Read Lou Reed’s European Travel Diary

Rock icon Lou Reed died yesterday. The former frontman for the Velvet Underground was 71. He’d undergone a liver transplant earlier this year.

Upon news of Reed’s death, The New Yorker unlocked access to “Diary by Lou Reed: The Aches and Pains of Touring,” which it published in 1996.

In the piece, Reed chronicles 10 days on the road, talking about stints in Lintz, Antibes and Prague, and lost luggage, lengthy layovers and exploding shampoo bottles. The similarities between Reed’s travels though and your last European visit ends there: Reed was hanging out with David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Vaclav Havel.

Accusations traded between police and detainees in Antigua

Six Carnival cruise ship passengers hit and choked the police. Or, the police punched the passengers in the face. A week after the half dozen New Yorkers were arrested, the only thing that’s clear is that both sides say they’re right.

While on a 10-hour port call in Antigua, the cruise passengers paid a taxi driver to give them a tour of the island. The tour ended at a beach – rather than back at the cruise ship – and the once happy wanderers balked at having to shell out $100 on top of the $50 they’d already paid for the ride. A brawl ensued, and the police were called. The mayhem ended with incarceration.

The passengers were let out on $5,000 bail on Monday but have to stay in the country until the trial is concluded. Dolores Lalanne, Mike Pierre Paul, Joshua Jackson, Shoshonna Henry, Nancy Lalanne and Rachael Henry all entered pleas of not guilty to charges including battery and malicious damage. Prosecutors dropped the assault charges.

The trial began Wednesday, with the police testifying that the New Yorkers behaved aggressively. One officer, Alcia Browne-Weston claimed to have been kicked in the stomach and then choked by one of the tourists. Meanwhile, the defendants say the cops – not wearing uniforms – did not announce themselves before starting the altercation. Shoshonna Henry claimed to The Associated Press: “We thought these people were going to kill us.”

The trial is set to continue today.

Find a cupcake in New York

Leave it to New Yorkers to be picky and demanding. Whether it’s upscale meals or obscure vodka brands, we want what we want, and if you don’t carry it, you’re somehow “lesser.” Cupcakes are no different. From my window, I can see the Upper West Side‘s Magnolia Bakery (one of three in the city), and there are many others.

In The Atlantic Monthly, a close look is taken at cupcakes, particularly in New York. The balance between cake and frosting is considered crucial, and (thankfully) Corby Kummer gives you a sense of who’s who in the large and growing world of Manhattan cupcake bakeries.

Well, starting with my neighborhood, poor Magnolia is said not to have any flavor in the cake (which I think is a bit harsh). Buttercup’s icing is better, but the cake isn’t. Sugar Sweet Sunshine – which, like Buttercup, comes from former Magnolia talent – is better than both.

Sadly, Kummer missed the latest entry into the Manhattan cupcake market: The Little Pie Company. Known for the most amazing cakes and pies in the city, sex and cupcake blogger Rachel Kramer Bussell tried in vain to get one on Christmas Eve last year. Later, she did succeed, and the cupcake was everything she’d hoped it would be.

[Via The Atlantic Monthly]

[Photo: cupcake from The Little Pie Company, Cupcakes Take the Cake]

Talking travel with author of “The Snake Charmer”

I’m here with Jamie James, a former critic at The New Yorker turned author. His latest book, “The Snake Charmer”, centers around a renegade herpetologist who ultimately dies in the jungles of Burma after getting bitten by a krait, one of the world’s deadliest snakes. Jamie traveled to Burma to research the book.

He also writes frequently about travel and culture for The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Adventure, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times. He currently lives in Bali.

The NYT review of Snake Charmer declared the book’s protagonist, herpetologist Joe Slowinski, a “Class A jerk.” From all the research you’ve accumulated, what’s your take on the guy?

The Times review presented a very shallow analysis, concentrating on one sliver of a complex character — 5% of the book yanked out of context. It’s true that Joe was ruthless in his pursuit of knowledge, and rubbed some people the wrong way; but few scientists bother with “please” and “thank you.”

Joe was also widely loved and respected by his colleagues. One fascinating reflection of Joe’s personality, which I never could find a place for in the book, is that no fewer than SEVEN people told me that he was their best friend. That seems truly remarkable to me — how many people have that kind of impact on the people around them? And from his colleagues he commanded widespread respect for his brilliant mind and original thinking, more important qualities for a scientist than simple niceness. Joe Slowinski truly did not care what people thought of him, which is a key aspect of what makes him so fascinating.
You traveled to Burma in the process of writing the book. What was it like to travel in one of the world’s most closeted countries?

In some ways, travel in repressive totalitarian regimes is easier — as long as you’re willing to pay. That’s the upside of corruption: as long as you have American dollars and don’t show any interest in the Army, they’ll usually do whatever you ask.

Why did you decide to pursue this project (especially when his adventures have been covered before, in Outside Magazine, for example)?

Mark Moffett’s article in Outside was an excellent account of his personal recollections as a member of Joe’s final expedition, and a good starting place. However, no one had ever attempted to do a detailed, objective reconstruction of Joe’s final trek, and it proved to be the most interesting research I’ve ever undertaken. The first time I heard of Joe Slowinski was his obituary in the newspaper, which a friend clipped for me. It came out more than a month after he died — he received his fatal bite on Sept. 11, 2001, and the attack on America just ate up the news.

As soon as I read it, I thought, this would be a fantastic book — what a story! The sheer drama of it seemed so compelling. I had an instinct that a life that ended that way must have been interesting from childhood on — and that proved to be true. Joe Slowinski’s whole career was fascinating; his last expedition into remote northern Burma was the tragic finale of the drama.

Many readers will be jealous to hear that you live full-time in Bali. Sounds like the dream home. Any downsides or is it umbrella drinks on the beach all day long?

Living in Paradise has the advantages you suggest — one of the most gorgeous beaches in the world is a five-minute bike ride from my house, and the Balinese are among the most interesting and lovable people I’ve come across. It’s probably the best place in the world to have car trouble, people are so kind and eager to help.

The main disadvantage for me has been the lack of outside intellectual stimulus, but Bali is getting more connected all the time. When I came here 9 years ago, there were no decent bookstores, the world’s slowest dial-up internet service, a bottle of scotch cost $50, and so on — now we have gourmet food shops, book shops, reasonable DSL internet, and so on — but residents complain that every step “forward” makes the place a bit less special. The price of globalization.

Besides your work as a nonfiction author, you’re a prolific travel writer. How do you pick your stories?

I must answer you as a journalist. Every story I do is based more or less equally on two factors: I try to find places that I really want to go and a good market that might be likely to take an interest in it. They are two totally different worlds, the places I want to go and the places editors need to cover, and they’re both always shifting. I did a story about Shanghai for Condé Nast Traveler in 2001, concentrating on the futuristic architecture; and since then, especially during the build-up to the Olympics, there have been a zillion stories about China, Land of Tomorrow. Now I’m totally China’d out, but travel editors can’t seem to get enough. That’s not a knock to China; it’s just that my interest is much more in seeing places unlike any I’ve seen before.

Your favorite trip in Asia?

A hard question. Maybe it was my first trip to Laos, in 1994, when there was no tourism. Luang Prabang was a quiet little village with two crummy hotels, 500 ancient Buddhist temples, and thousands of monks, gentle young rice farmers coming to this holy city to meditate and beg alms. It was incredibly beautiful and moving. Now it’s another pretty place to get a massage and a manicure, a pizza and a beer. That kind of other-world experience is harder and harder to find — you have to go to the places you’ve never heard of. By the time a place has made it into the magazines, it’s already been mainstreamed.

You’ve been to some pretty grungy locales. What’s one place, if any, that you refuse to visit? (Sudan, North Korea, etc?)

I would love to go to North Korea — it’s practically at the top of my list. The Sudan…no thank you. The difference? As a foreign visitor, I know I would be secure in North Korea; but in Sudan they’re shooting real bullets and have hideous incurable diseases. When I was traveling in Cambodia in the days when the Khmer Rouge were still active, I always followed what I called the Driver Rule: if the driver was willing to go someplace in his own car, the probability was that we would get home safe — the driver always knows more than you do. If the driver refuses to go, then you don’t want to go there either.

What’s your travel style? Do you try to map out most of the details beforehand? Or just play it by ear? Any tools of the trade you can divulge?

I used to play it by ear, traveling without a map or a plan — until the night I had to sleep (or tried to) in my tiny toy Fiat, after I arrived in Florence and found out that there was a dentists’ convention going on, and the nearest hotel room was 50 miles away. I do like to plan at least two or three days ahead. The tools of the trade vary from place to place. One of the most essential (and most difficult) tools to pick up is learning what people mean when they give you a polite refusal. In Asia, “It’s impossible” may mean it’s really impossible…or it might mean “You’re not paying me enough.” Here in Indonesia, it took me years to realize that “thank you” means “no.”

Business class emotions. Yes, they exist.

One of the greatest things about living in America is definitely easy access to The New Yorker. You might think I am exaggerating, but try being from a small country with limited access to good periodicals. (I think I might have just alienated all my freelancing opportunities in the Czech Republic. All in the name of freedom of speech, though!)

This week’s New Yorker has an entertaining piece by David Sedaris, called Journey into Night: Business class emotions. It describes his experiences traveling from Paris to JFK in business class. It’s a great, quick, funny read that will make you wish all those poor little bastards in business choked on their warm nuts.

Here is a glimpse:

“I’d once read where a first-class passenger complained-threatened to sue, if I remember correctly-because the blind person next to him was traveling with a Seeing Eye dog. He wasn’t allergic, this guy. Labrador retrievers on the street didn’t bother him, but he hadn’t paid thousands of dollars to sit next to one, or at least that was his argument. If that had seemed the last word in assholiness, this was a close second.”