THE FOLLOWING IS A ROUGH DRAFT OF A PIECE FOR JEST’S PREMIERE ISSUE:
Curse the nimbleness of these natives! No sooner had they tasted our gift of salted beef did they begin their customary backflips of appreciation. When my sailors were unable to reciprocate with the complicated juggling ritual that these savages use to signify ‘polite acknowledgment of gratitude’, another fatal scuffle broke out. Judging from the drums, the entire island seems poised for battle! Yet another situation that only the delicate art of diplomacy can resolve: I am going ashore with a gift of salted beef. And three potatoes of equal size.
- Captain Horatio Thornbottom’s final log entry, April 12th, 1789
I’M GLAD YOU ENJOYED MY CHEESECAKE, BUT PLEASE ZIP UP: A FIRSTHAND SURVEY OF MANNERS AND CUSTOMS THROUGHOUT THE MODERN WORLD – Part the first.
by Andres du Bouchet
Fjursk, Njordland – There is a 50 kilogram stone in my lap. The weight of the stone pressing down upon my bladder is incredibly uncomfortable. In fact, it’s bordering on painful, as I’ve downed no fewer than six large glasses of homemade wine within the last half hour, all at the enthusiastic bidding of my portly, bearded host. As he waddles across the log cabin’s sole chamber to pour me yet another glass, fatally trampling one of my miniature sherpas in the process, I know that I shall soon be confronted by an acute social dilemma. To remove the stone from my lap in order to go outside and relieve myself in the communal trough would be considered an insult, yet wetting myself (a distinct possibility at this point – a first since my third grade days of playing ‘Right Before Bedtime Apple Juice Rescue Squad’ with my sleepover friends) in his presence would be an unforgivable offense, punishable by expulsion from his home into the surrounding tundra for the duration of the night. Worst of all would be to accidentally wet myself while attempting to move the stone. If that were to occur, I could kiss my genitals hello. Self-fellation through forced contortion is the most extreme punishment in this fjordship. If he had to, he would enlist the aid of his friends to fold me in half. The thought of tasting my own post-pee privates was enough to reinforce my willpower. I would sit tight until my host’s own bladder veritably screamed out in pain, and he thought it appropriate to remove my laprock and invite me outside for a streamweave. It would take two more glasses of wine and a seemingly interminable conversation about the many uses (four, by my count) of frostpelt before I finally found myself outdoors, my naked flanks whipped by the icy wind as my steaming flow mingled with Vjern’s in the trough. I had avoided embarrassment. This is a culture that values above all else, willpower. And doctors who specialize in kidney disorders.
Sound familiar? We’ve all found ourselves in awkward situations when faced with the manners and customs of a different culture, but it doesn’t take an evening of winesparring with a 300 pound Njordlander to find yourself utterly baffled by human behavior. As much as we’d like to think that the world is one great big happy Coca-Cola commercial, the beiges and browns and yellows and blacks all singing in unison, hands joined on a hilltop, we are actually a fractured, fissured, layered, divided and subdivided whole. There are as many differences in our manners and customs as there are in our languages, our architecture, our foods, and the height and density of our buttocks. Armed with nothing save my own sterling people skills, a book of laminated maps, a sizeable stipend (thank you, Jest!) and an indispensable team of mute yet nimble miniature sherpas, I made it my ambitious goal to compile enough frequent flier miles to earn a free first class round-trip ticket to someplace with cheap Asian fucking. And to catalogue (the extra ue means I’m sophisticated!) the entire modern world’s many diverse customs and manners. I visited three countries. One of which you’ve already read about. And on we go.
Paojikki, Tajo – I am standing on the middle of a thin, leathery strip strung between two ancient wooden posts on either side of a precipitous ravine. Approximately 100 feet below me, a murky, brackish river called Paoji Naka (Tajoian for “silty water obscures furious sharks”) placidly flows out to meet a crystal clear lagoon called Paoji Tala (“the furious sharks can plainly be seen”). The strip sags beneath my weight and the weight of the two counterbalancing sherpas that are perched on either of my shoulders, and each tentative step I take causes the strip to bounce and sway slightly. Making my trek even more difficult is the fact the strip is not smooth at all, but is composed of several weathered, gnarled, lumpy segments of pig intestine that have been knotted together at irregular intervals. Adding to my peril – young male villagers on both clifftops are throwing small petrified heads at me. As my sherpas shift their weight on each of my shoulders to aid my balance, they also swat away the petrified heads with lacquered palm fronds that somewhat resemble flatter versions of Jai-Alai cestas. It has taken me over an hour of inching along to reach this midpoint, and it will surely take at least that long to finally reach the other side. But when I finally do, I will have earned the right to join these islanders for dinner. Infamous for its elaborate and dangerous rituals of machismo, the island of Tajo is a popular destination for thrillseekers, daredevils, and extreme sportsmen alike. The natives seem to delight in putting outsiders through the potentially lethal paces of their customs, and the outsiders seem all too willing to lay out a pretty penny for the exhilarating experience. When my editors (repeatedly) suggested Tajo as a perfect candidate for this article, I was reluctant at first. I am a clumsy man. However, as my many mute yet nimble miniature sherpas and I became accustomed to working as a team in our many “Danger Room” sessions on Jest’s main campus, my confidence grew just enough for me to grudgingly agree to this assignment. As I stare down at the dark water below, imagining the many ‘furious’ sharks that must eagerly be awaiting this meaty main course and the two savory sidedishes that even now grow weary from fending off the neverending barrage of petrified heads being tossed at me, I vow to begin an impassioned campaign for the position of Jest’s film critic upon my return (God willing) to the States. To quote Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon II, Lethal Weapon III, Lethal Weapon IV, Grand Canyon and Silverado: “I am too old for this shit.”
Needless to say, I made it through the pigskin tightrope ordeal, (minus one sherpa) which afforded me the opportunity to observe the many interesting traditions surrounding a typical Tajoian dinner. From the average Westerner’s point of view, a meal on this island would probably resemble some sort of cross between a Cirque-du-Soleil performance and an evening at the Outback Steakhouse. For a Tajo native, the meal I witnessed would be considered mundane. The first thing I noticed upon entering the clearing of flattened dirt that constitutes the communal dining area was the fire. Central to the Tajoian dining experience, the communal fire is a thing to behold. Burning high, bright, and with a ferocity that makes it impossible to stand any closer than fifty feet from it, I can see why Captain Horatio Thornbottom of the English Navy said “Surely this is where Satan got the idea” upon first seeing it in 1789. The first Westerner to experience the island’s culture, Thornbottom’s skull now resides in Tajo’s only museum. As the keystone in the front doorway. Needless to say, relations between tourists and Tajo have improved immeasurably in the last two hundred and thirteen years. Still, it behooves me to pay attention during dinner. The primary staples of the Tajoian diet are papaya, wild boar, and shark. To catch a shark that has just consumed a wild boar which had just eaten a papaya? Accomplish such a feat and you will experience a type of celebrity status on Tajo that can only be compared with such Western luminaries as Madonna, Tom Cruise, and a third celebrity of said stature. Obviously, I have been away for quite a while. Back to the meal. Once the entire community has entered the clearing, a circle is formed around the fire, and the evening’s fare is dragged in on a sled made from lacquered palm fronds. Lacquered palm fronds are the most common building material on the island, the lacquer being a mixture of tree sap and ground petrified heads. Originally, petrified heads were obtained by slaughtering outsiders. Now they are imported from China in exchange for lacquer, which the Chinese then mold into VHS tapes and DVDs. When I ask the Tajoian Minister of Tourism if he is concerned that the Chinese might at some point realize they simply have to grind their own petrified heads in order to make the lacquer, he laughs and points out that the tree sap is actually the key ingredient. Tajo is the only place in the world where the Bingo Rahakki (“just add ground petrified heads”) grows. The tree produces sap that is as thick and viscous as an unmedicated yeast infection. When heated and mixed with ground petrified heads it becomes a nearly impervious lacquer. Tonight’s main course is wild boar, and as the whole boar carcasses are dragged into the circle, a palpable sense of excitement fills the air. Two of the largest islanders stride forward, each of them grabbing one end of a boar carcass. With a mighty heave, they fling it into the fire! Within seconds, it comes flying back! Apparently, they have thrown the boar not into the fire but through the fire – there is another pair of mighty meat throwing men on the other side of the blaze, ready to catch it and fling back it again. Since boar can take a very long time to cook thoroughly, each pair of men must maintain their strength enough to ensure that the meat makes it to the other side with each throw, and they must also be able to withstand the awful heat as the boar cooks. With each toss, the crowd cheers and the men grimace. Soon, the rest of the Tajoians are getting involved, throwing various vegetables, roots, tubers, and shark filets through the fire. At the height of the ceremony, the air is filled with flying food of various levels of preparedness, and the simple act of cooking a meal has become a test of strength and agility. To ensure that no piece of food ever touches the ground, each member of the huge circle must remain incredibly focused, catching and tossing whatever meat or vegetable happens to arc through the fire and into their arms. Once a piece of food seems to be fully cooked, whoever has caught it must swiftly place it down onto the palm frond at their feet and resume vigilance. We did this for two and a half hours. Less dangerous than the pig intestine tightrope walk but even more grueling, this edible juggling ceremony had worked up quite an appetite in me. As we all sat down, passing food back and forth and tearing off chunks to place on our palm fronds, I noticed that one of the charred carcasses bared a striking resemblance to one of my miniature sherpas. Somehow he had gotten swept up in the ceremony and tossed into the fire. And then caught and tossed back again. And again. Repeatedly until fully cooked. Curse the muteness of my helpful little cohorts! The site of the fixed grimace on my tiny, charcoaled friend was so grotesque that I was almost unable to enjoy the charming appreciation ceremony that followed the meal. However, I soon found myself smiling and clapping along with the rest of the crowd. In lieu of simply rubbing ones stomach or issuing a hearty belch, both fairly common displays of gastronomic pleasure in other societies, the inhabitants of this island put their full athletic prowess to use. To put it simply, they begin to do backflips. And in recognition of a backflip well played, another islander might begin to juggle some petrified heads in order to show their appreciation. This, in turn, would trigger some other form of appreciative display of agility. Soon, the eating area once again resembled a circus. I quickly headed back to my chartered plane, the occasional petrified head ricocheting off my back. As I boarded the plane and waved to my remaining miniature sherpas, who were being packed in foam and loaded into the cargo hold, I could not help but feel a sense of pride that I had made it through a day on Tajo unharmed, and full of good food. A lascivious smile spread across my face as I thought about my next destination.
Mike’s Backend Emporium – After twenty minutes of browsing, I had the research materials that I needed.
NEXT TIME – Bonertaster, Switzerland – Don’t not let the name fool you. This place is totally all about sex. I was going to be staying with a friend of Jest’s director of advertising, so I decided to bring a courtesy cheesecake…