My ongoing love affair with hotels

I have long adored hotels. I love the airiness of a grand lobby, the employees who greet you at every turn, the smartly ironed clean sheets, and even the pool, though I rarely use it. I take my time in the lobby, browsing the local paper, sipping on coffee, in no particular rush to explore whatever city I’ve managed to land in.

A stay in a nice hotel is a reprieve from the angst of daily life. It provides restaurants and bars to take care of hunger and thirst, a gym for physical activity, and maid service so I never have to think about making the bed. 

If there is an afterlife, I’m convinced it looks like a Hilton — a really nice Hilton resort for the good people, a Doubletree for the average folk, and a Hampton Inn for the sinners, because I don’t believe in Hell but I do believe in Hampton Inns. 

I have criteria that determines the overall quality of a hotel stay.

1. Cable. Specifically, Asian cable. Asian cable is the bomb. For one, I get Asian MTV. It’s like American MTV, but from the 1980’s, when it was full of these things called “music videos.” Ever wonder what happened to all those video music directors? They started working for Asian MTV. Music videos still exist, and they are awesome. They also run this show called OK Danceoke. YouTube it. I just stole three hours of your life. You’re welcome. Also, Asian cable has about 100 movie channels. Most of those channels run movies from the last three decades I’ve been meaning to watch forever, but life got in the way, and also, I don’t have Asian cable at home. While you’re busy Netflix binging on the latest season of Broken Mirror, I’m in this hotel, watching “Freddy vs. Jason” and “Another 24 Hours.” No commercials, either. Not sure how their business model works, but it works for me. 

2. Million billion thousand hundred thread count cotton bed linens. I’m not much of an IKEA man, but I know good bed sheets when I’m in them. Some folks are really into the hotel mattresses, but I live in the developing world where mattresses are basically just chewed up newspaper stuffed into a burlap sack, so I’m cool with whatever, far as mattresses go. But bed sheets? I want bed sheets that swaddle me like an infant. I’m kinky like that. 

3. Things work. This should not be a tall order, but I’m often surprised. At the time of writing, I’m in a hotel that’s rated four stars, but there’s a small lake pooling beneath the air-con vent and the internet disconnects if I turn on the coffeemaker. I don’t know what the light switches do, but they don’t seem to have any relevance to the lighting in this room. Maybe they work for the lights in the room downstairs. The remote batteries are nearly dead, so the TV powers on, but it won’t power off, and I can’t find the archaic power button on the box itself, so I guess it’s Asian MTV all night long for me. 

4. Things that should be free are free. Water, mainly. Come on guys. Water. In America, outside of Flint, Michigan, tap water is fine. Europe too, I guess. But the rest of the world, people need to stay hydrated, and you’re a terrible company if you charge minibar prices for a bottle of semi-filtered dookie water that costs 30 cents at the neighboring 7-11. 

5. Things that put me at ease about my loud Western footprint. I like hotels that don’t automatically refresh your towels every day. Even better I like hotels that refill things rather than burn through endless tiny plastic containers. Bonus points if the hotel contributes to charities, uses fair trade products, or sources local sustainable food. 

6. Rooftop bar. Don’t need to say much more about this. Bonus for a rooftop pool.

7. Room service that’s worth the 50-100% markup. When visiting a new place, the best food is found outside the hotel… usually. However, when I’ve just come off an insane 14-hour trans-Pacific flight, starved and half-drunk, and none of the signs in town are in English, or if I’ve just landed at the airport hotel by Dallas-Fort Worth and it’s 10pm and the only nearby eatery is a Denny’s, I’m opting for the hotel food. Denny’s wants $8 of my money for that cheeseburger basket. The hotel wants $15. It had better be a damn good hamburger. 

8. Staff that treats me like George Clooney. I’m thinking of George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham from “Up in the Air,” but any incarnation of George Clooney, including George Clooney himself, I’m cool with that. Now that George Clooney stuff isn’t going to happen unless you’re either a regular Joe Businessface who checks into the same Kansas City Radisson every Tuesday to make sure his subterranean Bitcoin servers are still running, or you’re someone with a shiny card that bestows upon its holder added value as a customer… like George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham.

All about the shiny cards

I have a shiny card that skips me past the Chinese tour group at the check-in desk. Sometimes the shiny card can summon a bellhop to seize away my bags and escort me onto a special elevator that goes up to a special floor where  people say “Hello Mr. Campeau,” and ask, “How was your flight?” Their name tags say words like “Tar” and “Pretzel” but I don’t ask questions because this is Asia. 

Pretzel invites me to sink into a velour-upholstered sofa or a studded leather armchair while she takes care of my paperwork and sends my bags up to a room that looks fancier than what I should be able to afford. I enjoy free coffee and scones and read the paper. I’m informed that cocktail hour starts in an thirty minutes, so I can head up to my room now and freshen up, or take my time with the paper while they ice up the booze. 

I go up to the room. I’ve been upgraded. It’s a corner room, far from the Chinese tour group. It’s on a high floor overlooking the high floors in other buildings. The bathtub is fit for two William Tafts. There’s a box of chocolates on the bed. All because of the shiny card. 

Back down in the lounge, a guitarist strums Gilberto Gil while the smart casual crowd gets business drunk on complimentary highballs. This goes on for two hours. Hors d’oeuvres are available, so that’s dinner sorted. Seven PM, time for some Asian cable and free internet. Alternatively, I can throw my feet onto the chaise lounge and watch the city skyline. 

Come morning, any fogginess from cocktail hour is absorbed by a gratis continental breakfast that actually spans the continents. Every country has a sausage, I’ve learned, and they all go well with eggs and toast. While I’m at it, how about that dim sum corner? Or the miso bar? Or the fatty grilled pork with noodle soup? 

All this is Perfect World Scenario. Shiny Card Scenario. This is the standard by which I now judge hotels. I’m not sure if that makes me a pretentious prick — I’m pretty sure it does — but whatever man. I donate to charity every month and have a rescue dog and I think that goes a little further than thoughts and prayers, so I’m going to enjoy my shiny card benefits. 

Let’s talk about that card some more. Yes, it has an annual fee, and it’s not a small fee, but it’s easily counterbalanced by the cool stuff I don’t have to pay for. Like the George Clooney treatment for one. All this this “Mr. Campeau” business, the executive lounge access, the room upgrade, this all comes with the shiny card.

I also get into airport lounges, where I can sit on a couch and drink complimentary wine and eat noodles and watch the Blazers play basketball and think about getting a free massage while other flyers are sitting in plastic seats that they can’t take a nap on, watching the same Samsung ad run over and over on a loud, angry, 70-inch plasma screen, surrounded by nose-picking toddlers and sweaty bald people. 

In the US, I get to stroll past the morose immigration officials who struggle with anger management, blip my passport, and clear the gate without untying my shoes. 

Upon landing, a Hertz guy walks me to the spaces right next to the office, not the spaces across the parking lot. “Mr. Campeau,” he says (I like that part), “That Ford Festiva you ordered is not available. We’d normally substitute a 1990’s Geo Metro, but you get a Jeep Cherokee. Enjoy.” I never much cared for SUV’s. Then I drove one. I still don’t like them… but I like to drive them. 

I do pay for the base rate on hotels, flights, and rentals, but even that is subsidized by points earned just by using the shiny card. I never thought I’d be one of those people who uses a shiny card, but I’m glad to be one now. 

For more information on shiny cards, I recommend you visit The Points Guy. It is an obsessively comprehensive website that analyzes and evaluates the cards out there. Never a better time than the present to get yourself set up for the George Clooney lifestyle, if only while traveling.


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.”



Social media checkout, Day 1

I’m already doing that thing I do when I write. Think about what this will look like in a year, three years, ten… and so on. Will this entry sound foolish and naive, like my earliest overseas writings? Will I be surprised at the wit and insightfulness and honesty, like when I came across all those folded up letters from high school? Will it seem trite, or timeless?

It is probably fitting that this experiment begins at 3am, on an insomniac morning of the risen Christ. Maybe that’s all his deal was. He wasn’t dead, just tired. But he couldn’t sleep, so he went for a little wander.

But I digress.

It’s 3 am on Easter Sunday morning and a few hours ago I deleted my Facebook account.

I made the decision based on a few factors. For one, there’s been the news: the data harvests, the bots, the manipulation of elections. Furthermore, there’s the wasted time. Wake up in the morning, time for the Feed. Breaks and lunch, check the Feed. Afternoon Feed and evening Feed and just before bed Feed.

Sitting in a cafe waiting for coffee? Feed.

Out with the lads and they start talking about soccer? Feed.

In a taxi by myself? Feed.

In a taxi with companions? Feed.

Thought of something actually important to broadcast, like an announcement for the pub quiz I host? I might start with the intention of writing that announcement, but then comes the Feed and I forget.

By my math, I would sometimes spend hours per day on the Feed. Not just Facebook, but sometimes Twitter, occasionally Instagram. As with any habit, I rationalized.

This is the 21st century. This is how modern humans spend their time.

What if I miss a world changing event? I don’t want to be last to find out.

How will people know I’m still alive?

How will I know about the latest meme everyone at work talks about?

How else can I get people from high school to marvel at my perfect, exotic overseas lifestyle?

Perhaps the most terrifying of all: what do I do if I get bored?

The answer, I propose, is writing. Not just one- to two-sentence blurbs about something funny I saw, or a dish I ate. Actual, meaningful writing where I bare my soul. Or not. Whatever I feel like doing that day, really.

Those who know me well, know this is not the first time. After my wife left the country in 2016, I dropped off for awhile. A few months I think. Then it was, “I’ll just post the odd tweet, but I won’t engage in the Feed.” Then it was only Twitter content, but no Facebook. Then it was Facebook, but only for promoting events. Before long, total relapse.

The pattern repeated over the last few years. Cold turkey for some days or weeks, then back to the Feed, harder than ever. Just like relapse of other vices, every time I returned, it felt a little more shitty. Less content I cared about, more petty bickering from the political chasm. Fewer dopamine moments, more cortisol.

I found myself mentally muttering “shut up shut up shut up” as I scrolled through all the pettiness. The Right: ranting ad nauseum about guns that don’t kill people, about Europe’s no-go zones, about Her emails, and about the Jesus. The Left, about niche gender identifications, about white male privilege (and what I ought to do with mine), about the cultural appropriation in Hollywood and the Brooklyn food scene, and about Donald Fucking Trump.

Every post was a potential rabbit hole. Do I comment on my cousin’s post to say that guns are in fact the number one cause of gun violence? Or should it be this thread, posted by a friend of a friend from Portland, whom I’ve not seen in a decade? Xi (non-binary pronoun here) says that the white guy who founded Pok Pok has no right to cook that cuisine because he’s not Thai. Do I point out that all recipes in the history of humankind are a result of cultural convergence?

Do I pinpoint their logical fallacies? Their inaccurate data? Their confirmation bias? Their grammar mistakes? Or do I retreat to my mantra?

Shut up shut up shut up.

Articles and podcasts linking social media to depression, these tidbits keep dropping into my life. I’ve been thinking about my choices and my vices. I’ve been thinking about life changes. With my time in Katmandu, the years now, drawing to a close, I think about fresh starts. I feel like it’s going to stick this time. I’m done with the Feed.

A dream woke me, just before I began to write. A bluegrass troupe was visiting the school. I’d been asked to session with one of the pickers. I flaked on the time. Dude was pissed. I found him later and apologized. Oddly, he was married to the actress who played Counselor Troi on Start Trek. They had two kids. The five of us got to know each other and after some friendly banter he asked if maybe I’d like to do some strumming right there. I felt honored, but as I looked for my banjo I realized I’d not practiced playing it in two years. I started to feel embarrassed and ashamed. That’s when I woke up.

Reading about my dreams is about as interesting as reading about anyone else’s dream. At best, it’s boring, at worst, it’s awkward because it starts with something like, “I had this dream about you last night… Oh but it wasn’t sexual…”

Despite that conventional wisdom, I shared this dream to make a point. The dream shook me. I realized I’m not doing much to change the things about myself that I don’t like. I’m not pursuing passions like I once did. Maybe this is a cliché midlife crisis, but whatever it is, I don’t like it and social media’s not doing me a lick of good. Yes, WordPress is still social media, but at least there is no compelling Feed that demands my attention. And I used to write. A lot. So let’s see if I can take all this angst and doubt and struggle and turn it into something that’s actually worthwhile. Rather than hours of scrolling and trolling, let’s use those down times for punching some words into a screen, words that will be read not by 417 friends, family, and friends and family of those friends and family, but by 7 people, according to the WordPress data. Let’s see where this goes.

Haikus on Public Education

As I’m back home this month, the inevitable question comes up time and time again.

So when will you come back to teach in America? 

Listen, I’ve worked in America. Do you know what it’s like, working in schools here? I mean, yes, my body absorbs a daily onslaught on airborne contaminants and waterborne microbes, I’m surrounded in dust and poverty, and I have to shower with my eyes shut, but even still, this is way preferable to teaching in the US.

As one point of evidence, I present here a series of haikus I wrote while invigilating exams at my last public school. I have to sit on my ass for hours, so do the students. The test takes forever. The school spends months on test preparation (as opposed to you know, teaching and learning). Yet my state is still on bottom for testing, nationwide.

These haikus say it better than I can.

Barren walls cry out

To students and visitors

Learning stops this week

Once taught in wartime

Mortars, car bombs; but no test

Kept kids from learning

Rules say no food or drink

Because apparently no one

Here is a grown-up


The report that disappeared

Like all the others

Minutes tick on by

Make me wish for a razor

To slice out my eyes

In case you’re wondering why I left, here’s one final haiku:

“Keep up the good work.”

Said the evaluation. 

On page two: “You’re fired.” 

Nowadays, I enjoy a fulfilling classroom position with professional colleagues and managers. Things are better.

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

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.



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.”


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

“I’ll keep that in mind.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Notes from a Tiny Island

I was doing some digging and found some great old stuff from my year in Indonesia, 2008-09. Enjoy.

You Just Wish You Were Balinese

It’s not that I hate white people.  Some of my best friends are white people.  Regular readers know that from time to time, I indulge in white people things like parasailing and say white people things like “gosh.”  Overall, I don’t approve of many things white people choose to do here in Bali — say, women who sport lime green Crocs, or men who not-ironically wear sarongs), but I tolerate it, so long as they do it in the privacy of their hotel rooms and domiciles.

However, after this weekend in the sleepy mountain tourism center of Kintmani, my policy of lenience turned to one of narrow-minded fanaticism that will require weeks of workshops on political correctness to repair.  You see, this weekend Kintimani was the venue for the Aware-Dance Festival.  I should have smelled trouble all over this thing when the esoteric drivel on the website forecasted things like “spiritual awakening” and “connection with the Earth Mother” and some stupid crap about Mayan calendar prophecies.  Don’t get me started on Mayan calendar prophecies.  I should have detected the subtle notes of cynicism in Watu’s voice when she delicately asked, “You’re still wanting to go to that thing?”  There I go, not listening to my woman again.  But I was sold a convincing bag of goods by a guy I’ll call “DJ DJ.”

DJ DJ is one of those guys everyone in a scene knows.  In this case, I refer to the Bali ex-pat scene.  He’s at all the local events, typically promoting another local event.  In many ways, he’s a great guy to know.  For example, he introduced me to the Philly cheese steak sandwich at Devilicious, which is a far cry better than the hopeless imitations found at most American eateries outside of Philadelphia. But often, DJ DJ can be the “Wikipedia of Bali,” meaning that you can never be completely sure if his information is right on or way off. 

On this occasion, he told me all about the upcoming Aware-Dance festival.  His diatribe went something like this:

“Dude, this thing is gonna be off the hook.  I mean, we’ve got DJ’s from all over the globe coming to spin.  I’ve been helping the crew get this gig set up.  We’ve got campgrounds, we’ve got security, we’ve got plenty of beer or water depending on how you want to party… yeah man.  Tight.  Oh, and it’s on a volcano, so you know that will be sweet!  Have you ever seen the sunrise from Mt. Batur?  No?  Then dude, you should definitely go!”

A rave on an active volcano?  How could I refuse?

Watu secured a rented jeep and we set off immediately after school, camping gear packed in the back.  As a compromise, we reserved a hotel for the first night and would camp the second night.  We followed the route taken by Sayulita and me last December, this time without running out of gas.  As soon as we arrived at the Surya Hotel, a heavy weight of doubt began to sink in. Generally, if you pay more than 100K rupiah for a room (that’s about $10) you can expect to get, at minimum, a decent room with a nice view and perhaps even air-con and television.  Remember the “Happiness Hotel” in The Great Muppet Caper?  This place was worse, and the Muppets there were not nearly as friendly.  Rather, the people were downright horrible.  

We walked up to our door and noticed our neighbors sitting outside, about to enjoy a bottle of imported spirits, no doubt purchased from the duty-free shop at the airport hours before.  I gave a friendly hello, which is generally met with an equally amicable hello back.  Without a word, they muttered something in French and filed into their room.  Okay, so maybe they didn’t want to share.  Or maybe it’s just because they’re French.  I don’t know.

As soon as we plopped down on the bed, we heard the throb of repetitive trance dance music.  I thought it was the French.  After an hour of this, we came to learn it was the Italians… three doors down! The walls in this place were paper thin and the ceiling sagged as though it would collapse with the next season’s rains.  Not only was there no hot water (as they’d promised in the reservation), there was no running water.  The room had all the ambiance of a crime scene.  We caught a quick nap, but didn’t linger much longer.  Time to get out of this dingy place and hit the volcano.

If your clothing sports a swastika, and you are Balinese, it probably means you are Hindu.  If foreigners take offense, it is because they do not understand the history of this symbol in Eastern culture.  If you are white and your shirt sports a swastika, you may think it makes you Hindu, but you look like a neo-Nazi.  I don’t care if you know the true deep meaning of this symbol in Eastern culture.  You know very well that in Western culture it represents Nazi Germany so if you are wearing it on your hoodie it doesn’t make you cultured.  It makes you an asshole.

This is just one of several casual observations made at the festival.

I made several more and recorded them in a letter to the organizers, reproduced here.

A few words of advice for future events:

1. Bali is not Amsterdam.  Bali is not Stockholm.  Bali is not Chicago.  Therefore, unless your event is held in a place with a rail station or other mass transit stop (of which Bali has none), assume that guests will DRIVE. Knowing this, provide advice on how to navigate up the last 2km of off-road action in their rented Yaris (or other vehicle lacking mud tires and 4-WD capabilities) without losing an oil pan. Successful festivals often provide a shuttle of some kind, which makes more sense than an army of local guys on motorbikes offering to bump people up a rutty stretch strapped with camping gear. 

2. Ensure that spaces have been cleared for parking said vehicle. Know that large volcanic boulders and walls of lemongrass thistle can make parking prohibitive, even with modified suspensions and Bigfoot wheels. Especially in the dark. 

3. Ask that the volunteers manning the welcome station are WELCOMING. Smiles help.

4. Attention all staff, volunteers, and guests: When somebody says hello to you, they are trying to be friendly. You can say hello back. It is something that humans do.

5. Back to those festival officials: If a patron is going home early because they are sober and bored and tired of watching that French couple scream at each other because they’re having a hard time handling the local mushroom tea, and they ask for your help when their non-4-WD vehicle is spinning tires in the volcanic sand, a good response is empathy or aid. Not walking away, saying “good luck with that.”

6. More on point #5… we did get our car unstuck, but no thanks to you. A team of local Balinese guys eagerly volunteered to help us out. Because that is what you do when a fellow human being needs help.

7. Mandalas for your promotional materials?  SO 2003. 

8. Just because you browsed a website about numerology or watched both Stargate movies, that does not make you an honorary Mayan.  Unless you hold a Masters or Doctorate in Central American Studies, you probably don’t know squat about the sacred calendar.  So stop trying to make it into a theme party.

9. You named the festival Aware-Dance.  First off, sappy name.  If your intention is hipster irony, you failed.  If your intention is to “raise spiritual awareness” or some other form of feel-good nonsense, please read on to my next point. 

10. Maybe you believe that heightened awareness comes through meditation, yoga, hallucinogenics, or some kind of crystal fairy magic.  I’m no authority on the subject, as I have enough trouble staying aware of the empirical world all around us.  That is, observable phenomenon such as suicidal dogs running across my path on the roads or bugs that sneak into my coffee.  You should try it.  If you spent less time fretting about your sixth sense and focused on the other five, you might realize that your festival is poorly planned and no amount of esotericism will fix that until you address the realities listed here.

I sent DJ DJ a text at some point that night.  “Where are you?  This event blows.  What the hell?”  His response, “Yeah I bet it sucks. Man, glad I’m not there.”  Last time I use Wikipedia as a reference. 

We returned to Earth from the ill-fated 20 hours in the clouds pretty much unscathed but desirous of fun found closer to home.  Lucky for us, the Mepantigan performance was on for this fully moon lit night. For the uninitiated, Mepantigan is not a Transformer.  However, it would probably be a fair match against any robot in disguise, be they Autobot or Decepticon.  It is a martial arts style combining several forms from throughout the world.  Mepantigan founder Pak Putu Witson (his family name means “Victory”), an active member of the Green School family, explains it this way:

“When I was young, I decided I was getting tired of getting beat up, so I got good at fighting instead.  I really liked it.”

Pak Putu did not stop at the art of fighting, however.  Like any one of us who’s ever attended a martial arts performance in a dojo or mall or what-have-you, he realized one component was missing – the art of performance.

Sadly, Karate Kid is probably the most exciting tournament any of us will ever see.  For the spectators, watching a tournament is exciting for all of what?  Ten minutes?  How many parents walk out of the stadium after they see Little Johnny earn his blue belt?  Many, because the real thing is not like Karate Kid.

Considering this, Pak Putu created a show for every kind of spectator.

Every full moon, fans gather at the Mepantigan stadium, which encircles an enormous mud pit.  Incorporating martial arts demonstrations with satirical drama, lots of fire, and other surprises, no two shows are ever the same.  The whole production rolls out like a Steven Chow film.  The skits tend to address typically sober Asian perceptions of spirituality, virtue, and philosophy with a high degree of snarkiness (a welcome relief from all those Europeans on Mt. Batur who seemed to believe they were saving the world through their mantric chanting and Sasha remixes).  Dialogue is usually Indonesian, but the role plays are easy enough to follow, even without subtitles.  Bear in mind, all this takes place in a giant pool of thick mud.  Don’t wear your cotton whites if you sit in the front row. 

This particular production was the biggest yet.  Hundreds of spectators showed, Green School’s newly opened warung, normally a canteen during school hours, provided bar services.  After an hour of dancing, dueling, and drama in the mud, the entourage led the audience across the campus to the landmark bamboo river bridge.  Before us was laid out a spectacular sight:  torches had been lit all along the holy Ayung River.  Candles placed in small banana leaf boats floated downstream.  Meanwhile, a crew of young Mepantigan fighters, dressed as demons, fought along the edges of the surrounding river banks. Other fighters blew fire at each other.  In all, this was a far more spectacular show of talent than that lousy Kintimani event. 


What’s in Terry?  Dysentery.

For weeks, something uncomfortable was churning in my abdomen.  When it first hit, I had to take a day off and ride up to the local clinic. The practitioner (not a doctor, methinks) tapped my belly in a few places, determined it to be an imbalance of some kind, and gave me a bottle of probiotics.  The symptoms disappeared in 24 hours.

A few days later, the symptoms returned – mild at first, but eventually building to a frenzy of raucous gastric activity in places where such activities are discouraged.  By the time I schlepped back to the clinic, everything inside me felt incredibly wrong and queued to exit through whatever orifice would allow them passage.  There, I was greeted by the same receptionist and handled by the same practitioner. They tried to prescribe me the same bottle of meds.  I told them I’d already finished the first bottle and it was not fixing the problem. They insisted I had not been prescribed any such thing.  I demanded to see my dossier.  They read the file and realized I was right.  They suggested I just “wait it out.”  I said I would sooner carve out my own viscera with a dull junkie spoon in Hell than wait out this horrible organism living in my abdomen for free rent and no deposit. 

My message may have been lost in the translation.

Thus, my ambitions for a weekend of surf and cold beers mutated into a weekend of medical crisis.  I went to SOS, which is known island-wide as the only reputable clinic, one which hires actual doctors.  There, a doctor requested the sort of sample which is acquired only through awkward positioning of the body.  Sometime later, he sternly grimaced at the lab report with the sort of furrowed brow only licensed to medical professionals.  Then, with a somber tone and Jakartan accent, he reported “amoebic dysentery.”

Oh dear God.  Isn’t that what wiped out the American Indians?

Yes it is, but fortunately Western medicine has replaced those free blankets on the reservation with a wonderful green pill called Flagyll.  By the next day, I was feeling 80% better.  So it made sense to accompany Watu to a soiree hosted by a potential future employer. The party was lovely, and set in an affluent Ulu Watu neighborhood in which the proprietors of Quicksilver and Surfer Girl (to name a few) own their homes.  The host’s residence was modeled in the style of Fantasy Island, with a tennis court by the gate.  I was engaged in conversation with a group of Peruvians about the benefits of retiring in a shack on the beach far from civilization when I looked over at my date.  Despite her Javanese complexion, she was greener than Al Gore at a global sustainability conference.  Rather than wait for her to expel her gastric demons into the courtyard fountain, we made the long, dark drive back to our hotel in the comparably bustling city of Kuta… barely.  Thankfully, hotels in Kuta, unlike certain other places, are without exception clean, cheap, and include running water. 

A good thing, because she was two seconds away from losing it all over the side of the car.  Lovers share many things.  Amoebic dysentery should not be one of them.

Presently, we’re both back in good health (so long as you don’t include the thick mold in the walls of my bungalow which I freebase all evening long).  But the whole episode got me to reflecting on the benefits of living in the modern Babylon of an urban metropolis, as opposed to a Eurotrash raver mountaintop utopia or that dream shack on the beach, miles from anywhere.

The Man Walks Alone

After two weekends of questionable fun factor, we were long overdue for a good weekend.  However, we decided this time to do it on our own terms.  My brother-in-arms, Panic, is due to be married in a matter of weeks.  With his fiancée due to arrive so they may begin their ceremony preparations, an early bachelor party seemed appropriate. 

Chief Hobbo made all the arrangements.  We would do it Bali style,with lots of good eats, cold drinks, and surf, surf, surf.  As per bachelor party tradition, it was guys only.  Watu elected to book a nice five-star for her and a girlfriend to occupy, so as to do “girl things.” 

The party was everything we hoped for.  Nearly every male from the Green School family showed – Quiet Ivan, Pak Putu, Widi Wifi, and a few other notables.  We threw down accordingly.  By night’s end, I was sitting in my favorite island bar, The Streets of Kuta.  From this curbside, one can witness the depravity and fearlessness of swarms of highly intoxicated Australian tourists.  Such glamour!

By the next morning, Panic and the Chief were dead to the world, having done a proper job of bidding farewell to Panic’s career as a freewheeling male.  Quiet Ivan missed his lady and his yurt back at the school and prowled for a ride home.  The Indonesians, in typical Indonesian fashion, had vanished without a trace at some point in the night.  Absent my fully inoperable cohort, I enjoyed a leisurely brunch of poached eggs and hollandaise over potato latke and very nearly completed the Saturday crossword.  The lot of us had made plans to surf Canggu; now it seemed I would be the only one going.

The idea appealed to me.  As all of us seasoned romantics know, when you couple with someone, you trade in a degree of personal liberty for the joys of sharing your life’s passions with a significant other. You can’t just go bowling with the lads anymore, not until coordinating your plans with your loved one.  And your lads will ridicule you for this mercilessly, despite their similar circumstances (or the bitter alternative – spending the majority of nights alone with a lukewarm beer, watching the last season of Lost on DVD).  This weekend was mine, a free bird with a wailing guitar crescendo.  First stop Canggu, last stop DESTINY.

I’ll admit, managing to get lost and drive in a complete circle during the first hour of my adventure made me miss Watu as a travel partner. But on the same note, I was able to fail in private.  I felt like a man, and damn if I wasn’t going to get myself as lost as manhood entitles a man to get.

My lack of direction found me in some unexpected places, which made all the turnarounds well worth the time and petrol.  In one case, I had traveled a lonely, thin, badly pockmarked road for a couple miles, all the while considering the sensibility of my route.  The only thing urging me forward was the scant trace of salt in the air.

“I must be getting closer!” conjectured my nostrils, and if Neighbor Wilson from Home Improvement taught me anything, it is that the male proboscis contains a small deposit of magnetically charged iron which acts as a (sometimes deceptive) compass.

Very suddenly, the horizon opened to the familiar vibrant blue of the Indian Ocean and the road came to an abrupt end, in a state of slow collapse before the sand which was slowly reclaiming its rightful territory.  The beach was completely empty as far as the eye could see, save for a lonely vendor selling cold drinks and renting surfboards.  He told me it was not Canggu Beach (I was off by several miles), but who cares?  The waves looked ideal, so I took a dip to test the waters.  A rip tide immediately pulled me nearly half a kilometer down the beach.  Remembering my desperate fight for life at the Double Six beach last month, I decided not to test the frivolous nature of the surf and declined the board rental.  The water was pleasantly warm as I enjoyed some time in the relative safety of the inland stretch.

Plenty of light left in the day, I remounted my trusty steed and set out once more to find the fabled Canggu.  Checking a few times for directions, my efforts paid off.  Canggu was populated, but only sparsely.  Most of the crowd consisted of surfers.  I watched their motions from the sea wall for awhile before renting a board, monitoring for drowning souls.  It seemed pretty safe, and a lot of fun.

Once in the water, the waves did all the work for me.  I barely needed to paddle at all before the surge took control of my Cadillac-sized McIntosh board and sent me wailing along.  The only detriment of Canggu Beach is the solid slab of rock which dominates the inner shore.  Come in the wrong way and you’re fish meal.  The mix of bliss and fear wore me out quicker than a typical surf session so I called it an early day.

I had noticed signs for Tanah Lot on the way up to Canggu.  I had meant to hit this spot for a long time, as it is considered the holiest of the Hindu temples on Bali, but the opportunity never presented itself until now.  So with my internal GPS navigating me like a drunken sailor, I completed my adventure of man-dom.

The “Lot” in Tanah Lot must refer to the parking, because at no other time in my life, no amphitheater concert, no theme park, no Baptist tent revival, have I experienced such a chaotic mishmash of super-sized tour buses, crowded rented SUV’s, and traffic cops dancing like they were at an Irish funeral.  Thank Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles, for the motorbike which allowed me to bypass much of that crowded silliness.

Once in, I found the temple to be center ring for a literal parade of local talent.  Every village from around the island had sent its best dancers, percussionists, and performers of the barong, a sort of ballet in which the actors fall into a deep trance and replay scenes from the Ramayana, a holy book of the Hindu faith.  While in this trance, the participants attack the villains from the story.  The villains are dressed in ornate, larger-than-life costumes.  No matter what your take on the supernatural may be, to watch the barong performed by men with their eyes full of spiritual ecstasy and fear is to witness something not of this world.  But don’t worry. I’m not joining any Mayan cults in this lifetime.

The temple itself is not only the holiest on Bali, it is also the most expansive. Just to walk the grounds takes a good hour, not including the time needed for studying the marvelous Balinese architecture, smiling under the hanging floral gardens, photographing the sun as it sets over the long volcanic beach, and receiving the holy water blessing from the temple priests, which is why you see rice stuck to my forehead in the photos.  Add to this the time needed to peruse the souvenir stands with their wide variety of oleh-oleh (I got some sweet prezzies for my cuzzies) and the food vendors with their meats all goreng and bakar (if it’s on a stick, it’s fair game). At the end of the evening, a full belly and tired legs. 

My man-venture was man-errific. If I gave it a grade, it would be straight man-A’s (get it?) and if it were a woman, I’d name it Man-dy.  

Watu reported an equally well-spent woman weekend, as she and our tall friend Ellen took advantage of all their five-star amenities from the meticulously landscaped and primmed beach to the shameless patronage of room service.  They were instant celebrities, two Asian women, one Indonesian and one Chinese, without a single wealthy bule boyfriend in sight.  Once we were both back at my bamboo bungalow, we did what any hot couple does after being separated for more than a day, away from their love nest.  We played computer games all night long.

Hey, we can’t be rock stars all the time. 

Lounge Life

About time I chimed in on the Lounge Life. Airport Lounge Life, that is.

The purpose of this blog is not to advise you on how to gain access. The Blogosphere has already done a fine job of that. Check out this Lifehacker article, for one.

My purpose here is to convince you that if you travel by air more than say, three times a year, you seriously need to look into Lounge Life.

You already know what Airport Peasant Life looks like. Mobs of mouth breathers and their offspring, $10 burnt toast and $15 beer, wifi connections that might be trying to hack your mainframe, top-decibel public announcements reminding everyone to hold tenaciously onto their stupid bags with upmost vigilance, and… the furniture.

Let us not forget the furniture. Sadism must be a desired quality of airport designers, because those chairs are not build for sitting. Certainly not for sleeping, should you require a nap! And how often do you find a working power socket near the seats? Most of the time, you have to relinquish your uncomfortable seat in order to charge your phone or laptop, and now you’re sitting on the floor… which on the bright side is something of an upgrade.

For years, I wondered what lay beyond that chrome desk with the softly smiling clerk. Whatever it may be, thought I, certainly not worth the $40 entry!

Then one year, I caught a break. I worked for an Emirati school (read: money, money, money), and they had a good deal going with the local bank where members could get a Diners Club card with no annual fee. I had no idea at the time, but Diners Club carries serious weight in airports. Every airport I’ve visited, even minor hubs, have at least one lounge with access for Diners Club holders. My first time trying it, I was nervous. Surely, they’d be on to me. They’d immediately see that I wasn’t some corporate so-and-so, or they’d somehow notice I’ve never used the card for anything ever, and my account with that bank has been closed since 2013. But no! I got in then, and every single time since.

It’s like the first time you tried dope in high school (or you know, whenever). It’s an epiphany. You feel the world up to now has lied to you, cheated you, and no way will you ever return to your old life again. Just beyond the desk, the airport din gives way to soft jazz. The stark industrial whites give way to muted beige and wood panel. There’s a panoramic view of the tarmac, reminiscent of the pre-9/11 days of waving goodbye to Grandma as she flew home after Christmas. And that’s just the beginning.


Nobody likes airport food. With the exception of chicken rice in Kuala Lumpur’s Terminal 2, and the laksa in Singapore’s Changi International, I’ve not found airport food that’s worth the 50%+ markup (although I’ll tip a cap to the Chicago dog at O’Hare). So all things otherwise considered equal in the world of airport cuisine, and assuming we can all agree even the worst airport food is better than the best food in economy class, let’s talk about Lounge Life food.

It’s not the Ritz, but it ain’t half bad either. Plaza Premium lounges for example, which seem to be everywhere in Asia,  offer pretty much the same deal in every location: noodles, rice, a curry, some local soup, and a modest salad bar, always with super fresh greens. When was the last time you saw a salad in an airport not wrapped in seven layers of plastic? God knows you need those vitamins and nutrients for the flight ahead. Especially considering all the beer you’re about to drink.


Laksa, proof that all is well in the Universe!

Oh did I not mention that before, the free beer? Yeah, so long as it’s an international lounge, you’ll have access to bottomless beer. Suddenly, that $40 entrance fee (only $20 in many Asian airports) doesn’t seem so bad. In fact, it sort of feels like… a challenge. And don’t worry about dehydration. Lounges offer a full array of soft drinks, fruit juices, and if you’re lucky, infused water.


One of many.

But back to the food. Somehow, lounges also manage to serve up some really lovely petits fours for dessert. I’ve not much of a sweet tooth, but I’ll take a free bite-sized tiramisu, caramel ganache, or panna cotta any old day of the week.

Let’s say you have a five hour layover in Heathrow, en route to JFK. Here’s the broke and brilliant way to go full Monty Python whilst in London. Stop one: Duty Free. The shops in LHR do tastings all day long. A little margarita here, a bit of manhattan there. Some free smart water to keep your brain from getting irey. Now onward to World of Whiskies, the loveliest corner of the airport. Within reason, you can try a wee dram of anything on the shelf, 10 year, 12 year, 18 year, you name it. Honestly, I’m not sure what’s meant by “within reason” because in the past I’ve gone far beyond what I thought to be reasonable requests, and those lovely people kept pouring, talking about peat and smoke and so on.

By now, you should have an appropriate clean liquor buzz going. Just enough to keep the rest of the airport experience light and friendly. Time to find the lounge. Show your card or cash, grab a cappuccino, and nestle into a cozy chair. Hell, take a nap. Or solve the cryptic in your complimentary issue of the Times. Or enjoy some free wifi.

You’ve done well. You’re now one of those people beyond the shiny chrome desk.

EDIT: One tip not yet featured in the aforementioned Lifehacker article… many airlines have their own boutique credit card. Aside from extra miles and instant discounts on airfare, some feature lounge access as well… but for an annual fee! I just got an American Airlines card with all those benefits, and my first year is free. I will enjoy the bounty of the card for 364 days (in my case, it means I get to choose from an array of lounges), then cancel. Still get to keep the miles, and still get to chill out, far from the swarms of irate flyers and their screaming babies.

Nepal and the Jam Paradox

I finally got into podcasts. Among my favorites: Hidden Brain, an NPR podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam. A few weeks ago, I heard one that really stuck with me.

Vedantam interviewed comedian, actor, and South Carolina homeboy Aziz Ansari, discussing his new book, Modern Love, which examines the ways dating has changed in the 21st century, what with the smartphones and the Tinder and the sexting. Have a listen. It’s a fascinating 30 minutes.

Among other things,Vedantam and Ansari discuss choice (skip to the 10:45 mark to hear for yourself). Online dating apps present users with thousands upon thousands of potential encounters. Choice is good, right? According to Ansari, 1 in 3 of today’s marriages started online. But what of the many, many encounters that do not develop into lasting, meaningful relationships? That is to say, most of them?

Ansari cites the Jam Paradox, a study conducted by social psychologist Barry Schwartz (great TED Talk here). In this study, consumers were invited to purchase a jar of jam at the store. One store, very few jam choices. Another store, a typical supermarket, many, many jam choices.

Results: greater choice led to uncertainty (what if it’s the wrong jam?), which led to paralysis (screw this, I’ll get the jam tomorrow). Further, consumers who did make a purchase felt ultimately dissatisfied by the time they got home.

Why did I choose grape jam when I really wanted apricot? Why didn’t I get the organic? Did I spend too much? Is Smuckers an ethical company?

I made the wrong decision! 

Schwartz proposes that when we make a consumer decision, given a wide range of options from which to choose, and that choice leaves us feeling discontent, regret, even depression (Why did I paint this room with ivory daikon? I should’ve picked the non-glossy desert almond), it’s because we blame ourselves for the choice we made.

In situations where choice is limited (I can only afford this one particular brand, this is the only gas station for the next 50 miles, everyone wants Chinese and this is the only Chinese place in town), discontent, regret, and depression do not feature as prominently, because we can blame outside factors. We are not in control of making the decision, therefore we are faultless.

Schwartz sums it up nicely: “The secret to happiness is… low expectations.”

Which brings us to Nepal. No secret, Nepal is considered “developing world.” However, I would say that “developing” is an indistinct term. Nepal was wrecked by quakes in April and May, so in some sectors, you might optimistically say they’re “redeveloping.”

Following the natural disasters, Nepal slipped further and further into a political disaster, resulting in blockades on essential supplies ranging from dry goods to petrol to cooking and heating fuel. Winter was especially difficult. So in some ways, pessimistically speaking, Nepal is “non-developing,” or to the truly cynical, “unraveling.”

Then again, maybe Nepal transcends the concept of “developing” altogether. My friend Suraj recently posted this meme on social media:

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 12.14.47

It’s true. In America, we get militant about everything from Black Friday sales to the sale of assault rifles, from the War on Christmas to the War on Terror. Some things are worth taking to the streets, sometimes we do need to yell “STOP THE PRESSES!” But how much of our fighting is about survival and how much is about ensuring the convenience of choice? And how much choice is really that convenient?

Every morning, my mailbox is hit with the latest Epicurious feed. Back in the US, I’d read a recipe for say, soba and maitake mushrooms in soy broth. I’d think, “Holy shit. I need to make this! Today!” Off to the local Bi-Lo for the basics, then 5 Moons Asia Market for the complicated stuff, then off to Greer, one county over, to meet my mushroom guy. All in my hybrid fuel vehicle. Maybe a stop by Zaxby’s for a chicken wing fix, so as to not go hungry while shopping for food.

My world is different now. Wide swaths of empty space on supermarket shelves: not uncommon. My Epicurious feed hits, and I’m like, “Mushrooms? Not in season. Not making that. Miso paste? Takes an hour to get to the Japan store. Not happening. Beef tenderloin? Oh, please.”

In short, figuring out the week’s menu is a far simpler process. Do I miss having 17 mustards to choose from? Yes. I would kill just to find dijon out here! But there’s also something inherently satisfying in saying, “I made this, using only what’s available.”

I can dismiss half the recipes immediately, since my kitchen has no oven.

Many things are like that here. I used to suffer incessantly from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). IIHII (It Is How It Is) upstaged FOMO sometime in my first month here. When there’s only one place to go for a beer, one place to go for live music, one place to go for a decent meal — and often it’s all the same place — IIHII wins the night.

Surely, my return to the US this summer, with its CostCo and paved roads and abundance of fast food options, will feel like a Carnival cruise. But at the same time, I anticipate a heavier-than-normal dose of reverse culture shock. Constant awe at endless drinkable water that flows from the tap. Absence of burning garbage stench. Cars that stay in their lane.

And jam. Oh, how I shall linger in Aisle 3, staring at all that glorious jam.




Mystery of the Fugitive Corn Cart

Ever stumble upon an old email, and with it, a flood of memories? The Corn Cart Mystery is one such mail. I cannot believe this was nearly 10 years ago! Plenty has changed in that time, but ironically, I find myself once again teaching fourth grade in a country with corrupt politics, crummy police, and shit that falls apart. 

I’m trying to figure out this most peculiar mystery. It reads just like the title of one of the novels that is so popular amongst my fourth graders: 

The Mystery of the Fugitive Corn Cart

Every other night, when I go out for a gelato down the street, or tasty zata’a manouche with the works from Snack Faysal, I notice a corn cart in front of the police station. It’s not so odd that a vendor would have a wheeled cart just for the sale of corn, or that it would be parked in front of the police station most nights of the week.  What’s weird is this:

a.  There’s never a corn vendor at the stand. The stand stands alone.  

b.  It is a different corn stand every time.  

c.  If I walk by the police station after a certain late hour, usually 3 am or so, the corn stand has been smashed to bits. Cobs, kernels, bits of wood, and a large, slashed umbrella lay scattered across the street as taxis speed around its sad remains.  

 d.  By the next morning, all evidence of the corn stand’s last stand has disappeared. No trace left behind, not even the trampled sludge that one would expect to see underneath a desecrated corn stand.   

So here’s what I envision:  

The corn mafia is alive and well within the ranks of the Beiruti police. I picture some cop coming up to a poor schmuck selling corn on the Corniche (see what I did there?) and giving him the shakedown.  

“We run the corn racket in this town, pallie. Pay up, or you can kiss your sweet corn goodbye. We can be downright salty people to deal with, so don’t try to butter us up. I swear to god we will pop you.”  The vendor tries to reason with the officer, but he brushes off the pleas.

“Sorry, it’s strictly business. I work for Don Corn-leone.”

I then picture one of their high powered SUV’s barrelling down the Corniche, lights flashing, corn stand in tow, bouncing along behind it, all the way back to headquarters. Once there, they leave it on the curb for public shaming, then invite belligerent AUB college kids over to lay waste to the corn shack. The remains are “disappeared” by dawn.        

Sorry for all the silly puns, but I thought the politics of this country needed some comedy. Everything you just read is true, except for the parts I made up.  

There’s been a lot of talk about the elections. From the suits in government to the street sweepers outside Burger King, nobody at any level of the social ladder knows what to expect. For those of you in the US that don’t listen religiously to Al Jazeera, the Lebanese elections are upon us, but it’s a far cry from what we see in America. An elective board makes a decision on the behalf of the people to determine the next leader of the country. The whole process is greased to a nauseating degree by money, religion, and empty promises. Hmm…. actually, I guess it’s pretty much how we do it in the US after all.   

The notable exception is how this election has been delayed and delayed and delayed, leaving everyone pretty nervous. The delay comes because there is no Parliament assembled right now to finalize the process. They’re either boycotting themselves (you read that correctly), or hiding out, since certain anti-Syrian members tend to encounter some rather nasty accidents that involve exploding cars. The head-in-the-sand policy has been working for about two months now, but the deadline is approaching. After Nov. 24, I believe, if no leader is elected, there will be a military coup, as dictated by the national constitution. Not the sort of coup you see on CNN though, with the shooting and the mortar shells, but more like what we’ll see in the US around 2008. One party replaces another, and everybody goes to work the next morning as usual. The only difference is the new leader of Lebanon will wear military fatigues.  

If my language seems unconvincingly confident there, you’re right. This is the pitch I’ve been given by the admins of my school, as well as the locals who’ve lived here for years. They’ve had military coups before. I do believe that in the short term, we won’t see any significant developments. But in the long term, no telling.  And the locals do tend to have more pessimistic predictions for the long term. 

 So in the meantime we wait. 

I had my head tied around this stuff on the way home today. I was walking up the 379 steps from my school to the flats, mind clouded with thoughts of a guy announcing his presidency with victory shots fired into the sky, when I approached Bliss Street. Absently checking to my left for oncoming traffic and right for scooters driving against traffic, I stepped into the road and came within a hair’s breadth of a taxi driving 30 mph in reverse.  Must say, never in my life suspected I’d need to watch for reverse cabbie hazards, but now I will check every time. 

Just goes to show, just when I think I understand this place, I’m reminded that I really don’t know jack.  

I have adjusted pretty well though. I wake up around 5am with the call to prayer. I get some Arabic coffee on the boil, then take a nap in my shower for awhile. Then it’s off to school, where I’m still learning much about the craft every day. More on that sometime in the future. I have a student teacher now. He just sort of showed up, and now follows me around everywhere. Stay at school for 12 hours or so, then trudge home, where I nod off to some juvenile fiction.  

Right now, the marching band of IC is playing their field, as they’ve entered the regional championships for fütball.  They may suck as our academic rivals, but they have a hell of an athletic program.  Meanwhile, the drums are drowned out by the evening call to prayer. It’s like a surreal version of my childhood… hearing the drum majors practice from Greenwave Stadium, while the church organs from St. John’s shared the air.  

Well, that’s about it from my end. Thanksgiving parallels with Lebanese Independence Day this week, so we’re going to shoot some really fun fireworks off the roof… the kind that are probably illegal even in Mexico. If I don’t get another one of these emails off by week’s end, I wish you all a happy Turkey Day. I’ll be travelling to Syria for the holiday, so if you don’t hear from me in two weeks, call the State Department.  

It was painful to read the second half. I knew so little about the international education game back then, so little about how to be a sensible foreigner. I had no idea that my days in Lebanon were numbered. No idea that the people I met in Lebanon would remain as some of my dearest friends today. Or that I was falling in love with one woman and falling out with another. Or that my trip to Syria was the last time I’ll ever be able to see that country the way it used to be. 

And if you told me that a man named Barack Hussein Obama would soon be president, I’d have assumed we were still talking about Lebanon. 

That last paragraph is a classic “Hey y’all, watch this!” moment. How did I not know that launching military grade fireworks from the roof of our apartment building at the peak of a volatile political crisis was a foolish idea?