Sliding into home

I finally have a day off and some time and attention and energy to write about my trip to Thailand.

It starts with a sleep-deprived stream-of-consciousness from KL airport, which I find funny and random. Enjoy!

Feb 23

Back in KL airport again.

I’m sucking on grape Mentos in the unenthusiastically air conditioned food court, where the the enticing food posters (“Asian fusion!”) have nothing to do with the workaday, ready-to-eat fare on offer. I’m lazy and bloated on cheap, spicy food-court food.

Outside, idling airport buses spew exhaust in elephantine bursts. The chunky, turned-over earth around the landscaped flowers look like chicken rendang.

I’m achey from the early-morning taxi ride to the airport and the window seat that got me here from Borneo. My mind is cottony from last night’s beers and a short, listless sleep. “satu lagi!” calls my brain. Though I don’t know what it wants “one more” of.

I’ve got four hours to kill before my flight to Bangkok. Thank gawd for spider solitaire.

I’ve got the Olympics on my mind. I haven’t watched a second of coverage. “Single-minded focus,” I can hear Bob Costas’ voice intone. “Overcome adversity.”

Abruptly I’m transported back to primary school, during one of our periodic choral performances for our parents. “Give me a smile, with everything on it,” sings my consciousness, “And I’ll pass it on!”

Too little sleep, too much caffeine and sugar.

today

“We’re going home tomorrow,” I said to Mike about 10 days ago. We were sitting on my balcony in the Marina bungalows on Koh Lanta, Thailand. I rocked in my hammock and he squirmed on the less-comfy wooden chair chair as we played the last fierce games of our 240-game backgammon tournament.

I gasped. I had just referred to Semporna, Malaysia, as “home.”

A slip of the tongue. But indeed, I’m back “home” in Semporna.

Thailand was what I had hoped for. I spent the first few days in Bangkok hanging out with PC and Tat, Tat’s mom Angelika, and her cousin Joana. Our first day we took a longboat ride up the Chao Phraya River, taking in the hot, sticky filth of the polluted river and stopping for hours at a market. Tat, her cousin and mom shopped like crazy for tschotchy presents while PC and I sweated and chatted.

At lunch he and I had a rather intense 10-minute conversation about American politics. I haven’t had such a conversation in ages, and it felt good.

One night PC and I went to see a Muay Thai tournament – Thai kickboxing. We were accompanied by Shiva, Angelika’s Brazilian-embassy driver and a former Muay Thai competitor.

We whitefolk paid 1500 baht each for the farang (foreigner) tickets. Shiva paid 400 baht and had to talk his way into the near-empty farang section, explaining that he was our guide. Entry to the sections was strictly controlled by the same cagelike turnstiles you find at unmanned entries and exits to the subway. The sinister architecture continued in the stadium itself. Above us in the rafters, separated by floor-to ceiling metal fencing that called to mind the worst European football matches, sat the poorer locals. Ringside, below and separated from us by a concrete wall, sat lumpy white farang in khaki shorts and collared shirts, clutching ticket stubs arranged by their hotel concierges.

We sat in between, on wide concrete platform stairs that constituted the cheap farang seats. To our left, in the next section over, sat a huge crowd of betting locals – the expensive local seats. This crowd consisted mostly of middle-aged men with thick bulges of baht in their front pockets.

Before each fight the competitors entered the ring Рalways over the top rope, never between. They each wore a shiny, almost lam̩ cape, a ribboned crown, and a lei. Their shorts were short, satin and either blue or red. Together in the middle of the ring they performed a pre-fight ritual that seemed half-dancing and half-stretching. Eventually they retired to their corners, their trainers removed their cape, crown and lei, and the fight began. Each round was accompanied by a small band in the corner of the stadium, who beat drums, rang bells and rattled chimes in ritualistic beats.

Each fight lasts five three-minute rounds. The first two rounds are relatively slow, as the competitors try to discern each others’ weaknesses and score a few easy points. Likewise, the crowd is fairly silent during the early rounds, as they individually calculate odds and plan betting strategies.

The third round is the fulcrum, both numerically and practically. At bell-ring the hands of the betting crowd shoot up and start making elaborate gestures and signs, communicating odds, bet amounts and agreements using a language as complex and amusing to watch as that on an old stock-trading floor. If one competitor is clearly stronger than the other the betting is frenzied as the crowd tries to find a way to make *some* money off the fight. If it’s a close match, the fight becomes frenzied, as each competitor tries to gain the upper hand.

The fourth round is a more-intense version of the third, when the betting, cheering and fighting reaches its height. Underdogs might start to fight back, prompting their formerly silent fans to start cheering support – tentatively at first but taking on brashness with each connection of fist or foot. Panicked bettors begin desperately flailing at each other, trying to hedge their bets. Each blow is met with an appreciative roar from one section or another of the crowd.

The tone of the match is solidified during the final round. If it’s a blowout, the weaker fighter spends 90 seconds desperately trying to score points. If he’s unsuccessful, a sign from his trainer tells him to stop fighting and the competitors dance around each other in a mock spar for the last 90 seconds. It’s like running out the clock in the final seconds of an American football or basketball game.

But if the match is close, the final round is fierce yet careful to the closing bell, at which point both competitors raise their arms in mock-confident victory and are welcomed as champions in their respective corners. It’s only once the referee tallies the points from the three judges that a winner is festooned with a flower wreath and fistfuls of bills are peeled off and traded in the stands.

I loved it – The fluorescent-lit atmosphere, the elaborate ritual, the familiar rush of excitement from watching any sport.

I even liked it better than our entertainment the following night: the Calypso Cabaret, a ladyboy show featuring glitz, new tits and old packages bulging from polyester briefs.

The next day I flew south to meet Mike in Krabi. His flight landed before mine, so he bought two beers, set up the backgammon board on the floor of the arrivals hall, and waited. Alas, my flight was delayed two hours, so by the time I arrived the beers (plus a few more) were in his belly and the backgammon board tucked back into his luggage.

Never mind – we jumped into a taxi van for the two-hour ride to Lanta.

When we arrived we partook in the local intoxicants, went for a pork-laden dinner, and retired to my balcony with a few beers to play backgammon late into the night. That set the basic daily pattern for the next few weeks: wake up, get silly, go for breakfast, get silly, play backgammon, get silly, go for lunch, get silly, play backgammon, get silly, watch the sunset, go for drinks/dinner, get silly, play backgammon.

I could write more about Lanta, but I’m not feeling it at the moment. Suffice it to say that I gained about 10 pounds in bacon, cheese and sloth and left happy…and a winner (by just 2 games!) of the backgammon tourney.

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On the road again?

Last Wednesday I packed my bags for the first time in 6 weeks and hit the road again. A week later, I’m sitting in the food court in KL’s central station, where there’s free wifi, food and (most importantly) handy tables where I can sit all day writing.

After staying put for 6 weeks, hitting the road again was…this is weird for someone like me to say….disorienting. My body wanted to go diving, my heart wanted to spend more time with my becoming-friends at Scuba Junkie, and my head couldn’t grasp the concept of trip-planning and logistics. It was a trip I wasn’t ready for.

Luckily, DrC was ready: he found a hostel in KL, hired a car, and planned a few spots to explore in Peninsular Malaysia. After leaving KL we visited Georgetown, an old British settlement on the island of Penang, off the northwest coast. Unlike Melaka, Georgetown was only vaguely interesting, for about a day. On the second day we toured the island, visiting a fruit farm and eating durian that did *not* smell like feet. In fact, durian tastes like rich butterscotch pudding. Delicious.

I slowly started to get back into the travel groove. I read the Lonely Planet. I looked at maps. I even took some pictures. Suddenly I was impatient to get some time alone, to write. But it’d have to wait a few more days, for DrC to leave.

After Penang we drove east to the Cameron Highlands, nice and cool at 2000 meters. On the way there I got an email from Scuba Junkie, inviting me back to work as a DM. I was pleased, of course – this is what I had wanted before I left Semporna. But now I was traveling again, thinking about going to Thailand, hoping to go to Siberia for my birthday. Unlike most places, Semporna was less appealing in my mind, from afar, than it had been in person. Did I really want to go back, to stay still for *months*?

I did. I agreed to go back for at least 3 months (until my birthday in early March), and take it from there.

In the meantime, DrC and I continued uphill. Everything in the highlands is soaking, dripping wet and covered with spongy greenery. When we arrived, starving, we ate chicken tandoori followed by strawberry crepes with coffee, waiting out the rain. We visited the tea plantations, which carpet the humid hills like peat moss.

Before I could go back to Borneo, I would have to do a visa run (cross the Malaysian border and back to get a new 3-month visa). I figured I’d just find a cheap AirAsia flight to Thailand or wherever when I got back to KL, but DrC had other ideas. We would make a mad rush to the Thai border near Kota Bahru. He would stay in Malaysia while I crossed the border (and back) on foot. Then we’d carry on down the east coast of Malaysia.

So that’s what we did: On Sunday we drove from the tea plantations near Tanah Rata to Gua Musang, in the less-touristed Kelantan province. On Monday we woke up early and raced north to the Thai border. I was across and back in 40 minutes – not even enough time for a green curry. Knowing we had to be in KL by noon the following day, we drove most of the way down the coast, to Kuantan, that afternoon.

About 400 km of driving in hot, humid weather = two rather cranky people. At our rather seedy hotel, I stomped on a cockroach, climbed into bed and was asleep before DrC finished telling me he was going to take a shower.

Back in KL I gave DrC a big hug goodbye and checked into the Backpacker Traveller’s Inn, a hostel in Chinatown. It’s only 11 Ringitt/night (about $3.50), but you get what you pay for: a cramped 7-person dorm with no free Wifi, no fan and a/c that is only turned on from 9 pm – 9 am. Oddest of all: midnight is lights out. Which means one of the managers slips into the room, wordlessly switches off the light, and slips out again. No matter if you’re reading, talking, brushing your hair – she just switches off the light, without warning or regard to the people in the room.

I had planned to stay in KL for a week to write and whatnot, but given the state of my accommodation, I panicked – I admit it, I panicked – and booked the first reasonably priced flight back to Semporna. So I go back tomorrow, on Friday, with too much writing left to do. I’m regretting it now, but what can you do? I’ll find some time and space to write when I’m there.

And that’s the tension, the undercurrent to the past week. When I was moving all the time, I could find some time to write because I had no social obligations. When I was doing my DM, it was impossible to write – not just because of the long days, but because part of the deal was to get to know the rest of the staff. And that takes time and mental energy.

Now that I’m going back, and to a place where I have already established some relationships, I’m hoping I can relax and write more. Gawd I wish I was able to just sit and write something real (not just notes) in a stolen half-hour here and there. But I can’t. Sux.

OK, that’s the catch-up post.

So the plan is to divemaster by day and write by night and on my days off. The theory is that my DM job is like a waiter job – a day job that pays my expenses, with any money I make from writing going into “savings.” Of course, I *love* diving, so it’ll be the best day job possible.

Traveling, writing and diving. What more could a girl want?

Notes from China

This is sort of a catch-up post. The first two bits were written while I was in Xinjiang province, where I had zero internet access. The last part was written here in Xian. Not my best post ever, but whatever.

————-
9/18

Greetings from Urumqi, city of Chinese race riots.

Actually, this post can’t possibly be from Urumqi, as the internet here is completely blocked by the government. So are international calls and (potentially) local mobile phone/texting services. This has been the case since July, when a peaceful march by the minority Uighur population, which is Muslim, turned into a large-scale riot in which more than a hundred (and possibly hundreds) of people died – mostly Han Chinese, according to reports.

More recently, in early September, it was the Han Chinese turn to demonstrate. Evidently a few Uighurs attacked some Han with hypodermic needles. A few reports of these attacks turned into hundreds – most of them, even the Chinese government admits, are fake. But still, at least a hundred (if I remember correctly) did happen. And the Han are angry that the government hasn’t done enough to protect them.

So here we sit, in a city decorated with phalanxes of young riot soldiers on every corner. Their hairless faces peek out from under helmets, above tall riot shields they wield like teenage gladiators.

Despite all this, I like the feel of Urumqi. It’s friendly somehow – hard to put my finger on it. Can you imagine? The friendliest Chinese city has riot police on every corner.

——–

9/22
Kashgar

This morning Karly left me in Kashgar to try to extend my visa while she and another Aussie take a three-day trip to Tashkargan (a Tajik village in China, near the border) and Karakul Lake. But like everything in China, it’s not that simple. The PSB (the police), which deals with visa issues, “is not working for two weeks,” according to the friendly woman at the office. No explanation for this, erm, holiday. She assured me that it’d be no problem to extend the visa in Hotan, which is along the road I intended to take. But I don’t believe her, and neither does the manager of the Old Town Hostel, where I’m staying.

After much consideration of my options, I’ve decided to just fly to Xi’an, where there’s Internet and sites to see. The other options (saving money by taking a 3-day train journey instead, extending my visa in Urumqi, etc.) were too complicated and expensive; I don’t want to travel the southern silk route *that* much.

Or maybe I do. It’s so confusing, because most sights I’ve seen in China have been neatly packaged and Disney-fied (that’ll be 100 yuan entrance fee, please) and competely sanitized of soul. I’ve come to expect the worst, delighting in the occasional pleasant surprises where the government hasn’t wrung all reality from a place – the Mogao Caves outside Turpan, for instance.

Indeed, I’m so glad I made it here to Kashgar, which feels more like one of the ‘stans (Kazakstan et al) than China. It’s similar to my feeling when I visited the Tuvan Replublic in Russia – it’s like I left the country. Of course, the Chinese government is quickly implementing plans to rip the soul out of the Uighur Muslim population by tearing down the old town (“for safety’s sake”) and moving everyone from their ancenstral homes to bland concrete high-rises. (Google “destruction Kasghar” for more – China won’t let me get to any websites that explain.) So yeah, I’m glad I made it here before that happened.

But what will the rest of the “South Silk Route” be like? Has China destroyed the other towns yet? I’m not sure, and I’m not willing to run the gamut of Chinese visa-renewal bullshit to find out. It’s crazy to have come this far, this deep into China, only to be turned back by bureaucratic nonsense. Normally I would do it – I’d dance the required dance in order to see what I want to see. But in this case, I doubt the payoff will be worth it. My pile of Chinese Disappointments is high enough already.

So I’m leaving Karly to complete our itinerary alone while I make a beeline for the border. I’ll be gone by the time she returns from her trip.

As last year, knowing I’m traveling alone again is a relief. I couldn’t concentrate on anything – writing, traveling, reading, learning – during the month I was traveling with Karly. Was she an unsuitable travel companion for me, or is the problem my own pathological comfort with being alone? I’m not sure. (I imagine DrC might have something to say about my issues with life-sharing!) All I know is that I feel that a burden has been lifted, that my mind is free again.

(To be clear, I did very much enjoy my time traveling with Karly. We had plenty of laughs (especially in the Gobi), saw some interesting and uninteresting stuff, ate good food and bad, complained about China, got ripped off, met lovely people, etc. etc. It’s just that I seem to be better at traveling alone. I don’t understand!)

————-
9/29

Xi’an

OK, now I’m actually writing this today. I’ve been in Xian for 5 days, and I’m staying until October 2. I’ll write *about* Kashgar later.

I’m sticking around Xian for a week for a few reasons: First, my visa extension won’t be ready until the 30th. Second, October 1 is the 60th anniversary of communism (such as it is) in China. This means the entire country is shut down that day, so I postponed travel to the 2nd. Third, Xian is a fairly pleasant place, as polluted an crowded Chinese cities go.

And finally, I’m getting pants (erm, that’s “trousers” for all you thinking “undies”) made. It’s terribly exciting, as this is the first time I’ve done this.

Explanation, aka “The Pants Digression”: In Urumqi I received a box of clothes mailed from Boston by my dear, dear sister. What a relief to put on something other than the 2 pants and 4 shirts I had been wearing since April 22! But also, both pants were literally falling apart, despite my best hand-sewing efforts. The washing machines in Russia and Mongolia are not kind. Anyway, threw out one pair of pants, but the other was my absolute favorite. So I went to a local tailor, handed them the pants to use as a pattern, chose fabric, got measured (they marveled at the size of my inseam and hips), and shelled out a mere $25 – probably still overpaying. Fingers crossed for good results.

OK, enough pants. What of Xian? I’ve met some lovely people at the Shuyuan Hostel, where I’m staying thanks to a recommendation from a lovely Belgian guy I had met in Kashgar. Tourism-wise, the highlights have been the Terracotta Warriors – Xian’s main tourist attraction and one that is actually worthy of its billing. The other highlight – one that surpasses the Warriors in my estimation – was the excavated tomb of a Han Emperor called Jingdi. Both sites are tombs, and remarkably well-preserved examples of ancient Chinese burial rituals. Rather than burying the emperor with *live* servants, horses, pigs, and other food, or with *real* weapons, gold, household items, and so on, the Chinese sculpted *thousands* of replicas of these items. The burial areas are *kilometers* square. It’s mind-boggling. Check out my pix on Flickr once I upload them (I have a HUGE backlog).

Entertainment wise, the highlights have besen two delicious meals with large groups from the hostel – one night there were 8 and the next 9 people. We ordered about 10 different dishes and shared. Delish. The first night especially, when we went to “First Noodle Under the Sun” restaurant, there was not enough room on the table for all the food. We each had two beers as well. The bill? 30 yuan each, or about $4.50. Good times.

RED SEX, ANYONE?

The good times continued when a smaller group went to the great bar attached to the hostel to carry on drinking. I got my traditional one-blue-drink-per-country (Drea stay tuned for an emailed pic), and then Jemma, one of the women I was with, ordered me a “Red Sex” cocktail. And she had no idea I’m a Red Sox fan (she’s a Brit – from Brighton in fact – and wouldn’t even know they exist). In any event, the cocktail (which in the end is just grenadine and Baily’s, I think) was *presented* rather than served, including being lit on fire. I made a wish and blew it out. No, I won’t tell you my wish.

The festivities ended at 2:30 am – the bar was closing and we needed sleep, despite our spirited discussion about the merits and morality of drugs.

%$& CHINA, I’M LEAVING

Today, with a little yelp of glee, I bought my AirAsia e-ticket out of this damned country. On October 10 at 11:10 local time I’ll be on a plane to Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia! The beach! Sure, it’s monsoon season. But I don’t care! I’m gunna find me a spot, become a divemaster, and be ready in time to work when the monsoons are over. I need some salty surf, seafood and my swmsuit.

In the meantime, this Friday I head south by train, arriving in Guilin a mere 27 hours later. The area is known for mystical scenery – limestone peaks, terraced rice fields, and so on. I’m hoping for the best – some *unspoiled* and un”improved” nature, please China! – though expecting chair lifts and ticket offices decorated with white bathroom tiles. Chinese architecture. [shudder]