Category Archives: Adventures

They Causewayed it

Ireland has a great many antiquities and splendid sights, many of which require very much walking. It is not their way to build large interpretive centers. However, Ireland’s economy depends heavily on the fundamental prostitution that is tourism (something we in Oregon understand well), and this means the Causewaying of the major attractions.

“To Causeway” a place is Deb’s and my term for doing to said place what has been done to the famous Giant’s Causeway in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. It means the building of a large parking lot, convenient to the Visitors’ Centre/souvenir shops/pissers, with lots of reserved room for gaudy emerald green tour buses labeled “PADDYWAGON” depicting a stereotypical laughing ginger leprechaun (I am not making this up). The tour buses’ peristaltic process delivers large numbers of tourists to pay admission at the site, and to tack on a shuttle bus fee if they prefer not to take a little walk to the attraction itself. For those not riding the tour bus, never fear; one can pay for parking at the time of paying admission. I did a little mental math based on rough estimates, and the short version is that any area that had an attraction as well publicized as the Causeway would make a great deal of money, but at the price of ruining the site. Make it that easy for that many people to overrun the place, and they will; they will of course leave with much lighter wallets. If they’ve come this far, are they going to refuse to pay to finish? No; thus one may charge them just about whatever one wishes. And the Irish (in this case, the UK Irish) do just that.

And it does ruin it, because the main attraction in any Visitors’ Centre is not the interpretive part, nor even the attraction, but the gift shop. All the touristic garbage one could want can there be had. There the fundamentally prostitutive impact payload arrives: you’ve had your fun, now a tip would be nice. Don’t you need a supposedly hand-knit sweater or a stuffed leprechaun, maybe a coffee cup with a shamrock?

I think the Irish mostly hate this at heart, even those who make their livings from it. I can’t judge them harshly for the practice. I can only hate it along with them, and for my part, I’m not going to any more Causewayed destinations. If it’s famous, I will check to see if it has tour bus parking and a Visitors’ Centre. If it does, I will assume it has been destroyed for the sake of maximum revenue, and will go somewhere else.

If the Irish liked this, they would have built Visitors’ Centres for many more places. They did not. Left to themselves, our experience suggests that the Irish will create a small parking lot rather a good walk away from the attraction, post an interpretive placard (if they feel they must), post a Fógra (“warning”) advising visitors to respect antiquities and do nothing to harm their preservation, and leave it at that.

The good news about traveling around Ireland on your own is that there are a great many spaces of scenic beauty where one can’t park a tour bus, a great many antiquities on roads a tour bus cannot navigate—but your compact rental car surely can. The Cliffs of Moher are fully Causewayed, but the coastal drive north and east from them is breathtaking. The Burren region is full of un-Causewayed megalithic tombs, dolmens, ancient forts, castles, and what have you. While the cattle of tourism accept their herding from bus to attraction to bus to next stop, you can go see anything you want.

Another Causewayed place, perhaps the first place to be so handled, is Bru na Bóinne. Known in English as Newgrange, this is the home of famous megalithic tombs. It has an interpretive center, plenty of tour bus parking, all that. When the Irish speak of it, I see a bleakness in their eyes, a sense that all its charm and character has been sucked out of it along with the commercial wind that gathers up Euro, pound, and dollar notes and slurps them into the state’s coffers. Thus, I am told, with the whole town of Killarney, and certainly with Blarney Castle. There may be more.

We will strive our best to evade them. There’s too much real Ireland out there to find.

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Dear Ophelia, part two

(Continued.)

I learned why Guinness traveled badly by asking at Elliott’s Bar (in Leitir, about ten minutes’ walk from our cottage), which is only open from 6:00 PM to midnight daily. Friday night is traditional music night. Daniel Elliott, the pubkeeper, was a friendly young gent who for whatever reason seemed to like us very much. He explained that in some pubs, particularly hotel bars, the Guinness might spend a long time sitting in the lines. It never sat for long in the lines at Elliott’s. The craic (banter) was always strong at Daniel’s establishment, with a motley assortment of locals glad to engage us at any given time. Turf (peat) fires produce an unmistakably Irish smell (think rich burning earth, which of course it is), and for a Gaelteacht pub in west Donegal it would be the norm. It is at Elliott’s. Daniel’s father founded the pub one year before I was born. Considering how few people live within easy walking distance, its prosperity speaks volumes. I’ve never been to a better.

It can happen this quickly: on the first night, we were somewhat novelties: down-to-earth tourists with in one case some slight proficiency in Irish, and the locals got to take their time discovering us. Over those days, Daniel hinted rather often that I might be called upon to sing on Friday, when there would be traditional music and an open mike. I gave all the expected and quite truthful evasions: I have a lousy voice, I tend to forget the lyrics, I’m not good at singing at all, I could clear out the pub in half a minute of atonal wailing. All dismissed, of course. It’s one of those cases where you know you will be had, but at least you are given fair warning.

Friday came, and most of the band was German (plus Daniel’s mother on the accordion, and now I can see where he gets his kind heart). After a few of those in attendance gave us some rather pleasing renditions of traditional Irish and American rock tunes, Daniel arranged somehow for my dragooning in the direction of the mike. (Yes; MIKE. I don’t give a damn who spells it ‘mic’; that in my view is pronounced ‘Mick,’ and I refuse to do so. People need to learn their phonics. It’s a damn MIKE-ro-fone and the short form is MIKE—thus, ‘mike,’ and I hope we won’t have to have this discussion again.)

Perhaps a few days of unease got to me. I started with a southwestern American number originally from the Kingston Trio, but faltered a pint too far on the lyrics. I figured that was the time to retreat in modest disgrace, but the crowd would not have it. I wasted a lot of their time looking through the songbook for something Irish to which I could do moderate justice, then gave them the first three stanzas of Back Home in Derry, a lament with at least neighboring historical overtones of Ireland’s past anguishes. All good, except that the songbook page misplaced the final verse, and by the time I found it and tried to continue, I had the tune misplaced with regard to the lyrics. I prepared to get back to the bar and let a competent entertainer take over, but again they would not have it. I looked about the pub, and they were shushing one another, not a scornful face to be seen.

All right. I knew one short song I could get right, one from my own homeland, the state song of Kansas: Home on the Range. I told them what it was, then delivered it as well as I can ever deliver a song. The assembled gave me a lusty round of applause. I got up, thanked everyone, and let an actual musician take over. I saw nothing but smiles. At first I didn’t understand. Not even two more pints of stout helped.

At first I felt like a flop, but over the next couple of days I came to see that for what it had been: an initiation, however voluntary, into the society of Elliott’s Bar. What mattered was not how well I sang, but that I kept after it upon request until I managed at least to sing up to my own modest level. In the days after, I could see a change in the locals’ approach to us; no longer novelties, we were as near to regulars as any tourist could ever be. The patrons began to tell stories of ways in which other tourists acted: either marveling that rural Ireland had things like electricity and flush toilets and Internet, or braying in the typical American outside voices, or very uptight and unsure what to expect. “Yous’re genuine,” said Daniel, a kind word I’ll treasure along with every other memory of Elliott’s.

Two days before we prepared to head south, the word was all out: Ophelia was coming. Ophelia, an Atlantic hurricane, looked to centerpunch the western Irish coast (Leitir included) come Monday. Forecasts varied, but in general the forecast called for sustained 40mph winds with gusts up to 80. It would slug Counties Cork and Kerry, then Limerick and Clare, then Galway and Mayo, then Donegal and Derry and Antrim. The whole country would be hit, on one level or another. Bus services, flights, and schools were canceled. Gardaí (‘gar-DEE’, guards; the national police) asked people to stay indoors if they possibly could, and off the roads unless urgently necessary. We let the local small shopkeeper (the town’s only one) know that if fate and fortune deposited any scared and lost tourists on them, our rental cottage could easily take four more people, and to send them up. I could just imagine a couple of terrified young tourists guilty of poor situational awareness having fetched up at the shop in a panic about where they might shelter for the night. If there were nothing else we could do to help our new friends, we might lift one small worry from their ready supply of concerns about life and property.

It is the Irish way to commiserate with the traveler about any bad weather or inconvenience, apologizing as if they’d had personal responsibility for designing the weather. In the first place, what mental defective would go to Ireland in October unprepared for wind and rain? We tried to tell people that they needed not worry about us; while we understood that the disaster potential was real for a country not built to stand winds clearing 80 mph, we had spent a good portion of our married life somewhere that weather like this could be expected about thrice yearly. Our ‘holiday’ was not spoiled. If the power went out, we’d light a candle. If the satellite TV went down, we’d use the radio if it were operational. In the evening, we’d at least go down and see if the pub was open, and join in the usual fun. Whatever happened, we’d battle through.

The satellite TV stayed up into early evening, giving us some news of what Cork and Kerry had experienced. Trees down, roads blocked, over 300,000 people without electricity. Ministers on TV taking media questions. Government acting like adults (in the US, we are beginning to forget what it felt like to be governed by honest adults who at least felt the obligation to make a show of desiring our best interests). Only two reported fatalities by the time it began to grow dusk, rather miraculous in a country unused to such a storm.

In the end, it was exhilirating to be shot at without result. By the time the eyewall reached our latitude, it had veered out to sea. We got high winds and plenty of rain, but didn’t lose power. The worst thing that happened was I aggravated a hamstring pull from before the trip, and it would slow me for the rest of our time in Ireland. It could have been far worse.

Our second week was less adventuresome, mostly due to illness: first Deb’s, then mine. This was worsened by our unfamiliarity with available cold remedies, as well as the inability of Irish pharmacists to adapt recommendations to our situation. Everything they had was probably great for someone who could take a few days of paid vacation and let the disease run its course. They were not equipped to help people who would be glad to suppress as many symptoms as possible and save up the suffering for later. We had to buy a random assortment of medications with which to experiment. By the time she began to feel better, I was feeling horrible, and that’s how it was when I entered the airport for the twenty-two-hour trip home. (Fourteen hours in airplanes, four in a layover, three at the airport before, one riding home with our house-sitter back in Portland.) Our second town had more amenities than Leitir, but much less charm, and pubs are less fun without your wife. She felt up to some exploration a couple of times, so we had to settle for that.

In future installments, I’ll get to some of our other observations, and Ireland’s peculiarities for the traveler.

Dear Ophelia, part one

The trip was, in a way, misbegotten.

Maybe it fits well that I drafted this account in a hurricane that appeared destined to centerpunch our location.

Like most people in the modern age who are comfortable with computers and the Internet, Deb and I handle our own domestic travel arrangements. It isn’t that hard, and a travel agent can’t offer much value helping you plan your dream trip to Wichita. We knew the travel agency industry was in decline, but for a trip to Ireland using some unfamiliar means through an unfamiliar entry point, we felt it was of value to consult a specialist.

Nah.

We went to one of the longest-established travel agencies west of the Willamette (the river that divides eastern and western Portland, Oregon), and contacted the individual billed as their Ireland/England specialist. On everything we could as easily have done ourselves—flights, car rental, hotel nights at the airport—she seemed to perform fine. All that remained was to pick out two cottage stays, a week apiece. We had given her a three-week window and asked her to time our two weeks of travel so as best to fit the cottage schedules.

That seems logical, right? Flight day, jetlag airport hotel stay, then pick up rental car and head for cottage. Week later, transition to next cottage. Departure day, drive to jetlag hotel, drop off rental car, enjoy last day in town using mass transit, fly out in morning.

She sent us three options for cottages. In all three cases we thought perhaps we could do better, and asked for more options. What naïfs we were. We waited patiently, and time marched on. Options were disappearing daily as places booked up. After a week’s strained patience, we contacted her and asked could we please move this forward. She made a number of unverifiable excuses, the kind of plausible deniabilities one usually hears from people who have learned how to lie by habit, including that she had not forgotten about us. I grew uneasy, but presumed that she would not simply cease to bother helping us to complete our plans. A blistering review online—and if I may say so, when a professional writer wants to blister someone, he or she knows how to make sure the marks hurt like hell—would be exactly what she did not need.

It is a weakness of mine to underestimate human stupidity, laziness, and shortsightedness until nearly too late. I show no signs of improvement.

After another week, she sent us a batch of .pdfs of cottages, nearly all without prices. A rather important bit of information, one would think, and I contacted her to explain that this was hardly workable. She ignored me. I went over and over in my head: had I done something wrong, somehow alienated her? Or, more likely, had she just decided she had gotten all the money she cared about, and that we could now fuck off until her convenience allowed her to deign to finish booking our trip?

I was sure I had been very restrained and non-alienating to this point, but in case I had somehow been socially ham-handed, I asked Deb to take over the interface. Deb got no better response, not even with a message for the owner. Now we saw that the firm’s rot seeped from its leadership. After one full month since first meeting and arrangements, and with barely that long to go before departure, and no further anything from the agent or her chieftain, we realized that we must book our own cottage stays. All right; go to hell, lady, we’ll muddle through without your expertise.

We soon learned that she had botched the flight dates. Irish cottages typically run on the calendar week with Saturday as the beginning and end, and she had scheduled our flights so that the two weeks did not fit calendar weeks. After checking dozens of cottage prices, we learned was we were welcome to book an available cottage any time that suited us, but that each cottage stay would mean paying the equivalent cost of two full weeks. It would transform about a $650 experience into well over $1100, exactly the sort of blunder we had expected a travel professional to avoid. As I’ve often said to errant vendors (especially contractors), if I wanted it all fucked up, I could have done that all on my own without professional assistance.

It was either change the days off, the flights, the hotels, and the rental cars, or swallow the cost. The flight alone would be problematic to change without a large cost.

Nothing for it but to pay up and hope, and we did. Our plan was to fly into Dublin (mistake #1; we saved a lot of money we later wished we had not, as Shannon is far easier to deal with), hotel stay, then pick up the rental car and take it deep into the wilds of County Donegal. That part at least went well enough, and after overcoming the lunacy of getting out of Dublin with right-hand drive, we were free and making for the village of Leitir mhic an Bhaird (in Irish; say it, LAY-chur WICK-a-word, in English, Lettermacaward pronounced LET-er MACK-a-word).

Ireland doesn’t have much freeway kilometrage, but most of the roads have good enough surfacing. There often is no shoulder, so there’s the rock wall or dropoff to avoid, and oncoming trucks can be harrowing when their right tire is over the line and won’t move. It took about four hours to reach Leitir, as locals call it, complete with confusion over directions to the cottage. This being a Gaelteacht (Irish-speaking area), some of the signs are in Irish alone, some bilingual. Our turnoff was at a place called Dooey Beach, and had I not seen the sign saying ‘Dumhaigh’ (roughly, ‘Dooey’) and figured out that part, we wouldn’t have known where to go.

The cottage had a number of disappointing aspects; no Internet (I admit that failing to note this in advance was my bad; I had been very flustered), an odd mixture of interactions between electrical devices (where you had to turn on this switch over here to make that device work, but please kindly turn it off as soon as you are done), an absentee owner, and a local caretaker who seemed put upon, leaving us to figure out much of the house for ourselves. We gave serious consideration to just leaving and finding B&Bs, but we decided to buck up and make the best of it. There we were, on a one-lane country road without Internet service, a forest behind and north of us, a pasture to the immediate south with rooks (think of a crow with a light gray beak) scavenging all around the livestock, and not much of anything in near walking distance except an elementary school. Oh, and an obviously closed-up bar. There had been a bar just after the Dooey turnoff, though, which looked like about a ten-minute walk. Fine.

One way you know you’re in a Gaelteacht: the school zone signs are in Irish alone. Just south of our cottage, painted on the road in big letters:

AIRE (AR-rah)

GO MALL (guh MAWL)

SCOIL (SKULL)

“Attention, slow, school.”

Over the next few days, we explored western Ulster by day. By night, we became part of the scene at the local pub; we’ll get to that later.

One of our trips was to the southwest Donegal coast, to visit the cliffs of Sliabh Liag (‘SLEEVE LEAGUE’; I am not going to render all the Irish names in English as well, but I will help you say them right). Great slate-layered rocky upthrust headlands gazing down talus slopes and sheer faces into the North Atlantic, with coppery sheen in the broken black stones at your feet, astonishingly white quartz chunks here and there, and of course Ireland’s ubiquitous grazing sheep. One might say, with justice, that any attraction where there is no risk of stepping in sheep crap isn’t very Irish. True to form, one had to pass a gate posted with a fógra about keeping it closed in order to avoid letting the sheep out.

I had better explain about fógraí, which means ‘notices’ or ‘warnings’ (depending on how one chooses to take them). At antiquities, the Fógra advises one in Irish and English that the site is under the protection of some state ministry, and requests visitors’ aid in preserving them. It then advises that there are severe penalties for doing the opposite. Last time we visited, Deb and I picked up the habit of giving each other ad hoc fógraí as we perceived each other’s demeanor and actions demanded it.

Another day, we took a drive up to Ros Goill (ROSS GULL), a narrow rocky peninsula sticking out of north Donegal. On Donegal’s coast, which is part of a long drive called the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s hard to find an ocean view that does not offer some kind of holy-shit-you’ve-got-to-see-this scenario. That happened to be my birthday, a fact which my treasonous wife revealed of course to our waitress during a wonderful early dinner in Dunfanaghy (dun-FANN-a-hee). Irish food has gotten a lot better since the early 2000s, though hotel bar pints are still the soured monstrosities they once were. Guinness does not travel, and responds badly to long supply lines not merely between keg and tap, but brewery and delivery.

Other trips took us to Beltany Stone Circle near Raphoe, the Giant’s Causeway in north Antrim, and Killybegs, an important port for the North Atlantic fishing fleet. The latter had delicious seafood, eaten in sight of the giant looming trawlers. We will have a lot to say about the Causeway later; what has been done to it, and to other Irish signature sights, deserves its own cross-hairs.

Back in Leitir, I learned why Guinness traveled badly by asking at Elliott’s Bar… (To be continued)

 

[The title is a stupid self-indulgence. Stupidly self-indulgent titles are a peeve of mine, and I deal with them in clients on a regular basis. The client thinks she has just come up with the coolest title ever. She should kill this Faulknerian darling, but she will not, so she ends up with a garbage title. In this case, the title is stupid because it barely says anything clever about the story, and in fact is just a lyric from an Abney Park steampunk song. It’s like the author had only heard two instances of the word ‘Ophelia’ in his life and decided that somehow they deserved connection even when every reader would be left asking: “and what was the point of this?” However, I went through a lot to bring you this story, so I am stupidly indulging myself in this, covering the privates of my indulgence with the fig leaf of intellectual honesty.]

The Facehole, and the hoarding world

Two things happened to me of late: my Facebook account got messed up, and I helped a friend with the prep for a hoarders’ estate sale.

The Facebook thing seemed like a bug. The system demanded I add a cell phone to my account, something I resist because in the first place go to hell, in the second because I don’t want my phone number in such a hackable place, and in the third because I don’t ever desire to have to rely upon Verizon’s text messaging to permit me to log in. I couldn’t bypass it, so I tried–and FB wouldn’t take my verification code. It behaved as though I had entered nothing. Eventually it threatened to punish me if I didn’t “slow down,” a warning that persisted even when I hadn’t tried it for nearly a day. In an abundance of caution, I took a guess my account had been hacked; I changed my password and clicked on some link to alert Facebook.

I vanished from my friends’ view. For all they could know, I’d blocked and defriended them. In the world of Facebook, I’d been grabbed by the hacks and thrown into the hole.

Facebook did not respond to a single email.

In the meantime, I kept trying. Once a day, I’d retry the login process. I also kept feeding more focused search strings into a search engine. I tried from three different browsers. Some of my friends e-mailed me; my wife notified as many as she could of my situation, and some helped by passing it on.

Facebook didn’t fix it; searching did. I finally turned up a slight FB variant site mentioned on a message board in direct connection with fixing my exact problem. It looked a bit different, so I knew I might have reason to expect a different result. Indeed so: I was back in.

Some have speculated that my criticisms of FB had come back to haunt me. I thought it far likelier that FB had declared war on people who used a number of effective ad blockers, but I didn’t put anything past them. There have been people who have, for no discernible reason, found themselves permabanned from FB with no right of appeal. By far the most disturbing aspect for me was the concern that I would lose touch with people, especially older people whose technophobia might lead them to jump to the conclusion that I had blocked them. How do you explain to all of six hundred FB friends what happened? Oh, sure, when you get back on, you can post, but some of the most technophobic will have hmphed and gone on their ways. I didn’t like not being in touch, and it’s fair to say that I value FB more than I once did.

After a few days I got used to its absence, but I did miss a lot of people. For many, it was the only way to get in touch with me. In time I’m sure I’ll find that I lost a few elderly game-related friends and referral friends (“omg you and this person should link up, you would love each other”), and I’ll get a PM or two asking me why I blocked them, then unblocked them, and how was I able to refriend them without them knowing it. I won’t try explaining. I’ll just tell them it looks to have been a bug.

One thing that happened while I was in the Facehole was that I got a visit from one of my oldest friends, an antique dealer who was in town for the Portland show and then had to begin work on the estate sale for a hoarder house. Being a little short on honest casual labor manpower in this area, my friend hired me to help him begin the shoveling process.

Hoarding is a frightening thing. In this case, both homeowners are now in assisted living and their descendants are managing their affairs. It took a lot of work just to clear paths through the home, which had been done before I got involved. The guy was a sort of Gyro Gearloose, and my friend assigned me to battle my way to the basement’s back wall. What an amazing experience.

Imagine this: several shelves full of loose fuses, gadgets, gizmos, gauges, light bulbs, gaskets, pieces of conduit, screws, wire nuts, switches, fossilized tubes of stuff, matchbooks, pencils, razor blades, tuning forks, and other crap. A bunch of the same dumped on the floor. Atop the loose stuff, many boxed and new versions of the same thing, most seeming to date back to the 1950s.

I gathered light bulbs of kinds I’d never even known existed. I gathered adapters and fuses by the dozen. I gathered pieces of conduit. I gathered up several huge pipe wrenches and many boxes of fussy little stuff. Thermometers. At one point, a large box containing a plastic bag was fused chemically to a pair of wooden blocks and a can of metal faceplates. The white stuff in the plastic bag had leaked. No matter how I might maneuver this awkward mess, I could not avoid rupturing the bag. Good thing I assumed the worst, because only then did I see the label on the now-exposed side: CORROSIVE: CONTAINS POTASSIUM HYDROXIDE.

In case you don’t know, that is near kin to the active ingredient in Drano. It’s possible that, in fifty years, all of it had reacted with ambient moisture or some other thing, but if you’ve ever had a caustic soda burn (KOH also goes by the name of caustic potash), you understand why I didn’t take that on faith. I told my friend to get some dilute vinegar and spray the area until nothing further foamed up.

Fighting my way through piles of electrical components and toxic chemical spills, I pushed through to the wire.

Much of the wire was remnant solid insulated copper, neatly coiled. I was an electrician’s helper, one summer long ago, and I never saw this much scrap wire around the shop. Stacked–if that were possible–it would have formed a human-sized column about 8′ high. My buddy’s clients are sure going to like the kicker of maybe six hundred pounds at about $2.50/lb., and on top of that, he doesn’t have to wait for estate sale clients to buy it.

At least they hoarded stuff like glass bowls and pipe wrenches and light bulbs, as opposed to yogurt cups, bags of trash, and rats. I’m a member of a Facebook support group for relatives of hoarders. It didn’t take them long to show me where I ought to count my blessings.

Durian day

I’ve tried as many strange foods in life as I could arrange. Quite a few I have liked; some, not so much. I do know that my taste mechanism doesn’t work like those of most people. For example:

  • Kimchee: so good. I hate cole slaw, love kimchee.
  • Limburger: not much flavor at all. Smell unpleasant but not that big a deal. Much ado about nothing either way.
  • Nuoc-mam (anchovy sauce): love it and put it hungrily on many things.
  • Raw tomatoes: literally make me nauseous. Don’t like tomato chunks, either, even when cooked. (Puréed is fine when cooked.) Diced tomatoes the worst: too small to pick out. At least the big chunkers I can put to one side.
  • Vegemite: delicious. Smell doesn’t bug me. Great added flavor on ramen noodles, and for an excellent snack with wheat thins and cheese.
  • Cooked spinach by itself: looks like pond bottom muck. Smells worse than pond bottom muck. Tastes about like I’d expect from pond bottom muck. Fine in spanokopita, where it’s puréed to where I can’t really taste it, and the smell is covered.
  • Stilton cheese: absolutely delicious. Yeah, smells like improperly maintained feet, but don’t care.
  • Coconut: can’t even stand the smell, and the texture can ruin anything.
  • Ouzo/Nyquil: I cannot smell or taste one bit of difference. Loved retsina, but anything smelling or tasting of black licorice revolts me. I fear I am ruined for Sazeracs, another thing I’ve meant to try.
  • Pisco sours: a hell of a good drink if you’re ready for a wallop. They’re strong.
  • Anchovies on pizza: absolutely. Any time I’m making it when Deb is not home, that’s automatic. Unless I decide on…
  • Smoked oysters on pizza: fell in love with the combo in, of all places, Raymond, WA.
  • Menudo: such a delicious soup, spoiled only by the chunks of slippery latex (cow stomach) and the acid reflux aftertaste. Which is rather a powerful spoiling combination.
  • Muktuk: traded Dilettante chocolates to some Alaska Natives for it. Pretty sure they got the best deal. Ate it wrong, smelled like fish oil for three days, and committed a felony all in one go–not exactly my most shining moment. Doesn’t have much flavor of its own. Maybe that’s merciful.
  • Asparagus: the smell alone ruins my appetite.
  • Lutefisk: not that big a deal. Gelatinized fish, about what you’d expect if you boiled it in Drano.
  • Head cheese: pretty good on sandwich, but very much a misnomer. It’s not cheese. It’s chunks of abattoir pig leftover in a gelatin semi-binder. Don’t heat the sandwich up; stuff falls to bits.

That’s all I can remember right now. Won’t that do? Remaining on the bucket list are hákarl, balut (that may be the hardest to nerve myself up to), haggis, and surströmming (the videos I’ve seen give me some trepidation; maybe I’ll wait until I am in Sweden, then see if I can get them to ply me with liquor first in return for the spectacle). Fairly sure I can’t handle cazu marzu. I don’t see the attraction of fugu, even granting that the Japanese laws governing the stuff are exacting even by Japanese cultural standards.

Some six months ago, my wife and I were at a local Filipino grocery store gathering ingredients for our annual Christmas dinner ethnic food. We had settled on Pinoy, with olympias and pansit and adobo. We always prepare this meal as a team, and about three times out of four, we get a fiasco. I still feel bad for the friends who joined us for Polish food, at which we failed. I’m glad no one else was around for the Jewish cooking experience etzleinu; that was a big oy gevalt. Pinoy went pretty well; my olympias especially were a hit, though it took me a couple of hours to master the rolling method. Pretty sure the average Pinay grandma could have done it perfectly in forty-six seconds without exerting herself.

While hunting for some exact version of this or that ingredient, I came across a freezer that contained durian. Two of them per package, skin removed, sealed in rugged plastic. Both were the size and color of peeled baking potatoes. I stuck my nose into the freezer to see if anything had leaked, but no. I grabbed a package and put it in our basket.

“What is that?” asked my wife.

“Durian, dear. It’s a fruit that smells so bad it’s banned from airlines in Asia.”

“And therefore you want to eat it.” She has known me over two decades. I ceased to surprise her one of those decades ago. “Don’t do it in the house, or else.”

She had no worries. I may be dumb enough to try stuff like this, but even I am not dumb enough to risk spilling it in our kitchen.

I then mostly forgot about it, as outdoors in Portland in December and January hold limited al fresco dining appeal. You’d need to start thawing it a few days before, counting on a warm spell at just the right time. I’ve been taken hard aback by enough Inaccu-Weather forecasts around here to realize that the local meteorologists have a hard job. They’re wrong often enough that you can’t depend on them. You definitely wouldn’t bet your durians on them. I decided there was no hurry, and that I had all spring to nerve myself up.

In the latter third of June, nearing the summer solstice, nerving leveled up, durian achievement possibility unlocked.

I took the ziplock bag out of the refrigerator and was glad I’d double-bagged these. As all students of physics of course, know, there is no such thing as impermeable; the question is what may permeate what substance. Put another way, I could smell something through the plastic if I huffed with a little effort. It smelled like very bad breath–a person with untended rotting teeth, eating lots of sugar and never drinking enough water.

I began to suspect that this stuff could knock a raccoon on its ass at fifty paces. Maybe even a raven.

Was I stalling? Not really. Well, a little.

I took the package outside on a plate, bringing fork and knives, and did a ginger job of cutting it open. Both durians inside were wrapped in cling wrap, like a package of two peeled, individually wrapped baking potatoes–but a lot mushier. Up from the pierced plastic arose a pretty bad smell: fruit cocktail mixed with life-threatening halitosis. The thaw had completed (maybe not such a wise idea on my part, and the one I opened was mushy with clear liquid spilling out onto the plate. Not enough to spill over and get all over the bottom, thankfully. I hate that.

Next I turned on the hose, so that I didn’t have to handle the thing any more than unavoidable. Once I had laid bare a durian, there was nothing for it but to slice off a piece and eat. Let’s do this.

Definitely fibrous, but not in the tough and persistent way of celery; nothing difficult to cut with a serrated knife, nor difficult to chew. I see what they are talking about concerning the vanilla custard taste, if you can imagine eating vanilla custard with terminal knee-buckling halitosis emanating from it. Stringy vanilla custard, yes, but definitely sweet.

Putting it in my mouth wasn’t as hard as chewing and swallowing, because that takes a bit of time, and that gave the smell time to permeate my senses. This is not the sort of scent with which I would normally permeate those. My snapshot thought as I swallowed: not a bad basic taste at all, but I don’t like the texture, and the problem is that along with the smell hitting one’s nose, one can literally taste the smell in one’s mouth. I don’t think that my nose works the way others’ do, but it reminded me of the fermenting-garbage smell of limburger–only quadruple strength.

Sorry to disappoint all you career sickos (you know who you are), but at no time did I throw up, nor even come close. Perhaps if I’d eaten the whole durian, who knows what could have happened? But the plan wasn’t to gorge on durian; it was to try the stuff. Durians taste like stringy vanilla custard radiating eye-watering halitosis in every direction. If that sounds like something you’d rather not eat, you and I concur.

After two bites, I figured I had done my share. The rest went into the dumpster, brought with commendable foresight to the back yard beforehand. I chose Thursday because Friday is our trash day. Then I went inside to write while all this was fresh in my mind, leaving the plate out in public. When I finished writing, I would see what it might have attracted. I could always hose the plate off, of course.

It hadn’t attracted anything. In Aloverton, we have these enormous fat houseflies. Some are the size of a marble. I expected to return to find the plate covered in loathsome flies. Not a one; not even the flies want this. As I cleaned off the plate and utensils, I reflected that my least favorite aspect was the persistent aftertaste/aftersmell. Half an hour later it lingered in my mouth, a source of vague discomfort. The sweetness had moved along, but the unpleasant aftertaste/aftersmell stayed with me. I ended up going back outside for a cigar just to sear the rest of it out of my mouth.

Bringing the dog outside with me helped me to put my finger on something. I had missed a bit of description, a nuance I could not quite put into words. Our dog, a miniature schnauzer named Leonidas, is a deeply annoying little creature; cat brain, dog body. Imagine a cat that still seeks to coat you with saliva, but wouldn’t know a litterbox from a Tardis, and never feels especially guilty for decorating the floor. For reasons I don’t understand, my wife likes him. For that reason, and for reasons of fundamental humanity, I tolerate him and do what is needed to prevent him from suffering. He represents a marital compromise, one forged after many battles: no, he may not sleep in the bed with us, not if you want me sleeping in it as well; no, he cannot have free run of the house now that he’s got dogabetes; no, he cannot go everywhere with us, because I treasure my vacations away from him; no, we can’t get another one, because I have a hard enough time tolerating a single dog, especially one this insolent and obstinate.

Well, Leo has bad dog breath even by the considerably shocking standards of the canine species. I don’t see why I even bother with weed killer when I have a perfectly organic means of killing all life: let Leo breathe on it. Durian’s smell reminds me of Leo’s breath. And even after a forty-minute cigar and a big slug of iced coffee with non-Nestle creamer (those people are diabolic), I could still tastesmell a bit of the durian smell in my mouth. Eventually I’m going to have to rinse with peroxide to kill this.

The interesting effect there: how excellent the cigar and iced coffee tasted. I don’t smoke very expensive cigars, and they can be hit or miss on taste (and draw, and burn, and wrapper integrity), but this smoke tasted like one of triple the cost. Very, very pleasant, as was the coffee. The durian impact on the mouth, from only two bites, is sufficient that anything else not revolting takes on a very welcome flavor.

I’m not big on bathroom humor, so let me just say that the experience did not improve as my body performed the standard nutrition processing habits. Those who desire may use their imaginations in order to perceive this brief, disagreeable, unforgettable completion to my adventure, confident that they are unlikely to overstate the reality.

I don’t recommend durian, but at least now I know why.

Poi oh poi

Another box checked off the “try this and find out what it’s all about” list.

Hey, they aren’t all bad. I find I love kimchee. It does have a smell like something gone off, but it has nothing of that not-food taste I find in most vegetables, and especially none of the revolting cloy characteristic of cole slaw. I last had a school lunch in second grade, and I can still remember the nauseating taste of cafeteria cole slaw nearly half a century later. Menudo, on the other hand, not so good; it was like a rich taco-flavored soup with a strong acid refluxiness on the finish. I never need to eat the latexy cow stomach chunks again. In fact, I need never to eat them again. Same for muktuk, which I admit I am still mystified some cultures see as food. Black pudding? Good stuff. Ouzo? Tastes exactly like Nyquil to me, or liquid black licorice, than which same I think I’d rather eat cole slaw. With that abomination among condiments, Miracle Whip, so as to get two barfs out of the way. Vegemite, Marmite? Always have one of the two around.

So yeah, I try things. I’d long wondered how to find poi, which is taro paste, until Brain Trust here (living in Portland, a city with a substantial and diverse Asian population) finally hit upon the notion of an Asian grocery store. “Sure,” said the customer service counter person, “it’s over in produce. Tends to vanish fast, though.”

Well, we do have plenty of Pacific Islanders.

Turned out it hadn’t vanished. They sell it frozen in twist-tied bags. Package includes instructions for thawing and serving it. I took a close look; in frozen state, a sort of mauve block roughly the size of a package of frozen peas (but hopefully less repellent). I grabbed one, went off to get a jar of kimchee as well, and checked out.

First lesson: the twist tie was more of a suggestion. It slipped off sometime during the ride in my truck, causing leakage in the plastic grocery bag. Joy. Package fully secured, I went about the rest of a frustrating afternoon: medical appointment with practice that hires dumb admin staff. Stuck in traffic due to eternaconstruction that has been going on for nearly two years with no discernible progress. Used shocking language several times to describe fellow motorists, shaking my head in sad disdain and hoping they lip-read the filth flowing freely from my voice box. Waited in line at post office only to find out that insured mail had evidently been tampered with en route. Said screw it, no haircut; I want to go home now and have a cigar and let this afternoon be over.

After a moderately relaxing cigar, during which I found out that my day’s dinner workup was dashed and I’d have to come up with something else, I decided to try the poi. I also opened the kimchee, on the logic that if the poi was too awful a single bite of kimchee ought to clear away the taste. If not, I could have poi for dinner with a side of kimchee. Couldn’t lose. I extracted a mostly-thawed corner of the mauve block and popped it into my mouth.

I’d like to report that it was delicious, or gross, or weird-tasting, or even ralphtacular. Those would betray your trust. Reality was far blander; one might even call it the ultimate in bland. Compared to this stuff, Wonder Bread is a flavor burst. So is plain pasta. I’m serious. So far as I could tell, poi has no taste at all. It’s completely neutral. It had the consistency of fine hummus, but less flavor than plain steamed rice or even plain tofu. It didn’t smell bad; it didn’t taste bad. It didn’t smell like or taste like anything. It has about the flavor of distilled water.

I am still trying to determine how someone sat down one day and said, “Hey, maybe if we pound this root up into purple paste, it’ll be edible.” Maybe you have to grow up with it. It does, however, explain why Hawai’ians have so embraced Spam: if this was the alternative, any would treat Spam like a boon from on high.

Anyway, I tried it so you don’t have to unless you feel driven. It won’t hurt you, but it probably will not leave you wanting another dose.

Narrow gauge, open mind, numb nuts

There haven’t been any posts for a couple of weeks because Deb and I went on vacation. We drove to Colorado via Utah, then back to Oregon via Wyoming and the Teton Valley (Idaho). Part of it was to celebrate our anniversary, part just that we needed a getaway and one can rely upon Colorado for natural beauty.

One thing we did, which I had never done, was take the narrow gauge train from Durango (Colorado) to Silverton and back. One would never do this for practical means: it costs about $90/each round trip in economy, and it’s three and a half hours to go about 45 miles each way. But for those of you who have heard of this excursion, and wondered what it was like, I can now tell you.

We could have paid double for what presumably would have been a more comfortable ride. Our rather spartan coach car had padded seats, but they weren’t very pleasant for three hours of sitting. In fact, to my alarm, I lost all sensation down below. It took a couple of days for it to return, which is not something I had envisioned. If you are riding in coach, my advice is to bring some pads.

The train pokes along at about the speed a cyclist might ride, so there is lots of time for photography. If your seats are on one side headed for Silverton, they will be on the other during the return to Durango, so you will get both sides’ views. You will also be treated to a few steam expulsions, because the coal-fueled train has to stop and blow off steam to both sides. I hope there are never any animals over there to get scalded. The train also stops at a zipline adventure place and a couple of other locations, in addition to three watering stops from pipes rigged up to stream-fed catchbasins. While its public presentation is as a pure tourist line, the train serves communities along its length for some freight and milk-run passenger service.

The coal smell isn’t as strong as I expected. I wouldn’t want it all the time, but for a finite period I found it immersive. A brakeman gave us instructions (mainly, don’t stand on the platforms between rail cars) and warnings about cinders. The combustion kicks off small cinders that tend to get into riders’ eyes. He assured us he carried eyewash materials. I got a couple cinders, but nothing serious. They weren’t hot.

By late September, Silverton (never a thrill a minute at the best of times) isn’t a very big attraction. It’s mostly tourist traps and dirt roads (no pavement), and there’s nothing there you couldn’t get just as easily in Durango, plus half the shops are closed up for the season. The purpose of this trip is not to obtain two hours in Silverton; the purpose is to ride an old school train through the mountains. We had a nice time, except for the wasp moment. As our car sat in Silverton half-boarded, with all the windows open, a wasp entered the car and buzzed Deb. She is not allergic, but is highly apiphobic. As the wasp headed for the car’s rear, she ran for its front, commanding me to slay the creature. I am not apiphobic, but I hate being the center of a bunch of strangers’ attention. Didn’t matter; what mattered was my wife expected me do courageous battle against the marauding insect. I radiated resignation and ennui as I heaved my numbed regions out of the seat and followed the wasp to the back of the train; one swat with my Thor Gasket cap and it was on the floor, one smoosh of a sneaker and it was no longer among the living.

Upon my return Deb questioned whether I had truly slain the beast. She finally accepted my insistence that I had observed its smashed body. In hindsight, I should have offered to go get the corpus delicti and show it to her, as that would have made her cease to question me.

Overall impression: it’s a beautiful if very lengthy and uncomfortable ride, and in late September the aspen are in full fall color mode. Just remember that it’s a seven-hour round trip sitting on a train, and be sure that you want to spend seven hours on a train. And that you brought cushions to sit on.

Deb got hundreds of great photos, and we both appreciated the novelty of the trip (me especially when sensation returned to all suitable parts of my body). On top of it, when we got back to Durango, we had a great dinner at the Strater Hotel in spite of the fact that some nincompoop had just ruptured the gas main to the entire Durango area. How could this be?

How it could be was that we knew the Strater from our anniversary dinner the night before. It had been phenomenal, as near to dining perfection as one is ever likely to experience, but we wouldn’t normally go back to the same place the next night. We did not have much choice. When the gas is out, most of the restaurants have no real choice but to close down. Not the Strater, which is made of sterner stuff. They reviewed their menu, came up with an abbreviated version, set up a grill behind the establishment, and the show went on. And it was just as good as the night before. If you’re ever in Durango, and you don’t hit the Strater at least once, you should have stayed in Ouray (pronounced your-EH). I admired the way the restaurant combined business opportunism (thinking of a way to be open for a whole townful of tourists with dinner money to spend and very few places to spend it) and a high standard of food and service. And no, they didn’t raise the prices of those menu items. The Strater would be a success in downtown Portland. In Durango, I doubt it has an equal.