The action starts 60 meters up a mammoth triangular monument that has been alternately compared to a crashed flying saucer, a lopsided loaf of bread and a fist of knuckles. A crazed medley of marble and concrete, it was planted in a Tirana park in 1988 to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the birth of Albanian strongman Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985. The dates don't add up, but never mind. The point is that the Enver Hoxha Memorial has a roof that reaches all the way to the ground and resembles a series of toboggan chutes: They're steeply raked, perfectly smooth and utterly irresistible to anyone with a thirst for speed. And speed is very much the point. The rules of Hoxha sliding are simple: Find an empty plastic bottle, preferably a three-liter Pepsi-Cola container, scramble to the top of the slippery slope, sit down on your nonreturnable sled and slide. Forget about grace or artistic merit; they don't count in this game.
Clambering up the roof, Klodian Murati gives some pointers. "No technique," councils the mop-haired 11-year-old, who is widely regarded as the all-Tirana Hoxha sliding champion. "Go for speed." In the field below, a crowd gathers. Lutfi Tota, a 72-year-old farmer, looks up wistfully. "I wish I were young enough to slide," he says, recalling the days when he went sledding in the mountains near his home village. "If I were 10 years old, I'd be up there with them." Mr. Tota's cow, Bardhoshe, lies across the finish line, lowing peacefully. She is an essential safety feature in the game, serving as a bovine backstop to keep sliders from landing in a concrete drainage trench at the bottom of the piste. "The cow wasn't there last year when I broke my leg in the ditch," the young Mr. Murati explains.
The game's roots trace back to the reign of Mr. Hoxha himself, a dictator with a taste for the weird. According to the sport's oral history, Mr. Hoxha ordered the entire population of Tirana to stand in the rain without umbrellas one nasty spring day in 1983 so that he and his wife could drive around the city and observe the spectacle of a few hundred thousand people getting wet. Inspired by this performance, the legend goes, Mr. Hoxha told his wife to build a pyramid after his death to house everything he had ever touched in life. And so it was that the memorial was stocked with the collected artifacts of Mr. Hoxha, including some of his toiletries, until the crumbling of communism in 1991, when they were removed to furnish office space for the Soros Foundation and other institutions. All of this matters little to the children of Tirana, a dirt-poor city with little going for kids except the meteoric sliding surfaces of a six-sided memorial that they call the pyramid. Here they come day after day, their ranks swelled by a growing number of Kosovo refugee children. "It's really, really, really fun," says Ramiz Frashei, a 10-year-old from the Kosovar city Pec.
The sport does have a few drawbacks. Crash helmets aren't available, but since when has that ever stopped kids? More worrisome is the presence of Genc Arra, a government functionary who is paid to patrol the monument and chase the children away. "It's very difficult to keep them off," says Mr. Arra. "All of the kids are very strong-headed. The ones from Kosovo don't understand the danger." All in all, though, things are looking up. For one thing, it was more dangerous to be a Hoxha slider 10 years ago. "Back then, there were soldiers here and they would shoot anyone who tried to slide," Mr. Arra says, brandishing a small club. "All I have is this stick."
What's more, a breakthrough in sliding technology is revolutionizing the sport. The transformation began a few months back, when jumbo-sized, three-liter plastic bottles of Pepsi started to pop up in local street kiosks, says young Mr. Murati, the sliding champ. Until then, the chariots of choice were the smaller, 1.5-liter containers of Fanta and Coca-Cola or, in a pinch, a discarded green bottle of San Pellegrino water. Trouble was, the 1.5-liter sleds got chewed up pretty fast. "You get about 50 slides with the Coke bottle and about 75 with the Pepsi," the champ explains. "The bigger bottle will take you down faster," as well as giving older guys more room to sit. The only edge that the smaller Coke bottle offers, he and other sliders say, is better maneuverability. Coca-Cola Co. spokesperson Jennifer McCollum defends the tactical aerodynamics of the Coke bottle, saying they "leave nothing to the seat of the pants." But Jeff Brown, a PepsiCo Inc. communications executive, says his company's jumbos have "opened up" the sport. He likens Hoxha sliding to gymnastics: "In both sports, size and body weight have historically limited competition to younger children," he jokes. "The three-liter Pepsi chariot allows you to take Hoxha sliding into their teens and well into adulthood."
Back atop the monument, the young Mr. Murati is giving a last-minute, $2 lesson to a newcomer. The feet-first slide works best, he advises, even though it offers "no direction control." The novice squats down on his three-liter sled, grips the neck and asks what to do next. "Lift your feet in the air," Mr. Murati says. With a swoosh and a shout, the rookie is off. But just 15 meters into his slide, he executes an ominous 180-degree turn that launches the sled skyward and ends his shot at the title.
But, hey, there's always next season, the cow willing.
Many Guyanese insist the jungle still holds hidden secrets and point out the government has never held a proper inquiry into what happened on the November night more than 20 years ago, which turned out to be the cult's horrifying final act. Lying deep in Guyana's steamy northwestern jungle frontier region with Venezuela, the sprawling Jonestown commune was designed to be remote. Nowadays the only access is by charter plane from the capital Georgetown to the logging center of Port Kaituma, a one-hour trip over rain forest where coffee-colored rivers occasionally cut through the thick carpet of green. A potholed dirt road, mainly used now by logging trucks kicking up huge clouds of dust, leads to the unmarked site some six miles (9.6 km) away. The jungle has reclaimed most of the fields once worked dawn-to-dusk by the Americans, but chilling reminders of Jonestown and its tragedy are not too far away.
A dilapidated tractor and truck poke out of the tall grass and a thicket reveals a rusty part of the organ that followers say Jones used to play obsessively during religious services. The only other evidence Jonestown ever existed is a crate used for agricultural machinery parts with stenciled lettering "People's Temple Agricultural Mission - Port Kaituma." In Guyana, rumors abound about what may still be concealed at Jonestown. Over the years looters have made away with the most obvious items of value, but many Guyanese firmly believe in an underground treasure trove, most likely containing gold. Gerry Gouveia, a second lieutenant with Guyana's air force at the time, used to fly Jones to and from his isolated colony and was one of the first to reach it after the mass suicide. "There are still a lot of things hidden in the jungle although a lot of the stuff was stolen from here. There are a lot of questions still to be answered," he told Reuters during a tour of the site. "There was a lot of gold here. I actually flew a bag of gold out of here and it was collected by a private security firm. But where did it come from?" Gouveia, who now runs his own aircraft charter service based in Georgetown, said the commune was believed to have imported some 500 bags of cement but no concrete structure had ever been found in 20 years. "There's a lot of speculation about tunnels here. Somebody has to know. Guyana was really a haven for them, they were smuggling their guns and huge amounts of money," he said.
Jones arrived in Guyana in the early 1970s claiming he was seeking sanctuary from persecution of the People's Temple by U.S. authorities. He persuaded the late President Forbes Burnham to allow him to create the commune, which he operated as a state-within-a-state, subservient only to him. Fed by alcohol and drugs, Jones' megalomania burst into evil flower in the suffocating heat of Guyana. Jonestown, according to survivors, was a work camp where Temple members were subjected to nightly harangues from a leader obsessed with imaginary threats from "traitors" and "mercenaries." Disobedience could bring punishment in "the Box," a stifling underground cubicle no bigger than a coffin, and any night could suddenly become a "White Night" -- Jones' code for a mass suicide drill.
Guyanese say Jones also exercised an unnatural degree of influence in their country and smuggled cash, drugs and weapons with official connivance in return for financial and political support for Burnham's administration. Successive governments have disassociated themselves from the affair, saying it was an U.S. problem that had nothing to do with Guyana. "There are all kinds of weird stories about Jonestown ... but there's never been a full-scale inquiry. It was all hush-hush and still is," said Sharief Khan, editor of the Guyana Chronicle, one of the leading daily newspapers. "Arms were being shipped in, medicinal drugs -- none of this came through official channels. They had ocean-going vessels, sea trawlers, which can do a run from Miami. Basically, they had official protection," he said. Gouveia said the area surrounding the river Kaituma leading to the coast is as poorly monitored today as it was in Jones' time and is favored by drug smugglers.
One theory often put forward for the Guyanese government's collusion with Jones was that it was eager to have an American presence close to the border with Venezuela, which has a long-standing claim on almost two-thirds of Guyana. "At the time there was a real threat and people really didn't know what Venezuela would do. But the government didn't think they would do anything with a lot of Americans living there," local television journalist Alexis Rodney said.
Little if any effort has been made to preserve the camp and there are few visitors apart from an occasional treasure-seeker lured by the lingering rumors of hidden gold. Gouveia has lobbied for Guyana's government to turn Jonestown into a memorial to remind people about the dangers of cults, but so far his call has fallen on deaf ears. "There should be a memorial to preserve what happened, the fact that 900 people lost their lives here. It was hidden from a lot of people. We can't sweep this under the carpet -- this thing is bigger than all of us," he said. "A lot of people ask why we come back here, they say it was an American problem. Jonestown was one of the greatest human self-inflicted tragedies. To forget it is really to do what Jim Jones said."
Jones had carved a sign over his altar at Jonestown, reading "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." The altar, along with the corrugated-roof pavilion where the cyanide drink was dished out, were both scavenged long ago. "There are still a lot of rumors and perceptions," Rodney said. "But the biggest question is whether there will even be a Jonestown to see in the next 10 years."
"Spam (has) transcended its gastronomic origins to become a symbol of American popular culture on a level with Elvis and baseball. Its place in the Smithsonian National Museum of American history is proof of that," Wyman said. "At the risk of sounding as if I have Spam gelatin on the brain, I must admit that I have come to believe that it is possible to view our entire society solely through the lens of this luncheon meat ... It has been the dying soldier's last meal and the liberated war captive's first decent one in years," she added. After its humble birth in Austin, Minnesota, in 1937, Spam enjoyed its finest hour during the Second World War when it became an all-too-regular meal for American GIs and welcome sustenance for food-rationed British and Soviet citizens. The name was chosen at a naming party thrown by Jay Hormel, head of the company that makes Spam, in 1936 and is attributed to his actor friend Kenneth Daigneau, Wyman says. It comes from the ingredients of Spam -- shoulder of pork and ham.
Spam fatigue soon hit the U.S. Army but in grateful England a young Margaret Thatcher -- later to become Britain's prime minister -- celebrated Christmas 1943 with a tin, and when the little rectangular cans were delivered to liberated Berlin and Poland they seemed like manna from heaven. "They were the answer to an SOS, like Robinson Crusoe, a blood transfusion, salvation, I could go on forever," Irene Urdang de Tour says in the book, recalling the food parcels handed out in Warsaw after years of slave labor in Berlin. Gratitude gave way to derision in the postwar United States and Britain, where Spam went on popping up deep-fried as fritters, in sandwiches and even in vol-au-vent. Then came a three-minute TV sketch in 1970 from the surreal British comedy team Monty Python who gave Spam such a roasting that it was impossible ever to take it seriously again. Despite the laughter that greeted the Python vision of a greasy cafe where Spam is served with everything -- including the gargantuan feast of "lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a mornay sauce garnished with truffle pate, brandy, fried egg on top and Spam" -- 90 million cans of the stuff were sold annually in the United States alone in 1997.
One third of all Spam -- 50 million cans a year -- are sold overseas, with appetites particularly strong in Hawaii, Guam, South Korea and Okinawa, Japan. Regular eaters nowadays in the United States are mostly young, impoverished Southern families and older people for whom Spam brings back nostalgic memories of a simpler life. But it has not lost its appeal for Wyman, who is fascinated by the weird and wonderful ways in which Spam is still celebrated. The official Spam fan club was launched in 1998, there are at least 18 Internet sites dedicated to it and the annual Spam Jam in Austin, its hometown, attracts around 20,000 aficionados to rhyming contests, sculptures and a picnic. "I am interested in looking in a serious way at the things that a lot of people take for granted and think are just stupid. I think these stupid things and what we're eating say a lot about us as a culture," Wyman told Reuters. "Most Americans today are too busy to even do their laundry, but here are people sitting around writing Spam poetry. I think it is a wonderful thing that people take that time and interest in having fun," she added. One such Spam poem reads: "I think that I shall never see, a Spam as lovely as a tree."
Spam makers Hormel are looking at promising new markets in Mexico, Poland and the former Soviet Union to add to the list of more than 50 countries where Spam is now sold. But when you have pigged out on Spam bread, Spam and mincemeat candy truffles or Spam fruit cocktail buffet party loaf, there is still a place to escape: the Middle East, where the Muslim and Jewish ban on pork means that Spam will never be dished up under any guise. Unless, of course, Hormel decides to change the recipe and creates something called "Speef" or "Spoat" or "Spamb."
Kappfjell has managed to slip through the fences atop the Eiffel Tower and evade security guards in his pursuit of the world's tallest buildings. "They said it was impossible to jump from these places, but three times I have made the impossible possible," he said. "I will pull up some of my Norwegian Houdini tricks to get through security. One has to be creative and shrewd to make it." Kappfjell said he would wait until April 2000 to make his attempt on the Sears Tower in order to keep a promise to a U.S. court. "I promised the New York judge not to jump from any (U.S.) buildings for one year, and I will keep that promise," he said. "But just a few hours after that has run out I'll be back." Kappfjell usually doesn't bother to seek permission before his stunts, saying, "It's easier to ask for forgiveness."
He resorts instead to creative and meticulous planning to avoid getting caught. In order to get his parachute through safety checks and X-ray machines at the Empire State Building, Kappfjell dismantled his parachute and disguised the parts as a new tent and climbing harness. He even attached phoney price tags and put the "tent" into a new shopping bag. He reassembled the gear in a toilet. On top of the Eiffel Tower Kappfjell discovered a narrow opening in the fence where pipes and wires were stretched, and squeezed through. "An unwritten base jumper's rule says you shall not break or damage anything or hurt anyone. And I have done none of that," Kappfjell explained. He landed on Paris' Champs Elysees avenue and escaped in a taxi. He declined to say how he got inside the well-protected World Trade Center with his specially designed parachute, saying the details could encourage terrorists. "I avoided the X-ray machine in an ingenious way, but I promised not to tell how I did it. The guards feared that people with evil intentions could copy me."
He said the dives in Manhattan were worth the week in jail and another doing community service. He estimates his parachuting career has so far cost him about $10,000 in fines and three confiscated parachutes. Kappfjell said he did not feel like a criminal, saying he stole nothing "but the heights of the buildings." Ironically, media attention about his jail sentence has led to another career as a stuntman, or "professional athlete" as he prefers to call himself, and provided him with sponsors and advertising assignments. In one television commercial for a Norwegian bicycle manufacturer, Kappfjell rides a mountain bike into an abyss. The film ends before he opens the parachute. Kappfjell became attracted to high-risk sports while growing up in the sub-Arctic town of Mo i Rana. Besides base jumping, he loves sky-diving, paragliding and scuba-diving. Kappfjell says it is almost impossible to explain the thrills. "To describe the feeling to someone who has never tried base jumping is like explaining an orgasm to a virgin," he said. "It's a very strong visual and emotional experience. It feels like you're entering another dimension where seconds become minutes and minutes become hours. "I would have been willing to spend up to six months in jail for that one jump (from the World Trade Center) alone."
The Morrow store has agreed to discontinue carrying the dolls. Brannon said she called other area stores and asked them to remove the figures, which are scantily dressed in red Union Jack underwear and gray socks and sport bushy chest hair. Brannon said she had complained to police that the toy was obscene and directed sexual innuendoes at children. She said her son "is in no way ready for any sex conversations." "I feel this toy had basically pushed us into a vocabulary word that he would never have known to ask," Brannon said. A spokesman for manufacturer McFarlane Toys of Phoenix said there had apparently been a mix-up between two available versions of the doll. The one Brannon objected to is normally shipped to specialty stores such as Virgin Mega Stores, public relations manager Ken Reinstein said. He said mass market retailers like Toys "R" Us, Kmart and Wal-Mart were supposed to get a version in which the box and voice chip ask, "Would you fancy a shag?" "I am not making apologies that my product exists," said Todd McFarlane, the company's president and chief executive. "I apologize that the wrong product ended up in a Toys 'R' Us. We are investigating whether there was a wrong shipment. ... Perfection does not exist in the toy industry."
The club has already staged several performances of a revue, "Les Femmes Fatales, featuring the witch scene, a sword dance and excerpts from the Marquis de Sade's "Philosophy in the Bedroom." Dancers were nude in some scenes and wore costumes in others. The three Club Juana dancers, in their early 20s, were charged earlier this month with violating a similar city ordinance prohibiting nudity and alcohol in the same business. "We actually wanted to get cited for the decency ordinance so we could fight it in court," Richard Middleton, one of the club's managers, told Reuters on Wednesday. To protect its liquor license, the club has temporarily suspended performances of "Les Femmes Fatales" pending the court hearing. "We haven't canceled it. We're waiting till we go to court," Middleton said, adding: "We are continuing our oil wrestling."
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