Saturday, January 29, 2011

Breakfast Grace

  You won't find Lorong Bandar on a tourist map of downtown Kuala Lumpur. It's really just a hole in the wall, an alley off an alley that runs between two larger streets.
But it's where the East Indians who work in the neighbourhood go for breakfast.
Our hostel clerk invites us to tag along with her when we show up at her desk in the morning looking for a place to eat. We head out the front door, turn left into an alley; step around or over a manhole, past a booth selling god-knows-what.
We enter an open space, an intersection of the two alleys, viewing the backsides of several buildings. It's far cleaner than one would expect for such a location... at least way cleaner than any other similar alley in the other places we've been.
Our native guide turns to the left, and we follow her as she ducks and weaves around food stalls and tarps covering the narrowing alley. Then we emerge into a small courtyard lined with open kitchens.
She shows us what's available and guides us to an older woman, veiled and working behind a large grey marble cutting board. Lumps of white dough are lined up in front of her, bottles of oil and sauce and tools of her trade surround her.
 Our guide says a few words to the cook, and she takes a piece of the dough in her hands. She starts spinning and flipping the lump, and in a few seconds it's transformed- paper thin and about the diameter of an extra-large pizza.
  She takes the thin disk (I have no idea why it doesn't tear when she lifts it) and places it on a hot, black metal griddle to her right. Turning the edges up, the disk becomes a boiling, bubbling square of light, chewy bread. For good measure we have an egg broken in our roti. We wolf it back, dipping it in orange and brown sauces of mysterious origin. We order another for good measure.
  Her husband, working in the stall next to her, hands us dark, thick coffee. We sit and watch the free show, Breakfast Grace, as our cook finishes order after order.
  I wanted to get lost in Asia. Wanted to feel, if even for a few moments, like the travellers of old, far from home and the familiar. It's not easy, travelling in a large group, with email and Facebook, to get that sense.
  But here, with a plate of rice on banana-leaf, soft curries tweaking my tongue, and the practiced magic of the roti cook, Lorong Bandar seems just far away enough.  

Malay in one easy lesson

Hey everybody, I can speak Malay!

I took a teksi from the kolej to the butik, where I saw lots of fesen and tekstils. I was hungry so I went to a restoran, where I had chokolat and iskraim. I got sick, and raced to emergensi, but the polis stopped me and gave me a penalti.

Not bad eh, after only a day in the country?

Another small relief after many months of pidgin and hand gestures is speaking and reading English. We have been functionally illiterate since December 1. It so strange understanding signs and sharing a common language again. And Malaysia, a former colony of Britain, has adopted hundreds of English words into its language, as you can see from the small sample above. So even the Malay (which uses English characters) can be worked out in general terms.

Funny though. After a month of the politeness of Laotian, where you can express many degrees of thankfulness, just saying 'thanks' to a clerk seems inadequate. And it seems like we're cheating ourselves- we should be learning local words when we're away from home. But it's the working language here, so when in Rome...

Surfacing in Kuala Lumpur

It's dark when we arrive in the Malaysian capital, four hour's flight from Vientiane. But I can already tell I'm going to like the place.

There's something missing, you can feel it even as you get off the plane. It's that sense of decay, of chaos, of people and systems barely holding it together. Things seem to be co-ordinated, everyone moving with purpose, with more usefulness. The system has cause beyond today.

Here- and it's just a first impression- you get a sense of building toward something, of progress and development being made. Sure, there was construction going on in Laos- tons of it- but here there's a flair to the building, a consistency to the design, standards that are set and met.

And this is looking at things through a rapid transit train in the dark, bulleting towards the city centre.

But the impression continues on our first full day here. I had imagined KL to be much like Bangkok.... noisy, crowded, chaotic, traffic infested, filthy. Instead, I found a city a lot more like Vancouver than any Asian city so far. Admittedly, we saw just a small sample... a few square miles of downtown. But the skyscrapers have a modern flair- and overall there's a sense of coherent design mandated by City Hall (a blue-green-color coordination to all the buildings). There are forests, and just random plots of palms and banana trees- little breaths of fresh air in the ozone.

And even the traffic is quieter. The tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous, poisonous, noisy mini-cabs of Bangkok or Vientiane, are gone. Sure, there's lots of traffic, but it purrs, not screeches.

And god damn! People stick to the lanes here! There are actual pedestrian crossing lights and vehicles actually stop when you're crossing. What a concept. Sidewalks with unbroken surfaces for whole stretches of city blocks. Paradise! Street signs and direction arrows. Accessible curbs and grass trim on the roadsides. Public toilets. Park areas. A skyline that entices and attracts.

And flair. The light standards have been transformed to resemble hibiscus flower heads. Colourful canvases shelter open markets. Fountains come out of nowhere and dance to their own music.

It's been two months of seeing life with a much harsher tone. The beggars, the peasants, the street vendors, the hawkers, the hustlers, the hookers, the desperate and their predators. Cities that stink, that choke you with CO gas, where you tread carefully for fear of tetanus or worse. I'm sure it has its rough parts, but being downtown in KL feels like we're surfacing for the first time since November in a more human, friendly city.

And for the first time in two months, I pay sales tax on something I bought. It's strange... I'd gotten used to the list price being the cost.

And then I realize- the two are likely related. You get what you pay for, and maybe the cost of not having desperate street sellers, having buried sewer lines, having an effective building code and enforcement is a few cents on every dollar devoted to that. People love to bitch about taxes, but life without is a damn sight more unpleasant.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Last Sunset at the Sunset Bar

The Sunset Bar was only a decent place to go for an hour or two, and only at that time of the day. But during those two hours, it was heaven on earth.

The Sunset hung out over the bank of the Mekong River, its main supports coming from old gnarled trees that grew through the floor and continued through the roof. Not a piece of wood, horizontal or vertical, met any engineering standard in the world. And the roof- that was just found metal, rusted tin, some woven palms- not much more than a nod to the idea of protection from the elements.

No doubt many a European gave the Sunset a pass when they saw it. That is, if they saw it... it lay at the end of an unlit, potholed, dusty path that paralleled the riverbank.

But if you found it, and got there just after four in the afternoon, a magic light descended on this ramshackle creature, and it came alive. You could watch the sun change from brilliant white to gold to peach, the river mimicking the colours in turn. By six o'clock the view was a scene from Apocalypse Now, the sun a blood-red ball, silhouetted palm trees in the distance.

By then, second or third Beer Lao in hand, the groove of the Sunset kicked in. You were bathed in deep hues shifting into further into the infrared. Friends, lovers, fellow travellers all took on a magic glow, while the tables and the chairs and the rickety railing were suddenly all  just right for the scene. It had a vibe, a quiet little perfection. A flawed, humble thing that held an incredible, beautiful secret for an hour or two every day.

Now, river cities around the world, after years of neglect, have come around to embrace the water that runs past their doors. From Whitehorse to Winnipeg to London, urban planners are reclaiming the view and creating public space along waterfronts. And the same is happening in Vientiane.

For the last two years, a $30-milllion US project has created a massive public walkway along the Mekong. The scale is staggering, given the city's size and the country's poverty. Riprap and interlocking blocks protect the bank; a wide boulevard of brick and asphalt creates a beautiful promenade, garnished with statues, temples and flower beds. The centre of the project is complete, while bulldozers and dump trucks work at both ends, preparing what in the end will be at least a five-kilometre path.

And on this day, a bulldozer is about 50 feet away from the Sunset Bar.

It is the last night at the Sunset; tomorrow the owner closes shop. He's already dismantled the lower decks, and tomorrow he'll salvage what he can of the main building. Through dumb luck and (un)happy circumstance, we are here for the last sunset at the Sunset Bar.

Nothing else has really changed. We order our Beer Lao and snacks; kids play soccer or volleyball on the sandbars below; older youths plow their monster trucks from one river island to another. A lone fisherman pulls his low-slung boat up to the shore, packs up his kit and heads home. It's a day like any other, except a small piece of Vientiane's charm is about to pass into history.

The Sunset's owner will receive no compensation for Progress' onslaught. He was a squatter here, and has no rights. Next week the Sunset will be a memory, the trees that anchored it to the bank torn out and gone. The gnarled wood, culled from old shipwrecks on the Mekong, sent to the dump or reused in someone's home. There's word he might have the opportunity to create a new bar on the promenade.

It doesn't matter. It won't be the Sunset. Set on a boulevard of concrete and metal, it will be square, plastic, and safe.

It's almost 6:30, and the sun so crimson it can be looked at directly. The gap between it and the earth is visibly shrinking. I force myself to remember that it's not the sun moving down to the horizon, but the earth rotating to the east. For a few seconds, I feel myself on the surface of a giant, moving sphere.

The earth swallows the sunset.  It's dark and the bar is lifeless and grey in the glow of a lamp. It's time to go.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Would It Kill You To Shoulder Check? (it might not kill me...)

  A dozen years ago there were only a few hundred cars on the road of Laos' capital, Vientiane. It was a bike culture,I imagine not unlike those old videos you'd see of the Chinese heading to work in Beijing.
Fast forward to 2011, and it's changed. The populace is on motorcycles. The speed, the inertia, the chaos has taken a quantum leap. But the rules of the road- and physics- haven't changed.
The high road up the street from our house thrums in the morning with commuters on motorbikes. Most wear helmets, but many don't. Girls in school uniforms ride side-saddle behind big brothers. Moms sandwich infants between them and their husbands or friends driving. Young men roar between cars seeking those extra few meters and seconds of gain. Others deke up and run on the sidewalk to jump to the head of the line. A few decide crossing the divided lanes is too much hassle, and run against traffic.
What you get when you apply bicycle rules to motorized traffic is chaos. Add a lack of control lights, non-existent policing, ubiquitous alcohol and speed and you get carnage. There are no official stats handily available, but word is one person dies every day on the streets of this little city. There are hundreds of traffic-related injuries reported weekly by hospitals. Locals with massive bruises or road rashes are common.
In a week of biking we've seen a car upside down in a drainage ditch, and a parking accident where one car, don't ask me how, ended up on top of another in a parking lot. I've crunched my bike tires over more than one patch of partially-cleaned up car remains, evidence of nasty crashes overnight hastily cleared. Just this morning I saw a dog hit by a car a few metres away from me.
Bike riding is about the most suicidal practice on these roads, but it's the option we have so we're going for it. Being the littlest guy on the road with the most to lose in an accident sharpens the awareness wonderfully. But I have discovered it's no cure for road rage... I just am thankful my shouts of  'douchebag' and 'cocktractor' (thanks Trailer Park Boys for that one) are lost on the people grazing by on their cycles or pulling out without shoulder checking.
Our bikes are old clunkers, beaters dumped by long ago owners moving up the hydrocarbon evolutionary ladder. At first I wished for a decent mountain bike to be able to move faster, more nimbly. Now I realize if I was to go faster, I'd likely be nailed by some guy trying to force his way across an intersection, or pulling into traffic ahead of me without shoulder checking first. I've been saved several times by my single-gear dinosaur.
It's not likely the street situation is going to improve. The one consumer commodity that actually has visible chain outlets in this town are cars. Isuzu, Hyundai, Ford, etc.. Word is 1,000 cars were sold here in one week recently.

A Peek at Peak Oil

Amid a field of rubble in a Vientiane lot, a wrecking crew is taking down a building. The job could be done in a few minutes with a backhoe, by the looks of it; just a few concrete struts supporting the ground and second floor skeleton of what looks like and old house.
But there is no machinery here. A workman with a sledgehammer is wailing on a brace. A few other guys haul away pieces of rubble in a wheelbarrow, hand-loading them into a truck.
This is life in a low-energy society, where labour for a week is cheaper than the oil it would cost to run equipment for a few hours. It may be that this is a make-work project as well... the point being not to do the job fast, but to keep a family fed for a little while longer.
You see this everywhere in Laos- crews struggling mightily with tiny shovels and bare hands, where machinery could do the job faster and easier.
I think of the public works projects in North America- in my hometown. Tons upon tons of earth moved, acres of rip-rap dumped, miles of asphalt paved, steel girders lifted to the top of buildings. All do-able because of cheap oil. We forget in our daily lives the kind of muscle power that has been replaced by the bond between hydrocarbon molecules, and how that has meant smooth sidewalks, tamed rivers, speed and efficiency.
Energy has always been a premium in Laos. They may never suffer from Peak Oil because it's never been an issue here. I wonder how we'll fare, how long our projects will last, when 200 men will have to replace a couple of bored operators behind hydraulic levers.

A Good Defence...

  An ancient temple sits on top of Mount Phousey in Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos. You climb the 300-odd steps (unhelpfully counted out by a sign half-way up) leading to the temple to a wonderful view of the surrounding hills and valley. The view is not unlike the Dome view in Dawson City.
Wandering around the temple and rocks at the peak, you come across an odd sight. There is a chassis there for what looks awfully like an WW2-era artillery gun. The barrel has been taken down at some point, leaving the carriage behind, presumably if needed in the future.
The only thing more pêrplexing than the thought of hauling a gun emplacement up to a sacred temple is what they would do with it. While it would afford excellent lines of sight, you have to wonder just how effective a single small gun would be in defending the widely-scattered city- and a UNESCO World Heritage site to boot. Considering the forces likely to face the Laos army, by the time you needed that gun in Luang Prabang, it would be game over anyway.
You can see similar installations along the brand-new river walkway along the Mekong River in Vientiane- what looks like pins ready to hold larger-calibre guns pointed at some little farm town in Thailand, a kilometer across the half-empty Mekong. Just how useful would such placements be in a modern hot war?
In a way, Laos is much like Canada. Rich in farming, resources and hydro power potential but small in population, and surrounded by vastly powerful neighbours.
And the people seem to be following a similar path. If you can't beat them, have them invest in you. Facing a tiger in Vietnam's economic and political force, China has been wooed as a capital investor, funding high speed rail projects and hydro dams.. Balancing China's integration into their economy, the Laos build bigger and better bridges and rail links into Thailand.
Talking to Laos people, you get a sense of a growing unease about the pace of development, foreign investment, and the cost to them in the long run. Yes, they have a sparkling new sports stadium and the promise of future cheap hydro power... but the concern they could become tenants in their own land.
Thinking of the single rusting gun emplacement greeting the morning sun on Mount Phousey, though , it's probably a more effective defence in the long run.

Mr. Mumu

    It's dark out in Chiang Mai and I'm waiting to change some currency. There's a hugely obese man at the counter ahead of me, negotiating with the clerk behind the plate glass. He's dressed in a loose fitting cotton shirt and loose fitting pants. He's so big and the clothes so loose around this huge frame we immediately nickname him 'Mr. Mumu', even though technically that's not what he's wearing.
  Finally he finishes his business, and his holding a wad of Thai bhat in his hand. I go to the counter and get my cash and follow in his general direction up the street.
  A block or so later we run into him again. He's chatting up a little girl, couldn't be any more than 12 or 13. Wearing a 'Hello Kitty' t-shirt.
  We stand a few yards away as they speak. Then he rolls onto his motorcycle. She climbs on behind and they take off into the night.
  We talk about it for hours after. Should we have said something? Could we have said something? We were just passing by.
  You hear about the sex trade here, and predators like Mr. Mumu. You think the moral path is clear. But in a strange land, with no social links to authority, and the language barrier, fast action just gets too complex. There's a 'Turn In Predators' hot line, but we didn't have the number handy, and what do you say? 'I just saw a fat guy on some street downtown picking up a girl?”
It makes you feel dirty, and complicit.

The Big Wave

  We've been invited to tag along with some new friends to a costume party at a local pub for Christmas. I hate dressing up, but decide to make a prop to use at the party.
  A famous Thai astrologer has predicted a tsunami will hit the islands either Christmas Day or Boxing Day. So I cut out a big hand-shape from a piece of cardboard I found. Moving the hand back and forth, I make a 'Big Wave'.
  Get it?
  We are dropping off the kids at the Internet cafe while we go to the party. We go in and start chatting with the young man tending the shop. We mention the tsunami and I'm just about to explain the joke when he cuts me off.
  "He should not have said that, very bad,” he says of the astrologer. He lifts up his shorts and reveals an ugly, eight-inch scar on his thigh. “I was in Phuket that day.” he explains. He almost died when the ocean ripped through the resort.
  “I lost two friends, and six clients in that tsunami.”
  We fall silent. We head over to the party, but I quietly dump the Big Wave outside the bar door, and leave it there the night.

Revenge of the Frogs

  I tell the kids to listen. We are walking along the blacktop path to our resort, passing by a murky pond about the size of a hockey rink. Thousands of frogs are singing, in chorus.
  It is something they never hear in Yukon. The frogs roll through patterns, overlapping beats and rhythms. The sound is almost deafening. I stop the kids for a few seconds just to listen. I want them to remember this for their grandkids, I tell them. In a few decades all the amphibians may be gone on the planet.
  They are bored, of course, and we move on. But I hope I planted a seed, a memory.
  The frogs may be gone faster than that on Koh Lipe. The frogs live in a swamp area that had been illegally filled in by a developer. He had levelled a small gravel hillock and pushed many cubic yards of earth into the low-lying  area to fill it last summer.
  Nature had other plans. The rainy season hung on this year. The low area simply filled up again. And the frogs, likely decimated but still in uncountable thousands, made a comeback to sing another year. I like to imagine it is a chorus of 'Screw You' to the developer.
  But he will be back too, no doubt. And then the island will be silent.

Fellow Travellers

  Ivan runs the Jack's Jungle resort on Koh Lipe. He's from Belgium, a computer programmer and marketing expert by trade. He gave it all up (but used his skills to succeed here) to live on Koh Lipe running this place.
  Neil was a practicing psychologist in South Africa. He runs a dive shop.
  Phil lost his job in Calgary so he moved to Bangkok to produce a Youtube station about Thai food.
  Another travelling couple, a dentist and his wife from Washington State are like us- successful in life, cashed in early and are seeing the world- before stiff joints or worse tie them down.
  Travelling certainly opens new worlds. But it also reflects your world back on you. Among the honeymooners, and gap-year students, and retirees, you meet people who've made the same choices as you, turned their back on convention and standards to live life to the fullest. They are no poorer, and in some cases, much richer for their decisions.
  We're still in the process of getting our heads wrapped around our new circumstances. But we see examples before us that it can be done. And that gives us strength to stay the course.

Fire Lanterns

 It's dark and I'm heading "downtown" on Koh Lipe to pick up the kids from the Internet cafe. I glance up in the sky and see four orange balls glowing, moving slowly in formation. WTF? I watch for a few moments and go through my checklist of UFO debunks. Not a star, not a satellite, not a plane...
  A few fireworks are let off behind the jungle growth, towards the beach, and I set aside the mystery and pick up the kids. Later we see the answer close up.
  Vendors are selling circular pads of tissue paper, about two feet in diameter. Attached to the bottom by lightweight wire is a wax toroid, not unlike those installed under toilets to prevent leaks.
  They are fire lanterns, and I'm pretty sure could be the next big thing back home. The circle of tissue unfolds into a two-foot tall cylindrical paper balloon; the wax ring is lit on fire. After a few moments, the flame heats the air in the paper sac, and it rises slowly and majestically into the sky. Montgolfier in miniature.
  We buy one and head down to the beach. We light the wax and watch our lantern rise into the sky. It's a slowly-moving orange dot growing smaller as the wind moves it offshore. After about 10 minutes, the lantern starts to fall as the fire winks out. It disappears into the sea.
  It would be a great fundraiser for Autism or the Cancer Society back home. They are so peaceful, and beautiful, rising to the sky- like the spirits of our lost loved ones moving to heaven.
  But can you imagine the permits you'd need to get approval for this? Lotteries, Forestry, Environment, Wildlife Branch- not to mention city hall, the fire department, and insurance.
  Things may be safer back home and cleaner, but we've lost some of our joy in playing with beautiful things.   Maybe I'll just pull my own UFO prank instead.

Orion Reclining

One of my bucket list points this trip is to see the southern satellite galaxies- the Magellanic clouds. I'll have to check my star charts before I get to Bali, but I'm hoping they'll be visible. There are already visible changes to the sky.
 Orion, the hunter (you might recognize it as the constellation with the three stars in a row, making the hunter's belt) lies sideways in the sky. In Yukon he is an upright warrior, grappling with a lion. Sirius rides much higher than in Yukon, while the Big Dipper only makes about 10 degrees above the northern horizon. I spot one very-hard-to-see constellation, Cetus, through our train window. I'll have to get into a real dark area with my iPod sky charts to take a few more constellations off my checklist.
  More obviously, the sun, Moon, and planets rise up, fast, and ascend far higher into the sky than back home. Skywatching will be a joy on this trip.

The Train

  The Allies bombed the crap out of Bangkok's rail system to disrupt the Japanese supply lines during the war. The Thais had put up a two-day fight against Tojo but were really powerless to stop him, and came to an accommodation with the invaders for the duration of the war.
  We're sitting in a railcar in the station in Bangkok, waiting to get going to the southern hub city of Hat Yai. There's no word about what's causing the hour-long delay but we're afraid to go more than a few meters from the car door should it pull out suddenly. It's the organized chaos you see in all train stations here, with incomprehensible speakers blaring and people milling about.
  We wait and wait. Apparently the engine's broken down and they are replacing it in situ. Great. We had plans to take off in the afternoon, see some of the countryside as the day fell, and enjoy the trip.
  It's another two hours, and pitch black, before the train finally leaves the station. More delays en route meant we arrived at our destination five hours late, barely making our connections. The food was terrible, the service worse. Unkindly, I think the Allies could have saved the munitions and just left the rail system working as is- tying up the Emperor's armies even more effectively.

Bangkok Surly

 We arrive in Bangkok late in the day- what day I'm not exactly sure. By the time we pass Customs and Immigration, it's close to 2 a.m..
We head into town in a cab, to our hotel. The Prince Palace is not quite a dowager of a hotel, but it better get married to some rich investor soon. Set in three towers, seven stories up, the main levels show 80s-style opulence, not faded, but merely maintained in good shape. The vast hallways and conference rooms are empty. The lobby seethes with tourists. The Russians give off an aura of new wealth and danger. Maybe it's just me.
Surrounding the building is an old market, the Bo Bae. Think Bladerunner without the neon... the crush of people, food stalls, touts pitching their scams, hawkers selling clothes and dry goods by the gross. One of the city's old canals defines one border of the area... brown and reeking, a city artery not filled with a watery life-blood but sewage and ichor.
Small footbridges cross the canal at the base of the hotel into a kind of shantytown. Julie and I take a stroll through the warren of homes and shops. People seem taken aback to see farang, foreigners, in the neighbourhood. We wander a bit, not in unfriendly territory but not welcome either.
I look up at the hotel's towers, visible in the sky above the three-story shacks. That's us up there in the pool on the 8th floor, looking down over the city, over folks who likely lost a chunk of their neighbourhood to this tower.
Bangkok seems- if not angry- at least far more curt this time around. Cabbies complain about the government, porters make cracks about my size- something that seemed inconceivable last trip. I lose my wallet- maybe pickpocketed- in the busy downtown shopping area. A bomb goes off in the suburbs, the military are posted at choke points of human traffic.
The city is working hard to put a celebratory face on the King's birthday party. It could be his last, he's getting older and is in frail health. The fireworks are spectacular, but bickering continues in the newspapers the next day.
Is this just a hangover from the violent protests, only a few months in the past? Subconsciously, it's like the town is spoiling for a fight.

Welcome to Far Away

Far away
Far away
Are not all lovely things far away?
-- Edgar Allen Poe

  Well, at least I think it's Poe. It's from a reading on a Lou Reed album that is based on Poe's Raven.
But far away is where we are going. To Southeast Asia for six months. Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia... we're leaving it all behind- taking what the Aussies call a 'gap year', but much later in life.
  I had a career- but it wasn't my life. When it was wrenched away last January I was left with nothing anchoring me. Then friends died, close friends. A life rich enough and full enough, a loving wife and family, the faith of my friends in me, eased the brunt of the loss. But the pace of life's passing didn't slow. Aches that don't go away, new stress replacing the old. It was time to do something to live life to the fullest.
  We cleared out our home, filled dumpsters and the Sally Ann with junk and ephemera we've carried these decades. The hardest is leaving our precious dog, Comet, with friends while we're away. She's cared for but she is the one loser in this, the one left behind. We tell ourselves she'll be fine 'til we get back.
  So here we are sitting in the coach section of a China Air 747. The plane's umbilicals are disconnected, we are cut off from the gangway, from North America, from our past, heading to new possibilities. That's the key to all life, creating conditions for new possibilities.
  We have a few bags with us, but we take other baggage too- our prejudices and predispositions and hang-ups. We'll find out in the weeks to come what is Not Wanted on Passage.
  I hope you enjoy this blog and look forward to your comments. It's the first non-business writing I've done so I'm curious about what will come out.
  Since I'm starting this, due to popular demand, about two months into the trip, the first few posts are remembrances... but starting now (Jan 23) I'll be as live as possible.
Raven is a great album by the way... pick it up  (if you can find it) for some good Hallowe'en listening.