March 23, 2010

Too Hot To Learn, Malaysia

We were nearing the end of a four-hour tour outside Kuala Lumpur.  The thing about Asian tours is that they tack on manufacturing plants in between the real destinations.  They must have seen me coming.  I picked up a shirt at a textile plant, a button-up deal with insane patterns infused with Muslim undertones.  The young British couple didn‘t buy anything.  He was snapping heat-warped photos of dusty alleys with this telescopic contraption.  Dead serious.  After having my picture taken with the world’s largest beer stein at a pewter factory, I wondered if things could get any better.

     Our final stop would be the Batu Caves, the monkey-run Hindu temple tucked within a jagged limestone mound.  I asked Aadi, our tour guide and driver, if there were any bats in the cave. 

    He thought for a moment.  “The bats, they are…no more.”

Aadi was a native dark-skinned Malaysian.  It’s not the tour sights or history that interests me, but the day-to-day routines of regular people.  Earlier in the day, I asked why everybody pulled the wiper blades from the windshields.  Having a knowledgeable tour guide is one thing, but Aadi made us flesh out our own answer.

    “Why do you think people do this,“ was his response.
     “Uh, I don’t know,” I said.  “The only time I’ve cocked up my wiper blades is before an ice storm so they don’t freeze to my windshield.”
    “It doesn’t snow here very often, my friend.”

Yea, I liked him all right.

The thing is, you can answer a question with a question, but you can’t answer a question to a question with a question.  He had asked everyone their nationality at the beginning of the tour.  Now I envisioned him using this information in some crude nationality experiment for maximizing profits.  Everything would be discussed at the next tourism board meeting… 

The British are very polite and lack on-the-spot bargaining skills -- we can exploit this.  The Americans are curious about their surroundings, but have no understanding of Equatorial practicality...

    “The wipers,” he said.  “They melt to the windshield.  It is very hot here.”

As we pulled into the Caves parking lot, Aadi gave us a short briefing.

    “You must hide all jewelry and sunglasses from the monkeys.  They will take them.  You may leave them in the van if you wish, but I can not be held responsible.  If you must bring your camera, hold it tight.”

The British couple looked at each other like two kids at the top of a roller coaster.

    “And what ever you do,” he continued.  “Do not open any type of backpack or fanny pack in front of them.  They will think you have food and grab for it.”

I thought about explaining to him that anyone wearing a fanny pack deserves to have things ripped off their body by primates anyway. 

    “Have you ever given a tour to someone who’s been attacked?” I asked. 
    He chucked dismissively, “Good luck to you, my friend.  Return in one hour.”

    There was some hotshot camera crew blocking the entrance, trying to capture some compelling footage of flying pigeons.  The director had the vision in his head, I could tell.  The little buggers just wouldn’t fly right.  A boy threw out crumbs to lure more birds for another take.  We walked past between takes. 

    A golden statue of Murugan, a Hindu deity, watched over the sprawl of Kuala Lumpur.  Long tailed-macaque monkeys frolicked along the 272 stairs leading up to the cave.  Baby monkeys held on to mother monkeys with little swollen breasts.  Others just sat atop these banister posts that resembled green melons.  And despite Aadi’s warning, the monkeys didn’t seem to mind having a camera shoved in their face. 

    There were small shops at the top of the stairs selling golden trinkets.  The monkeys couldn’t resist them.  A shop keep muttered some kindhearted obscenities to one monkey and shooed it away with feather dusters.

    Water dripped from the cathedral ceiling as our eyes adjusted to the darkness.  So now, with wet monkeys lurking in the shadows, the Brit is compelled to change the lens on his Nikon.  He tried to be slick about it, but the monkeys had that cave on lockdown.  Brit unzipped his bag just enough to stick his hand in when a monkey shrieked something that translated to:  “BLITZ!” 

    Ten monkeys were on him in an instant, grabbing at his bag and pockets and even a bit of crotch.  The ones that didn’t latch on jumped around, screeching their approval.  Brit slung his bag around like a sack of doorknobs.  The little guys disbanded as quickly as they arrived.  Everyone in the vicinity had a good laugh at his expense.  The girlfriend examined him for monkey bites. 

    When we returned to the van, I told Aadi about the monkey attack that ‘we’ had been involved in. 

    “I say to you, ‘do not to open bag,’” he said.  “Maybe next time…not so lucky?”

He had been trying all day, but it finally dawned on him:  We just weren’t going to learn.  Maybe next time I’ll observe my surroundings and deduct my own conclusion.  Maybe next time we won’t open a bag in front of a troop of monkeys.  Then again, where’s the fun in 'next time' when you‘re already on vacation?

March 19, 2010

Two Days On a Park Bench

Day 1

Across from the train stop, there is a bench that I pass on my way to the grocery store.  The wooden slats are painted green, with a few graffiti signatures here and there.  Hardly anyone sits on it, which strikes me as kind of odd.  It’s the perfect place to observe the comings and goings of people around the neighborhood.  I suppose everyone else has better things to do.
    For the first time in seven months, I finally sat there.  My first mistake, however, occurred at the grocery store.  I still had quite a bit of writing to do at home, so I bought a small beer, 12 ounces, from the grocery store, along with the ingredients for dinner.  The ‘beer’ was actually a spritzig, which is German for fairy piss, if I had to guess.  Anyway, I sat there watching the folks come and go from the train just as I had planned a hundred-some-odd times.

There’s a fenced-in area nearby where folks can sit and talk while their dogs dry hump.  A hard-looking man with a triumphant moustache and shaved head wheeled by on a fancy bicycle.  I took a sip from my spritzig and studied the label.  2.5% alcohol.  My god, I should be a little more selective next time.  Ah, well.  At least it’s warm enough to sit on a bench without keeling the hell over. 

Day 2

    Leaning back with the sun in my face here in the park -- 200-yards of sloshing fountain and lunch.  I crammed this pita pocket with last night’s chick peas, chicken, onions, garlic, gobs of cumin.  It’s foil-wrapped in the curl of my hand as I take in the sun.  I closed my eyes and let the sound of the fountain fool me into a beach-goers reality.

There was a scarf in the middle of the walkway in front of a middle-aged couple.  The wind blew it over to the man’s foot.  I watched him pick it up, quietly observing.  He picked it up and tucked it around a slat in the bench.  I ate half a pita next to an elderly sun worshiper. 

    I feel pretty tough walking around my neighborhood.  I think it's a retirement community.  Canes are a hot commodity around here.  I especially like those high-tech deals with the big plastic armband and titanium for maximum strength/weight ratio.  There isn’t much to do in my neighborhood, but it’s pretty.  The tallest trees sprout up like lighter flames, and have branches like capillaries, supplying blood to this section of sky and that passing cloud.

    When the couple on the bench left, something came over me.  I brought my bag and pita over to the bench where the scarf was blowing in the wind.  I sat down, examined it with my thumb and index finger.  Striped, subdued, and most likely silk.  No one carries anything cheap into a park anymore.  Reputations are at stake.  I stuffed it into my backpack. It was such a nice, sunny day.

    It sounds kind of dumb, but all of a sudden I became paranoid, as if there might be storm troopers hiding in the bushes waiting to pounce.  That’s so predictable, I thought.  I sat there munching away at my pita.  It was only a matter of when.  After they're finished putting bamboo shoots under my fingernails, I’ll hand wash that scarf and some of my wife’s bras.

March 18, 2010

Birthday Wish to the Anonymous

It’s early, but I wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday, just in case the Big day sneaks past without me realizing it. You know, remembering wasn’t a problem last year because you had that party at Harry’s Bar. Did Takayo and I bring you a present? Funny how things like that can slip the mind. I recall the year before, however. We bought you a present at the Shanghai Art Museum, but we never gave it to you. It was a mug with naked baby dolls falling from the sky with umbrellas. Surprise! It lived in our cupboard for the longest time.  Still wrapped.  Then we left China, and it became our housewarming gift. The dishwasher in our new German apartment washed away all of the babies. So goes the youth in Asia.

OK, I’ll be honest. I didn’t really remember your birthday. I just happened to flip through my notebook and stumble upon an entry. This is what I wrote about your birthday dinner: “Two nights ago, we were at Harry’s Bar for ---‘s birthday.” Most of what I remember -- the round table upstairs with its huge Lazy Susan, the old wooden rafters overhead -- is mundane. Other memories, such as the tattoo on the inside of your wrist that you sometimes cover with a sweatband, flash! to mind, but provide you with no insight.

You showed up late, guest of honor, which was a nice touch. There was an open seat next to me and you sat down, but we didn‘t talk much. You were fairly enamored with your new boyfriend. He sat to your left, and I considered speaking to him, but didn‘t for one reason or another. Drinks were sipped moderately, and the steaming plates rode the Lazy Susan round and around. I had the sweet and sour pork.  After dinner, the smokers walked through an omega-shaped doorway in the adjoining room to enjoy cigarettes. My wife was in there.  I sat at the table, smiling and pretending to be interested in a conversation between you, your boyfriend, and some other forgotten soul. A woman across the table asked me, “You don‘t smoke?” “No,” I replied. Then she said,“How do you feel about you wife smoking?” I socked my fist into my hand and told her, “just wait till we get home.”

We all sang the Happy Birthday song, and you became flustered and blushed. Who cares if the Happy Birthday song is your kryptonite. Don’t worry, you’re still tough 364 days of the year. But tell me, was there any birthday cake? Candles? What did we all do after singing? Food fights are exciting, but I would have remembered that. Perhaps things fell apart, and everyone filed out of the room as if nothing ever happened. Something did happen downstairs, in the bar. I wrote this in my notebook:

March 22, 2009

“Some of the guests were at a table near the exit. A standard issue Filipino band was playing American songs on stage. Between songs, a Chinese guy storms the stage with a full pint in each hand. He’s middle-aged and hammer drunk. The band pretends the guy isn’t there, hoping he’ll find his way off stage. The drunk grunts, extends his right hand which is all beer, urging the singer to take it. The singer asks the guy his name and he growls into the microphone. The singer takes the beer and the drunk pressures him to gambae (Bottoms Up!). The singer obliges, reluctantly, and they finish at the same time. Instead of leaving the stage, the man staggers over to the drummer. There are no security guards, only waiters. The singer coaxes the drunk to the front of the stage where a few waiters lightly shove him off. The guy doesn’t like being pushed and his friends aren’t for it either. A strange pushing circle ensues as more waiters arrive, and more of the drunk’s entourage tangle in the mix. Out of nowhere, the drunk from the stage shoves a manager blind sided, knocking him to the floor. ‘Face’ has been lost, and the shoving circle explodes into a shoving match, ending with the drunk Chinese guy (who started it all) getting carried out under the arms of three scowling waiters. The band is chanting “NO MORE ASSHOLES” while the man is being carried out. There’s a return to normalcy after 2 minutes. At that time, the ejected drunk walks back in, composed it seems. A waiter accosts him (at the door) but the drunk opens his palms (and holds them up) to the waiter, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’m OK now.” This disarmed the waiter, and the drunk walked back to his table, lit a cigarette, and sat down in front of his table-keg. He behaved himself for a few minutes. In the middle of “Sweet Child Of Mine,” the drunk got up, stood in front of the stage, and rocked back and forth. It didn’t take long. The shoving match reignited with new fury. Now there were white people caught up in the cyclone along with a female waitress who came up behind the drunk to hit him on the head with her cell phone. Once again, the drunk is hauled out in a writhing protest, with glasses crashing to the ground and incoming patrons wide-eyed and back-tracking to make way. Everyone was yelling, or requesting “FREEBIRD” and Chinese people laughed or frowned at the sloshing display. Tak and I leave (sober), walking past the drunk who was still milling about 15 minutes after getting kicked out (again). He hung onto other Chinese people, apparently no where else to go, and we took a cab into the night.”

And now, looking back, I can’t help but wonder: Were you even there, birthday girl? I remember a blue dress for some odd reason, but that wasn’t yours. Neither was that glass of white wine. It just sat there sweating on that table by the door. You must have gathered a few friends and made a quiet exit. That’s more your style, anyhow. Never too big on those sappy good-byes.  Or birthday songs, for that matter.

March 16, 2010

What I Learned, Düsseldorf

Last night I came across a sight that proposed: What are 5 secrets about your city?
Nothing flew to mind immediately, which is kind of bad, considering I've been here for seven months now.

1. Just outside my bedroom window are two of the few remaining mementos of a not-so-distant past. That’s right, I'm talking about Nazis. Nazi statues, to be exact. Düsseldorf was leveled by the good old USA during WWII, but before that happened, a pair of four-story tall horse and rider statues must have been taken apart stone by stone. All the one-legged pigeons rest on the horses noses, which point toward the heavens. The statues mark the entrance of the Aqua Zoo, a popular kiddy attraction. The old SS headquarters was rebuilt next to the statues, and the long, narrow park surrounding the Aqua Zoo is the old Nazi marching grounds.

2. Three kilometers north of Düsseldorf sits Barbarossa’s castle. Well, perhaps ‘castle’ is too strong a word these days. Lets just say, there‘s enough stones around to keep the tourists happy. Beautiful place, now overlooking the Rhine. Back in the 9th century, the castle was an island (and tollbooth) unto itself in the middle of the Rhine. The Romans actually dammed the Rhine and sacked the stronghold. Is that right? Our guide told us more, but it was lost on me after the Uerige Alt brewpub.

3. Alt is THE beer of Düsseldorf. And why not? The first Alt brewery opened here in 1838. If the brew masters spoke English, they would say, “Alt beer has some of the lean dryness of a lager, with the fruity notes of an ale.” Then again, maybe they wouldn’t. They’d be more likely to say, “Piss off.” The beer servers at Uerige are notoriously curt, but every time I ask someone why, I get a different response. Personally, I think a lot of Germans are just gluttons for pain. Need proof? Uerige serves mett, or raw pork, spread on a bun and topped with raw onions. Goes great with Alt beer, but not so great with intimate conversations.

4. A group of us met at Mongo's last weekend for brunch. It's a Mongolian grill downriver from the Altstadt, or old town. How Mongolia fits into this establishment is beyond me, but the cuisine is certainly…unique. Can’t remember the last time you had a good bowl of zebra meat? Neither could I. It tasted a bit like beef, perhaps tougher. Kangaroo was a little gamy for my taste, but the Aussies in our crew were right at home. There was kudu and ostrich as well, but I didn’t get around to them. Two hours later, the group of us had to walk it off. As we dipped down the alleyway toward the Altstadt, I thought, we’re the only people in this alley with bellies full of African wildlife.

5. Perhaps Düsseldorf's best secret is the mythical powers of the Pork Knuckle. Allow me to elaborate: The pork knuckle, or schweinshaxe, is a ham hock roasted over an open flame. I had my first pork knuckle in China at Dan’s Old Farmhouse. German immigrants ran the place, but nobody but expats ate there. In a word, my wife and I were hooked. “Pork knuckle,” or “knuck” as we came to call it, became a household word.

The word has many uses that cover multiple categories:

Noun: Hand me that knuck, would ya?

As part of a noun: Did I eat it? Abso-knucking-lutely!

Transitive verb: Bruce knucked dinner.

Intransitive verb: Andrew knucks.

As an Adverb enhancing an adjective: Crispy golden skin is knucking beautiful.

Situations involving dinner: “What would you like to eat?“ “Let’s get knucked up.”

Traveling to non-knuckle countries: Absence makes the knuck grow fonder.

In times of bad economy: "Don’t put all your knucks in one basket" or "A knuck in the hand is worth two in the bush."

In fact, our love of the knuck, became so strong that it set precise events in motion, which led us from China to the great little city of Düsseldorf.

March 15, 2010

The Vanishing Guru

Takayo and I flew to Bali for Chinese New Year.  When we first arrived in Kuta, a beach town near the airport, we dumped our bag in the room and threw on our bathing suits.  We had finally made it -- Paradise, throngs of bronzed bodies laying on white sands.  Or so we thought.  The only thing covering the shoreline was plastic bags, packs of wild dogs, and fly-swarmed coconuts.  Was the illusion of paradise just one big farce?  It was hard to believe, but we kept our shoes on just in case. 

    We later discovered that Kuta Beach was the budget seeker’s answer to Bali.  It didn’t explain the condition of the beach, but at least now there was somebody to blame.  I didn’t feel the magic that people associate with Bali until we reached our palace-style hotel outside Ubud, the art community in the center of the island.  Our hotel was eerily vacant and surrounded by rice paddy fields on three sides.  We saw men balancing large baskets upon their heads in the distant bogs.  I had never seen a paddy field up close before.  Right away, those emerald rows had a strange draw on me.  They were perfectly manicured and spanned out to the edge of the jungle.  A distant volcano towered over the palm line and clouds wreathed its midsection like a tutu.  A band of teenagers awoke us at six each morning, giggling and sweeping the paths with hand brooms. 

    There was a ramshackle hut on the edge of the paddy field about 50 yards from the hotel.  I sat on our patio and watched the small man (who lived in the hut) go about his day.  His presence somehow added to the mystery of this crumbling palace.  The hut man sat on a wooden box every afternoon, whooping and clapping like someone at a Lynard Skynard concert.  At first, I figured he was trying to scare away rice-eating birds, but nothing ever flew away.  Then I figured him for a lunatic, but that only made me paranoid about the locks at night.  How many hacks does it take to get through an old teak wood door.  Finally, I got scientific:  Perhaps he was whooping at the rice, encouraging it, the way classical music is supposed to stimulate growth in houseplants.  Personally, I couldn’t imagine working in a rice paddy, no matter how mystical it seemed.  Just once, though, I wanted to walk through it, just to feel the slender leaves rubbing between my thighs. 

    “Go for it,” said Takayo.  “I’ll watch from right here.”

I thought about hopping the barbed wire fence, but the idea of coiled snakes and sprained ankles from rodent holes gave me the heebie-jeebies.  

    The next morning I sat on the patio looking out toward the hut.  The man was crouched behind a palm-thatched screen attached to the side.  He was taking a shit, but only the top of his head was poking out.  All of a sudden, a rooster emerged from some thicket and strutted along the screen toward the front of the hut.  When the rooster rounded the corner, he saw the man, or what the man was doing, and lunged back with wings and feathers flying everywhere.  The man’s head disappeared, and the rooster darted back into the undergrowth.  It wasn’t much, but compared to the shows on TV, this little incident was downright compelling.

    Another noteworthy character on the property had waist-length dreadlocks, and was known only as "The Guru."  His picture was at the reception bungalow.  I spoke with him one morning, hoping he might impart a jewel of wisdom upon me. 

    “Call me,” he said.  “Twenty minutes in advance, and I will drive you to Ubud in the shuttle.” 

The ‘shuttle’ was a flesh-colored mini van.  We took him up on the offer and hit the art markets of Ubud. 

    We didn’t know it, but living in China had turned us into ruthless street bargainers.  Some Westerners described bargaining as a ‘stressful’ experience.  For us, it was more like a game of bring-the-merchant-to-his-knees.  Takayo and I walked around, discussing what we wanted and what we were willing to pay.  We saw a meter-long painted mask, so I walked over to the booth.  The dealer noticed me so I feigned interest in a bongo drum.  Rule #1:  Never reveal what you’re interested in right off the bat.

    “You like,” asked the dealer.  “200,000 rupiah.”  That was about $22.
    “Two hundred?  I can’t afford that.  How much is this?”  I picked up a smaller instrument and began plucking the metal tabs.  Rule #2:  Get them involved.  This went on for a minute or two.  Takayo stepped over. 
    “This mask is nice,” I said, ‘nice’ being our codeword, enacting the good shopper/bad shopper routine.
    “How much you pay for mask?  200?” 
    Takayo stared at the thing as if she could give a spit.  “Fifty.” 
    “No, that too low.  150, OK?”
    “Fifty,” she repeated.  Rule #3:  Stand firm.
    “Where you come up with FIFTY?”  The man was dumbfounded.  He pointed to a mask half the size.  Of course, we didn’t want that one, so the whip song continued. 
    “Okay, 100.” 

At this point, the man was shaking.  I offered him 80 which must have sounded a heck of a lot better than fifty.  He thought hard about it, but declined.  Rule #4:  Walk away. 

    “Okay, okay,” he said.  “Eighty.”  He started wrapping it up. 

A similar situation took place at a silk table.  Takayo was stonewalling one woman when another silk vendor across the aisle started negotiating.  Everyone began shouting and shaking scarves, or staring in disbelief at the amount of noise these small Asian women were making. 

    We called the Guru later that night and he told us he’d pick us up in twenty minutes.  It was always twenty minutes with him, so we ordered another milk tea and waited.  Thirty minutes went by, but there was still no sign of him.  After an hour, whenever a vehicle approached, we stared into the headlights like a moth, asking “Is that him?” or "Marishka Hargitay!" Perhaps it was karma for the grief we caused those poor vendors, but the Guru never arrived.  After calling the hotel, one of the thirteen year old groundskeepers eventually showed up in the shuttle.  He had to sit on phone books to see over the steering wheel.  I lost my faith in the Guru that night.  Strangely enough, we never saw him again.

March 12, 2010

Is That a Scorpion In Your Pants? - Ko Samui

I paid for breakfast with money my wife had given me, then walked next door to rent a motorcycle. Well, now, maybe not a motorcycle, but the thing had two wheels and it got us to where we needed to go; nowhere in particular. We had landed in Ko Samui two days earlier, and hadn’t yet left Chawang Beach, the island’s largest strip. Someone like me burns to a crisp. We slathered our arms and face and legs with sunscreen before hitting the road like a pair of ghosts.

In foreign countries, I’ll only drive on the small islands. Even the bigger small islands, such as Phuket (which really isn’t that big in the scheme of things) should be left to professionals. It’s always the same thing: The roads are jammed, and just when you think it’s traffic, there’s a guy laying dead in the road next to a scooter. Even with the blood, it doesn’t seem real until you see his groceries scattered upon the pavement. There’s nothing sadder than oranges in the gutter.

There was a dead man’s curve that overlooked the waters of the Gulf of Thailand. After that, the road leveled out and ran mostly along the coast as we circled the island. Every so often I’d turn down a road just to see what was there. There were dung piles over a foot in diameter on one particular road. A secluded beach was at the end of this road, but then we saw a man laying on the beach in a brown Speedo. He cocked his head around as we approached, letting us know that he was alive.

There were edge-of-the-world dwellings between stretches of jungle, and crumbling villages with one general store and maybe a take-out. We began seeing road signs advertising “Live Cobra Show.”

“LETS FIND THAT,” I yelled over my shoulder to Takayo.
As far as the circumference of the road was concerned, the snake farm was located at the point of no return. It must have been a family affair, because, outside of family, who else could get someone to scream harder than these people? We pulled in and a woman directed us under a tree to park. We walked in and looked around at the cages full of lizards, alligators, and bunnies.

We entered the arena just before show time. A moat filled with brown water surrounded an Astroturf stage. The DJ began the show by inundating the twenty-odd spectators in a storm of techno music. When we had enough, he rambled into the microphone like a man seized in a psychochemical grip. The star of the show entered the stage with a bucket. It was full of scorpions. He plucked one out, stuck it into his mouth, and began chewing. The kids groaned. He opened his mouth wide, showing his tongue and uvula, just in case there were any doubts.

As for the remaining scorpions, our hero placed them on his face --twenty-three in all -- and we counted them out, one by one. He walked through the water so that we could have a better look. They crawled on his eyes, which were closed. If he had opened them, he would have seen a blur of black thoraxes and stingers. With the scorpions still on his face, he found a centipede willing to sink its fangs into his arm. The skin on his forearm tented as he pulled the thing up and down. The whole time, the music pumped away like a machine.

In one fell swoop, he scraped all the scorpions into the bucket. We clapped, but then the man pulled out the waistband of his pants. We all moaned, thinking about what he was going to do. And then into his britches they went.

The DJ made an announcement: “He has no girlfriend, no wife, and his cock has been stung so many times that his manhood no longer functions properly.”
Scorpion pants walked around in a (reasonably) awkward manner before plucking them back into the bucket. Everyone clapped, and he bowed, and then began to gag. Something made his Adam’s apple bob, and so he reached in and pulled out the obstruction -- a healthy live scorpion. It was a fine display of showmanship.

The cobra show was great, if you like to watch small brown men piss off snakes. But what I kept thinking was: Five minutes earlier, this guy loaned his crotch out to twenty-three scorpions.

The snake handler held up a cobra two feet from our face. I took a picture as if the thing was just a novelty. The mood turned serious when he went to kiss the cobra’s head. The thing was hooded up in strike mode, but the DJ seemed to be rooting for the snake. He breathed into the microphone, throat singing the snake into a placid trance. The tension of the snake kiss and the DJ’s throbbing stupor reached fever pitch. The snake charmer leaned in close to the top of its head, too far now to turn back. I could just see the thing striking his face. He planted his lips on top of that snake’s head. We all cheered and the man wrangled all of those pissed off serpents into a black box.

After the show, I wondered if they have enough antivenom on hand for a face strike? I wasn’t even sure if there was a hospital on the island. Surely someone had been bitten in the history of this place. Well, as long as it didn’t happen to me, it was out of sight, out of mind. There were other ways to die, of course, but who wants to think about that on vacation? I just jumped back on the scooter, hitting the small island road that could lead to anywhere, or nowhere at all.

March 10, 2010

Temple of the Thug

The Uluwatu Temple in Bali sits atop a lip-shaped cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. It's the sort of place that seems to say "forget all your troubles.  This is paradise."  Of course, my wife, Takayo, and I did not know this just yet.  We were a quarter-mile away, roasting in the parking lot as an old man wrapped a purple sarong around my waist.  I was patient.  Next, the man fished around a basket of sashes before choosing a pink one. At least I think it was pink. The sun was bright, but our driver was adamant that we leave our sunglasses in the car.

"Monkeys.  They are very greedy animals."

The old man pointed us toward the path from his stool. We began our hike to the temple when all of a sudden, a woman was walking with us through the wooded footpath. She was probably sixty years old, but the weathered lines in her face made her appear much older. Good for her, I thought, she's still got it.  She said something to me, but her voice carried like a whisper over the squawking birds. I slowed my stride and leaned down to hear what she was saying.

“I come with you to temple” she said. “I protect you from monkey.”
I nodded my head. “Sure.  Whatever you’re into.”

With the prospect of a monkey guard, I became excited and picked up my stride.  The path meandered and sloped toward the ocean, which was still just a blue glimmer of hope beyond the palm fronds.  Unable to keep up with me, the woman spoke to Takayo.

“So, you pay me 50,000 rupiah.  OK?  I protect you from monkey.”
“Uh, wait a minute… what?” said Takayo. “Noah, hold up a minute. This lady wants 50,000 rupiah to do what?”

I stopped and turned.

“Your driver, he ask me to come with you. I protect you.  OK?”

It was strange, but not surprising.  Our driver had spent the hour-long drive to Uluwatu trying to sell us a volcano tour.  The odd thing was that she didn't inspire the sort of fear one expects from a hired thug.  It wasn't the fact that she was 80 pounds that raised doubt, but rather, her weapon of choice:  A stick the width of a chicken bone.

She assured us, “I protect you when monkey attack.”

Now it was no longer if the monkey attacks.  It was a matter of when.

“Um no,” Takayo said. “We don’t need protection from the monkeys, OK?”

The woman stopped in the path and we continued without her. It made me wonder:  How many people, on average, pay for this woman‘s services?  Monkeys are the quintessential clowns of nature.  The thought of physical harm does tap into a persons psyche, especially on vacation.  But hiring security?  Personally, I enjoy the rush of plunging into the unknown.  A safari is one thing, but if you need to fork over cash to avoid contact with nature, should you really be traveling?

As we continued down the trail, I wondered what the monkey protector would have done in a monkey attack. Would she lay down her life, like a secret service agent protecting the president? Had that ever happened? Her services, in all likelihood, were not licensed by the Indonesian government. It's not like you can take her to court or anything.  I began to wonder about the temple, its money-grubbing underbelly, and the undertones of her violent insinuations.

Was it all necessary? Perhaps the monkeys had mastered the art of primitive tool making, chipping away day after day, perfecting the meat slicing blade. They probably had stock piles hidden all over the temple preparing for the strike. First the tsunami wreaked havoc, and now it was evolution -- the return of a primate New World Order. They’ve always been bloodthirsty, but now they were prepared. The closer we got to the temple, the furry paw of paranoia began to tighten its grip of me.

“Can you believe that?” Takayo said. “I could’ve carried that woman with one arm. Protector of monkeys? She should call it ‘Adopt a Grandparent’ instead.”

“What if we made a mistake? What if we do need a monkey guard after all? Suppose they‘re crazy monkeys…evil monkeys.”

“Well, it’s too late now. Unless you want to go crawling back to her.”

So much for apocalyptic delusions.

We had already put on the sarongs, so we would just have to take on whatever came our way. As the path lead out of the canopy, it edged along a steep cliff overlooking a remote sandy beach and an electric blue sea. Moss covered boulders cluttered the shoreline, assaulted by sets of broad white crests. We spotted some monkeys when we approached the base of the temple. There were a lot of Japanese tourists congregating in groups around their monkey bodyguards. Things seemed under control.  Like small furry humans, they munched bags of chips, took hand offerings of peanuts, and drank from plastic water bottles.

An old man was sprawled out under a stone doorway, reciting some ancient chant. I watched him in passing, unaware of the low-slung tree branch just ahead of me. By the time I turned forward it was too late -- a monkey sitting on the branch whacked the back of my head with its tail. I felt ringing in my head, numbness, and then finally, betrayal. It wasn’t particularly painful, just humiliating. Thankfully, this particular strike didn’t warrant the services of a medevac team.

As for the temple, well, it’s made of stone and it’s old and inspiring, but you already knew that. If you’re interested, take Anthony Bourdain’s advice and catch it on the Discovery Channel. Better yet, go and discover it for yourself. Just know that there are options when it comes to protection from monkeys. My wife and I may not have needed monkey protection services, but we respected the way she laid that monkey hustle down.

March 9, 2010

Everyday Miracles, China

After speaking with numerous expats over the years, I have come to the consensus that there are certain behaviors that relegate the overseas experience. At a certain point, say, three years or so, the expat reaches a certain saturation point. They stop noticing the surroundings - the buildings, bridges, rivers, lakes, pagodas, traffic - that make a certain place special. Lets talk Suzhou, China, because that's where I lived for two years. The decent open chaos of daily life -- the environment itself -- is taken for granted or consumed by some other event for whatever reason. I made it a point to notice and document as much as I could, in an attempt to “uncover” everyday miracles that may otherwise go unnoticed. Things such as public transportation. Here are two such accounts from my notebook.

Bus Log

March 3, 2009. Suzhou, China

Bus driver refuses to take on riders while sitting at red light, just ten meters past bus stop. He screams at pedestrians. They bang their hands on door. Driver becomes enraged, takes the microphone and screams wildly at them over the bus loudspeaker. Old man sitting across from me, we exchange glance. Old man starts up with the driver, (I guess) protesting in support of the people outside. The driver is seething, directs comment to the old man that, I could only imagine, amounted to “Shut the Hell up or you’re next.” The old timer pipes down. Everything is broadcast into the street for everyone to hear. We are still waiting at red light. The pedestrians bang harder and the driver opens the door to (I guess) berate them face to face. They bum rush the doorway, but he closes it before they have a chance get in. The mood became very tense after that. The light turned green. At some of the other stops, the driver came to a complete stop, opened the entrance and exit doors, and nobody was even there to get on, and nobody on the bus wanted to get off.

April 16, 2009

Coming back from shopping center (Auchan), black smoke starts pouring out of air vents. Bus continues down street, normal stops are made. I am sitting in the second to last seat in the back. Soon it was hard to see front of bus through smoke. The windows in this particular bus did not open. People begin to make concerned facial gestures and cover mouth. I looked over to a child. She was awake. The idea was this: I would use the toddler as my personal canary. If she passed out, I would get the Hell off the bus. The bus driver stops in the road, evacuates bus. I wait for the next bus, decide against it, then catch a cab home.

March 8, 2010

Stuck In the Middle, Penang, Malaysia

It seemed as if everyone had boarded the plane. There was an open seat next to me on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, and I was feeling pretty good. And then three-hundred and twenty pounds of late, hard-breathing man stepped onboard. Jesus, I thought. What a kick in the pants. Takayo and I were a good twenty rows back, but I knew. I knew. He didn’t so much sit down, but let gravity pull parts of his body between the armrests. The remainder of him spilled into the aisle and upon my shoulder like a mudslide.

“Hey,” I said to Takayo. “You wanna switch seats?”
She just smiled like the sunshine and went back to her book. After landing, I peeled myself out from my neighbor's armpit. It was time, I felt, to grab something to eat, and something very strong to drink.

Kenny Rogers had found a home in the Penang Airport. Even with a plug from Seinfeld, the Roaster’s chain had all but tanked off the face of the Earth -- or so I thought. Of course we had to eat there just to say we had "the best chicken in the world." But I wondered: If the Kenny Rogers sign hadn’t scorched out my rods and cones, would we still have eaten there? I wonder.

We would be staying on Jerejak Island, just off the coast of Penang. Jerejak was once a leper colony, and after that a prison. I’m usually not a sucker for history, but I was sold. The resort of today was built on top of the old leper colony. After a lunch of the best chicken in the world, we taxied over to the ferry dock. There was a sign welcoming me to the island, which I thought was pretty classy. Naturally, they spelled my name wrong. A bunch of kids were playing volleyball along the shore when our ferry docked. I figured that it was all a show. The managers probably made them play whenever a ferry rolled in, but I like that sort of thing. So many places today just don’t care enough to build the illusion.

The front desk clerks handed us red drinks with sliced fruit along the rim. Our bags were piled into a compact car with the doors ripped off. They drove us up a steep hill to our duplex bungalow. Our balcony overlooked a dense forest, and there was a long throwing spear on the wall. The next-door neighbor was alone, but spent much of her time talking on the phone. She got her rocks by slamming the door seventeen times an hour. SLAM! We starting counting after it became ridiculous.

That first night, Takayo accidentally bumped the shower knob all the way over to HOT and liked to damn near burn herself to death. She jumped out just in time. Steam billowed out from the bathroom like nothing I had ever seen. Neither of us could get near enough to turn it off. I grabbed the tribal spear off the wall and stabbed the water off.

It rains a lot in Malaysia. We had a clear afternoon and decided to walk the ‘Prison Trail.’ Well, I decided to. Takayo was against it, but went along anyhow. It was a dirt road along the edge of the island that led to the old prison. At least that was the theory. There was a string of abandoned houses with busted windows. Then the trail became muddy. We had been arguing about something earlier in the day, so now she had more ammunition.

“We can walk along the edge here,” I said.
“I hate you right now.”

We kept going, hoping the prison might be just around the next corner. Remnants of a crude brick structure sat by the water’s edge. It could have been anything: A pirate’s stash house, a fisherman’s home, a guard post. The path became progressively muddier.

“I hate you times three.”

Little did I know, the trail was not finished. By the time we sighted the bulldozers, she was already up to hate times seven. We headed back. When we finally peeled off our shoes, one of us (I can’t remember who. I’ve blocked it from my memory) had changed the name of the ‘Prison Trail’ to the aptly named, ‘Hate Trail.’
There was a nice little spa at the top of a hill, overlooking the forest and waterway. We both had a massage, which took some of the edge off after the Hate Trail. Perhaps the worst thing about staying on a small private island is that you are at the mercy of only one restaurant. It served Malaysian curries, large hunks of charred lamb, and a purple soup with corn, cubes of black gelatin, and ice. As colorful as the food was, we were entranced by the monkeys that stole food from the buffet. The employees chased them away when they could, but there were just too many to keep in check. They ransacked the trash and climbed the buildings, looking for victims. An Asian man, a guest on the island, threw rocks at some monkeys one day, as if he had nothing better to do. We decided to consider him an asshole, and let karma take care of the rest.

On the last day we hiked a trail into the forest. We passed what might have been the world’s most dangerous obstacle course, full of barbed wire, malaria-filled mud pits, and bone-jarring drops. I could see some gung-ho corporate manager screaming at his employees, making them perform ‘Leap-of-Faith’ trust building exercises. They’d come out stronger all right, but at what cost? We passed the obstacle course and found the Flyingfox zip line. A suspension bridge crossed over a jagged stream, and up to the highest platform. From there it’s down, down, down. We strapped a harness tightly around our groins and jumped from the platform, hurtling over a gully. Aside from the poor circulation, it’s not a bad way to spend a morning.

With our bags packed and out the door, the sky opened up just before we reached the ferry dock. The waters became choppy and the ferry was delayed. I rested against my pack, taking in the smell of the rain and the wispy sounds of palm fronds slicing together in the wind. We would head over to Georgetown, Penang for two days, and then fly to Langkawi. But first, there was the ferry. It was nice, I though, having a seat of my own. Sure, I might have flown here in the armpit of a 320 pound man, but I wasn’t going out that way.

March 5, 2010

Don't Cross the Burger Man, Thailand

The waitress had just dropped off the check, and that’s when my troubles started...

This story has been published at Big World Magazine:

(happier times before the incident)

March 4, 2010

Where the Restaurants Have No Food

The twin engine plane that hurtled us over the Philippine jungle had tendencies for splendid, gut-wrenching drops. My eyes were glazed, staring out the window to a thousand and one phantom clouds...

Read this story, published at the Matador Network:

March 3, 2010

Between the Sheets, Malaysia

We had been in Kuala Lumpur for five days, and the heat was starting to get to my head. I was sprawled out on the bed in front of the television, reading the subtitles of a Muslim soap opera. In this particular episode, a husband broke the news to his wife that he was marrying another woman. She would be his third wife. They weighed the pros and cons and how it would affect their marriage. When the husband left for work, naturally the first and second wife conspired an elaborate plan to sabotage the wedding. In my defense, it was the only thing remotely watchable during the high noon heat. But it gave me an insight -- albeit a skewed one -- into a culture that I knew very little about.

Malaysia was my first experience in a Muslim country. Much like their slogan, “Truly Asia,” (whatever that means), KL had all the makings of a truly Asian metropolis: Delicious street food, pint-sized citizens walking at a fast pace, and oh, yea…it’s freakin’ hot. I wasn’t sure how to feel after seeing women wearing burqas, the black full-body garment that covers everything but the hands, eyes, and feet. It was so different, and wasn’t that why I was traveling in the first place?

To be quite honest, it surprised me, giving me an almost dark sense of curiosity. It was their religion, their culture, their life, so I observed. I found myself staring into the eyes of covered women in passing. Many quickly looked away, but others returned a stare that might have penetrated to the back of my skull. Such light behind their eyes! The younger women often had painted fingernails and toenails and wore dark eye make-up. Takayo and I sat in sidewalk cafés asking each other, “What do you think she looks like under there?” I wondered how they spent their free time. And more puzzling, how did they go about eating messy foods.

We walked the streets of KL for nearly a week, documenting the cultural differences we saw. As it turned out, many of the restaurants had dining booths with privacy curtains. Once closed, women could remove their veil. I watched one woman just slide the food under the fabric and into her mouth. It was a little cumbersome, but she made it work. Many of our hotel rooms had vibrantly colored prayer mats rolled up in the closet. A green arrow on the ceiling with the word Kiblat or Qibla pointed toward Mecca. I found the call to prayer fascinating. Before coming to Malaysia, my friend Bruce recounted one particular morning in a shoebox motel next to a Mosque.

“I was blasted out of bed at seven o’clock by the loudest voice I had ever heard.”

Hearing the call to prayer for myself -- echoing off the buildings and emptying the streets -- was a humbling experience. It conjured some mixed emotions, and as much as I hate to admit, there was a part of me that almost felt threatened. Perhaps threatened is a little excessive, but there’s a FEELING to this place that unfolds from different angles.

At the KL airport heading to Penang, there was a woman in a burqa ahead of us in line. She was short, so I was able to look over her shoulder when she pulled out her passport. As if reading my mind, she opened it to the picture page. I motioned for Takayo to look. It was Tony Montana that said, “The eyes, Chico, they never lie.” In the Muslim world, this must be true -- it was the only part of her face that wasn‘t covered.

On a diving trip, I sat next to a girl who was visiting from Pakistan. She was in her early twenties and her head wasn‘t covered. It would be a long boat ride, so I decided to ask her about the “rules.” She sighed, and then began her lecture.

“Not all women have to be fully covered. It depends on your culture. When I‘m in Pakistan, I wear a hijab, those colorful silk headscarves you‘ve seen the Malaysian women wear.”

“Oh, I like those. What do you think about the burqa? Have you ever worn one?”

“No, I’ve never worn one, but I have friends in Karachi that do. You see, they don’t have to wear them in their home -- unless a man visits.”

“What about individuality, you know? How do they express themselves?”

“Just like anybody else. They buy Louis Vuitton bags and nice clothes to wear around the house. They have friends over, and visit friends. The husbands will leave so the women can have time to themselves.”

“Do they wear designer clothes under the burqa when they go out?”

“They wouldn’t do that because it’s too hot.”

“Oh. I saw this soap opera where this guy had two wives, and he wanted a third one. The two wives started plotting against him. How accurate is that?”

“Those type of shows, they are, how do you say…garbage.”

March 2, 2010

Good People in the Streets, Kuala Lumpur

It was nearly dark on the walk back from Jalan Alor, but I could see the river of matted fur pouring up from the sewer, marking the nightly dinner hunt. The world was a smorgasbord, and even the rats knew: The hawkers in Kuala Lumpur cook up some of the best food around. The hardest thing about walking down Jalan Alor is choosing between Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Indian cuisine. For a self-confessed street food junkie, the place was overwhelming.

There’s almost a carnival aspect to the street, from the smoke billowing grills to the plastic tables and chairs. Every stall looks so inviting. If you arrive early, say 5:30 or so, it’s easy to spot the local favorites. The tables are already filled with folks taking in quick inexpensive meals before rushing off to work. It became a nightly pilgrimage to go out looking for new places to eat. Takayo and I hit up a Thai stall for sausage balls with chili sauce. Next, an Indian joint for some Bryani and chicken Kurma. As we sat and talked, the locals cleared out. Before long, the seats filled up with freshly showered tourists like a culinary Changing of the Guard. Time to hit the streets.

The hardest working man in KL might be the Chinese toy salesman on Jalan Bukit Bintang, your typical high-traffic shopping area. Armed with a cargo van full of electronic dogs, doll babies, alligators, robots, etc., he stuffed them with batteries as fast as he could, turning them loose right there on the sidewalk. We just stood there and watched. The sidewalk flashed red and yellow and green. The toy man poured sweat, taking in money hand over fist. Animals crashed into unsuspecting ankles or made slow getaways. Everything brayed or chirped or cried bloody murder.

Further up the street, we passed a stretch of sidewalk occupied by, what seemed to be, a roving clan of disfigured street peddlers. One of these poor guys stood about four feet tall. He wore thick glasses and leaned against a tree on legs that bowed at an impossible angle. I dropped a Ringgit into the tin cup at his feet and hurried past.

There was an odd scene in front of the McDonald's at Bukit Bintang. A car was parked on the sidewalk with two shirted monkeys jumping around it. There were some cats caged in the backseat and a couple of birds. It was hard to tell if somebody was living in the car, or just using it as a mobile zoo. A crowd had gathered by the time we walked up.

The monkey handler had a shaved head, and a disposition that matched the smell seeping out from his car. When a girl raised her camera to take a picture, the monkey man brandished a windshield wiper blade.

“No! These are my monkeys. I don’t take pictures of YOU, do I?”

Now, of course, everyone wanted to take a picture because he told us we couldn’t. Meanwhile, the monkeys were going wild, jumping from a lamp post to the car. I tried to take a photo, but he turned just in time and threatened me with the wiper blade.

“Can I take a picture with the monkey,” I said.
“Come here! Five Ringgits.” I forked it over and he put it in his pocket.
“OK, be very still or they will tear you to pieces.” He took my arm and turned it into a cradle for the monkey to sit in. The little guy held on to my shirt, but jumped onto the car before Takayo could take my picture.
“Watch this,” he said, pulling a juice box from the trunk. He handed it to the monkey in blue, and rebuked the one in red for trying to steal it.
“Do you see that?” he asked Takayo. “Did you know monkeys are GREEDY animals?”
“No. I didn’t know that,” she said.
“Yes, maybe now you know.”

We checked out some bars, but nothing compared to the streets that Friday night. “I can’t wait to see this place on a Saturday night.”

The following night, however, it was as if a downpour had washed the streets clean of freaks. Normal folks and women in burqas filled the sidewalks. There was no Chinese toy hustler. No roving band of street peddlers, or the monkey man. All that decent open chaos was gone. The following afternoon, we turned on the television and found out why.

The Malaysian immigration bureau conducted a round-up. A camera stalked the fringes of Kuala Lumpur’s underbelly, capturing the whole thing on a Dateline-style exposé. Anyone without papers was hustled into a paddy wagon and hauled off. And wouldn’t you know, I saw the little guy with the glasses and bowed knees. The camera was right on top of him. He didn’t have the necessary paperwork, so they apprehended him and the rest of that sad crew. So that's the end of crazy in the streets of KL. So long, my bowlegged friend. So long.

March 1, 2010

Heavy Cups in Macau

Takayo and I had been married almost a year when we flew into Macau, China from Shanghai. It seemed like the most appropriate place to spend our first anniversary: We got married in Vegas, and both of us have tendencies toward short, crippling bouts of gambling. After stuffing our fake Gucci bag with pressed shirts and dresses, we set out for five days of decadence in the world‘s biggest gambling center.

Mainland China is one of the most homogeneous places you can live. The first thing we noticed about Macau, however, was that it may be one of the most linguistically confused places in the world. It was a Portuguese colony until 1999, both the first and last European one in China. Jump into a speedboat and you can get to Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong within the hour. The municipal signs are printed in three languages, and casinos won’t accept Macau money. We found this out at our hotel, the Grand Waldo.

We rushed down to the casino after checking in, passing a pawn shop in the corridor between the casino and the lobby. Shinny, slightly used Rolex and Omega watches filled the storefront. How bad does it have to get before you look to your wrist and say, ‘well, I guess I could hock this and keep gambling.’ That’s what I thought as we skipped on by.

In terms of gaming, the casino was not unlike one of the Old Town ones in Vegas; just a bit more subdued. We both fork over an orange bill, 1000 Macanese Patacas, to the cashier for Hong Kong dollars. To warm up, I fed some money into a slot machine and began pecking away at the buttons. There’s no waitresses fetching drinks, and no other gamblers around me but Takayo. I hit the cash out button and, instead of receiving a printed voucher, five dollar coins began raining down into the drop box. There’s a fat plastic cup sitting next to the machine, so I scooped up the coins, heaving under its weight on my way to the bar.

It was about nine o’clock, too early for the freaks to come out (if there were any), but it also seemed too late to leave the hotel after traveling all day. I walked around the casino to study the dealers, double fisting - a four-pound cup of change in one hand and a Heineken in other. I play ‘Johnny Appleseed’ at the roulette table. 7, 19, 25, and 13 for good luck. The dealer spoke English, but seemed a little too uptight to hold a conversation. People had told us before we left, “Don’t go to Macau expecting Vegas.” When the ball fell on an even, the dealer scraped my chips off in a pile. Little by little, my cup became considerably lighter. $950 HK in change down the tube. I had enough to buy another Heineken at the bar.

There was a show on stage, most likely a Philippine band. They’re the only ones ballsy enough to follow “Highway to Hell” with an ABBA tune. Takayo was across the gambling hall somewhere, hopefully having better luck that me. But probably not. The machines were rigged, I figured, and everyone was in earshot of the band. Don’t expect Vegas. Ain’t that the truth. Ah, well, as the gamblers say, there’s always tomorrow.