Acts to Follow

It’s tough keeping up with circuses these days. Are they American? Foreign? Ancient or new aged? Wasn’t there at least a time when the word “circus” meant one thing to most people: a Big-Top-style affair with bears on bicycles, clowns on acids, and children on cotton candy?

These days it seems your circus options, both here and abroad, are endless. This is not—I repeat, decidedly not—a good thing. But…my mother was in the circus and I owe the genre some allegiance, so here goes:

 

Circs Involving Soleil

This one was easy. Cirque de Soleil has not only taken over circuses, it seems well on its way to taking over the planet. Evidence of this lies in 1) its malignant spread across North America and Australasia, and 2) the fact thatsci-fi movies set way in the future tend to have people wearing  tight one-piece outfits with built-in booties. So they’ve got the look down. And they’ve had the entire Las Vegas Strip for a while (which is concerning given that the Strip already housed five of the seven signs of the apocalypse. Coming Soon: Luxor’s Locust on Ice).

Cynicism aside, what Cirque does is amazing. I love nothing more than people hanging from wires and turning inside out for reasons not related to Guantanamo Bay. Cirque just needs to stop trying to do these amazing things in inappropriately novel ways. Cirque, like all circuses, should be on the land and in the air—not underwater, on IMAX, or set to Beatles music. I should also point out what my mother pointed out to me, which is that Cirque de Soleil performers are doing what aerial artists have been doing for time immemorial; they’re just doing it with bigger budgets and better insurance policies. (She also told me that it’s bad luck to wear green on Thursdays, but who’s counting.)

When it comes down to it, as nontraditionally circusy as some Cirque features may be (lack of smelly things and wooden bleachers) people actually like Cirque de Soleil for the same reason they’ve always liked the circus: because it’s trippy. People are doing things they shouldn’t be able to do, be allowed to do, be decent and still do, or be sober and still do. It’s one big sexy, surreal, freak-show…exactly as it should be.

Perhaps it’s only annoying because it’s French-Canadian.

 

Circs Involving Elephants

There are some people who just need to be shot, and these people are otherwise known as “Those Ringling Racketeers” and “Those Bailey Rat Bastards.” Your typical three-ring circus is, in fact, a full-on nightmare. This is true for the spectators, the bearded genetic abnormalities, and the animals who would be better off on an ark. Or on fire. Or kidnapped and hidden in my hall closet.

Let’s look at the history of these so-called Big Tops: In the late 19th century (the “Golden Age” of the American circus) Barnum tried to swindle Bailey. Then they got together and tried to swindle the London Zoo, which got confused and gave them an elephant named Jumbo (who would later morph into Dumbo, swing on its mother’s trunk through the cage bars, and totally scar me for life). Now Jumbo, at the time, was the largest pachyderm in captivity. Barnum and Bailey put this large Jumbo in a tiny hat and knickers, paraded him around on a chain for a while, then got him killed while crossing a set of train tracks. But the universe was watching and Bailey, or maybe Barnum, had a stroke and died shortly thereafter.

As for the present tense of these circuses, most humans with…humanity…are not into this stuff, except in Midwestern states (where people don’t watch PBS) and in South America, where Big Top circuses have such a poor reputation for the treatment of animals that even the South Americans are protesting (they’re usually napping, dancing, or having sex). The South Americans at least want to help the poor animals out by giving them hard drugs so they can get through the performances the way most of us got through high school: in a fugue-like state of semi-consciousness.

On a more positive note, polka dancing bears and seals bouncing balls on their noses are no longer part of South American three-ring circuses because they got really, really hot and unionized.

Circs Involving the Chinese

Technically it’s Chinese, not the Chinese. But when I use the definite article I suppose I’m referring to that cabal of perpetually 4’11” anachronisms known as contortionists. The Chinese aren’t the only contortionists, of course—I know this because my mother was a contortionist and I’m quite fully British-Australian. But the Chinese have been performing these feats of contortionfor far longer than anybody else and are therefore much better at it (at least according to the pamphlet a little man in funny slippers shoved at me in Chinatown).

The idea behind contortion is to enable a person to have a stable career despite being born with no spinal column. No wait, the idea is to dramatize the incredible strength and flexibility needed to bend and twist the human form into a stunning living sculpture. The rest of the acrobatic stuff was invented by bored farmhands who used to have competitions seeing who could keep the most Ming vases spinning on a bamboo pole, and to see if the tiniest guys on the rice paddy could get involuntarily tossed into the air and learn, on the fly, to land one-handed on someone else’s face. Whoever survived was hired.

For those planning on traveling the globe to take in these Far Eastern art forms, please note that the world famous New Shanghai Circus has a P.O. Box in Branson, Missouri…as its only mailing address. It is, in fact, a sure sign of China’s ever-burgeoning capitalism that the New Shanghai Circus was actually founded in Branson by a group called The Non-Stop Creativity Corporation. So you can see the Chinese circus in Missouri, sometimes on Broadway, and sometimes in China when they go home to stock up on really long teeter totters.

The only real problem with a Chinese circus is that fifteen minutes after seeing one you’re bored again.

So remember: Elephants are the third most intelligent creature on the planet, which is precisely why they sometimes snap and kill everybody, and if you’re sitting in the front row you deserve it.  Also keep in mind that when your mother was a contortionist, it’s not overly helpful to announce to your entire 1st grade class that she was an extortionist. (Either way neither of you will be invited to many PTA meetings.) And finally, for the love of god, if you ever meet a contortionist please think of something more interesting to ask than, “Does it hurt?” Answer: If it hurts, it means you can’t do it. End of story.

Beware of clowns, avoid the cotton candy, and travel hard my friends.

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Racketeering

I think all couples should play tennis together. It’s a great way to expose weaknesses in your game (forehand, spin serve, etc.) as well as problem spots in your marriage (communication, someone’s getting fat, and so forth). And aside from the fact that you’re carrying a weapon, it really is a romantic sport. Adorable outfits. Lots of “love.” Just think of all the great romances that have sprung up on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon and RolandGarros:

– Agassi and Graf

– Federer and God

– Chris Evert and every top male player from                                    the 1970s

– Anna Kournikova and every spectator with a   pulse

– And of course the great love affair between                                       Serena Williams and herself.

For those of you who played tennis competitively as Juniors, I understand your reluctance to continue reading. Once you’ve been to one of these camps for months on end, gotten a 1986 perm, and been told by your coach that you look like cauliflower…the romance is sort of gone. For the rest of you, here are the world’s best and most passion-inducing options:

1. Roy Emerson Tennis Week, Gstaad Palace, Switzerland

Aside from the occasional funicular disaster, the Swiss Alps drip romance. Peaceful peaks, dramatic sunsets, and the stunningly turreted Gstaad Palace Hotel nestled in the heart of the Saanen Valley. Most people go there to ski.But twice a year (when there’s slightly less snow) Australian tennis legend Roy Emerson is choppered in to fix your backhand and ruin your marriage. Affable and upbeat, Emo (as the Aussies call him) is the winner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles and—at the ripe, skin-cancered age of 74—runs 5-hour clinics everyday for the entire six days you’re there (camp officials request that all guests be certified in CPR).

The reason I say Emerson Week will ruin your marriage is that there’s too much else to do. Horseback riding, squash courts, hot air balloons. And if I learned anything from camp it’s that people locked onto a tennis court six days a week will look for any excuse to do something else (Torture, Anyone?) You and your spouse will at some point get in a tiff, one of you will rent a mountain bike, end up in Germany, discover you prefer skiing, and never be heard from again. But go. Emo’s great.

2. IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Bradenton, Florida

The Bollettieri Tennis Academy is hands-down the most famous, sought-after, and not-inexpensive training program in the world. Founder Nick Bollettieri is also—in the words of the camp’s website—“one of the most influential figures in the world of tennis” (oligarch in Russian) and  a “legend who has transcended the sport” (long-since morphed into leather). But all the hoopla is understandable for a place that’s produced the likes of Andre Agassi (hates the sport), Monica Seles (got stabbed), Mary Pierce (father banned from all tournaments), Xavier Malisse (has panic attacks on court), Mark Philippoussis (got engaged on a reality show), Daniela Hantuchova (developed anorexia and now weighs less than her racket), Martina Hingis (dated the ugliest man in tennis then tested positive for cocaine) and of course Maria Sharapova (who always did excel at daily Cut-Throat Bitch and Endorsement Deal drills). Any questions? Oh yes, and another former Teen Queen phenom who—as a married adult—stalked a female writer I know.

Given the vast appeal of all this, weekend warriors will be thrilled to know that the Bollettieri Academy also has a grown-up division. These 3-day “Mini-Week “ packages are designed to “educate and drill in all aspects of the game including serve, return, ground strokes, volleys, overheads, approach shots, and specialty shots.” In three days. For those who’d also like to master Jedi mind tricks, the academy offers Max-Accelerated 3-day programs that recreate for adults everything offered in the Junior camp. Added Max features include Nutritional Consultation (cigarettes from an older kid behind the ball machine), Sports Massage (international co-ed dorms), Video Analysis of performances (see Sport Massage), daily private lessons (see Video Analysis), and one-on-one exploration of on-court mental performance (see Cauliflower). Morning sessions also include something called “Live Ball Warm Up,” which makes sense given that those white corpse balls were retired from Wimbledon years ago.

In terms of romance, the list of skills one can expect to pick up at the Bollettieri adult camp include: attacking, counterattacking, defense, posture, balance, and recovery. I’m not sure why these skills would be taught to Juniors because 1) children master these things naturally, and 2) such skills are clearly more useful in a marriage than a match. So head to Florida, take your spouse, and leave your poor talented child in the safety of its home. It can “friend” the academy on Facebook.

3. Sociedade Harmonia de Tênis, São Paulo, Brazil

The Sociedade Harmonia de Tênis foi fundada em 1930 por sócios do Club Athletico Paulistano, descontentes com a constante lotação das quadras de tênis daquela agremiação.

It’s Brazil, for god’s sake. Who cares. The camp has the word Harmony in the title, and you certainly don’t go on a trip like this to make sure you can beat your lobbing nemesis with the knee braces when you get home. You go to Sampa (São Paulo’s nickname) for sensory overload and a plethora of paulistanos (genetically sexy residents). You go for topless beaches (topless tennis?) and Carnival. You go to play tennis for five minutes, then run off to do things that will land you on YouTube. Not even the professional Brazilian players try very hard—because, in truth, nothing will improve your game like dancing in the streets (“Loose muscles are fast muscles”) or having your face painted by a man in peacock feathers. Kind of like the time in camp when the other kids decided it would be festive to draw all over my face with indelible ink and I inexplicably won my big match the next morning. (Although, full disclosure, I was later disqualified when tournament officials discovered that I was not, in fact, representing the Maori nation.)

But consider it. Whether you’ve never played, played professionally, or hate your partner with a burning passion, a romantic tennis holiday would probably do everyone a world of good. As globe trotters and campers alike will attest, even bad experiences somehow result in fond memories. I myself returned to the sport long enough to have a fabulous fling with a suave professional player of massive renown in his home country…but I’m not revealing who ‘til I get a book deal.

In the meantime watch the ball, boycott the Williams, and travel hard, my friends.

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Global Fandango

I’m not suggesting you pack up and fly off to a foreign country just to see a movie. But you should. There’s just something to be said for cultural understanding through cinematic experience (and no, watching Free Willy 6 on an airplane seatback doesn’t count). Some political philosophers go so far as to say that movies could save us all from nuclear war. Clearly they haven’t been following Eddie Murphy’s career. Yet it’s certainly true that big-budget Hollywood blockbusters couldn’t survive without international ticket sales from people who can’t afford to go, can’t really stand us, and can’t understand a word Sylvester Stallone is saying.

World peace aside, there are plenty of self-serving motives for seeing foreign films in the land from whence they came (self-serving motives being our biggest export behind Baywatch re-runs and eating disorders):

Bollywood

You just haven’t seen a Bollywood movie until you’ve see it in Bombay—a bold statement given that few people have actually seen an entire Bollywood movie and that Bombay, technically, no longer exists. The reason you should strive to overcome these two facts is the same reason I’m grateful for having seen Independence Day in Utah. Big Hollywood movies are meant to be watched in a theatre full of cheering patriots eating popcorn underwritten by Lipitor. And big Bollywood movies are meant to be watched after 1) getting into a rickshaw accident on the way to the theatre, 2) getting incorrect information about the start time (twice); and 3) being handed someone’s baby over a seatback for no other reason than that it was crying and you’re an adult. Try to see something modern and sexy like Dhoom II—which naturally has neither the same writer, director, characters, plot, or setting as Dhoom I. It does, however, have the oft-cast Aishwarya Rai (whom Julia Roberts once called the most beautiful woman in the world) and the oft-hot Hrithik Roshan (whom I still call the most beautiful man). The point is that—when you watch five minutes of a Bollywood movie in your living room—everyone looks silly. When you see one in India—everyone looks silly. And healthy. And happy. And contemporary and traditional all at once. You won’t get it ‘til you go.

Hong Kollywood

We owe a lot to Hong Kong. Not only did it endlessly confuse us by being Chinese then British then Chinese again, it also gave us Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan (whom we’ve since given back). Without the Hong Kong action movie, we wouldn’t have quite the same Quentin Tarantino (or basic-cable cage fighting) and we certainly wouldn’t know that black belts can fly (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Talent). Yet the main reason to see Hong Kong movies in Hong Kong is that we may be under threat of losing them. Turns out the entire Hong Kong film industry is on the verge of financial collapse due to fierce competition from…American movies influenced by Bruce Lee. It’s one of those crazy globalization catch-22s, like Hello Kitty being so American that she became Japanese. (Although it turns out she was born in Tokyo, used up by Hasbro, then traded back to Japan for a Prius).

If you can’t manage to get all the way to Hong Kong to see the next great wûxiá masterpiece, at least support the cause by ordering one online. And please bear in mind that Uma Thurman cannot, in fact, beat Jet Li in hand-to-hand combat.

Nollywood

Nollywood scares me. The Nigerian film industry not only makes the most movies per year by far (2,500 compared to Hollywood’s 450), it’s also the fastest growing film industry in the world (somehow without the help ofEntertainment Tonight) and most of what it produces is overtly Evangelical (somewhat like the U.S. Air Force Academy). I once heard a Nigerian film director instruct his cast and crew to “function to capacity in the name of Jesus Christ.” So…it’s a fun film industry. Nearly all the movies are made for under $10,000, most are in English, and every single one goes straight to video. Also they all seem to involve two people looking pained while having conversations on pastel-colored sofas. (Picture reality show contestants trying to make a Mexican soap opera.)

The issue of real importance when it comes to this expanding beast of an industry is this: At a rate of 200 movies per month, how have they not run out of story lines? Getting your hands on a Nollywood movie is a little tough, but a sampling of recent titles includes (and please look these up to confirm):  Baby Police, Broken Plate, Buried Emotion, Agony in the Family, Black Bra, Back from America, Accidental Discharge, Born 2 Suffer, Blood on the Altar, and April Fúùlù. I am, therefore, formally requesting that someone reading this please go to Nigeria, pick up a few dozen of these DVDs, and bring them back so we can all know what’s going on. My imagination is worse than most anything you could get through Customs.

Otherwise, when Netflixing your next foreign film (so you don’t ever have to leave your house again), just remember: No one cool calls it Mumbai, and Jet Li is so legit that he once broke a foot saving his daughter from the tsunami in Thailand. Try getting Brad Pitt to do that without accidentally slipping into a remake of Sophie’s Choice. Plus we’ve never seen him do line kicks in a sequined kurta. And unless we show a little support for the movies made by the other 6 billion people on the planet, we’ll end up living in a world where our Sherpas are surprised we’re not 10 feet tall and blue (the Avatarization of globalization). We have adventure tours, bike tours, wine tours—why not movie tours? The alternative could be a bland, uniform, nuclear future in which Ashton Kutcher is considered art and Nigerians have lost all sense of self-worth through repeat viewings of District 9.

Turn off your satphones, enjoy the show, and travel hard my friends.

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Sometimes, While Driving…

I recently heard a fascinating explanation of road rage: Human beings are designed to read faces, so the little bumps and missteps we have on sidewalks and in grocery stores are easily handled with a bashful smile, arched eyebrow, or other apologetic facial twitch. In a car, you can’t do this—thus people’s tendency to misattribute road incidents to entitlement, ignorance, or other human frailties worth punching someone over.

In Italy, everyone is in a tiny car, a convertible, or on a Vespa. Thus they can still see one another’s faces,  thus the Italians’ ability to get away with road shenanigans that would make most Los Angelinos pull a gun. The point is, you really do need to understand the culture in which you’re driving. So here are some handy international driving tips to bear in mind on your next holiday:

Ethiopia

Sometimes, while driving in Ethiopia, you’ll figure out why it has the highest per vehicle fatality rate in the world. Mainly it’s the livestock. Cars in

© Hulivili, Oct 2009

Ethiopia are allowed to go absolutely anywhere so long as they don’t hit anything. If you hit a donkey, it’s your fault because they have the right of way (this is true). Donkeys are actually among the best livestock to pass because they tend to stand still and let you decide. Cattle are the worst because they tend to be very still, then panic at the last second. Sheep are annoying in that they travel in packs, but the good news is that you only need to nudge one of them to the side of the road and the others will follow (this is also true of the sheep herders themselves).

As far as cars go, be aware that Ethiopian drivers are reluctant to stray into day-ending mud or pot holes, so they most often drive down the middle of the road. This means that two cars coming toward one another…will literally come directly toward one another. Drivers give just enough and only at the very last moment. It’s like a giant game of chicken that the entire country is playing (except the actual chickens). Ethiopian officials also warn that the country has very few “injury prevention programmes” (i.e., seat belts) and that terrorism is increasingly a problem. Those planning an African adventure may therefore want to heed the rather to-the-point policy statement recently issued by the Australian government:“We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Ethiopia.”

BANGKOK, THAILAND

Sometimes, while driving in Thailand, you’ll realize you’ve given birth in your car. Traffic in Bangkok is so bad that this was, in fact, happening several hundred times a year and Bangkok police are now required to be trained in basic midwifery. With a mere 9 million residents, Bangkok’s population

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density isn’t that different from New York’s—which means that something besides the sheer number of people is contributing to the problem. Among those somethings are: 1) the difficult mix of cars, trucks, bicycles, and tuk tuks (not to mention the many residents who regularly get out of their cars, don surgical masks, and walk down the middle of the highway); 2) the fact that Bangkok’s main form of public transportation (SkyTrain) doesn’t go into the city center (why would it!); and 3) the fact that public officials tried to solve the traffic issue by paving over the city’s many canals. The only problem is that locals used those canals to get around, and the excess rainwater the canals used to absorb is now flooding the streets. Civil engineers assigned to spring roll construction are being re-deployed as we speak.

For now, tourists are advised to plan all trips from anywhere in the city to anywhere else in the city with “2 to 3 hours of tolerance” (i.e., Valium) and the best way to guarantee making your departure flight is never to leave the airport in the first place. One upside to the traffic problem is the raging success of last year’s Bangkok Traffic Love Story, a Thai romantic comedy about a woman who crashes her car and falls in love with a SkyTrain employee. Unfortunately the movie was so popular that tuk tuk drivers are now watching it on their iPods while driving. In the sequel she will give birth.

BOLIVIA

Sometimes, while driving in Bolivia, you’ll wonder why you’re on something called the Road of Death. Technically it’s the Yungas Road, and only the locals call it the Road of Death. The Inter American Development Bank simply went with “World’s Most Dangerous Road.” It runs 43 miles from La

© saf2285, Aug 2009

Paz up a mountainside to Coroico, and is lined on one side with a cliff face ascending to the heavens and on the other side with…well, nothing. You’ll realize that there is no guard rail. You’ll realize it’s single-laned with hairpin turns and numerous tire tracks leading into the abyss. You’ll notice that your driver is muttering prayers, chewing cocoa leaves, and pouring beer out the open car door as an offering to Pachamama (goddess of safe passage and bad decisions). Cars plummet off the edge about once every two weeks and the road claims about 200 lives a year. It was built in the 1930s by Paraguayan prisoners of war, and it’s my hunch that these were some very clever prisoners. When the rains come, water cascades down the cliffs and over the dirt road, turning it to slime. When it’s dry, clouds of dust get so kicked up that visibility turns to nil. You’d think drivers wouldn’t overtake but they do. Cell phones don’t work there and anyway there’s no emergency response system. The elevation is so high (3 miles above sea level) that combustion engines sputter and die. You hyperventilate and pass out. And also it snows a lot.

For those of you now asking—Can’t they fix this problem?—please note that the Bolivian government has been working on a new road for the past 20 years. And it seems to me that the more important question was, is, and always will be—What the hell is at the top of this mountain that’s so important?

So, the next time you’re driving in a foreign country, just remember: Things that don’t happen here, happen there. Sometimes in Australia, people really do hit kangaroos and total their cars. Sometimes in France, people get stuck at a roundabout for so long that they sit on their roofs and enjoy wine and cheese. Sometimes in South Africa, the only thing that will save you from a carjacking is the Blaster, a small flame thrower installed on the underside of the vehicle and invented for exactly this purpose. And sometimes in Italy, you’ll realize that everyone parks like they’ve just spilled hot coffee in their laps.

Sometimes—very often, in fact—it’s all worth it. Drive well and travel hard, my friends.

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The Best U.S. Islands (And no, not Hawaii)

Not that there’s anything wrong with Hawaii. It’s simply being disqualified. Too easy. Too visited. Too…Obama. Let’s just say up front that Hawaii and all its stuff is amazing and blah, etc.: humid outdoor airports, gift shop macadamia nuts, Road-to-Hana family vomiting, and lobbies way too breezy for the carnival of a sarong someone talked you into wearing to breakfast (free orange juice when everyone sees your underwear and you cry).

1.) Sea Island, Georgia

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It’s a testament to the state of U.S. geographical enthusiasm that whenever I hear someone talk about Georgia, I assume they mean the ex-Soviet one. But no. Sea Island is an isolated resort destination off the coast of southern Georgia the state. It’s actually part of a larger group of islands known as the Golden Isles of Georgia, which include Jekyll Island (and its renowned split personality clinic), St. Simons Island (which lost its apostrophe in a hurricane), and Little St. Simons Island (which…just doesn’t sound right). In 2004, Sea Island’s remote location and luxurious accommodations led to its hosting of a G8 summit—although conference plans were derailed when the security team assigned to the detail was pulled away for Ronald Regan’s funeral (dead U.S. president more precious than live French one). Sea Island’s most famous resort is known as The Cloisters, featuring attractions like golf, spa treatments, skeet shooting, and sumptuous apology banquets for all the people who accidentally shot one another. All-in-all, The Cloisters is a marvelously scenic, tranquil retreat where “guests are encouraged to do everything – or nothing at all.” Anything in between will get you immediately escorted off the premises.

2.) Kodiak Island, Alaska

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Now here’s a place that will change you. Rugged. Awe-inspiring. As dangerous as it is…dangerous. (I’m sorry but there’s a bear named after it.) Yet Alaska’s Kodiak Island is also home to nature walks, whale watching, incredible salmon fishing (which I’ll hunt anyone who takes part in), and breathtaking “fjord-like bays” (never trust a bay that’s only “like” a fjord. It’ll turn on you in a heartbeat). Kodiak does have a Visitors’ Bureau  (which is encouraging) and it is among the largest of all U.S. islands (second only to those lei-loving who shall not be named). For those interested in learning more, the aforementioned Visitors’ Bureau generously provides a list of—and this is not a joke—75 Things to Do on Kodiak Island.

If you show up, the locals will have a 76th.

3.) St. Croix

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I’m only choosing one of the Virgin Islands (although there are 72 of them) and I’m choosing the island of St. Croix for several reasons. For one thing I can’t pronounce it, and yes the x is inherently cool. St. Croix’s official website refers to it as America’s Caribbean Paradise, so: tropical, closer than Bermuda, and far less famous for existentially kidnapping passers-by. But the number one reason I like St. Croix is that it is, all told: a Caribbean island; a country; an unincorporated territory of the United States; and a constituent district of the United States. Also the capital of St. Croix is located in St. Thomas—which yes, is a whole different country. I know of nowhere else that’s pulled that off. U.S. Virgin Island tourism officials would also like to remind people that all the scheduled hiking, camping, rum distilling, wood carving,  and other Deliverance activities would be taking place “wrapped up in the safety, security, and efficiency of the American flag.” I’m not sure why that statement also bothers me, but it does.

4.) Serranilla Bank

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Here’s a little unknown island, not too far from Jamaica, that I can’t help but include for its sweetly sad description: “a partially-submerged reef in the western Caribbean Sea with some small uninhabited islets.” Doesn’t sound like much, but dear Serranilla has been on the map since way back in 1510, and it’s odd, and it’s ours….

Well, mostly. It seems Serranilla has long been disputed and we may have stolen it. It also turns out that Colombia and Jamaica (neither country known for their drugs) have long maintained a formal agreement permitting one another to hang out around poor semi-submerged Serranilla—its rocky peaks struggling, like we all, against the rising waters—and more recently entered into a quietly drawn up “delimitation treaty” that established something called a “Joint Regime Area” allowing both countries to “exploit living and non-living resources.” I think I speak for all 24 fans when I say, Exploit what??

5.) Bald Head Island, North Carolina

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Bald Head Island would be the perfect place to have a memorable, laugh-riot, mid-life crisis, fish-out-of-water, Sex and the City-style girlfriends’ weekend away. It allows no cars (which most women find creepy); nearly all of the residents are the retired elderly (silently emerging from fogbanks in modified golf carts); it was the primary shooting location for Weekend at Bernie’s (featuring a corpse) and The Butcher’s Wife (featuring Demi Moore’s acting); and it is ominously located on the east side of…the Cape Fear River. It’s remote. And bog-filled. And the girls’ weekend would be fantastic because women excel at schadenfreude. Someone would fall in a bog, learn a lesson, break a heel, meet a man with priorities, or come upon a shriveled old lady who’s cryptic advice makes them rethink everything they’ve done since 1991. What more could you ask from an island.

So, when planning your next domestic island getaway just remember: Persons born on Serranilla Bank are considered U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens. (Plus it’s partially submerged. Either way try not to give birth there.) But otherwise look into this island stuff—it’s interesting in a Who knew? kind of way. Our great nation has an island called Poker Hill, an island called Panic Rock, and a place called Houseboat Island (which somehow or other is in Arizona). If anyone listening has money, please god go to Kentucky’s Big Bone Island and build a fat farm there. And if absolutely none of this sounds appealing to you in the slightest way, there’s always Hawaii.

Travel hard, my friends.

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Wondering About Wonders

Of all the astonishing natural and man-made phenomena on earth, seven are considered the most vital and treasured wonders of the world. And no one I know can name them. Yet if you’re now eager to memorize and visit them all in true adventurer fashion, good luck to you. The “list” has gotten complicated.

The word wonder comes from the Greek word, Θαύματα, which is easy to pronounce and more accurately translates as “things to be seen.” Unfortunately, you missed them.  The original Seven Wonders of the World was actually a list of Ancient Wonders of the World, the majority of which no longer exist. The list was cobbled together in the Middle Ages from a popular Hellenic Guidebook, The Sandal-Wearers Guide to Travelling on Foot. Included were sites like the Temple of Artmeis (goddess of virginity and, ironically, the hunt), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (which the Babylonians may have made up), and the Lighthouse of Alexandria (occupying the seventh spot originally held by the Ishtar gate, which apparently failed an immunity challenge and got voted off the itinerary). Of all these seven ancient wonders, only the Great Pyramid of Giza still sells tickets (free hotdogs on the summer solstice).

The good news is that the list most people are familiar with is actually The Seven Wonders of the Natural World, most of which are still around (even if overrun by Starbucks and Al Qaeda). On this list are travel favorites like the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls, the Great Barrier Reef, the Harbor of Rio de Janeiro (complete with giant Jesus), Mount Everest, the Parícutin Volcano, and the Aurora Borealis (now conveniently located in Sarah Palin’s backyard).

Personally, I’m a fan of The Seven Wonders of the Medieval World. Now there’s a list to conquer: Stonehenge (been there), the Colosseum (seen it), the Leaning Tower of Pisa (stayed on the bus), and the Great Wall of China (which I’m waiting to see from outer space). Sometimes on this list are the Taj Mahal (the one in India), the Cairo Citadel, the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa (just fun to say), and Cluny Abbey (a monastery in France not nearly as cool as, say, Abbey Road).

The contemporary confusion, however, comes from our many, many “new lists.” I blame Diane Sawyer and the democratization of information—because thanks to a world in which everything is determined by morning chat show and Wiki laymen, we now have lists like:

The Seven Wonders of the Modern World (Chunnel, Panama Canal, Memory Foam)

The Seven Wonders of Wales (Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, etc.)

The Seven Wonders of Ukraine (Kiev, Yalta, and five Olympic gymnasts)

The Seven Wonders of the Underwater World (Atlantis Casino and my dive watch), and

The Seven Wonders of Canada

And here I thought Canada’s greatest contribution to society was as South Park material. More confusing still, in November of 2006 Good Morning America and USA Today announced the results of a massive undertaking to come up with a new list of wonders, the final vote cast by a panel of esteemed experts (The Real Physicists of Westchester County). This new list now has its own website, The Official New Seven Wonders of the World, which is only available in English. It should also be noted that this list of seven wonders actually contains eight wonders – a sort of first-alternate wonder coming in the form of the Grand Canyon, chosen by Good Morning America viewers (who managed to choose the only American site that was already on the wonder-list they knew). Other “newly official” wonders are:

Potala Palace                                               Tibet

Old City of Jerusalem                               Israel

The Polar Ice Caps                                    Polar Region

Papahānaumokuākea                               Hawai’i

The Great Migration of Serengeti        Tanzania and Kenya

The Maya Ruins                                          México

The Internet                                                 Everywhere

The Internet? Really? Anyone who’s been to Swaziland knows it’s not quite “Everywhere,” and if I’m not mistaken the Great Migration is technically an event. The absence of the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall of China, and the Great Pyramid of Giza also somewhat concerns me—but apparently they’re not as great as I thought.

So when planning your next big trip, bear in mind that any place you could possibly choose most likely exists on some list somewhere—or, better yet, on a list you can make up. The point is simply…to wonder…and to commit to all adventures with one and only one list memorized, The Seven Blunders of the World, written by none other than Mahatma Gandhi:

Wealth without work

Worship without sacrifice

Politics without principle

Commerce without morality

Science without humanity

Pleasure without conscience, and

Knowledge without character

Amen, Mahatma. And travel hard, my friends.

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Vegetarian Must-Nots

Vegetarians have it bad enough at home (and at the Dallas airport) and given today’s travel restrictions and baggage fees, packing an extra suitcase full of protein bars is really no longer an option. “Winging it” can also be dicey, as living on bread and chocolate (i.e., how I backpacked through Europe) will simply result in rickets by the time you reach the Greek Islands (where you’ll doubly sink yourself by getting too intoxicated to notice).

Today’s traveling vegetarian clearly needs a new strategy—one that starts with avoiding the world’s worst destinations for non-meat eaters (and yes, you hypocritical hold-outs, “non-meat” most certainly includes fish.) While the past decade has seen an explosion of vegetarian options, particularly in Western nations and the ever-hip Dubai, it’s still a highly carnivorous world. So if you don’t eat anything with a face, a mother, or an adrenaline response, think twice and thrice about visiting the following:

1. Spain

The number one reason vegetarians should be wary of Spain is because the locals will, quite literally, laugh at you. Waitresses scoff, tapas barkeeps turn their backs, and your tour guide might suggest that you (sleep with him and) spend some time reflecting on the true meaning of life. Granted, there are great options available—gazpacho, veggie paella, the orange slices floating in your sangria—so  it’s not so much a dearth of things to eat as the soul-crushing rejection of being a social outcast while attempting to enjoy your holidays. (P.S. All of the above also applies to France, in spades.)

2. Russia

Aside from the fact that Russian cuisine is rather heavy on stroganoff and offal, there is also the issue of language. The country’s stubborn insistence on a Cyrillic alphabet means no ability to guess at safe-sounding menu items, and little hope of successfully crib-noting a phonetic approximation of “Help me, I’m starving.” I will also carefully add that—due to the Russian people’s general (general!) tendency toward despondent, resentful non-responsiveness—tourist fallbacks like smiling, pointing, and offering bubbly apologetics are more likely to get you “accidentally” served the fingers of a Russian Mafia snitch than they are a nice cheese sandwich. (The same language problem also applies to China, but there being a blonde gets you much, much further.)

3. South Korea

I need say nothing……but I will. Here is another example where it’s not so much the absence of vegetarian options as the presence of carnivore options that read like the summary of a horror flick. Coagulated duck’s blood, sauces made with veins (look it up), and the proverbial neighbor’s kidnapped dog. If you—like me—love Korean cinema, you’ll also want to note that movie theatres in Korea have long eschewed popcorn in favor of dried squid and cuttlefish on a stick. The whole thing makes you want to side with Kim Jong-il.

4. Yemen

If you say you’re a vegetarian, they will kill you. I hear jihadist aren’t big on smoothie stands.

5. Denmark

J’accuse! Before doing some research, I never would have included this lovely country of Tivoli and drowned Ophelias on the list. But, lo and behold, a recent survey by the good folks at Good.is reveals Denmark to be “The Most Carnivorous Country on Earth” at 321.7lbs per capita per year. That’s like consuming an entire Biggest Loser contestant. Danes like goose, pickled things, and something called finker that’s made from the hearts and livers of pigs (which, please note, are more intelligent than dogs). Tradition aside, something tells me poor Denmark’s venerated position atop the meat-eating list has less to do with culinary tendencies and more to do with one hard reality: Danes have disposable income. (FYI, “Least Carnivorous” honors go to Bhutan, a country comprised of 686,000 people and three goats.)

So there you have it—a list that makes me not so much hungry as angry. Although, to be fair to all included nations, serious honorable mentions go to rural Great Britain (lard drippings), the Australian Outback (emu), and my German ex-boyfriend’s mother’s house (dirty looks and nasty cheese).

Good luck, veggie-freaks. And travel hard, my friends.

(Coming soon, Why Vegans Should Just Stay Home…)

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