Sitting at home one Saturday afternoon and realizing; 1-how long it had been since I’d gone on a good solo adventure, and 2-that I’d set some serious bucketlist goals for myself as part of my New Year’s resolution in January and had only ticked off half of them for the year [not that it was even possible to check them all off], so I began my search using my list as reference. I scoured travel websites, flights, hotels, cross-referencing package deals and travel blogs, online travel agencies, airline websites, hotel websites…you get the idea. My standard practice when I get island fever. In the end, I settled on Siem Reap—Angkor Wat—a place I’d wanted to see since I was young, and one of the big items on my checklist. Air travel booked. Hotel confirmed. Documents printed. Visa application submitted and three months later, I was packed and ready to go.
I arrived at Siem Reap airport after a short two-hour flight at the brink of an approaching monsoon [not only could I smell it, but I could see the sky blackening in the distance]. Mind you, I had previously booked and confirmed [three times] with the hotel for a pick-up at the airport via tuk-tuk. I even re-confirmed when I contacted them to extend my stay by two nights deciding that I should definitely take advantage of a much needed rest for my weary mind and body.
Now, interestingly enough, there are two incoming flight times per day. International arrivals either land at 10:15am, or 4:15pm. Mine was the latter. Throughout the rest of the day, there are only domestic arrivals [insider information of course]. That said, I was confident my pick-up was confirmed, scheduled, ready and waiting for me with a sign in hand as I exited the airport that only had two gates.
Customs. Immigration. Visa Stamp. Luggage. Exit. No sign. No driver. No hotel. Now, being that I’ve experienced this before [please refer to the previous entry from the Bollywood wedding], I was patient and waited. And waited. 15 minutes. 20 minutes [the hotel confirmed they were only 20 minutes from the airport]. 30 minutes. 45 minutes. The crowd was dwindling as fast as my patience [mainly because I was sweating like a hooker in church].
At an hour, I gave up as I saw the last tuk-tuk pull away with his passenger from the last arriving flight of the day. So I asked:
"My driver never showed up. Is there any way of contacting the hotel?"
The answer was not what I had hoped obviously and I then queried where I could get a ride to town to which my answer was a polite smile, and a hand gesture to the right towards the airport exit and the highway.
"What the fuck?" I said to myself. "Am I supposed to hitchhike?" [inner monologue of course]. So I proceeded to the exit with my camera equipment on my back and my luggage en-tow behind me [small and light of course…to be filled while shopping].
"So, is the ‘thumb out’ a universal symbol for ‘I need a ride?’ or does that only work in the US?" I said to myself.
No sooner did I put my thumb out and a man on a motorcycle pulled up.
"Where you going sir? $2 to town!"
"Thanks" I said, "but what about my suitcase?"
"No problem. Strap to front" as he grabbed my bag, smiled widely and genuinely, and bungee corded it to the front of the motorcycle before I could agree to the ride.
It took me exactly 3 seconds to decide to hop on the back and grab on as he sped away with me holding on for dear life through the outskirts of Siem Reap towards town.
Exactly 20 minutes later, we arrived at my hotel and I paid for the ride and checked in. Subtly mentioning that the driver never arrived for my scheduled pick-up.
"Sir, he’s there now looking for you. He just called."
"Ok. I understand that. But I waited for an hour after my flight arrived and I had previously…."
In short, they had confused my arrival with an incoming domestic flight and were highly apologetic to which I of course forgave instantly when I saw the suite they had set me up in right next to the waterfall at the edge of the pool.
After checking in, I walked back to the front desk to schedule my first tour—Angkor Wat at sunrise. Knowing I would be up at 4am, I ordered a Mai Tai from the bar and sat poolside to shut down for the night. I sat on the edge of the waterfall with my feet dangling into the cool water, as a single orchid drifted down from above, and silently fell into the pool at my side. Bliss. Shower. Fan. Bed. Off.
At 3:45 the next morning, my alarm went off and I was dressed, geared, and out the door for my first glimpse of the glory that is Angkor Wat at sunrise.
We arrived at the temple, and the driver dropped me off at the entrance, and along with 5000 other tourists aching to get a glimpse of the magic moment, funneled into the temple grounds and toward the reflecting pool for the money shot. Peering around as I was setting up lens and tripod I realized the crowd was in the wrong spot—front and center—not the best angle to capture the breadth and depth of the world wonder before us…so of course, I moved off to the side.
Little did I know, that after the early morning, the trek through the temple grounds, and the 800 shots I took, there were five more temples on our roster that day [I’m already exhausted].
On we trudged. Temple after temple. Shot after shot. And as the monsoon approached…again…I told the driver that I thought it was a good idea to head back to the hotel [really I just wanted to take a long swim after being coated in no less than 15 concentric rings of sweat and mosquito repellent—not to mention after three temples, artifacts and history aside, they all begin to look the same—not really…I was just Angkor’d out for the day]. As the driver dropped me off, I smiled, paid him for the day’s adventure and asked what we were doing tomorrow.
"The largest lake in Southeast Asia!" He said.
"Ok" I replied, intrigued, "Afternoon right?" [my subtle hint that I wanted to sleep in and sprawl by the pool with a fruity beverage in my hand].
"Yes. Afternoon is good. Sunset" [which meant he would pick me up at 1, and we would be out again until the evening. I agreed. Only slightly reluctantly. Suite. Shower. Pool. Adult Beverage. Lunch [yes. I drank before lunch…sue me]. Lounger. And there I would be for the rest of the day.
In the morning, I awoke with an amazing breakfast of butter baked eggs [of course butter], muesli, and fresh fruit on my mind, and walked into the bathroom, lifted the lid on the toilet, and there, just inside at the water’s edge, staring back at me with 8 large black round eyes, was the biggest spider I’d ever seen in person—in my entire life, with a leg span larger than my hand. Brown and hairy. The Huntsman [not completely harmful to humans—more frightening than anything] spider is native to many countries around the globe, varying in size and color depending on climate and location. This one was obviously very comfortable in Cambodia and was obviously well-fed having not become a local [fried in butter] delicacy itself. I flushed. Nothing. I sprayed it with hairspray, nothing. Not even a budge and in so many words, I was imagining this beast to be saying “yeah nice try asshole—I’ve had worse.”
Fearing I may never poop again without thinking of that monster, I left my room to have breakfast [and to poop in the lobby restroom], informing the staff on my way across the pool to the cafe so they could take care of it while I was eating. I was satisfied with my decision to leave it to the experts when I saw three people enter my room with brooms and mops in hand. However, 15 minutes later, I heard a shriek from inside, the door opened, and out they ran chasing something on the ground, with the broom, a can of bug spray [like that will do anything], and a shoe. My shoe! “WAIT! THAT’S MY SHOE!” I shouted across the pool as they followed the beast into the adjacent garden…cue the flashback…
Java: The Bird Market and the Loose Cock
On my last full day in Java earlier in the year, I was taken to the bird market, where one can purchase any manner of flying creature for any particular reason. Rat problem? Buy an owl ranging from barn to great-horned. Fresh eggs? Buy chicks died like Easter eggs with vegetable coloring. Need a companion that talks back to you? Buy a parrot. Feeling goth? How about a giant raven. You name it, they have it.
At the edge of the market, I found myself chatting with this nice elderly couple who had been selling chickens, eggs, and roosters in the same spot for nearly 40 years and were eager for me to buy one of their chickens as a pet.
"Sorry, I’d love to [not], but I wouldn’t be able to take it home with me. And I have no where to keep it once I get home" I explained over and over again. Even when they sat me down with a steaming cup of fresh ginger tea to show me their wide range of fryer foul in every color imaginable, I still declined.
Out of nowhere behind us, a cat runs through the market and tips over the rattan cover keeping a large black red-combed rooster under wraps. Out it ran. The elderly couple bounded out of their seats to simultaneously attempt to corner this cock as it was continuously circling the trunk of a mango tree. Round and round they went not only dizzying themselves, but sending me into a tizzy of a guttural laugh so loud, they both stopped and joined in—realizing that in order to catch this bird, they would have to surround it with my help. And so I did. The three of us, spread out our legs and arms to box the cock in [figuratively speaking of course] and round and round the tree we went as if we were braiding a may-pole. Until finally, it decided that running in circles wasn’t getting it anywhere fast, and it ran off in another direction to be pounced on by the very cat that set it free. The old man then dropped the basket over them both, sat down, lit a cigarette and finished his tea while the two animals sat under the basket glaring at each other.
The Huntsman now out of sight and mind, I continued about my lounging and crafting the adventure the day would bring, while the cock in the coop next door to the hotel continued to think it was sunrise. Pool. Shower. Lunch. Driver. Tuk-tuk [again, there’s always a tuk-tuk]. Temple [of course another temple]. Jungle. Rice fields. Rainstorms. Approaching Tonle Sap Lake - “the largest in Southeast Asia” [as I was reminded of over and over again by my driver…one of the happiest men I’ve ever met]. Ticket. Boat. Cruise time.
As we drifted through the floating village and surrounding market, the Captain of the boat, a seven [yup…7] year old local boy, gave me one of the most astounding history lessons I might ever receive about the people who live floating in boats on the lake. How they eat, sleep, live, barter and trade goods and services, and farm everything from fish and waterfowl, to snakes to eat [yummy] and lotus pods for export.
We stopped at a local spot on the lake just before sunset where I was dished up with a steaming bowl of snake and venom soup. Yes. Absolutely delicious brimming with tender meat, vegetables and spicy savory broth prepared with the venom from three different snakes native to the region. I happily ate on this quaint floating restaurant with the soft ebb and flow of the lake underneath created by passing boats paddled by children and motorboats zipping in and out making pick-ups and deliveries before nightfall. Back on the boat we went to venture out into open water. The captain of the boat [yes, the 7 year old boy] had obviously noticed that I was working up quite a sweat from the combination of snake venom soup and stifling hot weather, suggested I join him in a cooling plunge into the lake. I nearly considered it until we passed a group of waterlilies populated by 6 sleeping freshwater crocodiles. I politely declined.
"OH! They’re friendly. Don’t bother people. Too many other things to eat."
"No thanks!" I replied with a smile. Out to open water for the sunset.
Back to shore at full throttle [making more noise than distance]. Up the ramp into the tuk-tuk, tip the captain, and I sunk into the cushy seat in the back and fell asleep—only to wake up at an intersection to two dogs, in the act of making more dogs that look like every other stray dog in Asia. I passed back out for the remainder of the ride home. Only to be awoken again after hitting a pothole in the dirt road we were on, to see on the other side of the tuk-tuk, two cows…doing what? You guessed it. Making more cows.
Now, as I mentioned before, my driver/guide was one of the happiest and nicest people I have ever met. And it took great effort when he dropped me off at my hotel for me to delicately tell him, that I didn’t want to see any more temples. And that I wanted to explore on my own.
Of course he insisted on one more, and me being the pushover I am for genuinely nice people, agreed to a sunset trek through the jungle to one of the little known gems nearly completely reclaimed by nature. Suite. Change. Pool. Dinner. Shower. Lounger. Waterfall.
While relaxing poolside, banana mai tai in hand, waterfall trickling in the background, I noticed something at the side of the pool crawling over the edge. Assuming it was nothing more than one of the million geckoes covering the walls of the hotel, I ignored it and went back to my beverage. Seconds later, I saw this thing, skating full tilt across the surface of the water towards the other side. Curious [killed the cat], I got up to have a look to see that 8 legged beast fluttering its way across the pool…
"IT SWIMS?!?!" I exclaimed out loud as I downed my COCKtail and ordered another to insure I would actually get some sleep.
I slept in that morning, waking up just before breakfast was finished and headed outside to the tune of the rooster next door still thinking it was dawn [at 10:00am], and wishing I could find that spider and throw it at the rooster to shut it up.
Breakfast was lovely as always, fresh chocolate croissant, mango and dragon fruit and slow-baked eggs with baguette.
Now, Southeast Asia to me, has always been great for people watching. From the tourists who want nothing more than to get wasted and tell people back home what an enlightening experience they had, to the foreigners who live there, and of course people like the ones sitting at the table behind me.
Cut to the conversation about how cute the men in Siem Reap are between an African-American man of about 65 years old with salt and pepper dreadlocks draping down his back, and a caucasian [British] monk…yup…shaved head, saffron robe and all, and the Bob Marley mix playing in the background. Super high contrast situation, and as usual, I’m the quiet observer in the middle of it all. Then, cut to the scene happening across the pool, where one of the valets spotted what I imagined was the spider as he hailed 3 of his mates over for assistance. One of them grabbed the pool net.
The mighty hunters huddled around this corner in the garden and with a swift “whap”, the spider was scooped up in the net, carried to the edge of the pool, and ceremoniously tossed over the fence into the chicken coop next door…immediately quieting the rooster with the confused internal clock.
"That rooster is either dead, scared out of its mind, or having the feast of its life" I said to myself.
Planning for a wedding is never an easy task—not even when it’s someone else’s. And definitely not when the wedding itself is 5 days long, in a country you’ve never been to. It’s a true adventure complete with a long awaited reunion.
30 Days Before
I head to my tailor at home in Singapore [only I could find a gay Indian tailor born in Delhi who grew up in Seattle—but I digress].
"I have a wedding in Delhi this December…"
And before I could finish, he queried “you’re getting married? To an Indian boy? Where? Who is he? Is he cute? Is he rich? Where’s he from? What does he do? [insert 14 more questions here]”
"No no no…not MY wedding [why does everyone think every wedding I attend is my own?] One of my best friends from college back in the States. Her sister’s wedding."
"Ohhhh. Ok. So you need what…5 outfits?"
"I dunno, you tell me."
As he starts taking my measurements for jackets and slacks while asking me what kind of collar I like and what material I was looking for and how many guests, and what are the details of each night of the wedding, what kind of food……..
"You’re asking me like I actually know this" I replied sarcastically.
"Ok. Traditional? Modern? Western? Indian?"
"Let’s play it safe and do traditional with a nice little modern Indian twist [yes this tailor is that fabulous it’s all I have to say to get something ridiculously fantastic].
So we check fabrics and decide on this sumptuous raw Thai silk…black for all the slacks, jacket 1: black with chameleon blue lining, jacket 2: white with magenta lining, jacket 3: navy with tangerine….[you get it…bright—quite the opposite of my always classic black. Black and more black].
"Come back in a week for a fitting" he said as I was leaving [he, with a much fatter wallet than he had that morning]
"Ok, just call me when you’re ready!"
Later that evening, I’m chatting with Quix back in the States telling her that I’m working on my trip to India in December for a wedding and about my dream as a child to see the Taj Mahal.
"You’re kidding! I’m actually planning on being in India for a wedding at the same time. I’ll be in Hyderabad. Not exactly close to Delhi."
"Yeah, not exactly next door. Wanna meet at the Taj Mahal?" I replied knowing how far the two cities were from each other seriously hoping she would be able to fly up to meet me.
"I think I can make that happen."
My face lit up with excitement and I replied “Deal. Taj Mahal////”
20 Days Before
My phone chimes repeatedly with incoming text messages from my friend in India as I’m nodding off in bed.
"Are you coming? Did you book your flight? When do you arrive?"
"Went to the tailor last week and got my suits started. Haven’t booked my flight yet but as soon as I do, I’ll let you know" [please rephrase using text-type as ‘hvnt bk yet. Suits made. Let u knw.’]
"What? You haven’t booked yet? Why? Are you sure you’re coming? YOU HAVE TO COME! Can’t miss this! Book soon! Everyone is looking forward to meeting you! You HAVE TO COME!" [sent as all separate text messages of course].
"Salie, I’ve had clothes made. That means I’m coming. Chill. Miss you! See you soon! :)" [also all sent as separate text messages].
"Ok. But let me know when you book so I can arrange everything. You need a driver. We have to book the help for your room in the guest house…[ding. ding. ding. ding. ding….]" as I drone out into slumber…phone vibrating itself off the table and chiming away next to my face.
18 Days Before
I log on and book my ticket [send Salie no less than12 separate text messages confirming the date and time]. Print out my itinerary and call my agent to take my passport to the Indian Consulate to have my visa added [cursing under my breath for the $160 it costs for a 6 month multiple entry with a mandated 2 month gap between entries…WTF!].
10 Days Before
Only then, do I get called to Macao for work and have to call the agent to have him call the consulate to get my passport back for my week away [insert freak-out face here as I’m scheduled to return exactly 1 (one…uno) week before my intended departure date to Delhi].
Home from Macao, I call the agent, to pick up my passport [again], to take it to the Indian High Commission this time [since of course now it’s a rush] to finish processing my visa [begin total freak out about not getting it back in time] and wait impatiently for the call to schedule delivery.
2 Days Before
I begin packing [the big suitcase this time…had to dust it off] suits, shoes, casual clothes, and about 20kg of camera gear. All that plus two carryon bags and I was packed for 9 days—my longest adventure since moving to Asia.
24 Hours Before
My passport arrives at my office. Stamped, signed, sealed and delivered [relief]. Home to sleep.
I left the office at 4pm for my flight after convincing Singapore Airlines to upgrade me to business class and reinstate my miles [that were accidentally consumed while booking] and head to the airport to check into the business class lounge.
Board. iPad. iPod. Taxi. Take-off. Eat. Recline. Nap. Land. Customs. Baggage claim.
I can see Salie from the baggage claim in the new terminal at Indra Gandhi International Airport under the sign reading “Nap & Go This Way”.
We haven’t seen each other since 2009 and I can hardly wait to wrap my arms around her in a huge bear hug. And then the notice came across on the baggage carousel indicating our bags were being sent out on another carousel. So, like lemmings, we all move down the terminal…to the other end…the far “other” end.
5 minutes later “Passengers arriving on flight SQ please collect your baggage at carousel number 4” came over the intercom…yes…that’s the carousel we were originally standing at. So back we go. Wash, rinse and repeat twice more [yep. two more times].
Meanwhile, Salie is outside looking at me throwing her hands up in the air as if to say “what the hell is going on!” and I make the universal hand gesture for “Fuck if I know” in return by throwing my hands up in the same fashion as she.
Baggage. Customs. BIG BIG HUGS!
"I can’t believe you’re in India!"
"I can’t believe I’m in India! With you!"
Fast forward through lots of catching up while waiting for another friend coming in from Spain on the next flight.
Driver. Car. Honk and weave our way through the loin-girding Delhi traffic and we pull into the enclave where she lives, through the guarded gate and up to the 15 bedroom guest house. My home for the next week. Exhausted, adventurous bliss.
I wake up in the morning, still not quite knowing what the day held for me, I showered, and dressed. Then a soft knock on my door came, I opened it to David carrying a tray laden with eggs cooked in butter [yes. butter], pastries, and a big pot of steaming chai tea. Heaven.
"Good morning Mr. Jack. Here is your breakfast. Do you have any laundry or ironing for me today?"
"What?" I said almost out loud to myself. Laundry? Ironing? What planet am I on? This still exists?
"No thank you!" I replied still in shock at his original question.
A short while later, Salie comes over to the house fresh as the morning, and informs me that we are going to the grooms house for the start of the wedding.
"Dress casually" she said as she was gliding out the door.
"Oh. And tonight is the Bride’s cocktail. It’s formal so get your suit out!"
"Hey! Wait! Which one? I have 5!" as she peers into my wardrobe and picks out the black jacket with the bright blue lining. "This one is perfect."
Ok…so we have a plan…I guess.
At the home of the groom, we are greeted with flower petals tossed in the air over our heads, dancing, and boisterous Punjab music pounding away on the street outside!
"FANTASTIC!" I exclaimed to myself snapping pic after pic and glancing up to see Salie perched on the balcony in a fully bejeweled sky blue sari [my mind immediately goes to Aladdin and Jasmine—yes I’m a dork] as she waived down at me [elbow elbow wrist wrist—princess-like] and I shouted up "I thought you said this was casual!?.
"Yeah! For you!" [my confused eyes crossing inward and upward feeling like a total tool in jeans and a cardigan].
I meet. I greet. Hugs and kisses all around and positively stuff my face with the most incredible Indian food that has ever passed my lips.
Home [through the loin-girding traffic at 150kph] to sleep off the food coma.
Wake. Shower [again]. Hair coiffed. Suit pressed and laid out [while I was in the shower]. Dress. Driver [traffic and honking] and we’re off to the Brides Cocktail—and everything I ever imagined an Indian would be. Saris, torches, monumental silken fabric swags hanging from palm trees, sofa-sized feather pillows, tables and intricately carved, gilt wooden furniture strewn across the wide sweeping lawn, 5 buffet lines catered by the best in Delhi and of course, my dear friend Salie, drop dead gorgeous…a true stunner covered in jewels, hair in large curls pulled over to one side and furling around her beautiful face playfully bouncing with her every move. She is a vision.
Scotch is passed on silver trays carried by white gloved hands. Food is served copiously. Laughter is contagious. Hugs and kisses bountiful. And we eat. And drink. And eat some more. And drink even more. I snap photo after photo of my new friends and I as I’m complimented on my suit and am called cousin and brother by everyone I meet. And we drink…more.
3am. Home. Disrobe. Sleep.
I wake again to the familiar soft knock on the door and delight in breakfast and tea in bed [recovering from a fierce hangover mind you] and while downloading my shots from the night before, Salie comes in and tells me again “dress casual today” and of course I believe her.
A short while after she left, I heard a crowd of people entering the guest house. Horns honking at the gate, musicians tuning instruments, technicians testing microphones, and cooks shuffling pots and pans in the larger of two kitchens.
"Jack! Come on! It’s time for Mehndi" Salie shouted down the hall to me. I grab my camera and head out into the foyer as the women from both wedding parties were gathering to have their hands decorated for the upcoming wedding—beautiful blushing bride included.
Two plates of food shoved in my lap [mind you I just had breakfast an hour ago] and I inhale them, pull out my camera and begin shooting—the mehndi, the dancing, the joy and happiness of everyone around me…soaking it all in like a sponge. The moment I put my camera down to take a break, I’m pulled into the circle to dance like a dervish with the women [photos and video were taken and I have yet to see myself dancing like a fool—I’m sure blackmail will be involved at some point in my future]. More food. More dancing. More socializing. More photos. More friends. More cousins and more brothers and sisters.
Completely exhausted [in a food/dervish coma] after most of the guests had left, and the food eaten, I fall onto the bed into a deep slumber before the Groom’s cocktail that evening [time for the men!] this time dressing more smart than casual in my sport coat and jeans.
Driver. Honking. Traffic [I know I’ve mentioned the traffic several times, and will continue to do so. Until you’ve experienced the traffic of Delhi, you are not allowed to complain about traffic. Ever]. The Groom’s house. Rooftop terrace. Twilight. We enter—Salie and I. Immediately plates of food are handed to us [I’m steadily gaining weight on this trip] and the cocktail commences with dancing, speeches, skits acted out by the family [did I mention eating?], and more drinking surrounded by gorgeous men [all of whom delighted in keeping me thoroughly drunk—swoon].
Honestly, I don’t remember going home that night but somehow I awoke the next morning to breakfast and fresh laundry in my room.
"What’s on the agenda today Salie" I asked—half wondering if there would be some time to rest, and half wondering what I needed to wear [cue wardrobe].
"Today is at my house for the Chuda" where the bride is laden with gold bangles by friends and family "and tonight is the wedding".
"THE WEDDING!" I exclaimed to myself. "The actual wedding?" I query Salie.
"Yup. The actual wedding ceremony is tonight." I quickly prepare my camera by emptying the memory card from the previous night [and slowly remembering what actually happened image by image] and get frocked for the day and head over to Salie’s house for the ceremony. And yes, we eat. Again.
"When someone really likes you in India, they feed you whether you’re hungry or not" Salie said with a smile as I shoveled spoonfuls of curry, rice, tandoori, and lentils into my mouth followed by overflowing cups of steaming hot tea.
"I guess this is a good thing that I’m steadily gaining weight then…" I said with my mouth half full of food as she belted out in cheerful laughter.
Home again to get frocked. “Salie, what suit should I wear tonight?” I said motioning to my burgeoning wardrobe.
"This one. Definitely" she said confidently as she pulled out the ivory silk jacket with the bright magenta lining.
Horns honk and we are out the door and climbing into the backseat of the car, the mid section of an honest-to-God motorcade and we’re off just in time for the celebration to begin.
The groom arrives on the back of a white horse, covered in pearls, precious stones, and gold, followed by musicians, drummers, dancers, and the biggest fanfare any wedding has ever seen [takes mental note for future husband—Indian or not].
Covered in flower petals and regaled by the musicians and dancers, we enter to find the venue from the Bride’s cocktail completely redecorated. New colors, new fabrics, new cushions and furniture [amazing], and of course, more food and bars and we gather at the edge of the mandap for the ceremony where the priest recites the blessings in Sanskrit from a leather bound book. They exchange rings before being bound together with sacred rope and are married [cue the fanfare] and the festivities continue long into the night…cut to me exiting early stage left to get some rest before my rendezvous with Quix and our very early morning train to Agra.
4:30am. I have my backpack on and I’m standing outside the guesthouse smoking a nice clove waiting for the driver in the icy morning mist [yep. Nice cold weather in Delhi in December]. One tap of the horn and he pulls in the gate and whisks me off to the Imperial Hotel to meet Quix.
"My train returns tonight at 11pm. So I’ll see you here at the hotel after that?"
"Ok Mr. Jack! See you tonight."
In I go and a quick phone call up to Quix’s room and down she comes. Big hugs [not that it had been that long since her last visit to this side of the planet]. Car to the train station confirmed, train tickets confirmed, driver in Agra confirmed, and off we go.
Delhi train station is a din even at 5:30am. People are packed in like sardines [or pickles…which are packed tighter than sardines in my opinion], queuing up for tickets. Onward we go, through the crowd, onto the platform, and board the train for our 2 hour ride to Agra through the North Indian countryside kissed by the peach glow of the rising sun.
Abundant small talk. Memories revisited. Future plans touched upon. Love. Sex. Men. Desires. Goals. Men. India. Men. Vegas. Men. Weddings. Men. And a lot about her experience at the wedding she attended the previous week and how “different” it was from mine—how she got “Delhi Belly” or “Maharaja’s Revenge” [ruddy bloody food poisoning is what it was] and how sick she was from it…for days…and I thought to myself how lucky I had been and was able to avoid it having been there for 5 days already…mostly by eating home cooked food I had assumed.
We arrive in Agra right on schedule and exit the train station and begin the hunt for our driver. No sign [wait. I don’t mean there was no one holding up a sign for us, I meant there was no sign of the driver…physically].
"Well…I arranged it through the hotel in Delhi. I’ve already booked and paid for the driver. Where is he?"
As we wander around, I could see she was a bit stressed and I completely understood. I’ve been in that situation before. In a foreign country. Don’t speak a word of the language, that feeling of being lost in the pit of your stomach…however, I was alone when it happened [adventure]. So we talked through it and finally found a public phone [picture a wooden shack at the front of the parking lot with two people sitting inside with a black rotary house phone hooked up to a long curly ball of cord confusion]. She called. Three times. And finally she got the answer she was looking for.
"They said he’s running late…" she said trailing off in the end there.
"You’ve just been baptized" I said.
"What do you mean?"
"Welcome to traveling in Asia…imagine doing it solo" I said half laughing [quietly of course] and just as I said it, the driver pulled up and introduced the "tour guide" which of course was a surprise as we hadn’t really booked a "guide" per se. In any event, we loaded our bags into the car and proceeded to climb in when the man in the phone "booth" leaned out and said something in Hindi to the driver.
"Miss, you have to pay. Phone calls. Three of them [that was apparently a pay phone]."
"Oh! Ok! How much is it?" We paid and off we went making a B-line to the Taj Mahal to beat the late morning crowd. More loin-girding traffic and we arrive with the option to take a horse-drawn buggy up the road to the monument. We do and "clip-clop" the whole way up the street.
"You know, this is by far the cheesiest tourist thing I have ever done" I said.
"Yeah. Me too. Why did we do it again?"
"I dunno. Ask the tour guide" I laughed.
Alight and in we go after purchasing entrance tickets [damn tour guide kept my ticket stub!]. And one of the new Seven World Wonders reveals itself before us, gleaming white marble in the mid morning sunlight. Sparkling. Almost like a mirage appearing out of the dust. It is truly wondrous to behold and lives up to every expectation anyone could ever have.
We went about our day so enamored at the sites and the sounds of Agra, we nearly forgot to eat and opted to have a late [very late…like 4pm] lunch back at the Oberai Hotel near the Taj Mahal and had hoped to head back in before evening to catch the luminous white structure in the golden light of the waning sun.
"Oberai stopped serving lunch already. Now you must wait for dinner. But I think you will miss your train" said the tour guide frankly.
We both looked quizzically at each other, knowing that there had to be a cafe, a pool bar, a bar bar, or a coffee shop in this 7 star hotel that is still serving food.
"Ok, I will call them and find out" said the guide…the guide that just showed up. The guide we never actually booked [hint].
"No. They are no longer serving lunch or tea and will begin dinner service at 6"
"Well, we can’t wait that long and miss our train right?" I said to Quix.
"Can you recommend a nice place for us to eat?” she asked the guide.
"Yes. I’ll take you somewhere" and I immediately grow suspicious and flashback to my time in Bangkok when tuk-tuk drivers and tour guides would take you by their "friend the tailor", or their "friend the jeweler". NOT! So when we pulled up outside a quite non-descript restaurant, we went inside for a peek. All foreigners [yes that’s a good sign in India] so we opt to stay and have something light. Order. Tea. Eat. Back in the car and head back to the Agra train station. Tickets. Queue. Stairs. Platform. Wait.
Standing on the platform waiting for the train to arrive [20 minutes to go], we make small talk about how amazing it is that we’ve been able to meet twice on this side of the planet since I’ve moved here and about how gorgeous the Taj Mahal really is in person.
And then it happened.
Like someone had dropped an anvil on my head, and followed it with a vat of boiling oil. My stomach turned inside out and flipped over upside down inside my body—repeating said action numerous times. Then someone turned on the sweat machine and every pore of my body began to drip while my core temperature dropped like a bad habit and I began to shiver [mind you this all happened in the span of about 45 seconds].
"Are you ok?" Quix asked concerned that all the color in my face had just faded away and I was a grey-green shell of a man barely standing—wobbling back and forth in front of her.
"I think I’m going to puke" was all I could muster while I was looking for a place to sit down [or fall down]. And in an instant, my brain [still functioning quite rapidly] said to me "NO! Don’t’ vomit on the platform" as I managed to hold it in while walking over towards the pile of cargo ready to be loaded onto the train when it pulled into the station—nearly falling flat on my face as I quickly became dizzy and lost all sense of balance and equilibrium.
I found a wooden crate that came up to my chest, folded my arms on it and laid my head down—still standing. Now, since my brain had so diligently held whatever was wanting to come out, inside my stomach, a ridiculously large, loud and painful gurgle, signified that it was better out than in and one direction or the other, it was coming out. So I reached into my bag, pulled out 3 Immodium, and popped them down my throat keeping my fingers crossed they were fast-acting [they were].
Quix was standing steadfast by my side, consoling me, knowing full well exactly what I was feeling as she had just gone through it the week prior.
"You’re going to be ok. I’m here. Just let me know if you need anything" as the train finally pulled into the station. We boarded and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the car’s restroom. My brain again, still functioning on turbo mode said "Ain’t gonna happen" as I popped another Immodium, nestled into my seat next to Quix and both physically and mentally checked out for the next two hours until we reached the Delhi train station, found our driver and headed back to the Imperial where my driver was thankfully awaiting my return.
I hugged Quix goodbye and climbed into the backseat of the car and pleaded with the driver for a speedy trip back to the house with as little weaving through traffic as possible. He obliged [I think he could see it in my grey-skinned face].
"Maharaja, you have successfully taken your revenge out on me. You can stop at anytime" I was saying to myself [while still cursing the non-guide who took us to the restaurant].
The entire car ride back to the house, I thought of two things. The toilet, and a shower and was unbelievably relieved when we arrived and I made a B-line for my room only to find that the water in that wing of the house was not working. But I was too exhausted to care. I freshened up in the washroom down the hall and fell into bed in my boxers, still covered in sweat [and tears…no blood though…HA!].
I awoke several hours later still on top of the covers and stumbled down the dark corridor to the toilet and came back to find my door locked. Locked. With me standing outside in my boxers. In a guest house full of the family members of both the bride and groom. Here, in the hallway, in the dark, in my underwear I’m reminded of another particularly compromising situation back in college…cue the flashback…
A College Frat Party Flashback
It was a Friday night and I had gone to the market and picked up 3 bottles of Arbor Mist [yeah…I was a classy drunk in college—hey, it’s better than Boone’s Farm right?] and headed to the off-campus frat party down the street.
Fast forward through beer pong, 1, 2, 3, bottles of Arbor Mist [drinking directly from the bottle of course], a few visits from the LAPD to warn us about the noise, and I am waiting in line to use the bathroom. At the time, it seemed that it was taking ridiculously long for the line to move [I had assumed there were girls trying to use the same bathroom and putting on make-up] so I made the executive decision and headed out to what I thought was the backyard to let loose. I finally realize where I actually am, when the LAPD Police Helicopter [the Ghetto Bird] appeared out of nowhere and shone the night-sun down on me. Slow pan out to see me relieving myself on a palm tree on the sidewalk outside the house next to the street. Again…brain working more quickly than I thought possible, a car pulls up, and I dive headfirst through the [open] back window and into the backseat…pants still unzipped, leaving one shoe on the street behind me in a cloud of tire smoke.
I awoke with a full bladder [again] several hours later in my dorm room. Not realizing I was in my birthday suit [and not caring because it was 4am], left my room and crossed the hall to the toilet. Upon my return, I noticed my door was locked [confused]. Thinking I was maybe still intoxicated [I was], I peered closely at the room number [mine] and tried the door again. Locked. Definitely locked [apoplectic and quickly sobering up]. There I am. Nude. 4am. Drunk on a dry campus. Standing in the hallway. So I knocked gingerly on the RA’s door next to mine [hoping that he was not still at the party…or home for the weekend]. He answered. Took one look at me and didn’t say a single word. Laughed at my situation and let me into his room while he went to get the master key. And of course just as he opened my door and I came out of his room…still naked, 3 of my friends entered the corridor to see me, leaving his room [naked].
Finally back in my room, I pass out again on the bed and in the morning move across the house to new quarters…shower for a solid hour, and get back in bed. For the rest of the day. Seriously…the entire day and unfortunately miss the all the glorious fanfare of the post wedding reception [thank you tour guide that we didn’t hire, or book—that took my ticket stub from the Taj Mahal].
The next day, feeling better [not to mention 15lbs lighter], Salie and I venture out in Delhi to do some sight seeing and shopping.
Out of the enclave and into the horn-honking, loin-girding, fist-clenching traffic. Cows crossing the road, people pushing over-laden carts across the highway blocking traffic, cars going off road to get around red lights and jams, children running back and forth over 8 lanes of automobiles…you get it [Bangkok times a thousand basically] over to the Groom’s house to spend some time with her sister before they left on their honeymoon and again two plates of food are set before me [I guess they really like me]—and trust me, after a full day on nothing but water, dry toast, and a tiny bowl of khichdi to calm my stomach [I don’t know what magic is in that simple bowl of rice and lentils but it works], I’m starved. Absolutely famished as we eat before heading back to the house.
Now, I’m fairly well-traveled at this point in my life and stressful situations abroad really don’t phase me as I’ve become fairly thick-skinned and accepting [or tolerant—however you see fit to describe it]. But I was about to have "a moment".
Salie and I are in the backseat of the car weaving through the traffic. My stomach has yet to even partially recover and with every jolt on the brakes or gas, and every sideways weave and lurch around a cow or a cart, I’m feeling rather vomitous. So there we are at a stand-still on the highway. I have to pee [of course…I’m stuck in traffic. I absolutely have to pee. That’s the rule of the universe]. Vendors are coming up and tapping on the window with crying babies in arm. Horns are honking violently. With every lurch of the car I want to puke [and pee…as I look out the window to see someone relieving themselves roadside, I’m instantly jealous]. More vendors with every meter we cover. Cows narrowly missing the side of the car. Music playing loudly outside leaking in from surrounding cars [and inside our car on the radio], Salie is on the phone speaking over the music and the din outside in Hindlish, and her pug is jumping up and down on my lap and [still very sensitive] stomach trying to lick my face while snorting gleefully [and loudly] at all the attention I wasn’t paying her—while I [insert cartoon-style animation of my face turning red and creeping up my body like a giant novelty thermometer] almost reach a breaking point and want to just get out of the car [to pee then puke and walk the rest of the way home]. And then I see it.
Standing in the cloud of exhaust, dust from the roadside, amidst the vendors, the panhandlers, the roadside wee-ers [still envious of that], the crying babes and stepping over cow-pies, are 4 backpackers. Westerners [in full backpacker tool-looking gear, meaning pieces of traditional Indian clothing mixed with neon colored and cut off sweatpants, faded GAP T-shirts and a thousand hand-woven bracelets on each arm wearing $600 sunglasses and touting iPhones], hair braided and dreadlocked, faces covered in grime and half-operational sandals on their feet, holding maps and Lonely Planet guides looking more lost and confused than anyone I had ever seen.
Cut to me in a sport jacket, clean shaven, hair coiffed, in the backseat of a German luxury sedan with tinted windows and air-conditioning complaining about a little leftover “Delhi Belly” and having a full bladder with a pug [complete with rhinestone studded collar] snorting on my lap and my favorite lady next to me on the phone complaining about her haircut.
I. Wanted. To slap myself. Very. Very. Hard.
A Las Vegas Shortie
As soon as I answered my cell in the office and could hear “Glitter” blasting in the speakers and wind whizzing by—I knew I’d be seeing Chiffon and Olivia in a few short hours [someone stock the bars!].
I left my office as soon as I got the text message saying they could see Mandalay Bay. Hurried down the elevator, [out and back up another elevator], into my car and rocketed out of the parking garage leaving a streak of white [pink] smoke in my wake—managing to make it to my house just as the two of them squealed around the corner [equally pink smoke, and the same bass beat I had heard hours earlier in the background]. They bounded out of Chiffon’s fiery red crotch-rocket and over to me for much needed hugs and kisses [both cheeks and lips].
"Where are we drinking?" said Chiffon abruptly.
"Right inside my house" I replied, gingerly gesturing towards the front door.
"I’d like to change and maybe shower first?" I said sarcastically.
In we go and as I’m disrobing, I hear the tell-tale sounds of ice being dropped into a martini shaker and glasses clinking together.
"You bitches better not start without me!" I shouted from the shower
"Don’t worry doll! Plenty to last the next hour—so hurry up!" [chuckling loudly].
I finish showering, coif my hair, don jeans and tight T and just as I’m cinching my belt I hear Olivia shouting from downstairs
"Hurry up! We need provisions!"
"OH MY GOD! I was in the shower for 15 minutes! Did you inject it into your veins?!" [more laughter—of course].
"Ok girls, let’s go" as we head outside and pile into the beamer [the practical choice with 4 seats instead of 2] and squeal out of the driveway and down towards the fruit loop to polish off the afternoon and plan the evening’s debauchery [I use that term loosely…sometimes].
Fast forward through 3 bars and several [another term used loosely] Long Island’s and we’re in a cab heading towards the strip and the straight bars [because that’s where all the REAL MEN are!].
Bar [drink]. Dance [drink]. Drink [drink]. Bar number 2…wash, rinse, and repeat [3 more times] and at 6am as the sun was peaking over the mountains, we were in a cab home.
Trust me. Nothing is more excruciating than the Las Vegas Desert sun, at 6am, encroaching hangover, and no glamour goggles to black it out.
Miserable, we pour ourselves in through the front door after chucking a wad of cash [not counting] at the cab driver, stumble up the stairs to shower and sleep it off.
5 hours later [yes you read correctly…FIVE], I hear the sounds of cooking in the kitchen, smell toast burning, and hear Chiffon hopping up the stairs “Wake up Doll! Brekkie!”
Ugh…I spill out of bed and drip downstairs to find Olivia [pink apron and all] at the stove making Mexican Hangovers.
"Coffee" was the only word I could muster when someone spun the kitchen on me and I fell into my chair [sponge] just as Olivia slid a plate in front of me.
"Ready for round two?" Chiffon chortled.
"WHAT?!" I exclaimed half laughing—thinking she was joking [immediately sobering up].
"Round two!" Olivia retorted. "You know…what we’re doing today!" she said with a serious grin [she means where we are drinking today].
"You can’t be serious. Are you?" I replied.
"Well, maybe we could just have drinks by a pool somewhere…you know…to recover. Like Rehab!" Chiffon chuckled [secretly I think she was serious].
And somewhere—in the back of my mind, the word ‘pool’ equaled ‘nap’ and my bourbon soaked brain told me that it might be my only chance at the rate we’re going—knowing full well I wouldn’t be getting any rest that night [please reference “Chiffon Blows [in the wind]” if needed].
"Ok." I sighed. "Get frocked…we’re heading to the Mandalay Bay pool for a few COCKtails [and a nap]."
"We’re ready dear" Olivia chimed as she dropped her apron [read ‘robe’] revealing her short swim trunks and singlet—Chiffon mirrored her action and we were out the door rocketing down the freeway to pick up my car in a cloud of glitter and pink smoke…Olivia sitting on my lap in Chiffon’s two seater [truly pure comedy for anyone around us on the highway].
At the pool, footballs full of booze, we played “guess who’s the top” for two rounds before I passed out, empty drink in hand dangling by my side only to wake up 3 hours later and turn over [to tan my back] and see Chiffon and Olivia equally passed out—three empty footballs in the sand between us [someone had two].
As the sun set behind the hotel tower, we woke, rinsed off in the pool, and headed for the car and planned the evening out [reluctantly I agreed] and home we sped.
Shower. Nap. Frock. Wig. Face. Car. Bar. [Insert timelapse footage to near sunrise here—mostly because I can’t remember what happened and the only thing that comes to mind is the time-lapse footage from The Hangover—true story]. Cab. Home. Bed.
Now, at the time, I was living with my younger cousin. A cocktail waitress at one of the finer Las Vegas Strip establishments. I’m not going to deny she played a small role in our debaucheries [more than a small role], but I digress.
The following morning, the three of us slinky’d down the stairs to think about breakfast [lunch] when I noticed the door to the garage open. Upon inspection, I also noticed that the car [my cousin’s] was in the driveway, and not in the garage…and sideways [not completely unusual actually].
Cut to me closing the door and forgetting what I just saw [on purpose] and walking back to the living room where I noticed something holding the doggie-door open. As I got closer, I could see that it was Choo. Not just any Choo. But Jimmy Choo! A leopard print 4-inch heel was wedged half inside and half outside the doggy door.
"What the hell?" I said under my breath.
"What’s that Doll?" Of course Chiffon heard me, as I pulled the heel out of the door and held it up presenting it to her.
"Well I hope she didn’t crawl through that!" Olivia said half laughing.
Flashback to Olivia’s Wit
Picture it. July. 2004. The Abbey West Hollywood, California. Chiffon, Olivia and I having mid-week COCKtails out on the patio. 4 or 5 [or 8] cocktails into the evening, and outside we hear the tell-tale thump of a G-Ride rolling down the street.
Cut to the three of us [and half of the bar] jeering at this raised up H2 Hummer. Black, with lime green flames—matching snowboards and skis strapped to the roof. An awkward hush falls over the gays as we stare in silent amazement at this moron.
"WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?! Isn’t it JULY?" [ because as we all know, no where in California, can you ski or snowboard in July] Olivia pierced the silence and a wave of boisterous laughter washed over the crowd.
Now that you’re well versed in the astounding wit that is Olivia…we flash forward.
As I opened the door to the backyard, I noticed something in the garden glinting in the sun so I walked closer and picked up a metallic gold Prada. Across the yard was the other Choo. Hanging from the fence were long blond hair extensions, complete with comb, and on the gate handle was a strip of gold fabric [I’m assuming from the dress].
Now laughing uncontrollably and hardly able to stand on her own, Olivia bursts “WHAT THE FUCK KINDA NIGHT WAS THAT!?!” as she pulls the wig off the fencepost and plops it on Chiffon’s head.
Luang Prabang—Laos In Brief
Barely recovered from my 3 near death experiences the previous night [please refer to “The Flying Tiger, A Typhoon & Near Death Experience(s)” for more details], I was boarding my 25 seat propeller plane from Bangkok to Luang Prabang.
Luggage? Check. Bus to plane? Check. Tarmac? Check. iPad? Check. Highly conspicuous South American women loudly dressed flinging their bleached hair about and hiding behind $900 sunglasses creating a din in the rear of the plane? Check [Tourists. sigh]. Headphones? Check. And 2 hours later I was touching down on a short runway that seemed to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the jungle.
Cut to me leaving the plane and walking across the tarmac to a single story building, the size of my office with a sign on it that read “Welcome to Luang Prabang” where I was meant to meet Alex, my dear friend from Singapore who’d been here for 2 weeks already, picking me up to take me to the bungalow up in the hills above Luang Prabang—home for the next few days.
Now, it’s a well-known fact that I relish in high contrast situations. Having spent the previous night in a 6 star luxury hotel in Bangkok, with sedan transport to and from the airport [complimentary of course], I was not at all surprised to exit immigration to find Alex, bright as a spring day in crop pants and a cool turquoise top with her fiery red hair, standing outside next to a converted antique Thai military jeep [she, in and of herself, with that jeep, was a high contrast situation]. We hop in the back under the canopy and head into town.
Khone, our driver and host [and the handsomest man in Laos—he will confirm that accolade], dropped us off and continued on up into the hills with my luggage to return that evening to pick us up.
Alex and I begin our day at a tiny cafe outside a bookstore and relish in a fresh mango smoothie and absorb the scenery around us—it’s positively luminous. A UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in between two large lazy curves in the Mekong River; Luang Prabang was at one time under French Colonial rule so—gorgeous architecture, and incredible French food [more on that later].
Now, I hadn’t planned it this way, but I just happened to be in town at the same time as the National Dragon Boat Race Finale [really, I swear I didn’t know] and as Alex and I were strolling lazily through town, we managed to catch a practice race [or 10].
Picture this: a toothpick thin hand-carved wooden boat, long enough to seat 52 people [24 on each side, two at the bow and two at the stern to steer it round the Mekong], being thrusted upstream by 48 oars, completely synchronized by the loud, rhythmic “HO!” by it’s rowers with each powerful stroke—faster than the motorized water taxies crossing the river [making more noise than speed].
Strolling through town [sweating like mad], I’m getting a feel for the place. It’s gorgeous and the energy is incredible—positive, happy, glowing, luminous, and smiling. I see novice monks walking around with umbrellas—some juxtaposed with their punked out friends with silver jackets and spiked multi-colored mohawks [high contrast situation]. The town is dotted with temples and monasteries, with incredible French-Colonial architecture and antique Mercedes-Benz.
We continue mooching around town [still sweating], stopping periodically for long sits by the Mekong and into the best French cafe in Luang Prabang [and I’m convinced the best in the world] with the absolute cutest waiter I’ve ever seen. We called him Frenchie [he was Laotian, but in my head, he’ll always speak perfect French] and he had a smile that would stop a world war [Alex and I were both completely infatuated with him]. Coffee is ordered, pastries are brought and then bliss. The flakiest, most buttery, crispy-outside-warm-soft and chocolatey inside—pan au chocolat I have ever had. Ever [Paris, you have some things to learn from this—please take note]. As I chomped silently through layer after layer of crispy buttery goodness, Alex noticed the quiet smile on my face, and ordered another [though I secretly think she just wanted Frenchie to come over and smile at us again—melt]. Now fully caffeinated [again] up and out we go [waiving goodbye to Frenchie of course] to finish our stroll before Khone picked us up for a home-cooked Laotian dinner back at the bungalow—not before rounding a corner to see 52 gents carrying their dragon boat through town and up to the temple in preparation for the next morning’s practice.
Pile into the second antique Thai military [ex-military] jeep—this one topless with, of course, the most handsome man in Laos as the driver, and out of town we go and head towards the mountains. Right. Left. Right, and we are bouncing our way up a muddy rough road into the hills just outside Luang Prabang.
It was barely dusk when we turned into a group of 6 thatch a-frame bungalows perched perfectly on the side of a hill surrounded by luscious greenery, flowering trees, and soft grass. A single footpath lead up to my bungalow—#6 right next to Alex complete with a meowing cat outside my door begging to get in [fat chance].
I open the door to glorious teakwood flooring, a large fluffy bed with tons of pillows and blankets, and an enormous drape of soft white mosquito netting surrounding it all—after not sleeping well for a solid week, this looked like heaven. I quickly unpack and am beckoned back down the hill by Alex calling me for dinner, and the incredible smells of Laotian Chicken and Chilies wafting up from the open air kitchen at the bottom.
We dine. Chat. Smile. Laugh and are thoroughly entertained by Khone’s antics and lulled into bliss by the sound of night birds, crickets, and the soft breeze through the trees around us. Off to bed. Wash up and snuggle in, surround myself with the mosquito netting and drift off into silent, breezy, open air slumber.
In the morning, I’m drawn out of sleep by song birds, the absence of crickets chirping, and the smell of freshly baked French bread from the kitchen below. Up I get, and down I go for incredible Lao coffee [home-ground and brewed of course] so rich, flavorful and strong, it’s still black after a double dose of heavy cream and brown sugar. And out of the kitchen come plates of eggs cooked in butter [yes. butter], sliced mango, freshly baked baguettes with preserves [and butter], croissants that would put every cafe on Rue St. Germain in Paris to shame, and of course—more coffee. And we sit and plan the day’s activities while taking in our gorgeous surroundings [high contrast situation—eating the best French breakfast ever while sitting in the jungle of Laos in an open air thatch-roof dining room—I know, only me] complete with amazing conversation about life, love, work, art, men, sex, sex, men, and art.
Shower [though I’m not sure why since I’m a non-stop sweat machine], dress, back down the hill and into the jeep for another day exploring Luang Prabang filled with glorious fruit juices, French pastries [and Frenchie—melt], and lazy strolls past temples and monasteries, and long conversations with novice monks learning English:
"Hi! How are you today!" Alex asked a smiling group of young novices.
"Good! We are learning English! Where are you from?" they inquired.
"Well, I’m from Australia, and he’s from the US—but we both live in Singapore." she replied.
"Oh! We have a teacher from Australia teaching us English."
I look over at Alex and say “They’re learning Aussie English? Good lord help these young boys.” and she gave me belly laugh [and a belly punch for the comment].
"Well, it was nice talking to you! And your English is EXCELLENT!" she exclaimed as we waived goodbye.
"See ya Mate!" said one of the monks [high contrast situation] and we both doubled over in laughter as we walked away seeing 5 people on one motorcycle buzz by us.
"OH MY GOD!" she said. "Five on a bike! HAHAHA!!!"
Now, for some time, I’ve known that Alex, a fantastic artist, was looking to take up residence in Luang Prabang—and now seeing it first-hand, I can see why. As mentioned before, It’s absolutely beautiful. The food is amazing, the people are warm-hearted, friendly and always smiling—just like Alex.
So milling about town on Princess Street [named so because of the Princess’ residence on said street], we stumble across a teakwood house with a sign on the front reading “for lease.”
I looked at Alex, and she looked at me, and we began to nose around the property and peek through the windows.
"Quick! Come here and look at this!" I exclaimed to Alex as she was making her way to the backyard.
"Look at the front steps!"
And as she looked down, I saw her eyes light up and her face fill with gladness. For the front steps, were lovingly dappled, dripped, and splattered with a rainbow of paint colors—a Jackson Pollack of sorts leading into the front door—an artist’s house for an artist. Fate took us down that street and led us to the front steps of what is now going to be Alex’s new home.
Filled with happiness and anxiety all at the same time, we finish our day with dinner in town and head back up to the bungalows for a good night’s rest.
"Tomorrow’s the dragon boat race…the finale" Alex said to me.
"And I think we should go see that. Don’t you?" I nodded in agreement with her.
Dinner, chit-chat about the house, and the day’s activities [and Frenchie’s smile of course] and plan the next day to visit Kuangsi Falls before the boat races. Up to #6 I go to shower and climb through my mosquito netting and nestle in for another night of fantastic uninterrupted slumber.
Fast forward to about 3:30am [why is it always 3:30am?] and I hear a distinct sound fluttering about in the upper eaves of the thatch ceiling above my bed. I sit up, and listen—unable to pinpoint what the noise is or what animal is making it. So I reach out through my mosquito netting and flick on the light. I still can’t see anything. So I get up. I turn on the big overhead light and am immediately buzzed by a large, blind, bat. In my bungalow.
"WHAT THE HELL!?!" I exclaim to myself [out loud of course] and search for something to waive at it to get it to fly towards the window finally picking up a dirty pair of pants.
I shoo it around for close to 20 minutes before it finally made its way towards the door. I open, and waive the pants at it one last time and out it goes. Back to bed.
The next morning, I tell Alex my heroic tale of how I got the bat out of my bungalow.
"Well, I knew you were only slightly crazy when we met, that’s why we’re friends. But now I know you’ve got bats in your belfry, I’m re-thinking the whole thing!" she said with a deep heartfelt laugh as we enjoyed another fantastic breakfast.
After breakfast, we hop into the jeep and bounce down the mud road towards Kuangsi Falls. Normally bright aquamarine blue because of a particular mineral present in the soil. However, after the recent heavy rains covering most of the country, it was unfortunately as brown as the Mekong and dumped heavily over the cliffside—yet still so beautiful. Alex and I found respite in ionizing ourselves in the misty cool breeze hiking around the falls, in and out of little caverns created by estuaries and offshoots of the giant waterfall before us.
Back in the jeep [I ride in back this time so I can snag better scenic photos] and home to the bungalows for a shower and a change before heading into town for the National Dragon Boat Race Finale—very exciting!
We turn onto the mud road and make the usual right turn up the hill and stop next to a novice monk, clad in saffron robes, walking up the hill. Khone stops and before I realized what was happening, there he was. Picture me, wet, covered in mosquito repellent, dirty, sitting next to this young novice, in the raised backseat of a 50 year old Thai military jeep trudging through the jungle [high contrast situation]. I laughed silently to myself the rest of the ride up and I could see Alex smiling at me out of the corner of her mouth, knowing that this would definitely make my book.
Bungalow. Shower [again, why?], change. Back in the jeep and into the bustling [now completely full] town and we are dropped at the post office in the center. We make our way to a cafe to have lunch with a view of the Mekong, and the pre-race rehearsals. Seeing if we can pick which team will win [of course we can’t remember—it was the red team right?].
We mill and stroll about along the banks of the river fraught with thousands of people from all over Laos—young children, large families, old men in Fedora hats smoking pipes and eating dried-grilled squid from makeshift grills along the roadside—charcoal in a clay bowl fanned with palm leaves to turn the heat up.
After 30 or more dragon boats raced by, we are pretty sure who the winner was and off we go for what? More food and a visit to Frenchie [for coffee, croissants, lemon sodas and smiles] while we figure out where to do what? Have dinner! Kidding. At that point we decided we should do something besides walk around and booked a sunset cruise in a long boat around the Mekong.
And there we were…in our own boat. Just the three of us [including the driver]—lazily motoring upstream as the sun dipped slowly behind the hills and the sky changed from deep orange, to velvet blue.
Off the boat and back up into the streets, we head towards L’elephant for a nice dinner—our last night in Laos. Three-courses and $35USD later, we were full of the best steak-frite I’ve ever tasted and wandering through the night market back to Khone, waiting to pick us up and take us back up into the mountains.
In the morning, reluctantly packing, and really wanting to stay another week, I head down for brekkie with Alex and as I predicted, during the night, she has decided she wants the house and will visit it again today before we leave. After brekkie, we pile in the jeep and head down the hill to town, making a pitstop on our way to the airport at the postoffice so I can mail 200 postcards, and over to the teakwood house, with blue window frames and shutters, and brightly painted front steps. I can see it in her face. This house is hers—complete with the monastery in back and monks using her yard as a shortcut to and fro.
I imagine her sitting on the large veranda sipping Lao coffee, writing a long lovely letter to me, with the soft thrum of the temple drums in the background, calling the monks home for evening prayer—criss-crossing her backyard, her latest masterpiece on canvas behind her; birds chirping in the trees as the sun sets on the horizon, and the crickets beginning their nightly song—lulling her to sleep.
A Budget Airlines Shortie
Rocking up to Bangkok for a one night stayover [please reference "Bangkok Your Tuk-Tuk & The World’s Your Oyster" for previous experiences in aforementioned city] en route to Laos for the long week end, against my own better judgement [based on past experience], I opted for the budget airlines—primarily because the timing was perfect [so I thought].
The goal? Leave The Dot at 4pm. Arrive in Bangkok around 7 [after customs and the 40 minute drive into the city]. Have dinner at my favorite restaurant, and go for a long steam and soak in the gorgeous spa at Le Meridian [knowing I’d be roughing it for the next 4 days in the mountains of Luang Prabang] in preparation for my 4am wake-up call, and 6am flight the next morning.
Luggage. Taxi. Office. Taxi. Airport [Budget Terminal…ew]. Baggage check. Security. Snack [saving stomach for amazing Thai]. And be herded like cattle towards the gate to board my flight after the announcement came over the terminal-wide PA system.
Now, [contrary to popular belief] I’m not usually particular about the airline I fly, as the adventure in the destination is much more important to me than luxury in transit [though I do melt over the occasional business or first class upgrade]. But as mentioned before, I had mixed feelings about this one. Call it gut instinct, or intuition—whichever you choose. It was “iffy” to say the least.
Picture it. Budget Terminal—Changi Airport, Singapore; waiting at the gate [again, after being directed to do so by the PA announcement], and what have we here? No plane. A gate full of would-be weekend warriors like myself, waiting in line with carryon luggage, and no plane in sight.
We watch the minutes tick away, approach our departure time [noted on the reader board—unchanged], pass it, and keep going. Still no plane and yet we stand. And wait. Some patiently, some impatiently. 15 minutes passes. No plane. 30 minutes passes. No plane [yet the reader board fails to change to “delayed” or even “cancelled”]. The natives are becoming restless…as am I.
I quickly email the hotel in Bangkok to tell them I’ll be late for my pick-up and late checking in. And again. I wait. Standing there. In line. Unable to leave the gate. All around me, people begin to complain [a national pastime—like baseball in America]. Loudly. And pull out their mobiles and begin to call those waiting for them at their destination, those that dropped them off at the airport, and even calling to scream at those that booked the ticket for them [because they have so much control over airline scheduling issues]. And soon after that, people begin to park, and make themselves comfortable on the floor [like I said—budget terminal…picture a bus station in a metropolitan city of 5million people, with no chairs or benches (cheap bastards)].
It’s now been an hour [I’m apoplectic], and I’m beginning to think that this flight is either cancelled, or was never scheduled and I’m going to miss dinner at my favorite restaurant, AND the spa will be closed when I arrive at the hotel. Every inquiry I overhear to the 5 [yes five] people standing at the check-in counter is basically as follows:
"Is this flight cancelled?"
"I’m not sure sir/ma’am."
"Can you call and find out? I have a connection I’m going to miss!"
"So sorry. I don’t have any information on this flight."
Don’t ask me why they’re even standing there [reader board still showing this flight at the passed departure time].
"Why don’t you change the reader board if the flight is delayed?"
"So sorry sir/ma’am, I don’t have approval to do that yet" [typical].
Wash, rinse and repeat those conversations to yourself a few dozen more time when finally, 90 minutes later, the plane arrives—with no reason for the delay given to the awaiting passengers. And true to form, no one asks as they board [trust they’ll complain about it later].
Board. Stow luggage. Pack seatback pocket with iPad, iPod and phone [my travel ritual]. I purchase a bottled water [like I said, ‘budget airline’—meaning you have to purchase anything and everything you wish to consume] and sit back and wait for take-off.
After a 2 hour nap, I’m awakened by severe turbulence, and the Captain speaking to the cabin about a “typhoon blowing in to Bangkok” and that “there shouldn’t be any delays as we can fly around it” [yeah…right].
Landing Attempt 1:
We arrive in Bangkok from the South with some fairly stiff winds blowing in from the East. As the landing gear thumps open and the air begins whooshing around the wheels, I can see the city below, haloed in misty-rain laden clouds, and I feel content when I finally see the lights from the airport ahead and the ground growing ever closer to me from below.
As we come in for our approach, a cross wind blows us off course. We turn almost 30 degrees away from the runway and the captain pushes the throttle up to full, and we take back off into the air as the landing gear pulls back up into the belly of the 737.
"Sorry about that ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing some severe cross winds at the moment, but we will circle around and change the direction of our approach to compensate."
Now, I’ve dealt with sever turbulence before and it’s truly a non-issue with me.
Landing Attempt 2:
The Captain circles around to come in from the North. Once again, I see the ground below me growing closer as the landing gear thumps open and the air whooshes around the extended wheels below me [yeah I’m sitting above the landing gear]. As we begin our final approach, we are hit by a strong downdraft, pushing the nose of the plane abruptly down towards the runway as people roller-coaster up out of their seats [I just made that term up by the way—at least I think I did] and once again, the engines roar skyward. No announcement from the Captain this time.
Again, turbulence doesn’t normally phase me. Normally.
Landing Attempt 3:
At this point, I don’t care what direction we approach from, or even if we don’t land at all. I. Want. Off. This. Plane. And as far away from this airline as humanly possible. This time, we attempt from another direction, I can only assume back to the original approach. Yet again, I see the ground approaching as the landing gear thumps out below my seat. In our final descent, we are hit by another downdraft—this time at the rear causing the nose of the plane to shoot skyward and roll a bit to the left [and I know this because I looked out my window and all I saw was sky].
At this point, I’m fairly certain, this plane is going to do one of two things—crash land in Bangkok, or divert to another airport. And regardless of how many million miles I’ve flown in my life without so much as a hiccup, my gut was telling me to place my bet on the former [obviously that didn’t happen or I wouldn’t be writing this].
4th Times a Charm.
Finally on the ground, through baggage claim and immigration. I message Clara on the other side of the planet, tell her what happens, and imagine her sitting out on the veranda, sipping her morning coffee, and spitting it everywhere after reading my near-death experience tale.
In the back of the Le Meridian S-Class Mercedes on the way into the city, I make a decision.
"Screw the spa—I’m pretty sure I nearly died. I’m going out".
Check in. Shower. Change. Dinner. Gay Bar. 7, 8, 9 [I lost count] Singapore Slings, 4 ‘dance partners’ [I use that term loosely as I am not a single man—yet feel free to interpret it any way you wish to either make the story in your head more or less interesting], and 6 hours later, I’m on my way back to the airport to board my 25-seat propeller plane [under a crystal clear blue sky—of course] to Laos, with a monster of a hangover [and quite possibly still a bit drunk], and a hell of a story to tell—and not quite sure how I’m mustering up the courage to board another, smaller, plane.
Please note that on the return trip home to Singapore, all near-crash experiences aside, I had the same issue with the timing of the flight and spent an extra hour of my life in the airport that I’ll never get back.
An Easter Romance
It’s a sublime experience flying South over the Equator—crossing swiftly from day into twilight.
Behind and below; azure blue, fading into creamy gold—peach, pink, orange then blackness. Ahead, velvet midnight speckled with stars of unfamiliar constellations haloed by the waning moon—silvery and soft. In the quiet of the airplane cabin, my head resting softly and comfortably on his shoulder fading into blissful slumber, I felt completely at peace with the universe—reality, now a figment of my imagination.
The thud of the landing gear dropping from the belly of the plane wakes us as we land in Denpasar. Carryon luggage, immigration, driver, hotel and up a long a stairway lined with jasmine, stargazer lilies, and the sweet song of tropical birds into the dimly-lit hotel lobby.
The hotel porter takes our bags, and after being greeted by the concierge with cool lemongrass scented towels and freshly squeezed guava juice, we are shown to our room.
Double doors lead to a teak-wood suite open at the front to the sea below and the moonlit sky above. The soft trickle of the foyer fountain flowing through the room and out into the edgeless, indigo pool—blending the boundary between earth and sky, reality and fantasy, love and lust. We look at each other smile silently and decide to have dinner by candlelight. So we walk down the stairs to the beach, feeling the soft white sand between our toes, hearing the waves ebbing and flowing at the shoreline, and the moon glinting across the peaks and valleys on the dunes around us, and his smiling eyes—always happy and serene.
Just after sunrise, we woke in each other’s arms to a heavy rainstorm—the sheer drapes billowing in from the balcony door, and the aroma of clean, fresh, rain-soaked breeze, touched with the scent of the last night-blooming jasmine and salt from the sea.
"I think we could lay here all day" he said chuckling.
"I think we could…but only if you really wanted to" I replied giving him an elbow in his stomach.
But forgetting I had ordered breakfast the night before, the soft knock at the door pulled me out of bed and in walked the butler wheeling a breakfast table laden with fresh juices, fruits, pastries and eggs.
"Would you like to take your breakfast out on the veranda?"
"Perfect" I replied quickly.
So, there, in the morning rainstorm, under the thatch roof, we ate breakfast and relished in each other’s company—feeling as though I was wrapped in a warm blanket. And when the rain stopped and the sun began to pierce the clouds in bright white beams of light, we changed and headed back down to the beach to pass the time with the sound of the surf and the cool salty breeze in our faces.
For hours, we lay there on the chaise, talking, smiling, laughing, and soaking in our surroundings like sponges—absorbing relaxation and quiet, realizing that the peace we had been searching for back home, had finally arrived—or maybe that it was with us all along, and we simply needed to find it with each other.
"Bracelet? Souvenir? Postcard? Anything you want I have for you" said an older woman who spent her day walking the beach, selling her wares to tourists and weekend warriors.
"I bet she never needs a pedicure" I said.
"HAHAHA!" he let out a belly laugh so hard, he spilled his coconut juice into his lap.
"I’m serious! I actually pay money every other week to make my feet look half that good!" laughing loudly and going back to reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s [thinking ‘$50 for the powder room’ would buy a lot of pedicures here].
"I love that movie" he said. "Always one of my favorites—but I’ve never read the book" he said gesturing to the simple orange and white cover.
"Books are always better than the movies, in this case, you really get to know the ‘other’ side of Holly Golightly" I said with air quotes and giggling quietly.
"Really? She was?"
“Butterfield 8 all the way!”
He smiled at me [of course I melted]. I caught a whiff of his cologne, mixed with salt air and the coconut oil on his skin, and I don’t know what came over me…but I said it:
"Could we do this forever? You and I?" I half regretted saying it after the words passed my lips—not knowing what his answer or his reaction would be.
"You mean lay on the beach? I don’t know about that" he said.
My heart sank and I started to think I shouldn’t have asked.
"But you and me? I DO think that could be forever…if we really wanted."
Bliss instantly pumped through my veins, hot, like a Molotov cocktail being poured over my body, and I couldn’t resist leaning over and kissing him softly on the cheek.
"Yeah?" I said. "But what would people think?"
"Do you really care?" he said with a wry grin.
"Nope. Never have, never will" and then came my return kiss.
"You know, sometimes, I feel so thin, like butter scraped over stale bread. But you…you make everything alright. You make everything seem ‘meant to be’. I’ve never felt so safe and comfortable with anyone in my life. When I’m with you, the world around me shuts off. And all you have to do is smile. I don’t know how you do it, and I don’t care. So long as you keep doing it haha!"
"I love you too" he said smiling. "Let’s get a massage yeah?"
"See? There you go again!"
"HAHA! Let’s go" he said snapping his towel at me and tugging at my arm.
At dinner, perusing the menu, we, at the same time, noticed the carrot shaped “vegetarian icon” next to both the Chicken Satay, and the Red Snapper en Croute.
"Is this fake chicken?" he asked.
"Um…I don’t think so" I said as we both laughed out loud at the table.
After dinner we made our way down to the beach and lay in the cool soft sand staring up at the silver confettied sky listening to the steady chime-drum-rhythm of Balinese Barong music off in the distance—the sound of people singing out on the the tide flats gathering small fish and prawns from the shrinking pools carried over on the breeze, their small torches glinting off the shallow water giving hints of their silhouette, baskets yolked over their shoulders and wide brimmed, woven straw hats.
"Let’s go out somewhere tomorrow. Explore a bit."
"Sure" I said. "Anything you want."
He hugged me gruffly and whispered to me “This is what I want.”
By Noon, we had made it up into the mountains of Ubud. We’d seen a 1200 year old temple, a monkey forest, the largest rice paddy in Bali, been followed by vendors selling goods [both legal and illegal] and arrived at the edge of a lava flow for lunch complete with an unobstructed view of the caldera of a volcano that seemed so close, we could almost touch it. Fast forward through winding roads, hills and valleys, monkeys [everywhere], a coffee plantation and full speed ahead to catch the sunset on the cliffs of Uluwatu—our last night in Bali.
Standing on the precipice, the silhouetted ancient temple at our right, the peach and magenta sunset over the sapphire blue waters at our left, verdant green cliffs at our feet, and surrounded by mischievous monkeys stealing everything from hats and shoes to backpacks—he took me in his arms and we gazed out over the crashing waves in silent bliss until the last fleck of deep crimson dipped below the horizon and the sky turned rich cobalt blue.
"I don’t want to go back tomorrow" he said with disappointment in his voice.
"Promise me we can do this again" I said with an ear-to-ear grin.
He looked at me and half smiled, “cross my heart and kiss my elbow.”
Chinese New Year in Sri Lanka
Leave it to me to spend Chinese New Year, not celebrating, but globetrotting with Beth. Pack. Work. Taxi. Airport. Baggage. Security. Flight [Oooh Curry Chicken!].
Both blind in sleep-masks after dinner, we are blissfully sleeping, and suddenly awaken by a neighboring passenger snoring away [and farting louder than a crop duster over Iowa]. We both refuse to remove our eye-masks, but cower closer to each other [as if that would shield us from the stink] when the head flight attendant announces they will be “spraying the cabin with an innocuous substance meant to hinder bacteria transfer between Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka” [I’m sure it was to cover up the fart smell spilling into business class] so again, we keep our masks on and sink deeper into our seats [yeah…mentally it helped…a little].
Land. Breathe. Customs. Currency exchange.
"500 Singapore Dollars for Rupee Please" I say to the cashier as she begins to punch her calculator with the eraser of her stubby, knife-sharpened pencil. I stop in my tracks when she turns the screen to me, showing a number with so many zeros it almost needed an exponent.
"Really?" I say [confused with unsure eyes crossing outward].
"Yes sir. This is the currency exchange rate…" as I look over at Beth to confirm she’s having a similar experience [she is so I continue].
"Yes. Thanks!" as she begins to drop stacks of cash into an automated bill counter leaving me with 3 wads so huge I need rubber bands and a zipper pouch to keep it in.
"How are we supposed to carry this around?" I ask beth as she laughs at me in agreement as we walk towards passenger pick-up [past an appliance store? really? In the airport? INSIDE customs?] to the man in white gloves holding our names up on a ecru paper card.
We smile in acknowledgement, he gingerly takes our bags and guides us outside to the waiting car—a luscious cream-colored 1956 Mercedes-Benz 220S Sedan, with “[hotel X]” brushed in pure gold on the rear door [God love the revived Dutch-Colonial Era]”…and I even like the color!” I said with glee and hopped up to the open car door.
"Bee-beeep!" [brakes squeal] "vrrooommm!" [brakes squeal and dust flies] "Bee-beeeeep!" [biker’s jumping out of the way] through the loin-girding traffic of Colombo "Vrooooomm!" [brakes squeal]. [Hotel X].
Beautifully perched on the bluff overlooking the Indian Ocean, [Hotel X], was originally built as a Dutch fort, and is obviously well-guarded with Arru at the front door, a 92 year old doorman with more “medals of honor” than Stormin Normin [I can only assume he’s armed and dangerous underneath his sweet grandfatherly exterior]!
Registration, check in, and escorted to our Royal Thai [wait…isn’t this Sri Lanka?] Suite. The white-gloved Valet pulls out a large brass key [complete with white silk tassel], opens the door and ushers us inside to an extremely large open living room [fraught with cushion-less carved wooden furniture—cozy] and across a creaky wooden floor that would put the Hound of the Baskervilles out of his shoes [read ‘creepy as all get out’].
Disrobe, shower, re-robe, 4-poster bed, window open to let in sea breeze and curtains billow spectrally into the room [am I setting the scene well enough for you here?], sheets, blankets, lights out. Snore.
Cut to me waking at 3:15am [why is it always 3:15am?] to the sound of a cart rolling around where I think to be upstairs—not unlike that of a child’s tricycle with hardened wheels [on an equally creaky wooden floor]. I don’t open my eyes and think nothing of it until I am engulfed in an icy breeze [why me again?]. Thinking to myself, maybe I’ll get up and close the window, I turn over to face it, when the sound of the cart’s wheels on the heavily waxed wooden floor, comes right up to my face…and…stops…directly in front of me. I have the overwhelming sensation that someone is standing there, staring me down, and breathing over me. I keep my eyes tightly shut and freeze in place hoping and praying for it to go away. Eventually, I feel a bit lighter, and hear the sound of the wheels, pull away and leave the room. I relax, sit up, see nothing [save for Beth completely passed out in the next bed], turn on the bathroom light, and go back to bed [and lay awake all…night…long].
Day 1: Negombo and the Ayurveda Pavilion
After the previous night’s ghostly encounter [with something that more than likely wanted nothing more than to play with me rather than scare the ever-loving shit out of me], I was exhausted and wanted some pampering, so in the car we go.
"Bee-beeep!" [brakes squeal] "vrrooommm!" [brakes squeal and dust flies] "Bee-beeeeep!" [biker’s jumping out of the way] through the loin-girding traffic of Colombo "Vrooooomm" and head north on the highway towards the quiet fishing village of Negombo and the Ayurveda Pavilion to be covered in essential oils, packed with herbs, and massaged into Nirvana [read ‘laying naked on a massage table in an open air bungalow covered in oil and kamikaze mosquitos’—though I was slightly happy they died on impact in the 7 layers of oil I was coated in].
Thoroughly tenderized, back in the car we go and head South towards Colombo, which in contrast to sleepy Negombo, perpetually looks like a bomb just went off, or a fire has just been put out [though they did just end a 10 year civil war] full of warm smiles, happy-busy people and amazing food [and loin-girding traffic—have I mentioned that before?]. At this point, I’m wondering how I’m going to endure another night in that frigging haunted hotel room [then I remember the Tylenol PM I have stashed in my carry-on].
Back at the hotel, nothing sounds better to me than a long hot shower [and washing away about 500 attempts at my blood by kamikaze mosquitos suspended in the oil on my skin]. Stepping into the already steaming shower, I notice under the towel rack just above the toilet a placard reading “ABSOLUTELY NO BATHING OUTSIDE THE BATHTUB.”
WTF [confused eyes rolling back in my head]?
Day 2: The Road to Kandy
"Oh my God! Look how many crows there are!" Beth exclaimed while we were having breakfast on the black and white checkerboard veranda.
"What are they doing here? No one’s feeding them!" I inquire as one swoops down narrowly missing my glass of guava juice.
We both shrug our shoulders as we glance out toward the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean to see Arru, the 92 year old heavily awarded doorman, enter [stage left] with a sling shot and a handfull of pebbles.
Cue ‘The Birds’ [Hitchcock anyone? No? C’mon! It’s a classic for crying out loud!]!
Breakfast. Check-out. Luggage. Car. 4-hour drive north into the mountains to Kandy. Nap. Drive. Nap. “Oooh Photo Opp!” Nap. Drive. Nap Drive. Lost. Drive. Lost. Ask for directions. Drive [note, neither of us are driving, we are with a driver from the previous hotel—and he’s still LOST!], and finally up into the misty forested Hantana Hills of Kandy and the Palace in the Clouds [Hotel X] Resort.
While Beth is at the entrance arguing with the driver over the extra Rupee he was asking for [$6 total], I take the opportunity to absorb the spectacular vista laid out before me [while being served cinnamon ceylon tea—from CEYLON!]—low lying clouds covering the tops of the forested peaks, and cool misty breezes drifting up and into the open-air hotel reception—beautiful [tuning out Beth’s arguments with the driver about tourism to Sri Lanka, and being ripped off], I relax, and sink into the cushy sofa while our room is prepared.
The moment I see her slip away to the washroom, I run up to the driver, hand him a stack of Rupee, ask him to say “he’s forgotten the price difference” and head back down the mountain to Colombo [Beth, don’t read this paragraph].
Fast forward through check-in, room, unpack, food, massages booked, front desk, concierge, rainstorm.
"We’d like to book a driver up into Pollannaruwa tomorrow…"
"Sir, I’m sorry, it’s raining."
"Yes I know that, I love the rain. How long is the drive?"
"Sir, I’m sorry but you can’t go"
"Excuse me? Why not?"
"It’s raining. It’s been raining a long time. Many days."
"Sorry sir. It’s raining."
[NO EFFING KIDDING! I CAN SEE AND HEAR IT!]
"And that means I can’t go?"
[fishing for details here…anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?]
"So, when it rains, are the roads closed? And the trains aren’t running?"
"Yes sir. There’s a flood" she said with a confident smile [FINALLY AN ANSWER!]
Back to the room I go to inform Beth of our misadventure [non-adventure is more like it] and make plans for our next move. As it turns out, the flood had been major and nearly 500,000 people were displaced from their homes…so no ruins for us.
Driver. Kandy. Temple. Elephants. Loin-girding traffic. Incessant honking/clutch-grinding/brakes squealing…and there…through the din, a sign on the side of the road… “Honking is Prohibited by Law”
Day 3: The Train To Colombo
Being unable to venture up into the ancient royal cities and explore some of the world’s most sought-after ruins [think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom…seriously], we decide our best bet is to head away from the rain and go South towards the coast.
Luggage. Station. Tickets [oooh luxury caboose—not]. Board. Whistle. Chug.
Heading down the mountain and looking out at the jungle and small towns passing by, I look over Beth’s shoulder to see two young boys covered in soap, showering in a stream pouring down the cliffside [who say’s ‘no bathing outside the bathtub’] as we chug, bump and roll down the mountain back to Colombo to transfer to our second train South to Galle. Nap.
At the Colombo train station. Tickets to Galle. Wait. Shop. Pee. Train. Board. Whistle. Chug. Settle in to our seats [of course they are adjacent to the bathroom—ew] and watch Colombo fade into the distance with the setting sun [coupled with the sounds of farts and grunts from the poorly insulated bathroom door]. We slip into uncomfortable slumber as the rickety train lurches along the tracks and wake when the it stops at a station in Maggona Village…and doesn’t start again.
One by one we see people hopping off the train…and no one hopping on. 20 minutes later, someone comes up to us [the two American’s with luggage still in their seats] to tell us that the train has broken down and will not be fixed until the morning.
Confused [read ‘scared shitless’] glances at each other wondering where we are and how far we are from the Galle station and “WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO NOW?!?!”
A nice man tells us that there is an inter-city bus that we can catch that will take us to the Galle station just down the street. We hand down our luggage, hop off the train and walk.
Out on the street in Maggona, it appears to us that the train station is the only thing in….Maggona Village. That plus the highway which we were standing on, while tuk-tuks [see? there’s always a tuk-tuk] and speeding cars weave and whiz by and the occasional bus so full there are people sitting on top holding on for dear life [visions of our near future dance in my head].
A few moments later, a metallic silver bus with giant lavender lettering on the side that read “Dancing Bus”, a rubix cube/disco ball cluster hanging from the rearview mirror, christmas lights framing the windshield, and shag carpeting on the dash, comes to a screeching halt in front of us and the small crowd of people who had gathered from the broken down locomotive.
The side door opens and the bus appears to be full….completely full. However, being innovative, the Sri Lankan driver squeezes two more people into the back seat, opens two folding chairs, sets them up on the transmission hump in the middle of the floor, straps our luggage to the rear and off we go…to the beat of [loud] Sri Lankan techno music…blaring…and a large LED backlit buddha on the dash, blinking to the beat of the music.
"Are you serious?" Beth and I look at each other perplexed.
"Yes. This is really happening" I say as I glance toward the front to see a tiny puff of smoke pour out of the dashboard as the music and the blinking Buddha die…only to be immediately fixed with a swift smack on the top of the dash.
"And here we go again…" I say with a wry [half annoyed, half pissed off] smile.
We finally arrive in Galle and wait for a tuk-tuk [yes…a tuk-tuk…again] and I seriously can’t wait to get to our hotel and have a shower to wash off the 15 concentric layers of sweat, mosquito repellant, and anti-itch cream [in that order—the cream was to stop the itch of the 30+ bites I already had, but I digress]. Now, this is not a huge hotel. Nor is it well-known [despite it’s 4 star rating and uber-posh facilities], so I wasn’t a bit surprised the tuk-tuk driver had no idea where it was [especially given our luck earlier that evening].
An hour later, we arrive [it’s pushing midnight at this point] at the gates to the hotel. The porter swings them open and we unload our bags at the front door.
Enter stage left: The General Manager
"Good evening, may I help you?" He looked at us somewhat perplexed.
"Yes thank you, I have a reservation for two nights, tonight and tomorrow [handing him my passport and hotel confirmation email] as we walk inside the open air lobby, overlooking the infinity pool leading out to the now moonlit Indian Ocean and waves crashing on the shore.
"I’m sorry Sir [here it comes], there seems to be a problem. We have you confirmed but only for tomorrow night [as I whip out my second copy of the hotel confirmation].
"No?! I have it right here!" [pointing to the day/dates and confirmation number from [insert hotel booking website I’ll never use again here].
"Apologies sir, but when the booking engine…[he drones on about the website sending him incorrect information—which was true]…and we only have 8 suites total and we are fully booked."
In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘well buddy you better start making up some roll-away beds in that party room over there because we’re here!’
"So now what? Where do we sleep? [where do we shower—gross and I’m eying the pool ready to just jump in and wash the day away].
"Not to worry Sir, I will be right back [fast forward 30 minutes]."
"I have found a guestroom for you nearby where you can rest for the night at no charge—however, I must apologize in advance, as the accommodations may not be up to your expectations [of course not]."
Luggage. Tuk-tuk. Highway. Dirt road. Guest house. We enter.
It’s a single room, queen sized bed covered in pink mosquito netting [must be a hint]. A far cry from the ultra modern double king, teak and concrete open concept beauty I had booked for the night [sigh]. But I’m exhausted.
"Is this ok?" Beth asks
"It’s a bed. And a shower. For a total of 7 hours…It’s fine" [grumbling under my breath as I make a B-line for the shower].
Sleep. Mosquito netting. Weird animal noises. A spider on my face [at this point who cares]. Sleep. Sunrise. Tuk-tuk. Back to the ORIGINAL hotel I had booked where they had prepared a gorgeous brekkie for us [fully redeeming themselves for the previous night’s fiasco—again, not their fault].
Eat. Check in. Shower [again]. Dress. Tuk-tuk [again] and off to Unawatuna to spend the next day-and-a-half sprawled out on the white sand beaches staring out at the sapphire-blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
Back at the hotel on the final afternoon, I’m sitting on the edge of the infinity pool staring out at the ocean, watching the waves crash and the fishermen fling their lines, sipping pineapple-coconut juice and I’m completely Zen, one with the world, connected…and “SMACK!” I dissolve a mosquito with my hand attempting at the blood pulsing through my left elbow.
Tuk-tuk. Car. Airport. Home.
A Hong Kong Shortie
Off to Hong Kong on a mid-week [humpday] flight after a hell-bent 11 straight days in the office. Crunch time [actually—more like making sure my ass was covered while I was out of town].
Airport. Check-in [oohh business class]. Security [discombobulator-re-combobulator]. Take-off. Movie. Land. Baggage. Train. Islands of Hong Kong whizzing by. Station. Taxi. Hotel.
I plopped on the bed after unraveling my luggage and weighed my options on going walk-about or staying in to mend my fatigued mental state [I was just damned exhausted]. I chose the latter and began my hunt for a nearby deep-tissue massage to indulge in after stuffing my face with room service Hong Kong Beef Noodle.
Fortunately, there was a spa attached to the hotel—out of bed, down the elevator and out the door to give the place a once-over [casing the joint for ‘compatibility’] before deciding it “wasn’t for me” [in other words one of “those” places]. Mission failed, I went back upstairs to peruse the in-room dining menu and admire the amazing view of Hong Kong laid out in front of me.
"Room Service?" Said the voice on the other end of the line.
"Yes, beef noodle, and a large [insert Chinese brand here] beer please."
"Coming right up!"
"Can you transfer me back to the concierge? Thanks!"
"Good evening [Hotel x] Concierge, how can I assist you?"
"I’m looking for a good deep tissue massage nearby. Can you recommend anywhere?"
"Yes sir. There are several who offer outcall [in-room] services. Would you prefer that?"
Thinking to myself for all of 0.005 seconds “That would be wonderful.”
"Of course Mr. Jack. I’ll gather a few recommendations for you and call you back immediately. Do you prefer a male or a female therapist?"
"Male please [and gorgeous if you can be bothered HA!—totally kidding]."
"Right away sir."
A moment later [I swear it really was a minute…maybe 90 seconds] the concierge came back with a few phone numbers and a few websites to match. I thanked him and began my search [read ‘research’] and landed upon a very attractive website, extensive service menu, male and female therapists, great [stock] photography and was not too far from the hotel so I called.
Appointment booked for later that evening, and my favorite dish on the tray in front of me. Admiring the amazing view out my windows, I began to relax, laid back against the pillows and watched the sky turn to pre-twilight deep red-orange, purple, and into indigo night.
Then a quiet knock at the door [oh sweet massage!].
Up I got and over to the door to look out the peephole to find a man [ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS!!!] in workout pants and jacket, carrying a folded massage table under his left arm.
I opened the door, the man came in, introduced himself, shook my hand and looked me right in the eyes [totally swooning at this point], I stepped aside and told him to setup anywhere he saw fit for the table. I looked away to close the door thinking to myself I should probably close the curtains as well, and by the time I turned back towards the room the masseur was standing there, completely naked [seriously it was as if he had a button he pushed to make his clothes just disappear—Full Monty-style—it takes a real professional to disrobe in under 2 seconds]!
"OH MY GOD!" I shrieked and covered my eyes [halfway and peered through my fingers—Jack, you’re not single…Jack, you’re not single] "I think there’s been a misunderstanding!"
"Sir?" he said quizzically…
"Um…um….Can you put your clothes back on please [the words tasted like vinegar passing through my lips—still peeking through slightly parted fingers over my eyes at his 12-pack ab stomach perfectly lit from the lamp at his left side, and the moon and city lights behind him…but I digress] and I’ll explain."
He slowly pulled on his pants and as he was putting his shirt back on [DAMN!]
"I called for a massage. I mean an actual ‘massage’, you know, Swedish, Deep Tissue, Shiatsu…’massage’" I said making the motions with my hands and pointing sternly to the massage table. "You know, ‘massage?’"
I saw the light go on over his head and he said “No. No massage. Only ‘massage’” he said making an entirely different hand motion than mine and smiling [are you kidding me?].
"Ok thank you very much but I’m afraid there’s been a HUGE mistake" as I ushered him to the door with his massage table prop in tow and a completely confused look on his face.
"Sorry sir. No massage?
"No. I’m sorry. No massage."
Cab fare?” he said seemingly ashamed for asking.
Was this guy really asking for cab fare? I couldn’t believe it. Though, I felt for the guy. He was obviously as embarrassed abut the misunderstanding as I was. So I asked him how much was the cab, he told me, I handed him the money, he gave a half smile and left.
I then collapsed on the bed in gut-busting laughter before calling it a night and passing out—the last thought going through my head “wait until I tell Clara I accidentally hired a prostitute. ‘Butterfield 8’ anyone?”
The next day, I woke up still laughing to myself about the events of the previous night. I showered, dressed and walked downstairs to see what I could get myself into that day. So I hopped the train and headed out to Lantau Island for the glass bottom gondola ride up to the big Buddha.
Queue. Ticket. Gondola. Photog. Lunch at the top [of course ramen]. Big Buddha. Hike. Photog. Shop. Gondola. Down. Into the outlet mall to buy a jacket [yes Hong Kong in March is gorgeously cool] and into a Guardian to buy some sundries [no not condoms—hairspray!].
In typical Jack style, I can’t leave a drug store without buying 6 other impulse items—at least these were things I couldn’t find home in Singapore, and at the register, the clerk rings me up, bags my items and hands me a giant bag of cotton balls.
"No no…these aren’t mine thanks."
She insistently put them into my bag and handed it to me.
I replied with a smile again, “I didn’t buy these [even though they were literally two dollars, I didn’t need them], no thank you.”
"Free!" she said with a smile as she shoved them back into the bag and thrust it at me while pointing to the "Free with minimum purchase" table tent on the register [still smiling].
"Well thank you very much [again], but I’m only traveling here and I can’t take them with me [it was a serious bag of cotton balls]."
"No you take." She said smiling wryly and shooing me away so she could help the next customer waiting patiently behind me with his single pack of gum.
"No thank you" I said again [smiling of course—Ghandi] leaving them gently on the counter and turning to walk out when I heard someone whistle. I turned around only to be *poofed* in the chest with the giant bag of cotton balls. She had thrown them to me [at me] from the register.
"Have nice day!" She said smiling and waiving me away as I reluctantly shoved them into my already full backpack [camera and conference materials in tow] smiled, and continued across the square to the train station and back to Wan Chai and my hotel.
Station. Train. iTunes [FeverRay]. Station. Walk.
As I was walking back to my hotel feeling completely fulfilled with my day of hiking, cool breezes, misty air, great noodles, [not to mention having a bag of cotton balls hucked at me by the drugstore clerk], I thought once again about getting a massage thinking it would be the perfect end to an adventurous day and stopped into a professional looking spa. I met the manager, and the masseur [making sure this was going to be an ‘actual’ massage], booked the appointment and happily pranced [yes pranced!] back to my hotel room to have a shower.
An hour later a man showed up [not quite as gorgeous as the other—thank God], massage table in tow, entered my room, set up the massage table and began to organize himself. I stripped to my skivvies and asked if he needed anything before we started [to be courteous…like water, or juice. Seriously!] and he said, half embarrassed “You wouldn’t happen to have any cotton balls would you? I seem to have forgotten…”
"Right here!" as I reached into the bathroom, grabbed the enormous bag thrown at me earlier [yes thrown!] and tossed it to him, catching him off guard causing him to knock over his talcum powder which left him standing there astonished in a white cloud of confusion [He was completely ‘antiqued’]. Needless to say the massage was stellar.
I loved Hong Kong. The salty air, the cool breezes, the mountains, the islands, the ferryboats, the skyscrapers, the people, the food—it reminded me of Seattle. And fittingly so, I contacted an old High School professor—the most influential professor I can remember having—now living in Hong Kong.
We met. We ate. We laughed and reminisced. We talked about home, and life, and family, and future. And I thanked him for being the one who pushed me to experience life, the world, and to trust what the universe gave me and to walk through open doors and embrace everything presented to me.
The next morning I was on Skype with Clara. I told her about everything that had been going on, Hong Kong, the gondola, the big Buddha, the first massage [HA!], the cotton balls, the reunion…
"Show me your hotel room and that view" she said, so I picked up my laptop and started walking around showing her the room, aiming the webcam out the window. I pointed out some of the landmarks I could see from the hotel: Happy Valley Racecourse, the Muslim cemetary behind the hotel, Victoria Harbor…
"What are those buildings directly across the street?"
"I dunno. I think the one on the left is an office building, and the one on the right looks like apartments…yeah, that’s a kitchen and a living room right there."
"You can actually see into their apartments?"
"Well, it’s right across the street. Of course I can" I said over her snickering growing steadily into boisterous laughter.
"Excuse me…what exactly are you laughing at? Did your cat fart again?"
"I can see that lady across the street from you cooking in her kitchen" she said through snickers and guffaws.
"I bet they saw the hooker!"
I could never remember a time in my life when I was truly “unhappy”—save for one.
March of 2009 [Picture it. 1922…wait…sorry that was The Golden Girls]. I had just left my partnership at the ad agency in Las Vegas [another story for another time]. I was jobless, but enough in my savings to last quite some time [so no real reason for my unhappiness]. Living in the dirty desert and hating it more and more with every temperature jump to the frying pan that is Summer in Vegas [the only way to survive it is drunk at a pool or inside with the ac on and the curtains drawn—at this instance in my life I opted for the latter].
I knew at some point I would bounce back [I’m like a cat…meow!], but it was quickly becoming grim. My solace every day? Talking to my rock [not pet] on the phone—my best friend since high school—Vivianne [Vivi]. Venting my frustrations to her in the evenings after she got off work [and hourly via text message throughout the day], are what saved me from pulling a solo Thelma & Louise in my convertible right into the Grand Canyon [not really…I love myself way to much].
I had never been without a job before and my mind didn’t know what to do with itself. I lived on the couch [and in my bed]. I stopped going out, forgot about the pool parties and barbecues. I left the nightclubs and bars far back in my memory banks; only re-living them on occasion when I would glance at a photo taken on a night in a happier time. I think Vivi could hear the tears in my voice when one day she and I were talking and I was [yet again] sitting on the couch eating delivery [not di Giorno].
"I have to leave Vegas" I said without hesitation.
"Are you serious?" she said with a chipper tone in her voice [she had obviously been plotting something—a kidnapping].
"Yeah. Totally serious. The heat is starting to drive me crazy [it really was]. I need green trees, water, rain. I need to get out of this dirty fucking frying pan!" I could almost hear her smile through the phone.
"Well what if we came to rescue you?"
"What do you mean ‘rescue?’"
"Just what I said dummy! Astrid and I were talking and we thought about driving down to Vegas, picking you up and bringing you home."
The tears immediately welled up in my eyes and began to run in rivers down my cheeks and into my hands—they wouldn’t stop.
"That sounds like a fantastic idea" I said in a voice cracking with a mixture of happy tears, and thankful relief. I felt like a thousand pounds of anger, frustration and loneliness had just fallen off my shoulders to the ground around me. I was floating on a cloud of happiness, tingly; warm and fuzzy inside.
"So when is this ‘rescue’ going to happen?" I asked still smiling and crying [kinda like watching Steel Magnolias].
As we discussed a date, I ran upstairs to pack [anxious much?].
A week went by while I waited [and saw every single movie in theaters] until the day came when Vivi and Astrid sent me a text saying they picked up their rental car and were hitting the highway after work [cue the waterworks]. I must have reviewed their route and travel 11 times before finally nodding off to sleep with happy thoughts of my rescue team barreling towards me in the brightest red pontiac they had ever seen [I thought they were kidding when they told me—nope—this thing was a fire-engine] kept a subtle smile on my face.
Nineteen hours after getting the “We are on our way!” text from Vivi, my phone rang and the lavender colored petunias I had as her contact I.D. flashed brightly across my screen—coaxing an ear-to-ear smile out of me—something that hadn’t happened in weeks.
"I think we are close to your house. Where are we?"
"What do you see?"
"We are just off the freeway and going over a bridge near [insert company X here]."
"Ok [dancing up and down in my living room silently], when you get to [Street X], make a right, then a left, then a right and I’m at the end of the street. You can’t miss my convertible in front of the house [still hopping up and down in the living room]."
Fifteen minutes later while still standing anxiously on the porch, I saw the red pontiac coming up the street.
Fast forward through tears, hugs, jumping up and down [while inside I was on my knees thanking God for my knights, my saviors, my friends], and the usual small talk about the drive down and how it was “hotter than a hooker in church” outside.
"How long do you want to stay before we head back [anxious to leave the frying pan maybe? Just a little?]?"
"Well the only thing Astrid wants to do while we’re here is eat at Margaritaville and maybe walk around a bit. We mostly just wanted a roadtrip. We should probably leave in the morning since we have to get to work Monday."
I didn’t care they only wanted to stay 16 hours. I didn’t care that they didn’t want to do anything while they were here. I didn’t care that I was leaving Vegas even if only for a short time. In my mind, I was sloughing off part of my recent past that I never wanted to think about again; never wanted to relive again, never wanted to remember and leaving behind shells of people I at times wished had never been part of my memories and never deserved the pieces of my heart that they had generously been given and crushed.
At 4:00am the next morning, we got up. I showered, went downstairs and said goodbye to my roommate who was just coming home from work.
"When are you coming back?" she said as she hugged me tightly—a true Southern girl with a heart as big as an ocean and a smile that would stop a battleship.
"I don’t really know hun. I just need some time for me. I need to find myself."
"You know I love you" she said. "And you know I’m always here for you buh-bay."
"Thanks gorgeous. I love you too" and I hugged her close, the kind of hug where neither one wants to let go because you don’t actually know when it will happen again.
I grabbed my duffel bag and my laptop, took the car keys from Astrid and stepped outside into the cool pre-dawn air closing the door softly behind me. I had a gut feeling that the next time I came through this door, I’d be packing my things to go. I wasn’t sure when, but I knew it was coming.
I felt my spirit rise with the sun sitting in the driver’s seat of that car watching the open road unfold before me in a smooth, curved black line cutting through the pink and orange glow flooding the desert floor. As we crossed the state line into Arizona, just as the sun rose above the horizon, a wave of relief washed over me. I looked over at Vivi and I think she could see the relief in my eyes. I smiled at her and she smiled back, the stars aligned, I put the pedal to the metal, and headed northwards—Vivi as DJ and Astrid reading in the backseat.
Fast-forward through Western Arizona, St. George, Salt Lake City, rest stops filled with interesting people [interesting being used loosely], greasy spoons, snack stops, pee breaks, photo ops [mostly done in motion—patience is not my virtue on this road trip], endless small talk, pee breaks, musings, life stories, people we love, people we hate, family, frustration, pee breaks, loves and loves lost, and what we hope for in life as we cross into southern Idaho not at all having to convince each other we would be stopping to eat at The Cracker Barrel.
Heading North on I-15 through Southern Idaho, we barreled into a “traffic jam” consisting of a tractor trailer, six sport utility vehicles, and a cattle truck filled with mooing, cud chewing steer and dairy cows. Astrid was reading in the back, Vivianne and I were chatting up front with the windows down enjoying the breeze and the scenery when all of a sudden, I look ahead and see some greenish liquid pouring out of the bottom of the cattle truck.
"What is that?" I glanced quizzically at Vivi.
"I don’t know but I’m putting the window up" she said as we both closed up.
"Why’d you roll up the…."
and before Astrid could finish her sentence “WOOOOOOSH! The windshield was splashed with said greenish, yellowish liquid.
"OMG!" Vivi shouted while laughing at the same time.
"WHAT?!" I jumped.
"HA!!!! I think it’s pee!"
"What?" Astrid said flopping her book into her lap.
"OMG She’s right! It’s cow piss! We just got pissed on by one of those cows in the truck!"
"Well thats disgusting" Astrid said picking her book back up and continuing to read.
"Um, yeah! Considering it’s now covering the front of the car, and probably made it into the air system! [which thankfully it didn’t].
I quickly cleared it from the window with the wipers and copious amounts of washer-fluid.
Vivi and I looked at each other and she said “See? I told you this would be an adventure. I bet you’ve never been peed on by a cow before…”
"Can’t say that I have."
"Well….now you can!" she chortled as I whizzed into the rest stop next to Cracker Barrel to finish cleaning the window before eating.
After the meal, I phoned my dad, told him we were in Boise, and would be hitting the road again shortly.
"I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then huh son?"
"Yeah Dad, it’ll be late. I’ll try not to wake you up coming in."
"Don’t worry. You’ve got your key yeah? I’ll see you in the morning. Love you."
"Thanks Dad. Love you too."
We got back in the car and headed northwest into the rosy-peach colored sunset having nearly forgotten how sad I’d been for weeks. A smile formed on my lips as Vivi and I kept our small talk going, laughing and joking along the highway.
Darkness fell on us as the stars began to blanket the blue-velvet sky. I looked over at Vivi and asked her how she was doing.
"I’m fine." She said. "You?"
"Oh I’m good. A little tired, but I’ve made longer trips alone so I should be ok."
I looked at the clock in the car and realized I had been driving nearly 18 hours non-stop and decided I need something to keep me awake [happiness and relief were no longer keeping my eyelids up], so I pulled off into a gas station, grabbed an energy drink and pranced back to the car where Vivi had almost fallen asleep.
"How many more hours do you think?"
"I’m not sure. I don’t think we’ve crossed into Washington just yet. So four would be my guess" and I handed a drink to Vivi.
"Are you sure you’re ok?" Vivi asked.
"Yeah, just needed a little caffeine to keep me going."
"Ok. Well I’ll keep you company the rest of the drive."
I smiled back at her and polished off the last sip from the can and tossed it into the trash bag just as we passed a sign that read “Now Entering Umatilla.”
"What the hell did that say?" I choked out a laugh at Vivi.
"HAHA!!! It said UMATILLA!"
"Well where the fuck is that?"
"Damned if I know!" She laughed. I laughed [Astrid snored].
"Is it Spanish? Like ‘OO MA TEE YA?" I joked.
"What like ‘Los Umatilla?’" she snorted trying not to wake up Astrid.
"Maybe it’s both! Like ‘Los Las Umatilla’" I retorted chuckling now loudly.
"No no no…It’s ‘Los San Las Umatilla’" and we both roared with laughter and continued adding suffixes and prefixes to the name of this small town on the border of Oregon and Washington until finally, after much debate and revision, we settled on a name that will forever remind us of the time we spent together on this road trip [you can’t laugh. Ok you can laugh].
Yes. We had finally gone completely insane [I was already half way there before we hit the highway]. Our boisterous laughter finally woke Astrid
"What the hell are you two laughing at? How could anything be so funny at 3am in the middle of nowhere!?!"
"You have no idea" I said as I screeched into a gas station to fill-up. "But since you’re awake and I’ve gone crazy and road-blind, would you mind taking over for a bit?"
"Sure." she said as she got out of the backseat and took over up front as captain.
I grabbed the pillows I brought from home, propped myself up on one, and hugged the other close to my chest, and immediately nodded off to sleep.
I only remember vaguely waking up one time after I moved into the back. I opened up my eyes halfway and saw the moon glinting on the snow covered hills on Snoqualmie Pass and Astrid steadfast at the helm. I had never felt so comfortable—never felt so safe in my whole life. I thanked the Universe and drifted back into a very deep slumber for the rest of the trip.
I knew I had been rescued from myself. I knew I had been saved. And I knew from that moment, my drive, my life’s direction, would change forever. It took being plucked out of a journey through hell by my friends for me to see what I truly needed in life and what I needed to do to cut my own path.
A Singapore Shortie
On the off chance I don’t take a cab or a car service to work [or it’s not monsooning] in the morning, I opt for the bus—a quick 10 minute walk through the park from my flat [again…only when it’s not monsooning—ok I do it when it’s monsooning too, as long as I have my 5 person golf umbrella].
Buses everywhere else on the planet [and every other besides mine in Singapore apparently], run on schedule—every hour/half-hour on the blah blah blah. But the bus that I have to take to work? HA! Now, I’m not one of those people who thinks this crap always happens to them [Singapore may change my perspective on this], but this event [recurring] in particular, stands out amongst them all. We’ll call it “Bus 106” for arguments sake [even though that is the actual bus number].
Bus 106 from my stop on Orchard Road, drops me outside the door to my office. It couldn’t be more convenient if it stopped in front of my house [wait…can I request that?]. Now I have timed this down to the minute. If I leave my house at 7:30am on my walk, I get to the stop 10 minutes before the bus arrives [I like to talk on the phone while I’m waiting] putting me at the stop at 7:40am [keep in mind the bus doesn’t come until 7:50]. If I miss my window of opportunity at 7:30 [read hit the snooze button], I leave the house at 8:30 to catch the 8:50 [which one time didn’t come until 9:30—so I don’t take that one anymore] bus [please keep these times in the back of your head while reading—trust me, it will be funnier that way].
Monday: I leave the house at 7:20 since it’s absolutely lovely outside [read 5 degrees cooler than steam-room, hairdo-flattening normal] and I want to take a leisurely Fred Astair style stroll through the park.
I arrive at the bus stop at 7:35 to find the 106 already there [checking watch over and over again], and loading people so I break into a run [not a bright idea in a suit and tie in the world’s largest steamroom—yes Singapore is three showers a day hot], and I am drenched by the time I reach the back end of the bus [not a very far jaunt] as it pulls away leaving myself and two others in it’s dust [W.T.F.].
Positive thinking here, I assume this one was late, and the one at 7:50 is still on it’s way. And I confirm this thought on the digital reader notating that bus 106 will be arriving in 17 minutes. Sweet! [I’m still drenched in sweat and debate going home, taking a shower and hopping a cab to work].
Seventeen minutes comes and the reader board switches to “Arriving”, so I move toward the curb, look down the street, no bus [meanwhile the 190 has come and gone every 2 minutes sometimes doubling up at the bus stop since I’ve been standing here—so many that I count them…7…8…9…APOPLECTIC that this bus goes nowhere near my office]. I return my dagger-filled gaze to the reader board. The time on the 106 has gone from “Arriving” to “17 minutes” and lo and behold—NO BUS!
Meanwhile, I’m standing there sweating like a luau pig on a spit over a hot [steamy] fire, taxis are blowing by, people are trying to waive them down [myself included—and I’m ready to pull the apple out of my bag and huck it at the next one who acts like it doesn’t see us], but heaven forbid they pick up a fare that will take them into traffic.
90 Minutes later I arrive at work—looking [and feeling] like I had been lost in the rainforest for a week. I opt for cabs the next two days.
The following Tuesday: Since my last adventure, I have been leaving the house at 7:20 in the hopes that even if the bus is THAT early, I’ll make it, and ride to work in the air conditioned comfort of my double decker.
At 7:30 [remember that schedule I mentioned earlier], I arrive at the corner before the bus stop to find not one, but two 106 buses in queue. I walk up to the first bus, enter, sit, and crank the iTunes on my way into the office.
Wednesday [the very next day]:
7:30. I arrive at the corner before the bus stop to see a 106 bus arriving. Cut to this same bus pulling away from the curb 30 seconds later having picked up no one [myself and 4 or 5 others running after it mad as rats in a brick shit-house]. Sweating. Again. Can someone please cue the Benny Hill theme music? Because that’s the only thing at this point that can possibly make this funny—looking at the reader board in bright orange LED “106 - Arriving in 15 Minutes”. Thursday I opt, yet again for a cab [you see a pattern developing?].
Friday: 7:25 [saying to myself, I will beat this ass-backwards scheduling one way or another], I arrive at the bus stop to see the 106 [how is this bus coming earlier and earlier every single day?] stopping. I pick up the pace to make the bus, but slow [no sweating allowed on Fridays] when I see a second 106 coming up the road behind this one. The first one finishes loading and closes its doors, and as the second approaches, it veers right, goes around the first 106 [which also pulls away] and keeps going. Cut to me standing there, laughing my ass off at how backwards [and upside down] this bus is and I rest easy in the fact that it’s Friday [and it couldn’t possibly get worse than this]. I’ve called the car service to pick me up, and I will be writing a lengthy [and highly descriptive] complaint letter to the Ministry of Transport as soon as I get to the office.