Wednesday, May 1, 1991

The Music-Halls of Paris

Written for European Travel & Life in 1989, published in 1991

At the mere mention of Paris, a cliché invades your starving imagination. Not the cliché about the food; the one about le music-hall. Closely related to the other Parisian cliché about the women, the image is half Toulouse-Lautrec can-can, half a more modern vision of nearly naked girls with fascination in their walk and feathers on their heads. Partly to shatter these vague ideas, partly because my French friends insisted, I recently visited four survivors: the Folies Bergere, the oldest; the Lido, the most touristic; the Crazy Horse, the most devoutly erotic; and L’Alcazar—the youngest, most creative, most deeply Parisian.

The music-halls go back more than a century. Originally they were dance halls for the public. Professional performers came on toward ten in the evening. Toulouse-Lautrec was famous one day after his first poster for the Moulin Rouge; such stars as Yves Montand, Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Josephine Baker made their names (and perhaps did their finest work) in the music-halls. Conventional wisdom holds that there was a golden age until WWII, when too much money (meaning American visitors) over-commercialized the music-halls, though what were they ever if not commercial? In the days when Paris was considered the hedonist’s capital of Europe, the music-halls were an early stop on any male’s visit. Today, too easily dismissed as fodder for tourists, one or two might still be considered necessary to an education. Meanwhile, Frenchmen who have never read her work know that the first bared breasts on a music-hall stage (the Folies Bergere, 1909) belonged to Colette.

The Folies Bergere, at age 103 arguably the oldest music-hall, has since 1927 illuminated a majestic art-deco theater whose lobby alone boasts mosaic-inlaid columns, gilded horses, and a Bal Musette accordion trio. The show thrives on the theater’s atmosphere; the lavish and lovely costumes, the insouciant mood are all from an indefinite Belle Époque—like the recreated can-can of girls in yellow and black who shake their bloomers (with the Tour Eiffel twinkling behind) to the thumping tunes of Bizet and Offenbach.

A family show, it had some daring moments and, surprisingly, as much male as female nudity, even a naked balletic pas de deux. Always famous for grand tableaus, especially for excessive decors that appear and vanish in seconds, this particular Folies en Folie ("Folies in Heat") included such stirring sights as a winter fête in the Tyrol, Venice at carnival time, four naked women in silver cowboy boots playing violins, a Viennese soirée at which Strauss creates the Blue Danube waltzes, a tribute to Josephine Baker and the Charleston, a fine abduction in a ship’s boiler room, a roller-skating duo, and a sumptuous Ancient Rome with everybody wigwagging in togas. It was rather like eating an entire dessert trolley. The Folies weren’t afraid to be a little silly, and this gave the kitsch a feeling of genuine music-hall, from a time when audiences were less jaded and in person was the only way to see something. Sadly, the talk is that the Folies may go under, though it was enthusiastically full the night I went.

The grandiose Lido, like the Moulin Rouge (now under similar management), takes the big-bang approach, so endlessly mimicked by Vegas and all the loud tourist nightclubs of the world that only its extravagance remains interesting. Electronic candles ascend and descend, an orchestra harrumphs along with a conductor; women in My Fair Lady furs, their breasts and buttocks barely showing, stroll beneath fountainous headdresses. Male dancers with toothpaste grins leap among them. Here the audience seems half foreigners, half French families from the provinces.

I sat at a table of three French boys in tuxes celebrating their school vacation. They enjoyed the inevitable salute to Broadway, the inevitable Polynesian panoramas complete with waterfall and erupting volcano, and especially the inevitable Chevalier tribute of thanking heaven for little girls who thankfully disrobe—though you can see more nudity on any French beach. Evening-dress couples descend stroboscopic staircases. An Ancient Egypt tableau features a delectable human sacrifice, a flaming inferno with a cobra, laser lights, and two camels; a pharaoh sings a torch song to a live mummy. In-between are bouncing rubberized acrobats, a genius who juggles ping-pong balls with his tongue to cha-chas, nude ice skaters, more acrobats, then some more acrobats. Each group tableau seems a finale, and the style is entirely derivative: everything but French. Like Liberace’s trousers, it is stupidity on an expensive, highly professional level.

The Crazy Horse Saloon isn’t really a music-hall. Cabaret-size, it calls itself erotic theater and boasts "the most beautiful femmes fatales in the world." Its origins lie in striptease and burlesque, but its high style is very much its own, continually under the guidance of its founder, Alain Bemardin. Since it opened in 1951, the Crazy Horse has become an institution in Paris nightlife and its lighting effects copied worldwide; faithful followers have included Dalí, Balanchine, Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse. (Woody Allen built a scene in What’s New, Pussycat? around the Crazy Horse.) Inside, the theater was surprisingly small, the stage downright tiny. It was easy to pick out the French: veterans, they were at the bar, paying less for an equal view.

How to describe such a spectacle? For nearly two hours one’s senses are blasted by variations on a single theme: eighteen naked young women with perfect bodies more individual than their faces, very close yet not close enough. This you cannot see on any beach.

After a disappointing gym-class opening the solo acts began: Bernardin christens his girls with names like Zaza Vesuvio, Charly Commando, Polly Underground, Tiny Semaphore. A brunette with foaming hair did an incandescent striptease lying against a tilted platform while op-art circles of black and silver swirled across her. (Already the newlywed American bride seated next to us looked nervous.) The Three Graces, wearing only pearls, rotated to classical music. Lina Peccadillo in space helmet and space boots flew to Venus, amid interstellar smoke. A couple of expert magicians came on for comic turns. Vanity Obelisk sang I’m a good girl and recalled affairs with "a cute ayatollah, an emir or two". The fantasy of the girl in a cage became a fantastic rhythmic ballet of a naked beauty throwing herself from bar to bar. In group numbers the girls wore multi-colored or matching wigs, which made their faces fade into mere prettiness so one could concentrate on what Kenneth Tynan called their "incredibly healthy" bodies.

I spoke with Alain Bemardin, an elegant man in his late sixties whose work evidently keeps him several decades younger (he recently married a Crazy Horse star named Lova Moor).

"In 1962 we did a Nazi parody. The music was a German military march; Bertha von Paraboum wore a G-string in the shape of a swastika. The Americans were shocked, the Germans were shocked, the French were shocked. The publicity was enormous."

I asked what it took to be a Crazy Horse girl.

"First, she must have marvelous breasts. Then, she must have trained already as a dancer; this is why we have many English girls, because they’re better dancers than the French. She must be tall, say 5’6 "or 5’7" at least. And she must be a ‘good girl’. I don’t find them, they find me. From all over Europe. We have also girls from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Russia; from Poland, Hungary, Romania. Since we have a corps of twenty-four girls, and they average about five years with us, we take about five new girls a year. Afterward they might become singers, or dancers on TV. Others get married. But everyone knows there’s no question of meeting the girls. The girls know and the clients know."

The net effect is a stunning, sublime eroticism; the tone is never leering, more a kind of holy lasciviousness. One marvels at the imaginative lighting and is disappointed by the acts which too easily fall short. But one goes for the superb girls, after all.

L’Alcazar, which calls itself proudly "Le Plus Parisien des Spectacles," is the music-hall least known to foreigners. Less than ten per cent of its clients are tourists and indeed, someone who doesn’t speak French will miss some good jokes. Here I found at last the creativity, wit, surprise, and joie de vivre that were the reasons the original music halls flourished.

The immediate difference, in the opening, was the sense of many characters: a grande dame, a vedette, a singing curé, a floating transvestite, a flamenco dancer. The intimacy of the place was one of the more cunning aspects of the show; the moment a young emcee came on, the waiters began to shout and scoff. Obligingly he introduced them as "our real stars" and insisted they come up onstage to do a disgruntled cancan, balancing their trays.

To the emphatic "The minute you walked in the joint. . ." there was a retelling of the famous murderer Landru, who burned beautiful widows in his oven. In L’Alcazar’s witty version, five widows stride on in black and do a competitive strip while Landru, looking suspiciously like Toulouse-Lautrec, covetously collects their black silk undergarments. ("Look!" calls out one waiter. "She lost her trousers!") The proud widows walk naked across the front tables then hop willingly into Landru’s oven. He closes it on all five but instead of turning up the flames—hops in after them.

A Cotton Club scene (the emcee announced that Coppola had been there the night before, directing) was a brilliantly detailed period piece. And for the first time in my music-hall week, the inevitable can-can recreation that followed was wonderful: the frou-frou girls protesting, waving their legs, squealing. ("Pigs!" screamed a waiter. "Please," implored the emcee.)

And now an homage to the tango. Before you: Buenos Aires, suggested by a street scene of men inventing a few steps for each other as women joined them, to the strains of accordion and violin. (The musical arrangements here were in a class of their own.)

An enormous man named Badabou came on dressed as Ines de la Fressange, the Chanel model. Unspeakably done up in wig, slinky dress, and plumed gloves, he mussed the hair of several men in the audience. ("Old friends?" suggested a waiter.) After a salute to Edith Piaf (an impersonation that stayed on the side of tribute) the emcee improvised a routine with—or against—a famous French radio personality in the audience. A dignified black singer in tails, tap-dancing brilliantly, explained "what they mean when they say gay. . . Paree." Blindfolded, the emcee did a mock ESP act with someone in the audience, ignoring her denials and protests.

To Sayonara, a samurai opera buffa: Badabou in a blue kimono and her warrior paramour crashed around the stage in a romantic, martial-arts pas de deux, using poles, daggers, and swords to demonstrate their love while silly geishas twirled umbrellas.

For Alice in Playback-land a schoolgirl listening to her radio summons up an Elvis impersonator, followed chronologically by an Alice Cooper and gang; a Boy George; Whitney Houston and soul singers; then Badabou as Madonna, followed by—James Brown!—while mini-skirted girls frug away with men in inflatable suits that suddenly inflate out of control. Prince struts on, accompanied by chicks in yellow leather and black stockings, then Michael Jackson. The schoolgirl remains bewildered.

Like many Alcazar acts, Alice works as tribute and very funny parody simultaneously. Afterward I spoke with the director and choreographer, Dominique Conte, about L’Alcazar’s special atmosphere. "What’s important is that the performers are involved with the spectators. This is very Parisian; the intimacy is what makes the real camembert."

She’d worked at the Folies for five years—"a good school." L’Alcazar had begun in 1968, "the year of France’s second revolution. Many numbers were derisive, like a nude girl singing in a bath with pictures of politicians. Now people don’t go to cabarets so much, it’s less a reflex, people think they’re dirty. We often do matinees for groups of elderly at low prices. They love to see the old days evoked, as in the Piaf songs. I try for fifty percent comedy; I want people at least to smile. One must always turn things upside down, otherwise it’s boring. You have to modernize traditions and hold on to them at the same time. The artists here stay sometimes a year, sometimes four years. The problem now is that young people would rather work at videos, or ads. The danseuse myth is finished. Here it takes a special esprit and fourteen hours’ work a day. I like tenacious people; I’m lucky to have some who wanted to do this all their lives."

Last year an effort to do L’Alcazar in New York failed; the promoters wanted to reproduce the idea and the costumes, not bring over the show and the incomparable performers. "They couldn’t keep their hands off it. In the end it wasn’t French. I wanted to export the real camembert, but it wasn’t to be." To this visitor, it was gratifying to find in the music-halls something still too Parisian to export.

Friday, March 15, 1991

Freighter to Paradise

I went to the Marquesas in March 1991, a surreal heaven after the concrete hell of Tahiti. On this voyage I met fellow passenger Ron Wright, whose superb book on Fiji I'd just read. Both of us put the actual figure of Falchetto in novels: he in Henderson's Spear (2001), I in The Land of Later On (2010). I wrote this article for European Travel & Life. Imagine my surprise at finding an article on the Marquesas by my buddy Paul Theroux in the magazine while I was at work on my own! The editor, more familiar with Europe, had lost track. This piece has never been published.

Anyone who is tired of islands is tired of life. Stevenson wrote that his first South Sea Island touched “a virginity of sense”—and even after journeying widely in the South Pacific, my first sight of the Marquesas was a profound awakening. Here were no coral reefs, no transparent lagoons and soft islets on the horizon, but a more savage beauty. Lush valleys swept up in a delirium of palms to sheer black pillars and weird spires that loomed like the towers of a surreal cathedral. Clouds hugged the highest spears of rock; wild waters surged about the volcanic coast and exploded into mist off its folds. The veined, massive body of the island lay like animals tumbled across each other in round sleep. I’d sailed nearly a thousand miles from Tahiti by copra freighter for this view.

It is ninety years since Gauguin came to the Marquesas to die and one hundred fifty years since Melville had his beginnings here as a writer. The dozen Marquesas are among the most unknown and isolated islands on earth. A fragrant world unto themselves, they shelter under the territorial umbrella of French Polynesia, along with the Austral, Gambier, Tuamotu, and Society Islands—130 in all, administered from Tahiti, spread over ocean as big as Europe, with Papeete bearing the brunt of half the entire population and France footing the bill to keep the islands going in return for atomic test sites in the southern Tuamotus. All the islands are served by copra freighters which carry cargo and passengers in return for dried coconut meat. These ships are notorious for their discomfort, dismal food, and stench, but the Marquesas are served by an exception. The Aranui (“Great Road”) is 1/4 spotlessly comfortable passenger ship, 3/4 hardworking freighter, and resembles no other copra freighter in the Pacific.

My fellow passengers for the 17-day voyage were as motley as the cargo: mainly French and American, a few Brits, a New Zealander, a Pole, a few Canadians. There were three French doctors, two engineers, a geologist; a banker with his Tahitian wife; an antiquary from Nice, a Parisian restorer of 19th century paintings; from the States, a directress of an artists’ colony, a literature professor, a boating-magazine publisher, and a Montana farmer.

The Marquesas lie three days’ steady sail from Papeete, Tahiti’s capital. Few first visitors are prepared for Papeete—once a sleepy port, now the busiest city in the South Pacific islands, “Gauguin on a motorbike.” We spent a full day on the wharf, Tahitian mountains pastel behind the tumbling city, watching muscular sailors load crate after crate that were raised by the ship’s crane and stowed in the ship’s enormous belly. The hold swallowed everything from tractors and cars to local Hinano beer and soap; and no wonder, for the 5000-ton Aranui keeps these islands alive. The ship was roughly the length of a football field, German-built twenty years ago, and refitted extensively two years ago to carry around 1500 tons of freight and a maximum of eighty cabin passengers. On an aft deck about a dozen others slept very comfortably and companionably, enjoying the same French cooking and wines, local fish and fruits, and well-guided shore explorations as everyone else at half price.

The Aranui carried about thirty sailors, mostly hard-working Marquesans like Timau, or Teiki; but all French Polynesia was there, from Toko of the Tuamotus to Pipier from the Australs. Tino from Papeete was the supercargo and supervised all the loading. They worked at maximum strength from dawn till midnight, scrambling onto fully-loaded palettes that swung down to a tossing whale-boat; or leaping in heavy waves, launching themselves ten feet from the gunwales up to a slippery wharf as if stepping up a single stair.

A day’s sea passage brought us to the Tuamotus, the largest archipelago of coral atolls in the world. Once known as the Low or Dangerous Archipelago because of their treacherous currents and reefs, these atolls have an unimaginable simplicity: long ribbons of sand and palm trees, often only a quarter mile across and ten feet above the surface. Sparsely populated, tremendously vulnerable to hurricanes, some have only a family or two and many are uninhabited. They are all beach, islands more of sea than of land, looping in a circle around gigantic interior lagoons that sometimes have perfect passes from the ocean. (Rangiroa’s lagoon, which we entered on our way back, could hold the entire island of Tahiti.) At dawn we passed Arutua and Apataki; while supplies were unloaded at Takapoto we snorkeled the afternoon away in the lagoon by the stilt-built shacks of perliers, for the Tuamotus survive by undersea farming of black pearls. It was a night and day and night’s sea passage before we reached the Marquesas, six of which are inhabited, six not. We saw no other ships.

On Ua Pou, our first Marquesan landfall, at Hakahau we walked up a winding trail that split the spine of the island. At the summit, by a lone cross I had a view across tumultuous valleys and soaring peaks belted by clouds. Known as “The Cathedrals” for its spires which are extreme even in the Marquesas, Ua Pou was the subject of a song by Jacques Brel.

That afternoon the Aranui slipped around the coast to Hakehatau, Ua Pou’s smallest village (pop. 199). This was our first entry via a double-ended whale-boat, which we reached by going down a metal gangplank hung along the ship’s side. At the dock a volleyball game was going on near a myriad of rock pools carved by tides from the lap of the cliffs. I met the Monsignor Le Cleach, a retired Boston priest who, after twenty years in the Marquesas, had translated the New Testament into Marquesan and was now working on the Old Testament. When I pointed out how busy the little village seemed, the Monsignor laughed and said, “But these islands are empty! We have only seven persons per square mile in the Marquesas.”

The Marquesas have not always been so unpeopled. The Te Fenua Enata (“The Land of Men”)—originally settled a century or two before Christ in the first wave of Polynesian expansion—had, despite their isolation, flourished. The culture, one of the most developed and refined in the Pacific, was probably at its height when the Europeans arrived in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Spanish, French, American, and English explorers, followed by their countries’ navies, brought death by military means on a small scale and death by imported disease on an unprecedented scale. As one historian wrote, “The age of exploration was the age of contamination.” By 1883, the population had fallen from a height of perhaps 150,000 to less than 5,000, the result of smallpox, tuberculosis,  and venereal diseases. By this century only 1,500 Marquesans were left. Though the population hovers around 6,000 today, European disease, muskets, and missionaries had achieved the near-total destruction of Marquesan culture.

Until the European invasion, the Marquesans surpassed all other Polynesians in their carved stone figures, some eight feet high (second only to those of Easter Island, which was settled, like Hawaii, by voyaging Marquesans). They also carried farther the elaborate art of tattoo. Men were entirely covered (even their heads) with intricate geometric designs representing Marquesan history, legends, and genealogies. Except for their faces, women might be just as decorated, and anthropologists visiting in 1920 still found old Marquesans tattooed from head to foot. Tattooing was done slowly and painfully with bone combs dipped in an ink of soot or pulverized charcoal, then given a sharp blow with a tapping stick to knock the teeth of the comb into the wound. To set off the designs, they wore scanty coverings of white tapa bark-cloth, flower and feather headdresses and mother-of-pearl ornaments.

They lived in open houses of breadfruit or palm logs, with thatched roofs sloping at the back. The houses were built on huge paepae, or stone platforms, which evoke the enormous building projects of Central American peoples like the Maya. These paepae are everywhere in Marquesan valleys, composed of massive boulders of up to several tons each fitted ingeniously into place, often built ten feet high to compensate for a valley’s slope. They built small fishing and large war canoes, stabilized with outriggers, powered by large carved paddles or sails. They caught sharks with nooses and used the teeth to carve ornate wooden drums and nose flutes. It was a very rare polyandrous society—women took several husbands.

Marquesans are still fond of tattooing, and they maintain resolutely their own language, related to but very different from Tahitian. (Unlike most destroyed societies, they have held onto title to their land and their language.) As a people they are probably hardier and perhaps more child-like, less invaded by the outside world’s personality, than other Polynesians. And unlike the rest of largely-Protestant French Polynesia, the Marquesas are 95% Catholic. Despite the missionaries’ best efforts, couples often live together twenty years before getting married.

Fatu Hiva, the most eastward island, was the first discovered (Captain de Mendena of Spain, 1595). It receives the most rainfall and remains a lusher world apart even within the group. With about 500 people divided between two villages isolated by the difficult coast, (and with some hints of a traditional enmity between them), the island’s only outside contact is with passing ships.

At dawn we passed Hanavave, a village pocketed in the Bay of Virgins, perhaps the loveliest bay in all the Marquesas, with black basalt pillars rising from mango groves and palm beds, the light majestic across the glowing cliffs and trees. We hugged the coast until the bay and village of Omoa. In niches in the cliffs hung half-ruined wooden stages with bananas drying, a local delicacy. A whale-boat brought us in to a small stone quay, spray crashing and churning over it—the sailors in their plastic granny-shoes leaping the height of a man to land surely. A brief trail led into Omoa: a grey-black beach with boys surfing on makeshift boards in the shallows, a church, a soccer field with a brown horse, and the whole village running to see what had been sent and unloaded.

Fatu Hiva is the principal island still making tapa cloth. Here we saw women busy at the complicated process by which mulberry or breadfruit bark is pried and stripped from a branch, pounded, wetted, stretched, dried, cut; the designs pencil-sketched or stencilled on the cloth, then inked-in. Unlike, say, Tongans, Fijians, and Samoans, the earlier Marquesans were notable for rarely decorating tapa at all except for religious or chiefly fabrics.

I walked down the village path, past simple houses in lavender and yellow with ruined stone paepae in their neat gardens. A bare-chested man standing outside one house beckoned me in—a carver of rosewood ukeleles. I suggested he wander the quarter mile down the village path, as several fellow passengers wanted to buy a Marquesan ukelele. He said with a mild shrug, “It’s a bit of trouble to go find them, no? But tell them where I live.”

On my way back I fell into step with a woman who asked what I thought of the island. I said it was the most beautiful I’d seen.

She said, “If you say so. We wouldn’t know. We stay here.”

I asked if she wished they had an airstrip.

She laughed. “What do we want an airstrip for? Then we’ll have all those sick people coming in on the aeroplane!”

By sick people she meant tourists.

“How do you make a living here?”

“Copra,” she said. “Fish. Tapa cloth. Some people carve wood. What else is there to do here?” She smiled. “There’s nothing else.”

The sea passage by night to Nuku Hiva was exhilarating, the ship’s body like a horse plunging ahead by moonlight, the huge island gradually filling more and more of the immense sky with a black silhouette. Then came the lone lights of the harbor quay, for in the Marquesas people turn in early. Electricity is always at a premium; one of the freighter’s most important cargos was oil drums of generator fuel. In the morning I awakened to the unloading and the broad horseshoe bay of Taiohae, the largest town of the Marquesas, large enough to have a post office and a jail—even though the prisoners are given keys and only have to spend nights there.

From the highest point of Nuku Hiva, up a difficult winding road, I looked past brooding foreheads of cloud across valleys proceeding in green disorder to unexpected farther views of the blue Pacific and forested pillars and crags, all so miragelike that at times I couldn’t tell if I was looking at clouds or sea or mountains. I stood on a ridge of the Taipivai Valley. Here in July, 1842, a young sailor named Herman Melville, deserting his unsuccessful whaling ship the Acushnet, gingerly made his way down with a comrade, looking for a safer valley one ridge over. Instead he found himself among the most dangerous and warlike tribe in Nuku Hiva, the Taipis. Melville’s three or four weeks of friendly imprisonment among them (he claimed it was four months) inspired his first book, Typee, a fictionalized memoir and his most successful work in his lifetime.

As we descended by another rough road, the valley opened like a palm-forested rib cage with a river meandering thinly at the bottom, kept out of sight by impenetrable trees. At the valley’s foot the river flowed past the mile or so of village and became a wider creek opening to the bay and the sea. Inland, a makeshift track sliced across the valley’s ribs from the point where the village and the river parted company. The track wound tortuously through solid wilderness where Melville had wandered, all the way to the valley’s head. There two slender waterfalls hung down from mountains flattened by clouds, with trees tracing their heights like troops en masse.

I wanted a better idea of Melville’s terrain, and at the edge of the village I got lucky and fell into conversation with Jean Baptiste Falchetto, a light-skinned, burly man in his sixties with a headlong gait, a wooden cross dangling at his neck, and a face of great vivacity. At first I took him for a missionary half gone native; he denied this but admitted he’d had several visions. He spoke a native French, a bit garbled by being here so long, but the accent was unmistakably southern France. He had come as a boy, brought by his father Sebastien, a beekeeper in Nice, back in 1936. His father’s lungs had been damaged by gas in World War I and, given a choice of France’s overseas colonies to settle in for his health, he’d come out here. Falchetto lived on Ua Pou, but he had grown up in the Taipivai Valley and returned for a few weeks’ stay on behalf of his late wife, a Taipi woman who’d died a month earlier. One of Falchetto’s daughters ran housekeeping on the ship.

We followed the track by the jungle to the head of the valley and the twin cascades. Here Melville—who plagiarized chunks of Typee with verve and style—claimed he made his difficult way down. Astute scholars question how many of his so-called adventures were actually his own experiences, but it is difficult to be in the Taipivai Valley and not be persuaded by much of Melville’s narrative. The valley slopes on both sides were littered with more ruined black paepae, stone-house foundations, than I’d seen elsewhere, supporting the idea of a once-huge population.

Even in Melville’s time, every tribe was at war with its neighbors, rarely for territory, generally for sacrificial victims. Battles were fought with slings, spears, war clubs, and heavy stones. There was much cannibalism, and the skulls of enemies were decorated and preserved. Usually each tribe had its own valley. By early this century Taipivai, once home to perhaps 10,000 Taipis, had only a few families left.

Fired by the idea of searching for Melville, and perhaps rediscovering trails and paepae he’d known as a boy, Falchetto ran me ragged. Barefoot, he clambered down the steep jungled hillside, under and over all muscular vegetation, with such agility that, scrambling after and thirty years younger, I couldn’t keep up. I caught him where the ground levelled into a well-made winding path through dense trees—the ancient Taipi road of black rocks, in use until two decades ago. We went scrambling again and here, just below the ancient road and following the tiny trickling river for mile after mile, were the endless and imposing ruins of the Taipis whose last era Melville caught. Their staggering paepae were made of carefully-fitted boulders, some the size of a small car, moved down from the cliffs where they’d been cut and lifted into place without the use of a wheel.

We spent a good two hours exploring the mosquito-haunted and vine-choked stone metropoli. Here, in shaded pools, Melville had bathed with the lovely nude Fayaway, a dream of a Marquesan girl whose image—invented, half-invented, or not—inflamed the U.S. and British imaginations, made Typee a bestseller, and sent dozens of hopeful painters to the South Seas long before Gauguin. It is hard now to comprehend how steadily Melville’s career went downhill. Moby-Dick was considered a disaster and nearly finished him, and when Melville died in 1891, he hadn’t published a novel in 35 years, The New York Times spelled his name wrong, and his only remaining fame was as the man who had lived among cannibals. He was, in fact, one of hundreds of vagabond sailors the Marquesas took in; many families are descendants of deserters. The difference is that Melville wrote and published, without fear of bitterly criticizing missionaries or Western powers. “Thrice happy,” he wrote, “are they who, inhabiting some yet undiscovered island in the midst of the ocean, have never been brought into contaminating contact with the white man.” Stevenson, trailing Melville in 1889, was more succinct: “Death,” he wrote, “coming in like a tide.”

Later Falchetto led me to three enormous platforms of grey-black rocks in a glade high up the valley slope, a temple marae with twelve tikis—divine statues of obese men clutching their bellies, phalli dangling down, by women with great breasts and welcoming bodies. I could only assume this was the tabu, sacred marae that Melville wasn’t allowed to see till the end of his stay.

By the river the small village of Taipivai was flourishing, lined with banana, frangipani, and mango trees. A massive hillside of palms swept back from a pale blue wooden church with a rust-red tin roof and two hearts above the door. The whale-boats came up the creek to load the month’s copra sacks and, the tide going out, became too laden for the shallows and got stuck. We got out and helped push, and as twilight settled down we roared into the bay of open sea, past the dark beach where Melville had been rescued, to where the ship similarly awaited us.

Hatiheu’s square symmetrical bay with crashing six-foot surf was overlooked by a white statue of the Virgin, so high it was only a tiny white doll against the green. Put up on a black basalt pillar nearly a century ago by the first priest here, it was brought down painstakingly every year to be repainted. The mayor, a woman named Yvonne, ran a restaurant beside her general store and house, where she laid on a Marquesan feast: pig baked in a ground oven beneath leaves; marinated fish; fried tuna steaks; and kaaku—Melville’s favorite, breadfruit pounded into a dough and soaked in coconut milk. To make poipoi, a fermented paste, the women still pummelled the breadfruit with a stone pounder of ancient design. We were all given crowns of flowers to wear through the meal and the music that went on all afternoon. Later a boat-hand told me, “On one voyage at Hatiheu people were too drunk to get out of the whale-boat and up the ladder, so we lifted them up by crane in copra sacks.”

At Hiva Oa the Aranui could actually dock, just along the coast of prodigious mountains, at one end of the vast Bay of Traitors with an islet in its center. The second largest island, this was where the Frenchman Gauguin, who painted Polynesia for everyone forever, came to live at the turn of the century, and where little more than a decade ago the Belgian singer Jacques Brel made his home. Both came in the knowledge they were dying, and buried twenty paces from each other, they share a final view.

Atuona was, in Marquesan terms, a bustling town, with nearly a thousand inhabitants. Going to the cemetery, the road winds up the valley, past the small, squat, zinc-roofed wooden house Brel rented, surrounded by orchids in his day, still with the small pool he installed. Gauguin’s simple grave lies beneath a white frangipani tree, a single stone with the name and “1903” in white, and looks out over a rugged coastline and surf crashing on the beach where he often painted. No cross surmounts the grave. Instead a reproduction of his own pagan androgynous figure, Oviri-moe-aihere (“The Savage who sleeps in the wild forest”), stands beside him on a pedestal, a god/goddess charged with death. The gravestone, a round block of clay sculpted by Gauguin, was found in the artist’s studio and set in place by a friend, Tioka, who carved in the name and date. More than most, Gauguin was always actively shaping his gravestone.

Gauguin first arrived in Tahiti in 1891. Six months later he was already thinking about abandoning it for the Marquesas, where life would be less expensive, less civilized (“I am a savage,” he wrote repeatedly), and he would have a chance to study Polynesian art, which he thought might’ve survived in the Marquesas. By the time he actually made the move, in September 1901, he had been back to and returned from France in frustration (1893-5) and gotten fed up again with Tahiti. Syphilitic, dependent on laudanum and morphine, tormented with eczema, walking with great difficulty, he knew he was near the end. He would have twenty months on Hiva Oa.

And yet in his Marquesan period, Gaughin lived comfortably off a contract with a Paris dealer—his first near-affluence since throwing off his life as a stockbroker eighteen years earlier to become an artist. He worked all day, and his output in this time is astonishing for its variety of themes. He purchased a horse trap, the only vehicle in the Marquesas. He refused to pay his taxes and encouraged his neighbors to do the same; got the locals drunk and was sentenced to three months’ prison for disorderly conduct; even tried to convince girls to avoid attending the convent school and visit him instead. His paintings had more of a fable in them than ever, like “Riders On the Beach” showing two Marquesan horsemen with two spirit figures beside them. When he died in May 1903, either from an overdose of morphine or a heart attack, his neighbor Tioka bit him on the head—the Marquesan way of verifying death. The shopkeeper across the road bought Gauguin’s house (perhaps his Marquesan masterpiece, for Gauguin did as much wood-carving as painting) and tore it down. Most of the contents were auctioned off in Papeete. (The well-known story that a last, unfinished painting on his easel was a Brittany village under snow is a fabrication.)

I went looking for Gauguin’s house-site. It lay between the old Catholic mission and the Protestant church, and in a sense it was Gauguin’s largest work of art. He called it his “Maison de Jouir” (House of Pleasure) and decorated it with elaborate wood-carved panels, pornographic photographs, and, of course, his paintings.

I found the site across from a decrepit and lovely grey-green trading-post stocked to the rafters, with a shaded colonial balcony, where Gauguin had grocery-shopped and been be-friended by the American owner. Inside, in one corner, hung an antique clock. There is a certain mystique about this clock, so I asked.

“Yes, m’sieu, it was the clock of Monsieur Gauguin.”

“How long has it been here?”

“Since he died, I suppose.”

But it was simply another old clock. Across the road a gentle woman named Catherine pointed out the glade of palms where Gauguin’s house had stood. When I mentioned the controversial clock, she shook her head. “Nothing of Gauguin’s is still here,” she said. “Except Gauguin.”

Until recently that hadn’t been so. The kind Monsignor on Ua Pou had told me about Gauguin’s Marquesan daughter, born in 1902, who died two years ago on Hiva Oa. Her mother, age fifteen, left Gauguin when she got pregnant and never allowed him to see his daughter.

The Monsignor had also known Brel, the French singer and composer whose verbal deftness, by turns tender or sarcastic, loses much of its bite in translation. “He was a turbulent, sympathetic man,” said the Monsignor. “A poetic man, even in daily conversation. And tormented by the fate he knew was coming: cancer.”

Brel sailed here on his boat with his wife Maddly, a Guadeloupian, in 1976. They liked the Marquesans’ friendly indifference, and soon rented their modest bungalow with the convent school below, Gauguin buried above. Brel’s talents as a mimic were popular with Marquesans, expert mimics themselves. A qualified pilot, he had his small plane brought to the island and helped out in an emergency or by bringing passengers, mail, and medicine from Papeete. He also brought out a big open-air screen and feature films for the locals.

In August 1977 he went back to Paris to record. On his return he asked the convent girls up to his house to hear the suite Les Marquises, which mentions them—“songs of love that the sisters don’t know they don’t know.” His lung troubles ever increasing, in July 1978 he went back to France for treatment and died there in October, aged 49. He was brought back to Atuona for burial; his grave’s plaque shows him and Maddly. Les Marquises, the last song on his last record, captured the Marquesan state of mind:

They speak of death as you would speak of a fruit
They look at the sea as you would look at a garden well
And because there is no breeze, time stands still
In the Marquesas...
The pirogues go, the pirogues come
And only the oldest will remember me —
Do you want me to say it? Lament is never allowed
In the Marquesas....

Our society deifies its most popular artists; in the Marquesas, the gods took the form of men. At Puamau, on Hiva Oa, we went ashore to see a marae (temple) glade of the largest tikis in French Polynesia: one upended, two standing beheaded, the heads lying nearby. All had been castrated by the missionaries. The largest, with big saucer eyes looking out from every angle, stands triumphant. Nearby was a squat horizontal figure with a cartoon body that was nearly all smiling head, its meaning obscure—flying or swimming or giving birth. Just down the road, at the edge of someone’s garden, was the sacred paepae and now the grave of the valley’s last queen, Te Haumoenoa, who died around 1900. She was buried along with the bicycle given her by a French sailor, the first bicycle in the Marquesas.

The island of Tahuata, with 500 people spread over several bays and villages, lay only a few miles from Hiva Oa. An hour’s sea passage and an hour out of dream: the sharp-cut rough coast swooped on by wraiths of clouds, the deep sea worrying at the majestic flanks of the mountains beneath the slopes where wild horses grazed. Dolphins played about the ship. Pale desolate beaches appeared in tiny fiords, and suddenly we nosed into the small bay of Vaitahu—improbable, the sense of humans at all in this deserted beauty.

At the little landing-stage for the whale-boat the waters whirled furiously around barely submerged rocks; all the same, the boys pushed each other in and went leaping after. Vaitahu was an old white church, a new church of stone arches and polished-wood gables with a wood sculpture of the Virgin set in the steeple, a hillside punctuated by the ruins of an old French fort, small houses like terse comments on the landscape; little else.

Such a small place had suffered more than its share of European imperialism. It was here that the first missionaries had arrived in the Marquesas, in 1838. Tahuata then was 500 people, in several villages. Captain Halley landed in 1842, under Admiral Petit-Thouars, and annexed the island as a French protectorate—before Tahiti, in fact. A small dispute with the chief, who signed the treaty then retreated his people up the valley, rapidly escalated into a series of battles that ended with 200 Marquesans and the French captain dead and the chief’s power devalued. Such scenes would be repeated, over the next century and under different flags, on other islands.

Here the Aranui bought lemons, forty-pound frozen tuna, bananas, and burlap sacks of copra. By now I enjoyed the sickly-sweet smell of the dried coconut meat that, massed in heavy sacks, bullies all other scents for a quarter-mile. (For copra, France pays nearly 4 francs per kilo, even though the commercial price is only 1 franc.) On the stone landing-stage were piled the staples Aranui was selling to the village, along with the fuel: soy sauce, bags of cement, washing powder, spaghetti sauce, crackers, noodles, cheese, glassware, chicken legs (whole), and mackerel (in cans).

What would it be like, I wondered, to stay on here when the monthly ship left, bearing all its commerce and excitement away? It was evident we were seeing these quiet communities on the busiest day of the month, when the hand of the world touched an isolated village for a few hours, then withdrew. How would it be to watch the village return to its old round of hours, the children going by small boat to the other island for school, the daily sense of slow nothing peacefully happening except for the local arguments and gossips, the news by radio from Tahiti every night, the occasional boat putting in, the more occasional births and deaths?

Back in the village, a boy on a bicycle much too big for him pedalled in circles by a stream while a horse watched with infinite patience. Hibiscus blossoms and sand blew everywhere. That evening we sailed down the coast and anchored so the crew could fish.

At dawn we neared the spartan coast of Ua Huka; light seeped across the ocean, giving faces to the island’s shadowy profiles. Ua Huka was unlike the other five inhabited Marquesas. Barer, the scalped vegetation looked almost Mediterranean. The people had an appropriate dynamism. Vaipae had a small museum, run by Joseph Vaatete, one of the preeminent woodcarvers in the Pacific. This touching little museum at the end of the world was an assemblage of old photos, shells, stone artifacts, and Joseph’s recreations of old Marquesan objects: oars, hoes, war clubs; baskets carved of wood imitating every filigreed hair on a palm leaf; elaborate stilts with heads carved on the stirrups. “An old man in Nuku Hiva taught me how to carve,” he said. “With the stilts, the object was to balance on one stilt while knocking the other man’s stilts from under him. Or else they ran races. Sometimes we still do.”

In a four-wheel drive truck we bounced along a track that mounted steeply near the sea. Wild horses watched us pass. In Hokatu were more woodcarvers, and men playing boules with silver balls. At Hane, after the usual extravagant Marquesan banquet, we hiked through mud up a steep trail to a marae with three fine tikis in the midst of jungle, discovered only a few years ago.

When we came down from the palms the surf was rolling in with power to the pebbly beach and little boys were tossing a soccer ball and leaping on each other. The ship was still at other bays, so we spent the afternoon playing in the surf. These boys thought nothing of leaping through eight-foot waves and being dashed on the rocks if it would gain them the ball; we would watch five or six of them leap and go under, all refusing to relinquish their grip, get pounded on the rocks and come up grinning and shouting.

When afternoon waned we retreated from the water to a field and a soccer game with the big boys. Exhilarated, we barely noticed a light rain had begun to fall. The ship rounded the cape, lit up magnificently, and whale-boats rode into shore to get us. The surf was so rough that sailors had to carry several passengers out to the whale-boats like babes in arms as night came swiftly down.

It is hard to know what to make of the Marquesas; they seem to carry a meaning far beyond themselves. Rising in the farthest reaches of the Pacific, inhabited by a rugged and dignified people with a forgotten past, their spires of blasted rock and green-jungled hills, their lost bays, shattered capes, and unanimous sunsets still impart an ancient wonder. They are as strange as anywhere on earth, a vision of powerful and uncorrupted beauty that the imagination comes to humbly and leaves unwillingly. No one can sail among them and emerge unchanged.

Saturday, March 2, 1991

Aphrodisiacs of the East

Written for U.S. Gentlemen's Quarterly in early 1991. 

Having recently recovered from a sojourn in the Levant investigating the current status of belly dancing, and with some time on my hands, I decided to undertake a journey of considerably greater duration, scope, and scientific magnitude, a voyage deep into the very navel of Oriental wisdom:  those potions and pellets devoted to inspiring the bedroom arts.  Envisaging a selfless quest that would take me through the seedy alleys and steamy fleshpots of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, and Thailand, I wired ahead to my man in Calcutta to pack my steamer trunks and prepare letters of credit, letters of transit, and letters of introduction.  I then took passage east in full tropical kit and settled down to the prospect of several months’ arduous research.

As Aristotle remarks somewhere, the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.  Let us begin by defining broadly what we mean by aphrodisiacs, those of Southeast Asia in particular.  I will not speak here of the sudsy pleasures of the wriggling Bangkok masseuses, nor of any other live specimens.  As Aristotle might’ve added had he been better travelled, the first quality of a good aphrodisiac is that, once located, you can conveniently bring it home without violating any customs regulations.

Now you might well argue (as the Chinese have for centuries) the sexual virtues of shark’s fin soup.  You might equally argue the similar properties of an expensive soup made from rare birds’ nests plucked, at great danger, from the dizzying heights of Thai island caves by daring men scaling rotten lianas.  But what good are such delicacies if you have to fly a woman ten thousand miles to find them reliably on a menu?  And then run the risk of her not ordering them?  No, a good aphrodisiac should fit in an effective quantity into one’s vest pocket.  My own personal rule of thumb is that it should at the very least be more portable than the person for whom it is intended.

I hope I may be permitted, in the interests of scholarly discussion, to include in this modest study not only those items of seduction, but also those of mutual enhancement, and finally, those of self-reinforcement.  Lest this latter category embarrass a few readers, let us remember that even the luscious Kissy Suzuki had to use a cunning Japanese mixture of electrocuted frog’s sweat and powder of dried lizard to revive an inactive James Bond in You Only Live Twice.

Prior to embarking for the Orient, I took the trouble to call upon an old school chum who has worked for some years in the arcane corners of the legitimate pharmaceuticals industry.  Before tracking down some aged apothecary in Hua Hin, I reasoned, why not see what Western medicine had to offer in the way of aphrodisiacs?  It is all very well (I pointed out to my friend) to be able to put a man on the moon, but what good is modern technology if it can’t come up with a foolproof elixir, a few drops of which will instantly turn the person of choice into a willing, even eager, sexual slave?

“Precious little use, bub,” was his quick reply.  “There is one item we’ve come up with called MDA.  For a few years it was a recreational drug of choice, especially among yuppies.  It’s about a hundred times more powerful than valium—we use it to ease the pain of terminal patients.  Supposedly it has aphrodisiacal qualities as well, but you’d probably be just as happy to roll around on the carpet with the dog.  Personally, I’d head east.”

Steamer trunks in hand, I began my investigations in Singapore.  On infamous Decker Road, I decided to confine myself geographically and passed up the opportunity to buy kangaroo-hair ticklers imported from Australia.  The next morning, however, in the rickety Chinese quarter, my eye was caught by a promising street-side stand.  Piled high with boxed powders, there was also a crude carved wooden man, whose healthy protuberance could not be misinterpreted.  Had I struck paydirt already?  The mustachioed stallkeeper assured me profusely that he purveyed “only best powder, sir,”  and recommended a golden box with two dragons and Chinese characters on the front.  “One teaspoon in boiling water, twice a day,” he intoned.  “Better you take ten box.  Special price for you, only eighteen Singapore dollar for one box.”

I peered closely at the back, where an English translation was thoughtfully provided.  It promised to cure “overfatigue, poor memory, maldevelopment of sexual organs, sexual debility, aches in loin, night emissions, etc.”  Well, I thought, I do have a bad memory.  I peered closer.  The ingredients were the classic Chinese restoratives: herbs, wild ginseng, sea horse, hedgehog skin.  More to the point, the powder also contained deer penis, spotted deer antler, donkey penis, dog penis, ox penis, sheep penis, and for a little flavor, snow frog.

Tempting as this concoction was, I decided to experiment several days with one box before investing heavily.  In water its taste was unexpectedly bland; it had no ill side effects.  In fact, it seemed to have no effects whatsoever.  At least that I can recall.

Somewhat chastened, and unable to locate the unscrupulous tradesman, I flew south to Indonesia.  Because that archipelago contains thirty thousand islands, and life is short, I decided to pass up Borneo, Bali, or Sumatra, and made for Java.  Traditionally, an Indonesian girl hides her underwear in the clothing of the man she wants to seduce; I was unable to confirm if this still occurs.  In Jogjakarta I saw a shadow puppet show caught in an untimely monsoon, but otherwise came up high and dry.

My extensive readings had suggested, however, the attractions of a smaller town called Solo, whose lovely women are said “to prowl the streets like hungry tigers.”  Figuring some secret recipe might lie behind their feline insatiability, I explored the very busy Solo night market but turned up no tigresses.  Solitary, I sampled a so-called “male virility tonic”  called Susu Itb.  Perhaps, had I stayed longer, I might’ve had positive results, but, unable to buy the stuff by the bottle for more rigorous scientific trials, I  headed north to Malaysia.

At this point it struck me as highly possible I was being followed, so I disembarked the train by night and proceeded by horse cart to Malacca, that charming ex-Portuguese, ex-British town of the fabled straits and the enchanted name.  Its sleepy waterfront was as soothing as ever, but I came up with no magic serums.

A haggard, elderly shopkeeper did try to assure me that in his selection of handsome canes for which that seaport is justly famous, several could easily be put to aphrodisiacal purpose.  I could not agree with him on this, but I conceded that his well-carved canes were admirable works of art.

In Kuala Lumpur, I tried that fabulously repulsive and smelly fruit, the durian, on the basis of a Malay proverb which states, “When the durians are down, the sarongs are up.”  This may be so, but I found it difficult to get close enough to a durian to get one down in the first place.

In Penang—that island oasis of preserved colonial-era calm—on a sweltering Christmas Day I celebrated by making the rounds of Chinese medicine men and their immaculate shops.  One wizened patriarch’s unadorned cabinets held stretched snakeskins, dried spiders, porcupine quills, immobilized lizards like tiny dragons, and at least a hundred different insects in a kind of taxidermist’s nightmare.  I asked about aphrodisiacs; he merely grunted and offered me a sprig of betel to chew, then opened his jaw like a whale to show a mouthful of the stuff.

Undaunted by this failure to communicate, a little farther up the street I found a younger and seedier version of the same Chinese gentleman.  Seated in the shady recesses of his narrow shop with his wife, at first he said, “That against the law in Malaysia.”  When I started to leave, however, he darted out of the shadows and pulled me back in.  With a serious expression he extracted a small ring of knotted catgut, pushed it over the counter, and said brokenly, “Happy ring.”  He then indicated its purpose, which I had by that time divined, and he pointed out the deviousness of minute individual knots around its circumference.

For such a test I would, of course, need a female assistant, and fortunately such labor is easy to hire in this part of the world.  The tight little ring certainly seemed all that the doctor had ordered, but I realized that, rather thoughtlessly, even though he had made it clear to me when to put it on, I had neglected to ask him the more crucial question of when to take it off.  After wearing it for several days I felt my gait had become a trifle bowlegged, a problem resulting, in fact, from poor circulation.  In the end, to extricate myself from the fearsome contraption, I was forced to sever it with my Swiss Army knife.

Going back to lodge a complaint with the merchant, he was gentleman enough to offer me “at a very special price” four tablets he'd made, he assured me, “from all kinds of herbs.”  I must admit I was losing heart by this time, so I pocketed them somewhat moodily and headed for Burma.  In that remote country I hoped to purchase some of the love philtres mentioned by George Orwell in Burmese Days—“aphrodisiacs in the form of large, soap-like pills.”  In the Rangoon market I did purchase a number of large pills, but they turned out to be soap.

I had better luck in Mandalay, however, after a jolting nineteen-hour ride seated bolt upright in a pre-war railway carriage.  At the Mahamuni Pagoda I saw the reverence with which the local population treats two superb bronze statues of warriors pilfered from Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia five centuries ago.  The Burmese believe that rubbing a spot on the statues blesses their own health in the same body part.  Judging from this, the Burmese have quite a few headaches and belly aches; but for my own purposes, I was satisfied to note that one warrior’s codpiece had actually rubbed away, while the other’s belt region had been polished to a shine over the centuries.

Heading south to Thailand, in Chiang Mai I was fortunate to meet an American expatriate named Daniel Reid—author, translator, longtime resident in Asia and an expert in local herbs and medicines.  I was not astonished to learn that he imbibes daily his own elixir—for general health purposes as well—and that, mixed with rum and smelling of a dozen herbs, it also contains most of the unusual ingredients my useless Singapore powder had claimed to.  Daniel assured me that his mix contained only the finest dried and powdered animal members, and that any Oriental aphrodisiac worth quaffing was based on this recipe.  (Daniel’s is detailed in his book, The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity, Simon & Schuster).  He poured me a glass, mixed with a little cognac.  It rolled smokily, vaporously, down the throat, but otherwise seemed to do little else.  In a cynical abandonment of scientific principles, that night I downed the Penang pills that had been jangling in my pocket for many days and lay down to sleep my last sleep before leaving Asia.

But it was not to be.  I got no sleep that night; nor did my assistant.  Whether it was Daniel Reid’s revived ancient formula, or those pills, I cannot say; perhaps it was even a delayed reaction to the Singapore powder.  For anyone who wants to find out, I still have two pills left with which I am prepared to part for a very special price.

Friday, February 15, 1991

The Last Non-Sexual Massage in Bangkok

I was in Thailand in January 1991. I wrote this for the U.S. edition of G.Q (September 1991). The idea was to write sexily, not sexually. 

The best massage in Bangkok has nothing, I repeat nothing to do with a lissome naked Thai beauty soaping you to distraction using every inch of her skin and the only sponge nature has endowed her with.

Rather, depending on your definition of “best" (and, I suppose, your idea of  “massage”) it takes place in absolutely no privacy, in daylight, and both of you keep all your clothes on. And while it may not be as profound a religious experience as the famous Bangkok “body-body," this dry alternative occurs under the incurious gaze of hundreds of Buddhist monks.

It is available daily, 7:30 – 5, in one of the largest and holiest temples in Bangkok: the Wat Po (Place of Meditation). A Thai temple is characteristically a series of courtyards littered with glittering gingerbread pagodas, adored statues, and chanting shaven-headed novitiates by the dozen. The Wat Po has also one or two tables of fake Rolex watches being hawked at ten bucks each and a few palm readers with an impressive command of several foreign languages. The Wat Po also contains the biggest reclining Buddha in the country: nearly half a golden football field of him, counting the mother-of-pearl feet. This beatific Buddha looks as if he has just received the finest kind of classical Thai massage; on a recent Saturday morning I paid my respects, then went myself to the next courtyard to do likewise.

I must admit that having heard about Thai massage traditions going back twenty or thirty centuries, etc., conferring the same benefice on the giver as the recipient, etc., I was with customary barbarian ignorance prepared for saffron-robed monks themselves to be doing the kneading. This is of course not the case. But the Wat Po School of Thai massage, in two screened, slant-roofed enclosures, has been the finest in the country for at least three decades. Eighteen very hard beds with mattresses are laid side by side in each; fans keep the Bangkok humidity and heat at bay.

Nearly all the beds were taken by barefoot clothed bodies either lying prone for being gently bent, pressed, and squeezed by barefoot clothed masseurs. Both sides of this corporeal tug of war were of both sexes. My hopes for a pure massage, with no impure overtones, were dashed when (after paying my 140 baht, about six dollars) I was introduced to my masseuse. Instead of some wiry Thai who would wrestle me into shape, I was given instead a gorgeous young woman named Mon with big dark eyes and long black hair, slender in tight three-quarter trousers. Naturally, I felt surges of retrospective guilt at having put off a traditional Thai massage for so long.

Thai massage is based on the theory of ten primary and invisible lines of force running through the body. Pressure is never exerted on the bones, but exerted and released on the muscles after slowly loosening them. Another technique involves cutting off the circulation entirely in one area for a minute, then releasing. The movements and stretches are always gradual and subtle; you find yourself in positions with names like “the reclining cobra" without any strain. For anyone familiar with Bangkok traffic, the gentleness and flexibility of this massage will be a surprise.

What most astonished me, though, was how much pressure Mon could exert. She began on my feet and after popping my toes, worked her way very gradually up my legs; at times she simply leaned on me, and seemed to weigh as much as a truck. She would tug one bent leg up easily, give a disarming smile, then suddenly 10,000 pounds would be painlessly applied to a tight muscle I never knew existed. She would rock back and forth on my limb for a moment with the pressure on, then move elsewhere. It was less like a massage than like a highly skilled mechanic giving an engine a very thorough tune-up.

After my legs, she went to work on my back, treating it like a crossword puzzle, clambering all over me, up and down and across. Since it is impossible to say exactly what was going on, I can only state it felt as if she were leaning, walking, kneeling, and squeezing with her toes, fingers, and heels all at the same time. Eventually she took my arms, which by now had little fight left, and stretched them until they were each about fifteen feet long. Then she went to work relaxing my skull.

All the while she kept up a singsong twittering conversation in Thai with the masseur two feet away from me who was giving a comatose Dutchman the 100,000 pound treatment. Perhaps I looked soft, and that was why I’d been given this slip of a girl rather than someone who’d treat me like a twist-off cap? Anyway, the massage school in the Wat Po struck me as the most relaxing place in Bangkok; I left invigorated, not exhausted. I recommend this traditional Thai massage heartily—and should you decide to try the other kind of Bangkok massage, please, gentlemen, no matter what the weather forecast, even if you wear nothing else, be sure to wear your raincoat.

Wednesday, January 23, 1991

The Coliseum Bar, Kuala Lumpur

Written in 1991 for G.Q.; published a decade later by National Geographic Traveler

"East? They wouldn’t know the bloody East if they saw it. Not if you was to hand it to them on a plate would they know it was the East. That’s where the East is, there." He waved his hand wildly into the black night. . . .

With this drunken outburst begins Anthony Burgess’ classic Malayan trilogy, The Long Day Wanes, set in the dusk of the British Empire. Three decades later, on any night of the week, no such accusation of ignorance can be levelled at the sprawling, half-cocked, half-crocked denizens of the Coliseum Bar in Kuala Lumpur ("Kuala L’Impure" to its friends), here in the capital of the Federation of Malaysia. These poor sods all know the East—top to bedraggled bottom, they are the bloody East.

This seedy establishment, officially the Coliseum Cafe and Hotel (it lets out a few bare rooms upstairs), has been going steadily downhill throughout the seven decades of its prosperous existence. Somerset Maugham, looking for stories, frequented and loved the place in better years. Today it has little in common with other former haunts of his—toity, posh K.L. clubs like the exclusive Selangor with its gentlemen, crickets, horses, and sultans’ sons. The Coliseum remains a watering hole for loyal and traitorous sons of the Empire alike, no matter what their creed, color, or disinheritance. It is one of the most democratic bars in Southeast Asia.

It inhabits a colonially-columned, tottering building fronting at 98-100 Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. Every Saturday evening a boisterous local market throngs the street with vibrant Malay spicesand uproar. Inside the warm, wormy, smoky recesses of the Coliseum, however, all is fog, drink, and decay.

You push your way in through creaking, saloon-style swinging doors. At the far end, barely visible through the haze, past the Victorian coat rack, at an ancient, chest-high bar several old-timers, a silent ex-planter (one of the last) among them, are hanging on for dear life. They have been here since before lunchtime. The air is fumed with fresh tobacco and stale Tiger beer, churned lethargically by a wide-bladed overhead fan. A newcomer remarks on the grueling December heat; a sweating veteran with effort lifts his chin off the scarred bar, exhales one "Godormighty," and crashes his head down again. The talk, as always in such rare vestiges of an empire long gone, is of Getting Away.

A bottle of cold Tiger is bought for the newcomer by a still-upright Malay who speaks good English. In a low voice he takes a turn around the room:

"I know most of ’em. I’m not here all the time, you understand. Upcountry part of every week. You might say I’m a regular irregular. Now, the unconscious feller we’re a little worried about. Hasn’t changed his clothes since yesterday, which means he hasn’t been home. He’s a musician, some of the time. Now, they—"A group huddled in a corner, their skins ranging from pale white to dark teak. "Two of those are civil servants. Don’t know the others. Up to no good, plotting something, I imagine. The old bugger with the Nehru cap owns this place—bought it off a Chinese family years ago. Place is a bloody gold mine, if you ask me. About to cave in, probably, but there you are. . . Now this bloke here says he’s from Perth— aren’t you, Alf? He’s been out here donkey’s years. In timber. Originally from Calcutta, no matter what he says. Anglo-Indian: English, but born out East. When you going back to Calcutta, Alf?"

"Not bloody soon. You used to be able to cross the bloody street in Calcutta. Nowadays it’s bad as London. Why, the last time—"

Above the bar a sign assures the clientele that, for their benefit, only non-hygienic water is used to dilute the drinks.

In the restaurant adjoining, a waiter conscientiously knots an enormous bib around a customer's neck to protect him from clouds of hissing smoke when a steak is brought in, sizzling on a metal platter. As the evening declines toward the ten o’clock last call—for drinks begin early and end early in the East—the irregular regulars, most of whom are here every night, stagger into the restaurant for fortification against a humid, insect-ridden sleep.

For these weary men (not a woman to be seen among them), with their easy mingling of race with race and religion with religion, their doglike affection for each other, their heart attacks coming as surely as the holidays—for these men, will always be of Getting Away. But in these final dim outposts of a life long waned and gone, there is no Away, only the prospect. Meanwhile, the Coliseum—and "the bloody East"—will have to do.