Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Searching for Context… through facial hair…

A ubiquity throughout most of India, The Mustache is a point of pride for many. While taking a lot of these pictures, I’d ask the gentlemen specifically if I could have a picture of their mustache, and the answer was always the same:  “Of course! Give me a moment…” at which point the man would give a little spit-and-twist, or maybe just a quick pat-down to make sure no stray whiskers would sully his photograph. I myself resolved to grow one, and stopped shaving my upper lip even before leaving Sri Lanka.  In Kolkata, a month or so later, after giving me a shave, a barber asked if I would like it dyed. I took this as a sign.  I chopped the silly thing off in Sikkim, where mustaches are apparently out of style anyway…



Pondicherry — brothers in arms. we drank brandy & waters with these guys in a park. it was a Sunday. good times.


Pondicherry — seriously. don’t touch the SL.


if there is any justice in the world, this man is paid extra for maintaining such an authoritarian upper lip


Hampi — a marvelous couple

Vizak, I think...

Somewhere in Orissa — This guy was part of a three-man-band who played from the back of a very well-decorated pick-up truck. it was crowded.

the other half of the truck. happy fellows…

on a random train ride into West Bengal…

Varanasi– this fellow made very good beetroot cutlets. yum.

also in Varanasi, about 20m from the burning ghats. these guys were on vacation… at the burning ghats. go figure.

Agra — these guys have the esteemed post of guarding the impossibly polluted River Yamuna, which borders the Taj Mahal. this might explain why the fellow on the right is aiming his rifle at his own torso…

Haridwar — off the ghats of the Ganga, for thirty rupees, one of these mustachioed barbers will shave your head, showing your devotion

Haridwar — on the ghats, just before the sunset Puja. I liked this guy. his son was also very happy to chat with me about fire and bindis and Vishnu and all types of other Hindu stuff

Rishikesh — not technically a mustache but he gets an Honorable Mention anyway for being so awesome

Neil Island — this man makes an excellent biryani. this picture was taken about four days before Adam Yauch passed away

Delhi — where most street vendors are better dressed and styled than your average US senator. this man is making chole bhature. it was very good.

Delhi — another fine street vendor, near the Gateway to India

Darjeeling — a diminutive hotelier and yours truly. immediately before this photo was taken, I made the guy a huge whiskey & soda, of “sipping strength”, and he just straight chugged the whole thing… which is almost as common a sight as a mustache here

High Scores — The Best of the Best

Radnahagar, Havelock Island — Friendliest ‘Stache Award… this guy was AWESOME. he was the only nice fellow working at this guesthouse (if you can even call it that – my hut is in the background ), and we’d sit around and drink rum and shoot at cans balanced on fenceposts. he never wore a shirt was eternally smiling.

don’t even act like you wouldn’t buy cookies from this man

Kolkata — this guy wins my Well Polished Dali Award.  he ran one of the rat-infested hotels that line Sudder Street, but he himself was immaculate

Varanasi —  Best Mustache to Personality Award. a fine example of mustache wizardry. this man was quite possibly insane, or maybe just had one too many bhang lassis…

Delhi — this man comes in first – barely – for Best Raj. he was the doorman at a Chinese-owned pub in Defense Colony, a rich neighborhood in South Delhi filled with expats and ambassadors and other upper-class Indians

side shot. he was proud, really proud… and that’s why he’s such a winner

Port Blair, South Andaman — Best Raj, Second Place. it was early and I had just spent 18 hours on planes and buses and I literally ran after this man on his bicycle to ask for a picture

Delhi — Best Henna. This man sells chai on a patch of sidewalk just south of New Delhi Railway Station. he was stern and bent and moody, but his answer to “may I please take a picture of your mustache?” was the same as everyone else’s:  “yes, of course.”

Beach Five, Havelock Island — Best Facial Hair to Ear Hair Ratio Award. he was also a real sweetheart; he’d let us borrow his bong all the time, provided we brought it back clean and full. I learned his name no less than six different times and still can’t remember it

Elephant Beach, Havelock — Honorable Mention, “Toronto to Tel Aviv” ‘Stache Award. Daniel is one of the coolest sumbitches I ever met. we went spearfishing together that day. as you can see, he’s pretty damn good at that. the Trevally he’s holding was about seven kilos, and the groupers and mackerel hanging from it’s snout were quite tasty as well.

So there you have it… a good use of bandwidth, no?


spit something

Posted: May 27, 2012 in travel
Tags: , , ,

I was stuck all alone in a place called Rishikesh
days full of sun, holy water bathing my flesh
looking for solace and peace with a few French and Croatians
a place of many minds, the wealth of knowledge and nations
but the trash burned bright, near the rivers and streams
followed me to my sleep, started polluting my dreams
smells and thousand-yard stares I could no longer bear
I had no time for the ship, caught a flight to Port Blair
met a kid from the bay, a smart lad, thoughts abound
diesel smoke and palm leaves in the air all around
rusty ferries, bustle, hustle, big trucks, concrete docks
we made a stink in the ticket office and went straight for Havelock

“you look like Americans”, she said with a grin
a couple jokers, sweaty and thirsty, tongue tasted like tin
“nah, we came from Bangalore” we said through lips pursed real thin
she put the lighter to her hash, and I un-stuck some skins
we moved from Seven to Five to Neil, Little Andaman for him
then about a week later we met back up again
Green Valleys and Sunrises, Orients and Pelicans
Israelis, Dutch, Danes, Germans, British, Russians all thought we were kin
everyone had their niche, reverie and relief,
making drinks and grilling fish ten feet from the beach
hammocks slung low and tied fast, when it rained overhead
we’d chill out, write, draw, read, drink indoors instead
Swapan, Daniel and the Danes always kept us well fed
catching Grouper, Trevelly and Mackerel as long as my leg
ten, twelve, fifteen people, couldn’t finish them through
we ate the cheeks anyway, and then let the drinks flow
Old Monks, Bagpipers, skinny chicks named Romanov
danced around limes, pineapples, and coconuts full with love
starting fires with petrol and palms night after night
watching the sun rise over Lawrence, dark skies turned to light
smoking spliffs rolled reverse, smiling big through red eyes
hey, lets go for a swim, hell, it’s only half-five
funny thing about these islands, same time zone as India
so the sun sets before six, as we twist up more Indica

so I got stuck again, beach magnetic, valleys green
chose to ignore time, unlike part of our team
last night with full crew, time for some to start anew
house music, dancing and beer, “damn, it’s like ’98 in here!”
same night, much later, I saw through lies and indigence
saw a chance for us to dance a different experience
called him out on his violence, his ego, his anger
I spoke light and cracked jokes, things got stranger and stranger
just another drunk hothead acting all big, talking shit
he grabbed a bottle, I said “do it” and then, well, I got hit
I didn’t hit back, break his neck or even get mad
see, me, I’m a man, and stupid violence makes me sad
but I was selfish too, wanted to watch his lies to fall apart
so I called the pigs, gave a statement, let them sort it out
next day, big surprise, nothing happens, he caught a break
his boss felt real bad about it, so he paid me off in tuna steak
sociology gone wrong, an experiment full of losers
no antagonists to this chapter, same old haters and boozers

wandering around, head full of confusion, fear, focus and spite
I found a puppy in the dirt who didn’t look too alright
took him back to my hut, washed green pus from his fur
“flies have been at him”, I said, but the vet didn’t stir
pup laid there all still, fan above was all “whirrrrrr”
“his condition is serious”, yeah, no shit, you old cur
“bring him back in four days, for antibodies and meds”
“in four days he’ll be dead, why not today, my friend?”
pinched his flesh and then said “he’s too weak” with a frown
“Then I’ll come back tomorrow”, and he shrugged, turned around
handed me some B-Complex in an empty pint bottle of Old Crown

so weak and so thin, he was so close to death,
first two days flip-flopping, I almost put him to rest
then his eyes opened again, just a little, made a crest
bought a babies bottle and some milk, thought “shit, I’ll give it my best”
everyone was down to help, though just five of us left
made rags like diapers, next to my bed was his nest
back and forth to the vet, rid in my basket like Toto
got healthy, got cuter, people liked to take photos
of him and his progress, turning back into a dog
eating ommelettes, fish and chicken, getting fat like a hog
but with my permit running out, I had to get gone
had one last fire, swimming, glowing and singin’ songs
time is short and goals are long, fire turning to embers
twenty-eight nights in one place, ain’t been so still since December
pup was looking good, treated all like a prince
we’d take him swimming by hand, then give him a nice rinse
propped up on his throne, he still couldn’t quite walk
“get up you lazy dog!” we’d joke and we’d talk
my second extension went well but I had to sail out
go north for a bit, try to adventure about
pup was good but still, not quite on his feet
so I asked around a bit, found a guy named Manjeet
runs a cafe on beach three, sells pastries and internet
likes to give the dogs brownies and treats them like pets
felt bad leaving him there but gotta get back up to pace
cause it’s hard to sit still for that long in one place
even though puppies and beaches light up my face
and I ain’t exactly looking forward to getting back to the race
Manjeet asked the pup’s name, as I held him up one last time
so I said “call him Prince” and spit this one last rhyme
“Time to go, young prince, yeah, I’ll miss you too
cause now it’s India for me and brownies for you
and if I make it back to this place called Havelock
I hope I see you around, hope we can go for a walk”

“There are all kinds of mix tapes. There is always a reason to make one…”

― Rob Sheffield

In the spirit of constantly rocking out to good tunes, I thought I’d share some of what manages to keep me sane and in high spirits, even in the loneliness, trials and madness that sometimes accompany travel. Yes, sometimes you just have to have a dance party with yourself on the rooftop, or in the shower, or on a 16-hour bus journey. So, what have we been rocking out to lately? hmm… lets see…

The Low End Theory club in LA puts out a monthly mixtape/podcast that features resident DJs like the Gaslamp Killer, and one guest, each. The mixes range from 45min to two hours and are generally centered around EDM, Bass and whatever else happens to be cutting-edge at that particular minute, combined with other random eclectic stuff. You can grab all of their mixes right here.

Om Records also does a semi-regular podcast, sometimes of live sets, sometimes studio cuts. These range from hard-hitting bass music to nu-jazz and lounge. Most of them are gold, the Visitor ones are amazing, and a recent one from The Snuff Crew – Live in Berlin is reminiscent of some of the first minimalist dance music I’d ever heard. Snatch ’em up right over here.

For those of you who do not know what Soundcloud or Bandcamp are, for chrissakes, get over there and waste some time! A global site for sharing and hosting anything from a sample or an idea to a full set, it is easy to get lost here, roaming around artists, genres, tracks and live sets. You might consider starting with some of the awesome material available from The Polish Ambassador (who also recently released everything he’s ever recorded for FREE right here, in exchange for plugging him on FB), Russ Liquid (his sets have all been recently pulled down — maybe check his bandcamp?), or the ever-awesome Spank Rock. Also check out Madison’s own Dirty Disco Kidz and Mad Major Melvin, who are constantly rocking new stuff and working hard. Oh, and grab this new Lafa Taylor EP that’s been in my ears for the last six weeks — it’s awesome.

Another ridiculous source of of the music of our past came to me a few weeks ago, in the form of Rave Archive. These brave souls are digitizing and archiving hundreds of mixtapes from the glory days of EDM, including the quintessential Jungle Book, which I listened to so many times I actually wore though several of the tapes.

And in my love of home and finding new music, I always try to catch my buddy Gabe’s show on 89.9 WORT, Who Cooks For You, which sets off at 2PM CST every Friday (which is 1:30AM Saturday for me, although that’s just about right anyway). You can find archives of his and many other shows right here. Gabe tends to bless us with all sorts of stuff we’ve never heard before, both new and old. Check it out.

Got mixtapes you love? Post ’em! Share ’em! Pimp ’em!

pil·grim·age  (plgr-mj)


1. A journey to a sacred place or shrine.
2. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.

At 2550m, the Lankan name is Sri Pada (literally, Holy Footprint) and by Sri Lanka’s 70% Buddhist population, it is viewed as the place where Buddha’s footprint was left on his visit to Sri Lanka. Christians and Muslims call it Adam’s Peak, accounting a similar story, that this is where Adam first stepped on earth after being banished from heaven (Sri Lanka being Eden). Tamil Hindus consider it Lord Shiva’s footprint. There are six or so “routes” up to the top, the easiest one being a mere 5,200 nice, relatively even steps the entire way. The back-side route is roughly twice as far, and takes seven hours or so, and other locals had told me the only way they do it is up the rocks, on the Western face… but I figured I’d leave that for another day…

Things started off badly. Or maybe not….

Hopping off the bus in Hatton, I called Helga to see when she’d be arriving and where she’d like to meet up. We had agreed back in Kandy to climb together, as a pilgrimage is not to be a lonesome task, but upon answering the phone she explained that she had walked into a library at about ten o’clock that morning, and was simply not yet ready to leave the comfort of a few thousand books. I was angry at first but sympathized, and on the phone I chuckled, vaguely recalling the time I nearly had to be physically removed from a library in Taipei at closing time.

It was on the next bus, to Dalhousie, a miserably crowded Ashok Leyland, where I spent the entire trip squashed onto the stairs, that I met Vejay, a tiny, balding Tamil man who was a little bit tweaky and whose breath smelled like booze. His English was quite poor but he was enthralled with the fact that I came on the local bus, and said repeatedly, “We climb together!”

I was down, but there were issues that first required slight thought, and then apathetic discarding. The first was that I was told my many, many people to not start climbing before 2am or so, as it is very, very cold at the top, and waiting around for the sun to rise is less than comfortable. The second was that I wanted to stash my bag somewhere, as even though it’s small, it’s still about 12kg.

Through broken english and some interesting pantomimes, I concluded that he worked at one of the shops on the way, of which there are many. These shops sell tea, basic food and water and such, at incredibly inflated prices, as everything has to be hiked up. The hiking itself is done by local Tamils, who I truly hope charge by the step: the shops at the top are literally 95% of the climb, and thinking about making that climb with, say, a case of bottled water, or a 50lb propane tank, balanced on my head, makes me shudder.

We stopped for a tea and a cigarette or two, both good things to have before climbing a 2,500m mountain. Then, a few shots of green apple Arrack, which is what I was smelling on his breath on the bus. Tasty.

I was still somewhat confused as to what we were doing when we started up the hill at sundown… we kept on in broken english, and I think he was explaining that we’d go to his shop, eat, and then I could climb up the rest of the way, leaving my pack there. I didn’t want to pay for a guesthouse I wouldn’t sleep in, so I agreed and we went along, my whole pack on my back… I figured, hey, I can hang out at the base for seven hours, or I can hang out halfway for the same amount of time with this teetotaling, seemingly well-wishing local… I guess I’ll take the weirder option.

gateway to the climb, with Vejay posing as menacingly as he can muster

Sri Pada is interesting in that the government rents out those lots to the vendors, who all peddle basically the same goods: tea, water, roti, candy, incense, etc. We stopped at a few on the way up. Everyone knew him, which was a good sign: it was barely 8pm but for some reason here I was, following this half-drunk local up a mountain, about six hours earlier than I was expecting to. Surely there is logic in this somewhere, I thought.

At the second stop, I got to grill a shop owner about the circumstances of these tea shops: how the hell do you compete with a few hundred others selling the exact same wares? (barely — location is one thing but dumb luck is another). How do you deal with water and power? (again, barely — each shop pays a flat rate for [spring fed] water and a 240v hook-up, both of which fail rather often). How much does a stall cost? (not much – about 25,000 LKR, roughly $250/month, before power and water). Finally – I had to ask – how much do you pay the local Tamils who lug up all your goods for you?

Of course, he wouldn’t answer this one. Not much, I bet.

Anyway, we’re maybe 30% of the climb, and my pack is getting heavy. It’s not a huge pack by any standard, but after 2,000 vertical feet or so, it’s feeling heavier and heavier. We’re stopped at another tea stand, and I ask if I can trust the guy to drop my pack there.

“Hey man, I really want to drop this pack… can I leave it here?” (obviously I’ll keep all my crucial items with me)
“Hmmph? Yeah… he has bunks over there, I think I’ll take a nap there until my shift…”
“Wait… what? I thought we were going to your shop?”
“Yes, I’ll go later. It’s okay, you can leave your stuff here, I will sleep now and meet you at my shop later…”

No you won’t, I think. He’s smoking one of my last cigarettes and the arrack is gone. I realize I may have just made a terrible mistake following him here… pilgrimage, my ass, this guy is suddenly as shady as a mangrove. I chew on it a bit in my head…

At this point, I’ll note that not a single tourist is on the mountain. Not one. We’ve passed only locals, Sinhalese and Tamil, and the occasional barefoot monk. Of course: the tourists don’t start until 2am. I went for weird, and I got it. What next? I drank another tea.

“Look man, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but I’m going up… I’ll just take the pack, don’t worry about watching it for me…”
“No, no, it’s no problem! It’s safe here!”
“I am… so sure that’s true (this was said in the voice of Ray Gillette)… but still, I’m just gonna head up with it…”
“Okay, I’ll walk with you to my shop…”
I burst out laughing. Of course you will! I realize now that he’s a bit tipsy; hell, he’s probably been a bit tipsy all day. The Sinhalese are relative light-weights: drink a fifth with them, and they’re all smiles. Drink another, and they’re all slurs and stumbles. This is not at all a harsh generalization; they’re just… small… with big appetites.

“Nooooo, noooooo, you stay! You need your beauty rest! Gotta sleep off that arrack before the boss sees you…”
“I… am the boss.” Immediately, Rick Ross starts playing in my head. Not gonna argue with the boss, am I? I smile.
“Sure. Lets go.”

His logic, and words, and mannerisms, all confound me. I have no idea what he was on about with the sleep and all, and while there’s a corner of a thought in me that suspects that he has no shop and the whole bit is an elaborate rouse to part me from my bag, he just doesn’t seem smart (or sober) enough for such a task. I chew on the order of events, and decide the course…

As we keep walking, more and more locals are eclipsing the steps. The crowd varies from infants to elderly, and from all walks of life. And here I am, walking with someone I no longer trust and wishing I’d brought more arrack…

Eventually, we make it to his shop, which by this point I am mildly surprised to learn exists. On top of that, it is much bigger than almost every other we’ve passed, with a huge kitchen looking out over the steps, and lots of primitive benches built from split timber. The staff looks at me funny. I am officially the first tourist of the evening, and they’re surprised to see a white fellow here six or seven hours too early. I have a cup of tea and refuse when Vejay asks if I’d like any food. I refrain from asking any of the other employees if he is, in fact, the boss, somehow seeing that information as useless. One of the employees is eager to show me his wooden leg, and I’m grateful for any break in the awkward silence: it’s only 9:00pm, which is nearly nine hours to sunrise.

I’m sitting there, sipping tea and feeling foolish, when a large, twenty-something Sinhalese woman walks up and basically starts force feeding me cookies… she’s smiling this huge, bright smile, and I can tell she’s baked (or “made” – they didn’t quite seems baked) them herself. Her pride exudes from her eyes as I smile, chewing what is basically a lump of floury dough with brown sugar rolled on the outside… and then she gives me another. And another. And then some odd, oat filled bars. She’s one of those who genuinely enjoys watching other people chew. I indulge her.

A crowd is gathering to watch, which makes me exude more “mmmmmmm”s and “ahhhhhh”s, leaning towards facetious but carefully restrained. I smile and say “hari usai!” which basically means “good eating”, and after laughter and smiles, the crowd disperses. Vejay gives me an odd look, something like shame… he says nothing as he walks past with a bowl full of dough and starts rolling out roti.

The woman asks if I’d like to walk up with her and her family. I hesitate to respond, but looking at my other options, this one makes me smile, and I accept. I shoulder the pack and we stroll out.

The contrast of walking up a mountain with a teetotaling rotiwallah and walking up with a family of twelve is quite stark. The young woman speaks English quite well, and we chat, in between her wrangling kids, helping her parents, and feeding an infant. That’s what pilgrimage looks like for her, and she handles it with a deft stride. I never catch her name.

It’s about this point that I began just sort of floating along from family to family, a giant white orphan on the side of a mountain… everyone gives me something, food, water, bangles, conversation. It’s interesting to note that the locals seem to buy absolutely nothing on the mountain — everything is carried with them, entire mess kits for the whole family, kilos of curries and rices, everything. They occupy the shops to eat their own food, without comment.

The cold is starting to bite, and even coming from Nuwara Eliya, I’m chilly… many of those I walk with are in shorts and t-shirts, with nothing else to add later. I try asking at least a dozen locals over the course of the night what the plan is when they get to the top, all to confused looks or answers that are unintelligible. At our current rate, we will arrive right around 11pm or maybe a little earlier, leaving six hours or so to dawn. None of them seem to care, and most I ask have climbed up before… I give my curiosity a rest.

Eventually, I fall in with a group of teenage boys, most of them right around age 19 or so. They didn’t come with their families — no, they came with each other, twelve of them total, crammed into a van from Colombo, something like a camping trip. They are all, every one of them, full to the brim with piss and vinegar and hope and energy and smiles. After hearing my age, they are all shocked to learn I am not married — a shock that I witness every day here, but that is odd coming from a bunch of teenagers with their whole lives ahead of them…

The Marriage Thing: a heathen westerner’s perspective

A basic introduction from any local here involves these three questions, usually in this order:
1) Where are you from
2) What is your age
3) Are you married
and, if no to 3),
4) Why not?

Those first three are easy to answer, but number four can get tricky, as the cultural divide can be daunting to cross. Whatever you do, don’t say “I don’t believe in marriage”, as this will be met with the harshest of criticism and defense. I will not describe my own failures of description, or the senseless lies told in the interest of studying their responses, even though some of them were incredibly funny… needless to say, this is even a running joke among those traveling around here, and everybody has a story to tell about their own explanations and lies.

Later on, back in Kandy, an attractive, well-traveled Australian woman in her forties told me this one:

“The first time I came here, I told them I wasn’t married, and sometimes I tried to explain why… but then I decided to just lie about it. This made problems, though, because then the next question is ‘Where is he?’ and if I told them he was back in Australia, they’d say ‘But why? Doesn’t he love you?’. Okay, so now, I had a husband, and he was in Colombo… but then they’d ask if we had any kids, and when I told them we didn’t, they’d say ‘But why? Why do you not have children?’ Okay, so we have a daughter… but then it was ‘Why no son? Don’t you want someone to carry on your name?’ So it just sort of spiraled out of control, in this organized way… and suddenly, I had a husband, and two kids, a boy and a girl, and they’re all in Colombo, and he works as a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, and I’m just here for the weekend before going back to him and my children….”

We were all in stitches laughing about this one, and we all had our stories to tell. Sometimes, it’s transparent: an older man who has two daughters is asking me if I’m married, and when I tell him I’m not, he invites me to dinner (I politely declined, even though the pictures he showed me of his daughters made me think twice). I can only assume this ‘angle’ changes with each person, and I’ll explain the kids on the mountain, and my own take on it: when an 18-year-old asks someone in his late twenties if he’s married, he’s not really asking about the marriage part: he’s asking if you’ve been gettin’ any. It’s the culture: if you’re not married to them, you’re not touching them, so if you’re in your late twenties and not married, what the hell is wrong with you?

back to the mountain
So we’re on our way up, me and this crew of teenagers, bellies full, and still not a tourist in sight. The kids are fun to joke around with, and they just really want to do one thing: smoke. They’ve smuggled in cigs and flavored cigars and some Rizlas, and the climb be damned, priority one is sparking up… and again, I can sympathize. My thoughts drifted back to Honduras, in 2002, my first time out of my own country. I was 17, and found it fitting to smoke a Cuban cigar every night or two. Since those nights on Roatan ten years ago, I smoke somewhere between zero and two cigars each year (directly proportionate to how many cigars I am offered by people who know something about cigars) and have never once craved one.

my posse's on Broadway...

The five young men I was climbing with turned into twelve near the top, where the steps become much steeper, much narrower and much more in disrepair, and we stopped for a proper session of cigars a few hundred steps from the summit. I felt like I was 17 again, passing around a chocolate cigar with a bunch of kids. All of them spoke at least limited English and a few were quite well versed, and when one asked if I smoked them back home, I couldn’t lie: “These things? We split these things in half and then throw away the tobacco, put something else in there instead…”

We summit. Hundreds, perhaps a thousand locals are already there, huddled together for warmth on the steps and grounds surrounding the small temple. Many have prepared and brought blankets and hats and long pants and such, but at least half are wearing whatever they stepped out of the van with, my homies included. Most start shivering immediately, and after putting on a little music, I realize I’m carrying four kilos or so of clothing that I’m not wearing.

The thought hits me like a brick, and I start clawing through the pack, passing out every article of clothing I have to this rag-tag bunch of teenagers, all shivering in their shorts, sandals and t-shirts. I’m wearing the only long-sleeve, jacket and pants that I have, but that doesn’t stop them from layering in the spare t-shirts, shorts and even the four pairs of socks I’m not currently wearing. One of them even took my trunks and tied them up around his ass, so as to cover his knees and tibiae, and the sight of them all standing there wearing my entire wardrobe was quite a laugh… it will be six and a half hours until the sun rises, and the temperature is still dropping.

We huddle up for warmth on the steps, thirteen of us trying to cover ourselves with two bed sheets, and keep chatting. It would be silly to say that we covered every topic under the moonlight, but we came pretty close to covering every topic that matters to a 19-year-old, things like girls and cars and music and tattoos and traveling. And still, not a tourist in sight, and still, every family with more than they needed coming over and sharing their food with us. It was a magical night there, watching the bright, red moon fall into the hills, and without a bit of sleep, we all eagerly awaited the big ball of fire rising in the east…

…And then the tourists showed up. They trickled in, slowly at first, mostly an older crowd, many of them in groups. My smiles were genuine but many of theirs seemed forced, as if they were expecting something else on the top of this hill. I stuck with my posse until the crowd was so dense that it was hard to stick together. It became very, very cold in those last hours, and on the South side of the mountain, just beneath the temple, locals were making small fires out of incense boxes and coconut oil and anything else that would burn, huddling around the meager flames for just a little bit of warmth to come into their fingers.

Just before the sunrise, I kicked off the sandals and walked up to the temple, which was already very, very crowded. In my wandering, I came across a huge group of tourists who had not removed their shoes beforehand, and sort of politely whispered to one, “you’re on the temple grounds now; you should remove your shoes…”
He looked at me incredulously. “Yes, but it is very cold,” he said in a thick German accent.
I was shocked. He wouldn’t take his shoes off because it was cold? Perhaps he was not aware that he was standing on one of the holiest places in the country… I smiled and said something like “you’re kidding, right? This is a TEMPLE. You are IN A TEMPLE RIGHT NOW.”

And then he turned around. He actually turned around and ignored me, continuing to chat with a large group of very well-outfitted, presumably German companions, all with $1k+ DSLR cameras around their necks. I was flabbergasted. I simply could not process it, so I kept walking, my toes freezing on the concrete.

I approached another tourist couple on the far side, and again, politely explained to them that they were on the temple grounds and that they should remove their shoes. The male replied, “Yes, we thought about that, but it is very cold up here, and we’d rather keep them on…”
“You thought about it, eh? And the conclusion you came to was that being comfortable was more important than being respectful?”

He looked at me like a child might look at his younger sibling when told to do something by them, a look that says “who the hell are you?” Then he turned away.

I considered the method I might use to tackle one of these louses to the ground, pry their shoes off and toss them over the side of the temple. Maybe I should just grab the camera and toss that? They’re European, so it’s probably insured anyway… should I pop the memory card out first, as a courtesy? No, that would show too much consideration… really, it would have to be the shoes. Yes, that would prove the point much more succinctly. They would have a nice long time on the barefoot walk down to think about why they no longer have their GoreTex North Face trainers… should I go for the tall one? I bet he’s a size 48 or 49, which I know from experience is impossible to find here… or maybe the chunky one with thick glasses… he’d put up the least resistance…

Dark thoughts on that hill waiting for the sun to come up. Why you gotta come hate on my magic, Germans? Are you that hopeless? You can’t have the respect of doing the one thing — the ONLY thing — that is asked of you on this pilgrimage? It’s a PILGRIMAGE, for chrissakes..

I sat there, trying to contain my rage, when an older Sinhalese gentleman in a funny looking ski mask walked up and smiled at me, a smile that had to be returned. He must have seen me fuming. “It’s okay” was all he said, and then he patted me on the shoulder. Then he walked away.

The sun rose. It came up strong and fast, illuminating the valleys around us and torching the clouds with orange furor… It was, in fact, completely beautiful. I didn’t take many pictures of it, as others did, and the older guy in expensive boots with a tri-pod and a bag full of lenses screwed up my best shot, but I sat there watching it, echoing the man’s words… it’s okay…



good morning

A ceremony proceeded which I will not attempt to describe here, ending with a prayer. At the start of this prayer, the Germans were still running around like clueless rabbits, snapping photos of monks and citizens in their pilgrimage, not having the faintest clue of what they were taking pictures of. I was sat lotus near the SE corner of the temple, which was at this point packed wall-to-wall with others sitting lotus on all sides. The tourists dispersed and departed, apparently not interested in this particular part of the pilgrimage (no shit). Yes, they had gotten their high-def pictures of monks and barefoot citizens clasping their hands, and now could go back to their respective homelands, proud of having gotten such great cultural understanding.

I stuck around. The prayers were led by loudspeaker, and followed by the crowds around me. I don’t know quite what those prayers held in them, but I listened intently, and in my head, they were saying things like,

take care of those around you and be taken care of… love others and be loved… be respectful and be respected… feed and be fed… quench and be quenched… clothe and be clothed… smile and be smiled to…

and take your goddamn shoes off when you enter a temple…

up the frickin’ mountain, down the frickin’ mountain

The walk down was amazing. I had lost my homies (perhaps they didn’t stick around for the prayer) and so all of my clothes were missing, but I was not particularly concerned about this fact at all. Some odd, superficial darkness had been lifted, and the sun shined bright above us, and with a mostly empty pack and the clothes on my back, I started walking down. I returned every smile, and spoke to everyone who spoke to me. I bet if you haul, you can walk down the whole thing in under an hour, but for me it took three and a half, and that was just fine — all of the conversations were simple and some of them were brief, but all of them were genuine, and I felt like a million bucks.

I stumbled upon the man in the ski-mask from earlier, walking down with his wife and another friend. Without the mask I could see he was around 60 or so, his wife about the same, and she struggled with the steps — oh, sure, walking down 5,200 steps is easy, but doing it after you’ve just walked up them is much harder, as your hamstrings and quads are a bit fried. I walked slowly with them and we chatted about life and the start of summer and a few other topics. At one point they asked where I was going and I said, blankly, ‘North’, as my Indian visa would not be ready for another four days, and I had time to kill. Then he offered me a ride to Kandy, where he and his wife and friends were heading (they had chartered a van) — no small offer, as getting there my way (read: the cheap way) entails three different local buses, all of them packed to the roof, and that was just the start of my journey North (Kandy is a transport hub, and getting from anywhere in the hills to the north requires going there first). We parted ways so they could rest and agreed to meet at the huge standing Buddha just south of the river, at the foot of the mountain.

It was about halfway down that I considered the implications of losing nearly every article of clothing I had, and that it would be at least a minor set-back, though not a great loss by any means, as most of my clothes are falling apart anyway. During this thought, I saw a man with one leg and a crutch, walking uphill and singing, with a bowl in his free hand. I picked a fifty rupee note out of my pocket and dropped it in, and at the same moment realized I knew this man — he was the one with the wooden leg at Vejay’s shop. “Wait… I know you…” he smiled and put his finger to his pursed lips, and I picked the fifty out of the bowl. “Here, let me get you a tea with that…”

Of course, we were just barely upstairs of Vejay’s place. I walked in and ordered myself a tea with the fifty I had just re-appropriated, then went looking for the man’s leg. I found it leaning against the wall in the back room. I considered grabbing it and walking it up to him, spoiling his rouse, but then considered how hard it must be to walk up those 3,000 or so steps every day to get to work with a wooden leg. I picked it up. It was much, much heavier than I expected, a rather primitive prosthetic. I stood there for a second and then mentally shrugged.

Vejay was still working, cleaning the kitchen and wrapping up roti. He gave me a cigarette, perhaps a peace offering, and said nothing. It was now clear to me that this man would not have taken anything from my bag — he works on the damn mountain, for starters, and while it would have been easy to find him, the key word here is ‘works’. He’s a drunk with poor English, not so unlike me, and after I thanked him for the tea, I turned to pay, and he snuck a few wrapped up roti into my bag.

I found most of my clothing in a neat, folded pile near the gateway to the mountain. Perhaps the crew had waited for me, and in my conversations and dallying, had grown weary of the wait. A few t-shirts were missing, and maybe a pair of socks or two, but I didn’t care — there are plenty of shirts and socks in the world, after all, and after everything I had been given that night, it seemed, quite literally, the least I could offer…

I cried when they would not take off their shoes, until I met a man who pretended to... oh, nevermind


A new series! Check it out, I’m like Anthony Bourdain, but much less qualified, respected and successful…

the basics: ten fingers, toes and chilies for each plate

Spicy, strong flavors, lots of carbs, and clearly inspired from Tamil (Southern Indian) food, I love the food in Sri Lanka. Curries, masalas, ground coconut, chilies and saffron make up for rich, intense tastes, and when it’s good, it’s really good. Though not nearly as diverse as the options in India, the following are the basic and most easily found dishes. Everything is eaten with your right hand, and even soups are generally served in cups. Most restaurants have spoons on request, but going local is preferable, and not just for the experience: some foods simply have to be eaten by hand anyway, and I’ll never forget the first time I was told (this mantra was repeated to me by many), of rice and curry, that “There is no point in eating this food with a spoon. You will not get the flavors.” I know that sounds ludicrous, but I found it to be true. Part of it is that you cannot mix the food in the same way. It’s common to have several curries and veggies served separately, and the mixing of them not only makes every bite just a bit different, but getting the proper consistency requires you to thoroughly mix the rice with the curry, completely covering and spicing every single grain. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you eat one plate with a spoon and another with five fingers, the difference becomes obvious.

The other part of it is even harder to really explain. Obviously, there are tons of foods eaten exclusively by hand in all cultures and countries (except by Donald Trump, but he’s more of a robot anyway), but in many countries, everything is eaten by hand, and eating a food (particularly one as seemingly unweildy as rice and curry) with your hands connects you to it in a way, makes you focus, makes you more mindful of what’s going into your mouth. It’s true: I found the food simply tasted better, and that line, “There is no point eating this food with a spoon” echoed with each meal… I think Bourdain was really on to something when he wrote that food tastes better with bare feet. I’ve preached this mantra plenty over the years, and maybe this is just the natural extension of that. By my second week here, I was eating every meal with bare hands and bare feet. I highly recommend trying this, no matter where you are and what you’re chewing…

Rice and Curry

Truly the national dish, though obviously no nation can truly lay claim to it. It sounds like a simple meal, but generally “Rice and Curry” can be construed as “Rice and four to six different curries”, sometimes served as sides, sometimes served in a neatly striped pile, and often self-serve. Out of perhaps 50 or so meals of Rice and Curry, I can confidently say that no two are ever alike, and that is the broadness of the whole meal: obviously there are veg and non-veg curries, stewed options, steamed veggies, fried bits and more, and there are really endless possibilities… here are some visuals to chew on…


clockwise from left: a big ol' red chili, red rice (on the whole plate.. duh), stewed green beans with chili, fried roti (sort of like tortilla chips), lentil dhal, steamed spinach, and pan-fried jackfruit. all veg, all delicious

left to right: beef curry, a sort of broiled chicken, rice, stewed root veggies, dhal. the little dish on the bottom was this lovely yogurt/onion/chili chutney

this stuff was INSANE. see all them little seeds? yup, they totally work...

this is what Al looks like after eating it. seriously, this stuff was HOT

clockwise: lentil Dhal, potato curry, curried chicken

I totally ate the cheeks out of this little guy. the fish, that is, not the nice Belgian fellow holding it...

Dhosa/Paper Dhosa/Masala Dhosa

These are… just awesome. Basically the dhosa itself is a crepe-like bread, always made fresh (if it’s worth a damn). You can purchase the batter by the bag/bucket in stores, but again, if it’s worth a notion, it will be home-made. Here again is a food you can eat hundreds of times and always have a different meal: the batters are sometimes a bit sour, sometimes just a little sweet, but always different. My favorites have a strongly fermented, sourdough taste to them, and in Kandy, after trying three or four shops, I stuck to the one guy. Plain dhosa is just like it sounds: a huge freakin’ dollop of fresh batter, with nothing on it. Paper dhosa is also pretty self-explanatory: like a dhosa, but thinner and more crumbly (think pan pizza vs thin crust). These are generally more expensive than their bigger kin, as it’s simply harder to make it thin without burning it, making itmore labor intensive. Masala dhosa is a plain dhosa with spiced chunks of potato (and sometimes other veggies) mixed inside. All of these are eaten with Dhal, Chutneys and Curries, none of which you technically pay for (in shops, guys just walk around with cute little 4-leaf-clover buckets full of them). A good plain dhosa will generally set you back about 60 rupees (about $.60), and I don’t think I ever paid more than 130 rupees for a Masala dhosa, which makes them nice, cheap, fast and tasty. I have eaten four in one sitting (well, standing – that was a street vendor, where they’re typically about 16 rupees each instead of 60) to the great pleasure and amusement of the vendor: one is usually filling.

plain ol' dhosa

This is the standard option. The little bucket-looking thing is loaded with dhal, potato curry and a spicy chutney...

this man is my homeboy

I called him J, because I couldn't pronounce his name -- you can find him here seven days a week


curries and such are made off-site, delivered by tuk-tuk, piping hot. here J and company load in fresh dhal

String Hoppers

Imagine the same basic principle of the Dhosa or Rice and Curry (carbs+curries=awesome) but replace the carbs with patties of rice noodles, then serve it next to only mild curries (like Dhal), and Sambal, which is ground coconut with chili and other spices. If you like noodles, your mouth should be watering at this point. Generally treated as breakfast food, this is something I’d never seen before (although I’ve now had the same thing in India, as a form of idly), and it was really, really hard to not gorge myself on this every day. The great thing about hoppers is that you pretty much have to eat them with your hands; you simply can’t do it otherwise. First, take a paddy, some dhal, and some sambal, and then just mince it together with your fingers, mixing in the curry to make it the right consistency. Then work it into a ball with your thumb and all your fingers (it’s easier to do this with hoppers than it is with rice, as the noodles sort of congeal with the curry), pinch it, slide your thumb across to shove the ball into your mouth, and savor that awesome flavor. Crazy whackos like me can add more chili paste, but be prepared: even the locals will look at you funny for doing this, as it is breakfast, after all, and is considered more “temperate” food. I made the diagram of eating food with five fingers with hoppers instead of rice because the pictures are prettier:

left to right: dhal, hoppers, sambal

fig A: the cleanest your hand and plate will ever be

fig B: mince it all up

fig C: smash it all together. use all four fingers for this part.

fig D: the thumb is used like a spoon (really, more like a shovel) to sweep the food into your awaiting gullet. your fingers should not enter your mouth while eating...

fig E: repeat until this is what you see

perhaps the most crucial step: remove shoes beforehand

Along the path, I met a lot of other travelers who never once tried these. If you go, do not follow their example, particularly if you are a noodle geek like me…

Roti: a versitle bit of dough

Roti is perhaps the most common, and diverse, eats on the go. Plain roti is very similar to a tortilla, much thicker than dhosa but generally smaller. It’s made from a dough rather than batter, less like a crepe and more like leavened bread, just a bit thicker than nan . Sometimes it’s served with dahl, or some other curry, sometimes just chili paste, sometimes dry, in a stack (it’s rarely made fresh in front of you). Fancy-pants roti is generally a much bigger piece, folded over with fillings such as veggies, cheese, meat and curry — except for the fact that it’s square instead of rolled, it’s very similar to a burrito, really. Generally, a veggie option will set you back 70-100 rupees, with meat varieties being about twice as much. New Muslim Hotel in Kandy is particularly renowned for their rotis, and here is their steak option:


cut with spoons, eat with hands, repeat

which is perhaps not the prettiest picture (at this restaurant, the roti was cut up in front of me with two spoons, which was so amusing that I chose not to argue for the sake of cleanly framed photographs) but should get the point across. That particular one is steak, onions, spinach, tomato, and a light sauce. I wasn’t very hungry when I came in, but ate two of these. The spoons seemed a tad dull by the second… I considered saying something but held my tongue.

British Food

It has to be said: relatively British fare is widely available in the cities, mostly ending up as bar food in pubs and such. Fried is the key word here, and it is generally over-salted, like most bar food, to make you drink more. Still, at some places, it’s really quite delicious: at the Royal Pub in Kandy, the batter is very light, with just a bit of chilli, and some citrus highlights. They do local mushrooms there that are, in a word, amazing. I ate them nearly every day. Their other mildly addictive dish isn’t even on the menu; David called them “saltfish” (as a Brit, I figured he’d know) but these are not salt-preserved fish, but rather small fish that are battered and fried whole (apparently very common in pubs in Britain). These plates were relatively expensive (the mushrooms were about 380 rupees a plate, enough for four or five dhosas) but the beer at this fine establishment is drought, fresh, and only 120 rupees a pint (oddly, not an imperial pint) so it sort of balances out.

left to right: salty mushrooms, beer, salty fish, empty beer, salty mushrooms

Honorable Mention: king coconuts

Obviously not a particularly “national” food, I have to mention them anyway. For starters, they’re quite delicious, and the coconut water within is as fresh as you’ll get, nearly bursting from the thing as the knife strikes the surface. Secondly, this is a very good thing to drink on 36c days that are spent in the sun, as coconut water is loaded with electrolytes and sugary goodness, rehydrating you quickly. I drink and eat at least one of these a day, sometimes three or four. I think even more than that, though, I like that they are almost exclusively sold by bicycle, often by people who have almost nothing, as all you need to get into business is a bike, a blade, and access to king coconuts, which are no rare thing in Sri Lanka.

poker face

You also get a built-in chance to talk to each vendor for a few minutes, because if you stick around, when the water is gone, they’ll chop the thing into halves, chip of a piece of coconut for you to use as a spoon (a sanitary, biodegradable spoon) and you get to gorge out the fruit. These conversations are fun, when you can have them (many vendors speak very little english) and a pretty transparent window to the lower class here. I met one man (his name sounded like ‘At-heed-a’) who lived in a one room shack with his wife and two children. His wife washed clothes for money on the riverbank across from their home, about a kilometer from his regular coconut spot, across from a temple in a quiet neighborhood with little foot traffic. Both children were in school. His cache of goods were mostly stored at home, and when he ran out of coconuts, he simply went into the jungle to get more (which sometimes involves serious climbing) or he could buy them from another man who sold them out of his tuk-tuk for perhaps 1/3 of retail. He seemed pretty happy, and certainly well fed. Sometimes, though, the vendors’ stories were different…

ego trippin’: a tale of two coconuts

A few weeks ago, while in Puducherry (very much not in Sri Lanka), I met one pair of ladies who worked on the same corner, but not together. My buddy Henry had designated one as his coconut mama and frequented only her, as I had done to Atheeda and many other food vendors. After the second time I went there, I wondered about them a bit more.

“It’s weird that they’re on the same corner… you think those two get along?”, I asked while we were walking away.
“Hmm? Oh, I don’t think so… they don’t speak to each other.”
“Wait… like, you haven’t seen them talk to each other, or you asked and she told you that?”
“No, I asked. I thought it was interesting that they worked the same corner but clearly weren’t working together, so I asked… anyway, she told me they used to speak – I think they even worked together, as partners – but yeah, they don’t anymore. I asked her how long ago that was and she just said ‘years’.”

I considered the implications of this. They were both probably in their late forties or early fifties… Wow! This was… very interesting. They work next to each other for 12+ hours a day and won’t speak.

“Actually,” he went on, “one day I didn’t have enough change to pay here, and she said ‘tomorrow’, and when I went back the next day, she wasn’t there. I asked the other lady if she would give her the 15 rupees for me, but she just shook her head and said ‘later’. So I went back later and paid her.”
“So… let’s get this straight… they won’t talk to each other, even enough to exchange 15 rupees… but she didn’t just take your money and keep it. That would mean that not only is she honest, she may be spite-less as well, maybe even traces of some honor or good intention mixed in there…”
“Yeah, I thought about that too.”
“And why doesn’t one just move? Even, like, across the street? Is it like a turf thing? Or just pride? I wonder what happened to male them stop speaking…”
“Yeah, it’s weird, I think they generally only work one the same days, too; I walked by the other day and neither of them were there…”

We never found out. I think about them sometimes. I’ve decided it’s all pretty hip-hop, actually, refusing to leave your corner after splitting shop with your partner. A corner beef. With coconuts.

While searching for flights to Sri Lanka, I noticed that many of them route through incredibly petro-dollar-rich Middle Eastern countries. This is really just a coincidence (most Mid East airlines service both Asia and the East Coast), but as I’ve not spent any time whatsoever in the Middle East, it caught my eye and my interest. I started reading up on Bahrain, a common stopover and the hub for Gulf Air, whom I noticed generally had the cheapest one-way fares out…

Anyway, Bahrain seemed, from what I read, something like the Dublin of the Middle East… wedged between the UAE and Qatar, on an island just 385 sq/mi, it is not a dry country, like its neighbors, and the place seems rife with at least three things: bars/clubs, casinos, and American troops (something like 2,300 stationed, though a man I met there told me at any given time there are 15,000 to 20,000 there). This, admittedly, fascinated me, and after putting at least six minutes of thought towards it, I paid an extra $10 to have a 15-hour overnight layover there, as opposed to a six-hour daytime stopover at Heathrow. I sort of immediately regretted this decision, as it ment that my itinerary bumped from an eyebrow raising 32 hours to a head-shaking 39, but once you hit that button, you can’t un-hit it, and letting the chips fall where they may is a wonderous cornerstone of “don’t think” travel…

up in the clouds: a small diversion

Boarding the plane dead-last (I always do this) the kind, five-foot-nothing French flight attendant asked if I would relinquish my bulkhead seat to, and I quote, “someone in need”.  I said something like, “sure… but can you seat me in exit row or something? I really.. umm.. like leg room…”
Her neck was craning up pretty damn hard to look at me. She glanced to my right for just a moment, and said, “You will like your seat…”

I was bumped to first class once before, on a flight from Schiphol to Philly, but I honestly didn’t remember what it was like… hot towels all around, and at this point, the nice French lady asked my name, as with all the other passengers (they learn everyone’s’ name, which seems insane until you realize there are three attendants for something like 16 seats). She was pleasantly surprised when I asked for hers in return. “It’s Linda”, she said with another smile. Shortly afterwards, a selection of newspapers that is staggering (I really don’t read the Financial Times enough). The seat itself seems to be what most people are paying for: it takes up the length of at least two coach seats, and reclines into last week.

What was possibly more interesting than how plush it is was how demanding the other passengers there were… the sixty-something Frenchman seated next to me was flabbergasted, absolutely shocked that there was no French wine available, which made me chuckle in between heaping bites of seared salmon and saffron risotto. He settled for something Chilean and kept going through property leaflets and designer magazines. I asked if he was shopping for a house. “Yes, I’d like to buy something in Manhattan… I am sick of my co-op.” I nodded pensively, considering how many people I know who would literally kill to live in a Manhattan co-op.

Most people wouldn’t eat the food, which was shocking to me, as it was amazingly good. Many complained, about everything from the food to the wine to the movie selection. I have a friend who works as a flight attendant in the Middle East, and she calls first class “The ICU”. This makes sense to me now.

Much later in the evening, I walked up to the front to stretch my legs, and Linda hopped up immediately, asking if I needed anything. “No, it’s fine, just stretching… I can’t sleep.” It was clear that she was really happy to see little old me in first class, and all of my sheepish demands must have been transparently earnest to her. “I am glad I got to seat you there”, she said. “None of the other bulkhead passengers would give up their seat.” I asked who she needed it for. “A mother, and her child. The child is sick and they need to be close to the lavatory.”

“Wait, you mean I got a bump to first class, but all the people who refused are sitting next to a sick infant right now?”

Another huge smile from Linda. I used to not believe in Karma. Now I can’t understand how anyone doesn’t…

Bahrain: yet another story with no protagonists and no victors

The visa process sucked: it’s on arrival, for 15 days, but the official seemed to think the airline would give me a transit visa for free (this would have been nice) as my layover was almost 16 hours. At the desk, though, they had no love for me: “You can just stay in the airport; if you want to leave the airport, you will have to buy the tourist visa.” This was harsh, as the visa costs 5 dinar, which is $15 — a dollar per hour. You’ve come this far… just pay the damn fee…

I met a nice french girl who was scared and alone in the line. She was supposed to be on a plane to Chennai but her connection was late, and she had to spend a night in Bahrain. This ment she got her visa paid for by the (my) airline, and a free hotel room. I waited for her on the other side of Immigration out of courtesy, but when the officer saw me sit down here, he got downright hostile.

“Why are you still here? You need to go!”
“I’m… umm… waiting for my friend over there…”
“Wait somewhere else!”

Damn! That is some cold shit… why are there chairs there? I exited and waited for her outside immigration. She was clearly not comfortable by herself here and I wanted to try to change that. We talked for a while about India: she was on her way to do a homestay for three months. I asked if she’d ever been to India before. “No… just around Europe.” I smiled. “You’re going to love it.” She needed to hear it…

A shuttle came for her and I asked where it was going. Golden Tulip Hotel.  I hitched a ride, but as we pulled up, I immediately knew I would not be getting a room here. My first hint was the fountain out front, which is roughly the size of the house I grew up in. Then inside, an ocean of marble and brass. I inquired about a room, but mainly to avoid paying for the shuttle; hell, I had just slept for eight hours (on the second flight, full of salmon and white russians from the first), and back home the sun was coming up. He showed me two rooms, one of which reeked of formaldehyde (fresh carpet?) and one which was stunning, 12th floor, view of the whole city. The best rate he could offer was something like $150US/night. He answered a phone call, the perfect diversion… “I’ll be in the bar”, I motioned, pointing towards the lounge…

It looked like any other hotel bar on earth, but with a hell of a lot of sheiks in it for 10pm on a Tuesday. One is not to be confused by the holier-than-thou dress of men wearing pressed white suits of linen and checkered turbans…. no, they can in fact put down Glenfiddich and Marlboro Reds with the best of us. None of them are seated alone. There is another western couple in the bar, but they seem rather occupied. The bartender is female, asian (her features look Indonesian) and skinny as a rail. She’s wearing what looks more like a schoolgirl costume than a uniform, a very short skirt but not otherwise particularly revealing. The beer selection is quite wide but rather homogenous as well (think InBev’s major western catalogue) and I order a Smithwicks. I pronounce it ‘smitt-icks’ as they do in Ireland, and this garners a funny look.

I am at a complete loss as to what to do… I paid 5 dinar to leave the airport, only to discover I can’t really afford anything else… “No, sir, I cannot afford your beds here, but I can afford your beer….. and that’s sort of the same thing.” I pull the laptop out and start writing. I need a map…

Cold feet are temporary, sure, but this place sure feels weird… I only have the familiar to grasp, a smitt-icks in this case. My own detest of planning occasionally backfires… sure, sometimes all the benevolence and spontaneity and serendipity in the world falls at your feet, but sometimes you’re just standing there, alone, the tourists walking past with North Face jackets and cameras hanging where their necktie usually goes, or maybe the sheiks and locals eyeballing, or ignoring, or valets and drivers holding signs that will never bear my name. I’m not scared, or worried, or even lonely…. just… lost. Again. I know I can’t sit here all night, and I can easily just get up and start walking around, but damn, it’s day one, and it sure feels like it in my head…

There’s a blond woman there too, a Brit, the house pianist/singer, and the sheiks won’t clap at the end of her songs. I’m the only one. At one point she plays “Hey Jude” and it’s really wonderful, and there I was, chainsmoking Marlboros and punching this nonsense on my laptop, and I’m the only one clapping. Rough crowd.
Eventually she takes a break and walks over. “Mind if I sit?” We introduce ourselves and chat (she must have known already how much I don’t fit in here), and at some point I tell her the story of how I got to the hotel, and ditching the front desk guy at the phone call, which she finds quite funny.

“Well I’m going out with some friends later to see this really great band… do you wanna come along?”
“Yeah, sounds good…”

Again, how can you not believe in Karma? It’s right in front of your face…

We chat a bit more; she’s quite the traveler, and has been able to support herself though her music since she was 20. Very cool. I ask a ton of questions about the places she’s been, and how she wound up in Bahrain.

She finishes her gig (the bar here closes at 11) and we hit the club where the show is. No charge for the taxi, or to get in the door — she seems very well-liked. The band is called Evolver (I can only find their FB page — it’s here if you want to check them out) and it’s huge; several vocalists, guitar/bass/drums, a keyboard player, and a DJ. They’re already playing, and it sounds pretty awesome. The style is all over the place, waving from hip hop to reggae to rock, but it all flows well and the band plays very tightly… the crowd is probably 60% expats, many Americans, other Europeans, and many scattered locals, all drinking together. At one point I go up to grab a beer and notice there’s a back room to the joint, with pool tables. I wander in. The room is entirely locals, and only Arabic is spoken. I sort of smile around and wave, but almost no one smiles back… hmm… no one here wants to talk to me.

I creep back to the main room and stop at the bar for a second. Two of the locals from the back room walk over and say hi. We chat. They’re both drinking pints of pinkish-red liquid, which I learn is sort of an Arabian version of a Long Island (Dead Sea Iced Tea? It has a nice ring to it…). At some point I ask why I seemed so ill-liked just a minute ago… one of the guys smiles and says, “just guys acting hard, think they’re tough.” All of them? I ask if there are a lot of issues with the American service guys here. “No, very rarely, but I think they assume you’re one of them.” One of them. I mean, the bar is covered in servicemen and locals, getting along just fine… there is clearly more to the dynamic here than my eyes can see but I don’t pry.

I wind up having a great time; the band is awesome, truly skilled, and all night, it’s clear they’ve played together for a long time. Good conversation and loud music. I like. The lights come on, bar still packed, and I realize it’s 2am already. “There’s no rush,” says one of the Navy guys I’ve been chatting with, “there is technically no curfew here; this place just shuts at 2am.” Check.
We shuffle outside eventually and say our goodbyes; the Brit left long ago to go watch movies with a friend, and I realize I’ve only really been hanging out with Americans for most of the night. Damn, I need to find some locals to kick it with… I am not the least bit tired and only mildly faded from the drinks (again, over-priced beer is a good way to keep the poor from getting drunk).

I start meandering about Bahrain at 2:30am on a Tuesday morning, my flight still eight hours away. The place is spread out, and sparsely built – everything seems to be built several lots away from anything else. Perhaps I’m in a young neighborhood. Eventually I find a spot that appears both local and hopping. It seems to be under a hotel, and the locals outside don’t seem to mind my presence there… when I get to the entrance inside, though, the woman working the door seems to feel differently. “It is only locals inside, all only Arabic”, to which I reply, “Great! That’s what I’m looking for!” She purses her lips at this response, not pleased by my enthusiasm… “You will not have a good time in there.” That is… pretty concrete.
“I’m not a serviceman here,” I explain, “I am just visiting Bahrain and want to hang out with the locals…” The music is very, very loud inside, a sort of Arabic house music, and she turns around, looking at the door for a second. This woman sure doesn’t want me to go in there…

I just go out and say it:
“Look, I really wanna check this place out. How much is the cover?” She glances around for a second and pauses. Not a good sign.
“Ten dinar,” she says. $30!?!?
“That is a huge amount of money. Clearly, you just don’t want me to go in there. Why not?”
“You will not have fun in there.”

Huh. Okay. I shake my head and walk out. Maybe she’s trying to protect me? Seems unlikely… I see the outside doorman again and tell him what happened. He smiles. “There’s an after-hours place over there, you should check it out.” I ask if it’s a local joint. “Many different people, locals too. In a hotel.” I thank him and start walking.

It’s a short walk. I enter a place with loud dance music, but a very small crowd. One table has an older white guy and a very young Arabic woman. Three locals are sitting at the bar. Downstairs is a table with three young women, dressed to kill. I immediately assume they are prostitutes based on the other scenery. Whatever, I’m here already… I walk up to the bar. The bartenders are very, very dark skinned, certainly not Arabic. They’ve got Jim Beam on the wall and I ask for one, rocks. “Double?”

“Yes please.”

He pours a conservative double and sets it in front of me. “Seven dinar”, he says. What the hell… that’s like $21… I complain at the cost. That’s more than a bottle costs back home! “After hours”, he says. He can’t exactly put it back. I put the money down and take very small sips. The locals at the bar are hammered and leave shortly after, leaving me, the old white guy, his companion for the night, and three other prostitutes. Total back-fire. I shoulda just walked into the other place.. just three dinar more to see if she was wrong…

I realize that nearly everyone I’ve seen working here is not local: the bartender back at the Tulip, the staff at the other bar, these guys… really, everyone in the service industry seems to be an immigrant. I ask the bartender where he’s from. “Bangladesh”, he says. I react positively to this, as I’m hoping to hit Bangladesh soon.  We chat about the recent events there and in Myanmar and the other bartender joins in the conversation, also Bangladeshi. I grill them for over an hour on their homeland, then ask questions about their work here, which they are reluctant to answer. They explain that work is very hard to find back home, and that it is much easier for them to provide for their families over here. They both have children, and I ask if they’re happy. They both smile at each other for a moment, and neither answer…

Eventually I leave, at about 4:30, thanking them for their company. I tip. They both shake my hand and I walk out. Six hours left to my flight… there’s really nothing else I can do here, and I feel stupid for even having come. What did you think would happen? You’d go out and party with the sheiks and the locals? In ten hours, all you’ve done is spend money and drink and fuck up the one shot you had at getting into real trouble… what have you learned?

I resort to a taxi to get back to the airport. I’m feeling stupid but still pretty intoxicated and therefore pretty jolly as I get out of it, to a crowd of porters, all smiling. They’re curious to know why I’ve arrived at the airport three or four hours before the first departure. We talk: they are all Nepalese, and most of them look like they’re teenagers; after asking, I learn the oldest is just 26. We chat for nearly an hour outside that airport; I’m full of questions about Nepal, they’re full of questions about the states. I’m getting used to this idea that any and all physical and service jobs are held by immigrants here, and my questions are getting more acute, mixed in with questions about their lives and families back home: How long are you here for? (one to three years) What are the hours like? (bad – 12 hour shifts six days a week) Are you happy? (answered again with smiles and an enthusiastic “Yes!” or two) And finally, what do you make, and is it enough?

This final question is answered with glances, and then one of the older kids pipes up with a truly honest response: “Not enough.” I offer the whole gang of them teas, which they refuse, and then immediately go inside and buy six cups of tea, which is a rather expensive thing to do at Manama International Airport. They are shocked when I walk out and hand them all out, and some of them hide them from sight or just slam them. Perhaps this is frowned upon by The Man. The gesture sure isn’t lost, though, and they all thank me… my head is full of questions, as usual…

Arriving in Sri Lanka, a nice British couple (freaks who travel: my kinda people) saved my crippled ass by knowing what the hell they were doing and where the hell they were going, and I split the taxi with them into the city (these fine folks will appear again on these pages soon). I spent my first hours on the net reading up on immigrant labor in the Middle East, and the cost of living, and the GDP growth and breakdown of Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Some answers were surprising, to say the least.

42% of the population of the Bahrain are immigrants. The common immigration system, known throughout the Middle East as “Kafala”, is based on sponsorship, and many human rights campaigns liken it to slavery or indentured servitude, as workers’ passports are generally withheld by the sponsors, and it is very common for the wages to be paid directly to the sponsor, often shady third-party “travel agents” with bases in both countries (Bahrain became the first Mid-East country to technically repeal Kafala law in 2008, though most sources say the changes haven’t come yet). Most disturbing is the detention policies involved:

“Many migrants are detained on the grounds that they are unable to repay debts owed to sponsors. According to Bahraini legislation, “anyone sentenced to pay a fine may be imprisoned for up to one year to compel performance” (WGAD 2002, p. 26). Migrants are subject to deportation once they have served a sentence under this law, and are often detained—in some cases indefinitely—until they can be deported or repay their debts. In April 2007, the media reported that five Indians and one Pakistani had been detained for almost two years in the Asry Detention Centre, and were unable to be deported due to debts and civil cases brought against them (Bew 2007a).”

This is, by definition, indentured servitude, sponsored by the state, and it is used all over the Middle East. How I was completely ignorant of it is ridiculous. This is in a country that is very much state-sponsored and nearly colonized by the US…

The flip side of this coin is the coin itself: remittance is abound, and looking at some more GDP info (I love the CIA World Factbook), the numbers are amazing: in 24 countries, remittance makes up 10% or more of the GDP. Here in Sri Lanka, it is 8.9%. In Honduras, it is nearly 25%. It seems to be dropping worldwide by a few percent each year since 2009 or so, but the numbers are still huge (Time even has this nifty map of 2009 numbers, though it’s quite incomplete). So yeah. There’s that….

It happened… it can’t un-happen….

another long hiatus

I left Japan exactly seven days before the earthquake back in March. This was not my first close call… I was in Kunming two years ago at the exact time the Yushu earthquake hit. That killed about 2,700 people and left the province in shambles. In Japan, it was much, much worse: a six-minute magnitude 9.0 quake followed by a 133 foot high tsunami that can reach 6 miles inland is a seriously deadly event, and the results were tragic, nearly 16,000 dead and something like 3,300 missing, with ongoing nuclear meltdowns at three reactors. The earth has actually shifted on it’s axis, shortening our days by about 1.8ms. This is not a small event; while the death toll in Japan wasn’t nearly as high as in Haiti or during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, it was very, very serious.

The pieces I had already written about Japan seemed meek and pithy in the light of the earthquake, and I decided not to post them (I’m sure they’ll find their way to these pages eventually). Some of the stories and photos that emerged were heart-breaking. Some were downright amazing. All of them were much more visceral, and real, than anything I write…  “What Luck!” was the common response, but I found myself wishing I’d still been there when it happened. And then I felt evil for wanting to be closer to that visceral reality.

I became very unhappy with my writing. I’ve talked with many artists and writers about this since that time, and the general consensus seems that self-criticism is the hardest there is; the need to improve and the disappointment we find in ourselves is sometimes the greatest motivator, and sometimes just a deterrent… one of my best friends, an amazingly talented artist who is also a harsh self-critic (though he would never describe himself that way), hit the nail on the head: I just didn’t want to write anymore. So I stopped.

This was, admittedly, very easy to do… self-criticism was one thing, but the speed of life is a helluva force. Months slid off the calendar, my hair full of brake dust and CV grease, nails black from pimping my hands out to those in need of good hands, legs sore from riding trails every chance I got, belly full of local food and beer that I have the pleasure of buying from the hands that grow and brew it, ears full of good music from hands that are attune to the feel of vinyl, eyes full of history books and newspapers and crossword puzzels, pockets filling with money that I’m lucky enough to earn by working, or what passes for work these days (you know you have the right profession when you feel like it’s what you’d be doing anyway), and while my brain is still often ill at ease, I must admit: I enjoy a damn fine life…

But I am lucky. Well, that’s not strictly true… I am lucky by 2002 standards. By 2012 standards, I am miraculously, incredibly, undeniably blessed. In the years following my loss of academic momentum, many of my friends graduated from higher learning, nearly all of them to debt, perhaps only half of them to jobs. This is a very, very raw deal, especially as tuition costs continue to skyrocket year after year (one wonders what would have happened if our Occupy movements looked like what they do in France when tuition gets hiked), and while they were earning their educatiion, my own disolusion to college meandered me through a different path: a young business where I was able to grow into a very profitable sales gig, through which I was able to save a good deal of money (dumb luck/slight dicipline), the savings from which led to business ownership (a true education), the continuation of my trade (reliable and/or fun), and, amazingly, traveling (awesome). The irony is not lost on me that, to date, you cannot turn a wrench through a phone line, but you can write a computer program, or process a mortgage, or animate a film, or engineer complicated machinery, and probably a whole load of other jobs that are soon to disappear in our country… jobs for the educated. “For those with higher learning.”

I am, of course, not knocking higher education at all, and I look forward to reigniting my own academic momentum, but I am making a point: millions of people in my generation are in debt, without work in their field, and they are very, very pissed off about it. In a country where half the population is earning less than $42k/year , I am in the 24th percentile, earning under $20k/year, and the major reason I am able to enjoy the life I have at this wage is partially due to dilligent savings and frugal living, but mainly because I have always remained debt-free. I enjoy the liberty of financial independence, and for that I am, again, lucky as all hell…

It’s been a hell of a year; Year of the White Rabbit, or perhaps the Year of the Lifeboat. In America, while we all still holding out for some Hope and maybe even a little Change, Obama, his financial cabinet, and the rest of congress is hard at work mailing our house keys to the bankers and passing laws directly abusing the language of the constitution. The Occupy movement was pretty fun to watch, and it felt as if there was good, peaceful momentum, until the hired thugs went in, city by city, under cover of night, tearing down tents and macing old ladies (one wonders how much pepper spray the NYPD can buy with that $4.6mil from JPMC). And of course, in Wisconsin, what started as a public union battle has become a full-scale fight to keep the “fiscal conservatives” from selling our teeth out of our jaws, rife with liesmoney and hipocrisy. Oh, and lest we forget, corporations are people with the abillity to throw limitless amounts of money at prospective public servants, and even Obama, who spoke of this as “a threat to our democracy” has now, of course, kneeled in front of the money (if you haven’t yet signed Bernie Sanders’ petition for a constitutional amendment reversing this travesty, you can do so here). Everything seems, in a word, broken, and it seems we’ve forgotten how to run a government with public opinion, without the millions of lobbying and ad-time. The idea in America that everything should turn a profit, and that that profit is tantamount to volume of speech, is choking us to death. I love my country. I don’t want to see it whither and spoil like this.

I sit, writing this, in the hillsides of Sri Lanka, a country with similar problems and contradictions to our own. A nation that is 70% Buddhist, but that has the death penalty. A country that has spent 30 years in civil war over class and religion, with obvious, transparent class struggles still in place. Still, a place of relative financial independance. Well over half of all Sri Lankans own their own home (I assume this number includes family estate), and the cost of land ownership remains reasonable. 20% of the labor force is unionized, and the unemployment rate hovers around 4%-5%. 23% of Sri Lankans are at or below the poverty line, just a few percent higher than in the US (what does this tell you?). Source for these numbers: CIA Factbook

My life is filled with contradiction wherever I go; yesterday, I washed my laundry in a tin vat, squatting in the dirt with the sun on my back, listening to Jay-Z sing about how there is no limit on his Black Card.  (No Limit is also a brand of rice here in Sri Lanka, which makes me wonder if Percy P has asked for royalties yet). A public bus that will take you 100km costs about a dollar, which is the same cost as the 2km tuk-tuk ride to get you to the bus station. Most of the tuk-tuks here have wonderful slogans written on them, like “your jealous my prospects” or “get rich or die trying” or “margin of safety” (occasionally I see “peace begins with smile” and yesterday I spotted “I like to Sri Lanka”, both of which I wholeheartedly agree with). All sorts of things flood my head at all times, and picking the meat off the bones is sometimes hard. The garbage trucks in Ulan Baatar, one of the most isolated cities on earth, play ice cream truck muzak. There is a law against wearing your pajamas in public in Shanghai, which does not stop thousands of grown men from doing so each day. South Koreans, in conversation, will tell you straightaway that they distrust the Japanese more than they do the North Koreans. Japan is one of the world’s largest welfare-states, and their population is on track to decline by about 30% by 2060. What does this all have in common? Not much, besides that it’s all fascinating to me, regardless of my frame of reference for it…

I started writing these stories because they were my favorite to read. I never liked reading travel writing that sounds as if the person is explaining their slide-show; “then I went here, then I saw this…”. No, I liked the ones that were short, and true, and amusing, and stranger than fiction sometimes. One-Night-Stories, I liked to call them, though my friends have come up with much better labels, my favorite being “Puke Journalism” (I will admit, the visual one gets of literally barfing text onto a blank sheet of paper is pretty damn close to how I write anyway) . Perhaps this moniker is too true… I sometimes feel like I write the same story over and over, or that the writing itself is, at best, too personal, and at worst, downright self-indulgent. Beer seems to come up every twelve seconds or so, which makes me look like some twenty-something lush-about-town, which is maybe not so far from the truth, though a bit closer than I’d like it to be… or look, anyway.

I aim to change this. I want to take writing less seriously, and at the same time, more seriously… I want to write different tales, more thoughtful stories, pieces with some damn heart to them. Oh, there will still be beer involved, I’m sure, but I want more out of myself. I am lucky enough to be able to travel, and to be literate, and to have people who seem to like reading my rantings, however vile and repetitous, and goddamnit I’m gonna write stuff that people want to read, that people want to share. I’m standing on a bridge, breathing diesel smoke and feeling grit on every square inch of my body, whispering to no one in particular, “damn… I wanna write again…”


I should probably mention that a good portion of this was written just after I took my first warm shower in three weeks (warm showers are a serious luxury here, as in many parts of the world), a shower that left me feeling quite amazing, and the word ‘lucky’ appears something like a dozen times in this transmission, and that is probably no coincidence… so the next time you take a shower, if you are able to go into your bathroom, and turn a knob, and have hot, clean water come out, as much of the world is not able to do, you might consider saying something like, “Hot diggity, I sure am lucky to be able to turn this knob right here, and have hot, clean water come out! Damn, I’m lucky!”

Because… you know… you are.

I’ve wanted to go to Japan, basically, forever. I think growing up in America in the 90s, there was this universal sense that Japan was simply ahead, in technology, innovation, education… it seemed like a place where success was boundless, advancement ever-present. Around the age of ten, I discovered sushi, and then I was basically in love — in America, Japanese food is still really quite un-bastardized or homogenized, the way one often finds in other Asian cuisine, and bowls of Udon, whole plates of sashimi would disappear in front of me. My fascination of the place never left — discovering anime, then reading Shogun, then other random history books like Army of the Rising Sun. Bicycles were certainly part of the love affair, as I got to sell and fondle many 3Renshos and Nagasawas and such in my tenure in a quaint little shop where the owner had been a major importer of Japanese goods for over a decade. Takashi Miike movies and other splinters of absurd cinema may have had an adverse effect on others, but to me they spoke of a place almost within its own reality — what the hell, Japan?! Seriously. I need to know.

So now, of course, it’s almost embarrassing to think of what kept me away for so long. I was very close to coming here in 2008, back when I was stuck in Beijing during spring festival, but looking at how far a dollar went simply kept me away. Then last year, I was in Korea, a mere $100 ferry ride away from Kansai, but again, China and Mongolia won out in my head: simple math. $30/day vs $70/day. Stretch it.

In 2008, the exchange rate was around 120 JPY to $1. Last year it hovered around 95. Yesterday, I believe it was 83. Our dollar really needs to get its shit together.

Still there’s no denying one’s own desires. In the great words of Tracey Morgan: “Live every week like it’s Shark Week…”

first impressions: ignorance and bliss

I flew into Kansai airport in the afternoon and basically immediately started fucking up. With no yen in my pocket, I cleared customs with nary a problem, even as the labrador lapped at my heels and circled around my feet, led by a man with white gloves and perfect posture. I stuck my card into the ATM in the baggage claim and struck out: nope, no money for you. Had I previously read that most ATMs in Japan are not friendly to foreign cards, I may have been more prepared for this, but as it happens, my last day in Korea I had mistakenly punched one too many zeros into an ATM to get the bus fare I needed and wound up with 200,000 Won in my pocket, which I immediately changed into greenback… so in my own twisted way, my previous fuck-up had in fact created a perfectly viable Plan B for the Japanese bank card incident: just buy some yen. I decided to change only half of the money at first, as I assumed $80 worth of Yen was enough to last me until I could figure out the ATMs here, and it’s always good to have some USD in your pocket, even if it’s backed by nothing but the Fed’s hot air, and horrendously artificially deflated, and the bills are sort of sticky…

I walked outside to the bus queue to find… well, no buses at all. The man at the ticket counter explained that the buses were shut down for the day due to snow, an odd reason, as there was literally no snow in sight. “Train”, he said.

I waltzed in and asked for a ticket to Osaka Station. The woman was happy to sell me a subway ticket, at a cost of 1,420 yen, about a 1/4 of what was in my pocket. “damn, that is a hell of a lot of money for a subway ticket” was in my head as I absent-mindedly thanked her in Korean. Japanese is my third dialect in 30 days, and in my brain it’s just a damn mess right now. She didn’t seem to mind.

My new friend Sho took me to dinner that night, at a place that greatly resembled a Perkins in terms of decor, though obviously not in fare. I had a bowl of rice with strips of tamago and a large pile of raw toro, presumably the scraps from making sashimi, with a side of udon. It was about 900 yen, $11 or so, which somehow put my mind at ease, as if to say, “well hell, that ain’t so bad…” because a bowl of rice with egg, sashimi tuna and a side of udon is probably about $15 in California. Perhaps my fears were un-warranted, I thought.

We spoke of traveling. Sho had spent two years studying in Vancouver and was dying to get back to North America. A long discussion ensued on the ramifications of working and living in Japan vs Canada. He was very curious about the midwest… I asked him what the snowfall was to shut down all the buses. “About 3cm,” he said, adding “most in 10 years in Osaka!”. I smiled and did some quick math. “Well, we’ve probably gotten about 100cm so far this year…” He dropped his sticks.

After dinner, we headed for an onsen, a public hot spring, something I was really looking forward to. I crammed my shoes in the locker and thought back to Korea and its jimjilbangs, basically bath houses, eager to get clean and soak in a hot tub for a while. It was in the locker room that I noticed an interesting sign, with several poorly drawn cartoons, that said something along the lines of “Those the tattoos are not for the entry”. hmmmm….

“Hey man, does this say that people with tattoos can’t come in?”
“Mmm… you have?”
“Uhh yeah….”
“Really? a lot?”
“Well.. just three…”
I pointed to my ribs and then my legs, wondering how the locations could possibly affect the odds of them being seen, given that you go into the spring butt-naked.
“hmm… I think… here…”

He went and asked a guy who was piling towels in a bin. I saw him point to his side and his legs, and the expression on the towel herder’s face was a mix of uncertainty and modest refusal, pursed lips and an a slight smile as he shook his head.

“No, we can’t come in…”

I like that he said “we” when clearly it was only I who couldn’t come in. “I’m sorry…” I started to stammer, as if I had done something wrong. We got a refund and headed back for the car, a tiny little cereal box of a Honda that I believe was called the Fresh. “yeah… sorry… didn’t really think of that…” We spoke of tattoos, and Yakuza and other taboos, and customs, and manners, and about a dozen other talking points that I was 90% ignorant of. Apparently I had a lot to learn.

On the way back to his house, we stopped for snacks. I found myself noting and chewing on prices, sort of like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. I’d say most food items are just slightly more expensive than in the US, although given the food, it’s a little intimidating… onigiri, which is basically a ball of rice, goes for about 120 yen. That’s three cents of rice for a buck-fifty. This does not keep me from eating them every day. Really, the major expense here is transportation, though I’ll save my thoughts on that for another transmission…

red lights and strange sights

Getting lost in new places is pretty much my favorite thing ever. As long as you don’t have, say, a train to catch, or a heavy pack, it’s sort of like my equivalent of a guided tour, minus the guide of course… indeed, an aimless tour. A walkabout. I was in southern Osaka, near Tennoji station, meandering around Osaka Tower, an eiffel-tower like structure (there are many Eiffel Tower clones in Japan) that is bordered by shopping and restaurants and clubs and all sorts of other places I can’t afford to go in. Belly full of oden and green tea, I put on the ear goggles, turned up the dubstep mix, and set myself out to find the hotel without the use of a map or compass, using only landmarks and memory. People always ask me how I travel so cheap, and this is sort of a dirty little secret… just get lost instead of doing anything that a normal tourist would consider. Not all the time, but sometimes. Go ahead, try it. It’s fun. And free. And you’ll probably see a lot of stuff you didn’t know existed…

I figured with a fake eiffel tower and a half-dozen railways that I had staked out, the mission would be over in just six or eight tracks. This was not the case. Osaka is, for the most part, built on a grid, but many of the streets were apparently designed by mice, and thus, they dead-end, and fork, and swirl, and some simply go off into nowhere. This is not the case downtown, where everything was likely designed by lasers and robots, but this neighborhood is old and weird. The conversation before moving there went something like this:

“Hey Sho, how come all the cheap hostels are in this one neighborhood?”
“Oh… it’s… kind of dirty.” (This is a very relative term in Japan)
“How so?”
“You know, homeless people, casinos, street markets, bars… and… things.” Things. Right.

So there I was, and I knew I was heading south based on the sun, and it seemed like I was at about the right longitude, but nothing was familiar. The streets got narrower. Graffiti appeared, not an incredibly rare thing here but nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in, say, any other country. I took a left after the roofed market, no longer really concerned with the hotel at all, just wandering. ‘Chase and Status’ was playing, a track called ‘Eastern Jam’ which is really good, bright samples, but dirty and glitchy and creepy, the kind of beat that makes you slow down so you can walk in step to it. And then I saw them.

It was a woman. Well, two of them, actually, one dressed up, full of make-up and hairspray, sitting on a mat, on a platform, surrounded be space heaters. Her face was… blank. Just completely expressionless. Except for the occasional blink, she could have been a doll. Then, in front of her, an older lady, almost decrepit by contrast, sitting on a stool, smiling wide, gesturing me over. what… the… fuck…

It had stopped me dead in my tracks. I looked a little closer. The place was a storefront, with a lit sign above and red neon lining the window, or what would have been a window: the whole front of the building was open. This is in Osaka in February, around 30 degrees. Except for the lack of glass and the addition of an old lady, the entire scene was really shockingly similar to what you’d see in Amsterdam. I was in a red-light district.

More questions were presented than answered by this realization.

Why the lack of glass? An inviting atmosphere? Good lord, why the old lady? Is a pimp required to somehow not cross over the line of modesty in selling yourself? An old lady pimp?  With a creepy smile? What’s her cut? I simply didn’t know how to react. The contrast to the modesty that Sho and I had talked at such length about was stark, and yet, not… yes, they were clearly selling themselves, but in such a… bashful, almost sheepish way. I guess it fit right in. I kept walking. The old ladies kept smiling and waving me over, surely thinking I had wound up here on purpose. The storefronts were everywhere, and there sure seemed to be a lot of them open for 4pm on a Saturday. The inhabitants looked cold. Most of the mats were of the ‘Hello Kitty’ variety. The outfits on the girls ranged from traditional wear, to more modern, provocative fare (though nothing like what you’d see in Amsterdam). Then there was this one woman. She wasn’t dressed like the others… oh no… can that be…

Yep. A full wedding gown, with the veil and all. On a mat. With an old lady in front of her, the same creepy smile as the rest, gesturing me over. This was too much… I couldn’t help but laugh, though in my head there was another dialog going on….

Now, for a country with the second lowest birth rate in the world (estimates have it going up, which is good, as it was declining for almost 20 years), in a place where they make robotic infants, this was really something to behold… your very own wedding night, without the whole hassle of actually having a marriage. I wondered how anyone could desire such a thing, but supply and demand would dictate that there must be a market for it. About seventy dirty jokes popped in to my head in the span of fifteen seconds.

The ATM could wait: I needed facts. And a beer. I eventually found myself out of the neighborhood and back near a market I recognized. I grabbed a Kirin out of a vending machine with the last 130 yen in my pocket (okay, this has maybe happened once or twice before) and hopped on Google. Turns out this is pretty well documented and discussed, and both Wiki and even the damn WSJ even have posts on this specific neighborhood (favorite random point: all those signs are advertising the “Tobitashinchi Ryori Kumiai”, the name of the “cooking association” that oversees the area). I’ve never paid for sex (or “company” or “cooking lessons”) but I don’t really have a moral high ground about it… if it’s safe and it’s regulated enough to go on like this, let the girl don the wedding dress.  She probably makes more in a night than I make in a week.  Who’s really using whom here?

Anyway, the beer, and my pockets, were empty, my head full of thought. New missions.  More to come…

I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to finding flights.

Often, I’ll see small patterns emerge from airline to airline, like the price “wave” that occurs as you near the departure date — a sudden increase in cost, then a lull, starting about 5 weeks out and hitting bottom about 10 days out.  These can be unpredictable and sometimes ass-backwards, and as I took something like sixteen flights last year, I probably spent more time than I should have finding most of them… but these days, I find myself trying to search a little smarter, and spending a little time learning the trends has wound up saving me a lot of time staring at prices.

Recently, another of my favorite blogs, Chart Porn, graced my inbox with a nice piece on flight pricing and decoding the seemingly arbitrary way in which it changes day to day. Chart Porn is pretty aptly named; it basically showcases online examples of data, with more of a focus on the design aspect than on the data itself, but with so much data out there, the posts from day to day can range quite a bit, making it a particularly fun blog to be signed up for — you never know what you might learn.

hmm... to buy, or wait?

Anyway, this post includes some great information and tools to help us understand what’s really going on with flight pricing… and, as we might have suspected, it’s at least a little arbitrary. This WSJ Article is an eye-opener into how airlines will change ticket prices throughout the days of the week to promote deals, or, just as often, to match their competitors. It’s interesting to note that a 7% difference in price from Friday to Saturday is, in fact, quite a lot. This farecompare page has a collection of articles that are even more in depth, offering some insights into individual airlines and their respective behavioral patterns.

This got me thinking a bit, about how I use the sites I use, and when. I usually scan the same three or four sites together to look for flights, although sometimes I’ll buy from the airline directly even after finding a deal, as they’ll commonly give you more leeway and flexibility than if you buy from an agent, which can make a small price hike worth it.   Still, for starters, it’s nice to check the major airfare search engines first… so where to start?

1) Kayak
Still the king, in my opinion, though it has some faults to work through. I really like that you can search for a week spread at a time, which will give you an idea of what day of the week to shoot for in your particular journey — and contrary to what we were all taught, it’s often not Wednesday at all. Also, the interface is really lovely for doing matrix-searches — in addition to searching within a whole week, you can specify multiple airports for To and From by simple adding commas between airport codes — so instead of having to search once for LAX to ICN, once for SFO to ICN, and once for SAN to ICN, you can simply enter LAX,SFO,SAN to ICN and see a complete search for

options: you have some

each. You can do this for both the To and From airports in the same search, so if you’re apathetic about your point of departure and relative destination (as I often am), it can save you a ton of time. I give it bonus points for accuracy too, as I’ve rarely hit dead-ends on the deals it finds, which can be common (and horrendously annoying) in the big-box search engines.

And for brownie points, they also have this incredibly bad-ass tool, which will let you literally search the entire earth for flights in a map view, and lets you narrow destinations based on price, temperature, duration, date of travel, etc… so if you REALLY want to do the whole “put on a blindfold and throw the dart at the wall” thing, it might be right up your alley… though I really don’t recommend throwing a dart at your monitor.  If you do, at least videotape the results and email it to me…

2) Skyscanner

This one can be a mixed bag too, although I’ve found some really stellar deals on it, particularly around Asia. It’s also a really fun one to use, as it lets you search entire countries at once, as well as scanning whole months, or even a whole year. It is the only site (that even remotely works, anyway) that I’ve found that will give you this option, to be absolutely as vague as possible in your search. The flip side to this feature is that the wider your search is, the less scrutinizing it seems to be in regards to cost, which would at least partly explain why I’ve had good luck with it in Asia, in smaller countries with fewer international airports. In any case, it’s a fun tool, and one that has saved me a lot of dough in getting from country to country.

3) Graphical Madman Award: Hipmunk

This one seems to show VERY similar results to Kayak, but the interface is, in a word, brilliant. Instead of little boxes showing each flight’s vital stats, you get a lovely graph that indicates each flight by its take-off and landing duration, sorted however you like, including an option called “Agony”, a matrix of price, duration and stop-overs. It also has a nifty “tabbed” system, that lets you have multiple searches open in one window/tab, and shows each search in individual tabs within the site, freeing up your browser’s tabs (and, presumably, your machine’s processing/memory consumption). Very handy if your parameters (dates, destinations) are pretty concrete anyway, and you just want to see everything in a clearer light.

4) Price is Right Showcase Award: Travelzoo

This site basically showcases airline-direct specials, as well as cruise, hotel, and all-inclusive deals (although I can’t really comment on the latter offers). I generally scan it every few weeks to get an idea of the deals that are available, and since for flights, they’re usually airline-direct, the round-trip deals can be amazing: Asia for >$800, Costa Rica for $200ish, New Zealand for $860 — stuff like that. Highly recommended for finding R/T deals that the bigger search engines won’t show you.

5) Eyebrow-Raising-to-Savings Ratio Award: ASAPtickets

These guys are sort of like the red-headed cousins of the guys who run Travelzoo, if those cousins wound up skipping school, joining the mafia, and opening a travel agency in an alley around the corner. Sometimes they can find great deals, though, so they’re worth mentioning. Basically, the site shows all-inclusive prices for R/T or one-way tickets, based on deals that are sometimes pretty specific and sometimes strict in terms of exact dates. You have to call them first (there is no option to book online) and give them your parameters, then they’ll call or email you back with the skinny on what they can do. I’ve never purchased through them before, but one of my traveling friends swears by them, and the prices I’ve heard her quote are usually ridiculously low… so if you’re in a pinch, need the ticket for a departure that’s less than a week out, or just have some extra time, give them a shout and see what they say. Also, of the three times I’ve called them, the name of the guy on the other end of the line is usually something like “Boris” or “Mario”, although they usually sound Latin rather than Eastern European. Who knows…

6) Honorable Mention: Orbitz

Okay, so everyone already knows about Orbitz, and Kayak searches it for you when you use it, but I have a crush on them, so I’m dropping their name anyway. I used to use Priceline almost exclusively for domestic flights, but in the last year I had some major customer service woes with them, one of which almost culminated in me throwing a Molotov Cocktail at a Days Inn in Alameda, so for now they’re on my shit-list…

Orbitz has some pretty nice features to it, the best of which is a service called Courtesy Cancel. Basically, if you want to cancel a flight you’ve purchased within 24-hours of buying it, you press a button on their website, and bam, you just canceled your flight, with no penalty. This is not available on all flights they sell, but I’ve done it twice before, and if you buy a ticket, then find a better deal (on a different flight) the next day, this feature is priceless. Also, if you book a flight and the price goes down on that exact flight, they refund you the difference, automatically. This has saved me probably $300 since I almost burned down that hotel in Alameda.

Alright then! Now you too can spend hours of your time scouring the internet, taking notes, and daydreaming… happy hunting, and please post any tips I might have missed!

I flew in to Taipei around 7:30 and hit the cheapest hostel in town, a surprisingly nice place on the east end of the city called The Meeting Place. The first night lent itself to finding food and taking in the atmosphere, similar to China at first glance but drastically different as soon as you interact with humans here. The first major clue was just outside the airport, after buying a bus ticket into the city. I walked out expecting a mob of people to climb over each other at the first sign of the bus, but instead found a perfect, polite queue to the sign indicating the stop for the #1813 to Taipei Main Station. I was flabbergasted. I kept half-expecting a riot to break out for seats at the arrival of the bus, and I am not lying when I say I was preparing for war at the sight of the bus, shouldering the pack, getting ready to spread the elbows and start pushing like BJ Raji, but it never happened — we just boarded, neatly, in order, and after the seats were full, the next person in line simply stopped, and the crowd behind us began waiting patiently for the next bus.

Now, I’m sure this may not seem very interesting or unique to most people, but to anyone who’s been to China before… well, that shit is fucking incredible. It looks like I’m stereotyping here (and I am), but that would simply never happen in a queue for a bus in China — there would be yelling and climbing and crawling and mob rule and 40 people refusing to leave the aisle after the bus was full, and really, for good reason, or at least justifiable reason. A few days after, I met a guy who’s been living in China for two years, and after mentioning this observation, he smiled with his eyes wide and explained to me that his pictures in Taiwan had almost exclusively been of people standing in line. "I just can’t get over it", he said. "I really can’t believe it… it’s just mind blowing. Totally different attitude." Even the subway queues are more civilized than the ones in Korea, and that’s saying something, as Koreans are really very courteous people. This is a base observation, but it was the starting point…

Taiwan is not China. It never has been. I was expecting this to be less transparent, somehow, but this place is 60+ years ahead of China in a lot of ways… writing this, my thoughts drift back to a bookstore in Beijing back in 2008, when I picked up a Lonely Planet China. There was an odd crease in the binding, and when I turned to it, I found that the section on Taiwan had been ripped out. I picked up another. Same thing, across the whole row of books… they must really not like the LP’s description of Taiwan. Asking students about it later, they were all pretty much in agreement: "Taiwan is China’s biggest island", I remember one saying. "Umm… that’s… not true at all…", I thought. This is really on the minor side of conditioning there, though — I didn’t find a single person my own age in Beijing who knew about what happened in Tienanmen in ’88, and I met quite a few older people who insisted to me that China dropped the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. That’s simply what they were taught.

Of course, on the surface, you’d almost think the progress was the other way around. I remember reading a few years ago that something like 60% of the construction equipment on earth is in China, with over half of that in Shanghai… and after being there, it’s a pretty believable figure. There is simply very little there that’s over ten years old… here, you can feel the boom has already passed, that the wave broke long ago and rolled back. Besides the Taipei 101, there are only two other buildings over 50 stories in the entire country, both of them built in the mid-90’s, though this may be more to do with the frequent earthquakes (I have been woken up by two since I got here, and there are tremors almost daily). Around Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung (the three biggest cities), everything smells like old concrete and rust, which is oddly comforting to me. Besides the occasional mall or commercial building, it’s rare to see new construction. In this sense, the whole place seems closer to Oakland than it does to Kunming…

clubbing: an exercise in alcohol, hormones, and lower mathematics

Night two. A hosteler has invited me to a club with another Swedish guy, says it will be a good time. We head out around 10:30 and subway it to Taipei City Hall, and I get my first view of the 101, dreary and gloomy behind the rain and fog. The club is just a few blocks from it, a basement joint called Babe 18. The cover is $500 NT (about $17) and the club itself is an all-you-can-drink venue — apparently a common thing around here. We grab a drink and sort of meander around… the place is small and just starting to fill up, and the vibe is pretty mellow. We start chatting with random folks around the bar, all very friendly, and besides the three of us, there are maybe only two or three other westerners in the joint.

I’ve honestly never really been clubbing before. I mean, I’ve gone to plenty of places that charge a cover and serve drinks and have a dance floor, and that’s usually great, but when I think’clubbing’, I think of a slightly different scene, a bit more dress-up perhaps, people wanting to be seen, but more than that, a perception of exclusivity, nowhere to sit, a volume level and spacial allotment akin to the engine room of a merchant marine vessel, lines and cordons and shit like that. This place is on the edge of that perception, and I find myself in an anxious comfort of the element for a few minutes…

As it gets later and the place fills up, the lens shifts a bit, perhaps the worse for wear, particularly as the verb "dancing" seems to be gradually become interpreted more and more basely and urgently, denigrating into "hump everything female at random". You know how occasionally, you’ll be on the dance floor, and you’ll spot a group of women, and they’re just dancing with each other, and they’re not just sort of ignoring the guys, but totally ignoring every guy in the joint? I suppose I’ve always interpreted this as transparent code for "Hey look guys, we’re just here to have a good time and cut loose, please don’t fuck this up by humping our legs at random."

Well, these groups are disappearing at an amazing rate as the men are getting drunker and more aggressive, and suddenly there are perhaps four men to every woman, and sure, not all of them are acting like total dicks, but every time I think I see something bad, it’s followed by something much worse. Guys are literally pulling each other off of the women they seem to be hell-bent on dancing with, even pointing fingers, and generally acting less and less like dancing partners and more and more like horny sociopaths. Maybe I’m being dramatic here, maybe I just don’t get it, maybe I’m jaded… but from where I was standing, I couldn’t help but think most of these guys fit into at least the seventh circle, some all the way to the ninth.

I watch and chat with other random people, not particularly enthused but in the melee I’m witnessing but pretty fascinated by it, almost like I’m watching a PBS documentary or something. At some point the Swede walks up with a puzzled look on his face and says "What? You don’t like dancing? You should talk to some girls…" as if these two things are somehow related to one another, when in fact they seem more and more to be mutually exclusive. "Yeah, I’ll do that…"

Around 3am or so, I decide the scene just isn’t really for me, finish my drink and walk out, trying to dissect it a bit more as I do so. A lot of these guys are, in the most true sense of the word, wasted , almost as if they’re trying to drink as much as possible to justify the cover price, something not unfamiliar to me but that seems different, much funnier somehow, in the context of a meat-market. I notice a sign on the wall on my way out that says something along the lines of ‘people who vomit inside club will have to pay $200 NT clean-up fee’, which instantly strikes me as a small price to pay. It must happen a lot.

I see the guys the next morning, drinking my coffee at the hostel. After berating me for leaving early, they tell me their story of the rest of the night, a real head-shaker, about how they left the club with the girls they were dancing with "but they wouldn’t take us home". Imagine that, dancing with a person doesn’t guarantee you sex with them! What a world… "Yeah, I was trying really hard, talking with her outside the club," the Swede says, and I can’t help noticing how "trying really hard to convince her to sleep with me" is neatly packaged the next morning as simply "trying really hard". I chew on my toast and smile, wondering if there’s ever been a study done showing how MTV has effectively set back gender relations by 250 years or so.

not my scene not my problem

Two nights later, I’m walking to a different club, almost begrudgingly, with a fresh crowd of new faces. We had gone for dinner earlier, and cause for celebration has translated into an urge for dancing. Most of them live in Taipei and almost all are Taiwanese born. She senses my disdain. "It’s… not really my speed", I explain. "Maybe I’ll come for a quick drink…"

This joint is called Carnegies and it’s supposedly famous, although it’s hard to see why. There isn’t really a dancefloor at all, but the place is big, spread out, with lots of tables, and a huge bar with enormous brass poles installed across the length of it. It is horrendously expensive, by any standard, and the girls are still 20-somethings, but the median age of the men has increased quite a bit — most of the guys are in their 40s. For the size, it is much too well-lit. We chat for a while, about meat-markets, and Egypt, and traveling, and the variance in attitude towards beer by the Germans and the Belgians, a topic I am almost embarrassingly conversant on. Then we talk some more. I wind up having a fantastic time, actually.

I wake up around noon, feeling a tad groggy but overall pretty solid – indeed, overpriced beer is a good way to keep the poor from drinking too much. I wash my face, run a brush over my teeth with a paste that seems to have been made with green tea and maybe anise. I walk back to be guestroom, or what seems to be a guestroom, I can’t really tell… she’s still asleep, curled up in the comforter, eyes closed and stoic behind waves of black hair… and I cannot possibly describe how beautiful she is. Absolutely gorgeous, just incredible, natural, no make-up or glitter, no haze, no false pretense or atmospheric tinge to discolor or distort the image, just her, still fully dressed, like me, on a dinky pull-out bed with a comforter sized and styled for a child, peaceful and indifferent… my heart pounds faster, short flashes that only exist in an impossible future running through my synapses. I can feel my brow furrowing, not by my own accord, and then the synapses relapse, that sugary substance that normally flows quickly changing to caustic sap… yes, the fact is sharply, horribly clear, and the fact is that I’m never going to see her again, no matter how much we both want to, that the future is as linear as the past, and the reality of the whole thing crashes into the beauty in front of me and shatters on the floor of my gums, leaving a dark stain that tastes like rust… I look away with lazy eyes. My hands are clenching into fists and I don’t know why, like picking a scab until it bleeds and then wondering to yourself how you could ever think that might have helped. I feel a slight peace but something else is trying to break in, something irrational and vague and eager.

She kisses me goodbye and tells me she doesn’t want to see me go and I tell her I feel the same way and we’re both completely telling the truth and it seems to be intended to make each other feel better but it’s clearly doing just the opposite. I hold her tightly, one last time, then walk away, feeling her stare… my eyes are closed and I’m breathing deeply, my steps slow and deliberate and almost cautious. I make the first turn and realize that I have absolutely no idea where I am and immediately decide that it doesn’t matter in the slightest. I notice that my steps are getting faster and faster, almost like I’m being chased by some phantom or something…

Somewhere along the line, I seem to have lost my Eligible Man-About-Town badge and was instead given a Hopeless Romantic purple-heart. Sometimes life holds you close and whispers into your ear that you’re special. Other times it just pukes in your lap. You’d think it’d be easier to laugh at the former and cry at the latter, but sometimes it’s exactly the opposite…