By David Myles Robinson
My latest novel, TROPICAL DOUBTS, is the third in my Pancho McMartin legal thrillers (the first two are TROPICAL LIES and TROPICAL JUDGMENTS). Pancho is a high-powered criminal defense attorney in Honolulu who is brilliant in court, but who has a hard time sustaining a romantic relationship due to his devotion to the law. I created him as a character with the weird first name of Pancho as a kind of nod to my new place of residence, Taos, NM, after having spent forty years as a trial attorney in Hawaii. Pancho’s parents were original hippies who dropped out of school and moved to one of the communes in Taos. As Taos was, and still is, a predominantly Hispanic community, his parents claimed that they named him Pancho so that he would fit in better in school. Pancho’s theory, however, is a little more realistic. He opines that after he was born his parents celebrated by dropping acid and named him while they were stoned.
In addition to Pancho, the recurring characters in the Tropical series are Drew Tulafono, a big Samoan ex-NFL player who is Pancho’s best friend, surfing buddy, and private investigator; Susan, his long-time secretary and sometime mother figure; Elise, his new, young secretary being primed to take over for Susan; and several love interests, the latest of whom is Padma, the former medical examiner for the City & County of Honolulu.
n TROPICAL DOUBTS, Pancho is asked by an old family friend to represent him in a medical malpractice case arising out of what should have been a simple surgery on the friend’s wife, but which resulted in her falling into a permanent vegetative state. Pancho is hesitant to take on the case as he is not a med mal specialist, but his friend insists. So Pancho and Drew begin the discovery process to try to determine what went wrong. But things take a nasty turn when Pancho’s friend is arrested for the murder of one of the doctors who had operated on his wife. Suddenly Pancho is knee deep in a murder case as well as the medical malpractice case in which the plaintiff is an accused murderer.
I don’t really think of my legal novels as mysteries, although there are certainly elements of suspense and surprise in each. It is the processof the law which has always interested me most, and which is what I enjoy most in legal thrillers I read. When I was practicing law, I loved cross-examination of witnesses, which differs from direct examination in that it is less controlled, more exciting. Direct examination of a client or witness is well rehearsed and, if all goes well, predictable. But cross-examination is where a trial attorney can alter the course of a trial. Perhaps the examination will be subtle and polite, lulling the witness into making damaging admissions without even being aware it was happening. Or, more fun but also riskier, the cross-examining attorney may go after a witness with a vengeance. I say riskier because I will always remember one of my first jury trials in which my client was suing a homeowner for negligence. The homeowner was a fireman, who had lied during his deposition and I went after him hard, forcing him to admit over and over that he had lied. I lost the case and, in talking with the jury afterward, it became clear that I’d been too hard on the fireman during my cross-examination. Juries tend to have a great deal of sympathy for firemen and policemen, and even if they are caught in
I have to resist the temptation to lean on the drama of a great cross-examination in my novels as the key to Pancho winning his case. The first Pancho novel, TROPICAL LIES, did just that, and most readers responded well to the courtroom scenes. But I quickly learned that novels written as series (albeit stand-alone as a story) stand the risk of becoming too formulaic and predictable. I hope that each of my Tropical novels so far is different enough to entertain and, when appropriate, surprise.
I don’t know what’s in store for Pancho next, but I do have some ideas floating around. I like to take a break from the legal series after each one and write something completely different. I’m hoping that by doing so I will keep things fresh and new.
FROM WENCE THEY CAME
They came out of despair
They came to escape violence
They came from extreme poverty
Seeking a better life
For their children
In a game of hate
Go home and die.
When he swallowed the last of his pride
It went down hard
But he got the job
And now all he has to do
Is kiss a lot of ass
Tell a lot of lies
And bear witness to the last of an empire
THE BIG FAIL
They march to his drum beat
Goose-stepping away the last of their dignity
Bidding a fond adieu to democracy
Which was pretty much shit anyway
Look what it gave us
Wannabe a strongman?
Wannabe an autocrat?
Wanna get rid of the people of color?
And the free press?
Now that democracy has failed
What grand experiment shall we try next?
By David Myles Robinson
I completed my newest book, THE PINOCHET PLOT, almost three years ago, which illustrates how painfully slow (for authors) the writing-to-publishing process can be. In the meantime, I completed two more novels, SON OF SAIGON, and TROPICAL DOUBTS, which will both be published this year. So I apologize in advance for coming at you three times this year to market my books, but hopefully you will enjoy them all. All three are very different.
THE PINOCHET PLOT is somewhat political in that it involves some interesting and disturbing times in US history, and the plot of the novel, by necessity, had to be political in order for the fictional conspiracy to make sense. It was a fun and sometimes unsettling novel to research in the way that crazy reality can sometimes overshadow even the most off-the-wall fictional scenarios. My research into the CIA sponsored drug experimentation program, MKULTRA, and then into the CIA’s involvement with the brutal Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, disclosed such outrageous behavior that I decided to try to make the fictional part of my story even more outrageous than reality, although frankly, I’m not sure that was possible.
I also played around with various layers to the storyline in PINOCHET. There is Will’s quest for the truth about his father’s murder; the sad realization of his mother’s life of fear and anger; the horrifying discovery of a national political conspiracy; and the love story between Will and Cheryl. Interspersed throughout, I employed a device I remember Kurt Vonnegut (one of my favorite authors) sometimes using, which was for the author to step away from the story at certain moments to speak directly to the reader, generally to educate or remind the reader about real facts, such as suicide rates, welfare fraud, and our own depressing history of oppression and even genocide of our Native Americans.
What I’ve thought about, given the fact that I completed the novel well before Trump was elected, was how I would have handled some of the political diatribes by the murdered liberals had I had current events to play with. As I write this, I’m thinking about an article I read just this morning in which certain journalists are actually afraid for their lives, and the lives of their families, as they have been getting death threats and other forms of scary harassment from angry Trump supporters. One wonders how outrageous my fictional conspiracy will turn out to be.
My next novel, SON OF SAIGON, is what my agent described as a “Boomer buddy” story, as two older guys (70ish), best of friends, set out on a quest to find the son the one friend never knew he had. The story itself is fun and suspenseful, but my main goal was to highlight the reincarnation of both men’s lives with the introduction of an intriguing quest, adventure, and yes, even love.
The third novel to be published toward the end of this year is another in my Pancho McMartin legal thriller series. TROPICAL DOUBTS starts out with Pancho taking on a medical malpractice case for an old family friend. It is an area of law he doesn’t really practice, but his friend is insistent. Before long, however, Pancho finds himself embroiled in both the med mal case and a related murder case.
By David Myles Robinson
Of the nominees for the 2018 Academy Awards for Best Picture, two involved love stories. The fact that one love story was between two men and the other between a woman and a fish is, at least to me, irrelevant. Love is love is it not?
What got me thinking after watching those two movies was not the overt or the metaphorical social issues, but the difficulties artists in any medium have in describing love—in conveying to the reader or the theater-goer or the audio listener or the person staring at a painting, that they are experiencing a perfect example of love. Think about it. Is there a particular movie, or book, or poem, or song, or painting which, to you, exemplifies pure love?
Is there a Shakespearean sonnet or any one of the millions of love poems written over the centuries which perfectly expresses love between two people? Does comparing one’s feelings to budding flowers or breathtaking sunsets or even the entirety of every beautiful thing on our planet adequately convey what a love is between two people?
Do plays or songs in which one or both lover die in the name of love actually convey a relationship of love? Seriously, is it really an expression of true love to kill oneself because one’s love is unrequited? Or for both to die in a love induced suicide pact? Aren’t those acts of selfishness rather than love? Although it can certainly be argued that there is always an element of selfishness in love.
In one of the movies I referred to above, the director attempted to convey the budding love between the two men by shots of them doing things together—riding bikes, lounging by a lake, reading books, or running up a mountain together, free spirits alone in the outdoors. Much of their dialog felt stiff and not real, which didn’t do much to show me these men were falling in love. The words themselves were strung together into sentences and into paragraphs which contained the author’s meaning, but without being convincing. To me, they sometimes sounded like one of Hemingway’s characters for whom English was not a first language, so that the dialog was very formalized, the way a foreigner would speak trying to be correct and proper. While that manner of speaking was brilliant for what Hemingway was trying to convey, it was silly and unbelievable as between these two speakers of English and did nothing to convince me they were in love.
One scene that drove me a little nuts was after they returned to their hotel from the mountain and burst into their room laughing uproariously. Okay, so they had obviously bonded and were having fun, but I wondered what they were laughing about, or was just the fact that the two were laughing together a sign they had fallen in love? Had they run through the lobby of the hotel and up the stairs and into their room laughing out loud over something shared sometime earlier? I mean, who does that? Sorry if I’m too picky, but all that running around smiling and laughing about something which we, the audience, know nothing of, seems too contrived and told me nothing about what it was that caused these two men to love each other (other than physical attraction).
In the other movie, the one about a love between a mute woman and a fish, the love, whatever love is, actually felt more real to me. We were shown the emotional and physical agony endured by each of the parties and we were able to feel the love grow with each gentle act of kindness and exploration of mutual pain. So, the concept of love in that situation had nothing to do with shared books, or love of the great outdoors, or music, or even any shared experience other than how each had been treated and abused by the world around them. Theirs was a kind of organic love, grown from each one’s personal demons and needs—perhaps a seed of selfishness?
My point is that love is such an elusive concept to define that it can’t help but be an even more difficult concept to portray. I have been in love with my wife, Marcia, for about 45 years now, and had only loved one other woman before that, so either I’m no expert in love because I haven’t been in love very many times, or I’m a great expert in love because I’ve only been in love twice. In either event, even as a writer I don’t feel capable of ever truly capturing a perfect portrayal of love.
I had a strange experience many years ago when Marcia and I were eating at a Peruvian restaurant in Santiago de Chile, on our way to Antarctica. Sometime during the meal, apropos of nothing, I looked at Marcia across the table and suddenly felt an overwhelming rush of euphoric love, something both emotionally and physically overpowering—so much so that I can’t even remember if I said anything. There was a warmth, and a headiness, and a sense of happiness which, to this day, makes me smile. And no, it hasn’t escaped my notice that I had to actually use the word love to help me try to describe the feeling.
In my latest novel, THE PINOCHET PLOT, there is a love story sub-plot in which the principal character, Will, knows intellectually that he loves his best friend, Cheryl, but is afraid to acknowledge it for psychological reasons related to his past. I attempt to portray the love by focusing on their easy friendship and their physical attraction for each other and, as Will begins to learn about and deal with the issues of his past, the relationship is allowed to slowly morph into an acknowledgment of love. I don’t know how well I dealt with it. I can only hope the reader gets a sense of Will and Cheryl’s bond and the mutual understanding and growth which allowed them to step beyond being friends and lovers, and become a couple in love.
I do realize that for many, if not most, people, the flowery poetry and the beautiful metaphors and similes and the Elvira Madigan moments of lovers running through a field of flowers or Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate driving up the California coast like a mad-man to try to stop the wedding of the woman he loves, will be sufficient to convey romantic love. And perhaps that’s how it should be. Love is, after all, a deeply personal, subjective, and, yes, often selfish emotion. I just know that I can read all the romantic poetry and novels, watch all the romantic movies, and listen to country music 24/7, but I’ve come to know and understand that I’ll never be able to adequately convey the depth of emotion I felt that night in Santiago.
By David Myles Robinson
It is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as I write this and wonder how much has changed since that day, shortly before my graduation from high school in 1968, when MLK was assassinated. I’m not particularly naïve, I know racism and cultural prejudice continued to exist and even thrive. Hell, my third novel, Tropical Judgments, dealt with the dirty little secret of racism in Hawaii, where we like to believe we are one happy melting-pot family – the Aloha State.
But the overt racists, the Klan and other white supremacists, had been more or less relegated to the shadows. When Obama was elected President of the United States, I, like so many others cried with joy. I felt an overwhelming sense of optimism and hope for the future of our country. I was sure the pre-election racists with their birther conspiracies, the internet memes likening Obama to a monkey, and other idiocies, would once again retreat to the dark corners of our society—hateful cockroaches scurrying away in defeat.
That didn’t happen. Social media and propagandist television and radio programs not only kept the ugliness alive, they propagated even uglier, more crazy, more racist conspiracy theories and lies. Still, there was hope. The Obama presidency was dignified and thoughtful. It slowly and effectively pulled us out of a great recession. It calmed the terror of a nuclear Iran. It reasoned there was no way to effectively eliminate North Korea’s nukes without withstanding unacceptable human loss. It faced up to the planetary and national security threat of climate change. And, yes, the administration made mistakes as well—how do you not make mistakes in the boiling cauldron of the Middle East?
So what happened? How did a black president with high approval ratings give way to a president who was an admitted adulterer; a man who’d been sued and fined for racial discrimination; a man who defrauded investors in his business dealings to the point where no United States banks would even deal with him; a deal maker who made so many bad deals he left behind squadrons of betrayed investors; a man who thought nothing of creating a fraudulent university built on lies and flim flam; a man who called black people “lazy” and Mexicans “rapists” and said Haitians have AIDS and labelled entire blocks of countries as “shitholes.” This list of cruelties, both petty and huge, is seemingly endless. The scope of pandering to white supremacists, to the point of being endorsed by the KKK, is bewildering and frightful.
Yet the base is still there. The man who can barely articulate a comprehensible sentence when he is not doing his best to read what was written for him wields a strange power over many people who had always stood for the kind of morals Donald Trump flaunts and denigrates. One argument is that these people see an opportunity to use Trump to get their long-sought ideological goals accomplished. Deregulate employment standards. Deregulate checks against pollution. Deregulate the banks (again). Etcetera. We can put up with Trump and his disgusting sense of morality if we can get finally get what we want.
Maybe that’s it. But I think there’s a much more insidious motive behind these people’s ignominious decisions to park their morals in a long-term storage locker. After all, any far right conservative president with a conservative majority in Congress should be able to accomplish all of the above and more. I think that the real underlying fear among the Trump base is the browning of America. That age-old fear of being in the minority with the possible accompanying loss of power.
Human history is replete with examples of people gaining power based on fear. Fear of race, ethnicity, tribal affiliation, and religion. White people, black people, and Asian people have committed, and are committing, genocide based on little more than fomented hatred as a means toward power.
America may be one of the greatest melting pots in the history of the world, yet until Obama’s election, and even, arguably, despite his election, it has been ruled by the predominant racial class: whites. Things will change. Climate change will become the greatest driving force behind emigration and immigration in the near future. It will probably cause wars and certainly political upheaval. America will brown—it is an inevitability we can either embrace or fear. To embrace it, we would need to learn about and learn to respect those who may become our new neighbors. Nothing promotes fear like ignorance. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Let’s not fear the changing demographics. Let’s embrace it. Let’s reject the politics of fear and hate based on racial and cultural prejudice. Let’s show the world why we have a national holiday celebrating the words and works of Martin Luther King, Jr.
As Ghandi said: “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.”
By David Myles Robinson
I sat down to write about one of my obsessive musings of late—which is how and/or why sane and intelligent people can process information and facts in such disparate ways. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that I was all over the place. Was the issue how people can process the same facts so differently from others, or was it that some people aren’t processing at all? Is my confusion not a result of how critical thinking can result in a polar opposite opinion, but rather the failure to apply critical thinking at all?
My conclusion is that there are two separate and distinct issues at play. Can facts themselves be subject to varying interpretations? Perhaps. As a former personal injury attorney I would often be in agreement with the insurance defense attorney as to the facts how an accident happened (Party A’s car T-boned Party B’s car in an intersection, for example), but we would have diametrically opposed positions on the precipitating events which led to the accident (causation).
There are, however, some facts which I have an extremely difficult time conceding to be open to interpretation. Climate change is a prime example. It is a fact that close to 100% of climate scientists believe in climate change caused in part by humans. Most people refer to the percentage as 97%, but the fact of the matter is that there have been no scientific peer-reviewed papers published in years which take the contrary view. As astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, said, if anyone thinks the scientific view of climate change is some kind of hoax, they don’t know a thing about science. Scientists love to tear each other apart. They tend not to agree on anything until the science is deemed proven.
So how can so many lay people simply reject the scientific consensus on climate change? How does someone with no scientific background and no actual knowledge or understanding of the scientific data, decide that he or she is more intelligent and more knowledgeable than scientists (including NASA scientists) who have spent their lives studying the issue? Is that some special level of intellectual arrogance? Or is it merely a refusal to actually process the information on a critical thinking level and instead accept the non-scientific tribal/political stance taken by so many anti-government politicians and pundits?
Do people who deny the science of climate change claim to have applied critical thinking to the established science and came to the conclusion that all the scientists were wrong? This is where the dichotomy of processing information is at play. I suspect that there are a number of people who believe they have done their due diligence by reading certain articles which support their initial inclination that humans are not affecting the climate and that whatever changes we are experiencing are simply part of the natural occurring process. But I also suspect that a larger group of people make no effort to analyze the facts themselves, but instead rely on their favored pundits to tell them how to think.
Let’s take the non-critical thinkers out of the discussion for now. Those who make no attempt to put some effort into actually thinking about what certain facts mean and instead rely on their favored source of propaganda to form an opinion are nothing more than lemmings. This, by the way, is true on all sides of the political spectrum. Reposting Facebook or Twitter posts without making any attempt to establish the veracity of the post is nothing short of lemmingesque. I recently ‘unsubscribed’ to a progressive, Democratic site after determining that too many of its postings were not properly vetted or were over-the-top hyperbole.
We’re then left with the basic question over which I often obsess: when two people are presented with the exact, undisputable, set of facts, what is it that allows them to adamantly formulate completely disparate opinions? Are facts obsolete as facts? Are facts now little more than sociological tools to be manipulated or ignored in favor of a desired outcome?
Of course, when considering this issue, Donald Trump comes to mind. It is well established that the man is a prodigious liar and that he has made so many outrageous and offensive statements that it is becoming a daunting task to document. But one thing he said during the campaign stands out to me as a prime example of how divergent people can be in the processing of a fact. In the infamous Billy Bush incident the Trump quote that generated the most attention was the pussy grabbing quote. It was crude and ugly and newsworthy and in campaigns past would have immediately disqualified the candidate from continuing on in the race. Yet Trump supporters and even his wife shrugged the statement off as “locker room talk.” Okay, I’ve heard (and said) a lot of crude things in locker rooms over the years, although never quite on that level, but I’ll play along with the fantasy that such a statement about assaulting women was just boys being boys.
But what shocked me most about that whole scenario wasn’t the pussy grabbing bravado, it was the statement that Trump had tried to fuck another celebrity after “going after her like a bitch” (whatever that means). In other words, Trump admitted to attempting to have sex with another woman while his wife, Melania, was pregnant! Think about that. That isn’t locker room talk—that’s a recital of events (and quite believable given that he was a known adulterer).
So how did Trump supporters, many of whom are evangelical Christians, and most of whom over the years have tried to claim the mantle of being in the party of family values, process that statement? That the statement was made and recorded is an absolute fact. Yet its content and meaning was processed and interpreted in varying ways. To me, it showed the character of a despicable human being, willing to flaunt his crude attempts at infidelity to a wife carrying his child. Yet to others it was covered by the claim of “locker room talk” or otherwise simply dismissed as not important. What was it that allowed a person who should have been disgusted by Trump’s admission to rationalize it away and instead wanted the man to be the President of the United States?
I guess we come back to the tribal politics which all too often expose our willingness to be hypocrites if it advances our particular ways of thinking. I say “I guess” because frankly I don’t know, and that’s what makes the issue so obsessive with me. It’s a never-ending source of fascination to me how people can vote against their own interests; be Christian yet accept non-Christian-like insults and actions; shrug off an impressively huge compendium of lies; and think themselves smarter than NASA scientists.
It would, of course, be the height of hubris for me to say or imply that everyone should think like me. That would be boring, unproductive, and uncreative. I love the fact that one person’s interpretation of the fact of a flower is a smattering of paint thrown toward a canvas. It’s just that I begin to get a wee bit concerned when interpretations of facts such as climate change threaten the very existence of life on our planet.
By David Myles Robinson
I recently read (listened to) The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, which I consider to be one of the most important, entertaining, humorous, poignant, and enlightening novels I’ve read in years. It is a hard look into the psyche of black people in America, dressed up in some outrageous satire and wit. It should be mandated reading for all white people in America, but I imagine it will be like so many insightful novels, movies, television shows, and well-researched news stories—which is that The Sellout’s readers will probably be the proverbial choir.
As I told my black friend who prompted me to read the book, white people should read it and learn from it and then mostly shut the fuck up about it in terms of trying to articulate their new-found understanding of how our black neighbors view and react to the world around them. But to me, there is a takeaway we can all talk about, which is that the premise of The Sellout can be applied to all races, ethnic groups, and religions, in America.
Just as the black narrator sees the world through the lens of his blackness, so do Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and whites. Latinos know all too well how they have been and are stereotyped, even before Trump call Mexicans rapists and even before he called for a wall along the only border we share with people of color. A Latino friend of mine in Taos, NM, whose family is multi-generational American, told me that since Trump became President he actually felt uneasy and even somewhat fearful driving across Arizona, where he saw confederate flags for sale at the side of a highway he’d driven innumerable times before. A rational fear? It doesn’t really matter, does it? The fact is that this was the lens through which my Latino friend was viewing his experience.
How many times have I heard white people try to claim that there was no more racism in America before Obama made the country so divisive, as if it was a racial irrelevancy that Trump and so many others maintained that Obama was not even an American? How many times have I heard white people maintain that race doesn’t matter if one simply works hard to achieve, as if there are no racial impediments to achievement?
I don’t expect myself to be able to view the world through the eyes of people who are constantly aware of how they are being viewed. The first black woman State Attorney for the State of Florida was recently pulled over by a policeman who, when pressed as to why he pulled her over, struggled to find a reasonable explanation. How can I or any other white person pretend to understand that kind of event and the countless other, more subtle reminders of one’s race?
What must it be like to be a Muslim-American now, particularly while traveling? Is fair for those looking at them through the lens of their righteous whiteness to shrug and argue that their Imams and other Muslim leaders must do more to stamp out the ideology of the extremists? As if we white people in America should do more to stop the white nationalist extremists/terrorists who have actually killed more Americans in America than Muslims? But that’s not what many white people see through their particular lens.
Obviously there is some generalization here, which in itself may be prejudiced or racist or even what some call reverse racism. Fuck that. The point I’m trying to make is that for whatever reason, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for people to truly see and understand the world through the eyes of people whose day-to-day, if not minute by minute, experiences are framed by who they are and what they look like.
Perhaps someday the color of our skin, or our ethnicity, or our religion will all be irrelevant. I am confident that will not happen in my lifetime. For now, I think all we can really strive for is a realistic level of understanding and empathy.
And in the meantime, read The Sellout. Perhaps it will modify the view through your particular lens.
Summer in Taos, NM is spectacular. At 7,000 feet it’s rarely too hot, although if the temperature does start creeping into the 90’s, relief is a matter of minutes away up the mountain to the ski valley. This year the Rio Grande is running high and strong, good news for the rafters and for those of us who like to picnic by the river. July is monsoon season and unless you’re golfing or hiking, it’s great fun to watch the storm clouds build, the thunder and lightning follow, and then a huge, refreshing, cleansing, release of rain. The storms are usually strong and short-lived, and even if we’re temporarily inconvenienced by the drenching, it’s rare to hear someone complain.
The evenings are sublime – a good time to sit outside and sip a pre-dinner cocktail, listen to some music, and stare out at the endless vistas. As the evening turns into night and the stars begin to blanket the sky, it is like a closing argument as to why we live in one of the many beautiful places our country has to offer.
I’ve lived most of my life in Hawaii and could not have dreamed of a better place to live and work. Marcia and I would come home from our respective offices and we’d be in a paradise resort. If we needed to clear the legal-world cobwebs from our heads, we’d jump in our 16’ Bayliner speed boat, cocktails in hand, and motor out to Moanalua Bay. If it was the right season and if we were lucky, we’d watch humpback whales breathe and breach around us. They would sometimes be accompanied by a pod of dolphins.
When we first bought our house in Taos, it never occurred to us that we would someday live here full time. We couldn’t conceive of leaving Hawaii. But once we were both retired, as the traffic and congestion in Honolulu became ever more irritating, and as forty years of Hawaii sun took its toll on my skin, we decided to try being mainlanders again. We don’t regret a minute of it.
Hawaii will always be a part of us. It’s wonderful to go back to Honolulu to see friends and family and gawk at all the new multi-million dollar high rise condominiums going up in the Ala Moana and Kakaako areas. We’ve traded one paradise for another and don’t regret a minute of it.
We’ve both worked hard to be in a position to choose where we want to live and to live well. But we are also the first to acknowledge that we’ve also been lucky and we won’t ever take that for granted.
By David Myles Robinson
One of my favorite movie lines of all time was spoken by Walter Brennan’s character Eddie in To Have and Have Not: “Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?”
I can’t say exactly why that line resonated with me, especially since I’m not one of those guys who make a practice of remembering movie lines. Perhaps it was the wonderful characterizations of Brennan, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall. Or perhaps it was the various meanings one could read into the line. One of those meanings might be this: just when you think everything is fine and you see no danger ahead, you might step on an innocuous-looking dead bee and still get stung.
That’s what happened during our August 2000 private safari to Tanzania. There were just the four of us—myself and Marcia, along with Ricky and Rich, both of whom we had met in Botswana many years earlier. We had designed a fairly high-end safari, staying in lodges and permanent camps and, whenever possible, flying from camp to camp. It was a far cry from the Botswana safari, when we stayed in two-person Eureka tents and carried our own sleeping bags.
One of our first lodges was the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, a luxury hotel built on the rim of the huge crater, home to a vast array of wildlife. In fact, it is the world’s largest inactive and unfilled caldera. It’s two thousand feet deep and covers an area of about one hundred square miles.
Marcia and I had been lucky enough on a prior safari to be among the last tourists allowed to camp out on the crater floor. Now even the native Maasai people, who are allowed to graze their cattle in the crater, must exit the reserve at the end of each day. Because of the popularity of the site, due mainly to the incredible concentration of animals, there are a number of hotels and tented camps on the rim of the crater.
The Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is routinely listed among the top hotels in the world. The large, lavishly appointed rooms overlook the crater. Even our toilet had a view. We had a personal butler who made sure our fireplace was roaring when we returned from the chilly drive up from the floor of the crater each evening, and, of course, that our bar was stocked with our preferred beverage. Dinner was served to the four of us in an elaborately decorated dining room. The lodge is absurdly expensive, but if you have the money to splurge, it is well worth it.
So everything was going well on our private safari. From the crater we went to a luxurious permanent tented camp on the bank of the Grumeti River. Our large tent had a king-sized bed, writing desk, carpet, and an en suite bathroom. The camp featured a small pool in which the four of us relaxed, cocktails in hand, at the end of a hot and dusty morning game drive. The bar and dining area was quite literally on the bank of the river.
Unfortunately, the Serengeti was experiencing a terrible drought that year, and the Grumeti River was more of a mudhole than a river. Lethargic hippos wallowed in the mud. Cautious Thomson gazelles and impalas searched the river for water to drink, more at risk than usual from lions and cheetahs due to the reduced water access.
There were so many animals in close proximity to the camp that it was not uncommon to lie in bed and hear lions and elephants and the danger calls of monkeys.
But on our second night at Grumeti, the sounds were closer and different. We couldn’t figure out what it was—until the next morning when we walked out of our tent. The pool, which was the distance of two tents from us, had turned from the inviting blue we’d enjoyed the day before to brown. The camp crew was abuzz. A hippo, apparently fed up with the slushy mud of the river, had somehow managed to climb up to the pool and immerse itself therein. It must have sat there in total contentment for hours during the night. Unfortunately for us, the pool had to be closed for the remainder of our stay—not just for the crew to clean out the mud and hippo shit, but because it was too dangerous to have such an inviting attraction for the hippos so close to our living quarters.
I don’t know if the drought that year had anything to do with the strong resurgence of the tsetse flies, but for the first time in all of our visits to the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, we became targets of these huge, biting flies with long proboscises. This is when things began to go bung—when we got bit by the proverbial dead bee.
All of us suffered bites from the tsetses, which are capable of biting right through clothing. Though all our bites hurt, only Marcia and Ricky suffered serious reactions. Marcia’s reactions were by far the worst. A bite on the top of her hand caused the hand to swell up to the size of a baseball. She had huge lumps on her neck, arms, and back. Ricky’s were about half the size of Marcia’s. And they hurt . . . bad.
Despite the bites, we still went on the morning and evening game drives, and the viewing was nothing short of amazing. The prides of lions with small cubs were huge, and we spent hours just watching and photographing their antics. But we were all in varying and increasing degrees of pain. It broke my heart to see Marcia in such agony, but other than give her the pain pills I always carry on safari, there was nothing we could do.
On top of everything else, I developed a head cold.
From Grumeti we went to Klein’s Camp, also in the Serengeti. Thankfully, Klein’s was built on an elevated piece of land, and a hundred or so feet of elevation made all the difference in the presence of the tsetses. Klein’s Camp became our temporary respite from the onslaught of the flying beasts. Unhappily, as soon as we descended from our oasis, the biting began anew.
It was a small stroke of luck that the wife of the camp manager was also susceptible to the tsetse bite, and she, too, had the severe reactions suffered by Marcia. So she had a much stronger antihistamine than we had. It helped, but I gave serious thought to canceling the rest of the trip. That would have meant giving up our dream of seeing the chimps at Gombe Stream National Park, where Jane Goodall lived while doing her research. Marcia said it would take much more than some bites to give that up. Little did she know how close we would come to doing just that.
One of the wonders of the African bush, and why we keep going back despite having experienced our fair share of hardship, is the element of daily surprise. Each day brings something new and amazing, so that even our experienced guides are often shocked into wonderment.
During one of our many game drives in the Serengeti from Klein’s Camp, we came across a leopard in a leafless tree, ridiculously close to the dirt track we were following. The leopard was staring intently toward the ground. At first we couldn’t see anything on the ground. The end-of-summer brown grass was knee-high. Then the leopard leapt from the tree, and within seconds it came up with a bushbuck, a small, brown-colored antelope which, when fully grown, stands about three feet tall at its shoulder. The leopard held the bushbuck, which looked very young, in its mouth for a few seconds and then, instead of making the kill and carrying it up the tree, it set the bushbuck down. The bushbuck was still very much alive, but was clearly in shock, as it didn’t try to run away.
We sat in amazement, snapping photos like crazy, as the leopard proceeded to play with the bushbuck, just as a housecat would play with a captured mouse. This went on for several minutes, and even our guide had retrieved his trusty old Canon and was snapping away between exclamations.
Eventually we all convinced ourselves that the leopard must not have been hungry and had decided to let the bushbuck live. The leopard even climbed back up to its perch in the tree, leaving the healthy bushbuck alone on the ground.
But this is Africa, and leopards are leopards. As soon as the bushbuck decided it might be safe to sneak away, and began to run, the leopard was out of the tree and onto the bushbuck in the blink of an eye. This time he made the kill and climbed up to his perch, bushbuck in mouth.
On that same day, we came across a small family of cheetahs chowing down on a fresh kill. The odd thing was that it was almost midday, and we’d been on our way back to camp. There’s a reason why game drives take place in the very early morning and late afternoon: the animals are generally only active during those times. They sleep and rest in whatever shade they can find during the intense heat of the day.
Yet these cheetahs were out in the open, sharing the inadequate shade of one lone, scrawny acacia tree while they enjoyed the delights of a freshly killed gazelle. Our guide explained that he’d only recently begun to notice this phenomenon. The prevailing theory was that the Serengeti tourist trade had grown to the point where the increased numbers of safari vehicles in certain areas were interfering with the hunting habits of some species. It was only during the harsh midday heat, when the tourists were back at their camps enjoying their own shade and lunch, that the cats could hunt and feast in relative solitude. At least, that was our guide’s theory.
With the bites, and the resulting pain, getting worse and worse, we jumped at the chance to take our first African balloon ride. For years we’d rejected the notion of missing out on a game drive in favor of a balloon ride. But this seemed like the perfect occasion, so we arranged for an early morning flight.
The predawn hours of the African bush are often extremely cold. It’s hard to fathom that within a short time, the heat will drive humans and animals alike to seek shelter. It was a particularly clear and cold morning when we arrived at the balloon staging area. The large wicker basket, which could hold sixteen people, lay on its side while the huge, partially inflated red, blue, and yellow balloon hung limply nearby. At that moment it looked quite inadequate for the task ahead.
To take off, we were instructed to climb into the basket while it lay on its side. It was awkward as we climbed into our little two-person wicker squares, where we lay as if in a cupboard. Soon enough our pilot began to inflate the balloon, and the basket was slowly righted. Then we were flying.
The gush of the flame into the balloon is loud, but usually happened in short bursts. It was the intensity of the silence after the bursts of flame that first struck me. To fly in absolute silence is in itself amazing, but to fly in silence over the vast Serengeti plains was in a class of experience all its own. We watched the ubiquitous acacia trees sweep by. We watched herds of zebras, gazelles, and wildebeests take off running, often in confused and opposite directions, as they sensed our low-flying pass above them. We watched the graceful lope of a running herd of giraffes. It was beautiful, thrilling, and chin-quivering.
Then we experienced yet another one of the brilliant African bush surprises. In the silence of the coasting balloon, we watched as a lone hyena took down a fleeing Thomson gazelle, the scene acted out in silence below us. It was part of the beautiful, deadly, brutal ballet of Africa.
The balloon pilot landed us far from where we had taken off, but precisely where a bountiful brunch, complete with champagne, had been set up for us under an expansive acacia tree.
From the Serengeti we were scheduled to fly in a small chartered plane to Arusha, where we would stay overnight at the Mountain Lodge. We would fly out the next morning on Air Tanzania to Mwanza, and then on to Kigoma, where we would take a boat down the coast of Lake Tanganyika to Gombe Stream National Park.
I thought my head cold was gone, but apparently there was some remaining congestion. Moments after taking off from the dirt airstrip at Klein’s Camp, my ears closed off. It felt as if my head was going to explode. The pain was excruciating. It was frightening, but all I could do for the duration of the flight was hold my head in my hands and moan and pray that my head really wasn’t going to explode. Although landing was a relief, my ears did not unclog. I could hear almost nothing.
We had our driver stop at the Air Tanzania office on the way to the hotel so we could pick up our tickets for the next day’s flights. Unfortunately, we learned that Air Tanzania had stopped flying from Mwanza to Kigoma. Kigoma was where we needed to be in order to get to Gombe. I left Marcia, Rich, and Ricky in the office and wandered back out to the van. I couldn’t hear, and my head hurt too much to participate.
After well over an hour of finagling, the plan was to spend an extra night in Arusha and then fly Air Tanzania to Mwanza, where we would pick up a charter flight to Kigoma. I was not displeased to learn I wouldn’t have to get on another airplane for two days. I was sure my head would be clear by then.
The Mountain Lodge in Arusha was a pleasant enough place, although on our most recent trip to Arusha, in 2014, our guide told us her company had stopped using the lodge because it had become too dangerous—as a result of people, not animals. It was basically a small village of round, one-room boma-like huts with thatched roofs and ivy-covered walls. The gardens were pleasant and luxuriant. By the time we went to bed that night, my ears still hadn’t cleared.
We didn’t do much of anything the next day except wander around town on our own. Again, that’s something we would be discouraged from doing today. Bill Clinton was scheduled to visit Arusha the next week, so welcoming banners were being hoisted onto light poles, and city workers scurried around sweeping the dirt on the dirt streets.
By the time we went to bed that next night, my ears had still not cleared. We each had our own bed. I awoke sometime in the middle of the night to hear Marcia moaning. When I asked what was wrong, she said she was freezing cold and had a headache. Her stomach hurt a little bit. I gave her my blanket and a dose of Cipro, an antibiotic I always carry to developing countries. When she said she was still freezing cold (though it was not cold out), I summoned Ricky from his room. Ricky is an MD. Unfortunately, he’s an ophthalmologist and almost as old as we are, which means the non-eye-related medical stuff he learned in med school has mostly receded into the nooks and crannies of his mind.
Our rooms were far away from the hotel reception area, so Ricky went to track down a security guard to ask him to bring more blankets. We feared Marcia had contracted malaria despite taking antimalarial pills. We gave her some aspirin and stacked the blankets on top of her until she finally stopped shaking. Eventually she dozed off. Ricky went back to his room. I lay on my bed, my ears still plugged, worried sick about Marcia and about what would happen to me when I took off on another flight. I wondered if there was any chance at all that Marcia would wake up in the morning and feel well enough to travel to Gombe.
She did. She wasn’t 100 percent, mostly because she was tired and drained, but she felt good enough to travel. She wasn’t going to miss seeing the chimps for anything. The best guess as to what happened to her was a kind of post-anaphylactic reaction to all of the tsetse bites. We’ll never really know.
My ears were still plugged, and I was fairly terrified about flying, but we went to the airport and boarded our Air Tanzania flight to Mwanza. As soon as we lifted off, my ears miraculously unplugged. That which I had feared the most turned out to be the cure.
Once in Mwanza, we met up with our small-plane charter captain, and off we went to Kigoma. It was kind of a boring flight, although we flew low enough to see. The terrain was parched and mostly empty except for the occasional hardscrabble village, where children would inevitably run out of their huts upon hearing a plane and wave and jump around. Although we couldn’t hear them, of course, we knew they would be hollering, probably “Hallo!”
As if that day wasn’t surreal and sleepy enough following our difficult night, in Kigoma we were met and taken to a hotel on the banks of the Tanganyika. It was an old and dying hotel, although it may have once been fairly decent. From the cracked cement walls and faded, peeling paint to the dark reception area—possibly a result of no power—it was almost like being in a ghost town. Undoubtedly the lack of any more commercial flights into Kigoma was not helping the tourist business.
After learning that we’d have to wait there until the boat to Gombe was ready for us, we were directed to the hotel’s restaurant. We were frankly surprised there would even be a functioning restaurant, but off we went. It was lighter than the rest of the hotel, as it had large, though dirty, windows looking out on a courtyard and one-story hotel rooms, which were the lakefront “luxury” suites. A young, squalid-looking boy handed us menus, which were ridiculously long. They had everything from hamburgers to chicken Kiev to an array of Indian food.
By then we were punch-drunk and had begun to find everything stupidly hilarious. We ordered beers and chicken tikka masala and rice and laughed at almost everything. The food was predictably awful, but the beer was good, and after a couple hours of sitting around, we were finally on our way to Gombe Stream, home of Jane Goodall’s research station. We were taken there in a wooden longboat with hard wooden benches, a canvas roof for shelter, and crates of food and supplies for our three-night stay.
The cabin in which we stayed at Gombe was only yards away from Jane Goodall’s former house. Our place consisted of several sleeping rooms—cells, really—and a small dining area attached to the kitchen. All the windows and doors were covered with wire mesh designed to keep the baboons out. We soon learned why, as the large troop of baboons that lived on or near the beach seemed to know when the cabin was inhabited, which meant food and mischief. We often found one or more at a window or door, trying to get inside.
The camp was right on the lake. The beach between the lake and the camp was made up of large, smooth rocks, so that we immediately christened the beach “Nice,” after the rocky beaches of Nice in Southern France. The lake water was cool and clean, and when we weren’t marching through the jungle looking for chimps, we spent our days on the beach at Nice getting a tan, watching the baboons, and taking frequent dips in the cool of the lake.
It was not always easy to find the chimps at Gombe. The park is long and narrow, and runs from the shores of Lake Tanganyika up a steep incline. Searching for the chimps at Gombe was very different from trekking to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, which we did years later. There, the guides would communicate with park rangers, who went out every morning to find where each gorilla family was on that particular day. So even though some hikes to the gorillas could take several hours, it was a virtual guarantee to find them.
In Gombe, there were no personnel except the rangers who acted as our guides. Although the individual chimp families were territorial, their territories were large and the terrain was often brutally steep in dense jungle. So there was no guarantee of finding, let alone observing, chimps on any given day.
On our first day of searching, we took off straight uphill, following narrow, meandering trails made by the chimps. It was hard climbing in uncomfortable heat. I had to “short-leash” Marcia on a number of occasions to help get her up some of the steepest inclines. I was somewhat worried about her putting such stress on her body only a day after that terrible night in Arusha, but as it turned out, it was young Rich who had the hardest time. At one point, after a particularly arduous climb, I looked at him and saw he was deathly white and sweating profusely. He survived, but he declined to go on the next day’s hike.
We did find chimps that afternoon, but they were high up on the slopes and in thick foliage. Our periods of observation were counted in seconds rather than minutes. All in all, it was a pretty disappointing five-hour death march. Lake Tanganyika, however, felt wonderful.
Rich’s decision to pass on the hike the next morning was ironic, as we found a large family of chimps close to the lake and only about thirty minutes from the camp. They were, of course, amazing and wonderful, and we could see how Jane Goodall was willing to spend so much of her life studying and falling in love with these creatures.
It was a hard trip, but one of our best.
My wife and I recently returned from a cruise to Cuba. It was a small ship and we were able to circumnavigate the island, stopping in Havana, Cienfuegos/Trinidad, and Santiago. Since our return I’ve been struggling with how to write about Cuba without being overly trite or over generalizing. On the superficial (or potentially trite) level, there is, of course, the beautiful architecture, the ubiquitous old American cars (much more common than I had thought), and the music. On the more subjective (and subject to potential generalizations), there is the people and the politics.
Judging from the discussions on our ship, which were led by two Cuba “experts,” most people’s fascination with Cuba is grounded in the mystique of its geopolitical history, the uncertainty of its future, and the indomitable spirit of many of its people. Of course, had that mystic not been clothed in the delightful gifts to the senses, to Americans I suspect Cuba would be just another country with a troubled past and decades of hardship.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling the world, and particularly Africa, it’s that making learned-sounding pronouncements about the history or politics of a particular place is ill-advised and usually only partially correct. I liked the fact that the speakers on our cruise were perfectly willing to answer a question with “I don’t know.”
The Cuban guides, on the other hand, were armed with statements and answers with which they had obviously been programmed through their education. None of the guides we came into contact with had been alive at the time of the revolution, yet one guide in particular never uttered the word “revolution” without combining it into the phrase, “the triumph of the revolution.” All of the guides had adopted Fidel Castro’s term “special period” as a euphemism for the period following 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its ‘sugar daddy.’ The “special period” was a period of virtual starvation.
While on the cruise one of the speakers gave me a novel by a Cuban writer, Leonardo Padura. It was a mystery set in Havana in the late 1980’s, a good story, beautifully written. But what struck me was how much more one can learn about a country’s culture from a novel versus from a lecture or essay. The day-to-day lives of people can come alive in the course of a well-written novel. And, indeed, the daily hardships of Cubans, even in the years leading up to the “special period,” when not romanticized by propaganda, are part and parcel of Padura’s description of life in Havana. [I am now reading another Padura novel which takes place during the “special period” and the portrayal of people’s struggle to survive is enlightening and compelling.]
The people of Cuba have gone through some seriously bad shit. Assign whatever cause you want to it: America turning its back on Castro following the revolution, Castro turning to the Soviet Union, Communism, Cuban-Americans’ stubborn refusal to ease or lift the embargo, Castro himself, etc. The point is, there is more than enough geopolitical blame to go around and a phrase I think would be more applicable than “the triumph of the revolution” would be “the triumph of spirit.”
David Myles Robinson
As will become readily apparent, my blogs will not just be about my books or even writing in general. They will be about whatever suits my fancy--and yes, I'm sorry, but that may include politics from time to time. We live in an interestingly tempestuous time and as a writer I find it impossible to ignore the worldwide psycho-drama (and, at times, psycho-comedy) being played out before us on a virtual daily basis.