Sunday, May 26, 2013

From the Jungle to the Frying Pan

You know this particular fish from some James Bond movies.

The plane ride home is a time to reflect. You've spent the better part of 48 hours, hiking, canooing, driving, over some of the most difficult jungle terrain you ever imagined on your way to an airport that's nothing more than a shack with some ceiling fans, and you look forward to going home. You stare out the porthole window of the 757 and watch the snow-capped peaks of the Andes pass you by as the plane rocks and rolls from up-drafts. The turbulence sends chills up and down your spine, but it also makes you feel somehow alive. You feel good because you've accomplished something unusual.

In the Amazon Jungle you were taunted by spider monkeys who swiftly moved in packs of 200 or more, swinging from branches only inches above your head. A family of howling monkeys growled at you while protecting their new baby. A tarantula blocked your path on a narrow trail as you and your guide tried to get back to the lodge in the dark of night. A piranha bit your finger as you pulled it in with fishing line and hook. The bite stung and drew blood. It also caused the guides to laugh out loud while shaking their heads. "Who's the silly gringo in the Indiana Jones hat?"

Now you're home to the daily grind (yes, writers live the grind too!). You went straight to the ortho surgeon from the airport only to learn that you snapped a tendon in your right foot during the many hikes through Peru's mountainous jungle and that now you need an operation that will lay you up for two months. "You didn't hear something go POP?" asked the inquisitive doctor. Not an easy thing to accept for someone who jogs and trains with weights on a daily basis. Not to mention hiking, flyfishing, drumming for my new band, etc. I can't bear the through of sitting for more than a five minutes. But like a Russian travel friend of mine likes to say, "Hey, what can you do?"

Here's what I do: I have an email into my fixer. I'm already setting up the next adventure. Until that time, I have the galley proof of The Guilty (the third book in the Jack Marconi series) to get through, plus the first draft of a new Dick Moonlight novel, Moonlight Weeps. There's an article or two I will be writing, and one being published next week about my adventures in Africa from Living Ready Magazine. I'll suppose also be taking time to heal from my surgery. I'll be healing all summer long. Which also means I can't drive. Oh no, how am I going to get around?

Oh well, welcome to Vincent Zandri's real world...From the jungle to the frying pan.

One step backwards and I become a permanent piece of Machu Picchu history.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

I'm a Passenger

The grand observatory that the Incas built more than 700 years ago and that Hiram Bingham tripped over in 1911. A significant portion remains unearthed and undiscovered.

What hasn't been written about Peru's great wonder of the world, Machu Picchu that hasn't already been written? The answer is obvious, which is why I'm not about to even remotely attempt to describe the things you can perhaps, already imagine, even if you've never before stepped foot on the 2,430 m high mountain. You see the massive terraces and try to picture what it must have been like for the ancient Incas to carve them out of thick jungle vegetation-covered granite. You picture men literally falling off the mountain while trying to tame it. You see the giant granite boulders on the mountain-top "quarry," some weighing dozens of tons, and you can't help but imagine a man being crushed under its weight during the process of transporting the stones to their final position. Then, you can't help but feel pain for these people who were forced to flee from their sacred home in the night while the Spanish closed in on them, with the promise of death, destruction, and the hording of their precious metals.

I'm not going to describe standing on the mountain as the the sun breaks through the clouds, revealing the massive peaks that surround me, their presence looking almost fake. Like a brilliant projection flashed up onto a gigantic screen. You must fight the urge to reach out and touch these peaks, as if that were possible, only to feel yourself losing your balance. Should that happen, and you go over the side, the only thing that awaits you is a one way ticket to the Gods.

I'm a passenger these days. An observer. A mover. I don't rest. I don't sit down. I stand. I walk. I run. I'm never still, even at home. The itch to explore is sometimes so great, I think it will never be scratched. The itch is located in a spot along my spine that is impossible to reach. Or perhaps it's located in my brain. So the only cure is to keep on moving. I'm coming down from Machu Picchu after one of the most breathtaking hikes I've ever experienced. My body and clothing are soaked in sweat that's mixed with the mist from the clouds that move in and out of these Andes Mountains like foamy waves constantly and never-endingly lapping a seashore. Soon I'm seated on a bus that transports forty passengers too rapidly for the narrow mountain roads that hug cliff-sides thousands of feet high. One false move on this rain-soaked gravel road and we're done for.

You can't take in a life-experience like this one all at once. It has to upload, like a computer program. One day you can be doing the most mundane thing, like the laundry for instance, and it will hit you. I've hiked Machu Picchu...I've entered into the Third Pyramid in Giza all alone...I've jogged Tienanmen Square just a few years after a young man defied bullets and held back a tank with his frail body...I've visited a healer in the Austrian Alps and seen the sun come up on the basin in Venice...I've ridden a Ferris wheel with the one woman I truly loved in Paris...I've been stranded in the African bush and been accused of killing many men by a voodoo Beniois...I've ridden the metro in Moscow and somehow found my way around...I've touched the Parthenon and walked over the Mammar Bridge in Turkey...I've touched the English Channel with my bare toes on the sandy beaches of D-Day's Normandy...I've four-wheeled in the Tuscan mountains with a best friend who's always yelling at me to learn the Italian language...And on and on and on...But that's not enough.

I'm a passenger on a journey that is not only never ending, it's speeding up. In my mind, I'm planning the next stop. India. I haven't yet been to India. I need to see India. So many of you have been there and I am as envious as I am curious.

On the way back into Cusco, the driver of my van tries to negotiate the relentless traffic. After a day on a magic mountain, we're stuck in traffic. Then comes the near deafening and horribly heart wrenching squeal of a dog as a tourist bus runs over one its legs, crushing it. I don't want to look but I have to look. When I see the small brown, furry dog limping away on three legs, my heart sinks into my stomach. Tears cloud my eyes. No one in the van speaks a word about it. Not the driver. Not my guide. No one. But you feel the pain like the mist that still soaks your clothing.

I'm a passenger.



Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Lost in Time Lake Titicaca

The people here don't have clocks. They don't have watches, they don't have smartphones, and they don't have internet (as far as I can tell). They don't have any kind of device that chimes, rings, chirps, vibrates, or belts out the opening bars to some Lady Gaga song stuffed into their pockets. Thy don't need to be reminded of the time. Like one of my travel partners, Vadmir, tells me, 'In Russia, we have saying: those who are happy do not need to know what time it is." Such is the case when it comes to the Peruvian people who occupy LLachon.

A small community of maybe 2,000 residents who occupy a portion of pristine beach-side property along the north/west side of Lake Titicaca, the dark, leathery-skinned people of LLachon are as oblivious of the outside world and its turbulent troubles as an American toddler is of ObamaCare or the escalating conflict in Syria. They wear the traditional Peruvian clothing. The women dress in a half dozen skirts which are supposed to mimic the English hoop skirt of old. And the men dress very much in the old Spanish way--black trousers, white shirts, short black vest, a colorful hand woven fabric belt that holds both coca leaves and alcohol, and a fedora for a hat.

I'm currently researching the second book in my brand new Chase Baker series, so I came to this place to stay with a family who run a mountain-side farm and, at the same time, to absorb authentic Andean Peruvian culture. Considering Lake Titicaca is already about 12,000+ feet above sea level,  breathing normally is not easy. Nor is climbing the better part of a small, terraced mountain with a fifty pound pack on my back. But my house "mama," a weathered but somehow bright-eyed woman called Francesca, is already cooking for me over a wood-fired stove. A piece of farm chicken, rice, several kinds of potatos, fava beans, all washed down with tea made from coca leaves.

After lunch, I help out on the the farm, watering sheep and stacking barley. It's hard work and at times I have to remind myself that I'm standing on a mountainside in the Andes and not transported back to one of my dad's construction sites for which I was the laborer during my high school and college days. As we near the end of the barley stacking, I turn to "papa," a man who goes by the name Luciano, but whom I am already referring to as Lucky Luciano. I ask him if he hunts the property further uphill. He doesn't understand me at first, so I demonstrate by making like I'm holding a rifle with my hands, and then mouthing the sounds, "bang, bang..." He laughs and in his hunched over, been-workng-far-too-many-years-hard-labor manner, begs me to follow him back to the main house.

When we arrive, he begins to explain to Francesca about what I want. Only, he's not making like a gun with his callused hands. Instead he's making like I want to smoke. Smoke something medicinal perhaps. Something that might transport me from this world to the outer world. He's got a small chin beard and mustache and he rubs them with forefinger and thumb like he, at sixty-eight years old, is ready to do a little partying.

But then Frnacesca begins to explain to him about what I'm really asking, and suddenly his smile dissolves. Sadly, there will be no smoking tonight. Only thoughts of cooking dinner, perhaps enjoying a Peruvian beer, then going to sleep early in a one room mud brick building attached to bathroom with no running water, but only a bucket filled with water for flushing a toilet with no toilet seat attached.

Maybe I should have smoked with Lucky Luciano. Maybe if I had, I would have no more need for watches, or clocks, or smartphones. Maybe I would have seen and experienced another life outside of the life I know all to well. A life of war, poverty, and political agendas. Perhaps there is something to this more or less ancient existence on Lake Titicaca. An existence that is lost in time, but happy to be so.

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Friday, May 10, 2013

Lima, Peru in Real Time

My friend Poly...

Modern day flight never ceases to amaze me. I can be sharing an Eggo waffle with my daughter at eight in the morning in upstate New York, bear with an airborne lunch of rubbery beef and rice on a plane, and within a relative few  hours, be feasting a dinner of roasted chicken, fried potatoes washed down with a cold draft beer for dinner in South America. Those who prefer to sit on the couch, channel surf and bitch that life has passed them by need only go online and purchase a plane ticket to anywhere. Don't have the dough? Charge it. The days can be long, but the life is way too short.

I'm in Lima, Peru right now, a stop-over before heading south and way up into the mountain country, for which I am already taking my altitude sickness pills. Lima is a sprawling, bustling community filled with people who still resemble the illustrations of the Mayans I so vividly recall from my 1974 social studies text book at St. Ambrose Roman Catholic grammar school in Latham, New York. Back in the day when I never dreamed I would travel or write or both. You see, back then, my life had already been mapped out for me by my folks who, at the onset of my birth chiseled a future they wanted for me into my brain so that I became ... how can I put this delicately?... indoctrinated into their way of thinking (notice I didn't use the term "brainwashing").

Many years later I was able to wake up, unwash my gray matter, and take on a life of my own, a small part of which now includes my first travels in South America. What better place to start than in Peru and the Amazon jungle. Over the next few days I will be writing about my experiences in this ancient, spiritual, and in some cases, still wild place. I won't always be enjoying the luxury of internet, but I will be writing my dispatches all the same.

Last night, walking the streets of Lima, I decided to step into a bar for a quick beer. I happened to catch a Nirvana tribute band in action. In between songs they spoke Spanish and judging by their smiles, were enjoying themselves entirely. I could only imagine if Kurt Cobain were sitting on the wood stool beside me in his ratted cardigan sweater, the breeze from the overhead Casablanca fans blowing down on us. He'd probably say something like, "Far out," and then casually order another beer.

As always when I travel to new city, I'll take in a run in a little bit and get the lay of the land in double-time. I'll probably get lost. That's what life's all about. Getting lost so that when you are found, you have changed. Maybe you've become wiser, happier, more curious than ever.


Friday, May 3, 2013

What Will Happen If There Are No More Books?

The Kindle Edition of the great novel...By the time you read this Papa will have sold more than ten copies.

By now you've probably heard about the big advertisement book-idea mogul James Patterson ran in the New York Times last week. I'm not going to tear it apart sentence for sentence because other writers like JA Konrath and JE Fishman have already done a far more intelligent job of it than I can ever hope to. But one sentence in Patterson's curious rant struck home with me. He asks, "What will happen if there are no more books like these..." and then he goes on to list a whole bunch of novels that have, in part, helped shaped the 20th century as we remember it, and in a few cases, the 21st as we are presently living it.

I can only assume that when Patterson says "no more books" he means no more "paper books." Which in itself is kind of ridiculous because in my mind anyway,  a book is a book is a book (Thanks Miss Stein!), whether it's published in paper or on Kindle or Nook or papyrus or on the interior lenses of those new Do-It-All wonder glasses Google is currently perfecting--You know, the eyeglasses that will one day replace the E-Reader.

Okay, so let's, for shits and giggles, pretend that as of today, there are no more paper books. They're all gone, disappeared, library and bookstore shelves emptied of their contents. So let's take this little fantasy a step further and just for the sake of argument, let's say that Papa Hemingway is still alive and kicking at 113 years old (Not an impossible stretch considering today's abundance of centenarians and beyond...). Picture the scene: Papa comes lumbering into his writing room in the Keys (He will by now have moved back to Key West for practical and professional reasons). He's a little drunk from having downed a one too many Papa Doubles at Sloppy Joes after spending most of the day on the Gulf not fishing, but assisting with the new efforts to monitor fish populations in the wake of the 2010 BP Oil Spill.

Already he's getting hungry and smelling the wonderful dish his 7th wife Maria is cooking up in the kitchen. He wants to eat early tonight and get to bed at a decent hour so he can get up at dawn and bite the nail on his new novel which will be released not next year, but within three months of its completion as an e-book. Man, what he wouldn't give to have Max Perkins around right now, editing his work as he produces it. He recalls the days when a writer could get away with putting out one novel every five or ten years. Now he's got to put one out every six months. That's how much the reading public is devouring books these days.

Papa runs his thick hands over his beloved Remington portable, but then switches on his lap top, and waits for it to boot up. When it does he clicks onto the Amazon Sales Rank website like he always does automatically. He does this now not because he's wondering how he's performing for his publishers, but because, in this day in age, he's wondering how his publishers are performing for him. He still works with publishers, both big and small, but five or so years ago, he decided his audience was large enough that he would start his own indie label which would publish Papa books and stories exclusively. Why give the corporate bastards all the money and the rights? was his logic.

He stares at the screen, focuses on The Sun Also Rises, and feels his smile growing under his white bearded, suntanned face."Sun" is selling in the 2,000 range for Paid Kindles in the Amazon store.

"None male," he whispers in Italian to himself. "Not bad."

In fact, he goes down the list of the many novels he's published since his first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems was self-published in Paris in the early 1920s on a genuine old fashioned 19th century era printing press. All the books are ranking in the 2000 or below range, netting him a nice profit not on a semi-annual basis, but a daily basis.

He sits back in his wood and leather Cuban cigar makers chair and reflects on how much things have changed since he first started writing with pencil and paper. How the world has gone from the Carrier Pigeon in the trenches of World War I where he nearly lost his right leg, to smartphones and texts. How he used to spin ceramic disks on his phonograph but these days tunes into his own personalized Pandora digital radio now that the record stores have become more historical fact than his old neurotic buddy Scott Fitzgerald. He remembers crossing the Atlantic with his beloved Hadley on the Normandie but how he recently visited Paris via the business class of an Air France Airbus. He recalls horse drawn wagons delivering milk to his doorstep on the Left Bank and how now he can't bear milk unless it's Lactose free and bears the Whole Foods logo. He certainly recalls the days when the US Army issued cigarettes in the daily ration kits. But he was smart enough to quit that deadly habit a long time ago.

The only thing he truly misses about the past is bookstores like Shakespeare and Company. Now there was a bookstore. But then, he was never much for book signings, and he was never fond of chain bookstores especially when they wouldn't let go of the antiquated 1930s era policy of "returns" on books that didn't move within a few weeks. Then there were the bookstores, many of them independent, high school and university, who wouldn't carry his books at all because they weren't considered "politically correct." Screw 'em, he said then, and Screw 'em, he says now.

He certainly isn't crying for the major publishers who were the first to blame him when his books weren't moving and then the first to praise themselves when they did move. Now, he entertains many forms of publishing and as a result, he's got more control of his work than ever before, and having lived his life as a rugged individualist, he couldn't be happier. Sure he misses paper books, but then he loves his new Kindle Fire. He doesn't have to travel with a trunk load of heavy books anymore, and he even gets to watch The Killers on it, the one movie based on his work which he actually likes.

He gets up from his chair, takes a glance at the book shelf that now contains photos of his family. His many wives, good and bad. His sons, his grandchildren, his great grandchildren and even a great great grandchild. He smiles wryly but proudly and he misses those who have passed before him. The curse of old age. He turns to the window, and from there he can see the sea. The eternal sea. He knows that tomorrow, the sun will also rise upon it and he will bite the nail as he has always done. That is something that never changes and he is as resolute in his calling than ever before.

"Papa!" calls the voice of Maria from below. "Before it gets cold!"

He feels a start in his heart. He knows he'd better get himself to the table before she tosses the meal out the window. But at the same time, he's thinking about a certain young woman he recently met at Sloppy Joes bar. A strawberry blond, with a figure to die for and legs that go all the way up past her shoulders. What did she call herself? A professional blogger? Not a reporter, but a blogger. Oh well, time to commit that new word to memory. For Papa, words have always held a special fascination, no matter where or how they are printed or spoken. But he's made plans with this special new strawberry blond. They are about to visit the border country where Turkey meets Syria in order to write about the civil war going on there. For Papa it will be yet another war and another book, but for the blonde, it will be her first experience in Indian country. It will be a romantic time for them both. Just like it was for he and Marty Gellhorn during the Spanish Civil War. What's old will be new again and all's fair in love and war.

"But how will I break the news to Maria?" he asks himself, feeling the pangs of worry fill his considerable stomach.

Poor old Papa. Some things just never change.