like it never happened

I arrived at Goleta International airport on 4 p.m. on the 23rd, into Clare’s arms. She had been home for three weeks, having flown from Managua, and took me to our new palatial imitation apartment downtown, which she had filled with all sorts of lovely dishes and utensils and cups and beds the likes of which I’d never enjoyed in a house of my own before. Our place is on De la Vina, between Anapamu and Figueroa, and has a porch from which to hang a Brazilian hammock bought in Bolivia.

I’d spent the previous three days with Mal and Mary Parker in Oro Valley, Tucson, Arizona. Mexicans call Tucson “Tuke-SONE”, which is always fun. Mr. Parker was my Spanish teacher for four years at San Marcos, and I owe him a great deal of my interest in Spanish today. He went to Mexico seven times this year, and we spent our time watching his home movies and some real ones. Perfume is nothing short of incredible, but No Country for Old Men was not as good as Tim told me it was, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was only funny for half an hour.

Everyone in Mexico and Arizona wished Clare had come, and looks forward to meeting her. I completely understand her wanting to visit Mexico properly; I feel the same way about Brazil. Thanks to Clare, coming home has been an even bigger treat than I had anticipated. I felt at home the minute I walked into our new apartment, the rent for which we hope to only have to suffer until Dr. Lynn and her husband-to-be Danny No Hangers move from the cottage at Clare’s parents’ house to Fiji, or something.

My few days in Santa Barbara have been spent opening presents, delivering a few gifts acquired abroad, playing Scrabble with Grandma Smith, catching up on the latest heartwrenching news from Lompoc, riding the Brown Pride Root Beer Rocket, and looking forward to seeing everybody that I haven’t yet seen. Naturally, everyone wants to hear stories about the biggest/craziest/coolest schlep on the big schlep. And naturally, I rarely feel able to satisfy. Of course, there must be things that sound at least as cool in the retelling as they seemed when we lived them, but I am never able to call them to mind on demand. Only when I sit very still and think about the 10,000 or so overland miles traveled in the last four months do they come to me, and come they do, like flood waters.

My few days with Mr. Parker helped me realize this. He would ask me about something, and I’d say I dunno, but in this other place they do it like this, and he’d say holy crap you’ve been there, too, wow, my god, you’ve seen so much, you lucky little bastard, and I’d realize that what we did was really a great thing, even if I haven’t yet mastered the telling of the story. But there’s also the letdown, the defeatist notion that the stories aren’t worth telling, either because other people won’t appreciate them or because it doesn’t matter if they do or not. There’s always a little of that to overcome, that feeling that as soon as something ends, it’s as though it never happened.

The big schlep did happen, though, as this blog shows. And I’m thankful for the friends and family who convinced me they were always waiting for the next pictures or writings, for it was those people and those people alone who ever moved us to sit at a cyber cafe computer and put something down that will never go away. So here are many thanks to everyone who encouraged us along the way. May all your schleps be big.

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Filed under oro valley, santa barbara, tucson

a night out – by paul rivas

“I’m going ten meters across the street for dinner.”

It was exaggerated compliance with her request that he tell her where he was going when he walked out, rather than just walking out, and he’d meant it to be rude. Now Restaurant Other Fish was closed.

All he’d wanted was the shrimp dinner and Premium beer he’d had the night before. He had been counting on it being open. It had been open earlier; he had seen the girls that worked there sitting out front. Then again, maybe they had only been sitting out front because they didn’t know where else to sit on their day off. It was impossible to know. He could have asked if they were open, but still he could never be sure that they hadn’t just made up an answer on the spot. He could never really know what their status had been at the very moment that he had seen them sitting there, before he’d asked out loud and given them time to think about it.

Michael estimated that he and his girlfriend had fought 14 times in the last two weeks. Now Other Fish was closed.

He could see that the Irish bar at the end of the block was dark, so he went back across the street and continued two blocks in the other direction, past the bus company building and the taxi drivers and deadbeats who hung out there. There was a place open on the far corner. There were people eating there, and there was an old man with a cart alongside.

“Is there anything to eat?”


“One then. Is there any beer?”

“Toña, Victoria.”

“Victoria. A liter.”

“They’re gonna have somebody bring it.”

He turned and recognized the young man who had spoken as the crackhead who had inserted himself into the baseball game that afternoon. He had waltzed right in and demanded an immediate turn at bat, and Michael had lobbed the first pitch at his head.

Although a crackhead, the kid was still a friendly face. Michael nodded a non-verbal greeting at him and sat down.

The food came and was delicious. He hadn’t eaten real barbeque, the kind that reminded him of home, in three months. He ate slowly to avoid finishing before the beer came, which it eventually did. The guy who brought it had the face of a 24-year-old, but none of a 24-year-old’s enthusiasm. The beer was not Toña or Victoria, but Brahma.

At least it wasn’t Quilmes, he told himself.

“Fucking foreigner. I asked him if he could spare a peso for food, and he started giving me shit. I should go back there and fuck him up. Fucking foreigner. If it was for vice, I wouldn’t have asked, but it was for food. I’m so fucking hungry I can’t stand it. Do you mind if I sit down?”

“Please. Drink beer.”

The guy had just walked up, and was Michael’s age. He wore jeans that didn’t fasten and a baseball uniform undershirt, white with red sleeves and collar. His left arm and leg hung crooked and almost useless at his side, very nearly more trouble to drag around than they were worth.

“Everyone calls me Scatterbrain, even my grandma. ‘Scatterbrain, dinner’s ready.’ I used to be a little crazy. I was skinny.”

He was a crackhead. Michael suspected he was also furious at his disability.

“That’s Candy. He’s like a Volkswagen.”

He was talking about the guy who had brought the beer. Michael encouraged his tablemate to explain by raising his right eyebrow slightly and winking halfway with his left eyelid.

“He’s got his motor in back. He likes to get it from behind.”

Michael smiled and made a noise. He noticed for the first time that Scatterbrain was so unwell, he looked as though finishing his beer might kill him. There were few streetlights in this neighborhood, and the last thing Michael wanted was the death of a local on his hands, even a crackhead.

No one else seemed concerned. The two women continued to eat and serve food, first to a woman walking by with a small child, then to a taxi driver idling at the curb. Candy paid scant attention to the addict’s chatter, which did not diminish in volume or pace despite his abject appearance.

“What’s your name, friend?”


People here pronounced his name Mycole when hearing it and Meetchelle when reading it, so he always just said Miguel.

“Miguelito. Did what I said bother you? About the fucking foreigner?”

Michael shook his head sympathetically.

“Good. Because I’m telling you, I should have killed him. Oh, and watch out for this guy, though. He’s a thief and a criminal.”

Michael looked at the man Scatterbrain indicated. He had faintly muscular arms and a few amateur tattoos.

“Good evening, ma’am. Miguelito here is gonna buy me a dinner and a beer.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Michael saw the woman laugh off the request and the man chuckle.

“If you want marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or a woman, Scatterbrain can help you. He’s into that stuff.”

The crackhead nodded much more assuringly than Michael would have thought him capable of.

“Or maybe you’d rather take a spin with Candy?”

The man shrugged, indicating it wouldn’t be the first time a stranger had taken a liking to Candy. Scatterbrain encouraged him.

“She’ll appreciate it. Look at her, she’s excited already!”

Even crackheads hit the nail on the head once in a while, Michael thought. Candy half smiled, his lips lengthening and shining wet. He wore a scarf, despite the heat, and his eyebrows were almost entirely shaved off.

“Look at her! Posing!”

“Candy! Is your name Candy, or isn’t it?”

“My name is Ricardo.”

“Or María Ricarda. Candy or María Ricarda.”

Scatterbrain seemed to continually be trying to convince himself that he occupied a superior position in the neighborhood hierarchy than the gay prostitute. Michael wondered who really outranked whom. If nothing else, Michael thought, Scatterbrain could be sure that Candy would never stab him. Any other of the neighborhood nightcrawlers was liable to get fed up with him and become violent at any time.

Michael felt himself relax a little, but remained wary of slipping into overconfidence. Scatterbrain seemed to notice.

“Buy me a meal. You bought me a drink, and I appreciate that, but what I really need is a meal. I’m starving.”

“I’d love to be able to buy everyone a meal.”

Michael didn’t explain that what he’d really done was to invite the altered young man to help him finish a bottle of beer that he knew he wouldn’t finish alone. He had intended to get drunk, but thought better of it after seeing how many guys with nothing to lose were out on the dark street between the hotel and the restaurant. His girlfriend didn’t drink at all anymore, and now two beers were almost too many.

“Buy him some dinner, and buy me some dinner and some beer.”

The tattooed man had initially put on a stone cold straight face, but abandoned it when he saw Michael smirking.

When a particularly antagonizing crackhead went by and fired a toy gun at him, Scatterbrain found the energy to stand up and hurl the empty pint glass at his enemy’s head and yell that he was sick of the guy. Still, he hadn’t forgotten his hunger.

“Miguelito won’t buy a guy a plate of food, but he’ll buy him a beer.”

Michael thought this sounded terrible, but decided that it was probably true. The tattooed man just laughed.

“Miguelito’s gonna wish he never ate here. You can tell that he’s good at dodging conversation, though.”

Michael took the comment as a sign of approval, a message that he could relax. Here he would be free of the usual harassment of foreign faces, on account of his having shown himself to be adept at avoiding becoming nervous or being sucked into any double-meaning sex jokes, a pastime in that part of the world. It felt good to have the backing of someone from the neighborhood who knew everybody and whom everybody knew.

A boy from the baseball game came running up to the man to ask permission to stay out until nine o’clock. When Michael showed himself curious, the man said it was his nephew.

Michael heard people call the man Oscar. He had a cell phone, and for the last half hour, when he wasn’t renting it to passers-by, he had been calling home to ask whether or not the milk had been delivered yet.

Somebody asked why he bought milk from that son of a bitch instead of over at the other place, where they bring it right away.

“Because that son of a bitch is cheaper, that’s why. 70 pesos instead of 84. Here, Miguelito, have a beer. Go on, drink it, it’s cold.”


“I practically never leave my house, you know? I’m only out here right now because I got in a fight with my wife.”

Michael laughed an honest laugh.

“Me too.”

“Drink the beer, it’s cold. Scatterbrain, take this and go buy yourself something to eat.”

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Filed under a night out, fiction, fighting with your girlfriend, managua, nicaragua, paul rivas, short stories

it feels good to be back in mexico

Oh, how good to be back in Mexico, where Mexican food is just… food. There is now a charge of 237 pesos to be here, payable not at the border, as one might expect, but at any bank in the republic. This may be the most inefficient border charge in the world, but ni modo. Prices have gone up since I was last here two years ago, and more than the 10% that the dollar has gained on the peso.

I feel at home here, even in this place where the bus from Nicaragua ended called Tapachula, in the state of Chiapas. I’m only 15 minutes from Guatemala, but already I’ve heard “¿mande?“, “‘horita“, “guey” (with an umlat) and “hijo de su puta madre” some 10,000 times each. At the bus station, I was the only one of five gringos who knew the difference between Mexico TAPO and Mexico Norte.

And I’m only in Chiapas. I’m anxious to get to Mexico City, where I’ll stay first with my old roommate for a couple days in his new apartment in a fancy neighborhood, and then with the Mexican director of the study abroad program for several days in her lovely apartment until one of her sons comes home for Christmas. It’ll be the first time that I visit that I don’t stay with the neighbor family from my old building. 29 years old seems a bit much to be flopping on a family’s couch, I dunno. It feels good to know I’d be welcome there, though. That’s three friends who would be happy to have me stay at their house, probably more than I could count on in Buenos Aires or even Santa Barbara. That’s why it feels like home, I guess.

It hardly seems like two years, and in fact I can’t really measure the time I’ve been away until I visit my old neighborhood, the celebrated Unidad Independencia, where I’ll immediately notice anything that’s out of place. The neighbor kids I spent six months learning from in 2000 are no longer between 15 and 20 years old, but now 22 to 27.

And it hardly seems like this is the 13th country I’ve been in since September. It felt so good to reach Mexico, the penultimate country on the big schlep, that upon arriving here yesterday at 6:30 p.m., I elected to stay the night and not take the 7:30 p.m. bus to Mexico City. But then again maybe that was my 29 years talking. None of the 20-year-old British kids on the bus hesitated at making the 18-hour trip just an hour after 13 hours of travel, and on a mediocre bus, no less. But I was so pleased to be here, and also so keen to take the luxury bus this afternoon at 4:30, that I got a hotel room and immediately stuffed myself with tacos.

While eating an alambre de bistec and drinking Modelo, I watched the América (Mexico) vs. Arsenal (Argentina) final of the Copa Sudamericana. I asked the waiter who the good Mexican would root for in this instance, given that América is the team good Mexicans love to hate because they are quick to hire foreign players and all the rich kids cheer for them, and Argentina is the Latin American country Mexicans love to bash because people there are famous for being conceited and speaking with an annoying accent. He didn’t hesitate to say Arsenal. América went up 2-0, taking a 4-3 advantage on aggregate, and a couple bad Mexicans cheered. But when Arsenal scored a late goal, to win the Cup on away goals, I hollered “gol!” and raised a fist to the waiter in solidarity.

The end of this big schlep is in sight, but there are so many great friends to see and cool places to visit along the way that it feels as though it’s just begun.

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Filed under alambre de bistec, américa equipo culero, arsenal (arg), mexico, modelo

bad venezuelans go to panama to get cash that hugo chávez won’t let them have

“Good Muslims pray five times a day. You know what bad Muslims do? Bad Muslims sell carpets! A Visa card makes the carpet fly! And if you buy now, we’ll give you this genuine Turkish imitation Samsonite bag for free!” – Carpet salesman in Cappadoccia, Turkey.

Here’s a little something that I found intriguing and wanted to share with you good folks, particularly you, Emil. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure what the purpose is exactly, but I guess there are lots of reasons that a Venezuelan or anybody could need a quick five grand de los verdes. And before I launch into what a taxi driver in Panama explained to me, here’s a link to a blog in Spanish that ponders this same issue. To wit:

In an attempt to justify to me why he had attempted to charge me $10 from the Panama Canal to the Hotel Latino, a trip that had cost $5 in the other direction, my taxi driver launched into an unprovoked 25-minute monologue about what he, a knowledgeable, experienced and all-around bona fide taxi driver could do for me, or, say, a Venezuelan who needed cash. I, no doubt like you folks, had no idea why getting money out of an ATM should be any more difficult for a Venezuelan than, say, a Canadian, whose withdrawals, in extreme cases, may be limited by his stunted intelligence, leading to an inability to operate modern devices properly.

The taxi driver said that big, bad Hugo has limited the amount of money that Venezuelans can spend abroad to $5000 per year. Venezuelans cannot spend more than $5000 on items not quoted in Bolívares, the local currency. And this is where the taxi driver gets off trying to charge ten bucks for a five-buck schlep: he and other shysters like him know where to go to help Venezuelans get that five large in fast cash.

Now why would a Venezuelan not be able to change Bolívares to dólares in Venezuela? I have no idea. I didn’t think to ask. But Hugo must not allow that, either, or else there would be no point to what the taxi driver told me, incidentally, after telling me that he couldn’t tell me. What he told me was that first, the bad Venezuelan has to go to the free zone in Colón, at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal, where shops sell stuff like electronics in bulk. The easiest way to do go to Colón for a bad Venezuelan in a hurry is… wait for it… with my man the taxi driver, who swears he gets no piece of the following action, only the $70 fare to Colón (and likely a $70 fare back to Panama, I suppose, but I didn’t think to ask that, either). Once in Colón, the Vennie has to head to an electronics shop of ill repute, and the taxi driver knows which one this might be. The anti-Chavezite then spends his entire $5000 limit on ten sick TVs, or ten million replacement snaps cell phone covers, but doesn’t take the merchandise. No, he leaves it there, and instead walks out with ninety-something percent of the $5000 purchase price, with the bad Panamanian keeping the rest.

Obviously, this saves the Venezuelan a great deal of time and ATM fees otherwise accrued by withdrawing five Gs at $300 per day. The taxi driver said that a fair number of Hugo-haters come to Panama for this purpose and this purpose only. If anyone knows what the deal is here, or if you, Emil, heard anything about this law during your town on the ground in the Bolivarian Republic, I’d love to hear what you have to say.


Filed under bad muslims, bad venezuelans, emil dauncey, foreign spending limits for venezuelans, hugo chávez, panama, taxi drivers, venezuela

things i’ve learned in nicaragua

A Guest Submission to The Big Schlep
By Schlepping Sister

1. I’m really not as good a surfer as I would like to think that I am.

Sure, Clare won the coveted ¨Whippp of the Day¨ award (see below), but the photographer probably had about a hundred pictures of either of us to choose from. The difference between Clare and me is that she hasn’t been surfing at least once or twice a week for the last several months. I think I managed to get to my feet twice and got solidly hammered by the Pacific Ocean an uncountable number of times. While I may not be winning any surfing competitions any time soon and that Quicksilver contract I was hoping for is definitely off, I will continue to surf because there is nothing better than sitting on your board in 80 degree water waiting for your set to roll in. Wiping out is a part of life. The most important thing is to resurface with a smile on your face. Plus, if you get tired of getting slammed by the waves, you can always have an epic body surfing session to make up for it.

2. I am and always will be Scottish, not Hawaiian.

Sometimes I like to deny my heritage and pretend that it’s okay for me to lie out on the beach in a bikini without proper sun block application. I really shouldn’t do this because for the remainder of the trip, I will be nursing an awesome patchy sunburn as a result of chilling on the Playa Santa Domingo on the Isla De Ometepe. Hey, at least I didn’t get eaten by a bull shark right?

3. Al Gore is right.

I’m not talking about Global Warming (although I’m pretty sure he’s right about that too) but instead am talking about how we, as a country, use ENTIRELY too much electricity. The energy that I use to power my little studio apartment in downtown Santa Barbara could probably power the entire village of Limon II for a week. It’s not like the place shuts down at sunset either. It gets dark here at 5:30 pm and yet, somehow these people survive without proper street lights, neon signs, or fluorescent lighting. I’m realizing more and more just how wasteful I can be just out of laziness and convenience. I think we can all learn a little something from how the Nicaraguans live.

4. If you’re going to travel to a Spanish speaking country, without speaking a word of Spanish, do it with 2 people who are fluent or practically so.

This is my not so subtle way of thanking the Schleppers for their translation services thus far. I’m pretty useless when it comes to anything to do with the Spanish language, and so I rely on Clare and Paul to carry me like an extra backpack. I’m so incredibly envious of their abilities. Clare manages to have these amazing conversations with children at almost every stop along the way. She would say that it’s not a big deal, but when you see the faces of these children after she takes their picture you realize how exceptional a gift communication is. Clare, Paul and I had a conversation about travel the other day, and were arguing in every direction about the pros and cons of guided tours. Do you get less out of a trip if you do it from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus and the consoling sounds of descriptions in your native tongue? I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that I can’t possible learn as much from a trip to another country without being able to speak with its inhabitants. I’ll still have an incredible time, but I’ll have to watch how people live from a distance instead of hearing about it first hand.

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Filed under julie nisbet


At The Surf Sanctuary, in Limon II close to Las Salinas, Nicaragua, Julie and I had a blast surfing some waves. Naturally, not being a surfer and being 2 years out of practice, I was WAY out of my league and proudly ended up on their blog as the “Whippp (wipeout) of the Day”. Three cheers for me. It was even a two photo series. I am the worst surfer ever. Can’t wait to get back to those gentle SB breaks…

Looking good so far…


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Filed under clare nisbet, las salinas, limon II, madera beach, nicaragua, photos, surfing, the surf sanctuary, whip of the day, wipeout

a little vacation


sunset, Isla Ometepe

flora Nicaragua

Ranita, poolside

moments before the scorpion was clubbed to death by a brick

jilbert loved the autoretrato

a friendly and frisky monkey entertained us pre-dinner at Yolanda’s

little julie enjoys the beach at sunset

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Filed under animals, children, clare nisbet, flora, julie nisbet, las salinas, limon II, little julie, monkey, nicaragua, paul rivas, photos, sunset, surf sanctuary, Uncategorized

schlep bus writings published on

The article I wrote on the bus from Costa Rica to Nicaragua about the UCSB men’s soccer team’s summer trip to Argentina and what it means, if anything, for the team’s chances to repeat as NCAA champions appeared today on, The Santa Barbara Independent website.


Filed under alfonso montagalvan, argentina, banfield, costa rica, gauchos, nicaragua, nick perera, river plate, tim vom steeg, ucsb men's soccer, writing on long distance buses

love after love

Last night little Julie stepped off the plane like an angel of mercy. With her 12 hours in Nicaragua she has already made me laugh until I spat food all over the dinner table, watched Grey’s Anatomy with me, and generally made me feel not-quite-so-insane. I feel like the vacation part of the schlep may have begun.

I have been sick, lost in depression, and reeling for a lot of the last few weeks, unable to make my hands move over the keyboard no matter how hard I try. I have lost myself in several books. Yesterday, around dusk, I opened my newest. During our 12 hour visit to Costa Rica I traded the collected stories of Márquez for The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. It opens with the following poem:

love after love

The time will come
when,  with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast n your life.

Derek Walcott 

I wish I had written that. And I feel like I am greeting myself again a little more each day. I feel like I ignored myself for another who knows me by heart. I generally hate poetry (blame the English lit degree) but this one made me cry and I can’t stop reading it.

Anyway. I am going surfing. Shaka bra.


Filed under audrey niffenegger, costa rica, derek walcott, gabriel garcia márquez, julie, love, love after love, márquez, nicaragua, poem, poetry, surfing, time traveler's wife, vacation

with south america behind me

a local kid on the route to Panama cools off in the crystal clear water

Paul joins a sunset basketball game in Puerto Obald�a

Drinking fresh coconut to beat the heat at a border stop rushing through Central America

My buddy in Puerto Obald�a representing

We finally make it to Nicaragua and Paul joins street baseball. The first country where soccer is not the national sport!

Street baseball, how we used to do it in Scotland. Must be a poor people thang.


Filed under baseball, basketball, central america, children, coconut, colombia, colombia to panama overland, food, friends, nicaragua, panama, people, photos, portraits, sports, sunset, sunsets, Uncategorized