Saturday, August 27, 2011

From Bangkok’s bawdy neon to the rolling blackouts of Katmandu.

(on passing by a ‘working girl’ in Bangkok)
“A new girl I’ve never seen before tells me she loves me. Sincerity is the first casualty of capitalism.”

(discussing prayer flags)
“Blue for sky, white for air, red for fire, green for water, yellow for earth, generally in that order… The flags which carry the texts of a thousand prayers stitched into the cloth are intrinsic to Tibetan Buddhism, and you find them all over the Himalayas. The wind takes their healing meditations of the holy monks and carries them all over our tortured world; to use the wind and earth as a kind of machine to broadcast the way of transcendence is to me one of those sublime cultural achievements: would you forgive me for suggesting it beats landing on the moon?”

-quotes from The Godfather of Katmandu, by John Burdett

From Bangkok’s bawdy neon to the rolling blackouts of Katmandu.

After enjoying the modernity of Thailand’s eleven million strong metropolis Nepal’s largest city is a bit of a shock. For a national capital there’s not much in the way of infrastructure. With over one million people one might expect a stoplight or two. How about a stop sign? With few sidewalks, narrow streets in disrepair, kamikaze motorcyclists and car horns constantly blaring as black exhaust spews from their undercarriages Bangkok’s zany upbeat energy is quickly forgotten to a let’s-try-not-to-get-maimed mental zapping. The street vendors, hawkers and beggars make what was once regarded as the fabled and inaccessible Shangri-La an exhausting exhaust-filled damn-it-another-Suzuki-side-mirror-just-hit-my-shoulder Third World hovel. A quote from the Lonely Planet guidebook: “Katmandu is regularly paralyzed by political ferment, electricity cuts and traffic seizures on a scale that is almost apocalyptic… Electricity is currently rationed across the city… [and] is unavailable for up to sixteen hours a day.”

Have you ever been approached by a ragged woman holding a baby pleading that her child needs milk? She doesn’t want money, just milk for an infant for Buddha’s or Vishnu’s or Shiva’s sake. You follow her to a storefront selling formula to discover the merchant wants 1,200 Nepali rupees for a box of the good stuff, over seventeen dollars. Something isn’t right here. Okay, 400 rupees the merchant says. Which is when you know it’s a scam, that him and the lady are in cahoots, they may even be married. She’s not doing the negotiating or trying to get a fair price. She wants you to pay as much as possible for formula that, once bought, will likely be put back on the shelf for the next my-money-is-my-burden Caucasoid.

So you walk away. Right into a young man walking on his hands. He’s two feet off the ground, his legs end above where his knees should be, he’s shaking a tin begging cup. He’s grunting like a Yeti. Minutes later a man with frost-bit black limbs moans and grabs at your ankles as you stumble past. Sorry, compassion left the body even before landing in Nepal, I’ve already seen it, I’ve already spent days feeling bad for being white and, at least comparatively, well off. Now I deal with the decrepitly deprived with a quote from the film True Grit, “I can’t do nothing for you, son.” And really, I can’t. I can pay for a meal but they’ll need another, and do I really want to help sustain a cycle of begging? I realize there may be no other options. At the same time, the constant hassle can ruin a day, a locale, maybe I won’t stay as long as I would have otherwise, maybe I’ll be reluctant to ever come back. Now legitimate business suffers. Of course, I don’t have a solution. Of course, I feel terrible when I get back to my the-water-is-the-same-shade-as-rusty-metal accommodation to wash the beggars’ hepatitis-A grime away.

It’s been a long day. It’s nearly 8 a.m.

Only a few days removed and I’m longing for Bangkok’s serendipitous just-start-walking-around-and-see-what-happens fun. I’d get off the Sky-Train and saunter into Asian boy band concerts, dance contests, ritual dance performances, magic shows, fortune-telling gypsies and gratis meditation seminars (donations accepted). The people watching is unparalleled. From the Khao San street Caucasoid hippies to the pot-bellied farangs in their fifties arm in arm with beautiful twenty year-old tiny Thai girls (or, even more disturbing, boys) to the monks to the hundreds of school kids shouting ‘hello’ at you in an art museum to the is-he-pointing-his-machine-gun-at-me? Thai royal guards, Bangkok, like Saigon, is a fascinating city to set foot in. Anytime an escape from the metro-mayhem is required just wander down a soi (side street) and the pollution and traffic instantly give way to mom-and-pop restaurants and old Thais sipping tea over a chessboard. Relax, have a bowl of noodles and recalibrate before carrying on.

From man-made steel and concrete mountains to the Himalayas, humanoids have no answer, nor will ever have an answer, to the awesome power of the natural world. Nepal hosts eight of Earth’s ten highest peaks, it’s the ‘playground of the gods’. I’ve only seen them from the sky during the flight and as eager as I am to begin a twenty day lose-a-pinkie-toe-to-frost-bite trek I have to dawdle around Katmandu for a while in the hope of obtaining an Indian visa. Notorious for their paperwork, the process takes over a week, during the initial application I ran into an Irish couple who only lasted ten days in the country of cow-worshippers. They repeated the phrase ‘one point two billion’ a lot. As in people. As you can guess, they told me, it’s crowded. It’s filthy. Katmandu is like Shangri-La.

Funny, these ‘spiritual places’ seem like the last places you’d go for uninterrupted contemplation. Perhaps their impoverished disorder teaches one to find serenity in a s**t storm. The problem: I’m not sure if I want to find out anymore. My throat is already CO2-itchy, I might need my lungs for something later on in life. Like, you know, breathing and stuff. I won’t disgust you with tales of ‘the trots’, but when visiting Nepal one is advised when showering not to get the water in one’s mouth. The guidebook points out that even people who’ve traveled throughout Asia tend to come down with severe diarrhea in the country.

Well, that’s life. It’s not always the Shangri-La we were expecting.

Keep drifting.

Welcome to Katmandu, the world's coolest sounding capital.

View from my Katmandu guest house room.

Katmandu's famous Swayambunath Buddhist temple and stupa. 

Walking up to the Swayambunath stupa.

Bangkok's Siam Paragon Mall at night, with concert outside.

Thailand's Ministry of Defense

At Bangkok's Wat Pho, home to the world's largest reclining Buddha.

Wat Pho

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Monitor lizard, about two feet long, swimming in a Bangkok pond.

At Bangkok's Lumphini Park.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I would have bought the t-shirt but every other I-have-more-stamps-in-my-passport-than-you Caucasoid is already wearing one.

“You drop this,” a young Malaysian man tells me, holding a few ringgit bills out.

“Oh, wow, thank you, but that’s okay, you keep,” I tell him.

“You drop,” he reminds me.

“Yes, but you keep for being honest.”

“No sir, you drop this.”

Having just come back from give-me-all-your-rupiah-white-man Indonesia this is a shock. After a three hour plane flight I can’t give my money away. I can’t even leave it somewhere unattended.

He’s adamant. He stuffs the bills in my pocket before walking away. I murmur a terima kasih (thank you) to the back of his head as it shakes back and forth now out of patience having encountered yet another dumb farang.

I would have bought the t-shirt but every other I-have-more-stamps-in-my-passport-than-you Caucasoid is already wearing one.

From Bali, Indonesia to Malaysia, to KL, to Penang, to Krabi, Thailand, to Ko Phi-Phi, to Phuket. I have to work my way north to Bangkok for a flight to Nepal so I stop at a few spots I’ve been to and couple I hadn’t. I like going back. I know where I want to stay, where I want to eat, which public restrooms are the least urine-soaked, and where the crazy Penang vagrants will be depending on the time of day. Their minds melted in the humid-heat, their skin the same, if you need extras for a post nuclear fallout film Penang is the place to find them.

I’ve come home. That’s what it feels like upon each return so, naturally, I’m quite aloof. In the mind more and the moment less, been there, done that, would have bought the t-shirt if there was more room in my backpack. Thailand’s Andaman coast is every bit as this-has-to-be-CGI beautiful as it was months ago, but I already took pictures. I’ve already eagerly scoured each location within a ten kilometer radius of the Caucasoid drop-off point. Now I’m more interested in meeting people. Uh-oh, what if, just like the locations, I’ve already run into them? Not them per say, but someone just like them. Someone smart, cool, and beautiful from that one country where the accent makes their English oh-so-seductive. Someone with a real zeal for the journey, not the destination. Seen you, met you, stole your t-shirt but it doesn’t fit so I gave it to a transient.

All the sudden travel has become ho-hum humdrum. I’d be more excited to see a hamster than a monkey. It would be a pleasant change of pace to be around an animal I can (probably) outsmart. Monks are just quiet, pleasant people that are too lazy to put on a pair of pants. I can pass by beggars like a local bearing in mind that their sorry sidewalk domicile that’s cracked even more than their parched lips is karmic and that I would be doing a great disservice to their next lifetime by easing their suffering in this one. I can talk to the Thai transvestite who just cooked my fried rice at a food stall without thinking, ‘Holy s**t, I’m talking to a Thai transvestite.’

This is a problem. I like to read about exotic adventures in far flung places. For me, Asia was always the most distant, the most foreign, the most peculiar. Now it’s home.

So, you got any good African fiction?

Hold up. I’m in Bangkok now, a place I’ve been to four times but had yet to spend the night. The temples are bigger and more extravagant than ever, the streets more neon, the energy more intoxicating, more thrilling, more I-hope-I-can-hold-on. Yes, “Bangkok has [me] now.”*

Keep drifting.

*A line from the Hangover 2 (it had just come out in Malaysia as I was passing through), I have yet to awake in a confused skull-throbbing daze with a shaved head, facial tattoo, missing finger, or sore rectum so I suppose I haven’t been having that much fun.

Wat in Krabi, Thailand

Krabi Town

Beach near Krabi Town

Okay, so I took a few more pictures; Ko Phi-Phi, Thailand

If you're going to call yourself disheveled you'd better look the part.

A wat lit up at night in Bangkok, Thailand.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The trash bag full of rotten produce on my lap smells even worse than the dead pig.

“Never give Indonesian bag, even if pay him to carry,” I’m being told on a four hour ferry ride by a middle-aged Indonesian man. “Maybe you no get back.”

“Not even you, huh?”

“No, no,” he smiles, more gums than teeth, “never give to me.”

The trash bag full of rotten produce on my lap smells even worse than the dead pig.

I’m in Mattaram, Lombock, on my way back to Bali. I take a taxi to the public bemo (van turned bus) stop hoping to get to Lumbar where the public ferry awaits. As I exit the taxi I hand the driver a 20,000 rupiah note. I owe 11,000. Instead of giving me change the taxi speeds off. This was expected. This is Indonesia. It would have shocked me if I’d been given my change. In fact, I would have tipped the driver the difference for being one of the few to deal honestly.

It’s not just taxi drivers. Book transport--a boat, a bus ride--and if you don’t have exact change you’ll be told the excess paid will be returned before you leave, the proprietor just needs to get smaller currency. When it’s time to depart this person won’t be around. Rather than miss a ride already paid for you’ll board shortchanged.

The taxi drops me off at what’s supposed to be the public bemo stop. There aren’t any bemos in sight, only seven different dudes talking over each other at once trying to entice--nay, pull--me onto a mode of overpriced transport I’m not interested in. Not when I’ve supposedly traveled to the public bus station. Try to escape and the hawkers only get more aggressive, grabbing and yapping their gums like machine guns.

The actual bemo stop is a half kilometer away. Of course, once there it’s time to haggle for a ride to Lumbar. As the only Caucasoid on the bemo it’s expected I pay four times as much as locals. I manage to barter the driver down to only paying three times as much. This is expected. This is Indonesia. After negotiations we wait around two hours hoping to acquire more passengers. The eight-seater is crammed with seventeen people, six chickens, a pig carcass and several trash bags full of produce before leaving.

Once reaching Lumbar a ferry ticket must be purchased. Hawkers crowd the harbor wanting to sell me tickets that may or may not be legitimate. Nobody wants to tell me where I can buy an official ticket from the ferry operator. Note that the ferry is run by the government. Even government employees working at the ferry, when asked where to buy a ticket, just point off in the distance. In different directions. It takes twenty minutes to locate the ‘official’ stand to buy a ticket that will actually admit me onto the boat.

The journey starts in the early morning. After a four hour ferry ride I reach Bali in the early evening. In total I haven’t traveled more than 60 kilometers. This is expected. This is Indonesia.

When you’ve reached and temporarily reside at a particular destination hawkers are very forward. Very in your face, crossing the street to ask you if you’d please visit their shop or buy sunglasses or book transport or get a massage, wink-wink. Sometimes they grab and pull and whine. Scan an Indonesian guidebook and you’ll see the words ‘tout’ and ‘annoying’ and ’blood pressure’ a lot. In fact, the guidebook warns against trekking Bali’s volcano or visiting some of the island’s best temples because the locals can be so exasperating, even threatening.

Even when leaving the country I’m scammed in immigration. Required to pay a 150,000 rupiah departure fee, my wallet’s dry. I reach into my secret stash and find Malaysian ringgit. When the immigration officer hands me back 30,000 rupiah I give a cough-cough and a ‘That’s all?” He tells me he’s sorry, he miscounted. He gives another 20,000. He’s still shortchanging me by at least 50,000. He won’t budge. This is the guy that’s stamping my passport and he’s stealing from me with the ‘ol currency exchange shortchange. He’s not even good at it. I’ve caught him and there’s nothing I can do about it. Or at least nothing I want to do about it. While sometimes it’s fun playing see-if-you-can-go-a-day-without-being-swindled I’m not in the mood with a five a.m. departure time and a sleepless night at the airport. Others huff and puff behind me, apparently eager to get ripped off themselves.

It’s only six dollars. After a month, however, these unanticipated expenses add up. It’s never about the money anyway. It’s about the teeth-grinding-steaming-forehead feeling of being taken advantaged of. Next time just charge me a 200,000 rupiah departure tax. It’ll work out the same but I won’t be weighing the pros and cons of committing a capital crime before takeoff.

Most transport hassles can be avoided with money. Hire private transport for five times the already inflated public Caucasoid rate and you won’t notice a thing. You also won’t notice the endearing locals. On the ferry ride back to Bali a group of kids traveling from Lombok to Java to begin college sat in a half-circle around me. It was their first time off Lombok. They won’t see their families for four years until coming back home with their degrees even though it doesn’t cost more than $40 to complete the trip. Initially shy, they soon began asking all sorts of personal questions and wanted to take pictures with me. Later, children came up to play and wrinkled, toothless Indonesians stood near to simply stare and smile.

Many tourists fly into to Bali, go straight to the resort, and spend a week or two lounging by the pool bar with a cocktail in hand. They’ll enjoy a week of perfect sunsets and a tour of the island or two. Maybe go to one of those cultural dance performances revived to extract rupiah from Caucasoids. They’ll return home sun burnt and happy with a couple cool Balinese demon-boar masks. The same could be said for a trip to Hawaii and one of those ‘authentic’ luaus and coconut bras. Vacations are escapism. There’s nothing wrong with this. You’ve worked hard, you need a break. You need to vacate from reality for a while and simply not think.

Long-term travel, on the other hand, requires much in the way of mind churning, the world is infinitely complex, there’s pushing and pulling from all directions. Figuratively and literally. It isn’t glamorous, I get frustrated, sometimes my stance gets wider and my elbows flair out. Sometimes one accidentally catches a jawbone that was in my ‘American’ personal space.

Vexation is just as much or more memorable than any sea turtle snorkeling odyssey. It’s not always fun, but it is always interesting. I’ve never been more exhausted. Welcome to the real.

Keep drifting.

Pandangbai, Bali

Entrance to Don Antonio Blanco Art Museum in Ubud, a neurotically erotic exhibit, the entrance is his signature. 

Bali temple

Bali rice field

Another one of those perfect Bali sunsets