Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Relaxing on the Beach.

I reached Bali around 5PM, and booked an official airport cab to my hotel for about $10. I'd found Semawang Beach Hotel's listing through Hostel world, but it's a proper hotel with individual rooms, beds turned down every day, and soap and towels provided. There was even a television in my room, though I don't know if it worked, since I never plugged it in.

Semawang is actually a tiny neighbourhood just south of Sanur, on the south-eastern coast of Bali. On the south western side of the island lies Kuta, the 24-7 funspot with surf-ready waves, nightlife, and a constant party made up of young surfers from Australia and around the world. Sanur was described to me by Don and Lacey as "Kuta in a Cardigan"--laid back, with plenty of little boutique shops and good restaurants, life in Sanur is all about the beach resort mentality.

Between Saturday, when I arrived, and Tuesday, when I climbed aboard a bus for Ubud, I did gloriously little. I walked the tiny storefronts, haggled for a few gifts for friends, and wandered the sandy, calm beaches. Sanur has a big breaking sand shelf about 100m from the beach proper, so the waves are barely more than a ripple when they reach the shore. The distant crash of the big waves on the shelf and the rush of the little ones lapping the sand is calm and relaxing, and the temperature seems impossibly perfect most of the time.

Semawang Beach Hotel is the kind of amazing, tucked-away place that deserves to be full of people, but is so valuable specifically because it always seems to be empty, and the owners and staff are so happy to see you, you start to wonder if there is anyone there at all. They serve a wonderful continental breakfast of toast and fresh fruit and thick, strong coffee (or tea or papaya juice, if you request it), and in addition to a wonderful book shelf full of left books in English, Dutch, and French, they also have a miniature pool table with balls roughly the size of a spherical Egg, and even a tiny pool on the roof, with little Hindu statue fountains. It's barely larger than a hot tub, but it's great for washing off the salt when you get back from the beach.

The restaurants in the area are quite good. Donald's serves an excellent Soto Ayam (a sort of chicken soup with boiled egg and noodles) and there is a fantastic place called Little India right at the end of the main beach road, where I had absolutely brilliant Chicken Tikka Masala.

On my first day in Sanur, I had spent some time wandering on the beach.

In the process, I inadvertently scammed a kid out of about twenty cents while negotiating for sunglasses.

See, what had happened was. . . I'd grabbed my room key, a towel, and thrown on a shirt and swim shorts, and stepped into my flip flops. The plan was, wander the beach, swim if I felt like it, maybe buy some ice cream or what have you. So I didn't bring along my wallet, I just stuffed all my spare change in the same pocket with my room key. This way I didn't have to worry about losing anything valuable, I figured.

The largest coin value in Indonesia is 500 IDR. Roughly speaking, it's a nickel. Everything else is bills. So you can shove 18,000 rupiah in your pocket and feel like, sure, that's probably enough to get what you want, unless you want a full meal or something. More importantly, if you just grab the pile of bills and shove them in your pocket, you might forget the total, and think you're carrying 25,000 rupiah or so.

In truth though, you're carrying around like, $1.75.

So I get a block down the beach and the glaring, burning sun reminds me that I'm in need of new sunglasses. So as I'm wandering, I run across this little hut, where a kid of probably 17 tries to strike up a conversation as I'm strolling past so that I'll buy his random crap. Just so happens, his random crap includes sunglasses--Adidas and Oakley brand (and I'm the king of Denmark), and so when he asks if I need sunglasses, I realize I do.

He offers me a pair for fifty, and I ask him about a different, cheaper pair, for which he offers thirty. I counter asking for him to sell me a pair for twenty, and after some back and forth he cuts 1/3rd off the price of the cheaper ones.

So we agree to the deal, and I go to pull out my money and discover I've got 18,000 on me. I feel pretty bad about this. Bad enough that I turn out my pockets to prove to him I haven't hidden the rest of my cash on my person as we quibble about what happens next.

My suggestion is that I don't buy the sunglasses (untenable of course, he wants this sale) and go get the money, and I'll come back and buy the glasses when I go out for lunch. Truth is, I would have too, they're durable, hilariously they bear the Oakley O, and they're $2, I'm fine with that. Of course, he doesn't like this option because he figures I won't come back (fair enough, that would probably be most people) and he wants me to give him the 18k now, take the glasses, and bring him the other 2k later (untenable, I hate owing anybody money, last of all some random kid who sells sunglasses on the Bali boardwalk).

After a lot of quibbling he finally decides that since we're such good friends, him being from Georgia, after all (Denmark and Sweden both, actually), he'll give them to me for 18,000.

Oops. Lesson reminded: always carry as much cash as I agree to pay, and then some.

On the same walk, I passed near a rather large shade tree, and as I'm going a middle aged Indonesian woman darts from under a big shade tree towards me, with the now familiar greeting of "Hello Mister, you want massage?" This last is usually called out in a singsong cadence that I can't write out phoneticaly, but it's both charming and annoying as hell at the same time. Walking on the beach in Bali, you get asked this question by a woman about every fifty feet. There are 4 million people on this island, and it seems like 1/4 of that number are masseuses, and another 1/3rd are taxi drivers.

Thing is, she's actually quite nice compared to the others--she's polite, persistent without being pushy, encouraging without whining, and she tells me the price is 50,000 Rupiah. Now I'm not planning to get a massage that day, I'm planning to cut inland to the main drag of shops and restaurants and walk back to my hotel that way, but I promise her that if I come back by her little booth, and I want a massage, I'll come to her and her sister "Linda" (which one was called Linda, or if they both answered to Linda, I never figured out).

It's inconsequential since that probably wouldn't be her real name if she's a Balinese native anyway--the Balinese only have four common names: Wayan, Made, Nyoman, and Ketut. These correspond to "first borne" through "fourth borne" respectively, and they loop ("Wayan Balik"--Firstborne again) when they reach five. The only variations in these names are related to which Caste you're part of. Probably 90% of the Balinese natives you meet will have one of these four names.

Anyway I promised "Linda" or "Linda's Sister" that I'd come to them if I wanted a massage.

So the next day, having been asked so many times in the past 36 hours if I wanted a massage that I was pretty sure I wanted one even if I discovered that Balinese massage involved getting struck with a tack hammer, I decided to visit their little operation. So I repeated the same process as the previous day, I walked up the beach until I reached the Lindas. They greeted me warmly and I confirmed the price, and then told them I was going swimming, and asked them to look after my stuff. The Balinese are an incredibly cool people, and I really don't think it would ever cross the mind of a legitimate business man (or woman) to pilfer from the money you left sitting with your sunglasses and room key and towel while you swam. It appears beyond them. They become very focused on closing the deal, and I honestly think many of them would probably not steal the money, even if they could do it without getting found out, specifically because doing so would keep them from earning it off you when the deal finally went down.

Regardless, I was only carrying about 120,000 rupiah that day anyway. So I left it all on a chair near their tiny table of bottled water and their three massage tables, and swam around in the calm, clear water of the Indian ocean for a few minutes. Clear, unfortunately, does not mean free of detritus, it just means it is much easier to see the detritus at hand. Sanur's beaches are beautiful, but there is a good deal of seewead, even in the shallower areas, and it breaks constantly, leaving little floating seaweed tips strewn out in long lines created by the waves. They look like a bunch of kids on their first day in marching band, vaguely oriented and all facing the same way, but always a little out of line and constantly wavering as each tiny wave rushes in.

So I swam for a few minutes, ignoring the seaweed (the stuff on the surface didn't bother me as much as the stuff I swam over, which I like when I'm snorkeling, but which always makes me jumpy when I'm swimming blind) and then came back to the massage area.

Afterward, I went back to the Lindas and followed their instructions, they washed the sand from my feet to keep from getting the table gritty, and then one of them gave me a massage that felt like it lasted three, maybe four hours. She massaged my back and shoulders and arms and legs and feet and hands and fingers and toes and neck and forehead and jaw and even the bridge of my nose. In reality, it probably took a bit over half an hour.

It was marvellous. The Aussie who finished on the other table while I was halfway through mine said he felt like he "could just float away" and while I wouldn't go that far, I could see his point. I found out later from other people's comments that I'd stumbled across two of the cheapest and best masseuses on the beach, most places charging more like 60 or 70 thousand for a similar service.

On an amusing side note, the previous day, I had decided to shave my beard. I wanted it to grow back in, but I didn't want to pay to have it trimmed and I didn't bring a beard trimmer. So I shaved the whole thing off, but left the moustache, because (a) I thought it still looked better than being completely cleanshaven and (b) it looked kindof hilarious.

Apparently, this was a mistake. In the next twenty-four hours, I would be asked if I was looking to meet a girl by not one, not two, but three different men. Apparently traveling alone with a moustache in Bali = sex tourist.

The last straw was as I was paying up for the massage, when the very sweet and incredibly skilled masseuse in whose hands I had just spent the last half hour, like clay on a throwing wheel, asked me--in a voice that barely carried to my ear--if I wanted a "special massage". I declined her offer with as demure a smile as I could manage, and went straight back to the hotel and shaved the damn moustache.

Overall though, despite more than a few pushy shop keepers and the spate of offers for an Indonesian girl, I really liked Sanur. It was quiet and cool, the people were friendly, the food outstanding. I decided that my time in Bali would be restful--a vacation within a vacation--so I decided that after Ubud, I would come right back to Sanur and relax for a couple more days.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Isn't it a pleasure to have an old friend visit from afar?

I went to the Dunkin' Donuts counter I'd visited the night before and grabbed some generic breakfast pastries, and kicked back with a book until I could check in.

Once I was finally able to check in, I could access the internet, and so I hauled out my laptop and e-mailed the friends I was going to visit. I hadn't had the chance until then to send them a note telling them when I'd be arriving in their city, and I was hoping that one (or both) of them could meet me at the airport, since that way I wouldn't have to navigate yet another crowd of pushy taxi salesmen.

I have a couple of old friends, Don and Lacey (Names have been changed to protect the innocent, and also to amuse me, because I find imaging these those names attached to those people hilarious). They live in a city here, and work on a project that improves the lives of the local population. It's a project with some external funding and volunteer labour which allows them to reduce the cost of the service/equipment they provide.

In that way, it's kindof like Habitat for Humanity. H4H doesn't give away houses, it sells them at a reduced cost on a zero interest loan, so that people can still feel like they own the place and care for it as an investment. Any student of history knows that in a free market society, the sense of ownership is important.

Anyway, for reasons connected to safety, privacy, and logistics, I can't talk much about what they do, or even where they are. But I can tell you this: they're still as Don and Lacey as ever.

Don picked me up at the airport and I got my first taste of the Indonesian Native Driving Experience (TM) on the way to their house. Of course I'd spent the last week in Korea, where they drive on the left, with the exception of Hong Kong, where I spend most of my time on the Subway, so what side of the street they use rarely occurs to me.

So after being shooed away from the driver's door by Don, I scurried to my appropriate seat and we were off into the fray. Driving in Indonesia has three rules.

1) Might makes Right (Of way). The bigger you are, the more power you have. Want to pull across a divided four lane highway in the midst of traffic wizzing by? Are you a cement truck? Ok then! You go right ahead, those guys will stop.

2) You are responsible for what is in front of you. If someone clips you, it's their fault, but your job is to keep moving and always have a plan. If someone slingshots out in front of you from nowhere--no matter how erratically--it's your fault if you hit them. Unfathomably, the extension of this rule seems to stand in direct opposition to Rule (1): any manoeuvre you can perform using your vehicle without causing another vehicle (in front of you) to deviate from its course is allowed, no matter your size.

3) Your car's signals are your voice, speak early, speak often. The horn means "coming up behind you" or "stay back until I perform this suicidal manoeuvre by driving between you and a bus" or "hey, I know you want to squeeze between me and that bus, but you're about to hit me, asshole" or "I'm about to pass you on the inside and you're on a bicycle and therefore do not have mirrors, please don't do anything foolish" maybe just "hi, I'm driving." The indicator lights don't just mean you're turning anymore. Sometimes they mean you're turning. Sometimes they mean that you are about to have to use the invisible third lane that exists between any two given demarkated lanes (two way, one way, doesn't matter) and the oncoming traffic should ease over to accommodate the fact that you have decided to drive into it.

Implicit in these rules are a couple more:

Subrule 1) There is an invisible third lane. Deal with it.

Subrule 2) People on motorscooters are not cars, they are extremely high velocity pedestrians who occasionally pretend to be motor vehicles when it suits them. Thus, whichever set of rules allows them to do what they want are the rules under which they operate. Do they need to squeeze into the third lane between you and oncoming traffic to pass you? Ok, they're a car, scoot over a little. Do they need to travel on a sidwalk, through a market, or the wrong way down a one way street? Well, that's allowed too. They're on a motorscooter.

The trip from the airport to Don and Lacey's house was a blast. It was as if every vehicle on the road drove exactly like all Korean taxi drivers want to drive all the time. The only difference was that there are so many vehicles on the road, and so much constant mayhem, that the velocity rarely gets over 50 km/hr. It's just too chaotic to move faster than that.

On the way there, Don filled me in on the work he's been doing since they arrived in the area a couple of years ago, and I asked questions and occasionally mashed my imaginary brake pedal (quietly) and tried to focus on everything around me at once.

We dropped off the bags at home, then went out for a local lunch (delicious) and wandered around town. We went to a local cloth market and wandered for a while. They told me a little about way traditional cloth is woven in this part of the world and then we went out for coffee. Don's birthday was the day I arrived, so we actually went out for Coffee and Ice cream on me.

One of the reasons we'd come to this particular coffee place was that they served a coffee bean a few of you in the states have probably heard of--Kopi Luwak. That's it in the picture.

For those of you who don't know, I'll now give a little background on Kopi Luwak. There is a special kind of civet cat with an unfortunate scientific name--Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, and no I won't tell you why, look it up yourself--who happens to love to eat coffee cherries. Coffee cherries contain one coffee bean each, and the civet cat is not given to chewing the Cherries overmuch. When the Cherry has passed completely through the Civet Cat's relatively short digestive track, the bean is still whole, and has been mellowed extensively by the journey. The stomach acid and other chemical reactions involved break down the harsh, bitter flavour of the bean. So the harvesters then wash the beans extensively (thank God), roast them and sell them. They're ground before brewing, and the resulting coffee generally has a nice soft finish and very little of the normal bitterness of coffee.

It's ridiculously tasty as long as you don't think hard about the fact that part of your drink was shat out by what looks like an adorable cousin of the Tasmanian devil maybe only days ago. The coffee place we went to had it available for about $6 per cup, so I had a Cafe Machiato with Kopi Luwak beans. I'll probably never have it again, but I think that if it weren't so frightfully expensive (something like $200 per pound in the states) I might actually consider purchasing it from time to time to make espresso for myself and my guests (likely without ever telling them the secret to my espresso was so delectable).

Afterwards, we ran a few errands and then headed out to try to find a little live music with dinner. Unfortunately, the normal place with a live band in the area was hosting a private party (without live music) that night, so we went to a different place instead.

The place was actually very cool, set into the ground a few steps in a sortof half-cellar in the bottom of a hotel. The columns that held up the multiple stories above us had been poured in concrete specifically to look like trees, and the concrete on the walls had also be formed to resemble the edge of a forest. It was all painted in browns and greens, so one had the vague impression that they were lunching in the woods, and long as you didn't touch anything, and ignored the televisions.

They had wonderful pepper chicken, and we sat and talked shop and politics and watched the election advertisements on the televisions inexplicably scattered throughout the restaurant.

The next day, we went on an excursion to a remote village where Don's team had some work to do. I had told him that I wanted to help as much as possible while I was there, partly because I felt I needed to do something real on this trip, and partly because I didn't want to pull his attention away from his job so he could play host, and the best way to do that was to be part of the team and let him playing host mean I took orders and did whatever manual labour I could.

This worked out very well, and we had--from my perspective at least--a ridiculously awesome day. The job in question was in a remote village, practical to access with the tools and materials we were bringing only via boat, or on foot.

As we left the hustle and bustle of the major city, I discovered one of the reasons you don't drink the water in some parts of the world.

See that? That's a washout station for garbage trucks. See that square of light under the one in the middle? Those deep channels cut in the surface drain directly into the river, with no filtering, cleaning, or treatment of any kind. Nice, huh?

Once we'd gotten out of the city we drove between miles and miles of rice fields. Certain parts of Indonesia (the flat ones, or the ones that can be made flat) are basically one giant quilt of rice paddies. The villages are build along narrow strips of raised and reinforced land where the roads have been laid, and behind the one row of houses next to the road, the rice paddies (or the river, depending on which side of the road you look towards) immediately begin. This part of Indonesia is much slower paced, and you're likely to be slowed down by pedestrians, people who wave you down for a chat, or the occasional proud or suicidal duck.

So get to where we were going, we first drove down several miles of these isthmus roads, passing row houses of mainly wood and occasionally concrete, often with nice clean glass windows and vividly coloured curtains.

After perhaps an hour, we stopped at a parking lot in front of a pier into the river, just before a market that had completely shut down the road for all non-foot traffic. It would run for most of the day, which is what had forced us to come the "short, slow way". On the way back we'd go the "long, quick way" and shave almost half an hour off our trip on smoother, more open roads, where we could drive much faster.

There, we boarded a small boat--along with what seemed like the entire population of a small village--and were ferried across to a different village. We walked through it, to another boat, which we boarded via a single plank and which only carried the six of us. It was on this boat that I managed to catch more views of daily fishing life in Indonesia. This net is being used to catch small fish, so they can be fed to larger fish in the fish-farms, the square boxlike cages you see throughout any Indonesian river, where a couple of thousand fish can be kept until they're over a pound a piece, and then sold at a tidy profit.

Professor Blackburn from Mercer once told me that "Good photography isn't about taking great pictures of extraordinary stuff. Anybody can do that. Really good photographers take great pictures of ordinary stuff."

Well, the stuff I saw that day was incredibly ordinary to the people around me, but extraordinary to me. I shot on and off on the way to the site, and almost constantly on the way back.

The work was rewarding. A little of it required real physical exertion, but most of it was just relatively straightforward assembly tasks. That's me getting to climb around like a monkey on the foundation for the project.

For lunch, we had take-out Rendang, which Don and I had picked up before leaving the city. Rendang is Indonesia's hamburger, the day-in-day-out food that keeps the workforce moving. It's a chunk of incredibly tough, brilliantly seasoned beef, packaged along with steamed rice for takeout in a banana leaf wrap. Sent along with your package is a small packet of vegetables and spicy sauce. It is the tastiest damn thing. The beef takes on that almost papery, beef jerky texture but it doesn't matter at all, the spices make it all worth it, and the whole meal can be eaten with your hands.

I tried this, remembering belatedly that there is a "which hand is appropriate" rule in Muslim cultures, and switching sheepishly from my left to my right. Don pointed out that Indonesia is pretty laid back as far as Muslim cultures go, and no-one would have said anything to me had I go on cluelessly eating with my dominant hand, but I still felt better making the switch. It's a challenge to eat Rendang with your hands because you would rather not have to hold the beef and bite off chunks. Don told me how to solve this problem, by separating the beef out into smaller portions using your thumb and pressure against the hard surface on which your banana leaf has been set (plate, table, floor, whatever), you could this way separate it into smaller morsels, and then get a morsel of beef and handful of rice at a time.

Best lunch ever. I might try to learn to make it and start taking it to work when I get home.

If so, I'm totally not using utensils there either.

After lunch, we worked on the job for another couple of ours. We finished 90% of what needed to be done, with the last few % relying on resources we hadn't brought with us. A couple of the team members agreed to come back and finish the final steps on the process tomorrow, and the wind-down work of the day began.

Don pointed out that I'd never had Coconut straight from the tree before, and the local villagers laughed and talked among themselves for a few minutes.

A half an hour later, while the final touches were being put on the job, one of the locals walked up a coconut tree (this looks like a world-class circus trick when you see it done, but it's an everyday activity for some of them) and disappeared into the thick bunch of leaves at the top. Within a couple of seconds we heard the distinctive thud as 7 to 10 pounds of fruit fell the thirty feed to the ground. For the next five minutes, I took pictures while we listened to the thudding sound of coconut being shot earthward. A couple of them cracked on impact, spitting coconut juice (which Don taught me is different from coconut milk, by the way) across the pathway between small wooden houses, but most made it down just fine.

Eventually, our harvester returned to earth as another villager showed up with a couple of short, wicked looking Machetes. The tops of several coconuts were immediately removed, and as guests we were given a coconut and a straw first, with the other villagers who wanted one grabbing one once we'd been given ours.

The juice was delicious, and is apparently excellent at replacing the minerals and electrolytes the body loses during exercise. In fact, until Don pointed it out to me, I hadn't realized that Pocari Sweat actually tastes remarkably like fresh coconut juice.

Once you've drunk all the coconut juice, the next thing to do is cut your coconut in half. Don went the smart way, letting a villager do it for him--in two swift cuts it was done, and he had a pair of thick bowls of husk, each lined with perhaps 1/4 inch of fresh, clean, tasty coconut meat.

I asked permission to be more stubborn, and cheerfully whacked away on my own for the required dozen or so strikes (per side, making a total of perhaps twenty) it took me to get my open. I felt very proud of myself, but there was husk fiber inside my bowls that I had to carefully pick out due to all my sloppy chopping. Practice makes perfect of course, and it was my first attempt after all.

We were given spoons, and we slowly scraped as much coconut meat as we could from each bowl, savouring the flavour. It was the freshest coconut I'll ever have, and it was amazing.

On the way back I took more pictures of the return voyage. The darkening late afternoon sky made it feel like sunset, but it was only around 3pm. The clouds were heavy with the threat of rain though, and added a sobriety to a landscape that was already mystic, making it a haunting, sombre place.

When we reached our switching point from big boat to little boat, the big boat was already full. Now, imagine the boat in this picture. How many motorcycles do you think you could fit on it? Assume occupancy on each, plus 15 or so other passengers on board as well.

If you guessed 9 motorcycles, you'd be right!

Of course, this meant we had to wait around, and there was a storm coming. However, the team had done some work in this village, and the village leader loved them to death, so he came over to talk for a little while, and then personally ferried us back to the other dock in his own boat. So we got a personal water taxi ride from the equivalent of the local mayor to cap our already excellent day.

It wasn't a moment too soon either, As we took the last steps to reach the trucks, it began to rain. By the time we'd loaded everything up and pulled out of the tiny pier parking lot, it was a downpour, and it rained cats and dogs on us most of the way back to the city.

We arrived back in time to clean up, go out to grab takeout (Chicken Satay and Longtong or regular rice) and go have dinner with friends of Don and Lacey's, It was a very pleasant evening over all.

Longtong, before you ask, is steamed rice that is wrapped tightly in a banana leaf and then further cook until it becomes a sort of pudding texture. The banana leaf constricts it in a cylinder, which is then sliced, resulting in gummy little circles of rice that are quite tasty.

Over the next couple of days, I'd get a whirlwind tour of life as a Bule (pronounced Boo-lay, it's the Indonesian slang for whitey,cracker, white tourist, the other other white meat, etc.).

I'd get to eat at a local all vegetarian cafeteria style restaurant, with some of the best food I've ever eaten in my entire life. My entire meal pictured here (including the drink) cost me $1.60. I'm going to miss this restaurant terribly, and I've only been once.

I'd get to sleep beneath a mosquito net, even though I was in an air conditioned room. Old and new technologies come together here in strange ways.

I'd get to do a little work, eat a lot of local food, and hang out in the mall (where children stare at you, and you cause young shop girls to crack into bursts of laughter just by surprising them with a wink when they think you don't know they're staring at you).
Also at the mall, they have this stand, which is basically just a full service chocolate fountain, with two helpful teenage girls who will take a skewer of the fruit of your choice and coat it in chocolate for you. With a name like that, how could I resist?

I'd get to play Badminton with the work team, which is a blast. The Indonesian's take badminton very seriously. The current BMW commercial that is running constantly on television shows one of Indonesia's badminton stars leaping and spiking the shuttle across the net in a surrealist, backgroundless shot, almost as if he's an Anime character hovering in midair, then, in an insane non-sequitur, you're suddenly shown the new 325i model, and told you should buy it. We had a blast playing, and Don and I were badly, miserably beaten by a couple of the local guys, who wound up resetting their own score without telling us because we were playing so badly.

I'd also get to try Durian, that pungently fragrant and untouchably spikey fruit popular throughout south Asia. Imagine an angry, slimey cross between a mango and an avocado, and you're in the vicinity.

I'd even get to go to the movies. The new Transformers was out, and since Don and Lacey had just seen the old one a couple of months ago, we decided to go see it at the local mall. We picked our seats (H7, 8, and 9--I think we took out a frigate!) and smuggled donuts into the theatre in my giant pockets. Here's my review: The new transformers is pretty much like the old transformers, but the final fight now takes place in a dessert, and some of the newer bad guys are wicked sick. If it meant I could own that tiger, I'd give serious thought to going over to the decepticon's side. The end.

When it was over, part of me didn't want to leave. The entire experience had been too real compared to the often hollow experience of traveling as a tourist, especially when you're traveling alone.

But I had places to explore and people to see, and Don and Lacey had a regular (magical, insane, rockstar) life to get back to, and more visitors coming once I was gone.

So I boarded a plane for Bali, Indonesia. They'd been there a couple of times, and gave me plenty of good advice on where I should visit and what I should see. I left with a light heart, glad that I'd gotten to reconnect with old friends in a new place. For all the good they are doing here though, I'm looking forward to having them back in the United States in just a few months. I can hear the homesickness in their voices when they speak about the little things--warm desserts with fudge in them, a back-country Georgia road, friends that have known you for years, and don't think you're special because you're a special colour. I'm glad they'll be coming home soon.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

No Patricks were harmed in the making of this Entry.

According to the Jakarta Post, a crime occurs in Indonesia's capital city every 8 minutes and 6 seconds.

To clarify the issue a bit though: Jakarta had a rate of roughly 1 homicide per 100,000 people last year. New York, on the other hand, had 6.3. Macon, Georgia, where I live and work in relative safety, had a rate of 23.2 in 2007. Comparatively 'safer' Warner Robins? 5.0. Jakarta, one of East Asia's most chaotic, roughest, and poorest cities has a murder rate of 1/5th that of an American town constantly touted by its citizens for how 'safe' it is.

So if you worry about me during the following story, know that your worry is misplaced. Worry about me when I get home instead.

That having been said, rest assured, nothing bad happens in the story I'm about to tell.

Now then, where was I?

Oh yeah. Jakarta. I was to arrive in Jakarta by 9PM on Monday night, and unfortunately, there was not a flight onward to my final destination until the next morning.

I decided not to make plans. I'm not really sure why. Sometimes my brain, which is constantly making plans and contingency plans and fallback plans and strategies just decides to revolt, and not plan anything or make any decisions at all.

Usually this happens when my friends are being particularly weak-willed, and have started expecting that I'll make all of their decisions for them, food, entertainment, etc, which makes me crazy, and occasionally causes me to shut down.

But sometimes it happens for no reason at all. This was one of those times. I decided to play Jakarta entirely by ear.

I had been warned that 1) the Taxi drivers were incredibly pushy, 2) The traffic in the heart of the city was horrific.

But I figured I could find a hotel at a halfway decent rate near the airport using the hotel desks inside the airport, right? All I needed to do was buy my ticket for the next morning (still unpurchased, since buying certain types of one way tickets over the internet is remarkably tricky), find a hotel, and a taxi to take me there, then get another taxi back in the morning.

The thing was, because of the horrible traffic I didn't want to use one of the nice, respectable hotels (JW Marriott, Four Seasons, etc.) because they were all downtown.

I didn't count on getting stuck in a ridiculously long waiting line for Visa and Immigration, and not getting out into the baggage claim area until around 11pm.

By then, of course, most of the hotel registration desks were closed, and the remaining ones were offering high rates for hotels--you guessed it--downtown.

There is a hotel IN the Jakarta airport. A transit hotel that offers rooms by the hour or by the night.

Of course, this hotel is inaccessible from inside the airport proper, so to talk to the people at that desk, I'd have to go out into the 'public' space in front of the airport. This might not sound like a big deal, but it turns out to be one. There are two reasons for this.

1) The free internet available throughout the Jakarta airport is only visible from inside security, due to the airport's layout, something I didn't figure out until I was already outside, thus making it impossible for me to research any of the hotels I was likely to be recommended. 2) The airport's public space is teeming with taxi drivers and touts, there to make (or skim) a commission by convincing any easy mark (especially a foreigner) that he shouldn't pay the extortionist rates at the big hotels, but should instead use one of the ones they know, where they know the owner.

The way the system works is, the tout convinces you that the hotel nearby is a great deal, because compared to the ridiculous rates downtown (100+ per night, in a city where 7 dollars buys a nice shirt and 10 buys lunch for a half a dozen people), they are a great deal. The deal he's selling you isn't related to the actual hotel rate at all though, it's the amount of money (in US) he wants you to pay him, personally.

In exchange, he'll ferry you to the hotel, make all the arrangements with the hotel staff, pay for your room, make sure you like your room, and leave you there to sleep. He might offer to throw in payment to the hotel for a driver to take you back to the airport in the morning, but unless you get this confirmed with all parties up-front, the driver will probably milk you for another couple of bucks when you reach the terminal.

The trick here is that the rates they're offering you are in US dollars, and much higher than the actual hotel room rate. The small local hotels with only five or six cheap little rooms near the airport appreciate it of course, because they'd never get the scratch together to advertise, so there is no way for anyone to know they are there except to rely on a tout to bring them business.

Once I came to understand this system, it seemed a lot less dangerous. The tout is making good money--there's no reason for him to put his business at risk by attempting to abduct or rob anybody, especially an American citizen, and that, of course, goes double for one twice his own size. Until I understood where the money was going though, and why the Tout *did* the job, it seemed like a horrifically dangerous scam.

So I ignored the first tout who adopted me, despite his attempts to be helpful by showing me the ATM (directly around the first corner and impossible to miss) and walking me to the Geruda ticket counter so I could buy my ticket for the next morning. At this point, I had decided I would just use the transit hotel in the airport, and that way I didn't have to worry about any of the dangers of disappearing into the Jakarta night, never to be seen again.

(remember, nothing at all bad happens in this story).

So I brushed off my leech with a ridiculously large tip for the very small amount of help he'd been in guiding me about the airport. I was immediately glad I'd brushed him off when he begged for more, which was remarkably pathetic. I went inside the Transit hotel, and asked about their rooms. Their standard room rate still ran above $90. Yikes! Unable to research other local hotels due to the wireless problem though, I had little choice, so I asked the night clerk about the room, and he told me that the only rooms they had left were suites, $180 per night.

By this point, I had about 8 hours until I needed to come back and check in. There was no way I was spending almost $23 PER HOUR to catch some sleep. If that was my only option, I'd pick a dark corner and curl up on my bag, as a few other early morning flyers seemed to be doing.

But I decided I didn't want to do this either. Dammit, there was probably a perfectly decent, cheap hotel within two kilometers of my location, and I wanted to sleep there, not on some wooden bench in an airport. I wandered through the shops in the quieter upstairs portion, mostly closed down except, oddly, for a Dunkin' Donuts. I couldn't find signs for wireless internet anywhere though, and I didn't feel like painting a giant target on myself by wandering through the airport with my laptop in my hand.

I stopped at the Dunkin Donuts to grab a bottle of water, and it was here I realized I was going to have some trouble with the currency.

Korean Won trade around 1250 to 1 against the dollar. The IDR trades at about 10,000 to 1. IDR currency in most ATMs is typically 50,000, or if you're lucky, 100,000 rupiah notes.

So the 1.5 MILLION rupiah I'd withdrawn when I arrived were worth about $150 US, and the only notes I had were $50,000.

I had a helluva time making the jump from Korean Won to IDR. A lot of the time I'd been carrying 5,000 Won notes in Korea. So for some reason my brain backfired when the young Indonesia girl working the Dunkin Donuts counter asked for 12,000 rupiah. I tried to give her three 50,000 rupiah bills, for some reason thinking they were 5s, not 50s.

She laughed awkwardly and pressed two of the bills back into my hands, followed by my change and drink. "No. Here. . ." she struggled with the words for a moment "here, very small money" she finally said, putting her hands close together.

I laughed and thanked her, and pocketed my change.

After failing to find any internet access, I finally gave up, stomped back out of the airport doors, and sized up the first tout that approached me with "you need a taxi, and maybe a hotel, yes?"

I would later find out that his name was Effendi. He was a compactly built Indonesian man that reminded me vaguely of the lamp seller from Alladin. He had a tiny goatee and moustache that made him look like every Arabian rug salesman ever to walk the earth and a soft face that spoke of both cunning and kindness in a single frame. I'd place him in his early 40s. He also had a helper, I'd guess a son or nephew, of perhaps 18 or 20.

Effendi sympathized with me about how expensive the rooms were, and told me he knew some hotels near here (and he rattled off names that of course I couldn't catch) that were clean and safe, with good air conditioning, and within two kilometers of the airport. Just ten minutes!

I nodded, and ran through every question I could think of to try to find the giant hole in the plan. What was the hotel's name again? He repeated the same list of three, so at least that was either rote rehearsal or a real list. How far away? Ten minutes. No more than two kilometers. Could we take a taxi? Yes, he had a car waiting. How would traffic be in the morning? The same, the hotels were still well outside the throbbing heart of Jakarta. US dollars or Indonesian Rupiah? US is preferred.

I reviewed my options, and tried to employ to the fullest extent my meager skills in judging the characters of strangers.

Effendi did not seem nervous, or concerned. He also didn't seem to be trying to obscure any details. Wherever the money was being made, it was either so well hidden I'd never see it, or it was right on the face of the transaction, and he figured I could see it as plain as day already, or didn't care whether or not I figured it out. In addition, the rate he was offering was not so low as to seem too-good-to-be-true, and he could have picked a much stouter helper if they planned to overpower me, the slight kid helping him can't have weighed more than 55 Kilos, and neither of them where wearing clothes that would have made concealed carry easy or practical, especially not in a well lit airport.

I agreed, and he waved me towards his waiting automobile.

His automobile was a beautifully clean late model SUV, all black, with no markings of any kind, his helper was already lifting the hatchback.

I halted and mentally dug in my heels. This was the tipping point. "Ahh, no. A marked taxi. If we can't take a real taxi, there's no deal."

Effendi looked up at me, mildly surprised, but without apparent disappointment or frustration he nodded and shrugged his shoulders. "Sure, we can take a taxi. No problem."

He waved to his helper to wait at the truck, and off we went.

I had a couple of reasons for demanding a marked taxi. Part of it are the issues I've discussed before. If a taxi is unmarked, it's absolutely unmetered, and that means you have to agree on a rate before you get in, otherwise you're going to get fleeced. That was less of an issue here, since Effendi was arranging transport as part of the total cost but, instead it presented me an opportunity to test if this was all a scam.

If it was a scam, I reasoned, the demand I'd just made was likely to present a serious monkey wrench in the works, and my guide was probably going to be making phone calls on the way to the taxi stand and then hemming and hawing to me about why we couldn't take a readily available cab right in front of us while some buddy he'd called in to play pretend 'real taxi' driver booked it to the airport.

Instead, as we walked, my new friend (as they all call themselves once a connection of any kind is established) chatted amiably with me about the unreasonableness of the big hotels, and told me that there were shops nearby the hotel we were going to where I could buy beer, or water, if I wanted it. When we got upstairs, there was a taxi disgorging a family of three and their luggage onto the Jakarta airport curb, and Effendi made a B line for the cab driver. A soon as the family had settled their fare, Effendi explained in a quick burst of Indonesian where we wanted to go, and the cab driver shrugged, said sure, and climbed back in. I climbed in the back.

Now I was either in the hands of a pair of very skilled con men, or everything was, thus far, on the up and up. If they were so good that they could make that whole transition (including, I suppose,the family?) look seamless, I was outclassed and doomed anyway. Besides that, why pick me? I don't look like I'm carrying much cash, with wrinkled clothes, muddy combat boots and a typical internal frame pack, I look like any backpacker that bounces from place to place with little money and less gear. Surely there are more valuable marks available.

So off we went, swallowed up by the muggy Jakarta night. In just a moment we were barreling througgh through side streets of slums I'd never be able to navigate in reverse if things went wrong. I quietly pulled the bills I would need from the passport pouch against my skin during the cab ride and moved them to a front pocket, hoping that this way it would be unclear that I was carrying that pouch, and the assumption made that if I had any cash at all it was all in my wallet.

I also made sure my knife was available in my front pocket. I had no illusion that I'd actually win the day if a handful of Indonesians with knives and sticks were waiting for me at the end of this ride, but at least I could make enough of a racket that maybe the cops would be called, or I could hopefully make a couple of them regret it.

(Remember--nothing bad happens in this story.)

After about 5 minutes of driving, we pulled up in front of an open foyer. It looked like the reception to any cheap hotel, except there was no front wall or door, just a big opening into the building. It was as if a typical hotel had been built specifically so it could be photographed for one of those 'what's inside?' cutaway diagrams.

Effendi gestured at the place. "This place is clean, and good air conditioning!"

I shrugged and climbed out. I've slept on concrete and benches and couches and pool tables, in both excruciating heat and cold that wakes you up every half hour shivering. I wasn't too worried that I wouldn't be able to sleep here. Effendi gestured down the hall that led to alternating doorways next to the foyer. "First you see room, if you like it, you stay here."

I grabbed my backpack and climbed out. Effendi spoke to the hotel staff (a random sampling of perhaps five Indonesians lounging in the open reception area, all between the ages of 20 and 30) and one of them broke off and opened a door in the hall into one of the rooms.

It was a typical cheap hotel room, with distinctly east Asian touches--small, with high, thin windows on all sides and a bigger window opening onto the hallway. There was a television and a working air conditioner already keeping the room from heating to sweltering in the warm Jakarta night.

I checked the bathroom, the CFL bulb in the tiny cell-style bathroom flickered for a long time before it finally came on. Indonesian bathrooms are usually totally tiled, with a drain in the floor and the shower mounted any old place on the wall. This makes cleaning convenient, but also means your bathroom floor is very wet, which can make using the bathroom awkward later. I decided against trying to fight with the shower.

I turned back, and checked the lock on the door. In addition to the key lock, there was a sliding lock on the inside. Minimal protection, I knew--I'm confident any of my female friends could probably have kicked it in if she were determined enough--but it served a helpful purpose. It told me the hotel probably wasn't in the business of having people kick in its doors in the middle of the night--if they were, they'd offer a nicer deadbolt lock and just keep an extra key around, to keep from constantly having to replace doorways and cheap locks that had been destroyed.

Effendi asked me if I liked the room. "It's good, yeah? Or you want another?"

"It's ok." I said. "I'll take it."

Effendi nodded. "This is a good place. Actually, I know the owner."

I walked back out into the hall with Effendi, and he turned to me "You bring your passport?"

He gestured as if I was to hand it to him. I would be told later by a friend that an American passport's street value in Indonesia is currently up to $50,000 US.

(Remember, nothing bad happens in this story).

I nodded (I'd already moved it to a pocket so I could access it without having to dig around in the pouch and said "Oh, no, I'll register myself" and walked to the desk. My "never hand your passport to a stranger unless it's a train conductor checking passes or an immigration/ticketing official in an airport" rule is pretty firm.

Effendi nodded "Sure, sure. But I pay for the room, yeah? you just pay me directly."

It was while I was registering that I had the presence of mind to ask the girl the rate. She looked over my shoulder, quizzically, at Effendi, who was talking to one of the other hotel staff, probably reminding them I needed to be at the airport early the next morning. Apparently she saw no harm in telling me the rate though, since she nodded and said "150,000 rupiahs"

IDR currently trade at about 10,000 to 1 against the US dollar. So the room cost just $15, and Effendi was pocketing the difference--probably more than $20, even after paying the taxi driver. Not bad for an hour's work in a city like Jakarta. Suddenly the whole system of pickup-negotiate-deliver made sense, and I could be a lot less worried that this was all a plan to separate me from everything I'd brought along on the trip.

When I was done at the desk I handed Effendi my $40, and he confirmed that I needed to be back at the airport by 7AM so I could catch my 8:30 flight.

I thanked him, and it was at this point that we finally did introductions and he gave me his card. "If you have any trouble tomorrow you call me, I'll arrange for the hotel to take you to the airport on the morning though, so you won't see me then."

"Ok" I said, "Thanks Effendi."

He waved goodbye and I returned to my room. Despite my general comfort with the explanation of where all the money was being made, I still propped the room's only chair (a modern molded plastic lawn chair) against the door, locked all the locks, and wore my passport and wallet to bed.

I slept, but fitfully, but it was still better rest than I'd have gotten in the airport, and for a helluva lot cheaper price.

Just after 5AM the next morning, I was awakened by knocking on my door. I really wanted to sleep for another hour, but the knocking was pretty insistent. Once I'd dragged myself together and secured all my belongings, I went outside. My car was already waiting, with one other passenger also going to the airport already on board. This was probably why I'd been woken so early. He likely had a 7AM flight, and the hotel's runner didn't want to make two trips.

After the other native was dropped at terminal 1, I was dropped near terminal 2, where all the Garuda flights leave from. The driver asked for 20,000 rupiah and I didn't mind paying it, he'd helped me with my bags, and I was actually planning to tip him that amount if he said Effendi had paid for the ride, so I nodded and gave him the bill.

So it was that I found myself at the Geruda gate two and a half hours before my flight.

See? I told you nothing bad happened. Sometimes, I find that traveling puts me in a position where I have to try something I expect to go horribly wrong, and having it turn out pretty much ok is almost a let-down. It'll help restore your faith in people though, so I guess there is an upside.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Buddha has 10,000 Faces.

I awoke the next morning in Ah Shan hostel, and rose early to check directions to my next destination. I'd contacted a few Hong Kong natives through an account with a little dating site that I occasionally use to meet new and interesting women in the cities to which I travel, and I had gotten recommendations for a few places. That was how I'd found Flow the first time I was in Hong Kong.

I'd also gotten a recommendation to visit a place called the Temple of 10,000 Bhuddas. Established in the 1950s, it's a relatively new place, and officially, it's not a monastery because no living monks reside there (I say no living monks because one dead one does reside there. The founder, embalmed and coated in gold paint, sits front and center in the main Temple building). Instead it is maintained by the congregation, with no entry fee but a donation box near the main grounds where you may leave a little money if you are so inclined.

So after I'd gotten what I thought were good directions, I headed out into the Hong Kong morning. It was a grumpy, overcast day, with the sky playing part of emo teenager--spitting rain one moment and simply being dark and brooding the next. I had no umbrella, and I'd refused to buy one in Korea because the asking prices were around $5 US. I made up my mind to swing by the market to find breakfast at a bakery and see if I could locate a cheap umbrella while I was out. Ideally, the cheapest umbrella I could find, since that would also be the lightest weight, and therefore the easiest to carry in my backpack for the rest of the journey.

I decided that I would buy one for less than $4 us (or $28 HK) and barter if it were between $4 and $7. I rounded the corner into the market and the third booth had small umbrellas wtih a hand painted sign saying $12--about $1.80 US. I was so surprised I didn't even both negotiating, I just paid the full price. The umbrella was, of course, remarkably cheap, but in Hong Kongs narrow concrete canyons there is little wind, so there is not much threat that your umbrella will turn inside out. I decided that it would be perfect for my needs, since it was ultra-lightweight, and off I went. In a bakery, I found breakfast, a croissant wrapped around a hot dog, a big doughy breakfast bun, and a couple of the delicious hong kong custards that I have become addicted to.

Hong Kong bakers put a small square of wax paper underneath the center of each large item if it has a flat surface, and despite the fact that I've now bought from several different bakers in Hong Kong, I am always forgetting this rule until I get through the first bite of whatever I'm eating, at which point I think "this had a weird texture" and turn the thing over to see the square of wax paper with a big toothy bite out of one corner. Maybe one day I'll learn.

Thinking back on it though, I should probably be far les concerned with the fact that I ate a bite of wax paper than the likely contents of the meat in that Hong Kong hot dog. I'm quite sure, from the flavour (which was generically meaty and very tasty, yet different) that it was neither beef, nor chicken, nor any kind of pork I recognized, at least if it was pork there was some seasoning I didn't know. Oh well. It was a damn tasty breakfast.

I took the Hong Kong MTR train out to the Sha Tin station and walked the two blocks to where I thought the entrance to the Temple would be. Signs pointed me most of the way, and when I rounded the first corner of a huge office building between me and the hill where I expected to find it, there was a large Bhuddist style gate with a sign identifying it by some other name, and I thought perhaps that was the Chinese nickname for the place, so I went in.

I'd heard that there were over 500 steps to climb to reach the temple, so I was disappointed to find a polite sign indicating that I should use the escalator. A recent installation, perhaps? I read the other rules carefully and saw no barring of photography. The whole place looked shinier and less kitschy than I expected. When I reached the top of the first set of steps, there was a sort of office area, tastefully done out, that looked rather like any insurance agent, with polite men in impeccable suits advising people at large wooden desks, and one of the iconic good luck cats that are everywhere throughout Asia by the door.

I thought this was odd--why would there be a business associated with a Bhuddist temple?--but my brain hadn't quite sorted out where I was yet.

It wasn't util I rounded the corner of the next major building that I figured out I was not on the path to the temple at all--I was in a Mausoleum, that ran high into the hillside, alongside the path.

That explained the office at the first terrace. It was a funeral home.

I'm always fascinated by how a culture deals with their dead, especially a culture like Hong Kong, where practical and usable land can be very difficult to come by. There is a huge tradiational western style grave far outside the city, that cascades down one of the hills near the harbour like a sort of frozen waterfall of marble and stone. Here though, was the more traditional explanation. A given family or clan purchased an entire mausoleum room, about the size of a one car garage and twice as high, with a roll down gate that could be locked up. Family members were recognized (and, I assume, stored) in each small compartment--perhaps one square foot on its face--that covered every square inch of all three walls. The front was engraved with their name and title and honorifics, and often a picture was attached as well.

I've posted a few pictures of the site because I know you're curious as to what the place looks like, but I've used the soft focus effect so that it is impossible to discern the names and faces of the dead. I don't want to be disrespectful. Throughout my time there, though, none of the locals who were performing rites or burning incense (the Chinese equivalent of leaving fresh flowers at the grave) ever gave me a disapproving look or told me to put away my camera, and the behaviour sign at the entrance (which had included instructions on things like eating and pets) hadn't had a photography prohibition either. I tried mostly to take pictures of the architecture of the place, rather than the mausoleums, because it was such a beautiful series of small white buildings, climbing up into the hills with terrace after terrace and thousands of stairs forming multiple paths to each area.

Once I'd gotten a few good pictures, I tried to work my way to the top, hoping there would be a way to cross to the temple. However, like most modern American cemeterys, there is only one entrance and exit to a Chinese Mausoleum, and there was no way through that I could find. Eventually, after getting somewhat stymied by all the side passages, I found what appeared to be a small concrete path that cut across he hill, so I wouldn't have to walk 300 steps down just to go all the way back up.

Instead, I found myself at the entrance to a man's front hard. There was a small house with a flat concrete pavilion in front of it, directly between the mausoleum and the path. It had entrances on both sides, and I assume it was owned by one of the cemetery's caretakers. He saw me standing in his gate with my confused expression, and I explained that I was lost, and was trying to get down there--pointing to the path on the other side of his yard. He nodded and beckoned me to follow him, then unlocked his front gate so I could cut through his property. I thanked him profusely and headed off up the hill.

The temple of 10,000 Buddhas starts off relatively unimpressively, with a line of Buddha statues on each side of the path up to the main temple. They're life sized, done out in a shiny yellow-gold paint, and the run the gamut from smiling fat Buddhas, to male Buddhas that look like Jesus and Mohammed, to Buddhas with the androgynous look you often see in Thai imagery.

I took pictures of a few on my way up the hill, and when I reached the top it got really interesting.

There are actually around 13,000 Buddha statues here. Thousands of them are life sized, and scattered around the grounds. In the main area, I found the diversity of the Buddha became even greater, there were angry, warrior demigods with giant swords and spears, decked out in armour. There were feminine Buddhas, with soft hands and demure postures. There were Buddha riding dogs, taming tigers, and drinking liquor. There was a Buddha with hands for eyes (I'm going to have to ask Quang about that one) and another with one long arm stretching far into the sky (that story I know, it remins the viewer of the "do not look at the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory" lecture immortalized in popular culture by Bruce Lee). Farther back in the temple grounds there is a giant white stone Bhudda embedded in a waterfall along a cliff face, and dozens more scattered throughout the forest that surrounds him.

There is a 9 story pagoda with a small Buddha in each little archway, all of them in slightly different postures. And inside the main building, there are thousands tiny Buddhas lining the walls, each one unique. I took a few pictures to give you an idea of the scope of the place. The ceiling was perhaps 30 or 40 feet up, and from a distance, the figures on the wall took on the look of wallpaper, but each is a tiny and unique statuette.

In the center of this room, in front of the most ornate and beautiful of the Buddhas, is the figure of the founding monk, covered on gold leaf, sitting inside a glass box for everyone to see. His glass box, of course, makes him impervious to photographs.

Especially for Derek and Aaron, I snapped this shot as well. I suppose even devout Bhuddists like to unload a little AEG action on someone once in a while?

As I wandered through this surreal collection of Bhuddas, I thought about my own religion. The Bhuddist don't believe there are many Bhuddas, rather they are emphasizing, in this place, that Buddha's enlightenment took many forms. He could be warlike or kind, happy or sad, strong and commanding or meek and patient. The Buddhist don't think there are 10,000 Buddhas, rather that there is one Buddha with 10,000 faces.

I thought about this as I wandered around the temple, and I thought of the many postures of Christ. His grace and humility before God on the mountaintop. His quiet pride and commanding presence as Mary washed his feet with her hair. His righteous anger in the moneylender's temple. I imagined a Cathedral with 10,000 statues of Christ, and smiled. It makes me wonder, if the Buddhists can accept 10,000 images of their spiritual mentor, why can't Christians accept the three simplest forms of God? Why aren't we comfortable with the ethereal force of the God the creator, the physical presence of the son, and the spiritual influence of the paraclete? It seems such a simple thing to accept, yet each year the debate is begun anew as to what exactly the Holy Trinity means.

I think perhaps we could learn from a Buddhist who sees 10,000 faces and see beneath them all the same underlying brilliance.

When I was done wandering amidst the statues, I headed back to the train station. On the way there I was entertained by the stronger winds present here on the outside of the city proper. They inverted my umbrella at every opportunity, and it was very little help aside from keeping my head, upper torso, and backpack try.

Ah well. I slugged through the rain back to downtown, picked up my bags, checked oaut, and headed for the airport. I had a plane to catch to Jakarta.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Fish Market, then off to Hong Kong.

The next morning, Andrew, Chris and myself sat around in the hostel talking and sharing stories and jokes until lunchtime. We all had very different lives, but plenty of places we could connect through our experiences as westerners in Korea.

June recommended a really good Korean restaurant "The best in this neighbourhood, maybe second best in Busan, yeah?" just around the corner from the hotel, and we went there. We were greeted by this really remarkable (and mildly unnerving) statue. I'm not sure what the message is supposed to be? Our pig is so tender you can eat it with your fingers, perhaps? I dunno.

Inside, we ordered Dulsot Bibimbap (that's Bibimbap serving in a piping hot stone pot about 1 inch thick). It continues to cook long after it reaches your table, and it is the tastiest damn thing. A raw egg is thrown in just before it is brought to you, and when you mix it, the egg cooks and all the flavours of egg and vegetables and rice combine into a really wonderful meal.

Over lunch, we took pictures (Chris on the left, Andrew on the right) and discussed food policies. Chris was the most tentative of the group, trying sushi and other foods, but staying away from the more experimental and exotic dishes. I fell in the mmiddle, ready and eager to try Dog and Horse and whatever else crossed my path, but drawing the line at living things. Andrew was the most extreme. As he put it "I'm at the top o' the food chain. Why shouldn't I eat whatever?"

The place where we differed was over living sushi. The Japanese and Koreans prize freshness to an extreme, so much so that in many good Sushi restaurants you can order your fish or squid brought to your table alive, at which point the chef carefully cuts it so that you can eat it while it remains living, thus ensuring that it is as fresh as possible.

I argue that this is cruelty. I don't have a moral objection to killing and eating an animal for food, but I do argue that we have a moral imperative to minimize that animal's suffering--we're going to eat it, the least we can do is give it a decent death. As such, having an animal carefully cut so that it is alive as I eat it, in fact, giving it the opportunity to *watch me eat it* is cruelty, and something I won't do. I pointed out that if an animal were brougnt to me, living, but killed humanely at the table (one quick slice and it's over) and then prepared, I would have no problem consuming that animal.

It is on this ethical foundation that I base my carefully worded disclaimer "If you offer me food and it doesn't fight back or run away, I'll try it."

Andrew nodded. He saw my point, he just didn't feel the same conviction. I nodded and said that if I didn't feel that way, I'd surely eat whatever I came across, alive or dead.

After lunch, we went our seperate ways. Andrew back to the hostel for an afternoon nap before going shopping with his Girlfriend, Chris to see a temple on the waterfront, and me to find the fish market and the international market, which are right next to each other, across from the mouth of Busan harbour.

I had a couple of small gifts I was tentatively searching for, but if I didn't find them it was no big crisis. I didn't find them, but I did find some really remarkable pictures at the fish market. The new fish market building is a steel and glass monolith with a profile that pierces the sky like some postmodern Noah's ark. On the waterfront side is one of the prettiest views of the harbour, complete with swooping seagulls and rows of tug boats all in a line beneath mountains shrouded in fog.

Inside, it is booth upon booth of sea creatures, almost all of them still alive, in tanks and bags and shallow pool pans, waiting to be selected, executed, prepared, and sent home with their buyers. I wish I could show you pictures of every oversized creature there, but I'd have to post a few dozen images and you'd still not feel the immensity of these things.

These crabs, for example. These were perhaps only half the size of the largest ones I saw in the market, but they photographed the best. For comparison, look at the people in the background. That crab's main claw is almost as thick as my forearm.

And don't get me started on the shrimp. See tiny pink shrimp in the background? Those are shrimp of the size you and I are used to. Those shrimp in the foreground? The heads are the size of my fists.

Also, heads up, the Korean's eat some shit out of the ocean that I'm pretty sure God never meant to be edible. Like Rays. I mean, really? It looks like an underwater UFO--I'm pretty sure that means "danger, do not ingest" to every sane human being on the planet.

Don't get me started on the items in this next picture either. I can't even identify what half of that stuff is. But its for sale, so you can take it home and eat it if you want.

The upstairs, I discovered, was a series of sushi restaurants. Too bad I'd already had lunch--fresh-from-the-sea Tuna or Salmon actually sounded wonderful. Oh well, maybe next time I'm on the underside of the world,

While exploring the market, I did notice a couple of cool things. Women carrying things on their heads are a common site here, so this picture (despite the fact that she's carrying an entire meal's worth of food, plus service for four) isn't very remarkable. What made it remarkable was when she stopped, ten seconds after this picture was taken, and performed a whole transaction, buying about a half kilo of beans from a street vendor, without missing a beat, then continued on her way.

After wandering the market for another couple of hours, I headed back to the hostel and grabbed my bag, then grabbed a taxi for the airport.

Korean taxis don't really understand speed limits the way your or I do. The Speed limit, in a taxi driver's mind, is the physical limitation of acceleration that keeps the car from its top speed. On an open stretch of road like the long byways out to an international airport, the driver, usually encumbered by the traffic and limited space of inner city driving, will probably hit upwards of 150 km/hr in the straightaways, and maintain 100+ through the turns, often changing lanes inside them to bleed off the tension on the wheels without losing speed.

The ride to Busan International was fun.

When I arrived, I confirmed that I had plenty of time--three hours--before my flight and I sat down and read for a while as I waited for the check in desk for my airline (since they only fly a couple of times per day out of Busan, they don't open until 2 hrs before takeoff). Once I was inside, I grabbed a waterbottle and settled in to a seat near the gates.

After I'd been sitting for perhaps twenty minutes, I was joined by a young Korean woman. I could tell by I know not what cues that she was going to talk to me, but first, she asked her friend to get a picture of her sitting and reading next to me. I'd had the good sense to be reading something halfway respectable (Confucius Lives Next Door by T.R. Reid, a gracious loan from my mother) and so I snatched it out of my book and mimicked her body posture. As her cameraman snickered and tried to get a good photograph, she fidgeted, and each time she changed posture I matched it as closely as I could.

When the photo had been taken, she turned to me and extended her hand. She asked where I was from, and I told her, as well as where I was going. Her companion, the photographer, sporting a bright pink polo, came over to join us, and we talked for a while. They told me where they were from (an older town about one hour from Daegu by bus) and that they were going with their team to Thailand for a demonstration of Tae Kwon Do. When I asked what they did, they said they were students of TKD, so either they were world class professionals, or they do other things, but in the context of the trip, their TKD training was most important, so that was the answer they gave.

Their professor came over and spoke to us briefly, apparently amused that his students had found a westerner to adopt, and after he'd left I gave them my e-mail address and we took a few more pictures. My posture in this group shot looks a little odd because they asked that I not be so tall, and I laughingly dropped my weight back and bent my rear leg to make myself appear shorter and smaller.

The group shot as a whole wasn't a very good one of the girl who started it all, so I got another one with just her and I.

After they left for Thailand, I climbed aboard a Dragonair flight back to Hong Kong. The flight was uneventful and the dinner pleasant. I'll never get used to an airline serving Kimchi along with an in flight meal though. To paraphrase my favorite director, it just seems like such a strong choice, and I'm not sure it is the right choice. Oh well, it was good Kimchi.

When I reached the Hong Kong airport, I had a little time to kill while I waited for my bag, so I tried to take a few surreptitious cellphone shots of couples arriving from Korea. When couples from Korea--young newly-weds especially--travel abroad, they often wear matching outfits, apparently to easily identify each other and to make clear they're part of one unit.

It is either the most horrifying or adorable thing you'll ever see in an airport, and I find it endlessly comical. The couple on the left there is slightly more innovative, they're wearing the same patterned shirts, but his is blue, while hers is pink. Asian individuality at its finest.

I found my way back to my Hostel, easy now that I had already been once, and crashed hard. The next day I had big plans to see the temple of 10,000 Buddhas, and then a flight to Jakarta to catch.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Quest for Jang Gi

The next day, I set out to see if I could find a Jang Gi board for myself.

I asked my host about the game, and June nodded and said, "Ah, it's Jang Gi, yeah? Like Chess." he has a charming way of mirroring each sentence with a polite request for affirmation, a sort of constant re-establishment of clear communication.

I asked him where I'd find a Jang Gi board if I wanted to buy a set to take home, and he thought for a moment. "I think maybe you'd look in a grocery store or a big shop, yeah? I'm not so sure. I think I could find it if I went out to find it, yeah? but I don't know where, exactly?"

I nodded. Despite the zen like content and delivery, I got the idea, that it was the sort of thing that was going to be widely available, but not where I expected. So, I shouldered my bag, grabbed my T-money card, and headed out into the Busan morning.

I grabbed lunch at a local Lotteria, ordering that unique meal I'd described to you earlier in the week, when Mac ordered it. It's quite unique, I must say.

Seomyeon market, near where I was staying, was fairly extensive, so I wandered its streets for an hour or so, looking at cheap watches and cameras, trying to spy a place that looked like a likely candidate for a Jang Gi board.

This didn't work, but I did see a couple of signs for Game Shops, with giant images of Fantasy characters wielding swords or casting spells worked into the shops signs. I thought perhaps one of these shops might carry role playing games, and if so, it would have a dedicated gamer or two inside, and that guy would know exactly where to buy a Jang Gi board, even if I couldn't buy it there.

So, I found one of the larger signs and ducked inside. The posters on the walls in the stairwell leading to the shop were all for PC games, and as soon as I rounded the corner I confirmed my suspicion: I was unlikely to find a pen and paper gamer here. This place amounted to an internet cafe with a direct focus on games. The fantasy characters I had been seeing were from one of Korea's incredibly popular MMOs, but inside I saw everything from Counterstrike to rhythm games, where it seemed that you if you correctly caused your character to dance along with a song, you earned money with which you could buy your character new outfits.

There were perhaps 70 computers arranged in long dark lines, with almost no overhead lighting and each face only lit by the soft radiating glow of the monitors. I started to turn away, then saw the kid working at the desk, ringing up people for their time in total hours spent. I walked over to him, and into the only pool of light in the place. "Hi. You want internet?" He said.

I shook my head. "No, I am looking for a Jang Gi board."

He stared at me blankly for a moment. I knew what was coming. "You want play Jang Gi?" he started to reach for a card so that he could give me access to one of the computers. I was sure they came installed with a basic Jang Gi game, and probably an online league play system besides.

I put up my hands to stop him and shook my head. "No, no. A real board." I mimicked playing chess, and gestured to create a physical space where I could play it. "I want to buy a real board."

He looked at me blankly. His thoughts were obvious. If you want to buy a physical board, why are you in a PC game shop where no physical items are ever sold?

Still, the Koreans who work in the service and retail industries are trained to be relentlessly helpful, so he nodded and shook his head in turns, then looked up some words in an online dictionary and made a suggestion. "You try Lotte." He said, and paused to type in a couple more words. "Department Store!"

I nodded. It was as good a guess as any. I didn't want to pay Lotte's high prices for mall brand generic stuff, but if it was the only way, it is what I would try next.

I walked the couple of blocks to Lotte's store and headed upstairs until I found the children's section. Lotte deals primarily in clothes and fashion accessories--there's a whole floor for women's fashion, and another for women's casual--but it also does a brisk business in the basement in Grocery goods, and I was hoping it would have a decent selection of toys and games.

No luck. The children's game section had the total square footage of a small hotel room, and only a handful of games and toys. For no reason I could discern, there were three women assigned to the section.

I approached one. "I'm looking for a Jang Gi set." I said.

She paused for a moment, then went to one of the shelves and pulled out a western chess board. Jang Gi is the Korean word for Chess, and since I was a westerner, I must want a western set. I shook my head. "No. Korean Jang Gi." She stared at me blankly, and her friends came over to help, so I asked for paper and a pen and drew a rough sketch of the iconic board, with its clear intersecting palace lines at each end.

"Ahh." They said. "You want Han Gul Jang Gi"

"Yes!" Now I had something to go on.

"We don't have." They said.

"Oh. Where should I go then?"

They conferred among themselves, and among all the Korean I heard, in English, "a pencil shop, maybe?" There was a pause as they realized this expression probably didn't translate. "A youth stationary store." One of them suggested.

I nodded. "Ahh. Where is that?"

They looked at each other, blankly. I later figured out that Pencil shops are generic little corner stores for children, like candy shops in the pre-1950s US. They're a neighbourhood thing, so you wouldn't know where the one is near where you work, you'd know where the one is near where you reside.

I'd presented them with a terrible dilemma--they wanted to help me, and they were fairly confident that there was a Pencil shop just a block or two from where we were standing, but none of them had any idea in what direction that shop would be.

They held another huddle and made a different suggestion. "GaeGum Home Plus!" A Home Plus is a sort of Tesco version of a super Wal-mart, a generic big-box store that sells everything from Food to Frying Pans to Guitars. It was likely that a Home Plus would have what I needed.

I nodded. "How do I get there?"

Now it became clear why they'd suggested the Home Plus. The directions were incredibly easy. I was to board the number 33 bus across the street from the Lotte store and ride it down to GaeGum, a section of town. The bus driver should be able to tell me which stop to take.

I followed their directions and boarded the number 33 bus, but in the hustle to get onboard I didn't screw up my courage to bother the busy bus driver with my need to be notified of what bus stop to take for the Home Plus.

I sat, instead, near the very front and peered out the windows, knowing the sign would be in English, and fairly giant, and hoping I would spy it and know to climb out there.

After about 15 minutes had passed, I became convinced that I had missed my stop, but now I had a dilemma. The bus was less busy, and I could ask the driver, but at the risk of looking like an idiot who should have bothered him earlier, when he could have told me in plenty of time. Alternatively, I could debark, cross the street, and take the 33 back in the direction I'd come, in the hopes that I'd see it from the other side. But these weren't good odds. What if it were just a lot further than I thought? What if I missed it a second time and wound up back at my starting point?

I decided to do neither. As the song goes, if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice, so I decided to ride the bus for a while, and see where I wound up. All buses have to stop sooner or later, and maybe I'd wind up somewhere interesting.

This turned out to be the best possible choice.

The bus wound its way through Busan, up, up, up into the hills of the residential part of the city. I could tell as we climbed that the view behind us was getting more and more pretty as we rumbled higher and higher up the small mountain.

When the bus finally stopped it was in a small parking lot in a section of town that looked like any typical Korean neighbourhood, where a single white kid was about as likely as a whole Mardi Gras parade.

My plans to fing a Jang Gi set may have been foiled, but now I was 9/10s of the way up a really magnificent hill with a view down towards the heart of Busan. I shrugged, hiked my day bag up on my shoulder and began climbing the steep and narrow streets towards what appeared to be an elementary or middle school where the streets ended near the top of the mountain.

After about a block of walking, I noticed a small shop across the street from me on the opposite corner. The shop name and description were all in Han Gul, but there was a simple icon of a Pencil alongside all that writing. My mind flickered back to the suggestion at Lotte Department store, "Maybe a pencil shop."

I hustled across the street and into the small store. The three women inside, chatting and obviously expecting no customers of any kind in early afternoon, stared at me, wide eyed. There was a giant white boy with a military haircut and strange clothing standing in the middle of their selection of school supplies, toddler's toys and collections of candy.

"Hi." I said. "Do you have a Jang Gi board?"

They looked at me for a moment and finally the one who apparently ran the shop nodded and walked across the shop, climbing onto a chair to reach a high shelf. She said something in Korean, then offered me a cheap western chess set with plastic pieces, the same kind that is tucked away somewhere in every family game cabinet in America.

I shook my head and thought back to something I had learned earlier in the day. "No, no. Do you have Hang Gul Jang Gi?"

"Oooohh. Han Gul Jang Gi!" She said, nodding, and went across the shop and moved around boxes until she dug out a beautiful large board and a separate box of pieces from under pile of magazines and other boxes. The sets of pieces are sold independently. I considered briefly not buying the board, then I wouldn't have to ship it home, and I could always make a nice one myself. Still, it would be nice to have both together, and the opposite face of the board was a go board, a significant investment of effort if I decided to make it on my own.

I asked if there was a discount for buying them together (almost every Korean, even the ones who speak no conversational English, knows the word "discount"), and she cut 1,000 won off the price. I wound up paying about $5 US for the whole set.

I paid her, cheerfully took my packages and, bolstered by my success, hiked the remaining two blocks to the school at the top of the neighbourhood. There I found a way out onto a stone retaining wall that gave me a fantastic view of the city, and I took a few pictures.

Busan has a sort of clever, lingering beauty for a big city. It's not really a tourist hot spot, but it has its own charm. I think the charm for me is the practicality of it. Korea needed a strong port for its shipping industries and for its fishermen, so this city was scored onto the surface of the hills near the harbour one street at a time. It winds and bends its way through the valleys surrounding Busan harbour now, making allowances for the punishing geography of Korea as gracefully as it can.

I made my way back down to a Subway station I'd seen near the bus stop. I'd read online that there was a soccer game that night, and Busan was playing. I love soccer, so I decided to try to find the game. The subway station necessitated a 9 story elevator ride, since we were still so far up the hill. The feeling of plunging deep into the earth when you're already underground is always a little surreal to me, and it was interesting to think of the incredible amount of digging that had to be performed to make the station in which I stood.

I wandered Busan that evening, and figured out (when I found the stadium to be giant, empty and dark) that they were playing an Away game. Too bad I couldn't read that in all the Korean on the teams website. Oh well. Busan is pretty at night, and the area around the soccer stadium, baseball stadium, and gymansium/pool (cleverly called the Sports Complex)features raised walkways that let you see far across the city's shorter buildings.

The Koreans use neon in everything, and that includes their Churches. Each Church steeple generally has a bright red neon cross that glows through the night, a constant reminder of the huge number of Koreans who have accepted Christ. At one point on that walkway, I could make out 12 neon crosses from where I stood, spread out in all directions through the city. I wish I could have taken an effective 360 degree panorama, because the effect was really remarkable.

When I got back to the area where my hostel was located, I grabbed dinner at Chicken restaurant in the basement of a building full of shops and restaurants. I'd heard that you really should try chicken in Busan, because it's very very crispy and kindof a specialty of Korea. I also couldn't resist stopping because their name was "Kenturkey Chi Ken."

I have several female friends who have commented to me about how much it sucks going out to eat on your own. One is a young professional who travels on business often, another's husband is overseas, a third has a boyfriend who is often on the road and a hunger for sushi occasionally drives her to a restaurant alone.

All of them agree on one thing: Being a woman eating out by yourself sucks. It feels as if all eyes are on you, and since you wish you were sharing your meal with someone, it feels as if everyone in the restaurant (even, to be objective, people who probably haven't noticed you are there) is wondering what is wrong with you that you'd have to go out by yourself.

I've been lucky on this count, because I have a penis. Men, it is usually assumed, are traveling on business. I can tell myself this and even if half the restaurant is really wondering why I'm eating alone, I'll never know it.

Last night, however, I got a taste of that experience.

See, the thing is, there are two kinds of Korean restaurants. There are normal restaurants, that serve food on a per-person bases, with prices generally ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 won for a reasonably priced meal. And there are group restaurants. These are especially common in shopping and nightlife districts (like the one where I was last night) and they don't have anything on the menu for less than about 15,000 won. That's because the thing you order is at least a huge pile of food, plus three to five kimchi appetizers that come standard. If you order something larger, it's a stupendous, terrifying pile of food. It's as if there was a sports bar that only served wings, and the smallest wing order on the menu was fifty.

The idea is, you and a half a dozen of your friends are out carousing, and you decide you're hungry, so you hit a group restaurant, split two orders betweeen the 7 of you, and everybody eats for as cheap (or cheaper) than they would have at a restaurant with individual servings. The places tend to be casual, with open flooring, beer and soju options, and a relaxed atmosphere that encourages people to use them as a place to meet up and eat before going out for a night on the town.

No Korean in his right mind would ever, ever dine in a group restaurant alone.

So I head down the stairs into Kenturky Chi Ken, and I become suspicious when the restaurant looks somewhat different than the places I've been eating. I'm already downstairs though, and the incredibly polite host is offering me a table (It felt like the smallest table in the place sat six, though I think there were four tops against the opposite wall). Several people give me sidelong curious glances. Less "He doesn't belong" than just the innocent "what's he doing here?" So I take my seat. I can't very well back out now, and I'm starving and chicken sounds great.

My suspicions are confirmed when I am given a menu and the lowest cost item is 13,000 won. I know, I know, that's only about $10.50, but for Korea that is a ridiculous price to pay for a meal of anything except a delicacy in a typical restaurant. I never paid more than 10,000, including any drink I ordered, in anyplace I went.

But the manager is so nice, and helpful and asks what I would like that I couldn't refuse him, so I ordered the smallest, cheapest chicken dish they had.

Sure enough, I'm brought three bowls of appetizers (a sort of bread, a delicious savory pancake with vegetables in it, and a sort of cabbage salad with dressing somewhat similar to thousand island, but tastier and less fattening feeling), and about ten minutes later, one hellacious mountain of food.

I began to feel self concious, then silly. Not only am I eating alone in a group restaurant, but I hadn't had a real meal all day. So I am really hungry, so much so that I'm probably going to consume all of this chicken, at which point the Koreans really will have a reason to stare, as there are at least two full meals worth of chicken on the oversized plate I've been brought.

I keep my head down and watch the door instead of my fellow diners throughout the meal, trying not to laugh at my social predicament or worse yet, become so self concious I fake a phone call and scurry from the restaurant with my cell phone to my ear, throwing payment for my untouched meal at the host along with an apology that I have to go meet friends somewhere else.

Instead, I consider the fact that none of these Koreans will ever see me again, and I'll probably be the talk of the restaurant when I leave after demolishing all this chicken. I get through the meal and pay as quickly and as quietly as possible. My host is gracious and kind throughout, and acts as if it is totally normal for single patrons to come in and dine alone in his restaurant.

I head back to the Hostel around 10PM, and after sitting and chatting with Chris and some other guests before they head out to see Busan at night, I start up the movie Old Boy. One of the other guests has to meet a friend at the train station the next day, so he sticks around and watches it with me. It's a dark, deeply methodical thriller with a gut wrenching ending and really remarkable writing and actinng. I can see why it is known as the Korean film to watch.

When I'm done, I chat with one of the newcomers who had arrived late the night before, a charming young Brit named Andrew who works as a video game developer for cell phones. He met his Korean Girlfriend in London while she was studying there, when she told him that "All of you black guys look exactly alike to me." He has a love for life that reflects in everything he does, and an enthusiasm for the east that is charming. He laughs at everything, and describes each and every bizarre little Korean trait that we don't understand as "awesome."

Tomorrow: Lunch with the Boys, The "Fish" Market, Adoption in the Airport, then off to Hong Kong.