Portuguese Snapshots

3 Aug

3 SHORT ACCOUNTS OF PORTUGAL

Abandoned buildings in downtown Porto

                                                                 Porto: Anarchist Poo

Abandoned buildings in downtown Porto

Abandoned buildings in downtown Porto

Kelly and I stopped at the first café we saw and sat outside next to a group of men who were definitely tourists and questionably speaking English- it’s hard to distinguish a foreign language from a Scottish accent, I’ve discovered.  We ordered our usual café com leite and pondered the anarchist campout across the street with handwritten signs hanging from statues and black spray painted “circle-A’s” on the surrounding concrete walls.  A handful of rugged anarchists with mullet haircuts were sprawled upon the cobblestones amidst abandoned, rotting buildings, which were prevalent in the center of Porto, Portugal’s second largest city.

Suddenly, I needed to use the bathroom, or “casa de banho” (if you ask for only a “banho,” you are asking for a bath, we learned).  Usually, I would save my business for somewhere more private, but being as busy as we were- arriving at 2am after missing our flight, taking a terrible tour bus ride, eating “Little French Girls” and tripe, tasting port wine, and climbing church towers- I didn’t want to miss my chance.  I went into the ladies’ single toilet, sat down, and realized there was no toilet paper.  Emergency.  I cringed, pulled up my pants, and leaped into the men’s room across the hall.  To my relief, there was toilet paper.  There was not, however, a lock on the door.  I tried to be as quick as possible, but a mulleted anarchist came swinging in.  “Ola!” He yelled in surprise and I did the only thing I could do: I sat there and said “Ola” right back.  He slammed the door and I didn’t see him again.  Kelly and I finished our bad coffee, and we left.

Little French Girl

Little French Girl and beer

We ate dinner at a place where the piano player was a Portuguese equivalent to a Jersey Shore guy, wearing only a black pleather vest to show off his manly chest.  When we finished, Kelly and I stood on the sidewalk and watched in awe as a parade of cars drove back and forth honking their horns, setting off firecrackers, and screaming in victory.  The center-right party won the election, ousting the Socialist Party that had long been in power and is being blamed for Portugal’s current economic crisis.  I wondered, with embarrassment, what the anarchist thought about the election results… but he should be more embarrassed than me anyway- only capitalists use toilets, right?

CONIMBRIGA: Language Barriers

Kelly and I went to Conimbriga, the largest Roman ruins sight in Portugal.  The sight was impressive with red brick columns, an aqueduct, and beautiful mosaic floors still intact, but it’s also in the middle of nowhere.  Only two buses went back to the town we were staying in; one at 1pm and the other at 7.  We finished touring the grounds at noon, so we napped in the hot sun near the bus stop.  There was an unmarked bus in the far corner of the parking lot, but it didn’t look like the bus we arrived in, so we watched it drive away ten minutes before 1.  The place was deserted except, maybe, for some Roman ghosts.

Because there was no way we could stay without food or water in the hot ruins for the next 6 hours, Kelly and I walked along the road to the nearest town.  Sweaty and stomachs rumbling, we stumbled into a restaurant with locals indulging in large meat platters. Kelly and I weaved to a table through watchful eyes and greasy chins.  It’s rare to see tourists there, especially 6 foot tall American ones. (We were giants in Portugal, I might add, I think the average height there is probably 4’5”.)

The swastika was a symbol of good luck and used as decoration in these rich Romans' mansions.

Our waitress didn’t speak a word of English and there was no menu so we struggled to explain that we were willing to eat anything.  “Melhor” (“the best”) I said in Portuguese, and she replied with something to the effect of “everything is the best.”  “Carne,” (“meat”) I tried.  The waitress motioned with her hands around the room implying that meat was the only thing they served.  “J’ai faim,” (“I’m hungry”) Kelly pleaded in French.  “Kelly,” I snapped, “She knows we’re hungry, why else would we be here??”  Kelly abruptly stood up and marched to the nearest table, with most of the restaurant’s patrons still watching us, and pointed to someone’s half eaten mystery meat dish.  “That!” she said.  “Dois!” (“two!”) I added.  We ended up getting two grilled half-chicken platters with mounds of fries.  It was delicious.

Roman Ruins

Roman Ruins

When we left the restaurant, an old man was zooming along the sidewalk in his electric wheelchair with his wife limping behind and yelling for him to wait.  We mimed to ask her where the bus stop was, she showed us, seeming to forget about her husband who was long gone, and we finally made it back to our hotel.

NAZARE: Being in Someone Else’s Shoes

Nazare Snails

Nazare Snails


The doorbell buzzed as I was leaning over the washing machine trying to figure out what the heck all the knobs did.  I opened the window to look down onto the white stone street.  “Ola!” a woman said and squinted up at me, putting her hands on her head to keep her black scarf from sliding off, her black petticoats blowing in the ocean breeze.  She owned the apartment Kelly and I were renting for 25 Euros a night.  I rushed down the polished wooden stairs to the door, being careful not to slip in my socks.

I pulled open the door, and the lady smiled, intensifying the wrinkles around her eyes.  She asked me a question.  I stared at her in confusion. She said more, waving her hands.  I continued to stare in confusion.  She took off her worn wooden clogs, pointed to me, and then pointed to her shoes, continuing to babble.  I shrugged and slid my feet into her shoes.  She gave me a rewarding pat like a puppy and then disappeared into the neighbor’s open door, coming out with another pair of clogs on her feet.  Putting her thin arm through mine, she pulled me forward down the street.  “Where are we going?” I asked even though I knew it was fruitless.  She repeatedly stuck her tongue out and pointed at it.  Unsure of what her tongue had to do with anything, I looked up to the bedroom window where Kelly was, hoping she would witness me being kidnapped by a black widow of Nazare.

A woman in her pettycoats on a Nazare street

A woman in her pettycoats on a Nazare street

We turned a corner and she tugged at my arm to question why I was dragging.  I stopped and lifted one of my legs to show her that only half of my foot fit into her tiny shoe.  We laughed and an understanding clicked between us, as we entered a small shop selling canned foods and nuts.  The black widow said something to the lady behind the counter.  “You stay another night or you leave tomorrow?”  The woman behind the counter translated.  “Oh, we will leave tomorrow morning.”  The black widow smiled and gave me another “good girl” pat.  We linked arms again and headed back to the apartment, laughing and chatting together in gibberish.  “Where did you go?”  Kelly asked when I got upstairs.  I told her while I pulled my clothes out of the machine and hung them on the line outside the window to dry.

The next morning we packed up our backpacks.  My newly washed clothes smelled of smoky sardines, which, undoubtedly, most people ate for dinner.  Treading down the street in the hot sun, I regretted not being able to say goodbye to the old lady.  “Ooh!” she suddenly squeeled, jumping up from a plastic chair where she was sitting with a sign to inform incoming tourists that she had an apartment to rent.  We smiled at each other and she gave me a pat.  “Where are you going?” I understood.  “We are going to Lisbon,” I replied.  “Ohh, Lisboa. Festa! Festa! Festa!” She did a little fist pump in the air.  Kelly and I said our goodbyes and continued to the bus station, ready for the festa in Lisbon that awaited us.

Grilled Sardine!

Grilled Sardine!

French Stereotypes: La Vérité

17 Jun

Photo by Cameron Sperry

MAKING fun of the French is a common American past time.  Nightly, we sit in our Lay-Z-Boys, eating McDonalds and talking in Texas twangs about how much better we are than the Frenchies, right?  I went to Paris knowing very little about what it was like aside from the fact that Americans would prefer to eat Freedom fries over the French ones.  So, I decided to investigate the truth about the French and their ways through the only way I knew how: Stereotyping.

Stereotype 1: People in Paris are rude.

Climbing the Eiffel Tower's 300+ stairs!

Everyone was unbelievably nice in Paris.  Many people talked to us on the train wondering where we’re from, whether we were enjoying our trip, and where in the world Kelly bought her shoes (if you don’t know what Vibrams are, google it).   In fact, we never came across one rude person in Paris.  They went out of their way to help us and give us tips.  For example, a man told us to climb the Eiffel Tower, instead of using the elevator.  Taking the stairs only costs 7 Euro instead of 15 and, of course, it’s much more fun.  If we asked for directions, people would stop what they were doing and walk us to our destination or at least walk us to the correct street to get us started.  They really appreciated it when we attempted to say things in French, but were happy to speak English to help us understand.  I was just as surprised as you are now, but even more surprised about…

                                                                           Stereotype 2: Paris is dirty.

A very clean train station.

The French are the complete opposite of dirty- they are tidy, they are spotless, they are sparkling!  Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but Paris did make any city I’ve been to in the U.S. look like one nasty garbage dump.  Paris’ streets were incredibly clean.  There weren’t even cigarette butts on the street.  Kelly was disappointed, because she likes to find scrap metal and discarded trinkets for her artwork on the sidewalk, but there were none to be found.  The air smelled like the blooming flowers and trees and the subway system was pristine.   Seriously, not one rat, gum wrapper, or ticket stub.  Now that I know it is possible to keep such a big and busy city looking so nice, I am ashamed of America’s city maintenance.  For five dollars, you could get me to lick a Paris subway seat, but in New York?  Now way, not for a million.

Stereotype 3: Paris is Expensive.

Kelly and I stayed in Gare Du Nord—supposedly the bad part of the city, although with parents pushing baby strollers, new bike paths, and pretty flowered balconies, it didn’t seem so horrible to me.  Our hotel room was a 6th floor walk-up with two twin beds, a low ceiling, a closet that was converted into an awkward shower, and a bathroom down the hall.  It was 50 Euro a night, which must be really cheap for Paris considering what we paid for food.  I can’t imagine how much an average hotel must be. Our average meal cost around 20 Euro each (about 30 dollars)- and no, the meals weren’t fancy, which I will get to next.  One afternoon, Kelly and I were hot and tired from sight-seeing all day so we split a bottle of coke and a bottle of water at a cafe, costing us 14 Euros!  Having lived in New York City, I understand that some of the problem was that we had no idea where to go.  We were probably sucked into one tourist trap after another, but now I do know that I won’t be able to afford to go back to Paris unless I have a local and very knowledgeable tour guide… or if I win the lottery.

mmmm escargot...

Stereotype 4: Paris has good food.

For the price, the food was quite disappointing.  The French really do love their mayonnaise, sauce, and butter.  Don’t get me wrong, I love all those things too… but my chicken salad literally had 4 heaping scoops of mayonnaise on top of it (it must have been half a jar), and while the sauces were good, the food underneath the sauce was nothing special.  We made sure to have escargot, but my uncle makes escargot that is 100 times better.  The green sauce dripping off of those snails, however, did make good photos.  Kelly and I went to the fancy part of the city called Saint Germaine and had a good dinner.  We shared a bottle of wine and I had steak with sauce and she had lamb with sauce.  We ate a fluffy meringue thing floating in crème anglais and a crème brulee for dessert.  The food was quite good, but by no means the best I’ve ever had.  We paid about 80 Euro and that was off of the prix fixe menu: the cheap, set price menu.  Again, I admit we had no idea what to order or where to eat, but even when we took people’s recommendations, I wasn’t impressed.

Stereotype 5:  The French are always carrying a long baguette under their arm.

Kissing Oscar Wilde's grave in the Père Lachaise Cemetery

To my and Kelly’s delight, and hopefully yours too, yes, they do.  Maybe not all day, it’s not like an extra appendage or anything, but it is very common to see people on their way home from work with a freshly baked loaf of bread to accompany dinner (and then probably some left over for breakfast the next morning).  The smell of fresh baguettes is amazing and the taste is indeed the same.  Something America definitely needs more of is fresh and local food instead of packaged products made on an unknown date by an unknown machine, bought at a very widely known chain store.

Stereotype 6: The French make a “haughn! haughn! haughn!” sound when they laugh.

The Hall of Mirrors in Versaille

No, the French seemed to laugh quite normally.  Some loud, some soft, some more than others, but still like you and me.  They do, however, say yes a lot, and you can usually hear them on their cell phones saying “oui oui oui” all the way home.

SO before you go to bed to cuddle your American flag tonight, think about how people are actually just people no matter where they are from.  Our cultures and lifestyles make us different from one another, but they don’t make us worse or better.  Nevertheless, French fries do taste better than Freedom fries… there must be a secret to the dipping sauce.

Everything I Need to Know About Middle Schoolers I Learned From Them Puking

9 Jun

How 6th, 7th, and 8th Grade Students Reacted to a Retching Situation.

Not too long ago, the middle school I work at was hit with a strange case of kids puking.  Each kid, seemingly fine, suddenly would get the hiccups and burps, throw up, and then would be fine again.  Fourteen kids were sent home that day due to a puking incident, and countless others had their own incidents but felt fine enough to continue with the rest of the school day.  I was lucky enough to witness many of them.

Mike, 7th Grade: My first puking kid encounter occurred immediately after I walked through the doors of the school that morning.  Running close-to-late, as usual, I was doing my long legged speed walk past the front desk and heading for the stairs, when little Mike came rushing out of the gym, almost colliding with me.  I didn’t think much about Mike until I put my first foot on the stairs and heard a gag followed by a splashy thud on the floor behind me.  I spun around to see Mike staring in awe at the carpet, wiping his mouth with his oversized hands that he hadn’t grown into yet.  “Are you ok?” I asked as I stepped off the first stair to make my way towards him.  “Yeah!” Mike yelled as he bolted to the bathroom across the school lobby and came out with a gigantic wad of toilet paper in his hands.  He bent down to wipe up the mess, but the toilet paper disintegrated into little, unhelpful pieces.  He looked at me with tears in his eyes.  “I threw up,” he said, stating the obvious. “What should I do?”  I told him not to worry about the mess and asked him if he wanted to go to the clinic.  He assured me that he felt fine, but I sent him there anyway and called for the janitor to clean up.  I was five minutes late to my class.

Mark, 6th Grade: As a paraprofessional, low on the school staff totem pole, I have the dreaded task of lunch duty.  It actually isn’t so bad.  I get to see the kids in a more social environment and occasionally I get to yell at them, which is always a good time.  This was a sunny day, and the kids were able to eat outside.  So, I was out on the patio staring at the 6th graders eating and enjoying the fresh air, when Mark came running up to me.  “Ms. Sperry! Ms. Sperry!” He tugged at my shirt.  “I just threw up!”  I followed him to the other end of the patio where a large circle of boys was ewwing and examining a foamy pile of bright blue puke.  “Ms. Sperry! Mark puked!” “It’s blue from his sucker!” “Gross!!!”  I shooed the boys away and asked Mark if he wanted to go to the clinic.  “No”, he insisted. I called for clean up and the boys ran out to recess.  Two in one day, I joked with the janitor, things were getting better and better.

Mary, 8th Grade:  Fast forward to 8th Grade lunch duty.  Again I was outside on the patio and all of the lovely thirteen and fourteen year olds were crowding back into the building from recess.  Once most of them were inside, as always, a handful of stragglers remained to avoid going back to class.  As I went to herd them inside, Mary, smart but also a smart-ass (as most 8th graders are, I suppose), was linked arm in arm with a girl on one side and a boy on the other.  Mary opened her mouth to, I presume, complain that I’m mean for forcing her to go to class, but instead an awkward belch came out.  The other two unlinked their arms to look at her with amusement.  “That’s disgusting, Mary!” the girl yelled.  The boy giggled in agreement.  “Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod!  I think I’m, like, seriously going to puke.”  Mary bent over, a curtain of long hair surrounded her face, and she did indeed puke.  She continued to bend over at a ninety-degree angle, not wanting the long, thick strings of vomit still hanging from her mouth to get on her shirt.  As she realized she felt fine, a wave of embarrassment washed over her, which got worse as she desperately wiped her mouth and continuously failed to fling the vomit string off of her hand.  “Now, THAT was disgusting!” the boy yelled.  I asked Mary if she was ok.  She refused to acknowledge that anything happened and quickly walked to the door.  I called the janitor for another clean up.

I’m no expert on the matter, but after reflecting on my day, I couldn’t help but think that Mark the 6th grader acted like a 6th grader: After realizing that he felt fine, he ran to an adult for assistance and then went on to examine his blue puke in awe with his friends.  Mike, the 7th grader, proved his responsibility a little more by doing his best to take care of the situation himself as he attempted to clean and hold back tears of embarrassment.  Finally, Mary was a typical 8th grader by trying to maintain as much social dignity as possible without pausing to think about anything other than her friends’ reactions. Of course, every child is different, but my observations of those sick middle schoolers helped me see the steps they were taking towards becoming young adults. The 6th grader sought help, then the 7th grader helped himself, and the 8th grader went a step further by being aware of the complications of social acceptance.  The next step would hopefully be to combine all of these steps together for the good of yourself and others around you.  However, I’m not positive every person learns to take that biggest step- which kind of makes me want to puke.

(Names have been changed to prevent possible further social upsets)

Are YOU a Shower Sitter??

31 Dec

So, I just recently discovered that people take showers sitting down. Sitting in the shower? Isn’t that like standing in the bath? Why would someone do that?  “Everyone sits in the shower!” My friend, Kelly, argued while we ate dinner at a burger joint. Sitting in the shower had never occurred to me, and I found the idea quite strange. Is it true that everyone sits in the shower? Have I been missing out on something? We turned around and asked the four people sitting in the booth behind us.


“Can we ask you something? Do you sit in the shower?” Two of them, one male and one female, gave us looks as if we were crazy (fully justified, of course) and said definitely not. The second guy said, yes, all the time, and the third guy said yes, but he wanted to make sure I put him down as a “no.” So, that was one shower sitter and three(?) who thought shower sitting was weird. We then went to Home Depot to pick up some art supplies and asked Justin, the friendly guy who works in the electricity department, if he sits in the shower. “No.” He quickly said and then changed the subject.

So far, I was correct: Sitting in the shower is a weird thing to do, but Kelly was determined to convince me that it’s normal. In order to settle our debate once and for all, we decided to take a texting poll of our friends on our cell phones. I sent a text to about 30 people in my contacts list, discriminating against ones that I was too embarrassed to ask. Most answered, although it took a little explaining and prodding for a few of them.

“Often times I stand for long periods of time in the shower,” one friend said, “so I guess if I had a chair, I would sit down.”

Another answered, “No, I am not depressed.” Which I thought was an interesting judgement of shower-sitters.

“Lmafo, did someone say that they do???” a friend in New York City asked.

“Not in THIS shower, but I’ve been known to take a seat a time or two,” said another.

“People pee in the shower!! I don’t want to sit on that!!”

My inquiry got others interested so three of the friends I texted began asking others. Two of them, ones who did not sit in the shower, said that most of their friends don’t sit in the shower either. The third, a proud shower-sitter, said most of her friends do.

All in all, 16 of my friends said no, they have never sat down in the shower. 11, however, said yes, but most used the excuse that they were too drunk or hungover to stand, and they claimed that they did not pop a squat in the shower regularly.

The majority of Kelly’s friends, on the other hand, did sit in the shower on a regular basis. Sitting, they said, is more relaxing and gives you a chance to think and reflect.
The results of our poll made me ask two very important questions: Are there “types” of people that sit or do not sit in the shower? For example, the “type” of people I’m friends with, versus the “type” Kelly is friends with? And second, would I be converted to a shower sitter if I tried it, and did I want to risk the chance of being converted?

The next day, I woke up at 5am to go to a substitute teaching job. Getting up at 5am, as most would probably agree, is not easy, and I was groggy and tired. As I languidly turned on the shower water, I realized, what better time to sit in the shower? So, I did. My first problem was either being in a spot where I wasn’t getting enough water, or the water was spraying directly into my face (a good way to wake me up maybe?). In order to solve the water in the face problem, I turned my back to the shower head, encountering my next problem: I had to sit at the very end of the tub, facing the wall, and there was no room to comfortably fit my legs. Additionally, the hard, curved surface of the tub was not ideal for a comfy seat. As I sat on the floor of the tub, scrunched into a ball, and letting the water run over my head and into my eyes, I decided that getting comfortable while sitting in the shower was too much work, especially when I had to race the clock to get to work on time.
I stood back up.

Now, maybe, I’m biased. I already had strong doubts in my mind before I tried it. And, my legs are unusually long, so maybe someone with normal legs would fit more comfortably. And, maybe people like water in their face. Maybe, I’m just not the type that sits in the shower. But for those of you who are that type of person, I have one thing to say to you: Don’t sit in the shower and think for too long, you are using up a lot of water.

Election 2010: Money On Our Minds

27 Oct

‘Tis the season to vote, and for those of you that know me well, you know it’s impossible for me to remain silent during an election.  As a first time non-absentee Colorado voter in a long time, I have been bombarded with television adds, billboards, yard signs, and people knocking on my door telling me who to vote for.  Despite party affiliation, they are all screaming the same thing: “No more taxes!”  With the economy the way it is, it seems to be obvious why- we don’t want to give up part of our hard earned paychecks.  In fact, according to the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the federal budget and taxes are considered to be the 2nd most important issues to voters this year just after jobs and the economy.  It is clear that us voters have money on our minds.

Money is such a big deal this election that social issues seem to have been put on the back burner, and the new Tea Party agenda, which takes its name from the famous Boston protest against taxes in 1773, has taken the lead in television airtime and political debates.  Even the most liberal candidates are doing what they can to separate themselves from affiliation with the White House’s supposed tax increases, although in reality, 1/3 of Obama’s stimulus bill was in the form of tax cuts.

But are tax cuts really the answer?  Conservatives nation-wide are calling for a permanent extension of Bush-Era tax cuts, including relief for the upper class, which would add over $4 trillion to the already growing deficit.  Liberals are calling for extending Obama’s “Making Work Pay” tax cuts, which decreased income taxes by $400 a year for individuals and would add about $3 trillion to the deficit if renewed.  In Colorado, some of the most controversial amendments on the ballot are also major tax cuts.  Amendment 60 would significantly reduce property taxes paid to school districts, fire and police protection, roads, parks, water and sewer systems, and libraries.  Amendment 61 would restrict borrowing in addition to decreasing taxes making it difficult for the state to invest in roads, prisons, schools, and clean water, and for Colorado to pay unemployment benefits.  Finally, Amendment 101 would reduce state income tax and eliminate taxes and fees on vehicle purchases and registrations and telecommunication services, again drastically reducing much needed money for education, in addition to health care and programs that aid the lower class, the elderly, and disabled people.

Tax cuts, proposed nationally and in Colorado, not only add to the deficit by doing away with the very money that helps pay it off, but they also come at the high price of sacrificing our education, safety, and recreation.  The Committee for Responsible Federal Budget argues that we should be doing the exact opposite- increasing spending in areas, such as education and public investment, which produce the highest economic returns and increasing taxes in order to help pay off debt and lower additional spending on debt interest rate payments.

Now, I am currently a substitute teacher, so I dislike the government picking at my already scarce paychecks just as much as the next person, but tax cuts, especially the proposed tax cuts in this election, are just not cutting the debt.  So, when you vote on November 2nd, while the words “no more taxes!” may seem unbearably appealing, think about what no taxes really mean and if we Americans can truly afford it.

Sources:

Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “In Search of Fiscal Responsibility: Ten Questions to Ask the Candidates.” 20 October, 2010. <http://crfb.org/&gt;.

Cooper, Michael. “From Obama, The Tax Cut Nobody Heard Of.” The New York Times. 19 October, 2010.

State 0f Colorado 2010 State Ballot Information Booklet.

Dreaming Spontaneity: A Las Vegas Survival Story

27 Aug

Driving west on I-70, through the steep Rocky Mountains and speeding by rich ski resorts or scarcely populated towns, I recollected the memories of the dream I had the night before. My friend, Kelly, and I were in a land much like Oz, yet somehow distorted and different. We were on a quest through a desert, but not to find a wizard. Instead, we were off to Las Vegas with a faded yellow road stretched out into the hot haze in front of us- to what purpose, I was unsure. The dream was prophetic, for a few hours after I woke up, Kelly and I had decided we needed a spontaneous adventure. With only $100 each, given to us as parting gifts from our parents, and several chicken sandwiches and cokes in a cooler, we were driving towards Vegas by 5:00 that very evening.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Around 10:00pm, we pulled into Colorado National Monument where we decided to camp, bypassing a ranger station at the entrance with a “Station Closed: Please pay park fee on your way out” sign, and we drove up the curving road in the dark. Arriving at designated campsites on the summit of the largest flat-topped mountain in the world, we came to another unmanned fee station requiring us to put $10 in an envelope for camping, but Kelly only had a debit card and I only had a $100 bill. Not knowing how to get change and not really wanting to spend any of our precious money, we decided to risk getting caught by the campground’s guard, whose trailer gave off a blue glow from his satellite TV as we drove by. After parking, rolling out our sleeping bags in the back of my car, and gazing off the cliff down at the tiny sparkling lights of Fruita, we laid our tired heads down, joking about the wrath of the Camp Man who takes revenge on those who don’t pay their camping fees, and went to sleep.
I awoke startled to what I thought was the sound of someone pulling at the driver’s side door handle. The Camp Man! I thought. He’s trying to get inside! I forced my eyes open, despite not getting enough sleep and the strong beams of light from the sunrise just approaching its climax over the Rocky Mountains in the east. I sat up on my elbow and peeked over the back window. It was the Camp Man indeed, a tall man walking away to the next campsite 30 feet away. As I sat up, he turned around to glare at me from under the rim of his blue-jean baseball cap, as if he could hear the soft rustle of my sleeping bag with his evil ears. He had put a fee notice and an envelope on the windshield of my car- it was the quick pop of the windshield wiper against the glass that woke me up. His wrath was upon us.

Sunrise at Colorado National Monument

Kelly and I quickly got dressed, walked to the edge of the now brightly lit red cliffs to admire the view, put the empty fee envelope in the trashcan not wanting to litter, and sped off. We had barely escaped and were glad to find that the “Station Closed” sign was still up in the window of the ranger’s station at the entrance of the park. After stopping at a local coffee shop in Fruita for our caffeine fix and cream cheese filled coffee cake, we made our way to Arches National Park, and arrived around 8am for a short hike before continuing on to Vegas. We parked at the trail head for Devil’s Garden and happily trotted down the gravel Primitive Trail into the desert, vaguely similar to what I had imagined in my Oz dream. Unaware that we had chosen to take the park’s longest trail covering over 7 miles of very dry, hot terrain, we didn’t wear sunscreen, nor did we bring water, thinking that we would only be walking on a 1 mile loop. We hunted lizards, scrambled over rocks, explored side trails, and balanced across the tops of the ancient red stone arches, but after over two hours of hiking, the trail end was nowhere in sight and we were thirsty- very thirsty. We sat down every 20 minutes or so to rest, complain about our increasingly scratchy throats, and examine each other’s darkening sunburns.

Me at the top of Private Arch

Once we reached Private Arch, three young, shirtless, and handsome men soon trailed in behind us and I goggled at them longingly, for one of them was carrying a gallon jug filled with clear water. The three set down their packs at the bottom of a rock and continued up to see the view.  I seriously contemplated chugging as much of their water as my stomach could hold while they weren’t looking. As I crept towards their belongings, thinking of nothing but how that water would sooth my dry lips and throat, a deep and enthusiastic “Hallo!” stopped me. I tried to look as innocent as possible and cracked my dry lips into a smile. “Where are you from?” he asked in a deep European accent, motioning for me to come up the rock towards him. I licked my lips, “Colorado, you?” Kelly approached from behind me. “Austria. I am Louis and they are Mike and Mike.” “Hallo!” the Mikes said in unison. The back of my brain felt heavy and I was worried I might start mistaking the Mikes for roasted chickens or giant glasses of water. “We go from Cali-for-nia by auto to this place and then to Las Wegas. The red rocks are getting too much for us now. What are you doing?” Louis inquired, staring at the both of us with his bright blue eyes. “We are going to Las Vegas tonight,” I said, trying to be cheery. “Hey,” Kelly interrupted, “can we have some of your water? We don’t have any.” My face brightened and I tried to put on a cute pretty-please grin. “Ok, yaa,” Louis said and the Mikes grunted and smiled in agreement. Kelly and I scrambled to the water jug and took big, long gulps. The three Austrians watched us from above. “Thank you!” we both yelled as we turned around to leave. “Good luck in Wegas!” Louis yelled back while Mike and Mike waved. From that point forward, we knew what we had to do: provoke as much pity as possible from everyone we passed. With our bright red faces, forced smiles, and sincere thank you’s, we managed gulps of strong blue Gatorade from a couple from Chicago, shared a water bottle with another couple from Portland, Oregon, took awkward suckles of several others’ plastic water bladders, and so on- most likely causing an outbreak of Cameron and Kelly cooties worldwide- but luckily making it safe and sound to the car in the parking lot.

"The red rocks are getting too much for us now."

At 9:45pm, after driving further west for hours on the freeway, we were bombarded with the lights of Vegas. Its blinding vastness stretched out over the desert like an Emerald City gone wrong. Traffic was horrendous with drivers weaving in and out of lanes, honking their horns, proceeding to rear-end cars in front of them, and after a few yells, fist shakings, and finger liftings, they were off to repeat the process further down the strip. This was our first taste of the almost frightening phenomenon of how time seems to slow down in Las Vegas. It took eons for us to get into the parking garage of the Venetian Hotel and once we got inside, the sensory overload had the effects of a ray gun that slows down time within a fraction of stopping it. We torpidly drifted down elaborately painted corridors, were consumed by flashing gambling machine lights, got distracted by the yells of losers and the cheers of winners, and somehow made it to the golden fountain in the front lobby, not remembering how we got there or realizing how long such a simple task as entering the hotel lobby took.
We met up with my friend Eric, who had offered us free sleeping space on the floor in his hotel suite, and he informed us that his brother had the door key and was out clubbing so we were unable to enter the room until very late. All hope for a shower and a quick nap after our hiking adventure in the desert was out the window, so after Eric skipped off into the casinos, Kelly and I struggled to make ourselves look halfway decent in the Venetian lobby’s ladies room. Both of us hopped in and out of several outfits as fast as our exhausted bodies would allow and smeared on eyeliner and lip gloss between large glasses of warm and cheap strawberry champagne we had picked up earlier in the day. Once the bottle of champagne was empty, I tousled my hair and frowned in the mirror at my deep red farmer’s tan. It was clear that no matter how much perfume I sprayed over my collarbone, I would stick out like a sore thumb. And so, Kelly and I went on our way to take pictures of the scenery and snicker at the people who had more to drink than we did. We never got around to gambling or doing much of anything within the stifling slow motion haze, and all was a blur until Eric’s 4:30am phone call gave us access to the suite and a long awaited sleep.

Farmer's Tan Fashion

Dorothy’s tornado had apparently struck twice. The suite was covered in food, empty bottles, bedding, and sleeping bodies strewn every which way. Kelly and I managed to clear a spot for ourselves on the floor in a corner and 3 ½ hours later, we woke up to cell phone alarms and the shrieks of our 10 suite-mates reminding us that we were in Vegas bitches and it was time to get up and drink! After everyone else finally filed out of the room, Kelly and I stayed behind, trying desperately to sleep in a little more and prepare for the hot and dawdling day ahead. Our breakfast consisted of tasteless $16 enchiladas that arrived at the hands of a sluggish wait staff and by the time we were out on the strip, it was past 1:00 in the afternoon. It was impossible to do anything outside in the heat, so we immediately stepped into the Ghirardelli shop and indulged in chocolate milkshakes. Our cold ice creams allowed our brains to think slightly more coherently and we decided to visit the art exhibit in the Bellagio, Figuratively Speaking: A Survey of the Human Form. The exhibit included the artists Renoir, Picasso, Hockney, Lichtenstein, and Viola and was enlightening and refreshing compared to the rest of what I had experienced in the Sin City thus far.
Back at the Venetian, where we were guaranteed to get lost every time we went to and from our room, we played along with a Bachelor party’s scavenger hunt by giving them fake telephone numbers and letting them take pictures of the inside of our borrowed messy suite. We also had to make pleading phone calls to our mothers because our $100 dollars had mysteriously run out. Craving a break from the soggy sandwiches we had packed in our cooler two days before, we went to the Outback Steak House on the strip with Trong, one of our many suite-mates, and had a good time joking around with the waiter and discussing what our second night in Vegas could bring.
Clubbing was on our agenda, so after we were finished with dinner at 9:15, (Hadn’t we sat down for dinner around 6? Why did it take so long?) Kelly and I were on a rushed quest to find dresses suitable to get us past the bouncers at Tao or Pure or one of the other dance clubs that try their best to put on an exclusive front. Target was the only place we could find that was open, which was surprising since everything besides clothing stores seemed to be just coming alive. Night time in Vegas is for drinking and gambling, but definitely not shopping. We each grabbed and tried on the first dresses we saw and ran to the cash registers at 9:58 with the loud speakers threatening closure at 10.

The Venetian Hotel and Casino


Kelly and I headed back to our hotel,
but this time we were sleeping in the Stratosphere, thanks to my gracious mom who decided to donate more to our Vegas cause, most likely with the hope that this would be my last hurrah before I got a job and grew up. We were glad to no longer be sharing a suite with 10 other people. The Stratosphere, while much farther away from the main part of the strip than the Venetian, gladly let its true colors show. The guests there were dressed in ripped jeans and t-shirts and gambled with bright pink arms and hands from being out in the sun all day. I felt more at ease, rather than having to deal with the Venetian’s classy false-front that miserably tried to hide its overflowing sleaziness. At least at the Stratosphere, if you were sleazy, you were proud to show it. I was also looking forward to the promised 10:00am wake-up call instead of an 8:30am drink-up call in the morning- but first one last night in Vegas.
Kelly and I shared a cab ride with a driver who definitely wasn’t sober and two women whose conversation included debating whether one could see the continents of Earth from outer space, and we ended up at the Koi Lounge in Planet Hollywood. While waiting in line to get in, I was given a ticket from a promoter that allowed Kelly and I to jump to the front of the line, enter for free, and enjoy an open bar for $20. By the time Trong met up with us (apparently, Eric and the rest of the group had given up on clubbing, probably due to drinking for about 24 hours strait), it was 12:00am and we took advantage of the open bar and hopped in another taxi to the Tao night club inside the Venetian. As things mysteriously take forever in Las Vegas, we somehow arrived at Tao around 2:30am and because I have what I would consider normal partying stamina, I was beginning to tucker out. 9 hours of sleep in over 48 hours, 100+ degree temperatures, crowds, and alcohol, all in unbearable slow motion, were not things I was accustomed to. Nonetheless, we waited in line for who knows how long and Kelly stepped out of line to take a quick half hour trip to the bathroom. Once she came back, Trong and I were finally at the front of the line and Kelly stepped over the red velvet rope to rejoin us. Suddenly, the club bouncers were on top of Kelly like vultures. “You are not permitted to step over the rope,” a tall man dressed in a spiffy suit said sternly. He glared at me from under his black brimmed hat, with an uncanny resemblance of the dreaded Camp Man. I saw him grip Kelly’s arm above her elbow. “No, it’s ok. She is with us. She just ran to the bathroom really quick while we were waiting in line,” I insisted. The bouncer’s cold eyes met mine and he loosened his hold on Kelly. “I’ll be nice this time,” he growled, “but you are never allowed to step over the rope.” Trong, Kelly, and I sighed with relief but the tall spiffy-suited bouncer turned to his partner at the door and pointed to Kelly. “Don’t let that one in,” he told the doorman and went back to his post. Trong and I gave each other concerned and defeated glances, but Kelly was too busy cursing under her breath and rubbing the hand print on her arm to hear what had happened. Sure enough, we were turned away at the door. The Camp Man’s revenge had finally caught up to us.
After less than 5 hours of sleep, Kelly and I reluctantly got up the next morning, wandered around the Stratosphere, and found a Starbucks for breakfast. In small cotton shorts and pajama t-shirts and lattes in hand, we staggered to the elevators that go up to the top of the tallest observation tower in the United States. To our dismay, in order to get to the elevator, we were forced to take cheesy pictures in front of a green screen that was later replaced with touristy photos of Las Vegas and sold at the exit of the tower. We obliged, with everyone else in line watching us, and posed in our pajamas and tired eyes so that we could continue to the top and take in one last view of the strange, slow, and shining Emerald City before it was time to leave.

We aren't in Kansas anymore...

We were able to depart the slow motion city at 12:30 and drove back east through the desert with a final 12 hour drive ahead of us.  I gripped the wheel in a dream-like state while Kelly dozed.  We seemed to reach the town of Salina, Utah, 5 hours away, in a flash, as if all the built up time in Las Vegas suddenly propelled us forward in order to catch up with the rest of the world.  With such a time warp, I was unprepared to plan for my car’s gas consumption and continued to drive past Salina with slightly less than a quarter tank of gas remaining.  In any other place, a quarter tank would have sufficed, but not in the desert.  Between Salina and the next town, Green River, there is literally 100 miles of nothingness- no exits, no people, no buildings, and certainly no gas stations, only me, Kelly, our cooler that was down to 4 warm coca-colas, and the never ending dry sand and red rocks.  After about 30 miles, the gas gauge shot down to empty and the gas light flickered its warnings.  A green highway sign loomed ahead: 62 miles to Green River.  My stomach ached with nervousness.  Time was approaching 7:00pm and if we ran out of gas now, we would be stranded in 95 degree heat and desert darkness at the mercy of who ever happened to speed by.  I shuttered at my idea of who that person might be, imagining cold eyes peering out from under a trucker’s hat.  I slowed down from 80 miles an hour to 40, avoiding acceleration as much as I could and dropping the car into neutral at the slightest downward slope.  I counted the mile markers on the side of the road vehemently, a small squeak of relief escaping my mouth with every mile put behind us.  Through a miracle, we rolled into a truck stop and gas station in Green River, just as my car gave a final sigh of emptiness.  The last of our trials were over, and sleep was just on the other side of those tall Rocky Mountains.

The final moments of sunset as we pulled into Green River's truck stop

I woke up to my cat licking my nose around noon on Monday, dazed with a slight head cold and still unsure of what purpose our sudden adventure had served.  Maybe it will come to me in a dream.  Until then, one thing I do know is, there truly is no place like home.