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.

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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. 

Profiles in people I know

Tom showed up as a third-stringer where I worked in Bali. That is to say, he was the third teacher to be hired midyear, replacing previous teachers who’d left in disgust. He was then, and remains today, the most typical Australian I’ve ever met.

Tom was tall, bald, and very present. He loved to knock back a beer or three. His entire wardrobe consisted of Billabong shirts. His most common utterances were “mate” and… “ma-a-ate.” He had an odd sort of crossed-eye on one side. I never held that against him, though combined with his oddly slanted brow, he slightly resembled Sloth from The Goonies. He was a good bloke, I reckoned.

IMG_9764

Australopus afuckupsis

I remember fondly the day he was asked to become Lord Buddha. Not in any transcendental kind of way. It was for Lord Buddha’s birthday, a high holy Hindu holiday, and the school community had organized some sort of event where Lord Buddha would float down the Agung River on a bamboo raft, surrounded by candles. Meanwhile on the hilly riverbanks, fire spinners and traditional Balinese dancers did their thing. It was total sensory overload. When he came floating down that river, his face reflected total serenity.

Most incredibly, I was paid to be there. So it goes with international teaching. No way to really know what you’re signing up for.

At some point that winter, or maybe it was spring (in Bali, the season is always “unbearably hot”), the principal hired a personal assistant. I was keen on the new girl straight away. She had a sassy attitude and bottomless brown eyes. Bali has no shortage of attractive Indonesians, but Betta was a bombshell. We went out once or twice, but things went no further than pizza and beer.

Then there was this one day we went out to one of my favorite hidden beaches. It was a magical day. I was determined to make my intentions known, but even with a stunning scenery, flawless weather, and just the two of us there, everything completely perfect, I could not get the words out. 

We love tourists

“So umm… want to get pizza somewhere?” 

So when we had plans with folks later that night, I would do everything possible to demonstrate social proof. Maybe then, I thought, with the subtle backing of my peers, I would work up the confidence to say what needed to be said. That, with the inertia of our beach day pushing the pheromones forward, smell of sunscreen still fresh in our nostrils, I could not lose.

I worked the crowd of friends and coworkers with deadpan humor and fearless anecdotes. I managed to get myself invited on stage to jam with the musicians at a blues bar. Later at the nightclub, I worked some moves with Betta on the dance floor. Nothing amazing, but corny enough for her to have fun all night. 

Sometime well after midnight, we ordered a fresh round of cocktails and talked about what next. She noted that Sibang Kaja, where we both lived, was pretty far away. It would be such a long drive. And we’d been drinking.

I noted that in Kuta, there was a pretty nice hotel, an easy walk from the bar.

She remarked that a hotel was an interesting idea. Maybe she’d have another drink and we could talk further.

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Then this happened. 

At that moment, Tom loped over and clunked onto the barstool, the opposite side from where I sat next to Betta. His face spoke a thousand beers. His one good eye was half-shut, while the crossed-eye was jerking around slightly, attempting to scan the room. He wore a child’s grin. I’d seen him this drunk a few times before. He was Liability Level drunk. On similar occasions, we’d had to physically force him into taxis, or talk him off tall buildings. I wasn’t too worried though. My escape was already planned, and like James Bond, my escape would land me in the arms of a beautiful woman.

That was until he abruptly leaned in, across Betta’s lap, towards me. Gesturing impersonally towards Betta, he mumbled something about how great of a couple we were. Now, he knew damn well that wasn’t the case. Dude was trying to sabotage my game. But why? Surely, he wasn’t trying to seduce anyone, this drunk? This late at night?

That’s great, ha ha yeah, I muttered, scanning the room for an excuse to break away from this fake Buddha cock blocker.

He continued, “Ah mean… she’s a great bird, mate. And I should knah. Because ah…”

She bolted him a glare so venomous as to poison a thousand men. It clicked just then. The two of them had slept together! Dear god!

Now, I’m not one to give a shit about things such as who’s slept with whom. Everyone can and should sleep with whomever they wish, as many times as they wish, wherever that may be, pending consent, and barring of course, public playgrounds and middle rows of passenger jets. What I gave a shit about was how Tom had managed to torpedo my entire night. From this point forward, any kind of chemistry Betta and I had going on had been dashed across the barroom floor.

But Tom wasn’t done yet. What he said next was precisely what Betta and I hoped to hell he would not say.

“So I waz thinkin’… since we all know each othah… maybe the three of us could ah…”

Oh hell. No.

Betta remembered just then, she had an early appointment. On a Saturday. And suddenly, she felt quite sober. Really, she’d only had two cranberry things, and had been nursing them all night. Maybe she’d just drive home after all.

That said, she’d be happy to give me a lift.

But Tom wasn’t done yet.

“Oi. Give us a lift home then?”

My life on Bali often felt like an extensive episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Long and drawn out. Darkly funny. Full of the most unlikeable people I’ve ever known.

After we rolled Tom out of her jeep, in front of his bamboo yurt, we continued on to my place. It was a long, dead silent, palpably awkward ride home, our minds riddled with images of Tom, naked and aroused. Just as we pulled up, I turned to her, out of shits to give, and stammered out what might be the best romcom speech of my career.

“Listen. I don’t care that you slept with Tom. He’s a complete fuckwit, but none of that matters. What matters is I find you really cool. And smart. And hot. You’re really hot. And I want to keep spending time with you. And I’d like us to be more than… whatever this is we’ve got going on right now. And we talked about me taking you out for your birthday next week, and I still want to do that. So clear your calendar, because we’re going out. On your birthday.”

She was at a loss for words, and said “Okay… thanks,” and I think we might’ve shaken hands or something ridiculous like that and I went to bed thinking about what a total shithead and moron I was. And I began to plot the ways I could murder Tom and get away with it.

A week later, I made good on my promise. Not to murder Tom, but to take Betta out for her birthday. Pizza and beer, as usual. Except this time, it felt like she was sizing me up through all the small talk. She was looking at me differently that before. This time, after dinner, I gave her a lift home. I parked the bike and we walked to her door. I wished her a happy birthday and turned to leave.

“Wait,” she started. “Truth: when you said all that stuff in the jeep the other night…”

Yeah, I said. It was all true.

“Good,” she said. “Very good.”

She took my arm. We went inside.

Bali was an amazing year. That was the year I learned to sort-of surf. The year I lived in a bungalow without walls. The year I learned the value of fermented shrimp paste. However, I’d throw all that away, if I could spend just a little more time with Betta. She might be the coolest girlfriend I ever had. Those five months just weren’t enough.

Strange as it is, things might never have panned out, if not for crossed-eye Tom. What an asshat. 

Who loves ice cream?  WE love ice cream!

She also talked me into growing a beard. What a woman. 

A family member visits, anxiety ensues

My dad is here with me in Kathmandu. It feels strange, to have him out here. He’s no stranger to travel, mind. My parents routinely visit my nieces in Spain, or have a fun jaunt in other parts of Europe. But this is Asia. More than Asia, it’s Kathmandu.

Unlike my brother, I’ve grown accustomed to not hosting family out here. I always imagined that to them, Asia seemed like the edge of the world, a no-man’s land. Europe is familiar and friendly; people look the same as we do, but with less body fat. Asia on the other hand, is exotic. 

Indeed, Asia is exotic, but you get over it after a few weeks. End of the day, it’s just another contract, whether I’m in Beijing or Borneo, Qatar or Kathmandu. By the end of my first month in any host city, I’ve learned how to order off menus, get around in taxis, and haggle where needed. I know the location of the local grocery store and the local pub. My flat is set up, a la Fortress of Solitude, and I spend the remainder of my contract descending further and further into the depths of my host culture.

A visitor from home then can be a little unnerving. Even if you’ve never lived abroad, I’m sure you can relate. Ever had one of those moments, when you’re busy being you? Say you’re singing Mariah Carey in the shower, top volume. Your significant other gets home early from work, hears you singing. You feel a little embarrassed but everyone has a good laugh. Now multiply that times several days.

In the days before my dad’s visit, I compiled a mental inventory of what could get weird for him. He hasn’t been to Asia since the 70’s, and he’s never really seen a developing country before. So let’s start there.

Garbage everywhere. I mean everywhere. It’s on the streets, the pedestrian lanes, the rivers… everywhere. Kathmandu is a giant interactive landfill.

The air is chewable. Heavy particulate matter, such as the dust that’s perpetually kicked up from unpaved roads and endless construction projects, combines with light particulate matter, like the emissions from unregulated brick foundries and diesel engines, to create a potent, dull grey cocktail of low air quality. Add a dash of trash fires for extra dioxins, and you’ve got the Kathmandu Valley Swizzle.

These drivers. In a city with no traffic lights, stop signs, or lines in the roads (which may or may not be paved), drivers definitely do their own thing. And the horns the horns always the horns.

Then there’s me. My free time is usually spent in one of the garden bars around town, or in front of my buddy’s bodega, drinking lousy beer and socializing. Lots of dick jokes. To an outsider, this might look depressing. To a family member, it might look concerning.

Fortunately, there was no judgement when my dad came to visit. Indeed, he was more than happy to join in with the loitering and revelry. However, he’s said more than a few times now, in observing the garbage, the air, and the devil-may-care drivers, “You need to get the hell out of this town, man.”

 

 

More Notes from a Tiny Island

Another entry from my time on Bali. I was still annoyingly double-spacing all my periods. Aside from that, it’s an enjoyable read. 

Benoa. I hereby retract all the mean things I’ve said about Benoa.  Okay, maybe not all of them.  It is still a soulless resort town catering to incoming cruise lines chock full of tourists with no desire to immerse themselves in Balinese culture.  It is still lined with hotels demanding ludicrous rates that won’t take in a lowly traveler, even on Christmas Eve.  But now that I got the “local” edge, Benoa has become a little more fun.

Watu surprised me with this question:  “Want to go parasailing?”

I admit, the “sport” has never been on the top of my list, but I’ll try anything once.  In a blink, we found ourselves back in the land I swore against last year.  Except now, we were backstage to the tourist show.  Watu knows someone who runs a tour package business and gets friend prices on campy attractions such as this one.  Arriving at the “Jet Set” water sports center (take your minds out of the gutter, Dan Savage fans), we were escorted past tables of wealthy Korean tourists and into a seaside bale laid out with comfy rubber cushions.  The manager cheerfully ran down his price list.  Not only did they offer parasailing, they also offered scuba, snorkeling, and glass-bottom boat tours to Turtle Island.  Best of all, the prices were marked down like a Canadian pharmacy going out of business – the local prices!

Parasailing always seemed silly to me before; it seemed even sillier to me now as a harness snugly hugged my crotch, a parachute laid across the sand behind me, and I was instructed by a dreadlocked Bali stoner in a Rasta shirt to “just hold on to the ropes, mon, don’t leggo.”  After standing there for a good five minutes, scanning the water for which of the hundred boats on the water had me tethered to it, I was about to ask when this thing got started.  Just then, I felt a mighty tug from my crotch, sort of like an elephant getting fresh on the first date.  Suddenly, I’m airborne!

I had no idea Benoa Bay was so beautiful.  Sometimes, it takes a hundred meters of altitude to change one’s attitude.  The entire peninsula was visible, surrounded by lush coral reefs.  Directly beneath me, I saw the motorboat carving ess-shaped curves into the clear green waters.  This is really fun!

The rest of our party took their turns, good times had by all.  But this was only the beginning.  Still ahead was adventure on the high sea.

Watu always told me she doesn’t like to swim at the beach.  I thought maybe she was afraid of sharks, or was creeped out by swimming where fish pee.  I had no idea that she simply does not swim. Counterintuitive, I know… a person born on an island who doesn’t swim. But this is Watu, and she will likely kick my ass after reading this.

I learned the extent to which Watu does not swim when we motored out to the corals.  She and our tour guide friend were to do some snorkeling while Rice (who appropriately, is a chef on Bali) and I went scuba diving.  I’d been in the water for about ten minutes, telling jokes to a clown fish, when I spied a commotion up on the
surface.  Watu’s legs were kicking frantically.  Barracuda attack?  A cramp from all those crackers she ate?  Being only a few meters down, I surfaced to find her still flailing, strapped into a life jacket, turned around backwards in an inner tube, escorted by two handlers who kept saying, “You don’t want to go back to the boat!  There is so much beauty to see on the reef!”  Good thing they got her back on board when they did.  The eyes behind those goggles were seeing red.

Before long, all of us were back on the boat and heading back out to the mysterious Turtle Island.  I knew nothing of Turtle Island.  What secrets did it hold?  How did it get its alluring name?

As it turns out, Turtle Island is named for all the turtles that live there.  Hmph.

Seriously though, this place was pretty cool.  They have nurseries that raise the little guys until they’re old enough to go out to sea. I’d never been close enough to touch one, much less pick one up and dance with it.  They eat kelp in a way that is so cute as to make me
laugh.

Turtle Island is also a sanctuary for injured animals, namely fruit bats (when you see them up close they are quite visibly mammals), toucans, pythons, sea eagles, and plenty more.  Guests can hold just about every animal in the menagerie, and you know I did!

After all was said and done, we thanked our new friend, the events manager, and the four of us made one last stop:  the Jimbaran fish market.  I’d visited this place once before on my own, but it’s much more worthwhile to go with friends, as money spends a lot further when you’re ordering by the kilo.  We feasted like royalty on clams, squid, snapper, and prawn, all swimming freshly just an hour previous. Bellies full, it had been an awesome use of a Sunday.

*****

Jakarta.

At the Denspasar Airport, the automated system announces one city more clearly and loudly than any other.

“Lion Air, flight 3411, leaving for… JA-KAR-TA!”

“La Guardia Air, flight 935, leaving for… JA-KAR-TA!”

“Air Asia, flight 2852, leaving for… JA-KAR-TA!”

You can almost feel the phlegm fly out of the speakers.

It’s to be expected.  Jakarta is the capital city of Indonesia, one of the most populated in the world.  It is a destination for international businessmen, religious pilgrims, and uncles, aunts, and cousins visiting their families after a year of working the hotels of Bali, the logging operations of Borneo, and the fishing vessels of Sulawesi.  No wonder the robotic voice suddenly sounds so enthusiastic!

Today, Watu and I were to be on that Lion Air flight.

Before I speak on Jakarta, a word about Lion Air.  Haters need to back off Lion Air.  So what if they have a questionable track record of planes missing the runway?  So what if they are dependably one to two hours behind schedule on every flight?  The fact is, they push the finest tin to roll out of Seattle-Tacoma: the 737-900 fleet.  These bad boys are equipped with more emergency exits than George Bush’s Oval Office, fly quieter than a sleeping babe on barbiturates, and boast a formidable collection of tri-lingual in-flight publications. And unlike Air Asia, the cabin does not fill with smoke prior to takeoff and the stewards do not snarl when you push the call button for a lukewarm Bintang.  Hats off to you, Lion Air!

Landing in Jakarta can be disorienting.  The smog clouds the sky completely, while the city lights burn bright, creating the illusion that the plane has suddenly inverted itself, and you are landing upside down (not to hate on Lion Air, though).  After a safe, upright landing, we were picked up promptly by Watu’s friend Deti, who gave us a special late night tour of the city, something only available after midnight, as traffic is otherwise prohibitive to traveling more than one mile in an hour.

In her most enthusiastic, highly caffeinated tour guide voice, she began announcing:

“To your left is Stadium, a club where the water is more famous than the alcohol.” (only some of you will get this joke)

“To your right is very famous building, the World Trade Center, still standing!”

“To your right again is delicious restaurant from Scotland, Mac-Donalds.”

“To your left, you will see the famous prostitutes of Jakarta.  And up ahead, Jakarta’s famous lady-boys.  Look, one approaches our car right now!”

It was a most entertaining hour, followed by a stop at a late night bar, where we played Swede into the wee hours.  We finally found a reasonably priced hotel (the Go-Go Godzilla) around 5am, just enough time to catch a few winks.

Though the Hotel Godzilla was nice enough, it could not compare to the place we’d check into for the next two nights:  The Hotel Mercure. Watu’s friend is a manager there, so we got friend prices at this four-star.  At first, it was a little obnoxious in that lobby… kids running to and fro (holiday weekend) with nannies chasing after, Chinese tourists wanting to take pictures of me – the only white guy in the whole place, and a lounge waitress who had a hard time following Watu’s native (and very pretty) Indonesian tongue.  But once we got up to the room, all that was forgotten.

The suite was furnished with an Ottoman-style recliner, as seen in my psychotherapy sessions.  The view overlooked the beach (and to some lamentation, the tacky carnival pool below).  The bathroom was stocked with fluffy towels and herbal soaps.  The television was satellite, and the enormous bed was fitted with 400 count Egyptian cotton sheets. Best of all, the air con was cranked to “polar.”  We had a laundry list of things to do in Jakarta, but most of them had to do with lazing around the sweet suite.

A romantic side note here.  Dr. Phil goes on and on about the importance of trust in relationships.  He suggests all these exercises that you and your loved one can do to build up that trust.  I think you can skip all that business in one simple step.  Real trust comes
in the form of tiny scissors.

I was enjoying something on Asian MTV when Watu came at me with the
tiny scissors.

“This is driving me crazy.  Hold still,” she commanded.

I thought she was going to trim my increasingly less subtle unibrow. But no.  She went straight for the nostrils.  I’ll admit, I’ve been meaning to do some man-scaping in the nostril department, but that’s the kind of thing a man does on his own, locked in the bathroom, wrapping his shameful dust catchers up in toilet paper and flushing them away to oblivion.  This was a kink for which I was unprepared.

Though nervous, I lay very still, partly out of trust, partly out of fear.  You don’t want mistakes when soft tissue is involved with stainless steel.  It wasn’t easy because I kept fighting to stifle laughter, but now I breathe easier, and my heart beats more merrily. She’s really something special.

On the rare occasions we departed from our John and Yoko version of non-reality, we had lots of fun around the city.  Drinks and tapas at a fabulously fancy ocean side lounge and resto with international friends, a visit to the woefully unkempt but nonetheless eclectic art museum, a tour of the salty shipyard with its magnificently enormous wooden fishing dregs, and a walk about the national monument (we would have taken a ride to the top of the obelisk, but the line looked like free cone day at Ben and Jerry’s).  Through all this, Watu snarked that although she’s a native Jakartan, she’s never done most of those things, much like the countless New Yorkers who’ve never visited the Statue of Liberty.

A few major highlights worthy of greater detail:

•       The Dufan Theme Park – Madness, just madness!  Long lines for rides
that turn the stomach, hourly parades of loudly costumed characters, and an omnipresent saccharine sweet soundtrack that stays in your head hours after the park has closed.  This is the Indonesian Disney World, sans oversized mice and chipmunks.  Instead, there are several large chickens.  Unlike a larger than life Donald Duck that gropes you into a photo op however, these feathered fiends are very camera shy, unless you agree to buy bags of their salty snacks (which don’t seem to actually contain any chicken).  I love this place!

•       Café Batavia – The name originates from the old Dutch colonialists, who at one time thought they could come up with a better name than Jakarta.  The café rests in what remains of the old city, adjacent to the city plaza and national museum campus.  The sidewalk tables outside, positioned amongst the bustling crowds of bicyclists, taksi hawkers, and teenage punk kids, make for an idyllic repose and people-watching headquarters.  Go inside, and you begin to feel very colonial indeed, as the architecture defies anything found on this continent.  Teak wood trim, high ceilings, and one hundred years of countless signed black and whites from visiting celebrities (including Portland’s own Gus Van Sant) make the Café Batavia resonate with the spirits of Morgan and Rockefeller.  Unfortunately, that spirit trickles right down to the menu, which is also disproportionate to the rest of the region, in terms of price.   However, we managed to eat well from their tasty dim sum menu, and I slowly enjoyed the finest caprioska this side of Mother Russia.  Meanwhile, the Jakartan version of Pink Martini crooned a lovely version of “My Funny Valentine” on the stage behind us.  The ambiance was set to “perfect.”  Could the Café Batavia possibly be the finest restaurant in all of Indonesia? Only one last indicator could tell for sure – the restrooms.

The restrooms at Café Batavia deserve their own paragraph, if not their own page.  Up to now, the best bathroom I’d ever visited was at a bar in Portland, Oregon.  It has a two-way mirror positioned so you can spy on your date while washing your hands.  But Café Batavia dusts this concept with a radical new take on urination.

Imagine yourself in a pristine bathroom, art deco, circa 1920’s. Black and white pure porcelain tile from floor to ceiling.  A giant, circular community sink in the center of the floor.  The motif of celebrity photographs continues here, but now they’re all female nudes (male nudes in the ladies room), mainly French, so it’s tasteful. Only after taking all this in do you remember what you came in for – the toilet!  But there doesn’t seem to be one.  Only a giant mirror covering one wall.  As you stare at your reflection, you notice the sprayers lining the top of the smooth surface, then the thin trough below. Invoking the holy unspoken first name of Mr. Clean, you realize this is a mirrored urinal! You are about to pee… on yourself!

The first moment is awkward.  It’s only the rare bathroom that reveals what you look like while answering nature’s call.  Perhaps the designers realized this, because the moment your stream hits its own reflection, a motion detector triggers the sprayers, which unleash a glorious waterfall across the surface before you, inspiring Jon Brion
symphonies in your head as your visage is comfortably masked behind the flowing stream.

Café Batavia, you make the alphabet wish it had a letter better than “A.”

•       The Big Ass Mall – Name says it all.  Seems I can’t visit a major Southeast Asian capital without dropping into a larger-than-life mall. They have air con, after all.  This particular mall was clearly established for the yuppie set of Jakarta, but we didn’t come to shop. We came to see the enormous slide.  On the seventh floor, the rider straps on a helmet, secures into a roller board, and sails hundreds of feet down a hamster tube.  Now that’s fun!

•       Red Square – If you know me, you know me not to be a club person. Sure, I’ll dance and act a fool at a club, but it is for the purpose of entertaining myself, not because I am entertained.  Too many clubs, especially those on Bali, play the same 12 songs over and over, hoping no one notices.  Nonetheless, as we entered the heavily bouncered doors of Red Square, I kept a smile on my face and an open minded attitude, as Watu swore this was the her favorite club in all of Jakarta.  Plus, we were to meet her friend Titi that night, and I find that name charming and hilarious.

Titi is apparently the queen of Red Square.  One word to the bouncers and we beat the line and the cover.  Shark-finning us through the throbbing crowd, she introduced us to her many friends, none of the names of which I could hear over the thumping music.  An Irish guy asked me if I was Sam Beam of Iron and Wine fame, because I “looked just like him” (it must be the beard).  Yes, of course I am!  On holiday in Jakarta after a long international tour.  I was beginning to have fun.

Had the Vegas Mafia invaded Moscow, it would look something like Red Square.  The top of the center bar oscillated between various glows of color and was full of drinks and high-stepping feet.  I kept a careful hand on my Heinekin as a pair of go-go boots (Titi’s, I think) danced dangerously close.  Elbows elbowed my elbows and Watu shouted in my ear, “Wait until this place fills up!  Then the party really gets started!”  Think happy thoughts.

Without warning, a piercing whistle sounded.  All heads turned to a slender Javanese girl in tall, red leather boots, a barely-there miniskirt, and KGB officer’s jacket and cap.  Still blowing the whistle, she pointed her fist towards the main bar and began a marching step.  Looking towards the bar, the tenders lit a dozen bottles on fire and began juggling them.  They tossed, they caught, they balanced them on their heads.  They began spitting fire towards the ceiling.  They threw bar napkins into the crowd.  The place went nuts.  I can be a hard person to amuse sometimes, but when you set things on fire, I’m all yours.

Again, if you know me, you know that if you can drag me to a club, I will be one of those people dancing on the bar before long.  And on this, our last night in Jakarta, I did not disappoint.

All in all, I was sad to leave Jakarta.  Despite what all the Balinese locals and expats say, the city has soul!  Yes, the traffic can make one crazy, street kids press themselves up against your window asking for change, and the presence of open sewers prohibits breathing through the nose, but if you’re the kind of person who, like me, romanticizes the pre-Giuliani days of New York City, you will love modern day Jakarta.

*****

The Double Six is to the surfing world what the Sun Records studio is to Elvis fans.  Surfers can find bigger waves elsewhere, and Presley-philes can find gaudier ornamentation at Graceland, sure.  But the Double Six is more than waves.  The Double Six is every Beach Boys song (even if none of them ever surfed a day in their lives), every
Endless Summer movie, and every utterance of “Dude!” from Keanu Reeves’ mouth.  The Double Six is a place of purity.  The sand is white, board rentals are cheap, and the surf is up.

The tides can be temperamental, so the surfer should expect to spend a lot of time sitting on the board, meditating on the Zen of the sea. Before long though, the placidity of the solemn surface gives way to a surge that seems to scream, “Ride me out or be destroyed.”  Watching the surfers from the shore, a single wave takes down one rider after
another like the killing fields of an old war movie.  Yet there is always that one determined wave trooper, usually a local teenager half my age, who skims the voluptuous blue bosom, playfully slapping the inside curl with his fingertips, akin to a burning fighter jet with nothing left to lose.

And me?  You’ll see me for a few seconds.  You’ll see my face alight as the inertia of the wave takes hold of my fate and fires up my adrenaline.  You’ll see my long board searing through the azule water as the convex turns to crushing foam.  You may even see me hop onto my feet and struggle for balance as the gods of the sea (whom the Balinese believe to be quite angry and difficult to please) attempt to smash my face into the sand beneath the shallow sea.  They always succeed.

I’m sure veterans gripe about the development of the last 30 years or so; I doubt that in 1979 the Double Six featured a bungee tower from which you can jump while mounted on a motorbike.  However, as you drag your beaten, sometimes bloody body back to the shore, sand dripping from the bottoms of your shorts, hair all akimbo and salty, board rash across the front of your torso, the tattooed Balinese guy who rented you the board gives you a high five and hands you a cold, fresh Bintang with a layer of ice around the bottle and a rubber coozie to keep it that way.  You plop down next to your surf buddies and brag about each other as the sun goes down and a bevy of locals beats bongos and strums guitars somewhere down the beach.  Further in the distance, the sound of someone dropping 45 meters, straddling a Suzuki, echoes.  Nonetheless, this is paradise. For now.

Goan with your bad self

“You got plans for December?” asked my longtime friend and fellow expat, Solid Gold, as we chatted between my home in Kathmandu and his on the French Riviera.

“Yeah, thought I’d finally try that Goa thing everyone talks about. I mean, I’ll never likely live this close to India again. This year was a pretty bad one for me. I feel like I need… I don’t know… something like Goa. And you know, read Shantaram, so–”

“So feed the soul a bunch of shitty electronic music?”

“Yeah,  but even EDM is good if you’re in the right mindset.”

“Ha ha. Yeah… high as balls.”

“Basically, yeah… thought I’d see what all the kids are talking about. While I’m at it, head down to the Andaman Sea. Do some island hopping in Thailand.”

“I see now. You’re doing the British Douchebag Circuit.”

“Eh?”

“Oh yeah buddy. It’s all douchebags, all the way. British mostly. Russians too.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

IMG_7252

All this, for the douchebags

I suppose SG has some authority on the subject. He spent time in Phuket a few years back and generally loathed everyone except the Danish girl he met. Moreover, while there’s no recognized authority on hatred of British and Russian tourists, I’m certain that SG would win the trophy.

Fortunately for me, I take everything he says with a shaker of misanthropic salt. Besides, the tickets were booked. I handled a year’s worth of tourist douchebaggery in Bali; I would manage the Christmas holidays just fine.

I’m at the point in my life as a traveler where I leave as little as possible to chance. Normally, I get to the airport way earlier than required (I’ve missed an embarrassing number of flights). As an added incentive, I have lounge access at KTM. On the day of my departure however, everything fell apart.

Lunch took longer than it should have, I realized late in the game I’d packed insufficient underwear, and when it came time to leave for the airport — here’s a classic — not a taxi in sight.

I had 2.5 hours before departure. On a good day, sans heavy traffic, roaming cattle, and Maoist demonstrations, the airport commute takes an even 25 minutes. Still enough time, not panicking yet. I called Kumar, my emergency driver for situations like this. He’s already at the airport with someone else. I call Backup Kumar, he’s at temple. I finally flag someone down, negotiate a fare way higher than it should be, and away we go.

It was not a good day for traffic. Cows.

Arrive KTM to find along the sidewalk outdoors an idle queue of passengers, the length of a football field, leading to the one skinny door that enters the terminal. Today of all days, Nepal’s government decided the airport needs security. Maybe Benedict Cumberbatch had returned.

IMG_7231

Through that door was another human snake, this one slithering through vinyl rope barriers that funneled towards a single metal detector manned by an utterly indifferent octogenarian in a funny hat. Beyond the metal detector stood a firm-faced policeman with a broom-bristle mustache and you know he wanted a piece of me. To frisk, that is.

Finally emerging from the morass, I galloped towards the check-in counter, thankful to have a “Me First!” card from such-and-such airline. A sign above the desk read: PASSENGERS WHO WISH TO CHECK BAGGAGE MUST ARRIVE ONE HOUR BEFORE DEPARTURE TIME.

My ticket showed departure time as 2:30pm. I approached the counter at 2:28pm, breathing a sigh of relief, and handed over my passport.

He began to work out my boarding pass, and eying my suitcase, flatly declared that I was too late to check the bag.

“Nossir. I am right on time,” I declared, showing the time on my phone, and pointing to the digital clock behind his head.

“I am sorry, but you are not.”

The manager standing nearby must have seen my posture shift to Pouncing Leopard Pose, because he scuttled right over and muttered something to the agent.

Wryly, the agent corrected himself, “It’s fine, sir. Are you carrying any explosives?”

I was a bit sad to miss out on free beer in the KTM lounge, but at least I made the flight. Anyway, I’d be in Mumbai for a four-hour layover soon. Just tuck into a lounge there and pregame for my arrival in Goa.

Mumbai International, as it turns out, is the only airport in Asia where none of my lounge access cards work. I would spend my entire layover in the Regular Damn Part of the terminal, paying for food and beverages with money. I’d forgotten how much airports mark that stuff up.

I had my first Indian beer: Kingfisher. It would not be my last.

Arriving in Goa, I learned that even more so than Nepal, people in India don’t queue. To an appalling degree. Waiting at what must’ve been the 30th airport security checkpoint on this, my first day of vacation, a fella in a smart looking business suit strode past everyone in line and parked himself directly in front of me. Call me a typical American — an American douchebag, even — but I won’t stand for such shenanigans.

“Excuse me. End of the line is back there.”

The guy tried to cold ignore me. I repeated myself, more loudly. He turned to face me, smiled and waggled his head a bit. It’s an India thing.

Waggle nothing. This guy had totally cut me off. It’d be one thing if he had a “Me First!” card, but all he had was a nice suit. But what was I going to do? Deck him? Report him to the authorities?

Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea.

When it came his turn to be screened, I remarked audibly, “Excuse me officer. Be sure to check his bag carefully. He is very important. We must make sure he’s boarding the plane safely.”

The man turned to face me. Another waggle. No smile this time. He made it through okay, but I’d like to believe he thinks twice about cutting line in the future.

In India, money was funny. Just a week before my departure, President Modi announced that certain larger-denomination bank notes would be removed from the currency. If that edict took me by surprise, imagine the reaction of India — everyone from the wealthiest CEO, to the most ho-hum government bureaucrat, to the lowliest street beggar — who learned the news one morning around 9am, with no prior warning whatsoever. I cannot conceive what that must be like, to have a president who makes impulsive decisions, seemingly with no long-term planning or consideration of the people affected.

My Indian friends in Nepal tried to warn me. They suggested I buy up as many Indian rupees as possible before the flight. I shrugged it off. This is the 21st century, I thought. India is a modern country, I thought. There will be ATMs everywhere, I thought.

Airports without ATMs. They exist. Incredible. The reality of my situation in India sunk in, fast. I’d need to withdraw as much cash as possible from a money changer, which turned out to be 4000 IDR per person, per day. That’s 60 bucks. And of course there would be the exchange rate and money changer fee and assorted nonsense for every withdrawal. Fabulous.

One more wait, this one for transport. The hostel had sent me an address and phone number, details that in much of the world would prove sufficient for an out-of-towner to guide his driver to the destination. However, this was India. They’d never heard of the hostel, the town, or the region. Fortunately, on the plane I met an aged French guy who was returning to his home in Goa after a trip to Cambodia to claim a kayak paddle he’d acquired in a bar bet of some sort. This gentleman was kind enough to translate my directions and even offered to split the fare, as his place was just a little further north.

We arrived at my hostel, the Old Quarter, located in Goa’s, umm… Old Quarter. This part of town once marked the Portuguese presence in India. Some centuries back, a plague swept through Goa and most colonists died or fled. It stood as a ghost town for years, but slowly repopulated with locals. The colonial architecture remains intact; it’s one of the few places in all Goa where this is true. All this I learned on the ride over.

I thanked my French ami, threw on my backpack, and wandered into the hostel.

The hostel keeper was a sleepy-eyed local guy who dropped “brother” into every other sentence. You know, typical hostel keeper. He’d gotten the beds mixed up which meant… another wait. Just as well. I was hungry.

I set out to explore the neighborhood. Found a decent looking restaurant on Zomato called Black Sheep and walked some ridiculous distance up a hill to find it. The sidewalk gave way to unpaved road, the unpaved road gave way to total crazy. Crawled over some cement embankments and things, realized this was idiotic, no matter how good the food might be and walked back down the hill.

Waiting for me at the bottom was an oasis of all that is good and right about American food: Route 66. They had deep fried snacks, barbecue ribs, and honest-to-god hamburgers.

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All of this, yes

I spotted a couple Australians from the hostel. We started talking and realized they, like me, were victims in the bed mix-up. With time to kill, we drank quite a lot. Bars are cheaper in India than Nepal. I was liking Goa.

My new Australian friends had traveled a great deal around India. They’d met kind souls and dirty old men. They’d seen sights to defy the imagination. They’d traveled on rickety crop dusters, slow-moving diesel trains, barely-floating ferries, dodgy buses, and so, so many tuk-tuks. They described their varying levels of diarrhea in grand detail. They’d enjoyed Varanasi but disliked Delhi (as did every other traveler I met). Goa was their last stop after two months of travel (Americans take note: other Western countries enjoy well more than 10 non-sequential vacation days per year). I told them I was just here for the hedonism. Nothing too spiritual for me, thanks.

“For hedonism, you’ll need cash. That’s in short supply right now. We came to Goa because places take cards. Better cash up before you head north.”

“North” referred to Anjuna Beach. I wasn’t ready for that level of cray. Not just yet.

I thanked them for the advice and the three of us ambled back to the hostel together. Fortunately, three beds were available by that time. Still not sure if we got the right ones, but my bed was soft and I slept soundly through the night.

Jet lag woke me early, even though the time difference in Nepal is only 15 minutes (a true fact). I shuffled to the commons area, placed my breakfast order with the front desk, and opened the Navhind Times, morning edition.

I felt a presence, staring at me. Flipped down the top of my paper and gazing at me with a seemingly endless cheshire grin was a tall, bearded, bespectacled Indian man. “Hello my friend,” he began, “where are you from?”

We exchanged pleasantries, and learned we were both in Goa for the same reason: a need to get away. We spoke a bit about Modi’s economic reforms, which dominated the front page. Raj lived in Mumbai, and as a young, middle-class, white-collar professional, he supported the president. He believed the reforms would do as Modi promised: end corruption. Most every Indian I met felt the same way, which surprised me a bit, given the daily thrashing Modi received in the papers.

Breakfast came. It was Indian style, with curried chickpeas, roti, and a samosa. It was such a nice plate, I ordered it every morning at Old Quarter, along with a nice cup of black tea.

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Raj asked of my plans. I had none. He asked if I’d like to join him to see the old Old Quarter, where the Portuguese Jesuits first landed and built cathedrals. If there’s one habit that’s served me well in foreign countries, it’s to make friends who speak the language. I agreed to join him.

When it comes to public transport in a new country, I feel overwhelmed. Too often, I’ve boarded the wrong bus or train and wound up someplace different than anticipated. Yes, that’s all part of the adventure, but arriving at one’s original destination is also a nice feeling.

Raj was instrumental in getting us to the terminal, then to the right bus. Before long, we stood in front of a towering Roman Catholic cathedral in India, a building older than my country, in a country older than Western Civilization. It was pretty impressive.

Raj wanted to go in, but it was Sunday and they were holding Mass. As it goes with cathedrals in Europe, this one was frequented by tourists all days of the week, but non-parishioners were kept outside during services. Generally, tourists understand this, and out of common courtesy, don’t make a fuss. Raj tried to argue his way in, explaining to the Catholic lady at the door how Catholics were supposed to be welcoming and on and on. I took him aside and explained positive protocol. The moment was awkward and embarrassing. I began to think this should be my only adventure with Raj.

We walked from the cathedral to another cathedral across the street. As it goes with cathedrals in Europe, cathedrals in India become monotonous after you see the first one. The day was hot and we felt thirsty. Unlike cathedrals in Europe, these cathedrals in Goa’s old Old Quarter had no taverns nearby. We boarded the return bus.

Back at the hostel, Raj suggested a number of places we might go for lunch and a drink. First though, he wanted to talk up a pretty girl he’d seen in the lobby earlier, read my newspaper, and shave. I didn’t have the time for that, nor the desire to spend more time with Raj. I thanked him for an interesting morning and went to the Panjim Inn for lunch. The service was prompt and the food tasty — Goan shrimp curry, Kingfisher beer, and a pot of tea.

Those few days in Panjim were a splendid purgatory. I spent most of my time reading and writing and not much else. There was an art crawl, which over the course of a full day I managed to tour from start to finish. The best art tended to be on the walls of buildings along the way. The crawl ended at a culture show and concert, where more delicious Goan food awaited.

I should mention the short trip to Dudhsagar Falls. It was a package deal offered by the hostel, and sounded pretty. The van arrived with a small crowd of people from Old Quarter’s sister hostel, Jungle. They included an American, an Austrian, a German, and an Australian. The Australian had been drunk since the night before and hadn’t slept. He was nursing a bottle of cheap local vodka and nearly incomprehensible. The time was 11am. Surely, I thought, he’ll fall unconscious during the two hour drive to the falls.

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The Australian, two hours later, not yet unconscious, petting a calf, checking out breasts

Following the two hour drive was an hourlong jungle jeep safari, then we’re hiking the falls and the Australian is on a new bottle of vodka. He found a nice rock to lay across while the rest of us stripped down and jumped in the cold water. Even with a couple hundred other tourists there (mostly from other corners of India) the swim was relaxing and rejuvenating. A steam-powered train passed over the trestle bridge that ran across either side of the falls, blowing its whistle.

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Moments before Wes Anderson descended from the hills…

The sun began to set and we gathered our belongings, ready to head back to the jeeps. The Australian stood up, took a step forward on the boulders, and his knees buckled from beneath him, as if he were a marionette whose strings were suddenly cut. His head bounced against a rock and his neck twisted sideways. He lay lifeless. We thought the poor bastard had died or at least paralyzed himself.

As we rushed towards him, his head suddenly sprung up. Through a sloppy grill of mangled bloody teeth, he started to cackle drunkenly, the way only a true sot can. He remarked upon the obvious: “Oi. It seems I’ve fallen down.”

We would have to carry him back to the parking lot, as he was in no state to walk himself along the treacherous path.The fiasco stopped being amusing after the first hundred paces. What should’ve been a 15 minute walk became nearly an hour, as we had to coax him down from trees, things like that. The stalwart German finally threw the lanky Australian over his shoulder and hauled his corpse the rest of the way.

I mentally noted a rule for the days to come: don’t be that guy.

That last day at Old Quarter, I was sad to go (although I did finally manage to eat at Black Sheep). One last samosa breakfast, then a cheap shuttle to yet another sister hostel — Prison — this one in Anjuna. I would’ve stayed there, but it’d been booked out for weeks before my arrival. Too bad, because once upon a time the hostel was an actual prison and the guests sleep in barred cells. Sure it’s gimmicky, but when else does one voluntarily sleep in jail?

Outside of Prison, my options were limited [insert rant about criminal justice reform]. In younger years, I might’ve thrown caution to the wind and wandered around my new environs, looking for a decent place to sleep. But backpacks are heavy and my time is precious. Well ahead of my trip I booked one of the few places with vacancy and mostly good reviews, the Wonderland Hostel.

This place looked like a dude’s back yard. Actually, it was. A dude’s backyard with a collection of bungalows scattered around. A young, attractive, vaguely Eastern European girl greeted me on the dirt pathway from the road. “You are staying with us? Oh good! Welcome!”

She led me in, took my money, counted it cautiously, but smiling, and showed me the room. It was a 6-bed unit, with an American couple already there. They were from Iowa, and this was their first trip overseas. “When we checked in, we thought we’d be in Anjuna one week, tops,” they explained. “That was three weeks ago.”

They gave me some general advice for the area, ranging from the best eateries to the best party venues. We became fast friends.

I cannot say I “felt the vibe” the first few days in Anjuna, but sure as hell tried. Every morning, midday, and afternoon, I lazed on lanai chairs that lined the beach like neatly arranged driftwood, trying to read my Hemmingway while psy-trance music throbbed from every bar and restaurant on the strand. I spent my evenings dining family-style with other hostelers, reggae music and hashish smoke wafting through the night air. I tramped around the late night scene, dropping into bars full of silly dancing, spun out revelers, and a great many Russians eager to flaunt a bit of wealth. I toured the Saturday Market, its booths largely occupied by expat Westerners selling hippy paraphernalia. I even rented a motorbike and traveled with the Iowans to another beach further north, this one full of the burliest hippies the world’s ever known. My motorbike stopped working and the three of us had to ride on the Iowans’ motorbike the entire 45 minutes back to Anjuna… but that’s another story.

All the people I met were nice enough. A few douchebags but none of them obnoxious, and very few cases of the high level drunkenness I witnessed at the falls a few days before. Still, I felt like an odd duck at this party. I’d come for hedonism, only to realize that hedonism looked pretty boring in practice. It was like a repeat of that awful Aware Dance night in Bali all those years ago, but on a massive scale. Maybe it was time to accept reality: the “Goa Sound” sucks, shoestring backpackers, with their pithy bumper sticker theologies and their Full Moon Parties and their tattooed dreadlocks, are naïve, boring, self serving pricks, and I would never, ever be one of them, just like I was never punk enough to be punk or hip enough to be hipster or groovy enough to be a hippy. I was stuck with being me.

I was ready to leave Goa earlier than expected. Then, on Christmas Eve, came the night I met a ghost.

“Howdy, friend! Looks like I’m sitting here!”

The Ghost of Christmas Past plopped down into the plastic resin beach chair next to mine, uninvited and grinning ear to ear. We clinked our bottles together. He drank Sprite. Kingfisher for me. The night was lit by dancing lasers but the beach was dark. Psy-trance music belched from every bar on the promenade. Around us on the sand sat diners and drinkers.

“Your accent is from the States, right? Man, not a whole lot of us out here, Americans. Seems like we’ll never learn how to get out of our comfort zones and onto a goddamn airplane. Shit load of Russians, though. Am I right?”

We dropped into the standard “where you from what do you do where have you traveled where do you travel from here” conversation. He was from Chicago. An enterprising DJ and musician (there’s a difference). In his younger years he traveled to backpacker party towns like this one and organized lineups for raves such as the one we were avoiding at the far end of the beach. He was supposed to have met his girlfriend in Goa, but she dumped him last week and now he was here hoping to score some acid or mushrooms before proceeding on to Varanasi to realign his chakras. He was my age.

We had much in common. After all, he was the Ghost of Christmas Past. He claimed a major city as his hometown, only because few people knew where to find his real home town on a map and it’s easier when you just say “Chicago.” His town, like mine, was a quiet place, generally free of crime, and he went to a small, respected high school. As he didn’t care much for sports, he was an odd kid out. He frequently felt harassed by peers, police, and the general public. At his first opportunity, owing no small favor to those years of  cumulative bitterness, he relocated to a young, hip city with a scene. He would go on to live abroad, and like me, finds it hard when he returns to the US, harder every time. Years ago he was married, but that’s over now.

I had been on the beach all day and night, and planned to pay and leave and sleep just moments before the Ghost of Christmas Past arrived. I was caught somewhat off guard. He was the rare kind of person I’d have considered a close friend in younger years. The commonalities were uncanny. We continued to speak of life and travel and how funny it was that our paths crossed on this night. So many memories came back to me, as we shared.

I learned that as a party organizer, he had innovated methods for smuggling things in and out of countries. Used to. He’s retired now.

I realized then that he wasn’t the Ghost of Christmas Past. He was the Ghost of Christmas Hypothetical Situation.

We never got around to the the exact moment he became a smuggler, or what incentivized him to do so. One might assume that even today, he’s not really sure. But I realized how quickly things could have gone weird for me at different points in my life. I’m eager to please, often to a fault. I love to entertain, often to a fault. I take risks that some consider reckless, but I don’t see it that way. I like to travel.

In what hypothetical situation might I have wound up in his shoes, like the cocaine he once carried through airports under his insoles? What a rush that must have been, to clear security and customs and collect a VIP badge and triumphantly present the illicit payload to DJs and their crews as they arrived from Budapest and Tel Aviv and Moscow and Rio and Mumbai. The elation as the main stage act reaches her crescendo and the beat drops and 10,000 partygoers throw their hands and fingers and fists in the air and the epiphany of “I caused this. I pulled this off tonight. This is all me.”

And the undying paranoia and the management of corrupt cops and local authorities and the long creeping fingers of drug dependency slowly taking hold.

Wow. This was getting heavy. 

“Hey wait a second,” I said. “Aren’t there supposed to be two more ghosts?”

“What do you mean, bro?” he asked, puzzled.

“Well like… you’re the… ghost of uh… the ghost of…”

“Man, you’re fucking high right now.”

“What? But I haven’t…” I looked down at my bottle. I was drinking Sprite.

“Rule number one if you plan to party. Always watch your drink. Have a great night man!”

With that, the Ghost of Christmas Whatever rose from his beach chair and floated away.

Suddenly, the music started to sound good. Really, really good.

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