Thursday, December 11, 2008

“Sucking Down Water Like A Marathon Runner” (NYC, 11/11-19)

The plane lands at Laguardia. Cousin Greg picks me up at the airport.
“Get the fuck in the car already,” he yells. “I’m in the driving lane. You can’t just stand in the driving lane talking to me through the window.”
I oblige, and then it’s onwards to the Palisades Mall in Rockland County for a not-so-cheap meal at Chilis. It goes on my tab so when the gossip filters back to his mother she can’t claim I used her son for a ride from the airport.
Greg lives in Yonkers where I crash for two days: two days of incessant video game playing, NCAA Football 2009 and NHL 2009. NCAA 2009 is much different and in my opinion substantially less fun (aka not so easy to run up the score) than 2006 – the last version I played obsessively during senior year of college. NHL 2009 – well, hockey sucks, but Greg likes it.
When not playing video games, Greg and I perform copious amounts of email checking and applying for jobs we will not get (at least none that I will get: one being an indie producer’s assistant out in LA; the other at some public broadcasting TV station in NYC). Over these two days we do our best impersonation of agoraphobic recluses.
I abscond from Yonkers for a U-M alumni function in the city on Thursday. On the train I run into character actor Adam Lefevre. Not exactly Tom Cruise but I’ll take it.
The U-M alumni function is supposed to be a career mixer, but with the economy in its current dismal state, all the employers have themselves turned into job seekers. The event is held at some swanky bar in Midtown, which I enter with a degree of apprehension since Justin, my intended date for the evening, was laid up with a case of sickness and now I’m awkwardly stag. I coat-check my entire life belongings that I’ve been carting around all day, then proceed downstairs to a dark room where I’m just supposed to approach random strangers grouped together in the dark, hold out my hand and say, “Hi. My name’s Jared. I’m unemployed. What do you do?”
I suddenly don’t feel good and it’s all I can do to fight the urge to bolt. I am not alone in my social discomfort as I notice a few desperately-seeking-success rejects milling about aimlessly when they aren’t nervously sipping their waters with backs pressed up against the far wall. For the most part, my back is pressed up to the same wall. I am sucking down water like a marathon runner – one, because I’m thirsty; two, because alcohol is too expensive. These losers keep eyeing me as though we are kindred spirits (Ha, we can’t be, though, right?).
I try and make inane small talk with the greeters. That lasts about 45 seconds. It’s me and the wall again, until I work up the courage and approach a vaguely familiar looking Indian girl. She’s cute.
“You look familiar,” I say.
“Really? I don’t think I recognize you,” she responds.
We chat for a bit. I get her number. We will never hang out.
Once outside in the moist but consoling evening air, my sanity is restored. I remember Randy lives in the city and we grab a drink together in the village not far from his $1000 porta-potty-sized apartment he shares with three other people. One drink at a bar – whose name I can only remember rhymes with “Vas Deferens” – buzzes me; or maybe I’m just compensating because beers are so goddamn expensive in this city and I can’t afford many more. Gregarious Horowitz joins us for a short while before it’s off to his place in Long Island City where I finally lay my head down for the night.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

And then he disappeared into the water - INDONESIA

Just got swindled out of $10 at some shady money exchanger through some fancy sleight of hand (there were no other options other than the money changers), otherwise Indonesia (at least Java) has proven quite friendly and accommodating (if you don't count all the sleazy men making crude comments in Bahasa to Leah, my travel partner). Ben actually should be in Michigan about now visiting the university as a prospective philosophy Ph.D. student. Before Bali I was in the city of Yogykarta where I have a friend teaching. It was a good stretch of relaxation in this trip of constant traveling. We took a horse-drawn carriage of sorts around the city to see the famous sites (albeit unimpressive in comparison to those of Thailand and Cambodia), got massages (a mixture of shiatsu and traditional during which my masseuse walked on my back, massaged my mostly bare bum, asked if I wanted to be her boyfriend – all through the translating of my friend Casey and her masseuse behind the next curtain), and we watched Atonement & Superbad on DVD. From Yogya we took a bus to Gunung Bromo in East Java, a collection of massive volcanoes that look like something from a different world. The lengthy bus rides enabled us to bear witness to some of the coolest landscapes which could easily provide the setting for a new King Kong movie, made all the more atmospheric by the constant boarding and de-boarding of musicians looking to make some pocket change through rockin' serenades. An endless day of grueling bussing and ferrying brought us to Bali.“And there’s another one here, and here…” she said while pointing out what she believed to be bug bites on my back. They were in fact pimples.
“And here too” she repeated.

Leah laughed. Here we were with the Indonesian bar girl on the beach from “Paddys” night club whom we somehow collectively brought home together the night before. Casey begrudgingly called it a “bout of genius” to do such a thing. Indri, the bar girl, was enamored with Leah and I, under the belief that we were the most perfect brother/sister duo to have graced the Earth. We had stood Indri up the first few nights in Bali after making small talk as she worked the outside of Paddys in the sexy door girl role. Little did Leah and I know she’d only been working the gig for a few days and was naively genuine when expressing interest in meeting up post-work with two flirtatious underage-looking clientele pretending to be siblings, a ploy devised so as to prevent Leah and I from cockblocking each other.
Indri seemed very sad to see me go today. Never did I imagine my final day in Asia would be spent in Bali amidst such unexpected company. Indri grew closely attached to Leah & I so quickly, and then after sleeping between us in bed, we couldn’t get rid of her, even as she was nearly drowning in the ocean and pulling Leah down with her in a fit of panic. It was only Indri’s second time or so playing in the waves. She didn’t fare so well. A day ago, we were all in Ubud (minus Indri) witnessing ceremonial cockfighting at a Hindu temple. In the afternoon, back in Semanyak, we were getting thrashed around in the giant ocean waves as it started down pouring. I had an almost dream-like interaction with a handsome middle-aged Frenchman when he and I were the only two in the water while everyone else heeded the red flag swimming advisories. He gave me some advice on body surfing and demonstrated great acumen in gliding through the massive wave tunnels sideways with one arm extended as if he were Superman…if Superman had worn flippers.
“If you’re even remotely afraid” he said, “you shouldn’t be out here. To me, catching waves – it’s a game. I’ve been doing it everyday for the last 30 years. It’s what I love.”
It was scary, though, getting tossed around like a rag doll in the washing machine. It was stormy. The waves were imposing. There was a moment at the end of each big wave I rode where I thought I might drown.
Buli was his name, the Frenchman. He’d been living in Bali for 23 years without having to work.
“How’d you make your fortune to afford such a life?” I asked.

“Ah ah ah ah” he responded in the kind of tone that says ‘don’t touch.’ “That’s my business.” And then he disappeared into the water.

Presently, it is with no concretely identifiable feeling or emotion that I ride a plane to Jakarta on the first of five legs of my trip home. Like death, I must do it alone. It is not climactic, probably because I cheapened things by going home already in October. The parents will be in Israel and there is no longer a loving girlfriend waiting with open arms and a Jimmy Johns sub. There will be Auntie, and Lane arriving 3hrs later, and an unwritten future up for grabs.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

From Vietnam With Love (and lots of hassling)

To cross into Vietnam, all it took was a bus, a boat, then another boat, a transportation scam in Chau Doc (with Ben & I being on the receiving end), and a rabid two year old boy dancing in my lap and slobbering on my arm while I practiced monosyllabic Vietnamese with his 22 year old mother whose tough formative years made her look more like 50. Can Tho wasn’t so memorable despite the friendly company, imposing statue of Ho Chi Minh, and pleasant geographic situation along the river. It was big for not being so famous - over a million people. Saigon was even bigger with loads upon loads of motorbikes. We visited the Cu Chi tunnels which the Viet Cong used to sneak into southern Vietnam during the war. The tour was tarnished by our guide’s pained attempts at speaking English through strained apoplectic faces while pointing out the painfully obvious. The bus ride to Dalat was only supposed to be a few hours, but it wound up taking at least 10 after something in the road forced us to take some ridiculous detour, plus the bus driver had to repeatedly stop and pour jugs of water on the radiator for some mysterious reason. The city is in the mountains and thus cooler in temperature and different feeling from the rest of Vietnam. It’s almost like a European city out of the Twilight Zone: there’s a greater comparative wealth, strangely architected buildings, and a pristine central lake. Everyone is constantly wearing their motorbike helmets (even when they're not on their motorbikes) while donning long sleeves and pants (and while I said it was cooler, it's still like 80 degrees during the day). Wandering along the lake’s perimeter at night we caught many a glimpse of couples together on benches, arms around one another, romantically sporting their helmets and pollution facemasks.
Today I bought a slick new pair of sneakers that I just couldn't resist. They look a bit like Asics. A few days ago I had to buy a new backpack, a Lowe Alpine imitation, after my Sierra Club one from high school had seen enough of this world.

"crazy house" in dalat

I’m sitting on the main beach in Nha Trang. Last night I battled with a bout of exhaustion and slept for 12 hours. I feel much better today, relieved that it wasn’t a parasite. Leah, who joined us in Saigon, is off for a stroll while Ben is at my side. He fancies me a dilettante these days compared to all the serious artists he knew back at Vassar. Unlike me and amazingly enough, he is unbothered by the constant bombardment of women wearing rice paddy hats approaching every five minutes trying relentlessly to sell us something useless.


It was in quaint Hoi An along the UNESCO protected streets where we briefly joined forces with Arielle, the former PiA girl who was posted in Malaysia before bowing out amidst scandal. She resurfaced some months later in Hue, and after some message swapping agreed to meet up.
Hoi An felt like it was a city made for midgets – why, I don’t know – and every other store sold the same style of women’s pea coats with slight modifications in color. Leah bought a swanky red one for $30 so she can be all the rage in NYC next winter.
Having learned our lesson from the miserable standard overnight bus ride from Nha Trang to Hoi An, we opted instead for the sleeper bus to cover the stretch between Hoi An and Hanoi. The journey would’ve been even more pleasant had the stench of recycled air and dirty socks not been so pungent. Unfortunately for Ben, he had to sleep next to some strange man with funky nose jewelry (read: a massive hairy mole) while I paired off with Leah. Our time in Hanoi was brief and rainy. We had only a day of exploring, for the next day we set off on a dodgy two day tour of Halong Bay. We were delayed three hours because the other van of people joining up with us struck a motorbiker on the drive from Hanoi.
The bay was pleasant, like a more grand version of Khao Sok, and the Lord graced us with favorable weather. Ben and I were forced to share a bed at night on the boat. At around 4:30am, while in the throes of a dream about urinating on the wall of a locker room shower, I awoke to find that I was indeed pissing myself in real life for the first time since preschool. None of it made its way over to Ben.
We returned to Hanoi for our final night in Vietnam spent outside amidst some pseudo cluster of outdoor bars on those same miniature plastic chairs used for time-out. We downed cheap beer at 3,000Dong a glass while listening to some bizarre Australian couple rave about the book “Shantaram”. The female Aussie kept oddly referencing the fact every 30 seconds that she was a writer herself. "It's such a great book, and I can just appreciate the structure so much more being a writer myself, you know?"
And so it was in those final hours that we said goodbye to Vietnam, to Ben, and to love.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Cambodia (fake police, overstuffed pickups, prostitutes, abandoned french hill stations) - March 1st - March 11

Yeah yeah, the temples of Angkor were fancy schmancy. We decided one day was enough to see what we wanted to see, and while the sites were impressive, the scores of other tourists made it difficult to feel like Indiana Jones. There was also our dramatic DIY attempt at seeing the nearby floating villages met with a tuk tuk driver in collusion with a fake police officer, Freja’s conclusion that the villages didn’t constitute authentic culture, and a shady private boat operator with a penchant for spitting. All the trouble seemed a little silly when our trip to Battambang the next day took us the same route anyway. The scenic boat ride to Battambang was followed by an adventurous drive in a pickup over non-existent road with 17 other folks crammed in the flatbed. One evening was all we spent in Cambodia’s second largest city. We did eat at a rather nice cafĂ©. By the morning sun of the following day, we were headed to Phnom Penh. During a pit stop, the bus took off and gave us a good scare. To our relief, it returned 10 minutes later with a full tank of gas. The first morning in Phnom Penh, I was awakened very early while it was still dark outside to the sounds of sweeping. It’s ironic considering how dirty the capital city still is notwithstanding 5am sweepings. I dreamt of Emily and woke up feeling dour. I hoped that a visit to the horror sites of S-21 and the Killing Fields would make my personal romantic anguish seem trivial in comparison to the greater suffering of man. After stepping out of the first room at S-21, a once elementary school transformed into the most infamous torture center during the Khmer Rouge, my mind was just beginning to refocus and process the gravity of historical events. And then, with one more step, I ran smack dab into Damien Kennedy, the oafish womanizing neighbor of mine from 3 years ago in Melbourne. My brain immediately shifted from thoughts of genocide to those of paltry gossip in the snap of a finger. Being reunited with an old friend can make attempts at somberness difficult, and we spent the rest of the day together. Kennedy is built like a teddy bear, talks funny even for an Australian, and is ripe for being picked on by eleven year old Cambodian kids selling bootleg books. While we were eating, they came up to him and started smacking his face, poking him in the side, and making mock attempts at spilling water on his head. I never could understand how he did so well with the ladies. Probably has something to do with a fearlessness of rejection.
Into the wee hours of the morning, there was no rejection to be had, but rather only to be administered on our end as we danced and frolicked and nothing more with prostitutes at Heart of Darkness, Phnom Penh’s infamous nighttime venue.

Phnom Penh is a city of grit and poverty and Lexus SUVs. Brendan B, one our hosts (along with the gracious Andrew), was/is a fast-talking rookie writer for the respectable weekly paper. He either qualifies or disclaims every statement or question escaping from his mouth. Behind his visage that bears a striking similarity to a more hipster Haley Joel Osment is a hamster wheel of a brain that is spinning much too fast. And while I blame Damien Kennedy for landing me in Heart of Darkness that first night, Brendan Brady is to blame for putting me there the second night with yet another prostitute for a dance partner. And despite the pestering of a stranger telling me it would be the biggest mistake of my life to not take her home for a meager sum of $20, I sadly declined, opting instead to skip out on the AIDS epidemic.
During the days in the city, we walked around and frequented super yuppie cafes for meals, looking as though they had just been transplanted from NYC – an odd juxtaposition amidst the surrounding squalor.
From Phnom Penh we headed south to the laid back riverside city of Kampot. We checked into our accommodation at this place called Bodhi Villa, a cesspool of stoned backpackers who seem to have gotten stuck and forgotten they’re in Cambodia, not Jamaica. There are signs everywhere instructing you to “chill out”, and just asking a question of how to get into a town is a good way to be met with ridicule and laughter that you could be so uptight. As Brendan put it, “There’s nothing that stresses me out more than when people are telling me to chill out.” Our room was a bare bones bungalow with partial curtains instead of an actual door. We rented a motorbike and zipped around town a bit before booking an ‘illegal’ tour up Bokor Mountain, though the tours are publicly advertised in front of every guesthouse. It’s illegal because the government officially closed the mountain a month ago after selling the impressive and historical real estate to a private Korean company to make way for a multi-billion dollar resort catering to rich Asian tourists. On the tour the next day, things were fine if you don’t count the fact that the truck broke down on the way up, we were left stranded for two hours at the top while they struggled to locate the truck, and at the end of the day when it was time to go home, the only road out was obstructed by yet another broken down vehicle. That said, the decaying buildings – constructed by the French back in the 1920’s before abandonment in the 1950’ – were an imaginative child’s dream come true to explore, plus the view up there of nearby Phu Quoc Island and the endless stretches of flat Cambodian landscape below weren’t too shabby. Once back in town, we discovered our motorbike was missing from where we’d parked it early that morning. Ben and I looked at each, started to cry, and threw up our arms in defeat. Cambodia had hit us where it hurt. You can be as rugged as you want, but when your rented motorcycle gets stolen, Huntington Woods doesn’t sound so bad anymore. We dragged ourselves into the nearby guesthouse for shots of their strongest rice wine only to learn that the guy who’d rented us the bike had actually stolen it from us after seeing it parked in plain view as the sun was going down. Good tactic for boosting customer relations. He returned the bike with a mild reprimand, though I still don’t understand what the hell we should’ve done if not parked it in front of the tour agency as advised; and if that wasn’t silly enough, we were further scolded by the desk guy working back at the Villa.
“Uhh, so I got a call from your motorbike rental guy last night and heard you were irresponsible with the bike” he said to us the next morning as we were checking out. Ben and I looked at each other, then back at the guy. In unison we responded, “Chill out.” On the bus back to Phnom Penh, we just barely got on as the decrepit vehicle was pulling out. It was inexplicably leaving 30 minutes early, so we didn’t have the chance to purchase tickets beforehand. The bus continued to pick up more and more passengers on route, and it only took 15 minutes before Ben and I had to relinquish our seats. For the next five hours we were relegated to these mini plastic stools – the kind used for putting three year olds in time-out – wedged in the aisles lacking enough space to properly situate my butt. For five hours, my knees performed torturous deep tissue massage on all the wrong parts of Ben’s back while the guy behind me was kind enough to return the favor.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The End of Chiang Mai – February 28th

‘And so we beat on’ as John Irving always says, this time through the night on an aged locomotive, the sprinter, to Bangkok. I’ve got all my luggage since I won’t be returning to Chiang Mai. Looks like I’m carting around stowaways they’re so bulky. Thankfully I’ve got Ben with me or I wouldn’t have managed. He’ll also help to cushion my sanity since there are no beds on the sprinter overnight express and the seats only partially recline and it’s so shaky that I can’t hold my pen steady and the window is slightly too far away for a comfortable sleeping position.
I’m not sad to be leaving, even though everyone who mattered during my year was there to send me off. We even had a final supper together at the nice restaurant by the river. But no, I’m not sad. I’ve already had to suffer through three goodbyes with Emily – one in Europe, one at home, and one in Thailand; and then there was the final goodbye when we took a break that turned permanent (I guess) when she soon after found bigger and better and balder things. So this goodbye is more like a footnote. I’m kind of numb now to anything non-Emily related. I guess I was never able to fully invest myself in Thailand, always one foot somewhere else. Now both feet are God knows where, though on Saturday they’ll be setting foot on Cambodian soil.
March 1st
They call it the Wild West of Southeast Asia, and it sure is dusty enough. We crossed over into Cambodia today after busing it from Bangkok to the border town of Aranya Prathet. It was supposed to be a first class ride, but somehow we kept adding standing room only passengers along the way, one of which sat directly behind my seat so that I couldn’t recline, and when I did finally manage to drift off for a moment, the wandering fingers of a small child tickled my face, startling me awake. It was in Aranya Prathet where we met the Icelandic couple, Toti and Freja. He’s a notable chef back in Reykjavik, she’s still a student. He’s loud enough to rival the American stereotype, she keeps him walking straight by doing all their expense conversions: first from Icelandic currency into Thai baht, and then into either Cambodian Reil or USD. Together, we ambled through no-man’s land into Poipet, past fake customs agents, eerie casinos, and begging children. It was in this peculiar landscape that I randomly ran into the student president of the residential college at which I lived during a semester abroad in Melbourne three years ago.
The road leading from Poipet to Siem Reap was unbelievable – no paving, half-assed construction resulting in detours circling around mounds of rubble and potholes the size of moon craters. It doesn’t make any sense how such a major route could be so catastrophically awful, unless you believe the rumor that Bangkok Airways pays off the Cambodia government to keep the road in such a state so that people will be more inclined to fly. For 3.5 hours we wondered how the driver could see anything amidst the clouds of dust and diminishing light from the setting sun, but he still hurtled ahead un-phased at full speed. And then, after 3.5 hours, just like that, the road turned perfectly paved and the previous repetition of barren landscape, dilapidated ramshackle homes and half-naked wandering children were all replaced with rococo hotels, beaming lights, posh restaurants, and still some half-naked wandering children. It was if we had just plunged through a wormhole into Cambodia’s version of Disneyland.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Luang Prabang: Nov. 30 - Dec. 3

Lane leaves around mid-November, some days later my bike breaks down during rush hour traffic along the northern end of the moat, conveniently enough in front of a bike shop which agrees to take it in, but when I return the next day, it’s been inexplicably transported to another shop on the opposite end of town. The diagnosis: something to do with a busted piston and my own personal failure to ever change the oil. Costs me $90, which is almost half of what I initially paid for the bike. At the end of November I jump on over to Luang Prabang for a little weekend excursion and reunion with Lane. On the single-engine nausea-inducing plane I have to endure some British guy citing facts he learned from Michael Moore movies. On the ground, the city possesses an understated quality – not exactly very bumping – someone described it to me as a Disneyland for French geriatrics (whatever that means). If you recall, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam were all once under the mighty colonial rule of France. There’s a beautiful waterfall not far outside of town with the kind of vine swing I’ve long fantasized about, be we decide the water’s too cool for swimming. Back in town, we climb up the centrally-located temples perched high above and possessing grand views of the city below, surrounding mountains, and muddy Mekong. At night, Luang Prabang’s equivalent to Chiang Mai’s Warm Up – the swankiest drinking hole to see and be seen – is a joint called the Hive Bar, one of the few places along with some other cafes sprinkled throughout the city that look as though they could’ve been taken right out of yuppie-town USA. At the Hive Bar, Lane and I entertain two Laotians with crushes on us the size of Texas while five British girls lap up the attention of tens of love-hungry European males, whom by tagging along with after closing lands us in a disco-esque bowling alley at 1am – the only place opened after midnight in this curfew-enforcing communist country. It’s time for Lane and I to say goodbye. We hug and I pray to Buddha almighty that he survive his travels and make it home in one piece. It will be many months before we are reunited again. (editors note: Lane did indeed make it home in one piece, although his glasses were to be broken by a monkey and his bathing suit torn off by a floating branch in Halong Bay).