Once again, I’ve found you. There is no escape from this annually joyous attempt at season greetings. Since you likely have no other distractions; give me your full attention and let’s get down to the business at hand…to put the year that was, 2008, into a little perspective.
I know that the number of Christmas letters you’ve already dismissively wadded up and chucked into the wastebasket, along with all that fruitcake and eggnog you’ve gorged yourself on, will affect your reading of this; so I’ve decided to make it easy for you. First, it’s not a letter at all, it’s an email. No extra energy needs to be expended to get rid of it. Second, it has virtually nothing to do with Christmas. Sure, the title gives you that impression, but it’s really just a dirty* laundry list of all the wackiness that was 2008. Third, stop reading this introduction and get to the good stuff below. Fourth, I try to use simple words for simple folk like you. Sure, this means extra effort on my part, but…wait a minute. Forget it, there will be no pandering to the masses. You get what you get, and like it. Fifth, it is not required reading at all, nor should it be confused with anything relevant and timely that could impact your life in a meaningful way. Sixth, seriously, this intro is over. Get on with it.
Hang gliding (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Let’s get this started off with a bang. You presumably know what hang gliding is. You’ve likely heard about (or been to) Rio. You probably understand the concept of swooping over the tops of high rise hotels. You have it within you to visualize a long, graceful descent onto a white, sandy beach. You are surely capable of wrapping your head around a scene showing a short burst of sprinting with your appointed pilot and glider attached, and a brief, sudden tandem free-fall before catching air and soaring peacefully over every postcard view of Rio you’ve ever seen. Yes? Good job! I’m so proud of you!
The Game of Baseball (Worldwide)
I took in the Japanese version of baseball in Osaka with the Orix Buffaloes playing the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (sponsored by Nippon Ham). What have they done to our beloved game? Only turned it into an enthusiastic circus of bright colors, silly mascots, and crazy slogans! Case in point, “One heartbeat, close to you”, supposedly will entice you to attend a Buffaloes game. Hmmmm…yes, I see. I also saw home games of the Toronto Blue Jays, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Washington Nationals. And boy did my heart skip a beat when I discovered $2 Tuesdays in Toronto!
Safari (East Tsavo National Park, Kenya)
Thirty different types of animals participated in my dusty, bouncing, day-long photo shoot. And not a single one smiled. So disappointing. The closest I got to a smile was from six massive lions feasting on succulent buffalo. Oh, and a baby giraffe played coy for the camera until warming up after I offered her the cover of National Geographic. Sucker!
9:30 Club (Northwest, Washington, D.C.)
Definitely the best venue to see a concert in the city (standing room and balconies for 900), I took it upon myself to see all kinds of bands and artists while skipping between the three bars, each with different beer offerings. I witnessed Super Diamond (twice), Sara Bareilles, The Ting Tings, Cut Copy with the Pre-Sets, Hot Chip, Shiny Toy Guns, and Vampire Weekend. Although this may be the first time you’ve heard of some of these, don’t waste this rare opportunity you’ve been granted to expand your horizons. (Hint: iTunes)
Dr. Granville Moore’s (Northeast, Washington, D.C.)
Fancying itself as a Belgium gastro pub, Granville Moore’s dishes fantastic mussels and frites (as seen on the Food Network) and entertains around 60 different Belgium beers before offering them up to eager patrons. This row house turned restaurant is seemingly unfinished on the inside, with exposed dry wall, and flourishes church pews for seats. Not that anyone would notice with a face full of frites and Framboise.
Niagara Falls (Ontario, Canada)
Big and wet. You expected more?
Whatever your taste in music is, remember, this is my list. So when I say that the albums from Sara Bareilles, Vampire Weekend and Coldplay are the ones you should buy (now) and listen to (again, now), then you might want to take heed. Even should you choose to ignore my expert advice, I’ll happily enjoy them without you.
Yes, I read some books, but let’s not dwell on it too much. The two to buy or hold-up the local library for are: “Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed” by Thomas W. Dichter (the title also acts as a synopsis!) and “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman (an interesting thought experiment on what would happen to the planet if humans no longer existed – can you guess?).
Some of the best movies of the year included: “The Dark Knight” (a no-brainer), “Iron Man”, and “The Visitor”.
This world is full of good food and by any means necessary, get these dishes into your salivating piehole as soon as possible! Japanese okonomiyaki (pancakes with plenty of what you like), fugu (poisonous pufferfish), Kobe beef (marbled, mouthwatering meat), Dominican mofongo (puréed plantains with pork), Khmer (Cambodian) fish amok (the name says it all), Brazilian feijoada (sizzling stew with steaming beans, pork and beef), Kenyan ugali (doughy cornmeal), Canadian poutine (frites with fromage and fancy gravy), and British cream tea (tea and scones with clotted cream and jam). Oy!
Cherry blossoms (Kyoto, Japan)
What does strolling along the meditative Philosopher’s path, exploring any of 1,800 temples, jostling through the bustling (bursting?) streets of the Gion district, cramming onto crowded buses, and meandering through countless, breathtaking Japanese gardens all have in common? In early April, you can do none of these things without a pink and white explosion of cherry blossoms (sakura) in every direction. And a vast array of sakura flavored sweets, including the cream puff that explodes pink goo onto your shirt.
Corcovado (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Arms wide for a welcoming embrace, the Christ the Redeemer statue (120 feet high) sits atop the mountain of Corcovado, overlooking Rio and its white beaches. Considered one of the ‘new 7 wonders of the world’, the statue commands your full attention from every angle. Then, inevitably, you have to take time to be distracted by the breathtaking view. But, out of the corner of your eye, Christ is still ready to hug you.
Mt. Misen (Miyajima, Japan)
Any sorry attempt on my part to describe the majestic panorama of sights from the high temples of this island mountaintop, overlooking the red, floating torii gate (considered one of Japan’s three most scenic views) and neighboring islands; and the arduous ascent through primeval forests and fiery cherry blossoms to reach it; and the perfect warm instant noodles and crisp Kirin beer bought from the Mom and Pop café at the summit; would only pale in comparison to the real thing. Sorry to disappoint.
Over repeated trips to England without giving London its proper due, I finally decided to invest a couple of days to really take LDN in again. First lesson: Use the money you theoretically saved on that cheap hotel with a shared bathroom (60 pounds a night) on a Fuller’s London Pride beer and a greasy order of fish and chips. Then go bankrupt. Second lesson: Go see Monty Python’s Spamalot. Third lesson: Take your iPod and stroll around Hyde Park and The Serpentine lake during sunset. Fourth lesson: The village of Greenwich and the Greenwich Mean Time line is acceptable to visit in the rain.
Pub Quiz Nights (Fado Irish Pub, Washington, D.C.)
A rich winter tradition of pencil in hand, sipping from pints of frothy Guinness, nibbling on corned beef and cabbage, writing down answers to random questions, and handing them in after each round – all with the hope of out-dueling the other, lesser teams for cash money – always ended in tears as we failed to live up to our own hype. Next time…
Flight of the Conchords (Television show)
So ridiculously funny, you will surely snort milk out your nose (even if you’re not drinking any!). The title refers to a very low-rent, no gigs, two shlub band from New Zealand, who, along with their manager, get into random misadventures, and then sing about them. As you decipher the lyrics, and nod your head to the beat, keep an extra pair of underwear handy in case a laughing accident ensues.
I’ve lived on the East Coast now for a few years and only just now made it to Philly. So to make up for lost time, we swaggered into Philly foot loose and fancy free. Philly cheese steaks, a Phillies baseball game (World Series Champs!), Broad Street, pub crawling, cheering on the Kentucky Derby while quaffing mint juleps, and a random Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit and you’ve got yourself a weekend.
Whether seasick while deep-sea fishing; enjoying a fine meal at the Old Man and The Sea restaurant (Hemingway did not make an appearance); staying at the quiet and cheap Cloud Nine
hotel (not in any guidebook); cooking fresh fish in banana leaves; strolling the seaweed choked beaches; or watching the resilient sailboats, made by the local boys from cast-off detritus (flip-flops for outriggers and plastic bags for sails anyone?), brave the ocean’s wind and waves; Malindi is a worthy place to unwind and pretend the world really is this small.
Temples of Angkor (Cambodia)
The Khmer empire was pretty busy between 850-1200 AD, building temples like they were going out of style. Then most of these temples were abandoned for hundreds of years and they became part of the encroaching jungle. Angkor Wat is by far the largest and most well-known, but it’s the temples of Ta Prohm and Beng Mealea that are among the most amazing. These have been allowed to stay mostly overgrown and ruined. There is a certain amount of peace and awe one feels when traversing over and around the tangled roots of giant fig strangler trees and the tumbled stones and carvings that once were grand galleries and massive buildings of ancient kings. At least it seems that way, if I do say so myself.
Can’t wait until next Christmas for another injection of insipid, indelible insights? Keep track of all the random hilarity at:
Bonus Question! (Guess correctly for a cool prize!)**
How many countries did I visit this year? (Hint: One paragraph lists them all)
* Clean version
** No, not really