Fire, Dust, and the Holy Ganges River

Varanasi is the India of popular imagination. Tiny serpentine alleys slither between gaudy temples, drab yoga joints, sad empty English schools, dark little alcoves that promote spiritual enlightenment and smell like urine, colorful sari shops, questionable food stalls, skinny old shirtless guys who look like they've eaten nothing but grass since the 1950s, piles of fresh cow dung, packs of men hauling human corpses on festively decorated stretchers, bored policeman, insistent and deformed beggars, sweet wafting clouds of incense, and other agents of sensory overload. 

Hinduism has no holier site than Varanasi, which sits astride the River Ganges and throttles it with boats and ashes and passionate love and candles and relics and bottomless fervor and trash. The city is also central to Buddhism; Buddha gave his first post-Enlightenment sermon to five followers in a hot clump of trees a few miles north of the the Ganges. 

I am wandering the cramped streets of old Varanasi with a friend. No idea where I am. It can be enough sometimes just to drift a little. My friend ducks into a temple, but, as a foreigner, I can't go inside. No problem, I say, we'll meet back up in twenty minutes. And I drift away. I want to find something holy. Maybe the Ganges. Doesn't matter if it's really holy or not, as long as it feels holy and you treat it holy. If so, then maybe there's something there, a flash of the vast or a sweet little sigh of some folded up memory. 

The crowds thin as I move into narrower lanes. It's quiet. I squeeze past a droopy-skinned cow, an old man with an upper lip bursting with a white mustache. A guy in a tiny shop asks me if I'm thirsty. I shake my head and touch my heart and smile. He touches his own heart too.

Then there's smoke and somebody's chanting. I round a corner. Fire and the Ganges. The river is wide, the fire beside the water is hot. I can feel it on my knuckles. Especially on my knuckles. I don't know why that is. They're burning dead bodies. When you're cremated in Varanasi, you're assured salvation. And I've found salvation, all heat and sparks. I watch the fire send smoke and souls to the blue sky.

You would think this grotesque, macabre. But it isn't. It's careful and solemn. And anyways I'm looking for something holy, and there's holiness in the elemental. And fire and water and dust are the beginning and the end of us, aren't they? That's as elemental as it gets.

Later, I'm in a boat on the black water Ganges. The sun is gone, they're performing the Ganga Aarti on the shore, flame and incense. Jangling bells forever. The boat rocks and I look out over the dark waves. They're dotted with bobbing pinpricks of light, floating candles, little prayers set sail from sinners' hands on the shore. The hope of redemption. Salvation. In my life, I've seen a lot of ways the fallen try to rise, to reach out for something gracious and unseen, to believe they're more than dust that burns and blows away, to become holy. And if it feels holy, and you treat it holy, I can't really tell you it's not.

Family Time in Leh, Ladakh, India (or, "White Trash Winter Ensemble")

We needed a place for our family to sleep, so we asked the woman walking her cows down the street if she had any recommendations. "Follow me," she said. Shannon and I looked at each other and shrugged. We'd never gone wrong following a cow lady before. On the other hand, we'd never gone right following a cow lady either. We actually hadn't ever followed a cow lady before. But you only live once! So we followed the cow lady to her house, and it turned out that she had a couple rooms upstairs in her family's house, and they only wanted about fifteen bucks per room per night. That seemed reasonable, even though there was no hot water, nor towels, nor toilet paper. And no heat, despite the fact that we were 12,000 feet up in the Himalayas in late-October. But you can't really complain -- as they say, you get what you pay for. Or, more accurately, you don't get what you don't pay for.

Sisters who write on rocks together, stay together. (Saspol, India; Oct 2017)

Leh, a small town perched high in the Himalayas (between 11,000 and 12,000 feet), near both Tibet and Pakistan, is technically part of India. But the only thing Indian about it is the overwhelming Indian military presence in town and the regions roundabout. This is because, in case you've been sniffing glue real hard for the past 70 years, India has poor relations with Pakistan. And kind of with China too. Leh is only about a two-hour flight from Delhi, and October is the cusp between high and low tourist season. This means that there are fewer tourists around and things are a lot cheaper. But it also means that a lot of hotels are closed for the winter and you might have to sleep in the cow lady's house.

Since they've lived most of their lives in hot climates, my kids were pretty excited to go somewhere cold. Until they actually got somewhere cold, then they had second thoughts. Fortunately, Shannon and I had thought ahead and borrowed all manner of coats and hats and sweaters from kind friends (our own belongings, to which we bid farewell last April in El Salvador, have not yet arrived in India). Bundled up in multiple layers of mismatched leggings, jeans, hoodies, hats, and coats, the Abu Halen family resembled a white trash winter ensemble and was prepared to brave temperatures plunging into the 40s and 30s.

12,300 feet. (Hemis, India; Oct 2017)

Now, I recognize that that's not objectively very cold, but after spending the past five years in Saudi Arabia, El Salvador, and now India, temperatures in the 70s feel cold to us. So this felt like an Arctic expedition, and we trained by holding several pre-trip family meetings on the very real possibility that the wind chill could reach sub-50 degrees Farenheit, in which case a Donner Party scenario could set in. "Look, all I'm saying," I told the kids, "is that I think that using a lot of mustard would probably take away some of the 'Ew' factor."

Leh -- and the surrounding region, known as Ladakh -- is heavily Buddhist, but I was surprised and interested to learn that nearly half the population of Leh itself is in fact Muslim. The only Hindus within scores and scores of miles are the Indian army soldiers stationed throughout the mountains. There are several mosques in town, and I loved hearing the calls to prayer, which I've actually missed a lot since leaving the Islamic world in 2014. Our hostess -- the cow lady -- and her family were Muslim, and her kids explained that in school Ladakhi students learn English and Urdu, a language based on the Arabic script and strongly associated with Islam throughout Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan and India. Almost nobody speaks or learns Hindi in Ladakh, because there's just no need. I thought all this was very interesting. My kids were like, "Yes, but is there pizza in this town."

"DONE with monasteries." (Hemis, India; Oct 2017)

Per general norms of propriety in Ladakh, we toured numerous monasteries. The first few were pretty neat. They are generally built in the most inaccessible locations. It's as if monks go walking up into the mountains, and then when they find a place where they're like, "Man, it would SUCK to have to drag building materials up here," that's where they're like, "I think we should drag building materials up here." So the monasteries were fun, but five of the six of us were monastery-ed out after touring three or four of them (Shannon can look at boring things indefinitely, that's her superpower, a really lame one). So finally, I told the guide, "Can we just drive around and stop when we see something cool?"

Innocent to the fact you're supposed to throw them up, not out. (Rizong, India; Oct 2017)

We found a grove of trees flaming with fall colors beside an icy mountain stream and spent an hour there throwing leaves and basking in the sun. Savannah soaked her feet in the stream and flirted with hypothermia (sidenote: love is like hypothermia -- you can't think straight and you really need a snuggle).

Later, we stopped on a big bend in the mighty Indus River. It flowed fast and cold and violently turquoise. The kids skipped rocks, and I watched. The mighty Himalayas towered all around us, countless 20,000 foot peaks seeming to scratch the belly of the blue sky. The shiny Indus snaked by beneath the hard autumn sun. My kids' laughter bounced off the water and the mountains, and I thought, this world, there's so much of it. 

Munchkins beside the Indus. (Saspol, India; Oct 2017)

There is a French Man in the Mountains Who Makes Motorcycles, and He Will Lead You Home

The night I arrived in India, they picked me up from the airport and dropped me outside my apartment building at midnight. I was tired and unsteady, and a bit vulnerable. Then the doorman opened the gate, and there was a motorcycle in the driveway, and in my vulnerable state, I fell. I loved it, and I coveted it. Righteously, of course. My mental to-do list for the morrow changed from "1. Get food; 2. Stay awake at work," to "1. Find out where to get motorcycle; 2. Get food; 3. Stay awake at work."

Naggar, India; October 2017

The next day I saw a man sitting on the steps of my building watching workers put the motorcycle in a crate. The man said he owned the bike, and that he was moving away permanently and immediately. I begged him not to go, told him I needed his motorcycle guru-ness. But, I offered, if he must leave, would he at least give me knowledge as to where I might go to find a motorcycle so fine and retro and heckacool as his. He said, "In the mountains, there is a French man. He will make you a motorcycle." Then he left. He was a little like Gandolf, but shorter and less popular with the Elvish ladies.

I wondered how I would find French Man in the mountains with the knowledge to make heckacool motorcycles. Lacking a company of dwarfs and hobbits to go find him for me, I consulted the internet instead, which I bet Frodo wishes he could've done, because then he would've found that meme that says, "One does not simply walk into Mordor," and he would've been like, "Oh, wait, guys."

Jana, India; October 2017

Because the Man on the Steps had given me the name of French Man's garage, I harnessed the power of the Google and found his phone number, afterwhich I called him on the phone. "Hello," I said. "I would like to know how much it costs for you to make me a heckacool bike." He must've been in on the whole Lord of the Rings thing, because he was like, "Why don't you just come up to the mountains and we'll talk." I remembered that one scene where Saruman was like, "Hey Gandolf, why don't you just come up to my creepy tower thing and we'll talk," and then Gandolf was like, "Sure, seems reasonable," and then Saruman was like, "Hahaha, I'm actually a bad guy, you're the only one in the theater who couldn't see it coming, only jumping off my tower onto the back of a giant eagle that metamorphosed from a tiny butterfly can save you now," and Gandolf was like, "OK." Even so, I agreed to French Man's terms, but I decided to take my twelve year old son along, just in case French Man turned out to be a bad guy, because I can run faster than my son, and it's always the slowest guy who gets it.

We took a plane to Chandigarh, where a guy named Vijay picked us up in a car with seat belts. Thumbs up emoji. He drove us eight hours into the mountains on the most consistently winding and pot-holed roads I've ever seen, behind the smokiest trucks I've ever smelt, all while listening to the raddest Hindi pop music I've ever heard (I've only heard Hindi pop music once). 

I called French Man when we reached Kullu. He said, "Keep driving. Hug the left bank of the river. I'll be standing on the side of the highway smoking." And I was like, "THIS GUY IS THE AWESOMEST GUY IN THE WORLD EVER!!!!" But remember, smoking kills.

Naggar, India; October 2017

In the end, we found French Man. We hung out for awhile on a veranda in the sunshine, then he took us to the sweet action guesthouse he'd arranged for us. Guesthouses are like hostels, except not enough weed is smoked there for them to properly be called hostels. Guesthouses are also somewhat like hotels, but with not enough towels and toilet paper provided to properly be called hotels. Me and Halen liked our guesthouse, except it would've been nice had it been heated. Sometimes the Himalayas are cold. But the blankets were pretty good, made of yak hair, or maybe yak butter, or possibly synthetics. 

French Man took us on a motorcycle ride the next day up in the mountains with another French guy who retired and now just does things like drive in a circle around Australia, and also a French journalist and an Indian journalist, and also an Indian mechanic who I personally witnessed repair a blown carburetor in under 90 seconds using only a rusty nail and a strand of hair from MacGyver's mullet that he had procured on eBay. 

As Vijay drove us back down the winding mountain roads toward home, I asked Halen how the weekend had gone. "It was the best weekend ever, Dad!" he said. "That's great, son," I said. "Also, remember that as long as I can run faster than you, bad guys and wild animals will always get you first, and I'll live. Thanks for that." Dad win.

Selfie Sticks Are the Antithesis of Love (and Other Thoughts More or Less Related to Tom Petty)

Tom Petty died without ever knowing that I exist. Which is kind of a shame, really. Tom Petty was one of those guys I feel like I would've been friends with if we'd have ever met. But we didn't, mostly because we just didn't really run in the same crowds. I've always sort of hung out with people who make five figures, and Tom Petty -- any way you cut the cake -- didn't make five figures. But that doesn't mean I don't feel like I died inside just a tiny bit when Tom Petty's light went out.

You belong somewhere you feel free.

I don't miss Tom Petty because Tom Petty was part of my life. I miss Tom Petty because Tom Petty was a little glob of the stuff that animates my memories. Maybe it feels like your memories will wash away when the stuff that holds them together starts to die. That's something to be sad about I guess, but at the same time you feel lucky you have the memories in the first place.

I'm too young to have had contemporary experiences with Damn the Torpedoes, or even Hard Promises or Southern Accents. But I do recall seeing the video for "Don't Come Around Here No More" and being a little creeped out, to be honest. I was like, "I guess cannibalism is TV-appropriate these days," which is actually a fairly elevated thought for a second-grader.

Full Moon Fever came out when we lived in a one-bedroom apartment by the freeway. It was hot that summer and there was nothing to do except hang out at the pool with my mom. I feel like this is how all 10-11 year olds spend their summers, I don't know why you're judging me. We had a radio we'd take to the pool. Sometimes "Runnin' Down a Dream" would come on. I knew that when Tom Petty said, "Me and Del were singin'/Little runaway," that he was talking about either Del Shannon or Del Taco, and I hoped it was the latter. My mom was proud of me for knowing who Del Shannon was. Later, when I married someone named Shannon, my mom smiled knowingly. 

I got older. Echo came in 1999. It's a bitter work, alternately defiant and resigned, but wholeheartedly brokenhearted. Love wasn't kind to me then, either. "It's the same sad echo when you talk," Tom said. Yeah, you go girl, I said, optimistic that Tom Petty would understand that it was just a figure of speech, and that I knew that Tom Petty is in fact a boy. It was winter all the time those days. My man Tom understood.

Grandma and Grandpa got me Wildflowers for my 16th birthday, which was kind of strange because usually they gave me picture books about the Bible or blank journals or candy corns, which is what older people think candy is, even though candy corns are in fact dried vomit shaped into small colorful cones of yak. I guess Grandma and Grandpa figured now that I was old enough to have my own job and get fired from it, maybe I should get more grown up presents. That and my cool older cousin Zach told them Wildflowers was A) pretty hip with the kids these days, and B) not Satanic, and that therefore it would make a good gift. It's unlikely that Grandma and Grandpa knew that track 2 (and, arguably, tracks 5 and 10 and 12 and 14) was about drugs. I still love Grandma and Grandpa for gifting me that awesome CD, and I still eschew drugs.

The track "Wildflowers" made it onto my wedding video, which is on a VHS tape. Don't judge me, VHS tapes will make a comeback, like vinyl, and then I'll be so far ahead of the coolness curve and I'll sell some future hipster my wedding video for like $8000. I don't think people do wedding videos any more, or if they do they just do it themselves with a Go Pro and a selfie stick, both of which are the antithesis of love. I am serious -- how many couples do you know who take selfies of themselves on selfie sticks and are still together? Probably a lot, and that largely undermines my point, but I'm pretty sure I'm still right notwithstanding. 

Wedding videos used to be a thing though. There's me and Shannon in the video, young, sunny, oblivious, untested, hopeful, free. "You belong among the wildflowers, you belong somewhere close to me," Tom says, as me and Shannon on the video snuggle beside a colorful snatch of flowers in the long ago sun.

It's just a memory. But there's a bridge that takes us back and forth between then and now. My children hear "Wildflowers" sometimes. "You belong with your love on your arm, you belong somewhere you feel free," Tom says. The kids perk up. "Hey! This is that you-love-Mom song." Yes. Yes it is. Thanks, Tom.

Monkey Bullies and the Taste of a Carnival

India is all heaviness. It tastes like sweat and smells like struggle and feels raw and bony. Life here is unrestrained. It bubbles and seethes and jumps its banks and washes all over. And if you run from it, it will catch you and cover you with the weight of skin and blood and eye whites. But if you wade into the water with arms open, India changes. It tastes like a carnival and smells like colors and feels open and endless. 

A quiet carnival. (Purana Qila, Delhi, India; Sep 2017)

I'm in the backseat of an Uber and we're oozing down a thoroughfare that would be six lanes wide if lanes existed here. The traffic is alive with pealing horns and grinding gears. Cars and trucks and buses and motorcycles weave around each other, and for some reason I think of someone braiding hair. Then the traffic is coming apart like a zipper around a stark naked man standing in the middle of the highway, long gray hair and beard and bared teeth and wild eyes like a nude Moses parting a sea of glass and steel and exhaust. As we move around the naked man, I study the other drivers and passengers. Nobody pays him any attention. Apparently standing in the middle of the road without clothes is pretty normal. And I think how, wow, this is pretty weird.

There's a wall beside the sidewalk, and on the other side of the wall is a tangled forest. Banana peels litter the concrete, and monkeys sit atop the wall, munching the spoils they've won from passing motorists. And I'm running past the monkeys on the sidewalk, the only fool exercising at ten in the morning with the temperature edging over ninety and the humidity hovering in the eighties. Some of the monkeys saunter onto the sidewalk ahead of me and one strikes an aggressive pose as I approach. I slow down and stop and the monkey takes a step toward me, so I retreat, which seems to satisfy it. So I run back the other way up the road, weaving between the banana peels, having just been bullied by a monkey, and I think how, wow, this is pretty funny.

Cleaning the outdoor mosque. (Jama' Masjid, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

After missing a turn, my Uber driver executes a U-turn, drives back toward the intersection on the wrong side of the road, makes the turn against a red light across heedless oncoming traffic, and then gets pulled over by a cop, who calls him from the car and slaps him with a 500-rupee fine. My driver returns angry and tells me in Hindi, which I don't speak, that I need to pay him 500 rupees because he just got a ticket. I decline to do so, seeing as how I was not driving at the time of the infraction. He slams the door and returns to argue with the cop some more, so I go ahead and cancel the trip, exit the car, and decide to just walk.

I angle off the noisy main road into a vibrant, gritty neighborhood. Men are cooking things over open fires, young boys are rolling inflated bicycle tire tubes down the street, and women wearing clothes screaming with color are balancing plates piled with spices atop their heads. A young man is riding a bicycle jimmy rigged into a little pickup truck with a bed resting on twin wheels behind the rider's seat. He stops beside a small family crouched low together in the dust, and the smiling father lifts a girl, six or seven years old, I suppose, into the bed of the bicycle. The young man laughs and peddles down the street toward me, and the girl in the bed is laughing too, eyes wide, hot wind pushing her hair back away from her smooth face. Our eyes meet as she passes, and I smile, and so does she, and I think how, wow, everything is beautiful right now.

Commuting in Delhi: How to Carpe Diem and Maybe Even Caveat Emptor

There are various ways to get to and from work in Delhi. I will note the pros and cons of each.

1) Walk. The major drawback to walking is your likely death. You would contract a Civil War-era malady or be mauled by a tuk-tuk or asphyxiated by poopy air or felled by heat stroke or menaced by a boar, or a peacock. Also, you could trip on an uneven sidewalk and sprawl into a poopy puddle, which is very, very funny. Please share video.

The risks of walking. Also, do you know where your Pepsi has been. (Delhi, India; August 2017)

On the upside, walking is cheap, and there are lots of dogs to pet if you like dogs, but be sure to burn off your petting hand afterward, so as to properly disinfect. 

2) Ride your bike. The upside to commuting on a bike is that you get to wear spandex. There are not enough opportunities in this life to wear super tight clothing in socially acceptable contexts, so when the chance arises you should carpe diem, and also res ipsa loquitur, and maybe sometimes you should caveat emptor. 

Riding a bike in Delhi is more like riding a tricycle. Anyone can do it, if you want to DIE by squirrels. (Delhi, India; August 2017)

Actually you shouldn't ride your bike, because maybe you would crash by slipping on poop or getting clipped by a motor scooter or catching your front tire in a pothole. Airborne bacteria would then quickly infect your wounds, and in your weakened state you would just lie there on the side of the busy street in your spandex, feeling vaguely embarrassed by your bright, form-fitting outfit, sinking into delirium as the feral squirrels gnaw at your asphalt-encrusted flesh.

3) Uber. Uber in Delhi is actually a reasonable means of transportation, but trifling annoyances can accumulate over time and make you want to stab people with a candlestick, or maybe a lead pipe, or even possibly the revolver. The main Uber annoyance is that, probably one-third of the time, the driver has poor data coverage or else runs out of phone battery. Navigation services therefore cease and the driver has literally no idea where he's going. On numerous occasions I've had to issue verbal driving directions to my Uber driver, which isn't the end of world, but does leave me feeling like I'm not getting all expected Uber services (to the drivers' credit, they all seem to know the English words "left," "right," "straight," and "Katy Perry").

All that said, the upside of Uber in Delhi is that it's quite cheap -- two or three dollars will get you most places, and even the more distant parts of the city and the heaviest traffic shouldn't push your bill past four or five bucks.

Tuk-Tuks are more fun, and offer you direct access to all the smells.

The view from a tuk-tuk. It smelled like cool things. (Delhi, India; July 2017)

4) Motorcycle. By far the most stylish form of transportation, especially for Indian women, who all elegantly ride sidesaddle behind the driver in their bright, colorful clothing and old brain-bucket, WWI military issue helmets. Even as their testosterone-laden chauffeurs weave dangerously in and out of crazed stop-and-go traffic, these lady riders gracefully perch on the back seat with placid, contented expressions on their faces. I could probably do an entire documentary on how awesome these sidesaddle riders are, but I don't have a video camera, or any interest in making a documentary about anything except cheese.

Oooohhhhhhh yeah. (Delhi, India; August 2017)

5) Have a driver drive you to work in your own car. This mode of transportation allows middle-class expatriates, who can barely afford to shop at Trader Joe's in their home countries, feel like the 1%. And that is what life is all about.

6) Drive your own car to work. No expatriates in Delhi do this. If you are thinking of doing this, stop thinking such wrong thoughts.

If You've Never Been to Qutb Minar... (How Do You Even Live With Yourself)

My kids are reaching the age where I can no longer force them to do things they don't want to do, like leave the house. Well, I suppose I can force them, but the consequences of doing so are graver than they once were, I feel. Whereas when they were smaller they might whine a little when made, against their will, to do some activity, I could typically buy their acquiescence with something as cheap as ice cream, or not making them eat ants. But now, enforcing my will too heedlessly could cause them to rebel against my parental authority by getting tattoos of Minecraft architecture, or listening to Dan Fogelberg, or sniffing glue (which I admit smells good in certain contexts, like when you live in Topeka and have no prospect of leaving).

Kind of a party. (Qutb Minar, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

So when we had a free Saturday afternoon recently, Shannon and I decided to ditch the kids and go tourist-ing ourselves. The kids thought this a great idea, saluted our parenting prowess, and urged us to stay gone as long as we liked. We went to Qutb Minar, a large complex of ruins not far from our flat, crowned by a 237-foot minar, or tower, built of red sandstone and marble, and etched with exquisite Arabic calligraphy, largely Koranic. The tower was built between the 12th and 14th centuries, and several other ruined/partially-restored structures -- including a mosque, a Sufi tomb, and a madrasa -- fill out the complex.

My main impression from our several hour wander around the ruins was sweat. Sweat, for me, is a basic fact of life when temperatures top about 90 and humidity rises above, say 85%, which describes all waking hours in Delhi during the summer. As long as I am outdoors, I am sweating. The key is to just give yourself to the sweat, to embrace it, to let it wash over you in glorious cascades of fragrance. In this way, I felt that I was the wettest, and most beautiful, person at Qutb Minar.

Part of what used to be a religious school, where people now urinate. But not Shannon. (Qutb Minar, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

This is not merely a subjective self-assessment, but a veritably objective truth. I was SO beautiful and SO attractive, that I was stopped by more than a half-dozen Indian tourists throughout the afternoon who wanted selfies with me. Shannon was also repeatedly asked to join passerby for photos, which suggests that, like other famous and photogenic supercouples like Brangelina, we clearly need a supercouple name. I propose Shabu Halen. All of the requests for us to pose for selfies has nothing to do with the fact that Indians love taking selfies with any and all foreigners, probably even Michele Bachmann. 

"Bucket list CHECK! Selfie of me and a lady twice my age." (Qutb Minar, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

All in all Qutb Minar is a pretty remarkable site. The signage was very adequate, with excellent English translations, the architecture was fascinating, and careful, observant visitors will note the clear Sufi influences throughout the ruins (for example, iconography, which is taboo in most of the orthodox Islamic world, is evident on the capitals of numerous columns throughout the site). I was a little disappointed that you can't take the staircase up to the top of the tower, but apparently this is because in 1981 the lights in the stairwell went out and all the people inside stampeded and a bunch of people died. That said, Great White rock concerts are still allowed. I'm just saying.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Qutb Minar though is the "Iron Pillar," which is only about 20 feet tall, but really old. Some think it was constructed around 400 AD. It's also really heavy, apparently -- my attempts to lift it in the name of science were thwarted because it's anchored in concrete four feet deep, and also there's a fence around it. And also my hands were sweaty, so I probably wouldn't have been able to get a good grip. But I'm told it weighs over six tons, which is more than the state of Rhode Island (excluding the asphalt). 

We Chased Pigeons (and Saw Poo)

Man, it got really hard to blog once my family arrived in India and began demanding "time" and "attention" and "cash." Probably, if I was single, I would have time to have like four careers simultaneously: diplomat, pro Zelda player, successful baseball watcher, and partner in a firm where people eat Grape Nuts. And also I would blog a lot. But instead, I have a family, and they don't leave a lot of time for blogging. Though, in the grand scheme of things, they are in fact better than blogging, and better even than all the careers I've ever had, except being the ice cream man, which was akin to taking part in the Rapture.

Here are a series of vignettes of life in Delhi lately.

Busy busy. (Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

My birthday was a few weeks ago, and when it's my birthday I get to do whatever I want. So I made my family come with me to Old Delhi. Walking through Old Delhi is sort of like walking through that cantina in Mos Eisley -- there are a lot of strange-looking people hanging around, they don't speak your language, and it feels like they would win in a fight between them and you, because they probably would not have any qualms with eating you. We squeezed through the narrow, traffic-and-humanity-clogged lanes, dodging tuk-tuks and street food hawkers, and ended up at Jama' Masjid, India's largest mosque. We chased pigeons there.

We did a good job with the pigeons. (Jama' Masjid, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

My kids started school a while ago. The bus picks them up a block and a half from our house, and to get to the bus stop you have to walk past the dump. It smells like a dump. Sometimes there are cows there eating the garbage. They are holy cows. On the first day of school, the school bus (which isn't yellow, but which is instead the kind of bus Japanese tourists would take from the airport to the Grand Canyon) picked up my children, but then couldn't leave our bus stop, because a cow was ambling in front of it. I thought that was a funny thing. Cows are funny. And holy.

"YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!!" (Vasant Vihar, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

Probably one of my least favorite things is being impaled with a dull lightning rod as it concurrently is struck by lightning. But riiiiiiight behind that is attending back-to-school orientation for parents, which I was obliged to do recently given my position as an ostensibly decent father. I feel like parents' back-to-school orientations should consist of a guy standing up at the front of the auditorium and putting his email address up on the projector screen and saying "Email me if you need something." And then after that there are bottomless Cokes and equally endless Choco Tacos, and then on your way out the door they give you a $100 bill for showing up. Our actual back-to-school orientation, however, lasted all day, and alternated between boring and reeeeeeally boring. But they did offer free lunch, with pretty good lemonade and chicken burgers, because you shouldn't eat cows, because they're funny and holy.

Abu Halen getting a cool drink after enduring The Pooping Place. Also, Abu Halen's staff, per usual, preps him for the photo shoot. (Khan Market, Delhi, India; Aug 2017)

Me and Shannon went for a run in a wildlife reserve near our house. Really, it's not a wildlife reserve per se, but more of peacock reserve. Maybe peacocks are endangered in India, I don't know. I just know there were a lot of peacocks, and a wild boar. And, also, we made a wrong turn and happened upon what could only be termed, "The Pooping Place." The dirt path led down a corridor lined with low bushes in which, over the course of a good hundred yards, at least a half dozen men were squatted, pooing. We were unsure whether it would be more awkward to simply proceed or to turn around and run away screaming, so we opted for the former. Shannon handled it admirably, saying nothing apart from, "Yep," in response to my statement of the obvious: "It appears that these men are pooping." We have marked that spot on Google Maps and will not be returning.

Pun Intended (or, "Some Thoughts on Bodily Fluids")

If frustration is unmet expectations, and contentment is the opposite of frustration, then I was contented to see four men peeing on the sidewalk on my way home from work yesterday.

Following that stream of thought (pun intended), last week I was in an underdeveloped marketplace around dinner time, so I found the least sketchy-looking eatery I could -- an Asian restaurant, creatively called The Asian Restaurant -- and sat down inside beside a large window to peruse the menu. As I did so, an Asian woman in a floral dress stood up from a nearby table, strode briskly outside through the front door, stopped just outside my window, and threw up.

I haven't pulled out my DSLR yet, and I felt it somehow cruel to try to take a picture of a vomiting woman, so this phone picture from one of my daily strolls will have to suffice. (Delhi, India; Jul 2017)

I watched with neither interest nor disinterest. I was not disinterested because I felt that I needed to see what was splashing onto the concrete -- noodles? Chicken Maii? Stir fry? -- so as to take special care to order something besides the regurgitated meal. Yet I was not interested because I feel it unbecoming to be interested in vomit. Indeed, life oozes paradoxes such as these, pun intended.

In Which Abu Halen Lands in India and Walks Aimlessly About

I do not know anything about India. But I know more than I did a couple months ago, because I read two books about India. One was on Partition, in which I discovered that India and Pakistan dislike one another, and also that there was a person named Ghandi who clearly tried to make himself look like Dhalsim from Street Fighter II. The other was about the Delhi Mutiny of 1857, which made me aware that other bad things were happening in the world in 1857 apart from James Buchanan and the overall lack of Kris Kross.

Not peeing. (Delhi, India; Jun 2017)

Also, I landed in India last week, a little before midnight. After not sleeping, despite having been awake for the preceding 55 hours, I got up in the morning and took a stroll around my neighborhood. Almost immediately, I happened upon a Brahman cow, which stopped beside an economy car and vigorously urinated on the hot pavement. A man repairing his bicycle chain 10 feet away didn't appear to notice, an impressive feat of nonchalance that would be akin to casually texting your dad while someone emptied the contents of a small tributary to the Sweetwater River onto the sidewalk directly beside you.

And I saw a ninja riding a motorcycle, completely garbed in black, including his face. I obviously didn't get a picture, because, ninja. 

Someone at work told me that near my flat there is a mall that prohibits urinating cows, so I got a rickshaw and asked to be taken to "the mall." Blank stare. "The mool." Blank stare. "The mahl." Blank stare. "The mmmmmaaaaaaallllllll." Blank stare. "Forever 21." Off we went.

I ate at TGI Friday's, because I remember liking the waitresses there when I was younger:

Me: "My Coke is empty. Would you refill it without charge, since I'm good-looking?
Cute TGI Friday's Waitress: Refills are free regardless of how attractive you are.
Me: Niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice. So, pick you up when your shift is over?
Cute TGI Friday's Waitress: Absolutely not.
Me: OK. Do you have any slightly less discerning sisters who work at Denny's?

Nowhere is safe from smiles and good will. (Delhi, India; Jul 2017)

So I ate at this disarmingly modern restaurant in South Delhi, and they played Ra Ra Riot, and this was six hours after my morning run took me past slums that smelt like Europe in 1348, and I was suffering from cultural whiplash. And then, ten Mormon missionaries walked into TGI Friday's, in New Delhi, India, white shirts and ties and black name tags, and I thought how it's true what they say, anything can happen in Delhi.

Home is Heartbeats (and Other Thoughts on Home)

I don't know where I live, or where I'm from. I mean it. I'm in the United States for "home leave," as they call it in the Foreign Service, which is really "homeless leave." "Home leave" occurs after you complete an assignment in one location and before you start a new one somewhere else. It's a time to catch up with friends and family, to get back together with the United States, and to wonder what they mean when they call it home.

Behold... tin foil. (Reston, Virginia; Nov 2006)

I own a house in a town where two of my children were born, but five twenty-something females rent it out, and it smells like girl. I remember how my kids swung in the tree swing out back beneath boughs exploding white with cherry blossoms, and how we took our evening meals in the soft gold of evening sunlight spilling through the front window. We've got the deed to the house in a file somewhere, and it stakes us to this plot of land, to these walls. If home is what you own, then this is the place. But I was installing a new doorknob in the front door a couple weeks ago, and one of the tenants loped by in her pajamas, and that's when I knew this isn't home. Home doesn't smell like body lotion and facial cleanser.

There is a town, and I was born and raised there, and it's the color of sunburnt hay. It was home, and sometimes I go there and I drive around, and I still know all the curves of the streets, the way the shadows fall as the afternoon deepens, the big trees and how they sway, the smell of the wind. If home is a memory, then this is the place. But I guess home is more than that, because I'm a stranger in this town, I can feel it in the way the town flows around me. It doesn't flow through me anymore.

My parents live in a different city. They moved into their house the year after I left for college. It used to be blue, but now it's green. I brought a girl to this house one night a long time ago. She said hi to my parents, and then we stood on the deck in the warm summer twilight and watched the airplanes line up along the horizon to come in to land. I don't remember what we talked about, or what she looked like. But I remember the tongues of indigo and violet and salmon fire licking at the edges of the deep navy sky, and I remember feeling infinite, like the universe was pinned to our heartbeats and the stars served no purpose but to spotlight us, like nothing else and no one else existed, or ever had. If home is where you fall in love, then this is the place.

But the girl evaporated somehow, sometime, floated off. And other people blinked into existence, like my lovely wife, and then, one by one, my precious children. And I don't know for certain why there are stars, but I know they shine on both the lucky and the lonely. And I know the universe cares nothing for my heartbeat, but I know there are people who do. And I guess maybe home is in those heartbeats, and the way they thump in time with mine. Yes, that's probably right.

Ode to the Oregon Coast (or, "We Can Hitch a Ride to Rockaway Beach")

Every time I come home, I take my kids on a clockwise circuit of the Oregon coast. You may be wondering why I drive the circuit in a clockwise, rather than a counterclockwise, direction. The reason is because clockwise is superior to counterclockwise; words with the prefix "counter-" before them are always inferior to their sister words without said prefix. For instance, being a counterrevolutionary is worse than being a revolutionary. Counternarcotics don't taste as good as narcotics, and so forth. I feel this is obvious.

She who summits the dune first gets stomach cramps and a violent bout of vomiting. (Pacific City, Oregon; May 2017)

The circuit departs Portland, hits the coast at Pacific City, jaunts north to Tillamook, then finishes in Cannon Beach before returning to Portland via a different highway. I always do this particular circuit, and have regularly done it since I was in high school. I don't branch out to hit other Oregon coast destinations for two reasons.

First, other Oregon coast destinations are less magnificent than the destinations I've chosen for my route -- this is unsurprising, since most of my life choices are maximally magnificent, except for every time I try olives; I know that olives taste like body odor, but sometimes I inexplicably think they suddenly won't. I am consistently wrong about this.

Second, I am a bit of a creature of habit. At Burger King, for instance, I always order a #1 combo. If I were ever to enter a BK and find that they had changed the numbers to which particular combos correspond, I would suffer a panic attack and have to be soothed with a foot massage and steady exposure to Linda Ronstadt songs. So, after following this Oregon coast circuit a few times during my high school years, I now find myself unwilling to try something new and visit, say, Seaside.

I did actually go to Seaside once as a senior in high school to attend some sort of state-wide high school leadership conference, which culminated in a large dance at which I was sandwiched by two young ladies who may or may not have been borderline-inebriated, and whose interest in me likely arose solely from their impaired judgment, and who then proceeded to dance uncomfortably close to me in a manner of which my mother would not approve, which of course forced me to lie about having tuberculosis, all of which has cast an undesirable pall over the idea of ever returning to Seaside.

"Son, in order for me to obtain a desirable photo, I need for you to balance precariously above the tumultuous sea, OK?" "OK, Dad. NP." (Pacific City, Oregon; May 2017)

Pacific City is home to a large sand dune. Sand dunes only serve one purpose, and that is to be climbed by humans. It's not clear what sand dunes did for the millions of years before humans appeared. Probably just sat there, big and dumb, and sometimes a lambeosaurus would lumber by and pee on it. My kids and I climbed Pacific City's 250-foot dune, and once at the top Grace breathed a huge sigh of relief and said, "Phew, now we're safe from a tsunami." I explained that tsunamis are quite rare, and that there is typically plenty of warning before one strikes, but Grace refuses to believe that tsunamis do not simply lurk offshore, waiting for little children to play on the beach before pummeling them with otherworldly force. This type of macabre thinking may be partially explained because last year I made Grace listen to the Jesus & Mary Chain when we went to the store to get salsa.

At the summit, the kids explore the topography of both the dune and their own souls. (Pacific City, Oregon; May 2017)

I was pleased that after climbing and running down the dune twice, the kids weren't overly sandy.  I have strong feelings about sand in my car. If you would like to understand more concerning my feelings about sand in my car, click here

Tillamook, Oregon is where Tillamook cheese comes from. If you have not experienced Tillamook cheese, stay away from me because you are only partially human, and therefore at least partially zombie. Tillamook cheese is, in fact, an element, but they left it off the periodic table because all the other elements opposed its inclusion, or else they said they'd stop being elements and holding organic matter together and making things radioactive. You can understand it like if Corey Fogelmanis started attending your school, then you would feel overshadowed by his effortless charm and stop going to school. Which is a decent reason, actually, to try to attend the same school as Corey Fogelmanis, so you'd have an excuse to drop out. Now, returning to my thesis, Tillamook cheese is the elemental glue that holds the universe together, or, at least, the elemental glue that holds grilled cheese sandwiches together.

When we pass through Tillamook, we do very little apart from make fun of the Tillamook High School mascot (The Cheesemakers, which prompted Halen to muse that "I bet they lose at EVERYTHING,") and visit the Tillamook Cheese Factory. Although mostly my blog is useless and banal, here is an actual nugget of critical information: the Cheese Factory's visitors center is under construction until the summer of 2018; they have erected a temporary visitors center, but it's wildly inferior to the real one. However, the temporary visitors center still has both cheese samples and Tillamook ice cream, so we all just shrugged and rolled with the punches. My kids all ordered ice cream cones that were 1-3 times too large for their little stomachs, so I ended up consuming my own double scoop chocolate-coated waffle cone plus roughly 1.5 additional double scoop chocolate-coated waffle cones into my significantly larger stomach. It was pleasant in every way. Grace wanted a Tillamook t-shirt, but I encouraged her to avoid fixating on such transitory things when at any moment a tsunami could carry us all away to our watery graves.

Bringing the Sass. (Garibaldi, Oregon; May 2017)

The unschooled Oregon coast traveler may believe that there is little of interest between Tillamook and Cannon Beach. But that is incorrect, and you'll never be on Jeopardy! or get a job or find a life partner if you think that. In fact, Highway 101 between Tillamook and Cannon Beach is home to Rockaway Beach and Nehalem, both of which locations have been memorialized in song. Although the Ramones allegedly wrote "Rockaway Beach" about a beach in Queens, not in Oregon -- according to all known primary and secondary source material -- that doesn't stop me from believing that the song is actually about Rockaway Beach, Oregon, and that the Ramones are actually my uncles on my father's side.

"Nehalem" comes from Everclear's breakout album, Sparkle and Fade, and is only mildly interesting. Moreover, it may be a factually incorrect song, as the lyrics say, "They say you're leaving Nehalem," which implies that people actually live in Nehalem, which is doubtful if you've ever driven through. While we passed through Nehalem, I offended Grace by making fun of her fear of tsunamis in a Japanese accent, which I concede is both culturally insensitive and bad parenting. I take full responsibility for my errant actions and resolve to be a better example to my fans, and also to invent an app that prevents earwax buildup.

"Tah-dah!" (Cannon Beach, Oregon; May 2017)

Cannon Beach is a slower-paced beach town for a slightly more mature crowd. Sometimes my parents go there with their dog, and I've heard my mom complain about the town's complete lack of a dog-friendly skating rink that projects music videos from 1983-1986 on a large white sheet hanging at one end of the skating floor, and that scatters bacon bits on the floor for the canines to enjoy. Neither me nor my children know how to roller skate, so we just went for a walk on the beach, and there was a set of tidal pools with volunteer marine life specialists standing there explaining things to people as they checked out the marine life. And I thought, "America is amazing. Where else would you find earnest young college students standing in the ocean in waders, instructing ADD kids on the stages of sea anemone battles?" All those "America-is-in-its-death-throes" doom prophets need to go to Cannon Beach and touch some anemones and talk to the girls in waders and then they'll think twice about moving to Canada, where they don't even have enough Wal-Marts.

We Cool, We Cool (or, "The Truth Behind Earth's Defenses Against Alien Invasion")

I am in the United States now. Great country. If you haven't been, you should go. Legally. First thing you should know before going to the US is: Americans always obey the law. Unless they're rich. Rich people can do pretty much whatever they want. So, it's generally a good idea to be wealthy, but if you can't, the next best thing is to at least pretend.

Born! In the USA! Except Grace wasn't (sad face). (Pacific City, Oregon; May 2017)

What works for me is to walk around in crowded places and drop a one dollar bill on the ground, and then look at it lying there and say really loudly, "NBD! Not worth my time to pick that up! I have many, many more of those in my wallet!" Then, everyone around me thinks, "Holy, that guy must be quite well-off," and they just stop and respect me. And then, later, after they've followed me around until I'm alone, they mug me. But, you know, you can't really complain, because you've just got to let the market system work. 

This shady dude and his shady sister were aimlessly riding the metro late one night. I tried to steer clear. You never know when someone like this might just come and snuggle you. (Washington, DC; May 2017)

When you live outside the United States like I do, you recognize even more what a kick-butt country the US is when you come home. Because we have baseball here. Studies show that baseball makes people bigger, faster, stronger, and able to inject themselves with syringes more accurately. But, really, baseball is awesome. One of the first things I did after landing back in the US after two years overseas was take my kids to a baseball game, Washington Nationals, vs. Arizona Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks tried to ruin the game by wearing their uniforms, which are the ugliest uniforms in all of space and time, but which, unbeknownst to most casual observers, actually protect Earth from alien invasions, on account that aliens' genetic makeup is disrupted by the waves of sheer atrociousness generated by the Diamondbacks' inhuman team colors. Aliens therefore disintegrate before reaching Earth, but their organic remains do fall through the atmosphere, and airlines discretely use this material to create "fish" meals. Which cost $20. 

Jayson Werth's overwhelming awesomeness singlehandedly protected all the players and fans from the destructive power of the Diamondbacks' horrible uniforms (Washington, DC; May 2017)

Another thing the United States has that other countries do not is Oregon. It's a secret well-kept from foreigners that Oregon actually exists. When I'm overseas, and somebody asks where I'm from, I say, "I'm from the West Coast of the United States!" And then they say, "Cool! I've totally been to California!" And at that point I want to punch them in the forehead, because there are in fact two other fine states comprising the West Coast of the United States, but I usually just keep with the chillax'ed, laid-back vibe in which we Oregonians pride ourselves, and I just say, "We cool, we cool," with an open-minded head bob that demonstrates my tolerance for ignorance. Also, the forehead is a really dumb place to punch someone.

Ahhhhhh. (Manzanita, Oregon; May 2017)

Innocent Again

Sometimes in the morning when it's still dark, I run with a little headlamp in a big circle on the dirt trails through a black, pretty park. That time of night, it's that kind of prettiness that you can't see, the kind you sense with your nose and your skin and your guts. The night bugs are invisible and crazy, whirring and banging on the air. There are birds in the dirty black beside the trail, maybe owls, maybe tiny winged satans, I don't know because all I see are their round reflector eyes. Perfectly still as I pad closer, then the eyes silently rise on wings I can't see and swoop past me quiet as a little curse. And it's that they fly without bodies or even souls that makes them beautiful somehow, like the wonder is in all the things that I have to guess at, all the things I don't know for sure.

An old train dropped us on the outskirts of Damascus almost fifteen years ago. A bunch of bags and a baby on a curb in Syria, a handful of Arabic words in our throats, and the absolute unknown coming down all over us. The sky was blue forever. The blue of being a long way from home. I looked at Shannon, she was watching for a cab, the baby on her hip. And we didn't know a single thing, about Syria, about how big the sky is, about ourselves, about anything. Maybe I've never felt so powerful and small and stupid.

Sweet innocence. (Reston, VA; Oct 2005)

But the Syrian sky changed colors as the months went by, from that strange, unsettling blue to hometown blue, the blue that hung outside my bedroom window as a kid, the blue that has its arm around you when you're little and scared. Foreign to familiar. And isn't that how we go? Each day you just creep another bit into the big, black, beautiful darkness until another tiny circle around you brightens from darkness to light, and you see a little more, and you know a little more. And then it's time to move again -- literally or figuratively, it doesn't matter. You're back in the dark, and you have to stare so hard until it takes shape and starts to look like home. Then you go yet again, because if you don't you'll die from the light, from all the knowing.

Young know-nothings. (Basra, Syria; Oct 2003)

The Salvadoran mornings blaze with birdsong. They are vivid and alive. I opened my eyes and ears this morning in my bed at dawn and tried to hear it and see it like I did two years ago, when it was all new. But in a lot of ways, now I know too much. The uncertainty, the darkness, the wonder of it all, has settled down into light. Familiar, ho-hum light. Sometimes it gets too bright, and that's how you know you're on the edge of that big, black, beautiful darkness again, and it's time to step inside where you're blind, and small and stupid and overflowing with spirit. I guess there's rashness in that, but there's faith in the rashness, and curiosity in the faith, and hope in the curiosity, and hope is the bone and marrow of being alive.

I suppose I know less now than I used to, in the sense that I've lived too long to think I know too much. And maybe that's a virtue. Not that ignorance is a virtue, but innocence is. And the most ambitious among us are all trying to crawl our way back into innocence, or at least some imitation of it, which is all you can hope for once you've lost the real thing. An imitation where you've seen things, you know things, but you've seen enough and learned enough to know that you're small and stupid -- and thereby bordering on sage.

Boarding for first El Salvador flight. Back when we were in the dark. (Miami, FL; Apr 2015)

We fly permanently away from El Salvador in only another day or two. I ran my last big circle in the darkness through the black, pretty park the other day. I've run the big circle so many times, I can do it in the dark, so I flipped off my headlamp. That old dawn was way off in the east, picking at the edge of the sky, but the air was still heavy and velvet and black. The crazy night bugs clamored and my blind feet found all the spots between the rocks and the roots, sure as high noon, throwing their own light that I guess only they can see. And I thought, I know too much now, I could die from all this light here in the darkness. And I ran on through the night, ready to be blind again, small and stupid again, innocent again.

On Long, Lonely Beaches and the Paradox of Redemption

With only a couple weeks left in El Salvador, we hit the beach for the last time last week. Two years ago, as we prepared to move to this land of long, lonely beaches, I looked forward to getting myself a surfboard, throwing some racks on my minivan, and becoming a regular gremmie. Didn't happen -- I start work at 7:30 am, a solid hour or two before the embassy surfer dudes have to roll in for work, which put before-work surf practice out of reach for me. So we didn't have as much beach time as I thought we would, which frankly turned out okay, since we got to really branch out and see and do a lot more beyond the beach.

Team Captain Savannah.

Still, there's something elemental and vast about the ocean. When I stand on the shore, on the precipice of blue endlessness, I'm kind of content to just be there, tiny, insignificant, a mite toeing the tightrope between the deep, shuddering earth and the fathomless, overwhelming sea.

Grace after having her knees slashed by the mud ninja.

I remember a long ago autumn day in Tartous, a Syrian town lapping up against the Mediterranean Sea. I sat on a rock on the beach in the shadow of a coastal Crusader castle and listened to the metronomic tide, heedlessly hurling itself at the stones. Eternity behind every breaker. The ocean smashed out its infinite rhythm, and I thought how the creaky old Crusaders themselves had heard the same mystic water land upon the same sand and stone, and I don't know that I've ever felt more suspended in time. Small before the absolute sea.

Note the high-quality boogie board we employ, which needs no other name apart from "Boogie Board."

There were no weighty moments earlier this week as I watched my children and their friends scamper over the black sand. But it's still hard for me not to have the sensation of being little more than a blip beside the big blue water. Transient, like I'm dissolving back to dust before the constant sea. It was here long before my kids' feet splashed into the very tips of its watery toenails, and it will be here long after we've gone away, to wherever we go when we go away.

Not to spoil the moment, but Shannon doesn't actually like to boogie board. She's only holding that board because the children got bored of it, pun intended.

I guess that's what I think about when I'm on the shore, feet in wet sand, eyes and brain counting and recounting my children, making sure the unblinking blue universe that dwarfs the horizon and the worlds dancing above it doesn't unwittingly claim one of my kids. We may be finite, but why truncate the mere eye-blink of mortality we're allotted, right?

Things got a little slow for these two. "Sooooo......"

So farewell to the long, lonely beaches of El Salvador. Where the moon pulls blanket after blanket after blanket of sea up and over stone and sand, then lets it roll back home to the bottomless ocean.

And perhaps so we go as well, lifted from the comfort of an eternal sea by a benevolent Moon. Pulled through the air, we crash to earth in a paroxysm of mother, blood, and water, then slide irresistibly back home. Given up, then reclaimed. The paradox of redemption. Old as the tide. 

Violet notices me for the first time all day.

96 Hours in Nicaragua, Part 1 (or, "24 hours in Nicaragua")

When we go to Nicaragua, we drive to Nicaragua, like the cavemen did. None of this floofy flying stuff for us. We are tight with the road, with the earth, with the wind, which sometimes smells somewhat like body odor and urine.

We proved 18 months ago on our first trip to Nicaragua that it's possible to drive from San Salvador to Granada in one arc of the sun across the autumnal Central American sky, even accounting for a 1.5 hour detour on dirt roads that Google Maps suggested constituted the quickest route. This time around we were less ambitious, aiming only to reach Managua. 

The drive was uneventful, save the fact that Honduras inexplicably decided to install storm drains across the Pan-Americana Highway at .25 mile intervals throughout the entire country. Literally the entire country. It's like if you were on I-95 and there were speed bumps every quarter mile. Also imagine that sheep and goats and cows also used I-95, and you would have it. Another fun part of the trip was when the official at the Nicaragua border crossing insisted that our car was not blue (it is admittedly a girly shade of blue, but definitely blue), intimating that it may not be the vehicle described on our title and that we therefore may be car thieves. I didn't disabuse him of this notion, mostly because I suck at Spanish.

The Hyatt in Managua is probably one of the nicer hotels in town. Just across the parking lot is an outdoor promenade, a plaza-type area with restaurants and shops. Upscale. We ate there, not because we're particularly upscale, but because it was convenient and we were bushed from driving all day. Sometimes I feel like a plastic person in places like that. Consuming an artificial reality, moving about on the surface of a facade that somehow floats independently, with the real world of dust and bones and hard-set jaws spinning just beyond eyeshot. While we ate our food --cooked to the chain restaurant's corporately-dictated specifications -- a pod of lightly-stubbled young men at a nearby table laughed raucously at seemingly carefully-planned intervals. Laughed so loudly and so deliberately, their unsmiling eyes darting hungrily around the plaza as they guffawed, that it was hard to escape the impression that we were on a movie set where everything, the tables and neon lights and blonde Latinas hanging on heavily-cologned arms, existed for consumption, where everyone was an actor, an entertainer, and simultaneously a spectator. And all of this while paces away real Managua grinded its teeth in a clutch of traffic and diesel and cracking concrete. We paid our bill and returned to the hotel room to watch the Disney Channel, that mirror of authenticity.

Have you ever been to Granada? I hadn't either, until the next day. But the parents, or maybe the grandparents, of my grandfather lived there in a big house off the main square. I arrived with my children at half past ten, and the first thing that Savannah saw upon liting from the car was a family of cockroaches scurrying across the street. She insisted that we leave this squalid place immediately, but then a passing car squashed the roach family, and I smiled at her, and she smiled at me. Back in the saddle. 

In the center of Granada's leafy main plaza, while ignoring a man attempting to sell us sunglasses, I lectured my children on the cascade of family, how there's something that flows through the generations, touching us, filling us with substance -- the stuff of being alive -- and how that something once swept through this place where we stood, filling the bellies and the brains and the veins of people -- our ancestors -- who moved across the very dirt now beneath our feet. And how that same something was now pooling in the beady sweat on the brows of my children, swirling in eddies beneath the prints on the pads of their fingers, threading through us, cinching together the fabrics of then and now. "I'm hot," said Grace. "Is there any ice cream here?" said Halen. "I'm bow-wed," said Violet, who can't say her "r's." I really think I got through to them.

Next installment: learn about bull sharks, the scenic route from Granada to Juigalpa, what to do when your wife abandons you in a small town famous for cheese, and maybe a little about an allegedly crystal clear swimming hole which actually may have contained human poo.

48 Hours in Antigua, Guatemala (And the World's Your Oyster)

I am not a superfan of Antigua, Guatemala. Which doesn't mean I don't like it. I'm also not a superfan of hairless cats, but they're ok, you know? I am, however, a superfan of turkey bacon, which marks a significant evolution in my thinking. That said, I am most assuredly not even a normal fan of Happy Cat cat food, which I tried once on a dare when I was seven, and which caused my tongue to fall out. That's why I talk funny now and am a bad kisser.

Selfie sticks in the wrong hands can lead to scenes like this. (Antigua, Guatemala; Feb 2017)

Antigua is a good place to go if you want to visit Latin America but you want to be around as many obnoxious gringos as possible, but you have a rare genetic disorder that makes your skin fall off in hot and humid weather, so you can't go to Cancun.

Shannon gave me leave to take a long weekend with friends in Antigua, so long as I look into tongue transplants next time we're in the U.S. It turned out that I enjoyed Antigua a lot more with friends than I did last time, when I went with my family. Not because my family isn't awesome, because they are, but because when we family vacation, kicking it in a cafe or people watching are NOT options. Shannon gets twitchy after about 10 minutes of sitting still in a restaurant while on vacation and also starts demanding to know how many Cokes I have drunk so far today and talking about how we need to hike something NOW, and I can hear her muttering under her breath about the potential fitness quotient of hiking up and down the McDonald's Play Place slide.

So, the Abu Halen & Friends Caravan rolled into Antigua on a Saturday afternoon. Jimmy found us a sweet house on the edge of town, which came with a lion-sized golden retriever named Barack, which offended me because I feel like dogs shouldn't be politicized. Also, the golden retriever raised for me the obvious question of whether President Obama was in fact even born a human. Can he produce a certificate proving he is not a dog?

This picture makes me uncomfortable, so I am sharing it with you. (Antigua, Guatemala; Feb 2017)

Antigua is a nice place to be if you like walking and eating. I like both of those things. I recommend That One Cafe, the Name of Which Escapes Me at the Moment. While placing my side order of bacon, I mistakenly asked for "tres porciones" of bacon, which to my stupid gringo brain meant "three strips" of bacon, but which in actual Spanish means "three orders" of bacon. When the waitress brought me my ample main dish of French toast, along with a large plate heaped with crackling bacon, I realized my error and endured the well-earned mockery of the rest of the table. I meekly explained my gringo error to the waitress, who laughed and took back my order, thus saving me from paying approximately $20 for something like 42 strips of bacon. That's why I recommend That One Cafe, the Name of Which Escapes Me at the Moment.

Another fun place to eat is That Faux Texas Barbecue Joint That Plays Electric Americana Music. Note that the hamburgers do not fit in human mouths, but possibly might fit in the cargo hold of a C-130, but you probably won't be able to get the door shut with the hamburger inside.

I was bored of pictures of Antigua's iconic arch, so here's what was going on under the arch. Pointing is rude, lady! (Antigua, Guatemala; Feb 2017)

A bad place to eat is That Hip Mediterranean Place With Hummus, because I think the owner is snotty and hates kids and I want to punch him in the clavicle, or maybe nunchuck him in the clavicle because punching him there would really hurt my knuckles. When we arrived at That Hip Mediterranean Place With Hummus, I was carrying a kid who is not my own (with permission from the actual parent, because I have proved my ability to not drop children by not dropping my own very much over the past 15 years), and the restaurant was pretty crowded. It looked like there wasn't room for us, which was understandable. But I asked the owner behind the counter anyway, I said, "Hey, how many seats do you have available?" And he said, "None, we're full." And I looked down at the empty three chairs at the bar, and I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I looked back at the three empty chairs, and I looked back at him, and I said, "You have zero chairs available?" And he said, "Yes, we have zero chairs available." And I said, while looking at the three empty chairs that sat less than two feet from me and less than two feet from him, "You have zero chairs available." And he said, "That's right, zero chairs." I am certain that he doesn't like kids, or guys without tongues. Maybe both, he's such a bigot.

If you're ever in Antigua, you should visit Cerro de la Cruz, a hill on the edge of town with a big cross on it. I took a tuk-tuk up there on Sunday afternoon, with two other adults and two children. I bet you thought that three adults and two children couldn't fit in the back seat of a tuk-tuk, but you're wrong and the weakness of your intellect is why you didn't invent prosthetic tongues. The road to Cerro de la Cruz is very steep, so at several points the tuk-tuk driver made me get out and walk, apparently because I'm fat. I felt like that was the unspoken understanding between us. And that's why I want to punch the tuk-tuk driver in the tibia, which would probably require me to pretend like I'm tying my shoe so that I would have a clear shot. I think I could do it, because I'm good at pretending to tie my shoe, thanks to my tiger mom who wouldn't let me watch Hee-Haw without my shoes tied, but who was lackluster at actually checking to see if they were tied.

Creeping on Antigua and Volcan Agua through the trees from Cerro de la Cruz. (Antigua, Guatemala; Feb 2017)

There were a lot of people and dust up by the big cross on Sunday afternoon, and a thick haze from nearby burning sugarcane fields obscured the view. So the next morning me and Brent walked back up, and there were only two gringa ladies up there doing yoga. We explained that we worked at a U.S. embassy and we had the day off for President's Day, to which one of the ladies expressed dismay that we would celebrate the current U.S. president. Me and Brent cast sideways glances at one another, and then proceed to explain that President's Day is, in fact, not a celebration of the incumbent president at any given time, but is actually a celebration of the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were born in February. The yoga ladies were mildly pacified by this explanation.

I hope you enjoyed my review of Antigua, Guatemala, which is what New York Times travel section stories would be written like if the New York Times had awesome travel writers like Abu Halen. But, sorry, tough luck, New York Times, Abu Halen is already gainfully employed, at least until the do-nothing State Department is eliminated. Then, maybe, Abu Halen will permit you to pay him to travel to exotic places, forget basic details about the trip, and mostly just write nonsense about himself.

In Which I Touch On Father-Daughter Time and the Relationship Between the French Revolution and ZZ Top

Me and Savannah went for a walk right before dinner a few weeks ago. We both took our cameras. It was a photography outing, like a safari, except without a jeep and mainly just taking place on our street instead of in Africa. So, not very much like a safari, I guess.

Savannah got a DSLR camera for her birthday. She didn't necessarily say she wanted one. I just knew via fatherly intuition, the kind of fatherly intuition dads have when they're trying to push their own hobbies on their kids so that father-child "special time" is actually mildly interesting, which I frankly think I've earned after sitting on the floor and getting a sore back and making whinnying sounds for like 15 years in efforts to "get close to my kids." 

So, to encourage Savannah's photographic artistry, I got home from work and suggested a quick tromp outside to take some artsy pictures of stupid things, like cracks in the sidewalk and asphalt smudges and exposed wires and piles of dog poo. You know, things that Jackson Pollock would paint.

One cool thing on our walk was this palm frond. I took a lot of pictures of it. It reminded me of the way we used to comb our hair in the 1990s, like when you used to part it right down the middle, right after you colored it with Kool-Aid. I don't think Savannah understood my fascination with this 1990s palm frond, which is understandable. Not very many people understand my level of genius, maybe just tree sloths and garden hoes, and that's about it. 

I also spent a solid 10 minutes photographing this garage door, which I think further alarmed Savannah, and possibly made the residents of this house, who were probably watching me via their closed-circuit video camera, consider calling out the police, or at least the elementary school archery team. The neat thing about the garage door -- besides the fact that it opens and closes all on its own, all you have to do is push a button -- is that it's ugly brown all day long, but for a few minutes just before dusk it turns this wonderful color that I call "color-that-I-like-but-cannot-describe," which is distantly related to the way I feel about ZZ Top, whose music I like though I can't tell you quite why, at least without using the words "beard" and "legs."

After our 15 minute photography walk, which, to be honest with you, involved me taking photos and Savannah standing around asking me a lot of questions about the French Revolution (which I absently answered using mainly ZZ Top lyrics, i.e. "Why did they execute all the elites?" "Well honey, they were bad and they were nationwide"), we went inside and had hot dogs. Sometimes you just have to make that father-daughter bonding time happen, you know?

So They Can Bask in My Mirth (or, "'Why Babies Are Born Premature' for $200, Alex")

January is a big month for our family. Because it has 31 days. March and October are also big months for our family, because they also have 31 days. June and September, on the other hand, are smaller months for our family. Probably for your family as well, I assume.

Another reason that January is a big month for our family is because both Shannon and Savannah have birthdays in January. And as it happened, their birthdays fall on the same day. Unbeknownst to most people, the reason they share a birthday is because I'm a super, super funny person. Maybe the funniest person in my living room right now, if you don't count the other people in my living room right now. Here's how it went down: Savannah wasn't due for three or four more weeks, and we were driving on the night before Shannon's birthday, and I told a reeeeeally funny joke, and Shannon was laughing, and then her water broke. And then Savannah was born a few hours later. I'm so funny I make babies come into the world early so they can bask in my mirth. 

Here are some pictures of Savannah's birthday party, which Shannon selflessly planned and carried out, despite the fact that it was her birthday too. Shannon's theory is that if she pretends it's not her birthday, she won't actually age. This has worked for the past 15 years, and none of us want to jinx it by actually saying "happy birthday" out loud to her. So that's what's really happening: we're not actually forgetting it's her birthday, we're just helping her not age.

Shannon organized a water balloon toss with towels. This kid is having the greatest moment in his forever and ever. Someday, on his wedding day, his wife will look into his smiling face and ask what he's thinking of, and he'll say, "Man, when that water balloon exploded on my head... I just wish I could go back in time, you know?"

Shannon brought pizza for everyone! That's why she's the best human in the universe! Savannah isn't completely sure of that, but she'll come around.

I had one job -- one job! -- and that was to take a picture of the birthday girl when she wasn't nom nom nom'ing on pizza. And I couldn't pull it off.

This sad, lonely guy wasn't invited to the party. It looks like he's launching a jump shot, but really he's throwing his hands up in the air in resignation, realizing that he'll probably never stop crying.

"And the kids partied until the going down of the sun, and the coming on of the great neon lights across the street at Burger King." (3 Kings 21:6)

Here's Shannon, feeling satisfied with herself at the end of the day, that her birthday came and went -- again -- and she didn't age -- again.