Peter Francis May

In Tents

So I’m waiting in this long line at customs in Sydney, Australia and there’s an arrow and a sign above it that says, “Carrying Food.” And this sign starts eating at me. They probably mean if you’re packin’ Indonesian lizard sausage or genetically modified kiwis but I’m feeling guilty because I know I have food in my bags because my wife always slips food in my suitcase. You know, “In case.” Anyway, the food line is way shorter than the line I’m in so I move. I get to the front and open my bags. The customs guy digs around and there’s her stash: granola bars, instant oatmeal, Cup o’ Soup, cashews, chocolate. He says, “You know we have food in Australia?”

For years I shot travel documentaries so I was always on the road.The shoots were about three weeks each. Usually a crew of four, doubled up in the hotel rooms. Everything done on the cheap because the less you spend on production, the quicker you go into profit! We got a per diem to feed ourselves. In Denmark it was barely enough for one meal a day. In Greece we ate like kings.

Of course American Culture is overwhelming so there’s always cheap, American Fast Food everywhere. I’ve seen a KFC in the Cotswolds and a McDonalds in the desert in Israel, but for me, I’ll always choose local. It’s tasty and educational!

For example, I’ve learned what Aspic is and what Sweetbreads aren’t. I like octopus, hate sea urchin. Camel, I can take or leave. But I’ll taste it all. That’s why, in Bali I was a bit disappointed when our driver Agung kept taking us to tourist spots. We kept saying, “we want to experience the REAL Bali.” Until he showed us the real Bali. His favorite lunch spot was open air, dirt floor. Pigs and ducks running around. The owner was honored to host us and serves up a big plate of everything he’s cooking. I recognized the rice but, beyond that … Suddenly, everyone else was still full from breakfast. “Couldn’t eat another bite!” Of course I don’t want to insult the owner or Agung so I eat everything. The next day I was sooooo sick. To be fair, it might not have been entirely due to the food. We went straight from lunch to a traditional Balinese funeral; an outdoor cremation, complete with the smells of Kerosene, burning wood and relative roasting away. And it was an especially hot day …

On an especially cold day, we were in Lapland, way above the arctic circle, traveling with the Sami people. They’re reindeer herders. One of them is named Burea and Burea is the spittin’ image of Billy Crystal. I swear, it felt like we were riding through the forest with Billy Crystal pretending to be a laplander. Everything he said was hilarious. At the end of the day Burea insists that we come back to his family’s tent for dinner. It was a step back in time. A glimpse at the traditions of these ancient people. Their tent is just like an American Indian teepee; stitched skins covering wood poles 25 feet tall. Inside reindeer hides are stacked a foot deep all around a big open fire. There’s Burea’s mother, dressed in traditional red and royal blue Sami clothes kneeling next to the fire cooking a big skillet of, what else, reindeer meat. This is Nat Geo all the way.

We say our hellos, get comfortable. Burea looks at me and says, “You seemed to have a good time today. You were laughing all day.” I said, “Burea, we had a good time but it was also … well … it’s just that you look a lot like an American comedian and it’s hard to see you without thinking of the comedian.” He says, “Which comedian?” And I say, assuming he wouldn’t know him, “Well, it’s an American comedian named Billy Crystal.” Burea is quiet, thinking. His mother looks up and says, “You know. From “When Harry Met Sally.”