Gringo Land

Photo by the author

I was sitting at a sidewalk table at a café in front of a large window, sipping my whisky and soda. I could watch the passersby on their way home. It was late and everyone had left the café except for me. A tree sat a few feet from me in a large round pot casting a shadow over the empty table sitting next to it. There was enough light to read by. I liked to sit late at night in this café and read and drink my whiskey and soda in peace. It was quiet now that all the other customers had left. There only remained two waiters, one old like me and the other young. The younger one seemed impatient to go home. Probably had a wife to go home to. That was not the case for me nor I suspect for the other waiter.

I noticed out in the street a young man and a pretty girl walking briskly by. I was entranced by the beauty of the girl and I was envious of the young man who was with her.

I signaled the waiter for another drink.

The younger waiter sauntered over.

“What will you have?”

“Another whisky and soda.”

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough, senor?”

I just looked at him. He went away to fetch the drink.

The two waiters were huddled together at a table near the door. They were whispering. Probably talking about me I thought. Probably want me to go. Well, I’m not ready to go.

The waiter went to the bar and poured a shot of bourbon into a tumbler of ice and spritzed it with soda water. He carried the drink outside to where I was sitting. He placed the drink in front of me and said, “Why don’t you just fuck off, old man?”

He probably thought I couldn’t hear what he was saying as I am practically deaf. But I hear well enough in a quiet environment.

The waiter went back into the café and sat down with his workmate. They began whispering again. Probably think I’m drunk and need to leave, I thought. Oh, well, I’ll stay a little longer and have one more for the road. 

I like this place. It is clean, well-lighted, and quiet.

I motioned to the waiters for another drink.

“Another whiskey and soda, amigo.”

“No,” the young waiter said. “You’re done. Time to go.”

“Another!” I insisted.

“We are closing now.” He began to wipe the table clean with his towel.

I slowly stood up, looked at the bill he had unceremoniously laid on the table.  I pulled some cash from my pocket and paid the bill, leaving a modest tip.

I walked down the street away from the café slowly, a bit unsteady on my feet. I could feel the eyes of the two waiters burning a hole in my back. I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I didn’t want to face my dark room and the empty bed. One more drink, I thought. There must be someplace open tonight. Only thing was, they would unlikely be as clean and well-lighted or as nice as this last one was. I didn’t want any music. No, I really wasn’t in much of a mood to listen to any music. And I didn’t really want to stand in front of a bar. What was it I wanted? Not much. Just a clean, quiet, well-lighted place.

I came to a bar that was open. It had red and white walls on the outside with an American flag hanging on one side of the entrance and a Mexican flag hanging on the other. There was music pouring out the door from a sound system hidden somewhere within the recesses of the tiny bar. Not really my kind of place, but I was thirsty, so I stumbled there inside.

There was a gentleman sitting on a barstool in the middle of the bar. A couple was sitting at a table towards the back. I went in and sat a couple of stools down from the guy at the bar.

“What would you like to drink?” asked the barmaid.

“Do you have any bourbon?” I asked.

“Si, we have Jim Beam.”

“OK. I’ll have that.”

She poured the drink and marked it on the bottle then set it down in front of me and went back to her perch she was sitting on. She was talking to the other guy, but he turned around and included me in the conversation.

“Hey! Where are you from?” he asked.

“From the States,” I answered.

“Well, I figured that. Where in the States?”

“Kentucky.”

He nodded his head. “I’m from Oregon. You been here before?”

“Yeah, I live here now.”

“A lot of ex-pats here, that’s for sure! I guess that’s why they call it “Gringo Land.”

He laughed. He had a bottle of beer sitting in front of him and a shot of tequila. He downed the tequila and chased it with a slug of beer.

The barmaid looked over in my direction and said, “Do you want to play a game?”

“What kind of a game?”

“It’s called 21. You roll the dice. There are three winners. One who calls the shot. One who pays, and one who drinks the shot. Do you want to play?”

“Sure, why not? Let’s play!”

So, we took turns rolling six or seven dice out onto the bar from a leather cup. Each time the barmaid counted the tops of the dice. I won the first roll so I called the shot.

“What shot do you want?” she asked, pointing to the bottle of tequila behind the bar.

“What are you drinking?”

She pointed to a bottle.

“OK. That’s what I want.”

She poured out a shot and set it on the bar in front of us. We rolled some more. First the guy from Oregon, then the barmaid. At the end of the game, the Oregon guy drank and paid for the shot I called. We all laughed and he left.

In the meantime, the other couple had left and there were only the two of us left in the bar. The barmaid and me. She walked over to where I was sitting.

She was dark and sloe-eyed with long black hair flowing over her shoulders. She was wearing a green plaid shirt with several of the top buttons undone, exposing her ample breasts.

“What’s your name, Gringo?” She smiled broadly.

“Phil,” I answered. “What’s yours?”

“Anna. At least that’s what I put on my Facebook page. You want another shot?”

“No thanks,” I said and then I left.  Now, I will go home. I will lie in my bed and try to fall asleep.  I will think of Anna and what it would be like to be with her. I am probably not the only one in town who has trouble sleeping at night, I thought to myself. Maybe I will dream of Anna. Maybe tomorrow I will find someplace to read. Maybe a quiet, clean, well-lighted place where I can sit and read in peace.

The Seven Factors of Awakening

Buddhism by the Numbers

Japanese Gardens, Birmingham, Alabama. Photo by Benn Bell

The Seven Factors of Awakening

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Investigation of phenomena
  3. Diligence
  4. Joy
  5. Ease
  6. Concentration
  7. Letting go

“At least once every 15 minutes, we need to practice letting go. Bear in your heart no hatred, utter no unkind words, remain always compassionate, with no hostility or ill will. The Seven Factors of Awakening are the practices of love.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

The People of Costa Rica

Pura Vida

One of the most enriching aspects of our trip to Costa Rica was meeting the wonderful people that live there. They were friendly, hardworking, happy and always smiling. The have a saying in Costa Rica, “Pura Vida,” and it punctuates everyone’s speech. They say it in greetings and in goodbyes and whenever else it makes sense to say it. It means, “the pure life.” And they surely enjoy life in their beautiful country. I hope you enjoy some of the pictures I took of these happy inhabitants.

Fernando and Maureen

Fernando was our driver on our first day in country. He picked us up at the airport and drive us to our first destination, the Arena Volcano. On the way we stopped for lunch at Mi Rancho.

Our Guide Greivin

This is our guide, Grevien. He took us on a tour of the rainforest.

Corry

This is my guide Corry. He took me on a waterfall tour and to the beach.

Swimming hole
Natural Waterslide
Pretty Costa Rican Girl
Girl in Blue
Two Girls on the Shore
Having Fun at the Beach
Taking a swim
Party Boat
All Hands on Deck!
And the sun sets on another magnificent day in Costa Rica

All photos taken by the author.

Someone to Watch Over Me

Editor’s note: I published this story previously, but I have rewritten it and made revisions and I hope have improved it. Please give it a read and let me know what you think. Thanks in advance!

Downtown Nairobi. Photo credit: Benn bell

The first thing you see when you get off the plane at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport after the “Welcome to Kenya” sign is the sign which says, “DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS.” There were other signs I saw along the way during my two weeks stay in Nairobi but I chose to ignore them. In Uhuru Park, there was a sign that read, “Beware of Human Beasts, Don’t Be the Next Rape Victim, Every 30 Minutes a Woman is Raped in Kenya.” At the Nairobi Serena Hotel, before we were allowed to drive onto the property, a uniformed armed guard probed the underside of our car with a long-handled mirror. Once inside and checked into our room I looked out the window and saw a uniformed guard standing watch. At a restaurant we went to called The Carnivore, we passed through a security fence that was manned by security guards carrying automatic assault rifles and flanked by large German Shepherd dogs straining at their leashes. Yes, I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned.

I had traveled to Kenya with a companion who was there on business attending a worldwide meeting of company officials who were stationed around the globe. While Mary was going to meetings, I was on my own.

On the first day, I hung out at the Hotel. The Serena is a Five Star Hotel and very nice. I had breakfast with Mary in the dining room and later I had lunch out by the pool by myself. I enjoyed a cheeseburger with fries and a Tusker beer. This is the beer of choice in Kenya.  Their motto is, “My beer, my country.” It tasted crisp and refreshing. After lunch, I took a dip in the pool and sat in the sun reading as the water slowly evaporated off my body.

After a couple of days of this, I decided to venture out on my own. I had walked the mean streets in some of the toughest cities in America, so I wasn’t too worried.

I struck out mid-morning on a beautiful sun-drenched day. The skies were azure blue with cotton candy clouds. Nairobi is a mile high so the atmosphere was crystal clear and every object stood out in vivid colored relief.

I walked the half-mile stretch along Uhuru Highway to downtown Nairobi. Traffic was going about in a chaotic fashion as I walked to the corner of a busy intersection crowded with people. I was approached on all sides by people who wanted to sell me things like trinkets or cheap jewelry. A rather large and burly individual who was a head taller than me and wearing a tight red T-shirt walked up to me and pounded his chest. “Promote me! Promote me!” He said over and over again, striking his chest for emphasis.

I just walked away. Soon others were following me and asking me questions. They all wanted to know if I was from the States? Did I know Obama? One fellow dressed in raggedy clothes stopped me and asked for money to buy some rice. I wasn’t inclined to give him any, especially in front of the crowd and all, but I did say to him, “I’m not going to give you any money, but if you will meet me here in one hour, I will buy you some rice and give it to you.” He looked a little disappointed but reluctantly agreed.

I continued to walk along the street deeper and deeper into the heart of the city. As I walked along, I noticed another fellow tracking me and falling into step beside me. He was wearing a dark brown suit, but it looked like it had seen its better days. A little shabby with frayed cuffs. He had on a soiled white dress shirt and a thin black tie loosened at the throat. He was wearing black dress shoes that were run over at the heels and in bad need of a shine. “Hello!” He said, flashing me a big smile. “Can we have a conversation?”

“Sure,” I answered. “What did you want to talk about?”

“I like to talk to Americans about politics and history.”

“Ok. What did you want to know?”

“Can we go somewhere and sit down at a table to talk?”

“Where did you want to go?”

“I know a Tea Room not far from here. We could go there.”

I started to get a little suspicious at this point and I wasn’t in any big hurry to go anywhere with this stranger.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Sudan,” he answered. “I am staying at a refugee camp near the border.”

“I’ll tell you what. I am going to walk around a little bit, you want to meet me here in an hour, we can talk then. How’s that?”

He hesitated a little bit but finally agreed. So, I had the same arrangement with two strangers I had met in Nairobi and I had only been in town for 15 minutes! I thought chances are either one or the other or both wouldn’t show up, and I had bought myself a little time.

I spent the next hour exploring the city. I went to gift shops, hotels, and had lunch in an outdoor café. I checked my watch and saw it was time to head back to meet my new friends.

I got back to the corner at the appointed time and guy #1 wasn’t there yet. I looked around and noticed a market about half a block away. I walked over to it and went in. After my eyes adjusted to the low-level light, I saw baskets of various products including rice. The pungent smell of spices hung in the air. I secured a bag of rice and walked out returning to the corner. My new friend showed up with a big smile on his face.

“Jambo!” he said

“Jambo!” I returned.

I handed him the rice. We made eye contact as he took hold of the bag. He nodded his head. I could tell he really appreciated the gesture. Then he walked away.

Now the second guy, the guy with the suit. I thought was going to be a no-show. I waited about 15 minutes and was about to leave when he rounded the corner. He greeted me warmly and pointed his hand out in front of him and said, “The Tea Room is down this way.”

We walked about six blocks and I was beginning to wonder where we were going.

“Say, where are you taking me?”

“It’s just a little further.”

We walked on another two blocks. While we were walking along, I learned that his name was Asim and that he needed to get back to his camp sometime before nightfall. My friend became a little more excited as we stopped in front of a rather imposing-looking two-story structure in the middle of the block with a wide set of concrete steps leading up to the front door.

“Ah, here we are,” my companion spoke to me as he swept his arm up the stairway in the direction of the entrance. We had arrived at the Jade Tea House.

Once inside I had a distinct feeling that I had stepped into a time portal. I felt as though I had been swept away to another time and place, like something out of Casablanca, the Blue Parrot perhaps. The interior of the Tea Room was dark and the blades of the overhead fans were whirring about pushing the hot air around the room. I felt a little uneasy as I looked around. Others were seated around at various tables deep in what seemed like a conspiratorial conversation as if they were plotting some crime against humanity or an act of terror. Or maybe they were just plotting to get out of Nairobi if they could just get their hands on the letters of transit.

We went upstairs to another level where it was a little brighter and sat down at a table. Soon a waiter come over and we each ordered a cup of tea.

Asim and I started having our conversation about what was going on in America. We worked it around to politics in Africa. There was a presidential election going on in Kenya and we talked about that. Then he reminded me that he was Sudanese and was living in a refugee camp. Oh, boy I thought, here it comes.  As we were sitting there, I noticed a lone individual sidle up to the table next to ours and had a seat. It seemed like he was listening to our conversation. He didn’t order anything, he just sat there on the edge of his seat. I focused on Asim while he made his play. I tried to figure out how I was going to handle his request for money. I excused myself to the bathroom to buy some time.

When I got back to the table, I decided I would pay our tab and leave. Whatever change I had that was coming to me I would let Asim have and that would be it. I called the waiter over and asked for the check. When he got back, I handed him a 50 Shilling note and he brought back my change which I pushed over in front of Asim.

Just as soon as I pushed the money over the guy at the other table jumped up and four other guys, all wearing suits, came out of the shadows and surrounded the table. Two of the men led Asim away, one on each side of him. Two others stood guard and the ring leader came over and sat directly in front of me. His eyes were shot with blood and his breath stank of alcohol. He flashed an ID at me and said he was a police officer with the Nairobi Police Department. I didn’t get a good look at the ID but it looked like an ordinary driver’s license. 

“Why were you talking to that man?” He wanted to know.

“I don’t know. We just met on the street and he wanted to talk.”

“We have been looking for that man. Did you know he was a drug dealer?”

Uh oh! I thought to myself. Here it comes. First the hook then ….

“He’s also a counterfeiter. I see you gave him some money. Why did you give him money?”

“I was just leaving him the change because I thought he might need it.”

“How much Kenyan money do you have?”

“About 20,000 Shillings.”

“Let me see it.” He reached out his hand.

I slowly reached into my pocket and retrieved my Kenyan money. He reached out his hand further and I reluctantly handed it over. He grunted his approval and started to count it.

“Do you have any American money?”

“Yeah. I guess you are going to take that too?”

He scowled.

“If you are not going to cooperate, we can take you down to the station with us and make you cooperate.”

I didn’t like that idea. So, l reached back into my pocket and got the rest of my money out, and handed it over to him which he promptly proceeded to count. He took out a small notebook and wrote some figures down on a page and tore it out. He handed the slip of paper to me with the amount of money he had taken from me written on it, as some kind of receipt.

“We have a machine at headquarters that can tell if this money is counterfeit.  We will run your money through the machine and if it is real, we will return it to you. Where are you staying?”

I didn’t want to tell him. If I ever got out of this alive, I never wanted to see them again. But I felt like I had to play along so I told them I was staying at the Serena Hotel but I gave them a false room number. Like that would do a lot of good.

After that, he stood up and motioned for me to get up. They escorted me out of the building down the front steps to the curb where a car was waiting. They got into the car and sped away leaving me standing on the sidewalk in a total state of bewilderment. It was only then that the full force of the experience hit me.

I looked up at the sky and the tops of the building were literally swirling around in the blue canopy overhead. Or was it just in my head? I didn’t know.  I became momentarily quite dizzy and thought I would pass out. I had to find my way back to the hotel but I was disoriented and actually quite lost. Calm down, I told myself. At least you are still alive and free at last. Now just assess your situation and you will be fine.

I looked around again and saw in the distance the top of a building I recognized that was in the direction of the hotel. I started walking in the direction of the familiar landmark, navigating by dead reckoning. The closer I got to the building the more familiar were my surroundings. Soon I found myself back on Uhuru Highway and almost home.

When I made it back to the hotel I went right to the room and collapsed on the bed. Mary wasn’t back yet and I feared telling her what happened. I knew she would be furious with me for putting us both in danger. When she finally got back, I told her the story and she was sympathetic but I could tell she was not happy with me. Hell, I wasn’t happy with myself either. We spent the rest of the trip looking over our shoulders as we never knew if the rough and rowdy crew would show back up again and cause more trouble.

We got out of the country with no further incidents but I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t talk to strangers.

Vanessa Collier

Performs at Mojo’s Boneyard

Vanessa Collier now playing at Mojo’s Bone Yard
Mojo’s Boneyard

Last night in Evansville Indiana at Mojo’s Boneyard, I had the opportunity to see Vanessa Collier Live! She put on another fabulous show with her great band backing her up. She projects powerful vocals and belts out a bluesy sound as she sings her original compositions and covers the classics. Miss Collier is a virtuoso saxophone player and always excites the audience with her signature moves as she walks out into the audience and plays a little at each table and then moves on. She is a real crowd pleaser and I predict she will become a big star someday.

Vanessa Collier and her Band
Vanessa Collier and her band

My only complaint was Mojo’s no picture-taking policy which quite cramped my style. I did get a few shots but not exactly what I wanted. Oh well! The main event was listening to that great sound and watching this amazing performer connect with her audience. If you ever get a chance to see her, I highly recommend that you do. She is currently on tour.

Vanessa Collier
Vanessa Collier
Vanessa Collier and her band
Vanessa Collier and her band

All photos by Benn Bell

Zardoz

A Poem

My name is Zardoz

I come from the land of Ur

I come seeking relief

I am in disguise

Yes, I have come to tell you something

I need your understanding

I want to know the correct path

Sharing a good laugh with you would be nice

I don’t want to be sad

When I have what I need I will feel Ok.

Fork in the Road

Celestial Tip of the Day

Celestial tip of the day: when hiking on the orange Trail in Jefferson Memorial Forest, when you first start out, if the Sun is over your left shoulder when coming back be sure that the sun is over your right shoulder, that way when you come to the fork in the road you will take the right one. That is all.