Posts Tagged ‘beer’

Searching for Context… through facial hair…

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

 

Pondi

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

Pondy

Pondicherry — seriously. don’t touch the SL.

Pondy

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

Hampi

Hampi — a marvelous couple

Vizak, I think...

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

the other half of the truck. happy fellows…

on a random train ride into West Bengal…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Scores — The Best of the Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rice and Curry

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

YUM

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

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

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

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

clockwise: lentil Dhal, potato curry, curried chicken

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

Dhosa/Paper Dhosa/Masala Dhosa

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

plain ol' dhosa

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

this man is my homeboy

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

heavy!

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

String Hoppers

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

left to right: dhal, hoppers, sambal

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

fig B: mince it all up

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

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

fig E: repeat until this is what you see

perhaps the most crucial step: remove shoes beforehand

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

Roti: a versitle bit of dough

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

mmmmm

cut with spoons, eat with hands, repeat

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

British Food

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

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

Honorable Mention: king coconuts

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

poker face

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

ego trippin’: a tale of two coconuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

not my scene not my problem

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

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

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

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

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

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…

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…