My Top Ten Best Places to Swim in the World

Ocean creatures nibble on your feet as the wide expanse of seawater pulses with waves for bodysurfing. Nude night swimming as a teenager felt like breaking rules that weren’t meant to be followed anyway. Sunday night swims at the Y.M.C.A, when we were still a family of four, with vending machine ice cream followed by the classic show by the formerly virtuous, presently vilified Bill Cosby.

Swimming was always a part of my life. There are soundless, grainy videos of me as a chubby baby splashing and floating in Styrofoam tubes, later, flat chested, sun browned and endlessly chasing waves and catching rides, picking up horseshoe crabs to scare girls. We would spend every summer weekend and our big two-week vacation at the beach. I remember the crispy crust of seawater kissed skin, the smell of barbecuing meat and steaming corn as we ran around the yard. I remember barely being able to sleep out of excitement the night before we would go to the Wildwood, NJ water parks.

They were the days of pre-9/11 America. They were the days before any premature deaths had forced me to reckon with life’s brief candle. They were the days before girls were significant, when we all looked the same. They were the days of wonder and sleepover nights, before jobs and bills. They were the days of best friends, talking on the phone, riding bikes. This is a list of memories, a catalog of subjective experiences, a way to look back while wondering what is still to come.

I read a story in the New York Times by Loudon Wainwright III, an American troubadour, who has similar feelings for the water. He put down his top ten swimming places in the world. I thought it would be fun to do the same.

Here are my top ten most memorable water filled places:

10. Stuttgart Mineral Baths, Germany—I love a good sauna. When I first arrived in Korea, I’d spend hours slipping in and out of the hot and cold baths, hopping between the steam or the cool showers. But my love for saunas started here, in Germany’s Black Forest. I got naked in front of strange Germans, suntanned unabashedly and relished the nude joy of the healing waters. (I should include that Budapest and Sevilla also had amazing bathhouses, but as a bathing suit was required, it just felt more like a fancy pool with beautiful mosaic tiles.)

9. Lagos, Portugal—Although this was the most hungover I’ve ever been as the local bars offer 2 for 1 everything, the crisp seawater was a lifesaver in the morning. I found some crepes and a bucket of ice water and stared at the shimmering Atlantic Ocean. The massive cliffs beside the beaches make for a spectacular backdrop. I remember swimming out with some friends to a natural bridge in the rocks before remembering a scene from a nature documentary where hundreds of manta rays gathered in a place just like that.

karijini1

Courtesy: Western Australia Pinterest

8. Karijini National Park, Western Australia—Hidden among the baked red earth of Australia’s outback was a bright blue pool dotted with waterfalls and trees. There was a good hour hike down the rocks to the pool, heating you up for the cool down. There was a 20-meter cliff jump, shady spots to have a drink and some rock climbing inside the waterfalls. We camped in this remote park, and it remains the most stars I’ve ever seen.

Gwangalli-Beach

7. Gwangalli Beach, Busan, South Korea—It’s one of the most famous beaches of Korea and insanely crowded for 6 weeks in July and August. But in any season, you can get some Ramen noodles, beers, chips and shoot fireworks into the placid waters. There are no waves here, but the scenic Gwangan Bridge makes a glimmering seascape come alive at night. (Most of the Korea’s east coast has lovely blue water, white sands and nearby 7-11’s. Plus, the island of Jeju is full of amazing waterfalls, beaches and sex museums.)

DSC_1733

6. Mekong River, Laos—Although the Mekong runs from China to Vietnam, my favorite spot was in the Thousand Islands of Don Det. It’s not easy to get to, as you must ride a shaky diesel-powered longboat with a draft of a few inches to the water. Animals run wild, people are friendly and there is a small swimming spot at the end of the island. It was amazing to walk out a few feet and feel the current begin to take you downstream. A few more feet and you’d need to paddle hard to get back in. (In Kratie, Cambodia, I found a cool spot with thatched huts on pylons where the locals drank and cooled off.)

DSC_0252

5. Otres Beach, Cambodia—This is my ideal paradise beach. It’s quiet, chill, beautifully set on the Gulf of Thailand with a few beachside bars and pubs pumping quiet house music. There are French expats who’ve opened some decent restaurants complete with a boule lawn. Every day, the local women sold me fresh mango, watermelon and a back and foot rub for 10$. I also did a great scuba dive here. I was the only one who signed up, so I got to solo dive with the instructor. Sitting under a thatch umbrella, mangoes, cold beer, burgers and a Kindle. (There are Happy Pizza restaurants and tons of bars in nearby Sihanoukville, the backpacker party town.)

DSC_0358

4. Trieste, Italy—This little enclave of an Italian city with an Austrian heritage has a small sidewalk with access to the Adriatic Sea, called the Barcola. If you remember to bring a cushioned mat and towel, relaxing on the cement will be a breeze. The sea is beautiful here, flat and blue out to the horizon with tree covered mountains behind. (Nearby Croatian beaches are similarly wonderful.)

3. Barton Springs, Austin, Texas—A spring fed pool in South Austin, with lax clothing requirements, few personal restrictions, naturally cold water and a diving board. The only negative might be that it is set upon a grassy hill, which just isn’t as nice as sand. (If you catch the right day, McKinney Falls can be spectacular. But a real gem is down in Wimberley at the Blue Hole or chilling near the Blanco River.)

DSC_0494

2. Phuket, Thailand—It was near the end of a four-month journey in SE Asia, and our last day in Thailand. Jordyn and I wanted to swim. We could see heavy, dark clouds shooting lightning in the distance. The rain was falling, the waves were high and we jumped right in. Walking back, people were covered in rain gear, umbrellas and galoshes, we wore only bathing suits and sandals. (Phuket is nice, but the islands like Ko Lanta, or Ko Tao are much more stunning.)

IMG_4089

1. Avalon, NJ—It’s not the clearest, cleanest or nicest water. It’s not always the most peaceful environment. It’s not the most reliably wonderful weather. And although things are changing there, as it’s become a playground for elites with multi-million dollar houses, and there are sound ordinances where police will shut you down for singing after midnight, and extreme weather pushes the storm surges ever closer to the doorstep, and the restaurants are overpriced, and the bars full of college meatheads, khaki shorts and high heels…well, damn, maybe it’s just our little house there. The little cinderblock paradise on the bay, where so many memories were made, remains my favorite place to swim in the world.

 

Advertisements

Una Vista di Roma, Italia

I found this hidden amongst my old emails. It was a writing made upon my cell phone notes as I walked around the beautiful splendor of Rome.

DSC_0040

If Italy is like a painting disguised as a country, Rome is a statue disguised as a city. The colors all blend into a fabulous symmetry of life in perpetual sunset. Storefronts whose only advertising is a large window, trees like elderly men listlessly leaning in the Lazio winds, cobblestone streets whose scarred surfaces speak of the sumptuous Roman past. The buildings of Rome, mostly gilded by spectacular carvings, stand guard over the streets. Gypsy people sit marinating in their own filth with friendly dirty dogs at their feet. Fashionable people who deal in professionally looking good pass by the Gypsies without a glance. Rome is a blend of life. It is the eternal city because of its unmatched ability to combine the power of religion with the freedom of thought; the historical genius of DaVinci with the modern corruption of Berlusconi;  the intangible secrets within the histrionic sculptures giving a sense of life within the inanimate marble. You can walk among the ghosts of history here.
The magnificent Colosseo imagines itself as a relic, but it is alive in our minds. We can feel the anticipation and palpable excitement of those pagan days whenever we visit a modern stadium. 70,000 people cheering and pleading for action. What has changed in two thousand years besides the game? Spectators are still divided by class and there is always someone who loses.

The Vatican poses behind the vastness of St. Peter’s Square as a peaceful place of pious worship. But beneath the columns, under the mosaics, and below the imagery of a gentle religion lies the secret of corruptible power, irascible personalities, and an undeterred search for money. The church has power beyond the limited walls of Vatican City. They reach into the pockets of paupers in Piedmont, or the breeches of cowboys in Argentina. They’ve allowed themselves the financial gratuity of the trusting faithful, the miracle seekers who pray on blessed rosaries and sanctify themselves with “holy” water. Rome went from pagan capital to holy shrine in less than a millennia.
Rome’s power lies in the ancient aura. Satisfaction is almost guaranteed to all those who enter. No inclement weather, pushy tourists or expensive hotels can take away the private experience of seeing the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, or Spanish stairs with your own eyes. Perhaps that could be said for any travel, yet it’s hard to compare anything to Rome.

CSC_0038

Tucson to Flagstaff on a Greyhound

Electric wires escape into the dusty distance, mountains obscured by misty heat, roadside eateries offering lard laden beans and rice, shrub land of Arizona, expansive skies, dull land, dry land, cacti waiting for rain in a pose of “Don’t shoot!” Diverse people on the bus, baseball hats pulled low, ear-buds pumping personal jams, driver yelled at the thugs in the front for cursing. Sharing space with strangers.
24 hour tires. Massive trucks pass containing commerce. Tiny lizards and birds hide in bushes waiting for sunset. Waffle House. Lazy communities set in the shadows of random hills. Fast food and petrol stations. Little green signs pass offering a route to little towns with Spanish names. The southwest desert, adult shops, crappy hotels, truck stops, miles in every direction, Saguaros keeping guard over their little patch of dirt, brown stucco houses.
Phoenix arrives like a concrete bomb, the desert is replaced by billboards and landscaped roadways. IMAX, water parks, skyscrapers, office complexes, and a little rain begins to fall as we have caught up to the dark clouds. Those billboards advertising help for victims of domestic violence and diet coke, heat advisory warnings and triple cheeseburgers at McDonald’s. The small one story houses with dirty yards and spotless pickup trucks within view of the glimmering downtown showing financial segregation is alive and well. Whataburger makes its first appearance to my eyes since I last saw it in Austin almost 4 years ago, proclaiming its bottom flavored burgers as top notch. Palm trees. SUVs. Tattoo parlors. Tiny frontage road businesses await some action.
Now the cacti glazed hills have been replaced by the rocky cliffs dotted with pine and white oaks. The soft brown dirt is getting darker as we move into the red rocks approaching that monument of antiquity, the Grand Canyon. Rough terrain, straggly creeks, and the poorly named city of Montezuma Well. I’m not interested in how that water tastes. The fluffy white clouds seem to all resemble bunny heads and float by at low altitude, pockmarking that infinite blue sky.
The girl next to me, traveling three generations deep, grandma just a cute little shriveled raisin of age, mom wearing all pink with wiry hands-veins, tendons and muscles all visible under the mocha skin. This young girl next to me, with tanned leather skin that hasn’t taken on the rougher edges of her older generation relatives, looks like 14 but probably 24, she’s been holding a 4-6 item Burger King bag on her lap carefully with two folded hands since we left. She’s skinny and short and her feet barely touch the floor. The smell of her food bag has created a palpable urge to eat at BK, but I will resist. Her skin is mysteriously dark and deep brown. Her fingers have the clean manicured lines of Latina pride with an eternal dirt underneath where flesh meets nail from a lifetime of work in her young life.
Almost like crossing a finish line, suddenly there is snow on the ground and tall lean pine trees that understand winter weather well. Their bark is mottled brown and charcoal black. It looks like ski country now. Flurries fall as I exit the bus.

DSC_0071

Italy vs. Korea: Living Life Abroad

I’ve been to 10 countries this year but spent the bulk in either Italy or Korea. I think somehow I’m fully American diluted with Italian and Korean blood now. My roots spread far. Both countries have their pros and cons, but which is the better place to live?

Food

Italy—Everyone knows Italian food. Pasta, pizza, risotto, cheese and focaccia are staples of the Italian diet and world famous. No food incites more opinionated responses than, “Where is the best pizza?”

Korea—Not many people know Korean food. Korean BBQ has gotten recognition lately, but the diversity of food is what’s most appealing to me. There are soups for every ailment, vegetables for “power,” plenty of soothing white rice and that famous marinated meat is never hard to find. Also, kimchi is a magical food.

*VERDICT: Italy. They win simply because inventing pizza is forever unbeatable; however, whichever country I’m in, I crave the others’ cooking.

Movies

Italy—Famous for La Dolce Vita. There’s plenty of existential 1960’s films of the absurdity of life. Lots of cigarette smoking by men in black suits. At the current cinema, everything is dubbed into Italian, presumably because it sounds great, but makes the film less cohesive and impossible for me to watch.

Korea—Famous for Oldboy. There’s rarely a happy ending in Korean movies. At the cinema, they sell numbered seats to ensure fairness, cheap snacks and Hollywood movies shown in English. Also, they have cozy DVD rooms—win.

*VERDICT: Korea. Unconventional movies, private DVD theaters, and cinema in original language (that includes Russian dialogue in the new Die Hard movie).

Music

Italy—Famous for opera, but Italian MTV is pretty boring. The street performers can be entertaining.

Korea—Famous for K-pop, PSY’s silliness and long-legged lady singers. Friday nights are for watching girl groups parade onstage on muted TV’s in a restaurant, bar or sauna.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although K-pop chicks are contained dynamite, to hear Andrea Bocelli sing “Con Te Partirò” gives me chills every time.

Nightlife

Italy—The night is dominated by hanging out, gesticulating with cigarette in one hand and wine glass in the other.

Korea—People here get bombed wasted constantly and then sing karaoke.

*VERDICT: Korea. Despite the blatant alcoholism, I love karaoke (noraebang/노래방).

Sports

Italy—Four World Cup titles is quite an achievement. Serie A is a quality soccer league. Kids play soccer amid ancient ruins and use cathedral walls as goals, which is cool.

Korea—Sports is only for those with enough talent to play in the Olympics. The other kids must focus on their studies! But, they offer decent competitions in soccer, baseball and basketball leagues.

*VERDICT: Even. South Korea beat the Azzurri in the 2002 World Cup. But neither country dominates this aspect of life.

Friendliness

Italy—Old people are nice and helpful. Young people can’t be bothered with showing you the direction to Piazza San Giacomo.

Korea—Old people (especially the old ladies) push you out of their way. Young people can’t wait to help or talk to you about anything.

*VERDICT: Even. This category is fluid and changes depending on the person.

Ease of Living

Italy—There’s a three-hour daily lunch break in the shops, two weeks off in August, many retail stores close at 19:00, lots of coffee breaks and everything is closed on Sunday. You’d think that is helpful, but more to workers and less to consumers.

Korea—The 24-hour 7-11’s, karaoke, saunas and restaurants work to any time schedule. The >50-hour workweek is stressing and daunting.

*VERDICT: Even. Korea works too much and Italy works too little. (**NOTE: Internet is a major factor in ease of living and Korea wins big time in that area, but not enough to overcome their habit of six 12 hour days per week.)

Price

Italy—Euro. (1$=1.3Euro) To eat well, you have to pay for a first and second plate plus a vegetable, and the recycled water bottle (usually around 50$).

Korea—Won. (1$=1,052Won) To eat well, you pay 10-15$ for meat, unlimited vegetables, rice and free refills of water. Sometimes you get “service”=free food.

*VERDICT: Korea. This one is an easy choice.

Travel Opportunities

Italy—You are within striking distance of mainland Europe via EUrail or Ryan Air as well as anywhere in the magical land of Italy.

Korea—Mountains and beaches surround you, Incheon Airport is the best in the world and many places in Korea are completely unexplored and unspoiled.

*VERDICT: Even. Would you rather explore Europe or Asia? Both are charming.

Public Transit

Italy—Buses and trains are often late and there are decent subway lines in Milan and Rome.

Korea—Seoul has the biggest and longest subway in the world and punctual everything.

*VERDICT: Korea. You are never more than three blocks away from the subway in Seoul.

Language

Italy—Italian is quite possibly the most beautiful language on Earth, and only gets cuter to hear little kids arguing in it.

Korea—Korean is the easiest Asian language to learn to read, but complicated to speak.

*VERDICT: Italy. Ciao vs. Annyeong Haseyo.

Architecture

Italy—This country understands it. Angels hanging off of corners, fountains, piazzas, statues, obelisks, strange faces in the marble walls, naked lady door-knockers, mythical creatures guarding entrances, and The Colosseum!

Korea—They didn’t go from bottom to the top in 50 years by worrying about decoration. They just built for efficiency. Things are changing now, with expanding green spaces, Gangnam’s renaissance and new art projects.

*VERDICT: Italy. The everyday beauty has a salubrious energy.

History

Italy—Roma, Venezia, Marco Polo, Columbus, Caesar, and gladiators: “All roads lead to Rome.”

Korea—They are stuck between two giants of Asia: China and Japan. Koreans were constantly in the middle of the wars of those two ancient enemies.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although Korean history is fascinating, Italian history is undeniably more important in global impact.

People/Dog Watching

Italy—Dogs enter restaurants here with impunity. There are dogs of all sizes and most people are not scared to pet them. Having a coffee at an outdoor café offers great fodder for playful banter about the passing hipsters, fashionistas and archetypical stereotypes.

Korea—Dogs are predominantly small and decorative. Kids/young girls sometimes shriek at the touch of a dog’s tongue. Couples in identical clothing, businessmen in shiny suits and cheap shoes, kids practicing taekwondo in the park or 20 ajumma’s with identical permed hair provide ample opportunity for pithy observations.

*VERDICT: Even. There’s more diversity and acceptance of dogs in Italy, but things are just a bit crazier in Korea.

Women

Italy—They are famous for being hot. But, too many smoke cigarettes, and they do it in an affective manner as if it’s making them seem more attractive. It isn’t. Milano and Roma are sure to find you exceptionally fashionable, skinny model types riding Vespa’s with long hair streaming behind them. EX: Sophia Loren in 1965.

Korea—They are becoming more famous for producing beautiful, forever-young actresses and models. Many are conservative with upper body exposure but adore a short skirt. Visit Gangnam on a summer night for a glimpse of the plastic surgery obsessed climate of Korea. Nevertheless, some understand that their striking beauty comes from embracing their traditional features. EX: Kim Yuna in 2014.

*VERDICT: Korea. What can I say? My girlfriend is Korean, and she’s beautiful.

The answer is: 5 for Italy; 5 for Korea; 5 All Even

Honestly, what did you expect? I actually went at this subject expecting Korea to win because that is where I’ve enjoyed living most. Yet, when you take it all into consideration, Italy has lots of positives too. These 15 subjects are some major indices of quality of life for me. I suppose I love both of these countries too much to decide. (Shh. It’s Korea.)

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 9.37.51 PM

The Italian Road

Visions

It’s a manicured country, as if a greenskeeper was in charge of an entire peninsula. Trees planted long ago according to the whims of the local dukes and ruling aristocracy. Even the autostrada offers wonderful views as long as you can ignore the angry faces tailgating you in your rear view. Fields of baby sunflowers in summer. Tangled hills misty in the distance. Those tall straight pines of Renaissance paintings. Italian names pass by: Castello di Lago. Imola. Mantova. It’s a land known by all. Italians can feel a real sense of pride in the past. They were scientists, artists, musicians, astronomers, popes, priests, saints, charmers, and workers. They built functional aqueducts, relaxing bathhouses, durable roads, intricate cathedrals, massive pagan colosseums, and constructed sculptures in the grand squares of almost all of even the tiniest towns. Driving along the small streets (what I can only assume the SS means of their road signs), you are never far from some crumbling old castle or palace. Some have these long driveways with columned entrances but are overgrown with shrubs of time. It only enhances the allure.
I see lots of pro cyclists wearing all the gear and then some apprentice rider kids with a car following to help those who can’t finish the incredibly arduous climb. The winding roads are banked to help drivers and the weak looking guardrails aren’t enough to stop you from driving down an acute angled fall into the grass and trees of hilltop Tuscany. The orange tiled roofs and brick walls are like a formality here, unless you have the castle on top of the hill, it appears you can’t afford the stucco required to class up your shack into a chalet. But these towns aren’t built on hillsides for no reason, it must have served a very real purpose in medieval times to live within walls high on steep hills. Marauding bands of Germanic tribes or the Huns from the East, are all looking to usurp your bed.

I’ve seen Sun-rays poke through clouds before, but it feels different when they shine upon a place that your memory knew before your eyes actually viewed it. Everyone has an idea of Toscana, a picture, a movie, a painting in a museum, and it fulfills you in a personal way to actually see it. No Diane Lane or Julia Roberts crowding her face into your perspective of this endlessly eternal land. Osteria, Pasticceria, Trattoria, Pizzeria, Pescheria, Prosciutteria. Gelateria. Food is specialized. I like watching a father order for the table and when he’s finished the waiter says, “Bravo.” Ordering and eating is like a performance. Consuming a first and second plate with wine and a gelato afterward is a special treat for me. For Italians, it’s Wednesday.

On the Road

I’m a good driver, which is to say, that I’m a defensive and courteous driver. I never tailgate, I only honk when necessary, I allow others to merge, and I accept that we all share the same road. My friend, who is a professional courier, does none of those things. Yet, he also considers himself a good driver. How can that be?

In Italy, poor driving behavior is taken to a new level. I have been tailgated so close that I can no longer see the hood of the car behind me, which means that he is less than 1 foot from my bumper going 80mph. I felt so angry, scared and confused by his behavior. There was a car in front of me. There was a car to the right of me. Where was I supposed to go? He honked and rudely gestured as I carefully merged back into the right lane, slightly cutting off the car beside me. Honking can ruin an hour of my life. I had a headache all day due to this new system of driving. I also got honked at for slowing down at a fork in the road to determine my direction. How is this acceptable behavior? These roads are thousands of years old, narrow, crowded with motorbikes and I’ve never driven them before, I’m entitled a bit of a slow down to decide.

Perhaps Italians are so confident in their own skills and perceived knowledge of how other drivers behave that they feel comfortable tailgating, but I don’t like it. I’m going way over the speed limit, passing the giant trucks and also merging back into the right lane after overtaking those 16-wheeled monsters. There is a certain logic to driving that I feel is lost on aggressive drivers. In heavy traffic, swerving in and out of lanes like a Nascar race won’t help. In light traffic, there is no need to swerve because the left lane is yours.

What do you want me to do? I can’t move the cars in front of me, and I refuse to tailgate them, so we wait for them to move right. I don’t drive as slow as the trucks yet slower than your disturbingly assured ass, so I’m forced to contend with you in the fast lane. We all paid the tolls; we all have somewhere to be. You’re just being an asshole and we’re left behind with the smell.

Now, two days later, and I find myself cutting people off and getting honked at for being too offensive. Watch, adapt and continue.

People drive the way the wish they could act in real life. That is how the fancy car and small penis stereotype started. You can buy the power you lack and assert it upon the world that screwed you with a small screwdriver. I drive slowly because it’s my moment to relax and for a brief moment not feel overcome by anxiety and overrun by emotions.

DSC_0720

Five Days in Japan

Osaka

Spotless. Trash less. Small houses with laundry racks. Cute white dog walking an old lady up a gentle sloping hill. Power lines crisscrossing the perfectly paved streets. Somehow the old houses look new. The apartment block buildings are not unpleasant to the eyes and most have balconies with overflowing foliage. Train moves past Mikunigaoka and Sakaishi. Japanese names are fun to say. Girls wear frumpy blue dresses and chunky black shoes. Silver roofs gleam with protective dragons on the corners watching over the family. Old men on bicycles waiting for our train to pass. Speeding trains whizz past us. Flowers sprout in pots on balconies, and tiny grassy patches. The red and white electrical towers look natural. Japan is what you expect, and that is a comforting feeling. The teenagers attempting to look cool with backwards hats or skinny jeans, old men say, “sank you,” when you give up your seat, politeness doesn’t seem forced. A big stadium passes by my window. First one I’ve seen since leaving Korea. A smattering of trees at every corner. The language is strange and very little English is visible. I’m sure I’m projecting, but this country feels like a large family. How else can you explain the cleanliness and lack of crime? The Yakuza is just the crazy uncle who no one likes to talk about. But mostly I feel such a cozy feeling upon entering.
All the cars are little and the restaurant pictures involve noodles and rice.

Kyoto

A romantic little town, all two story houses and power lines. A large lake sits like a quiet grandfather napping during a baseball game while the kids buzz all around him. Mountains, some round, some pyramidical, some kissing clouds encircle the sleepy body of water. Again, the old houses look new. It could be they are new, rebuilt after the WWII destruction. Rice field backyards and fresh paved streets with clean white lines. Patios, balconies, mini gardens. Schoolgirls wait with coy faces. Hot girls painted like dolls and obscenely dressed in short skirts and knee high stockings have perfectly coifed hair and understand how their high heels push up the lusty parts of their body. Tunnel blackouts my view, only to reappear as an idyllic farm with pointy evergreens. White shirts worn as if mandatory uniforms to ensure compliance in this beautifully organized world of consumerized fetishism and ultra modern convenience.

Japan is like Iceland with better food. A magical volcanic island with fantastical legends of sprites and fairies living amongst the regular gentle townsfolk. Hot springs and fish for every meal.

Shinkansen

Now on the bullet train and all those cute places and houses fly by at 400kmh. You can almost hear the “arigatou gozaimasu” and feel the breezes created by 100 million collective bows. The politeness factor is so strong, even 7-11 workers bow. After the World Cup loss, I bet the fans bowed to the Ivory Coast fans. It’s hard to imagine a country so nice could have been so bloodthirsty just 70 years ago as to have created animosity against all their neighbors for the next century. Korea might never forgive Japan for using their beautiful young girls as sex slaves. It’s like a country that follows that dysfunctional family motto of: “Remember, as far as anyone knows we’re a nice normal family.”

DSC_0763

Sleeper Train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok

City dwellers wave goodbye to the train wearing the eponymous grins from the “Land of Smiles”, motorbikes sit idling at the crossing. Brick walls evaporate into the rice paddies. Two pretty Asian girls in glasses and ponytails settle in across from me, one thin and bird like, the other, cute and plump. I’m sweating and they are pulling out their shoulder wraps to prevent a chill from settling upon their ultra delicate skin. A group of strange people in colorful t-shirts are filling up the seats behind me, quiet surrounds us. I take off my earphones and hear only the click clack of the train. It’s a woody area now. Dense trees, all seem to be cousins of the same ancient seed. Not much roadside trash to be seen. Power lines remain visible. Some kind of building material lies dormant with spider webs yet stacked neatly, waiting to become useful. Railroad ties, tracks and wooden beams are abandoned and rotting slowly or perhaps have been replaced and are merely waiting to be recycled. We slow down for a moment at Kuhn Tan, which appears to be a town solely inhabited by strutting roosters. Our first tunnel, black inside and always a relaxing moment instead of the fear that going under a mountain should induce. A chubby girl on a hill is playing her tennis racket like a guitar and dancing about like Elvis. Her brother seems embarrassed by her behavior.
Night settles into itself like an old man kicking back a La-Z-Boy chair. The full moon rising up from the horizon, barely illuminating the rice fields, glowing golden gleams of glistening light. Right now, hundreds of miles south in the Gulf of Thailand, people in their second earth decade are applying day-glo paint to their taut appendages and taking shots, toasting in a bacchanalia of juvenile expression of life’s promise under that forgiving moon’s eye. They will drink from buckets, indulge in hallucinogens, and dance on the beach like a drunken and drugged version of Lord of the Flies. They will awake with gruesome hangovers and flock into social media proclaiming it to be the “greatest night ever” prefaced with a picture of hugging strangers masquerading as friends.
Distant lights flicker through the foliage. Smells of train food being served, soggy microwaved meats and saucy veggies served with that ubiquitous starch of Asia–rice. I take a paper towel to my face and futilely attempt to blot off the accumulated grease and grime of my earlier city walk. The towel becomes clear in places.
An androgynous ticket checker struts the aisles with an appeal to both sexes and in a pull and a push quickly turns two leather benches into a clean, crisp bed with white sheets.
Lightning strikes far away amplifying the dark vista with a sneeze of light. At a dreary train station a lady gets on with two plastic bags and a purse and sits opposite me assuring my feet a place on the ground for the duration. She takes out a pungent piece of sausage. It smells like beer spilled on the floor of a busy bar. The stench lingers in my nose making me hungry and nauseous simultaneously–a most confusing feeling–like when someone gives you unsolicited yet nevertheless good advice. Clouds casually hide the mouth of the moon as my new bunk mate asks for her bed, thus closing my window view and chasing me to my top berth.
I love having a little space all my own. I have a mesh cup holder, non functional light, pillow, blanket, curtain, leftover sunflower seeds from my boat ride last week and a new apple in Saran Wrap. There are three Simpsons loaded on my laptop, it’s 20:25–bedtime for train people.

Image

Sitting on the Slow Boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai

Green trees, brown water, red and blue boats, jagged, moist rocks poking up from the riverine depths. More Mekong sights, but this time–on the river, churning and chugging through the calm muddy currents. Engine grumbling behind, people spread out on used minivan seats, fires ashore. Trees like stars, uncountable and mesmerizing. Light rain, coldest air I’ve felt in 2 months, cruising speed.
Houses disguised as 3 sided shacks balanced on tenuous mud and sand slopes. Construction is not a paramount for river dwellers. Water buffalo striving for honor of laziest draft animal stand at the banks and pretending to chew gum and blankly stare at their reflections.
Beaches made of wonderfully light white sand, surrounded by hills, no footprints.
The river rapids slow us to a crawl. Whitewater rising and bubbling from the murky, mercurial depths, swirling in a pulse of surface energy. Some haggard man, teeth brutally stained from betel-nut rests on his haunches atop a black rock and barely even acknowledges our presence.
What dank fish live in this water? What muddy-eyed salamanders crawl beneath these smooth stones? What type of predator is here? No crocs, no barracuda, no sharks, no teeth, it’s like a river meant for toe dipping. Fish throw themselves into nets, bite unloaded lures, lunge past the tides and crawl ashore onto the grill. They are giving fish. The peaceful and fully edible Mekong.
The clouds are thick, obscuring any rays save the glimmer of sunshine. Fresh Rain smells mixed with parched boulders begin to permeate the aerated boat. Hours later, I have the answer to that great American bard of rock n roll, John Fogarty, I have seen rain coming down on a sunny day. Sun out, fisherman fishing, rain drizzling, rocks shining in the wet glare, we push on. Rivulets have carved tiny meandering hollows in the sandy shore.
Slowly, we approach shore. The old woman seemingly made entirely of sinewy muscle and old skin goes ashore on some dangerous rocks with a young boy dressed nicely. We leave them squatted on the rocks figuratively but almost literally, in the middle of nowhere. Rocks still drying, resemble wet, unmolded clay with a bumpy texture.
The scariest part of the Mekong is its opacity. No knowing the depths. Only wonder of the life below. It’s like the Mississippi, just a polite, helpful old river. Nothing to worry about here.
We finally pass some kids about dusk. They sit like friendly gargoyles upon the rocks, legs dangling, waving, most likely completely unaware of another world beyond the river and her murky wealth. Further on, we see a deeply tanned statue posing as a boy holding a net within a small cave like hole, ensconced by rocks.

2nd day
Started rainy, now sunny with puffy cottony clouds. Hills closer and higher, we pass a copse of singing trees. The peculiar little black birds tweeting a morning chorus to the river. Dense engine sound obfuscating the rich jungle din. Vines growing upon vines, branches hugging each other. The birdsong and frogs making an orchestra out of the shoreline, with me in a front row. Birds on flutes, frogs on horns, cicadas the drum and rhythm section. A leaf barren tree teems with black birds sitting, posing and chirping. Wifi towers planted on hillsides otherwise devoid of life hint of things deeper in those forests. Quarry, bulldozers, trucks, cranes, terraced hills, new bridge construction.
Nasty yellow foam bubbles swirling beside plastic rubbish and scattered debris. Styrofoam floating in sad circles in gentle whirlpools.
A woman in classic long Laos skirt and silky pink shirt spits phlegm wretched from the bowels of her gullet over the side of the boat for the sixth time in two hours. She spits as well (and as loud) as an outfielder. Cows and a fat pig sit on the beach dreaming calmly.
Journey complete and back on terra firma, legs twitchy for exercise, body sticky for shower, ears ringing from the incessant engine roar, I feel a sense of completion. Mekong will be behind me tomorrow, replaced by new Thai surprises.

Image

One Month in Laos >> View From a Bus

Laos
Buses held together with duct tape, given as goodwill gestures by more prosperous countries like Korea and Japan when they were deemed embarrassingly old and dirty, yet functional enough for their poorer neighbors to the south. Swirling fans above my head momentarily brush away the flies flitting through the cabin. One rest stop after another, we are boarded by ten women in sweaters, cotton stockings, dust masks, wool hats and baggy pants. They offer an incongruous amount of food for a bus ride. They have entire grilled chickens skewered on bamboo, 5 hard boiled eggs skewered, pork skewers, some kind of knuckle meat…skewered… bags of colored liquid, fruit bags, water bags and strange chips. Their clothing layers are three deep with no perspiration visible in these harshly hot temps. Crippled chickens lay in a pile, un-moving, un-clucking, awaiting the cleaver, awaiting the grill. Stumpy dogs sniff about the dust scraps with focused eyes. Cigarette butts tossed aside at varying lengths of completion. Ample piles of trash in the corner, beautiful red flowers on the trees above. Bus continues to idle. Air-con a stale breath of exhaled chemical ice.
A country where you can stop at any corner and push search wifi and nothing comes up. Highly unconnected and slow and unreliable when it is provided. The dust here is a white, sandy dust. Cambodia is more of a brown, dirty dust.
Moving into the dense jungle, verdant canopy thick like a giant outdoor greenhouse. White barked trees stuck like toothpicks under a pillow of broccoli, all the leaves blossoming at the top to meet the sun’s hale glare. We approach a 90^ turn and 3 vehicles have collided. A large truck hangs over the edge of the guardrail, oil seems to have leaked all over the road.
Another rest stop, another chance to look at mystery meat and colorful eggs in Saran Wrap. Like paying for a stomachache.
Indistinct shrub land and red clay dirt passes until a magnificent golden Buddha punches your eyes awake. He sits peacefully among desolation beside the one room tin roofed houses offering no tangible reprieve from poverty but rather a structured belief system intended to end suffering for these uneducated peasants–‘escape’–the true hallmark of religions. We pass a graveyard dedicated to revolutionaries. The tombs are yellow, shaped like taller WW1 German helmets.
In the mountains, white and yellow tubular flowers droop like fragrant tears, kids, faces dirty with exhaust fumes and play, trees everywhere with bare, burned patches possibly indicating the clear cutting of the modern world encroaching upon this paradise at 1,000 m above sea level. The hills round and solid, jagged and with chins raised look like scoliotic giants bent over, searching the landscape for their lost keys. Small black pigs wrinkling their nose toward our bus. Only green, varying shades of green paint the walls of life here. Cutbacks, switchbacks, up and down backs weaving astride the mountain. Jungle trees are more visible now. Full branches, healthy leaves, probably full of the same bugs that have buzzed and crawled all over me the past weeks. The drop down into the canyon from the road is dizzying. No guardrail. Only a stranger driving this hulk of a bus, with hopefully functional brakes. Road shoulder disappears and the houses are close enough to touch from my window. Thatch and tin, thin layers to keep the oppressive jungle out, or perhaps to let just a little in for good luck.
“Winding road ahead” sign taunts us as a mist begins to fall. Clouds securely belting the middle of the valley, prompting the mountains to peek above with their singular, expansive green eye.
Coming down from the heights, finding the chocolate river a la Willy Wonka Factory flowing imperceptibly past sunken boats and judicious palms. Civilization presents itself to us with lonely gas stations and rumbling pickup trucks. Rice paddies accepting the playful tickle of sprinkling raindrops behind us.

The Walk

A wet pug dog, temple of red and gold. Bob Marley in my headphones. Busy street, balconies, streetlights, alleys, old unbalanced doors, sidewalk jammed with trash flowers, SUV’s on the curb, mini-mart, same peaceful breeze as last night. Special, bow tied and helpless baskets full of jellies or Nescafé. Finally the fruits. Mangoes, grapes, apples, starfruit, grapefruit, dragon fruit. The old interchangeable ladies selling those cherries and avocados.
A mom slaps her young daughter’s head for something as they buy orange flowers built in the shape of a stupa. Laundry. Motorbike. Writing symbols abound. Teenagers strutting. D-mart, Kintime, Nokia. Hotel. Beeline. Pepsi. Poorly named pho dung…closed Sunday. Canon. J.D. Pools. Purple flowers above some runoff river sitting playing with itself. Sweet home Restauran (sic).
Four guys play black dominoes. Some terrible drama on the TV. Do I want a Cornetto cone? No. After dinner. More dogs laying about the flip flops and soily cardboard.
Carnation condensed milk and coke sitting together, what would that make?? A huge crystal store condensed into one tiny room. Guy slurping noodles in his cell phone store. Old lady on her haunches loading a soda fridge. What appears to be “Laos Got Talent” is on. Always traffic, there’s always somewhere to be. A grayed old couple working the bicycle store. Calloway golf clubs, golf must be glorious out in some of these green mountains, the fairways lined with karst cliffs, deep blue water hazards. K-plaza, Paweetra Beauty Center, Samsung, Galaxy, iPhone, cross the street, drainage, arrows, green fences with gold lace, a giant red and white electrical tower, wifi, red and white curb, barbed iron wall. Entrance gate with guard in uniform, green. Five big nice banks all in a row. Across the street, the planned site of the Vientiane WTC megamall. To the right, the Patuxai, the tri-tipped, intricately carved Arc de Triomphe of Laos. A guy on a moto does a wheelie and peels out. Nuclear power plant advertisement on the rather small big screen. Girl in multi-color one piece alone on a bench with bags. Banana shaped leaves on the ground. Campus France. Black cat hides in the shadow. Cat scampers away. Saw a dead cat earlier. It’s chin was on the ground, the man poked it, dead. The world is hard, as Bob Marley sings War in my ears…”until all these things, have no meaning to all mankind, there will be War.” TUK-tuk. So many banks. Changed it up: now it’s Amos Lee, “windows are rolled daaaaoooun.” Pho ZaP… Original taste since 1958. Really??Lizard crawls on the glowing massage sign. Some terrible thing festering on the sidewalk. A tree patch. Puddle. Wind. Palm tree. Puppy. Poppy pharmacy. Print shop. Beerlao. Settha Palace. Born to B. And then I arrived at the bowling alley…

wallface