Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Here's hoping Jared's second book is a bit more mature - August 29

Dear Jared,

Looked at ZINE WORLD. [The] review [of your zine, Jared's First Book] was not too complimentary:

"This isn't really my cup of tea - there's no narrative, and I'm having a hard time seeing this as 'art'. Here's hoping Jared's second book is a bit more mature."

I sent a stink bomb to Andrew the reviewer.
Love Dad

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Is This About a Girl? - August 27th

Got another letter from Lane today – Lane, that great constant in my life: you can always count on him for consistency knowing that he’s not going to have a whole lot of updates living in a Zen center baking bread everyday. Somehow, though, he’s a lay monk that happens to be girl crazy. It’s a crazy oxymoronic situation trying to live a celibate life when you’re as horny as him, but what is Lane if not a paradox? I’m actually going to see him and the rest of the family, in addition to Emily, in just a month’s time. Yeah, I decided to head home during the semester break.
“What the hell are you doing that for?” everyone always exclaims more than asking. It's a line I often hear in my life. “Are you crazy? Is this about a girl? Don’t do it man, you’re all the way over here so you might as well travel as much as you can.”
But then there’s level-headed Alexis who offered some allegorical tale involving a little girl who buys three games of pool before quickly deciding she doesn’t even like pool in the least. The girl can either keep playing pool even though she hates it, or recognize that the money is already gone and move onto something else. In retrospect, the moral of the story is a bit hazy (being that I don’t hate traveling by any means), but it has something to do with people getting caught up in these notions of having to do something because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do. In actuality, people should really do what they want to do, and while I want to travel, at this point I would rather see my girlfriend more (along with my grandpa, mustn't forget Auntie, BJ Tucker, Tucker Carlson, and so on and so forth). There are some things I gotta iron out and make sense of, and no it’s not just a $1500 booty call, though I wonder if my girlfriend would be flattered thinking of it in such terms…she’d probably think she’s worth more. Plus, I’m stopping off in Japan for five days on the way back, so I am getting some traveling in, not to mention that I plan on geographically tramping all over the region next midterm break and once second semester ends. The ticket price wasn’t bad at all, especially since I’m getting a lump sum of over $1000 at the end of this semester for having taught a “special” class at the university (which is just a “special” way of saying that the kids were absolutely atrocious). Kind of funny that I’ll be seeing my parents in the States and then a week later they’re coming to Thailand, but considering they booked some frenetically paced tour that doesn’t really include me at all, hopefully it won’t be overkill.
Working the job that I do and living in Chiang Mai could really be the absolute high-life if only I had the people I really cared about over here (though sometimes that seems to change like a fickle Shakespearean mob). Still, in spite of the policeman that blows his whistle while pretending to direct traffic when there’s no need for him to be there in the first place; in spite of the semi-prevalent sneaks-up-on-you-when-you’re-not-expecting-it gloom that comes with monsoon season and the everyday rains; in spite of the fact that most Thai grow out their pinkie nail – especially the guys – so as to be more efficient pickers (use your imagination); in spite of the fact that I can’t catch a good night of shuteye here to save my life; in spite of the student who puts infinitely more work into complaining about her grade than doing the actual assignments; in spite of the fact that I can’t tell if I’m going mad or going mad thinking about going mad – in spite of all these things, life ain’t exactly awful.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Me and My Motorbike - August 25th

When you want them, they don’t want you, and when they want you and you don’t want them, they honk at you like a two cent whore. Hopefully my days of riding the songtaews regularly are over now that I got a motorbike, but we’ll just have to wait and see how trusty the old machine – which has passed through more than its fair share of owners and renters – will hold up. I don’t want to have to crawl back to those red truck mobsters like an ex-lover on my knees (not that I know what that’s like). And now for 2 questions:
1. Why does every restaurant in Chiang Mai insist on playing Shakira and Savage Garden every day on repeat?
2. Why is there a creepy old Western man in my apartment building swimming laps with snorkel gear on?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Borneo: July 27 – August 7

So guess where I am? If you guessed Idaho, then you're incorrect. I'm in the city of Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the greater island of Borneo, and guess what? It's not half as crazy as it sounds. Kota Kinabalu is a city of 270,000, and while the downtown doesn't exactly have skyscrapers – well, maybe a few – it does have a Starbucks, Esprit, plus at least a few Mercedes Benzes that I saw. The downtown is situated along the waterfront over which the sky is populated with crazily shaped clouds. Ben and I took a bus into the city from the airport, which took about 15-20 minutes. It didn't take long to walk to our hostel - a rather modern and clean environment with hot showers (not that I've taken advantage of them) and free internet. We're in a dorm room with six beds, though we only met one of our sleeping mates so far, a Dutch woman whom we walked around the city with this afternoon. We stopped by the office in town to check on the status of us being able to hike Mt. Kinabalu tomorrow and it's not looking promising. We have accommodation at the bottom of the mountain, but everything at the middle of the mountain is completely booked and has been for months in advance. I know what you're thinking: why don't we just hike the mountain in one day and cut out the middle man (being the mid-mountain accommodation), but the problem is that you must have accommodation booked on the middle of the mountain before you can get a climbing permit, which is necessary to hike the mountain. Regardless, Ben and I will try anything and everything to make it up that mountain tomorrow, keeping our fingers crossed that maybe somebody will cancel and open up room for us. It's sad because Mt. Kinabalu was the initial attraction that drew us here in the first place, so I'll be damned if I don't get to see that sunrise at 4,095 meters overlooking the edge of the world.
In our wanderings around the city, we passed through a massive food market serving all varieties of fruits, smelly fish, meat, and countless other inexplicable things. I'm struggling significantly with some of the food so far since everything has meat in it and it all looks like it was just slaughtered in the backroom before they serve it to you - bones and all.
Even though we're closer to the equator now, the weather is surprisingly bearable, maybe because we're near the water and it rained a bit to cool things off, though luckily it didn't rain on us.
Last night, Ben and I had to sleep in the Bangkok airport. It's amazing that such a modern and massive airport has such little options for sleeping and with chairs that couldn't be any less ergonomic, but luckily Ben and I were permitted to sleep on the only somewhat isolated comfy chairs supposedly being reserved for some special group that wouldn’t need them until the morning. It's not like it was a decent sleep by any means, though the alternatives would have been excruciating. I'm pretty beat right now and it's only 8:40pm here. It's probably a wise idea to try and rest up before heading off to Mt. Kinabalu tomorrow, even though our prospects of hiking it aren't looking so great, probably due to the ubiquity of 16 year old British school girls on organized trips here sporting hoodies that read, “Borneo 07”. Who would've ever thought?

We showed up at the mountain on Sunday morning, and spent the whole day unsure about whether we'd be able to hike the following morning. The odds weren’t looking so good, but there were several other people in the same boat lacking the necessary accommodation near the top in order to obtain a climbing permit. Monday morning rolled around, and after some back and forth wheelings-and-dealings, we were able to obtain a permit on the condition that we hike it all – up and down – in one day. After seeing all the other puds, older seemingly unfit women and their little children managing the climb, Ben and I figured “how hard could it be?" So with our own little Malay guide Nordan, we started up the mountain at a brisk pace - a pace that would soon prove to be quite unmanageable.
“How are we doing, Nordan?” we asked our wise guide.
“I think, maybe (pause) too fast.” He muttered back in his limited English.
After a few kilometers, we were fucked.
“How bout now Nordan, how are we doing? Are we gonna be able to make it all the way to the top?”
This time, the answer was tweaked. “I think, (pause) maybe not.”
The rest stop (where they have the accommodation and restaurant) was located 6km up the mountain, and that's the point where all the normal people complete their first day of hiking. At around 4km, every additional step for Ben and I was hellishly grueling. We were alternating between carrying my backpack, but it didn't matter - backpack or no backpack, my legs were barely moving. The hike to the top is very steep and consists of thousands and thousands of steps (which straddle the line between natural and humanly groomed) that made my previous hikes seem totally laughable, plus the air is quite thin up there at an altitude of well over 10,000 feet. Every time you round a corner, you pray that there will be a stretch of flat terrain. Needless to say, Ben and I made it to the rest stop and couldn't move anymore. There was absolutely no way we were going any further, up or down. Meanwhile, we made the hike to the rest stop in stellar time; a rate which placed us at the top of times relative to other hikers. Still, we were left with the dilemma of what to do at the rest stop being that all the accommodation was booked and we were entirely spent. As fate would have it, the one day hikers are no surprise to the mountain staff, and they knew perfectly well that our chances of making it to the top were about zilch. So for more than a few extra Malaysian Ringit, they allowed us to sleep in this contingency shit-hole shack for the night and required us to pay Nordan a few extra ringits as well. It's not like it was much of a night sleep, though, because everyone wakes up at 2am in order to hike the last 2.5km to the summit in order to see the sunrise. We slept (or more accurately lied awake) on dirty beds without sheets and pillows without pillowcases in sleeping bags which God only knows when they had last been washed. It didn't really matter much because I slept in all my clothes with my hood up. It's pretty crazy going from the heat of Thailand and Kota Kinabalu to the damp penetrating chilliness of Mt. Kinabalu.
During our seven hour comatose stint in the rest lodge, we managed to make friends with a British guy named Matt who'd been in the same failed one-day hiking situation as us, so he was in the shack with us as well as a German dude somehow paying a lot less for the accommodation, and this annoying British guy and girl who chattered away the whole night. At 2am the annoying British couple woke us up before our alarm time of 2:30, and at 3am we were off for the summit. You can't really pass people as easily during the final leg of the hike because it's super dark, slippery, and too narrow at some points; plus there a few stretches where it’s necessary to grab onto a rope tied into the side of the mountain and pull yourself along so that you don't tumble all the way down treacherous rock faces. Like I mentioned before, all sorts of people (e.g. obese computer programmers from Kuala Lumpur) who don't seem to have any business hiking the mountain clog up the route, and some individuals were even throwing up off to the side while the bulk progressed forward at a rate of -2 km per hour. Ben, Matt, Nordan and I pushed ahead, and 3 hours later of muddling through the dark over ominous mountainside, we reached the summit. Waiting for the sun to rise, it was insanely cold. Coming from Thailand isn't exactly great preparation for hiking Mt. Kinabalu, and so I shivered in my soaked knit gloves (purchased cheaply in Thailand), t-shirt, thermal, hoodie, and Addidas windbreaker jacket. Peering off into the heavens, the sun rose, but in obscurity to us as it was shrouded in clouds. We still bore witness to a numinous sky illuminating before our eyes as various surrounding peaks gradually highlighted in ethereal light as if E.T. himself were touching them individually. And then, during our initial descent, the clouds receded, the sky cleared, and all those questions of whether hiking Mt. Kinabalu was worth it were put to rest. It was a divinely august beauty.
So after the beautiful views and the 2.5km hike back down to the rest stop, it felt like we were done, and then we realized we still had another 6km to hike down. Many people had told us the hike down would be harder than the hike up, but I disagree. The hike down was infinitely easier, though incredibly taxing on my joints. The trauma of going down rugged trail has left my knees experiencing an arthritic sensation previously unknown. The last stretch of the descent was particularly boring and monotonous, as by that time I was ready to be done.
Now I'm back at a different hostel in Kota Kinabalu that some friends of ours from the mountain, Ron and Carmen, are staying at. We actually met them several days prior – which in Borneo backpacker time is an eternity – on the ride over from Kota Kinabalu to the mountain and they climbed the same time as us. Ron is a 31 year old Psychology lecturer originally from East Germany but now considers New Zealand home. He’s also a very unexpectedly sill man. Carmen is a 29 year old Singaporean girl (I consciously eschewed ‘woman’) who is a former student of Ron’s at Victoria University in Wellington and just recently graduated from there. They both came over here with other members from Victoria's psychology department to attend a symposium on...surprise, Psychology, being held in Kota Kinabalu. Carmen hiked at a slow pace up the mountain and miraculously made it to the top, while Ron was the only person to put Ben and myself completely to shame. He absolutely breezed up that geological wonder, making it all seem so effortless. He looked like a fit guy, but who knew climbing mountains back in New Zealand, doing salsa, running, and practicing Capoeira makes you into a regular mountain man. Ron actually tried to make it to the summit of the mountain on the first day with plans oof going up again the next morning, but had to turn back due to bad weather. Anyway, we might hang out with them for the next few days being that they're following a similar itinerary hitting up the beaches and then heading off to Brunei for a day.


Sadly, I'm not gonna make it to Brunei - it will forever be the one that got away. Ben wasn't as committed to the idea of going as much as I was, so I fault him for that, but regardless, I don't think it would have been feasible because of time constraints. In order to get there, you have to take a two hour ferry to an island and then another hour long ferry to a port 25km away from the capital city, so by the time we got there we would’ve had to turn around immediately and come back. It basically boiled down to traveling all that way and paying all that money just for a stamp on the ole’ passport and not being able to see anything at all. Not that there's an exorbitant amount to see in Brunei being that it's so small, but it would've been cool to check out the elaborate mosques and hotels and take a water taxi along the river to behold the stilt villages. Brunei is an interesting place because it's only been able to remain the autonomously strict Islamic monarchy that it is because of rich oil deposits, which propelled the micro-sized country into the upper echelon of the world’s richest. The country has an incredibly high standard of living, and every time the Sultan has a birthday, the entire population receives a gift. The sad part is that once the oil runs out in 30-40 years, they'll be royally fucked. Everyone knows how the Sultan of Brunei was once the richest man in the world, but not everybody is familiar with the infamous tale of how his younger brother - while appointed as the minister of finance - managed to blow 16 billion of the country's reserves on gambling debts, cars, hotels in Beverly Hills, not to mention gold-plated toilet-roll holders. So no Brunei for us, and I don't know if I'll ever be back here again, but it turns out that Royal Brunei Airlines flies all over the world, and if you fly with them, there's a good chance you'll have a layover in Brunei. Still, I feel incomplete, and now we have this extra day in Kota Kinabalu with nothing to do.
Yesterday we went to one of the islands off the coast with Ron and Carmen. It was an extraordinarily choppy boat ride with Ben nearly bouncing overboard up front, fearful that at any moment he would break his boney butt. The island we visited was called Mamutik; not exactly the kind of place you see pictured on postcards, plus the beach was pretty small and the snorkeling wasn't so great because of the overcast weather, though I did manage to get attacked by a whole school of fish (and get bumped by some floating rubbish that sent me into a panic because I thought it was a jellyfish). On Mamutik we also met up with the rest of Ron and Carmen's psych crew from New Zealand - of which none were actually from New Zealand, but rather places like Estonia, Germany, and the Philippines - and they weren't especially warm to us. Thus, it was mostly just Ben's hairy shoulder patches and I left to our own devices. We had planned on camping out on the beach that night, but the horror stories of torrential downpour and inadequate shelter convinced us otherwise, and so we returned back to Kota Kinabalu and had dinner at the market I described previously replete with all sorts of puzzling and alien food. I tried some chicken on a stick for starters, but immediately the bone inside the first piece made me cringe, so I tossed that aside and went for the veggies. I threw something on my plate reminiscent of tortellini, though after my first bite of that, I quickly realized that it was in fact not vegetarian at all, but instead a very unfamiliar type of meat; a type of meat that comes from the wattle of a chicken. At least the desserts were good. I also attempted shopping for some fake Nikes at a night market nearby, it's just that a 9.5 shoe size in this part of the world is considered gigantic and therefore in rare supply. I know buying Nike is the worst of the worst when it comes to being a responsible consumer, but what about fake Nikes?
We said our goodbyes to Ron and Carmen a little later, for today they are making their way over to Brunei (those wretched philistines), and Ben and I retired to our dorm room. The previous night we lucked out in getting a private room with twin beds made up like a little kid's bedroom, but last night we had no such luck and once again I was given a sheet only managing to cover 1/3 of my body. The air con was blasting so fiercely throughout the night that I awoke with icicles dangling from my patchy beard. Now we have no idea what to do with ourselves today. This morning we ate breakfast in the hostel with two kids from Malaysia, and guess what, I was the first Jew they'd ever met, so of course I had to field all sorts of questions about whether all Jews are smart and ridiculously good looking (I took some creative license with the latter), yada yada yada.
The plane to Mulu was quite small, with a capacity of approximately 25 people (give or take 25, I’m not so good at guesstimating). Everyone aboard was a tourist, mostly British, though we only filled up about 1/10 of the seats (the math is really starting to get complicated here). Looking out the window fro my seat, I saw mostly undeveloped blankets of green below interrupted only by the squiggly lines of brown rivers, making the earth look as though it were various puzzle pieces neatly fit together. How long could I survive if dropped into this middle of nowhere?
During our two days in Mulu, we explored the four major caves there. For some unknown geological reason to me, there are tons of caves in the region, but only a few are open to the public, one of which is Deer Cave, the most expansive cave in the whole wide world. While the caves were really cool, it was a weird part of the trip for me because I'm not exactly sure how to properly enjoy myself sightseeing caves. I found myself struggling to understand how exactly one seizes the enjoyment in cave viewing. It’s not like we were spelunking or doing any adventure caving (though that is an option if you’ve got the time and money). It didn't help that I found it incredibly challenging trying to capture the caves in photos because of their vastness and darkness, and capturing for me is often times what makes sightseeing enjoyable, maybe because it adds some meta dimension. Regardless, the caves were most impressive. Being there reminded me of that horror film, “The Descent,” in which a bunch of girls go caving in Appalachia and come face to face with subterranean monsters. It was all the more eerie when I wound up walking one-on-one with our guide who’s indigenously from the area and he told me about a great many weird things that go on in the caves. In a manner of total honesty he said, “I’ve been in this cave and others before when no tourists were here and nobody else was around, and you can here vivid voices and laughter coming from what sounds like a large group of people. It is believed that many people have died in these caves, but we’re not supposed to talk about that kind of stuff. Even the scientists who come here to do geological research and other studies have witnessed really bizarre things, but they keep it all very hush hush because it could seriously damage our tourism.” It sounded all the more spooky hearing it in that fantastic cave as we lagged behind all the others.
Mulu is totally in the middle of nowhere. There's no way to reach it by road, so you can either fly or take a boat. There's also no town in Mulu, just the national park and villages of the Penan tribe, which is an indigenous group of Malaysia that used to be known as the head hunters. It’s weird because the only people who go to Mulu are tourists, and so there’s a strange dichotomy that exists between them and the indigenous Penan. In all, it was a good time, and the second night Ben and I got plastered on locally produced rice wine. There wasn’t really a whole lot else to do there once darkness descended.

It would’ve only been $17.50USD per person for Ben and I to share a bed in the airport hotel, but $17.50USD could afford us five meals or more at Smoothie Blues in Thailand (the Western food joint five steps from our apartment), and probably ten meals if we got them anywhere else. We’re trying to be budget travelers, so we just slept in the airport itself on the floor. For some reason, most airports don’t provide anywhere to sleep, and Kuala Lumpur’s Air Asia terminal is no exception. They made their chairs as uncomfortable as possible, hard plastic ones lipping up at the edges so you can’t lay down on them unless you want an indented spine. By comparison, the floor was our best bet, even though I felt the eyes and stares of strange people burning into me all night. It was freezing as well, and on numerous occasions I was awakened by multifarious pieces of trash hitting me from the hands of people who’d either missed the nearby trashcan or just plain mistaken me for one. The airport sanitation worker also insisted on sweeping up by my head every thirty minutes like clockwork.
We’re going home. Two days ago we were relaxing during our glorified layover in Miri for a day, an oil town that’s recently tried to reinvent itself with a name change to “The Resort City”, which seems a tad oxymoronic (if not just moronic) because there’s nothing resort-ish about it. We didn’t do much there other than deal with our perpetually disgruntled and acerbic guesthouse owner, though rumor has it that she’s actually very nice and just can’t help her caustic demeanor. Yesterday was spent milling about the fair city of Kuala Lumpur with its Western skyscrapers and Islamic flare. My friend Stephanie from the glory days of International House at Melbourne Uni was kind enough to play host for the evening and I showed my gratitude by staining her shirt with some laksa lemak after bumbling with my chopsticks and dropping a giant piece of tofu that sent the curry splattering. She took us on an abridged car tour of some of KL’s highlights, like the Sydney Opera House knockoff and the campy technicolored ferris wheel known as “The Eye on Malaysia”. We’d already covered the Menara Kuala Lumpur and Petronas Towers earlier in the day, so don’t go gettin’ your panties in a bunch. It was amazing how well Steph, such a meek and innocuous lass, could maneuver so aggressively through the city’s crazy traffic, in a manual transmission no less, and she got us back just in the knick of time to catch our bus to the airport.
It’s 5:30am right now and the airport is bustling with people eating either McDonalds or standard Nasi Lemak as they bustle to and fro with little regard for anyone else or personal space. People probably bustle like this in every airport, it’s just that in other airports I haven’t had the luxury of living like a bum and awaking to such a terrible a case of irritation. At least I only have to take my malaria pills for another seven days while Ben has to suffer through thirty more.
Goodbye Borneo (and the tad that we glimpsed of Kuala Lumpur), you were a good lover. I’ll try and spread the good word.

Checklist for 10 days in Borneo - July 28th

Malaria pills – check
4 t-shirts – check
4 pairs of underwear – check (why it’s called a pair of underwear is beyond me)
4 pairs of socks – check
1 bathing suit – check
1 hoodie – check
1 pair of shorts – check
digital camcorder – check
digital camera – check
lots of plastic bags for rain – check
positive attitude - check
Ben – check
poncho – no check
umbrella – no check
accommodation at Mt. Kinabalu – no check
accommodation in Mulu – no check

Monday, August 13, 2007

Back in Chiang Mai – July 23, 2007

Back in Chiang Mai, things were pretty much the same. My job was still there and it was easy to jump back into routine, because in Chiang Mai, nothing ever really changes.
Today Ben and I rented motorbikes after we finished up with class and took off all over town trying to take care of bureaucratic visa shit. As soon as we pulled out of the rental place, Ben grabbed the accelerator too hard on his bike, sending him crashing into the curb and flying off like a disabled bird with tourettes. Surprisingly, he emerged relatively unscathed, but it put him on the skids a bit.
When I got back to the apartment, I found a letter from Lane waiting in my mailbox, which is ironic because he should be receiving my postcard around the same time. That means we both waited exactly the same amount of time before attempting legitimate correspondence since parting ways four months prior, though he had to wait for my aunt to send him pre-addressed and stamped envelopes before he sent his. He did say he tried to call me several times but had the wrong number. In the letter he talked about having sparked something romantic with a girl who came to stay at the Zen center for a week and whether anything will come of it, even though she had to go home and he's committed to a life of celibacy for another several months there before heading over to Thailand in October. Turns out he's already researched a respectable monastery to live in, Wat Pah Nanachat in Ubon Rachathani, several hours from Chiang Mai in a totally different province. So much for coming over to see me. He'll have to shave his head and his eyebrows as well. It's such a shame that he always has to be so extreme about things – either dreadlocks or baldness, celibacy or incorrigibility, John Denver or Catharsis.
In the afternoon Ben and I took off on our motorbikes once again, this time for some leisure riding up the mountain past Doi Suthep (the famous Temple overlooking the city) and off into the Hill Tribe villages about 20km away from where we live. It was a pretty ride, which got a little cold as we sped higher up with the wind slapping against our bare arms and legs. The Hmong tribe village was not exactly what one would expect from a tribal people as it was comprised of the same kinds of craft and purse and jewelry shops as you encounter all over Chiang Mai. They didn't live in huts or anything, but rather tin shacks with corrugated roofs decorated with satellite dishes. It was a town obviously struggling to maintain part of its traditional lifestyle in the face of modernity while apparently not having the best go of it. The people there spoke better English than most of my university students. Supposedly there are less touristed hill tribe villages further away.

Our afternoon exploits left us feeling like we got the most out of our motorbike rental. We ate dinner with Leah at this restaurant called the "Art Cafe", which turned out to be much more expensive than what was listed in the guidebook, and while my turkey burrito (with Thanksgiving style turkey) was pretty good, it definitely wasn't worth 165 baht, plus they didn't even give us free water which is a total sham when you're paying that much for a meal in Thailand (conversion: $5). On the ride back it was torrentially downpouring, even though we had already waited half an hour for the storm to lessen, but no such luck. I couldn’t see and was sure I might die since my glasses were completely spotted with rain drops and fogging up pretty bad. Guess it's back to the trusty ole' songtaews.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The European Interlude: July 11 - July 20

I should’ve known they wouldn’t let me leave Chiang Mai without a fight. As a little bird informed me after the fact, in Thailand, you should always get things in writing. People like to say one thing and then say something completely different shortly afterward. Such was the case with my boss, who when I went in to hand her my substitute schedule sheet, reacted as if I was completely insane.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“The schedule and list of people who will be subbing for me while I’m gone, just as you asked.”
She retained a look of confusion on her face. “What is this for? Where are you going?” My boss always talks in a very fast and abrasive manner, like a machine gun, whether she’s happy or not, so it can be difficult to read what she’s thinking.
“I’m going to a wedding in Austria. Remember, I came in here just under a month ago and we talked about this and you gave me the go-ahead.”
“I don’t remember any such thing.”
I couldn’t tell if she was pulling my leg.
“Are you serious?” I inquired. “I came in here a few weeks ago and told you I had a wedding in Austria and you said as long as I found the necessary subs that it was fine.”
There was a long pause in which she just stared at me dumbly.
She broke the silence. “You’re supposed to be representing Princeton, right? You knew you’d be working here this year, right? I don’t know. I don’t know. You know that other girl, T___? She just decided to take off for two weeks with barely any notice. That’s not appropriate at all.”
The supply of oxygen in the room felt like it was rapidly depleting.
“But I told you about this as soon as I arrived, which was a month in advance, and you told me it was fine.” I meekly protested.
“Well, when T___ gets back, she’s going to find that she doesn’t have a position for next semester. Do you plan on just taking off like this next semester?”
“Well, I hope not. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“So is everything all right then?”
“Fine, fine” she said in a tone that would have left complete doubt in anyone’s mind that anything was remotely fine.

And so I left Chiang Mai unsure about my job security. I flew Turkish Airlines from Bangkok to Vienna with a stopover in Istanbul. My first impressions regarding the airline were particularly drab, as were my later ones, but at least I had a whole row to myself during the 10 hour stretch from Bangkok to Istanbul. There were no individual TV screens, it was impossible to see the community screen for my section, the food was peculiar (no Pork, are you kidding me?), but it was a-ok because I pretty much slept the whole way excluding the particularly turbulent stretch a few hours into the flight which sent the drink cart lurching and the flight attendant diving. She was in a perpetually bad mood for the remainder of the flight. Such a scour on such a pretty face, and as I discovered, it seems that in order to be a flight attendant on Turkish Air, you must be pretty and wear a constant scour. Another thing I can’t figure out is why they always play “The George Lopez Show” on international flights in far off places of the world, as if it’s some kind of universal television program. It wasn’t well received in America and it sure as hell isn’t received any better anywhere else. It’s awful.
I arrived in Vienna on the morning of the 12th where I met Daniel the Swede at the airport. My flight landed slightly before his, so when he emerged from luggage claim, I was there waiting for him with a silly little sign that I’d drafted up in the interim. It was a passionate reuniting that saw us fondle each others’ balls a bit and rub facial gruff together in hopes of creating fire, then it was time to explore Vienna a bit. We walked around the city on foot, breezing past all of the churches and various other minor architectural feats because Daniel and I are such jaded travelers, though I guess the Parliament building was nice enough. Maybe it’s because people don’t know how to walk properly in Vienna, but we were accidentally bumping into someone every five minutes, to which they would meet us with harsh words and pumping fists.
On the train to Graz, Daniel and I both fell asleep, awoke to picturesque Alp scenery, dozed off again, and finally awoke in Europe’s 2003 cultural capital. Rudi greeted us on the platform, and like Daniel, didn’t look any different; still the same old Austrian Kenny G doppelganger.
Q: What did Kenny G say when he walked into an elevator?
A: Man, this place rocks!

Rudi had set us up at a really nice bed and breakfast of sorts down the road from him and right next to the church where the marriage would take place. Our room looked like a quaint version of a sample room right out of an Ikea catalogue, though much of the furniture was actual Ikea. We dropped off our bags and headed over to Rudi’s for a meal “not very representative of Austria” consisting of wraps, pute (what we call Turkey), and various “add to your liking” vegetables and condiments. There was an attempt at guacamole, so I was a very happy camper. Also in attendance at the dinner were Rudi’s fiancĂ©e Bianca, a girl named Chelsea, and her psychic mother Lori. Chelsea was once a camper of Rudi’s when he was head counselor and choir master seven years prior at Austria’s very own “Sound of Music Camp.” How Bianca wasn’t disturbed by the Lolita-esque dynamic is beyond me. On the walk back to the B&B, Daniel and I found ourselves asking the question of how we even wound up here in the first place. How well did we even know Rudi after all?

The wedding was held at a fancily architected Catholic church.
“Do you think we’ll incinerate at the entrance for being Jews” Daniel asked me.
“Who knows?” I responded. “Maybe.”
God was on our side that day and we miraculously failed to spontaneously combust. The bride entered down the aisle of the church to Bach’s eerie Toccata and Fugue – the song that’s famously used in horror movies and Tales From the Crypt (if that gives you any idea of the kind of mood it sets). This was no ordinary wedding: it was a music laden modern day opera courtesy of Graz’s own acappella choir and various tattoo-ridden and uniquely hair styled musicians wearing some bizarre-ass attire. The bride’s grandpa, a small silver-haired old man, bawled throughout the entire service, even when it seemed like things couldn’t get any happier. At some point the priest made a joke (in both German and then English) about the irony of Australians in Austria – an issue that has long confounded the world in which neither the twine shall meet or else the world might spin off its axis – which was relevant being that several people from Australia were in attendance and that’s where we all first met. After the service there were drinks served outside and I learned that “gazuntite” is actually how they say “cheers” in various parts of Austria. They had no idea that we often use it in place of “bless you” back in that hodge-podge country known as the USA. The wedding reception was held at a castle in the countryside of Feldbach. I guess it was pretty typical as far as Austrian weddings go. The first dance is always the waltz – that’s the only thing you gotta know when it comes to European weddings. Know how to waltz or face the music, that’s all there is to it. Oh yeah, for all the Austrians out there, if you’ve never been to the States before, don’t make Newark, NJ your first and only stop, otherwise your experience could be a little disappointing. This guy Philip I met still had a sour taste in his mouth over his trip to a place where he swore “they don’t have grocery stores, all the men have gigantic muscles, it always rains, and everyone eats at the International House of Pancakes.”
I left early the following morning on a train back to Vienna before jumping on a plane to Rome. Emily and I had some last-minute email swapping that left a most ambiguous meeting point in Termini Station, but luckily, amidst the five million people scurrying around frantically like insects, she found me, even after wandering to and from the hostel and waiting by the train arriving from Milan, because somehow she crazily thought I was taking the train all the way from Vienna to Rome and that miraculously it would only take a few hours. Since the reunion happened so suddenly and only after much endured stress on both parties, I didn’t get to run toward her in slow motion, pick her up and swirl her around. It was even a bit strange seeing this person, this girlfriend of mine; a girl who in two months time now came off as a stranger. To me she looked skinnier in the face. To her, I looked skinnier in the muscles. To each other, two confused people trying to find reason behind the surface. It took a while before all those old feelings rushed back, just like at the beginning when I used to get so excited around her that I could lose my food at any moment. In actuality, I did lose my food several times in the beginning, and after the beginning, and all the way up until the present.
After some cleaning up (on her part, not mine) we went out for a bite to eat with some friends she and Patrice had made from the hostel: a chronically clammy-handed Brazilian and a guy who very well might’ve been the real life Bubble Boy from Nebraska. The next two days, we did all the touristy things one does in Rome, though I missed out on the Coliseum and Roman Forum, which they had already gotten out of the way before I arrived. I had arranged for Emily and I to have our own hostel each of the two nights we were there. The first night we had a really nice room somehow obtained on a fluke, so the next morning we had to move to the hostel’s other location – confusingly enough, the hostel had three locations, all located on opposite ends of the city. They weren’t even really like hostels, but more like rooms rented out in a private flat. Both nights it was ridiculously loud outside our window. Why the city of Rome chooses to empty its dumpsters at 3am is perplexing, and why it takes an hour to do so is an even greater mystery. Our bed at the second location was elevated in the middle, so every time Emily and I came close to embracing, like a modern take on the chastity belt, the peak would hurl us down our respective sides. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. The bed in the first hostel location wasn’t comfortable either, and the following few nights, our bed at the campsite in Sorrento was even worse. The bed in Sorrento was actually two beds squished together with vicious protruding springs on the attack against our vulnerable backs and sides and stomachs throughout the night. There was also the nuisance of being sandwiched between the noisy restaurant/drinking area and our cabin cluster’s community picnic area. All this talk of dolorous beds made me forget to mention that between Rome and Sorrento, we stopped off for some pizza in Napoli where it was born. The dough tasted like Naan and the men in Napoli tend to make gross amphibian-like faces with fluttering tongues at passing by females. I’d take a slice of NYC style over Napoli’s finest any day, but that’s not to say Napoli doesn’t make decent pizza, it’s just that I prefer Pizza Hut. Sorrento was beautiful, just like Ems, so it had that much going for it. During the days we took trips to Capri and Positano. On the boat to Capri, it was reassuring to learn that Europe has its share of white trash as well. It was also reassuring to see people with BMW’s camp out in Sorrento at the same place as Contiki tour constituents, and doubly reassuring to see that Australians – with merely a population of 30 million – are still taking over the world. As the Australian backpacker I sat and ate Kebobs with in Istanbul said, “Oh gosh. Do you think we’re worse than the Japanese?”
“Eh” I began, “At least you guys don’t always throw up the peace sign in photos.”
That’s about all I remember from Istanbul. I saw Turkey’s equivalent to the Sistene Chapel in the Aya Sofya and got a stamp in my passport. Five hours in that city were a total whirlwind.
That whole day was kind of a whirlwind. I left Emily at 4am in order to walk the 3km to the train station for a 5am train in order to be on a 6am train leaving out of Napoli that was crucial if I wanted to make the perfectly timed train out of Rome to the airport where my flight was set to depart at 10am. As rough as that was, it wasn’t as rough as saying goodbye to Emily, but I’ll spare you the sentimentality.

It's Olive from Little Miss Sunshine

Truly, we're from Positano; no tourists here.