Posts Tagged ‘travel’

pil·grim·age  (plgr-mj)

n.

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

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

Things started off badly. Or maybe not….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marriage Thing: a heathen westerner’s perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

my posse's on Broadway...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

speechless

 

good morning

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

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

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

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

up the frickin’ mountain, down the frickin’ mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

up in the clouds: a small diversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bahrain: yet another story with no protagonists and no victors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes please.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It happened… it can’t un-happen….

another long hiatus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

disclaimer

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

Because… you know… you are.

I 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…

kickstart

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

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

fragments: six months in a hundred and sixty seconds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tomorrow

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

Lets live…

hola amigos,

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

first day out and I already suck…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…..!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cheers…

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

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

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

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

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