Jul 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 11 Comments

Coffee Shop Hermits

Brad and I are certainly two people who love our morning coffee. Brad says I get angry without it but I wouldn’t go that far. When we lived at home we ordered green beans from Sweet Marias in Oakland and roasted a pound of coffee every week. We like it fresh. Yet, when we got to Argentina whole roasted beans got really expensive ($25-$50 a pound) and so we did something unspeakable: we drank instant coffee every day for nearly a quarter of a year. And after a while it sort of became palatable. When we arrived in Thailand I couldn’t believe my eyes: around every corner was a coffee shop ranging from a full on espresso bar to a small table set up on the sidewalk with a charcoal stove, a pot of water and a sock-like sieve used for brewing coffee. Scattered among this latter set up was usually a variety of plastic containers filled with flavored powders and a towering pyramid of sweetened condensed milk – the base for most Thai style coffees.

When we pulled into Mae Hong Son and I saw that we had the opportunity to actually sleep in a coffee shop I was all over it. What made it even better was that this was one of those legit coffee shops with a shiny burr grinder, a wide espresso machine and classy white ceramic cups. The walls were decorated with Burmese puppet dolls, a library of books, comfy sofas and hand woven local garments for sale on a rack. At the back end of the building were four guest rooms, with our room situated literally ten feet from the barista. The indigenous Shan girls who worked the counter wore traditional embroidered tops, quite similar to a tighter and more fashionable version of a Mexican poncho. One of the girls held her baby at her waist and another’s child played games on the communal computer.

That night the monsoon season showed its crazy face, beginning with a cool breeze and then quickly transitioning into something more violent: blowing chairs and a seemingly endless flow of water from the sky. The sound of the rain was deafening under the café’s wide tin roof. The next morning I thanked the wonderful rain for dampening the day’s heat, making our little quest to the morning market quite a bit more enjoyable. We were about to embark on a rigorous search for something I had been desiring for quite some time. We passed the produce drivers who rested on their tailgates and followed the long line of wooden covered stalls down the road. We walked all the way through, eventually retracing our steps until we found a promising stand.

In order to avoid any confusion, I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket and read from it. “Sawatdee ka! Do you sell thoo ah oon?” Sadly, this only prompted a blank stare, the universal sign of complete confusion. No matter how many ways I pronounced the word, nothing was getting through.

We had been warned by our friend Pat in Bangkok that the Thai language was very difficult for foreigners to learn. The funny thing is I wasn’t trying to learn anything, I just wanted to communicate one very important word.

Pat had told us, “Thai is a tonal language. While English has three tones, the Thai language has five. You must be very careful how you pronounce words. Many words, if you say them wrong will mean something entirely different.” He went through the five different tones, only three of which I could differentiate. I couldn’t believe we were of the same species.

So really, who knew what I was saying to this lady. My stomach began to grumble, but while I stood there observing the scene, I realized this just had to be the place. So we pointed to a customer’s breakfast and gave her the piece sign.

“Two please!”

In front of the pots, plastic containers, and general mess ran a long counter and a wooden bench. Had we been Asian, we would have fit perfectly in this little nook, but for us it was hilariously small. After a great deal of maneuvering, Brad somehow shimmied his spider-like long legs in place. The petite locals giggled and then a few seats were cleared for us at the big boy’s table.

Once we were settled in, we watched the cook place a tangle of thick rice noodles into our bowls and then envelop them with a heaping scoop of a thick yellow sauce. It was a Burmese dish called “thua oon” or warm beans, and this mysterious yellow sauce was made from chickpea flour and water. Scissored atop the porridge were bite size pieces of fry bread and small spoonfuls of sugar, peanuts, chopped cilantro, hot pepper, and a dark syrupy sauce.

It looked crazy exotic. A young girl who sat nearby curiously watched us. I don’t know exactly what sparked this girl’s desire to help us (perhaps she wanted us to enjoy the meal properly) but she got up, went behind the counter and passed us plastic mugs with water, chili sauce for dipping and a bowl of fried chickpea flour cakes and tofu. I mimicked the girls every motion, twisting the noodles around my chopsticks like spaghetti on a fork. It was heaven.

The following afternoon we tried out another local joint. We had heard of Aunt Khai, a woman in her 80’s who was still making rice noodles by hand. She was the cutest little thing (camera shy, unfortunately) but quickly popped out of her house when we appeared. Under the overhang of her home were plastic tables and chairs, and in the center of each table was the ubiquitous caddy of standard Thai condiments: fish sauce, chili powder, chili slices in vinegar, and white sugar. A picture of the King hung from the bare wall and against it was a self service table for filling water cups. The King’s photo in Aunt Khai’s home was not unusual; his photo was literally present in almost every Thai person’s home and business. It seemed that nearly every person we asked loved the King.

“Why should we not? The King has done so much for the people” one Thai told me. While this may be true, it is interesting to mention that it is illegal for anyone to speak negatively of the King in Thailand. Yes. Illegal.

As for the meal: Aunt Khai made us a delicious bowl of clear broth noodle soup with pork. She worked behind three charcoal grills, each one big enough to hold a single pot. She took her basket sieve, filled it with her handmade rice noodles and then lowered it into a pot of water. Once they were done and in our bowls she added a broth and then garnished with thin slices of red dyed pork, bean sprouts, cabbage, green onions, cilantro and a spoonful of ground peanut. It was true grandmother style cooking.

This town was such a delight. It wasn’t just the unique food that made it this way, but the charming people and atmosphere. We let a few days slip away, watching the routine of the locals and observing the rhythms of the day. The main street was a strip of beautifully preserved wooden shop houses with the ground floors reserved for commercial purposes. The families who ran the stores lived on the first floor, and often times their personal possessions spilled out into the commercial space below.

In the early morning orange robed monks would walk in a line down the street, accepting food from the locals that was to be used to make their only meal of the day. I must admit I’ve been spoiled by the frequency of seeing monks on the streets. They’ve become a common site, yet nevertheless I’m always taken aback by their beauty. They glow in the distance. They walk with purpose and dignity, their shoulders back and head held high. They exude an inner peace that is viral, and strangely while I believe that everyone has bad days, I have yet to see a monk frown. By early morning in Mae Hong Son the monks have been out and so have the locals; off to the market to get the freshest produce and to stop for breakfast at one of the many stands. One such breakfast place was right next to our little coffee shop in an empty plaza. Every morning they would set out their rugs, tables and condiments for another proper Burmese breakfast of rice vermicelli noodles and kahn pomg, a Shan snack of battered and deep-fried vegetables.

By afternoon the local children dressed in their school uniforms would cruise down the main road on their 100cc motorcycles, stopping at the smoothie shop before continuing home. At the shop’s entrance they’d slip off their shoes and pile into a booth to laugh and sip on their fruit drinks spiked with chunks of Jell-O. As night approached the heat would let up and the families who had been hiding out inside all day would migrate to the front of their shops for dinner. Afterwards they would watch television or simply point their chairs out towards the street. We were their entertainment, and they were ours. Other people would set up impromptu parties; the men in front of the frame shop were the liveliest group. In the evenings they would pull out their tiny guitars and play beautiful melodies, always in unison while singing and smiling.

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Jul 2013

Asia, Blog


What Josh is Doing

Brigit and Bret lived in a modest house on Grand Canyon Avenue. A few bicycles accented the front porch, which overlooked the street and a front garden filled with mint, strawberries, lemongrass, and a peach tree. Brigit was the most fashionable of all of the scientists at work, always looking like she’d just stepped out of a scene in The Great Gatsby before ducking into the lab to analyze compounds in the mass spectrometer. Sometimes I’d swing by the house on my way to work to pick her up on our vintage Vespa wearing the leather shoes I bought in Italy. She wore a scarf to fend off the morning chill, and we’d zip away in a Euro-inspired carpool to work in the lumberjack mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Bret had a friendly smile, a firm handshake, and a knack for crafting lemon squares that could change your life; confections that made you question everything you ever knew about food, joy, religion, and the universe. Brigit and Bret comprised twenty two percent of our weekly dinner club. It was filled out by the Helders, the Franklins, and Josh.

Drifting through the mountains along the Burmese border in northern Thailand, Sheena and I were lost in a reverie. Sometimes when we drive it’s nice to let our minds wander, and when they wander they often go back home. We might pass someone riding a Vespa with their scarf whipping in the wind, and I wonder what Brigit and Bret must be doing at that particular instant. With our windows down, the mountain air wafted through the van just like it did back in Flagstaff. Mumford & Sons flowed from the stereo speakers, drowning out the low moan of our engine. A banjo riff brought me back two years in an instant to our beloved group of friends with whom we had shared our weekly dinners. It was Josh who had played the banjo.

Curtis, Mike and Josh were roommates. Curtis and Mike were brothers, hailing from Michigan. The first things you noticed about them were their maniacal smiles, and the fact that despite being two years apart, they look just like twins. Josh was from Maryland, had a compact frame and great posture, red hair. He played the banjo with reckless abandon and was in love with Tammy. We were all engineers at W. L. Gore & Associates, better known for their magical expanded polytetrafluoroethylene membrane called Gore-Tex. That’s how we came to know Curtis and Mike and Josh.

After a couple of days spent exploring the small border town of Mae Sot, Sheena and I pointed Nacho northward and began snaking through the mountains along Thailand’s border with Burma. For the first time since reaching Southeast Asia the air was fresh and cool. I held my arm out the window and let the breeze wash over it. As we rounded a bend we began to see indigenous people lining the roadside. Some carried baskets, while others pushed bicycles or walked with their children. In the meadow to the left of the road the jungle gave way to a thick tangle of makeshift wooden huts built on stilts with roofs made out of leaves. Food was being unloaded from a large truck. We peered through the trees and into the tangle of muddy paths between the homes, clothes drying on lines, women in vibrant sarongs tending to their children or cooking. A small boy rode his bicycle in circles in a clearing carrying his little brother on the back, and when he noticed I was watching he laughed and rode faster. This was a Burmese refugee camp.

When Burma gained independence in 1948, many of the hill tribes attempted to break away to form their own independent country. When the military took control of Burma they violently quelled these attempts, burning over 3,000 villages and attacking the minority tribespeople. Since then, over 700,000 indigenous minorities have fled the country, and many live in a series of nine refugee camps in northern Thailand. This was one of them. Many of the people living at this camp had been here for twenty years, and a new generation is being born in the camp, never having known a normal life.

In America, you don’t have to throw the stone very far to hit someone angrily ranting about some unthinkable atrocity being carried out beneath our very noses. The Republicans are killing health care! The Democrats want to take our guns! Marriage is between a man and a woman! The President is a Muslim! Breastfeeding in public is a crime against humanity! Driving through the refugee camp made us think about how embarrassingly frivolous most of our problems are.

The previous day while talking to a Burmese man, the topic of health care had come up. He had described how expensive procedures are relative to the income of the population, and how most low income Burmese don’t even understand the concept of health insurance. I found myself getting ready to say, “Oh yes, it’s similar in the United States…” but then I caught myself. Truthfully, I have no business complaining about health care to a Burmese refugee. In fact, very few of us have any business complaining about much of anything at all. Sometimes you just have to talk to someone who has fled their homeland due to legitimate fear of personal harm to put things into perspective.

In the late afternoon we turned off of the main road in search of a camping place. Our Garmin showed a winding appendage of a road taking off into the mountains and coming to a dead end, so we took it. The road pitched up at around a 25% grade, testing Nacho’s climbing legs. At the top of the mountain, the road turned downward and descended the far side through the jungle with equal steepness, whereupon we were deposited into a small indigenous village. We wove our way slowly past wooden huts built on stilts with roofs thatched in dry leaves, just like the refugee camp. Indigenous women walked along the road in tribal clothing, corncob pipes hanging from the corners of their mouths. We followed the road a few hundred meters to its end, where a meandering stream emerged from the wide, dark mouth of an enormous limestone cavern.

We crossed the river on foot and entered the cave. As daylight disappeared behind us we passed a group of local teens sitting in a circle in the sand next to the river in the dark. We explored for a half an hour, and reemerged from the cave into a torrential rainstorm. The view from the mouth of the cave and the rain against a jungle and river backdrop was unreal. Night settled on our camp as the bugs and frogs bellowed out a symphony from the natural amphitheater surrounding our van and heavy rain drops tapped out a rhythm on Nacho’s roof.

Sheena never had rhythm. We all intrinsically knew it, but had never spoken about it or assigned a label to it. It had been right there before our eyes the whole time, but it was Josh who had finally brought it to light. One evening after dinner at Curtis and Mike and Josh’s house, already having eaten dessert but not wanting to leave, our hosts broke out their instruments. Josh was already well versed in the banjo, while Mike and Curtis were learning to play the guitar and bass, respectively. They frequently played songs for us, and we took to calling them “The House Band”. Mostly because they all lived in a house, and they were a band.

On this occasion, The House Band wanted audience interaction, and as we settled onto the couches in the living room, Mike handed out the auxiliary instruments. Sheena and I were to play the egg shakers: basically little plastic eggs full of beads. Mike showed us an example of how to keep the background rhythm going with the shakers, and then picked up his guitar. The House Band began its rendition of Wagon Wheel, and Sheena and I began shaking our eggs.

“Whoa, whoa,” Josh said, stopping mid-verse. His voice had a gentle frankness. “What was that?” He was looking at Sheena.

“Umm…I’m shaking the egg,” Sheena said.

“Sheena, look. When we play the song, you go ‘chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak’, got it? Easy, just a simple up and down motion.”

“Okay, I’ll make the egg go ‘chick-a-chak‘,” Sheena said.

The House Band restarted its rendition of Wagon Wheel, and on our cue we began shaking. Sheena might as well have started the couch on fire.

“Okay, everybody stop. Wait, wait, wait – stop. Now Sheena, you’re supposed to be going ‘chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak’, but instead you’re going ‘chick-chick-chick-ch-ch-ch-ch-chak’, do you see?” He was speaking with the kind tone that a father might use to address his disappointment of a child.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any rhythm,” she said, and then surrendered her weapon of musical destruction.

Shortly before we left on our trip, The House Band dissolved. Curtis and Mike traded Flagstaff for Denver, moving there within a few months of one another. Brigit and Bret left a short time later for the chill and fog and high culture of San Francisco. Josh had decided to move back East to study infectious diseases and to marry Tammy. We gave him a stethoscope as a going away present (the one we bought after reading this guide) on his very last dinner club night. We didn’t want him to leave, even though we knew that we, ourselves, would be leaving in due time.

In the morning, Sheena and I were startled awake. The sun peeked through the window of Nacho’s pop top tent, and when my eyes focused I could see a herd of water buffalo right outside of our van rolling around in the mud puddles left by the previous night’s storm. Two or three buffaloes would roll around, legs in the air, radiating pure bovine joy as the muddy water coated their skin, and then they would move aside and make way for the next bathers. It occurred to me that it was a Thursday morning, and that most of my friends would be waking up to a very different agenda on this day. I rolled onto my back, inhaled the fragrant morning air, and thought about how lucky we were to be able to go to sleep near an indigenous village at the mouth of a cave, to wake up to bathing water buffaloes, to drive through refugee camps and freely drive out of them.

We packed up our camp, fired up the engine and made our way back toward the small village. Cool air filled the van, indigenous ladies smoked their pipes, a banjo riff floated from our stereo, and I thought to myself, I wonder what Josh is doing?

[grooveshark width=”580″ height=”50″ id=”38828935″ autoplay=”0″ style=”metal”]Little Lion Man by Mumford & Sons on Grooveshark

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Jul 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 18 Comments

Searching for a Piece of Burma

In the past I’ve mentioned my undying love for Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations. Just a few months ago he came out with a new show on CNN called Parts Unknown. He said that he accepted the offer because it would gain him access to places that American TV cameras rarely get to visit. Guess where the show debuted? Burma.

Bourdain said, “If we had come a year earlier, we would have been deported. Almost overnight, people there were free to say what they want. Press restrictions had been lifted. That was an extraordinary thing to witness.”

I thought about this particular episode as Brad and I skirted alongside the Thai and Burmese border. Besides Anthony’s show on Burma, the only other footage I had ever seen of the country was from a documentary called Burma VJ. This followed the disturbing story of the 2007 protests against the Burmese military regime. The smuggled footage clearly displayed the people’s frustration with their government’s censorship and control over them.

Today however, Burma is in the midst of reinventing itself. In just a short period of time things have changed quickly; censorship has stopped and the borders have opened. Despite the country’s claim to open borders, it is still not so easy to travel within the country. Currently the government has designated specific zones as “tourist appropriate”, leaving the remainder of the country absolutely off limits to the wandering eye of the foreigner. For us, given the restrictions to certain provinces, driving from East to West through the country to reach India would clearly be impossible.

So we couldn’t exactly get into Burma, but we could get pretty dang close. We stopped in the town of Mae Sot; the main point of entry for more than 180,000 Burmese refugees who have fled into Thailand to live and work in the region. These circumstances, as unpleasant as they may be, have created a mix of faces and culture unlike anything we had seen to date in Thailand.

Our first Burmese experience began with Bobo and Ma Yae. Bobo was a handsome Burmese with deep brown eyes, a wide jawbone and black tattoos which ran up his forearms and crept under his sleeves. At his side was Ma Yae, another native Burmese. She had shiny black hair that rested at her shoulders and was as cute as a button in her red collared shirt sprinkled with Mickey Mouse faces. In just a week’s time she’d be returning to Burma to attend her sister’s wedding.

Today, we followed the two of them down to the Y in the road and then right towards the Burmese market. We had signed up for a cooking class and step number one was hunting down the ingredients. Given that it was the morning time, the market was in full swing. As we moved from the outer streets inward, the paths transitioned into a high speed raceway. There were obstacles everywhere and I stumbled between them. The locals were smooth and fluid, weaving in and around each other. Bikes and motorcycles sputtered by, women carried platters of fruit on top of their heads and others crouched down next to their buckets of eels, fish and frogs, bins of steamed roaches next to mangoes, worms, and bags of rice. Under the overhangs of roofs packets of spices and prepackaged goods hung from strings and scattered about the tables were eggplants the size of peas, wing beans in bamboo baskets, bundles of holy basil, and everything else imaginable. Working the stands were men in coned hats, Indo-Burmese Muslim men in plaid sarongs, Karen tribal women, and Burmese natives with their faces brushed  in circular swirls, stripes and speckles with the yellowish-white paste known as thanaka cream.

This Burmese tradition has existed for centuries and serves as a cosmetic and a protectant from the sun. At the market it could be bought in paste or powder form, or in its most natural state as a piece of wood. To apply it, the thanaka wood is rubbed against a circular stone called a kyauk pyin and then a few drops of water are added to form the paste. It is then added to the face in whatever manner the person wishes to wear it. I was completely captivated by the uniqueness of this idea and could have easily spent the day just staring at faces. I was surprised to find that what I thought looked bizarre at first looked quite normal and beautiful by the end of the morning.

Halfway through the morning we stopped for intermission at a traditional Burmese tea shop. It was an atmospheric place: loud, busy, and filled with tiny tables and chairs. Once we settled in we were served a complimentary pot of plain green tea, always free and always bottomless at a Burmese tea shop. Next we ordered vegetable samosas and phyllo dough pastries and a round of lapae yea. This is a black tea mixed with a heavy dose of sweetened condensed milk, so much I might add that it sunk to the bottom of my cup like a thick white custard. Sweet like candy and delicious.

As we made our way out of the market, we watched a woman prepare a dozen or so betel leaves in an assembly line fashion. Brad had read about this very thing in a Paul Theroux book. The author had admitted to his hatred of the habit, complaining that the users were constantly spitting red juice everywhere. The thing is this is really popular stuff and people have been spitting it for the last 4,000 years throughout much of Asia and Oceania. It is an addictive stimulant that causes a warming sensation in the body and increased alertness and it has also been declared by The International Agency for Research on Cancer to be carcinogenic to humans.

So of course we were intrigued by this woman, who used her spatula to apply a paste of calcium to the leaves.  After covering the leaves in a sticky goo, she opened a half dozen calcium-smeared containers, reached in and sprinkled their contents on top of the leaves: whole cardamom seeds, clove, catechu, slices of betel nut and so forth. She then folded them over into bundles and handed them to us.

“If you start to feel dizzy after a minute or two, please stop and spit it out. Do not swallow it.” Bobo was clearly wanting to avoid any potential international health incidents. “Place the whole thing in your mouth. Chew on it and spit it out once you’ve released all of the juices and flavors from the inside. And please, if you start to feel dizzy, spit it out!

Brad and I each had one and so did Ma Yee.  She also took one to go, tightly wrapped and secured with a rubber band. And the flavor? It mostly just tasted like a leaf filled with toothpaste and a hint Indian spices. One was enough for us.

For the remainder of the afternoon we made an exquisite meal of potato dumplings, Mandalay noodle salad, Karen pumpkin curry, and lime basil juice. We learned new preparation and cooking techniques and enjoyed the results. Surprisingly the lime basil juice was the winner for the afternoon. In addition to these dishes, I had also made a special request to Bobo earlier in the day.

I had read that Burma is one of the only countries in the world where people not only drink tea but also eat the  leaves. They are eaten either as a pickled tea leaf salad or served in the center of a shallow dish (also pickled) along with fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and fried shredded coconut. I was eager to make the former and Bobo was willing to show me how.  We did a little bit of re-hydrating , crushing in the pestle and mortar, and then tossing the leaves with tomatoes, cabbage, fried nuts, and seeds. The resulting flavor was something entirely new. I loved it.  The tea leaves were pungent and spicy, mixing perfectly with the crunchy nuts and mild vegetables.

We enjoyed our meal at a picnic table behind the café. It was peaceful and serene and everything just felt good. A perfect afternoon. I wondered what would come of Mae Sot in the future. I had asked Bobo what the community was like here and if most people knew each other and his response surprised me.

“No, I do not recognize most of the faces here. People are always coming and going. This isn’t really anyone’s home. Now that things are getting better in Burma, many of the NGOs in town are starting to disappear. People are even beginning to return home”.

It was a little sad to think Mae Sot was changing so quickly, but more than anything it made me happy. People deserve to live with their families, live in peace, know their neighbors, and enjoy the sunrise and sunset from within their own country.


Squeeze the juice from two medium sized limes. Detach the leaves from 5 stalks of lime basil (this is important) and discard the stems and flowers. Put the lime juice, basil leaves, 3-4 tablespoons of liquid sugar, and 1 cup of water in a blender and mix well. With a strainer, run the juice through the filter and serve with ice!


Preparing the tea leaves: Rehydrate 2 tablespoons of dried green tea leaf with warm water for a few minutes. With a pestle and mortar, pound together the tea leaves, 4 small green chiles, 2 cloves of garlic, 1/3 teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of sugar, and the juice of one lime. Set aside. In a small pan, roast or fry a ¼ cup mixture of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, and broad nuts (if you can find them). Set aside.  On a plate, add ¼ cup of finely shredded cabbage, ½ tomato thinly sliced, the tea leaf mixture, nut mixture, a pinch of salt and the juice from one lime.

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Jun 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 14 Comments

Born Again Nacho

About a year ago in Colombia, our transmission failed. We had been driving up a dirt road in the middle of the faraway mountains when Nacho voided his bowels, we were towed to a tiny mountain village where a deranged mechanic had his way with our poor Nacho, but then we lurked in and stole Nacho away and deposited him on a farm, cracking my side view mirror in the process, you may recall. You may also recall that we found no favorable, much less legal, options for getting our transmission working, so we flew home, bought a used transmission, cleaned it up so it looked new, packed it into a suitcase and checked it onto a plane, where upon our arrival we were detained by the evil Colombian customs office for three days before being released upon the payment of a hefty tax. After porting the transmission to the farm in the back of a Subaru I spent two weeks fixing Nacho, which involved installing the new transmission with aid of a new jack. Twice. You may recall. And, as you may recall, after all of that pain and suffering and hardship and money, our new transmission leaked. My lips formed into the shape of a sad rainbow, my eyes pinched shut, drool seeped from the corner of my mouth, and I fell to my knees while feebly punching the air before crumpling into the fetal position and sobbing like a pants-wetting kindergartener. The leak persisted for the next ten months through South America, across the Pacific to Malaysia, and into Thailand.

You may also recall that in Argentina Nacho was burglarized by a bad man with a crowbar, and many important things were stolen. He also broke Sheena’s treasured walking stick, recently collected from the shores of Lago Tromen, a lake which will only live on in our minds because the bad man also stole the camera that contained all of the pictures of Lago Tromen. I would be reminded of the bad man every day thereafter, especially the really hot days, because it has been impossible to replace my broken window with the correct window glass, rendering it impossible to roll down my window. This has been especially unappreciated since arriving in southeast Asia, because we don’t have an air conditioner and not being able to roll down my window in the stifling heat and humidity has caused my brain to begin to disintegrate from jungle rot.

When we arrived in Bangkok I declared to Sheena, “All right, I’m putting my foot down!” Sheena knows me well as a maker of frivolous demands and declarations, so she paid no immediate attention. However, my seriousness was hard to ignore when she found herself sitting in the waiting room of a garage in a Bangkok suburb surrounded by water cooled Volkswagen vans, including Nacho. Our VW Club friends in Kuala Lumpur had put us in touch with new VW Club friends in Bangkok, who had put us in touch with the best garage in the country for water cooled Volkswagen vans. Now Sheena knew I was serious. Our Thai friend Gak, who had accompanied us to the garage, also knew I was serious. My foot was down, and it would stay down until I had a non-leaky transmission, a window capable of one dimensional translation, and a usable side view mirror.

Given my deep mistrust of local mechanics, my immediate feeling when turning Nacho over to the hands of others was one of deep nervousness and stomach discomfort. The mechanics were an intrepid team of young Thai men, and they displayed their worthiness by immediately locating a new window and side mirror, and successfully replacing them. Next, Nacho was placed on a lift and made airborne. The intrepid Thai mechanics dispersed and quickly returned with, get this, all of the correct tools. I know, right? They had a triple square bit for my beloved CV bolts, circlip pliers, and even the big cylindrical tool used to remove the drive axle flanges, or whatever they’re called. They deftly removed my axle, noting that both of my CV boots were ripped, which they later replaced, and then removed my drive flange, or whatever it’s called, only to find that the main sealing o-ring was cut in half. And seeing as how the leak began on day one, I surmised that it was cut in half when I bought it, which made me quite angry indeed. But they had the right o-ring on hand to replace it, so my anger was forgotten, and I left for the evening to let the guys finish up.

It was about time. After only sixteen months on the road, we had finally managed to find a shop that used the right tools and knew what the hell they were doing. I also asked them to replace one of Nacho’s upper control arm bushings, which had disintegrated in Ecuador, and had been clanking around ever since. Driving away from the shop was like being born again.

With Nacho in tip top shape, and I use that term loosely, we were free to sit around in Bangkok traffic, meet with our new friends for lunch, sit in Bangkok traffic, hang out with our new friends over long and delicious dinners, sit in Bangkok traffic, and drive to the King Rama V monument to meet all the rest of the water cooled VW vans in Bangkok for an epic photograph depicting all of the vans in a row. Before and after the photo-op we gave tours to the curious of Nacho’s water purification system, hot water generation, interior remodel, and I gave a barely legal demonstration of Nacho’s onboard shower.

On one of our very last days in Bangkok I found myself sitting in Bangkok traffic. It was another marathon jam, and I hadn’t moved more than a few feet in the last 45 minutes, when who should I see but a traffic cop approaching on foot. The cop approached my window, which I had proudly rolled down, and I attempted small talk before realizing that he spoke no English. After some polite smiles and hand waving, he began to insist that I had made some kind of traffic violation. He seemed to be saying that I had run a red light.

“But I’ve been sitting here for 45 minutes,” I said, which didn’t matter since he spoke no English.

“Kai jai tai doo mai wai kai!” he insisted.

He pointed to a picture of a driver’s license, so I reached for the ash tray where I keep one of my many “extra” drivers licenses, but to my shock and horror it was missing. I made a mental note to reprimand Sheena for moving my unlawful decoy license, and I regretfully pulled my real international driving permit out from under the dash mat. He placed it in his ticket book and pointed to his clipboard, which contained several lines of cryptic Thai script. He read it to me, slowly and loudly.

“RAI MAI JAI…KWAI MOO GAI…” he went on for an eternity, and finally pointed to where it said “1,000”. I deduced that he was going to write me a ticket for 1,000 Baht, or around $35.

“But sir,” I said, uselessly, “I haven’t done anything wrong. I literally haven’t moved in 45 minutes!” It went back and forth like this for at least fifteen or twenty minutes, and at every opportunity I attempted to convince him to give me my license. Finally, through much frustration, charades, and incomprehensible jibber jabber, I convinced him to trade my license for a 1,000 Baht bill, which I was pretty sure he promised to hold onto while I followed him to the police station. He walked to his motorcycle and made a tunnel through the traffic, through which I followed him.

Several minutes later, after a number of close calls and nearly losing him in traffic, he stopped at a main intersection and got off his bike to stop traffic so that I could pull out. As I pulled into traffic, he signaled that he’d catch up. It should have come as no surprise that I never saw him or my 1,000 Baht ever again.

It is true that I was duped by a Bangkok motorcycle cop, and in doing so I have shamed my family and lost my reputation for being a stone cold cop tricker. But at the end of the day Nacho’s transmission doesn’t leak, I can see out of my side mirror, I can hang my arm out the window, and our front suspension probably won’t fall off. In the grand scheme of things we’d won. And besides, I had a really long and really delicious dinner with our new friends to attend to.

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Jun 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 16 Comments

The Resilience of a Mother

My mom and brother had arrived some time before Christmas in 2003, and we loaded their belongings in the trunk of our tiny red Kia. Our first visitors during our year living abroad. We would make it to our first stop at Stonehenge, but only barely, after having driven through England’s winding back roads at night in the freezing fog with iced-over headlights. The ensuing two weeks are best remembered as a string of days in which my poor mother endured pure torture as a passenger on a 2,000 mile Winter road trip through Europe with three juvenile ruffians.

Against her better judgment, my mom again stepped from the tarmac and into our road tripping machine. It’s ten years later, it’s one o’clock in the morning, and Bangkok’s lingering night time heat threatens to melt the soles off of our shoes as we walk from the terminal to the parking lot where Nacho awaits. My mom is a smart lady, yet so soon she forgets her hard-learned lessons.

We walk from our guesthouse along Samsen Road, past the frippery shops and t-shirt hawkers on Khao San Road, past the row of meat-on-a-stick vendors. Sidewalks in Bangkok are generally used for motorcycle parking, store displays, storage, food preparation, and public urination, so we walk in the blistering sun on the side of the blistering hot roadway. By now, having been in southeast Asia for a considerable amount of time, Sheena and I have grown somewhat accustomed to the heat and humidity. I turn to look at my mom and realize that she’s nearly dead, just prior to the point of her red blood cells turning into lifeless bits of sand.

“Oh…look…” she faintly whispers, “there’s a…7-Eleven…Let’s…cool off…”

Bangkok is home to roughly 3,500 7-Eleven franchises, each of them spewing unregulated cold air into their clean interiors like little oases of freshness. Without these, my mom would be dead.

We eventually arrive at the Grand Palace and are turned away by angry security guards. They bite their thumbs at our tastelessness; both my mom and I are exposing our knees, which is an unspeakable atrocity inside the walls of a tourist attraction of such grandeur. We retreat to the sidewalk where innumerable fly-by-night vendors rent cheap elephant-covered gypsy pants to us foreign heathens. I school my mom in the art of negotiation.

“Four dollars!?” I rant, “I shan’t pay a farthing more than three dollars! Mom, walk away…they have to see you walking away…”

We procure some ugly rented pants at the aggressively negotiated rate, and we enter.

Having long since suffered from a condition that I call “wat burnout”, I walk around the complex looking at the painted gold buildings with a sense of boredom. My mom looks enthused, but after a few minutes I realize that she may have reached “wat burnout” stage far sooner than anticipated, undoubtedly fueled by the setting in of her heat stroke. We look at statues of Buddhas, admire the gold trim adorning the buildings, and take lots of photos, despite our condition.

Back on the street I return my rented pants, while my mom decides to keep hers and forfeit her deposit. “These will make great pajamas,” she says. After over an hour without air conditioning her tongue is beginning to swell up and become rigid. Later, while eating lunch in an outdoor, non-air-conditioned establishment, I tell her she needs to stay out of air conditioning if she ever wants to adapt. She doesn’t complain. Sheena spies a splash of heat rash on my mom’s leg, which my mom dismisses with a smile, and says “It’s nothing!” I come to the realization that I’m torturing my mother.

I’m eager to show Mom the Thai countryside, so we hit the road to Kanchanaburi – the one of World War II fame where prison camp labor was used to build a railroad bridge over the Kwai River on its trajectory to Burma. She had seen the film Bridge on the River Kwai when she was eight years old, and was stoked to see it in the flesh. The very bridge!

After two hours of driving out of Bangkok, it seems we’re still in Bangkok. The countryside never materializes, and instead we drive the two hours through industrial sprawl. We reach Kanchanaburi as I try to reassure my mom that yes, in fact, there are undeveloped parts of Thailand. We are spared, as Kanchanaburi maintains its small town charm, despite being attached to Bangkok by a gray industrial umbilical cord.

For two days my mom tries to remember the whistling song from the River Kwai movie. We walk, she tries to remember.

“I think it’s twéet tw?et, twéet twuh twéet…, no, that’s not right…”

Each day seems hotter than the last, but we ignore it to the best of our abilities. We find the bridge, we walk across it, we visit the museum, and as night falls we all enjoy the miracle of the $5 hour-long Thai massage. The three of us change into the provided comfy pants and shirts, lie down on the floor mats, and proceed to take severe punishment from the muscular Thai Army girls masquerading as massage therapists. My girl also happens to be a sumo wrestler. She wrenches on me so hard that she grunts, and on two occasions elicits whimpering cries of pain and I tap out.

We finally find a copy of the film and watch it. Of course! It’s twéet tw?et… tw?et twéet twÉet twÉÉt twÉÉt twéet… We’re so pumped about it that we actually book seats on the train, now affectionately known as the Thai-Burma Death Railway, and spend the next day snaking into the hills, and then slowly snaking back out of them.

We take a day to drive into the mountains, proving to mom that the Thai countryside isn’t a piece of propaganda that I dreamed up, and we visit a waterfall. In true southeast Asian fashion, the waterfall is marked by a ten acre parking lot lined with food hawkers and souvenir shops, from which a paved path leads to several pools and waterfalls. For some reason the place is full up with Russian tourists, but we shake most of them by walking to the farthest waterfall from the parking lot, perhaps two miles away.

The swimming is beautiful, our feet and legs are tickled (chomped) by flesh-cleaning (carnivorous) fish, and we have a nice time experiencing Thailand’s natural side. To our delight, we return to Nacho without having contracted any leeches.

When I was a kid, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s Camry as we drove up the new overpass linking the Loop 202 to Interstate 17 in Phoenix. Just as we reached the zenith of the overpass my mom cracked. She ducked her head below the level of the windshield, clasped the steering wheel in a death grip, and started yelling “Oh my GOD! Oh my GOD!” This was the day we came to fully appreciate – and believe in – my mom’s fear of heights. By this year I had forgotten all about it.

In Ayutthaya, our final stop on mom’s Thailand visit, I have the great idea of taking my mom on a tour of the old city. Not on an air-conditioned bus, or even in Nacho, but on bicycles. And not on nice bicycles, but on bicycles that are so rickety and in disrepair as to be free of charge.

Sheena leads the way, heading west, and then curving north to follow the river bank. It quickly becomes evident that to cross the river we’ll have to temporarily cut onto the freeway and take the bridge. I look at my mom, her shirt soaking wet and her skin flushed from heat stroke.

We cut right, wait for a break in the heavy freeway traffic, and then precariously join the narrow lane for our trip across the high bridge. Sheena continues to lead the way, followed by Mom, and I bring up the rear. My mom’s seat has slipped down and her derailleur is stuck in a hard gear, making her pedal stroke slow, shaky, and powerless. As we reach the zenith of the bridge I notice that her head is ducked down, her arms are tense. Passing cars whiz by, heat radiates from the pavement, and my mom fights through the heat stroke and acrophobia while piloting, with quivering hands, the scrap heap of a bike I’ve placed her on.

Amid this calamity, a crystal clear thought enters my mind: Brad, you’re a bad person and if there is a hell you’re probably going to end up there. But she should have known better.

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Jun 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 21 Comments

The Ill-Fated Jungle Trek

“Jungle trekking, yeah!” Sheena was visibly excited on the morning that we awoke for our ill-fated day of jungle trekking.

She’d picked up a new pair of trekking boots after we left Argentina, and now walked in circles in the parking lot of Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park while stealing glances at her fancy footwear as I finished loading up the backpack. Rain jackets, water filter, bug repellent? Check. Bathing suits and water? Check. Canned tuna (curry flavor), rice crackers, bananas? Check.

“I heard they have wild elephants here,” Sheena reported, energetically bouncing around in her boots. “And you know what?” She continued, “I also heard they have rare barking deer!” Her eyes looked like they were about to pop out of her head; if the wild elephants didn’t get me excited, the rare barking deer sure would!

We finished loading up our things and set off across the bridge, leaving our camp behind. The sun was already high overhead, evidence of our perpetual difficulty in getting out of bed on time, and our tendency to lollygag and engage in a lengthy coffee and breakfast routine. It didn’t take long before we found ourselves trudging along through a dense thicket of bamboo.

“How are your new boots feeling?”


Sheena kept the trail in her peripheral vision while scouring the surrounding jungle for any sign of a rare barking deer.

“What was that sound?” She would say.

“It was a bird.”

“How do you know it wasn’t a rare barking deer?”

“Sheena, it was a bird.”

By the time we had reached the first three or four scenic offshoots to the main trail, each leading to a swimming hole or small waterfall, the sun had turned the jungle into a sauna. The temperature soared and the stifling, still air strangled our lungs with every breath.  The jungle changed from dense bamboo thickets to a tight tangle of vines and trees. A barking deer? possible. But there was no way that a wild elephant could live in this mess.

Our goal for the day was to reach the end of the trail, which terminated at the seventh waterfall. After the sixth, the trail shot straight up and over a series of steep ridges. We could no longer walk; instead we were forced to scramble by holding onto roots and vines. We climbed on, drenched in sweat, stained by mud, and nauseous from the heat.

“I think we should turn back,” Sheena said as we topped the final ridge. “The trail is too steep – we still have to come back through this.”

Having walked close to five miles through the dank jungle, turning around so close to our destination didn’t seem right. Besides, what if there was a rare barking deer out there somewhere? We reluctantly descended the far side of the ridge on a worsening trail. The sound of the waterfall intermingled with the rumble of thunder from the swelling clouds overhead.

When we finally reached the bottom of the ridge we lowered ourselves off of a tall rock ledge and onto the rocky shore of the river. Before us a waterfall cascaded gracefully into a large pool surrounded by enormous boulders. We spotted a flat rock and made our way out to it for our celebratory lunch of curried tuna and crackers.

Shortly after situating ourselves around our fancy lunch items, we heard a distant hum. Sheena nimbly shoveled scoops of zesty fish into her mouth as I fumbled with the crumbling rice crackers. I had barely gotten my can of curried tuna open when the distant hum grew into a buzz and presented itself to us as a large swarm of angry bees.

“All you have to do is hold still,” Sheena confidently announced. I tried this, but the tickle of tiny wings brushing my face and body got the better of me and I started to freak out.

“God, they’re everywhere!” I shrieked. Sheena sat there, apparently of less interest to the bees. “I need to get in the water!” I said, gasping, and proceeded to hurriedly whip off my clothes and throw them onto the rocks. The bees temporarily followed my clothing, saturated with my apparently tasty perspiration. The bees quickly lost interest in my clothes, and one bolted back at me and stung me on the back. I yelped, and then grabbed my swim trunks from the backpack, threw them on, and leapt from the rock into the chilly water.

I paddled away from the rocks and into the center of the pool. I could see Sheena holding very still on the rock. I paddled over to the waterfall and sat underneath its flow, letting the heavy water massage my shoulders. Everything was going to be okay.

Just then I heard Sheena’s signature squeal, so I looked up. Sheena stood atop the rock, frantically making hand gestures toward me like a Navy Landing Signal Officer. The only difference was that Sheena’s hand signals bore no resemblance to anything remotely comprehensible. She seemed to be making a sock puppet with one hand, while she pinched at the air in random flailing motions with the other hand. I yelled that I didn’t understand, at which she did a great job of signaling that I was a dolt. Next, she raised both arms and did what appeared to be “jazz hands”, and then looked all around and pretended to pick up random scattered objects with chopsticks. I had no idea what she intended to say. Finally she started whipping at the air and ran away into the jungle.

As she disappeared into the trees I heard her scream “BEES! I’ll meet you on the trail!”

A new curtain of fear came over me; the situation had worsened, and I would have to go fill my backpack and put on my boots amid a swarm of killer bees.

I timidly swam toward the rocks, and when I got close I could see a dark cloud of winged bodies around my things. If I was going to get out of here alive, I was going to have to be Indiana Jones about it. I jumped out of the water and ran into the bee cloud, whisking the bees off of my saturated t-shirt. I picked up the shirt and began violently whipping it about like a helicopter blade, or a Ninja Turtle nunchuk. The bees backed away from me, and the ones that didn’t got their asses chopped with my whipping shirt. I could hold them off- for now – but I had to figure out how to accomplish my tasks while my favored hand was being used as an anti-bee weapon.

With my left hand I dumped my curried tuna over the edge of the rock, hoping to create a diversion. It had no effect on the bees, so I started clumsily putting my clothes into my backpack while I whipped the air and my body with my sweaty shirt like some kind of masochist.

When at last I had sufficiently repacked my bag I hastily jammed my feet into my heavy trekking boots. I pulled the laces tight, but was unable to tie them, and then lowered my head, upped the tempo of my nunchuking action, and bolted. The bees followed me.

I ran through underbrush and thorny trees, trying to evade the bees, and finally came to the rock ledge that we’d lowered ourselves down earlier. I stopped whipping for a moment and ran at the ledge full speed, somehow making it to the top by imitating a loose approximation of parkour in my unlaced trekking boots. When I hit the trail I bolted uphill as fast as I could scramble over the roots and rocks until I’d reached the top of the ridge.

Sheena was nowhere to be seen. It had been close to fifteen minutes since we were separated.

Maybe she continued down the trail, I thought. But why would she do that? The bees had long since turned around, and there would be no reason for her to go farther. I opted to continue down the other side.

I slipped and clambered my way down the far side of the ridge, and finally reached the bottom, where the next ridge began, but still no Sheena. What the hell? There’s no way she could have hiked so far without me. At that point I could see two possibilities: she had either continued even farther than I had already come, or she had fallen off of the trail while running from the bees. Maybe her parkour skills weren’t as fine tuned as mine and she had fallen into the river while climbing the rock ledge.

I decided the first step would be to yell at the top of my lungs, which I did, for five or ten minutes. I alternated between eardrum-busting whistling and yelling Sheena’s name, but there was no response. “What the hell?” I kept saying aloud. The sun was getting low in the sky and the jungle was becoming dark.

Finally, just as I was about to turn around and scramble back over the ridge to the killer bees to look for her, I heard a familiar sound.

“Tee hee! Here I am, honey!”

“WHAT!? Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick about you! I thought you were unconscious and that the bees got you! What is wrong with you? Didn’t you hear me yelling!?”

“You know,” She said, in a voice that made the situation seem much less serious, “I ran away into the jungle and went really far, and then I waited for you. After ten minutes the bees were still hunting me and I started to get really mad at you for making me wait so long. I was like ‘What? No he DIT-INT’, but then I realized that I didn’t recognize anything. I finally walked back and realized that I wasn’t even on the trail. Woopsies! So then I came this way and here you are!”

I could hardly be mad at her. When you think someone has perished, and then you realize that they actually haven’t, you can really only be relieved. But we weren’t out of the woods yet! Literally, we weren’t out of the woods yet.

The clouds had continued to build overhead, and the thunder was becoming louder. The last thing we needed was to be stuck out here on these slippery mud ridges in a downpour. We swiveled our hips wildly from side to side as we speed walked through the jungle on the trail.

“Sheena, hold up,” I said, “I need to tie my shoes.” The situation had been so tense that I hadn’t realized that my boots were still untied and I wasn’t wearing my shirt. I pulled the soaked t-shirt over my head, retrieved some socks from my bag, and laced up my boots. The speedwalking recommenced.

With about a mile left to go before reaching camp, I looked down at my swim trunks and could hardly believe my eyes. My right leg appeared to have been shot, and my shorts were drenched in blood.

“What the f*@! happened!?” Sheena shrieked.

I shakily slid my pant leg up to reveal two seeping wounds. I wiped the blood away, but the flow immediately resumed. Sheena’s face turned white, but there was nothing we could do. We continued walking.

Finally, at long last we reached the bridge, crossed it, and found Nacho alone in our camp. We started to drop our things on the ground in exhaustion when I looked at Sheena’s shorts. She noticed the disgusted look on my face and looked down. A stream of dried blood was caked on her leg.

“ohmygod…I think I’m going to be sick,” she said. She quickly ran to the bathroom to see what the heck was going on. When she returned several minutes later, she was holding a bloody garment.

“Look what was stuck to my clothes,” she said, holding out her hand. In it, a swollen leach was nestled in the fabric. That explained what had gotten me as well. We retrieved our stainless steel salt grinder filled with pink Peruvian rock salt from the Andes, and proceeded to cover that mo-fo with dash after dash of fine rock salt until it disintegrated into bloody shreds.

We gathered some fresh clothes, a few band-aids, some Benadryl and soap, and made our way to the showers. We could wash off the blood and I could coat my bee sting with antihistamine, but it would be a very long time before we would feel the urge to go jungle trekking again. And the rare barking deer? Those rare barking deer can bite me.

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May 2013

Asia, Blog


Plankton Warp Speed Overdrive

Gonzalo was from Argentina. You could tell he was going to be really awesome just by looking at him; something about the way he carried himself. When we found out he was from Argentina, it only solidified what we already knew: that he was a really awesome guy.

“So, where are you from,” we asked him as soon as he sat down next to us in the white tour van.

“Argentina,” he replied in a Latino accent, sounding just like The Most Interesting Man in the World. “A town called Mendoza.”

I knew he was awesome, Sheena and I collectively thought.

For the next fifteen minutes, all the way from Krabi town to Ao Nang, we all excitedly reminisced about Argentina: empanadas, Christina de Kirchner and her downward spiraling economy, parrillas, blood sausage, dirty money, banditos, wine, and wide open spaces. By the time the van dropped the three of us off in a dirt lot near the ocean, we’d made ourselves more than a little hungry. From a dirty little shack in the parking lot we purchased some Cup o’ Noodles, extra spicy, and ate them while longing for thick cuts of steak washed down with smooth Mendoza wine.

After close to an hour a man told us to walk down a dirt track, which lead to a skinny pier jutting into the Andaman sea. A small wooden boat with a car motor affixed to the back awaited our arrival, and then shakily transported us to a waiting tour boat moored in the bay for the sunset snorkeling tour.

Once aboard the boat we were joined by a dozen or more other tourists all ready to get their snorkel on. Being that we were to be cruising around and in between several of Southern Thailand’s limestone islands, we quickly bolted to the open-air upper deck to secure ourselves the best seats in the house: a few plastic lawn chairs situated at the front of the boat. And then we waited for the hoards of other passengers to crowd in behind us, but it never happened. For some inexplicable reason, every last one of them decided to pack themselves together in the belowdecks like sardines where they could safely observe the world class scenery and towering limestone cliffs from between the fiberglass pillars supporting the viewing deck above. The very same viewing deck where we three morons sat all by ourselves.

The boat rumbled to life, and slipped away northward along the coastline. Soon, we approached a group of islands jutting straight out of the water like teeth. The boat cut between them while we stared in awe. Soon, we came to rest off the shore of two islands connected by a shallow sandy finger. A rickety boat sputtered toward our vessel to ferry passengers to the islands. Gonzalo looked off of the side.

“Do you think the water is deep enough to jump in?” he asked.

It was hard to tell; several coral heads dotted the sandy bottom, and the small waves messed with our depth perception. “Only one way to find out,” I said.

Before we knew it, he had flung himself over the edge and had disappeared into the water below. “It’s all right!” he yelled as he came to the surface.

I swung my legs over the railing and leapt. Sheena, less danger-seeking, walked down the stairs and lowered herself into the water like a lady. Just then, a skinny, spotty English kid with bad posture I’d noticed earlier appeared above the rail. I hadn’t spoken to him, but my first impression was that he was one of those defiant British youths who would whisper insults about you under his breath using his incomprehensible English slang, but wouldn’t say them to your face. Maybe on a bad day even blow up your car.

“Wow, it’s really fah down theh. Is the wootah ceauld?” he asked. I assured him that in fact the water was really quite warm. It felt like a big bathtub.

“No, it con’t be! It’s prubbly ceauld! It’s seau ceauld, you must be jeauking!”

And with that the spotty English kid plugged his nose, closed his eyes, and fell awkwardly through the air and into the lukewarm water below.

While the rickety boat loaded the other passengers to take them ashore, Sheena, Gonzalo and I decided to swim instead. It didn’t look all very far, but after what seemed like an eternity we became fatigued. The water became shallow and the bottom became littered with dead coral and sea urchins, whose poisonous spines came uncomfortably close to our tiredly kicking feet.

Just before succumbing to fatigue and drowning, we reached the shore. The next forty five minutes would be an amusing study in anthropology; amid all of the available sandy spots in the Andaman Sea, dozens of us ended up on one skinny sand bar, sitting in knee deep hot water wearing rubber masks and snorkels, surrounded by dead coral and leafy detritus floating about in the water. It was what the hip kids might call a snorkeling fail. We happily boarded the rickety boat and left the island.

Once aboard the boat we continued our trajectory up the coast. The captain’s assistant excitedly pointed out “Chicken Rock”. You guessed it, a big rock that looked like a chicken’s head. And at this, I began to ponder the things in nature that people tend to consider interesting. On the scary bus ride to Machu Picchu, a drive that took us through canyons and Andean mountain passes, our driver pointed to the bits that tour guides have come to consider interesting. Namely, several rocks that look like Virgin Maries, eagles, and faces. In the limestone caves of Thailand, we followed tour guides through mazes of enormous stalactites and stalagmites, stopping only to point out the ones that look like crocodiles, heads, elephants, and Buddhas. Apparently to some people nature is only interesting if it looks like something besides what it is. I scoffed at Chicken Rock. It didn’t even look like a chicken anyway.

Finally we reached the rice and beans of the sunset snorkeling tour: the sunset beach barbeque. We disembarked on a small island and made our way to the table on the beach where tin foil-wrapped fish and a pot of rice awaited. The barbecue had apparently happened at a different place and time, but we were here to reap the rewards. We took a couple of big plates of cold fish and rice, Sheena put her sarong on the sand, and the three of us enjoyed the scenery as the sun plunged to the horizon next to a picturesque limestone island jutting out of the sea. Dare I say the island looked just like Cher? Or maybe like a Greek Chariot?

Once the sun had plunged beyond the horizon and our cold fish and rice had been devoured, it was time to head back. We boarded the boat and began weaving back through the islands from whence we came. But the crew had one more surprise.

“Okay everybody, listen to me,” the captain’s assistant announced. “Now it very dark. In fifteen minute we go snorkeling with phosphorescent plankton. Yes, that right, you swim with plankton. Fifteen minute,” and with that she retired to her seat. This was going to be great! I remembered reading about our friends Pat and Ali during their around the world sailing trip. They had described swimming with the phosphorescent plankton and had said that it was like swimming through stars.

The boat approached a limestone wall undercut by millennia of lapping waves, and the captain dropped the anchor. Several of us donned our snorkels and masks and made our way to the back of the boat. We all stood there, peering into the pitch black ocean, waiting for someone to go first. Just then, something appeared in the water.

“What the hell is that?” someone asked. There appeared to be two rather large plastic shopping bags swimming around right where we were supposed to be experiencing the phosphorescent plankton. The captain quickly put his foot into the water and kicked one of them, trying to move it away. It was at this point that I realized that he was attempting to move two seriously large jellyfish aside so that we could frolic in the water. Jellyfish. In the water. Suddenly, seeing phosphorescent plankton wasn’t on the menu any more.

The captain, satisfied that he had rid the water of the deadly floating human-killers, turned back toward us and smiled. “You can see phosphorescent plankton,” he said, timidly.

Hell no I’m not, I thought. Just then, the spotty English boy stepped onto the swimming platform and jumped in. What the!? That little twerp?

He put his head down and slowly wriggled toward the cliff wall. We all stared at him, waiting for his body to convulse and then sink to the bottom in a state of jellyfish shock, but instead he raised his head and spoke.

“Wow, yeah. Thehs loads of ’em. When ah swing my ahm ’round, the wootah lights up wiv all ‘ease bright buggahs.” I couldn’t believe it. This guy? The spotty English boy? Whereas a couple of hours ago he seemed like such a pansy, but now he was swimming through a proper jellyfish farm, waving his arm about like Luke Skywalker’s glowing sword.

Damnation, I thought. If he can do it, I simply must!

I took a quick survey of the immediate area around the boat and saw no jellyfish, so I leapt. It was a simple leap, but it felt as if I were jumping to my death. The warm water enveloped me and I immediately got the heebie jeebies. But the spotty English boy was in the water too, so I had to play it cool. I put my head down and began paddling toward the cliff wall. I didn’t have to go far before I was lost in a trance.

I stared down into the black abyss below me, unable to see a damn thing. The thought of all of the creatures that must be surrounding me, and the untold depth of the ocean below me scared the bejeezus out of me. But when I swiped my arm through the water in front of me, the whole place lit up like a fireworks show! I became entranced, swiping the water left and right, and as I did, stars were born right before my very eyes, whirling in eddies around my hands in 3D. The harder I swiped, the more intense the plankton lit up. It was like I was flying through stars at warp speed. I all but forgot about the deadly jellyfish closing in on me, and about the scary sea creatures below me, and the untold depths that divers would have to dive to retrieve me after I was finally caught by the jellyfish. This was captivating.

Sheena, obviously finding me irresistible in the way I was waving my arms around like a schoolboy, lowered herself into the water like a lady and joined me in my Star Wars warp speed fantasy world. Together we floundered like disoriented Klingons, breathing belabored breaths through our snorkels like Darth Vader, until we sensed that the others were becoming bored back on the boat.

After fifteen minutes or so the spotty English boy headed back, and Sheena and I returned to the boat to reclaim our seats next to Gonzalo.

“Así,” Gonzalo said, “cómo fue?”

Vale la pena,” was all I could come up with. Worth it. And at that we motored southward.

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