Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Later that day (on Saturday), Ty and I went for a taco — not a particularly common item here.  The hole-in-the-wall taco place wasn’t serving tacos that day, though, so we settled for the only thing they offered us — roasted chicken with rice, beans and salad, a bit of a staple meal.  The hot sauce was really good and served in unlabeled flasks — homemade, but she wouldn’t sell me any (argh!).  There was a TV on in this particular hole-in-the-wall, and we caught glimpses of other Carnivalés going on in Panama — one in Panama City, one in a place called Las Tablas that even had a huge gay pride parade going on, etc.  They were, in a word, huge… much more like what you’d see from Rio, just thousands and thousands of people… traffic backed up for miles, big parade-like floats, things like that.  We determined that we were at more of a block party than a Carnivalé, at least compared to what we were seeing.  Screw you, television.

Still, it was a great night.  We grabbed a bottle of Flor de Caña and some limes

and got in the spirit.  Later on, there was a sort of parade of drum troupes, very Caribbean, not a djembe in sight, with dancers up front doing choreographed marches down the street.  Most of the drums were mounted to these awesome home-made contraptions of bamboo and twine that were impressively well constructed, so that the whole troupe’s rig could be dragged down the street by people in front of the drummers.  The guy next to me explained that the last troupe to roll through was from Bastimentos, the island next door to us, where we had hit up a beach earlier (Red Frog beach — probably the most pristine beach I’ve ever seen) but had not yet spent much time exploring.  The troupe was great, with a lot more of an afro-beat vibe than the previous ones.  We wandered around for a few hours, seein’ the sights and dancing about in the street…

The next morning, though, as we woke to the same blaring, 130bpm auto-tuned dancehall (auto-tune needs to die.  Seriously.), we were pretty ready to find someplace different, somewhere nice and quiet.  Bastimentos?  Sure.  Whatever.  We hopped in a water taxi around noon, and started wandering around a village (I am, as I write this, still rather ignorant on the specifics of this island).  I was in kind of a bitchy mood that morning due to several failures I suffered before we left Isla Colón — I was behind on correspondence and writing, struggling over whether to buy a ticket back to Asia for the near future or go home and get a job, I still hadn’t bought any damn hot sauce, and I was on an empty stomach filled mostly with whatever is left over after a night of rum, dancing and meat-on-a-stick (let’s be fair – my diet here has been – ahem – somewhat atrocious).  Ever travel with someone in a bitchy mood?  Someone who is on-edge and not good with dealing with curve-balls?  It totally sucks, and I hate them.  I was that dude today.
The vibe here was just completely opposite; there are no roads, just a pathway a bit larger than 2 bike lanes.  No motors except for the boats.  They don’t speak Spanish here either; it’s a Caribbean tongue I think was called ‘wally wally” (I am certain I’m not spelling or even pronouncing this right but can’t find any info online about it).  Overall it was totally soothing and awesome, but I was too busy bein’ a dick.  We found a restaurant, sat down and ordered — one mixed seafood plate and a large pizza.  She wouldn’t make me eggs, bacon and toast, despite the fact that there was a “Bacon Egg Lettuce Tomato Sandwich” on the menu, and for a moment I thought about going all Five Easy Pieces on her ass, but hey, veggie pizza sounds good too.  I inexplicably get a beer (stuff is pretty much water here anyway).  45 minutes pass. “Soon”, says the waitress at our perturbed expressions as she asks if we’d like another drink.  We start joking around, “Maybe they have to go catch the fish first!”  “Perhaps they’re getting the pizza from another island?”  Good humored, we are, my mood is improving with the promise of sustenance, despite the delay.  Another 45 minutes pass, during which several tables that arrived after us had come and gone.  It’s no longer funny.  Near the 2 hour mark we get up to leave.
“Where you going?  Pizza is in the oven…”
Oh well shit, if it only took 2 hours to get to the oven I guess I’ll stay!
“How much longer?”
“20 minutes.” (ever work in a pizza kitchen?)

“Umm, no.  Wrong answer.  Bye.”

She comped our drinks (which was honestly pretty nice of her) and we walked.

I was that dude.  Me.  Asshole with a broken stomach and nerves of glass, no semblance of a relationship with the peaceful surroundings, undeserved aire of urgency.  I hate this me.

We walked into the next restaurant we saw, also on the water, a one-man place called Roots. Ty asked how long to get food (generally not a good introduction) and he shrugged with a half-puzzled, half-pissed look on his face: “quick.”  Good enough.  We ordered; in 2 minutes we had drinks, in 3 minutes we had silver and hot sauce, in 4 minutes we had food.  You can probably guess what it was: chicken, rice, beans and salad.  I considered getting seconds.  Oh yeah, the hot sauce was GREAT!  “Where can I buy this!?”, I ask, after we give him cliff notes on our 2-hour wait (“2 hours?  Shit man…”)

“I make it sometimes.  You here a couple days?”
“Nah, just tonight I think…”
He makes a gesture, not even a gesture really, just a mild, squinting facial expression, whilst looking away, with this little click to his lips, that says all it needs to.  I start scheming for a way to get him to sell me a bottle, even half a bottle.  I walk up to pay.
“Can I buy a bottle of this?”  There are maybe 6-8 mostly full bottles behind him, they’re so close, I can almost reach them…
“I no have no more.”
“I’ll give you $5.  Even for a half bottle.”  (the meal was $4)
“I say I no have no more” is what his mouth said, but his eyes said “What the fuck is wrong with you?  It’s hot sauce.  Get over it.”
a swing and a miss… I’m batting .000 on this whole hot-sauce thing, and while it’s not like it’s, ya know, important… well, I don’t like admitting defeat.  When I’m working on a bike or a car or a computer or a faucet or whatever, defeat is unacceptable.  Not gonna happen.  I will wrestle your bike for a day to get that fucking bottom bracket out.  I’ll fight your computer for 15 hours, after quoting you $20, out of principle.  I have spent literally days working out the 6 corroded, half-stripped reverse-torx headed bolts that connect an E36’s drive shaft to it’s differential (it was worth it).  I once owned a ’68 Rambler, and that shit will teach you the limits of not giving up — it was a good hour or so a day to keep that god-awful 232 running.  I ain’t about to lose to a damn thing.  I think it might be a matter of principle seeping into desire…  oh, the agony of not getting any hot sauce!
We found a place to stay, on the water, in a guesthouse run by a man named “the Jaguar” — a totally great character with a smile seemingly permanently mounted to his jaw.  He was alot of fun — a little while after arriving, he said “I’ll play you a song!” and went and fetched his keyboard and amp.  After warming up for a bit, he disappeared for a second, returned with a nail and a rock, and pounded it in to the deck below his table so that it protruded about 5 inches.  This puzzled me, until he grabbed some PVC piping and a 90 degree elbow, and fashioned himself a mic stand through a hole in the table, ‘anchoring’ itself on the nail, with a gateway for the mic cable crudely cut into the top section.  Such ingenuity!  I guess I would have been more impressed with bamboo and bike spokes (you can do ANYTHING with a spoke) but it was pretty nifty nonetheless…
He started to play.  The song was an original Jaguar, and as far as I can tell, it was about finding a woman to bear his mother a grandchild.  I can’t explain why — maybe it was just the contrast to the music on Bocas — but it was just fuckin’ great.  At least, until the power went out on the whole island, cutting the song a bit short.  “A Capella!  A Capella!” yelled Ellie… but he wasn’t going for it.  He explained that he wrote it for his brother.  “He no have no wife”, he said.  So, it’s a first-person narrative written third-person then convincingly sung first-person.  Makes sense I guess.
We spent the rest of the day chilling.  Played some rummy 500, drank some Old Milwaukee out of ironic novelty (hey look, I’m a hipster! LOOKATMEDAMNIT!) and smoked too many cigs.  Then crashed early for the next day of traversing the region: the goal was Bastimentos -> water taxi to Isla Colón -> water taxi to Almirante -> taxi to Changuinola -> bus to the boarder -> hop back on bus in Sixola -> 6 hour bus to San Jose… and that was day one of two…

keep on keepin’ on, and don’t be a dick about it….


dip, dip, dive
clean out ya ears 
open ya eyes
~MC Quincy, as transcribed by the RZA

Hola de Bocas del Toros,

Things I see as I sit on this terrace, overlooking Carnivale on Isla Colon in Bocas:  smiles.   bikes of various styles, mostly with flashy rattle-can paint jobs and home-made racks or surfboard carriers hanging off the back or side. bald tires.  street food that is unconditionally delicious, sold by cart or bicycle: meat on a stick.  empanadas.  milensa pollo sandwiches.  2 year old kids who can dance better than most white people.  skateboards.  lots of beautiful, happy people.  braids, dreads, naps, fades.  speakers and PAs cranked so loud that the amps fade and crackle on the peaks (this is the normal volume setting here, no matter the crowd or music played).  a big-rig tanker, with ‘INFLAMABLE’ painted on every side of the tank, spraying a crowd of 70 or so dancing people with (what I hope is) water.  hips, ohgodlookatallthehips!  talking, laughing, dancing, drinking, eating.  the occasional cat-call, sometimes though the PA.  convenience stores with stacks, huge stacks as tall as me, of cases of beer, and Red Bull, and fifths of booze vac-sealed with quarts of juice, half-obstructing every single aisle.  whole families, little kids wrastlin’ on the grass, lots of kids overall.  smiles.
From what I’ve gathered from the locals (so friendly, and patient with communication), there’s a Carnivale in four or five cities in Panama (the biggest being Panama City, of course) but this one is a destination for alot of the Northern Panamanians  because… well, it’s on an island (a bit of a party island anyway), and it’s pretty cheap to get to.  I guess in East Madison we’re quite spoiled; we get a block party pretty much every two weeks for the whole summer… you can tell it’s pretty condensed into Carnivale; it lasts 5 days or so, and hoy es Sabado — the main event…. the music on the street went till 2am or so last night (try THAT shit in Madison) and started back up around 10am… but the clubs rocked till 6am.  I got up with the music (our hotel is about 110 yards from the main stage — guess which way the speakers are pointed?) and right now it’s 4:03pm, and the crowd is really getting going.  The stage mixes back and forth, from live Mambo, Caribbean and Roots bands, to these DJs who must have either ADD or good drugs, ’cause there’s a cut every minute or two, and nothing is under 120bpm.  It’s pretty fun.  It’s nowhere near Rio, or even other cities in Panama, but it’s got a good vibe….
Maybe the most foreign thing about being down in all this is that it’s not really foreign at all…

heads bumpin’ back, thinkin’ bout shit; yeah I like it…..
Every place on the water here (bars, clubs, hotels, everything) in literally ON the water — constructed on stilts, or maybe even just floating there.  You’ll look down while taking a shower in your hostel and realize that you can see the damn ocean though the drain… which is a hell of a lot more ocean than I’m used to seeing through my shower’s drain, so maybe the novelty just hasn’t worn off yet.  There’s a bar we were at last night till 3am or so called Barco Hundido (a bit of a play on words) where as you walk in, you cross a series of bridges and paths to the main bar area, which is built on a solid platform over the water.  That then opens up to a little ‘lagoon’ in the water where there’s a sunken ship.  More pier-like structures and raft-type platforms link around the ship and a ways past it to make a seating area.  I dunno if this is even legal in the US, but it is SO frickin’ cool…. by the end of the platforms, you’re a good 40 or so feet off the shore, and it’s lit thoughtfully enough that you can see alot of fish and such (a sweet sign in the lagoon part reads: “SWIM at your OWN RISK!  everything CUT you!”)
The zoning laws are probably pretty great here… we were chatting with a bar/restaurant owner yesterday who said he got the lot we were standing on “because no one wanted it; they thought it was too small.  I could only build to here,” and he slaps his hand on the bar in front of me (I’m sitting on the front porch, which is about as big as the bar itself) “but I figured I could build a porch to the street, and shit, most people sit on the porch anyway.”  I gave him a somewhat puzzled look; like, isn’t the porch technically “building”?  Or part of the building?  He smiled and nodded with a sort of half-shake to his head… George has a PhD and worked for years for the Smithsonian, doing archeological research around Central America (born in Calgary, did his post-doctorate at KU Lawrence).  He was wearing a dirty apron and a GnR bandanna, and during our chat he was re-summoned to the kitchen to cook hamburgers and falafel.  He seemed really happy.  A few minutes later he ran back to where I was sitting and reached under the bar in front of me.  “Forgot my beer!”  Then he ran back to the kitchen, cerveza en mano.  
I could write whole essays on how what I’ve seen in other countries makes me laugh and cry with the kind of regulation and bullshit small business owners go though in the states… although it probably belongs nowhere near this particular transmission.  You know what that meat-on-a-stick guy does with my $1.50?  He feeds his family.  Maybe puts some of it away.  Or to put it even less eloquently than I would, as Ray Smuckles once said, People want to eat some fuckin’ dinner and have some fuckin’ money! What the fuck do you THINK gettin’ up in the morning is all about?
Oh yeah, George made a really good plate of falafel.
hasta luego…


Hola amigos,

I know it’s been quite a while since I’ve rapped at ya, or written a travel letter or even anything of merit and interest… but here we are.
Two years since I’ve left North America, since I’ve been able to afford to travel (save yer pennies, kids — it pays), since the last journey (I did spend a weekend in Vancouver, which taught me that you should never, ever go somewhere that awesome for just a weekend).  Time seems to pass faster and faster all the time; comfort, friends, and the joy of labor sooth me over quite effectively — my purpose in those two years was to work, stack paper, push, build, move, plan, plot, scheme, and just be… home.  Home is… community, and support, and family, and work, and fun, and A-bars on the lake (or the bike path behind Mickies), and late-night bike rides, and first-name-basis, and all the rad bros and sisters I have the pleasure of calling my friends and family.  Home is good.
But I’m hungry — constantly hungry.  Hearing the tales of others, sometimes just vacations, sometimes journeys, sometimes epic, inconceivable ventures (Charlie Brigham’s bike tour is particularly inspiring) makes me want to run, buy that one-way, and struggle, and relax, ebb and flow, savor it all, all of it, suck the marrow out of the bones of it all…
Sometimes, it takes baby-steps.  Indecisiveness is a harsh mistress, and one of my worst traits… arguments and counter-arguments can run my head asunder, and commitment is not a value I take lightly (see: college transcript).  I’ve been in a damn whirlwind of indecision since winter… back to Asia?  Nepal, Tibet and India?  Australia/NZ?  Epic road-trip through NA?  Bike?  Feet?  One-way?  Round-trip?  Bros?  Solo?  I suck at making decisions.  Luckily, winter in Wisconsin is also a harsh mistress, full of snow (which I love) and unemployment (which I hate) and cold (meh).  Baby-steps…  What’s that, Ace?  you need to move to Arkansas next week?  I’m in.  AND you wanna buy me a plane ticket to California?  Sweet!  I love Cali!  What’s that, Ellie and Ty?  You wanna go to Costa Rica for a while?  10 days?  No, I don’t think that’s enough time.  Better do a month — we’ll make it a thing.  A THING, for chrissakes!  Yes.  Let’s do a thing…
Costa Rica.  Heard alot about it.  Hablo muy poco espanol… no matter.  Now that I’ve been here for a week, I see that, like SE Asia, you really just need to pack your brain.  You could get by here with zero Spanish, but it sure helps.  I find myself learning the same 100 or so words wherever I go, and damn, compared to Mandarin, Spanish is frickin’ easy (not to claim that I actually retained 100 words of Mandarin… but that’s another problem altogether).  Sometimes I just sound like Peggy Hill.  It’s okay.
Obviously, it’s totally beautiful here (although I’ll spare you the self-indulgent descriptions of 80 degrees and black-sand beaches — I always kind of hate it when travel emails/blogs turn into the whole “EVERYTHING’S GREAT LIFE IS PERFECT YOU CAN’T BELIEVE HOW MUCH FUN WE’RE HAVING” vibe for the sake of itself).  We spent a week cruising the Caribbean side, down through Cahuita and Puerto Viejo, both small-ish beach towns.  Tourism is pretty huge here, and it kind of brings me back to whole “vacation vs. journey” internal struggle… it’s kind of hard to feel like a “real” traveler when you’re taking the tourist routes through the tourist towns, seeing the same folk along the way.  It’s a little intensified by the size of the place; the whole country is basically the width of Milwaukee to Dodgeville or so, and especially with my Spanish being so pathetic, it’s a bit harder to get off the beaten track.  Still, like anything else, you get back what you put in, and if you put in negativity and feelings of manufactured landscapes, manufactured experiences… well, you see where I’m going with this.  Sometimes ya just gotta shut the fuck up, quit thinking so much, go jump in the ocean, and…. smile.  It’s great to see the world, even if it’s through soft-focus, as a tourist, just some random gringo…
Is it epic?  Not really…. but it’s a start, and I’ll be damned if it ain’t gorgeous and friendly.  And it fuels my hunger more than quenching it; talking with others in hostels who’ve traveled to places I’ve not yet been puts a lot of notes in my notebook and a glazed, lusty look in my eye.  Still, I’ve been sending out several resumes every week (writing cover letters on the beach: totally the way to job hunt) thus truly completing the circle of indecisiveness… I’ll admit it; I really miss working.  Maybe I’ll get lucky and stumble across something like
WANTED: somewhat witty, well-spoken traveler with a strong head, good personality and at least some tolerance for Europeans to write embarrassing stories, parables and anecdotes of no redeeming academic merit, and non-important, esoteric observations and opinions, for no reason whatsoever but to amuse his friends and the general public.  Ability to drink a massive amount (without negative mental recourse) a plus — the acerbic, sarcastic cynicism and writing mannerisms that accompany it are important, not to mention it’s social value as a catalyst for fun/trouble.  Must be able and willing to get into shifty and troublesome situations simply for the sake of it (see previous sentence); typing skills helpful but not required.  Tall lanky guys will be given preferential treatment due to their ability to amuse the locals by not fitting on/in anything and constantly hitting their heads on shit.  Must be able to make a decent plate of Bolognase & garlic bread for under $3 per plate using the worst-equipped kitchen imaginable and ingredients of questionable quality and origin.  Ability to assess the human condition, or anything else serious, in only a vague, pedantic style of writing also not an issue — our readers prefer to hear about things like your weird affinity for shiny rayon shirts, maybe some stuff about boobs.  Meager travel stipend and beer allowance; zero growth potential.
“Operator, get me the head-guy at the New York Times.  His name?  oh I dunno… probably like ‘Charles Robert Hughes IV’ or something… hello?  Operator?” 
eh.  a guy can dream…
More soon, from Panama…

last call

Posted: March 28, 2008 in Uncategorized

Hello all,

It’s been some time since I rapped atcha, but as I am now sitting at Incheon airport in Seoul with an 8.5 hour layover (grrrr) I’ve finally got a damn second in this world to spill some true facts on the last 3 weeks. I’ve condensed some stuff, to say the least… hey, what can I say — it’s hard to sit down sometimes.

After escaping Vietnam and Dengue fever (no, it wasn’t the clap — I swear), I made my way into Laos with a new friend. The decision to head north or south was to be decided over BeerLao whenever we got into the Savannakhet bus station, and we eventually concluded to bite the bullet and head north (backtracking ahoy!)

26 consecutive hours of 3 bus rides later (the horror… the horror…) we arrived in Vang Vieng. I had been warned/waxed on this place by many a backpacker, some claiming it was their favorite spot in Laos, but most saying it was just a tourist trap for drunk adolescents of all ages.

It’s both.

Basically, the town has developed to tourism at a much different pace and atmosphere than the rest of the country (much of which is not really developed at all in terms of tourism, at least compared to Vietnam or Thailand). In a country where there’s (technically) an 11:30pm curfew, somehow all the right people got (get?) paid in Vang Vien and every place is open all night. Most of the main streets are littered with bars, shitty bars, bars that play — get this — non-stop re-runs of ‘Friends’… it’s as if some douchebag showed up with the DVD box set 10 years ago, and somehow it spread around like the plague. I never watched it when it was on TV, and it sure looks about as awful now as it did then. Some bars show other juvenile television programming like The Simpsons or Family Guy (which, to be fair, are shows I kinda like, or at least tolerate) but the principal is the same: you came halfway across the world, to the jewel of SE Asia, you’re surrounded by scenery unmatched and unmolested, and you’re gonna sit in a bar and watch TV? Madness…

Luckily, Vang Vien has alot more going on, and if you just stay off the main streets and stick to the great outdoors, it’s a marvelous place. After 26 hours on buses, you don’t really feel like doing jack shit, and this place has the perfect remedy — tubing down the river. Of course, this particular river has a bar about every 7.5 feet, and instead of TVs, they have rope swings into the river. This, admittedly, is awesome. Perfect pace for a lazy day; drinkin’, swingin’ into the river, floatin’, drinkin’ some more… it was pretty lovely. The following days were filled with rock climbing, biking, caving, kayaking, smokin’ out of papaya branches and bamboo twigs ’cause we’re running out of papers, a bit more drinking, and generally getting tanlines in the oddest of places.

Time was a factor, however, so after a few days we headed north to Luang Prabang. This particular city has a very interesting history (actually, all of Lao has a pretty fascinating history to it), as it was a base for the French in the mid to late 1800s while they were offering mafia-style protection to Lao from the Chinese. It’s a really beautiful place, and the people are quite lovely… after a few days, we went trekking into the mountains, which was both shocking and shockingly beautiful. In the smallest of villages, mostly Hmong and Kammu, the vibe is quite different from anything else I’ve experienced on this trip… there are kids, so many kids. These are some very tribal places and public education is just starting to reach them (and when I say “reach”, I mean a kid might have to hike for 2 hours to another village where there’s a 1-hut schoolhouse), and things like running water (and irrigation), electricity (one village had a generator) and concrete are pretty new concepts as well. They’ll marry off at 15 or so, so by the time they’re 24 they’ve got like 6 kids per couple… I mean, one village we stayed overnight in (in the chief’s house, no less) has 72 families but almost 300 people… all kids. They’re plenty of fun, and some of them showed me a game that’s kind of like a hybrid of hackey-sack and volleyball, played with a wicker-like hollow ball about the size of a cantaloupe. The isolation of it all is pretty intense tho… it’s so immersing that you feel like you walked into a time machine or something… but it was a most welcome diversion to the city-hopping I got a little too stuck to.

After the trek (and some nifty kayaking down the Nam Kong), we resorted to a bus to get back to Vientiane. This particular ride was standard fare on the ridiculously uncomfortable accommodation and lack of legroom, but every other aspect of it was just top-notch godawfull… see, in Laos, the buses are never full (sort of like the subway in Beijing), so they just… keep… selling… tickets. No more seats? Oh, we’ll just put some stools in the aisle. No more people can fit in the aisle because they’re packed in knees-to-back like some kind of twisted sardine can orgy? No problem; we can get 5 or 6 or 10 more to just stand at the front! It gets a bit tight, to say the least… Okay, I can deal with that, but no, we had to have the one bus with a working tape deck and the one bus driver sadistic enough to use it with reckless abandon, irregardless of his passengers’ ears (and sleep — did I mention it was a night bus?). It’d be 2:00am, and he’d stop for a piss break, and we’d get back on… just enough time to start dozing off… back to precious unconsciousness… and then… BAM! The Laoatian Jimmy Buffet, full fucking blast… at some point after this, the stereo seemed to be dying, or at least cracking, popping and hissing a lot, and a surge of relief swept over me when it went quiet at 2:40 or so. We made it to 4:30am before he figured out the problem and then it was back to the deafening scraw… there were also multi colored disco lights on the ceiling that he’d be sure to flip on at random intervals, y’know, just to keep us on our toes. I was a tad on-edge by the time we got off (at 6am), to say the least. To recover, we found a health club/spa that let us use their showers, then got Lao massages for 2 hours — which are, as Ace told me before I came here, “totally worth the $3”. The boarder crossing into Thailand was relatively uneventful, save for the chance to polish off the bottle of Powers I’ve been lugging around for 3 months (I’ve now managed to sip Powers in 7 countries — just 190 or so to go). God bless Irish whisky…

Bangkok is sort of hard to describe. It’s like, you hear all this stuff about how it’s the most unabashedly raunchy place on earth (which is half-true) but then you show up and there are a bunch of tourists with kids milling about Patpong road and such among all the ping-pong shows and ladyboy bars… sort of puts you off your equilibrium for a second. Thai people are incredibly friendly, though… Had some great conversations with random folk on the streets and such, and these are some seriously happy people — again, it’s hard to describe; they’re just plain so fuckin’ happy. Honestly, the worst vibe comes from (once again) all the goddamn Europeans… which I’ve noticed (as of late) seem to be travelling mostly in pairs or in small packs, sort of like sith lords (coincidence?  I think not). The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is mind-numbingly awesome, though — gotta check that out if you go there.

It’s after much consideration and with mixed feelings that, after 3 short months, I’m coming home… yes, it’s back to the states for wine and roses at my brother’s wedding (I tried to get him to do leisure suits instead of tuxedos — no dice) and to start plotting and scheming the next journey.

Anyway, now I just want to come back. See some new stuff — southern China, Nepal, India, Malaysia, maybe the Philippines…

…and I’m pretty sure I need to bring a bicycle. Screw these buses…

some pics:

up in the clouds on the bike from Dalat to Nha Trang

the sunset over Vang Vieng

life on the Nam Kong

a dish of questionable intent on a menu in Luang Prabang

and a bad joke: an Aussie, a Brit, a German, a Vietnamese guy and three yanks walk onto a boat… but why isn’t the Vietnamese guy smiling? I gave him a beer and everything…

…and one of Jason fuckin’ around with a statue in Hue

What’s up team,

I  am now in a town in the central highlands of VN called Dalat. I am tempted to stay here forever, as it is a) unbelievably beautiful (think the Alps, but in VN) b) incredibly temperate and amazingly un-polluted (best air I’ve ever inhaled and basically perpetual spring — no kidding) and c) there is tons to do here. I spent 7 hours yesterday hiking through Tiger Falls park, and there’s a plethora of mountain biking, climbing, canyoning, and anything else you can think of… it’s like heaven for the outdoors. I’m looking for work…

This is a pattern I’ve been running into: staying in places (much) longer than I intended to. This started out as a 5-country trip; it’s quickly becoming a 2.5 country journey. Not that I mind — I’ve already told myself I don’t want to rush through places, spending a quarter of my time on buses and trains, making arrangements, etc — I just want to enjoy each place I visit until I’m ready to move on. I guess what it comes down to is whether you want to see everything, or just see ‘everything’.  Once again, I have magical timing (and horrible time management — but that’s another story).

On to the bane of south-east Asia: The ubiquitous cockroach and the ever-present stream of Europeans. It’s may seem odd that I’d group these together, but there is a reason, my friends: both can be avoided, and managed, despite their ability to creep into every hotel/restaurant/city I’ve managed to make it to. First, the European… while I’m usually not one to make generalizations, it seems most EU citizens truly are at the center of their own universe. I’ve met a plethora of very nice Czechs, Germans, Dutchmen, Danes, English, Swedes, one very nice Serbian and even a polite Frenchman or two, but by the by, they are the rudest, least considerate people I’ve ever met. I’ve seen with my own eyes, on three different occasions, French people rudely arguing down the room rate at various hostels and hotels with trivial amounts of money involved. The first occasion was back in Beijing, when a Frenchman (who was quite rude to me when I tried to strike up earnest conversation — this was afterwards) went into his room (the rooms here were very nice and 50 RMB per night — that’s $6.90 and about 4.67 EUR) and came back to the counter, claiming his bed wasn’t soft enough or some damn thing, and demanded his room to be 45 RMB instead. 5 RMB is .46 EUR. You have to be kidding me… this dude has the most powerful super-currency on earth and he’s bitching about .46 EUR? This has to be a joke…

But then I got to Hanoi, checked into a decent place called “Cafe Real Darling” (it did not live up to its name, unless real darling’s have paint peeling off their skin, flickering eyes and leaky plumbing) and sure enough — the EXACT same thing. The room rate here was 140,000 VND ($9) for a double-double or 70,000 VND for dorm-style hostel action. Again, a group of 4 french folks were arguing –quite rudely– that the double-double room was only worth 110,000 VND per night. 30,000 VND is, in fact, 1.24 EUR. These people must be pumped from their 32 hour work week, because they clearly have no end of energy to complain about the cost of half a baguette in a land where 47% of the GDP is tourism… God forbid 1.24 of your precious currency should wind up in the hands of people who actually fucking work for a living. Argh! This makes me so pissed off… in the words of Monty Burns (whilst offering coffee to his lawyers), “Black, right, to go with your hearts!?! Oh, I hate you all so much!”

This is, of course, not generalized — it’s just a trend I see WAY too often. There are many exceptions, and as I type this, I’m sitting next to a very nice Frenchman named Raoul who I keep running into at cafes and drinking wine with. So… I guess there are just assholes everywhere. Go figure.

These people work for a living. Most work 7 days a week. Of the waitresses that I’ve talked to, the average salary seems to be in the neighborhood of 800,000 VND per month, or about $50. I tip everywhere, but no one else seems to… and this really breaks my heart. The separation of wealth is very real here, and when you order a beer, you can be sure that almost none of that money is going into the pockets of the staff. So… what the hell? I’ve got super-currency too (even though it’s getting less ‘super’ by the day) and I usually tip at least a buck on general principle, sometimes much more if I’m there for a couple of hours. Other tourists get a very confused look on their faces when I do this… “you don’t have to tip here, you know” is generally the verbal response.  “but… I… am….”  It’s what separates us from the animals, I guess…

Speaking of animals, about these cockroaches I’ve been seeing and bunking with: they are plentiful, they are everywhere, and they outnumber us a great deal. Back in Hanoi, Una told me her theory:

“Cockroaches really used to bother me… but then I realized I don’t have to kill them. Now they don’t really bother me anymore…”

Huh. This had never occurred to me. I don’t have to kill them? Really? I chewed on this for a while, but I never really had to deal with many of them until I got to Saigon, where its perpetual summer, and roaches and rats pretty much run the city at night. The rats are comically huge — like the size of a large house cat — but they are quite nimble and the sheer number of them is almost hard to grasp. The cockroaches, in a similar vein, are the biggest, fastest, smartest things I’ve ever seen in my life. One night I awoke to find one in my bed, and sure enough, it was a good 3″ or 4″ long — I mean, I’ve never even seen something like this. I did, in fact, scream like a little girl and leap up onto my feet. I thought about Una’s word for a good half second or so, but believe me — I HAD to kill this thing, there was just no road to a peace accord between us. You have crossed a line, cockroach — specifically, the door to room 208 of 248 D De Tham Street. I have never seen something this large move so fast; it covered 10 feet in 3.5 seconds, no problem. I’m throwing books and bottles of water and anything I can get my hands on, and eventually I nail the fucker with my copy of ‘Mr Nice – the autobiography of Howard Marks’ (which is pretty good, by the way). Sweet victory…

I vaguely recall a running theme in a comic book I used to read ‘Jonny the Homicidal Maniac’, where the main character (he’s a homicidal maniac — duh) is convinced that the cockroach in his house (affectionately named Mr Samsa) keeps coming back to life after he kills it, over and over.

“…like this bug! I keep killing it, and it keeps coming back!”
“Don’t you think there might be more than one cockroach in this house?”
“What? Don’t be silly. I’m sorry, Mr Samsa, but I’m afraid I must kill you again…” [squishes bug]

I’m sorry, Mr Samsa.

More tales soon; gotta go ride some trails now (the bikes actually aren’t that bad here)…



some pics:

a cool statue (everybody has to strike a pose sometimes)

a woman getting stuck in a sniper hole at the Cu Chi tunnels (a huge network that allowed the VC to pass directly underneath all 4 US bases outside of Saigon) and some reactions…

fishing territory in Mui Ne

and a wonderful day hiking outside Dalat

Hola amigos,

When I last rapped at ya, I had left the glorious motherland of Red China destined for a much greener communist locale — Vietnam.  Things are, to say the least, much easier here; the people are shockingly friendly, as I’m sure the following tale will illustrate well… overall, it feels like the polar opposite of China in terms of atmosphere (both for this White Devil and otherwise).  Oh yeah — it’s warm here. Yay.

I guess I need to rave about the food first — it’s just freaking awesome.  Aside from the restaurants, street competition is alive and well.  It’s commonplace to see a woman with a “scale of justice” on her shoulder, containing a pot of broth, noodles, meat, veggies, cookware/dishes, and even plastic stools and tables.  They walk around with their whole livelihood on their shoulder…  You just flag em’ down if you’re hungry.  Other people have more “rooted” operations, set up on the sidewalk with with same accouterments — almost like a rogue restaurant — and sometimes being open 24 hours a day.  This is how to eat cheap; a bowl of Pho will run you about 15,000 dong (90 cents or so) and I’m talkin’ about a serious bowl here, not some dinky thing you give cereal to a 6 year old in.  Also awesome is the fact that there are, naturally, no menus at these places; there would only be one thing on them anyway.  Even lots of “established” restaurants (read: storefront) are the same way — you’ll say “Ga” (chicken) and they’ll just respond, very matter-of-factly, “Bo” (beef).  This, apparently, is not negotiable.  It also varies day to day, even at the same places.  You do, however, get a humorous response from asking for a menu (a chuckle, then one of the flavors mentioned above).  Of course, this isn’t the only thing to eat here, and –miracle of miracles– bacon and eggs is on every breakfast menu (at the restaurants that have them) including a baguette (a damn good baguette, actually).  I generally consume what I can only assume is around 8,000 calories a day or so…

Oh yeah, I’ve got a partner in crime for a week or so, Beijing Bill’s roommate Una.  She’s Serbian and has been working on her masters in linguistics in Beijing for 2 years, with another two and a half to go (she speaks 5 or so languages).  At long last, there’s someone far more advanced in language than I who’s linguistically equally useless here (none of those 5 are Vietnamese).  She mentioned she wanted to see Vietnam on her break, and I replied “well, I’m headed that way” (“that way” being “South”).  It’ll be nice to travel with someone else for abit…

Anywho, we came into Hanoi, promptly saw the sights there, and decided it was still too cold.  So we hit up the first (of what I’m sure are to be many, for me anyway) “Hell Bus” to Hue — 12 hours or so with some other guy’s seat dug into your knees is truly lovely.

Hue is a beautiful place, despite the tons of bombs we managed to drop on it for a decade (it is the most bombed city in VN).  Una and I each took a “me day” and I rented out a motorbike… for which you need absolutely no credentials at all.  I was expecting paper, maybe even an explanation of use of some kind.  This was not the case; she simply asked me where I was staying (I didn’t even have to pronounce it — I just pointed in the direction of my hotel.. she nodded), took my 50,000 dong and handed me an iridescent pink helmet and a key.  I looked at the helmet for a second and looked back at her.  Ear to ear… clearly, she hand-picked this one just for me.  I nodded and smiled.

So I hop on, armed with yet another mediocre map (only major roads listed) and a compass I picked up in Beijing for 5 Kuai.  I then proceed to acquaint myself with this infernal machine; it’s not really a “motorbike” so much as a 4-speed, clutch-less scooter designed for those who are 4’5″ to 5’8″, which of course I look/feel quite silly on, pink helmet notwithstanding.  It’s very uncomfortable, but by sitting on the “back seat” of the thing, arms stretched like I’m on some silly little kids chopper, I get the hang of it pretty quick (no pun intended).

After having my primary transportation be my legs for the last month, I have a serious problem adjusting to just how much ground I’m covering on this thing.  I wouldn’t call it “fast” per se, but with 4 speeds, it gets going, and hits 40-50 Kmph pretty quick.  This, admittedly, is outrageously fun, and I totally forget about any so-called destinations I had in my head — I just ride around, taking random turns at wherever the hell I feel like, rain pelting me, up-shifting, swerving, and generally being Vietnam’s answer to Hells Angels.  50cc’s of pure rock fury growl under me; I suddenly wish this thing had a stereo or a tape deck or ANYTHING I use to play some fuckin’ Eddie Van Halen or GnR on.  Hue is just not big enough for me and this feeling…

…so I got lost.  Utterly, completely lost in these gravel, pothole-ridden farm streets — I mean, retracing my turns is completely unthinkable, partly because of my ignorance for my surroundings, and partly because the streets here were, seemingly, built long before anyone had a working compass or cared whether they were the least bit straight (none, I mean NONE of them go in a straight line).  The term “grid” will never exist here.  So I keep riding…

I cannot describe the look on peoples’ faces as I pass them.  It’s not so much astonishment as just pure confusion — who is this man, this man who clearly does not fit on his steed?  Where could he be going?  Why is his helmet so… pink?  this is farmland — clearly not an area where westerners have any business at all.  No one is hostel at all — they’re all smiling amidst their confusion, and I smile back.  I look at a map every time I reach an intersection, but none of the streets are listed… generally not a good sign.

But before I can realize any real conclusions, I’ve come to an intersection where 3 Vietnamese guys yell out “HALLOO!” from an odd concrete structure, like a half-finished veranda.  Shit, maybe THEY know where I am, huh?  So I hop off the bike and walk on up.  They’re all smiling, smiling confusion just like everyone else.  I’m not really that shy, but I have no clue, not the slightest idea where I am.  I produce a pack of 555s and light one up, then offer them each one.  They accept.  We smile.  Of course, none of them speak any English at all.  I whip the map out and sort of motion towards the intersection in front of us, then back at the map, with a sort of “where the fuck am I” look on my face.  All three furrow their brows and glance intently at the map for some time.  They all reach the same conclusion; their shrugs can only tell me one thing.  I’m not on the map at all…

Of course, they mutter to each other this whole time… I sigh.  The little guy grabs a chair and puts it in front of me, pointing.  I wave my hand, figuring I’ll finish the cig and start moving.  This does not fly with them.  They all point now, smiling… I have a seat.  Laughing, then more smiles and conversation I will never possibly comprehend.

One brought out some food, and set it on the card table in front of us.  A salad of some kind, with several ingredients I’d never seen before, and a stew that I cannot identify the main ingredient to (looked like jello, tasted like meat… meat jello? not bad…).  This was accompanied by a bowl of reddish oil, so hot that it was very good at removing nose hair via your sinuses.  Good stuff.  Another grabbed several packs of cigarettes and a tiny glass — smaller than a shot glass, probably less than an ounce.  I think I see where this is going…

The third one, a heavyset man with a broad face, broad shoulders… a broad man, I suppose, produced a clear plastic bottle of clear liquid.  No label.  He pointed to it and smiled so big I thought he was going to tear his jaw.  We all laughed, then more smiles.  During this time, several others had come to join us, I’m guessing all around the same age (23-25 or so) except for one older man, mid-forties perhaps, who never smiles but seems happy with my presence just the same.  Now there are 6 people sitting around the table, all smiling broadly (minus the older man), like they know what’s coming.  A pair of sticks get shoved into my hand.  “Eat”, says the broad one, and points to the food.  The shot glass is filled and passed to me.  It’s basically moonshine, derived from what I assume is rice.  I really love how things here are “same-same” but different over here; the Japanese ferment rice and get sake, the Chinese distill rice and get baijiu (practically paint-thinner) and the Vietnamese do… something else?  This shit is strong, stronger that baijiu but tastes better, and the one shot glass floats around the table counter-clockwise until the bottle is cashed, which happens surprisingly fast considering the size of the glass.  A small wave of relief washes over me… but about 15 seconds later, another bottle is produced.  More smiles.  One points around the corner into another room.  I glance around, and see an entire rack of bottles; maybe 10 or 15.  Good lord, see me through this…

One man who has shown up at the table speaks a few phrases of English and we begin the process of (albeit quite base) exchanging information: age, professions, family orientation, etc is learned and told.  More food arrives; dried squid and cured fish.  It’s delicious.  Another bottle passes around and is emptied.  I stay for several hours, just hanging out, communicating as best I can.  I roll them cigarettes from my last pouch of Bali Shag, which they seem to enjoy immensely.  At one point, money is changing hands between those at the table.  I figure it’s a beer run or something, and pull some dough out of my pocket.  This is met by screams of “NO” and the old man literally pushing my right hand, clutching the cash, back to my right leg.  It’s almost as if their offended by the idea of financial compensation; I am their guest.  A bit later, I remember how I got here, and that I must (at some point) get on the bike and make it back to town.  When the shot glass comes around again, I make a “no dice” gesture with my hands, which is met with looks of mass confusion.  I put my hands up and make the “vroom vroom” motion by twisting my right hand as if throttling.  They all go “ahhh” and nod.  The older man pats me on the leg, gives a thumbs up to my decision, and says “eat… eat more”.  I follow instructions well now…

It’s getting on 7pm, and I’m supposed to meet Una for some curry.  I figure it’s best to leave early, given the fact that while the experience is awesome, I’m just as lost as I was when I sat down… although I feel quite confident in situation.  The old man pats me on the leg, and without changing his facial expression one bit (I’ve gotten used to this now — man’s got a serious poker face) says “tomorrow… again”.  These people, this whole family showed my the utmost kindness and respect, refuse my offering of money, and request my presence again.  I can hardly refuse… I mean, I need to feed them some whiskey, after all.  Although, I will have to figure out how to get back to this place.  We shake hands and I roll out, waving goodbye to smiling faces.

Miraculously, I find my way back to a main road the same way I got lost — taking random turns.  Instinct can be an obscure thing.  I make sure to retrace my steps so as to find my way back, and the whole journey from the hotel (given this route) should be no more than 8 minutes on the motorbike.  Perhaps I’ll take a bicycle instead…

I did, in fact, return the next day, and bestowed them some Jim Beam… which is pretty much the best thing you can get here as far as whiskey is concerned.  We had another good time.  They fed me some hot pot on this day ubiquitous throughout Asia, but this is the best hot pot I’ve ever had — the broth is amazing, and the other offerings are second to none.  I have to catch a train to Nha Trang, however, and we must part much sooner than I’d hoped.  We shake hands again, and they make me promise to return as soon as possible.

I’ve made so many friends on this trip, and one thing never really gets any easier: leaving them.  A necessary evil, I suppose.
Ževali, (‘cheers’ in Serbian — it translates literally to “let’s live” which I think is pretty awesome),

The Hue crew — from left to right, Dố, Long, Tuấn, Thấn, Mēo, Huňg.  I didn’t catch the womans name.

Also, some random bowls of pho, and a serious drink available at at bar whose name I can’t recall (go figure).

I shot an arrow in to the sky…

Posted: February 14, 2008 in Uncategorized

…and when I woke up, I was in Hanoi.  More on that soon… but first, some words on international language:

Truly the most widely accepted “international language”, the smile is simple, unwavering, and requires only 17 muscles in your face.  It’s relatively contagious, occurs widely in children, and (at least in Beijing) is a virtual sign of respect… at least to us North American scum.

Car Horns

Spend some time outside of North America, and this language will creep into your head like systemic brain abscess.  Even as I write this, roughly 14 horns are being honked at any given second… and that means it’s a pretty slow day (figures; it’s Tet, after all).  I can use them as a fully functioning clock now; not just as an alarm, but sort of like a sundial — the more honks per second, the closer to noon it’s getting; the louder the horns, the more trucks are out, meaning 2pm-5pm, and so on.  As I don’t own a watch or an alarm clock, this is very useful.  Also, in Asia, the horn is almost artistic — In US cars, all horns are in the key of F.  Here, there are a whole galaxy of uppers, downers, laughers, screamers, ascending and descending sine waves, even songs.  Yesterday in Hanoi, I ever heard “La Cucaracha” (you better believe I audibly gave a little “woo hoo”).


I don’t really need to explain this one, do I?  It’s pretty obvious that anything with hips can communicate just fine between 72-120 BPM…

And my personal favorite:

My last night in Beijing was February 6th… Chinese New Years Eve.  This is mostly a family Holiday, but believe me — these people know how to blow shit up.  In America, the mortar is pretty much the holy grail of fireworks, and rightfully so… but that shit is old hat over here, and basically everyone buys a few bazillion of them (and I mean everyone — after 6pm, it’s 360 degrees of sky-flowers anywhere you go), along with your general variety of powder-filled awesomeness.  M-80s are pretty cool, sure… but I saw some shit here that just dwarfs them completely, things that leave 15″ divots in concrete, set off car alarms 5 blocks away, and have a shock wave you can feel inside the 6th floor of a building — literal half-sticks, I figure.  But that’s just the beginning… the smallest string of firecrackers I saw/heard was a meter-long roll, and they are not shy about lighting them and just tossing them in the street/parking lot/out of a window/on to your feet.  Then it gets to be about 11pm or so, and the 360 degree thing I mentioned just.. keeps… coming…

Around 11:30 or so, we rolled out of Bills house, after a fantastic Atlantic-to-Pacific smorgasbord of delightful food (8 people just formed like voltron and started cooking — the pasta and garlic bread was mine) with plenty of Yanjing /Jim Beam in tow, and hiked over to the lake near Bill’s house, Xi Hai (it’s like Hou Hai’s little cousin).  Here, you get a pretty good view of the second-ring of Beijing or so, without the obstructions of buildings… and the scene is absolutely astounding.  The sky is lit up for two hours — in every direction you look, at any given second, mortars are going off, and going off, and going off…. the atmosphere is amazing.  Someone 5 feet away will light up a 20-tube 40-shot orgasm of fire and sparks; ash and noise rain down like a torrent.  It’s virtually impossible to capture it on film — although I tried as best I could — but it makes the 4th of July look like a pithy little joke, like .005% what it could/should be.  And it’s cheap, too!  In order to meet stringent Chinese Anti-Safety regulations, they’re made in quantity, not quality… so hey, they may go off only 40-50 feet in the air, but no worries, ’cause they’re only 25 cents a mortar and you’ve got plenty more where that came from…

We were standing there chilling and drinking for a couple hours.  You keep thinking “okay, this is the finale — it’s gonna slow down soon”, but that threshold never comes… it just keeps blowing up more and more.  How many mortars did I see?  Thousands for sure… maybe tens of thousands?  A hundred thousand?  It’s hard to say — like I mentioned, it’s 360 degrees and it just keeps coming.  And this isn’t just around the lake, mind you — the whole city, every city is like this (I’m told it’s particularly dense and spectacular in Pingyao — not sure why).  At some point, Bill and I are sliding across the ice, doing “human luge”, and when we get up, I look at my hands — and they’re fucking black.  Not just dirty, but just caked in ash and soot.  The rest of my body is, of course, the same… actually, the rest of the city is like this.  It’s just weird to see ice make you filthy…  That’s Beijing, I suppose…

Even on my flight the next day, flying into Guangzhou, I got to see it all over again — this time from the sky, a sight I’d never seen before.  They look… well, smaller.  But just as amazing; the density of them is really hard to describe…

Vietnam is amazing.  Particularly coming from a grey Beijing, it’s warm, green, lush, there are actually birds in the sky, everyone’s friendly, it’s easy going, no one’s pushing, the language is still a shouting language but the barrier is MUCH easier to cope with, and it’s a bit cheaper.  Welcome to south-east Asia…

But mostly, the people are just amazing… some of the happiest, nicest people I’ve ever met.  My story of getting lost outside Hue (and then found) coming soon…

Pictures —

The crew for dinner

random shots of the crazy hostel driver being crazy — not pictured, the more insane cook who was lighting off M-80s and throwing them at people’s feet from the second story balcony, then laughing hysterically (that guy was rad)

One halfway decent shot from Xi Hai — it’s hard to capture what it looks like without a tripod and way mo’ ISO…

I have magical timing

Posted: February 2, 2008 in Uncategorized


My arrival in Beijing coincided perfectly with the Winter Break/Spring Festival, which centers around Chinese New Year and Christmas (for them, at least — there seems to be some confusion here as to what day Jesus Christ was born).  This means that roughly one-third of the country is on the move, going back home to see family or (in many cases, especially students) migrating to other areas to work for their break.  Combine this with the worst winter China’s ever seen (costing them $4.5 billion and counting), and 40 million people are stranded at train stations and airports across the country.  The result — I can’t get anywhere in this country.  They literally laughed at me when I tried to book a 3-stop ticket, going from Datong to Xi’an and then south to Kunming (where it’s easy to cross a land border into Thailand or Laos).  You really DO NOT want to get stuck in Datong or Xi’an; Datong has some awesome stuff to see, but it’s a major coal mining town, so the air is literally soot (instead of mostly soot, like here in Beijing), and Xi’an is cool, but it’s in the middle of the country, where the worst weather is hitting right now.  So, I’ve just kinda been chilling in Beijing… not that I mind being stuck in the cultural mecca of China at all, just that there’s no way to get anywhere else.

It’s time to move.  I can’t see any more of China right now (at least not without a HUGE headache), so I’m flying into Hanoi on Thursday.  But guess what’s in Vietnam right now?  Oh yeah, that’s right — Tet Holiday.  I’m a destination genius, no?

Anyway, it’s a balmy 57 degrees and raining in Hanoi right now, which is downright sweltering compared to Beijings 15-30 degree action… southward ho!

Yesterday was rather interesting…

Woke up pretty early to check out the art district here, Dashanzi 798.  It’s on the edge of the city and occupies a bunch of vacant (and some not-so-vacant) warehouses.  The entire area is amazingly photogenic; lots of brick, rust, graffiti, etc… and alot of the galleries and studios are amazing.  I shot a few hundred pics before running out of space, then decided to go for a walkabout.  Most of my days here (not spent seeing specific places) I just hop on the subway, get off at a random spot, and walk around… and this is quite the place for walking.  All the neighborhoods are vastly different, from slums to students to (ugh) shopping to financial districts.  On this particular afternoon I wandered around Chaoyang, east-central of the second ring road… which is quite an awesome place, tons of bars, clubs, and art.  Beijing truly is the cultural mecca of China; it’s all too easy to compare it to New York.

Anywho, I wound up hopping the wrong bus to get back home, and got lost somewhere on the south-east side.  I also conveniently lost my map (it was a very good map, I will miss it) and was therefore VERY lost.  One thing you learn while travelling: need something?  Find a concierge.  It took me all of 12 minutes to locate a hotel, and while asking the concierge where I could find some decent sushi (most of the sashimi here is frozen, for some reason) a New Zealand couple (who were clearly out of my tax bracket) explained they knew the area well, and just happened to be going out for sushi themselves.

I can’t recall the name of the place (the Asahi was flowing pretty hard at this point), but DAMN… it was very good fish, to say the least.  Lots of good conversation with the kiwis, mad drinks, etc.  I’ve been living on a shoestring lately (not that it’s that hard here — my average breakfast of street-steamed dumplings is about 40 cents and perfectly adequate), mostly because my first few nights here were a tad over-indulgent — battling jet lag with whisky is expensive no matter where you are.  But I just figured, fuck it — sometimes you’ve just gotta eat $100 worth of fish.  This must’ve been the Kiwi’s motto, because they didn’t blink when the bill was something like 1800 RMB — an absolutely astounding figure here, as some places with amazing decor and trendy names like ‘Paper’ and ‘Salt’ serve gourmet 12-course tasters for about 120RMB.  “Oh, no problem Nich — this one’s on us.”  I guess sometimes you just get lucky and stumble into good situations…

…and then sometimes, you stumble into not-so-good ones.  After dinner, I parted ways with the Kiwis and headed back to my hood (via cab – figured I’d splurge) and get a call from B.  B and company are hanging out at his favorite joint, a Muslim restaurant near his house (to put food into a better perspective, 4 people can eat more than enough delicious food and have several beers there for about 100RMB – $14 or so).  B’s hanging out with his roommate, Una, his assistant (who’s name escapes me but who’s practically his shadow — her monthly salary is significantly less than the sushi bill), and this Ohioan named Mark, who I had met once before. The Yanjing is flowing like water (at 5RMB per 600ml bottle, it’s actually cheaper than water here) and the subject of conversation is generally history, with some economics and politics mixed in with the alcohol.  It’s starting to get onto 2:00 am or so, and B’s gotta teach the next morning, so Mark and I decide to find an all-night bar.  We recruit Una to help in this progress, as neither of us are familiar with the neighborhood, and grab a taxi (Mark is, I believe, a “privileged” guy and therefore not worthy of walking).  After a hilarious cab ride (Mark’s Chinese is excellent and Una doesn’t really know where we’re going — the driver’s lovin’ it), we get out on a main road, supposedly near BedBar, some place I’ve never been to and none of us can find.  Mark passes Una 30RMB or so to get back home with in the taxi, and we start walking.

Thing is, we can’t find this place to save our lives, and it’s getting quite cold.  After we walk trough the 3rd or 4th hutong with no luck, we find some other bar, not really a bar even, just a lounge type hole-in-the-wall, several couches, and oh, they’ve got Jameson (very hard to locate here).  Now the Jameson is flowing, and there are maybe 5 other people in the joint besides us, counting the proprietor.  A very tall Chinese man and his female companion sit down near us, and Mark starts up some conversation.  Apparently, the guy’s a cop.  He seems well enough, we feed him some Jameson, he feeds us some cigarettes.  Several hours pass, and we’re having a good time — Mark and the cop are trying to “help me” with my pronunciations, teaching me a thing or two (which of course, I’ve retained very little of).  Eventually, it’s getting pretty early, and even I’m getting tired — I’m starting to reach the 24-hour mark.  I’m sort of spacing out, Mark’s looking quite inebriated, and I’m pretty sure the cop is trying to sell us his companion for the night, although I’m having trouble making this out.  Exit time, to be sure… Mark walks up to the “bar” (barely even a counter) and it sure seems like he’s paying the bill… in any case, when he walks back, I ask what I owe and his response is “nothin’ dude — I got it”.  He paid for a serious portion at the Muslim restaurant as well, and refused my dough there as well… so I just figure I’m batting .1000 for the day as far as cash is concerned.  However, Mark’s not looking too good… he really seems to want to pass out on the couch, the floor, the upper loft area… and the cop keeps nudging him, getting him upright, and watching him do it again… I mean, it’s happening every 15 seconds or so.  I’m thinking, okay dude — do what you gotta do, it’s like 6:20am, I’m gonna start walking… but the proprietor is blocking the only exit, telling me we haven’t paid yet.  Great.  So I start trying to figure out what half the bill is, fumbling with my cash, when Mark’s like “hey what’s this” and starts climbing some very steep stairs leading to an attic like area (with a door that’s parallel to the ground) marked “keep out” very clearly.  The proprietor and cop are not having this, and the cop follows him up to the attic.

I’m still half-figuring out the bill, half-laughing at Mark’s antics, when a fucking sea of glass starts raining from the ceiling… I’m confused, and people are yelling very loudly.  “Oh fuck”, I think, “we’re really screwed now”… the cop’s companion is starting to look very amused, but she’s alone in laughing.  I think the door to the attic had glass panes or something and got “dropped”, causing the shards to rain down like… well, rain.  But we’re talking a LOT of glass here; it keeps falling for a good 20 seconds or so, almost comically.  Mark stumbles down the stairs, and these people are very, very pissed off — the bill I was just arguing about is clearly peanuts to what they’ll want now, I think to myself.  Mark’s yelling now too, saying very useful things like “fuck that, I didn’t break your glass” and the ever popular “I don’t break glass, man — it’s just not something I do”.  The owner’s asking for 600RMB for the windows (or whatever they were) and Mark’s first response to this is…

“Fuck you guys; I’m calling the cops!”

Ooooh, this is just getting better and better… my eyes are opening wide now, and my exhaustion has turned to fear and unwavering nausea.  Call me a pussy, but I really, really, REALLY don’t want to know what the inside of a Beijing jail cell looks like, and unlike Mark, I can’t say anything in Mandarin that will help this situation (I suppose I could try to order more beers before the cops show up… nah, maybe not).

Mark didn’t have to call the cops; the proprietor was already on the phone before that statement crossed his lips.  My vocabulary lessens dramatically at this point; suddenly, all I can say is “fuck”, “no” and “shit”.  Now the (off duty, drinking with us) cop is standing in front of the door, arms folded, and I suddenly realise just how big this guy is — as tall as me but not the least bit lanky.  No way I’m making a run for it… Eventually, I talk Mark into talking the cop into letting me go, although this takes some time, as for some reason, I actually have to explain to him why it’s simply not a good thing for me to get involved with this particular project of his, and how I really don’t want to be there when the pigs show up (I vaguely recall telling him “mayo guanxi, motherfucker” which loosely translates to “I have no basically dynamic personalized networks of influence, motherfucker”).  I pass him a Red Mao and the cop lets me pass out the door.  People are still yelling, glass is still hitting the floor.

Immediately outside the joint, I am filled with relief — like someones just took a bunch of rocks out of my backpack, like I’ve just had my first nicotine jolt in days, weeks, months, like I just escaped a situation I have no possible control over — I feel quite happy to be… free.  I hop in a taxi and ferry my ass back to the hostel.  My bed feels like the flesh of a thousand concubines; 1.25″ of foam and cheap cotton are suddenly heaven on earth.

I awaken around 3:00 or so, with my eyes red and my skull feeling several sizes too small.  Aspirin.  Water.  Sustenance… I need… things.  I fumble with my phone, remembering I texted B on the cab ride home with something like “Mark just pissed off a bunch of people cops coming I made it out”.  I call Mark, and amazingly, he answers:

“Dude, what happened with that?”
“Oh man, all hell broke loose! They called the fucking cops!”
“uhh yeah man I was there for that… so what happened? What’d you wind up paying?”
“Paying? Oh…. nothing. I didn’t have to pay for shit”
“Wait.. really? What do you mean?”
“Well I just stood my ground and told them the score; I was like ‘I don’t break glass, man, that’s just not how I roll'”

Huh. This is a bit surprising.

He explains that after the cops showed up, they asked him for his name, passport, visa class, and his side of the story (which I’m sure was a VERY interesting depiction) and that somewhere in the bickering, he had to take a piss, so he wandered toward the toilet. Apparently the proprietor just lost it at this point and started screaming something like “NO! NO! NO TOILET FOR AMERICANS!” and Mark just started losing it too, yelling to the cops “YOU SEE THAT? THAT’S BLATANT RACISM, MAN!” and the cops were just not having it… they escort him outside, look around for a minute, and just say, “Go home. Go now.” Mark said he was shocked as anybody; he described his reaction as “Really? Like, this is over?” and the cops just said “Yeah, this is over — we’ll take care of this”.

Wow.  Did not see that coming.  Almost anti-climactic.  I asked him what he was up to tonight.

“Packing, dude.  Vacation.  Phill-up-peeeeeens.”


合理咯 [pronounced ni-hau] from China,

I’ve been here 6 days.  Put simply, Beijing.  Is.  Insane.

I’m now subsiding in a city of roughly 15 million (although that’s the Chinese government’s guess, soooo…) and I can communicate verbally and in a written manner (in at least some sense) with about .025% of them.  The language barrier isn’t a barrier at all; it’s a frickin’ wall… it’s not like Mexico or Italy or France where I can stumble through with broken fragments; I truly have no method of communication other than the 12 or so phrases I’ve picked up, and even then, it’s basically a one-way thing.  Ever try to read a Chinese bus schedule?  No dice.  This is hard, but it’s not what really makes being here difficult… what’s rough is the truly amazing cultural divide that, at it’s core, is completely transparent.  The fact is, the last 3 to 5 generations of people here have pretty much been taught their entire lives that China was/is the center of the universe, and that The West has basically robbed them of their rightful throne, while in the west, we’ve had an equally biased view of China as a whole.  While the implications of this are understandable, the nuances and pure irony of alot of it are easily lost on both cultures… and the divide is enormous.  The “facts” and the propaganda flow on both sides of the Pacific, and ignorance, fear and hate seems to flourish.  I cannot possibly describe the look on peoples faces as I walk down the street; I’m something of a spectacle here anyway because of my height (I’m told, at least) and responses to my presence tend to vary from:

a) Hatred for the White Devil
b)  ADVANCED Hatred for the White Devil
and, occasionally,
c) a smile, then chuckles and conversation I can’t possibly understand (some of the kids yell “HALLOO!” which is pretty rad I guess)


It’s not all like this, though… and that’s the dichotomy that’s hard to grasp unless you’re here.  For every 6,000 people who stare and glare and curse and spit at me (only happened once, but damn), there is one person who will pretty much try their damnedest to move the fucking earth to make my stay here as awesome and inviting as possible.  An excellent example is my plane ride over here (a mere 12 hours and 13 minutes — just enough to get to know someone!), when I was sitting next to a nice lady named Anna who immigrated to the US in 1994 and has since started an exporting company to bring servers, routers, miscellaneous Cisco garb and other networking equipment to China.  I used to sell that stuff wholesale for a living, so we had some good starting ground.  She was going back for business, and upon hearing that I was alone and didn’t speak a damn word of Mandarin, her eyes opened wide… “you’re crazy”, she says.  I shrug and smile (what else can you answer to that?  I mean, I’m already on the fucking plane…)  So she pulls out a pen, and proceeds to write her home phone, cell phone, email, website, business address in Beijing, and business address in SF in my notebook, and says, “When you have trouble, give me a call — this place will be hard for you.  You have friends meeting you at the airport, right?”.  “Kind of”, I replied, explaining that my buddy here, Bill, said he “might meet me at the airport”.

Bill was, in fact, not at the airport when I arrived.  Dude is busy; whatchagonnado.

Then she learned I didn’t really even have a place to stay that night, as I am, in fact, dumb.  So she whips out the cell phone, calls her friend who owns a hostel here (which is,  oddly enough, only a 20 minute walk from Bill’s place, making it convenient as all hell in a town this big), and says “50 a night” to me while on the phone.  I’m like, “50 dollars?” and she replies “No, 50 RMB”.  I do some quick math in my head… shit, that’s like $6.80. Kickin’ rad if you ask me.  Then she casually mentions that “my driver is picking me up from the airport — we’ll drop you off wherever you like”.

Damn.  Woman doesn’t even know me and she’s goin’ all personal assistant on my ass… pretty amazing.  I’m actually hanging out with her and her family later tonight.  There’s talk of duck.  I’m stoked.

While I was packing for this trip, my buddy Ace was over at my place.  We’re chilling in the basement, crumblin’ erb, and I’m rattling off all this “what about this, what about that” shit, as he’s been to SE Asia before and therefore an expert as far as I’m concerned.  Eventually, he just looks up and says, “shit, man, just pack your wits… just bring your brain, and you’ll be fine… some people don’t even bring that, and they’re fine…”.

Each day I’m here, my entire viewpoint shifts a bit; now, I’m just starting to grasp real, actual, interpretive knowledge to chew on.  There is so much to learn here, it boggles the mind… and the best part is (at least while I’m in Beijing) that I can sit down with Bill, an economics major and very intelligent human overall and have 4 hour conversations going over what I’m finally starting to see…  I’ll barely be able to scratch the surface.

My whole plan seems… off.  I was originally planning on taking trains south through Datong and into Xi’an (spending no more than 20 days in China altogether), then flying into Vientiane or Bangkok airport, sitting on the beach where it’s 85 degrees and sipping Singapore Slings for 90 cents.  While this is still technically on the agenda… what the hell am I gonna learn there?  I mean, I know I can see the sights and absorb the culture somewhat and meet the locals and (miracle of miracles!) even communicate with them (more) easily… but this place is insane, it’s changing, and it’s all happening right now.

The air here is basically soot, the overcrowding is insane, the food is cheap and generally delicious but pretty homogeneous, most people who act nice are just trying to cheat and scam you, I can’t talk to anyone, none of the bookstores I’ve stumbled across yet have English sections, the best whisky here is Jack or Beam (and even that is usually fake or watered down), the cigarettes are crap (at least they’re only $1), the guys sneer at me, the girls won’t even make eye contact most of the time, everyone is spitting and littering and yelling and pissing all over the place, most of the other westerners here are either kids or just plain fucking idiots who basically just insult the locals as much as possible 99% of the time (not to their faces, obviously) and think of China as their goddamn sandbox or something just because they have super-currency, the music is generally awful, squat toilets are truly evil, and (surprise!) sewer gas smells the same everywhere in the world.

Being here is fucking hard… and I’m getting addicted to it.