by Brian Kerstetter
The Armpit Contest
After filming for a week in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, O. and I spent a night in the capital, Port Moresby, before flying back to New York. Our hotel overlooked the sea. We planned to go out for dinner and then to a nightclub. The hotel staff, however, warned us that, as white tourists, we would be robbed, cut to pieces, and dumped in the ocean. So we ate spaghetti bolognaise in the hotel and then slithered down the stairs, the cowards that we are, to the hotel nightclub in the basement.
The instant O. and I set foot in the Coconut Club, we were met by a cloud of the ripest, most pungent case of smelly armpit imaginable—a roiling cauldron of festering underarms whose fumes melted the paint off the walls and incinerated the hairs in your nostrils. My eyes watered and burned as though faced with an entire basement of freshly cut onions. Fearing I would lose consciousness, I took O.’s arm. My gag reflex kicked in. I felt the spaghetti bolognaise knocking at the door, about to make an encore appearance. In a last ditch effort to secure oxygen, I plunged my nose into my front shirt pocket and left it there.
I expected to see O. dashing to the beach, gladly preferring to be robbed and cut to pieces than endure another moment of this unbearable pestilence. Instead, he eyed me like I was a lunatic.
He did not smell a thing.
You see, O. is not one of today’s males who are overly preoccupied with personal hygiene. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find it on his daily to-do list. And if you do, you will find it languishing somewhere just above brushing his teeth and just below changing his underwear. When he is traveling, hygiene falls off the list entirely. His motto: “If any body part comes in contact with running water, including my hands, I’ve fulfilled my duty to society.”
In 2003, during the Iraq War, we were in Las Vegas. He wore the same jeans and ”No War” T-shirt for 10 days straight—in the desert! To be fair, each morning he would pick them up and smell them first. The problem was, he would always put them back on.
The other problem: deodorant. That is, O. cannot be bothered to wear it. I have crossed countless continents with him and his two stinky underarm associates. It is like travelling in a pack of four: O., myself, and two unwanted friends. Over the years, I have tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, telling myself, “Since they’re his armpits, maybe he can’t smell them?”
Once, before a trip to Easter Island, I went through our packing list, specifically mentioning such oddities as soap, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, floss, and deodorant. It was to no avail: he packed two pieces of underwear and a toothbrush. And that was for a two-week trip.
So after a decade of crisscrossing the globe with O. and his two henchmen, I mistakenly thought I had developed reasonable armpit stamina. But no amount of training could have prepared me for the tangy tsunami of armpits inundating the Coconut Club.
We made our way to the bar, jostled all the way by smoky pits raised to the heavens, rejoicing in the music of Bob Marley. O. continued his charade of normalcy. He ordered drinks and made polite conversation. Was it possible he was immune to the noxious fumes? He wanted to humiliate me, bring me to my knees, and watch me beg for air. But I resolved to outlast him. I was determined to demonstrate my armpit stamina.
The club pulsed with sweaty Papuans wearing shorts, tank tops, and sandals. I skipped to the dance floor. By now my throat burned like I had swallowed a habanero pepper. O. leaned against the bar, mingling his tangy personal aromas with the thousands around him. He tapped his foot, drummed his fingers, and ordered another vodka tonic. But two could play at that game.
Back at the bar, I casually remarked on the number of tank tops people were wearing. O. complimented the music, adding suspiciously, “Check out the terrace?”
“Why?” I asked, practically gagging from a raised armpit calling for a drink.
“Not hot in here?” He persisted. “Don’t you want some fresh air?”
The terrace smelled like spilled beer—and yesterday’s armpit.
“That’s better!” O. said, taking a deep breath and looking at
“Refreshing,” I croaked, fixing O. with bloodshot eyes.
“Let’s go down to the beach,” O. declared abruptly.
Despite the hotel warning of certain death and dismemberment, we tucked our vodkas under our shirts and headed to the beach.
A warm breeze blew from the sea, smelling of salt and sweet palms. Desperate to expel the poisonous fumes of the Coconut Club, I inhaled so deeply I felt my toes expand. But inside, I was jumping up and down, clicking my heels with joy. “I won! I won! I won The Ultimate Armpit Battle with O.!”
At least, I think I won. On second thought, he probably never smelled anything to begin with.