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If you don’t know where you are, it’s almost a pretty place.

On my first visit there, I was on a whirlwind bus tour. My itinerary long since misplaced, our bus wended its way past fields punctuated by hay bales and scattered copses of oak and poplar. It was open country, and the scenery didn’t look all that different from what I might have seen back home in the Midwest.

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.

Gross_TurkWhoLoved_PB_mech.inddIn early 2005, after I’d finished an assignment for the New York Times in northern Thailand, I took a weekend trip to Myanmar. Myanmar, or Burma, as it’s also known, was under exceedingly tight military rule back then, but Americans could, for reasons I didn’t try to understand, cross the border without a prearranged visa, provided they stayed less than fourteen days and did not travel beyond eastern Shan State. Since I had just a couple of days free, and wanted only to see the unusual and fascinating hill tribes of the Golden Triangle, the famously lawless opium-and-gun-smuggling region, these were hardly onerous restrictions.

Spring Break, 2007, I journey to the wilds of New Mexico to write, drink red wine, and to eat green chili stew and sopapillas. This is back in the days when all I write is raw and repetitive and full of bad metaphors (today, I eschew metaphor). Through Craigslist I find a round adobe house in Abiquiu, near Georgia O’Keefe’s home, close to the icy waters of the Chama River.

The car is packed—a dozen bottles of red wine, a ream of heavy-duty paper, my vintage typewriter—ready for the long drive from Carpinteria to Abiquiu, by way of the Grand Canyon. I teach junior high in Santa Barbara, thoroughly unsuited to the task, my irony useless against the hormonally-driven wiles of my students. I need an escape.

Trowel was a Turkish word I didn’t know, so I improvised. Hardly had I requested a pocket-sized spade, however, before the ironmonger’s eyes were narrowing to wary slits. It had not crossed my mind that laying my hands on a trowel might present a problem in a place like Dinar. How but with trowels had the chillies, peppers and aubergines that ran amok in the scruffy little town’s kitchen gardens been planted? What of the geraniums that bloomed in rusty cooking oil tins at the foot of whitewashed walls? The potted pine saplings that stood in long rows at the state railway’s nursery opposite the station? And the apple and cherry orchards that blossomed across the springtime plains west of the town? Dinar was where Turkey’s fertile western lowlands, liberally watered by the Meander’s springs, ran up against the plateau interior to breed a last-ditch growing fervour among the locals – but one that their ironmonger did not appear to share.

I sat in the dingy-walled lobby of Dina’s Hotel in Downtown Cairo, listening to music and staring at a Facebook feed—you know, immersing myself in local culture. I was slapping at the mosquitoes that’d swarmed around the glow of my laptop and the glow of my flesh, when a messy head poked in through the doorway and grinned.

The Chelsea Dilemma: An Investigation into a Forgotten Citizen

There has to be something called reality in order for us to come to its rescue.  – Jean-Luc Godard

Mario Fattori is downtown. Paper cup of coffee. Dead Visa Card. What to do?

It is late and he needs a room. But the Chelsea Hotel is as closed to him as the mouths of the desk clerks in the lobby. Outside the neon has crapped out in the cold January winds : the sign above the entrance reads ‘ho…chel…’ A few residents snigger by and into the elevator, shouting the new abbreviation to the boys behind the counter. Their voices cut back and forth through Mario, jovial and jabbing.

Some coffee sloshes over his fingers as he tries to explain his situation again. A waste of time, a waste of coffee, he thinks. They forget him; they want to forget him. Why?

 

We see faces in the mountains. An Indian chief with a headdress and war paint. Old men with long white hair and long white beards. Aliens, flat and unknowing.

Perhaps we’ve been looking for too long.

It was not until senior year that I finally did what college kids are supposed to do over spring break—spend a week in the Caribbean. The trip was all expenses paid, and this is where things diverged from the spring break of college lore. Along with a dozen students and a handful of professors, graduate students, and post-docs, I headed to Panama to study marine invertebrates on my school’s dime. While we encountered plenty of tourists there, our tans outlined not skimpy bikinis but wetsuits, which meant a dark tan that abruptly cut off at the neck and wrists. Our evenings were spent with microscopes in the lab. Except for one Friday night, when we were let loose to “experience the local culture” in town.

They called me Pelochucho. My best friends were Chuck Norris, Palo de Coco, and El Socio. Peseta gave us all our nicknames: mine for my hair, Chuck Norris for his beard, Palo de Coco for his height, and El Socio because he was Puerto Rican. Peseta was a local crack-head whose own name came from the Salvadoran twenty-five cent piece. At one time, he’d been the best surfer in La Libertad. Now he begged quarters from tourists and handed out nicknames.

“San ping sake,” I tell the server. Three bottles of sake.

When she returns a few minutes later with the fresh pitchers of warm rice wine I pour shots for myself and my friends. Sitting directly to my right is a young Californian who’s been in Beijing for just under a week. I toast to him on this evening, one that marks both his first night out in the city and his first sake experience.

At the table next to ours a group of local men wearing the green jerseys of the local soccer club are also imbibing sake. I make eye contact with one of them.

“Sake feichang hao,” I say. Sake is very good.

With this simple statement the red-faced Chinese man and his equally crimson companions acknowledge the group of foreigners with a chorus of “hellos” and offer to fill our glasses. With cups brimming, my new Chinese friend clinks his sake vessel to mine and says, “ganbei,” which translates to “empty the cup.” All of us drain our glasses and continue to “ganbei” for the better part of an hour.

By the end of the aggressive drinking session the China newbie is grinning a happy drunken grin and surveying the loud, smoky restaurant with a look of awe. We pay our bill—a ridiculously cheap 150 Yuan (around $25) per person for three hours of all you can eat and drink—and spill out into the night, chatting and laughing our way to the next spot, a Western style bar teeming with dolled up Chinese girls.

We find seats among a group of them at a back corner table. Somebody pulls out a hash joint and it makes its way around. Drunk, stoned, and cozied up to a sexy young local, the newb leans into my ear and says, “Man, is this a pretty typical night out?”

I tell him that it is. What I don’t tell him is that he is now one of the Lost Boys of China.

China is a fascinating place to live. A new world power only rises up once every three or four generations, and being in the midst of the phenomenon is a truly unique opportunity. That the latest power to emerge is China, a country that a century ago ended 2,000 years of imperial rule and had a population existing primarily on a subsistence level, makes the storyline all the more compelling.

But it’s not just historical implications that make the Middle Kingdom an exciting destination. Life here is enormously entertaining. I’ve yet to experience a place that on a daily basis intrigues, challenges, and shocks me to such an extent. I forever have the sense that just around the corner something totally whacky awaits.

In the last month alone I’ve seen columns of old women dancing in step to tinny music blaring from a boom box, an exploding construction site, a mother encouraging her child to defecate on a sidewalk in Shanghai’s swankest district, and a box of “Obama” brand erection pills for sale. I’ve been recruited by ladyboys to star in a striptease and by a restaurant owner to sing “Hotel California” in front of a packed house. To a foreigner in China, madness is the status quo.

True, living in a country with more than a billion people, where language and cultural differences can seem insurmountable, brings its fair share of frustrations. But the upside is that accomplishing basic things, especially when you first get here, can feel heroic. Just buying produce at a market can be immensely satisfying. You strut home with those fruits and vegetables.

And as this evening demonstrates, being a foreigner in China has a number of fringe benefits. Back home, I’m just another white guy. Here, I’m a White Guy. This distinction is not only conducive to getting free liquor and female companionship, but can result in job offers (from companies eager for foreign human capital), forgiveness for a wide range of outrageous behavior (owing to the fact that you may not understand Chinese customs), a general celebrity status (especially true as you get away from big cities), and other perks.

So why, then, given all the reasons why life in China is fantastic, did I recently have a Skype conversation with a friend in New York about sharing an apartment in the city? Why do I wistfully look at my family’s Facebook pictures? Why do I regularly peruse booking sites for a cheap flight home?

It’s because in many ways, I have digressed since moving to China. Before coming here I led a fairly adult life that consisted of such quotidian pastimes as driving a Subaru, birdwatching, gardening, and oenophilia.

In China, I don’t even know how to read. With the vocabulary of a toddler I gesture, grunt, and throw out the odd, poorly-pronounced word to get my point across. Half of the time in this country it’s all I can do to maintain bowel control.

While here I am Peter Pan, a perpetual child who runs around with the Lost Boys and has adventures. China, in other words, is my Neverland.

Of course, the longer I stay here, learn Mandarin, and become accustomed to Chinese culture, the less fantastical it all seems. But I’m more committed to gratification than assimilation, and given the already-tall order of deciphering this enormous, diverse, rapidly changing country, the madness could continue indefinitely.

It won’t, though, because I’m certain that at some point, I will leave. The only thing left to decide is when to officially call off the China Experiment.

This is easier said than done. Every time I think I can’t stand another moment in this overcrowded, polluted nation of spitting, smoking, and horn-blaring people I experience a breathtaking moment that could only happen here and which leaves me gasping for more. Going home would also mean a much higher cost of living and the renouncement of my privileged White Guy status. Furthermore, anytime I talk to people back home and describe my life here I’m reminded of just how rock and roll it is.

But like a rock star, there comes a point when the act becomes more pathetic than cool. I’m reminded of this as I sidle up to the bar to order a round of shots.

To my left sits a balding white guy wearing a cheap sport coat. He sloppily makes a pass at a young Chinese girl who smiles uncomfortably and retreats into the crowd. Undeterred, the man takes a swig of his beer, lights up a smoke, and tries his luck on the next girl to approach the bar, who similarly rebuffs him.

While it’s difficult say when, exactly, one goes from being a Lost Boy of China to a Dirty Old Man of China, it’s easy to tell the difference. One remains a child at heart. The other could very well support child prostitution.

Far be it for me to judge this man. It’s just not where I want to be at his age. By then, I will have resumed my days of car ownership, tending the vegetable patch, ornithology, and deriding shiraz.

After all, I didn’t come to China because I think a comfortable, bourgeois life is contemptible. I just wasn’t quite ready for it. My goal, in a nutshell, is to be able to tell some damned good stories at dinner parties when they’re once again part of my social life.

Like, for example, the time my buddies and I met a group of girls at a bar in Beijing, got into a punchup with their boyfriends, then, after being kicked out and moving to another spot, shared a drink with a Chinese businessman who invited us to a “sexy” karaoke bar and paid for everything, including…

Well, there are some things that probably shouldn’t be discussed at a dinner party.

 

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.

 

Shit and Death

By Sarah Zhang

Travel

The Devil Incarnate was airborne again. One shit-covered hoof landed on my hand, and the other kicked off the pump milking her teats. Two for two. She wriggled her black rump in triumph. Many have tried, but none have succeeded at exorcising this notorious Shetland ewe. It was my first day on a British sheep farm, and I was already locked in a losing battle.

Nursing my bruised hand, I reconsidered why I was here in the English countryside. It made sense logistically as part of my not so Grand Tour of Europe: two weeks of room and board in exchange for labor. I may have also mumbled something about “cultural immersion” and “work ethic” and namedropped Michael Pollan in a manifesto of sorts when I chose this organic sheep farm. The fact of the matter was I had no idea what I was doing, and I was just a suburban kid whose only previous contact with farm animals was the petting zoo and that time I chased goats around a biomechanics lab. Not a match for the Devil Incarnate.

The people patient enough to put up with my foolishness were Lawrence and Karen, the farm’s owners. Both were architects until the 80s, when the British economy collapsed, and they found themselves looking for a new line of work. With no farm experience other than beekeeping on the rooftop of their London apartment, they learned the necessary skills from the Soil Association, bought a farm, bought some animals, and set up for business. I admired their gutsiness and liked to think that my own escapade was in the same spirit of independence. However, I suspect they were considerably less clueless than I. Lawrence went to Cambridge, but he is a man of both head and hands. For fun, he used to drive a beat-up truck out to the middle of nowhere, have it breakdown, tinker with some things under the hood, and drive back. Karen, originally from South Africa, liked to say she had outback in her blood.

Most of their income these days comes from their flock of sheep, whose wool and cheese they sell at local farmers’ markets. It is an entirely family-run operation, with Karen making and selling the cheese and Lawrence doing the farm work, occasionally aided by his son and volunteers through the Worldwide Organization of Organic Farms (WWOOF), which was also how I found myself in at their farm.

It didn’t take long to settle into the daily rhythms of the farm. At 10 in the morning, I set out with the sheepdogs to round up sheep for the day’s milking. Ewes were let into the milking parlor a dozen at a time. Most were cooperative, the Devil Incarnate being an obvious exception. With their heads in the trough, we milked from the back. Here’s a dirty fact – not a secret but often overlooked: a sheep’s teats are located at its rear end, so milk is dispensed in proximity to urine and feces. Not to worry sheep milk and cheese consumers, the teats are thoroughly disinfected with iodine before the pumps are attached. The milk stays clean, but the milker is sometimes not so lucky. It was not uncommon for an ewe to leave something other than milk at the parlor.

While I milked, Lawrence scanned the ewes for those in need of “haircuts and pedicures.” Two of the most common ailments afflicting sheep are flystrike and foot rot. Flystrike occurs when flies lay eggs in the sheep’s wool. As the maggots hatch, they eat their way into the sheep and kill it from inside out. The docking of tails, a practice much maligned by animal rights activists, is actually a preventive measure, as a sheep wagging its wooly tail spreads feces all over its hindquarters, attracting flies. Flystrike in its early stages can be treated by shearing away the dirty wool and applying an insecticide – a haircut and shampoo for those having bad a wool day. The pedicures were similarly a treatment for foot rot, which is an infection between the two toes of the hoof. A trimming and antibiotics usually had a limping sheep back to jumping hedges in no time.

* * *

Farms will make you nonchalant about touching shit. It was a matter of ubiquity. On a farm with 180 sheep, fifteen cattle, six cats, four dogs, two pigs, and a dozen each of chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl, the sheer volume made shit unavoidable.

Which isn’t to say the farm was filthy. This was the natural order of things: input (food, water) begets output (meat, wool, milk, and yes, shit). The process, though, is more circular than linear. Sheep spend the days grazing in the fields, deriving their nutrition from the grass and then returning the favor by dropping some nutrient-rich poop back into the field. Such was the ethos of organic farming, grounded in the harmony of nature. The grazing diet of sheep was supplemented by silage, cut grass that has been fermented in plastic-wrapped bales. In the rare event of three consecutive sunny English days – the moisture content of silage is important for its proper fermentation –grass in the ungrazed fields is cut for silage. Sometimes, a few wily sheep will have found their way into an ungrazed field and left a token of their presence. “You’ll pull out some silage from the bale and out comes a clod of shit,” said Lawrence.

The ubiquity of shit on the farm did not mean it could be ignored but rather than it needed to be dealt with, constantly. “Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil,” philosophized Milan Kundera, but on the farm, we operated with the philosophy that shit was a more onerous logistical problem than is…anything else. It may take slipping on a pile of shit and falling into an even larger pile of shit to learn this, but so quickly one learns. Each day’s milking culminated with scraping down the yard outside the parlor. The “shitscraper” resembled a shovel whose blade had been replaced by a three-foot wide metal bracket, and it was remarkably ineffective at scraping up shit. The topmost layer of shit was pushed to a large pile at one end of the yard. It was usually then deposited in a field for fertilizer, but the tractor was out of commission during my time there and the pile simply built up. On rainy days – almost every day as this was England – a small pond formed in the middle of the pile and leaked streams of shitwater down to the fields. Irrigation and fertilization at once.

* * *

Lambing season begins in April, so when I arrived in July, the earliest lambs had grown to adult-size, but the late lambs were still in their stage of maximum cuteness. With their floppy pink ears, saucer eyes, and fleece as white as snow, the three smallest lambs were ready for their close-ups. Floppy, the smallest of the three, was even being hand-nursed with a bottle. Photogenic as this scene looked, it belied the fact that Floppy was in danger of not making it. Late lambs suffer the disadvantage of not getting their mothers’ colostrum, antibiotic-rich milk produced by the ewe right after birth. Ewes will also abandon a weak lamb, which is what happened to Floppy and also why we were bottle-feeding him. Floppy’s adorable disorientation was actually a sign that he was sliding south. He died the first week I was there.

A few days later, the two other small lambs – twins, one male and one female – were left alone in the barn after the other sheep had headed out to graze. A bad sign: their mother had also abandoned them. We moved them to a pen, fitted a heat lamp, and tried to hand-nurse the twins. It was difficult to feed the resisting lambs, not because they could wrestle free but because I was afraid of using too much strength against their delicate limbs. When they finally stayed still and allowed milk to be dripped into their mouths, it seemed out of defeat rather than a desire to eat. They coughed and sneezed and grinded their teeth, which sounded all too human. Lawrence said that they probably had pneumonia. From then on, the first thing I did in the morning was to check up on the twins. I would dread finding them limp on the ground, breathe a sigh of relief upon seeing them standing, and then unsuccessfully try to feed them. Cuddling with the furry creatures brought a rush of maternal instincts, and I briefly considered naming the twins. No names jumped out though, and I remembered the pity in Lawrence’s eyes that said there was no point in getting emotionally attached. The girl died three days after, and the boy the next night.

* * *

The day after the second twin died, Lawrence announced that he had to pick three lambs for the abattoir, a kindlier word for “slaughterhouse” borrowed from across the channel. We drove a tractor up to the fields and picked out the three fattest lambs. These lambs, almost as heavy as me, had to be wrestled in. They were driven to the abattoir on Wednesday and returned as vacuumed-packed cuts of lamb on Thursday. Thursday dinner was fresh lamb chops.

“This lamb is real good, mum,” said Lawrence’s son, “What’s in it?”

“Just garlic. No salt or seasonings. Good meat,” replied Karen.

“Speaking of good meat, remember 15? Now he was a tasty steak.”

“Feisty bull he was,” interjected Lawrence, “Made that indent in the lower gate. You can go see it.”

It’s hard to think of the slab of protein, fat, and connective tissue that grows on supermarket Styrofoam trays as having personality, but Lawrence could rattle off the life history of his steak. These animals on his farm have had good lives roaming free in the pasture. While I could accept “15” as a feisty bull before he became a juicy steak, I still couldn’t imagine Floppy cut up on my plate.

I once asked Lawrence what he planned to do with the dead body of a sick lamb. The lines around his eyes crinkled. “Fancy rack of lamb for dinner?” but then he turned serious, “I’m going to bury it. The authorities will tell you that a dead animal has to be taken away and incinerated because of disease but this lamb grew up on my farm. It got its nutrients from my farm, and when it dies, its nutrients return to the farm.” Worse to let an animal’s life go to waste. As shit is a fact of life, so is the end of each animal’s life. The life of the farm goes on.

Cornmeal laminating our tongues, we snake the streets aimlessly, but with a vague feeling for the Zócalo. It hides its skewed quadrilateral just out of sight, guarded by row after row of apartment, bank, food stall, market, stacks of carpeted speakers, their black and red wires massing for some kind of tangled revolution. On one street corner, a tight unit of white people. We hear their teenage English on the hot wind, too loud, oblivious. Various accents—East Coast, Midwestern, Southern… Their chaperone, a middle-aged woman with a Bostonian bent, bears the thick-necked, thick glasses, stiff perm of their church group leader. Her forehead is pursed, placid but purposeful. Clearly, she feels there are people here in need of saving.

One boy with oversized teeth and pimples on his ears spanks the ass of a willowy girl in black stretch pants. She turns, raven-haired and red-faced to him, as he high-fives another boy with a side-turned ball cap. In her look is patience, pity. She shakes her head and says, “Stop,” meaning, You’re lucky I don’t take your balls, buck-tooth. Another girl, hay-bale blonde, shows her something on her cell phone. A photograph. I’m guessing it’s of the man before us, rolling along the vaulted arcade across the street. Both girls giggle, then turn away from him, possibly ashamed, but too young to admit it. They cross the street, and we cross too, but we keep our distance. We don’t want to be too near these other Americans. As nucleus, as core, Mexico City is leagues ahead of Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

When we step before the arcade on the other side, the sky goes glassy as bath tile, and the beggars jockey for space and attention. This arched passageway seems shadowless, holds more light than the sky itself, sponging the sun. The man, the one who the girls likely photographed can’t be dated. He seems to have side-stepped definition-by-age in that way that people with missing limbs often do. When there’s less of the actual body, there’s less to determine age by. A lack of evidence. He is without arms or legs, perched on a palate of wood with crooked wheels and somehow propels himself along the arcade with his stomach muscles and the remains of his pelvis. The buck-toothed boy looks at him, then immediately turns away. He does no imitation, no virginal air-humping, and I am happy for this. The palate of wood is decorated with a few odd coins, almost enough, I hope, for one tamale. Happy…

Two women who look far too old to be the mothers of infants, parade with their babies, holding them out to the passers-by, imploring looks burned into their faces. They do this for a few minutes, then, as if their shifts are over, their faces melt into smiles as they approach each other, swap stories, regain a measure of youth. When this brief break is over, they age their faces again, sadden their eyes, lift the wriggling children, wrapped in pink scarves.

One of the church group boys spits to the stone and I know he means nothing by it; he’s used to spitting on sidewalks and lawns; to him, it’s habit, reflex, but the people here take notice, scowl as he passes, his in-process backbones poking from his jersey, a grounded bird, amputated wings. A man in a rickety wheelchair, the seat constructed from an onion sack, clasps his hands in prayer or deference as we pass. He is legless, but has flipper-like feet at the bottom of his torso, the toes fused, the nails haphazard like a handful of coins tossed into cement and left to dry where they stuck. He is smiling, graying stubble surrounding his mouth, a patron saint of manners. Hands still clasped, he nods to us and utters the most optimistic “buenos tardes.”

Bells are ringing in the distance, penetrating the city with some ancient music, Mexico City giving itself over to all reverberation and gong. Even the pollution seems to get along with the sky, agreeing to elicit this palest of blues, some estranged dropout cousin to some brighter ocean. A hunched old man in a torn navy windbreaker holds a shaking hand to us as if caught in the sound-wake of the bells. I think of my aunt with Parkinson’s, of everybody’s aunt with Parkinson’s, as his fingers dance and his torn windbreaker voice manages, “por un taquito, por un taquito.”

The entire world is this small rolled-up tortilla, deep-fried in bell-music and the grease of beautiful dirty sky. Of ancient excavations and cathedrals that had to see blood before they saw worship. But as if to rail against it, to assert some stubborn human force, surely destined to fail, but packed with electricity, so many men playing so many accordions, so many upturned hats not yet full of paper, violins and saxophones and guitars beating back the invisible bells, the stupid nervous double-dog-dared hands of all buck-toothed white boys with the most melodic of the world’s Fuck Yous, holding the fort so the captain can emerge from his sentries. And here he is: just a teenage boy himself, standing behind a pot-bellied beast of an instrument—wide as a park bench, the sickly premature offspring of piano and violin, and he’s cranking the shit out of it, eliciting the most pathetic circus music, one of miserable underfed elephants, their ivory dying and sloughing into the ring, just out of sight of the audience, deep into their popcorn, these elephants who the ringmaster loves, his only real friends… Drawn closer, we can see, printed on the front of the instrument in gold lettering, the words, Harmonichord and Berlin.

It’s the sort of instrument that should require at least two people to operate, to make this kind of sound, but the boy is doing it without sweating. How it got here from Germany… The pigeons are log-rolling overhead, preparing for back-flips over the chimneys and spires, rolling their throats like mantra. The flies are closer to us, circling our scalps as if runways, places to rest. To them, I whisper, “Medieval,” “Organistrum,” “conquest.” Louisa mutters something in her first-language about love and learning. I feel I am learning to do both, to open up, to ornament my vocabulary with Sí, Sí,, Sí, but it’ll take some time. We wipe our faces with our shirt sleeves. A small girl blows soap bubbles at us through a blue plastic wand. She wears no shoes. Walks the arcade stones in white cotton socks. Her mother, younger than we are, touches Louisa’s hand, says, in barely-accented English, “Don’t be sad.” In our chests, the elephants stand on their hind legs, perform their best trick. In this, what can do but age, look like our parents? I pull a handful of coins from my pants pocket, not sure yet what to do with them. I am learning, but it will take some time. So much to clap for.

 

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.