Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Getting From Point A to Point B in Viet Nam

Transportation in Vietnam is like a box of chocolates... 

After two days traveling further into the Vietnamese highlands on the rear of a motorbike, all I wanted was to chill and get to Hoi An. My butt needed a break, those bikes on those roads make for one good long vibration.

Back in Da Lat I took a leisurely last stroll around town after reserving a ticket on the 6pm bus to Da Nang – a reservation which means nothing if the bus driver decides to leave 45 minutes early. 'No problem, I put you on another bus' says the girl at the desk. She makes a couple of phone calls. I so wish I understood Vietnamese. Finally her eyes brighten and she hangs up. 'Okay, no problem. Only driver, you and one more person,' she tells me. ‘To Da Nang, you get off at Hoi An.’ Sweet I figure. Plenty of room to stretch out for the overnight trip.

To clarify – I’d been in Viet Nam long enough to know to always be suspicious – I ask the girl what kind of bus. First she tries to explain but that’s useless. So she pulls me out into the street and points at a passenger van parked (or possibly abandoned) at the end of the crumbling street. 'That one, same same but different' she tells me. Same same but different. I’d heard that one before.

I end up in a clunky red mini van with a guy named Home. There’s enough front seat leg room for a full-grown Chihuahua. At least I can tell him to stop when I need to pee. 'Da Nang?' I say, as enthusiastically as possible since it would pretty much be the end of any manageable conversation between us. 'Da Nang!' he says back, then proceeds to floor it across town to a gas station where a bunch of guys are climbing all over the boxes packed onto the back of this big truck with a tarp for a roof. 'Okay, you go them!' Home-boy says, pointing. This is my ride to Hoi An? It was so ridiculous I had to agree.

I take my bicycle apart (I was traveling by tandem – solo, which is a whole nother story) and a few of the guys heave it in three pieces onto the mountain of cardboard cartons. My panniers go up too, disappearing in a crevice among the cargo. I keep a firm grip on my waist pouch, making it obvious to twenty strangers where all my cash is. One guy slaps my shoulder and hands me a box and points at the truck. So now I’m part of the work force. I hand it up to some guy who’s laughing at me. Some woman in a mask (presumably because of the dust) comes up to me, demanding 200,000 Vietnamese Dong for whatever I’m getting into. No other apparent option, I pay.

An hour later I'm sitting in the front of this truck with one big driver and his pint-sized buddy; they speak English as well as I speak Vietnamese. We’re bouncing along in the jet black night, down some road that is paved, then not paved, marked with houses and storefronts then with nothing but the woods of Some Where, Viet Nam. Wondering when my companions are going to stop the truck and demand more money from me for not throwing me out the window, I offer them some of the dried sugared apricots I bought in Da Lat while my original bus driver was leaving without me.

Soon the little guy, shiftiest character I’d seen in Viet Nam which is saying something, falls asleep. My head bouncing rather violently against the window, I fail to doze off. When we finally hit the main road I think maybe I’ll get some shut-eye.

Until we come to a stop in some little town at who-knows-when-o’clock. A man emerges from a dark doorway. My friends pry a box off the back of the truck and dump it on the curb for him. And we drive off. Twenty minutes later, the same. At the next stop ten minutes later the little guy tells me to get down and help.

At 7am we pass a sign for Hoi An. I point, at myself and out the window. ‘Hoi An!’ Shorty nods and gets back to staring at the road. ‘Hoi AN!’ I say again. Junior waves a ‘shut-up!’ hand at me. I try again. ‘Da Nang!’ he snarls at me. ‘HOI AN!’ I yell back. We pull into this huge parking lot to unload some boxes at this outdoor market and it is all I can do to not take my friend by the shirt and start shaking him. ‘HOI! AN!’ He looks ready to rumble, Lord knows why he insists on keeping me hostage but he is bent on taking me all the way to Da Nang. Fortunately his driver friend enjoyed the apricots; he shakes his head at his little friend and throws a thumb at my bike.

My tandem parts and panniers come off the truck coated in dust. We’re ten miles past the sign for Hoi An. The town is another ten toward the coast. As I begin putting my bike together it starts to rain.

Hoi An, thank God, is a really nice place.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What Comes of Domestic Malaise

I was rather taken aback the other day to find out it’s been over two months since my last post – not that anyone else noticed but I still feel better making up excuses for these things. You’d think without a pesky job to have to bugger off to every day I’d have more free time than Bernie Madoff and would be able to tap into my bottomless reservoir of creativity and crank something out; stuff that, while perhaps not always worth the time investment on the reader’s part, will most likely never land me in jail (now that I’ve got that little copyright infringement thing straight). But my four year old son’s YouTube kick is now entering its fifth week, and every time I pry open the old laptop these days, no matter how quietly, he hears it over his eighteen month old brother’s shrieking (due to big brother also being on this rip-every-toy-out-of-little-brother’s-hands kick) and he comes running at me full-speed, launching himself across the room and landing stomach-first on my lap, simultaneously smacking the keyboard with both hands and screaming ‘Come on, damn computer!’ (no idea where he picked that up) even though he knows damn well ‘sesame street pinball’ doesn’t start with 'slafjhlenjflab'.

I can buy him off his video fix with promises of helping him find his Halloween candy again, but then I see how much booty he still has in that cheapo pumpkin bag we were hoping would split open on him, and I have to push on with Plan B for saving his teeth and helping him maintain his skin’s elasticity, which entails me eating a few of his bite-size 100 Grand bars for him when he’s not looking and thus obliterating any hope of productivity for the next hour or two. I mean really, who can think straight let alone create another literary masterpiece with bits of peanuts and chewy caramel hanging around the bicuspids?

I’ll brush my teeth (after getting my money’s worth on the candy-pilfering), but even if I can drag my son away from the pc I’ve got the sesame street pinball song in my head – which is worse than nuts and caramel – so until the creative juices make parole I have to resort to taking my son up on his enthusiastic pleadings for a round of Sorry or Bonkers, with the unrealistic hope that if I can totally destroy him a couple of games in a row he’ll get frustrated and go back to ripping toys away from his brother.

Honestly, I can never get a minute of true creative genius out of my day until the boys are finally in bed for good. (My son is presently on this week-long kick of coming down at 9:30 every night to tell me he can’t sleep because he has a song stuck in his head, surprise surprise). But even when the kids are finally face down in their pillows I am so wigged out from getting nothing done all day (aside from being an amazing father spending all that quality time with the boys) I need a few moments to dial down the weltschmerz.

This is how, after two decades of knowing his name, finally became acquainted with Garrison Keillor.

My sister gave my mom one of Mr. Keillor’s books back in early 1988; it’s pretty much been sitting on a shelf ever since. Bibliophage that I am, I always made sure I knew where it was on the off chance I ever found myself living at home and desperate for a moment's diversion. One evening last week, trying to erase the clinical urge to go find Cookie Monster and beat him over the head with a huge flipper so I could get back to staring at the incoherence of my latest novel, I took that book off its shelf and fell into it.

In short, Garrison Keillor did quite well for himself telling stories about, among other things, a fictitious place in Minnesota called Lake Wobegon. What interested me about this guy most was that he didn’t just write stories; he sat on a stool on a stage and read his stuff out loud, able, I assume, to hypnotize the crowd into paying him for it even though they probably already bought the book. On top of this he had a thirteen-year radio gig which, based on the book I started reading last week, likely involved not a single person who could be mistaken for a Kardashian. Which made me think (and I have a whole host of family members and fictitious cookie-eating monsters to blame for the potentially-ruinous idea) that I could find similar success by digging into my mental storehouse of travel stories, broad and varied and in complete disarray (and far removed from anything Kardashi-enne), and narrating them to slideshows of photos that look convincing enough though they may or may not be of the place I am actually talking about.

The idea so excited me that I took the most easily-accessible of my travel narratives and began putting my best Morgan Freeman voice to it. Quickly realizing the folly in that I drank some more water and blew my nose and went with the deviated septum delivery God gave me. I also cut the story length by a third to squeeze it into YouTube’s allotted ten-minute time frame, as well as to give anyone listening less time to fall asleep and kill their keyboard with their own drool. (I realize that since I’m back in the USA now I need to be wary about ticking off that litigation-bent sector of the populous.)

I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t be putting this out there at all. The following narrative, though good enough to win something resembling a travel writing award earlier this year, just didn’t seem to be translating well into spoken form. Plus Morgan Freeman said (okay his agent's National Geographic contact's producer's intern's fill-in said) he was busy and couldn’t do the voice-over for me. But my twisted scrap iron will and I forged on, because maybe there’s a parent out there hearing voices through their laptop, telling them to go throttle their kid’s Elmo doll, and any form of distraction - even this - might be good for everyone involved.

Particularly if there’s no more Halloween candy in the house.

1 - Get comfortable
2 - Turn the up volume on your pc a little
3 - Make sure you don't have to go to the bathroom or anything, and

Friday, September 2, 2011

Air Travel III - Thin Atmosphere Reading

People will sometimes ask me how long it takes to fly between Tokyo and New Jersey. My answer usually elicits a contorted expression and a syllable or two of pained commiseration, reactions I personally would reserve for someone in truly insufferable straits – a diehard Glee fan, for example. Or someone with a full-time job.

I don’t know why people consider thirteen hours in the air something akin to torture. First of all, in my case, I’m flying because I want to, unlike the poor saps up in the front of the plane who have no choice but to fly off to another meeting somewhere. Second, what’s so bad about being able to sit around and watch movies while people bring you food? If you’re flying with an Asian airline there’s the added bonus of free beer and wine. Plus the flight attendants are still selected in step with the time-honored tradition of chauvinistic arousal. Are you kidding me? If demurely beautiful women in flattering silky garb are bringing me free beer I’ll fly for weeks on end.

Continental offers neither free beer nor chauvinistic arousal. They compensate, however, with an almost comical overload of movie selections and an in-flight magazine that is worth its weight in glossy paper – though probably not in a way Editor in Chief Mike Guy and his team intend. I’ve long had an unabashed affinity for in-flight magazines – the travel articles, even the boring ones, in their own way, are good fodder for future adventures; the crossword puzzles make me feel smart (unlike the sudoku); and the fiction pieces inevitably reassure me that I really can be a writer someday.

The magazine on my most recent flight, however, was an altogether new experience. There was no fiction (unless you count the open letter by the CEO on page 11). I didn't even get to the crossword (I was mentally trashed after the sudoku and didn't want to risk what little self-esteem I had left). And my appetite for travel didn't have the opportunity to be whetted what with the distractions on almost every page.

The August 2011 issue of Continental's Hemispheres features (i.e. displays in the biggest letters on the cover except for the word Hemispheres) an article on Stockholm. I visited Sweden once; I spent three hours in Malmo, a short ferry ride from Copenhagen. This was quite possibly the most amazing three hours of my life, for reasons I will get into momentarily. Suffice to say I was eager to dive into whatever 'Three Perfect Days' in the Swedish capital might hold. (This despite the letdown I experienced from a previous Three Perfect Days piece of rubbish.) But we would be somewhere over the Kamchatskiy Peninsula before I'd even get a glimpse of the bar at Matbaren. Really, page after page, it was time-consumingly confounding.

The first three pages sent a crystal clear message: I am not the target audience for this magazine. On page two was an ad for a thousand-dollar Bang & Olufsen speaker dock thing - the Beowolf 8 or something - for an iPod, iPhone or iPad. If I gave up traveling I might be able to afford one of these doo-hickeys eventually, though I’d have to give up something else to get an iProduct to go with it and my wife insists the kids eat every day.

Before this though was a two-page spread for Wellendorff, maker of the finest German jewelry (and the most incongruous-sounding name for a jeweler) since 1893. The ad centers around an actual letter from a woman in Latvia who describes in pristine, poetic English how she lost everything in a fire except her ring, made by the elves at Wellendorff. Somehow, according to the Fuhrer at the Dorff, this is a reminder for all of us that 'the true value of jewelry' is 'to offer joy and protection.' Joy? Perhaps. But I don't see jewelry offering protection to anyone outside of Wonder Woman. Entschuldigen Sie bitte. No sale to the guy in 43-D.

This, by the way, is Continental's self-proclaimed first annual food issue. Accompanying the table of headlining articles is a picture of fresh-baked kanelbullar, or cinnamon rolls, found at a restaurant at a museum inside a zoo on one of Stockholm's fourteen islands. That they are so hard to find makes the mid-flight plastic-wrapped microwave tamale that much more disappointing. Or less, I'm not sure. Heading the second page of content listings is a photo of a covered wagon amid the great American West. I just recently drove across the country but I could never get enough of the west and had to turn immediately to page 42 – only to find a one-column overview of an upcoming PBS mini-series and a close-up of a lizard colored like an Easter egg. (Likening lizards to eggs; this food issue thing is apparently having an effect on me.)

In this month's message, United Airlines President & CEO Jeff Smisel talks about 'the world's most rewarding loyalty program'. True, my wife and my four-year-old will both be flying to the States for free this month; yet my wife, loyal mother that she is, refuses to smuggle our one-year-old onto the plane in a carry-on. Instead she will hold him on her lap for the duration of the flight. For this level of loyalty Continental-United is charging us $400.

To their credit, Continental-United (C-U from now on, I'm already sick of typing it out) seems to be trying to put on a personal, approachable face. To wit: page 12 is dedicated to Customer Service Representative Mary Brown, who has been overseeing the evolution of the usability of the check-in kiosk system. Actual quote from the article: 'I've learned to think like the machines,' she says with an empathy that extends beyond customers to the kiosks themselves. Just a hunch: Mary had R2D2 bed sheets when she was a girl. Mary’s manager offers further insight: She comes in early, sometimes at 2am, to make sure the machines are working and coming on all right. Meanwhile her kids are at home, punching buttons on the mom-kiosk in the kitchen for a glass of water and a virtual hug before going back to bed.

The people article on page 14 features 'Ten Million Mile Man' Tom Stuker, an automotive sales consultant who has flown United close to 6,000 times, including more than 200 hundred times to Australia. Now, I'm no automotive sales consultant expert, but if this guy has to go back and repeat himself 199 times maybe it's time for a personnel change on one end or the other. To celebrate this achievement, this mega-miler joined United employees...his immediate family, friends and United executives at a special event held at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Which was so much fun he missed his flight.

On the next page, an ad for The Ritz-Carlton Residences building offering one to three bedrooms and penthouses from $1.4 million, shows a woman with perfect hair, a smashing dark blue silk dress and diamonds on her ears, wrists and shoes – diamonds that probably don't offer much protection from the pit bull she's nuzzling noses with. My guess is if this woman stepped out of her $1.4 million pad dressed like that and saw a pit bull sitting in the lobby she's not going to get cuddly, she's going to have someone shoot it. (Note: The fine print at the bottom reveals the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has nothing to do with this building except that someone paid them a lot of money for the use of the Ritz-Carlton name.)

Next page: 'The Original Hawaiian Slipper Pendant with Diamonds, various sizes from $199'. Chain sold separately. Matching earrings available for those who wish to walk around looking like a shoe rack.

The short, spirited piece on page 18 covers Barack O'Bama's recent visit to Moneygall, Ireland where his grandfather's grandfather lived before escaping the famine in 1850. Obviously the President has his Gaelic going on: he weathers the rain, he sips Guinness, and he's got that national bankruptcy thing down pat.

From the photo on page 19, it seems the ostentatious beachfront Grand Solmar Spa and Resort in Cabo San Lucas does not actually offer guests a way to get down to the beach – not that they might want to.

Another short article features an interview with Perry Farrell, founder of the genre-mixing music festival known as Lollapalooza. (Coincidentally the interview takes place in Perry's suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago. No indication if this is a real Ritz-Carlton or another name-renting gimmick.) This year is the 20th Annual L'pooza will include a 'Kidzapalooza tent' where 'seven-year-old kids with sprayed Mohawks,' as Farrell describes them, can get temporary tattoos before going to see Eminem. (Suddenly I feel an urge to get my kids interested in Justin Bieber.)

After a useless bit about four good hotels for star-gazing (one features a photo of the windowless hotel bar) there’s a full-page ad for the 'China Cultural Tour 2011' which consists of an image of a Chinese opera actress superimposed over mist-shrouded bits of the Great Wall – and nothing else, save for the China National Tourist Office website. I'd say the Party hasn't gotten their dictatorial heads around the whole marketing thing. Back in Tiananmen Square they throw up a few posters like this and the hoi polloi are scrambling for tickets for fear of their children going missing or their homes be ransacked if they don't attend. The rest of us are going to need a little more than a woman in a gaudy kimono and a hat that Princess Beatrice herself would refuse to wear.

On a related note, the Party recently advertised their new high-speed trains as 'not from Japan.' This is evidently enough, in their minds, to convince their subjects to keep buying tickets for a train system whose performance truly makes it non-Japanese.

On to Cotswolds, England and 'Russell's, a restaurant with rooms.' If that isn't enough to make you run for the British Airways counter consider that this restaurant, already so forward-thinking it actually includes rooms for people to eat in, is housed in the former workshop of a furniture designer named (quite coincidentally) Russell who 'drew his aesthetic inspiration in part from his experiences on the front lines during World War I.' Table in a trench for two please. One dish on the menu at Russell's consists of roast Cornish pollock with clams and something called 'samphire emulsion' – which I can only imagine is the saucy precursor to the delicacy known as Rocky Mountain Oysters.

Which leads me to an ad for Tempur-pedic, a mattress company whose slogan is, simply, 'Ask me.' Half the page is taken up by a group of smiling people with words floating in the air over their heads. The plain-looking brown-haired woman on the left is inviting you to ask her how fast she falls asleep. The guy on the right says 'ask me about staying asleep.' The sixty-ish couple in the back suggests you ask them about the twenty-year warranty (after which they'll have to settle for whatever the old folks' home offers). The attractive blond, front and center with a devilish grin on her face, has no words above her head – her apparent mattress-related invitation being 'Just...ask me!'

Page 35 presents a picture of what appears to be a suspension bridge missing half the suspension – which seems not to deter any of the hundred-odd people driving across the bridge. This is San Francisco's new Bay Bridge, $5.5 (check that - $7) billion worth of erector set parts 'nearing completion'. Yes, those people are indeed driving over an unfinished bridge. The article is comprised of three main points, none of which lend any added comfort. (1) So emergency vehicles can use the bridge in case of a big earthquake, engineers 'designed non-essential parts of the bridge to fail.' Wait a minute, what parts of a bridge, exactly, are non-essential? (2) Rebuilding the Bay Bridge required a construction schedule that would have a minimum effect on the flow of daily traffic – some 280,000 vehicles a day. The only factory that could conform production to this extremely tight schedule was in Shanghai. I think it's safe to say China built a factory specifically to win this contract so (a) they would own the bridge once it is done, and (b) they would have something to take people's minds off the non-Japanese trains that keep derailing. (3) The humble Bay Area lawmakers demanded the bridge have something called 'icon status' – so the engineers added these tall poles to (I guess) provide aesthetic balance in place of the bridge's half-missing suspension. These fifty-foot steel rods, sticking up like those traffic light things at the drag races, must be the 'non-essential' parts of the bridge designed to fall off in a big quake. They are very logically placed between the east- and westbound sides of the bridge, so no matter which way they fall they will crush whoever is driving across the bridge at the time.

Fairmont Heritage Place in something called Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco calls itself a Private Residence Club. No kidding. In the fine print at the bottom of this ad for luxurious fractional home ownership, offering an extensive ownership world-class benefits program, it reads: This is neither an offer to sell nor a solicitation to buy to residents in jurisdictions in which registration requirements have not been fulfilled, and your eligibility and the resorts available for purchase will depend upon the state, province or country of residency of the purchaser. In other words, if we don't like your zip code stay away or we will sic our pit bulls on you. My advice: go with those Ritz-Carlton posers in Chicago, their $1.4 million apartments are easily available via the Equal Opportunity Housing laws.

The W.M. Keck Foundation has donated $150 million to the USC Medical Center, adding to a previous gift of $110 million. This is fantastically generous when you consider just how many non-medically-insured illegal immigrants this will support.

Advertisement for Tito's Handmade Vodka. Tito's Handmade Vodka is gluten-free. Um...still no.

This brings me to the meat of the magazine – no pun intended. For the first feature, a guy was paid (I assume) to travel to northeastern India, hang out, take a bite out of a bhut jolokia, the world's hottest pepper, hang out a little more and go home to New York. I think I could do that. For the second article a different guy got to go to Singapore and eat for five days and then write about it. Excuse me, what exactly is the application procedure for this type of work? This piece starts out by illustrating just how goofy and crazy Singaporeans are: one guy, an aspiring chef, decided one day to put cheese on his braised pork belly dish, and so he did it, and...well...that's it. His restaurant is very popular. It's called Wild Rocket, named, apparently, in honor of the guy's favorite salad. 'Some people will think of the salad, some people will think of the spaceship,' he says of his restaurant's zany, no-holds-barred moniker. The writer eating his way across Singapore then tells us that this idea of mingling of food and spacecraft is a perfect metaphor for Singapore, a nation-state bent on cleanliness and efficiency while maintaining a love for food. Sorry buddy, I don't get the connection. Not surprisingly, the article is cut off, continued on page 128. Here the overload of dish names and their ingredients makes me feel like I'm reading the Cliff Notes version of The Joy of Cooking. The guy does point out two interesting things – neither of which bolster my admiration for Singaporeans. First, they love to eat yet they thumb their noses at anyone so low as to work in the culinary trade. And second, for all their economic and social achievements, Singaporeans are bent on eating mounds of durian, a fruit so stinky it is banned in all hotels and on all public transit. Give anyone caught chewing gum a good caning, but encourage the masses to walk around smelling like...well, stinky fruit. Brilliant culture.

Ah, finally, here we are in Stockholm. I might have skipped right to page 78 here, but the preceding pageant of ill-literacy should make this trip to Scandinavia an even fresher breath of fresh air indeed. The two-page introductory spread shows a detail of wooden boats floating on blue waters and the back of a guy, presumably a castle guard, with a silver helmet so shiny it manages to momentarily disguise its overwhelming silliness. As I mentioned before, I once spent three hours in Malmo, Sweden. In these three hours I (1) saw the most incredible, most beautiful tall blond woman my twenty-three-year-old eyes had ever seen; (2) I put a few crowns on double zero at the roulette wheel in the lobby of some hotel and hit; and (3) saw that woman again. I read this Three Perfect Days in Stockholm piece thoroughly, but the guy makes absolutely zero mention of blonds or roulette, going on and on about cafes and museums and charm and Stieg Larsson. He does get points for renting a bicycle for a half hour, but loses them and more for staying in plush hotels instead of making friends and crashing on their couches – or ending up with a tall blond woman. Everyone has his own idea of perfect I guess.

My reading adventure is winding toward the entertainment listings at the back of the magazine, but Mike Guy and his staff manage a few more stupid human tricks. The head of the Obesity Treatment Centers of New Jersey has a noticeable double chin. When in Denver, try indoor skydiving. For easier, more confident traveling, here is a diagram of Guam International Airport's one terminal, which consists of a single straight hallway. The Brown hand Center considers four locations in Texas and one each in Phoenix and Vegas 'nationwide'.

And, at the bottom of the last page, this modest pronouncement: We are proud to recycle aluminum cans, newspapers and plastic bottles on eligible flights. On all other flights, CEO Smisel will explain in his next letter, loyal frequent flyers will not be charged $400 if they take their recyclables home with them. Women with babies on their laps will automatically pay as C-U has recently set a new policy in place that deems carrying babies and recyclables simultaneously unsafe and is therefore not allowed.

I bet Mr. Smisel has a $1.4 million pad. Perfect, I have a pit bull, let's have some fun.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Air travel II - (sk)In-Flight

I like airports, actually. They offer such good post fodder.

I step through the door and come face to face with a half-naked middle-aged man. Well not face to face; he’s turned toward the wall so all I see is his pasty, mealy back. On the shelf in front of him is his open carry-on. He’s slathering on his deodorant. I feel like I’m at the YMCA.

The door to my stall bangs shut as I step around the corner – to see another shirtless fifty-something man bent over one of the row of sinks. His gut rests on the countertop as he washes his face. This guy didn’t make it far in the Gladiator audition process either. I take one of the sinks on the opposite wall…and there’s the guy, his back and his front, reflected infinitely in our opposing mirrored walls.

Really, this is nothing compared to a Japanese onsen in terms of proximity to naked strangers and their degree of nakedness. Still, I can’t wait to get on my flight to Tokyo.

Along the otherwise drab walls of Newark Airport’s Terminal C large back-lit advertisements pine for attention. I’ve got plenty of time before my flight’s final boarding call so I stop to read each one. Brief and bold and paper-thin, they seem aimed at the time-pressed and travel-weary. I am neither.

A duck with a jovial look on his beak is standing on the middle of a row of three seats, doing that mating call thing with his wings. He’s ostensibly on an airplane, although those three seats are surrounded by a white empty void. (All that legroom and who do they give it to? A duck.) The ad is for an insurance company. ‘Nobody flies stand-by with our coverage,’ the sign states in proud blue letters. Someone just off a twelve-hour flight might nod at the duck in agreement and file the thought safely away in a rolling drawer of gray matter labeled ‘True – Don’t Know Why’. But really, can’t this be taken two ways? Inviting as he appears, I don’t think that duck is giving up his seat.

Beyond an ad for a cancer clinic (as if the time-pressed and travel-weary need that to think about) comes a promotion for 4-H. I’ve never belonged to 4-H, but I get the impression this is an organization dedicated to the empowerment and advancement of society’s youth. They even seem to be specializing now – this particular ad is sponsored by 4-H’s Science, Engineering & Technology faction. Imposed on another empty white void a young girl in a white lab coat is holding a test tube of soylent green. Next to her reads a supposedly uplifting pronouncement: ‘One million new scientists, one million new ideas.’ That averages out to one idea per scientist. I’d say 4-H needs to raise the bar a little.

Newark’s Terminal C, by the way, is dedicated to Continental Airlines, as Newark International is one of their hubs. This would, on the surface, account for the inordinate number of ads for Continental. But really, pretty much everyone in the terminal is already a Continental customer. Shouldn’t they be hanging these ads over in Terminal A?

One of them is for Continental’s Mileage Club Credit Card. In the sky over a white-sand beach that rolls lazily toward a calm blue-green surf it reads: 'No one ever says I take too many vacations.' This is a lie. I myself have said just that, more than once. I was just kidding, of course. My wife, on the other hand, wasn’t. Either way, I don’t think Continental wants one of their cards in my hands.

Another ad states that this mileage club card is ‘The official card of the Continental loyalist.’ Maybe I watch too many movies, but aren’t the loyalists always the ones who end up dying for the king?

As I stated in my last post, Continental is merging with United. In the gate area (and not out at the check-in counter, where it would help people understand why Continental’s check-in people are politely cramming United Airlines policies down customers’ throats) there are signs everywhere announcing the developing collusion. ‘You’re going to like where we land,’ claims one. Oh yeah? Tell you what, your Highness, I’d rather you just land where my ticket says you are going to land.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s get through take-off, shall we?

It’s interesting how virtually everyone flying economy will casually rush to line up at the gate at the first mention of a boarding call – which of course gives priority to First Class, Business Class, Business First Class, Business Elite, Premier Club Members, Premier Club Gold Members, Advanced Club Members, Advanced Club Gold Members, Advanced Club Silver Members, Silver Select, Silver Elite, Express Pass Members and any poor souls flying economy with children. If I’m with my family you can bet I’m right up there taking advantage of the chance to board ahead of the rest of the back of the plane. It does make settling in easier, but more than that I’ll take anything I can from an airline that says my little kids qualify for the same fuel surcharge as the fat cats up front who are being served free beer and wine while most of economy is still standing on line at the gate.

Last week I flew alone, and since I am not a member of any pay-to-feel-special clubs I had to wait to get on with the rest of economy. So there I am in the lounge, sitting tight through each general boarding call, wondering as I always do why everyone is so eager to get on line only to have to stand there for ten minutes with their carry-ons and laptops. But I guess if everyone stayed on their butts like me waiting for everyone else to board no one would go anywhere.

I’d like to see it just once. It would be magnificently surreal.

Besides being able to relax in the waiting area those extra minutes before settling into a seat on a plane for twelve hours, boarding last brings another, slightly more sinister pleasure. By the time the other remaining stragglers and I are coming down the aisle, anyone sitting next to an empty seat begins harboring fantasies of having that extra space to themselves for the entire flight. Some of them even start spreading out their stuff, overcome with hopeful anticipation. Others keep one sideways eye on us last few passengers, pretending to ignore us while simultaneously trying to will us away. I know, because I’ve done the same thing. In either case, it’s funny to see the disappointment suddenly appear on someone’s face when I show up in the aisle, apologizing for having to make them move all their crap.

I’m nice about it though; we’re going to be sharing an armrest for the next twelve hours after all.

My flight last week took off at 11:05. I was still making my way toward my seat near the rear bathrooms, and people were already fluffing and propping their pillows behind their heads. Some had those horseshoe cushion things around their necks. A few of them were already wearing them, before they even got on the plane. The flight, by the way, was at 11:05 am. What was there, a narcolepsy conference in Newark this weekend? These people are going to miss first beverage service.

Amazingly, they all seemed to make the flight – no empty seats anywhere.

So I’m settling nicely into my aisle seat. 43-D. My shoes are off and stuffed under the seat in front of me where they will stay until we reach the gate at Narita. (I’ll have plenty of time to put them on while everyone else is standing in the aisle, waiting for First Class, Business Class, Business First etc. etc. to clear out so they can rush off the plane and go stand on line at customs and then again at the baggage carousel.)

I’m flipping through the in-flight magazine, Hemispheres, checking to see if the previous passenger screwed up the sudoku, when the woman next to me leans over and puts her ear over my nose. She’s talking (in Korean, I think) with the woman across the aisle in seat C. Meanwhile the girl behind me, perusing the channels and games on the TV on the back side of my headrest, seems to think ‘touch screen’ means ‘jab at screen hard as you can’. My head is literally bouncing off the headrest; my nose bumps up against my neighbor’s eardrum. Fortunately this woman and the person across the aisle I figured was her mother suddenly agree on something and they both begin waving at someone a few rows up on the other side of the plane. Then they sit back, both of them eyeing me.

A tap on my shoulder. A girl appears in the aisle next to me. She smiles and leans over. She’s not unattractive. In broken English she asks if I wouldn’t mind switching seats, adding with a few hand gestures she’d like to sit with her mother and grandmother. She tells me she’s in 40-K, a middle seat. ‘Sorry,’ I tell her. ‘But you can switch middle seats with your mom if you like.’

It’s likely a good thing I don’t speak Korean.

Meanwhile the girl behind me is frantically scrolling through the children’s movie selections. I get up and turn to her for a no-nonsense round of show and tell. After that she either understands what touch means or she decides she’s better off just not watching anything for the entire flight.

A flight attendant emerges from the service area at the rear of the plane and comes walking up the aisle. ‘Newspaper? Newspaper?’ Yes I say, putting up a finger as she passes but she’s looking over at Grandma. She keeps walking. ‘Newspaper? Newspaper?’ Yes I say again, but she’s occupied with the sensory-overloading task of handing someone else a newspaper. ‘Newspaper? Newspaper?’ She's two rows up now. YES! She turns around and stares at me like I just stuck my nose in her ear. She sticks a USA Today in my hand and continues up the aisle.

The sports section has Thursday’s box scores. The back page gives Friday’s weather forecast. Today is Sunday.

Apparently the royalty at Continental-United are really banking on that loyalist campaign.

The sudokus are clean in my Hemispheres. By the time the crew begins beverage service I’ve already given up on the one labeled ‘hard’ and moved on to one of the mediums. When they come back to collect our plastic cups I’ve already decided to see if the other medium is any easier. Along with the crushed cups and overturned juice boxes there are a few empty beer cans on the cart. The woman next to me is struggling to doze off under her blanket. It’s 12:30pm.

Time to check the movies on offer.

On my previous flight I watched The Last King of Scotland, the story of a young Scottish doctor who goes on a medical mission to a small Ugandan village and ends up one of dictator Idi Amin’s inner circle – until the heavy-handed new leader finds out what this young doctor has been doing with his favorite wife. The movie is listed under comedy. There was absolutely nothing funny about Idi Amin.

Another comedy selection is titled If You Are the One, Part II. I think we can assume how Part I went.

I decide to watch The Reader, which opens with Ralph Fiennes in a lush Berlin apartment in 1995. It is morning. A naked woman walks into the room. I too was in Berlin in 1995, and I can tell you that it was nothing like this. But I manage to suspend my disbelief and keep watching.

The rest of the movie features a different woman, who keeps showing up naked, most often right along with her young boyfriend. And though it is quite well done it dawns on me this might not be something those around me want to see or should be seeing.

I glance around. Virtually everyone is sleeping.

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon.

After a long moment leaning against the emergency exit door, staring through the window out over the Hudson Bay, I sit back down and start perusing the pages of my Hemispheres. This proves an experience deserving of its own post, coming soon.

After I go take a bath with a few Japanese men.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Air Travel - Wonder & Woe

Last week I flew from Newark, New Jersey to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. (If this were a facebook status update I’d simply say ‘EWR-NRT’, assuming such snark has not yet become passé.) It had been a while since I’d flown –six weeks almost – so it took no time for the incongruous wonders of air travel, like the burn of a jalapeno, to rip into my senses once again.

Of course, the physics alone are mind-boggling. I’m sure Orville and Wilbur never imagined an eight-million-pound plane, loaded with another eight million pounds of people, luggage and processed dinner omelets, could make it over a sand dune let alone the Pacific Ocean. Legalized extortion (commonly known as the fuel surcharge) notwithstanding, that we can in twenty-four hours get from any semi-major city in the world to any other semi-major city not currently steeped in rioting and/or armed conflict is nothing less than an everyday miracle (until we figure out those wormhole things). Yet people will still complain about the dinner omelets.

However many times I’ve flown, the experience still makes me giddy. Feeling the lunge and thrust of a plane leaving the ground; looking down on land and water lying six miles beneath my squished nose; being able to doze off while hurtling through the atmosphere in a metal tube held together with bolts no thicker than my thumb; human accomplishments in aviation are indeed a wonder to behold.

Which makes the prevailing thought processes driving the whole air travel culture that much more incongruous.

‘This is a bicycle,’ I said as I laid my tandem, disassembled and all bungeed up tight in a bicycle bag, on the conveyor belt/ scale thing at the check-in counter. (I have no idea how those two can be combined.) ‘It’s kind of fragile,’ I told the woman.

‘Do you want me to put a fragile sticker on it?’ she asked, oblivious or maybe just used to the fact that her red neck scarf had a ridiculously huge bow in it.

‘Yes, please do.’ It had made the trip to Thailand fine, wrapped in foam inside a heavy cardboard box. But that box and all the foam were now in a dumpster in Chanthaburi somewhere, and I was a bit apprehensive about the protective qualities of my thin nylon sack. ‘Yes, a fragile sticker thing would be great.’

‘Okay, please sign this for me.’ The woman slid a small rectangular form across the counter at me.

‘What’s this?’

‘It means we are not responsible if we break your bicycle. Please sign at the bottom.’

Whoa. ‘Wait a minute, why wouldn’t you be responsible?’

‘Because you are saying it is fragile.’

I'm no psychology major…wait, yes I am. And I’m sure we covered logic in there somewhere.

‘Well yes, of course. I am telling you it’s fragile so you don’t break it.’

‘You are saying it is fragile because it is not packed properly. So if it breaks you can not hold the airline responsible. That is why we need you to sign that.’

So I tell them it’s fragile so they don’t break it, and my reward is signing a little form that says it is okay if they break it. These airlines must have lawyers working for them or something.

‘What if I don’t sign this?’

‘Then I take that fragile sticker off,’ said the woman, disregarding the red pterodactyl attacking her throat.

‘So then if my bicycle is damaged I can hold you responsible?’ (I made it a point to say you.)

‘No, the airline (she made it a point to say airline) would not be responsible.’

‘Why not? If you break my bicycle…’

‘Because without a sticker we don't know that it is fragile.’

I ended up signing the form.

On the up side, since I was flying an Asian airline, the beer was free. And since this was not a Chinese airline my bicycle made it through okay. Not perfect, but okay. (Note to anyone traveling by bicycle in Thailand: there’s a big cardboard box and lots of foam in a dumpster behind the restaurant by the side of the road where the bus from the airport drops off people going to Chanthaburi, please help yourself.)

On the other hand, the following conversation took place at the check-in counter of one of the American airlines, all of which have the audacity to charge for beer. This was last Fall while checking my family in for our flight from Tokyo to L.A.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, showing my flight info sheet to a woman with a large blue tuna fish can pinned to her hair, noticeably off-center. ‘There’s no meal for the baby.’ I meant it as a subtle, helpful hint.

‘That’s correct,’ she replied. ‘There’s no baby meal.’

It’s obvious when someone is ending a conversation, even in Japanese.

‘Okay, well, we’d like to request a meal for the baby.’ Two meals, really, though I figured I didn’t need to point that out.

‘No, I’m sorry. We don’t offer baby meals.’

‘...He gets a regular meal?’ I knew this couldn’t be the case but neither could the alternative. So I thought.

‘No, there is no baby meal on this flight.’

‘On this flight?’

The woman stared, cock-eyed like a confused puppy so that her tuna can was now sitting on the highest point on her head.

I tried again, without the sarcasm (which was already becoming increasingly difficult). ‘You mean, you have nothing for the baby?’

‘Yes.’ (Which, translated into English, means no.)

‘No food for the entire eleven-hour flight?’


‘You’re kidding me, eleven hours and the kid gets no food.’

‘There is no baby meal.’

‘No crackers.’


‘Not even a piece of bread?’

‘You can give him some of yours.’ (They probably don’t mean to, but Japanese people can come across as terribly magnanimous at the worst times.)

‘But he gets nothing,’ I said.

‘That is correct.’

(At this point I had to switch to English.) ‘Are you flipping serious?’

No answer.

‘Infants get nothing?’

‘Meals are reserved for people in seats.’

‘...You mean he’s not a person if he isn’t in a seat?’

‘I did not say that.’

‘What do you think he is, a carry-on?’

Silence. Sarcasm is clearly non-existent in Japan.

‘For eleven hours…more than eleven hours, he gets nothing to eat.’

‘Yes, I’m sorry.’

‘You’re sorry? Don’t be sorry, just do something. He’s a real live person. He needs to eat.’

‘There’s nothing I can do.’

‘You can give me back the four hundred dollar fuel surcharge I had to pay for him.’

‘The fuel surcharge applies to all passengers.’

‘And all carry-ons with hair?’

If I ever teach in Japan again I am teaching sarcasm and only sarcasm.

‘Great, so he’s a human being when it means four hundred dollars for you, but when it comes to meals he’s a piece of luggage.’

Blank face. I had to try in Japanese. She still didn’t understand me.

I pointed to my older son. ‘You gave him meals when he was a baby.’

‘United has never given baby meals.’

‘United? What do you mean United? This is Continental!’

‘Sir, I’m sorry, we don’t offer baby meals.’

To be honest, I had plenty of food in my backpack for the kid. My wife always packs enough sandwiches and rice balls and crackers for the five-hour bus ride to Tokyo, the three hours until we are in the air, the entire pan-Pacific flight and lunch the next day in New Jersey. But my wife’s overzealousness provides an airline with neither reason nor excuse not to offer something in exchange for their four hundred dollar shakedown on my sixteen-pound kid.

‘Let me guess, you don’t offer diapers anymore either, do you?’

‘United stopped offering diapers several years ago.’

‘Why do you keep talking about United? United is United, this is Continental!’

‘We follow United’s policy for infants.’

It was my turn to stare cock-eyed. I wanted to ask her if she could make my kid a tuna sandwich.

‘So this is what you are telling me...’ I motioned to the guy at the next check-in window, two hundred fifty pounds easy even without the Louis Vuitton carry-on. ‘My baby pays the same fuel charge as him?’

She glanced over, thought a moment, and turned back to me. ‘Yes. But that man doesn’t get diapers either.’

Okay I made that last part up. But the point remains. For all the advancements in air travel technology – self-check-in, a hundred movies on-demand, special plastic bags for liquids to keep any would-be terrorists from making a bomb – there remains a degree of inconsistency in the application of human intelligence here.

Or maybe the airlines and their lawyers really are smart enough to know just how much they can get away with because we are never going to stop flying.

Until we figure out that wormhole thing.

By the way, Continental and United Airlines are merging, in case you hadn’t heard – or been personally introduced to the circus in progress. This would account for the odd logic the woman with the tuna can was tossing me – though I wish she’d explained why my kid was now legally both a human being and a piece of luggage.

I swore after this encounter with United-Continental’s cherry-picking, profit-driven policy decisions I’d never fly either airline again. Of course I said the same thing about all Chinese airlines not too long ago, for their baggage-handling non-policies. But the reality is that my air travel decisions are savings-driven. Until the day I can afford to fly business class on whatever airline tickles my fancy I’ll have to live with the prevailing air travel culture while I continue staring out the window, marveling at how fast we are going, how beautiful the world looks from six miles up, and how many movies I have at my fingertips.

And hey, the coffee’s free.

Note to the alert reader: Yes I know that while I mentioned at the beginning of this post that last week my senses were reintroduced to the capsicum-like effects of air travel, neither of the above instances occurred last week. This is because I have to go feed and change my carry-on and thus have no time to delve into this latest episode, involving both the bold statements slathered across the pages of the in-flight magazine and the finer print lurking quietly below. This will be covered in an upcoming post – probably the next one as I am not planning to fly for another two weeks, almost.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Go Find Your Own Top Ten

Every time I turn to my twitter feed there's somebody, or several somebodies, or one hyperactive somebody, tweeting relentlessly trying to outdo all the other somebodies, linking to an article or a blog post centered around a numbered list: Top Ten Mistakes New Tweeters Make. Seven Kinds of Shoes You Should Never Wear to a Job Interview. Thirteen (13? Really?) Words You Need Right Now To Get You More Traffic!

I hate these lists, partly because I read them knowing full well they are written because research shows most people gravitate toward numbered lists when they want information, advice or more traffic. And I hate being most people. Sounds snobbish I know, but Yogi Berra wasn't like most people and look, people still remember and repeat his advice. I doubt anyone is going to remember WebBizMan for all those great numbered lists he tweeted to his 152,804 followers (149,934 of whom he himself follows, very closely no doubt). Given the choice, I'd much rather be Yogi Berra than WebBizMan.

Despite my curmudgeonly wishes, these Nine/Top/Best/Most Dangerous/Sexiest Whatevers to Get You That Job/More Hits/Fired lists seem indeed to draw the attention of the masses. (Christ, even pieces about lists have lists.) And it isn't just your blogosphere pseudo-savants. Time magazine flushed their dignity down the drain about five years ago, putting out a piece of rubbish - thrown together I'm willing to bet by someone's idiot nephew who should never have been offered an internship in the first place let alone been handed a pen - on the 100 All-Time Albums (their apparent disclaimer to intellectual liability or possession being they didn't include an adjective). The trolling hoi polloi were in an uproar. 'Backstreet Boys? Are you kidding me?' 'Where the @#%& is Janis Joplin?' 'Burn in hell, Kansas haters!'

A much more appropriate response might have been something like '100 All-Time Most Moronic Time Articles: #1 - 100 All-Time Albums'. Or, alternatively, 'You forgot Levelling the Land by the Levellers.'

The catalyst for this, my latest in a long and distinguished (and un-numbered) list of diatribes, was, as you might imagine, a top ten list. I found it thanks to the folks at Yahoo, who are above writing articles of lists but are fine with linking to them ad nauseum. The article, found here, gives a run-down of the (ostensibly) ten best restaurants to watch a sunset - according to someone who, it can be reasonably assumed by the photo credits (Xoopla, Flicker, TripAdvisor) and the descriptions that scream Lonely Planet, has never been to any of them.

To be fair the article starts with a rather promising entry: The Oasis restaurant in Austin, Texas, an apparently semi-swanky joint that sits above a 450-foot cliff overlooking Lake Travis (yeah that sounds like Texas all right). Personally I didn't think there was anything that high in Texas since Yao Ming left town (unless you count Ron Washington but that was only temporary). Sadly, perhaps predictably, the list swiftly turns antiseptic. San Fran, Maui, San Diego? Seriously, you could find a McDonald's in these places with fantastic sunset views.

I refuse to be fed such uninspired drivel spewed out by self-appraised champions of the best anything whose experience begins and ends with search engines. And I know you feel the same way. That is why I've decided to offer my own lineup of superlative somethings - compiled from actual experience, in the order they pop into my head, limited not to a number but to my bedtime, and unfettered by whether you agree with my reasoning, because I don't much care.

The Best Places I've Ever Sat and Watched the Sun Set.

-  Sakurajima, Oga Peninsula, Akita, Japan -
Despite the typically unattractive parking lot, this gem along the East Sea on a hook of land crossing the 40th Parallel is one of my favorite spots in all of Japan. There are no amenities outside of the decidedly pungent public bathrooms and the trash can that needs to be emptied, but once out of nare-shot the place is paradise. Pine trees dominate the (unbelievably) free campground that overlooks the water splashing lazily against the rocks below. Pick a spot, set up your tent, settle down (carefully) on your cushion of pine needles or, if you prefer, one of the few park benches, and take in the cool, quiet evening. I've been to Sakurajima twice, and both times the sunset has been spectacular, with no loud obnoxious and/or drunk foreigners to ruin the atmosphere since Sakurajima is not listed in the Lonely Planet - or wasn't at the time. If you have the chance, walk down to the rocks. Just don't go barefoot, those suckers can be sharp. In August the water is impeccable for swimming. March is a different story.

- Some Old Dock in Nice, France -
How quaintly touristic you say? I would agree with you if you were correct, which you are not. Much of the Riviera might be reserved for the wealthy and unimaginative, this I will grant. But commandeering your own rickety dock as the sun hits the hills to the west, letting your feet dangle over the water, rabble-rousing and passing around the bottle of Southern Comfort you and your comrades spent an hour searching for and thirty-five dollars acquiring is the very definition of la belle vie. Until a certain age I suppose.

- Essaouira, Morocco -
The walls of the Medina loom high above the rocky coast in this important and increasingly artsy-fartsy fishing town, located about seventy-five miles north of the hoity-toity beach resorts of Agadir. The stone promontory is still decorated with cannons resting on their wooden bases; the walls are plenty wide and therefore safe to stand on even in the strong evening gales that will blow your one-year-old clear over into the Sahara if you don't hold onto him. A big plus here up on the parapet is the girl with the straw basket of homemade cookies. For about a dollar, slightly more if you haven't already indulged in a grilled cow's brain sandwich, you can fill your belly while watching the waves crash on the rocks as the gulls fight over the leftover fish down at the port. If you have a cheap camera it's easy to get great silhouette shots of you and your traveling companions posing on the wall in front of the setting sun.

- South Rim, Grand Canyon -
Are you kidding me? If God is anywhere, He's here at sunset.
(Tip: Push anyone who can't keep their mouth shut for it over the edge.)

-  Arctic Circle, From 35,000 Feet -
Totally mind-bending experience to witness the sun's light reaching over the top of the Earth. Trust me.
Pop Quiz: It is Summer. You are flying high over Anchorage, Alaska, heading due east. The sun is low in front of the plane, at about eleven o'clock. The sun, therefore, is directly over...?

-  Atacama Desert, Chile -
Okay, we didn't witness the actual setting of the sun because if we'd waited until dark to try to find our way back we wouldn't have. Nearby Valle de la Luna is a spectacular alternative - and you can't get lost for all the tourists with their flashlights heading back to the bus. Of course the downside here is having to share the sunset with a scattering of yappy tourists and it is difficult to push someone off a sand dune.

-  Ban Lai, Koh Chang, Thailand -
The main road on this soon-to-be-detroyed-by-developers island off the coast of Trat in the northeast part of the Gulf of Thailand takes you up over a steep pass and down into the glazed resort area around Million Dollar Beach or some such name reeking of dignity and historical distinction. Keep pedaling and you start hitting, after more hills, villages that are striking in that they don't look like Club Med. Ban Lai, close to the southern end of the island, offers cheap bungalows connected by dirt and sand footpaths and natural-smelling outhouses that sit defiantly devoid of toilet paper. But the real draw is the fantastic bamboo and grass deck that reaches out over the water. There are no chairs, only low tables and triangular pillows to avail yourself of as you sip your colored coconut drink and watch the sun tumble over India and the Bay of Bengal beyond - while perhaps wondering how long they'll let you hang out before you have to go back to your bungalow next to the outhouse.

- The Sundowner, St. Croix -
This place is right in line with the greatest establishments in the world; it consists of a wooden shack at the edge of the sand on the west coast of this, one of the three US Virgin Islands. Drive north (I think) out of Frederiksted, park along the lightly-traveled road, amble up to the shack, grab a drink from the guy and settle down in a plastic chair or right there on the sand. La belle vie indeed.

I think that's eight. But it doesn't matter.

For some of these, it was the circumstances surrounding the sunset as much as it was the sunset itself that made it memorable. None of them included a tablecloth. All of them were outside. (Likewise, the glass-encased corporate box at the stadium was cool, but I had a much better time out in the bleachers.)  But if fancy hotels and fine dining and postcard views from a window are your thing, great, go for it. Just don't let anyone tell you what the best place for anything is - particularly if they've never even been there themselves for criminy's sake. Hit the road and go put together your own list. Then let us know what you found.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Going By The (Immensely Popular and Profoundly Flawed) Book

We were making unbelievable time; seriously, I thought we had entered some kind of worm hole. The trip from our hostel (way overpriced – and no breakfast) back to Bratislava Station went much faster than the initial walk across town to the Linoleum Sheraton now that we knew which way was hore. We hopped a train to Trenčin, a small city with a quaint old town and phenomenal ice cream, then traveled on to Ružomberok via a silky smooth connection in Žilina. (Switzerland, I thought at this point, had nothing on Slovakia’s rail system – except maybe in the sanitation department…and in overall comfort…and on a baseline decibel level.)

Right outside Ružomberok Station we jumped on a bus (after a stuttering, embarrassing back-and-forth with the driver). The seats and aisle crammed full of students (wonderfully forgiving of our bulky bags), we stood for the ten kilometers down the road to Vlkolinec, an idyllic one-dirt-road village whose residents’ lives have been turned upside down since its appointment to Unesco’s World Cultural Heritage list. After a prying look around we would take another creaky bus back to Ružomberok for our last train ride of the day; if things continued to proceed as they had since our fortuitous encounter with that blessed street vendor in Bratislava we would make it to Liptovsky-Mikulaš in plenty of time to find a place, fire up some dinner and relax as the sky turned dark over Jasná and the peaks of Chopok Sever. We started walking, me pushing a suitcase, a loaded pack on my back, my wife pushing our son in his stroller right behind. According to the map in our guidebook, Vlkolinec was right there along the main road…

I see that Lonely Planet recently printed its 100 millionth book. To this bit of news I imagine reactions would vary. ‘What’s Lonely Planet?’ This from the majority of folks (including somewhere around 80% of Americans) who do not own a passport. ‘Yeah, I love Lonely Planet!’ This from the great majority of backpackers who buy big expensive backpacks for their long hikes from luggage carousel to bus at the curb outside, from another curb straight to reserved hostel room, back to mini-bus at the curb to the next reserved hostel room, to a waiting tuk-tuk driver ('all the way at the end of the street??'), to …

Then there are those who just shake their heads.

This is where I fit in.

I bought my first LP soon after I got to Japan. The sucker is a shade over 900 pages, I would have left it on the bookstore shelf if I were only going to be in country for a few weeks or even a couple of months. But my plan at the time was to spend about five years here, so I figured I’d get plenty of use out of it – which I have. I was initially dismayed, and still am, that there was not in those 900 pages one single mention of my new hometown of Fukushima - and barely five pages on the entire prefecture, all of them devoted to the Aizu-Wakamatsu and Bandai areas (the latter well worth seeing). Also included was a half-page ‘map’ of the Bandai Region (I will expound on LP’s cartographic incompetence in a bit). Not a word on Fukushima City – not Hanamiyama, nor Jo-Raku-En nor the fact that I now lived there.

LP’s tongue-in-cheek slogan – ‘Almost too much information’ – is a credit to their sense of humor as much as it is a jab (likely unintentional) at their average customer’s mindset. I’m glad Mr. Groundwater brought up the example of Vang Vieng, Laos in his article. When I rolled into that same town at 10am on a flawless day, the only life I saw was in the form of a couple reclining in a café watching Friends. Are you kidding me? Blue skies, gentle temps and some of the most amazing karst scenery in all of Indochina and you two slugs are lying around watching morons making stupid sexual innuendos to canned laughter? This is what happens I guess when paradise turns popular: the outsiders pour in, the locals pander to their creature comforts (and who can blame them?) and suddenly, just as Yosemite falls victim to Curry Village, the amazing beauty of Vang Vieng becomes mere backdrop for the gluttony, sloth and stupidity that has become the norm. Groundwater maintains that if LP doesn’t turn paradise into a plundering ground someone else will. This I find wrongly forgiving – if I don’t sell your kids coke someone else will so don’t blame me for Joey’s deviated septum – but maybe I’m pointing the wrong finger. After all, a guidebook is supposed to guide you to the greatest treasures a land has to offer.

Unfortunately, now there are 100 million people out there following blindly along.

My personal stance with LP has nothing to do with their success and the associated decline in the average traveler’s propensity to go anywhere without being told where that 'anywhere' should be (not to mention their ongoing neglect of my continued presence here in Fukushima). What I raise issue with is something I’ve been fed on several occasions: false facts.

There I was in Phnom Penh, my first real travel experience, armed with my LP Cambodia, picked up at Bangkok's Don Muang Airport for a mere 30 bucks. Two friends were on their way, cycling into town from Băttâmbâng and Sisŏphŏn and Thailand and San Francisco. I was hungry; I was sure they’d be ravenous. I flipped through LP's pages and pages on Phnom Penh until I found what I was looking for – a description of a village past the outskirts of the bustling city with a row of intimate local establishments where we could eat and talk and soak up a slice of (as yet) unexploited Cambodia. Two hours later I was apologizing profusely to my two friends plus a third girl, also traveling by bicycle, for leading them along this dark, deserted road to nowhere. There was nothing out here, ‘just over the bridge and down the road’ as my so-called guidebook had assured me.

We did eventually come upon an amazing sight: a massive outdoor banquet hall filled with red carpeting and kitsch, karaoke machine still blaring for the guests who had by all indication long since gone home.

At least the kitchen was still open.

On the way back over the bridge we had to run from the cops. We will never know why.

Among the many disclaimers LP puts forth in their books, one of them states (quite correctly) that ‘Things change…nothing stays the same.’ Apparently this covers the disappearance of entire communities.

By the numbers, Lonely Planet is the king of guidebooks - much as McDonald’s is the king of hamburgers. Personally I would rather go hungry than fork over any amount of any world currency to the Gilded Arches. Similarly, I would now, before even glancing at a LP map, resort to any means of finding my way – asking the locals (with their wildly varying ideas of how far ‘not far’ is); translating road signs (often necessary outside of the main cities and off the main roads); muddling through a Japanese guidebook (easier said than done) or just going with my internal gyroscope and getting lost – which is pretty much the same as following a LP map anyway.

In the Thai border town of Mae Sai (the northernmost point in the country, separated from Tachilek, Myanmar by a modest river and a ten dollar donation to the oppressive Burmese regime) I had a choice to make. My destination was Mae Salong, a village of Chinese refugees and tea, high in the hills to the southwest. Right from the door of my hostel was a road that, according to Julian, the hostel owner (who got rip-roaring drunk the night I was there and spent hours falling on the floor and screaming not-so-nice four letter words at his ex-wife over the phone) led directly to Mae Salong. In this case, however, directly meant winding around, through and, most worryingly, up and down and up and down the many miles of mountains that stood between here and there. (Did I mention I was traveling solo on a tandem bicycle?) ‘It’s bloody suicide,’ Julian warned me as he cracked open the evening’s first bottle of 100 Pipers scotch.

I had a guidebook with me – a 240-page work of genius (check out the price) written on the premise that some people out there still prefer adventure and intellect over hand-held surety along the cattle trail. This book was only four years old, but in that time a lot had changed (including the paving of a once-impassable road out of Takeo, Cambodia which, had I known, would have caused me to miss out on miles of back roads, a spectacular bout of haggling for a boat ride with people who I don’t think had ever heard another human being speak in such a language, and a sweaty two hours being held and interrogated and (fortunately) not subsequently jailed by one then a group of Vietnamese officials). Plus all the maps were hand-drawn and not to scale and not exactly intended for cyclists bent on dying in the hills of far north Thailand so only a few main roads between the more significant towns were included. And virtually none of them had numbers or names.

Getting to Mae Salong would be a climb, I already knew that. What I wanted was a non-lethal route to the base of that climb. I scoured Julian’s library of tattered books and found, to a mix of delight and dismay, a recent LP Thailand. The map showed a straight line leading directly south out of town; this would be the same smooth, flat road I rode for the last three kilometers into town after coming in from a side road out of Chang Saen. Cool. It looked like an easy 20 kilometers to Huay Khrai, where I would bang a right onto another straight shot west to Ban Pakha, then roll straight south to Pa Miang which would from there bring me around to the day’s ascent.

To make a simple story long and convoluted, that straight-as-a-ruler road west to Ban Pakha started winding and rising and snaking north until I swore I was almost back in Mae Sai. Lucky for me it is near impossible (and certainly not advisable) to eat an entire kilogram bag of lychee in the course of a single evening and I had something left over from the night before to lubricate my system as I looked at the road still rising and twisting out of sight ahead of me. That road did eventually lead to Ban Pakha, a place I was by now positive no LP writer had ever been to or passed through. Then for the next four hours I pedaled my bike up and down the most ridiculous stretches of road I have ever almost puked on. This, I decided, was the mountain road that led away from the door of my hostel; the road Julian told me to avoid before he started in with his histrionics; a road that passed not a single shred of human evidence beyond its own curbs and the bridges that crossed the streams that ran between these golden-grassed monsters.

Mae Salong itself was fantastic – and not a single LP in sight.

I say without exaggeration or sarcasm that I’m sure no one involved in any LP Thailand has ever seen Ban Pakha or even bothered to scout out the area. What other excuse could there be for having a straight line represent that serpentine road leading up into the hills? What defense for claiming the existence of a Cambodian village that doesn’t exist? Maybe I was being naïve or unrealistic, but I had a hard time believing anyone would include in a guidebook – from the most popular guidebook company in human history – made-up information on places they have never visited.

Until I realized that at least one person has written for a guidebook about a country he never visited.

On the map in the Czech Republic & Slovakia LP – which I’m guessing is pretty much a copy of the old Czechoslovakia LP with a revised intro and a new cover – Vlkolinec is denoted by a circle situated directly on the road we and forty kind, patient students had just rumbled down. Perhaps what threw this particular LP writer off (assuming he or she even bothered with the bus ride down from Ružomberok Station – or the train out of Bratislava) is the bright and very visible arrow-shaped sign right there along the road pointing toward a side road and, ostensibly, Vlkolinec. A full hour of pushing our luggage and our kid up this desolate (and in a few places blessedly shaded) road and we came upon another sign for Vlkolinec – pointing up a steep road that, indicated by the cartoonish tourist map next to the gravel lot for the tour buses that can’t make it any further, led another two kilometers up to the village of Vlkolinec where, at least in the drawing, everyone is happy.

After trying and failing for that first hour, within minutes of turning up this new and maddeningly steep road we managed to hitch a ride. Then afterward we really hit the jackpot when we bummed a lift from a guy who had been selling jars of honey out of his car and was just pulling away to head home when I threw myself in front of his grill and asked him if he was going toward Ružomberok Station by any chance.

We made it to Liptovsky-Mikulaš just in time to find the tourist office (open until 5 according to LP) closed at 4:30. I ripped through a couple of pages searching for accommodations listings before I shoved that so-called Backpacker’s Bible in my pack and we walked on up a residential road. Within minutes we came upon a man who, by good fortune and historical border shifts, spoke German (as do I, more or less). Next moment he’s on his phone calling a friend to come pick us up to whisk us to their home with a very comfortable guest loft apartment from where we could watch the sky grow dark over the peaks of Chopok Sever.

I can’t say for sure because I didn’t check, but I would have bet this place – this neighborhood and this woman’s house – wasn’t listed in our LP. God-willing, it will stay that way.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Flights of Fancy

My wife’s wallet is fat with stamp cards. Card for the gas station, card for the camera store, card for a curry shop I don’t think she’s ever even been to. She doesn’t even like curry. I myself don’t have the organizational skills to keep track of a stack of store cards, even if I did possess the inclination to hold onto them or the capacity to remember to use them. My wife hands me a supermarket card as I am heading out the door of the apartment, and by the time I’m walking through the automatic doors two minutes later (assuming I hit or ignored all the traffic lights on the way) I’ve completely forgotten about it.

Really, it’s hard to exist in Japan without amassing at least a modest collection of these insidious little gimmicks. I have a mess of them in a drawer from the haircut place up the street; I never bother or remember to bring the last one I got but I feel culturally insensitive if I don’t let them make me a new one. And every time I promise to bring my others to combine them and see what sort of discount I can get on my next cut. I may have enough to take over the place. Then once I do I am going to get rid of the stamp card system.

Before Japan outlawed free plastic bags at the supermarkets they gave out little green stamp cards to encourage people to reuse their old bags. I’m a pretty green guy, I reuse anyway, but I kept my ‘green card’ (get that double entendre?) (no wait, triple!) and after twenty eco-friendly trips to the market I got a buck off my eighty-dollar bag of rice. Once I did forget my card and they politely insisted they make me another one, the extra paper cancelling out the good of reusing my old bags but hey, this is the system.

I can’t even be bothered with frequent flyer mileage clubs. Fortunately, the wife can. She is a wizard with those alliance connections. (Okay, wizard is male but I can’t think of the female equivalent, unless it’s witch, a term that does not apply to a woman who gets me a free flight somewhere – but can apply when I forget to use my stamp card at the supermarket.) I think she’d flown exactly once with Alitalia when she sat down at the kitchen table one day with a stack of pens, two clean notebooks and a pile of mileage cards and mailed point reports from every major airline in the world, including a couple that didn’t even exist anymore. After two days of nothing but cheese sandwiches and No-Doze she had figured out how to squeeze Alitalia for two free tickets from Milan to Casablanca. And now, it seems, she’s done it again.

Even though my older boy is now three and thus eligible to fly for the same price and fuel surcharge as the average amateur sumo wrestler, my wife managed to score three free seats from some Asian carrier or another, valid in the next couple of months within a radius that includes Hong Kong, Guam and Saipan. A little time in any of these would be the perfect antidote to winter and the sprawling disaster area that is the unplowed Fukushima road system.

Instead we’ve decided to head over to the world’s most recent political and military center of instability.

Nine years in Japan and I’ve yet to see Korea. This of course does not count transfers I’ve made at Incheon International, which resembles a high-dollar shopping labyrinth with an airport attached. But if the two Korean airlines I’ve flown give any measure of what awaits, I think I may be able to look past the occasional overhead DPRK missile.

I look forward to airports and flights almost as much as I look forward to the place I am going. I’m serious, this is not a typo. An airport’s atmosphere is so often a reflection of the country it is almost like taking a glimpse into the present state of affairs of that country. A stopover in Beijing two years ago was a display of everything I heard about the city itself as it was preparing for the 2008 Summer Games. The floors and handrails and glass were so polished my eyes began to hurt after a while; then I opened a door to what I thought was a bathroom and saw a grimy room full of dirty peasant children attaching elastic strings to those baggage tags you’re supposed to fill out. Meanwhile, as a group of cheery-eyed young girls laughed and played with my then-one-year-old boy as he crawled around on the spotless floor, a man with rubber gloves and a forensic evidence kit worked the trail of prints and drool my son had left behind.

Mohammed V International in Casablanca had palm trees lining the road curving gently into the terminal area, where not a single person could be seen working save for the hordes hawking taxi rides. Casablanca itself was just like this – except for the part about the palm trees. Papeete Airport in Tahiti (also known as Faa’a International) was intimate, open and right on the water (on reclaimed land, apparently), and was electric into the wee hours with a crowd that seemed more local than traveler. That I didn’t have enough time on my layover to take a stroll down the street seemed regrettable until the guys at the currency exchange counter invited me into the back room for a round of bourbon and cokes. I’m trying to reconcile this with the fact my wife does not have an Air Tahiti Nui mileage card. On the other end of the good-times spectrum, at any airport in the US the security borders on paranoia. But once your shoes and belt and bodily orifices are cleared of all explosive devices you can go pick up a gun at Wal-Mart.

It’s tougher to see the soul of a country from the flight crew, but in some cases the resemblance is amazing. For our three hours from Milan to Casablanca, and back again a month later, the Alitalia crew didn’t quite seem to remember there were actually passengers on board. On a trip to the bathroom I passed an attendant sitting and reading a magazine. She didn’t look up because, I am convinced, she forgot she was at work. Or, perhaps just as likely, she didn’t give a cannoli. This contrasts with the cabin crew of any flight on any Chinese airline. They are keenly cognizant of your presence, and are quick to convey how annoyed they are by your inconvenient existence. The baggage handlers are an equally perturbed bunch, as I have witnessed both in person at the check-in counter as well as indirectly at the luggage carousel. Flying a Chinese airline is like buying any other Chinese product, and I will leave it to the reader to decide just what that means.

But by and large I love and prefer Asian airlines. Admittedly I am hormonally biased but the female flight attendants are generally beautiful creatures, a mix of swan, silk and lotus flower. They are polite and engaging and they give you free beer. By the end of the flight I don’t even care where I am. A couple times I’ve forgotten which country I’ve even landed in but wow didn’t that one attendant have the sweetest laugh. If my bags are in good shape at baggage claim I can assume I am not in China. If the customs officer doesn’t treat me like I’m the Emperor then I’m not in Japan. From there I don’t care which airport I am in, and the less it looks like Incheon the better if my theory holds true.

Leaving Phnom Penh International was like getting off a hotel elevator and expecting the lobby but instead stepping out into a back alley. For me this is not a problem; I don’t want a concierge when I travel. I want to be hit immediately with whatever the country has in store for me, and that can include a military presence or a sense of anarchy. Phnom Penh International did not disappoint in either of these.

Bangkok’s relatively new Suvarnabhumi Airport (also known as the ‘Airport of Smiles’) is, like Bangkok itself, big and modern and chaotic. Seven floors all connect in practicality via a series of long moving walkways which are heavily magnetized (like the floor of the prison in the Travolta/Cage classic Face Off) to keep luggage carts from becoming lethal weapons of rolling destruction. The same seven floors are also connected in atmosphere by a huge atrium, giving anyone anywhere in the terminal the sense that this is a big and wonderful place that can take you out with one faulty magnetized walkway. On the ground floor cab drivers swarm the new arrivals, while backpackers pound on the Internet kiosks that keep eating their coins. My first time in Suvarnabhumi, once I’d realized I wasn’t in Amari Airport (where I landed on my first trip to Thailand), I decided to find a quiet corner and try to catch a little shut-eye. I ended up spending the night in a little-used and evidently little-known room on the seventh floor, next to a cordoned-off Buddhist altar and in faint earshot of the ongoing bustle of Suvarnabhumi and of Thailand itself.

So what to make of Korea? Both Asiana Airlines and Korean Air provide, based on my limited experience, excellent service (provided by excellent flight attendants). The good folks at Asiana Airlines even went so far as to put the bike tool they confiscated from me at the gate into a padded envelope with my name and flight number on it so I would have no problems retrieving it once we’d landed in Kuala Lumpur (which aesthetically resembles nothing in Malaysia except the Petronas Towers). Yet Incheon itself gives an impression of ultra-modern, ultra-soulless ambition. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see for myself, up close, what Korea is all about. With visions of beef barbeque and kim chee and crowded marketplaces full of people whose words I don’t understand, I’ve got pretty high hopes.

Add a crew of silky, swanlike lotus flowers to the equation and I’ll have no problem when my wife wants to go a second time so she can use all those new stamp cards.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Paths Exist

The following is an essay I submitted for a recent travel writing competition.
The theme centered on the idea that traveling well means moving slowly, remaining in a place for a while to deepen both understanding and appreciation.
I didn't win.
(They must have figured the story wasn't entirely, exactly true.)
(Which it isn't. Though it's close.)

Paths Exist
Kevin Kato

When night descends on Ban An the isolation feels complete. The closest village, an hour’s walk away, may as well not even exist. The gas lamp on the wooden table casts a glow across the side of Kem’s face as she works on the strap of her sandal, the small tube of epoxy in her hand looking very much out of place here in this primitive oasis of civilization. Animals bellow and grunt in the darkness. Hushed words drift in and out from somewhere unseen; voices of children, not at play but at task. The cooling air smells of earth.

Reeb has not yet returned. Kem had expected him to be back the previous morning; still, her face wears no new hint of anxiety. Stranger in a strange land, I feel the weight of wonder falling on my shoulders. Besides the leeches I don’t know what dangers might be lurking in the mountains of northern Laos.

‘Maybe tomorrow?’

Turning her sandal over in her sinewy hands, Kem bears the air of a woman not taken by the specter of sudden catastrophe but encumbered by the constant awareness of the burden of existence.

‘Yes. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe morning.’

I’d met Kem not entirely by chance; I knew from a passing conversation with another traveler that there was a woman in the village down the path who had a hut for rent. As it turned out she had two of them, eight-by-eight wooden boxes on stilts, with small covered porches and no windows. Mine is the closer of the two from where Kem and I now sit, and is the only one visible in the encroaching black of night. Over the course of three days Kem had offered up emotionally stunted fragments about life in Ban An. As I watch her work the strap of her sandal through with a rusty nail I listen to the words she has left unsaid.

‘I was told there was a waterfall,’ I said to her that first afternoon. ‘In the next town.’

‘Yes. You are going tomorrow? Too late today.’

I hadn’t planned on when. ‘Yes. Tomorrow.’

Kem explained how Sanna was a three-hour hike along a trail winding through the forest and along a mountain ridge. ‘You should go barefoot,’ she added. This I accepted without thought or hesitation. Kem also told me Reeb could go with me if I liked. She gave no indication who Reeb was, only that he was supposed to be back the next morning, she could introduce us then and by the way would I like her to prepare dinner for me that evening. After pointing out the bathroom Kem left me to figure out the rest of her world on my own.

The path to Ban An is a series of disappearing and reappearing ruts in the dirt, passing through canopied groves, crossing small, ambitious rivers and rolling past rough, fenced in fields. Men were pounding holes in the ground with long wooden poles as I passed. Women followed, dropping in handfuls of seed and covering them up. They worked not quickly nor efficiently. Their labor had a staccato quality, as if they were not fully convinced that their labors would amount to anything, even though they had no other recourse.

Ban An, Laos

As the path nears the village the land opens up to wider, tamer swaths of farm, separated by low walls of grass and dirt and clothed in much tidier greens. The entrance to the village proper consists of a break in the cross post fence and a hand-painted wood sign reading, concisely, Ban An. The mere existence of such a sign is incongruous without the assumption of the occasional traveler passing through. Yet there is no other hint of foreign influence among the wood frame, bamboo wall, tin roof homes, the dirt of the only road, and the footpaths that string everything together.

As I sought out the woman of whom my traveling comrade had spoken I encountered precious few souls. They worked separately and in silence, cleaning or mending or perhaps venturing to further various parts of their existence. I nodded to each of them; each eyed me with an indifference veiled in suspicion, borne of ignorance or maybe familiarity. In my head I heard the words of a dear friend who had lived for many months in a remote Rwandan village doing research for her anthropology thesis: ‘You can’t just go up to these people and start asking them questions, you have to let them accept you first. And this takes time.’ In a place like Ban An, it feels as though time is just about all they have.

Kem’s two huts stood in a patch of dirt and grass at the far end of Ban An. Nearby a raised and roofed wooden deck looked out over the irregularly-shaped fields keeping the surrounding forest at bay. Two men, their skin a dark shade of nature, guided their plow-bearing water buffalo in trudging lines through the grass and mud, working with bowed heads, glancing up only to check on each other’s progress until the late May evening turned their field to gray. They disappeared together, no hint of a conversation passing between them. I remained, allowing myself to be hypnotized by the serenity, listening to the village behind me whisper and settle as night came over the land.

Reeb would not appear the next morning, nor for the rest of the day. This, for me, was not a momentary set-back but a day’s opportunity as Ban An, like all of Laos, captivates without adornment. The sounds of a new day rise up with the first glints of dawn. Iron utensils and subdued voices serve as prelude to the shuffle and clatter of another day – in the fields, around the home, along the path to the next village. Women tend to domestic matters without power or running water. Men lead their beasts with rope and harness to coax the Earth some more. ‘They need a plow, a machine,’ Kem tells me. ‘But it is so much money.’

Children of Ban An
 Alone at a table at the edge of the village I am anything but detached. Observing people unnoticed closes the physical distance. As I watched a woman with a flowing blue skirt gather sticks for her fire a loose cluster of children tumbled out from behind a row of trees. Some of them were of normal schooling age, which led me to realize I had no idea what day it was. Their straw hats contrasted with their clothing, a sampling of western world cast-offs. They were barefoot and seemed not to notice as they bounced through the half-alive grass. One by one they stepped up onto the raised edge of the nearest field and jumped off, shouting and shrieking as they splashed around in the muddy water of an irrigation ditch. They yelped and played, indistinguishable in spirit from Japanese school children in a bleach-clean swimming pool or half the neighborhood around an open New York City hydrant. I drank in the scene from Kem’s table, aching to join them, tethered by the absolute perfection of a moment I didn’t want to interrupt or end.

Young souls sated, they slowly dispersed. Two of the kids led a third younger boy across Kem’s grass. I tapped my pen against my note pad until one of them looked up. His burst of surprise brought the others’ faces to mine, and in the time it took to smile they understood, as I did now, that we had just spent several hours together in the same world. They giggled and bounced out of sight, and I climbed down from my perch to navigate my own barefoot way across the prickly grass and through the muddy water, down to the river where Kem had told me the path to Sanna begins. The men in the fields kept at their labors. The sun dashed across the sky. Reeb was neither seen nor mentioned as Kem prepared for me a dinner of rice and vegetables as there was no meat to be had that day.

The dishes, the sun and Kem were long gone when a girl of about eight climbed up the ladder, plopped down at the table and slid a notebook out of her ratty Barbie knapsack. Without a word or a look my way she began working, writing numbers and letters on lined pages in no manner I could discern and no language I knew. I put down my own pencil and leaned over, close enough to pull her nose out of the page. I smiled. ‘Very nice!’ Her hair fell over her face as she put her head down again, not fast enough to hide her flustered grin.

For an hour not another word passed between us, cementing my suspicion that she was there despite my presence, not because of it.

Bugs flit in erratic circles around the gas lamp on the table. Kem’s hands rise in front of her and fall out of sight again as she continues mending her sandal. Both of her wrists are naked, and I wonder what time it is. Not for me, for I have become well-accustomed to sleeping with the stars and waking with the sun, but for the children whose quiet voices continue to ebb and flow from the darkness.

‘The waterfall was beautiful,’ I say. Kem nods without looking. I scratch at the faint leech marks on my toes, wondering why the hell she would tell me to go barefoot. Or why I listened. Over the next few days an answer would slowly come to me. For Kem and the rest of Ban An going barefoot seems a matter of practicality; sandals don’t go well with river crossings and muddy mountain trails. For me – and I wonder to this day whether Kem knew it or not – keeping my sneakers on would have made the experience little more than a walk through the woods.

It’s best to keep a stick in your hand. Leeches can latch onto your feet no matter how fast you are running, and trying to pull them off with your fingers just gives them more time to tighten their suckers as their friends on the ground get busy burrowing into the skin between your toes. As I ran through the mud and wild grass, jumping roots and rocks and opaque brown puddles, I wondered whether the locals carried sticks too, or waited until they got home to scrape all their leeches off.

The Path to Sanna
 The path had begun steep, rising muddy from the banks of the river. Drier dirt and grass predominated as the land slowed its ascent and then leveled off. In places, ruts in the soft earth told tales of wheeled vehicles passing through, though it seemed unlikely the trail would ever see the likes of even an ox cart. Around a bend I came upon a small herd of water buffalo lazing in a massive mud puddle; further on a wooden fence stood across the path, ready to keep them from wandering too far. I encountered nary a soul until I came upon the wood and bamboo of the sign-less village of Sanna.

Surprisingly, Sanna was larger and more complex than one-road Ban An. A maze of homes and pathways spread over the undulating crest of a hill, nothing but the forest and more hills in every direction. There were no adults to be found. There were young children everywhere, dressed in dirty clothes or dirty underwear or in nothing but their dirty skin. Two of them smoked suspicious-looking cigarettes as they gazed at me through cloudy eyes. None of the kids looked above ten years, yet something in their manner told me they’d lived for many more. I saw no toys, no balls or bicycles as they tightened in a circle around me.

I greeted them, in English and in gesture. They responded in their own words, to each other as much as to me. They reached out, some to shake my hand, some just to prod. We shared but one idea, conveyed in the only word we both knew: waterfall.

They could have been leading me straight into the jaws of hell for all I knew. The path barely wavered as we descended further and further along a chute of mud and leaves. All around me the children laughed and shouted as they clambered through the brush. More of them seemed to be naked now. They swung from branches like monkeys at play. They gathered berries, dropping them into my empty water bottle. They howled in delight as I slipped through the mud, grabbing wildly at branches, sliding into bushes and tree trunks, cursing the same incorrigible ground these kids had thoroughly mastered. The world I knew was as far away as it had ever been.

The sound then the sight of the waterfall was not an end to the torturous game; it was merely a blessed respite. Alone I would have lingered on the rocks and swum at a snail’s pace. At this moment, I needed Laos and all her gentle quiescence. Instead the children leapt into the pool at the base of the falls and chided me, so I believed, for every second I remained with my feet on semi-dry ground. They splashed each other, then began splashing me. They climbed up rocks and jumped right back down, their delirious smiles daring me to do the same.

Thirty minutes later I was climbing back up that mountainside of mud. I was drenched and bruised and had the long trail back to Ban An still in front of me when the kids did something I never expected. They totally abandoned me. They took off up the hill and back to their village, which had also disappeared by the time I reached the top. There was no trail. No footprints. No sign or sound of the children of Sanna, or of Sanna itself. I was alone, wet and barefoot, and suddenly faced with the notion of being lost in these woods, these mountains, for much longer than I’d bargained for. How many children under ten, left to play all day under no adult’s care, ever got lost out here? My thoughts then switched to Reeb and I jogged off, searching for Sanna in a subdued panic.

Growing Up in Sanna

My erstwhile companions seemed neither surprised nor interested when I finally returned. The two smokers approached, then stood and stared from a few feet away as I passed. Their eyes were dark and hard. I saw a message in them, one of confidence and arrogance and contempt. This was their world, and I was welcome to leave. Back below Sanna I discovered two faint but distinct paths, running off not in opposite directions but as the legs of an ill-drawn triangle. Glancing around at the eternal, unchanging forest, I wasn’t sure which one to take. I looked back; at the top of the hill the children had lined up along the fence, watching as if they knew what was coming. I pointed down one path and they rose up in a clamor, pointing and urging me on my way. I then pointed down the other path; again they pointed with me, inviting me to go ahead and see where it might take me. Again I motioned, to the first path, to the second. Again a wave of encouragement, both ways. Except, I saw, for two little girls. They had pointed one way but not the other. I raised a hand to them and trotted off, praying for the next hour to whatever god existed out there for that cattle guard to appear around the next bend in the path.

The children’s quiet voices seem to have suddenly been switched off. I watch Kem tie off the strap of her newly-mended sandal. My feet ache from a million sharp rocks and knuckled tree roots. I feel the urge to ask her if she went barefoot to Sanna too – or if she ever even went at all. Instead I keep quiet, and continue listening to the things she isn’t saying.

Kem stares down at her sandal, maybe one thought in her head, maybe too many.

‘I leave tomorrow,’ I say, although she already knows. ‘Thank you. It’s nice here.’

She looks around at the darkness. ‘Yes...’ After a silent moment she turns to me. ‘Good you see the waterfall…’

‘...I wanted to go with Reeb.'

For a short eternity our eyes remain locked. Kem looks into me, like she knows I know something I shouldn’t – or something she should.

‘He’ll be back tomorrow, probably.’

Kem brushes her fingers over her sandal. ‘Yes. Maybe tomorrow.’

The next morning, on the path back to Muong Ngoi, I pass a man about my age. He has a sack slung over his shoulder. In one hand are his sandals. As I step to the side to let him pass I speak.

‘Good morning, Reeb.’

His expression softens, if only a little, as he gazes at me for a quick moment before continuing on his way.

The isolation of Ban An is an illusion that dissolves not with the sun but in time. Men and women work, albeit with different tools. Children play and laugh and learn in their own way, the universal way. Paths exist, leading to Sanna and further into the mountains; back to Muong Ngoi and Luang Prabang and the rest of the world.

In northern Laos it doesn’t take long to feel completely isolated. It takes a little longer to realize that the isolation is never truly complete.