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.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"Please don't come any closer"

Japan continues to impress. I forgot to mention that at the castle they were playing Snoop Dogg. They were also selling football shaped seaweed crackers with a sweet black sauce, rice crispies, a fried egg, and mayonnaise. Delicious.

What is brown and rhymes with Snoop? (answer at the end of the post)

I've been spending the days going around to different parts of the city. Today I almost made the mistake of getting on a women-only subway car. It had lots of seats and I was making my way towards it when I realized that everyone seemed to be avoiding it like the plague. I followed the masses and got on a crowded car. Then I saw the signs that it was women only. Phew.

I found a huge three story arcade. One of the popular games was digital horse racing. You sit at a chair and choose a horse, I guess, as you watch them run on a huge screen. One guy was using the small touch screen on his chair to stroke his horse in the stable as he prepped for the race. Not being able to read any of the signs, I took the escalator up to the fourth floor. There was no escalator down. I was stuck. On a tiny little landing. The only door was into a fancy restaurant, and I stood outside for a minute, embarrassed, then walked in and just kept pointing down as several very courteous waiters tried to seat me. Ugh.

Tonight I had dinner at a restaurant near my hostel. They seated me at the bar, in between a middle-aged Japanese couple and a Japanese woman. The waiter then brought over a bowl of cabbage leaves and set it in front of me. I kind of stared at it, not knowing what to do. The couple was having a discussion, so I surreptitiously fixed my eyes on the Japanese woman to my right and waited to see what she did. She seemed to be watching my cabbage leaves. I didn't do anything. Time passed. She turned to the couple next to her and asked them in English what the hell she was supposed to do with these cabbage leaves. Apparently you dip them in a tub of communal sauce on the bar, salt them with some special salt, and then eat them.

She and I talked a little bit about traveling in Japan without speaking Japanese. The people around us seemed encouraged by this, and they started talking to us. The middle-aged couple asked in English where I was from and how I liked Japan. Only the woman seemed to know a little English, but as soon as I said "Seattle" the man said "Seattle Mariners" and then all three of us said "Ichiro Suzuki" a few times.

When I was done, I got out my Japanese phrasebook to see how to ask for the check. I practiced a little bit with a different couple (at their behest). There were two local girls at the table behind me that were laughing and laughing at my Japanese, and even the cook had a chuckle. The couple then explained that if I couldn't pronounce how to ask for the check (which I guess I couldn't) I could just cross my fingers and that meant the same thing. That reminded me to ask them about another sign I'd been seeing a lot of--holding up your arms in an "x." I demonstrated, and she said it means something like: "stop it," "please don't," "don't come any closer." Hearing this, the two girls behind me burst into laughter and started making it to each other.

To be fair, though, I'd mostly gotten it from shops that were closing. And one hotel proprietor. I'm enjoying myself immensely and don't think I'm being quite as much of a fool as it might seem.

I definitely feel like I am forgetting something interesting, but I can't remember what it is. Anyways, the moment you've all been waiting for: What is brown and rhymes with Snoop? Dr Dre.

Monday, April 5, 2010


I still have updates to deliver for Australia and even Brazil, but they will have to wait a bit. In an effort to not fall behind again, I'm going to skip them for now and come back to them.

After the 13 hour delay we boarded the flight at 1am like we were supposed to. So aside from having one less night in Osaka and having to sleep on the plane, and the 13 hour delay, it went pretty well.

Japan is uh-mazing. I got in at eight this morning, took a shower, and went to see the castle in the center of town. The cherry blossoms are blooming and it was gorgeous. Inside the castle was a museum that included a samurai sword from the 18th-ish century that one of the castle's owners had used to commit sepukku. My favorite thing was a picture showing a missing stone in the wall of the moat that was a secret escape route from inside the castle. Determined to find it, I started walking around the walls. There are 12km of moat wall, and I ended up walking all of it before I found that the secret exit was just to the left of where I started to my right around the moat. I did get to see a lot of the castle grounds as a result, though. Pretty much all of them, in fact.

Afterwards I strolled on aching feet in the markets around my hostel and found an arcade. There was a drumming game where you hit a drum in time to Japanese pop music as a carp/angler-fish with a fez danced around on the screen. Weird, but fun. Walking the streets I had seen arcades full of what looked like slot machines. I went in to check it out, because it was packed and presumably fun (it was gambling, after all), but it was a bizarre movie screen set in a little console that ball bearings fell around. It was intimidating, and although I was intrigued, I decided to save my money.

But lo! Here was one at the arcade! I sat down and put in a dollar. The screen started out as a digital slot machine, but with faces. They stopped, there were all sorts of blinking lights, and the machine started to shout at me in Japanese. There was a knob you could turn, and one other button. I fiddled with them and nothing happened. Then I stared at it for a while, wondering why this was worth a dollar, and ball bearings started to drop at random. Occasionally one would land in a little basket thingy and the machine would make noise. To the best of my knowledge, I had zero say in where the bearings would land. In fact, I ended up finding three other buttons, for a total of 5 buttons, and as far as I could tell none of them did anything whatsoever. Not a one of them was linked to an action or a noise, but occasionally a bearing would fall, regardless of whether or not I was touching the machine. Befuddled, I ended up pushing the lights around the machine, tried to work my fingers around edges of the buttons and pull, do ANYTHING that the game would register. All to no avail. There was a digital display keeping score or something, but I couldn't read what they stood for. I also couldn't tell when my turn was over. So, it's possible that the game is normally very responsive but I lost on the first round and then continued to sit at a machine with zero credits and try to get it to work because I am an idiot, but it's equally possible that I left in the middle of a winning round and the lucky schmuck that sat down after me got a free turn and made millions.

One cool thing about the arcade was that they gave you a little metal bowl to keep your coins in. There was one at each machine. The Japanese people's bowls were all empty, and I couldn't figure out why they weren't using them when it was so ingenious and so generous of the arcade to provide them. This fact didn't slow ME down, however. I would sidle up to my game of choice, drop my coins in the bowl, making sure they clanked a bit so that people would know I was high roller, play a few rounds looking like a pro (with the possible exception of the enigmatic ball bearing contraption), take my coins and move on. After about 40 minutes I realized the bowls weren't for your coins at all, but were actually ashtrays, and I left.

Here are a few pictures until I get some uploaded to picasa. The one at the top is the mystery ball bearing machine, the one with the golden trellis is the castle, and the other two are from my neighborhood.

As expected, wonderful Japan has wifi in my hostel room! For free!!! So I will try and assume a schedule of regularity.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


No posts in quite a while, and not enough time for a long one now. Travel in Australia has been strange. I've seen tons of cool things, scuba'd at the reef, etc, but I've often felt like somehow the country hates me. For instance, three of the four flights I've taken have seen something explode in my bag. Once it was bugspray that melted all my plastic, including my phone. The time nothing exploded my bag came back wet with some kind of oil that smelled like popcorn.

At the moment I am at a hotel in Cairns, Australia, paying five dollars an hour for internet. I was supposed to be in Osaka, Japan, tonight, but after getting to the airport at 4:00 am and taking a connecting flight, and after a thirty minute delay turned into a six hour delay, turned into a 13 hour delay, the airline booked us hotels. Supposedly we leave at 1 am this morning, but why would they book us hotel rooms only for five hours? Hmm... We shall see.

It's not anything more than an inconvenience, but I must marvel at Australia's relentless ability to toy with me. Lots more good stories to come if it ever lets me leave. And Japan. Oh Japan, with its ubiquitous wifi and lovely technogadgets. It will be lovely.