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Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page P02

BOOK: "The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer," by Eric Hansen (Pantheon Books, $24)

TARGET AUDIENCE: Travelers whose favorite memories are of the people they met.

QUICK TAKE: You probably won't find Eric Hansen on a luxury motorcoach tour. The accomplished travel writer ("Stranger in the Forest," "Orchid Fever") is more likely to show up in Pacific island villages or Malaysian jungles. Or the Harlem apartment of Madame Zoya, an elderly Russian caterer. His mental camera is focused not on landscapes but on people.

We meet Indonesian naval cadets on a tall ship, practicing the Texas Two-Step; an Indian family posing for a final portrait with a neatly groomed corpse, which is then carried off for cremation; "a man spitting his flaming dentures off the end of the wharf, as he tried to teach me how to blow fireballs with a mouthful of kerosene." Sometimes Hansen works while he travels, one time smuggling fish from the Maldives, another bathing dying men at Mother Teresa's Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. He learns, among other things, how to mend trawler nets, splice rope in the dark and "stitch my own flesh without anesthetic." Y'know, you hardly ever see tour brochures that promise that.

RANT: The title essay is the least fascinating one in the book.

RAVE: "Flaming dentures" -- just try to forget that image. -- Jerry V. Haines

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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