Travel Thursday Snapshot: Chichen Itza

When you’re tramping through the jungle, trying to avoid giant insects rather than giant predatory cats, and happen to look up. . .



Travel Thursday Snapshots: Amman

Exactly one year ago today I landed in the capital of Jordan for about the fourth or fifth time in my life, can’t remember. (I say exactly, but time zones and stuff.)
With only half a day remaining after settling in, I thought about hanging out at the entrance to the Royal Palaces on the off chance of running into the amazing Queen Rania, a lady I hold in as much esteem as Valerie Kondos-Field (Gymnastics coach at UCLA) and Katherine Heigl. But before I left the hotel I saw on her Twitter that she was in Norway, so that’s that. I suppose I can’t blame her for wanting to get away from a possibly crazed fan. Maybe the king will want to talk Star Trek. . .?
Did you know that Amman was the original Philadelphia? Now you can impress with your knowledge of trivia at the next party. There’s still a lot more brotherly love in this city than the current one, as I saw plenty of times once I finally ventured outside and made my way past a ton of embassies, arriving downtown just in time for dinner, which with my stomach was not an easy thing to find. After that I took a taxi up to the Citadel, as there was no way these knees were going to make it up that hill, especially so early in the trip when I should seriously be conserving my limited energy. I spent some minutes getting every conceivable angle of the Temple of Hercules, as well as the Hand of Hercules (a little creepy), before settling in to shoot the sunset.
Feeling the first pull of jetlag, I dropped off the hill and found a taxi to take me back to my hotel, figuring I’d have time right before I left the country to peruse the amphitheater and all the museums, which other than maps are pretty much my crack.
Perhaps it was the excitement I always get at the beginning of a trip, or else my internal clock set itself perfectly when I went to sleep around 10PM local time, but the next morning my brain was perfectly tuned to the time zone and I was smiling as I had a quick breakfast of oranges, grapes, and even pineapple (!) before heading off south, ultimate destination Petra, followed by Wadi Rum and Aqaba.

Book Reviews: Art and Oddities

The tattoo sealed the no-deal.

Photographs from the Edge
Travels To The Edge is most likely my favorite travel show, in no small part due to the awesome theme song (still waiting for it to be released. . . someday. . . just sayin’). More importantly, as a travel photographer this show gives me ideas where to shoot next, as well as fond memories of previous shoots. But this book is even better at that, as most of these shots are from places not visited by the TV show. Art Wolfe’s philosophy is that he wants to shoot places that haven’t been photographically exploited before, which is hard to do nowadays, considering it doesn’t take long to reach any spot on Earth in this modern world.
Each photo comes with a description of how it came about: camera and lens, f/stop, exposure, ISO. The fact he took the time to document all that while shooting, especially back in the film days, makes my head hurt. Each page also has a photo tip, which in a book this large is an astonishing number of tips. One of these says his workhorse lens is an 80-200; that’s the one I use the most too, so I had a momentary geek-out. (But I’m feeling much better now.)
On to the important stuff. The first image is of an arctic fox, and it’s beautiful, a perfect opener. Another shot that stayed with me was of a small house and some trees looking amazingly tiny as a mountain looms straight up behind them. I also learned more about hyenas than I ever expected. And as much as I know I shouldn’t laugh at his scare on Easter Island. . . I laughed. There are hundreds more, and while it’s impossible for all of them to be awesome, considering everyone’s taste is different, this is a stunning and fitting document to what I consider an underappreciated modern photographer.
For fans of his show, think of this as a “best of” episode, told chronologically. I read this with his voice in my head.

Circles of Delight: Classic Carousels of San Francisco
In this photo book three vintage carousels in San Francisco are photographed, with a format of a general photo on one page, followed by a close-up. Each merry-go-round gets its own chapter, with the figures further divided into jumping, standing, and chariot.
Of the first carousel my favorite was the tiger, the sculpture and color so beautiful. I don’t know much about these devices, so I have no idea if giraffes, ostriches, pigs, deer, and even bunnies are common, but these made me smile.
The second carousel is housed in a glass building, which makes it so much brighter, especially for photographs. Unfortunately its pieces weren’t as lovely as the first one’s, so that was a bit of a letdown.
The third has the most dramatic drawings on the horses, and even features a unicorn and a sea dragon, plus a tiger with a mermaid on it. The camel looks amused.
There’s no doubt both the craftsmanship and the photography is gorgeous, but it takes a serious merry-go-round buff to make it through the whole volume in one sitting without losing focus.

Anatomy of a Song
Interviews with the people involved in the writing and recording of many hit songs. This is by no means encyclopedic, as there were quite a few tunes I thought merited attention, but perhaps it’s as simple as not being able to get interviews. One of the artists mentions their 2015 tour, so this is definitely up to date.
Most of the articles were pretty standard, which made one in particular stand out: not only was Joni Mitchell interviewed, so was the guy she wrote “Carey” about, a trip down memory lane that takes us all the way to the Greek Islands.
The thing is, not being a musician or a sound tech meant there was a lot here I didn’t understand. But what I did understand, I liked. Too bad there were so few songs I got excited about, but of course that’s in the ear of the beholder.

Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders
I have a friend on Facebook who constantly posts articles from this website, and since I usually found them interesting enough to click through, I felt the same about this book, though from the times I checked it out on the internet it felt like a tonier international version of Roadside America.
As expected, each page contains a strange destination, with some filler blurbs of other interesting places that didn’t make the cut for their own article. Interspersed with the locations are a few articles on the places, or the science—or bogus—of the contraptions that make the place interesting, and so on. I found “Constructed Languages,” playing off the Esperanto museum in Vienna, the most interesting of the articles, along with “Everything’s bigger in Australia.”
While I was reading I was anxious to find places I’d been to, but to my chagrin I topped out at about three dozen (a surprising number of them in Austria, Munich, New Zealand, Mexico, and Scandinavia). In the London extras there was a mention of the Temple of Mithras, which I’d been hoping would get a page, so that was disillusioning. I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved when there was no photo of Archie the Giant Squid, though from the drawing it may be too big to capture in one shot. One of the nicer photographed entries is Skellig Michael, though I have to wonder if this book was in the planning before the new Star Wars movie, as that would seem like an automatic mention. Another highlight for me was that John Frum, Tom Navy, and Prince Phillip—all our favorite cargo cults—are mentioned near the end.
There’s not much else to say. If you like to travel and visit weird museums and locations, this is exactly what you’ve been wanting.


Book Reviews: Mermaids, Edens, and Beauty

She claimed my music selections were like a dinner of only desserts.
I hope that’s a compliment. . .

Urban Mermaid
Problems of a shy young female mermaid who can’t find a guy. Then she finds a guy, but he’s human, which is a big no-no in the quasi-human/quasi-fish community.
There’s a cute interesting prologue on how mermaids came to be, but basically this is a love story, which is different than a romance, as they get together relatively early in the story. In fact, about a third of the way through they’re already engaged, and you wonder what’s gonna take up the rest of the book. It’s actually kinda amazing that there’s so much here, but it never stops being interesting.
There’s one point where he takes a mysterious phone call, where it seems he’s going to sell her out to a Sea World-type place, but that’s about the only time when we’re made to wonder about his sincerity. Everything else is about his doubts as to how he’ll fit in with a mermaid community. She has them too, though she’s generally feisty and pugnacious enough to persevere.
I will say the writer went way overboard on the wedding dress description, but other than that I thoroughly enjoyed this. Every once in a while there’s a touch of humor, always surprising but never snarky. Even the wedding was fun. I’m looking forward to the sequels, where I hope there’s more interaction with dolphins.

Stay With Me
A woman having an affair in San Francisco has her boyfriend tell her that he’s moving back to New York and they were all about sex, so she doesn’t tell him she’s preggers. Years later he comes back into her life, now engaged to her distasteful cousin yet still thinking he has all power over her.
The attempt at suspense in the second part was ridiculous; who else could it possibly be coming back into her life? Other than that the writing is well done. The bad news is, as much as I really want to like this character, I can’t. She’s so stuck on this asshole it’s actually painful to read. And there’s no redeeming him, he’s far too disgusting. At a certain point I thought, “If this ends with them together it’ll ruin the whole thing.” Then I wanted to go to the end and check, but somehow refrained.
Near the end it changed to his point of view for the first time, which was jarring.
This was a hard one to judge. The story is not too bad. Perhaps if the male character wasn’t such a complete ass, it might have worked; I wonder if the author being Italian had anything to do with it. The fact is this guy is so unredeemable that I cannot picture any woman putting up with his shit. She doesn’t seem to suffer from the kind of low self-esteem that would lead her to this. I found myself having no respect for her, and that ultimately doomed this.

Endangered Edens
Basically a travelogue heavy on animal encounters: Puerto Rico, the Arctic, Costa Rica, and Everglades.
This is a short book even before you take into account all the photographs, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. The writing is entertaining enough, and there’s no heavy evangelizing; he gets his point across without dropping anvils on your head, or even your foot.
The photo of the polar bear paw print is amazing, seemingly more so than shots of the bear itself as far as trying to understand the size. I just wish there’d been even more on the Arctic drilling; on the one hand I don’t want it to go into the proselyting I mentioned wasn’t here, but it was so thoroughly beyond the scope of anything I could have imagined. . .
Thoughtful and entertaining. Light, but all the better for it.

The Beauty Volume 1
A graphic novel concerning an STD that makes you beautiful, so of course just about everyone wants it. And then there’s those who don’t want it and are militant about it, to the point of bombings and other forms of terrorism. When a Beauty dies on the subway, seemingly combusting from inside, the protagonists are sent to investigate. There’s also a conspiracy led by a politician—of course—and an assassin who’s seen far too many Day of the Dead celebrations.
As you might expect, there are Beauties everywhere. The female cop is a gorgeous redhead, the male cop’s wife is a gorgeous brunette, and so on. The cop looks a little delicate, which is why it’s funny that she’s the testosterone-fueled potty-mouthed Alpha. In this area the artwork is marvelous, better than any I’ve seen.
There was one point where I wondered if I missed something: why did the male cop and his wife break up? Did she cheat? Did she suspect him of cheating? How did they get the disease? I had to reread this, because it’s too subtle; I know what I’m supposed to think happened, but it could have been done with a little less subtlety and still not insulted my intelligence. . . or lack thereof.
Extras: all the covers and bios.
Really enjoyed it, and not nearly as much in the horror genre as the forward had me dreading.


Book Reviews: Grow Up and Travel, Mysteries and Cookies

I’m gonna live forever. . . dammit, jinxed it.

How to Act Like a Grown-Up
The title says it all: short chapters dealing with the behavior that should be exhibited in situations as diverse as stores, cell phones, driving, Facebook, interviews, sex, voting, watching movies. Not only are the chapters short, the entire book is too, with certain passages repeated in large print, so it’s over pretty quickly. And why is the accompanying graphic a woman’s shoe?
I have no complaints about the text or the ideas. This is a well-written and meaningful book for our times, though it is sad to realize how much it is needed. Yet it’s for that very same reason that I doubt it will do much good. The author writes, “It’s no insult to find out you’ve been wrong. It stinks, but try to be happier that you learned the truth instead of bummed out that you were wrong.” This is the most important passage, because it personifies the hopelessly optimistic tone of this book. Everything is well said, and most people would benefit from reading it. . . but the problem is most people won’t read it because they don’t think they need it, and those who do read it will never admit any of this applies to them. The entire time I was reading I felt like this was all great, but no one is going to follow this advice. And that made me sad. . .
3.5 pushed up to 4/5

Whereas a few years ago Sweden became a hub for mysteries translated to English, now it’s Germany’s turn; this is the fifth or sixth I’ve read in the past year. The premise is simple: man finds photo, has daddy issues, piques a journalist’s curiosity. But of course things are never that simple, especially because there’s another narrative going on, taking place during World War 2.
For a while the journalist is the protagonist, but when she’s killed this turns from a history mystery to a murder mystery. The new lead is a small town cop derisively described as a “small-town sheriff” who talks to cats. Oh boy. . .
This could have easily been two separate stories, but thankfully they tied together very well. The last twist did indeed surprise me; nothing told me it was coming. And the killing of the journalist turned out to be. . . probably not a spoiler, but why take the chance?
Altogether a well-written book; setting and plot in particular stand out. The one place that could have been improved was the dialogue in helping to set each character apart, especially in the historical storyline; there’s a character guide in the beginning, but I was hoping not to have to refer to it as often as I did.

Sweet Girl
Admitting I read this rom-com is seriously gonna cut into my macho cred. . . oh, waitaminute, I don’t have any! Never mind, as you were.
Like a confection, I enjoyed this book in two large bites. The best way to describe Max, the main character, is to say that if I had met her in real life I would have turned around and run away as fast as possible. And kept on running. Reading about her is much safer, though I still cringed a few times at how she lets her anger, ego, and stubbornness rule her decision-making, mostly to hide her insecurities and her past.
She starts off as a bartender—when all the alcoholic description popped up I let out a little groan—but conversely this made it easier to accept all the food stuff—no pun—when she gets a job managing a famous pastry chef’s operation. Okay, I’d probably try the pretzel and potato chip brownie, but that’s it. Everyone has her jumping through hoops, but for once she wants something bad enough to keep her mouth shut and work to achieve it.
The other plot is the romance, with a guy whom she at first can’t stand—of course, wouldn’t be a rom-com without that. Other than the reveal of who the “competition” was at the end—saw it coming from the moment she arrived—it was a fun ride, and I figure it’s extra good because I didn’t care for all the food stuff—again, sorry—yet still loved it. I’m going to give Rachel Hollis a big compliment, or rather two, by comparing her to a couple of my favorite authors, Caprice Crane—though not to her level of snark—and Meg Benjamin.

Fifteen Minutes to Live
The title is misleading, but in a good way, writing-wise; in the reality of the story it’s just as sad.
If you’ve seen the movie “Memento” you know what’s at play here; interestingly, this book came out before the movie, but I’m not sure about story on which the movie was based. In this one it’s a woman who’s suffering from the inability to make new memories, plus she can’t remember anything after high school, which is why she runs off to the guy who was her boyfriend at the time.
There are several subplots that play into her illness, the most important one having to do with a predator teacher. There were parts that left me confused, as confused as the characters; most of it was okay, but it really left me gasping for comprehension at the end until it was explained, but my point is I shouldn’t have needed the explanation. This drops the score from 4 to 3.
The characterization of her illness is well done, at least I would imagine it is without researching the subject. There were many disparate characters, most of which were well-written. And it was kinda fun for me to read a story that basically took place in my backyard, not just Southern California but the Pasadena/Glendale area.
Though I was annoyed to find this is actually from 1998; President Clinton and Daryl Strawberry are mentioned.

The Amazing Journey
Like a lot of kids, Austin goes on a long vacation before starting college; unlike them, he goes with his father. A trip through Hawaii, Korea, China, Tibet, Nepal, India, London, and Paris makes up this book.
As always, it’s the small touches that sell a travel memoir. I had a good laugh at the obsequiousness of the Chinese tour guide, and mentioning, “This is Mr. Wong. He will be our driver. He is one of the very best.” Yeah, they do that a lot in China, and though I didn’t enjoy my trips there, this was a great moment. Particularly liked his description of the base camp of Everest, seeing the giant mountain without its usual clouds; been there, both literally and physically. What made that section difficult to read was the knowledge that the poverty of the area just got worse, considering the giant earthquake last week.
Always reminded of the diversity of views when I found myself thinking the opposite to his remarks about London and Paris, especially about wandering in each city and its museums. It would have helped if someone told him there was a back door to the Louvre, but he found another way.
What was intriguing was his mention of a few incidents like his eye-stare with a Chinese soldier and his defense of a poor horse, which gave off more of a “look at me, I’m such a good person!” vibe. His son also exhibited a dangerous amount of ego in not telling about his illness, but I suppose in a way that simply makes them more human in the reader’s eyes.


Travel Thursday: More Training in Mexico City, part 1

Sitting on a bench across the way from an attractive lady who was watching me just as intently when she wasn’t distracted by potential buyers was not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon in what many people considered the world’s largest city. Today the sky looked only moderately black, perhaps because there were less vehicles out on the streets. Insurgentes seemed equally crowded, but the ride on the Metro convinced me most people where elsewhere than in cars.

They’d told me to take things seriously, for training was supposed to simulate real-life situations, but I found it hard to do so after a huge Italian meal at a restaurant on the other side of Sullivan Park. Still, I had to give those tasked with finding and following me a few hints. It wouldn’t be any fun just staying away from them; I had to let them see me and then get away, otherwise I was due for a boring day.

It was still early, so I walked around Sullivan Park, gawking at the paintings but hoping I wouldn’t spot anything I liked, because I didn’t have either the time or the inclination to stick around here too long. And with that I realized I was pumped for the game too; for one brief second earlier I’d thought of letting them capture me so I could be released from this silly competition and allowed to go my own way, but again, what fun would that be?

Being in a giant city gave me an advantage, and right now I was close to downtown; a slight smile permeated my face as I remembered the first time I’d tried to find this park; when I told the taximan it was “just off Insurgentes,” the driver had thrown me an irritated look while shouting, “Every part of town is just off Insurgentes! The street is thirty-five miles long!”

Sullivan Park was just like every other park in the city, or in the world, for that matter, except on Sundays. Every week the most renowned painters and sculptors of the city and beyond came to exhibit. Competition to show off the wares here was fierce; most artists had exhibited all over the world, and all it took was the right word to have them gleefully pull out the scrapbook of posters or exhibition cards. Oddly enough, more than a few of them had shown at the Playboy Mansion; I wasn’t sure what to think of that, and finally decided not to, at least not right now.

Near the Monument to the Mother something caught my eye, a young man–by far the youngest I’d ever seen here–whose specialty seemed to be alien landscapes. For such a young artist to be allowed here, he had to be good, and sci-fi stuff wasn’t exactly the main topic in these here parts. . .

Yeah, it was too good to pass up. Selecting two of the paintings, I paid the price without haggling. The young man was so overjoyed he offered to deliver them to my hotel free of charge. My only condition was that he re-sign them, larger than the first time; When he was a world-renown artist, I wanted the world to know I’d been one of the first to recognize such talent. . .

Time to walk on. I saw my old friend the miniature artist still in his usual place; some of his art was so small a magnifying glass was needed, but those rarely were on show. A few years before I’d commissioned a painting of a redhead figure skater from my past, and had given him permission to duplicate it for sale; now I saw those little things in the damnedest places all over the world! Still, I was secure in the knowledge that the original was in a special place in my apartment back in El Lay.

The park always seemed bigger on Sundays, but finally I was back where I started, with the attractive lady in her 30s who seemed to remember me from previous visits. Her paintings were also in the fantasy genre, but more of the unicorn variety. One was lying on a lily pad, surrounded by all types of strange flowers, while in another the animal was inside a sphere, trying to break out. At least there weren’t any velvet ones of a unicorn on an alien cliff looking at two moons like I’d seen in Tijuana, but on the other hand if she got together with the youngster I’d bought from earlier that might be exactly what they’d do.

Knowing she knew I’d be back, I walked on. On the sidewalk of one of the side streets I came across another young man; perhaps in the time I’d been away several of the oldsters had died. None of these paintings impressed me much, either uninteresting artistically or mundane in subject. But I admit to releasing an involuntary gasp at the last one. Even I couldn’t tell ya why, it was just a statue in a fountain, but I stared at it for a good five minutes, not able to pull my eyes away. It didn’t take the artist long to become uneasy; no one had ever had such a reaction to his works before.

I finally uttered a few magical words–“Five hundred dollars”–and sent the artist into orbit; later he told he’d been expecting a fight for one hundred. Since he was friends with the previous guy, they agreed to join the deliveries, and that was that, deal done.

Now I walking in the middle of the park, where the abstracts tended to congregate, when I came across a chess match. An older gentleman was taking full advantage of a much younger opponent; the youth saw no escape from the trap on his home turf, and was about to tip over his king when I asked if I could take over. Having been given permission, I showed him the only escape, much to the chagrin of the old man.

I was still well behind, and knew there was no possible way to win, but I figured on taking out a number of the opponent’s pieces before going down in flames. And indeed, people leaned in to get a closer look as I slowly but surely made up some of the enormous disadvantage. My favorite ploy–probably because I found myself in that situation way too often–had always been the desperate counterattack, and once my defenses were reasonable secure, I sent my rooks on kamikaze runs. The first put his king in check, and with no possibility of a block he was forced to move forward out of the way, allowing my rook to make its way along the endline to gobble the opposing rook, still in its original position. The pawns in front had also not moved, so I managed to take out two of them and a knight before finally being subdued.

The other rook was even more successful. Not giving the opponent time to rest, it maneuvered its way to the point where it was online with the king and queen. Again finding itself in check, the king moved out of the way, leaving the queen unprotected, and the rook proceeded to ravish her. . . in a chess-like way of course.

There were oohs and aabs from the crowd, and my opponent was sweating. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that it was way past the time he could possibly lose, but there was no point to that, and he wouldn’t believe it anyway; in this regard, chess was a lot like poker.

Once my two remaining pieces were gone, I led the opponent’s remaining bishop on a merry chase, inching slowly but surely toward the king, but the old man wouldn’t fall for that, so finally I gave way, standing to shake the man’s hand while giving the youth a slap on the back. To my surprise, I found myself not only tired but, incredibly, hungry; I’d heard that Italian food kept hunger at bay for a good three or four days, but maybe I’d gotten the light version. More importantly, figuring the make-believe enemy was now in place somewhere around me, I wanted to get the game underway. . .


Travel Thursday: Finland again

The only time I ever said “Boom goes the dynamite!” was at the Alfred Nobel museum in San Remo, Italy. . . and they kicked me out because of it.

Flag colors and designs are a lot more interesting than one might think at first blush. They were never chosen because the colors or motif were pretty; everything had a meaning, usually not as simple as the fifty stars representing fifty states. Canada, for instance: the white was obviously all the snow, and the leaf was simple enough, but why was the leaf red? Exactly, I didn’t think you knew either. Ask a Canadian kid, before they forget the third-grade lecture.
Scandinavia is particularly interesting. All five countries have the same design, an off-center cross that looked like a lying-down lower-case T, but they each have different colors. Why did Denmark and Norway choose red backgrounds, while Sweden and Iceland went with blue? Why did Norway and Iceland have the extra white piping around the cross and ruin the symmetry with the others?
Finland, on the other hand, was simpler. The white background, like Canada’s, stood for the long snowy winter, and the light blue represented the many lakes and streams, like the ones I saw out the window as the plane left Helsinki’s Vantaa airport. I’d seen the same view coming in about two hours ago, but somehow the different angle of daylight made the pale blue even paler, or bluer.

“Savonlinna was founded in the seventeenth century,” I suddenly heard, though I didn’t know if it was meant for me. I turned and saw the man sitting next to me was indeed looking my way, so I figured it was indeed spoken in my direction. I didn’t ask why I should care, since it was far too early in the flight to piss off your seatmate.
“It’s located on an island in Saimaa Lake, and is also the summer home of the President.”
See, that’s the kind of thing that might come in handy, though right now I couldn’t figure out how.
“The summers are warm rather than hot, like summers in England. Winters are cold, of course, but not as much snow as people think.”
Since I never planned to be here in the winter, I didn’t particularly care, but was once again too polite to say so. Besides, the guy still might say something that could turn out to be important, and it wasn’t like I had anything better to do while waiting to get there. I’d already been told the flight would only last an hour, which was better than the five or so hours by train or bus, so I figured I could put up with the chatter.
“Most tourists do not go further than St. Olaf’s Castle, which we call Olavinlinna. It is the best preserved in all of Suomi and is the host of the opera festival. . . but I am sure you knew that.”
A momentous moment: first time ever someone took me for an opera lover just by looking at me. Somebody take a picture. . .
Of course I have actually been to the opera festival before {see previous Finland blog}, and it wasn’t on right now, but that didn’t matter because I was going to meet the same beautiful blonde model that I took to see Tosca that time. She’d said something about hiking, which I could have done at home without the mosquitoes, but who knows, it might be fun after all, or after the hike. Since she picked me up at the airport and drove me to the hotel, I figured she had something planned, if she went to all this trouble. . .

A few minutes later we were out of the hotel lobby, holding hands as she led the way into the woods right across the street. Except for the few places the path narrowed to single file, that was how we continued, pretty much in silence until our legs warmed up and I was well past any possibility of jetlag.
Reaching into my backpack’s side pocket for the water bottle, she mentioned that she hadn’t been in these woods in a long time. “In fact, I barely remember this trail.”
“But you do remember it, at least. You might remember more as we go along. And since I’ve never been here, I’ll have to trust you.”
“And I know how hard that is for you,” she replied sourly, but then rubbed my arm to let me know she was just joshin’. “I know how hard it is for you to have to depend on a map.”
“I’m okay with maps, but I would prefer aerial photos.”
“I doubt you could find any of this place.”
Which was no doubt true, since who knew how few people ever walked around here, and those who did were going to their summer homes, so presumably they wouldn’t need a map, or aerial photos, for that.
But now that she’d gotten the bug–a much more fun one than the mosquitoes–she found a shady place to throw herself while taking out her laptop, muttering something about Estonia winning the most wired country prize only because they were so small. She mighta had a point, for even out here she had no trouble getting an internet signal.
To her surprise as much as mine, it didn’t take long for her to find aerial black and whites. I could even pinpoint our exact location, and saw there was a rather large house up ahead, definitely not someone’s summer home. . . unless he was the CEO of Nokia or something like that. Hey, it wasn’t the president’s palace, was it? Nah. . .
But she was more intent on the lake beyond it. “We can have our picnic there. I might even take a little skinny dip, even though there’s no sauna.”
“I am so glad I brought my camera.”
“So am I.” Giggle. “Hate to think this hike would be for naught.”
“Hey, you learned a new word.”
Sigh. “How does someone as cynical as you always look on the bright side?”
“I hope for the best while expecting the worst.”
“Ah. Does that mean the bottle is half empty or half full?”
I didn’t bother correcting that. “You mean, is the model half clothed or half naked?”
“Ha! Exactly! Never mind.” Standing back up, she took my arm and we started walking again, enjoying nature as best we could. Which was easy for her, with the outdoors being one of her favorite things, along with sunshine and animals, just to name the ones in the vicinity. And since she’d indulged in music, good food, and sex recently, she was a happy camper, or at least hiker.
“Did you know,” she told me brightly, as if suddenly remembering, “that the world Mobile Phone throwing championships are held here every year? Too bad you’re not here at the right time of year, you’d be a natural.”
“I like that the home of Nokia has enough of a sense of humor to do that.”
“Which category would you compete in?”
“There’s the traditional style, of course, but then there’s also freestyle, where you get points for choreography and such, as well as team and–”
“Leave it to the fucking marketers to screw up a good thing!” I moaned. “Throw it far, one winner. Why complicate things?”
“They added a new category: fancy dress.”
“You’d think, but they got the idea when people started dressing up as animals.”
“If that’s what passes for fancy dress here in reindeer land. . .”
“Hey! We were ranked the sixth happiest country in the world!”
“Now that truly shocks me!”
“And there goes your musical theory.”
Groan. “Damn, you’re right!”
{To get that joke, read the previous blog about her, mentioned above. You’re welcome.}
“So how was this survey done? Did scientists actually observe, or was it just a questionnaire? Because–”
“Don’t finish that. You’re just jealous that we’re better cheaters.”
“Yeah, that must be the reason. What about having the second highest suicide rate in the world?”
She smiled sweetly. “Some people can’t handle all the awesomeness.”
I stopped to take a photo, but didn’t tell her, so by the time she realized it, she was a good thirty yards ahead. Once I caught up, she gave me the stinkeye, but all I had to do was remind her about her supposedly superb powers of observation. . .
“Just for that, I wasn’t going to tell you that your very own Reader’s Digest ranked Finland the best country to live in, and there was no possibility of cheating in that one.”
I yawned. “It’s not my Reader’s Digest. Never read the damn thing.”
“Quality of life, education, drinking water, greenhouse gases. Who wouldn’t want to live here?”
“Gorgeous blondes. . .”
“How could I have missed that?” she laughed.
“Gorgeous brunettes. . .”
“You leave Riika out of this! Just think about me. . . and my sister. . . and my mom.”
I brightened. “Let’s talk about your sister, then. Does she look like you?”
“Even more classic Scandinavian, both face and body.”
“Meaning. . . body wise?”
Sigh. “She got all the boobs in the family.”
I grinned at the way her accent played with the word boobs. “Older?”
“Yes.” She seemed miffed that I hadn’t said something nice about her quite-fine-though-not-equally-attention-grabbing bosom.
“So maybe more mature than you, which wouldn’t be a surprise.”
She didn’t know how to take that. “Most of the time she’s very mature, but she gets into these moods when she leaves her job and does crazy things, especially sexual ones.”
“What would someone like you define as sexual crazy?”
I guess I deserved a tongue stick-out for that one.
When we got to the mansion, and that was indeed what it was, we stopped for a bit, pretending to drink some water as we gawked. “I dream of having a place like that,” she sighed as she started walking again, somehow able to braid her long blonde hair into pigtails as she walked the rocky trail, knowing how much I liked to photograph that innocent look.
“If you can dream, yet not make dreams your master. . .”
“That is well put.” Being such a Nationalist, she rarely read anything in English, so she didn’t bother asking for the author, which was fine with me, since I couldn’t remember.
A few minutes later we passed a log cabin, and behind it was a large corral full of reindeer, making me wonder if they were used for meat or just Christmas shows. As we walked past and were able to see the far side of the cabin, we caught sight of an old man splitting wood like a cliché; I was sure the old guy had waited till he heard us approach and then pretended to be working, for no other reason than testosterone ego. Yeah, they had a bunch of that in Finland, not all of it used up when tossing cell phones. Viking heritage or genetics, no doubt, and also explained a little bit about the high suicide rate.
Or maybe it was the language. I let her take the lead, of course, since Finnish isn’t something you can fake your way through–someone once said approximately seventy percent of words were compounds–and watched her do her magic.
She walked coolly and normally, appearing even more relaxed than usual, more offhand, absentminded, airhead. . . like a model, she’d never admit. It was her usual façade, to appear harmless. I might not know the language, but the body signals told plenty, especially when I saw the old guy’s eyes not being able to move off her. His body was twisted from a lifetime of hard work, and as she related later, his wife had died ten years ago, and now he was hanging out with a younger woman who nagged him, so any diversion in the long boring day was welcome.
The reindeer rubbed their antlers together and chuckled suggestively. . .
Less than ten minutes of further walking brought us to the lake, where we rested a while and she gleefully posed for photos, even nude in the water. Then came the quick and dull walk back, except for a look at the mansion from the other direction. Nothing else happened until we came across a solitary horse taking up most of the trail as he munched on some grass, or something equally vegetarian.
With the day quickly turning dark, possibly due more to an incoming storm than nightfall, it seemed strange to see the horsy all by himself out here. I remembered, and she confirmed, seeing nothing like a horse ranch on the maps or aerials, though of course that didn’t mean someone didn’t have a little stable in the back of their cabin, like the reindeer guy we’d just met.
Doing my usual horse mumbler routine, I asked the equine what he was doing out here without a chaperone; the horse rolled a walleye at me and took a step back, but I somehow, without making any kind of sudden move, managed to gather the reins of the wary-eyed buckskin, soothing, “Sure you want to come along with us, horsy. What would you do out here alone with that sun in the west sinking ever lower?”
Seeing things that way, the horse proved willing to be led by its reins, unlike the blonde, though I wisely didn’t say that out loud. Not right now, anyway.
It was a short walk back to town from there, and Giina got a wicked grin and said we should take the horse to the police station, because the cops would have no idea what to do with it. That seemed harsh on the horse, but I figured soon someone would call to see if the buckskin was in the lost and found box.
Which gave me an idea. “Why would the horse be out there all alone?”
“Escaped from home?”
“Most horses like home, that’s where they want to go back to. And he doesn’t look like he’s been beaten, or anything that would make him want to run away from home.”
“I see that.” She patted the animal, for the first time noticing the saddle. “Hey, someone must have been riding him. Maybe he’s a rental.”
“That’s what I was thinking. Maybe the person fell off and is lying injured out there.”
“So we should go to the police, get them to organize a search party!”
“Exactly. Also the city hall, or wherever they might round up some volunteers.”
“Okay! You take the horse to the police and tell them, I’ll go round up some troops.”
“Tell me where the police station is.”
“Right!” She came back from her twenty-yard aborted dash. “It’s about a ten minute walk along this street, you can’t miss it.”
Grinning, I stuck my foot into the stirrup and just missed her head as I swung aboard. “How long do you think it’ll take me this way?”
“Hell, you coulda dropped me off!” she screamed at the horse’s receding backside, something she seemed to have to do a lot, she cackled to herself as she started her dash again. . .

{but I will tell you the rider was rescued with only a broken leg. . . I say only, because. . . never mind.}