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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Review: The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers

The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers
By Eric Hansen. Vintage Departures, 2004, 228 pp.

Some travel writers recount trips that are accessible, doable: they describe places we might visit and inspire us to take similar trips ourselves.

Other travel writers—like Eric Hansen—describe journeys most of us will never take. We read their work from a different perspective, glad that they have taken these journeys for us and shared the experience.

Hansen is an adventurer, a lifelong traveler with a keen interest in places, cultures, and—as the subtitle of this book suggests—people. In these nine absorbing essays, we join him in Calcutta, Thursday Island, Vanuatu, and Borneo, and meet an intriguing cast of characters that includes a lap dancer who discusses Aristotle and an elderly Russian emigre—an expert chef—who is protected in her rough Washington Heights neighborhood by the local drug dealer.

Hansen’s openness, compassion, and skill at moving deftly between the comic and the serious give depth to his essays. In one of the best, “Life Lessons from Dying Strangers,” he is in Calcutta, after nearly four months in Asia, trying to ship his many acquisitions home to San Francisco. He mistakenly believes that he can arrange the shipping on his own, and the early part of the essay offers a hilarious description of his futile efforts to cope with India’s famously convoluted bureaucracy.

But by the time he admits defeat and hires a shipping agent, he is so frustrated and anxious that he decides to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitute, and the essay takes a more reflective turn. “I was prepared to be shocked by the worst Calcutta had to offer,” he says. But he discovers instead, in the care that he witnesses and participates in—and in people dying with dignity—“peace and tranquillity.” In the end, he writes, the experience gave him “a calmness, clarity of purpose, and a lightness of being that have never left me.”

In another fine essay, “Three Nights on the Mountain,” Hansen accompanies a bereaved husband to Borneo, where the man’s wife died in a plane crash, to search through the debris for her engagement ring. Again, as he moves through the ghastly remains of the wreckage, he is able to shift skillfully from the dark humor of absurdity to a serious plane. The discovery of a solitary mint-flavored condom in a foil wrapper, lying in a place with no other luggage around, leads him to wonder where it came from, who owned it, what other flavors might have existed—and ultimately to “consider the nature of life and love, and simple human pleasures, and how all of these things can be swept away in an instant.” His portrait of the husband is moving, and a mystical element adds color to the story.

Opening with a story about a good deed rewarded that reads like a fairy tale and closing with a piece that seems like a variation on “The Little Engine That Could,” this thoughtful, lively book is exceptionally warm and satisfying.

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