Monday, October 25, 2010

You Can Run, You Can Run

Getting a taxi from the airport in Bangkok to your hotel is not the stuff of adventure and adversity. Unlike many airports throughout much of the once fiercely erect but now gone flaccid civilizations of Asia, you are not immediately charged by a frenzied mob of grubby, grabby taxi and hotel touts. But where's the fun in that?

Bangkok makes pretenses of having sagacious systems in place which run with an exacting know-how as polished as a silver serving tray handed down from grandparent to parent to the next generation.

The civility found beyond the customs counters manages to get you into a fast and clean smelling taxi by first selling you a fixed price chit which is handed to the next driver in the queue who takes over the handling of your luggage with the first of the many thousands of smiles you've come to love about the place.

Unlike Tokyo, Seoul or Hong Kong where modernity is in full bloom, Bangkok is in a perpetual state of blossoming. It is not a gold medalist Asian economy and its powers-that-be, despite being empowered through corrupt organizations passing themselves off as political parties, are aware of its poor man’s version of a roaring Asian dragon. I wish I could say that only figuratively will it sell you its mother to earn a buck, but why be misleading?

When you climb into a taxi at Suvarnabhumi Airport, you get all the feeling of excitement of coming home from a hard day at the office to find a nice meatloaf and mashed potatoes dinner awaiting you (you’re still inside the box).

It’s only when you tip the familiar face of the bellman at your familiar boutique hotel and after he clasps his palms together in a sacred hand position and says “kob kun” (Thai for “You’re the man”) then he leaves you alone, holding a TV remote like a withered dick in hand, that I find the fond sanctuary of isolation, and when it fully kicks in after my post-flight shower and nap, the doubting Thomas in me will be pulled in 1000 directions from clarity of vision and I will dress in a more leisurely skin which is exactly what I’ve come a’looking for. 

I’ll try hard not to dread the return date on my ticket and the consequential need to drag my soul into a confessional booth the morning after I spend my first night back in my own bed.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Muddied Waters

Friday morning just past rush hour, I arrived in Bangkok after a bad's night sleep in coach class. Many people standing in the arrivals immigration queue arrive in not only their destination hub, but their destination. For  me and others like me, it is the place we arrive in, to make believe it is home away from home, to buy our sims cards, to check-in to our guest houses and boutique hotels, to settle down for a night or two, collect our wits, and relax. However. All of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile experiences we experience after awhile make too much sense there. 

That's why the first and what may be the last good decision we make for some time is to hitch a ride away from there. 

Some might say, "But it's Bangkok, man. Fucking Bangkok! What more could you want?" 

That's a good question and I am not sure if I have an answer. It's not just that I and others like me don't know how to dance for the simple pleasure of dancing; it's that we've never learned how to. Maybe at one time there was some lesson, a word in our ears, a tip or bit of wisdom passed on to us, but by our natures the lesson seemed to have had at the time no foreseeable application for us, so we didn't take notes, and later, when put to the test, we didn't make the grade.

Wherever I’ve been, in each place I come and go with seasonal changing reliability, some sort of nonsense must be there waiting for me. I go to join mobs that come and go en masse, attracted by distraction.

Even on the odd quest for a definitive reality and search for  things inspirational, I and others like me need a break from sound decision making and predictable outcomes. At home, where despair and ecstasy are heads and tails of the same coin, we feel locked into routine, we're servants of punctuality and conscientiousness, which is, if not a good thing, a necessary thing. Reasons and rational thinking must reign for us for if they didn’t, we would not only drown in our regrets, we would survive to some measure subsisting on muddy water and sleeping in hollow logs. 

We get our bang for the buck in places where nonsense rests layer upon layer, and we must always--without giving it too much thought--be a part of it. We expect more from the unfamiliar than what we get from our real shamefully naked lives. Far more memorable than the reputation of say, the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat, is the nonsense of the mobs and events on the roads leading to them. Wherever we go, everything from the front desk staff to the four theft proof coat hanger rings that hold our rented wooden hangers serve as unforgiving witnesses to every one of our erratic ties to rash acts brought about by virtual sanity. We do not endanger others, so what's the big deal?

I want it to be said of me before I break camp and head for home "Thank God, we hardly knew him". Shit. I want me to be able to say the same thing about myself! I'm most good with that, at least while most of my vital body parts are still functional.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Stomach of Darkness

Twenty-five years on, I’m now more than two times older but not much wiser than I was the first time I traveled abroad. I spent that time thriving on the unfamiliarity of a tangle of steep hills, abrupt valleys, frequent streams, double canopied jungles, and barefoot locals whose village lay half in one country, Honduras, half in another, Nicaragua, two countries which may or may not have been at war with each other at the time. Reagan was president and back then, who knew what about anything? 

I loved the asymmetry of time spent in the jungle as time passed unbroken by week days or weekends, untangentially entwined without names or dates or even hours. Time passed according to light and darkness and was marked by a percentage of job accomplishment.

As an Army reserve medic I observed from an air conditioned ambulance army engineers busting their backs while hollowing out in the middle of all this awesome fecundity a stretch of run-way that for the record was never there, and for the record neither was I nor the other reservists or the military training camp nearby which was, off the record, being funded by a non-governmental organization with the vague name “Friends of the Americas”. 

This is my war story.

A man once said, there is nothing quite as satisfying as being shot at and missed. I’ll take his word for it. It has no application to my war story. Although I did have a pistol and the workers were issued rifles, nobody had any bullets. I did hear a shotgun blast at one time. Some locals hunting wild birds I was told.
I sum up my war story with words attributed to some other war-type guy, “C'est la soupe qui fait le soldat" (an army marches on its stomach).

There I was, stretched out on a stretcher snoozing in bliss under a canopy of mosquito netting, 50 milligrams of sleepy time Benedryl coursing through my bloodstream and nobody bothered themselves to think of me and walk the couple of dozen meters from the dining tent to my ambulance to tell me breakfast was being served. 

By the time the racket of earth digging and moving machinery got underway and I pulled back my mosquito netting well past sun-up, the kitchen was closed, and I had to content my stomach with tin packets of cold field rations and instant coffee. It would be hours before my stomach would be sated with a hot meal. 

To this day, I still find it hard to talk about.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Taking off

Just as the double gin and tonic and ten milligram Valium body slammed me, I collapsed into my window seat, headphones on, listening to static, feeling pre-flight goofy, scrawling in my pocket notebook.
"In case of unexpected turbulence keep seat belt fastened at all times. . ."
What an extraordinary life it would be if we could learn to be our own greatest companion, to be able to wrap ourselves around ourselves in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, to steady ourselves in the dark, to learn the importance of caring for ourselves as we might care or make a great pretense of caring for others. How utterly refreshing it would be to find myself in bed in elegant isolation, just laying there, wordlessly, restlessly awaiting each new day to begin.

". . . observe the exits. . ."
I have tried over and again and have on rare occasions succeeded in outrunning others and their needs managing to stay a step ahead of caring about the consequences, but not with what one might think of as regularity.

". . . a reminder not to smoke on board. . ."
Remember being young enough to fall recklessly in love while at the same time candidly going for your own throat in the process? Running from here and running to there can be just as fleeting as young love, just as passionate as uncultivated sex. 

". . .stow luggage under a seat or an overhead compartment. . ."
How startling life would be if I could hide all this baggage which long ago took root squarely between my pretense of giving a damn about anything and actually giving a damn.

". . . use of passenger seat cushions as flotation devices . . ."
I'll float far from here escaping on a gust, unrestrained from sensible choices, free to breathe me again.

Saturday, October 09, 2010


The man who said that traveling is a better thing than arriving never hopped a bus in Asia. Keeping your head is an essential part of traveling, especially when traveling by bus; however, if you can get hold of over-the-counter codeine in tablet or cough syrup form, it is likely traveling by bus may be less tedious when numbed and drifting in and out, head resting against the window, mouth slightly a'drool.

Remember that a pre-booked seating assignment is a bizarre concept in some places, Cambodia for example. Generally these are the same places where people may have  absorbed many western fashion trends, can hum along to the latest chart topper and may be up to speed on the latest Hollywood blockbuster thanks to the industriousness of Chinese DVD bootleggers, but never (ever) will these people in some patches of quasi-civilization around the globe find value in the queue.

 It is also unlikely you’ll remember the sites and sounds, so carry along a pocket sized notebook and camera, take notes, take pictures, but remember to write just legibly enough so that only you will later be able to decode the experience and if you are carrying a digital camera, know how to thoroughly delete pictures.

Connect with people on a bus; befriend them for the duration of the journey, but stop just short of exchanging Email addresses and (perhaps this goes without saying) don’t tell anyone where you’ve pre-booked your next room. Remind yourself: short term acquaintances, not lifelong friends.  Bus travel is not alluring. It inspires no awe. It’s cheap. That’s all it is. Cheap, like a hastily decided upon one-night stand arranged just after last call: it will have to do.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Long Neck Blues

Like most resolute travelers, I don’t care much for packaged tours—not even for a day. I think they make us all a little uncomfortable because we are herded together too early in the morning (tour starts at seven) into a mini-van that may seat six to seven comfortably, but is always filled to capacity, cramming nine to ten into an uneasy long day of intimacy. 

I don't think any of us are uncomfortable because we are no longer on our own adventures but now just a gaggle of gaped mouthed, digital photographers always unzipping, zipping up our belt packs and haggling for the best price at the souvenir stalls which surround each noteworthy stop.

The last stop of the tour, we reached the outskirts of a Padaung village where we got out of the van, stretched our backs and legs, paid our entrance fee, then walked a short distance up a hill to the  souvenir stalls where the ladies who wear brass coils around their necks worked as cashiers. Amidst the futile attempts to bargain--all of the factory made kitsch is sold at a fixed prices--I was drawn right away to a song hanging in the air, to a voice as lamenting as a sigh.

I approached the singer, her round, moon face framed by Beatlemania bangs. She sat stiffly holding her head high atop her brass neck rings as she strummed a steady rhythm, using one finger on her left hand to open and depress a position on the guitar’s fret board. The changes in pitch accompanied shades of her plaintive voice.

We made eye contact, exchanged smiles, and I waited for her to finish her song then applauded. I gave her a nice tip and extended one hand towards the guitar, waggled my head, “May I?” She accepted the money and handed me her instrument.

It is not really a guitar, only an instrument shaped like one. One string is tuned a fifth below the other three strings which are all in the same key—drone strings we call them. The instrument doesn’t allow for chording, but changes pitch simply when one finger holds down a string then releases it.

The “action” of the instrument (the distance between the fret board and the string) is high. This makes it nearly impossible to make a full chord. It takes some wrist strength to use one finger to bear down on one string for any length of time.

Holding the instrument, strumming it, trying to mimic the song I’d just heard, confirmed to me that the it is more closely related not only to an Appalachian dulcimer but also to a “diddley bow”, an instrument once crafted by black sharecroppers in the deep south of the United States, usually a wooden plank and a single wire string fastened together and played by plucking the string with one hand while the other hand used a glass or metal tube to slide up and down the string to change pitch. This sliding tube was necessary because the distance between string and board was too great to allow for painless fingering. It is the diddley bow that gave birth to the slide guitar.

I looked around her stall for a slide and zeroed in on a tube of lipstick. I pointed to it, and she made a motion across her lips. I smiled, “I know,” and put out my hand. She made a face seeming to, “Well, OK, let’s see where he’s going with this.” She handed me the lipstick.
 I removed the metal cap and fitted it to my left pinky. I began strumming, and then slid the tube up the neck on the three drone strings until they were in harmony with the open note. I did this a few times, falling into a Mississippi delta blues shuffle. She narrowed her eyes, following her lipstick tube up and down the fret board. A small audience began to gather, and what the hell, I thought, I’ll never see these people again, so I broke into song:

“Oh the long neck women, they really like to pose,
Yeah the long neck women, they really like to pose
Why they got them long necks, only the long neck man truly knows”

I doubt if I planted a seed that will one day produce a hybrid of Padaung folk songs resonating Muddy Waters, but I left with what all travelers hunger for most, an impromptu illumination of a moment, one that is carried away in an instant like a puff of smoke, impossible to capture with a camera.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Lost in Another Country, Sort of

Men on vacation who drink alone in a bar quietly cry out that their lives have been reduced to drinking alone in a bar while on vacation.  They hunch over their drinks like they’re about to jump off the ledge of a tall building, trying not to draw attention to themselves, staring deeply into their drinks while the laughter that snakes throughout the room is sucked into a black hole; these fellows cast no shadows, they’re constrained by their own singular mass.

Drinking alone devours time, the one thing that nobody can  afford to waste, yet these fellows piss it away like there's no tomorrow. They put on a brave front but stand like frightened wobbly lambs while creatures of the night howl for blood at crowded tables.

Years ago, I was back in Nepal, for the first time traveling in this country alone, and I wanted to confront this fear head on; what better way I thought, than to perform for the howling crowded tables center stage under a spotlight?

I left the Excelsior Hotel with my guitar searching for a sidewalk chalkboard easel advertising: “free live music tonite” and straight away, I found in the heart of Kathmandu’s touristy pub street district: the “The New Orleans Café”, a magnet for trustafarians and well-funded expatriate non-governmental organization organizers alike, and since I still considered New Orleans home despite having a well expired Louisiana driver's license, I thought, “Voilà! A twist of fate!” the stars had conveniently aligned themselves just for me. 
On stage tuning his guitar was a dread-lock Nepali.

Namaste!” I said, and he smiled, returned my “Namaste!” and smiled again after I asked if he’d mind if I plugged in and joined him on stage.  

For the rest of the evening, I drank for free, sat just behind the local singer, adding lead fills and arpeggios while he strummed and sang a list of songs that I now simply refer to as “the set”. This set list includes Dylan’s “Knocking on Heavens Door”, Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”, Dire Straits “Sultans of Swings”, the Eagle’s “Hotel California”, and a triptych of Bob Marley songs, “No Woman, No Cry”, “Redemption Song” and the backpacker’s international anthem that knows no borders, “One Love”. None of them bad songs the first ninety-nine hundred times you hear them. And I have for many years now backed many local "free music tonite" singers throughout Asia on many a pub street.

Last summer I went out once again with the guitar but I had made a decision that this time out I would do my best to avoid “the set” because for me, this is not really making music. Each song from "the set" is supposed to be played like the original, because to please certain howling crowded tables who on one hand seek adventure while on the other hand like to paint the unfamiliar towns a familiar shade of red, you have to approximate all those familiar notes which are eagerly anticipated by less adventurous ears.

Do what you can with whatever you have wherever you are, right? But where is the adventure in that? I have for too many years found common ground by filling in my own notes while trying to stay true to the spirit of the original. Last summer I went looking to reshuffle the deck. I wanted to play my hand with reckless abandon. I went on a blues safari. 

Death assumes many forms and one of them is predictability. The impulsive spirit of the blues creates possibilities that stand at the crossroads at the heart of midnight.  Go there, the crossroads at midnight and you'll find that infidelity to the original  may be heresy, but it feels so good, so very good. With the blues you can cast off loyalty to the unimaginative, create, and then set your course for the exceptions to all the rules.

Playing it your way is self-determination while conforming to the way things should be played is for me a ghost wandering the world forever feeling restless and unsettled unable to head towards the light. Fuck it. I didn't want to head towards the light. I wanted to play in shadows where my fingers could get lost then try to find their own path towards sonic redemption.

Getting lost is what I like most about traveling alone and it's what I like about the blues.

Monday, October 04, 2010


My first guitar-in-hand pub crawl was in Kathmandu some time back. I was traveling alone but I was OK with me. I wasn’t lonesome. I was having a good time. 

Traveling alone has advantages like the flexibility of schedules and permission to exhibit assorted disorganized behavior patterns in public which might otherwise be considered unacceptable . When I travel alone I live in an internal police state of privacy, a thing that I find elusive within in the sanctuary of a well tended garden and a for-the-most-part peaceful co-existence. What I do find is a "me" that is more fly-by-night, a "me" more capable of allowing luxuries which are not for good reason tolerated by companionship.

I own up that when traveling alone I am incapable of pulling myself together on demand, that I might overspend and that I might sometimes feel friendless whenever the sun comes up and just past sunset, but those feelings gain for me a certain self-respectability, one I dare to think of as praise worthy.   

Traveling alone can bring on sensational moments in the moment but those moments often in hindsight nag the question, “What on earth was I thinking?”, seeing that on more than one occasion I fell wide of the mark of good manners. And often in the recalling of events I am at a loss for words; I find myself experiencing an unanticipated reaction to having just "been there and done that", one which then has me stressing only to myself this final point, “Well, you would have to have been there to appreciate it."

When I awake those first few mornings back in my own bed next to someone I recognize and love deeply, I not only glare disapprovingly in the mirror but I am also glad to have made it back. 

Then again, maybe that’s the point, to return with feelings of gratitude rather than those of triumph.