April 2013

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We’re not off to a great start, Perugia and I. It’s been a bit of a slog just getting here; two long days of planes, trams, buses, trains. Having arrived close to midnight and finding no taxis around, I consider just trudging up the dark hill to my hotel (it doesn’t look that far on my map), but outside the mostly deserted train station the impervious Umbrian night shows her indifference to my arrival by going cold on me; small rain begins to fall. So I walk a block to a mostly-deserted café and ask them to call me a cab. Just as well. What looked like a short jaunt on the map turns out to be a very long drive up a ridiculously steep hill with perilous drop-offs on both sides of numerous switchbacks. I would have perished walking. 

The taxi driver, unable to proceed past the piazza, drops me off blocks from my hotel, pointing in the darkness up a slick cobblestone street leading to the heart of this medieval town in the middle of Italy. I am soaked and exhausted by the time I climb three flights of stairs (the elevator is out of order) and put the key in the door, revealing something resembling a monk’s cell: a ridiculously tiny room and a bed smaller than the one I slept in as a child. The blanket is thin and my feet hang off the end.

The view from my room. Can this possibly be the sexiest small city in the world?

The view from my room. Can this possibly be the sexiest small city in the world?

 

 

All night long, the rain beats against an ancient window that does not seal; the cold hilltop wind whistles obscenely at me through the cracks. Beyond tired but still unable to sleep, I lie in bed thinking of a poem from the Middle Ages I memorized years ago to impress a girlfriend in college:

Western wind, when wilt thou blow/The small rain down can rain?/Christ, that my love were in my arms/And I in my bed again!  

In the morning I send Hardy a text message: Arrivd Perugia lst nite. Bst pay off bet

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We were sipping our cocktails, watching the sun exhaust itself behind the silhouetted islands of the Jardines de la Reina in Cuba after a long day of saltwater fly-fishing when Hardy roused our worn-out little group, spread out like drying beach towels on the bow of the Halcon, by positing this gum-drop of a question: “What’s your favorite place in the world?”

 

Photos by Peter McBride.

Photos by Peter McBride.

 

 

 

I noodled Hardy’s question as two egrets did a mating dance in a nearby lagoon. Someone said Vietnam. Someone else San Miguel de Allende. Did Bruges get a vote as well as Porto Seguro, Brazil? I believe they did. Still, there was no consensus. As the seductive sky slipped on a purple robe and followed the sun into the night, Hardy, offering me a touch more of the Douglas Laing single-malt he’d brought over from London, tapped the ash off his Cohiba and said, “What about you, Lansing? You travel more than the rest of us put together. What’s the best place in the world?”

You know that Johnny Cash song, the one they use for some hotel chain ad? “I’ve been everywhere, man/Crossed the deserts bare, man/I’ve breathed the mountain air, man/Of travel I’ve had my share, man/I’ve been everywhere”? Well, that pretty much sums me up. So I get asked this question a lot. And I always give the same answer: There is no best place.

I mean, really, is Paris better than New York? Barcelona better than Buenos Aires? It depends on when you’re there, what you’re doing, and, most importantly, who you’re with. 

Everyone nodded at my sage pronouncement, ending the discussion. Or so I thought. “What about this, then,” said Fletch, the best fisherman in our group, tossing a new lure into the darkness in hopes of a nibble. “What’s the sexiest city in the world—better yet, the sexiest small city in the world?”

All right. Good. Now, I felt, we had something to talk about. Beginning with the parameters of the question, like what constitutes a small city (consensus: it has to feel intimate and walkable, even if it has a relatively large population). That settled, we began to brood over the larger question: What, exactly, makes a city sexy?

A full moon was starting to rise; we were all feeling pretty good after a glass or two of whisky. Veiled in darkness, we talked about the components necessary to fall in love with a place, and though there were some disagreements, in the end we agreed on three main criteria.

First off, it should be seductive. Which means you should fall in love with the place slowly. There’s got to be a sense of beguilement, a feeling that it’s going to reveal its secrets gradually, that there is going to be a fair amount of discovery involved, and you need to be involved in the discovering. Can’t just hop off the plane and go, Hey, ain’t this the cutest little town you’ve ever seen? Because we all know those feelings last about as long as a Britney Spears’ marriage.

Next, everything about the place has got to stimulate your senses—all of them—giving you pleasure in the way it smells, tastes, sounds, feels, as well as awakening things in you you weren’t even aware of. Like feeling breathless when you hear opera live for the first time or sampling a Oaxaca mole sauce and wondering why you’ve never tasted that before.

Finally, it should arouse you even when it’s not at its best. Any city can look beautiful on a perfect summer day when the light is just right, but what about on a cold, wet winter morning or a feverishly-hot afternoon when it’s humid and sticky out? A truly sexy city should stir your emotions even when it has a bit of bed-head; it should be a place you love—perhaps even more so—when the landscape has gone bald in winter or when it is a little past its prime. As James Salter wrote of Paris following the First World War: “The face was still ravishing but the tone of the skin had lost its freshness and there were faint lines in the brow and around the mouth.” Which only made him love her even more.

“Think Sean Connery as a city,” I mused. “Or some place that conjures up Sophia Loren. That’s what we’re all looking for, lads.”

“I can’t imagine anyplace that good,” Fletch said.

Hardy issues his challenge to find the sexiest small city in the world.

Hardy issues his challenge to find the sexiest small city in the world.

 

 

“I might know a place,” Hardy said in a whisper. He took a sip of whisky and looked up at the full moon rising over the mangroves as we waited for him to continue. The evening was calm except for the night cry of an unseen bird somewhere in the thicket. “It’s been a few years since I was there but I still think about it. It’s like a song you can’t get out of your head.” He took a pull on his cigar. “I’d be willing to bet that if Lansing went there he’d agree with me.”

So in the darkness, 50 miles off the southern coast of Cuba, glasses were clinked and several friendly wagers were placed. Since I was the judge and jury, I was not allowed to bet. Which is just as well. Because although our friends would probably label me even more of a romantic than Hardy, like Fletch, I doubted there really was any place in the world that could live up to the high expectations we had set. At least nowhere I’d been. And like I said, I’ve been everywhere, man.

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One last search for the Holy Grail

Macduff hasn’t given up his quest for finding petroglyphs so this morning we took another rutted Jeep road to Keahi Kawelo, better known as the Garden of the Gods, in the northwest corner of the island. The road was the color of rust and lined with an impenetrable wall of grass, as tall and prickly as sugar cane, on both sides. A few miles on, we passed over a cattle grate and the vegetation instantly changed to an eerie forest of mesquite and ironwood, and then changed again, a few miles on, to a lunar landscape of ocher soil and boulders, in every size imaginable, that looked as if they’d fallen from the heavens millions of years ago as stony tears from the gods.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

While I sat on a rock that looked like a petrified dinosaur egg, Macduff ran around with his camera taking a gazillion photos. “Look at the light!” he kept screaming.

It was magnificent. Thick and honey-colored, throwing long shadows over the rocks, the tombstones of ancient Hawaiian gods. Only a stiff wind broke the solemn silence.

One of the stories I’d heard about the place has it that a big kahuna from Molokai challenged a Lanai kahuna named Kawelo to build a fire on opposite sides of the channel separating the two islands to see who could keep their flame burning longer. The Lanai kahuna won, burning everything in sight, which is why, they say, there are no twigs, shrubs, or trees in the Garden of the Gods. You’d think that with all these gods running around on this sacred spot there’d be a petroglyph or two somewhere, but neither of us could find anything.

Macduff was unusually cranky on the drive back so when he spotted something along the side of the road and asked me to stop, I did. What he’d seen was a boulder with graffiti on it saying ART. Why he wanted to shoot it I had no idea, but I was willing to indulge him. He shot the orange rock and the green field it was in, mumbling something about this being true Hawaiian culture, and then wandered up the hill a bit to get a panoramic shot of the valley (he’s big on pano shots and has a special camera for them).

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Which is when I suddenly heard him screaming like a little girl.

“It’s here!” he cried in a high voice.

“What is?” I yelled.

“A petroglyph! Right here!”

And sure enough. There it was. An etching of a little stick man with rainbow-like hair. An authentic Lanai petroglyph.

photo by Macduff Everton

photo by Macduff Everton

He’d found it. The Hawaiian Holy Grail. Our work was done here. I think I can move on now. 

Mexico anyone?

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Update on our ukulele band

I’m sure you’re dying to know how the band is doing. Better than I could possibly have imagined. Although Suzie has been too busy hanging wind chimes at Dis ‘n’ Dat and grooming her bichon frisés to give me ukulele lessons, I’ve picked up a book titled “Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Tips ‘n’ Tunes” and have pretty much figured the basics out on my own. Yesterday, while sitting on the veranda of The Lodge working on a Shipwreck, I almost managed to tune my uke all by myself. I got the My Dog Has okay, but stumbled a bit on the Fleas. But I’ll get it.

(Speaking of fleas, do you know how the ukulele got its name? Well, supposedly in 1879 a laborer named Joao Fernandez arrived in Honolulu from the Portuguese island of Madeira, bringing with him a 4-string Portuguese instrument called a braguinha. Evidently the islanders were quite enchanted by this little instrument and, like me, decided they wanted to learn how to play it. Since they couldn’t pronounce braguinha—and neither can I—they called the instrument an oo-koo-le-le, which is Hawaiian for “jumping flea,” since this is how the islanders described the effect of a player’s fingers “jumping” around the fretboard. And now…you know…the rest of the story.”)

If you think of Arthur Godfrey or something when you think of the ukulele, you should check out this YouTube video of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (I kid you not) playing the theme from “Shaft.”

Awesome. I’m just wondering how long it will take me to get that good. Probably more time than I’ve got left on the island.  

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The great pineapple search

Do you know what’s almost impossible to find on the Pineapple Island? Pineapples. I haven’t seen a single plant the whole time I’ve been here. Yesterday I decided to go on the Great Pineapple Hunt. I started at the Blue Ginger where, over breakfast, someone said he thought there were some plantings out at the airport. So I drove out there and poked around, but I couldn’t find anything. Then in the afternoon I allowed myself to get lost on private land in the Palawai Basin where they used to grow tens of thousands of pineapple plants. I figured there had to be a few remaining plants somewhere. I mean, they couldn’t all just disappear, could they? Wouldn’t there be a forgotten plot, somewhere, of rogue pineapple plants?

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

I drove and drove and drove, down one cinder road after the other, until I came to this field that had a locked gate blocking the road and a sign that said RESTRICTED AREA. Why, I wondered, was access restricted? What the hell was going on behind the gate?

Since I couldn’t drive any further, I got out and started walking. I must have walked a mile or more down that red road. And you know what I saw? Nothing. Just the same shoulder-high grass you see everywhere else on the island. Yet I have to say that I had this feeling that the pineapples were out there somewhere. Hiding. Don’t ask me why. It sounds like an animated Disney movie, right? The Land of the Lost Pineapples.

Totally frustrated, I drove back to The Lodge, thinking I’d sit out on the veranda and have a Shipwreck or two. And that’s when I saw it. A little garden, tucked away, just to the right of the long entry road leading to the resort. I parked the Jeep in the grass and went for a look. There were papaya trees and starfruit, mangos and all kinds of bananas. And there, in an almost forgotten corner of the garden, was a little plot of stubby pineapple plants. The last survivors, the great-great-great grandchildren of Dole pineapples on what used to be Pineapple Island.

photo by Macduff Everton

photo by Macduff Everton

It was kind of sad to see. But I like knowing that there are at least a few pineapple descendants still on the island. 

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