Tag: Page Turner

Welcome to the Baghdad Country Club

In The Atavist, Joshuah Bearman tells the fascinating story of the Baghdad Country Club, the only bar in the capital city’s fortified “Green Zone.” The bar was built and run by a mysterious British ex-military type, a contractor identified only as James. What intrigued me about the bar was the way in which it was both an escape hatch from the war and, at the same time, a place that was inextricably shaped by its surroundings. Here’s a taste:

In addition to tending bar alongside several Iraqi Christians, Heide manned the wholesale bottle shop that James and Ajax ran out of a guard shack on the property. The shelves stocked the finest spirits the pair could find, which sometimes meant actual quality, alongside gift-store items—T-shirts, mugs, and hats emblazoned with the BCC logo and motto: “It Takes Real Balls to Play Here.”

...Danny quietly managed the place: greeting patrons, dealing with staff, and running the kitchen. James wanted the menu to be good, which wasn’t easy. Whereas much of the food in the Green Zone was processed, packaged, shipped, and reconstituted, Ajax got fresh produce and meat for the kitchen. Danny got along well with Iraqis, and he made sure to serve the national dish of masgouf—fish with onion and pickles—alongside Western-style bruschetta, salads, and steaks. He brought in a chef named Dino to come up with recipes and marinades. Good fish was difficult to come by in Baghdad, but James knew a guy who knew a guy who could sometimes get trout flown in on Delta Force choppers. And Ahmed’s regular shipments of spirits kept the bar stocked for proper cocktails.

“We never hoped to get a Michelin star,” Danny says. “But we managed to give people the one thing you don’t have in Baghdad: a choice.”

The full (long) story is available for purchase from The Atavist—it comes in a variety of e-book formats. The Atlantic has a meaty excerpt. It’s a great read.

Fear and Loathing in a Chevy Aveo

On the 40th anniversary of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” The Daily’s Zach Baron climbs into a modest rental car and hits the Hunter S. Thompson trail. Here’s the introduction to his sharp and funny story:

Writers only go to Las Vegas for one reason, really. It is our World Series of Poker, except more pretentious. But the process is not dissimilar. You train, get your weight up. A semi-competent feature here, a not-totally-botched essay there, and then, one day, when your editor is particularly distracted, downtrodden or simply in need of something to believe in, you push your meager pile of chips to the center of the table. You look your mark in the eye and bluff. “It is the 40th anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’” you say, your face calm, confident, “and I want to go there, to write a piece on the book, and the American Dream.”

You don’t expect him to say yes. Pitching stories on the American Dream is what writers do when their hearts are empty, their minds blank. It is the equivalent of stalling for more time, throwing a Hail Mary down eight with time expiring, a way to mark your commitment and plucky optimism before admitting defeat and moving on to something with an actual chance of success.

This is part one of a series. I’ll be following along. (Via @alexanderbasek)

‘So Everyone You See Here That’s Over 35 Lived Through the War?’

Over at Matador, World Hum contributor Lauren Quinn wrote a long, layered story about a visit to the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, her childhood friendship with the daughter of expat Cambodian survivors in Oakland, and the silence that seems to linger over the war.

Here’s a taste:

Our tuk-tuk rattled along the unsteady pavement, taking us closer to the mass-grave execution site that is one of Phnom Penh’s two main tourist attractions. The other is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former S-21 torture prison under the Khmer Rouge. All the travel agencies along the riverside advertise for tours of the two, sometimes combined with a trip to a shooting range where travelers can fire AK-47s left over from the war (ammunition costs not included).

Most travelers stayed in Phnom Penh only long enough to see S-21 and the Killing Fields, then scattered from the city. It was what Cindy was doing, and what I, if I hadn’t come for my particular project, would have done as well. I’d been putting off visiting the Killing Fields, not wanting, I’d rationalized, to spend the $12 tuk-tuk fare venturing out solo. Cindy offered an opportunity to split the cost—but more than that, she offered a buffer, a companion.

The wind grew stronger without buildings to block it, and I blinked bits of dust and debris from my contact lenses. By the time we pulled into the dirt lot in front of the Killing Fields, stinging tears blurred my vision.

“This happens every day here,” I laughed, and dabbed my eyes.

Mother Jones Goes to ‘Culture Training’ at an Indian Call Center

In the latest Mother Jones, Andrew Marantz has a fascinating story about his brief stint as a worker at a call center in India. Here’s Marantz on the mandatory “culture training” that workers undergo before they hit the switchboards:

Indian BPOs work with firms from dozens of countries, but most call-center jobs involve talking to Americans. New hires must be fluent in English, but many have never spoken to a foreigner. So to earn their headsets, they must complete classroom training lasting from one week to three months. First comes voice training, an attempt to “neutralize” pronunciation and diction by eliminating the round vowels of Indian English. Speaking Hindi on company premises is often a fireable offense.

Next is “culture training,” in which trainees memorize colloquialisms and state capitals, study clips of Seinfeld and photos of Walmarts, and eat in cafeterias serving paneer burgers and pizza topped with lamb pepperoni. Trainers aim to impart something they call “international culture”—which is, of course, no culture at all, but a garbled hybrid of Indian and Western signifiers designed to be recognizable to everyone and familiar to no one. The result is a comically botched translation—a multibillion dollar game of telephone. “The most marketable skill in India today,” the Guardian wrote in 2003, “is the ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else’s.”

(Via Where Am I Wearing)

Explore Magazine’s 30th Anniversary Issue

Up here north of the border, Explore (“Canada’s outdoor magazine”) is celebrating 30 years in print. Last weekend I picked up the anniversary issue, a best-of selection of National Magazine Award winners from the last several years, and read it cover to cover—it was packed full of really solid outdoor travel narratives.

I’m not sure how readily available the magazine is outside of Canada, but if you can get your hands on it I’d highly recommend it. Standouts, for me, included “27 Funerals and a Wedding,” “The Story of Bear 99,” “The Boys and the Backcountry,” “Here Be Ogopogo” and “Hammering Away at Eternity.” Unfortunately the stories don’t appear to be available online.

Christopher Buckley: ‘I Was Deck Boy Aboard a Norwegian Tramp Freighter’

In 1970, Buckley shipped out for a year of adventure. His remembrance in the Atlantic is beautiful:

I remember standing in the crow’s nest as we entered the misty Panama Canal, and the strange sensation as the 4,000-ton ship rose higher and higher inside the lock. I remember dawn coming up over the Strait of Malacca; ragamuffin kids on the dock in Sumatra laughing as they pelted us with bananas; collecting dead flying fish off the deck and bringing them to our sweet, fat, toothless Danish cook to fry up for breakfast. I remember sailing into Hong Kong harbor and seeing my first junk; steaming upriver toward Bangkok, watching the sun rise and set fire to the gold-leafed pagoda roofs; climbing off the stern down a wriggly rope ladder into a sampan, paddling for dear life across the commerce-mad river into the jungle, where it was suddenly quiet and then suddenly loud with monkey-chatter and bird-shriek, the moonlight lambent on the palm fronds.

A Detour to Seattle

Over at Gadling, World Hum contributor Andrew Evans has a sad, thoughtful piece about a last-minute trip to Seattle to attend a funeral. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s a favorite sequence:

The day after the funeral, the friend I was crashing with whipped out a yellow legal pad and began making a list of things to see and do in Seattle. Mostly, he suggested I do a lot [of] eating. We made plans to meet up for lunch at a popular Russian café; my friend slipped me the address as we walked downtown. I had no map and no idea how I would find him.

“Just remember,” he panted, “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest.” He ran all the words together as one and it didn’t make any sense at all.


“It’s a way to remember the streets: Jesus is for Jefferson/James. Christ—Cherry and Columbia. Made—Marion/Madison . . . and so on, you’ll see. It’s easy—just follow the streets in that order. Be at Cherry and Third at one o’clock.”

“Jesus! Christ! Made! Seattle! Under! Protest!” he shouted out each word as he spun around the corner and marched uphill. Every street in Seattle goes up or down.

From Paris to New York—in 1906

Conor Friedersdorf digs up an old gem from the Atlantic’s archives: a dispatch from a native New Yorker, returning to the city after an extended stay in Paris. It’s a must-read for NYC-philes. Here’s a taste:

In a word, this returned New Yorker finds few familiar landmarks; and the few he does find seem to have lost most of their original meaning. He is as much dazed and puzzled by his surroundings as Rip Van Winkle after his twenty years’ sleep. Nobody resides, does business, dines, or drinks in the same places as before. Nobody frequents the same pleasure resorts. Nobody saunters along the same walks. It is not safe for him to make a business or social call, or to set out for a restaurant, a chop-house, a theatre, or a club, without consulting the Directory in advance; and, even so, he risks having his trouble for his pains, inasmuch as there is more than a chance that a move has been made since the Directory was issued.

After he so far recovers from the shock of his initial disenchantment, however, as to be able to take note of details, he finds that there is some balm in Gilead, after all. At the end of a month he begins to catch the spirit of New York; and at the end of six months he has come completely under its spell, and loves it, as Montaigne loved the Paris of his day, “with all its moles and warts.” The radiant white city by the Seine still appears to him at intervals, like the memory of a favorite picture or poem; but it has lost the power to disquiet him with desire. Paris is no longer a perpetual obsession,—the absolute norm by which he judges everything he sees. Indeed, it has passed so far out of his life that he is in danger of being as over-lenient in his judgments as he was at the outset over-severe.

An Insomniac in New York

Bill Hayes has a lovely essay in the New York Times about life in his new home, New York City, a place seemingly purpose-built for insomniacs. Here’s a choice quote:

Sometimes I’d sit in the kitchen in the dark and gaze out at the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. Such a beautiful pair, so impeccably dressed, he in his boxy suit, every night a different hue, and she, an arm’s length away, in her filigreed skirt the color of the moon. I regarded them as an old married couple, calmly, unblinkingly, keeping watch over one of their newest sons. And I returned the favor. I would be there the moment the Empire State turned off its lights for the night, as if getting a little shut-eye before sunrise.

The whole thing is worth a read.

Slate Goes to Vancouver

With the Vancouver Olympics just three weeks away, the latest “Well-Traveled” series sees World Hum contributor Elisabeth Eaves returning to the city of her youth. It’s a good read.

Nicolas Bouvier: the Great Swiss Travel Writer

On one writer's immense generosity of spirit and openness to experience

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The New Yorker’s Food Issue Goes Traveling

The new issue has a definite global bent, with stories on China’s burgeoning wine culture, spending Thanksgiving abroad and more. Most of the stories aren’t accessible online for non-subscribers, but John Colapinto’s ride-along with a Michelin restaurant inspector is available in full. There’s also a podcast to accompany Calvin Trillin’s “kamikaze” poutine mission to Quebec, and a video to go along with the Chinese wine story.

Seth Stevenson: Innocents Aboard

Seth Stevenson: Innocents Aboard Photo by jordanfischer via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo by jordanfischer via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Slate’s latest Well-Traveled series follows writer Seth Stevenson and three other novice sailors as they join the annual herd of “clueless” American boaters who “fly down to Tortola, rent enormous catamarans, float them out into the middle of the channel, and for the next seven days proceed to endanger every seaborne object they encounter.” It’s a good read so far.

The Mystery of the Kashiwa Mystery Cafe

Cabel Maxfield Sasser calls his visit to the Ogori Cafe in Kashiwa, Japan, an unforgettable travel moment. I agree. Read to the end for the payoff. (Thanks for the tip, @sophiadembling)

George Saunders Goes to Tent City, U.S.A.

It’s in Fresno, California, and he lived there this April. Saunders writes on his website:

It was a very moving, sort of scary experience, that had the effect of re-energizing certain tendencies in my fiction and in me as a person, I guess, among these: respect for the real; a distrust of the American capitalist juggernaut; suspicion of my own Pollyannaish tendencies; new enthusiasm for the variety and weirdness of the world.

His 12,000-word piece about it—and an audio slideshow—can be found at GQ.

Jan Wong: Looking Back at China’s Darker Days

Jan Wong: Looking Back at China’s Darker Days Photo by maxf via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo by maxf via Flickr (Creative Commons)

In a powerful column, Jan Wong, the author of Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now looks back on her complicated love affair with China—from studying abroad in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution to covering the Tiananmen Square massacre from a hotel room uncomfortably nearby. As the country celebrates its 60th anniversary this week, it’s good to see some thoughtful reflection on the dark times in China’s past, too. (Via @DougSaunders)

National Geographic on ‘Vanishing Venice’

The latest issue of the magazine includes a lovely story on the city, and the rising flood of tourists that threatens to destroy it. (Via @italylogue)

Tradition, Change and the Fate of the Irish Pub

Ry Cooder’s El Mirage and Los Angeles


This is one of the coolest travel stories I’ve read in a while. The New York Times joined Ry Cooder in exploring El Mirage Dry Lake in California’s Mojave Desert, as well as parts of Los Angeles, both areas Cooder has evoked in concept albums. Writes Lawrence Downes:

When Ry Cooder and I got to El Mirage Dry Lake, it was 110 degrees and heading to 117, hot enough to cook your head inside your hat. The Mojave Desert in daylight will cut the gizzard right out of you, Tom Joad once said, which is why the Okies crossed it at night.

The accompanying slideshow, featuring one of Cooder’s songs, shows just how powerful a good audio slideshow can be.


Southern Mexico’s Pirates: ‘Every Story is About Money’

Southern Mexico’s Pirates: ‘Every Story is About Money’ Photo by afronie via Flickr (Creative Commons).
Photo by afronie via Flickr (Creative Commons).

When David Vann learned about the mysterious and brutal murder of 78-year-old sailor John Long in the waters near Puerto Madero, Mexico, he was compelled to head there to unearth the truth about Long’s demise as much as resolve his own brush with violence and corruption in the same region 11 years ago.

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