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 cafĂ© 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.