Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sevilla - The city of bad food

As the only guests of the hotel in Ronda, we thought we had an inside track on the nicest room available.  Instead, we were allotted a room with two twin beds, a heater that could only be operated by a physicist, and a shower without proper hot water.  Still, at least we had a roof over our heads.

The phone shattered us awake at 6:30 am, and we quickly showered and departed for the 7:00 bus.  Needing a shave, the hotel attendant scratched his beard as he processed my American Express and waved us good-bye.  At that point, we didn’t know how mad we should have been at him.

Stumbling through the bus station, we realized the ticket window was closed.  We toured around the building in search of the bus to Sevilla, speculating that perhaps it had yet to arrive from its previous town.  In typical Dan & Caitlin fashion, we finally found one bus with an accompanying driver and asked if he was going to Sevilla.  No, he confusedly explained, he was beginning his bus route to pick up the local kids for school.  Thwarted.

Conversing with another Sevilla bound passenger, we ascertained the bus wasn’t leaving until 8:00.  Our helpful hotel attendant, in fact, was not so helpful after all. 

Still, the hour delay gave us the chance to warm up in a bright, smoke filled café with café con leches and warm breakfast sandwiches.  It also gave us the chance to map out our day with the help of the LP Brick.

At 8:00 we returned to the bus stop, ready to depart, but thwarted yet again.  Finally, at 8:30 the bus to Sevilla arrived, and Caitlin and I boarded, promptly falling asleep.  Slowly the sleep lifted from our heavy eyelids as the suburbs turned into the ancient city streets of one of the most important cities in Spain.  Sevilla was the dominant city during Columbus’ time – controlling all trade with the colonies until the river’s pollution forced the governors to move to the coastal city of Cadiz.  The legacy is stunning – one of the world’s largest cathedrals and colorfully decorated parks and streets.

First, we toured the ancient Cathedral, which at 6 euro a piece was no idle whim.  In a classic fusion of Moorish and Christian architecture, the Cathedral retained its minaret which rose 98 meters above the city.  The architects had designed the square, sloped walkway to accommodate imams on horseback, and after the 15 minute climb, I was more than ready to descend on the top of a saddle. 

The city of Sevilla rose to our eyes through the mist and fog that encapsulated the city.  Staring out at the medieval streets, we could just make out the bull ring in between gusts of fog and drops of rain.  Setting out to explore the city in a traditional way, we scouted the best path to the bull ring and descended the fortified tower.

Although bull fights only take place in the summer, the bull ring’s staff was still providing tours of the complex.  Home to the year-end festival, this bull ring is the most important in all of Spain.  Touring a bull ring was the one thing I had wanted to do from the beginning of the trip, and finally I was getting the chance to do just that.  Waiting for the tour to begin, I felt the Little Boy Feeling beginning to percolate inside me.  Even on this cold, misty day, my excitement was contagious, with Caitlin glaring at me and ordering calm.

Bowing to the scattered assortment of tourists, our tour guide, a short, 30ish authoritative woman with dark hair, agreed to deliver her spiel in English.  She opened the door beneath the Princess’s Gate and the ten of us straggled into the ringside seats, taking in the dirt and the surrounding benches.  Our guide not only educated us about the basics of a bull fight (three fighters, six bulls) she also pointed out the unique aspects of Sevilla’s masterpiece.  Every podunk village in Spain boasts a ring, but this one was the most famous in the entire country. 

Feeling high after the tour, we set off in search of a meal and an escape from the driving rain.  We settled on a restaurant along a pedestrian street in the center of the city.  We could not have picked more poorly.

Caitlin had read that a common, cheap meal in Spain is the menu del dia or meal of the day – usually prepared for local workers unable to return to their homes for lunch or siesta.  Dreaming of comfort food, instead we were served fish salad, green (think puke) soup and a stew of meat and potatoes that was wholly unacceptable.  For 9 euro, we were getting a deal, but one that even the beggars outside would have refused.  The only thing I could offer up about the meal, “It’s growing on me,” was the strongest complement I could come up with.  The best part, by far, was the Hershey’s Hot Chocolate they brought me for dessert.  Basically, our money was paid to rent on our space while we warmed up our appendages and waited out the rain. 

Caitlin, in addition to seeing the ancient cities, was determined to find a new set of boots at some point during our trip.  She decided that Sevilla, in the rain and on very little sleep, was just the place to begin her diligent search.  I couldn’t have been more excited or helpful.  After two hours of fruitless efforts, we were cold, tired, hungry, and ready to rest.  Rather than wait out dinner and a flamenco show, we hightailed it to the train station looking for a smooth ride home.  Seventy Euros was the price for the high speed train – which only traveled a mere 130 miles – a bit out of our price rage. 

Luckily, we caught a taxi to the bus station, and found a bus traveling to our small town of Fuengirola that only cost 30 euros – much more palatable to the bank account.  Incredibly, the same four people who had rode with us from Ronda that morning, were waiting to board the bus as well.  As Caitlin climbed up the bus steps, one woman reached out and held her hand signifying that they too were heartened by this coincidence.  Two hours later as the bus rumbled into Ronda, we waved good bye to our companions, and waited for the bus to continue on its journey.  Having left Sevilla at 6:00, we were more than ready to get off the bus as it rumbled along the Mediterranean coast after 10 pm.

But rather than drop us off at the bus station, we, as the only passengers left on the bus, hoped the kind conductor would drop us off in front of our resort.  Our entreaties that began 30 miles ahead of our drop-off point fell upon uncomprehending ears.  Still, as we approached Club la Costa, our pleas grew more heeded and our commands of Aqui! Aqui! finally penetrated his uncompromising ears, and he slammed on the bus breaks immediately in front of our favorite destination, our BP station.  With excessive thanks, we leapt off the bus and ran to the store.

Still sore from lunch, and lacking anything for dinner, we scoured the store in search of hot dogs, bread, ketchup, and sustenance to satiate our beleaguered bodies.  We fell asleep exhausted but content with the day’s adventure.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Where's that bus going?

Spain - The First Few Days

That was the question that I found myself asking Caitlin many times throughout our trip.  Sitting at the bus station in Algeciras, just back from Morocco, “Is that our bus to Malaga.”  Cold, hungry, and tired at the bus station in Ronda, waiting for our delayed bus to Sevilla, “Where’s that bus going?”  “Dan, that’s a school bus” Caitlin informed me. 

These snippets were just two of the many conversations we had while trying to secure transportation.  In total, between when we landed at the Malaga airport and returned one week later, we boarded 15 buses, 9 taxis, 7 trains, 2 ferries, and one private tour bus.  Every time, before boarding a bus to who knows where, I turned to Caitlin and, without fail, asked, “Where’s that bus going?” 

While enduring Washington’s blistering August heat, Caitlin and I had decided that, rather than venturing to the frigid Midwest for Thanksgiving, we’d head to the Costa del Sol (Sun Coast) in Southern Spain for our holiday.  Thanks to Grandpa Bob, we lined up a time share with a view of the Mediterranean for our week’s stay.  With Lonely Planet in tow, we boarded the plane in Washington on November 19, prepared for a week of tapas, medieval cities, and gaudy souvenirs.  Only once we opened the door of Unit 301 at Club la Costa did we realize how much transportation we were in for.  

In planning the trip to Spain, Caitlin and I oscillated between a resort with a view of the ocean and cheap hostels in cities spread throughout the country.  In the end, the docile look of a beach and the comfort of the price won out.  We chose a resort not far (we thought) from the town of Malaga on Spain’s Southern Coast.  Known as a tourist destination for the British, we hoped the November crowd would be less than rowdy.  We were right though probably too much.

Although our resort billed itself as located in “Malaga,” the following is what encompassed getting from our front door to Malaga proper.  On Sunday morning, we stepped out of our unit’s front door, walked the 10 minutes down to the road paralleling the Mediterranean coast.  After waiting 10 minutes for a local bus, we paid 2.5 euro for the short trip into the village of Fuengirola.  Once there, we hopped on board the commuter train, which ran every 30 minutes, and splayed out in comfort as we passed the 45 minute and 5 euro ride into Malaga.  After reaching that station, we walked the 10 minutes to the city center. A little more work than we had envisioned. 

Despite the struggle to get from our resort to civilization, the things that stayed with me from Spain were 1) the people and 2) the history of the country.  Throughout our trip, we were constantly impressed by the willingness of the Spanish to come to our aid. 

At one point, we walked out of the Malaga train station looking rather confused, as we did during most of the trip, and a local construction worker flagged us down asking what we needed.  We relayed that we were looking for the bus station.  He apologized first, asked that we bear with him, and then proceeded to tell us in halting English how to find our desired goal.  He couldn’t have been happier to provide us with that information.  And that interaction was the rule, more than the exception as to how we were treated during the entire trip.  To welcome us back to the US, a ticket attendant at JFK greeted a question like this, “I’M NOT THE ONE ON DUTY HERE.  If you need something, speak to that man down there, I’m doing something else!”  Welcome to America!

From the beginning though, we knew the people in this bastion of tourism would treat us with civility – more than we could expect from American Airlines.  As we landed in Malaga after our third plane ride, we waddled, zombie-like, to the baggage claim.  An airport employee realized we were foreigners and kindly pointed to a monitor that informed us our foreign, American bags would come through on a different baggage claim – one that met customs requirements.  Nodding graciously, we sat by that never-ending conveyor belt with a similar result: no luggage.  Waddling back to customer service, a no-nonsense woman informed us our luggage had never made it to Malaga and that it would be delivered when it arrived.  The couple waiting in line behind us, just happened to live in Rockville, MD, right outside Washington D.C. and had made the entire trip with us.  Like ours, their luggage hadn’t.  Despite their aloofness (me: Where are you staying? Them: the Marriott, in Marbella.  You don’t know Marbella?), they were helpful and we bid them adieu until the following week where they would meet us on our return trip to the states.

Without luggage, we began the train & taxi journey to our resort, where we promptly passed out at 6:00 pm.  Awake again at 1:30 am though, we were starving and without options.  That was before we found our new favorite retail store in all of Spain: the BP station.  Situated along the Mediterranean’s paralleling interstate and a 10 minute walk from 301, we stocked up on frozen pizza, eggs, bacon, ham & cheese, and orange juice for sickly Caitlin.  Asleep again by 3:30, we finally woke up at 1 the next day, ready to explore Malaga.  And explore we did, summiting the ancient Arabic castle with its view of the Mediterranean dropping off into the horizon – preceded by Malaga’s historic Bull Ring amid unhistoric 10-story hotels and condos. 

In 1881, Malaga bore Pablo Picassa and, in 2003, the world’s worst Picasso Museum, housed in a beautiful Shakespearean building.  A two-story square house rose up from a narrow pedestrian alley promising visitors world-class paintings.  What they got instead was a nice view of a courtyard from a Julietean balcony but only after enduring some less than interesting art.  Needless to say, we were not impressed.  Still, the tapas we shared afterward at Gorki were our first introduction to Spanish cuisine, and we enjoyed it.  Small sandwiches with chicken and ham were not gastronomical ingenuities, but filling and satisfying to our Midwestern palates.  Shortly thereafter, we retreated to our resort, missing the last bus and paying the 14 euro for the taxi to our front door. 

Sleeping off a cold and jet lag, we stayed in bed until noon on Monday before getting motivated enough to gallivant down to the coastal town of Marbella.  Yet again, another town rose off the Mediterranean into the hills composed of narrow pedestrian streets, plazas of orange trees, and siesta practitioners.  Caitlin and I arrived just in time for tapas (which is anytime) and sat down on a patio overlooking the Mediterranean.  A Tom Petty/Kenny G prodigy entertained our meal while a waiter did the opposite.  This time, our tapas consisted of less than great Potato Salad but better than bad mozzarella.  Satiated, we hiked the streets and dodged the mopeds back to the bus station where we embarked for the mountain village of Ronda – two hours from the Mediterranean coast.  I wanted to visit Ronda for two reasons: to see the most important Bull Ring in Spain and to descend the 200 steps beneath the world’s biggest oldest bridge. We weren’t able to do either.

In Marbella, I had asked the bus company when the last bus left Ronda.  The attendant informed me it left at 9:30, meaning that after we arrived at 5:30 we had about 4 hours before we had to begin our return journey.  Shooting out of the bus like a bull out of a gate, we descended on the Bull Ring two minutes before it was scheduled to close.  Like most of Spain, the schedule wasn’t closely followed, if at all, and we were locked out.  Ronda was the premier bullfighting locale in all of Spain in the 18th century giving rise to the first legendary bullfighter, Pedro Romero, and ensuring the transition from a sport conducted on horseback to one performed by matadors standing on the ground.  That is to say, it’s big fucking deal.  But not in November. 

The bullfighting season runs from April to October, with an end of the season festival in Sevilla.  We had missed the season but not the scenery.  Ronda is home to a 120 meter tall bridge built in 1793 as an update to the Arabic and Roman bridges covering the town’s gorge before it.  Known as the “New Bridge” we were rather impressed.  

Lonely Planet had alerted me to the Bull Ring’s meddlesome hours, but had also informed me that my 200 steps descending into the gorge beneath the bridge would be open until 8 pm.  The Spaniards we met, overlooking the Arabic bridge put it another way, “Eh, this is Spain, they close when they want to.”  Although we missed the steps, the two Spanish men were more than impressed with Caitlin and her charming smile.  They informed us that Michelle Obama had visited Ronda just this past summer.  Since the conversation was conducted in Spanish, there is a good chance we missed some things.  Still, in his knowledge of America, the mid 60s man who was rather skinny and bereft of most of his hair, told us about all the states he knew: “Minnesota, Missouri, Dakota, Illinois, Wisconsin.”  Where the fuck is Iowa?  I asked him, not so antagonistically, and he had no idea what I was talking about.  Iowa’s Tom Vilsack like charisma continues unerringly.

Caitlin and I quickly conquered the town, drinking from the spring fed fountain, and ransacking the children as they exited their Christmas concert.  We settled in on the main drag in a nice warm tapas bar, ready to devour a snack before our bus departed.  Our pendulum swung back from our sea-surrounded lunch, and the tapas we had for 1 euro should have been free.  The two-year old who banged and threw his way through our dinner didn’t help the environment either.  Bladders empty and fingers back to working, we ran out the door.

Returning to the streets in search of more food, we wandered towards the bus station failing to find sustenance.  With an hour left, we summited the bar of a tiny, redly decorated cafe, in sight of the bus station.  And the pendulum swung back harder than ever in the form of four plates of tapas: calamari, ham and cheese croquets, potato croquets, and jamon iberico – the pride of Andalucia.  Now that our tongues and appendages were satisfied, we hurried off to the bus station in search of a Mediterranean bound transport. 

Closed doors and locked gates greeted us.  As we ran through the bus parking lot, we found a woman emptying the trash.

“Is there a bus to Marbella?” we asked.
“Oh no, I’m sorry, no more buses tonight.”


We ran down to the train station, two blocks away.

“Is there a train to Malaga tonight?”

It quickly dawned on us: we were stuck in Ronda.  November being the down season may have hampered our ability to see the bull ring or imperil ourselves on twisting steps, it meant all the hotels were open and desperate for customers.  Lonely Planet steered us toward one such serviceable entity, and we deposited our luggage: the Lonely Planet Brick and my Ipod.  Staying in Ronda wasn’t the worst option before us; it was half way to Sevilla and offered a light-infused, pedestrian downtown.  Not ready for bed, we set off in search of dessert and wine.  The fruit pudding I got my hands on was less than stellar, but Caitlin finally got the aceitunas (olives) she had been craving. 

Around midnight, we returned back to our hotel, waking up the night manager to let us in. 

At this point, we were on our third night in Spain and had changed our clothes exactly once.  That’s hardly a reason to stop traveling though, so we set our wake up call for 6:30 in time to get on the 7:00 am bus to Sevilla.  Sleep while you can…

More pictures here and here.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A reader's manifesto

B.R. Meyer opens a can of whoop ass on modern literary critics.

Monday, January 25, 2010

50 Travel Ideas

The LA Times Travel Writer picks her 50 favorite trips.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christmas Break

Standing atop the sun-drenched Colorado Rockies at 12,500 feet, I looked down forlornly at my dad who, minutes before, had navigated his way through the death-inducing moguls that now separated us. Dad and I had just emerged from Araphoe Basin’s whale of a chairlift that belches skiers out at the highest commercial peak in North America. To my right glared even higher runs that could only be skied after hiking to the top of a perilous summit. To my left, across a tree-filled valley, rose the Continental Divide that Dad and I had mischievously driven under earlier that morning. And below stood my dad, waiting in the shade cast by the hill upon which I stood. Having arrived in Colorado more than 30 hours before and having visited two of the Rockies’ legendary resorts already (Breckenridge and Keystone), we sagely dispensed with committing A-Basin’s map to memory and instead navigated our own route down the mountain using our innate skiers’ sense. That is to say, we had no idea what the hell we were doing.

Shortly after finishing off the last of the Pecan Pie and just before beginning the annual Thanksgiving Day football game, I had prodded Dad about his commitment to skiing the Rockies over Christmas Vacation. Since Dad is a teacher, and my office offers charitable leave, we both have lengthy holiday breaks. In previous years, Dad toiled away in the classroom coaching over achieving debaters while I drank away the short winter days at the bar or in the basement. This year, I had decided, we should spend our money providing new material for John Donne prodigies by beneficently placing our lives in danger. Living in Iowa, that is no easy feat.

And in addition to my desire to ski the superlative-laced peaks of North America, I also wanted to visit my long-lost college buddies in America’s most patriotic city: Boston. And so, what began as a need to ski, turned into a 10-day, 8 different bed, 15 state odyssey that rejuvenated me for months to come.

Amtrak, America’s worst passenger railway company, was supposed to provide the only symmetry to my trip by delivering me to the airport and sweeping me back from Boston. It failed on both accounts. I have taken Amtrak exactly five times in my life and have been satisfied exactly once – on a 30-minute trip. And so, it was this French military like reputation that opaquely penetrated my limited concentration as I made my way to Washington’s Union Station at 3:40 am on Christmas Eve.

In a little over three hours, the United States Senate would pass a wide-sweeping health care bill just a few blocks from where I was walking, and in a little over eight hours the warmth of my Grandmother’s embrace would lift me out of the cold Iowa winter. As I entered Union Station, these blissful thoughts swashed around my head, and so it was with a clamoring thunder that the Union Station clock chimed 3:45 and Amtrak announced its 4:00 train to BWI Airport would not be leaving. Like the French after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, I was despondent but in no way surprised.

Actually, my acceptance of the cancelled train wasn’t quite this lucid. Instead, I must have looked like a newly indebted homeless man as I swiped my credit card in the ticket dispenser 23 times. When my itinerary failed to appear after the second swipe, I figured I had the wrong card. After trying all my credit cards, my dad’s credit card, my Barnes and Noble Card, my Social Security Card – remember it was 3:45 am – I finally realized my train wasn’t going to the airport. Fearing the looming ice-storm in Chicago and blizzard in Des Moines, I knew I had to make my 6:00 am flight before the weather reduced me to spending Christmas with a United ticket agent at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Not a prospect I found too appetizing. After gathering from a cabbie, that the $12 train-ride to the airport would cost $85 by car, I returned to the waiting room to cajole my fellow stranded passengers into sharing a cab. Just as my bank account began to prepare itself for a momentous loss, an oasis appeared.

“Hey, are you going to BWI?” I asked a woman walking towards me with a suitcase designed only for stuffing into an overhead compartment.

“Yes, and I’m going to drive, and you can ride with me.” Now, as you can imagine, I was elated and immediately gave this woman a squashing bear-hug. Actually, that’s what I envisioned myself doing, but instead I answered with some erudite response, like, “Oh ok, sounds good.”

After my new friend, Alison, got us lost and asked for directions to the airport, I soon realized how fortuitous it was for her that I had generously agreed to accept her invitation to the airport. I was the Good Samaritan. Alison was older than me, mid 30s I would guess, and had dark hair and glasses. She was skinny and seemed hardened by something in her past.

After walking the two blocks to her car, Alison and I had driven back to Union Station, run through the departure lounge offering rides to the airport, but failed to acquire any additional passengers. With just the two us, Alison’s little Saab negotiated the early morning traffic and made its way to the highway.

With about 10 miles left, the conversation turned to our assorted travels abroad. Since Alison’s job was out-of-bounds, “Navy Intelligence,” we instead focused on what we both would rather do for a living.

“I spent a year after college teaching English in Hungary,” Alison offered. Flabbergasted, I gushed,

“I lived in Hungary for a year during college.” Alison, for the first time that morning, took her eyes off the road to look me up and down and evaluate the veracity of this claim. And since she was “Navy Intelligence,” the prospect of lying to her seemed as if it might place my life in jeopardy. I had no intention of doing so.

“So, did you speak any Hungarian before you moved there?” I inquired.

“Yea, actually I won a scholarship to take Hungarian during the summer at a college in Illinois.”

“Was it Beloit College?”

“Yea it was,” Alison answered, again looking at me with her military-sharpened deductive skills churning in her head. I continued my line of questioning like a focused prosecutor,

“And was your teacher’s name, Maria?” I delivered my final question with a satisfying flourish - wishing a jury sat in the back-seat instead of dirty socks and K-Mart receipts.

“Oh my God, Yes it was Maria,” Alison exclaimed as the car crossed first a dashed white line, then a solid white line, and finally rumble strips that announced Alison’s impending crash and jolted her into straightening out the car.

“How do you know Maria?” she asked.

“She was my Hungarian teacher when I studied in Hungary!”

In due time, Alison relayed that she had visited Maria the previous summer and maintained a frequent correspondence. This bizarre coincidence that placed me in Alison’s car reminded me of a Bill Bryson story – one of Iowa’s most proudest productions I must say – about bizarre coincidences:

After saying good bye to Alison, I sat back in awe as the overcrowded bus approached the terminal. But before I could dwell on my Brysonian story, I found myself learning about the nuanced intricacies of various Caribbean Islands.

“We’re heading to Jamaica this time. We love Jamaica – went for the first time in October. We were in the Bahamas for Easter, but the water is just too cold this time of year. St. Mother Teresa [or some such island] is also great, but the crowds there are just terrible over the holidays.” I didn’t know whether to be impressed or horrified about the brazen temerity with which this couple displayed their wealth. But their dissection of the Caribbean distracted me enough to miss my stop.

“Have a great time in, er, the Caribbean,” I wished the couple, running back to the lowly domestic terminal unable to remember what intricacy of which island had attracted their fancy this year.

When my plane touched-down in Des Moines, the grey-cast sky dropped light rain on the plane’s windows – withholding the ice and snow for later that day. Dad was there waiting for me with the only foreign car in all of Iowa, and we were soon on our way to Grandma’s house for Christmas Eve – eyes peeled for reindeer. My eight-hour expired thoughts returned as soon as I walked in the door. Smoked ham and mashed potatoes appeared on a plate in front of me before I could take off my coat. I was finally back in Iowa.

My family has been going to Grandma’s house for Christmas Eve since before I was born. It’s all I know, and I’m rather confused as to what I’ll do for Christmas when I’m no longer going to Grandma’s house – more importantly, what I’ll do without Grandma’s gifts. As always, Grandma reliably delivered, like a drug dealer, with a wonderful array of presents. The prescience with which she provides me bestsellers off of my Amazon wish list is stutter-inducing. Grandpa’s touch was also noticeable in one gift: he had artistically returned all the bent nails I had left in his woodshop over the years. He crafted a newspaper-sized nametag out of bent nails, and while he only spelled out D-A-N, I’m pretty sure he had enough of my used-and-replaced nails to spell my name as it appears on my birth certificate – twice.

Mother Blizzard prevented us from getting home to Mom and Dad’s house following Grandma’s rehearsed celebration, but with the morning light and warnings of more snow to come, we quickly evacuated Carroll on Christmas morning and did our best to make the 2-hour drive last as long as possible – coming in at just under 4 hours.

While the Altima and Jetta successfully navigated the iced-over country roads to Okoboji, there was no way they were getting into the drift-filled driveway without firing up the yet-to-be-christened snowblower. A little over a month before, just after I successfully manipulated my dad into agreeing to take me skiing in Colorado, Mom and I had purchased a snowblower intending to deliver it to Dad on Christmas Day. But, with God hating Al Gore as he does, Iowa received a record snowfall in early December requiring the early use of the no-longer-a-surprise gift. However, since the charade was co-opted, I got to use the new machine before opening presents – something I longingly desired after my snowless winters in D.C.

I bolted out of my brother’s Jetta before it came to a stop and had the snowblower churning before Mom had undone her seatbelt. This delay turned out to be fortuitous when my relative inexperience with operating the contraption caused me to neglect the snow’s chute, and I inexplicably placed the first row of snow directly on the Altima’s passenger window. Sorry Mom. As I suffered through displacing the snow from our driveway, Mom, Dad, and my brother Matt dodged my work and unloaded the cars.

After the driveway had been charitably cleared, Mom demonstrated her inherited Christmas aptitude by surrounding me with dozens of perfect gifts. An Appalachian Trail calendar, without apparent Mark Sanford associated irony, and a new coat were just a couple of the highlights. And since Dad already had his snowblower, he didn’t have any presents to open – sort of like a modern day Tiny Tim. Matt got some presents too.

What followed, though, were some much needed peaceful days of rest. The three guys of the family spent the vacation torturing Mom into playing card games, and I made an appearance at the local bar – mostly to belittle the locals. Dick Cheney would have been proud.

After just two nights, and 10 inches of snow, Dad and I departed sleepy Okoboji for the mountainous city of Denver. To continue with my theme of extended fits of transportation, we turned what was supposed to be a 10-hour drive into a 14 hour slog. The flat, open, sprawling plains of Nebraska, with an estimated population of 232 people, somehow put enough cars on the highway to crowd the road through most of the state. Thankfully, we arrived at my Aunt’s house in Colorado wholly intact.

After a delicious dinner, a few hours of sleep, Dad (with glasses in place) and I were back on the road at 6:30 am. Now, it’s important to establish that I love skiing more than Henry VIII loved wives. In 5th grade Dad took me skiing at the misnamed Holiday Mountain in Estherville, Iowa. Dad took me outside, slammed me into my skis, pushed me towards the bunny hill, and made his way back into the ski chalet before I could say stop. While some sons might have been angered by this ominous inauguration, I was not to be deterred. As I coasted down the bunny hill, the increasing speech with which I hurtled toward the river below grew alarmingly apprehensive, and so I threw myself to the ground. But, after about 30 seconds of boredom, I got up, and started tumbling down the mountain. Again, the ground started passing between my legs alarmingly fast, and so my face again met the ground, again. They were becoming fast friends.

By the time Matt and Dad made it out of the chalet, I had precociously tackled all of Holiday Mountain and was too confident to be bothered with such a speed bump of a resort. Sadly, I would have to wait another 12 years before I could summit a real “Holiday Mountain” in the form of Breckenridge, CO. It is with this promising beginning that I found myself, 12 years later climbing into a Gondola at the base of Peak 7, Breckenridge, Colorado at 8:00 am. I was in heaven. Dad and I emerged from the Gondola at the base of the mountain when 20 scarily cheerful employees dawning bright blue coats demanded we allow them to point us in the right direction. We relented.

Quite easily, the highlight of Breckenridge is the mountain’s t-bar that ejects skiers above the Colorado tree-line. Little did I know, the only runs that came down from this t-bar are categorized as Double Black Diamonds. And while I do love skiing, no one would really characterize me as a good skier. But soldier on I did, and Dad and I found ourselves returning to the t-bar three more times before the day was out.

The “Little Boy Feeling” is something I have coined and believe is something for which I deserve praise and fortune. Everyone has had the LBF at some point in his or her lifetime. And as we get older, it diminishes in correlation with age. Essentially, the LBF is the sensation that swarms over your body and reminds you why you are human. It’s like a first date, the first time you have sex, and your first home run all rolled in to one. For me, the LBF usually occurs when I walk into a baseball stadium for the first time. I remember it most clearly the first time I saw Fenway Park:

The first thing that hits you is the smell. As you catch a glimpse of the green corners of the stadium, you see the Citgo Sign light up, and the smell known to baseball fans everywhere, composed of hot dogs, sunflower seeds, sweat, and beer, dominates your nostrils. After presenting your tickets and entering the grandstand, you are transported back to 1920 envisioning Babe Ruth smoking a cigar and making his way to the field. And then the best part of all – you emerge form the concrete mass to catch your first site of the bright green field stitched with bright chalk lines, stretched beneath the Green Monster, and the LBF overwhelms your senses. That simple feeling of pure pleasure, childhood innocence, and blissful ignorance, is what I call the LBF. As I’ve grown older, it occurs more infrequently, but every so often it crops up, and I remember what it’s like to be 10 and content. And that is exactly how I felt when I stepped off the t-bar at Breckenridge’s highest peak. Laying in the snow, water creeping into my pants, and skis careening down the mountain, just 2 minutes after my arrival, the LBF was no longer on my mind.

About 3:00 in the afternoon, the altitude, the 14-hour car ride, and the 7 hours of skiing finally got to us. We made our way to the run, creatively titled “4:00 run” that delivers skiers to their cars at the end of their day, and eased our way off the mountain. To a kid from Iowa, who had no recollection of America’s highest peaks, I was smitten.

Day 1 of skiing ended peacefully enough, Dad and I returned to Denver in search of new glasses.
Dad had misplaced his in the struggle to put on his skiing equipment, and the glasses apparently won. A mad dash around suburban Denver ensued, and after a bowl of chili and time with the cousins, we had a full stomach and brand-new glasses. Time for bed.

Day 2 of skiing brought its own surprises. Dad and I summited Keystone, Colorado, which is a bit smaller but far less crowded than Breckenridge. Dad decided skiing moguls and black diamonds was too easy with two gloves, so he placed one of his in the valley of a chairlift, as we ascended on the seat rising above. He chose the resort’s most remote lift in which to deposit his glove, as if the challenge of skiing with a frozen hand seemed unstimulating. The ski patrol, though, was nice enough to give him a bright pink covering, a badge of honor I guessed, and we were back to the slopes – the talk of the town. Back to the car for a quick brunch, Dad and I shifted course and made our way to Arapahoe Basin to finish out our trip. A-Basin, as the locals call it, draws the Denverites and the extreme skiers while the tourists and posers spend their time and money at Breck and Keystone. Clearly we didn’t fit in at any of the three.

Soon after our arrival though, we immediately made for A-Basin’s highest point, which was attained easily enough as half the mountain was closed due to insufficient snow. After a day and half of skiing, and nearing complete exhaustion, I found myself staring down at my dad across the hardest moguls I had ever seen.

As I began my descent, composing my last words and remembering my Catholicism, I was quite literally, and metaphorically, departing from the zenith of my ten-day holiday vacation. While the break wasn’t about to cascade quite as precipitously or as violently as I was, leaving this peak meant beginning the trudge back to the office on Monday morning. Despite my “Danger Will Robinson” feelings, I navigated the moguls much to my dad’s amusement. The mountain had finally conquered me. While earlier on the trip, I had been daring enough to attempt any run, my tired legs and fragile constitution, prohibited any additional attempts. After making our way through those moguls, we breezed through a few blues, enjoying the scenery of A-Basin and taking our time to wind down our long-awaited skication.

Begrudgingly, Dad convinced me to return to the car, and we began our drive back to Denver. Again, Sara provided a delicious dinner of meatball sandwiches, and soon after, Dad was on his way back to Iowa. I dropped by my cousin Gordon’s house, to catch his wife throwing paint at the walls. The paint fumes added quite nicely to my near state-of-exhaustion, and I passed out before 10 pm.

Gordon was kind enough to deliver me to the airport next morning, and due to the crotch bomber’s sudden rise to fame, security was a nightmare. The flight got to Boston easily enough though, and Courtney Griffin was there to shepherd me and my 50 pounds of luggage back to New Hampshire. Having gone to college in Vermont, it felt great to be back in New England. Small towns, plaques recognizing houses, and monuments to obscure 19th century presidents dominated the landscape. And in my quest to visit all 50 state Capitols, I dropped by the New Hampshire version, four blocks from Courtney’s house, and shouted with disdain: "Why is it that New England can’t figure out how to do representative democracy correctly?"

New Hampshire has over three hundred state representatives, and its website proudly declares this is the third largest legislative body in the English-speaking world. Is that really something to brag about? I presume that this large number of toiling bureaucrats was the reason they couldn’t even afford to provide them with desks, just chairs on the floor of the House. After our 30 second tour of the statehouse and 30 minute tour of Concord, Courtney and I had conquered the town. Nothing left to do but celebrate by going to Olive Garden! Life was good.

Courtney and I also had the chance to see Sherlock Holmes, and I’m fast becoming a fan of Robert Downey, Jr., much to the worry of the unblighted veins in my forearms. The movie, however, is expertly directed, though emphasizes Sherlock Holmes’ bizarre jujitsu acumen. Still, once one separates the Holmes created by Sir Arthur from the one created by Guy Ritchie, the film comes alive. I found myself remembering the delightfully fun Encyclopedia Brown books of my childhood.

Courtney, two of her high school friends, and I drove to Boston for New Year’s where we, mostly I, prepared a delicious feast of homemade pizza. Perhaps a little too heavy on the sausage for most, I did my best to single-handedly prop up Iowa’s struggling pork industry - unsuccessfully. The four of us made our way to a Bates party, and shortly thereafter, I appeared at a Middlebury reunion that felt exactly like the Bates party except that I knew everyone. How NESCAC schools differ like Caribbean islands.

New Year’s morning brought the necessary day-after brunch, and my breakfast was coyly named the Eggstravaganza. The “Gourmet Deli” where we ate, had no more than four customers, two of which had registered complaints by the time we left. Although we prepared ourselves for a “gastrointestinal Chernobyl,” the food left us unaffected. Soon after, I abandoned the charming ladies from Concord, and met up with the Middlebury crew for a Boston Classic viewing. Once a year, the NHL uses electric shock therapy to prod two teams into playing an actual game outside. This year the game was scheduled for Fenway Park on New Year’s Day. Lacking imagination, our crew ended up at the House of Blues across the street from Fenway with 500 screaming Bruins fans glued to a screen the size of the Citgo sign.

“The Bruins Score!” screamed out the announcer as Boston won the game in overtime. The roars form the stadium next door drifted into the bar, and the place generally exploded. What a welcome to Boston.

Later that night, I met up with my friend Kevin, who almost single-handedly elicited the LBF in me – by presenting me with Hungary’s finest pastry: pogacsa. Kevin had spent his Christmas in Hungary and New Year’s in Bulgaria. He was just returning from a two-week trip abroad and found enough room to bring back my two favorite things combined: Hungary & food. While I was jealous, I was also fascinated. Naturally, we had dinner at an Irish pub to celebrate our Hungarian nostalgia.

Saturday brought with it my departure from Boston, and finally I was due back in Washington, again via Amtrak. But first, I acquired one last, and lasting, memory of Boston. With about two-hours to spare before my train, I wandered into a bar in South Boston, where a Chinese bartender named Hawkeye gave me a coke, and the Italian owner sat lurking in the kitchen. After about two minutes of sitting at the bar, taking in the Ole Miss game, I soon learned about Hawkeye’s adoration of porn. Oddly enough, the native Bostonian sitting at the other end of the bar was teaching the Chinese bartender how to run his computer. And all the bartender seemed to view with his computer, was porn.

“You sick fuck,” is how the Bostonian gently put it. As I was trying to watch the game on TV, to my left, at the bar, these two men bickered about porn-watching habits while also conducting a computer tutorial. To add to this fun, I took in a biography of Hawkeye’s lengthy life.

“I’ve got a 40 year old daughter, and a 40 year old wife. How ’bout that,” he said to me with a knowing smile. Time to go.

Amtrak didn’t fail quite so annoyingly on the return trip to Washington, and only delivered me to Union Station an hour after our scheduled arrival. On time really for Amtrak. Another half hour metro ride, and $15 cab put me at my front door at 2:45 am. Unable to sleep, I turned to that childhood classic, Mighty Ducks to put me out. Finally, at 5:45 am, after fully recounting my trip to some of America’s finest locations, I ended my holiday break.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Open Letter to Robert MacFarlane

November 11, 2009

Robert MacFarlane

Emmanuel College

Oxford, England

Dear Dr. MacFarlane,

I have a complicated appreciation of Paul Theroux, which is why I read with eager anticipation your review of the Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. I must admit, I have not read any of your works. But you seem like someone with whom I’d get along. You have a rich appreciation, and far superior knowledge, of literature, yet an equal appreciation for the remnants of underexplored nature in developed societies. However, because of the disdain and repulsion with which you rejected Theroux’s latest bestseller, I felt compelled to write this letter.

What bothers you most about Paul Theroux is his abhorrent pomposity. Without question, Theroux is a writer imbued with supreme confidence. Yet, Theroux readily admits, he has not had a happy life – or at least he hadn’t until The Great Railway Bazaar brought him fame and fortune. And so, the egotism with which he writes can best be described as astonished pride in his own work. Yet, I feel as if you fail to appreciate the subtlety of this confidence. It’s not a boastful confidence, but more of an amazed, reflective appreciation of what he has accomplished. Establishing this subtle character trait is critical because it allows the reader to connect with and get past Theroux’s arrogance – which is continuous – and appreciate the true value of his work.

You highlight the many shortcomings of the Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. Theroux is lazy, generalizing, simplistic, stereotypical, and above all refuses to get off the train. And you are exactly correct in all of these assaults. But these shortcomings are also what make Theroux’s work so enticing and captivating – much to my own chagrin.

When Theroux arrives in a country, he records his immediate prognoses and condescending judgments of the landscape before him. And yes, these are always simplified, lacking nuance, and overly generalized. But they are exactly what every traveler does the instant he encounters a new horizon. Theroux quotes Mark Twain upon his arrival in Istanbul who similarly generalized, stereotyped and conjured up thoughts and images that fit his preconceived notions about the inhabitants of Constantinople.

Theroux’s “banalities masquerading as profundities” are what the armchair traveler covets the most in a travel memoir – the ruminations that run through a newly landed traveler. Whole books could be, and have been, written about the arriver’s first thoughts and feelings. Theroux’s ability to capture these invective penetrations consumes the reader and satisfies Theroux disciples again and again.

Ghost Train also snags the reader because Theroux finally becomes an introspective traveler – which the reader desires after its absence in Theroux’s earlier works. You write sarcastically that Theroux’s discovery that he, more than the cities through which he has passed, has changed the most in the thirty years that has elapsed since he last traveled this route. And while you rebuke Theroux’s explanation, this insight into the author's psyche is yet another example of why the armchair traveler loves to follow along with Theroux – because he sees himself sitting across from the narrator as he scribbles away on the night train to Bombay.

Besides his banalities, Theroux’s “less interesting details” also help transport the armchair traveler into central Asia or backwater Burma. The precise dialogue he captures and the rich descriptions of the individuals and cities that cross his radar are unparalleled in their ability to satiate the appetite of the wannabe traveler reading along at home. Which is why I love Paul Theroux. No – that’s a lie.

I must confess, it actually took me five tries to get through my first Paul Theroux book. Mosquito Cost was my first purchase, and I still haven’t read it. And when I do sit down to tackle a Theroux masterpiece (Ghost Train, Railway Bazaar, Dark Star Safari), I find myself turning the pages quickly, eagerly, but not devouring every word that passes through my fingers. Your review is exactly correct; while Railway Bazaar opened the world to millions including hundreds of “upstart punks,” Theroux’s later works are frustrating in their oscillations between mendacity and poetry. And these undulations are why I have enjoyed Ghost Train so much, because I listen to it as I traverse the streets of Washington D.C. on my bicycle. I’m continually drawn in to Theroux’s rich descriptions – his reunion with Mr. Bernard’s son in Thailand – but I can also daydream whole pages away without any pangs of guilt. Paul Theroux’s work fulfils the ADD imbued, aspiring travel writer that I am.

Until I read your review earlier this week, I had no problem drifting, for hours, in and out of Ghost Train. But your review elicited in me an anger I have not felt since my sophomore English teacher leveled praise upon Catcher in the Rye. Now, every time I turn on Ghost Train, your voice clangs in my head – “How can you suffer through such ‘intellectually intolerable’ platitudes?” You penetrated my happy appreciation of Paul Theroux with such precision and directness, that I couldn’t let it go. But I’m not going to let you win either.

I’m going to continue to read Ghost Train, but only on my bike where I can ruminate about my own travel ambitions, without relying on a washed-up, bitter old man to transport me across the world. And who knows, as I continue to ride my bike, I might just keep riding, and riding until I find myself across the world – a young, “opportunistic punk,” with my own nonsensical generalizations filling books and making millions. If so, I’ll have Paul Theroux to thank. Thank you for disturbing my peaceful, yet discomforting, appreciation of this complicated writer.


Dan Stevens

P.S. You know what “Poor Pico Iyer” thought of this book: “Brilliant.”