Thursday, April 30, 2009

I need a vacation....

I get jet lag, sun poisoning, have absolutely no aptitude for foreign languages, cannot navigate my way from the bed to the bathroom in the dark and have a "delicate constitution" that flares up at the most inconvenient times.

My traveling companions relish in a vast collection of photos demonstrating the many creative ways I've come up with for carrying my own emergency toilet paper. (The one I'm most proud of is threading the entire roll onto my belt leaving my hands free to swat away flies and gnats while I squat in the jungle.) On the rare occasion I find a restroom (not counting over the side of a sailboat or on the jungle floor) I have managed to cause a minor disaster.

In Copan, Honduras I accidentally locked myself in a toilet in the rear of what looked to be an abandoned building. I had to be rescued by strangers through a trap window over the door. This rescue may sound straight forward to you, but trust me, when you're locked in a toilet in a foreign country, and you don't speak the language and your friends are two blocks away downing beers with the local resistance movement, it can be timorous.

While looking through a travel guidebook on Belize I discovered an out of the way destination referred to as "quaint and romantic." The "Bacchanal Lodge", owned by Francis Ford Coppola . Located deep in the jungle it sounded like the perfect place to relax on our way to explore the ancient Mayan ruins.

We determined that the lodge was approximately 160 miles from Belize City west on the main road towards Belmopan. We planned to arrive at the Lodge in time for an early dinner having read in the brochure "every meal is an adventure and should not be missed!"

Starting out at 8am we flipped a coin to decide who would ride where in the unairconditioned Land Rover. I captured the very back which was the most comfortable, but had no windows. We drove for hours. It was after 3pm and for an hour I'd been silently fantasizing about the fish taco I refused at a roadside stand where we stopped for gas about 2 hours ago. But 2 hours ago, only mildly hungry and still slightly satisfied from the conch fritters I'd eaten for breakfast, a fish taco didn't seem necessary. I certainly didn't want to spoil my appetite and ruin my long anticipated "not to be missed" meal.

I had already managed to deplete my emergency food supply by prying up an old cherry lifesaver that had fossilized and affixed itself to the bottom of my purse. But now, I've crossed the threshold, my blood sugar has dropped below whatever is below low and I was rapidly slipping into a deadly hunger rage.

I breathed a sigh of relief as the Land Rover slowed to make the left turn my ex-husband Dennis had told us was 20 minutes away, 90 minutes ago. It was getting dark. My stomach let out a loud groan.

The road, and I use the word road generously, was mostly mud with potholes large enough to swallow a Volkswagen. The jungle was dense. Heavy vines with thick leaves seemed to wrap tightly around anything that stopped moving for more than a minute. Even if the sun were still shining it would be as dark as midnight under the foliage canapé. There was no doubt in my mind that the jungle leopards and boa constrictors indigenous to Belize were alive and thriving right here along this 20-mile stretch of jungle. If you've never been in the jungle you might be surprised at the deafening noise. Animals you will never see shriek, grunt, warble, chirp and bark all through the night.

It was getting late and we were told before we left to stay off the roads after dark or risk being attacked and robbed by rebel road pirates. Returning to Belize City tonight would be impossible and looking around us it didn't seem likely that we'd pass a Holiday Inn anytime soon.

Finally, after surviving the last 20 miles (taking almost 3 hours!), we arrive at the lodge. Montague (Monty) Bedwell, our host, was kind enough to start up the generator, the only source of power, long enough for us to find our rooms. Unfortunately the kitchen was closed but Monty offered us a warm bottle of Jack Daniels. (Hey they did say that every meal was an adventure!) I'm not much of a drinker but I thought that alcohol, if used as a food substitute, might soothe the hunger pangs in my stomach.

Blind as bats we stumble through the jungle and climb a ladder to our room, and I use the term "room" good-naturedly. What was described in the brochure as a "Gauguin type cottage with thatched roof and woven grass walls"; was in reality an open air sleeping pad with mosquito netting built on stilts over the river, supposedly to keep bugs to a minimum. (Ha!) I think Monty thought that if he called our attention to the beauty of river below us we wouldn't notice our luggage was being carried to our room by six inch cockroaches that appear at first glance to be wearing name tags. I hesitate to ask if we tip or not.

I climb into bed and stare up at the thatched roof wondering if the lizards (some carrying small rodents in their mouths) scurrying across the fronds above my head ever lose their grip and land on unsuspecting victims below. (I later found out they do after one landed bulls-eye in the center of my breakfast plate!) My sore swollen body, covered with coral cuts and jellyfish stings inflicted the previous week while "swimming" (or truth be told, fighting for my life - but that's another story) was now stinging and burning from my own sweat.

When I read the travel brochure months ago, I had envisioned myself as Meryl Streep in "Out of Africa" staring into the eyes of wild jaguars and stepping over man-sized boa constrictors while dressed in a cute safari outfit. Instead, a thick coating of insect repellent and a sweaty baggy tee shirt had replaced my fantasized cute outfit. Believe me, I was feeling more like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now than Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. (Oh the romance of it all.) After a restless night I woke the next morning to find my entire body covered with insect parts.

Wings, legs and antennae. Did you know that insect repellent will dissolve finger nail polish, thus allowing the pest parts to permanently cement themselves to your fingertips? (Just a little travel tip you may want to remember)

After a unique breakfast of "river chicken", (aka,river frog!) we were off in search of a missionary (a whole other story) to treat my numerous infections and a newly acquired bladder infection most likely caused by bouncing in the Land Rover for hours the previous day.

Monty provided us with sandwiches, fresh water and sound advice for our return drive. "Watch out for old Guatemalan mines," he cautioned. "Where?!?" I replied trying to control the panic in my voice."Who knows?" He shrugged and waved us a jolly good-bye.

Monday, April 27, 2009

While life doesn't necessarily get any easier, it can, thank God, get funnier

Yesterday I woke up to a startling revelation. While looking down at my comfortable Easy Spirit shoes (a sure sign of middle-age is when suddenly "comfortable" becomes the first and most important word when describing your favorite new shoes!) I realized that I'm too old for a minivan, too young for a Cadillac, and too fat for a sports car. So what's left? For most it's time for the practical Toyota Camry or Honda Accord but for those of us not ready to face "practical" there's only one other alternative. The Sport-Utility Vehicle, or SUV. Now, I don't know about the rest of the country but SUVs have taken the west coast by storm and recent studies show that an increasing number of drivers are women. Auto manufacturers are keenly aware of this fact. Many have begun marketing to middle-aged women in crisis with models with names like Pathfinder, Quest, Explorer, and Land Rover.

The assumption is that if I drive an SUV just the name of the vehicle itself will transform me into the outdoorsy type of woman who fly fishes, hikes, reads Outdoor magazine, and has unlimited credit at Eddie Bauer. Just the name alone of my $40k vehicle will provide me with an identity that 25 years of therapy and 1,000 self-help books couldn't. Behind the wheel of a SUV (as long as I keep my Easy Spirit shoes hidden) I can become this woman, wind blowing in my hair, conquering rough off-road terrain (even if the only rough terrain I ever have to deal with are speed bumps and potholes of the mall parking lot).

I'm not old! I'm not middle-aged! If I can pay enough for a vehicle with the right name, I can be adventurous. Questing the territory! Roving the Land! Outdoorsy. Tough. I like to refer to this transformation as the Thelma and Louise Syndrome.

Thelma and Louise Syndrome occurs when otherwise sane, stable, and well-behaved women feel an uncontrollable compulsion to leave their homes and behave like teenagers, occasionally like tramps or, in extreme cases, like men. In addition to occasional excessive liquor consumption the following behaviors are associated with Thelma and Louise Syndrome;

-Nonsmoker smoking. These are "non-smoking" women who, when exposed to liquor-oriented environments, will light up and puff like the chimneys of London. Girls Night Out smokers cite the following rationalizations; "I only smoke when I drink," "The other girls made me do it," or "I didn't inhale." Afraid of being discovered and admonished by their vigilante children these women hide their tobacco usage with gum, perfume, and curiously strong breath mints.

-Girl-girl dancing. When the amount of liquor consumed exceeds a woman's maximum-intake limit the victim will lose her inhibitions and succumb to the temptations of girl-girl dancing. For many women, same-sex dancing is no big deal. They've been doing it, by default, since junior high. But even the most conservative woman who believes dancing should always be a male-female activity will bolt to the dance floor when certain songs are played and enough alcohol has been consumed. An experiment conducted by the Radcliffe Institute for the Advanced Study of Girl-Girl Dancing, researchers found that 90 percent of all women, after consuming an average of 2.8 cocktails, will knowingly dance without male partners to the following songs:

Disco Inferno
Devil with the Blue Dress On
Stop In the Name of Love
I Will Survive
Maggie May
Hey Mickey, You're so Fine, You're so Fine You Blow My Mind, Hey Mickey!

-Karaoke compulsion. Like girl-girl dancing, a turn at the karaoke microphone can prove irresistible to a woman under the influence of Thelma and Louise Syndrome. Again, peer pressure and liquor consumption come into play as a woman will, against her better judgment, humiliate herself on stage in a roomful of strangers with an off-key rendition of "The Way We Were" or "Crazy." Statistics have proven that 98 percent of all karaoke experiences end badly, with flashbacks often continuing for years after the performance. Recently, a national karaoke awareness organization launched a bumper-sticker campaign targeting women on Girls Night Out. Their Slogan? FRIENDS DON'T LET FRIENDS SING KARAOKE!

My friends and I have been fantasizing about "The Diva Weekend." I mean Girls Night Out was okay in our thirties but it's just not enough anymore. We are no longer satisfied by the occasional night out. The Diva Weekend would involve wilder nights, hotel shenanigans and unconstrained shopping in big, cosmopolitan cities. In New York's Rockefeller Plaza you can always spot diva weekenders vying for face time on the Today Show or Good Morning America. Perfectly coifed, but slightly dazed from the night before, these are the women wearing foam Statue of Liberty crowns and holding signs that say, "Hi, Kids! Send Money! Spent Traveler's Checks on Bail!"

Personally, I've been having some extreme hormone changes that're leading me into some kind of puberty déjà vu. Uncontrollable weeping, a new wardrobe from Abercrombie & Fitch, the desire to wear body glitter and hair paint to work and use phrases like, "like," "dude, that rocks" and "he's all that, girlfriend, uh-huh."

If you can relate to this, the best advice I can give you is to keep these urges in check, no matter what the cost. My friend wanted to do something wild on her fortieth birthday so after two pitchers of margaritas, we made our way to the local tattoo parlor. She chose a cute little Cupid and had it applied to her right buttock. I could tell she suddenly felt like a new woman with a sexy secret! Her husband loved it too! Unfortunately now seven years and thirty-five pounds later, Cupid looks a lot like the Pillsbury Dough Boy after a carbohydrate binge and she's forced to get undressed in a dark closet for the rest of her days.

I'm currently considering writing a book, "Midlife, Schmidlife, Just Thank God You're Not Dead!" I mean let's face it, just reaching middle age is a victory. Consider the odds we have beaten in our reckless youth: riding bikes without helmets, driving cars without seatbelts, second-hand smoke in restaurants and airplanes, listening to rock and roll at deafening levels, jogging without sports bras....It's a wonder we're still alive.

In addition to now being "over" 50, I've also been thinking about my 34 year class reunion coming up next year in Chicago. First, didn't I just graduate from high school only about 10 years ago? I'm a really old enough to be thinking about a 35 year reunion of anything!? I'm guess I'm having what you could call, "Reunion Nervosa." I'm dealing with denial, bargaining (Trying to make deals with God like; "If you help me lose forty pounds by next Tuesday I promise to return all those Mel Gibson DVD's to Blockbuster."), wrinkles, depression, acceptance and reality. Yep, reality. The reality of how I got to be so old, so fast, and now, what am I going to do about it? The upside is I guess I will no longer have to consider answering questions like, "What will I say if tomorrow someone asks me to pose for Playboy?"

And, I will remember that fortunately, while life doesn't necessarily get any easier as you get older, it can, thank God, get funnier.