Not exactly Everest — a climber’s guide to Mount Monadnock

Although I’ve hiked all over the world, on occasion for weeks at a time, I’ve never been much of a climber, a fall off a cliff when I was a child probably having something to do with it. In fact, as much as I’ve done in one go may have been New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, which when I lived in Boston I climbed once a year to test my general level of fitness by how long it took me to reach the top, and remained entirely unembarrassed that someone had once summited in a snow mobile.  Except for a few cultural references, nothing about the story that follows has changed from when I wrote it in 1991. Nor has Mount Monadnock changed much, either. The only difference is my inability to remember where it was published. The Boston Globe, possibly, or Outside magazine. Anybody?

At 3,165 feet, Mount Monadnock, in the southwest corner of New Hampshire, is not exactly the Mount Everest of America. In fact, it’s not even the Mount Everest of New Hampshire. Dozens of peaks in that state are higher. And its balding dome is so easily accessibly by just about all but the bed-ridden that an estimated 125,000 people a year scale it, earning it the dubious distinction of being the most climbed mountain in America. But to ignore Monadnock in favor of more lofty, less democratic, peaks is as serious an omission as to claim an understanding of the performing arts in America without being able to describe a favorite scene from the Jackass reality series.

Climb any of the peaks in New Hampshire’s justly famous White Mountains and what you can see, for the most part, are other peaks. Climb Mount Monadnock, which stands isolated like a naughty boy in the corner of a schoolroom, and what you can see is just about all of New England. That’s partly why it’s listed in the National Register of Natural Landmarks. And that’s partly why it’s always gotten such good press, even from such literary heavies as Thoreau and Emerson, who promoted it almost as enthusiastically as that little green lizard promotes Geico.

Because downtown Boston is only about 60 miles away,  and because no camping is allowed on the mountain except at the state park campground at its base, climbing Monadnock is for most people a day trip. You can climb one of the major trails to the summit, claim you can see everything from the Hancock Tower in Boston to the pyramids in Egypt, then climb down the same way you came up. It takes a couple of hours. And if you are like a lot of other people, the chief joy you’ll get out of it, other than the view, is the descent, which on a pleasant Saturday or Sunday in the spring or fall can give you several thousand opportunities to answer condescendingly when asked by the huffing masses still on the way up how much farther it is to the top.
To turn Monadnock into a climbing adventure, give it the weekend it deserves. Drive up early in the morning from Boston or spend the night at one of the Monadnock Region’s campgrounds or country inns. Hike up Monadnock’s wooded slopes to its bare-rock summit, then down the other side to another campground or inn. The next day, hike your way back, following the network of little-used secondary and connecting trails. Along that route you will still occasionally see other hikers off in the distance, streaming along the main trails like ants after sugar. But about the only ones you’ll come face to face with are the few fellow seekers of the road less taken, and the few (slightly more numerous than the former group) who are lost. In the case of those who are lost, you can experience the enormous pleasure of becoming a hero simply by sending somebody in a direction you yourself don’t intend to go.

You can climb Mount Monadnock any time of the year. But even during the most popular times, spring and fall, you’ve got to keep an eye on the weather. Storms can make up quickly, and the dangers of exposure, especially on the bare rock of the summit, are real. Come prepared to dress like Santa.

Monadnock is certainly not Everest. It doesn’t allow you the experiences that belong only to the mountain climbing elite —  fighting altitude sickness, dangling by your pitons above eternity, and posing for gear ads. But its a pretty good bet that few superstars of climbing, while standing at a mountain’s summit, have ever brought joy to a trio of ill-prepared but not unattractive young ladies simply by offering them the gift of bottled water.


Feeling pressure of new tourism realities, Caribbean nations begin teaching parrots to speak Chinese

With reports showing that the Chinese now rank among the world’s most frequently traveled and biggest spending tourists, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CT0) has announced a bold new initiative aimed at capturing a lucrative share of that market. Nations throughout the Caribbean have begun teaching parrots the Chinese for such useful phrases as “Polly want a spring roll?”

“This has the potential to be even more successful than our campaign to attract cruise ship visitors,” said a CTO spokesperson during an unveiling ceremony which was marred only slightly when one of the parrots on display performed an act of amputation on the Prime Minister of Barbados, who had been warned not to stick his finger in the cage.

“As studies show, the Chinese far outspend cruise ship visitors,” the spokesperson said, adding that so did parrots, for that matter.

Despite its potential for success, early testing of the program has indicated there are a number of challenges to overcome, mostly relating to cultural misunderstandings.

“The major difficulty,” the spokesperson said, “has been getting the Chinese to accept that the parrots are not being offered as a menu item.”

How do you know if a restaurant serves tipic food?

You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, especially now that so many books are delivered electronically, which means they don’t actually have covers. But when looking for typical food in a foreign country, you can judge a restaurant by the sign out front.  Here’s an example of how it works in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon:

The grammatical correctness and lack of misspellings suggests the proprietors of this restaurant know too much about English to be truly well versed in the local cuisine. Look for owners who probably spent time in Britain or the U.S., and look elsewhere for an authentic meal.

 

 

 

 

 

A non-standard word order (to the English ear) and a word that, while understandable, may not appear in any language, is a step in the right direction, especially if there are no photos of the food posted out front.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Promising a local experience in the language of the country is a very positive sign, although the fact that they have to label it typical at all might give you some pause for thought. This does require the ability to recognize the word for food in the local language – or that a group of tables with place-setting on them signify a restaurant.

 

 

 

 

The real find, of course, is a restaurant with no sign out front, just a hand-written menu taped to the window – even if one of the menu items appears to be a hamburger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which brings us to what in just about everywhere in the world, is the most typical food of all.

 

Obama, Romney debate row versus wade, other cruise-travel issues

The Obama-Romney presidential debates will no doubt affect the outcome of the November election and help determine the direction of America for the next four years. But the travel humor site BobCarriesOn.com, building on its reputation for being out in front of politically-related travel news since before Washington crossed the Potomac, was able to get both men together earlier in the year for a lively discussion on issues of even more importance to many of us – issues that effect cruise travel.

To show how much the two candidates are in touch with the pulse of the American voter, the meeting took place aboard a new Italian cruise ship, the MSC Divina, which was on its maiden voyage from St. Nazaire in France through the Straits of Gibraltar to Marseille, where it would be christened before beginning a season of Mediterranean itineraries. In virtual form, Obama and Romney appeared aboard the ship as guests of the humor website’s Chief White House Correspondent, Bob Payne, who has known both men since their college days, when the three of them may or may not have been held for questioning at the U.S. border following an attempt to sneak an undocumented Irish setter into the country by strapping it to the top of a wood-paneled station wagon.

Romney accepted the invitation, according to Payne, because he felt he would be able to count it as foreign policy experience, and Obama agreed to participate in the hope he could be Photoshopped into images of the christening in such a manner that it looked as if the crowd was cheering for him.

For much of the cruise, the candidates prepped for the debate and spent time getting to know each other in a way not usually possible on the campaign trail, in large part because a shortfall in the BobCarriesOn.com travel budget made it necessary for the two men to share a cabin.

Despite the forced intimacy, the president and the former governor got along surprisingly well. Romney only once made an unkind remark when, after Obama found himself suffering from a slight touch of sea-sickness off the coast of Spain, the Republican hopeful could not help from commenting “Now that’s what I call a green president.” And Obama could not let a similar opportunity go by when, after Romney went pale during a poolside session with the Divina’s activities staff, the president said, “They are going to personally introduce us to water sliding, Mitt, not water boarding.”

The debate itself was held on the one day the Divina spent entirely at sea so that neither candidate would have to miss an opportunity for shore-side bus rides. The event was held at the ship’s pool, allowing debate attendees to multitask.  Here is a glimpse at how it went:

BCO: Imagine that the brand new Divina is far out in the Atlantic, and despite the best efforts of a shipyard workforce that spends 35 hours a week on the job, gets seven weeks of paid vacation, and retires early, the 3,502-passenger ship is leaking, and in danger of sinking. Would you allow it to be bailed out?

Obama: As a civilized society, we have a moral obligation to help out any sinking ship, at almost any cost. In return, of course, a government agency would need to take over at least 60 percent ownership, and the folks on board would have to do at least some of the bailing themselves.

Romney: Are those shipyard workers unionized?

BCO: Assume the ship is anchored in shallow water just off the French coast. You want to go ashore, but you know the news cameras are focused on you, and you know how touchy Europeans can be about environmental issues. So you want to depart in what appears to be the most earth-friendly way possible. Give us an argument for Row versus Wade.

Obama: The type of departure, or arrival, is not what’s important. What’s important is that every cruise passenger, whether paying full price for a superior ocean-view balcony suite or getting up to 82% off for an interior cabin somewhere down in the bowels of the ship, should have the freedom of choice. And it should be a private choice, between no one but the passenger and the person on the other end of the 800 line.

Romney: What Mr. Obama doesn’t tell you is that I had the same position he does. Until I changed it.

BCO:  In their promotional literature, the Italian company that owns the Divina uses the phrase “We’ve taken care of everything for you.” As you know, that includes accommodation, dining, entertainment, fitness, relaxation, and transfers, all for one price. Does that kind of European-style social welfare have a place on a cruise ship?

Obama: Around the White House we don’t think of it as European-style social welfare. We think of it as providing the kind of necessary infrastructure and services folks will remember, especially at election time.

Romney: Even transfers?

BCO: One of the features of the Divina is the MSC Yacht Club, the exclusive area of the ship where we are and where your deluxe cabin is. On occasion, however, passengers who are not Yacht Club members have been seen slipping into the Yacht Club and even availing themselves of items from the desert tray during the afternoon tea service. Should some kind of barrier be built to keep them out?

Obama: I am opposed to any kind of barrier, because as experience has shown us, no matter how high, wide, or deep it is, folks will find a way around it whenever deserts are involved, especially that chocolate-dipped biscotti the crew has been putting out.

Romney: There are other passengers on the ship?

BCO: During one of the supervised activities at the Kids Club a child falls overboard. The ship could turn around to get him but it would mean having to cut short the shopping excursion planned for the next port. Based on that scenario, what are your views on “No child left behind.”?

Obama: When considering a question of this complexity it is critical to weigh all points of view before proceeding. How long would it take to turn the ship around? Are any special discounts being offered during the shopping excursion? How much would the cruise be enhanced for passengers who prefer not to see children on board?

Romney: In my family we were brought up to believe you leave no one behind. Even if you have to tie them to the roof.

On Martinique, even pregnant persons prefer peppers

This is condensed from the first story I wrote for Bon Appetit magazine, in February 1994. It was the beginning of a long, pleasant, relationship with the magazine’s editor,  Barbara Fairchild, which ended only when she discovered, as she was bound to, that I didn’t really know which fork to use,  collected McDonald’s place mats in foreign languages,  and had lived in an apartment for six weeks before realizing the stove wasn’t hooked up.

On the Caribbean island of Martinique, at a table so close to the sand that I can plainly see what fashionable French women are not wearing to the beach this year, I judge the crabes farcis (stuffed crab) I am starting lunch with to be too peppery. But in the interest of fairness, I solicit a second opinion, from my cab driver, who is dining with me. “Good,” she says, “But not enough pepper.”

The driver, Bernadette Ductiel, who is five months pregnant with her fifth child, has signed on as my guide to help orientate me during the first part of the week I plan to spend on Martinique. Her quick, sure judgment about the crabs makes me begin to suspect something that by the end of the week I will be convinced of.

Martinique is an island where, in the finest French tradition, people love to talk about food even more than they love to talk about politics. And if there is one thing they agree on it is that to eat food the way it is meant to be eaten on Martinique, you can’t forget the pepper, by which they mean hot pepper.

“Oh goodness no,” said a local epicure I accidentally tripped over a few days later as he napped in the shade of a red, yellow, and blue fishing boat pulled up on the beach at Anses-d’Arlets. “It’s no good without the pepper.”

The food of Martinique is Creole, sometimes with a touch of Indian, but prepared with a mastery that only an island steeped in French culture could bring to the table. Typical of Martinique fare are accras, fritters made with fish, or, occasionally, vegetables. Everywhere I went they were offered to me, usually accompanied “to open your appetite,” by the traditional island drink, ti-punch, which consists of one part sugar cane syrup to four parts white rum. And after enough accras were offered to me I concluded that there is as much an art to eating them as there is to making them.

The art of eating accras is being able to judge, by experience, the exact instant at which to pop one whole into your mouth and bite down on it slowly until the hard crust collapses into the softer center, letting the flavor and just the right amount of heat flow together into your mouth and — if you’ve mastered the art — your soul. And if, as will happen, the accras are so big that you risk bringing attention to yourself by attempting to eat them in one bite, don’t become unduly concerned. The fault is not with your manners, but with the chef’s method.

Not that I spent the entire week thinking only about accras. I also gave a lot of thought to rum.

My thoughts about rum began after lunch at a restaurant located on a mountainside overlooking what’s left of Saint-Pierre, the one-time-capital of Martinique whose population of 30,000 was wiped out in less than three minutes early one morning in 1902 when Mount Pelee erupted. In order to temper the meal’s spices I followed them with a banana flambee and a glass of straight rum. The rum was  rhum vieux, old rum, dark gold in color and having a flavor reminiscent of fine brandy.

I thought about that rum (warm pleasant, glowing, thoughts) as we headed north from Saint-Pierre, toward Grand Riviere, where my plan had been to open up my appetite for future meals by walking for a mile or so along the coastal footpath that is one of Martinique’s 31 officially marked hiking trails. But considering Bernadette’s condition, and not wanting to run the risk of a pregnant woman outpacing me, I opted instead for a visit to the Museum of Rum.

The museum is on the east side of Martinique in the town of Sainte-Marie. It is run by the Plantations Saint James distillery, largest of the 14 distilleries that remain in operation from the more than 200 whose crumbling brick chimneys, ancient, rusting machinery, and witches-brew-like cauldrons can still be seen all over the island.

“The good rum comes from cane grown in the good, volcanic, soil,” said a  museum guide who took me on a brief tour that ended in the tasting room. I suppose he should know. The original Saint James distillery, located near Saint-Pierre, disappeared beneath the good volcanic soil of Mount Pelee during the 1902 eruption.

Between them, St. James and its chief rival, La Mauny, account for a majority of the rum produced on Martinique. Yet when I talked with some people who considered themselves to be rum experts (three aging sugar cane cutters I fell into conversation with in La Savane, the main square and park in the heart of Martinique’s capital city, Fort-de-France) they said that in order to meet demand St. James and La Mauny seemed to rush the process a bit. The cane cutters all agreed that for people who truly appreciate the taste of rum the smaller distilleries produced a more satisfying product. What they couldn’t agree on was which small distillery produced the most satisfying.

Which gave a focus to my remaining days on Martinique. I would attempt to discover for myself the most satisfying rum.

My quest was aided immensely by the fact that most distilleries, no matter how small, encourage visitors and reward them with a degustation gratuite, a free tasting. Wandering off from the guided tour at one distillery and admiring with a nod of my head the efficiency with which a worker was turning some valves, I even got a taste of “baby rum,” fresh out of the still, clear as spring water, and so potent that just one sip was enough to make me agree wholeheartedly with the observation of the grinning worker: “The baby rum, it kicks the hardest.”

Along the way, I dined at some of the more than 150 restaurants on the island, discovering that among my favorite dishes were calalou, a soup made with vegetables, herbs, salted pork and sea crabs, and blaff, similar to court-bouillon except that the fish is poached in a white sauce.

“Blaff?” answered a woman I was sharing a bench with on the ferry that ran to Fort-de-France. “You put your water on the fire. You put in all your seasonings. Then when your water starts boiling you put in your fish. The fish makes a sound — blaff.”

I never did find the island’s single most satisfying rum. Despite my diligence, and the willingness of many people to assist me in my quest by offering their own opinions, I could only narrow it down to my favorite four. They were Bally, Clement, Favorite, and J.M. To make a final judgment will require further research.

I did come away from my visit convinced of one thing, though. I realized it when, just before departing, I stopped for lunch at a non-descript place near the airport that obviously catered to tourists. Their red snapper fillet was good, I thought, but it needed more pepper.
 

Up to here among the mud walkers of Holland

For someone up to his knees in mud, and sinking fast, the Dutch high school student seemed unusually adept at philosophizing. “Not windmills, not wooden shoes, but this, this primordial ooze, is the essence of the Netherlands,” he said.

With a grassy, sheep-dotted outer dike of the Dutch coast well to shoreward of us, with the barrier island that was our destination still hidden in the morning haze, and with me already deeper in the mud than the high school student, I had no trouble recognizing the merit of his argument — and suggesting that we ought to get moving.

The student and I, along with two dozen of his classmates, were among the tens of thousands of people who annually participate in a distinctly Dutch and distinctly odd activity known as mud walking.

Wadlopen, is the Dutch word for it. You put on an old pair of high-topped tennis shoes that you’ve deemed absolutely valueless for any other purpose. You meet at the appointed place with a licensed guide, who has checked the tide tables to make sure the skills required of you will not include the amphibious. Then you slosh forth across the Waddenzee, or shallow sea, on a journey of up to 12 miles, out to the Frisian Islands, that will test not only your endurance but also your ability to act as a responsible adult in the face of the overwhelming urge to play in the mud.

As a sport, mud walking has been around since just after World War II, when the coastal-dwelling Frisians, who up until then had ventured afoot onto the Waddenzee with about as much enthusiasm as the three little pigs would have attended a butcher’s convention, discovered that people would actually pay money to be lead through the muck.

“It confirmed for us what we already believed — that outsiders are a strange lot,” said one local man, whose only pedestrian venture beyond the dikes had been to retrieve a cow who was in danger of being lost at sea. “But the money helped with village improvements, such as rebuilding the church, so some of us were happy to oblige.”

The most active mud walking center is Pieterburen, a mainland village from which I set out for the island Engelsmanplaat. The walk is said to be the easiest island crossing, but not by me or — I presume — by anyone who has ever done it in company with a group of high school students who think that part of the exercise is to see if they can get even the adults to tumble face down at least once.

Actually, except for keeping an eye out for kamikaze attacks from the high school students, the walking wasn’t difficult. The thickest of the mud was adjacent to the shore, in an area that was a few hundred yards wide, and the biggest difficulty was getting up the courage to take the initial plunge into it.

Beyond the first mud flat, the going was mostly across hard sand in ankle deep water. Occasionally, however, we’d come to water-filled gullies, where our guide would wade in, sometimes chest deep, to show us the way across. The guide, Willem, a university student, said that if you don’t know what you are doing the dangers of mud walking are real enough. Sometimes there is fog to contend with. Sometimes there are swift-flowing gullies that can’t be crossed. Sometimes the mud flats, even though they are seldom more than knee deep, can wear down the endurance of even those who think themselves physically fit — as police and military units on training exercises have discovered.

On this day, though, a lovely if slightly hazy one near the beginning of the May to September wadlopen season, we had no problems beyond the minor ones associated with Willem’s constant need to remind some of the students, who were burdened with the competitive type of personality that compelled them to attempt to turn every physical endeavor into an athletic contest, that the rules of wadlopen required them to remain behind the guide.

For an hour or so we slopped and squished and stumbled. Most of us were soon coated with thick, black mud at least up to our thighs, with more of it liberally caked on hands, chins, cheeks, and — most commonly — rear ends. Those few who remained unacceptably pristine for too long were nudged, tripped, or — in one case — gang tackled, until they too came in line with the acceptable community standards of cleanliness.

On Engelsmanplaat, which a storm tide could have made disappear, we ate lunches we’d carried over in knapsacks, then walked back to the mainland. As we neared the shore, where the thickest of the mud flats were, I noticed that even one of the teachers seemed to be falling down and wallowing around a bit more than in most circumstances would have been considered acceptable adult behavior.

Back on solid ground, curious to know if coming in such close contact with the essence of their national soul had produced the same kind of thought-provoking effect on the other students as it had on the knee-deep philosopher, I asked some of them what they thought of their day on the Waddenzee.

“Wonderful,” one of them said, “especially since our other choice for a class project was to visit a museum in Amsterdam.”

 

A note from Bob: This is a condensed version of a story that first appeared in the January/February 1992 issue of Islands magazine, where for more than a decade I was a Contributing Editor, specializing in stories that kept me out of the U.S. Northeast in winter. 

Bob Payne's travel news and advice since before Columbus landed at Plymouth Rock.

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