Monday, May 31, 2021

An Oft-told Tale

Annamaria on Monday


I am still in dictation mode.  For this reason, I am “writing” a tale I have only talked about before today.


Catherine Zizi wouldn't have known about the small town in Iowa’s local news: strange lights in the sky. Catherine was in her cottage in Spring Lake, New Jersey at the time. Her son called midway through his summertime trip, pack-backing through US National Parks. He was already laughing at the other end of the line when she answered the phone. “I guess nothing interesting ever happens here,” he said, barely able to speak through his guffaws. “It's on the front page of the paper that a couple with a cabin in the mountains saw a strange light in the sky. They all think they're being invaded by aliens. There are a lot of nutjobs in this place, Mom.  I'm liking it, but I can't wait to get back to civilization and your lasagna!”

Andy came home in time to enjoy his mother’s cooking and the beach over the Labor Day weekend, before returning to his studies at the University of Michigan. The subject of the amusing town in Iowa didn’t come up.


That autumn, stories—all seemingly unimportant—began cropping up in local papers in cities and on news websites of small towns.  Rashes of house break-ins.  Such intrusions were ordinary; they happened all over, all the time.  The strange thing about these was that people returning home found a mess but could never discover what, if anything, the thieves had spirited away.


It took a long while for journalists to see the larger trend in what seemed, at first, isolated incidents. But soon the national news feed began to understand that what was happening in suburban Chicago, in Lafayette, California, and in Peekskill, New York was also occurring in Holly Springs, Louisiana, Lynchburg, Virginia, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Hundreds and soon thousands of photos appeared on social media of empty closet shelves, clothing strewn about, boxes emptied onto carpets, the contents of refrigerators tossed on floors and into sinks.  There seemed to be no distinguishing factors about what kinds of homes or neighborhoods were attacked.  Police, state troopers, and afterwards FBI agents all heard the same answer when asking what was missing.  “Nothing.”  “Not a thing.”  “Nada.”


Pundits on news channels began to speculate about the meaning of the events and the possible perpetrators.  Fox News blamed ANTIFA. On MSNBC, talking heads posited several possibilities, the most tractable being a furtive search for stolen art, missing for decades thought to be secreted in some obscure location.

Given the complete lack of real damage or any acts of violence or theft, law enforcement soon settled on the most logical and amusing explanation: a nationwide group of pranksters, undoubtedly organized in some secret internet chat room was playing games with the American public. 

Outraged citizens soon demanded that the federal government investigate exactly how an army of intruders were, without physical evidence, gaining access to homes and offices.  “Many disturbed locations had been protected by sophisticated alarm systems,” said Judy Woodruff of PBS, in an interview with the Secretary of Homeland Security.  She followed up with all of the burning questions of the moment.  “Could these be distractions from a much more dangerous and nefarious attack going on elsewhere and a left unnoticed because of all the attention paid to these strange intrusions? Has anyone found any underlying pattern in any of this? What should ordinary people do to protect their homes from what amounts to an annoyance, but that may mask something far more serious?”  No satisfactory answers emerged from such conversations.  


Although their pace slowed somewhat, the break-ins continued.


As it happened, Catherine Zizi became the only human to happen upon an attack in progress—in her beachside cottage. That day, she uncharacteristically entered from a little used door in the back of the building. Since her shoes were sandy, she left them at the bottom of the steps that led to the bedroom floor. What she saw from halfway up the staircase astonished her to say the least.


Though she saw no person or animal who could be causing such a thing, boxes were dropping down from the top shelf in the hall closet outside her son Andy's room. Out of one of them spilled all sorts of wires having to do with computers and electronic devices. Chargers for long obsolete cell phones, ethernet cables, some thick yellow wires with, to her anyway, incomprehensible gizmos on both ends. Frozen and barely breathing, she watched as the various wires began to twirl and circle inside the box, that resembled, for all of the world, spaghetti in a pasta bowl being twirled with a fork. Then some of the wires raised about 2 1/2 or three feet into the air and began to disappear.


When Catherine gasped and grasped the banister to keep from fainting dead away, the operation abruptly stopped. With a slight whooshing and chirping sound she sensed—though she could not see it—that the creature, whatever it was, had vanished. The remains of its half-eaten meal lay on the floor.


Catherine's story was picked up by all of the news networks in the New York Metropolitan area, and soon she was being interviewed worldwide. Steadily, then, the home intrusions slowed and eventually stopped completely.


Within a week, more strange lights were sighted over Iowa, but this time they were red not white. Five days after that, Umberto Antonioni, an astrophysicist at the University of Milan received a digital communication, partly in bad English and partly in quite good Italian. It thanked the people of Earth for saving the species that had invaded our planet. “We were on the verge of extinction, until we discovered the caches of extraordinarily nourishing food on your beautiful blue planet. We have not been able to comprehend why you collected and stored our precious food.  Why would almost every home save such items?  We think you are a very advanced species that has somehow understood that we would face annihilation, and that you decided to save us. This is the greatest act of interplanetary generosity in recorded history. We will never forget you.”


No one has ever been able to authenticate the source of Professor Antonioni's message. Or its veracity.  




Sunday, May 30, 2021

Whose Line is it Anyway?

Zoë Sharp


I’m up to my neck in edits at the moment, so I thought you might like to take another look at this blog I wrote a few years ago. (Back when we were allowed to go and do readings—in real life, in public, with an actual audience!)


In June, I was invited to take part in several events in libraries around the UK in celebration of National Crime Reading Month. It always fascinates me, when I do these, the kind of questions that come up at the end. This time around it seemed to be one particular comment that sparked people’s curiosity.


I’d said, in a jokey kind of way, that although one would expect that the author had absolute control over the world they create, in my experience that usually isn’t the case. Yes, I invent the framework, the location, and the situation, but once I’ve put my characters down into those events, all bets are off. They have a tendency to take their own route and ignore whatever plans I might have had for them at the outset. And the more I try to force them into a preconceived course of action, the more uncooperative the character becomes—as anyone would, if forced to do something they really didn’t want to do.


It’s normal, at this point, for me to see frowns among the audience, and it’s a tough one to explain. The only way I can do so is to liken it to sitting on a bus or a train and watching the other passengers. This is no hardship, as people-watching tends to be a hobby for most writers, I think. If someone gets onto the train and sits down near you, you instantly form an impression from their clothes, their manner, the way they move.


There is a tendency among people asked to write a description of a character to attach hair and eye colour first, but unless someone has very startling or unusual eyes, I rarely notice that feature right away or even at all. Likewise, I’m more inclined to notice the cut rather than the colour of their hair, body type, and whether their shoes are polished.


But until they strike up a conversation, you only have a partial idea of who they are. I no longer try to write huge great character biographies for new characters, because I find that until they sit down next to me and utter that first sentence, we haven’t really been properly introduced.


This goes, too, for their backstory. Not only does it come out in their attitude, what they say, and how they say it, but also in what they share with you right from the off. If someone’s opening gambit is to tell you half the story of their life, you tend to edge away from them—make an excuse to get off at the next stop or take a trip to the buffet car and find a different seat on your return. Yet if they start slowly and make interesting conversation, then you’re intrigued and that encourages you to find out more about them.


Of course, there are times when a character is not being forthcoming and then it’s handy to have some kind of mechanism for persuading them to talk. I came across this one recently, which is very useful. It involves the writer asking several questions of him or herself: 

What does your character do to show their personality?

What does your character say to show their personality?

What does your character look like on the outside, and how does this show their personality?

How does the character change or what lessons do they learn?

Given a choice, I would also add to this:

What does your character want in the context of this story/scene and what’s preventing them from getting it?

How do they set about getting it?

How do they react to victory or defeat?

I’m still not sure if I managed to get this across to my audiences, but at least they waited politely until the end of the talk before they made their excuses and left. And many more stayed to ask further questions, which is always a good sign… I think. Either that or it shows I failed to explain myself to any degree whatsoever.


Now, where’s the buffet car…?

This week’s Word of the Week is misophonia, meaning to find everyday noises—such as chewing, slurping of drinks, cracking of knuckles, etc—unbearable. It comes from the Greek misos, meaning hate, and phonia, meaning voice. It was coined in 2000 by audiologists Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff, to differentiate the condition from other forms of intolerance to sound, such as phonophobia (fear of sound) and hyperacusis (hypersensitivity to certain frequencies and range of volumes).


Saturday, May 29, 2021

Has the World Gone Mad?



I’ve been locked away for the past week finishing up final edits for Kaldis #12, plus writing three magazine articles with deadlines that seemed sooooo far away when I agreed to write them. There’s a fourth article left to do, but I’m putting that one off until after I’ve finished this blogpost. My sincere apologies to my MIE colleagues whose marvelous posts over this past week I’ve not yet commented upon.


Having isolated myself from much of the news for a mere seven days, I never expected when I stepped out of my composing state of mind into what I thought the real world, that I’d end up in a parallel universe where up is down (if you’re on a plane flying over Belarus), down is up (where your hands best be if you fit a certain profile as an arrestee), true is false (depending on what news you watch), false is truth (depending on what party you belong to), deceivers rule because the majority lets them (January 6? What January 6?), armed revolution is openly discussed by legislators as a viable option for resolving political differences, and a mind boggling percentage of Americans believe the world is run by a cabal of Satan worshiping pedophiles.


And let’s not forget Covid still ravages much of the world.  Only God knows where we’ll be next week.


I saw polls that came out this week plumbing hot button issues polarizing the United States.  The numbers are alarming, but they made me think of a conversation I had approximately a dozen years ago on Mykonos with a very wise American friend.


For decades he’d served as the chief assistant to the head of psychiatric services for a major American state. We were sitting in the harbor watching people walk by when someone did something particularly lunatic—even by Mykonos standards. I said the guy must be nuts. My friend said, “The odds are that he is.”


I asked him to explain what he meant by that, and here’s what he told me.


“Based upon my experience in the mental health field, approximately twenty percent of the people out there should be institutionalized, another twenty percent need heavy medication. That leaves you with sixty percent to work with on a rational basis, and half of them aren’t going to like you anyway.”


I laughed, because I thought he was kidding. Today, as I look at those polls and reflect upon recent election results I realize he was not.


I know it must seem strange to hear this, but I find an odd measure of comfort in thinking that, if my friend was right, the population today is just as mad as it ever was.


What I find frightening is that we now allow the inmates to run the asylum. 


Enjoy your holiday weekends, folks.




Friday, May 28, 2021

The Butler Did It


The Killer Butler has a very nice ring to it, summoning up all sorts of images of Jeeves with an AK 47 or Mr Hudson with a candlestick in the library, pre afternoon cucumber sandwiches.

It would seem that in the case of Archibald Thomson Hall, the butler did do it. He was a really nasty man.

He was born in Glasgow in June 1924 and at the time of his death, of a stroke in 2002 aged 78, he had been one of Britain’s longest serving prisoners on a full life tariff.

From 1977 to 1978 he killed 5 people before being caught in January of 78.

 Hall, charming and suave, moved in high circles. 

Hall’s criminal career began early, robbery and housebreaking from the age of 15.  He was a good looking, charismatic individual and he played on this. He was bisexual, seducing  men and women,  stealing from those he encountered around the gay scene in London. And in those days, it was still illegal to be homosexual in the UK so he would be moving in very covert circles.

He funded his trip to London by selling jewellery he had stolen in Scotland. These exploits landed him in jail for a sustained period of time which was really the making of him as a career criminal. He softened his Glasgow accent, he studied antiques, he learned good manners, and he studied how to behave amongst the aristocracy. He changed his name to Roy Fontaine, which he thought that a slightly better ring to it.

During this time, he married and divorced, he worked honestly as a butler, a job he was good at. Before long, the lure of his old life became too strong and he starting stealing jewellery again, selling it for profit.

 In ‘75 he was released from yet another spell in prison and returned to Scotland and started working as a butler to the dowager widow of Sir Austin Hudson, baronet and ex Tory MP.  She went by the name of Peggy. It’s said that his intention was to work there for a while and then rob her of every valuable she had. He actually got to like her, and he enjoyed his job, maybe if it wasn’t for an acquaintance from his last wee spell in jail turning up on the doorstep, things might have stayed that way.

David Wright was given a job as a gamekeeper on the same estate and he then stole some of her ladyship’s jewellery. He threatened Hall that he’d tell the lady of Hall's past if he blagged to the police.

Hall took Wright on a Hunting trip and shot him. He buried him in the grounds of the house, after this he left that job and started working for a Labour MP and his Missus, back in London. Elderly Walter Scott-Elliot had come from a family of wealthy Scottish landowners and Hall had his usual in mind; work for a while then relieve the family of their valuables without their knowledge.  Mrs Scott-Elliot, 60- year-old Dorothy, walked in on Hall as he was discussing his plans with his accomplice Michael Kitto.



Kitto suffocated Dorothy then and there, by putting a cushion over her mouth and suffocating her. They drugged Walter, put them both in the boot of the car and drove north to Scotland. Burying one of them in Perthshire and the other in Inverness shire ( generally up north where there are very few folk about).

A maid Mary Coggle had assisted the two men in their escape and she too was then murdered with a poker and her body left in a stream in Dumfriesshire (down south in the west on the border with England)  But Mary had become too fond of the fine clothes and jewellery she had stolen, and sealed her fate when she refused to dump a fur coat, a fur coat that would have drawn just a wee bit too much attention.

Her body was found on Christmas day 1977 quickly found by a shepherd and his dog.

Hall had a half-brother Donald ( a convicted paedophile, there was no love lost between them) and when Donald turned up at Hall’s house in Cumbria,  they had a little drink in the evening. Hall talked about a new way of tying up somebody that the victim couldn’t get out of, Donald offered to try to get out of the bonds just to prove his brother wrong. So Hall tied him up, chloroformed him and then drowned him in the bath.

Hall and Kitto seemed to have thing about driving to Scotland to dump the bodies of their victims. Hall took a look at the reg plate of the car Kitto had stolen  for them and saw it had three 9s. He considered that very unlucky and asked Kitto to change the plate. This meant the plate and the disc did not match.

The weather was fierce snowy, so they pulled in to stay in a hotel in North Berwick overnight and the hotel owner was suspicious about their slightly odd behaviour; they had parked the car a little distance from the hotel. He thought this was because they were going to do a runner in the morning without paying the bill. He called the police, just as a precaution and the boys in blue clocked immediately that the plate and disc did not match.

The cop shop was 200 yards away, so they drove the car up and found Donald’s body in the boot

Kitto was arrested immediately but Hall, crafty and bright, made his way out the toilet window only to be picked up much later at a roadblock closer to the border.

Then it all began to unravel. Links made between Hall’s car, a suspicious antiques dealer then to the Scott Elliot’s address which was found to have been robbed of all valuables, blood in the car etc etc. Then the odd concept that four people booked into a hotel, four people went out,  and only two returned.  Mr Scott- Elliot and Miss Coggle never came back. Mrs Scott- Elliot’s body was kept in the car overnight.


There’s a famous black and white photograph of Hall surrounded by police, all standing in deep snow revealing the whereabouts of the three buried victims.

Hall was tried both north and sound of the border, the English courts gave him the life tariff so he served his term there. It was recommended that he was never released

It was fortunate the Kitto ever got to trial (he was sent down for a no-recommended minimum sentence in Scotland) as he was next on Hall's hit list.

In 1995 Hall asked for the right to die. He was refused.

 He died in 2002.

 It would make a good film and Malcolm McDowell/ Peter Bellwood/ Gary Old man were involved in the project but it failed to get funding and was cancelled. It was going to be called Monster Butler.


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The big and the small: elephants and mosquitos

Stanley – Thursday


Two interesting stories out of Africa this week: one about my favourite animal; and one about my least favourite animal.

My favourite animal, by far, is the elephant. 

What's not to love?

I have always regarded it with great affection because it has traits that I admire and enjoy. For example, it has a sense of humour. I share a bungalow in a game area called Ingwelala (the place where the leopard sleeps), an area of approximately 3000 hectares next to the famed Kruger Park. There is an apocryphal story of a group of inebriated university students who were making a helluva a row while watching a herd of elephants. Eventually one of the elephants, probably irked by the din, walked over to the Land Rover, picked up the front of the vehicle by the bumper, and dropped it. Drunken students noise no more.

Most of us have watched documentaries about how empathetic elephants are, particularly around their family and friends. I once saw a very different but moving example. A group of elephants were at a waterhole drinking. One elephant noticed a terrapin (a type of turtle) wandering precariously close to its back legs – the terrapin probably thought those big, round grey things were trees. The elephant gently pushed the terrapin backwards with one of its hind legs to get it out of range from being crushed. It repeated this several times until the terrapin got the message and retreated to a safe place.

The story out of Africa this week is about an astonishing effort to catalogue elephant behaviour – to create an elephant ethogram. To quote from the website,

An ethogram is a comprehensive list, inventory, catalogue or description of the behaviors or actions exhibited by a species. It is a library, or master list, of all known behaviors for a species that describes the characteristics and, where possible, the function of each behavior. The word ethogram comes from the words “etho,” meaning the characteristic and distinguishing attitudes, habits, beliefs, etc. of an individual or group, and “gram,” meaning to write down or record.”

It would be a waste of your time for me to describe what the website has to offer. Just go there and absorb all the characteristics of these remarkable animals. What does it mean when elephants rub ears? How far can elephants communicate with each other? How can an elephant produce quiet, gentle sounds as well as terrifying ear-bursting ones? Why do they intertwine trunks?

I suspect any question you have will be answered. Almost more interesting is the fact that the ethogram will answer questions you've never thought of.

Elephant affection

Elephant anger! Time to leave.

Elephant love?

With the population of elephants now less than 500,000 down from 5 million in 1950, the repository of knowledge contained in the ethogram can be used, not only by scientists, but as a tool for raising public awareness to the risk of losing one of the most intelligent and socially complex animals on the planet.

The ethogram is the brainchild of Dr. Joyce Poole and her husband Petter Granli, together with a variety of other experts. It contains data gathered data for over forty years from several African game reserves.

Elephant Voices is a gem.


Not only is the mosquito my least favourite African animal, it is also the most dangerous, killing an estimated 370,000 people in Africa in 2019. For children under 5, one dies every 2 minutes from malaria. 

The dreaded anopholes mosquito

Worldwide distribution of malaria

I am not a fan of any mosquito species, largely because I dislike the buzzing when I’m trying to sleep, but also because of the itching that I sometimes experience. It is the malaria-carrying anopheles genus that I dislike the most because of what it is doing to the African continent. Of the 460 anopholes species, only about 30-40 carry the malarial parasite Plasmodium falciparum which, so far, has resisted effective attacks from the medical community.

So why is it suddenly in the news again?

In a study published this week in The Lancetpromising new data on a potential vaccine was released. In a phase-two trial, based on 450 children, the R21 malaria vaccine candidate, developed in the UK, was 77 percent effective at stopping malaria, when compared against a control group. Children received three shots of the R21 vaccine over a period of two months, followed by a booster a year later.

The R21 is the first vaccine candidate for malaria to cross the 75 percent threshold, a goal the World Health Organization (WHO) first set in 2013. It now moves to Phase three trials. Let’s all hope it continues to be so effective.

Of course, much like the COVID vaccine, there are huge obstacles to overcome even if it is effective - cost and distribution being the biggest. 

If R21 continues to prove effective, and the cost can be kept very low, the impact on Africa will be huge.

The impact of malaria on families is huge.

This article from National Geographic provides much more information about malaria, in general. It is very interesting.




What's the latest conspiracy? (Media Whalestock/Shutterstock)

This is your brain. This is your brain on conspiracies. Any questions?

Merriam-Webster defines a conspiracy theory as a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.

Conspiracies 2021

Many have never really gone away and have persisted in the same form for decades. Here are the some of the most current conspiracy theories:

  1. Vaccines: (a) they cause disease but governments and big Pharma are covering it all up; (b) the Covid-19 vaccinations are Bill Gates's attempt to microchip us; (c) vaccinations cause autism (yes, that one is still around and will never die); (d) the Covid-19 vaccination alters the recipient's DNA.
  2. Covid-19 is not real: (a) the illness is actually caused by radiation from 5G mobile phone towers; (b) it was created in a Chinese laboratory (there's now some serious speculation that this could be true! We'll see.).
  3. QAnon-based: high-ranking US politicians and Hollywood celebrities are Satan-worshipping, pedophilic cannibals against the former president, who did not lose the election.
  4. Contrails are actually chemtrails, designed to control populations in some way.
  5. Joseph Biden and the Democratic Party stole the 2020 presidential election.
  6. Anything to do with Anthony Fauci--anything.
  7. The FDA refuses to release the cure for cancer.

Why are conspiracy beliefs so hard to dismantle?

Have you ever tried to argue with a conspiracy theorist and gotten absolutely nowhere? That's because you were trying to do it by presenting logic and/or scientific facts. Well, never fence with an amateur, because they'll beat you every time. Conspiracies aren't based on your logic or fact, only on theirs. Often, conspiracists have researched their positions extensively and might have even more knowledge in that field than you do. Trying to debunk their claims is an exercise in refuting a belief in a belief in a belief--and down the rabbit hole you go. You'll never get out.

During an interview, Donie O'Sullivan asked two people about how they were so sure that thousands of votes for ex-president DJT (I'm trying not to utter the name--makes me break out in hives) were sequestered, and one of the responses was, "I watched it on TV." (Take a look at the clip--it's only about 36 seconds long and you just have to hear the punchline.)

This shows the selectiveness of this woman's belief. If anything to the contrary were demonstrated, again on TV, she would have rejected it outright, because conspiracies are self-accepting and other-rejecting. For example, if votes for DJT were dumped or burned (or shredded and eaten by chickens) in the states he lost, how do we know the same thing didn't happen to Biden's ballots in the states DJT won? This question will be met with a blank stare because it makes absolutely no sense to the conspiracy holder.

The brain on conspiracies

Because conspiracies are so immutable, I wondered if there was a physiologic correlate in the brains of conspiracy believers. Apparently, this might indeed be the case.

To start, in a British sample of 990 subjects, results indicated that a stronger belief in conspiracy theories was significantly associated with lower analytic thinking and open-mindedness and greater intuitive thinking. Unlike in a scientific symposium, people who subscribe to conspiracies tend to think along emotional rather than analytic lines. This is why arguments over conspiracies often become so heated.

It is possible that conspiracy theorists use "cognitive tendencies that are neurologically hardwired and probably have deep evolutionary origins." A 2016 study published in Nature found that, in fights, people who were most resistant to changing their beliefs showed "a lot of activation in their amygdala and insular cortex.

The amygdala (looking at brain from below) [Washington Irving on en.wikipedia ]

The insular cortex (from Johannes Sobotta:Textbook and Atlas of Human Anatomy) 

These areas regulate fear, decision-making, emotional responses and threats, and are very ancient, originating when humans were hunter-gatherers and external forces were genuinely out to attack us.
In other words, belief in something that hadn't actually been proved to exist was a "better safe than sorry" measure.

Why would conspiracy theorists have an active amygdala? My guess is that they were born genetically inclined and that their environment (e.g. parents, peers, culture) further facilitated the development of the amygdala in the direction ("nature + nurture") of conspiracies.

In a very complicated study, the details of which I will spare you, in those subjects who appeared most subject to belief change, activity of the amygdala and insular cortex (as seen in MRI scans) were suppressed below baseline; the opposite was the case for those most resistant to change in beliefs: the amygdala and insular cortex were above baseline.

The bottom line

If you've scanned through this post and your eyes glazed over as soon as you saw diagrams of the brain, here is the takeaway.

The Buddha in meditation with lotus flower (Shutterstock: Andy Lim; fotohunter)

So the next time you feel yourself getting twisted emotionally and intellectually like a pretzel over why people believe in crazy conspiracies, just shrug and think, they have overactive amygdalae. Whatcha gonna do? You'll have a much nicer day.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Kenya 2014 Redux

 Annamaria in Absentia

Stymied!  It means "the emotion provoked when the way to one's goal has been blocked."  It is the perfect word to describe my inability to be my real self. I am entering week eight of having to eschew the computer. Were I in what for me anyway is normal mode, I would be spending long hours with my fingers on the keyboard and communing with my characters in East Africa in 1915.  Instead, I am walking and walking to ward off pain and making the acquaintance of formerly unnecessary medical specialists.  GRRR!

Here, from seven years ago, are some souvenirs of my first trip to Kenya that I hope will elicit your sympathetic understanding.  Cross your fingers that today the next new doctor will hand me my get-out-of-stymied card.

My Report from 2014

Here is what I can tell you today.  I promise you will hear more about this trip than you likely care to, but take a look at these:


A Visti to Karen Blixen's house

" the foot of the gong hills."

Lucy, my guide, and a portrait of Karen
Karen's house, now a museum.


Me, on my way to breakfast, looking very happy because...
....this is what I have just seen from the walkway.

At a delicious lunch under a baobab tree..

An ancient problem is investigated through social research.  A poll is taken:
"Which did you eat first, the chicken or the egg," he is asking. It ended in a tie. 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a (Hakone) Pirate's Life for Me

 --Susan, every other Sunday

I make no secret of my love for Hakone--a popular onsen (volcanic hot spring) area about an hour south of Tokyo. Its mountains played an enormous role in my 100 Summits year, and will play an even larger one in an upcoming project I'm just beginning to outline.

That said, the mountains aren't the only thing to love about Hakone, so today, I thought I'd wander past one of Hakone's more incongruous--and yet most beloved--features: the pirate ships that "sail" on Lake Ashi.

Officially, the ships are part of the "Hakone Sightseeing Cruise," which travels between the port of Togendai, on the north end of Lake Ashi, and the ports of Hakonemachi and Moto-Hakone on the southern end of the lake.

The Queen Ashinoko - the fleet's newest ship, in port at Moto-Hakone

On clear days, you can see Mt. Fuji from the ports on the south side of the lake - which is part of the reason why the one-hour round trip journey is called a sightseeing cruise.

Queen Ashinoko and Royal II, in port at Hakonemachi

Even on cloudy days, the sights from the ships (which are motor-powered, despite their sails) are well worth seeing--especially during foliage season.

Foliage on the shores of Lake Ashi, seen from the pirate ship

Some of the ships are modeled on famous historical vessels: the Royal II is a scale model of the 18th century French gunship Royal Louis (which served as the flagship of the French navy at that time), while the Victory, as its name suggests, is designed to look like the HMS Victory (Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar). The newest ship, Queen Ashinoko, appears to be a unique design--although she doesn't differ all that much from the others in the fleet. 

The Victory, in port on a cloudy day

Technically, none of the ships is a "pirate ship"--they don't fly the skull and crossbones flag, and the decor inside is far more luxe than any pirate ship (plush benches, renaissance murals on the ceilings, and even crystal chandeliers). There's even a coffee bar, for those who prefer to sit by a window and watch the scenery pass by with a steaming cup of tea or coffee, rather than braving the sometimes-windy decks.

The Hakone Barrier and Mt. Byobu from the ship

The ships have sailed the lake over a dozen times a day for several decades, and have become a beloved part of the "Hakone Sightseeing Loop," which also involves a ride on one of Japan's oldest electric trains, a cable car, and a ropeway (gondola) over the mouth of a live volcano at Owakudani.

The Hakone Shrine water gate and Hakoneyama

Many visitors refer to the Sightseeing cruise as the "pirate ships," despite the lack of pirate paraphernalia--and the fact that Ashinoko is an entirely landlocked lake. The existence of any ships--much less enormous gunships--on a volcanic crater lake that can be circumambulated entirely on foot in a single day is a bit absurd. But I suspect that's precisely what makes them such excellent entertainment.

The View from the Royal II on a foggy day

On these ships, it's possible to shed the cloak of maturity we all must wear and become once again an explorer, sailing high seas in search of adventure. 

Minus the seasickness, heaving waves, and risk of scurvy.

Royal II and Victory in port at Hakonemachi

The ships are also fun in any weather, which is helpful in a country with a serious rainy season in the summer.

Royal II and Victory

In fact, after riding the ships in every weather, I must admit I'm a little bit partial to the days when the fog sets in, and the ship heading in the opposite direction appears from the fog like something out of a ghostly legend.

Sailing through the fog.

It doesn't matter that the "sails" are just for show, or that ships like these don't feature in Japanese history, except to the extent that they brought foreigners to the country's shores.

Beautiful, if odd.

Shores that, I'll remind you, are nowhere near, and don't connect to, Ashinoko...


And neither I, nor anyone else I've ever talked with, cares a whit about the historical (in)accuracy.

The Queen Ashinoko, the weekend of her launch in 2019

While traveling to and from Hakone for hikes in 2018-2019, I had the opportunity to watch the Queen Ashinoko being built in a slip constructed for that purpose at the edge of the lake near Togendai. They built her in situ, which makes sense, given that none of the winding mountain roads that connect Ashinoko with the rest of Japan is large enough or straight enough to transport a ship of her size. 

By coincidence, I happened to be in Hakone the weekend she was launched into service, too -- and as you can see from the photo above, the weather received her as warmly as the many adoring fans who came to ride.

Royal II and sakura

The Queen Ashinoko is the sixth generation of ships to cruise on Ashinoko. The first ship, christened Pioneer, set sail in 1964 and remained in service until 1991. The Victoria, which sported an enormous British flag on her hull, sailed from 1980 until the Victory replaced her in March of 2007.

Royal II "sailing" past the Hakone Shrine Peace Gate

The Royal II replaced the original Royal, which plied the waters of Ashinoko from 1987-2013--and, most recently, the Queen Ashinoko replaced the bright green Vasa, which retired in 2019 after 28 years of faithful service. 

Ship leaving Togendai to begin its voyage

Fortunately, the ships have become a beloved part of the Hakone area, so it's likely they'll continue to sail for many generations to come.

Which is great, because although I'm a big fan of history, and value authenticity, sometimes you just need to hop on a pirate ship and go for an adventure on the not-so-high-and-not-quite-seas.