Saturday, September 26, 2015

Burning Man - Eat My Dust!

For years my friend, Al, has been extolling the virtues of Burning Man to the point that I agreed to "try" to go just to shut him up.

You may ask "what is this Burning Man thing and why would you want to attend, Marc?"

I've yet to hear a concise explanation that captures it all. When asked I say that it's Mad Max meets Woodstock at a Boy Scout Jamboree in Las Vegas.

There's art, although not in any conventional sense. And in order to install your art at BM you have to obtain permission from a committee and then spend all year building it. Just to show you how it might go here's what I imagine a sample pitch might sound like:

"Hey guys. I have this idea. I want to build a 40 foot toilet out of sandstone and aluminum and I want it to spin. I'll have an opening in the front so people can actually climb around inside the bowl and use a ladder of turds to reach the flush handle. When people flush it I'm going to have flames shoot 25 feet into the air. And of course it will have a bidet attachment that will douse the flames. And it'll play music."

You laugh but after seeing some of the things I saw I won't be a bit surprised to see this show up at Burning Man in the future.

Okay, so that's one aspect. There's music too although most of it is "electronic dance music" (EDM). EDM is based on the principal that if you repeat the same two bars of music enough times people will dance to it. Sure, there are other genres represented (metal, folk, oldie rock, etc.) but the predominant sound is the kind that rattles your organs.

The third component is probably the spirit of the thing. While one of the tenets of BM is self-reliance the community is there to feed itself and take care of those who need it. The only things you can buy there are ice and coffee/tea drinks. Everything else you have to bring with you---everything from water to toilet paper. But don't think you're completely on your own because the community is there to help you.

The community is made up of individuals and "camps." Small groups may set up their tents or sleep in their cars, often propping up a tarp next to their car to form a sort of lean-to. But a huge portion of the 70,000 population forms camps which have a common purpose. A camp could offer free beer to anyone who comes by or perhaps free chicken wings from 5-7 or a camp that will wash your feet for free or provide massage or teach you meditation or do a makeover. There's a huge camp that will repair your bicycle and only asks that you stick around to help someone else fix theirs. There are camps that are there to entertain---music, acrobatics, fire arts, etc. And then the sex-themed camps that range from spanking to providing a space to have sex. And it's all free.

The last component is the environment. The organizers went to the federal government and asked for space to hold this festival. The Bureau of Land Management, always willing to help, rubbed their collective chins and asked themselves "where is the most inhospitable place we can think of to let these people suffer?" And lo, a few miles from beautiful Gerlach, Nevada, a mere 102 miles north of Reno, Black Rock City was born---or rather blew onto the map.

Can you say "flat?" Can you imagine microscopic dust that can blow at 50-60 miles an hour? And let's make it anywhere from 50 - 110 degrees during the day and possibly down into the 30s at night. Try packing for that!!

But what's most remarkable about BM might be that a week after those 70,000 people have left there isn't one cigarette butt, not one scrap of paper, not one safety pin left in that desert because one of the other tenets is "leave no trace." And they don't. Hundreds of volunteers remain after the event ends and comb the desert like my Uncle Sid with a metal detector at the beach, picking up everything they find and turning over the dirt to make sure they haven't missed anything. What the heck. It's only about 27 square miles.

So can you see the allure of Burning Man? Doesn't it make you want to pack up your van and drive 600 miles to suffer the weather, the wind, the dirt and 70,000 other people? If the answer is "no" then you have hit on another aspect of BM --- it "self-selects" as Al likes to say. Only people who can hack it go there. They know what to expect or they wouldn't be going.

Now that I've laid a filthy foundation let's get back to me and I'll abbreviate the lead-up to the day I left. I reserved my RV in January, didn't get my ticket on the first lottery and didn't get a ticket on the second chance lottery (I think they get something like 300,000 requests for 68,000 tickets). Luckily Al came through for me and got me a ticket for the eight-day event for $390 plus $50 for the vehicle pass.

As the departure date approached I read everything I could find about BM and used the many checklists and tips to build my own checklist, planning for every weather condition from extreme heat to monsoons. I began to pack and by "departure's eve" I was ready with five crates of food, clothing and stuff and a bicycle decorated with flashing electroluminescent wire and a hockey stick.

My RV reservation was for 10:00 that morning but I had Robyn drop me off at El Monte RV at 8:00 and luckily they took pity on me and got me out of there by 9:00.

It was pushing 85 by then but I was sweating at the thought of having to negotiate a 22 foot RV onto Sepulveda. I must have sat there at the edge of the driveway for a good 20  minutes waiting for a large enough break in the morning traffic to allow me to use all three lanes to swing onto Sepulveda. At one point the gal at El Monte RV came out to make sure I was okay. I wasn't.

But I made it home and started loading. By now it was over 90 and I was sweating like a Finnish sauna attendant. The last item to load was the bike so I hefted it up to the door, tweaked the handlebars and---shit. It wouldn't fit. No matter how I turned it there was no way it was getting through the narrow doorway.

With no choice I emptied the cargo compartment, turned the bike on its side and tried to muscle it in. Rats!! It wouldn't fit with the hockey stick protruding from the back so I grabbed my Swiss army knife and began undoing the zip ties and tape that I had so carefully used to secure the stick to the bike. And because I was hot and frustrated and running late I was not a happy camper and pretty much threw the damn amputee bike into the compartment.

And then I get a call from my office. The mail has come in and the GoPro my sister got me has finally come in along with a picture that my friend, Kate, has sent me to place in the temple at BM (more on that later). So I get on the freeway going south to the office instead of north to Burning Man and I'm pissed. It's noon and I should be long gone.

Now it's 1:30. I pop the spicy jaw breaker that comes with your Burning Man ticket and I'm finally on my way but the only thought in my mind is that I really could use a shower. Five minutes out and instead of being psyched I'm worried about how I must stink. Are my priorities screwed up or what?

Ten minutes later an alarm in the RV starts beeping every 30 seconds. It's bound to stop, right? Wrong. After 15 minutes I pull off the freeway and the beeping stops. Luckily El Monte RV has this awesome helpline so naturally I call them to ask what it could be but the operator on the line, Lisa, hasn't got a clue. We've run through all the possibilities but none of them pan out.

What the heck, it's finally quiet so no big deal but that only lasts about ten minutes. Since I've just spoken to the nice but not-so-helpful Lisa I redial her while driving and we go through the problem again. She can't hear the beeping through my phone even though I've got her on speaker and I'm holding the phone as high as I can.

"Can you walk closer to the beeping?" she asks me.

"I'm driving which makes it a bit difficult to do," I respond.

"Can you pull over so I can hear it?" she asks hopefully.

"It'll probably stop when I pull over---that's what it did last time."

"Is there anyone else with you?"

Now I'm getting pissed. "Lisa. If there was anyone with me don't you think I would have had them walk closer to the beeping?"

"I suppose so," she answers sheepishly.

Pointless. I hang up and tolerate the beeping for another 20 minutes or so before pulling off the freeway again.

Now I'm completely fed up and call my brother-in-law, Jack, who talks me down. He reminds me that despite all the crap that's happened in the first 50 miles I'll be having a blast in less than 24 hours. I have my doubts but I agree to continue. Had I not told so many people that I was going in the first place I probably would have turned around and cut my losses but I know me pretty well and made a point of telling anyone who would listen that I was going. There was no way I was going to let a little beeping keep me from my "dustiny." After all I only had about eight hours to go before I'd reach Reno.

The first time I stop for gas I realize that I haven't set up my Sirius satellite radio so I patch into the radio, plug into the AC power and extend the antenna wire. No power. Huh? What's with that? Exasperated I just crank the engine, pull back onto the freeway and try to find a station that isn't playing music about a man, his ex-wife, his truck or his dog and finally settle on a station that plays the worst of the oldies. Only about seven-and-a-half hours to go.

At around 7:30 I pull off the freeway somewhere past Sacramento and pull into a Denny's parking lot, making sure that I park in such a way that I won't need to back up when I leave. The place is mostly empty except for two couples at two tables and an old timer perched on a stool at the counter. I opt for the counter and realize as soon as I sit down that the counter is so close to the stools that I have to fold up my legs to fit. Why would they build the counter that way?

The waitress is older and overweight as are the other five people in the restaurant. Is this Auburn California or Macon, Georgia in 1960? I order a burger and kill time by checking my email. As I'm reading an email posted by one of the members of my discussion group the front door swings open and a young couple comes in with seven kids, all under 10. The waitress sees me eye them and points to a sign that says "Kids eat free on Tuesdays." Ah.

Anxious to get back on the road I wolf down my dinner and spend the next 60 miles trying to keep it down. By now I can smell my overnight layover and an hour later I pull into a Wal-Mart parking lot in Reno. Did you know that Wal-Mart welcomes RVs to spend the night in their lot? You do now. And I'm not alone. There are three others parked there and each of us have parked close enough to the others to create a sort of safety ring but far enough apart to avoid having to interact with each other, not that anyone is going to be milling about at 10:00.

I spend the next half hour putting tinfoil in all the windows (to keep the sun from superheating my 22 foot tin can at BM), tape plastic bags over the vents to keep the dust out and crawl under the covers, mercifully falling asleep in minutes,

The next morning I wake at 6:00 and get ready to take off. The engine turns over easily and the beeping starts again. Damn. Lisa answers right away and I'm thinking that she and I are probably officially dating by now.

"Marc! How're you doing?" she asks cheerfully after recognizing my phone number.

"It's beeping again, Lisa."

But Lisa is ready now. She did some research after we signed off the day before and has spent some serious time with the 2016 owner's manual. She directs me to the outside of the RV and has me opening panel after panel in an attempt to locate the generator switch. It takes me some time to figure out where the switch is. I locate it and turn the generator off, then on and run into the RV. The beeping has stopped! And better than that I can see that the face of the Sirius receiver is lit!!

Things are looking up.

I sign off with Lisa and head for a gas station to make sure that I'm prepared in case I need to run the engine or generator at BM. 90 minutes later I leave Gerlach behind me and I can see the gate to Burning Man. Now I'm getting excited. A small dust storm rolls across the desert like a cotton freight train. It seems to be leading the way.
The gate has a colorful "Carnival of Mirrors" sign off to one side so I dutifully get out and take a
selfie in front of it, then start the 10 mph ride to security. There are very few of us coming in on this the third day of the event and we spread out over the 15 coned off lanes that eventually funnel the "Burners" to the security gate after about 15 minutes of crawling.

Security scans your ticket, scans your vehicle pass and checks for stowaways, fire arms, fireworks and other contraband. They check trunks and cargo compartments and make people semi-unpack their vehicles to make sure there's nothing stashed under sleeping bags or behind coolers.

In my case the guy looks in my bathroom and in one of the cargo areas, then says "the only thing you're trying to hide is your stomach and you aren't doing a very good job of it." He waves me through.

From security you slow to 5MPH and drive to where the greeters are waiting. Their job is to get you out of your car, give you a hug and bid you "welcome home."

For virgin burners like me they have you lay in the dirt and either roll around or make dust angels. then they have you grab a length of rebar and bang it on a large bell to signify that you're no longer a virgin. Ironically I did exactly the same thing back in 1971.

Then it was through the gate to the "playa." As you Californians probably know the word "playa" means beach but when you go to the beach the water is already there. Not so with the playa at Burning Man. If you don't bring your own water with you within 48 hours you'll be a dessicated pile of skin.

As I skirted the outside of the camping areas at 5 MPH I took in my first real view of playa life.

There were lots of RVs but the vast majority of the people here in the outskirts were living in tents, small one and two-man tents or in enormous geodesic domes of canvas. Heck, there was every type of home imaginable. tents within tents, tents attached to cars, vans with pop tops, RVs, trailers---well, you get the idea.

The same goes for the people. Young, old, fully clothed, topless, naked, in kilts, in shorts, in sarongs, in bathing suits---I could go keep going but if you're like me you've already pictured some fifty-something year old, sunburned, wrinkly, naked man on a bike and you're trying to purge the image. I guess if you weren't thinking that then you're certainly doing it now. You're welcome.

They're walking, riding bikes, tricycles, unicycles or in "mutant" vehicles or art cars. Mutant vehicles are anything fairly small that's been bastardized but still motors around. It could be a golf cart with a pig's head on the hood to a trike with a bicycle on top of it with the gears of one driving the gears of the other.

Art cars are generally larger and act as the free rapid transit system (at 5MPH). These are decorated elaborately and usually have lots of lights. For example you might see a 15 foot long motorized gecko with bar stools on its spine. Or you might see a school bus turned into a pirate ship motoring down a dusty street with a dozen people aboard drinking margaritas and dancing to the music coming out of its four eight foot speakers. If you want a ride they have to stop and pick you up but the driver controls the destination, not you. Get on the wrong art car and you could be gone for days.

As I slowly drive towards my camp's coordinates (4 o'clock between A and B streets) I tried to take all this in, marveling at the way people have decorated their abodes, their transportation and themselves. Should some of them put on clothes? Hell, yes. Do they care? Hell, no. If they didn't care then neither would I and I would wear my L.A. Kings banana hammock proudly.

I found Al's RV easily enough and after a hug and a "welcome home" he guided me into my parking slot and showed me where to hook up to their camp's electrical grid. Then he and his wife Sarah took me on a little tour on their golf cart.

Our first stop was the center of "And Then There's Only Love," the name of our camp. Sounds lovely doesn't it? All lovey dovey and full of hugs, right? Ask people at Burning Man what they know about our camp and they'll look puzzled but call it by its more famous name, Orgy Dome, and everyone knows what you're all about.

Orgy Dome is an 1,800 foot covered and enclosed tented structure with twenty-something mattresses laid out on the ground. No. It's not a slumber party area. It's place where couples and "moresomes" can get together to uh, do what couples and moresomes do.

Al introduced me to some of his friends: Shade, Sean, Natasha, Meat, Sebastian, Steve and Sonia. No. Meat is not her given name, it's her playa name. Playa names are typically given to you by your friends. For example Al is an attorney and uses the playa name of Laszlo, named after Hunter Thompson's crazy attorney in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Shade is lovely and cool so her playa name fits too but Meat? I'm not sure how she got that one.

Then it was time to head out into "deep playa," the furthest areas from the camping area.

Wow!!!!

Picture a semicircle of living areas stretching from 2 o'clock to 10 o'clock like a huge pizza with four gigantic slices missing. The center of the pizza is hollowed out and the four piece slot is desert. Now put something like 1,000 "art pieces" in all the open areas spread out over about 12 square miles. Staggering. I know.

And that's in the daytime with blowing dust obscuring a lot of the pieces. Tonight I'll see them lit up, gyrating, spinning changing colors and spitting flames into the sky.

After arriving at 10:30 and getting a little taste with Al and Sarah I was anxious to hop on my bike and meander around on my Playa Zamboni. I dragged it out of the cargo area and reattached the hockey stick and lit out to just go where the wind took me---out into the playa and then weaving through the streets of the camps.

It's 5:30 and time for a little nap. The dust is already covering every surface inside the RV. It's
between my toes, in my nostrils and covering my hair. My skin is completely covered and the hair on my arms and legs is a strange golden brown. The only place that isn't inundated in dust is my---wait. It's there too!!!
This was just after I washed my hands. My hand isn't really red---it's just a night shot---but check out the dust on my arm.


I just remembered that the Orgy Dome is hosting an Ice Cream Social (they call it "I scream") but I'm a little too late and, while there's some ice cream left, it's mostly on people's bodies and I'm not that anxious to find out what's in their version of rocky road.

Having missed the ice cream I decided to whip up some tacos and get a meal out of the way. One of the tips I got from an orientation I attended in L.A. was to freeze some cooked ground beef and/or chicken and bring some tortillas. Sure enough it was an easy meal to cook and easy to eat but rather unnerving since there was no TV to watch, nor could I watch the show outside the RV what with the foil covering all the windows.

So I wolfed down a couple of tacos and followed them with pudding, jello and some pretzels (I think I hit all the food groups), finally washing it all down with about a quart of water. I was doing my best to keep up with the recommended 1.5 gallons a day but was failing miserably. Drinking means peeing and peeing is not terribly convenient when you're out in the middle of the playa.

Don't try to nap on a full stomach. I tossed and turned for about an hour and then heard an extremely loud "whoosh" coming from a ways away. (Is that proper? "A ways away?" It looks weird.) Hurriedly I put on my evening attire (same as during the day) and dashed to my bike to see what all the "whooshing" was about.

By now most of the camps were lit up as dusk was giving way to night. The bright neon lights blinked and flashed although many of the camps were completely empty, their occupants either eating, resting or simply out for the evening. Music drifted towards me from multiple directions as the occupied camps began to gear up for their activities.

The flames were coming from an art car that was wandering from street to street, blasting five foot flames in spurts from each of its two smokestacks. It was a couple blocks away so I unlocked my bike and went to find it.

I reached it in less than a minute and sailed passed it to check out the camps. Crisscrossing the area I saw people dancing, relaxing, juggling LED clubs, fire dancing and pretty much everything else. The loudest music was coming from Spanky's Village and Wine Bar so I pulled in and locked my bike. The beat was drawing me inside and the place was pretty packed----a good sign. The bar was jammed and people were dancing everywhere, some by themselves, others in groups and a few non-conformists in pairs. Christmas lights hung inside the huge tent and----

Wait a second. Is that what I think it is. I push through the crowd to one corner of the venue and there's a guy without pants chained to a board and there's a cute girl spanking his bare ass. And there's a freakin' line waiting for their turn.

This is too weird for my first night and while I'm not one to judge (okay, I am) I could hear my bike calling me. Check please!!

I hopped back on my bike and hit the road again. The visuals were amazing with vivid colors bombarding me from structures, bikers, walkers, mutant vehicles, art cars and of course the large art pieces strewn across the playa.

It's not shocking to learn that Burning Man was the brain child of a group of San Francisco folk and many of the art comes from Bay Area innovators because the LSD influence is evident in many of the
designs.

Many are a kaleidoscope of colors while others are simply lit but large and beautiful nonetheless. There's a 50 foot woman who is motorized and periodically moves almost imperceptively.

As you stand and look at her only the whirr of the motors alerts you to any of her subtle movements. It could be a slight movement in her chest as she takes a shallow "breath" or maybe a slight tilt of her head and I promise you it's very difficult to see what's moving.

I spent about four hours just riding aimlessly, stopping to listen to music or watch people doing crazy things. Almost everyone is friendly and inevitably if you stop somewhere there's someone who is more than willing to chat with you. Sometimes it's hard to get away from them and doing so without hurting their feelings can sometimes prove difficult.

The girls at 3:00 and the Esplanade were particularly friendly and invited all passersby to stop and "check out our titties" which normally would have been a strong selling point to stop but not on my first night on the playa.

Art cars trundled across the playa, some shooting flames, some playing music and some just flashing colors. But all of them were packed with riders in various stages of inebriation--no inhibitions allowed.

Thunderdome was cool with people draped all over the giant geodesic dome and standing four and five deep around the periphery. The two combatants are only armed with nerf bats but when two people on swings are hurtling towards each other it's bound to result in some injuries and like a Nascar race the crowd was screaming for blood.

After a long day and a lot of riding, frequently against the wind, I was spent and decided to turn in. The noise made it somewhat difficult to fall asleep as I was parked alongside one of the major thoroughfares and I was struggling to shut it out.

Day 2
Burning Man doesn't stop. It pretty much runs 24/7 with a brief rest period between 6:00 AM and 10:00 AM but even those are merely guidelines.

Just when I would finally fall asleep here comes some annoying art car blasting EDM at midnight. Then at 2:00 it's the fire belching vehicle again. Then at 5:00 The Lost Penguin camp across the street decided to blare Sirius radio to the entire neighborhood. Did you know there's a 24 hour Grateful Dead channel?

I climbed out of bed at 7:30 and got a hard boiled egg out of the fridge and learned that even hard boiled eggs can't go in the microwave. Let me correct myself. They can go into the microwave just fine but they don't come out in a recognizable form. Fortunately the microwave was large enough to accommodate my head so I was able to lick up most of it, As for the rest I assume the RV cleaning fee would cover it.

I will warn you now this next section is not for my mother nor, quite possibly, for anyone who ever had a mother. If you're smart you'll skip ahead a few paragraphs but I know my friends and family and I doubt that anyone except Mom is heeding my warning.

9:00 began my three-hour shift as a greeter at Orgy Dome. Now one would think that a greeter is someone who stands at the door and says things like "Hi. Did you come here to have sex? Well come on in!" (They love to say "come" at Orgy Dome.) As I found out very quickly it's so much more than that.

The first duty is indeed to greet the prospective fornicators and check IDs if they look like they could be under 18. If the visitors are two men you need to feel confident that they're gay and not two college guys with voyeuristic intent or worse, two guys hoping to touch women without their consent. As River explained to me it's okay to ask them to French kiss if you have any doubts.

Next comes the "orientation" that explains the rules and the layout. The dome is for couples and "moresomes," the quantity of participants limited only by imagination, physics and mattress size. If you want to just be with the folk(s) that brung you you opt for the "Just Us" section. For flirting with other parties and perhaps engaging in spontaneous play (nice euphemism) there's another section that is segregated from "Just Us" by a line on the wall of the tent.

The rest of the orientation deals with consent, safety and inappropriate contact, (Yes. It's possible to be inappropriate in an orgy dome.) Upon completion of the orientation there's a test that consists of me asking if it's okay for me to touch one of the parties. If that person answers in any manner other than an enthusiastic and verbal "Yes!" they have failed the test and I send them to Spanky's to get reprimanded.

To drive the point home when the person answers "yes" I would often touch them but after a while I realized what a good thing I had going. If there was a cute girl at some point she'd have to give me permission to touch her or she wouldn't get in. Seriously, we were very concerned about safety and everyone having a great time so I did everything I could to make them feel comfortable and if I sensed someone was hesitant I made sure the couple talked it over and understood that either one could say "no" at any time.

After the orientation the couple would receive a red wristband that was good for the week and a bucket (called a "fucket") for their clothes, jewelry and other personal items. Then one of us would unzip the Dome tent flap, hold our noses because of the aroma that tends to ooze out like pus from an infected toe (such imagery!!) and zip up the opening behind them.

Now for the weird part.

As part of our commitment to safety and comfort we provide a number of items free of charge: condoms, lube, disinfectant and towels which the visitors pick up on their way into the Dome. But because needs arise inside the Dome another job of the greeter is to (go away Mother!) patrol the Dome for safety, cleanliness and service.

So there I am with my pink basket (not a euphemism) filled with condoms, lube and all the other goodies. I'm strolling through the 1,800 square foot tented area with dozens of people having sex all around me and moaning, screaming, panting and singing (Singing? Yes. Don't ask me what tune it was.).

Now let me back track for a moment. One of my orientation couples was a cute girl of about 25--Courtney-- with her boyfriend. She was slightly inebriated or perhaps just giddy with anticipation because she was rather flirty and after our little game of "can I touch you?" she asked if she could touch me, then proceeded  to rub my leg briefly. Hubba hubba.

So I'm on patrol in the Dome and I ask if anyone needs anything. I don't walk up and tap somebody on the shoulder and make my inquiry. And I'm not shouting "cigars, cigarettes, condoms" like some cigarette girl from the 1930s. I speak quietly but loud enough that people know I'm there. Surprisingly many people pause in the middle of their "activities" to say "no thank you" but most people just keep plowing the lower 40.

As I'm about to finish my rounds I hear "Oh, Lube Boy! I need bottle service!"

It's Courtney and she's got a silly grin on her face as she rocks back and forth while astride her boyfriend.

Making eye contact during sex is fine but when that person is having sex with someone else it's just plain bizarre. Unfortunately for me my duty here will require that I make eye contact with Courtney and I don't want to. Heck. I don't want to make any contact with anybody in there.

I try to act nonchalant and sashay over to her. Does she stop? No. She merely holds out an open palm. My training didn't include lube etiquette so I'm unsure of the proper way to handle her request. Do I hand her the tube and let her dispense it? That would require both hands and I can clearly see (well, maybe not clearly) that one of her hands is, um, occupied so I grab the lube and squeeze some into her palm.

"Is that enough?" I ask.

"Perfect," she pants, then thanks me and goes back to the task at hand....so to speak.

Bucket list item #71 is now checked off.

Because people are people there is trash everywhere but in the trash can and I'm supposed to pick it up. Luckily rubber gloves are provided and there's a disinfectant air lock that sprays you with Purell and then burns your clothes off your body. Reluctantly I pick up the trash and deposit it in the trash can, then make my escape.

Yes. It was creepy but by the 20th time I was helping people untangle, holding them up while they maneuvered into new positions and shouting compliments and encouragement and picking up the trash with my bare hands.

You would think the participants would fit a certain narrow mold but there were all types of Dome visitors; old, young, fat skinny and everything in between.

I had a married couple in their 60s (not that kind of "had") and there was a girl with a guy who proudly told me she was here the day before with a different guy. The guy she was with didn't seem to care---he was smiling at his good fortune.

The creators of the Dome certainly practice what they preach. I overhead one of the organizers say to another greeter whose wife was also working "can you be here at 5;30 on Friday? Shelly wants to have a gang bang with maybe five or six guys---something like that---but definitely less than 10. She thinks more than that would be weird."

Weird indeed.

After a sumptuous lunch of quiche, coq au vin and an ice cream sundae (translation: cheese sandwich and beef jerky) I headed out to the playa to check out some of the distant structures. The weather was beautiful and the wind barely a whisper so I decided to aim for the Temple of Promise. With such a mild breeze there were no dust storms to deal with and I was able to spot it immediately despite the fact that it was probably a good mile and a half away.

The Temple of Promise is a wooden structure that has become a staple of each year's celebration. While it can be used for reflection most Burners consider it a place to remember deceased loved ones or to pray for those who are sick.

The building itself is constructed in such a way as to facilitate the placement of pictures, letters or other items and to keep them in place without the use of metal like nails or brads or staples. Items can be slid into slots in the wood, into joints, tied on with string or simply anchored to the ground by rocks. Some people elect to simply write a message on the plain wood structure itself. On the last night of Burning Man the temple is burned to the ground with all the messages, pictures and mementos inside.

This year's temple was shaped like a cornucopia that funneled people into tighter and tighter spaces which served to slow the crowd to a crawl. With forward progress so hampered we were conveniently able to spend time reading the various messages and look at the shrines within the structure.

My mission was to place the picture Kate sent me in the temple and I had also brought a screen grab of her husband that I took off the internet from one of my favorite moments in his life.

Every place I looked was either occupied or too small to accommodate both pictures without obscuring someone else's letter or memento so I opted for a spot on the ground next to one of the few benches. I placed them together under a rock and nudged them into a corner that would further protect them from the wind. Plugging in my ear buds I played the song he was singing in the internet screen grab video, closed my eyes and pictured him as the crazy, fun-loving, government-hating, lovable knucklehead I had known. When the song ended I snapped a few pictures so his wife could see the temple and the little homage to her husband, then left.

A couple hundred yards away there was a small crowd so I pedaled over to investigate and found myself at a playa hot dog barbecue in the middle of nowhere. The dog wasn't that great but it was free and came with a dust covered bun and a hug.

Then it was off to deep playa where the fence stretches as far as the eye can see and is there to hopefully catch any flying "moop." Moop is "material out of place." You laymen can call it trash.

The only structure I could see was a building and as I got closer I could see the marquee on the front. It was a movie theater a good two miles from civilization and I was intrigued. Was it really a theater? What would they be showing? Would there be popcorn? Would there be air conditioning?

There were a few bicycles parked alongside and a handful of people milling around but before I could even park my bike I saw the glint of the metal chain on the front doors. Closed.

Disappointed at having ridden to the virtual end of the earth I turned and headed back to civilization, fighting the wind all the way.

I did a slow ride on some of my local streets, grabbed a beer at one place, a melon margarita at another and spent a half hour talking to a young couple from Utah who had moved to Berkeley for some kind of revelatory movement. They were spewing their gospel using confusing jargon that I probably could have understood on acid in 1970 but here in 2015 with a lot less brain cells whatever they were saying began to sound a lot like my garbage disposal. I smiled politely and from time to time repeated what they said right back to them as if to let them know I understood. The melon margarita didn't help but my sunglasses made it easy to turn my attention to everything else going on inside the bar and on the road outside.

After a brief nap (at the RV, not while sitting with the Berkeley couple) I realized I hadn't defrosted dinner (where was Robyn when I needed her?) so my tacos will have to become tomorrow's lunch. There was still some egg stuck to the walls of the microwave but hardly enough to make a meal so I repeated breakfast and added pudding and jello.

I'm a little worried that I'm not drinking enough fluids. The recommended amount is 1.5 gallons which is something like a small bathtub and I think I'm only at about two thirds of that amount. Maybe I'll just drink three gallons on the last day.

Al and Sarah have convinced me to go out with them tonight which means EDM (Endless Din Music) so I've hidden some ear plugs in my backpack. My LED shoelaces are on and this animal is ready to party all night---or at least until 10:00.

Sarah had gotten my GoPro going so I went on a little tour on the bike. It wasn't quite dark yet but the neon lights were beginning to come alive as I wove through the streets looking for entertaining things to shoot.

At 9:15 or so I met Al and Sarah at their RV and we golf carted a ways to meet up with their friends, James and Lisa, at their RV. They were funny and sarcastic and I liked them immediately but passed on their offer of elicit mood-altering medication that I think is used to sedate housecats.

The itinerary for the evening was to hit every electronic dance music venue on the playa and Al knew where each of them was located, who was DJing and when. They completely lost me as they argued the merits of each "club" but they finally settled on a definite plan of attack.

Flashing lights, music, a throbbing, body-shaking beat and wildly clad people dancing defined each locale and pretty soon I was able to actually discern differences in each venue's music, a sure sign that I was being transformed into a "creature of the night" (to be said in a Bela Lugosi voice).

We bobbed and swayed to the beat, my moves confined to what Sarah called "white man dancing." Hey, I haven't really danced since the sock hops in my high school days so lighten up.

Sarah, James, Lisa and I were actually barely dancing in place but the vast majority of the crowds were really dancing hard enough to work up a sweat. My guess is that most of them were on ecstasy or Ketamine or some other kind of inhibition erasing drug.

By 11:30 it was beginning to get pretty cold so we zipped back across the playa to retrieve our fake full length fur playa coats from the RVs (mine was borrowed from Al). Except for the ratty Reebok high top basketball shoes I felt and almost looked like a burner with a couple of EL wire necklaces, EL wire laced through my backpack zippers and that coat that would have been an appropriate fashion statement in the 1920s.

After hitting a couple more spots we headed out into the semi-deep playa a little more than a mile from camp, Al, Sarah and me on the decorated and lit up golf cart with James and Lisa pedaling furiously behind us as they had all evening.

Al knew exactly what to expect but I was surprised as hell to arrive at a pretty good-sized happening in the middle of nowhere. What we found there was a gathering of art cars (or is it called a "bevy?") with one enormous car playing the music. It was probably 30 feet long with a Mayan warrior's head as the front end (Or was it an Aztec? I can never tell them apart at parties.). Perched on top about 15 feet off the ground were the crew who ran the lights, music and lasers and surrounding them were about a dozen dancers.

A makeshift dance floor was laid out in the dirt but not any kind of dance floor that you'd expect or recognize. There were dozens of plastic or rubber disks with some bounce to them. They were a little smaller than manhole covers, had a swirly black pattern painted on them and had been wired to the art car so that they changed colors in sync with the music. Each one held a dancer.

Surrounding the area were the other art cars---maybe five of them---and they formed a circular community with the dancers at the center. Other art cars would meander by including one with about a 15 foot diagonal TV screen of lights glowing, dancing and morphing geometric shapes, then becoming an animated point-of-view roller coaster ride and lots of other things that can be accurately described. The only thing that it wasn't showing was ESPN's Sports Center. Does anyone know the Dodger's score?

We'd seen this videocar before as it sailed across the playa like a disembodied oversized TV and Al knew the people who operated it. Christ, does Al know everything and everybody out here?

It's hard to fathom how much time, money, thought and effort went into the planning and execution of something like this scene in the dirt-it's truly astonishing. By now Al was tired of me staring slackjawed at stuff like this but I had no choice and I let my 34th "wow" leak out of my mouth.

It was getting late and I was getting burned out (pun intended) so Al ran me back into town. When I got back to the RV I tuned on the hot water heater and stepped into the shower to wash my feet in water and vinegar to get the playa dust off my feet and allowed myself the luxury of a 90 second shower. Budgeting shower water isn't fun but when you have limited water on board you have to be conservative. Besides, at 4:00 AM how long a shower can you really take?

4:00 AM? WTF?

Day 3
I slept late---mercifully. The Grateful Dead were silent---also mercifully---and I didn't pour myself out of bed until 10:00. I had no idea what I was going to do during the day. My Dome shift would be from 3:00-6:00 with Al and Sarah which meant 12 hours were already planned (work, eat, nap party---repeat as necessary) but I still had five hours to kill. Cheese sandwich anyone?

Hey, Del Monte!! What's with putting the cherry halves at the bottom of the fruit cocktail can? Are they supposed to be like the prize at the bottom of the cereal box? I think the last time I ate fruit cocktail was 1968.

My friends from Lone Pine, California--Dean and Beverly--were around here somewhere but I hadn't been able to find them yet. I had their approximate location and had ridden through their general vicinity a couple of times but now I made a slow pass and finally saw their van.

Dean didn't recognize me at first but it's no surprise since I was wearing goggles, a bandana over my nose and mouth and a big floppy bush hat.

They were enjoying themselves immensely, especially the way in which their camp had welcomed them and looked after them but that's pretty much to be expected at Burning Man. Everyone is happy to give a hug, lend a hand, offer food or squeeze out some lube.

Bev was getting a massage or having her chi tuned up or something mystical so we hung out until she was done and then rode out to the art installation their camp had built---a house of four mirrored exhibits that used geometry and angles to create interesting optical illusions.

It was only Friday but they were dismantling it because it was only a few feel from The Man who would be torched the next night and they wanted to salvage the entire thing. I pitched in for awhile, helping to take down the walls but soon I was really just getting in the way. Had I been willing to pick up a tool I probably could have done some more but Marc and tools are a dangerous combination, one that could easily cause a major incident---especially to me.

Note for next time: make sure you know where you park your bike. Even though I had that big red hockey stick jutting up into the air it doesn't help much when your bike has fallen over but at least I got to see The Man from every angle....twice.

I headed back to the RV to grab a bite, cool off and guzzle more water than I thought I could hold but the camp generator is out....again. I called the front desk but the concierge must have been busy because there was no answer. Being the self-reliant bloke that I am I got down on my knees and put my head in the fridge. It's not very comfortable and I've read the Gatorade bottle twice but the cold feels great----ahhhhhh.

I had my next shift at the Dome coming up with Al and Sarah and the wind has picked up considerably. When I stepped into the RV I was sweating and hot but as I stepped out to head to the Dome the sun was hidden by the swirling dust and the temperature had dropped to what felt like the low 60s. Weather like this was bound to bring a lot of people to the sheltered stench of Orgy Dome and it did.

The line to get into the Dome was long as people realized they could escape the elements and have sex. If we had TV it would have been the Burner trifecta.

Not only were we considerably busier than the morning shift the day before but we had every possibly combination: gay couples, gay threesomes, foursomes with every combination of males and females and a few oddballs---hetero couples. While no one was thrilled at having to wait for an hour or more to "get busy" in the Dome they waited patiently and lounged on the couches in Aphrodite's Garden, either cuddling for warmth or socializing with other groups.

I felt partial to the groups I had oriented (or "orientated" for those of you who attended LA Unified schools) and tried to spend a few moments with them when I had a chance, either joking or asking them about their experiences at the burn.

One of the foursomes was a mystery to me. There was a 40-ish woman with two somewhat unattractive nebbishy men and another man who was maybe 5'2" with his face completely covered and carrying a metal lunchbox. Since one of my jobs was security I had him open it to make sure he wasn't carrying a camera or some other verboten items. There was something electrical in there but it wasn't phallic and it didn't look dangerous. It looked a lot like a radio someone might build in junior high shop class.

They sat on the couch quietly for about an hour, rarely talking and not chatting with the people around them. Finally it was their turn (yes, we handled out numbers like Baskin Robbins---"now serving number 69!!") and they scurried into the Dome.

Not 10 minutes later they emerged.

"What happened?" I asked the woman. "Was someone hassling you or did something happen in there? I just saw you go in a few minutes ago."

"He's got magic in that box," she answered, nodding her head at the mysterious troll. "I don't know what it does exactly but it sure doesn't take long."

The little man's face was still covered but I could swear he was smiling. I don't know why the other two guys were needed and I asked Al about it later. He thought it could have been some kind of electrical stimulus device and that the three men had pressed electrodes or something to various parts of the woman's body. The ingenuity of man never ceases to amaze me.

The shift continued at a frantic pace with Al supervising the crew and making sure everything was mellow in Aphrodite's Garden where the crowd was packed liked sardines. He also attended to the pink basket duties in the Dome, a job he really enjoys. A few of the people left early rather than wait any longer but the vast majority lazed on the couches and huddled to keep warm. But one girl visited a second time during my three-hour stint with two different guys. She gave me a look as if to say "what's a horny girl to do?"

With my responsibilities limited to the greeter spiel I took it upon myself to do a little entertaining by asking people if they would prefer waiting elsewhere: "You could head up to the third floor and wait by the bowling alley but watch out for the jacuzzi just inside the door" or "there's probably some room by the fireplace." It took a second for people to realize I was kidding and they all seemed to appreciate my feeble attempt to make them laugh.

When my shift ended at 6:00 I went back to the RV and had dinner while Sarah napped and then went for another cruise around the neighborhood. By now the wind had eased considerably proving Al's assertion that as night fell the playa calmed down with the only uncertainty being how cold it would get.

At 9:00 we lit out for more music and stayed in one area where there were three music venues. Slutgarden is the only one I remember by name---for obvious reasons.

A couple hours later Al and Sarah wanted to crash for a few hours in order to wake up for the sunrise so I biked in the other direction and landed at Camp Chaos for a couple of hours. I could be wrong but I think they only payed one song for those two hours.

It was now after 1:00 AM and my feet were begging to be washed so I cruised back, stood in vinegar and water for about 10 minutes and hit the dusty hay.

Day 4
It's 3:45 AM on Saturday, the day they'll burn the 60 foot man and I've gotta pee. At my age it's not unusual to be up this early to hit the head but "usual" isn't something worth writing about. I stumble in the dark, do my business and slip back into bed only to repeat the exercise 15 minutes later. Okay, so I didn't completely empty the reservoir. 15 minutes later I'm at it again. And again and again and again. WTF? By 8:00 or so I'm getting sick of this dance. Do I have a bladder infection? Is it the elusive painless kidney stone that will eventually evolve into a cross between a Tarzan yell and a howler monkey call?

As much as I feel like I need to pee there isn't much of it coming out even though I've been drinking close to a gallon and a half per day so I've ruled out dehydration. Still, this doesn't make any sense.

By noon the frequency is down to about every 30 minutes between visits but it's still disconcerting. I could head a couple streets away to the Port-a-Potties where I could at least interact with people while I wait to pee but anyone watching me might get the idea that I have an unhealthy attraction to filthy, smelly crappers. Instead I elect to wander around the neighborhood but stay within dashing distance of my RV.

Watching the people walking and riding around is a pleasant enough distraction although there are far too many naked men riding around who shouldn't be naked. What they've saved in clothing they seem to have invested in hats. What's with that? "I want to be naked but I'm going to draw your attention away from my dangly parts by wearing this ostentatious hat." Okay.

By 4:00 I'm really dragging my ass after spending the bulk of the night and most of the morning sleeping 10-15 minutes at a time. The intervals have increased to about 45 minutes and, while I'm happy that I seem to be getting better, how will I be able to sit with 69,999 others in five hours to watch the burning of The Man?

Al comes by to check on me and says "Dude, you need to go to medical." Reluctantly I aquiesce and ride over to the medical tent.

There's a line out the door and I mentally calculate how long I have before I'll have to pee again. The guy in front of me is tightly holding his finger and it's dripping blood into the dirt. He's trying to joke with his friend but it's clear he's starting to freak out. Why he doesn't push to the front of the line is beyond me---I guess people here are polite no matter what.

The intake gal finally notices him and admonishes him for being so patient. She hustles him inside, grabs a nurse and sends him back for treatment.

Okay. We're in the middle of nowhere in harsh conditions and this medical center is operating better than any ER I've ever visited. The intake gal logs each patient onto a sheet and briefly describes their symptoms or complaint. The line moves quickly and she takes my basic info, After hearing my symptoms she gets specific.

"Have you had any unprotected sex?"

"No."

"Are you sure?"

I pause a beat. You know I'm struggling mightily to be nice and to suppress the smartassedness that is waiting to erupt. I fail.

"Pretty sure but I may have been raped in my sleep."

"Any history of prostate problems?"

"Other than my problem with a doctor with large fingers, no."

She scowls and points to the Group W bench (does anyone get the reference?) and I wait with a couple others who aren't bleeding or holding bags of severed digits.

In about 10 minutes a male nurse comes over and asks if I'm "the pee guy" and takes my vitals, then escorts me back to "Rampart," the M.A.S.H.-type tent in back.  He tells me they have a full lab and x-ray machine. Good to know.

He finds me a seat in the corner of the tent with a bunch of other folks, peppers me with questions about unprotected sex, recent surgery and prostate problems, then hands me my info sheet and tells me to hang loose. Naturally everyone is friendly and pretty soon we're talking.

There are two Israeli guys from New York, one of whom has a nasty gash in his scalp after crashing his bike, a guy from Woodland Hills, California who twisted his ankle after jumping off an art car, a French girl in a very small bikini top with so much pus oozing out of her eye that it's hard to look her in the face (not that I was looking at her eyes) and a woman with a headache she described to us as how it would feel if an anvil had a baby in your head. I'm not really sure what she meant but I imagine it was a doozy.

Everyone was very nice and helpful in providing me with a diagnosis. The consensus was that I had an STD. The French girl, Pus n' Boobs,  insisted it was a urinary tract infection and told me she had a cranberry concoction in her tent that might help. She said she'd wait for me if she was released first and suggested I wait for her if I beat her out.

My initial thought was that if I went with her I'd either throw up if I had to look her in the face too much or she'd cure my UTI and give me an STD that would put me right back where I was sitting. I explained that the combination of Lipitor and cranberries was likely to send me into anaphylactic shock.

She didn't know exactly what that was and my French wasn't that good but I was able to explain that it wasn't a good thing.

Pretty soon the male nurse came back and reviewed my "chart." He verified the unprotected sex thing, gave me a pee cup and pointed me to the Port-a-Potties outside.

It occurred to me that it had been over an hour since my last pee so I felt that maybe I should just keep walking but I was actually having fun and figured "what the heck?" I might as well see this thing through. I was also wondering about the unprotected sex thing. Imagine going to Burning Man, being a "good boy" and coming home with chlamydia (the disease, not a girl) so I returned to the Rampart tent with my cup in hand.

I sat back down and waited for someone to come and fetch my specimen but after about five minutes I was still holding it (the cup, not the pee). Finally I stopped my nurse and tried to foist it on him but he declined saying he needed to "glove up" before handling something so obviously rife with lethal organisms.

I told him I only peed on the inside of the cup but I guess he just couldn't trust someone with prostate problems who had random unprotected sex.

Ten minutes later a doctor approached me and grabbed the chart hanging on the tent post behind me.

"Your test results are somewhere between negative and inconclusive," he began. "If you haven't had unprotected sex I'm not sure what it could be. Do you have a history of prostate problems? I could give you an exam," he adds holding up a gloved finger.

"No. My PSA is checked annually (did I spell that correctly?) and my levels have been pretty consistent within an acceptable range. My primary physician says it's a little enlarged," I brag, "but it's been that way for years." (Besides. I'm staying at Orgy Dome and a prostate exam is part of the camp welcoming ritual.)

"Well, I suppose I could start you on a four-week course of antibiotics in case it's an UTI......"

Pus n' Boobs smiled at me triumphantly and seductively if a girl with a steady stream of infected eye-jaculate could be considered seductive.

"Actually, the frequency of my urination has decreased, Doctor, so I think I'm improving on my own. Maybe I'll just see how things go."

He wrote something on my chart and had me sign the bottom. I added a note that said I hadn't had ANY sex let alone the unprotected kind and handed the chart back. He suggested seeing my doctor when I got home and having a prostate exam just to be safe. Jesus. What was with these guys and my prostate?

I said my goodbyes to our little group in the corner, got a hug from Pus n' Boobs and thanked her again. As I walked out I looked at my watch and saw that it had barely been an hour from start to finish---not bad considering where we were plus the value of the entertainment.

By now it was a little after 6:00 and time to eat after which I stopped by Al's RV to check in. He told me the camp would be heading out to the "Man Burn" at about 8:15 but he and Sarah had inner ring passes for themselves that would put them close enough to the festivities to toast marshmallows.

With about an hour to kill I wandered around the neighborhood but things were pretty dead as most people were either preparing to leave for the burn or had already left. I figured I'd be on my own and I wanted a good seat so I lit out well before the rest of the camp was scheduled to leave.

It probably wasn't a good idea to have chugged a beer when my pee situation was still tenuous but it was too late to do anything about it now. I remember from my younger days that you can't undo a beer.

The walk was only about 30 minutes and I settled down on the ground on one side of the Man (3:00) and had a good sized space to myself with enough room to stretch out.

Twenty minutes later it's just before 9:00 and I'm in the knee-chest position with people pressing me on four sides. I'm only four rows form the front so I know I'll have no problem seeing the festivities but God help me if nature called or I needed to stand because it was going to be at least a couple hours before I'd be able to do either without leaving a wet spot in the dirt.

Let me set the scene. The Man is in the middle and there are a few pockets of VIPs quite a distance from him. Next is an open ring in which the "conclave" will take place. The next ring is a band of spectators (the coach seats) maybe 30 or 40 people deep. Behind us are 10-15 rows of people standing and behind them are all of the art cars, lights strobing and pulsing and many of them playing music. From the air it must have looked incredible.

It's 9:00 and the "conclave" begins, a fire performance involving hundreds of costumed fire dancers, fire jugglers, fire baton twirlers, acrobats, stilt walkers, fire eaters and flaming whip snappers---you get the idea. It was basically Dust du Soleil with fire as the theme.

That went on for a good 30 minutes and then the real show began. Fireworks began launching from all around The Man and from The Man himself. And we're not talking about a few salvos and then a pause and then some more. This was a good 15-20 minute barrage of colors and explosions as if four or five fireworks displays decided to get together for a "menage a boom" (sorry about the Orgy Dome metaphor).

Suddenly there was a huge explosion that may have emanated from The Man's chest. It became a fireball that engulfed him from the waist up. The crowd roared as the flames leapt higher and turned the man into a skeleton within in the orange flames.

Fifteen minutes later we were still there waiting for him to topple over. Fifteen minutes after that there was no change and the crowd was pretty quiet, spent after having exploded at the eruption of the flames.

My legs were useless by then as it had been over an hour since there was any blood flow to them. My ass hurt plenty but I knew the numbness would soon eliminate the pain. I figured I had another 10 minutes or so before my muscles would atrophy followed by my bladder releasing. Luckily I'd never even feel it happen.

People were becoming impatient and screamed things at the Man: "Die bitch" was the most used exhortation but that was coming from a couple of guys behind me who were so drunk that it was amazing they could string even two words together. Their incoherent but entertaining mumblings and screams were currently the only things keeping me from focusing on my pain. There were also bets on which way the man would eventually fall.

The guy sitting next to me whispered that last year's Man took three hours to finally fall. Great.

By now I'd been sitting there for two hours and The Man continued to burn but now at least pieces were starting to fall off. Part of an arm pulled away from the body but refused to completely disengage and seemed to defy both gravity and the inferno. I thought it looked like a big burning middle finger.

A few people finally gave up, got up and stepped over and on the seated crowd. Anxious to make my escape as well I tested my legs to see if I was capable of joining them but my limbs were about as useful as a pair of cooked spaghetti stilts.

I'm ready to cry. The numbness has spread all the way to my ears and I now know how people trapped in an avalanche feel as they weigh their options: Give in to blissful sleep knowing that it will bring relief and death or continue to fight a painful and probably fruitless battle to survive. At least I didn't have to pee---uh oh. I shouldn't have thought that.

Just as I'm about to ask the guy next to me if I can fall asleep on his shoulder The Man teeters and then collapses. I'm not sure if the reaction from the crowd is one of jubilation or relief but in either case the crowd begins to disperse.

I know that my attempt to stand will be an exercise in futility and that I'm destined to flop around like a beached grouper so I merely stretch my legs while laying on the ground and wait for the numbness to give way to pain---and it does...in spades.

I must have looked quite comical writhing around for a good 30 seconds and finally rose to my hands and knees before willing myself to stand. The walk back to camp is a welcome change and I navigate back using the landmarks Al had pointed out the first night.

I aim to the left of the red skoosh ball and look for the blinking nipple behind it. I swing slightly to the right and pick up the pace as the beer finally makes its way towards the exit. Up ahead I can see the steam rising from the Orgy Dome followed by the stench of love (good name for a band).

It's midnight and I pray that Al and Sarah are waiting for me. The plan was to hit their friend, Jerri's, birthday party (Jerri Manthey who was on Survivor's first season) and then head over to Slutgarden but when I get to their RV the golf cart is gone.

A quick whiz and I'm on my bike and heading for the general vicinity of Jerri's camp. I had been there the first day but I was riding with Al and Sarah then and really hadn't paid attention so I was stuck asking around but none of the people in that area knew her camp, Kalamity's Kitchen. Al's cart is nowhere to be seen so I'm stuck crisscrossing the area in the hope of getting lucky.

After about 30 frustrating minutes I take it as a sign, give up and return to my RV. After not having slept the night before I'm exhausted and not in a mood to party by myself so I remove the hockey stick from the back of my bike and stow it in the cargo area. I plan to leave in the morning and stashing the bike is one less thing to do when I wake up.

No sooner have I shed my night gear and washed up a bit than I hear Al and Sarah drive up.

Do I unpack the bike and get dressed up again or do I call it a day (and a festival) and just go to bed? I'm sure you've figured out my answer.

The next morning I'm outside by 7:00. I walk down to orgy Dome to say goodbye to whoever might be around but it's closed and nobody is in the community kitchen so I trudge back to the RV, remove the foil from the windows, unlpug the cable from the power grid and head out.

Postscript
Burning Man was definitely a "wow" experience and I'm so glad Al convinced me to go. Standing out on the playa at night and looking back at the lit up camps and art pieces is an indescribably beautiful sight. Would I go again? Probably. With this year under my belt I feel like I'd be better prepared next time around.

I'd definitely do a better job of "playatizing" as Black Rose put it. That means being more costumed as opposed to dressing in a practical manner. Self-expression is important at BM and my attire screamed "CPA." And I'll stay out later and sleep in since the evenings are so incredibly beautiful.

If I had to sum up my advice to anyone contemplating going I'd say just give in to the dirt and accept that you'll be wearing it, inhaling it, living in it and eating it. Number two is to drink, drink, drink and number three is to hook up with a camp so you'll have a built-in support system and a group of new friends on Day 1.

Many thanks to Al and Sarah (Laszlo and Agntsea), Pam and Anna at El Monte RV,  Shade, Lefty, River, Black Rose, Meat, Uli, Sebastian, Steve, Sean, Sonia, Courtney and all the people who visited Orgy Dome and were so appreciative, polite and fun. And thanks to all the folks who shared hugs, beers, hot dogs and margaritas, to the medical staff and patients at Rampart---especially Pus n' Boobs--- and the greeters at the main gate who made me do dust angels and welcomed me home.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Progressive Accountant

Would you do business with a company who refuses to remove you from their e-mail list? I wouldn't.

Three times I've unsubscribed and I've now received four e-mails from them asking me to buy their continuing professional education program. Look for their phone number and you won't find one in the e-mail but go to their website and you'll see a list of the four contact people so I called the Editor's number and got what I think was his wife at home. She gave me the Editor's cell phone number but he has yet to return my call.

Is their product any good? Who knows? Is it acceptable CPE in your state? Who knows? All I can do is judge the company by their policies and this company goes on my shit list.

Most companies have been pretty good about honoring my request to be removed from their e-mail list but not The Progressive Accountant.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

So You Think You Want To Refi?

So mortgage rates are low and you think you want to refi, huh?

I've got excellent credit and I've got loads of equity in my home. A decent income doesn't hurt either. With all that going for me I assumed it would be a snap like it was a year ago when I refinanced. I was wrong.

I started by sending my mortgage broker two years worth of tax returns, copies of W-2's, three months of bank statements for both of our accounts, broker statements, social security card copies, driver's license copies, our homeowner's insurance policy, a copy of parts of our living trust and a recent mortgage payment statement.

Next came the appraisal which turned out just fine and meant that our loan would be for 56% of the value of our house. One would think that any lender would be thrilled that we had so much equity, and that may have been the case except that the underwriters then got involved.

For those of you who don't know what an underwriter is, he/she is the person working for either the lender or, in my case, the mortgage broker. Their job is to review all the paperwork, ensure that your loan will give the lender warm fuzzies, and then find ways to not approve the loan.

The first bizarre request was for me to remove a tree in my front yard. The tree is approximately 12 feet high and is shaped like a half-moon. Why it grows at an angle is beyond me but it was like that when we bought the house 10 years ago and, aside from growing a little, it hasn't done much of anything other than lean. And what is most puzzling is that it doesn't lean towards the house.

What were they worried about? Would it suddenly spin on its trunk and throw itself at the front window? Would it leap out of the ground, hurtle eight feet from where it's planted onto the house and wrestle the chimney off the roof? This is the tree that our neighborhood calls the "Doctor Seuss tree" because of its comical shape. Doctor Seuss, not Stephen King!

As a compromise the underwriter suggested anchoring it to the ground with wire and a tree stake. I suggested the underwriter anchor a brain to himself which must have hit home because he dropped the tree removal requirement.

The next issue was our pool. I know what you're thinking: "What could be at issue with the pool? Cracks? Proximity to the house? Loose diving board?"

Think simple and think like a moron. They questioned the water!

We have a motorized pool cover that was closed when the appraiser came out. Naturally the appraiser took pictures of everything including the pool. Because she actually had a brain she didn't ask us to open the cover but she was rational and the underwriter was not. They wanted more pictures with the pool cover open, requiring that the appraiser come over again and take more pictures.

I can't quite imagine what they were thinking. It's not as if a lack of water would reduce the value of our home "appreciably" (refinancing joke). But what did they think was under the cover? A tar pit? A meth lab? 40 marijuana plants? An illegal pre-school? A naked man floating on his back?

So somewhere in my lender's archives along with all of my loan information is a picture of a middle-aged naked man floating on his back in a pool, flipping the bird to the camera.

Everything was good and we had two weeks left in which to close the loan or lose the super rate we were getting. Finally all the roadblocks were out of the way and the mortgage broker assured us that it would be clear sailing from here on out.

Except for the other issue. A few years ago my father-in-law passed away and left my mother-in-law to deal with her own financial affairs. My father-in-law was a bright man and recognized that 1) it would be difficult for his sheltered wife to suddenly step into a role that he had handled for them for 50 years and 2) that it would be doubly difficult considering my mother-in-law has early stage Alzheimers. So he wrote into his living trust that my sister-in-law and I would become co-trustees if a doctor determined that his wife couldn't handle it. That was good for family affairs but bad for my refi.

"Why are you the co-trustee," the underwriter asked. "Are you obligated on her mortgage loan?"

I explained the situation and told him that a trustee who has not signed the note as an individual is not obligated. And I was only listed on the deed as an addressee: "Marc Bloom, co-trustee of the blah, blah, blah Family Trust."

So the underwriter wanted a statement explaining it. Then he wanted another statement elaborating on the first statement. Then he wanted a copy of the note proving that I hadn't signed it. Who has a copy of somebody else's loan? He might as well have asked me for a copy of Obama's blood test (sorry, different subject). Heck, it didn't show on my credit report and it didn't show on any of my mother-in-law's mortgage data. You would think that would be enough to prove it. But I never got any word on whether or not my explanations satisfied them because they were still looking for more reasons to turn me down. I should have told them how many of my clients have me listed as co-trustee. That would have made plenty of steam come out of the underwriter's head.

Next the underwriter wanted certain pages from my in-laws' trust to prove I was a successor trustee. Then they wanted a note from my mother-in-law's doctor as to her incapacity. Then they wanted proof that my father-in-law was dead. Rather than exhume the body I went with a copy of the death certificate just for convenience. But if he had been cremated I would have simply taken a picture of an ashtray.

Well, the "lock" (the rate from the lender is only guaranteed for a specific length of time) on my super rate expired before closing and my mortgage broker had to pay to extend it so he's not happy. So I sat and waited to see what the underwriter would say. I was told that the lender has been involved in some of the controversy but to what exent these frivolous questions came from them I couldn't say. So, for a while, nobody knew if I was going to be approved.

Finally the underwriter and the lender ran out of reasons to turn me down and on the evening of the next rate lock expiration the notary showed up to have us sign docs. There were mistakes everywhere (including our address on one of the documents) but I assured my wife that it was still okay to sign which elicited the look she gave me when I came home drunk from a bachelor party a few years ago. I guess quality control goes out the window when you're facing a deadline.

Three days later I received an e-mail from the mortgage broker asking me to sign a profit & loss statement that I submitted to them a month earlier. Without it the loan would be denied. Why didn't they know this when I gave it to them in the first place? What next? Will I be required to send them a picture of my dog before the first payment is due?

So, if you think that solid credit, good equity and a decent income is all that's required to refi then I want some of what you're smoking. Prepare yourself to be frustrated and for the process to occupy more of your time than ever before. You'll be answering questions that you consider inane and you may be answering them more than once.

STOP THE PRESSES! I was supposed to close on Tuesday, fund on Wednesday and have a small refund check hit the mail today but something else has cropped up. Can you guess what it is? The cashier's check bounced? No. We are already in default on the new loan? No. Okay, I'm going to flip all the cards and just tell you: I am on the FBI's Terrorist Watch List. Not me, Marc H. Bloom, but apparently somebody with the name "Marc Bloom."

When I got the call from my mortgage broker's office advising me that my secret identity had finally been uncovered I thought they were just messing with me. But it was no joke.

"You know that it's 'Bloom', not 'Boom,' right?" I asked her.

"Yes, we know," she responded timidly.

"Was it the driver's license picture of me wearing a keffiyeh?" (Arab headdress)

"No."

"I thought I put 'CPA' down as my occupation on the application. Did I accidentally misspell it and write 'terrorist?'"

"No."

Can you believe it? I can't. And my wife laughed her head off when I told her. It is rather comical when you step back and look at it but I would imagine that some people would fail to find the humor in it.

Obviously I am not a terrorist and the lender finally cleared me (after a few threats). I closed yesterday and everything seems to be fine although I haven't received my refund check yet, however there's no reason I shouldn't get it but the way this thing has gone I wouldn't be surprised if my name is misspelled or the decimal is in the wrong spot (two places to the right would be preferred).

Sadly, the new financial environment in this country makes it virtually impossible to smoothly conduct any kind of credit business. And when you throw in a skeptical, paranoid, bozo of an underwriter and a skeptical lender you can bet your butt that not only will you have to jump through hoops but you'll have to prove that the hoops aren't those magical rings that Criss Angel uses.

(Note to underwriter: I am calling off the fatwa.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Costa Rica

I think I can safely say I'm the only person in Costa Rica wearing a Los Angeles Kings cap. But then there aren't a lot of Kings hockey fans in the world. Heck, there aren't many of us in Los Angeles besides my daughter and me but this isn't about that--it's about where the hat has been.
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During the early summer of 2009 my wife, Robyn, was pressing me for a vacation destination during my 16 year old daughter's Christmas break. Since we like tropical locations I threw out Belize and Costa Rica, then didn't think anything more about it. But Robyn did and before I knew it she had a tentative Costa Rican itinerary planned, including activities that all three of us--especially Jamie--would enjoy.

And so it was planned and so it became.

Quite honestly I wasn't thrilled with the choice. My perception of Costa Rica was that it was a Third World country rife with crime, bugs and unsanitary conditions. And it was Spanish speaking which conjures up the worst of Mexico. But I was wrong in a big way.

The following is a travelogue of our trip from San Jose (the capital) to the La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano area, to Manuel Antonio (on the Pacific Coast side) and back to San Jose. Along the way I'll try to keep you entertained as you trace our fumbling steps through what may very well be the most eco-friendly country in the world.

So please put your seat backs in a full and upright position, stow your tray tables and prepare to enjoy.

DAY 1
There's nothing worse than starting your vacation on New Years' Day with a flight scheduled for 7:30 AM. At our age an early bedtime is no problem but when your 16 year old daughter is involved you have to expect her to be a little cranky. But Jamie was a trooper (a zombie trooper but a trooper nonetheless). She was ready to go on time and barely said anything during the 30 minute trip from Valencia to Burbank Airport (sorry, "Bob Hope Airport").

Sitting at the front of the plane has it's benefits but until they close the damn door it's like sitting in the front of a refrigerator. What I thought was a comical request to close the door was met with an icy stare from the flight attendant. I couldn't tell if the "icy" was due to her lack of a sense of humor or the temperature but I got the message and decided to keep further comments to myself.

Our flight stopped in Dallas where we would have four hours of layover with which to sample the fine dining and shopping opportunities within the terminals. We found that standard directions at DFW are generally given in terms of "Brookstones" because it seemed like they were everywhere. Example: "Where can I get a cup of coffee?" "Well, you go down to that Brookstone, turn right, go about 40 feet and turn left again at the Brookstone. You should see it after you turn the corner, right across from the Brookstone."

You think I'm kidding? Then next time you're at DFW use the men's room next to Gate A11. There's a Brookstone inside, right next to the urinals. There's nothing like a foot massage while you pee.

Jamie and I spent much of our four hours profiling the passengers in the terminal; "creeper," "female suicide bomber," "Urkel," "side-saddle cowboy." Up to this point Robyn had only kissed one dog but we knew there would be many more to come.

San Jose-The capital of Costa Rica and generally the entry point for flights directly from the U.S. There are some nice areas of the city but they're found in the suburbs interspersed among the many poorer areas.

We were told in no uncertain terms to stick with the red Medallion cabs as they were licensed, regulated and safe. Hopefully we'd be able to spot the Doubletree shuttle bus and eliminate the need to trust a cab but after a few minutes we started to wonder.

A local in some kind of uniform asked if we needed a cab but we told him who we were waiting for. He laughed. "They no come this late," he stated but we weren't to be deterred. He stood next to me, watching me out of the corner of his eye, knowing that we would soon give in. The red cabs came and went and came again--but no Doubletree vans--until finally we decided to give in and trust him. He grabbed the bags and walked us into the parking garage.

Robyn and I looked at each other. Why would a cab be in the parking garage? The answer: it wasn't. He led us to an unmarked van and started to load our baggage. Robyn and I looked at each other again, this time with a little more trepidation but how could we back out now without offending him and the eight thugs waiting to rape and rob us in some dark alley? Heck, we were in the land of jungles and determined to live life on the edge so we let him kidnap us.

15 minutes later he dropped us at the Doubletree without so much as a threat. Relieved at surviving our harrowing ride, we checked in and Robyn and Jamie hit the free internet cafe in the hotel because so much must have happened since we left THAT MORNING. I watched the Laker game. Hell, we could have simply stayed home.

DAY 2
The Doubletree was nice but the breakfast buffet was hardly worth the $14 per person (including 13% tax and a mandatory 10% tip that is added to every food service bill in the country).

Jamie, already sick of hanging around airport terminals was none too pleased we'd be doing it again at a tiny airport in Pavas (a suburb of San Jose). Luckily our take-off was right on time (15 minutes late) and our puddle-jumper wobbled into the air and puttered towards La Fortuna. After a disappointingly smooth half hour flight over the verdant Costa Rican landscape we swung down into the valley and landed smoothly in La Fortuna.

La Fortuna-A small town in the shadow of Arenal, an active volcano. La Fortuna is a one-street town with about a dozen restaurants and a handful of activities companies. The resorts are all found between the town and the volcano.

Coquie was our driver and pointed out a restaurant he recommended (and claimed to own). He zipped through town and pulled off the "highway" (I use the term loosely) and onto a gravel road that wound up and down through the hills for what seemed to be a half hour. Just before the entrance to the hotel he stopped the van and pointed to the top of a tree along side the road where we snapped a couple pictures of an animatronic two-toed sloth hanging upside down. We hadn't even gotten to the hotel and already we had seen almost-wildlife!

Robyn did good! The Springs Resort is heaven on earth, an imposing compound perched on a hillside with the Arenal Volcano smoking a few miles away across the valley. No sooner had we walked in than we were greeted by an employee with orange juice/passion fruit drinks, Jamie's new favorite drink.

The main building is a massive five-story behemoth with three restaurants, a series of about six pools connected by waterfalls and four or five hot pools with their varying temperatures clearly posted. The resort's rooms are below the main building and require a bit of a hike down so many stairs and ramps that even this CPA refused to count them.



Our second floor suite was enormous with a picture-perfect view of the volcano framed in every window. Robyn and I had a pedestal king with an LCD TV mounted on the wall above the huge window, a bathroom that was as large as my first apartment (including a sound system) and a balcony with the obligatory table and two chairs, two rockers and two hammocks. Jamie's room had twin beds, her own bathroom and her own LCD TV. The smile on her face said it all. It could only have been better if we had the outdoor Jacuzzis like the first floor guests had but it was good enough.

From our balcony we could watch hawks and vultures circling high overhead, birds and butterflies flitting around. But mostly we could soak up the ambiance of the countryside spread out below us in all directions and watch the clouds playing peek-a-boo with the volcano.

The resort property is vast with a series of volcano-heated mineral springs dotting a hill alongside the resort. At the bottom of the property is an exotic cat sanctuary, reachable by either golf-cart, horseback or by the dreaded walk. Unfortunately for the resort owner, Joey, the cone of the volcano partially collapsed in 2008 and shifted the visible trickle of lava from the hotel side to the Lake Arenal side thereby depriving 95% of the resorts from seeing anything other than smoke. Can you say "refund?"I wouldn't be surprised if some day there's a run on dynamite in La Fortuna and a shift in the way the lava flows.

Lunch that day consisted of two burgers, a quesadilla and two thimble-sized tropical drinks for $67. We should have gotten umbrellas in our drinks for that price but that's what you get at a 5-star resort that's 20 minutes from town. Oh, and lots of ants and mosquitoes which were complimentary.

Dinner was pretty and dark with the only light coming from inside our table. The food was good but I'll be damned if we got what we ordered. Their website should have warned us that miner's helmets were needed if you actually wanted to see what you were eating.

Our first day at The Springs and all we had done was walk a lot and eat two expensive meals. Tiring stuff. But the next day would get our adrenaline pumping.

DAY3
We woke to the clearest view of the volcano yet and actually saw the top a couple times. After a quick breakfast we boarded a van with eight Austrians and two New York single women for a 30-minute ride to a zip-lining canopy tour. Along the way we passed a family of coatimundis and about 60 people crowded around them on the side of the road. For those of you who don't know a coatimundi, it's not a cat and not a dog. It's not a raccoon and not a meerkat. But it's kind of like all of them with a little anteater thrown in. Look it up and tell me I'm wrong. Oh, and besides eating small rodents, fruit and lizards, they apparently also like Cheetos (Wikipedia confirmed it).

A few minutes later we pulled into the parking lot of the canopy tour and watched a dazed group of tourists in zip-gear walking back to the office.

Okay, I'll admit I wasn't having second thoughts about zip-lining once I saw what it was. It was more like third and fourth thoughts.

I had pictured a lazy clothesline stretched between two trees or, perhaps more familiar to most of you, that yellow rope set-up in a Gymboree or My Gym where your child grabs two handles and some college girl pushes him or her across the room while all the mommies and daddies clap. But after seeing what I was in store for I was sure I was going to share something with your children when it was over and that something would require a diaper change.

As I stood there in my safety equipment I overheard a doofus of a man raving about what a rush it was. I say "doofus" because this guy was the poster boy for what happens when you get dropped on your head too many times--a couple missing teeth, hair like a troll doll, shorts that would have been appropriate in the nut-hugger era of the 70's and a t-shirt that said "I'm with 'sputid'." Far be it from me to be encouraged by a near "re-re" (ask a teenager) but if he could do it without choking on his helmet then I had to try it. Besides, Jamie was already accusing me of pussing out.

We took a gondola to the top of the course and the guides kept us distracted with a narrative of the native flora; "tree, tree, bush, tree, bird, another tree...." Well, you get the idea. But what he said really didn't matter because we could see what we were in for and I wasn't looking forward to it.

Here's the set-up: A cable was strung between two metal platforms and anchored, hopefully, to something secure. The first two spans were short and low and you could see them from the observation platform at the top of the gondola ride. The first two spans were meant to bolster your confidence and let you get the hang of it. But from that same platform you could also see the third span and THAT sight was as scary as the sound of your doctor snapping on his rubber glove during your physical exam. I could already feel something warm and wet trickling down my leg.

One of the New York girls had already talked herself out of it by the time we got out of the gondola and the cute Austrian girl was torn between curling up in the fetal position and simply throwing up, neither of which helped me much.

Okay. First crossing. 20 feet, 8 feet off the ground and 10 miles per hour. The guide trussed me up in a testicle-squeezing harness, laced the pulley onto the cable, hooked the harness to the pulley and attached the safety carabiner for good measure. I sat back and let the harness support me, lifted my legs, crossed my feet and slid across to the other side. Hey. That wasn't so bad!

The next one was just as easy and I was feeling pretty cocky as I stood on the next platform and waited my turn. Jamie took off and sailed across followed by Robyn, both of them thrilled at what lay before them. The guide, knowing we were together, stared at me with that "come hither" look and knew that my bowels were in the process of running through most of the knots a Boy Scout learns. He smiled and said "your turn, Daddy."

I put on my best John Wayne face, sidled up to the ramp, let him strap me in and waited for Robyn to clear the other side. And it took a while for her to make it because, unlike the first two spans, this one was a 45 second ride at 55 miles per hour across a canyon whose floor was 600 feet below us. This was some serious shit. Ironically, that's what was in my shorts too.

Remembering the guide's instructions I sat back, lifted my legs as high as I could, crossed my feet and kissed my ass goodbye. The guide held me there waiting for Robyn to either make it to the other side or plummet to her death. He started counting from backwards from five, got to four then released me. As I sailed away I caught an upside down view of his devilish grin, looking much like Lucy when she pulls the football away from Charlie Brown as he's about to kick it.

Now there's a tradition among European zip-liners that I learned from one of the Austrian girls and that was to yell "SCHEISSE, MOMMMMMMMMIE!" which I did with perfect German inflection.

By the time I was 10 feet into the ride the fear disappeared and I sailed across the chasm with my eyes focused on the platform on the other side, the whine of the cable and the wind in my ears the only sounds. What a rush!!! The re-re was right!! And I was the sputid one!!

Flying towards the other platform I wasn't sure what I should do. The guide behind me had said the guide ahead would wave his hands or rock the cable as a signal for when to spread my legs to slow myself down but he was just standing there. If I slowed too soon I'd come up short and have to pull myself hand over hand to the platform. And if I did it too late there was a chance I'd be picking up the 5-7 split in my version of Austrian bowling.

I opted for slowing myself later and came slamming into the rope stopper that halted my progress rather quickly and made my vasectomy completely superfluous. But it was over and I had made it with clean shorts.

We stood there waiting to see if either the New Yorker or Austrian cutie were going to come too and saw the guide take off with Cutie nestled in front of him. Since he was bringing up the rear we figured the New Yorker had opted out but as he whizzed closer to us we could see that there were six legs coming at us and I knew from Jamie's anatomy class that Austrians and Ticos (Costa Ricans) only have two. Sure enough, riding on his back was the New Yorker. And the guide was smiling.

For the next half hour or so we traversed the ravine, zipping from station to station and moving lower and lower, all but the two girls enjoying ourselves. And no, the two girls refused to fly solo on any of the rides, instead forcing the guide to play momma baboon to two pewling babettes.

Jamie & Robyn pretty much threw themselves into it, relishing the thrill but it only took me 10 seconds to love it as much as they did--$66 per person (kids $52) well worth it.

For future reference we discovered that Skytrek (our company) was the only one to brake the riders. The other companies use an archaic system by which the rider stops himself by gripping the cable with a thick leather glove. Sounds like too much work to me and when you're doing 50 mph you don't want to be in control of your own fate.

We cabbed it from the resort and had dinner in la Fortuna at Las Brasitas, a lively place with decent food at a decent price. Jamie laughed a lot at seeing her dad a little tipsy and was delighted to find a brownie with ice cream on the dessert menu. Nothing to write home about but----wait. I guess I am writing home about it so it must have been okay. I think we were overcharged but after two beers it was hard to tell. (Two beers make me write in a choppy manner. My normal flowing style will return once I sober up.)

On the way back we had a great cabbie who entertained us with his constant chatter. We never got his name but he got ours: "Family."

"Family! Look. An anteater!" he shouted on a pitch black stretch of the treacherous gravel road. And sure enough, on the road from the highway to the resort there was an anteater trotting along in a ditch on the side. The driver stopped the car, backed up, instructed Jamie to grab his flashlight from the back then told us to hop out. By then the creature had disappeared into the brush but our driver hopped up onto a dirt ledge, determined to find it. I was just about to remind him that snakes were nocturnal and that Costa Rica was home to 23 venomous snakes including the deadly Fer de Lance when he aborted his mission and we returned to the car.

DAY 4
The next morning we had our last breakfast at the resort and ran into the Austrians, finding them to be much more talkative than they were the day before. The father invited us to visit Austria some day, citing the ability to smoke anywhere, including restaurants. I wasn't aware that the Austrian Tourist Board's slogan was "The land of frauleins, tar and nicotine."

We bid a fond farewell to The Springs Resort and hopped in a van with Francisco for a five-hour drive to Manuel Antonio. As we had hoped it wasn't half as bad as it could have been although Francisco seemed to think that identifying farm products would be interesting for us: papaya, mango, banana, plantain, yucca, rice. Over and over again he pointed out the damn trees to the point where we started to recognize them and mouth the words along with him.

The drive was leisurely, passing through small Tico towns and weaving through the mountains. We stopped for delicious empanadas (don't tell my mother about the flies on them) and made a short visit to a bridge that crossed a river that was home to about a dozen crocodiles basking below us.

In hindsight the flight would have taken about a half hour and cost about the same as the drive but you never know when Alex Trebek is going to ask you to identify a dwarf mango tree.

Manuel Antonio-an upscale beach town on the Pacific side of the country. It consists primarily of restaurants and hotels but there's a huge national park on the south side of town. The nearest regional airport is at Quepos, 15 minutes away.

Arriving at the Gaia Hotel (not pronounced "Gay-a" or "Gee-ya" but "Guy-ya") we were dropped at the main gate at the bottom of the hill and loaded into a golf cart for the short ride up the winding road to Reception. Along the way we passed three iguanas and began to get excited that this would be fun. But, upon getting to the hotel itself we were a bit disappointed at first glance. After the luxury and sheer size of The Springs anything was bound to be a let-down.

But far be it from a spoiled Jewish family to pre-judge. We would give it some time and then be bummed out.

After a quick tour of the property (more freakin' steps to climb) we were shown to our "suite" (two more flights of steps) which was a far cry from the splendor of The Springs: two rooms and about enough room to swing an iguana if you kept your elbows tight to your body and the iguana was a baby. Jamie's face said it all and she moped for the next two hours. Even the private rooftop terrace with what we thought was going to be a plunge pool but turned out to be a one inch deep blue-painted rectangle of water. Talk about deceptive web site pictures. Oh, and did I mention it was up a flight of stairs?

Dejected, we decided to brave the small nature reserve on the hotel property but aborted it within a few minutes when we heard the insects laughing at us through the dense, humid air. With a long uphill walk ahead of us we made for the driveway in the hope of flagging down one of the many golf carts and sure enough we saw one. The driver whizzed by us with a smile and an "hola" (Spanish for "suck it up gringos") and continued on his merry way. All we had to do was ask him for a ride but we were too embarrassed to admit that a little hike was too much for us.

Jamie flip-flopped ahead of us, no doubt disgusted by our wussiness, leaving Robyn and me to huff and puff up the hill by ourselves. But near the top of the drive we spotted a sloth lazing in a tree. Because we were familiar with sloth-calling we made a variety of noises to try and attract its attention, finally getting him to look down at us during the chorus of Bohemian Rhapsody (sloths are huge Freddie Mercury fans). He smirked at us as if to say "hola idiots," then laid his head down again.

So this is a boutique hotel? They should spell "boutique" "boo-tique."

Dinner was at La Cantina, supposedly a Tico BBQ joint but the only BBQ on the menu was ribs which Jamie had. During dinner Robyn stepped outside for a "breath of fresh air" (euphemism alert!!!) and hooked up with "Chicago Billy," a wandering hippiesque moving company owner who was bumming around Costa Rica looking for a haircut. When they shook hands Jamie and I could see the sparks flying. Amor was in the air. Or was it bug spray?

After a less than wonderful, sweltering dessert (us, not the dessert) we retired to our room and spent the next few minutes betting on which ants would make it the length of Jamie's bed first, then turned in early. Tomorrow would be better, wouldn't it?

Animal question: Do beetles count as animals if they're big enough to make noise when they walk?

DAY5
We had a complimentary breakfast this morning which was actually pretty good. Funny how at this hotel the breakfast was free but the bottled water was $7.50 including tax and that damn 10% tip. We were hoping to have the chocolate waffles but the waffle iron was broken. And that would be the case for our entire trip. I was beginning to think they stopped serving waffles altogether and just didn't want to re-print the menus.

By the way converting dollars to colones (the local currency, not an intestinal bug) is pretty easy. Just multiply the dollar amount by 6, 450, 277 and add an "R." And just about everything here is 3,000 colones; a cab ride to town, a bottle of water at the local market, a joint---I mean "Daddy's medicine." With 3,000 apparently being the most common charge there is no 3,000 bill.

They've got a 1,000 bill called a "rojo" for it's red color, a 2,000 which is green with a hammerhead shark on it called "dos rojos," a 5,000 called a "toucan" because it's got a toucan on it. Why it's not called a "cinco rojos" is beyond me but I think they're just screwing with us. This stuff makes absolutely no sense.

With the current exchange rate at about 550 colones to the dollar the simple way to convert is to drop the zeroes from the colones, mutliply by two and subtract 10%. So using 5,000 colones as an example, drop the zeroes (5), multiply by 2 (10) and subtract 10% (the answer is $9.00 US). For those of you who doubted me and grabbed your calculators you've already discovered that $9.00 translates to 4,950 colones. Big deal. Pat yourselves on your anal retentive backs.

And every time I exchanged dollars I ended up with between 20 & 50 colon coins which do nothing but ensure that we'll be over the weight limit when we fly back to San Jose. Currently I have 62 coins in my pocket which means 1) I scare the local animals as I walk around and 2) my shorts fall down without me using my hands. I just suck in my stomach and they hit the floor sounding like a slot machine paying off.

After a visit to the bank, market and pharmacy (coin count now 73) we boarded a van that took us to the town next door--Quepos--for a catamaran tour for 3 1/2 hours of dolphin-watching and snorkeling. There were plenty of brown boobies (the bird kind), jigging flab (Swedish girls that were built like Saabs) and a couple of thongs (not the shoes). I'm betting that Robyn has already deleted THOSE pictures from the camera. One of the thongs belonged to a Latina mother of three, something that appalled Jamie but I found surprisingly pleasant.


We did some "borkeling" (boring snorkeling), met a few nice people, saw no dolphins and spent most of the time watching Robyn talk to every man on the boat, including the Swedish guy who was traveling with his girlfriend and four other young girls (Viagra is over the counter here and cheap). It was only day five and already her dance card was full. Thank goodness she doesn't dance.

Among the guests was a paraplegic guy from Texas with his dad, a couple of New Yorkers who had just become engaged, and a couple of newlyweds from San Antonio. The paraplegic, John was quite remarkable and refused to let his disability deter him. He had already been zip-lining in his wheelchair and went snorkeling with us. What an inspiration.

Back at the hotel we trudged up the stairs to our room, pausing to jump 10 feet in the air when a grasshopper the size of a Volkswagen slammed into the wall. I tried to get a picture but it was too big to fit in the frame so I passed on the shot. After all, how do you explain to someone that they're looking at a photo of the left hindquarters of a grasshopper?

Dinner was okay. We started out going for tapas at Salsipuedes but they were closed so we rode a little farther (still only 3,000 colones) and checked out El Avion, the restaurant built around the fuselage of a plane shot down by the Sandanistas but the menu was a little too limited. With very little else around and not wanting to spend another 3,000 colones we crossed the road and had a nice Italian meal at Gato Negro where the waiter undercharged me. I called it to his attention which undoubtedly shocked him and then tipped him heavily at Jamie's insistence. And when I say "heavily" I mean it. 2,400 colones above the 10% mandatory tip and most of it in coins. Who knew you could eat dinner in Coast Rica and lose four pounds?

Oh, one neat thing about the Gaia Hotel. Every so often they do this cool light show where all the lights in our room go out for a few seconds, then come back on just as suddenly. They must like us a lot because ours was the only room that had this feature.



By now the hotel was beginning to grow on us. Had we started our vacation here instead of at The Springs we would have been blown away by the friendly, exceptional service and more appreciative of the unique, clean, modern design of the place. We discussed it and agreed that The Gaia was nice after all.

Day6
After a quick breakfast in our room we climbed the maze of stairs to Reception and caught one of the golf carts down the drive to the main gate. The valets loaded us up with towels and bid us "Buenos dias" as we boarded our bus for our white water rafting adventure.

A half hour later and after transferring into a rumbling four-wheel drive van we left the main highway and bumped along a dirt road past rows and rows of African Palms which are harvested for their palm oil. Every so often the photographer would lean out the window and rip something off a tree or bush that hugged the road, then pass it back to our guide.

Welcome to the popular Tico game show "So You Think You Can Smell!" The rules are easy. Grab a leaf or a pod from the guide, mash it in your hand when appropriate and try to guess what it is.

Mint? I said holding a pod of tiny red seeds.

"No. Paprika," answered the guide with a laugh. "Rub it with your finger."

So now I had a red finger and no Wash 'n Dries in my emergency cylinder.

Next came a series of leaves.

"Mint?"

"No. Anise. It's like licorice."

Next a piece of something that looked like bark.

"Mint!" I said emphatically.

He looked at me warily. "No. Cinnamon."

Another leaf.

"Ah, now this is mint."

"No. Citronella."

By now I was having too much fun and both he and I knew what I was going to say as I held the lemon grass under my nose.

"Mint?"

He just shook his head and scowled.

By then I was holding all of the samples and wasn't about to stuff them in my pockets like some white-skinned composter. I gestured towards the window and held my hand near the opening, receiving a nod from the guide near me.

No sooner had I tossed the crap out the window that BOTH guides yelled "NO!!" They were screwing with me of course but I must admit I had visions of roasting on a spit in some village for violating their local jungle laws. Little did I know that there was more to come.

A stop for a drink at a local village and we were back on the road bumping higher into the mountains, eventually coming to a bridge that spanned the mighty Watchamacallit River in all of its three-foot depth glory roaring past us with the ferocity of a bunny eating lettuce.

The rafts were inflated, the gear handed out and the safety instructions given: "Do what I say and don't fall out." Yeah. Sure.

These guys know every inch of the river, every stone, every boulder, every nuance and every place in which you can maneuver the raft in such a way as to dump any one, two or three of its riders.

The little eddy that carried the raft forward, backward and back into the current without any paddling or steering was cute as was the bus driver routine our guide performed complete with sound effects and an invisible steering wheel. The five-foot drop over a boulder that dumped me out of the raft was not.










































In I went but my safety training took over and I stretched out my legs in front of me, turned to face downriver, held my paddle in my right hand and flipped off the guide with my left.


He reeled me in, hoisted me into the raft by my life vest and dumped me in the raft like a flounder but there were no hard feelings. The water was pleasant enough and I was really enjoying the entire experience.


After the next "incident" our guide and lifeguard Jonathan's pixie smile seemed mocking. By the third time I could see he was really enjoying it. As I went over the side the fourth time I caught an upside down view of his face and I could swear he was mouthing the word "mint." I was pissed and I told him so.


The rest of the rafting trip was more like It's a Small World at Disneyland (without those scary Russian dolls near the end of the ride) with Jonathan steering away from the more ominous rocks. His sullen expression told me he felt bad so I tried to make nice and encouraged him to regain the sadistic glee he had exhibited earlier but my outburst had apparently deflated him. Perhaps he thought it would affect the generous tip that he got anyway but I think he was genuinely concerned that he had ruined the day for me.


All in all black and blue water rafting was loads of fun---and tiring. Man was not meant to spend two hours perched on the side of a rubber raft with his legs folded beneath him like a pretzel. As I hobbled up the bank to the bus my body agreed.


We boarded the bus and groaned our way back to the village for a chicken lunch where I discovered star fruit juice. Guess why it's called "star fruit" but you'd better not say "because it looks like Angelina Jolie?" Delicious---the juice and Angelina. Just don't tell my mother that I ate and drank questionably prepared food in a village in the middle of the jungle.


Final tally: I "went swimming" four times, Robyn three times (once knocked in by me) and Jamie three times (once knocked in by me and once when Jonathan decided to throw her in).


Animal sightings: A yellow snake dancing at the edge of the river trying to get up on the rocks, wild horses, a few birds and tons of butterflies. Oh, and monkeys back at the hotel.

Day7
This was my last chance to really see a lot of monkeys so we took a shuttle over to the national park and took a tour with the guide from the hotel. Without him we would have easily missed half of the creatures and that would have been a shame. Grasshoppers, butterflies, spiders, bats, lizards, sloths, raccoons, birds, crabs and monkeys were in abundance and glued in place to make them easier to see.

Obviously the raccoons, howler monkeys and white-headed Capuchin monkeys were the easiest to spot but everything else was either camouflaged or hidden away in some distant crook of a tree or behind a leaf. The Capuchins near at the beach end of the park were especially entertaining, chasing each other through the trees and on the ground not five feet from us and effortlessly leaping from branch to branch with gravity-defying ease. One of the tourists from another group was kind enough to point out that one of the Capuchins was grooming another's genitals (he put it in crasser terms) and felt compelled to keep shouting "Look. He's cleaning the other one's b_lls," lest anyone in the park miss the announcement. Damn uncouth Americans.

For once we had a leisurely afternoon, swimming in the multi-level pool and eating a mortgage payment's worth of lunch (a burger and two drinks for $35). I'll never complain again when 7-Eleven hikes their Slurpee price a dime.

While in the pool we met Nadine from Maryland and her son Josh. Nadine is a cowboy photographer (?) and Josh is a 20 year old college student and bionic boy who has broken nearly every bone in his body. Strangely Jamie gravitated towards Josh and spent a good part of the afternoon smiling sweetly and laughing with him. And he's Jewish!!! They exchanged e-mail addresses, phone numbers, Facebook accounts and promissory rings, planned a two-month backpacking trip through Europe and put a down payment on a house.

They were so nice that we delayed going to dinner to coincide with their reservation and ended up seeing them in the hotel resturant. Naturally, because we're such friendly Californians, we asked them to join us and had a rollicking good time laughing and talking movie trivia. It was the perfect way to spend our last night at the hotel. More importantly we didn't embarass Jamie.

The only downer was when Josh commented that I looked like Donald Sutherland. Donald Sutherland? He's 74 for cripes sake!!!! I guess that wasn't quite as bad as the zip-line guide saying the same thing. No Hanukkah cards for either one of them this year.

Day8
Jamie and I had breakfast (still no waffle iron) while Robyn was getting a massage, then Jamie joined her while I went to pack. On the way to the room I stopped by Reception only to find out that check-out time way 11:00 AM. Guess what time it was? Right. 11:00. So guess who had to finish the packing? Was it one of the three Diegos who worked at the hotel? No. Was it one of the three Christians? No. It was the only Marc.

I slammed it all together and finished just as the girls returned to the room but now we had 90 minutes to kill before the shuttle ride to the airport so we went where the A/C was---the computer room. We checked our e-mail and watched a couple of large iguanas climbing in the trees just outside the window.

We also met a lovely South African couple who wanted to travel to the U.S. to visit the cereal aisle of our supermarkets. They told us there were only three cereals sold in South Africa but I think they were pulling our legs.

Then it was time to go but first the Jewish Santa in a sweaty tank top had to pass out the tips to the guys working that day.

From Quepos we flew back to San Jose, getting our last low-altitude look at how beautiful Costa Rica was and feeling a little sad that the adventure and exhilarating part of our trip was over.

We checked in to the Grano de Oro Hotel, a converted Victorian house near downtown that was overpriced, had hard beds and no water pressure. Just what we wanted on our last night.

Not having done any shopping we hoofed it a dozen blocks to the downtown shopping area, specifically the Mercado Central, a maze of tiny stalls inside a large building that offered everything from coffee beans to t-shirts to raw beef and poultry to trinkets and artwork. Picture a flea market.....with fleas.

Almost no one spoke English but it didn't matter. We had gotten down to the essence of Tico culture---yes, to the very bowels of local life and boy did it smell like it!

After picking up a t-shirt and two kilos of cocoa beans for Robyn's sister we allowed a kind policeman to hail us a cab to take us back to the hotel. It took him a good 10 minutes to do so but we appreciated his effort. The cabbie was especially chatty (as are they all) and suggested a couple of restaurants that sounded TOO authentic so we let him talk us into a place near the hotel that he frequents.

It turned out to be the Costa Rican version of Johnny Rocket's so we figured we were fairly safe. Robyn ordered for us and made it very clear that Jamie and I wanted plain burgers with nothing on them except "orange" cheese. Imagine my joy when the server brought us gouda burgers with ham and MAYO.

Now those of you who know me are aware that I don't eat condiments of any kind: mustard, relish, mayo, ketchup---nothing! So you can imagine how I was feeling. Normally I would send it back but when you're in a foreign country you don't want to risk some fry cook spitting in your replacement food (I'm okay with American saliva, though).

So I smiled and proceeded to scrub the mayo out of every crevice and off of every food surface I could find. True, people were staring at me strangely as the pile of paper towels grew in front of me but it was my right as an American to embarass the hell out of myself.

Rather than walk the three blocks to the hotel we heeded the advice of the greasy spoon manager and blew the $2 for a cab. We immediately changed into our PJ's and said our prayers ("Dear father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Please keep our stomachs safe from parasites and spare us from diarhea on the flight home. Amen.")

Day9
Boring! Shuttle to the airport, flight to Dallas, a walk through three Brookstones, flight to Dallas and on to Burbank. 12 hours of smelly carpets and crappy airline food and we were home.


Impressions:
Before the trip if someone said "Costa Rica" I didn't have much of an opinion one way or the other. But after spending a week there I can safely say that it's a beautiful and wonderful country and I can now appreciate the allure.

Besides the animals, activities and the landscapes the greatest asset of the country is its people. The cynic in me would say their attitudes towards visitors are money driven as their economy relies heavily on tourism. But even the Tico on the street is friendly and helpful.

Environmentally they are also far ahead of the rest of the world with conservation and "green living" a national priority. It's no wonder the New Economics Foundation (NEF) ranks Costa Rica number one in the world in terms of happiness and ecological footprint.

Having been to over a dozen Caribbean islands as well as Fiji and Hawaii I think I can safely say that Costa Rica tops my list of tropical destinations.


Pura vida!!!