Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bungy Shots from 147 Meter Jump; I'm Home



I'm in the stirrups and about to be trussed up like a Christmas pig.




My eyes are probably shut, so I'm missing the great view of the river.



Side view: I'm the little blue thing on the end of the cord. I've fallen about half way. The cord will be totally taught when I reach the bottom of the jump.











Monday, December 17, 2007

Milford Sound, Shmilford Sound

The Milford Sound is a key part of Fiordland National Park, which has been designated as a World Heritage site. When I heard this from our tour guide, I started to shake uncontrollably and became queasy -- Angkor Wat is also a World Heritage site and that was an overpriced waste of time.

The Milford Sound trip is composed of the following:
- 4 hour bus trip to the sound
- 1.5 hour hour cruise around the sound; soggy chicken sandwich
- 4 hour bus trip back to Queenstown
- $127 bill

The bus picked us up at 8:00, so the trip provided a good chance to catch up on our sleep. My biggest gripe is the scenery is pretty monotonous: Plants, rocks, trees, mountains, river, waterfalls, repeat for 9.5 hours. The boat trip was also a letdown. The water was dark green, like the Boston Harbor. The only wildlife we saw was fat, lazy seals lying on some rocks. The seals at the Boston Aquarium are more active.

At the risk of sounding like a whiner, Randystravels surveyed some people who took the trip. When we asked what they thought, initially, they would say "it was nice." (Who wants to bash a World Heritage site?) When asked if the trip lived up to it promise, we got the following responses.
"No."
"What a rip off."
"What a load of crap."

My Own World Heritage Sites

Obviously, those who designate world heritage status know very little about the world. So, I have come up with my own sites of exceptional beauty and culture.

- Sok San Palace, Siem Riep, Cambodia
Must see: Lady boy go-go dancers
- Central Market, Phnom Penh
Must see: dried larvae and dried snake snacks
- Saigon, Vietnam
Must see: Moped mayhem during rush hour
- North to South highway, Vietnam
Must see: Highway stop with trough urinal 4 feet from kitchen

Queenstown Activities: Bungy, River Boarding

Queenstown bills itself as the adventure activity center of the world or some such. So I sampled some of the activities.

1) Canyon Swing ($135)
I previously sent description and photos. Here is a little more detail.


Free Fall:
Once you jump off the platform, you fall for about 3 seconds before the device catches you. That 3 seconds seems like 3 hours. It is called free fall.

Anticipation: The Worst part
The prejump anxiety is brutal: all the hanging around on the platform waiting to jump, watching other people jump. Finally, it's your turn and they harness you into the device. With a bungy jump, you are trussed up by your feet. With the Canyon Swing, the harness attaches to your waist. Most people who did the swing, were shaking from the adrenalin rush for a while once they were done. A couple of people were unphased and did it multiple times. One middle-aged woman who came just to watch her husband, did it herself.

2) Luge ($32)
A ski lift takes you to the top of small mountain. You ride little go carts down a paved track. It was surprisingly hairy, particularly if you're a bad driver like I am. You get five rides and you can also watch people paraglide off the top of the mountain or watch a small bungy jump that operates on the same mountain. That jump is 150 feet or about 15 stories. The free fall, time before the bungy catches you, is about 2 seconds.

3) Nevis Bungy Jump ($176)
At 134 meter, 440 feet, or 44 stories, this is the fifth highest bungy jump in the world. According the the bungy staff here are the 5 largest bungy jumps in the world:

1) Macau (230 meters)
2) South Africa (213 meters, about 77 stories) I did this one in October.
3) Switzerlad (209 meters)
4) Nepal (196 meters)
5) New Zealand, Nevis (134 meters).

*Note: Abu Dhabi is supposed to be building the world's highest bungy jump.

The Nevis is particularly unpleasant because you are jumping from a cable-car suspended over a canyon. The jump platform is about the size of a bathroom scale, just long enough for you to take two steps before you're airborne. (The South African bungy was part of a bridge and you had a nice wide platform. The Canyon swing also had a wide platform. With the Nevis, you really feel like you are walking the plank by yourself.)

In addition, when the jumper reaches the end of his free fall and the bungy cord catches them, the whole cable car jerks, as if someone had just thrown a dead body over the side.

To make matters worse, we had a freak out: one woman was harnessed up, stood on the platform, and then couldn't jump. She was terrified and rattled our whole group. It is a contagious situation almost like when there is a group of young children and one starts crying and then the rest start to cry. The rest of us were ready to cry.

For me, the anticipation is lot like the anxiety I feel before public speaking. I'm just able to contain the churning in my stomach and the shaking of my hands. But once I go, I'm fine.

I got to the edge of the bungy platform, looked down at the rocks and river below. They looked far away. The platform attendent counted to 3, I jumped and screamed as loud as I could. (I always scream.) You plummet and hit a top speed of about 90 miles an hour and then the bungy cord stops you and you bounce back up toward the platform.

One thing for those number crunchers out there: On a cost per meter basis, the Nevis is quite the rip off when you compare it to the South African bungy.
South African: $80 for 213 meters or 38 cents per meter
Nevis: $176 for 134 meters or $1.31 per meter.

By the way, the woman who freaked out, eventually jumped. She waited till everyone else had gone and then she just got on the platform and jumped. She was the bravest of all. She had gone sky diving the day before and said the bungy was much scarier.


4) River Boarding ($111)
Most activities overhype and under deliver. This one was a pleasant surprise -- everyone who did it nearly drowned and was surprised at how hard it was. River boarding is like white-water rafting without the raft. Instead of sitting in a cushy rubber boat, you ride an oversized kickboard, commonly known as a boogie board, through the waves and roiling water. (This activity was on grade 3 rapids, which is so mild as not to be not worth the bother on a raft. )

Why this was so difficult:
- the boards are hard to control in a swirling rapid filled river
- the participants were not strong swimmers (like me)
- like many activities, the guides spend a lot of time explaining the most obvious things , like follow us down the river, don't fall asleep on your board, don't pee in your wetsuit. But they don't discuss some of the more complex things. For example, at one point, a French guy, who barely spoke English, and I had to be rescued by one of the guides. We were preparing to go into a more difficult section of the river and the guide, who was also a little shaken up, told us to remember to do a "duck dive" through the next set of rapids. I had taken a surfing class and knew that a duck dive was a very specific move. (Not that I could do it). The French guy may have caught the word "duck," if he was lucky. So, he and I got a 2-minute instruction on how to do a duck dive: stay on your board and try to go under the wave of water coming your way.

Anyway, the activity was strenuous but excellent. The scenery was nice. The water was drinkable. I spent the last 20 minutes of our ride on the river, relaxing on my board and peeing in my wet suit.

Casualties:
- a middle-aged woman ripped open a previously stitched up gash on her nose. She got the original gash doing the 12-foot water fall on the white water rafting trip on the North Island. In her rafting incident, her boat went over the waterfall and bent in half. Her face hit the helmet of the guy in front of her. She had to go to the hospital where she received 7 or so stitches. She said her nostril was just hanging like a flap of skin. She also got a black eye. A guy on her boat broke 2 ribs. (When I did this waterfall, a woman in another boat had to be carted off. We don't know what happened to her.)
- lots of sore, cramped calf muscles.

Canyon Swing with photos

This activity is called the Canyon Swing. It is like a bungy jump, but instead of bouncing up and down when you reach the bottom, you swing back and forth. I jumped off a platform that was about 360 feet, or 36 stories, high. 



The company's marketing material includes the following quote from a customer: "Even my shit was scared."




People who are very brave jump off backwards, or with a bucket over their head, or even upside down. I am not very brave, so I went standard missionary position, jumping straight out and yelling "mommy!"









Monday, December 10, 2007

All's Well in Wellington; Night in Nelson

The next morning we were off to Wellington, the southern most major city on the North Island. It has a lively bar scene and is also the town where you catch the ferry to the South Island.

When we reached Wellington, the driver gave us a tour and we all got off the bus. To my surprise, the fireman came over and invited me to go out with the gang that night. I was sure they thought I was too old, too square, or too something to hang out with them for another evening. I, on the other hand, wasn't as friendly as they were and wasn't interested in spending another evening with them...unless I could get the Korean girl to go. I approached her. We made polite chit-chat and then I asked for the order. (I was not feeling particularly social or confident after the previous night, so this took some effort.)

"Hey, a bunch of us are going out tonight. Do you want to go?" I asked.
"I already have plans this evening. Will you be heading to Queenstown later in the week?"

Even though her English appeared to be marginal, her blow-off skills were quit sharp.

At the Hostel Bar

I went to the local gym (Les Mills, they let me in for free when I told them I was a poor American). Then I went to see movie "Into the Wild." (As good as the book) Then I went to the bar at the hostel. I spoke to a group of New Zealand airforce guys who were holding a stag party. They were all hammered. They liked me. They invited me to go with them to the section of town with all the strip joints. I did the calculations in my head: drunk military guys plus girlie joints plus hangover from night before. I passed.

Later that evening, a group of locals came in to celebrate someone's 21st birthday. Here are the highlights of the celebration:
- guy annoys girl
- girl spits on guy
- guy chases girl around bar and spits on her
- girl follows guy outside bar and throws drink on him, glass and all
- guy slaps girl in the nose
- bouncers intervene.
- I have enough entertainment for one evening and go to bed.

Nelson, South Island

Once again, we had to be up and out by 8:00 am. Being that I've been going to bed at 2:00, I've developed a routine where I'm sleeping for a few hours in the morning while we're traveling. Up to this point, I've been sleeping on the bus. Today, we took a 3-our ferry ride to the South Island. I slept the whole time. When we got back on the bus, there was a new cast of characters. Of particular interest: a very attractive woman from Holland. In Vietnam, the Dutch folks I met were among the most interesting. They also tended to be a little older and for some reason --maybe the age--I just clicked with them.

We drove for most of the day on the bus and pulled into a town called Nelson. The hostel (Paradiso, $50), was a little ways from town and most people stayed in for the evening. At 6:00, the hostel served free vegetarian soup. They also had jar of cayenne pepper. I put a teaspoon of pepper into my soup. The Dutch woman was sitting at a long table. I sat opposite her and tried to interject myself into the conversation that was going on. As I worked my through the soup, the heat from the cayenne pepper was starting build. My eyes were starting to bulge and water. My nose was starting to run. I looked like someone who had contracted Ebola virus. I was probably not making a very good impression. She asked if I was ok. I knew if I tried to talk I'd start gagging and probably spray her with soup. I nodded that I was fine.

Then everyone started preparing dinner. I left to do some laundry and buy dinner. When I got back I squeezed in next to her. We started talking. She complained about the young age of the group and how all they wanted to do was drink. She had been traveling for 6 months and had spent part of the time volunteering in an AIDs hospital in South Africa. She said in Holland typically you can take a year of unpaid sabatical after working for 5 years -- and you get your job back. She had been to Cambodia and Vietnam. We had plety to talk about. Then disappointment: She was going to stay in Nelson for another day. Nobody spends two days in Nelson. She said another Dutch girl whom she had just met was traveling solo and had glommed onto her. The glommer was upset because they weren't spending enough time together. To avoid confrontation, she decided to stay another day and let the glommer disappear on the next day's bus.

Also, at the hostel: a woman whom I had met earlier in my trip who was in her late 30's and great company. In addition, I met another "adult" woman. Both women were from England and referred to themselves as the "old birds." The three of us became fast friends.

And finally, a guy formerly from Boston who graduated college 5 years ago and has assembled a nice lifestle for himself. He lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and works in a ski shop during the winter and leads trout fishin trips in the summer. He said he typically skis over 100 days a season. (I ski a lot and barely make it to the slopes 25 days.)

Next Day

We drove to a town called Greymouth. On the way we saw some sites (pancake rocks -- large rocks in the water.) The sites bored me. I won't bore you. Greymouth is a small remote town on New Zealand's West Coast. The West Coast is known for it's coal production and coal disasters. It's got an industrial, down a the heels feel, it's kind of like the Revere of New Zealand's West Coast. Outside the hostel (Neptune's, $33) I noticed a familiar smell: rotting fish and urine. I do miss Cambodia.


More New Zealand Miscellania
- lots of people roll their own cigarettes here
- the slogan for the New Zealand armed forces: "Kiwis armed to make a difference." My question: why would you use the name of the world's most defenseless animal in your military slogan?
- sign on the wall in bathroom of our hostel: "Our hot water is produced using coal. Please take care as it can be very hot." Interesting.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

If It's Wednesday, This Must Be Taupo

I was now at a hostel called the YHA Taupo ($50)

Taupo is small town on a massive lake. The scenery inspired me and I went running for the first time in 5 days. (my sciatica was still active but much better. )

One thing worth noting: On these bus tours, the crowd on the bus changes constantly, which has its good and bad points. If you meet a group you don't like, you may only be stuck with them for a couple of nights. If you meet a group you like, you may split up and not see them again.

My bus group at this point was on the young side, big drinkers, and I didn't really bond with them.

The cast:
- Brother and sister from Brazil
Most of us thought they were a couple until they each started hitting on other people.
- The untouchables
Two very attractive women, who were nice enough but none of the guys really had a shot with them.
- The Irish girls
Fun, loud, hard drinking, not so attractive. Capable of a serious conversation when separated from the group.
- English fireman
Life of the party. Looked older than the girls, but bless his heart, he had them all going. He was very funny and a nice guy. And he could drink a lot.
- Korean girl
I'm think I'm developing a thing for Asians. Not really part of the group. Unclear who she socialized with. Her English was marginal, which meant she came across as aloof and lacking in social skills. We obviously had a lot in common.
- Bus driver
Loved driving big rigs like trucks and buses. He'd been doing it for 11 years. He was also a big drinker. He and the English guy got along famously.

A Night Out

The bus driver told us about a restaurant that would offer us a discount. The Korean girl had not decided to show up at my door in her lingerie, so I was free for the evening.

I went to the restaurant. The group (everyone but the Korean girl and bus driver) went and sat in the back of the restaurant at a big table. I didn't feel that comfortable around the group, so I joined the driver who was sitting at the bar. (The Korean girl didn't come out with us.) He talked about trucks, buses, differentials, transmissions, how some rigs have 18 gears and some have less. I listened. At least I was not sitting there by myself. I was thinking of suggesting we join the group when he suggested it first.

At the dinner table, I spoke to one of the Irish girls and she said the following about why divorce is so low in Ireland:
- people marry late, typically in late 20's.
- they usually marry someone they've been dating for more than 5 years
- by law to divorce someone, you have to be separated for 7 years.

Other useful information I picked up during dinner:
- women who wear g-strings can use a single pair for 6 days. (apparently, you use a different corner of the g-string each day. Then turn it inside out and repeat.)
- Australians and New Zealanders seem to suffer from some sexual confusion. The men call each other "cunts." Women are often referred to as "mate" by business and service personnel. For example, our bus driver often said things to the girls like "Can I help you with that suitcase, mate."

After dinner, the group went to a bar next store. I followed. The DJ was playing hip hop. I don't like hip hop. The group went out on the dance floor and danced together. I followed. Each guy in the group danced into the center of the group and performed some macho feat. The bus driver did a one-armed push-up and a one-legged squat. Impressive. The fireman put a pack of cigarettes on the ground, stood and spread his legs, and bent over and grabbed the cigarette pack with his mouth. I did nothing. It was time for me to move on.

I circulated and started talking to a couple from San Diego. The guy and I spoke about the Red Sox and Patriots. The girl had a nose ring that made her look like a bull. She got bored with us and went to the bathroom. In passing, the guy mentioned that she was his "kind of girlfriend" and that their relationship was on it's way out. I got the impression she wasn't aware of this development. I find it interesting how people (including me) will disclose these kinds of personal details to complete strangers.

The girlfriend came back. The three of us hung out for a while. She is one of the first girls with a nose ring that I've ever found attractive. I kept that information to myself and went home.

The Next Day

We were back on the bus and some bonding had apparently taken place the night before. The fireman and the Brazillian girl were now an item. Her brother was making the moves on one of the Irish girls, but it wasn't going so well. Apparently, he's 16. The girl is in her late 20's and very conservative. At least I wasn't the only one going empty handed.

High Speed Powerboats ($89)

I signed up for a jet boat ride, one of New Zealand's well-known adventure activities. The boats have huge engines and can hit speeds of about 50 miles an hour. They can ride in water a shallow as 4 to 5 inches. The highpoint of the ride is when the driver spins the boat around in a 360 degree turn. Everyone gets wet. The Korean girl, one of the Irish girls, and I were the only ones who signed up for this. The ride was fun but not all it was hyped up to be. After the ride, I was hanging around the restaurant overlooking the river. The Korean girl came in and sat down at a table nearby. She asked me to sit with her. We chit-chatted. She said she had quit her corporate job because had turned her into a workaholic and an alcoholic. She sounded like a partier. She sounded available. She sounded interesting.

Maori Dinner; Grumpy Mole

A few "facts" about the Maori people that I picked from various sources.
- Like the American Indian, the Eskimo, and the Australian Aboriginie, the Maori are an oppressed, depressed indigineous group displaced by ambitious aggressive white folks
- They have a higher than average rate of obesity, poverty, and alcoholism.
- They are of Polynesian descent, like the Tongans, Hawaiians, and Samoans
- the movie "Whale Rider" was about Maori people.
- a hangi is a special barabeque native to the Maori (food is cooked in an open pit that is covered with dirt.)
- Haka is a Maori war cry, a variation is used by the New Zealand rugby team.


The Maori Dinner

This was a dinner show with a Maori master of ceremonies who told jokes and led a tradional Maori dance ceremony. As I entered the event, I gave my ticket to the hostess and ask for a table with attractive single women in there late 30's and 40's. She gave me a sadistic laugh and seated me at a table with a bunch of couples, including one that was celebrating their anniversary. Neither the bride nor groom looked old enough to shave. The show wasn't bad but I felt bad for the performers, who once owned New Zealand and who were now reduced to doing goofy shows for white tourists. Still, it could have been worse and the food and company was good.

Nature Walk

After dinner, those of us who paid for the VIP treatment got a tour of the nature preserve. The highlight was the kiwis, a distant cousin of the ostrich. The birds are nocturnal and are the silliest looking animal I've ever seen. A kiwi looks like a large chicken with a Beatles' haircut. The birds weigh about 20 pounds and were scurrying around in their pens doing the things that captive kiwis do in their spare time: poking the ground, looking for bugs, hiding from tourists. The flightless, virtually defenseless, birds are endangered, so we were not allowed to touch or shoot at any of them.

When I got back to my hotel it was 11:30 and I was in the mood for one last beer.
I went down the street to a place called the Grumpy Mole. The place was virtualy empty except a few kids dancing and a huge Maori bouncer who was about the size of a grand piano.

I bought a beer and stood at the bar taking everything in. A 49-year old drunken woman came into the bar and ordered a drink. She started a conversation. She was from New Zealand, worked as a security guard, and had grown children. She told me her age. I told her mine. We toasted. She invited me to dinner the next day. I told I would be leaving town but thanked her for her offer. She kept talking. I smiled politely. She said she was from New Zealand. She said she had grown children and worked as a security guard. She asked me if I wanted to have dinner the next day. This was all starting to sound familiar. I told her I was leaving town and thanked her. She kept talking. She said she was from New Zealand... I excused myself to go to the bathroom.

I got back to my room at 1:00 am. I put on my headlamp and read. I was asleep by 2:00 and had to get up at 7:00 am to catch the bus to my next destination a town called Taupo.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Black Water, White Water

Black Water Tubing:

The first stop on the bus was a town called Waitomo that has caves that you can wade and inner-tube through. The trip lasts about 2 hours. (I have the price in my notes somewhere.)

To tube you need the right attire. My outfit consisted of the following:
- crash helmet with headlamp
- loose fitting wet suit pants, tight fitting wet suit jacket
- wet suit booties
- white ankle high wellie-style boots

Highlights:
- Cold Water: you spend half the time in the cave in water up to your chest that is about 40 degrees farenheit. I was shaking about halfway through.
- Glow worms: These are actually fly maggots that glow in the dark.
- 5-foot backwards drop off: You're at the top of a small waterfall and you jump off, backwards.
- 10-foot slide with rocks all around. A little hairy.

Then we arrived in a town called Rotorua, where I would spend the next two nights. My hostel was called Treks. (2 nights for $100). I booked some events for the following day: White water rafting (about $65) in the morning at 8:00 and Maori dinner show, plus a nature tour of nocturnal animals (together for the low price of about $72.)

Later that evening, I was in the mood to socialize. After dinner I went looking for a bar with some people. Most places were empty except for an open mic night costing $5 at the door -- no way. Around the corner was small bar called Scotty's. The bartender was playing classic rock music from the '60s and '70s. Sitting at the bar was a friendly, elderly tourist couple. Next to them was the winner of the Neil Young look-alike contest. He had long gray hair, a leather jacket. We talked about old bands for about 1.5 hours.

Next I went to a bar with all my backpacker contemporaries. The crowd was a little too young for me. I approached a young woman with whom I had sat with during our lunch stop earlier during the day. She had no use for me. I circled the bar aimlessly for another 5 minutes and left. I went home to read my new book, a novel called "Apathy." The light in my room didn't work very well. I remembered the headlamps from black water tubing. I rummaged through my knapsack and found my camping headlamp. I strapped it to my bald head and read. I fell asleep at around 2:00.

White Water Rafting

Six hours later, I was on the shuttle bus to the white water rafting site on the Kaituna river. (tour is run by a company called Raftabout.) The rapids were rated level 5, the scariest level offered commercially. (the river is really only level 3 but it includes what the rafting company claims is a 21-foot waterfall. The water fall is more like 12-feet high.)

The outfit:
- baggy, cold, wet wetsuit pants
- wetsuit booties
- fleecey top that keeps you warm but gets wet
- helmet
- life jacket

Then we got some preliminary instruction, including
How to go over a waterfall:
- get down in raft (normally you ride sitting on the side and paddling)
- hold a rope on the outside of the raft with your paddle hand
- grab a rope on the bottom of the boat
- put your chin down so it doesn't whack the helmet of the person in front of you.
- if you fall in, assume a tuck position and you will pop to the surface.

As we approached the waterfall, our guide asked if anyone was too afraid and wanted to get out of the boat and hike instead; we would pick them up later. He referred to this form of pussing out as "taking the Aussie trek." (New Zealanders have a little brother complex when it comes to Australia. They are always taking little jabs at them.)

Nobody got out of the boat, so it was time to go over the waterfall. We rested on the side of the waterfall and watched the boat ahead of us disappear over the waterfall. They came out just fine. Piece of cake.

Unfortunately, from where were were, you couldn't really see how high it was. We paddled up to the edge and our guide told us to assume the position. The last thing I remember is our raft heading straight down, completely vertical. The raft plunged under water and were all completely submerged. Then the raft surfaced as it's supposed to, but some roiling water on our right side flipped the boat over and tossed us all into the water. I tucked and popped to the surface in time to see our guide flipping the boat over and onto my head. Now I was trapped under the boat. I started to panic but was able to swim out from under the boat. The guide grabbed me by the lapels of my life jacket and lifted me into the boat.

We were all in our raft just in time to see the folks behind us get flipped. One girl (blond, cute, too young for me) emerged from the water with a bloody lip. She looked partially in shock, as if she had just been in a car accident. One of the guides carted her off and we never saw her again. The rest of the rafting was pretty dull. I was home by noon.

I went for lunch at a cute place called the Fat Dog Cafe. With all the nice wood and healthy menu, it reminded me of a place you might find in Burlington, Vermont.

New Zealand; Sciatica; Fat Camel

Qantas Flight to Auckland, NZ

My flight to New Zealand took about 3 hours and plus a 3-hour time difference. The plane was another Boeing 747 Jumbo jet, the giant plane with the world's most cramped seats.

On take off, there was a clear liquid leaking from the ceiling above the aisle next to me. Minutes later, there was a second leak over the people in front of me. Hopefully, the liquid was not from the fuel tank or from the toilet. The seatbelt sign was on. I rang the flight attendant call button. No response. I rang again. No response. No surprise. Fifteen minutes later, the seatbelt lights went off and a perturbed flight attendent went looking for the button pusher. (I was sitting in economy with the rest of the trouble makers and low-lifes.) The flight attendent said the fluid was just condensation. She gave me a look as if I had just pulled a fake fire alarm. Once the plane stopped climbing, the leaking stopped. As I've said before, the service on most airlines sucks.

Biohazard at the Airport

Like Australia, New Zealand has very strict laws to prevent the introduction of biological pests into the country. (Human pests are fine as long as they're loaded tourists.) This means you can't bring even a piece of fruit from another country, including Australia. The New Zealand airport even had a large display case with the exact bottle of cobra and scorpion wine that I wanted to bring back to the U.S. when I was in Vietnam. At the luggage carousel, a uniformed guy leading a beagle around asked us all to put our carry-on bags on the ground so the dog could sniff them. The dog made a beeline for a young couple next to me. He sniffed the girl's bag and sat down expecting a treat. Busted. The uniformed guy told the woman to empty her bag. Then he questioned her. Her bag was clean but she said she had an orange in there the day before. Then the dog stopped in front of her boyfriend's bag and sat down. The boyfriend said he also had an orange the day before. On the ball, these New Zealand sniffer dogs.

Sciatica
Over the last week in Australia, I developed a burning sensation going from my lower back and down the back of my leg. I get this periodically -- it's sciatica. Usually, I exercise through it and it clears up in two weeks. When I got off the plane, my back was in flames.

Hostel
I took the local bus to my hostel, The Fat Camel ($56 a night, in Auckland's backpacker area.) It was exactly what my place in Melbourne wasn't: fun and social. I dumped my stuff in my room and went to their bar. It was hopping and the people were friendly. My drinking buddies for the evening were a 37-year old Scotsman who I could barely understand because of his accent and and 25-year-old local who worked for the bungy jumping company in Auckland. (He hooked people up in their harnesses and then tossed them off the bridge in the center of the city.)

After a few beers, the Scotsman disappeared. Then the 25-year-old asked me if I wanted to try a shot called a Yaeger Bomb. I said "sure." The bomb was a large shot glass filled with a dark liquid. In the center of the glass was a smaller shot glass filled with an even darker liquid. He said you have to drink it all it once. We clinked glasses and gulped the drinks. Not bad, kind of sweet. "So, what's in it?," I asked. Yaegermeister, a licorice-like liquer, and Red Bull, a beverage with so much caffeine it's outlawed in some places. Being that I never drink caffeine because a cup of coffee in the morning keeps me up all night, I figured I'd be up all night anyway, so I decided to make the most of it. So, I had a couple more beers with him and then went for a 1:00 am hamburger at a seedy mobile burger van. Note: New Zealanders like their hamburgers with a fried egg.

Eventually, I got to sleep, but the sciatica woke me up a couple of times. I took some ibuprofen. The next day I took ibuprofen every 6 hours. The day after, my symptoms were under control.

Prices in New Zealand:
- the New Zealand doller is worth 80 cents
- hostel was $56
- a beer is about $5 to $6
- dinner out is about $12

The hostel had a well-organized travel office in the lobby. They helped me reserve a seat an on again, off again tour called the Magic Bus, which stops at major spots along various routes in the North and South islands of New Zealand. I chose a 14 day trip that terminates in Christchurch with a flight back to Auckland on 12/19. These low-wage hostel employees could teach the airlines a little something about service.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Australia 101; Perfect Storm

Australia for Dummies (stuff I didn't know)

The Commonwealth:
Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and a bunch of other countries are part of the British Commonwealth. That means:
- they still worship the Queen of England and think the royal family is a big joke
- the highest court for all these countries, akin to the Supreme Court, is in England
- all of these countries have their own Prime Minister but there is also a representative from the U.K. in each country. The representative in some cases can step in and run things.

Boxing Day:
You know that weird holiday that occurs after Christmas that is on almost every calendar you buy in the U.S.? In an informal survey done by Randystravels, most Australians didn't know its origins or even why it was called Boxing Day. All they knew was it was the day after Christmas, it was a holiday, and it was another excuse to get hammered. Boxing day goes way back to feudal times and tradionally, land owners would give serfs used Christmas boxes with some coins in them as a thank you. (Kind of like slave appreciation day.)

Tasmania:
Is a state in Australia.

Flies in Melbourne:
Melbourne is a clean, beautiful, modern city, except for one thing: in the summer the place is invaded by flies. You'll see women decked out in the finery walking down the streets swatting away as if they were bushwacking through Maine during black fly season. Swatting the flies is called doing "the Aussia wave."

Night Sounds of Surfers Paradise

Whoosh, Whoosh:
At night you can see and hear giant fruit bats flying around in the trees. The things look like huge black cats with wings and they are so large they leave a shadow on the ground.

Wahh, Wahh:
Drunken coed crying jag. Usually, after 11:00 you start to hear girls who have had to much to drink crying on their friends shoulders about something. One conversation I overheard, the girl was crying because someone had the nerve to call her immature. The nerve indeed...

Tattoos and Exotic Hairdoos
I have never seen so many wild hair spikey hair cuts, piercings, and tattoos -- even on people over 40. With unemployment less than 5 percent, one can only surmise that the country has a lot record stores and software companies that can employ these people.

Silly Names for Places: Another Vestige of Australia's English Heritage

These were all stops on the train to the Melbourne airport
Yeerongpilly
Beerburrum
Marochydore
Gymple North

Drought in Australia

The country is experiencing a severe drought so they have taken various measures to preserve water:
- signs in hotels and public places telling you how to do everything from shower to shave to flush the toilet.
- toilets: as in Asia, the toilet flush mechanism has two buttons: one for a half flush and the other for a full flush. There are also trough urinals. These are cleaner than those in Asia, but you still end up getting your shoes all wet and sticky.

Spiciest Dish of My Trip
So far, to get enough fire in my food I've had to add hot peppers or some kind of fiery spice. When I ordered the Chilly Chicken from a Malaysian restaurant in Melbourne called Bismi's Goldan Fork (spelling is correct), I didn't need to add anything -- it was hot as hell!

Why Things Went so Badly in Australia: The Perfect Storm

Due to a combination of poor planning on my part and some bad luck, Australia was pretty much a bust.
- Bad planning part 1: originally, I had planned to take a tour called the Great Ocean Road. When I got to my hostel they had one crappy 3-day trip. I wanted something longer, but it was approaching high season and I didn't want to risk ending up on a park bench, so I looked for other options and grabbed the first one that looked easy -- Surfers Paradise. I took a little risk and lost.
- Bad planning part 2, Hostels: Since my one bad experience with a dorm room, I've always gotten my own room. When I did an online search for hostels at hostelworld.com, I couldn't find many hostels offering that option in Melbourne. The hostel I found was nice enough but there was minimal social interaction.
- Bad planning part 3, Hostel/Tour Combo: Like South Africa and New Zealand, Australia has a bus/hostel arrangement that goes all the way up the Eastern coast. I just didn't know about it and didn't think to ask. (It's called the Oz Bus). Oh, well.
- Violation of my primary rule of traveling solo: Never, ever, stay in a big anonymous hotel in a Western city for more than a day or two. I stayed in Surfers Paradise for 8 days. I booked my trip on travelocity.com for 8 days and couldn't change it without huge hassles.
- Bad Luck: the travel knowledge of hostel I found in Melbourne was limited. Surprisingly, they didn't mention Oz bus and didn't have literature for it. In addition, the more social/party hostels were booked.
- More Bad Luck: I couldn't have picked a worse spot than Surfers Paradise. But once I got there, I noticed that there was a hostel right next to my hotel. Oh, well.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gloom Starting to Lift; Leaving in Two Days

I think generating all kinds of to do lists, rewriting them, changing them around, is finally starting to kick in. I'm feeling a little better. I only have two more days here.

Also, I received several e-mails that cheered me up.

Two were from friends in Boulder, Colorado, a city I want to check out as possible part time or full time residence. One note was from a guy who was one of my favorite people at my last job; he's lived in Boulder for years and raves about it.

The other note came from a woman who was one of the key people at Conscious Consuming (www.consciousconsuming.org), a group I was involved with in Boston. She just moved to Boulder in August and had lots of good things to say.

On the home front, a close male friend is dating up a storm, so it looks like the social life will be active back in Boston.

Finally, like it or not, I've survived 2 weeks in Australia in virtual solitude. In the past, when I've taken vacations alone, I was usually ready to come home after 4 days.

Note: Wasn't the book/movie "Papillion" about prisoners sent to Australia? Steve McQueen, who starred in the movie, would have been impressed with how I stuck it out in near total isolation in the "the hole," a 4-star hotel with only vicious housekeepers and obsequious concierges to keep me company.

I purposely planned this 4-month trip so that I would be moving around every two weeks. That way, if I got stuck in a bad spot -- like Surfers Paradise -- I could just let it ride knowing I'd be gone soon.

Surfers Paradise, Australia: Still in Hell

I'm still stuck in this overpriced, shopping center by the sea and my moods are slipping faster than you can say "which way to men's intimate apparel."

Here are the signs of clinical depression that are starting to grip me:

1) Sleep disturbances:
I'm going to bed at around 1:00 am, waking at 5:00 am, going back to sleep till 1:00 pm. I'm angering the housekeeping staff who keep leaving nasty notes like:

"We attempted to clean your room, but couldn't because:"

Then they have a standardized list of reasons they couldn't clean, including:

"The do not disturb sign was on your door at 1:00 pm. We don't care if you're an alcoholic, or clinically depressed, or on your honeymoon, we just want to clean the room and go home."

Bitches!

2) Murderous Thoughts:

A teeny-bopper was whipping down the sidewalk on his skateboard. As he got close to me he raised his hand for a high five. I knew he was taunting me for being old and out of touch (I know the sign for a high five, you little wanker.). I wanted to push him off his board and into oncoming traffic. (I didn't.)

3) No Joy from Usual Pleasurable Activities

Typically, I derive great pleasure from watching obscenely obese people stuff their faces with pizza and donuts while they shop for swimwear. Lately, it's just not doing it for me.

4) Use of Dangerous Mind-Numbing Drugs to Decrease Pain:

On two occasions I turned on the TV in my room.

I usually avoid TV, but last night I watched a show about Australia's All-Time Best Murders. Today, I watched a game show called "Are You As Smart As a Fifth Grader?" (I'm smarter about half the time.)


Positive Vibrations

The worst part about feeling depressed is ruminating on bad thoughts, which just fuels the downward spiral. To combat this, I came up with a list of all the positive things in my life:

1) My mortgage is small
2) I'm looking forward to dinner tonight.


Chin Up Slugger

To stop myself from obsessing on my situation and occupy my mind, I'm generating all kinds of to do lists (hey, it works for me and I'm not harming anyone). My lists include things like:
- things to look forward to in Boston
- which books I'd have a high school class read,
- potential new careers that offer 3 months or more vacation.(I'm open to suggestions on this last one)
- where I'll ski this winter

Unfortunately, like most anti-depressants, creating to do lists can take time to work.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Depressed in Australia; Speak Like An Aussie

I'm not going to make a lot of friends visiting bars in Surfers Paradise. (In Cambodia, I always met people in bars. Usually, they were white guys over thirty, but they were more than happy to talk and you always had a lot in common just by being white.)

I decide to go back to the things I like to do most: sports and exercising.
I ask the concierge where I can find a serious, meathead gym that is open late. He sends me to Fitness Express in a nearby mall. It's small but perfect. The guy working behind desk offers me a good deal: I can work out for the week, as often as I like for $49. (I plan to go in 7 of the 8 days I'm here).

I ask the concierge where I can take a surfing lesson. (I windsurf, but have never gone regular surfing.) The next day I sleep till 10:30 and sign up for a lesson at 1:00. My instructor is about 5 feet tall and maybe 16 years old. I'm the only one in the class. I ask him about attendance in the morning class. He says there were more people, most were 13 or 14 years old, plus one older lady. I ask how old. He says about 25. I ask him if she had gray hair and wrinkles. He laughs. My class goes well. I have fun. The waves are big and scary. I will try this again.

Speak Australian:

Mozzie: mosquito
Brekkie: breakfast
Rut (root?): intercourse

Summer Break:
Schoolie: high school graduate celebrating graduation
Foolie: 13 to 17-year old, trying to immitate a schoolie
Toolie: 19 to 48-year old, trying to immitate a schoolie

draft beer in a bar:
Pint: Pint
Schooner: 12 ounce draft
Pot: 10 ounce beer

light beer: beer with 2 percent alcohol
mid/mediaum beer: 3 percent (or so) alcohol
heavy beer: 4.8 percent alcohol

Australian Coast: Wrong Place, Wrong Time

I'm now on Australia's northeastern coast, near Brisbane, in an area called Surfer's Paradise. I'm on the ocean in a nice hotel. I have a minibar and free herbal tea. The weather is warm and dry. There's only one problem: I have a little company, namely about 33,000 kids with really bad accents who just graduated high school. (It's like being stuck in South Boston on high school graduation day -- the major difference is that its worse here because the Australian kids can all drink legally.)

My Hotel: Crowne Plaza Surfers Paradise, a significant upgrade from my Asian guest houses and hostels.

My room has two beds, either one would pass for a queen bed in the places I was staying in Asia. I have a balcony that faces the ocean. I have a bathroom with a separate shower and tub. I have a minibar and room service. There's a nice pool. I have a menu from which I can choose the type of pillow I want.

Options from the Pillow Menu:
Rubber Pillow: soft yet supportive, never lumps or flattens.
'V' Pillow: Shaped pillow, perfect for sitting up in bed, reading or watching TV.
Contour Pillow: ...Best suited for those who like to sleep on their side.
Feather Pillow: A soft downy feather filling, especially made to move when you sleep.

So why am I depressed?

My first night at the hotel, I went to check out the sauna. I'm in there talking to a 53-year-old married guy. He's reminiscing about his single days visiting Surfers Paradise and Melbourne. He recalls leaving a bar with "a bird under each arm." He reminds me that women all want "a good rooting, too." (I think he said "rutting," but with his accent it was a little tough to tell.) Anyway, he suggests some bars for surefire action in a part of town called Cavell Avenue.

I ask the concierge how to get to Cavell Avenue. He says I don't want to go there. It's all "schoolies," kids who just graduated high school. One of the other concierges estimates there are 33,000 of them up there. I've never been fond of drunken high school kids, even when I was in high school.

The concierge suggests two bars in the opposite direction, Prince Albert and Moo Moo. In all fairness, I've never been much for cruising bars by myself, especially in large anonymous vacation resorts. (This area is like a lot of resort cities in Florida: lots of high rise hotels, shopping is a major form of entertainment for visitors, many people driving pricey SUVs for no reason at all -- it's not like it's ever going to snow here. Gambling is legal here.)

Moo Moo: Nice, adult bar/cafe with outdoor smoking area. I get a beer at the bar. Two women who I'm sure are nice people check me out. In a place like this, I can usually work up the courage to talk to one or two strangers. I'm not feeling particularly brave, so I don't respond. Besides it's crowded and they're not cute.

I'm not having fun. I don't know anyone. Everyone seems to know each other. I'm getting anxious and my mood is spiralling downward, as if I was flying a combat aircraft and just got shot in the wing. I stand around drinking my beer, by myself, in the middle of the room where I stick out. People are just ignoring me. I feel invisible. I've got to get out of here.

Prince Albert:
This is a sports bar and live band bar rolled into one. Interesting combination. It allows me to go to the bar, people watch, and not feel self conscious because I can just watch TV. I get to the bar and they have American football. Bingo. In the next room is a really bad rock band playing tired American tunes from the 60's and 70's. No surprise, everyone is white and a really poor dancer. The band quits and they start playing dance and techno music, much of the same music I heard in Asia. The dancing doesn't get any better. (I've become spoiled: most of the people in Cambodia -- male, female, young, old -- were very sexy dancers.) The Football game is over. I do a couple of laps around the bar area. None of the women are throwing themselves at me. It's time to go home.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

White and Wild: profiles of Westerners in Asia

Some guys have a different take on what is means to be middle-aged or retired. Instead of living in the suburbs, playing golf, or cuddling grandchildren, they're more interested in smoking pot, drinking at 11:00 am, and fraternizing with working girls a third their age. They are also interested in living well but paying next to nothing. They like living on the rusty, disentary-infected edge. But they were all very unassuming: no crazy hairdoos, tattoos, or piercings. I met a bunch of guys like this in Vietnam and Cambodia. They ranged in age from mid-40's to late 60's. Some were divorced with grown kids. Some were white collar, some were blue. Some had married or planned to marry young Asian women. Being that they spoke to me off the record (usually while we were sitting on a bar stool), I did not use their names and changed some identifying characteristics.


E:
He is a retired English teacher. He is in his late 60's, has a grown son, and currently spends 6 to 9 months a year in an area known for its bar girls, he says. Each morning, he and a group of other Western guys meet at a coffee joint for breakfast. They discuss events from the night before and are on good terms with the local hookers. He says he and his friends are backups for the hookers. If the girls don't get any business, they will offer the older guys a discount. If the girls have need a place to sleep, sometimes they'll stay over. He says they all watch out for each other. He also says the girls tend to prefer older guys because they don't want sex as much. Though he clearly likes women, his attitude toward long-term relationships at this point in his life can be summed up by the following quote he offered from a book he was reading: "If it flies, floats, or fucks, you're best off renting it."

He said he has been having unprotected sex with prostitutes for the last 10 years. I raised an eyebrow and cited a statistic claiming that 12 percent of Vietnames sex workers have HIV. He said the girls in his area all get regular AIDS tests. He also quoted some other well known facts about the AIDS virus (it doesn't live long outside the body, you need a large dose of it to become infected, uncircumsized men are more at risk.) He also said that he thought Asians in general were a lot cleaner than Westerners. As an example, he cited the bidet sprayer found in most Asian bathrooms. If you get shit on your arm, would you rather wipe it with a piece of paper or wash it off with a hose? he asked. (Hard to argue with that logic.)

He says that he knows of Western guys who have fallen in love with bar girls and then start sending them money every month. Some of the girls have multiple guys sending them money.

Though he apparently has a nice apartment in his home country that he rents out in his own country, he has no problems with Asian squalor. I met him at a seaside bar that offers free accommodations -- a hammock -- to its customers.

H:
He appeared to be in his late 50's and at press time was living with a 20-something woman he met when she was working as a hostess in a Cambodian bar. She no longer works there. He plans to marry her provided she learns to read and write in English. He is learning Cambodian. He owns a sucessful business in a Western country and over that last couple of years has been splitting his time between Cambodia and his native country. He plans to move to Cambodia. He has had some trouble with the girl's family -- mainly annoying money issues. For example, her father lost the house gambling. H bought the house back for about $900 and put it in his girlfriend's name. The parents still live in the house. Another time, one of her relatives swiped his cell phone. The swipee's husband was going to beat her if she returned the phone. H paid $30 to get his phone back.

S:
He is recently divorced and met a woman he liked at a hostess bar. He asked her how much she would need to quit working at the bar and concentrate on college. She said $100 a month. He deposits the money in an account for her every month. She typically has money left over at the end of the month. They have been dating for over a year. He visits for 3-month stretches and they talk every couple of weeks on the phone. Her English is marginal but she is taking classes and studying business. They plan to start a business for her selling low-cost jewelry in her native country. She is a real go getter and appears to manage money well. On several occasions, I let her negotiate things for me or return things and she handled the transactions with aplomb. They are discussing marriage, but again the family is an issue. Also, he's in his early 40's, she is in her mid-20's, and he's not sure he wants kids.

M:
He is in his mid-30's and has his own business catering to tourists in Cambodia. He married a Cambodian woman. I met him in the middle of the day in a Phnom Penh bar. He was slightly hammered. (I would have stayed and drank with him but I was on my way to the gym and just stopped in for a sandwich. I ended up having a beer and a cigarette with him before going to work out.)


Dr:
He is a physician working in Cambodia. He appears to be in his mid-40's. He appeared to know the local party and bar scene very well. He fell in love with a bar girl and gave her a $2000 ring. He says she took off with the ring and he hasn't seen her since.

O:
He was also in his late 60's and traveling with E. They were drinking, smoking, and card playing buddies. He had married and divorced an Asian woman he met when he was in the military. He was now retired. He was also part of E's coffee klatch.

N:
Years ago, he was traveling with a friend fully intending to go home. He ended up in Vietnam and now has a Vietnames wife and business renting recreational craft to tourists. He appeared to be in his late 40's.

X:
He was a regular in a local bar that sells joints over the counter. He married a Cambodian woman and has a child. He didn't come home for a couple of nights, so she showed up at the bar and reamed him out using decent English. According to those who were there, she used phrases like "Him bad husband," "Him fucking asshole."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Melbourne: Sticker Shock, Stuck in a Lift

My flight from Singapore to Melbourne, Australia took about 7 hours. It was a red-eye and we left an hour late, so i arrived at about 8:00 am. The plane was a 747 "Jumbo Jet," with the the stair case. Though the plane is huge, the seats were cramped and I didn't bother trying to sleep.

Luckily:
- one of my seat mates was a 74-year-old French woman who was a retired chemist. Though she was now retired, she had worked for a company that flew her frequently to Boston. We conversed in French for a while.
- each seat had an excellent entertainment system. I was able to watch 3 decent movies. (on some systems, you can't start a new movie until everyone on the plane has finished with theirs. This system let you start any movie at any time). I watched the Simpsons movie (very cute), "Fight Club (very good)," and a tear-jerker whose name I can't recall that was also decent.

Melbourne:

Being that the US dollar has been in the toilet for a while, my budget was shot to hell from the moment I got off the plane. This was by far the most expensive place I'd been to on my trip. Australian dollar is worth 95 cents, so you get only a 5 percent discount on purchases.

Examples:
- crappy hotel room: $120/night (I got them to knock it down to $90. See "stuck in the elevator, below.) To stay another night would have cost $200. The hotel was centrally located and called something like the Quest on Collins.
- clean hostel with no a/c: $60
- bowl of noodle soup: $15 (this was from a chain called Wagamama. Total rip off. They also wanted to charge me $1.50 for a side of hot chilli peppers. The peppers weren't even that spicey, so I sent them back. I was getting comparable soup in Cambodia for $1; seriously hot peppers were provided free.)
- movie: $15
- visit to aquarium: $25
- pack of cigarettes: $12 (they cost $5.50 in U.S. and $1.25 in Asia. Incindentally, there are a lot fewer smokers in Vietnam and Cambodia)
- Low-end Chicken Parmesan dinner consisting mainly of french friest at Irish Pub: $15.

Other Negatives:
- People here are noticeably fatter and uglier -- even the Asians -- than those in Vietnam and Cambodia.


On the plus side:
- Melbourne is a nice, clean city.
- You can even drink the water out of the faucet
- lots of sky scrapers and a river running through it.
- lots of gyms -- the one I visited gave me free passes for 4 days.


Stuck in the Lift (Elevator)

As I mentioned, I spent my first night in a crappy suites hotel. The hotel had just been purchased by a chain and was undergoing renovation. (It needed it: the bathroom had broken tiles, the mattress sagged. The one plus: it had a/c, which my current hostel doesn't have.) I wouldn't complain if I was paying $10 a night, but at $120 a night, I was unhappy. When I asked about staying another night, the rate shot up to $200. As I was taking the elevator down to check out and contemplating what I would write on the customer feedback forms in the lobby, the lift got stuck. I could hear workman outside the door, so i called out to them. They told me to press the call button in the elevator. I did and was instantly connected to the elevator company. They asked a few questions, such as my location, and said they would have someone there in 10 minutes. I started to fume and then I decided I would ask for some kind of compensation for being stuck. It was starting to get hot in the elevator, but it wasn't unbearable. The workmen tried to open it to no avail. Then the technician showed up (within 10 minutes) and opened the door. I told the hotel manager that I was extremely unhappy with my whole experience there. She knocked 25 percent off the price.

Next Move:
The weather here has been cold and rainy, which is fine for sleeping. Being that my room at the hostel has no a/c, I'm flying to Brisbane and getting a room near a beach area called the Gold Coast. (Temperatures in Australia are supposed to soar into mid 90s over the weekend.) The room will be at a chain hotel and will include a/c. I'll be able to take surfing lessons and play on the beach for 8 days.

Singapore: Death to Gum Chewers; Welcome to the West

To get to Australia, I flew from Phnom Penh to Singapore, where I had a 7-hour stop over.

The Singapore airport provided me with a lot of firsts:
- first Christmas decorations
- first time I've seen three armed police patrolling around with automatic weapons and long, nasty looking filleting knives.
- free Internet terminals (some let you stay on as long as you wanted. unfortunately, there were no chairs and you had to stand; basically you could stay on the Internet for as long you could stand up.)
- free foot massage machines: you sit down and put your feet into a large plastic box. Each foot gets its own slot in the box. I didn't enjoy the massage that much. It felt like someone was whacking the bottoms of my feet with a ballpeen hammer -- and I had the machine set to its lowest setting. It was a little rough for my soft Western feet and I couldn't wait for the 10-minute massage to be over.
- on the immigration card to Singapore, it clearly states that the country inflicts the death penalty on drug traffickers.
- the sundry goods store had a sign stating that it doesn not sell chewing gum. The counter person said that chewing gum is not allowed in Singapore. I was afraid to ask what the penalty was for chewing gum traffickers.

On a personal note, I found myself getting annoyed with the people around me. They were all speaking English and blabbing on their cell phones, conducting business transactions. At least in Vietnam and Cambodia, I couldn't understand the language so other people's conversations were unintrusive, kind of like white noise.

Best and Worst of Asia

Best Hygiene practice:Most toilets, no matter how gross, had a hand-held sprayer near the toilet for spraying your nether regions. Saves on toilet paper and leaves you feeling fresh and clean.

Best Hotel Value:
Indochine 2, Phnom Penh. Hotel was clean, included a/c and queen-sized bed for $15; $20 if you wanted a window. Hotel is located in a desirable area next to the river.

Best Lobby Decoration:
Half-bald live rate running around in lobby of guest house in Phnom Penh.

Best Name for a city:
Bang Su, Vietnam

Best Lady-Boy Go-Go Dancer:
Boy-who-wishes-his-name-was-Sue at Sok San Palace, Siem Riem, Cambodia. Great breasts on that boy.

Best Eye Sight for a Blind Man:
At bus station in Sihanouk Beach, a beggar stumbling around with a cane, acting as if he was blind. He spotted a dollar bill in front of me and reached down and surreptitiously grabbed it in one smooth motion. Guy probably has the eye-sight of a Peregrine falcon.

Best Street Hustler under 4-feet tall:
Six-year-old street urchin in Phnom Penh for whom I bought a piece of strudel. He likely sold it back to bakery I bought it from and split money with the counter guy working in the store.

Best Breasts on a dog:
Lots of nursing dogs running around Cambodia with large, udderlike breasts hanging from their underside. It's kind of like seeing a 70-year-old woman without a bra --you know it's wrong but you're compelled to look. One dog in particular had a very impressive rack of 6 B-cup-sized breasts. (she wasn't my type; I prefer long-haired breeds)

Best Death-Defying feat on a moped:
Woman who was breast-feeding her child as her driver weaved in and out of traffic during rush hour.

Best Meat-Filled pastry
Pau buns sold on the streets of Saigon. White, slightly sweet pastry was filled with unidentifiable meat and an orange vegetable, i'm guessing was a turnip. Very filling, cost less than $1.50.

Worst Hygience practice
Public urination. I noticed this most in Phnom Penh. On public sidewalks, particularly by the river, you had to watch your step because a mother could be holding her baby son's penis and spraying the pavement, creating a fragrant rivulet of yellow piss. On the side of main roads during rush hour, you could often see grown men, backs to the traffic, urinating by the side of the road.


Worst-Smelling City:
Nha Trang, Vietnam. On typical day, air smelled like a combination of human urine, rotting squid, and smoke from a doused campfire.

Worst Bathroom Set up:
Hotel in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Bathroom consisted of a squat toilet, large barrel filled with water and a plastic pot for throwing the water either in the toilet to flush it or for throwing on you to shower. (Water was air temperature)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Better Attitude; My Good Deed; More On Women

Since hanging around Barry and his girlfriend, I have a adopted a new attitude toward aggressive local hawkers, particularly tuk-tuk and motobike drivers.

For a Westerner, being constantly hit up for money while you're in a restaurant, at a bar, or walking down the street can be pretty annoying. (One time, time I wasn't feeling well and a driver kept pestering me. I snapped at him and he snapped back "You be more polite me, sir." I apologized.)

At other times, having a begger with no legs scuttling around next to your dinner table can be just plain disturbing. Then there are the 6-year-old kids out begging or selling copy violation books and DVDs at 11:00 at night.

Remembering that some people are living on less than $100 a month, sleep out in hammocks in the middle of town, and are just plain poor doesn't help much because you're not going to save them with a $5 donation. (Though it will help and I've started tipping generously.) A tuk-tuk driver may get $1 for a ride and I've watched drivers not get any rides for half an hour or more.

My strategy:
I generally offer a polite "no, thank you," even if I have to say it 5 times in a row to different people offering the same thing.

-For tuk-tuk drivers offering girls, drugs, and visits to naughty bars, I'll try and joke with them if I have the time. "Would you like to make mad, passionate boom-boom with ugly American girl? You pay me $2." Or if they insist on asking me what I'm doing tonight, I'll say: "First, I'm going to buy some opium. Then I'm to the Chicken Ranch to find a couple of nice girley boys."

- For kids begging: General consensus is to not give them money because it encourages begging and may keep some of them from going to school. Give to an orphanage. I gave one persistent kid half of my cookie. Another one I took into a bakery and let him pick out whatever he wanted. (see below)

Other Western visitors have done things like buy a driver a new tuk-tuk (A tuk-tuk costs about $1000. The driver supposedly paid him back for it.)

No Good Deed...

Yesterday, there was a 6 or 7 year old munchkin begging in the sidewalk in Phnom Penh. I'd seen him operating before. He has a rat tail haircut, so I'm guessing he has someone watching out for him. So, I waived him over and made a gesture, asking him if he wanted something to eat. We went to the local bakery. I went in. He stood outside the door. I waived for him to come in. He didn't move. The counter person went and opened the door and told him to come in. I motioned for him to pick something out. He picked out the most expensive item. (a piece of strudel, $1.50. I got an Indian pudding, 50 cents.) The clerk wrapped up his strudel like a present. We walked outside. He didn't open the package. He started talking to an older boy who looked to be about 12 years old. Next he pointed to a hole in his t-shirt and pointed to a clothing shop. I gestured for him to eat his strudel. No response. He gestured toward the clothing store. I gestured toward the strudel. No response. I waived good bye.

For some reason, I didn't feel particularly good after my small good deed. I was probably just another white tourist falling for the old cute-street-urchin-routine. So where is that strudel now?
- the kid may have gone back into the store, exchanged it for 50 cents, of which the clerk kept the rest of the money. In this case, the strudel would be put back in the display case.
- the strudel became another inventory item for an international organized crime syndicate, which also probably also controlled the waterfront, longshoremen, and peanut oil importing in Cambodia.

Western Women

A large majority of the young (20-something) Western women I've seen on my trip have been fun and nice but very unattractive:
- almost half are extremely overweight
- many are covered in tattoos
- most wear next to nothing, so when you look at them, you don't miss a drop of ink or an ounce of fat.
- many are heavy smokers.

(So competition for the attractive women is stiff and, as an old geezer, i'm not even in the running. Probably more reasons for me to stick to women my own age -- not that a 20-something, even a gross one, is not going to be interested in me.)

Eastern Women

A friend bought a Cambodian/English dictionary featuring common phrases, their phonetic pronounciations, and Cambodian spellings. I was joking around with a local girl at a hostess bar asking her essential tourist questions such as:

- does your hotel accept seeing-eye dogs?
- can you fix my brakes?
- can I get my squid well-done?
- my nose is very large. Can you make it smaller?

My pronounciation was terrible, so I showed her the phrases in Cambodian. She hesitated and became a little embarrassed. She couldn't read the phrases. She was illiterate. My friend Barry said many of these beautiful "hostesses" are right off the farm and can't read or write Cambodian. (However, they don't seem to have any trouble reading men.)

More Temples; Crocodiles; Bars and Noodle Stalls

After the mine museum, I figured I had two more temples in me. The driver took me to one called Banta Sreay. It was the smallest temple so far, had some big carvings inside. Worth about 30 minutes and we split.

Next was Ta Prohm, probably the freakiest of all. The broken down temple had monstrous trees, which looked liked giant snakes, growing out of it. Some of the trees were close to 10 feet in diameter.

As we were driving home, I saw a sign for a crocodile farm. Next to the crocodile farm, separated by a brick wall, was a swimming hole filled with kids. Classic. Some of the crocodiles were up to 15 feet long. Of the 200 or so reptiles, only about 5 moved while I was there. They were all asleep.

Bars of Siem Riep

The town has the same type of bars as Phnom Penh, only on a smaller scale.

Dance Club: Zone 1,teeny bopper bar with great music
Hostess Bar: Blue Wave (It was a sketchy part of town.
I walked in and walked out. )
Dance Club with professionals working the floor: Sok San Palace
Brothel: I was told, but did not verify, that there's a Chicken Ranch just outside of town.

Other highlights
- Happy Herb Pizza: there are a bunch of these in Cambodia. The happy herb can be marijuana or, I've been told, magic mushrooms.

Zone 1

One night Barry, his girlfriend, his favorite tuk-tuk driver, and I went to Zone 1 to dance. Most of the crowd appeared to be under 20. There were lots of young guys dancing together. A group of about five guys danced over to me and asked me to join them. I danced with them for a while. They danced waving their hands around, I-Dream-of-Jeannie style. Then one asked me where I was from, how long I was I was in town, the usual stuff a bar girl would ask. We danced a little while longer and I was starting to get a funny vibe from him and his group. I don't know the cultural subtleties of the Cambodian gay community. Was I giving him the body language for "Let's go to your hotel and play a quick game of hide the banana?" I started to get uncomfortable and got Barry and his girlfriend into our dance circle and I gradually backed out.

Sok San Palace

This club offers a unique mix of entertainment: a nightclub, massage, and restaurant. I went to check out the massage section. There was a lounge area with guys sitting on comfortable chairs. Across from them was a giant fish bowl-like window with masseuses that you could select for your massage. The manager of the massage area started pressuring me to sit down, so I just left.

I joined Barry and his girlfriend in the dance club. There were several go-go dancers. At least two of them were girly boys. We had a drink, watched some pros work the room, and left.

One Night at the Noodle Stall

The next day I went for a run and started to feel like crap afterwards. I was coming down with my third cold of the trip. I was treating my cold with very spicey noodle soups and juice. I went to a local noodle stall for my evening dosage. There were three guys sitting on one side of a card table and one attractive teeny-bopper sitting on the other. I sat with the guys. She looked at me and smiled. Then she moved to the seat opposite me. Then two of her friends came and sat down next to her. I noticed that out of the three of them, two looked kind of masculine and the other looked feminine and very attractive. The feminine one kept looking at me and smiling. She moved down closer to me.

"You want massage?"
(I thought to myself: how considerate, this attractive young woman wants to soothe a weary traveler.)

"No thanks, I don't feel well, I'm going home after I eat."

"You go home alone? Me go hotel you."
(how sweet, she even offers home delivery)

"That's really very thoughtful. Why don't you try this guy, I hear he's got lots of money. [I point to 14-year-old boy sitting next to me]"

"Cambodian man no have money."

"Are you only interested in money? I thought you were attracted to my good looks and charm? No money, no honey, is that how it goes?" I said with a smile.

She didn't understand a word I said but pressed on.

"I give massage at hotel you."

"How about if I give you a massage and you pay me? I've been told I have great hands. For you, only $5."

She made a clucking sound.

We both smiled and I left.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Angkor Wat Day 2

I decided to start my site-seeing with something I knew I'd like: The Cambodian Land Mine Museum. The museum features the following:
- lots of defused mines
- a small minefield showing what mines would look like you if you came across them in the Cambodian jungles.
- very concise summary Cambodia's sad and chaotic history over the last 40 years.
- how and why land mines were, and still are used, particularly by the U.S.

The Mines
- Mines can cost as little as $1 to make (they're easy and fun to make at home with the kids) and $500 to $1000 to diffuse.
- They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from soda can size, to frisbee size.
- Some are designed to blow up tanks.
- Anti-personnel mines are designed to maim and not kill victims. The rationale: it costs and enemy a lot more to patch up an injured soldier than to bury one.
- My favorite: Antipersonnel Directional Fragmentation Mine that can injure people behind it or in front of it. It is about the size of the top of a shoe box and contain ball bearings that act like bullets when the device detonates.

The Mine Field
- included a series of trip wires for detonating various mines. Some wires were at chest level some were at foot level. Some could be detonated by radio. None of the mines were live and we weren't allowed to walk around in there, anyway.
- noteworthy: one of the most heavily mined areas in the world is along the Cambodian border with Thailand. During rainy season, many mines that are buried pretty deep, come to the surface and injure farmers living in the area.

Brief Recent History of Cambodia: Country has only been stable since late 1990's
- 1953: independence from France
- 1960: Prince Sihanouk elected head of state
- 1964: Sihanouk nation destabilized by Marxist movement (Khmer Rouge)
- 1970: Right-wing military group deposes Sihanouk and vows to rid country of commies. Military group asks U.S. for help. We're only too happy to lend a hand.
- 1975: Khmer Rough and Sihanouk join forces and take control of country. Most radical social-engineering since Nazis takes place. Towns evacuated, intellectuals carted off and killed, rest of population sent to forced labor camps in the country side.
- 1977: Pol Pot takes charge of country. Sihanouk placed under house arrest.
- 1978: After cross-border raids into Vietnam, Vietnames army invades Cambodia
- 1979: Vietnamese army captures Phnom Penh. Basic Freedoms restored but Khmer Rouge continues fighting throughout the country. Many Khmer Rouge retreat to Thailand.
- 1975 - 1979: Estimates vary, but some experts claim up to 3 million people or about 20 percent of Cambodia's population perished under Khmer Rouge rule.
- 1982: Vietnam launches offensive against coalition formed by Sihanouk, his son, and some friends. Thousands of refugees flee to Thailand.
- 1989: Vietnam withdraws from Cambodia, looting parts of the country.
- 1999: Khmer Rouge finally defeated and peace restored to Cambodia.
*Not sure of exact dates, but at some period, borders with Thailand were heavily mined to prevent Khmer Rouge from returning to Cambodia. Unfortunately, many refugees returning to the country were also injured by mines. To this day, hundreds are injured or killed in Cambodia due to mines.

Why We Like Mines
There is an international treaty designed to ban use and manufacture of mines. Naturally, the axis of evil: U.S., China, Russia, and some others refuse to sign it. We won't sign the treaty because we have mined the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and claim the mine fields prevent an invasion by the North.

Speak Cambodian; Angkor Wat Day 1

Here are the essential phrases any traveler to Cambodia needs to know:

Kmai: Khmer, the Cambodian language
Tow kah moy: toast you say when drinking, kind of like "down the hatch."
Oy, oy: Like the Yiddish "Oy vayezmeeyer"

Bong: Boy, often used like the French "garcon" in a restaurant
Ohn: Girl
Tom: big (can also refer to big and fat)
Chilli: hot peppers (if you ask for "hot peppers" no one will know what you mean

Same-same: the same (universal term used in South East Asia. Often used when ordering food

Up to you: phrase often used by cabbie or tuk-tuk driver when they don't want to quote you a price and they figure you don't know the price range. The logic being if you don't know the range, you'll pay Western prices and will overpay.

Boom-Boom: Intercourse (same term as every other country in South East Asia)
Ice Cream: oral sex.

Visit to Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is one compound in a huge archeological area that is about a 20-minute tuk-tuk drive ($12 to $20 per day) from Siem Riep. I wanted to get a guide, which probably would have made the whole thing more interesting, but all the guides were busy. (Guide about $20 a day)

Some people want to see Angkor Wat at sunrise. Some want to see it at Sunset. (these make for great photos) Being that I was visiting at the beginning of high season, I wanted to avoid the crowds on either end. I also wanted to sleep till 11:00. And like I've said before, I'm not much of a site-seer. My motto has always been: If you've seen one mossy covered pile of rubble you've seen them all.

To visit the archeological area you can pay the following prices:
$20 for a day
$40 for three days
Note that there is no two-day option, which is considered by most visitors the ideal amount of time. There is such a thing as getting templed out.

The Angkok Wat building is believed to be the largest religious structure in the world. Unfortunately, the main building with the famous belfry-like cones was closed for renovation. You could walk into the smaller structures on the compound. Here are my highlights:
- Once you buy your ticket (they take your photo and seal the photo and ticket in plastic), you'll notice that the roads and roadside are immaculate. Though people still live in shacks along the road, they're very nice shacks, no corrugated metal in sight.
- When you get out of your tuk-tuk you are swarmed by hawkers -- very tacky. After fighting off the hawkers, I went into some of the smaller structures. One of them had a Budha with incense burning. A guy asked me if I wanted to buy a stick of incense. "Jeez, they really need to get control of these hawkers," I thought. I bypassed the hawker and a guy in a uniform came up to me and said I should remove my hat when entering the temple. Then he strongly recommended buying a stick of incense. "Ït brings good luck," he said with authority. I had no interest in being reincarnated as a prisoner in a Cambodian jail so I forked out the 50 cents and moved on.
- Again, the grounds were immaculate, but the buildings, after thousands of years, needed some work. It was hard to tell what many of the carvings were supposed to be. There were some bas reliefs (carvings in stone walls) depicting heaven and hell, various battles -- ok for about half an hour.

Then I was ready for the next major temple compound: Angkor Thom
- the big parts were a little more intact than those at Angkor Wat
- the belfry-like structures had, you guessed it, live bats flying around.

I also saw another smaller compound called Preah Kham. More rubble, time to go home.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Way to Angkor Wat; Malaria, Dengue Fever

Mosquito Hysteria

The other day at a PP gym I noticed that a lot of the guys were spraying themselves with mosquito repellent. PP is not in a malarial belt, so I asked what was going on. "Dengue fever." This is a nasty little disease carried by mosquitos that has 2 variations: One that can kill you and one that just makes you wish you were dead. The fatal version is a hemorraghic fever that turns your insides into strawberry yogurt, which can ooze out of any orafice. The other version is just a nasty flu-like illness that can last several weeks.

The next day, I took a pleasant 5-hour boat to Siem Riep (SR), the town nearest to Angkor Wat. SR is in a malarial belt. Also, it is in a swampy area infested with mosquitos. My first night, I checked into my hotel (Ancient Angkor, $15/night, decent) and saw a mosquito and no mosquito nets. The hotel clerk said they spray the rooms each night. I went out for dinner and came back. Mosquito was still there and I couldn't smell any spray. I asked the front desk to spray again. They promised. As I was walking around deciding where I wanted my malarial-infected remains sent, I came to a pharmacy. I went inside and explained my concerns about mosquitos. They said they had no nets, but they had a mosquito coil I could burn in my room. I had a question: Is it safe to breath this stuff? (it's made by the company that makes Raid spray) The clerk assured me it would be fine. I figured who better to take medical advice from than a pimpley-faced teenager working at the local pharmacy?

FYI: I have one of the better types of anti-malarial pills, called Malarone. Unfortunately, pills are not 100 percent effective.

I have since gotten at least one mosquito bite here in SR. My room has been sprayed every night and I leave the fan on when I sleep. Supposedly a strong breeze deters mosquitos.

Site-Seeing;: Rats and Goo; A Bird in the Pocket

As I mentioned earlier, I'm not much of a site-seer. I had already checked out two gyms in PP and was told that the Central Market and a Temple called Wat Pho were worth a look.

Central Market
The tourist guide to PP says that this market used to be a good place to get an AK-47. I looked and looked and the only automatica weapon I saw was on the arm of a policemand patrolling the market. I saw an assorted of the usual stuff: Rolex watches for $5, meat covered by flies, roasted frogs. I was reasonably amused until I saw a large rat bolt under a food display. Then I stepped into a puddle of miscellaneous goo (I was wearing shorts and sandles, so the piddle splashed on my legs.) It was time to go.

Wat Pho

To prepare for Angkor Wat, an international wonder that is supposed to rival the Taj Majal and Macchu Piccu, I went to a small temple in PP called Wat Pho. Most notable things:
- there's Buddha and an altar where people can leave money and gifts. On the altar I noticed some cigarettes. I guess once you've passed on to the afterlife, smoking is less of a health risk.
- there are also several guys with cages filled with large sparrows. You can purchase a bird and set it free. One vendor was sitting for a while and took a bird from his cage and put it in his front pocket. I gave him a funny look: he said the bird was sleeping. If my lack of romance continues, filling my pockets with small defenseless birds may be as good a substitute as any.

Phnom Penh Nightlife; Too Much Info; Miscellania

Analogy: Phnom Penh (PP) is to Saigon as Boston is to New York City.
PP and Boston are both smaller, more manageable and offer most of the same types of entertainment, just on a smaller scale. (Boston may have 20 Thai restaurants, whereas New York may have 200.)

For night life, here are the general types of bars offered in PP and other parts of Cambodia (sources: some first hand, some "experts" I met.

1) Standard dance clubs: Heart of Darkness
2) Hostess bars: One 3 Six, Shanghai
Lots of attractive young women. You go in for a drink, they come over and flirt with you. If you like them, you buy them a drink ($2.50, they get a dollar). In some of the bars, you can ask the women to leave the bar with you. You pay the bar $5. (some charge $10, if it's before 10 pm.) Apparently, if the woman wants to go home with you it is up to her -- no guarantees.
3) Bars and Dance clubs with professionals working the crowd: Walk About, Martini, Shark Club

Note about girls who work in the various types of bars:
There appears to be little stigma attached to working in these types of establishments. Apparently, if you meet a girl you like, you start dating and ask her to stop working or at least carrying on with men outside the bar. Two Western guys I know met their girl friends that way. Both guys expect to marry the women. One guy is putting his girl friend through college. The other is living with his girl friend. The latter guy is learning Cambodian and has told his girlfriend she has to learn English before he will marry her.

There are also cultural considerations with marrying a Cambodian woman. Thorniest issue: I've been told that when you marry a Cambodian woman, in some cases her family may gradually moves into your house. First, it will be her sister on the couch. Then after you have a child, her parents start staying over. Eventually, your on the couch and you sex life goes kaput. (sounds a lot like marriage-American style.) Source for all this: hearsay.

First Night Out in PP

As I mentioned earlier, on my first night I went out to a local restaurant and had a difficult time trying to order. No one spoke English and after 30 minutes of hand charades, all I had on my table was an order of chicken wings. I noticed a white guy sourrounded by Cambodians at a nearby table. I went over and asked for help. He invited me to join them and we all started eating and toasting. We'll call him Barry.

After dinner, Barry invited me to go drinking and dancing with his girlfriend and her cousins. First, we went to a hostess bar, where his girlfriend used to work. He met her there but she no longer works there. She spoke to a couple of attractive former coworkers in Cambodian and pointed to me. One came and sat on the arm of my chair. She wasn't exactly a scintillating conversationalist, but she was nice and gorgeous. She knew a few phrases in English (what's your name, where are you from) and all I knew in Cambodian was "Kouw tauw moy." (down the hatch, a standard toast for drinking). I became a little embarrassed having her there in front of my friend's girlfriend and the other woman who came with us. I also didn't buy her a drink. Eventually, the hostess moved on.

We stayed for a little while longer and then went down the street to one of the wildest dance bars I've ever been to, The Heart of Darkness, which is one of the must see attractions in PP, according to Lonely Planet travel guides. Due to a history of violence in there (shooting or stabbing, can't remember which), they frisk you at the door; the security is tighter than at many airports and guards seem to enjoy their work a little too much. The guard padded me down, gave my genitals a little tweak. I waved my finger at him and said "you're bad boy." He winked and I went in.

Once you're inside you could see why the place was trouble. It had a combustible mixture of some of the largest white guys I'd ever seen outside of a football locker room; some dark tough-looking Cambodian guys who looked like they had just left a jungle patrol; waifey gay guys dancing together on a stage, and tons of the most beautiful Asian women I'd ever seen. (The women were light skined, dark-skinned, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and a few grossly overweight Western women in their 20's). The techno music selection was excellent; it was so loud it jolts you the moment you enter the place. The laser show was blinding. The whole place kind of seethes and everyone is dancing and bumping into each other. Our group of men and women danced will about 3:00 am.

Barry and his girlfriend invited me to join them the following evening to visit a slightly seedier version of the Heart of Darkness, called Martini. The bar was on a side street. You entered through what looked like a garage door. There was a guy with spina bifida, who had no body from the waist down, begging at the door. Again, we were patted down for weapons, and entered the place. The bar looked pretty calm. Some Western couples, a few middle-aged white guys with Asian girls -- can't always assume that the women are prostitutes, they could be the guys' wives or girlfriends. Basically, the place looked pretty dull.

Barry went to the bathroom and said that for 25 cents the bathroom attendent would massage your back while you urinate. Not really my scene, but I had to go the bathroom anyway. I went into a toilet stall to avoid the guy. When I came out of the bathroom, I heard loud techo music coming from the down the hall. I went to investigate. There it was: a seedy dance club, packed with people. I grabbed Barry and his girl friend and we went in. The music was good and there was even a 5-foot-9 girly boy ripping up the dance floor. We stayed and danced. There were some professionals working the room, including the first pro in her 30s I'd seen.

More Hostesses

Barry invited me out another night to meet a friend, an older white guy who was engaged to a young Cambodian woman he had met at a bar. Though he and his girlfriend have an exclusive relationship, she still goes to bars to see her friends and he still goes to see his. We all met at a new hostess bar called One 3 Six. Inside, there were about 40 mostly gorgeous women in their 20's and a handful of white guys. We sat down with Barry's friend who already had several women sitting with him. Many of the hostesses he knew through his girlfriend.

I sat at the end of the table, the spot for the single guy. One woman came up to me and started talking. I wasn't that attracted to her but didn't know how to dismiss her without being rude, so I didn't talk much and looked around the room. I made eye-contact with another woman who was giggly and frisky and came right over and started kissing my shaved head. We started talking and she started hanging on me. We played a modest game of curious hands and then I asked if her she wanted a drink. She indicated that she already had one. I vacillated between being embarrassed for carrying on in front of everyone else at the table and not caring. We were preparing to go to another bar. I asked if she wanted to go. No answer. Not a good sign. A few more minutes of tickling, and she started nibbling on my throat, rubbing my head. I nibbled on her ear, then asked again if she wanted to join us. She gave me a funny look and then turned to a friend of hers who spoke better English. They spoke in Cambodian. Then the friend turned to me. "She's having her period." Eeek. Too much information for am invitation to dance. We parted company vowing to get married next time I was in town.


Miscellania:
- In some U.S. restaurants, the waiters bring around a desert tray after the meal. At my first Cambodian restaurant, a gentleman brought around the broiled-snake-frog- and-larvae tray. I looked them over. The larvae looked interesting, but I was pretty full and passed.
- Eating at a food stall, the cook was handling my food with bare hands as they always do. After handing me my food, she noticed that the leg of my table was wobbly and reached down to put paper under it to stabilize it. I couldn't help but notice that the same hand that was making my food was now touching the wet, slimey ground.
- as I mentioned earlier, I checked out of a cheap guest house that had a rat running around in the lobby. My new hotel was cleaner, but supposedly home to a lot of older guys who brought home young women at all hours. My first night, I was awoken at 4:00 am by a yelping sound, much like that you might hear from a seal having his testicles squeezed with pliers. I heard it again a few nights later and figured the guy was having bad dreams and not wild girls.

For more on other naughty stuff, such as Southeast Asian massage, happy endings, see more Phnom Penh night life

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

One Day at the Massage Parlor

Phnom Penh is known for having masseuses with wandering hands. In the interest of journalism, I decided to investigate this claim. I would go incognito as a guy from Boston who hasn't gotten so much as a kiss since August.

The word on the street is that the girls with curious hands tend to work at massage parlors that look more like strip joints than health spas. Also, the spas tend to offer other male oriented services like haircuts.

Note: This whole process kind of scared me. I didn't want to get mugged, ripped off, or otherwise in some kind of situation I couldn't get myself out of. In addition, I had never been to a place like this, so I did not know the proper etiquette. If the woman grabs your unit and you're not interested what do you do? Does her pimp appear and beat you? Worse still, what if she doesn't grab the unit?

Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold, Just Right

The first night, I walked around looking for seedy places near my hotel. There were a couple of massage joints down dark alleys or with unattractive women working at the door. I passed.

The next day, I saw a couple of places on the river front that looked clean -- too clean. They looked family-oriented. For my research, I needed male-oriented. Then I saw a promising place: there were some attractive women standing and smiling at the door. The place looked clean from the outside. Then I looked at the name "TITI Romantic Massage." Paydirt.

I went inside. Naturally, they spoke very little English. I pointed to one of them and asked: "Will you be doing my massage?" I guess she understood, because the next thing I knew, I was seated and she was washing my feet. (The Thais have a thing about dirty feet; maybe all South East Asians feel the same about feet. Mine were certainly stinky.)

Then she led me upstairs to the massage boudoir. There was a British guy who was leaving prematurely. I asked what happened. He said the masseuses used oil and he was allergic to oil. They didn't understand but he gave them a nice tip and he left. The room was all light red materials, soft lighting; like the backdrop for a softporn movie. Each little massage area was separated by a curtain, kind of like an emergency room with multiple stations only inches from each other. The only difference here, was that instead of gurneys, there were mattresses.

Then she motioned for me to lie down on the mattress and for me to remove my shorts. I forgot that I was wearing a bathing suit -- and no underwear. I ended up flashing her. She was unphased, but I was mortified. I was waiting for the pimp to come out with the Taser from behind curtain number two and zap me. I made sure to put my shorts with my money near my head where I could keep track of them. Then she motioned for me to lie on my back and she proceeded with the massage, starting at my feet and working her way up my calves, knees, thighs, dangerously close to the goods. Then she stopped and switched legs. Then she motioned for me to roll over on my stomach. Same procedure. Then our time was up. The massage costed $6. I gave her $9. Everyone behaved and parted company. I even got invited back.

Read more naughty FREE stuff, including the first 10 pages from my upcoming comedy novel: "God Bless Cambodia.
comedy novel from Randy Ross "God Bless Cambodia."
My novel, available April 2017, offers an unflinching look at how many really feel about sex, love, marriage, and paying for a hand job. Content warnings for adult situations, adult language, and more adult situations.