Friday, July 27, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon Day Three: "Welcome, my dear Mr. Bond, to...Monkey Island!

Marvel at the cute, wacky antics of lovable monkeys!
"For you see, Mr. Bond, Monkey Island is a training ground for my personal army of monkeys where I shall eventually unleash them on an unwitting world to conquer...Disneyland! Mwah-hah-hah!"
Yes, Monkey Island sounds like a Bond villain compound. And, yes, Monkey Island actually exists. Come with me now, intrepid explorers, as I recount our adventures on...MONKEY ISLAND!

Tuesday morning we set out by boat on the Nanay River, an Amazon River tributary. Where the tributary meets the Amazon River, a visually distinctive color change differentiates the two rivers from "black (that's what it's called, although it's not really. Hey, I don't make up the rules.)" to light creamy brown. Shifting sediment causes color change. 
Thrill at the incredible changing water color!
Which is just one of the many amazing things about the Amazon: the landscape changes constantly. (I saw a huge tree actually topple into the river as we traveled. And there are "walking trees!" They uproot themselves and move toward sunlight. Sure, they're slower than sloths, but I ain't making this up!)
See the incredible, uncanny tree that walks like a man!
Soon, we neared MONKEY ISLAND ("ka-blammo!"). My spidey senses tingled (or maybe that was water sickness). As we disembarked, I was quickly reminded of my lousy sense of balance and lack of grace. Pay heed, folks, for we'll be revisiting this theme many times.

Excitement swelled in our group as we walked the planks up to...Monkey Island! ("Bum, bum, bummmm...") 
Duck and cover from flying feces!
Another habitat (brought to you by the fine folks of the previous manatee habitat), Monkey Island personnel rescues rare monkeys and nurses them to health. Unlike the manatee habitat, though, the monkeys roam their island freely to jack with unsuspecting visitors.

Our host warned us to wash off all bug spray and sunscreen since there'd been an earlier incident where several monkeys died by licking toxic bug lotion. We were also told, "monkeys are curious. So watch your jewelry." Understatement.

Our group washed up, stripped down, and prepared to enter...MONKEY ISLAND ("Dun, dun, dunnnnnn...").

Three minutes into our tour, a woolly monkey approached my wife, crawled up her body, and tossed its arms around her. For twenty minutes, they were inseparable as the monkey licked and kissed her and tugged playfully at her necklace.
Get jealous as my wife finds comfort in the arms of a furry stranger!
One of our traveling companions wasn't so lucky. Sara's monkey started off all cutesy, innocent and sweet, but within seconds "cute" morphed into stark-raving TERROR! The monkey climbed atop Sara's head, yanked at her hair, entangled its limbs throughout Sara's tresses, and held on tight. Like a victim in the film The Birds, Sara ineffectively tried to disengage her primate pal, plucking at it to no avail. That monkey wasn't going anywhere.

Elsewhere on MONKEY ISLAND ("Zinnnnnngggg!"), another fellow traveler, Liz, welcomed a monkey into her arms. But this monkey had a hidden agenda, an evil one. Feigning sweetness, it jabbed out, snatched Liz's glasses, and tore off into the bushes. Miraculously, one of the guides was able to retrieve the glasses.
Don't dare trust these little b@$+@*ds!

Yet another monkey dragged one of our pals, Kelly, by the hand. We all thought it the cutest thing. Until the demonic beast's true intentions became apparent. The creature stopped Kelly by a small tree, positioned her oh-so-carefully, then used her as a ladder to climb into the tree's limbs.
Hold onto your wallets and purses!

Even the sloth appeared less than trustworthy, evil gleaming in its eyes. (But I wasn't too worried; even I could outrun a sloth should it come to it.)

Me? My only contact was with a parrot. Oh, sure, it was friendly enough as it roosted on the teens in our group, but when I approached, it pecked at me.
Beware the feathered face of evil!
Maybe these surface-cuddly beasts truly were a secret, evil army in training after all.

Speaking of evil beasts, have you heard the one about the Demon with a Comb-Over? No? You just might die laughing reading this sucker. 
Clickety-click-click for horror with a side of humor.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon Day Two: Markets, Manatees and Misery

The prior night, our "Jungle Momma" told us to get lots of sleep because the next day would be jam-packed. I scoffed, nothing to it. Hey, I lived through a heart-pounding motokar city-wide trek!

Dumb. I'm soooo dumb. So very, very, very city-dumb.
I showed up in shorts. Jungle Momma chastised me, said "Nope. No. No way. You need two shirts, a long-sleeved shirt over a short-sleeved shirt. And long pants."

Grousing, dragging, I hauled myself upstairs and changed, wondering what the big deal was. I mean, it was a thousand degrees out and humid as Satan's sauna. Oh, what a naive, spoiled American I am!

First stop! The Belen market. The market is huge, supplying all of the food and goods for the entire city of Iquitos, population around 371,000 (plus ignorant tourists such as myself). 

But something didn't seem quite right. On the bus, there were two guards: one, a man strangely named "Clever" and a guy whose name I never caught. Clever warned us to watch our pockets, wallets, purses, and leave all but our necessities on the bus.

Hmm... Odd.

Ye gads, talk about overwhelming. More fish on display than an ocean could house, I wondered about the sanitation of it all. Clearly I needed to get over my Western way of thinking. Dogs and cats meandered about nonchalantly, inches away from food. Dead mice lay gutted at the foot of chicken corpses. Strange men mosied up, smiled, performed a kinda one-armed chicken dance. Ghastly things lay splayed out on merchant tables. Giant turtles were cut open with their eggs on display. Alligator heads and tails decorated tables.
 Thumb-sized larva and grubs ("Suri") wriggled about in baskets before being skewered and cooked. Like that annoying kid in eighth grade science class, I held one, showed it to the females until they "ewwwed." To get the full effect, I was willing to eat one until Jungle Momma shut me down.
Our guards stayed attached to us and I'm pretty dang glad they did. At the end of an hour-and-a-half, claustrophobia  set in. I couldn't move. An unwelcome realization dawned over me with the sledgehammer inevitability of a "duh" moment: "Hey, I think the locals might realize I'm a tourist." Not only am I the whitest guy in Kansas, but my Hawaiian shirt and camera were probably a giveaway.

Sweat began to percolate as we boarded the bus (air conditioning!). I thought I knew sweat. Turned out I hadn't even mounted the sweaty trail.

Up next was a visit to a medicinal herbal garden. (Our group was composed primarily of pharmacists, so it was kinda a big deal for them. Which made me arm candy, I suppose. Maybe more like an arm grub). But, I thought, "This will be a nice pleasant five minute stroll. We'll just drive up, park, get out, "ooh" and "ahh" over some plants, get back on the bus, and bask in air conditioning." Oh, naivete, your name is Stuart.
My wife grabs her purse, thrusts it at me to stuff into my backpack. (Embarrassing disclaimer: I've never worn a back-pack before. Back in my day {pay attention, whippersnappers!}, we carried our books.) Suddenly, Jungle Momma is tucking her pant legs into her socks. (The hell...?) Bug spray is lacquered on. Sun hats are strapped on. Shirt sleeves rolled down, buttoned, and double-checked. (Uh-oh...)

Just off the bus and already sweating, I follow the others' precautionary efforts. I don't really understand what all the fuss is for over a simple stroll through a garden. Right? RIGHT?
 That "simple stroll" turned into a three hour tour (worse than Gilligan's nightmares) through the jungle. And I'm wearing double shirts, long pants, and carrying my wife's forty pound purse (clearly she packed her bowling ball collection) in my backpack. Naturally, every intrepid explorer carries purses into the jungle.
On the left, my beautiful wife. I'm the guy wearing mustard so the anacondas can see me better.

We climbed up trails, slalomed down them, slipped through mud, dodged branches, the whole nine yards. I thought we'd never reach civilization again. I also thought a daily five miles of treadmill walking had prepared me for strenuous hiking. Such is the life of city sissies. Jumpin' Jehosophat, by the end of the tour--and with my "moobs"--I looked like I'd been hosed down for a wet t-shirt contest.
Tired travelers, weary pharmacists, and soaking wet big dumb guys in mustard.

Back on the bus, I sucked down a bottle of water and juice in seconds, dehydrated as a shrunken head. But relief was on the way as the next visit turned out to be a relatively low-key visit to a nature habitat dedicated to saving animals on the brink of extinction (due to hunting, eating, other "civilized" products) such as manatees, turtles (of which we saw the grotesque end result earlier), monkeys (monkey-head soup's big), and others. Great cause. Still, it's outside. And once I broke my sweat-seal, I never stopped draining. In fact, between the three men on the trip, we had a bit of a sweating competition. Hands down, I won, glad to know I'm good at something.
A tour of two museums followed. First up was the Museum of Indigenous Amazonian Cultures. Amazingly, there are still 200 tribes in the jungle who flat-out refuse to "civilize." The not so amazing reason is due to white man unleashing a lotta diseases and vile behavior on the indigenous in the past. Honestly, after seeing some of the lifestyles in Iquitos (and boorish American behavior), I kinda think the tribes made the right decision. 
Our final stop proved to be the most grueling one yet, the Boat Museum. While fascinating, the displays and tour took place on a boat. In closed, non-air-conditioned rooms. During the hottest part of the day. Give me the jungle heat any day. Now I know why they're called steamboats.
Finished! Back in the room, my shower was perhaps the finest I'd taken in my life, definitely in the pantheon of Top Three Showers ever.

On the next blog post, we travel down the Amazon River to...Monkey Island!

Speaking of traveling, you guys ever been to Kansas? No. What're you waiting for? Kansas is a nice, exotic, wonderful, getaway of a vacation for... Ah, who am I kidding? Kansas is downright frightening. But don't take my word for it. Here's a primer for you, a terrifying excursion into the twisted dark heart of the Midwest...Godland.
Plan your vacation now! Enjoy Godland!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Chillingham Chills by Catherine Cavendish

Stuart: Alright, not everyone enjoys looking at vacation photos, even if from the Amazon (what's wrong with you people??? I could be showing you pics of me and my cousin, Ernie, at the Wisconsin cheese factory while wearing foam cheese-heads.). SO I'm alternating weeks. This week we're still traveling but from the highly reliable tour guide, gothic horror author extraordinaire Catherine Cavendish. Journey with us, if you dare, as Cat takes us into a haunted castle. (And believe me, Cat knows about haunted! Check out her stellar books). 

Catherine Cavendish: Grinning skeletons, a radiant blue boy, tragic Lady Mary Grey and a crying baby. These are just four of the manifestations haunting Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, reputed to be THE most haunted castle in England.

With a history dating back to the twelfth century, its walls could tell tales of many a bloody deed committed on its fortified premises. In 1298, Edward I (the 'Hammer of the Scots' was based here, as he prepared do battle with William Wallace ('Braveheart') who, far from being that nice Mel Gibson with the blue face, was in fact a mass murderer, burning the local women and children to death. Since then, it has been the site of many a battle and many unfortunate souls were tortured and murdered here in cruel and imaginative ways I will not go into here!

The castle has been owned by members of the Grey family since 1246 and the present owner - Sir Humphry Wakefield Bt.-  has been renovating it for over thirty years. It is a curious place, much of it still derelict, and the atmosphere is one of quiet expectancy. But what of the ghosts?
Poor Lady Mary Grey was deserted by her faithless husband, Ford, Lord Grey of Wark and Chillingham, during the reign of Charles II (17th century), she can still be heard wandering the corridors in an endless search for him. Her dress rustles as she passes.
The radiant Blue Boy was frequently reported in one of the bedrooms. At the stroke of midnight, the agonising cries and moans of a child in pain were heard and, as these died down, a bright halo of light would form close to the old four poster bed. If anyone was sleeping there at the time, they would see a young boy, dressed in blue, surrounded by the light, approaching them. Curiously, in the wall of that room were found the bones of a young boy, along with some fragments of a dress. A blue dress.
Lady Leonora Tankerville, who documented the castle's ghosts in 1925, recalled having strange experiences of her own, including a manifestation of a nun praying on the battlements, accompanied, a few paces behind, by two young men dressed in clothes from the time of King Henry VIII. She also experienced a visitation by the ghost of a young officer who, so far as she knew, was actually alive at that time. Only later did she discover that he had died at the very time she had seen him appear in her room. Lady Leonora was also responsible for the discovery of the skeletons of a man and a boy who had been walled up in her bedroom. Indeed, there seems to have been a fair amount of walling up of people in this castle!

If you are brave enough, you can actually stay at the castle and many who have done so have reported strange events. Some have even left before morning, too scared to sleep! 

But if you do stay, think twice before taking the complimentary shower gel or shower cap home. In one of the rooms, letters and returned items are displayed (including a door knob removed 'by accident'). Reading these letters, you will see that the guests returned the items because no good came to them while they possessed them. Above the display is a portrait of a woman, reputedly a witch, who is said to take a pretty dim view of such thieves. She has a tendency to haunt them... and not in a friendly way.

Want to see more? Follow this link and scroll down to the clips Chillingham Ghosts

Meanwhile, my novella Cold Revenge, features ghosts, demons and a whole lot of vengeance. It has just been released in a new edition from Crossroad Press. Here’s what to expect:

Some dinner invitations are best ignored... 

For no apparent reason, Nadine, Maggie, Gary, and Nick are invited to dinner at the lavish home of top fashion writer, Erin Dartford. But why has she invited them? Why doesn't she want her guests to mingle? And just what is it about the mysterious Erin that makes them want to run for their lives? Little do they know that as they prepare to eat their first course, an evil as old as mankind is about to be unleashed. And revenge really is a dish best served cold...

You can buy Cold Revenge here;

About the author

Following a varied career in sales, advertising and career guidance, Catherine Cavendish is now the full-time author of a number of paranormal, ghostly and Gothic horror novels, novellas and short stories. Cat’s novels include the Nemesis of the Gods trilogy - Wrath of the Ancients, Waking the Ancients and Damned by the Ancients, plus The Devil’s Serenade, The Pendle Curse and Saving Grace Devine.

Her novellas, Cold Revenge, Miss Abigail’s Room,, The Demons of Cambian Street, The Devil Inside Her, and The Second Wife have now been released in new editions by Crossroad Press.

She lives with her long-suffering husband, and a black cat who has never forgotten that her species used to be worshipped in ancient Egypt. She sees no reason why that practice should not continue. Cat and her family divide their time between Liverpool and a 260-year-old haunted apartment in North Wales.

You can connect with Cat here:

Friday, July 6, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon: Motokar Madness!

I flew 3, 265 miles to Iquitos, Peru, and all I have to show for it is a case of diarrhea! I kid, I kid (not really). Just joking (no, I'm not).
My wife and I all touristy in a motokar death-trap!

But I survived! Barely.

Day one of our journey to Peru actually took a day-and-a-half, all of it travel. Three flights, three airports, three rounds of security and customs and trauma. Anyone who knows me knows I'm a sucktacular traveler: "Are we there yet?" "I'm bored." "Can't we just be there?" "He's looking at me funny!" (My poor suffering wife.)

At 6', 2", weighing in at 225 pounds, flight engineers clearly didn't have me in mind when they created their flying cracker-boxes. Our overnight flight to Lima was a contortionist's nightmare. At midnight, the flight attendants fed us dinner, then hurriedly shut out the lights, their intention to have us sleep for eight hours so they wouldn't have to deal with us. Sure, uh-huh, right. It's like trying to sleep in a bookcase.

When we finally landed at the Lima, Peru airport, I desperately found myself wishing I'd paid attention to my two years of high school and two years of college Spanish. Honestly, the local people in the airport put me to shame, most of them able to speak passable English. And here I am--ugly American--stomping around, adding "O's" onto the end of English words. ("Luggage-o?")

The Peruvian people were very helpful, even if all of them had different advice. Out of pure luck, we finally realized we had to reclaim our luggage and check it again. Total fish-out-of-water moment.

But once we hit the Iquitos airport, I was a whale-out-of-water, a (not so) Great White. The departure area was pretty much the size of a living room, hotter than asphalt on a Summer day, a crowded, sweaty hub of humanity.
Okay, about Iquitos... Hardly the touristy, exotic getaway locale I expected (man, I really should've done some research), Iquitos is over-populated, full of political corruption (citizens are forced to vote by law and bribed to swing a vote for the equivalence of twenty bucks), trash-strewn, crime-ridden, humid, terrifying, and absolutely exhilarating and thrilling in a roller-coaster, pants-wetting kinda way. Like an island, Iquitos is only reachable by boat or airplane.
History lesson! Years ago, Iquitos's citizens came out of the jungle and adapted civilization as they knew it (learned from TV) in their new city. Literally hundreds of tin shanties can be seen right next door to the few wealthy residents. Up to four families share the small, ramshackle dwellings. 
Yet even the worst tin shacks--holes and all--have direct TV dishes mounted on the roofs. Things exploded about six years ago when the former jungle dwellers discovered the internet and smart phones. Welcome to civilization.
The amazing Armando, motokar driver extraordinaire!
Unfortunately, as an adjunct to "civilization," unemployment (the rubber industry--Iquitos' past major source of jobs and income--dried up, leaving people jobless) prospered.

Unless you're a motokar driver.

We've all been in white-knuckled cab rides before. Now imagine that multiplied by 200,000 unleashed motokars.

What's a motokar, I hear you asking? Why, it's a three-wheeled motorcycle of sorts. Unprotected, the driver sits in front while the terrified passengers are sardined into a tiny cabin behind him. Different designs adorn the tarp (Spiderman, Scooby-Doo, appropriate flames of Hell), the driver's number posted on back.

It's the primary vehicle of choice (cars are a rarity) and a new source of income, drivers eking out enough soles for a day's worth of beans and rice.

And driving laws? Heh, don't be silly. Someone told us, "In Iquitos, there are no rules, no lanes, no lines, and no laws." (Check out the video below--supplied by fellow adventurer and friend Liz--if you don't believe me.)
On our trip from the airport to the hotel, I thought we were going to die (and here I figured the jungle would get me). Two-laned streets turned into five and six, hundreds of motokars jockeying for front position like a vicious roller-derby. Near misses were common, no sweat to the crazed, undoubtedly caffeine-infused drivers. From the left, hundreds more swarmed. On the right, a small dirt road unleashed another couple hundred. They fused together like a massive swarm of bees, all of them chasing the honey at the end of their furious flight.  They swerved, cut others off, bounced back and forth like pinballs. The song, "Ride of the Valkyries" played out in my head as I held on for dear, sweet life.

Miraculously, we arrived at the hotel unscathed. There we met the gracious organizer of our trip, our "Jungle Momma" and her husband. 
Then we slept.

The next morning, cocky and sure of myself, I proclaimed, "Hey, nothing to it! I survived my first day. Got this by the cajones! What could possibly go wrong?"

As it turns out, kismet's got it out for me badly.

For a different kinda trip, come on down to Missouri and visit the Dandy Drop Inn, a bed and breakfast with an absolutely killer reputation. Be sure to pick up the "Dread and Breakfast" brochure by clicking here!