, poop, poop, this city is all about poop. It is here, it is there, it is everywhere. All day long you have to look where you put your feet. One moment you could be walking, and the next you could be sliding. We are having a contest to see who can make it the longest without stepping in poop. Dad is already out.

If you were to put all the poop in Buenos Aires in one mound, it would probably be about 10,000 feet high. Just hope a passing plane doesn't run into it. That would be an awful mess. I have never seen this much poop in my life. This city would be perfect if there were no poop.

I Scream, You Scream, My Mom Stole My Ice Scream!

By Katharine

One night, we all went out for ice cream at Freddo's. The inside of the shop is small and has a big counter that takes up most of the room. There were only three other people. One little girl had a bowl of ice cream a few inches tall. We thought we could ask for a smaller scoop but then we found out that it was the smallest size. When it was our turn, my dad got raspberry. It was a pinkish color. My brother got wild berry, which was light pink with big purple chunks. I chose dulce de leche, which was light brown. Our dad went over to order in espanol. We took our helados outside. First, we tried Graham's. It tasted like a bunch of fruit put together to make a slushy. Then, we had my dad's. It tasted like a sour raspberry. Finally, we tried mine. It was all caramel, so creamy and smooth my mom went psycho for it. I asked her why she did not buy her own. She said she thought that it would be too much ice cream. She then told me that my ice cream was leaking, which I think was a lie because she just wanted more. I started screaming at her because she wouldn't give me my ice cream back, so I only got a half. My mom was like a dog with a bone. I feared for my life.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Just Like Me

Before we arrived in Buenos Aires I had some preconceived notions about Argentine women. You know, the typical "they all look like tango dancers" stereotype: long-legged, short-skirted, smooth dark hair pulled into a neat tight bun, heels, manicured, pedicured, neat, cool, a pampered package. In other words, my complete and total opposite. During my period of pre-travel psycho-ness, I would lie in bed (heart beating a little too fast) and think about the hair washings, massages, and pedicures that I would be forced to endure just to fit in. I couldn't wait.

Well, we arrive in BA, and much to my surprise, the women don't look anything like I imagined. In fact, I fit right in, frizzy hair and all. Maybe it's our neighborhood—we're in Recoleta—but I haven't seen a single woman who resembles my mind's stereotype. I'm a little disappointed because now I can just continue as I am, no pressure to smooth the frizz and buff the nails.


One Small Foot for a Girl...

by Katharine

Today was my first pedicure. We walked around the whole of French Street. But all of the shops were closed except one. When we walked in we knew something was wrong. First she took us downstairs (upstairs was much nicer). Then she took us into a little box where we ended up being squashed. We both went through a horror of pain. She took a very sharp pointy thing and stabbed our toes. When can we go, I thought. She asked my mom what color she wanted. My mom said "red." Then she asked me. I wanted black and green but she did not want me to get dark colors. She said, "pinkish white." When my mom's feet were done they looked like she cut her toes with a machete. The woman had splattered the polish all over her toes but she did not care. When we went to pay she told us how much it was. It was 50 pesos! We paid and tried to walk out but it was too late, the woman started kissing us—ewww! We quickly ran out. We saw dad and told him the news.

Perros, Perros, Perros

By Katharine

There are many dogs here. On every block there is a dog. There are yellow dogs, brown dogs, tan dogs, spotty dogs, big dogs, and little dogs. Sometimes when we go to the park we see them running and playing. We usually see them in packs. All the dog walkers have about 10 or 20 dogs. But there is one bad thing, poop. Everywhere you step is poop. My mom, Graham, and I miss the poop but our dad steps in all of it. So we always have to say dad, you stepped in poop! But I like it here.

San Telmo Sunday Market; Photos

by Louise

"There's an antique market in San Telmo on Sunday, you want to go?" (Insert sound of groaning children.) "Can we buy toys there?" (Insert sound of groaning parents.)

We set off for the market not really knowing what to expect. Would it be a bunch of tables set up in full sun in the middle of the neighborhood square? Hawkers selling junk? Would our kids be whining and dragging their feet forcing us into a little cafe for a mid-morning cerveza o dos?

After walking in the wrong direction three times and the right direction (but thinking it was the wrong direction) twice, we finally made it to the market. What a madhouse. It carried on for block after brick-lined block. The Spanish colonial homes created a perfect frame for the sellers, singers, tango dancers, and costumed people. Was it like this always? Quizás, we were told, this was just another Sunday in San Telmo. So, like the woman in the ducha libre, we went with the flow.

Graham is developing an interest in knives. We're not sure if we should be concerned about this or not. There certainly were plenty to look at, touch, and wave around in his sister's face.

Katharine spent a really, really long time looking at jewelery. The booth owners often tried to change her focus to "kid" stuff but she would have none of it. She never did find what she was looking for. We're not even sure what she was looking for. She's still looking.

There was a lot of very cool horse stuff. Almost made me wish I could ride. Almost.

Family portrait. You can see that at least I'm still smiling.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

First Lessons in Urban Life

by Andrew

A week ago, as we wandered down Collins Avenue in South Beach, we passed a slew of young men whose sex was not a slam dunk, at least for a seven-year-old. Some wore dresses, some wore make-up, some wore almost nothing at all. All would have won the Miss Exmore competition without a single pirouette. As each one passed, Katharine turned to Louise and whispered: "Was that a man or a woman?"

And so we had the urban equivalent of the birds-and-the-bees conversation, otherwise known as the drones-and-drakes dialogue. Oh, it may be old hat to you folks who live in New York or San Francisco, but for a child whose closest encounter with homosexuality was a Pekin duck and his Appalachian son, this was big stuff. I must announce that Katharine no longer sees the world as Sarah Palin does.

On our first evening in Buenos Aires, Katharine appraised her surroundings with the cool eyes of someone who's been there and done that. No longer a country rube, she knows how to recognize the tell-tale signs of homosexuality: handsome men, show tunes, and escalating real-estate prices.

As we sat at dinner, a group of men congregated on the sidewalk in front of us. They were obviously a soccer team, gathering for a beer at the cafe. In greeting, the men hugged and kissed each other on the cheek. Our little veteran from South Beach didn't miss a thing. Eyes aglitter, she leaned in to the table and whispered urgently: "Are there a lot of G-A-Ys here?"

Monday, November 10, 2008

Primero Impresionas de Buenos Aires

by Louise

Maxikioscos 25 Horas (si, 25).
Perros. Perros. Perros.
Dad, you stepped in poop again!
Este ciudad es mas bueno y muy bonito.
Quiero vivir aquí.
Sin los perros poop.

Pipeline Alley

by Graham

Pipeline Alley is a secondary rain forest, part of a national park beside the Panama Canal. Most of it was chopped down so the Panama Canal could be built. Today, the forest is only about 100 years old. It would be much bigger if the canal had not been built. Even though it is a secondary rain forest, the trees are still about 100 feet tall. We saw many animals hidden under leaves, and in the trees. Katharine and I spotted most of the animals, including a tiny frog no bigger than a thumb nail, and several lizards that looked like sticks.

Mom said she would buy someone a present under five pesos if they could spot a toucan. Well, none of us did, but a guide found one for her (he cheated because he had a telescope). Too bad about that prize. We saw more sloths than we could count. We walked through the jungle to a small lake in hopes of seeing a crocodile; instead we found another guide. He spotted an iguana. He knew an interesting technique. He would search for an animal with his binoculars. When he found one, he would then point his telescope at it. He took some great pictures by holding my camera up to the lens. It made a super good zoom. As lunch time neared, we were tiring so we decided to go home.

I had a great time there.

Jacobian White-throated humming bird and a Perezoso (sloth)

Sloth video shot by Katharine. When it's raining sloths move pretty quickly.

Mono titi (Tamarind monkey)
While we attacked breakfast, these guys flung themselves through the trees.

For Grace & Mr. B: A real, live Panamanian armadillo spotted by Katharine in an abandoned pool.

Psycho Mama

by Louise

I understand through the Eastern Shore grapevine that some dear souls swear that I went "psycho" just before leaving Virginia and pulled the proverbial welcome mat from under my house-sitter. There's actually some truth to the rumor.

Was I stressed out? You bet. Wouldn't you be if you were leaving your house, packing for a five-month trip, home schooling, juggling clients, and leaving your 11-year-old dog behind? I was plenty stressed. What bothers me about the rumor, though, is the implication that the house-sitter was just an innocent victim caught in the crossfire of my emotions.

To make a long story short, I did have a friend lined up to house sit. I had arranged it months ago. Yet there we were, just days from departure, and my friend had still not come to our house for a get-to-know-you tour. As D-day approached, I left messages that were not returned. My blood pressure started to rise.

I have since learned that my friend felt that moving into our home would be as easy as picking the keys up from under the mat. She ignored my emails and calls because she felt she had everything covered. When you're moving into someone's house for five months, though, I don't think that's fair, no matter how competent you are.

I moved into our house once before, too, and it's no walk in the park. The house is over a hundred years old and some of the systems are eccentric to say the least. We also have a whole bunch of animals here. When all is said and done, though, this is our home, our investment, and we have our entire lives wrapped up in here. Was it too much to expect our house-sitter to understand that?

I thought we had arranged for our friend to come on Saturday, just three days before our departure. Silence. At that point, I still wanted—and expected—her to house sit. Andrew and I had spent days cleaning out all the bedrooms that her family would need. We emptied dressers and closets, bookshelves, and cabinets. We wanted her family to be as comfortable as possible in our home.

By 4 pm on Saturday, I still had heard nothing. At that point, I snapped. I went "psycho" if you like. I called my friend and canceled the whole thing. It may seem like a rash, last-minute decision, but I needed to know that the person staying in our home actually cared about our home. For whatever reason—lack of communication or a simple misunderstanding—I didn't get that feeling.

Thankfully, I have some dear friends who stepped into the breach at the final hour. I have depended on them in the past, and I know I can count on them now. For that, they have my deep thanks and appreciation.

As for my friend, I hope that we can move past this. Somehow our plans went off the rails and neither of us communicated soon enough or clearly enough—and for that we both paid a price. I, for one, am very sorry about what happened.

A Man, a Plan, Etc.

by Andrew

The juxtaposition of wealth and crushing poverty left us gob-smacked in Panama City. The gulf between rich and poor is more extreme in South Africa, but for some reason it struck me harder here. In South Africa, the differences go beyond purely economic--race, language, and culture all combine to make the disparity somehow more comprehensible. In Panama City, though--at least for an outsider--the Panamanian people do not seem to have such clear-cut lines of division. Some are rich, some are poor. Eso es todo.

Magnificent restored mansions in the Casco Viejo district sit cheek-by-jowl with crumbling tenements with no running water (residents erect plywood outhouses on their balconies). Entire neighborhoods look like something out of a Dickens novel with palm trees, while a block away luxury high-rise apartment blocks form a skyline that shames Miami. Que pasa aqui?

Remove the historical bugaboos about what makes an underclass--race, language, immigrant status--and you start to consider other ideas about how such a bi-polar society develops. Does the cream really rise to the top? Are the smartest, hardest-working folks also the richest? I doubt it. Quite frankly, I have no idea how Panama came to this pass, but I know one thing: I would have been a card-carrying something or other if I had been born on the wrong side of the canal here.

Even after a few days, you get the sneaking suspicion that the cards are stacked to preserve the status quo. We arrived in time for Panama's Independence Day celebrations, a three-day fiesta involving lots of flag-waving and amor patriae. The Panama Canal, which was turned over to Panama by the U.S. in 1999, is a source of undying pride among its citizenry. Put it this way: their bladders are not the only waterway that is near and dear to the hearts of the average Panamanian. But scratch the surface a little and you start to wonder if the patriotic fervor whipped up about the canal simply provided cover for a good old-fashioned land grab.

I had an illuminating conversation with a birding guide who stopped by our hotel to pick up some clients. Sitting on the balcony watching tamarind monkeys fighting over bananas, he expressed his wish that the U.S. had held onto the waterway, because at least the Panamanians knew where all the money was. Now great wads of it are simply disappearing.

According to my little bird friend, the 8,000 Panamanians employed by the U.S. were all fired and replaced by friends of the governing party. The Panamanian president is now apparently the richest man in the country. Areas of rainforest that were preserved to prevent the canal from silting up have been parceled out to political cronies for development as resorts. Hearing all this, I hated to tell the birding guide what I suspect is the real truth--Dick Cheney is now running their country.

We arrived in Panama during the Independence from Colombia celebration.

Presidential Palace

Presidential bird

This hombre ain't workin'

Bottoms Up

by Andrew

Travelers soon learn that the biggest differences among cultures usually concern food: what we eat, how we eat it, and--once the fun is over--how we handle what comes out the other end.
Each culture tackles the final curtain in its own inimitable way. Believe it or not, a museum in Buenos Aires is devoted to different types of toilet. No doubt, we will be visiting soon.

Graham's voyage of cultural discovery began soon after we arrived at our hotel in Panama. Attached to the wall next to the toilet was a small hand-held shower, not dissimilar to the sprayers found on kitchen sinks. Since there was neither a shower nor a sink anywhere nearby, Graham's keen detective skills smelled a rat. Before we could even unpack, he demanded an explanation of its use.

Trying to escape a potentially grim conversation, I tersely explained that the spray hose was a poor man's bidet, for use on the toilet itself. This was a dumb strategy on my part, since Graham wouldn't know a bidet from a good day. I was immediately put me in the unenviable position of having to explain to my children the finer points of this most un-American device.

I used only the most delicate language and avoided all scatological humor. When I had finished, Katharine gave a slightly horrified laugh and skipped out of the bathroom. Graham, on the other hand, had contracted a strange, almost feverish glitter in his eye that should have given me pause.

The next morning, Graham quickly disappeared into the bathroom on the pretext of washing his feet, which smelled like a landfill. He re-emerged 15 minutes later without saying a word. The only sign that something was amiss was the fact that the back of his shirt and head were sopping wet. Katharine, who had been waiting for the bathroom, reported that the floor was flooded.

I turned to Graham, one eyebrow cocked in interrogatory fashion.

"What on earth were you doing in there?" I asked.

"I used the bidet shower," replied Graham nonchalantly.

"But that's for your bum, Graham," I said. "Your back and head are soaked, and it looks as if a monsoon just hit the bathroom. How did you manage that?"

"I missed," he replied.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Panama Canal & Ninjas in Training

The Panama Canal by Katharine

The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. They dug the canal in the thinnest strip of land in Panama. The canal is 50 miles long. It was built because people did not want to go all the way around South America on a boat. It would take weeks. First the French started building the canal. They thought they could dig down deep but when it rained the mud washed back in. Then the US tried. They built concrete walls and gates called locks. When a boat went into a lock the gates would shut and water was poured into the lock to even the sides out. The US also tried using trains. They would put the things the ship carried on the train but that was very hard so they decided they would stick with the locks.

A lock and a tug on a lock

Ship in a lock

Children who should be locked up.

Ninjas in Training

Our B&B is located on Ancon Hill, surrounded by jungle and within a nature reserve. Late one afternoon we decided to hike to the top of the reserve because we had heard that the views of Panama City—which lay spread out below—were fantastico.

Due to our total and complete understanding of Spanish, we were locked into the reserve that evening.

It was growing dark. The air was thick and humid. Rain was near. And as we learned from the previous day, when it rains here, it pours.

Our choices for exit from the reserve were simple:
1. Climb around the razor-wire-topped chain-link fence that lined the road to our B&B and push our way through the thick jungle in the hope that there would be an opening in the fence somewhere before Costa Rica.

2. Scale a 50-foot palm tree, jump onto an old rusty bus shelter roof, take a running jump and leap over the razor wire gate (this was Graham's favorite).

3. Hoist ourselves up onto the thick chain holding the gates closed and try to squeeze between the gates. It was the only way I could imagine successfully making it back to the B&B without a stop in the hospital, that is assuming that we were able to duck under the razor wire wound around the top of the gates. Seeing how this was my brilliant idea, I sent the family on ahead to, ah, loosen the hinges.

In one motion, Andrew raised his left leg and placed his foot onto the chain lock. With two slight shimmies, he was through. I suddenly realized how nimble and thin my husband is. Next, it was Katharine's turn. With great difficulty I lifted her up so she could get her feet on the lock. When did she get so heavy? Like a mouse, she slipped through the gate and fell into Andrew's arms on the other side. Graham was next. Strong as an ox, the kid barely needed my assistance to raise himself to the level of the lock. Again, with the agility and strength of a gymnast he was through.

That left me. The woman who cannot touch her toes. Plus, after several weeks of no exercise, my jeans were a little snug. I took another look at the palm three and bus shelter and actually considered attempting the climb but was distracted by my family insisting I could take the fence. "Climb the fence! Climb the fence!" They repeated. Under peer pressure now, I launched myself at the fence but only managed to get a few inches off the ground. I didn't think I could do it. I told them to press on home, I'd wait it out until morning in the bus shelter. Then Andrew looked at his watch. "Polls are closing on the East Coast. Let's get a move on." That's all it took: I shouted, "Yes I Can!" and flung myself at the fence. This time I did it. I got my foot up onto the lock and just needed to push through that gap: If Virginia could vote blue, I could push through!

Safely on the other side, Katharine declared this to be the best night so far: We were Ninjas in training. "Let's do it again tomorrow!" ¿Qué?

South Beach Goes South

by Andrew

South Beach needs to be saved by a hunky lifeguard: The economic meltdown and the housing crisis have kicked sand right in the face of this erstwhile model magnet. When I was last here, six years ago to do an article for a magazine, South Beach had a serious case of the cools. Euro-trash playboys in Maseratis competed for space on the promenade with Hollywood glitterati and boy toys on rollerblades. But now it's over the hill, like one of those supermodels who once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated but now vies for attention by appearing on reality TV shows. Any wine bar that offers drink discounts and happy hours has lost its mojo, but the practice is now rife throughout South Beach. Paunchy coupon-cutters, awaiting the feeding trough of their upcoming Caribbean cruise, now rule Ocean and Collins, pestered by increasingly desperate hostesses who used to work at TGIF. It's all quite sad.

Gays are still much in evidence, but they seem to be biding their time, waiting for the next big thing somewhere else. The staff at our hotel were all queer as $3 bills, but they wore their Halloween pirate costumes with all the elan of the customed figures at Chuck-E-Cheese. The zip is gone.

The one redeeming feature of South Beach, however, was the Halloween bash down on Lincoln Mall. Children and adults, all dressed in their ghoulish best, descended on a half-mile stretch, extracting candy from the stores and restaurants that line the pedestrian mall. Given our desire to travel light, the children had to substitute sophisticated costumes for imaginative word play. Katharine cut lots of holes in a white sheet and went as the Holy Ghost. Graham wrote pithy sayings all over his white sheet (e.g., "It was a dark and stormy night) and paraded down the avenue clutching a pen. He was a ghost writer. South Beach, with its host of cross-dressers, gays, and transgender tourists, looks pretty much like Halloween on any given night, so it takes something special to stand out on this particular holiday. The winner, hands down, went to a gay fellow dressed as a scantily clad devil, clutching an axe and the bloody wings of an angel that he had evidently just dispatched.

Graham was a little cautious at first, reluctant to push his way into restaurants, salons, and clothing stores in search of booty. Katharine had no such qualms and shot into each and every establishment that presented itself. Graham soon caught on, only to breeze confidently into an ostentatiously gay bar and request candy from the bemused bartender. One patron, well into his cups, told Graham that this particular establishment specialized in a different kind of candy. Needless to say, I hustled him into the Godiva chocolate shop next door at a brisk pace.

Despite an impressive haul of candy, the children proclaimed Miami a bust and expressed their fervent hope that Panama City would be an improvement. What kind of monsters have we created?

A Dip in the Gene Pool

By Andrew

From Charleston, we piled into the Gordo Marquis for the five-hour trip to Gainesville, home to Mike and Susan and their two children, Grace and Mr. B. Driving into Florida, we miraculously escaped the gravitational pull exerted by Orlando and all things Mickey, but were catapulted instead onto some of northern Florida's more rural backroads.

Since we moved to the Eastern Shore, we have been increasingly perturbed by the number of neighbors who obviously floated out of the evolutionary channel. In retrospect, we have nothing to worry about. Some of the burgs in northern Florida make the southern tip of Northampton look like M.I.T.

This is a gene pool that has shrunk severely through several hot-rinse cycles. When we stopped for a bathroom break at a Publix grocery store in the town of Starke, I was almost too frightened to get out of the car. It was as if a Picasso painting had come to life and decided to go shopping. I can't imagine how they're going to top the natural order for Halloween.

Without making any political comments, I will simply report that McCain-Palin signs were heavy on the ground. Obama-Biden signs made a comeback as we entered Gainesville, home to the University of Florida.

Ground central for Obama support, however, was Susan and Mike's home. Just days before the election, Susan was scarcely able to turn on the TV from sheer anxiety. Mike, on the other hand, was in fine fettle, donning new T-shirts—his chosen medium of political expression—at a dizzying pace. "1-20-09: The End of an Error" graced his chest during evening drinks. By the time we settled down for a nightcap several T-shirts later, I think we were up to "If you want religion in schools, move to Iran."

If Mike strays from Gainesville's city limits, he will almost certainly be shot, especially if he receives the T-shirt we ordered for him. It reads "Starke Naked? No Thanks."

The UFO that Ate Charleston

by Andrew

Without doubt, Charleston is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. Mix one part Key West, two parts New Orleans, a pinch of Georgetown, shake thoroughly, et voila! We visited in late October, with the weather crisp but sunny and nary a tourist in sight. We got the distinct impression, though, that party-hearty hordes descend on the place during the summer months, which probably tips the scales too much to the vomit and honky-tonk side.

As an African-American, I was understandably a little wary about exploring a city that was, after all, the port at which most of the slaves sent to America arrived. But with another African-American standing on the cusp of the presidency, I felt it was time to turn the page and forgive. I won't hold it against whitey any longer.

So what really captured our imagination in this city that dates back to the 16th century? Was it the grandiose 18th-century homes of prosperous traders and sea captains, with their broad verandahs and shady gardens? Was it the giant oaks cloaked in Spanish moss that gave the cobbled streets a sense of cool mystery? The slave market with its echoes of unimaginable human suffering? The glorious churches with their overgrown graveyards? Nah. It was a leaf.

As our children ripped at a vine in order to reach some long seed pods that contained helicopter seeds, Louise discovered a UFO (Unidentified Furry Object) on the underside of a leaf. To me, it looked like something that had been left in the back of the fridge too long, but the science teacher in Louise recognized it as something that we in the business call a teachable moment. The only problem about teachable moments is when the teacher doesn't have a clue what she's teaching.

So started our quest to discover the identity of this furry object and the seedlike polyps that lay within. Charleston boasts a wide number of tourist stands that advertise--quite stupidly in retrospect--that their representatives will answer any of your questions. Louise marched up to one such stand and demanded an answer to her particular question. The fellow blanched perceptibly and took a step back. Finally summoning his courage, he peered at the offending item from a distance before announcing that they didn't pay him enough to know the answer. We marched on, leaving a trail of Charleston residents with two pressing questions: (a) Who let that loony Yankee in my town? (b) What the hell is that thing and am I safe living here?

Eventually, Louise cornered a gardener from the city's parks department, who solved the mystery with breezy insouciance. It was a fungus that was among us. And with that resolved, Charleston lost its air of excitement and mystery. We headed for the car and continued south.