kickstart

Posted: January 20, 2011 in travel
Tags: , , , , , ,

Hola, amigos. I know it’s been a while since I rapped at ya, but as my writing hasn’t been quite ‘riviting’ lately I sort of let the whole stupid blog thing slip away… until now…

fragments: six months in a hundred and sixty seconds

Death in June. I’m sitting in a bar in Shanghai, chatting with a fifty-something British man who’s been teaching here for four years. We’re talking about our respective recent travels, and girls, and gristly bits, and random nefarious goings-on around the world. He’s quite smart and open, in an oddly sullen way. "I used to be like you," he says, ashing his cigarette on the floor, "back when I was young, dumb and full of cum. Now I’m just old, dumb and full of cum…" I smile. He drains the last of his Hoegaarden and looks up. "Here, lemme getcha a beer…"

Nine weeks later, I’m six weeks into a twelve week gig, averaging somewhere around 62 hours a week, not counting side work. I’m tired but the numbers are adding up in my head in interesting ways, like: "twelve times fifteen… times six-point-eight… divide by eighty… yep, I made enough for 20 hours of Laotian massage today…". Head-strong.

‘Cross season hits. I’m gluing tubulars at an astounding rate, going through cans of cement in the manner a truck driver in the 1970s might go through Dexamyl.

Halloween. I’m wandering around Chico, California with two other fellow humans. We’re pointing and laughing and staring and drooling and telling jokes that no one understands.

November comes. Loneliness, neurosis and uncertainty, like some evil dream that’s lost it’s luster. My smoking and drinking seem to have reached a level that makes Keith Richards look like Jack LaLane.

Thanksgiving eve. I’m doing shots of Fernet with friends on the Embarcadero, on a bike ride around the city to visit the friendliest bartenders in SF. The sun is shining on my face as I close my eyes and exhale. John owns the joint and he’s pretty happy today. "Get to close tomorrow, get to have a day off! Haven’t waxed the floor in this place since last year," he says, pouring that black, herbal foolishness into the glasses. "…pretty excited about that floor… here, this round’s on me…" We drink to the floor.

Twelve hours later, I’m walking out of Whiskey Thieves, alone. It’s bartime and I’m restless and bored and it smells like piss in the Tenderloin, like it always does. I come across a tweaker on his hands and knees, eyes wide, searching for something on the ground.

"what’s up man?"
"dude…. I… I just dropped like six hits of acid…."
I nod for a moment. "far out, man."
"no… NO…. you don’t understand", he says, waving his open palm up and down in spastic motion with each sylabil, "I just DROPPED six hits of acid! like, on the sidewalk, man!"
"oh. that sucks…"

In a bizarre turn of events, I buy some 4-Lokos with the last $20 in my pocket and chill with the crackheads and tweakers all night. I learn some things, namely, what 4-Loko is like (or was like — apparently they’ve pulled it off the shelves?) and that it is more valuable than crack to the crackheads, who all offer me their crack in exchange for one. Ever look in the shopping cart of a bum? Not so bad, right? Ever look in the shopping cart of a speed freak? It’s scary as hell, and that’s coming from a veteran trashspotter…

December first. I’m canceling a flight I’m supposed to be on in three hours with tears in my eyes. My brain is an idiot, and if I’ve been working for the last eighteen weeks, my bank account sure doesn’t seem to reflect it.

Hanukkah dinner. I’m making grapefruit Negronis in a palatial house in the Oakland Hills that smells like expensive shampoo. Someone asks if I know how to make Liquid Cocaines. I do. I’m rocking the shaker back and forth, my thoughts drifting back to Thanksgiving and that guy named Tim with three teeth left in his jaw and a cart full of garbage. The latkes are superb.

I’ve found myself twisting up and down hills every day, perhaps sweeter for the larceny of time. I’m burning through the Piedmont cemetery in the big ring of a thirty-pound, five-inch travel 29er, a ludicrous bike completely out of it’s element, more akin to a motocross machine than a bicycle. My eyes are red behind euro-trash shades, slamming to drone metal, an album from Boris called Pink that still blows my mind every time I listen to it. The opening scene to Gummo pops into my head. I’m smiling.

I’m having a geek session in Albany, learning about Arduino boards with a man who lived and worked with my father half a lifetime ago.

I’m in San Diego at an entomology conference, calm, sober as a Turk and wearing a tailored shirt. I get the feeling most of the people here will never leave school until they stop being paid to do so, not a bad thing in and of itself but certainly not phronetic education. A professor asks where I go to school. "I haven’t been in school since 2004", I say, not defining the nature of why. "So you’re a flunk-out, huh?" Interesting response… I’m tempted to react badly to this seemingly caustic remark but smile as I respond instead. "Well, since 2004 I’ve been to something like twenty-two countries, co-founded a business that is still successful, and not acquired a single dime of debt. Yes. I’m a flunk-out." He turns out to be a pretty nice guy.

New Years Eve. I’m back in Madison on a whim, going from spit-roasting a goat to a quiet bourbon to a farewell to Magnus to a few dance parties, then prancing to the A-bar. Ruthless efficiency, followed by huevos rancheros.

Two days later: a plane to catch. Seoul. A city of neon and barbecue and androgynous mens shoes.

I seem to whirlwind through cities sometimes. No greater monster than reason. I’m today. He’s yesterday.

tomorrow

Let’s shift gears a bit. Lets get weird and do weird stuff. Lets start dialogs and ask questions. Lets find cool bands and DJs and throat-singers and music geeks and sample them for all they’re worth. Lets stop just writing one-night-stories and start writing whatever the hell we feel like. Lets chew the gristle with the fat, lets make the waste into confit. Lets find interesting people and grill them, savor their responses off the skewer… or hey, for that matter, lets get literal and find interesting cooks and steal their recipes. LETS BAKE COOKIES! Lets find more new stuff and try it. Lets live off of pennies but be rich, lets sneak in the back door, lets hit on the bouncer to get in, lets try harder. Lets stop looking at work as the means to do what we want and instead just do what we want, hell, lets make the work what we want in the first place. Lets share more. Lets wing it.

Lets live…

Mongolia was on the list already. One morning, I woke up and decided it was at the top.

On paper, Mongolia is baffling interesting. For being the 17th largest country by land-mass on the planet, Mongolia has only 2.6 million or so inhabitants, making it the least densely populated country (with a population over 57,000 — up yours, Greenland) on earth. For every human, there are ten horses… and for every horse, there are roughly four heads of livestock. Land is public outside of Ulaan Baatar and perhaps one or two other cities. If you look at the country on Google Earth, you see… nothing. Lots and lots of nothing. This, I’ll admit, was a big draw for me: I love China, truly enjoy the place… but no matter where you go… well, there are just so many people everywhere. I dreamt that night of peaceful desert, and spotless lakes, and nomads serving tea, and dirt, sand, grass, rocks, birds… I dreamed of nothing.

So I bought a train ticket. Well, that’s not quite right… I looked online and found that the international, Beijing->Ulaan Baatar leg of the Trans Siberian is $200 — an astronomical figure for a train ride here, even if it is international, 1,600+ km and 30 hours. After reading up on it a lot more, I found that if you just get a train to Erlian, the Chinese border town, cross overland, and buy a ticket from Zamin Uud on the Mongolian side to Ulaan Baatar, you can do the same journey for about $33 — it just takes an extra day, and a hell of a lot more legwork.

northern exposure

In Erlian, I found that most people would rather just pay the extra $170. A nice pair of Polish people, however, were clearly on my page: they jumped ship in Erlian as well, and we found ourselves the only westerners out in the rain at 8:23 pm. An interesting note is that they use the same trains across the borders, but as Mongolia and Russia use a different gauge of rail, they actually change out the bogies (wheels) on each carriage — a process I have yet to witness but am sure is quite incredible in terms of arbitrary labor.

We find that the train station has no tickets for the connection, and that the bus station inexplicably closes before 9pm — very odd for a border town. The priorities shift suddenly: the border can wait. We require food and drink. We find a decent hotel room and get to work. The next morning, we awake at some ungodly hour and hike to the border. My Mandarin is still too shaky to realize what the taxi drivers are trying to tell us: the border doesn’t open until 8am. Still, one taxi driver is more than happy to take us there at 6:20 am, a gesture we immediately regret. I go for a walk to kill time and meet a very nice Mongolian truck mechanic who shares some of his rancid coffee with me as I shoot pictures of what is certainly the filthiest workshop I’ve ever seen. We chat.

Eventually, the border opens and we find new challenges – namely, that the land border is inexplicably not cross-able by foot, but that you must cross it in a vehicle. Madness. We eventually find a jeep driver (with an already full jeep — ever fit 7 people in a Wrangler? It’s not pretty) who allows us to tag along for 50 yuan each, which makes it easily the most expensive 800m you can traverse in Asia. 30 minutes later, we’re in Mongolia, at a border town called Zamin Uud. We hit the train station to check on tickets to various destinations (nearly all tourists head straight for UB, as most of the tourism infrastructure is based there), but the earliest trains are at 6pm and the Poles are strapped for time in a bad way — their entire trip is only 11 days, and the Mongol leg is only planned to be 2 days total before getting back to Beijing. The major transportation system in Mongolia, after trains and buses, is Jeeps: guys who rent themselves out by the kilometer or by the day to act as taxis, for anywhere from one to 3,000km. Obviously, it’s rather expensive, particularly for foreigners… I’m kind of sitting it out, chatting with a random Mongolian guy who apparently likes the Chicago Bulls quite a lot, when eventually Jack walks up and says, “so we found a guy who will take us in to the desert and to a small village for 500 yuan. You wanna come?” I think it over. “Does that include the stay overnight?” “No, he’ll take us back here this afternoon…” I am perplexed at this plan, but at $20, I can’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon in a shitty border town. Sure, I was three weeks behind on correspondence and writing, but hey — new country. Sitting can wait, right?

“My Jeep”, he said, while pointing to a red, right-hand-drive Mazda MX-5. Not exactly the vehicle that comes to mind when you think of desert travel, and in a parking lot full of Russian jeeps, it looked rather pithy. We piled in and hit the road, or rather, the path, as obviously, nothing is paved. In less than three minutes we were completely in the middle of nothing, just nothing in sight in every direction. We get our first taste of the place, and it’s simply incredible… I can hardly describe it. If you try to focus on the vanishing point between the landscape and the skyline, a funny thing happens: the whole world shifts forward a bit, the skyline and the land sort of pushing against each other in this bizarre vertigo-like trick. It was new to me. I call over to Jack:

“Dude, are you seeing what I’m seeing here? The shifting when you focus on the vanishing point?”
“Yes. I am seeing that.”
“Was there ketamine in those cookies we ate this morning or something?”
“What is ketamine?”
“It’s a cat tranqui— …you know what, never mind”

You don’t need drugs to hallucinate, you just need some Mongolia. It’s okay, don’t be scared… you can dabble in desert. You can be a weekend warrior on skyline. We amused ourselves endlessly, randomly having the driver stop at picturesque places, like the odd brick shacks, bands of horses, ridges and watering holes. For three people who’ve just come from Beijing, the contrast couldn’t be starker: Nothing. I’m liking it.

how not to behave around a camel

After drifting about the desert for a few hours and learning the finer points of how to truly mistreat a Mazda MX5, we stopped at a ger (Yurt). The ger is the key to the whole nomadic life: it is incredibly simple, can be assembled or disassembled in less than six man-hours, and is solid protection from the elements. In a place where the temperature ranges from -40f to 110f, the only way to keep your family and your livestock alive is to keep moving, find new ground for grazing, and protect the animals from the cold. This is done by moving with the seasons, rainfall, and grazing patterns. Outside of the cities, Mongolia is public land: if you can get there, you can live there (Is Greenland like this? Does anyone care?). The whole traditional aspect of it is immensely interesting to me, as gers these days will often sport solar panels, flat-screens and LED lamps, but the song remains the same in its basic outline…

We arrive to the sight of three dogs, about seven camels and perhaps a dozen sheep and goats. The patriarch of the family greets us: he is perhaps forty-five, with streaks of silver in his jet black hair, a huge smile and firm features. He greets me with a smile and a word I am so used to hearing, it has practically replaced ‘hello’: “Tall!” I correct him on the pronunciation of my name: “No, no — it’s TooTall.”

Our driver doesn’t speak English either, so we pantomime it out: age, where we’re from, the usual. He says “Camels!” at one point and grabs a saddle. We glance at each other. “Cool! Camels!” As we walk up, I realize the scale — I’ve never actually seen a camel in the flesh. They are somehow much bigger and less graceful than I imagined… one is kind of mawing on some grass, smacking its lips together and hacking a bit. I am instantly fascinated. I sort of sneak up in front of it, trying to get a picture of it’s jaws, its ugly maw, munching stringy green snot-like nastiness, when bam: it pukes on me. Well, it sort of coughs up some digested food, and as I’m down-wind of it (and the wind in Mongolia is quite something) the matter basically atomizes and hits me from head to toe in tiny, almost neon green bits of putrid horror.

The smell of it is… indescribable. I think the closest thing I can compare it to is choudofu (in Mandarin, it literally translates to “stinky tofu”), a fermented bean curd product in China that is unmistakable in its stench… you can smell it a block away, or from the tenth floor of your apartment building, if you happen to have the terrible misfortune of living in a place with a choudofu vendor out front (I am certain that at least a few choudofu vendors wind up being homicide victims each year). It smells, as my friend Keith so eloquently and accurately once put it, “like a rotten foot that has just been pulled out of an asshole”. That is about what camel vomit smells like, if you marinade the foot in bile first, and perhaps let it ferment in a camel’s maw instead of in a clay pot. It is really, truly that bad.

I did what any reasonable person would do: stripped down and tried to shake the stuff off my clothes. The patriarch had other plans, though… namely, bringing the camel up behind me, still up-wind, and letting it cough up a bit more of its previous meal on my now naked chest. He thought it was hilarious. So did the Mongols and the Poles, but then I had an oddly comforting thought that was almost instantly shameful: a Mazda MX5 is a rather tight space for two Poles, a Mongolian and a Yank who smells like a bile-cured rotten foot that has just been pulled from an asshole. I notice that the patriarch has a chunk of vomit the size of a fist on his shoulder. He doesn’t seem to mind.

Eventually, we saddle the vile creature and take turns riding it. The patriarch has a ton of fun getting the camel to run at full clip, cackling and smiling like a madman as he watches each of us clutch the front hump for dear life, attempting to not get bounced off the damn thing. Camels bounce a lot when they run. It hurts in all the wrong places. This is of course in addition to the puking and spitting and farting and generally disobedient nature they have. I’m quite confused… if there are ten horses to every human here, why do people ride these? We get our fill of the camel rather quickly and walk about the compound, greeting the family and passing out cookies that are hopefully ketamine-free.

After another few hours wandering around the desert, we wound up back in Zamin Uud with mild sunburns, sore bums and an overheating Mazda. We walked to the train station — I needed tickets to Ulaan Baatar, and apparently the Poles were heading back to Beijing. They were on a very tight schedule, but still… Mongolia for an afternoon? After two days of travel and $90 worth of visas? That is silly. You are silly, Poles. Anyway, after looking at the schedules, I determine there are two trains leaving that night for UB. I stand in what I assume is the line, for quite a while, before sort of muttering “what the hell is with this line?” which garners a response from a forty-something Mongolian guy (we will call him Niceguy) near me:

“There is no line. No tickets.”
“Oh. So… why are we all standing here?”
“Waiting.”
“I see. When is the next train?”
“I think there are two tomorrow… one at 9am and another at 7pm or so…”

I walk up to the window and ask for tickets for the 9am train. The woman behind the glass gives me a look of true scorn and mutters something in Mongolian.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Mongolian. Does anyone here speak English?”
Niceguy replies for her. “She says if you want a ticket for the 9am train, you have to come here before 9am tomorrow and buy it. I’d think you should be here much earlier than that…”
I take stock of Niceguy. He’s wearing a Yamaha motorcycle jacket and thick boots. His only bag is a tiny duffel. He looks to be in his mid-forties, streaks of grey, soft features but a square brow. His English is impeccable.
“Thanks for helping… why would they not sell me a ticket for a train that runs tomorrow?”
He rolls his eyes. His mannerisms are oddly Western. “They can be a pain in the ass….”
“What are you thinking of doing?”, I ask.
He smiles. “Not sure. Might keep trying to get a ticket for tonight’s train… or maybe just sneak on. There are people downstairs, they sell tickets for sold-out trains… though they charge a lot more.”
“Scalpers?”
“Is that what you call them?”
“Yeah. What do they charge?”
“Well, you are a foreigner… so maybe double-price? It’d be about 20,000.”

During this short exchange, another Mongolian wedged his way between me and the ticket counter. After some short words, the lady behind the glass started printing a ticket for him.. and then another. And another. And another. The guy reeked of sweat and keeps dangling a set of keys while waiting. One is a car key with a Cadillac emblem on it. I glance at Niceguy.

“Hey, maybe this guy’s a scalper, eh?”
He doesn’t even look up. “No, not him.”

I wait another seven minutes or so for Cadillac guy to finish buying his inordinate number of tickets, then wedge myself back to the window in front of a young woman who smiles at me when I explain “this will only take a second”.

“I’d like a ticket for tomorrow’s 9am train.” Niceguy interperates for her, smiling. She yells back the same bit about coming back in the morning, again translated. I’m losing patience and my temper is wearing.
“Bullshit. There is no such thing as a train that you do not sell tickets for until the morning it leaves. I am not leaving this window until you sell me a train ticket — I don’t care if it’s for tomorrow’s 9am, tomorrow’s 7pm, the next day’s train — I am not leaving without a ticket.”

Niceguy explains it all to her, almost laughing as he does so. She gives me a look that says “Fuck off, white boy” which I briskly return with my freshly minted “Hey. Lady. Do not fuck with those who’ve recently been puked on by camels” look. She sighs and starts punching at her keyboard angrily. The crowd around me seems to have scattered… perhaps an unintended consequence of my look of scorn, though more than likely due to my scornful odor.

“Dude, I can’t thank you enough for helping me with this…”
“It’s no problem… hopefully you get a ticket.” His manner is incredibly calm; the whole time, he’s just leaning on the counter beside me, hands folded, eyes easy. About six minutes go by, during which she takes a few phone calls, sends at least two text messages and takes my passport, though not in that order. I mutter “Shit, I thought we had some lazy fuckers in American transportation offices…” which garners a hardy laugh from Niceguy, random chuckles from around the room, and absolutely nothing from the woman behind the counter. A few more minutes go by.

Eventually she hands me a ticket and takes 8,600 Tugrik from me (about $6). I am shocked by the price but even more shocked by what is on the ticket. Niceguy grabs it from me and says,

“Okay… here… tomorrow, 5:35pm…”
“Ummm… that says 5/28. That’s today.”
A confused look of non-belief strikes his face. “What the fuck? I’ve been trying to get this ticket all day…” His response garners a crowd. A lot of people look pissed off. Yes, apparently, there are tickets left. A swarm of people start pounding on the glass and yelling. I seem to have gotten a golden ticket…
“Wow, you are really lucky!”, Niceguy says.
“Dude, I only have this because of you — here, take it. I’ll keep trying to get one for tomorrow morning. Seriously, you deserve this more than me… help me get a 9am ticket and we’ll go get a beer.”
“No, no… it’s okay. I might just rabbit.”
“…Rabbit? Like the animal?”
“Yeah, sneak on to the train.”
“Where will you sit?”
This question is answered with a huge smile. Niceguy knows something I don’t know, and he doesn’t want to tell me. I’ll learn soon enough.
“C’mon, man, let me buy you a beer — we’ve got two hours to kill. I’ll help you sneak on.”
“No, it’s okay — my family is here, I want to stay with them. We will be fine.”
I catch his name, but like most of the names in Mongolia, it is incredibly hard to pronounce and I don’t manage to write it down properly. It sort of sounded like “Tsogorick”. I like Niceguy more.

The Poles were downstairs in the restaurant when I tell them the tale; they explain they got the same “no tickets, come tomorrow” spiel from the ticket lady. I tell them to give it a shot — it’s worth trying. I still can’t believe they’re leaving Mongolia after 6 hours, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. I meet a pair of Israelis named Ben and Gaia, and another Mongolian guy, having lunch. The Israelis have tickets on the same train, but their Mongolian companion is also planning on Rabbiting with his family. It looks like they met at the border. The Mongolian introduces himself as Turshinbayar and is perhaps mid-thirties, incredibly fit, and wearing army fatigues and a drab t-shirt. He explains that he just got back from a tour in Afghanistan. He has a strong posture, scars on his face, what looks to be defensive knife wounds on his left arm, and a huge smile. His English is very, very good. He asks where I’m from, and when I tell him, he points to his own chest and says “Ranger! Army Ranger!”

Now, I’ve met some Rangers in my life, worked for one for a few years, and let me tell you.. they are a proud bunch, with good reason, and you don’t throw that word around without meaning it. The training course in Fort Benning, GA is very, very hard to get in to, and over half of all applicants don’t make it past the first two weeks — of the three phases, only 20% will succeed in all three on the first try. Students are limited to 2,200 calories per day, which seems just fine until you strap on a 70-90lb pack and do a 320 mile patrol for 20 hours every day for 61 days. It is common for students to lose 20-35 pounds during the three phases. Graduates liken the physical toll and stress to several years of aging. The ultimate goal for many is Jump School, the training grounds for Airborne, basically the most elite outfit in the US Army (not all Rangers are Airborne, but nearly all Airborne are Rangers). You have to be incredibly smart, incredibly fit, unbelievably disciplined and a little nuts to even think of signing up for Ranger school, and it really is the pinnacle of training in the Army — there is a reason USSOC uses the 75th and the 82nd as first responders.

I sort of check him, politely, with silly trick questions. “You trained in Virginia?”
“No, Fort Benning, in Georgia, then Florida for three weeks” (swamp week — I’ve heard some serious horror stories from one friend on this.)
“With the 82nd?”
“No, the 75th. Always with the 75th…”
Story checks out. Holy shit, there are US-trained Mongolian Rangers out there?
“How the hell did you get in to Ranger school!?”
“Exchange program. Six months of intensive English, with other training, then some applicants are admitted to Ranger school.”
“How many Mongolians were in your class?”
“Just me. Two others applied but didn’t make it.”
Wow. I might be having lunch with the best-trained, most elite soldier in the Mongolian Army. We chat some more about the training program and his time in the States. Military service is compulsory in Mongolia, like in the IDF, but the Israelis don’t seem interested in our conversation. To each their own, I suppose.
“What was your post in Afghanistan?”
“I was stationed with MTAP, training the AFA (Afghan National Army). Probably going back in July to help again…”

Some people join the army and mow the lawn. Some people join the army and do everything possible to advance to the furthest, hardest, most elite levels of training and conditioning, at great physical and mental toil and unbelievable personal cost. There is a massive difference between these people, and the latter deserve the utmost respect in my opinion. I do my best to show him that respect. We part ways a bit later, so I can stock up on instant coffee and cup-ramen. “See you on the train…”

The Train: how to fit five hundred pounds of shit in to a five pound bag

I have been in some crowded trains before. Once, in Vietnam, just after Tet, I took one from Hue to Nha Trang that had 11 people in 4 bunks. We shared hard-boiled eggs and jackfruit chips, and slept squashed next to each other with stoic solidarity.

That train, in contrast, was pure opulence. Cigars and champagne couldn’t have widened the gap.

It was probably only four to five people to every seat, but the amount of stuff that each person was carrying just put it over the top… Apparently, every person in Mongolia has a side-business in importing from China. The $170 premium from the direct Beijing -> Ulaan Baatar train isn’t buying you simplicity, it is buying you out of the train that the locals use. Each person was transporting much, much more than they could carry. Boxes upon boxes, suitcases, burlap sacks, jugs, jerry cans, bundles, cases of beer and cigarettes, crates so heavy that they required the buddy system. The platform was madness: people throwing boxes over the heads of others, sometimes missing. Lots of yelling, sweating, pushing and shoving. The car, when I finally made it on, was a full-scale riot: people were throwing punches. Children were crying. I’d never seen anything like this… just a complete disregard for others. “Move, I need to get my shit on-board” seemed to be the mantra. It was actually disheartening… I eventually made it to my seat, or what I thought was my seat, only to witness the insanity from a stationary position. People were literally walking over each other. The only things missing were whips and livestock. I seemed to have discovered the tenth circle of hell. Boxes and crates and bags covered every square inch of luggage-rack, then the bunks below them, then the floor… it was nearly impossible to move. My thoughts drifted to George Carlin’s opening act from his stand-up in ’86… sorry I’m late, folks… I was just looking for a place to put my stuff…

I had a cheap, third-class ticket… perhaps the Israelis were basking in relative civility, I wondered. Eventually the train starts moving. An obese man with acidic mannerisms and a crooked truckers hat wedged in to the spot on my right; on my left was a man with an acrid odor, three gold teeth and the worst breath I have ever smelled… maybe he was a big choudofu guy. Across from us sat a family of five. I passed out breath mints (thankfully, it is incredibly rude to refuse anything offered to you in Mongolia). No use. Six minutes went by that felt like 60. I spotted a young Asian guy with a backpack in the aisle, no doubt looking for a place to put his stuff, his seat likely occupied by two or three other rabbits. He looked shocked and a little scared. I tried to place his features. Japanese? Nepalese? He certainly wasn’t Mongolian, and his dreadlocks made him look even more out of place. I stood up and called out, “Hey man, I saw some room on a luggage rack a few bunks over if you wanna try and drop that sack…” He looked at me with earnest gratitude. “Thank you!”

A few more minutes passed before I simply had to get up… the smell and confinement was making me anxious. In the hall I came upon dreadlocks again. “No room?”, I asked with a cocked smile. “Yeah… I have some friends in car number five.” We made our way to the end of the carriage. I offered him a cigarette. We smoked.
“Where are you from?”, I asked.
“Hohhot, in China.” Inner Mongolian, then. Many different bloods in Northern China.
“I’m Nich. Nice to meet you.”
“I am Baysaa (pronounced ‘bei-sah’). When you come to China… you stay with me. At my home.”
His English was rough, my Mandarin is terrible. It is shockingly easy to make friends in a strange land — just treat them as you would want to be treated. Do not throw boxes of shit over their heads, maybe try to help them out — stuff like that.
“Okay.”
The cigarettes were done.
“Here… we go to car five… my friends.”

I was oddly relieved and equally shocked to see that every car was as crowded as our own… just.. shit… everywhere. Everyone was cramped. Nearly no smiles in those four cars we traversed. Eventually we make it to car five and I meet his friends: a Mongolian guy, an absolute monster of a Mongolian, in a neatly pressed pink oxford, and several other younger Inner Mongolians. They all spoke Mandarin and Mongolian, interspersed. He introduced me and must have explained how I tried to help him or something, because two of his friends who were flanking the monster got up and gestured me to sit next to him. The Boss Of It All, perhaps? We made our introductions… so many consonants. The monster’s name is Tuliga. Baysaa produces a sack and hands us all iced tea. We sit in mildly awkward silence for a while, and then Baysaa grabs a pen and paper and we start communicating through drawing. Mostly jokes about odors and the superiority of airplanes to trains. He draws a map of the US and asks me to point out home. I trace out the Great Lakes and place a star for him to see. He nods. I draw out a half-decent map of China and ask him to do the same. He adds Mongolia to it, places a dashed line across, and puts a star to Hohhot (I knew where it was already but wanted to reciprocate the interest in kind). We nod.

More awkward silence. Baysaa plays with several cell phones, swapping out SIM cards for a while. I notice that the background photo on one of the phones is Tuliga, shirtless, looking mean as hell. I point and put on my questioning brow. “Wrestler. Champion.” I bet he is! I look at Tuliga. He nods with a smile of pure smugness. A man walks past with a box full of decks of cards. Tuliga buys one. Maybe he knows Rummy 500, I wonder. I point to the cards with an inquisitive look on my face. “Texas!” Smiles. “Lets play”, I say, making a ‘dealing cards’ gesture.

No matchsticks… hmmm… what to use for chips? I still have some of my friend Mike’s stickers left (I put a lot of stickers on stuff). I hold up one of his ‘prole’ stickers (of which I have 18 left) and say “yi kuai” (one yuan), then a Crime Ridden Cycle sticker (of which I have four left) and say “wu kuai” (five yuan). 20 yuan a game seems about right for an amateur hold-em tournament between a wrestler and a clueless foreigner. Tuliga deals.

I don’t gamble often, but I know when to fold. Tuglia does not share this fastidious trait. I win the first game in six hands. The next game lasts about eight. On one hand, I make an over-the-top bet after the flop, on a high pair, and glance at him. We’re both smiling. “You call?” He smiles wide and says, clear as day, “HI NICE TO MEET YOU HOW ARE YOU I’M FINE OKAY BYE BYE!” We both burst out laughing. He calls, most likely on a straight draw, but I sweat it out and pick up a full house on the river. I’m trying to let him win a few pots, but it’s hard… he’s a bit too head-strong in his calls, and his bets are totally transparent. After five games I’m up four to one. He pulls a wad of cash out of his pocket. “No, no, no, bu yo, bu yo,” I say… I can’t take his money. He smiles and puts the wad back in his pocket. Then he gets up and waves me along.

We hit the dining car. It is about as crowded as any other car, completely awash in cigarette smoke, and every table is covered with beers, all the same brand, Hite, a Korean swill that is possibly the worst beer in Korea, which would place it high in the running for worst beer world-wide. I think about the fact that my backpack is seven cars away… George hits me again: …And when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it up! Wouldn’t want someone to come along and TAKE your stuff. They always want the goooood stuff, ya’know? Nobody’s interested in you third-grade geography papers… Hey, I’m rolling with a champion wrestler and the only Ranger-Trained solider in Mongolia — I think I’ll be okay, right?

A table scatters at our entrance. Was the wrestler enough to guarantee us seating in an over-packed dining car? No matter… we sit, and Baysaa translates for Tuliga: “He’s asking if you drink vodka.” I think about the bottle of Jameson I have sitting back in car one. “Umm.. sure. Love it. Can’t get enough.” Tuliga looks me in the eyes and says something I can’t understand in Mongolian, and then Mandarin I do understand: “yi-ga, liang-ga, san-ga…” and waves his hand in dismissive smugness. Apparently this man likes his vodka. They don’t seem to have his preferred brand, though, so we stick to beer. Plates of food start coming. Meat. Rice. Salads. Fried eggs. Dumplings. Potatoes. The appetite of a wrestler is not to be underestimated. We eat our fill and chat in broken language and pantomimes.

Hours pass. We hang out and chat, drink a few more beers. The ticket lady passes after each stop, flanked by two police lackeys. Each time they pass, they make a mark on my ticket. By the fifth hour, the ticket is almost unreadable from all the scribbles on it… but each time they pass, they simply sell tickets to those who don’t have them (almost the polar-opposite of the lady behind the glass at the ticket office). Tuliga buys one in the dining car. This is the system, this is what Niceguy was smiling about: you don’t need a ticket to get on the train, you just need to get on the train… and 75% of those in my sight seem to have done exactly that.

Almost ever cast member from my day besides the Poles and the putrid Camel are somewhere on the train — indeed, rabbiting seems the status-quo. Smiles seem to emerge throughout the cabins… children start playing again. Card games break out. Laughter is even audible. Walking is hard, but as sitting is harder, many random souls wander the cabins — I run in to Niceguy, Turshinbayar, the clinically insane neurologist chick from New York, and many others on our wandering, bi-directional linear paths, half-searching for comfort, half-evading the sleep we all so desperately crave. Eventually, I make my way back to my ‘designated’ seat, wedge myself into a corner, lean my head against a round piece of steel, some supporting rod for another bunk, and try to close my eyes. It is cramped and hot and the smell is not getting any better.

I awake not long after to the family across from me trying to pantomime what I gather is a request for me to lie down half-cocked against the cabin wall, with my upper back and head on a cardboard box of what I can only assume is bathroom tile. They gesture with their hands that I am to sleep next to the gold-toothed choudofu guy. No dice — I’ll walk, thanks. They seem to be insistent , though, and choudofu guy is smiling, patting the tiny sliver of space on the bunk next to him bordered by rock-hard cardboard. I vaguely recall saying something through my half-sleep that resembled “Fuck that, there is no way I am snuggling up next to you, dude” but I can’t be sure. Okay, sure, my chest probably smells as bad as your breath, but I can’t do it… The family laughs and starts pointing towards the luggage rack, above two (occupied) bunks. “You’re joking. Why can’t I just sit down like I was? That piece of steel was a perfectly adequate pillow…” I can’t tell if they are attempting to test my comfort threshold or my patience. Maybe both?

The luggage rack is being occupied by two more boxes of tiles, five jugs of ominous white goo, and several bags, my backpack among them. We start shuffling them, playing Tetris on the other luggage racks about the car, searching for the cubic space to accommodate all our collective shit. Somewhere, George is laughing pretty damn hard. In China, I have to sleep in the top bunk when I book hard sleepers (hard sleeper: most aptly named ticket class ever) as I am roughly 25cm taller than the bunks are long, and the height of the top bunk allows my tibiae and feet to dangle without interfering with the flow of traffic through the aisles. The top bunk is the cheapest bunk for good reason: closest to the lights, furthest from the ground, and only 40cm or so of space between the bunk and the ceiling. There is no top bunk on Mongolian trains, just a luggage rack, and I am not exaggerating when I call it just that: a rack. I am shaking my head at the prospect of a night’s sleep on this barren, ridiculous surface, when my head starts churning up ideas: “hmmm… I think we’re inventing a new ticket class here. Super Hard Sleeper? Luggage Class? Trans-Mongolian Last Resort? Chodofu class? What the hell do we call it?”

Eventually we clear it off and after exchanging some very forced smiles with the crowd that has come to see what all the hubbub is about, I shimmy my lanky ass on top, a real challenge as there is only perhaps 30cm of space between the rack and the ceiling of the cab. The entire car erupts in laughter and applause at the witness of this feat of struggled contortion, and it’s hard to blame them: it must look absolutely ridiculous. The crowd seems enthralled with the fact that my legs and feet really do hang off the end of the rack by those 25cm I mentioned; it seems my height reaches its pinnacle of ludicrousness when positioned horizontally, particularly on the luggage rack of a packed Trans Mongolian train. I stretch out, feeling my sore back supported by chromed steel bars, punctuated with 5cm gaps of nothing. “Mongol Massage Sleeper… Steely Dan Sleeper… are you reelin’ in the yeeee-eeeears… stowin’ away the tiiiiii-iiiime…” My brain will not shut up. I pop a 5mg Xanex and try to close my eyes. A few minutes pass, at which point I feel an odd, cold feeling on the soles of my feet, accompanied by a psssssht…psssssssht sound. I cock my head forward. An older woman is spraying my feet with aerosol deodorant, a task she can barely accomplish standing on her tip-toes with her arm fully stretched. The group cracks up again.

“Oh, sure, like your feet smell any better! You’re all just jealous that I got this sweet bunk… suckers…”

…And that’s how I learned to stop bugging out and accept the nature of my situation: stretched out like some Spanish Inquisition suspect on the luggage rack of a horrendously crowded train in Mongolia, reeking of camel vomit but with feet as fresh as daisies, head pressed against my make-shift pillow of jacket and oxford, full of mutton and Hite I won playing poker with a wrestler, and smiling… just smiling…

You’ve been telling me you’re a genius since you were seventeen…
In all the years I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean…
The weekends at the college didn’t turn out like you planned…
The things that pass for knowledge, I just can’t understand…

holy shit! this night happened a month ago! although, to be fair, I just spent ten days in the Gobi desert, and they don’t exactly have a lot of internet there… so here comes Operation Transmission Overload. ready.. GO!

visa run number one: follow the music, baby

A bittersweet feature of my Chinese visa is that it only allows 30-day entries, which is a sick joke given the size of China and the cost of the damn visa. I marked “60-day entries” on the form back in BKK, but when I complained after getting my passport back, the woman behind the glass made a rather “that’s what you get” gesture of dismissiveness that was clearly not negotiable. I blame… the Expo.

Anyway, I had originally planned on only doing a chunk of southern China, but I’ve got a real crush on the place… so visa runs are in order, or buying another visa, maybe through an agent with more guanxi than I, who can make something happen… but the thought of giving another $130 to the PRC to circumvent the need for visa runs makes me clench my jaws in agonized frustration. Well, if the Chinese government and the damn Expo are going to force a pedantic trip upon me every month, so be it — let’s get out of here, lets find a cheap ticket, lets see some new ground.

I picked South Korea for my first, partly for its ease of access but mostly because I’ve got friends there I’d like to see — Mo is there, as well my friend Mandie. The former is a fitting reason to show up unannounced; as I met him on his visa run, so he shall meet me on mine. I emailed the latter to let her know I’d be wandering through her country, which prompted the news that I was inadvertently flying into Seoul the day before the Seoul World DJ Festival — I just keep falling in to these things, I swear. I went the World Electronic Music Festival up in Ontario for a few years, so I’m somewhat acclimated to the use of the word ‘World’ in electronic music fest lingo: generally it pertains not to the size of the event but rather the invitation of worldwide DJs, which is somewhat of a misnomer if you ask me.

I flew in on a Friday to yet find more culture-contrast-shock. In my first seconds off the bus from the airport to Hongde, I went to cross the street and yielded to a black sedan turning right in front of me, a sedan which in China would have been halfway though my torso if I had kept walking. I was sort of spacing out and glancing around for a few seconds when I heard a short honk to my left. I was absolutely shocked: the bastard was actually yielding to me. He must have wondered what I was laughing at… I guess it was minor in retrospect, but that would simply never happen in urban China, and I was happily shocked by the courtesy.

The contrast continued of course: the place is clean, very clean for a city of 10 million+ people. The rivers run clear. The streets are not covered with garbage, and when someone pulls the last cigarette from their pack, they don’t just simply drop the empty pack on the ground, which is the standard operandi in China. People stand in lines instead of barging through them. The streetlights exist not just to add a bit of color to the streets, but to actually act as mediators of motor and pedestrian traffic. Actually, on that note, it’s safe to a degree even we would laugh at in over-regulated America. The buses have seatbelts. The subway system is constantly awash with videos of cuddly, anthropomorphic teddy bears, in hats and uniforms, explaining the dangers of improper subway etiquette. In fact, everything seems to be explained by uniformed anthropomorphic teddy bears and cats and raccoons here, like the speed limit signs, and the lane merging signs, and especially the “No tobacco to Minors” signs (aren’t these supposed to be designed for the adults?) . When you walk in to a building, there is generally a device at the front door to place your umbrella into a bag so as not to let it drip about on the floor inside. Icy stares are replaced by bowing. Barging is replaced by yielding. Spitting seems to be replaced by doughnuts (they love doughnuts here). If you seem to be having trouble, using a subway ticketing machine, or talking with a taxi driver, or staring at a map, there is a 96% chance that a native will walk up and try to aid you… which is roughly a 95.8% higher chance than in Beijing.

A typical first night in any new country: make some friends. Make some food. Make some drinks. Maybe go out for a while, try to find some trouble. The owner of the hostel that Mandie recommended, Min, is without a doubt the nicest hostel owner I have ever met… it felt more like couchsurfing than hosteling. We were chilling outside for a bit just after I got in, he was nursing a hangover, I was introducing him to the wonders of Coldcut, using their BBC Essential Mix from ’08, kind of warming up to the idea of the festival, when he slaps his hands on his legs and says, “Okay. Tonight, lets barbecue up on the roof. Okay?” He has this great way of proposing, asking, and confirming every idea with that word. It is pretty special. “Sure, man. What should I make?” “I’ll make… meat. You make salad? Okay?”

“Okay.”

Here, I was introduced to another contrast: the cost of food, and therefore living. In China, there is no produce (except for perhaps Avocados, and certain citrus fruits) that cost over $1.30/kilo — in most cases, four or so kilos of vegetables will set you back about $3.50, making it certainly the cheapest place to cook I’ve yet to find on earth, which is great, as I love to cook four kilos of vegetables at a time. In Seoul, though, there was nothing I could find that was under $3/kilo, and many things, like citrus, ran up to $5/kilo… there was certainly some sticker-shock involved in this. Getting enough to make a decent salad was about 25,000 won — around $22 ($22 is a roasted duck feast with sides and drinks for three people in Beijing). So I figured I’d stretch it a bit, in true summertime barbecue fashion: pasta salad. Always an excellent source of filler, and a good way to add a pound of food and a bunch of carbs to that salad for a buck. It took me a few shops to find some fusilli, and the tag indicated it was 4,500 won/500 grams, about $4.30. This was turning in to the most expensive pasta salad ever made, and I hadn’t even gotten the ingredients for the garlic lemon vinaigrette reduction yet. Yes, after China, everything will give you sticker shock, and sure, the Western elements of a pasta salad are certain to come at a price in Asia, but damn…

The barbecue was a smashing success, so to speak. Soju, Korea’s version of rice wine, is a dangerous thing — it is as mild or milder to the taste buds as sake, but at 20% alcohol or so, it sneaks up on you fast. I woke up feeling pretty good, though, and after meeting up with Mandie, we went for brunch. After buying a subway ticket for 1,500 won, I subconsciously muttered to myself “hmm… a dollar-forty… well, that’s only nine times as expensive as in China..” Shut up, brain. My pockets were still empty from the previous night’s happenings when we walked in to the brunch joint, and I see the prices: 16,000 won or so for the average plate. I hate thinking about money, let alone talking about it. It sucks to be stingy, and you gotta splurge sometimes, but when you’re traveling, watching your savings account trickle down and tick away, like minutes on the clock before you have to wake up and rejoin reality again, the whole game is to pinch pennies, stretch the money, to figure out how nickels add up and exploit every possible means of being a cheap bastard. I sort of whisper to John, “Dude, I’m from the Midwest — I can’t pay $14 for a plate of bacon and eggs. Well, I guess I can, but there better be a world-class pint of Bloody with a Guinness chaser sitting next to it… ” He smiles at this. “Yeah. I know. It’s gonna be an expensive weekend.”

The food was delicious, truly, wonderfully delicious, with avocado in the eggs, and bacon in the pancakes, and olives in the Camembert… and the price turned out to be a non-issue, as I had no money to pay for it anyway. Mandie treated me, and I tried my damnedest to feed her a sufficient amount of bourbon and other sundries later that night to reimburse her. This is the last I will speak on the costs of Korea, as anything past these two introductory anecdotes would be beating a (very expensive, pure-bread, bejeweled, prize-winning, amazingly well groomed) dead horse: Korea is not China.

the festvus

After a day of venturing out, eating, finding Mo, shopping (the girls), failed shopping turned pint-swigging (the boys), stocking up on supplies, other miscellany, and a few more pints, we finally made it to the festival. We managed to recruit a pretty great crew, too: three people turned in to five, which turned in to nine. I managed to smuggle in a good deal of bourbon by stuffing somewhat crushed water-bottles full of it in to my pants (whiskey out of my pants: inherently better than regular whiskey) and as the only other cocktails available were five-packs of Jäger Bombs, this was a wise smuggle indeed.

I take it all back about the ‘World’ misnomer: this festival was, by any standard, absolutely world-class. I didn’t recognize more than three names on the bill, but holy shit, Korea has a hell of a music scene! The house stage was killer. The main stage was almost always stellar. The rogue stage was generally cool, until they played some metal that made everyone walk away shaking their heads… but the hip hop stage… wow. The hip hop stage was absolutely awesome, all night long. Turns out there’s a real hip hop scene in Korea! The MCs were solid, and the flow of some of these guys would turn a lot of heads in the States. The DJs were even better; the sunrise dance set by some Korean guy I’ve still yet to learn the moniker of was probably the best dance hip-hop set I have ever witnessed. Early in the night, a very interesting set by a band called EE included a full five-piece group, a DJ, three vocalists, and, after the third track, a nearly naked man, sporting tighty-whities and nothing else, covered in something resembling antiquing powder and lots of face paint, just simply going nuts… after about ten minutes of his rolling about and frolicking, he ran up to the front of the stage to puke on the front row. Then he grabbed one of the monitors and started humping it. The band was not the least bit surprised by this. Go figure.

Other random highlights include Vandalism, a UK DJ who just plain kicked ass and was accompanied on-stage by a very tall blond woman in leather and aviators who looked like she needed a whip, and about a dozen other DJs of surprisingly high caliber. I must say, for an 18-hour event, this was one of the best parties I’ve ever seen… it was just fantastic. The only bad set I witnessed the whole night was from a German DJ called Dirty Disco Youth (not to be confused with Dirty Disco Kidz, who rock steady) who’s set stumbled and faltered, a major disappointment after the awesomeness of Vandalism. To top it off, he looked like an anorexic, snuffly Carrot Top. I walked away from the stage after 20 minutes of awkward, half-dance-able mediocrity, shaking my head, only to have the next track be — I am not making this up — the final track that Vandalism played. Many confused looks bounced around. A lot of people walked away. Maybe he was just playing an MP3 off his Macbook or something. Kids today, I swear…

They kicked us out at about 8:30 am, after a set by Freemasons, another UK DJ who was mostly playing old-school UK drum & bass and dancy trance stuff, shifting to a lot of female-vocalist mid-tempo dance. He was swigging a bottle of Patron Anejo and looked like he was ready to keep playing all day, but I suppose all parties must end at some point… he grabbed the mic at the end and said “Tha road is closin’ in thirty minutes, so if yer not stayin’, ya need ta git tha fuck aout”, which was not heeded at all, until the PA was cut, at which point it was heeded with groans and slow shuffles towards the gate. Needless to say, we were in the same boat: not ready to leave. Too pumped to stop dancing, too wired to sit down, too famished to keep drinking but too thirsty to stop. Where’s the damn after-party?

We drowned our sorrows in the Soju we left outside the gate. After a very interesting van ride back into the heart of the city, nine wired, half-drunk party people in face-paint descended on the streets of Seoul to a lot of odd looks. Showers. A nap or two. Tacos. The nice German student in the hostel got a real earful on just how bad he screwed up on not coming with us… the anecdotes and rave reviews went around. Shortly thereafter, the crew split: almost all were English teachers, who had to teach on Monday, and Mo had his internship to attend to. Nine became three in a matter of minutes. Min, Jerah, Mo and I went picnicking near the river, and after telling ourselves all day “tonight we’re gonna chill, no partying, no drinking, seriously” we get back to the hostel, only to have the German look at us and say, “So. Wanna go out tonight?”

Well… yes. Yes, we do. Screw Monday — there’s no morning-after like the-morning-after-the-morning-after. Cue the music and the soju and the barbecue…

Or at least, it has been.

Currently, though, I’m riding on the KTX, the fastest train in South Korea (not to be confused with a KTV, which is a Chinese Karaoke joint — also fun), being ferried from Busan back to Seoul at what the screen in front of me claims is 286 kilometers per hour. Countryside and cities whiz past my window, whole mountains filling my frame for just seconds before they disappear behind my view, my train, my path. An odd allegory of my life as of late.. no, my relative silence hasn’t been due to isolation, or lack of access, or writers block, but simply a inabillity to just sit the hell down and focus, put a pen to a pad and spill some ink. The last few weeks have been an amazing, colorful blur, a whirlwind through cities, music festivals and concerts, bars and rooftops, parks and riversides…

In Bokeo, they called me Doc. In Guangzhou, they called me TooTall. In Sabuk, a man in the bus station insisted I was the reincarnation of Adonis. In Kunming, I met a real live saint, and we did some sinning together. In Guilin, an Israeli and I coaxed the chef at our hostel in to letting us use the kitchen to make some Arabic food. When asked what we were making, he kept calling it Israeli (apparently this is a common thing in the region? kind of like how Serbs speak Serbian and Bosnians speak Bosnian?) so I kept calling it Lebanese so as to fuck with him a bit, even though we both knew it was simply Arabic. In Yangshuo, I was cursed and shadow-punched for about a minute by an irate shopkeeper because I didn’t buy his teacup. In Shanghai, I helped a fellow Lebanese guy commit minor currency fraud (exchanging money here requires an amount of paperwork tantamount to US immigration or bankruptcy). In Taebaek, I smoked my last American Spirit. It Beijing, they took away my last Bic lighter. Everywhere I go, I try. Everywhere I go, I meet strangers. They become friends. And then I leave them. Leaving each place is hard. Looking back is almost impossible.

Sometimes I run on auto-pilot.

Wake up in a bed. Wake up on a mat. Wake up in a train station. Hunch under a shower head seemingly designed to only rinse my celiac plexus. Hunch over a sink that barely reaches my thigh. Brush teeth. Make instant coffee. Eat some jiaozi. Eat some ramen. Take this bus. Sleep on that train. Catch this flight. Fill out that form. Stand in this line. Get to the front of the line, learn that the lady behind the glass has no interest in speaking English, or possibly just has something against tall lanky white boys. Okay, stand in that line. Much better. Argue with the taxi drivers. Rush to an airport. Push past the others. Sorry sir, your flight has been canceled. Here, have a meal voucher. Shrug. Read. Talk. Smile. Pinch pennies. Splurge. Try to plan more. No, wait, try to plan less. Rely on serendipity and benevolence. Rely on brain. Rely on Visa card. Troubleshoot the cell phone re-charge card. Troubleshoot the railway card. Troubleshoot a toilet. Troubleshoot WinXP in Mandarin. Hey look, the Blue Screen of Death is still in English! Neat!

Rock out to Sharon Jones on a walk. Slam to the Black Keys on the bus. Bob my head to Squarepusher on a hike. Flow with Slum Village on a bike ride. Chill to Tino’s Breaks Volume Five around a picnic table. OH SHIT! DANCE PARTY! Cue the Daft Punk and some Lindstrøm! Sip some Yanjing. Gambei some Jim Beam. Talk to every random stranger that will give me the time of day. Try to hear a story or two. Try to find some common ground, through pantomimes and gestures and broken language and photos. Maybe take some mental notes on how horrible my pronunciation of "píjiǔ" or "hěnhǎo chī" is. Work on the numbers again (‘four’ is still tricky for me — it’s like "ssiiiihiiua" but in one syllable). Try not to think too hard. Don’t rush but don’t loiter either. One week at a time…

Shanghai

If you’ve seen anything at all about Shanghai recently, it has probably centered around the Expo. I am admittedly still somewhat ignorant of the happenings, save for what I’ve read in the Times (which is miraculously no longer blocked in China) and what I’ve heard from folks living here. I know that in 7 days, I was already sick of hearing about it, and feeling odd urges to smash and tear those stupid Haibao statues and posters that are seemingly always within sight. I know that a riot almost broke out at the ‘soft opening’ the weekend I arrived, but only from the mouth of a man who witnessed it (problems get swept under the rug pretty fast here). I know that it is a fantastic universal source of blame for anything and everything that has been going wrong… and in China, things often go wrong.

I like Shanghai. For as Westernized as it is, it’s still completely China, but with 1% to 2% of the population being ex-pats (and 1% of 20 million is a fair number of people), you can find virtually any scene, any kind of music, any food, any sport, anything you want. The whole place is dense and cosmopolitan and wild and surprisingly clean and shockingly friendly… nearly every ex-pat I met in my week there, almost every single one, offered advice, or help on finding work, or a place to crash, or the skinny on a show I might like, or something. I was shocked at the camaraderie of the ex-pats there; when you think of a community, you generally don’t think of 200,000+ random foreigners in one of the densest, most populated cities in the world, but that is exactly what it is — a community. It was really striking. In seven days, I went to shows and clubs and restaurants and wine bars and dinner parties and jazz clubs, and even got put on the guest-list to see an absurdest piece of French theater by a fellow Madisonian. Doors opened. People welcomed me. It was great, and I miss them all. I would totally live there given the opportunity. But for now… well, there’s really only one mantra, and it is one I’m not very good at following: keep moving.

My first night in Shanghai, I met Mo, the Lebanese guy who I aided in exchanging some Won to Yuan. He’s knee-deep in an internship in South Korea at a robotics institute, and was in Shanghai on his visa run. On the walk back from the bank, while we were chatting about bloodlines and such, trying to figure out exactly what degree of cousins we are (as Lebanese, with no evidence whatsoever, we’re almost certainly cousins), he mentioned he should have used his Venezuelan passport. "You’re Venezuelan?" "Well, my mother was born there… my Grandfather went over for business, long ago. You know how we are — we are everywhere…" and in a comic stroke of like-mindedness, four seconds later we turned to each other and exclaimed, in stereo, "Wherever the money is!" And it’s true…

sore thumb syndrome

I stand out sometimes. I’m sure my height is a factor, but I’d like to think there’s something more to it than that… in any case, especially as someone who struggles with the most basic phrases of the language, I certainly look like I don’t particularly belong here. There are plenty of foreign faces of all races, religions and creeds in China, and in Shanghai, where as I mentioned, 1% of a dense city is made up of them, I rarely get a second glance… but in other areas, I can illicit a whole galaxy of stares, glares, smiles, comments, small talk, laughs, points and gestures. The kids are the best, because they’re so honest about it: there’s no shame in their staring and pointing, and no ill will either. They will commonly run to their parental unit and hug their leg, burying their faces into the clothing, or sometimes the exact opposite: a huge grin, accompanied by a wonderful "HALLOOOO!" which would melt even the iciest heart. Sometimes they try to hug me, which is only funny because the parents’ are never particularly happy about it, though by the time they grab the kid off my leg, even they are hard pressed to repress that natural urge to smile. Surely they were kids once, albeit in a different China altogether.

The Icy Glare of Death is the worst, though… I still have a hard time with it sometimes, though I’m getting used to it, and manufacturing methods of good natured yet half-cynical diffusion can be fun. Sometimes, when the stare is really bad, and all I wanna do is lock eyes with the sidewalk, or maybe run, I’ll just put on this real shit-eating grin, one that takes up my whole face, even the eyes smiling, cock my head slightly, and go "Ni hao maaaa!" (Hey how’s it going are you good?!) to break (or possibly ignite) the deafening awkwardness. This rarely brings about a response, although sometimes it works brilliantly, and the tables turn one-eighty: their eyes suddenly find something, anything else to stare at, and if they happen to be walking, the walk becomes a flustered, hurried gait. Regrettably, though, I have yet to have a single one tell me how they’re doing. Stay tuned.

One week in Beijing: art world, music scene… what does that tell you?

My arrival in Beijing coincided with Labor day, which I was honestly surprised to learn the existence of in China. This was a mixed blessing. My ignorance led to the only form of transportation being a 16-hour overnight bus (inexplicably more expensive than the 12-hour train ride — I blame the expo), but in return, we were greeted with a plethora of things to do over the weekend: two music festivals, the Beijing Modern Art Fair, and a gaggle of after-parties and concerts, most of which I never made it to.

After re-acclimating to Beijing, we went hunting for the Beijing MIDI festival, just Northwest of Yuanmingyan park. MIDI started in 1997 and bills itself as a rock festival, although it stretches the limits of this to the extreme — four stages (plus a rouge tent), playing almost every music genre that could be equated to ‘Rock’. Ever see a Hong Kong metal band play opposite a Finnish power-pop all-girl trio? Or an over-the-hill British punk group belting opposite a Hard-House Mash-Up DJ? Or a solo folk performer strum 50 yards away from a group of psy-trance raver chicks? I have… and it was pretty awesome.

I have been to some festivals in my time, but this one was certainly one of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever seen. All the usual trimmings of a festival were there: ink, dreads, Jagermeister, an unconscionable number of Che Guevara t-shirts, tents, flags, beer and skin, but the mix between the stages was really something special… I was sad to not see anything resembling hip hop (dub-step doesn’t seem to exist here yet, either), but at least the DJ stage was always pumping something good. At one point I walked past a crowd, and I heard through the shuffle "have you seen so-and-so?" and the answer was something like "yeah, over at the main stage, listening to that hippie shit". Hard not to smile at that stuff.

I didn’t make it to the other festival going on that weekend, Strawberry, because I wanted to see the art fair instead. It was huge and very well organized but inexplicably only ran for 3 days, only 2 of which were open to the general public. I’m pretty glad I went though; every gallery and studio in Beijing was representing, plus a few hundred others. It was held at the Beijing Agricultural Exposition Center, an ironic venue considering a lot of the subject matter, and one could have easilly spent much longer there than we did — the scope of it was simply massive. It was like cruising all of Dashanji 798 and then some, in 5 hours, and after a day of schmoozing around and taking a ridiculous number of photos, we went for Thai food…

The rest of my stay in Beijing was soaked up by visiting with old friends and new ones, researching teaching certifications, taking notes on Korea, sitting in the sunshine, reading a lot, and generally keeping my mind going in 30 or so different directions. I feel I am constantly at a fork, but the fork seems to have five to ten paths to choose from at any given time. As a graduate of the ‘Don’t Think’ school of traveling, I am always at odds with how to go about making a real, actual plan… and if I were counting, I think for this trip I’d be on plan number 60 or so. Hard to focus, hard to choose, sometimes hard to feel like I’m not losing my mind, my edge…

Fight Apathy…

…or, don’t. Whatever.

Trip Report: Korea. Coming soon. Seriously, I’m sitting down. Soon.

cheers,

~nich

It starts with the toilet paper.

You’ll find it has Mandarin on it once you go north of Luang Prabang. Then it spreads to the other random bits in your bathroom: the water heater. The soap. Then the food, and shortly thereafter, the vehicles — strange, olive-drab tractor-like jalopies running on single-cylinder motors that resemble generators, with belt-driven, primitive drivetrains. No seat, just a bench. Top speed is about ten miles per hour. The karaoke turns Chinese around Luang Namtha, and that’s sort of the point of no return: the border is another 2 hours North, but you’re pretty much in China… the faces and names and equipment and food and locals turn almost instantly. It’s dramatic and subtle at the same time…

Still, there’s a lot more to this than what meets my ignorant eyes… China has huge contracts with the Lao PDR to do forestry and other less-than-savory activities within their borders in exchange for ‘aid’, tons of road building equipment, and even labor. Even outside of Udomxai, you realize that basically every restaurant and guesthouse is catering to (or run by) the Chinese, and everything is written in both Lao and Mandarin, on every sign, in every restaurant, everywhere. Laos is not a particularly industrialized nation, and at 6.8 million people, it is a speck on the map in terms of labor compared to China. The hooks of the PRC reach far and wide, wider every day still — recently I read that Venezuela is shipping 460,000 barrels of crude oil to China every day, 180,000 of which are in exchange for $28 billion in loans in order to build infrastructure. If you’ve ever read ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman’ (which I would highly recommend) you know that they learned this type of economic strategy from us, notably the World Bank and companies like Halliburton and KBR… Colonialism has evolved, and China is at the front of it.

The decision was made rather suddenly to head for the border. Backtracking was afoot in any direction — it was either go back to LPB for Water Festival (expensive), try to book a flight from Chiang Mai or Vientiane (been there), or go north till I hit China, back-tracking through NW Laos. I picked North, almost arbitrarily — there are tons of areas I’ve yet to see among Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines… the list goes on, but I was getting tired of certain aspects of the tourism circuit, French Canadians notwithstanding. Plus, I already had my ill-deserved, horrendously overpriced Chinese visa in my passport. And the man who acted so nicely as my mediator in Huy Xai explained my loss to his travel agent buddies who offered to take me to the border for a mere 140,000 Kip. We stopped for lunch and the driver and his sidekick insisted on feeding me, even though I had literally no Kip left in my pocket — the generosity of Laos is almost old hat to me now but continually enlightening.

beer and communism: a short tangent

At some point while we were sitting, the sidekick asked

“Do you like Beerlao?”
Do I! The words flew out of my mouth:
“Dude, you shoulda seen me last night — I’m pretty sure LBC’s stock has doubled since I got to Laos, and that Bokeo will be a dry province until the proper supply chains can be restored and maintained..”

This was a bit of a misnomer, as the Lao Brewing Company was nationalized for a long time, and is currently still 50% owned by the PDR — they liberated it from the foreign investors back in 1975 (after what the PDR affectionately calls the – ahem – “National Liberation” of Laos) and independently operated it until 1993 or so. Eventually, foreign investors were let back in, and apparently Carlsberg owns the other half of it now (I’ve met a few Danish people who’ve told me they taste amazingly similar…)

The mission statement on BeerLao’s website is amazing:

“To move into the future with our consumers by ensuring that our brands are their preferred brands, providing them full bodies taste, total product satisfaction and identification with our products as an integral part of their success in life.”

That is just… absolutely wonderful. Maybe I should send them the story of my last night in Huy Xai, eh?

Anyway, an odd parallel to this ‘fermentation nationalization’ in China is Tsingtao, which holds about 15% of the domestic market share. It was founded privately in 1903 after Qingdao (which has an amazing history) was ceded to the Germans after they seized and occupied it. The British attacked the city in 1914 and afterwards the Japanese actually occupied it, as they were fighting alongside the Brits against ze Germans in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. It was restored to Chinese control in 1923 or so, although the Japanese occupied it once more in 1938 in their failed conquests into China. Ironically, the KMT allowed the US to use it as a naval base for the Pacific Fleet in WWII, and a base remained there until the CCP-led Red Army marched in around 1949 and again restored control to the PRC, which it has held ever since. Tsingdao had survived through all of these failed occupations and conquests, and in a similar vein to the LBC, was ‘liberated’ from its previous (at that time, Chinese) owners as such to become the sole property of the PRC — until about 1993, when, in a similar twist to LBC, private investors were let back in to purchase shares, and Anheuser-Busch (now InBev) owned 27% of it until last year, when they sold off 19% to Asahi and the rest to some random Chinese tycoon, at a profit of around $900 million. The appropriation of stock and wealth over a mere 100 years in this company is laughably convoluted and quintessentially ‘Communist’ in nature. The beer does remain very similar to the original product: a light-bodied pilsner that does taste a bit hoppy and German in character… although after nationalization, it is no longer Reinheitsgebot, as they use rice to cheapen the cost of the mash, and one of the varieties even has Spirulina as an additive, which the Germans would certainly not approve of. I’m a bit of a German beer guy myself (as the good Poobah Stan once said: “Löwenbräu changed my life!”) and I shed a tear in my beer for this wanton disregard of the Purity Law of 1516… hey, Spaten Double-Shovel it certainly is not, but we take what we can get…

north

Lunch, my last meal in Laos and fittingly benevolent in its bounty, was great: sticky rice, a river weed based muck (surprisingly delicious) with local sausage and a fish based soup… it was more than enough food for the three of us, and we climbed back into the van with full bellies, my eyes eager to make for new ground…

Land borders are always fun. I like the idea of walking from one country into another, and the van driver must have sensed this in me, as when I grabbed my bag and said “khop chai!” to him, he pointed ahead, North, and simply said “China!” with a big grin. Yes! Over there! China! Let’s do this…

At the Departure window, I got my first taste of China once more. A Laotian would never cut his place in line, let alone ignore the damn line completely and push ahead as if all others were simply subservient. In China, though, there is no such thing as a line; there are no queues, no waiting, no “after you” gestures of seniority or chivalry or politeness… no, there are just people, lots of people, and if they can reach the front of the line, pushing and shoving and squirming through, well then, they are the front of the line. This departure window was no exception, and it took me a minute to remember my Chinese manners once more, in such a contrast to my Laotian manners: push, you bastard. Just push. Reach that lanky ‘ol arm out, past all the others, force your passport in to the guy’s hand.   Me First… the cornerstone of behavior in any Chinese ‘line’.

Making it over was fun, and suddenly the contrast of SE Asia to China was in full effect. A very polite border officer in the Chinese office scrutinized my passport and entry form for quite some time, and the fake-looking pages that had been added (somewhat stitched, but literally cello tape holding the outside page borders) were very, very foreign to him, and he was quite displeased that the inner border of this cello tape ran over the top edge of my last Chinese visa. After a lot of silly questions, I threw him a curve-ball to see what would happen:

“I see your passport was issued in New Orleans, although this says you live in Wisconsin – why is that?”
“Well, New Orleans is in Wisconsin…”
“Oh. Okay. Thank you sir; enjoy your stay in China.”

I was going to fess up, but I figured perhaps we were inadvertently speaking the same language (The International Language of Semantics?), so I just let it roll… I’m sure some are shaking their heads at this joke that may have possibly threatened my entry in to China, but hey, sometimes you’ve gotta push the boundaries just to see where they really lie…

Customs was fun too: forms, but no one there to take them, just empty lanes. As I crumpled up the form and tossed it in the garbage on the way out, I thought back to the CN Embassy in BKK, with its arbitrary, capricious use of the metal detector in the lobby. Ahh, China…

Eventually I make it to the bus station in Boten, just across the border. Obviously, no one there spoke English, and when I tried to get a ticket to Mengla, it was simply not getting through… eventually I submitted to her offer for a ticket all the way to Kunming, which is quite a bit further North than I wanted to go initially but for the destination of which will quickly end this awkward exchange — she’s yelling the same sentence over and over, louder and louder, as if the volume itself will show me the light and I’ll suddenly speak Mandarin, which is what a lot of Westerners do over here with English, whom I never miss a chance to chide a bit; “Oh yeah, if you say it LOUDER, then they’ll totally be able to interpret a language that they don’t speak! Good idea, professor!”

I’m the only westerner on the bus, which doesn’t really surprise me. After about an hour, the bus stops in what I assume is Mengla, and everyone empties off. A nice Chinese woman with her husband, who had crossed the border about the same time as me, explained “one hour for dinner”. I asked if I could accompany them, though I wasn’t even hungry. She smiled wide, grabbed me by the arm, and said “Yes! Yes! Please!” and we wandered off into the city, in search of food…

I always forget to tell people I’m vegetarian over here, probably because I’m not, really. I’m just sort of picky about meat. I’m chatting with the lady, going over our recent lives: she’s been teaching in Thailand for six months and is going home to Kunming for a while. She asks where I’m heading. Usual response comes out: “I have no idea.”. She smiles. Her husband gets up to gaze at a wall full of bottles and returns to the table with two, 100ml each, filled with clear liquid. I recognize the stuff immediately: it’s baijou, basically moonshine made from rice, maybe even watered down so it reaches a ‘reasonable’ 56% alcohol. I hate this stuff; it’s technically distilled in the same manner as Lao whiskey but is inexplicably about 100 times more disgusting. He walks over smiling, and he can see the look in my eyes, the slight shake to my head, but he continues anyway: he pours the whole damn bottle into a glass, then repeats for himself, holds his up, and smiles wide. I can’t refuse — I clink glasses and we sip, and I remember the taste, that foul after-burn in my throat, the feel of the stuff. There is a reason it only costs 30 cents a bottle. Dinner comes. First round is short-ribs, breaded with a moist rice-flour. Not bad. Next plate comes out: odd, unrecognizable white blobs of fatty tissue floating in a brown broth with peanuts. “Pigs feet!” says the lady. Pretty hard to chew, and almost flavorless — why do people eat these again? I refuse nothing. It’s insulting, not just to my hosts, but to my own silly sense of immersion; if you wanna be here, than just be here: jump in, chew the damn pigs foot, drink the foul moonshine, try it just to try it.

One of the next dishes tested this mantra with full-on abandon: it was fish, but these were some sorry-looking fish, the size of which we wouldn’t use as bait to catch Northern Pike in Door County, and the thought of how far we are from a coast, combined with the memories of how ‘river’ is basically synonymous with ‘cesspool’ in China flood into my head. They are pan-fried, heads-on, and it’s a challenge to chew the little flesh clinging to their frame without taking in a mouth full of bones and fin. The lady demonstrates: first, rip the dorsal fin off with your teeth and chew. Chew the dorsal. Yep… I don’t have a lot of experience with that one. It’s pretty awful but the baijou is tempering my nerves and possibly my taste buds with the gentle stroke that a blowtorch might temper a piece of iron. I keep spitting out bones, and of course the stick-of-gum sized portion of flesh attached to them often follow, the taste of which is too foul to describe even for these crude transmissions. She tries to correct my ignorant chewing skills, and I apologize for wasting food, but hey: it’s just rather hard to eat these things. She seems impressed with my ability to use chopsticks and at one point asks if I’d like some rice, possibly enamored with the fact that I’ve eaten (well, chewed) a good portion of food that I’m clearly having trouble actually ‘eating’. Ahh, new things…

We get up and, predictably, they refuse to let me pay my share. “We host you”, she says. If only you knew, honey…

Kunming was… a place of rejuvenation for me. Some recent events, my own dark thoughts, and the typical fatigue from crossing almost a thousand kilometers in 26 hours were swept away by noodles, dumplings, brandy, new strangers-turned-friends, friendly locals and their benevolence and smiles and patience, and just the atmosphere of the place: Trees! Sunshine! 74 degrees every day! Fewer stuck-up French people roaming around! Birds in the sky! What a contrast to the grey, freezing Beijing I’d last seen two years ago… I could tell that this time, China was gonna be the witness. I’m going to love it here.

China simply doesn’t have the same tourist draw that the rest of SE Asia has… there is tons of history and countless landscapes and I consider it pretty easy to get around, but it’s not as ‘open’ or easy as one might want, and while I still felt some of that same culture-shock as I did two years ago, it’s exactly what I’m looking for after a month in a place where many visitors wind up ignoring the greater aspects of traveling and immersing in favor of sticking with each other and partying, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I recall something a nice British guy had mentioned at the posse bar back in LPB:

“The guidebook says you could easily spend a week here, but I can’t imagine how, or what you’d do..”
“Well, have you visited any of the Wats around? There’s over 30 of them; a lot of them are really amazing…”
“No…”
“Have you climbed up Phousi? It’s great to see the sunset or sunrise from there…”
“No.”
“Have you done any trekking or kayaking or biking?”
“No.”
“Have you gone over the river, or even gotten out of the Old Quarter?”
“No.”
“Well what the hell have you been doing, man?”
“Well, we went to see the waterfalls one day… and other than that I’ve just been drinking a lot with you guys.”

Obviously, I’ve done the exact same thing and am certainly no holier, but this illustrates my point, at least somewhat. It’s much harder to feel truly out of your own element in Thailand or Laos or Vietnam… there’s a small language barrier, sure, and there are troubles and trials and scams, but it’s just so easy to be there, there are so many of us there at any given time, taking the same ride, and to some degree they cater to the vices and the manufacturing of experiences that too often sum up the bulk of peoples’ trips to the region.

We have only ourselves to blame for this; we didn’t trample the place in a day, but in cycles, in generations of past tourists going home and raving about the beaches and the prices and the buckets and the oh-what-a-great-times… I don’t think it is a given to have a manufactured experience, but if there’s one place above all others where I’ve been that exemplifies it — and bear in mind that I haven’t been to many places — it’s the regions of SE Asia that breed the most sophomoric of wants in us, that cater to the Europeans who just graduated Uni, or the Israelis who just finished their IDF stint, or the Aussies who treat it as their backyard, their own little Cancun or Tijuana, or the North Americans who come because they’ve already been to Cancun and Tijuana… to all of us, all who’ve heard tale of full moon parties on the beach, and sixty-cent beers, and three-dollar hotel rooms, and tubing down rivers of beer, weed and spring rolls… We are the people who’ve manufactured this place into catering to ourselves, and the ramifications of that are transparent only to a point, and still opaque and fuzzy to me.

We are the reason that sleepy towns become party spots, that cops turn to bribes, that village boys turn into tuk tuk pushers, that girls from slums in Bangkok turn to selling their flesh on the street… and who could blame them? Is a life of taking the Euro or the Dollar not superior to poverty and toil? Is prostitution a better life than sweatshop labor? Is the cop who takes a $300 bribe from a punk 20-year old with a joint not feeding his family with it? Is the tuk tuk driver not pushing his wares so he can afford the most basic of luxuries, running water and electricity? What have we given to these places though our tourism, exactly? What is the cost of a 14% growth rate in GNP? What is the phantom nature of that 14% in the first place?

The interconnectedness of everything is impossible to see and at the same time impossible to ignore, and while I probably bring more negativity into the situation than is warranted, I feel I can’t ignore the writing on the wall…

We are the manufactured and the manufacturers. Just because you can see the cogs turn doesn’t mean you aren’t one, in that same machine…

…and there are a lot of machines out there.

China. Holy shit. I’m ready for you, China…

Northern Laos is a great place to dry out.

For starters, everything closes by about 10:30pm. Many smaller towns are isolated enough to only have electricity for a few hours each night, or maybe not at all, and warm beer is not an acceptable beverage when it’s 95 degrees out. To cinch it, most people come up here to do trekking, 1 to 3 day hikes, in which you stay in villages overnight… not the most conducive surroundings to drinking, although there is a lot of rice whiskey around, and the locals love feeding it to me, which of course I never refuse. You wouldn’t insult a host, would you?

After spending about a week meandering about and trekking around Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi, and Luang Namtha, I met a really nice Canadian bloke names Ara who regaled me with tale of something called The Gibbon Experience. He was raving about it, talking about monkeys and tree houses and zip-lines and such. Basically, it’s a 3-day 2-night stay in a nature reserve in Bokeo province where they’ve built tree houses you stay in, only accessible via zip-line, that rest between 20 and 60 meters off the ground. The whole place takes you along paths built along several ridges, where zip-lines connect across valleys and from land to platforms to tree houses. I did some zip-line stuff in Costa Rica with some friends and it was tons of fun but kind of rushed along, pushing from platform to platform in a large group. At $250, this is probably the most expensive way you could possibly spend three days here (that amount is a very comfortable week or more in most places, and could buy you a six-day trek with home stays in Muang Sing) but Ara made a hell of a pitch — it was my birthday after all, and after his wide-eyed description of the place, I figured I’d splurge, try something new, or at least different — three straight days of zip-lines over the jungle sounded pretty unique…

dear diary: I seem to be ageing

A quick rant: 25 is a silly age. It’s silly because it seems somehow much older than 24 to a 24-year-old, like there’s this line in the sand, and after you cross that line, like bam, there’s half your mid-twenties, gone… now your age can be measured in quarter-centuries. It’s really nihilistic and dramatic in a way that makes you laugh. Oddly enough, two of the other people who Ara successfully pitched the tour to had their birthdays just before mine, that I got to share with them. Beth turned 26 on a bus from Nong Khiaw to Luang Namtha that I was on, a pretty hellish bus ride even by Laotian standards (she thought it was funny that I was using the collapsed, mangled seats in front of me along with a sack of rice as an ottoman). I bought her a beer afterwards but we think a Frenchman stole it. Matt turned 23 the day before we went into the jungle, in Huy Xai. I won’t bore you all with the semantic ballyhoo in my head about how insignificant I feel about myself at this particular age… the more I know, the more I know how absolutely little I know, and while I’m not sure if that’s the age talking, I’ve honestly never been more clueless about my life or my future than I am right now, at this moment, sitting on this bus to Kunming in Yunnan, that smells so completely awful, of stale food, feet and vomit, that I’m actually thankful when the Chinese guys lying on both sides of me chain-smoke… you should see my smile right now. The Chinese guys must be wondering what the hell I’m writing to make me grin so much. I offered one of them an orange earlier. He refused, with what might be construed as a smile, then hacked up something deep from his gullet and spit on the floor of the bus between us. But I’m wandering here — more on that sort of thing later…

buy the ticket, take the ride

And so, another posse formed. Three random Brits, a French Canadian, an Aussie and myself went hiking into the forest on April sixth in search of Tree House #1. In the true spirit of travel (and, I should like to think, life), six strangers with seemingly nothing in common will all instantly become friends if simply given the opportunity. We went out with our guide, Nuon, who showed us the basics of zipping (the equipment here was a bit nicer than the stuff I’ve used before but with some interesting details) and then left us to ourselves. Our tree house was inhabited by a cat (we named it Bud) so as to kill mice and such, but Bud wasn’t interested in hunting the odd bugs that kept falling from the top of the tree house onto the lower level, near one of the beds. We thought they were maggots, as this logic played into the scenario of “perhaps there’s a dead bird up in the thatched roof” which seemed reasonable (cat + thatch roof = dead birds = maggots?). Matt and I swapped beds for the “bug bed” based initially on its size, not that it actually fit us any better, and we sealed off the mat with a mosquito-net like enclosure hanging from a branch. Seemed like a good fit. The very last thing to go through my head that night before drifting into a sweaty, buggy, noisy sleep was “Christ, please don’t let me wake up with maggots in my bed…”

…So at dawn, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I woke up 125 feet up in a tree, in the middle of the jungle in NW Laos, on a mat so worn down that it wouldn’t be used in a barrio in a bad neighborhood in East LA, with some toxic caterpillars sharing my pillow (although at the time I thought they were maggots or some such thing).

Still, for all the apprehension I felt about the money, and the caterpillars, and all the other less-than-awesome aspects of the trip, it was completely incredible and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. You’ll go out around six in the morning (and by “go out” I mean “strap on a harness and jump onto a zip-line that dangles above the ‘living room'”), looking for Gibbon monkeys who sing this amazing, almost synthetic sounding song, and you’ll just run as soon as you start hearing them, ’cause they only sing for eight or ten minutes before disappearing. We got lucky and saw them both mornings — they’re somewhat afraid of the ziplines (they vibrate the trees alot, not to mention the natural inclination to holler out like the Cisco Kid while you’re riding one) and pretty much hold to the canopy, so if you don’t really haul, you’ll miss them. Then in the afternoon, you’ll just go out, trekking and zipping, trekking and zipping… I’m sure it sounds like this would get old, but it just doesn’t. I swear. You’ll do it all day and then pop back to the tree house for lunch, and look around at everyone, and say “Wanna go back out?” and as soon as you hop back on the line it’s fuckin’ brand-new again. It’s really very independent in that you don’t need the guide to go zipping (which explains the huge release form you sign) and it’s just fantastic… and to top it all off, I never even got bitten by the caterpillars! Which is a very good thing, apparently, as one of the volunteers explained a bite can make your thumb swell to the size of the fist (they shrugged when I asked for the species’ name — can I get an entomologist, please?)

That night, half of the native guides and Drew, a volunteer from Green Bay, zipped into our tree house with our guide, Nuon, balancing a tray with my birthday surprise: a pumpkin, filled with ovaltine and condensed milk, surrounded by sliced pan-fried potato. Pretty awesome cake considering the surroundings and what’s available (which is, ummmm, pumpkins, ovaltine powder, condensed milk…). He had carved me a few flutes out of young bamboo, and we sat around and passed the Jim Beam I’d lugged up from the base village (they discourage drinking for obvious reasons), because, let’s be honest here, even the bleakest birthday I can possibly imagine still has whiskey and friends in it. It was great… we made a sort of rice-pudding thing out of the pumpkin filling and the rice leftover from dinner that was quite delicious and filling, and after a day of trekking and zipping, everyone crashed around 9:30 (in order to wake the next morning by 5:30 to catch the Gibbons) which makes quite a lot of firsts for this particular birthday…

then…

coming back to Huy Xai the next afternoon, after another morning of zip-binging and mild exploring, we re-discovered cold beer and grilled meat, among other things — it was like flying into New Orleans from Saudi Arabia . After a shower, I climbed up the hill to Wat Huy Xai to watch the sunset. Striking. A monk with some interesting tattoos on his shoulder sat down and started chatting. Turns out we had a lot in common, if you overlook the whole “I’ve-been-a-monk-for-five-years” part. I told him it was my birthday and he said “I have a gift for you!” then ran off for a few minutes. He walked back up to the bench with this huge spliff in his hand….

“Woah man… aren’t monks… umm… not supposed to smoke?
“No, just alcohol. My friends and I smoke everyday.”
Sounds like some monks I know back home!

“Uhhh… okay. Thanks!”

I blazed with a five-year Theravada monk on the top of Wat Huy Xai watching the sun go down, chatting about life and weed and tattoos and family and fishing and China. On my way down the hill, about half-way down the steps, three Laotian guys were sitting around a small table with their shirts off, passing the glass… they waved me over. I sat. They had a basket full of small snakes, just burned to a crisp, that they were pulling the spines out of, dashing in dried red pepper, and popping in their mouths. They were rather disgusting but with enough red pepper you couldn’t quite taste the flesh or the carbon surrounding it… we passed the glass around a few times and I thanked them. It was only 7pm or so but the gifts had been flooding into my system… at the bottom of the hill, I ran into some tree house friends patronizing this fantastic grilled-meat stand, where the barbecued chicken inexplicably tastes just like home. We had a few. I told them about the monk and the guys on the hill. Eventually the whole tree house was there again, plus some new friends, a nice girl from Chicago whose brain I thoroughly picked about Myanmar and another Canadian who was in a different tree house. I couldn’t help but say it: “Damn! Beer tastes good today…”

In “The Book”, April Seventh is “The Day of Enthusiastic Belief”, which may or may not explain the next part of this story…

I wound up drinking much too late and much too much, considering I hadn’t been drinking anything recently… we drained the rest of the Beam, then some Thai guys bought a bunch of Lao whiskey and we started drinking that, punctuated by cold beer (did I mention it was cold? Good Lord the beer tasted good that day!). It got late, real late for a small border town in Laos, and we swaggered and stumbled back to our guesthouses shoulder to shoulder, talking and laughing and telling stories…

It was only when I was back in the guesthouse that I realized I didn’t have my sidebag with me. This was a catastrophic mistake — my sidebag has… well, basically everything important in it. Now, I bet you’re asking yourself, “Why in the hell would you take the bag with everything important in it with you to the damn bar?”

Well, I needed something to carry the whiskey in…

Anyway, I make the mad dash, barefoot, back to the bar — no staggering to speak of; I’m suddenly as sober as a Turk and something greater seems to have sucked all the alcohol out of my blood, just like the alcohol had sucked all the brain cells out of my head. The bar is locked up. I knock, quietly, several times, at various doors. An older, pot-bellied man with limited English understands my pantomimes very quickly and offers to tuk tuk me to the house of the bar owners. Lots of dogs in this neighborhood, and they seem averse to random barefoot westerners meandering about at odd hours. We fail to rouse the owners. He takes me back to the bar and a feeling of hopelessness washes over me… what a stupid mistake! Why the hell would I bring the absolute most crucial items with me to the damn bar!?! I deserve this, this loss…

He pantomimes a gesture that says “Be sitting here, at that table, at 8am tomorrow morning, and we’ll find your bag. Everything will be okay.” I offer him the last of the Kip in my pocket but he refuses. Obviously, I didn’t sleep very well that night… I woke up at about 5:30 and sat there planning out the worst-case-scenario. It was looking pretty bleak… without that bag, I am utterly and completely screwed.

At 7:30 I walk up to the bar, and there are three older Laotian women and a young boy, sitting drinking tea… and there it is, my bag, in the middle of the table. I got on my knees and kissed the ground — I love this country. I walk up almost in tears, and it’s clear they can see how important this bag is to me… They invite me to look in it and make sure everything is there, to which I almost flat-out refuse but eventually decide is, in fact, a good idea. Passport is there, though not where I left it. Money clip, with all the cards present but re-arranged in a different order, and about $90 USD missing. An amount of Kip that I am unsure about. My headlamp is gone but my camera, iPod and other random tidbits are intact. Someone has gone through this thing pretty hard. I sort of gesture “there’s some stuff missing” to them, and they kind of scoff, then run off and fetch a man from across the street. He speaks very good English and introduces himself as to be a translator/mediator for us. I explain that I don’t want to cause any trouble and am extremely grateful for just having the bag (and the most crucial contents) back, but that $90 is a lot of money. At the mention of $90, he sort of raises both eyebrows… “that’s about a months wages”. “Yeah, I know.” Suddenly other random facts start running through my head: $90 is about what I’d take home from an eight or ten-hour shift wrenching bikes. $90 is the exact amount of the 2 night stay in that swanky guesthouse that Nan comped me back in LPB. $90 is, back home, perhaps a night on the town with some friends, or a dinner with drinks for two at Murimoto or Harvest, or a weeks worth of groceries… $90 can be a life changing amount of money here. The owner of the bar walks up and explains to the mediator that he did, in fact, go through the bag and the cards, trying to figure out who’s bag it was, but then left it at the bar overnight and gave it to the family behind the bar (the three older women) that morning as he doesn’t open the bar until 5pm. So by this point, the bag has passed though the hand of at least four or five people. Eventually it’s insisted and translated that no one present took the money. The mediator explains:

“This happens sometimes. Usually, there’s no theft here — they say you were drunk last night and maybe you spent the money, maybe you put it somewhere else, something like that. Since no one agrees, the only thing left to do is call the police.”
“Well, I certainly was drunk last night… but there is no possible way to spend ninety US dollars in a bar here in one night. I hate cops. I don’t want to cause trouble for these people and I’ll probably never see the money again anyway. What do you think?”
He smiled and said, “Yeah, I hate cops too. They probably take three or four hours, write down everything from everyone. Maybe nothing happens, maybe someone is lying. It can help, maybe… it’s all that’s left to do, and I have to go to work.”

In my head, it all sort of clicked: the booze, the karma, the luck of getting any of it back, the little boy hugging his mother on the table in front of me after I gave them 50,000 kip when they handing me my bag (this was before the discovery of the missing stuff), the straight-forwardness of the very nice English-speaking guy who helped mediate this whole thing (“I hate cops too”: pretty epic), the fact that in spite of the surrounding nations and the constant trampling of tourists, Laos is still one of the poorest and most remote countries on earth (the GDP per capita is just $2,100, although Lao currently has the 14th highest growth rate in the world), the fact that the US spent $2.2 million per day for 8 years bombing the hell out of the place but only contributes $2 million per year to the removal of UXO, the full removal of which (at the current rate) may be possible by around 2110 or so…

Well then it’s settled. I really do hope that family has my $90 and can make use of it; I’d have paid much more to simply get my passport and cards back. I am, put simply, rather stupid, and the pure joy and fun of the evening brought out some lackadaisical comfort zone in me that made me lose the one bag full of shit that I absolutely positively must not lose. Sometimes I really suck at this whole traveling thing. My own negative, self depreciating thoughts drifted back to Orwell’s supposed self-written eulogy for John Flory, the main character in Burmese Days:

Goodness knows where they will bury me – in their own grave yard I suppose, two feet deep in a painted coffin. There will be no mourners, and no rejoicers either, which seems sadder still, for the Burmese celebration of a funeral with music & gambling [seems] nicer than our beastly mummeries. But if there were anyone here whose hand could form the letters, I would [like] him to carve this on the bark of some great peepul tree above my head:

Here lies the bones of poor John Flory;
His story was the old, old story.
Money, women, cards & gin
Were the four things that did him in.

He has spent sweat enough to swim in
Making love to stupid women;
He has known misery past thinking
In the dismal art of drinking.

O stranger, as you voyage here
And read this welcome, shed no tear;
But take the single gift I give,
And learn from me how not to live.

Now, I’d like to think that I don’t work (or live) for the essence of money, and I certainly don’t sleep with women I find trite or stupid, and I don’t gamble, and gin is generally the last thing I’d possibly order… but I felt just like John Flory that morning. I ain’t Nixon but I sure ain’t Robin Hood either; I’m a rather simple 25-year-old guy and I’ll be the first to admit that I make a hell of a lot of mistakes, and if it weren’t for the good will of others — even if that good will is used with some amount of grey, some fuzzy logic — I’d be completely under a sea of shit right now… so I thank my thieves, those I drank tea and broke bread with. Count yer blessings, kids… keep it in perspective.

coming soon — Return of the White Devil to the Glorious Motherland of Red China…

cheers, and thanks to everyone for the birthday blessings…

Sabai Dee,

I got the hell out of BKK with a swiftness. The protests you may or may not have been hearing about are perfectly safe, even inviting demonstrations (it’s kind of complicated — you can read up on them here) and I ran into them on my last day in town, cruising the Skytrain. About a hundred thousand people lumbered up Sukhumwit road, honking and waving and smiling and yelling and singing. Basically, they just want a fair election and a more openly governed state, or, according to some, simply the reinstatement of Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed prime minister (though not all support him, and there are huge paper trails of his own corruption as well)

In Luang Prabang, I found myself in some very interesting situations. I took the slow-boat in from the Lao/Thai boarder, which cruises down the Mekong from Huy Xai and Pak Beng, winding up in LPB. You meet a lot of people on this boat, because.. well, it’s a boat, and being stuck on any vessel that serves beer for two days is a guaranteed way to meet everyone. By the time we got into town, a multi-national posse had formed, the kind of people who start drinking at 11am because there’s nothing to do but drink and play Rummy 500.

I had been here 2 years earlier (almost to the day, actually) and simply loved the place — it’s where the Mekong meets the Nam Khan river, there are 30-some Buddhist Wats to visit, and generally fantastic food and friendly locals. After Dalat, it’s probably my favorite spot in SE Asia thus far. But it seems to have changed a bit… or maybe it’s just me that’s changed. At any rate, I found an atmosphere different than what I remembered from ’08 — many, many more tuk tuk drivers, all offering weed and opium, or to take you to the bowling alley, the only bar you can drink in after curfew (11:30). On the 3-block walk back from the posse-designated bar (they were there almost every day) to my guesthouse (posse went bowling — I wanted sleep), I had maybe 9 offers to drive me to the bowling alley and 6 offers for drugs. Don’t get me wrong — I like bowling and drugs as much as the next guy, but this ain’t Thailand, nor is it Veng Vieng — it’s one of the holiest places in Laos (32 Wats don’t just spring up overnight, ya know?). Finally I badger one of the tuk-tuk drivers after he offers “Bowling?”

“What is this bowling alley I keep hearing about? Is it new?”
“Only place open until 3 am. Many farang, many locals.”
“I was here 2 years ago and never heard about it…”
“It’s been here 4 years I think. Only farang for the last year or so”
“How can it be open till 3am? What about the curfew”
He smiles at this. “Very far… far from old quarter. No wats around.”
“Thanks.”

Over the next few days I heard the question “Dude, what’s with this curfew? It’s such bullshit!” about a thousand times.. I tried to explain it with a mix of basic facts and light sarcasm, designed to instill at least a vague sense of humility:

“Well, you’re not on Koh Samui anymore. LPB in particular is one of the holiest places in Laos… about 70% of the population here is Theravada Buddhist, and most youths are expected to enter Sangha at some point before they are 20, which is like the monastic order. The Wats here all have ‘monasteries’ for monks in training. The monks wake up at dawn to collect alms from the locals, which is how they eat.” (I neglected to mention that most of these monks have cell phones fancier than the one I use at home, and many Wats have A/V systems and such) “The basic idea of the curfew is to get the tourists to shut the hell up at a reasonable hour so people can wake up and give alms. This is all in the guidebook, by the way…”

On my first morning there, I mostly just wanted to find my friend Clara. I had her number but it didn’t work on skype, so I went to get a cup of tea, catch up on some correspondence, and send some more resumes out. I had been sitting there for a while when a local woman who was meandering about the garden walked up and asked “what do you do when you have problems?”

Well there’s a helluva question! “Try to solve them. Or ignore them, I suppose.”

We chatted for a little while, and after five minutes of lopsided conversation, I sigh, shut the laptop, and invited her to sit down. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call her Nan. To make a long story short, it turns out she owned the joint, and after listening to quite the sob story about her past husbands and ex-boyfriends (culminating with her previous American boyfriend’s suicide), she offered me a room in their guesthouse for free. I declined, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall — it was obvious she wasn’t looking for sexual favors or anything, but she seemed abrasive and bossy to her staff… probably a hard person to be friends with, possibly explaining my somewhat random installation as a farang confidant. Plus, from the stories, this woman had issues, not the least of which related to attachment. Also, the guesthouse was WAY too nice for me — I think rooms rent for $45 per night, which is about ten times more expensive than the average guesthouse I stay in here. But she wound up basically insisting that I stay for a night or two, as a way of thanking me for my time and advice (advice? what advice?), “until you find your friend”. I hesitantly accepted… I mean, what’s she gonna do when I leave? Stalk me?

I found Clara that day. We met at the posse’s bar for drinks and caught up — it was great to see her. Ironically, it turns out our travel plans are not so similar for the time being, and she’s going to go to Vietnam for a bit while I tour around Northern Laos, an area I didn’t really get to see my last time here but have heard fantastic things about.

I went to drop off my stuff at my free room and found Nan there, washing her car, which I thought was a tad odd given it was 11pm or so. She chided me about my friend, who she kept insisting was my girlfriend, and while I’m not sure what her actual social intentions were, I chalked it up to phantom empathy. “Your girlfriend no love you no more! It’s okay, we go get drunk now.” Ugh…

You may already be wondering by this point why I was tolerating her chiding, her behavior, her lopsided friendship mentality. I think in a way I simply felt sorry for her, but in another way, I was kind of just hoping to hang out with more locals, and the ‘posse mentality’ of my shipmates, nice as it was, was feeling a little fabricated. You see a lot of this particular social construct while traveling over here — I won’t say it’s necessarily an aversion to meeting locals, and I’m certainly not Holier Than Thou (as this story will illustrate) but Westerners tend to hang out with Westerners, myself included. This is nothing against our character — all the people I met in that posse are fantastic people… but I was looking for something different, something new.

We went to the bowling alley. It wasn’t that bad. She introduced me to a score of other locals, which I was happy to see. At one point a group of guys walked up and greeted her — she introduced me as her friend, and said “That one used to be my manager [we’ll call him Sam]. He owns farang bars here. He gay, all his employees gay.” It clearly wasn’t mentioned as derogatory, but simply a statement of fact. They invited us to his bar. “We’ll be there drinking all night — come by.”

We went to his bar, a place I’d actually been to two years ago, and a popular joint for westerners and Lao alike. It was, obviously, closed, and having a westerner in your place after curfew can be a big deal — not just fines, you can lose your business license, although more than likely the cop will just take a bribe. They were drinking BeerLao and playing the most ridiculous drinking game I’d ever seen — a playing card is flipped face-up in front of each person at the table, and if it’s 10 or higher, you drink your whole beer. 9 or lower, you just drink. At one point I notice a bottle of Jameson on the wall, and point to the bottle, giving a thumbs up, and Sam just pulls the damn bottle off the wall and hands it to me. “Here you go! What you want with it? Coke?” I tell him I can’t really afford to be drinking Jameson, and he just smiles and says “I don’t give a shit about money. Enjoy yourself.”

We were having a great time, but at some point the night suddenly took quite a turn — somehow, Nan’s ex-boyfriend came up in conversation (the suicide) and Sam says, very matter-of-factly, “He’s not dead. My friend saw him recently. He’s fine.” Huh. Nan had gone pretty in-depth with this particular situation, and was shocked. “American embassy call me two weeks ago! I even call his family!” Sam was pretty confident that the rumors were false (or true, depending on the rumor) — the guy is alive and doing fine. Strange vibes float about the table, mostly shrugs, but suddenly Nan starts drinking much more heavily — she pours herself a whiskey, easily three or four fingers, and just drains the whole thing in one gulp. The rest of the table glances at each other with wide eyes — it seems they’ve seen this behavior before. Not a good sign. Not long afterwards, she’s getting into her car, dead drunk, and I’ve got my hand on the shifter, preventing her from getting out of ‘Park’ while trying to talk her out of the car. She’s sobbing uncontrollably and the situation is looking pretty dark. It ends with her literally kicking me out of the door, into the street, shifting into ‘drive’ and just flooring it down the street, door still open, flapping shut… face-palm. Sam runs out, half-laughing, half-gasping. I made my way back to the guesthouse to catch Nan being dragged up to her room by her son (who happens to be the night clerk) who’s apologizing for her actions. I shrug… and get some sleep.

The next day I tried to arrange the future in my head, and really, I should have just checked out and disappeared… but I didn’t. I felt really bad for Nan and wanted to give her some kind of comfort, some kind of closure to it all, explain that she needs to let go of the past and focus on the now. I met up with Clara and her friend again and we chatted for a few hours, giving me time to explain the night to them.

“So what are you going to do?”
“Change guesthouses. Tell her to chill out, try to get her to look at things a bit differently without getting so attached to the past. Or maybe just bolt.”

I went back to the guesthouse around 4pm but Nan was still not up, according to her son. I start packing. About 2 hours later one of her managers comes up to my room.

“Nan wants to see you. She’s very angry — just be calm with her and talk slowly” (he must have said “talk slowly” about three or four times)

The conversation was pretty boring; I tried to give advice but she wasn’t having it — she kept saying I was too young, that I couldn’t understand. I told her I was checking out, going to another guesthouse, then up the river to Nong Khiaw to chill out for a bit. She chided me constantly, insulting my friend Clara some more and insisting I was in love and was brokenhearted, “like me! That’s why you leave!” I rolled my eyes a lot. She insisted on taking me out to dinner to a local place, Laotian barbecue, where they set the grill up in the middle of the table and you cook the stuff yourself, with a little canal at the bottom of the grill for making soup. It’s kind of like hot-pot in China, except it’s actually delicious. Another sob-fest. I think while chewing my guilty, almost quid-pro-quo meal: you came here to meet locals, and here we are: you met one. She’s depressed and maybe a bit of a sociopath, and if she weren’t paying for your lodging and food, maybe you’d just ignore her. This isn’t you. You don’t act this way and you don’t need her charity and you’re probably taking advantage of her as much as she is you. Good work, you bastard… At some point, I mentioned that I grew up pretty lower-class with a single mother, which opens her up even more — she raised four kids by herself. When we get up to leave, a swarm of children descend on the table, just sprint to it, and start stuffing the leftovers into bags, literally grabbing the meat off the grill with their bare hands, all of them sharing the bounty, working fast before the manager walks over to shoo them away. Heart-wrenching stuff… I may have grown up poor, but we were never hungry — I love my mother and she did the absolute best she could and under the circumstances she was a goddamn knock-out. Thanks, mom… thanks for not being like Nan, at any rate.

I say I’m going to meet some friends at the posse’s bar. She asks if she can come along. The imprint of the car incident from the night before is still fresh on my brain and the writing on the wall is suddenly in bold, but for some reason I can’t say no — maybe I’m too nice, maybe she’s too lonely. I say “sure, let’s find you a boyfriend, a new farang for you. Just don’t drink so much.”

Second verse, same song. The posse is wondering why I’m bringing a Laotian woman the same age as my mother into the bar… I make the somewhat awkward introductions and my Argentinian friend Nico keeps her company for a while — hey, there’s a good strategy! Introduce them to the craziest local you’ve found… that’ll open ’em up a bit. She goes over to Sam’s place after a bit (presumably to pester him more about the suicide thing) and I stick around and hang out with Clara, her friend and the posse. After what I feel is a safe period (a few hours), I tell Clara and her friend that they should meet Sam. We walk over and there she is, half-drunk. I can see that Clara and her friend feel a bit awkward and after my descriptions of her and her behavior they’d have every right to bolt for the door, but they’re handling it like champs, given the situation. Sam gets the bottle of Jamo and I’m shocked, absolutely shocked to see how little is left in this bottle that was full the night before. We kill it. Clara and company excuse themselves after a while and it’s just Nan, Sam, myself and some of Sam’s staff sitting around drinking. Nan is getting drunk again and chiding me constantly, again in a rather insulting tone. I take off in a bit of an “I’m done with this shit” way, thanking everyone for their hospitality. Then the calls start coming…

I don’t even know why I have a cell phone over here… I guess because it’s cheap and it’s nice to keep in touch with people in a more organized way than just random sightings. Three calls come from Nan and I turn the phone off. Sam rides up on his motorbike a block from the guesthouse, asking what’s wrong. “Nothing, man, I’m just done taking shit from her. I’m leaving tomorrow.” Nan rides past, on the back of her manager’s bike and we exchange somewhat icy stares. I tell Sam I’ll call him tomorrow.

When I wake up, there’s a note under my door. It basically says “thanks for everything, you are a good friend, but I don’t think I ever want to see you again.” Well shit! I can deal with that! I pack up my stuff and lumber downstairs. She’s in the lobby, arranging flowers.

“Where are you going? Why you check out?”
A puzzled expression comes on my face. I show her the note, which she studies carefully, almost as if it were completely foreign to her.
“I’m leaving. Thank you for everything, but I don’t think I can be the kind of friend you need, and your kindness seems mixed with bitterness. I don’t want to accept your charity because it’s unfair I’m leaving tomorrow for Nong Khiaw.”

“No, you stay here… we’ll go see my resort today. I’ll show you the flower farm.” (she’s enthralled with the fact that I used to help run a flower shop.)
“No, I think I really want to be alone today… I thank you again for your kindness, but I’m going to check out. I’m even happy to pay for the room if you like; I’m not sure what you were expecting, but I see that the gesture wasn’t entirely earnest.”

This was a poor choice of words, as I have to explain what ‘gesture’ and ‘earnest’ mean, compounding the awkwardness of the entire sentence as I break it down. All this time she’s still chopping and arranging, chopping and arranging…

random useless fact I learned later that night: the Lao word for “chop” sounds just like “fuck”, as does the word for “pumpkin”… at Sam’s place, for Christmas they give out free pumpkin desert, which means everyone can go around saying “free fuck! free fuck!”.

aren’t you glad we had this little interlude in the story?

I say to her “I’ll come by tomorrow morning — we’ll have breakfast or something before I leave.” I’m trying to be an adult here — ya know, give her some closure while still backing away quietly from the woman with the knife in her teeth. She responds with “I never want to see you again.” Okay. No problem. “Thanks for everything.”

I walk down to the river. Why do I feel guilty? I didn’t do anything… my only crime is that I’m too damn kind. Sure, I might have stretched the limits of said kindness by accepting her generosity, but I wasn’t expecting what followed… I check into some flea-bag guesthouse and meet up with Clara for a walk. At 4pm or so Sam calls and says we’re getting massages. Lao massage is basically the best thing ever, and my back is in sad shape after that boat ride, so I’m not complaining, even though he goes to a spa where it’s over twice as expensive as most places in Old Quarter, even after his discount — I walked out 70,000 kip poorer but in fantastic shape. Sam even offers to let me use one of his motorbikes and stay at his house, but I’m pretty apprehensive at this point on that particular form of charity. Nan calls at about 5pm. I don’t answer. Clearly, I need to put the last nail into the coffin, drive home that closure forever. I write a short letter thanking her again for her kindness but confronting her on the fact that in only two days, she’d succeeded in treating me more like a pet than a friend and that her conniving, know-it-all attitude is perhaps the reason she has trouble making friends. Oh yeah, and that the words “I never want to see you again” are pretty clearly interpreted and generally not taken lightly. I drop off the note, put it in her hand, and when she tries to get me to sit down, I explain I’m in a rush and will stop by one last time before I get on the boat. It seems some small closure to the situation is at hand.

Sam and I grab dinner later with another mutual friend of his and Nan’s, a woman named Peng who I’ve hung out with before. I explain everything that happened. They agree that Nan’s “kind of crazy” and apparently has a thing for latching onto farang. It’s also mentioned that if I hadn’t met Nan, I never would have met them… so there’s that. We clink drinks.

…And the calls start coming. Five. 10. 20. 25 in the first half-hour. Holy shit, I have a Laotian stalker! I told her I’d stop by but it seems a poor choice in this light… “Change your SIM and get a new number”, says Peng. “Yeah! Good idea! I’ll do that in the morning…” Sam pulls his phone out and makes a brief call, and 5 minutes later a guy walks up and hands me a stack of SIM cards as thick as a phone book. “Pick a number.” I feel like I’m in the mafia or something. New number, crisis averted…

I didn’t wind up leaving the next day, or even the day after that. Mostly, I wanted to spend more time with Clara and Sam, both of whom are truly good friends and who I might not see again for a long time. LPB is small enough that Nan ha some idea of how much time I was spending with Sam, and then it happened: she somehow got a hold of my new number. She calls from some number that isn’t hers and I stupidly pick up. She starts screaming, yelling that I’m gay and Sam is my boyfriend and I’m a liar and a cheat and a coward and all sorts of other shit. I hang up and turn the phone off. Let her think whatever she wants; it makes no difference because it’ll all be distorted anyway. There is no closure for her in anything — it’s part of why she focuses with tunnel-vision about the past and latches on to pain so much…

Terrible vibes, Fear and Loathing... In a way, maybe Nan is kind of right: I acted like a bit of a coward in the face of someone in pain (someone rather crazy, but still) because the circumstances were too convoluted and frustrating for me to see any other way to act. I am ashamed of myself in a certain way for even accepting her ‘kindness’, but hey, hindsight is 20/20. For a while I was not going to send or publish this story but simply write it down… but I think if there’s any way to bring a somewhat selfish closure for myself to my own sad, stupid choices, it’s by sharing this with others — tell me what you’d have done.

Keep your chin up. Go with your gut. Be true to yourself and speak that truth, even if you’re not heard. And for chrissakes, be a better judge of character than I was.

I’m going North. Gonna dry out for a while. Too much booze, too many cigarettes, a lot of strange happenings… time to slow down and sip some tea, do some trekking, see Laos in a more organic light. Sam says I should come back to LPB for my birthday next week. I’m somewhat apprehensive but equally tempted. He’s a great guy and makes me wish I was in to boys. Seriously — they would eat this guy alive in Madison (a fact that I told him warrants a visit — “drinks are on me”).

I spoke the truth, but they didn’t understand me, because not many people speak that language…

~ some random graffiti artist / poet whose name I can’t recall, and whose advice I tried to heed, failingly…

cheers…

hola amigos,

As some of you know, after a fantastic month in Costa Rica and Panama, and with no more luck finding work, I did the least responsible thing possible: buying another plane ticket, back to Asia. I spent 20 days back in Madison first, riding my bicycle every day, sending out more resumes, eating a surprising amount of cheese, and generally freaking the hell out about my imminent departure, due to a mixture of vague anxiety and wandering intentions. To sum up, I have few plans, little money and debatable logic. You wanna be unemployed in Madison or unemployed in Asia? I picked Asia…

first day out and I already suck…

Bangkok, Oriental setting
And the city don’t know that the city is getting
The creme de la creme of the chess world in a
Show with everything but Yul Brynner

“Travelers Fatigue” is a widely-known but rarely talked about condition among people spending lots of time backpacking. Generally, it sinks in after several months of having to deal with the more repetitive and frustrating parts of travelling: traversing miles, finding places to stay, arguing over prices (sometimes with vendors, sometimes just with yourself), occasionally getting burned, dealing with crowds, cockroaches, Europeans, etc. It can rip away smiles, piss off locals and leave whole villages in it’s wake. In fact, last time I was over here, my travelling companion and I had developed a “safe word” system: if one of us was loosing our cool in a negotiation or mission, the word came out, and you’d step back, regain composure and tag-out. This system is not really so possible whilst going solo.

After sitting on planes and in airports for 32 hours, I was tired and thirsty and I smelled like a warm wet rag. Granted, 32 hours is simply not that much time, especially to traverse 12,000+ miles — Chicago to Bangkok? A century ago that used to take, like, 20 years. Still, I was ready for bed. I grabbed a taxi to the hostel where my friend Clara had booked me a few nights, a “clean” place nowhere near Khao San road and right off the Sky Train, possibly the coolest public transportation system this side of the Gobi. I had said that I was getting in “night of the 18th” but what I really meant was “midnight on the 18th” which is, in fact, the night of the 17th. No staff was on duty except a security guard, who said he couldn’t help me with a room (he kept pointing to the ‘Office Hours 0800 – 2200’ sign) but directed me to a bench I could sleep on. At 2:30am, after a day of being trapped in planes, bare wood not the most appealing surface. Several people who were checking out offered to let me use their rooms, but the security guy wasn’t having it — it was either the bench or outside. Adding insult to injury, crossing the date line meant I missed St Paddy’s Day completely, a holiday I value greatly (“2010 The Year St Paddy’s Day Wasn’t NEVER FORGET”). Miracle of miracles, there was a British pub next door that was still serving Kilkenny and Jamason. I had a few before they closed. I waited it out until 6am (now that DST is in affect, SE Asia is dead 12-hours opposite — opposite land, you might say) when the security guy tapped me on the shoulder and said “boss”, pointing to a woman behind the counter. She told me I couldn’t have a room till 11am but that I was welcome to use the shower. I did. With time to kill, I went down my to-do list for my stay in BKK:

1. stay off of Khao San road
2. get pages added to passport
3. get another Chinese visa
4. stay off of Khao San road
5. go see the Grand Palace if there’s time (there should be)

One town’s very like another
When your head’s down over your pieces, brother

It’s a drag, it’s a bore, it’s really such a pity
To be looking at the board, not looking at the city

Whaddya mean? Ya seen one crowded, polluted, stinking town…
Tea, girls, warm, sweet
Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite

I scored a map and went to work. I’m out of pages in my passport, and the Chinese, Vietnamese and Lao visas take up one full page each, but in the 20 days I was back home the only option I found for adding pages in the US was by mail, and took 4-6 weeks… whereas at any US embassy in the world, they’ll do it while you wait (I have recently heard tale of a way to get pages added back in the US in a shorter time frame but have not yet confirmed this). The embassy was a few miles away but I had 5 hours to kill, so I got walking…

To say the least, Bangkok is not a good place for sleep-deprived agoraphobics. As I trekked down Sukhumwit road at rush hour, lots of visceral input flooded my head: diesel fumes. car horns. yelling, haggling, solicitations. the smell of charred, burning fish oil. seven hundred billion people, all seemingly walking the opposite direction I was. I started feeling somewhat ill. At a point, I took a random left turn hoping to find a side road to lead me to Wireless Road, a long stretch of embassies… but in a stroke of comedy, I actually turned left on to Wireless road, which was not any less stimulating than Sukhumwit. Vietnamese embassy. New Zealand. Korean. A shopping center called ‘Mahatun Plaza’. The House of the Consular of the United States. A public park. A huge, barracks like place with almost no windows, all white, with armed guards outside. Hey! That looks like US!

‘Citizen Services’ turned out to be across the street, and after just 20 minutes or so, I had my new, thicker, frankenstein-looking passport (the added pages are of the new design, with eagles and landscapes and colors and shit all over them). Interesting things overheard at the embassy, though, like

“So you want to marry a Thai woman?”
“Yes”
“But you’re still technically married to a woman in the US?”
“Yeah”
“Okay. Wait here for your name to be called.”
….?

Get Thai’d! You’re talking to a tourist
Whose every move’s among the purest
I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine…

I walked back to the hostel, braving the barrage of sights and smells and images and jet lag. A room was still not available, in spite of my illness (my face must have been quite something) so I ventured to the Chinese embassy to drop off my new, much more fake-looking passport for a fresh visa. The motorbike ride there (much cheaper than Tuk Tuks or Taxis) was flat-rate at 80 Baht and rather scary, full of lane-splitting and other madness. The Chinese embassy is practically the exact opposite of the American: non-descriptive building, in a neighborhood with no other embassies, no sign whatsoever (not even joking), a metal detector in the lobby but just for show (every patron set it off and was then waved though) and only one room inside that looked like it might have previously been a Macy’s or something. I walked in to a Chinese guard saying what I thought was “line”, but when I asked the guy at what I thought was the back of the line, he pointed to the number printing machine and gave an expression of “?” then said “Visa?” I replied “Yes” and he handed me his number — 284. I watched the next guy pull a visa number — it was 425. Good heavens! What luck! I was there 2 minutes before 284 came up… and out of the place in 10 minutes flat. I grabbed another motorbike to get back and this guy was even crazier, pulling on the sidewalk multiple times to speed past gridlocked blocks (“daaaaamn! where’d you learn to drive like that, boy? LA?”). At one point I coughed and felt something gritty and metallic tasting hit the back of my teeth…

I had to wait around another hour or so to get a room, but as soon as I was in it, I was out like a light — I hadn’t slept in 45 hours or so and felt like a mild flu was coming on. I awoke to a terrible biting feeling… and this bed was covered, absolutely covered with bugs. I’d never seen a bedbug before, but it looks like a tick crossed with a dust mite crossed with… something bigger? I kept crushing them to the sight of black blood. Not a good sign. I was too tired and it was too late — I slathered some DEET on myself and tried to sleep some more, with little luck. I trapped one in a case and took it downstairs the next morning. The boss looked shocked.

“You bring these here with you!”
“umm no I really doubt that… can I get another room?”
“You check out today. No more rooms tonight. Oh… one double. 250 baht more.”
“uhh, I had a two-night reservation here…”
“No you didn’t”

…..!

I had a cigarette and contemplated my options. I need to get out of Bangkok. I decided that I’d need at least one more night to get things wrapped up and arrange a train, and that finding another hostel would be a 2-hour mission at the least in this neighborhood, so I put my game face on and asked to speak to the boss. I don’t have any eyelashes to bat, so I explaining my plight: the flight, the lack of sleep, the bench, the bugs, the reservation, maybe teared up a little (at 5 hours of sleep in 50, this wasn’t so hard..) She took pity on me, gave a discount, and said “you have to steam everything, everything you have to keep them from spreading. I’ll send up staff — she help you”.

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company

We steamed the whole joint. I started feeling almost faint. At about 8am we finish and I drop the bag in my new room. I need to get out of Bangkok, I thought, for maybe the billionth time since arriving. I go back to the Chinese embassy to beg for my passport back (it’s supposed to be picked up Tuesday). While waiting, through the glass, I see the stacks… thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of passports, banded together and crated and sitting on shelves labeled with dates. On the far right is “23/3/10” — Tuesday. The bastards! It would just sit there all weekend unless you pay the expediting fee… I guess they’re not so far from the US after all. What a racket…

Another hour and 5,200 baht later and I have the passport in my hand, and even though they messed up the entry durations (30 days each instead of 60) I felt a small victory was upon me. In 26 hours here I have slept maybe 6 hours, eaten virtually nothing, and spent $240 (albeit $160 of that went to China). I need to get out of Bangkok. I hop online to check up on Clara and figure out how to get out of this place. A plan is hatched: train to Chiang Mai, chill for a day, then a slow boat up the Mekong to Luang Prabang in Laos. The words “slow” and “boat” sound pretty awesome right now…

With my sleep schedule still 12hrs off, I try to get a nap in… and wake up an hour later staring straight at a bedbug, a real big fucker. I’m losing morale at an amazing rate here. I go back downstairs.

“The new room has bugs too…”
“Okay, I refund your money. You need to go.”

Fuck!

I coerce her, again, into letting me stay the night, provided I steam the hell out of everything, much more thoroughly this time, and do it all myself with no help from the staff.. I think I steamed that shit till the colors were bleeding out. Afterwards, I was oddly awake, even though my sleep-meter had only ratcheted up a few notches. I needed a drink.

One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
A little flesh, a little history

the night was a blur. One beer turned into two, which turned into six, which turned into god knows how many. I stumbled into a bar with a rugby game on and no prostitutes in sight, which makes it an incredibly rare bar in Bangkok. A New Yorker named… Ross, I think, kept feeding me Tigers after I regaled him with the bedbug tale and other random amusing tidbits. He used to work for Miter, a two-faced communications contractor that did a lot of UAV work back in the mid-80s (cocaine — when I asked “Catching them? Or aiding them?”, he nodded) and mid-90s (Bosnia) and did years of setup in Angola and Chad at the turn of the millennium. Very interesting guy — after a lot of talk and Tigers, an ex-rugby playing Aussie walked up with his girl and some fish and chips and joined the menagerie, regaling us with other tales of NRL games, Samoans, travelling (he was some kind of consultant for the World Bank and claimed to fill a passport every 16 months) and general ballyhoo. He had some great stories too… It’s not like you go drinking with communications defense contractors and World Bank stooges every day, right? We had a blast. They kicked us out 2 hours after closing (Ross was pissed about this) so we started drinking on the street.

Siam’s gonna be the witness
To the ultimate test of cerebral fitness
This grips me more than would a
Muddy old river or reclining Buddha

…Suddenly the sun was coming up, and I was dumbfounded as to why I hadn’t just let the abrasive boss kick me out the damn hostel the night before. I had booked a train for that evening (BKK -> Chiang Mai is 14 hours by fast train) and hopped back to my room to grab another 2 hours or so of sleep…

There’s a reason the song is called One Night in Bangkok and not One Week or One Month or One Year… it’s because one night is enough! Shit, he could have called it “One Dimension in Bangkok”…

aww, that’s just the bedbugs talking. I retort.

Life: a series of minor defeats, punctuated by small victories — and occasionally — beer…

cheers…

After nursing my broken personality back to normal and getting a good 6 hours of sleep, we hopped in the water taxi to begin our journey to the Pacific side of things.  Oh yeah, I did finally get some hot sauce that morning before we left Bocas, too — a place called lili’s was happy to sell me some of their “Killin’ Me Man” sauce (tag line: “It Hot like a Caribbean”), a habanero/sweet pepper-y type thing, with a hint of mustard seed to it.  I love the smell of habs in the morning…. smells like… victory…

We grabbed another bottle of rum (it is somewhat inexplicably half as expensive in Panama as it is in Costa Rica, despite the fact that it’s from Nicaragua – taxes, I can only assume) and began a day of sitting in vehicles. The border crossing was painless and quick, and a mere 8 hours or so later, we were back in San Jose.  It was only when we reached the flea-bag hostel that I realized I had apparently made a crucial mistake in my earlier, seemingly well-deserved victory, which was to not check the hot sauce bottles to make sure they were tightly sealed — indeed, all 4 were not (who the hell sells hot suce with loose caps?  does it expand or something?), and suddenly most of my clothes were a little saucy… but on the bright side, most of the underwear remained un-sullied.  So I had that going for me.  Which was nice.
San Jose leaves something to be desired in terms of… well, water and trees and animals and peace and quiet and everything else you might come to Costa Rica for, but we were forced to stay the night, just long enough to hop a 6am bus to the Nicoya Peninsula, another somewhat touristy area and basically Mecca for surfers in Central America.  A very nice guy named Sonny who we met in Panama (he was on his visa run — you have to leave the country for 72 hours every 3 months to renew it) owns an amazing hotel with some villas and a restaurant here called Gumbo Limbo, and his Italian business partner makes the most amazing pesto, with basil grown from seeds his mother brought from Genoa, with the first truly great cheese I’ve eaten in a month.  Santa Teresa itself is… well, different.  Everyone has an amazing tan, 6-pack abs and biceps.  At 6’5″ and a buck-eighty-five, I am by far the most out of shape person here.  I’ve got very little upper body (hey, I’m a cyclist — we’re all below the waist) but by these standards, I am meek and feeble, someone you might find begging for change in Calcutta or something.  The beach here is incredibly nice, and covered, absolutely dominated, by surfers.  I met a Spanish woman in Bocas who had lived here for 3 months and her comment was “it’s all surfing there, just surf surf surf surf surf” and now I can see what she was talking about.  Well okay!  Lets try surfing!  The first day we were content to simply watch, swim and throw ourselves about the waves.  We grabbed dinner at Sonny’s place and got to sleep early…
…and I had a dream about surfing.  Actually, I’ve been dreaming a lot here, pretty much every night, very vivid, somewhat lucid dreams.  I had my first nightmare in over a decade while in Cahuita.  I’ve been dreaming about everyday stuff, about bizarre occurrences, about all sorts of oddness.  But on this night, I dreamed I went out surfing.  I was all alone, not a person in sight, and I strapped the leash onto my right ankle, paddled out, sat there for a second, and just stood up on the first wave.  First try.  A real natural.  I carved up and down like all those guys with 6-pack abs, and I was loving it.  I woke up smiling and eager.  The first bloody try!  (if you surf, you should be laughing pretty hard by this point).  I was like the Tiger Woods of surfing, except without all the practice and hard work and dedication and loose women.  Well, I guess I was more like the Amy Winehouse of surfing..
Obviously, I did not stand up on the first try.

Surfing… is… just… incredibly hard.  Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do.  It’s not like biking, or climbing, where you’re fighting gravity and wind and whatever surface you’re traversing, or snowboarding and sking, where you’re fighting terrain and physics, or team sports, where you’re fighting players with superior skill to yours — no, you’re fighting something much, much more bad-ass, something that’s been smashing at the earth and at humans and at vessels and at whatever else tries to be in it or near it, forever.  The God Damn Ocean.  At least, that’s what I was calling it that morning…

Paddling out is, in itself, quite challenging — and it’s not like I was going out very far to start learning, but staying in the shallow break, just the leftovers of waves that broke another 15 yards out or so.  You’ll paddle, paddle, paddle, then get smashed by something kinda big, then paddle a bit more, dive under a smaller wave (this takes a while to get a hang of), then paddle some more, then realize you really haven’t gotten anywhere.  A lot of learning is, indeed, just getting smashed to bits, and trying again, and getting pushed off, and shaking your head and hopping back on, and getting smashed to bits again.  It’s sort of like love, I suppose…
The first 30 minutes felt like 4 hours.  Paddling out and getting smashed is not just physically taxing, but mentally draining… the ocean becomes this huge, living thing, and sometimes, caught in a wave, the board yanking at your ankle, you can almost hear her whispering… “screeeeew youuuuuuu, niiiiiich!  fuuuuuck youuuuuuu…” and then you pop back up, sinuses full of salt, the leash all tangled around your legs like some sick nautical death trap, and you wonder how all those guys further out seem to do this so effortlessly, just popping underneath the big waves and covering so much more ocean, then effortlessly, effortlessly standing up, and riding these barrels, and bailing wherever they feel like it but rarely falling off inadvertently… all the 6-packs and biceps suddenly make sense — what, you think they get abs like that by eatin’ a bunch of pesto or something?
After finding a spot that was mostly just whitewater break, I started trying to get my stand on.  I had watched a ton of people in the days previous, kind of studying their technique for getting up — it’s not so much the physical action of shifting your weight on your front hand to lift your front leg up, but just timing the whole motion correctly — paddling in, with the wave, until the break just barely passes under the fins, then making that shift, lifting with both arms, almost a little hop to it, hopefully getting your rear foot about where it should be.  Again, more tossing about — I was on this tremendously huge longboard (a very newbie board) with alot of weight to it… the board itself was actually quite stable, but my lanky ass was not.  Four or five tries in, I actually get up, knees still bent, just for a second (well, it felt like 5 seconds), but the board shifts right a bit, and the break knocks it out from underneath me. 10 tries.  15 tries.  25.  I can get on my feet sometimes, but I can’t really “stand up” — that is, my knees will not straighten out without making my whole frame — which is more and more resembling burnt cookie-dough — lose balance and fall off.  After about an hour of this (felt like alot more), I walk in, totally broken, arms about to fall off.  No one there to witness my shame but me — an odd parallel to the dream, I suppose.  I had rented this damn board for 24 hours, and after the first 60 minutes I already suck.  Maybe I should have a good sit, I thought.  I dropped the board off for safe storage and the little guy running the place smiled pretty big.
“You do okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, great.  Here, grab this for a bit — I gotta go puke up some saltwater, maybe try to regain feeling in my elbows and scrotum.”
I went out the next morning, too, but the waves were breaking too fast, and a bit too close to shore.  I talked to folks, trying to get a better idea of how to navigate the break, asking stupid questions, and tried out a lighter board.  On day 4 of what I began calling ‘Operation Lanky Yankee’, I went out at about 2pm, at low tide, and it was real small and gentle, just perfect for learning… I found I could paddle out further, stand up easier, stay up longer, and stay out longer — my 2 hour rental actually felt shorter than 2 hours.  It wasn’t like I was carving around at all, or even taking any waves that could be considered “waves” — I mean, alot of it is just breakwater, but I was a hell of alot more comfortable, and managed to stand up “proper” a good five or six times, ride that little break slowly, right into the shallow, and jump back on, smiling and paddling…
So great it is to try new things, even if I suck at them!  I walked in from that water with this weird little mental note building in my head of all the things I want to try… and it turns out most of them are really quite boring, or at least in contrast to surfing.   I would like to build furniture.  I would like to learn yoga.  I would like to take EMT courses.  I would like to speak at least one more language fluently, ultimately several languages to some degree.  I would like to grow vegetables (I’ve never gardened, and even my house plants have a higher mortality rate than lepers in Malakai).  Someday, I think I want to be a high-school shop teacher.
And someday, I wanna live somewhere with waves.

That particular facet of this chunk of land (waves all year round) seems to be what brought most people here… you’ll walk to the internet cafe, or the corner store, or a restaurant, at 4pm, and the place will just be locked up, closed, deserted… ’cause everyone is out surfing.  No note on the door that’s all “sorry dudes, waves are too good today — will re-open at low tide” but yeah, it’ll be pretty obvious if you walk a block to the beach and look out at hundreds, just hundreds of people out there, carving, or paddling, or sitting, waiting for the right position on the right swell….  Swell!  What a great name for swell!

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….