How could we do a world tour of exotic cities and neglect Mongolia?  Impossible!  My many Mongoloid readers would never forgive me.  Mongolia is far too fascinating.  And I have uranium investments there.

    But we’re not going to Ulan Bator.  It’s too crowded with tourists this time of year.  Instead, we’re going to Choibalsan, the capital of Dornod province, in the eastern end of the country.  It’s less well-known but still has a tourist trade.  And the weather is nice right now — just a tad on the cool side, with one sunny day after another.

    So I’m on this cute, little Saab 340 of Eznis Airways, coming from Ulan Bator.  Across the aisle is a lady from New Zealand — Cherie Howie, a reporter for the Marlborough Express.  She looks unhappy.  What’s the problem?  Well, it seems that some nasty person nominated her for New Zealand Media Twit of the Year.  Her co-workers tried to reassure her that it was only a nomination; she hadn’t actually won yet.  But her editor was not amused.  He said she had to redeem herself.  So he put a big world map on the wall, closed his eyes, and threw a dart at it.  And wherever the dart hit, she had to go there and get a story.  The dart hit Choibalsan, Mongolia.

    “It’s not so bad,” I told her.  “The dart could have hit the middle of the ocean.  At least it hit a place with people.  And I’m told that Choibalsan is very interesting.  You’re sure to find a good story.”

    When you get to the airport, there’s a minibus waiting to take you to the Swissotel Choibalsan (comfy, unpretentious, moderately-priced), whose General Manager is Bart Westerhout.  “This is the best posting I’ve ever had,” says Bart.  “I could have gone to Paris or Geneva, but I jumped at Choibalsan.  The climate is invigorating, the people are upbeat, and the food is superb.”  Bart has a vast knowledge of Mongolia and the Choibalsan region, and I learned some surprising things.  “Genghis Khan hated this place.  It’s the only place in Mongolia he couldn’t stand to be in.  He felt there was something evil about it.  And he may have been right.  There is a legend that an evil spirit, which is referred to as ‘The Evil One,’ comes to Choibalsan every thirty-three years.  Two-thousand-and-ten will be the thirty-third year.  That ought to pack in the tourists!”  What happened in 1977?  “That was before my time.  But local people say there was an outbreak of mass hysteria in the Buddhist monastery.  The monks claimed The Evil One had appeared.  They resorted to two days of non-stop chanting to drive it away.  Several people and some animals disappeared.  The government investigated and dismissed the whole thing as superstition and capitalist propaganda.  Today, the older people still believe in The Evil One, but the young people don’t.”  And does this Evil One have a name?  “It has a name,” says Bart, “but you must never speak it aloud, or you will die.  Before you leave, I’ll write it down on paper for you.”  Wow!  Now there’s a story for Cherie Howie!

    Another surprising thing I learned was that, despite the early Mongols’ reputation as horsemen, modern Mongolians are afraid of horses!  “They won’t even get on a pony,” says Bart.  But outside of town there’s a zebra ranch!  The government brought them to Mongolia as an experiment to see if they could adapt to the climate and also as a possible food animal.  The zebras adapted, but no one wanted to eat them.  So they serve only as a tourist attraction.  You can ride them if they’re properly tranquilized.  Another good story for Cherie Howie!

    Choibalsan has an east side and a west side.  The west side became seriously depopulated and fell into ruin when the Russians left, and the east side is where the action is.  But…something really big is brewing on the depressed west side: a hockey arena is being built!  And this story hasn’t hit the media in North America yet, but Bart is in the know, and he gave me the straight dope:  Jim Balsillie, who is trying to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton, Ontario, is secretly creating a Mongolian Hockey League!  For what it would cost him to buy the Coyotes, he could build a half dozen rinks, sign a lot of young players from the minor leagues, and create a complete league.  “The Mongolians will love it,” says Bart.  “It’s a novelty.  It’s a sport.  He’s made some good connections in the government.  It’s going to happen.”  There’s another  good story for Cherie Howie!

    Or so I thought.  I met the reporter for lunch at the Verena Restaurant and told her about The Evil One, the zebras, and the hockey league.  “No, no, no,” she said.  “The readers of  the Express don’t believe in superstition, they have no interest in zebras, and we don’t play hockey in New Zealand.”  Okay, well, I tried to be helpful.

    The Verena specializes in the local delicacy — sheep brains.  Head Chef Elshad Abasov is a master of it.  He gave me his recipe for Sheep Brain a la Choibalsan:

    Remove outside skin and soak brain in cold water until blood has run out.   Then put brain in pot with two quarts of water, four ounces of red wine vinegar, two onions (quartered), one carrot, one half head of red cabbage, two stalks of rhubarb, six okra, one tablespoon salt, one half teaspoon black pepper, one half teaspoon sage, one teaspoon chopped ginger, one half teaspoon chili powder, one tablespoon juniper berries, one sprig of dill, one sprig of rosemary, and two bay leaves.  Bring to a boil and simmer for one-half hour.  Remove brain, cut in half, and serve on bed of orzo and  cottage cheese.  Pour rest of the pot over the brain.  Heston Blumenthal has added this dish to the new menu at the Little Chef restaurant chain (U.K.) with great success.  (And you thought Brits had no taste, didn’t you?)  Cherie Howie went to the ladies’ room to throw up, but I suspect it was a trick to stick me with the bill.

    Not far from the Verena is the Choibalsan Music Hall.  The Mongolian heavy metal rock band Hurd was in town, so I went.  I have no idea what their songs are about, but they were loud, and they threw pieces of raw meat at the audience.  Hurd will becoming to Canada in April of 2010 for a tour of the Atlantic provinces, and Rita MacNeil will be opening for them.

    The Dornod Midget Ballet Company, based in Choibalsan, puts on a distinctly Mongolian version of Swan Lake.  You can see them at the Choibalsan Little Theatre, located on the bank of the Kherlen River, next to the mental hospital.

    There’s good shopping in Choibalsan, especially if you’re into guns, leather, and liquor.  The biggest surprise, however, is fashion.  The tremendously popular avant garde designer Helmut Lang has opened a big boutique and is setting the fashion world abuzz with what he calls the “Mongolian Psycho” look.  His proteges, Michael and Nicole Colovos, have been managing the label since 2005, but Lang has returned to manage the Choibalsan outlet personally because of his Mongolian roots.

    Lots of little shops sell quaint novelties, including busts of Elvis and Genghis Khan, but most of these stores are run by Chinese, oddly enough. 

    You can rent a Jeep and go visit the Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness, a unique mini-ecosystem an hour’s drive north of town (bad dirt road, so drive slowly).  Here you will find the Mongolian leatherneck turtle in abundance.  Visitors can rent guns and shoot them.  The shells of the leatherneck turtle are fashioned by local artisans to make party hats and protective athletic gear.  (Where’s Cherie Howie?  This is a story!)

    At Bart Westerhout’s suggestion, I went five miles west of town to view the Moukalaba-Doudou Industrial Park, where all plants and animals have been exterminated to allow for coal mining, oil and gas drilling, and the manufacturing of toxic chemicals.  The multi-colored plumes of smoke are breathtaking at sunset, and any birds flying through them fall dead to the ground.

    Beside the park runs the Waka Canal, which carries untreated sewage from Choibalsan.  New grooms are invited to test their fortitude by diving into the canal to retrieve money scattered by their friends as part of a traditional Mongolian marriage custom.  It’s a scene straight out of The Magic Christian.

    Elsewhere, the Mongolian Institute of Aluminum Siding offers the visitor a stunning display of artistic and industrial metalworks.  Tuesdays are “pay what you like.”

    The steppes of Mongolia are mostly devoid of trees, but a rare exception is the forest of okoume trees south of Choibalsan.  The wood is used to make furniture for movie stars in Beverly Hills, and the fruit is used to make weight-loss products advertised in The National Enquirer. 

    Earthquakes happen occasionally in this part of Mongolia.  When the earth splits open, giant prehistoric bugs emerge to devour people and livestock.  But such events do not cloud the spirits of the normally optimistic Mongolians, who are used to adversity.  Indeed, Choibalsan’s official motto is “Gii chii pizda,” which means “The future has to be better.”

    Back at the Swissotel, I asked Bart Westerhout if Choibalsan had a sister city, and he said no.  We agreed it should have one.  So he invited the city’s Mayor, Shukhratjon Aikoraev (“Call me Shooky”) to come over for a drink.  Shooky doesn’t have any real governing authority.  He’s sort of a figurehead, who spends most of his time in a smoke-filled gambling den, but this was the sort of thing he could do within his limited power.  Sister city?  Great idea!  And I knew just the place — Bismarck, North Dakota.  Same climate, same geography, same spirit.  Mayor John Warford (“The fighting orthodontist of North Dakota”) was thrilled with the idea.  Bismarck didn’t have a real sister city (we won’t count Mandan), and with the mayoral election coming up in 2010, what a gift it would be to the community!  John Warford deserves to be reelected, and I urge all Bismarckers to vote for him.

    Cherie Howie happened to meet us in the bar, and I had a ton of story ideas for her: the rock band Hurd, the midget ballet, the Helmut Lang boutique, Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness, the industrial park, grooms diving into sewage for money, the Institute of Aluminum Siding, the okoume tree forest, the earthquakes, giant bugs, and, best of all, Choibalsan’s new sister city!  But it was no, no, no, no, no.  Not for the readers of the Marlborough Express.  “Then what the heck are you going to write about?” I asked.

    “Cats,” she said.

    “Cats?”

    “Yes.  House cats.  How people here love their cats.  Our readers love cat stories.”

    Now that’s journalism!

    Before I left Choibalsan, Bart Westerhout slipped a folded piece of paper into my hand.  “You wanted to know the name of The Evil One — the name that must never be spoken aloud.  Promise me…you won’t even look at it until you’re on the plane back to UB.”  So I promised.

    Climbing into the cool autumn air, with the exotic city of Choibalsan fading from view, and Cherie Howie with her laptop out, putting the finishing touches on her cat article, I nervously unfolded the paper that Bart Westerhout had given to me and read the name of The Evil One.  And please…don’t ever say this name aloud:

    GORGULAX.

    Recommended vaccinations: Dyggve Melchior Clausen Syndrome, sacrococcygeal teratoma, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

    Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada.  E-mail: crad166@yahoo.com

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    A potato-hungry Nicaragua can be grateful for a city like Puerto Cabezas.  This lovely little port on the Atlantic coast is surrounded by vast potato farms, which grow 80% of the potatoes eaten in Nicaragua.  They are the Balurde Brown variety, not seen in North America.  Long lines of trucks rumble out of Puerto Cabezas on the only road into the city, which goes all the way to Managua.  It is referred to, appropriately enough, as the Potato Highway, and it was described by Ernest Hemingway in one of his lesser-known stories, “At Noon Cometh the Spud Truck.”

    This part of Nicaragua belongs to indigenous people, the Shinnecock Indians, who raised potatoes and ducks since their beginnings.  The ducks, however, got wiped out by some sort of bird flu, which was probably brought to Nicaragua by Balboa in 1513.  He was looking for another ocean, and the Indians pointed south and said, “It’s that way.”  So he and his men went that way and “discovered” the Pacific Ocean.  And along the way they had sex with a lot of Indian women, who were “easy,” so that’s how Nicaragua got a large population of Spanish-Indian hybrids.  The women are pretty hot.  Bianca Jagger is a good example.  She got her start at fame as the country’s Potato Queen of 1964, and she is still the country’s favorite celebrity.

    Tourism is just starting to take off in Puerto Cabezas.  Local people still regard North Americans as “los estupidos norteamericanos,” because of the thousands of liberal white kids who went to Nicaragua back in the 80’s to pick crops and show solidarity with the peasants.  It is pretty stupid when you think about it: paying your own way to Nicaragua to pick crops for nothing.  And these are the same fools who protest against “exploitation” of cheap labor in the Third World by big American companies.  Well, as I always say, if you identify with the poor, you’re destined to be poor.   The people I know who went to Nicaragua to pick crops still live like poor bohemians, and when I offer to give them good stock tips or to teach them how to sell options, they laugh and say, “I don’t have any money.”

    But a second wave of visitors is finding Puerto Cabezas as a tourist destination, and that’s good as long as they avoid the rest of Nicaragua.  Managua, for instance, is a total f—ing ripoff.  You must never spend a single minute in Managua.  So forget about getting to Puerto Cabezas via the Potato Highway, which is too dangerous for tourists.  And forget about flying from Managua to Puerto Cabezas.  The airlines suck, they’re a ripoff, and the airport at Puerto Cabezas is, to be euphemistic, rather basic, and landing there is risky except in daylight and in perfect weather.

    So your best access to Puerto Cabezas is the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Joker of the Seas.  Joker is the “cheap” ship in the fleet, and it offers a bargain-priced cruise to some of the less-visited destinations, such as Devil’s Island.  Joker will give you three days in Puerto Cabezas, but you can always get off and stay longer and pick up Joker on the way back.

    You’ll want to stay at the Carlton Hotel Puerto Cabezas, which is the only hotel up to civilized-white-people standards.  General Manager Massimiliano Perversi runs an efficient inn with about 50 rooms, averaging a very reasonable $150 a night, not including the $10 “health tax” the government charges you for bringing your civilized-white-people diseases into the country.  Some of the rooms in the Carlton are fitted out in bizarre fashion.  For instance, you have “crypt” rooms, where you sleep in a big coffin, and there are all these skeletons and monster figures and creepy sound effects.  “It was Daniel Ortega’s idea,” explains Perversi, referring to the President of Nicaragua.  “He comes up here occasionally with a lady, and they like things kinky.”  Other theme rooms are “The Mummy’s Tomb,” “Spider Island,” and “The Tingler.”  There is also a special party room, Room 13, that is reserved for Ortega, but what’s inside is a closely guarded secret.

    Fishing is the other important aspect of life in Puerto Cabezas, besides potatoes.  The city’s canneries process tons of hagfish every day.  When the cannery whistle blows, the whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats.  Capt. Neptaly Arias, captain of the fishing boat Zorra, is the port’s most colorful character.  His eye for a hagfish is rivaled only by his eye for a  woman.  “Here the hagfish is king,” he says.  “There are many varieties of hagfish, but the Atlantic hagfish is the most delicious.  And they are prized by the ladies, who put them in their vaginas while they are still alive.”

    Arias says that there have been years when the hagfish simply went away for no reason.  Then the Indians had to resort to their sacred magic to bring them back.  One ritual is the burning of zozobra, a 40-foot-high effigy made of wood and chicken wire, meant to represent sin.  All the people must write down their sins on paper and place them in zozobra, or they must place any object connected with their sins in zozobra.  When the effigy is full of all the people’s sins, it is burned to expiate their guilt.  Another ritual is the “stickdance,” which is practiced nowhere else in the world.  The most beautiful Indian women must dance naked around a tall stake.  Then they are tied to the stake and whipped by the old women to make them scream.  The screams are heard by the hagfish, who become excited and return.  It’s  all part of a religious belief system, so you can’t criticize it.

    Hagfish is served everywhere in Puerto Cabezas, but unless you are willing to risk diarrhea, your best place to eat is at the Carlton’s restaurant.  Head Chef Rosalina Dolmo Martinez gave me her recipe for Hagfish Puerto Cabezas:

    Rinse six Atlantic hagfish to remove superficial slime.  Place in pot of boiling milk for five minutes, then transfer to casserole dish.  Sprinkle with cayenne pepper, salt, and turmeric.  Cover with tomato sauce.  Bake at 350 degrees F for 25 minutes.  Prepare bed of mashed potatoes using Balurde Brown potatoes, with two tablespoons of lard blended in.  Sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese over potatoes.  Pour finished hagfish and sauce over potatoes.  Gordon Ramsay has called this recipe the most outstanding fish dish he has ever eaten. 

    The bars in Puerto Cabezas are on the edgy side, serving mainly fishermen and sailors of the Nicaraguan Navy.  It’s best to have a local person as your escort, otherwise the patrons and staff may play rude jokes on you because we are still “estupidos norteamericanos” in their eyes and therefore fair game.  Capt. Arias took me to the Hagfish Saloon, which is owned by his friend Raul Barahona.  Patrons like to engage in a gruesome variation of arm wrestling involving hot coals, and on Saturday nights the place is turned into a makeshift boxing arena, where drunken toughs can vent their aggression and betting is encouraged.  There is also a dwarf dishwasher who is feeble-minded, and the patrons take turns tossing him into a net.  Raul insists the lad enjoys it. 

    Sailors are also drawn to the city’s two whorehouses.  You need an escort there, too, if you’re an “estupido norteamericano.”   Both are owned by a relative of Daniel Ortega.  Capt. Arias says all the girls are clean.  Many of them are Russian.

    Shopping is concentrated in the Pelotudo Market, which used to consist mainly of farmers selling potatoes off their carts.  But the market has gone upscale for the growing tourist trade.  Tim Horton’s has a donut shop.  Harry Winston has a jewelry shop.  Takashimaya, a big Japanese department store chain, has moved in, as well as American Apparel and Toys R Us.  And guess what!  NO CRAPPY CHINESE MERCHANDISE ANYWHERE!  Amazing!  There is one store that is very peculiar, however, according to Capt. Arias — The Anti-Aging Shop.  “They sell cosmetics to keep the skin looking young.  But there are almost never any customers in the store.  They don’t run sales or promotions.  They don’t advertise.  They don’t have a website.  And they’re not even listed in the Yellow Pages.  Yet they remain there year after year, occupying expensive retail space.  What does all that add up to?” he asks, giving me a sly look.  I confess I don’t know.  “Ach!  Estupido norteamericano!  It’s money-laundering!  Don’t you see?”  Wow!  You could have knocked me over with a feather!

    Puerto Cabezas has two beaches, Malecon and Panocha.  They’re fine to sit on, but that’s about it.  There’s no surfing.  Bathing is at your own risk, on account of the occasional shark.  Don’t go there alone, and don’t carry any money or valuables.  The death rate for Malecon is about one per 10,000 visitors, and Panocha is closer to two per 10,000.  But the latter is a topless beach with lots of hot women with big tits, so it’s worth the additional risk. 

    A mile north of town is the Haunted Lighthouse of Death, so named because a visitor died of food poisoning after eating a hamburger from the snack bar, and his spirit haunts the lighthouse seeking revenge.  Before that it was just the Puerto Cabezas Lighthouse, but these people know how to turn tragedy into opportunity.  The lighthouse actually serves little purpose from a nautical point of view, since there are no reefs or dangerous currents.   But it’s a make-work job created by the government, and if the lighthouse-keeper isn’t too drunk to attend to his duties, the light is turned on at night to serve as an aid to drunken pilots looking for the airport.

    South of Puerto Cabezas is an artificial lake that you won’t find on any map.  It’s referred to as Ink Lake.  This is where the Sandinista government dumps the bodies of writers and journalists who have gotten up the government’s nose.  The name was the inspiration for the Canadian story anthology From Ink Lake (Vintage Canada, 1995), which, unfortunately, was a poor seller because I wasn’t included in it.

    Puerto Cabezas is the site of the world’s only shelter for “hand-walkers.”  These are mentally deficient people who walk on all fours like animals.  Apparently, there are a lot of them in Nicaragua, but no one knows why.  The Indians regard them as cursed.  The shelter is operated by the Church of Santo Cabron, which raises money by selling mail order ministerial credentials through classified ads in tabloids (suggested donation $50).  Father Jesus Humberto Canales, a self-ordained minister not connected to any particular denomination, was once photographed with Hillary Clinton and milks it for all it’s worth.  He also has interests in racetracks and casinos in South and Central America.  The hand-walkers appeared in a documentary on NOVA.  One of them has been offered a scholarship to study sociology at Northeastern University in Boston.

    A new attraction scheduled to open late in 2010 is “Triassic Park,” which will feature large Komodo lizards that roam freely.  Jon Gosselin is the major investor behind it.  He says it’ll be a great outing for parents with too many children.  He also intends to use it for a reality show about a bachelor who has lots of girlfriends, and they all live in this big park full of lizards.  (But TLC isn’t going to get it!)

    Puerto Cabezas doesn’t have a Mayor as such.  Instead, the de facto  power broker of the city is potato tycoon Ernesto Echavarria, who is very tight with Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas.  I was fortunate enough to meet him over dinner at the Carlton, along with Massimiliano Perversi.  By an astounding coincidence, it turned out that Echavarria owned one of my books, I Chewed Mrs. Ewing’s Raw Guts, which was given to him as a gift by an “estupido norteamericano” from Toronto, who went to Nicaragua to pick potatoes.  This book is an out-of-print collector’s item, and you might possibly find it (along with my other books) at www.abebooks.com, although I have no control over prices on the collector’s market.

    I asked Echavarria if Puerto Cabezas had a “sister city,” and he said yes — Burlington, Vermont.  I was surprised, so I investigated further and found that Burlington had seven sister cities, which Echavarria didn’t realize.  We agreed that Puerto Cabezas deserved an exclusive sister relationship, and I said I would find another sister city for it.  And I did — Blenheim, New Zealand.  The deal was sealed with Mayor Alistair Sowman of Marlborough District Council, who will be visiting Puerto Cabezas as a special guest early in 2010.  Capt. Arias promises to take him to both whorehouses and get him drunk at the Hagfish Saloon.  Whether Sowman gets to party in Room 13 at the Carlton, however, depends entirely on President Ortega’s schedule.

    Recommended vaccinations: Colorado tick fever, Erdheim Chester Disease, Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia.

    Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada.  E-mail: crad166@yahoo.com

    Imagine yourself standing at the mouth of a great river, looking out at the sea.  Through the mist you can see two islands, Imaklik and Inaklik.  On a nearby pebble spit, native Yukaghirs cook walrus meat beside their yarangas, their baydars stacked neatly against a giant sequoia.  The wind blows the mosquitoes out to sea, leaving the eland and moose free to nibble the wild beets and scallions unmolested.  The sound of the crwth can be heard, along with a maiden singing in a strange language.  Floats made of inflated seal stomachs drift in the river, while overhead a flock of cassowaries fly toward their nesting grounds in the Arakamchechen Peninsula.  The sea, the sky, and the land are pure, clean, and peaceful.  Guess where you are….No, not Moncton, New Brunswick!  You’re in Cotabato City, Philippines!

    Book your trip on Philippine Airlines and pay with your American Express Card, and your recommended vaccinations will be free.  Depart from Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Las Vegas, and fly to Manila, then change planes to Awang Airport, which serves Cotabato City.  Look for the pink luxury bus that says “Raffles Cotabato.”  That’s your hotel.

    Nicholas Emery, the General Manager, runs the poshest inn in the city.  Expect to pay about $275 a night (or if you go during the typhoon season, there’s a 50% discount).  The Raffles touch is unmistakable: Lost Continent seagrass carpet, faux-penguin-skin headboards, petticoat-shaped chandeliers with multicolored lasers, vibrating bamboo bimbo rocker, digitized stereo spider monkey screeching from within the walls and ceiling, Spanish Inquisition brocade wall hangings, giant cactus pedestal, spacecraft-style transformer shelves with wheelchair assist, voice-activated hand-shaped entertainment pods, sandstone bathroom with jungle canopy, objets d’art imported from South Moluccas, Baroque combination desk/bar/coffee table/drug station, robot mini-fridge and rare earth ceramic stove ensemble, oversize walk-in closet with Victorian gynecology sex chair, replica Corinthian spitoon, Lunar Receiving Lab environmental control system with Rocketdyne bug zapper, and Siberian-style gulag party bed, flanked by avant garde waterfall from the House of Szemetlada (Oroszlany, Hungary).  Nick Emery is the author of the children’s book Tomaso, the Unhappy Potato Beetle, and he is the godfather of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

    My host for this visit was Butch Bustamonte, who is the head of the John Ashley Fan Club.  John Ashley, star of Frankenstein’s Daughter and other B movies, is idolized in Cotabato City since he produced several movies in this part of the Philippines, including Beast of Blood, Twilight People, and Mad Doctor of Blood Island.  There’s a monument to the handsome actor in the city’s park, and Butch took me to see it.  It’s a fine life-size statue depicting John Ashley as he appeared in High School Caesar (probably his best film), surrounded by a well-manicured bed of crocuses and Venus flytraps.  The monument is cared for by Cotabato City’s civic organization, the Spitola Dumbasa.  The “SD,” as it is referred to, also runs a cake-decorating school for ex-convicts and sponsors the annual Philippines National Spitting Championships, in which boys compete in various spitting skills.

    “John loved the caves.  They’re the main attraction of the city,” said Butch.  He was referring to the Kutawato Caves, a long underground network right under the city.  No other city in the world has such a feature.  Don’t bring the kids on this outing, because the caves are 7 km long.  It’s pretty spooky down there, even with the lighting.  I thought of a good tag line for promoting the caves: Feel the Evil.  Butch laughed and said it was a good one and he’d suggest it to the City Council.  I noticed there were numerous passages that were roped off, and Butch explained that those areas were unsafe.  However, there had always been rumors — call it an urban myth,  if you like — that those roped-off passages led to the underground caves of an ancient race called the Deroes, who may still be alive.  Mysterious disappearances of people and animals have been attributed to the Deroes, including Amelia Earhart and Gordon Brown’s pet hamster.  Butch said John Ashley always believed that the caves led to something the government didn’t want people to know about.  The caves also have a lot of bats.  Khloe Kardashian and Lamar Odom visited the caves, because Khloe, like her sisters, is fascinated by cave bats.  Odom hated every minute of the tour, according to Butch, and couldn’t wait to get out.

    After the cave tour, Butch took me to eat at a fancy restaurant called Putanginamo, which specializes in zebra mussels, a delicacy for which Cotabato City is famous.  Head Chef Cornelio Cuevas-Pena is the originator of Zebra Mussels Cotabato, and here’s the recipe:

    For the Sauce Cotabato, put four ounces of butter and three spoonfuls of flour in a saucepan and heat until smooth.  Add one cup of eel broth, bring to a boil, and mix in three egg yolks and a can of evaporated milk.  Add a half teaspoon of cayenne pepper, one chopped clove of garlic, and the pulp of three or four moonseed fruits.  Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.  For the zebra mussels, wash first to remove grit, then put in casserole with four ounces of white wine and one cup of water.  Bring to a boil, add six chopped shallots, and boil until mussels are open.  Remove the mussels to another vessel and strain the broth.  Serve on the half shell with the Sauce Cotabato and a side of french fries.

    The South Seas Mall, which opened in 2005, draws a lot of tourists, although it is plain and unremarkable by Western standards.  You may prefer the funkier old shopping district downtown, with its odd boutiques.  Kulangot T-Shirts, owned by Ramiro Villagrana, specializes in “mistake” t-shirts with unrecognizable faces and misspelled slogans.  They will custom-print anything you want on a t-shirt.  Pokpok, owned by Marin Agudelo, sells local handicrafts such as eelskin wallets and handbags, burqas for Muslim women, and a wide assortment of personal care products that failed safety tests in other countries.  And Braulio’s Sex Shop, owned by Braulio Soto-Loera, specializes in Filipino porn, which is heavy on exploitation and violence (and you don’t even mind that the Filipina women are flat-chested).

    The biggest surprise of my trip was walking into a dimly-lit second-hand bookstore and finding a worn copy of my 1980 classic, Lightning Struck My Dick.  I bought it as a gift for Nick Emery for $2, since he has a weird sense of humor.  You can try looking for this book (and my other ones) at www.abebooks.com, which serves the collector’s market, but don’t blame me for the high prices.

    The theatre district had two hit plays running while I was there — Cebu Boo-Boo, a musical comedy about life in a Filipino prison, and Shoes, a musical about Imelda Marcos. 

    One item you won’t find in any tourist guide, however, is the Washday Problems Center (note the American spelling), which is a CIA front located in a nondescript building above some stores.  I promised the Agency not to reveal the location.  If you should happen to find your way in, you will see people in white smocks doing laundry.  They’re testing laundry products, ha, ha.  The man in charge is named Mike, and he says he’s from Syracuse.  No, I won’t tell you what these people are really doing.

    Cotabato City is steeped in religious tradition.  Filipinos have always been extreme in their religious devotion, and there is no better example than the Good Friday “Procession of Flagellation,” in which devout Christians drag heavy crosses and whip themselves with flails until their backs are bloody.  The procession begins on Ecorse Road at the St. Rodan Church (named after the patron saint of virgins seeking husbands in the U.S., which rules out all Russian and East European women), then goes along Washtenaw Avenue, then along Packard Road, Geddes Road, and Textile Road, arriving finally at Jollibee, where everyone has milk shakes and burgers.  Street vendors will try to sell you souvenir whips, but they are poorly-made Chinese crap that falls apart after one or two uses (big surprise), not like the authentic Western-style horsewhips I use on that Socialist bitch Olivia Chow, who likes severe ass whipping.  (Hazel McCallion used to be into that but now says she’s too old.)

    I should mention that nutrias roam freely in Cotabato City, and tourists are always alarmed because they mistake them for giant rats.  These big rodents are quite friendly and gentle, and it’s okay to let your kids play with them.

    There are a lot of Muslims in Cotabato City, but they’re just as benign as the nutrias, so don’t worry.

    Speaking of Muslims, Cotabato City now has a “sister city” with a Muslim Mayor — Luton, England.  Mayor Muhammad Riaz has come a long way since the days when he stuck windshields on Vauxhalls at the local auto factory.  Now he’s the Mayor of “Britain’s best town” (according to a survey).  He’s eager to network with the prominent Muslims in Cotabato City and find out about such things as e-mail security, banking laws, and the police.  “We can help each other,” he says.  And he doesn’t mind admitting that he’s ambitious.  “So I’m a pushy Paki.  What of it?  Today Luton, tomorrow the world…..Don’t print that.”  England was once such a great country.  You can read about it in books.

    Somewhere in the U.S. there is a Dr. Jeffrey Brown, who was a dead ringer for John Ashley when he was a young man.  Every time I see a picture of Ashley, I think I’m looking at Jeffrey.  If you think you know him, ask him if he went to Syosset High School and if he remembers his next-door neighbor.

    Recommended vaccinations: dracunculosis, cholinergic urticaria, Yunis Varon Syndrome.

    Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada.  E-mail: crad166@yahoo.com

    Do you mind if I take you to the driest desert in the world?  Don’t worry.  I won’t let you die (unless you’re an anti-capitalist protester).  I’m one of the world’s experts on desert survival.  Just read my article “How To Survive In The Sahara Desert” at www.pointsincase.com.   

    But we’re not going to the Sahara.  We’re going to a secret place — hidden, remote, mysterious — a place where time stands still, as if in a dream.  It has been compared (inaccurately) with Michael Jackson’s Neverland.  Exotic animals roam freely, and men lost in deep thought step in their shit.  It is situated on the fabled Coast of Pirates, near the northern tip of Chile.  It is the “Miracle of the Atacama” — the exotic city of Pisagua, Chile.

    No one knows how old this city really is, for it is built on ancient Inca ruins that have never been accurately dated.  The descendants of the Incas lived here in the Golden Age of Pirates.  They traded with all the legendary pirates, including Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, and Bill Mazeroski.  The inhabitants of Pisagua traded borax, which they mined in the desert.  The pirates used it for their laundry.  In return, the pirates traded colored beads of little value, because the local people were not good in business.  This may offer a clue as to why the Inca empire collapsed.

    All along the coast north and south of Pisagua, the pirates are reputed to have buried caches of treasure.  They have never been found.  But adventurers still try their luck, walking the beaches with their metal detectors.  Rogues have sold numerous maps over the years purporting to show the location of treasure, but all have been denounced as fakes.  Does this mean there is no treasure?  No.  The coast is still largely unexplored.

    Fly to Arica, Chile, and leave that crowd of tourists behind and take the bus south to Pisagua — a place usually bypassed.  There is one good hotel — the Waldorf Astoria Pisagua, which is moderately priced.  Its General Manager is Dirk De Cuyper, to whom the Atacama Desert is like heaven.  “For years I worked in Shanghai,” he says, “but I got sick and tired of being surrounded by slitty-eyed Chinese bastards.  You’re from Toronto, so you know exactly what I mean.  My soul longed for the desert — but not one with any Muslim bastards either.  The Atacama beckoned to me in my dreams.  I don’t know why, but I just had to come here.  It’s the driest desert in the world, you know.  Dead bodies that are left exposed don’t decompose.  They just dry up like mummies.  The landscape on the other side of the highway is as bleak as the moon.  What hotel manager wouldn’t love a place like this?”  Enough said.  Rent me a suite long-term!

    The Waldorf Astoria Pisagua used to be a prison.  When Pinochet overthrew Allende, he banished thousands of Commie bastards to the north of Chile, and most of them died there.  The prison at Pisagua was eventually closed, and Waldorf Astoria bought it and turned it into a hotel.  (Big secret: Waldorf Astoria is going to buy Alcatraz and turn it into a luxury resort!  You heard it here first!)  Renovating it would be a challenge, so the company gave the job to the famous Mexican designer Carlos Raul Gil Barragan, whose TV show, Prison Makeover, is distributed internationally on satellite by Televisa Networks.  The basic boxy layout was left as is, but the interior spaces are cleverly broken up with mirrors, partitions, and windows, along with avant-garde furniture and unusual wall paint.  So the eye fails to see the right angles and sort of slides over things instead.  It’s a bit like the stealth profiles of modern warships, which scatter radar and are almost invisible.  I’m going to buy one and get close to a Greenpeace ship and blast it out of the water.

    The hotel is known for its excellent spa, which makes use of natural deposits of borax, iodine, and nitrates.  These minerals dissolved in the hot water rejuvenate the skin and cure arthritis.  They also cure eating disorders.  Kelly Ripa, Victoria Beckham, and Tori Spelling have all been to the spa and have benefited from it.

    The Waldorf Astoria Pisagua also has quite a good restaurant.  Dirk De Cuyper gives all the credit to his Head Chef, Roberto Aguayo Briseno.  “He just showed up out of the blue and said he wanted to cook.  I didn’t know anything about him, but I decided to give him a chance.  He’s brilliant.  He could be working in Paris or Rome or London, but I’ve got him here in Pisagua, Chile.”  Chef Roberto’s specialty is llama stew.  Here’s the recipe:

    Remove head from llama and send it to PETA, along with a note telling them to shove it up their ass.  Clean carcass and carve out large rump portion.  Also save blood and liver.  Cut rump into two-inch pieces and put in large pot and cover with equal parts of water and white wine.  Add sliced carrots, coarsely-chopped onions, a bouquet garni with plenty of thyme in it, a tablespoon of salt, and two tablespoons of peppercorns.  Let stand for 48 hours, then drain and remove meat to a platter.  In a large frying pan place one-half pound butter and a half cup of flour, and stir over medium heat.  Add pieces of llama and simmer for ten minutes; then add the juice from the original pot and a glass of water or bouillon, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer slowly.  Separately, parboil and fry in olive oil two cups of pearl onions, and a half-pound of salt pork in half-inch squares.  After 1 1/2 hours of simmering the meat, add the onions, pork, and a cup of  mushrooms, and continue simmering for another 1/2 hour.  Chop the liver fine, mix with the blood, and stir into the stew just before removing from the stove.  Don’t let the liver boil.  Season to taste and serve with a sprinkle of chopped parsley.

    Of course, llama is probably not available where you live, so you’ll just have to come down to Pisagua to enjoy this dish.

    Llamas roam freely in this part of Chile, and they’re seen all the time by the writers and artists in the “colony” outside of town.  This is what I was referring to in the introduction when I mentioned men lost in thought stepping in animal shit.  These artists and writers rent little cabins for next to nothing, and they have a quiet place to be creative.  There are about two dozen cabins scattered in the desert between the town and the Pan American Highway.

    But according to Dirk De Cuyper, the current lot of writers and artists is rather suspicious.  “These guys don’t look or act like writers and artists.  When they come into town, they don’t want to talk to anyone.  What are they writing?  What are they painting?  They’re evasive.  They could be wanted criminals, for all I know.”

    I got curious, so I went over to the Elbow Room, the town’s main drinking place, to try to meet some of these people.  The bartender pointed out two of them for me.  “That one’s a poet, and the other one’s a painter,” he said, indicating two scruffy, sullen-looking guys with hats pulled down over their faces.  So I went over to them, I said I was a Canadian writer, and I asked to see some of their work.  One fellow gave me a suspicious look, then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of paper that was soiled and yellow with age.  It was a photocopy of a poem:

    Dialogue of Deaf Persons

–Are you an American?

–No, I am another.

–Are you a tourist?

–No, I am two ones,

  for I’m not alone but with me.

–What o’clock is it?

–It is seven o’clock ben.

–Yes, it’s seven o’clock at my sock. 

    I knew the poem was a plagiarism, and I knew who the poet was.  “Very interesting,” I said.  “What have you got?” I asked the other one.

    The “artist” gave me a twisted grin and pulled a much-traveled paper out of his pocket.  “I’m still working on it,” he said, his rotten teeth showing.  It was obviously a tracing of an illustration from a magazine ad for a mail order art school.

    “That’s very good,” I said politely.

    “Thank you,” he said.

    Later, I took a long walk out to the area of the colony and discovered a bank of mailboxes by the road where these people picked up their mail.  I wrote down some names for the benefit of the morbidly curious: Gabriel Tapia-Lemus, Ramiro Hernandez Lucatero, Alberto Molina Infante, Martin Moreno Oseguera,Galindo Nunez Melgoza, and Ismael Rios-Gallardo.  Those are certainly great names for artists and writers.  Maybe my suspicions and Dirk De Cuyper’s are all wrong.

    I spent a lot of time at the Elbow Room, which is mainly a fishermen’s hangout.  The fishermen go out for tuna, skate, pollock, and herring.  Sea lions can also be seen from the window of the tavern, cavorting in the surf, but they are protected by law.  The fishermen drink a local liquor called cara de cona.  I asked what it was made from, and they laughed and said, “You don’t need to know.  Just drink it.”  This is the sort of place where you’re apt to get beaten up for ordering a banana daiquiri.  (Just ask Adam Lambert.  He’ll never come back.)

    Because Pisagua is not yet well known to tourists, visitors can enjoy a relatively uncrowded beach.  A few boats will take tourists out for a day of fishing.  Otherwise, there are no special attractions.  Main drawback: no hot babes anywhere in sight.  This beach needs help. 

    The only day tour you can go on is a bus ride out to the salt flats, where you can watch flocks of flamingos and puffins next to each other.  This is the only place in the world where these species are found together.  On the way back, you will stop at an abandoned borax mine, where hundreds of dead bodies of prisoners are stacked on pallets.  They’re absolutely dry.  Now, that is the sort of tourist attraction you’re not going to find anywhere else!

    The night sky is brilliant with stars (northern Chile has the best viewing conditions in the world), and the local astronomy club likes to set up their telescopes and let tourists have a look (remember to give the boys a tip).  It was here in Pisagua, in fact, that Comet Pelotudo 2005 was first identified.  This comet is now believed to be correlated to the appearance of the 17-year locust, a discovery which, if confirmed, would be “of immense importance to mankind,” according to David Suzuki’s housekeeper.  The comet is also unique for its violet color and approximately rectangular orbit.

    You know by now that I try to find “sister cities” for my Exotic Cities.  In searching for a sister city for Pisagua, I looked for a place in or near a desert, and one that I felt deserved the same sort of tourist boost as Pisagua.  And I found it: Halls Creek, Western Australia, on the northern edge of the Great Sandy Desert.  I was unable to reach Council President Jim Craig of the Shire of Halls Creek, but I was able to reach Warren Olsen, the CEO of the Council.  “I’m the guy who gets things done around here!” he shouted over the phone.  “The Members of Council are a bunch of useless, do-nothing slackers!  I’m the one who keeps Halls Creek from sinking straight down to the earth’s core!”  Olsen never heard of Pisagua, but the deal was done in less than five minutes.  “That’s how I do things!  Just do it!  Bang!  If you were dealing with the Councillors, it would never get done!  So you tell those Pisagua people, if they need something done here in Halls Creek, talk to me!  And another thing.  Who do you think got the toilets fixed around here?  I did!  And who gets the payroll done?  I do!  And who sends out the tax bills?  I do!…”  I love this guy.  He has a hostile, authoritarian personality, just like me.  Give guys like us some real power, and then step out of the way!  Nuke the homeless!

    Before I left Pisagua, Dirk De Cuyper told me about the town’s biggest mystery — a series of little signs that suddenly appeared by the side of the road about fifteen years ago, long before he came to Pisagua.  “They apparently were put up overnight, but nobody knows who did it or why, and the locals have never understood them.  You’ll see them on your way out, on the right side of the road, just before you get to the Pan American.  They’re spaced about a hundred feet apart.  They’re easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, and the lettering has gotten bleached by the sun and is pretty faint.  But you can still read them.”  De Cuyper refused to tell me any more, but from his smile I inferred that he fathomed this mystery that the locals couldn’t.  So, on my departure by bus, I made sure to get a window seat on the right side.  And, sure enough, I saw the signs:

    When morning sun…

    Shines on your head…

    Forget your job…

    Go back to bed…

    Burma Shave.

    Recommended vaccinations: parvovirus, nemaline myopathy, Eales Disease.

    Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada.  E-mail: crad166@yahoo.com

    Hey, all you hot and horny singles!  We’re going to party!  We’re taking a trip to — wait for it — GOMA…CONGO!  Bring your friends!  If you don’t have any friends, you’ll make some when you get there.

    Now, let’s be clear on which Congo we’re talking about, because there are two of them.  We’re talking about the big one — the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The good old DRC.  And any country that calls itself the Democratic Republic of whatever has got to be a great tourist destination.  (Remember how much fun we had in North Korea?  Scroll back to June 11 if you missed it.)

    The other Congo is that little wiener country on the left that’s shaped like a turd.  That one’s called the Republic of the Congo, or “Congo-Brazzaville,” which is only known for the song Brazzaville Teenager, written by Bruce Jay Friedman.  It’s populated mainly by mincing fairies, not like the big black studs in the DRC, whose grandfathers stripped the rubber off trees with machetes way back when.  These are the kind of men chicks go for.  So it’s no surprise that loads of single women flock to the DRC to meet the sort of big, hard masculine men they can’t meet here in North America (we won’t count retarded Hispanics).  And Goma is the magnet that draws them, because it’s always been known for its night life and singles scene.

    An air-conditioned luxury bus will take you from Goma’s international airport to the front entrance of the Novotel Citygate Goma, managed by Rod Munro.  Rod numbers among his friends such celebrities as Chris Brown, Ozzie Osbourne, Rachael Ray, Johnny Depp, Sen. John Edwards, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Federline, Venus Williams, John McEnroe, and Dr. Phil McGraw, all of whom have stayed at the Novotel.  (Paul Bernardo also stayed here a long time ago, but he’s not a friend.)  Rooms run from $275-$475 a night, but there are package deals available from several online travel websites.  Many suites are decorated with romantic Valentine themes.  Nicole Richie and Joel Madden spent a week in the most expensive suite and went through endless bottles of  pink champagne and a mountain of caviar.

    Rod was too busy to show me around, so he turned me over to his good friend Mutiat Titiola Olubi, who owns the DRC’s biggest magazine publishing company, Modern Congo, Ltd.  Her stable of magazines includes  Modern Congo Homemaker, Modern Congo Beauty and Fashion, Modern Congo Gardener, Modern Congo Single, Modern Congo Woman, Modern Congo Business, Modern Congo Health and Fitness, and Modern Congo Mercenary.  Because of my reputation as the funniest living writer in the English language, “Muti,” as she prefers to be called, was only too happy to take some time off to be my tour guide.  She enjoys the single life and the glamor of a vibrant, cosmopolitan city like Goma.  “Kinshasa is bigger, but it’s dull.  Goma is the happening place in the DRC.”  And most of what is happening is in the district known as the Magumba Quarter, which reminds me of the Yonge Street strip in Toronto in the 70’s, before immigration turned it into a sewer of imbecility.

    Did you know that Goma is the comedy capital of Africa?  Bet you didn’t.  The Magumba Quarter is famous for its comedy clubs, where up-and-coming stars hone their skills before moving on to the big clubs in North America and Europe.  (What famous comic with initials C.R. has been hiding his Congo roots for years?)  At the Club Ebola, we caught an act by Benjamin Okey Ahuama (don’t change that name!), who was hilarious.  Here’s one of his jokes: Mike Tyson goes into a supermarket looking for rapeseed oil.  He goes to the aisle with the cooking oils, where a stock girl is stocking shelves.  He can’t find rapeseed oil, so he says to the girl, “Don’t you got no fuckin’ rapeseed?”  The girl says, “I don’t even know what that is.”  “You don’t know what rapeseed is?”  “No,” says the girl.  And Tyson says, “Bitch, I’m gonna show you what rapeseed is!”  The crowd couldn’t stop laughing over that one!  (Congo is the rapeseed capital of the world, so that’s why the joke works so well there.  In the West we call rapeseed “canola” — I guess because we don’t like to call things by their proper names.)

    Mike Tyson, by the way, is the biggest celebrity in the DRC, even though he’s never been there.  He’s so popular they even renamed the Virunga National Park the Mike Tyson National Park.  The park, which is not far from Goma, is the home of endangered mountain gorillas, and it has almost as many monkeys as Los Angeles.  It is also the home of Murray, the Congo Wonder Dog, a cartoon character in a rare, collectible comic book by Robert Crumb .

    A great place to eat in Goma is the Mkundu Restaurant, owned by Eustace Kwarko Adjepong, who is also the head chef.  The specialty of the house is rapeseed-fried fish, served on a bed of rapini.  Fresh fish is supplied daily from nearby Lake Kivu.  Ratfish is very popular, as well as striped burrfish and cabezon.  Congo truffles are also on the menu, and they are as good as the most expensive truffles from France.

    The Magumba Quarter buzzes with activity all night with clubs catering to singles.  The music is loud, the drinks are strong, and the women dress for sex.  Wet t-shirt contests are the latest craze.  (Girls Gone Wild will be putting out a video produced in Goma.)  The college students from Kinshasa flock to Goma during spring break.  The hottest club is Disco Mbwajike.  You’ll see people lined up around the block to get in.  (Dress like a pimp or a whore and slip the doorman a fiver, and you’ll get in a lot faster.)  It’s a good place to score drugs, and the police never set foot in the place.  The owner is Mpindi Mbunga, who has a cousin with the same name in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Mbunga says that a lot of Congolese trace their ancestry back to America and should therefore be referred to as “Americo-Africans.”

    Goma also has its own Oktoberfest (in October, of course), which is a bit of the old Belgian influence.  (The DRC used to be a colony of Belgium, and don’t they wish they had it back!)  The favorite beer is Leopoldbrau (in honor of King Leopold II of Belgium, of course).  Goma really swells with visitors during the Oktoberfest — especially visitors from Rwanda.  Goma is right on the Rwandan border, and Rwandans love Goma for its night life, hot women, and great shopping.

    Goma is right on the shore of Lake Kivu, and the lake is a great attraction for its natural beauty, clean water, fishing, and speedboat racing.  The Lake Kivu speedboat races have become a big event, and ABC is planning to televise them.  The current reigning champ is David Sunkwah Yeboah, who is sponsored by Castrol.

    About 20 kilometers north of Goma is the majestic Nyiragongo Volcano, which is a great climb for an experienced climber.  The volcano is active, however, and every few years it erupts and makes life interesting for people in Goma.  The lava flows are picturesque, and if you’re a boomer, you go, “Oh, wow!  Psychedelic!”  And you put on a Ravi Shankar album and get stoned and watch the lava go by.  And when it cools, you can go out and collect nice, fluffy pumice, which you can wash with and not pollute the environment with soapy chemicals.  And then you can make carvings out of the pumice and sell them by the side of the road so you can live frugally in a commune and not have to conform and be a wage slave and pay taxes for the Evil War Machine.  And if the lava destroys your little house, you just build another one and don’t get angry with Mother Nature, who is just doing her thing.  The volcano is the result of the Congo tectonic plate subsiding into the Sub-Saharan tectonic plate, leading to a metamorphic fractal collusion.  This phenomenon was illuminated poignantly in David McFadden’s book A Trip Around Lake Kivu (Coach House Press, 1990).

    The Ebola River lends its name to lots of stores and businesses in Goma, such as Ebola Pizza, Ebola Escorts, Ebola Cinema, and the Ebola Candy Company, which is famous for its licorice women.  Of course, when most people hear the name “Ebola,” they think of Ebola virus.  And it’s true that the Ebola virus originated in the Ebola River region, but that’s more than 500 miles away from Goma, so there’s no need to worry.  (Ebola virus got started by jigaboos fucking chimpanzees, but we shouldn’t criticize them, because white people have spread some diseases, too.)

    Goma now has a “sister city” in Canada — Ottawa.  Mayor Larry O’Brien loves the new arrangement.  “We need some Congo people in Ottawa.  We need their spiritual purity.  We’ve got lawyers who can get them in as refugees.  They’ll like it here,” he says.  And he points out the similarities between the two cities.  Both cities are on a border.  Goma is right across the road from Gisenyi, Rwanda, and Ottawa is right across the river from Hull, Quebec.  And, like Goma, Ottawa is the comedy capital of Canada.  O’Brien’s wife, Colleen McBride, was actually born in the DRC, in the village of Bunia.  The Mayor and his wife like to visit the DRC whenever they can.  The Mayor finds some public official to have lunch with, he calls it official business, and Ottawa City Council pays for it.

    Before I left, I had a nice dinner with Rod Munro, and we talked about the bad press the DRC has gotten and whether it’s a safe place for Americans to visit.  “It’s safe,” he insists.  “Americans have no problem here.  However…there is one person who must never set foot in the DRC.”  And who might that be?  “Michael Moore.  There’s a tribe here called the Jambazi, and they practice cannibalism, and they have a major cannibal hard-on for Michael Moore.  I met their leader, Kuchigku Bunga.  He told me, ‘We gonna cook and eat de big fat man Michael Moore.  He feed de whole village.'”  There’s no obvious explanation why the Jambazi have selected him.  Maybe it’s just the way he looks.  They just want to eat him.  According to Munro, the Jambazi have a plan to lure Michael Moore to the Congo on some pretext of doing a documentary.  And once he’s in their clutches, he’s dinner.  Well, I, for one, would not be sorry.

    Recommended vaccinations: elephantiasis, leptospirosis, Forbes Disease.

    Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada.  E-mail: crad166@yahoo.com

    Take me from the land of Oz,

    Take me far away because

    I want to get back to Darvaza,

    Yes, I want to get back to Darvaza,

    Darvaza, Turkmenistan,

    That’s…Darvaza, Turkmenistan.

    Remember that one?  The Atomic Bananas, 1957.  If you were ever a mental patient in Toledo, you heard it a lot.  Now you can’t find it anywhere — not even on eBay.

    In her book Gurgling Brooks (Bobbs-Merrill, 1929), world traveler Myrna McDougal describes her travels through central Asia, including her visit to Darvaza, in the Kara-Kum Desert of what is now Turkmenistan: “From a distance, the Pillars of Gthoth rose majestically, framing the setting sun, which cast vivid beams of orange light across the flanks of the Schlegpeh Mountains.  Overhead, great bats and eagles looped gracefully above the copper-red sands.  The call of the hyena could be heard in all directions.  And the faint aroma of boxwood and fox grass drifted like a dream over our camp.  Our bearers (native Ayumyalas) told us their legends of how the world was created in this place, making it the center of the universe.  The water in the oasis, they claimed, could give a camel great strength and give a human being visions of Paradise.”

    Okay, so we know the water is really good.  Throughout Turkmenistan, a popular saying is “he drinks the water at Darvaza,” which explains why a person is acting weird or stoned.

    To the locals, the place is always referred to as Darvaza Oasis, because historically, that’s what it is.  It has always been a resting place for merchants from all over central Asia, carrying a wide variety of goods.  Caravans carried beans, rice, mushrooms, yogurt, potash, copper, marble, exotic birds, and umiak eye-glaze murder monkeys from Qarshi to Balkanabat; cedar, incense, dates, gourds, pineapples, girdles, hoses, paint, and gangster art retro pudding sponges from Herat to Novvy Uzen; chalk, gemstones, ladies’ shoes, cosmetics, tubes, nails, springs, farina, and prison cockle subsonic bitchamooga from Uyuk to Qum; animal skins, candles, whips, lard, fireworks, shower curtains, board games, cheese, and harridan space zomba fruit gungles from Jamnagar to Sosnovka; lingerie, cigars, goat meat, kitchen utensils, patio furniture, iodine, tree bark, and marsupial smash hammerhead screaming skulls from Yarkand to Gurgan; and rum, party hats, office supplies, starch, glue, musical instruments, whale oil, carpets, peppers, ropes, dildoes, doilies, pumpkins, and gorgaleptic urine bipolar disorder winkies from Patchogue to Syosset.

    But to the modern world, Darvaza was an unknown town of no particular interest — until 1971, when a gateway to hell was opened!  An oil and gas company drilling for natural gas accidentally punched into a gas-filled cavern.  They decided to empty it by burning off the gas, believing it to be no more than a superficial pocket.  The result was an explosion.  The ground collapsed, leaving a crater 60 meters across, which has been burning ever since!

    “Of course, it’s not really a gateway to hell,” explains Hotel Manager Amanda Hyndman of the Excelsior Darvaza.  “But it’s a great tag line for publicity.  It’s the only tourist attraction in the country outside of the capital.  There’d be no hotel here without the crater of fire.”  The Excelsior offers a good view of the crater, which is about two miles away.  Of course, local people are so used to it, they scarcely look at it any more, even though much of the town owes its livelihood to it. 

    Why has no one tried to put out the fire after all these years?  According to Hyndman, it could theoretically be put out.  “You’d have to bring up a bunch of bulldozers from the capital, but it’s a long trip on a bad road.  And people here don’t particularly want to put it out.”  But what about the effect on the environment?  “What environment?” says Hyndman.  “This is a bleeping desert.”

    Tourists are generally led out on foot in the daytime.  They’ll stand around the crater while the tour guide gives a talk, and then after a half hour or so, they leave.  It’s more impressive at night, but if you go then, you’ll find yourself stepping among a profusion of big, ugly spiders.  They’re harmless but gross.

    Local businesses exploit the crater as a theme: Gates of Hell Ice Cream Shop, Fire Crater Cinema, Hellgate Massage Parlor, Crater Gas Station, Hellfire Donuts, and Kemal’s Crater of Fire Kebabs (which serves extremely spicy goat kebabs).  The local high school calls its sports teams the Fireflies.  (Unfortunately, they have no one else to play against, because Darvaza is so remote.)  And all up and down the main street, you will find a predictable assortment of souvenirs, including post cards, videos, DVD’s, and t-shirts that say “My friends went to Darvaza, and all they brought back was this lousy t-shirt,” along with a picture of the fiery crater.

    According to geologists, the fire could burn itself out at any time or go on burning indefinitely, so the government of Turkmenistan is reluctant either to spend the money to put it out or to invest heavily in the development of Darvaza as a tourist attraction.  Some people are in favor of diversifying the economy; others worry that if the fire goes out, any money invested will be wasted. 

    Elsewhere in Turkmenistan, other towns want to have a crater of fire, too.  Geologists say similar gas deposits could exist.  But the government is afraid of scam artists showing up.  (Like this: “For twenty thousand dollars, I’ll give you a crater of fire like Darvaza.  I know where to dig.”)  I know some Vancouver stock promoters who would jump on that opportunity!

    Some environmental busybodies from France showed up at Darvaza and made a fuss about the fire polluting the environment, and they were going to make a complaint to the U.N.  They disappeared mysteriously and have never been heard or seen since.  (Never get up other people’s noses when you’re in the middle of a desert, okay?)

    A few celebrities have visited Darvaza, which always excites the locals.  Brad Pitt got stoned and tried to piss in the crater and almost fell in, but he was saved in the nick of time by a baker’s helper, who was following him.  Pitt swore the boy to secrecy about the incident.

    David Beckham was here to try his luck at Turkmen foot-and-elbow fighting, a martial art peculiar to Turkmenistan.  There’s a big vacant lot behind the Crater Gas Sation, and young men go there for some foot-and-elbow fighting when they’re bored.  Really skinny guys seem to have an advantage in this sport.  Beckham was invited to take on the local champ, who was built like a bean pole, and after allowing the boy to score some points, he knocked him out cold.  Beckham wasn’t sure if the crowd was going to turn on him or not, but after a few seconds of shocked silence, the onlookers cheered.  So now David Beckham is unofficially the foot-and-elbow fighting champion of Darvaza, Turkmenistan.  (In a lot of Muslim countries, they probably would have cut his head off.)

    Paris Hilton was also in Darvaza to obtain a purebred Turkmen Alabai dog.  Muslims generally don’t like dogs, but the Alabai is greatly admired in Turkmenistan because it is very good at killing snakes, Communists, and homosexuals.  Hilton found one she liked and took it home with her.  (And don’t get any ideas.  Unless you’re as rich and well-connected as she is, getting a purebred Alabai in the U.S. is next to impossible.)

    Tourism in Darvaza has been growing gradually, and the increased revenue has led to a few improvements at least.  The bus station has been modernized to include two flush toilets and air-conditioning.  The main street has been paved, and parking meters have been installed (although they are generally used to tie donkeys and camels).  An outdoor tennis court has been built (wrong dimensions), as well as a go-cart track and mini-golf.  And the Turkmenistan government has built a new prison to house the worst criminals in the country.  It has a courtyard with a guillotine and a public seating area for the viewing of executions.

    Foreign capital is cautiously dipping its toes into Darvaza to take advantage of its cheap labor.  Chinese companies are now manufacturing silly putty, pet toys, guns, and glow-in-the-dark shoelaces for the central Asian market.  And Tata Motors intends to set up a factory to build a three-wheeled car called the Firebug.  It will be rugged enough for bad roads, and it will get 50 miles a gallon on any fuel, including cooking grease.  And if it tips over, one person can set it back up.

    There is no official local civil authority or police force in Darvaza.  Instead, the local mullah, Mohammed Orospu Cocugu, who is blind, and his four retarded sons keep the peace as they see fit.  They’ve got their own system, and it works, and you can’t criticize it, otherwise you’re an ethnocentric bigot.

    Darvaza High School offers the only correspondence course for shepherds in the entire world. It is recognized for academic credits in the Province of Ontario, and student aid is available to immigrants with long, unpronounceable names.

    And another highly visible public work is planned for Darvaza, in case the crater of fire should go out.  Architect Bayram Shamuradov has been commissioned by the government to erect a 100-foot-tall  “Spider Tower.”  It will have blinking green lights at night, and visitors will be able to climb to the top and take pictures of the desert (or whatever).  It will be built entirely from scrap metal scavenged from abandoned gas wells.

    Darvaza now has a sister city, and you’ll never guess where!  No, it’s not in the U.S., or in Canada either.  It’s in Australia!  The town of Coober Pedy, South Australia, is Darvaza’s sister city.  Coober Pedy is the opal capital of the world.  Most of its residents live underground.  And from the air, it looks just like Darvaza!  Mayor Steve Baines is delighted with the arrangement.  “They’re in a desert, and we’re in a desert.  They have ugly spiders, and so do we.  So it’s a perfect match!”  Baines still gets confused between Turkey and Turkmenistan, but that’s okay.  He’s just thrilled that I would give his town international recognition on my blog page.  He would also like me to explain to everyone that he is not that seriously into cross-dressing (“just once in a while at a party to get a laugh,” he insists).

    Amanda Hyndman says the Excelsior is pretty desperate for business since natural gas prices fell off a cliff (the hotel gets half its business from the oil and gas industry), so tourists can expect stupidly cheap deals.  By September, the worst of the heat is over, and by December, there are almost no spiders.

    Recommended vaccinations: Binswanger’s Disease, vesicular stomatitis, choroideremia.

    Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada.  E-mail: crad166@yahoo.com

    Have I got a scoop for you!   There will be big news coming out of Albania, but you’re getting it from me first!  You already know that Cher Bono’s daughter, Chastity, who now calls herself Chaz, intends to get a sex change and marry her girlfriend.  And they intend to have a baby with the help of a sperm donor.  Who will that sperm donor be?  Well, here’s the scoop: the sperm donor will be Edison Begaj, of Elbasan, Albania!

    The world’s entertainment media will be crushing into the airport at Tirana, the capital of Albania, and they’ll be stampeding over each other to be the first to shove a mike into the bushy moustache of the handsome gym teacher at Elbasan High School.  In a matter of weeks, you’ll be reading all about sperm donor Edison Begaj in your favorite gossip magazines, including such need-to-know tidbits as:

    * how he got chosen over 47 other candidates!

    * who found him!

    * what Cher really thinks of him!

    * his secret affairs with Britney Spears and Kourtney Kardashian!

    * his links to the Albanian monarchy!

    * his favorite hang-outs and getaways!

    * how he crossed the Sahara Desert on foot — and why!

    * his kinky sex life and secret vices!

    * how to make him love you!

    All that and more is coming to your local newsstand!

    But for now, let’s learn all about the exotic city of Elbasan, which is located about 25 miles southeast of Tirana, along the banks of the romantic Shkumbin River.  It was here, in fact (right beside the river), that Regis Philbin was conceived during a night of poetic and breathless love.  Today, artisanal gold miners pan the river for nuggets of gold, which are then sold to buy guns.  After all, what is an Albanian without a gun?  Preferably two guns.  For, just like the two-headed eagle on the Albanian flag, the traditional Albanian wants to look in two directions at once, thereby ensuring that he will never be caught off guard.  And his moustache must be big and bushy, for Albanians are proud of having the most masculine moustaches in the world.  King Zog, the last ruling king, had a fine moustache, which was copied by aristocrats around the world.  (The moustache was stolen from his grave in 1975, and its present whereabouts are unknown.)

    The area around Elbasan was fought over many times in Albania’s illustrious history (although no one is sure why), and control was finally wrested by ethnic Albanians from the Uzghurs in the 1780’s.  Today it is rich in Turkish, Italian, and Greek influences, along with a less desirable gypsy influence.

    My host in Elbasan was Hotel Manager Gregory Lehman of the Renaissance Elbasan.  He has an Albanian mother and returned to his roots after growing up in the U.S.  The Renaissance is the only good hotel in Elbasan by American standards, although Lehman admits it’s long overdue for a “refreshing.”  Security costs have been high, owing to occasional political unrest.  All the staff are armed, and the front is reinforced to withstand a good-sized bomb.  But there have been no incidents in well over a year.

    Albanians are a friendly people, but in some ways odd.  Here’s how you shake hands in Albania: bow at the waist while sticking your forefinger up your nose.  Then straighten up and shake forefingers.  Ignore any snot.  Don’t be a wimp.  Be a man.  Snot never killed anyone.  This is how we bond in Albania.  Unfortunately, the World Health Organization has condemned this practice,which is the reason why Albania was for many years an isolated country with a suspicion of foreigners.

    But that’s changing fast.  Now they want everyone to come on over and eat some kebabs, and dance to the music of the cuica (a stringed instrument), and buy souvenirs.

    Tourists are really starting to dig Elbasan, according to Greg Lehman.  The only negative is the gypsies.  They’re all pickpockets and scam artists.  And they use their kids.  One kid will go up to a tourist and distract him with some simple object, and another kid will come up from behind and lift the wallet, and then they’ll run like hell.  What can you do, put them in jail?  Lehman’s advice is to pick up the first kid immediately and throw him against anything hard or in front of a truck.  “The worst punishment that can possibly happen is that you’ll be told to pack up and go home.  But usually the police don’t do anything.  They’re on our side.”

    Elbasan is noteworthy for its donkey monorail, a transport system that is unique in the world.  It was supposed to be a proper electric monorail, but because of political troubles, it ended up as a patchy network of unpowered rails with junked cars hanging underneath.  There are ladders and platforms along the way, and you go up and climb into this car body (such as an East German Trabant), and it gets towed by a donkey on the ground wearing a big harness.  The donkey is guided by a “transport worker,” who wears a pale blue skirt, baggy white shirt, a fez, and soft white shoes with tassels.  This uniform is called a kefte and dates back centuries, and to wear one is a mark of manliness and honor.  The rail lines are mostly in the bombed-out sections of the city and basically go from nowhere to nowhere.  Pay the transport worker whatever you like.  Just remember that he gets no salary and has to feed his family, as well as the donkey.

    Elbasan has lots of cheap little restaurants with garbled American names like Mcdoonald, Bulgar King, Windys, Techo Bell, and Kintky Fry Chiken.  But all the food is the same — goat or lamb kebabs, rice, and lentil soup.  The local brewery, Hoxha (pronounced HO-jah), was blown up five years ago, so you have to take your chances with whatever unlabeled stuff the proprietor puts in front of you.  It could be home-made or bootlegged.  Hey, don’t be a wimp.  Just drink it like a man!  (The Renaissance serves proper beverages, depending on what the manager can get that day from his contacts.)

    Shopping is limited to a few blocks on the main street.  You can buy clothing, ice cream, cigarettes, and guns.  Femi’s, a large store of general merchandise, owned by Femi Rabi, resembles a 1960’s Kresge, except for the anti-aircraft gun on the roof.  Street vendors are everywhere with their bootlegged goods and local “arts and crafts,” such as wallets that are the wrong size for your money.

    Nostalgic pictures of King Zog and dictator Enver Hoxha can still be seen on the sides of buildings, marred by bullet holes.  Politically, Albanians can’t decide what they are any more.  There is a small, die-hard Royalist faction that wants to put King Leka (Zog’s son) on the throne, but he shaved his moustache during his years in exile and became too Western.  Leka is 7 feet tall, lives in Tirana, and trades commodities.

    Elbasan’s most influential citizen is Agim Sufa, an aging cantaloupe mogul, who is occasionally seen riding through town in his armored limousine, shooting at gypsies from the back seat.  The city’s  Mayor, Midat Canaj, is never around.  He spends all his time on a yacht and shows up briefly when it’s time to get re-elected — just like Adam Clayton Powell.

    Elbasan’s most noteworthy geographical feature is the large area of peat bogs east of the city.  For centuries nobody knew what they really were — only that they weren’t safe to walk on, and lots of drunks would wander out on them at night and sink in and die.  But more recently, a proper scientific study was carried out by Prof. Erion Dulaj, of the Albanian Institute of Advanced Studies, in Tirana, who determined that they were, in fact, peat bogs.  An archeological team did excavations and found well-preserved specimens of early man dating back to the Bronze Age, which they named “Elbasan Man.”  According to Prof. Dulaj, Elbasan Man was a hunter and gatherer, enjoyed sports, got along well with people, stayed up late, was kind to children, believed in family values, saved his money, and had a good sense of humor.  One of these specimens of Elbasan Man now stands in the corner of a barber shop owned by Milan Mitic.  He thinks of it as the son he never had.

    Peat from the bogs is now used as fuel by the Chinese steel mills that impart a lovely brown color to the sky and add their fragrances to the fields of daffodils and petunias nearby.  And a Chinese company is now processing vegetation from the bog for a new breakfast cereal called Weedies.

    The unregulated development of Elbasan has taken its toll on the endangered Albanian marmoset, which has seen its habitat diminished relentlessly by deforestation and the building of a never-completed shopping mall.  The mall’s only tenant is the Albanian Army, which uses it as an armory and for training.

    But the Shkumbin River is still clean enough for fishing.  The river is home to the rare, delectable jaraqui fish, found nowhere else in the world.  Elbasaners eat it fried, with salt and malt vinegar, out of large cone-shaped containers of stiff paper. (Gordon Ramsay gets $40 for one in London.)  The fish is rich in selenium and chromates, which may explain why the average life span in Elbasan is 85 years (not including victims of crime, accidents, genocide, or suicide).

    The river also has many  large black slugs, which are said to cure cancer.  Dr. Mjallaq Pergjika, one of Elbasan’s outstanding physicians, has opened a clinic and now treats people from all over the world.  He also sells his black slug cancer cure over the Internet.

    Ask a taxi driver to take you to see the crop circles.  Three circles about 30 feet in diameter appeared mysteriously one night in 2006 and still remain.  They have never been explained.  Did alien spacecraft land there?  Did they abduct young women to serve as sex slaves?  Hell, I would have.

    Humpbacked zebu cattle graze around the charred stumps of new pastures, boys wearing team uniforms play soccer on an emerald field, and small but proud farmhouses nestle among fruit trees and flowers. A sign on a gas station reads, “Hier Sprechts Deutsch.” 

    Summer is the time for the Elbasan Goat Festival.  Farmers bring their goats in and show them off in a big corral to the admiring public before trucking them over to the slaughterhouse.  The goats are slaughtered in the traditional Albanian way — a bullet in the head.

    The ugliest goat, however, gets special treatment.  Townsfolk decide which is the ugliest goat of them all, and this one is given the name of a hated person.  (This year it was Ed Swiderski.)  The goat is strangled by several strong boys, and then its head is smashed several times with a rock.  To Elbasaners, the Ugly Goat is a symbol of everything bad, so killing it is supposed to bring good luck for the coming year.

    Elbasan now has a sister city in the U.S. — Glencoe, California.  Formerly known as Mosquito Gulch, Glencoe was a mining town long ago and is now an unincorporated town.  Arrangements at their end were handled by State Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, who told me, “Make sure I get full credit for this.”  Okay, I just licked the stamp.  Elbasan is happy about it, and Ahab Books, in Glencoe, is especially happy.  Their manager told me, “Maybe now we can get rid of your books.”

    Before I left Elbasan, I had a farewell drink with Greg Lehman at the Renaissance.  We watched a clique of transvestites in lingerie and fishnet hose making merry.  “We’re getting everything from the West now,” said Greg.  “This is the new Albania.  Like the man says, ‘Get used to it.'”  I asked him what the local people thought about Chaz Bono getting a sperm donor from Elbasan.  “Oh, it’s the talk of the town!  Funny thing is, everyone always assumed Edison Begaj was queer.  And there are a few other things about him you ought to know….”  But this is where I have to cut it short.  I don’t want to spoil things for all those entertainment journalists who have to make a living.

    Recommended vaccinations: Dercum’s Disease, toxoplasmosis, megaloblastic anemia.

    Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada.  E-mail: crad166@yahoo.com