Authors: Wendy Dale
Table of Contents
For my mom.
For La Troje and those that are a part of it.
And for Douglas Adams.
So long and thanks for the inspiration.
ACCLAIM FOR Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals
“With grace, charm, and abundant humor, Dale narrates her meandering story of a childhood regained, âa chance to make rash decisions, to take wild risks, to lose everything knowing I'd still have plenty of time to earn it all back.'”
âTIME OUT NEW YORK
“[Wendy Dale] writes in a glib . . . voice that is appealing and sympatheticâas well as very funny and, in the end, surprisingly poignant. We root for her as she embarks upon her alarmingly dangerous and foolhardy adventures, praying for her safety and longing to hear more of her sad and funny tales.”
âJune Sawyers, CHICAGO TRIBUNE
“Dale has an amazing ability not only to find intrigue and drama and hardship but to meet them all with an undampened sense of humor and a roving eye for the absurd. And by getting entangled in other people's lives, she enjoys glimpses into worlds forever closed to the average tourist. A few years ago, Janet Malcolm, writing in the NEW YORKER, complained that she âalways found travel writing a little boring,' because âtravel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison with ordinary life' . . . which is absolutely true, unless you travel like Wendy Dale.”
âThomas Swick, FT. LAUDERDALE SUN-SENTINEL
“This is a wonderful bookânot a subversive treatise on rule breaking as the title might suggest, but a witty, insightful memoir of a young woman from an offbeat, though well-traveled, family.”
“Written in a charmingly naive style yet with a sophisticated command of the English language, [Dale] has created a realistic and entertaining guide to staying one step ahead of the law and dodging bullets in lesser-traveled destinations such as Colombia and Cuba. She turns a vacation into an action-hero adventure.”
âSandy Maillho, NEW ORLEANS TIMES-PICAYUNE
“A hilarious documentation of Dale's misadventures in various foreign countries. Mixing dry asides and inspired wackiness, her writing style is reminiscent of the late Douglas Adams' . . . Dale's wit and talent as a writer are never in question.”
âTheresa Hegel, YOUNGSTOWN VINDICATOR (Ohio)
Disclaimers, Claimers, and Acknowledgments
This is a book about my travels, but it is also a memoir, and trying to describe a life on paper has its limitations. This is because life is a complex event, full of contradictions and inconsistencies, but literature requires a thesis and so a writer is forced to pick out the patterns, making sense of a seemingly random series of events and, in effect, oversimplifying what actually happened.
In this book, I have been faced with the difficult choice of providing a literal account of conversations and events as they transpired or with offering a sense of the “truth” of these occurrences, while slightly altering the details. In theory, I could have done both: recounted events nearly exactly as they occurred and still been true to the themes of my life, but “in theory” does not get anyone very far in the real world of publishing. Although I tried to convince my editor of the virtues of a seventeen-hundred-page work, she successfully countered by elaborating on the virtues of actually making a profit on this project, and guess who sided with the money. (For the answer to that question, see footnote below.)
In the interest of space (and in keeping my book advance), I have taken liberties with time as well as the order of events, and I have occasionally combined two trips into one. I have also changed several names and identifying details to protect the identities of CIA agents, convicts, and anyone else who doesn't need the publicity. Many of the remarks made by my family members are recorded here exactly as originally utteredâfor years, I have been taking notes of interesting lines for future use. In other instances, where memory failed, I did my best to express the main intent of the conversation that occurred, punching it up whenever it suited me. Besides that, the only other license I've taken is to make myself appear far more intelligent and wittier that I am in real life.
Wendy Dale, Wendy Dale's creditors.
Finally, a few thank yous. There were so many people in the course of my travels who showed up when I most needed and least expected them: Farzana Abdullah, Lena Calla, Ron Combs, Clark Cardoza, Manfred Hirsch, Gerty Holmer, Jaime Salinas, SaÃºl Sarabia, Antonio “Tuco”Vargas, Michael Warner, and Sharon Warner. My apologies for not being able to fit all of you into the pages that follow.
Thanks also to Peter Saiers for countless favors and adventures over the course of our fifteen-year friendship, to Lisa McPherson for her unwavering belief in this book during some pretty daunting times, and to Michael Cathey for his neverending supply of stories and Jack Daniels.
My gratitude to Felipe Rossell, Carloncho, and their
Jorge for their determined attempts to help me locate a Macintosh-compatible printer in Bolivia.
My appreciation to my family for being a gold mine of good material and for the graciousness to allow me to share their eccentricities with the world, and to my Uncle Mitch whose name isn't mentioned in this book but deserves to be.
To Arvli Ward, whose advice more than a decade ago gave me the courage to pursue writing as a career; Liz Spears, for teaching me where the commas go; Chuck Blore, writer extraordinaire and mentor, who was kind enough to pay me while training me in my craft; Dennis Naumick and Marta Stowe, the best editors gratitude can buy. (And since Marta's name is mentioned in the text of this book, Dennis' name bears repeating here: Dennis, Dennis, Dennis. Thanks, Big D.)
To Steph-O-Rama (her other clients probably know her by the much more formal moniker, Stephanie Lee), my agent, literary guide, and friend. To Dorianne Steele, an intrepid editor who let me know it was okay to break the rules. And to the warm and wonderful people at Crown, especially those I was fortunate enough to meet personally: Brian Belfiglio, Jill Flaxman, Pete Fornatale, Melissa Kaplan, Annik LaFarge, and Philip Patrick. My appreciation also to Laura Duffy for her creative cover design and to Fearn Cutler DeVico for her interior design.
And most of all, my thanks to Miguel Yaksic for finally showing up, even though it took him 28 years.
Anything you can do is boring and old and perfectly okay. You're safe because you're so trapped inside your culture. Anything you can conceive of is fine
because you can conceive of it.
You can't imagine any way to escape. There's no way to get out.
âChuck Palahniuk in Invisible Monsters
I like to think that I'm a typical traveler, that my idea of a good trip is pretty much the same as the next guy's, but every once in a while something happens to make me suspect this isn't really the case.
The first time this occurred was on a flight leaving Cuba when the Italian in the adjacent seat (literally, the next guy) began swapping stories with me about Havana.
“Museum of the Revolution,” he announced. “Very worthwhile.”
I hadn't made it.
“La Bodeguita del Medio, that bar that Hemingway used to hang out in?”
No. No time.
“So, what beaches did you go to?”
The idea that a person could go to a body of land completely surrounded by water and not make it to the beach was a little more than the sun-soaked tourists on my flight could take. Conversation momentarily stopped while passengers leaned over one another, trying to get a peek at my face.
“But it's an island,” the Italian next to me accused.
my time in Cuba gone? I'd met a lot of prostitutes, shopped on the black market, drunk contraband rum, and desperately sought out a place to rendezvous with a Cuban man who could not legally enter my hotel room. This hadn't left a lot of time to get a tan.
In Costa Rica, the conversations were even more difficult. Determined travelers touring Central America always found time to hike a handful of mountains, take dozens of photos, and swim in both the Caribbean and the Pacific in the course of just two weeks. And when they discovered that I had spent months in the country, they would gush over with enthusiasm, happy to have met someone who could finally relate to their experiences.
They had visited jungles and beaches and volcanoes, and as it slowly dawned on them that I had seen none of these places, they would curiously pry, “So what have you been doing the whole time you've been in Costa Rica?”
“I've been hanging out with my boyfriend.”
“Well, that must be nice.”
“It was till he got arrested. Now I've been spending most of my time hanging out at the jail.”
After enough chats like these, I started to suspect that my concept of a good time was a bit different than other people's and perhaps I was missing out on the really worthwhile things there were to do in these countries. The problem was, going to beaches and mountains would require some sort of advance planning (whereas having my boyfriend snatched away from me one day by a carload of Costa Rican federal agents required no forethought whatsoever). That was the difference between these other travelers and me: they all organized their trips ahead of time.
For a brief while, I considered the possibility of becoming a “planner” instead of (what would the opposite be? Oh yes . . .) a “fun person,” but in the end I realized that a structured itinerary would probably only get me to monuments and tourist traps, and these were not the kinds of trips I wanted to be taking.
But my life hadn't always been this spontaneous. I didn't arrive at lightheartedness until late in my youth when I first got up the courage to travel seriously. Something happened at that pointâit would be easy to explain if someone had died or a relationship had endedâbut what occurred was subtler, more profound. It was as if I had woken up one day with a sudden realization: My life begins now.
Up until that point, my life had felt more like a dress rehearsal than the actual performance. For twenty-five years, it was as if I had been waiting for the good part to start. I liked time passing. To me, each year was an investment, something that would be useful later on but that had yet to do me any good. I had tried life on, but had yet to grow into it. My life had been a triple-A training bra.
I survived this dull and tiresome existence for more than two decades by constantly convincing myself that the future would be better. I pictured my impending adulthood as one endless cocktail party after anotherâat least this was how it was described in the books I devoured (until I got to
and then I thought being a grown-up had something to do with traveling in time).
I persuaded myself that all I had to do was get through adolescence and then everything would be easy. I did all of the right things. First it was a high school record that was a college admission counselor's dream. Then it was a move on my own to Los Angeles and four years at UCLA, while I worked three jobs to put myself through college. And finally adulthood arrived with a real career, a position as a corporate writer at Hughes Aircraft, sitting in front of a computer creating employee newsletters. But where were the cocktail parties? Where was the time travel?
I spent my days surrounded by a group of middle-aged engineers whose energy had long since been drained away. They shuffled along the halls like a herd of elderly elephants, dragging their weight along slowly, their arms dangling limply at their sides. (The only exception to this continual display of lethargy occurred on days when free T-shirts were being given out in the auditorium, in which case the plantsite became the scene of a chaotic stampede.)
I had nothing to say to the people I passed by in the halls. They talked about kids and IRAs and 401(k)s. Even their attempts to be lighthearted grew old because the aeronautical engineers' repertoire always included the same tired joke: “Wow, you'd have to be a rocket scientist to be able to do this.”
I felt so out of place around my colleagues that when lunchtime came, instead of going to the cafeteria with my boss, I'd drive down to the residential neighborhood nearby, park on the street, and eat alone in my car. I had given away my youth for
My life was nothing like my childhood fantasies of what adulthood would be. Sure, Zelda and F. Scott could run around drinking Manhattans at noonâbut that was because they had money. They did not have to spend their days interviewing aerospace engineers and writing things for the employee newsletter that went like this:
Cafeteria Offers a Menu to Love
Invite your valentine to a special meal in the cafeteria Monday, February 14.
Win that special person's heart with breast of chicken d'amour, lover's rice, sweet peas, roll and butter, and a small beverage, all for $2.00. Finish off the meal with a Valentine's cookie, free with any purchase.
Live music will complete the mood, and door prizes will be given out every 15 minutes.
It was during the worst of these days that I devoted myself to the ultimate irresponsibility fantasy. Staring out the window of my tiny cluttered office, I imagined leaving work at lunchtime and never coming back. In my daydream, I simply hopped in my car, raced toward the 405 freeway, and made a beeline for the airport. At LAX, I would breathlessly enter whichever terminal struck my fancy and hop on the next available international flight, free to begin over again in a new country whose inhabitants had never heard of bills or student loans or deadlines.
Of course, this was just a fantasy. Real people didn't do things like this. Real life was about responsibility. Or so I thoughtâuntil one day my parents casually informed me that they were selling everything they owned in Tempe, Arizona (basically the car, the house, and anything else that could be considered their children's future inheritance), and were taking my brother and two suitcases and moving to the Third World. It was the kind of radical idea that had the potential to change everything.