We didn’t have a lot of extravagant family vacations growing up. My mom stayed at home, while my Dad went to work. Mom would take odd jobs here and there to help bring in supplemental income, but we didn’t have a large surplus for frivolities. Usually our vacations consisted of places within driving distance. Places like the SeaTac airport where we’d spend hours riding the tram and watching planes gallop down the runway. This was back before security was tighter than the eye of a needle.
While we lived on a shoe string budget my parents still provided some great adventures. One of our greatest ones was that of the Steam Boat Twinkie, an inflatable yellow raft barely big enough for two full-grown adults, let alone one full-grown adult and his two unsuspecting children. Dad had found it on sale at the Pay & Pack hardware store, a business that has long since gone the way of the Dodo.
Our merry adventure began at Steamboat Lake, just east of the Cascade Mountains in Washington. In the middle of the lake was a Pygmy Island. I asked Dad if we could paddle out to it. He said “sure,” then went back to furiously pumping up yellow Twinkie with the bicycle pump he’d brought. Mom unfolded her puke colored lawn chair. She set it next to the lake, sat down and burrowed into her book.
I asked her if she was going to go with us.
“No, but I’ll sit here and wave to you from shore,” she said, without looking up from her book.
At last the hour had come, Dad declared. He hoisted the raft above his head and marched it down to shore. It made a wet plopping noise as it landed on the water. He held it steady for us while we climbed in before he got in. Using the plastic paddle Dad pushed us away from shore.
We glided out onto the water and set a course for Pygmy Island. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, nor a tear in the eye, when we left. There were nothing but smiles and the feeling that all was right in the world, if only for a brief tender moment. Mom gave us a warm wave and smile before nestling back into her book.
Dad started a slow steady rhythm with the paddle. Droplets of water hit the sides of the raft and occasionally my bare legs. I tried to adjust, which made the boat rock back and forth. Dad told me to keep still, something I was never good at as a boy. I was always fidgeting.
“But you keep dripping water on me,” I whined.
“I don’t care. Sit still,” he barked.
As we approached the island Dad looked for a safe place to land. It was surrounded by jagged rocks. We sat for a bit enjoying the bucolic view. It was tranquil. Serene. The smell of fresh air. The sound of nature…and bubbles. Dad glanced over the side of our ship. A steady stream of bubbles was erupting from our back-side.
Dad began swinging the paddle side to side like a samurai sword. Water flew about us.
“I’m getting wet,” I complained. Water crept over the stern of our vessel and went down the back of my pants. I shot up out of my seat. “My bottom’s soggy!”
“Sit down,” Dad yelled, quickly pushing me down.
My sister Rose didn’t appear too concerned. She sat with a blank expression in the bow of the farting Twinkie while I kept standing up and Dad kept pushing me down, a game of whack-a-mole on the high seas.
Out of nowhere the sky turned black. We all looked up. The sky opened up and sheets of water began to fall down on us. There was no way my Dad could swim to shore with one child on each arm. He had no other choice but to paddle to shore like a mad dog.
By the time we reached shore the raft was nearly deflated, our cockpit was filled with water, and no one was smiling. Mom waded out into the water to help bring us in.
While mom helped pack us into the car Dad strangled the air out of Steam Boat Twinkie with his cold, shaking, blistered hands.
The ride home was a long wet one. Not much was said. Mom would snicker every once in a while. Dad would shake his head, still steamed. As I gazed out the window of the car I wondered what other families vacations were like. Did anyone ever get that Disney ideal, or does this same crazy Griswold family vacation shit happen to every family?
When I think of Mexico the first thing that comes to mind is a stray dog with fleas crawling all over his testicles. This deserves some explanation. When I was fourteen I went to Tijuana Mexico for a mission’s trip with my church. It was the first time I had ever been outside of the US. It was a shock to see how other parts of the world lived. Houses looked more like treehouses, put together with random pieces of lumber. It was dusty. Trash scattered everywhere, and many people didn’t seem to have a dental plan. Dogs were ubiquitous. They weren’t deified or pampered, or dressed in clothes, or taken to doggy daycare or doggy therapists. Most were strays, and skittish. One stray in particular stands out in my mind. He had white fur but was covered in dust. I could see fleas all over his body. He paused for a moment to lick his genitals before looking up and smiling at me as if he was saying, “Welcome to Mexico!”
“You have something stuck between your teeth. And I think it’s moving…”
Aside from the shock I had pleasant memories of Mexico. It was the first time I ever had a mango in all of its amazing and messy wonder. It was also the first time I had rattlesnake. None of us expected to have rattlesnake but it just so happened one night some of us decided to go for a walk. On the way back to our cabin we crossed paths with a rattlesnake. It shook its tail at us, and hissed. We lost our minds like girls at an Elvis concert. Our knee jerk reaction was to stone it to death. Seconds later we stood there with our heaving chests, staring down at its crushed carcass. No one really knew what to do. Finally someone suggested we roast it over an open fire. It was an experience. The meat was tasty, and tender…probably because it had been tenderized with stones.
18 years later I find myself living in Los Angeles, with the border being only a three hour drive away, depending on traffic. Some friends of mine wanted to go to Ensenada for the weekend. Most people, when I told them about it, became concerned. They thought we would either be kidnapped, or killed, or thrown into prison to rot. Most of these people were white, and probably watch Fox News. The only thing I was afraid of was being raped. If I had to choose between being raped or having Hannibal Lector open my cranium like a can of beans, sauté my brains, and feed it to me with fava beans, and nice bottle of Chianti, then kill me I would always choose the latter.
We went in two groups. Group 1 wanted to leave early in the day before traffic got hot and heavy. Not too long after Group 1 left I got a text from one of the girls who realized she had left her passport in her apartment.
“Could you do me a huge favor?” she asked.
“What is it?” Always my first response. I’ve learned over the years that you never agree to do anyone a huge favor until you first know what it is.
“Can you break into my apartment, and find my passport?” Getting thrown in the tank for B and E was not how I wanted to spend my weekend. I’d be a human pincushion for sure. I was still trying to figure out how to respond to her text when she said never mind. They were turning around to fetch her passport.
Group 2 left at seven. Around midnight we crossed the border. It only took a couple minutes to cross the border into Mexico. There was no border patrol. Nothing to declare. No one asked us if we were bringing any fruit into the country. No one cared that we were entering Mexico. Within 15 minutes our iPhones were reduced to iPods. Officially off the grid.
We all saw a sign for Walmart.
“Walmart what are you doing here?” Natalii asked.
I gazed at the milky moonlit water and all of the houses lining the Coast of Playas de Tijuana. There wasn’t a single light on in any of them. Not even a porch light was left on. There weren’t even highway lights. It was eerie.
“Oh my God!” Natalii screeched. Great, I thought. We’ve also entered a horror movie.
“What?” I asked. Daniel, the only other man in the car, and I looked around, puzzled.
“There was a man walking on the highway.”
“It was creepy,” she complained.
Before too long we passed another lonely soul walking down the deserted, unlit highway.
As we entered the Rosarito we went from deserted, dark, and deathly quiet highway to a small town percolating with night life. It was like any other Friday night anywhere else. Bustling bars blasting music, coupled with the cacophony of human conversations. Oddly enough, even though we were now in a Spanish speaking country it sounded like any other strip, Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, East Village in New York, the North End in Boston. Bar noise seems to be universal.
There were droves of people. Traffic had slowed to a crawl. It was madness. I watched two men dressed as Roman Centurions walk into a bar, and thought, when and where am I?
“What is going on?” Someone asked. Later we found out Papas and Beer, one of the largest and most famous beach clubs on the West Coast, was having their 31st Aniversario. Everything was full up for the weekend.
Our friend Isai had managed to find the last two available rooms in Rosarito at Hotel Castillos del Mar. It was a humble hotel on the water, off the strip. It was strikingly quiet. No barking neighborhood dogs. No Rusty. No Icky or Nasty. No Maggie, or any of the other fifty neighborhood dogs howling at all hours of the night. A quiet, calm, cool breeze drifted in through the hotel room window. The smell of the sea air had a therapeutic effect. There were two rooms, each with two beds. The three men were in one room, the women in the other. The women shared beds. We men looked at the beds. Isai was already spread out on one of them. Daniel and I looked at each other. Some time passed before I said, “I don’t mind sharing a bed, but I talk in my sleep and usually always have morning wood,” I warned.
“I’m going to sleep on the floor,” Daniel said. He had brought a sleeping bag. Usually men never share beds, even if it means one of them has to sleep on a cement floor, and wake up with scoliosis. The last time I shared a bed with a man was when I first moved to LA. My roommates and I were crashing in their parent’s pool bungalow, which, I know, sounds glamorous, but let me tell you it was not. You had to walk through the garden, which was more like an overgrown jungle to get to the bungalow, and there was an ant problem. And these ants had no respect for personal boundaries. One of the brothers and I shared a bed. I felt nervous lying on either side. If I slept on my right side I was the big spoon. If slept on my left side I was the little spoon. Both made me uncomfortable. Usually I would choose my back, and cup my privates. One night I rolled over and accidentally hammer fisted his face. He looked at me with crossed eyes, wondering what had happened. “Sorry,” I said. I quickly assumed the little spoon position, and began fake snoring.
Selfishly I was glad to have the bed to myself. We surfed the TV channels. Black Swan caught our collective interest…probably because it had Natalie Portman. Isai passed out first. Daniel and I struggled to stay awake, and make sense of the movie. When we got to the part where Natalie Portman’s character has her first sexual awakening and begins to ride her pillow like a horsey I asked Daniel if he was ready to go to sleep.
“Yes,” he said immediately. I switched off the TV as quick as possible, both of us flustered. I hoped I wouldn’t have dreams of swan sex. I hoped instead to dream of Natalie Portman BUT in a puritanical sort of way. My mind began to wander. What if I woke up in the morning and Natalie Portman was lying next to me? I whimpered at the thoughts.
“Are you crying?”
Within seconds the sound of the surf pulled me into the ether. In the morning my back itched like mad. It could have been one of three things. Bed bugs, fleas, or whoever had slept in the bed last had been eating saltine crackers.
There wasn’t much on the itinerary for the day other than to eat until we all had bubble-gut.
By daylight, the landscape looked much different. Houses and fences looked like they had been built out of random pieces of lumber and scrap metal. It was dry, and dusty everywhere we went.
Isai and I spent a majority of the day trying to find a place for our party of seven to sleep for the night. Every place he called had no vacancy. I had contacted several people through Airbnb with no response. It was a bit unnerving. Finally I found a place—the only place available, really. The Young Dudes Hostel, a blueberry colored three story house with Slimer green trim. Only $17 per person for the night!
When the front door swung open I realized why. The smell of damp dog blasted us in the face. The floor was gritty. The bathrooms horrifying. I looked nervously at the women. If it were just us men I wouldn’t give a fudge pop.
“Well we don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to,” I told the ladies. “But I really don’t know where else we would sleep.”
“This is what doggy day care smells like,” said Isai.
Ian, the owner, a ginger from Cape Town South Africa, sauntered down the stairs to greet us. He was tall, and slender, and had a thick English accent. There were two rooms on the first floor. One had a full size. The other had what looked like three little mangers; makeshift beds built out of 2×4’s. The shower looked dungeonesque. The shower curtain was hanging on for dear life from a rusty rod. The tiles were dingy. One towel lay crumpled on the floor. Another was passed out over the back of the toilet. Our stoned host explained to us that the septic system wasn’t like it was in the states. You couldn’t flush it down the toilet. Instead it had to be put in the wastebasket.
The common area was on the second floor, as was the stripper pole. I couldn’t resist taking a twirl and saying “woo!” for the laughs…and the tips.
“Yes, that’s featured both women and men,” Ian told me. To which I immediately got as far away from the pole as possible. Once upon a time I was seeing this girl I had met on Ok Cupid, or as I liked to call it, Ok Stupid. She had a stripper pole in the middle of her living room. I asked her why. She claimed that she used it for exercise, and empowerment. I had come over to her place for a Friday the 13th double feature, Killer Clowns from Outer Space, followed by Ticked Off Trannies with Knives, followed by several Jameson and Ginger’s, followed by her giving me a live demonstration on her stripper pole, followed by her twirling once, ending with her eating floor. It was certainly a night to remember.
On the kitchen counter was a half rolled joint, which our host had been in the process of rolling when we arrived. This man was in no hurry, and was probably stoned most days. In fact he didn’t even know what day it was.
As we were getting settled in one of the girls went through all of the rooms, dosing them with a bottle of fragrance spray in an effort to chase away the damp dog smell.
In the morning Natalii burst into our room singing “Wake up! Wake up!” Natalii is the happiest person I know. I don’t know how she does it but she wakes up happy every morning. There was a collective groan from us three men in our mangers.
“A loud and cheerful greeting early in the morning will be taken as a curse,” I told Natailii.
“That’s not in the Bible,” she said.
“It is,” I insisted.
“Show me,” she demanded. I pulled up the verse on my phone, and stuck it in her happy face.
“Rebuked!” Isai said.
“Whatever,” she said and went to disturb everyone else’s slumber.
Later I cried in the shower. I had never been in such a filthy shower. I closed my eyes and pretended to be in my shower at home. If it weren’t for the smell I would have believed it.
Once we had finished packing up the cars I went in search of Ian. All I found was a young surfer dude passed out on the deck with half of his wet suit on. The bottom half thankfully.
It took three hours to get through customs. Three hours to get home. And the first thing I did once I got home was take a shower.