Wish You Weren't Here!: The Black Cat Anthology of Travel Humor

Wish You Weren't Here!: The Black Cat Anthology of Travel Humor

by Cecil Kuhne (Editor)


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An anthology of some of the best writing on the worst of travel, Wish You Weren’t Here! brings together twenty-one fantastic pieces that span the centuries as well as the continents. P. J. O’Rourke attains reverse enlightenment on India’s Grand Trunk Road. Ludwig Bemelmans hides a toy poodle from an overeager butcher on a luxury ocean liner. Christopher Buckley learns the drawbacks of group travel in the jungles of Belize, and Jerome K. Jerome experiences the downside of traveling with cheese. Edited by Cecil Kuhne, an experienced travel writer and editor of On the Edge and The Armchair Paddler, Wish You Weren’t Here! is a delightful book, a side-splitting read that will remind you why it’s good to be home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802170330
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 07/10/2007
Pages: 274
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Wish You Weren't Here

The Black Cat Anthology of Travel Humor

Black Cat

Copyright © 2007 Cecil Kuhne
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-7033-0

Chapter One

Would You Belíze?

Christopher Buckley

There are drawbacks to group travel, it occurred to me as I sat trapped in the back of the van listening to a woman I had only met an hour before acquaint me in immodest detail with the vicissitudes of her husband's lower colon. I was more interested in Belize, the small, coastal Central American country that I had always wanted, for some reason, to see, and where now I finally was. I nodded as politely as I could throughout her unbrief discourse on the virtues of Manchurian ginseng, as she eye-droppered some onto the tongue of her docile husband. I managed to keep an impassive face as she lectured me urgently that "you can't just dump everything into your liver-you've got to clean out the lymphs," but when she said brightly, "That's why Bill and I are into colonics," I averted my eyes in the direction of a jungle-covered Mayan hillock and thought, It's going to be a long ten days.

At the end of a disastrous experience traveling with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway announced to his wife his new rule: never travel anywhere with someone you don't love. That's not always practical, but I had made sure to bring along mygood friend Tom. If you are going to spend ten days with a dozen people you've never met, it's prudent to bring some insurance along. As it turned out, our group was a collection of pleasant and varied people, including a bond broker who is a great-great nephew of Warren Harding; a Canadian real estate man with a passion for remote-controlled airplanes; another Canadian couple, he an accountant, she a former navigator in the RAF: a retired chief operating officer of a Big Board company; a couple of spry and engaging older ladies, one a children's portrait painter, the other a botanist; a well-read Connecticut couple, he a college administrator, she a bibliographer; and the colonically inclined California couple, who introduced themselves to everyone we came across as "Vegans." This turned out to be not a reference to a home planet in Alpha Centauri, but the word denoting strict vegetarianism. Watching them describe their draconian dietary requirements to the mystified peasant folks who cooked our meals in remote hamlets was a memorable part of the trip; you have not truly lived until you have witnessed a tank-topped blond from Los Angeles explain the evils of chicken to an emaciated Central American.

But there is this to be said in favor of group travel, especially with a pukka outfit like Butterfield and Robinson: everything is done for you-visas, transport, food, lodging, and if anything goes wrong, you get to yell at them and they're not allowed to yell back. I wish Butterfield and Robinson guided New York cab rides. Eric, would you please tell Mr. Abouhalima to SLOW THE @#$% DOWN, GODDAMNIT!

And there's this: you get to see a country like Belize through the eyes of a Jaime Awe. (Pronounced Ah-weh.) Jaime is a native Belizean, a professor of Mayan archaeology at Trent University in Ontario, smart, funny, street-wise, someone you'd want in your lifeboat.

Not that there were any lifeboats around. We were in the interior. More than half the people who go there, go for reasons having to do with the gin-clear water off Belize's coast, for the fishing, scuba diving, beaching, tanning, and general lying about. There would be some of that at the end of our trip, but now we were on our way west, climbing gradually from the mangrove swamps along the Caribbean coast, through grassy savannahs, to the foothills of the Mayan mountains in the interior. Belize doesn't have a whole lot of interior; at no point is it more than about sixty miles wide. The whole country is only slightly larger than Massachusetts, but unlike Massachusetts, it has a functioning economy and a good record on human rights, which is so rare in these parts that the country ought to be stuffed and mounted and hung above the General Assembly at the United Nations. They also speak English in Belize, so you don't have to shout at the natives in English the way you do, say, in Mexico, in order to make yourself understood.

Belize used to be British Honduras. By the time we got there, last January, the British were down to about fifty troops, owing to the fact that the United States, in a rare instance of actually accomplishing something hemispheric without making a hash of it, quietly told Guatemala to drop its idiotic, centuries-old irredentist insistence that Belize really belongs to Guatemala. That is why, despite the fact that it has been independent of the Crown since 1981, the British commandos stayed on, and will remain, conducting jungle warfare exercises, helicoptering out tourists who've stepped on fer-de-lance snakes, and performing various other vital functions, like giving the Guats the willies.

Earlier on, Belize was passed over by the conquistadores, probably because a lot of its coast looks like an advertisement for Off! mosquito repellent. It was finally stumbled upon by wet, disoriented, shipwrecked British sailors in the early 1600s. There followed a period of the usual rapine and plunder, with the difference that the economy was based on fishing and mahogany logging, instead of on banana or sugar or coffee plantations, so the country didn't end up being a basket case run by a lot of resentful and voluble descendants of slaves. What slavery there was was abolished in 1838, and the British magistrates, while strict, were fair, so people saw that democracy, though flawed, was better than shooting up the National Assembly every other Wednesday.

All of this was irrelevant to our purposes, since we'd come to check out the birds, who really don't care who's in charge as long as they don't govern by DDT, and to see Mayan ruins and caves. I like birds, and wish them well generally, and only shoot them about once a year; but I wouldn't say to my wife, C'mon hon, let's go spend two weeks in Belize looking at birds. However, if you are a bird person, then Belize is for you. Forty percent of the people who go to Chan Chich Lodge are birders, another forty percent are naturalists. Put the two together, and you've got the makings of some of the dullest conversation in any hemisphere. The remaining twenty percent, such as ourselves, come to chill out thirty-five miles from the nearest phone at a place where you can spend all day reading in a hammock listening to the plummy warbling of Oropendolas, get drunk on rum punches and then go stumble down to the nature trail and moon the electric-eye camera set up by the Wildlife and Conservation Society that snaps flash pictures of jaguars, pumas, and coatimundi with alarmed expressions on their faces. That's really getting to know a country.

It dawned on Tom and me that we were on something perilously close to an "eco-tour" when at the end of the first day, after a stop at the justly famed Belize zoo and after checking into our first wilderness lodge, Chaa Creek, we were taken for a short walk on the Panti trail and shown in mind-numbing detail, a bunch of trees and vines. Chocolate trees, Cohune palm trees, hog plum trees, Bayal trees, trees with black orchids (the Belizean national flower), mahogany trees, cedar trees, red gumbolino trees, fiddlewood trees, sapodilla trees. There were trees that could cure dysentery, impotence, and ringworm; purge amoebae; ward off evil spirits; make antibiotics; termite-proof Chippendale furniture; and mask filters for World War II pilots. When, two hours later, I heard the words, "Now this is another kind of gourd ...," I began to feel pangs of sympathy for those Brazilian cattle ranchers who are supposed to be ruining the planet. At the herbal remedy shop at the end of the Panti trail tour, one of the women bought a bottle of something that was supposed to help her husband with his marital duties. She mentioned it a couple times over dinner, which, to judge from the expression on her husband's face, may have been a couple of times too many. This is a drawback to group travel: having twelve people know that your wife thinks you need a bottle of Belizean erection tonic.

That night at Chaa Creek, a pretty collection of hibiscus-, bougainvillea- and poinsettia-covered thatched-roof bungalows set in a verdant valley-actually, pretty much everything is verdant in the jungle; if you sit down for more than five minutes, you'll be verdant-Jaime gave an interesting lecture on the Maya, specifically on their obsession with caves. I'll condense it for you: the Maya were really into caves. A good thing, too, since the whole region is filled with them, owing to the heavy rainfall eroding the porous limestone underneath. The Maya thought caves were the entrance to hell. Having grown up using the New York City subways, I immediately understood why they would think this. They left food in caves, sacrificed animals and humans in caves, buried their honored dead in caves, and ate hallucinogenic mushrooms in caves while ritually mutilating themselves, generally by piercing their tongues and penises with long, obsidian needles. I got all this from Jaime, and he has a PhD in it, so you know it's true. Jaime speculated that the Maya had disappeared due to problems resulting from population stress. My own theory was that people who eat psychotropic mushrooms and crawl into caves to perforate their tongues and penises are not going to make it to the Super Bowl.

The next day, we went into a cave. This was unquestionably the high point of the trip. Jaime told us that only about 2 percent of people who come to Belize do this, which was encouraging to hear, since, as a group trudging up the steep hill with our expensive cameras, expensive hiking boots, our fanny packs, and our multicolored clothes and cute hats, we collectively looked like a bunch of dorks. That's another problem with group touring, trying not to feel like a dork.

At any rate, we went in about three-quarters of a kilometer, however much that is, and about three hundred feet down (a hundred meters). I discovered that I am not a cave person. Despite the amazingly preserved Mayan pots we saw along the way, dating to 500-600 B.C., I kept saying to Tom, "I've seen enough. Let's go back." But Tom, being a lawyer, wanted to press on, probably sensing a massive class-action suit against Butterfield and Robinson. I was left to conclude that I was the only real dork in the group. On we went, until we came to a small opening in the damp limestone. We lowered ourselves by rope down into a chamber about one hundred and twenty feet high by seventy feet long. In the center of the packed-earth ground was a stele about the size and shape of a tombstone, surrounded by a circle of smaller ceremonial stones. This was the spot, Jaime explained, where they cut out the hearts. This produced in me intense stirrings of numinousness and wonder, as well as a keen appreciation for not having been born in Belize in 500-600 B.C.

We had lunch nearby at Checem Ha. We ate chicken with rice and red beans, coleslaw, and fried plantains, liberally covered with Marie Sharp's Hot Pepper Sauce, the ketchup of Belize, and washed it down with ice-cold Belikin beers. It was about the best meal any of us had ever had. Except for the Vegans. They complained to the lovely, toothless woman who cooked our meal about the horrors of animal fat; then they ate some rice and beans. The She-Vegan, as Tom was now privately calling her, produced a bottle of Beano, from which she made the He-Vegan take an ample spoonful. This is another downside to group travel: being made to swallow antiflatulence medicine by your wife in front of twelve people who by now have concluded that you really are a dork.

Back at Chaa Creek we talked with its owner, Mick Fleming, a hearty, burly, outgoing British expatriate. He told funny stories about a roguish jaguar hunter and Mayan tomb looter. He said that we wouldn't have to worry about banditos tomorrow. Banditos had been preying on his customers on the road to the Mayan ruins at Tikal, across the border in Guatemala. They would jump out of the bushes and stick 16-gauge shotguns in your face. They were doing it quite regularly, up to three times a week, until Mick got the Belizean Defense Forces to persuade the Guatemalan armed forces to do something about it. They'd caught them six weeks ago. I had mixed feelings, hearing this. It would be nice to say back home that we'd been robbed by banditos, but being mugged is being mugged in any language, and a 16-gauge shotgun makes a big hole whether you measure it in inches or centimeters.

The next day we drove to Tikal. Guatemala is to Belize what Ireland is to England: the butt of the jokes. The standard of living and the quality of the roads drop the moment you cross the border. Also, you see lots of soldiers, not a good sign; in ten days in Belize we saw one policeman, and I don't think he had a gun. Even the traffic cops in Guatemala seemed to have the latest submachine gun. In the last thirty-odd years, Guatemala has had an on-again, off-again civil war going that has killed a hundred thousand, about half the population of Belize, another reason Belize is not eager to be annexed by Guatemala.

Tikal was one of the great Mayan cities. It covers nine square miles, has eighteen huge temple structures and 2,080 stone roof structures. Between 1956 and 1969, one hundred scholars from the University of Pennsylvania excavated it, with some help from one thousand local laborers. They uncovered eighty of those 2,080 buildings. Jaime said that there may be as many as ten thousand other buildings underneath all that jungle. Just keeping what's been excavated from turning back into jungle is work; for instance, they have to scrape the Temple of the Lost World once a year with spatulas to ward off the green crud. They pile rocks outside the entrance to temples to protect the frescoes inside. Rocks attract snakes; snakes deter looters.

The temples are steep. A guide had recently fallen down one of them to his death. In six hours of climbing we did a year's worth of Stairmaster. Our local guide droned on in an amusing, Victorian English monotone under the hot sun-"We are now in de central acropolis, built on top of de previous structure, obeying de needs of time ..."-as he told us what had happened here between 600 B.C. and A.D. 1000. As usual with Mayan temples, sacrifices were the main event. The victims, Luis the guide told us, "were narcotized, then degraded, de arms and leg joints dislocated, then dey were tied over the stone, decapitated, the blood collected and offered and burned with herbs." One unhappy prisoner was kept for seventeen years of bloodletting rituals before having his head cut off. They played a version of basketball, with a human skull coated with hard rubber; the losing team ended up on the sacrificial slabs. To date, archaeologists have found no evidence of any baseball strikes in Tikal.

It was a society in which you were really better off being a noble. That's true of 99 percent of civilizations, but given what went on here, being a noble at least kept the scalpel-wielding priests at arm's length. The Maya had a keen grasp of the advantages of class. If they'd had an airline, it would have been all first-class; coach passengers would have been tied to the wing, with the flight attendants coming by to poke holes in their tongues. The better neighborhoods at Tikal were strictly off-limits to the common folk. The only way you got to the top of one of those temples was if you were building it or depositing your heart on it. The nobles wore lots of jade-Lord Ah Cacao's robes contained sixteen pounds of jade-and got to eat a special diet containing more protein than the working-class schmoes, as a result of which their skeletons are on average ten centimeters longer than the others. Luis mentioned that they were given to "ritual enemas, with powdered [hallucinogenic] mushrooms." On hearing this, the Vegans began to murmur among themselves. The nobles wore beautiful headdresses of quetzal feathers and hummingbird wings. According to Luis, "They made themselves cross-eyed as a sign of beauty." I don't know how they managed that, but you can see it in the frescoes. They all do look cross.

I remember two things of Tikal. The first was a scratch of Mayan graffiti, perfectly preserved, showing a skull beside two vertical bars and two dots. Each dot represents five, each bar, one; the skull represents death. It means "twelve dead." Whether from disease, or losing at basketball, or in battle, no one knows, but there it was on the wall, twelve hundred years later.


Excerpted from Wish You Weren't Here Copyright © 2007 by Cecil Kuhne. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction     ix
It's the People You Meet
Would You Belize?   Christopher Buckley     3
The Longest Night   Tony Hawks     15
Neither Here Nor There   Bill Bryson     27
Falling Off the Map   Pico Iyer     41
Around the World in a Bad Mood   John Krich     49
Little Bit and the America   Ludwig Bemelmans     63
Birth of a Mountain Climber   Eric Newby     85
Getting Around
Weird Karma   P.J. O'Rourke     103
Boats and Planes   Pete McCarthy     119
The Bus Plunge Highway   Tom Miller     131
On the Road, Again   Tony Horwitz     137
Elvis Presley Boulevard   Mark Winegardner     147
Down and Out in Alaska   Whit Deschner     157
Transgressing the Laws   Mark Twain     165
Then the Wheels Fell Off
Not a Hazardous Sport   Nigel Barley     173
Assassination Vacation   Sarah Vowell     185
Three Men in a Boat   Jerome K. Jerome     199
French Revolutions   Tim Moore     211
Malaria Dreams   Stuart Stevens     223
"You're Lewis, I'm Clark"   W. Hodding Carter     239
The Years of Wonder   E. B. White     251
Notes on the Contributors     269
Permissions     273

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