The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers

The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers

by Eric Hansen

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Eric Hansen survives a cyclone on a boat off the Australian coast, cradles a dying man in Calcutta, and drinks mind-altering kava in Vanuatu. He helps a widower search for his wife's wedding ring amid plane-crash wreckage in Borneo and accompanies topless dancers on a bird-watching expedition in California. From the Maldives to Sacramento, from Cannes to Washington

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Eric Hansen survives a cyclone on a boat off the Australian coast, cradles a dying man in Calcutta, and drinks mind-altering kava in Vanuatu. He helps a widower search for his wife's wedding ring amid plane-crash wreckage in Borneo and accompanies topless dancers on a bird-watching expedition in California. From the Maldives to Sacramento, from Cannes to Washington Heights, Eric Hansen has a way of getting himself into the most sacred ceremonies and the most candid conversations.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year

"Three decades spent crisscrossing the map . . . have honed in [Hansen] a meticulous knack for observations and the confidence to describe what he sees in both bold strokes and fine ones. One after another, remarkable figures leap from these pages vibrant and alive."
San Francisco Chronicle

"The kind of exhilarating read that awakens your sense of wonder. . . . Eric Hansen has a lively curiosity, a good eye for detail and a swift, engaging prose style. When he travels, he doesn't merely observe but plunges fearlessly into the unknown." —The Washington Post

"Deft storytelling, flavorful prose, a canny gift for bringing characters alive on the page, a receptivity to all that is strange and unruly in our world—these traits make Hansen an extraordinarily pleasurable and eye-opening author to read." —The Seattle Times

"By turns revealing, enlightening, and just plain fabulous fun. . . . A wonderful and satisfying read." —The Boston Globe

"[There is] sheer lunatic joy to be found in these essays. . . . Hansen's curiosity, ability to meet people on their own terms and willingness to try just about anything make the experience fascinating. His gentle, straightforward prose and the fact that the reader truly never knows what will happen next make Bird Man rewarding reading." —The Miami Herald

"[An] inspired collection. . . . These are heartfelt reports from the road, told with simple eloquence and gentle humor."
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"In his range, his clarity, and his depth of understanding, Eric Hansen is the match of any travel essayist at work today. To travel well is a rare skill; to write about such travels as well as Hansen does is art. The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer does more than entertain—it informs and transports the reader in a way that is second only to the experience itself. That's the sign of a master. "
—Joe Kane, author of Savages

"A riot. . . . Hansen has done things worthy of awe and jealousy." —Entertainment Weekly

"The intrepid traveler can spin a good yarn, knowing how to go beyond the externals of exotic and not-so exotic locations to get to the heart and soul of a place. . . . Written with the lyricism, structure and knowing touches of a fine work of short fiction."
San Jose Mercury News

"A real travel professional. . . . Hansen draws out-loud guffaws. . . . Unlike many world-wearied writers, Hansen avoids studied cynicism and forced sentimentality." —New York Times Book Reivew

"A fine journalist. . . . The way he . . . builds both tension and pathos, is so touching that the reader is drawn into the story. . . . He's so good at descriptions of place, the magic of travel, and the mystery at the edges of the world." —The Oregonian

"Eric Hansen a traveler's traveler—curious, imaginative, subtle, and brave. The Bird Man and Lap Dancer is the latest report from his life of adventure, told with typical style and verve.  It should be read, enjoyed, and passed among friends." —William Langewiesche, author of American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center

"Moving. . . . Hansen writes [with] a resonance and psychological depth not usually seen in more routine travel narratives. . . . Each story combines nuanced portraits of memorable characters with lyrical descriptions of human fallibility and generosity . . . [that make] this heartfelt collection a magical and uplifting read." —The Economist

"Eric Hansen's lovely book of true-life adventures is a gift. Few writers aspire to such honesty, or manage it so engagingly. A compelling read." —Bill Barich, author of Laughing in the Hills

"Imagine the world of Joseph Conrad invaded by a real-life Rocky Horror Picture Show. But there's more to Hansen's stories than mere weirdness and wonder. Some of them are private memories, polished by time; others conceal parables. All are simply and beautifully told." —Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Yemen: The Unknown Arabia

"Each essay [is] more fantastic than the one before. . . . Hansen's world is not just a world of romantic adventure, but a world of complex human interaction that a less-perceptive writer would have not been able to bring home. . . . If you want to be totally entertained by an exotic and bizarre cast of really cool folks told in a clear and enjoyable style, get a copy of The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer. It's quite a trip." —Anniston Star

Juliet Wittman
Eric Hansen has a lively curiosity, a good eye for detail and a swift, engaging prose style. When he travels, he doesn't merely observe but plunges fearlessly into the unknown. These attributes, which make him an ideal guide to exotic and out-of-the-way events, cultures and places, are on display in the collection The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers.
— The Washington Post
Pamela Paul
Unlike many world-wearied writers, Hansen avoids studied cynicism and forced sentimentality. In this collection, he focuses not only on particular places but on the people he meets while traveling to those places, be they drunken roughnecks in New Guinea, patients of Mother Teresa in Calcutta or Russian expatriate chefs in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The best, most enduring travel writers don't invite readers to merely view vistas through other eyes, but take the trip further, deep into the psychology of place. Hansen (Stranger in the Forest; Motoring with Mohammed) does just that in this lyrical collection that is equal parts travelogue, memoir and anthropological treatise. He details explorations from his 20s, 30s and 40s (he's now 57), all of which are compelling, surprising and utterly memorable. Though some are set in Europe, most take place in distant, alluring places in Asia and the South Pacific. "Night Fishing with Nahimah" recalls Hansen's extended 1977 trip to the Maldives Islands near Singapore, where he journeyed to smuggle fish from the islands to the mainland. In the Maldives, he encountered an island paradise awash in contradictions, devoutly Muslim yet devoid of sexual inhibitions. (Hansen also nearly died there from severe hepatitis.) "Listening to the Kava" takes him to the outer islands of Vanuata, where he partakes of a hallucinogenic drink with local men. "Life at the Grand Hotel" evokes Hansen's months-long stay on Thursday Island in the Pacific after the prawn trawler he was working on nearly capsized in a storm. The wild goings-on at the seedy little hotel are hilarious, poignant and distinctly of another era. But Hansen's most enthralling tale is "Life Lessons from a Dying Stranger," about how, while negotiating Calcutta's bureaucratic maze for shipping large packages, Hansen volunteers at Mother Teresa's "Nirmal Hriday" (Home for Dying Destitutes). This haunting vignette alone makes this magical book worthwhile. Agent, Joe Spieler Agency. (Oct. 12) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In his exuberant collection of writings, Hansen recalls his encounters with myriad unique and fascinating people, none of whom are famous but all of whom still lead lives of quiet importance. There is, for example, the birdlike elderly Russian woman once associated with the cream of European ballet society who now exists with sewer rats and street thugs in one of the worst parts of Manhattan. There are the inhabitants of the Grand Hotel on Thursday Island, Australia, who live a bawdy, colorful life in one of the most beautiful places on Earth; the residents of Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying Destitute; a lap dancer with lofty ambitions; and a beautiful Maldive Island woman who taught Hansen how to fish and make love. Readers will finish this book before they know it and will find themselves wishing for more of Hansen's world, full of hidden treasures revealed through vivid prose. Highly recommended for large public libraries. Joseph L. Carlson, Allan Hancock Coll., CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An anthology covering three decades of calculated serendipity. For San Francisco-based travel writer Hansen (Orchid Fever, 2000, etc.), travel is an endeavor of empathy, and empathy entails a burning cross-cultural curiosity that rewards itself and the reader with memorable examples of human contact on essential, even primitive levels. These skillfully crafted pieces are void of the usual commercial travel flackery; Hansen conjures romantic adventure not by proclaiming it but letting it creep up and tingle on the back of your neck. He has a cartographer's eye for the contours of the globe, a naturalist's sense of impending threat in local ecosystems, and-in certain Australian bars on given evenings-a connoisseur's eye for the lay of the land. His humor springs like a trap: On Thursday Island, off Australia's Queensland Coast, for example, checking into a hotel room with the door torn off, floor littered with debris, walls scarred by graffiti and vandalism, Hansen dryly wonders "what the meals will be like." The idea of becoming a smuggler of a certain dried, smoked fish that is an everyday commodity in the Maldive Islands but a prized delicacy central to the cuisine of Sri Lanka hundreds of miles away is easily justified by the Hansen maxim: "the best way to penetrate a culture and mingle with the people was by getting involved with the local economy." His literally mind-blowing account of the effects of the core narcotic employed in the Melanesian kava-drinking ritual will probably change the minds of some armchair travelers who up to that point had been envious of somebody who didn't just talk about adventures but kept going out and having them. The rare traveler who senses the reasonwhy we travel in the first place.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Departures
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.58(d)

Read an Excerpt


It was a warm summer evening when I met Arlette. She was an old woman by then, but in good health. She still wore red lipstick and obviously took pleasure in dressing in a simple but elegant way. Valerie Tatiana von Braunschweig, a former dancer with the Bejart Ballet, and I were driving from Monaco to Juan-les-Pines to spend the summer of 1989. As a way to extend our meandering journey and for me to meet Arlette we decided to take her to dinner at L'Estaminet des Remparts, a small, unpretentious restaurant in Mougins, which is a quaint hilltop village in the south of France. As we settled at our table on the outdoor terrace, Arlette apologized that her companion was too ill to join us. The waiter cleared away the fourth place setting and returned with a bottle of chilled rose. He poured the glasses and set the bottle on the table as Arlette began the story of how she met Madame Perruche.

For nearly forty years, Arlette had lived in a modestly furnished apartment in the hills behind Cannes. She was once a principal dancer for the Marquis de Cuevas and the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo, where she had danced with Valerie's mother fifty years earlier. But when the company failed Arlette was too old to join another company. And so she became a teacher at a local ballet school which catered to well-to-do families with young daughters of average talent. She lived in reduced circumstances as the Cannes of her youth succumbed to the traffic and featureless concrete monoliths that began to dominate the older hillside neighborhoods of summer homes covered in blooms of ancient bougainvillea. But she lived frugally and managed to get by on a modest salary from the ballet school. Arlette drove an ancient motor scooter and on most mornings she went to a small park near the train station to feed the stray cats.

There was a street woman who frequented the same park. She was known as Madame Perruche (Madame Parakeet). The woman was given her name because she fed the birds, but also because of her frail body and hooked nose. She owned two sweaters. One blue and one black, to go with her blue skirt with the white polka dots. No one knew much about the woman or where she came from. She slept on a park bench and used poste restante at the main post office to receive mail. No one could remember when she first appeared in the neighborhood, but it had been years ago and by the time Arlette met the woman Madame Perruche was more or less accepted as a permanent fixture in the park.

Arlette usually smiled or said hello to the woman during her visits to the park, but Madame Perruche rarely replied and when she did it was with a vigorous shake of her head or a brusque huffing sound. Her years on the street had made her wary of strangers and it was clear that she wanted as little contact with people as possible. She preferred the company of birds. Several mornings each week Madame Perruche could be found seated on the same park bench. Birds would flutter around eating seed and dried bread at her feet and occasionally one would perch on her hand for a brief conversation. Wild birds would take sunflower seeds from her lips.

Then one autumn day, as she was feeding the cats, Arlette thought about how odd it was that most people felt uncomfortable about giving food to humans but not to animals. Arlette brought the woman a fresh baguette and a small wedge of cheese.

"Merci, madame," said Madame Perruche sharply, as she snatched the food from her hand and walked away.

The following week Arlette persuaded the woman to go to a local cafe for a cup of coffee and a pastry. The regular patrons, hunched over the zinc bar sipping their mid-morning pastis, appeared to take scant notice of the women. But as soon as the women were out the door, there must have been words, because their cruel comments were later passed on to Arlette by her grocer. Arlette's friends, knowing her generous habits, urged her not to get involved with a woman who lived on the streets.

When winter set in that year the mistral blew from the north bringing days of bitterly cold, rainy weather. Sitting at her breakfast table, sipping a steamy cup of tea and listening to the torrent of raindrops pounding on the windowpanes, Arlette could not bear the thought of the old woman wandering the streets looking for shelter. And so, during a lull in the storm, Arlette drove to the park and returned home with Madame Perruche, and her plastic bags of belongings, perched on the back of the motor scooter.

"She was soaking wet when I found her," Arlette told us. "I gave her a dressing gown and a bath towel, and left her with a cup of chocolat chaud while I took her clothes to the laundromat."

Madame Perruche stayed for two days until the weather warmed and then she returned to her park bench and her birds. Arlette's friends were horrified when they heard that she had allowed a person from the street to sleep in her home.

"But what are you thinking!?" a neighbor yelled at Arlette once Madame Perruche had left.

The two women continued to get to know each other in the little park, and, when Arlette was invited to visit friends in Paris, she asked Madame Perruche if she would like to stay in the apartment and take care of the plants and collect the mail. Arlette's friends threw up their hands in exasperation when they heard that she was planning to loan her apartment to the bird woman.

"Impossible! There won't be a thing left when you get back," they warned her. "She will make a copy of your key. You won't be able to get rid of her."

Arlette didn't listen to the advice of her friends, but to avoid problems with the doorman and the other tenants in her apartment building Arlette gave Madame Perruche a new pair of espadrilles and some clothes from her closet that she no longer wore. She installed Madame Perruche in her apartment, with a small sum of money for groceries, and then packed her bag and left for Paris.

"But weren't you concerned about your belongings?" I asked Arlette as she paused to take a bite of her dinner.

"The only thing of value that I own is a photo album from my youth. And what sort of person would steal something like that?" She laughed.

According to the neighbors, Madame Perruche rarely left the apartment while Arlette was in Paris. By the time Arlette returned a week later she found her home in an astonishing state. The woman had cleaned the entire apartment, washed and ironed the bed linen, scrubbed and waxed the floors, and cleaned the windows inside and out. Fresh flowers, picked from the park, were set in a small vase on the kitchen table. Arlette was delighted with what she saw, and suggested that Madame Perruche stay. She could take the small room off the kitchen. The bird woman accepted, but only on the condition that she could make herself useful. She continued to clean the house and helped with the shopping and cooking.

Arlette had the good sense not to pry into the woman's life, and each morning they continued to walk to the square to feed the cats and birds. Madame Perruche never talked about her past, but there were telltale signs in her behavior that convinced Arlette that the woman had come from a good family. She took note of how the woman set the table and folded the bottom corners of a bedsheet; and how she paused to listen to Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 6 in A Major that Arlette played on the phonograph one afternoon. The two women lived simply and quietly, but many of Arlette's friends found it impossible to accept this new living arrangement without comment. They thought Arlette had lost her mind. Several neighbors suspected the women were lovers. Arlette told us these possibilities were perfectly in keeping with their small minds and empty lives.

The first winter passed and early in the spring a letter arrived at poste restante for Madame Perruche. The return address was of a law firm in Lyon. Madame Perruche left the letter unopened on the breakfast table for a week, but Arlette finally encouraged her to read the contents. The letter was brief. Madame Perruche was requested to contact the law firm as soon as possible. A distant relative had died and Madame Perruche had inherited an unspecified amount of money.

"Maybe it is a great sum," Arlette suggested, urging the woman to reply at once.

Madame Perruche didn't want any contact with her past, but after two weeks of putting it off, she let Arlette convince her to write back. Within days of her reply a telegram arrived with the startling news that she had indeed inherited a great sum of money. The lawyer arranged for papers to be signed and notarized, a new bank account was opened in Cannes, funds were transferred, and within two months Madame Perruche found herself with a small fortune.

Uncertain of what to do, she continued living with Arlette. She kept herself busy cleaning the apartment, but she immediately insisted on sharing the rent and other expenses.

"You can imagine how quickly the news of this inheritance cooled the hysteria of the neighbors." Arlette laughed. The waiter set a generous slice of fig tart and an expresso in front of Arlette as she continued her story. "The neighbors, those meddlesome, bourgeois fools. They had nothing better to occupy their time than to talk about us," she said.

As summer arrived Madame Perruche announced that she would like to buy an apartment. She invited Arlette to move in with her, but Arlette, who had always helped others, found it very difficult to accept favors. She had grown accustomed to giving rather than receiving, but in time the woman convinced Arlette that she was merely trying to return a favor and that there was no reason why her sudden good fortune should break up their friendship.

A real estate agent found a more beautiful and larger apartment not far from the park where the two women had first met. Madame Perruche paid cash and by the end of the summer they had painted the rooms and moved in. Arlette brought her photo album, her motor scooter, furniture, bedding, pots, pans, dishes and kitchen utensils, and she insisted on paying a modest rent.

"As you please," said Madame Perruche.

At the first sign of winter Madame Perruche suggested that the two of them take a journey. Arlette explained that she could not afford to travel, but that she would be happy to stay behind and take care of the apartment. Madame Perruche laughed at this suggestion and returned later that day with two one-way boat tickets from Marseilles to Alexandria.

"It will be warmer there," she explained over Arlette's protests. And so, with little knowledge of their destination, no hotel reservations and no tour arrangements, the two women bravely set forth to discover Egypt. They visited the sights of Cairo, then sailed up the Nile on a converted felucca, and explored Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. They saw such things as mummified baboons and crocodiles.

Toward the end of dinner, Arlette reached into her bag to show us pictures from her photo album. In one photo, the two of them were standing in front of the great temple at Karnak. In a second photo, Madam Perruche was perched on a camel in front of the pyramids. She had a pair of sunglasses set on her nose and a wide-brimmed straw sun hat tied at the chin with black ribbon. The photos had been taken ten years earlier.

After dinner, we drove Arlette home. That was the last time I saw her. She no longer sends me postcards from places like Fez, Prague or Madrid, but common friends keep me informed. According to them, most of Arlette's acquaintances in Cannes have either moved away or died or lost their minds. Arlette still manages to ride her motor scooter to the weekly open-air market when the weather is fine. She no longer pays rent and now that both she and Madame Perruche are getting frail, a woman comes by the apartment once a week to vacuum, and do the laundry, and to prepare a few simple meals. They still try to get away for a trip during the winter, but in recent years they have seldom ventured any further than Paris.

Spring is their favorite season to be at home. It is a beautiful time in the south of France. The migratory birds are returning from North Africa and mimosa trees grace the boulevards with their fragrant bright yellow blooms. Most mornings, at that time of year, the two friends can be found in a small park near the train station. Children run by the park on their way to school, but they hardly notice the two old ladies standing at opposite ends of the square where one is feeding the cats, and the other is feeding the birds.


An orange morning light filtered into my room as an outboard motor coughed to life somewhere in the distance. The French doors that opened onto the second-floor verandah allowed a sea breeze to billow the curtains at the doorway and fill the room with a heady fragrance of frangipani flowers. Sections of corrugated-metal roofing began to creak and groan as they warmed in the sun and there was the far-off sound of a teakettle whistling. The Grand Hotel was coming to life.

Pushing the mosquito net aside, I wrapped a towel around my waist and walked to the verandah railing to scan the waterfront. The hundred-year-old weathered floorboards felt dry and smooth beneath my feet. Little zebra finches flitted along the eaves and white cockatoos screeched at one another as they flew between the coconut palms. It was a familiar scene.

Twenty years earlier I had worked at the hotel, and most mornings I stood at this same spot to take in the wide view of scattered white clouds as their shadows drifted over a turquoise sea. The scene evoked sensations and memories that beckoned from a previous life that has never quite settled in my mind. Dressed in my towel, I strolled along the verandah, took in the warm sea air and thought about the circumstances that originally brought me to Thursday Island and the Grand Hotel.

In those days I was a cook and deckhand on the Cape Bedford, an eighty-five-foot-long steel-hulled prawn trawler that worked the north coast of Australia.

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Meet the Author

Eric Hansen lives in San Francisco, but over the last twenty-five years he has traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, Australia, Nepal, and Southeast Asia. He is the author of Stranger in the Forest, Motoring with Mohammed, and Orchid Fever. His articles, photographs, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Travel & Leisure, Cond? Nast Traveler, and Outside magazine, among other publications worldwide. He can be reached at

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