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Late Summer Reading: Surfing in Hawaii, Tea in India; a Globetrotting Marriage

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Remember summer reading lists?

In June every year I waited breathlessly for the mailman to bring a thick white envelope embossed with a purple shield.  It was from my school and inside there was a long list of books to be read over vacation.  A few were required, most were for extra credit.

But moi?  I read them all.

This, of course, required numerous trips to our public library. In the musty stacks I dug for buried treasure. The list was challenging only in length—the books I remember loving were good reads, but classics? Most wouldn’t make the cut.  Edna Ferber’s So Big comes to mind, and William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions.

It was adventure that I craved. Books were the flying carpet that took me to far off lands and times. Lying on my stomach, open book on the cork floor, feet waving in the air, I ripped through them, one after another, during the long, hot afternoons.

This summer I’ve been recovering from a ridiculous fall (no, I will not give details). Since real travel has been put on hold, I came up with an indulgent reading list based on adventuresome books that happened to catch my fancy. It’s been an equally pleasing way to indulge in summery drinks. Jungle Juice is perfect for reading in the tropical garden, iced Vietnamese coffee for the library in the afternoon.

As summer draws to a close, I find myself finishing five books simultaneously.

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Let’s begin with I Married Adventure, an unlikely candidate if ever there was one.

The vintage hardback’s faux “tiger skin” binding has turned this early 20th century romp through the South Seas and darkest Africa into the design trade’s favorite camp accessory: The cover looks fabulous on your coffee table or standing upright on your curated bookshelf.

But does anyone read the book?  Not so much, I suspect.

Actually I Married Adventure reminds me of nothing so much as the B-grade jungle movies—Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, for instance—I used to watch on Saturday afternoons. Like the flicks, it’s highly entertaining, if a bit past its expiration date.

 

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Osa Johnson, on “the cannibal beach” with her trunks and a few natives. Photo, presumably taken by Martin, from I Married Adventure.

Author Osa Johnson and her husband Martin were a couple of good-looking explorers who defied their conventional Midwestern upbringing to embark on a life of adventure—he photographing, she serving as his enthusiastic aide de camp—at a time when places like Borneo and Kenya were unimaginable to the average American.

After eloping in 1917, they soon arrived on the remote and unsettled South Sea island of Malekula. An aspiring filmmaker, Martin was determined to make a documentary of the “savages” for theaters back in the US.  As he hand-cranked his movie camera, Osa tried to win over a native chieftain, “so frightful as to be magnificent,” with a scrap of calico:

“’This is a very nice piece of calico,” I said loudly and distinctly, holding out the bright cloth to Nagapate. ‘A very nice color. You would be very handsome in it. It would make a very nice shirt, I think.’

“Nagapate reached out, but instead of the calico he took my arm; his great hand felt like dry leather.

“Martin’s quiet voice cut through my terror: ‘Don’t be afraid, Osa. He’s just curious, that’s all.’

“Curious! Apparently the whiteness of my skin puzzled the big black man. With gutteral grunts he first tried rubbing it off with his finger. This failing, he picked up a bit of rough cane and scraped my skin with it, and was astonished, apparently, when it turned pink….

“’Try to get him interested in the trade stuff, Darling. Put it in his hands.’ Martin’s voice shook a little….”

 

Suffice it to say that the Johnsons narrowly escaped a cannibalistic fate, saved only by the arrival of a British patrol boat and a frantic, headlong flight down a “slimy, treacherous trail” to the beach.  The doughty couple made nine expeditions to the far corners of the world, all of which they documented for eager moviegoers at home.

You can see scratchy footage of the Johnsons’ encounter with the inhabitants of Malekula on the YouTube trailer for the 1940 movie version. Bosley Crowther, the New York Times film critic, said the movie had a “pleasant, nostalgic appeal,” but that the scenes in which Osa plays herself were “pitifully amateurish.”

Oh well, let’s stick to the book.

 

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Summer is always a good time to re-read old favorites.

This year, instead of the invented quasi-Russian world in Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, I’m time-traveling to Hawaii via a tattered copy of My Old Sweetheart, a 1982 novel by Susannah Moore. Moore grew up in Oahu and her prose evokes the lush, seductive feel of the island in the mid-20th century—it’s as much a novel of atmosphere as plot—as well as a terrible unhappiness that lurks beneath the shimmering surface.

Much of the novel is based on Moore’s own early life, including her close relationship with her beautiful but troubled mother. In this passage, a young Lily Shields swims with her own lovely, doomed mother through a rocky cleft into a mysterious sea cave:

“At once she felt the temperature of the suddenly black water change. It grew colder and colder as she nervously kicked herself back up to the surface. She came up in darkness, spouting loudly and breathed the cool, damp air. She was inside the Wet Cave. It was black all around her. There was not even a reflection on the water.

“’Isn’t it beautiful?’ she heard her mother whisper. Her voice echoed. Lily could not see her in the dark. They were inside the mountain in a high, vaulted cavern washed hollow for thousands of years by the sea. Hundreds of tiny pinholes in the lava dome arching above them let in constellations of light. It was like the clear night sky. There were too many sparks to be stars alone: lightning bugs, thought Lily.

“’ Where are you?’ she asked.

“She felt the inky water move around her and then a hand splashed behind her and she found her mother’s arm.

“’Are you afraid?’”

The horrific damage some parents carelessly inflict on their children is further explored in the other two novels of Moore’s Hawaii trilogy: The Whiteness of Bones and Sleeping Beauties. The naturalists and gardeners among you will adore her descriptions of the native flora and fauna amongst which these stories unfold.

(For more, see Moore’s gorgeous new Hawaii blog here and this post which tells you how she came to write My Old Sweetheart.)

 

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Let’s get to food.  Actually, let’s have a cup of tea.

At the moment I’m toggling back and forth between two books about tea. One of them has sent me foraging in the pantry for packets of forgotten leaves, while the other has revived my craving for a Darljeeling expedition.

The firstPuer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic is the story of a bubble.

Much like the tulip mania of 1637 or the 2008 U.S. housing bubble, the Chinese recently became so infatuated with puer, an ancient fermented tea once paid as tribute to the Emperor in Beijing, that, in 2006, a single gram was auctioned for 32 times the going price of gold.

As the author Jinghong Zhang tells it, China’s rapid modernization in the 1990’s not only upended old ways of production, but paradoxically created a longing for products that were still made in a traditional fashion.

 

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A worker picks tea leaves in a traditional Yunnan “forest” tea garden. Photo from ourworld.unu.edu

As it happened, puer tea perfectly fit the bill.  For centuries it had been grown and meticulously processed in the Six Great Tea Mountains of Yunnan by families whose names and exquisite leaves were well known to connoisseurs.  It had a noble lineage and a romantic history. Pressed into cakes, it was traded to Tibet by horse or mule caravan along the mythic Tea Horse Road. Because this means of transport was so slow, puer aged en route and acquired a distinctive and desirably earthy flavor.

In the early 2000’s puer skyrocketed in value, as “connoisseurs,” real and wannabe, bought the tea and stockpiled it as an investment. The media also helped. At one point there were 17 magazines about puer, mostly produced in Yunnan.  The tea achieved its highest prices in 2007. Then the bubble burst and prices collapsed following an earthquake in Yunnan which was said to have affected the quality of the leaves.

There is a whiff of academia about the book—phrases such as “multiple authenticities” and “cultural intersections” occur with some frequency—and it is sometimes hard to wade through all the scholarly jargon. Zhang seems to have begun the book as a research project and wrote it while at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

But it is nonetheless fascinating. The uncertainties surrounding the authenticity of puer tea after it acquired cult status—far more high quality “forest tea” was offered for sale than could ever have been produced—seems to mirror our own questions about reality in America’s rampaging media-fueled culture.

Is it just me or do you feel that the rug is perpetually slipping out from under your feet?  What is something really worth?  What is real and what is not?

It’s enough to drive you to meditation.

 

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In especially delirious moments, I’ve wondered what would happen if I pulled up stakes and became a tea grower. Maybe in India. (B, ever patient, only smiles when I bring up yet another crazy idea.)

Jeff Koehler’s Darjeeling: the Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea has persuaded me that mine is a fool’s vision.  I’m sure he didn’t set out to write a cautionary tale, but in detailing the convulsions of the Indian tea industry, he paints a picture that is less than idyllic.

And yet, what a picture!

Darjeeling is a mountainous district in West Bengal, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where conditions–cool, misty climate, high altitude and rich, acidic soil–are ideal for growing fine tea. As the author describes it, Darjeeling has a “characteristic brightness frequently likened to newly minted coins, fragrant aromas and sophisticated, complex flavors—delicate even flowery (more stem than petal, as one expert blender put it), with hints of apricots and peaches, muscat grapes, and toasty nuts…” For all these reasons, it has been dubbed “the champagne of teas.”

The book not only details the history of Darjeeling—Dr. Archibald Campbell, a Scottish civil servant, planted the first tea there in 1841–but also profiles several contemporary growers and their tea gardens.

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Workers in the Makaibari tea garden in Darjeeling. Photo from makaibari.com

Notable among them is Rajah Banerjee who for decades has headed the celebrated Makaibari estate. During his tenure Banerjee adopted organic and biodynamic growing practices, not only improving the soil but also enhancing the legendary flavor of the leaves. In 2005 the British royal family reportedly paid Rs 200,000 ($4,500) for a single kilo of Makaibari Silver Tips Imperial, a tea said to be “energized by cosmic forces and plucked around the full moon.”

Although Banerjee idealistically hoped to transfer ownership of Makaibari to the farmers who grow and pick the tea, he became discouraged by the difficulties involved—labor issues, the antiquated structure of the tea gardens, a lack of political will—and in 2014 sold a 90 percent interest to the Luxmi Group, a company which owns 17 tea estates, mostly in Assam—which generally produces a less highly regarded tea—and is “heavily into real estate.”

The future of Makaibari and other fine estates is thus up in the air, but in the meantime there are delicious recipes in the back of the book, ranging from precise directions for brewing a Perfect Cup of Darjeeling to Fresh Passion Fruit Chai, seasoned with black pepper, and Onion Pakoras, spicy fritters with cilantro, black onion seed and fresh green chilies.  I plan to try every one!

 

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I’ve saved the best for last: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by New Yorker writer William Finnegan.

It’s a gorgeous autobiography in which writer chronicles his passion for surfing, first as a boy in Hawaii, then chasing waves across the world, always in the company of other surfers, most as addicted, as he has been, to a life focused mainly on discovering the next great set.

Finnegan is a prolific writer who has written four other  books and numerous award-winning articles on subjects as diverse as the war in Sudan and the depletion of the world’s water supply. His prose is wondrous—and, in this book, informed by a remarkable memory for specific waves he has encountered. Here he describes a drug-fueled, near-death experience at Honolua Bay on Maui:

“There was a light mist—it was aerated seawater, from all the crashing and smashing—and no wind, which left the ocean’s surface slickly shiny. Its color was a muted gray-white until a wave reared; then turquoise floodlights seemed to switch on, illuminating the wave’s gut from the inside….When a wave finally came to me, I took it.  The floodlights switched on in the middle of my first turn. I tried to look ahead, tried to see what the wave had in store down the line and plan accordingly, but I was surrounded by turquoise light.  I felt some rapture of the deep.  I looked upward, There was a silver, sparkling ceiling.  I seemed to be riding a cushion of air. Then the lights went out.”

At this point in my life, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever paddle out on a board, much less try to ride a wave, even a baby one, but reading Finnegan is nearly as good as being there yourself.  Maybe better.

Here’s the follow-on to his wipe out at Honolua:

“He [his friend Becket] had seen my wave.  I had disappeared into the tube standing straight up, he said, my arms extended crucifixion-style, face raised to the sky.  I never had a prayer of making it. But I reappeared, he said, for a moment, blown through the curtain, somersaulting helplessly. ‘Rag doll’ was the term he used.  I couldn’t remember the wipeout. All I remembered was the rapture.”

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Finnegan, aboard Alias, an Australian “surf yacht,” in Fiji, 1978. Photo from Barbarian Days.

 

Incidentally, if you’re in Easthampton any time before October 10, you can catch Surf Craft, a surfboard exhibition at LongHouse Reserve. It includes 45 surfboards from the late 1940′s to the present day, “capturing the influences behind design in board riding, from the alaia boards of ancient Hawaii, to obscure surf bathing boards of England, Japan and Africa, to postwar hydrodynamic planning hulls from Southern California.”

I was especially taken with The Wall Street Journal’s description of “Sting,” a 1970′s needle-nosed Hawaiian board: “Hawaiian surfer and surfboard shaper Ben Aipa came up with the name for this board after he saw a friend ride a wave so fast that it looked like he was stinging it like a bee.”

 

 

 

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