$14.95The Far-Flung Escapades of an Accidental Adventurer

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By Doug Lansky
June 2001
ISBN 1-885211-63-5 288 pages

Last Trout in VeniceWith an insatiable hunger for the absurd, Doug Lansky takes the reader on a global odyssey. Whether visiting the notoriously erotic Kit Kat Club in Berlin or bellhopping at an underwater hotel, Lansky takes on the world with pluck, irreverence, and a great sense of humor.
“Lansky brings indefatigable good cheer and a sense of wonder and curiousity to the task that is entirely inappropriate for a man of his age. Which is very good news for his fans!”
– Rudy Maxa, host, “The Savvy Traveler”

“Traveling with Doug Lansky might result in a considerably shortened life expectancy. . . but what a way to go.”
– Tony Wheeler, Lonely Planet Publications

Author’s Plea to the Reader

Four-and-a-half Points to Maximize Your Reading Pleasure(1)
This book has less plot than a low-budget porn film. Come to think of it, nearly all travel writing does. (Life may frequently be stranger than fiction, but rarely does it have a better story line.) Therefore, I can see no reason to read this book in any particular order. I mean, I went to great lengths to put it in a particular order, but you’ll probably enjoy it more if you just flip through and look for titles that catch your eye. Normally I’d suggest skipping the introduction, but it’s the closest thing this book has to in-depth analysis, so you might want to check it out. The “Epilogue” isn’t really an epilogue at all, but it is at the end of the book. It’s one of the stories closest to my heart, so I hope you’ll get to it at some point. In fact, there would be no harm in reading it first.

(2) Ideally you’ll chuckle your way through the stories, eventually reaching the end of the book with the warm glow of having successfully traveled the world without a single case of amoebic dysentery. However, you may find the humor begins to lose its effect if you plug away at it for too long. At least, this is the case when I read humorous prose. So, for maximum effect, I’d suggest reading it in bite-size chunks. Friends have mentioned that the stories are just about the right length for a trip to the bathroom. You may wish to experiment with this, and should you decide to keep it near the throne, I’d be honored.

(3) For purposes of explanation, I sometimes need to pretend to know less about a subject than I actually do. For purposes of humor, I sometimes need to whine a bit, or make slightly insensitive remarks about dumb-ass foreigners and their moronic customs. Please take such comments with a grain of salt. No ill will is intended.

(4) You might not believe point number 3, so I’d like to bring in a totally neutral character witness: my wife, Signe:

Doug forgot to mention that if you combine the feigned lack of knowledge, occasional whining, and periodic insensitive remarks, his literary persona can, from time to time, come off as an Ugly American. In real life, I assure you, he is one of the most culturally aware travelers on the trail, and he does everything in his power to combat the negative American stereotype. He’s so sensitive about this, if he does make a cultural blunder, I’ve seen him alter his accent and insist he’s from another country, like Uzbeckistan. (He uses “-istan” countries frequently for this because he’s convinced no one knows where they are. I’m not sure if Doug knows where they are.) On the other hand, he’s not the most politically correct person walking the planet. If we pass by sewage in Venice, for example, he won’t wax on about architecture or frescos or mesmerizing swirls of the oil layer drifting through the canals. He’s not afraid to say the water “stinks” and that “he was sick for weeks after he inadvertently swallowed some when he fell into the canal.” So there you go, Doug in a nutshell: a culturally aware, politically incorrect traveler who falls into canals and tells it as he swallows it.

If these suggestions do not prove useful, you may try to salvage some enjoyment from the book this way:
(i) Buy a coffee table.
(ii) Place this book on it.
(iii) Glance at it wistfully from time to time.
(iv) Dust as needed.

Tourism 101

Tourism is an odd concept. And I’m not just talking about eating vacuum-packed peanuts, buying fake Berlin Wall paperweights, and having exotic foreign encounters with concierges in well-kept hotels.

But are our travel habits any more odd than the tourist industry that is trying to attract us?

Just look at the slogans, which are basically a catchy way to say “Come and spend your money here.” Ninety-nine percent of them sound so vague they could almost apply to any place on earth, yet are so overwhelmingly positive you have to wonder if the places actually exist.

Tourist boards spend millions of dollars on these campaigns (France alone has nearly a $70 million budget), but during my three days stomping around the International Tourism Exchange convention in Berlin asking about slogans, most of the tourist board representatives were hard pressed to tell me what their slogans were. They usually had to dig around for a brochure or consult with higher-ups to confirm. Then when I’d ask how important the slogans were, these people, who had only learned for themselves what they were thirty seconds ago, would look me right in the eye and say, “Oh, slogans make a huge difference.”

One of the most popular slogan themes comes straight from the thoracic cavity. Samoa’s is “Heart of the Pacific.” Malawi prefers “The Warm Heart of Africa,” and Latvia has “The Heartland of the Baltic.” (The Latvians admit it’s not that catchy, but they’re working on a new one.) Guatemala’s “The Heart of the Mayan World” sounds the most precise, and Slovakia’s “Forever in Your Heart” sounds like the title of some Rod Stewart song. Montenegro has “Great Heart of the Mediterranean”; Antigua and Barbuda have “The Heart of the Caribbean”; and Serbia has “Landscape Painted with Heart,” which I can only assume bears no reference to the war.

Everyone wants to know a good secret, right? Well, Venezuela is “The Best Kept Secret in the Caribbean.” However, they forgot to check with Madagascar, “The World’s Best Kept Secret.” Saint Kitts and Nevis used to use “Secret Caribbean,” but I guess the secret thing wasn’t fooling anyone, so they changed it to “Two Islands, One Paradise” (It sounds like a two-for-one deal).

It’s no secret that many tourists prefer to make a beeline for stronger rays. It’s not surprising, then, that the sun is also a preferred theme. Maldives has “On the Sunny Side of Life”; Slovenia has been using “Sunny Side of the Alps”; Spain had “Everything Under the Sun”; and Iran has the Jules Verne-sounding “A Passage to the Sun.” Nigeria’s “The Giant in the Sun” sounds like a bedtime story.

What separates each destination from its neighbors? Often it’s not that much. Of course, they can’t tell the tourists that. Everyone is anxious to distinguish their destination from the rest of the pack with something unique, something …well, different. Santa Fe is “The City Different”; Estonia is “The Baltic Country with a Difference”; Oregon has the difficult-to-believe “Things Look Different Here”; and Kuwait says simply: “It’s Different.” Louisiana has “Come as You Are. Leave Different.” (The women at the convention booth said this didn’t translate very well into other languages.) And I’m pleased to see that peace has enabled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to start a joint tourism campaign. However, I can’t say I’m overly thrilled with their slogan: “Live a Different Life.” Are they suggesting you should go there and start cross-dressing?

Many destinations go for a dreamy, romantic slogan, and end up with something better suited for a prom theme. Pennsylvania has a classic: “Memories Last a Lifetime.” Oman’s would be favored by the decorating committee: “Beyond Your Imagination.” New Jersey went for the mushy approach: “New Jersey and You…Perfect Together,” while Iowa’s sounds more appropriate for the junior prom: “You Make Me Smile.” Tonga has set the stage for some heavy-handed chaperoning with “Land of Love,” and Paraguay isn’t far behind with “A Destination in Seduction.”

Nearly every slogan could land in the vague category, but here are some of the vagueness winners. These are slogans that could, without exception, be used to describe every country, state, province, city, and town on the planet with only minimal exaggeration. Singapore has “So Easy to Enjoy”; Mauritius has “Fascination”; and Poland’s “The Natural Choice” could even apply to a fruit drink or high-fiber breakfast cereal. Switzerland went for the very clever “Your Holiday,” while neighbor Austria kicked in with “Holiday Breakaway.” Turkey has “Welcome to Friends”; North Carolina has “A Better Place to Be” (better than what? The Ethiopian/Eritrean border?); and both Iceland and Thailand share the single word “Amazing” (Zimbabwe used to be “Amazing” as well, but recently changed). Fort Worth’s was a little confusing: “Capturing the World’s Attention.” (Are they planning a terrorist strike soon?) Texas has “A Whole Other Country.” (Apparently they’ve seceded from the Union without telling anyone.) Colombia’s is “The Continent Country.” I asked what that meant and they said, “It’s like a whole continent in one country.” Detroit abandoned “Expect a Lot” (I guess expectations got a bit too high) for “It’s a Great Time.”

Many of the tourist boards are now using more than one slogan to appeal to the various niche markets. This is what you might call a trend in the industry. Germany, for example, has “Culinary Germany” as one of these specialized slogans, though I doubt it impresses the French or Italians that much. “Fitness, Fun, and Beauty” is another. I gather it’s supposed to appeal to the spa crowd, since these are not likely the first three words that come to mind when most people think of Germany. Still, the tourist board maintains an all-encompassing slogan: “Germany Wunderbar.” I told the marketing manager I doubted all English speakers know that wunderbar means “wonderful.” Some might misinterpret the slogan as some kind of Bavarian chocolate bar. But according to him (I won’t reveal his name so he might keep his job), the “wunderbar” slogan was borrowed from “a Barbara Streisand song…or maybe a Nat King Cole song.” He went to ask some higher-ups which was correct, then came back and told me it came from a Cole Porter song. Which song? No one knew.

Here are the world’s worst slogans from my point of view. The hands-down winner is the city of Omaha, Nebraska, which came up with “OmAHA.” (I think it’s meant to be pronounced “Om Ahaaaa!” although I have to admit it still doesn’t make me want to go there.) There are many runners-up, starting with Chile’s “It’s Going to Be In” (Does that mean Chile is currently out?). Pakistan insists you should “Visit Pakistan – Our Way.” Sounds like you get a militant government escort. Quebec uses this slogan to attract Europeans: “America with a CertainJe Ne Sais Quoi.” (I think “America with a Devalued Currency” would be more effective.) Washington state has “The Place You’ve Been Trying to Get To,” which makes it sound like a fleet of motorists are driving around somewhere in Montana looking for it.

My favorites? I like Panama’s “Much More Than a Canal” and Costa Rica’s “No Artificial Ingredients” (their old one, “Tan Your Soul,” is pretty good as well). I also liked the story behind Ethiopia’s “Thirteen Months of Sunshine” – they do, in fact, have a different calendar. When the rest of the world switched over from the Julian to the Gregorian system in 1752 (almost 200 years after it was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII), Ethiopia decided not to get rid of their ten-day-long thirteenth month. So it’s still 1994 there. They might try “Back to the Present” or just wait seven years and corner the market on the millennium celebration. Malta’s slogan scores high marks across the board, managing to combine heart, sun, vagueness, and prom theme: “Where the Sun Shines from the Heart.”

When I returned from Berlin, I had bags of travel brochures and travel magazines. I started flipping through them in the hope that I might discover what is actually luring tourists to all these destinations (since it can’t possibly be the slogans).

What I saw were fine photographs of serene seas lightly lapping bleached beaches framed by palm trees jutting out over the water at preposterous angles that seemed like the horticultural equivalent of a dislocated shoulder. What each picture seemed to be saying was “This is Eden.” That is, until you turn to the next page, which tells you “Or maybe This is Eden.” Then there’s Islands magazine. It has so many pictures of tropical paradises, they’ve seemingly thrown in the towel and said, “We’re not exactly sure what Eden is anymore, but if you get a subscription, we’ll pummel you with new beaches every month.”

Upon closer inspection of these paradise pictures, I noticed that there were no people in most of them. The beaches looked unstepped on, yet the skies were cloudless and the hotels were brand-spanking new. Why on Earth weren’t there any tourists around? Were the hotels forced to close due to a fire code violation? Too many jellyfish in the water? Flip through brochures with this in mind and you’ll think all these resorts are going out of business and the entire travel industry is in recession.

Of course the obvious rationale is that crowds of tourists obscure the “escape” image the tourist industry is trying to sell. In fact, with bodies shaped like eggplants, lesions that make Gorbachev’s birthmark look like a freckle, and hair transplants that appear as if someone dropped divots and maneuvered them into place by foot, enough tourists can make any paradise downright unsightly. In short, to sell Eden, the tourist industry doesn’t like to show tourism to potential tourists.

Which puts these competing Edens in an interesting bind. If there aren’t supposed to be any tourists, what’s going to happen when the people get there? (Especially as Eden gets more and more crowded, pushing the image further from reality and risking disillusioned visitors.) Imagine, for example, what the world would look like if the Russians, Indians, and Chinese started traveling as frequently as Americans. They’d outnumber us seven to one at every destination. At an already overcrowded site like Venice, you’re looking at a jump from 25 million annual visitors to well over 100 million. It would sink in two years.

However, a few brochures seemed happy to show crowds. You’ll rarely see an empty picture of the deck of a cruise ship. They don’t want you to feel like you’ve been abandoned on the Lido deck. They want all passengers on board to feel they can “escape” together. (There’s even a cruise ship called Escape – the idea being that you can somehow get away from it all while staying in more crowded conditions than you deal with on land.) The same photo policy applies to casinos, where they don’t want you to feel like you’re the only one losing money, and Disney World, although they’re not likely to show people standing in intricately twisting lines or combing the parking lot in search of their cars.

Some photos display well-tanned professional models walking along an otherwise deserted beach, as if to say, “You could be this well-tanned, surgically enhanced, professional model walking along this deserted beach.” But when you walk along this beach it will be lined with screaming kids and littered with snack wrappers because you can’t afford to have the models’ film crew block off the beach traffic and clean the area. We know this, but we fall in love with the image anyway.

A few travel companies are less concerned with the number of people in the photo – they are busy trying to convey “Educational” or “Eco” travel (for which brochure photographers faced the rather difficult task of making tourists look like they’re learning, but having fun in the process). This is often typified by sitting on a tree-lodge balcony overlooking a rain forest or someone riding a camel in front of the Sphinx. Never mind that the main things the tourists in these photos actually learned were, in the first case, how to locate a beer in the rain forest and, in the second, how to bargain for thirty minutes, then pay $10 to get their picture taken on a camel.

The other thing I noticed about the images in these publications is what they don’t show. It seems travelers want one thing before they go and another thing once they get there. They don’t want to see, for example, pictures of film shops, kitsch souvenir stands, and McDonald’s in the brochure, and they may even complain about this sort of capitalist invasion on the way in from the airport. But after a day or two in the country, this is where you’ll find them, embracing creature comforts like a Greco-Roman wrestler. Fortunately, the tourist industry knows this. So they generally don’t give tourists what they promised, they give tourists what tourists really want.

Author’s Plea to the Reader
Four-and-a-half Points to Maximize Your Reading Pleasure

Acknowledgments and Blame

Introduction: Tourism 101
Part One
Near-Miss Adventure

Penne Pinching
The World’s Most Dangerous Car Rental

Full Latex Jacket
Squeezing into Berlin’s Infamous Kit Kat Club

A Sticky Wicket
Getting a Grip on Cricket at Lords

Quiz Show Bob
Behind the Scenes at The Price Is Right

Sick Man and the Sea
Fishing for Marlin off the Coast of Kenya

Storming Morocco
Meeting and Greeting in Arabic Africa

Driving Fjords
Riding a Cargo Ship up the Coast of Patagonia
Part Two
Slightly Higher Education

Last Trout in Venice
A Gondola Lesson on the Grand Canal

Sumo Cum Laude
Learning to Live Large in the Sumo Ring

A Kick in the Head
Thai Kickboxing School Enrollment

Beating the Water with an Expensive Stick
Fly-Fishing 101 in the Rocky Mountains

Tuning Out
A Crash Course in Swiss Yodeling

Bake Sale
Enrolling at the Cordon Bleu

Riding the Rolex
Taking a Whack at Polo School
Part Three
Relatively Hard Core

Ice Speed
Let Loose on Lillehammer’s Luge Run

Kilimanjaro through the Back Door
A Hike up the Highest Peak in Africa

Till the Dhows Come Home
A Trip to African Islands

Slip Sliding Away
Norway’s Toughest Ski Race

Little Big Horse
Pony Trekking in Lesotho

Reluctant Stalkers
Botswana’s Okavango Delta by Boat and Foot

The Fear of Gliding
Soaring on a Hang Glider in New Zealand

Walking the Inca-Bahn
To Machu Picchu on Foot
Part Four

A Hat of a Different Color
A Day at the Ascot Races

Vikings on the Loose
Attending a Little-Known Karneval in Sweden

Running of the Idiots
Watching the Carnage at Spain’s San FermÖn

Takes One to Samba
Parading in the Brazilian Carnaval

Kiss a Gift Horse in the Mouth
In the Middle of Italy’s Palio
Part Five
Freestyle Employment

The Grateful Med
Working a Month at Club Med in Bali

Underwater Bellhopping
Carrying Bags to the Underwater Hotel

Oh My Guinness
Taste-Testing and Making Brew in Dublin

Surfing by a Thread
Sewing Shorts at Patagonia, Inc.

Behind the Baggage Carousel
Working at Heathrow Airport

Sleeping on Thin Ice
Housekeeping at the Ice Hotel

Bum Deal
Ski Bumming the Hard Way in Val d’Isère

Fashion Forward
Fashion Photographer for a Day at the Prêt-à-Porter

Having the Last Glass
Working in a Swedish Glass Factory

Truffle Hunter
Digging for the Elusive White Fungi in Italy
Part Six
Easy Does It

Southfork Fix
Paying to Peek at the Legendary TV Set

The Sound of Muzak
Humming Along with the Famous Austrian Tour

Where the Cows Have No Name
Deciphering a Cattle Auction in Texas

Leading a Puppet to Water
Catching a Vietnamese Water Puppet Show

Splash Down
Transit Passengers Hit Iceland’s Thermal Springs

Bear Check
Truck Talking across America

Waiting for the Adipose Lady to Sing
A Night at the Opera in Vienna

The Connoisseurs
Tagging Along on a Wine-Tasting Tour in South Africa

Never-Never Land
Kicking Back on the Sinai Peninsula

Epilogue: Doing What Needs to Be Done

Sumo Cum Laude

Learning to Live Large in the Sumo Ring

Tokyo, Japan

I always thought that sumo wrestling was pretty straightforward: two pachyderm-sized, coronary bypass candidates grab hold of their opponents’ G-strings and try to toss each other out of a clay ring onto a diminutive business executive sitting in the front row who has—quite reasonably, I think—paid thousands of dollars for this privilege.

This was my philistine grasp of the sport prior to my visit to Tokyo University’s Sumo Club. Until then, my entire experience with sumo was comprised of occasionally watching sumo highlights on EuroSport (Europe’s answer to ESPN) late at night with a couple of friends. We all genuinely enjoyed these sumo clips…on an impressively superficial level.

The EuroSport commentators had no idea what they were talking about, and before they could even finish mispronouncing the wrestlers’ names, the fifteen-second matches were over. Our appreciation revolved mostly around gawking at the sheer bulk of these corpulent athletes and wondering how they figured into Darwin’s theory of evolution. Every so often, one of us would chime in with a nugget of insightful commentary, such as “Get a load of that guy—must have swallowed Marlon Brando and the bean bag chair he was sitting on.”

When I arrived in Japan, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of this sport. By going behind the scenes, maybe even trying sumo myself, I thought I might make some sense out of it. Tokyo University’s Sumo Club, where up-and-coming sumo wrestlers live and eat, seemed like the perfect place to go, especially since it was the only club that granted me access.

After watching the fifteen or so wrestlers perform a series of thundering leg stomps, butt slaps, and squats around the dohyo, a kiddy-pool-sized, clay-surfaced ring in the club’s coffee-shop-sized gym, it was my turn to get suited up. One of the junior wrestlers had me disrobe while he prepared the mawashi. You’d never know it to look at someone wearing one of these off-white G-strings, but they’re thirty feet long and as wide as a sweat towel. He folded the material to the width of a fire hose—which is exactly what the material felt like—and began the human-origami task of wrapping me up in it.

I lost track of how many times the mawashi was looped around my waist because I was busy thinking that I had never seen a man up close who was in more dire need of a bra. When he was done, there was still about a yard and a half of mawashi left over, which seemed to puzzle him. Clearly, these things were not designed for people with less than an eighty-inch waist. By comparison, my six-foot-tall, 185-pound frame looked as skeletal as Ally McBeal. He cut off the excess, stepped back, and I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. It looked like I was heading off to a photo shoot for the World’s Most Incredible Wedgie.

I swallowed hard, then walked out into the training area. Every head turned. I couldn’t have felt more naked than if I actually were.

After failing to achieve the basic sumo-squatting posture—legs spread wide, knees bent ninety degrees, toes pointed out, hips forward—without falling over or suffering back spasms, we moved on to the famous lift-one-leg-up-slap-yourself-on-the-ass-then-put-your-leg-back-down warm-up routine. I liked this exercise much better because I could at least manage a decent slap. The rest of the maneuver, however, required more balance and strength than I could muster.

I did several instructed scampers across the ring—incorrectly, I’m sure—before it was time for some body ramming. For this, I was supposed to lean forward, brace myself, and let this 270-pound behemoth launch me out of the dohyo. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt all that much…compared to, say, getting rammed by a Lincoln Navigator.

Then it was my turn to do the ramming. Naturally, I was pretty ineffective. I’m not even sure if he felt the impact. His layers of cellulite, I discovered, were covering a brick wall of muscle. And I was also a bit hesitant because the proper way to ram involves jamming your hands under the arms of the ram-ee. This guy’s armpits were positively cavernous; I think I was able to insert my arms right up to my elbows. I was also concerned I might—in ramming haste—inadvertently deliver a blow to a sensitive spot and he might get upset and sit on me.

After he determined I had taken enough abuse, it was time for me to wrestle the chief of the club. Sumo seems to be a one-weight-class-fits-all sport, though the winners often have a size advantage. The chief was not the heaviest man in the room (which is not to say he looked like a pushover). I was giving him these “ha, ha, go easy on me” looks; he was growling like a hungry pit bull, pacing the ring, and staring me down. I began to worry.

We tossed some salt into the dohyo, performing a traditional purification ritual. How salt can purify anything but popcorn, I don’t know. And neither, apparently, do these wrestlers. Every time I asked (via translator) why they did certain rituals, they just shrugged. It’s not part of Japanese nature to ask, they said.

The chief and I placed our fists in shikiri position—on the two opposing lines in the center of the ring. Sweat dripped from his brow. Come to think of it, sweat was dripping from all the wrestlers’ brows all the time. It seemed their tremendous girth made standing and breathing an aerobic sport.

Fortunately, we skipped the ramming and moved straight to the grapple. It felt as if his feet were rooted into the clay. I couldn’t move him. He went pretty easy on me, allowing me to struggle for nearly thirty seconds before he grabbed my mawashi and hauled me off the ground. I had not been given a wedgie since the third grade, and my entire body froze, Frankenstein-style, as he did this, allowing him to casually fling me out of the dohyo.

My abridged lesson was over, and it left me with a newfound appreciation for the wrestlers’ athleticism, a slightly better understanding of the sport, and a bruised rib or two. But my biggest sumo challenge was still ahead…joining them for dinner.

I sat next to the chief on a floor cushion as these omnivores began to feed. In the center of this floor feast was a cauldron of chankonabe stew, the caloric staple of the sumo diet. The pace of the meal was frantic—no time wasted on conversation—and I reached my about-to-explode limit well before these guys stopped shoveling down their meals. But when the wrestlers stood up to leave, I noticed they had left a good deal of food behind. The chief explained why with a laugh as he patted his paunch. They were just taking a breather; this had only been the first course.

Doug got his start in the copy room at Late Night with David Letterman during his college days. From there he took to the road and wrote a syndicated travel column that grew to reach over 10 million readers in 40 major newspapers. He has taught journalism at Colorado College, published several books, hosted an hour long travel documentary for the Discovery Channel / Travel Channel, and served as the regular world-travel expert on Public Radio’s flagship travel program, The Savvy Traveler. Doug’s books have won several awards, and his most recent, First Time: Around the World, is a Rough Guides bestseller. Doug is working on two books for RG while he tours on the lecture circuit and contributes to Esquire, National Geographic Adventure and other publications. To date, he has been on the road for roughly 10 years in over 100 countries. He is also the editor of There’s No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure.