December 6, 2012
The start of the northern meteorological winter on December 1 will bring with it short days of darkness, blistering cold and frigid blizzards. For many people, this is the dreariest time of the year. But for a small niche of water-happy athletes, winter is a time to play, as ferocious storms send rippling rings of energy outward through the ocean. By the time they reach distant shores, these swells have matured into clean, polished waves that barrel in with a cold and ceaseless military rhythm; they touch bottom, slow, build and, finally, collapse in spectacular curls and thundering white water. These are the things of dreams for surfers, many of whom travel the planet, pursuing giant breakers. And surfers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on the water—for surfing has become a popular spectator sport. At many famed breaks, bluffs on the shore provide fans with thrilling views of the action. The waves alone are awesome—so powerful they may seem to shake the earth. But when a tiny human figure on a board as flimsy as a matchstick appears on the face of that incoming giant, zigzagging forward as the wave curls overhead and threatens to crush him, spines tingle, hands come together in prayer, and jaws drop. Whether you like the water or not, big-wave surfing is one of the most thrilling shows on the planet.
The birth of big-wave surfing was an incremental process that began in the 1930s and ’40s in Hawaii, especially along the north-facing shores of the islands. Here, 15-foot waves were once considered giants, and anything much bigger just eye candy. But wave at a time, surfers stoked up their courage and ambition. They surfed on bigger days, used lighter and lighter boards that allowed swifter paddling and hunted for breaks that consistently produced monsters. One by one, big-wave spots were cataloged, named and ranked, and wave at a time, records were set. In November 1957, big-wave pioneer Greg Noll rode an estimated 25-footer in Waimea Bay, Oahu. In 1969, Noll surfed what was probably a 30-plus-footer, but no verified photos exist of the wave, and thus no means of determining its height. Fast-forwarding a few decades, Mike Parsons caught a 66-foot breaker in 2001 at Cortes Bank, 115 miles off San Diego, where a seamount rises to within three feet of the surface. In 2008, Parsons was back at the same place and caught a 77-footer. But Garrett McNamara outdid Parsons and set the current record in November 2011, when he rode a 78-foot wave off the coast of Portugal, at the town of Nazare.
But these later records may not have been possible without the assistance of jet skis, which have become a common and controversial element in the pursuit of giant waves. The vehicles first began appearing in the surf during big-wave events in the early 1990s, and for all their noise and stench, their appeal was undeniable: Jet skis made it possible to access waves 40 feet and bigger, and whose scale had previously been too grand for most unassisted surfers to reach by paddling. Though tow-in surfing has given a boost to the record books, it has also heightened the danger of surfing, and many surfers have died in big waves they might never have attempted without jet-ski assistance. Not surprisingly, many surfers have rejected tow-in surfing as an affront to the purity of their relationship with waves—and they still manage to catch monsters. In March 2011, Shane Dorian rode a 57-foot breaker at the famed Jaws break in Maui, unassisted by a belching two-stroke engine. But many big-wave riders fully endorse tow-in surfing as a natural evolution of the sport. Surfing supertstar Laird Hamilton has even blown off purists who continue to paddle after big waves without jet skis as “moving backward.” Anyway, in a sport that relies heavily on satellite imagery, Internet swell forecasts and red-eye flights to Honolulu, are we really complaining about a little high-tech assistance?
For those wishing merely to watch big waves and the competitors that gather to ride them, all that is needed is a picnic blanket and binoculars—and perhaps some help from this swell forecast website. Following are some superb sites to watch surfers catch the biggest breakers in the world this winter.
Waimea Bay, North Shore of Oahu. Big-wave surfing was born here, largely fueled by the fearless vision of Greg Noll in the 1950s. The definition of “big” for extreme surfers has grown since the early days, yet Waimea still holds its own. Fifty-foot waves can occur here—events that chase all but the best wave riders from the water. When conditions allow, elite surfers participate in the recurring Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational. Spectators teem on the shore during big-swell periods, and while surfers may fight for their ride, you may have to fight for your view. Get there early.
Jaws, North Shore of Maui. Also known as Peahi, Jaws produces some of the most feared and attractive waves on earth. The break—where 50-footers and bigger appear almost every year—is almost strictly a tow-in site, but rebel paddle-by-hand surfers do business here, too. Twenty-one pros have been invited to convene at Jaws this winter for a paddle-in competition sometime between December 7 and March 15. Spectators are afforded a great view of the action on a high nearby bluff. But go early, as hundreds will be in line for the best viewing points. Also, bring binoculars, as the breakers crash almost a mile offshore.
Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, California. Mavericks gained its reputation in the 1980s and ’90s, during the revival of big-wave surfing, which lost some popularity in the 1970s. Named for a German Shepherd named Maverick who took a surgy swim here in 1961, the site (which gained an “s” but never an official apostrophe) generates some of the biggest surfable waves in the world. Today, surfing competitions, like the Mavericks Big Wave Contest and the Mavericks Invitational, are held each year. The waves of Mavericks crash on a vicious reef, making them predictable (sandy bottoms will shift and change the wave form) but nonetheless hazardous. One of the best surfers of his time, Mark Foo died here in 1994 when his ankle leash is believed to have snagged on the bottom. Later, the waves claimed the life of Hawaiian surfing star Sion Milosky. A high bluff above the beach offers a view of the action. As at Jaws, bring binoculars.
Ghost Trees, Monterey Peninsula, California. This break hits peak form under the same swell conditions that get things roaring at Mavericks, just a three-hour drive north. Ghost Trees is a relatively new attraction for big-wave riders. Veteran surfer Don Curry says he first saw it surfed in 1974. Decades would pass before it became famous, and before it killed pro surfer (and a pioneer of nearby Mavericks) Peter Davi in 2007. For surfing spectators, there are few places quite like Ghost Trees. The waves, which can hit 50 feet and more, break just a football field’s length from shore.
Mullaghmore Head, Ireland. Far from the classic Pacific shores of big-wave legend and history, Mullaghmore Head comes alive during winter storms in the North Atlantic. The location produces waves big enough that surfing here has become primarily a jet ski-assisted game. In fact, the event period for the Billabong Tow-In Session at Mullaghmore began on November 1 and will run through February 2013. Just how big is Mullaghmore Head? On March 8, 2012, the waves here reached 50 feet, as determined by satellite measurements. A grassy headland provides an elevated platform from which to see the show. Bundle up if you go, and expect cold, blustery conditions.
Other big wave breaks:
Teahupoo, Tahiti. This coveted break blooms with big swells from the Southern Ocean—usually during the southern winter. Teahupoo is famed for its classic tube breakers.
Shipsterns Bluff, Tasmania. Watch for this point’s giants to break from June through September.
Punta de Lobos, Chile. Channeling the energy of the Southern Ocean into huge but glassy curlers, Punta de Lobos breaks at its best in March and April.
Todos Santos Island, Baja California, Mexico. Todos Santos Island features several well-known breaks, but “Killers” is the biggest and baddest. The surf usually peaks in the northern winter.
There is another sort of wave that thrills tourists and spectators: the tidal bore. These moon-induced phenomena occur with regularity at particular locations around the world. The most spectacular to see include the tidal bores of Hangzhou Bay, China, and Araguari, Brazil—each of which has become a popular surfing event.
December 3, 2012
It took explorers centuries of great effort to make the first crude sketches of the world and centuries more to polish and perfect them.
But in just ten years, sales demand for paper maps appears to have dipped markedly, and it seems these formerly essential tools of travel could be going the way of the sextant and chronometer as travelers rely increasingly on electronic navigation devices to get them where they want to go. In Pennsylvania, printers who once produced three million road maps a year now make just 750,000. AAA, too, has observed a decline in customer use of maps. And even print-out directions that lead from point A to point B—which I always thought was cheating, anyway—seem now to be a figment more of memory than of practice as that robot voice from the dashboard becomes an increasingly ubiquitous component of driving anywhere.
If we are, in fact, ditching the map for flashier gear, will we be better off? Maybe not. A study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians exploring a city with the help of a GPS device took longer to get places, made more errors, stopped more frequently and walked farther than those relying on paper maps. And in England, map sales dropped by 25 percent for at least one major printer between 2005 and 2011. Correlation doesn’t prove causation—but it’s interesting to note that the number of wilderness rescues increased by more than 50 percent over the same time period. This could be partly because paper maps offer those who use them a grasp of geography and an understanding of their environment that most electronic devices don’t. In 2008, the president of the British Cartographic Society, Mary Spence, warned that travelers—especially drivers—reliant on electronic navigation gadgets were focusing mainly on reaching a destination without understanding quite how they got there. And Tom Harrison, a cartographer in California, told me recently in an interview that he feels digital technology usually does a clean job of directing travelers where they want to go—but without quite showing them where they are.
“Trying to see and understand the big picture on your phone or laptop usually isn’t possible,” said Harrison (who also noted that he has not observed a decline in sales of waterproof topographic maps via his website). “There’s too much zooming in, scrolling down, losing your bearings.” At best, hand-size GPS screens show one “the here and the now,” he said, while only paper maps can reliably “show us where we are and also what’s around us.”
Using real printed maps also demands—and can help users develop—critical thinking skills.
“You look at the map for a minute,” Harrison said. “Then you say, ‘I’m here, and I’m going there. What’s the easiest way?’ But with GPS in the car you don’t even have to think about it anymore.”
The shift to full reliance on navigational technology is happening at sea, too. Grant Headifen, the founder of the online sailing academy NauticEd, says sailors are increasingly relying on GPS systems while neglecting to learn what he calls “the fundamentals”—the basic skills of navigating only by charts, compass, sky and the mighty strengths of the human brain.
“You need to be able to say, ‘If north is straight ahead of me, then east is to my right,’ and ‘If point A is 50 miles ahead and we’re moving this fast, then this will be our estimated time of arrival,’” said Headifen.
Reliance on electronics, which operate under the guise of flawlessness, is “very dangerous,” Headifen says—mainly because navigation charts may themselves be drawn incorrectly. For instance, a GPS system may guide you with perfect accuracy past a treacherous seamount—but if that reef was originally mapped incorrectly, the GPS system could actually be guiding you into a million-dollar accident. Headifen cites a time that he was sailing off the coast of Croatia. Because of incorrectly drawn charts, his GPS system placed his location at roughly 300 meters inland among the coastal olive orchards. Another time, a sailing companion with his eyes glued to his iPhone muttered directions to Headifen. “In 50 meters we want to veer left,” the man said. Headifen replied, “Um, look away from your phone for a minute, and look ahead of us.” A rock stood precisely in the course the iPhone recommended.
Harrison, too, has noted previously to reporters an important difference between being “precise” and being “accurate,” both of which a GPS device can be at once by pointing a tech-tuned traveler straight to the wrong place.
In spite of the growing prevalence today of navigation technology, enough people remain interested in traditional navigation that Headifen offers a course on celestial navigation. This brilliant science has its roots in ancient Arabian cultures of the desert, where travelers long ago determined their location on Earth by watching the heavenly bodies above. For travelers in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star, or Polaris, made determining latitude a piece of cake: The star’s distance above the horizon in degrees equals the viewer’s degree distance north of the Equator. Thus, when sailors left port in the old days, they often remained at a given latitude by watching Polaris and appropriately adjusting their course. They knew that by following that line, they would reach home again. (Determining longitude was a much more difficult endeavor, and would only become relatively easy with the invention of the chronometer in the late 1700s.)
Still, navigation remained challenging. Sailing expeditions often had a crew member whose specific job was to navigate—and these were among the most skilled people on the seas. They were familiar with the stars, the ecliptic of the Sun and also the orbital path of the Moon. They carried a variety of beautiful and ingenious tools over the years, like the astrolabe, octant and quadrant. But the sextant has remained the most used. It’s actually based on rather simple geometry, allowing one to sight a point in the sky—usually the Sun or a star—and measure its distance from the horizon. Combined with the chronometer and basic star charts, a good navigator could track a vessel’s location exactly—though this was a very difficult task. In fact, if executed correctly and accurately, celestial navigation is flawless—for our place on Earth is written in the stars; one must simply have the tools and skills to read the sky.
Celestial navigation made easy: Even if we’re too lazy to read maps anymore, reading the stars can be fun. Measuring latitude is a basic calculation and an engaging way to track your progress should you decide to tackle a long-distance north-to-south hiking or cycling route. Before your next trip, try this: Fix a sturdy plastic straw to the straight edge of a protractor. This device, familiar, I hope, from high-school geometry classes, should have a pinhole at the center of the baseline. To this point, tie off 12 inches of string and fix a heavy nut or bolt to the other end. Pack the contraption along. On your first night out, hold the device with the protractor facing down, look through the straw and aim it at Polaris. When you are able to see this conveniently located star, pinch the string to the side of the protractor. If the string is crossing, say, the 53-degree mark, subtract that number from 90. The answer, 37, is your latitude. If the next night you get a reading of 54, meaning 36 degrees latitude, that means you have traveled 69 miles (the distance between latitude lines) toward the Equator. In the Southern Hemisphere, there is no equivalent of Polaris, and celestial navigators may need to rely on a measurement of the Sun at its zenith to determine latitude. This website describes how.
Navigation of tomorrow: While no-brainer navigation systems currently dictate directions to drivers, tech companies are busy designing the next step in the road to laziness: automated vehicles. Nevada, Florida and California have already legalized driverless cars. While these marvels of technology aren’t yet publicly available, they do exist. Google has been testing one that reportedly had gone 300,000 miles, and counting, without an accident. What’s astonishing is that the machines seem to work perfectly well. What’s scary is the thought of them failing—of missing an offramp by ten feet, of not recognizing a pedestrian, of misinterpreting an obstacle in the road, or otherwise failing where a human mind might not.
November 28, 2012
What would you want to eat if you were starving on a dinghy lost at sea? In the 2001 novel Life of Pi, adapted as a movie now in theaters, the castaway protagonist, a 16-year-old Indian boy nicknamed Pi, spends the better part of a year on a lifeboat—and one day as he reaches a near-death pinnacle of hunger, suffering and delirium, he envisions a tree full of ripe figs. “‘The branches…are bent over, they are so weighed down with figs,’” Pi drones to himself in reverie. “‘There must be over three hundred figs in that tree.’” Readers are convinced: Perhaps nothing beats a fig for a starving man.
Life of Pi is fiction, but daydreaming of food is a real-life tradition as old as the saga of man against the elements. If we scour the pages of the many books about grueling expeditions across land and sea, we find an impassioned menu of sweet and savory delights to make the mouth water. In his 1986 memoir Adrift, author Steve Callahan—a sailor who was lost at sea for 76 days in 1982—sets a lavish table of dreams on page 108: “I spend an increasing amount of time thinking about food. Fantasies about an inn-restaurant [I dream of opening] become very detailed. I know how the chairs will be arranged and what the menu will offer. Steaming sherried crab overflows flaky pie shells bedded on rice pilaf and toasted almonds. Fresh muffins puff out of pans. Melted butter drools down the sides of warm, broken bread. The aroma of baking pies and brownies wafts through the air. Chilly mounds of ice cream stand firm in my mind’s eye. I try to make the visions melt away, but hunger keeps me awake for hours at night. I am angry with the pain of hunger, but even as I eat [the fish I caught] it will not stop.” (Film director Ang Lee consulted Callahan during the making of Life of Pi for accuracy in portraying the hardships of being lost at sea.)
Men Against the Sea, the historical fiction account of the sailors cast away on a lifeboat by the mutineers of HMS Bounty, is a novella steeped in stomach-scraping hunger. At one point, a man named Lawrence Lebogue exclaims after a failed skirmish with a huge sea turtle he had nearly pulled into the boat, “‘A monster…all of two hundredweight! … To think of the grub we’ve lost! Did ‘ee ever taste a bit of calipee?’” (Calipee is a main ingredient in turtle soup.) Moments later, Capt. William Bligh tells the crew’s botanist, David Nelson, of the feasts he sat in on in the West Indies. Bligh describes “‘their stuffing and swilling of wine. Sangaree and rum punch and Madeira till one marveled they could hold it all. And the food! Pepper pot, turtle soup, turtle steaks, grilled calipee; on my word, I’ve seen enough, at a dinner for six, to feed us from here to Timor!’”
Bligh and the loyal men of the Bounty lived like princes compared with those of the Essex, the Nantucket whaling ship rammed and sunk by an angry bull sperm whale in 1820. In Owen Chase’s autobiographical account of the ordeal, part of the book The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, the first mate holds a mostly dry and colorless course: He tells of how the 20 men journeyed for weeks in their small open boats, racing time, dehydration and starvation. They attempt in vain to kill sharks and porpoises, they land on an island and quickly exhaust its thin resources of bird eggs, and they continue across the open Pacific, hoping always to see a sail while growing ever weaker and emaciated. Through it all, the New Englanders essentially never eat or drink. Finally, Chase pauses in his chronology of dates and coordinates to tell of a moment in which he dozed off: “I dreamt of being placed near a splendid and rich repast, where there was every thing that the most dainty appetite could desire; and of contemplating the moment in which we were to commence to eat with enraptured feelings of delight; and just as I was about to partake of it, I suddenly awoke….” Chase leaves us with our eager forks aloft—and we never learn just what it was that he hoped to eat. Turtle soup, likely. In the following days as the anguished men expired one by one, Chase and his companions resorted to cannibalism. Just eight of the lot were rescued.
While stranded for the austral winter of 1916 on the barren Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, after escaping from Antarctica in three tiny lifeboats, the crew of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition passed the time reading through a Penny Cookbook that one of the men had kept dry through many months of dire tribulations. And how that book made them dream! The men had been living for months on seal (and sled dog) meat, and Thomas Ordes-Lee, the expedition’s ski expert and storekeeper, wrote in his journal, “[W]e want to be overfed, grossly overfed, yes, very grossly overfed on nothing but porridge and sugar, black currant and apple pudding and cream, cake, milk, eggs, jam, honey and bread and butter till we burst, and we’ll shoot the man who offers us meat. We don’t want to see or hear of any more meat as long as we live.” Their carb cravings were more apparent when one man—the surgeon James McIlroy—conducted a poll to see what each sailor would have to eat if he could choose anything. Their answers included apple pudding, Devonshire dumpling, porridge, Christmas dumpling, dough and syrup and a fruit tart—with most of these dolloped with cream. Just two men wished for meat (pork was their choice), while one with a bleaker imagination said he just wanted bread and butter. For three more months until their rescue, they ate seal and rehydrated milk.
Author Jon Krakauer tells us in his 1990 Eiger Dreams of the time 15 years before that he and a climber friend named Nate Zinsser were holed up during a storm while ascending a new route up the 10,335-foot peak Moose’s Tooth, in Alaska. Dreaming of food, Zinsser said, “If we had some ham, we could make ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.” In The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an expedition member on Robert Scott’s doomed Antarctic voyage of 1901-1903 on the Discovery, recalls one frigid winter’s day, saying, “And I wanted peaches and syrup—badly.” And Felicity Aston, a modern explorer from Britain whom I interviewed last January about her solo ski trip across Antarctica, recalled as a highlight of her journey receiving a gift of a nectarine and an apple upon reaching the South Pole research station.
There was no food shortage on the Norwegian research vessel Fram, which Fridtjof Nansen captained into the Arctic Ocean in 1893. His sturdy boat was built with a fortified hull under the plan that she would become frozen in the sea ice and thereby allow Nansen to track the drift of the ice layer by watching the stars—classic, rock solid science in the golden age of discovery. It was a planned “disaster” voyage—and the men went prepared. Nansen, who finally stumbled home again in 1896 caked in campfire soot and seal grease, wrote in his 1897 memoir Farthest North that the expedition carried at the outset several years’ worth of canned and dried foods of numerous sorts. Only during foot or skiff expeditions away from the boat—such as Nansen’s long hike home—did the team members experience great monotony of diet. On one outing, they forgot butter to slab on their biscuits and so named the nearest land “Cape Butterless.” They lived during longer forays on seal, walrus and polar bear—pinniped and bear for breakfast, lunch and dinner; so much pinniped and bear that the reader feels an itch to floss his teeth and scrub down with dish detergent. Meanwhile, Nansen stops to take depth soundings, sketch fossils, study rock strata and express interest in every piece of possible data—and though the pragmatic scientist never does slip into a shameless food fantasy, we know he had them.
If you’d been in Nansen’s boots, what would you have piled on your plate?
November 8, 2012
Ever since Sean Connery first strode onto the screen in 1962 as a dapper secret agent with the code name 007, the world has been riveted by the character called James Bond. He has grace, confidence, delivery and deadly power—and he also travels. Dr. No, the inaugural film in the series, featured the gleaming waters and blazing beaches of Jamaica. The next year, From Russia with Love took audiences farther afield to Turkey, the Balkans and Venice. Through the ’60s, Bond’s creators drilled audiences with film after film, almost every year, as James Bond appeared in such places as Egypt, the Bahamas, Amsterdam, Japan, the Alps and Portugal. All the while he wooed sizzling exotic women and outsmarted absurdly wicked villains. Though Bond’s was a dangerous world of spies, gold, weapons, ninjas and nuclear war, he swaggered fearlessly through it, from one fantastic landscape to another.
In 1960, fewer than 2 percent of Americans had traveled abroad by air—and many who watched Bond do business in one thrilling place after another were enthralled.
Perhaps, millions pondered, America was not enough.
Through the 1970s air travel become mainstream, replacing trans-Atlantic ocean liners. Europe was suddenly just hours away, and Americans began turning up in numbers throughout the world. By the 1980s, the airline age was in full swing, and with the rise in global travel, James Bond tourism attractions would begin to appear. Consider Khao Phing Kan: After it was featured in 1974′s The Man with the Golden Gun, this beautiful Thai island became a hot tourist attraction and even gained the popular nickname “James Bond Island.” And in the 1980s the very abode in Jamaica where author Ian Fleming dreamed up the Bond world opened as the luxurious GoldenEye Hotel.
Bond’s association with travel and place would solidify through the years. Most recently, with the British release last month of the 23rd Bond film Skyfall, travel agencies and publications have pushed a flurry of James Bond tourism campaigns. Forbes Magazine recently listed the best luxury hotels at which James Bond ever spent a night; on November 2, DesMoinesRegister.com named the best places for following in Bond’s footsteps; a Caribbean “adventure tours” company called Island Routes features a “007 Thunderball Luxury Tour“; a Japanese tour agency is promoting a 13-night Bond-based itinerary inspired by 1967′s You Only Live Twice”; and VisitBritain, the tourism agency of James Bond’s home country, is hinging a fresh tourism push on the hype surrounding Skyfall.
With the American release of the new film this weekend, starring Daniel Craig in his third venture as 007, the James Bond film franchise turns 50 years old. The immortal spy has now traveled in 50 countries and logged 180,000 miles of air travel, by the Huffington Post‘s estimate. Surely, Bond has out-traveled virtually all of us in a world often depicted as absurd and cartoonishly implausible. Yet Bond’s world is the real world, and where he has gone, his fans are sure to follow.
These are just five of the most beautiful sites where the world’s favorite spy has done business.
James Bond Island, Thailand. Classic James Bond met classic Thailand in the 1974 film The Man with the Golden Gun. Actor Roger Moore, who had by then replaced Connery as the dashing spy, pursued Bond’s nemesis Francisco Scaramanga to Khao Phing Kan, a pair of craggy islands draped in greenery that jut like monoliths from a placid turquoise sea. It is the Thailand of a million tourists’ dreams—of a coastline so stunning it looks at times more like a computer-generated dreamscape than a real product of time, water, jungle and geology. Bond was there in its virgin days, before the crowds, and before it became known as James Bond Island.
Contra Dam, Ticino, Switzerland. The opening scene of GoldenEye featured Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, taking a dizzying leap from an enormous dam in what would later be voted the greatest film stunt of all time. The Contra Dam, also called the Verzasca Dam or Locarno Dam, is located in the Swiss Alps on the Verzasca River. Tourists may visit the dam—and those with a heart for first-class spy-style adventure may even bungee jump off the face. The top of the dam is 720 feet above the stream below, making it one of the world’s highest bungee jumps.
Gibraltar. In 1987, the famed rock set the stage for the opening scene of The Living Daylights, in which Timothy Dalton as Bond leaps off a cliff and onto the roof of a runaway Land Rover in one of the finer Bond action sequences. The scene, actually filmed through repeated runs on the same short stretch of road, ends with a turn off a cliff, a parachute leap, a fiery explosion and a suave Bond-style landing on a yacht.
Meteora Agia Triada monasteries, northern Greece. In the 11th century, Byzantine hermits perched upon the spectacular pinnacles; in the 1300s and 1400s, the monasteries were built; and, in 1981, popular fame finally arrived for the monasteries of Meteora with the Bond film For Your Eyes Only. James Bond was still in his Moore days when he scaled the limestone cliffs to reach the lair of villain Kristalos. Today, rock climbing is one of the attractions of Meteora.
Green Grotto Caves, Jamaica. The 1973 Bond installment Live and Let Die leads our spy into the voodoo world of New Orleans and the thug lairs of New York. Finally, Bond enters the Green Grotto Caves of Discovery Bay, Jamaica, where he deals appropriately with the villainous drug lord Kananga. The caves, which lead for a mile underground and are inhabited by several of Jamaica’s 21 bat species, have been used as a hideout for escaping slaves, as a stash for weapons smugglers and as a storage depot for rum handlers. Stalagmites, stalactites, sun holes in the ceiling, a subterranean tidal pond and green algae coating the walls create the incredible beauty of the caves. Also featured in Live and Let Die was Jamaica’s Falmouth Crocodile Farm, where Bond ran across the backs of a line of lounging crocodiles to reach safety. The farm, also known as the Falmouth Swamp Safari, is now a tourist attraction that, like so many others on earth, flaunts the fact that, once long ago, James Bond was here.
November 2, 2012
This is the first in the series “Faces From Afar” in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before leaving home, many travelers research ahead on key points of their destination. They investigate whether a nation is safe for visitors, what the weather will be like, if camping out will be an option and what the local cuisine will have to offer. But Lindsay Gasik and Rob Culclasure planned their year-long Southeast Asian itinerary based primarily on one entirely different question: Will there be durians?
For this young married couple from Oregon has an uncanny taste for this spiny-husked, famously fragrant tree fruit of Southeast Asia. Often described as redolent of onions, gym socks and gasoline, the durian is most famous for its smell. But those who love durian often characterize its aroma as one of pineapple, vanilla and almond—and the custard-like flesh within the fruit’s five interior chambers may drive durian devotees into mild frenzies of pleasure, and even lure some fanatics halfway around the globe. Gasik, 23, and Culclasure, 29, are now in their 11th month of pursuing and studying what Southeast Asians call the “king of fruits.” Last month, they entered the durian-thick forests of Borneo, where the fruit, which includes numerous species of the genus Durio, is believed to have originated. Prior to Borneo, the pair had zigzagged and island hopped on a strategic route that began in Sumatra and led them to Java, Lomboc, Bali, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Like many tropical regions, Southeast Asia is a complex landscape of microclimates, and travelers on the move can, with just a little foresight and planning, expect to encounter ripe durians every single day of the year. And for being a tiny pie slice of the world’s population, Southeast Asia is heaven.
A century and a half ago, traveler and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace praised the durian as “a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience.” “[I]ts consistence and flavour are indescribable,” he wrote in his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago. “A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy … it is in itself perfect … and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop.” Indeed, some durian fans are so inspired by the rare qualities of durian that they go to extremes: They eliminate nearly every other food from their diet, call themselves “durianarians,” and, as they often describe the lifestyle, “follow the durian trail” through Southeast Asia.
But Gasik and Culclasure still eat a varied diet, with about half their calories coming from daily durian, and while their trip is largely a pursuit of a raw, fragrant pleasure, it is also a focused academic venture. Gasik is writing a book about the trip called Year of the Durian, which she hopes will be finished in about a year, and the pair has not just followed the durian trail but gone well off the beaten path to meet durian farmers, taste rare heirloom varieties and interview scientists and fruit breeders with a stake in the export-driven commercial durian industry. As Gasik said during a recent telephone interview, “We’re seeing different cultures through the lens of the durian.” The couple has, for example, made sharp observations of the different ways in which varying nations appreciate durians. They largely dismiss Thailand, the world’s leader in durian production and export, as a relevant nucleus of sophisticated durian culture. The country’s many durian farmers produce only several main varieties, and a durian tasting tour here may quickly grow monotonous.
“But when we crossed the border into Malaysia, it was a game-changer,” Culclasure said. “They have a totally different appreciation of durian there.”
For one thing, Malaysia produces hundreds of kinds of durian, from major commercial types to unusual village varieties that grow nowhere else. Many are readily available. And it’s in Malaysia and Indonesia where one finds remarkable parallels between the Western world’s appreciation of wine and Southeast Asia’s appreciation of durian: Just as particular vineyards may become famous and produce supremely expensive wine, certain durian trees may become widely known for their outstanding fruits, which sometimes are sold in advance for hundreds of dollars each. And just as older grapevines produce finer, more concentrated wines, durian trees supposedly produce better fruit with each successive crop. And just as oenophiles may take pride in their ability to describe the subtle characteristics of a wine, durian aficionados strive to develop their tasting vocabulary. And just as tourists in the rural outskirts of Napa or Bordeaux go wine tasting, tourists in the farm country of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines go durian tasting. Stalls along the roadsides may offer “flights” of durian, often served on an all-you-can-eat basis but also carefully structured around the subtle properties of each durian variety such that the lighter, more delicate durians are eaten first and the richer, denser fruits last.
Gasik and Culclasure have been familiar with frozen durians, imported from Thailand, for several years. Such durians are of the the ubiquitous Monthong variety (of the species D. zibethinus) available in Asian specialty markets in large cities worldwide. But while frozen durians do provide a taste of what this fruit can offer, the fruits—generally about five pounds—often pale in aroma, texture and flavor. By contrast, eating a tree-ripened durian just minutes off the branch is a culinary experience so potent that durian lovers may place it on their Things-I-Must-Do-Before-I-Die list. But it wasn’t until 2011 that Gasik and Culclasure began to ascend into such heights of durian fanaticism. They attended a raw foods yoga retreat in New York State called the Woodstock Fruit Festival. To kick off the gathering, the leader ordered a thousand frozen durians to last the week. The Oregonians became enraptured by the fruit. Even several months later, as Gasik recalls, “durian was all Rob could talk about. He wanted to go to Asia and live there, following ‘the durian trail’ that we’d heard of from durian veterans.” And when January came, they did just that—and the Year of the Durian began.
Now, after 300 days on the road, Gasik and Culclasure have their favorite durian varieties, including the coveted Red Prawn, the Arancillo, and the orange- and red-fleshed varieties of D. graveolens, a unique species they encountered in the Philippines. Gasik wrote on her blog that one Graveolens variety “tasted like bubblegum rolled in blue cheese.” The legendary Musang King is also one of the very best—”at least number two,” according to Gasik. They have also encountered oddities like a thornless durian variety in the Philippines with a hide as smooth as a cantaloupe, a durian in Java that weighed more than 20 pounds, another described by a friend that weighed about 30 pounds, and a virtually odorless durian—the result of a decades-long breeding project in Thailand. Now, there remain about two months of durian hunting for the Americans before they leave Southeast Asia. They have talked about visiting Zanzibar, where durians have been introduced, but are more likely to go next to Papua, Indonesia, to pursue a variety known as the Rainbow durian.
Their journey can be followed via their blog, “Year of the Durian.”