Monday, December 28, 2009
just in: The Fleshtones will indeed be playing on New Year's EVE at The Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center! (http://harrisburgarts.com/ )
See you there!!!!
It's the third day of Christmas, a cold rain washed away the snow over night and I can't get 'Christmas In Killarney' out of my head. I had never heard this odiously catchy tune, or at least I managed to ignore it, until this holiday season -when suddenly it was everywhere. We must have heard three or four different artists tackle the song on the Sirius Holiday Radio Channel on our DirectTV and even were regaled by some neo-Brit/Celtic folk revivalists reeling it out over Mid-Hudson NPR on our past-midnight drive up to Connecticut on Christmas Eve. Maybe it's a publishing thing, like when Michael Jackson died the catalogue of Beatle's songs that he was jealously sitting on was suddenly all over the place, adding class to Billy May infomercials and God knows what else. Perhaps when cutting the publishing deal Manager Klein had (in his kindness) judiciously padded out the song-writing efforts of Lennon /McCartney and Harrison with filler like 'Christmas In Killarnery'? I'll leave that to those better equipped to research the connections, but I will say that Bing Crosby's version was the best version I heard, as much as it would have infuriated me (along with everything else Der Bingle did) as an intemperate youth. He certainly sounds natural enough singing it. If it exists, I'd like to hear how Dean Martin would have tossed off the song -don't laugh, Dino Crocetti's breezy 'don't give a f**k' approach is just the thing for such holiday-time blarney.
Anyway, with the Holiday rush and all it's been a while since I've posted to The BusyBuddy. So thank 'Christmas In Killarney and all of the the folks back home' for shaking me out of my Christmas daze long enough to offer you all my Holiday Greetings, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and all the best in the coming year (we'll be needing it) -something I should have done long BEFORE the 25th. Then I could have included Chanukah Greetings to my friends as well as slipping in a plug for The Fleshtones's 2008 Christmas album 'Stocking Stuffer' (YEP -2184;http://www.yeproc.com/) in time for someone to buy it, but that would be too practical and 'smack of self-promotion', wouldn't it?
So it's Christmas in Connecticut -minus Barbara Stanwick, but with the electronic 'Yule Log' gayly burning away on the flat-screen by request of son Sergei (surely this two-hundred year-old house originally had several fireplaces, all removed in an over-zealous modernization drive by the former owners several generations ago). We enjoyed, as always, DVDs of McGoo's Christmas Carol (great Jim Backus and songs by top Broadway tunesmiths Merill & Styne) , a Harry Potter feature and a very strange Russian version of Gogol's strange 'Night Before Christmas' kindly lent to us by Olga Lausch of Rehobeth, DEL, which prompted me to read the original story (translation of course) this morning. No 'Christmas Carol' of course, but then Gogol wasn't that type of moralizer.
Here's our Christmas dinner -on which we are still dining:
Roast Duck with hot Bilberry sauce*,
Root vegetables (turnips, beets and parsnips) brushed with duck fat and roasted with fresh rosemary, pepper and salt)
Spinach with garlic
Mixed salad with feta.
Prosecco Santero -San Stefano Belbo
Before I'm hauled up before a Congressional Committee for high-hatting extravagance in these hard times (but Holiday, eh, Christmas Mr. Scrooge, Christmas...) I will plead that I got the duck for $12.95 with the help of my 'Stop & Shop' card (shades of Jonathan Richman's immortal 'Roadrunner' -but I not only drive past the Stop & Shop, I stop to shop at the Stop & Shop). As exotic as the bilberry sounds, a jar of the jam can be purchased at one of the Polish food shops in Greenpoint (along with somewhat harder to find cranberry, lingonberry and occasionally even whortleberry jams) for about $2.29. I'm sure that's exactly how the chef prepared our magret de canard with bilberry sauce (using jam) that the band enjoyed so much before our Paris show two years ago (I'll get the address of the cafe for you). The prosecco was $10.99 a pop (even less when when you get the 20% discount by buying three bottles at our local dealer on Manhattan Ave in Greenpoint) - not too sweet at all -just right and certainly festive. To sum it all up the spinach was thawed from frozen blocks (99¢ a box -anywhere) and the potatoes and roots -well they speak for themselves (hmmm, let me think about that...). We didn't even bother eating the salad until the next day -the feast of St. Stephen as mentioned in Good King Wenceslaus -Boxing Day as Ken Fox and our friends in The Commonwealth would have it -that is, the second day of Christmas. I like Christmas having twelve days. If that's too much for you, once while in Tobago, I recall hearing a woman on the radio putting forth the argument that Christmas actually had thirteen days. I guess that's counting Epithany, which we called 'Little Christmas' when I was a child. The Tobagonians, however, are content to celebrate only 12 days (with music, drinking and constantly setting off explosions by pouring gasoline into a hollow of bamboo and lighting it) -even if they did seem to run out of steam after New Year's Day. Anyway, the old tradition softens the let down after the big build up, you know that feeling of it all being over in one day. Some say good riddance, but people wouldn't feel that way if Christmas wasn't celebrated (pushed, actually) so early and heavily weeks before it even arrives all during Advent or even before that. That might also save us some of the unseemly grousing about Yuletide commercialization, although the observation of desperate merchants this year might have been the lack of it.
We're about to drive up to The Red Lion Inn (http://www.redlioninn.com/) in picture-perfect Stockbridge, Mass (of Norman Rockwell and yes, Alice's Restaurant /Arlo Guthrie fame) to admire the Christmas display and have some hot cocoa or mulled cider with rum, a yearly tradition.
Writer John Buckley tells me he labored there as a lad. Probably at the same time an enraged Viennese dessert chef named Horst was screaming at me at the top of his lungs in the kitchens of the venerable Hotel Sagamore in the Adironacks. I'll have to thank Horst for unintentionally (?...) helping me decide -or at least not decide, what I was incapable of deciding for many years to come. I wound up letting that decide itself. That was in the early 70's - I remember well because the first Black Sabbath album was being played, maddeningly, non-stop by some Mexican maniacs on the only turntable in the dilapidated barracks where the grand old hotel's staff of transients, ex-cons and Anders Goldfarb (who had gotten me the gig there), were housed. Oddly enough, just a couple of years ago I was doing a 'site inspection' for a leading bridal magazine at Caneel Bay, St. John's USVI (a gorgeously low-key resort founded many years ago by Lawrence Rockefeller with the idea of providing a means of employment for the islanders -I couldn't help asking if 'Larry' still dropped in) when I was introduced to the assistant dessert chef, who couldn't have been any older than I was when I was back at the Sagamore. She told me she was just recovering from the farewell party they had given the night before for their retiring (and long-serving) pastry chef -an ill-tempered Viennese fellow named Horst. Life is indeed very strange and wondrous. So once again I'll wish you all Happy Holidays and hope to see you all at Southpaw (http://spsounds.com/)in Brooklyn for our audacious Hangover Helper with Roky Ericsson on New Year Day -that's day, not eve, if you can stand it.
* Roasting the duck wasn't as awful as you might think. We scored the skin, rending off a bunch of the fat while browning the skin in an iron skillet, then roasted the bird on a rack with a DEEP pan underneath to catch the rest of the fat in a hot oven (about 400º) for a little under 2 hours for the 5 1/2 lb. duck. I had taken the precaution of lining the inside of the oven with foil, which wasn't really necessary, but of course we managed to fill the house with smoke anyway.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
I'm going to take a break from Spain to tell you about last weekend. Ken Fox picked us up Friday afternoon in his mini-van and we drove down to Rehobeth Beach, DE to play that night at Dogfish Head (http://www.dogfish.com). Thanks to our friend Chris Lausch, it's become a regular (and welcome) gig for us. I'll have to tell you more about Rehobeth at some point, but it's a low-key beach resort that we, in true Fleshtones fashion, happen to play mostly during the winter (why change our business model at this point?). A mile or two up the coast is Lewes (pronounced like Dean Martin's partner), where the Cape May ferry comes in from New Jersey. In Dutch colonial days it was called Swannendael, and as such claims to be Delaware's oldest town, but there's nothing left from then (or its ephemeral Swedish period). Still, the compact village has a super-quaint, salty English colonial vibe and is worth investigating. Although hardly unique for bombarded American sea-side towns, they do have their own 'cannonball house' with a iron memento cemented where it smashed into a wall during a British siege, if I remember (I'm not going to research that now) from the almost-forgotten War Of 1812. The only person I ever knew who got worked up over that conflict was Gordon Spaeth. We may not have gotten Canada in that one, but did wind up with two good songs: The Star Spangled Banner and Johnny Horton's 'Battle Of New Orleans'.
Anyway, the worst part of touring (even in this small way) during the winter for me is arriving at our destination in the dark. It's always given me the creeps. As soon as we 'loaded in' however, The Dogfish Head lifted all spirits. During the evening it's a cheery, family seafood place. There's canoes and a dinghy suspended from the ceiling as well as vintage photos and fishing gear on the walls. Although a bit exotic for my tastes, they brew their own award-winning line of beers that are starting to get national distribution, as as well distilling their own vodkas and (excellent) rums.
There's lots of great places to eat in Rehobeth, but we decided to stay put and dine right at Dogfish Head. Nothing fancy. The speciality is of course seafood, with with optional hamburgers and steaks if you're in the mood. Most of us chose crab-cake sandwiches, $11, which comes with a pile of excellent french fries which is good if you like french fried potatoes. I like french fries. To wash it down I had a pint of their 'Lawnmower', the closest thing they brew to what I'd call a 'normal' beer, but I've got pretty pedestrian tastes when it comes to the stuff. Then we went back to Chris's to watch a DVD of 'Young Frankenstein'. Gene Hackman tackles his cameo with his usual delight, but YF hasn't held up well (I didn't even bother seeing it when it came out, and as weak a leading man as Gene Wilder was, Brooks' films hardly improved later when he replaced Wilder with himself. But to have made one movie like 'The Producers' is enough to redeem them all).
Back at the club the opening band, Harrisburg powerpoppers The Jellybricks, (who were also kind enough to lend us their 'back line'), got the fun rolling with an energetic set, then we did our thing for a modest-sized, but appreciative, audience. It's always a pleasure to play Dogfish Head.
Afterwards, Chris was once again kind enough to host the band. On the way back to his home we stopped in front of Apple Electric on Route 24 just off Highway 1. Every year, the building and grounds are covered with an elaborate (to say the least) all-night light display that is synchronized to Christmas music broadcast over 88.7FM. Bill and I clamored to stop, so we pulled over and tuned in just in time for opening bars of 'Charlie Brown's Christmas'. The lights went into a mad dance, then both radio and lights went dead as Apple Electric's power blew, plunging everything into an inky, silent night.
The next morning after coffee and mini-bagels (and again many thanks to Chris and his lovely wife Olga), we headed off to Harrisburg. We decided to screw 'Mapquest' (usually, not a good idea) and cut cross-country (well, yes, we did use a road), heading to Harrisburg via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It's an interesting drive through the flat Delmarva farmlands and small towns that reminded me a lot of the Long Island of my childhood (which could have been in the 19th century for all the irrevocable change that that place has undergone). The route took us right through the middle of the Sussex County seat (DE only has 3 counties) of St. George's, with it's green surrounded by beautiful red-brick (there's no stone here) colonial buildings including the courthouse and an inn that looks like a great place for at least a drink, if not more. Let me know if you ever stop there. We were listening to Irma Thomas and I was engrossed in the harrowing climax of Hemingway's 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' - something I should have read in school, or at least while driving around Spain, but only had recently picked it up on the urging of my son, who came by it by way of Metallica. By the time we got to the bridge, it was snowing heavily, reducing visibility to a tight perimeter. What we could see of the bay far below us was dark and gray, whipped into a white-capped frenzy by the raising wind. "This is really something" Ken and I blurted out simultaneously, but what we really meant was 'scary'. It snowed all the way to Harrisburg, but as we crossed the Susquehanna River into the city, the weather settled into a misty, sorrowful gloom. I'm a patriotic guy, but staring down at the broad, shallow river, the place seemed more foreign to me than anywhere we'd been in the over 3 weeks in Spain. Well, I don't think we've played in Harrisburg in 20 years, the closest we've gotten was rocketing by miles to the north on the 'interstate' on our way to points west or east. At least I'd have some observations for anyone who finds themselves here if they become governor or something.
There's Something Out There...
Physically, Harrisburg was a lot more attractive than I remembered. It's basically a pre-Civil War (I bet things got pretty jittery around here when Lee's armies were down the road in Gettysburg) era city with its guts ripped out by some more recent, misconceived urban planning. We pulled into the Comfort Inn Riverfront ( 525 S Front Street, Harrisburg, PA 17104; www.comfortinnriverfront.com), which has recently been redecorated -contemporary furnishings, lots of granite and all. Not bad! And river front indeed -right in front of our 'picture window' was the wide Susquehanna (well, there was a bit of a parking lot in between), crossed by the city's trademark long, low old multi-arch bridges -I tried counting the concrete aches of the closest one but lost count after 30. The adjacent Indian restaurant is supposed to be pretty good too, but tonight's promoter (he hates that term and if a 'promoter' he is a most exceptional one) John Traynor had other plans for us. Driving to the venue we passed blocks of old row houses, sort of like the older parts of Philadelphia. The Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center (268 Herr St and Susquehanna -'is this a Susquehanna hat?!', Harrisburg PA; www.harrisburgarts.com), very much a work in progress, occupies a multi-thousand square foot disused former Jewish Center in a residential part of town. For once I felt relieved to be in a bright, renovated performance space. The ceiling was soaring, high enough to accommodate the witty stainless steel sculptures (giant fly meets giant swatter, etc) that topped the long, inviting bar. The walls were hung with an exhibit of large, contemporary paintings. John explained that they were a series of autobiographical pieces created by 'at risk' youth -an outreach program for kids that have been kicked out of schools and worse. John was quite proud of the project and to cynics (with a small C) I'd say it's a hell of a lot better (and cheaper) than jail. There's always time for that later. Hearing far and wide that The Fleshtones were reputed to be veritable idiot bon-vivants, John was very excited to show us what rebounding Harrisburg had to offer.
He brought us, and Mike from the opening band Parallax Project (who had helped arranged the show together with Chris), to Mangia Qui (272 North Street, Harrisburg PA; http://www.mangiaqui.com) which is diagonally across from the Pennsylvania's grandiose capitol -complete with a dome patterned after St. Peter's Basilica.
Behind the wooden venetian blinds on the windows there was a nice 'buzz' in the medium-sized store-front dining room. The walls were a soothing ochre. The well-dressed diners looked, and sounded, like they were enjoying themselves. Co-owner Staci Basore effusively greeted John -he seems to be quite the man about town. He certainly is doing a good thing for Harrisburg. Having the unusual background of parents from Norfolk, England and our own Rockaway Beach, Queens, he grew up in New York and England, later opening a boutique hotel in Bejar de la Frontera, Spain. He was on the verge of moving to Brazil and opening a hotel there, when he made the next logical choice and landed in Harrisburg.
The waitress ran down an formidable array of specials and recommendations: seared fois-gras with 'Italian' fruits...... marinated and grilled local 'boletus' mushrooms..... fresh 'corzetti' pasta served with a lamb.....Portuguese snapper -I can serve it two ways: ......whole...... fillet.... local micro greens..... magret de canard... 'Tuscan grill' (?)....... At $14 a 1/2 dozen, there was a pricey, but good selection of cold water oysters, including small Rhode Island Umani (like nearby Fisher's island) and Effinghams from BC. I used to love oysters on the half shell, but have been mighty gun-shy of them (especially on performance nights) since two catastrophic encounters (in France, no less). I'm no sissy and I had been drinking wine (Pio Cesare Barbera d'Alba 2006 -hmmm, what's that, a hint of? vanilla? 'flan?' -I'd been in Spain too long), so swept up in the general enthusiasm I downed one oyster, and then another and another. John also insisted on me trying the seared fois-gras with 'Italian fruits'. I know this sweet fruit thing with meats is sort of cheating, but it was very good. Anyway, I've got no brief against maraschino cherries, a venerable product of Trieste. I spilt the 'corzetti' and the Tuscan Grill with Ken. The corzetti was like orecchiette, only bigger and flatter -served with a rich lamb ragu, and the Tuscan grill (served with roast fingerling potatoes -local too, I presume!) turned out to be a thick disc of a rib-eye, semi-charred on the outside, red on the inside and salted, just like in Florence, but much, much better meat -but I wished I had chosen Streng's duck, which was rare and more flavorful than any steak. Wasn't there a show to do? And I did say we don't eat before shows?
Instead of the dozen or so old fans creeping out of the woodwork, we were surprised to play to a full house. Again, the openers Parallax Project, were ace musicians, generous and lots of fun, and the sound, eerily hollow during sound check, was excellent. We had a great time, even whipping out a version of The Guess Who's 'It's My Pride' (more Canadiana) that we've been reluctant to perform ( it does have an unnecessarily large amount of lyrics for me to remember).
Well, you can still learn things. I love Harrisburg.
Next: back to Spain -Valencia, Barcelona, Burgos, A visit with Ricardo Palacios and 'Don't Talk To Juancho'
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
I'll Have The Quail
It's been an inside joke with the band especially when weighing some of the lamer dining options while 'on the road' here in the States. It all goes back to Spain, just like The Fleshtones have been doing for the past 22 years. We had arrived in Madrid the morning before and I spent the previous afternoon tramping from bank to bank with with long-time Spanish agent and friend Jose 'Pepe' Ugeña in a fruitless attempt to wire money back home (the avalanche of unpaid bills doesn't cease just because I leave the country). That night we had drinks at La Catrina (corradera Alta de San Pablo, 13), a small Mexi-kitsch bar whose Russian bartender Andre is one of the kindest in Madrid's Malasaña district.
In the morning the band and all our gear piled into a modest-size Ford Transit mini-bus along with our road manager/driver Luis 'Jimmy' Garcia (former Templo del Gato DJ and lead singer of Los Nuggets -traveling with Jimmy makes everyday seem like you're in in some sort of movie) heading for our first engagement in Valencia.
We were listening to early 60's Halloween music and re-visiting old favorites The Move via an anthology (courtesy of David Kamp). After mind-numbing hours of driving through a blasted spaghetti-western landscape of eroded rock, the occasional cement plant (abandoned) in the middle of nowhere, and tortured olive trees and vineyards (look, there's our first 'bull' -adverts for 'Osborne' brand sherry, the colossal black silhouettes have been a hallmark of driving in Spain for generations) I figured I'd try another old plan of mine. "Let's learn a Spanish phrase everyday since we're in the van anyway." "Comemos" said Jimmy -let's eat. Somewhere before entering the province of Valencia we pulled into a truck stop (also in the middle of nowhere) that had the right look. I'm not suggesting you to drive out here to eat so I won't bother telling you the name or where it was. Anyway, there are places like this all over Spain. This is one country, along with Italy, where you can expect to eat well, and more importantly, cheaply, while on the road. The band also enjoys having our main meals midday. Anyone who has seen us on stage knows that we're not exactly 'shoegazers' so we don't like to eat much before shows. A quick look at the menu - which included a 12 euro 'menu del dia' -a bit more than we would like to spend. 'Why not?' and we were in. There was a massive, wall-through brick wood-fired 'asador' (cooking hearth) that was screened-off with fire-proof glass. We grabbed one of the many tables in the cavernous, sterile but bright comedor. A scattering of truck drivers and highway maintenance crews were busy ignoring the tiny TV that was showing a Spanish version of 'Wheel Of Fortune'. Although a well-paid professional in Norway, the richest country in Europe, often has to squeeze in a brown-bag lunch, a blue collar Spanish worker can somehow afford a leisurely 3-course meal, with a bottle of wine tossed in. The menu del dia offered 18 choices for the 'first plate' - and over 20 for you to choose for your second -bacalao con pisto, cordero al horno, chuletas de cordero, magro con pisto, merluza ala plancha and cordonices (quail), either asodo (roasted), fritas (fried) or escabechadas (cooked in a vinegary marinade). "I'll have the quail" I said without having to think twice. My only problem was 'how?' I settled on 'escabechado' since I figured frying or roasting the little things might dry them out.
We picked the second best bottle of wine on the list, a bottle of Don Octavo, reserva 2001 from La Mancha. Although The Fleshtones have become fans of Manchego wines from playing in Tomelloso so often, this hearty' tinto' more than lived up to that region's tough reputation. My first plate choice, a platter of judias verdes (flat green beans), simmered with pieces of prosciutto-like Iberian ham, was just want I wanted, but Ken Fox's 'potage de garbanzos' was really something -a heaping bowl of chick peas laced with, besides more jamon iberico, big hunks of cardos, the giant celery-like vegetable known to (a very few) English speakers as cardoon. A whole fat link of morcilla (blood sausage) elbowed for room in the middle of the bowl.
Ah, Spain, the vegan's hell. Where else could a place like the 'Museo Del Jamon', a Madrid chain of cerveccerias, where the very walls are studded with whole hunches of ham -which also drip from the ceiling by their dainty cloven feet like stalactites (or are they stalagmites?) be considered to be tastefully decorated? Bill Milhizer says her Spanish food travelogue is great, but somehow I can't picture Gweneth Paltrow eating this stuff. Huddled together alone in the middle of my plate, my quail looked naked and pale, but their sharp, vinegary aroma was irresistable. Stuffed with a giant clove of garlic and a single bay leaf, the quail were succulent and tasty -I sucked the goodness off each pitiful little bone with a combination of relish and respect.
Although the time is always right for flan, afterwards I enjoyed 'caujados' sweetened with honey. Light and refreshing, it's a nostalgic dessert for anyone who can remember the Junket Rennet Pudding that was so heavily advertised on children's and family TV before the McDonaldization of the American palate winnowed out most of our food spectrum.
By the time we left the restaurant the sky had darkened and a biting wind swept us back into the severely overloaded van and off the high 'meseta' of central Spain into the province of Valencia. We sped past Fuenterobles (Spring Oaks) in the Utiel wine region (we didn't stop). The racing wind tore the clouds into steely shards and a rainbow appeared ahead as we descended into the piney mountains leading towards the warm Mediterranean sea.
Maybe I should have had my quail 'asado'?
next, Valencia, Barcelona, Leon and 'Don't Talk To Juancho'
photos: Ken Fox
The Fleshtone's first morning in Spain, Madrid Nov. 3, 2009 as 'snapped' by Luis 'Jimmy' Garcia. courtesy: Ken Fox
Sorry to have dropped off the map for a while. I had planned to keep you up on all the action from the road like a 'real' blogista, but without a laptop that could actually function as one (i.e. one not on life-support) it proved a lot harder than I had thought. Dealing with a tight schedule that kept us on the go, emotionally draining shows (my pleasure!) staying at hotels without Internet (can't use that excuse too much) then figuring out the Spanish keyboards at odd hours of the morning just made staying in bed a bit longer all the more attractive. "I'll make a note of it!" * Larry Fine would cheerfully respond when a belligerent Moe Howard would bluster "remind me to murder you!". Luckily, like the muy aimable Mr. Fine, I took notes, lot's of them, so I'll reconstruct the tour, blow by blow for you if you like. It was quite eventful and I've got to thank Sr. Jose 'Pepe' Ugena, the band and Spain itself for making it all possible. As advised, I'll keep it to a briefer more 'conversational' style like a 'real' blog, but you'll have to also forgive me if I get a bit expansive and meditative once in a while -in fact, right away. So all about Spain, although The Fleshtones are now back in the U.S.A. as we reunite with loved ones, make new plans and face new adventures sin chorizo.
* many years after Larry's death sent me and a small coterie of followers (of Larry, that is) at the School Of Visual Arts into a state of near psychosis, I was MC at a Cavestomp event at the Polish National Home near my house here in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Suddenly a follow student who I hadn't seen since the mid-70's rushed out of nowhere and exclaimed "now if we could only find that note..."
Monday, November 2, 2009
"What A Party That Was..." -Vivian Stanshall, 'Big Shot', 1967
October 4 through 6, Island Routes, a new 'Luxury Adventure' tour company was launched by the Sandals organization in Ocho Rios. Actually, Island Routes is already booking over 80 tours in Jamaica, and is soon to begin booking in St. Lucia, Antigua, TCI and the Bahamas. I was there covering it all for Modern Bride Magazine -which folded during the trip.
I've done a lot of this stuff -bamboo rafting a la Errol Flynn (in my case on the Great River), river tubing, YS Falls, Blue Mountain biking, meeting the 'crocs' in Black river, canopy zip-lining, riding with the Jamaican dog-sled team and the pilgrimage up to 9 Mile (birth/last resting place of Bob Marley) with Chukka Cove -and think they're all fantastic experiences. Exciting even. Jamaica is like that -a lot to offer. It can only help to have this wealth of attractions marketed (that sounds so business-like) by a company with a reach that small outfits just don't have on their own. Having someone reliable (alright -big)like Sandals behind it, Island Routes is positioned (how do you like that term?) to keep standards up, you know safety and stuff like that, provide snazzier transportation and besides, has a staff in decked out in cute safari outfits and pith helmets. If it's good for Jamaica, and in turn for the visitor, I'm all for it.
Big kid -courtesy of Mystic Mountain Rainforest Bobsled Jamaica
After checking into Sandals Dunns River, the press (the term reminds me how the 3 Stooges try to sneak into a racetrack as newsmen by using knobs from a bathroom as badges -Moe "press", Larry "press", Curly "pull") and guests were ski-lifted over 700 feet up Mystic Mountain to try out the Jamaican Rainforest bobsled ride (fast, faster and fun -even for a coot like me) and dinner in their new dining room that overlooks the twinkling lights of Ocho Rios.
Island Routes' Tony Ebanks, Canadian journalist Liz Fleming and dinner guest.
I love fishing (and sadly seldom do), so next morning I was raring to go when several of us went out aboard the 31' Bertram Sabrina. "Follow the birds" said the first mate, which we did, giving the outing a bit of epic, 'Moby Dick' aura. Sure enough, the 'man o' war' birds led us to where the baitfish were boiling. Although the captain regretted that the billfish had already migrated past the island's eastern tip, within seconds we hooked into a couple of fine bonito
That night there was a catamaran cruise over to Laughing Waters, scene of the memorable first encounter between Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in 'Dr. No' and now official holiday residence of Jamaica's Prime Ministers. Waiting there was a full-out 'Barefoot' beach party -Steel drums, limbo dancing, rhumba lines -the whole swinging scene, along with (among dozens of other dishes) the bonito we had caught earlier that day (raw in a ceviche-like 'salad' and as well as grilled).
The next day I signed up for the 'Heritage Beach' horseback ride at Seville Great House, which take you from the old estate (now a museum) through the (scant) remains of Jamaica's first Spanish capital Sevilla Nuevo, then a nice charge through the waves. Cold 'Red Stripe' only enhanced the 'old Jamaica' scene at the shore, with fishermen returning under sail and a pleasing view of St. Ann's Bay Town (birthplace of national hero Marcus Garvey).
two representatives of Cool Runnins', Negril, official launch night
On the final night Island Routes was officially launched at Sandals Country Club Ocho Rios. MC Weston Houghton ran down the history of Jamaican popular music and dance from 'mento', through 'ska' and 'rock steady' (recalling that then dancers were so anchored to their spots the craze was dubbed 'rent-a-tile'). CEO Adam Stewart, inspired by a recent trip, explained, "In Africa everyone just assumes you're there to see their land, here in the Caribbean we never thought of it that way, but we've got just as much to offer". Island Routes GM, the fabulous Dominique Peterkin, and the girls then demonstrated all the latest dancehall moves like 'Signal The Aircraft' and 'The Gully Creepa' (God bless Jamaica, with all it's problems, still turning out dance crazes like it was the 60's).
One of the most pleasant surprises of the trip was spending a little time before the flight home at Sandals Montego Bay -the property that started it all for the 'all inclusive, couples only' empire. Yeah, yeah, that's 'couples only', but don't get the wrong idea (you're thinking of Hedonism). Originally The Roc Bay Hotel (designed by Edward Durell Stone, the architect of Radio City Music Hall), the 251 room resort has almost a 'boutique-ish' feel, that concentrates its lively vibe. Staying here puts you as close to the 'action' (and misadventures) afforded by Mo'Bay as you'd want to be, as well as to a quick getaway via Sangster International Airport when necessary. In fact, it was here that the perceived drawback of being located virtually at the end of a runway was creatively dealt with by instituting 'the wave'. I participated in at least one 'wave' while I was there and have to say the passing jets thing is no big deal. Sangster isn't JFK (thank God!).
Earlier that morning we had visited Bellefield Greathouse in the foothills outside Montego Bay for a bit of 'living history'. Garbed in period costumes, the greathouse's 'cast' throw themselves into their roles as the estate's gossiping servants (with a surprise visit by their mistress). The tour winds up with a luncheon on the lawn (good jerk) accompanied by drumming and dancing. I particularly liked the visit to the cool 1794 sugarmill - large enough for it's interior to be converted into a recreation of an old Jamaica tavern. There we were served the sort of refreshing punch I love, mixed to the venerable rhyme thusly:
One part sour (lime juice)
Two parts sweet (simple syrup)
Three parts strong (white 'over-proof' rum)
and four parts weak (water)
the return of Mr. Pro -just in time.
I Gotta Go (to Spain, that is)
I hate to talk about myself, but here's where the fun (We) will be in Spain, November, 2009:
Wednesday 4th - Valencia - "La Edad De Oro"
Thursday 5th - Barcelona - "Razzmatazz 3"
Friday 6th - Burgos - "Estudio 27"
Sáturday 7th - Vitoria - "Hell Dorado"
Sunday 8th - León - "Gran Café"
Monday 9th - Ponferrada "Cocodrilo Negro"
Wednesday 11th - Santiago - "NASA"
Thursday 12nd - Ferról - "Run Rum"
Friday 13th - Gijón - "Albeniz"
Sáturday 14th - Logroño - "Biribay Jazz Club"
Sunday 15th - Santoña (Cantabria) - "Tropicana Club"
Monday 16th - National radio RN3 "El Sotano"
Wednesday 18th - Granada - "Planta Baja"
Thursday 19th - Murcia - "12 y Medio"
Friday 20th - Madrid - "El Sol"
Saturday 21st - Petrer (Alicante) - "Club 2"
I'll try to catch up while 'on the road' but do drop by. It's always a blast in Spain!
Those nice Norwegians, The Goo Men, have asked me to contribute some liner notes for their just completed third album. I'll have some time (I'll say) to come up with something as I foresee a lot of sitting in a van in my immediate future. It's suitable that I'll be writing this while being bounced around some Spanish roads. The liner notes I've written that I like the best were for Spain's Dr. Explosion, which almost reach the level of those written by that old master of the genre, Sir Lamprey Leech. For classic, 70's English 'serious rock' pomposity, the notes for the first Uriah Heep LP are pretty hard to beat, but what I really like are the notes where it's obvious the guy hasn't even bothered listening to the record. For sheer old-style rubber cement snip and paste indifference, it's hard to top Excello Record's excellent Lightin' Slim (Otis Hicks) album, (which was it, either 'Bellringer' or 'Rooster Blues'?-or perhaps they just used the same notes on both records) that the Spaeth brothers and I used to marvel over back in the Dark Ages. The notes paint a down-home picture of little Otis, stealing away as a child with his uncle's guitar to play the blues while waiting for the fish to bite, then later flatly states the he didn't learn to play the guitar until the age of 33. In the end they tie it all together by explaining that whenever Otis is asked what his favorite song on the album is, he invariably replies 'Bad Luck' "because it's brought him so much good luck" -naturally a song not on either LP. Down-home Excello probably just figured anyone buying the record was illiterate anyway. I think the Goo Men's favorite song on their new album shall be 'Bad Luck'...
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Where the rum comes from (or at least a bit of it) A drive up to Grenada's River Antoine Estate Distillery pt.1
We're going for a drive in Grenada, half way around the world from Aitutaki. Leaving Maca Bana in the extreme southern 'tail' of the island, guide Roger Augustine and I began heading north up Grenada's west (Caribbean) coast. It's a beautiful tropical island in the volcanic, Windwards mold -soaring forest -clad mountains, steep cultivated valleys and rushing rivers. The road skirts a dramatic, wildly irregular coastline indented with palm-backed bays and coves, each embracing its own beach -gold, beige or volcanic 'black' sand -take your pick. We passed through a series of old towns, many bearing names that are a legacy of France's early dominion over the island.
Along the way:
Gran Roi: The King Of Calypso, Slinger Francisco 'the Mighty Sparrow' was born here, and not in Trinidad as often assumed (okay, as I assumed). Musically, Grenada is 'soca' country.
Concord Falls: Where a good-sized boa coiled in the rafters of a derelict zinc-roofed bus stop (or souvenir stand?). Right off the road and nice for a dip. If you're lucky you'll pass country folk coming down from the hills with loads balanced on their heads or pack-laden donkeys.
Dougaldston Spice Boucan: Step back a few centuries into this worn but working 'boucan' -French creole for drying platform (the word being 'barbecue' on islands with English heritage). "Boucan', 'Buccaneers', 'barbecue', jerked meat, that's all part of another story, but workers here will give a short explanation of the spices they process and their uses.
Gouyave Nutmeg Processing Plant: (old West Indies style warehouse). Lot's of nutmeg. What's great about these places is that they're working, traditional operations, not (yet) museums. I'll have more to say some other time about this spice that figures so prominently in Grenada's story that it's pictured on the national flag. The glossy, dark shells that are a bi-product of processing are so abundant, however, that they are used as an attractive mulch around plantings. Spread around homes the brittle shells also serve as a 'Grenadian burgler alarm". Gouyave is also the site of 'Fish Fridays' a big jump up with street music, food and of course -rum.
Spice Cloth Grenada, Concord: Printing/clothing workshop of designer Jessie-Ann Jessamy (in another old West Indies spice warehouse) where the girls are busy at work hand-screening nutmeg-motif prints to produce fashionable bags and clothing -distinctive and useful momentos of Grenada. Also rum (and samples) and other traditional Grenadian items like Morne Delice nutmeg jams and syrup (unusual and delicious) http://sites.google.com/site/spiceclothgrenada/
Grenada Bay: Swim in the sheltered 'rock pools' at Bathway Beach.
Way up north at the 'top' of the island we stopped for what Roger promised would be a memorable lunch. There aren't many places where you can actually tell exactly where you are on the globe by simply looking, but Petite Anse (from $120 low season -$250 high season including full English breakfast; www.petiteanse.com) is one of them. The view of the Caribbean and the Grenadine Islands sweeping northwestwards over the horizon is mesmerizing. Opened last March (2009) by English couple Philip and Anne with Iggy the Egret (a local), Petite Anse (little cove) has only 11 cottages and suites on a lush hillside; solar-heated water, 'eco-friendly', all with that astounding view. The Clifts grow much of their own organic fruit and vegetables for the restaurant. Pretty damned idyllic even for super-idyllic Grenada, although it may be a bit isolated for some travelers, or at least far from the St. George's/ Grand Anse 'action' -be that as it may. What do guests do up here besides relax on the beach and gape at the view? "Well" says Philip, "they can hit the bars in Sauteurs (French for 'leapers' -every island in the East Caribbean seems to have a place where the Caribs threw themselves over a cliff rather than submit to the Europeans), or a fisherman can take them out for a picnic out on Sandy Island, they can catch a fish, have a barbecue -they'll have the whole place to themselves." Petite Anse also provides their guests with local cellphones to keep in touch while off knocking around the island on their own, a welcome trend at 'boutique' hotels.
Oh yeah, lunch -I tried the recommended callaloo ravioli, although Bernardo Bertucci of LaLuna (i.e. an Italian) would probably call them 'agnolotti'. I'd call them callaloo pierogi -after all, the head chef is Polish. Roger had the pan seared mahi mahi (even in the West Indies they have to call 'dolphin-fish' by it's Hawaiian name to avoid needlessly upsetting tourists) and the macaroni 'pie' (baked mac 'n cheese). He was right. This was one of my best meals on the island - and eating on Grenada, with it's creole based cooking and fresh tropical ingredients, is wonderful.
Rounding the island, we turned southwards along the East Coast, detouring up the landing strip of Pearls, Grenada's long-defunct original airport, where Grenadians now hone their driving skills. I was glad to see there's still a functioning 'Runway Bar' decades after the airport's abandonment (no, we didn't stop). After a passing glance at Lake Antoine (a water-filled volcanic crater -scenically unspectacular but excellent for bird-watching), tall stands of sugar cane crowding the road signaled that we were entering Antoine River Estate, a plantation dating from French rule.
Established in 1785, a visit to River Antoine Distillery would be fascinating for anyone interested in early industrial-age technology in action (it's as if the 'Cutty Sark' was still doing commercial transatlantic runs), the plantation system, West Indian history and culture, rum or other artisanal food production -in fact, for anyone with any interests. I guess that would have ruled out Nico. The last time I was in Grenada I had visited Westerhall Estate Distillery (a source of 'Jack Iron' rum), and was greeted by mountains of pungent 'bagasse' or spent sugar cane. That's all a thing of the past. Now the island's rum is produced from imported molasses, that is except for River Antoine, which is still distilled from freshly pressed cane juice like the 'rhum agricole' of the French islands. I reckoned it would taste and smell as such.
Entering the weathered distillery complex I was met by the sight of two towering, wood-fired copper 'pot stills'. You'd expect to see these sorts of antiques inside a museum, if they could fit. In fact, thanks to an attendant who was stoking the blazing furnaces with carefully chosen hunks of trees, they were happily cooking away. As I circled the distilling shed there was the cane mill, powered by a gigantic cast-iron waterwheel -the product of some long-gone English foundry. Workers fed a steady stream of cane into a wooden chute leading up to the press (yeah, watch those hands). With those infernal blazes and 'White Zombie' (1931) technology, a night tour would be very atmospheric, but perhaps dangerous. Afterwards, the 'bagasse' is dumped into a heap by a worker continuously pushing a cart back and forth along a short length of elevated tracks -supposedly Grenada's shortest, and only 'railroad' (unless you count the few yards of rail that the mace drying platforms roll on like giant drawers from underneath the Dougaldston Spice Boucan.) The cane juice flows along an open sluice into a building where it is concentrated in a succession of huge open vats, then fermented, again in the open air. The fermented 'wash' is then piped to those massive, prehistoric looking copper stills. "It takes 10 days from cane to rum" explained the guide, with all the product going out unaged or 'white' except for an excellent 36 proof bottled punch that's reminiscent of the Angostura version from Trinidad.
People warned I may not find the odors of the distillery pleasant (in fact, nauseating), but there was absolutely nothing disagreeable in either the sweet, heady smell of the freshly crushed cane, its fermenting juices, or the very agreeable, faintly banana aroma of the (barely) finished product. After distillation, the rum's alcohol content is gauged by means of an antique (but ingenious) specific gravity scale, then adjusted to the desired proof with the addition of water. Of course samples are offered (you don't need more than a thimbleful of the Rivers Royale (75 -80%) over-proof to get the picture, or even of Rivers Rum, the slightly watered-down 69% version that's permissible for packing for your flight home. Even with that, this is pretty combustible stuff.
Distillery tour EC$5/$2USD p.p.
River Antoine Estate Distillery ( 473 442-7109; no website; email: email@example.com)
the view from Maca Bana
I was hosted in Grenada by Maca Bana -only a 5 minute walk from Maurice Bishop Airport (good story here) , so no time is wasted getting into relax mode at this cliff-top 'green' resort's 7 villa/cottages. Breath-taking vista of the Caribbean, St. George's and the mountains of Grenada from your bed (or hot tub). Directly below (steep) there's quiet Magazine Beach for swimming and snorkeling, then try the ginger-orange glazed lobster and other fresh seafood at Maca Bana's recently re-opened beach restaurant 'Aquarium' (www.aquarium-grenada.com) highly regarded by both locals and ex-pats. In fact, across the island I heard nothing but unsolicited praise for Uli Kühn & Rebecca Thompson, hard-working owners of Aquarium /Maca Bana). (from $295; www.macabana.com).
For colorful, old-school souvenirs like tea towels, table cloths and tee-shirts festooned with maps, Grenadian flags and island scenes; embroidered patches and other cool stuff (well, I think so), swing by the 'Shipwreck Department Store' (no website, tel: 440-1521) on Granby St, downtown St. George's near the market.
For more Grenada info:
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
A south-sea paradise proves even better than the fake one in 'A Brooklyn Gorilla Meets Bela Lugosi'
Since the band isn't doing much right now, I figured I'd start with this photo, taken in Aitutaki last March (2009). I then had the pleasure of traveling to The Cook Islands with a great press group including real deal photo-journalist Sergio Ortiz (http://www.sergiosfstop.com/), Kristin Luna (camelsandchocolate.com) and globe-trotter extraodinaire (and as I got to know, all-around swell guy) Johnny 'Jet' DiScala (http://www.johnnyjet.com/home.asp). Johnny snapped the picture. I don't know if it was the power of suggetion, or some darker forces at work, but I kept thinking his name was DiMarco. It always beat me that the mad scientist in the film 'Astro Zombies' (USA, 1968) wasn't called some suitably Eastern-European sounding name like Zoloff or Zarnoff, but DiMarco. It was the late John Carridine, who in his portrayal of the infirm, but determined, Doctor exclaimed "commence immediate astro-mobilization!" (or something damn close to that). The Fleshtones admired those sentiments so much we used the quote on the fold-out for our album 'Powerstance' (Trafalgar Records, 1990). As you recall, that was during the band's brief foray as Australian recording artists.
As I was saying, the sudden (I'll say!!!) folding of Modern Bride Magazine, which I've been lucky enough to contribute to over the past eight years, has finally 'freed up' time for me to do a bit of writing without the stress of deadlines, or torturing myself to stay under 'word count'. You know, some travel (with and without The Fleshtones -God knows that couldn't help but give me some insights), food, who knows, maybe even some music. 'A life of excitement' like living In An Elvis movie. A overstatement true, but who wants to read about me going to Key Food to buy oatmeal? Now, even though the L himself was dismissive of his film career, who else could lay claim to being their very own movie genre? And there's something very attractive about a life (be it only a celluloid one) of wildly unrelated (except for their potential for excitement) occupations -Hawaiian helicopter guide, ex-Navy diver, race car driver, race car driver, etc -with the ability to find himself in the middle of at least a half dozen musical production numbers per outing, ending with Elvis getting the girl of his fancy for that particular movie -and actually being happy about it. How much better than his real-life loneliness and miserable death. But I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.
It's about an hour's hop from the 'main island' of Rarotonga, where the international airport is located, to Aitutaki, pronounced 'Ah -too -taki' although locals seem to say 'Ah -too -tucky' as in 'Tucky Buzzard'. Even in the olden days this tiny speck in the middle of the vastness of the Pacific (pop. 2,000) somehow merited its own postage stamps. There was one pictured in the used Harris stamp catalogue (Aitutaki -comes after Aden Protectorate in the British Empire section) that my Uncle Eddie Ostach gave me when I was about 7 years old. Then I could have never in a million years imagined that one day I'd be living a block away from the Ostach's old home on Jewel Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. How many years did I spend obsessing on these little rectangles of paper and the far away places they represented? Just ask photographer Anders Goldfarb (www.andersgoldfarb.com) Hopefully, I'll have a link right here someday to the exciting tales of our pre-adolescent adventures in philately (wouldn't it be great if the 'link' could be so direct I wouldn't have to bother writing anything?).
The old Aitutaki stamp pictured a native chieftain striking a typically proud pose under a palm tree while sporting some outlandish mask or headdress (okay, I can't remember which) of the sort we grew up seeing extras wearing in jungle and south-sea island B-movies like 'Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla' (USA, 1952). Starring Lewis and Martin look-a-likes 'Duke' Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo (recently deceased, this August 17, 2009) -look for future musings on Petrillo, my teenage years in the cultural Dark Ages and the birth of The Fleshtones). I hadn't seen the film since the early 70's and dismissed it as a turkey -until our bassist Ken Fox urged me to take another look. Once again The Canadian Fleshtone judged wisely, 'The Brooklyn Gorilla' is far more entertaining than anything the real Lewis & Martin ever released -and it does contain Duke Mitchell's immortal come-on to a south-sea beauty: "It's hard to believe that's the same moon shining tonight over The Bronx, Brooklyn and Coney Island." Try that line while marveling at the star splashed Cook Island night sky.
At the tiny airport greeted with songs ('string band'), flowered leis, and a short drive (all drives are short here) to Pacific Resorts Aitutaki, the island's most stylish hotel. Along the way we passed through villages that straggled along the road very much like 'out island' settlements in The Bahamas, except for the tombs in people's front yards. Land in The Cooks is ancestral and despite migration, the families that pray together, stay together -forever.
From its lush, palm-lined drive to its zen-ed out reception flanked by Balinese reflecting lily pools, entering the The Pacific Resorts Aitutaki (www.pacificresort.com) is soothing, beautiful and 'cool'. An artificial waterfall dramatically cascades from under the restaurant to the swimming pool below which in turn overlooks the brilliant blue lagoon lined with royal palms. From our bungalow's back porches, steps led down to a white-sand beach strewn with huge boulders of black volcanic rock. Taking advantage of a few minutes break, we waded out into the luxuriously warm, shallow water. Sometimes you've got to pinch yourself, although some people might have been put off by the cove's abundance of sea cucumbers. Who knows, perhaps the stiff, turd-like creatures are just seasonal. They certainly don't pose a threat of any sort.
The gift shop was stocked with classy stuff -quality folk art and handicrafts, genuine ukuleles, the sort of mementos you actually would like to bring home to prove to yourself you were really here. An odd ceramic figurine of a white parrotfish covered with black paisley-like patterns was so unusual I took a picture of it. What was it, a candleholder, or something? Whatever it was, at the equivalent of $35USD, it was a bargain, but I'm not much of a shopper (or maybe the ideal one) as I'll almost always defer buying anything, then regret it later. Remember, with the NZ$ then running about 55¢USD, everything in the Cooks -great hotels, meals, booze, black pearls, stuff, was a steal. Regretting not buying the fish, I slunk past the gift shop later that evening. It was already closed. Later, at the manager's cocktail party I discussed the ceramic fish with Michael Shah, a real go-to GM as far as guest's needs. He regretted that as much as he'd like to help, the woman who runs the shop takes the keys home with her. She wouldn't be back to reopen until after we departed the island. I gave him my credit card information just in case.
Anyway, if you've come all the way to Aitutaki, the one 'must-do' is a boat excursion across the (semi)atoll's spectacular lagoon -broad enough to easily swallow up all of Rarotonga and some, to visit the tiny 'motu' (cay) of Tapuaetai, or 'One Foot Island'. There's a choice of several boats, all offer a similar itinerary. We took the smaller boat from Bishop's Tours (NZ$65 pp; www.bishopscruises.com). On the way across the lagoon, we landed on one of the 'motu' that served as a location for 'Survivor: Cook Islands' , as well as sailing past Akaiami Teal Lodge, the idyllic thatched-roofed 'eco-retreat' where contestants voted off the island waited out the filming of the series.
"I wouldn't mind being voted off to there for a few weeks" quipped a mind-reading young Dane. The vastness of the sea, the passing palm-fringed islets, the boat cutting through the clear, aqua water - I found myself singing snatches of Elvis' 'Rock A Hula Baby'. The setting demanded it. The Dane agreed (God bless little Denmark, too bad it's the one Scandinavian country where The Fleshtones have no public) leading to a discussion of Elvis-in-the-tropics scenarios to the utter indifference of his female companion. Not that it's the same thing, but Gordon Spaeth once commented that it was moments like this that triggered a "plethora of ridiculous ideas in his head', a condition he blamed on a childhood saturated with preposterous TV fare. While on The Fleshtones first cross-country tour in 1980, Gordon's brother Brian Spaeth (Clocks Stopped At A Strange And Savage Hour, Serious Ink Press, 2009) confessed amid the grandeur of Carlsbad Caverns (our road manager hated it, but it was just one of many sight-seeing detours made under the threat of mutiny) that natural wonders like this had been totally ruined for him by seeing so many papier-mâché caverns in stuff like 'World Of The Vampires' (El Mundo Do Los Vampiros, Mexico: 1960). Faced with the real thing, he sadly said he half expected Abel Salazar to step out from behind a 'fake' stalagmite.
Once there, it's easy enough to see how miniscule One Foot Island got its name. It's one of the world's places that trades on its claim of having the world's smallest post office. True or not, once there we all had our postcards canceled and mailed at the tin-roofed pavilion/post office, although I balked at the idea of a foot-shaped souvenir stamp in my passport. You really don't need a passport to land on One Foot Island, so I don't go for the idea of disrespecting the pages of mine with 'novelty' stamps, no matter how exotic. The two boat's crews broke out the guitars and 'ukes' and serenaded us (as much as themselves, Cook Island folks love to sing) cooking us up a lunch of parrotfish fillets on the griddle. The crew cooked the up the skeletal remains (which still had plenty of sweet meat on the bones) for themselves and were pleased when I asked if I could gnaw on one (don't worry, Zaremba wasn't scarfing up all the poor crew's fish bones). I don't know if it was the grease, the cold 'VB' (Australia's Victoria Bitter -the beer of choice in The Cooks, although try the local 'Matutu' brew) or the tropical beauty of the whole scene, but I couldn't have thought of a better lunch, or place to be, in the whole world.
On the way back, we were treated to more songs and some of the most amazing snorkeling I'd ever enjoyed (and that includes Roatan, Belize and Bonaire). In the lagoon's shallow (about 14 feet) almost luminescent water we swam through flocks of bizarre Pacific species totally new to me -lavishly colored 'Picassofish' and bizarre, aptly named, Unicornfish. There, embedded in the coral heads, were the giant clams -bigger and better than ever pictured in childhood 'How And Why' books or 'The Golden Encyclopedia'. Okay then, but these things are real, say over 2 feet long (photo: thanks to Kristin Luna). Diving closer, you could see the the arabesque patterns on the clam's flesh begin to flash changing colors as it sensed the approach of a swimmer. When my hand got a bit too close, the until-then sedentary clam suddenly 'whooshed' shut. Made me think of those old south-sea flicks where one of these behemoth bivalves traps the foot of some hapless diver. You'd never break loose.
Every major hotel in The Cooks hosts a weekly 'Island Night'. I'd go every night if I could. I'd hate to choose which I liked best, but if you held a gun to my head I'd have to say I preferred the show at the 'looser' (but wonderful) Aitutaki Lagoon Resort (www.aitutakilagoonresort.com), sister property to venerable and (fun) Rarotongan Resort. Reached by a small ferry across a narrow channel, the resort's sandy lanes, huts on stilts (all the modern conveniences) and torch light evokes a longed-after Polynesia surpassing any pre-1964-5 World's Fair preconceptions. And again, for any Americans (who still have any money left to spend), the resort, like everything in The Cooks, is an amazing deal for what you get. At Island Night you sit around (too bad not on mats -idea guys, idea) feasting on fresh fish, including 'ika mata' (pretty much the national dish -hunks of raw tuna or mahimahi, marinated in lime juice, onions and coconut milk like the 'poisson cru' of French Polynesia), roast pig and New Zealand lamb while enjoying hip-shaking dancing girls and chanting guys in grass skirts accompanied by explosive drumming punctuated with shouts. Exciting stuff. It's not to hard to perceive echos of less peaceful times. These guys must have been pretty tough customers in the old days. It's fashionable (mandatory?) these days to mock the efforts of the missionaries, but I wouldn't have wanted to be the 'guest of honor' at a Cook Islands luau before their embracing of the Good Book. Now tourists are plucked out of the audience to demonstrate how lame we are at rapid-fire hip gyrations. "You've got to relax" counseled my impromptu instructor as she massaged my almost fused shoulders. Sometimes you just can't cut loose. Now Elvis, or Duke Mitchell, would have done a lot better. They would have cued the band to some hip number and put themselves in control of all the moves. That's how the so-called white man operates.
That night on the drive back to our hotel, we swerved to avoid the land crabs and a body stretched across the road. Carefully backing up, we checked for signs of life but it didn't look good. Unexpectedly, the guy stirred. He apologetically explained he was waiting for a lift and had decided to get comfortable. Back in Rarotonga, our guide said his island was 'so safe you can sleep in the road". Now here was a place where people actually did sleep in the road, or at least pass out on it. The man thanked us for the lift, and catching a second wind, realized he was an old acquaintance of Papatua ( the Cook Islands representative who accompanied us). They carried on the night's proceedings, most likely at The Aitutaki Fisherman's Club near the Government Wharf. Night-birds can also hit the disco/dancehall across the road where a late night food van usually parks.
Early the next morning, hours before the resort's shops opened, we left to catch our plane back to Rarotonga. As I rushed out of the terminal and started across the tarmac to the waiting plane, someone came running, shouting for me to stop. WTF was this all about? He handed me a package. Inside was the ceramic fish.
more info: http://www.cookislands.travel/
The return of Mr. Pro
Thanks again to Ken Fox, Mr. Pro has made a come back, to shore up The Fleshtones foothold in the glamorous world of fine apparel. Available where ever The Fleshtones can be found, black only.
Next: Rarotonga -Mysterious Island of the Black Pearl. Also: Grenada -Where the rum is from (or at least some of it); and Island Routes is launched in Jamaica.