hello again, didn't mean to leave you hanging for the gripping New Years Eve finale, so here goes (and burma posts to follow soon):
Well, much as I’d like to blame the village water or my Phnom sausage, I suspect that my shyness was once again the culprit: I went to be at 9. Yes, 9, and not a minute past, and slept well till I heard the kids come in at 12:30 (the two girls parting from the two boys, by the way; I doubt it would have differed for me), then slept again till 6:30 when my alarm went off. No dogs, no roosters, just the sleep of the 170-lb male who had only eaten a sandwich bag of sticky rice and 4 oranges the whole day.
Day 24: I wake feeling pretty damn good, surprisingly. Apparently, my microbial boarders were on a transit visa, happy to return to the next fool who bikes himself beyond the paleface pale. It was clearly a good idea to wait the extra day before undertaking the 24-hour, 3rd-world bus adventure over roads that from above must look like a mongrel with mange, and from the ground turn us each into tuning forks of nausea.
I still don’t really feel like eating, so for breakfast I only have a grilled liver sandwich (good re-entry food), but as a result, each time the bus stops for people to sit down to a meal or buy some victuals, I act like the village poor man, shuffling around the bus, rolling dubious smokes, nibbling from a bag of sticky rice dipping only in gao. It ultimately looks so bad that a concerned Lao man asks if I’ve taken lunch, and I say that I brought some with me and go hide.
It’s a full day, night, and morn of bus travel through mountainous Laos, so of course my journal pages fill and fill. Again the scenery is staggering, and I can see the payoff to the 2-day river trip to Luang Prabang (only the halfway point to Vientiane): a single jutting knob of a peak, 270-ed at the base by the Mekong, blinking its apex through intermittent clouds. From the river that must have been stunning, though unlikely to have been worth the 48 hours of tourist hell to get through; we made it in 12, and the view from beside was pretty fantastic in its own.
Culturally, again we see a wide range of ethnic villages, practices, and garb (with various old ladies having tied up their hair with cloth in such odd – to me -- shapes that they look like extras from the Star Wars bar scene). These village kids smile, but they don’t run down from the hills to wave at us as they did in the more remote zones. But were one to do only this trip and the morning market in Namtha, I think it would be adequate to feel like one had seen the northern Lao people; my river trip, plus bus, plus bus feels a little redundant.
One new element, though, is how much the people seem to pee. The bus stops literally every 2 hours, and almost everyone clears out to whizz. I keep trying to, thinking that we must be stopping since we won’t be able to for another 6 or 8 hours, but two hours later, sure enough, over we pull at any old flat spot with brush. The guy next to me, let’s call him Dr. Squirmy (as he keeps moving around bumping me, leaning against me, brushing my foot, shifting, and being a nuisance), goes out and goes every time. I can’t imagine how. One time when he rests his head on my shoulder -- _well_ across the line! – I nudge with elbow and give the WTF sign. From then on he’s a little better behaved. Eventually I offer him a lao lao; he sniffs it and makes the most pinched pained face I may have ever seen, and turns away in disgust. Eventually we reach the terminus; I ask Ventiane? and he says no. Love it.
Day 25: So I shook what I have of a tail feather to get to the airport for the earlier flight to Bangkok, hoping for the earlier connection to Yangon (Rangoon). Sadly, that flight only operates a few days a week, so I’ve now got almost 5 hours on my hands, only a dollar of local money left, and I’m at the airport. So of course I do the old heel-toe out to the main drag and go in search of breakfast. The options don’t look great: grilled meats which are delicious but expensive and not filling (and after two days of monking it, I really have my appetite back). I see a few places with the Lao version of congee: Chinese rice porridge that can be yummy but a 3-meat version can also be gotten on Chrystie street for $2.25, with tea (I once took a first date there -- oops). After taking in the sights and smog of a half mile or so, I gave up and went back to the closer of the congees. It had blood cakes in it, so that (in my new understanding) boded well.
Of course it was the best I’ve ever had (no photo, I’m afraid; camera too deeply packed). – By the way, I’m writing this in the business lounge in Vientiane, and a very attractive hostess woman just walked by, then into the women’s room, where I hear her hucking up loogies. What a continent. –
So I have to try the other one now, even though I’m feeling pretty full, and it was different but perhaps equally good. In both cases, only men were eating, but both times one of them started up conversation with me in English, liked that I spoke a bit of Lao, and of course it was a total blast. At the second place the lady even offered to refill my bowl for free, which I sadly couldn’t manage, having gone from Gandhi to Gael Greene in but a few hours. The moral is as it’s always been: go where you’re not expected to be, eat, and you will triumph. Jeremy, I hope you and your colon are listening.
From the lounge: Am I nearing the age where I’m supposed to be wearing one of those fishing vests when I travel abroad? Pop, do you have a closet full of those things I don’t know about?
How delightful is sweet tamarind? Like a date with an attitude, and I mean that in both senses (of date). Marvelous. Plus the incredible crackle snap of the outer “shell” – more life a wafer crust – then the inside looks like a giant ant and you ultimately spit out chestnut jewels. Bro, the kids would love these. I’ll buy some for them at the bodega.
The Bangkok biz lounge allows you to mix your own drinks, and they have the makings of negronis, so of course I’m in trouble. Three weeks of lao lao and the like makes the palate a wee bit jonesy for something a little more nuanced (and Italian). It’s weird though how bad the food is in these places. Are they catering to brits? It’s a lot of “pies” and the like; almost everything the serve is in puff pastry. Egads. In laos the summer rolls were worse than the pizza. How is that possible? In Thailand the most attractive thing is the beef stew pie. That’s like saying Renee Zellwegger (I know that’s not spelled right) is your best option for a lead actress. I thought this was Hollywood?!
Now a thing I’ve never learned how to do (as you all know) is to say no to free food or drink. This can get one in trouble. I don’t have my brother’s capacities (as we’ve noticed from the relative merits of our posts), so Herr Doktor Wuss-Ass really shouldn’t be negroni-ing mid-afternoon. (A guy just came out with a chef’s hat on – he should be in federal relocation.)
But what’s a former grad student to do? You show us crudite (by the way, how do you make a fucking egu in windows? It’s not a key command – that I can find – and it’s not a g-d “insert symbol” so WTF????) and cheese balls, and we think it’s a feast. And it will always be this way -- at least for me. That’s why my 1-drink-a-night policy in New York the last few months had an escape hatch if the drinks were free or if the 24-oz can cost the same as the 16-oz. I have rules, but I have _rules_.
Erratum (and what do I pen that won’t be an erratum later): the “Vietnamese” Mekong whiskey I alluded to in an earlier post is Thai. I kinda thought it was when I said it. Still stinks.
The other great specialite (no egu) of these lounges is the tuna sandwich, de-crusted. Now _that_ will make me go first class every time!
I’m going to say it right now: wealth is an obscenity, and I can’t endorse it -- for myself at least. So if I ultimately do well, I’ll have to capitulate and spend what’s necessary to support the lifestyle of my wife and kids (assuming). But if I’m alone, no way will I spend more than 100k per (in today’s dollars – and that’s a ton), and if I do, call me on it. Meanwhile, while they’re single, my kids will be entitled to whatever in their day is the equivalent of 30k-now a year (obviously once they’re married and breeding, they get more). So if they want to fingerpaint all day and can drink PBR, that’s their choice, but if they have higher standards, they must earn. All extras pass down the line. I don’t mind siring a line of dreamers and drifters and hippies, as long as they’re not too spoiled and have some sense of things. And they will _always_ be funded 5 grand whenever they want to spend a year in Asia – but just 5 grand.
A number of you commented on the apparent nudity in the rat video. I was wearing a towel, but I guess that wasn’t clear, and I honestly didn’t think it would come across as weird being shirtless in SE Asia. Sorry about that. But one of my burgeoning you-write-for-me-now-let’s-be-friends since I started back at Nerve, Elizabeth Manus, asked if I was a “introvert exhibitionist.” At first I pooh-poohed this, but then I felt the nail strike deeper and deeper. It makes a certain sense, though: the introvert suddenly and miraculously becomes a bit hopeful, saying, Wait, I might be noticed if only I try? So, yes, I will put myself out there, always with fingers crossed, virtually always stung and disappointed by response unequal to my hopes. And such, they say, is the nature of…
I believe this day of drinking is positioning me perfectly for an evening in Yangon (Rangoon) spent snacking and cherooting at the tea shops (where the eating is good), then crashing hard. After Captain Squirmoid’s antics and the psoriasitic road last night, that might just be ideal.