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Dan Coxon DAN COXON is the author of Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand and the Non-Fiction Editor for Litro.co.uk. His writing has appeared in Salon, The Weeklings, The Good Men Project, The Portland Review, and in the anthology Daddy Cool . He currently lives in London, where he spends his spare time looking after his 18-month old son, who offers more plot twists than any book. Find more of Dan Coxon's writing at www.dancoxon.com, or follow him on Twitter @DanCoxonAuthor.

Recent Work By Dan Coxon

In Transit

By Dan Coxon

Travel

London Map

Our home slumbers in pieces, in boxes, in brown paper wrap. Room after room of brown paper wrap. Ridiculously oversized parcels block the corridors and doorways in the shape of sofas, free-standing multi-purpose bookcase units. Then there are the boxes. Towering, teetering stacks of brown boxes, their contents pared down to single words on the side. Bedroom; bathroom; kitchen; lounge. Check.

Carl-Grimes-in-action-The-Walking-Dead
 

Being a parent is hard. We all know that. Sleepless nights, hours spent elbow-deep in vomit, pressure to do the right thing by your kids every waking hour of the day. You love them unconditionally, but you’re never off the clock. Most days you’re lucky if you find a minute to sit down and breathe.

But if you think you’ve got it hard, spare a thought for the characters in AMC’s hit TV show The Walking Dead. Scheduling nap times can be a bitch, but it’s a virtual impossibility when you’re dragging your kids through a violent post-apocalyptic hell, populated by looters, homegrown gun-toting militia, and flesh-eating corpses. You may fret over how much TV your kid should watch, but trust me – you’ve never encountered a true parenting dilemma until your son has helped deliver his baby sister in a prison block, then shot and killed his mother to keep her from turning into a slavering people-eater. Suddenly an extra hour of Sesame Street doesn’t seem so terrible.

Earlier this week, the NW Book Lovers website published an essay by bestselling novelist Jonathan Evison arguing in favor of old-fashioned, paper-and-ink books. It’s the first in a series of six essays by this year’s PNBA Award winners, and it’s as charming as you’d expect from a writer of Evison’s calibre. It makes a case clearly and succinctly for “actual books”, praising their feel, their smell, and even their use as an aphrodisiac. It has been greeted with a chorus of approval from book lovers.

Unfortunately, it is also misguided and wrong.

For the last few years I’ve scratched a meager living as a travel writer. If that conjures images of five-star luxury and all expenses paid cruises around the Baltic, then I apologize. The reality was more like a cut-price buffet at a roach-infested diner, squatting in the ass-end of nowhere. While there have been perks – lots of travel, a few unexpected adventures, some truly global friendships – there were plenty of bad times too. It turns out that travel writers dress like bums for a reason. Those guys you see scrawling on scraps of card at the side of the road aren’t begging for small change – they’re on assignment for National Geographic.

1. You are not, and will never be, a mother.

In this age of growing equality – sexual, racial, interspecies – men are still second class citizens when it comes to parenthood. Never mind that your sperm helped make the whole kid and caboodle: your lack of breasts and a vagina will forever be held against you. In fact, if you do grow breasts – or a vagina – it will only make matters worse. Men are still portrayed in the media as cartoonish fools, incompetent diaper-illiterate Stooges who are about as capable of looking after a baby as they are of making a casserole. Women, we are told, have an innate ability to nurture, which includes a genetic predisposition for cleaning up poop with moistened wipes, and a built-in Spidey-sense that detects squalling infants at a range of up to five miles. Men, meanwhile, are quite good at playing games. Or pulling faces. Or, in the case of the truly talented, both at once.

I sit with my two-month old son on my lap, surrounded by the detritus of parenthood – burp cloths, bottles encrusted with the grainy residue of infant formula, drool-glistening pacifiers, neglected toys – and try to dredge a diversion from my battered and sleep-deprived brain. Most days something rises to the surface. A silly rhyme, a Stewie-inspired internal monologue, a popular rock song with the lyrics changed to include the infant triumvirate of milk, pee and poop. But today, nothing comes. I’m an empty vessel, a vacant-eyed zombie casualty of the babyocalypse.

Three schoolboys sit around a table. David, the friend to my left, has been genetically mutated by a radiation leak. He now has the ability to shoot beams of energy from his eyes, and teleport short distances via wormholes into alternate dimensions. Greg was stung by an irradiated wasp, his body morphing into something only nominally human. He can fly, spit venom, and hear conversations at distances up to a mile. He has also developed an uncontrollable craving for soda. And jam.

A few years ago, as 2004 slid into 2005, I was offered the chance to spend Christmas – and New Year – in Melbourne, Australia. It was with relish that my wife and I jumped at the opportunity to be overseas for the holiday season, a time of year that we generally associated with dripping noses and chapped knuckles. It felt perversely decadent to be contemplating cocktails on the beach while our families tackled frostbite and frozen pipes.

When we arrived in the Victorian capital we dusted off the residue of our 23-hour flight with a stroll along the Yarra River, admiring the leisurely stroke of the crews, before throwing away most of our stack of waxy Australian bills in the nearby casino. Even as I began to wilt in the sunshine, I marveled at the Melburnians’ dedication to relaxation and the indulgence of the senses. It was as if someone had relocated the Vegas strip to a British river town. Only with a thousand acres of clear blue sky, and temperatures in the hundreds.

The Australian climate shouldn’t have been a shock. I’d visited friends in Oz before, and this time I’d packed accordingly: board shorts as well as jeans, t-shirts more than sweaters, flip-flops instead of snow boots. But as we strolled past the cornucopia of eateries on Lygon Street the next day, regaled on every side by the impassioned cries of Italian waiters, I felt my sweating shoulders slump inside my Billabong shirt. What I’d intended as a Christmas getaway felt about as festive as the paper cup of gelato we shared on the walk back to our rental apartment. Kicking off my flip-flops beneath our three-foot plastic Christmas tree, I tried desperately to dredge up some holiday spirit from my swollen, sandy toes.

The next few days drove the point home with all the subtlety of a blowtorch. As my skin reddened and peeled beneath an unrelenting sun — one which, apparently, would give me sunburn even through dense gray cloud cover — I tried my hardest to rescue the drooping, heat-stricken holiday. Away from our families, my wife and I were buying gifts only for each other — but my shopping expeditions proved to be hopelessly flawed. The stores in Prahran were filled with bikinis and sarongs, not cardigans and knitted scarves. Even Christmas dinner became a carb-heavy marathon, three courses of fried and baked food endured in a climate better suited to salads and smoothies.

The experience was all the more unsettling because my head repeatedly told me that this was how Christmas should be. The Biblical story took place in a desert, not a snow-filled forest; the Three Kings traveled to see the baby Jesus on camels, for Santa’s sake. But over the years I had somehow disconnected the Nativity from the festive experience, and bringing the two back together seemed sacrilegious in its wrongheadedness. My Christmas had always been dipped in the icy heritage of Europe, recycled by Hollywood in classics like It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. It was ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’, ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’. If Jesus had been born in my version of the Nativity, Mary and Joseph would have been praying that the Three Kings came bearing blankets along with the gold, frankincense and myrrh.

For a Northern European with his heart in the snowy wastes of winter, Australia’s sunshine and merriment were simply too much to bear. In the end, we did the most festive thing we could imagine: dragging ourselves through the heat to South Yarra’s multiplex cinema, to catch the latest Pixar movie in a theater empty enough to feel like our own personal screening room.

It wasn’t my ideal Christmas, and there still wasn’t a single flake of snow in sight. But, thanks to the miracle of air conditioning, it was at least deliciously cold.

 

Wish You Ate Here

By Dan Coxon

Travel

Imagine an island. A perfect desert island, a sandy coral atoll with a grove of palm trees at its leafy hub. Imagine sitting on the fine golden sands, a palm frond spread beneath you, dipping your fingers unashamedly into a plate of food. The fish was caught only minutes earlier by three young boys in a leaky boat, one of them bailing out the bottom while the others swam with shortened spears; the yams were pulled from the ground that morning, baked on an open fire that still smolders at your back. You close your eyes as you work the meal over your tongue. The warm island breeze caresses your eyelids.

Ask me for my abiding memories of the time I’ve spent on the road, from the extended trips to Australasia to the weekend breaks in San Francisco, and you may be surprised. While the sights would undoubtedly make an appearance – Alcatraz, San Diego Zoo, the reefs in Fiji, the monoliths of the Australian outback – it won’t be long before the conversation turns to the topic of food.

It’s curious that culinary experiences should form such a large part of travel’s appeal, but I know I’m not alone in this. Celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme famously said “When I travel I normally eat club sandwiches, or I bring my own food”, but for those of us without our own restaurant kitchen the lure of exotic cuisine is part of what draws us to pastures new. What we see, or hear, or smell while away from home undoubtedly imprints itself on our memories, as do the people we meet when we get there (or, indeed, while we’re still en route) – but the tastes of the unfamiliar are often what come back strongest, like the lingering tingle of a perfectly-spiced taco.

I can’t tell you what I ate two days ago, and I may struggle to recollect last week’s meals, despite the fact that I cooked most of them myself. And yet I can recall in precise detail the calf’s liver and polenta eaten at a hotel restaurant off a small square in Venice, the smoky patatas bravas in a standing-room-only tapas bar in Madrid – even the cheap bento box bought from a tiny convenience store in downtown Tokyo. (That meal was eaten in a nearby park, while local teens chowed down on Big Macs across the path.) It’s not just the quality of the food that remains in the mind, either. Food bought on the road will never earn Michelin stars, but somehow its memory still dallies on your tastebuds long after you return home. Anyone who’s eaten a gristly, gravy-sodden Australian pie will confirm this. Clearly it’s the travel itself that lends an extra spice to the dish.

This may not have always been the case. Sir Francis Drake returned to England bearing the potato, and early visitors to India marveled at the exotic array of spices, but it’s hard to imagine every historical traveler being won over by the food they encountered. As recently as the 1980s, touring sports teams would often eat bland Westernized dishes in their hotel’s restaurant when on the subcontinent, for fear of contracting food poisoning before an important game. It’s only in recent years that the tourism industry has fully accepted our hunger for culinary adventures – perhaps due to the improved efficacy of anti-diarrhea medication. Or maybe we’ve all genuinely embraced the global melting pot that has accompanied worldwide migration.

Whatever the cause, it’s clear that food and travel are now the perfect pairing. A brief glance at the Travel Channel’s schedule reveals Food Wars, Bizarre Foods, Man V. Food Nation and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations at the top of the menu. We travel to indulge ourselves and to sample new experiences – and nowhere do these two blend as perfectly as in the food we eat.

Of course, when one talks about international cuisine there’s always the risk of pretension, the ghost of the amateur galloping gourmand. You can spot these when they insist that one absolutely must try the steak at the Four Seasons in Sydney, or they wax lyrical on the wine lists in Bangkok’s boutique hotels. For these culinary explorers the travel is secondary to the food, and they’ll happily bunker down in a hotel for their entire stay – as long as the chef has imported those miraculous truffles from Italy again. It’s all about the cuisine, and before long the travel gets buried beneath a heavy cream sauce and shavings of caramelized parsnip.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course – we don’t want to tread our own path of traveler’s pretension. But part of the joy of food is its endless variety, and nowhere else do we experience this quite as forcefully as we do on the road. There are those of us who like to experiment with our weekly diet even when we’re at home, but it is travel that truly encourages us to challenge our palates. Sometimes the menu itself is indecipherable – sometimes there’s no menu at all. But as long as we can point and politely ask please, there’s a pure pleasure in sampling new tastes, in broadening our sensory horizons with a plate of steaming hot… whatever. It’s an experience that takes us back to our first explorations of the world, and the reason so many children bite, lick and suck their way through their formative years. We grew up learning to taste our surroundings – when we’re traveling we fall back on old habits.

Maybe this helps explain the rise of street food through the culinary ranks, for anyone who has enjoyed the unique pleasures of the vendor’s cart across the globe will tell you that it’s one of the most visceral experiences any culture can offer. Walk through a market in Asia and you’ll encounter a kaleidoscope of sounds, smells, colors and tastes, a chaotic patchwork of the senses that can range from the sublime to the overwhelming. Here there are no menus, no waiters – no table, even. Just you and the food, a sampling board of new experience that’s as varied as it is foreign, taking you back to a time when every taste was unique, every texture exotic and new.

And it explains why the flavors of different cultures stick with us long after we’ve returned home, too. Most cities are gradually modernizing their way towards anonymity, most fields look like every other field you’ve seen, but in a simple forkful of food you can discover tastes, combinations, and entire worlds that have never been open to you before. It’s why I can still recall eating jellyfish in Hong Kong six years ago, when I can’t remember the burger I ate last week. Or the fried pig’s ear crackling on my tongue in Barcelona, while the turkey we ate last Thanksgiving has passed from memory. When we travel, we do so in search of novelty – and nothing is as fresh, or as new, as a previously undiscovered flavor bursting on your palate.

It’s why I can still recall that grilled reef fish my wife and I ate on a tiny tropical island in Fiji, the flesh succulent and spiked with red chilies picked from a local bush. Why I can remember the sweet yams that went with it, scooping the flesh from the skins as we went; the coconut milk sipped from fruit that had been cut from the tree only minutes earlier. Nothing brings back the memory of the brilliant, clear ocean and unspoiled sands quite like those flavors, the flavors imprinted on my tastebuds like a unique barcode to a place and time. In my mouth they become a time machine, transporting me back to the sun, and the sand, and the soft whisperings of the sea. Another world on the end of my fork.

As I stood on the grassy slopes of Bob’s Peak, I tried not to think about what we were preparing to do. Luckily the streets below were hidden from view, although the tiny dots of the boats out on the crystal blue lake didn’t fill me with confidence. Pius, my large and over-friendly Italian guide, checked my straps briefly, apparently trusting my clumsy attempts at fastening the harness. If I’d known that his checks would be so perfunctory I’d have taken more time over them myself.

‘Are we ready?’

His accent made him difficult to understand, and with the alpine wind whistling about my ears it took me a few moments to translate his thick vowels. Before I had a chance to answer he’d positioned himself behind me, and I felt his hand tap my shoulder.

‘Run.’

It would have been easy at that moment to sit back down on the grass and call it a day. Somehow, though, my instincts for self-preservation had been temporarily silenced. This was Queenstown, after all: the self-proclaimed Mecca for extreme sports. I began pumping my legs, my feet hitting the turf hard as I struggled against the machinery – and the large Italian – strapped to my back. At first it felt as if someone had tied me to a car as a prank, and I almost turned around to check that everything was as it should be. Then the thought of Pius’s withering look made me pound my feet even harder. We were nearing the edge of the cliff now, and with it a sixteen hundred foot drop down to the town below. My mind flitted back to those straps again. I really should have spent more time tightening them.

And then something changed behind me. Where there had been resistance before there was now a slight tug, as if Pius had sprouted a pair of wings and was trying to pull me off my feet. It was an odd sensation, simultaneously lifting me up and dragging me back, and I was almost too busy marveling at it to notice that I was suddenly a few inches off the ground. I may have been lifted off my feet but we were still traveling forward at some speed, the cliff edge disappearing beneath us as Queenstown came into view, the houses looking no larger than Monopoly pieces. After a few seconds I remembered to stop wiggling my legs, and I pulled down self-consciously on my helmet strap, trusting it to see me safely home. Sixteen hundred feet looked an awfully long way to fall.

*    *    *

At the start of the day I hadn’t intended to end up nearly half a mile above the ground, with a large Italian strapped to my back. My plan had been to bungee jump at the site of the very first bungee, the now-infamous Kawarau Bridge, and I’d driven there filled with an irrational desire to throw myself from it.

If the story of the commercial bungee started at a rickety bridge just outside of Queenstown, however, then the true origin of the semi-suicidal sport lay further north. As part of the harvest ritual on the Vanuatu Islands the young men used to build a tower of lashed-together branches, which they would then tie themselves to with long vines, before throwing themselves from the top. If they were lucky they’d have cut the vine to almost exactly the correct length, and it’d pull them up just as they hit the ground, lessening the blow and simultaneously wrenching their legs out of their sockets. If they were unlucky they’d cut it too long, the results of which you can imagine for yourself. As harvest festivals went, it was a spectacularly messy one.

Fortunately for adrenaline addicts the world over, a documentary on these rituals happened to be watched by members of the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club in the Seventies, and they decided to stage some attempted jumps of their own. Their equipment was still primitive, but it provided them all with a bit of a giggle in between lectures, and nothing more was thought of it.

Until Kiwi entrepreneur A J Hackett happened upon a video of the Dangerous Sports Club in action, that is. While others might have wondered why these English intellectuals were throwing themselves off things with such gay abandon, Hackett immediately saw the dollar signs flashing before his eyes. Enlisting the help of friend and fellow speed-skier Henry van Asch, he began to pioneer what became the modern bungee cord. Their first tests were undertaken at the Ponts de la Caille near Annecy in eastern France, and once the equipment was ready they decided to launch their new adrenaline sport in the highest-profile manner possible. In June 1987, A J Hackett threw himself off the Eiffel Tower.

The stunt resulted in his immediate arrest by some stereotypically dour-faced gendarmes, but he was released a few minutes later into a blaze of media attention. The following year the Kawarau Bridge bungee opened, and since then over 500,000 people had thrown themselves into space above the torrents of the Kawarau River while attached to a long strip of elastic. A J Hackett was now a very rich man.

When I pulled into the Kawarau parking lot my eyes weren’t drawn to the bridge itself, however: I was too busy looking at the crowd. Some of the revenue from the bungee had been poured back into developing the jump’s facilities, which now included a space-age visitors’ center and a large wooden viewing balcony. It was here that I joined the gathered masses to worship at the altar of Hackett, fifty of us jostling for elbow-room as we waited for the poor fools on the bridge to jump. It might have resembled a public execution, but the $140 price tag told the true story. At least you got the hangman’s noose for free.

The first jumper was obviously a regular visitor, as he barely needed any encouragement to throw himself from their ramshackle platform into the crisp New Zealand air. I watched as he hung for a second in midair, before gravity reasserted itself and he plummeted towards the river below. They’d set the bungee slightly longer than normal, and his head dipped in the water before the cord pulled him up again, dragging an arc of spray behind him. He bounced a couple of times, the cord jerking him from side to side, then the crew launched their small yellow dinghy and gathered him safely in. The whole experience took a little under three minutes, including the time it took to return him to dry land. I’d expected the bungee to be thrilling, but I’d never expected it to be so brief.

As I stood watching the conveyor belt of jumpers I decided not to bother signing up for it myself. I knew that I’d be berated for it when I returned home, but the hefty price tag had sapped any desire that I might have had to throw myself from this particular bridge. Outside of Las Vegas there couldn’t be a quicker way to lose $140, and I didn’t exactly have the spare cash to throw into this churning river. Besides, Queenstown was reputedly the adrenaline sports capital of the world. Surely there must be something more satisfying to spend my few spare dollars on?

*    *    *

A quick examination of the map showed me that the Shotover Jet was located nearby, so I decided to give that a chance. I knew very little about jetboats, apart from the fact that one of them had ruined my attempts at photography at Taupo’s Huka Falls earlier in my trip. I figured that I should keep an open mind, though, and this particular company had been recommended to me by a couple in Fiji. Their literature told me that they’d ferried over two million passengers down the Shotover River, which by my calculations made them at least four times as popular as the Kawarau Bridge bungee. With figures like that behind them I had to see what all the fuss was about.

In a nutshell, jetboating was exactly as it sounded. The hi-tech boats had an internal propeller that sucked water in through the hull, then drove it out again through jet nozzles at the rear. Not only did this unique propulsion device allow them to reach speeds of forty-five miles an hour in the Shotover River’s narrow canyons, it also offered them a flexibility of movement that was unknown in regular craft. Here at Shotover the boats had two engines and two nozzles, allowing them to turn sharply, brake, and even send the boat into a 360-degree spin. It put Hackett’s little yellow dinghy to shame.

Once I’d been suited up in a full-length waterproof coat and scarlet lifejacket we were herded onto our boat, the crew ushering us through the iron gates like cattle. With the sun sparkling off the surface of the river it all looked remarkably tranquil, and I wondered if Shotover’s reputation had been exaggerated. It seemed like a nice spot for a picnic.

I didn’t have to wonder for long. Once our pilot was in place he checked that we were all securely fastened, then the boat roared into life. I’m not a huge fan of rollercoasters, and I generally believe that anything worth seeing is worth seeing slowly, but I couldn’t keep myself from grinning as we hurtled away, my back pressed firmly into the seat. Taking the bends we were flung viciously from side to side, and even in my nervous state I marveled at the company’s excellent safety record. Perhaps it only felt like I was about to be flung into the icy waters of the river.

The experience was over all too soon, although a quick glance at my watch told me that it had taken slightly more than twenty minutes. My legs were a little shaky once I stepped onto solid ground again, but I couldn’t keep an idiotic smile from spreading across my face. To my great surprise, jetboating had turned out to be fun.

*    *    *

I took a few sips of water to restore a degree of calm to my battered nervous system, then I began to consult the map again. My day of adrenaline sports in Queenstown was only half over. Now that I had the bit between my teeth, I wanted to make the most of it. It occurred to me that I’d already experienced extreme speed – what I needed next was extreme height. The bungee still looked too expensive, and it finished far too quickly for my liking, which sent me back to the drawing board. Where else could I experience the thrills of extreme heights without having to dunk my head in a river? What else was there in Queenstown to jump off, apart from the bridge?

This might go some way towards explaining how I came to be strapped to an overweight Italian sixteen hundred feet off the ground, the houses of the town laid out beneath me like a Lego set. I shuffled my butt back in the harness, just to make sure that there was no chance of falling out. On the way up Bob’s Peak I’d heard stories about a tourist whose equipment had failed, sending him plummeting into the backyard of an unexpecting resident, breaking almost every bone in his body in the process. At the time I’d written it off as an extreme sports myth, but it now felt worryingly feasible. I tugged on my helmet strap again, just to be sure.

Suddenly there was a ringing sound behind me, and for a fraction of a second I thought that it might be some kind of alarm, warning us of our impending death in an old lady’s flowerbed. Fortunately Pius’s laughter set me at ease.

‘Sorry, that’s my cell phone. It seems someone wants to talk to me. They always call at the worst time, eh?’

I managed to stutter a cursory yes, trying to drag my eyes away from a particularly solid-looking paved yard.

‘Too damn right. You feeling okay?’

I wasn’t sure that he’d heard my last outburst, so this time I gave him the thumbs-up.

‘You feel like doing some acrobatics before we land?’

To be frankly honest, part of me wanted to say no. No matter how hard that part screamed in my head, though – while pointing out the very solid ground that lay over a thousand feet below us – I still managed to give him the thumbs-up again. I figured I might as well live a little, even if it wasn’t for very long.

‘Hold on tight then.’

At first I barely noticed the change in direction, but then the ground slid away, our bodies spinning in a tight spiral that sent the world reeling past my left ear. Then Pius span us the other way, and I tried to imagine the s-shaped trajectory that we were following through the sky, if only to take my mind off the fact that the earth kept moving beneath us, and that I was rapidly losing any sense of up or down.

After a couple of minutes we resumed a steady course, and I felt a hand tap me on the shoulder.

‘That was good, eh?’

I swallowed against the dryness in my throat and managed to prize my hand off the strap long enough give a final thumbs-up. It had been good, if incredibly unnerving. Suddenly the bungee wasn’t looking quite so daring after all.

Once we were back on the ground, having crash-landed clumsily in the sports field of the local school, Pius set about folding away the parachute while I unbuckled myself from the rigging. A quick glance at my watch told me that I still had a couple of hours to spare before the sun went down, but I’d already had enough excitement for one day. What little adrenaline I had left would be just enough to propel me back to the van that had become my home over the past few weeks; then I intended to sit very still for at least half an hour, while my equilibrium restored itself. With my feet firmly planted on the floor, of course.

Pius grinned as I stepped shakily out of the harness, my feet remarkably glad to feel the reassurance of firm ground again, but still uncertain of its solidity.

‘Not bad for two heavy pricks, eh?’

I couldn’t help smiling and nodding in agreement. No, it wasn’t bad at all.

(This excerpt is adapted from the book Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand, available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all good book retailers.)