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SO MANY PLACES, SO MANY FACES

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

I don’t remember who, but someone once said that every time you step into a hotel lobby, or step off a plane, or step onto a boat, you reinvent yourself. This I believe.

Sure, you travel in large part to look beyond yourself, to encounter different people, unfamiliar geography, history made visible. And of course, you know, to purchase Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts.

But I think it’s the prospect of personal reinvention that makes travel so powerfully attractive. I will be calm. I will be bronzed. I will be an athlete. I will be a citizen of the world.

Counting by this measure, 1997 recast me into 31 new hotel selves (counting only the ones I slept in), 44 airborne selves and six seaborne selves. All told, 81 selves. (Next election day, look for us on the voter registration rolls in Chicago, or perhaps an Orange County congressional district.)

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Or better yet, look now at the destinations and circumstances that created us.

My favorite hotel room of the year, for instance, required a substantial adjustment of self. My wife, Mary Frances, and I found it in July, after about 11 hours in planes and airports on the way to Bora-Bora. Bright sun, deep blue sea, humidity and jagged island peaks awaited, as did a cabin cruiser from our hotel. We boarded, and a few minutes later we were deposited on the dock of the Hotel Bora Bora. Service was languid, as is customary throughout Oceania, and we knew a whopper of a bill was coming.

But this hotel’s rooms--in particular, Room 128, on stilts over the water--seemed unsurpassable: rich-hued wooden floors and walls; high, thatched roofs; white linens; strategically placed tropical flowers; and just beneath the private deck, a few hundred drowsy fish of many colors, waiting for the next casting of baguette crumbs on the waters. On this deck, in this room, and most especially paying this bill, I was not myself. I was, acting strictly for your benefit, dear reader, the kind of guy who casually drops $700 a night for a hotel room.

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This multiple-identity thing, however, cuts in many directions. One May afternoon in Viana do Castelo, a gem of a town in northernmost Portugal, I slipped into a seat in an umbrella-shaded outdoor cafe at the center of town. I had my cup of coffee, my cheese sandwich (a standard regional snack), and I was utterly happy to munch and observe inconspicuously while the little town went about its daily chores. Then, just as I was congratulating myself on my invisibility, a sudden rogue gust of wind picked up the umbrella from my table and dropped the pole noisily onto my head.

All of Viana do Castelo, or at least everyone in the Praca da Republica, now stared at the unfortunate American doofus in tourist attire, checking his tourist camera for damage while a great round tourist knot rose on the top of his head. I was blameless, I tell you, but it didn’t matter: In a year of full-time tourism, this was the most pathetic tourist moment. In Viana do Castelo, at least until my next visit, I am the unfortunate doofus under the umbrella.

In my most recent New York incarnation, conversely, I am a stealthy, vengeful consumer. During my October stay there, the management of the 59th Street Bridge Suites charged me 75 cents per minute for local calls from my room. Eleven minutes from East 60th Street to East 47th Street: $8.25. “It’s outrageous,” admitted a desk employee when I called to object. “But the owner isn’t willing to do anything about it.” These were the most offensively high-priced hotel telephone calls I confronted all year in an industry notorious for profiteering on phone bills. Yet management took me and my fellow customers for victims who would sigh and suffer and, in the local language, fuhgedaboutit. Yeah, well, now I’ll forget about it.

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On to the 1997 parade of selves. It began for me on the second night of January along the Las Vegas Strip, on the teeming casino floor of the New York-New York Hotel and Casino. This was the grand opening party. Tuxedoes, slinky cocktail dresses and free drinks on all sides. George Hamilton in the bar upstairs, various celebrities cavorting amid the faux landmarks of an ersatz Manhattan. In the mingling, a moment of opportunity presented itself. I had need of a quote or two, and The Times photographer was seeking an image to document the strangeness of the occasion. So I barged into an adjacent conversation, hand outstretched for shaking, and introduced myself to a Las Vegas legend.

His lips moved, but not his hair. As we spoke inanely about the new hotel, the photographer’s camera flashed, and my moment with the carefully coiffed headliner was fixed forever on film. From the photo, it is clear that in this frozen moment I am not my normal self. I am a close personal friend of Wayne Newton.

*

Similarly, reinvention made possible my most contented moment as a solo traveler in 1997. It was a slow afternoon in a nearly empty restaurant on the dusty main street of Vin~ales, in Cuba’s prime tobacco growing region. I was there to write a story about Americans defying U.S. law to visit Cuba, but there were no defiant Americans on hand just then. There was lunch. Also an idle horn player, a percussionist, an ancient upright piano with worn keys. An acoustic guitar leaned at one end.

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I asked permission to pick up the guitar, strummed along with the other musicians a little. In a bit, the horn player picked up a telephone and dialed (really dialed; this was Cuba) and summoned the house piano player. Soon those worn piano keys were being pounded joyfully, a trumpet solo was in progress and Afro-Caribbean rhythms were careening off the walls. Beers arrived. Some Italian tourists wandered in off the street. And that mysterious guitar player with the reporter’s notebook stuffed into his pocket was just about keeping up, as long as the songs were in the key of C. At least, that’s how I choose to remember it.

Best air fare of the year: $239.71, taxes included, for an October round-trip ticket on American Airlines between LAX and New York.

Favorite meal: Dinner at the Pousada de Oliveira in Guimaraes, Northern Portugal. The restaurant, set in a 16th-century row house, looks out onto the town’s medieval core. I had seafood soup, a chicken-and-rice dish with ham overtones, and a rich, wonderful, semisoft cheese from Portugal’s Serra da Estrella region. Runner-up meal: a medley of four dishes featuring chile peppers at the Maria Bonita restaurant in Cancun, Mexico. Chile with beef, chile with potato, chile with corn, chile with beans, each cooked a different way, with widely varied degrees of spiciness. By the end, I felt like a man who had successfully defused a bomb.

Best sipping: First, tea with author Jan Morris in the enormous library of her 18th-century Welsh farmhouse. And then, two days later, whiskey (in some quantity) with four Welsh fellow guests at a country-house inn outside Llangammarch Wells.

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Acquaintances who will not be forgotten (Part One): In Cuba, a few nights before the aforementioned transcendence in C major, I wangled an invitation to the party celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Cohiba cigar brand. In the audience at Havana’s famed Tropicana nightclub, paying $500 a head, sat about 700 well-heeled cigar lovers from around the world--captains of capitalism, basically, including about 130 Americans who had wriggled through loopholes in U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba. There was free-flowing Champagne, endless Cohibas and great clouds of expensive smoke. Dancing girls too. All in all, one heck of a Communist party.

Soon after the auction of fancy cigar boxes (to raise money for Cuban health care) began, the place erupted in applause and 700 heads turned. Fidel Castro himself. He stepped to the stage in those trademark green fatigues and started tossing off one-liners, rhapsodizing about the pleasures of smoking (although he quit a few years ago) and launching into one rambling aside after another. He scarcely mentioned politics, unless you count his reference to President Clinton.

“President Clinton likes to smoke, but Hillary does not allow him to,” announced Castro. “Well, I think that she doesn’t allow him to do that or other things. But"--and here Castro’s eyes twinkled cruelly--"I think that once in a while he does one or the other.”

My crimes against viticulture: Went to Porto, tried to drink port, and couldn’t. Went to Madeira, tried to drink Madeira, and couldn’t. Two tastes not yet acquired.

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Prices, high: $2.13 for a small cup of coffee in the Greenwich Village area of the New York-New York Hotel and Casino in Vegas. About $2.50 per gallon for gasoline in Alberta, Canada. About $4 per gallon for gasoline on Moorea, French Polynesia. $7.03 for a mai tai at the beach-side bar of the Mauna Kea Hotel on the Big Island of Hawaii. $120 for a tennis shirt at Reid’s Hotel, haunt of the upper-crust English visitors to Madeira. $7.75 for a bowl of granola at the Four Seasons Hualalai, priciest hotel on the Big Island.

Prices, low: $20 for a bed and breakfast in the home of a Cuban family at Varadero Beach. $25 for a day’s chauffeuring around Havana in a black 1956 Cadillac. $36 each (that is, half the rate of a Broadway show) for full-price tickets to three impressive shows, from comedy to the tragedy of “King Lear,” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

Acquaintances who will not be forgotten (Part Two): Joe, a capable and amiable spear fisherman from San Luis Obispo, happened to be camping on Santa Cruz Island, off Ventura, on the same three days in August that I and a few friends were. During that 72 hours, Joe (we never got his last name) provided our not entirely competent camping party with the following: wine (which we’d forgotten); food (some of which we’d misplaced); advice on the best snorkeling site; firewood-chopping service; and midnight kayak rescue (when the tide rose higher than we’d expected). Then, as we were bidding the island goodbye, he stepped up to snap our group photo.

Most scrupulously honest tourist attraction sign, sighted in the front yard of John Keats’ former home in Hampstead, England: “This plum tree replaces the one beneath which John Keats wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’ ”

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Most perplexing sign, from the bathroom of the Waikiki’s Outrigger Maile Sky Court Hotel: “For the protection of the environment and our associates, we request that you call Housekeeping for a container for your syringes.”

Animals most happily encountered: A dozen semi-wild horses on Santa Cruz Island, storming through our campground at dusk. Sharks, sting rays, dolphins and two large and unexpected humpback whales off the French Polynesian island of Moorea. Three black bears, foraging amid spring flowers along the roadside in Montana’s Glacier National Park. A peacock outside the governor’s mansion on the island of Madeira. And half-a-dozen ponies, each with a name on its bridle, waiting to be ridden by Welsh children at the Victorian beach resort of Llandudno.

Acquaintances who will not be forgotten (Part Three): Call her “Jane.” She entered my life one otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoon while Mary Frances, two friends and I were sightseeing around London. Jane was the head volunteer at a local cemetery, and it is possible that she ordinarily is a very nice lady. But on this day, she belonged in the pages of Dickens. Moments after our arrival, we watched her berate several graveyard visitors for coming on a weekend, which, she said, was a most inconvenient time for her. (I can still see those visitors, English and foreigners alike, gazing back at her in wonder.)

Of retirement age but all too vigorous, she had carved out a fiefdom from the tangled, run-down acreage that holds some of Britain’s most famous dead. Wielding a walkie-talkie like a sidearm, she barked orders at lesser volunteers, who murmured in her absence and turned silent when she drew near. At first she banned me from taking photographs--despite camera-toting tourists all around us. Then, once the prospect of a “donation” was broached, she turned all sugary and offered a private tour of forbidden zones. When the private tour idea was floated, Mary Frances and our two friends quaked in fear, their wide eyes pleading for immediate escape.

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At this moment, a cruel new me emerged. This, I suddenly saw, was a chance to play social scientist. Such a singularly offensive presence was Jane that spending time in her company was like netting a butterfly previously thought extinct. In the interest of science, we should observe her specific behaviors, perhaps pose a few discreet questions as to whether she had eaten her young or killed her mate after reproduction. Suddenly giddy, I paid the “donation.” And for the next half an hour, she marched us through the cemetery’s darkest corners. Just Jane, my wife, our friends, 166,000 dead, and me, the most evil man in the cemetery.

Here’s to the places we’ll go--and the people we’ll be--in 1998.


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