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Episode 6 - Only in America
Hi again. Thanks for coming back. I know that sounds glib, but it really means a lot to me that people bother to look at these pages. I know you don't have to, so thank you. I really get a kick out of checking the hit counter on the main page every now and again, and watching the numbers go ever up and up. It makes me feel that I'm not writing these words for nothing.
I'm a little confused, though, about the dearth of entries in the Guestbook. I would have thought that people would get a kick out of typing out a few thoughts and seeing their words instantly up on a web page for all to see. As soon as the Guestbook went up, two people signed it that same day (thanks Cha and Peter), and then, inexplicably, nothing since. So go on, make me feel appreciated and give the world your two cents' worth (click here).
And only four people, most of them Klemeses, have seen the cute page that you only get to see if you fill in the feedback form. Ah well. On with the story....
I got out my big, fold-out world map the other day, taped it to the wall of my room, and drew lines on it indicating where I've been so far on this journey of mine (I love doing that, such a feeling of accomplishment). Now that North America is in there too, it's starting to look like a World Trip. Just one more continent to visit and one more ocean to cross, and the circle's complete!
This episode is all about my travels in the States. There's a little bit at the end about the paradise that I've found down here in the sunny Caribbean, but the bulk of the writing is about that weird and wonderful country called (echo FX please) The United States of America. And what a country it is. I think the States is probably the most interesting country in the world to travel in - I don't care what anyone says. It's hardly exotic (compared to places like Nepal or Egypt), and its all-too-familiar Pizza Huts, Visa Cards, Penthouse Magazines and Coke Machines have established a well-entrenched position in our lives. But, as a culture both bizarre and sublime, as a limitless source of both the eccentric and the nondescript, of both heroes and losers, of both optimism and despair, the USA is peerless. People who don't live there (including me), love to bag the States, and it's certainly an easy target. Taking the piss out of America and Americans is like shooting fish in a barrel. Which I guess is my point - there's simply so much that is extreme and unique about the place. Each and every day I was there, I met and watched people and events that I would simply never see in any other country in the world. Hence the phrase, Only in America.
Let me give you some idea of the sort of thing I'm talking about. As I'm sure you're all aware, Star Wars - The Phantom Menace is the movie event of the year. At least. It would probably be fair to say that it is the most anticipated movie ever. By the time you read this, you'll probably have started hearing about the box-office records it's breaking. What you may not know is that last November, in Arizona or somewhere, two thousand people queued overnight for the privilege of being the first to see the trailer to Star Wars I. The trailer! The sixty-second trailer! Apparently, it was screening ahead of the movie Meet Joe Black, which nobody gave a damn about, so, before the feature started, they all got up and left. Only in America.
I was particularly looking forward to this leg of my trip, as I was to be staying for a couple of weeks with my very good friends, Tim and Charmaine. Sorry, Tim and Charmers (she hates being called Charmaine). For those that don't know them, they're old friends of mine from Sydney who have moved to Baltimore for a year or so in order that Tim, an unusually brilliant orthopaedic surgeon, can learn how to make bones longer (to use the simplest term possible - sorry Tim). They're living in a huge apartment-complex in suburban Baltimore with their irrepressible 14-month-old son Connor.
I know that every mother believes her baby to be cuteness incarnate, but I'd met this little tyke before, and I have to admit, Connor is pretty darn gorgeous (click here). Cute or not, I nevertheless felt just a little trepidation about the prospect of spending a fortnight in the intimate company of someone who has yet to learn the virtues of a good night's sleep.
At first he didn't quite know what to make of the massive stranger that had invaded his realm, and hid behind Mummy with his hand in his mouth. But it didn't take long - a few hours, perhaps - before I was simply another member of the household. This new status afforded me the privilege of having him bring me his favourite books every hour or so, so that I could read them aloud to him, making "quack quack" and "meow" noises where appropriate.
He was a smart kid - he'd always know when I made the wrong noises. Was it an ancient racial memory, do you suppose, that caused him to object when I'd point at the elephant and go "woof woof", or had he simply had the book read to him too many times to count? Sadly, he enjoyed his hourly readings so much that as soon as he was awake in the morning (usually around 5:30), he'd bring the books over to my bed on the lounge-room floor, where I was comatose, sleeping off my jet-lag. "Urg!" he'd go, and start bashing my slumbering form with Bananas in Pyjamas' latest adventure (click here). Naturally, I'd play dead, selfish bastard that I am, and he'd eventually get bored and wander off to play with his toy steam engine (the one that makes the frighteningly realistic "Wooo-oooo-ooo!" and "Chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga" noises) for a gleeful hour or so. Some mornings, for a special treat, he'd throw a tantrum, and I'd lie in my bed, pillow over my head, wishing I was back in my crowded dorm room in London. I have considerable expertise at sleeping through any variety of noises, so I can safely say, without fear of contradiction, that a screaming baby produces the most sleep-preventing sound in the Universe.
Tim would kiss his wife and son goodbye and trundle off to work in the morning, and I'd spend the rest of the day learning just exactly what it means to be "stuck at home with the kids". I have new appreciation, and admiration, for all mothers (and the occasional father) who decide to leave their jobs and spend their days at home looking after their little ones. I can safely say that they're working harder than their spouses, and more thanklessly. Don't worry about lying down and reading a book - the little one's just pooed his pants, or pulled tonight's dinner down off the kitchen bench, or is demanding your participation in a story or a new game, or needs feeding, or a bath, or is simply chucking a mysterious, causeless and cureless tantrum. The constant need to be aware of his whereabouts and activity is as stressful as any nine-to-five job I've seen. Even when he's blissfully asleep, well, then the house needs cleaning or the next meal needs preparing. To compound all this, you've been up since five, you were up three times in the night, you have a headache, and there's noone to talk to who can communicate in anything more intelligent than a gurgle.
Charmie (click here) is terrific. I just boggled at her implacable calm and patience. I watched Connor one time, in a rare moment of nappy-less nakedness, squat down in the kitchen and drop a gorgeous little pile of baby-poo. Charmers, as if she'd almost been expecting it, just smiled and thanked him for his thoughtful gift, picked him up, cleaned him, dressed him, gave him a truck to play with, and cleaned the kitchen floor.
And how do single mums do it? Even housewives, tough as they have it at home, have the moral and financial support of their husbands. I live a sheltered life, I swear....
Don't get me wrong - it wasn't all bad. In fact it wasn't really bad at all, just a lot of work for Charmie. Sometimes we'd find time to turn on the TV and watch the guests on the Jerry Springer Show swearing and clawing at each other - always good for a laugh ("Is your stepmother in love with your adopted son, who's having a homosexual relationship with a drag queen from Vegas? If so, call 1800-96-JERRY, now!"). Most days we'd load Connor up in his little pram and wander down to Starbucks for a coffee, or across to the local playground so that Connor and I could play with the toddlers and their mothers. When Charmers had to do the mothering thing, I'd turn on her computer and work on my web page (actually, I did this just a little too much, truth be told). Sometimes, when Tim got home, we'd get out the special jogging pram, and the four of us would run around the neighbourhood for half an hour in the dwindling evening light.
And so the days went by. Tim and Charmie were worried that I'd get bored of such a humdrum existence after months of adventuring around the planet. I was worried that I'd somehow overstay my welcome and they'd get bored with me. But I was more than happy to take some time out from my travels to spend time in the company of such good friends, and they seemed to enjoy having me around too, so we all stopped worrying and got down to the business of enjoying our precious few days together.
And weekends were better still. Tim would be home to share in the mothering duties, and we'd have a car to give us extra mobility. We didn't need much excuse to get out of the house, so we'd load up the car and go and see what Maryland had to offer.
Downtown Baltimore is prettier than you might expect - certainly prettier than I expected. Situated on scenic Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore's waterfront has been done up in much the same way as Sydney's Darling Harbour. On the way into town, Tim the Tour Guide decided to drive us through East Baltimore, the first black ghetto I believe I've ever seen. What a place. You could almost taste the despair and poverty. Dejected residents sat around listlessly on their stoops (click here), every second building was boarded up, and every second corner boasted a church (including one with this bizarre name, and, while we're on the subject, this unusual museum). I wound up the window and prayed that Tim's car wouldn't break down. A dozen blocks later, it was gone, and we were driving past the magnificent Johns Hopkins Medical University, one of the finest in the world. Downtown we did the tourist thing, catching a ferry and wandering along the promenade surrounded by Planet Hollywoods and Hard Rock Cafes. I got out my digital camera and started on my Butt Shot Collection (click here, here and here for the collection so far).
A couple of times we took Connor and the jogging pram down for a run in Robert E. Lee Park, a wooded reserve and parkland surrounding a lake. Wherever we went in the park (wherever we went anywhere, come to think of it), Connor was a great hit with the ladies. They were always coming over and making clucky noises and striking up conversations. The kid's a regular chick-magnet, I thought to myself. I've got to get me a baby so that I can meet more chicks. I realised that I'd had it backwards all these years. Silly me - I'd always thought that you tried to meet chicks so that you could have a baby....
Connor was also a big hit with the dogs, and Robert E. Lee park is full of dogs. It's some sort of dog-club meeting-ground, or something. Connor doesn't exactly reciprocate their enthusiasm, most of them being substantially bigger than he is, after all. I remember one instance in particular, when a young dog bounced over to Connor's pram. As usual, we held the dog and gently introduced it to a wary Connor. After Connor was happily stroking his new friend, Charmie turned to it's owner, a pimply sixteen-year-old kid, and asked, "How old is your dog? Two months?"
"Nope," came the reply, "about eight weeks."
We left quickly so that we could laugh out loud.
Connor's a happy baby, smart (click here) and gorgeous (click here, here, here and here). Quite a chip of the old block (click here). He was just starting to speak as I arrived, and his first word was (you guessed it) "Daddah!" Sadly, though, he used it indiscriminately, often when Tim was nowhere around. Charmie would have fun with this, picking him up and taking him over to the wall full of photographs. "Who's that, Connor?" she'd quiz him, pointing at a photo of Taylor. "Daddah!" "Good boy! Who's that?" (a photo of Sherry this time). "Daddah!" And so on, all around the wall. (You can listen for yourself if you like, it's beautiful - click here and choose the Open option.) I concluded that "Daddah" was simply Connor's word for "photo".
Sometimes I'd baby-sit so that Tim and Charmie could escape and catch a movie. Sometimes Charmie would baby-sit so that Tim and I could go down to ESPN Zone and do blokie things. And sometimes our cute and cheery next-door neighbour Jackie (click here) would come in and baby-sit so that all three of us could have a nice Thai meal, or something. Tim and Charmaine even graciously agreed to baby-sit one night so that Jackie and I could drive down to Annapolis, a picturesque town with a military base just south of Baltimore, and have a meal together. The two most surprising things about our excursion were that the seafood restaurant served glorious pints of Guinness, and that I got ID'd before I was allowed to order one.
"ID?!?" I asked the waitress incredulously. "You're not trying to tell me that you think I look twenty, are you? I'm thirty-four!"
"I'm sawry sir," she droned robotically, her eyes staring at a point somewhere over my right shoulder. "Management pawlicy." As if this somehow explained it.
I didn't have my passport on me, as it turned out, but she seemed satisfied that not too many twenty-year-olds would have an American Express Gold Card. I enjoyed my Guinness.
I was enjoying my blissful holiday within a holiday, but I knew it was time to move on when I found that, for the fifth day in a row, I was humming to myself "He's Winnie the Pooh!, Winnie the Pooh! ..." and "Incey-Wincey Spider went up the water spout, ..." Ah, life with a baby! I've got it all ahead of me.
My next stop was New Orleans, where I had a little rendesvous planned. Months ago, before I left Sydney, I met a young lady called Jo when I did some consulting at her company. Actually, I barely knew her, but what I did know of her I liked, so as I was leaving, we exchanged email addresses and she suggested that if my travels took me through Chicago (where she was living during 1999), I should look her up. Well, I had no real interest in seeing Chicago, but, when I realised that my trip would indeed take in the States, I decided that one place I did want to see was New Orleans. So I emailed her and suggested that we meet up there for a weekend (she contests this - she says it was her idea). Was it to be a romantic weekend getaway? Hell, I had no idea - that might be nice, but she could have had a boyfriend for all I knew. Maybe it was just a couple of buddies getting together down by the bayou for a few drinks and a few laughs. I tried not to think about it too much. I just thought she'd be a fun person to spend some time with. If anything else developed, well, I'd build that bridge when I burnt it. Or something.
I booked a ticket on the overnight Amtrak to New Orleans, bid my friends a sad goodbye, and left their lovely domestic sanctuary which had felt like home for such a regrettably short time.
I love travelling by train. It's somehow an adventure - huge metal beasties rattling through the night towards exotic destinations. I find it irresistibly romantic, somehow reminiscent of an age when things could still be discovered. Those days are gone of course, and a modern Amtrak diesel is hardly a grand old steam locomotive, but it beats travelling on the Greyhound hands down!
Jackie dropped me at Baltimore's Union Station (is it just me, or is every bus or train station in America called Union Station?), and I caught my 6:13 train to New Orleans. Maybe it wasn't a steam engine, but my train, The Crescent (New Orleans is called the "Crescent City", and the route of the train follows a big crescent shape through the Southern states), was imposing enough (click here). I stocked up with newspapers, books and magazines, and settled back into my huge chair for the 27-hour journey to that distant, steamy and mysterious city down on the bayou.
If, like me, you find the Southern American states evocative of warm visions of glorious, huge Georgian mansions, cotton plantations and Rhett Butler not giving a damn, you too would love the itinerary of the Crescent. It reads like a roster of settings for steamy romance novels: After leaving Maryland, the train rumbled it's way through Washington D.C., Virginia, both the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, before completing its 1195-mile journey in New Orleans.
To pass the time, I flipped open my copy of the April 13th edition of USA Today. I was instantly shaking my head in disbelief. The front page led off with the rather distressing story of a 14-year-old Chicago girl called Lisa Smith, straight A's in all her classes, who was expelled from school and sent to a four month "boot camp" for drinking a Pepsi laced with alcohol. Well, I thought, the girl is clearly a menace to society - I'm surprised that she escaped without 39 lashes and a two-year incarceration at Joliet. Apparently, her disproportionate punishment was part of a continuing national schools program of "Zero Tolerance" - essentially a clampdown on alcohol, drugs and weapons. The schools, the article went on to explain, are required to expel all children found in possession of any of the above items, no matter how trivial or innocent-looking they appear, or risk having their federal funding suspended. The schools have little or no discretion in the matter (no detentions, no extra homework - their only option is to expel), and little Lisa was not the first victim of their intransigence. I quote:
Kids have been kicked out of school for possession of Midol, Tylenol, Alka Seltzer, cough drops and Scope mouthwash. ... Students have been expelled for Halloween costumes that included paper swords, and fake spiked knuckles, as well as for possessing rubber bands, slingshots and toy guns - all violations of anti-weapons policies. A second grader was booted for bringing her grandfather's gold-plated pocket watch to school; the timepiece had a tiny knife attached.
It seems that the American education system has lost the ability to distinguish between typical adolescent mistakes and delinquency. Lisa's heavy-handed punishment was actually more severe than if she had been charged by the police with a crime. The article stated that if, in a juvenile court, she had been found guilty of underage possession of alcohol, she would have received a perfunctory fine. No requirements to attend a boot camp, and her academic future wouldn't be in tatters.
But there was more. My personal favourite was the account of 10-year-old Shannon Coslet, whose mother put a small knife in her lunchbox to cut up her apple. Shannon, fearing that she might be in violation of some school law, turned the knife in to a teacher, who told her she had done the right thing. Shannon was expelled.
Personally, I'm thrilled. I wish I had a daughter so I could send her on an exchange program to the States. The thought of having a moronic, bloodyminded zealot in charge of her education fills me with the sort of excitement that I usually reserve for having a tooth pulled. As if there aren't enough under-educated and illiterate children roaming streets of downtown USA, that they have to go and expel some more. I'm not sure what scares me more - the bitterness which these children, denied of an education, will feel towards such an uncompromising society and use to fuel the inevitable acts of retribution, or the lunatics that have been put in charge of the education of the nation's youth.
Moving right along, I found the following on page 3: Three high school kids were recently murdered by one of their classmates. The victim's parents are now suing Time Warner, Sony, Nintendo and 22 other media companies for proliferating violent movies, video games and Internet porn sites. It seems that the murderer was heavily influenced by scenes from the violent Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Basketball Diaries. According to the parents, the media companies are guilty of "producing defective products". They want US$130 million. So far pretty standard litigation-crazy-Americans story. But it went on:
The parents also filed a state lawsuit charging not only Carneal (the murderer), but also his parents, school administrators, teachers and fellow students for being partly responsible for the shootings.
Now, I can understand how these people must be upset, but suing the arse off everybody who ever came into contact with the killer seems to me just a trifle excessive. I'm sure many of these people are grieving also, and I don't see how it's going to improve matters to have them slapped with a lawsuit alleging that they were somehow responsible. As if money is going to make the parents feel any better. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't murder a criminal offence? And isn't suing something associated with civil matters? If the parents wanted to be truly thorough, they ought to sue themselves for being unduly negligent in the care of their children (allowing their poor babies to fraternise with a murderer). The courts could set aside a special room for the case, lock them inside to argue with themselves for years, and throw away the key.
But wait, there's more.
On page 4 (this is the truth, I swear), I found article describing the latest developments in the case of a young man who went on a killing "rampage" in a small college town in 1995. He apparently took 600 rounds of ammunition into the street and killed two people (miraculously only two), before a heavy gunfight with police ensured his capture. Later, and this is where it starts to get weird, he was acquitted of murder on grounds of insanity. Fair enough, I suppose. I'd hate to think a person capable of the random slaughter of his town-mates could be considered sane. But get this: he then went on to successfully sue his psychiatrist, for failing to take his psychosis seriously enough. A jury awarded him US$500,000. No bullshit. He's now writing a book about his ordeal from the comfort of his psychiatry ward, and a conference of psychiatrists is convening in California to consider the prospect of being held liable for the crimes their patients commit.
All this from one issue of USA Today. Only in America.
I stepped off the train into the sultry New Orleans evening, and immediately thought, yeehah! It's warm!! I'm not going to be cold anymore! I was fed up with cold places (Tibet and London heading the list), and the sweaty, humid atmosphere of Louisiana was like a breath of fresh air - um - so to speak.
Noone can ever accuse youth hostels of being classy. But the hostels of Europe are paragons of splendour compared with the sleazy dumps that you find in the USA. I pass that sweeping judgement solely based on my impressions of the joint the taxi driver left me at on Prytania Street, just out of downtown New Orleans. I walked inside and looked around. A lazy ceiling fan was slowly stirring the stale cigarette smoke hovering over the common room, and the unshaven receptionist, resplendent in his sweat-stained singlet, was trolling Internet porn sites on his TV (he had, improbably, one of those gadgets that lets you surf the Net on your television). He checked me in without taking his hand off the remote or his eyes off the screen. Disgusted, but too tired to look for another place, I went off to bed without further ado.
I had a day to kill before Jo's arrival, so, the next morning, I caught the streetcar (click here) down Charles Street into town to see what "N'arlins" had to offer. First things first, I thought as I stepped off the street car, and walked straight down Canal Street to the river. The mighty, muddy Mississippi River (click here). I'd never seen it before, and, to tell you the truth, wasn't overly impressed with it now, not its beauty nor its might. It was just another river, and I'd seen bigger. A black trumpet player was busking away to my left (click here), and it took me a minute or two to place the tune. Down by the Riverside, I realised with a chuckle, and tossed a quarter into his cap.
I wandered through Jackson Square (every Southern town seems to have a Jackson Square - I'm not sure why, it's not as if he won the war, or anything) and into the French Quarter. Now this was more like it. Hopelessly touristy, of course, but buzzing with an infectious energy, almost daring you to walk down the street taking yourself seriously. Fortune tellers, Tarot card readers and street musicians abounded, as well as an odd proliferation of those people who paint themselves silver and then stand very still on a street corner expecting you to give them money for their efforts. Never quite understood the entertainment value of those chaps, personally.
I found myself on a street that seemed even more alive than the rest, if that was possible. Blues clubs abounded, mixed into the melting pot of bars, restaurants, nearly-but-not-quite-tacky souvenir shops, sex shops and strip clubs. I should remember this street, I thought, for when Jo comes. It looks like it might have a half-decent night life. I walked to the corner to look at a street-sign. I should have guessed - Bourbon Street.
For lunch, I was determined to taste authentic local food, if that was possible in this non-stop party town. I went into a restaurant proclaiming the Finest Creole in the South (as did they all), and ordered the famous Louisiana specialities, Creole Gumbo and Jambalaya, washed down with a local, unpronounceable beer. The Gumbo (isn't that a great name for something you can eat?) was a sort of thick bean, prawn and rice soup. Jambalaya is more of a spicy seafood and tomato nosh-up. Both were good without being exactly memorable. (What I want to know is, what exactly is Creole? For that matter, what is Cajun, and how is it different to Creole? A prize for the most succinct answer.)
I'd made it safely to New Orleans, but I had no clue as to where I was going next, after Jo came and went. I was, as they say, open to suggestions. Did I go on to Mexico and then on down through Latin America, or was it to be the Caribbean next? Or did God have other plans for me? The more I pondered the question, the more I began to notice the little germination of an idea struggling to make itself heard over the cacophony of my brain: "Get yo' ass down to the Caribbean," it seemed to be saying, "and find a nice, quiet little island where you can get serious about your writing thing." When I finally started paying attention to this little voice, I realised that it had been whispering in my ear for months now, since as far back as Tibet. The dream was already fully formed and waiting for me to notice it. I was to find one of those islands that is still undiscovered by the hoards of American tourists that invade the Caribbean every week, rent myself a small, cheap room or cottage by the beach, and fill my days with writing, reading, swimming and running along the beach. I wasn't looking for anything fancy, you understand, just Paradise.
The more I thought about it, the more it felt like the only thing I could possibly do. But it was even stronger than that. It seemed, at the risk of sounding New-Agey again, like it was my destiny. Recognising yet again that my subconscious knew more about what was best for me than I did, I committed myself to the idea and went into a bookshop to look for a Lonely Planet guide to the Caribbean. Well, they didn't have any in stock, but on the Caribbean shelf I found something even better. Staring me in the face, daring me to buy it, was a book called Undiscovered Islands of the Caribbean. Who put that there? Was it you, God? Needless to say, I bought it, and wandered off to Jackson Square to see if there was anything in my book that looked like Paradise.
Lying with my shirt off in in the blissful sun of Jackson Square, New Orleans, just down the road from Bourbon Street, with a pick-up Dixieland Jazz band going in one corner, and, when they took a break, a blues trio (click here) taking over from the other corner, I thought to myself, life doesn't get any better than this. It does, of course, but it certainly didn't need to that afternoon.
"Hey, my man, wass yo' name?" I was walking along the riverbank back in the general direction of the hostel. I looked round to find a fifty-year-old black man sitting in the shade by the side of the path, clearly with a couple of afternoon drinks under his belt, regarding me with a cheerful leer.
"Mark," I said, taking his extended hand. "What's yours?"
"Jake, my man. Jake's my name and jokes is my game. Have a seat, my man. Where y'all from?" I smiled. One thing I'd noticed since arriving in the South was that I got asked, routinely, at least half a dozen times a day, the question, "where y'all from?"
"Australia," I said, sitting down, mostly because I couldn't think of any reason not to. I glanced over his shoulder to see a group of about six younger black guys just behind him, all big, muscley and angry-looking, eyeing me suspiciously, as if their man Jake might be soliciting sex from a transvestite. I grinned at them nervously and waved. They ignored me. Tourist, said their eyes. I turned back to my interrogator.
"Less have yo' hand," he said. "One look at yo' hand, Mistuh Oss-traylia, and I's gonna be able to spell yo' last name!" There was a playful challenge in his bloodshot eyes.
I held out my hand. Why not, I thought. "My last name?" I asked.
"Hee hee hee. I's gonna spell yo' last name." He was having more fun with this than I was.
"OK, go on then."
"Y-O-U-R-L-A-S-T-N-A-M-E," he recited, then laughed uproariously at his own hilarity. I chuckled politely. Several of his homies glanced around, scowling. I laughed a little harder.
"Dat one was for free. Dis neks one gonna cost y'all twenny dollars, OK?"
"Um, what?" Twenty dollars? Am I getting scammed? Already?
"I's sellin' you a joke, my man. Twenny dollars. Y'all wanna hear a twenny-dollar joke?"
"Um, sure," I said hesitantly. Surely he can't expect me to pay just for listening?
"How come Santy Claus got no kids?"
"OK, I give up." I thought I might have heard this one.
"Coz he only comes once a year!" Again, he's rolling over backwards laughing. "Thass a twenny dollar joke, my man," he said, pretending to wipe tears from his eyes. I had to hand it to him, he was committed to his product. "Y'all wanna hear a thousand dollar joke?"
"Sure." Safe now - noone can be expected to pay a thousand dollars for a joke.
"OK, my man, how do you save a nigger from drowning?"
A nervous glance at the Boyz in the Hood over yonder. Did he say nigger? "I don't know."
"You don't know? Wrong answer, motherfucker! You deadmeat!" He wasn't smiling anymore.
I was momentarily paralysed. I'd walked right into that. Fuck! I clutched my bag and wondered if I could outrun a squad of half-drunk brothers.
And suddenly he's laughing his head off. Genuinely, this time. "Ha ha ha! Hee hee hee! The look on yo' face, my man! Sweet Jesus. Hee hee hee." He caught his breath and my heart started beating again. "So. My man. Hows about that thousand dollars?"
It took me a moment to collect my wits. Ah well, here goes nothing. "Jake, you know I ain't gonna pay you no thousand dollars," I told him. "In fact, I'm gonna have to ask you for fifty bucks."
"Fifty Bucks! For what, my man?"
"That's my consultancy fee for listening to your dumb-ass jokes for the last ten minutes."
He regarded me for a moment. Then he burst out laughing. "Sheet, my man, you OK!" He gave me a lazy high-five, and miraculously, the Cosby Kids let me live.
I walked back to my hostel, trembling ever so slightly.
Jo (click here and here) flew in from Chicago the next morning. Her Australian friend Marion flew in from Nashville the following afternoon, and the three of us spent the weekend in New Orleans doing that tourist thing that you do. I hope noone will be too disappointed if I don't go into any more detail than that. Jo doesn't want me to, I don't really want to, and it's not really appropriate for a web page, I hope you'll agree. Suffice is to say, I had a good enough time to cause me to accept her invitation to join her and a few friends and colleagues in Nashville, Tennessee the following weekend.
Sunday afternoon Jo went back to Chicago. I stayed on in New Orleans for a couple of days, finishing off the previous episode for the web site in a free Internet cafe I'd found (they had a Y2K Bug parked out front - click here - truly, that's what it was called - those are all computer components glued to it. Cute, huh?).
The Caribbean plan having solidified in my mind, I called United Airlines to alter my ticket to take in Nashville and whatever Caribbean destination they could offer. United only flew to Puerto Rico, so it seemed that was where I was starting. Furthermore, they only flew there from Chicago. Chicago? As in, the Chicago where Jo lives? So, you mean in order to get from Nashville to Puerto Rico, I have to go through Chicago? Well isn't that a darn shame. I booked it on the spot, allowing myself a week's stopover in the Windy City. I didn't think Jo would mind too much. (I think it's just wonderful how, when you truly have no plan and are open to suggestions, something perfect always presents itself. Greg has a great saying about that: The unaimed arrow never misses)
The only problem was, United didn't fly from New Orleans to Nashville (well, that's not true. They did, but only if you went via Vladivostok, or Osaka, or somewhere equally inconvenient). So I had to get to Nashville overland (read Greyhound). Bleagh! My choices were to get there via Memphis, Tennessee (home of Elvis, Graceland and the blues), or Birmingham, Alabama (home of nothing whatever that I could think of). Tough choice. A quick pilgrimage to Graceland might be just the ticket. I'm not what you'd call a die-hard Elvis fan, but, after all, he was a legend, so I figured I could dust off my tourist persona and go up and see what all the fuss was about.
Wednesday evening, after embarrassing myself something awful at a Bourbon Street Karaoke bar, I packed up my backpack, walked down to Union Station, and caught the night bus to Memphis.
The Mississippi Delta is shining like a national guitar,
I am following the river down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War,
I'm going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee,
I'm going to Graceland.....
- Paul Simon
I get a sense of how he was feeling when he wrote that. Poor boys and pilgrims with families .... Yep, it's a bit like that in Memphis. It's a poor, tired town, a town that seems to be looking wistfully back to the glory days, the Days of Kings! Three kings in particular have a special place in Memphis's heart - Elvis "The King" Presley (almost goes without saying), B. B. King, and Martin Luther King. Most restaurants and shops sport a photograph of Elvis shaking hands with B. B. King, and, like Woodstock, most everybody you talk to claims to have been there to see it.
These days, though, Memphis hasn't much to offer the world. It's a sleepy, mostly black city, watching the world go by from the doorways of its creaky old tenements. Its only claims to fame these days are Graceland, Elvis's mansion-museum, Beale Street - the seedy blues-club strip promoting itself rather grandiosely (but possibly quite accurately) as the "Home of Blues", and the fact that more than one of John Grisham's books is set there. If you've watched The Firm with Tom Cruise recently, you'd probably recognise some of the town from movie scenes, especially the chase across Mud Island Bridge. Posters for The Firm are almost as ubiquitous in Memphis as the Meeting of the Kings photos.
I arrived bleary-eyed into the Memphis's Union Station at 5:30 the next morning, and made the regrettable decision to walk to the only hostel in town, Lowenstein House, out near Interstate 240. Silly me - it was an hour's walk (with my pack), and I hadn't bothered to lace my boots tightly. You guessed it - blisters! I'm from the lancing-the-bastards school of blister treatment, and I was engrossed in doing just that on the veranda of the hostel at seven that morning while I waited for it to open, when I was accosted by a "Howdy, y'all!" I looked up, freshly moistened Leatherman in hand, to find a gen-u-wine, dyed-in-the-wool hillbilly, standing on the steps of the house. He wasn't chewing on no t'backee, but his overalls and straw hat were pure designer Redneck. This was Gus, from "upstate Tennessee", and he'd come to get his deposit back from reception so he could check out and catch the early bus back to - well - Upstate, I suppose. "Where y'all from?" he enquired politely. When I told him, he replied, "Where? Oss-traylia? Hooooo-diddly! You's a long way from home!"
We bantered back and forth like that for a bit, him slipping further and further into some unintelligible mountain dialect, and me doing my best to keep up. If I didn't have five or six years of watching Greenacres and The Beverly Hillbillies to call on, I don't believe I would have understood more than every fourth word. It transpired that the hostel wasn't to open for another hour, and I was dead tired, so Gus graciously let me into the dorms (situated in another building out back) with his key, so that I could get a couple of hour's sleep before my afternoon pilgrimage to Graceland. I figured I'd wake up and check in around noon. I drifted off to sleep blissfully unaware of the true extent of the weirdness that I'd stumbled into.
I woke up just after midday, and wandered back the main house to do the checking-in thing. I walked past a group of people standing in the back yard and opened the back door, just under the sign saying "Reception". I'd hardly got the door open when a gruff voice shouted at me from the yard, "Son, you have to use your key or ring the bell!"
Did I just get called son? I turned around to find a red-faced old geezer, all trussed up in what might have once been a safari suit, regarding me with a suspicious glare. "I'm glad you're here," I replied, "otherwise I would have got it all wrong." I turned back to what I was doing.
From behind me, I heard, "That sounded a little smart. I don't think I much like your tone, son!" But I was already inside, looking around at the deserted reception. The door opened behind me. A seething Mr Cholesterol walked past me and around behind the reception desk. Uh-oh.
"You want to apologise to me?"
"For being smart."
I considered this. "I'm a smart guy." The face before me went a couple of shades redder.
He collected himself. "They call me The Colonel - I'm the owner."
Did he say owner? "Hello." Is that the correct greeting for owners?
"Have you checked in yet?"
"Don't. Don't check in. You can go right ahead and leave now." A satisfied grin was spreading across his features, and I could almost feel his blood pressure going down from where I was standing.
Having really no other choice, I walked back outside and back over to the dorm building. I'll show him, I thought, I just might not check in at all. I was interrupted from my musings by a "Hey brother, wha's happenin'?" from somewhere just above me. I looked up to find a young guy standing on the balcony eating a sandwich and looking down at me, wearing nothing but his underpants and his beer-gut.
"I just met the Colonel," I said, a little glumly. "I don't think he likes me very much."
"Him? Hell, don' worry 'bout him. He don' like anybody too much. Anyways, I'm Goat. I live here."
Goat? What kind of place is this? "Um, hi Goat. I'm Mark"
"Hey Mark. Where y'all from?"
And so on....
Having filled my weirdness quota for the day, I went out to the main road and caught a MATA bus (Memphis Area Transit Authority, I'm guessing) out to Graceland, on Elvis Presley Boulevard (where else?). I figured that when I came back, I'd either check in (if I could find someone a little less Fawlty Towers-ish), or I'd simply not bother paying at all (I was well practiced at this from my days youth-hostelling around Europe in 1986).
It was funny, but something as simple as a bus ride gave me more of a sense of the real Memphis than anything else I did while I was there. I was the only white person on the bus. The other passengers oozed despondency. The bus driver, a big Southern momma, called me "Sugar", which I got a kick out of. This was in response to my asking how much for a single out to Graceland. "A dollar 'n' a dime, Sugar." (It came out all as one word: "dollinnadahm". She had to say it three times before I had any idea what she was talking about.) After I was seated, I noticed that at the front of the bus, in place of the usual sign that asks you not to talk to the driver whilst the bus is in motion, there was a sign that said, simply, No Profanity. Truth! But the icing on the cake was the wonderful billboard that I saw next to the roadside halfway out to Graceland. In big, bold letters:
Don't make me come down there
Graceland (click here) was better than I'd expected. More tasteful. I don't mean the mansion itself, which you could only call tasteful if you get excited about Seventies velour, shag-pile carpets (why are they called that, I wonder?) and televisions in every room (click here). No, I mean the tour was tasteful - not hyped and overbearing. It was as understated as a tribute to the most legendary American since George Washington can expect to be, I suppose. I particularly liked the Hall of Fame (sort of a museum for all of Elvis's gold records and collectibles - the tour commentary gave an excellently detailed account of his rise to fame as a teenager in the Fifties), and his huge private jet Lisa Marie (I have a thing for aviation) (click here).
The tour finished at his grave (click here). I suppose that was gratuitously sentimental of them, to organise it like that, but what do you expect? Elvis is buried next to his father, his mother and his grandmother. There's also a small memorial to his twin brother who died in childbirth (there's something I bet you didn't know - that Elvis had a twin brother). Standing by the graves, something seemed odd. I couldn't quite place it, and then I noticed: I was the only one there! I'd been surrounded by swarms of fellow tourists for the last hour, all doing Graceland at their own pace (you get a set of headphones and a recorded tour on tape as you arrive). Now, through some accident of probability, I'd managed to repeat my Pyramids experience and found myself alongside the most-visited grave in America, alone. Not that I felt that solitude was necessary for me to commune with these Ghosts of Rock'n'Roll-past, but I just thought you'd like to know.
As I was leaving, I noticed one other thing which seemed a rather poignant end to my little pilgrimage: Minnie Mae Presley, Elvis's grandmother, died in 1980, just before her 90th birthday. She survived both her son Vernon (who died in 1979) and her Grandson, Elvis (1977). Poor old girl - I don't think it's supposed to be like that.
Secrecy being the better part of valour (or something like that), by the time I got back to Lowenstein House I'd decided that they didn't deserve my money, and had resolved to sneak in the back way. As I walked through the back yard towards the dorms, trying to make myself as invisible as possible, I was hailed with, "You're a Trivial Pursuit player."
That was my last recollection of anything vaguely resembling normal that day. From that point on, the afternoon kind of got away from me a bit. I struggled briefly to make sense of the events of the rest of the evening, but eventually gave up, sat back and watched as it abandoned normal, flirted fleetingly with odd, unusual and bizarre before finally settling on something approaching surreal.
The couple that had accosted me were like something out of a cartoon. They introduced themselves as George and Georgia. Well, that'll make things easy, I thought. They certainly made an interesting contrast. Georgia was tiny, wiry, bespectacled, neat, and clearly in charge. What she lacked in stature she made up for in authority. Sort of like a backpacking version of Sybil Fawlty. George, on the other hand, was an enormous, docile bear of a man. He was easily twice as massive as me, but sort of round and fuzzy and harmless. He reminded me of that huge, lumbering creature on Sesame Street that only Big Bird can see (what was it called - Snuffleupagus? ...something like that). And he was completely around Georgia's little finger. When Georgia demanded that he move over to make room for me, I almost expected him to go "Duhhhh, Okie-dokie Georgia." He didn't appear too bright. Appearances can be deceiving.
They were sitting around a Trivial Pursuit board in the back yard, sipping beer from huge, 1.5 litre bottles. Georgia's opponent, Randy, had recently abandoned the game to go off and get more beer, and a replacement was required. George wasn't allowed to play, on account of the fact that he would win, so I was "it". Apparently I had no say in it. So I sat down and was instantly transported back to the world of Blues, Pinks, Geographies, Histories, Roll Agains and plastic pieces of pie. Georgia and I duelled it out with surprising ineptitude. George just sat back and waited until we'd given up on a question, and then announced the correct answer. Every time. He knew trivia that no self-respecting person ought to know.
Randy returned and said that he couldn't find any beer. "Oh, you always fucking do that!" cried Georgia, and stormed off into the house. There was a stunned silence. I stared after her. Did I miss something? Randy started tidying up the yard. George attended to his blackheads.
Presently, Randy came over and asked if I was any good at pool. I didn't like the look in his eyes.
"Not too bad," I answered noncommittally.
He smiled carnivorously. "I have my own cue," he boasted proudly. "Would you like to see it?"
He went off to his car. A few moments' later he reappeared wielding a cue that looked as though it had been stolen from a dingy bar. "Ain't she a beaut?"
"Sure is." Please go away.
"Hows about a game? I'm always looking for new victims."
Just then Georgia came back outside. "Yeah, let's all go and play some pool," she said, apparently over her earlier fury. "That way I can have some more beer." Her eyes dared anyone to refuse.
"Al-right!" enthused Randy. "I'm gonna whup some ass!"
Ten minutes later we were all in Randy's ancient rusted Nissan - Randy and me in the front, Georgia, George, and some quiet guy I hadn't noticed before in the back. I was too bewildered to resist. I just sat there, wondering why he was driving at twenty-five miles an hour in first gear with the engine howling and almost in the red. Did I dare ask? I did - it was bugging me.
"Why don't you change gears?" I shouted over the din.
"Can't. Gearbox is shot all to hell," he shouted back. "I drove it all the way here from New York like this," he added proudly. He turned on the stereo to drown out the noise of the engine. The stereo looked like it was worth more than the car.
He turned to me again. "The sound system's worth more than the car," he yelled.
I smiled to myself, closed my eyes, and let it all wash over me. I still hadn't seen my dorm room since my morning nap.
The bar we were heading for had burnt down the previous night (of course), so we went to Randy's "favourite", a damp, smelly dive with one pool table and no patrons. Randy immediately took charge, dividing us into teams, providing us all with cues, and racking the first game. He selected Georgia as his partner, and I was to be teamed with the quiet guy (who still hadn't said a word). George didn't play pool, so Georgia dispatched him to the bar to buy the first pitchers of beer.
I introduced myself to my silent team-mate. "Hi, I'm Mark."
"Yah, I'm Deiter," he replied in a heavy accent.
Ah, German, I thought. I was almost expecting something like that.
Randy broke and sunk the white. Well, at least he sunk something, I thought. He should have quit then, while he was ahead. I was having one of my rare days of sparkling pool-playing form, and was finding it hard to miss. Deiter was better than I was, and Georgia was, amazingly, better than both of us. Randy, private cue and all, was hopelessly outclassed. Deiter and I won the first game. It was close, though, due solely to Georgia's prowess. The games rolled on, like a little private nightmare for Randy.
A little later I noticed Georgia sitting in the corner by herself, ashen-faced. I went over and asked her what was wrong. "It's a fucking small world," was all she could reply. Eventually I got the whole story. She'd been chatting with Randy, and they discovered that they had a mutual friend, back in Denver. Georgia admitted to having had a bit of a fling with him, and Randy, without thinking, had blurted out that the guy had recently died from AIDS. Georgia, understandably, wasn't taking this too well. She just sat there going "Fuck" for about ten minutes, then abruptly got up and said, "We're leaving."
The thought of sitting around the hostel with Georgia swearing, Randy apologising and George quoting medical statistics to cheer everyone up filled me with nausea. Deiter, oblivious, just wanted to play pool. So they left, and Deiter and I stayed on, drinking beer and sinking balls well into the wee hours. And a strange thing: The more beers I drank, and the drunker I got, the more that extraordinary day paradoxically returned to normal.
The next morning, Georgia was all smiles again. I didn't stop to ask why - I'd overslept and was in danger of missing my bus to Nashville. I left without saying goodbye. I didn't think anyone would miss me all that much.
What a place.
Standing out at the bus stop, waiting for the MATA bus into the Greyhound station, I noticed an old black guy, pushing a shopping-trolley full of aluminium cans, approaching along the footpath (for the Americans reading this, that's shopping-kart, aluminum and sidewalk). Engaged in a heated conversation with the space beside him, he was cackling and gesticulating, and pausing periodically to emphasise some point with a bony finger. He arrived at the bus stop seconds before my bus.
Stopping his trolley, he pinned me with an ancient finger. "He done finish early dis mornin'!" he pronounced, somewhat cryptically.
I was spared the requirement of finding a reply to this by the doors of my bus opening behind me. I got on.
"Yo' bus decent white folk!" he warned from the curb as I paid my fare. The doors closed.
"Dass ol' Clive," said the bus driver with a rueful smile. "Don' you pay him no mind. He used ta be a millionaire."
As I sat down, I reflected that old Clive summed up Memphis pretty well. I hoped that Nashville would be different.
Arriving by Greyhound at Nashville's Union Station, I learned that there was no public transport out to the airport, where I was to meet Jo's plane from Chicago later that evening. Taxis, apparently, were US$25. I gazed out over the Nashville's skyline, certain there had to be a better alternative. My eyes came to rest on the word "Renaissance", written in huge red letters across the top of one of the city's largest buildings. Hmmm, I thought, the beginnings of a plan forming in my head.
I had an hour or two before my presence was required at the airport, so I thought I'd have a look at Nashville and find something to eat. It was remarkably (and thankfully) different from Memphis. A simplistic way of differentiating the two cities (all of 200 miles apart in the same state) would be to say that Memphis is black and Nashville is white. Or you could say that Memphis is Blues and Nashville is Country. There was an NFL game going on downtown as I arrived, but it might as well have been a rodeo. Everywhere I looked I saw the cast of The Dukes of Hazzard - guys with big hats and girls with big hair. I've never considered myself a country boy, but I felt strangely at home.
In an attempt to find some authentic local vittles, I went into a place called Sassy Jones's BBQ Ribs. I loved it straight away - it was a bit like "Bob's Country Bunker" from The Blues Brothers. I ordered half a rack with a side of coleslaw. Mmm-mmm! After my meal I collected my backpack from the Greyhound terminal, walked over to the Renaissance Hotel and scammed my way onto their complimentary airport shuttle bus. Jo arrived on schedule, and we rented a car and drove off to check into a motel that had been booked for us by Jo's friend Marion.
The next morning I was informed that my participation was required in a challenge basketball match between a bunch of Australian ex-pats working in Nashville and a local high-school team. We all drove out to a community gymnasium in nearby Kentucky and proceeded to have our sorry arses whupped by a team of kids half our age and half our size. It was never any contest. They had all the moves. All we had were better looking fans. How can I describe it? It was like the Harlem Globetrotters taking on - um - well, taking on a team of Australian ex-pats working in Nashville. At the end of the game, they announced that the score was 58-31. That was just happy bullshit to make us poor tourists feel better. If the score was even 100-24 I would have felt pleased.
I did have one moment of supreme satisfaction in the game, though. I was trying to get the ball off the smallest and slipperiest of the kids, who, for a bit of crowd-pleasing, was toying with me - dribbling the ball one centimetre off the ground, drumroll-style. In and out of his legs, behind his back - I never had a chance. Then, in a move reminiscent of that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Harrison Ford, confronted by a screaming Arab brandishing a couple of twirling swords, simply pulls out a gun and shoots him, I booted the ball unceremoniously out from under this twerp's fingers and into the stands, to the cheers and applause of the crowd. Smart-aleck kid....
Later that evening we went - shudder - line-dancing. Naturally. What else would one do in Nashville, Tennessee? I just watched. There was no way in hell that I was going to be coerced onto that floor, to join those lines of mindless, conformist dancing robots, strutting back and forth with the precision of a military parade. (Can you tell that I don't think much of line-dancing?) I got a little spooked at one stage of the evening when I spotted a girl on the floor that was the spitting image of my ex-girlfriend, Cathy Campbell. It was uncanny. I knew it couldn't possibly be her (like me, Cathy wouldn't be seen dead line-dancing), but I still had to go over and have a closer look to convince myself. Nope, different girl - her freckles were all wrong.
Monday morning Jo and I flew back to Chicago together, and Jo went off to work. I allowed my backpack to explode all over her living-room floor, then wandered off to have a look at Chicago. A cool town - better than I remembered. It had an international, cosmopolitan feel to it, and, after New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville, seemed strangely normal and familiar.
Jo had to work every day, but in the evenings we always found something to do. Chicago's like that. We went to a baseball game and watched the Chicago White Sox beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays 9-1. The highlight was when some little Chicago third-baseman called Placido Domingo (or something like that) hit a Grand Slam (a home run with the bases loaded). The next time up to the plate he hit another homer. Bit of a hero that day, young Placido. We also played pool, went to the movies, visited Naval Pier (just to ride on the Ferris wheel), and went up the 96 floors of the John Hancock Centre so that I could take the obligatory "My City of Sydney" shot of Chicago (click here).
My slowly evolving dream of finding Paradise and doing some writing was starting to get fleshed out in many tiny but practical ways. I would fly into Puerto Rico, then immediately book a flight on a local airline to the nearest of the "undiscovered islands" mentioned in my bible of undiscovered islands. I was looking for an island of white sandy beaches, where English was spoken, with, as a bare minimum, a grocery store and at least one computer on the island with an Internet connection (I'd realised that losing my connection to the outside world would be like losing a limb - I might be craving solitude, but I'm not a hermit). I planned to be there for three or four months, so I decided that ideally, the cottage, flat or room I planned to rent would have a bed, a desk for my writing, a cupboard into which I could unpack my backpack, and a fridge. That's all. I wouldn't need much. I decided against a telephone - the temptation would be too great to use it, and I knew I'd get sad if it didn't ring.
Once I got myself set up, I could settle into a routine of exercise (a la running along the beach), eating right, meditating, and, of course, writing. And somewhere during those three or four months, I'd figure out how the rest of my life was going to look. Actually, "figure out" is not quite the right term. It implies that it's somehow a brain function. Rather, I'd let it evolve.
I was itching to get started, to get down there and see if my dream could indeed become a reality. On top of that, hanging around Jo's apartment waiting for her to come home from work every day was getting me down. As much as I was enjoying Jo and Chicago, Staying there for more than about a week would have driven me spare. So, the following Monday, we said our goodbyes and I took the "Ell" Train out to O'Hare Airport.
The first island in my book east of Puerto Rico was Jost Van Dyke, in the British Virgin Islands. It looked great, but I wasn't sure. I had no idea how to get there. Maybe I should just press on to Saba, the next one on my list. I was debating this question as I waited for the plane to take off, when a guy sat down next to me wearing a T-Shirt that read "Come to the British Virgin Islands". Excellent! British Virgin Islands it is, I thought. He lived in the BVIs, naturally, and spent the next half an hour telling me all about it and describing how to get there. Thank you God, I thought, as I reclined my seat to catch up on some much needed sleep.
In Puerto Rico I didn't even leave San Juan Airport, but instead walked immediately over to the LIAT ticket counter and bought a one-way flight to Tortola, the largest island of the BVIs. After enjoying my first day at the beach since leaving Sydney, I woke up the following morning eagerly anticipating my ferry trip out to Jost Van Dyke (click here). Would this island be the one?
The ferry dropped me in Great Harbour (click here), the "capital" of Jost Van Dyke, if an island with 300 residents and one town can be said to have a capital. A water taxi gave me a lift around to White Bay, where I'd read that there was an inexpensive campground. Sure enough, after wandering along the beach with my backpack for a bit, I found a bar with a sign that read "Ivan's Stress Free Bar and Campground" (click here). I like it already, I thought.
I got a good deal on a tent from Ivan, then wandered down to the beach and staked my claim on a likely looking patch of pure white sand (why do they call this White Bay, I wondered). Apart from a clutch of middle-aged Americans waist-deep in the water sipping beers to my left, and a cheap-looking woman strutting up and down the beach trying to be noticed, I had the beach to myself. I lay back and started working on my sunburn.
I woke out of a doze. Half an hour had passed. The Americans were gone, but Miss Mutton-dressed-as-lamb was still at it, closer now. I checked her out (I do that). What's her story? I wondered. She was wearing a silver sequin-covered top hat, of all things, and, under a sarong, she was swinging hips that she didn't have. But the thing that struck me the most was her incredibly broad shoulders. Looks more like a man, I thought to myself. She looked in my direction - I looked away quickly.
Later, over a drink with Brett, a long-term resident of Ivan's, I mentioned the scenery from the beach. "Oh her? Or should I say him?" He grinned. "That's Tara, from Texas. She's a bartender in Houston. She's been down here about a week. She used to be a man. Ask her to show you her tits." I tried to think of something I wanted to see less. The only thing I could come up with was also part of Tara....
"Excuse me," said a husky voice. It was later that afternoon and I was at the bar by myself, typing an email into my palmtop. I looked up into a leathery face beneath a silver top hat.
"Do you have any condoms?"
I blinked. Am I being propositioned? Surely not. "Um, I think I've got some in my bag," I replied tiredly, waving an arm in the general direction of the campground, trying to give the impression that it was much too far away for such nonsense.
"Would you mind? This is really serious."
There was obviously no way of getting out of it. I got up with a sigh and wandered over to my backpack. Serious? I thought. Isn't it supposed to be fun?
"You don't have two, do you?" she called out from the bar.
One each? I wondered, but I kept my thoughts to myself.
"Oh thanks honey, you saved my life," she gushed, when I returned with her prizes. "How much do I owe you?"
"Don't worry about it," I said, anxious to get back to my computer.
"Well let me buy you a drink then," she went on.
Shit. Trapped. "Whatever."
She bought me a beer, which of course gave her a licence to tell me her life story and interrogate me about mine. Luckily, after about five minutes, three hunky-looking guys walked into the bar. Her eyes lit up, and I was yesterday's news. Thank God.
I tuned out and went back to my writing. Several minutes later I heard a "Jesus!" and looked up to find Tara exhibiting her hormone-enhanced boobs for a rapturous audience. Encouraged by their appreciative stares, Tara pulled down her bikini-bottom and flashed us all a look at her nouveau-womanhood. I looked, in spite of myself, then immediately wished I hadn't. This was more than I could handle. I grabbed my palmtop and headed for my tent.
I never did learn whom the condom emergency was for.
Ivan's campground was the only budget accommodation on the island, and fifteen minutes talking to Darren, an Australian charter skipper who used to live there and was back for a visit, made it seem like the Paradise of my dreams. I can put up with the heat and the mozzies, I reasoned. I don't really need a cupboard or a fan. And there's a fridge in the bar I can use. I'm not sure if I could get used to showering by hanging a plastic bag full of water from a tree, though, and I do need somewhere to charge my Palmtop.... I decided to wander over the hill into Great Harbour and see what the town had to offer in the way of accommodations.
I went into the first shop I came to, a bakery, and asked the owner, Christine, if she knew of anyone who had rooms for rent. "I do," she replied, "I have a guest house upstairs." She took me up and showed me a room with (wait for it) a bed, a cupboard, a fridge and a fan. Shoobelieveit? The only thing missing was the desk, but the room opened up onto a veranda with several chairs and tables. Trying hard to conceal my enthusiasm, I started the negotiations for a decent monthly rate. Being off-season, I figured she'd be rather amenable to having a paying customer there every night for three months. Her standard off-season rate was US$60 per night, but I got her down to US$700 per month (US$23 per night). I was happy with that, and it seemed like she was too.
I went back to the campground to get my stuff, and moved in that afternoon. And oh, the joy, the undiluted joy of being able to unpack finally, after five and a half months on the road!
It wasn't until after I moved in that I noticed that the name of Christine's place was the Paradise Guest House. How about that?
I heard somewhere once that the number of worries a man has is directly proportional to the number of keys he has. I only mention this because I noticed yesterday that I haven't had a key since I left Tortola. The left pocket of my pants, and my soul, have never felt lighter.
My palmtop tells me that Jost Van Dyke is 16070km from Sydney. It sure feels it. I've settled down already into my new lifestyle - infinitely simpler than the one I left behind in Australia. It's also, inevitably, lonelier, which I'm simultaneously welcoming and dreading, if that's possible. Loneliness, you see, is one of my greatest fears, and I want to somehow cure myself of that, if that's possible. There's a part of me that knows that this is the right thing to do, but it scares me a bit. What if the loneliness is too unbearable? What if I try to write and nothing comes out? What if it does come out and it's crap? What if I don't adhere to my discipline of exercise and diet? Any or all of these would make me feel like a failure, not something I'm particularly used to. But I've got to give it a try, because not trying would make me even more of a failure.
It didn't take long to develop the promised daily routine of exercise. A quick look down at my midriff provides me with all the motivation I need. Two months of enjoying the ample cuisines of the UK and the US have buried my svelte trekking physique under 20 pounds of prime Australian body-fat, and I'm determined not to turn into some kind of sloth from sitting around all day typing into a computer. To this end, every morning I walk from Great Harbour over the hill into White Bay to go for a run on the beach there. It's about a twenty-minute walk, and quite a strenuous hill. Half way, at the top of the hill, flanked by views down into both bays, I stop for some quick stretches against a telegraph pole. White Bay is a beach about one kilometre long, broken in half by a mini-headland of about a hundred metres (click here). I run barefoot along the sand through ankle-deep waves until I reach the little headland in the middle, whereupon I plunge into the sea and swim to the other half of the beach and start running again. I do the length of White Bay four times, up and back twice (a quick spurt of mathematics will reveal that I'm running about 4km and swimming about 400m). It's not so far, and I do it slowly (it takes me about half an hour), but I do it every day, in the sun, so I figure it's got to be doing me some good. When I get back to my room, I have a shower and a small breakfast, then sit down in my "office" (click here) and get into my writing. Emails, web page, novel, travel articles - anything, it doesn't matter - I write for the rest of the day and well into the evening.
If everything goes according to plan, by the end of the three or four months of my self-imposed exile I'll be fit, slim, brown, centred, happy - and published. I'll also have toughened up the soles of my pale, namby-pamby feet.
Jost Van Dyke is not quite "undiscovered". It's off-season here (summer is off-season in the Caribbean, not because the weather here is poor, but because the weather everywhere else isn't), but the harbour still fills up with chartered yachts during the day, and the bars (all six of them) still fill up with visiting Americans during the evenings. If you wander down to Foxy's Bar on a Friday evening and gaze around at the throngs, you wonder how anyone could have described Jost Van Dyke as "undiscovered". To be fair, though, there are probably never more than a hundred or so tourists on the island at any one time, even on Friday evenings, the island's party time.
Most of the time the tourists seem invisible, and the warm (well alright, hot) days drift by quietly. Compared to St. Thomas, a mini-Waikiki over the water in the U.S. Virgin Islands, this place is virtually deserted. There's only a couple of dozen cars on the whole island (less than the number of boats), and an hour can go past without seeing one of them go by. I was surprised to learn that they didn't get electricity here until 1993. Walking around the island's deserted roads, the only sound I usually here is the Jeopardy birds (they're not really called that - in fact I have no idea what they're called or even what they look like. I just call them that because the make a sound that reminds me of the beginning of the famous jingle on the TV quiz show. Click here and select the Open option if you're interested to hear what they sound like or if you can't remember how the Jeopardy jingle goes).
Richard Branson (of Virgin Airlines fame) owns the island just across the way (I don't suppose it's any coincidence that he happened to buy an island in the Virgins?). He rents it out (for about US$11,000 per day) to movie stars and other celebs. I told him I'd bought a tape from his Virgin Megastore in London, so he said I could use the island whenever it was free. I take back everything I ever said about him.
The bar at the end of the beach is owned and run by the local legend - Foxy (click here). Sixty-ish, Foxy's a mischievous islander who entertains his clientele daily with jokes and songs. His place is apparently one of the most famous bars in the Caribbean. It's all very low-key, though. Not as touristy as I'm making out. I got talking to his wife, a lovely middle-aged Australian lady called Tessa, whom I'd learned was having (surprise surprise) computer problems. I fixed them all up, and in return (you guessed it) she lets me use the computer to send emails or whatever. The final piece of the puzzle falls into place.
Well, I made it. The dream is fully realised. Which means, of course, that I have no more excuses for not fulfilling my side of the bargain. It's time to delve into that wellspring of literary inspiration and see if I can't pull out something that'll make it all worthwhile.
Now, reading about my intentions to cure my loneliness phobia, some of you might get the notion that I don't want any visitors here. Nothing could be further from the truth! I can't think of anything I'd like more than to share my paradise here with a friend or six. So, to my friends, family and, well, basically anyone reading these words, I hereby extend an open invitation.
Before you run out the door, it occurs to me that you'll need directions. Copy this down:
How to find Paradise
Just turn up. You don't have to call ahead and ask if I'll be here - I'm not going anyplace. Picture the final reunion scene from The Shawshank Redemption, where Red (Morgan Freeman) walks barefoot up the beach to where his old buddy and fellow Shawshank inmate Andy Dufrane (Tim Robbins) is sanding an old boat on the white sands of Zihuatanejo, Mexico. Andy's been there maybe a year, working on his boat and his dreams, and they embrace as only old friends can. I'm imagining a reunion just like it. I'm getting all misty-eyed just thinking about it. Go on. What are you waiting for?
If paradise seems too remote for you just now, then there's always the post. My new address is:
c/o Paradise Guest House
Jost Van Dyke
British Virgin Islands
(Isn't that great? - no postcode, no street address. What use are they in Paradise?)
I haven't had a real, posted letter of any kind since I left Australia, so if you can think of anything I might like....
There's a phone here too, downstairs in the bakery, if you want to contact me. The number is +1 (284) 495 9281 (same country code as the USA and Canada). There's often noone down there, especially in the evening, so I can't guarantee that it'll be answered, but give it a try anyway. There's even a fax, on +1 (284) 495 9892. The time zone is the same as New York's (i.e. 14 hours behind Sydney).
Well, that's it for this episode. I won't be writing another one for a while. I'll be sitting here, doing nothing but plugging away at my dreams for the next few months, so I can't imagine I'll have too much to report. So again, thanks for taking the trouble to come by my little corner of the Net,
May 21st, 1999.
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