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Tuesday
Nov292011

Chapter 24. The Motorbike Incident and Escape From Phnom Penh

"We are calling from a tower, expressing what must be everyone's opinion.
They are going out to bars and they are getting into cars.
I have seen them with my own eyes.
America please help them!
They are child stars, with their sex, and their drugs, and their rock and rock, and rock and rock'n'roll."
Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Cambodian countryside on our way from Kampot to the coast.In Cambodia gas stations consist of roadside stands where the owner sells one-liter soda bottles of gas, and chances are it’s watered down. In Cambodia you will find people’s retirement plans in their mouth in the form of gold teeth. (You need the determination of Rudie Maddoff to steal that retirement plan). In Cambodia you will find expats who’ve left their homeland for various reasons, and chances are you will find them pickled in a bar—and if you’re in Phnom Penh, chances are you’ll find them in Rory’s Irish Pub. In Cambodia, even the most unattractive man can get a beautiful girlfriend—or three. In Cambodia you will find more limbless people per capita and more live land mines than anywhere else in the world. These land mines were not created to kill, but rather to maim, so as to eat up the enemy’s resources.

In Cambodia you will find extreme poverty and the tragedy of sex trafficking. In Cambodia, you will find more NGOs than anywhere else in the world. In Cambodia, you will find still undeveloped island paradises where you can’t get an Internet signal. In Cambodia, you’ll find a lush, verdant countryside full of rice paddies, coconut trees, and bamboo huts—a tropical Ireland. In Cambodia they have just found oil and the Chinese are heavily investing in the country. In Cambodia you will find kind people and beautiful children eager to give you a smile.

It’s for some of these reasons and more that we found ourselves in Cambodia for three weeks, two more than we had planned. 

Koh Rong Island, Cambodia 

Water buffalo on our trek around the island. If you’re looking for an inexpensive, unspoiled island getaway, one that provides turquoise-green waters, dense jungles, coconut and mango groves, scuba diving and snorkeling (although the coral I saw was dead), inexpensive beachfront bungalows, quiet fishing villages untouched by western influences, and miles of powder-white beaches where the only company you’ll find are crabs shuffling about, Koh Rong Island in Cambodia is the place to be. But you better not wait too long.

They say the island of Koh Rong, Cambodia is what Koh Samui, Thailand was like 20-years ago. Word has already gotten out about Koh Rong Island, however, and in 2006, Kithr Meng, Cambodia’s first modern tycoon purchased a lease on the island from the Cambodian government for 99 years. It is said he is so important to Cambodia’s economy that if something were to happen to him, the entire economy could collapse.

Meng’s 20-year plan for Kohn Rong includes building an airport where planes with 15 seats or less can land, a marina, and several 5-star resorts. Sadly, it will become a playground for the rich and famous. When I asked Rudy Schmittllein, the owner of Paradise Beach Bungalows if he thought it was going to be the new Koh Samui, he told me that while the developer has plans to build multiple resorts, the grand plan is to create the world’s first all eco-island…whatever that means.

Fishing village for lunch. Less than $1.In the first 1-2 weeks of travel with BJ, he wanted to cover 4-5 countries in less than ten weeks. Originally, Cambodia was to be at the end of the trip where we would try to squeeze it in. He was definitely not convinced Koh Rong was a not-to-miss destination, but I was. As it turned out, it was one of the best stops of the trip, although that’s hard to say because each place in Cambodia offered something different. The only place I could have done less time in was Sihanoukville, the town where you catch the ferry to Koh Rong.

After doing a bit of research we settled on Paradise Beach Bungalows. Within 15 minutes of arriving at Paradise, I was laying in a hammock reading no more than 20 feet from the water’s edge. There were no annoying children trying to sell us bracelets and no restaurant owners trying to get us into their establishments. I even managed to get myself up at sunrise two mornings to meditate.

When I asked the owner Rudy why he settled in Cambodia, he took a deep breathe, raised his eyebrows, and said in his German accent. “Well, for one thing, there’s no natural disasters; no earthquakes, typhoons, volcanoes—or tsunamis,” he added.

Rudy, a German expat who has been living out of country for more than 34 years, is lucky to not only call this paradise his home, but also to be alive. In 2004 he was running a dive shop and a guesthouse in Sri Lanka when the Christmas morning tsunami came ashore taking 43,000 lives with it. Because of the structure of the reefs there was no warning such as the sea receding; instead the wave burst through Rudy’s shop and pinned him against a wall. Out of instinct, he put his arms out to brace himself but the strength of the wave snapped his arms like tooth picks. In the process he broke 14 ribs, both shoulders, both upper arms, both wrists, an elbow, 8 fingers, ruptured his lungs, and spent 17 days in a coma. And so he came to Cambodia to recover, for one thing, because there were no natural disasters.Hanging out in the lounge/restaurant at Paradise Beach Bungalows, Koh Rong.

In the morning at Paradise you are likely to hear Beethoven or Mozart. In the afternoon and evenings you’ll hear groovy lounge music like Saint Germaine or Kruder Dorfmeister. Rudy runs his restaurant at Paradise Bungalows as if he were putting on a rock show; everything from the lights to the music are carefully orchestrated, and all the while a joint hangs from his lips and a cloud of marijuana wafts through the air. 

New Friends in Paradise

On our first night in Paradise, BJ and I were playing cards in the restaurant. There was a girl by herself sitting beside us who I had noticed earlier on the beach and so I invited her to play cards with us. Nadja was from Germany and on her way to Thailand where she was about to be employed as a dive instructor. After a few hands of Rummy 500 and a few glasses of wine, we became fast friends.

Sunrise on Koh Rong. Nothing rong with that (couldn't resist).The following day Nadja lounged on the porch of our beachfront Bungalow while BJ and I went on a 15-kilometer hike along the empty beaches of Koh Rong, through the dense jungle, across rivers up to our necks, up to the highest point of the island, to a fishing village untouched by western influences, and back again to the beaches. I misjudged my footing on a rock and took a small spill in the water. My new camera was around my neck and I thought it was finished. While my quick reaction saved the camera from potential ruin, my foot and hand were the losers in that contest.

That night Nadja showed up to dinner with Maddie. Maddie was Dutch and I had recognized her from two days prior on Otres Beach. I noticed her because I could tell she was in an uncomfortable conversation with a woman who was a travel-clinger—the traveler who latches on and won’t let go. If a person fits into the travel-clinger category, chances are you find them incredibly boring or annoying. Fortunately for us Maddie was neither. When I first met Maddie that night in the restaurant, I told her that from the time I started traveling back in 2006, the Dutch have consistently been some of the most fun travelers I have met. I stand by that statement and she did not disappoint.Our bungalow, on the beach on the right.

***

Depending on BJ’s comfort level and how he sizes up the person he meets, he will either introduce himself as “BJ” or “Bryan”. BJ is for the people he feels comfortable with, Bryan for the ones he think might give an undesired reaction.

BJ introduced himself to Maddie as “BJ” and as occasionally happens a giggle ensued. He went on to explain how he has been getting the “blow job” comment since he was a kid. He also went on to explain how some of his Spanish friends call him Bejota, to which I could not help but respond, “Oh come on BJ. How many Spanish friends do you really have besides your boss, your housekeeper, and your gardener?”

We drank a lot of wine on Koh Rong, played a lot of cards, read a lot, lounged even more, hung out with our new friends, and realized that our paths (BJ and I) and Maddie’s had been crisscrossing Cambodia for the previous two weeks, and it just so happened she was on her way to Kampot—our next stop. We discovered this when we were talking about people with tattoos of the flag of Cambodia on their body. At that moment Rod, from Rory’s Irish Pub in Phnom Penh came up (since he has a tattoo of an elephant and the Cambodian flag on his forearm) and we all got a laugh at the fact that not only had we been going to the same places, but sometimes staying in the same places. Since our paths were already crossing and since she was heading to Kampot, Maddie joined us. Her sarcasm was a natural fit and her energy just added to the wave of fun and excitement that BJ and I were already riding.A very threatening bike gang.

In total, the three of us spent a fun-filled alcohol-drenched 8-day stretch together. When Maddie finally did leave the day after a Halloween party at Rory’s, BJ and I found ourselves recovering from a two day hangover. Of course, I take full responsibility for my actions and do not blame Maddie. The three of us just had too much damn fun together.

Les Manguiers (The Mango Tree) - Kampot, Cambodia

Where to even begin with this one? In situations like this, you find yourself asking, when did the shit show begin? Did it begin when we left our guesthouse the second morning in Kampot? Did it begin when we met Maddie on Koh Rong? Did it begin when BJ and I met 7 years ago? Did it begin when we rented mopeds that morning? Perhaps it began with the first bottle of wine that afternoon. 

***

Kampot, just to the right of our bungalow.From Koh Rong we spent a mellow night in Sihanoukville where the three of us had dinner, played cards, and shared a room at the Beach Road Hotel. The next morning we set out early and caught a bus to Kampot. We found a place called Les Manguiers (The Mango Tree) about 2 kilometers out of town, a spacious bungalow that had a porch extending out over the river. It was optimal for reading, writing, or watching the sunset. After exploring the town a bit that first day and night I was ready to move on. As it turned out, it was mostly due to the fact that my body was telling me I’ve had enough. BJ and Maddie started early that night and by the time I met up with them, they were on their way. I just couldn’t hang so I went to bed early while BJ and Maddie got a take-away bottle of wine and finished it on the river while I slept.

Even though every day we said we were going to get an early start, inevitably it never happened, and so despite the late start, the next day we rented mopeds. It was a bit tenuous the first two kilometers out of town, but not before long we were feeling comfortable and opening it up on the 20-kilometer drive to the beach. The feeling of freedom was exhilarating—two friends, old and new, and the open road. We were not just looking at the lush scenery; we were a part of it.

It was a gloriously spectacular day and the freedom we all felt driving through Cambodia to the beach was hard to beat. We were all smiles on the bike and I couldn’t help but just keep saying thank you over and over in my mind. We drove all around that day, had crab at a restaurant on the water, drove through Bokor National Park, and started to make our way toward the Vietnam border when we decided to turn back. We were losing sunlight and still had an hour-long drive home. By the time we reached the outskirts of Kampot, the sun was falling into the Gulf of Thailand.Sitting on our deck over the river, Kampot.

The previous day my fatigue was so great that part of me just wanted to return home and call it a trip, but the freedom of the fresh air rejuvenated my spirit. Before we headed into town for dinner, we split a bottle of wine at our bungalow, then hopped on our mopeds for the drive into town. (Kids, I don’t recommend this). Again I played the role of mother hen, reminding everyone that we were driving motor vehicles and to take it easy, but it seemed to be a lost cause, and beside that I wasn’t heeding my own warning. I am much better at giving advice than taking my own. What followed was dinner, wine, beer, shots, and several bars.

When you’re feeling good, there’s nothing to take it to the next level like great music and it just so happened that the last bar of the night, which coincidentally was called Maddie’s, was playing it. They also let us pick songs and when given the opportunity, I chose Sympathy for the Devil, by the Rolling Stones, and Weird Fishes Arpeggio, by Radiohead.

By the time the songs came on, we were singing the song out loud, fist pumping the air, playing air guitar, and beaming smiles out into universe like transmissions from a satellite. It would have been hard to be happier in that moment. I was looking around at the environment and looking at my friends, both old and new, and thinking in that moment how much I loved life and these two people. I have had some amazing heights of joy on my trip, but this was a perfect storm of alcohol, music, friends, joy, and freedom. I was high on life and so grateful to be where I was—in a bar in Kampot, Cambodia with two amazing people, listening to some of my favorite bands, and not having a care in the world. The joy was only exacerbated when BJ began crawling on the pool table while imitating the poor cat we were keeping in our possession for a photo shoot, and this may have been the opening shot of what would become a full on photo shoot later in the evening.This is when I should have known the night was going downhill. BJ was not joking when he put his helmet on this way.

We closed the bar down, grabbed a few beers and a bag of ice, which the bar so graciously packed for us in a plastic bag, and headed back yo our riverside bungalow. We all got on our mopeds to leave when BJ realized he didn’t have his camera. I mentioned that maybe Maddie had it but by the time I turned around to ask her, all that remained of her was a red taillight disappearing into a haze of dust and darkness. I went back into the bar to help BJ find his camera but to no avail.  

All day BJ was having trouble controlling the bike when starting it up. Inevitably he would start his bike in first gear instead of neutral and it would lurch forward. Before we got on the bike I told BJ to be careful driving home and to follow me slowly since his taillight was out.

“Yeah, Yeah,” he said, brushing off my comment while making fun of me for my constant emphasis on caution. I got on my bike facing the opposite direction of BJ and started it up. I turned my head around just in time to see one of BJ’s finest Keith Richards’s moments. Once again, BJ started his bike in first gear, launching it into several other bikes. The result was a domino effect, which brought down all the other motor bikes, as well as BJ’s own bike coming down on top of him. I turned off my own bike and ran over to BJ and everyone in the bar came running out with immediacy and concern.

Surprisingly they were all cool, helping BJ back up and putting the other bikes upright. All the while BJ assured everyone he was OK. When they all left he said, “I think I cut my foot.”

A less than pleased kitty and BJ pretending to be one.Oh shit, I thought. With great, tender concern I asked, “Is it bad?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Great. Let’s go,” my concern and empathy replaced with concentration and focus.

I had BJ follow me at a very slow pace for the two-kilometer ride back to town. The hardest part of the drive was focusing on the road while trying not to drive off of it due to hysterical laughter. About a kilometer into our journey homeward, from the side of the road a motorcycle light turned on and a bike peeled out of the darkness, kicking up dirt and dust. The next thing we knew Maddie was driving beside us and once again our inept motorcycle gang was back together.

When we got home, BJ told Maddie that he lost his camera and that he thought he left it on the pool table, “But when I went back in it was nowhere to be found. I think someone took it.”

“Well that’s bullshit!” Maddie said. “Come on. We’re going back to town!”

Meow.I think I may have said, do you think that’s a good idea? But maybe I just said that in my mind. Regardless, by this point in the evening my fatherly concern was replaced with the satisfaction of being home in one piece, and besides that. Even more importantly, however, I had already poured myself a Jameson. Maddie was full of piss and vinegar and got BJ fired up as well, and while I stayed home to listen to some music and write, Maddie and BJ took off back to town.

***

As the story was related to me when they returned, they took off out of our long driveway to the guesthouse and Maddie turned left down a dirt road that lead to another guesthouse. At no point were you actually supposed to turn left. BJ just stopped his bike and waited for her to go down the road. A minute later she came back and said, “I turned too early. Come on! Follow me!”

 I call this one "the agony and the ecstasy."The two of them were back before I knew it, recounting a tale of storming into the bar with their “guns’a’blazin,” with accusations flying around the room like balls on a pool table. The story seemed to go on and on as they made sure not to miss a detail and I couldn’t help but wonder if the story was actually going anywhere. They recounted how the people at the bar were very accommodating and removed every cushion, searching high and low. BJ thought about leaving a note for the thief to just mail back his memory card figuring it was gone. It was at that point, after every last cushion was removed, that Maddie decided to check her bag one more time, and it was at that point that she found his camera in her bag. They apologized profusely and quickly exited the bar.

“Don’t worry,” the bar owner said. “You’d be surprised. It happens about two or three times a week.”

When they got home, BJ said, “That girl who owned the bar was pretty cool. We ditched her in the middle of a pool game that she asked us to play, we took over her music, I pretended to be a cat on her pool table, then accused her staff of stealing my camera. And she was  smiling the entire time.”

BJ trying to make his way to bed without us knowing it. Didn't work as you can tell by Maddie's reaction. "Uhm, what are you doing?"It was about two in the morning at this point and we were drinking beer and Jameson, smoking cigarettes, and taking turns playing photographer and subject in a photo shoot that seemed to last for hours. As the night wore on, I could see BJ’s eyelids going to half-mast, and as if we wouldn’t notice, like Peter Cottontail he made his way to his bed in three quick leaps, and in a matter of seconds he was snoring. It wasn’t exactly an Irish exit since he didn’t leave the premise, but being that he did not give notice, it could be in the same genus as an Irish exit. I’m not really sure what you would call it, but I’m open to suggestions.

Once again, Maddie and I were up until the light began to make it’s way into the eastern sky.

Halloween in Phnom Penh

Moments before the big announcement. I knew I had it in the bag at this point.Phnom Penh was a place of glamour in the 60s, a place where Jackie Onassis and friends used to hang out, but in the mid-70s the Khmer Rouge came into power and wiped out everyone from movie stars to artists to intellectuals in an attempt to turn the country into a Communist party of rice farmers. It’s got a vibe though, a good one, and it is on the rebound. The next generation is beginning to reemerge with a vibrant art scene and many investment dollars are flooding into the country.

The day before we left Kampot, Maddie called Rory’s to get us all a room.

“Hello Rod. It’s Maddie. I’m coming back to Phnom Penh and need 2-3 rooms. Remember those two boys from Seattle who were in the bar a week ago?”

In addition to Chad and Rod, a bunch of lively expat characters make up Rory’s. The first night I wound up talking with Uli, a German expat in his 50s who did video production. He said he was the precursor to YouTube and owned a bunch of URLs and web “channels.” He had wild stringy hair and wore deep weathered lines on his face like Keith Richards. The more he drank the deeper he got into Chinese Astrology. He was a Goat, I was a Tiger, BJ was a Horse, and Maddie was also a Goat.

“I’ll meet some women and when I find out the their sign I won’t even talk to them. I just know we ain’t gonna work out, man.” I wondered how many times Chad and Rod had heard the stories of the people they served drinks to on an almost daily basis.

The drunker he got the more direct his advances towards Maddie became. “When the two of us get together, us two goats, it’s wild, man. We would have a wild time. I’m telling you, man!” I would lean in and listen to his conversation every now and then and thought for a while that Maddie was actually enjoying it, until she mouthed “Save me!”

How to see the future in Rory's Irish Pub on Halloween in Phnom Penh.Our days in Phnom Penh were spent walking about the waterfront or recovering in our room and our nights were spent mingling with the local expats. On the day of Halloween, Chad was already lit around noon when he announced he would be having a Halloween party that evening and the winner would receive a $20 bar tab.

BJ, Maddie, and I went to a market that day to see if we could find ideas for Halloween costumes. BJ bought everything “I love Cambodia” and went as an enthusiastic Cambodia-loving tourist. Maddie pieced together some of her SCUBA gear, and I saw an Angkor Wat snow globe and decided I would be a fortuneteller.

Over the course of three days and nights at Rory’s, it was a wonderful feeling to walk into the bar and have Rod throw his hand up in the air and yell, “Tim!” It was a crowning moment where I felt as if I was slowly becoming Norm from Cheers! But the best was yet to come.

I spent a good part of that day in my room, as we were all wiped out from the previous week, but when I finally got up, I saw that most people were in costume so I sprung into action. I found a piece of cardboard and wrote on it “Fortune Teller: 1$ or 1 beer,” and used my towel as my swami headpiece. And of course all I needed was my snow globe and a few Jameson to predict the future.

When I came down the steps from the guesthouse into the pub, I was met with a rousing applause, camera flashes, and fits of laughter. I felt like the belle of the ball. The towel on my head was hot, but it helped me see into the future more clearly.

Pristine beach, Koh Rong. No one around but the local family that lived there. Sadly, this is the first site of what will become of several resorts.Chad was dressed as an alternative Blues Brother. He had given himself a Mohawk and dyed his hair and eyebrows black. When the time came for Chad to announce the winner, the prize money was broken into two. Chad gave out one award, and when he started to make his announcement for the second, I knew I had it in the bag, just as Chad was already in the bag.

“He came in here this afternoon without a costume. He was searching around the place, asked me for cardboard, wire, a marker, whatever he could get his hands on…” It was my Oscar moment and I didn’t even have a speech prepared.

***

As a side bar, Katie Flood was the first person I ever made out with. I believe I was in sixth grade and my best friend Michael was in 8th grade. It was Valentine’s Day and I had gotten Katie a teddy bear and wanted to have some alone time in the back of the bus to give it to her.

On the bus ride home that day I had Michael move everyone up to the front of the bus. Katie and I were in the last three-seater in the back. I was nervous and had never kissed anyone before. I gave Katie the teddy bear and then there was a loooonnnggggg awkward, expectant pause before it happened, as both of us knew what was coming but didn’t know how to make the conversion, and so I finally just went in for it.

And she was ravenous.

The kiss was slippery, aggressive, and awkward, and I have since said that if if you wet the suction part of a vacuum cleaner and stuck your tongue in it, it would probably be pretty similar to that first kiss.

Chad had been drinking since probably 8am that morning, and by the time I was presented with my prize money it was a good 12-13 hours later. And so after handing me an envelope with the $10 bounty, he planted a kiss on my lips that was very much in the same manner as Katie did, except Katie didn’t have a 5’o’clock shadow. There was not a hint of homosexuality in this kiss and there was no tongue involved, just the wet exuberance of an expat bar owner who had been drinking for half a day.

After the Halloween party, we changed and headed out to several bars with a crew of about ten. Chad and Rod shut down Rory’s early and came with us. We eventually wound up at a club called The Heart of Darkness where I had found myself two weeks prior with BJ, a Cambodian waitress, and her sister.

The end of Halloween night got a little blurry. BJ made an Irish exit but Maddie and I stayed with the crew until the wee-hours of the morning. We finally made an Irish exit ourselves and by the time we got home light was beginning to unfold in the eastern sky.

My room at Rory’s didn’t have a window and so it was a bit like being in a Vegas casino, except not really at all. I had no idea what time I went to bed that night, but I am imagining it to be between 5-6am. A small faction of the crew went on to have breakfast at the bar at 7am, and when I came down around noon that day, Chad was still been up. He was not looking his best and brightest seeing as he was pushing 36-hours of being awake and still partying.

The hangover and anxiety that ensued the following two days was enough to make us want to escape from Phnom Penh.

 

Tuesday
Nov012011

Chapter 23. Reunions, Retoxing, and Rock’n’Roll

“These walls are paper-thin and everyone hears every little sound.” – Paper Thin Walls - Modest Mouse

BJ walking down Otres Beach. Barely anyone around. Cambodia is pretty fantastic. BJ and I moved once again today. We have been on the go non-stop since we met up more than two weeks ago, only slowing down here and there when we had nothing left in our reserves.

Asia is a big place, there’s a lot to see, and we have a limited amount of time. This is both the beauty and tragedy of the type of travel we are doing. As travelers, you get some street-credit and notches on your belt for what you’ve seen, where you’ve been, and how many miles you log. The downside to this type of travel is that just when you get a flavor for a place, it’s time to move on. We only met up two weeks ago, and one of our milestones is Koh Rong Island, Cambodia. I can see it from where I write this.

Perhaps we are being too ambitious in our aspirations as far as the ground we want to cover. I am assuming from my experience in previous travels that we will hit our stride, and part of that stride is trusting the process. Much like life, you have to trust that you’ll find yourself where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there, for however long you’re supposed to be there. If you find yourself in a place you really like, then that’s where you find yourself. You deal with shaving off stops on the itinerary later on down the line; after all you can only do so much.

As I write this, I am sitting at The Beach bar on Otres Beach, in Sinhouvkille, Cambodia. The waters are turquoise-green and a nice breeze is coming off the Gulf of Thailand. A year ago the government came in and bulldozed most of the bungalows along the beach but a few remain, which means there’s only so much housing on this stretch of beach which means there are barely a handful of people scattered along the virginal whites sands. I am sitting beneath a thatch-roofed hut looking out at four islands. While drugs are highly illegal in Cambodia, The Beach sells Happy Pizza (pizza with marijuana on it) and they also advertise $1.50 joints. While I have not sampled the Happy Pizza, I have been warned not to underestimate the potency.The beach woman would not leave me alone so I decided to get a manicure and a pedicure for $1.50. Let the record stand: I support local economies.

The last 3 days we’ve spent at Serendipity Beach about 5 kilometers away. On Serendipity Beach you find one beach bar/restaurant after another, each selling the same thing and you cannot pass one without someone running towards you, “Good evening! How are you? Where are you from? Tonight we have .50 cent happy hour drafts and $3.00 seafood BBQ.” There are probably 20 bars along the beachfront and you get the same song and dance at every single one.

Once you do sit down, you can’t get ten minutes to yourself without being harassed by begging amputees or kids trying to sell you bracelets and other crap. It has been my experience that despite the very dark and very recent history of Cambodia, it’s people are beautiful and warm, but the beach kids are downright nasty if you don’t buy from them, or worse, try to ignore them.

BJ pretended not to speak English one evening, and when the 13-year-old girl called him a “mother-fucker” he reacted. And then she unleashed every insult possible. At one point she made fun of us because we only spoke English, to which I replied, “Why would I need to speak anything else but English? The world speaks English. It’s the language of business. Good luck in life kid.” I sure showed her.

In actuality, there is a chance I may have said one or two other things that could be construed of as life threatening, but I plead the fifth here. Since BJ was relatively new to Asia, he entertained the kids and found himself regularly supporting the local economy in handouts. I played along mostly but one night I finally snapped and slammed my beer on the table. It seemed to get their attention and they left us alone.

Sunset in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.Had we not planned to slowdown at the beach, we might have blown in and out of Sinhouokville, along with all the other backpackers and “gap year kids,” (as BJ likes to refer to them) without even seeing Otres Beach. Gap year kids and young backpackers are not hard to spot. While they have youth going for them, they also have naivety, inexperience, and limited bank accounts. You can make some general assumptions about the type of traveler someone is by three observations; by the gear they have, whether or not they use Internet cafes, or how many tiny red blotches they have on their legs and body. While this could also be mosquito bites as some people are more allergic to them than others, generally it means they are staying at low-budget places with either fleas or bed bugs. The bites of fleas and bed bugs are the affliction of the budget traveler.

Tonight we are staying at a beach bungalow on Otres Beach in a place that is not quite up to what our typical lodging has been. This was evident by the rat droppings on my bed, as well as on my sink and toilet. It was only driven home by the riff-raff staying next door; a degenerate Australian man pushing mid-50 with a belly expanding well over his waistline, a young Cambodia girlfriend connected at the hip, and two empty bottles of Tequila outside his door. The walls being literally paper-thin, it was my good luck to be staying right next to him. He made some snide comment on arrival when I walked into my room that was loud enough for me to hear but directed at his buddy, and the combo put me off to the whole place.

Not that I am above these accommodations by any means. I stayed in far worse places in India. I’ve just gotten used to a certain level of comfort on this second part of my travels—and it does not take much to be one step up from a budget traveler in Southeast Asia. The budget traveler may be staying in a place that is $4-6 a day, where as we are paying generally $15-$20 (divided by two). It makes a big difference what you get for that small gap. I wonder if from this place tomorrow I will have the budget traveler’s affliction.

One of the lovely, innocent beach girls who threatened to castrate me. As I said, we have been on a furious pace; 5 days in Bangkok, 3 in Siem Reap, 3 in Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia), and now we are on our 4th day in Sihnoukville. It may not sound like a lot, but you have to figure that most of the time when we are moving from one place to another, it’s taking almost a whole day by bus to get to the next destination. It does not leave much time to get settled and catch your breath—or to write.

Reunions and Retox

I had just arrived from Koh Samui to Bangkok via air, and after an hour cab ride, my taxi turned down Soi (Street) 8 off of Sukumvit Road. There in a corner bar was BJ, my friend from home who I had not seen in several months. It was unmistakably him because his head was buried in his Touchpad. The only thing that seemed different about him from last time I saw him was that his head is usually buried in his Blackberry. I called out to him as my taxi headed to our hotel. Thirty minutes later we were sharing a beer and catching up on the last few months, all the while trying to figure out where we were going and when.

“I wonder where we’ll be in a week!” he said enthusiastically, his voice projecting and whole body becoming animated. He does this when he is excited about something.

“I really have no idea, but I’ve at least got some plans for us tonight,” I said.

My friend Caroline who I had met at rehab—I mean detox—on Koh Samui had invited us to a gallery opening that evening. Caroline, originally from Paris, has been living in Bangkok for the last 5 years and runs a Web site called planetngo.org. BJ and I met her on Soi 23 at a French restaurant called Le Petite Zinc, downed a glass of wine, and headed off to the gallery opening.

“What day is it?” I asked Caroline on the walk.

“I don’t know if it’s Tuesday or Saturday. I love this life!” she said, her smile and joie de vivre lighting up the Bangkok night.

The only good thing about my lodging at Otres Beach. This little guy was right outside my door for two days.The gallery as it turned out, was actually in the art collector’s house, a modern, narrow, three-story house with which every wall was covered in art. I am not sure where his furniture was, but every space was filled with paintings, pottery, mobiles, photography, sculpture, woodcarvings, and more.

Eric Monteil, the collector, had a fairly typical entrepreneur’s tale. He had made a bit of money being in the right place at the right time. From that money he created another company or two, which he proceeded to sell. He then decided he had had enough and took off on his motorcycle for a year to explore Southeast Asia, and in the process invested a fair bit of money into an art collection. Two of the artists in the collection BJ could not stop talking about—one from Hoi An, Vietnam, and the other from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “We’re hunting him down when we get to Phnom Penh,” BJ said again with animation, the only difference being that instead of projecting his voice, it was more flat lined, denoting steely determination.

We had a chance to chat with Eric a bit and tell him what we were doing, and since Northern Thailand was flooded, he suggested we head east to Cambodia, so in many ways he is responsible for the trajectory of our journey.

To round out the gallery scene was an eclectic group of expats from all over the world; artists, musicians, businessmen, doctors, writers, lawyers. BJ was in good form on his first full night in Asia and kept Caroline entertained, although I must say she is an easy audience and quick to smile, which is why I liked her in the first place and why we got along so well.

Bed Supper Club, Bangkok.Caroline organized a small group of us to go out to dinner and suggested we get burgers. I was not overly excited about going to a burger place my first night in Bangkok, but as it turned out, it was a jazz club with some of the best burgers I’ve ever had. It’s best to trust the locals. Ingrid, Rudy, Caroline, BJ, and myself ate gourmet burgers while listening to a Thai man belt out hits that if you closed your eyes, he could have been Frank Sinatra.

Three bars and several hours later, we landed at Bed Supper Club, a glamorous club full of the beautiful and elite of Bangkok’s locals and expats. From the outside it looked like a giant oil drum turned on its side, and on the inside it was two floors and several rooms of lights, lasers, glitz, high heels, short skirts, sweat, cheap perfume, and eager individuals looking both to see and be seen.

Being that I had just landed from the islands that day, I was still in beach mode and wearing flip-flops. For the second time on my trip (the first in Shanghai, although I did get in eventually) the bouncer would not let me in. Since jetlag was beginning to grip BJ, he gave me his shoes and headed home.

Although I am usually not a fan of this type of club, the music—a combination of a DJ and a live drummer—hypnotically, thunderously, and tribally pulsed through the room, spinning us about on the dance floor like Sufi dancers. The remainder of our small group found us in a small bar around 3am, and from the décor it could have been any dive bar in Seattle. By the time we walked out of the bar it was nearly 5am. Having no idea where I was or necessarily where my hotel was, I crashed in Caroline’s guest room, and as it turned out, it was a good call.

The following morning I left Caroline’s house and as I walked out the door, she said, “Do you have everything?”

I was a bit bleary eyed from the night before and said, “Pretty sure I do.” I had not even looked at a map of Bangkok or where BJ and my hotel were. I also made a clinical error the night before when I left the hotel without grabbing a card for the taxi. But why would I need to know anything about getting around anyway when I had BJ—a man who researches directions and scenarios relentless like those who organize Navy Seal raids?

By the time I was in the taxi a kilometer away I realized when I had texted BJ that morning I had left my phone on the nightstand, and as I mentioned I didn’t have our hotel’s address and I didn’t even really know where it was. I only knew Soi 8 was a small lane. Turns out you need to know which major cross street it is off of. Lacking sleep, hung-over, and feeling like Keith Richards on day 5 of a bender, I drove around for about 45-minutes with a taxi driver who spoke no English. I finally got the idea across that he should take me back to where he picked me up. Of course, when he dropped me off near where he picked me up, being that I was somewhat delirious when I left Caroline’s house, I couldn’t find the lane where she lived. I walked up and down her street for another 30-minutes. The only thing I had going for me was cash in my pocket and so I found an Internet/gamer café to print out directions to the hotel and to let BJ know I was lost beyond recognition. 2 hours later (a journey which should have been about 10 minutes) I was back at the hotel curled up beneath nice linens.

***

Ben posing with a fan after a benefit show for Thailand flood victims.Addictions, deviances, and excess are never far away in Bangkok if you’re looking for it. The next five nights followed a similar suit of charging forward with Caroline’s crew, followed by a night of retreating into the tiny comforts of our hotel room on Soi 8. I found Bangkok, and most major Asian cities, to be surprisingly cosmopolitan, and being that the past month-and-a-half was spent in major cities such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Min, Shanghai, and Beijing, one night with a head full of wine I almost forget what city I was in. They all seem to have endless trendy bars that could easily be found in New York, Paris, or Rome.

On our fourth night I met up with Ben, my college roommate and fellow college soccer teammate who I had not seen since I graduated college. After college graduation in Baltimore, Ben moved to Thailand to teach English and consequently never left. Along the way he found himself in the envious position of being a Thai rockstar—literally.

After two or three years in Bangkok, he began playing music in clubs and bars, and when one of Thailand’s top bands began to fall apart, Ben was at the right place at the right time. As it turned out, the former lead singer of the Silly Fools was making a lot of money and keeping all of it through publishing rights and thus was cheating his band. It was a messy ending in which he publically stated that he could not play in the band anymore because of his Muslim beliefs, which was a load of shit. In walks Ben.

The first night of our reunion he took us to a restaurant called Gaggan. Gaggan is quickly becoming one of the finest restaurants in Bangkok, serving a fusion of Indian and modern cuisine. Ben had met the owner on Facebook because he was a fan of Ben’s band, Silly Fools, and so he gave us a private table as well as a complimentary bottle of his personal Pinot Noir Reserve. The wait staff was very attentive. By the end of the meal we had put away ten courses. It was a meal that ranks in the top 3 of my life, and for BJ it ranked at the top. 

After dinner BJ once again crashed due to jetlag and Ben and I went to the Park and Toy, a down-and-dirty music venue where Ben had often played in the past. The owner gave him a welcoming smile and a handshake. I watched eyes watching Ben as we moved through the club to the upstairs where we looked directly down on the band. They looked like they were going to play rockabilly, but what came out was something more akin to the likes of power-thrash-punk-rockabilly, as they put their own speedy spin on hits like Jailhouse Rock and Johnny B. Good.The Park and Toy.

“Do you come to this place much?” I asked Ben.  

“I’ll come sometimes if there’s a band I want to see or a friend is playing but I don’t really go out much,” he said. “It feels like going to work.”

BJ and I stayed and extra day or two in Bangkok because I wanted to see Ben play, and two days later I got to see him play, which was a treat. Ben is about as mellow as it gets, but it was fantastic to see him transform on stage. I don’t know where he was hiding his lungs in college, but he could belt it out and I was impressed. I’m happy for him that he has made a good life for himself in Bangkok.

After the Park and Toy, Ben was tired, and in the meantime Caroline and her friends were trying to get me to come out. Rarely being able to say no, I left there and headed downtown to meet up with Caroline’s crew and had yet another late night.

On the final night in Bangkok we went to a party with Caroline on the 33rd floor of a high-rise with a great view of Bangkok. There were many fun and interesting people at the party, but perhaps the most memorable was a model who was very drunk and crying because no one believed her that she was a model. BJ Googled her the next day and in fact she was quite famous. The biggest story about her was when a tabloid accused her of being HIV-positive, so to disclaim it she took the blood test with the press looking on.

Five days after meeting up in Bangkok, BJ and I left for Cambodia.

Siem Reap

You already know about our experience crossing the border to get into Cambodia in Chapter 22, so we can skip past that.

Fast-forward to our first night in Siem Reap. BJ and I find ourselves sitting behind sandbags at a bar on Pub Street, the main tourist stretch of town, while calf deep water floods the entire street and surrounding area. It felt like we were in Vegas, at some bar with a river theme. It just did not seem real, but it got very real driving from Poi Pet to Siem Reap, from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, and later from Phnom Penh to Sihnoukville. We would be driving for an hour or more, and all you would see from one horizon to the next was water, the occasional roof or palm tree poking its head through, and sometimes people sitting on their roofs. The only thing above the water was the road, which served as a land bridge to get us where we were going.

We had spent a few hours wading through the streets earlier in the afternoon and around 4pm decided to have a beer. A fierce game of Rummy 500 ensued. As the night wore on, our two-some merged with several other people and before we knew it, it was 11pm and we were looking for beers to take back to our hotel.

Back at our 4-star hotel (only $38/night), BJ is playing DJ, I’m rolling cigarettes, we’re sitting out on our balcony overlooking the pool and drinking beers, and because of the flooding and the fact that it’s right before high season, there’s almost no one in the hotel. The only people we saw were a group of three Japanese men wearing the same zip-up jackets.

“I don’t know whose life I’m living right now, but it feels like fiction,” I say.

I tell BJ about when my friend Bret and I stayed in a 4-star hotel in San Millán de la Cogolla, Spain, a UNESCO world heritage site, which also happened to be the birthplace of the Spanish language. Prior to its function as a hotel, the structure was a several hundred-year-old monastery in which one wing 12 monks still lived. Again it was right before the high season and Bret and I kept saying, “It’s like Disneyland and no one is home,” to which BJ replied, “That would make this like Euro-Disney!”

Sidesplitting hilarity ensued causing me to say, “You know what? We should write something together.”

“Do you know the first night we met you said to me, ‘we should write something together.’” In fact, I did not recall that until he said it, but it didn’t surprise me.

BJ and I met about 7 years ago at 3835 Eastern Avenue in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. The house he lived in with several other 20-somethings provided the backdrop to many a party.

“Well we should try to turn this into a working/creating vacation,” he said. 

One of the many faces of the Buddha at the temples of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.The next day we toured the temples of Ankor Wat and the surrounding areas, some of them more than a thousand years old. I tend to not get too excited about temples, but these blew me away. I put it up there with seeing the Great Wall of China.

The following day around midday, as we started walking towards one of the temples, it began to rain. We ducked underneath an over hang and had a cigarette, as I insisted it would blow over. After 5-10 minutes of hard rain, BJ abandon our position but I held our ground. The rain was pouring off the temple like a river, and as it continued to come down, I began to notice a moat forming around the temple, and so I too retreated.

Our tuk-tuk driver took us to the next temple where we thought we would wait out the storm. As we drove along the slightly elevated road, the jungles began to fill with water. Only two weeks prior a flash flood caught 200 tourists by surprise, requiring them to be airlifted from a temple site. This fact was in the back of my mind as the water filled the jungle and then began pouring over the road.

Within minutes the water was ankle deep and raising and I wondered where this scene was going. BJ seems to say he was not nervous, but it was a slightly tense few minutes as we all watched in silence the rain come down relentlessly. BJ believes me to be worrisome or overly cautious but when traveling, if I find myself in a situation that has the potential to become beyond my control, I would rather preempt the situation by making a choice before that choice is taken away from me. I like to try to be aware of my surroundings at all times, whether I am walking through a dimly lit street in Hanoi where I heard about people getting mugged and pistol whipped or in a jungle where the water level is rising rapidly. The minute you say, that can’t happen to us, is when that happens to you.

The jungle quickly filling up with water.In nearly seven months of being on the road and doing a fair but of traveling over the last six years, I’ve heard too many horror stories and I just assume not find myself in situations where I lack control. Sookum, our sincere and endearing tuk-tuk driver was young and inexperienced, and even he seemed to be a bit nervous, biting his nails as he thought and surveyed the situation. We finally decided to abandon the last temple and head home when our tuk-tuk got stuck. BJ and I gave up the illusion that we were going to stay dry and jumped out into calf-deep water where we learned that even if your shoes are waterproof, if the water level is above the shoe, you don’t stand a chance.

We turned the tuk-tuk around and drove for about 5 minutes when the rain began to let up. Sookum seemed insistent that we see the last temple, and so we gave in and went back. I was glad he insisted as it may have been my favorite temple, a labyrinth in which you could get lost, a labyrinth in which the elements of centuries of time had staked their claim, where giant tree roots broke apart thick, 15-foot high stone walls like a child might pull apart Lego blocks. Man is no match for time and nature.

A Taste of Seattle and Chasing Art in Phnom Penh

Another typical scene all over Asia.On October 14th, we found ourselves in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at S-21, The Killing Fields, and a war remnants museum which displayed many of the broken or destroyed killing instruments of Cambodia’s foreign invasions, civil wars, and genocides, such as Russian tanks, land minds, artillery, jets, and helicopters.

S-21 was one of the detention centers where thousands and thousands of Cambodians were tortured or killed under Pol Pot from 1976-1979. If they were not killed in the process, they were loaded into a truck under the guise they were being relocated and brought to the Killing Fields where they were coldly and brutally murdered, their bodies being thrown into mass graves. It is an unbelievable history, perhaps even more so by the fact that it took place so recently. It seems like something out of fiction, where Pol Pot decided to get rid of all of the intellectuals, put guns in the hands of children, and create a race of rice-pickers subservient to the idea of the Communist State. It was a somber day, which also happened to be BJs birthday. The only comedic relief of the afternoon was when BJ turned around and not meaning to be funny said, “Best…birthday…ever.” He will surely not forget his 33rd birthday.

That night we found ourselves on a quest to track down art from the artist we had seen in Bangkok. We found Soi 78, which consisted of several blocks of galleries yet we were looking for a needle in a haystack. It was going to be a nearly impossible, if not awfully time consuming task, but without saying anything, in his mind BJ decided to let intuition guide the way. Two galleries later we were staring at the work of the artist Keo Titia.

Sunset in Phnom Penh, the view right outside of Rory's Pub.We spent quite a bit of time looking at his work, choosing several, having them taken off the wall, studying them, and bargaining on the price. The price was far higher than I expected it to be so I said it was too much and we walked, and of course, the gallery owner said, “OK, OK” and made a counter offer.

“How much you want to pay?” Throwing out a price that was rejected, I said it was still too much so I suggested we get some space from the situation and go get ourselves some cash and a beer.

As serendipity would have it, we happened to walk into the one bar in a city of two million people run by two Seattle expats. Chad and Rod had both worked in construction in Seattle and when the shit hit the fan, after not working for a year, Chad decided he was going to head to Ireland. He had some Cambodian friends and they said why don’t you come visit us first? And that was the beginning of the end.

After touring a bit of Cambodia Chad found himself in Phnom Penh, walked into Rory’s Irish Pub, fell in love with the place, and a week later it was for sale. He then called up Rod, a bald, hulking fellow-construction worker with a twinkle in his eyes and a heart of gold to help him tend bar. Rod had been laying pipe in Seattle as a construction worker, and ever since arriving in Phnom Penh, he had been laying pipe as a bartender. Both of them seemed to love their new lives and Chad had even found himself a young Cambodian wife. Within a year he went from being unemployed in Auburn, Washington, to owning a bar in Cambodia and being married. Life can change quickly and magically if you are open to it.

I told the fellas it was BJs birthday so Chad and Rod were pouring. As a result, the art gallery closed before we got to grab our art, but we just decided we would take care of it the following day when we would come back to Rory’s to watch the Rugby World Cup Semi-finals.

BJ going all Corky on me. I was later informed this is actually the "Magic Genie." We discussed a game similar to the magic 8 ball where you ask the Genie a question and you will get the answer with a happy genie face or a sad genie face. This seems like a rather neutral genie to me, no?Chad had two t-shirts framed on the wall; one was Dick’s, a famous Seattle burger joint, and one from Kell’s, a famous Irish bar in Seattle near the market. I had been carrying around a KEXP sticker, Seattle’s best radio stations and perhaps the best independent radio station in the country, and donated it to the expat establishment. As the night wore on, several characters appeared out of BJ’s being, including Ray Romano, a young Al Pacino, Thom Yorke, and the Happy Genie, to which I replied, “Don’t go all Corky on me.” I didn’t know BJ’s character repertoire ran so deep. 

The following day we returned to purchase the art and got the price we wanted, but on the actual night of BJ’s birthday we got good and drunk, capping it off with a shot of Jameson at another Irish bar. We toasted to BJ’s birthday, our charmed lives, freedom, and the struggles and endurance of the beautiful Cambodian people.

 

 

Monday
Oct312011

Chapter 22. Border Crossings and Fallen Angels

“You know the city is a funny place. Something like a circus or a sewer.” – Coney Island Baby, Lou Reed

In researching how to cross into Cambodia over land, one travel writer called Poipet, Cambodia their least favorite city in all of Asia.

Asia is a big land mass.

One thing BJ and I were in agreement about after what could be called a successful passage into Cambodia (depending on your brand of optimism) was that we were no longer going to do border crossings at nightfall. When the critical moment arose as to whether or not to stay on the Thai side of the border for the night (as all guide books and websites recommended) or push on into Cambodia, we elected to press onward. And while this provided interesting experiences, colorful characters, and a rush of adrenalin, we can check that off our bucket list.

 ***

Because of massive flooding that has killed more than 300 people in Northern Thailand, we had to adjust our already lose travel plans. After meeting an art collector in Bangkok who advised us to head south or east, we opted to head east into Cambodia rather than north into Thailand where the country is experiencing its worst flooding in half a century. The clockwise loop we had talked about through Southeast Asia would now be a counter-clock wise loop.

Upon waking up in Bangkok on the morning of October 9th, as far as we knew we were on our way to the train station, but a last minute decision that was literally made in the cab ride to the train found us instead heading to the bus station. While the bus was more expensive (almost $7 as opposed to $1.50 on the train), it was a shorter journey and had air-conditioned, and we figured this might be a nice thing to have on what would have been a 10-hour journey on the train.

By the second stop in Thailand the bus was full, and by the third it was standing room only. While battling over Double Letter and Triple Word scores, BJ and I sat in the back row and passed Scrabble back and forth on his Touchpad. Occasionally we would look up and notice that the fields on both sides of the road were flooded—or in some parts the road was flooded. I looked out the back window of the bus and noticed that as it cut through the floodwaters it left a wake in its path like a Vietnamese junk boat plowing through Halong Bay.

The closer we got to the border, the less people were on the bus until it was only a handful of westerners. In the front there were two British fellows who were between 50 and 60. I noticed the shorter, skinny, scruffier, tattooed one of the two at the bus station in Bangkok because he kept having to reassure a woman on the other end of his cell phone that he would only be gone for a few days, that he loved her very much, and when he got back they would spend the night in a hotel room. Five minutes from our last stop, the other gentleman began looking through the rubbish that was left on the bus and found two unopened bottles of the water we were given in Bangkok at our point of embarkation.

 “You don’t know what you find until you look,” he said dryly in a heavy British accent.

“Hard to argue with that logic,” I agreed.

When we got off the bus, BJ and I decided we were going to just follow their lead. They paused to withdraw money from a bank machine where we asked them a question about the border crossing. They asked us if we had any U.S. dollars because a crisp $20 is required upon arrival to get a Cambodian Visa. They wanted U.S. dollars because with baht they would lose money on the exchange, and so we exchanged dollars for baht. With the combination of both the money exchange and the scrounging for water and snacks, I definitely took notice and wondered what these hearty border crosser’s stories were.

***

Before we even crossed the border Cambodian men began latching on to us, coming at us from all sides, while instructing us on where to go and how to cross the border; however, not even the most naïve traveler would have believed they were simply being good Samaritans.

We stayed close to the Brits and when the Cambodians tried to lead us in a different direction, the older gray haired man said, “Oh don’t pull that shit with me boys. We live here. Fellas, follow us,” he said motioning us to follow.

In fact the chute that rounded the nationals and foreigners toward the border crossing had been rerouted, but instead we just followed our British shepherds and hopped through a gated fence. The steel bars were not wide enough to fit us with our bags on and so we passed them over. The gray haired man helped me with mine and said, “Jesus fucking Christ. You got everything and the kitchen sink in here?”

We exited Thailand customs and entered Cambodia immigration relatively unscathed, losing only an extra 100 baht to the Cambodia border guards (about 3$, but they originally asked BJ for 800 baht). Outside the gate the same Cambodians that were trailing us on the Thailand side were now neck in neck with us on the Cambodian side—still telling us where to go, still offering us rides.

After clearing the Cambodian crossing, we both took a deep breath and walked head long into the madness. You would have thought we were Red Cross workers bringing food relief to the starving because the mass descended upon us like vultures. They were as aggressive and animated (if not more) than the Indian drivers and touts at the New Delhi train stations.

BJ had done a fair bit of research so we moved through them as best we could and our forward momentum parted the Cambodian crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea. We chose an older tuk-tuk driver who was not overly aggressive to take us to a hotel that BJ had read about on a website. In all of Poipet, the writer could only recommend 2 hotels.

Having climbed into a tuk-tuk and thinking we were on our way, we were immediately surrounded by the aggressive mob. They were telling us we could not go in the tuk-tuk. The leader of the group, a well-dressed Cambodian man in a stripped shirt holding a walkie-talkie, began telling us to go in the bus that tourists take for free. After much back and forth, the man began yelling at us.

“You can not take this! You must take the free bus! Why would you pay? This is free!”

BJ maintained his calm and said, “No thank you. I just want to pay for the tuk-tuk. We just want to pay for it,” he said, maintaining an air of politeness and civility. Knowing him well, however, I sensed his alarm and stress level rising.

The man’s temper began to flare. “I WORK FOR THE GOVERNMENT! I HAVE BEEN DOING THIS FOR TEN YEARS. YOU DON’T BELIEVE ME? YOU WANT TO CALL MY OFFICE?!?” as he pointed his finger in our faces.

“That’s fine,” BJ said maintaining his composure amidst the maelstrom. “I’m happy for your employment. That’s great, really. I believe you. But why are you yelling at us then?”

The man tried to gain his composure and again tried to explain to us how to get to the hotels.

I was teetering on caving into them but BJ held his ground. Finally I had had enough and said, “BJ—come on. Let’s go find the Brits.”

The Brits had not yet cleared customs and I could not re-enter the building, but I could still talk to them through a window. It was my Midnight Express moment, talking to the older man through the equivalent of prison bars while trying to explain what was going on only a few feet away.

“Don’t worry boys. You can follow us. You have a place to stay yet?”

The older gray haired man’s name was Allan, and the scruffier one was named Terry but everyone calls me ‘T,’ he told us.

When we walked out of customs with them, again the crowd descended upon us but luckily Terry had a friend who was picking him up on a motorcycle. Terry organized three motorbikes and we each hopped on the back with our luggage in tow to take us to the guesthouse they usually stayed at.

The “government” man and his cronies were not happy with us, and as it turned out, we later discovered the border crossing taxi situation is a scam run by the mafia. They offer you free service to take you to your hotel, but instead of taking you to hotel near the bus stop only a few blocks away, they take you way out of town to a transportation hub, so you are essentially forced to use their taxis. It seems like a lot of work for a few dollars, but Poipet is the real Cambodia—incredibly poor.

***

The first things you notice when you enter into Cambodia through Poipet is a feeling of lawlessness. One also can’t help but take note of how dirty it is compared to the Thailand side. Being that we also entered at night, it’s wide muddy streets lined with wooden structures, electronic stores selling cell phones, brothels, and bordered up aluminum stores fronts, made it feel like you were walking through a modern version of the old West, and you half expected at any moment a gunfight to erupt.

Our two new friends escorted us to a guesthouse and worked a deal for us on the room, but in hindsight they may have taken a few dollars off the top for themselves. We paid 400 Baht (which was about $11) but it might as well have been a crack house. Then again, this is coming from two travel prima donnas, or another term we recently learned—flashpackers. We like to think of this as a slightly more mature, slightly more sophisticated brand of backpacking. This is when you have a bit more leeway in your budget to stay in nicer places and enjoy a bit more of the finer things, but you’re still by no means above excessive intoxication, rabblerousing, and general tomfoolery.

“Is there anywhere to eat around here?” I asked Terry after thanking him for his aid and the rides.

“I’m going to have a beer downstairs and you’re welcome to join me if you like. Al’s just having a shower and we can grab a bite after that.” BJ and I were both still reeling from the border crossing experience and my intention was to latch onto the coattails of the two men who seemed like they knew what they were doing.

While waiting for Allan to shower, we learned a bit about Terry. He was a teacher without a work permit working in Thailand. When the schools would ask him for his papers, he would put it off as long as he could, and it usually bought him a half a year. He would thus move to a new school every six months or so. He told us of a friend who had been serving time because he was teaching without a work visa.

Terry was wiry and his pockmarked face bore the brunt of what looked like a severe case of teen acne. He was constantly tightened his belt to keep his pants up. He had a host of tattoos across his arms, wore a chain around his neck, and rings on his finger. Where once I had imagined he might be trying to scam us, once he was no longer a stranger his crooked smile and chipped tooth was actually warm, friendly, and inviting. He and Allan had only met a few months before as teachers and had made one or two border runs together previously. A border run is when you are living as an expat in Thailand and every three months you have to leave the country to get your Visa re-stamped, even if it is just for an hour.

Terry had been living as an expat for years and told us stories of his travels. One included traveling through Cambodia in 1994, where he got kidnapped, tied up, and had an AK-47 pointed at his head. This also happened a few months later to him in a town between the Thailand and the Burma border. The friend who he was traveling with told Terry he would never travel with him again.

Allan met us downstairs after a shower where he informed us that the little tube on the sink was in fact toothpaste and not shampoo.

“No, go on,” he said bending his neck so that the top of his head was in my face. “Look—smell my hair,” he insisted.

“You’re hair certainly has fresh breath,” I agreed.

We started walking about town through the darkened streets while skinny dogs came out of alleys and prostitutes greeted us from doorways. It did not take long for us to discover that our guardian angels were in fact fallen angels, but in my eyes angels none-the-less. They were not the type of people I would necessarily associate with in my every day life unless I became a neighborhood drunk and we happened to frequent the same bar.

Despite being skinny, Terry told us he drank a lot of beer every day, and that the first thing he did in the morning was drink a beer. Only occasionally would he have a strong liquor drink in the morning, but he wasn’t an alcoholic, he insisted.

“You can have a good bit of fun here for $5, lads” he told us. “You have to go into the brothel for that price though. You can take them home for $10. For $20 they will spend the night with you and get you a bit of Ice as well.”

“Right,” I said nodding my head in agreement. “Wow, $5…and what is Ice again?” I knew fully well it was not the solid form of water, but like the out of date software updates on my computer, I was not up to date on the latest drug lingo.

“Well, uh,” he said not proudly, “Meth. Crystal.”

“Oh right. Duh,” I said.

“You don’t really get much sleep on that, huh?”

“No,” he said, giving me a sardonic smile.

BJ and I both stayed engaged in the conversation and pretended to be what we imagined their type of ‘men’ to be, but our tender suburban New Jersey sensibilities were truly rocked to the core.

And it continued.

“I’m married and I love my Thai wife,” Terry went on, “but there is one girl here that I have a real sweet spot for.”

We were sitting on the side of the road beneath one of the few street lights on the block while a swarm of bugs circled above our heads, and no sooner had Terry said this than his sugarcane girl came running towards us out of a doorway.

“Hello darling!” Terry said warmly and confidently, proceeding to speak a few words to her in Thai or Khmer.

The girl may have been 20 and was skinny and wired. She had big, tragic eyes, which had they not been clouded with addiction, they may very well have been beautiful. Despite it all, she had a bubbly innocence about her.

We all sat on the sidewalk and BJ and I bought two more rounds of beers for our fallen guardian angels. A few more prostitutes gathered around us and Allan asked some questions of the girls that seemed lost in translation, but when he made the hand gestures, I’m pretty sure the intention landed.

Succumbing to his sugar tooth, Terry decided that he was going to take the girl home for the night. Eating seemed to immediately fall off of his radar, but who needed food? In just a few minutes he would be back in the guesthouse smoking Crystal Meth and this would surely suppress his appetite. As fate would have it, that night we would be sharing a wall with Terry at the guesthouse. It was reassuring to know that one of our guardian angels would be in the room beside us smoking meth with a Cambodian prostitute for the entire night.

Terry disappeared for a few minutes to go to a bank machine and returned with his lady to bid us a good night. We wished the reunited couple well and watched the skinny drifter-saints disappear into the darkness of Poipet’s dirty, littered streets. Bathed in a halo of streetlight, with every step they took towards the guesthouse, the glory of their splendor became just the outline of a street girl and a hustler, until finally the darkness consumed them both. It was just another night in one of the world’s many border cities.

BJ and I continued to sit on the corner with Al. Al had a bit of paunch to him that was accentuated by the sweat pants that were tucked into his white polo shirt which bore the insignia of a software company. On his feet he wore white tennis shoes.

Al told us that he and Terry have an arrangement where Al pays for dinner one night and Terry the next. It was Terry’s turn, but since Terry left with a prostitute, Al couldn’t eat that night because he had no money. Due to his thick Manchester accent, he told us a convoluted story of getting his money or bag stolen, but despite doing our best, we had trouble following the story. It became apparent that living as a teacher with a few extracurricular tendencies and hobbies, he lived paycheck to paycheck. What was even harder for us to believe was that Al couldn’t afford dinner, which only cost about $1.50.

“Well let us buy you dinner for helping us out,” I insisted.

Al had an encyclopedic knowledge of film stars and musicians who had died in plane crashes and he was quick to share a cheesy joke. In what sounded like several lives, he told us of one where he was a part of the British army and was shot several times by an IRA sniper. He showed us a scar from where the bullet entered and exited his hand as well as another on his leg. In another life Al was also the father to 7 children, and in yet another he worked in insurance. But the story behind his current life and the one that told of why he was living in Asia, was that he had been a contestant on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and won about $6,300 dollars. He decided to move to Thailand with the money where he blew it all almost immediately, and it was then that he decided to become a teacher. While I’m sure they are decent at what they do, I can assure you that both Al and Terry would not have made the cut at the International Schools I was working at in Vietnam and China.

The night ended with our unlikely threesome walking home. Al wanted to give us his email address and phone number and told us if we had any problems or questions we could contact him. When we entered his room to get his email address the lights were on and the TV was loudly playing a bio about Steve Jobs.

“Number one rule boys: always leave the lights and the TV on when you leave your guesthouse.”

It was invaluable information for the next time I am staying in a meth house. We didn’t bother mentioning that we couldn’t wait to get out of Poipet and into our 4-star hotel in Siem Reap.

When we got back to our hotel room, it was just as dirty as I had remembered it, with the addition of a trace of rat feces in what was our unsanitary excuse for a bathroom. When you see something like that in your room, all the sudden you see things you hadn’t noticed like ants and spiders, and stains on the walls and sheets. I was honestly just relieved to see that no one had been in our room or stolen our things. I told BJ not to worry because I was going to sleep with my gun under my pillow.

BJ and I fashioned a piece of furniture between our beds and watched The Killing Fields on his computer. It was the perfect uplifting ending to our first day in Cambodia. And that was our introduction to Cambodia. 

***

After an itchy night’s sleep, the following morning BJ went for a walk about the town. The night before Terry’s motorcycle driver and friend arranged a car for us to Siem Reap. As it turned out, the mafia had followed us home from the border crossing and one of the drivers was parked on a motorcycle outside our guesthouse. We already had everything organized though.

As we left our room, Terry’s door was open and he was packing his bags.

“Mate,” he said visibly stressed. “Uh, I’ve got a bit of a problem, see? I lost me money card last night. I had it at the crossing but I think I lost it when I got the money out for the whore. I’ve got a little money but we’re not sure if the money Al was supposed to be paid has cleared. Do you think we could get a lift with you to Siem Reap?”

As the story unfolded it, it was determined that when Terry went to the bank machine the night before—to get money out to spend the night smoking meth with a prostitute, which also happened to be on the night of he and his wife’s anniversary, which she reminded him of when he called home to check in that morning and alert her of the missing bank card—he lost his bank card. He wore a money belt and he believed that when he thought he had slid the bankcard into his money belt, in fact it had probably fallen through his pants to the ground. Lacking little money, as well as logic, he thought it might be easier for them to get to Phnom Penh via Siem Reap than a direct bus.

In case you’re not following, in summary—Al couldn’t even pay $2 for dinner the night before and Terry had lost his bankcard and had a limited amount of cash. I didn’t feel like I could say no to our fallen angels regarding the ride, but then again I also feared we were going to be hit up for money.

BJ and I waited for Al past our originally scheduled departure time because Al had to go to the bank machine. Luckily for all of us, Al’s money cleared. They were looking for a map of Cambodia to see if it made sense to go to Siem Reap, and so I grabbed BJ’s iPad and accessed the Lonely Planet Cambodia to show them that in fact, Poipet was closer to Phnom Penh than to Siem Reap. And so it was that our outlaw friends walked out of our life and we made our way towards Siem Reap without accompaniment.

***

The morning we left Bangkok, I had written in my grateful/creation journal that I wanted to create adventure and a serendipitous meeting. Sometimes life surprises the hell out of you by giving you just what you ask for.

While we bade our new friends and fallen angels adieu, those characters of serendipity and the adventure that ensued will be with me for a long time and I have a feeling I will be talking and thinking about them for years to come.

In a strange way I admire the freedom, sheer will, and personal authority it takes to live their lives as they please and to not answer to anyone. I believe it takes great courage to be responsible for your own life and the choices you make. I think I also had a soft spot for these wayward souls because they had a familiarity about them. Perhaps it was simply because they reminded me of older versions of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road. “There was nowhere to go but everywhere,” Kerouac said, and Terry and Al certainly didn’t appear to have anywhere to go. “My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them,” Sal Paradise said.

My appreciation and fondness for them was also aided by the fact that I took the liberty to fill in their backstories. Although they both grew up in the same town but had never met until a few months prior, I imagined them both to be the sons of no-bullshit, hardworking factory workers in Manchester, England. As children they lived what they saw to be dull, dreary lives in a gray, dull, dreary city. When not playing football or fighting, they dreamt of the freedom to escape their town, their lives, their upbringing, and to travel the world that only lived in their imagination.

Unbeknownst to each other, they shared a connection to the past. As young boys they once fought each other in a brawl on the streets of Manchester, though neither would ever know as the incident never came up in conversation, not to mention their fighting days were behind them. That part of their pasts were hidden beneath the veil of time that washes away the memories of our youth like waves washing away words written in sand.

Where these holy misfits really bonded, however, was that they both lost their mothers at a young age. As a result, their fathers fell apart and began drinking excessively, and when life got to be too much for these hardworking, hard drinking, and hard loving stressed-out factory fathers, they took out their anger, frustrations, and failures out on their sons.

For a brief moment in each of these wayward soul’s lives, these characters would walk together down one of the many roads of their lives. In doing so, through their friendship and shared pain, they managed to heal a small part of the past, a past that they had been trying to outrun for years.

Before meeting each other, they thought a part of themselves was forever lost when their mothers died, yet in sharing the experiences of their past, they were granted painful grace from which they both found healing. In the baptism of their healing and friendship, they received yet another taste from the cup of freedom, that unattainable, intangible Holy Grail they had been searching for their whole lives. 

And two friends from suburban New Jersey, also traveling misfits in their own ways, were lucky enough to meet these saints and sages in a shit-hole town on the border of Thailand and Cambodia in the fall of 2011.

 

 

Tuesday
Oct042011

21. Rehab and My 20th Anniversary of Writing

“Don't blow your mind with whys.” Bloom - Radiohead

By the time I left Beijing and arrived in Shanghai, I felt like I was two drinks away from rehab. Ironically, when I arrived in Koh Samui, it felt like I was going to rehab.

Memories of Shanghai

The building on the right, otherwise known as the "bottle opener" is the third tallest building in the world. This is the view walking along the Bund.Today is October 3, 2011 and I have just broken an 8-day detox/fast. While hunger is still present, it is a distant memory, just like the modern skyscrapers of Shanghai with their use of negative spaces, arches, alcoves, turrets, waves, swirls, antennas like praying mantis, and shimmering mirrored glass that reflected the heartbeat of China’s most modern city.

Shanghai will always hold a special place in my heart. The best nights in the city were filled with the laughter of friends over good meals and drinks in restaurants and rooftop bars. At night we slept in posh hotels that Lee Gong, our conceirge at the Lido Hotel in Beijing, had arranged. At the Grand Metro Park Hotel he got us suites where you could order different types of pillows off a pillow menu. On the last night that the four of us would be together we drank a bottle of Oban’s Scotch at Constellation 2, a Scotch bar in the French Concession, while Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong rounded out the soundtrack. The bathroom at Constellation 2 was almost worth having the lingering effects of diarrhea as the control panel of the toilet, with all its various buttons and knobs that dictated the strength of streaming water and the pressure of the drying heat, felt like you were driving the Millennium Falcon.

The best days (when not working) were spent roaming the city, bargaining with shop keepers at various markets, and going through false walls of shops that hid inner chambers where you could browse bootlegged DVDs, fake Armani belts or Mont Blanc pens, and knock-offs of Rolexes, Omegas, and other high-end watch brands. One day Daimien bought what he thought was a Ben Sherman shirt, only to realize when he got it home that the tag actually said Bobby Snowmen in the same font as the Ben Sherman brand. “That’s funny,” he said over a vodka drink. “It makes me look like even more of a douche bag.”

Antennas like a Praying Mantis. Nainjin Road, Shanghai.Shanghai, much like Beijing, is full of malls and it was interesting to see a Starbucks in the Golden Bridge Green Sports and Leisure Center, a mall in the heart of a wealthy expat area of Puxi. It was close to near where Daimien and I stayed at the Grand Metro Park Hotel. It was reassuring to know that you can always count on some things being the same, no matter where you are. Inside the green and white hallowed halls of Starbucks, the scene was the same as say—a Starbucks in Bellevue, Washington or Short Hills, New Jersey. During the day, attractive western women of leisure dressed in their tennis whites and drank iced-soy lattes while discussing the merits of their salon, all the while complaining about how hard it was to get good help. In the meantime their husbands were at work padding their bank accounts with the profits of products or technologies their western companies produced and marketed in China.

One afternoon we rendezvoused with another Seattle friend named Drew at the downtown Shangri-La Hotel for Dim Sum. Drew’s Chinese buddy Tola, who was a foodie and not for lack, accompanied us and told us we were eating the best Dim Sum in all of Shanghai. Afterwards we drove to a camera market where several of us purchased new cameras or accessories, and after that we drove around Shanghai in Tola’s brand new Mercedes, all the while trying to hold our breath because someone in the car had what might be categorized as offensive body odor. It was as funny as it was nauseating. I won’t mention who, but to give this person the benefit of the doubt, it was a hot day in Shanghai and 6 of us were piled into the Mercedes. I will advise him, however, to let the organic deodorant go. It’s not meant for everyone.

The view from our top floor suites at the Grand Metro Park Hotel, far out on the Puxi side of the river.I will always remember fondly bar hopping and walking aimlessly through the tree lined streets of Shanghai’s French Concession at night. On other days we walked through People’s Park and down Nainjin Road, a wide thoroughfare that is the epicenter of Shanghai shopping. No cars are allowed on Nainjin Road and every western brand you can think of has a storefront. And of course there was the past time that never got old, observing the endless legs of Chinese women in their ever-so-fashionable high heels.

But as I said, like the skyscrapers that seemed to defy gravity and physics, all of that is a memory now. My next stop was Koh Samui by way of Bangkok.

Ten Days in Rehab on Koh Samui

After spending a night at an airport hotel in Bangkok, the following morning I boarded an 8am flight bound for Koh Samui. At the time of boarding the flight I still didn’t know exactly where I was going. After a gluttonous month in China, I wanted to do a detox/cleanse program (and maybe lose a few pounds) but could not decide between two places—one on the island of Koh Samui and the other on Koh Phangan. As I may have mentioned before, I can decided in a split second to move my life from New York City to Seattle, or to put my belongings in a storage unit and travel for an undetermined amount of time, but when it comes to booking a hotel room or ordering something on a menu, gripping paralysis overtakes me.  

Doing time in rehab.It was a fact that to get to Koh Phangan it would require a little more effort and it was slightly more expensive, but it had rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Koh Samui I imagined would be crowded and overrun with tourists, thus providing too much temptation to skip the detox and just "tox."

Out of mostly indolence but also value, I finally decided to stay on Koh Samui. At the airport I boarded a bus that would either drop us off at Big Buddha pier to catch the ferry to Koh Phangan or drive us to our hotels on Koh Samui. Two cute Dutch girls who looked like fun got off at the Big Buddha pier and I immediately backpedaled on my decision to stay on Koh Samui. The Dutch girls were the only people on the bus that looked like my type of people, not to mention I’ve never met a Dutch person I didn’t like. The remaining people on the bus were either Chinese tourists or looked like lazy, well fed Americans and Europeans who might be on their way to an all-you-can-eat resort. Internally I began to panic and wondered what I was doing going to a detox center when I had just arrived in Thailand, the land of beach parties, excess, and well—Thai food.

When I checked in at the Health Oasis Resort I had already made up my mind it wasn’t the place for me. My skin was crawling as if I was a junky on my way to rehab, already itching for my next angry fix, and so I told myself I was only going to stay a night and head to Koh Phangan the following morning. No sooner had I sat down to order breakfast then I was invited to the table of some nice people, and after talking to them about the detox program and observing how happy they seemed to be—not to mention they had survived 8 days of fasting—I decided to stick it out.

Breathing a great sigh of relief, post-breakfast I walked the ten steps to the resort’s private beach and consumed myself in the remainder of Mary Karr’s book, Lit. Her words and the gentle, lapping waves of the Gulf of Thailand washed away all of my anxiety about being in rehab—err, ah, detox. You would think I would learn by now, but despite there being very little sun, by the end of the day my cheap Irish skin was as red as a steamed lobster on a Nantucket beach at an August sunset picnic.

After reading for some time I looked up to see two Thai women wrapped in saris and they were not hiding the fact that they were checking me out. They were playful with each other and flirtatious in their actions and began taking off the top of their bathing suit and rewrapping themselves in their saris. From a distance I could vaguely make out what looked like a lovely set of perky little breasts. Well this is interesting, I thought to myself. However, something seemed slightly off, but then again I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

A little while later I went for a walk on the beach that lasted exactly 48 minutes and 16 seconds. I know this because I was listening to the last song on Wilco’s latest album exactly 4 times, and the song clocks in at 12:04.

On the walk, once again I saw the girls and when I was asked a question by one of them, I only looked at the one who was addressing me.

“Hey, where are you going? What are you doing?” she said in a cute Thai accent.

“Just going for a walk down the beach.”

My office.Then my eyes fell on her friend, the one who had been more readily showing her breasts, and it was at that moment that I saw her cheek bones and strong jaw line, and it was then that her grotesquely masculine features came into focus. My stomach went into an extreme upheaval like when you hit and air pocket of unexpected turbulence on an airplane, and despite being on my last day of Ciprio (a strong antibiotic to take care of the aforementioned symptoms in the previous chapter), for a moment my breakfast almost came back up.

This was my first introduction to the Thai-lady boy, or what I will affectionately call from here on out as his’ers. They are not exactly a he, and they’re not exactly a she, which honestly just leaves me just confused. But this is one instance where I’m not curious enough to find out what’s really going on down there.

Backtracking—20 Years of Writing

It’s September 29th, 2011 and I’m at the Health Oasis Resort in Koh Samui, Thailand. It’s been four days since I’ve eaten anything solid and despite not having a thing in the world to do, I am kept busy every hour-and-a-half taking psyllium, bentonite shakes, spirulina, guarana, tonics, colloidal silver, and various other supplements in pill or tincture form.

As I write this I am sitting in the restaurant of the resort looking out at palm trees, the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand, cumulus cotton swab clouds, and the sleepy islands of Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, and Koh Phaluai, each shrouded in a distant haze. I’ve been dreaming of sitting on a beach and doing nothing since mid-May when I was landlocked in India about 6 hours north of New Delhi.

I love achievable dreams.

Beyond today being one day away from the first day of October and 4 days away from when I can break my fast, today marks the 20-year anniversary of the first time I laid pen to paper. Besides living I haven’t done anything for 20 years. The closest second has been soccer, which clocks in at 18 years of competitive play.

Contained in my three-ring notebooks are the last 20 years of my life in all its forms of beauty, transcendence, ugliness, and despair. More than 3,500 pages chronicle my life, some pages stained with beer, some with ketchup or the remnants of other late night munchies sessions, some with candle wax, and some with the tears of my heart and the inevitable pain of existence—but every entry is marked by a date and time.

If someone were to look at these pages 100 years down the road, it’s all there; a snap shot of the interior life of a teenager who became a man during the dawn of the 21st Century. My lifetime has seen the emergence of the personal computer, the move from the rotary phone to the cordless phone to the smart phone, the Internet, digital music and content, as well as the iPod and the iPad, YouTube, Facebook, electric cars, the mapping of the human genome, the charting of ocean currents (quite by accident when in 1994, 34,000 ice hockey gloves were swept overboard from a Korean cargo ship during a storm in the Pacific and the gloves were found everywhere from Vietnam to Vancouver), Wikipedia, Google and Google Earth, an African-American President of the United States, and terrorism on the shores of the United States. When you think about all of the change we have seen in our lifetime, it’s astounding to be a witness to the period of history we are moving through.

At the tender age of 26, I crossed the threshold of the new millennium, an age I thought as a boy to be the perfect age to get married and start a family, but when I reached that point I was having way too much fun to even entertain that thought. I was living in New York City, didn’t have a responsibility or care in the world, barely able to take care of myself, and all the while complicating my life with thought, anxiety, and the irrational fear of whether or not I would ever get to where I wanted to be, or become who I wanted to be. The twenties can be a time of extreme fun, freedom, and excess, and yet the endless choices of where to go, what to do, and who to be can be paralyzing and asphyxiating.

While I generally appeared happy-go-lucky to most friends, coworkers, or acquaintances, there was a heavy sadness I carried around like a cannon ball chained to my leg. I felt stuck by life, so eager for the future, so eager to experience life, love, and all of the things that gave people I admired depth, a sense of expansiveness, and life experience. My mother was always worrying about me during these years no doubt saying countless rosaries for my spiritual discernment. I’m sure she recognized in me a restless soul and she knew all too well how easy it was for restless souls to get lost or go astray. As a woman of letters, in her infinite wisdom and in the only way she knew how, she once wrote a letter to me in 1996 in which she said, “Don’t be in such a rush for the future. It comes all to soon and takes care of itself.” And she was right. But as a junior in college, how could I have known or trusted that advice? What if the future didn’t take care of itself? While I wanted to believe what she said and while she was a woman of great faith, I lived in a shadow of her fear. The pearl of her wisdom was only something I would uncover with some age, heartache, wisdom, and maturity. (She would be happy to know I am in agreement with her in that it appears the future is taking care of itself.)

All those years what I was writing and dreaming about is what I am living and experiencing in this moment—what the future is currently taking care of; the freedom to go and be, the freedom to explore foreign lands and the interior regions of the self, the freedom to choose whom I want to meet, love, or forgive. The freedom that friendship provides, the freedom you experience through faith, the freedom to drink from the cup of life, and the freedom to walk my own path—to move through the journey and the search at my own speed and in my own accord.

My life and times are now chronicled in roughly 43-45 volumes of 70-80 page three-ring spiral notebooks. Over the years I have begun to organize them in larger spiral bounders, on the cover of each writing the volume number, the dates it contains, and for quick reference, the major milestones of that time period.

As a younger person this anniversary never escaped me and I would honor it every year by looking back and reading about who I was at various points throughout the years. Of course that is not possible being as I’m in Thailand, but even still, the last few years the date has passed unceremoniously and unnoticed. I’m actually quite surprised I remembered this year but seeing as the last few days (as well as the next few days) consist mostly of following the suns arch in the sky, time is moving slowly enough that I only had to write the date to take notice.

When I did look back, it seemed like I was becoming a new person every 6 months as my experiences shaped and shifted the perspective of what I thought, felt, and wrote about. I still in many ways find this to be true. The Dutch American abstract impressionist painter Willem de Kooning, when addressing the question of why his own work sometimes looked very different from year to year, said, "There's no way of looking at a work of art by itself. It's not self-evident—it needs a history, it needs a lot of talking about; it's part of a whole man's life."

The Process of Writing

I honestly don’t really feel like writing right now. I would much rather be sitting on the beach reading, walking, watching the waves, or dreaming up the future. I suppose that is one good thing that time, maturity, and the pain of the last few years (and thus the wisdom of those seeds) has bequeathed me—I don’t look back as much. When you’re always looking back, you can’t see what’s in front of you.

When you’re a writer, however, or any artist for that matter of fact, it can sometimes be hard to just be. There is an internal voice, critic, and coach that is always saying, you should be writing, you should be chronicling, you should be creating, and this voice can actually be quite maddening. I had imagined when I arrived to this detox resort, I would be writing feverishly every day—catching up on the trip, reflecting, getting ahead…as if you can ever get beyond the present moment, but instead I have found as many distractions as possible to avoid writing.

And as I sit down to write at this moment, after putting it off for the last 4 days, I am not actually writing for you, my dear reader, but for myself. As my friend Bhuvan in Dehradun, India told me, one of the three things most successful people do is take time to themselves as a ritual. When he said this, he did not necessarily mean successful in financial terms, but successful in terms of happiness and evolving as a human being and spirit, because I think evolving is key to our happiness and well being. Stagnation is a recipe for discontent.

I am forcing myself to write this morning because there is something bubbling beneath the surface that wants to make it’s way out. Maybe it has something to do with the toxins I am releasing from my body, but it feels more of an emotional nature. More likely it is just the need to express something that dwells in the shadows or peripheral of my internal world.

The need to be expressive, which I would argue is the root of most artists, is much like a geyser or a volcano; it is always boiling the elements of the universe beneath the surface while looking for a way for the molten rock and sulfur dioxide of life’s experiences to escape. Artists do this because what is beneath the surface is the formless magma of feelings and emotions. In the formlessness is an aspect of life that we can’t quite grasp, understand, or accept, and so we throw ourselves into the fiery cauldron so that we may exorcise that feeling—for when we do release it, that which came from the inner earth of our being comes in contact with the world. In the chemical reaction that occurs, that which was liquid and amorphous becomes solid, tangible, and knowable in its new form—and hopefully if the artist is successful, what he or she creates is relatable and identifiable to his or her audience.

Many times I avoid sitting down to write like I may avoid an uncomfortable conversation. It can put you through emotions and experiences that can be unpleasant, but much like the result of that uncomfortable conversation, more often than not it winds up clearing the air and can be quite liberating.

I am forcing myself to sit down right today, throwing myself into the process, because something the painter and photographer Chuck Close once said is ricocheting around my head, and like him, I know it is only through process that one can uncover ideas:

"The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

Beyond the major life experiences of the times I’ve fallen in love and/or consequently gotten my heart broken, and beyond the experience of seeing my parents slowly decay from prolonged diseases, the innocent act of putting pen to paper as a 17-year-old on the night of September 29th, 1991, would have to rank in the top 5 most significant events of my life. It has created an entire realm of how I classify and experience the world.

I won’t write about that particular night or why I started, because it has already been said in 2006, but I will say that I can still very clearly see that 17-year-old kid laying on his stomach in his bed, propped up by two pillows, writing night after night about the countless new experiential bombardments that fuel adolescent innocence, curiosity, and mischief.

But beneath everything I wrote there has always the question, why? Why here? Why now? Why me? Why these people? I think when the Creator created the universe in one blinding flash, when it started as something you could hold in your hand and exploded in a flash of ever expanding light to create the universe at a rate of 10-30 of a second, He (or She for the feminists out there) probably said;

One day far in the future and when the evolutionary conditions are right, all of these elements, particles, and atoms will blend and evolve to form Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen, and from these elements life will be created. I will call this process ‘The Tendency Towards Complexity.’

Contained in each aspect of life and the ever-changing, ever-shifting landscape of cellular evolution, I am going to write a source code made up of proteins and amino acids and call it DNA. The most highly evolved DNA will come to form and be the blueprint for human beings. Humans, being the highest and most evolved complexity, will be the first form of life to critically look at themselves and their place in the universe.

The first part of the expression of this complexity's existence will look outwards at the world around it, and it will fight to keep its DNA alive and in existence. After several hundred thousand years when first cells then humans have formed communities to master the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter, they will discover leisure and that will present a whole new complex set of problems. These problems will force humans to stop looking outward and begin looking inward, and there they will find the underlying code of their DNA. The puzzling reaction to seeing their surroundings for the first time through the eyes of self-consciousness and self-awareness will culminate in the expression of, Why? And just to keep them on their toes, for every box labeled ‘why’ that they open, I will put in the next box ten more questions.

Why must be the most hardwired piece of information encoded in our DNA. Each time I write it is like peeling away one layer of why from an endless onion; endless in that with each layer that is peeled I get closer to the core, and yet I know I will never reach it. This is why writing for me, when I do it how I personally consider it to be right (meaning I am in a space of flow where there is no struggle to find the words, but rather they flow through my consciousness as if channeled) it is a form of supplication. It is being in contact with something that is greater than me. It is like being in church or sitting on a mountaintop.

Of course I am well aware that what I am writing to you in this form is for public consumption. What I write within the faint blue lines of my college-ruled notebooks is something entirely else.

But much like why I am doing a detox for my body, writing is a way for me to find clarity and a deeper connection to the organizing energy of the universe, whether you want to call it God, Energy, Creation, Allah, Vishnu, etc. Writing is a way for me to be still and listen. It is a meditation. It is a way for me to clean the contact points so that I may get a better charge or a stronger signal—a way to be more in tune with the energies and information that flow around us. It is a way for me to make sense and organize the experiences of my life into a story that I can understand and digest. I love the way Mary Karr expresses her need to write:

“But humming through me like a third rail was poetry, the myth that if I could shuffle the right words into the right order, I could get my story straight, write myself into an existence that included the company of sacred misfit poets whose pages had kept me company as a kid.”

Writing is a way for me, as the Buddha would say, to be awake.

Mapless in Thailand

From here on out in my journey I need to be awake because I’ve gone almost as far as the map I was carrying will take me. For the past 5 months, while I lacked the details of a plan, I at least had a map. I knew I would be in India for roughly 3 months and I knew I would be meeting my friend to work as an ‘Assistant to the (International) School Photographer’ in August and September, and I knew that would take me to Vietnam and China.

In a few days I am meeting my friend in Bangkok and that will begin two months of travel. After that, however, I know nothing—and honestly, I’m OK with that. At least for the next two months I will have a fellow explorer to map the uncharted territories we both will survey, but beyond that I have no idea what life holds for me. I don’t know if I will go home or venture on further to Southeast Asia or the even the Southwestern Pacific. My existence for the past several months in this respect has very much been day-to-day, which I’ve grown quite fond of. In this existence, every day is a surprise and a gift, and in this existence as I’ve stated, I continually try to fall more and more deeply into the idea of surrender.

The Idea of Surrender

One day in a coffee shop in Shanghai, while waiting for a cup of liquid beans, I began browsing the shop’s book exchange. I was looking through all the titles when Lit, by Mary Karr jumped out at me. I remembered the book because I had listened to an episode of Studio 360 on NPR where Alec Baldwin, playing the role of guest host for Kurt Andersen, conducted a great interview with Mary Karr.

Central to the theme of her book is the idea of surrender, which is central to the theme of my travels, of the story I am writing, and the personal experiment of consciousness, creation, and connection that I am conducting—because that is really what all of this is. Life is a great laboratory of ideas where you attempt to make concoctions and elixirs that work for you, and sometimes you fail miserably, sometimes you succeed triumphantly, but all the while you're learning, learning, learning.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that I found this book, just like that last two books I read had the same line in it; Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. You can look at a happenstance like a book on a bookshelf jumping out at you as a matter of coincidence or purpose. Your point of view is a matter of choice, faith, or philosophy—or some combination of the three—and I’m not saying my view is the right one. It’s simply a choice I make and an idea that I find to be more empowering and enlivening than looking at life as happenstance and coincidence.

I say this from the circumstances that have arisen since my decision to surrender in Chapter 2, and the resulting experiences that have occurred ever since I moved into this idea of travel just over a year ago. Each time an impediment appeared that seemed like it was going to make the whole house of cards collapse, I said with the innocence and belief of a fool, ‘I surrender—something better will come along.’ And sure enough, each time a solution I could never have designed would appear.

Whether it’s people, words in book, a butterfly landing on you, and so on and so on, I find if you are in tune with your surroundings and feelings there are always signs that appear in the most uncanny light or fashion. I think the poet Charles Simic encapsulates this idea best in line from his poem, St. Thomas Aquinas; “…Everyone I met wore part of my destiny like a carnival mask.”

I’m not sure you can really wrap words around the idea of surrender. I think you can describe the concept and intellectualize the idea, but otherwise it is one of those life experiences like love or faith where it can only be known through practice and experience. I only know my experience of surrender but I would imagine the experience is somewhat different for everyone. The idea of surrender is like turning on the FM radio bandwidth, but each person must turn the dial to his or her own station until they get a clear signal with music or programming that feels right.

I suppose one thing that this bandwidth of surrender has in common is that you must remove the intellectual and rational element of thinking, which has always proved to be difficult for me. We quite naturally want to be problem solvers, always running through scenarios in our heads, trying to figure out the “how” of how we will accomplish something or get somewhere, but the “how” is precisely what we must surrender.

In Lit, while Mary who is an alcoholic going through a particularly low point in rehab, she is constantly fighting the idea of surrender until someone she meets in rehab says to her, “Yield up what scares you. Yield up what makes you scream and cry. Enter into the quiet. It’s an empty football stadium with all the lights on. And pray to be an instrument of peace…If God hasn’t spoken do nothing. Fulfill the contract you entered into at the box factory, amen. Make the containers you promised to tape and staple. Go quietly and shine. Wait. Those not impelled to act must remain in the cathedral…”

I have by no means mastered this art, but I am walking this path and merely describing my own experiences. But almost daily I am struck and/or humbled by something someone says or an idea that seems to come from nowhere which is completely in synch with what I am working on or working through. Whether I listen is another story.

An Admittedly Disjoined Closing (But Admittedly I Want To Move On And I Don’t Want To Look At This Anymore)

From the time I sat down to write today, or from the time I first picked up a pen 20 years ago, it has all been about the process and the practice. And in the process and practice of writing and traveling, I am certainly not the same person I was when I left home 6 months ago—or when I picked up the pen 20 years ago.

I keep finding that one of the gifts one receives in the act of traveling or in the practice of art is that you have the time to view your life through a kaleidoscope. Wherever you are, you can look straight through the lens of your life, and yet all the while—consciously or unconsciously—your mind can’t help but process the endless mirrored images of people, perspectives, landscapes, and ideas, and without one even being aware of it, this creates seismic shifts in the soul. Specifically the experience of travel lets you see that there are an infinite number of ways to live one’s life, and more importantly, you get to see how much more you have than the rest of the world. This nurtures compassion and gratitude not only for others, but also for oneself. Among other things travel provides, Mark Twain nailed it when he said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

There are countless reasons why we set out to travel; escape, exploration, curiosity, love, art, creation, research, boredom. Regardless of what we do outwardly or where we find ourselves in our travels, inwardly the shifts one experiences cannot help but shake up one’s internal compass, and one cannot escape travel without creating some new form of magnetic north.

Whatever the reason travel pushes you out from your home and comfort zone, I have found travel provides countless opportunities for transformation. And who does not want to transform? It seems to work for the butterfly. I think transformation is one of the three pillars and propellants of artists, one of which we’ve already touched upon; expression, transformation, and transcendence. Transformation—like life, like travel, like art, like the chemical reactions that occur at cellular levels—is a process and a practice. And like faith, it is not passive but active.

Next stop, Bangkok.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday
Sep262011

20. The Mysterious Case of “The Shanghai Surprise”

“Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.” – Grateful Dead

The putrid shrimp roll had just been removed from the table. The Shanghai Surprise can be characterized by severe abdominal pain followed by violent, unexpected bouts of diarrhea. The surprise is that one minute you’re driving down the highway having a leisurely morning and the next you’re thrown into a panic, begging the driver to pull over as beads of sweat pour down your brow, and unexpectedly you find yourself dropping your pants on the side of a highway as rush hour traffic roars past you while your friend snaps pictures of you and the driver searches for newspaper or tissues. Surprise!

This is exactly what happened to Jeff on Thursday morning, Jeff being the newest member of International Photo’s revolving door crew. He’s the newbie, the neophyte, green, wet-behind-the-ears, the rookie. Like any great photo assistant—or pugilist for that matter of fact who finds themselves in the ring for the first time—you’re learning the ropes, and in this new endeavor you’re bound to get some cuts, scrapes, and bruises, and you’re also going to get your ass knocked to the mat—or the side of the highway. Where you earn your respect is how quickly you get up. This kid seems like he’s got some grit, though. It’s trial by fire when you’re the assistant to the (international) school photographer, and if you’re not up for the challenge, then the road is going to eat you up. Another key skill to have in this job is to know when to call it quits. Robbie Roberston from The Band said it best, “The road was our school. It gave us a sense of survival; it taught us everything we know and out of respect, we don’t want to drive it into the ground…or maybe it’s just superstition but the road has taken a lot of the great ones. It’s a goddam impossible way of life.” To give Jeff the benefit of the doubt, first he gets hosed on the KEXP shout-out from Seattle and now he gets Shanghai Surprised. He’s had some hard knocks but I’ve got high hopes for the Golden Boy from Queen Anne.

Do not think for a moment I don’t feel empathy for the poor soul. I too have been there, in fact just 24-hours ago. As I write this to you it is Friday, and while Jessie and Jeff headed off to school this morning, my crew has the day off. I should be exploring Shanghai right now, but I don’t trust myself enough to venture too far from the hotel as just last night I was walking into my bathroom (luckily with no clothes on), thought I was going to pass some wind, and got a little more than I bargained for. It was truly and utterly…macabre. Luckily, as I said, I was already in the bathroom. Had that occurred on the carpet, I’m not sure how I would have explained that one to the cleaning crew. That one would take the expression lost in translation to the next level.

As you read this, you might be thinking to yourself, is it necessary for this writer to stoop to 4th grade, scatological humor? Some may say no, but I can assure you there is nothing humorous about The Shanghai Surprise. It’s nothing compared to the India Incapacitator, however, where you find yourself holed up for four days in your guesthouse, barely able to lift your head off the pillow, fevered, fluids coming out of every end, you’re dehydrated, your whole body aches, and you wonder if you’re on the verge of kidney failure. I only mention these scatological truths because these are the strange but true tales of the trails and tribulations of the life of the assistant to the (international) school photographer.

It’s just a fact that in this job your reality can turn on a dime. Just two nights ago I was riding high. Daimien, Jeff, myself, and the President—Jessie “the Big Bawler” (a name known to his employees because he throws cash around like an NBA basketball player during a night out on the town) went down to the Bund in Shanghai to have dinner and drinks.

The Bund from the Puxi side of Shanghai.The Bund is Shanghai’s waterfront area and the perhaps the heartbeat of Shanghai. It literally means “the embankment.” The Huangpu River divides Shanghai, and on one side fo the river is Pudong and on the other is Puxi.

Our foursome had secured a table at the New Heights rooftop bar and restuarant on the Puxi side, an upscale bar that attracts both foreign and Chinese tourists as well as couples on first dates. Our table was closest to the railing and so we had Shanghai’s entire skyline to drink in.

We had a great evening joking and laughing about our day’s work, and Jeff and I discussed the intricacies and unexpected events of being an assistant to the (international) school photographer, such as when you’re looking at someone’s picture and you unknowingly take on their facial expression. Looking out at the flashing LED lit buildings, boats, and billboards, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was not only to be having a once in a lifetime experience—but to be aware of it in the moment; here I was in Shanghai with friends who knew the city and were tied into a local scene, I didn’t have to think about or plan a thing, my dinner and drinks were paid for, and I best of all I was able to share the experience with friends.

We ordered a few vodka drinks and a bottle of wine, as well as appetizers. I went to town on these skewered beef sticks, but when the shrimp spring roll came, Jeff ate his and then commented, “These have a really fishy after taste, don’t they?”

I have read in several guidebooks that the places you’re most likely to get food poisoning are in the upscale restaurants that cater to westerners. Always eat at places where you see locals, they say. Being that I wasn’t sure if Jeff was trying to put me off because he wanted them all to himself (and not willing to take the chance), I made an aggressive play for the spring roll, and sure enough, there was a fishy aftertaste. In fact I didn’t even finish it and in my mind I thought, I wouldn’t be surprised if I got sick tonight.

Sure enough at 2:38am that night I woke in a cold sweat and B-lined for the bathroom. This was the start of a long, insufferable night and following day. If I got an hour of sleep after the first episode I was lucky. I was in a world of hurt when the alarm went off at 5:45am, but as I said in the previous chapter, when I am called to serve as the assistant to the (international) school photographer, I show up.

To get to the Shanghai International School, we either have to walk 20 minutes to a chartered bus or take a taxi to the chartered bus, which then takes the teachers and us to school.

It was a tense ride—and by tense I mean I was flexing my sphincter muscles to keep everything inside. I white knuckled the seat in front of me, closed my eyes, and prayed that I would make it to school without having an awfully embarrassing incident, not to mention ruin my only pair khaki pants (since the horrible laundry service in Beijing lost my favorite pair of pants—I have been perseverating on that all week and obviously I’m still bitter about it). With each kilometer we gained on the 25-minute drive to school, pressure was building while sweat poured down my brow. When we finally reached school, the security guard tried to stop me to get my visitor badge but I blew past him and usurped my subservient role as the assistant to the (international) school photographer saying assertively, “Daimien—deal with this.”

The next 4 hours were some of the longest of my life. I could barely lift my head off the table. Excited kids beamed their smiles in a flurry of Daimien’s flashes while teachers tried to make small talk. I deflected all inquiries as best I could to the photographer-in-chief. In between each class, if we had a few moments, I laid on the floor, pressing my head against the cold embrace of the upper-cafeteria floor. I had already made several bathroom runs when around 10:30am I felt the poisoned shrimp wanting to be orally exorcised. I went to the bathroom, unbuttoned my shirt hung it on a hook like George Costanza might, and prayed to the porcelain gods to make it as quick and painless as possible.

I suppose I should tell you that I am a violent puker. Some people can vomit with poise and grace, like I imagine Jackie Onassis might have or what a little puppy might do in the corner, but mine comes with the wrath and fury Tyra Banks or Cerberus. And so I leaned over the bowl and in several violent episodes that sounded as if my very life was being extricated from me. I tried my best to contain the bathroom drama being that I knew the door opened onto a busy corridor of the school. And so when I was finished I put back on my shirt and went to the sink with watery and bloodshot eyes to wash my hands and face. As I was wiping my hands dry a security guard came in and poked his head around with what be construed as mild alarm on his face. I’m not sure if it was a coincidence or if the reverberations of me purging the sins of my gluttonous appetite triggered some school alarm.

Meanwhile, back in Beijing…

After customs and upon exiting baggage claim at China’s Beijing International Airport, the first thing you see above the drivers who are vying for the Yuan in your wallet are the green and white colors of the Starbucks logo. I’m not sure why that surprised me since Starbucks is opening nearly a new store every day in China. The Chinese seem to have an insatiable appetite for Seattle’s equivalent to a cup of Sanka.

Jessie had told me how much I should expect to pay for a taxi from the airport to the Lido Metropark Hotel where we were staying. Much to my surprise the driver did not want to turn his meter on and tried to get me for 120 Yuan, but I drew a line in the sand and he met me at 70. I didn’t like him from the get-go, and his sunglasses that suggested he was too-cool-for-school accentuated my distaste. He talked on his cell phone the entire ride, and although he was not speaking English, if my instincts serve me correctly I would bet he was talking about his sexual exploits. When I got out of the car, knowing he did not speak any English and simply to entertain myself, I said to him with a wide, grateful grin, “You drive a hard bargain you little mother-fucker. Piss off now.” It’s fun to do. I’m just hoping it doesn’t backfire one of these times.

The Lido opened in 1985 and for years was the only hotel in Beijing to cater to westerners. There is practically a mall on the first floor offering anything from a cobbler, to an Apple accessory store, to Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, to a grande, no-fat, sugar-free Cinnamon Dolce Latte—no whip from Starbucks. You can even get coffee in that ridiculous Starbucks drink if you want it. 

I met up with Jessie and Daimien in the lobby where they handed me a can of beer. By the crack of the second beer we headed out to a party that one of the teachers he knew was throwing.

“Can you believe after all that back and forth over email we’re finally here together in China?” Jessie said. Not only could I not believe it, but I couldn’t believe I was staying in such a nice hotel and not paying a dime. Like I’ve said before, assistant to the (international) school photographer—not bad work if you can get it.

The party was full of expats and a handful of Chinese, including one of China’s biggest up and coming film stars. He was friends with Susie (whose 40th birthday it was) before he was anyone and had brought several bags of gifts for Susie from the Chinese equivalent of Barney’s. All I brought was a smile.

Susie lived in a development of beautiful townhouses and in her backyard she had a small glass house that at first glance I thought was a greenhouse, but inside she had a chair and a fireplace. Her friend from Australia who had terrible taste in music was in control of the tunes and played everything from Quiet Riot to Justin Bieber. We kept laughing saying, if you blindfolded one of us and dropped us in Susie’s backyard, you could easily think we were in Issaquah, an upscale suburb of Seattle.

Beer and vodka was revving our engines when we had to leave to meet Lee Gong, the head concierge at the Lido. Over the years Jessie had become friends with Lee Gong, who the previous year he had won concierge of the year in Beijing. He hooked Jessie up with anything he needed, and in turn, Jessie padded his wallet. We went to The Irish Volunteer for a drink, which was the bar the Indian couple from Hanoi had recommended, and then sat out back at the Lido having beers with Lee Gong while LED lights streamed through the trees and Chinese people performed Karaoke to a live band.

Around 11:30pm, Billy, a 24-year old skater who would be Daimien’s assistant that week, finally arrived. He wore on his face a grin as wide as a bullfrog. Billy had just landed an hour or two before and had never been out of the United States, none-the-less barely out of Washington State. He was sporting a 5’o’clock shadow, wore an RVCV t-shirt, jeans, a straight brimmed baseball cap that had “TB” on it (Tampa Bay), and Vans on his feet. There was no mistaking the fact that he was skater kid, and this was not lost upon the fact that he had brought his skateboard to China. Over the course of two weeks, when he was out and about skating throughout Beijing while dropping ollies and old-school flipkicks, people looked at him with insatiable curiosity as if he was a white man introducing a lighter to an aboriginal tribe. Over the course of the following week he earned a slew of nicknames including; Baby Billy, Little Willy, Free Willy, Billy the Kid, TB, Typical B, William the Lion Hearted, Little Billy, William Shire, Young William, Squire Billy, and Billy Squire.

At 8am the following morning after arriving in Beijing, a van was waiting for us to take us on the two-hour journey to the Jinshanling stretch of the Great Wall of China. I rode shotgun and hid behind my sunglasses while sinking deeper and deeper into the seat. I was feeling mildly hung-over from the night before and was concerned about how the night’s tomfoolery was going to play out at The Great Wall. When we did reach the wall, I began feeling better and within 15 minutes of hiking I had sweated out the previous night’s poisons.

“Guys, listen. Can you fucking believe this? We’re at the Great Wall! The Great fucking Wall! Holy fucking shit!” Billy would say from time to time throughout the day. His enthusiasm was contagious, infectious, and entertaining, and it was not lost on any of us. Jessie has been to the Great Wall perhaps ten times or more and it never ceased to amaze him, and it certainly exceeded all of my expectations.

It is hard to wrap your head around the breadth and scope of The Great Wall. Stretching from Shanhaiguan, by the Yellow Sea, to the Jiayuguan Pass in the Gobi Desert, The Great Wall is an astounding feat of engineering. Small sections of The Great Wall began in the 5th century B.C. and construction continued through the 16th century, connecting the fractured lines of many of the smaller walls that had been built, thus creating one great wall. This great monument of paranoia is great business as millions of people a year come to visit its 25,000 battlements and ramparts. Parts of The Great Wall are crumbling while other parts are newly restored and in total it stretches for 6,259.6 kilometers across China. The Jinshanling section we visited is one of the least traveled and in this part the wall stretches in between peaks like Christmas lights between limbs, which left us scrambling all day up and down steep, crumbling inclines.

The following day began my workweek with Jessie at the International School of Beijing. Our days began early—around 5:30am, and at night we went to dinner and relaxed in our hotel. One night I bought Wild China, a BBC DVD about China, in the hopes of gaining some insight as to what to do with my upcoming week off. The DVD shop I purchased it from has locked doors and closed blinds because all of the DVDs are illegal and pirated, and so you have to know about it and give a hand signal to enter it. You enter, they lock the door behind you, and when you leave they lock it behind you again, all the while the shades are drawn.

One night while Jessie and Daimien were processing pictures, Billy and I explored our neighborhood. I followed Billy around the neighborhood as he snapped pictures like a Japanese tourist at the Statue of Liberty. Against my better judgment I followed him into abandon buildings and alleyways as his naïve curiosity pushed my level of comfort. The two of us were armed with our preferred weapons; Billy, with his Canon Rebel and I with a pen and a pocket notebook. As we tried to slip through gates with what we thought were lackadaisical security guards, young William played the unknowing tourist all too well, a role I was no stranger to but a role I am slowly outgrowing, or at least avoiding in China. Something about China tells me that it’s not the place you want to mess around in. Maybe it’s their record on human rights. Several times security guards who seemed to lack a sense of humor or tolerance for our stupidity turned us back.

Trying to be cool, taking a self portrait, only to lock myself out of my room shortly after in my bathrobe.Wednesday after work, a car picked us up to deliver us to Tianjin. We were staying at the Tianjian Saixiang Hotel, which was even nicer than the Lido, and after the long day we decided to just order room service. I got into my room, slipped on the hotel bathrobe and called room service. 30-minutes later they arrived with what was supposed to be a Caesar Salad with grilled Shrimps—note the plurality. The only problem was when it arrived there was no shrimp. I called the front desk and after multiple transfers in an effort to find someone who spoke English, it appeared they understood what had happened. 30-minutes after that I get a knock on the door and the waiter arrives with the room service tray. He opened it to reveal one sad, lonely shrimp on a plate surrounded by 3 halves of a grape tomato and one leaf of lettuce. “Are you kidding me?” I said out loud. He just smiled and nodded and I had to laugh as well. This is typical in China, so you have to lean back from the edge and relax a bit or you’re going to find yourself really worked up and frustrated. After dinner I put my plate outside the door and right as I placed it on the ground, I heard the click of the door behind me, thus locking me out of my room in my bathrobe.

After two days and three locations of shooting in Tianjin, we headed back to Beijing. We got in around 7pm and by 8pm the four of us met three other teachers from the International School of Beijing. The 7 of us piled into Travis’s mini-van and drove downtown for some hotpot, a Chinese meal that is akin to fondue where a group of people sit around a boiling pot of liquid and using your chop sticks dip your vegetables and meat into the mini cauldrons. It’s delicious and I was not disappointed to have it for the second night in a row. Afterward we went to an Irish bar where we met more teachers and expats, and after that our clan moved on to another bar, the Swan Sun. This was all a warm up, however for Chocolate.

Our crew, which seemed to pick up a few more people at every bar, once again was stripped down to the something seven of us. Chocolate is an over-the-top Russian club that has midgets—I guess for entertainment. Either that or they serve as a marketing ploy, because here I am talking about it, thus the strangeness of it all propels one to share it with others.

As you walk into the club you are immediately ushered onto an escalator. On either side of the walls velvet curtains serve as a backdrop to portraits that look as if they may have come from the brush of Thomas Gainsborough, an 18th century painter. As you move below street level, you slowly begin to hear and feel the bass and thud of Russian techno music pulse through you. When you reach the bottom you find an underground space the size of a hotel ballroom and in the middle is a parquet dance floor with several stripper poles. All around you chesty women in tight pants named Chloe and Svetlana beam seductive smiles at you and chiseled Russian men named Serge and Vlad wear Rolexes, Armani, and bad cologne.

The Russian women did seem really nice and outgoing though. When one of the individuals in our group was at the bar, he met Lilly and sent her over to me. She seemed to take an immediate shine to me.

“Let’s have some fun tonight.”

“OK, I like fun,” I said. “What do you have in mind?”

“What are you doing after this and where are you staying? Let’s go back to your hotel room. I want to go home with you tonight.”

“What am I doing? Well, I’ll probably just go home, masturbate to some porn, and go to bed,” I replied, expecting at least a chuckle.

The hills outside of Yangshou while driving around on the back of a motorcycle.Instead she remained expressionless as any good Russian under the influence of Stolichnaya Vodka would. If there was any hint of expression it was that of confusion. “That is so boring,” she replied in her seductively stoic and unamused accent. When she realized I wasn’t interested in her type of fun and that I wasn’t going to be cracking open my wallet that night, she wished me a good night and moved on. I appreciated her kindness and the fact that she didn't feel the need to belittling my manhood. And here I thought she was just interested in my infectious charm and boyish good looks.

On the dance floor, the air smelled of sweat and cheap perfume as Russians, Chinese—and of course Billy—mixed it up. Most of us sat in a table near the bar on the outskirts of the dance floor, but Billy led a charge by buying a round of Tequila. With one extra, I lost the rock, paper, and scissor contest and was forced to wash it down with the accompanying lemon and salt. When you think about it, anything you need to wash down with lemon and salt is probably not a good idea. It just sounds punishing and yet we do it anyway.

As if a jester in our court or a little brother in our photography family, we told Billy to climb the stripper pole, which from floor to ceiling was almost two stories. He made a strong run at it but never reached the top. Daimien, an avid rock climber and feeling his oats, effortless showed Billy how it was done, despite whining about how it would be easier with chalk. Rock climbers...such prima donnas.

Billy made another play for it, his hands and feet pawing at the pole furiously like a puppy on ice but constantly slipped and fell short of the mark. At one point he actually neared the top but lost the battle, sliding down the pole in a pathetic spin of slow, concentric circles. A very gay Chinese man pushed Billy back from the pole to show him how it was done and in one swift movement, using the muscle in his abdomen, turned himself upside down and threw his legs into the air in the form of a ‘V’, the man’s crotch and Billy’s face separated only by the pole. Billy’s face was so close to the man’s crotch that I’ll bet if Billy were more aware of the moment he would have caught a scent of the Chinese man’s goods. It was as good and strong of a move as any Vegas stripper I’ve ever seen (not that my virgin eyes have ever witnessed such an unsightly and immoral act) and when Billy’s eyes widened in shock and disbelief, the look on his face was worth the price of admission.

The tequila was just kicking in when Travis signaled a retreat and so once again we piled into the mini-van and headed back to the Lido for the night. Had he not signaled the call and threw up the white flag when he did, I too might have become a victim of the pole. On the way out, passing the first black man he saw, Billy said, “Marijuana.”

“Billy!” I said, scolding him like a child reaching for a hot stove. “This is not a country you want to do that in.” To which Daimien added, “We don’t do that Billy.” It was like we were all character acting in an afterschool special.

***

The following day Daimien, Billy the Kid, and I had plans of exploring Beijing but the events of the previous night got us off to a slow start. Since Friday night was my last night on the company tab at the Lido, I planned on finding a new place to stay on Saturday. But in the name of comfort and laziness, combined with the toll that Chocolate had taken upon me, I sucked it up and stayed another night at the Lido, dropping more than 2-3 times as much money on a hotel room than I had at any point in the previous four months.

That morning I took the time to do some work at the Starbucks in the hotel while everyone managed their hangover in their own way, and consequently we never made it out of the hotel until after 3pm. We spent the day touring one of Beijing’s hutongs, small Chinese villages made up of narrow streets and alleys that still remain within the city limits, but sadly most are being destroyed in the name of Chinese “progress.” Some of the hutongs are more true to their origins, while others have been gentrified, offering fashionable shopping, smart restaurants, and hipster bars. From what I gather it seems that the Chinese, in a mad rush to build the world’s tallest skyscrapers, flashiest cities, fastest rail systems, and win the race towards the unattainable finish line of modernity, are losing important cultural relics and elements of their cultural heritage along the way. In some places instead of preserving the past, they will knock it down and build a replica to look like the past.

Downtown Beijing, home to the Apple Store and the Stumble Inn.Later in the night we went to downtown Beijing to meet two expat teachers we had met the night before. We rendezvoused with Mary and Joe and their overlapping crew of friends at the Stumble Inn, an expat bar filled with white folks and their Chinese girlfriends or boyfriends…and once again we had a fairly late night.

On Sunday morning, William the Lion Hearted and I headed out to the Forbidden City dressed in our unmistakably American garb. We toured the Forbidden City, where the emperor used to have his residence in Beijing, Tiananmen Square, the epicenter of protests in 1989 where tanks fired on unarmed citizens and foreign reporters were expelled from the country, and Jingshan Park, a beautiful park right above the Forbidden City. The latter part of the afternoon was a case where William the Lion Hearted turned into Billy the Kitty. After walking all day Little Billy began whining about how his feet hurt. Turns out skater shoes aren’t meant for urban treks. I threatened to put Little Billy in a timeout but luckily we didn’t have to go there and the threat brought him to form. He also seemed to regain a spring in his step when we met a lost 20-year-old medical student from France.

This view is on the back of the Chinese 20 RMB bill.All week I was fretting over what to do with my week off. At the advice of most of the teachers I met, but at the expense of my bank account, I booked an expensive flight to Yangshou. Since the flight was almost $500 and since I didn’t want to spend another expensive night at the Lido, Mary offered her couch for me to crash Sunday night.

Billy and I headed back to the hotel and I grabbed my bag and headed to Mary’s in downtown Beijing. Mary lived in a gated apartment complex that was reminiscent of a Vegas hotel. The pool as seen from the 11th floor had cascading waterfalls and multiple wading pools and was built to look as if it was a natural rock formation. It’s a good gig to be a teacher at an international school. The pay is great, the schools take care of most of your housing, you receive two airline tickets home a year, you can afford to have a housekeeper several times a week, you usually have a driver, and your travel to and from school is taken care of. The only downside, as one teacher said to me, is the alcoholism.

Mary and I headed out to the Stumbling Inn that night to join several other teachers and friends, then went out to grab a pizza, and finally had a nightcap at Apothecary, a stylish, modern cocktail lounge. A mixologist made us a delicious drink with a whiskey base and we shared a plate of quail eggs wrapped in bacon. Once again morning came too quickly, but fortunately for me Mary arranged for her driver to take me to the airport. There seems to be more taxis in Beijing than people, but I was hard-pressed to find one that early in the morning. At 5:30am I was off to the airport to fly to Yangshou.

***

The charming town of Yangshou.When our plane landed in Guilin, I attached myself to a group of four who looked like they might know what they were doing. There was Thomas, from Britain, his girlfriend Jordan from Texas, and Thomas’s sister and mother. Thomas and Jordan had been teaching for a year in the port city of Dalian and had just finished their contract. He spoke enough Mandarin to get us a taxi and on to a bus that would take us the remainder of the way to Yangshou. Lucky for me I found Thomas because with the language barrier, I’m not sure if I could have handled that part of the journey myself—not without a few hundred Yuan missing from my wallet.

Thomas limped about with a cane and as it turned out, the day before he was trying to climb a portion of the Great Wall when a brick he was using for balance came loose, sending him tumbling to the earth, the majority of his weight landing on his heal. Little Billy was doing the same thing at The Great Wall, even though Jessie “Big Bawler” warned him to stay off it. I was glad Billy the Kid didn’t have to learn that lesson the hard way because I think we all had images of that happening. When the four of us and myself got to town we exchanged numbers and agreed to meet at some point during the week.

I have to say Yangshou is probably in my top 5 of the most spectacular natural scenery I have ever seen. It is the equivalent of Vietnam’s Halong Bay, except on land. Everywhere you look there are limestone outcroppings standing proudly in the mist like soldiers at attention. I spent two full days exploring the countryside, first on a bicycle with a guide, then on the back of a motorcycle.

One morning I met Sylvia, a plastic surgeon from Germany who had a two-year contract in the United Arab Emirates city of Abu Dhabi, yet another city where International Photo does work. On my second night we went to a light show that was touted by everyone I spoke to as a not-to-miss. I was thinking it would be something akin to a Pink Floyd laser light show and I would be surrounded by a bunch of Chinese stoners but surprisingly it was nothing of the sort. I think I can say it was probably the most impressive display of creativity on a grand scale that I have ever seen. The Impressions light show was created by Zhang Yimou who also created the light show for the closing ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. The massive space used the natural backdrop of Yangshou’s limestone mountains. The entire show took place on a lake and told the story of Liu Sanjie, a story that originated from the Zhuang people, the largest minority group in China. The story is about a woman called Liu Sanjie, which means "third sister". The legend tells the tale of Liu Sanjie who had a beautiful voice at very early age. Her voice was so beautiful it even could raise the dead. The local gangster, Mo Huairen, falls in love with Liu Sanjie and wished to make her his concubine. The boyfriend of Liu Sanjie and his friends in the village free her and the couple escapes by turning themselves into a pair of larks.

The sweetest little tour guide ever.Sylvia and I went to dinner afterward where I told her of my high disregard for cheesy clubs with thumping music, because much to my surprise, the main cobblestone street of Yangshou where no cars were allowed seemed to have endless clubs. She talked me into going to a club, and the little shows that the Chinese put on as entertainment were so strange and foreign to me, that I suggested we bar hop the street and check out more. Each club unfolded a scene more stranger than the previous.

It seemed like the night was winding down at the last club we were in. The show featured a 45 second dance made up of a scantily clad woman and a very gay, emaciated Chinese man wearing a speedo and thigh-high boots. For some reason Ziggy Stardust on heroin came to mind. Their dance was intended to be erotic, but the more intense, sincere, and dramatic it got, the more we had to fight to hide our amusement, first covering our laughter with our hands and eventually turning our head’s away. We were both grateful to have someone to share the bizarre scene with.

After the final show and just as it seemed the night was over, a group of Chinese men and women invited us to play a dice drinking game at their table. Much like Yahtzee it uses a shaker and 5 dice, except unlike any Yahtzee game I have ever played, this one involves heavy drinking. We played an abbreviated version of their game where you went head to head with someone, and every time you lost, you took a shot of beer—and I seemed to lose a lot. I even insisted on switching out the dice, wondering perhaps if they were loaded.

By the end of the night we were pulled up to the dance floor with the remaining Chinese people in the bar. Everyone was dancing around the stripper pole on the dance floor, which seems to be a pastime in China, and some would occasionally make a sad effort to ride the pole. I was surprised to be on the dance floor but when in China…the Chinese loved us and it seemed we were the closing novelty act of the evening.

Let the record stand that although I was on the dance floor, I was never on the stripper pole. If there’s one thing my mother taught me it was to stay off the stripper pole.

Or was that Chris Rock’s mother speaking to his sister?