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 say...be 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 says...you 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.