Travel Thursday: Calling London, part 1

Can’t remember the last time I was in London when I wasn’t just using the airport to go somewhere else. And not even for that reason recently; you think airplane security check-ins are stringent in the US? Try ‘em here. Anyway, point is, I haven’t been to London to be in London for too long.
Some years ago, to my surprise, I found myself a temporary fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and I enjoyed the honor until I wised up and stopped paying the annual dues. But I guess my name and profession were still around somewhere, and hey, free trip to London, why not? Especially since it coincided with a heat wave back in El Lay.
After two days of heavy rain, which was okay because I was inside taking meetings and schmoozing with jungle explorers and the like, the rain dropped enough to Seattle-like proportions for me to wander through Hyde Park, with Shauna Burns’ “Around You” in my headphones on repeat. The Royal Geo’s home base is across the street from Hyde Park, which explains why I chose that particular area to wander through. Simple, once you have all the facts.
It’s hard to get seasick when on a city park lake, but I was taking no chances, sticking to land. The Serpentine looked just like its name, as one might expect, in the giant park in the middle of London that was hopefully not named for Mr. Jekyll’s alter ego. It’s also too long to circumnavigate on foot, so I simply wandered aimlessly, passing the time and making sure not to get too tired, because I still had to walk back to the Royal Geo when I was done time-noodling.
As beautiful as it was, I was getting a little bored. Even overhearing a tour guide saying that “Harriet Westbrook, the pregnant wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was found drowned in the Serpentine, leaving a suicide note addressed to her father, sister and husband,” didn’t perk me and my historical detective curiosity up, other than the obvious thought of a cover-up, especially when she added, “Shelley married Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin less than two weeks later.”
Hmmm, got yer Frankenstein right here. . .
That actually amused me enough to keep me going, at least to the rose garden, but then, I’m used to amusing himself. . . so to speak. And despite the fact I’d shot rose gardens all over the world, especially in my City of Angels, there’s something particularly interesting in doing so in a place known for bad weather. It was probably a good thing I didn’t know at the time that the rose garden had only been built in 1994, nor that the area was now a popular meeting place for the local gay community; I was just glad not to run into George Michael. . .
Finally it was time to start moseying southward. Having walked through Speakers’ Corner before, but never finding anyone interesting enough to bother listening to–plus being in the wrong direction–I followed my innate mental compass toward my actual destination. Had I remembered in time, I might have wandered toward the southeast and the main gate, with its Ionic columns, but the place wasn’t going anywhere; I’d get there soon.
So instead I ambled down Exhibition Road till I was past Alexandra Gate and on Kensington Road, now only needing to cross it to get to Lowther Lodge. As I once again reminded myself which way to look when crossing the street here, I glanced toward the right at the circle that was Royal Albert Hall. Though I’d never been there, I was familiar with the inside, thanks to a DVD of a concert with my favorite violinist, Hilary Hahn. As the light changed, I figured I’d go down there later to see if they gave tours, then concentrated on the cars, or rather avoiding them.
As I finally finished crossing the street, some irritated-looking guy handed me a flier that asked if I’d renewed my vows; he walked away too quickly for me to say that I hadn’t been aware they’d expired. Once inside I ran into a crowd surrounding a woman I’d met the previous day, who’d billed herself as a jungle explorer and was seeking funds to go into the Amazon. Some idiot–you know, the old British walrus-mustache retied-colonel type–asked if she was hoping to find some Amazon women, but at least it allowed a much younger, star-struck dude to gawk, “You’re the Amazon woman!”
Which allowed ME to intone, “Nope, she still has both her breasts.”
Sadly, she was the only one who got the joke. . .

To be continued. . .


Book Review: The White Nile Diaries

{This review is payment for getting to read the book early, a small enough price to pay.}
This is a travelogue by John Hopkins, who in the early 60s, after spending time in Peru, looks for a new adventure instead of going home to a typical East Coast preppy lifestyle, as his parents want. The wanderlust is so huge in him he goes despite the love of what seems to be his dream woman. Given an opportunity, or at least encouragement, to visit Kenya, he and his buddy buy a motorcycle in Germany and cross the Sahara before making a right turn at the Nile.
At first I was a bit disappointed that they weren’t actually following the Nile to its origin, as the title might imply; instead it’s the name they give their motorcycle. But like with Robert Heinlein’s Tramp Royale and the recently read and reviewed Harry Harrison autobiography, I’m fascinated by descriptions of places I’ve traveled to, reveling in the differences 50 years have made. Of course this also made for some obnoxious moments when I suddenly yelled “Been there!” like with Djerba and Leptis Magna, but that’s neither here nor there.
My favorite part of his writing is description, from the mournful call to Islamic prayer to the blonde blue-eyed denizens of the Sahara. He and his buddy also seem to have a lot more fun at border crossings than is really recommended. More importantly, he doesn’t give short shift to the bad moments, especially the boredom.
My favorite line: “My only revenge is this diary, where I record how awful it all is.”
On the other hand, if there’s one thing to love about this author/adventurer, it’s his optimism: “Whatever I leave on a page, unless a mystery breeze whisks my notebook overboard, a snack for the crocs, these words will be with me forever. That was what the Pharaohs aimed at. Forever. That was what they got, but it took a pyramid to do it. I can achieve it on a single page. Forever.”
One more quote, which reminds me of why I only travel to places I like now: “We showered and washed our clothes by treading on them in the shower.”
So, in sum, a pleasant enough yarn with plenty of funny moments among the introspection.


Travel Thursday: More Training in Mexico City, part 2

Hopping into a taxi to my favorite eating spot, I had to fight the urge to look behind me, wondering if my pursuers had their own car or were taxiing as well. Embers was quite a distance to the northwest, but since the first visit, when I’d realized they made the best burgers in town, I’d been a steady customer, and now I wasn’t about to eat anywhere else when I could help it.
Unfortunately the restaurant didn’t open for another hour; since when, dammit? Not knowing what else to do, certainly not going to another place to eat, I wandered down the block, where I came across a movie theater, for some reason also closed on a Sunday afternoon; ditto the bookstore. Damn siesta system, I grumbled as I wondered why this practice also extended to the weekends.
Turning the corner, looking for any way to pass the time, as if by divine guidance I came across an arcade. Even more surprising, they had games I grew up on, like Asteroids, Centipede, Submarine, and particularly Galaga. Despite not having played for so long, I vowed to get the highest score in Galaga on my first try, and I did, but that mostly spoke to the non-formidableness of the competition.
Next I placed my coins on the side of the air hockey table, signifying I had winners. It was a little known fact–okay, no one knew–that while I had played this game all over the world, I’ve never lost a series. The closest was at Disneyland, where I had to come back from a 6-3 score (takes 7 to win) down two games in a best of seven, yet had managed to save the day and earn a free dinner for myself and my British friend in town for a visit. I’d also won a big bet in the arcade at the Luxor in Las Vegas, leading people to wonder what I was doing in an arcade in Vegas, on my only trip there, but that’s another story.
Once I got to play I just hit the puck back for a while, until I felt my oats–wherever that saying came from–and loudly announced the next shot would score. During snorts of disbelief my opponent set up his best defensive position–yes, I gave him as much time as he wanted–and then proceeded to dismay him completely with a double bank.
After that I played some Grand Prix, particularly enjoying the track where I’d learned to drive, as well as the streets of Monte Carlo, but that seemed like cheating, so I moved on to the more exciting Kill-the-Mutants shoot-’em-up. This was a three player game, and I found myself facing off against two teenage girls, which sent shivers up my spine despite my having shooting medals from the Marina Corps.
All three off us shot at the same time, and lasted about the same before being shot ourselves. Checking the scores, I saw that the pretty one at the end had done pretty well, and since I was actually familiar with these weapons, I’d performed excellently. But then I saw the scores of the girl next to me and was completely appalled to find she’d beaten my already higher score than anyone else had ever achieved!
The man in charge of the arcade came by to give her a prize while commenting, “On the subway scene, you’re not supposed to shoot the puppy dogs, just the rabid ones. And that little old lady wasn’t going to do anything to you.”
Suspicious, I checked the ammunition supply; she’d used four times as much as me! Apparently she’d mistook the sniper rifle for an automatic. That explained a lot, but it only led to what had to be the most chilling rapid-fire giggles I’d ever heard. . .
So into the game had I been that I’d neglected the clock, and once I checked I knew the grill had to be on full heat by now; I didn’t run back to Embers, no matter what witnesses might say. Once seated and sipping an orange refreshment, order made, I looked around to make sure the decor was exactly the same, in particular finding the old sign over the doorway that read “All our hamburgers are made from genuine 100% beef.” The message was not meant to reassure, since right above it was a photo of two horses laughing. . .
The menu consisted of over 70 varieties of burgers, though by now you know exactly my preference; as I’d told them before, “I like my burgers like my women: nude.” Though they liked to argue that if I added cheese to the bare meat and bread I should call it a lingerie burger. . .
Across from me two young teens, not that different from the ones in the arcade, were biting into their burgers, close enough for me to see what they’d ordered. One had gone with the mushroom special, and I preferred not to watch her eat it. Besides, the other would be more amusing, as I’d overheard her ordered the Roquefort cheese, which I knew was marinated in champagne. For a girl who’d mostly likely never imbibed the firewater, this just might make for some interesting viewing. . .
But then they flirted with the waiter, right in front of their folks, and that was that for the fun. . .
As I stumbled out of the restaurant about an hour later, instinctively thinking about that restaurant down south called the Stuffed Pig, I pretended having to remember which way to go. Even though this wasn’t exactly familiar territory, one was never lost in Mexico City as long as you were close to the subway. Eventually I hopped onto Line 6, riding it south toward downtown, feeling giddy because it only took me a few seconds, once I’d started actually looking to find my shadows; only two of them, looking about as young as the chess player I’d replaced, and seemingly doing their best to stand out, with their dour determined countenances. For a moment I felt insulted, then remembered this was all for their benefit, their training, no matter how much they tried to make me think they were checking up on my own skills.
They were standing in the next car, faces plastered against the plexiglass, not even bothering to look away when I smiled at them; I wondered what they would do if I stuck out my tongue at them. Instead I pondered if they were being graded on not being spotted, because they’d failed that part. But now it was time to shake them. . .
Acting just short of hammy, I let out a big yawn as I stood up and moved through the equally tired bodies toward the door. I was sure I was making it look natural, not arousing the suspicions of the two chasers as the bright orange train landed at Chabacano station, where I exited. Walking parallel toward the front, I didn’t have to look back to know they were following.
The buzzer that signaled the closing of the doors went off, and at that very last moment I shoved my way back into the Metro, quickly turning to see if the shadows had managed to copy my move. One had indeed gotten his hand in to stop the doors from closing, and of course they obediently reopened, at which time the two guys jumped inside. . . so intent on accomplishing that task that they didn’t see their quarry jump back out until the train was moving and I waved at them as they passed by.
Walking briskly but not rapidly enough to arouse suspicion, I made my way through the labyrinth of corridors that led to the platform of the other line that stopped at Chabacano station. To keep myself calm I remembered that in this very place I’d come across the filming of “Total Recall” many years ago.
By the time I reached the next train I figured the guys had gotten off at the next stop and phoned in, so their buddies were no doubt alerted by now. And they would be expecting me to do the logical thing: get off the metro and onto the streets, maybe take a taxi or a bus. But if I worked quickly enough, I should be able to get to my destination before they caught on. . .
Oh right, the destination. Why, the airport, of course. . . not to fly out, which would be outside the rules, but maybe the chasers didn’t know that. Still, I was supposed to pretend it was all real, so laying down a false trail should earn some brownie points. . .
It actually didn’t take that long to arrive at Benito Juarez airport, though as usual I had to remind myself the actual subway station was Terminal Aereo, not Aeropuerto. My first stop was the map shop, where I was well known, enough to be on a first-name basis with most of the babes and have a credit account. Less than five minutes later I exited with a few maps, then quickly made a round of the airlines. Mexicana Airlines was the only one with available seats for the next day, so I made reservations, using the fake credit card I’d been issued. As I walked over to Aeromexico I wondered why the hell I had given my real name. . . then remembered I wanted them to find the reservations. So with that in my head I used a different name to grab a seat on a flight a week from now. . . though not so different that they couldn’t figure it out eventually.
Knowing I was probably overdoing it, I used the same technique at Delta for two weeks from now, then realized I was having fun and tootled over to the Lufthansa desk, where I spoke German to an older man and made reservations for the following month to Frankfurt, with a stopover in NY.
Not sure what else to do, I finally put on my headphones to drown out the sounds of the airplanes as I walked along Ignacio Zaragosa for awhile, until I felt safe enough to catch a bus downtown. There was a hotel I liked very much a few blocks from the main square, but I was well-known there, so I played it safe and avoided it. From there I really overdid it and took three taxis before going back into the subway, coming out in downtown anyway, but a few blocks away in another square, the Alameda. It was too late for my favorite English bookstore or the art museum at San Carlos to be open, so I walked around the flower-strewn plaza to see if I had any more followers, buying a pancake here or there from the young gals manning–er, womaning–the portable grills that looked to be cannibalized from ice cream strollers.
Then, as I looked up–and up and up–I figured it’d been a long time since I’d promised my old buddy Katarina to take her to the Mirador, the truly expensive restaurant a floor below the observation level on what was still one of the tallest buildings south of the United States, the Torre LatinoAmericana. Plus I’d never been up there at night, though word was it was one of the most romantic locations in all of this giant city.
Sigh. Katarina might be married, moved away, or any of hundred possibilities. But knowing you never won if you didn’t try, I got on the phone while staring at the building across from the tower, the one that had the sculpture of the dragon in-and-outing through the windows. . .
While I waited for someone to pick up I thought about the howls when they caught sight of my expense report tomorrow, and it filled me with much delight. . .


Poetry Tuesday: Aria 1

By that German master Ingeborg Bachmann

Wherever we turn in the storm of roses,
thorns illuminate the night. And the thunder
of a thousand leaves, once so quiet on the bushes,
Is right at our heels.

Wherever the roses’ fire is put out,
Rain washes us into the river. Oh distant night!
Yet a leaf that touched us now floats on the waves,
following us to the sea.


Book Review: Naked and Marooned

This is the self-told story of a man, Ed Stafford, who went to a small island near Fiji so he could spend two months without human contact and the surroundings of modern life.

One has to resist the urge to scream “WHY?” not counting his contract and no doubt quite a bit of money from the Discovery Channel. He says it himself: “I wondered why anyone would volunteer to put themselves through such a challenge. What was wrong with me?” This from a man who walked the entire length of the Amazon for two years and apparently didn’t learn his lesson. . .

At some point in history, especially during the great explorations of the late 1400s and 1500s, this must have happened a few times, a solo castaway without even clothes on his back. On the other hand, that person was probably better suited for such a catastrophe than a modern human used to many many amenities. He does, after all, have video cameras, and he finds debris from the ocean, particularly water bottles, that he uses. But if you can do that, get past that huge question as to the whyness of it all, this book actually becomes enjoyable. The author certainly derives great pleasure from his metaphors, like, “An emotional attack helicopter rose from my belly, rotors lacerating my chest until it smashed violently into my ill-prepared brain.” Another one that made me laugh and shake my head simultaneously was, “Then fortune decided to twist my nipple and spit in my face.” Okay, one more. “I could feel brain cells being elbowed awake by their neighbors.”

His first preoccupation, as one would expect in such situations, is fresh drinking water. If I could ask him one question, it would be why he didn’t think to wonder where the native animals, particularly the goats, found theirs. It doesn’t take him long to feel the stress of being alone; I wonder if his isolation psychology is applicable to long space travel. It’s a fine line whether he’s talking to himself or the cameras, but I do have to admit there’s plenty to laugh at here, which is okay because he laughs at himself often. Like his reaction when he finally got his first fire started: “Fire was, after all, one of the greatest discoveries in the evolution of humankind. All I had to do now was invent everything from the wheel through the moon landings and the internet.” On the other hand, he’s quite happy with just this, not so much to keep warm but so he could have a nice cup of tea, mentioning how something normal, even if it wasn’t essential, made for a positive shft in his mental state. Said mental balance fluctuates a lot, though often he blames it on lack of nutrients. Still, he noticed that cooked meals taste a lot better than raw. . . yet he also says, “Hunger is the sweetest of sauces.”

Maybe the most important thing for him, even more so than the fire, was how he dealt with missing his loved ones. He and his fiancée had agreed to think of each other at exactly the same time every day, keeping time zones in mind, which to me was the most human moment of the whole book.

One thing I found amusing was the chapter breaks; at the start of each new section it mentions how many days into this grand experiment he’s in, but it’s done like tickings on a wall, with four lines and a slash representing each five. Not sure why this made me laugh so hard, but it does. I’m just glad I can still count in that style.

Another moment of self-realization occurs when he finally realizes there’s no point in being angry at the rain. “There is nothing serene about being frustrated by the weather, your age, or the passing of time. It is utterly pointless and a bloody waste of energy. So you relax about the things outside your control quite simply because they are outside your control. No brainer.”

This for me was the most telling moment, and a perfect example as to why I would never do something like this: “By the fire I ate termites off a rotten log as they tried to escape the fire. This wasn’t because I needed the calories—they were insignificant—it was out of boredom, a distraction. When you find yourself eating termites for entertainment—that’s boredom.”

Towards the end he becomes sick, and it’s painful enough that he gets on the emergency sat-phone to a doctor, who says that if he’d been in a city he’d take him to a hospital right away. Can’t help but wonder if, had this happened earlier in the two months, he would have given up, but being so close to surviving the whole thing he decided to keep going, albeit after receiving medicine along with his routine drop of batteries and memory cards. As though to answer my question from above, there’s a postscript about meeting up with a psychiatrist after he gets back to England, who tells him he’s suffering through a form of PTSD. “There is no doubt that what you are experiencing is the effects of psychological torture. The unique thing about your case is that you opted to be put in this situation.” Which again leads me to the all-important question of why?” I don’t feel this was satisfactorily explained, though I doubt that answer was the point of the endeavor. In fact, I don’t think he knows, even after all that. . .

But I suppose he was heartened when the psychiatrist told him that feeling as he did made him 100% normal. I’m not sure I would go that far. . .