Things fall Apart
or, Love defered
Sihanoukville, Cambodia. 20 Nov, 2005ish
And somehow, things never go as planned, yet work out for the best anyway. My latest book follows from The Unbearable Lightness of Being in regards to being one of those oft-quoted, seldom read, and less frequently understood allusions within the collective unconscious. Things Fall Apart is the answer to The Pacification of the Tribes of the Lower Niger, presenting things from the perspective of the colonized. A beautfiul saga through the daily ritual of life in Southern Africa. I couln`t help but to trace the Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic influences on this "isolated" tribe, though. After a lifetime of looking for verisimilitude, one sees it everywhere. My favorite scene was when the masked demons emerged from the spirit house, smoke streaming from their heads... and then presided over a separation agreement and a land dispute. Can you imagine going to traffic court and facing the demon of your ancestors? Body of Hudson, do you know me? "Dude..." Was the body of Hudson speeding? "uh... yah, probably, look, I wanna go home now..."
Also read Glyph by Perival Everett, a Professor of Critical Theory at the University of Southern California. It sorta takes the premise of the sentient baby from "Family Guy" and makes him a mute-by-choice savant capable of the weightier turns of semiotic speculation, pondering the whereness of oneself and the place of the `speaker`, `wiriter`, or `thinker` with reference to its object. If you can`t follow that sentence, don`t bother reading the book. I loved it.
The great thing about travel, even when plans backfire is that it never actually matters. Things with J. couldn`t have gone worse. After months of inability to coordinate with her, or get her to speculate upon the whereness of herself in mid-November, I was left only to trust that everything would work out... and it didn`t. Yet its hard to be bitter, reclining on the porch of my bungalow with a view of the Gulf of Thailand. I think the geologic definition of "gulf" is tepid water and limpid waves, as this one could be mistaken for the gulf of mexico to a blind man. The smells and temperatures match. Yet, the barrier islands have mass, being well weathered hills with a rock foundation.
I met J. in Phnom Penh, so everything didn`t go as bad as it could have. Nothing was ill-fated in this except our hearts. Seeing her for two days, I was forced to admit that now is not the time for us to be together. Again. And I`m forced to conceed that our paths may be diverging, rather than converging as I`d hoped. It seemed reasonable to forsee; I was being drawn to Charlotte, she was being spirited away to Cambodia by her boss. Two convergences on opposite sides of the globe, with the prime movement being outside either of our wills. Further, my heart is settling down, and would like my ass to follow. My ill-fated escapades of the last six months having left me further convinced of the futility in running around. Six and even three months ago I could trace a tragectory off of this curve, a tangent to my present destiny wherein she and I could go off together there from now. But it was not to be. Her heart belongs to another, and I can do nothing but step aside.
Okay, well, I could fight. But fight for what? A woman who cannot plan her way out of a paper bag? Things have gotten weird. The funeral celebration occurring across the street since sunrise with a loud P.A. broadcasting the squeeky one-stringed fish-skinned fiddle and vaguely intoned singing has just readed the "distortion" phase. Utilizing feedback from the speakers, the ceremony has gone "outside." The speaker seems to be bringing it back, and the dirge should continue momentarily with the local dulcimer and fiddle keeping time.
So I am a little bitter, but mostly dissappointed. Sorry if you`re reading this J., but this is the forum wherein I solopsize. I`m disappointed because I was really hoping for so damn much more. Then I see her in The Phnom Penh Hotel, and when we touch, there is no spark. In part because of A, B, and C (matters too delicate for this medium); but mostly for me because of A, on which I can expand. Its callous to walk around testing people, and as a habit, its one I am persistently trying to quit. But for me the real test here was unavoidable. How far would be the divergence of my hopes and dreams and their actualization? In this case, the chasm is nearly insurmountable. In my hopes, and in fact I rested my very salvation on this dream, I saw J. and I travelling together for two months, these two months being the crucible in which we form the bond that would keep us together for the following three, and three months apart, then, upon the strength of an established relationship would we move to San Francisco together. It was a beautiful tangent, and so I threw everything behind it. But got nothing in return. She met me in Phnom Penh with a divided heart, and no desire to run away with me for a new life in San Francisco. All the other little dissapointments wither in the light of that. You have to see this as I see it. The next-five-day plan, the two week plan, the next month plan, the three month plan, the six month plan, the one year plan, and the five year plan all crumbling to dust in an instant of contact. In that first kiss, what was there was washed away by what wasn`t.
Being a resilient bugger, I was not to be caught with my pants down. The "B Plan" assumed immediate effect, as as there was nothing absolutely nothing left standing from the A plan, it was a challenge to regain uncertainty about it. The structure of this thought-construct is important to know. The A Plan being an operative principle, relies on uncertainty, while the B Plan exists as a form of contingent desire. If not A, then B. "Then" refers to things falling apart, and B is the desire if your primary desire is not fulfilled. Hence, B is contingent upon not getting what you want, but getting what you would want in its stead. As such, its a highly unreliable leader. In this case, the B plan was to travel to Sihanoukville, stay at Bungalow Villiage, do a liveaboard dive cruise with Eco-Sea or Scuba Nation, stay for just over a week, travel up the coast by boat to the Thai Border, go see a cockfight at a casino, go onward to Ko Chang, stay on the west coast in a bungalow with coral in the deep bay just off shore... The B Plan always has an element of certainty to it, since its not operative. It does not move. It is frozen with relation to a fixed assumption that the A Plan did not work. The B Plan is elegant in that it subsumes all the deferred desires of the A Plan. For example: simply because I was living in Japan, I was unable to smoke a joint in the hotsprings of the northwest Indian Himalayas. But where things never fell apart, I was able to smooth the transition from plan to plan, never needing to use it as a fall back. But I got to Japan in the first place as a plan B to finding a decent job in San Francisco. Living in Japan was never something I`d set out to do, but it was something I was saving for later. "Later" came in the form of my sister`s wedding, and fixing a reasonably respectable impression upon the inlaws, something the A Plan of currently living under a tree would fail to do. But I digress. The fundimental law of swtiching from B to A is to recast the B plan in terms of Uncertainty. "Maybe I`ll..." replaces every "Then I`ll." Certainty is a tangent to a curve, while uncertainty acknowleges that there are forces in nature beyond our control. As the A Plan is that very curve of living, a tangential vision is inappropriate and dangerous. The sailor doesn`t take his bearing from a star after it sets, and desires have a tendancy to melt away. Perhaps I don`t want to go diving tomorrow. Perhaps I don`t want to leave my bungalow today [likely]. Plan B cannot these things know.
Nor can I be sure there will not be a spark again when and IF... IF... I hook up with Julie again in Ko Chang. I`m so disgusted with her treatment of me so far this trip, leaving me in the dark, not considering me enough to even make sure I had a way to accompany her past Phnom Penh (what was she thinking? I would meet her in Phnom Penh, and then the very day of a major festival, the water festival we would arrange a flight for the day it finished? Clearly she wasn`t thinking this through. Do I want to be with someone who can`t think simple things like this through?) that at this point, my heart is a little poisoned toward her. The poison feels like an illness that makes everything a little grey. I can hardly look at a woman anymore in a sexual way. Assume I am to blame and assume I`m not, it doesn`t matter, but as a result of my experience of this year, the fire has been put out. I feel like a dog conditioned not to bark with an electric collar. The very actualization of the desire is a source of pain. Clearly, I`m on the wrong track, yet again. Yes, and even between J. and I,. this isn`t the first time.
When there is nothing one can do but put it behind oneself, that`s what one ought to do. And in writing this, I hope its the last I ever think about it. I archive my feelings for future reference, and public comment. Google swipes it up and sticks it in their file cache and in time that cache flushed, those ones and zeros may hold these very same thoughts from a very different person in the same situation. The internet is infinite, but human suffering follows a very droll repetition. You`d have to be blind not to see the patterns.
So, now`s a good time to backtrack. I left you last in Varanasi, and, well, I`ve kinda been travelling from then till now. I left from Varanasi what feels like years and years ago... [god, is 11:30 too early for the first beer?] It was something of a struggle, since my baggage had expanded exponentially since I arrived. Where I had intended to ship a bunch of things back to America, instead, I decided it didn`t qute exceed my checked-luggage alotment, so why waste the money? I could use a bag storage room in Bangkok, and buy my return ticket to Charlotte from there. But the struggle to get my shit to Varanasi Junction train station convinced me to at least buy a rolling suitcase, thus considerably cutting into my savings...
So I had decided to travel A.C. third tier sleeper, which is just like Second Class Sleeper, but with windows that don`t open, and a marketedly higher-class clientel. I hated it. The Beds also had sheets, which I didn`t need. But not being able to open, or even really see out the windows caused me to miss the transition to Bengal. I would sit in the open door of the train for twenty minutes or so while I smoked, but as I slept, I could barely hear the clatter of the wheels on the train, and so I felt like something was missing from the whole experience. It was also crazy difficult to get a cup of Chai in the middle of the night, all the independant chai wallahs far down the tracks with the proletariat, while we were served shitty chai by Railway officials.
Arriving in Howrah the following morning and following the logos of this trip, I continued along the path of least resistance. In part becuase I was manually carrying 40 kilos of gear. So when a cabbie offered to let me skip the taxi queue, I bargained his price down below what I`d otherwise have to pay (though I miscalculated and overpayed by 50rs) and jumped in. But I wasn`t in the mood for the lies, and so I told him that. I wanted to be taken to Chowringie (another mistake, didn`t consult my notes and so I was taken to the district of Chowringie, not Sutter Street, and had to walk and blindly stumble my way toward Sutter Street. Really, the driver was being dense for not taking me directly to Sutter St. regardless of what I said), I said, and wasn`t going to here of his recommendations. he started quoting me prices I knew were false. Finally I said, "look that`s a lie and I know it is. This isn`t my first time in Kol-Kata. If you want to stop lying we can talk, otherwise, shut the fuck up." He stopped the cab, took a piss, then put in in with another driver and I assume went back to the taxi queue for at least a less unpleasant mark. The next driver spoke no English, but spent the next fifteen minutes trying to explain to me that the price we`d agreed on was too high. The real price was closer to 50rs, not 120, and that 80 rupees went into the Railway coffers. I wasn`t sure if he was trying to say I had to pay 80rs more to leave the Railway Station, a bridge toll of sorts, or that I was being cheated in the first place, so I averaged it out, and just insisted on the price I`d agreed to with the other driver, no more bamboozlement, and paid too much, but with a clear conscience.
Finally, after stumbling around for half a mile with 80 pounds of shit, too stubborn to even hire a Jinrikshaw (人力車), determined to make myself suffer for my parsimoniousness, I found my way to Sutter St. And Paragon Guest House, which makes up for its architectural cellblock styling with a very intriguing flow of public spaces which accomodate several different socializing possibilities. As it broke down, I was staying in the Japanese wing, and hanging out mostly in the French wing.
Sutter Street is the backpacker district in Kolkata (aka Calcutta) and I`ve been making it a point to stay in the backpacker ghettos wherever they arise this trip. At least you can find some semblance of variety in these areas. I found a room that was not too dismal, had cross-ventilation, at least, but no power outlet, and a shared bathroom. So step one, hack the power. I bought a splitter for the light socket into which the wall-mounted flouro was wired. Thus I got two power outlets and an incandescent attachment all in one package...
aside: Its the little things that make a difference
But moving on, Not much happened in Kolkata. I`d originally only planned on being there for three days, but when Julie changed our plans to meet on the 17th instead of the 4th, I added a couple days to Calcutta to stay through Diwali. Diwali. Diwali was cool, but a bit lower key in the center of town. All the activity was by the ghats, so I guess in the end, I coulda made more of it. The goofy Portland Hippie at our guest house seemed to enjoy "dancing with the locals" quite a bit. He caused me to notice that I stopped using the phrase "the locals" years ago. I never think that way.
The Coolest thing in Kolkata is the Banyan at the botanical gardens. Its a tree who`s main trunk died about fifty years ago, so now you can see all the branches taking on independent life. Banyans naturally form sacred circles. They are like ringworm on the planet. leaving a ring of new growth where once there was a massive tree. In this way you can sort of visualize them spreading outward like a parasite from a singular central invasive growth. All the trees grow in radial lines outward, joined by a single branch which terminates ubruptly at either end. Stunning trees, really. Its in my top ten.
Top ten trees
- Hard Maple
- and others. purpleheart is pretty cool.
The "botanical" "gardens" claims to have 30,000 varieties of plants, but you have to be somewhat a specialist to identify them. True, I saw all my favorites (for this climate; nameless to me, I know them by their form alone) and old friends, but the park has been sort of given back to nature for better or worse, and it feels like an, albeit clean, vacant lot. A very cool, exotic vacant lot. with a bitchin` banyan in the northwest quadrant.
One day, I finally made it a few blocks from my guesthouse and wandered over to the Victoria memorial to figure out what it was all about. On the way, I found myself standing in front of the Birla auditorium, where I had read there were English planetarium shows givin. With nothing better to do, I bought my ticket and went in to stare at the stars. The planetarium`s perspective is off by 90 degrees, so where South ought to be it was west, so once I got seated, I sat back to visit my friends. The woman giving the lectures looks like she was built with the planetarium for this purpose alone. She is not the kind of woman you expect to meet out shopping. She had the severity of a career Junior High School teacher, or an embittered Catholic School nun. She began by warning everyone to turn off their cell phones, but you could tell she was biting her tongue not to warn everyone against speaking during class. Her English was well enough, I heard her reprimand a bewildered Japanese tourist for roosting in front of the ticket booth, and her command of the printed page was complete, however it seemed as if she had been reading from the same page since the Apollo missions, and had memorized it like teletype, stopping at the end of each line. "Mercury is the closest planet to the -- sun and accordingly has no atmosphere which humans -- can breath making a mission to the hot -- planet impossible. She also insisted on saying visiBEL instead of visiBUL. Which is unfortunate, as most of the presentation revolved around visibel objects in the night sky and what was capaBEL of being seen with the HubbEL space telescope. She also gave a definitive dismissal to the debate over the tenth planet, stating it as an undeniabel fact. Her presentation was given in the Black-and-White world of middle school, reminding me poignantly of why I ran as far away as I have.
Later that day I met Kaori at the youth hostel. She was like many of my students from Japan, had studied in Portland for a couple years, and now was having a hit-and-miss time reintegrating into Japanese culture. She seemed to be doing okay, but behind the veil, I could see that it wasn`t going so smooth. In any case, she couldn`t go home two weeks before as she`d planned, had baled on her return ticket and booked a one-way flight to India. Her english was basically fluent, so I didn`t have to modify it except to fit 21 year old collegiate coed English, though she`s a few years too old to speak that way really. But she was fun to hang out with a couple days. I met her washing her clothes and we`d talked, and I invited her to go to the National Museum with me the following day. Which we did. She apparently knew next to nothing of Indian history, so I promptly ended up with a sore throat. But somehow I battled through it, and managed to move to a lecture on Photography. Later, in the Mughal Miniatures gallery, I gave a lecture on composition, rule of thirds, leading lines, etc. In fact, I had something intellegent to say in nearly every galllery; from which of the fossils we obviously casts and which were real, to the political situation surrounding the empires in the coins exhibits, to the various uses of agriculture among the tribals of India, to geomorphic regions of India and how coastal currents make Hokkaido similar to New England, while Seattle is more like London. It went so far as to surprise myself on how much near-worthless information has accumulated in my head across so many genres. I`ve ceased to be surprised at how little others absorb. After all, she speaks and reads Japanese; a feat at least equal if not superior to my ability to be an ad hoc tour guide at the Indian Museum.
But nothing was to happen with Kaori, her interest in me was strictly conversational. Dammit. I couldn`t even find my moves, much less put them on.
In the end, very little happened in Kolkata. The biggest excitement was at night around the Guesthouse, hanging out with five or six volunteers at Asharayam, a predominantly French NGO teaching trades to young and abandoned street children. The two guys I hung out with the most were woodworkers from Lile. One specialized in carving, the other in Antique finishings. We got along great. I finally had someone with whom to bitch about the plastic finish on my Sitar. Someone who could sympathize. Anyway, next time maybe I`ll volunteer there too... and visit them in Lile, even better...
Have no fear of Druk Airlines. I had my doubts going in, but damn. That was a brand-spanking new plane full of filthy rich Americans flying from Bhutan to Bangkok. The reek of money was so think I nearly puked. All I have to say to Bhutan is, "good on ya!"
Then, next thing I knew, I was in Bangkok. Zero drama. No story to tell. I mostly spent a week just letting my bowels settle in to the new ecosystem. The second time I had a Fruit "smoothie" I felt it fight back within the hour, and instead of following standard protocol and letting the symptoms develop before medication, I was so damn familiar with the earliest of eary warning signs that I just popped the pill and was done with it before it ever developed. I had an "incident" in Kolkata, which has made me more proactive; Here`s a tongue twister for you... "I slit the sheets, the sheets I slit; on the slitted sheets I`d slept."
Kao San, while reading The Tropic of Cancer is probably different than when not. It was an interesting, though, because I could picture Henry Miller in every bar, sleezing up to the most blatant of whores. South Asia is where things still happen like they would in a movie, or in Miller`s novels, where a woman will go home with you, only to start giving you some sob story about her dying mother. I was nearly hooked last time, but this time I was just seeing it with literary perspective. Kao San is also one of those places where you find your favorite bar, where the women are still easy, but at least not for hire. But all in all, I was just trying to keep my hands to myself. As I would be seeing Julie soon enough, and I just didn`t want to get into it with either of them. One drunken exception was after I`d already dodged one clear hooking, where as the lights came up in the dance club, a flaming lady boy with a white powered face (not like British magistrate, but like being bitch-slapped with baby powder) drug me over to his charge, to whom I politely worked in that I had a girlfriend, thinking about J. at the time so it`d ring true. At that time I felt like I had something like a girlfriend in J. I was after all going to be together with her in a few days` time. Later on that night, there was one drunk university student who was so cute and flirtatious, that I did invite her back to my room. But, being a good girl, she was just there to flirt, not for action. Why do I always meet the good ones?
My hotel always reminded me of a boat. The narrow hallway, the shakey floors, the uncertain angles in every corner. But one thing it did have was cross-ventilation, a couple rooms with more window than floor, and unofficially... free wireless internet. Somehow everything would be fine. I just knew it. Anyway, I booked my return flight home, went to a brilliant dentist who managed to fill two cavities without causing a lick of pain, bought some DVDs [with which I am now bartering for beer] a new switchblade or two, and... most decadently, went to Starbucks for coffee every day-- But you may as well call it the American Embassy, that place...
Anyway my favorite bar I think its called Dong Dae? Its a second floor bar with an uninviting Korean restaurant downstairs. They did everything wrong with the flow of the room. So it keeps the tourists out. Most of the people I met here, well, those I met at least, we resident foreigners, teaching there, working there, or else were regulars in Bangkok for whatever reason. I felt like an outsider for being a backpacker, even though I`d been in the same bar three years before. Though I`d forgotten about it, it still became my favorite bar again. After a week, I was a regular, I was now somebody again, I had friends, I joked with the bartender and complimented the DJ. I played pool and my name was always on the list. If I had stayed ten days, I would have somehow had a job, a girlfriend, and a serious drinking problem. Kao San doesn`t stop. You`re more likely to see someone drinking beer than coffee at sunrise. I`m serious about the ten days. I was mentally copying phone numbers off the fliers for "teachers urgently needed." Everyone I talked to said the pay was good, too. hmmm...
Oh yah, and one day I went to the Imperial Palace to see the Emerald Buddha. Touristy. But cool. Got some illicit photos. hehe. The Emerald buddha temple is surrounded by a breezeway school with a mural that`s at least kilometer long depicting the Ramayana. I took pictures for reference to when I finally get around to reading that bugger. Another day I walked in a big semicircle by dead reckonning looking for the screw-in type splitter to get power out of a light socket. I was kicking myself cause I`d meant to bring one, but it got mislaid somewhere, and the one I bought in Kolkata was of the two pole design. My hotel room had wireless internet, but no power outlet. WTF. In the end, I sacrificed the reading light, and rewired it to a female plug end, and had all-i-could-surf internet for the first time in months. Luxury. But in the course of my walk, found myself in the Din-Din town or Akihabara of Bangkok, Hobby booths, cellphone booths, mp3 player booths, all in this simi-underground market, with rows barely shoulder width apart. I spent an hour looking for a decent screwdriver, but with every turn revealing some new take on the simple concept finally I found a #1 with reversable philips and flathead blades. I like it, actually.
As with Kolkata, with Bangkok, I was just killing time and passing through on my way to see Julie. Once I was in Bangkok, Julie asked me to come see her in Phnom Penh, but, of course left out any details. But I kept pestering for details which never came... So, blindly I kept creaping closer to Phnom Penh, one step at a time. The next step was to Siem Reap, in Cambodia. A good days` drive from Bangkok, and site of the famous Anghor Wat, center of a city of more than a million that was rose, flourished, died, and returned to the Jungle. Understandibly, this is the single most touristy destination in all South Asia. And it is a destination without a proper city, so they built one in the last five years. But where I was expecting India`s slap-happy anarchic design and tourist-ville hassles, I found instead French Colonial matching cornices, triangular street grids, and fabulous food. The scams were hardly worth mentioning, but mostly it involves things that are charged at a dollar instead of a fraction of a dollar, since no one has coinage. In fact, A Thousand Riel is treated like a quarter, and a 500 real as something less than that. A hundred real (I donno how to spell it, sometimes its real, sometimes riel) are treated like toilet paper my most everyone.
Anghor Wat. If ever there was a place in the world specifically set up to disappoint me, it would have been this. In years of travel there are three things I`ve come to hate. Ruins, Dead Temples, and Tourists. They all seem like having fun poking a dead dog with a stick. So I`ve been preparing for three years not to be disappointed with either Siem Reap or Anghor Wat. On both counts I was successful. But just barely. While Siem Reap has a French-Colonial look about it, and I mean the new buildings (begging the question of why they object to Khmer Rouge iconography but not French Colonial symbols), and has nothing to do with Cambodia, it is nevertheless developing into quite a little holiday town. They`ve wisely zoned a street just off the main market for Bars, and from here there are dozens of rickshaw drivers just dying to sell you pot or take you to a brothel. But, on the surface, everything is clean, above board, and for the tourists only. In fact, this is because most of the restaurants are run by foreigners. Cambodia seems to be a particularly easy country for a foreigner to set up shop... fyi... unlike anywhere else in Asia that I can think of.
So the famous thing about Anghor are all the trees eating the temples. Well, this was what I went to photograph. So I made an expedition of it. Four sorties on a three day pass (If you buy your ticket close to sunset, it lasts three days from the following morning). My first mission was to find a decent bike, which I did, a full-suspension tank, but brand new, for two dollars a day. Mission number two wake up at sunrise. Which was not possible after the first night. Well, the second. Lemme backtrack.
Getting to Siem Reap was just like it was billed. But having been amply prepared for this border crossing, I was a little disappointed at how tame it was. I booked a "package" from Bangkok, through to Siem Reap. This is almost cheaper than going by local transportation, since the agency expects to make money off of you at three other points. First, they want to do your visa for you at the border, unnecessary but convinient if you don`t like standing in line. The second place is meals (and in my case beers) while we wait for said visas to get processed. Then finally, upon arrival at 10 or 1am after a 12 hour ordeal, in Siem Reap they unload you at "the one hotel that`s open at this time of night." Which since we got there at close to two am, was probably true. Still, they charged market rate for all these "services" so its hard to call it a scam. Nevertheless, all the tourists on the bus heard the same thing I had and were overly nervous. Everyone was frazzled at first becasue the bus broke down. It didn`t so much break down as start filling with smoke. We were really close to the border, so the driver tried to make it, but when the bus was grey inside, he finally gave up. Tourists commense worrying. I barely noticed the bus broke down, laid out on the lawn and went back to my book (there was a manicured lawn where we stopped, after all). One couple was determined and set out hitchhiking, but then were overtaken by the tour agency`s vehicles shuttling everyone up to the lunch stop. Nobody seemed to be listening to what was either being said, or what should just go without saying. Once at the lunch stop, they offered the visa service. Those who were "in the know" refused and got angry at what was just a service being offered with no coercion. I walked to a table, sat down, had lunch and a beer and watched the drama unfold. No less than half the bus piled into rickshaws for the border, which they paid for, and again paid for a local bus on the opposite side of the border, thus saving no money, and perhaps an hour of time. When the dust settled, only those whom were waiting for their visas at the lunch stop were left. And me. Nobody had even asked me about having my visa done. My bubble was complete. I made no friends, and was untouched by anything that had unfolded around me. When we got to the border, there was no line at the visa office, and I was through in time to get in line with everyone else at passport control. Eventually everyone was shuttled to the local bus for Siem Reap two at a time, which was conviniently parked in front of "the bank." The bank more resembled a signless Chinese restaurant. All the ornamentation is something I`ve only seen in San Francisco. Here at the bank.... hmmm... I THINK I handed her FOUR 1000 baht notes = $100 USD. But somehow I got a thick wad of 280,000 riel, and in my fog from 10 hours on the road, I couldn`t process the exchange rate or what questions to ask, and counted my money just to get my head straight, but couldn`t do it. Something felt wrong, but MISTAKE ONE I didn`t know the baht to riel or dollar to riel exchange rate beforehand, so I was fucked. Or I may have only given her three thousand baht, as at the last minute I decided to keep one back in my wallet. So I had five, kept one gave her four and got 280,000, or I handed her four bills and she "counted 3" and I fell victim to the Disappearing Bill Trick. I`ll never know for sure.
After that, the tour conductor for this stage of the journey obviously didn`t get enough nipple or something, cause he kept trying to inturrupt my solitude despite my every effort not to tell him to buy a puppy or somthing, and eventually I put on my headphones, since burying my nose in a book ceased to be effective after sunset. Nevermind the road that reminds one of, excuse me, a minefield. But immediately I felt the shift in political climate, and rolled up a cigarette and smoked out the window of the bus. The road was, lets say, highly textured, but really childsplay compared to the one back from Spiti. So I scarely noticed the jostling, while worrying after my sitar out of courtesy. In fact my sitar sat beside me, acting as a wall between me and the rest of the world. Rural cambodia really doesn`t have that "lived in" feel of India. Its more like South-Central florida. Wide open swampy planes with occasional stands of trees or islands of palm. The "Crocodile alley" that this road is was laid out by a geometer. In Thailand, the road makes a very obvious right turn at a mountian which is the only natural landmark up to that point, and heads in a straight line for the horizon. The Thai Section is quite nice; as is the first thirty minutes out of Poi Pet. But then all paving and villiages go away, and its all a soft clay surface with a fine particulate dust (bandanas are highly recommended, as the bus has no AC). Where it has recently rained ,the water puddles in the potholes, and every vehicle that jostles through one increases its depth by sloshing out the soup. And since this is the only road to Thailand, traffic is quite thick. Anyway, it wasn`t snowing and there weren`t mountains out to get us, so all things considered, it was a pleasant ride through the moonlit night. We stopped at 10:30 and an ebulent 15 year old villiage girl was fiercely selling cold drinks. She was so adamant, that I relented. But when the woman at the stall we were standing in front of handed me one and I bought it, I was shocked when the girl threw a fit. Calling me a bad man. I hadn`t realized that she didn`t work at the store she was selling in front of. Beverage vending is a cutthroat business in that town. Anyway, trying to placate the child, I asked her name. Ani, she said. She asked me where I was from and I said North Carolina (to keep it simple) and she got excited. She said this was Caroline, the villiage did indeed have the same name. So, then we were neighbors, and had a nice friendly chat. I told her I`d buy her beer next time I was in town... hmmm maybe I should go back and visit in another three years ;-)
Five or six hours later, I donno, I slept, we finally arrived in Siem Reap. The first thing I saw through my bleary eyes was a wide boulevard separating four lanes of traffic with bike lanes, and a five-star hotel. It was like a bucket of cold water poured on my head. Then the bus pulled up into a dark side street, stopped at the end, and the staff started showing everyone to their room. I hadn`t counted on this. I was expecting to be dropped off near the market to fend for ourselves. Hadn`t really considered being taken to a guesthouse on the edge of town. So, beaten, I took my room, but only the third room that was offered. It was a nice room, a nice guesthouse, but with half of Cambodia living on the first floor. It always seemed like twelve people were working, which made me nervous. I knew what I had to do, which was get the hell out of their first thing in the morning... well, at checkout time at least, and never look back. So I loaded my gear onto my back (which is still a lot when you are travelling with a sitar. Fortunately the sitar fits nicely in the snowboard straps on my backpack), spent breakfast studying the map of town, then set out to find a guest house. Where I ended up seemed nice, right off the main bar street, a very clean and european-styled hostel for $3 a night. There was only one other guest in the emense five person room, an Australian girl, travelling alone. Well, I guess we both thought the same thing you did, so we spent the rest of the day together, went to lunch, I rented a piece-of-shit bike to match hers, and we set out for Sunset and Anghor Wat. We arrived just in time to miss the sunset, which was rather subdued after all, and proceeded to take the loooooong way out of Angkor.
First we were on a dark country road, wide and nicely paved, at an intersection with a dirt road running along an old levee or fortification berm this was apparently the evening hangout. Not a soul spoke a word of english, and the prices for things broke all the way down to 100 riel for the first time. Someone`s car door was open and Cambodian pop streamed at the meager top volume. (there`s a charity to start. "Pimped Out Rides FOr Paddy Agriculturalists" or PORFoPA) A little ways down the road we found an opportunity to turn right, and asked directions from the guys hanging out at that streetcorner. Keep in mind there is scarcely a building in site. One guy standing with a police officer jestures vaguely over his shoulder in a way that could be taken to mean either of our two options. Seeking further clarification as we went, we took that right. But then all the sudden we were in Vegas. It was the strangest right turn of my life. Showlights, some neon. It looked moreso for its agrarian setting no doubt. Suzannah and I looked at eachother in disbelief, what the fuck is this! So we stopped in for a beer. As we were pulling in I warned her that I couldn`t be certain it wasn`t a strip club, but she was undaunted. In fact it was a dance show, and was considerably tamed down from the act 800 years ago, but then again, neither were we royalty. So stepping into the chinese theater, we ordered a beer, and watched the traditional Khmer Dance. South Asian Dance all shares the same rules at the court level. Its all this perfection of jesture and stuff, but it would have been more interesting when the dancers were naked. Especially the Prima Donna of this show. She was someone to run off with, that`s for sure. Now I can appreciate the subtleties as much as the next guy, but what was far more interesting was the folk dances interspersed among the more serious offerings. These had a much more trimmed down and localized version of the seduction ritual. And the stories were a lot easier to follow. Sometimes the prop basketry had a function I couldn`t fathom (one seemed to be a fish-catching basket) but generally the interaction between the youths on stage was genuine and honest. He really did want to kiss her, and she really wanted to be kissed. Of course such things could never occur on stage. But with a well placed basket...
Returning to France, we pondered the mystery of where the hell we were over a few more beers, another meal, I had the most stunning pizza of my travels. A Quatro Frommagi made by a Franco-Italian chef (his father was Italian, his mother French) with a count them FOUR dollar glass of delicious wine. It was a decadent meal at an extravagant price... for the region. But Siem Reap is good for these luxuries. We talked into the night, then went to two or three more bars, ending in the Laundry, which is vintage 2001. Or perhaps 1996 San Francisco. The music was good, the mojito mediocre, and before we knew it, it was 3am. So we stumbled back to our dorm, and of course have the room to ourselves... But it was not meant to be.
The next three days involved riding 20 or 30 kilometers a day in and about the grand loop around the Angkor Wat. There are a couple dozen minor temples scattered about, four or six really monumental ones, and then two walled royal residence-cum-monastic complexes which are so famous for being eaten by trees. My only actual disappointment was the inability of past commentators to give this quantitative sum. I`ll post a map later when I get around to it, but there are only TWO places in the whole complex where the forest consumed a temple. Well at least where it hasn`t yet been restored. Okay there are places where a tree has taken over a gateway, or where a tree is quietly licking its lips. And there are trees growing out of walls here and there. But these two temple complexes are totally rad. Still, the trees don`t deserve all the credit. The incompetant structural engineering of the day necessitated an early demise. Like the Indians who brought this style of architecture and worship, they had no concept of the vaulted arch, and relied on canilevers stones carrying the mass of a ceiling span precariously, and on a good day. Plant a tree on top of that structure, and its just a matter of time. The lifespan of the tree then determines the lifespan of the building. When it falls, it takes everything with it. Likewise if it were to burn. The result is 75 percent destruction due to trees yanking down buildings in a 200 year cycle, but also the failure of foundations causing the slightest deformation in load-bearing resulting in total structural failure. There are several local variants of the pyramid, or ziggurat. These are surmounted by five seperate shrines, one in the center and four on the wings. Sort of like a mosque, but mostly solid. the point is, the trees couldn`t really do much to these artificial mountains. Anything above the water table in this region becomes desert, a microclimate unto its elevated self. Hence, no trees. However, the residential complexes of kings provided the perfect diet for this one species of tree. For the life of me I can`t remember its name. But that one and the Strangler figs working in tandem form a frightful battle of tenacity tearing anything assunder. You see these two trees wrestling, both still growing, into huge interlocking masses. If they ever join forces, they could take on a Banyan. But sadly, no banyans in Anghor. Still there was one temple that was really cool. it was a mandala of five tanks. The central pool had a 10 meter stupa in the center. Then the four outer tanks were arranged in a "celtic cross" pattern. The four had a fountain-shrine from which the water entered the tank from the central. It must have been like a water park to the Ancient Khmer. Quite posh. However, the real stars are those two areas... and why am I so lazy as to walk over and check my map? Maybe I need more beer.
So the road was only 3/4s finished, which we discovered our first night, in th dark, thankful for the moon. So the next three days, I rented a full-suspension bike. This proved to be a great joy. I was faster than anything on the road, and between drafting cars, motorbikes, and other cyclists, I could make excellent time from the ruins to the city. Better than cars, at least. But all day in this dusty clay powder, or alternately being sprayed in red mud after it rained, by the time I came home, I just walked straight into the shower after emptying my pockets, and washed my clothes on the way out of them.
So, my last morning in town, I woke up at dawn again, and set out for the second and largest complex consumed by the forest. I managed to beat the tourbus for my first walkthrough, but I made a mistake of buying the biggest goddamn cocoanut I`ve ever seen. This sucker held a full liter of coconut water. I was drowning in it. That slowed me down a bit, and when I went back in, the bus tourists were there. I followed miscellaneos group and private tours around the complex, and still found secret rooms they didn`t go to. But I did pick up various little gems, like the devi who`s peering out from under a tree root, or my favorite, A guide said to his charge, "This kind of tree likes to grow in rocks." To which his client responded, not wishing to sound ignorant, "Yah." I haven`t had the patience to look at my pictures yet. I`ve had a lot on my mind. So once the sun started getting hot, I headed back to town for a shower before taking the bus to Phnom Penh. One other interesting note. There are at least three cafes on the bar street that have free wireless internet.
So the next thing I knew, the bus was crossing the river into Phnom Penh. I had been studying the maps, of where I was going, but since I`d been sleeping I got everything turned around in my head, based on a false first premise. I was looking for Phnom Phen Hotel, or more specifically for Julie. As we rounded a traffic circle, which I recognised from the map, I almost decided to parachute off the bus, and hail a rickshaw, but calmed myself, reminded myself that he didn`t know where he was, and to stay on the goddamn bus. So I started looking for some sign, any sign. the first sign I saw in Bright Pink Neon over the roof was, Phnom Penh Hotel.
So I walked into the lobby, sitar in hand and two smallish backpacks, and walked up to the man in the red jacket behind the counter. I asked him, "I`m looking for Julie Karaus," "She`s right here," Julie said from right beside me. "I was just about to leave you a note. You hungry? We`re going to dinner. So I dropped my things upstairs, and we went to the Western Restaurant. (J`s boss was footing the bill.). I had the lamb with the complicated eggplant side dish, rare, of course. It was succulent. And the red we had with dinner was quite nice. Subtle and dry.
After dinner and a couple of drinks at the bar, we went upstairs and I learned all kinds of things I didn`t want to hear. Well, thats not true. I`m not referring to what was said, so much. But I just didn`t hear any of the things I wanted to hear. To start with, Julie still couldn`t give me a plan, or explain to me how, if not when I was going to buy a ticket on the day of a major festival for the next day, the day after a major festival, to Bangkok, the most popular route. But, it turns out, in the end, she didn`t have a plan. It was as if she hadn`t even considered it. What the fuck.
It was a lot for one night, and the next morning we slept late, had a slow breakfast and in the early afternoon were picked up and taken to the Dragonboat races. We drove, like in a real car, through the mobs of the proletariate and sat at a table with a great view of the river watching pairs of boats with 12 to 65 paddlers race down the Mekong. Later, we walked through the packed streets to the square on the river to watch the fireworks. But before the fireworks, floats, like actual parade floats floating, started moving upstream along riverbank. These had huge billboard sized patterns of lights depicting various themes. They were sweet. The fireworks, however, were short. But no matter. Japan fireworked me out.
After the festival, Julie and I broke away from the pack who were all going to try to get into cars, and decided to walk the 2km back to the hotel. In the crowed melee, someone reached into my pack and stole my cigarettes and herb, also craftily hidden in a cigarette pack. Bummer. However, this was the first time I`ve ever been stolen from or pickpocketted on the road, so we stopped for a pizza and drank a toast to my new first. I`d moved my wallet to my pocket earlier, and for a different reason.
Somewhere over drinks, while watching the floats float by, Julie mentioned that she was leaving the very next day. I had even then been confused and thought they`d be there another day. But no, these days were being taken away from me one at a time. Even that night, when she thought she`d be leaving at 4pm, in fact she had to meet up with her group at 10am. Another six hours stripped away, at the very end. So the next morning, I woke up, ate a big 4-star hotel breakfast, and set in motion Plan B.
On the internet from Siem Reap I did full recon, and found Bungalow Villiage, which I was sure, without a doubt, was fabulous. All the advertiesments described its bungalows as "the closest to Victory beach," and "basic," which translates into backpackerese as "The owner`s a really nice guy and you can chill." So here I am. After breakfast, bought my ticket for noon thirty, and parted ways from Julie, wondering just what was or wasn`t I going to do with her.
Pleasant ride down from Phenom Phen; again, the villiages at the rare intersections reminded me of the bombed out redneck towns above the Everglades. I could almost smell the chitlins frying. Seeing little kids frolicing in the puddle/trough in the front didn`t change anything. For all that, its not Central Florida, and if you ever did decide to stop and get off the beaten track, do stick to the ruts on the main trails.
So I guess after all of this it all comes down to one thing. How many times in my life will my time in Paradise be spent licking my wounds from previous campaigns? It always puts a bit of a blue tinge on a yellow reality. And I can`t just sit, at peace with the world on my porch and relax. I can never just relax. Even if I don`t leave the guesthouse today, there`s still the unbearable weight of all the baggage I brought with me, and all the decisions on the event horizon.
You know what paradise is? Its a lie we tell ourselves about people and places as we`d like them to be. But do you know what truth is? Its that little baby your holding. Its that man you fought with this morning. The same one you`re going to make love to tonight. That`s love! Thats truth! (Charlene, I`ve never been to Me)
"Oh, I`ve been to Georgia and California and any place I could run...." ehm sorry. I`ll spare you the Karaoke (for now!). The point is that the closer one comes to paradise, the emptier the inexplicable voids remain. And whether its a life we are escaping or one we dream perhaps too intensely for, the result is the same. Emptiness dogs you even on the virgin beaches in the bamboo hut. But emptiness and the stars have been my constant companions for ten years now. What`s a few more?
Tuesday, March no, November 22. I think its still 2005.
But Victory Beach is yet again another place entirely. It is apart from Sihanoukville by a kilometer or less, and at the bottom of "The Hill" or "Victory hill" or "Weather Station Hill;" the name seems to fluxuate. The beach boasts no coral, and boring scuba diving in cloudy water; still, it is very much like the gulf coast, perhaps even more placid, as the limp waves lap the shore like a tired old dog. The Gulf of Thailand meets the spit of land once called Indochina as a big sandbar which swallowed a range of low volcanic hills. The few stones on the beach are solid chunks of granite or volcanic pumice. The good diving is about 70 kilometers off shore at an island called Ko Tang, where any right-thinking individual would have already opened a resort. This is where I head in a couple days. Inshallah. The snorkelling around the inner islands is weak, some shallow coral, but low visibility. And hence low light for the coral and fewer bright colors. However, the boat trip I took to get there, the grilled baracuda lunch on the beach, and the exploration were worth every penny of the eight dollars the daytrip cost.
I`m faced with the paradox of my relationship with J. I really do like the girl, and my one objection right now is the three weeks I was supposed to spend with her. So the rational solution does not seem to be to therefore push her further away. Yet that is what my heart, that bitch, is trying to convince me to do. I feel hurt and wounded by her absence, and in my perverted mind the salve for this injury is to make that absence permanent. To drive her out of my life. As my friend Michael Olds told me, "Like your obsession with sex. This is not something analysis will help you with. Only seeing that it will ALWAYS end in grief will break that." Now, as much as I don`t like to admit that I`m "obsessed," there is sort of a manic self-consuming drive, perhaps I`ve seen too many movies or read too many books where the protagonist gets the girl in the end, or triumphs over adversity. I`m a romantic personality in that I believe fiction imitates life, but often I get it backwards and hope to live the dream. Just once, I`d pay anything for a storybook ending. But my storybook was apparently written by Joyce. And my payment is in heartbreak. But its an interesting thing developing callouses. The two on my fingers are quite thick after a couple months on the sitar. If I were to think back to my pre-sitar days, I can easily remember when my fingers felt different, outwardly and unto themselves. Typing has become strange, since two of my fingers have a different sensation for the other eight. Yet a mere two months ago, I scarcely noticed the difference between all 10. How thick must be the callouses on my heart? God, from my first heartbreak at 9 until today, how many women have come and gone in my life. I can neither remember the face nor the name of the girl I went home with in Kindergarden or first grade, but I remember the taste of her kiss as we were hiding behind the overstuffed chair in the livingroom, the light coming through the muslin covering the window, and her father calling us out to come eat pepperoni pizza. I remember my guilt, having just abused his trust and had dalliance with his daughter, but I also recall knowing that he didn`t and wouldn`t suspect a thing. Ever since then its been a sorted trail of discovery, getting darker at each turn, down to losing my virgi.... hmmm... perhaps we shouldn`t go there. Not here, not like this. ask me another time. But the point is, the same impossibilities which caused me to break it off with Heather Blackburn--whereever she is today do you know her?--are the same impediments I face with J. And with Raja a few months back. And with Cara. And Sara. When I say I have miserable luck with the ladies, its not in the having, but holding. And for the last four months I have been so weary that even the burden of having has been outweighed by my need for truth.
The balance always is somewhere between the perfect ideal and perfect suffering. We strike a pose with a girl and take a look in the mirror. We see if the suffering is at least not prosaic, at most dramatic and riviting, we see whether the other lives up to at least the important points in the ideal, and try to gloss over the rest. By we I guess I mean me. Us, the plurality representative of consensus among my inner congress. There has always remained a tension between the ideal or I should say The Ideal and sufering; for just as an Ideal is universal, so too is suffering. We can differentiate the layers and flavors as we do with wine: I taste a lot of oak, a hint of cherries, but with an undertone of betrayal and deceipt. Just as all the characteristics of a wine are in a single glass, so too all the flavors of Ideal or Suffering are intermingled. In a single glass. To experience any one of them is to be reminded of all the others.
Its not necessary to make laundry lists of these things. I could list J.`s strengths v. weaknessess all day long, and it is quite obviously lopsided in the ways by which she manifests my ideal. We wouldn`t have gotten this far if she didn`t. But this is strike two for two on fucking up a roadtrip we were supposed to spend together. And she hasn`t and I will see her soon, but the point is I`ve spent three months leading up to this frustrated with her inability to throw me a rope. I can forgive everything else but not having something to hold on to that I could rely on and trust. Call it an infantile paranoia, and you`re probably right. But these are the facts on the ground. And to know something and to do something about it are totally different things. Currently what I do is rely on an impossibility, which I label as "dependability". Where this is stinging is on that level, it comes down to punctuality. Cara, I felt was wasting my time, an hour at a time, every time I had to wait for her to get her shit together. Solitude over the last ten years has me living with an almost military efficiency. I never lose anything, I never miss anything, I never forget anything, and I`m never late. That`s a lot of nevers, hence, obvious hyperbole, but let it stand. It represents the language of the Ideal which I am looking for in another. Now, Julie has set a new record by keeping me waiting for three weeks. Imagine if I was sitting in a cafe` waiting for her to show up all this time. It would resemble The Terminal. Fortunately, my International Waiting Lounge has spanned three countries. Still, waiting in paradise is still waiting.
Enter the paradox. I am hurt, a bit insulted, and objectively viewed, stunned at the dumb luck of it all. And if this is one of those things about a person which one cannot change, jesus christ. To be kept waiting three weeks? Is this how I want to live my life? So to defend oneself against suffering is natural. My basic defense is of course, grab a joint and a drink and curl up back into my shell. I chased a crab the other day while snorkelling. Those buggers are fast, and their evasive tactics interesting. Since they run sideways, they can reverse direction in an instant, then practically duck under the loose sand. A quick reverse, a few shufflesteps, and wham they were never even there. But its a problem with paradoxes. They don`t have a resolution, they are opposite, yet necessary principles. I can neither have the one nor escape the other, except in death or enlightenment, another paradox. But the problem is great. For if A, then there will be an end to this kind of suffering, but an arisal of that. And if B, then we enter the theater of pain that is love, and live with that yawning pandora`s box. Yet if C, then all these problems go away, but I`m living in South Carolina. Its like this, itachi-goko Weasel`s Play.
Still, whatever else may be said, at length and without breath, (sic.), It is much more pleasant contemplating self-emolation from a tropical paradise. I could ask for a slightly better view, but the breaze is luxurious. My bungalow is nice. The door in the front opens in two folds, leaving a large aperature, and the two windows are awnings when propped open with a meter long stick, giving the impression more of a semi-private pavillion than a room. For sleep, if the bugs are bothersome, which once or twice they have been, I drop the mosquito net (note on mosquito nets for novices. Always fold them up tight in the morning, so bugs don`t have all day to get in.) and feel like a princess. From my porch, I nosily overlook the whole compound, and can see through into the kitchen. The gardening is haphazard but thought out, the trees full and some are groomed. The whole "Bungalow Villiage" has a haphazard and organic feel to it, and as the bungalows match two or three at a time, it does feel like a villiage set on a narrow track climibing the hill. Huge flat boulders surface from the sandy soil here and there, and the paths very much follow the contours of the land. On the horizon, just through the trees I can see the azure Gulf of Thailand, and on a clear day, Koh Rong on the horizon. Interestingly, Singapore is due South of here, across the Malay Peninsula, Followed by Sumatra. Somehow that makes sense. But today, I can see the water between breaks in the trees throughout the garden and my motorbike (scooter) awaits down in the parking lot. I`m sure I had something to do today, but I just can`t remember what.
next... liveaboard cruise