Friday, October 22, 2010

One Month in to Cambridge

So, I have arrived and am more or less settled. This took forever to post, and I apologize. At first I had no internet, and now I have gotten busy. To begin with, here is a link to a few pictures (have to copy/paste it):

I don't have time for a full update post at the moment, so I'm just going to copy/paste some stories I've been typing up for people about my first month here. Tonight I am catching a train to London for the weekend. An Argentinean friend I met in Peru is living there now, and she is going to take me around the city. It should be a lot of fun.

So, here begin a few copy/pasted stories:

Several weeks ago the Gates people gathered for drinks at a pub called the Anchor. It was founded in 1736. I got there, and somebody told me "hey! put your coat on the table." There was a table full of coats. I threw my coat down on the others and went about my business. Apparently, there were candles on that table somewhere, and my coat caught on fire. I didn't realize it until four days later when I was like "what the!? why is my coat melted and covered in wax!?" and somebody said "oh! it must have been your coat that caught on fire!" Ridiculous. How, out of a table already full of coats, is my coat the coat that caught on fire? So now I have a big melted spot on the back of my hood. Still functional and wearable, however. But the Anchor is made of wood, and has been for a very long time, so at least I didn't burn down a Cambridge landmark.

The Gates people also did a trip to the Lakes district where we had a few excursions. I went to Beatrix Potter's cottage and Wordsworth's cottage, both of which were sweet. Wordsworth lived in this tiny little place with like two or three other poets, his wife, his sister, his sister in law, and kids. And the other poets, especially one named DeQuincy, was a huge opium addict the entire time he was there. I don't know why they let him hang out around the kids. Later he wrote a book called Confessions of an Opium Eater.

England is eight hours ahead of the west coast, and right when I got in my sleep cycle was all messed up. Often I wasn't really tired, just awake and out of it. A prime example of this was the first full day, when I woke up at 7am, decided to snooze for 10 minutes, and woke up at 2pm. The lock in my room turns and turns and you have to wiggle the key to get it to work. When I pulled myself out of bed at the crack of 2, I tried to unlock it, didn't hear anthing, and pulled the door to open it. It was still locked. I had known immediately that lock was going to be trouble, and sure enough, here I was trapped in the room. I kept turning it and pulling harder and harder and hearing the door hit the lock and not open and I wasn't thinking clearly and I was starting to freak out a teensy bit, so I looked at the window and considered how far it would be to climb down from the second story. Turned out I was forgetting to turn the knob. Disaster averted.

There are some pictures of me in my formal gowns at the picture link above, as well as some of me punting. A "punt" is a flat-bottomed boat. You stand on the back of it and use a monstrously long stick to push yourself along the river. It is really hard. If the pole gets stuck in the mud you are supposed to let go, because the punt keeps on going and you find yourself clinging to the pole and then slowly tipping into the water. My pole got stuck once, and I didn't go in, but it was close. I was punting along, rather poorly, trying to navigate under the arch of a bridge. Coming up on the bridge, "a little close to the side but not too shabby," I was smugly thinking to myself. Pole is stuck, leaning towards the water--thinkthinkthink--let go! The pole snapped up and I snapped up, dry and in the clear. The punt really does keep moving, though, and it moved me right into the bridge. My back hit the arch and the punt was turning towards the base, the arch coming down, me crouching low and the arch crouching lower. I had to fall to my knees as the arch scraped my shoulders, but I stayed on the punt. A little oar is stashed under the seats to paddle back for lost poles, so we paddled back and grabbed it.

Alright, I've got to run.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Last Day!

Headed to the airport in minutes. I meant to write more this morning, but got distracted. I met the actor Aki Aleong at my hostel, who got kicked out of the Marriott. He was in an episode of the Outer Limits, and also an ambassador on Babylon 5. I told him what I studied and he called me a book jockey.

China has finished strong. In the next week or two I will try and get a few more posts up about the last days. It is definitely bittersweet to be heading home, but I have had an amazing time.

I only have an hour to change flights in Vancouver, and I found out this morning that I have to go through US customs at the Vancouver airport, so there's a possibility I might miss my plane and get stuck there. If so, the blog might have a brief Vancouver chapter.

Otherwise, next posts will be back in the US of A. Happy 4th of July to everyone in the States, as well. If anyone happens to read this in time, blow something up for me.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Back from the Mountains

I'm now in Hangzhou, which is an hour or two outside of Shanghai.

I arrived this morning on a night train. One of the good things about the night trains is that you give the attendant your ticket, and then she comes and wakes you up when your stop is next. The last time this was necessary I got about 10 minutes and had to rush. That meant that when I was woken up this morning, I rushed like a fiend to get my stuff together and get to the door. I was on the uppermost of three bunks, and had to scurry down, stepping on other people's beds, and pull my backpack down without it falling and smacking anybody else.

Then to stand by the door. The doors are where people go to smoke, so I was standing with the smokers. More than tolerable for a few minutes, I told myself. Less tolerable when it turned out that she had actually woke me up and hour and a half early, and I was standing soaking in smoke with two backpacks on. Mine wasn't even the first stop. I stumbled out of the train, riding a secondary nicotine high, and had enough time to think "wow, what a crappy station, I can't believe this is my stop," and wander towards the gate before the attendant pulled me back into the train. She yelled something at me, gestured to the ticket, and held up four fingers. "Whoops, four more minutes, I guess."

Back on the train. Still standing with the smokers, I realized after 30 minutes that they wouldn't build two stations four minutes apart. That meant it was either four stops, forty minutes, or that holding up four fingers means "idiot" in China. I had been wearing my two backpacks this whole time. The smokers were spitting all over the floor, but I had been standing long enough that a dry spot had time to develop around me. After a fierce internal debate about whether or not it was worth putting my things on a horribly germ-y floor, especially with no clue how close my station actually was, I gave in and plopped them down on the metal. Naturally, thirty seconds later that train began to break for my station.

I've been finding myself in a lot of train stations over the past couple weeks, and I swear I've navigated most of them much more efficiently. On one I met a girl from Hong Kong who translated some routine questions that the locals had for me. Where are you from, etc etc. Then they fell into talking amongst themselves. The girl told me "they are talking about your nose. They say it is very beautiful." Later in the train station I was thinking back to this, and looked around. I smiled and thought to myself "I probably have the biggest nose in here!" The smile was replaced with a frown about five seconds later when it occurred to me that I can probably say that just as often in the US as I can in China.

When I last left you in the blogosphere, I was on my way to Xi'an.

Xi'an was a nice city, but exceptionally smoggy. At night I couldn't even take pictures with the flash because it reflected off of particles in the air. The terracotta army is the biggest draw in Xi'an I wasn't floored, but it was certainly worth seeing. The best part about the city was riding a bike along the top of the city walls. It was dusk, and the guard towers along the top were swarmed with circling swallows. Three old men were sitting next to one of the gates with a bull-whip that they were cracking to spin a huge top on the ground.

The city also has a famous Muslim quarter that hosts a night market. An interesting market, but the most interesting thing to me was the fact that a horde of tuk-tuks [the devil's chariots discussed in an earlier entry] had been modified by attaching humongous telescopes to the back. You could pay to look through them, but on top of the fact that you were in the middle of a bright city, the smog was so thick that you could barely see the moon with the naked eye. Of all the places you could have telescopes, why Xi'an?

Toilet stall graffiti provided a likely explanation. According to a vandal, a year or two ago Xi'an experienced a complete solar eclipse. So maybe the drivers invested in the telescopes then? But really, they were honking big, and couldn't be cheap. They must have been charging astronomical (hohoho) prices for the things during the eclipse. Now, a year or two after bouncing along behind a motorcycle in smoggy Xi'an, they're probably so far out of alignment and full of grime that you'd be lucky to see a streetlight.

From Xi'an I went to Huashan, or Mount Hua. According to this website, it is the most dangerous hiking trail in the world:

(Yet again, the hyperlink refuses to work for me so you will have to copy/paste.) The way my computer renders it it is a competitor for worst formatted website ever. Hopefully you have more luck.

The supposed danger was the main draw for me, as it was for a guy from New York I met on the bus ride there. However, while it is an exceptionally beautiful hike, it isn't any more dangerous than hard trails on mountains in Washington. They have paved paths everywhere, for starters. There are narrow staircases with tiny steps carved into the rock face that COULD be dangerous, but they have chains you can haul yourself up on. The website talks about a path on planks along the side of a cliff. This could be dangerous, but now it is a paid tourist activity that they give you harnesses for. The same is true of the rock ladder to the Playing Chess Pavilion, where at some point an emperor played a chess game on the mountaintop. I sat and played a game on my iPod.

We stayed overnight in a dormitory on the mountain and got up at 3:45 the next morning to walk to the next peak and see the sunrise. When we got there we didn't watch the sun "rise," as much as we watched it wheeze its way upwards through the smog for 30 minutes.

Then we hiked down and parted ways. I went on to Luoyang. One of its attractions is the White Horse Temple, which is where Buddhism arrived in China. For someone that didn't speak Chinese, the most exciting thing for at the temple was the "magical weapons depository." Sadly, it was locked. The city is also famous for the Longmen Buddhist Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Caves and nooks were carved into riverside cliffs, and now you can wander past them. One of the statues was giant and you would recognize it if you saw it. Thousands and thousands of caves were carved, but many of the Buddha statues were cut free and stolen by western collectors. Many more were defaced in the Cultural Revolution. Even still, it is an impressive place.

Buying my ticket out of Luoyang was a mess. I got the girl at the hostel to write out the number of the train I wanted and the origin/destination in Chinese, and even had an alternate in case the first was full. I walked there and waited for 15 minutes. When I got to the window, I gave the woman the sheet. After checking the computer she wrote something on the first option, and motioned "no." I tried the second one, she looked at it, looked at the computer again, wrote something else, and again "no." She was through with me. She motioned to the person behind me and I was pushed away.

Back at the hostel, the girl told me that she'd written the first train had no seats, and the second had no direct trains between the two cities. She offered to come with me to help. An hour later we were back at the window. I had prepared four separate trains I wanted, in order of preference, including the two the woman had told me earlier were no good. She asked the woman something. The woman replied, and the girl said to me "there are no trains today because of the flooding." We walked towards the door to leave. "No trains at all? Anywhere?" "No, because of the flooding." I had no idea that there was any flooding at all. "What about tomorrow?" The girl stopped, thought, and we walked back to the window. She talked to the woman for a minute, and we left with the very ticket for that very day that the woman had told me didn't exist because there were no direct trains.

Why she said there were no direct trains when I had the train number AND the destination written in Chinese, I have no idea. And I have no clue whatsoever what happened with the flooding, which wasn't mentioned again. It had been a real enough phenomenon that no trains were leaving Luoyang that day and none of my itineraries were possible, and two minutes later we were buying a ticket for that evening. She didn't bring it up, and I didn't bring it up, but I was 100% confused.

And I understand that there are breakdowns in communication and translation, but just what the dickens could have happened there? There was flooding, and she was leaving. A question about the next day and we're back at the window buying a ticket for the same day, and the whole episode with the flooding may as well never have happened.

The ticket that I ended up getting was a two-parter: overnight to Jiujiang and then 45 minutes to Huangmei. A google search earlier this month turned up the blog of Cynthia and David Trowbridge, who did a Zen-themed trip in China that took them to a lot of places that I wanted to see. I introduced myself via email, and they have been extraordinarily helpful. One of the things they provided me was directions to the Fourth and Fifth Zen Patriarch's temples, which are located in Huangmei. Neither Jiujiang or Huangmei seem to have much tourist infrastructure, and according to Lonely Planet might as well not exist. Their input was therefore all the more helpful.

When I got into Huangmei it was starting to get dark. I showed him the Chinese name of the temple provided by the Trowbridges, and we agreed on a price. He tried to get more out of me at the temple, but I was met right away by a female monk (nun?) who verbally smacked him for me and I got my change.

The Fourth Ancestor's Temple is a working Zen temple in the hills outside Huangmei. The draw for me was to experience some of the life at the temple, even though I am running out of time and could only allow for one night. The dorms and bathroom were the nicest I've had in China, and I had them all to myself.

The girl who met me then took me to the kitchen, where another young male monk made me some noodles. Both appeared to be in their early 20s. They took me to the dining hall and we talked while I ate. She knew more English than he did, but neither knew much, and I know no Chinese, so there was a lot of miscommunication. They were both very good-spirited, though, and there was a lot of laughing.

When I was finished we walked around the temple grounds and they showed me the halls. There were no exterior lights, so all the light came from candles at the shrines and the odd light coming from the living quarters. In front of the statue of the Fourth Ancestor they taught me the correct way to bow to a Buddhist statue. Then we walked out a side door where we met their teacher and his friend, who was singing Beijing Opera. They were standing under an archway, and in the dark light of moon everyone was a silhouette. The two newcomers spoke no English. I counted to ten in Chinese and got laughs at my accent; the teacher counted to ten in English and said "howww do you do-oo." They were all all extremely funny and good-humored.

The five of us stood outside the temple and did our best to talk. It was very dark. Fireflies were blinking between us and in the trees in the nearby woods. Monks were walking home from somewhere and were lighting their way with their cellphones. In the dark beyond the shapes of our bodies was the golden light of the moon, the aleatoric yellow winks of the fireflies, and the blue light of cell phones against a line of orange robes winding their way up the road.

When the night drum and bell ceremony started we went back into the temple and stood between the respective towers to listen. The monks showed me a 1400 year old tree planted by the 4th Ancestor and we stood next to it as the monk in the bell tower tolled the bell and chanted.

Afterwards Ning, the male monk, took me back to my dorm and I showed him some pictures. He gave me a USB drive to give him some American music and some of the pictures I've taken. Ning was a very funny guy. He always has a yo-yo, and is quite good at it. He also collects stamps. I got his address, and he very politely asked if I would send him some American stamps. Certainly.

The next morning I got up at 4:30 to take part in the morning Buddhist ceremony in the Great Hall. There was a lot of chanting and reading from a chant book. Since I don't read a word of Chinese, that meant a lot of standing and a lot of trying not to look like a fool. Everyone was again extremely helpful, however, and even the abbot was helping me know when to bow, when to move, and when to stay put.

After an hour or so of that, we went to the dining hall. They had laid out two bowls for me and a set of chopsticks. We ate in silence, with servers coming around with a variety of delicious food. They are vegetarian, and had boiled tofu in a broth with sugar added to taste, a sort of cold churro-like baked good without any sugar, a noodle-y porridge, a sesame pancake, and a pastry stuffed with something brown, sticky, and delicious. The servers bring hot water to rinse your bowl with when you are finished so that you don't waste anything.

After everyone was done, the monks filed out. It wasn't obvious to me that it was just the monks filing out, however, and at first glance it appeared that everyone was leaving. The kitchen staff stopped me halfway to the door.

You then wash your own dishes and the morning ceremonies are complete. I walked up the hill to the grave of the 4th Ancestor and appreciated the scenery. Back at the temple I was met by a monk who led me to a group of Swedes that had apparently been sleeping in the dorm next to mine. They were dressed like Buddhist monks, and were about to meet the Venerable Master Jing Hui. A Chinese monk I hadn't met invited me to come with them.

We filed into a room. A door opened and out came an elderly monk that seemed to own the adjective "venerable." The Swedish teacher threw himself to the ground to begin the three bows necessary to show respect to a master, but Master Jing Hui stopped him at one. We were led into another room and served green tea that was grown and manufactured by the monks. Master Jing Hui spoke to us through an interpreter. [The interpreter would begin every phrase with "the Master says..." so I am trying to recreate that here.]

After poking around online, I think that this was extraordinarily good luck for me. Master Jing Hui was the Zen heir to Master Empty Cloud, who was the most famous Zen teacher of the 19th and 20th centuries. That makes me wonder if he is like the pope of Zen. I am continuing to investigate. He, too, seemed very good-natured and made many jokes, but I still felt slightly awkward. The Swedes were dressed like monks, and I was wearing wrinkled pants, an un-tucked plaid shirt, and Chacos. Master Jing Hui asked the interpreter where I was from, but did so with a smile.

After the meeting, I went back to the dining hall for the lunch ceremony. The same procedure, but this time with fennel wantons and Chinese gyoza in a vinegar broth, soy beans, red beans, green beans, red peppers, and probably something else that I am forgetting. Again the food was delicious. This time I didn't follow the monks out, but I did walk behind a shrine on my way to the sink that I think I should have backtracked and gone outside to avoid.

I asked the monks how to get to the 5th Ancestor's Temple and then if it was better to take a train or a bus to Hangzhou. They talked amongst themselves and told me to wait a few minutes. I went and packed. They met me in my room and said that Ning would drive me to the 5th Ancestor's Temple and then to Jiujiang and I would take a train from there. It was a 45 minute train ride to Huangmei from Jiujiang, so the car ride we be at least an hour. I politely refused and said that that was too much trouble. They were insistent. I was more insistent. Eventually they told me that Ning would be going into Jiujiang anyways because they need supplies. This gave me pause. I looked at the monk skeptically and he laughed. They promised me that even if I wasn't there, Ning would still be driving to Jiujiang, so it was really no trouble.

Finally they convinced me and we went to the car. It was a minivan, and it was me, Ning, three other monks and a woman. First they drove me to the temple and gave me a tour. Then we drove into Huangmei and stopped at a post office where Ning picked up a small package. It was full of stamps. Then he helped me buy my train ticket and we drove to Jiujiang.

First we stopped at an alley of fruit wholesalers. We spent maybe five minutes there, and didn't buy anything. Then the van full of monks drove me to a McDonald's-WalMart combo where Ning got some deli food and we got ice cream. Then they dropped me off at the train station. Ning said they were going back to the temple. If that was true, then they did no shopping aside from possibly ordering some fruit to be delivered. So it may have all been a ruse for my benefit. But then why did they bring so many monks, and why the woman? Whatever the reason, they were all nice enough to wait as I saw the temple and nice enough to drive me to Jiujiang.

To top it all off, they wouldn't let me pay for the room or for the food. They even gave me two bags of the monk-made green tea and a prayer bracelet as parting gifts before I left the temple. All they asked was that I tell people about them. Ning also asked for me to send him an American souvenir with his stamps, which I will certainly do.

So now I have three nights in Hangzhou. A contact the Trowbridges gave me put me in touch with Bill Porter, the given name of the well-known translator Red Pine. He gave me information on how to get to the poet Cold Mountain's cave, as well as to the poet Stonehouse's hut. Both are somewhat daunting on my own with zero Chinese, but will be extremely rewarding if successful. The next two days will be day trips, then a day or two in Shanghai, and then a few days in Beijing, and then back to the good old US of A.

Speaking of which, on China time I have to get up at 2:30 to watch the game tonight. I hope they win.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Great Firewall of China


The Chinese government has an iron grip on information control in the country. For some reason they deem both Facebook and my blog as potential security risks. Not a football blog called "freedomblogging," however, which kind of makes you hate their system all the more for its illogicality.

Thankfully, I have found a program called "Freegate," which gets you around government blocking. And guess who developed it--the US government! God bless America. Seriously, that is so awesome.

Government censorship aside, China is an awesome country. I've been here for about a week, I think, and am currently in Chengdu. It is the capital of Sichuan Province, and I've had some delicious spicy food.

So, a week-ish (or whatever it's been) ago, I crossed into China from Hanoi. Catching the bus in Vietnam was a classic Vietnam experience, with a rigged-meter-taxi disguised to look like a reliable taxi picking me up for the bus station. The joke was on him, however, because I was only going two minutes away and he barely got anything extra.

The bus "station" was a line of parked buses next to the freeway. Only one had any people in it. I walked up to it and tried to see if there was any way to tell where it was going. There wasn't. The driver and the passengers were staring at me as I walked around the bus looking for signs. When I gave it up as hopeless and approached them to ask, they took my backpack and shoved it under the bus without even looking at my ticket. Not a single person on the bus spoke English. I asked every single person "Nanning?" which is where I was headed, and none of them would look at me or reply. I even got out a map and pointed and said "Nanning?" and got a couple of ever-so-slight nods, but nothing else. What the hell, I decided, and sat down.

Rather than retype a big long message, I'm going to copy part from an email I sent. This explains how nice the people have been since I've been here:

The people here are the nicest I've met anywhere, hands down. I first experienced this on the bus. There were two Chinese men on that barely spoke English, but we managed to communicate that I was trying to catch a train from Nanning to Kunming. They got out their phones and laptops (equipped with edge or 3G) to book me my train ticket onwards. It was full, so they got me one for the next day. When we got to Nanning they took me to an army hotel to stay with them for the night. We went out to dinner so I could try Chinese food, and they bought six courses: soup, veggies, beef, omelette, snails, and fish. The next day they took me around the city, to find medicine for my runny nose, and then to the train station, where they came in with me and waited until the train boarded. The only thing they let me pay for was the train ticket and the medicine. They paid for buses around the city, food, hotel, absolutely refusing to accept any money from me. Wow.

On the train I met a family with one high school girl that spoke English who was translating. Everyone had kind of been eying me and some had been smiling and I'd been enjoying it. As soon as they had a link via the English-speaker they all crowded around and asked me questions. A few stayed back, possibly because they thought all the attention I was getting was rude. They wanted to see pictures of where I had been, but all I had was the pictures I'd brought from home. As soon as those came out EVERYONE, even the stalwart stragglers, jumped up and crowded around to be part of the circuit as the pictures got passed around.

The first person to initiate contact with me had been a Chinese man, and he had called over his niece, who was the one that spoke English. He kept saying how much he liked me, how I had a good laugh and a good smile, and said something at length to the girl. She said he wanted her to come with me to Lijiang and be my guide, but she was sorry, she was waiting to get test results back to see if she could go to a good university, and couldn't guide me. Lijiang was two days travel away, and she seemed genuinely sorry she couldn't come. She wanted to go to a university near the "sea," because she'd never seen it. "Is it true that it is blue?" I had a picture of Puget Sound, and she was thrilled. When she was getting off, at the last second she guiltily asked if she could keep the picture of the sea, and couldn't believe it when I said of course.

She had also never spoken English to an English speaker before; she had taught herself from books. Her pronunciation was good and her command of tense and vocabulary was excellent. I couldn't believe it.

The uncle wanted me to get off the train with them at their stop and come to try their food and to drink with him. After he saw a picture of my dad with a salmon, the deal was sealed in his mind--he loved fishing as well.

If I'd had more time, I would have, but I didn't leave myself enough time and just couldn't do it. They were understanding, gave me a bag of favors from the wedding they had come from, flashed me smiles and said good bye.

Getting in to Lijiang, a group of Chinese students asked me (with about 20 English words) where I was going. I showed them the address and asked if they would call for me, which is what the hostel said to do. Call, and they come pick me up. They had me get in a cab with them, wouldn't let me pay for it, looked for my hotel, couldn't find it, called, and waited with me until the hostel staff came.

All this has been in less than three days in China! Unbelievable. Even if everyone else in the country tries to stab me, these have been standout kindnesses out of the seven months.

--End of quote.

Remarkable? I'd say yes.

Lijiang is famous for an old town that is a maze of cobblestone streets. They built it so that a creek/river enters the old town and is split up into little streams that run down all the streets. I have some pictures that will do it more justice, but I can't post them right now because of a slow connection.

A little town called Baisha is an hour's bike ride from Lijiang. It is known for being home to a famous herbalist named Dr. Ho. I went to see him, and he spent 30 minutes serving tea and regaling me with stories about himself. He had ziplock after ziplock full of clippings, business cards, files from the Mayo clinic proclaiming the validity of his herbal remedies, on and on. Then he gave me a small packet of tea and asked for a donation to support his work. I only had a 100 yuan note and three 10s, so I gave him 30. I think it offended him, because he wouldn't look me in the eyes again and showed me out of his shop. It seemed reasonable to me, but I guess not to Dr. Ho.

A windy, bumpy two hour drive from Lijiang is the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. Hiking it is a two day affair. There are guest houses along the way. The one I stayed at was surprisingly nice. The toilets were the typical Asian-style squat toilets, but they were on a raised deck with stalls that had one side open to the gorge. Easily the best toilet view I've seen or heard of.

I was sleeping in a dorm. From my porch (as well as the bathrooms) you could look across at a rock that was almost sheer. It plunges straight down to disappear out of view, blocked by the foliage on your side of the gorge. Following the rock face up, the trees begin to disappear as you reach the tree line. Then the rock is mottled gray, cut by dry white rivulets and punctuated by patches of sun breaking through the clouds that shroud the uppermost peaks of the jagged mountains. All while you're taking a squat.

From Lijiang I took a 24 hour sleeping bus to Chengdu. In this case, sleeping bus meant all bunks, no seats. I got to the station a little late, and most people were already aboard when I clambered on to look for my bed. Most of the bunks were individual, but a select few were one big mattress that three people fit onto. Mine was one of these. Chinese culture is very conservative about mingling of the sexes. They even think it's a little scandalous for men and women to be in the same dorm room. It was thus an extremely awkward moment when I climbed up to my bunk and found that I was crammed next to a Chinese woman and her late-teens daughter. She had been talking and laughing with her mom, but stopped the instant she saw me pointing to the bunk and asking the driver "that one?!" I've never seen a face look as disappointed as hers did. I had to climb over her and her mother to get to my spot by the window. My space was so narrow that even crammed against the window my shoulder was encroaching on her space. The carefree laughter that had so recently been pouring out of her was long gone, replaced with what you might expect if I had just killed her pet hamster. She unfolded her comforter, pulled it up to her eyes, glared at me for a second, rolled over and went to sleep. It was 1pm.

Tonight I'm catching a train to Xi'an. There I'm going to see the terracotta warriors and hopefully do a hike on Mt Huashan. Nothing else that I can think of... Off to the shower and then to the train station.

Ah! One more thing. The signs here have been the funniest so far. The post office in Lijiang called itself the "Postcard Monopolist." Signs around the city said "Behave in your outing, also, shopping should be rational." In the city today a sign on a construction site said "SAFETY HELMET MUST BE WURN NTTH N SITE BOVNDARY" (sic a lot).

Alrighty. That's it. More to follow. I don't have time to proofread this, so if you notice anything glaring that isn't taken from an English language Chinese sign, don't judge.

Monday, June 7, 2010

On To China

I'm in Hanoi, have fallen slightly behind on posting. I'm leaving this morning for Nanning, China. I've heard that very few people speak English in China, so I am planning on it being a test of my new-earned traveling skills.

The other day I went to a snake restaurant, where I pulled the beating heart from a snake and ate it. I had expected something pretty hardcore at a snake restaurant, but not quite THAT hardcore. I got some pictures, but the guy running my camera wasn't as on top of it as I would have liked.

More soon. I think I'm looking at 24-36 hours of traveling in China, assuming that I can get my connections immediately, which I probably won't. So it might be a few days before I make it to Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is where I'm headed.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Edibles and Criminals (UPDATED: Photos Added)

Two more nights in Cambodia, and then to Vietnam. I took the bus to Phnom Penh this morning.

The bus stopped at two roadside food stands. The first had crickets. I asked how much for one, and she tried to give me a whole cupful. Nooooo, no no no. Just one cricket. The vendors wanted to give it to me for free, but I paid 15 cents. They were pretty tickled. I had read that you're supposed to take off the legs so they don't get stuck in your throat. Off they went. It didn't taste bad at all, it was just mentally a little hard to eat because it was a bug.

I felt pretty proud of myself, but the cricket proved to be small beans compared to the second roadside stand. They were selling something on a plate that was a mess of big worm-like objects piled amongst chunky things. The worms were legs, and it was a plate of tarantulas. I had gotten back on the bus before I worked up the courage to get back off and buy one.

Looking at the thing in the plastic bag she gave me was disgusting. Leg to leg it went from the base of my palm to the tip of my fingers. If YOU had a tarantula in your hand, how would you eat it? I didn't know either. I tried to ask the woman, and she mimed holding it by a leg and lowering it into her mouth. Hellz no. I had to stare at it for a while, and nibbled at a leg. The leg still had hair on it. It also had a little bone in it. I didn't know that tarantulas had bones, but I swear this thing had bones in its legs. Little nibbles and you could pull the husk off, leaving the bone exposed. I took pictures. So gross.

I was determined to eat more, but it was so hard to work up to it. To make matters worse, I was back on the bus. If I tried and lost it, I would have had three more embarrassing hours on a hot bus reeking of vomit surrounded by angry Cambodians. The main body had all the thick legs connecting to it, so on top of looking especially gross, I was afraid it would be bony. Upon closer inspection there were also two little claws or something that felt just like sharp toenail clippings. No way they would have been chewable. That left only the back part. Maybe the thorax, maybe the abdomen, maybe something else. The little spinneret things where the silk comes out was cooked but still gummy-looking. Extra gross was the worried thought that maybe tarantulas don't make webs. And if that hole wasn't where the web came out... It was hard to eat, and took a while to chew, but I got it down. It smelled like potato chips. Lays. Try not to think of that next time you crack a bag of those open.

At the beginning of the trip, when I decided to take a break on five years of vegetarianism to make sure I experienced the culture everywhere I went, I told myself I would try everything. Even dog.

No longer.

One of the restaurants we stopped at had a dog in a little cage out back behind the kitchen next to a big pile of garbage. It was yipping and crying and jerking at the chicken-wire with its teeth. We stayed for 20 minutes and it was yipping the whole time. Horrible. I won't be trying dog.

Back in Siem Reap, the Angkor temples were gorgeous. The first two days my tuk-tuk took me around for a look. Thankfully, he wasn't too much of a crook. He charged me only slightly more than it said in the book. Nook cook snook. Mistook.

That afternoon we went to the River of a Thousand Lingas. The Khmer carved the living rock of the river bed with linga (kind of like big raised bumps) and Hindu gods. The second day we went to more temples. The third day I rented a bike and rode back to the park. More temples. Look at some pictures. They are gorgeous, but three days is a lot of temples. For a change of pace, I rode out into the countryside looking for an infrequently visited temple.

I never found it. But the farther I rode along the dirt road, the friendlier people got. Little kids love to yell out “HELLO!” and are absolutely thrilled when you yell back. They will give you two for free, pause before the third, and then keep it up until you are out of earshot, laughing hysterically. By the end of the road, even the adults were yelling out “hello!” and laughing and waving when you smiled and yelled back. Even a very grizzled looking guy on his motor bike, riding slowly towards me and glaring, flatly said “hello” as he got close. I yelled back “hello!” with a smile. He laughed a husky “hehehe,” gunned the throttle and sped down the road.

Last night in Siem Reap I had my most overt encounter with a criminal to date. As I walked out of my hostel for dinner, I was startled by a guy standing in the dark in the garden bed just outside door. I had been singing to myself, and apologized for jumping. I kept walking, and he followed me. He was following me much too close for us just to have been walking in the same direction. I was turning around to look at him to make sure he knew I saw him. As we walked I was also watching the shadows from the streetlights and saw him closing the gap. I stepped into a well-lit shop, made sure he walked past, asked the shopkeeper a few questions, and went back out on the street. The guy was up ahead and had slowed down his pace to well below walking. Even though I was walking as slowly as I could, I still caught up to him. He was trying to drift back behind me. I wasn't letting it happen. I was looking him up and down to try and figure out what he was after. There was something very small and very discreetly concealed between his thumb and forefinger. You had to really look to see it. I think it was a razor blade, and he was probably trying to razor my bag. When we got close to the main street he stopped. I crossed the street and passed him. He turned around and wandered back towards the alley. It was still pretty busy where we were, so I gave him some space and walked 30 feet back after him to see where he stopped. He squatted down in front of an empty building. I went and got some dinner

In Siem Reap I was paying $1 a night for a mattress behind the guesthouse. It was covered, on a raised platform, and had a mosquito net. It was also right next to a hive of Cambodian activity that didn't seem to slow down until the very wee hours of the morning. They ran the guesthouse and they had babies and people of all ages laughing and playing cards and creating a ruckus all of the time. There was also a light that didn't get turned off, a bar on the roof that played music loud enough to hear, and a club next door that played music loud enough to feel. Sunday night was karaoke night. When you had to get up at 4:45 in the morning to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat, it got very frustrating to deal with. But for a dollar? Can't complain.

As a last bit of news, two days ago I shaved my head. You know you're losing your hair when you shave your head and look the same. The barber used a guard on the razor so it didn't cut right to the scalp. He took off the guard to do some edge trimming, set the razor down to brush aside some hair, and picked the razor back up, still guardless. He moved it slowly towards my head. I was watching him in the mirror. The slightly puzzled look on his face made it clear he knew something was wrong, and he was moving in slow motion as he tried to figure out what it was. He didn't. His face changed from puzzled to a pleased “oh well,” and his movements cranked back up to full speed. He touched the razor to my head, BZZT, and jerked it back up. He looked at the razor, looked at the new square shaped bald spot on the back of my head, looked at me in the mirror , and shouted “I so sorry!” He gave me a dollar off, though, for grand total of $2 to cut off all your hair and carve a little off-center patch out of the back of your head.

I found out today that I got ANOTHER speeding ticket from Australia. This one is $141 for supposedly speeding in a school zone. I seriously cannot believe it.

I haven't taken any pictures yet of the head shaving, but will try and post some soon. You can shoot a rocket launcher somewhere nearby. Maybe they would just let me hold it for a cool picture. For now, you can just imagine either an upside down egg or Charlie Brown, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what I look like.

Tomorrow I'm going to the Killing Fields and S-21 prison museum. It will be a very somber day.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Tuk-Tuk

Ahhhh the tuk-tuk: Ubiquitous rats of the road. Assailers of the senses. "Tuk-tuk?! You want tuk-tuk?!" I had never heard of them before I left, but boy do I know them now.

For the uninitiated: a tuk-tuk (pronounced took-took, as in "the tuk-tuk took me to a cookbook nook") is just a little cart that gets pulled behind a motor cycle or little truck that you sit in. Sometimes it's only big enough for two, sometimes it's big enough for eight. It is a couple of levels below a taxi, one level below walking.

I have no idea how tuk-tuk drivers survive. They lounge around talking to other tuk-tuk drivers, lying in the cabs of their mini-trucks, leaning back in their carts, or napping in hammocks strung up in the back. And they do this all day. You can walk by a cluster of them when you leave in the morning, when you come back for lunch, and when you go to bed, and they're always there, exactly as you left them. And of course each time you walk by them you're met with shouts, one after the other from different overlapping voices: "tuk tuk?!" "My friend, tuk-tuk for you?" "You want tuk-tuk?"

The worst part is that despite how easy it is to find them, they try to rip you off so badly that it's almost never worth actually taking one. When you ask a waiter or local how much you SHOULD pay to get somewhere, and then ask them have them double the price because you're white, the drivers still ask at least double that price. In Laos when I was negotiating with a group of them (they travel in packs) they were all offering me ridiculously inflated prices for a trip to a nearby temple. Fortunately, I had just asked a waiter and gotten the quote, and was feeling ready to stymie them by being better prepared than they were.

Horde: "Oh very far, very far. (Yes, very far.) 40,000."
Me: "40,000? 20,000."
Horde: "40! 40! Good price for you!"
And now for my secret weapon.
Me: "It should be 20,000. I asked them [pointing towards the cafe] and they said it should be 20,000."
Immediately and simultaneously, each reached into their respective vehicles and pulled out the same laminated list of fares. They pointed. There was the name of the temple. And there was the price printed right beside it: 40,000. Damn them.

Right now I am in Siem Reap, Cambodia. There are so many here that if you even make eye contact with someone on the street, it is met with an inquisitive "tuk-tuk?"

One horde hangs out playing a version of chess in the driveway of my guest house. I made a deal with one (not a very good deal) to cover my temple viewing days. I tuk, er, took, a ride with him out to the temples today to watch the sunset from the ruins. When we got back, I stepped out of the cart and walked to the bathroom. Two minutes later I walked back to the street to get some dinner. My driver, their friend, was still parking. I glanced towards their chess game. Instantly came two voices, one on top of the other: "Tuk-tuk?" "You want tuk-tuk?"

Before I left Laos I had gotten pretty good at bargaining with them.

30-40 minutes outside of Luang Prabang are some absolutely gorgeous waterfalls. The big falls themselves are impressive but not awe-inspiring. The smaller falls, however, are 14-tiered and spread throughout the jungle, each falling into a blue pool that you can swim in. (Picture below) As soon as you step foot in the water, little fish start nibbling the skin on your toes. When you go deeper they disappear. The water is quite opaque at more than three feet deep, but you can tell when you're getting close to the bank because you start to feel little nibbles.

If you want to visit the falls (which you do) and you want to avoid a costly tour, tuk-tuks are your only option. I was told to pay 30,000. When I was looking to go, I was first offered 150,000. I talked him down to 50,000. He wouldn't go any lower. This time, I tried a new tactic. I told him that I had another driver across the street that was leaving in an hour that was going to take 30,000, and I would just wait for him. He looked across the street at the supposed offender and stroked his chin, pained. "Ok, you pay 30. But shh!" and he put his finger to his lips. "Others pay 50, you pay 30. Shh!" He led me to his tuk-tuk, which already had three people in back. I started to climb in, but he pulled me down and put me in the cab up front with him. He started to drive. "My friend, you pay now" and he gestured discreetly to the seat between us. "Don't say!" and he gestured towards the back. It made me feel a little guilty.

At the falls I bought a knife for my brother. On the way back the driver let me ride with the others in the back, and I stuck the knife under the seat, promising myself not to forget it. I forgot it. Back in town, he drove to a group of tuk-tuks and turned off the engine. We climbed out and I started the walk back. The streets were thick with them, lounging in their hammocks and leaning against their trucks, lazily opening an eye and yawning "tuk-tuk?" I was two blocks away before I realized I had left it. I started to jog back. There was his tuk-tuk coming at me down the road. His window was down. I shouted "Hey!" Nothing. "Wait!" Nope. He was past me. "Hey you! Please! Stop! Sir!" He didn't even slow down. I knew what I had to do. "TUK-TUK!!" He came screeching to a halt in the middle of the road. Every head on the street whipped towards me, an engine started, and 10 excited voices shouted "you want tuk-tuk?!"

I got the knife back, but it cost 40 dollars to ship to the US, so I kind of wish I hadn't. I'm going to see Angkor Wat at sunrise tomorrow, and will be taking a tuk-tuk.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Northern Laos

Laos > Thailand.

Fewer tourists, the people don't try and scam you at every opportunity, less humidity. All of which makes it easier to appreciate the country.

On the way out of Vientiane the markets had baguettes of all sizes leaning up against the stalls alongside the typical south east Asian food and wares.

My first stop outside Vientiane was Vang Vieng. The little town sits across the muddy Mekong from sharp stegosaurus mountains. At night smoke hangs in the streets like fog from where they are burning (rice paddies? brush?) in the nearby countryside. Bung Bang Fai, a rocket festival, happens in May. Kids had strung up rubber bands as makeshift catapults to launch their burnt out bottle rockets across the road.

When I got into town at dusk I walked around with my backpacks--big one on my back, little one on my stomach like an expectant mother. Through a window I saw some dormitory beds. I walked into the house to inquire, and it turned out they had just opened that afternoon. They had to get up to greet me from where they were still putting together the sign to hang out front. I was the first guest and had the entire dorm room to myself.

Across the street was a Hosteling International hostel that was charging 10,000kip for their wifi password. If you sat on the porch of my hostel you could barely pick up the signal. The owner sent me across the street with 10,000kip. He was very clear that he wanted me to stay for a little while in their lobby so as not to look suspicious, and then come back and give him the password. I didn't feel very guilty because the signal was too weak to suffer much leeching from his hostel no matter how many people tried.

The bars and restaurants in Vang Vieng all had TVs. They would play The Simpsons, Family Guy, or Friends, and you would pick where you wanted to go based on what they were playing. The most popular thing to do in Vang Vieng is tubing. You take a tuk-tuk 10 minutes outside of town and float or swim down the river. Bars on either side throw out ropes, haul you in, and ply you with free shots of whiskey in hopes that after a few you'll pay for beer and cocktails. Giving people free shots is like giving them a loaded gun. The bars also sell magic mushroom milkshakes. It was a weird, weird place, and got very crazy.

I'm now in Luang Prabang. It is one of the most beautiful cities I've been in. Last night the night market showed off intricate silk, switchblades, lamps, whiskey with cobras in the bottle, silver ornaments, and even a Delta stewardess pin. Woodsmoke woke me up this morning. After an espresso grown by the hill tribes in the far north of the country I walked to see temples and the royal palace. At one of the temples a monk had squatted down discreetly behind the main wat with a laptop and quickly put it out of sight when he saw that I spotted him. The royal palace hosts the former king's royal car collection. If you go in expecting to see a Rolls Royce or Mercedes, you'll be surprised. It was a tiny fleet of three Lincoln Continentals, a speedboat, and a Toyota jeep. Not what I expected, although nothing is as stately as a Lincoln.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


The final night at the last hotel, albeit creepy and sweltering, passed without any parts of me being taken and wrapped in plastic. Phew. That morning I caught a boat to the mainland and caught a night bus to Bangkok. I paid for a shower at a hotel and booked another night bus to Vientiane, Laos. I arrived this morning. It is even hotter here, but less humid, which is (kind of?) preferable.

Somewhere along the line my hand decided to become infected. A week ago, as you may recall from an earlier post, I was scuba diving and scraped my hand on a rock and impaled it on a sea urchin. All in the same graceless motion. I blame the urchin spines, but the infection took a week or so to crop up. My middle and ring finger are swollen and it hurts to press on one side of each of the first knuckles. That strikes me as a weird characteristic of an infection and is troubling. I saw a doctor in Bangkok that spoke perfect English and said there were no spines (he insisted he would be able to feel them were they in there, regardless of the size) and prescribed me antibiotics.

My guess is that there are little bits of spine left in there and I irritated them. Rock climbing is very popular on Railay beach, and I did some bouldering while I was there that may have stirred them around. I was planning on doing one whole day of climbing on the limestone cliffs, but it was expensive, and I had sea urchin spines in my hand. So instead I opted for a half day of deep water soloing. This is rope-free cliff climbing over the ocean. You get in a boat and they take you to cliffs in a national park. You climb to your heart's content and simply fall into the deep water at the base of the cliff or get high enough that you want to jump off.

If it sounds fun, it's not. I have absolutely no problem with heights, but apparently I don't like jumping into water. Most everyone else seemed to enjoy it immensely. One girl didn't like it and claimed to get seasick after trying it a couple times. I tried it a couple times and admitted that I was a coward and didn't like it. There were also huge jellyfish floating around waiting for jumpers. Everyone got stung a couple times. A German guy also got stung by a wasp that was basking in the sun high on the cliff. Both thought they were high enough up to not have to worry about encountering the other. He fell off with a shriek and crashed (safely) into the water. It was all pretty satisfying to watch from the comfort boat.

Down below is a picture of our Thai guide jumping off from as high as anyone got. He was out of control good, and did it all in bare feet. We had lunch on a gorgeous secluded beach. There was a small cave complex on the beach and we all climbed around and did some bouldering. My friend was walking through the sand, stubbed his toe on a hidden rock and tore off his pinky toenail. The nail fell to the sand and within a minute was swarming with ants hungry for goodies. I took a picture, but decided not to post it.

Now to backtrack some. I left Koh Tao a little less than a week ago. One of my last nights in the budget bungalow I came back and found a rat/giant mouse rummaging around in my stuff. As soon as the light came on he dashed under the door. That might mean that the "gecko" poop I found next to me when I woke up that earlier morning had in fact been a mouse poop after all. The morning that I checked out I was looking under the mattress to make sure I hadn't misplaced anything, and I discovered a likely source of the stink that filled the bungalow. A lizard had somehow gotten under the mattress and gotten squished, possibly by me. However, there was an index shoved under a front foot that looked like maybe someone else had found him and tried to scrape it up, so I'm probably in the clear.

I left Koh Tao via night ferry. The crew were the rudest people I've ever met. They treated us like cattle. I checked in at the pier an hour early. After glancing at my ticket, he looked away and said "numbersfull. nosleep." I didn't understand. "NOSLEEPNUMBER!" Sleep number? Serta? I remained confused. Hew as getting pissed. The guy was wearing a black tank top sitting behind a desk he'd pushed out to the middle of the concrete pier in the dark with a paper covered in scribbles with the scribbles covered in pink highlighter, slamming his hand down and screaming "NO SLEEP NUMBER! NO NUMBER!" One of his lackeys, no doubt fearful for the safety of my person, took me by the shoulder and led me into the boat.

As it turned out, all the "beds" were just spaces on benches, and they all had numbers. They put me on a straw mat in a hot little room in the bow. For a few minutes I wondered if they wanted a bribe for a bed, but I decided that there are lot cooler things to try bribing people for and that I didn't want to steal someone's bed who thought they had one. 10 minutes later I met two kids from England and we moved to the...aft? Is that the word? We moved to the back. The engine noise back there was thunderous, but it was outside and much cooler. The engine drowned out the voices of the people around me that had brought beer and I managed to sleep pretty well.

At 5 a.m. we arrived at the pier. Everyone with a pickup truck claimed to be the company that sold you your ticket and beckoned you to climb on in. Taking a gamble with one of them, we piled into the back. He drove us two blocks and kicked us out in front of a cafe. There's a system in Asia that drivers use where they drive you to a restaurant and make you wait between 20 minutes and an hour. They get a commission for bringing you. We stopped at five separate crappy restaurants and changed buses/vans three times before we finally got on the freeway.

Despite of some pronunciation issues, I got off alone at Phang Nga bay. It is supposedly one of the most beautiful bays in the world. They used an island there for Scaramanga's house in "The Man with the Golden Gun." Now they call it James Bond Island. That was definitely very cool. Everyone told me that it was low season and there were no tourists, so I'd have to take a private tour. This seemed to be true, so I arranged a private boat. The bay has lots of islands with vertical cliffs that shoot out of the water and continue so high that you have to strain your neck to see the top. Around some caves I switched to a canoe and my guide paddled us into a cave so low you had to lie down in the boat. We emerged in a lagoon surrounded on all sides by 40 foot high rock, with jungle vines and tree roots reaching down towards the water from a circle of blue sky.

Back on the dock as I was waiting for my van I began to suspect that I had overpaid for the tour. There were no white tourists, true, but there were lots of Thai and Chinese tourists that were parts of groups, although they could have been from Phuket. An old Thai man on the dock started talking to me to practice his English. He asked me what I paid. I told him. "Did I overpay?" "If you are satisfied, then you did not overpay."

From there I caught the bus to Railay and spent my three nights in the jungle bungalow version of The Overlook Hotel. (That's from The Shining. Not sure how obscure that is.) Now I'm in Laos, where I plan on being for a week or so, and then to Cambodia. My hostel here has multitudes of signs saying "no prostitutes in the room," "no sex workers are allowed in the hotel," etc. The currency in Laos is the kip, which is supposedly inconvertible. But I just used an ATM, so I'm not sure how that works. It's about 8,000 kip to a US dollar. I got 1,000,000 kip, and they gave it to me all in 20,000 notes. It is a huge stack of bills that I can't fit in my wallet. Makes me feel like a baller, though.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I am staying on Railay beach. It is dead deserted right now in low season. Bars are empty and the music is blaring, there are hammocks hanging slack--it is eerie. The bungalow I am staying in is at a place run by an English guy. The sign out front says 650 a night, but I am paying 250. I got there at night after a trek through the jungle. You can only get here by boat. The receptionist took 10 minutes to come out of his office, he said he was showering.

He is very creepy. Just the way he looks at you. I thought I was being overly judgmental, but other visitors tell me the same thing. The other day to find him I had to walk up the hill through the jungle on a little trail, past shells of buildings that had odd discarded saw blades, torn straw mats, and putrid piles of vomit in the corners. Nestled in the jungle are some concrete rooms with water pooling around them and a fabric net hanging across a broken down wall. The windows are dirty and taped over and obscured from the inside by dingy curtains. There are bathrooms with doors hanging off broken hinges, casting shadows over dirty tiles and opening into dark stalls that somehow admit none of the blaring jungle sun. I followed the water into a dim area between the buildings, rounded the corner and he was standing right there at a laundry machine waiting for me. It was creepy.

I had my passport and cards in the safe at reception to avoid another robbery incident, except he disappeared all day and I couldn't get my stuff out. He disappears during the day. There is a restaurant attached to the reception. It is never open, but he never takes the standing menus in from off the dirt road. There is also a minute mart, but you have to find him and get him to let you in. Today the power is out and I couldn't find him.

It is night now. Still no power. I walked down to the beach to use the internet, glad to leave the hotel behind me. It is very creepy there. It is in the jungle and there is power at other places before and after it. They are far enough away that we get none of the light. Two rows of bungalows in pitch black jungle and one very creepy owner that is unaccounted for and has keys to all of them. Most of the other cabins are empty, which adds to the eeriness.

I just took my headlamp and walked up to look for him at the creepy concrete structures in the jungle. He wasn't there, but my god was it scary up there. I wouldn't be surprised if he is an impostor that slit the real owner's throat and has him wrapped in saran wrap locked up behind one of those greasy curtains.

Creepy stuff happened on the walk. A jungle cat came and chased the local stray away from the bungalows, complete with terrible noises and cold glaring eyes darting and staring. There was a friendly kitten; the kitten has disappeared. Two other white cats with identical markings and identical mangled tails were sitting in identical fashion looking away from me on the trail. Simultaneously and silently they got up calmly and walked into the jungle in identical stride.

Back in my bungalow in the light of my headlamp I found my stuff from the safe with a note saying he'd been called away. More likely is that he lures people in with low prices and cuts the power before carrying out a monthly cull. Earning trophies to wrap in plastic and stash behind the curtains. With the power out there is no fan and it is unbearably hot in there, so everyone will have no choice but to leave their windows open, where he can slip in and stab them in the eyes with an icepick. My windows will be locked tight and I will be oozing sweat in restless sleep.

I am leaving tomorrow.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Koh Tao

For the past week I've been scuba diving on the island paradise that is Koh Tao. ALMOST paradise, I should say, as there are too many tourists and partyers for it to be a real paradise. Close, though. It is absolutely gorgeous here, situated off the east coast of Thailand.

A few days ago I took a freediving course. Freediving is kind of like scuba, except you do it only by holding your breath. You "breathe-up" on the surface, and then dive. In the beginner class we got at deep as 20 meters, all on one breath of air. At that depth the water pressure compresses your lungs to 1/3 the size of what they are on the surface. There are a few methods. One is with fins and to just dive down, equalizing your ears as you go. Another is to pull yourself down along the guide rope to a depth of 20m, feet first. Headfirst I had trouble equalizing my ears, and need to practice, so I was going feet first, pulling on the rope.

The breathe-up process on the surface takes four to five minutes. I was floating in the water with my mask on, looking at the end of the rope. Barely visible against the deep blue, I looked at the ring of weights suspended there and visualized my dive, listened to my breathing, slow and controlled, in the snorkel. When I completed the breathe-up, I removed the snorkel and took hold of the rope. You're supposed to remain calm and use as few superfluous actions as you can in order to conserve oxygen. That results in a sort of gliding motion as you pull yourself downwards. One hand needs to be kept on your nose so you can plug it to equalize your ears and release it to equalize your mask. You can feel your lungs compressing as you go deeper. At first it is a scary feeling, but as they get smaller the partial pressure of 02 increases and you actually get a bit of an oxygen rush and a sort of second wind. That kicked in for me between 7 and 10 meters. My first time at 20m I wanted to make sure I was legitimately at 20. In my mind, this meant putting my head at the level of the weights with my feet hanging below.

At 10m depth you are neutral buoyant. That means that if you go to a depth of 10m, you can just float there and won't move up or down. Shallower than 10m and you will eventually float to the surface. Deeper than 10m, and you sink in freefall towards the bottom. At 20 meters, with my lungs compressed and my brain saving oxygen for the rest of my body, I forgot this. I let go of the rope to grab hold of the weights. Already possessing downward momentum and 10m past the neutral buoyancy point, I shot towards the ocean floor like a stone. We weren't wearing fins, so any swimming I had to do would deplete my oxygen supply for the 20m ascent. As my fingers left the rope, through my mask the rope appeared to be zipping upwards towards the surface. Then the weights flew up past my eyes and all I could see was the blue of the ocean. My hand shot up and grabbed at them desperately. Fortunately, my fingers barely managed to grab them. I hung there for a second and let myself feel my body being pulled downwards. I thought about how close I was to either sinking or wasting my oxygen with 20m of water above me. It freaked me out. Slowly pulling myself up, I tried to keep my heartbeat slow as I glided back towards the surface. The safety diver met me at 10m. With the rope between us we glided upwards as he made sure I didn't experience a shallow water blackout and made sure I maintained eye contact in order to remain as aerodynamic as possible.

When you do break the surface from that depth (at least as a beginner) you experience an oxygen rush and it is a very clear-the-mind experience almost like a natural high. The last 10m are when you experience this the most and are actually the most dangerous. From 10m to the volume of your lungs doubles in size, meaning that the partial pressure of 02 is halved. That means a lot lower efficiency of absorbing oxygen for your body. It is the last 10 meters where you start to get really low on air and a little panicked.

The crazy thing is that if I opted for the advanced class they teach you dive as deep as 40m. Madness. I would certainly have liked to take it, but it was very expensive for three days. The first day of the advanced was static apnea. In other words, holding your breath in a pool. They guaranteed at least three minutes. The two people from my class that continued on each held their breath for about two minutes when we timed it the day before. After the class they each managed four minutes and forty seconds, underwater. Crazy.

Right now I am spending my time trying to decide whether or not I should leave the island. I have a little bungalow 20 seconds from the beach for 9.25US a night. I think it maybe should be a little less than that, because it is a huge jump up in quality for what I could have for 1.25 more a night at the place next door. There is no mirror in the bathroom, the door doesn't really close all the way (although it locks), the bathroom reeks from something that I can't find and is inhabited by shockingly big ants, I can see through the floorboards, and today I found a rodent turd on the bed when I woke up. However, it looked pretty dry so it could have been there and I missed it or fell from the ceiling or something. Tons of personality, though, and not too uncomfortable when the fan is on. [Edited: I just talked to my friend, who tells me that it is likely a gecko turd. He was lying in bed watching one on his ceiling when it pooped on him. Just like a rodent.]

The scuba here has been great. Coolest thing I've seen was a lionfish. Yesterday I hit a rock with my hand, scraped and cut it, and hit a sea urchin. At that depth the spectrum is so depleted that your blood looks green. They had told me that blood looks gray at depth, but this was definitely green. "What the devil is that," I thought to myself. Then I realized it was blood, and it looked like Spock's hand.

Urchin spines are designed so that they break really easily in order to remain in whatever predator tried to eat them. Or in my case, clumsily hit them. Some smaller points that broke off in my hand aren't bothering me at all, but a bigger one is stuck deep in my fingertip and is quite painful. Last night I spent some time digging at it with a needle, but didn't have any luck. The anti-septic the pharmacy gave me was iodine, though, which was exciting. I'd heard of iodine being used from Peanuts when Peppermint Patty got licked by Snoopy, but had never actually seen it used outside the hospital.

I want to see Krabi and mayyyybe Phuket and then I will feel more or less satiated in Thailand. My next big stop is Laos, where I am trying to see a rocket festival. Apparently they make homemade bamboo rockets and shoot them towards the sky. There are supposed to be lots of botched rockets resulting in explosions, as well as normal bottle rockets. The losing rockets get thrown into the mud by their frustrated creators. The question now is how to get started on the rest of my SE Asia itinerary. If I stayed four more days on Koh Tao, maybe with some snorkeling and hiking in the jungle, on the 6th I could go on a full day trip to Sail Rock. It is one of the best dive sites in the gulf, and whale sharks are often seen there. BUT, "often" by whale shark standards is still a pretty low percentage.

My Vietnam visa expires at the end of this month. I want to cross into China from Vietnam overland. As a result, I think I might just reapply for a Vietnamese visa in Cambodia and absorb the wasted cost of the visa that I got in the US. That will mean finish up Thailand, then Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. But do I stay for those dives, or do I get started? I just don't know. Aside from the heat, it is pretty amazing here. This is also about as un-touristy as I can probably hope for; it is low-season, plus many people are avoiding Thailand due to the political situation in Bangkok. So many decisions! The biggest thing is that I don't want to miss the rocket festival (Boun Bang Fai) in Laos. If anyone has any details on the dates of that, I would love hear them. I am having a hard time finding them. One guy on the couchsurfing site says it happens every Sunday of May, which is good news, but I'd like to have this corroborated.

Anyways. I just looked at some pictures of whale sharks online. That would really be something. Tough, tough decisions. Here is something that my friend Sam sent me. It is a link to a hike in China. It looks pretty exhilarating, but maybe too terrifying to actually attempt. The story is really good, but the pictures offer quicker gratification. Blogger's "embed link" function is unreliable, and doesn't seem to be working, so you have to copy paste, sorry!

All for now.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kiddie Pool Table

Tomorrow I head south to beaches and scuba diving. Today I pet tigers at the tiger temple, fed and held a baby leopard, saw the bridge over the river Kwai, went to a floating market, and spent a frustrating hour on the phone with the visa people.

Tonight I had lao khao, which is Thai whiskey. The guy selling it was in a back alley behind Khao San Road. He had five types: one "for strong man," for eye, for brain, for kidneys/back, and for the nether-regions. He poured it through a funnel. Good stuff, although I'm not convinced of its strength. I tried strong man, brain, and nether regions. The nether-regions shot was accompanied by an enactment of its powers by the other patrons.

Afterwords I went to a bar in the same alley. It had a kiddie pool table in front of it that was wobbly, run-down, and the felt had scotch tape patching it up. I played one game against Eric, who is visiting for 10 days, then one against another patron, then 12 against one of the bar employees. This guy was out of control good. The table was tiny, wobbly, and not level, but he was making shots that would be unreal on a flat full-sized table. I have to admit I never thought I would be hustled on a table that was three feet long. He was even using tricks that Grandpa Drumheller taught me, which seemed out of place on a table this size. For instance, he would chalk his cue and put the chalk down where I was sighting my shot. The bartender said that he had worked there eight months, was from Cambodia, didn't speak Thai, and only smiled when he was playing pool. He was doing a lot of smiling tonight, the sly devil. Out of the 12 games, I beat him three or four times. He was without question the better player, though.

On my way back to the hotel a motorcycle cop stopped me, went through my pockets, and was awkwardly thorough in searching me for drugs and contraband.

I haven't found the money pouch, which strengthens the case for theft. The visa people meanwhile are slackers and are blaming my bank and I won't get the replacement card for four or five days at best. I also called my insurance and discovered that they don't cover stolen cash. On the plus side, though, there is nothing that I would do differently if I had to do it over again. There comes a point where something is going to happen against you no matter what you do. Locking the door to your room and not carrying the cards for pickpockets is as good as I could do, and if people still steal stuff, they steal stuff. It happens.

Tomorrow I'm going to see the last temples I am looking for, try and fine snake blood cognac, and catch an overnight bus to Koh Tao, an island famous for scuba diving.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"An Exercise in Futility" OR "Annnnnd Sam Got Robbed"

I've been seeing temples, buying glasses, and doing cool things in Bangkok. Tomorrow I'm going to a tiger temple and then will be heading out of the city to a destination as of yet undecided.

Today I took a Thai cooking class. The things we made were downright delicious, including delicious Thai peanut sauce. Most surprising base ingredient in peanut sauce? Tomato! I never would have guessed.

I've been staying at a buy one night get one night free hotel. That already should have set off some red flags. If not the price alone, the ants in the bed and the lizard in the bathroom maybe should have tipped me off. But it had a private bathroom AND airconditioning. Easy decision. Nevertheless, this morning while I was cooking up issan, the staff was cooking up trouble.

It's very hard to admit when something hasn't been simply misplaced, but has in fact been stolen. Especially when it's out of a locked hotel room. After all, you can never really know! Sure, you can ASSUME it's been stolen, but how can you know you didn't just misplace it? You end up searching and rummaging and combing through all your stuff, and there's really no reason to stop other than when you burn yourself out.

So, this afternoon when I got back from the cooking class, I began a search for the pouch that has my US money and my credit/debit cards. At this point you should be able to guess how it turned out. Last night it was right where I left it, but today it wasn't under the bed, under the covers, between the mattresses, and didn't somehow leap five feet through the air onto the desk and slip itself under the TV. With no way to be sure it was stolen, there's no place you're not willing to look. In fact, I'm still not even positive it WAS stolen. It could be lurking in a pair of dirty underwear somewhere waiting to fall out and brighten my tomorrow. (Although I triple-checked all the dirty underwear, which did anything but brighten my today.)

I had another set of credit/debit cards in a separate place and they were ok, and I have taken all the necessary steps to get them replaced, and have begun padlocking the hotel door. I'm pretty sure it was the staff, as I've been very good about locking the doors, had splurged (if you can call these prices splurging) for a private room, and the staff seems sketchy. All told, though, I guess this has ended up being the most expensive room I've ever slept in.

Tomorrow I'll get to pet tigers, which will be cool enough to offset having to yet again deal with the lovely people at 1-800-visa-911. Visa-911 is another story all in itself. I had to move internet cafes three times before she could hear me on skype, and then I had to keep telling her that I didn't have a phone. Five times I told her that. Three times I had to tell her "NO, I am NOT in the US. How could I be in Thailand AND in the US?" When filling out the last case report: "and sir, if you could just PLEASE give me your phone number it would really make all this a lot easier." "Look. It's not like I'm holding out on you. I do not have a phone, and thus I do not have a phone number. If I did, I would give it to you, but I do not and therefore cannot."

Hopefully I will be back soon saying I found the cash and canceled the cards for no reason. And even more hopefully won't be back to say the thief came back and took more. The most befuddling part of all of this is that that is the only thing they took! (If in fact anyone took anything). Computer and passport, both equally accessible, remain accounted for. Good news, but makes you wonder. I will feel like a fool if I find it, but a very pleased fool, even though I've canceled my cards.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Getting up to Date!

Every time I say I'm going to post a lot I never do. I'm a liar. I will try a new tack this time. Right now I am in Bangkok, sitting on my hostel patio alongside a river. There are little lizards on the ceiling by the light making chirping noises.

Japan stayed amazing. Kate came and visited me for about 6 days on her spring break. She will be the first one to tell you how glad she is that I convinced her to come to Japan. The usual sibling arguments went down, of course, but I was always right, so it wasn't too bad. We spent two days in Kyoto seeing temples and one day in Himeji, home of the biggest and most famous castle in Japan. (Picture below) The castle was closed for renovations, so we couldn't go inside. That was fine, however, as it was gorgeous with the cherry blossoms blooming all around. As we were walking up the steps to the castle a guy dressed like a ninja walked through the gate and down past us. Cool? Yes.

The shrines and temples in Kyoto were gorgeous as well. Cherry blossom season was a great time to be there. One of the highlights for me was a walk down the Philosopher's Path. It is a lovely little stroll alongside a canal with cherry trees and bridges and shrines. Another was seeing the hermitage of Mukai Kyorai, the most famous disciple of the haiku poet Basho. There was also a hilarious sign in a garden there, that I have pictured below.

In Tokyo we stayed with Kate's friends Matt and Yuko, who were kind enough to put us up. Matt knew a lot of good Japanese beer and good Japanese candy, and Yuko made delicious Japanese food. Kate and I saw various parts of the city. The coolest was the Tsukiji Fish Market. It is supposedly the biggest fish market in the world. There are little Japanese truckcarts people drive around at high speed and don't care if you're a tourist that isn't ready to get out of the way. I almost got hit at least once. Once you make it through that gauntlet and find the market, it is easy to believe it is the biggest in the world. It just keeps going and going. Weird little sea creatures galore.

The sushi around the market is supposed to be some of the best and freshest in the world. We had some that was indeed delicious. They even had whale, which I was excited to try. Unfortunately, I decided to try some sea urchin roe first. Everything else I had eaten in Japan I hadn't had any trouble with at all. That includes raw horse. But this stuff, boy. It tasted like the smell of seawater and concrete. Think the smell of the petting area at an aquarium, the wet and salty concrete, and you'll be right there. I was able to eat it, but I couldn't eat the second roll. Queasiness followed for about two hours. The thought of eating anything, including whale, was just too much. On the upside, though, the roe may have saved my conscience. A whale is a pretty smart thing to be eating.

To return to an earlier post for a second: the mystery machine with the ball bearings is actually a gambling game called pachinko. It is similar to slots, and is supposedly highly addictive. I seem to be immune. Before I left Japan I taught Matt and Yuko's two year old daughter Zu how to say it. "Puh-chin-ko!"

My plane left Japan at 830 am. I had an eight hour layover in Beijing. Their airport was humongous, and almost empty. Like huge, humongous. Ginormous. And there was no heat. Little motorized baggage carts were swarming the terminal, though. A big fleet of them. They also had a bathroom attendant in every bathroom. Two hours into the layover, I was sitting on the floor using my computer. A woman nearby was taking pictures of something. About a minute passed, and she kept taking pictures. More pictures. Eventually I looked up to see what was so interesting that it warranted so many pictures. It was a Chinese woman taking pictures of me. I kind of looked at her, puzzled, looked behind me to see if there was something interesting back there--nothing. She smiled and waved at me, I smiled, and went back to the computer. She spent another minute taking pictures. Changing angles, kneeling down. She must have taken thirty, easily.

The plane was a little late in departing, and we touched down around midnight. After about 20 minutes in a cab, the driver turned down a dead end side street and told me the hostel was "in there! in there!" "There" was a darkened tiny doorway leading to a darker tinier alleyway. People were standing on the street all around us looking at the cab. It was about 1 am. I was a wee bit tentative. "In there? In there??" "In there! In there!" He rolled down the window and asked one of the people milling around something in Thai. The guy replied and told me "in there! in there! walking." I don't know what a person is doing milling around at one in the morning on the street, but whatever it is, it's probably no good. The cabdriver opened my door. I grabbed my stuff and paid him, trying not to let the street people see how much I had in my wallet. A Thai guy stepped out of a different alleyway and said the name of my hostel and beckoned. I had called them from the airport to see if they were still open, so they knew I was coming, and I figured it would be better to follow someone who might be honest and helpful into the labyrinthine alley system than to try and navigate it on my own, so I followed him.

Immediately it seemed like a bad idea. The alley was between two high buildings and was at most two and a half feet wide, pallets and crates stacked or leaning along the walls, trash everywhere. It was dark, there were no lights. He was leading me in front and two guys were following us. Stepping over mangy stray dogs, I tried catch a glimpse of behind me without looking too worried. No luck. Left, right, stray dog, left, doorway, right, and there we were at the hostel. Phew. PHEW. So nerve-wracking.

The hostel is a little dirty and rundown, but has a cool vibe. It is also right along the river, and it itself is built over the water. (picture with view below) Today I slept late and then walked to Khao San Road, a famous backpacker place in Bangkok. It was really backpacker-y and tacky, full of tattoo parlors and people that looked like they were there for sex tourism. Graffiti on the walls said things like "if you're not living life on the edge, you're taking up too much room."

Street vendors were selling all kinds of things, and I tried phad Thai from a vendor and from a restaurant. As I ate, I watched a black ant that was trapped in the sugar bowl run frantically across the white crystals. Eventually he found the opening and marched out calmly, carrying sugar. Surprisingly, the phad Thai was good but not delicious. Very average. I'll be trying more.

One place along the road had kiddie pools full of little fish. You stick your feet in and they suck and bite at them, eating off the dead skin. A little courage was required to make the plunge. Visions of piranhas kept flashing in my brain. Not helping was the fact that someone had written in Spanish "we will never return to have our feet cleaned by the little fish." But plunge I did. It was a really weird sensation. After 20 minutes my feet were lusciously smooth and they had eaten off two scabs. (picture below) I was a little worried that the scab might lead to a drop of blood, and that that drop of blood might induce them to a feeding frenzy, the water roiling with crazed little fish.

Allllright. What else have I been neglecting to update... All the way back to Brasil, I think, when I got scuba certified. Besides me taking the course, there was a Brazilian family of nine, mostly uncles, and two teenagers. None of them spoke English, but they had Diego, the English speaking instructor, translate things for them. They motioned early on that at the one of them that would be my dive partner. Every once and a while they would run up and say something excitedly to Diego, and then motion at me. Invariably, it was something like "they careful, with heem" and they would be gesturing frantically towards my partner. I would glance towards him and he would be batting his eyebrows at me, waving coyly. It was hilarious.

As we were doing the drills, one of the Brazilians swallowed too much water and looked a little green around the gills. Bobbing on the surface, I was using diving hand signals to ask if he was ok. His wetsuit had a hood that was srunching his forehead down over his eyes, and he just kind of stared at me. I backed away. Then he started to throw up, in the most hilarious vomiting sound I've ever heard. It was like a regular retching sound, but afterwards he would blow his lips together, high-pitched to low-pitched, "BBBBBBBBBB!!!" He did this several times. The next day one of his friends was asking people on the boat how they throw up. He got me to act out how I do it. Then he would spread his arms wide and say (in Portuguese) "the whooooole word throws up: 'bleh.' But you! 'Bleh...BBBBBBBBB!!!'" and imitate the sound. Also hilarious.

On one of the dives that day I saw a seasnake and pointed it out to my dive partner. When we got back to the boat a while later, he got out first. When I got aboard he was gesturing hurriedly to English-speaking Diego and pointing at me. Diego turned and said "he showed heem, the snake." The Brazilians erupted in laughter.

They were a very funny group. On the last day we finished back in the classroom. The first day had been all classwork, and Diego explained to me that throughout the class the Brazilians had been making jokes that the manikin modeling a wetsuit was one of their boyfriends, little by little pushing it closer to him throughout the day. When I got there he was cradling the manikin's hand on his shoulder and had given it his car keys.

What are some more Brazil stories...hmm. Ah. Donald and I traveled together for a week or so while in Brazil. Favelas are the poor districts of Rio on public land where the people live in makeshift cities that don't exist in the eyes of the government. Drugs and violence are problems they are famous for. The movie City of God is a well-known documentary about them. It is also where Edward Norton is hiding in the beginning of The Hulk, and I think were Edward Cullen is hiding in New Moon, but I'm not positive. There are tours of them offered that are intended to show that although there are problems, they are really places where normal people lead normal lives. The tour started on little motorbike taxis that drove us at speeds too fast to be comfortable up winding cobbed roads to the top of the favela. Then we walked down through the interior walkways. The people there did seem to have good lives. Although there was some garbage, they had their own stores, electricity, running water, and a lot of big screen TVs. I'm glad I don't live there, but it really did seem like a far cry from the poverty you've been trained to expect.

Soon after the favela tour we left the city to try and see some other beaches. At one point we were catching a bus back to Rio early in the morning, and we had gone to bed late. Carnival was technically over, but the party didn't stop. I was tired of it long before, but I just couldn't escape. We had gone to bed late. At 3 am some god awful club music woke us up. It was so loud that I literally felt like I was breathing the beat. Donald and I were both up, but we figured it would stop. It didn't. I looked out the window to see where it was coming from, and it was three meatheads holding beer cans standing beside their car, which was a piece of junk and had all the doors and the back open. I didn't even know car stereos could get that loud. And the music was SO bad. If you sat me down in front of a computer and gave me ten minutes to make club music, it would sound something like this. After 40 minutes of the intolerable noise the owner of the posada went out and yelled at them and they turned it off. By this point, though, we were wide awake enough that the terrible music playing at the party around the bus stop down the street was enough to keep us up. Just why they were partying at a bus stop, I have no idea, but they were. Eventually I got back to sleep, but it wasn't until about 430.

Setting the alarm clock had been my job. I used my ipod, and I DID set it, but I set it for Seattle time. We woke up 15 minutes before our bus left, and we were about a 15 minute walk away. Donald wasn't thrilled. We got there just in time for our 945 bus. We tried to get on, but this bus was in fact the 845 bus and they wouldn't let us. Ours was there an hour later, at 1045. Normally this wouldn't have been such a big deal, but we only had a few hours to do two huge tourist things in Rio before we were going to catch another bus to the south of the country. Donald had been in Rio before and could have done these things, but he was waiting for me. He wasn't coming back to Rio, so this delay was a problem. Our bus got there an hour later, after much lambasting of Brazilian schedule-keeping abilities. When we arrived, not only were there any buses available to book to where we wanted to go, but we had three hours instead of four hours, and there was no way we would be able to see both sites.

We decided on the Christ Statue. A hawker outside was telling us it would be at least two hours for the train to the top, but that he would get us there right away in his van for only slightly more expensive. The train ride to the top is part of the experience, so this worried us. But he had been lying about the time, which would only take an hour, and we might be able to make it to both after all! We got in line. On the wall was a clock. Strange...this clock was an hour off from my watch. Confused, I mentioned this to Donald. His face contorted and froze. He looked at the clock, and then turned slowly back to me. If looks could kill, I would be dead.

By the grace of god, before Donald could do whatever terrible thing he was planning, a British girl standing nearby chose this moment to stick her head in and ask if we needed help. I explained about the watch, and she said "oh, it was daylight savings last night, didn't you know? It's actually 1:30, not 2:30." "WHAT?!" It was true. So the hawker wasn't a liar, the bus wasn't late, and Brazilians can keep a schedule. Three hours became four again, and we took a taxi to the other site in the two hour wait for the train, taxied back in the nick of time, got on the train, saw the Christo, and got to the bus station with time to spare. Pretty good. Pret-tay, pret-ty good.

From Rio we went to Iguazu Falls, which I may have mentioned in another post. I can't remember... The falls can be seen from the Brazilian side and the Argentinian side. The Brazilian side was sunny and lovely. The next day, on the Argentinian side, it was a downpour the whole day long. We took a boat tour on which they drove us up underneath one of the waterfalls so it was falling on us. Afterwards we paid 50 dollars for a DVD of the trip. We figured that that close to the falls it would be impossible for some of their majesty to not be captured on the film. Wrong. The cameraman completely ignored one of the natural wonders of the world, took no shots of one of its biggest waterfalls on the globe, but instead spent the entire time zooming in on our faces as we braced ourselves against the deluge.

Leaving the falls they give you fliers to the nearby dam, Itaipu, on the Brazil/Paraguay border. It is one of the biggest dams and the most efficient dam in the world, as well as one of the Society of Civil Engineers wonders of the modern world. The front of the fliers say simply "Itaipu. You'll be impressed." Inside, however, was one of my favorite bad English translations to date. "If on one hand, the Iguassu Falls are unforgettable, on the other you cannot forget to visit the largest generator of renewable and clean energy in the". That is it. It doesn't finish the sentence. The best part, though, is their use of the "on the one hand" expression. When I read it the first time I was functioning on very little sleep, and I couldn't stop laughing.

We took the tour, and I admit that I was indeed impressed. On the way there, capybara were running around. Everyone else on the tour was either an excited middle-aged man or had been brought by an excited middle-aged man. The tour guide explained that Itaipu means singing rocks, and that there were rocks that "sung" as the river moved over them. I asked where they were now, downriver, below the dam, or underwater, and he replied "they are behind the dam, deep under water. They're not singing no more."

Afterwards I went back to Rio and got ready to fly to Australia. The day before I left I went hang gliding over the city and the favelas. We drove to the top of a mountain and the instructor had me practice running with him. "You can't stop," he explained, or we wouldn't have enough lift and we would be in danger of crashing into the rocks below. It wasn't really so hard to run off the edge of the cliff at full speed. I had met the instructor 20 minutes before, but since he was the instructor, and he said it was ok to run off the cliff strapped into this thing, we ran off the edge of the cliff. The only scary parts were taking off and landing. Right after my feet left the ground we experienced free fall for about a second before the glider caught us. That was a very scary second. We cruised over the favelas and the rich neighborhoods of Rio, the slums juxtaposed to the huge houses each with their own swimming pool. Then we were over the expressway, and then over the ocean. We circled back to the beach, where we were to land. I watched another glider land, the pilots running along the sand and losing momentum. We came in at a sharp angle and there was no running, just a THUMP as we hit into the sand and stopped dead. Some whiplash was suffered.

From Rio I caught a flight to Australia. I'm lukewarm about Australia, so I don't have much to report. It would have been a lot more fun if it wasn't so grossly overpriced, or if the US dollar wasn't about 1:1 with Australian. It cost me eight dollars for a bagel and coffee, as much as four for a can of coke. A paperback that said US7.99 on the back would be going for $35. Add that to the fact that many people would talk down about the US while talking about how amazing and better Australia is, and it was tiring. Due to my own inept planning, I ended up having to stay for a month. If I had stayed for only two weeks, for instance, as I intended when I first worked Australia into my itinerary, I don't think those things would have bothered me.

I did meet a lot of very friendly people, though. One guy I met playing chess in a cafe in Sydney, and at the end of my stay he put me in touch with his friend named Njals who has a spare room. Njals was great and we got along really well. He let me stay there for four or five days in exchange for doing dishes and washing windows. He had a cat named Lurch that is 15 years old. Poor lurch had one white eye from when he got hit buy a car some years earlier, and was a very nice cat.

One evening Njals was out, and I was supposed to let a girl in who was considering renting the room I was preparing to vacate. She was very nice, and was asking various questions about the place, which I was doing my best to answer. We were standing in the living room, and Lurch was lying on an ottoman in between us. Suddenly, a vile smell filled the room. The air was so thick with it that I paused mid sentence. It wasn't me. That left Lurch and the girl. There was no way to think she couldn't smell it. I had reason to suspect Lurch, based on events from the evening before, but I wasn't sure. I was in a predicament. In the case that it had been her, she was probably holding out a faint glimmer of hope that I couldn't smell it. In the case that it had been the cat, she would be thinking that it was me. What I wanted to do was make a comment like "whoah, Lurch, you feeling ok buddy?" But then she would either be embarrassed or she would think I was blaming the cat, which is pretty low. So, I said nothing, and picked up mid-sentence where I had left off. She left 30 seconds later. Her leaving so suddenly, presumably in disgust, implicated the cat. But, she could have just had some pressing business to attend to. No way to know, I decided.

The mystery was solved 10 minutes later as I was doing dishes. Lurch bolted for his litterbox, which was situated under the kitchen table, and let loose. Such noises! I put Lurch out. Something had to be done. It was permeating the house and making me gag, and simply could NOT stay in the kitchen. As Njals was letting me stay there for free, I felt this duty fell on me. (No pun intended.) Cursing Lurch for embarrassing me in front of the prospective renter, I grabbed a handful of plastic bags, carefully carried the box outside, and took care of business, gagging and coughing all the while.

Two weeks before this incident, Alix again came to visit me. We rented a cabin four hours outside of Sydney. It was situated in sort of farm land just in from the beach. The beach was a ten minute walk through the fields and the woods. Kangaroos were frolicking outside the window. We even saw one with a joey in its pouch, which was pretty darn cute. We had rented a car, which we made use of by driving into town for groceries and movies and for driving to go on hikes. On one of the hikes we saw a monitor lizard that even was so good as to climb a tree while we were watching. On that hike we also ran into a Canadian family that was friendly but railed against the US legal system for a while, which was irritating to listen to.

The stars at the cabin were amazing. It was a little creepy to come home to at night, though, all dark and out in the middle of nowhere. After the cabin we flew to Cairns, which is a jumping off point for the reef. We did a day tour to the reef. The passage was really choppy, and a quarter of the people were sick. I did two dives and snorkeling, and Alix did snorkeling and a dive for non-certified divers. I saw several sharks, albeit small 3-5 footers, clownfish in anemones Nemo-style, touched a turtle, touched several giant clams, sea cucumbers, and touched a humongous wrasse.

Also in Cairns we ate crocodile, emu, kangaroo, and a famous fish I can't remember now. Then we went to the rainforest around Cape Tribulation in the norheast part of the country. Unsurprisingly, we got rained on. We also saw the biggest spider I've ever seen in my life. According to a local I talked to, it's as big as the bird-catching spiders they have there. With legs it was about as big as my face. Just chillaxing in a web on somebody's porch. So creepy. The danger of Australia was rearing its ugly head everywhere we went. On the beach you couldn't swim in the ocean due to jellyfish, and the rivers running into the ocean were just as dangerous due to crocodiles. And we were in cassowary country, so at any moment a man-sized bird might stroll out of the jungle and disembowel you.

Then we flew back to Sydney and did the typical Sydney things: ogled the giant bats in the park, took an operahouse tour, walked the harbour bridge. Then Alix left, I moved in with Njals, dealt with his flatulent cat, and got ready for Japan. My flight left at 8 am, and I was supposed to be there three hours early. I scheduled a cab to pick me up at Njals's at 430 am. For some reason I had a bad feeling about it, and called to confirm. It was a go. The next morning, I got up at 4, showered, went outside to wait. It was raining. 430 came and went. As did 445. Panicking, I walked up and down the street--nothing. I tried to call the cab company. My cell phone had only been good for 30 days and had expired at midnight, so I couldn't call them. I had left my key inside, so I couldn't let myself back in to use Njals's phone. For a second I contemplated waiting, but then I thought to myself "why would Australia pass up this chance to screw me?" and I started to run towards a main street through the rain, cursing everything unreliable and Australian. I was making all kinds of engraged mental insults, that Bolivian taxis were more reliable than Australian taxis, why was I surprised, etc.

Amazingly, a cab pulled up and dropped off some girls coming back from a party somewhere. I got in and we started towards the airport. "That worked out suspiciously well," I thought to myself. Relieved, I started making idle chit chat with the driver. He was telling me how he moved to Australia, what his brother does in Indonesia, talking about his family. "Are you working all night?" I asked. "Yes." "So what time do you get off?" "Well, tonight was daylight savings, so I don't get off till..." GAHHH! Again!

When I got to the airport a good three hours early, I checked in and found wifi. My phone vibrated. I could get incoming calls, I just couldn't place calls. It was a text from the cab company: "your cab is approaching." Pretty efficient after all. Perhaps my Bolivia comparison wasn't fair. Then I got three phone calls from an angry cab driver. Presumably angry. I was still a little angry myself and didn't want to have to explain the situation, so I didn't answer. Pretty cowardly of me, but oh well.

So twice daylight savings has screwed me. Anyways, I think I'm finally up to date! Woooo! I WON'T try and keep it that way. Wink wink.