The Warsaw episode

Now that the dust has settled and I’ve landed safely, I feel ready to talk about what happened. This story begins with a shady personality from South Africa, an email from Poland, and a wedding in Italy. It ends with a flurry of lawyers, investigators, and prosecutors, and one man’s frenzied escape on a jet plane from Chopin International Airport. Also, the Chinese mafia fits into the story somewhere. So, you know…. normal Sam Shit.

It was January 2018 and I was desperate. The Bangkok job fair had come and gone. Despite months of preparation for the fair, and dropping about a month’s salary on travel, accommodation, stationery, and a blinging bespoke suit, I returned to my host city of Kathmandu empty-handed. For all my efforts that weekend, I’d sat just four interviews, and secured zero contracts. It was a devastating experience; I’d fared worse at Bangkok 2018 than Bangkok 2008, despite a far more striking résumé. Totally humiliating. I felt myself slipping into a dark place.

It didn’t help when, back in Kathmandu, I started commiserating with colleagues, part of my “Class of 2015” who like me were approaching their end-of-contract. They too were finding it difficult to secure positions, and it was too late to renew our contracts in Nepal.

When that email hit my inbox in February, I was ecstatic. Riaan Diedericks was recruiting teachers to help him start a new school in Warsaw, Poland. According to his LinkedIn, Diedericks had directed schools from his native Cape Town all the way to Taipei, Beijing, and Ulaanbaatar. In the interview, he described a scrappy grassroots initiative: a group of expat parents, dissatisfied with their options in Warsaw, wanted a new school for their children that would deliver American curriculum within the International Baccalaureate framework. The International School of Warsaw would provide instruction in English and French, and feature Polish language lessons as well.

He spoke of a one-to-one tech environment, with laptops for every student and teacher. Already in place was a robust high-capacity, fiber-optic wifi network. My department would be fully funded for everything we needed — cloud-based content filters, learning-management systems, and so on. For my position as the tech coordinator, I’d have access to a crack team of IT professionals who’d handle the support side, so I could focus on infrastructure setup and classroom integration, rather than restarting modems and unjamming printers all day. In addition to a fair salary, I’d receive a “coordinator bonus,” a substantial housing allowance, annual flights home, and free daily transportation and lunch. The initiative was funded by Huawei and various other investors. Diedericks explained that Huawei had great interest in the school, since their European operations are based in Warsaw, and many of their Chinese employees came to Poland with families.

After weeks and weeks of doors closing, it seemed like a door was finally opening. How could I say no?

Red flags flew just weeks after I signed. Riaan was extraordinarily slow to reply to emails, especially those pertaining to the logistics of the job ahead. Sometimes he didn’t respond at all. All teachers were supposed to receive curriculum training over the summer, but that didn’t happen. I needed to know the makes and models of the hardware to be used by teachers and students, but the few details he gave were consistently vague. Instead, he would send me random directives, like interviewing a couple of Polish grad students about a “homework robot” they built, or writing an “About Me” blurb for the school website (not unusual, but everytime I submitted one, he’d ask for another, explaining he’d somehow lost our emails).

Riaan had hired a deputy head, Andrew Mengel. We learned the two men met while working at a startup school in Warsaw the previous year, which “had not been successful” for reasons Riaan did not specify. The first time I spoke with Andrew, he came across as a scrappy young college grad, eagerly ranting about holism and social justice like he’d invented the concepts himself. I would learn that he was indeed a recent college grad, having studied writing at Morovian University, a small private liberal arts college. His main accomplishment up to this point? He had published exactly the kind of prose I remember barfing out at age 24, because all us middle-class white kids go through a tortured Bukowski-Kerouac phase at some point. With no tangible pedagogical experience (or workplace experience in general) Andrew was to be my line supervisor.

Later that spring, I was contacted by Janetta Rogers, a teacher who would start with me in August. She was finishing a contract in Bahrain. Given its proximity to Nepal, she suggested a visit, as she had a long weekend and nowhere to spend it. She flew over, and we compared notes. Her experiences had been much the same as mine. She too was hired as a coordinator, and also found it frustrating to hear nothing back from Riaan. How was she to build a department if she couldn’t first lay the groundwork?

At this point, one might wonder why I didn’t cordially tell Riaan to piss right off. Certainly, I could have justified such a decision. If you keep knocking and no one answers, you have to assume no one’s home, right? But then I would see my “Class of 2015” folks, still in a dead panic. I should feel lucky, not doomed! Two months had passed since I signed with Poland, yet most of my colleagues were still unsure of where they’d be for 2018-19. Plus, so many cogs were in motion at that point. My employer in Nepal had arranged for the shipping of my belongings to Poland, my flights to Europe were booked, my dog’s passport was nearly complete, and — if I’m being totally honest here — I hate feeling like I’ve done it wrong.

Moreover, Riaan seemed to me at that point to be merely incompetent. Incompetence I can handle. We’ve all had bosses who are in over their heads. Maybe it would be an opportunity for me. I know plenty about streamlining operations at a school. I could be a hero. Think positive.

My heart sank pretty quick upon landing in Warsaw that summer. Riaan met me at the airport but seemed unprepared. As I trolleyed up with my dog and crate, he blinked with surprise.

“I’m not sure we’ll have room for all this in my car.”

On several occasions, I’d made it clear I was coming with a dog. Riaan had acknowledged this several times too, claiming he’d arrange for a large pickup vehicle and a pet-friendly hotel. Obviously, neither of these had happened. We managed to fit everything into his car, but then we essentially had to sneak my dog into the hotel.

The next day, I went apartment shopping. Two viewings later, I found a perfect place. A chef’s kitchen with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and retractable pantry shelves. A furnished living room with a 50-inch smart TV and glass balcony with a tenth-floor view of the city. A slate-paneled bathroom with his-and-hers sinks, rain shower, and washer-dryer combo unit. Ample storage all throughout, and of course, dog friendly. The tower was surrounded by parks, with shopping and cafes on the ground floor, including an American-themed bar and grill directly adjacent to the building exit. Clearly, this place had been waiting for me.

The landlord was on site, ready to sign, and the realtor was there on behalf of the school. The school would assume responsibility for the lease agreement. All we needed was the deposit: two months up front. However, when the realtor called Riaan, he once again seemed shocked. How had I found a place so quickly? We can’t get that kind of money together right now!

But I sure as hell wasn’t about to spend another night with a dog in a hotel room (the hotel room had that “someone was murdered here” vibe to it) so I reluctantly pulled cash out of the bank to close the deal. Riaan promised the money would be fully reimbursed by the week’s end. This sort of promise would become a recurring theme in my life.

You need not have worked at a school to understand the importance of Day One. I speak of the first day when a new staff assembles for the first time. The first thing one should see on that day, upon walking through the door, is a capable director shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries before leading everyone down the corridors, perhaps for a brief school tour before he commences with The Talk, where he preaches about the greatness of this school and what joys await us in the weeks and months ahead. There would be an agenda for the coming orientation, one that anticipates questions like “How do I get a metro card?” and “Who do I see if I get sick?”

We had nothing like that. We entered the building, confused. There was a summer camp going on (“How are we supposed to set up our classrooms if they’re full of children?”) inside a building that was clearly still under construction (“Didn’t he say the work finished in June?”) and no director or deputy director in sight. Melanie Atkinson, the head of elementary who’d been on the ground a little longer than the rest of us, corralled everyone into one of the few vacant rooms and anticipated we’d need to wait only a few minutes for Riaan to join us. Reportedly, he was meeting with a parent. (“Why would he take a parent meeting, during what’s arguably the most important meeting of his career?”)

Time passed. People checked email. Or tried to. There was no internet.

More time passed.

Still more time passed.

Finally Melanie took charge. “Okay folks, let’s start moving through the agenda.”

There was an agenda, but like so many of Riaan’s emails, it was vague and bereft of content. She had just started on the first line item when our Glorious Leader stuck his head into the classroom. “Melanie, I’m going to be a few more minutes. And also I have to leave. It’s very important. Please show the teachers the building.”

So she did. The campus was tiny, and since all the rooms were full of little people, there wasn’t much available to show. Out back was a dirt lot where the playground had supposedly been “nearly finished” a month previous. Due to the school’s location in the middle of farmland, flies flew everywhere and the air hung heavy with manure.

Honestly, there was so much to do, and so little in place, we collectively had no clue where or how to begin our work. Since the first week was just leadership folks, we revised the staff handbook which someone had poached from another school and sifted through catalogues for stationery and classroom resources (“Didn’t we request all this stuff months ago? Why are we ordering it again?”).

Riaan’s first directive for me was to work with our “operations manager,” Angelo Fattore, another college kid. He had attended Morovian with Andrew, and had about the same level of real-world experience. Credit where it’s due, Angelo is probably one of the hardest-working bastards I’ve ever met. He was handed Fedena, a total shitshow of a school management system (built in India for Indian schools), and told to set up all our vital databases of parents, students, faculty, salaries, and on and on. He would teach me the interface and we’d work together to streamline school operations a bit.

Though I had explicitly been told that data management would not be part of my job, I took it all in stride. No harm in building a new skill set. Though the more I worked with Fedena and our email service, Zoho (also proudly built and supported in India), the more I thought, “Who the hell chose these platforms? They’re total shit!”

That man was Thierry Charamel. He and I had a brief exchange of emails the previous spring. Riaan had pawned me off on him, explaining he’d be the best person to answer my questions about institutional technology, since he was the “technology and innovations coordinator.” The what now? That sort of sounds like my job. How is his job different from mine? Do we work together? Do I answer to him, or does he answer to me? Speaking of which, why haven’t I yet seen a managerial diagram?

None of those questions were answered. To this day, I’m still not sure what Thierry’s job was. All I know is he also failed to answer any of my early questions, and told me that my concerns about our software platforms were without foundation, and that such matters were not part of my job, and that I should really just relax.

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If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes/ And other science facts/ Just repeat to yourself “It’s just a show/ I should really just relax.”

I think Thierry was on the board, but Riaan never published any documentation that named the board members, so I cannot be sure. I do remember meeting about six or seven folks at a end-of-week school barbecue, including Thierry. The barbecue, we were told by Riaan, was a chance for us to meet the board. One guy stood out as particularly gregarious: Warren Van Der Westhuizen. He suggested we grab a beer sometime, and said anytime I needed help with anything, anything at all, just call on him. I took note.

My goal for the end of the week was to sort out our wifi network and copier, and establish Google for Education as a schoolwide learning management system. Of course, the network and copier should have already been sorted out (Also: not my job), but it wasn’t, and fact is, you need these things at a school. Google for Ed, I had offered to set up over the summer, before I was even contracted to officially start work, because I know what a powerful tool it can be, and I also know it takes weeks to set up. Unfortunately, my repeated requests for the information Google requires of its client schools went unanswered.

Those goals were never realized, not just for that week, but for the entirety of my time at ISW. That crack team of IT professionals? Every time I asked Riaan for their contact details, he would respond with a diversionary tactics.

“What is it you need, Sam?”

“What the school needs, Riaan, is an operational wifi network.”

“We have a wifi network, Sam.”

“We have a single router in the office. It’s designed for residential use, not commercial. It can’t handle throughput for more than five or six devices, and its range doesn’t extend more than ten feet and also our walls are poured concrete.”

“Sam, just relax. It will all be fixed soon.”

“Yes, and it is my job to make sure of that. Please Riaan, please provide me with the contact details of our team. I will be working with them frequently in the role you hired me for. Let’s have that contact. Let me take this off your plate. You’re so busy already.”

“But why Sam? Why do you need their contact? Just tell me. I’ll make it happen.”

“I just did tell you…”

I’ve since learned this is an example of “gaslighting.” For those unfamiliar with the concept, it’s a sociopathic behavior in which the gaslighter tries to convince the victim that he or she is responding irrationally to a very real problem. This is achieved through use of circular logic, or simply by repeating a falsehood over and over, until the victim is too exhausted to continue the fight. Textbook narcissists frequently gaslight.

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Not naming names…

It took me too long to accept that there had never been a support team. That whole thing had been pure imagination. As for the Google for Ed setup, this was a real gas.

Google for Ed is free for public and nonprofit private schools. All Google needed was a copy of our school charter, translated into English. However, there were two glaring problems.

  1. The name of the school on the charter was not the same as the name on the front of our building. Even now, I’m still not sure why that was, but I have a few ideas, none of them terribly positive.
  2. Despite what I was told in the interview, ISW is a private for-profit school, and therefore ineligible for Google’s education program.

This meant that we were stuck with Fedena and Zoho, two broken-ass platforms. This also meant that I had spent weeks working to adopt a platform that we were never eligible for, thanks to misinformation from Riaan.

Deep breath. What’s next on the list?

About 50% of my role was meant to be instructional. I would teach computer science to all students, Pre-K to Grade 8. Only problem was, we had no computers. This was quite a surprise, since Riaan had explicitly stated many times we already had computers at the school… or no… wait.

“Did I say that? No, what I said was we will soon have computers. Yes, tablets for the little ones and laptops for the older ones.”

“And the teachers too, right?”

“Teachers? Why? Don’t you have computers?”

“Yes, we have our personal laptops. And that creates a potential GDPR compliance clusterfuck if we have any kind of data breach [I’d learn later we already had] or police investigation [writers call this “foreshadowing”]. Most importantly, it potentially compromises the personal data of children. Do you want ISW in the newspapers?” [More foreshadowing]

“Yes, sure. Teachers all get computers too. In fact, I’ve already ordered them.”

“Good. Could you send me the invoices? I’d like to track that shipment. All the teachers are asking me when to expect their hardware.”

“Sam, please, don’t worry about it. You worry too much. Relax.”

How to teach technology without technology? I could do like that guy in Ghana…

..but first, what about computers do I teach, exactly? Riaan said we were approved to start our accreditation process for the International Baccalaureate program, and we’d use the Aero standards (which are American) but then he ordered a bunch of materials from Cambridge (which is British). Those three curricular frameworks spell out a diverse litany of learning objectives. Do I teach application skills? Programming? Computational reasoning? What about these three-year-olds? Should they even be interacting with devices at that age?

Turned out all the other teachers were equally out to sea, yet on the same boat. Are we teaching American or British language rules? How do we handle exams? When will my classroom supplies arrive? Our questions would remain unanswered.

It should should be said, we lucked out with some wonderful, resilient students and parents. They were on our side the entire time, but also felt confused about what exactly our school was about, and why so many things seemed broken.

The brokenness of the school might have been explained, at least in some part, by Riaan’s alcoholism. At the risk of sounding judgy, this man drank way more than a school director ought to. Most of my past school bosses, if you saw them after hours at all, they might enjoy a pint or two in a show of camaraderie, then quietly exit, so as to leave the rest of the evening to their teachers. Riaan was not that kind of boss.

One Wednesday night stood out. It was our second week in country. A few of us assembled at a local British pub after work for burgers and beer. We had extended a polite invitation to Riaan, but when he didn’t show up by burger time, we assumed he valued his private time and prefered to keep his work life separate. That was respectable.

We had just finished burgers and sought to settle the check when Riaan suddenly arrived, already a bit flushed and winded. He expressed dismay that we were about to leave and insisted we have another beer because he’d just arrived and it’d be rude to leave so soon. Well… why not? What’s one more beer?

He then dashed outside to the patio, leaving the rest of us indoors. After some time, I went to check on him. He, Angelo, and an attractive 20-year-old counselor from our summer program were all out there, chain smoking and powering through Heinekens. Though I still had half a Guiness, Riaan insisted on buying a round for all of us. Then he declared this British pub sucked and he knew a much better bar down the street and we’d all be coming with him. Just to learn more about the neighborhood. We’d all be going home soon. Just one. more. drink.

Within seconds of entering the new bar, Riaan somehow produced a tray full of shots. I took one, out of politeness, and summoned my Uber. I woke up with the kind of wicked headache that always comes with Jagermeister and other syrupy frat boy rape shots, but dammit I made it to work on time. Riaan, our director of school, arrived two hours late that morning.

Day Drinking Day opened my eyes even wider. Riaan invited me to his home on Saturday to watch sports and drink beer with some of the “lads” (Andrew, Angelo, and David Stardust, who I won’t describe in further detail right now because he deserves his own blog entry). I’m not a sports fan, but I can be a good sport. Also, South Africans worship rugby, so it would a nasty slight to refuse the invitation. Besides, who doesn’t like a cold beer and grilled brats on a warm Saturday afternoon?

Here’s the thing. When someone says, “Come over tomorrow morning for sports and beer and sausage,” I hear, “Do some reasonable Saturday morning things, such as sleeping in and showering and eating avocado toast before you head over for a late lunch.” Quite a shock to receive a text shortly after 9am: WR R U?

Turns out, Riaan, Andrew, and Angelo had been “on the piss” all night, and picked right back up with things around 8am with whisky and vodka.

Now, I’m no angel. I’ve pulled my share of late nights, and I know my way around a bubbly brunch. But by the time I arrived, roughly noon, those lads were so revoltingly drunk I regretted almost immediately my decision to join the party. But then I realized, this was a golden opportunity to get a better read on Riaan. Drunkenness shows a person’s true colors pretty quick. Here are some highlights:

  • On race. “You see Sam, the Chinese parents, they are so intolerant of the blacks. They would never want their child to be taught by a black. That’s why I would never hire a black.”
  • The card tricks. I’ll hand it to Riaan. He knows some tricks. They were impressive. What I found disturbing though was the particular relish in his delivery. Where most amateur magicians run their routine for a laugh, Riaan possessed an almost sinister pride in his ability to deceive.
  • Poker. Riaan kept goading his guests to join him for a friendly hand of (drinking) poker. I lost interest after learning his one and only tactic was to bluff, bluff, bluff.
  • The entertainment. Unsurprisingly, Riaan is the sort of sports fan who will scream at the television without warning, a trait I find obnoxious. More obnoxious though, was after the game. He wanted to keep the TV party going, so he found a live stream of Jerry Springer. He took a demented interest in the program, professing himself to be a dedicated fan. He commented extensively on the behavior of the guests, especially the people of color.
  • His family. Normally when invited to one’s family home for beer and sports and sausage, you expect to see their family. Not so at Riaan’s. Both his wife and daughter sequestered themselves indoors while the lads’ event unraveled on the patio. What was going on? Were they scared of him? Embarrassed? How often did they have to see him at home, this drunk?
  • Failure to lead. Riaan received a text from one of our teachers. She was stuck at the airport. She was on her way to do a visa run to London. A visa run is a slightly dodgy way for a foreigner to stay in a host country. A well-managed school doesn’t have to do visa runs, but we were quickly learning, this was not a well-managed school. In this case, our teacher would fly out of the Schengen Area, get her passport stamped in the UK, then return to Warsaw. Except there was an issue with the cost of her bag at the airport. This might’ve been dealt with easily by phone, but Riaan was positively hammered at this point. As a result, she nearly missed her flight.

There were other things that happened, perhaps better left unsaid. One might wonder, what was I doing this whole time? I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t do enough. Those of us raised in a liberal society, one that honors human rights and egalitarianism, we like to think that in situations like this, we rise to lead.

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Pictured here: not me

I did argue against his horrific opinions. I told him I did not find humor in jokes about race. I told him I preferred not to speak of coworkers who weren’t present. And I finally got myself the hell out of Dodge, right about the time he passed out in a lawn chair.

Forget work relationships! I could no longer sustain a relationship with this ogre. From now on, I would say “Good morning Riaan” and “Have a nice afternoon Riaan” but we would never again share a beer. He was no longer merely incompetent. He was a racist and a terrible human being.

Meanwhile, in my life outside of work, I needed to return to the United States to finalize my divorce, which had hung over my head for nearly four years. Early on, I had disclosed this to Riaan, asking if I might defer my flight allowance. My previous school had paid for my flight to Europe, and with this in mind, any help with my transatlantic flight would mean a great deal. He agreed, but when it came time to book, things got murky.

“How would you like to do this Riaan? If it works for you, I’ll book the flight myself and –”

“No no! The school’s travel agent will arrange everything. Leave it to me.”

“That’s fine, but I’ll need the itinerary finalized very soon. I still need to figure out hotels and rental cars, and I can’t do that until –”

“Yes yes. Just send me the dates. You’ll have your ticket in the next two days.”

Two days passed.

“By the end of this week.”

At the end of the week: “Monday. Certainly Monday.”

“Riaan, if there’s a problem with the agency –”

“No Sam. You need to be patient. These things take time. Relax.”

Eventually, I receive an email not from a travel agent but from Riaan. Attached was a screen shot, clearly taken from Kayak.com. He wanted to know if the times and dates were right. They were not.

“Right. See, I can book a flight right now and it will be done.”

“Sam… Sam. There are procedures for things like this in Poland. It’s very different here.”

“So… in Poland, a travel agent will normally take over a week to book an itinerary?”

“Yes.”

“And the agent might book different days than the ones the customer requests?”

“Yes. Perhaps she thought it would save us money.”

“How would… okay. And these Polish travel agents, they all use Kayak? Because if so, I know how to use Kayak, and I can do that right now…” 

“Sam, you just don’t get it. Listen, I will tell the agent, she will have it fixed by the end of the –”

I couldn’t deal with Riaan anymore. Not only was he incompetent and racist and a terrible human being, but he was clearly lying, and doing a terrible job of it. Even worse, every day he stalled (for whatever his reasons), my hotels and rental cars got more expensive. This man was costing me money.

A brief aside about money. In September, teachers received a salary significantly below what was promised in our interviews, and on our contracts. Again, Riaan spun wild tales. He would go on about taxes and proration and when we asked him to provide a pay stub that detailed in writing what he was talking about, he would shift into his now-well-established distract-and-delay routine. It’ll be done today. Tomorrow. End of the week, 100%.

October, what should’ve been the first full month’s salary, also came up short. Additionally, no one had received promised reimbursements for relocation costs or deposits. Those payouts were now two months in arrears.

As for my flights, I thought back to the barbecue. I remembered Warren. Maybe he could help. He’d offered, after all. Plus, Riaan had explained our (yet unpublished) grievance policy in one of his rare appearances during the orientation week. If we couldn’t solve a problem through the director, we were more than welcome to take it to the board.

Warren was receptive to my problem. He apologized for the difficulty, and promised to get things fixed right away. Within ten minutes, I was summoned to Riaan’s office.

“You’ve decided to go over my head, eh?” Riaan stammered. “Well now I’ve gone over yours.”

I had no idea what the ever-loving fuck he meant by that, but at this point, I’d started my recorder. A less volatile boss might’ve handled this whole affair like a professional, but I correctly anticipated Riaan would react like a child.

He informed me that the board would assemble within the hour to “decide what to do with” me.

Wait… hadn’t I just spoken with a member of the board that morning?

Two hours later, I was sat before Riaan, Melanie (I’d requested her as a witness), and Andrew. Also in the room were Mateusz Waszczuk and his wife, Magdelena. Riaan introduced them as board members, though I had understood up to this point that Magdelena was actually our accountant (an accountant who’d knowingly been withholding information from employees, but today was not the day to fight that battle).

I suppose Riaan wanted all of this to feel very serious. However, as I’d done nothing wrong, I rather thought it hilarious that a hardline alcoholic and his 24-year old sidekick were attempting to dictate my future.

Or maybe Riaan wanted to show his board members that was was a capable director because he knew how to bully his staff. The alleged board members did not take things very seriously either though. Mateusz seemed particularly perturbed that Riaan had dragged him from his day job for this nonsense.

Riaan launched into the inquisition. He asked why, since I “knew” he’d have my promised plane tickets, did I feel it necessary to contact Warren. An easy question to answer, one that I was more than happy to answer before the board. I described in detail the numerous times Riaan had promised things, from back salaries to reimbursements for housing deposits, and how he — without exception — had failed to meet his own deadlines. Therefore, given the timeliness required for my US itinerary, I could not rely on his good word any longer.

That was just my opinion, he conjectured.

He continued. He accused me of being too “needy,” that I wanted everything “right now” and “immediately.” This was according to “a long line of people” who he left unnamed. I reiterated that I was merely holding him to the promises he’d made himself, but if he prefered, I would leave my punctual tendencies at home from now on.

He then dropped the ultimate bombshell. Was I aware that Warren was not even a board member? That he was in fact the head of our parent-teacher association?

I admitted, I was not aware of that, though we had waited more than two months for Riaan to publish a breakdown of the school’s managerial organization, and such a document might have prevented such a grave miscalculation.

Meanwhile, I tried to process what Riaan had just told me. I was certain that Warren had introduced himself as a board member. But if he was our PTA head, then this was indeed a profound foul-up on my part. How could I have screwed this up? My smugness gave way to embarrassment.

Riaan left the meeting in a tantrum, huffing and puffing about how if it were up to him, I’d be fired already, and commanded the other parties to “make their decision.” I was asked to leave the meeting. I went outside and pondered my next steps. Where would I work? What would happen to my beloved apartment? What about my dog?

Soon, I was summoned back to the woodshed. Riaan had calmed down, and explained that I would be allowed to stay at ISW after all, on the condition that I never, ever bring matters to Warren again, and keep my mouth shut about everything that happened that day. He set about purchasing my tickets right then and there, though he repeatedly got the flights, times, and dates wrong, despite my having written the details onto a piece of paper, right next to his computer.

That day was a major turning point. Riaan, I realized now, was far worse than an incompetent racist alcoholic and terrible person. With lines like “don’t tell anyone about this,” he revealed himself as a full-time manipulator, bully, and borderline predator. Who else had received similarly ominous directives?

As I soon learned, many people had. In vain hopes of keeping his ineptitude under wraps, Riaan had threatened other teachers with groundless firings time and time again. School administrators, take note: a surefire way to get people talking is to order them not to talk.

Work had become drudgery. Absent my promised computers, I was about as capable of an ICT teacher as a mechanic without a wrench set. Sure, I found a wealth of “teaching technology without technology” resources, but if my students were to become capable users, researchers, and digital citizens, we needed much more than paper-based coding games. That’s about the time I got sick.

Honestly, my throat had tickled for some time. I had even taken a few days off for it, here and there. Each time, I asked Riaan for guidance on how to obtain care, but was told “We’re handling the health plan thing right now, just be patient. Relax.” Minus a private health plan, the Polish healthcare system was inaccessible to a foreigner. For three years, I lamented the unpredictable quality of care available in Nepal, a developing country. But at least there, I could see a doctor!

That “tickle” turned nasty on the worst possible night. It was Saturday and I was on a date. The Hot Polish Girl and I had been out a couple of times before, and on this night, she’d invited me to her apartment. This should have been an amazing evening. Instead, I found myself coughing like an emphysema patient all night. She was lovely, doing her best to nurse me back to health with various Chinese powders and homemade tinctures.

That whole episode left me furious. Riaan had lured me into a joke of a job, outright lied about my salary and benefits, and now, his idiocy had compromised my romantic life. What a complete and utter dick!

Monday I woke up for work, still sick as hell. I called Riaan directly at 6am to inform him I’d be missing another day I demanded to know just what I was supposed to do. How many sick days? How many phone calls and emails before he would take staff health seriously?

He sent me the contact for a private doctor, and said to bill the school for reimbursement. I knew I’d never see that money again, but I also knew I required a doctor and some real drugs.

The good doctor, a kind, capable man hailing from the north of France, must have noticed it was more than a bronchial infection that was wrecking my life. He recommended I take some days to rest. Pausing to think for a moment, he suggested I take the whole week. I was happy to oblige.

Though I did genuinely require the rest, I did not waste one minute of that week. With the stresses of my workplace now set aside, I implemented the early stages of my escape plan. Clearly, there was no way that ISW could stay afloat with this maniac at the helm, and I could either nab a lifeboat or waste my time trying to convince the brass band to play my song.

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From the time of my first interview with Riaan, there were indications this school’s leadership was problematic. Fear prevented me from abandoning the contract. I worried that ISW was my last hope to secure a decent job. Thinking back on this now, I realize what a ridiculous fear that was — not only was the school a far cry from a “decent job,” but in all reality, a multitude of jobs would’ve likely presented themselves, had I only waited. I know this now, because as soon as I threw my hat back into the recruitment ring, everyone wanted a piece of Sam.

Within days, I established relationships with school leaders across Europe, securing interviews in St. Petersburg, Kiev, Madrid, Brussels, Milan, and of course a few cities in Poland. With a steaming mug of herbal tea and infused honey always near, I mastered the art of Skyping in a coat, tie, and pyjama bottoms. My dog enjoyed now having me around all day long.

In interview after interview, principals expressed keen interest in hiring me. Unfortunately, we ran into the same problem, over and over: as an American passport holder, I’m damned hard to hire. Immigration laws differ across the EU, but they all place an enormous burden of time, money, and energy on employers who wish to hire non-EU citizens. Though many schools needed to fill vacancies as soon as January, none of them had the resources to get me in that soon. I would need to return to the US, then maybe we could talk about a start in August 2019.

This was all disconcerting, but what distressed me far more was a call I received from Riaan, just hours before my flight home for divorce court.

“Sam, sorry to disturb you on a sick day, I hope you’re feeling better,” he started, unconvincingly. “I need you to do something for me. I need for you to reset the email passwords of our board members.”

“Sorry, you said you want me to — what’s happened exactly? Did they all forget their passwords?” I asked, casually pulling up my admin panel to check login records.

“Y-yeah. That’s right. So I need for you to reset their passwords. Change them all to ‘Login123’ and call me back as soon as you’ve done that. Make their passwords ‘Login123,’ okay?”

Noting that one of the board members had signed in just hours prior, I curtly asked him to send me his request in writing (so I would have a paper trail).

“Ok, here’s the thing, Sam. The board no longer has any connection with the school. So we need to eliminate their accounts.”

“Sure, Riaan. Just email me that request.”

Immediately, I contacted the first name on his list, Magdalena. She was appalled to learn of his request, and demanded that I leave her account right alone. There absolutely had been no dissolution of the board, and she was still Riaan’s superior. I did not argue her point. The board, she added, was aware that Riaan had been operating in a way not altogether honest or professional, and there would be “changes” over the midterm break, so I might expect not to see Riaan when I returned to Poland from America in a week’s time.

This was promising news. Finally, it seemed the board was doing its job. The schools that showed interest in my candidacy were by all indications head and shoulders above ISW, but I would be willing to tough out the growing pains of ISW if the board could eject that troll Riaan.

One week and a successful divorce later, I landed back in Warsaw. Stepped off the work bus, ready to start fresh. In addition to that confidential assurance from Magdalena to me, the rest of the staff had been festooned with glorious proclamations: promised resources and technology would be in place, health plans and other benefits would be realized, salaries would finally be righted. My optimism faltered when I entered the building and immediately realized the board had delivered on nothing. Everything was still broken. There wasn’t even copy paper. Worst of all, that greasy cretin Riaan stood in the corridor, looking as confused as ever, attempting to project dominance.

I literally threw up in my mouth.

Though I didn’t have any interactions with that putrid bastard all day, my day was awful, probably my worst day at ISW yet. How did he still have a job? Could the board really be that ineffectual? Or were they somehow complicit? No matter the reason, I decided then and there, I could never again return to ISW.

For the next several days, I secured time off for reasons of mental health, which was absolutely valid given the circumstances, and holds up under Polish labor laws. I continued my conversations with other schools. Eventually, I submitted my resignation. With some help from my beloved labor attorney, the letter outlined my reasons for leaving, and enumerated the laws the school had violated. A great many bowels were presumably unloaded as the document was received by Riaan and the board.

One might think the story stops here, but incredibly, we haven’t yet reached the crescendo. I did promise a Chinese mafia, did I not?

Things turned super weird at Friendsgiving. This event was organized by a teacher who, like me, wanted the best for the school. She worked her face off, trying to create a program for her department, in complete absence of resources. And like me, she spent enough time in the international teaching field to recognize a poop pie by the smell. Janetta, my old pal from Bahrain, resigned a few weeks before me. Even still, Friendsgiving proceeded, albeit at another host house.

My “Sam’s Yams” were fresh out of the oven and I was on my way out the door when my phone exploded with a series of texts from a teacher from our Chinese department. She had stumbled across an article from the Taipei Times. It described, in details precisely matching the demeanor, history, and shittiness of Riaan Diedericks, an attempted caper too surreal to be believed. Back in 2005, the unnamed South African had staged the kidnapping of his own daughter, in an apparent attempt to extort money from his Taiwanese wife’s wealthy family.

Am I suggesting the unnamed man was Riaan Diedericks? No, because that might be construed as defamation. All I know is a South African who lived in Taiwan at the same time Riaan lived in Taiwan, a South African who like Riaan was married to a Taiwanese woman, a South African who had a kindergartener in 2005, a kindergartener who’d today be the same age as Riaan’s teenage daughter, such a South African did indeed go to jail for attempted fraud. Also, there is this thread. 

That thread opens up a whole new world of insanity, a fascinating saga of fraud and deception that began in 2005, when a man known as “Ryan Dietricks” approached investors to start a radio station. The station, operating solely online at the time, had attracted some listeners amongst Taiwan’s expat population. Ryan claimed his listenership was in the hundreds or thousands, though web traffic reports showed no more than a dozen hits at best.

Interestingly, Riaan had mentioned to me a few times in casual conversation that he’d once managed a radio station.

Ryan (probably not Riaan, but then, maybe Riaan) had plans to migrate this internet radio station to the airwaves. A major investor had purchased all sorts of broadcast equipment, based on Ryan’s promise of a forthcoming radio license, after Ryan had provided the investor with documents from the Taiwanese government, relevant to this end.

It would come to pass that those documents were forgeries. Foreign-hire DJ’s, who were reportedly offered work permits, went unpaid. Ryan, it seemed, owed many people a great deal of money, reportedly in the neighborhood of $50,000 US (plus some months’ rent to a landlord, and $350 to at least one popular expat bar). Also, according to one poster on the thread, Ryan looks like this. Which is exactly what Riaan Diedericks looks like.

One could conclude that Ryan (probably not Riaan, but then, maybe Riaan) committed the kidnapping and extortion in order to settle his debts. The act of a desperate man.

Some fascinating studies on the psychology of scarcity may help explain why a man would do something so harebrained. Yet what I cannot understand, is how this man would later double down on his double-dealing.

Following the radio fiasco, and serving only a brief stint in Taiwanese prison for the kidnapping caper, Ryan (probably not Riaan, but then, maybe Riaan) would migrate his operation to other parts of East Asia. He was spotted in Vietnam, China, even Mongolia. He ran a phony electronics mail-order business (the sort of con that Craigslist warns its users about) for some time before worming his way into the world of international education.

Details of his work with schools in Asia are murky, but according to the aforementioned thread, and scattered testimonials from teachers who worked with the man, his pattern of behavior went something like this:

  1. Join second-rate schools that hire white foreigners because they speak good English, not because they have outstanding credentials.
  2. Ingratiate oneself with the school community, whilst seeking out opportunities for exploitation.
  3. Grab money any way possible.
  4. Deny everything.
  5. Board a plate and GTFO.
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Earning trust in the community.

Poland then, was Riaan’s gold brick magnum opus. You know… allegedly.

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Could this “Ryan” from @ulanbatarjohn’s Flicker page be the same man…

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..as this “Riaan,” seen here riding a unicorn and wearing a princess hat?

That school where he met Andrew may have been his first attempt at a massive European swindle. Over the summer preceding our first week of operation, Riaan had self-reported to us a “misunderstanding” that involved some thousands of dollars in missing cash, following his resignation from that school. However, he also showed us documents from the school leadership that acknowledged the money had been recovered. A bit odd, but none of us thought for one moment that our director and future boss would attempt something so petty as the theft of a few thousand dollars. And after all, had he not proactively reported the incident to us? And had the matter not been settled?

This was one of many points of conversation that night at Friendsgiving. We all knew he was a terrible director and a pretty miserable human being. But an international grifter? It all seemed too surreal. Yet the more we put the pieces together, the more sense everything started to make. It explained why we had no learning resources, no school supplies, no computers, and no trainings. It explained the stalled reimbursements and the shell game Riaan constantly played when we demanded documentation of salary payouts. It explained why, even with a strong start of 120 children, the school always seemed broke. It explained why Riaan flew into panic mode every time a board member visited the school.

This was the night reality came crashing down on us. ISW was never going to be a real school. It was never intended to be. We had all been bamboozled: 22 teachers who had relocated with the ambition of starting an amazing school; dozens of families who had enrolled their children based on false promises of a high-caliber education; a handful of investors who had blindly handed money over to a fool, and failed to scrutinize what he did with it.

There were tears. There was anger. Small conversational groups formed, trying to process all this new information.

One teacher, a 30-year veteran of the Kansas school system, a God-fearing Christian woman who had sold her home and moved to Warsaw with the intention of a sweet retirement gig in the EU, stood up and announced, “We need to get this son of a bitch.”

We made plans. Teachers filed formal complaints with various government and police agencies across Poland and the EU. Teachers still employed with the school set a date for a walkout. Through my lawyer, we drew up plans for a class action lawsuit — not to punish the board, but to get our overdue salaries and reimbursements. Around this time, I heard from my old pal Warren. He wanted to go grab that beer. And he wanted very badly to understand just what exactly the fuck was going on.

In my favorite little American-style bar and grill on the ground floor of my building, I met with Warren and another board member. Yes, you read that correctly. Warren was a board member after all. In fact, his role at the school, as he read to me from a signed agreement drafted by Riaan, specified that he was in charge of ensuring the wellbeing of staff. Funny how selective Riaan’s memory could be. The entire premise of my near-firing was based on fiction.

Over a couple of beers, I walked these men down the terrible timeline, right up to my resignation, but not including Riaan’s history in Asia. Early on, I suspected they may be in some way in cahoots with Riaan (in the same way I still suspect certain other board members may have been complicit in the fraud). To see their physical reactions to my story though, I realized they were as shocked as the rest of us.

At that time, we were joined by Kate Watson, de facto coordinator of our ad hoc teachers union. “Listen, you guys have heard the story. Now you need to do your jobs and fix this. You’ve got a week. Then the teachers walk.”

“Oh, and by the way. You should see this too.” She shared the link from the Taipei Times. Their faces turned from ashen to death white.

Details about what occured at the school over the subsequent weeks are murky to me; I had no interest in ever seeing that broke down school again. I chose rather to alternate my time between finding my next job, and enjoying the company of my rad Polish girlfriend. But here’s what I do know.

  1. After a huge fight involving Riaan and other board members, Warren and his colleagues eventually got access to the school ledgers and discovered there were no ledgers, and there was zero money left in the coffers. It had mysteriously disappeared.
  2. Some attempt was made to coerce teachers into signing contracts for lower salaries. It did not go over well.
  3. We learned that Riaan had promised a number of Chinese families that ISW would help them secure residence visas. For this service (a service that no international school in their right mind would ever offer to its families), he charged something to the tune of $10 thousand per person. No visas were ever received.
  4. Some of those families had apparent connections to the Chinese mafia, so thugs started to hang around the school gate, asking where they might find Riaan. Riaan became conspicuously absent around this time.
  5. Riaan notified all families that the school would be temporarily closed “for security reasons.”
  6. The rumor mill went full zika virus and parents began yanking their kids out of the school.
  7. Riaan was so fired.
  8. My lawyer served papers to the school board.
  9. Riaan and his family, for reasons all of us still grapple to understand, managed to board a flight out of Chopin International Airport, utterly unobstructed by Polish or international authorities. Keyser Fucking Söze. 

I remain awestruck at how many teachers remained on board with the school through all this. I do not think they had any further illusions about the fate of ISW, and surely, they could not have expected to be paid. I truly believe those who remained, remained solely for the love of teaching children.

Despite their efforts, it became clear by mid-December, ISW was officially a bust. There were rumors of a buyout, but that turned out to be a fake company that Riaan invented. I heard the investors ultimately struck a deal with another education company to sell the ISW building and grounds. The investors may have recouped some of their losses, but I doubt the teachers will ever see any of it.

As those last few teachers made plans to leave, either to take new international contracts or to go home and lick their wounds (as I have done), one final con was uncovered.

At the start of the year, teachers could choose from a small flat close to the city, or a larger home in the countryside, nearer to school. A countryside home would require a car, since mass transit is not so great, outside the city limits. With the school gone tits up, teachers needed now to sell their cars, for which they had paid Riaan around $3 thousand apiece. Supposedly, he’d secured a “very good deal” on these cars, thanks to a parent who worked in the auto sales business. As it turned out, the cars were actually six-month rentals.

Incredible.

Don’t think of this lengthy epistle as a sob story. This field of work always carries risk, but it nets benefits that outweigh the risk. Every new school could be another Poland, every new director could be another Riaan Diedericks. I know that. Just like the guy earning six figures working an oil rig knows he could go up in flames tomorrow, and the entrepreneur starting her own business knows it could sink her into debt for years, but could also yield a lifetime of opportunity.

That said, I’ll be okay. Thirteen years in this field have taught me to be resilient and adaptable. The two months following my resignation were a sort of “nay-cation,” a purgatory of anxiety and delight. Every day, I spent time tending to my network of school connections, every night I spent with my lovely female friend, and for every interview, I boarded a plane to a European city. If there’s a word for angst-meets-leisure, I’m sure the Germans invented it.

For now, I’m back in the US. It took a few weeks, but before long, I secured a job, a car, and a far less attractive apartment. Most of November and December had been Survival Mode. Anyone who’s survived trauma knows that while the trauma is being inflicted, cortisol runs high, and one cannot make room for emotions. There is no time for feelings, there is time only for survival.

maslow's hierarchy of needs

Listen, Emo Sam. We’re a little busy taking care of Physiology and Safety right now, so suck it up.

Only after fulfilling my base needs did the events of the previous two months crash down. WTF had just happened?! I’d been swindled and abused and everything that had meant anything to me in Poland had been wrenched away. My savings were utterly drained. My career path, once so certain, was now back to flapping about like a severed power line.

I’m dealing with the anger and the depression. And it’s not all bad. I don’t want to say too much more about what’s in my year ahead. All will be revealed in time, as appropriate. All I can say for now is, it all started with that wedding in Milan.

Postscript

I watched the Fyre Festival Netflix documentary. In case you opt out of Social Media (good for you!), know that the Fyre Festival was a catastrophic fraud. Thousands were lured to an exclusive music festival, which was reportedly to take place on an island once owned by Pablo Escobar. Young wealthy people with money to burn were promised luxury villas, an exclusive lineup of talent, and hot supermodels frolicking on the sand. They arrived to find nothing. No villas, no bands, no supermodels.

Learning about this fraud, and how one man conned innumerable people into his scam, made me feel better about this whole thing. The producers interviewed people who were affected by Fyre: the investors, the organizers, even the sweet old Bahaman lady who found herself compelled to prepare meals for thousands of stranded Beautiful People.

There were some douchebags that got ripped off for sure, and we all revel in the schadenfreude of watching tech bros get burned for hundreds of thousands of dollars, only to receive soggy mattresses and cold cheese sandwiches in return. But look closer and you’ll also see people who were genuinely well-meaning and intelligent. These were the people I worked with. These were people who saw the promise of something great, and wanted to help make it happen.

How was ISW like Fyre?

  • It was about hype. It was about promoting something bigger. No one was sure about what that “something bigger” was. That “something bigger” changed one day to the next. No mission, no vision. A great website, no substance.
  • The initiative drew numbers, and numbers are attractive.
  • The fearless leader promoted himself as a laissez-faire kind of guy, a guy who liked to hang out, be cool, and day drink.
  • As experts arrived, and began to evaluate the situation on the ground, they realized there were logistics not yet considered. Their concerns were dismissed. The experts were told they had the wrong attitude. The experts were told they should leave, if they couldn’t fix their attitude.
  • As the inertia picked up, the enterprise promised even more than before. Special pricing. Package deals. Exclusive, tailored services. More and more people were invited to join the party, though it was clear we had neither the space nor the resources.
  • More and more experts started to ask questions. This was going to cost a lot of money. Where would this money come from? Even with money, how could we possibly fulfill these promises within the pledged timeline? Even with time, how could we make any of those outrageous claims a reality?

Quotes from the documentary that were almost certainly overheard at ISW:

  • “Our favorite topic is: did you get paid, and was if for the right amount?”
  • “Yeah I got paid, but it was in a bag of cash.”
  •  “I would go out after each meeting… and literally burst into tears. Never in my career did I ever do this, but there I would be, thinking, ‘Holy shit.'”
  • “The draw was to become part of something special and that desire overcame my inner wisdom which was like: ‘This is a mess.'”
  • “The atmosphere that was cultivated was that nobody was allowed to tell them no.”
  • “It’s possible that by solving problems, we were just enabling them to continue to create this monster.”
  • “Do not lie, again. This is your chance to tell the truth. Don’t say ‘out of our control.’ This was completely in our control.”
  • “When do we get our money back?”
  • “There was a huge workforce that had worked… without getting paid.”
  • “He was just lying to investors to make it seem like we were making a bunch of money when we weren’t.”
  • “He really leveraged your existing emotional investment in this team and in this product to extort you to invest even more.”
  • “He’s an operational sociopath.”
  • “I lost a lot of money. A lot of money. A lot.”
  • “A lot of people didn’t get paid… He kept on saying, ‘The money’s coming, the money’s coming.'”
  • “I went through about $X of my savings, I could’ve had it for a rainy day. And they just wiped it out… It really pains me when I have to talk about it.”

People have asked me, whatever became of old Riaan? Great question. He was the center of multiple investigations and lawsuits, activities that earned the attention of the Polish government, including the national police, the federal prosecutor, the labor board, and the immigration department. Rumor has it, he was also on Interpol’s watch list. Yet in late December, this man boarded a plane out of Warsaw with his family, free of incident.

Rumor has it, he’s headed back to China. I’m sure he’ll continue to do fine.

It’s like Chris Rock once said: You know, some people never get theirs. Some people just fail up. People are like, “What goes around, comes around.” No, it don’t. Sometimes, it’s just keeps goin’ around. 

Get off my lawn

A diatribe from a 40 year old man

Electronic dance music. I try to get it. I’ve tried to get it many times. I’ve gone to many a party, from the volcanoes of Bali to the Great Wall of China to the beaches of Goa to the Acropolis of Lindos. I’ve shaken my ass. I’ve put my hands in the air like I don’t care. I’ve done the move where you put up one index finger and bounce. I get the crowd appeal, sampling popular songs ranging from the 60s to today. I get how the repetitive beat makes a body move. I get how the repetitive beat eventually builds to a crescendo, sometimes accompanied by a bit of synth and perhaps the DJ asking if we are ready. And then some repeated vocals, and the crowd goes nuts. I get all that.

What I don’t get is this: why do people do this to themselves?

I think back to the late nights I used to enjoy. Punk bands. Three chords and three minute songs. A sound that forced a thousand people to surge the stage and rage out, inhibitions cast aside.

One might say, “Hey old timer, what you’re talking about ain’t much different. Both genres are repetitive and predictable as a preschool picture book.” I get that too. But there is a difference.

The difference is drugs and ego. Neither of these elements were necessary to enjoy a punk show. I’ve been sober for both kinds of events, and on other occasions, a bit drunk, and across the board, punk remains fun. EDM is fun for about ten minutes. Maybe less. Often, less.

As for ego, let me explain further. A typical punk show is in a seedy venue and stagecraft is limited to antics of the performers (especially if ska is involved) and a banner behind the drummer reminding us of the band’s name. The audience is allowed to express any number of emotions: joy, rage, sadness, or vacuousness. It’s all fine. We are here for each other.

An EDM show is tens of thousands of dollars worth of lights, smoke effects, and one or several crazy LED displays popping out trippy animations. On those screens, the DJ’s name and face explode out across the crowd to everyone’s delight, though he’s really just flipping switches and doing an occasional index finger thrust. And you’d better look happy the whole time. Even better if you’re in a coveted VIP section with bottle service and all the rest. The crowd feeds the DJ and in theory the DJ feeds the crowd.

I know this makes me sound like a cranky old man who can’t understand the nuance of EDM (if there is such a thing), much in the same way as my old man couldn’t understand the angsty energy of punk, trying in earnest to get me to appreciate the honesty and purity of Neil Young and Bob Dylan and the Beatles. He was eventually successful in the end.

With that, I’ll end with a hypothetical: is it possible for me to not only appreciate what genres preceded my music of choice, but also the genres that emerge with the next generation? Or am I doomed to forever be the old man yelling at the damned kids on his lawn?

End of an era: Final days in Kathmandu

In less than a month, I fly out of Tribhuvan International Airport for the last time.

At least, the last time in a long time.

Three years I’ve been here now. Kathmandu, Nepal has undoubtedly been the strangest host I could ever hope for. The thing is, I never imagined myself in Nepal. Or anywhere in South Asia for that matter. In fact, I fully expected to remain in South Carolina for at least another couple years.

Back in June 2015, I had just been offered a position at a local middle school, where I’d be teaching humanities — a dream job I’ve sought for years. Working with underprivileged youth in my home state, a great principal leading an enthusiastic staff, the school a ten minute walk from the house I’d bought just two months prior, what more could I want? Then everything was turned on its head.

In another blog, sometime in the future, I’ll detail the events between that decision point in June and the nine months that followed. It’s not a nice story. For now, I’ll write about Kathmandu. Those stories are better.

I’ve written about the process of moving out here with two dogs, and my first impressions of Kathmandu, as well as a few other stories. What I’ve never written about is how anxious I felt during those first few weeks and months.

One of the running jokes when I arrived was, “Did that building collapse during the quake, or before?” It’s more serious than funny. Nepal is euphemistically called A City Under Construction. It’s a nice way of saying A Total Shit Show.

Many buildings would be deemed unfit for occupation in the developed world. The streets are choked with diesel smoke, dust, bad drivers, and cows. Eating out, you stand a one-in-five chance of falling ill. Eating in, the odds drop to merely one-in-ten. The Kathmandu valley is bisected by the holy Bagmati River, which reeks of raw feces 365 days a year. Local produce is wilted and dirty, and imports are marked up by 200% or more. Just a few of the highlights.

That first week in country, I was terrified of leaving the hotel. Everything looked too dangerous. 

I realize I sound like a typical Expat Princess, griping about how it’s so much harder out here. Keep in mind though, after Indonesia, I no longer wished to work in the developing world. I’d followed The Wife like that guy who exploded social media a few years ago, minus the glamor and with a less happy ending.

By the end of the first year, my marriage had fallen apart, I had contracted Super Giardia, and my salary was eviscerated by Brexit. Two years to go!

This is counterbalanced by many positives. I developed my professional practices and graduated from a pockmarked resume to a pretty solid one. In these three years, I became a great teacher. I mean, I was probably a good teacher before, but what I know now and what I’m able to do now, three years down the road, is incredible. I do not think this would’ve happened had I stayed in Carolina.

I made new friends and reconnected with old ones. I’ve done a great deal of hiking and adventuring around the country, from the highest peaks in the world in Khumbu to the grassy safari lands of Chitwan.  I’ve holidayed in Chiang Mai, Kuala Lumpur, Goa, Abu Dhabi, and Bangkok. I always wanted to fast-boat my way across the Andaman Sea islands, so I did. I spent a lovely week with my family in Tuscany before enjoying a blowout night in Rome.

Aside from that, Kathmandu life is pretty routine. The weekend is a mishmash of social events, usually involving hikes, barbecues, rooftop sundowners, and barhopping. Often, all the above.

In recent conversations with friends, I’ve referred to Kathmandu as a sort of purgatory. Emphasis on the purge. I came in with a whole lot of baggage. More specifically, 350 kilograms of troubled relationship, self-doubt, high anxiety, and desperate need of therapy. Through meditation, mindfulness, psychoanalysis, and a healthy dose of hedonism, I feel leveled out.

As I write, the movers are on their way to collect my stuff. It’s much lighter at just 250 kilos. I leave behind many memories, not all of them good, but plenty that are. I’ll return one day — Annapurna and the Three Passes call my name — but for now, I’m eager to start my new adventure, this time well away from Asia!

 

Hiking the Himalayas

Let me preface by saying that I’m not the L.L. Bean poster child. I’m a Slacker Packer. Until last October, my longest camping excursions were music festivals, where a burrito cart was always a stone’s throw away. Actual hiking? Here’s a timeline of my serious attempts at the rugged outdoor life, up to now.

1998: Camped in a flood diversion channel, somewhere near Athens, Georgia. In the morning, a flash flood swept all of us away, still in our sleeping bags.

2001: Rainbow Falls, Washington. Plenty of rain, but no sign of the falls or rainbows. Naturally, the weather improved immediately after we finished packing the tents two days later.

2007: Excursion to Hell Swamp, South Carolina. Got lost. Possibly met the Blair Witch.  Never found the swamp.

2011: Bike ride up the Malay Peninsula. Actually, that was a pretty good experience, even if the tent only came off the bike once during the entire three weeks. Hotels are nicer.

All my hikes have been low energy one-day jaunts. All my camps have been on tailgates, well-equipped with coolers, kitchen appliances, and other modern amenities. When my old pal Greer suggested we hike the Himalayas, I had some apprehensions.

I’m not a mountaineer. I don’t tie knots, I don’t own an ice axe, I cannot tell you the difference between a crampon and a cramp-off. Then again, I’ve known people here — some of them well out of shape — who’ve done Everest Base Camp and survived. I eat reasonably well, I walk to work, I do yoga. I probably drink more beer than the average outdoorsman, but how hard can the Himalayas be?

Greer booked her flight, and we got down to planning the details. A good friend shared with me the itinerary he and his wife used the year previous. About one full week to get up, three to four more days to come back down. Originally, Greer was thinking Everest Base Camp, but after I spoke with a few seasoned hikers, they all recommended the Gokyo Lakes instead. The problem with EBC, they say, is you don’t see much of Everest because you’re on Everest. However, there’s an amazing view of the peak from Renjo La Pass, which incidentally, is the same elevation as EBC.

There were a few other details that had to be negotiated. Greer wanted a porter. A porter? Come on, I argued. Porters are for lazy, terrible people. We are rugged. We are strong. She said that I was welcome to carry my bag, but she’d hire a porter. Eventually, I saw the wisdom of her argument. Given a choice between spending $17 a day, or carrying my belongings up 3.3 vertical miles, I opted for practicality over pride.

She also wanted oxygen. Oxygen? There’s plenty of oxygen there. In the air. Granted, far less oxygen than at sea level, but we won’t need oxygen. I’ve talked to a million people who’ve done this hike a million times. They say we don’t need oxygen, and oxygen is a terrible idea because it comes in big heavy tanks that people just leave up there.

“We’ll have the porter carry it. I want oxygen.”

Here’s the thing. Once you advance past Camp One, that’s when you need to pack oxygen. Not at any time before — unless you happen to be suffering from altitude sickness, and at that point, you’re probably coughing up blood anyway, so good luck, pal. But Greer wouldn’t have it. She’s a classic Taurus, and by that I mean she is stubborn and reads too deeply into horoscopes. I love that about her.

Then she called me one afternoon to say we wouldn’t need oxygen after all. She’d met someone who’d hiked the Himalayas, and they told her don’t worry about oxygen. A face palm moment.

The weeks leading to her flight passed quickly. I was so excited to receive my old friend in Kathmandu, I came to the airport a day early. Also, I’m very bad with calendars, especially when I fail to notice the (+1) next to flight arrival times.

On the evening she actually arrived, we celebrated with a late night bite at my favorite curry place. In the days leading to the trek, we managed to knock out a few Kathman-must-do’s, from a lunch at Boudhanath to a barbecue at my buddy Suraj’s shop (one of those is a UNESCO site, and the other one should be). We wandered around the Thamel backpacker district, picking up our park passes and dropping by Shona’s Alpine to rent and purchase needed gear.

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Monks at Boudnath

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Crowded streets of KTM

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Standstill traffic, pretty typical

Early Sunday morning, the real adventure began. At the domestic terminal of KTM, we encountered a few packs of people I know, all of them headed to different outdoorsy destinations around the country. A tiny part of me was a little envious; couldn’t we just spend a week relaxing by the lakes in Pokhara, or by the lazy rivers of Chitwan? No, we had bigger things to do. Greer and I boarded a tiny two-engine plane with about 20 other hikers and took off for Lukla.

The flight is an adventure in itself. It’s like a roller coaster ride, except it might actually kill you. The plane strafes the treetops of mountainous pine forests, struggling against randomly quarreling jet streams, its twin props heaving like an emphysema ward. Then there’s the landing at Tenzing-Hillary Airport. Year after year, this airport maintains its proud position on the “World’s Most Dangerous Airport” lists from travel magazines, engineering journals, and news outlets. The runway is just over 1700 feet long, and slanted upwards to help slow landing aircraft. Due to heavy fog and unpredictable weather, flights from Kathmandu to Lukla are frequently cancelled in the later morning, but some end even sooner than that… on the side of a mountain.

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Highway to the Danger Zone

Fortunately, we booked an early morning flight and arrived to Lukla with no incidents. We also had no porter, but there were plenty of folks happy to take on the job. We got a young sherpa by the name of Nopraj. Nopraj spoke no English, except for “We go now, slowly-slowly.” I’m not convinced he was great with maps either, because while we had pinned the different villages where we planned to stop, he definitely had his own itinerary. In some ways, that was better.

Our first stop, Phakding, is Nopraj’s home village. We got to meet his uncles, brothers, and cousins. All of them were guides and porters as well, so we’d continue to see them at different parts of our trek. They appreciated a hearty pitcher of chyang, my Nepali alcoholic beverage of choice. Phakding is also where we started to feel the initial side effects of Diamox, an altitude sickness medicine: it makes beer taste terrible. It tastes like someone left the can open in the sun, behind a latrine, for a year, then resealed it. At first I thought that’s just how Nepali Ice tastes sometimes, but we compared with different cans in different towns, and the same result each time. We’d discover many other exciting side effects in the days ahead.

Jorsale was a nice stop. Our tea house overlooked the river. We sipped on mint tea and watched the yak caravans pass, with their ornately decorated saddles and awkwardly swaying cargo, tin bells clanging all the way. At this point, we hadn’t done any notably strenuous hiking, and we already had views of Amadablam, a particularly angry-looking Himalayan peak. At this point, there had been virtually no change in altitude since Lukla — 9,200 feet and going strong!

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Enjoying a cuppa with Nopraj

Namche Bazaar was a brutal wake-up call. It was like hiking straight into a wall — a kilometer-high wall. That’s three football fields tall, for my American friends. One minute, we’re walking along a peaceful meandering river, next minute, the trail shoots straight up. From there, a shaky steel suspension bridge connects one stone precipice to the next, a few hundred feet above the not-so-peaceful-anymore river. Even after that come many more punishing hours of walking pretty much straight up into the sky, sometimes having to share space with EBC hikers trying to Instagram while on foot, or trains of donkeys who will totally knock people off cliff-sides because they’re total asses.

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The bridges behind us

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The crossing

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The drop

Sweet reprieve as we reached the ranger station just outside Namche. They checked our park passes and asked Nopraj where we’d stay that night. He replied, “The Hilton.”

Maybe it was the low oxygen taking hold, but that was the funniest thing I’d heard all week. I started laughing like a crazy person, high-fiving Nopraj for his sudden sense of humor. Except he was serious. We were staying at the Hilton.

Except we weren’t staying at the Hilton. We stayed at the Hill Ten. The name is an amalgamation of Sirs Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first people to summit Everest. And it was definitely no Hilton.

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Not a Hilton. Not by a long shot. 

Not only did the manager refuse to acknowledge my Hilton Honors Gold status, he also balked at my question about dining at other restaurants in Namche (it only takes a few days for rice-and-veg dal baht to become tiresome). He grunted something about extra fees we’d pay if we ate any meal at any place other than the hotel, and how lucky we were to even have a room. I immediately started to question Nopraj’s judgement in fine hotels.

To make matters worse, Greer succumbed to altitude sickness that night. Exhaustion, vomiting, disorientation, the whole nine. To his credit, the hotel manager wound up being a real star. He made her some special garlic soup, meant to alleviate symptoms, and checked in on her progress regularly. For that reason, and because we didn’t feel like packing bags again, we stayed at the Hill Ten for two nights, so we could acclimatize and recover.

Greer felt better the next day, so we set out to explore Namche Bazaar. It’s a small place, packed with backpacker lodges, gear shops, and souvenir vendors. I considered picking up a Gokyo Ri patch, then going home, but Greer would never let me get away with it. However, we did pick up a piece of equipment that would prove incredibly valuable later on: a solar-powered battery charger. I thought at first it was a rather impulsive way for Greer to spend a hundred dollars, but she’d noticed all the tea houses, even the luxurious Hill Ten, demanded crazy amounts of money to charge guests’ devices. Between us we had an SLR camera, two cell phones, and an ultraviolet-light water purifier. I supposed it made sense, especially if it made her feel more secure about having access to her Android. As it turned out, that solar panel would save more than just money.

We opted for a sneaky pizza at the Irish Bar (yes, there’s one in every town) and were attempting to share a skunky beer when we met a strange backpacker whom I’ll refer to as Mitch Hedburg. Not because he’s funny like the comedian, but because he has some real neurotic stuff going on, and he drowns it in alcohol, and he talks in a stream of consciousness.

This Mitch was from the brilliant state of New Jersey, and represented his people well. He told us he’d spent the last few weeks in Namche because it’s a total party (it’s not), the drinks are cheap (they aren’t), and he was banging backpacker chicks left and right (I’m sure he wasn’t). He was kind enough to start puffing away at a hookah as soon as our pizza arrived. We left him at the bar, and he managed to drag another trekker group into his world of nonsense.

At some point, Greer went up to the Hill Ten for a nap, and I wandered around the town a bit more. Walking up a set of stone steps, I noticed my legs grew heavy and my head started to spin. I sat down to pull it together. A few moments later, I felt better and took another few steps. This time I went down pretty hard. An elderly couple noticed me, and brought out some water. I think they wanted me to stick around for mint tea but I had to get to my bed. These were altitude sickness symptoms.

Here’s what I did not know about acute mountain sickness, or AMS. Firstly, pretty much everyone gets it above 8,000 feet, whether you’re a first time hiker or Richard Branson. Second, AMS impacts different people different ways, even people who ascend slowly with lots of rest stops, like we did. A mountain clinician described it this way: first you feel hungover, then drunk. Some folks might only feel shortness of breath or a slight headache. Other people will completely shut down, and earn themselves a one-way helicopter ride to the international clinic.

Let me tell you, there were lots of helicopters buzzing past on this trip! Yes, some serve as supply lines to high villages, but most of them are evacuating poor saps who don’t read the early warning signs of AMS, and power forward. Maybe it’s pride: “If I don’t come back with a Base Camp selfie, what will my friends think?” Maybe it’s time, or money: “These are the only two weeks I could get away from the office, and I spent a freaking fortune on the flight and the guide and all this gear… do I even need an ice axe?”

For me, the symptoms came on as total exhaustion. I did eventually get to bed, then it was Greer’s turn to make sure I didn’t die in my sleep. Fortunately, by dinner time, my strength had returned, but I ate a yak steak just in case.

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As the altitude sickness passed, so did the cloud cover.

 

Even more fun than AMS symptoms is Diamox side effects. After a few days on these drugs, some really crazy shit starts to unfold. For one thing, I had to pee… like, all the time. It has something to do with the chemicals kicking your endocrine system into high gear. Diamox also makes the tips of your fingers and toes go numb, which I’m sure really messes with people at Base Camp altitudes, who cannot tell if it’s Diamox side effects or frostbite.

Most intriguing of the side effects? The dreams. Totally lucid, but hauntingly surreal dreams. I dreamt of driving a Katmandu taxi through a Disney-themed bridal parade with my college pal Brooke in downtown Portland. No one has yet been able to explain why this drug stirs up lucid dreams, but it sure was amazing. Sometimes I think about spending a leisurely week on Diamox just to enjoy the dreams again.

Here’s something that everyone says on this trail: “You’re through the worst of it now.”

That is a lie.

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At least there’s no more ant lines after you clear Namche.

People coming down the trail from Namche swore that things got easier, further north. The morning we set off for Phorste Tanga, I was pleased to see it was such a short distance on the map, and only a 700 foot ascent. But once again, it was straight up into the damn sky, totally unrelenting.

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Have I mentioned that Nopraj is my hero? 

The stone staircases now resembled something more like ladders. But the views were amazing. Probably the best of the whole trek. We were now at a vantage point where we could see many of the Himalayan giants.

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Just peeking out at first…

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There they are

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My Zissou pose

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Cool lichens

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Lovely flowers

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Action man!

Along the way, we passed a sort of ghost village, full of old vacant stone houses. We got dusted by some local Sherpa kids bounding up the boulders, collecting yak dung (so much dung) into giant baskets strapped to their heads. They were having a blast, it was like a game for them. Beat the Foreigners up the Mountain, with free dung tokens all the way.

 

 

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Site of a ghost village

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My brother and I had slightly different kinds of chores growing up.

We also met a Frenchman, beret and all, who was heading down. He told us he did this hike every few years, and it was his favorite in the world. He began to tell us it got easier after Phorste, but we knew better.

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The many lodges of Khumbu

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We booked into the Alpine Cottage Lodge, a peaceful, cozy place. Nothing around us except bird songs, and the gentle clanging of yak bells. About this time, we got to know a couple whom we’d seen on trail at a few rest stops. They were Québécois, and super friendly. We came to learn that their guide had taken on our porter as an apprentice, and he was essentially now calling the shots about where we would stay. That sounded fine, since their guide seemed to be more experienced.

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Yaks!

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The next leg would be the longest of the trek: Machhermo. Unlike other legs that ranged from four to six hours, this one went on pretty much all day, and it ascended 2,600 feet. At this point, I started to reflect on some of the everyday routines of trail life:

  • adjusting my hiking poles, constantly
  • tying my boots, constantly
  • urinating, constantly
  • fresh mountain air interrupted by the occasional waft of manure or dead things
  • learning new card games from locals and foreigners
  • snot rockets
  • acute awareness of the many ways to die
  • alternating between collecting MOOP, and no longer giving a damn
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Slowly slowly we go

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Possibly my favorite photo

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So many ways to buff it up.

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Varying stages of buff wear

I thought about my ancient ancestors, how they were tied to the land and the weather. If it rained, I got rained on. No two ways about it. No shelter to hide in. Just get wet. Snow? Get cold. Rock slide? Get buried in rocks.

I also noticed how wrecked my body was. We assume when we see intrepid hikers in National Geographic, that they’re the embodiment of good health. Not so. Altitude does a number on the old meat wagon. Probably didn’t help that I was battling my latest bout of giardia, which meant a daily dose of three kinds of antiparasitics and antibiotics, as well as iron and zinc supplements, in addition to that goofy little drug, Diamox. If the giardia was running high that day, I would also take an Imodium and hope to god that it’d last to the next squat toilet. Worst of all, I learned that caffeine can exacerbate AMS symptoms, so that meant no morning coffee, which makes for a Grumpy Sam (just as well… Nescafe is coffee that’s given up on life).

Approaching a full week on trail, above 8,000 feet, I could feel things inside me breaking. My nose was running like a spigot, my feet were swollen, my muscles threatened to go on strike, and every time I coughed into my hanky, I looked for blood. My thoughts were becoming driftier each day. At the start of the trek, I’d run short of breath after a long ascent. At this point in the trek, I ran short of breath after brushing my teeth. My stomach ached from a constant diet of Tibetan fry bread, garlic soup, fried rice with green pepper sauce, and mint tea, all of which cost more than twice what one would pay down in the valley. I wanted a burrito truck so badly.

As for Greer and me, this was fast becoming a test of our friendship. Engineers get flustered when things don’t work, like her UV water purifier. Altitude and cold can cut battery life by half. Fortunately, as an engineer, she is always thinking five moves ahead, and you’ll remember her purchase of that solar battery charger back in Namche. Even still, charging took time, and we did not have an in-the-meantime backup plan for drinking water, save for buying bottles at a premium rate. Greer got pretty irate about that. The higher the technology, the greater the need for a backup plan.

I’m sure I was also a piece of work. Maybe Greer will detail this further in the comments.

In Machhermo, we arrived to a totally dumpy teahouse, not what you want after a full day’s hike. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a wealth of options. We probably got the least dumpy teahouse in the village, though the walls were literally cardboard. That meant we got to know our Québécois friends much better, whether we — or they — liked it or not. Proud to say, my French is now much improved.

It would be my first shower in days. By “shower,” I mean that I was in a corrugated steel shed, just large enough for an adult human. One of the staff would bring over a kettle of freshly boiled water, add it to a tank on top of the shed, then pour in cold spring water so I wouldn’t be blanched alive. There was a release clip inside the shed, and the water would come pouring out of a sprayer fashioned from the bottom of a plastic soda bottle. With the cold crisp mountain air outside, I’d say it was an invigorating experience, but nothing I’m in a hurry to repeat anytime soon.

Night fell and so began my first truly frigid night. The commons area resembled a caterpillar commune, everyone bundled into their sleeping bags, shivering as they slurped down gassy garlic soup. This would be the first and not last time, that I would ask our hosts to “please drop some more dung on the fire.”

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Sherpa stew. Basically 3 square meals in 1 bowl.

Finally the day came for the Gokyo Lakes hike. We’d ascend another 1,000 feet, but hey, I wasn’t expecting an easy hike by this point, was I? The high alpine flora was breathtaking, and as the trail went on, I saw the river turn deeper and deeper tones of aquamarine, indicating we were nearing the glaciers.

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Just a quick jaunt. See trail left side of photo.

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Made it!

We finished the short hike quickly, and we were at our teahouse in time for lunch. Sadly, this teahouse was not as appealing as the others in the village. Not many accommodations where you can say the view is actually shit. I mean it. Outside the window was a field of dung cakes, drying in the sun. When night fell, we were gathered in the commons area with our Québécois friends, shivering, sniffling, coughing, questioning the decisions we’d made that had led to this point, and the hosts denied our request to add more dung to the furnace.

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Total shit

That night, I heard the Québécois through the walls again. They were plotting a coup. She wanted a nicer place. He did too. They’d either convince their guide to get a nicer place, or murder him. I looked across my room at the other bed — Greer had obviously been listening too. Her face said everything I was thinking. We should totally murder their guide. Or find better accommodations.

I consulted the itinerary my friend had provided me prior to the trip, remembering he’d recommended one particular place in Gokyo. The next morning, I scoped it out. It was closed for renovations, but the family owned another place next door that was also meant to be fantastic. Sure enough it was. Probably the closest thing to an actual Hilton at three vertical miles above sea level.

One very real concern however, was the porter meal. The way it works on trail is this: wherever the porter or guide takes his clients for the night, that place provides him with a bed and a giant helping of dal baht. Would a fancy pants place like this honor that agreement?

The answer was yes, absolutely. We were a little apprehensive breaking the news to our porter. He’d have to pack bags and also tell our dung house hosts that we were leaving. When we did tell him though, his face lit up. He assumed we were on a super tight travel budget, and wouldn’t be interested in a place that cost twenty whopping dollars per night. Not only would our man get a soft bed with clean sheets (note: sleep sack and pillowcase are a must on any teahouse trail), he would also have an entire menu to choose from, not just dal baht (he chose dal baht anyway). It was a win-win situation.

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Nopraj!

Oh, the softness of that bed! Oh, the warmth of that dung stove! Oh, that lasagne, that lasagne, that lasagne!

I’ve had lasagne, plenty of times. I’ve had lasagne bolognese, lasagne florentine, and that bake-in-the-box stuff from Sam’s Wholesale Club. I’ve had lasagne in New York, Pisa, and Rome… you might say lasagne is an old favorite of mine. To quote the poetry of Ween, in their song, Roses are Free:

Eat plenty of lasagna ’til you know that you’ve had your fill
Resist all the urges that make you want to go out and kill

Advice to live by! But let me tell you, brothers and sisters. This lasagne was the best in the world. Sure, you might say that any lasagne would taste amazing after days in the wilderness with nothing to eat but sugars and empty carbs, but I say no. No, this lasagne was Divine. The noodles, soft and pillowy. The layers of sauce, a slow-cooked bolognese of ground yak. The up-top sauce, a perfectly prepared fresh béchamel. Oftentimes with lasagne, I eat halfway through the block, and get tired. Not the case here. I consumed what for me would be considered a double portion. And where I normally would’ve felt groggy and taken a nap afterwards, I suggested to Greer we attempt to summit Gokyo Ri. It’s just another 2,300 feet. I mean, we could see the top from the restaurant window. Didn’t look that high.

Full of vim and protein, we set off. It started off pretty easy, but here’s another thing about altitude: it makes everything really hard to do. Gokyo Ri looks like the kind of mound that, below 8,000 feet, I could summit in an hour or two. We crossed the river, and soon as the trail started going up, my body started to protest.

We must’ve been on that damn hill forever. We’d take eight steps, then stop for a break. Another eight, another break. We might go for a real marathon — ten steps — then require a break twice as long. Grazing yaks eyed us with mild pity.

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I pity you, fool. 

We might have actually summited Gokyo Ri had it not been for the weather. The last few  days of our expedition, the weather routinely blew in hard and fast, right around noon. One minute, blue skies, and the next minute, we’re walking in a cloud with zero visibility. I’ve seen enough Everest films to know that weather is the big killer. Mama didn’t raise no fool. We were forced to turn around. Maybe next time, Gokyo Ri.

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We did get to do some Zissou mugging before weather rolled in. Not the glacial scar along bottom of pic. 

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Also, Everest came out to play for a little while. 

When we returned to the lodge, our Québécois friends were there. We shouldn’t have been surprised. This was the only Hilton-esque accommodation in a tiny mountain village. They planned to spend an extra day in Gokyo, whereas we planned to hike out early the next morning. We made plans to rendezvous in Kathmandu, and spent the rest of the day lounging lazily, reading books, playing cards, and watching helicopter evacuations from a commons area warmed by thick carpeting, double-paned windows, a massive iron stove. And the dung cakes kept on coming.

At 4:30am, Nopraj knocked twice on our thin plywood door, then let himself into the dark room, announcing himself with “Okay, we go now, slowly-slowly,” as he’d done every morning for the last week. Except this time, we were ready for him, with bags packed, water bladders filled, and batteries charged. We were ready for the high point of all high points, Renjo La Pass.

Here’s what we’d been told by trail guides and fellow hikers about Renjo La:

  1. It’s a pretty strenuous hike, but not nearly as punishing as what you’ve done already (lies!).
  2. Incredible views of the Himalayan range, including Everest.
  3. It’s mostly downhill from there.

Just as we’d done the day before, we crossed the narrow stone trail that cut through the stream. As we passed Gokyo Ri, we waved goodbye, and see you soon. It was still dark. Our headlamps lit the craggy path ahead. That’s when Greer’s flickered off.

At first, we thought we could continue with phone flashlights, but that quickly became impractical — you really need both hands to hike. One tiny miscalculation would have one or all of us tumbling hundreds of feet down a sheer face of granite. We set down the gear and Greer managed to find a freshly-charged set of batteries, buried in her pack. We were back on.

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Oh good. So we’ll be in the dark.

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WTH was I thinking?!

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No, we aren’t halfway. We aren’t even a tenth of the way…

As the sun gently rose, it bathed the entire landscape in eerie purple and orange light, illuminating the ominous stony ladders ahead. As we ascended each switchback, we thought surely, it will level out soon. Sometimes it did, for a while.

Our first long rest stop overlooked the lakes and the surrounding goliaths, morning fog rolling down the slopes like river rapids. We drank hot mint tea and ate granola bars. Then another ascent.

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Surely, there’s a ‘down’ soon?

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Some angry looking tors there.

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Totally bleak outlook

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How does anything manage to survive up here?

The next level opened up to a glacial morass. I love a good morass. Similar to the orogenic apocalypse I witnessed years ago in New Zealand’s Tongariro Crossing, the landscape was downright martian. Lovecraft-esque tors formed a corridor on all sides, colored with vivid tombstone blacks, rusted reds, and ancient grays, the ground occasionally dotted with optimistic purple and yellow flowers covered in hoary frost. Not a single sound up there, save for the thin layers of ice cracking beneath our boots like a sinister crème brulé.

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Indeed, Lovecraft said it best in Mountains of Madness: 

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“I could not help feeling that they were evil things — mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss. That seething, half-luminous cloud-background held ineffable suggestions of a vague, ethereal beyondness far more than terrestrially spatial; and gave appalling reminders of the utter remoteness, separateness, desolation, and aeon-long death of this untrodden and unfathomed austral world.”

Another ascent, and we could hear the glacier. This memory will haunt my dreams and nightmares for a lifetime. It was humbling, to walk alongside a solidly frozen river, the echoing knell as billions of tons of ice splintered and displaced billions of tons of ancient rock. It was a deafening reminder: this planet doesn’t give a damn about us puny apes.

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Glacier don’t care…

Another ascent, this one very slow. Word count tells me that I’ve used the word “vertical” a few times now, but this one took the prize. This was the y-axis of our trek. This ascent was less about stepping up, and more about scrambling up boulders, digging fingers into the crumbling stone, hiking poles strapped to our backs, loose gravel giving way with every upwards lurch. I no longer noticed the surrounding landscape. I was too busy forcing my lungs to cooperate with my heart and muscles. My skin became clammy yet cold. My face was red as road rash and my lips resembled the edges of a cheap leather wallet. I’m not normally one to pray, but on this occasion, I prayed to all deities East and West to please, please get me over this abominable pass. When we saw the Tibetan prayer flags flitting madly in the gales soaring over the precipice, I felt my invocation answered.

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Oh good. Can we die now? 

The top of Renjo La pass is a skinny piece of real estate, no more than eight feet across. On one side, we could see the brooding fog that surrounded the glacial horror-scape from where we had risen. On the other side, several hundred feet down, a wide open land surrounding a perfectly ovine lake, a gentle snow falling across the trail.

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Check! Let’s go home now.

 

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Oh look over at this side. More lake!

We had done it. Time to snap some selfies at 17,600 feet above sea level. Though we were a bit disappointed that the fog obscured views of Everest and the other titans, we were overjoyed to finally have this pass over and done with. So began our descent.

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Easy does it. Just a mild descent…

In this one day, we would descend 12,600 feet across approximately 25 miles. To cover the same distance coming up had taken us three days. At first, the trail was just as much a vertical drop as it had been a vertical ascent coming up. Stairs built for gods. The snow did not instill confidence in our footing. However, some hours later, we were practically galloping as the craggy trail gave way to grasslands and even, surprisingly, a high alpine sandy beach! My lungs ravenously gulped the oxygen-rich air as energy returned to every part of my body. At last, we could stop popping Diamox and drink beer and urinate like normal people.

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Beach. Huh!

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A few subtle clues along the way

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Hello there! I’m a house!

Thame was a pleasant village, just a few tea houses and a great many yaks. It seems that Thame is like a truck stop for the yak caravans. Soon as we dropped our packs, we plopped down on the grassy slope and passed my flask of single malt around a circle of fellow adventurers. Some of them were heading up the way we had come down. I thought they were either insane or poorly informed. While our trek from Gokyo to the pass was excruciating, the reverse course would be far more punishing. I wonder if they made it.

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Aw, baby yaks!

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Just got a fresh paint job

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A somewhat more relaxed pace.

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Next day, we made it to Tengboche, birthplace of Everest summit pioneer Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. It was an idyllic setting, Buddhist stupas and the old familiar prayer stones alongside a rushing whitewater. We could’ve easily stayed the night, but we were sick to death of trail food. We wanted pizza and beer and that meant we’d hike the remaining miles down to Namche.

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Every trekker in Nepal knows these menu items far too well.

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This time, we did not leave it to Nopraj to find a hotel. We stayed at a far more accommodating lodge, similar to the one in Gokyo. Hot showers, good food. We browsed the souvenir stalls; Greer bought a Tibetan print for her sister and I bought a yak bell for my dog. Of course we popped back into the Irish bar. It was much busier now, as high season was starting to peak, and we saw the fresh faces of people who, like us only a week ago, believed they had just accomplished the most difficult climb of the trek. Naturally, we did our best to confirm the lie.

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Returning to civilization!

Greer and I saddled up to the bar and ordered our first normal-tasting beer of the trip: a Khumbu Kolcsh. The bartender welcomed us back with a bowl of popcorn. Just then, a dirty, hippy-stink hand reached between us and grabbed a handful from the bowl. I looked up to see Mitch Hedburg, still drunk and worthless a week later. In a way, I was kind of glad to see him. It meant I was still alive.

Aside from a bit of up and down, the hike from Namche to Lukla is fairly uneventful, though quite long. On the way, we ran into Matthew, a friend from work. In the same number of days we had been on trail, he had managed to hike EBC plus the Three Passes (of which Renjo La is the easiest pass). My trek had been incredibly challenging, but he had narrowly avoided a rockslide. In my mind, this earns him the Wholly Hardcore prize.

With Matt and his guide, we became a party of five, and shlepped the rest of the way to Lukla. We confirmed our flights for the next morning (very important to do this) and checked into a quite nice lodge adjacent to the airport. At this point, we bid farewell to Nopraj, leaving him with a nice tip and letter of reference.

While we sipped Belgian beers and dined on pasta that didn’t taste like paper, we were joined in the restaurant by an assembly of representatives from the regional villages, dressed in traditional costume, who were holding some sort of conference to address local concerns. It made for fascinating eavesdropping, but we decided the nearby Irish bar (yes, another high-altitude Irish bar) would be a more suitable environment for continued drinking.

The next morning, our plane took off according to schedule. I could see Matt waving us goodbye from the platform overlooking the tarmac. I wondered if that would be the last wave goodbye I’d ever see, as the plane reached the end of the downward-sloping runway and briefly plummeted downwards into the abyss before catching its wind and pulling up.

In the grand tradition of Sam and Greer adventures, this one will be hard to top. We were pushed to our limits of physical endurance and politeness. We saw panoramic views from the top of the world, the Third Pole. And yes, safely back in Kathamandu, we did have that lovely rendezvous with our French Canadian friends, dining on Newari style buffalo brains and spinal cord. Whatever may come next, I only hope it will not involve dal baht and deep fried candy bars.

Final thoughts  

I faced a few moral quandaries on this trek, one of them was the porter hire. On one hand, these guys work their asses off for a pittance. On the other hand, what they earn is the backbone of their economy. To us, $17 may not seem like an amazing day wage, but to them, it’s a fortune. Definitely more than what’s earned from one season of farming potatoes. And definitely easier than what cargo sherpas do — these fellows carry more than twice the weight up and down the same mountain passes, but for half the money.

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These poor souls are on the same trek as us, but hauling window and door sets. 

My takeaway?

  • Economics and morality are more complicated than social media would have us believe.
  • Never do yourself what you can afford to pay someone to do for you.
  • No matter what you do for a living, sherpas work harder.
  • Tip generously.

I hope that some of my readers are inspired to try this trek on their own one day. Speaking for myself, I cannot wait to return in a few years’ time and attempt the Three Passes, or maybe head Pokhara way and do the Annapurna circuit. Here are some practicalities to consider in your planning.

Costs: 

Round-trip flights from the US or Europe start at about $1000. Greer made the mistake of booking flights with domestic connections in China and India. What Expedia doesn’t tell you is neither country offers a transit visa, nor do they offer tourist visas on arrival. You have to arrange ahead of time, and the visas aren’t cheap. Otherwise, you run into some real hassles at the airport, and possibly some severe delays.

It’s better to book with Qatar Airways, or another Middle Eastern airline — hassle-free layovers in much nicer airports. West Coasters might consider an East Asian carrier, but mind those connections, and avoid China Southern, unless you really hate yourself.

Accommodations range from free to cheap to mildly expensive. Here are the options for Kathmandu.

Free: Maybe you know someone. If not, maybe I can get you connected. Otherwise, there’s Couchsurfing.com, which I’ve used on many occasions to stay for free in cities from the US to Europe to Asia.

Cheap: The Thamel backpacker district offers hostels of varying quality and price. Having dropped into a few hostel parties over the years, I can testify that Thamel is a great place to meet fellow trekkers, and maybe see them again when you’re on trail. I can also testify that it’s full of hardcore hippies who maybe years ago came here planning to trek, but got permanently high and stayed idle instead. If you prefer privacy, AirBnB has good options. All in, you’re looking at five to fifty dollars a night.

Mildly expensive: The Hyatt is where I go to get away from the crazy of Kathmandu. Their pool is pretty nice, the grounds are beautifully landscaped, and the hotel itself features classical Newari architecture. It’s considered to be one of the nicest Category 1 Hyatts in the world. UNESCO site Boudhanath is a brief walk down the road. There are a handful of other similarly outfitted hotels in the city, as well as a few picturesque resorts in the hillsides. You can usually get in for under $100, especially if you book early.

Once on trail, the economic model is less straightforward.

Most tea houses are “free” but you’re required to eat in their restaurant. The menu is the same damn trail food, everywhere you go. It’s tiresome, and it’s crazy expensive. We’d usually spend five to ten dollars on a main, another five or ten on a thermos of tea, and on the rare occasion we drank beer, that was another five or ten. That can be fifty dollars or more for what’s basically two skinny mattresses in a cardboard shack, plus god awful trail food. To charge your gadgets, that could be another five or ten bucks. Alternatively, you can pay just $10 per night flat fee, but you need to figure out food on your own.

The larger trekker stops will offer nicer accommodations. Whether you eat in-house or not, a room starts at $25. With that you get your own hot-water shower and electrical socket.

Supplies:

A quick Google search for “gokyo trek supply list” will yield no shortage of results. Just how valid are these lists? Here’s the one I used, with [post-trek commentary] added. Everything here is easily acquired for rent or sale in Kathmandu, except where noted.

Important documents and items

  • Valid passport, 2 extra passport size photos, airline tickets [you’ll probably want a few extra photos, and they can be acquired more easily and cheaply in Kathmandu, catered to the specs required on the Khumbu park pass]
  • Separate photocopies of passport, visa form (easily obtained at Kathmandu airport), proof of insurance [you can also register for your visa on Nepal’s cumbersome website, which saves time at immigration]
  • Dollars, pounds or Euros in cash for purchasing Nepalese visa at Kathmandu airport, for paying for restaurants and hotels, for gratuities, snacks, and to purchase your own drinks and gifts [payment also possible by credit card, assuming their machine is working. there are a few ATMs at the airport, and their currency exchange counter is pretty legit.]
  • Credit cards, Bank/ATM/Cash machine cards for withdrawing funds from cash machines [you may need to try several ATMs before finding one that works. Nabil and Himalayan Bank machines tend to work best. for using cash in country, I recommend you get local currency from ATMs — the airport has a few — and mindful of any bank fees back home, take out a lump sum. know that Nepali rupees are worthless outside of Nepal and cannot be exchanged once you leave. even in country, it can be hard to find someone willing to exchange your rupees with dollars. it’s kind of a pain.] (bring a photocopy of your cards), traveler’s checks, etc. [travelers checks? those still exist?]

Head

  • Bandana or head scarf, also useful for dusty conditions [often referred to as a ‘buff’]
  • Warm hat that covers your ears (wool or synthetic)
  • Headlamp with extra batteries and bulbs [think: rechargeable]
  • Sunglasses with UV protection [don’t cheap out on this with $2 Ray Ban knockoffs]
  • Prescription sunglasses (if required)

Upper Body [you may find that upper and lower body items are best acquired as rentals, unless you do a fair amount of alpine hiking.]

  • Polypropylene shirts (1 half sleeve and 2 long sleeves) [those fisherman-style shirts are especially good, as they breathe easily]
  • Light and expedition weight thermal tops
  • Fleece wind-stopper jacket or pullover [this was way more necessary than I predicted, especially on those cold nights around the dung fire]
  • Waterproof (preferably breathable fabric) shell jacket [more compact the better]
  • Down vest and/or jacket [vest is a better choice. again, very good for the cold nights.]
  • Gore-Tex jacket with hood, waterproof and breathable [assuming you travel in spring or fall, this is a bit redundant if you already have the shell jacket]

Hands

  • 1 pair of lightweight poly-liner gloves.
  • 1 pair of lightweight wool or fleece gloves
  • 1 pair of mittens, consists of 1 Gore-Tex over mitt matched with a very warm polar-fleece mitt liner (seasonal) [again, this is overkill in the spring and fall]

Lower Body

  • Non-cotton underwear briefs [or else bring some cornstarch!]
  • 1 pair of hiking shorts
  • 1 pair of hiking trousers [better yet, bring one or two pairs of hiking trousers with removable legs]
  • 1 pair of lightweight thermal bottoms (seasonal) [only had to use these once, but worth it!]
  • 1 pair of fleece or woolen trousers [nah.]
  • 1 pair of waterproof shell pants, breathable fabric [worth having, if only needed once]

Feet

  • 2 pairs of thin, lightweight inner socks
  • 2 pairs of heavy poly or wool socks [I just brought a bunch of poly-wool socks — they clean up real easy]
  • 1 pair of Hiking boots with spare laces (sturdy soles, water resistant, ankle support, “broken in”) [please, please make sure you’ve worn them in — ideally, boots you’ve spent the last six to twelve months hiking in. and do get the spare shoelaces. I found they had many practical uses beyond shoes.]
  • 1 pair of trainers or running shoes and/or sandals [Greer brought Crocs, which are bulky and ugly but highly desirable after you’ve kicked off the boots and want to lounge by the dung stove with your wool socks still on]
  • Cotton socks (optional) [meh.]
  • Gaiters (winter only), optional, “low” ankle high version [brought them, didn’t need them]

Sleeping

  • 1 sleeping bag (good to -10 degrees C or 14 degrees F)
  • Fleece sleeping bag liner (optional)

Rucksack and Travel Bags

  • 1 medium rucksack (50-70 liters/3000-4500 cubic inches, can be used for an airplane carryon)
  • 1 large duffel bag [I see no practical purpose for this, unless you want to leave non-necessities at the hostel]
  • A small daypack/backpack for carrying your valuables, should have good shoulder padding [better yet, try a daypack with hydration bladder]
  • Small padlocks for duffel-kit bags [really only necessary for hostels]
  • 2 large waterproof rucksack covers (optional) [you may find your packs already have these installed]

Medical [get your meds in Nepal, where drugs are inexpensive but good quality]

  • Small, personal first-aid kit. (simple and light)
  • Aspirin, first-aid tape, and plasters (Band-Aids)
  • 1 skin-blister repair kit
  • Anti-diarrhea pills [oh yes definitely]
  • Anti-headache pills
  • Cough and/or cold medicine
  • Anti-altitude sickness pills: Diamox or Acetylzolamide
  • Stomach antibiotic: Ciprofloxacin, etc. Do not bring sleeping pills as they are a respiratory depressant.
  • [probiotics are also good as a preventative medicine]
  • Water purification tablets or water filter [I suggest you bring all three. tablets are simple yet effective, though your water will taste slightly of swimming pool. filters are very effective for silt and bacteria but don’t always eliminate viruses. UV wands kill all the microbes, but rely on battery power. I recommend a model like this, powered by a USB cable instead of removable, quick-to-die-in-cold-environments batteries. that charge-up will cost money in most tea houses, or you can charge it yourself with a portable solar panel. just avoid rinky-dink models like this one.]
  • 1 set of earplugs [no — bring several sets. walls are thin and people snore. you’ll lose some along the way, and it’s nice to share extras with less prepared trekkers.]
  • Extra pair of prescription glasses, contact lens supplies

Practical Items

  • 1 small roll of repair tape, 1 sewing-repair kit [duct tape should have your bases covered]
  • 1 cigarette lighter, 1 small box of matches [matches will only get wet and make you sad]
  • 1 compass or GPS (optional)
  • 1 alarm clock/watch [or, you know… your phone]
  • 1 digital camera with extra cards and batteries [again, batteries die quick the higher you go.]
  • Large Ziplocs [keep one for MOOP]
  • 2 water bottles (1 liter each) [or better, a hydration pack]
  • 1 small folding knife [bad assssss!]
  • Binoculars (optional)
  • 4 large, waterproof, disposable rubbish sacks

Toiletries

  • 1 medium-sized quick drying towel
  • Toothbrush/paste (preferably biodegradable)
  • Multi-purpose soap (preferably biodegradable)
  • Deodorant [oh really? you have a date after this? a job interview? leave the Speed Stick at home.]
  • Nail clippers [god forbid your manicure gets tarnished]
  • Face and body moisturizer
  • Female hygiene products
  • Small mirror [good for signaling the helicopter when you’re buried in an avalanche]

Personal Hygiene

  • Wet wipes (baby wipes) [tea houses rarely have toilet paper, and these leave your bottom feeling clean and shiny.]
  • Tissue /toilet roll [nah. redundant and bulky.]
  • Anti-bacterial hand wash [big bottle!]

Extras/Luxuries

  • Reading book [you can trade up books at some tea houses and cafés]
  • Trail map/guide book [many trekker shops offer waterproof editions]
  • Journal and pen [I kept entries on my iPhone]
  • iPod [If you’re hiking solo. Otherwise, don’t be such an aloof jerk!]
  • Travel game i.e. chess, backgammon, scrabble, playing cards (to help you pass the time at teahouses and/or camps) [Scrabble? that’s ambitious. stick with cards.]
  • 1 modest swim suit [on this particular hike, there is no place to swim. maybe for the hotel?]
  • Binoculars (optional) [keep it compact, but there’s some good bird watching on trail]
  • Voltage converter (from 220 to 110) [highly impractical, unless you plan to bring along kitchen appliances. most US electronics are rated 110-220.]
  • Plug adapter (2 round pegs to 2 flat pegs) [better yet, grab a universal adapter, easily acquired in Nepal. socket types in Nepal are totally inconsistent.]
  • Lightweight pillow case (in case your teahouses provide you with pillows) or use your own stuff as a pillow [this is actually a necessity. tea houses rarely wash the linens.]

#TBT The Malaysian bicycle tour

I dug this one up today, a throwback to summer 2010. Life was simpler then. I was double-spacing all my sentences, Fiona and I were still freshly coupled, and we liked each other. The two of us would not work out in the end (though it’d take a few more years to figure that out) but I will forever fondly remember this epic adventure. 

I’ve copied below the text only, but a much more fun version with pictures can be found here

No matter how many times we checked the numbers, it just wouldn’t add up.  Our USA tour was already expensive — airfares ascending well beyond cruising altitude after 2010 –and taking into consideration the cost of relocation from Beijing to our new jobs in Borneo, the travel gods of the western hemisphere did not favorably smile upon us. 

It was about this time an email rolled in from my buddy Kenny, an Old Malaysia Hand in Kuala Lumpur.  He told me of his plans to ride bikes from Singapore to Thailand.  He had done some research and by the looks of things, the ride would be not only scenic and unique but also physically undemanding.  Moreover, it would be dead cheap compared to an American safari.  Since we were moving to Malaysia anyway, it made sense to do some early reconnaissance. 

So it was decided.  In the intervening months, things started to move pretty fast.  We finished our work in Beijing, and while Fiona went back to New Zealand to tie up some loose ends, I traveled out to China’s Xinjiang Province to visit the wild west. 

I had precious little time after arriving back in Beijing to take care of last-minute details for the big ride.  My cell phone had been dead for weeks.  My recently purchased laptop only spoke Chinese.  I had heaps more shopping to do.  The Giant shop had not yet boxed up my road bike for travel.  My school had sold my apartment out from under me, so I was effectively homeless in a city of 17 million people.  All these factors might have driven a less resourceful person to madness, but I’m a freaking wolverine, baby. 

Despite all odds, Fiona and I reconvened in Singapore as planned.  Fiona had booked us into a swank economy-sized room in Little India, complete with cable TV and wi-fi.  Our days began and ended with some variety of curry.  I came to particularly enjoy the high-proof IPA’s and porters local to Singapore. 

One morning while taking our breakfast curry, we met a couple from Portland, Oregon of all places.  Briana and Marco lived on a small town on the east coast, and invited us to stop and stay awhile when we passed through.  Their town marked the halfway point for our journey, and we reckoned it would be nice to practice our English at some point during the trip, so we readily agreed.  This is what writers call “foreshadowing.” 

We struggled to leave Singapore, ever lured by its modernity and food.  It is the Manhattan of Southeast Asia, but gobsmackingly clean — too clean, some would say.  In one block, you might overhear Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, Marathi, Bangladeshi, Urdu, Malay, and of course English.  Buses and trains run on time.  The architecture is modern but not pretentious, and pays respect to its East Asian and Colonial European roots.  The museums are plentiful and engaging.  My only real complaint is common to all corners of  Southeast Asia:  information acquisition tends to be dodgy at best. 

Take the tourism office for example.  We dropped in to inquire about the best greenway to take out of the city.  The woman working the desk looked at us blankly. 

“What is this man asking me?” she must have thought.  “Did he say Universal Studios?  Did he say he wanted to visit the Long Bar for a Singapore Sling?  Surely… surely he didn’t just say he wants to ride a bicycle in the city!” 

“Are you interested in the museums, sir?” she asked.  “There is currently an exhibit on –”

“No, no, we’ve seen the museums, thank you.  As I said, we want to ride our bikes to Malaysia and –”

“Ah, but you cannot do this.  Singapore is an island.” 

“Thank you.  We drew this conclusion some time ago.  That’s why we intend to take a ferry –”

“Ah, but you cannot do this.  There are no ferries.” 

“There are no ferries in or out of Singapore?” 

“No.” 

“At all?”

“There are no ferries, la.” 

“So, here on my map of Singapore, where it says ‘ferry terminal,’ that’s not a ferry?”

“Yes.  This is.  But there are no ferries for taking the bicycles.” 

At this point, I realized this woman did not earn her job by thinking outside of the box.

“Okay then.  Let’s change our plans a bit.  Let’s say we want to ride our bikes to this place on the map, the part where it says ferry terminal.  Is there a greenway that gets us there?” 

“No no!  You cannot ride bikes in the city!” 

I took a deep breath, and left. 

As luck would have it (luck, and a night of poring over Google Maps) we discovered numerous coastal parks, all interconnected by greenways.  They offer camping, views, and not surprisingly, more food.  When we did finally get around to commencing the ride, we seriously considered camping in one of those parks for a night, as it was next to the ferry terminal.  After all, riding out of the city had been taxing as it was our first day of real exercise in over a month.  However, the man at the ferry yard told us there was ample camping on the Malay side as well. 

By this point we had done just 25 kilometers, still had plenty of energy, and we figured it made more sense to head over than pedaling eight kilometers back to the park, only to start all over, still in Singapore, the next morning. So we decided to go ahead on the ferry.

Except.

We had already converted nearly all of our Singapore dollars to Malaysian ringgits. This meant that I got to add 16 km to my total for the day, riding back to the park after all for an ATM.

Eventually, we got to the Malaysia port and found out that there is actually not camping, at least not for another 40 kilometers.  Yep.  Forty.  Never trust a ferryman.

We were eager to tent camp on this trip.  The monkeys, monitor lizards, and snakes gave us second thoughts, and the cloudburst we met at ten kilometers convinced us.  No camping, not in this jungle.  But if we weren’t camping, then where to sleep?  There seemed no end to the troublesome quagmires and palm oil plantations.  It couldn’t get worse.      

So we thought. 

The next 25 kilometers were a solid monsoon downpour but now with lightning to match.  There is no fear like that which freezes your soul as a lightning bolt strikes the palms trees just a stone’s throw away.  After about the twentieth time this happened, we found a shanty shelter and tried to get dry.

In the end, we managed to find hot food and cozy seaside accommodations in a town called Desaru… cozy by Malaysian standards anyway.  The beach was plagued with jellyfish, but there was an Olympic-sized pool, complete with diving board and a view of the sea.  It also featured a swim-up bar, but because this place was run by a Muslim family, it was unmanned and unstocked.   I’m thinking that this town used to be a hotbed of western tourism, but as we would learn in the weeks ahead, conservative Islamic values had chased all the infidels away from Malaysia’s east coast some decades ago.  We were no longer in Singapore!  On the bright side, an absence of western tourism meant an absence of white people, who can be annoying and dangerous in large numbers.    

In any case, we had fortunately packed a portable minibar on the back of my bicycle.

The weather failed to improve by the next day, and we hurt all over, so we gave it another day before we setting out again.  The rum was powerful medicine. 

Our ride to Sibiling was a damnably hot 35 kilometers.  When I say “hot,” bear in mind that this is Malaysia, so unless you live in the tropics, you may be unfamiliar.  “Malaysia hot” is like a warm, wet wool blanket.  There is no escape, not in the shade, not in the air-con.  There is a slight relief on a bicycle or motorbike, as this creates the illusion of wind, which does not seem to naturally occur in this region.  When exerting oneself outdoors, drinking water, even if it is immediately excreted out of the sweat glands, is necessary.  I felt like an aquarium pump, sucking water down, gushing water out.    

Then we had those hills.  My knees had blown out in the first leg from Singapore to Desaru, so  the rolling hills ensured that I stayed physically decimated and the both of us generally exhausted.  One of my high school football coaches used to say that “pain is fear leaving the body.”  I believe he abused steroids and needed professional help. 

Our bodies called it quits just as we were between two towns.  Fortunately we found a campground, and we were well ready for a solid night’s sleep.  I have spent my birthday camping for the last several years, so the timing was perfect as I turned 33 that day.  The camp was set next to a river and the river led to a memorably scenic mangrove.  Lovely. 

Sharing the camp was a large youth group from area madrasas.  They eyed us with curiosity but seemed more concerned with the stern instructions of their youth leaders.  What we didn’t know was this night was their bonfire jamboree.  As soon as we settled in for an early night, the revelries began and did not stop for hours.  In an odd role reversal from my usual birthday camp-out, I played the role of the grumpy old man, shaking my fist a a group of hooligans who were up well past midnight, listening to their rock and roll music, acting like crazy people.  Turning 33 sucks.

One sleepless night later we miraculously managed to mount our bikes and start what would be the most grueling 50 kilometers yet.  Rolling hills became giant rolling hills, mountains became visible on the horizon, and every ten minutes went something like this:

Pant, pant, pant, pant, pant…

WHEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeee!!

Pant, pant, pant, pant, pant…

WHEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeee!!

All this way, there were no towns. Not even so much as a lean-to warung selling sugary colored water in plastic bags with straws sticking out the top.  Our water supply was dwindling.  Fortunately, just then we saw the sign for Tanjing Leman and that gave us the final push for the final 10 km.

We checked into a rustic ‘resort’ that, much like the one in Desaru, had seen better days, like in the 1980s.  The beach was the best we’d seen so far, and virtually vacant. Our bungalow was a few easy paces to the shore and to the cafe.  Surely, this place would provide the peaceful night’s sleep we had sought in the wake of the camping debacle.

Right about sundown, the PA system fired up. One of the local families, coming from all corners of the Johore State, was holding a reunion, and one of their cousins ran his own karaoke business.

For the first couple hours we tried to ignore it. Finally, I’d had enough and went out there to give them a piece of my mind.  I marched right up to the tallest, smuggest punk-ass Malaysian there and asked…

“Do you have anything by the Beatles?”

Comic antics ensued.  The family found Fiona and me to be the wildest addition to their reunion.  Satay and sweet tea were forced upon us by the plateful. They tried to teach us local dances and demanded encores of the three English songs they had available.  It was a hard day’s night by so many interpretations.  Not like we were going to sleep anyway.  May as well have fun with it.  Sleep when you’re dead and all that. 

Next stop:  Mersing.  

Allah be praised.  Mersing offered everything we needed.  Sure it took 60 km to get there from Tanjing Leman, and at least a couple hours found us in the daily downpour, but by gum we made it!  We found a hardware store that provided tools for some minimal but long overdue bike repairs.  We hit a cell phone store to get my iPhone back on the grid.  A friendly local directed us to what he called “the best cheap hotel in town.”

Did I say Mersing had everything we needed?  No, that’s not quite right.  It failed to provide the one thing we needed the most: an honest to God good night’s sleep.

The best cheap hotel in Mersing, the Riverview Inn, offers no view of any river and no peace for the heavy of head.  Apparently, the management was holding a special for drunken Chinese orgies.  The inn was like the Beijing subway, every room overfilled with Malay Chinese speaking at top volume like they were on their cell phones.  And the walls?  Paper thin.  Yet another sleepless night.

Mersing is an easy 10 km to the beach at Papan Air, so we decided to take an extra day before continuing north.  Arriving at this sleepy — nay, dead — seaside town, I was sure to ask the receptionist at the Papan Air Resort, “Are you expecting any large parties, family reunions, or youth groups?”  She replied that she had no reservations for the night and the entire resort was vacant.  We were so in!

We checked in at 11am. For the next 24 hours, we didn’t leave the room  save for eating and the occasional dip.  We slept like the comatose and caught up on novels.  ESPN was running highlights of the X-Games and Ironman 2010, which helped rejuvenate our spirits.  By morning, we were ready to tackle the next leg. 

Onward to Kuala Rompin.

The roads at this point had become far less hilly and punishing.  My kneecaps thanked me.  We rode through a forest reserve and spotted all kinds of exotic wildlife including flocks of toucans and hornbills. 

Kuala Rompin was the next logical stop since it’s an even 75 km from our last point of departure.  It is also marked on our map as a Point of Interest. For the life of me I can’t figure out why. 

There is a tiny strip of beach, but no other landmarks jumped out at us.  Maybe it’s because KR is the first place you’ll find a liquor store after leaving the conservative Muslim state of Johore — similar to the thrill of running the Carolina border to pick up a case of Southpaw on a Sunday.

Despite the potential for reckless abandon, this town was fairly quiet after dark.  I was most pleased to enjoy two consecutive nights of restful slumber.

The ride to Pekan began with a stop at a curry house, the first we had seen since Singapore.  The stack of roti chanai (beats the pants off of pancakes!) was exactly what we would need for the 90 kilometers ahead of us. 

Pekan is the Detroit of Malaysia, putting America’s motor city to shame in many respects.  They have manufacturing contracts from automakers all over the world.  There is an engineering school in the middle of the industrial park which sends graduates straight to the factories.  We learned all this from our hosts.  This is a crazy story… 

Ninety kilometers was tough.  What was really tough was learning that every lodging was fully booked for some kind of conference that week.  We were on our way out of the city, ready to take on another 50 kilometers (now in the dark) when we passed a small home stay.  I checked it out.  The man sheepishly grinned and shrugged his shoulders, apologizing that he had no vacancies. 

It must have been the utterly defeated look on my face that got to him.  When he learned that my girlfriend was outside, and that we had come by bicycle, he hesitantly informed me that perhaps he could see about a room.  Within a half hour, we were sitting with our host and a few fellow guests, gobbling down Malaysian food.  He informed us that he was a youth group leader for one of the local madrasas, and they were having a jamboree that night.  Remembering our nightmare of a camping trip with the youth of Malaysia days before, Fiona and I exchanged a knowing smile, which he must have mistaken for enthusiasm.  He insisted that we join him and meet the young Muslims of Pekan.  With his outpouring of generosity, we were not in a position to decline, even if we had experienced one of these jamborees already. 

The jamboree went well into the night, and we were dead on our feet by the time we packed back into his car.  Excitedly, he told us that the fun had only begun.  He took us on a royal tour of Pekan:  the grand mosque, the sultan’s palace, the Pahang State capital building, and the aforementioned industrial park.  This adventure had all the makings of a whimsical travel article in Lonely Planet, but it was well past midnight, and we had been ready to crash for hours by this point.  Our host suggested we pick up some late night curry.  It killed me to be so offensive, but I had to insist that we really, really were not in the mood for food.  Ugly American.   

Kuantan, just 50 kilometers up the road, was a dose of relative normalcy after the week we had.  We checked into a lavish yet easily affordable hotel room for the next two nights.  The Indian Malays on staff were tremendously helpful in securing our bicycles and over-the-top accommodating to our requests, directing us first to the best food in town, and the nearest liquor store where we could replenish our traveling wet bar.  One Indian food gorge session later, we were snuggling in for a boozy marathon of cable TV with full bellies. 

Not to say Kuantan is a vanilla-flavored, quirkless town!  At one point, Fiona had sent me on a mission to get more juice for our vodka.  Between our hotel and the central mosque was a night market.  I decided to take a stroll through and try to find an evil monkey paw or perhaps a puzzle box that opens a gate to Hell.  You know, something practical, something for Mother’s Day.  Instead I found something even more shocking:  hipsters

If you have spent a few years between Asia and America, you will notice that Asian fashion actually predates hipster fashion in the US by a couple years.  I think Asia might actually be the test market for American Apparel.  Tight jeans, undersized t-shirts, Ray Bans with colored frames, sweatbands… Asian teens have been rocking that gear for years longer than those kids States-side. 

But these were not just fashionable young Malaysians.  These were full blown hipsters, as was evidenced by the plethora of fixed gear bicycles.    

In Portland, Austin, San Francisco and other painfully hip towns, one sees plenty of these fixies.  But this was the first time I had seen a fixie army.  There were easily more than a hundred of them riding up and down the length of the night market, occasionally stopping to converge with friends and share cigarettes, blast music out of their faux iPhones, and look disapprovingly at each other.  They were all very proud of their fixies, and eager to tell their new foreign friend about them. 

“Got mine straight exported from London, la.

“He did not.  His mother, she bought him this thing.”

My chain is pink!” 

Awesome. 

I could have spent the whole night with these hipsters — comparing Malaysian emo rock to the garbage we have in the US, debating the merits of cowboy shirts, doing track stands — but I had a sweet babe waiting for me in a hotel room with an undoubtedly diminishing bottle of hooch. 

The next day’s leg was a brief one.  Cherating is a mere 50 kilometers up the coast (our stamina was much improved by this time) and the road is plenty scenic all the way.  I liked Cherating because it is a caricature of the Southeast Asian tourist destination; like the strata of a archeological dig, one can observe the layers of its rise and fall. 

Up until the 1970’s, Cherating was just another beach town in a 700 km stretch of beach towns.  Then surfers discovered its tasty waves.  Then Lonely Planet wrote about it.  Then it became a mecca of Eurotrash kids who wanted a more “authentic experience”
than “I drank ‘til I puked and got this t-shirt in Thailand.”  Then it became the rehab clinic for Full Moon Partying shoestring ravers (yes, the ones wearing the t-shirts).  Then venture capitalists, always the death knell of innocence, opened a string of resorts, including the region’s first Club Med.  From that point forward, Cherating was pronounced “played out” by uppity backpackers and largely abandoned by the hordes that had built it up, leaving the locals with a heaping pile of “What the hell just happened?!” and wondering who was going to help them clean all the bottles off the beach.   

Flash forward to August 2011. 

In more than 400 kilometers, we had seen not one single white face.  It was refreshing.  We had eaten like locals the whole way on a diet consisting primarily of rice, naan bread, and various curries.  We had sweated in the tropical sun day in and day out.  I had kept in regular practice with my limited Malaysian, and felt it was improving every day.  In short, at the risk of sounding chi-chi neocolonial, we were coming to feel like real Malaysians. 

Then came Cherating.  We knew we had arrived when Fiona exclaimed, “Oh my God!  White people!”  Sure enough, there they were at the roadside bus shelter, anxiously flipping through their Rough Guide to Malaysia, expecting that Malaysian transit actually runs on any kind of discernible schedule.  We eyed them, awestruck, as we rode by, much in the same way as the locals had eyed us for the last 400 kilometers.  They nervously muttered something in German and stared back much like Marlowe must have stared at Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

As I said before, the ride was scenic, but when Club Med rose over the horizon, I realized we were no longer on the Malaysian east coast with which we had become familiar.  One luxury resort after another followed, each one with manicured lawns and empty parking lots.  This place was looking expensive

Fortunately, all the gilt gave way to the town’s main stretch, just off the motorway.  The “main stretch” in question is no more than two kilometers long, and makes up the whole of the hamlet of Cherating.  Small shops and bungalows dotted the drag, a little worse for wear and largely unoccupied.  Cherating had indeed lived out its peak heyday, but what remained was the same charm that undoubtedly captured the first backpackers so many decades ago.

We checked into a place on the far end of the beach and asked where a young couple such as us might grab an evening tipple. 

“That’s easy, la.  Don’t Tell Mama’s,” replied the innkeeper. 

Don’t Tell Mama’s is not the only bar in Cherating, but once you visit, you don’t care about the other ones.  Inaccessible from the road, drinkers must walk down the beach to grab a table in this open air ramshackle bar.  They serve burgers the size of your head and dangerously potent cocktails toxic enough to get an elephant stampy.  We had operated out of our saddlebag wet bar for most of this trip, so having someone mix drinks for us was a real treat.  My ambitions of quasi-Malaysian-hood faded about halfway through my citrusy-sweet Long Beach.  All I can tell from my camera roll is that the rest of the night involved Dutch girls and a drunken weasel.  I’m told Fiona walked me home that night. 

Stupid white people.

Remember our friends from Singapore, Briana and Marco?  Their town was next.   

We had been looking forward to this stop on our trek, so the 85 km of ocean roads whizzed by us in no time at all.  We rolled into their expansive estate, with all of its cats, goats, and monitor lizards.  For the next few days we were blessed with barbecue, beer, and banter. 

We learned that Briana worked for a public education consultancy group that sends western educators into Malaysian schools with the goal of teaching Malaysian educators how to better do their job.  And who doesn’t love having someone from outside the community telling them how to do their job?  Especially when your job holds you unaccountable to even a minimal standard of competency.  Especially when you can leave the students alone in the classroom and go have coffee.  Especially when you can simply not show up for work, no phone call, no nothing, and expect no consequences for your dereliction of duty.  Especially when you’ve been doing your job in this manner for 20, 30 years and like things just the way they are, thank you very much.  Especially when you are a conservative Malaysian Muslim man and your assigned consultant is an empowered white woman.    

As you can imagine, her job is difficult. 

Marco just came along for the ride.  He is a devoted house husband these days, but back in the US he worked for an ambulance company, and before that his life had been an even crazier one, involving General Pinochet and decades of virtual refugee status.  One afternoon, he and I discussed our respective lives back in Portland, we began playing the “Who d’ya know?” game and discovered that we both know this one lovely crazy gal.  Had this conversation happened in Seattle or Minneapolis or some other town that is not Portland, it would have been an impressive coincidence.  But here we were on the complete opposite side of the world, virtually soul mates through this one person whom we had both known for years and years.  Yet Marco and I had never met.  That’s heavy.  We spent the next several minutes yelling, “No waaaay!  No freaking waaaay!!” thus rousing Fiona from her catnap.  We became especially good friends after that. 

There was a wine tasting happening in Kuala Terengganu, about 80 km north.  Briana and Marco highly recommended we join them.  A local friend had secured us rooms in KT’s finest hotel, and all we had to do was get there.  Thinking back on this day, I am still awestruck at how those 80 km breezed past, considering that such a ride would have killed us the previous week.  We nearly beat our friends there, who were traveling by car. 

The wine tasting was really more of a guzzle-fest in the end.  We mingled with pretty much the entire expat community of the eastern peninsula — all thirty of them.  Many of them worked for the same company as Briana, and as is often the case, difficult working conditions ensure instant camaraderie.  Plenty of goodly souls, intrigued at our audacious bicycle trek (“Doesn’t it get hot on your bike?!”), were eager to host us in their respective towns as we continued north that week.  Our uncertain journey north had suddenly gotten a lot more certain, comfortable, and friendly.    

Bitch and Moan (not their real names, but perhaps should be) hosted us in Permaisuri, 60 km northwest through pleasantly shady mangroves.  They resided in a — for lack of better word — mansion.  Yes, this is Malaysia, so the mansion in question had the typical problems with mosquitoes and feral cats, but when our bikes came over the hill, this place dominated the horizon.  Simply huge for two people. 

Bitch and Moan were hospitable.  They took us to the local night food market.  Because Ramadan was being celebrated at this time, vendors prepared all kinds of special high holiday dishes, beef rendang being one of my favorites.  But Bitch and Moan were also the kind of people who could not seem to get happy.  They complained about the vendors, they complained about the house, they complained about Malaysia in general.  We snuck out early in the morning for fear that their whiteness would rub off on us.        

Derek was the helpful soul who offered to assist us in Kuala Besut, an easy 45 km up the coast.  This town features in the travel guides only because it is the port of departure for the Perhentian Islands.  Derek said he liked it because he could rent a beachside bungalow for pennies and pick up hot tourist chicks at the dock. 

Up to this point, we had passed up every opportunity to get off the mainland and enjoy some hedonistic, not at all conservative Muslim, Jimmy Buffet-style island time.  We wanted to keep our experience as authentic as possible, and those tiny islands around Southeast Asia are about as culturally authentic as the Old Spaghetti Factory is authentically Italian.  However, Derek secured a price with the ferry operator we could not refuse.  The next two (three? four?) days were dedicated to absolutely… nothing.  Sand, scuba, and fresh drinks in carved-out coconut husks.  Derek joined us for part of the trip, partly because I think he appreciated the value of a wing man

By the time we got back to the peninsula, I felt fully converted back to white tourist mode.  Malaysia felt hot, icky, and foreign.  I now wanted all my drinks served in coconuts, and right now.  Our bikes were falling to pieces.  And we still had plenty more road to cover before Thailand.  This is the chapter of every epic overseas holiday that couples dread the most, the part that usually follows the hedonism.  The melancholy.

We had become Bitch and Moan.   

By the time we had slogged the 55 km to Kota Bharu, we had abandoned all hope of reaching Thailand.  Not that we physically couldn’t do it, but mentally we were in ruins.  Any of the beauty we had experienced on our best riding days had been trampled by Bitch and Moan, saturated with the saccharine sweetness of island extravagance, and now turned a rotten brown under the finger-wagging culture of the Bharu State. 

To understand the Bharu State, you must first know its political history.  While Malaysia was trying to unite and get hip to globalization, the ministers of Bharu argued that they should maintain a conservative theocracy where fun would be outlawed.  The rest of Malaysia said, “Yeah okay have fun with your little Islamo-fascist state,” and decreed that unpatriotic a-holes like that should not receive any more government funding lest they get some unhealthy ideas about armed revolt. 

Today, the Bharu State, represented by an inspiring all-black flag (because color might incite prurient thought or some such thing), is a potential model of what the US Bible Belt could look like if the Tea Party wins.  With no government subsidies, their infrastructure is rubble.  Dilapidated buildings, rancid sewers, and roads so worn and pockmarked so as to be indistinguishable from those in rock quarries.  Weather-worn citizens cower behind crumbling brick walls, shawled women beg for alms.  It was a depressing contrast to the comparatively wealthy palm oil states we had passed through to get here.  Rent Book of Eli.  That should give you a better idea. 

During our wine night the week before, we heard that someone from the expat circle had been beaten by a gang of thugs as he left the bar one evening.  He called the police.  They shrugged their shoulders.  “Shouldn’t have been drunk,” they said. 

We wanted to get out of this place as soon as possible. 

On the occasions when we had to leave our hotel, we spent as much time as possible down in the Chinese district.  Take note, Chinatown is the safest place for non-fundamentalists in any fundamentalist state (unless you are dealing with fundamentalist Communists).  Our plan was to leave by train. Unfortunately, the best laid schemes, especially those laid in Malaysia, soon go awry. 

I had contacted the national train company at least three times during our trip to ensure we would have no problems bringing our bicycles with us.  Every agent assured me, “Yah.  Can.”  However, when we presented our bikes to the porter at the Bharu station he asserted, “Cannot.” 

What followed was hours of deliberation with the train company, the porter, and finally the station manager.  Despite my most eloquent ranting, the train people were steadfast.  “Cannot.” 

Now it was official.  We hate Malaysia. 

In the end, we loaded our bikes onto a bus, a normally free service that our driver was only too happy to collect a fee for anyway.  And why not?  We were just stupid white people.  The overnight drive all the way back down the peninsula was sleepless and quiet, save for the DVD that played a looped sequence of only the first 30 minutes of several Hollywood blockbusters

When we arrived at the bus station in Kuala Lumpur, we had to ride across the city to the other bus station.  There, we were informed that there are no buses that cross into Singapore, at least none that can carry bicycles.  Thus we overpaid for a private car.  Friendly driver though.  As we passed through customs, the dystopian congestion of Kuala Lumpur giving way to Singapore’s squeaky clean metered and monitored motor traffic, our driver had a few words that really capped off the whole experience for us. 

“Me, I am from India.  I speak very good English because I study very hard.  I was an engineer in India.  But I come to Singapore so I may send my son to the very best schools.  The schools in Singapore, they want to teach Malay in the schools.  I say no.  Malaysia, she has great beauty.  Rain forests, mountains.  Singapore has none of these things.  But do not teach my son Malay.  He will make Malay friends and he will become lazy.  Look at Singapore.  The language here is English.  The language of money.  Look at Malaysia.  Everyone is lazy and poor.” 

His diatribe did not make up for the fact that his car company overcharged us on the crossing, but we felt a little better knowing he commiserated with our gripes about the peninsula.  Complaining about Malaysia is not just for white tourists anymore. 

Right then, he pulled up to the hotel we had checked out of a few weeks earlier.  It had seemed like months and years since we had left the Dickson.  We unloaded our bikes for the last time before we would have them boxed up for the flight to Borneo.  I thanked the man and we entered the lobby to check back in to civilization. 

Epilogue

The Malay Peninsula ride was full of highs and lows.  We found it hard to believe that the ride had finally ended, but even harder to believe that we had chosen to take our new teaching contract across the South China Sea in Malaysian Borneo.  The bike trip may be over, but our life in Malaysia had just begun! 

Though the people in our host city of Kota Kinabalu had less conservative attitudes than those on the eastern peninsula, they were nonetheless thoroughly Malaysian.  To help everyone understand what this comparison looks like, I have created a chart. 

When I say “thoroughly Malaysian” I do not mean to offend.  But I know I will.  I found most Malaysians we met to be kind, happy people.  I found that most of those same Malaysians will gladly tell a person yes just so as not to suffer the awkward discomfort of saying no.  They obey authority without question, but deep down inside, figure that they have won the game, because they are not going to work any harder than they feel like working that day.  Their economy is fast growing, yes, but that is mostly due to Chinese investors taking advantage of cheap labor and rich resources.  That money is not going back into the hands of Malaysians.  It is a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty, greed, and waste. 

Malaysia, like Singapore, was a British colony all the way through the late 1950’s.  Some blame Malaysia’s maladies on post-colonial trauma; because Malaysia spent so many generations answering to the Crown, it forgot how to govern itself.  If this is the case, one can only wonder how many generations must pass before a people pulls itself together?   

In saying what has been said so far, some would accuse me of generalizing, stereotyping, race-baiting, and so on.  They would be right in part, I cannot deny that.  My attitudes are unabashedly neocolonial about things I dislike, stupid things especially.  I fear that such things might one day become acceptable in other countries, such as the one I hail from.  Maybe you drew a few parallels of your own as you read through the last 22 pages. 

Generalizing is an important first step to understanding the gestalt.  As a fellow traveler and longtime friend of mine once said, “Experience rarely breeds idealism.” 

That said, Malaysia’s post-colonial hangover, or whatever you want to call it, is balanced out by gorgeous, untouched beaches, outgoing locals, and unforgettable adventures.  If I were writing for Lonely Planet, I would leave it at that.  Fortunately, I do not write for that company or any other travel guide that paints rosy pictures of everything.  Just like at home, there is magnificent beauty and deplorable ugliness, compassionate souls and real jerk-offs.  My aim is to point the whole picture.  One must walk in the darkness to witness the light. 

As for the Islam thing, I have no strong opinion on the matter, except to say that I care little about one’s religion, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.  Some in the West see the Muslim world as a breeding ground for terrorism.  Careful!  When generalizing (as I do), make sure you take in the whole picture.  Yes, terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on which side you stand) do come from Muslim countries.  They also come from Ireland (IRA), Colombia (FARC), and America (SOA).  Do try to remember there was a time in the USA when it was acceptable to be anti-Semetic, support Stalin, and rally behind the KKK.  Also remember that for every terrorist that comes from a certain religion, culture, country, etc, there are millions of others not at all like him. 

Oh, and that Osama poster?  Found it in a Johore coffee shop.  Great curry.   

Because it was Ramadan, I listened to the entire Koran during the ride (randomly mixed with tracks by Pink Floyd, Ben Folds, and Yes).  Funny how much it’s like the Bible.  Lots of contradictory statements about God the benevolent and God the destroyer.  One theme that comes up a lot in that book is that no man is fit to judge another man.  That is God’s job.  Something for extremists on all sides to consider.  I have come to believe that religions are mostly benevolent (charity, hope, coffee and donut drop-ins).  In cases where religion is used as a rationale to limit or take away someone’s rights, it is no longer religion.  It is politics. 

On that cheerful note, ride safe, travel widely, and test your thresholds of comfort often. 

Beer tourism in Qingdao

Aside

From the archives. A short piece on Qingdao, China that I wrote in 2011 but never got around to publishing.

The annual overnight field trip went much better this year than last. No food poisoning, no epileptic seizures, no disappearances in crowded marketplaces. In fact, with the exception of my ADHD student accidentally smashing a few thousand kuai worth of soapstone jade replicas, everything went according to plan. We visited the tomb of Confucius (not actually his tomb) and climbed the mountain where the same man did his historic footwork. On the bus ride through the Shandong Province, we got to introduce the students to American film classics such as Top Gun, which incidentally, was also once used by the Chinese military propaganda office to show the might of their air force (I can’t make this kind of stuff up). It was upon our arrival in the seaside city of Qingdao that my coteacher, Leeds, became visibly excited.

Leeds, seen here making a point

“Sam! Do. You. Realize. Where. We. Are?!” Leeds has a flair for drama, so he would be just as frantic if he saw two Starbucks across the street from each other. Shame on me for not putting it together myself — Qingdao shares the same name as China’s national beer, Tsingtao (both pronounced chingdow). And that’s no coincidence. This is the city where the namesake beer was born!

“Sam! We’ve got to get off this bus, man!” Leeds continued ranting, foam forming at the edges of his lips. “I lived here for three… four… five? Years. I can’t leave this town without a visit to Beer Street!”

“Leeds, we have on the bus with us forty children, aged ten to twelve. We can’t just –”

“Dammit man! I am team lead! We go to the Beer Street!”

I could tell he meant it, but surely, some shred of reason remained in the man, a shred to which I could reasonably appeal. “Leeds, if we abandon our pupils, leaving them at the mercy of our Chinese teachers while we go drown ourselves in pints, we will lose our jobs. Then we will never be able to afford beer again.”

Ach! You’re right!”

“I’ll make a deal with you, Leeds. I promise that one day we will return to this city, and we will drink their tankards dry. In the meantime, we must attend to our duties, and continue watching Top Gun.”

“I’ll be your wingman anytime, Sam.”

So it was. It took months, but with the help of our often confused but nonetheless sympathetic principal, we were able to petition the director to fund a trip for the foreign teachers to spend two days in fabulous, sometimes even sunny, Qingdao.

Unfortunately, the morning the bus left, Leeds was not on it. Issues, he said. He did pop off some final advice as we departed Beijing though: spend your entire time there eating clams and drinking dark ale. This turned out to be the sagest advice I ever got from that insane man.

A little history on the place: Qingdao was a fishing village before zee Germans arrived. Like so many of their European counterparts in that era of glorious pre-Great War colonization, they wanted a Chinese concession all their own. The Portuguese had Macao, the French held Peking, and the British owned Hong Kong and pretty much everywhere else they planted their flag. As is evidenced by smatterings of Hinterland architecture today, Qingdao was granted to them, and they made use of it in the best way Germans know how. They built the most gargantuan brewing empire in the world.

To visit the brewery, though it takes up an entire Chinese city block, it still doesn’t look like much if you’ve seen some of the macro operations by the likes of Anheuser-Busch. However, one must bear in mind that the Tsingtao empire has grown well beyond it’s original brewery, and today supplies beer to the entire nation of China. That’s more than a billion overserved on a nightly basis. Maybe that’s because to buy Tsingtao beer is the patriotic way. After all, the post-colonial period of Tsingtao is much like that of her nation. Read on!

The Japanese brutally occupied China during the wartime years. With greater zealotry than its European predecessors, Japan grabbed up anything she fancied in China. The Germans at this point were long gone, so save for shoving aside the drunkards slouched against the front gate, the Japanese nationalized the brewery with little effort. It was rechristened “Kirin.” That’s right. Like the stuff you drank in the sushi restaurant last night.

Revolutions came and went, and China became the People’s Republic it is today. Though Mao was not a beer fan, he was a heavy imbiber of baijiu, the heavily fortified rice wine that sustained the morale of his troop during the Long March, and the spirit that floored the strong-livered Richard Nixon during his diplomatic visit that would open China to the world. Therefore, instead of turning the brewery into communal residencies for a few hundred families or a rocket plant for the proposed Mars base (the Revolution was an optimistic time for the Mao cult), he kept it as a brewery, reestablishing the original moniker.

Those who know me know that I love history. And if there’s one thing I love more than history, it’s beer. My somewhat pickled tour of Qingdao was turning into the best vacation ever.

I did take Leeds’ advice and spend a day with shellfish and dark beer. I would pass this recommendation along to anyone else who visits the city. The clams are simmered in a delicious broth flavored with Sichuan peppers, ginger, scallions, and garlic. The beer is notably unique to the Tsingtao consumed outside of its hometown. In the lager as well as the stout, the malt is more present, and the hops are livelier. It’s a completely different drinking experience. Best part is, it all comes from giant stainless steel casks that every restaurant seems to be equipped with as a requisite for running shop on Beer Street. Therefore, you are guaranteed the freshest, crispest libation, served ice cold in a glass pitcher.

I could tell you about the beaches, but it was unseasonably cold and a heavy smog filled the skies both days. I could tell you about Fi and I attending the Chinese wedding, but it was just too silly an experience to repeat. I could tell you about our gym teacher using the bedsheets when he realized the maid hadn’t stocked any toilet paper, but that’s nasty. What I will tell you is what I’ve told you already, the best advice that was told to me. When in Qingdao, fill your days with clams, beer, and humble reverence for beer’s ability to outlive the follies of humanity.

Another letter to my senator

Dear Senator

This email is in regards to the proposed deportation of 9000 Nepalis from the US, as reported in this week’s New York Times.

Like you, I am descended from generations of hardworking people who at some point, were given a chance. Today, you’re a senator and I’m an international educator. If it had not been for that distant grandparent who decided to risk everything and pursue an opportunity in a foreign land, you and I would doubtlessly be in very different situations.

For the last three years, my work has posted me in Nepal. I’ve come to know many Nepalis here, and many of them have ambitions to live and work in America one day. They are business owners, technicians, programmers, and parents. In their stories, I hear the stories of my grandfather of many generations back, who journeyed from France, in hopes of making a better living in the fur trade. Unlike my Nepali friends, he arrived to America with no capital and no marketable skills. Yet he managed to raise a family, buy land, and eventually his descendants would go on to attend university, serve in the military, start businesses, and become an essential part of the American tapestry.

I cannot imagine how my life today would be different, had my distant relative established a livelihood, only to be stopped short, branded an “economic opportunist,” and sent back to France on the next boat.

What’s proposed for these 9000 deportations, not to mention the thousands more from Honduras and other problematic countries, is economically ignorant, and anti-American. I urge you to reflect on your own experience as a descendant of immigrants, and do everything in your power to stop this political showboating. 

Thank you for your time and consideration. 

Your Constituent,