Sunday, December 14, 2008

restaurante Only Bass

i've wanted to blog this for a long time, but i found i never had the energy. i still lack the energy and ability to make it as real as it was, or as good as it should be.

this post is my 100th post, and is a big milestone for me, i wanted to make it special. i was hoping to tell a story that was ridiculous, amusing, uncomfortably funny as some of my experiences are. but i keep coming back to this one, and i doubt it will stop circling around until i type it.

i can say with all sincerity that 11 years ago, there was a night i expected to die.

i traveled with my folks to honduras. we had been to costa rica previously, and would go again years afterward - we had already gotten rid of our central american training wheels and were pretty comfortable being in a third world country. even honduras, which i was hesitant to travel to based on my knowledge of the county's unrest during my childhood.

honduras turned out to be a wonderful country, not too unlike costa rica. the food was similar, the landscape and climate the same, and friendly folks for the most part. the possible advantage honduras has to its neighboring country is far fewer tourists, but otherwise you might never have noticed you crossed the border.

even though i speak a decent amount of spanish, it was always intimidating for the first few days traveling. it took time to get the language into your head, and there are some associations you have to rearrange.

the first time i got off of the plane in costa rica, we walked into a dilapidated airport with boxes and trash, and a whirlwind of people all yelling in spanish too fast for me to comprehend. men in street clothes would grab your bags from you and take off with them, and it took a while for me to realize that cab and bus drivers don't always wear uniforms, and they aren't ambassadors of kindness. they have a job to do, and they do it expeditiously. it doesn't really occur to them to take the time to introduce themselves or tell you what's going on. you have to keep up.

i quickly realized that my brain associated run-down buildings, poverty, and general uncleanliness with crime. i don't imagine i would be the only one who might do this unconsciously. but once i was aware of my fear and what was causing it, and then realized the economic climate of the country, it was easier to relax. it didn't erase the shame i felt for even bridging thoughts akin to affluence together with safety, and the converse however.

my dad was very good about taking us to places that were less traveled. we would scoff at luxury resorts that we drove past, with their huge stone walls to keep the golfers and housewives safe from the common folk. i never understood why you would go to a fascinating new country and hide in a fortress of day spas and eggs benedict. you might as well save money and go to the same resort in myrtle beach, i figured.

we would stop at the scariest of "convenience" stores, called pulperias. they consisted of a tiki hut-ish shack with an array of snacks, glass-bottled fanta, and cigarettes of every shape and kind. i would plunder through the racks looking for ridiculous foreign candy to try and load up on pineapple soda and galletas.

i was 23 when we took our trip to honduras. we spent the first week driving around, shopping at local artisan fairs, eating fish and gallo pinto, and trekking through the rainforest (sidenote: my mission was to find a poisonous snake, as central america has three of the world's five most deadly. with my indestructable hiking boots, i would purposefully veer off the dirt path into the dense foliage - i knew i wouldn't find an eyelash viper right on the trail. my mom would be 15 feet away but not visible though the tropical plants and trees, but you could hear her say, "sharon, why can't you walk on the trail like a normal person? if you get bitten by something deadly, i'm not coming in after you." unfortunately, despite my aggressive searches, a giant boa in a tree 20 yards away was all i saw. poisonous snakes, my ass.)

we arrived at a place called lago yojoa. i had to use the phone (i can't remember why, but it seemed important at the time) and the cabins we were staying in didn't have phone service. the main house had a phone, but it wasn't working. it wasn't out of the ordinary, since we might as well have been in the middle of nowhere, far from paved roads and technology. the only luxury we had was electricity, and that was only for porch lights and boiling water.

we stayed there a few days, and during our travels, we kept seeing a restaurant called "restaurante only bass", as though that's all they served. however, the sign posted outside boasted at least 10 other items they sold, like hamburgesas, pollo, jamon, and many other non-bass items. the contradictory sign was a great source of amusement for me.

our last night at the cabins, we decided to eat at only bass. the novelty had turned into a curiosity, and we couldn't resist checking it out. it was down a series of winding dirt roads without streetlights about 3 kilometers from our cabin. we started out at dusk with a flashlight and walked to dinner.

one strange thing about central america was a fairly constant reminder of how out of place i looked. my mom was nervous and defensive at least once a day with people staring at me. at the time, my hair was halfway down my back and a bit more vivid orange than it is today. i had some kids come up and touch it and hear their teacher tell a group of other kids, "mira la peliroja!" she noticed i overheard her and she said, "sorry, we have just never seen a redhead before."

the most common occurrence was being hissed at on the street. it wasn't a hiss as much as a catcall of sorts. we would walk down the streets of the capital city, and every 20 feet or so hear "tss tss tss" come from three or four men at a bus stop or pulperia. at first, i thought it was because we were american, but as my mom pointed out, they never heard that when my they went out without me. i got leered at on a regular basis. i didn't think too much of it, and i got used to the stares eventually. i'm sure lots of other american girls, namely blonde and tan ones, got the same treatment.

we walked up the long road to the restaurant, and arrived as it was getting dark. from the road, the place seemed inviting, with levity, music and light erupting from the inside. as we walked up, however, it felt less and less welcoming. and as we mounted the porch, the entire place silenced and people got up to stare.

the noise level rose again, but it didn't return to normal. i couldn't help but feel that it was a locals only joint and nobody was excited to see us. the place was packed to the gills, and whispers and laughs started to seep out to us, still standing on the porch.

my first (and second and third) instinct was to leave. i wanted to turn around, walk back to the cabin and go without dinner. it wasn't that important to me, and i was satisfied with only the evening walk. looking at my mom's expression, she felt the same. our exchanged glances said, "let's get the hell out of here," but my dad was resolute.

he was always the one to tell us we were being silly or stupid if there was unfounded fear or trepidation about something. and to his very logical thought process, unless there was hard evidence to back something up, feelings or emotions were misleading. they could poison you from experiencing something because you were too girly, overthinking things and jumping at shadows.

without consulting either of us, he announced that we would stay, and the waitress shoved her way outside the screen door to us, seating us on the front porch - as though we weren't welcome inside. which was fine with me, as there were only two tables outside, one on either side of the front door about 15 feet apart. i wanted to be as far away from the people inside as possible.

i ordered a gin to calm myself and perused the menu. i made a few half-hearted jokes about all the not-bass items they had, trying to replace the original curious and jovial nature of this adventure.

i hadn't previously noticed because of my self-consciousness upon arrival, but there was a guy sitting at the other porch table. i was facing into the porch, directly at this stranger and he to me. my mom was seated at my side, facing out into the front yard, and my dad faced me as well, his back to this man at the other table. i was the only one with a direct view of him, and began to notice him staring at me.

he was probably in his 50's, certainly a local. he was drinking beer and reading a paper. everything about him seemed unkind. his gaze was something between evil and lecherous. my dad's voice in my head told me to blow him off, ignore him, and enjoy my (damn) dinner. but as the minutes passed, i grew less comfortable. even after quickly polishing off my gin and ordering a second.

my thoughts were racing increasingly faster and i realized i wasn't concentrating on the menu. i don't think i had read much, except a serious absence of anything even fish related. our waitress was none to kind and even less attentive. she had us wait an extremely long time, and not in a take-your-time, leisurely kind of way. and i figured i'd best know what to order when she came as she wouldn't came back for a long time. and that meant our dinner would take an eternal amount of time - something i wasn't willing to sacrifice.

i don't remember what i ordered, but i knew i wasn't going to be able to eat it. my stomach started to ache and i felt vaguely nauseous. the liquor wasn't doing anything for my nerves, and eventually i stopped drinking that too. the place just felt bad. every cell in my body was aching not to be there anymore.

we started chatting about the day and what we had seen, and talked about our plans for the next day. i was only in the conversation sporadically. i heard my dad talking but all i could do was glance at this man over my dad's shoulder. every time i looked up, we was looking at me. shortly after we sat down, he changed seats to be able to face me more directly, which i didn't really pay too much mind to at first. the most unsettling thing, perhaps, was that he would never avert his eyes when i looked at him. and his gaze wasn't warm, or born of curiosity. it was dirty. it made me feel unclean.

the battle in my mind between my intuition and my father telling me to stop being a baby waged on while my parents idly chatted. my mom noted my silence and i replied that i was merely tired - and that the cocktail had made me more so. i was trying to do everything possible to not look this guy in the eye and go about dinner. my dad's rational voice in my ear told me there was no earthly evidence to suggest that this guy was a danger or threat, so i shouldn't let him get to me. it felt odd, to have my dad's voice talking to me, coaxing me into reality while he was seated across from me, totally oblivious to my situation. the last thing i wanted to do was make him aware of it, as the ridicule from him in my head was quite enough.

as my fear started to unravel me, the waitress came and brought dinner. though i wasn't hungry, it gave me something to do with my hands and eyes, it was a timely diversion.

i had a bite or two, trying to convince my body that it was being silly and it was time to eat. i mastered the art of doing what i never needed to as a kid, look like i was eating when i actually wasn't. and what a ridiculous thing to do at over 20 years old.

realizing how childish the entire situation was, i shrugged off as much as i could and readjusted my chair. how stupid to not be enjoying a jungle-enveloped outing on a perfectly warm night in an exotic place.

as though it was some non-fatherly force confirming my fears, a young boy ran up the path to the restaurant, in only khaki shorts - no shirt, no shoes. his calves and feet were dotted with dirt and mud. he couldn't have been more than 8 or 9, and ran up the porch to the man at the other table, giving me a stare as he hopped the steps.

i watched this man grab the boy by the shoulders and pull him down to whisper to him. the whole time this man was talking to the boy, his eyes were on me. and he was smiling.

i couldn't read his lips, and it make me glad in a way. and after a few sentences, the man pulled something from his pocket and gave it to the boy, shoving him off the side of the porch, where the boy leapt into the plants and, running, disappeared into the forest behind the restaurant - with the shiny silver handgun the man had given him.

i vaguely remember putting my fork down on the table in a slow motion blur. on one hand, this man gave this boy a gun - and knew i had seen it. but on the other hand, who does this? it's the sort of ridiculous shit that only happens in romancing the stone movies. i couldn't decide whether i had witnessed something that was either too stupidly outlandish or too frightening to justify.

i sat staring at my plate, now absolutely unable to ingest another bite. worst case scenario, i thought, we walk home down the dark dirt road and get held up at gunpoint. we get robbed, raped, and maybe shot in the head. because really, it was a perfect place for it. nobody knew we were there, there were no other tourists even close to us in this nowhere town, and the locals (and probably the policia) wouldn't give a shit if we disappeared. it didn't seem like there would be repercussions for anyone who wanted our money, our body, or our lives bad enough. it would be way too easy.

i tried to place myself into reality and not into the absurd movies i had seen, but it was hard to ignore the fact that i was an obvious witness to this guy giving a child a weapon and shoving him off into the rainforest instead of the marked path the kid came in from. but my thoughts were severed abruptly with my mom complaining that i hadn't eaten. shaking my head, i tried to sound exasperated so she'd let it go, "mom, i'm just not hungry. okay?" never looking at her, but just my uneaten swirl of beans and rice.

my dad clanked his beer down on the table, and i knew that i was about to get a lecture. he was clearly displeased.

"i know what's wrong with you, sharon."

oh fuck, i thought. here it comes. let 'er rip, dad. take over where your voice in my head left off.

"i know what he's doing to you," he said, in a voice just above a whisper.

"dad, c'mon. it's totally cool. i'm just tired and i'm not hungry. nobody's doing anything. i don't even know what you're talking about."

my mom looks at both of us as though aliens sat down at our table: total non-comprehension.

he sighs and continues.

"i'm not stupid."

"dad, you can't even see him!"

"i don't need to. i've been watching your face this whole dinner."

and suddenly our roles were reversed. and i sat there, quietly reciting to him that there was nothing wrong, i was being a baby, and there was no factual reason for me to be freaking out. that i was just tired and sensitive, and it was no biggie.

needless to say, i didn't mention the gun part.

in probably the weirdest moment in my life, my dad abandoned his life's stronghold on evidence and his analytical side. as i sat there dumbfounded:

"look, one of the strongest gifts you have is intuition. sometimes, you don't need to have a reason to feel like you do. you just KNOW. and for the last half hour, i've seen what happened to you, and neither of us need a reason. it is what it is. and you should trust it. now what do you want to do?"

part of me wanted to be brave, thinking it was the right answer - the one he wanted to hear. but the bigger part of me knew that i wouldn't be chastised for leaving - even if only this once.

my mom was still very lost and bewildered, and after a, "what's going on?" she looked at our faces and decided it wasn't the time to ask.

i took a deep breath and, earnestly looking my dad in the face, said, "let's go."

not having eaten their meals, and certainly not having our check, my dad didn't hesitate. to clue my mom in, he told her in the "don't argue, don't ask" voice, "we're leaving."

she shrugged and downed her glass of wine as my dad threw a random amount of money on the table. i stood up to leave and my dad motioned for me to stay in my chair.

very calmly and quietly, he instructed me to sit and wait. that my mom would go first, him following, and me last - which seemed so backwards. he'd never let be bring up the rear at any time. i guess that was the point.

he told me to stand and walk slowly and confidently off the porch, looking at the man the entire time.

"sharon, look at him until he looks away first, got it?"

it sounded like an impossibility, but as this point, i felt like it would be my last act of courage before i was sexually assaulted and killed in front of my dad a half mile down the road by the light of my own flashlight.

my ears were thundering with the sound of my heart, and i was resigned to the fact that the next half hour would be my last. the adrenaline was coursing through my entire body, and i watched my dad direct my mom up and off the porch, and he following.

it took every bit of energy and courage, but i got up, walked as slowly as i could. too slow, almost, to the point of swaying. and i watched him. as much as i wanted to tear away my gaze, i kept steady. and just as i approached him to turn down the stairs, he looked away. i walked off the porch and down the dirt path to the road where my dad was waiting.

he nodded at me, and we all turned down the road, snapping our beam of light onto the dirt we were kicking up. my mom started to ask, and my dad grabbed her arm. and we walked 3 kilometers in absolute silence.

with every sound, every snapping twig or rustle of movement in the forest, i flinched. every step, i expected to see a pre-teen boy jumping in front of me, pistol in my face. and it never happened.

nobody in my family ever mentioned the incident, and my dad and i both knew that it was the only time he would ever mention the validity or importance or emotion or intuition in decision making again. and though he'd never praise it after that, he didn't really need to.


KJT said...

Whew, you had me on the edge of my seat the whole story. Your dad is a smart man. And you are a strong woman.

Have you ever read a book called "The Gift of Fear" by Gavin De Becker? Your story could be a chapter right out of it - but most chapters in the book don't end so well.

It's a book about listening to your inner voice and acting on your instincts - even when your so-called 'rational' mind is telling you to ignore them. And the consequences of when you don't follow your gut. An important book, one worth reading.

cae said...

Terrifying. I can only imagine what might have happened had you decided to "bull it out." Good on you and your family for handling it so well.

I've often reflected on the potential downside of striking beauty. It aint all wine and roses ...

Anonymous said...

This was riveting and had my stomach in knots.

Intuition is the best defense we have and it will always save us.

deb (St C)

Anonymous said...

Holy Crap! You should be a paid published writer. What an amazing story! You are truly a magnificently impressive woman. I couldn't have been that strong, but if ever faced with a similar situation, I will remember this story and try to be.

Always trust your's always right.