From the archives…

Extreme Ironing

Pressing your luck

My fondness for gadgets goes way back—back to those innocent days of my childhood when anything that ran on electricity and had buttons qualified as a gadget. I must have been about five years old when, one Christmas, I asked my parents for an iron. I’d seen one in a toy catalog—but it was a real iron. It had a plug and it got hot and everything (though presumably the temperature was kept low enough that kids wouldn’t burn themselves). And, crucially, it had four buttons. I didn’t know what the buttons did and I didn’t care. But I knew that I wanted and needed four of them. When Christmas arrived, I excitedly tore open my presents, and there, sure enough, was my very own iron. But wait! What’s this? This iron has only three buttons! It’s the wrong iron! It’s all wrong! Christmas is ruined! I yelled and I cried and I tried, with little success, to explain to my parents between sobs that really that fourth button was the crucial ingredient, without which the gift was, sadly, worthless to me. It must have been the following year that I began typing my Christmas lists—complete with catalog numbers, so that there could be no mistakes.

As an adult—no doubt due to this traumatic experience—I’ve never been much for ironing. But I must admit, some of those new cordless, digital, titanium-clad irons do look mighty tempting. That, a small ironing board, a good pair of sneakers, and nerves of steel are all I’d need to participate in the latest sports craze: extreme ironing. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rock Paper Scissors Tournaments

A stone’s throw from the cutting edge

As regular readers of Interesting Thing of the Day know, I’m not what you’d call a sports enthusiast. Only on the rarest and most unusual occasions can I be persuaded to watch a sporting event, and even less often do I participate. This is partly because I’m not a very competitive person myself—and in general, I don’t like being around those who are. This attitude extends (again, only with occasional and very particular exceptions) even to board games, card games, and the like. They just don’t do anything for me. I’d rather have a conversation, or read a book, or go for a jog (as long as it’s not a race).

On the other hand, I do frequently need to make binary decisions, especially of the “which-one-of-us-gets-to-perform-the-unpleasant-task” variety. If my wife and I are trying to determine which one of us will take out the garbage, do the laundry, feed the cat, or whatever, we will sometimes employ the time-honored method of using a binary random number generator (a coin toss). Other times, we resort to playing “rock, paper, scissors,” an ostensibly random decision-making technique at which I invariably lose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Petra

The city of stone

Like every other fan of action movies, I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when it came out in 1989. I enjoyed the film as an entertaining adventure, notwithstanding the silly premise and the wildly improbable plot. As the story neared its climax, our heroes arrived at the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, where, according to their research, they believed they’d find the temple in which the Holy Grail had been kept hidden all these centuries. And as they rode on horseback through a narrow gorge into this supposedly secret site and the canyon walls opened to reveal the reddish facade of a huge temple carved into a cliff face, my reaction was a bit different from that of most of the other theatergoers. I was thinking: “Hey, my grandparents visited there! I remember seeing the slides when I was a kid.” And I was right: that scene had been shot on location in Petra, Jordan—one of many famous sites my grandparents had visited and photographed on their travels in the Middle East.

Hard Living
The name Petra, from the Greek word for “rock,” aptly describes this long-deserted city that is best known for its numerous buildings and tombs carved directly into sandstone cliffs—many with elaborate facades that would have been challenging to create even for free-standing structures. Everything about Petra seems improbable, from its location to its architecture to the fact that it was mostly forgotten for hundreds of years. Nothing but the outside of that one building is really the way the movie depicts it, but Petra contains enough mysteries and surprises that you could almost believe any fanciful tale about the city. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Stone Balls of Costa Rica

Mystery spheres as lawn ornaments

When I was last in Costa Rica a couple of years ago, I was on the lookout, as usual, for interesting things. And I found plenty of them: sloths, leaf cutter ants, poison dart frogs, volcanoes, and so on. I was not, however, on the lookout for lawn ornaments, under the assumption that decorative stone sculptures were not particularly interesting. I should have known better than to make such an assumption—after all, I saw “Amélie,” which cast an entirely new light on garden gnomes. Shortly before the end of my trip, a fellow tourist asked me if I knew about the stone balls. “What stone balls?” I asked. “There are these mysterious ancient balls,” he said, “that are so perfectly round, they could not have been carved by hand. Nobody knows where they came from or how they were made, but they’re scattered all over the country, and people like to find them and use them as lawn ornaments.” Sure enough, as we drove along, I spotted stone balls in a few yards, but I didn’t have a chance to photograph one. It seemed strange to me that artifacts with such obvious archeological significance would end up as the Costa Rican equivalent of plastic pink flamingos.

Rolling With the Bunches
The first discovery of the unusual stone balls was made around 1940. The United Fruit Company was preparing large tracts of land in the Diquis Delta on the southern Pacific coast to be used for banana plantations. In the process of clearing the land, they unearthed several dozen balls, ranging in size from a few centimeters to over two meters in diameter. Subsequent archeological research identified and catalogued hundreds of the balls, some of which appeared in other parts of the country. As news of the find began to spread, the balls were rounded up (sorry) by collectors and treasure hunters; today, only six are known to remain in their original positions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pat O'Brien's

Home of the Hurricane

In December, 2003, a New Orleans bar called Pat O’Brien’s celebrated its 70th anniversary. Although not old by New Orleans standards, Pat O’Brien’s is an icon of the French Quarter, a location to which nearly every tourist makes a pilgrimage. Numerous explanations could be advanced for the bar’s persistent popularity, but I think it comes down to a simple formula: strong drinks, reasonable prices, and atmosphere. Their motto since 1933 has been “Have Fun!”—not especially clever or inventive, but to the point. Truth be told, it’s a euphemism for “Have Rum!” At Pat O’Brien’s, the distinction between the two is vague at best.

Just Add Rum
A lot of bars opened in 1933; it was the year Prohibition was repealed in the United States. B. H. “Pat” O’Brien had been running a speakeasy called Mr. O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, but he turned the operation legit when the law allowed. In 1942, he moved the bar to its current location, a building erected in 1791 as the first Spanish theater in the U.S. But Pat O’Brien’s is best known for its signature drink, the Hurricane. This is a serious drink by anyone’s standard: a tall, ice-filled glass containing 4 ounces of rum and 4 ounces of a sweet, red passion fruit syrup—garnished with a slice of orange and a cherry. The name comes from the shape of the glass, which looks like a hurricane lamp. According to legend, the Hurricane was the brainchild of a liquor salesman in the 1940s who wanted to convince the bar they needed to buy a great deal of rum. (A variation on this story gives credit to a bartender looking for a creative way to deal with excess inventory of rum and grenadine.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Interesting Burger Joints

Where the beef is

Many of my friends and relatives are vegetarians. And I respect those who, for reasons of conscience, health, or religious convictions—or perhaps paranoia about Mad Cow Disease or genetic engineering—opt not to eat animal products. I myself eat meat only occasionally and am generally content with a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and chocolate. But when it comes to hamburgers, I must confess a special weakness. I could pass up a steak without a second glance, but I can’t easily ignore a well-made burger. Hence my ongoing search for great—or at least interesting—hamburger joints. Here are a few of my current favorites.

In-N-Out
To many people, In-N-Out is just another chain of cheap restaurants in the western U.S. To me, it’s a model of elegant simplicity. The menu contains exactly four food choices: hamburger, cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, fries. There are shakes and the usual beverage assortment—but that’s it. No salads, fish sandwiches, designer chicken pieces, or trendy desserts. Just the basics. If you have to wait in line, it isn’t because the person in front of you can’t decide what to order—and yes, you can shorten the process even further by ordering a combo. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Edible Gold

The gourmet and the alchemist

I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, someone who is tolerant of those with different beliefs, however wacky they may seem to me. Every rule has its exceptions, though. A few years ago while traveling in England, I met a woman who claimed her diet consisted solely of durian, the smelly tropical fruit that looks like a medieval weapon. That was weird, but I was prepared to overlook it; I’ve heard of stranger things. During the course of our discussion about food, however, the woman asked if I’d heard of edible gold. I cheerfully replied that I had, which was true—I’d seen a TV show years earlier about chefs using gold leaf as a decorative but edible garnish on dishes in extremely upscale restaurants. I assumed that’s what she was talking about. But she seemed very surprised that I should know about this, and in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, began excitedly talking about how the ancient Egyptians had discovered that by eating powdered gold, one could become immortal. Very clearly, she believed this too. O…K. Right then and there, all my good intentions of open-mindedness went out the window—that was just way too strange for me to get my brain around.

Later, when I consulted Google to see if I could learn any more about this seemingly outrageous claim, I was shocked and dismayed to find there are tens of thousands of Web pages describing, with great seriousness and credulity, a miraculous substance usually referred to as white powder (or powdered) gold. I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to sort out all the bizarre and competing claims about this stuff—a futile exercise that left me scratching my head. While I can’t claim the slightest expertise in this, ahem, esoteric field, I thought I’d make an attempt to distill, in my alchemical way, the essence of some of these claims for your consideration. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Slow Food

Taking back the dinner table

When Morgen and I lived in San Francisco’s trendy SoMa (South of Market) area, we were frustrated that there were no markets within easy walking distance of our home—not so much as a convenience store. Buying groceries was quite a hassle. Today, however, the situation is different, and when visiting our old neighborhood recently, we saw a great many large, shiny retail stores that had opened since we moved—including a Whole Foods Market. The contrast could not have been more stark between this store and the generic supermarkets where we usually shop. Here, the produce was fresh and healthy-looking rather than faded and bruised. Here, any kind of grain, flour, nut, or legume we could imagine was available in bulk—even red lentils, which we can’t seem to find anywhere else these days. Here, everything from the prepared foods at the deli counter to the seafood to the granola bars had the appearance of quality and wholesomeness (as the store’s name suggests). We gleefully loaded up our shopping cart, excited to be able to stock our pantry with food we could actually feel good about eating.

Then, of course, we saw how much all this was going to cost—a small fortune. Not to mention the cost of renting a car to drive across town. For people on as tight a budget as we are, that really hurts. Leaving aside the political correctness of buying free-range, genetically unmodified, grass-fed, hormone-free, pesticide-free, organic…carrots or whatever, many consumers find that the price of those attributes overshadows the quality and other virtues by a significant amount. When I see a gallon of organic milk sitting right next to a gallon of regular milk that costs half as much, I know that I’m paying for a concept—I’m paying for what I believe in much more than what I will taste on my cereal. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Durian

Exotic fruit and vampire repellent

When I was 19, I spent a summer in Indonesia. That was the first time I heard of a very unusual tropical fruit called durian. Prior to that time, my experience with tropical fruits was limited to relatively familiar ones such as pineapple, banana, mango, and papaya. But durian, which is sometimes called “the king of fruits,” was definitely something different. A missionary told me they have a saying about the fruit: “smells like hell, tastes like heaven.” Whatever else could be said about it, it seemed to provoke very strong reactions from people—either they loved it or they hated it. Unfortunately, durian was out of season at the time, and though I heard that durian ice cream was easy to find, I never actually encountered any.

A decade and a half later, I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia. On an expedition to my favorite Chinese supermarket, I came across a package of frozen durian and thought this would be the ideal way to try it. But I wanted to save it for a special occasion when I could share it with some friends, and before that occasion arose, I went on vacation. I returned to find that the refrigerator had broken down while I was gone, and the freezer—well, the entire house, actually—had a very strong and very foul odor, which I traced to the once-frozen container of fruit. The package of durian went in the trash and was forgotten. I did once have a piece of durian cake at a local bakery—a thoroughly unpleasant experience, I must say—but other than that, durian remained outside my consciousness. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Kopi Luwak

The world’s strangest and most expensive coffee

My fondness for good coffee, and the lengths to which I’m willing to go to indulge it, are well known. As someone who loves coffee and craves interesting things, it is only natural that I should be intrigued by stories of a rare, exotic, and obscenely expensive type of coffee bean. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to sample this coffee, but most of the people I’ve told about the experience—even confirmed coffee snobs—grimace, then raise their eyebrows in that “you’ve got to be kidding me” look. The story you’re about to read is, I assure you, true, though I myself became convinced only after extensive research and personal experience.

The Fruits of Labor
First, some background. Most coffee beans sold in North America come from plantations in tropical Central or South America. Colombia and Costa Rica, in particular, are well known for their excellent coffees. Coffee grows on plants that are commonly called “trees” (because that’s what they look like), even though they’re really a type of shrub. Coffee trees produce a sweet fruit known as a “cherry,” so called because of its red color when it ripens. Inside each cherry are two seeds, which are the coffee beans, encased in a thin covering called parchment. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bubble Tea

The all-in-one beverage and snack

One of the great things about spending time in another country is learning about new and unique foods. When I was living in Vancouver, Canada a few years ago, I became acquainted with bubble tea, an odd beverage that was rapidly becoming the rage across town. This strange concoction originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s, and in the last few years, it has spread all over Canada, into the United States and England, and across many other parts of the world.

Popping Some Bubbles
The term “bubble tea” is at best an unfortunate translation and at worst a euphemism. Alternative names, such as “pearl tea” or “tapioca drink,” are slightly more descriptive. Basically, bubble tea is a sweetened beverage made with water, natural flavors, (usually) a dairy component, and…tapioca balls. These “bubbles” or “pearls” are dark brown, about one centimeter in diameter, slippery on the outside and very chewy on the inside. The bubbles by themselves have very little flavor; their main purpose is to provide texture. Because they’re so large, you need a special, oversized straw to drink bubble tea with. Or should I say eat? Consuming bubble tea is a matter of both drinking and chewing, and after finishing a glass you feel quite full. In other words, it’s not so much an accompaniment to a snack as an entire snack and beverage all in one. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cueva de las Manos

Ancient spray-painted art in Patagonia

Graffiti spray-painted on the side of a building is an annoying act of vandalism. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation is an appalling desecration of nature. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation and allowed to age for thousands of years is a priceless work of art. Go figure.

Patagonia being a rather large area, I was unable to visit all the spots that interested me. One that, unfortunately, I didn’t have time for was La Cueva de las Manos, or “the cave of hands,” in south-central Patagonia. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s one of the world’s oldest outdoor art museums; its most striking characteristic is hundreds of stenciled paintings of human hands. And the paintings were made using a primitive but highly effective form of spray paint. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Extinction of the Yámana

The end of the race at the end of the world

Months before I left for my visit to Patagonia, “learn some Spanish” was high on my to do list. Even though I knew I’d be with English-speaking guides much of the time, I figured I should at least know some basics beyond “please,” “thank-you,” and “where are the restrooms?” I had tapes, dictionaries, and phrase books, but what with one thing and another I never had time to learn much. What little Spanish I did know was the variety spoken here in California, which is similar to Mexican Spanish and, it turns out, very different from Argentinean Spanish. For example, in Argentina, speakers replace the “y” sound in words containing “y” or “ll” with a “sh” or “zh” sound, depending on the context. When we tried to order a hamburger without onions (“sin cebolla” in Mexican Spanish) we got puzzled looks, followed by, “You mean, ‘sin cebozha’?” Oh. Yeah. But that difference tripped us up every time. And when our guide in Ushuaia talked at length about a race of native people he pronounced “Shamana,” it took me a long time to figure out that he was referring to the Yámana I’d read about.

Beginning at the End
The story begins some 10,000 years ago—give or take a couple of thousand years. According to the Museo Mundo Yámana in Ushuaia, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego was the last place on Earth to which humans migrated, and also the farthest point geographically to which human civilization had spread from its origin. The museum thus depicts these first human residents of the area as being the hardiest of explorers. The people called themselves Yámana, which simply means “human beings.” They lived in what to all accounts was a stable and efficient society for thousands of years. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ushuaia

City at the end of the world

In my travels, I’ve been to a lot of remote places that I’ve referred to jokingly as “the end of the world.” That’s just a figure of speech, of course, but on my trip to Patagonia last year, I at least got to visit the most distant region of land I could reach from my home without crossing an ocean—the islands of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. I did not go to the most distant of these islands, but there would have been little to see there anyway. I did, however, spend several days in a place that bills itself as the end of the world, or “fin del mundo” in Spanish: Ushuaia, Argentina.

Because of this city’s unusual location, any discussion requires a number of qualifications and definitions. Even saying its name is potentially problematic. The guide books we’d read before going to Argentina said to pronounce it “oo-SWY-ah,” so we did. And so did everyone else we met in Argentina—until we reached the city itself. There, the local pronunciation was invariably “oo-SHWY-ah,” which is arguably closer to the original pronunciation of the name in its language of origin, Yámana (pronounced “SHA-ma-na,” but that’s a story for another day). The name means, roughly, “bay that penetrates to the west,” which is reasonable enough. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Legends of Tierra del Fuego

The incredible shrinking southern continent

As an American, I’ve always been accustomed to very clearly defined state, national, and continental boundaries. The border between Canada and the U.S., for example, may be an arbitrary line of latitude, but we all know exactly where it is—what’s in, and what’s out. We know exactly where North America stops and Central America starts; we also know when we’ve reached the easternmost or westernmost edge of the continent because we run into an ocean. Sure, there’s the odd island off the coast here or there, but conceptually, these cause no problems for my notion of what a continent is.

The map of South America, though, has always offended my sense of geographical tidiness. At the southern end of the continent, the land sort of swoops out to the east—but wait, that last big chunk is actually an island. Is that part of the continent? And what about the bazillions of smaller islands littering the coastline to the south and west? If I’m on one of those islands, am I on the continent or not? The geological answer is yes—I’m on the same continental plate. The political answer is also yes—any given spot of any given island is uncontroversially under the control of either Chile or Argentina. But to the average person on the street (or boat, as the case may be), these boundaries are neither visible nor intuitive. Today, we can get the answers to such questions from highly accurate maps. Hundreds of years ago, though, the answers were far less obvious. Speculation about continental boundaries led to some fanciful maps, tall tales, and grand adventures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Extreme Ironing

Pressing your luck

My fondness for gadgets goes way back—back to those innocent days of my childhood when anything that ran on electricity and had buttons qualified as a gadget. I must have been about five years old when, one Christmas, I asked my parents for an iron. I’d seen one in a toy catalog—but it was a real iron. It had a plug and it got hot and everything (though presumably the temperature was kept low enough that kids wouldn’t burn themselves). And, crucially, it had four buttons. I didn’t know what the buttons did and I didn’t care. But I knew that I wanted and needed four of them. When Christmas arrived, I excitedly tore open my presents, and there, sure enough, was my very own iron. But wait! What’s this? This iron has only three buttons! It’s the wrong iron! It’s all wrong! Christmas is ruined! I yelled and I cried and I tried, with little success, to explain to my parents between sobs that really that fourth button was the crucial ingredient, without which the gift was, sadly, worthless to me. It must have been the following year that I began typing my Christmas lists—complete with catalog numbers, so that there could be no mistakes.

As an adult—no doubt due to this traumatic experience—I’ve never been much for ironing. But I must admit, some of those new cordless, digital, titanium-clad irons do look mighty tempting. That, a small ironing board, a good pair of sneakers, and nerves of steel are all I’d need to participate in the latest sports craze: extreme ironing. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rock Paper Scissors Tournaments

A stone’s throw from the cutting edge

As regular readers of Interesting Thing of the Day know, I’m not what you’d call a sports enthusiast. Only on the rarest and most unusual occasions can I be persuaded to watch a sporting event, and even less often do I participate. This is partly because I’m not a very competitive person myself—and in general, I don’t like being around those who are. This attitude extends (again, only with occasional and very particular exceptions) even to board games, card games, and the like. They just don’t do anything for me. I’d rather have a conversation, or read a book, or go for a jog (as long as it’s not a race).

On the other hand, I do frequently need to make binary decisions, especially of the “which-one-of-us-gets-to-perform-the-unpleasant-task” variety. If my wife and I are trying to determine which one of us will take out the garbage, do the laundry, feed the cat, or whatever, we will sometimes employ the time-honored method of using a binary random number generator (a coin toss). Other times, we resort to playing “rock, paper, scissors,” an ostensibly random decision-making technique at which I invariably lose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Petra

The city of stone

Like every other fan of action movies, I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when it came out in 1989. I enjoyed the film as an entertaining adventure, notwithstanding the silly premise and the wildly improbable plot. As the story neared its climax, our heroes arrived at the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, where, according to their research, they believed they’d find the temple in which the Holy Grail had been kept hidden all these centuries. And as they rode on horseback through a narrow gorge into this supposedly secret site and the canyon walls opened to reveal the reddish facade of a huge temple carved into a cliff face, my reaction was a bit different from that of most of the other theatergoers. I was thinking: “Hey, my grandparents visited there! I remember seeing the slides when I was a kid.” And I was right: that scene had been shot on location in Petra, Jordan—one of many famous sites my grandparents had visited and photographed on their travels in the Middle East.

Hard Living
The name Petra, from the Greek word for “rock,” aptly describes this long-deserted city that is best known for its numerous buildings and tombs carved directly into sandstone cliffs—many with elaborate facades that would have been challenging to create even for free-standing structures. Everything about Petra seems improbable, from its location to its architecture to the fact that it was mostly forgotten for hundreds of years. Nothing but the outside of that one building is really the way the movie depicts it, but Petra contains enough mysteries and surprises that you could almost believe any fanciful tale about the city. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Stone Balls of Costa Rica

Mystery spheres as lawn ornaments

When I was last in Costa Rica a couple of years ago, I was on the lookout, as usual, for interesting things. And I found plenty of them: sloths, leaf cutter ants, poison dart frogs, volcanoes, and so on. I was not, however, on the lookout for lawn ornaments, under the assumption that decorative stone sculptures were not particularly interesting. I should have known better than to make such an assumption—after all, I saw “Amélie,” which cast an entirely new light on garden gnomes. Shortly before the end of my trip, a fellow tourist asked me if I knew about the stone balls. “What stone balls?” I asked. “There are these mysterious ancient balls,” he said, “that are so perfectly round, they could not have been carved by hand. Nobody knows where they came from or how they were made, but they’re scattered all over the country, and people like to find them and use them as lawn ornaments.” Sure enough, as we drove along, I spotted stone balls in a few yards, but I didn’t have a chance to photograph one. It seemed strange to me that artifacts with such obvious archeological significance would end up as the Costa Rican equivalent of plastic pink flamingos.

Rolling With the Bunches
The first discovery of the unusual stone balls was made around 1940. The United Fruit Company was preparing large tracts of land in the Diquis Delta on the southern Pacific coast to be used for banana plantations. In the process of clearing the land, they unearthed several dozen balls, ranging in size from a few centimeters to over two meters in diameter. Subsequent archeological research identified and catalogued hundreds of the balls, some of which appeared in other parts of the country. As news of the find began to spread, the balls were rounded up (sorry) by collectors and treasure hunters; today, only six are known to remain in their original positions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pat O'Brien's

Home of the Hurricane

In December, 2003, a New Orleans bar called Pat O’Brien’s celebrated its 70th anniversary. Although not old by New Orleans standards, Pat O’Brien’s is an icon of the French Quarter, a location to which nearly every tourist makes a pilgrimage. Numerous explanations could be advanced for the bar’s persistent popularity, but I think it comes down to a simple formula: strong drinks, reasonable prices, and atmosphere. Their motto since 1933 has been “Have Fun!”—not especially clever or inventive, but to the point. Truth be told, it’s a euphemism for “Have Rum!” At Pat O’Brien’s, the distinction between the two is vague at best.

Just Add Rum
A lot of bars opened in 1933; it was the year Prohibition was repealed in the United States. B. H. “Pat” O’Brien had been running a speakeasy called Mr. O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, but he turned the operation legit when the law allowed. In 1942, he moved the bar to its current location, a building erected in 1791 as the first Spanish theater in the U.S. But Pat O’Brien’s is best known for its signature drink, the Hurricane. This is a serious drink by anyone’s standard: a tall, ice-filled glass containing 4 ounces of rum and 4 ounces of a sweet, red passion fruit syrup—garnished with a slice of orange and a cherry. The name comes from the shape of the glass, which looks like a hurricane lamp. According to legend, the Hurricane was the brainchild of a liquor salesman in the 1940s who wanted to convince the bar they needed to buy a great deal of rum. (A variation on this story gives credit to a bartender looking for a creative way to deal with excess inventory of rum and grenadine.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Interesting Burger Joints

Where the beef is

Many of my friends and relatives are vegetarians. And I respect those who, for reasons of conscience, health, or religious convictions—or perhaps paranoia about Mad Cow Disease or genetic engineering—opt not to eat animal products. I myself eat meat only occasionally and am generally content with a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and chocolate. But when it comes to hamburgers, I must confess a special weakness. I could pass up a steak without a second glance, but I can’t easily ignore a well-made burger. Hence my ongoing search for great—or at least interesting—hamburger joints. Here are a few of my current favorites.

In-N-Out
To many people, In-N-Out is just another chain of cheap restaurants in the western U.S. To me, it’s a model of elegant simplicity. The menu contains exactly four food choices: hamburger, cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, fries. There are shakes and the usual beverage assortment—but that’s it. No salads, fish sandwiches, designer chicken pieces, or trendy desserts. Just the basics. If you have to wait in line, it isn’t because the person in front of you can’t decide what to order—and yes, you can shorten the process even further by ordering a combo. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Edible Gold

The gourmet and the alchemist

I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, someone who is tolerant of those with different beliefs, however wacky they may seem to me. Every rule has its exceptions, though. A few years ago while traveling in England, I met a woman who claimed her diet consisted solely of durian, the smelly tropical fruit that looks like a medieval weapon. That was weird, but I was prepared to overlook it; I’ve heard of stranger things. During the course of our discussion about food, however, the woman asked if I’d heard of edible gold. I cheerfully replied that I had, which was true—I’d seen a TV show years earlier about chefs using gold leaf as a decorative but edible garnish on dishes in extremely upscale restaurants. I assumed that’s what she was talking about. But she seemed very surprised that I should know about this, and in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, began excitedly talking about how the ancient Egyptians had discovered that by eating powdered gold, one could become immortal. Very clearly, she believed this too. O…K. Right then and there, all my good intentions of open-mindedness went out the window—that was just way too strange for me to get my brain around.

Later, when I consulted Google to see if I could learn any more about this seemingly outrageous claim, I was shocked and dismayed to find there are tens of thousands of Web pages describing, with great seriousness and credulity, a miraculous substance usually referred to as white powder (or powdered) gold. I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to sort out all the bizarre and competing claims about this stuff—a futile exercise that left me scratching my head. While I can’t claim the slightest expertise in this, ahem, esoteric field, I thought I’d make an attempt to distill, in my alchemical way, the essence of some of these claims for your consideration. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Slow Food

Taking back the dinner table

When Morgen and I lived in San Francisco’s trendy SoMa (South of Market) area, we were frustrated that there were no markets within easy walking distance of our home—not so much as a convenience store. Buying groceries was quite a hassle. Today, however, the situation is different, and when visiting our old neighborhood recently, we saw a great many large, shiny retail stores that had opened since we moved—including a Whole Foods Market. The contrast could not have been more stark between this store and the generic supermarkets where we usually shop. Here, the produce was fresh and healthy-looking rather than faded and bruised. Here, any kind of grain, flour, nut, or legume we could imagine was available in bulk—even red lentils, which we can’t seem to find anywhere else these days. Here, everything from the prepared foods at the deli counter to the seafood to the granola bars had the appearance of quality and wholesomeness (as the store’s name suggests). We gleefully loaded up our shopping cart, excited to be able to stock our pantry with food we could actually feel good about eating.

Then, of course, we saw how much all this was going to cost—a small fortune. Not to mention the cost of renting a car to drive across town. For people on as tight a budget as we are, that really hurts. Leaving aside the political correctness of buying free-range, genetically unmodified, grass-fed, hormone-free, pesticide-free, organic…carrots or whatever, many consumers find that the price of those attributes overshadows the quality and other virtues by a significant amount. When I see a gallon of organic milk sitting right next to a gallon of regular milk that costs half as much, I know that I’m paying for a concept—I’m paying for what I believe in much more than what I will taste on my cereal. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Durian

Exotic fruit and vampire repellent

When I was 19, I spent a summer in Indonesia. That was the first time I heard of a very unusual tropical fruit called durian. Prior to that time, my experience with tropical fruits was limited to relatively familiar ones such as pineapple, banana, mango, and papaya. But durian, which is sometimes called “the king of fruits,” was definitely something different. A missionary told me they have a saying about the fruit: “smells like hell, tastes like heaven.” Whatever else could be said about it, it seemed to provoke very strong reactions from people—either they loved it or they hated it. Unfortunately, durian was out of season at the time, and though I heard that durian ice cream was easy to find, I never actually encountered any.

A decade and a half later, I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia. On an expedition to my favorite Chinese supermarket, I came across a package of frozen durian and thought this would be the ideal way to try it. But I wanted to save it for a special occasion when I could share it with some friends, and before that occasion arose, I went on vacation. I returned to find that the refrigerator had broken down while I was gone, and the freezer—well, the entire house, actually—had a very strong and very foul odor, which I traced to the once-frozen container of fruit. The package of durian went in the trash and was forgotten. I did once have a piece of durian cake at a local bakery—a thoroughly unpleasant experience, I must say—but other than that, durian remained outside my consciousness. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Kopi Luwak

The world’s strangest and most expensive coffee

My fondness for good coffee, and the lengths to which I’m willing to go to indulge it, are well known. As someone who loves coffee and craves interesting things, it is only natural that I should be intrigued by stories of a rare, exotic, and obscenely expensive type of coffee bean. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to sample this coffee, but most of the people I’ve told about the experience—even confirmed coffee snobs—grimace, then raise their eyebrows in that “you’ve got to be kidding me” look. The story you’re about to read is, I assure you, true, though I myself became convinced only after extensive research and personal experience.

The Fruits of Labor
First, some background. Most coffee beans sold in North America come from plantations in tropical Central or South America. Colombia and Costa Rica, in particular, are well known for their excellent coffees. Coffee grows on plants that are commonly called “trees” (because that’s what they look like), even though they’re really a type of shrub. Coffee trees produce a sweet fruit known as a “cherry,” so called because of its red color when it ripens. Inside each cherry are two seeds, which are the coffee beans, encased in a thin covering called parchment. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bubble Tea

The all-in-one beverage and snack

One of the great things about spending time in another country is learning about new and unique foods. When I was living in Vancouver, Canada a few years ago, I became acquainted with bubble tea, an odd beverage that was rapidly becoming the rage across town. This strange concoction originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s, and in the last few years, it has spread all over Canada, into the United States and England, and across many other parts of the world.

Popping Some Bubbles
The term “bubble tea” is at best an unfortunate translation and at worst a euphemism. Alternative names, such as “pearl tea” or “tapioca drink,” are slightly more descriptive. Basically, bubble tea is a sweetened beverage made with water, natural flavors, (usually) a dairy component, and…tapioca balls. These “bubbles” or “pearls” are dark brown, about one centimeter in diameter, slippery on the outside and very chewy on the inside. The bubbles by themselves have very little flavor; their main purpose is to provide texture. Because they’re so large, you need a special, oversized straw to drink bubble tea with. Or should I say eat? Consuming bubble tea is a matter of both drinking and chewing, and after finishing a glass you feel quite full. In other words, it’s not so much an accompaniment to a snack as an entire snack and beverage all in one. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cueva de las Manos

Ancient spray-painted art in Patagonia

Graffiti spray-painted on the side of a building is an annoying act of vandalism. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation is an appalling desecration of nature. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation and allowed to age for thousands of years is a priceless work of art. Go figure.

Patagonia being a rather large area, I was unable to visit all the spots that interested me. One that, unfortunately, I didn’t have time for was La Cueva de las Manos, or “the cave of hands,” in south-central Patagonia. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s one of the world’s oldest outdoor art museums; its most striking characteristic is hundreds of stenciled paintings of human hands. And the paintings were made using a primitive but highly effective form of spray paint. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Extinction of the Yámana

The end of the race at the end of the world

Months before I left for my visit to Patagonia, “learn some Spanish” was high on my to do list. Even though I knew I’d be with English-speaking guides much of the time, I figured I should at least know some basics beyond “please,” “thank-you,” and “where are the restrooms?” I had tapes, dictionaries, and phrase books, but what with one thing and another I never had time to learn much. What little Spanish I did know was the variety spoken here in California, which is similar to Mexican Spanish and, it turns out, very different from Argentinean Spanish. For example, in Argentina, speakers replace the “y” sound in words containing “y” or “ll” with a “sh” or “zh” sound, depending on the context. When we tried to order a hamburger without onions (“sin cebolla” in Mexican Spanish) we got puzzled looks, followed by, “You mean, ‘sin cebozha’?” Oh. Yeah. But that difference tripped us up every time. And when our guide in Ushuaia talked at length about a race of native people he pronounced “Shamana,” it took me a long time to figure out that he was referring to the Yámana I’d read about.

Beginning at the End
The story begins some 10,000 years ago—give or take a couple of thousand years. According to the Museo Mundo Yámana in Ushuaia, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego was the last place on Earth to which humans migrated, and also the farthest point geographically to which human civilization had spread from its origin. The museum thus depicts these first human residents of the area as being the hardiest of explorers. The people called themselves Yámana, which simply means “human beings.” They lived in what to all accounts was a stable and efficient society for thousands of years. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ushuaia

City at the end of the world

In my travels, I’ve been to a lot of remote places that I’ve referred to jokingly as “the end of the world.” That’s just a figure of speech, of course, but on my trip to Patagonia last year, I at least got to visit the most distant region of land I could reach from my home without crossing an ocean—the islands of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. I did not go to the most distant of these islands, but there would have been little to see there anyway. I did, however, spend several days in a place that bills itself as the end of the world, or “fin del mundo” in Spanish: Ushuaia, Argentina.

Because of this city’s unusual location, any discussion requires a number of qualifications and definitions. Even saying its name is potentially problematic. The guide books we’d read before going to Argentina said to pronounce it “oo-SWY-ah,” so we did. And so did everyone else we met in Argentina—until we reached the city itself. There, the local pronunciation was invariably “oo-SHWY-ah,” which is arguably closer to the original pronunciation of the name in its language of origin, Yámana (pronounced “SHA-ma-na,” but that’s a story for another day). The name means, roughly, “bay that penetrates to the west,” which is reasonable enough. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Legends of Tierra del Fuego

The incredible shrinking southern continent

As an American, I’ve always been accustomed to very clearly defined state, national, and continental boundaries. The border between Canada and the U.S., for example, may be an arbitrary line of latitude, but we all know exactly where it is—what’s in, and what’s out. We know exactly where North America stops and Central America starts; we also know when we’ve reached the easternmost or westernmost edge of the continent because we run into an ocean. Sure, there’s the odd island off the coast here or there, but conceptually, these cause no problems for my notion of what a continent is.

The map of South America, though, has always offended my sense of geographical tidiness. At the southern end of the continent, the land sort of swoops out to the east—but wait, that last big chunk is actually an island. Is that part of the continent? And what about the bazillions of smaller islands littering the coastline to the south and west? If I’m on one of those islands, am I on the continent or not? The geological answer is yes—I’m on the same continental plate. The political answer is also yes—any given spot of any given island is uncontroversially under the control of either Chile or Argentina. But to the average person on the street (or boat, as the case may be), these boundaries are neither visible nor intuitive. Today, we can get the answers to such questions from highly accurate maps. Hundreds of years ago, though, the answers were far less obvious. Speculation about continental boundaries led to some fanciful maps, tall tales, and grand adventures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Extreme Ironing

Pressing your luck

My fondness for gadgets goes way back—back to those innocent days of my childhood when anything that ran on electricity and had buttons qualified as a gadget. I must have been about five years old when, one Christmas, I asked my parents for an iron. I’d seen one in a toy catalog—but it was a real iron. It had a plug and it got hot and everything (though presumably the temperature was kept low enough that kids wouldn’t burn themselves). And, crucially, it had four buttons. I didn’t know what the buttons did and I didn’t care. But I knew that I wanted and needed four of them. When Christmas arrived, I excitedly tore open my presents, and there, sure enough, was my very own iron. But wait! What’s this? This iron has only three buttons! It’s the wrong iron! It’s all wrong! Christmas is ruined! I yelled and I cried and I tried, with little success, to explain to my parents between sobs that really that fourth button was the crucial ingredient, without which the gift was, sadly, worthless to me. It must have been the following year that I began typing my Christmas lists—complete with catalog numbers, so that there could be no mistakes.

As an adult—no doubt due to this traumatic experience—I’ve never been much for ironing. But I must admit, some of those new cordless, digital, titanium-clad irons do look mighty tempting. That, a small ironing board, a good pair of sneakers, and nerves of steel are all I’d need to participate in the latest sports craze: extreme ironing. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rock Paper Scissors Tournaments

A stone’s throw from the cutting edge

As regular readers of Interesting Thing of the Day know, I’m not what you’d call a sports enthusiast. Only on the rarest and most unusual occasions can I be persuaded to watch a sporting event, and even less often do I participate. This is partly because I’m not a very competitive person myself—and in general, I don’t like being around those who are. This attitude extends (again, only with occasional and very particular exceptions) even to board games, card games, and the like. They just don’t do anything for me. I’d rather have a conversation, or read a book, or go for a jog (as long as it’s not a race).

On the other hand, I do frequently need to make binary decisions, especially of the “which-one-of-us-gets-to-perform-the-unpleasant-task” variety. If my wife and I are trying to determine which one of us will take out the garbage, do the laundry, feed the cat, or whatever, we will sometimes employ the time-honored method of using a binary random number generator (a coin toss). Other times, we resort to playing “rock, paper, scissors,” an ostensibly random decision-making technique at which I invariably lose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Petra

The city of stone

Like every other fan of action movies, I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when it came out in 1989. I enjoyed the film as an entertaining adventure, notwithstanding the silly premise and the wildly improbable plot. As the story neared its climax, our heroes arrived at the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, where, according to their research, they believed they’d find the temple in which the Holy Grail had been kept hidden all these centuries. And as they rode on horseback through a narrow gorge into this supposedly secret site and the canyon walls opened to reveal the reddish facade of a huge temple carved into a cliff face, my reaction was a bit different from that of most of the other theatergoers. I was thinking: “Hey, my grandparents visited there! I remember seeing the slides when I was a kid.” And I was right: that scene had been shot on location in Petra, Jordan—one of many famous sites my grandparents had visited and photographed on their travels in the Middle East.

Hard Living
The name Petra, from the Greek word for “rock,” aptly describes this long-deserted city that is best known for its numerous buildings and tombs carved directly into sandstone cliffs—many with elaborate facades that would have been challenging to create even for free-standing structures. Everything about Petra seems improbable, from its location to its architecture to the fact that it was mostly forgotten for hundreds of years. Nothing but the outside of that one building is really the way the movie depicts it, but Petra contains enough mysteries and surprises that you could almost believe any fanciful tale about the city. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Stone Balls of Costa Rica

Mystery spheres as lawn ornaments

When I was last in Costa Rica a couple of years ago, I was on the lookout, as usual, for interesting things. And I found plenty of them: sloths, leaf cutter ants, poison dart frogs, volcanoes, and so on. I was not, however, on the lookout for lawn ornaments, under the assumption that decorative stone sculptures were not particularly interesting. I should have known better than to make such an assumption—after all, I saw “Amélie,” which cast an entirely new light on garden gnomes. Shortly before the end of my trip, a fellow tourist asked me if I knew about the stone balls. “What stone balls?” I asked. “There are these mysterious ancient balls,” he said, “that are so perfectly round, they could not have been carved by hand. Nobody knows where they came from or how they were made, but they’re scattered all over the country, and people like to find them and use them as lawn ornaments.” Sure enough, as we drove along, I spotted stone balls in a few yards, but I didn’t have a chance to photograph one. It seemed strange to me that artifacts with such obvious archeological significance would end up as the Costa Rican equivalent of plastic pink flamingos.

Rolling With the Bunches
The first discovery of the unusual stone balls was made around 1940. The United Fruit Company was preparing large tracts of land in the Diquis Delta on the southern Pacific coast to be used for banana plantations. In the process of clearing the land, they unearthed several dozen balls, ranging in size from a few centimeters to over two meters in diameter. Subsequent archeological research identified and catalogued hundreds of the balls, some of which appeared in other parts of the country. As news of the find began to spread, the balls were rounded up (sorry) by collectors and treasure hunters; today, only six are known to remain in their original positions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pat O'Brien's

Home of the Hurricane

In December, 2003, a New Orleans bar called Pat O’Brien’s celebrated its 70th anniversary. Although not old by New Orleans standards, Pat O’Brien’s is an icon of the French Quarter, a location to which nearly every tourist makes a pilgrimage. Numerous explanations could be advanced for the bar’s persistent popularity, but I think it comes down to a simple formula: strong drinks, reasonable prices, and atmosphere. Their motto since 1933 has been “Have Fun!”—not especially clever or inventive, but to the point. Truth be told, it’s a euphemism for “Have Rum!” At Pat O’Brien’s, the distinction between the two is vague at best.

Just Add Rum
A lot of bars opened in 1933; it was the year Prohibition was repealed in the United States. B. H. “Pat” O’Brien had been running a speakeasy called Mr. O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, but he turned the operation legit when the law allowed. In 1942, he moved the bar to its current location, a building erected in 1791 as the first Spanish theater in the U.S. But Pat O’Brien’s is best known for its signature drink, the Hurricane. This is a serious drink by anyone’s standard: a tall, ice-filled glass containing 4 ounces of rum and 4 ounces of a sweet, red passion fruit syrup—garnished with a slice of orange and a cherry. The name comes from the shape of the glass, which looks like a hurricane lamp. According to legend, the Hurricane was the brainchild of a liquor salesman in the 1940s who wanted to convince the bar they needed to buy a great deal of rum. (A variation on this story gives credit to a bartender looking for a creative way to deal with excess inventory of rum and grenadine.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Interesting Burger Joints

Where the beef is

Many of my friends and relatives are vegetarians. And I respect those who, for reasons of conscience, health, or religious convictions—or perhaps paranoia about Mad Cow Disease or genetic engineering—opt not to eat animal products. I myself eat meat only occasionally and am generally content with a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and chocolate. But when it comes to hamburgers, I must confess a special weakness. I could pass up a steak without a second glance, but I can’t easily ignore a well-made burger. Hence my ongoing search for great—or at least interesting—hamburger joints. Here are a few of my current favorites.

In-N-Out
To many people, In-N-Out is just another chain of cheap restaurants in the western U.S. To me, it’s a model of elegant simplicity. The menu contains exactly four food choices: hamburger, cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, fries. There are shakes and the usual beverage assortment—but that’s it. No salads, fish sandwiches, designer chicken pieces, or trendy desserts. Just the basics. If you have to wait in line, it isn’t because the person in front of you can’t decide what to order—and yes, you can shorten the process even further by ordering a combo. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Edible Gold

The gourmet and the alchemist

I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, someone who is tolerant of those with different beliefs, however wacky they may seem to me. Every rule has its exceptions, though. A few years ago while traveling in England, I met a woman who claimed her diet consisted solely of durian, the smelly tropical fruit that looks like a medieval weapon. That was weird, but I was prepared to overlook it; I’ve heard of stranger things. During the course of our discussion about food, however, the woman asked if I’d heard of edible gold. I cheerfully replied that I had, which was true—I’d seen a TV show years earlier about chefs using gold leaf as a decorative but edible garnish on dishes in extremely upscale restaurants. I assumed that’s what she was talking about. But she seemed very surprised that I should know about this, and in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, began excitedly talking about how the ancient Egyptians had discovered that by eating powdered gold, one could become immortal. Very clearly, she believed this too. O…K. Right then and there, all my good intentions of open-mindedness went out the window—that was just way too strange for me to get my brain around.

Later, when I consulted Google to see if I could learn any more about this seemingly outrageous claim, I was shocked and dismayed to find there are tens of thousands of Web pages describing, with great seriousness and credulity, a miraculous substance usually referred to as white powder (or powdered) gold. I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to sort out all the bizarre and competing claims about this stuff—a futile exercise that left me scratching my head. While I can’t claim the slightest expertise in this, ahem, esoteric field, I thought I’d make an attempt to distill, in my alchemical way, the essence of some of these claims for your consideration. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Slow Food

Taking back the dinner table

When Morgen and I lived in San Francisco’s trendy SoMa (South of Market) area, we were frustrated that there were no markets within easy walking distance of our home—not so much as a convenience store. Buying groceries was quite a hassle. Today, however, the situation is different, and when visiting our old neighborhood recently, we saw a great many large, shiny retail stores that had opened since we moved—including a Whole Foods Market. The contrast could not have been more stark between this store and the generic supermarkets where we usually shop. Here, the produce was fresh and healthy-looking rather than faded and bruised. Here, any kind of grain, flour, nut, or legume we could imagine was available in bulk—even red lentils, which we can’t seem to find anywhere else these days. Here, everything from the prepared foods at the deli counter to the seafood to the granola bars had the appearance of quality and wholesomeness (as the store’s name suggests). We gleefully loaded up our shopping cart, excited to be able to stock our pantry with food we could actually feel good about eating.

Then, of course, we saw how much all this was going to cost—a small fortune. Not to mention the cost of renting a car to drive across town. For people on as tight a budget as we are, that really hurts. Leaving aside the political correctness of buying free-range, genetically unmodified, grass-fed, hormone-free, pesticide-free, organic…carrots or whatever, many consumers find that the price of those attributes overshadows the quality and other virtues by a significant amount. When I see a gallon of organic milk sitting right next to a gallon of regular milk that costs half as much, I know that I’m paying for a concept—I’m paying for what I believe in much more than what I will taste on my cereal. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Durian

Exotic fruit and vampire repellent

When I was 19, I spent a summer in Indonesia. That was the first time I heard of a very unusual tropical fruit called durian. Prior to that time, my experience with tropical fruits was limited to relatively familiar ones such as pineapple, banana, mango, and papaya. But durian, which is sometimes called “the king of fruits,” was definitely something different. A missionary told me they have a saying about the fruit: “smells like hell, tastes like heaven.” Whatever else could be said about it, it seemed to provoke very strong reactions from people—either they loved it or they hated it. Unfortunately, durian was out of season at the time, and though I heard that durian ice cream was easy to find, I never actually encountered any.

A decade and a half later, I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia. On an expedition to my favorite Chinese supermarket, I came across a package of frozen durian and thought this would be the ideal way to try it. But I wanted to save it for a special occasion when I could share it with some friends, and before that occasion arose, I went on vacation. I returned to find that the refrigerator had broken down while I was gone, and the freezer—well, the entire house, actually—had a very strong and very foul odor, which I traced to the once-frozen container of fruit. The package of durian went in the trash and was forgotten. I did once have a piece of durian cake at a local bakery—a thoroughly unpleasant experience, I must say—but other than that, durian remained outside my consciousness. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Kopi Luwak

The world’s strangest and most expensive coffee

My fondness for good coffee, and the lengths to which I’m willing to go to indulge it, are well known. As someone who loves coffee and craves interesting things, it is only natural that I should be intrigued by stories of a rare, exotic, and obscenely expensive type of coffee bean. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to sample this coffee, but most of the people I’ve told about the experience—even confirmed coffee snobs—grimace, then raise their eyebrows in that “you’ve got to be kidding me” look. The story you’re about to read is, I assure you, true, though I myself became convinced only after extensive research and personal experience.

The Fruits of Labor
First, some background. Most coffee beans sold in North America come from plantations in tropical Central or South America. Colombia and Costa Rica, in particular, are well known for their excellent coffees. Coffee grows on plants that are commonly called “trees” (because that’s what they look like), even though they’re really a type of shrub. Coffee trees produce a sweet fruit known as a “cherry,” so called because of its red color when it ripens. Inside each cherry are two seeds, which are the coffee beans, encased in a thin covering called parchment. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bubble Tea

The all-in-one beverage and snack

One of the great things about spending time in another country is learning about new and unique foods. When I was living in Vancouver, Canada a few years ago, I became acquainted with bubble tea, an odd beverage that was rapidly becoming the rage across town. This strange concoction originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s, and in the last few years, it has spread all over Canada, into the United States and England, and across many other parts of the world.

Popping Some Bubbles
The term “bubble tea” is at best an unfortunate translation and at worst a euphemism. Alternative names, such as “pearl tea” or “tapioca drink,” are slightly more descriptive. Basically, bubble tea is a sweetened beverage made with water, natural flavors, (usually) a dairy component, and…tapioca balls. These “bubbles” or “pearls” are dark brown, about one centimeter in diameter, slippery on the outside and very chewy on the inside. The bubbles by themselves have very little flavor; their main purpose is to provide texture. Because they’re so large, you need a special, oversized straw to drink bubble tea with. Or should I say eat? Consuming bubble tea is a matter of both drinking and chewing, and after finishing a glass you feel quite full. In other words, it’s not so much an accompaniment to a snack as an entire snack and beverage all in one. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cueva de las Manos

Ancient spray-painted art in Patagonia

Graffiti spray-painted on the side of a building is an annoying act of vandalism. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation is an appalling desecration of nature. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation and allowed to age for thousands of years is a priceless work of art. Go figure.

Patagonia being a rather large area, I was unable to visit all the spots that interested me. One that, unfortunately, I didn’t have time for was La Cueva de las Manos, or “the cave of hands,” in south-central Patagonia. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s one of the world’s oldest outdoor art museums; its most striking characteristic is hundreds of stenciled paintings of human hands. And the paintings were made using a primitive but highly effective form of spray paint. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Extinction of the Yámana

The end of the race at the end of the world

Months before I left for my visit to Patagonia, “learn some Spanish” was high on my to do list. Even though I knew I’d be with English-speaking guides much of the time, I figured I should at least know some basics beyond “please,” “thank-you,” and “where are the restrooms?” I had tapes, dictionaries, and phrase books, but what with one thing and another I never had time to learn much. What little Spanish I did know was the variety spoken here in California, which is similar to Mexican Spanish and, it turns out, very different from Argentinean Spanish. For example, in Argentina, speakers replace the “y” sound in words containing “y” or “ll” with a “sh” or “zh” sound, depending on the context. When we tried to order a hamburger without onions (“sin cebolla” in Mexican Spanish) we got puzzled looks, followed by, “You mean, ‘sin cebozha’?” Oh. Yeah. But that difference tripped us up every time. And when our guide in Ushuaia talked at length about a race of native people he pronounced “Shamana,” it took me a long time to figure out that he was referring to the Yámana I’d read about.

Beginning at the End
The story begins some 10,000 years ago—give or take a couple of thousand years. According to the Museo Mundo Yámana in Ushuaia, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego was the last place on Earth to which humans migrated, and also the farthest point geographically to which human civilization had spread from its origin. The museum thus depicts these first human residents of the area as being the hardiest of explorers. The people called themselves Yámana, which simply means “human beings.” They lived in what to all accounts was a stable and efficient society for thousands of years. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ushuaia

City at the end of the world

In my travels, I’ve been to a lot of remote places that I’ve referred to jokingly as “the end of the world.” That’s just a figure of speech, of course, but on my trip to Patagonia last year, I at least got to visit the most distant region of land I could reach from my home without crossing an ocean—the islands of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. I did not go to the most distant of these islands, but there would have been little to see there anyway. I did, however, spend several days in a place that bills itself as the end of the world, or “fin del mundo” in Spanish: Ushuaia, Argentina.

Because of this city’s unusual location, any discussion requires a number of qualifications and definitions. Even saying its name is potentially problematic. The guide books we’d read before going to Argentina said to pronounce it “oo-SWY-ah,” so we did. And so did everyone else we met in Argentina—until we reached the city itself. There, the local pronunciation was invariably “oo-SHWY-ah,” which is arguably closer to the original pronunciation of the name in its language of origin, Yámana (pronounced “SHA-ma-na,” but that’s a story for another day). The name means, roughly, “bay that penetrates to the west,” which is reasonable enough. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Legends of Tierra del Fuego

The incredible shrinking southern continent

As an American, I’ve always been accustomed to very clearly defined state, national, and continental boundaries. The border between Canada and the U.S., for example, may be an arbitrary line of latitude, but we all know exactly where it is—what’s in, and what’s out. We know exactly where North America stops and Central America starts; we also know when we’ve reached the easternmost or westernmost edge of the continent because we run into an ocean. Sure, there’s the odd island off the coast here or there, but conceptually, these cause no problems for my notion of what a continent is.

The map of South America, though, has always offended my sense of geographical tidiness. At the southern end of the continent, the land sort of swoops out to the east—but wait, that last big chunk is actually an island. Is that part of the continent? And what about the bazillions of smaller islands littering the coastline to the south and west? If I’m on one of those islands, am I on the continent or not? The geological answer is yes—I’m on the same continental plate. The political answer is also yes—any given spot of any given island is uncontroversially under the control of either Chile or Argentina. But to the average person on the street (or boat, as the case may be), these boundaries are neither visible nor intuitive. Today, we can get the answers to such questions from highly accurate maps. Hundreds of years ago, though, the answers were far less obvious. Speculation about continental boundaries led to some fanciful maps, tall tales, and grand adventures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Extreme Ironing

Pressing your luck

My fondness for gadgets goes way back—back to those innocent days of my childhood when anything that ran on electricity and had buttons qualified as a gadget. I must have been about five years old when, one Christmas, I asked my parents for an iron. I’d seen one in a toy catalog—but it was a real iron. It had a plug and it got hot and everything (though presumably the temperature was kept low enough that kids wouldn’t burn themselves). And, crucially, it had four buttons. I didn’t know what the buttons did and I didn’t care. But I knew that I wanted and needed four of them. When Christmas arrived, I excitedly tore open my presents, and there, sure enough, was my very own iron. But wait! What’s this? This iron has only three buttons! It’s the wrong iron! It’s all wrong! Christmas is ruined! I yelled and I cried and I tried, with little success, to explain to my parents between sobs that really that fourth button was the crucial ingredient, without which the gift was, sadly, worthless to me. It must have been the following year that I began typing my Christmas lists—complete with catalog numbers, so that there could be no mistakes.

As an adult—no doubt due to this traumatic experience—I’ve never been much for ironing. But I must admit, some of those new cordless, digital, titanium-clad irons do look mighty tempting. That, a small ironing board, a good pair of sneakers, and nerves of steel are all I’d need to participate in the latest sports craze: extreme ironing. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rock Paper Scissors Tournaments

A stone’s throw from the cutting edge

As regular readers of Interesting Thing of the Day know, I’m not what you’d call a sports enthusiast. Only on the rarest and most unusual occasions can I be persuaded to watch a sporting event, and even less often do I participate. This is partly because I’m not a very competitive person myself—and in general, I don’t like being around those who are. This attitude extends (again, only with occasional and very particular exceptions) even to board games, card games, and the like. They just don’t do anything for me. I’d rather have a conversation, or read a book, or go for a jog (as long as it’s not a race).

On the other hand, I do frequently need to make binary decisions, especially of the “which-one-of-us-gets-to-perform-the-unpleasant-task” variety. If my wife and I are trying to determine which one of us will take out the garbage, do the laundry, feed the cat, or whatever, we will sometimes employ the time-honored method of using a binary random number generator (a coin toss). Other times, we resort to playing “rock, paper, scissors,” an ostensibly random decision-making technique at which I invariably lose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Petra

The city of stone

Like every other fan of action movies, I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when it came out in 1989. I enjoyed the film as an entertaining adventure, notwithstanding the silly premise and the wildly improbable plot. As the story neared its climax, our heroes arrived at the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, where, according to their research, they believed they’d find the temple in which the Holy Grail had been kept hidden all these centuries. And as they rode on horseback through a narrow gorge into this supposedly secret site and the canyon walls opened to reveal the reddish facade of a huge temple carved into a cliff face, my reaction was a bit different from that of most of the other theatergoers. I was thinking: “Hey, my grandparents visited there! I remember seeing the slides when I was a kid.” And I was right: that scene had been shot on location in Petra, Jordan—one of many famous sites my grandparents had visited and photographed on their travels in the Middle East.

Hard Living
The name Petra, from the Greek word for “rock,” aptly describes this long-deserted city that is best known for its numerous buildings and tombs carved directly into sandstone cliffs—many with elaborate facades that would have been challenging to create even for free-standing structures. Everything about Petra seems improbable, from its location to its architecture to the fact that it was mostly forgotten for hundreds of years. Nothing but the outside of that one building is really the way the movie depicts it, but Petra contains enough mysteries and surprises that you could almost believe any fanciful tale about the city. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Stone Balls of Costa Rica

Mystery spheres as lawn ornaments

When I was last in Costa Rica a couple of years ago, I was on the lookout, as usual, for interesting things. And I found plenty of them: sloths, leaf cutter ants, poison dart frogs, volcanoes, and so on. I was not, however, on the lookout for lawn ornaments, under the assumption that decorative stone sculptures were not particularly interesting. I should have known better than to make such an assumption—after all, I saw “Amélie,” which cast an entirely new light on garden gnomes. Shortly before the end of my trip, a fellow tourist asked me if I knew about the stone balls. “What stone balls?” I asked. “There are these mysterious ancient balls,” he said, “that are so perfectly round, they could not have been carved by hand. Nobody knows where they came from or how they were made, but they’re scattered all over the country, and people like to find them and use them as lawn ornaments.” Sure enough, as we drove along, I spotted stone balls in a few yards, but I didn’t have a chance to photograph one. It seemed strange to me that artifacts with such obvious archeological significance would end up as the Costa Rican equivalent of plastic pink flamingos.

Rolling With the Bunches
The first discovery of the unusual stone balls was made around 1940. The United Fruit Company was preparing large tracts of land in the Diquis Delta on the southern Pacific coast to be used for banana plantations. In the process of clearing the land, they unearthed several dozen balls, ranging in size from a few centimeters to over two meters in diameter. Subsequent archeological research identified and catalogued hundreds of the balls, some of which appeared in other parts of the country. As news of the find began to spread, the balls were rounded up (sorry) by collectors and treasure hunters; today, only six are known to remain in their original positions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pat O'Brien's

Home of the Hurricane

In December, 2003, a New Orleans bar called Pat O’Brien’s celebrated its 70th anniversary. Although not old by New Orleans standards, Pat O’Brien’s is an icon of the French Quarter, a location to which nearly every tourist makes a pilgrimage. Numerous explanations could be advanced for the bar’s persistent popularity, but I think it comes down to a simple formula: strong drinks, reasonable prices, and atmosphere. Their motto since 1933 has been “Have Fun!”—not especially clever or inventive, but to the point. Truth be told, it’s a euphemism for “Have Rum!” At Pat O’Brien’s, the distinction between the two is vague at best.

Just Add Rum
A lot of bars opened in 1933; it was the year Prohibition was repealed in the United States. B. H. “Pat” O’Brien had been running a speakeasy called Mr. O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, but he turned the operation legit when the law allowed. In 1942, he moved the bar to its current location, a building erected in 1791 as the first Spanish theater in the U.S. But Pat O’Brien’s is best known for its signature drink, the Hurricane. This is a serious drink by anyone’s standard: a tall, ice-filled glass containing 4 ounces of rum and 4 ounces of a sweet, red passion fruit syrup—garnished with a slice of orange and a cherry. The name comes from the shape of the glass, which looks like a hurricane lamp. According to legend, the Hurricane was the brainchild of a liquor salesman in the 1940s who wanted to convince the bar they needed to buy a great deal of rum. (A variation on this story gives credit to a bartender looking for a creative way to deal with excess inventory of rum and grenadine.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Interesting Burger Joints

Where the beef is

Many of my friends and relatives are vegetarians. And I respect those who, for reasons of conscience, health, or religious convictions—or perhaps paranoia about Mad Cow Disease or genetic engineering—opt not to eat animal products. I myself eat meat only occasionally and am generally content with a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and chocolate. But when it comes to hamburgers, I must confess a special weakness. I could pass up a steak without a second glance, but I can’t easily ignore a well-made burger. Hence my ongoing search for great—or at least interesting—hamburger joints. Here are a few of my current favorites.

In-N-Out
To many people, In-N-Out is just another chain of cheap restaurants in the western U.S. To me, it’s a model of elegant simplicity. The menu contains exactly four food choices: hamburger, cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, fries. There are shakes and the usual beverage assortment—but that’s it. No salads, fish sandwiches, designer chicken pieces, or trendy desserts. Just the basics. If you have to wait in line, it isn’t because the person in front of you can’t decide what to order—and yes, you can shorten the process even further by ordering a combo. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Edible Gold

The gourmet and the alchemist

I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, someone who is tolerant of those with different beliefs, however wacky they may seem to me. Every rule has its exceptions, though. A few years ago while traveling in England, I met a woman who claimed her diet consisted solely of durian, the smelly tropical fruit that looks like a medieval weapon. That was weird, but I was prepared to overlook it; I’ve heard of stranger things. During the course of our discussion about food, however, the woman asked if I’d heard of edible gold. I cheerfully replied that I had, which was true—I’d seen a TV show years earlier about chefs using gold leaf as a decorative but edible garnish on dishes in extremely upscale restaurants. I assumed that’s what she was talking about. But she seemed very surprised that I should know about this, and in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, began excitedly talking about how the ancient Egyptians had discovered that by eating powdered gold, one could become immortal. Very clearly, she believed this too. O…K. Right then and there, all my good intentions of open-mindedness went out the window—that was just way too strange for me to get my brain around.

Later, when I consulted Google to see if I could learn any more about this seemingly outrageous claim, I was shocked and dismayed to find there are tens of thousands of Web pages describing, with great seriousness and credulity, a miraculous substance usually referred to as white powder (or powdered) gold. I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to sort out all the bizarre and competing claims about this stuff—a futile exercise that left me scratching my head. While I can’t claim the slightest expertise in this, ahem, esoteric field, I thought I’d make an attempt to distill, in my alchemical way, the essence of some of these claims for your consideration. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Slow Food

Taking back the dinner table

When Morgen and I lived in San Francisco’s trendy SoMa (South of Market) area, we were frustrated that there were no markets within easy walking distance of our home—not so much as a convenience store. Buying groceries was quite a hassle. Today, however, the situation is different, and when visiting our old neighborhood recently, we saw a great many large, shiny retail stores that had opened since we moved—including a Whole Foods Market. The contrast could not have been more stark between this store and the generic supermarkets where we usually shop. Here, the produce was fresh and healthy-looking rather than faded and bruised. Here, any kind of grain, flour, nut, or legume we could imagine was available in bulk—even red lentils, which we can’t seem to find anywhere else these days. Here, everything from the prepared foods at the deli counter to the seafood to the granola bars had the appearance of quality and wholesomeness (as the store’s name suggests). We gleefully loaded up our shopping cart, excited to be able to stock our pantry with food we could actually feel good about eating.

Then, of course, we saw how much all this was going to cost—a small fortune. Not to mention the cost of renting a car to drive across town. For people on as tight a budget as we are, that really hurts. Leaving aside the political correctness of buying free-range, genetically unmodified, grass-fed, hormone-free, pesticide-free, organic…carrots or whatever, many consumers find that the price of those attributes overshadows the quality and other virtues by a significant amount. When I see a gallon of organic milk sitting right next to a gallon of regular milk that costs half as much, I know that I’m paying for a concept—I’m paying for what I believe in much more than what I will taste on my cereal. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Durian

Exotic fruit and vampire repellent

When I was 19, I spent a summer in Indonesia. That was the first time I heard of a very unusual tropical fruit called durian. Prior to that time, my experience with tropical fruits was limited to relatively familiar ones such as pineapple, banana, mango, and papaya. But durian, which is sometimes called “the king of fruits,” was definitely something different. A missionary told me they have a saying about the fruit: “smells like hell, tastes like heaven.” Whatever else could be said about it, it seemed to provoke very strong reactions from people—either they loved it or they hated it. Unfortunately, durian was out of season at the time, and though I heard that durian ice cream was easy to find, I never actually encountered any.

A decade and a half later, I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia. On an expedition to my favorite Chinese supermarket, I came across a package of frozen durian and thought this would be the ideal way to try it. But I wanted to save it for a special occasion when I could share it with some friends, and before that occasion arose, I went on vacation. I returned to find that the refrigerator had broken down while I was gone, and the freezer—well, the entire house, actually—had a very strong and very foul odor, which I traced to the once-frozen container of fruit. The package of durian went in the trash and was forgotten. I did once have a piece of durian cake at a local bakery—a thoroughly unpleasant experience, I must say—but other than that, durian remained outside my consciousness. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Kopi Luwak

The world’s strangest and most expensive coffee

My fondness for good coffee, and the lengths to which I’m willing to go to indulge it, are well known. As someone who loves coffee and craves interesting things, it is only natural that I should be intrigued by stories of a rare, exotic, and obscenely expensive type of coffee bean. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to sample this coffee, but most of the people I’ve told about the experience—even confirmed coffee snobs—grimace, then raise their eyebrows in that “you’ve got to be kidding me” look. The story you’re about to read is, I assure you, true, though I myself became convinced only after extensive research and personal experience.

The Fruits of Labor
First, some background. Most coffee beans sold in North America come from plantations in tropical Central or South America. Colombia and Costa Rica, in particular, are well known for their excellent coffees. Coffee grows on plants that are commonly called “trees” (because that’s what they look like), even though they’re really a type of shrub. Coffee trees produce a sweet fruit known as a “cherry,” so called because of its red color when it ripens. Inside each cherry are two seeds, which are the coffee beans, encased in a thin covering called parchment. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bubble Tea

The all-in-one beverage and snack

One of the great things about spending time in another country is learning about new and unique foods. When I was living in Vancouver, Canada a few years ago, I became acquainted with bubble tea, an odd beverage that was rapidly becoming the rage across town. This strange concoction originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s, and in the last few years, it has spread all over Canada, into the United States and England, and across many other parts of the world.

Popping Some Bubbles
The term “bubble tea” is at best an unfortunate translation and at worst a euphemism. Alternative names, such as “pearl tea” or “tapioca drink,” are slightly more descriptive. Basically, bubble tea is a sweetened beverage made with water, natural flavors, (usually) a dairy component, and…tapioca balls. These “bubbles” or “pearls” are dark brown, about one centimeter in diameter, slippery on the outside and very chewy on the inside. The bubbles by themselves have very little flavor; their main purpose is to provide texture. Because they’re so large, you need a special, oversized straw to drink bubble tea with. Or should I say eat? Consuming bubble tea is a matter of both drinking and chewing, and after finishing a glass you feel quite full. In other words, it’s not so much an accompaniment to a snack as an entire snack and beverage all in one. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cueva de las Manos

Ancient spray-painted art in Patagonia

Graffiti spray-painted on the side of a building is an annoying act of vandalism. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation is an appalling desecration of nature. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation and allowed to age for thousands of years is a priceless work of art. Go figure.

Patagonia being a rather large area, I was unable to visit all the spots that interested me. One that, unfortunately, I didn’t have time for was La Cueva de las Manos, or “the cave of hands,” in south-central Patagonia. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s one of the world’s oldest outdoor art museums; its most striking characteristic is hundreds of stenciled paintings of human hands. And the paintings were made using a primitive but highly effective form of spray paint. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Extinction of the Yámana

The end of the race at the end of the world

Months before I left for my visit to Patagonia, “learn some Spanish” was high on my to do list. Even though I knew I’d be with English-speaking guides much of the time, I figured I should at least know some basics beyond “please,” “thank-you,” and “where are the restrooms?” I had tapes, dictionaries, and phrase books, but what with one thing and another I never had time to learn much. What little Spanish I did know was the variety spoken here in California, which is similar to Mexican Spanish and, it turns out, very different from Argentinean Spanish. For example, in Argentina, speakers replace the “y” sound in words containing “y” or “ll” with a “sh” or “zh” sound, depending on the context. When we tried to order a hamburger without onions (“sin cebolla” in Mexican Spanish) we got puzzled looks, followed by, “You mean, ‘sin cebozha’?” Oh. Yeah. But that difference tripped us up every time. And when our guide in Ushuaia talked at length about a race of native people he pronounced “Shamana,” it took me a long time to figure out that he was referring to the Yámana I’d read about.

Beginning at the End
The story begins some 10,000 years ago—give or take a couple of thousand years. According to the Museo Mundo Yámana in Ushuaia, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego was the last place on Earth to which humans migrated, and also the farthest point geographically to which human civilization had spread from its origin. The museum thus depicts these first human residents of the area as being the hardiest of explorers. The people called themselves Yámana, which simply means “human beings.” They lived in what to all accounts was a stable and efficient society for thousands of years. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ushuaia

City at the end of the world

In my travels, I’ve been to a lot of remote places that I’ve referred to jokingly as “the end of the world.” That’s just a figure of speech, of course, but on my trip to Patagonia last year, I at least got to visit the most distant region of land I could reach from my home without crossing an ocean—the islands of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. I did not go to the most distant of these islands, but there would have been little to see there anyway. I did, however, spend several days in a place that bills itself as the end of the world, or “fin del mundo” in Spanish: Ushuaia, Argentina.

Because of this city’s unusual location, any discussion requires a number of qualifications and definitions. Even saying its name is potentially problematic. The guide books we’d read before going to Argentina said to pronounce it “oo-SWY-ah,” so we did. And so did everyone else we met in Argentina—until we reached the city itself. There, the local pronunciation was invariably “oo-SHWY-ah,” which is arguably closer to the original pronunciation of the name in its language of origin, Yámana (pronounced “SHA-ma-na,” but that’s a story for another day). The name means, roughly, “bay that penetrates to the west,” which is reasonable enough. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Legends of Tierra del Fuego

The incredible shrinking southern continent

As an American, I’ve always been accustomed to very clearly defined state, national, and continental boundaries. The border between Canada and the U.S., for example, may be an arbitrary line of latitude, but we all know exactly where it is—what’s in, and what’s out. We know exactly where North America stops and Central America starts; we also know when we’ve reached the easternmost or westernmost edge of the continent because we run into an ocean. Sure, there’s the odd island off the coast here or there, but conceptually, these cause no problems for my notion of what a continent is.

The map of South America, though, has always offended my sense of geographical tidiness. At the southern end of the continent, the land sort of swoops out to the east—but wait, that last big chunk is actually an island. Is that part of the continent? And what about the bazillions of smaller islands littering the coastline to the south and west? If I’m on one of those islands, am I on the continent or not? The geological answer is yes—I’m on the same continental plate. The political answer is also yes—any given spot of any given island is uncontroversially under the control of either Chile or Argentina. But to the average person on the street (or boat, as the case may be), these boundaries are neither visible nor intuitive. Today, we can get the answers to such questions from highly accurate maps. Hundreds of years ago, though, the answers were far less obvious. Speculation about continental boundaries led to some fanciful maps, tall tales, and grand adventures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Extreme Ironing

Pressing your luck

My fondness for gadgets goes way back—back to those innocent days of my childhood when anything that ran on electricity and had buttons qualified as a gadget. I must have been about five years old when, one Christmas, I asked my parents for an iron. I’d seen one in a toy catalog—but it was a real iron. It had a plug and it got hot and everything (though presumably the temperature was kept low enough that kids wouldn’t burn themselves). And, crucially, it had four buttons. I didn’t know what the buttons did and I didn’t care. But I knew that I wanted and needed four of them. When Christmas arrived, I excitedly tore open my presents, and there, sure enough, was my very own iron. But wait! What’s this? This iron has only three buttons! It’s the wrong iron! It’s all wrong! Christmas is ruined! I yelled and I cried and I tried, with little success, to explain to my parents between sobs that really that fourth button was the crucial ingredient, without which the gift was, sadly, worthless to me. It must have been the following year that I began typing my Christmas lists—complete with catalog numbers, so that there could be no mistakes.

As an adult—no doubt due to this traumatic experience—I’ve never been much for ironing. But I must admit, some of those new cordless, digital, titanium-clad irons do look mighty tempting. That, a small ironing board, a good pair of sneakers, and nerves of steel are all I’d need to participate in the latest sports craze: extreme ironing. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rock Paper Scissors Tournaments

A stone’s throw from the cutting edge

As regular readers of Interesting Thing of the Day know, I’m not what you’d call a sports enthusiast. Only on the rarest and most unusual occasions can I be persuaded to watch a sporting event, and even less often do I participate. This is partly because I’m not a very competitive person myself—and in general, I don’t like being around those who are. This attitude extends (again, only with occasional and very particular exceptions) even to board games, card games, and the like. They just don’t do anything for me. I’d rather have a conversation, or read a book, or go for a jog (as long as it’s not a race).

On the other hand, I do frequently need to make binary decisions, especially of the “which-one-of-us-gets-to-perform-the-unpleasant-task” variety. If my wife and I are trying to determine which one of us will take out the garbage, do the laundry, feed the cat, or whatever, we will sometimes employ the time-honored method of using a binary random number generator (a coin toss). Other times, we resort to playing “rock, paper, scissors,” an ostensibly random decision-making technique at which I invariably lose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Petra

The city of stone

Like every other fan of action movies, I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when it came out in 1989. I enjoyed the film as an entertaining adventure, notwithstanding the silly premise and the wildly improbable plot. As the story neared its climax, our heroes arrived at the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, where, according to their research, they believed they’d find the temple in which the Holy Grail had been kept hidden all these centuries. And as they rode on horseback through a narrow gorge into this supposedly secret site and the canyon walls opened to reveal the reddish facade of a huge temple carved into a cliff face, my reaction was a bit different from that of most of the other theatergoers. I was thinking: “Hey, my grandparents visited there! I remember seeing the slides when I was a kid.” And I was right: that scene had been shot on location in Petra, Jordan—one of many famous sites my grandparents had visited and photographed on their travels in the Middle East.

Hard Living
The name Petra, from the Greek word for “rock,” aptly describes this long-deserted city that is best known for its numerous buildings and tombs carved directly into sandstone cliffs—many with elaborate facades that would have been challenging to create even for free-standing structures. Everything about Petra seems improbable, from its location to its architecture to the fact that it was mostly forgotten for hundreds of years. Nothing but the outside of that one building is really the way the movie depicts it, but Petra contains enough mysteries and surprises that you could almost believe any fanciful tale about the city. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Stone Balls of Costa Rica

Mystery spheres as lawn ornaments

When I was last in Costa Rica a couple of years ago, I was on the lookout, as usual, for interesting things. And I found plenty of them: sloths, leaf cutter ants, poison dart frogs, volcanoes, and so on. I was not, however, on the lookout for lawn ornaments, under the assumption that decorative stone sculptures were not particularly interesting. I should have known better than to make such an assumption—after all, I saw “Amélie,” which cast an entirely new light on garden gnomes. Shortly before the end of my trip, a fellow tourist asked me if I knew about the stone balls. “What stone balls?” I asked. “There are these mysterious ancient balls,” he said, “that are so perfectly round, they could not have been carved by hand. Nobody knows where they came from or how they were made, but they’re scattered all over the country, and people like to find them and use them as lawn ornaments.” Sure enough, as we drove along, I spotted stone balls in a few yards, but I didn’t have a chance to photograph one. It seemed strange to me that artifacts with such obvious archeological significance would end up as the Costa Rican equivalent of plastic pink flamingos.

Rolling With the Bunches
The first discovery of the unusual stone balls was made around 1940. The United Fruit Company was preparing large tracts of land in the Diquis Delta on the southern Pacific coast to be used for banana plantations. In the process of clearing the land, they unearthed several dozen balls, ranging in size from a few centimeters to over two meters in diameter. Subsequent archeological research identified and catalogued hundreds of the balls, some of which appeared in other parts of the country. As news of the find began to spread, the balls were rounded up (sorry) by collectors and treasure hunters; today, only six are known to remain in their original positions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pat O'Brien's

Home of the Hurricane

In December, 2003, a New Orleans bar called Pat O’Brien’s celebrated its 70th anniversary. Although not old by New Orleans standards, Pat O’Brien’s is an icon of the French Quarter, a location to which nearly every tourist makes a pilgrimage. Numerous explanations could be advanced for the bar’s persistent popularity, but I think it comes down to a simple formula: strong drinks, reasonable prices, and atmosphere. Their motto since 1933 has been “Have Fun!”—not especially clever or inventive, but to the point. Truth be told, it’s a euphemism for “Have Rum!” At Pat O’Brien’s, the distinction between the two is vague at best.

Just Add Rum
A lot of bars opened in 1933; it was the year Prohibition was repealed in the United States. B. H. “Pat” O’Brien had been running a speakeasy called Mr. O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, but he turned the operation legit when the law allowed. In 1942, he moved the bar to its current location, a building erected in 1791 as the first Spanish theater in the U.S. But Pat O’Brien’s is best known for its signature drink, the Hurricane. This is a serious drink by anyone’s standard: a tall, ice-filled glass containing 4 ounces of rum and 4 ounces of a sweet, red passion fruit syrup—garnished with a slice of orange and a cherry. The name comes from the shape of the glass, which looks like a hurricane lamp. According to legend, the Hurricane was the brainchild of a liquor salesman in the 1940s who wanted to convince the bar they needed to buy a great deal of rum. (A variation on this story gives credit to a bartender looking for a creative way to deal with excess inventory of rum and grenadine.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Interesting Burger Joints

Where the beef is

Many of my friends and relatives are vegetarians. And I respect those who, for reasons of conscience, health, or religious convictions—or perhaps paranoia about Mad Cow Disease or genetic engineering—opt not to eat animal products. I myself eat meat only occasionally and am generally content with a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and chocolate. But when it comes to hamburgers, I must confess a special weakness. I could pass up a steak without a second glance, but I can’t easily ignore a well-made burger. Hence my ongoing search for great—or at least interesting—hamburger joints. Here are a few of my current favorites.

In-N-Out
To many people, In-N-Out is just another chain of cheap restaurants in the western U.S. To me, it’s a model of elegant simplicity. The menu contains exactly four food choices: hamburger, cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, fries. There are shakes and the usual beverage assortment—but that’s it. No salads, fish sandwiches, designer chicken pieces, or trendy desserts. Just the basics. If you have to wait in line, it isn’t because the person in front of you can’t decide what to order—and yes, you can shorten the process even further by ordering a combo. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Edible Gold

The gourmet and the alchemist

I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, someone who is tolerant of those with different beliefs, however wacky they may seem to me. Every rule has its exceptions, though. A few years ago while traveling in England, I met a woman who claimed her diet consisted solely of durian, the smelly tropical fruit that looks like a medieval weapon. That was weird, but I was prepared to overlook it; I’ve heard of stranger things. During the course of our discussion about food, however, the woman asked if I’d heard of edible gold. I cheerfully replied that I had, which was true—I’d seen a TV show years earlier about chefs using gold leaf as a decorative but edible garnish on dishes in extremely upscale restaurants. I assumed that’s what she was talking about. But she seemed very surprised that I should know about this, and in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, began excitedly talking about how the ancient Egyptians had discovered that by eating powdered gold, one could become immortal. Very clearly, she believed this too. O…K. Right then and there, all my good intentions of open-mindedness went out the window—that was just way too strange for me to get my brain around.

Later, when I consulted Google to see if I could learn any more about this seemingly outrageous claim, I was shocked and dismayed to find there are tens of thousands of Web pages describing, with great seriousness and credulity, a miraculous substance usually referred to as white powder (or powdered) gold. I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to sort out all the bizarre and competing claims about this stuff—a futile exercise that left me scratching my head. While I can’t claim the slightest expertise in this, ahem, esoteric field, I thought I’d make an attempt to distill, in my alchemical way, the essence of some of these claims for your consideration. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Slow Food

Taking back the dinner table

When Morgen and I lived in San Francisco’s trendy SoMa (South of Market) area, we were frustrated that there were no markets within easy walking distance of our home—not so much as a convenience store. Buying groceries was quite a hassle. Today, however, the situation is different, and when visiting our old neighborhood recently, we saw a great many large, shiny retail stores that had opened since we moved—including a Whole Foods Market. The contrast could not have been more stark between this store and the generic supermarkets where we usually shop. Here, the produce was fresh and healthy-looking rather than faded and bruised. Here, any kind of grain, flour, nut, or legume we could imagine was available in bulk—even red lentils, which we can’t seem to find anywhere else these days. Here, everything from the prepared foods at the deli counter to the seafood to the granola bars had the appearance of quality and wholesomeness (as the store’s name suggests). We gleefully loaded up our shopping cart, excited to be able to stock our pantry with food we could actually feel good about eating.

Then, of course, we saw how much all this was going to cost—a small fortune. Not to mention the cost of renting a car to drive across town. For people on as tight a budget as we are, that really hurts. Leaving aside the political correctness of buying free-range, genetically unmodified, grass-fed, hormone-free, pesticide-free, organic…carrots or whatever, many consumers find that the price of those attributes overshadows the quality and other virtues by a significant amount. When I see a gallon of organic milk sitting right next to a gallon of regular milk that costs half as much, I know that I’m paying for a concept—I’m paying for what I believe in much more than what I will taste on my cereal. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Durian

Exotic fruit and vampire repellent

When I was 19, I spent a summer in Indonesia. That was the first time I heard of a very unusual tropical fruit called durian. Prior to that time, my experience with tropical fruits was limited to relatively familiar ones such as pineapple, banana, mango, and papaya. But durian, which is sometimes called “the king of fruits,” was definitely something different. A missionary told me they have a saying about the fruit: “smells like hell, tastes like heaven.” Whatever else could be said about it, it seemed to provoke very strong reactions from people—either they loved it or they hated it. Unfortunately, durian was out of season at the time, and though I heard that durian ice cream was easy to find, I never actually encountered any.

A decade and a half later, I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia. On an expedition to my favorite Chinese supermarket, I came across a package of frozen durian and thought this would be the ideal way to try it. But I wanted to save it for a special occasion when I could share it with some friends, and before that occasion arose, I went on vacation. I returned to find that the refrigerator had broken down while I was gone, and the freezer—well, the entire house, actually—had a very strong and very foul odor, which I traced to the once-frozen container of fruit. The package of durian went in the trash and was forgotten. I did once have a piece of durian cake at a local bakery—a thoroughly unpleasant experience, I must say—but other than that, durian remained outside my consciousness. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Kopi Luwak

The world’s strangest and most expensive coffee

My fondness for good coffee, and the lengths to which I’m willing to go to indulge it, are well known. As someone who loves coffee and craves interesting things, it is only natural that I should be intrigued by stories of a rare, exotic, and obscenely expensive type of coffee bean. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to sample this coffee, but most of the people I’ve told about the experience—even confirmed coffee snobs—grimace, then raise their eyebrows in that “you’ve got to be kidding me” look. The story you’re about to read is, I assure you, true, though I myself became convinced only after extensive research and personal experience.

The Fruits of Labor
First, some background. Most coffee beans sold in North America come from plantations in tropical Central or South America. Colombia and Costa Rica, in particular, are well known for their excellent coffees. Coffee grows on plants that are commonly called “trees” (because that’s what they look like), even though they’re really a type of shrub. Coffee trees produce a sweet fruit known as a “cherry,” so called because of its red color when it ripens. Inside each cherry are two seeds, which are the coffee beans, encased in a thin covering called parchment. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bubble Tea

The all-in-one beverage and snack

One of the great things about spending time in another country is learning about new and unique foods. When I was living in Vancouver, Canada a few years ago, I became acquainted with bubble tea, an odd beverage that was rapidly becoming the rage across town. This strange concoction originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s, and in the last few years, it has spread all over Canada, into the United States and England, and across many other parts of the world.

Popping Some Bubbles
The term “bubble tea” is at best an unfortunate translation and at worst a euphemism. Alternative names, such as “pearl tea” or “tapioca drink,” are slightly more descriptive. Basically, bubble tea is a sweetened beverage made with water, natural flavors, (usually) a dairy component, and…tapioca balls. These “bubbles” or “pearls” are dark brown, about one centimeter in diameter, slippery on the outside and very chewy on the inside. The bubbles by themselves have very little flavor; their main purpose is to provide texture. Because they’re so large, you need a special, oversized straw to drink bubble tea with. Or should I say eat? Consuming bubble tea is a matter of both drinking and chewing, and after finishing a glass you feel quite full. In other words, it’s not so much an accompaniment to a snack as an entire snack and beverage all in one. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cueva de las Manos

Ancient spray-painted art in Patagonia

Graffiti spray-painted on the side of a building is an annoying act of vandalism. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation is an appalling desecration of nature. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation and allowed to age for thousands of years is a priceless work of art. Go figure.

Patagonia being a rather large area, I was unable to visit all the spots that interested me. One that, unfortunately, I didn’t have time for was La Cueva de las Manos, or “the cave of hands,” in south-central Patagonia. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s one of the world’s oldest outdoor art museums; its most striking characteristic is hundreds of stenciled paintings of human hands. And the paintings were made using a primitive but highly effective form of spray paint. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Extinction of the Yámana

The end of the race at the end of the world

Months before I left for my visit to Patagonia, “learn some Spanish” was high on my to do list. Even though I knew I’d be with English-speaking guides much of the time, I figured I should at least know some basics beyond “please,” “thank-you,” and “where are the restrooms?” I had tapes, dictionaries, and phrase books, but what with one thing and another I never had time to learn much. What little Spanish I did know was the variety spoken here in California, which is similar to Mexican Spanish and, it turns out, very different from Argentinean Spanish. For example, in Argentina, speakers replace the “y” sound in words containing “y” or “ll” with a “sh” or “zh” sound, depending on the context. When we tried to order a hamburger without onions (“sin cebolla” in Mexican Spanish) we got puzzled looks, followed by, “You mean, ‘sin cebozha’?” Oh. Yeah. But that difference tripped us up every time. And when our guide in Ushuaia talked at length about a race of native people he pronounced “Shamana,” it took me a long time to figure out that he was referring to the Yámana I’d read about.

Beginning at the End
The story begins some 10,000 years ago—give or take a couple of thousand years. According to the Museo Mundo Yámana in Ushuaia, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego was the last place on Earth to which humans migrated, and also the farthest point geographically to which human civilization had spread from its origin. The museum thus depicts these first human residents of the area as being the hardiest of explorers. The people called themselves Yámana, which simply means “human beings.” They lived in what to all accounts was a stable and efficient society for thousands of years. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ushuaia

City at the end of the world

In my travels, I’ve been to a lot of remote places that I’ve referred to jokingly as “the end of the world.” That’s just a figure of speech, of course, but on my trip to Patagonia last year, I at least got to visit the most distant region of land I could reach from my home without crossing an ocean—the islands of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. I did not go to the most distant of these islands, but there would have been little to see there anyway. I did, however, spend several days in a place that bills itself as the end of the world, or “fin del mundo” in Spanish: Ushuaia, Argentina.

Because of this city’s unusual location, any discussion requires a number of qualifications and definitions. Even saying its name is potentially problematic. The guide books we’d read before going to Argentina said to pronounce it “oo-SWY-ah,” so we did. And so did everyone else we met in Argentina—until we reached the city itself. There, the local pronunciation was invariably “oo-SHWY-ah,” which is arguably closer to the original pronunciation of the name in its language of origin, Yámana (pronounced “SHA-ma-na,” but that’s a story for another day). The name means, roughly, “bay that penetrates to the west,” which is reasonable enough. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Legends of Tierra del Fuego

The incredible shrinking southern continent

As an American, I’ve always been accustomed to very clearly defined state, national, and continental boundaries. The border between Canada and the U.S., for example, may be an arbitrary line of latitude, but we all know exactly where it is—what’s in, and what’s out. We know exactly where North America stops and Central America starts; we also know when we’ve reached the easternmost or westernmost edge of the continent because we run into an ocean. Sure, there’s the odd island off the coast here or there, but conceptually, these cause no problems for my notion of what a continent is.

The map of South America, though, has always offended my sense of geographical tidiness. At the southern end of the continent, the land sort of swoops out to the east—but wait, that last big chunk is actually an island. Is that part of the continent? And what about the bazillions of smaller islands littering the coastline to the south and west? If I’m on one of those islands, am I on the continent or not? The geological answer is yes—I’m on the same continental plate. The political answer is also yes—any given spot of any given island is uncontroversially under the control of either Chile or Argentina. But to the average person on the street (or boat, as the case may be), these boundaries are neither visible nor intuitive. Today, we can get the answers to such questions from highly accurate maps. Hundreds of years ago, though, the answers were far less obvious. Speculation about continental boundaries led to some fanciful maps, tall tales, and grand adventures. [Article Continues…]

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