John M.Edwards

Part II

It is every writer’s dream to land a housesitting job in France. I’d have three months to start (and abort) a novel while enjoying the medieval landscape. But how did my galpal and I land the job? We had met a nice British couple, the Brays, at a cocktail party thrown by ex-“Condé Nast”-boss James Truman’s mother, in the Caribbean (Montserrat, before the volcano blew), who said a French hippy was housesitting for them in France.
“He burns candles everywhere instead of using electricity,” Mr. Bray complained. Surely we were more qualified to housesit for them than a dirtbag flaneur?
So the next winter we arrived at the remote village of Couloume-Mondebat and took charge of the 15th-century farmhouse, whose barn had hidden American servicemen during World War II. We would be staying in the “gite” (guest quarters), which featured a master bedroom, guest bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom.
Hot water was supplied via gas canisters, which had a nasty habit of conking out when guests were visiting, resulting in bloodcurdling cries, such as what happens later in this essay.
Our living quarters also boasted a bookshelf of pleasantly dated books, such as Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming, Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean, and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. No TV. Our only contact with the outside world was a telephone and a shortwave radio to listen to BBC broadcasts.

Expatriate Life

Over the course of three months, we lived an expatriate life reminiscent of Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence.” (My book proposal, Three Months in Gascony, upon which this article is loosely based, sounded derivative and unsaleable.)
The landscape is dotted with vernacular pigeonniers, windmills, churches, and “Inri” crosses–evidence that the Christian pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela passes through here. One of my favorite stops on “The Way of Saint James” was Lupiac, hometown of Charles de Batz, the real-life D’Artagnan immortalized by Alaxander Dumas in The Three Musketeers. His abode, the Chateau de Castlemore, was closed on the day I visited, but I seriously admired its grand façade, somehow resembling Tintin’s manse Marlinspike Hall.
It was near Lupiac, in fact, that I broke my tooth on a wild-boar cassoulet bone while dining in the village of St. Mont at a restaurant that requested anonymity (maybe: “The Auberge de Saint Mont”), overlooking a charmed thousand-year-old Roman vineyard. I paid a visit to the local dentist Monsieur Papillon (Mr. Butterfly), who promised to fix it right up.
As the demonic dentist drill hit dent, Mr. Butterfly joked that he knew how to deal with Americans: “I am Iraqi! I am Iraqi!” he mocked with his limited English, enjoying my feigned discomfort. Needless to say, my replacement tooth was a little too large, but for only a handful of francs, not euros, I couldn’t complain much. At least they had doctors in this medieval demesne, most of them living quite comfortably in ancestral chateaux.
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The Hunters’ Feast

With its many feast days, it’s easy to become a glutton in Gascony. Luckily, cannibalism is no longer practiced in France; after all, it’s been eons since ancient Gauls (like the comic book character “Asterix”) wolfed the flesh and gnawed the bones of barbarians babbling bad French. Still it was hard to shake the feeling of apprehension, especially after we’d settled in at the local “Fete de Chausseurs” (hunters’ feast), a word similar to the French for “shoes,” to find the event liberally garnished with Gascon hunters brandishing rifles and aromatic Gitane cigarettes.This was the fairytale slice of historical Gascony where many of the inhabitants come as fattened as the geese they devour. And speaking of geese, as my girlfriend and I got a gander at the unlearnedly accent-less hunters’ feast menu, we began to wonder if our own goose was cooked: “Garbure, Assiette composee fruits de mer, Truite sauce champagne, Civet de chevreuil, Roti de chevreuil, Legumes, Salade, Foret noire, Café, Armagnac.” You don’t have to delve into a Larousse dictionary to divine the gist: a meal of more than six courses, including a thick soup (with duck in it), a whole trout, and two deer dishes, accompanied by three kinds of locally produced wine and Armagnac (including a must-try white wine called “Pacherenc du Vic Bilh” –which is fun to repeat after a few snootfuls.)

Shades of Monty Python

Between courses I breathed “beaucoup” and “trop,” waving my fork in a feeble attempt to ward off food, and feeling like the fat guy from the Monty Python movie, “The Meaning of Life,” who is impelled by the French waiter, played by an evil John Cleese, to eat until he explodes. Which adds new meaning to “amuses bouches” (happy mouths) and “amuses geulles”(happy faces)—small gourmet bonbons to induce evacuation, Roman-orgy-style. The only other people at the “fete” who spoke English were an Anglo-Irish Earl, “T,” renovating an 18th-century chateau down the road (his ancestor was the Viceroy of India), and his wife, who handed me a business card: “Comtesse de ____.” (The Comtesse dabbled in real estate and assured me small chateaux were not “too dear.”)

Though this festive final lunch was supposed to last the traditional two hours, we were there from 12 to 5. And the worst thing was: we had a dinner date with some neighbors in just under an hour!

Where Is The Gers?

Taking a back road into Auch, France (population: 22,000), the remote ersatz capital of the Gers, in a rented Renault time machine, two hired housesitters pinched themselves. Auch! As the 15th-century Cathedral de Sainte Marie and the 14th-century Tour d’Armagnac, both protected by UNESCO World Heritage Site status, rose up into the elegant cobalt sky, our aching eyes climbed the Escalier Monumentale’s 232 steps (count ‘em) to the swashbuckling statue of the region’s most famous cadet: D’Artagnan, the Fourth Musketeer.

With a bright and breezy irreverent tone suitable for a Paid Advertisement, we decided that life doesn’t get much better than this: a three-month housesitting job in the remote French countryside. We were deep in the heart of gastronomical Gascony, the stomping ground of ghostly gourmets, a center of the foie gras trade, and the birthplace of Armagnac.

Gently Rolling Landscape

Known for its bien mangé (good eats), the Gers, France’s least visited and most rural département, with more ducks than people in it, is a leisurely two-hour drive from Bordeaux or Toulouse, and only an hour from the ski lifts of the gleaming snow-capped Pyrenees.

Newly expatriated from Les Etats Unis, we found this gently rolling landscape of ancient farms, vineyards, and fortified towns, dating back to the Hundred Years War (1337-1453)–which was neither really a war, nor did it last a hundred years–the ideal spot for adventurous eaters (gourmands) to explore the art of Gascon cuisine and live like aristocratic budget nobility against a backdrop straight out of a Medieval-era illuminated manuscript.

Boules-playing, beret-wearing Gascons are the first to admit they are “stuck somewhere back in the Dark Ages — but with electricity.”

What’s more, the Gers abuts the edge of the Pyrenees National Park, which boasts, besides birds like vultures, eagles, capercailles, ptarmigans, woodpeckers, and pigeons, also mammals such as marmots, chamoises, and bears. Unfortunately, maybe the fault of terroir chefs, there are only six bears left!

Since everything here involves festive sightseeing, there are not many things to do other than eat in idyllic mise-en-scenes out of your most extreme expatriate fantasies, except take part in the yearly Marciac Jazz Festival.

Here, in what many prefer to call the “Midi Pyrenees,” you can travel on no dollars a day (only euros)—but ten euros goes a long way, even with the hefty markup of French Elf “essence.”

Or, the occasional, blown Michelin “pneu.”

Historical Gascony

The Gascons derive their name from, but are not related to, the nearby Basques (Vascones). A vrai Gascogne (real Gascon), is recognized by the yellow mud sticking to his Wellingtons and will tell you he is Gascogne first. Yet, unlike his Basque neighbors, he is quite happy to be French second.
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Gascons fought on the British side during the previously mentioned Hundred Years War, and the Gers was the battlegound. The “Route des Bastides et des Castelnaux,” ideal for cycling around the over 50,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of grapevines, but fraught with pariah dogs, took us past some of the most dramatic scenery and sights, such as the 12th-century Cistercian monastery Abbaye de Flaran, filled with inebriated monks, and the so-called “Carcassonne du Gers,” Larressingle, also the name of a popular Armagnac.

Remember, a bastide is a purposefully built fortified town with distinctive grid-patterned streets and arcaded central squares; while a castelnau is an unplanned town growing up around a castle or a church, all built by either the French or the English. Fources, the only circular walled town, was, despite its froggy-sounding name, architected by the British.

If you think in terms of historical Gascony, this jagged-jigsaw-puzzle-shaped piece of geography includes both Les Gers and Les Landes, and is sometimes referred to as “Midi Pyrenees,” full of traveling Cirques, Roma caravans blasting “The Gypsy Kings,” and Course Landais stadiums, which hold bullfights without the bull, instead they use horned heifers. Even though they do not kill the cows here, they sometime end up as ingredients in such restaurants as “BASTARD” (really!) in Lectoure.

Mysterious Alchemy

The gist of the Gers is, of course, Armagnac, and this is where the amber after-dinner drink is distilled, bottled, and shipped worldwide. There are three Armagnac appellations: Haute-Armagnac (center: Auch), Bas-Armagnac (center: Eauze), and Tenareze (center: Condom). For obvious reasons, Condom is a popular place to pick up postcards to amuse one’s friends back home.

Predating cognac by over three hundred years, Armagnac was once believed to be a snake-oil-like aphrodisiac and cure-all. A 14th century cardinal, Prior Vital du Four, spake, “[Armagnac] restores the paralyzed member by massage; and heals wounds of the skin by application. . . . And when retained in the mouth, it loosens the tongue and emboldens the wit if someone timid from time to time permits.”
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During various “degustations,” I was taught to cup the glass and swirl it to release the aroma, leaving behind long golden Midas tears streaming down the edges. If you really mean business, pour some into your palms, rub them, and sniff them like the locals do.

“Hey, did you know if your hand is bigger than your face you are retarded?!”

“Hey, did you know if you rub your hands together they smell like pizza?!”

These two tricks do not really work among the cognoscenti in France.

One day a gregarious neighbor initiated me as a vrai Gascogne, giving me a glass of unaged White Armagnac to chug, which brought tears aplenty to my eyes.

“Cin Cin!” the producteur toasted.

“Tintin!” I managed with a pursed moue, leaking scalding tears reminiscent of the cartoon menace “Caillou,” the bald neo-fascist baby.

Or an infant Mr. Clean or Howie Mandell.

Fill Er’ Up

The region’s main magnet, though, is its mean cuisine. When the farmers aren’t protesting for unpasteurized Camembert, they are to be found with forks in their mitts, meandering over multi-course meals that last two hours or more.

Over the border in the département of Les Landes, also part of historical Gascony, one may visit one of the best restaurants in the world at the spa Eugenie Les Bains, where master chef Michel Guérard won three Michelin rosettes and invented “cuisine minceur” (less food for more money).
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But one of the joys of the Gers, we found, was driving or cycling around aimlessly, stopping at historic family-run inns serving more than just glorified peasant grub, like the Vieux Logis in Aignan (the former capital of the Gers), to enjoy four-course Gascon fare with regional VDQS Cote de St. Mont wine (fill ‘er up in plastic jerrycans at local vineyards), all for about twenty euros.

In the Gers, the two standout Michelin-rosetted restaurants are the Hotel de France (Auch), where master chef André Daguin invented “magret de canard,” and the Ripa Alta (Plaisance), where stuttering chef Coscuella served me, of all things, “pig’s feet” surrounded by a largesse of truffles. Plus, “palombe” (a kind of wood pigeon which makes a sorry little carcass).

I discovered the main dangers and annoyances of budget travel abroad are our crazy fellow backpackers and dolebludgers in the resort town of Motezuma, “costa Rica” (Costa Rica). But I became entranced with the art of Saul Bolanos shown throughout my humorous story.

In the back of a flatbed truck several other travelers and I bumped along, discussing the upcoming fiesta at an outdoor disco in a secret (no: discreet ) location. I heard a British-sounding accent coming from a guy with obvious red hair. Usually I was naturally suspicious of people with red hair, but since I had a nice buzz on, I decided to engage him in a light conversation.
“Hey, are you English?” The redhead said, “Yah, I’m from London, mate. I’m hiding out in Costa Rica because I just escaped from a mental asylum.”

Was he pulling my leg? Silence ensued, everyone deciding to keep their mouths zipped shut until we all arrived safely at the party and could move around freely. Finally there, the ginger-haired madman followed me around like Spam sticking to a Pam-sprayed pan.
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“May I buy you a drink?”
“No thanks, I know what it is like to be a poor traveler.”
“I SAID, MAY I BUY YOU A DRINK?!”
“Uh, I guess so, but I’m really not that thirsty.”
“You know when a man offers to buy you a drink you are supposed to accept it. It’s just not on, it’s just not on!”
We went to the bar, and I watched carefully as he ordered me a “cuba libre” (ron y coke), making sure he didn’t Rufi it.
“Thanks!” I exhaled.

Then as “Shakira” came on–(“I’m on tonight, my hips don’t lie. . .”)–I began to shake and shimmy, pretending I could dance, making an extreme break for it, losing myself in the crowd.
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When I tried to catch a gypsy cab (unlicensed drive), there the ginger-haired madman was again, looking really quite aggravated with me really. “Let’s go outside behind the disco, there is something I want to talk to you about.” “Uh later, gotta go,” I said, stuffing myself quickly into the unlicensed drive. We sped off down the dirt road, the Latin American driver grimacing like Chuck Heston in The Omega Man.

Now let me fast-forward a little:
The general consensus was: everyone seemed to have some gripe about the ginger-haired madman, a sizable crowd even accusing him of lifting their wallets or nicking their souvies. My only problem with this British devil was that I had an extreme fear of clowns sporting red hair, such as Caesar Romero as “The Joker,” Bozo, Rip Torn, Brian Adams, William Macy, and Carrot Top. In a way, I almost felt sorry for the poor blighter when he was kicked out of the hostel I was staying in, a Grimm nightmare of sweltering shack rooms and cots with stained mattresses, plus a padlock to help protect our gear from poachers.

Feeling relieved that the ginger-haired madman was at last gone for good, I hiked along the beach, carefully avoiding soiling my Rockports on huge piles of horse poo. Then I took the trial of the trail which led to an even better beach, absolutely empty. I plopped down in the sand and squinted at the hyperreal horizon through my trademark Olivers Peoples sunnies, then looked down the beach. Approaching quickly like a swelling pimple, the ginger-haired madman, muttering like a member of a lunatic fringe whose hair was on fire, seemingly, began barreling toward me at an impressive mph. Licketysplit, I got up and jogged over to the nearby waterfall, and hid among the rocks close to some topless babes, who both stuck out their tongues at me.

On their portable Grundig shortwave radio, “Ottmar Leibert,” the Austrian Flamenco guitarist came on. I would be safe here—for a while at least. I didn’t have red hair or anything crazy like that, man! and neither did I have ugly freckles nor acne scars. But I felt like a leprous Lazarus from “Star Trek” (original series) being chased down by his doppelganger, both negating each other into the astrophysical oblivion of an alternate universe. Which of course was all that Costa Rica was: a Paid Advertisement, a postcard-perfect paradox, a PC playground sandbox, and an eco tourismo trap in which to lay low. Also, here was the ideal idyll to set up an “Import-Export” business, an international euphemism for “chronic unemployment.” I felt like an icky “spider” (spy) spinning out Marquezian and Allendean Magic Realism dreams of American-style Montezuma’s Revenge!
In reverse.
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“Aha, Edwards!” The ginger-haired madman had spotted me. His matted Medusa-like red hair coiled in the sun like official fire hoses. I suddenly realized he might indeed be the Devil Himself. Or, at least, one of his minions. Maybe a Dane? Energetically, I took up jogging as an extreme spectator sport, aiming myself like “The Pathfinder” toward a sanctuary farther on in the rainforest, filled with familiar-seeming howler monkeys peeing on me, once again continuing my eternal scour for the world’s most perfect beach. . . .

John M. Edwards invades Islas Mujeres in search of copper-skinned beachcombers who shake like Shakira. A male intruder on the Island of Women, just off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula at Playa del Carmen, he tries to pick up a dream dolphin instead!
Out the plane window, listening to the throb and hum of the supersonic jet-fuel-propulsioned twin engines, I descried a long strip of white sand dotted like a Monopoly board with boxy luxury resort hotels. Upon landing with a skid, a bump, and a halt, the step ladder was attached, and then we exited the plane while a dude resembling Bruce Chatwin, blond hair tucked under a fancy Panama Hat, said “Sorry” and gave me the thumbs-up.

“Cancun! Cancun! Cancun!” the unsavory taxi drivers unisoned until a portly pair of a man named Esteban, wearing a white undershirt singlet and sweating profusely beneath the Mayan-inflected sunshine, manhandled my Luggage (also the nickname of my galpal) like Cantinflas from Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.

Arriving at the jetty near world-famous Playa del Carmen, we stepped into a pleasure craft and zoomed across the light waves. No Cozumel for us. Instead we landed at Mexico’s discreet “Islas Mujeres” (Island of Women), which sure did live up to its name.
Dumped outside a sleeping estab resembling a stuccoed Grateful Dead hotel, I noticed that the statuesque desk sergeant, tanned even in winter, was just a little bit of a knockout herself.
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We then slipped into our swimming cozzies and loaded our beach gear into our Jansport daypacks and meandered over to the beach almost at our doorstep—one of the nicest sandtraps in the Caribbean, with blue-green waters as clear as a sloe-gin fizz.

Here all the sunbathers were topless (including the lifeguardy beefcakes). Also, I swear I saw good travel writers Rolf Potts and Tony Horowitz (who resemble each other) lasciviously layering expensively imported Hawaiian Tropic ™ suncream on the backs of their harmless slags.
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I mentioned to a Hungarian backpacker, who resembled my high-school German friend Klaus Zieler, a mean soccer-ball kicker, that I vaguely knew Sarah Driver, who was the main squeeze of Magyar-American film director Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger Than Paradise”). He showed me an ancient dice game to improve my mathematical skills. Much later, expatriated in the Zocalo and under the shadow of a cathedral clock and clippety-cloppity burros loaded down with Mexican Indian blankets and tourist knickknacks, we tried authentic fried empanadas, which here are more like fluffy omellettes than flattened tortillas. Also herewith we met a strangely odd Canadian couple, one of whom resembled a Playboy model with plastic surgery; the other, a shrimpy “Tim” with a vaguely doofy smile like that of unfinished-novellette-writer David Van Vactor or world-famous novelist Ian McKewan.

Also much later in the day we peeled ourselves off of our sarongs and ambled over to the beach-front café, where we ordered egregiously bad Instant Nescafé ™, which along with Pringles, Bosco, and Instant Reincarnation Breakfast, is available in any Mexican bodega (family groc).
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No Mayan ruins here, except for an unimpressive few resembling worn-out dinosaur dentures, but this was surely a stronghold of Native American magic and supernatural delights. One night, for example, I was talking to the friendly Canuck, an expat “Import-Export” artist who showed me a neat alienesque trick. Maybe it was the Tequila talking or even the Mezcal refusing to wear off, but I imagined a delusion that the Canadian’s arm jumped out of its socket in an explosion of Silly String ™. Was this AmerIndian Mojo at work?

Idling again like sitting somnambulists at the beachside café, “Luggage” almost threw up when she drank a tepid glass full of Nescafé ™ swimming with coffee grinds. She jumped up to complain to the manager and get all of our money back. I got up to prevent her from causing an international incident, involving taking me into a back room for a life-threatening drubbing, all because boyfriends usually bear the brunt of disputes over la quenta.

Anyway, according to Skindiver (a mag I’ve never seen), the beach here was top ten. And I could see why, with all the beautiful copper-colored buttocks moving with desire under the spiked Mexican sun. Little Sally Rides ready to drop out of the Nasa Space Program and put out.
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Out the plane window, listening to the throb and hum of the supersonic jet-fuel-propulsioned twin engines, I said “Hasta Luega” to the strip of white blow-like sand cut by an Amex Centurion Card ™.

With my too-tan flaky portrait pokerfaced into a birdy grimace in the reflecting opaque window, I felt a little like a downward-dog impostor and grinning sun god–one mugging for the invisible cameras hidden in the reading lights, with a copy of Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan (1843), by John Lloyd Stephans, cracked open on my lapster. . . .

Of course, the highlight of my trip was the clandestine daytrip to see the molten “Little Astronaut,” discreetly hidden in one of the Mayan ziggurats and curled into foetal position in fear of crashlanding.

Unfortunately, Venice is quite literally sinking into the sea.

A 1966 project utilizing a series of moveable dams is just not quite enough to protect the city from floods, nor are its rotting pylons. When I arrived in the Piazza San Marco, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The famous square had been completely taken over by dirty evil pigeons. Walking through a moving gray carpet of cooing, I found a pigeon perching on my foot—before I booted it into the wild blue yonder like a black-and-white soccer ball.

According to humorist Mark Twain, the Basilica of San Marco (with details ranging from 13th-century Byzantine to 16th-century Rennaissance) was like “a vast and warty bug taking a meditative walk.” Venice is indeed a dream, an illusion, a marvel.
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I dug the Doge’s Palace, with its 15th-century carving of a seasick Noah, as well as its wall-size interior of Tintoretto’s “Coronation of the Virgin.” In Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” the genius Italian fabulist describes how Marco Polo entertains Kublai Khan with tales of impossible cities he has seen throughout his travels through the Mongolian Empire—hidden cities, trading cities, cities in the sky, cities of the dead—which are attempts to mimic one place: Venice.

“If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time,” Polo says, “now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.” I too stand upon unstable grounds. Now everyone loves the Grand Canal, even Mary McCarthy, who says (no: gushes) in “Venice Observed,” “Venice is the world’s unconscious: a miser’s glittering hoard, guarded by a beast whose eyes are made of white agate and by a saint who is really a prince who has just slain a dragon.”

Verily, this capital of the vast Venetian Empire was built by greed and commerce, as well as a mean-eyed commercial milieux who lived solely for gain, the ultimate caricature being The Merchant of Venice, the not-very-well-liked “Shylock” who demanded a pound of flesh to repay his rapacious usury. Much like Bela Lugosi skinning Boris Karloff alive in the film classic parable The Black Cat.
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The Crusades were solely a business venture for the Venetians, including such masters as Tintoretto and Tiepolo who plucked painting from plunder. The defiant columns of St. Mark and St. Theodore are like two solitary middle fingers warning against all attackers, including paranormal paparazzo like me.
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D.H. Lawrence however did not like it, calling it “An abhorrent, green, slippery city,” while Thomas Mann used it as a setting for his horrifying fable “Death in Venice.” Exploring the canals via gondola, with striped-shirted grinning gondoliers romancing anything that moved, I fancied, wait a triple-sec, I really want a Sambuca!

Built on 118 pieces of islet-like land crisscrossed by narrow streets and bridges, and linked of course by canals graced not only by gondolas but by vaporetti, Venice is a Paid Advertisement for young lovers locking tongues on floating coffins in a tomb-like museum of the mind.
With commedia della arte in check, I stared at the Ca’ d’ Oro (House of Gold), the Santa Maria della Salute, and the glittering glint of ghostly towers and crowns wavering off the phlegmatic flowing waters, beckoning lovesick sightseers and suicides.
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A traveler to an architectural oddity in Tay Ninh, Vietnam, tunes in to the otherworldy call of a wacky bizarro cult
“What on my first two visits has seemed gay and bizarre (was) now like a game that had gone on too long.”
–Graham Greene, on Vietnam’s Caodai cult.
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It really didn’t make sense. There in front of me, outside the smudged bus window, was “The Great Divine Temple” at Tay Ninh, Vietnam—a whacked-out EPCOTy architectural hallucination resembling Gaudi on opium—and I didn’t really want to go inside. The idea of occult cults creeped me out. Er, would they try to abduct and brainwash me?

I had come all the way to Vietnam to investigate a weird supernatural religion called Caodaism, an attempt to fuse the ideal faith, “a universal religion,” from a potboiled spiritual pho centered on Spritism (which swept the Americas in the 19th century with its occult séances, tarot cards and crystal balls) and just about every other religion on the planet. You name it. But what really attracted me was that their adherents whimsically and wisely worshipped Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables and The
Hunchback of Notre Dame, as a saint!

Also venerated are Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911; Trang Trinh, a Vietnamese poet and prophet; Shakespeare; Joan of Arc; Descartes; Lenin; and Pasteur. How cool is that? Talk about a “cult of personalities.”
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Way wacko! But the cult sounded at least playful and rococo enough to intrigue me into traveling to a former enemy nation that I was not too keen on visiting. I still imaginatively associated Vietnam with The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now (also, alas, Hamburger Hill, one of the messiest war films ever made). I don’t think any of these films would go over well with the communist authorities; but a British traveler on my bus, bursting with laughter, swore he saw Rambo, dubbed into Vietnamese, on a long-haul bus between Dalat and Saigon.

Okay, the Caodais. So this is what I’ve got so far. Here’s the skinny. A bunch of crazy dong tu (mediums) contact the spirit world, querying, say, Charlie Chaplin in his “talkie phase,” via séances—utilizing the usual abracadabra bric-a-brac of Ouija boards (the popular game), table tapping (a table jiggled which taps out letters), and corbeilles a bec (long radiating sticks attached to pens). This is the Caodai Calling. Collect. They also use “pneumotographie,” where a blank card is sealed in an envelope and hung above an altar. When opened, the paper purportedly has a message on it: “Having a great time. Wish you were here. . . .” Postcards from the edge of the grave.

Tay Ninh, less than 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is an unlikely locus for the headquarters of a major religion, the third largest in Vietnam after Buddhism and Catholicism. Bordered by Cambodia on three sides, Tibet-like Tay Ninh is an almost island of upheaval in a commie country giving babysteps capitalism a go. Our bus passed a scowling teen wearing a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt peddling Pepsis on a roadside stand, as well as a “picturesque” old coot doffing one of the ubiquitous conical hats and plowing rice paddies with his water buffaloes. More serious, along this road was the site of the famous wartime photo of a young running girl scorched by napalm.

Caodai, which means “high palace,” refers to the supreme palace where the Supreme Being dwells (Heaven) and God Himself. But the “palace” rising before us seemed a daring departure from reality. As we got off the autobus and whistled at the Great Divine Temple, the scene became real “Indochine,” with a sea of lithe bicyclists draped in white ao dais on their way to attend one of four daily religious ceremonies. We had come to join them.

Featured in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” the temple, built between 1933 to 1955, is a favorite stopping point for Saigon’s Sinh Café bus tours. Mostly yellow on the outside, with red roofs, the temple is built on nine levels representing a Stairway to Heaven. It is 140 meters long and 40 meters high, with four towers. According to my Lonely Planet guide, it is a mix of “a French cathedral, a Chinese pagoda, the Tiger Balm Gardens, and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.”

But I think Graham Greene described it best : “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.” But still: “This is it?” a Vietnam vet named Bill from Brooklyn groused.

“Yeah, I thought it would be more, I don’t know,” a Canadian girl with long black hair and a scent of patchouli dittoed.
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“It is very yellow,” I stuck up weakly.

It wasn’t until we shucked off our shoes and stepped inside that the architecture revealed itself in its full glory. Immediately, I noticed a cool mural of Saint Victor Hugo and other luminaries writing out the psychic slogans “God and Humanity” and “Love and Justice.” Shuffling along a colonnaded hall and sanctuary, I felt like I was literally entering a delusion, since I was slightly buzzing from my antimalarial Larium. All of a sudden, my eyes were alit by an image like deranged kamikazee mosquitoes upon some windows with arabesques of intertwined flowers and vines bordering uncanny eyes in triangles. By the altar—dressed up with offerings of flowers, fruit, wine, tea, candles, and incense (plus a lamp symbolizing Eternal Light)—was a snaking spiral staircase which seemed to be hissing “Don’t tread on me!”

Most evocative, up above on the domed ceiling was painted a night sky, divided into nine parts, filled with Van Goghy stars and clouds. Beneath the dome was a blue globe, representing the Earth, with the supreme symbol of the Caodais painted on it: the “Divine Eye,” which bears a suspicious resemblance to the eye in a pyramid featured on the back of U.S. dollar bills. I stared at the Eye and waited for one of us to blink.

“You are welcome, Mr. America,” jokes one of the white-robed priests with a Shangri-la smile. He had the easy manner and confident smile of one used to dealing with tourists. The elaborately garbed priest, whom I dub “Les Miz,” is old enough to have witnessed the horrors of the Vietnam War, but didn’t seem the type to hold a grudge. Probably for good reasons.

The Caodais were never exactly neutral. In fact, despite their prohibition against harming people or animals, they had their own renegade armies, beginning in 1943 as a response to Japanese invaders. In the Franco-Viet Minh War, the Caodai Army, made up of some 25,000 troops, supported the French, and specialized in making mortar tubes out of auto exhaust pipes. During the Vietnam war they were staunch SVA, fighting on the side of the Americans. In 1975, when NVA troops overran the U.S.-backed South Vietnam, Caodaism was violently repressed and banned by the Viet Cong, who confiscated the church’s lands. There were the usual stageshow executions. But behind the scenes Caodaism continued, with its prayer meetings and séance rituals, surviving even a series of brutal cross-border raids by the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

I pulled out a dollar bill and showed Les Miz our own version of The Eye, possibly a Masonic symbol, itself maybe derived from eyes on Buddhist stupas. The Mizter examined the bill with great interest and nodded approvingly. His asterix eyes focused on the hidden footnotes inherent in the symbol itself. After an eternity, his concentrated prune pout relaxed into the palimpsest of a smile. “It was nice meeting you. Now I must go.” He wanders off, still smiling but looking a little shaken.
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Founded in 1926 by the French-educated Vietnamese mystic Ngo Minh Chieu, the Caodais claim the “All-Seeing Eye” was first seen on the island of Phu Quoc in 1919. God, or Caodai, appeared and said, “The eye is the principal of the heart from which comes a source of light. Light is the spirit. The spirit itself is God.” Then on Christmas Eve, 1925, Caodai reintroduced himself rather grandiloquently (and cryptically) as “Jade Emporer, alias Caodai, Immortal, His Honor to the eldest Boddhisattva, the Venerable Saint, Religious Master of the Southern Quarter.” The starry-eyed Le Van Trung (the first Caodai pope) and his posse presented their “declaration” to the French governor of Cochinchina in 1926, and Caodaism was officially born. By the 1950s, one in eight South Vietnamese were Caodais, carving a sort of feudal state in Tay Ninh Province and the Mekong Delta, filled with thanh that (holy houses). Today there are over 8 million Caodais in Vietnam (roughly the population of Sweden), plus some 30,000 members scattered across the world like chess pieces, usually in places inhabited by Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese).

Positioning ourselves on the balcony to view the ceremony, we watched the red, yellow, and white robed faithful wearing conical floppy hats pile in. Men came in from the right, women from the left, making their way in a mincing Mozart-like minuet to kneel before the altar. In the back a group of musicians played atonal tunes and chanted hypnotically. It sounded a little like a group of approvingly purring Siamese cats cuddling, then rutting. What what? I almost fell asleep. Oddly, the faithful are not permitted to be photographed, except during ceremonies. After the ceremony we walked to the autobus under a sky with a ghastly pewter pall and a vague threat of rain.

“So what do you think?” I asked Bill from Brooklyn. “I think it’s a crock,” he responded. But I wasn’t so sure. As the bus departed, I stared out through the streaming strands of rain at all the Vietnamese faithful getting on their bicycles. Then, too good to be true, I saw a Vietnamese guy with thick Elvis sideburns and a bomber jacket kickstarting his moped and showing off popping wheelies.

Way out here in otherworldly Tay Ninh, we were a long way away from Graceland (certainly as showy as the Caodai Temple), but with all these cuckoo cultists capering around like Psychic Friends Network stars, maybe it is not quite as far as we might think. Stuck in the psychic grooves of my gray matter were the words of the Bard, William Shakespeare, “There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” Apropros of nothing at all, I resolved to never ever return to Vietnam.

After a fiesta somewhere in Spain’s northern Rioja region, where the locals welcomed us with shotglass shouts of twenty-five-cent vino rosso, while Mecano’s “Hijo de la Luna” played sweetly in the background, followed by the raucous Gypsy Kings, we only made it on the very next day about five miles and enjoyed an emergency maneuver into a parador (a historic motel), where I sat under a warm shower for a couple of hours.

With my excited paramour at the wheel of our leased “Europe By Car,” I plotted a course on our Rand-McNally European road atlas for the remote region of Extremadura, the so-called Cradle of the Conquistadors. Halfway there, we pulled over at an ancient abandoned village which looked as if it had been rocked and rolled by an earthquake–or savaged by aggro Visigoths. At least the damned demesne might have been sacked and rubbled during the Spanish Civil War, in which the meddlesome newspaperman Ernest Hemingway carefully drove an ambulance as inspiration for For Whom the Bell Tolls. An unearthly feeling stole over us, as if we were being watched by fractured schizoid ghosts from suppressed and lockboxed surrealistic paintings by Picasso or Braque.
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Guernica? Not applicable here: I’m afraid that I’m afraid.
 

Back in the “Europe By Car,” we jumped and sped off down the lonely desert highway into a chance collision if not with destiny then at least with deliverance—yes, from evil, what do you expect in this rambling prologue of an obvious morality tale writ large by the maestro, with of course a golden Montblanc byro.

 

Good luck getting my journals published!
 
Extremadura, located in Spain right on the Portugal border, is one of the harshest desert regions in all of the Iberian peninsula–and an unlikely spot to find anything else but prickly cactus and icky scorpions. Oh, and also lost cities. At great expense, with loads of Spanish doubloons changing hands back and forth, miraculous cities were impossibly imported here stone by stone to build two of the most amazing conurbations upon the planet: Trujillo and Caceres.
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Many of Espana’s most famous explorers hail from here. Hernan Cortes de Monroy y Pizzarro conquered Mexican Aztecs; Francisco Pizzaro y Gonzalez conquered the Incan Empire; Hernando de Soto searched the Mighty Mississip for the Fountain of Youth, and Vasco Nunez de Balboa happened upon the Mare del Sur (Pacific Ocean).

The native-born heros of this austere desert region honed the necessary mercenary skills for nothing else short of complete and total domination of subjugated races in The New World. So what if the Indians (a.k.a., “Natives”) evidenced an advanced sun-worshipping civilization which included ziggurats and sundials, fields of maize and tobacco, and troglodytic cave dwellings and altar-bound human sacrifices. According to the Scots, the savvy Indians even invented the game of golf, albeit with a shrunken human head. Maybe also Polo.
But more important, they had GOLD! More pre-Columbian gold even than could be safely stowed away in our wildest dreams of the lost city of El Dorado, an Oz-like oasis mirage that had evaded the grasp of every Age of Exploration Conquistador until I at last discovered it in an undisclosed real-secret-like location.

Standing among the strewn storks of Trujillo in the Plaza Mayor with a bold equestrian statue of Francisco Pizzarro and in the impressive shadow of the Palacio de la Conquistadors, I flashed a thumb’s up at my paramour’s paparazzo-like digital camera snapping, feeling a little like Zorro.
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A burly bearded gent, resembling “The Most Interesting Man in the World” from the Dos Equis adverts, offered to take a picture of us both. He then pretended to run off with the camera. We gave him a few euros and laughed off the affront, but secretly we burned with revenge, Montezuma-style.

Here also we bumped into a pretty senorita, who resembled my upstairs neighbor from my expat Paris days, and wait a segundo? Could it be?! Mecano?! She led us into a coffin-like bar in the cobblestoned barrio, where we were surrounded by grinning students from the local universidad.

What else can be said about Trujillo? Moorish castles, bold palaces, and swell cobbles like the overbites of T Royls or dinosaurs straight out of Ray Harryhausen’s The Valley of the Gwangi.

But of course, as “The Pathfinder,” I took full responsibility for rediscovering the simply marveloso architectural pileup of Caceres, founded in 1477, and still relatively unvisited compared to some places in Iberico. In actuality, this city is much older than that, dating back to over 30,000 B.C. during the Bronze Age, before Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Saracens (Arabs) and Romans (Anglo-Celts) moved in.

But the pleasures of this desert depot derive more from the friendliness of the inhabitants than architecture and art and food and drink: very Catholic with Catholic tastes. If I hadn’t been saddled down with the baggage of my persistent buzzbuzz fly of a paramour, I would have had a field day.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to check out this fair city under a sky of alabaster, as my antsy fly seemed downright desperate with diahrreatic urgency to flee these smiling desperados, squinting like gunslingers from an on-location shoot of a Spaghetti Western:
“Kitcheekitcheekoo, wah, wah, wah!”
And so, after a quick Henry James look-see, we hopped back into the dust-covered “Europe By Car” and sped south toward a much-need beach vacation, which included, believe it or not, even though I am only an ex-soccer hooligan, getting involved in the historic event now known as “STOMP”!
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John M. Edwards finds post-communist Sopron now to be less about Habsburgian opulence and more about ubiquitous “discount dentistry.” Get a load of the new set of gleaming white chompers! During a week-long road trip from Budapest to Salzburg, I somehow convinced my driver and friend Erik D’Amato, an American expat, financial writer, and editor of the popular Magyar web site Pestiside (www.pestiside.hu), to make a stopover in one of my favorite foreign finds: Sopron.

“Wow, I’m impressed!” Erik bruited, as we blundered down the historic Inner Town’s worn cobblestone streets, resembling uneven rows of bad overbites. These architectural oddities (usually a sign of an historic district or gentrifying pretender), flanked with brightly painted Baroque and Gothic buildings and Neo-Classical statuary, led us to the awesome square known as Fo Ter.
Here, close to the 13th-century “Goat Church” and Trinity Plague Column, was the city’s most memorable structure: the Firewatch Tower, whose 200 steps lead up to a 60-meter-high observation deck where once swarms of Medieval trumpeters brayed warnings of incestuous blazes. “I had no idea anything like this was here.” Erik even made a quick call on his cellphone to his wife Janet, who works for Hungarian billionaire philanthropist George Soros, to rave about it.
I couldn’t believe Erik had never heard of it. Revisiting Sopron (German: Odenburg), caused memories of my first visit to resurface. This real “Austro-Hungarian Empire” border city still looked the same, albeit now with new bars and flash cafes and ATM machines plugged into the new Eurozone economy. But outward appearances are often illusory: I was interested in the imperceptible “changes” creeping up in a city famed for its fine food and drink: not only ghoulash and paprikash (Hungary’s dual national dishes), but the wonder wine “Soprani Kekfrancos,” a strong vampiric elixir far superior to the better-known plonk Egri Bikavier (Bull’s Blood), available nationwide. Even the “Transylvanian” prince Vlad Tepes, the historical Count Dracula (claimed by both Hungary and Romania) and known for dining among impaled Turks on sharpened sticks who tried to invade his country, would trade in his fangs for dentures for a vintage bottle of the stuff.
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Although Sopron was a long way to go to get my teeth fixed, I decided maybe it was worth it. Business was booming for, of all things, “discount dentistry”– and there was a steady stream of wincing Austrians with toothaches crisscrossing the border to undergo the ubiquitous dentists’ drills. English signs everywhere advertised cheap checkups: “Cleaning, Fillings, Crowns, and Bridges!” New EU and NATO membership, I guess, had its privileges. Anyway, I felt frigging fantastic walking around with a new set of gleaming white chompers!

Here history is worth repeating. I first found myself in Sopron, by happy accident, in 1989, during the so-called Cold War—unaware that my opportune visit would nearly coincide (short by a month) the democratic demonstrations that would pull and extract Communism for good out of Central Europe. Sopron, which nearly left its Hungarian homeland to annex itself to Austria before World War II, was always an unusual anomaly and special case, its high standard of living the envy of every commie factotum trapped in the industrial wastelands of the periphery. As a freewheeling capitalist tourist, I found Sopronis back then to be helpful and friendly. Even the local “secret police” introduced themselves and wished me a pleasant trip! A rare Western tourist traveling independently, I privileged myself by walking around alone along the deserted streets at night, lit up like a movie set. Apparently, on most nights, I had the place to myself!

One of my favorite experiences during communist times was finding an al fresco eatery (that’s Italian for “outdoors”) in a stately square presided over by a stern statue. The Sevruga caviar (imported from the Soviet Union) was so cheap with the artificial exchange rate that I literally pigged out, letting the eggs dissolve on my tongue like Pop Rocks ™. “You are American?” an excited Soproni with fabulous Prussian moustaches asked me one day in disbelief. “Is it true in America that you can buy anything you like?” Yep. Now that this once secret-sharer borderline dream has been discovered (some now call it Hungary’s new little “Prague,” even though the architectural legacy is different). I felt a little bit miffed about who had replaced the Soviets as the occupying force: fragrant hippies clutching Lonely Planet guides and acting up in the revivified bar and café scene. The popular “Generalis Corvinus Café” on Fo Ter looked as if a Phish concert had exploded there. I couldn’t help but think that something “Grand Siecle” had been lost or mistranslated during democratization and commercialization. Why, for example, was I staying at a “Best Western” (albeit one with a luxury pool and spa)?
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While Erik retired early to prep himself for the drudgery of the next day’s drive, I went out on the town and ended up getting egregiously lost. At a British-style pub with no name, but serving Czech and Polish pivo (pilsener) and German Heffewiezen (wheat beer), I asked the muscle-bound bartender, in the language of the Holy Roman Emporers, for “Das Best Western Hotel, bitte.”
(The “secret” Finno-Ugric language of Hungarian, related only to Finnish, Estonian, and possibly Turkish, and not much else, is almost impossible for non-natives to master). Pointing vaguely towards the street, the bartender directed, with rapid-fire Teutonic efficiency and in a booming Terminator Two voice: “Linx, rechts, linx, rechts, linx, rechts, linx, linx, rechts. . . .”

I went out to get a cup of java in Java and ended up on an infernal coffee odyssey through the Indonesian archipelago.
Stretching out like a Komodo Dragon some 6,400 kilometers across the Ring of Fire, from the coffee plantations and wild orangutans of Sumatra to the primary rainforests and decorative penis gourds of Irian Jaya, Indonesia is the ideal launching pad to crash land into some of the most dramatic sights in Southeast Asia. They include the ancient ruins of Buddhist Borobudur and Hindu Prambanan in Islamic Java, the multicolored volcanic lakes of Keli Mutu in Christian Flores, and the famed three-meter-long monitor lizards of Komodo that swallow entire goats whole: the prototypes, perhaps, of the Chinese dragons of legend.
Indonesia encompasses over 13,000 islands with 336 ethnic groups and a borderless rainbow babel of different languages, cultures, and traditions. In addition to coffee-colored Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists, this most densely populated café on earth (180 million) holds more Muslims than all the Middle East. Linking the islands is the lingua franca of Bahasa and an underlying songline of history: ancient animist religions are uniting threads that cross oceans, adding new meaning to the word “multicultural.” Here some Muslims drink beer and arak in addition to java; some worship Buddha, Vishnu, Krishna, and Jesus in addition to Allah; while others leave offerings to good and evil pagan spirits (tourists included). In fact, clutched in the talons of the mythical Garuda, the national airline and state crest, is the motto “Unity in Diversity.”

I departed from the Calcutta-like chaos of the capital Jakarta, a fascinating hellhole of over 9 million people, to explore the potent brews and heady smokes of Java, the volcano capital of the world. In the old Dutch section of Batavia (Kota), amidst modern skyscrapers stuck like clean syringes into a diseased dreamscape of old colonial monuments and nightmarish overcrowded kampungs, I entered the 19th-century Café Batavia on Fatahillah Square, the most atmospheric coffeehouse in Java, to keep from going troppo in the equatorial heat.

Unlike Amsterdam’s coffeehouses, which hardly ever sell coffee, the recently renovated Café Batavia offers no exotic hashish menus, nor even spicy Indonesian food, though it features colonial elegance and raffish 1930s atmosphere. Here you can quaff down the three main varieties of Indonesian coffee, in order of strength: Sumatra coffee, Bali coffee, and Java coffee—an indication of island style not bean origin. Indo coffee, like Turkish coffee, is mixed straight into the water. All wait for the psychic sludge to settle to avoid sporting roguish pencil-thin Errol Flynn mustaches of coffee grinds.
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How “java” became synonymous with coffee is frothed with mystery, though not a difficult one to filter out. During almost 350 years of Dutch rule, Indonesia was the world’s largest coffee producer and the proverbial bottomless cup for the Dutch East Indies Company. Without Indonesia, the Netherlands would have gone Dutch and remained a small European country below sea level, noted only for its tulips. The term “java” was probably a slang corruption brought back by English pirates, like that of brandy for brandewijn (burnt wine).

Getting from the urban epicenter to the outer limits by public transport, be it by overcrowded bus, bemo, or becak, is not so much a magical mystery tour as a year of living dangerously. But at least there is one place left in the world where you can light up, anywhere! Eventually I got to Banjar, said goodbye to the family that had been assigned seats on my lap, downed a cuppa at the station, and discovered that maybe eight hours later there just might be an onward connection. Stuck in a remote backwater like this, a Western orang bulan (moon person) always excites a crowd of staring locals. Where once upon a time children would have fled from a bearded Belanda (Hollander), screaming “Papa Beard!”—a mythical bogey man with five o’clock shadow that Indonesian parents use to frighten their kids—now they are more likely to shout out, “Hello Mister! Hello Mister!” regardless of one’s gender.
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In Pangandaran, a sleepy south Javanese coastal fishing village, the entrance is guarded not by Cerberus but by a becak mafia charging a whopping wad of rupiahs to pedal you down the asphalt Lethe leading to the peninsular Pangandaran Nature Reserve. Here the Lonely Planet Café has a superb beachfront location, where friendly Muslim fishermen and their families pull in their nets, while in the distance the Call to Prayer wafts from yellow-domed mosques that shine like fried eggs in the sun. At dusk you can see the moon rising and the sun setting at the same time through a smoky cloud of fruit bats. The Lonely Planet serves standard java and Indo grub like nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noddles), ayam sate (chicken sate), and gado gado (salad with peanut sauce). Locals come here, though, to down fresh seafood. It’s also a good place to practice your Bahasa (originally a Malay trading language), one of the easiest tongues in the world to tame—no past or future tenses, only the laid-back present. The plural is expressed by repetition, i.e., “kopi kopi” equals two or more cups. Saya mau satu kopi? (I me one coffee?)
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Pangandaran is also just far enough away from Indonesia’s most notorious offshore volcano to almost feel safe. The last time Krakatau blew its top was in 1883, with the force of several hydrogen bombs, stirring up tidal waves that killed more than 35,000, and hurling debris into the sky which caused vivid sunsets seen around the world.
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In Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java, I brought my addiction past the Sultan’s kraton, the colorful bird market, and the manic Malioboro street vendors hawking batik shirts and sarongs, wooden and leather Wayang Kulik puppets, and demonic-looking White Monkey masks, until I finally unearthed the Café Sosro. Pulling back a curtain of Gudang Garam clove cigarette smoke, I looked around at the eclectic assortment of heavy wooden tables and chairs and the hip East-West clientele daytripping to the haunting, hypnotic strains of gamelon music. That’s good java. I even had a second cup, and looking up I noticed I was late.
Yogya (pronounced “jogja”) is close to one of the largest concentrations of Hindu/Buddhist monuments in the world, including the ancient ruins of Dieng Plateau, Prambanan, and Borobudur, which rank up there with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Burma’s Pagan. On full-moon nights at Prambanan’s open-air theater, you can see the Ramayana Ballet. In the amphitheater under the stars with the floodlit Shiva temple as backdrop, the moonlit stage is filled with over 200 hundred elaborately masked and costumed dancers acting out Hindu legends. They create a spectacle of clashing monkey armies, stilted giants, crouching midgets, and lithe acrobats sinuously swaying like snakes, defying geometry by contorting their limbs and bending back their fingers in impossible angles—all to the rhythm of the royal Javanese-style gamelon orchestra of gong players, drum thwackers, and whining nasal divas. This could be the highlight of any trip to Indonesia. Saya jalan jalan ku bulan (I walk walk to the moon).
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On the way to Bali I made one last Java stop at Gunung Bromo, Indonesia’s most spectacular active volcano, within hopping distance of the Java Sea. Intrepid travelers, their heads humming with caffeine, trek three kilometers across the moonlit moonscape, following a firefly trail of flashlights to the volcano. At the summit the crowd witnesses the spectacle of the fat yellow sun peeking over the rim of an alien planet, before its puckered crater lips take a prurient sip of Bromo-seltzer brew. Mountain Bromo High.
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Goodbye Java. Bali Hai. Many Indonesians take their vacations in Bali just to ogle all the sun-worshipping tourists. Still Bali doesn’t evoke the Isle of the Gods so much as the Isle of of Australian Surfies at Kuta Beach, the Mad Max Spring Break City from Hell. Get your T-shirts here at Kuta’s Hard Rock Café! Leaving this Ozzie Outback of hawkers and tourists, hookers and addicts, all partying at the all-night discos, pick-up joints, and thunder domes, I finally ventured into the lush interior of paradise lost with its terraced rice paddies, palm trees, and smoking volcanoes. Like the Balinese, I wanted to look towards the mountains and away from the sea, which is believed, for obvious reasons, to be the source of evil spirits—most of them on package tours. At first, though, it was quite unnerving to be traveling towards these magic mountains on a luxury bus crammed with German-speaking tourists, passing temples and walls emblazoned with swastikas, until I remembered that these ancient mystic Hindu symbols were stolen by the Nazis, perverted for their own deadly uses.

Arriving in low-key Lovina, famous for its two-dollar full-body massages on black sand beaches, I settled down at the Café Malibu for espressos and brownies and waited to see if there would be any odd effects while listening to a homegrown band blasting Nirvana covers. The days of magic mushroom omelettes and psychedelic sunsets are over in Bali, now that it’s Indonesia’s number-one tourist attraction. The brownie was just a brownie. I decided to instead follow the Lombok Lizard Man—a grinning two-headed totem pole that bears an uncanny resemblance to a schizo Bart Simpson doll.
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On the slowboat to Lombok, leaving from the idyllic white sand harbor of Padangbai, Bali, I met a victim of the government’s enforced transmigrasi program, wherein overcrowded Java is relieved by pressuring citizens to flee to farflung outer islands. This unwilling expatriate of the world’s largest mass migration wanted to practice his English: “I Muslim,” he said, pointing to his fez-like black felt kopieh, “but Lombok has many Hindu, Catholic, too, and also Wektu Telu.” What what? I thought.
“Wektu Telu. They say they Muslim, but they infidel. Dangerous you go their villages with no guide. I make good guide, very cheaps. They eat all that comes from Allah. They eat porks. They eat EVERYTHING.”

This made me reluctant to drop in on a remote village tea party as an uninvited dinner guest. Instead I shipwrecked myself on Lombok’s Gilli Islands with an arak hangover and the sky displayed like a kaleidoscope of cheap batik sarongs for sale on the beach. The three coral-fringed paradises of Gilli Air, Gilli Meno, and Gilli Trawangan offered Lord Jim wannabees much more than great snorkeling, white sandy beaches, and picturesque rides in horse-drawn dokars. A long-time budget backpackers hangout, this was supposedly the place to do shrooms. Without any hallucinogenic prompts, though, anybody can see, like, these strange blue lights (phosphorescent plankton) that mimic overhead stars washing ashore under moonshadow anyway. Nothing to do here but sing along with local long-haired guitar-strumming Gilligans gazing into the eyes of solo women travelers, singing old Cat Stevens songs. Occasionally the rumble of Lombok’s lava-spewing Gunung Rinjani breaks the silence like an overboiling pot in an Olympian diner.

The closest thing to a good cup of gilli is to be had at the isolated Good Heart Café (Gilli Meno), ideal for watching bleeding ulcerated sunsets and slipping into a dream—until friendly insect-eating geckos sound the alarm in the rafters. All water is pumped in by boat, so every cup of joe tastes vaguely of Drano; caffeine buzzers will quickly crash here. Better to cruise back south to Lombok proper with the retro migration of unladen European swallows and smiley-faced flower punks to a place called Kuta (nothing like Kuta, Bali), which features Indonesia’s most incredible beach (Tanjung Aan) and an attractive-looking café called The Cockatoo. Here I traded in my mild Gilli Belly for the much more severe Lombok Landslide. After that it was high time to get my insides straightened out and hop back like a hot-footed fakir to Bali for that much needed coffee break.

In Ubud, the cultural center and food capital of Bali, I went to see a cremation. Following the colorful and noisy procession down the street, the corpse held up in an elaborate wooden bier, we soon arrived at the ceremonial site. A crush of rubbernecking tourists strutted around like fighting cocks with autofocus eyes. Balinese mourners laughed and joked and cheered, and posed for videocams. As with any other spectator sport, enterprising locals sold peanuts and cold drinks as the stiff was laid out on the funeral pyre and torched up, bursting into flames. The Balinese believe the deceased move on to a new and improved reincarnated future, depending on their behavior in this life. In Hindu Bali, death is a party.
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I desperately needed a coffee to drive away the bitter after taste of ghosts, and at the Café Lotus near the Monkey Forest Sanctuary (chock full o’ monkeys), I finally achieved coffee nirvana: the ultimate cup of java. Inside I heard more American accents than were to be found perhaps in all Indonesia. It was almost like a Manhattan coffeehouse, but with a view of an idyllic lotus pond and a Balinese temple. I ordered a cappuccino, and my stomach—not used to such potent brew—threatened to erupt like Ugung Batung, the holiest active volcano in Bali (fittingly dubbed the Navel of the World). I’d achieved the ultimate high in the former coffee capital of the universe. In what Indonesians sometimes call the Land Under the Rainbow, I shot up like a rocket through the caffeine roof of the world, my tongue frothing with exploding stars, and I tried to set the night on fire.