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Outside magazine, November 1999Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
Is it all a ghastly dream? I cannot know. We sailed nearly 25,000 miles to behold people that Time (and evenNewsweek) forgot—a cryptic race that had never had the benefits of modern medicine. This backwardness was a great sorrow for them, as our crew were by this time carrying all manner of pestilence: cholera, trench mouth, and a perplexing "moodiness" I dare not describe. Having lost nine fingers and a thumb, I myself suffered from sheep rot, stigmata, and what our medic liked to call "Cupid's Itch." I also had that thing where your ear is plugged but won't quite pop, and when you try to make it pop the ear just gets worse, despite all your yawning and swallowing. But, triumphantly, I would abide. For my fellows and my Sovereign, with no access to a reliable ear doctor, I would abide.

Our amazing first brush with the Lost Colony came on a stark winter's afternoon. We lay moaning and half-starved (as we awaited High Tea) when one of them hobbled out of the bush. It was obvious we were outsiders: What native would be seen here without a trilby hat and shillelagh? Our startling new friend was four feet tall, with striking blue eyes, and ears that also apparently were on strike. In an exotic language fashioned from a wild waving-about of arms (and passable English), he indicated that his name was Pino, and that he was this glacier's preeminent tangelo peddler. He greeted us with the traditional military handshake, accompanied by that ululating sound I can never quite get a handle on.

Despite Pino's odd conventions, he was a good fellow. Had we been stronger, we would have enslaved him and shown him the wonders of the real world. He'd have been quite a curiosity back home. He was dressed, as per custom, in mukluks and poncho-draped lederhosen—in other words, the same dusty stereotype we have of these people, but standing in front of us, incarnate.

With a parched rasp of voice, I asked if we might see his village. Pino cheerily agreed (by yodeling, just like in the movies). We rode his ricksha far beyond the Mayan ruins and into the igloo sector of the heath, where natives with lip-plates waved sprigs of purple heather to bless us. Clearly, the tribe had never seen white men before, as the children kept touching our skin and snapping Polaroid photos of us. For some reason, many of them asked us for pens and Western candy. Among the tumbleweeds and eider ducks, we then watched an indigenous holy ritual: Hula-skirted younglings did a Basque clog-dance while we drank our flagons of mead.

One morning, during a midsummer squall, Pino strode into my chalet and decreed that I must meet the chief's eldest daughter. I'd been listening to the strains of balalaika music issuing from a nearby pueblo, and nodded my assent despite the fake neck-brace I had been obliged to wear, for the tribe was by its nature litigious. Pino sternly conducted me to a beachfront cabana owned by the delta's Lord Mayor. I would never be the same.

The girl was dark-eyed, platinum-haired, and cloaked in a lace chesterfield: the very prototype of a Gypsy trader. When first I laid eyes on her, she was skimming along—rather too fast, to my way of thinking—on one of those papyrus-reed catamarans you see in the Forbidden City. We locked eyes. Time stopped. Despite the solar winds, she strode fearlessly toward me across the veldt. I hardly knew what to say, and was groping for my few phrases of Portuguese, when she led me through a banana thicket to the village duomo. The air was so still you could hear nothing but the roar of macaws and the faint chugging of the steamboats.

Arm in arm, we strolled down to the creek and pretended we could see all the way to the opposite shore. I snatched up a coconut from the bluegrass and flung it as far toward Alcatraz as I could (it's farther than it looks!). For a moment, we felt as though the Parthenon itself was smiling down upon us—that all of antiquity was there, gazing with us out upon the bamboo-dotted vineyards, crouching alongside us beneath the jagged stalactites. She removed her matador hat. I kissed her. We lay down in the edelweiss and, hidden by the rainforest canopy, indulged in the Physical conduct of love.

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