Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Notes from a Bulgarian Hospital

It was a routine play. I was guarding a taller guy. When I reacted early to block his shot and he jumped into me, his shoulder hit me square in the nose. I immediately knew it was broken—not because of the pain or a cracking sound—but precisely because I felt nothing except for the release of blood from deep inside my nostrils.
I don’t know how the basketball ended up in my hands, but I threw it straight into the wall, pissed off that my face just got smashed at the end of a nothing game on a nothing play.
There was silence on the court.
I sat down on the bleachers and that’s when the blood started gushing. It was all over my shirt and hands.
“Lay down to stop the blood!” one guy said.
“Yeah, lay on your back,” another concerned Bulgarian told me. 
I did what they said and felt that everything would be okay because this kind of thing happened sometimes in the game of basketball.
Of course, most of the guys were gathered around, asking: “Are you OK?”
I’m not dying, but I’m far from OK!
I was only lying on my back for a few seconds when I felt what I thought was mucous gathering in the back of my throat. I was about to swallow it when I realized it wasn’t viscous enough to be mucous and it was collecting too fast. I started to choke.
I jerked to my side and coughed out a mouthful of blood.
I almost choked on my own fucking blood!
It felt scary.
It looked pretty bad too.
There were already two pools of blood on the gym floor.
One of the guys brought me a tissue. I thanked him and pressed it to my nose.   
“Hey,” one Bulgarian guy said, “Are your teeth okay?”
“Yeah, they’re fine,” I said.
“You are lucky to not lose the teeth,” he said in a thick accent.
I let out as much of a laugh as I could. “That’s funny,” I said. “I’ve heard that one before.”
I had.
Seven years ago I got in a surfing accident and the side of my face, near my left eye, was cut open. The gash needed ten stitches. And when people saw the damage a lot of them told me: “You’re lucky you didn’t get it in the eye. You could’ve lost an eyeball.” I guess when things are looking bad we say all kinds of things so that people don’t feel so shitty.

After a few minutes, the bleeding from my nose had slowed.
Another basketball player in the group offered to drive me to the hospital.
I walked out of the gym all right, but was spitting out blood as I went.
I was on my way to a Bulgarian hospital for the first time.
Tokuda hospital is known as one of the better ones in Sofia. Despite the language barrier, I got registered and was attended to without much delay. Blood had dried and darkened on my hands and face so I went to the bathroom to wash it off. I tried not to look at myself in the mirror too much—just enough to wipe my face and see how crooked my nose was.
Soon after, my face was X-rayed and they sent me down a stark, Soviet-style hallway.
I sat down in an empty waiting room for only a few minutes before Nurse Dimitrova brought me inside. She pointed me to a medical chair. She spoke a decent amount of English but didn’t waste time on niceties.
“Can you breathe through your nose?” she asked.
“No,” I said. It was all swollen and stuffed up.
Without any warning or brief description of the next procedure, she grabbed some thin, metallic pliers and opened up my nose. It didn’t hurt as much as one might suspect. What hurt like a medieval torture technique was when she shoved a thin metal pipe so far up my nose that it felt like she was hitting my brain. The thing had a trigger and she was using it to suck out the blood that had collected deep inside my nostrils. My body jerked and I griped the handles on the chair. It was an eerie, unearthly pain.
She removed the thing as hastily as she’d thrust it in.
She grabbed the pliers again to open up my nose and check inside.
She used a similar, seven-inch, steel tool to shove a wet gauze pad so far up into my nostril that it felt like it was in my throat. The liquid the pad was soaked with started dripping down the back of my throat. It was acrid and made me choke. Without a word, she did the same thing again—and then twice to my other nostril. The probing and stabbing didn’t hurt as much the second time because the bad part of the break wasn’t on that side, but the bitter metallic taste multiplied and made me choke even more.
I had to spit into a napkin in my hand.
It was mostly blood.
Nurse Dimitrova walked to a nearby sink and I began to feel faint.
I looked around the room and it started to go dark, though my eyes were wide open. I could see all the blood vessels from the back of my eye sockets. I told her I was about to faint or pass out, but I could barely hear my own voice. What I did hear sounded like a distant, muted voice in an echo chamber. I suddenly felt cold and clammy.
What the fuck was going on!?
Nurse Dimitrova guided me to a nearby table and laid me down.
She put a cold towel on my forehead. It was the first gentle thing she had done.
I regained normal functioning of my sight and hearing within a minute or two.
I rested there while she looked at my X-rays.
My nose was clearly broken on the upper bridge. But because it was almost midnight, no doctors were around. The nurse told me I’d have to come back the next morning at 8:30am to get my nose re-set.
She asked me to sit up and she pulled out the skinny, seven inch pliers and tweezers again.
I wanted to beg— Not again! Please!—but I didn’t say a word.  
She opened up my nostrils and pulled out the wet bloody cloths, one at a time, as I writhed in discomfort—though I must admit the abrupt removal felt better than the abrupt insertion.
I left the hospital with the bleeding stopped and the ability to breathe out of my nose, but couldn’t imagine how my nose “re-setting” would go down.
I didn’t want to go back there.

That night I couldn’t fall asleep because I couldn’t stop imagining that Clockwork Orange hospital—that same room—the next morning.  I kept replaying the recent events: coughing up a few shot glasses full of blood, long steel instruments being thrust deep into my nostrils, choking on medicated soaked gauze pads, momentarily losing most of my vision and hearing. I could only sleep in short spurts and, as I lay supine in the darkness, I became unaware if my nightmares were conscious or unconscious ones.

The next morning my girlfriend and I took a taxi to Tokuda.
Thankfully, she could communicate everything in Bulgarian, so I could make my one and only request very clear: Anesthesia! Please, tell them to drug me up—big time. I want to be unconscious.
Well, they didn’t exactly knock me out.
After two hours of waiting, we met the doctor—a fairly young guy wearing a surgical mask and cap. He led me to a light blue medical chair. He talked to my girlfriend, not to me, so I assumed he spoke no English. Then he turned to me:
“This will feel a bit uncomfortable,” he said in English.
He took those all-too-familiar stainless steel pliers and opened my nostrils one at a time. He took a good look in there before he stuck a small nozzle just inside my nose and sprayed some liquid anesthetic. It rolled down the back of my throat and tasted disgusting. But it wasn’t all that bad. I was just glad he hadn’t shoved the thing all the way up into my frontal lobe.  And good news: I could already feel the numbing effect.
It’s gonna’ work! I won’t feel a thing—or at least not much.
I was told to go back to the waiting room to wait for ten minutes so the anesthesia would be fully absorbed.
Things were looking up until I was called back in by the doctor.
“OK, so we now make an adjustment to your nose,” he said.
“How?” I asked.
“By hand,” he said, holding back a full grimace, but the sentiment was clear. “I will push it back and it will hurt.”
Mother fucker.
“But first we put this inside in case of bleeding.”
He picked up the pliers and the stainless steel tool with the wet gauze attached at the end.
No, goddamn it. Not again.
The doctor could see the fear in my eyes.
 “It will be uncomfortable,” he confirmed.
And so it went, just as the night before: Like my brain was being stabbed with a metal skewer—twice on each side. The suffocating feeling of the gauze. The acrid dripping in the back of my throat. The choking and coughing.
While I tried to shake off the pain and my gag reflexes, two other doctors come to look at my nose. One of them touched it gently and said, “Don’t worry. I’m just checking.”
I know this trick, asshole. You say it’s just a practice run; that you’re not doing anything yet, and then—when I least expect it—you’re gonna’ grasp and snap that thing back into place and it’s gonna’ hurt like hell. 
The guy pulled his hand away and nodded to the other doctor.
The first doctor who spoke English returned and stood straight in front of me.
“I will push here,” he said and pointed to his own nose, “...and then it will be straight. No problem.”
“Got it,” I said.
“It will hurt.”
“I understand.”
“Don’t you want to see the X-rays?” I asked.
He shook his head in that ambiguous Bulgarian way that could mean ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
“Not necessary,” he said.
I took a deep breath.
The doctor positioned himself on my left and widened his stance a bit.
I closed my eyes and felt his thumb press down on the upper bridge of my nose as if he were trying his hardest to push a thumbtack into cement. I let out a dog-like growl—the product of an agonizing yell that must have been muted somewhere between my diaphragm and the bulging veins in my neck. It was an excruciating five seconds.  

When it was over, I caught my breath. I was sweating.
A squatty nurse with acne scars appeared in front of me and patted my head with a cold wet cloth.
Kak si?”
Dobre,” I said. Good. It was all I knew how to say in Bulgarian and the worst of it was over. It had to be.
Wait, the gauze pads are still inside.
The doctor held the skinny, stainless steel, seven-inch pliers in one hand and the long tweezers in the other.
He opened up my nostrils and pulled them out, one at a time. I writhed in discomfort more than pain, since the thumbtack bone re-setting had just adjusted my entire pain threshold.

Two other doctors and a nurse took turns looking at my nose. One of them got a pencil and they took turns lining it up with the bridge of my nose, judging their work. Did I pass the pencil test? They conferred and declared it straight.
While the doctor who spoke the best English taped up my nose, I smiled inside because 1) I couldn’t smile on the outside because it hurt to smile, and 2) I knew that the worst of it was behind me.
It had to be.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Dear Guy with the Lonely Planet Guidebook:

I watched you drop your big backpack, sit down and pull out a 500-page Lonely Planet Thailand book at the Bangkok Airport last week.
You reminded me of me, 16 years ago...  
I was on my first big backpacking trip through Europe. I had an oversized backpack, a paper plane ticket, and a ‘Lonely Planet: Europe’ book that I held onto as I travelled through Italy, Spain, and France. I referred to that guidebook so much, I started calling it ‘the Bible’. Lonely Planet told me what to see, where to stay, where to eat, and offered miscellaneous travel tips with a touch of snarky humor.

Perhaps it served as a nice security blanket for a young traveller still wet behind the ears, but I’m not sure how they sell books anymore. Everything that the big travel guidebooks ($25-40) include can now be easily searched online for free—where there are more pictures, maps and videos of... well, everything. Also, no offense to Lonely Planet (which has plenty of LP Thai info online), but once you ditch the book and make your search more personal, your trips tend to get much more interesting.

Here are 5 reasons why you never need to buy a travel guidebook ever again:

Top 10 Lists: Not sure where you want to travel? Start with looking at broad lists like: 40 Places to See Before You Die, or Top 10 Cities to Visit in your lifetime. Then, once you’ve narrowed it down to Croatia or Vietnam, search for ‘10 best places to see in Vietnam’. (It’s really self-explanatory, right? I mean, the traveler I'm addressing this to was young, so why do I feel like I'm writing this for my grandma?)

Google images: I'm pretty sure you've heard of it. In ancient times, I used to check out the DK Eyewitness Travel books or travel magazines to see pictures of places I was curious about. Now, once you have a list of places, a quick search on Google images shows you the good, the bad, and the ugly. Does the place have only one good postcard angle, or is it a true gem? You be the judge if the water is clear enough or the architecture hits your travel fantasy G-spot, then book a flight.

Skyscanner: Of course, there are tons of sites where you can book flights. Expedia is a big one. I like Skyscanner. It’s frighteningly easy—much more convenient than driving to the closest STA or travel agent and buying a paper ticket (Is that even possible anymore?).  New scientific fact: Tuesday is the best day to book tickets online. I remember standing in foreign train stations, straddling my huge backpack, combing through the “Places to Stay” section of Lonely Planet. I’m sure it made me stick out like a sore thumb-- but no longer (unless you're dressed like Rick Steves). On, there are pictures of the rooms, details, and ratings that are based on a variety of opinions and experiences (not just a few LP authors). Also, the hotel/pension pages are connected to Google maps so you can see exactly where they are and get clear directions.

Eating:  If you really want to plan ahead and get online food recommendations, check If you’re vegetarian, check out Happy Cow. However, I recommend going Anthony Bourdain-style: walk around, look for crowded restaurants, ask locals, and take risks.
It’s more fun.

Americano Abroad

Pictures were taken in Koh Phangan, Thailand. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

2014 San Diego Book Award Finalist

Americano Abroad

is among the top 3 finalists 

in the "Travel Writing" category for this year's SDBA's!

Available in paperback and Kindle on

Also for sale at independent bookstores in:
San Diego, California
Padova, Italy
Sofia, Bulgaria

Monday, December 2, 2013

Now available: "Americano Abroad: A Year of Travel in Stories"

"Dominic Carrillo expresses the wonder and unintended humor that all travelers -- not just Americans -- find on the road."   

–Nate Holman, San Diego Reader

“When I finished reading, I had that bittersweet feeling of wanting more. I didn’t want the journey and the humor to end.”

“I love the way this author writes... constantly amuses the reader.”

–The Kindle Book Review

Thursday, September 12, 2013

About the Beer: Oktoberfest 2013

I took another swig of crisp, clean German lager as I spied the nascent Oktoberfest fairgrounds across the street. Only the steel frames and brewery names were up—the stark beginnings of the world’s biggest booze fest. I knew I wouldn’t be back to attend the festival this year, but had celebrated for a few hours on the Theresienwiese years before. So I could picture the famous festival in full swing—the carnival rides spinning, the lederhosen-ed men, the women in dirndl, the elaborately decorated beer tents fully adorned and packed with revelers. But now, in the construction phase, I saw it in a different way. I saw it as a massive investment; a colossal undertaking for an event that would run a mere two weeks.
‘Why? How did it all start? How much did it all cost?

‘Tens of millions,’ my new German friend, Max, chimed in. ‘But it brings in over a billion.’
I sipped from my stein of lager. It tasted great—perfect, actually. Maybe it just seemed better because I was drinking it in Munich, a city rich in beer history and tradition. What that history was—aside from tourists getting rip-roaring drunk in beer halls like the Hofbrauhaus—had remained a mystery to me. It hit me that I’d never bothered to inquire, which made me feel like more of a dumb American than usual, so I asked.
‘Max, this may be a stupid question,’ I said, ‘but why’s there an Oktoberfest?’
‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘Can you repeat that?
Up till that point, I’d assumed Max’s English—like most Germans’—was more advanced than mine.
‘Oktoberfest? What’s the history?’ I said, ‘Aside from a good excuse to get wasted.’
Max told me and I listened like the student who’d missed a week of school and now desperately needed to catch up. He was an educated man, a convincing German from Munich, so I ate up every word.
‘See that beer you’re drinking,’ he said. “It all started here.”
‘Beer was invented in Munich?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Beer was first made in Mesopotamia and Egypt thousands of years ago. But Munich is where lager beer—what you are now drinking—was first made.”
‘That’s why Oktoberfest is here?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said, expressing a hint of exasperation with my ignorance. Then Max leaned forward and readjusted his position. ‘Well, perhaps... May I explain?’
‘Please do.’
Max explained, in near perfect English, that Munich brewers discovered the ‘bottom fermenting’ method in the 15th century, which produced lager beers. This cold temperature brewing method differed from the traditional warm brewing method (top-fermenting) which produced ales. Since this was all pre-refrigerator, he said, during the warmer months barrels of beer were brewed in caverns in the Alps to produce lagers—cleaner beer, with presumably less bacteria than warm-brewed ales. Soon after, Bavarians passed the Reinheitsgeobot beer purity laws (1516) which stated that the ingredients of beer be restricted to water, barley, and hops, and set a standard for good, clean lager beer throughout southern Germany. 
‘Max,’ I said, ‘I really appreciate this, but I’m never gonna’ remember the details. How does this all relate to Oktoberfest?’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘A few decades after the beer purity laws, summer brewing was outlawed in Bavaria. The rulers knew cold brewing made purer beer with cleaner qualities than top-fermented summer ales. The official brewing season was restricted between September and April, which meant that a large supply of beer would be stored in the chilly Alps during the summer.’

I stared at my beer on the table in front of me, then at the Oktoberfest fairgrounds across the street; then at the faint outline of the Alps in the deep background. I was beginning to see where Max’s story was headed. 
‘By the end of summer,’ Max continued, ‘The many barrels of lager remaining in the mountain caves were brought down into Munich and—with the knowledge that the new brewing season would begin—the old beer was consumed in celebration. I believe the festival was sponsored and encouraged by the king and nobles to keep the common people happy.’
‘Wow,’ I said. ‘That’s really interesting—and makes sense.’ I drank the rest of my lager and felt much smarter than I had when I took my first sip.
That night—inside our spacious room at the Hotel Seibel which overlooked the Theresenweise—I shared my newly acquired knowledge with my girlfriend. She seemed impressed. So impressed that she immediately went to searching ‘Oktoberfest history’ on Google and fact checking.
‘I think Max’s story is bullshit,’ she said after reading a bit.
I checked and, indeed, the information online said that the first Oktoberfest was held in October of 1810 to commemorate the wedding of a prince and princess. The citizens of Munich were invited to the royal wedding, which took place on the current Oktoberfest Theresenweise fairground. The public party happened there the following year and became an anniversary celebration of sorts, complete with a horseracing event. The addition of local brewery beer tents came decades later and Oktoberfest (as a beer festival) grew from there.

That was it. Nothing about beer purity laws, lagers, or the Alps. Nothing I read online resembled Max’s version of history, but I much preferred Max’s explanation.
The next morning, as I gazed over the Theresienwiese fairgrounds from our hotel room, I remembered my one experience at Oktoberfest. I drank three steins that night, ate a huge pretzel, and was more full than drunk. I watched a person stand on a table in leiderhosen and dance, fall four feet down to the hard ground, get up, laugh, and continue dancing. I witnessed someone fall victim to an extreme gang-wedgey that ripped their underwear to shreds just because this unfortunate person was caught in the area of the beer tent where underwear was traditionally verboten. I remember loud, goofy German folk songs, international drunken diplomacy, and huge lines just to piss in a putrid fifty-meter long metal trough. I had no idea about the history or the breweries involved, or anything aside from what I believed at the time to be the whole point of Oktoberfest: to get sloshed; shitfaced; wasted.
Now, looking out over the mostly vacant and lifeless Theresienwiese, I finally had collected some background and solid facts about the grand event: 7 million visitors. 10 million liters of beer consumed. Over 1 billion dollars generated in two weeks. The biggest festival in the world. With knowledge comes respect, I gathered.

But why Oktoberfest?
I still didn’t have a definitive answer. There was the online-trivia-short answer consensus, and then the more layered beer-based story that Max had told me. I wanted to believe it was a combination of both. But as I looked at the grand beer tents under construction and the otherwise barren Theresienwiese, I mainly wanted to attend the event again with a new sense of perspective. What’s more, I wanted the experience, which is really the appealing thing—not the history outline; not the bullet-pointed facts; and not the red thumbtack stuck into a black dot on the “Places I’ve Been” world map on the wall. The rich history, the energy around the event, and the beauty of Munich got me excited about coming back in late September with new eyes; a new appreciation.
Oktoberfesthow’s that for a spontaneous five-day trip!?

I asked the receptionist at our hotel—across the street from the fairgrounds—what the availability of rooms was during this year’s Oktoberfest. Before looking at his booking calendar, he laughed. ‘During Oktoberfest?!’ he said. ‘You’re about a year too late, my friend. We sold out six months ago.’
He told me that there were still vacancies somewhere in Munich between September 21 and October 6, but not at his hotel—or any others in the neighborhood. ‘Maybe I’ll save it for next year,’ I told him, defeated. But when I got back online later that day, I found myself distracted from my original task, instead drifting into a search for flights to Munich on and rooms on From what I gathered, a last minute trip to Oktoberfest would be quite expensive, but not impossible. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

In Front of the US Embassy in Kosovo

I’ve been parked in front of the twenty-foot tall double gates of the US embassy in Kosovo for about two hours now. The good news is that it’s given me the opportunity to read up on the Kosovo War of 1999 (including the numerous mistaken US/NATO bombings of civilians), which helps lend some perspective to the ridiculous and frustrating events that have led to my current situation:
Stuck in Kosovo.   
The short answer: Because a Kosovo border agent had her head up her ass just long enough to screw up our lives for the next 48 hours (at least).
Longer answer:

10:00 pm. In our tenth hour of driving from Dubrovnik, Croatia, my girlfriend and I waited in our car, in line at the Albania-Kosovo border. As we rolled toward the Kosovo border police, we had our passports and car documents in hand. The female police officer kindly greeted us, but then informed me that I needed to buy special insurance at a booth thirty meters behind us (technically in Albania) before entering Kosovo. She told us to park the car ahead of her booth (technically in Kosovo) and that she would hold one of our passports—Itoro’s—until we returned with the required insurance form.

10:05. We shook our heads in disbelief, cursing under our breath in front of the window of the Kosovo insurance booth. The man behind the counter had just told us that it cost 30 euros for the mandatory insurance to enter Kosovo, and that he didn’t accept credit/ATM cards or Croatian Kuna (the only currency we had). He told us that our only option would be to turn around and drive back to the nearest ATM in Kukes, Albania to withdraw euros. After making this two-hour round trip drive, he explained, we could purchase said Kosovo insurance and enter the country. I staggered back toward our car with the painful vision of driving through the Albanian mountains for two more hours.  

10:08. My girlfriend waited in the car while I went to get her passport from the Kosovo border police so we could begin our backtracking ATM mission into Albania. When the officer saw me she stopped the traffic in her line, redirected the idling cars to the other agent, closed her booth, and ushered me inside an office. ‘Why the special treatment?’ I thought, ‘Maybe a warm American welcome?’
‘I’m very sorry,’ she said. ‘I lost the passport.’
‘You’re joking, right?’ I said.
‘No, I am afraid not.’
‘What? How?’ I asked.
‘I gave to another car by accident,’ she said. ‘I very sorry.’
I couldn’t believe it. I grabbed my head and squeezed it to make sure I was fully conscious; that I hadn’t reached a state of delirium from driving all day through four Balkan countries. Was I hallucinating? Was this really happening?
‘You gave it to someone else!?’ I said.
She explained that, yes, it was a horrible mistake, but the problem would soon be solved. She said that this kind of thing happened occasionally and promised that people always returned the passports to the station. She gave me her phone number, officer ID number, and told me to call her later, expressing great certainty that her colossal fuck-up would somehow be worked out in the next few hours.
How? I had no clue. Neither did she, I suspect.
‘So what do we do now?’ I asked the officer.
‘Go into Kosovo...’ she said, ‘And wait, I am afraid.’
‘But we don’t have insurance to go into Kosovo!’ I told her. ‘We don’t have enough cash to buy it.’
She paused. ‘Oh shit,’ she said.
I imagined us stuck for the night in that 300 meter no-man’s land between the exiting Albania border and the entering Kosovo borderline—a purgatorial asphalt strip where passport-less people waited indefinitely for their diplomatic nightmares to end.
‘I will pay for you,’ the police officer said. ‘Follow me.’
She was nice, I guess. Itoro joined us and I quickly filled her in on the Kosovar’s tragic error. To my surprise, Itoro was unresponsive—stunned, I suppose. All three of us walked to the insurance booth in Albania. The police officer lady handed over 30 euros, gave us the Kosovo car insurance slip, and we walked to our car. She apologized again and told us to call her when we arrived in Pristina.

10:15. We drove on the freeway toward Pristina in a state of shock. Without a passport, Itoro would be confined to Kosovo until it was found. What made it worse: losing the Bulgarian visa inside her passport (and all the work/money that went into acquiring it). During those 90 kilometers from the border to Pristina, we laughed a lot—maybe because it seemed the only alternative to crying. Perhaps it was maniacal laughter—brought on by a combination of driving fatigue, heat, and incredulity about the absurd sequence of events back at the border. At any rate, we drove and laughed as if it were all a big joke.

Now: The passport never turned up. I’m still parked in front of the twenty-foot tall double gates of the US embassy in Kosovo, waiting for Itoro to come out with some decent news. And the big question: How long will we be stuck in Kosovo? I honestly don’t know. So I’m going to get back to reading up on the Kosovo War of 1999, which helps lend some perspective to our current situation.