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Monday, September 30, 2013

Adventure Travel at It's Best: Part 1

I use Grammarly's grammar check because it's what separates us from the animals, or at least those members of the animal kingdom who suffer from problems of spelling, verb agreement, frequent use of clichés, poor word choice, and punctuation errors probably the result of bad public schools.

I have said before that if you book your travel online and use credit cards then the words “adventure” and “journey” hardly belong in our vocabulary. Two of my favorite travel books, Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor’s Life at Sea (1840) by Richard Henry Dana Jr. and Around the World on a Bicycle (1887) by Thomas Stevens chronicle a kind of travel that was at the very end of an era in which travel truly could be defined as adventure. I think that rounding Cape Horn on a square-sailed brig and riding around the world on a bike would still qualify today as thrilling but can’t compare with what these men pulled off well over a century ago. These books will give you something to think about the next time you are complaining about not having enough clean towels in your hotel room.

I remember reading Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents back at university and since then I’ve felt that because the world is completely known to us our inability to discover goes against our primal instincts, just as Freud postulated that civilization is in conflict with man’s instinctual quest for freedom. People make attempts to push the limits of travel and adventure but these seem desperate and phony to me. Who cares who the first person was to climb Mount Everest on a Segway Scooter or whatever? Swimming from Cuba to the United States without the aid of a shark cage was the latest yawn to hit the newspapers.

The protagonists of these two memoirs don’t suffer the fate of inconsequential stunts, at least not in my book. Tom Stevens starts out in April of 1884 from San Francisco and pedals his penny farthing bike with a 50 inch front wheel eastward across the Sierra Nevada mountains. A man who had little to learn about traveling light, he carried in his small handlebar bag some socks, a spare shirt, a raincoat that doubled as a tent and bedroll, and a revolver. Just how he financed the journey isn’t well explained in the book.

As I have stated somewhere else, to judge people from the past on things like our modern thoughts on political correctness makes about as much sense as making fun of the clothes they wore. If you are free of prejudices and racism then you are just reflecting the norms of our societies so don’t be so quick to pat yourself on the back while condemning folks who lived in other times. At least Stevens had a bit of humor to spice up his stereotypes. He refers to a Hungarian gypsy as “unregenerate chicken-lifter.”

The hero of Two Years Before the Mast dropped out of a comfortable life among the American elite of the time to work on a cargo vessel and our world of letters is better for it. In this day of Google maps it’s hard to imagine just how vulnerable travelers were in the past. Even many generations after the puzzle of determining longitude had been solved ships were still at the mercy of lousy time pieces. The captain on this voyage quickly abandoned the use of the ship’s unreliable chronometer and set longitude by means of dead reckoning and line-of-sight—not the most reliable tools in navigation.

He describes in great detail the difficult and sometimes perilous work of a sailor. In this passage below the ship is rounding Cape Horn which is infamous for its high seas and terrible storms:

The crew stood abaft the windlass and hauled the jib down, while John and I got out upon the weather side of the jib-boom, our feet on the foot-ropes, holding on by the spar, the great jib flying off to leeward and slatting so as almost to throw us off the boom. For some time we could do nothing but hold on, and the vessel, diving into two huge seas, one after the other, plunged us twice into the water up to our chins. We hardly knew whether we were on or off; when, the boom lifting us up dripping from the water, we were raised high into the air and then plunged below again. John thought the boom would go every moment, and called out to the mate to keep the vessel off, and haul down the staysail; but the fury of the wind and the breaking of the seas against the bows defied every attempt to make ourselves heard, and we were obliged to do the best we could in our situation.

Fortunately no other seas so heavy struck her, and we succeeded in furling the jib ``after a fashion''; and, coming in over the staysail nettings, were not a little pleased to find that all was snug, and the watch gone below; for we were soaked through, and it was very cold. John admitted that it had been a post of danger, which good sailors seldom do when the thing is over.

Step aside fast-food workers, the definition of “shit job” just took on a new meaning. Or as a friend of mine once said about a climbing trip we took into the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, “Fun is over-rated." If all you are looking for is fun go to Disneyland or stay home and watch a movie.

I’m not saying that you have to be miserable every minute of your trip but roughing it (i.e. on a shoestring budget) certainly makes for a better story once you get back home. The less money you spend traveling the more others want to hear about it and by “others” I mean “me.” Traveling with little or no money means that there is some risk involved. I know that my own traveling has become more mundane and boring as I get older and have much more in the way of resources. I remember traveling before I had a credit card and I would often come home with less than a dollar in my pocket.

The End of the Best Show Ever

Now that is what you call an exit. I watched the episode alone at my desk (this morning as soon as I could to avoid spoilers) and I was literally clapping at the end, no kidding, clapping to a TV screen. I wouldn’t have changed a thing. As my brother said, everyone got what they deserved (and some a lot more). I have seldom been this satisfied at the end of any work of fiction whether it was a novel, a movie, or a TV series.

After the final and stupidly ambiguous episode of The Sopranos all I could think was, “You people writing this just aren’t clever enough for this lame-ass ending.” It’s like they thought they were smarter than their audience. With Breaking Bad everyone has always known that Walter White was the smartest guy in the room.

As satisfying as it was to see a pile of dead neo-Nazis in the end, what may have been even better was not having to hear his mush-mouth son speak a last time—I really hated that kid. Badger and Skinny Pete were their usual brilliant selves and I can only pray that they get a spin-off series in which they take over the carwash for hilarious, meth-fueled hijinks.

Whether or not this was the best TV series ever would be hard to say but I definitely think that it was consistently the most fun to watch week-to-week.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Gourmet Food Nation

Most people today have a much greater level of sophistication about what they eat than a similar demographic little over a decade ago before the avalanche of cooking shows and internet cooking videos from all parts of the world.  In my first trips abroad I found the foods to be a total mystery yet today I think that people everywhere would recognize staples like a Greek salad, Peruvian ceviche, enchiladas, paella, a salade niçoise, etc. We’ve come a long way, baby. I think that Americans and Brits have probably come the furthest in our appetite for new foods and especially in rediscovering the lost art of cooking, something people here in the Mediterranean basin never forgot.

I think that a lot of people here in Spain would be shocked to learn how well many Americans eat these days. It’s not about hamburgers and hotdogs for scores of people intent on catching up to the finest cooks in the world—although most Spaniards have never had a really great hamburger or hotdog. After generations of abandoning our food traditions people all over America and the UK are determined to revive cherished old recipes as well as experiment with cooking from all over the world. If you have any doubt about this just look on the shelves of most American supermarkets and you will find an astounding array of diversity.  Everything from Greek yogurt to Spanish olive oil to Thai chili sauce can be purchased almost everywhere in the United States without even mentioning the explosion of Mexican ingredients available in even the remotest communities. Long Live Food Diversity!