28 October 2013

Huge Trees, Bronze Medals, New Guidebooks

A quick round-up of Interesting Things over here:

1. Holy #$%@!! Redwoods. Amazing. Utterly Amazing. 

Maren and I headed out to northern California for our honeymoon. We did a little road trip among giant trees, hillside vineyards, and a certain infamous island prison. The highlight, without question, was the ten-mile hike we impulsively decided to do at Prairie Creek State Park, home of some of the tallest living things on the planet.

Redwoods. Go there. Put away all your Eight Gazillion Things to Do Before You Die guidebooks and trust me on this one: You've gotta see these forests. Photos don't begin to do them justice. It's like ... it's like I want to take back all the other times in my life that I've used the word "majestic," because nothing else seems worthy.


Also: fern-walled canyons, like something out of The Lost World. 


Actually, Spielberg came here to film scenes for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World. But you don't even need to know that, or to have seen the movie, to be awe-struck and struck, in an elemental and abiding sort of way, by how wondrously, mesmerizingly primeval this place is. As Maren put it, "If a Tyrannosaurus Rex ate me right now, I wouldn't even mind, because it would feel so appropriate."  

Redwoods. I'm telling you, begging you. Go. See them. You can thank me later.

2. An award for Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day

The day of our trek through the Land Of The Giants And Maybe Some Dinosaurs just so happened to be the same day that the Society of American Travel Writers announced the winners of their annual Lowell Thomas Awards. When we got back to the hotel, I logged onto the internet for just a sec to check the announcement and ... Hey! Sweet! 

I'm delighted and honored to say that Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day picked up the bronze for Best Travel Book!

3. Back to basics: The Return of Frommer's Guidebooks

I'm not one for fantasy football, but if there were a fantasy league to keep tabs on guidebook publishers, I'd be all in. I mean, you've all been following this as closely as I have, right? The ups and downs and power plays and intriguing goings-on?  

For anyone who hasn't been been hanging on every detail, here's a quick run-down of my own favorite publisher:

August 2012: Google buys Frommer's

March 2013: Google quietly says that well, y'know, there's a chance that ... ummm ... Yeah, we're not gonna keep publishing Frommer's as a hard-copy guidebook line. Sorry about that but, well, changing world and all that. 

Two weeks later: Arthur Frommer buys his guidebook line back from Google. (As a friend of mine said, incredulously, "I didn't know you could do that--buy something from Google.") Frommer announces plans to start printing new guidebooks in the autumn. 

Hey, you know what it is right now? Autumn 2013. And true to his word, Frommer is relaunching his new guidebooks. As he told the Los Angeles Times, “Fifty-seven years later, I’m returning to what I originally did. ... I'm probably the oldest fledgling publisher in world history.”


That weird honking noise is me blowing my party horn. While wearing a paper party hat, natch. In my world, this is big, exciting news. 

14 October 2013

The Craziest, Coolest Real Mail Yet

Do not get into a creative mail competition with Jeff in Aurora, Colorado. 

He's been sending me postcards and aerograms for a while, as I mentioned a few weeks ago. And after that shout-out, he responded with this: 

Tube o' Mystery


Tear off the face to reveal the prize
A film canister impaled with a pen. And Scooby Doo has a message for you.

Wait. Really? There's a scroll in there? How long could it possibly be?


In the neighborhood of EIGHT FEET, ladies and gents. An eight-foot-long letter--or, as Jeff calls it, "Rollergram." (Trademark and patent pending, I'm sure.)


Take a bow, Jeff. 

And to everyone else, including me: The creative correspondence gauntlet has been thrown down. 

26 September 2013

An Open Letter to Congressional Republicans From a Guy With a Gaping Hole In His Side

Hey, Remember that time Congressional Republicans shut down the government for the express purpose of halting Obamacare? Yeah. That was pretty messed up, especially since it was before the whole website debacle, so it's not like they even had that as a talking point; it was just Socialism and Death Panels blah blah blah. As someone who values being healthy but whose body often seems to have other ideas, I was more than a bit pissed. 


Dear Congressional Republicans,

Hi there. I'm a guy with a gaping hole in his side--not even slightly kidding about that. You're killing me over here.

Obamacare will literally change my life, improving my lot, along with that of millions of other people like me. And when you threaten to shut down the government in hopes of preventing this life-saving, money-saving program from ever coming to fruition, well, I kinda take that personally.

*

Credential Check, or Who The Hell Does This Guy Think He Is?

Don't you dare lecture me about the value of hard work and sacrifice and aspiring to be your best. I know it, I've lived it.

About that hole in my side. I have an ileostomy. Translation: my colon was surgically removed and now I poop into a bag. It's not something I particularly wanted to say here on my blog--or to anyone, anywhere. Hello, I'm Doug, I poop into a bag. What's your name? 

But you, Congressional Republicans (and with a special shout-out to Senator Cruz), seem pathologically incapable of understanding that there's a vast world of people and experiences beyond your own. So here you go; here's mine. I’m thirty-two years old, healthy, active, clean-living ... and I poop into a bag. Health care isn't some abstract thing for me. It's a weight that I carry every day--for years, a weight of constant, debilitating pain and anxiety, and now a literal weight, in the form of the poop-bag attached to the hole in my side.

20 September 2013

Real Mail Week, Part 4: Aerograms As Travel Guides

It takes you a while to discover the secret. The reason this letter is not just interesting but kind of brilliant.

David in Edinburgh, a guy you've never met or heard from before, sends you this homemade aerogram:


You unfold it. Inside, it looks like this: 


You keep unfolding and find an evocative story of wandering around Dublin.


Welcome to Dublin. You're going to love it. ... 
Big open field on the campus, tonnes of people lazin' about on a Friday evening. Sun turnin' orange and about twenty minutes left before it disappears behind the buildings on Dame Street. Smiling now, thinking back on it. You know that blue tint the sky gets on a hot evening in the early summer ...
You think: This is kinda trippy and definitely awesome. Writing with a serious sense of place and voice.

As you opened the aerogram, more sheets of paper, loose paper, fell out. You line up the sheets, take a picture.

19 September 2013

Real Mail Week, Part 3: Aerogram Awesomeness



I know I'm far from the only person who loves aerograms, those wonderful sheets of paper that combine correspondence with (super easy) origami--"the height of epistolary convenience," as Don George put it on Gadling a while back. (See also Evan Rail's essay "An Aerogram From Berlin" for World Hum.) 

And judging from the fact that my aerogram template has been downloaded some 9,000 times, it's clear that there are more than a few people looking for ways to continue sending aerograms, even if they're no longer available at any given post office or stationery store. (I did recently discover a form of aerograms, called Mailblok, hidden under a table at my favorite stationery store. Don't let the packaging fool you, though--it may say "Blue Airmail Paper" but the paper itself is that shade of blue known as "actually just plain ol' white.")

Anyway. I get excited anytime anyone sends me anything, but I do a special little Mail Nerd Dance when an aerogram shows up in my mailbox. Sometimes they use my own template. Sometimes it's one of the ones from Mailblok. Sometimes it's just a standard piece of paper that's been folded in on itself carefully. And sometimes it's a work of art. The master of the artistic aerogram--and postcards, for that matter--is Jeff in Aurora, Colorado, who gets points not just for creativity but also for diligence--he persists in writing even when the other correspondent (me) doesn't hold up his end of the bargain.

Here are some of Jeff's masterpieces:


18 September 2013

Real Mail Week, Part 2: Hemingway, Che, and a Bagpiper Go Into a Post Office ...

It's International Real Mail Week! I decreed it so, even if I'm the only one observing it (I sent letters to 104 heads of state, but they all must've gotten lost in the mail ... which is mighty ironic, if you think about it). Yesterday was all about the epic Pantone Postcard Conspiracy that has been filling my mailbox for over a year. 

Today: More postcards. Here are some of my favorites, as many as would fit onto my coffee table (about a third to half of the cards I've received since the last postcard gallery update). 

Click for larger version.
Now, the main reason I love postcards is that they're art plus narrative in one compact package that you can hold, feel, put on your refrigerator, or arrange on your coffee table. Beyond that, though--and I'm gonna get all writer-nerd on you here--I also love how they force you to tell a story succinctly and even give you a writing prompt on the other side. I particularly enjoy sending postcards from places OTHER than what's on the front, and then tying that image into my commentary on the real things I'm seeing around me. But then, I'm weird.

17 September 2013

Real Mail Week, Part 1: What It Looks Like When You Get 116 Color-Coordinated Postcards

Be careful what you wish for. You may be an aficionado of old-school mail, for example, but if you publicly proclaim yourself as such, and ask people to write to you, well ... 

They will.


That's only a fraction of the correspondence. Specifically, the fraction representing the number that will fit on my coffee table for photo-documentation purposes. I'm gonna need a bigger coffee table.

You people. You impress me. Your letters. Postcards. Homemade aerograms with elaborate collages. Correspondence from every continent except for the one covered in ice, which is considerably trickier in every way, and I'm not even sure if it's possible for people to send postcards from there (and my book hasn't yet been translated into Penguin, so none of them have written to me yet).

As for my own impressiveness ... well, it doesn't measure up, I'm afraid. I'm way behind in my correspondence--and "way" in this case means, oh, "In some cases more than a year." I'll just repeat that for purposes of full public shaming: Over. A. Year. Behind. I'm sorry. Really. Truly. Sure, I've got excuses. Which one do you want? I've been beyond busy. Had a book published. Went on book tour. Was a guest speaker on a big ol' ship for four weeks. Got more assignments, which I had to juggle with my day job. Moved. Planned a wedding and then, last month, got married to an amazing, wonderful woman (our vows were adapted from our early love letters to each other; she's also a fan of old-school correspondence). (Wedding pic below, BTW.) 

But still. I've been remiss. So this week, I'm catching up, at long last. I'm putting pen to paper and writing back. And I'm also putting pixels to ... well, pixels, as I also finally catch up on posting photos of some of the highlights of your correspondence. 

*

Today: The Great Pantone Conspiracy

As noted previously, shortly after I put out the call for correspondence, a couple of years ago now, I started getting Pantone postcards--that is, postcards that looked like giant swatches from the color company Pantone. To date, I have received at least 116 such postcards, from strangers and family and long-lost friends, from Indonesia and Switzerland and Morocco and Chile and Cuba (!) and other places near and far.

The pace has slowed down since the early days of the Pantone Conspiracy, but they keep trickling in--as you'll see, I got two more yesterday.

So here is what 116 postcards look like: 


Except, wait, right after I took that photo, I looked on the floor and saw that I forgot a few:



30 July 2013

Hello, Taiwan! (Or: How Do You Say "Book Launch, Woohoo!!" in Chinese?)

This officially debuts on August 1st:


The Taiwan edition of Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day-- make that 我用50年前的旅遊指南玩歐洲. I'm very excited.

The book was translated into traditional Chinese by Ting Wai-min, to whom I owe a sincere apology for words I just made up, as in the sentence "I am, as the Dutch say, kindofaneuroticintrovert." 

I tried plugging that into Google Translate just now, English to Chinese, and it came back with this: kindofaneuroticintrovert. So that's helpful.

I'm also sorry, Ting Wai-min, for "grimetastic," which Google Translate renders as 污垢TASTIC的

08 July 2013

Travels With Duct Tape: Innovative On-the-Road Uses For Life's Greatest Tool

I’ve heard it said that all a toolbox really needs is duct tape and WD-40. If it doesn’t move but it should, use the WD-40; if it does move but it shouldn’t, use the tape.

Duct tape is particularly useful for travelers--like all good travel gear, it does double-duty. Actually, it does way more than that. Here are some ways I’ve seen it used, plus a couple that I just might try on my next trip.

*

1. The Patch 




















The most common use among travelers is undoubtedly as a patch--on bags, shoes, and clothing.

It also works as a decoration: my mom has several long pieces of blue tape on her suitcase, which I assumed was to fix a hole until she told me it was just to help her spot it on the baggage carousel at the airport.

*

2. A + B = Awesome



Second most common use: affixing Item A to Item B, even if they don’t obviously go together. I once saw a guy in a hostel lounge making his own headlamp with a baseball cap, a small flashlight, and a roll of tape.


3. Laundry Time
Come laundry day, there are all kinds of uses, particularly as a sink plug, lint roller/light dirt remover (you’re on your own for the stains, though), and clothesline (but not, alas, clothespins).

*

4. Drink Up



In college, one of my roommates made a cup out of duct tape. It wasn’t very stable when he put it down, but otherwise it worked surprisingly well.

But why stop there? For someone with a bit of ambition and time on his or her hands, duct tape can serve other travel needs. Like . . .

*

5. Lookin' Slick


How about a duct tape tie? I’m not really a dress-up guy, but it seems like every trip there’s a time when I wish I had something just a bit fancier to wear. It bet it’d look great, at least from a distance. A long distance.

*

6. Rest Easy (and Sticky)


Or, for the really ambitious . . .

Hostel bed not up to your standards? Stranded in the jungle? No worries--just make a duct tape hammock! (May require way more duct tape than you actually have.)

30 June 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 15: Nativity Scenes, Zip-Lining, and the Strange Juxtapositions of Travel

Hello? Is this thing still on? 

So ... Certain readers will have noticed that I never quite finished telling the tale of the Enrichment Voyage last winter. Life got in the way. But that doesn't mean there aren't still plenty of stories from that wondrous, strange journey that was most definitely not a cruise. You can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

I'll keep posting Enrichment Voyage stories here and there, I promise. For now, here's something to keep the narrative thread going, albeit slowly and slightly. 

This is a post I wrote for Enrichment Voyage's very own blog. I think it pretty well sums up the overall experience. 


Large structure: Fortaleza Real Felipe, Callao, Peru.
Small structure: Nativity scene
One of the great joys of travel is the strange combinations and juxtapositions it creates. High culture meets low, foreign meets familiar, and even the most commonplace tableaux take on a new surrealism when paired in unexpected ways.

It is not terribly remarkable when I tell you that I saw many elaborate, handmade nativity scenes in Peru, the exact sort of large-ish but not quite life-size creches that you might expect to see on church lawns back home in the states.

It’s a lot more interesting when I tell you that I saw one such large display — roughly four feet by four feet by four feet, featuring all the expected characters, plus blinking lights and Christmas carols rendered in electronic bleating from unseen speakers — behind the counter of a post office.

04 May 2013

The Real Me: Notes on dating in the Google era

Wrote a story for The Morning News about online courtship and the persistence of personal histories on the internet (for better or for worse). Here's how it begins:

Certain questions answer themselves. Like when a message appears in your email inbox from a romantic interest who you’ve barely met, whose full name you don’t yet know, and to whom, come to think of it, you’ve never given your email address—a message with a subject line reading, “Is this stalking?”
Read the rest at The Morning News.

And, holy crap, the story got some link love from The Dish, one of my own must-read blogs. That made my day.

For readers who got here via The Morning News or The Dish or are otherwise new here: Hello. Thanks very much for stopping by. Also sort of amusing: judging from the web stats, plenty of you have also taken the time to figure out Maren's last name (never mentioned in the story) and google her and find HER website. Which is kinda awesome, kinda creepy, in keeping with the essay's themes.

Anyway. Please take a few minutes to look around and read some other stuff, will you? There's ...

Cheers.

03 April 2013

Bookiversary: A Year In The Life Of An Author, By The Numbers

We interrupt Enrichment Voyage programming for a brief message: Today is Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day's bookiversary! That's totally a word. I know because I just made it up. 

A year ago today, nearly 200 people crammed into a subterranean bar in Nordeast Minneapolis to help me launch the book. The twelve months that ensued were equally as frenetic, nerve-wracking, wonderful, weird, and cocktail-fueled (make mine an Old Fashioned, please).

Some selected highlights, lowlights, and weird-lights, by the numbers:
  • Honors I still kinda can’t believe actually happened, and make me grin like you wouldn’t believe: National Geographic Traveler Book of the Month and being a guest speakeron a cruise ship, along with, um, Sandra Day O’Connor and other Genuinely Accomplished People.
  • Overall talks/readings/signings: 17 (I think?)
  • Number at (or presented by) indie bookstores: 8
  • Number at cooking stores: 1 (the excellent Hill's Kitchen in Washington, DC)
  • Number at which I gave an old-school slide show (you know, with an old-school slide projector): 4
  • Number given with a cocktail in my hand: 1
  • Type of cocktail and person who first introduced me to it: Caipirinha; Lee, obviously (in Europe)
  • Number given on a cruise ship (as noted above): 5
  • Overlap between cocktail-in-hand and cruise ship presentations: 100%
  • Oddest encounter during a book tour event: the biker guy at the TV station in Seattle, who swore up and down that he had just videotaped "a mother sasquatch nursing a baby" and they needed to put it on the air right now.  
  • Place where I got the best audience questions: my old high school (true story)
  • Silliest question at a reading: “Can you recommend a guidebook for Paris?” (This after I had just spent half an hour talking about how I’d visited the Continent—for the first and only time—with a 1963 guide, making me really not the right person to ask this question.)
  • Question I frankly am sick of answering: “What’s your favorite city?”
  • Percentage of readings (and interviews) where someone asked this: 85%
  • What I do when this happens: Smile and reply with whatever city sounds good at the moment, but the truth is it really depends on my mood and a ton of other factors, as described here.
  • Postcards and Commentary Track Bookmarks given away: Probably around 200
  • Interviews for and/or stories in foreign media: 4
  • Coolest story about that: My mom was traveling in Europe shortly after Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper ran an interview with me. During casual conversation with the guy sitting next to her on the airplane, she mentioned my book and he said, “Oh, I just read about him when I was in Germany!”
  • Foreign media requests turned down, with regrets: 1, because, alas, if I tried to do a live radio interview in German, I would sound like a less coherent, less sophisticated Dumbass American version of the Swedish Chef.
  • Times I have checked my Amazon Sales Rank: Um. Like mumble-mumble-trillion.
  • Current Sales Rank: (Sigh.)
  • Amount of the Amazon book page URL that I have to type into my browser before it auto-completes the rest: A
  • Book clubs directly interrogated by: 2
  • Book clubs that live-tweeted at least a portion of their own discussion (and tagged me in their tweets): 2
  • Book clubs where someone brought chocolate croissants to the their discussion: 1
  • Site of the above book club: National Geographic HQ (!!)
  • Emails from readers who used Europe on Five Dollars a Day themselves, in the 1960s: 20 or so
  • Emails from readers who used Europe on Five Dollars a Day themselves, in the 2000s: 1
  • Emails from  1960s travelers who asked me to check my book for old-school hotel information she’d been wondering about for years: 1
  • Letters, postcards, or packages from readers: Oh, man. Dozens, maybe hundreds. Turns out there are a ton of other people who like old-school mail. (Ahem: PO Box 1922,  Minneapolis, MN 55458-1922)
  • Coolest package contents: a fresh packet of the Big Boy Bail Bonds pens that Lee planned to use to ward off Belgian thugs (please see page 105, where you will note that I erroneously called the company “Bad Boy Bail Bonds,” an egregious error for which I sincerely apologize).
  • Speed with which I have replied to various correspondents: Approximately the same as continental drift
  • Level of guilt I feel for the above: Immense
  • Assurance I will make: It’s coming. For real. I promise.
  • Most polarizing chapter: Venice
  • Profanity-laced caps-heavy emails from readers who cannot BELIEVE that I would say anything positive about that VILE Paris place or anything sarcastic about that TRANSCENDENTLY WONDERFUL Venice place: 1
  • A brief comment to this and the other (very few but vocal) persons who were taken aback my brooding in said chapter: It’s really about travel fatigue, not gratuitous dissing of a city that, I now understand, you daydream about on an hourly basis.
  • Answer to the inevitable question about The Next Book: Workin’ on it. I have an idea; my agent likes it; I need to get started on the proposal.
Parting words to everyone who has read the book, bought it, recommended it, etc.: Thank you all. So much. 

27 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 14: The Things They Sell on Avenida Abancay

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.



Location: Lima, Peru
Today's telling detail: the bathroom scale

Nearly every sidewalk square on Avenida Abancay has its own vendor. They squat and stoop and kneel and sit against the beat-up brick walls that form the back edge of the sidewalk, the dividing line between official and unofficial commerce, although neither seems to be doing much business today.

The street vendors bend their legs, pull them to their chests, trying not to steal space from their displays, which are already perilously close to being trampled by the endless, dense, frenzied stream of humanity passing by inches away. Trying not to impose. This isn't their first choice, sitting out here. But you have to do something. Their wares are spread on folded blankets or swatches of cloth or panels carefully, pridefully torn from cardboard boxes. The arrangements are neat, tight lines for knockoff luxury goods--watches, bracelets--or anything of which there is plenty; haphazard strewing where there are few items to offer. Perhaps increased surface area will draw more customers. Anyway, it feels better this way. You have to pretend, for your own self-worth, even if no one else even acknowledges your existence as you sit there trying to sell whatever it is you have.

The things they sell on Avenida Abancay are things that are easily carried on buses or on foot. Aside from portability, anything goes.

A burly man has set out his wares on a paint-spattered drop-cloth: wrenches and tape measures, all different sizes, all carefully organized. He looks like he just came from a construction site, wearing worn, baggy jeans and clear safety goggles, which shield his downward, stoic, squinted gaze.

A man with the appearance and bearing of a down-on-his-luck aristocrat--hair in tight curls, fingers long and uncalloused, gestures subtly theatrical--has a wooden box full of metal corkscrews in clear plastic wrappers. Unlike his typically-silent colleagues, he keeps trying to strike up conversation with passersby, his expression puppy-dog-hopeful. I don't understand his words, but I imagine them to be: "All your fine wines at home deserve a fine corkscrew to open them! Buy now, before they're all gone!" No one buys; no one stops.

A rotund woman with a scowl and jet-black hair in a high bun sits on a plastic stool with a basket at her feet. It's filled with little jars of white cream. To make your skin clearer. To make your skin softer. To make your skin lighter.

Other vendors have filled their tiny piece of real estate with reading glasses, with batteries, with small padlocks that look like they could be broken with a finger-flick--but together, for now, for this one person, carry the weight of the world.

They sell services on Avenida Abancay. A lanky young man in fashionable clothes made with cheap fabric stands by a small cart. He holds a digital camera; a small printer sits on the cart, which is covered with examples of his service: passport photos. A few people stop to chat with him, eddying the foot traffic, which is simultaneously pinched in from the other side by an arriving minibus. A bouncer-looking man leans out the side of the minibus, holding a sign with the vehicle's destination, then hops down to the sidewalk, yells the destination a couple of times, and twirls his sign. We're here, all aboard, let's keep moving.

The crowd keeps moving.

The air is thick, particulated. Lima's famous panza de burro grey--"belly of the donkey"--from the ubiquitous fog takes on an extra dirty-donkey-ish tinge. All those vehicles, as dense and focused as the humans on the sidewalk. This mass of humanity. A woman wearing an orange jumpsuit and a dust mask pushes a broom against the prevailing tide of foot traffic, Sisyphus as sidewalk-sweeper.

An empty plastic step stool sits next to a liter jug full of brackish water with a scattering of rose petals floating at the top. A small sign next to the jug reads "Asesoramiento tarot y espiritual."

They sell food on the Avenida Abancay, and it is these vendors who have the best business and, not coincidentally, the broadest smiles. If you sell food, you typically set up on the street side of the sidewalk.

Quechua man with a large knife, just a few ticks short of a machete, slices a pineapple--juicy, succulent, a Pure Platonic Yellow devoid of any other colors.

From wicker baskets, they sell tamales and alfajores; from small carts they sell freshly-griddled hamburgers, freshly-fried churros, freshly-roasted maize, its kernels like gleaming marbles. They sell chicken on skewers and nuts in bags. And every block, several people, often of Chinese extraction, have set up carts with a large, see-through container full of quail eggs on one side and a sizzling pan of oil on the other. 

The smells are not quite omnipresent--there's too much frenzy here for anything, even an odor, to linger for long--but come at you in regular waves as you walk down Avenida Abancay, a metronome of scents. 

A block or two down from the area of peak density--although there are still plenty of people here--a woman stands in the doorway of a vacant storefront. She is perfectly upright, not a trace of a hunch, even though she has a baby strapped to her back. She is Quechua, in the traditional attire, including a bowler hat and an intricately woven shawl with a pattern that is variations on a theme of red. The baby wears a knit chullo hat, blue, the ear flaps brushing its shoulders. The woman looks slightly lost and baffled by her circumstances, her eyes haunted and wide. She seems on the verge of crying but fighting to maintain her composure--for her potential customers, for her child, for herself.  

In her hand, she holds a bag of individually-wrapped green apple hard candies, similar to Jolly Ranchers. This is what she sells on Avenida Abancay, one or two or a handful at a time. 

At her feet is a bathroom scale, worn and rusted, the glass over the dial scratched and foggy, although not so much that you can't read the numbers--not so much that she can't squat down, her back still perfectly straight, and carefully shake out some candies, letting them scatter across the surface, and estimate the weight by tracking the red pointer's almost imperceptible progress from 0 to 1. Not so much that she can't tell you her fair price and make the sale. 

18 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 13: Of Skulls, Guinea Pigs, and the World's Most Beautiful Library: A Visit to the Convento de San Francisco in Lima

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

A monk enters the Convent of San Francisco
Location: Lima, Peru
Today's telling detail: the dust

On the list of fascinating things to see at the Convento de San Francisco, the piles of skulls and bones are actually only fifth on the list.

Admission to the convent is a mere 7 soles (about $2.25 when I was there) and it is, not even kidding, quite possibly worth the trip to Lima by itself. Built in 1774, the convent is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's not hard to see why. 

By "piles of skulls and bones," I mean catacombs. Below-ground, dimly-lit, labyrinthine catacombs with vaulted ceilings and room after room with pit after pit of bones and more bones and still more bones, organized by bone type--femurs in this stone bin, ribs in that one, fibulas in the next--and tastefully arranged in giant careful lines or herringbone patterns or concentric circles. The care and artistry is actually kind of unnerving--it's as though these are displays at Morbid Pottery Barn.  Whose job was it to sort the bones? Who art-directed the arrangements? Who made the final call about which skulls, exactly, to put in the niches, in precisely the sort of way they do in haunted houses, except this is supposed to be solemn and respectful, not campily creepy? 

The mind boggles; the mind wanders. Most days, that would be the most intriguing tale of the day, the likeliest candidate for dinner-table conversation.

Today, it's only number five. 

Number four is the restoration happening on the underside of a staircase. There's a scrim hiding the work, so it's hard to see precisely what's going on, but it appears that there's a short hallway that cuts under the stairs, the ceiling tilted, its plaster painted in some elaborate manner. There are two people sitting on chairs perched atop a scaffolding, so that they can easily reach the ceiling when they sit upright. They're doing touch-up work, their brushwork tight and careful. Because of the scrim, I can't see the workers' faces or even what they're working on--but I can see their outlines, because their shadows are cast onto the scrim by bright spotlights. It's mesmerizing: Portrait of the Artists As Shadow Puppets. No one else in our tour group seems to notice as we walk past, but I'm so entranced that I linger for a good minute before catching up with the group and then whispering to a couple of my friends from the ship that they have to slip away from the group for a second, because there's something I just have to share with someone. (Unfortunately, photos are very strictly forbidden inside the convent, so I don't have any pictures, which kind of breaks my heart. But you can find convent photos taken by rule-breaking tourists on Flickr.)

Number three is the painting that the group is admiring when I track them down after my moment of awe in the company of shadows. The painting takes up nearly an entire end of a long, skinny room. It looks a whole lot like "The Last Supper." It is "The Last Supper." Except that on a big platter in the middle of the table--being admired by Jesus and his disciples--is a delicious meal of roast guinea pig. Cuy, to use the Spanish word, was historically a fairly common food in Peru (and it's still not too hard to find on a menu, although definitely not on your typical tourist-restaurant bill of fare). (Students of art history: here's the full Cuy Supper story.)

Number two is a vast, unbelievably beautiful, jaw droppingly intricate dome over the grand staircase that leads to the upper level, where there's a library and a choir loft open to the church itself. The dome features a cedar lattice of star shapes. I'm not doing it justice. It kills me not to have photos. But suffice it to say, if this dome were in any given building in the USA, tourists would come from miles around just to look up and gape. The intricacy of the pattern and the pure craftsmanship of the execution seem very nearly impossible--as beautiful, to my mind, as anything I saw at the Vatican or in Florence. 

And then there is number one, which is, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, simply the most beautiful space I have seen, ever. That's a strong statement, prompting eye-rolls and charges of hyperbole. I absolutely mean it. 

It's a library. The church itself didn't do much for me, spiritually, nor did the works of religious art and iconography throughout the convent. But stepping into this library probably about as close as this agnostic has ever felt to the divine. It literally took my breath away; it literally made me cry.

It's one big room, long and skinny and lit by three very small chandeliers and three very large skylights, which flood the space with an ethereal glow. The light, my God, the light. On either side of the room, directly across from each other, are two perfectly symmetrical spiral staircases that lead up to a small balcony area, which overhangs the shelves that march all the way to the back wall. Brackets that call to mind small sections of spiderwebs join the balcony to the shelves. It's all a study in symmetry, intimacy, and serenity, the details impeccable but not ostentacious. (This photo gives you as sense of it, but really doesn't begin to do it justice.)

The shelves are packed with books, most of them upright and organized, but some stacked in piles or leaning oddly or otherwise arranged a seemingly haphazard manner, as though some monk was recently browsing the stacks and didn't quite put things back correctly. And, actually, that's possible. These books are all very, very old, and in various states of deterioration, but they're not behind glass or protected in any way. They're literally gathering dust here--this is not a museum, not a gallery. It doesn't feel twee or contrived or preserved simply for the sake of tourists--it just is, as it always has been. The dust and the scattered haphazardly-shelved books--all perfectly-lit, the colors warm and saturated, the lines perfectly defined--add to the sense that you've just stepped into this magnificent room not with a tour guide but through a warp in the space-time continuum. You're not sure if it's 1780 or 1870 or 1920; there's not so much as a glowing exit sign to signal that you're in the twenty-first century. 

The natural thing, in these too-perfect moments, is to think of film--it's like something out of Indiana Jones, or maybe Hogwarts. Shakespeare, maybe. Something. This can't be real. You start looking for the flaws; it starts to feel uncanny, even creepy.

Except, sometimes, your brain doesn't even get that far. It's too busy being overwhelmed, too strained by the very literal awesomeness of a place. 

11 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 12: Lima's New Path

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.


Location: Lima, Peru
Today's telling detail: The scene at the mall

In a park in the thriving Miraflores neighborhood of Lima, atop bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, there's a massive statue unlike any other I've seen in a city park: a much-larger-than-life couple making out. I mean, they're really going at it, in a way that would make you avert your gaze and think, "Get a room!" if they were actual sentient humans. Their much-larger-than-life arms are around each other, the man's much-larger-than-life shirt is removed (and, ahem, get your mind out of the gutter--I did not look at the relative sizes of anything else).  

Welcome to El Parque del Amor, dedicated in 1993. 

It was toward the end of a bike tour of Miraflores that we stopped here. Our guide, Jose, said that the statue and the park--which also features walls with mosaic inlays of quotes and poetry celebrating love--were inspired by the fact that coiled lovers are a frequent scene in Lima's parks. Other sources trace the origin to an observation from the Peruvian poet Antonio Cilloniz: "In the cities, they do not build monuments to lovers" but only to warriors. 

In either case, the citizens of Lima seem to be following instructions. As we biked out of the park, we went along a narrow path lined with eight benches. Seven were occupied by couples in getting cozy--and on the eighth sat a well-dressed young woman who seemed to be waiting expectantly.  

On one side of the park, there's a deep, wide ravine spanned by a bridge carrying cars and pedestrians across to the southern part of Miraflores (you can see the bridge in the background of the photo above). The sides of the bridge are hemmed in by tall walls of thick, transparent plastic, which curve back over the sidewalk, forming a partial tunnel that looks a bit like a massive hamster Habitrail. The barricades were erected to prevent jumpers--the bridge had become infamous as a suicide hotspot.

As Jose put it while we stood in the park: "If things don't work out here, you go over there."


It's the easiest cliche in the travel-writing playbook to juxtapose a place's contrasts: its old and new, its simple and extravagant, its melancholy and joy. Sometimes, there's no escaping this observation, though; to do so is to miss a genuine story.

In Lima, this sort of thing is everywhere you turn. Some are more telling than others. Other cities have their  romance/despair dichotomies, although Lima's park and bridge are particularly potent versions. And while it's initially amusing to see teenage boys skateboarding in a park that has floral re-creations of the ancient Nazca Lines, it's ultimately not especially interesting.


I mean, what's the story? "DUDE! Old ... and new! In one place! Where's my camera?!" There's no link, though, no accurate metaphor to be read into the scene; no narrative thread. It's A plus B without equaling C.

*

But in Lima, very often, the ubiquitous combinations tell all kinds of nuanced stories. Like the trees in El Parque Olivar. The area was a thriving olive plantation in the early nineteenth century, and after the Peru won its independence in 1821, the fleeing Spaniards chopped down many of the trees. But from these stumps grew new trees--often gnarled and Dr. Suess-looking, but objectively beautiful in their own way. 

Today, it's a preserved green space, one of the city's most beloved, where families go for picnics and tourists go for bike-rides. From an act of conquest grows a space of respite. That's a nice story. 




Far more powerful, though, are the scenes that show the ongoing reconciliation of a painful recent past--just as I saw all over the place in Berlin, where flashy billboard rise directly over somber monuments and Checkpoint Charlie, that potent symbol of Cold War division, is now, to a large degree, just another kinda cheesy tourist trap.  

Back in Lima, see if you can spot the telling detail in this photo: 



What you see here is the LarcoMar mall, which is built below street level, wedged into the cliffs of Miramar. This isn't the greatest photo, but if you click for the larger version, you'll see that the storefront in the middle of the image is Tony Roma's, the American restaurant chain. 

Keep looking for the telling detail.

Upper left. There are three people. Above them: a beaming cross. 

That cross is 50 meters high; it's on the hillside far in the distance. It was erected in 1998 on the occasion of Pope John Paul's visit to Peru--and it was constructed using materials from electrical towers that had been destroyed by the Shining Path, the militant group that terrorized Peru throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, and may be, as The Economist recently noted, "Still smoldering." 

"The terrorists used to bomb power facilities often," says Jose. "I would have to do my homework with a candle. My mother would be cooking in the dark." 

This not ancient history. Jose is fairly young, around thirty, and his memories of the Shining Path are vivid. He doesn't seem haunted exactly, but deeply frustrated, his typical smile and gleaming eyes turning into a more solemn mask. 

Things are different now. Not perfect, by any means. But connect those dots--the blackouts, the cross, the mall--and you have a complicated story that has unfolded over a short period of time, and continues to play out each and every day. 

05 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 11: Scenes From a Park With 300 Iguanas

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Well hello there. 
Location: Guayaquil, Ecuador
Today's telling detail: Those sinister eyes. Just look at them.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a tourist who enters across a park filled with 300 iguanas will ignore the signs saying "DO NOT TOUCH THE ANIMALS."

Officially, the park in the center of Guayaquil is called Parque Seminario. Officially, the main attractions are the statue of Simon Bolivar; the well-maintained stone paths and manicured lawns of refined urban parks everywhere; the large historic gazebo that host concerts by a municipal police band (every afternoon, I'm told). Officially, you're not supposed to touch the iguanas.

Hahahahaha. Right. To all of that.

Pretty much everyone seems to call it "Iguana Park." They're everywhere. They're the real stars here. And they're what brings in all the gawkers--both locals and tourists.



You can't really tell from this photo, but this tree is FULL of iguanas.
You are strongly advised not to stand directly below it.

Our taxi driver, Christian, had wanted to take us to the local history museum, across the street from the park, but we were disappointed to learn it was closed.

Kind of disappointed. Soooort of.

Okay, honestly, not really.

I mean, dude: 300 iguanas.

Christian looked on as we snapped our photos. All day, during our extended drum hunt and our later quest for lunch--during which we rebuffed his suggestions of international chains and their slick local knockoffs, because we didn't particularly want pizza and burgers but something just a tad more authentic and traditional--he kept offering us that most desired of travel compliments: "You're not like most tourists." Our egos soared.

In the park, though, he's openly laughing at us as we pose. "Now you are real tourists!"

We know. It's true. We can't help it. Sometimes, you have to embrace the goofiness of travel, the tacky tourist moments.

In case I haven't mentioned it: 300 iguanas.

And the thing about 300 iguanas is that the scene sounds cool until you consider the up-close realities, like the fact that holy crap those things are freaky. It turns out that as with all animals, there's a certain distance at which an iguana suddenly goes from interesting to terrifying--you cross what one might call the "Oh, HELL NO! Threshold." This distance varies widely by animal.

A Sampling of Oh, HELL, NO! Thresholds
  • Tiger: 68 yards
  • Dragonfly: 8 inches
  • Giant squid: 2 miles
  • Goldfish: 0 Goldfish are harmless. Don't you dare ruin that for me by pointing out examples of ravenous, blood-sucking goldfish; I'll be over here with my fingers in my ears, LALALALA.
For iguanas, the distance is about two or three feet. From afar--even, like, ten feet away--they look regal and intriguing, always standing there, posing with their chins up, like a bald eagle or Christian Bale. At two to three feet, you start to feel your eyes get very wide and your sphincter loosens. You have sudden insights, like, Damn, those things look like dinosaurs. And I forget, was "Jurassic Park" a documentary? How fast, precisely, can they lunge? My buddy Ralph is standing next to me--if I push him in front of me, will they go after him instead? He's wearing zip-off nylon khaki pants, so he's basically asking for it, anyway.

Unfortunately, I had no nylon-khaki-wearing friend named Ralph along to protect me as I approached this scrum of iguanas:

Keep an eye on that cheeky critter directly under my butt.
This will become important very, very shortly.

As I started to squat--and just as the Oh, HELL, NO Threshold was kicking in--a woman in an official uniform yelled something at me.

I assumed she was shooing me away--but, no, she was offering to take the photo for me. I handed over my camera. "Kneel down," she commanded, in Spanish.

I knelt. Carefully.

"It's okay to touch them," the woman said, grinning.

Oh, hell, no. 

But she was waiting for me to lower my hand. And, really: I couldn't pass up the opportunity for officially-sanctioned--make that officially-mandated--iguana-petting. Very, very gentle iguana-petting. It had to be done.

As I was posing, I heard a voice behind me. "Dude, do NOT back up. And the second that photo's done, STAND THE HELL UP, nice and slow--there's one that's about to chomp on your butt."

I ignored the "nice and slow" part.

I later asked Chuck, the naturalist, if--you know, hypothetically, asking for friend--an iguana could've actually bitten off my finger.

"No," he said, face totally deadpan. "But it would make you wish it had."


So there’s a life lesson for you: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there’s not an iguana out to get you.

26 February 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 10: The Thrill of the Drum Hunt

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.


This transaction involves a guitar, not a drum.
But that's not really the point.
Today's location: Guayaquil, Ecuador
Today's telling detail: Christián's amused and frustrated yelling into his cell phone



It begins with the first person with whom Louis makes eye contact once he's off the boat. That's how his drum hunts always work. In this case, it's a customs official on the blacktop just off the gangway at the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador. And the official—a middle-aged man with owlish glasses and a chartreuse safety vest—is already on the task, talking on his cell phone, his tone all business. 

He snaps his phone shuts and turns to Louis. "The best place to find a drum is the Mercado Artesanal, in the middle of town. You can take a taxi there."

* * *

We need more information, so we ask another local standing nearby, one of the tour guides herding our fellow passengers into a white minibus. She says the same thing: Mercado Artesanal. 

"I like to triangulate," says Louis. Verifying the leads will keep us on track--we'll only be in town for a few hours, so we need accurate information. A third local at the pier says the same, so that settles it.

* * *

There are five of us along for the drum hunt; Louis Patler is our fearless leader. In his outfit of green t-shirt, khaki shorts, and running shoes, he doesn't look exactly conform to the fedora-and-machete stereotype of South American artifact hunters, although his attire is much far better suited for our specific type of fast-paced urban exploration. Louis is a social anthropologist and one of the speakers on the ship; his topics include "The Future of the Future" and—not really related to the rest of his lecturers--"Drum Hunting," a lecture he gave just a couple of days ago, while we were transiting the Panama Canal.

Louis's drum hunts are his introduction to a culture. Every culture has drums of some sort, he points out in the lecture, and each place typically has its own unique and traditional type. He has several drums on stage, all of which he's purchased on this very trip. He picks up a handsome, handmade wooden conga from Montego Bay, Jamaica, which he bought from a Rastafarian master drum-maker. It had been the guy's personal drum for years—the drum-hunting party had ended up at his house—and though Louis had admired the craftsmanship, he assured the charismatic drum-maker that, truly, he didn't need to buy it and take away this beautiful instrument that clearly had so much personal meaning. But the guy said, no, something told him it was time for a new owner. Louis should have the drum. Play it, cherish it. 

Louis has acquired dozens of drums over the course of his travels all over the world. But even though he loves drums, the real point of the hunt is not really to acquire an instrument but to see a new culture. It's an ice-breaker with strangers, it's the quest that serves as the framework for exploration, it's a way to see everyday life and meet people with similar interests. He puts the question to the audience: What's your quest? What do you want to find in each new culture? 

After the talk, I rush over to the lectern, all but elbowing people out of the way. I'd love to join him sometime, I tell him, trying hard to stay cool and suppress the eager, desperate, borderline petulant voice inside me: PLLEEEEEASE! TAKE ME WITH YOU THAT SOUNDS AWESOME LET'S GO RIGHT NOW.

* * *


There are no vans available for hire at the port of Guayaquil, evidently, only cars roughly the size of toasters. There are five passengers from the ship: Louis, me, Bill, Judith, and Suzanne. Not one of us is willing to miss this opportunity, so we cram into a tiny but well-kept sedan—Bill, Suzanne, and me in the back, Louis and Judity contorted precariously into the front as our driver, Christián, heads toward the market (which he, too, thinks is our best bet).

As we enter the market--a vast, modern warehouse space with warrens of shops selling clothing, bags, trinkets, and other merchandise--Louis instructs us in the fine art of seeking out the particular types of drums he wants, the older, more traditional ones. "I've learned to enter a shop and never look straight ahead," he says. Most people want the shinier, newer drums, so that's what the shopkeepers display most prominently. "I always look down low or up high." 

Now, if the words "Artisan Market" conjure images of, say, a woodworker hunched over a table, knife in one hand, intricately-carved piece of mahogany in the other, a pile of shavings growing below; or a weaver working at a loom, a brightly-colored blanket taking shape slowly but surely--well, if that's what you're thinking, you should probably give the Artisan Market in Guayaquil a pass. They have mass-made sweaters with ostensibly traditional patterns; they have mass-made maracas painted with the word "ECUADOR"; they have mass-made drums that are roughly the same general design as traditional drums, except they're much smaller and have your choice of such traditional motifs as Knockoff Sponge Bob or Bloblike Purple Thing With Teeth And A Tale--Oh, I Guess That's Possibly Barney.

There are bigger and better and less Barney-adorned drums, too, but they're all new. 

Christián is working the phone, calling everyone he knows who might have drum tips. And over and over, I see his face start to light up before he says, with a frustrated chuckle, “No, no! Estos son nuevos--el no los quiere. Solo viejo. Viejo, viejo!”  Those are new. This guy wants old.

* * *

On our second pass down one aisle of the market, we strike up conversation with a shopkeeper named Carlos. He looks a little bit like Mandy Patankin (Inigo Montoya) in “A Princess Bride.” Again, the same result: nuevo, sí; viejo, no. But Carlos is intrigued by these odd, inquisitive tourists, and he and Louis strike up a conversation, with Christián translating. Soon, Carlos is on his phone. He has a friend who he knows will have a drum. And the friend does. He's on the other side of the country, but he can get the drum to us next week.

There's a collective groan. We don't have a week. We only have a few hours. Christián shakes his head, laughing again. He's a professional but incredibly low-key guy, early thirties, wearing the professional-but-low-key guy's uniform of short-sleeved checked shirt and jeans. He's also clearly very amused by his atypical tourist charges. By this time, we've talked to nine different people, either in person or on the phone. Louis's record on one drum-hunt is twenty-one people before getting a drum; the minimum was two.

We linger in Carlos's shop, and after a time, he pulls out a small guitar from behind the counter and starts strumming it. He offers to sell it, and it seems like a joke, but Louis says, well, okay. It's a nice little instrument—and, hey, it's better than leaving empty-handed. Louis insists that Carlos play one last song on the guitar, a sort of blessing before it's passed on to the new owner, as the music fills this otherwise quiet corner of the Mercado Artesenal and we all grin goofily, a sense of collective accomplishment and kinship.

* * *


Christián is still working his phone, and as we leave the market, he has a new destination in mind. He's heard there's a musical instrument store not far from here.

The Ecko Music Store. You have to check all bags at the
front so, sadly, I have no photos of the scenes inside.
As it turns out, the Ecko Music store in central Guayaquil isn't that hard to find. It's a big store, two stories, both lined with broad windows showing off the wares to passersby: guitars, drums, keyboards, amps. There's also a giant disco ball that marks the corner entrance. It's probably four feet in diameter, big enough to serve as an exercise ball for, say, a Shih-Tzu, with several much smaller disco balls orbiting along the equator. The whole disco solar system is suspended from the broad overhang of a roof that caps the two-story building.

On the second floor, a twentysomething salesman wearing a hot-pink polo shirt--his store uniform--is showing off keyboards to a father and his young teenage son, a budding rock star in tight red pants, a black t-shirt, and canvas shoes. The kid is wearing playing Pachelbel's "Canon" (of course) and messing with the various buttons and knobs above the keys, testing out the effects and loops. The salesman pushes one button and suddenly the song sounds like a trumpet with a drum-and-bass beat, but the kid scowls and shakes his head, reverting back to the piano. As Louis investigates drums, Christián makes a slow, shy, self-conscious lap through the keyboard section, cautiously looking at each one and its price tag; the cheapest one is $1,060. His daughter plays the piano, he says.

Louis finds a traditional drum, well-made … and brand spanking new. But he decides that's all right. It's well-constructed, gives a great tone. He tells the salesman he'll take it.

Downstairs, as we head toward the exit, drum in hand, we stop for a moment to observe another scene unfolding. A group of nuns in flowing white habits is chatting intently with one of this slick young salesman, all of them carefully examining a sound mixing board. We watch the nuns gesture, explaining their sound-mixing needs, and then we head back to the street, drum in hand.

11 February 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 9: I Kissed a Fish (and I Liked It), or Neptune Day is a Very Strange Tradition

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.
King Neptune surveys his scalywag subjects.
Thanks to Dean Jacobs for the excellent photo.
Location: The Equator 
Today's telling detail: The long line to kiss the fish

When I heard that there was going to be some sort of ceremony when we crossed the equator, I figured there would be a good amount of droll pomp and circumstance, maybe a speech or two accompanied by boisterous cheering. I promised myself I would enjoy the moment and activities, and embrace the goofiness of it all as an active participant.

I had not counted on fish guts being involved in any way. I had certainly not counted on a bucket of green liquid--cold, frothy, slimy, noxious-looking stuff--being poured over my head, oozing its way into my every pore, its clammy tendrils matting my hair, pasting my shirt to my back, and making a particularly unwelcome pass below my waistband. Nor had I anticipated that I would not only volunteer for the experience but wait in line for it.

As I stand there, shivering, covered in goo--some of which, I have been told, once belonged to the inside of  fish--and standing next to two strangers in a similar state, I think to myself: this is how cults get started. Everything that follows only confirms this belief.

That's me in the yellow shirt, taking the Neptune Day plunge with my
fellow shellbacks. Thanks to Frank Murphy for the sweet action shot.
The three of us jump into the pool to wash off. When I clamor out, a beautiful woman dressed in a white robe stands next to a large, imposing man with green skin and wearing a crown--King Neptune, overseer of the ceremonies.

The woman in white waves a fish in front of my face and commands me to kiss it.

I demur, offering a sort of cheek-to-cheek nudge, like the French do. I'd rather not get too frisky on a first blind date, not just because it's a fish but because I know there are various mysterious illnesses are going around the ship, and I know the fish has had many suitors before me. As my eighth-grade health teacher might have put it, when you kiss a fish, you're kissing everyone the fish has kissed.

Suddenly the fish lurches toward me, aiming for my mouth.

"No, KISS it!" cackles the woman in white.

It's part of a tradition, I remind myself, followed immediately by the inner musing, for roughly the hundredth time this morning, that, man, do these ship people have some weird traditions, and, man, is this Neptune Day thing is the weirdest of them all.

They tell me it all goes back centuries--this is what seafarers have done forever to celebrate the equator crossing. I see this as proof positive that there is no surer recipe for bizarre, bad ideas than having lots of bored men in close quarters, removed from the rest of society. See, for example, Lord of the Flies, Animal House, or my high school soccer team bus. On an old-fashioned ship, you'd have the extra delirium-creating elements of malnutrition and not knowing if and when the map would simply run out and you'd be in real-life "here be monsters" territory. Given the circumstances, it's amazing, frankly, that they weren't doing this sort of stuff every single day, but managed to bottle it all up and wait for the equator crossing.

If you go read the Wikipedia page about "Line-crossing ceremonies," it's full of wry descriptions like this one from an officer on a ship called the HMS Blossom, observing a ceremony in 1825:

There were on board the ship a great number of officers and seamen, who had never yet gone South of the Tropics, consequently were to be initiated into the mysteries of crossing the Equinoctial line, and entering the dominions of Neptune; great preparations had been making since our leaving Woolwich, for an event which promised to some part of the crew great amusement, to the other great fear; many a poor girl at Woolwich, and at Spithead had been deprived of some part of her wardrobe, to adorn Amphitrite; from one a night cap and gown had been stolen, from another some other part of dress, and although I had no hand in it, I was as bad as the rest, for I was consenting thereto. An immense grey horse hair wig, sufficiently long to reach well down the back of Neptune, had been purchased in England by subscription, accompanied by a venerable grey beard to sweep his aged breast; a tin crown and a trident completed the regalia.
In many cases, though, the ceremony went way beyond silly costumes into straight-up hazing: beatings, tarrings, horrible stuff. In Charles Darwin's diary from his trip on the HMS Beagle, he recounts being shaved and put on a plank, at which point Neptune's minions
lathered my face & mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop. —a signal being given I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me & ducked me. . . . Most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths & rubbed on their faces.
So, hey, at least I've avoided that. And, I remind myself as I stand there on the pool deck, I've gotten conflicting information about the fish content in the green slime I've just washed off--some sources tell me there really are guts in there; others say it's just a few token drops of fish sauce in the whole big plastic cauldron. I never saw any actual internal organs slide past my eyes, so that's good.

But there is still a fish--a real, dead fish directly in front of me. It gazes back at me, its eyes amber circles with a black dot in the middle, glassy and unperturbed. Jaded fish, this one; been through a lot. "Dude, just do it already," it says to me. "Show me some lip-love. I'm not gonna bite you."

Everyone's watching. For the crowd, for the sailors who have had to endure far worse things, but mostly for my own sense of pride, it has to happen. I pucker up and lean in.

--
There were more odd Neptune Day festivities after the fish-kissing. And you can read all about them ... over on the Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day Facebook page. Or send me a postcard and I'll mail you Part Two. Yup, sorry, I'm going to make you work for it.