Caligula in Paradise

At the end of The Happy Isles of Oceania Theroux checks into the Orchid Bungalow at the Mauna Lani Resort in Hawaii which, at the time, ran $2500 per night (now $3900). After tramping around the South Pacific with a collapsible kayak and camping gear, he finds the “orchidaceous” luxury of the 4000 square foot oceanfront bungalow deeply seductive:

The hitch at Orchid Bungalow was that the day was not long enough. I wanted to read, lie in the sun, exercise, swim, sit in the Jacuzzi, eat lengthy sumptuous meals, drink champagne and listen to music all at once. I discovered that some of these activities could be combined. Now I understood why many multimillionaires – Axel Springer and Somerset Maugham were but two – received annual injections of longevity potions. The science of life-extension is funded by a large number of very wealthy individuals, who have the most selfish motives. There is something about the pure effortless pleasure of being hoggishly, sluttishly rich that must make you want to live longer.

This put me in mind of the Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza aspires to have sex while eating a sandwich and watching a ballgame on a hand-held TV. The experiment fails, at least initially (“Flew too close to the sun on wings of pastrami,” says George). Later he feels “flush” while eating a sandwich at a restaurant with Jerry. “I’ll tell you what you did Caligula,” Jerry explains, “you combined food and sex into one disgusting uncontrollable urge.”

Theroux ultimately finds the over-the-top indulgences of the hotel corrosive:

It had only taken two days for this luxury to affect me, but it did so profoundly. It was a shock to my system that in a very short time transformed me, as luxury will – like a drug. it was wonderful being supine and semi-comatose in the sunshine, but it was also a bit like being a zoo animal – wallowing in the sort of captivating comfort that I felt would numb me and then make me fat and crazy. On the other hand, I wasn’t terribly worried: at these prices there wasn’t an earthly chance of this luxury lasting much longer.

I’ll have to take his word for it, since there is no earthly chance that I will ever be in a position to stay at the Mauna Lani Resort.

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The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

A perennial theme for popular travel writers is the discovery of Shangri-La, the fictional paradise described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Some are also aware of the travel writer’s version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: when a writer observes a place and writes about it for broad circulation, it is forever altered.       

 In Wednesday’s New York Times Jennifer Bleyer writes about her experiences in Ha Giang province in northern Vietnam, invoking the hoary Shangri-La myth while acknowledging the principle:       

My first glimpse of the place that some call Vietnam’s Shangri-La came on  a brisk spring afternoon as we were careening along a narrow road hemmed in by sheer limestone walls. …   

 My husband, my daughter and I had been in Vietnam nearly a month before we visited Ha Giang province in the northern reaches of the country. It was a place I had never heard of, but Vietnamese acquaintances talked about the region as if it were the Land of Oz, their eyes widening as they incanted its name (pronounced Ha ZAHNG). Worldly young Hanoians said that one could not truly consider oneself Vietnamese until having been there. Expatriate friends implored us not to squander any opportunity to experience this holy grail, far from the country’s deeply trodden tourist track.          

 Such reverence, we soon learned, was warranted, and it wasn’t just because of the region’s spectacular landscape. In an ever-shrinking world, Ha Giang, with its uniquely preserved tribal culture (nearly 90 percent of the population is ethnic minorities), is one of those rare places that hasn’t been corralled by modernity or prepackaged for visitors. At least, not yet.          

 The article had a predictable effect on me: I want to go to Ha Giang province and contribute, in my own small way, to its ruination.

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Tick Tock

The birth certificate I ordered for my passport reminded me that my father was 27 when I was born. My oldest son is now 27. By the time he was my younger son’s age my father had been to war in the South Pacific, gone to college on the GI Bill, married my mother, and was expecting my older brother. The WWII veterans were in a hurry after the war.           

I need visas for China, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Russian Federation. Each poses bureaucratic challenges. Russia’s requirements are particularly Byzantine

Genghis Kahn, travel agent


Under Russian law, every foreign traveler must have a Russian-based sponsor, which could be a hotel, tour company, relative, employer, university, etc. Even if you obtained your visa through a travel agency in the United States, there is still a Russian legal entity whose name is indicated on your visa and who is considered to be your legal sponsor. … If the sponsor named on your visa is not the person or entity you intend to visit, you may encounter problems with Russian immigration authorities.       

I plan to take the Trans Siberian Railway – is that my sponsor? The Railway’s website header greets the visitor with this:       

Seeing new cities and meeting new peoples is one of the joys of travelling … This phrase is ascribed to Genghis Khan (Temüjin)       

Genghis Khan’s propensity for the “systematic slaughter of civilians” in the regions he conquered makes him an unexpected choice for Russian travel industry spokesman. Who knew Russian officialdom had a sense of humor?

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Before the Mast

A few commercial shipping lines make a limited number of berths available for passengers. From the pictures available at Freighter World Cruises in Pasadena, the cabins appear to be clean and relatively spacious, with austere furnishings. Meals and soft drinks are included. The passenger must bring supplemental provisions. Some ships sell liquor by the bottle for cash once the ship is in international waters. There is no Internet access at sea.

FWC is refreshingly frank about the absence of ship-supplied diversions: “Freighters do not offer any preplannedYummifruitbat activities such as cruise ships do and mealtimes are the only daily structure.” So no shuffleboard, no floor show, no Love Boat melodrama.

I had hoped to book one-way passage to Papeete in Tahiti, spend some time there, and fly on to Singapore. Unfortunately Joycene  at FWC advised that the Tom Wörden-owned MV Cap Tapaga, which sails from California to Papeete and Samoa, only books round trips, so the South Pacific is out.

Joycene says I can get from Oakland to Singapore (via Japan, Hong Kong and Malaysia) in 20 days, for about 85 Euros per day. Bailing in Hong Kong is also an option.

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“The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good”

Joe Mabel photographer, Creative Commons

Voltaire Understood Dick's

I’m beginning understand why people surrender themselves to vacation and travel packages. If you stray from pre-packaged itineraries you take on uncertainty and what seem like onerous scheduling responsibilities.   

For example, generous friends gave me a debit card for a local travel agency as a retirement gift. The agency can’t help with my hope to start the trip on a commercial sailing vessel. I will have to work that out myself.  The agent did, however, provide me with an armful of glossy brocures for packaged trips to Indochina.  None of this would surprise a more seasoned traveller, and I understand it. Dick’s Drive-in won’t let me special order a hamburger either.   

All of this is fine. The travel agency can help with airlines and hotels when needed, and it is reassuring to know that I can call or email someone who will work out those arrangements in a pinch, thanks to my friends. It serves as a reminder that the “good” plan is to avoid commodification and leave the non-essential details to providence.

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Jumping Off

After 30 years I retired early. Although I have always enjoyed books about travel and novels set in exotic locations, I haven’t been outside the United States save for a few brief trips to British Columbia. The passport I got in 1976 was never used, so I’m getting a new one.

I am attracted to the idea of travel without rigid time constraints. I want to stay close to the ground, although I don’t mind flying.  Cruise ships and tour packages don’t appeal to me.  The idea is to see how far I can get from Seattle on working ships and trains, and I hope to use this website both as a diversion and as a way to stay in touch.

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