Posts Tagged With: salt

The Salton Sea: Only the Weird Survive

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
                                                             — Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Driving through the Sonoran Desert in California and Arizona is more than a little hallucinatory on its own, even without a pharmaceutical assist. The Chocolate Mountains gaze invitingly across the Salton Sea, but the landscape between you and them is anything but. It’s a sere, unwelcoming rockscape, a coarse desert of scrub brush and stunted palms, not as homicidally hostile as Death Valley or the Sahara but rather more like an unwelcoming failed xerogarden. And despite the distant mountains, the land through which we drive is as flat as the surface of the alkaline water itself, so unvarying that even on a cool day the air shimmers, mirage-like, above the road surface ahead.

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Our destination was the Salton Sea, a major geographical oddity insofar as it is the product of a mistake. In 1905 engineers from the California Development Company dug some irrigation canals from the Colorado River into the nearby farming valley. The canals silted up, so in their wisdom the engineers decided that they could essentially flush them out by breaking through the banks of the Colorado itself. Bad move. The torrent from the Colorado overwhelmed and overflowed the canals, flowing unchecked into the nearby Salton Basin for two years, filling up a previously dry ancient lake bed and creating a whole new sizable body of water. The newly extant Salton Sea — which is actually a lake — is about 15 x 25 miles long (24 x 56 km) and averages about 31′ (9.5m) deep. That’s a 2.2 trillion gallon mistake if you’re keeping score. (Or 8.5 trillion liters if you’re keeping score outside the USA.)

For a while this looked like not too bad an outcome. Birds moved in, the lake was stocked with fish, and for decades fishing and boating became popular activities there.

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Thing is, when Mother Nature creates a lake she generally supplies a continuous source of inflow as well as some kind of exit port, generally in the form of streams or rivers, to keep things all fresh and clean. Absent any of those, your shiny new body of water just sort of sits there, collecting runoff from the land and otherwise evaporating. In other words, it is not so much a lake as a gargantuan stagnant puddle.

Which is exactly what the Salton Sea is. Lacking any inflowing rivers, the only source of water is salt-rich, phosphate-rich runoff, and the only way that water leaves the lake is by evaporation. Consequently the lake becomes increasingly salty and toxic. Today, the Salton is about 25% saltier than the ocean and a rich source of heavy-metal goodness like arsenic. Adding to the fun, the desert winds kick up the toxin-laden dust on the shoreline and spread it around for all to enjoy: the surrounding Imperial County has the highest asthma hospitalization rate in the state of California.

So in other words, despite those two pleasing photos in the above paragraphs, you do not want to plan a camping trip here. For one thing, it stinks. Literally. The air is rank with dead fish, and the shore is lined with them, mummified in the desert sun and so numerous that they crunch as you walk around. So as a counterpoint to the soothing landscapes that I gave you above, here’s what much of the beach looks like.

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And here is Steve once again, experimenting with found art and asking the eternal question, “Do these earrings make my head smell bad?”

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(Answer: no, not by the time they get to that stage. So wait till Thumper sees her next birthday present!)

But go back up to the fish photo for a second and look at the ground around the skeleton. Interestingly, it’s not sand, but rather a vast collection of billions of delicate fish bones and barnacles, each a few millimeters in size. Here’s a close-up.

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Upon close inspection it is ironically beautiful, considering that the whole place is basically a poisonous witch’s brew. All of which leads to the obvious questions, “Does anyone live here and, if so, why?” And the answers are (1) yes, and (2) because they don’t fit in anywhere else.

Case in point is the waterfront town — such as it is — of Bombay Beach. I am not quite sure how to describe Bombay Beach. In fact, I am not quite sure how to describe any of the human settlements in the vicinity of the Salton Sea, because they all reside in some alternate universe that melds the shantytowns of South Africa, a trailer park designed by Salvador Dali, and Mad Max’s world.

As I reread that last sentence I am pretty satisfied with the description, with the exception of the word “park”, which implies that — somewhere — there is at least a measurable plot of green space to be found. There is not. Bombay Beach is all dirt and rocks and corrugated metal, broken-down trailers and RVs and the occasional land-bound boat whose hull hasn’t been wet in years and never will be again.

But there is nonetheless an ineluctable cheeriness to what objectively resembles a collective of post-nuclear-war survivors. Because practically every structure has been transformed to some kind of  found-art installation. Rusty bicycle wheels spin on the end of car springs; Christmas lights festoon sheets of corrugated aluminum with odd nongeometric shapes cut into them; stuffed animals are duct-taped to arrays of old car antennas.  It’s beyond weird, but curiously whimsical given the harsh surroundings. And even though situated 50 miles into the desert away from Palm Springs, Bombay Beach has embraced Mid-Century Modernism, in the form of a nearly full-sized parody of a 1960’s drive-in movie theater populated by an impossible collection of derelict cars: Studebakers, AMC Pacers, and God knows what else.

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Steve returns to his youth.

A little ways down the coast from Bombay Beach brings us no respite from the oddness but rather eternal redemption instead, in the form of the gaily-colored and transcendentally earnest monument to brightly-colored religion that is Salvation Mountain.

Salton Sea 2018-061 Salvation Mountain is the multi-hued brainchild of one Leonard Knight, born in 1931 and metaphorically blinded by the spiritual light in 1967. In that year, while working in Vermont, Leonard was suddenly struck by the revelation that religion was way too complicated and could be boiled down to a single sentence: “Accept Jesus into your heart, repent your sins, and be saved.” This 11-word sentence represented a substantial 99.9986% savings over the official 783,137 word count of the King James Bible, but the staid New England clergy were unimpressed by his eschatalogical efficiency. So Leonard decided to spread the word on his own by building his own gigantic hot air balloon, which failed to get off the ground.

Leonard relocated to the Southwest, where he tried to build yet another hot air balloon, which also remained stubbornly earthbound. In 1984 he fetched up on the banks of the Salton Sea and decided to paint a hillside instead. This saved a lot of time on the road as an itinerant preacher, not to mention gas and tolls, although the latter savings are substantially offset by the coast of 100,000 gallons of latex paint.

You can walk around — and up — Salvation Mountain, which is still a work in progress. Adjacent to the main mountain, there is also a hogan-like adobe structure — another riot of primary colors — where you can walk through precariously-supported tunnels plastered with variations on the same inspirational message and biblical quotes. The tunnel through the hogan looks like the interior of the guy’s brain in the movie “Fantastic Voyage“:

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…although as I look at the photo now, it also reminds me of a brightly colored, slightly less ominous version of the creepy parallel world (the Upside Down) in the TV series “Stranger Things“.

Several derelict vehicles dot the grounds at Salvation Mountain: a couple of trucks, a motorcycle, and even a front-loader. The trucks in particular have a certain 1930’s Dust Bowl look about them, which I tried to capture in this photo.

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The John Steinbeck “Grapes of Wrath” model

The vehicles all have that same design scheme, i.e., they look like they were driven by a crew of drunken Okies through the wall of a paint factory, and then caromed, Wile E. Coyote-style, into an evangelical revival tent meeting.  I can imagine the scene: horn honking frantically — AH-OO-GAH! — the out-of-control vehicle, shedding paint cans and splattering latex blobs everywhere, tears through the canvas wall of the revival tent! The crowd screams HOLY JESUS and scatters as the truck careens across five rows of folding chairs, skidding 90 degrees and sending airborne a little old lady who, crippled by arthritis, had only one minute earlier stood up from her wheelchair for the first time in 17 years after a laying on of hands by the preacher! The truck crashes to a stop at the altar, and the enraged crowd charges the vehicle, deciding spontaneously en masse to use it as a billboard of their faith and smearing the paint with their hands into words of holy praise! Then they drag out the Okies and tar and feather them.

It was definitely inspirational. We donated a dollar.

Which is why our next stop was East Jesus. Well, technically, East Jesus is part of Slab City, another outpost of creative desolation very similar to Bombay Beach. (It gets its name from the concrete slabs which once supported snowbirds’ vacation homes but which are now occupied by rusting mobile homes, tents, and other semipermanent residences.) But whereas Bombay Beach acquires its actuarial risk factors by being situated on the shore of the Salton Sea itself, Slab City is a few hundred yards inland, adjacent to a US Army artillery range. It’s very easy to find the official town limit: it’s the barbed wire fence that says “Do Not Enter. Unexploded Ordinance.” I am not making this up.

Apparently the barbed wire and expanse of corrugated aluminum was insufficiently unsettling to the local artistic community, which as a result created the outdoor art installation/museum/portal to Hell dubbed East Jesus. Here is the entrance:

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…and here are some cheery scenes from around the grounds:

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Take a close look at the doorway of the collapsed house in the middle photo. There is a pair of legs wearing striped red and yellow stockings sticking out of the doorway, with a red shoe on one foot. Seems familiar. Where have we seen that before… striped stockings and a red shoe sticking out from under a collapsed house? Holy moly! Dorothy’s house has apparently migrated from Oz to East Jesus!

It’s that kind of place, weirdly fascinating but best avoided if you’ve recently been on the fence about committing suicide. Other objets d’art scattered around the grounds include a crashed Cessna, protruding from the ground at a 45 degree angle, and a toilet whose seat is ringed by 6″ glass shards, all pointing straight up. Ouch. We wandered around until we had had our fill of good-natured existential angst, then moved on.

Our last stop of the day was a more natural phenomenon: boiling mud. California is tectonically active, as you know from endless dire warnings about its eventual doom by earthquake. There is a geothermal power plant near the shore of the lake, and on its property is a mini-Yellowstone, a small field of boiling mud pots perhaps 100 meters off the road. They look like anthills or African termite mounds from a distance, blobby grayish cones sticking up out of a sparse brown field.

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Some look like mini-volcanos, perhaps two meters high, with small craters at the top where you can peer into the pool of bursting grey mud bubbles going bloop – bloop – bloop, like this:

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You can stick your hand into it. It’s a little sticky (being mud) and is about as warm as a hot shower. It’s not unpleasant, especially if you’re into spa days.

Some of the mud flows are curiously artistic. Squint at this one (below): Steve observed that it looks like any number of Renaissance Madonna-and-child paintings.

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I have deemed the photo “Mudonna”. And that was our day at the Salton Sea.

We left Palm Springs the next morning and arrowed across the desert at 80 mph (140 kph), a straight shot of 260 miles (420 km) to Phoenix, and thence to Scottsdale directly to the east of it. We’re staying with our old friends Larry and Jean for a few days before heading home for real next Tuesday. We’ve been away for nearly six weeks… time to have some down time with the grandkids!

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Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Nam-Ahab-ia

We hadn’t actually been thinking about whale watching when we came to Nambia, but in retrospect that was a little short-sighted, “Walvis Bay” taking its name from the Afrikaans/Dutch word for “whale”. And so it came to pass that today’s highlight was a whale-, seal-, and dolphin-watching cruise on the catamaran Libertine, carrying about 25 people this morning northward out of the bay.

The weather in Walvis Bay tends to be foggy and gloomy in the morning, clearing up later in the day, and so we departed under pendulous, chilly gray clouds, motoring out past a long sandbar and lighthouse into what appeared to be some kind of ship’s graveyard: sets of two, three, or even eight idle cargo ships lashed together like giant robotic rafts, waiting for a cargo or for permission to depart. Many looked like they had been waiting for a long time, resembling a scene out of the Kevin Costner movie Waterworld.

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The only dash of color in the bay were long files of oyster pots, bobbing in endless tethered rows, waiting for their owners to harvest their catch.

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We were told by Lloyd that actually seeing any whales — humpbacks in this part of the ocean — was by no means guaranteed, but the boat captain offered the consolation that at least a few seals were a sure thing. He related this in a tone that pretty clearly communicated that he had done this way too many times before: a flat, heavily Afrikaans-accented monotone that prompted one of our number to raise his hand and ask the captain to please speak English (which, to the interlocutor’s embarrassment, he was already doing).

But his lack of enthusiasm notwithstanding, Captain Johan knew whereof he spoke, as only a few minutes into the trip a few seals started surfing in our wake…

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…and then actually slid onboard to join the party, knowing that they’d get a handout from the crew.

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The seals were not the only ones who recognized that catamaran = tourists = free food. Around the same time, one of the crew members started whistling in much the same way that one might summon a sheep dog, in this case attracting a couple of shameless pelicans.

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The thing about giant birds, though, is that, um, you need to mop the deck afterwards. (Al, pictured above, remarked, “Guess he wants to buy the boat. He’s already put down a deposit.” <rim shot>)

Seals and pelicans are all very nice, to be sure, but about an hour later and several miles up the coast, we hit the jackpot: a small pod of humpback whales, at least three individuals. These two shots show two of them:03a Walvis Bay 2017-079

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As you can tell from the lower shot, they came quite close to us at least briefly; most of the time they were usually 100-200 meters away. (What you are seeing in the lower picture is the underside of one whale’s mouth in the center of the image — the white thing — and the body of a second whale at left.)

Whales are always thrilling; we have seen them many times in Hawaii but it is a sight that never gets old. You usually spot the waterspout from the blowhole first, then crane your neck (and in my case, camera) around to try and catch a glimpse of as much of their body as you can. Frequently it’s a huge mottled flipper scything out of the water, but occasionally you get lucky and see a good part of the creature’s body at once.

We watched the whales for quite a while, perhaps a half hour before heading back, stopping first to take in an enormous colony of seals covering a long sandy peninsula jutting out from the mainland. They were everywhere: surfing onto the beach, waddling around bumping into each other, fighting, barking, and generally reveling in some kind of gigantic Woodstockian pinniped free-for-all.

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Around the same time we attracted an enormous pod of bottlenose dolphins, surfing alongside (and under) the boat and leaping into the air all around us, an encircling cetacean ballet that kept us snapping our heads from one direction to another as we tried to catch them in the act.  Their arcs are wondrous to behold but a first class pain in the neck to photograph since they happen so fast and so unpredictably. With no time to focus since each launch was at a different distance from us, this is the best I could do:

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In short, it was a more than satisfying boat ride, if a rather chilly one: we had spent most of our time on the upper deck to get a more panoramic view at the cost of some shivers and windburn.

By the time we returned to our hotel in Swakopmund in early afternoon, the sun had broken through — typical weather for this part of the coast — and we set off northward in our two vans, shepherded by Lloyd and our two drivers, Joe and (once again!) Castro. The goal was a little south of Henties Bay, part of the famed Skeleton Coast. But we had to make a couple of surrealistic stops along the way.

The first of these was the entrance the Salt Company Ltd, which shares an expanse of land with the Seabird Guano Company. (You do not want to confuse these two substances when seasoning your food.) The Salt Company uses both reverse osmosis and evaporation ponds to make, well, really large piles of salt like you see here. The terrain is otherwise barren, an endless astringent hardpan of compressed dirt and sand that runs right up to a rocky beach on the ocean. It’s flat for miles and miles, dry as dust (it kinda is dust), devoid of shade or any vegetation, and utterly uninviting.

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It is, in short, not exactly the kind of place you would build a vacation home. Which makes the actual presence of a community of vacation homes mysterious to the point of incomprehensibility. The homeowners are at least marginally aware of the incongruity and able to poke a tiny bit of fun at themselves, as you can tell:

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But they have nonetheless each constructed for themselves an electricity-free, trucked-in-water-dependent Lego-like vacation house. Gaily painted in pastels and primary colors, some have solar panels, most have water tanks on the roof, and all make you wonder why the hell anyone in his right mind would want to escape to here. It is definitely the kind of place that people escape from in any number of movies.

As all fourteen of us scratched our heads in bemusement, Joe and Castro brought us to our actual goal, the Skeleton Coast, dubbed by the Namibian Bushmen “The Land God Made in Anger”. Portuguese sailors called it “The Gates of Hell”. The people who built those vacation homes near the salt factory probably call it “prime real estate.”

The degree to which the local flora and fauna adapt to these conditions of extreme aridity is remarkable. I told you a few days ago about the bird that suckles its young through a water pouch in its breast. But I think my favorite is the beetle with the extra-long rear legs. When the fog rolls in in the morning, it extends those legs and so raises its little beetle butt up in the air, thus making about a 30 degree tilt. This increases its cross section to whatever breeze there might be; the fog condenses into microscopic water droplets on its back, which then flow downhill to its waiting mouth. Ta-da! Beetle Yoga as a survival mechanism!

However, a lot of animals and people have not survived, and it is not called the Skeleton Coast for nothing. Here is the wreck of the Zeila, a former fishing trawler that was being sold for scrap; it was being towed to India for salvage when the tow chain broke and the boat ran aground.

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Lloyd informed us that the boat used to be further up the beach, close enough to touch, but is being gradually pulled out to sea by the tides and dismembered by the waves. It isn’t haunted but it probably ought to be. And in case it needs any help being haunted, here is an accompanying actual skeleton on the beach, from a pelican who swallowed his last fish quite some time ago.

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The saving grace of this grim scene was that Steve was able to deploy his drone to marvelous effect, orbiting the wreck about 20 meters above the sea to create a most spectacular video. If he posts it to YouTube some time in the future I will supply a link to it.

Our final stop of the day was — try not to get too excited by this — a field of lichen, which can survive these conditions. Lichen is a symbiotic lifeform, a mixture of algae and fungi, and it is primitive enough to live almost anywhere. It looks like an outcropping of mold in these environs, but when you nourish it with a sprinkle of water (say, from your water bottle), it unfolds a bit and takes on some color — red or green, in this particular case. It was, uh, botanically interesting, but not quite up there with a humpback whale or pelican skeleton. (Note to self: start a rock band called Pelican Skeleton, possibly with some funky hip misspelling like Pelican Skelitan. )

We fly further north to Damaraland tomorrow, home to Nambia’s Desert Elephants. We’ll be more or less incommunicado for at least the three days that we are there, so I will try and catch up when I can.

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Giants in Diapers

We are talking about sumo, of course. It is Japan’s national sport, 1500 years old with roots in the Shinto religion. Indeed, many of sumo’s rituals are religious, including sprinkling salt around the ring and that peculiar one-leg-at-a-time stomp that is so often parodied. Both are purification rituals designed to demon-proof the proceedings. (And there must be a lot of demons in the vicinity, judging by the amount of salt these guys throw around. More on that in a moment.)

We were lucky to get tickets. There are only six matches a year held throughout the country, and only half of those are in Tokyo. Each match is 15 days long, which means that there are only 45 days during the year when you can see professional sumo in Tokyo. Happily, one of those 15-day windows falls in mid-September, so here we are. We booked a sumo-plus-traditional dinner tour and were fortunate to have a knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and generally adorable guide named Nao to give us the skinny on the fat guys. Nao was something of a sumo groupie, so she even had cheat sheets made up for us with the names and stats of the players, plus some handicapping information in the bargain. It is all a very big deal, and the players themselves — of whom there are only 660 in the country — are highly venerated as a result.

This led us to our first bit of surrealism, in fact, as Nao lectured us on the unapproachability of these 350-pound demigods. We might see one of them in his robe outside the arena, she cautioned. If we do, do not approach him! (What, will they attack unprovoked?) I’ll do the talking, said Nao, and if we are very, very lucky and very, very polite then he may consent to have his picture taken with us. She proudly added that she had last succeeded in this quest a week ago.

Well, we exit from the train and who is wandering around the station in his bright yellow robe but one of the behemoths in the flesh. Nao approaches him as obsequiously as possible — and in Japan that is very, very obsequious — and after a few moments of conversation the giant consents to a photo op, to everyone’s delight. He does this gamely for a few minutes and most of our group — but not us — managed to get into a shot by the time he turns away to buy a train ticket. Our bad luck, it seems, until Nao imparts out of the blue the biographical nugget that this particular guy is originally from Hawaii. That’s all I need.

As Nao looks on in horror I march over to the ticket machine next to him and say, “Hey, I hear you’re from Hawaii! I used to live there!” It turns out that he is, well, just a guy after all and he says, “No kidding. Where?” So we chat for a minute or two and shake hands and I ask if we could squeeze in one more shot of Alice and me. He says, “Sure,” and here is the result:

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So we are once again officially awesome.

The sumo arena is square and holds roughly 4000 people. The sign at the ticket window said that the match was sold out, but as you can see from the photo below it seemed far from that while we were there.

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That’s Nao on the far right. In the corridors outside the seating area there are a number of snack bars selling a rather interesting variety of stuff: ice cream and popcorn like stadiums the world over, but also bento boxes and alien Japanese snacks.

After some preliminary bouts the big-time players marched in for the top-of-the-card matches. The overexcited announcer named them one by one as they formed a circle, clad in ornate, colorful upscale loincloths, and the crowd went wild. Here are the top-ranking champions on display.

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Speaking of “alien” this is probably a good time to note that it was only in 1993 that a Hawaiian fellow named Chadwick Haheo Rowan broke the “nation barrier” by becoming — amidst an enormous amount of controversy and hand-wringing — the first non-Japanese yokozuna, the highest-ranked sumo wrestler. His sumo name was Akebono Taro, and he pretty much opened the floodgates for non-Japanese participants. Today, in addition to our Hawaiian guy at the train station, we saw wrestlers from China, Georgia (the country), Brazil (which has a large ethnic Japanese population), and a veritable Mongol horde. (Literally: a disproportionate number of the top ranked guys are from Mongolia.)

A match begins, as you probably know, by the contestants strewing salt around the wring, then stretching and stomping around for a bit, then finally squatting down and facing each other. At this point you expect the referee to say “Go!”, and the guys go at it, but no. The referee does not start the bout; the players do, and only when they’re both damn well ready. So after squatting and glowering at each other for a few seconds, one or both will get up, walk around, towel off the sweat (from what?), and throw around more salt. Then they’ll squat down and face each other again, and one will decide, “Nah, not yet,” and the whole cycle starts again: stretching, salt, towel, a stomp or two, maybe a quick mani-pedi. This can go on for half a dozen cycles until there’s enough salt in the ring to de-ice your driveway next winter. At this point the audience is ready to storm the ring and finally things get serious…

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…for about ten seconds, until something like this happens:

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That “ten seconds” remark is not an exaggeration; many of the bouts are indeed that short. The rules state that a bout may last a maximum of four minutes, but it is hard to imagine that happening given what we saw today. A couple of the very top-ranked matches lasted noticeably longer, the longest being perhaps two minutes. Most of that time was spent with the guys locked together, leaning into each other like a rigid triangle, absolutely unmoving: the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.   Sometimes things get slightly out of hand, e.g.:

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The deadly 350 lb Atomic Wedgie

…but mostly it’s wham, bam, sayonara.

The players are famous, of course, but not terribly rich. There are ten ranks of player and only the top five are paid at all; the lowest of these makes about $120K a year, the highest about three times that. Sponsorships provide a little extra money, though nothing on the scale of American athletes. In fact, it works rather differently. Companies will choose to sponsor particular bouts — generally the ones with the best known players — and pay into a sponsorship pool to do so. When that bout comes up the company reps get to march around the ring holding their company banners, and whoever wins the bout gets the pool. Bouts with top-ranked players will get a dozen or more sponsorships, leading to a scene like this:

sumo-009 …while bouts with low-ranked players will get no marching banners at all.

At the end of the bout, the referee hands the winner an envelope containing the sponsorship cash, right there in the ring. We should definitely adopt this system at home: when the Yankees are playing, at the conclusion of the game a pickup truck drives onto the field, filed with $50 million in cash from all of Alex Rodriguez’s sponsors, and the coach of the winning team gets to drive off with it.

You are now a sumo expert, and I have retired a minor bucket list item.

 

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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