Saturday, March 24, 2012

Wiping Out an Entire Species

There were ants in the kitchen - one of the hazards of living in South America.  They weren’t giant Indiana Jones ants, but rather Peruvian ants - meaning smaller than average, yet extremely hard working and persistent.

A trail of these led from the garage, through doorways, across the breakfast area, under a counter, behind the stove, and to the sink.  Each linear foot of trail contained at least a hundred of the little guys.  My Rainman calculations put their numbers at between two and three thousand, and that was what I could see.  I feared that many more would replace them.  Last night, with nothing more than a paper towel, I killed about three hundred.  Spartans they weren’t, because that didn’t even make a dent.

I headed down the street to the local grocery store, where I knew they have a section of ant-killers.  I had already decided to find something that wasn’t allowed for use in the U.S., and if the label stated “contains DDT” it would be a sure sale.

I selected a product made by Sapolio, a company whose cleaning products are sold here.   Their logo is a friendly little frog.

This cute little guy was on the front of the can, too.  Holding a blunderbuss.  He had the same friendly smile on his face that you see above, but with the addition of the gun, became too disturbing to post on the internet.  At the bottom of the label, it stated “mata de verdad,” which means “really kills,” but it didn’t quite translate in my head.  The literal meaning is “it kills from truth.”

As I was picking up the spray can, I spotted my next purchase.  A little package of granules, not much larger than a small candy bar, that must be mixed with several gallons of water and sprayed outside.  What got my attention?  Let me just say that sometimes a brand name sells a product.

I took my WMDs home, and began wiping out thousands of these little pests.  I even pulled dishes out of the lower cabinets to treat in places I thought they might run.  I was cutting off their escape routes, funneling them to their deaths.  All that tactical training was finally coming in handy.

Solving my ant problem must have made me really happy, because my eyes got all teary, and I got the sniffles.  I also got a bit of a twitch in my right hand, which I am sure was from holding the spray can.  The ants are gone, but maybe keeping some Atropine around the house isn't such a bad idea.

Nuclear Olives

This morning we headed down to the fresh market for our weekly shopping trip.  We actually enjoy this, since rather than patronizing a single grocery store, we stop at various small places.  Our regular stop belongs to a couple named Nelly and Cherry, a little fruit and vegetable stand inside a larger complex.  The entire establishment is about the size of a walk-in closet, but we have shopped there for months.  They know us, and they are friendly.  We no longer pay the “gringo discount,” and often Cherry will throw in a few pieces of assorted strange things for us to try.

After passing our normal butcher shop, where the attendant, who speaks fairly good English, will ask us how to say something in English (his last request was for the word, “applause”), and the pork butcher, where I bought some delicious chops, we stopped at a small stand where they sell nuts, dried fruits, and chips.  We bought a bag of corn chips, some cashews, and fresh olives.

Fresh green olives have always been a treat for me, and more so here.  There were three varieties this morning, one stuffed with red pimientos, another with some kind of nut, and a third with rocoto, which looks like the innocuous red bell pepper.  of course, I chose the third, since I like hot food.

The little guy behind the counter looked at me strangely, and pointed at the bin.  “Pruebelos,” he said, meaning, “Try them.”

I carefully reached into the bin, and being careful not to touch the others, I grabbed one, and popped it into y mouth, biting down and getting a good crunch into the rocoto.

For a few seconds, I was fine.  Then it hit me, and it felt like I had been maced with something normally used for bears.  I love hot food, I even eat jalapeƱos right out of the jar.  This thing, though, led me to wonder what the half-life of a rocoto was.

I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of laughing at me, but Jesus holy hell hot, this thing could fuel the Iranian nuclear program – it tasted fantastic, but I was just sure it would cause brain cancer, not only for me, but for anyone who spent too much time inside a two-meter radius.  The container should be lined with lead.

The guy behind the counter just looked at me, but drawing on my old army-medic composure, I just nodded and told him it was fine, that I would take a quarter-kilo.  I don’t think he could see the sweat on my upper lip.

I would encourage my friends to try one, but if you live in one of the six countries in the world where they haven't been banned by international treaty, then please be careful.

When I got home, I did make a Bombay martini with two of them, which cooled them down quite a bit, but I think the drink deserves its own name.

Unfortunately, “Chemo” is taken.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Adventures in the, South.

Our tiny craft docked on a Sunday afternoon.

My adventures had brought me over 2500 miles northward, to the Deep South.  Actually, I’m a few hundred miles south of that still yet, in Miami.  One of the things I used to find most annoying – the fact that everyone here speaks Spanish – is now strangely comforting.  From my 17th floor corner room at the Hilton Downtown, I see city lights all the way to the horizon.  In that way, it is very much like Lima.

What strikes me as different is the smell of the United States.  All countries smell different, but I had always thought that the American odor was simply the lack of other olfactory input.  Iraq always smelled like misdirected sewage and smoldering plastic.  Kuwait left my nostrils with a hot sandy smell mixed with diesel fumes, with only hints of misdirected sewage and burning plastic.

Germany, however, had been pleasantly different.  During my time there, I stayed on the third floor of a tiny hilltop inn, which enjoyed proximity to a large brewery in the valley.  I woke each morning to drifting hops and barley grains toasted a bit too long.

Miami was definitely none of the above.  The air was a little saline, and the air was light but not quite fresh, probably due to the combustion of all that $4 gasoline.  Not an artificial odor, but the hint of something not quite real.  Like the smell of morning dew as it rests on sweat-covered Astroturf.

I am compelled to wear shoes on this trip, since it’s work related, but I am steadfast in my belief that shoes are evil, more evil than Congress and Wall Street combined.  Bad analogy, since that may have already happened.

In one of the more effective uses of taxpayer dollars, officials from all over the western hemisphere were brought together here to discuss and share information about international adoptions.  A well-meaning but fairly complex set of laws governs this practice, and it must merge with equally complex yet not always as well-meaning sets of laws from other countries.  This is further complicated by a treaty, with which levels of compliance vary.

For travelers, it seems like there are things to do here, but I didn’t have a chance to do any of them.  I will, however, share some insight gained my simply existing here for 5 days:

The Hilton Miami Downtown is an overpriced road motel with terrible service and less than spotless rooms.  While I would love to write awful things about my experience there, I can’t do so without turning green and tearing my shirt off.  I stayed in the JW Marriott on my previous trip, and there is no comparison.

I did, however, get a chance to enjoy a splinter of Miami’s restaurant scene.  The quality of middle-class restaurants there was a surprisingly bright point of light in the trip.  I will share the specifics later, when I review such places as The Knife, City Hall, and Largo’s, all located in the heart of downtown Miami.

Happiness assaulted me as I took in my first deep breath of Lima’s air.  It’s drier, heavier, and a little earthy, but without the artificial quality.  It smells like…Peru.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Signaling the Aliens at Islas Ballestas

In the next chapter of our continuing adventures, our heroes (that’s me, my wife, and two of my daughters) journey out into the sea to visit a great monument built in tribute of fertilizer.

We boarded a van at the hotel, and found ourselves at the waterfront in Paracas, Peru.  A short time later, at a cost of about $22 USD/person, we sped out of the bay, aboard a boat called “Penguino 4.”

For a three hour tour, a three hour tour.

The weather started getting rough, and the tiny ship was tossed…no really, the water was pretty calm, and we sped out into the bay, bound for Islas Ballestas, which is Spanish for, “islands made entirely out of seagull poo.”

After about a half hour on the water, we reached a mystic place called “The Candelabra.”  This is the only geoglyph near Nazca that is visible from the ocean, and while not officially part of the Nazca lines, is said to point to them.  It turns out it's 183 meters long, just like several of the others.  This makes sense, because any aliens flying in over the water would need to know where they should land.  If the Nazca tribe had worn their tin-foil hats, we wouldn’t have experienced what we did in The Alien Invasion is Coming, and probably wouldn’t have nearly the troubles we have now with Congress.  But I digress, there's nothing we can do about it now.

We continued the trip to Gullpoo island, which turned out to be quite a treat.  At any given time, the rocks are covered with thousands of sea lions, all eager to deliver their state-of-the-union addresses to us.  Other wildlife include massive starfish, a few hundred penguins, and a gazillion seagulls.

A few man-made buildings accent the island, since the Peruvians perform some seasonal mining there, the poo so rich in nitrogen that it is used for fertilizer and explosives.

Seeing so many sea lions in their natural habitat was an amazing experience, but even more so was the sound they made.  The island consisted of a number of caves and inlets, and the wailing sound of the animals sounded almost human.  That is, a human possessed by the spirits of an angry sea lion.  I can see, however, how a ship full of sailors, either drunk or dehydrated, sailing into the coves in the fog, might invent all sorts of stories about how the demons of the sea just didn't want them to land there.  Any of them brave enough to do so anyway got mated by an 800-pound sea lion bull, and told even taller tales to their shipmates.  By a taller tale, I mean demons, evil spirits, monsters, or anything else that would explain lots of bruises and loud noises in the fog, but would at no time mention that the sailor was mated by an 800-pound sea lion bull.

After a time, though, we returned to the bay on Penguin 4.  I was really glad that I didn’t have to spend years filming a hokey television series stranded on that island making all my modern conveniences out of bamboo.  Anyway, I hadn’t seen any.

When we returned, we told the van driver to just leave us, since we wanted to wander along the waterfront.  A handful of great traditional restaurants were there, as well as shops selling touristy things.  Since the area was geared more toward the Peruvian tourist, prices were pretty reasonable.  We ate at a seafood place, where I tried fish head soup (I was disappointed, as there weren’t any actually fish heads in it) and we were able to stuff ourselves to the gills with fresh seafood drowned in curry sauce and a few other strange Peruvian flavors.  We spent about $35 USD on the meal, and left enough food on the table to feed an extra person.  It sure beat the meal we had had the day before in Cheapskates and Stingrays.

We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering the waterfront, enjoying local food and flavor just like we belong here.  I never once saw Mary Ann or Ginger.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Fighting the Great Evil – The Continuing Saga of the Tax Audit

While I’m not fighting aliens, like I was in The Alien Invasion is Coming, or Cheapskates and Stingrays, I am engaged in a longer term battle against one of the greatest evils ever wrought by man.

It’s more monstrous than the Death Star, and more evil than Sauron, Voldemort, Jane Fonda, and whatever that vampire mafia is called in that incredibly stupid series of vampire books for preteen girls and lonely middle-aged housewives, all rolled up into one.

I refer, of course, to the Infernal Revenue Service.

Now, I have always filed my own taxes.  It’s partly because I have trust issues, but also because I keep meticulous records of the tiniest tax implication, in a system which would leave Arthur Anderson in awe.  If they had my system, there would have been no Enron scandal.

I read somewhere once that Federal employees owe a gazillion in back taxes, and that if they would just pay up all that as well as take a 90% pay cut, the deficit would disappear, Israel and Iran would laugh about drawing blasphemous cartoons in each others’ holy books, and world hunger would end. 

This must be true, since before I started working for them, I never owed anything.

Things started for our hero (that’s me) back in late November, when I received an early Christmas card, stating that there was a difference between the taxes I filed in 2009, and the amount I should have owed.


For the purposes of this blog, I tried four times to take a photo of the notice I received from the IRS.  It didn’t matter what angle I tried, this is what I got, whited out like it was written in vampire blood or something.  Tell me this thing wasn’t postmarked from the Hell branch office.

My ability to be in shock about anything has been long since burned out by two combat tours and a career split between an emergency room and a medical helicopter.  Fortunately, denial is a great coping mechanism, and I knew right away this was simply a matter of finding the IRS’s mistake.

I took my lunch hour that day, which is incredibly rare, as normally I just work right though it.  I arrived home, went upstairs, and dialed the number listed on the letter.

“Hello, my name is Steve and I’m in Ohio.”  Oops, that was the number for Dell Customer Service.  His real name is Ayaan, and he’s in Mumbai.  A real nice guy, and smart, too.

“Thank you for calling the Internal Revenue Service. Please remain on the line, and someone will knock on your door in a few minutes to assist you.”

That conversation played in my head, where the most interesting stuff usually is.

After a few minutes, a nice lady named Maureen answered, and within another minute, she had pulled up some information on my “examination by mail.”  They don’t use the word “audit” anymore.  The new terminology is more accurate – they write you letters, and at the end, you feel like you got a colonoscopy.

Maureen actually told me exactly what I needed to do to respond, and was friendly, courteous, and helpful.  I would be required to address each of the 43 discrepancies that the IRS had discovered, line by line, and provide information and supporting documents as required.

I returned work with a false sense of calmness, but I allowed that to carry me through the day.  That evening, I sat down with the list and looked at #1.  It seemed in one of the hundred places where the IRS asks you to “enter the larger of line 9 or line 12,” I had entered the smaller.  My mistake.  This wasn’t starting out well.

The next 21 were stock transactions with an unreported basis.  In English, that means that if I bought a stock for $100 and sold it for $110, that I should pay taxes on the $10 that I made.  Seems fair.  Let’s say that I bought another stock for that $110 and sold it for $115.  Again, pay taxes on the $5 that you make. The IRS would have recorded that I would have made $225 on those two transactions.  Not so fair.  Since I had made the trades on modest amounts between $2000 and $5000, and had earned somewhere around $563 in the process, and the IRS had recorded every transaction TWICE, it sort of explained the $243,000 in unreported income perfectly.

So I dutifully reported on each of the items, enclosing copies of forms where everything had been lawfully reported.

Me:  I am a member of the Imperial Senate on a Diplomatic mission to Alderaan.
IRS:  You are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor.

I mailed the letter, and all I could do was to wait for the response.

I finally got one yesterday.  Apparently I owe only $2,506 now, since the Emperor ignored my explanations of items #22 and #43.  I think they lowered the bill just to see if I would at some point just get tired of fighting them and pay it.

My friends who read this already know the odds of that.

For the record, I legitimately owe the IRS $63 for my mistake on item #1.  With interest and penalties, it’s just less than $100.  Once they agree to that, I will pay without objection.

But for now, I’m back on the computer, analyzing the Death Star plans, looking for a weakness.