Monday, October 31, 2005

What's There To Do?

It's amazing how many hours you can fill with nothing but your own thoughts and imagination. It's amazing how long you can sit, in stillness, and gaze upon the scenery around you noticing minute, ever-changing details like reflections on water, the passage of clouds, the pattern of leaves shifting in a breeze. It's amazing how easy it is to drift off to sleep while swinging in a hammock, only to wake and drift off again.

This is my life on Don Det, one of the islands in Southern Laos in an area called Si Phan Don, or the 4000 Islands. Here, the sunrise and sunset are truly bookends to the day as natural light dictates activity or lack thereof (there is no electricity). The two main streets on Don Det are named for this antiquated lifestyle: Sunrise Blvd is on the East side of the island and Sunset Strip is on the West.

We spent our time watching Laos TV. That is to say we laid on the bed in our bungalow watching the palm trees stir in the breeze and butterflies flutter around the garden of gold and orange flowers outside our window. Beyond the garden was a bamboo fence and through the slats, we could watch ducks bathe in muddy puddles left from the occasional rainshower. Further, tall green grass, a field of blooming pink lotus flowers, bamboo thickets, voluminous green trees.

We rode bikes along a dirt path that hugs the contour of the island and winds along the lazy brown Mekong River, passing through tunnels of arcing bamboo trees, forest, fields, rice paddies and villages. The only traffic we encountered were several gutsy chickens (trying to cross the road of all things), a few fuzzy baby ducks, and an occasional errant water buffalo. There are no cars and few motorbikes, so road hazards are limited to farm animals, children, and rickety wood boards placed over ditches and small ravines.

It's easy to forget there is a bigger world out there: to forget wars and bombings and disease that fill the contents of newspapers and broadcasts. It's easy to forget about getting here and going there... to forget about calendars and schedules and all the things that have to do with 'having to do' something. Don Det is sleepy, slow, lazy. It's an island, a fishing village, a place to disappear.

The 'big event' of the day is watching the sun go down -- a picture-perfect-moment when the periwinkle sky is streaked with hot swirls of red and orange and fringed with the black silhouette of trees... a single fisherman in his boat floats on still, golden water.

When the sun goes down, the generators come on for about 4 hours -- dimly lighting the restaurants where Beer Lao and Lao Lao (local whisky) slosh in clinking glasses. The night descends, sounding like the buzz of 1,000 miniature chainsaws, a million tiny tambourines all jangling in synch, the shrill wail of a referee's whistle.

The bungalows are outfitted with oil lamps (and pleading messages not to burn the bungalows down with them). It's not enough light to read at night, so once the sun has set, there is nothing left to do but find some drinking friends or drift in and out of consciousness with the swing of your hammock while gazing at the stars and planets. The sky is packed with them.

I don't think the islanders know the meaning of the word stress. Life is too slow. There is no reason to be upset. When something 'bad' happens, they laugh instead of curse. I saw one girl slip down a hill and into the river. I might have yelled out, "Shit!" or, "Goddammmit!" but she just laughed. Same thing happened when she over shot the boat dock and when she couldn't catch a monkey that was on the loose. It's easy to find humor in things like that because they are events instead of mishaps. That's why I laughed when Benjamin's hammock broke -- after asking him if he was OK first, that is.

I asked around and discovered the island has 300 inhabitants... or 750. It depends on who you ask. And according to one of these sources, tourists have been visiting Don Det for only the last 4 years. And while I absolutely loved it, I learned it's not a place for everyone. On the bus heading back to Pakse this morning, I overheard one girl whining, "The novelty of having nothing wears off, you know..." and this was after a couple of days. In fact, she said she cried that morning when someone joked that the bus wasn't running and she'd have to spend one more night on Don Det. She was one of those people who like to complain... the kind of people who do it at an intentionally loud volume so as to bring others -- complete strangers -- into their world of suffering. I don't know if people do this for sympathy or what... but she's getting none of mine. From her frequent "poor me" outbursts during the bus ride, I could tell that she has a weak imagination and probably only a handful of thoughts in her head -- no wonder she was bored with Don Det.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Free Stuff

It was like a fairy sprinkled magic dust on us last night. Everywhere we went, we were met with a free drink and people gave us free food. At 'The No Hassle Bar', we were given a free beer because the woman was drunk and must have thought everyone else should be, too. Another woman there gave us soup from a clay pot her 'boyfriend' ordered. He didn't seem to mind that he was sharing his dinner with us, though. Some British guys offered us some of the chips (french fries) they ordered. And then on our way home, we met a bunch of Africans and they took us out for a beer, "We'll buy you a drink," they said. And they also ordered soup in a clay pot and made us eat some of that, too.

I also got my fortune told for free and my palm read by one of the Africans (South Africa). He had other intentions, though. He just wanted to hold my hand. Several of the Africans stated, at some time in the evening, that I should leave Benjamin and have their babies. Or something like that. The last thing I remember is the guy from Nigeria wooing me with his family's wealth back in Africa. They have a Mercedes and a Hummer and both would be comfortable vehicles for me should I go to Africa with him. He thought we were a match made in heaven because we both happened to be the same age. With that reasoning, suddenly there are so many fish in the sea!!

The South African 'fortune teller' told me that I would be famous, but only if I have the son he prophesized I would have (and by the end of the evening, I was supposed to have this son with him). He also told me that I have a guardian angel who is pissed at me for ignoring him. I am supposed to 'cleanse' myself by praying and then cracking an egg over my head, while naked, and smear the contents all over my body. I was confused about this ritual, though, because at first David (that's the So African's name) told me I was supposed to be alone and then later he told me I would need a guide because strange things can come out of the egg when you crack it open. He volunteered to come by and be my guide. I passed.

Of course, Benjamin had no clue about all of this... don't know how he couldn't have noticed these guys holding my hand and rubbing my leg under the table, especially since I was kicking him with it. Don't know how he couldn't have heard them telling me that I'm beautiful, like Cleopatra (yeah right). Don't know why he didn't wonder why they started to call me 'Queen' -- it had to do with that Cleopatra thing. Don't know how he didn't notice all the talk about me and them and babies... and all the winks and pinches and hair pulling that I employed to get his attention on the issue. When he finally got it, his eyes popped open to the size of dinner plates, "They've been doing this the whole time?"

We finally stumbled home in the wee hours of the morning. I am eagerly awaiting email from my new boyfriends -- I've always wanted to drive a Hummer through Africa.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

To Laos We Go

We are heading to Laos tonight -- tomorrow morning we'll cross the border in the South and pick up on a journey we attempted to make a few months back. The wet season is over, now, and so we have succeeded (for the most part) in following the sun and avoiding the rain. Our journey to Indonesia was a detour in this mission -- originally we would have crossed the border of Laos and Cambodia.

The last few months of our trip seems as if it's all about islands -- first the islands of Indonesia, then Thailand's Koh Samui, and now Laos' 4,000 islands, tiny parcels of land that rise out of the Mekong River as it splits into what seems like a thousand Mekong Rivers. Looking at the area on a map, the path of the river takes on the appearance of marbled fat in meat, the network of veins in the body, the haphazard rivulets of paint in a Jackson Pollock painting...

Like all island life, the 4000 islands promises to be slow and meandering while we're there. There is no electricity and so, according to the guidebook, finding accomodation in the sweltering heat is all about 'air flow'. Looking for a bungalow with more than one window will be our biggest goal. Price won't really matter; most of the accommodation is listed as $1.00.

Laos is going to be like journeying back in time -- it is not a modern place. There are no ATMs, the largest note of currency is equivalent to $2.00, and the middle class in Laos reportedly earns only $100.00 a month. Things are simple there. We've been to Laos before, but the 4 days we spent was hardly enough. This time 'round, we'll be there for one month, moving from South to North...

If blog entries are few and far between, it's only because you cannot find the internet in a time capsule....

Americans (with big butts) Abroad. Pt. II

In the past couple of months, I've been told on several occasions that I have a big bum -- and this has been uttered from the mouths of petite, svelte women with a tone and wink of approval. It goes to show the grass is greener as they say: people with curly hair desire straight hair (and vice versa), people with brown eyes wish for blue... and, apparently, in some parts of the world, a big butt is something to envy.

Normally, such comments would send me to the bathroom in a fit of tears, but my -- shall we say -- curves are nothing to be ashamed of here. Incidentally, I met a skinny Scottish woman in Cambodia who's been living in Africa for the past few years. The women in Africa would accost her with fattening treats on her way to and from work in order to make her more desirable.

This morning I read in The Nation newspaper that big bums are making an appearance on fashion runways. It's too bad there aren't larger models, though, because designers have had to resort to shoving cushions up the models' skirts to achieve the effect.

But back to Asia. People here just have a different attitude towards 'body image' than I'm used to in the states. In America, you'd never hear someone say, "You're fat," or, "Don't worry about a jacket, your fat will keep you warm." They would go home later that night sporting a lovely, new body cast if not a black eye. But people say those kinds of things -- not to be mean or rude, but because it's OK. It's an observation. At first it's hard to believe your ears and on the receiving end, it's hard to keep your cool... but it's refreshing nonetheless.

There are a lot of subtleties at play here. Sometimes, "You have a big bum," is equivalent to, "I like your hair." Sometimes, "You're fat," means, "You must be rich." Sometimes the latter is the equivalent to telling someone who is 6'5", "You're tall," as if he didn't know it. Since most people in Asia are thin, larger people are something of a novelty. And there is no shame in talking about it, that's for sure.

It's also refreshing to see Europeans strutting their stuff, despite their jiggles and wiggles, their beer bellies and love handles, cellulite, rolls, stretch marks, and flab. They don't hide under their clothes like many overweight people in America; they're comfortable with their bodies.

So I wonder: why are we so different in America?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Flashback to Gili Air

This morning I awoke on a train bound for Bangkok. But yesterday, I awoke on the island of Koh Samui and, knowing my remaining time there was brief, I went for a quick swim. Floating in the warm, green water -- mesmerized by the luster of satin-looking wavelets -- my thoughts turned back to Indonesia's Gili Air. We'd come from there before voyaging to Koh Samui and being in the water, under the sun, my thoughts drifted...

And so I feel that I should record them properly, here on this blog, before the vivid details fade.

Gili Air

We left for the Gili islands in a small, colorful fishing boat -- crossing the waters of the Java sea, leaving the sweeping cone of Bali's tallest volcano, Mt Agung, behind -- heading towards... towards nothing! There was no land visible on the horizon. I kept looking back at Bali for comfort (I like seeing land on the horizon).

Seems that clouds are attracted to land because above us and the sea, the sky was blue without as much as a tuft of white cumulus in sight. But over Bali, the volcano in particular, fluffy clouds floated above like helium balloons tied down with string. As we tackled the surly waves and moved farther from Bali, ocean mist settled between the lovable land mass and our boat, further diminishing its view. But there was always a trace of the volcano -- an impressive sight, a volcano rising up and out of the sea.

Eventually, there was land in sight ahead of us. Lombok was only hidden by ocean mist and I was thankful to see the smudge of the island appear and grow more solid with each passing minute. And then I saw the Gilis -- three tiny islands (they are islands off the coast of Lombok), flat as pancakes, rimmed with white and trimmed with green -- all floating above waters of deep aquamarine and, closer to shore, turquoise with the clarity of glass.

First we passed Gili Trawagan, "the party island," as it is known. Then we passed Gili Meno, "the honeymooner's island," as it is called. And then we arrived on Gili Air, "the island for everyone else," I've dubbed it.

What a way to arrive -- our 'driver' beached the boat and we hopped out onto the sandy shores as if stepping out of a cab onto a street corner. We were wet from the journey and soon covered in sand -- hair wild from the wind of salty air during the sea voyage -- skin burned to a fine shade of pink. It was perfect.

And it was more perfect because there was no-one there: no vendors, hawkers, touts that are found on arrival anywhere in the world. Luckily, there was one guy there with his pony cart -- we weren't in the mood to walk. And that's all you can do on Gili Air to get around: walk or bicycle or ride in a pony cart. There are no roads, no automobiles, no motorbikes and the accompanying annoyances that go with them: noise, traffic... even purpose, for that matter. Life on the Gilis is slow and mellow. Why, they've only had electricity on the island for 10 years.

Gili Air is the closest island to Lombok and of the three islands, is like the "middle child" -- it is somewhat larger than Meno, but smaller that Trawagan; it has more people than Meno, but less than Trawagan (Air has a population of 300). It is more active than Meno, but less so than Trawagan. It's easy to ferry to all three islands, as they are only several kilometers apart, but we spent most of our time on Air.

The beaches of Gili Air are, mostly, full of white broken coral which made the most delicate, musical sound as the ocean lapped its waves upon the shore -- the sound reminded me of a 'rain stick'. There is sandy beach, too, on the Southern end of the island -- but we stayed North, where the tract of sand used by pony cart ends and traffic is all by foot. We only saw a small number of people pass by our bungalows each day, though. It was easy to feel like we were the only ones on the island at times and when someone did pass by, I couldn't help but wonder where they could possibly be headed.

We spent a lot of time lounging on pillowed burugas on the beach -- traditional wooden platforms with thatched roof -- completely open on all sides, with unobstructed views of the ocean and Lombok (or Gili Meno) beyond. Burugas line the circumference of the island and on a walk around Gili Air, which takes all of 1 hour, we would see people slumbering, reading, eating, chatting in burugas -- all private, all comfortable, all with astounding views.

Our bungalows had burugas instead of tables at their restaurant (like all the restaurants on Air). Every morning we would rise for breakfast, lean against the pillows and eat from the low table, all while gazing at Lombok's volcano, Mt Rinjani... or fisherman collecting their nets... or we'd watch the morning light sparkle on the waves like blinding prisms. In the eve, we would take our dinner there and watch the sky turn pink and darkness settle over Lombok. And later, we would have drinks with friends -- all of us lounging on pillows as if were were gods.

The reefs of the Gilis are impressive -- they looked like strange urban scenes from a sci-fi movie, with huge domes and spires and brainy-looking things. And in this setting, a metropolis under the sea, schools of colorful fish of all shapes and sizes... striped and polka-dotted, round, triangular, tansparent, flashy. I've never seen so many different kinds of fish, so many different patterns and textures and colors. The fish weren't afraid of humans, either. I swam with several schools as if I were just one of gang.

When the tide goes out, it's as if the water is heading to the horizon line: one could walk for what seems like forever before getting into water deeper than the knees. And when the tide goes out, there are tidal pools amidst the exposed reef with creatures like star fish, anenomes, sea stars, hermit crabs, sea slugs, and tiny tranparent fish.

Everywhere on the island, there are fantastical-looking sculptures made with sea trees (black, curly, twiggy branches) and shells. There are windchimes and mobiles made with shells, lampshades made with shells, even "beaded curtains" made with shells. All the furniture is made with bamboo -- I don't recall seeing any plastic -- and all of the structures are made with wood, often carved with intricate designs, and thatched roofs. Like my experiences in Bali, it seemed that the human constructions were an extension of nature instead of an addition to it. Natural materials -- island materials -- like wood and shells and thatch gave Air the feeling of living 'with' the island instead of 'on' it.

Having no roads or pavement helps, too. What there are of roads -- for the pony carts -- are basically tracts in the sand. Narrow footpaths criss-cross the island for pedestrians and bicyclists (althouth the bikes often get stuck in the sand). Footpaths tread past homes, under arcs of bouganvalia, by pastures with cows grazing under coconut trees.

We looked for the market one day and coming upon a tiny stand of vegetables and fruit and other sundry items along a sandy-dirt pathway, we almost missed it. In fact, others we talked to had walked right by it. It looked like what one would see at a market -- one vendor's table maybe -- but this was the entire market. There just aren't many people on the island and the best part is, that the island feels like it is first an island where people live and second an island for vacationers. Usually it is the other way around and this was refreshing.

Being a small island, there are no police or things of that nature. The island is really a village, and so there is a village chief who is the man-in-charge of everything. He has outlawed pool because gambling is a no-no in Muslim culture (and Lombok and the Gilis are mostly Muslim). He is 30 years old, I believe, and is the village chief for all of the Gili Islands, though he lives on Air. I thought a village chief should be an old, wrinkled man -- probably because of such images from National Geographic and the like. But this guy is young and he was elected -- they Gili-islanders elect their village chief every 5 years. Even without police, there is no crime in the Gilis. I think the islands are too small to get away with anything and the people are too mellow to bother with crime in the first place.

I think I could go on and on... about the chorus of roosters in the morning, the azure skies, the coconut palm groves and scrubby trees, the delicious food, the afternoon breeze and hot, still mornings, the quiet and the tranquility... But I won't. I'll end here and leave something for you to discover on your own...

Monday, October 17, 2005

Americans Abroad

"You're from England? Australia? Canada?"

People often misidentify Benjamin and me as being from one of these countries (and I'm talking about English people, Australian people, and Canadians -- also French, Dutch, and so on...). I have no idea how or why -- sometimes it comes after a simple look at us and other times, it comes after a bit of conversation, which makes the idea of it even more ridiculous -- excluding Canada. We certainly don't sound English and Australian!

Some say our accents are subtle, that we do not sound American. Perhaps it is because we are not loud, obnoxious, brash, and arrogant. Before you've hung me, my fellow Americans, I only say this because this is a common perception of Americans on the part of the rest of the world, whom we have met while traveling from the deserts of India, to the mountaintops of China, to the seas of Vietnam, the temples of Cambodia, and the beaches of Indonesia and Thailand.

It is true. People from around the world have a negative impression of Americans. They are usually shocked that we are from that obnoxious place because we are not obnoxious. I imagine in their travels, these people must have met frat boys on vacation, yelling and commanding and demanding in abusive and drunken slurs, with baseball hats on backwards and an opinion that the rest of the world should be like America. I don't know how it would be possible to meet such people, though, as we have not met any or seen one.

Some of our foreign friends' shock comes from seeing real, live Americans in the first place. We are a rare species amongst travelers. And this is true. As I've said, we have barely met any Americans on the road, save a handful... a most of them were teaching in China... not traveling.

The Americans we have met have been nothing but pleasant and kind and considerate of cultural differences in the lands they travel -- it seems silly to get upset about the latter as that is one of the biggest reasons to travel in the first place: to discover foreign lands and people. The Americans we met have marveled, too, that they have come into contact with their countrymen. It's as if we are twins separated at birth and have met after 45 years in ignorance of each other: it is THAT compelling. Really.

For our Americans-teaching-in-China travel friends, it makes some sense. They'd been in China for upwards of 1 year and admitted to staring at Westerners the same way the Chinese do; we're uncommon to see (regardless of nationality).

So, as I was saying... there is a bad reputation out there for us, my fellow Americans, and we ought to wonder about it, concern ourselves with it, and do what we can do to change it.

This is a good segway to my next bit of news:

The other predominant comment we have encountered on the road is that everyone, the world over, cannot believe Americans put Bush back in office and when they DO happen to meet an American, that American claims to have had nothing to do with it.

Now, I know some of you out there reading this may have voted for the man. Please don't send me angry mail like the last time I ranted on Bush. Don't shoot the messenger. I am merely reporting what has been said to me and what I have experienced first hand.

These people tell me, "Every American I've met says on introduction, 'I'm from the US, but I didn't vote for Bush,' and I'm getting sick of hearing it." These people want us to stop apologizing for it already. They figure Americans they meet on the road are probably not the sort who voted for Bush anyway. They're not talking about holiday-makers and that lot, they're talking about backpackers.

There you have it. The TWO most common perceptions/comments/opinions about the USA and her people. We hear it over and over again.

There are other perceptions on American life that we've heard while traveling, and if I've heard it more than once, I've listed it in the following:

1. American life is like American movies (and tv programs)

This is the most startling thing I've encountered because I thought people were smarter than to think a movie is like real life. Especially with Hollywood in charge. I mean, other countries produce movies and their movies are not all depictions of reality. Who would go see movies if they were? They are an ESCAPE from reality.

Once, while I explaining the time and cost of traveling from NYC to SF by plane, a couple of Germans were astounded. "But in the movies, people fly across the country just to say 'hello'," they said with some duress brought on by confusion. "That's the movies," I told them, "you know... they are not real."

In India, we met a local shark (tuk tuk driver) who claimed that the United States has cheap cars. "You can get a nice (but used) car for $300.00," he stated. "Where? Tell me where!" I exclaimed, "I would like to buy a nice (but used) car for such little money!" He didn't believe me when I told him it was impossible (not surprising because liars are usually skeptical about the truth of things other say). He'd seen this price chalked onto the window of a CADILLAC or some such car in the background of a scene in, of course, a movie.

I was further happy to disappoint more Indian men by breaking the news that the WWF (world wrestling federation) is a sham, a farce, totally and utterly and completely fake. They thought it was real and the immense show of sorrow upon hearing the news was a small victory for me: in some way (perhaps a bit misplaced), it made up for all the trickery and deceit I'd suffered at the hands of their brethren... almost.

2. Americans are all rich and some have money trees growing in their yards

People from the most destitute third world nation to our European peers cannot believe there is poverty in the US. "Oh yes," I tell them, "you should see all the homeless people in San Francisco." And that doesn't even describe the poverty found in ghettos, slums, and entire forgotten industrial towns that stretch across the country.

But being such a rich nation, one that has enough money to go around 'fixing' countries the world over, it is difficult for people to imagine that American citizen want for anything (provisions for health care fall in line with this thinking as well). And I think they have a point. It's a bit like that old saying about the shoe-mender fixing other peoples' shoes while his children are barefoot. It goes something like that...

As for the money tree. Wouldn't it be nice? It is, of course, ridiculous and it has probably only been used in the conceptual way... But it is true that people think we have money to burn. It's why souvenir hawkers will never leave us alone. I think that they think we have so much money, we buy things we don't' even want or already have 10 of. I tell them, "I don't care how cheap it is -- yes, you're right... it's a very good price -- but I don't care how cheap it is. I just don't want it." They think if I can buy it, I will.

I want to return back to the homeless issue I raised a few minutes ago -- there is tons of homeless and begging in San Francisco. And as I've traveled, excluding India, I have not seen a fraction of it in the countries I've visited. Perhaps the communist countries of China and Vietnam are good examples to start with. Being 'red', people are probably expected to pull their weight. And they do -- while the poor may be shining shoes, driving a cyclo, or selling souvenirs, they are working -- not begging. Cambodia is so poor, the people probably don't even think to beg; they've been poor to long. And there, people are working -- picking garbage for pennies if they have to -- but they are working. It's admirable.

3. Americans are gun-toting, bullet-slinging wild men (and women)

I met Australians who think every American owns a gun and walks the streets with it in concealment, ready to shoot and kill. One burly, muscled, plasterer said he was afraid to visit the US and, in fact, would NOT visit the US because he is not ready to die. He's afraid of getting shot dead in the street for looking at someone the wrong way. And this guy is brutish-looking; believe me, no one would mess with him. A fear (and especially the admittance of one) coming from this guy is like hearing a Rotweiler dog with a helium-sounding bark. He gets this impression from all the news reports of murders and school shootings and street gangs and such from over the years...

I assured him not everyone has a gun and if they did, they wouldn't go around firing them off at every little thing. I'm sure he doesn't believe me.


So that's it. Draw what conclusions you please... I am amused and also disgusted that we are conceived of and judged by our movies and tv programs -- it's hardly right and fair to think we are like the characters in those awful Hollywood and primetime productions.

Our reputation as arrogant, loud, brash, and obnoxious is there, and was there long before Bush... but everyone has their opinions and stereotypes and every person from every country is judged in some sort of way (unfairly) because of them. I don't like it, but there's not much to do but act like a decent human being when away from home. AND refrain from doing it to others.

As for the money tree, I'm searching for one on eBay. I'm sure they have one. If they've had a grilled cheese sandwich with the face of Mary burned into it, I'm sure they have a money tree. I'll get my $300.00 Cadillac once I have my money tree.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Bangkok Bar Scene

Bangkok. An apt name for a city full of go-go bars in a country known for sex tourism. There are plenty of seedy places with girls for rent; plenty of "shows" where women shoot bananas and darts from their privates or, more curiously, smoke cigarettes 'down there'... but there are also a lot of seemingly harmless bars with armies of bar girls on hand (no pun intended) for a little bar stool companionship.

Benjamin and I have found one of such bars on Soi 7-1/2 that advertises cheap beer and 'no hassle'. "Sometimes a guy just wants a drink," the owner says.

On the surface, the vibe at these kind of bars is more like a slumber party than a place of sexual debauchery. The girls all hang out, giggling, doing each others hair like kids giving makeovers at midnight. But when a man intrudes on the party, one or two or three of the girls are sent into flight, smiling and batting their eyelashes while helping him to a seat and a cold drink. They then spend the rest of the night lavishing attention on him as if he was the center of the universe. It's all fake of course, well... at least most of the time. People do have their own personal standards, and it goes against reason that the bar girls actually find any or all of the men they dote their attention on deserving of it. But it's part of the job.

I spent a little time getting to know these women at our bar of choice, the 'No Hassle Bar' I'll call it, and I learned that they are more than just girls-for-sale. They're real people, and many of them mothers. You can see it in the flabby, stretched skin of their bellies, which they exhibit with as much shame as a woman back home would point out a gray hair. They pulled their shirts up and patted their paunches to complain about it. "I'm fat," they joked. I pointed to my butt, which one girl had already pointed out was big, saying, "I like it (bless her heart), mine too small". "I'll share with you," I told her, grabbing imaginary hunks from my hips and handing them over.

Once the jokes were out of the way, the girls told me about their children -- who are usually living elsewhere, in the poor village of Issan where many of the women come from. "Do you miss your daughter?" I asked a woman I'll call Lek. "Yes, but we talk once a week on the phone," she told me. Her daughter is 11 and lives with her ex mother-in-law. I'm not sure what happened with her husband or the husbands of the other bar girls for that matter; questions on that are usually met with a grimace and the words, "bad man".

"No husband, but I have boyfriends from France and Spain," Lek admitted. I never quite understood the concept of bar girls and their boyfriends until talking more with Lek about her 'Boyfriend Number One' (from France) and 'Boyfriend Number Two' (from Spain).

I asked, "Is boyfriend number one your favorite?" To this she answered, "Yes." Boyfriends are ranked on a scale, according to how much she likes them -- which entails a number of things I might not ever comprehend. My first assumption was that there's a direct correlation to how much money he has spent on her, but upon a closer inspection, I have come to understand that it goes deeper than that, despite the profession that should dictate otherwise.

"I thought I was in love with Number One," Lek told me, "but him a butterfly." She said this with a scowl. I didn't know what a 'butterfly' was, so I asked her to explain... "He came to Bangkok for one month and only saw me once. He go here, he go there, he go so many other places, so many other girls."

"Ah," I understood. "You shouldn't call him a butterfly. It's too pretty, too nice. Call him a rat," I told her. She liked this and laughed. We'd bonded. But I don't think she'll take to using this new term. It's not very nice. It's not very flattering. And the bar girls are all about flattering the men who frequent their place of business. And maybe it's also a little more than that.

Perhaps the term is, ironically, too correct and absurd all at once. A man visiting girls at Bangkok bars is not a man you expect a commitment from -- empty promises of a commitment, yes -- but a real commitment, no. And maybe the actuality of this is something the girls would rather not deal with. If they do form emotional attachments to one of their customers, or 'boyfriends', it must be easier to think of his fluttering behavior as a butterfly instead of a cheater, as 'rat' implies. It can't be 'cheating', can it, when companionship is paid for. Most Western women would consider the pay-for-girl activities of these men 'rat-like' in and of itself, but the Thai girls don't see it that way. It's just the way of things. It's "normal". That said, not all Thai society considers this activity 'normal'; there are plenty of girls who won't be seen with a Westerner because she doesn't want to be perceived, wrongly, as a prostitute.

This is where the old adage, "Live and let live," comes to mind. Getting to know the girls, I've come to realize they are just regular people trying to make a living. It may be the only way they know how. And they are adults and can make choices for themselves. Granted, there are some places in Bangkok where the girls may have fallen victim to the sex-slave trade. But I'm talking about the 'No Hassle Bar' and the like. That said, I have seen rather reluctant girls whisked away for the night, for a fee, against their desire. You can see it in their body language. It begs the question, how much free will do they really have?

I watched one girl shake off the advances of a red haired, middle-aged man over the course of several hours. His kisses were forced: he practically had to hold her head in place as he smooched her tentative lips. And often she would slyly twist away from his hand which was moving down her back and under the waistline of her skirt. It was obvious she wanted nothing to do with him, but he was a paying customer and she had no choice. This sort of scene brings things back to perspective. Every woman knows what it's like to ward off unwanted advances and it's not fun. Imagine having to tolerate it to keep your job and worse, having to go off for an overnight tryst. I watched this particular young woman leave with the red haired man after he handed over a wad of cash to the bar's mamasan. She left with a fake smile and a look in her eye directed to her friends, the other bar girls, that looked akin to a shared misery.

There's another problem with the bar girl scene. I was surprised to see the number of children walking the street, in and out of bars, selling flowers, lighters, and gum to drunk men with girls hanging on their arms. They are growing up (and working) in an environment which, to them, is as ordinary as couples strolling in a park. One little girl, who told me she was 10, had picked up a shocking sales pitch to sell her roses, "No money, no honey, no pussy." I asked her if she knew what it meant. "No," she admitted. She'd obviously picked that line up from the 'role models' on the street. Another little boy, who was 7, surprised me by answering a cell phone that was almost too big to fit in his tiny pocket. The call was made by an adult -- his parents, perhaps -- to make sure he was busy working and not fooling around. This was 11:00 p.m. when he should have been at home, in bed, dreaming about flying airplanes.

It's easy to find 'innocent fun' in Bangkok's bars. Especially for me, being a woman. The girls have a tight knit bond and welcomed me right into it. Gossiping, laughing, making jokes, dancing... but I have this internal dilemma about participating in the scene by spending time there, having a few beers. I wonder: does my participation support it and how do I feel about that? I'm not so naive to think that boycotting the bars will make any difference in the grand scheme of things. And I'm not sure I want to. But as a woman, I wonder...

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Indonesia: The Highlight Reel

At long last, the blog is alive again... Some of you have been wondering where I went (thank you, it's nice to know people actually read this) and where I went is ON VACATION. But, I'm back in Bangkok now with a journal full of notes...

Our travels started in Kuta, one of the sites of the unfortunate and recent bombings. For that reason, I'll refrain from more jokes about Aussie beer guts and braided hair. We then went North, through Bedegul and Munduk, and spent several days on the northwestern coast in a town called Pemuteran. Meeting up with some French girls on their way to the eastern coast, we shared a ride to the tiny beachside village of Lipah and traveled from there to Gili Air in Lombok. There, we found paradise... From Gili Air we returned to Bali for our flight back to Bangkok, spending an extra day in Ubud to catch up on last minute shopping and gorging ourselves on imported cheese at a restaurant we have come to revere... Here are the story snippets:

Ubud is the cultural and artistic center of Bali, with the constant mellifluous sounds of gamelan music floating in the air, frangipani petals behind everyone's ear and on the breakfast plate, and the delicate craftsmanship of Balinese carving and painting at every turn. A great place to start our vacation...

In Ubud, I was told I have a big bum. "It's good," was included in the same sentence (thank God). For this reason alone, Bali is my new best friend. It's still not fun to hear that I have a big bum. I know I have one, but it's one thing to know it and another to hear about it. Makes it more real. I'll never again ask Benjamin, "Does this make my butt look big?" Because, now I know that in fact, it does... and everyone knows it. I'm thinking about taking up residence in Bali and feasting on chocolate and french fries to keep up appearances...

Unfortunately, we stopped overnight in Bedegul. We went there to see 'the most picturesque and photographed place on Bali'. What we found was a tourist trap. We were the only ones who got off the bus from Ubud to Lovina. "What are those crazy Americans doing?" people wondered. I know this because later in our trip, we met up with a couple of French girls, Marie and Sandine, who told us so. There was not much of a town and the temple, which is supposed to emerge from the water of the lake, was on land and crowded with people getting their photos taken with a boa constrictor.

Our hotel was interesting, though. Having arrived on Saturday, it would have been nice if someone told us that the hotel becomes a church on Sunday. We were awoken early in the morning to the joyous singing of Christians who like to get up at 7 a.m. It made an interesting soundtrack to my dreams, and then waking to find it was real, I felt completely disoriented. The other highlight of our hotel room was a propane tank in the bathroom -- used to heat the hot water. Showering was a brain-cell-killing-affair with propane fumes and Christain tunes to blame...

We left Bedugal after one night, having found an awesome driver to take us to the more remote Northwest coast and Pemuteran. The drive took us through Munduk, a very scenic place with waterfalls and forests full of cocoa bean trees and coffee trees, along roads that wind through rice terraced hillsides spiced with the aroma of cloves drying in the sun...

On the way, we pulled over for a drink at a friendly cafe and were greeted with a handful of 'Dodol', special North Balinese "cakes" made of black sticky rice and peanuts wrapped in corn husks. They are little tubes of pleasure. I spent a good 1/2 hour learning how to roll the Dodol (it's not very easy) and having mastered that, the woman who owns the cafe asked if I would like to weave the basket they are sold in. "It's time to go," I told Benjamin seeing an immense amount of work in my near future (she's got a good thing going -- getting tourists to do some of her work). Benjamin wanted to leave me there to make some traveling money, but luckily my new "boss" thought better of it. "You will miss her," she told Benjamin... and so, we were off to the hot springs, where our driver saved a drowning child.

Pemuteran is a place devoid of much but resorts that line a black volcanic sand beach... we were lucky to find a cheap one and spent a few days laying by the pool and the sea. The best part of it was that our bungalow had an attached, outdoor bathroom. It is something to sit on the toilet and star gaze all at the same time. Taking a shower in a garden under the blazing rays of sun is nice, too. However, projectile vomiting in an outdoor bathroom is not romanticized, in any way, by the beauty of the environment. One night, I found myself shitting on the toilet while puking in a bucket at the same time: there is no time to star gaze whilst doing this. I believe I got food poisoning from the "resort" where we were staying. Once established, it is impossible to go elsewhere to dine (all restaurants are at the resorts), so I was forced to continue eating potentially poisonous food the rest of our stay. Benjamin, 'The Royal Food Taster', got sick as well. For this, we have deemed the place, "The Barf Bungalows".

Another note on our accommodation: the place had crazy, angry statues all about. Even the dolphin was leering, baring teeth, eager to devour souls. And dolphins, perhaps thanks to the New Age set, are supposed to be our gentle friends from the sea...

Luckily for us, we met our French friends Marie and Sandine here and continued our travels with them for about 4 days to the East Coast and onto the Gili Islands in Lombok... It was lucky because Benjamin and I were in need of 'outside influence'. After months of traveling as a duo, it's important to make friends who can add something more to a conversation when topics run dry...

It was also in Pemuteran that I discovered that my bathing suit has been deteriorating over the last several years while living in the dark corners of my underwear drawer back at home. I washed it in the sink after a swim in the pool and lined the porcelain with a coating of elastic that had fled my suit for more light... Taking my bathing suit out of its hiding place was akin to removing an ancient document from a temperature controlled environment. It seemed to start disintegrating with the light of day...

We joined Marie and Sandine on a journey to the East Coast and landed in a tiny beachside village called Lipah, population 50. From our hotel room, we had an amazing view of the inlet known as Lipah, with ocean waters in front, colorful fishing boats on the beach, and a volcano looming behind. We snorkeled amidst a coral garden and tropical fish at a Japanese fishing boat wreck just off the coast. We also witnessed our special Balinese 'smoked duck' dinner while it was still alive. I don't like seeing my food alive before I eat it, much less the blood pouring from its slit throat. Thank God it was dark at the time...

Lipah is a wonderful little beach town, less frequented than others. It's also a town full of horny men. Benjamin ended up with 'three wives' in Lipah because Marie and Sandine used him as their salvation from come ons by the locals. It's all in good fun, though. All I can say is, any woman looking for a little attention should go to Lipah. There seems to be a shortage of local women in the village and all attention is bestowed upon the foreign women. It was actually a nice change of pace from my previous travels, seeing foreign men with Asian women hanging on their arms from China to Cambodia...

"It's raining men," was the theme of the night they played live music at the bar down the road (the only one in town, I believe). The local guys were out in force, most of them named something like Bob, Marley, and Ziggy.

The four of us chartered small fishing boats to transport us to the Gili Islands from Lipah. A 2.5 hour journey (which actually took 4 b/c of rough seas) was a much better option than the intensive bus/boat/bus/boat 10-hour voyage from Bali's main harbor, Padangbai. You can read more about that adventure on the main site in 'travel essays'. The story is called 'Death Boat'.

aka: Paradise. Gili Air is a tiny island off the coast of Lombok (Bali's neighboring island). It has a population of around 300 and the scene was mellow, relaxed, the ultimate get away. There aren't even roads... just sandy tracks in the sand that can only be traveled by bicycle, foot, or pony-drawn cart.

We spent a lot of time hanging out on burugas -- thatched wood platforms with pillows on the beach. In the warm, turquoise waters that ring the Gili Islands, we snorkeled amongst coral gardens, colorful fish of all shapes, sizes, and patterns, sea turtles and giant clams. We ate seafood and took walks on the coral-strewn, white beaches of Gili Air -- it only takes one hour to circle the entire island.

In short, we really did nothing and the days seemed to stretch into months -- the perfect respite for weary travelers...

We're back in Bangkok, heading to Southern Thailand shortly to continue our beach bum lifestyle... Not sure that this kind of living makes much to blog about, but keep looking!