From Tipped Hat Press comes a staggering explosion of travel through the Americas, a collection of 32 information-packed essays by traveller, essayist, and blogger, Darrin DuFord, Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas, released in July of this year. Many of DuFord’s award-winning essays have been published in various magazines and online journals such as Narratively, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney’s, and GoNomad.
Most of the reviews for this book, as well as DuFord’s style of writing, is about the slanted humour and how he presents a very mundane event, giving it the colour of a slightly clueless observer, slightly self-effacing but very confident of his opinions. He doesn’t fail us in this collection either, be it talking about the Tapir, an automobile made in Guyana, the local mode of transport for natives in No Factory, Just People, where he notes, “The Tapir is the drunken uncle who embarrasses kin at family get-togethers, eliciting rebukes, causing shame, but in the end, is still part of the family…”, or when ruminating about the word, “accustomed”, in “A Dialog of Echoes”, an exploration of Uruguay with, “Accustomed. An ominously ambiguous word choice. It could mean that the people have given up, have found some lip-biting way of coping. Many Americans, for example, have become accustomed to their families and friends hunching over iPhones at the dinner table.”
While DuFord talks about the exploration of the music scene, particularly drums in Uruguay, with a hint of dance, where the city is connected to drums, which then contribute to the quality of life, some of his essays truly explore what he calls home, New York, particularly Queens, the “nation’s most diverse county” (according to his author profile). Be it the first essay on the Guyana-manufactured Tapir car, made for and with Guyana-native sensibilities, or in the essay, What the walls taught me, about Valparaiso murals, where “The uncertainty and newness of travel tends to shake the mind out off a groove well-worn from repetition and comfort, melting off a congealed patina from atop one’s thoughts and memories…” , DuFord explores what it means to be a traveller, where the journey is important, much more than the destination.
In Valparaiso, DuFord describes the city’s vast murals, in the middle of dog faeces, presented matter-of-factly, which is endearing to an extent but also hints at the Latin American culture being slightly different (and not in a superior way) from the readership’s. But if we at Panorama: The Journal of International Travel were to look at international travel, this is life, and as a journey, then we have to point out that sometimes even Queens may have similar canine faeces in streets as it is in the streets of mural-ed Valparaiso.
What makes this collection an adrenaline-charged exploration of the countries south of North America are DuFord’s musings on the current affairs of the world, peppered throughout his essays. In International Avenue, the author talks about the border town, Chuy, Brazil, which he states is not a border town but “is the border”. He details a history of Spanish and Portuguese occupation of this area, but one waits for more information in vain, especially if we are to learn about this town through this essay. He doesn’t disappoint when he informs us that yes, really, what made perfect sense — to wage wars over “cups of tea’” in Chuy (and other Latin American regions fought over by foreign colonisers) — sounds ridiculous to us now, just as (possibly) the current American need for oil grab and production control will be two centuries later, considering the resource will be depleted rapidly and shortly anyway.
This is also not a memoir, or a Fodor’s guide, so we see DuFord move from land to sea to boats and submarines, and in no particular order or reason. I wish we heard more from his girlfriend, Mel, or whether she had any role to play in his journey, but maybe that’s a different discovery.
For the geographically challenged, this collection may not be the favoured choice if Guyana and Chile sound like spices, because the author’s assumption is that the reader knows the locale. But there’s a sneaky suspicion that DuFord expects the reader to have a handle on the historical context also. Is that an issue when moving from Valparaiso to Santa Cruz, Chile through Pucallpa, Peru? Not really. What attracts a savvy traveller to this collection is the same interest that would attract a curious reader — the joy of discovering ordinary, mundane activities and the universality of it.
And just as one gets into the rhythm of DuFord’s sense of humour, and quirky descriptions of the dying lobster trading business, or the fact that he proudly drank a pulpy aguaje fruit shake, only later to be informed by Shipibo women about the fruit’s “beneficial qualities for women”, his essays take a swift turn back into New Orleans. Here we find DuFord as part of a SWAT team hunting the bayou pig (or the nutria), a descriptive culinary journey for an animal with bad PR in the essay that headlines the collection, “Showdown at the West Esplanade Canal (a.k.a. Breakfast for Alligators)”. This was one essay I reached in the last third of the book with great anticipation.
And then I read it with horror and bewilderment at its inclusion. This collection is very diverse: as DuFord claims in the introduction, it is a journey of 32 essays in seven years, through 14 countries. It focuses on the native people in DuFord’s journey of what is truly America, an overview of food he encountered, and what emotions were invoked in him. Hunting nutria in suburban New Orleans, however, seemed an incongruous and violent activity, a very North America challenge that pulled me out of this exploration. But ah, I was wrong. After all, DuFord did talk about turtles and turtle meat dishes in Nicaragua. Here he is invoking Salman Rushdie’s 1987 book, The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, where Rushdie noted that he was served by President Ortega a turtle meat dinner, described as “unexpectedly dense and rich, like a cross between beef and venison.” The description of how the turtles were killed and decimated was described with surgical precision, and it is a very analytical observation that can make any reader visualise, believe, vouch for, and then actually think of defending such activity, no matter how violent it appears to be. DuFord’s writing has the power not only to describe a simple lobster meal in Rock Hotel Hospitality in Nicaragua’s Miskito Cays, but also how a Miskito native girl can hack a turtle accurately, while natives watch dispassionately. While that may appear to be gratuitous, the author does have the ability to guide his willing readers through his journey.
Then there is an about-turn when DuFord describes other animals with a keen observation, bordering almost on affection. In The Peanut Fiends of Guayaquil, DuFord writes with acerbic wit, “Speaking of peanuts, a bag of them will bring out one of the iguana’s more memorable urban adaptations. Sure, their skin has already turned from the fresh green of a wet behind-the-dewlap jungle iguana to a hipster brown — to match the pollution, of course”. So the inclusion of a hunt for nutria, with the killing of turtles and yet the love for urban iguanas, does make for a potpourri of a journey.
But I would like to end with corn. In one of my favourite essays in this collection, Sissy Corn, DuFord observes, “The soil smelled dark, moist, and rich. Every time I slipped and fell, I smelled dark, moist, and rich…As if the land said to me, “Welcome back.”” This is the essence of the author and his collection, where he explores unfamiliar territories to connect with the familiar. To be connected back to the land, is what’s reassuring and, in turn, a recognisable emotion.
Read Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas for the loving attention to detail, the frenzied trips through muddy fields, in backs of SWAT vans, in boats, even submarines. Read it for the food, familiar and weird, but most of all, read it for the journey that one man takes, and his observations of the mundane in a world that is familiar, and yet unknown.