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

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    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

    Your voodoo vacation awaits!  You’re going to the most terrifying tourist destination in the Caribbean — Pignon, Haiti!  You’ll see things you never thought could exist — like zombies, for instance!  They’re up there in the mountains.  And when the sun goes down, the zombies come down to hunt for victims.  Oh, so you don’t believe in such things, do you?  Neither did Father Antoine Laperriere, who was sent to Pignon by the government of Haiti in 1945 to establish a mission and suppress the practice of voodoo.  He lasted only two days there and literally crawled out of town on his hands and knees.  He claimed that invisible hands were constantly choking him.  He lost his mind and eventually died in a lunatic asylum.  But you’re not afraid, are you?  No, you’ll go anyway.  Just make sure you write your will first.

    Pignon is a speck on the map, nestled in the interior mountainous region of Haiti.  It’s on the road between Hinche and Cap Haitien.  There’s one bus a day between those two towns.  You have to ask the driver to stop at Pignon, otherwise he won’t.  He’ll give you a shocked look.  It’s like asking to be dropped off in Newt, Texas, or at Castle Dracula.  Be a sport.  Slip him some money.

    Now, I don’t mean to exaggerate.  Most tourists who go to Pignon return safely.  Those who don’t have probably been turned into zombies.  But zombies don’t mind being zombies.  They’re not aware that they’re zombies.  They’re just like people in Toronto.

    Pignon has one hotel — the Kawada.  Manager John Marko has some advice for his guests: “Never go out by yourself.  Never be out later than midnight.  Don’t look for hookers.  Don’t drink the local bitter tea.  Take all your meals at the hotel.”

    Marko does believe in voodoo.  “You don’t have to be afraid of it.  Just understand it.  Voodoo can be black magic or white magic.  Voodoo dolls and zombies are part of black magic.  The zombie is in a kind of sleepwalking state.  The bokor, who is a mercenary priest hired to do black magic, uses the toxin from the puffer fish sphoeroides testudineus in carefully measured doses to turn a person into a zombie and keep him like that.  The toxin causes a near shut-down of the body and the loss of will.  So the zombie can be ordered like a slave.  Some zombies are just used for labor.  Others are used to kill.  You sometimes see them in broad daylight.  The local people can pick them out instantly, but a tourist may not.”

    The voodoo ritual is the only thing worth seeing in Pignon.  Tourists can observe it, but you have to give some money to the houngan, the voodoo priest (not quite the same as a bokor).  The ritual is held in his house.  A priestess, or mambo, is also likely to be present, along with one or more assistants, or hounsis.

    The houngan begins by throwing some incense into a pot of red-hot coals on the floor.  He may invoke good spirits or evil spirits, but not both at once.  Good spirits are summoned if someone needs help; evil spirits are summoned if revenge or punishment is desired.  In the latter case (which is far more interesting to watch), a large snake is brought in, and its head is cut off.  The blood is collected in a bowl.  A young girl, perhaps 16-18 years-old, is then made to undress and lie on a table.  The snake blood is poured over her naked body.  The houngan now takes a smoking pipe with tobacco in it, draws a mouthful of smoke, and blows it into the girl’s vagina through a bamboo tube.  Then a zombie is brought in.  He is controlled by the houngan.  The zombie sucks the nipples and vulva of the naked girl on the table, who must remain as still as possible.  The zombie then lies on top of her for several minutes and rubs against her as if having intercourse with her (although he cannot).  The houngan may now have intercourse with the mambo (either real or simulated).  Afterwards, the zombie is returned to his place (usually a sort of closet).  Now the houngan takes a doll or effigy representing the hated one and sticks it with pins and utters magic words.  This guarantees that evil spirits will find the intended victim and (presumably) kill him.  The houngan then leads the congregation in singing, dancing, and shrieking, and everyone goes quite crazy, jumping and gyrating wildly.  The women can strip completely and dance naked.  Jugs of rum or strong wine are passed around until everyone is quite drunk.  The hounsis set off firecrackers and pound drums, and the mambo can touch any man she favors in a sexual manner.  It’s quite a show!

    Pignon supplies over 90% of the authentic voodoo dolls used around the world.  They are made by the Pignon Dollworks, whose workers are skilled craftsmen.  They also make a small percentage of Mattel’s Barbie dolls.  In fact, Mattel will soon be bringing out a limited edition Voodoo Barbie, which will be manufactured exclusively in Pignon for distribution in the Caribbean market only.

    Yes, you can buy a voodoo doll from the Dollworks — for about $20.  However, hotel manager John Marko assured me that it doesn’t work for just anyone; you have to be a properly trained voodoo practitioner. 

    The Kawada is a nice enough hotel — not luxurious, just basic.  Rooms average about $30 per day, but meals are extra.  Most credit cards are accepted.  A big, ugly doorman keeps out zombies, beggars, and other undesirables.  The housekeeping staff will sell you a charm of some sort to protect you.  Of course, it’s fake, but you’d better buy it to be nice, otherwise you may find something crawly in your bed.  The chef is insane and may disregard your order and decide what you should eat.  His food is actually pretty good.  His specialty, however, is snake.

    Most of the people in Pignon don’t speak English, but you can probably get by with your high school French.  Haitian French is pretty awful — just as bad as Quebec French.

    Some celebrities have visited Pignon, including Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Marie Osmond, Gen. Colin Powell, Kobe Bryant, Jose Canseco, Don King, Tyra Banks, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Prof. Henry Louis Gates (Ph.D., Harvard; N.W.A., Congo), and Sacha Baron Cohen.  (Cohen started acting like Ali G. at the voodoo ritual and very nearly got himself beaten up.)

    A group of students from Muhlenberg College (Allentown, PA) visited Pignon recently to dig for fossils.  Some of the local people tricked them with a dog’s skull, telling them it came from an unknown species.  The students took it home with them and probably still haven’t figured out what it is.

    Pignon has a sister city in the U.S. — Poughkeepsie, New York (pronounced Puh-KIP-see).  Mayor John C. Tkazyik, who loves all minorities, wants “those poor Haitians” to know they have a friend in Poughkeepsie.  He personally sent them a large “CARE package” containing several bottles of his favorite barbecue sauce, some shirts from Goodwill, a Jane Fonda workout video, some cheap toys made in China, a picture book about Dutchess County, New York, and a framed picture of himself.  He is now referred to in Pignon as the “fils de pute” (some sort of title of respect, I imagine), and his picture is now in the hands of a houngan.  

    Recommended vaccinations: tropical sprue, Ollier Disease, leprosy.

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

   

    I was having lunch with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi at Opera Plaza Sushi in San Francisco about six months ago, and she said to me, “Every so often, I need to get away from it all.  I want to go where nobody knows me, where I can relax and have a change of scenery.  So I go to Filadelfia, Paraguay.  It’s a wonderful place!  You should go.”  So I did.

    Filadelfia is still very much off the beaten track.  Almost all Paraguay tourism is concentrated in the capital, Asuncion, and I certainly won’t knock it.  It’s a great place to buy luxury goods cheap (because they are smuggled in), and the hookers are hot.  But Asuncion is not the exotic Paraguay.  To see that, you have to go to Filadelfia.

    There’s only one bus a day between Asuncion and Filadelfia.  It’s an all-day trip, departing in the morning and arriving in the evening, so pack your lunch.  And keep your eyes peeled for celebs in disguise, because more of them are following Nancy Pelosi’s example.

    As you head north from the capital, you’ll see the scenery change from farmland and grassland to the deciduous scrub forest of the vast Chaco Boreal, which makes up the entire western half of Paraguay.  This is a land where cowboys rope steers and shoot rattlesnakes (or vice-versa), where weird desert cacti burst open with hundreds of deadly tarantulas, where people speak the strange Guarani language (which only they can understand), and toothless hags cut the throats of chickens to cast spells on their enemies.  Unknown creatures leave mysterious tracks in the sand, homosexuals are hanged from gibbets, rowdy men indulge in eye-gouging for sport, and packs of wild dogs howl under the full moon.   So, it’s kind of different.

    When you arrive at the bus depot, you’ll be aware immediately of the German influence that governs the whole town of Filadelfia.  The depot is designed in the Sonntags Geschlossen style of architecture, which was so favored by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and which finds its finest recapitulation in the Greyhound Bus station in Sudbury, Ontario.  In front of the Filadelfia bus depot, which is (not surprisingly) located on the Avenue Hindenburg, you will see the only statue of Fred Astaire in the world.  Astaire was actually German (born Fred Austerlitz), and his father was born in Linz, Austria, not far from Hitler’s birthplace in Braunau am Inn.  The two families were acquainted, in fact.

    An old bus marked “Westin Filadelfia” is ready and waiting to take new visitors to the only hotel in town.  Hotel Manager Michael Czarcinski (not related to Kazimierz Czarcinski, who opened the first ear wax clinic in Poland, in the city of Cracow, in 1959) personally greets every new guest.  The hotel is never full enough to make him happy, and he is the town’s number one tourism booster.  “We’re not actually affiliated with the Westin hotel chain,” he admits.  “I just stole their name for the hell of it.  I mean, what can they do to me?”  He hints slyly with a wink that he has good enough connections in the capital that no one would ever be able to give him any trouble.

    The Westin Filadelfia is not a bad place.  Quite cheap — only $35 a night.  There’s no TV or air-conditioning, but there are flush toilets, and the maid service is diligent.  (For a few dollars, the maid will tuck you in at night, if you get my meaning.)  The furniture is of high quality.  It’s made locally by the large German Mennonite community that dominates life in Filadelfia.

    The Mennonites started arriving in the 1920’s and built themselves a fine settlement, which is on the outskirts of town.  They live communally, and their economy is based on farming and handicrafts.  Another influx of German immigrants followed in the 40’s, and a lot of them are still alive in their eighties and nineties.  So, Filadelfia is very much a German town in every respect.  The only other significant population is the local  indians, the Guarani, who mostly work as servants or as street vendors living modestly off the tourist trade.

    Werner’s Tavern is open late for new arrivals wanting a good dinner, and it’s all good German food, washed down with the local beer, Fila, which is brewed by the Mennonites.  Werner’s is really the only place to hang out in Filadelfia.  Werner Missgeburt, the owner, is a big, jovial fellow who tends the bar and likes to laugh and tell coarse jokes.  He likes to say that he never has to throw anyone out of his establishment, because it’s easier to let them stay and die of old age.

    Werner’s is cheerfully decorated with Nazi war memorabilia, including a half-size replica of a Stuka dive bomber.  This is where the old Germans gather every night to sing those good old patriotic songs of the Third Reich — although they all insist they were never members of the Nazi party or involved in any atrocities.

    Former President General Alberto Stroessner used to come up to Filadelfia occasionally and drink beer with the Germans.  They all remember him as a good friend, and there are plenty of framed pictures on the walls of the tavern to prove it.  “All the Guarani girls flirted with him,” says Werner.  “And he had his pick of them.”

    The Guarani women are actually quite lovely for indians.  They have big breasts and make money posing bare-breasted with tourists for photos.  It’s actually a pretense.  They don’t normally go bare-breasted, but the tourists assume they do and routinely pay $5 to be photographed next to a half-naked woman with big knockers.  (This is the sort of free-enterprising initiative Canadian indians could learn from, except that they’re all so seedy-looking no one would want to photograph them — with or without their clothes.) 

    The Guarani also have a fake festival for tourists called the Beer Festival, which takes place several times a year.  The highlight is the beer bottle dance, in which a woman balances a stack of ten beer bottles on top of her head — one on top of the other!  Of course, they’re attached to each other, but it’s still an amazing balancing act.  Indian musicians also play bogus indian music, and vendors sell beans and rice, as well as a stew made with capybara, which is a giant rat.  (I didn’t get to try it, but the Krauts said it was pretty good if you have plenty of beer to wash it down with.)

    As I mentioned earlier, celebrities have occasionally been seen in Filadelfia.  They pretend to be ordinary tourists and usually go unrecognized since there’s no TV.  Jack Black, Teri Hatcher, Cindy Crawford, Bono, Peter Tork, and Pete Wentz have all been spotted in the past year, according to Michael Czarcinski.  But they all register under false names, so there’s no proof on paper.

    So what would attract such people to Filadelfia?  There isn’t much to do.  “It’s just a different sort of place,” says the hotel manager.  “They can hang out with the Germans and drink beer and eat schnitzel.  They can go riding on a horse.  Or they can rent a gun and go outside the town and do some shooting, although there’s nothing out there you’d want to stuff and put over your mantel.”

    Czarcinski has a brainstorm for a tourist attraction, however — a sort of theme resort set up like a concentration camp.  “You come for a week, let’s say, and you have to sleep on a bare pallet and live on starvation rations.  They put you to work doing something arduous and beat you if you don’t cooperate.  And there would be a fake gas chamber — just a lot of smoke, that’s all.  We could even make things kinky by tying the women to racks in their bras and panties and whipping them.  But the Mennonites are against it, and they have the most power around here.”

    The Westin has some mysterious permanent residents, who occupy the top floor.  I was told they were ex-Mennonites who left the community and fell in with the old Krauts.  They have laptops and wireless Internet in their rooms, and they do things with money, but they won’t say exactly what or for whom.  So I suspect there is some sort of deep, dark secret in Filadelfia the world doesn’t know about.

    One of the old Krauts in the clique at Werner’s claims to have participated in a secret Nazi polar expedition in 1938-39.  He was an 18-year-old seaman aboard the research ship Schwabenland, commanded by Capt. Alfred Kothas.  The expedition explored parts of Antarctica and brought back valuable scientific information.  He showed me a naval patch with the words “Deutsche Antarktische Expedition” and the outline of Antarctica with a flag marking a region called “Neu-Schwabenland.”  The Schwabenland carried two flying boats called the “Boreas” and the “Passat.”

    Much to my delight, another Canadian writer arrived during my stay in Filadelfia.  Lorette Luzajic, of Toronto, was on a promotional tour for her new book, Weird Monologues for a Rainy Life (irreverent ramblings from the end of the world).  The hotel manager had invited her up from Asuncion in the hope of injecting some culture into Filadelfia, as well as promoting the place for tourism.  However, he had conveniently neglected to tell her that there was no bookstore or library in town.  But everything worked out fine anyway.  When she went over to Werner’s and the old Krauts found out she was of German ancestry, she immediately became everyone’s “girlfriend.”  All the old buzzards took turns having her sit on their laps, and they all told her how beautiful she was and treated her like a goddess.  She sold every copy of her book that she had brought with her and wished she had brought more.  (Find out more about Lorette and her book at www.thegirlcanwrite.net.) 

    Filadelfia has a sister city in the U.S.  (Would that be Philadelphia, by any chance?)  You guessed it!  Mayor Michael Nutter told me, “We don’t have no Paraguanians here in Philly, but they’re welcome to come over, as long as they pay their own way.  We’ll take ’em out for some good Philly steak sandwiches.”  This arrangement was made by Michael Czarcinski, of course, in the hope of stimulating tourism.  He told me, “When you publish your article, the tourists will really start pouring in.  Then maybe I’ll have enough clout to push that concentration camp idea through.”  Okay, good luck with that!

    Recommended vaccinations: Rinderpest, Bowen Hutterite Syndrome, Chombley wart virus.

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

    Astute commentators have declared the 21st Century to be the Century of China.  And no stronger argument supports this view than the example of Guiyu, which is located in Shantou, Guangdong.  Guiyu is the 21st Century Techno-Paradise, Eco-Paradise, and Green Revolution City all rolled into one.

    In the span of one generation, this exotic city has been transformed from a sleepy agricultural village to the world’s foremost recycling center for electronics.  And its inhabitants have been transformed from simple farmers to technological workers who enjoy great prosperity.  The average resident lives in a house or modern apartment, drives an eco-friendly car, and enjoys all the latest electronic gadgetry.  And how about 100-plus channels of cable and satellite TV!

    Every day, long lines of trucks disgorge discarded computers, phones, TV’s, VCR’s, and related items at a large depot.  From there, the sorted items are sent out to over a hundred companies for disassembly and recycling.  Large amounts of precious metals, industrial metals, and rare earths are extracted from all the debris.  Other components are chopped up and reprocessed as raw materials for construction and agriculture.   Nothing is wasted.  The wealth generated from all this activity is enormous.

    Hotel Manager Jonathan Litvak of the Westin Guiyu is a latecomer to this revolution but has still seen remarkable changes since he arrived here eight years ago.  “Everything is green and clean.  The air and water are perfect.  The urban environment is like something out of a futuristic movie.  We have modern buildings, underground malls, sports facilities, an efficient light-rail transit system, lovely parks, hotels, restaurants, you name it.  And it’s all neat as a pin.  In fact, you can’t even spit on the sidewalk.”

    The Westin Guiyu is noteworthy for its glass exterior, which is tinted with real gold.  Under the right conditions, airplanes approaching the international airport can see the sun’s brilliant reflection from ten miles away.  The lobby is a huge atrium adorned with sculpted coral from the offshore reefs and a mosaic of dazzling semi-precious gemstones, and a 60-foot waterfall cascades into a pool filled with pink and purple angelfish from the island of Bali.  Despite all this opulence, the hotel is surprisingly affordable, with most rooms in the range of $129 to $149 a night.

    All visitors tour the industrial parks in air-conditioned buses.  The parks themselves are works of art, with each plant having its own landscaping treatment and garden.

    Downtown Guiyu is a spotlessly clean district of upscale boutiques and shops.  High-tech gadgetry is everywhere, of course.  The Communist government has decided not to meddle with all this success, so the city is unusually free to do its own thing.  You can even buy The Wall Street Journal and Playboy.

    All vehicles, including buses, are electric or hybrid.  The little police cars are especially cute.  They operate on a biofuel made from chicken manure.  And the chickens are fed reprocessed plastic turned into nutrients by a secret process invented by Sha Bi Biofuels. 

    Guiyu gets most of its electricity from a highly unusual power plant that makes use of electric eels — a technology invented by Hung Wa Holding Company.  Thousands of eels are kept in pools, and their discharges are collected and stored in batteries.  The power is then inverted from DC to AC and fed into the local grid.  An identical plant will be built in Laramie, Wyoming, by Hung Wa’s international subsidiary, Dynamic Electro-Fish, of Mississauga, Ontario (see Laramie Boomerang archives for April 1, 2009).

    There are all kinds of restaurants in Guiyu, but the trendiest is Ba Po, which specializes in — what else? — Chinese cuisine.  Head Chef Chee Loong Cheong, formerly of the prestigious Haozhan in London, England, serves up his exotic creations — chop suey, sweet and sour pork, and fried rice.

    But competition has arrived in the form of a Mexican restaurant called El Chapo’s.  Mexican chef and entrepreneur Joaquin Guzman arrived in Guiyu last year with a trunkful of money, saw the opportunity, and seized it.  Now everyone’s going crazy over his tacos and burritos.  Pop star Lady Gaga went gaga over the food!  She claims she put on five pounds eating daily at El Chapo’s during her recent one-week tour.  She performed to packed houses at the Gun Kai Club, whose owner, Chang Chi Kao, considers himself the Lady’s number one Chinese fan.

    And last winter, Mel Gibson was on hand to celebrate the opening of the Friendly Chicken, hilariously designed by artist Chester Brown of Toronto.  Patrons enter the restaurant through the chicken’s head, eat in the stomach, and exit by the anus.  Gibson remarked to the media, “Australians love this sort of humor.”  But Jonathan Litvak of the Westin Guiyu insists it represents an ecological theme.

    Guiyu’s mascot is the bird of paradise, and if you want to see them, go to the park along the bank of the Lianjiang River, where they roam freely.

    The Lianjiang is a pristine river.  And when it freezes over in the winter, residents go ice skating.

    Golden fields of millet and corn surround the tributaries of the Lianjiang, and you can climb at least part-way up the slope of Tharpu Chuli, a dormant volcano, which enriched the soil in the distant past.  A high fence marks off the Gungbung Conservation Area, where the rare white tiger is protected.

    The biggest surprise in Guiyu is an authentic Shaker Village, founded by dissidents who left the South Union, Kentucky, community in 1922 and traveled to China in search of spiritual purity and a population of converts.  Now well-established, it numbers nearly a thousand members, who earn a good living fashioning bar stools and roulette wheels out of maple, oak, and applewood, all crafted with the elegant functionality for which the Shakers are well known.  But these people are not stuck in the past.  Oh, no!  The Shakers have always embraced technology and invention.  The community’s leader, Sister Mary Catherine Park Hui Gee Crucified of Jesus, sees a Divine Hand at work in Guiyu and calls the city “a new Garden of Eden.”

    Guiyu now has a sister city in the U.S. — Compton, California.  Mayor Eric J. Perrodin says, “We be gettin’ down wid dem Chinamen!”  He regards Guiyu as a model to emulate and intends to remake Compton into a major recycling center for electronics, generating thousands of high-paying jobs.  He has not yet traveled to Guiyu himself but intends to go with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger this fall.  The Governor sees electronics recycling as the perfect industry to cure California’s financial mess.

    Recommended vaccinations: yaws, Mucolipidosis IV, jejunal atresia.

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

   

    North Korea recently fired another missile, and many people are concerned (although not in my neighborhood of brain-dead foreigners and white trash).  But what’s it all about, anyway?  Are the North Koreans a proud, independent people determined to resist the aggression of American warmongers, or are they just a bunch of insane, retarded, slitty-eyed Commie bastards?  Or are they something entirely other?

    For an authoritative answer, I asked a homosexual political science professor at the University of Toronto (who shall remain nameless, but he has a beard and wears an earring, and his lover’s name is Paul) to explain the North Koreans to me.  “The North Koreans are no different from you or me,” he said.  “What do all human beings want?  They want to be understood and accepted for what they are, without prejudice.  Is that so wrong?  Of course not.  It’s the Americans who are clearly the aggressors.  They always have been throughout their history.  I teach a course on the subject.”  Okay, I guess that helps.

    But let’s go check things out for ourselves!

    Pyongyang, North Korea!  Who has not wanted to travel there?  (Put your hands down.  That was a rhetorical question.)  Yes, Pyongyang!  The city that lies in the fabled Valley of Monkeys, whose people Buddha described as “happy, fat, and drunk on wine.”  Let’s throw back the curtain of history and look through the dense fog of time.

    The North Koreans, unlike their southern cousins who call themselves “Koreans” (although the term is anthropologically meaningless, since it merely refers to a peninsula), are descended from the Mogollon people, who settled and controlled the region as far back as 500 BC.  Their early settlements may still be glimpsed protruding from the fields of corn that spread westward from the Taedong River.  They feared only bears and fire.  The Mogollon evolved from hunters and gatherers who shot wild boars with bows and arrows, then became pearl divers and fishermen, and then finally became farmers and breeders of turkeys, until they disappeared mysteriously and quite suddenly in 1211 AD, after a great fall of toads from the sky.  Charles Fort described this fall of toads in one of his books.  Shakespeare referred to it cryptically in Macbeth.  And it was discussed at length in Memoirs of a Lunatic: The Diaries of Lord Archambault of Dorking, by Sir Oliver Sturm-Ruger (Oxford Univ. Press, 1956).

    What happened to the Mogollon people?  If the toads could talk, what would they tell us?  We could go ask them, for the Toad Habitat, one of Pyongyang’s most popular tourist attractions, is located about 20 miles north of the city.  It’s the reason why Pyongyang is unofficially the Toad Capital of Asia.  The toad figure is seen everywhere as a sort of mascot of Pyongyang — a sly, mischievous creature that obviously knows more than it’s willing to tell.  You could try to plumb its secrets, but it will not reveal them, even if you stroke it lovingly, or even if you choke it and suck on its head.  And if you do that, you will be put somewhere where there is nothing sharp, and stern orderlies watch you day and night.  And that wasn’t the purpose of this trip, was it?

    Who really understands these Toad People, these offshoots of the Mogollon, better than a Westerner who has lived in Pyongyang for many years?  That would be Suzanne Gittens, Manager of the Comfort Inn, located on the West Bank of the Taedong.  It is Pyongyang’s best hotel.  From the upper floors, you get a panoramic view of the city — The Monument of the Revolution, the Monument of the Heroic People’s Struggle Against Aggression, the Monument of the Worker, the Soldier, and the Intellectual, the Monument of Peace, the Arch of Triumph, the Arch of the Glorious Future, the Arch of the Iron Will, the Statue of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, the Statue of the Great Father Kim Il-sung, the Juche Tower, the Tower of Truth Television, the Communist Victory Stadium, the Revolutionary University of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, the People’s Communist Water Purification Plant, the Socialist Democratic People’s Garbage Incinerator, the Eternal Zoo of the Communist Party of North Korea, the Glorious and Prosperous People’s Farmer’s Market, the Democratic People’s Revolutionary Electrical Plant, the Golden Arches Communist Noodle Works, and the Unconquerable Socialist Revolutionary People’s Cineplex Theatre, featuring two screens.  (The Revolutionary Children’s  Monument of Resistance and the Revolutionary Communist Day Care Centre are not visible from the hotel.)

    Suzanne Gittens enjoys special respect as the Westerner who brought peanut butter to North Korea.  Peanut butter is now widely eaten, and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il has personally endorsed it as a healthy food for long life, even though it was invented in America.

    “The North Koreans think of themselves as being in a state of war all the time, even when they are not actually at war,” explained Gittens.  “And they cannot be defeated, because their will is stronger than the enemy’s.  But they do have one fear — centrifugal force.  Centrifugal force is an American weapon whose purpose is to hold back the progress of the people and their revolution.  It is invisible, yet it has a physical effect on people and objects.  North Korean soldiers march in a stiff manner to reduce the effect of centrifugal force.  The missiles that are being fired are intended to disrupt the waves of centrifugal force sent down by American satellites.  The Juche Tower, which is the most important structure in Pyongyang, contains an energy beam to protect the city from centrifugal force, and it is supposed to be effective.  ‘Juche,’ of course, is the state ideology of North Korea.  It means ‘independence’ or ‘self-reliance.’  It is also the name of the country’s most popular brand of cigarettes, most popular brand of toothpaste, and most popular brand of condom.”

    Because of my reputation as the funniest living writer in the English language (way funnier than Dave Barry, a wanker who refuses to answer e-mail), I was given the same room at the Comfort Inn that Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag stayed in.  Their visit to Pyongyang last December is the best-kept secret in Hollywood.  Even the gossip columns failed to pick it up.  The newlyweds went to Pyongyang to escape the prying eyes of the media, and only Gittens knew who they were, since American celebrities are never seen on North Korean television.

    There is not much television in North Korea anyway.  There are three channels with limited hours.  Korean Central Television (KCTV) is the official broadcaster of news.  It is best known for the hypnotic spiral that appears on the screen as propaganda messages are spoken.  Korean Educational and Cultural TV has lots of shows featuring children laying flowers at the foot of monuments and uniformed children marching with little flags.  Mansudae TV has movies with revolutionary themes (especially the Korean War), sports (gymnasts performing in arenas with no audience in the background), current affairs (missile launches), science (lab techs studying grains of wheat under a microscope), and a popular game show called Name That Enemy, in which contestants must identify American warmongers to win a carton of noodles.

    North Korea’s aversion to foreigners is somewhat exaggerated.  Basically, you have to prove you’re not a spy.  But it’s like every other country’s Customs and Immigration: some officers are nice, and some are mean.  If you are neatly dressed, clean shaven, soft-spoken, and polite, you will probably get in.  If you look like white trash, with baggy pants and baseball cap turned backwards, you will be taken into a room and beaten to death, and your family will be told you died in a boating accident.  (This is the sort of reform we need in Canada.)  There is also a “Kill On Sight” list with specific names.  Currently, Nick Nolte is at the top of the list.

    The visitor to Pyongyang must be accompanied by an escort.  This is actually a good thing, because if you don’t know the language or your way around, you could get yourself into some kind of trouble.  Besides, the escorts need the employment.  My escort was a plain girl named Kim, who desperately needed a makeover and implants, both of which would be considered counter-revolutionary in North Korea.  She took me on a long walking tour of the city.  (We didn’t get on any streetcars, because they have been known to electrocute their passengers.)  We ended up in one of the nice parks for which Pyongyang is known.  I asked her why she was so flat-chested, and she acted hurt.  She said she was a very average and normal North Korean girl.  I told her I had a special skin cream from Canada that would make her breasts grow, and if she came to my hotel room in the evening, I would apply it to her myself to show her the right way to do it.  She was very eager to accept my kindness, but at the appointed hour she never showed up.  The next day, she would only say vaguely that she had not been able to come.

    We took a short ride on the subway, which is the deepest in the world, since it is intended to serve as a shelter in the event of a nuclear war.  Now, the subway is basically for show.  The stations are clean and full of patriotic art.  But for a city of over 3 million people, the crowd is mysteriously thin.  People are supposed to be going to work, but a lot of them are faking it.  Officially, there is no unemployment in the Communist paradise of North Korea, so everyone must behave as if  they were going to work.  But when they get to their destinations, a lot of these riders are looking at factories that are shut down, office buildings with no electricity, and shops with almost nothing to sell.  So they will sit and do nothing at the workplace or go for a walk, and then return home.  The subway is absurdly cheap by anyone’s standards, so it is a major money-loser, but the regime needs it for propaganda purposes.

    In Pyongyang, if you are unemployable for whatever reason, you can be a street vendor and sell cold, wet noodles in a paper cup, or you can be given a job title such as “emotion recognition specialist” or “anti-centrifugal specialist” and sit at a desk in an unheated warehouse, waiting for the phone to ring, which it won’t because it isn’t even connected.  Directing traffic is another make-work program, and you will see lots of girls in blue uniforms standing in intersections, waiting for some traffic to show up. 

    Pyongyang has restaurants with such names as Communist Restaurant, Glorious Restaurant, Victory Restaurant, or Happy Smiling Toad Restaurant.  They serve mostly noodles and vegetables and very little meat.  I dropped in at the Communist Restaurant, which is run by Tadamasa Goto.  “Only foreigners can own restaurants here,” he explained.  “The North Koreans are not allowed to.”  I said that had a certain symmetrical logic, since in Canada only Koreans can own convenience stores and white Canadians can’t.  Goto readily admits he is not a trained chef, and his restaurant used to be very bad.  But then something good happened.  “Gordon Ramsay was in town.  He has a Korean grandparent, by the way, which most people don’t know about.  Anyway, he had heard about this place, and when he saw how bad it was, he decided to feature it on Kitchen Nightmares.   The episode will appear on TV over there in September or October.  There were rats, dead cats, stinking pools of grease, mold, you name it.  The chef I had working for me was the son of a Party member and I couldn’t fire him, but Ramsay picked him up and literally threw him out.  He’s an ex-footballer, you know, and these Koreans are small enough to pick up and throw.  After that, he cleaned the place up and updated the menu, and the government sent me a proper chef  out of embarrassment.”  I tried the soy turkey sandwich with gravy, noodles, and peas, and it was not bad — a lot better than the atrocious meat loaf I once had in the Hudson Bay cafeteria at Yonge and Bloor, where the cooks are Korean and put garlic in everything, including  the cole slaw.  Goto doesn’t actually make a living from the restaurant.  He has business contacts in Japan, and he moves shipments of guns, drugs, and counterfeit goods for the North Korean government.

    On one of my walks with Kim, my escort, I commented on the  police on every street corner.  Kim explained they needed the work.  Naturally, there’s no street crime whatever in Pyongyang — exactly the opposite of Toronto, where you have plenty of crime on the streets, and the police are nowhere in sight.  (You have to call them, get it?)  Toronto’s  Chief of Police,  Bill Blair, is a wimp who lets Tamil protesters block streets and highways, because he believes in cultural sensitivity, and he marches in the Gay Pride parade, too.  He looks like a big, stupid rabbit.

    I treated Kim to an ice cream, and we sat on a park bench.  I kept trying to put my hand up her skirt, and she kept resisting, although I could tell she was getting hot.  “It is counter-revolutionary,” she said.  And then I got some insight into North Koreans and sex.  The government strictly suppresses visible sex.  There is no sexual imagery anywhere.  More than that, the government has a long-term plan to eliminate sex altogether and have people reproduce by binary fission.  You may remember such news items as the two-headed snake, or the two-headed dog, or the two-headed sheep.  These were the results of early North Korean experiments to make higher animals reproduce by binary fission.  The animals lived, but the experiments were regarded as failures.  Nevertheless, the government considers binary fission to be the ultimate fulfillment of juche, so they will keep at it.  Kim believed there was some sort of chemical being put in the drinking water to prepare the people for binary fission, so she was only drinking bottled water because she did not want to divide unexpectedly.  She also said there were rumors of experiments gone wrong, resulting in abortions.

    It was all gruesome stuff, so to get her mind off it, I suggested we go for a gondola ride on the Taedong River.  The gondolas look exactly like the ones you see in movies about Venice.  Couples can enjoy a long ride while being serenaded by the gondoliers, who sing sentimental songs of revolutionary victory.  Meanwhile, you can watch pearl divers reviving an ancient custom of their ancestors.  Resplendent in their orange wet suits, they dig barnacles from the river bottom to harvest a variety of brown, sticky pearl found nowhere else in the world.  It’s not in the same class as the fine pearls from Australia but certainly good enough for Canadians who shop in bargain stores.  These divers swim in synchronized fashion, performing an artistic water ballet, while blending in with schools of river porpoises that are extremely happy in the extremely clean waters of the Taedong, thanks to the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.  I guided Kim’s hand to my crotch so she could feel how keen I was for her.  She looked away and pretended not to be aware.  I pressed her hand down more firmly and said, “What is this called in Korean?”  She replied, “Chaji.”  I worked my hand under her skirt and inside her panties to her privates.  “What do you call this?” I asked.  She replied, “Poji.”  I moved my hand around the back and into the crack of her ass.  “And the other one?” I asked.  “Ttong-koo-mung,” she replied, breathing hard.  She started stroking me gently….

    Which reminds me to talk about the ballistic missiles.  The North Koreans have been launching them from a site in the northeast called Musudan-ri (CIA code name: “Boardwalk”).  But it’s getting obsolete already, so they’re building a new one at a site about 75 miles northwest of Pyongyang, called Pongdong-ni (CIA code name: “Park Place”).  The missile workers are looking forward to the move because the new site has a nicer lawn, is closer to shopping, and is in a better school district.  The government will run daily bus tours from Pyongyang to show off the new site, and Suzanne Gittens thinks the tours will be a big money-maker, since visitors have heard so much about the missiles.  The new site will have a gift shop, too.

    The vineyards are on the same road as the new missile site.  It will surprise you to learn that the North Koreans have been making wine for almost fifty years — reviving an ancient Mogollon tradition — although it has taken a while to develop the quality to make it a viable export product.  The People’s Victory wine actually won an honorable mention in an Asian wine competition held in Hanoi, and the Glorious Leader wine was nominated in the “Best New Wine” category on Vancouver’s skid row.  And a bottle of Communist Defeat of American Aggression wine can be glimpsed briefly on an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

    Pyongyang now has a “sister city” in Canada.  Because of my influence as a shameless promoter of uranium mining in Saskatchewan (e-mail me for current stock recommendations!), I was able to arrange the “sistering” of Pyongyang and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (CIA code name: “Mosquitoville”).  Mayor Jim Scarrow is very excited about the new arrangement.  “It’s a very good thing for us,” he says, sweat dripping off his brow.  “After all, they’re developing nuclear weapons, and we don’t want to be attacked.  If we show them we like them, we’ll be helping to keep peace in the world.  I mean, look, we have plenty in common.  Both cities begin with ‘P.’  Both cities are on a river.  They’re Communist, and we’re somewhat socialist, okay?  They just want to do the right thing for their people, and so do we, right?  There’s common ground.  We can all get along.  We love all the minorities — aboriginals, black people, Asians, whatever.  We have Korean people here.  We value them as citizens.  My wife buys milk and bread from them.  The people from Pyongyang are welcome to visit any time.  We’ll show them a good time.  We’re willing to trade with them, to help them.  We’ll do whatever it takes so they don’t attack us….”  He goes on like this for a half hour, but you get the gist.

    I can’t forget the show trial!  The talk of the town during my visit to Pyongyang was the trial of two Americans, which was being broadcast daily on KCTV.  Roger Angell and Ben Greenman were charged with “hostile acts,” including spying and “spreading centrifugal force.”  I have no idea what they actually did, but Suzanne Gittens said it didn’t matter.  “It follows a familiar script,” she explained to me.  “They get a couple of Westerners on a fake charge and threaten them with the death penalty.  Inevitably, the foreign government or company offers a discreet bribe for the release of the offenders, the Party scores propaganda points, and Kim Jong-il’s family pockets the bribe.”  And what if no one is willing to pay?  “Then, of course, they’d be executed.  But so far that’s never happened.”  As of the time of my departure, however, no offer had been made to save these guys, so whoever they are, they must be major bastards.

    When I checked out of the Comfort Inn, I was allowed to keep the souvenir flashlight that is placed in every room in case the electricity goes off.  It’s in the shape of Kim Jong-il.  When I remarked to Suzanne Gittens that it looked a lot like a dildo, she said that she always suspected that some designer made it like that on purpose as a way of poking fun at the government, and the Party still hadn’t caught on.  I decided it would be a cute parting gift for Kim.

    And so we went for one last excursion into the countryside, to skip happily across meadows and bogs and through forests, looking for trolls and fairies and elves, and to fall back in time to be with the Mogollon people, dressed in their sunbonnets of black and purple, chasing the wild boars, babbling of the ancient ways that must never die but live forever, of battles fought and virgins raped, of loves and toads, of days when seafarers navigated by the Milky Way.  We embraced and kissed beneath the ivy bowers, as majestic turkeys screeched above the romantic fields of corn.  Our groins tumescent and throbbing, we sang of the Dear Leader standing gloriously on the Mountain of Monkeys, vanquishing centrifugal force with a mighty sweep of juche.  I did pull the moist panties from my little flat-chested Kim and dragged her into the shrubbery, which was soft and cool and smelled of shrubbery, and she seized my monument and impaled herself on it, while I worked the flashlight figure of Kim Jong-il into her ttong-koo-mung and bit her yearning nipples.  We thrashed about like rabid wombats, and I lost my mind beneath the gathering purple clouds of dusk.  Then the rains came, and we were both at peace….

    The rumors of Anne Murray’s abortion in Pyongyang are unfounded.  The fetus had two heads, but neither one resembled her.

    The North Koreans will accept $500,000 for the release of Roger Angell and Ben Greenman, or $300,000 for just one of them, and that’s absolutely as low as they’re willing to go, so forget about trying to cut a better deal.  The deadline is midnight, July 1st, Pyongyang time.  If no offer is received by then, the spies will be executed by firing squad.

    Recommended vaccinations: Mucha Habermann Disease, mycosis fungoides, ichthyosis vulgaris.

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