December 2010

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Bill Bryson and the cheese plate

In the middle of the night, the weather turned. I woke up hearing rain and got up to close the windows. It wasn’t raining hard; just a soft, regular rain. I rather liked it.

I try not to get up in the middle of the night because it’s so difficult to then go back to sleep. I fought it for half an hour or so but it was no use and around three or so I turned on the light next to my bed and read. I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which is quite good. He uses the old refectory he lives in in eastern England, which was built around 1850, to discourse on everything from the gluttony of 18th-century Englishmen (he records a typical dinner, in 1784, of one country parson: Dover sole in lobster sauce, spring chicken, ox tongue, roast beef, soup, fillet of veal with morrells and truffles, pigeon pie, sweetbreads, green goose and peas, apricot jam, cheesecakes, stewed mushroom, and trifle) to the complicated drudgery of washing clothes (back in the day, before laundry detergents, stale urine was often used to remove stains).

A number of years ago, I had a very brief conversation with Bill Bryson. He called me rather out of the blue to tell me that he’d selected a story I’d written on French cheese to be included in an annual anthology of best American travel stories. At the time I was unfamiliar with who Bill Bryson was and more than a little skeptical of editors who called or wrote wanting to include one story or another in some anthology they were putting together. Of course, the “payment” to be included in these compilations was usually a copy of the book, at best. It wasn’t much of a deal for the authors who were expected to be “honored” to be included.

So when Bryson called me up, I was rather gruff and short on the phone with him, as I recall it. I’m sure he was quite perplexed. It wasn’t until after the book was published that I realized that it really was quite an honor to be included (nonetheless, my “fee” was five copies of the book).

Anyway, I was reading about what gluttons the English were and it made me rather hungry. It’s something books have done to me ever since I was a little kid. I remember reading Robinson Crusoe when I was maybe eight or nine years old and I became quite obsessed about raisins because Defoe talked about them so much. So here I was at three in the morning reading about Dover sole in lobster sauce and cheesecake and I got quite hungry. I started scouring my room. The mini-bar had little bottles of Don Julio tequila and Maker’s Mark bourbon, but that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. There were also a couple of dark chocolates which had come with turn-down service and I quickly ate those but I was still hungry. Damn those gluttonous Brits. On my desk, still under plastic wrap, was the fruit and cheese plate that had been sent up when I’d checked in. It was looking the little worse for wear but certainly there had to be something still edible on it. I peeled it back and poked a finger at the soft cheese. It had some blue stuff on it, but that was probably normal, right? I spread the cheese on a stale cracker, ate it, then cut a green apple into quarters and ate that as well. Then, because I was thirsty and there wasn’t anything else in the room, I poured myself that Maker’s Mark. And got back into bed.

These are the things you do when you travel alone. You get up at three in the morning and turn on the light and start reading about food which makes you get up and scour your room for a bite to eat and before you know it, you’ve got a bourbon in your hand and cracker crumbs in your bed. After a bit, I turned the light off and tried to go back to sleep. But that wasn’t working out very well. Never mind. In a couple of hours the sun will be up and I can go down for breakfast.


Go To Sleep or Muscle Ache

In the morning I made myself a coffee from the single-serve Keurig in my room, grabbed the paper outside the door, and climbed back into bed. I’d left the windows open overnight and the sound of the waves and the wind had been both comforting and disturbing. The Santa Anas, cold winds that originate in the north and flow over the Southern California mountains, heating up as they rush down canyons towards the beach so that it’s not unusual to have December temps in the 70s and 80s, were swirling the leaves and sand so that the morning sky looked dirty and fouled.

When I finished the paper I ran myself a bath. I can’t remember the last time I took a bath but it just seemed like the thing to do this morning. The opaque glass shutters on the side of the deep tub opened up on to the room so I could soak while looking out at the palm trees frantically batting their fronds in the wind and see the seagulls careening madly about as they attempted to land on the beach.

In the bathroom was a cabinet stocked with interesting toiletries like Tom’s of Maine Peppermint Toothpaste and cubes of Jane’s Bath Soak Fizzes. One block was called “Go To Sleep” and another “Muscle Ache.” Neither seemed appropriate but I chose the sleeping one because it contained oils of lavender, chamomile, and sage which sounded rather nice. I plopped the bath bomb into the steamy water while it was still running and then made myself another coffee and placed it on the side of the tub next to the turtle-shaped bar of soap and climbed in.

I let the water run until it covered my shoulders and was slopping out of the tub when I slouched down. I thought about what I would do today. I could go downstairs for breakfast but that would involve getting dressed or I could get room service but, frankly, I wasn’t really hungry. There was a plate in my room of grapes and cheese and crackers, under plastic wrap, that had been delivered shortly after I’d checked in and had sat untouched on the desk next to the toy Ferris Wheel. Maybe I’d just have that for breakfast. And with the Santa Anas blowing, there really wasn’t much point in going down to the shore or even walking around the city. Maybe later. For now, I’d just soak in the tub where Jane’s herbal bath bomb continued to fizz somewhere below me and then I’d put on a robe and get back into bed and read South Seas Dream or maybe Poems of the Sea and see how the day progressed. There was no one I needed to see, no place I needed to be, and the day stretched out in front of me like the dark Pacific waters reaching off into the horizon.


Room 718 at Casa del Mar

I checked in to room 718 at Casa del Mar carrying only a small leather handbag, not much larger than what you might take to the gym. The room was smaller than I expected, the view more generous. The almost-vacant beach was just beyond the small pool below me; with the windows open I heard seagulls crying and smelled the cold salt air.

The best sunsets in California always come in the winter when there is a faint layer of marine fog marbling the sky, refracting layered sheets of purple and orange and red atop the distant horizon like a kaleidoscope. I sat on the bed, facing the ocean, watching the wobbling sun drift downward, slowly, the colors flaming briefly just as the light touched the dark shadow of the ocean before everything cooled to a luminous bruised twilight.

Then I got up and poured myself a whisky from the hip flask I’d brought along, a birthday present gift from someone a long, long time ago, and walked around the room looking at the odds and ends on the shelves like a colorful tin windup Ferris wheel, a child’s toy, on the desk next to the telephone.

Of particular interest to me were the books in the room. Not at all the normal sort of fare you’d expect in a hotel room where designers go out and buy old books by the pound, rather than by the title, and arrange them by the color of their spines. On my bedside table was Poems of the Sea and on the shelf next to the desk was a first edition of Fishes: Their Journeys and Migrations, published in 1933 by a professor at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. There was also Fly-Fishing for Trout by the perfectly-named Richard Salmon, from 1952, and The South Seas Dream by John Dyson.

In how many hotels in Los Angeles—or anywhere for that matter—would you expect to find reading material like this in your room? The thing is, I wanted to read these books. All of them. I wanted to curl up on the clean, warm bed, covered in a white duvet, and drink my whisky and read the French professor’s tome on fish migration and listen to the waves roll across the beach in the darkness and not worry about unpacking my bag or answering the phone or going downstairs to join the dinner party I’d been invited to or making pleasant conversation with strangers. I wanted to just stay in my room—for the night, for the week, for a month—and let my thoughts pull away from my consciousness like the water slowly receding from the sand during low tide.

The room got darker and it became more difficult to read the words on the page. My drink was gone. When the maid knocked on the door for turn-down service, I got up and answered, telling her I didn’t need anything.

“Your room is dark,” she said with concern.


“Do you want me to show you where the light switch is?”


“And there’s nothing you need?” She looked at the empty glass I was holding in my hand. “Perhaps some ice?”

“I’m fine. Thank you.”

She shrugged. “Well then, good-night.”


I closed the door and made myself another drink. I still had time to decide whether I would go downstairs or not. I still had time to think about it. All of it.


A friend wrote me and said, “You must be totally drained after Africa and ready for some urban adventures.”

Yes and no. I am drained. I feel a bit like the way one does at the end of a love affair—saddened, sick at heart, exhausted. But I’m not sure I’m ready for more adventures, urban or otherwise. Actually, I rather feel like holing up somewhere—anywhere—and doing nothing more mentally challenging than trying to decide whether to take a shower or not. Even writing this very short blog entry this morning feels challenging.

So I think that for the rest of December, I’ll just write some bits and pieces. Things that don’t necessarily go together. Observations. Or the odd thought. And then I’m going to Mexico and we’ll see what happens there. Because it seems something always happens when I’m in Mexico.

Out of Africa

Leaving Lake Paradise. Photo by Chris Fletcher.

It rained again last night for the third night in a row, an indication that the “little rains,” as they are called, have begun. It is time to leave.

I saw Pete yesterday afternoon. He’d come to the Tribe Hotel where I am staying to pick up the gear he’d left when we began the trek to Lake Paradise. It was a little awkward seeing each other. I’d cut out early from his friend’s camp in Samburu and now he was canceling his reservation, which I’d made, at Tribe and staying on with the Douglas-Hamiltons in Nairobi. Neither one of us really knew what to say to the other.

“We good?” he asked me as he grabbed his gear.


“You sure?”

I shrugged. “It was a mistake to go to Elephant Watch Camp,” I said. That could have started our argument all over again but he let it go. I was glad he did.

All I’d done since I’d gotten back to Nairobi was sleep. But I was still tired. I thought about going to the Maasai Market and buying gifts to bring home but couldn’t bring enough enthusiasm to the mission to make it happen. Besides, I didn’t really want to spend the afternoon haggling with Nairobi Maasai over badly carved wooden elephants and beaded bracelets. I didn’t want any of that stuff anyway. And I knew that just being at the market would depress me. It didn’t have anything to do with Kenya. Not really. I’d seen Kenya. I’d gotten her red dirt thick into my hair and under my nails so that even now when I showered it flowed like blood down the drain. Her smoky scent was in my nostrils, the sounds of her night noises filled my head. What did I need with tourist trinkets?

I slept in the afternoon and then I got up and took a long, hot shower and dressed and went down to the bar and ordered a whisky but there was a large screen TV next to the bar and a soccer game on and I didn’t want to sit there and listen to people cheer and the non-stop prattling of the announcers so I took my drink and went outside by the pool, which was empty, and sat in a wicker chair, slowly sipping my drink and taking deep breaths of the cool, smoky air.

After awhile I went into the restaurant and asked for a table and the hostess, who was tall and lean and very attractive, asked me if someone was joining me and when I said no, she frowned and said, “I’m sorry.” I wasn’t. It was my last night in Kenya, my last night in Africa, and the last thing I wanted to do was make small talk with someone, even if it was someone I liked. What I wanted to do was exactly what I was doing: To sit at a small table in a corner of the restaurant and order a second whisky and not look at the menu, not think, just let the thick, moist air wash and the white noise of the restaurant wash over me and not think of anything. Not think of anything at all.

I ordered dinner—I can’t even tell you what—and a bottle of South African Shiraz and took my time over dinner, not thinking about the food, whether it was good or not or if I was enjoying it, just eating it and sipping my wine and trying hard not to think of what it was like to sleep under the stars at Lake Paradise or hear the cough of the leopard in the cliffs above us or the sound, felt in your chest, of a herd of buffalos running out of the forest, or the copper taste of fear when you come up a rise on a trail and an elephant is standing just yards away from you or the taste of Julius’ camp pancakes when the cold is still in your bones or how really wonderful a whisky tastes at the end of the day when you’re hot and tired and sweaty and you’ve spent all day stalking wildlife in a cloud forest.

I tried very, very hard not to think of any of this. And then I paid my bill and, a little wobbly, went back to my room and slept soundly until the desk clerk called me at 4:15 to wake me and tell me that a car would be waiting for me at five to take me to the airport. I showered, packed, paid my bill, and a few hours later I was on the Virgin flight headed for London, Africa behind me, almost as if it had all just been a dream.


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