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.