The Strangest Day of My Life (My Birthday, Friday the 13th)

The strangest day of my life occurred exactly eleven years ago today, on my birthday, Friday the 13th of July, 2001. The day began in Malanville, Benin, a small, dusty West African border town, and ended when my traveling companion and I declined an offer from door-to-door hookers at the Hotel Moustache in Niamey, the capital city of Niger on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and went to sleep.

I think of this now, because this morning my dear friend, fellow Gent, and aforementioned traveling companion, Col. Andrew S. Trimlett wrote to wish me a happy birthday, and reminded me that it is once again Friday the 13th, and my birthday, and that the day could get weird. I’ve told the story of that day often, but this is the first time I’ve put it down in print.

Andy and I spent the month of July in 2001 traveling around West Africa by bus and bush taxi. The trip was Andy’s idea and something of a lark. He had developed an interest in the region in a class he took at San Diego State. I loved the music. Benin is the birthplace of Vodou. Fun, right? That was pretty much our decision making process. We booked roundtrip tickets to Cotonou, Benin, and developed a vague plan of making a circuit through Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and then back to Benin. Then, after a week of travel, we decided to add Niamey, Niger onto our itinerary, because… well, I’m not sure why. Because nobody we knew had been there, and it was on the Niger River on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and here we were, so why the hell not?

Which is why we found ourselves in Malanville, the border post between Benin and Niger on the morning of my twenty-third birthday. I knew it was Friday the 13th, and I’ve always been a magnet for strangeness, so I warned Andy: “This day might get weird.”

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Hákarl: the Best Putrid Shark Meat You’ll Ever Taste

Eating Hákarl In Iceland from Jesse Keller on Vimeo. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of sampling Hákarl, an Icelandic delicacy made from what most people describe as putrid or rotten Greenland Shark meat, but what the museum1/Hákarl producer in the video above pointed out was not rotten but rather fermented. Hákarl is made by burying chunks of Greenland Shark in the earth for several weeks, then hanging it out to dry for several more. This leeches out the ammonia that is naturally present in Greenland Shark due to its lack of kidneys, making the finished product nearly edible, at least when accompanied by several shots of Brennevin (the local schnapps). Still, a significant amount of ammonia remains in the Hákarl, so while the consistency is definitely that of fish, the taste makes one think of old cheese soaked in Mr. Clean.

  1. While listed as a museum in the Lonely Planet, it appeared to be more of a random collection of taxidermied animals and seafaring paraphernalia, with a few photos and a bowl of Hákarl

Fjords and Necropants: A Gentleman Adventurer’s Honeymoon

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I was recently fortunate enough to marry a lovely and adventurous young woman, now Mrs Laura Marie Keller, née Kuebel. And better yet, thanks to generous wedding gifts, we found ourselves possessing of the means to have a hell of a good honeymoon. That is why I am writing this dispatch from the town of Ísafjörður, in the remote Westfjords region of Northwestern Iceland.

Laura’s preffered brand of adventure involves dramatic landscapes, sleeping outdoors, and long hikes without encountering another human being, and Iceland’s steep-sided fjords and vast unpopulated areas offer plenty of that. But while I love these rugged, outdoorsy adventures, I also like to savor some of the other adventures a country has to offer. So when I saw mention of the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in the town of Holmavík (pop. 420), I knew I had to pay a visit.

And, Gents, let me tell you: it was worth the detour. It turned out to actually be a fairly serious collection of ephemera relating to witchcraft trials in the region in the 17th century, alongside some displays and recreations of folk magic rituals taken from actual Icelandic grimoires from the last several hundred years.

These grimoires contain what appears to be a mixture of contemporary European hermetic magic, complete with Enochian scripts, and older Viking traditions, using Futhark runic inscriptions.

Among the spells were one for calling up storms to afflict one’s enemies at sea, involving runes and the head of a lingcod.

But perhaps the strangest ritual was that of the Necropants.

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First the sorcerer must convince a man to willingly bequeath his skin after his natural death for the purposes of the ritual. Then, after the donor is buried, the sorcerer exhumes the corpse and removes the skin, without a tear or scratch, from the lower half of the body. He then steals a single coin from a widow, and places it in the scrotum, and puts on his new Necropants, which will then produce coins anytime the sorcerer reaches down and desires one. I guess it beats working…