Monday, December 04, 2006


Back in McLeod Ganj, I shot a little film with a few fellow travelers at the Om Hotel. It's abourt four minutes long.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Back Soon

Ogden, Utah

The world of Mormons, empty yards and megastores. I'm not really back yet, but the Asia journey is over. The American journey resumes. I'm ready.

Please see my ongoing blog, Murgatroid, ( for current photos, comments, and more of the same, whatever it is.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

Last Leg

It's a different world from when I first went to Asia twenty one years ago. I'm sitting in the airport lounge with my laptop, listening to Jerry Lee Lewis on the headphones, gratefully accepting someone's free WiFi network coverage and posting my last entry to Farang Farang.

I'm going to miss the peace of not understanding every single conversation, the warm air in winter, fruits who's names I don't know in English, food cooked on the sidewalk, smiles from strangers I'll never have a conversation with, and barefoot kids playing happily in the city.

I'm looking forward especially to avocados, hummus, brown rice, fixing my pickup, driving my pickup, camping under the stars, drinking tap water, malls, having a printer and hugging my friends.

I'm the same person I was when I first went to Asia, but I am changed, as you can tell by this trip as much as by that trip. It has meant a great deal to me to know that you're there reading my posts and thinking of me from time to time, whether you've mentioned it or not, somehow it matters. Thank you for being with me in spirit.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Men of Shiva

I love being in a country where so many people are so demonstrative of their faith, and everyone else is so accepting of it all. Where I come from, people generally only paint their faces for halloween or for football games.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Tara Cafe

(Photo - Varanasi Barbershop - see also at Tiny Pink Frog)

Life is good.

It’s raining. Lightning and thunder. This is a crowded little four-table café on one of the three main drags in McLeod Ganj.

It’s 4:20 PM, and it’s not supposed to be dark until 7:00 PM, but the clouds are so thick that the streetlights are on. I’m especially pleased that it’s raining, because there is a monkey poop on the balcony roof right outside the table in the back of the Community Center where I often write, and it has really started to reek. If it rains hard enough, I might be able to work there again tomorrow.

There is a French couple at the table next to me talking to two European girls about Southern India. “Ah, OK, Mysore was the temple with the bool.”

At another table, two Tibetan guys are reading a magazine; one of them starts singing a song in Tibetan every once in a while, but he seems to forget the words.

At the other table, one of my favorite modern-day trends, a Caucasian American woman with dreadlocks. She’s the quasi-girlfriend of Jackson, a fellow laptopper who is working on his PhD thesis but had to retreat to Delhi to get his hard drive repaired. She is talking with a friendly and charmingly unattractive pudgy European college girl whom I often see here. She is cozy with the Tibetan dudes who hang out here. This café is a hangout for young Tibetan guys because the tea is cheap and the managers don’t make them leave when they’re finished.

This is my workplace. Not just here, but this kind of place. And if I’m in the mood for a view, I might go to Llamo’s Croissants (but avoid the baked goods there) or that place at the end of Bhagsu Road where they play opera and everything is made of stone.

I have my faithful Mac out on the table, a glass of “black tea” and my novel up and running. (I’ll get back to it in a moment.) This feels good. Surprisingly good.

Welcome to my new life.

It’s hard to explain, but somewhere between Tokyo and India I realized that I really didn’t want to stop writing anymore just to make enough money to pay for a lifestyle (and not even an extravagant one) that wasn’t really that much fun anymore. More importantly, I reminded myself that I didn’t have to.

The upshot of it is that I write now full time, which is to say five or six days a week, three-to-five hours each day, the best chunk of the day for me – morning into afternoon. AFTER that, if I can make a few bucks, turn a few tricks, rob a few banks, that’s fine.

I’m not waiting to come back to the US to do this. (In fact, I don’t need to come back to the US to do this.) I started four months ago and I don’t plan to stop doing this when I get back. And yes, I’m coming back.

I feel kind of silly constantly coming to this blog and spewing forth what’s been going on in my head, but I feel compelled to explain myself for some reason. (Hey, it’s a blog.)

So before I get carsick from this public display of introspection, let me finish up and post. A few things contributed to my coming around to this kind of lifestyle, and I’ll briefly put them down here and then get back to work. One: The passage of time. The cocky guy inside me who wanted to be a hotshot from day one finally wore himself down to size. It’s not as embarrassing to me as it used to be to be poor and/or unfamous. Two: Self Confidence. I realized that my own fear of depression and poverty was keeping me in a very depressing and uncreative rut. This kind of fear is eminently conquerable, as it’s all in one’s head.

Sure, coming to Asia this time has changed me, but just having time to think and sort things out was probably the biggest factor.

There is still the nagging angst that it’s all going to go terribly wrong once I get back to the US, but deep down I know that there’s nothing to fear. When I’m in good spirits, it’s very uplifting and freeing. When my stomach is hurting, which is surprisingly often, I dread coming back to the rat race. Lucky for me, it’ll be summer when I arrive stateside, and if there’s no work I can live in the mountains until at least October.

Speaking of conquering fear and all that, I saw the Dalai Lama today. He departed McLeod Ganj, his “temporary” residence, the day I arrived a month ago and just now returned. He waved to us all from the front seat of his car (that road’s a bitch, I ride in the front when I can, too) like a pope without hat, returning to his Vatican. Our town has it’s raison d’etre back.

The power has just gone out, and my screen is now the only source of light in here, glowing brighter than the windows. They’ll be bringing around candles in a moment. Until then, I’m the bluish-lit writer in the corner. Welcome to my new life.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Moo vs ooM

Varanasi, India

I must admit, I love the cow thing. We did it with plastic in NYC, but India's always had the original version. A big touch of calm in the most hectic of places. A dada masterpiece, in toto. Easier to pet than a dog.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Native Tongue

India is a constant lesson for me. In this case, an English lesson. Americans have no more a monopoly on usage conventions than the English do. Here are some innovations that have recently come to my attention, and a few striking imperatives I thought worth repeating:

Horn Please

Use Dipper at Night

Restaurant has Shifted Down

Say No Plastic Bags

We Like You But Not Your Speed

Punjab Ends

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Answer, On Little Goat Feet

McLeod Ganj

Sunday, April 23, 2006

I’m a very lucky boy. It’s Sunday morning, and I’m on a rooftop restaurant in the little town on the edge of the Himalayas where the Tibetan government hangs out. There are big black birds soaring in the sky above and below me, and town monkeys climbing around on the railing.

McCleod Ganj is a perfect place for me to finish up the novel, (which is now on the gantry for final assembly). The sushi’s not that great, but a shave is fifty cents and a massage is seven fifty. My room at the Om Hotel (really that’s the name) is about seven dollars, so if I don’t go on a run at the billiards hall too often, I can live on twenty bucks a day.

The air is clean and cool and the view from my room, past pine trees and straight out into the valley south, would cost you a couple million if this were California. There are always monks and nuns out and about in their red robes and sensible shoes, plus the usual cast of cows and donkeys, smiling beggars and fingerless lepers, craggy peaks and pine trees; it's a nice mix of Tibet and India.

The Om is down a quiet street without traffic. In the mornings I walk past the “Non-Veg” (an exception) soup guy scraping the hair off a dozen goat feet for that evening’s soup. I guess I’m saying it’s easy to be vegetarian here, but I digress. There are five streets, and perhaps even fewer bars. The town is as quiet at 10:30 at night as it is at 5:00 in the morning.

There is yoga, meditation classes, volunteer opportunities, classes in Buddhism, or just another cup of chai. The café lifestyle goes well with the dry weather which could be nice all day or change from brilliant sun to rain a couple of times a day. The atmosphere is especially good for me, because I need places where I can work, and possibly even plug in my laptop – and when I’m finished writing, I need people to hang out and talk with. In the past week I’ve had nice conversations on topics ranging from Australian immigration policy to the Sino-Tibetan railway, with people from Argentina, the Netherlands, Japan, Germany, Northern England, the US, Switzerland, and Tibet, of course.

Incidentally, my Mac Titanium PowerBook G4 is performing like a warrior. I’ve dragged it on and off buses, trains, planes, tuk tuks, swangthaews, bicycles, tricycles, rickshaws and trucks for four months, taking it out almost every day and recharging it on local power grids every damn night, and it’s still connecting me to WiFi networks wherever it finds them, updating my NPR Podcasts, bringing me more news than I need and connecting me with my peeps. Props to the Mac. I’m very impressed. Caveat: The Super DVD drive has gone out. Disclaimer: I dropped the whole thing edge-down from a chair onto a tile floor in Little Poland last summer.

Of course I need a little pop culture now and then. Luckily, they have four cinemas in town. Each is about the size of a greyhound bus, (one of them appears to have the actual seats from a greyhound bus), and they screen bootleg DVD versions of currently running flix on a dim widescreen. In the past week I’ve seen Walk the Line, Ice Age II, Water, Karmapa, and Capote. (Ice Age II was actually better than Karmapa.)

So suffice it to say, I’m doing fine.

Until lately, this blog had been mostly quick snapshots from my journeys with a bit of commentary. I never want to read about other people’s day-to-day routines, so I had a natural aversion to writing about my own. Why I’m doing it here, I don’t know. I suspect it’s an inevitable symptom of blogging.

If this is a blog, then I think it’s about time I indulged in more public display of personal “insight”. But I’ll make it brief; (if you want the details, we can talk).

I and this mountain I’ve be trying to conquer for quite some time seem to have come to an understanding. It’s not like I’ve scaled it, but I’ve come to realize that I’ve pretty much covered it. And guess what, there was no peak. It might have been about climbing, but it wasn’t about summiting.

As I said already, India has been a much more powerful experience than I expected. At first I thought that I should have come here first, straight from New York, all full of energy and good cheer. Now I think that having a few months to find my own ground in Asia was a good preparation. I arrived here already opened up like an oyster, calibrated to a different energy level, more receptive than ever to new input. Not necessarily the way you might want to come here for the first time, but for me, maybe just right.

I pay attention to my dreams, when I can, and my dreams since coming to India have been categorically different. They aren’t really coherent, but they’re not even incoherent in the way they used to be incoherent. Of course, I’m delighted to see my old creaky consciousness being taught new tricks. I haven’t been able to digest them fully yet.

Speaking of digesting, I had another bout of the usual, which this time cost me two semi-delirious nights, one full day in bed and two more days recuperating in my room at the Om. (I look like the ghost of a skeleton with a seven-day beard.) This is germane, by the way, because waking up this morning free of pain probably gave this series of dreams the luster it needed to make me really pay attention.

It’s not a particularly fascinating set of dreams, or anything I can explain very well, but they are helping me to see how to pull together all of these nice pieces of my recent questing and be a happier journeyman in this life.

The long version of the whole process involves Shiva, Kali, several caves, an immense spider, the Mekong, a twisty village path, lots of soft curtains, more goat feet and a dark-skinned woman.

The short version is that there’s nothing I need to find right now, no lesson I need to be taught right now, I have what I need at this point. I’m good.

Great news. Just in time for summer.

So, I feel ready to head homeward. The cloud of anxiety that had been fogging the landing strip has suddenly cleared. I don’t think I’ll be working in any big offices soon, but I might be back in the states before long.

In the meantime, I’m still writing. It feels very good.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Top Ten Lesser-Known Reasons to Travel In India

10-Lose ten pounds in just one month.

9-No one expects your clothes to be spotlessly clean.

8-In travel hotels, you can shower and use the toilet at the same time.

7-Free petting zoo every day, with sheep, goats, donkeys, cows and monkeys.

6-Eat western food guilt-free because it’s the only hygienic option.

5-Fart any time, anywhere. (Even if someone does notice, they’ll assume the smell is coming from the street.)

4-Have a swim in the river, cleanse your soul.

3-Blackouts provide a romantic atmosphere.

2-It’s easy to get up for early morning yoga when the whole town shuts down at ten PM.

1-If you don’t want to finish your dinner, there’s an actual child in India to give it to.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

I'm Rollin'

For twenty years I’ve been hearing stories about India and knowing I must go. But partly because it’s such an important destination for me, the trip got shunted aside. It’s the Everest of hard travel; huge rewards and huge challenges. Among the challenges: heat, filth, poverty, and worst of all, an unending army of drivers, shopkeepers, beggars and lunatics to pester the rich foreigner like flies on a fat cow. Among the rewards: A huge country that is profoundly spiritual, full of friendly and diverse peoples who speak relatively good English (see also in challenges).

I considered myself a pretty hardy traveler, having circumnavigated the Northern Hemisphere on land and then some. I’ve slept in more than my share of squalid excuses for lodging and eaten things any reasonable traveler wouldn’t come near. Still, this place has been kicking my ass.

I was prepared for the crowds and the hassles and the piles of poop in the streets, but for heaven’s sake, where are the clean parts of Delhi? This isn’t even Calcutta.

I was prepared for the smell. Hey, Bangkok isn’t exactly a perfume palace, and Hong Kong made good on the promise of its name, but I had never imagined the depth of the bouquet of stenches that wash down the alleys of Paharganj and the even narrower pathways of Varanasi. Sometimes it’s as though one has taken a wrong turn and walked up the bowels of one of the gentle cows there. (Speaking of bowels, I’ve fully recovered from my bout with what they refer to here as, “loose motion.” I escaped with merely three days of mostly lying in the heat, studying the miraculous ceiling-gripping skills of my bug-eating room mates.)

Of course, the squalor is part of what makes me so glad I’ve come; and if there is a more intensely foul environment of this scale to visit, I want to go there as well. But it raises an issue for me as an artist. I’ve come to consider myself pretty good at unique takes on special places. But here I’m just another overwhelmed visitor to the oldest civilization on this planet. Every observation I make echoes in my mind with the trite tones of a musty British travelogue.

I didn’t realize my self-image as a writer was so tied up in having a distinctive angle on things. I didn’t realize my self-image as a writer was so fragile. Wow, what I’m learning in India is as much about myself as it is about the world! [Cue trite echo chamber of musty British travelogue.]

So I write to you here a humbled traveler, a humbled writer, a humbled soul. This is all good. Humility is a virtue I can always use more of.

(Lest you suspect I’m being distracted from the novel, this is a planned two-week break from it and I’m doing some paid work for the Connecticut Center for the Book.)

Coming back to East Asia twice now has been good, but it’s wonderful to be in a new environment. Though I feel hassled and under siege, I also feel accepted here and welcomed. I’m feeling less alienated and it’s helpful to be able to communicate with more of the locals. One bonus, people here are for the most part delighted to be photographed.

The intensity of the experience feeds my curious side. One evening in Delhi I visited the Jama Masjid mosque and then wandered north of there through markets and alleys until I had very little idea where I was. On a main thoroughfare there was a bustling of people washing their feet and checking their shoes and there was a temple and sign that said something about a martyr who had defended the hindus’ right to exist.

It was made clear to me that I was welcome, so I checked my shoes with the nice women and washed my feet and climbed the marble steps into a polished and fantastic place. There was an altar bigger than my apartment and a chandelier almost as huge. Reaching from the vaulted ceiling for the red carpet floor an inverted forest of fans spun, each at its own speed. There were singers and drummers and a good number of folks sitting and watching while others moved about with purpose.

People were worshiping and making offerings of silk and incense and flowers and food. There were Indians of all walks of life and modes of dress from shiny bright fine gowns to homespun country wraps and a cadre of bearded mountain fighters observing together quietly in the center of it all.

The tall man with the spear allowed me passage through the back to a free kitchen. They were serving Indian food that night, and I peered into an open doorway where a boiling kettle of aloo gobi the size of a hot tub was being stirred by two men with what looked like a canoe paddle.

Next thing I knew I was sitting at an ankle-high stone table covered inches deep in flour and puffs of dough. It wasn’t long before they got me to where I could roll out a decent chapatti in only about twice as much time as the kids next to me, and even faster than the man in the jiffy-pop turban across from me.

It felt good to work and it was nice to be included like this; especially to be treated as slave labor, instead of a pink source of easy money. It gave me time to get some perspective. The day had been full and hectic. Eventually the whole picture resolved itself for me and I laughed at myself sitting there, at the long funny path that had brought me to that spot.

“Where the hell am I?”

“What am I doing here?”

They were rhetorical questions of course, but answers came up nonetheless.

“I am right here.”

“I am rolling chapattis.”

If I can maintain that simple perspective, I’ll have re-learned an important lesson there (in what I later learned was a Sikh temple).

India is taking care of me. The universe is taking care of me. I am right here. This is what I’m doing.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Rolling Stock

It seems like when I was a kid, every other black and white film had a train scene where the main characters were up to some sort of shenanigans, climbing in and out of each others’ sleeping compartments. Everyone inevitably ended up in one bunk and the conductor inevitably found them out. The only one of these films I can name is “Some Like it Hot,” but if any of you out there in cyberland can name another, please hit the comment button and remind me.

As you may have imagined by now, I am on such a train. We’re en route to Bangkok from Nong Khai, the town just across the Mekong from Vientiane, Laos. The only berth available yesterday for today’s train was “upper, fan,” (as opposed to “lower, aircon”). What this means is my window is wide open and the clatter of the tracks fills the car, my world, and soon, my dreams.

I took today off from writing to do some sightseeing in Vientiane. I saw a couple of nice temples, one happily infested with bats, the other less happily with tourists, but I didn’t mind either. In the afternoon I made a quick trip through the Lao National Museum. The following caption from a photo there should represent the flavor the exhibition: “The U.S. imperialist set up the bureau for the assistance to the Vietnamese puppets aiming at expanding the war in Laos.” I find their candor refreshing in this land where so much is thought but unsaid.

It is 8:30 PM or so. We’ll roll into steamy Bangkok at 7:30 AM or so, but for now the wind feels great and there is practically nothing but darkness outside the window.

The upper berth, by the way, has no window. I have a window now because the porter hasn’t made up the beds yet. In a few minutes I’ll go brush my teeth in the luxurious air-con car sink area, while he performs his magic, then climb into my little capsule and read some more Conrad.

OK, I’m back.

Just like in the movies, several different shenanigans are going on right now, let me tell you. Marilyn Monroe just went by with a bottle of champagne, looking someone with a bag of potato chips.

I happen to have a bag of chips. Roasted lobster flavor, incidentally, but I’m saving them to eat with the green papaya salad I had packed for me in Vientiane.

I originally considered staying long-term in Vientiane. It’s a charming town, but too hot for me, as it turns out. Now I’m stoked, dudes, to be heading for India, finally, twenty years after my first trip to Asia. I’ll fly into Delhi Monday night and then make my way north until I find a hospitable town where the afternoons are cool enough that my brain can still function. Thanks, Andrew, for the suggestion.

A “farang” (Thai for “guava,” which for some reason is the term for “whitey”) has hooked up his exercise pulleys to a luggage rack and is doing his nightly regimen here in the car. A little Thai girl in a compartment across the way peeks out from behind her curtains every ten minutes at another farang, who is typing on his Mac laptop. There are a lot of kids in this car. At only $20 per berth, the trip is affordable to middle-class Thai families.

Across from me is the bottom half of a Thai granny that isn’t curtained off. She knows very well what she’s doing, flaunting her black polyester ankle-highs, and that naughty inch of bare skin between them and her purple slacks, which she’s hiked up to mid-calf. I pray she’ll pull the curtain all the way and stop toying with me. Too warm in her compartment? Sure.

She’s traveling with her daughter and two granddaughters, who are sharing the lower berths, so it’s going to be very difficult to make my move.

The upper berth is cheaper than the lower, I suppose because people don’t like to have to climb up and down. I prefer the upper, especially since there is no window. My first ride on one of these sleeper trains was a trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in 1987. As soon as the porter fixed up my berth, I pulled the curtains and got ready for bed. It took me about five minutes wrestling with the rickety aluminum shutters, but I eventually got them up so that I could watch what little scenery floating by was illuminated.

A few minutes later we pulled into a station and I found myself on display to everyone on the platform, reclining in my underwear like an Amsterdam prostitute.

I’m just glad I had put on my nice blue lacy set, instead of the Captain America jammies that were a bit worse for the wear.

As for tonight, I think I’ll play it by ear.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Letting Go

Living abroad is stressful pretty much all the time. The place is unfamiliar, the people are all unfamiliar, the language is almost entirely different, and you’re almost always a little bit lost. It’s a good kind of stress, but it wears on you.

Thankfully in this part of Asia there is a sense of play that pervades everything. In Luang Prabang, for example, the guy at the internet shop took my phone from me because it was identical to his and played a guessing with me to see if I could get my own phone back.

My wallet turned up missing the other day, and the guy at the travel agency suggested I talk to a fortune teller to see where it is.

My favorite wa s the tuk tuk driver, who, pesky true to his role, asked me “Where you go?” This was probably the 100th time in a week I’ve been asked this by tuk tuk drivers, so I said, “Heaven.” He didn’t seem to understand, so I pointed to the sky. His rejoinder, “Tomorrow.”

In the same spirit of play, I made a list of my favorite menu entries in Luang Prabang. In case there’s a bit of stress in your world, take your time with the menu; I’ll be back to take your order.

tofoo juice
pate vietname sandwich
bamboo lape
sateam fish inside banana live
fried weeds
staffed bamboo
spicy intestine salad
pork lap
banana flam bert chocolate
creaked pork
tunaburger with tuna
chili paste with beef skin
chip butty sandwich
Pizza Lao (Lao sausage, Mekong seaweed, chili sauce)

Notes: We did ask what the chip butty sandwich was, but the answer was not helpful. I suspect the Pizza Lao wouldn’t be any good without the chili sauce. And no, I didn’t ask if you could get the tunaburger without tuna.

Most frightening to me is the Pate Vietnam sandwich. It sounds to me like the beginning of a really bad joke.

My personal favorite is the creaked pork. I’m not sure why, but a week later I still crack up every time.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Luang Prabang

My friends, the book is progressing very well. Things are going according to plan, which is a little disconcerting, to be honest. Mornings I wake up when I wake up, which is usually between seven and nine. I putter around until I’m awake enough to do yoga in my room, and after yoga head out with my laptop. I usually find a place where I can write for a couple of hours, then often move to another where I can have some sort of lunch and continue writing.

I spend a large part of any trip looking for shady tables with a view. This trip even more so, the novel rides my psyche the way my laptop rides in my daypack. Sometimes the view is a busy market street and the goings and comings keep me entertained. Sometimes it is off hours at a sleepy restaurant, and the staff hanging about keep me company.

This is a shaded table overlooking the Mekong River. Long boats chug up and down with cargo or passengers every twenty minutes or so; kids on inner tubes float downstream about as often, shouting and splashing. Across the river, patches of vegetable gardens on the wide sandy banks below the high water line. Above them, a few homes with tin roofs, and above them, dusty dry trees fading into a smoky light blue sky.

There is a huge tree over me. Its branches reach thirty feet out over the banks and even below me. The sun lights up the leaves from behind, light green. On the main road, there is an occasional motorcycle. A plaintive folk tune on someone’s sound system.

This is the middle of the afternoon. It is hot. There is only a vague breeze from time to time. My short-sleeve linen shirt is usually damp in the back. No one is out and about. If you arrived at this time, you’d think the town was asleep or abandoned.

I have a cup of hot tea, French fries, green papaya salad. The salad is good to have in the heat. The chilies make one sweat, and I like to believe they are too fiery for some of the bacteria that might have designs upon my gut. Unfortunately, the cook has given this papaya salad a liberal dose of fish sauce and the smell is almost more than I can bear, let alone eat, especially in this heat.

Fish sauce notwithstanding, I am happy, eating well. A bowl of fresh tropical fruit costs less than a dollar no matter where I go. That was my breakfast this morning on the patio of our place, the Pousi Guest House (you can imagine how it’s pronounced) with Nick and Nubina, friends from the boat ride with whom I’m sharing a room. Across the quiet road is a temple complex (see photo), and we are within walking distance of all there is to see in Luang Prabang, a UN-designated World Heritage place. I could probably live here the rest of my life from this point on, should I choose to, making just enough money as a writer or a dilettante “guide”.

The boat trip for two days down from Chiang Kong, Thailand, was stressful and uncomfortable, but nourishing the way hard travel is supposed to be. Traveling by river is almost always good for the soul, and the Mekong is somehow especially potent for the type of dreaming that makes river travel so good. It’s as though the poppies are working their magic through the flow of the water.

The tea feels good, harmonious in temperature, and it will help me focus for a bit more work, which I feel I must insist upon myself. For two solid days on the boat I did practically no writing, and only a bit of mental work on the book. I’m not opposed to taking a vacation, but I’m afraid to loosen my grip on the threads that I am weaving together for this thing.

Some insipid vocalist is powering through now from the café downstream. Amplified music and TV are the bane of my quest for peace in Asia. I have asked them to change the CD, an idea that is puzzling to the staff. I just pray that it’s not a double CD. Funny how much worse bad music is than no music at all.

After just about two months away from home, I now feel as though I have been delivered back to myself and from this port I am free to choose where to go next. I feel as much a writer as I ever have; more so when you consider the fact that I know so much better what being a writer is about now. Screenplays and novel ideas to be made real continue to pile up and when I think of them I realize how little I can afford to fuck around with things that have nothing to do with my work or my well-being.

On that note, the hassle of living in New York is looking more and more like an obstacle course I can’t afford to keep running. Trouble is, I don’t have any better ideas.

I send hazy sun, and peaceful waves from the banks of the Mekong to you wherever you read this. Thank you all for being with me in spirit. I feel it.

Om, babies.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Soppong, Thailand

I've been climbing cliffs, swimming with buffaloes, crawling through streams in caves on my hands and knees and being pounced upon by poisonous caterpillars. This is what happens, I suppose, when you stay at a place run by an Aussie.

These teak coffins are at least 1700 years old.

Hey Little Buddy

My home for several days. Something about a bamboo house is calming and stimulating to the creative spirit.

Wat Umbrellas at Dusk

You can't go for a walk in Chiang Mai without coming across a beautiful temple.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

"Girls" "Girls" "Girls"!

Near the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar at 11:30 every night the ladyboys (that's the official term) associated with Marina's Bar put on a show in the Thai Boxing ring.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


There are temples all over Chiang Mai. But the resident monks have better things to do than be on guard all the time, that's why they put these guardian dragons out front. Either this temple doesn't mind tourists, or this particular Naga is all grimace and no bite.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Tiny Dancers

There are little spirit shrines everywhere in Thailand. The concrete frames are mass-produced, but appointed individually. You find all kinds of offerings and decorations, usually happy and festive. This is detail from one I found in a quiet back lot near the central moat in Chiang Mai.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Magha Puja

The full moon day of the third lunar month is an important day in Terevada Buddhism, marking 1,250 followers spontaneously dedicating themselves to Buddhism one day long ago. It's a major holiday in Thailand, so people had a three-day weekend and there were fireworks and carnivals in the streets the night before. In the morning, followers bring gifts to the monks and in the evening, every temple has a re-dedication ceremony for followers. Buddhists gather to chant with the monks for an hour or so, then all walk around the temple three times with candles. I joined the ceremony at Chiang Mai's Wat Chang Man. I wasn't so great at the chanting, but I figure I held up my end on the "triple circumambulation."

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Karen Tribal Fashion Update

The hot pink sarong is very IN now for Karen men, hand-woven, of course. Some choose a smaller plaid, but always a subdued pattern. Here the village chief sports a prime example, entertaining yours truly and friends at his daughter's wedding this past weekend. (Note the fine half-lotus seated posture.)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Tying the Knot, Repeat

Here the bride and groom are being tied together by one of the wedding guests. This is repeated each time for each guest and each gift.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Sukhothai Field Trip

Just about when I parked my bike in front of the ruins of Wat Mahathat, something like two hundred Thai schoolkids swarmed onto the grounds of the old temple. Their yellow shirts were like living ornamentation on the old rocks and bricks and statues. The girl in the middle of this photo pointedly asked me to take her picture.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

To Sukkothai

It has been a surprisingly effective stay in Bangkok. I've gotten every bit as much writing done as I expected, and updated the actualities of the city to keep the manuscript fresh. So, after 11 days at the Atlanta, I'm heading north, to the old city of Sukkothai, to see the grand ruins of the cradle of the Thai nation and to prepare for more nature-oriented adventures in the mountains of the Northwest.

Motorcycle Taxi Drivers

This is the only city I know of with licensed motorcycle taxis. They're not any cheaper than regular taxis, but they can zip around between the traffic and get you through faster than any other mode of transport. Sure, they bend the rules a bit. Like using the bus lane. The one that runs against traffic. My knees have never felt so obtrusive than at 30 miles an hour between an oncoming bus and a line of bumper-to-bumper cars.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Hail to the Puppy

It's officially the year of the Dog now. We have brought in the little bitch with due ceremony here in Bangkok, from the streets to the girlie bars. Here's one of the lion dancers outside a temple in Chinatown Saturday night.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Midnight Snack

They actually are tasty. Especially the little frogs. Crunchy. Sort of like shrimp tails, but not as hard. Except the grubs, they're nice and soft, with just a crispy outer shell.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Garbage Connection

Met a couple of Spanish guys at the pool, Airplane mechanics. They tell me there's wifi out front of the hotel. Well, it works better for them on PCs than for me on my Mac. But if I stand by the trash, it works pretty well. Here's a picture Mingui shot with his cell phone camera and then shot to me with Bluetooth. I send it to you via wifi. Funny world.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Pad Thai, Sukhumvit

[I dearly love putting my personal musings out for any and all to read while you should be working, but I also should be working, so I’ll be limiting these spewings forth. They won’t disappear, they’ll just get shorter, I hope. Please don’t feel slighted, and don’t stop checking in on me. It’s just that I have a book to finish, and then when it’s done reading that will feel pretty much the same as reading these, but on paper instead.]


It’s warm. I’m warm. I’m relaxing by degrees, in the other direction.

There’s a lot to say about Bangkok and Thailand and how it’s changed since I’ve been here and all of that commentary on the fast pace of modernization, how change affects a place, and me, a visitor to this one.

But, I’m not up for all of that. (If you want more of that, there are doubtless other blogs you can find which would say very much what I would have said.) Besides, my novel has plenty of that crap in it.

There are other things more worth discussing. One of them, of course, is Pad Thai. There’s something about a metal folding table and a plastic stool on a greasy stretch of concrete that accentuates the dining experience for me. I’m not sure why. It’s not just that it’s cheap – about 75 cents in this case -- I think I feel that if I’m there on the street, I won’t miss anything. And even if there isn’t “anything,” there’s always the ambient low-key drama of people going about and hanging about.

The woman at the noodle stand asked me if I was writing about Pad Thai, which I wasn’t, but I said I was, just to avoid having to explain what I was writing, which was that tropical air seems to have an immediate and irresistible narcotic affect, and that this effect is likely to ease my transition from Tokyo, which was really a head trip for me, having lived there for four years and then been away for fifteen.

Then, since I said “yes,” I decided I’d better at least write something about my first Pad Thai in Thailand in at least ten years. I wrote in my notebook: This Pad Thai tastes like the barnyard. By that I mean the whole yard – scratchings and all. Hot spots, sour spots, pretty far from the homogenous NYC norm.

I meant all of that in a nice way, by the way. It’s virtuous to have a variety in the pad thai. Just like for spaghetti; what’s the point of making it the same every time?

The nice lady showed me all of her ingredients, which were set out in bowls on the front of her cart: dried little shrimps, sugar, peanuts, crumbled hard boiled eggs, dried ground chilies, and something that looked like chopped pickles. There was also a bag of something green chopped up, probably cilantro. Pretty much exactly what they put in our Pad Thai in the US. But this particular pad thai, here on this street at this table, was so different that most people at a restaurant in the states would have sent it back, assuming there’d been a mistake.

I asked if taking a photo would be all right, and she was delighted to oblige. She grabbed her husband, who then took up the pad thai tools and posed for the photo. I don’t know whether he made my pad thai, but I suspect not. (In any event, I have the photo to upload, but I forgot to put it on my little zip chip to bring with me to the Internet joint. Please check in later for it, and many more fun photos from Bangkok.)

This thick magical tropical air, a six-hour flight, and the fact that I’d been up nearly all of the night before drinking, bathing, and getting exfoliated (no euphemism here) had me in a state of mind that otherwise only comes to me with valium, beer, and sex; usually two of the three. I wandered further down the street to one of the grooming salons for foreigners and got a haircut, but the friendly English speaking woman overseeing us kept asking me if I was all right, so I decided to head to my room and call it a night.

My room, by the way, is just fine. It costs about $12. I am fine as well, and can be had for cheaper than that, depending upon the circumstances.

Friday, January 20, 2006

In the Mix

Tokyo is more like an omlet than a set of deviled eggs. Everything is mixed together and you're as likely to find anything anywhere as anywhere else. Yesterday, going to a cutting edge gallery meant walking past the stock exchange, a coffee factory, a cement plant, a building for the Daily Yomiyuri newspaper, crossing a big river, and, of course, maneuvering past a few on-ramps.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Kai Ten Sushi

An English student of mine in Japan once told me, "There are only two kinds of sushi; cheap, and expensive." Under the circumstances, he couldn't explain what he meant, because they were taking me out to dinner. I'm sure he meant that the cheap kind isn't worth it, and the expensive kind is too expensive.

Well, I'm more an epicure than a connoiseur, so the way I see it, the cheap kind of sushi is better than no sushi at all. I'm doing my best to make myself sick of it; I don't forsee having a budget for decent sushi outside Japan anytime soon.

I usually go to the places with conveyer belts. Everything eventually passes right in front of your face, and you just take what looks good. Costs about a dollar a plate, unless you try to get fancy. If you don't see what you want, you can order it, so the peaceful sound of the plastic plates rattling against each other as they round the bends is punctuated by humble suhi orders coming from outside the ring, and the singsong replies from the fishmen on the inside.

I'm quite sure they don't have "California Rolls," and I don't plan on asking.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Time Difference Dope

Don't let anyone tell you that jetlag is one of those little pink stuffed animals that you spend half of your allowance trying to win by knocking down the lead milk bottles at the carnival. If they do, tell them to call me and I'll tell them how it's much more like one of those dragons at the gate to a Japanese temple in the dead of winter, encrusted with ice, yet still miraculously spouting ice cold water. You may try to kiss it, but your lips will freeze to it and a temple monk will have to pee on your face to get you off of it.

For the past week, I've been what they call here a "time difference dope". Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, which is pretty much when the sun sets here, my brain hits a wall. I can barely speak English, let alone Japanese. I spend half of my existence here feeling like a kid who's been drinking all night, and then at 3:00 AM decides to finally buckle down and finish that term paper upon which his graduation depends. In Japanese.

If you've seen "Lost in Translation" then you have a fair idea of how it looks from the outside. That movie is pretty much what the first week here always feels like. I swear, next time I'm going to just sleep whenever I feel like it, and get up when I wake up, and that's that.

One advantage, I must add, is that waking up early makes it easy to get to the Tsukiji fish market, which is all washed up by 9:00 AM. Here's a photo from there. (The sign says, "Turtle"):


Sunday, January 15, 2006

Kids These Days

Sunday in Harajuku has always been for Japanese kids who are really really proud of their outfits, and for a few odd kids who just need some attention.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Tokyo, Week One

[This is the first official dispatch from my trip to Asia. I’ll be gone for roughly five months, finishing my novel in Thailand, where it takes place. I’m in Tokyo for two weeks on the way to Bangkok, from where I’ll head for quieter and even cheaper locations.]


The last time I came to Japan, I spent several hours shouting at a tape recorder and a good portion of the rest of the time wondering who the hell I thought I was. That was in 1995. I’m doing considerably less shouting this time, and the fact that I don’t know who I am doesn’t bother me so much anymore.

I’m not sure what’s different this now, but it might just be that time has mellowed me. I lived in Tokyo for four years during what they call the “bubble,” from 1985 to 1990; and I spent more than a little of that time balled up in weltschmerz. I guess I was just young and the world was so damn far from how I wanted it to be. I took a lot of that angst and ennui out on Japan.

New York probably squoze most of that vinegar out of me. A decade of economic stagnation and a drop from their peak bogeyman status in international influence has mellowed the Japanese, but things are basically the same here, and it is I who have changed, of course.

Tokyo’s no more green than it used to be, but I’m loving the alleys and lights even more than before. The big difference for me is the people. What I used to interpret as apathy now looks more like patience. I used to see helpless despair in the faces of the commuters on the train, now I see relaxed calm after a hard day’s work done. I suspect I communicate with a much lighter touch than I used to, and what I get back from the Japanese people is much more open and warm than I remember.

It’s as though Japan is a box of kittens. I came at them like a five-year-old boy last time, and I got scratched and they ran. (Well, actually they were pretty tolerant of me, and definitely amused.) This time around, I’m surprised to see how nicely things go if I don’t scare the wits out of them from the start.

In any event, I’m much happier now, and loving Japan more than ever. But then it all might just be jetlag and the euphoria that comes with not having to show up at the office (no offence to the office).

Speaking of the office, there’s a little piece in this week’s Time Out that Bob Eckstein and I did together. It’s online as well:

But really, what have I been up to?

Homemade sesame tofu. Sake that tastes like cedar. A Spanish place with paella the size of a temple gong. One hundred photos of a concrete river. Cafes where the waitresses kneel at your table dressed in French Maid outfits. Good sushi for lunch at a dollar a plate. A fish market roughly as busy as Mozart’s synaptic junctions. And bless their hearts, mini skirts and boots are the standard fashion, winter be damned.

I have very comfy accommodations, by the way, in a four bedroom apartment near Hiroo (in Tokyo) with ambient wi-fi, filtered water at one’s choice of three pH levels, and a fancy toilet that washes and dries. There’s no central heating, however, which is normal here. I just hope I don’t set the place on fire with the heaters.

On the agenda for this weekend: Looking for ikebana, going to a spa, and seeing my host’s boyfriend’s band – Music from the Mars [sic]. Probably there will be more drinking of sake.

Now that jetlag is graciously surrendering, I’m looking up old colleagues and drumming up a bit of work. Also, getting up the courage to face old radio cohorts. Wish me luck. I’ll be out of here in another week, so I’m already gearing up for the stress of Thai food, a hotel with a pool, warm weather, etc.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Ginza Monk

in tabi and robes
standing with bowl
no more true
nor less
than all of the lights
all of the signs
the suits
the boots
the legs and the poodles
that flow past him

he avoids my eye
his humble hat a shield

what is he thinking?
what is he trying not to think?

he begs as a practice
I opt not to participate

I’m not sure what kind of ripples
a coin from this gaijin
might set forth
in that guarded pond