Confronting Mount Ararat, "a mountain as perfect and unreal as a child's rendition ... startlingly exposed, as if it had no other choice but to be naked and divine," Bob Shacochis felt himself unworthy of its ascent, to say the least -- a "nicotine-fouled, underexercised" physical wreck of a 40-year-old, and a novelist to boot.
But Noah's legendary mooring, in combination with testimonials from hundreds of amateurs who've made the exhilarating trek to the 16,945-foot peak, stirred something deep within him -- "some lure irresistible to the disposition of my mortal self. I could smell it. Something not too dressy, like Reckoning, or Enlightenment." And, of course, a Juicy Assignment from Outside.
"The Big Doggie," as Mount Ararat is known in the trek trade, has been open only since 1982. Permission to scale requires no fewer than 72 official Turkish signatures. It's smack in the heart of a Kurdish stronghold dotted with military installations, perched at the place where the Soviet Union, Iran and Turkey meet, and not too far from Iraq -- a front-row seat for the Last Judgment, as Shacochis notes.
The real war here, though, is between Shacochis's soul and his limbs as they struggle up the mountainside, goaded by guides, plagued by doubts, overcome with weakness and desire. But he has his wits and notebook about him in any case, as he records the spectacle of Ararat, "a volcanic dreamscape where a wanderer was forbidden to ask for forgiveness. Massive basalt bombs peppered its flanks in all directions, fanned out like black huts at the lower altitudes but increasing in density the higher we went, until we were picking our way through huge tumbled galleries, the rocks sharply edged like broken lumps of glass."
Here, with its practical-traveler appendages, is a lovely piece of writing by the prize-winning author of "Easy in the Islands" and "The Next New World," whose reading it recommends.
It's among a feast of good writing in this February travel issue: Tom Huth kicking around the new free zones of Eastern Europe and Bill Bryson taking the measure of travel writing's mad genius Redmond O'Hanlon, to name two offerings. Outside's global chart of great adventures, the Trip-Finder, gives you listings to its hardy kind of travel: climbing the Cascades, crossing the Bering Strait, training through Guatemala, biking Kenya's big-game preserves.
Airport Insecurity Security at airports around the world has tightened considerably since Conde Nast Traveler closed its latest investigation of this lingering problem. Even so, this earlier snapshot of slipshod procedures is troubling enough to leave you profoundly unreassured.
Following the magazine's trademark sleuthing at a range of domestic and international airports, six magazine dicks in muftis were able to (1) slip carry-on luggage containing apparently bomblike devices (actually radios) through most passenger checkpoints, (2) check luggage on aircraft they didn't board (the Lockerbie technique), and (3) penetrate restricted areas of airports, including the tarmacs themselves, with relative ease.
The airlines spend $500 million a year on airport security, but the private firms they hire pay fast-food wages. The joking and fooling around by metal-detector people coincides with anyone's anecdotal experience; the indifference to interlopers not wearing official badges only yards from open cargo holds is truly shocking. In a lovely touch, one of CNT's could-be terrorists stopped a real airport employee and asked her where her badge was, and she never asked why he wasn't wearing one himself.
Very Good, Sir The fanciest U.S. hotels hire hospitality professionals these days that they're bold to call concierges. But, Rudolph Chelminski is sorry to say, they're scarcely worthy of the name, or of wearing the crossed gold keys, the international insignia of discreet and efficient service. From his world travels he has collected (for the January Smithsonian) impressive anecdotes revealing the refinement and resourcefulness that a real concierge has at his (and, of late, her) command in serving as "private secretary to a hotelful of guests."
Paul Franq of the Royal Windsor in Brussels ordered up an entire sleeper to be added to the Brussels-Milan train for a needy client who hated flying. ... Lars Henriksson in Stockholm arranged, for a customer's wedding procession, 50 limos and 10 horse-drawn carriages. ... Jose Rabadan of the Inter-Continental in Paris dispatched, on 24 hours' notice, 4,000 roses to a guest's lover in Cairo. And so on.
Chelminski writes with special relish of the concierges who rise to all manner of occasions in arranging for their guests' private amours. Andre Damonte of London's Hyatt Carlton, who is also president of the International Clefs d'Or, once mailed 12 postcards, "successively dated and inscribed with anodyne messages about London business negotiations," every day while a client went about his other affairs.
As another concierge describes the nub of his art: "I listen, but I do not hear."
Before some satisfied customer of a U.S. concierge rises up in protest, Chelminski does name some domestic superlatives: Howard Storm of San Francisco's Stanford Court Hotel, Bob Duncan of the Beverly Hills Hotel and Jack Nargil of the Four Seasons right here in Washington.
Thai One On As soon as you can read about Paradise in a magazine, chances are it will be a little less paradisiacal by the time you get there. But keep in mind Ko Samui, a tiny island off the Malay Peninsula, where you can still get behind the tourist curve -- if barely. With its fabulous beaches and $8-a-night cabanas (or slightly better, with electricity and running water if you choose), this island in the Gulf of Thailand "is pure leisure, set to a rhythm as gentle as the waves," writes Pico Iyer in the January/February Islands.
Other than hanging out -- to judge from this account -- there's absolutely nothing going on here, and nothing to see. "If you ever have any pressing needs, you can always travel to the bustling little port town of Na Thon, which features all the conveniences you could want: tattooists, ear cleaners, Scandinavian food, and mannequins with neon eyes," Iyer writes.
The beach clientele consists mainly of the enviably idle, mobile and European -- "girls with topknots, boys with dangly earrings, eager to undress and unwind." More Edenic still is Ko Phangan, the neighboring island, "Samui five years ago, and four times cheaper ... the place where the dreadlocked Swede who used to play Dylan songs on the streets of Kyoto ended up, along with the shaven-headed shaitsu girl from Angola." Eden or not, it's perhaps not the place to take your church group next year.
Another interesting piece of reading in this issue is Adam Nicolson's meditation on the three uninhabited Shiant Islands in the Hebrides, off the coast of northwestern Scotland. He is a good choice of meditator, since he owns the islands, inherited them. They're a chill and desolate trio, a rocky breeding ground to seabirds, and thus a protected place where nobody will ever build, let alone stroll, without Nicholson's leave. His essay is in part about the meaninglessness of ownership itself.
Quick Trips Good selection of "Cruises for People Who Hate Cruises" in February's Consumer Reports Travel Letter, including such tempting diversions as "Bach on Board" and such far-flung destinations as Papua New Guinea. ... Caribbean Travel & Life (January/February) looks at Ernest Hemingway's Caribbean, from Key West, which is Papaing out all over, to Bimini and Havana. ... Sedona, Ariz., is a place where otherworldly terrain and worldly commerce (mainly in art) richly coexist, to judge from Jake Page's appreciative story in the January/February National Geographic Traveler.