Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cab Driver's Blues

Jakarta is a great big freeway.

Actually, it's not, especially considering the best roads are tollways. But the song sure seems to fit as we enter hour two of our cab ride across the city.

Traffic is ubiquitous and constant in this sprawl of 11 million souls. On the elevated high road we're on, vehicles are stopped far in front and behind us. We lurch a few yards occasionally, half the cars taking those opportunities to change lanes, snarling things even more. Even the motorcycles are stopped beside us.

The only consolation is that it's far, far worse on the surface roads, where construction, tuk-tuk fumes and pedestrians add to the misery of getting from A to B. From our perch on an overpass, I gaze down at the vast tenement blocks of Jakarta, all red tile, corrugated iron and decay.

“That,” my cab driver says, pointing to the slums, “is where my life is.”

You live there? I ask him. The area below is along a fetid waterway, its sides plaqued with plastic grocery bags and scrap paper. Not there, he indicates in a broken English, but in a place just like it, in another district.

It turns out this cabbie is in a chatty mood. I've found Indonesians as a whole are a very kind and friendly lot; despite the conditions they live in, they are intensely interested in others, in sharing about their lives and finding out about yours. Uniformly friendly and giving.

My driver is 31, 41 or 51; it's hard to tell from either his English or his looks. He has eight kids, the oldest in their 20s. He was married very young- in traditional Javanese fashion. Now he struggles to feed his family.

His eldest son, he laments, has no thought for the future, for school, work, or marriage.

"And your boy?" he asks me, as my son naps beside me, his leg slung over my lap. "He's a good young man," I tell him.

He waxes political. Things are hard again economically, he says, though it was getting better for a while. He's angry, about the country and politicians and how the 'Chinese own everything'. These are old complaints, you can tell- thoughts scored into the grooves of his mind over months and years of sitting in traffic like this.

There's a random break in the congestion, and we suddenly pull out into five open lanes of asphalt. We drive for about a kilometre until the next bottleneck appears.

“Maybe I come work in your country,” he says to me as we slow down again. “What does a driver make in your country?” He mimicks a guy driving cab as he drives the cab.

I think for minute, pull out my iPod calculator. I figure I'll lowball it. I'll tell him a cab driver makes $35,000 a year. It seems a safe guess to me.

“A driver makes about $120 US a day,” I say.

His eyes widen. “$120?” he asks, incredulously.

“Yes,” I say. “But you have to remember. It is expensive to live there.”

I make a list of deductions for him. Taxes, take off at least one third. Gasoline, $40 a day. Insurance. Cab licences. Even a coffee, I tell him, will cost 25,000 rupiah.

“In the end, you might take home only $20 or $30,” I tell him.

“$120,” he repeats to himself again, rolling the incredible number around in his mind. What he could do with such wealth. He is now far away.

“Yes, but remember, lots of bills,” I repeat again, not trying to build up his hopes too much. “How much do you make in a day?” I ask.

“It goes up, it goes down," he explains. "But about 60,000, 70000 rupiah.”  That's about $8.

Eight dollars a day to feed a family of eight. Still, compared to the Indonesian average- $2 a day- he's doing pretty well. I put away the iPod, suddenly aware it's worth two months' salary to him, feeling a little ashamed of myself.

We pull off the tollway, into the gridlock below, near our destination. At an intersection, street kids plaster their faces to the windows of the cab and beg. A 10 year old boy, carrying his two year old sister, have picked me to try to ignore them.

“I'm sorry about that,” the driver says to me, ashamed of the street urchins.

“Hey, not your fault,” I say, wondering whose fault it is. I gaze out across the road, studiously not seeing what's in front of me, while my driver dreams of Canadian streets of gold.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bathtime in Jakarta

The lobby of the hotel we're staying at in Jakarta is bigger than the entire hostel we were staying at last night. We cross a grand plain of marble to the front desk, a sweeping staircase to our right, hotel guests eyeing us from plush chaise lounges to the left.
We seem distinctly out of place with our bathing suit shorts, old runners and dirty worn backpacks.
The clerk is nonchalant, though, and greets us with polished, professional form. I feel like the castaway guy from the 80s American Express commercial as I slap my credit card down on the tropical-hardwood counter to put a deposit on our room.
Unfortunately, that spell is broken when the machine rejects my Visa. I have to pony up $300 US cash instead.
After three months on the road, I am in a four-star Western hotel, in a tony area of embassies and offices just south of central Jakarta.
I'm here to meet up with my brother, who's at a conference at the hotel. It's out of our normal price range, but for two days the boy and I can splurge.
No cage lockers here, no common-room fridges or mosquito netting. The hotel is all air conditioning, carpeting and chrome, push-button elevators and key-card locks. Buffet for breakfast, included. Staff in uniforms smile and open doors for you.
We ride the Muzak-ed elevator to the 11th floor (11 floors! And more!) and enter our room. I stayed in a hundred like it back when, travelling on business.
And I stop myself. It has a bathtub.
It is the first honest-to-God western-style bathtub I have seen in three months.
Now, people do things differently here. And I am cool with that. They don't do baths. That's fine.
What they have in Asia is showers. If you're lucky, there's a little heating unit attached to the wall allow a person to fine-tune the water temperature. But more often than not, it's just ambient temperature. 
I can even understand why they don't have bathtubs. For one, it costs money to heat all that water. Two, it's almost always 30+ degrees here, so who would ever want to lie in a tub of hot water?
So for the last three months, I've showered. And yeah, that's OK. Part of 'the experience'.
But day by day, lukewarm rinse by lukewarm rinse, my need to soak has grown.
We just get settled in the room when my brother knocks on the hotel door. We head down for some supper.
It's great seeing him again, we catch up on all sorts of news. But in the back of my mind, I'm thinking about that bath tub. We call it an early night (he's working in the morning) and I head back to the room.
Back to the bath tub.
I walk into the bathroom and look around. That alone is a luxury. No more closet-sized hostel bathrooms for me. No more shower-head-spraying-everywhere-wetting-the-toilet-paper-and-cosmetic bag.
Not tonight.
Tonight is cream-coloured marble flooring, two-tone tilework around the fine porcelain tub. I pull the clothesline cord from the dispenser thoughfully included on the side of the tub, and draw it across to its receptacle. I have no clothes to steam out. I just want to do it.
I'm going to savour every minute this. I want to see the chrome mist up as the water heats it, condensing the cool air on its surface. I am going to fill it to the brim, and slowly sink under the surface, until only my nose can be seen. I am going to emerge finger-wrinkled and pink and am going to wear the white terrycloth bathrobe I just spotted on the back of the door.
I crank the dial to stop the drain.
I turn the tap, try one way, then rotate it to the left for the hottest water. I watch and wait patiently to adjust it just to the best temperature. I let it run.
And run.
And run.
And run.
It has been a full ten minutes now, dear reader. And the water has not gone above tepid.
Who needs hot water when it's always 30-plus degrees?
It was so close, yet so far. Far away.


So it's three o'clock in the morning when I'm woken up by #1 Insomniac Son getting back into bed. He's wearing the white terrycloth robe.
“Did you take a bath?” I ask stupidly. It was three a.m., after all.
“Sure,” he says.
 “It wasn't cold?” I ask. See above.
“No, it was hot.”
Well, I'm instantly awake. I go to the bathtub. I can feel the heat still rising from his bath.WTF?
I try the water handle again. I turn it full the other way, and wait this time. It's hot, in a few seconds.
Oh shit.
I run, and nuke the blog post. Idiot. Idiot.
Then I realize, It's OK. I'm not writing high journalism or anything I have to pretend about.
This is me, dear reader. I fuck up.
I pour a bath. A hot bath. I watch the taps condense vapour as they heat up. I feel the warmth of the porcelain as I slilp into the hot, hot water. I slide under the surface, my nose just poking out.
This posting will have a happy ending after all, I think.
I'm a heppy, heppy ket.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Far Away...: Lost in Transaction

Far Away...: Lost in Transaction: "It should really go something like this: LISTEN TO ME MORTAL.I COME IN THE NAME OF MASTER HEADI SEEK THE GO SEI WONDER.WHO WITH GO SEI GREA..."

Lost in Transaction

It should really go something like this:


Instead, I ask the lady at the information kiosk if there's a toy store in this mall.

We are still in KL, and the boy and I are on a mission to fulfil a birthday promise for another Sentai model. Sentai, if you're lucky enough not to know, is the Japanese word for Power Rangers. Remember that five-teenager team of robot fighters that caused a 'violence on TV' fuss in the 90s? Still around, the boy still loves 'em, always has. And has an impressive collection of the toys back home.

In Bangkok there are whole stores in the malls devoted to carrying the latest model or variant of the Super Sentai series- the next $30, $80 or $110 collection of interlocking plastic that attaches (or may not) to the last collection of plastic. Popular throughout most of Asia.

In Malaysia though, not so much.

You never see anything like this
in North America
So four degrees off the equator, surrounded by the history of the Opium Trade, exotic flora and fauna, foods born in the wars over the Spice Islands... I scour shopping malls in vain.

It is exactly as exotic as one would think. In other words, not at all.

KL has a hundred malls of all sizes and from all eras. There's the Legends Mall, Bukit Bintang, Sungai Wang, Lot 10, Starhill, One Utama, Sogo, the Berjaya Times Square, Midvalley Mega-Mall, Suria KLCC, Low Yat, Pertama Complex. On and on. We search through 60's style, low ceilinged hallways, dingy with time and smelling of shoe leather, to antiseptic marble-and-chrome neon cathedrals of retail.

Soon you get the knack of the search. Toy stores are run by fanboys, without a lot of money. They're off the beaten retail paths. You find them on the 6th and 7th floors of malls,with the property management offices, dentist's shops and bowling alleys. You find them in the basement, where swarthy men play pool and ignore the 'no smoking' signs pasted prominently on the walls.

To find them you walk. Past hundreds, thousands of clothing stores, offering impossibly small skirts and blouses to teen girls. Past butiks and hall stalls and department stores. Up escalators and down, all the while trying to keep your path out of the building in mind, a mental ball of thread like Theseus in the minotaur's maze.

It's actually the human cost of the mall that gets to you. The shops promise youth, beauty, energy, popularity. But you walk past sleepy men and women, hunched over glass cases displaying watches and rings and broaches, jewels and ivory and plastic trinkets destined one day for the Pacific Gyre. Past sad-eyed young people, watching their peers hustle by, watching their lives drain away in air-conditioning and under fluorescent light. Following the sounds. Toy stores are near arcades, near the roller rinks and karaoke clubs.

The toy stores uniformly disappoint. They have Gundam, Mazinger, Exo-Force, Robotech and Transformers, and knock-offs and rip-offs of endless variety and kind. But Sentai? The clerk looks up from his iPad, shrugs, sometimes with a bit of a sneer. “Not popular here. Try next floor.”

And so it goes. I take what I can out of the hunt.

We see a great deal of the city. From the monorail and commuter lines. Past mosques and parks and centres of government. The design of the city is slowly revealed, in bits and pieces. We learn to negotiate traffic, read direction signs in Malay. We see the way regular people live, play, shop.

Barely powerful enough to take on the
Warstar Syndicate
We finally find a shop with a single Sentai, on the 6th floor of another anonymous compleks. It's not exactly what the boy was looking for, but it completes this series. We head home, he's satisfied.

I sit on the bed at the hostel while the boy assembles his latest mecha configuration. It has been about as westernized a day as could be. Burger King lunch, video game arcades, Coca-cola and ATMs. I came 12,000 kilometres for this?

Then, from the open grate in the wall above the bed, a plaintive cry, a woodwind instrument blowing mournfully. The isha'a, the final call to prayer in twilight from some nearby mosque. It calls out haunting and mysterious to the faithful.

I have no faith. But I am transported, once again, far away.

Thank you KL.  

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tapir Heaven, Food Hell

The two-lane country road ahead is steaming like a hot coffee, vapour rising from the asphalt as the afternoon tropical downpour stops as abruptly as it began. It all seems so perfect, as we wind our way to Teman Negara, a forest older than the dinosaurs.

The trip has been relatively easy, a three-hour drive up modern divided highway north of Kuala Lumpur. We visited an elephant sanctuary and a petting zoo earlier in the day. The boy is still smiling at having been able to touch a sun bear at the zoo. It's a black, hairy bear with a flattened snout, and about the size of a pig. Apparently it's the tamest of the bears, though to date we've only seen it from a safe distance in a cage at the zoo.

After the eventful morning we're on the last leg of the journey, a 100-kilometre drive past palm oil plantations and small towns, to the forest edge.
I am sure there is a power-up in there somewhere...

 The landscape, the boy notes, looks like a scene from Donkey Kong Country: identical palm trees clone-stamped in repeating patterns into the distance.

The driver cruises along at a speed just under the limit for inducing nausea on the winding, hilly route. We finally cruise into Kuala Tahan, a town on the river that borders the park.

Tired, and a little sick from a chest cold we both have, we crash for an hour or two at the hotel. Then it's off to dinner and an orientation video, then a night walk in the park itself.

Teman Negara is considered the world's oldest forest. For 130 million years nothing has erased it- not asteroids or ice ages or human greed. A third larger than Algonquin Park, the park is effectively protected from development by the Malaysian government, which unlike many in SE Asia, seems to put teeth to its environmental legislation.

Kuala Tahan is an outpost, a tourist centre, on the edge of the park. It borders a small, fast flowing river, its few streets on one side, Nature Red In Tooth and Claw on the other.

Our package has us eating at a local restaurant that evening. MamaChop's has everything going for it. A floating restaurant on a fast-moving stream; exotic surroundings, animal calls in the distance and dim lighting as the tropical sun sets.

Everything going for it, that is, except the fact it's trying to feed people. For MamaChop, it seems, has no desire to run a restaurant- or at least put any effort into it.

We're paying about $120 US a night for this trip, all included. Sure, you don't expect five-star treatment, but a bit of effort would be nice. The drivers, the trip, the hotel, were all adequate for our money. Then we are served a three-item 'buffet'- cold white rice, plain roasted chicken, and lukewarm veggies in cocoanut milk.

I choke it back without enthusiasm. The boy turns his nose up.

I ask to consult the menu, to order something for him 'a la carte'. 'Spaghetti baloonisi' is probably not the best selection. I run down the rest of the options, and finally ask the waiter about a hambuger. 'No', says the teenager, not available. What about the chicken fingers? No again.

Going through the rest of the menu quickly reveals that the entire 'Western Dishes' side of the page is a sham. There are no western dishes to be had. I order plain rice and chicken for the boy. The youth runs back to the chef with the order. About five minutes later, I realize I just ordered a $3 version of the meal we had just been offered free as part of the tour.

After our meal the local guide fires up a bootleg of a video about the park on the restaurant's big flatscreen TV, which up to this point has been playing Malaysian love songs and hip-hop.

The boy wants to go home, but after that meal I want to get our money's worth from the tour company. I insist we'll spend the hour going on the night walk. Our group piles into a boat, and in less than a minute we're across into the park proper.

Our guide takes us on a short walk in the dark; we see fluorescent scorpions, sleeping birds, and the glowing green eyes of what are supposed to be mouse deer. Sure, we're only on the very edge of the park, and we've only been there for 45 minutes. But it's a quiet night in the forest, and we can't help but feel a bit disappointed.

Then on the return trip, magic. A screeching sound, short and high. 'Did you hear that?' the guide says. “That's a tapir.”

Cole's eyes light up, and we start peering into the dark. As we walk along the path back to the boat, out of the gloom, two large pig-shaped creatures emerge and head towards us. They are tapirs.

Enjoy the show, try the veal...
Now, maybe the best way to describe a tapir is if a pig had tried to grow to the size of a deer. They are ancient-looking animals, with a long snout and odd half-black, half-white colouring. For you old folks, these are the creatures killed by the ape-men at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey (trivia note, courtesy of the boy- that scene was impossible, as there were never tapirs in Africa).

The giant pig-elephant-deers snuffle around us as a security guard and our guide warn us to be careful. But the animals actually seem curious and friendly, one even lying down to get a cautious rub from the tourists. Cole is in heaven. He rubs the creatures, gets his picture taken.

Yeah, I went there. They feel like cheap tight-pile carpet from the 1970s.

But something smells here, and it ain't just the tapir. It's almost too good- this refugee from the Miocene just happening to show up, a security guard in tow. The surprise of our guide. All a little too perfect.

Later, I learn that the tapirs actually show up about twice a night, in about the same spot. They have been relocated from somewhere else in Malaysia, and are being acclimated to humans. It's good for tourism, if not exactly the purest of wildlife encounters.

But it doesn't matter to my boy. He is in absolute heaven, that he's been able to pet a wild creature that up to know he's only seen sleeping in mud baths in zoos. He will talk about this the rest of his life.

The lousy food, the head cold, the iffy washrooms, are all forgotten. The trip is officially worthwhile because of this close encounter with 'wildlife'.

And that's good enough for me.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Caves of Batu

It's ten o'clock in the morning and the air is already heavy with heat and moisture. I'm standing at the foot of a limestone hill, facing a wide staircase that seems to rise up into infinity.

“Don't worry, it's only 270 steps” says my driver, slapping me on the shoulder. “I'll see you in half an hour. Maybe 45 minutes. OK?”

He turns and leaves, to head back to the air-conditioned van. I start my ascent.

That's the second-biggest statue of Lord Murugan I've ever seen.
I am only here because of my driver, who suggested it as a nice diversion on our way to the interior of peninsular Malaysia. We aren't even out of the city yet- the park that contains the cave complex is bordered by a busy highway, with shops and stores across the street.

The first thing you see is a statue- a giant golden statue- rising about 1/3 of the way up the side of the hill. From its design, you can tell from a distance you're entering a Hindu holy site.

Then there's those other things that make for a Hindu shrine. Holy men half-naked, faces painted, giving blessings to pilgrims; monkeys on the steps, looking for treats; and ramshackle shops for changing money, selling food and hawking the tackiest-looking religious paraphernalia. Day-glow back-lit spinning wall clock of Vishnu, anyone?

I climb the steps, thankful for the regular landings but cursing the lacksidaisical Asian attention to a safe riser/run ratio. About halfway up I pass the statue's head. The view of the city improves behind me, while before me a large entranceway beckons.

I reach the top of the stairs and enter into anyone's holy place.

Before you is a 100-metre high cavern. Bats flitter in and out of the cave. An opening high above brings natural light into the scene. Birds flying near the ceiling bring some perspective, while the scattered pilgrims and tourists on the vast floor attest to the capacity of the place. I am glad I'm here on an off-day; it looks like the base of the cave could comfortably accommodate 1,000 people.

The Batu Caves have been a holy site for Hindus in Malaysia for over 100 years. The last 50 years have seen more development and ability to handle crowds, who now come from around the world. A sign indicates a cable car may be in the works.

There's much to admire in the vast space. Hindu statues of gods and heros populate niches and crevices where the cave wall meets the concrete floor. Larger buildings house more complex statue arrangements, and pilgrims seek blessings from monks and holy men.  Nature and man working together to create a place of wonder. 

It's worth a quick wander around. I stop at the top of a flight of stairs of the farthest cavern, and look down. It's funny how the mind works. The cave is hard to accept as real, it looks like a special effect, a matte-painting cavern from a 1980s adventure movie. I have to force myself to register that this is really something nature can accomplish all on her own.

All we can do is worship in it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sidewalk porn

  "Yeah," said the fellow traveller at the breakfast table. "The sidewalks in Jakarta had holes big enough to fall in."
Anyone spending anytime in Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Vientiane or most any SE Asia city has a story about the treacherous sidewalks. For the most part, the pedestrian's needs are an afterthought in these cities. Broken brick, sand or rebar can protrude out at any time; odd angles for curbs make walking dangerous, especially with people's morning bathwater splattered all over. Flimsy grates cover holes into the sewer. 
  Then there's the huge random obstructions- telephone polls or trees or utility boxes, that force walkers onto the even-more-dangerous streets. Even if you get flat, open sidewalk space it's likely to be considered convenient parking for motorocyles or cars.
  It's a nice break to visit a place like Kuala Lumpur, where at least a bit of thought was made into the needs of pedestrians.
  So for those folks living in faraway lands, who long for real sidewalks, who dream of actual completed pedestrian corridors that go on for blocks and blocks, Far Away presents some sidewalk porn, hot off the streets of Kuala Lumpur...

Yeah baby, I'm long and smooth and you can go where you want on me. I'll take you there, slow or fast, how you want to go.

Yeah you can go around the corner on me. But watch someone's not coming the other way. Tee hee!

I'm spread out for you and you can walk all over me....I'm coming and going for you.

Just look at that textured surface, the attention to detail on the curbs... oooh that's  hot!

You want two sidewalks at once? Think you're man enough to handle it? Ooh baby you know you want it...
   Anyway, we've added another example of Rule 34 at work on the 'nets. Our work here is finished for the day.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lines On A Map

I recall reading in one of my travel books how Bangkok taxi drivers couldn't read maps. I didn't believe it until I tried to show a tuk-tuk driver where I wanted to go. He took the map I was pointing at, and rotated it several times in his hands. He obviously had no clue how it worked or even that it was a two-dimensional representation of the city.
It happened a few times when I was in Thailand. It must be that many Thai kids aren't taught mapping in school... something pretty hard to believe by our standards, but there it was.
So I find it ironic that Bangkok and Phnom Penh are going to go to war over lines on a map.
Who owns the 11th century Preah Vihear temple complex on the border of the two countries has been under dispute for years. It's just that lately the arguing is being done with bullets and mortar shells. Ten soldiers and civilians have been killed and more wounded to date. Cambodia says it's now at war with Thailand, while the Thais reject any international offers to mediate the dispute.
We were far away from the fighting during our stay in Cambodia- never got closer than about 300 kilometers. And the roads and towns we travelled through didn't seem to be in any special war footing.
Everyone seems to agree that the reasons behind the dispute getting this serious are murky. But passions are high on both sides.
Thailand's conservative yellow shirts are banging war drums, pressuring the government to stand up for Thai rights. Cambodians are taking on the aggrieved party role, saying their more powerful neighbour was the aggressor.
Both sides have itches to scratch. Thailand has been at war with itself for the last five years, and could use an external threat for national unity. Cambodia's strongman government has a lot to prove to its own people too.
I spoke to a Cambodian tuk-tuk driver a week or so ago. He thought arguing over a temple was stupid, but he was resolute.
“'The Thais won't fight. They'll shoot for a few days and run,” he predicted. Cambodians, he said, were tougher and would hang in for the battle.
Yeah, it's getting tribal. A Thai lieutenant-general handed out talismans to his troops to protect them from evil spirits the Cambodians might try to place on them. He said he believed he had to do what he could to safeguard his boys.
Invoke 'em if you got 'em.
From reading press reports and official's statements, both sides seem to be underestimating the other's anger, hurt, and resolve not to back down. While fighting has subsided in the last few days, all the elements are still there for stupid loss of life.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Sharks of Saigon

It's my last day in Ho Chi Minh City, and I'm on a mission: find a post office, ship some posters I've bought back home.

The sun is already promising a roasting day as I leave the hostel and head down the street.

Ho Chi Minh's District One, old Saigon, houses the major banks, government offices, museums, malls, and thousands of mom-and-pop shops, storefronts no wider than a mobile home. You can also find a few of the city's rare postage-stamp sized parks, and broad, treed boulevards.

I'm heading to one of the gems of HCMC's historic housing stock, the old post office, a French colonial building from the 1880s.

The walk is pleasant enough at first but the heat and humidity got to me, so I started looking for a pedalcab. Those are Saigon's version of the tuk-tuk, human-powered one-passenger bicycle taxis.

Attracting a cabbie wasn't hard, and in a few seconds one asked me where I was going.

“Post office. How much?” I ask.

“You say.” he says obliquely. “You tell me.”

I have learned enough on my Asia travels to get a price first. And I really don't want to play haggle games. So I insist he tell me how much.

“150,000 dong,” he says. About $7.

I snort and walk away. I spent a third less to be taken twice as far the day before. I didn't even give him a chance to counter-offer. Better to just get the exercise, I told myself, as his calls faded behind me.

I'm usually not so brusque, but five days in HCMC had made me a a little fed up with this 'rip-off-the-tourist' shtick. Earlier in the trip I had paid a buck apiece for two oranges (more than they would cost in Whitehorse), $1.50 for a pair of socks I was assured would stretch to my size (nope), and six bucks for a pair of incredibly lousy headphones. Turned down a dozen other bogus deals. One guest at my hostel bought a $10 fake watch that stopped working in minutes, and another had been hijcked by a pirate taxi and extorted for $60 for a $10 airport ride.

Saigon is the economic engine and driver of the Vietnam economy Wikipedia will tell you. You don't get that way by easing up on the tourists.

So if the driver didn't want to give me an honest estimate up front, I wasn't going to give him the time of day.

About half a block down the street, I'm still fuming from the encounter, when another pedalcab slides up alongside me.

“Excuse me sir,” he says. “I will give you ride to post office for $1 US.”

I stop. Now that's not only reasonable, it's cheap. I climb on the pedalcab while my driver introduces himself.

Minh is originally from Cambodia, he tells me, but has lived in HCMC for 40 years. He remembers the end of the war as a child, when the North stormed into the city and reunified the country.

Minh offers up himself as a tour guide for me, and hands me a small notebook. It's crammed with recommendations from other tourists about how great he is, how he showed them different parts of HCMC and found them great deals. I thank him but tell him I'm in a bit of a rush; plane to catch and all that.

Minh drops me off at the post office, and offers to wait for me while I do my business. What the heck, I figure. A buck to get here. Give him five bucks to get me back to the hotel and I'm good. I take him up on the offer.

The ride back is as pleasant as a pedcalcab can be. One feels rather imperial in a pedalcab. The curve of the seat has you reclining, your feet up like a hammock. The smooth pulse of the pedalling, the sheer decadence of having someone pushing you around town, makes the stares of people watching you on the street almost agreeable.

Minh certainly fills the roll of a guide and new friend. He tells me about his wife and kids. He shows me several buildings I had walked by earlier in the week, and tells me what's inside. He points out great places to eat, buy shirts, or shoes- he'll haggle for you, and help you avoid the tourist rip-off. All the while Minh is cracking jokes, smiling, and rubbing your shoulder in a buddy kind of way.

“Why did I not find you three days ago?” I ask him, and I mean it. As fun as independent travel is, as much as it's nice not be part of a herd, a guide can save you time and money and open you to new experiences so much faster. In a place like HCMC, where it's easy to fall prey, I think I'd recommend a guide.

It's only 9:30, I don't have to be back for an hour. 'Why don't I take you on a short trip though Chinatown?” Minh asks. Why not, I think. The pedalcab is pleasant and the day is fine.

It's more of the same in a part of town I hadn't seen. Minh shows me Flower Street, a street decorated during Chinese New Year. I note great places to get coffee, electronics, laquerware that aren't tourist ripoffs. I get a lot better feel for the city,

Ho Chi Minh City isn't so bad, I think. A good guide, a smooth ride, an insider's glimpse into the city. That's what travel's about.

I write a glowing review in Minh's notebook as we come to a stop near my hotel. Wish I'd found him three days ago, I say Great tour at a great price.

I take down his phone number so you can call him if you need a guide in Ho Chi Minh.

Then it's time to settle. If it was 20,000VDN to the post office, 100,000 should be generous for the return trip. I pull out a bill.

No no, says Minh. Ten- 100,000 dong.

I'm not sure I understand him and pullout another 100,000. “Is this enough?” I ask.

“No no,” he says. He pulls out his company chart of rates. “I spend one hour and a half with you. One hour is 800,000 dong. You owe 1.2 million dong.” He smiles at me, now all sharp teeth and gums. “I have to pay company, feed family.”

Sharks come in many shapes and sizes. Some sell you oranges. Some ride bikes. Some try to rip you up front. The good ones disarm you with a smile first .

I hadn't asked for a price after the trip to the post office. And now I had to pay. I handed Minh two $20 bills and the 200,000. He nods, satisfied.

“You want coffee here?” he asks, all friendly again. The stop is probably part of the hook as well, Minh bringing business to his buddy's door.

“No thanks,” I say. I walk back to the hotel to pack, determined to get out of the city as fast as I can.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Travels with Autism

I've just come into the hotel room to find my son asleep, under a heavy comforter and sandwiched between two pillows. The computer is on the bed beside him,an antique Nintendo game paused on an emulator on the desktop.

It's 8:30 on a Friday night in Ho Chi Minh City.

I had taken a walk around the block, having had supper and killing time before coming back to the room. The streets in this district are alive right now with tourists and hustlers and working girls. Young men and women his age wander around with eyes wide and wallets full for mischief.

My boy should be with them, but he's playing a 16-bit video game in his room instead. And he's perfectly happy.

He's 21, and he has autism.

If you don't know, autism causes profound differences in the way you see and hear and think, the way you react to people, places, situations. You become wrapped in your own world, your own interests, habits, phobias, perceptions. It's different for every person who has it, comes in different degrees. Our son is very loving, responds to the world, but has the social and emotional skills of someone maybe 10 years younger.

On the trip it's a challenge. He won't pee in a urinal, let alone a squat toilet. That limits your itinerary in SE Asia, I can tell you. He's picky about his food, though you can work around that. In cultures that are still deeply superstitious and rule-bound, his tics and compulsions are looked on askance as he walks down the street, talking to himself and shaking an invisible hand over and over.

He's terribly absent minded, and has little of what we would call 'common sense'. That's not to say he's not intelligent... he's knowledgeable on many subjects, and can have great conversations with you about all sorts of interests. But that particular kind of thinking that allows you to understand how others think and feel and behave- whatever part of the brain serves that function- has just never developed fully.

I'm in Ho Chi Minh City now because he wouldn't go to a tropical island, with white sand beaches and thatched huts. Because the toilets wouldn't flush. It was his birthday, and he wanted Burger King and an arcade. We left his mom and sister to the beaches and headed inland.

Today, we found an arcade, and I gave him a handful of tokens to play a game. I left for 20 minutes. When I came back, he was gone.

I searched frantically for him. Panicky, anxious, angry circuits of the mall floor we were on. There was no sign of him. Everything that could possibly go wrong flashed through my mind.

Finally, on my third go-around, I found he had returned to where I had left him.

Yeah, I gave him heck. Like I did the day before, when he started walking up to people at the Vietnam War Museum, asking what they thought of the photos of American atrocities. Like I did the day before that, when he blew his nose over-the-top loudly in a restaurant. Like three days ago, when he wandered away at the 15-minute bus stop in the middle of Crapnowhere, Cambodia. Like the day before that, when he picked a scab and had a dribble of blood down his leg, to the alarm and disgust of our tuk-tuk driver.

Sometimes, when he's particularly whiny about the food or the hotel or that his Christmas wasn't good enough this year, I've sworn I'm going to send him on the next flight home.

Sometimes I'm not the greatest father.

We're always on him, to protect him, to protect others, to avoid embarrassment- and it can't be easy for him. And time and time and time again he's taken our shit and accepted it. He'd never dream of snapping back, of arguing. And his acceptance just makes me feel even worse after I'm done.

People say we're pretty special parents for taking him along with us. We don't deserve it, he's really just a regular young man in so many ways. And the way he puts up with us, our constant fear and worry that spills over into anger and frustration- that's what's special. He's the one with the courage, the strength- to stay so far out of his comfort zone for so long.

Two months in, this trip has shown us there are kind people in the world. People sense he's different, even through the culture gap. We have received gracious gifts and wonderful breaks from people who have far less than us. Hotel owners make special meals for him, bend the rules on computer use or refund our money when he balks at staying at a particular place. The world can be cruel, but every once in a while humanity shines through.

They say travel expands the mind. It's true for him as well. In his own way, he has worked so very hard to be flexible, to try new things. We take the small wins- like when he peed in a non-flush toilet when there was no option. When he drank orange juice for the first time. When he found his own way safely on a bike down a busy highway in Laos.

And he can bring joy too. Cole's world is limited, but there's wonder and magic to be seen there. When we open up the trip to his agenda, sometimes you see things in special ways, behind doors we'd never explore.

He was dying to pet a cow. For weeks he would drop hints and ask if we could stop by a farm. Finally a friend in Vientiane brought us to see some cattle. They were in a slaughterhouse yard. It was 80 degrees and these animals were tied on short ropes in the hot sun, no water or food. Cole approached one. Animals can tell he's different, and respond. An old cow, destined for the butcher the next day, let him pet her. I'll never forget that moment she sensed his love. They spent about 15 minutes together, Cole giving her the last comfort she'd ever have.

Cole has another agenda on this trip. Like anyone his age, he's desperate for someone to love. Autism is so cruel. He hasn't the social skills or emotional maturity to even begin thinking of dating, but every burning  hormone in his young body tells him he wants it.

“Dad,” he said before we left. “Do you think it's possible I might meet the girl of my dreams on this trip?”

He's been oblivious to a half-dozen chances of meeting that girl. Among the 20-somethings drinking and flirting on our two-day boat ride down the Mekong, The bikini'd babes on the beach and bars at Koh Lipe and Sihanoukville. The friends of friends in Vientiane, who came to our house to party one night.

“Yes Cole,” I replied. “If you are kind and open to new ways, if you learn to talk to people to make friends, you could meet that girl.”

She could be down on the streets of Saigon below us right now. I wonder if he's dreaming of her.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ho Chi Bean

It's not that I'm a coffee addict. I could really take or leave the stuff. I've never jonesed for a coffee during the day, or celebrated the faux-addict coffee culture.

But as an early riser I do expect certain things, creature comforts that are the trade off for forcing yourself out of bed every morning. Morning persons share an unspoken contract: to be a little quieter, not to rush one another, nor judge another's awkwardness. It's the chance to do what you want, in the order you want it, before the rush of the day imposes its will.

And that's the role a morning coffee should have. A time-filler. A hot, steaming cup that you can give you a chance to take stock, plan, organize. Something simple, undemanding, that gives instead of takes.

I slip my shoes on in the hostel's porch and step out into the alley. A good portion of the residents of central Ho Chi Minh City live in such narrow corridors. About two to three metres wide, the alley serves as transportation route, living room, kitchen, garage, and playground.

Commercial signs hang from the walls for hotels and restaurants. A grocery store spills onto the pavement, all junk food, baskets of eggs and cartons of noodles. A man with a cleaver is hacking at a side of pork. A tangled woven rope of power and phone line runs overhead, just above reach, like a notochord for the street. Multicoloured doors open to the world, glimpses of hair salons and offices and bedrooms; the line between public and private spaces is is two steps in any direction.

A few westerners like me are trotting through the alley, dodging families eating breakfast between their knees on short tables, toddlers in tiny ski jackets and grandmothers in pajamas. Motorcycles charge through, taking a short cut to the next block.

Traffic has yet to build up as I emerge onto the high street, but it's already bustling at 7:30. Tour groups block the sidewalk at regular intervals, waiting for the bus to pick them up for the day's tour out to the military tunnels or Mekong Delta. Most tourists stare dully into the distance, tired couples ignoring each other. They're not the early morning kind.

I try to will myself to have a bowl of breakfast pho, Vietnamese noodle soup. When in Rome, after all. I watch other tourists eating the steaming noodles and pieces of beef.

But I can't. Western grease calls me. Bacon, eggs, toast, and coffee. I give in and sit at a sidewalk table.

“You want coffee, hot?”, asks the waiter, with a kind of you've-got-to-be-kidding tone to his voice. It's the first question you have to answer every time you walk into a coffee shop in HCMC. Yes, you insist, as crazy as it sounds, you'd like coffee, black, and hot. He jots down the order.

The coffee comes in a small glass cup. Well, it will. Right now it's dribbling out of crude tin filter system that's balanced on top. The grounds are inside, with hot water poured on top. The coffee trickles through small perforations at the bottom of the tin.

I sit there, waiting for gravity to deliver me my morning joe.

We have such a contraption at home... but we use it only when we go camping. And I've spent many a fine cool morning on the Yukon River, adding boiling water and nursing my single-cupper by the edge of a campfire. The tin gets hot enough to burn your fingertips, the coffee plugs up and has to be stirred regularly, but it's part of the joy of taking your time on the river. At the end of it you have a steaming large mug of coffee.

But I'm not on the river, and I'm not camping. I have about half an inch of black sludge at the bottom of my four-ounce water-glass-cum-coffee-mug when my food arrives. About halfway through the meal the need for a sip of something hot overwhelms my patience. I take off the tin filter.

A small white 'J' runs from the lip of the glass down about an inch. It's cracked from the heat.

I signal the problem to the restaurant's coffee lady. All chin and gristle and leathery skin, she mutters something in Vietnamese, takes the broken glass and walks away.

She never returns with a new tin of grounds. I finish my meal, negotiate a reduction in the bill with the waiter for not getting the coffee, and resign myself to heading to another cafe for a cup.

Now, Vietnam prides itself on its coffee. And I'm in backpacker central in Saigon, the heart of the young and hip and Western-tourist area. You'd think a coffee'd be easy. But the locals I see are drinking coffee on ice, and the regular cafes seem empty.

I finally see some other westerners at a sidewalk cafe, drinking coffee- from mugs! I ask if it's any good.

'Wouldn't write home about it,” they say. They point me to another cafe, a block over. “Good coffee there.”

I follow their directions and order a coffee. Yes, hot and black, please. A fine small china cup, acceptable. A tin filter system, inevitable.

After the coffee finishes dribbling through, however, and I'm left again with a half-inch of sludge at the bottom of the cup. I have to go to the counter and ask for more hot water. I get an identical china cup, not made for pouring. Boiling water spills on the table as I try to refill the filter.

Another 30,000 dong out the wallet and I'm still searching for a quiet cuppa.

So this is where you find me, dear reader. It's 10 a.m., the street outside is busy now, and I'm sitting in a cafe advertising the best coffee in Saigon. Granted it's good. And it's in a proper large china cup. And thankfully  it comes pre-brewed.

But the morning is done and the quiet time passed. The late risers are up, all noisy and demanding. I'll have to try again tomorrow.

Say what you want about the importance of roasting and brewing. Of this bean over that variety. Of drip vs. espresso. What really makes a good cup of coffee in the morning is lack of aggravation.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Schrödinger's town

"Not your beach. Nyuh-uh."
The first person I met who had been to Sihanoukville was a Canadian traveller in Laos.

“I had heard there was still a place where you could get a $1 lobster meal in Asia,” said my new friend from Whistler. “And I finally found it.

“I was drinking a beer and a seller came up to me on the beach with a tray of lobsters. Two for a buck. I ate my fill.”

Sihanoukville is still mostly off the tourist radar. And it's hard to figure out why. We only came across it as the jumping off point to some offshore Cambodian islands. When my son balked at going to a place with no running water, I got to spend a few extra days with him in town.

Built on a series of hills on the edge of the ocean, this place has the makings of paradise. Long, white, sandy beaches; beautiful vistas and sea breezes cooling you off at night; and cheap, cheap, restaurants and bars.

We first arrived in town after a brutally long bus ride. A short tuk-tuk ride up one hill, and down another, brought us to a wide dirt road ending at the seashore, and our accommodation. I check us in to the sound of pounding surf at the hotel's edge.

But the night hides a multitude of sins. The next morning gives a very different first impression as you wander in town, the early sun already biting at your neck.

The wide dirt path that seemed quaint in moonlight becomes a post-apocalyptic scene of rubble and burning piles of construction waste; shanty stores crowd each other for curb space all the way up the hill. Overnight the tide has spewed up plastic cups, grocery bags, and even an orange file organizer onto shore. You can see other detritus in the surf just below the surface, waiting for landing.

But context is everything, as they say. And that's especially true in Sihanoukville. You have to give the town a second chance.

You learn the road outside the hotel door is just a few months old; it will be eventually paved and cleared. It really is under construction, and in no worse condition then a road project back home. And the hotels and bars clean the beaches daily, picking up the trash and leaving it pretty reasonable to swim in the area.... at least no worse then Koh Lipe, our first stop on this trip.

A dozen years ago, our hotel manager tells us, there were no tuk-tuks in Sihanoukville, no plastic plates. It was a sleepy, authentic, forgotten port town on the southern coast of Cambodia. And if you think the garbage is bad now, she says, you should have seen it a few years ago. “It's 75% better than it was,” she estimates. I shudder to think.

You get the feel Sihanoukville is between states now. Between sleepy town and exclusive destination, between working class port and tourism whore, between great opportunity and deep injustice. A Schrödinger's cat of a place.

Shanty towns butt up against $200 night resorts. People wash in stagnant ponds by the roadside, while the governor closes off swaths of beach for investors. My tuk-tuk guide one day tells me how an old fishing village was cleared out for a resort, only to see the project founder halfway through for lack of financing. It's still closed, the villagers scattered.

A bridge to somewhere, eventually.
Construction sites loom everywhere in town. And profit is king in the 'Kingdom of Wonder'. Development lurches, in fits and starts, leaving gaps in the economy and social fabric.

On one beach (there are at least half a dozen amazing stretches of sand around town) dozens of restaurants and beach bars are about to be cleared away for a private development. In another location, Russian investors have been sold a 99-year lease on an island. They are building a massive bridge for access to their resort.

Around the point from there, a 100-room hotel complex sits empty and baking, a lone security guard keeping watch at the gate.

As the sun sets on our last day there, I take a swim in the ocean, play a little in the surf. There's no garbage to be seen. Kids play football on the beach with a young tourist, the bars spread their tables and chairs on the sand for the evening crowds to come. It's another sunset on Serendipity Beach and I think about the town's future.

Cambodia is desperately poor. Is the governor selling off beach access to get jobs for his people, or to line his pockets? Both, presumably. Maybe the chance of jobs will keep children off the beach, away from predators- or maybe it will just put the practice behind a wall and gate. Maybe the resorts, the investors, will demand better stewardship of the land and water. Maybe the resorts will build proper sewage systems, the town get enough taxes from them to keep the streets and air clean.

Maybe people will get fed up and demand fair treatment and property rights.

As I wade out of the surf a Khmer lady walks by, a tray of lobster tails balanced on her head. I watch her pad away down the beach.

Sihanoukville is heading somewhere; you might want to visit before she arrives.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rosy glow in Cambodia

This time it's a bus ride, heading cross-country from the Cambodian town of Siem Reap to the southern coast, and the promise of white sand and surf.

The VIP bus has left town late, as usual; has a suicidal driver, as usual; and marginal air conditioning- three for three. Still, there are far more horrible fates for the traveller in this part of the world. With iPod in hand and Gravol in the stomach, all is good.

The world goes by, flat, and baking. Here on the elevated passenger deck, it's like you're floating just above the road, a ghost moving through the world. The windows are tinted, cutting the ultraviolet out of the spectrum. The sky is a washed-out powder blue, the earth golden, the trees and grass a richer, deeper green. Seeing Cambodia, literally, through rose-tinted glass.

That's when the real trip begins.

The landscape before me, in that rosy glow, tugs at my memories. Rather than exotic, the farmland does nothing but remind me of the Rideau Valley, years ago. Flat into the distance, shimmering in the daytime heat. Villages and clumps of houses strung along the road like pearls. Raised farm paths running off at right angles from the too-thin highway, high-school art class perspective studies.

The fields behind the houses are brown, like after second cut; solitary trees trees mark the field boundaries. It's January, not July, and those are banana and palm, not maple or elm. But in the distance the strangeness becomes a familiar smoky blue-grey line, the forest edging the rim of the farmer's world. My world growing up.

The homes here are all on stilts, protection against flood or vermin. Made of wood and thatch and tin, they are in their own way not unlike the old Century houses that you'd find south of Ottawa until about 30 years ago. Thin and tall, grey clapboard, random outbuildings, a sense both of daily use and decay.

We pass farmers trucking their harvest to market. Dressed in white shirts and long pants, farmhands sit on top of the great pile of bags in the back. I have a body-memory: the good ache of muscle, the wind whipping my eyes, the sway of the high load of hay as we ride on top of the wagon home.

It's as if a ghost of the peace, the pace, of country life lost back home still survives here.

It's all vivid and beautiful, and I let more memories rise up: being a kid, future perfect and unknown, the greater world only dimly perceived or considered.

At the same time I'm on this bus, past imperfect, the circle's arc closing.

My iPod delivers a 70s soundtrack, summer music by Mongo Jerry, Sly and the Family Stone and War. I decide to go for it, to be here and now, and there and then at the same time. Osgoode with palm trees and water buffalo and rice. Cambodia with dairy farms and baseball and comic books. The music binds what is in my eyes and my mind's eye.

Entanglement and conflation. Old memories become fresh, and what's before me is bound in love and a warm glow of nostalgia. Both are stronger in my mind for it and it is good.

I am a little more whole and thank Cambodia for this gift.

Eight hours to Sihanoukville. Far away.

Ruining a good ruin

Sometimes you have to admire bureaucratic tenacity. Especially when it extends over nine centuries.

We're at Angor Wat, the World Heritage Site temple complex. Before us is the Baphuon. Like most of the buildings of the complex, it was constructed around 1,000 years ago, and built to resemble a mythical Hindu mountain. It was an impressive structure in its day, with a tower rising about 50 metres in the air. And it was built to celebrate the god Shiva and the lingam, or holy phallus.

Now, I know at least half my readers will agree when I say there's altogether not enough penis worship going on these days. Sure we have the CN Tower and pro sports, but we could learn a thing or two about how they did it back in the day. They built an artificial mountain to honour wangs.

The only problem was, they didn't build it particularly well.

Baphuon is basically a glorified sand castle. A tier of sand was piled up, and reinforced on the sides with sandstone or lava blocks (each side, btw, runs about the length of a football field). The next pile of sand was built on top of that, reinforced with blocks, and so on all the way up.

Our schlong-worshipping priest-architects, however, underestimated the load the walls had to bear. We've all built sandcastles, and you know what happens after a certain point in the vertical rise of the structure. The thing starts collapsing, the sides bursting like Charlie Sheen's hernia.

Not making things any better were the efforts of 17th century king, who decided to use some of the side wall blocks to construct a new Buddha on the side of the building. Physics ignored, cue more wall collapse.

Baphuon would probably look like a shapeless pile of rock and sand by now if it wasn't for the efforts of French archeologists, who started recovering Angkor from the jungle at the end of the 19th century.

They started by clearing off the overgrowth, the giant trees you see growing into and over the temples in Tomb Raider 2 (filmed at a nearby site, btw).

Someone must have been impressed by what the temple must have looked like, because work began to painstakingly restore the structure. Nature's inspectors had still had condemned the place, however, and never really stopped enforcing the building codes. The next ten decades are a back-and-forth of crews doing repair work, walls collapsing, and teams starting repairs over again. Physics, tropical downpours, and genocidal civil war on one side, UNESCO and stubborn French and Japanese archeologists on the other.

It's Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object, being played out in the Khmer jungle.

It would be nice to be able to tell who's winning. As it stands now, the visitor approaches a somewhat morose structure, not as impressive as some of the other temples nearby; a handful of workers chip away at rocks, a crane stands motionless above the scene. We are told $10 million is being spent, and more will be until the job is done. That, by the way, is somewhat optimistically scheduled to be in 2010, according to the signs. I think they flipped the middle two numbers on that projection.

But I for one also believe it worth it, if only to ensure penises are adequately recognized in our society.

Friday, February 4, 2011

10 Simple Rules for Tuk-Tuk Drivers

Even the most casual Asian traveller will soon note the regional variations of the tuk-tuk, or motororized scooter-taxi. These mini-cabs, usually powered by a two-stroke engine, are ubiquitous on SE Asian roads.

Here are some samples from our trip so far:

Ones in Bangkok usually have a single bench, and the driver controls the vehicle from the front of the unified cab. They seem to be designed to only half-burn their fuel, creating a nauseating carbon monoxide fog as they travel. A picture of the king by the mirror is de rigeur.

In Vientiane, the tuk-tuks are built heavier, but are noisier, usually as a result of the underpowered engine trying to ram a piston through the case. They often have two rows of seats on either side of the cab, and are able to load far more tourists than they can actually pull. The driver rides external to the passenger section. Add rastafarian colours and statues of local holy men to taste.

Taking a break from a hard day's tuk-tuking.
Siem Reap's are the sleekest, quietest and least polluting of the trio. The driver rides a regular motocycle, with actual mufflers and adequate power. The passenger cab is attached by a kind of fifth-wheel device on the back of the motorcycle. The passenger cabs themselves have a quaint, rickshaw look to them, often with facing bucket seats, and are generally coloured uniformly red.

But whatever the regional variations, common to all is the endless pursuit of the customer. Tuk-tuk drivers are working the sidewalks and parking lots ceaselessly, looking for the next ride of the day.

It's certainly understandable. One good ride with one gullible westerner can feed a family for a day or two. As a result, any tourist seen in any situation seems fresh pickings for the ambitious tuk-tuk driver.

But for the vast majority of travellers, the constant need to turn down a drive offer is grating. And I figure it can't be fun for the tuk-tuk driver as well. So, in an effort to increase cross-cultural understanding, and save a lot of wasted breath and psychic energy, I humbly offer these Tips to the Tuk-Tuk Driver for Increasing Your Request/Ride Ratio.

By following these simple body language cues, you know not to bother asking me if I want a ride in your tuk-tuk:

  1. If I don't give you eye contact, I don't want a tuk-tuk ride.
  2. If I am walking with purpose, I don't want a tuk-tuk ride.
  3. If I am just standing there, looking around at the local scenery, I don't want a tuk-tuk ride.
  4. If I am walking with more people than you can fit in your tuk-tuk, I don't want a tuk-tuk ride.
  5. If I am riding a bike, or just getting off one, I don't want a tuk-tuk ride.
  6. If I am in a tuk-tuk, I don't want a tuk-tuk ride.
  7. If I am getting out of a tuk-tuk, I don't want a tuk-tuk ride.
  8. If I have just turned down your buddy's request for a tuk-tuk, I don't want a tuk-tuk ride.
  9. If I have just turned down your request for a tuk-tuk, I don't want a tuk-tuk ride.
  10. I may want a tuk-tuk ride later; but I probably won't track you down to have you give it to me.

All the above circumstances (except maybe #6) actually happened to your humble narrator. Hey guys, I don't like saying 'no' anymore than you probably like hustling for a ride. So let's work together on this. We can make it more comfortable, and more enjoyable, for all of us.

So here's the Golden Rule:

If I look at you, or walk up to you, and ask if you are free, then I want a tuk-tuk ride.

I hope to see these changes implemented as soon as possible. Thanks.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I'll Take Canadian Prime Ministers for $5, Alex

I'm sitting on a patio at a crossroads in downtown Siem Reap, Cambodia. Up and down the French colonial avenues stretching away from my vantage point are antique stores, art shops, restaurants, and a dozen other venues for tourists to part with their hard currency.
At this particular location, my son is engaging in one of the newest extraction methods, 'fish massage'. His feet are dunked in a tank of fish, which nibble at the dead skin. It's supposed to be good for something. 30 minutes, three bucks.
I sit with my back to the procedure, just glad to be out of the tropical sun for half an hour. The streets are mostly quiet, as the tourists are still at nearby Angkor Wat, getting shaken down by locals for postcard money.
As I wave away another insistent tuk-tuk driver, the 14-year-old manager of the fish tank slides down beside me.
“So where you from?” he asks. I tell him Canada.
“Ah,” he says. “Capital: Ottawa. Prime Minister: Stephen Harper. Population: 32 million.”
I'm reasonably impressed, and ask him where he learned it. He says in school.
“So what grade are you in?” I ask.
He's not, he's had to leave. He tells me he has to work, raise money to put his younger siblings in school.
And what about his parents?
“They are not around,” he says sadly, looking away from me.
The great thing about travel is meeting new and interesting people from around the world. To get a glimpse of other life experiences, other's circumstances.
The bad thing is you never know which ones of them are full of shit.
This young man goes on to tell me how he basically works for tips at the fish shop- the tank owners take the three dollar fee, and he and his two buddies earn what they can from customer's charity. It's all all a little too perfect, a little too maudlin. But the kid plays it pretty well.
So when my son's time is up, and only two of the minnows have died from eating his feet, I slip the young lad an extra $5 US. I make sure the owner doesn't see.
Because you know, he had to take the effort to memorize the information- even if he has done it for every other country for every other tourist in the world. Hell, I'll give any Cambodian who can name our prime minister $5- and $20 for the leader of the opposition... old... uh... what's his name?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Orient Express Order

“We'll meet you back here at 7:00,” I say to the women in the foyer of the mall.

Travelling in a group means constantly balancing needs, wants, cravings, interests, and bathroom breaks. This time it's food.

We're on Orchard Row, a Bladerunner-esque concourse in the heart of Singapore. It's here I think that the island got its nickname 'the shopping mall with a seat at the UN'. Running for several kilometers, a dozen floors up, two or three down, street level awash in neon and chrome and LCD displays. The streets are slick with a three-day monsoon rain, still coming down. Small rivulets stream along the curbs into gutters. The crowds aren't dampened, though, as Cole and I begin the hunt for food.

Singapore is famous for its food. It's a port city, at the crossroads of the migration of three or four major ethnic groups, the rise and fall of several empires. the prohibitions and permissions of the world's religions. Just as the calamities of nature create biodiversity, the wash of history has layered and blended the Singaporean cuisine. Add the government's penchant for enforcing clean, safe cooking conditions, and you have an incredible opportunity to taste the world here.

We cross the street, ask for directions. We're told to go back across the street and find the subway line. We try to get wireless to bring up a map. Of course, in the world's most connected region, I can't find a free wifi signal to save my life- or settle my boy's stomach.

There are more people on the street and in the stores than I have ever seen, outside of rock concerts or special events. This is the second-most populated country in the world (after Monaco), and the most concentrated part of it is on Orchard Row on a Saturday night. We struggle to get anywhere. We have about 45 minutes before we have to rendezvous with the girls.

Earlier in the day we went to a kind of open market of food kiosks. It's where your food ignorance begins in Singapore, as a westerner. Signs offer names and food styles that mean nothing. Malay, Thai, Indian, Chinese, American, French, tribal, all have all settled here, have had food-sex and produced all sorts of strange offspring. I wimp out, stick to the one style I recognized, and had great dim sum.

Passed on the five kinds of frog porridge.

Now it's my son's turn to eat. We walk by some 10-year-old contortionists on the street, their tiger mom watchful behind them as they twist and fold themselves and busk for coins. We walk past massive public art displays, hawkers pitching stereo sales on the street, people handing out flyers for restaurants and bars. It's all percentages here, catching a tiny fraction of the crowd's attention for a fraction of a moment means a full house, a day's sales quota met.

We consult with a concierge at yet another mall, and head down into a underground level. The ground is no barrier to commerce, and small city's worth of shops and stores are here. Diamonds, gold, glasses, watches, swimwear, shoes, jewellery- the shops are more patient here, it seems, clerks wait and catch your eye as you walk past. The way we're dressed- shorts and t-shirts- we are quickly, and appropriately, dismissed as no-sales.

We go down another set of escalators, deeper into the earth. Past and below the MRT line. The air gets heavier, thicker with humanity. Filtered air, fluorescent light, tile, glass and polished surfaces. There is nothing of nature left, this far underground. This is what it would be like on the moon, I think, in a colony centuries from now. And it will probably be a Chinese colony too. The energy, the drive, the discipline.

Ching chong ching, Limbaugh? These people will have your descendants as slaves. This is the future.

We pass by more food stores. The variety continues. There's Laksa, Mee siam, popiah, rojak. Otah rendang, sambal, bak chor mee, char kway teow, prawns nasi biryani, roti prata, mee chuange kueh. Decked out for your viewing pleasure in mounds and heaps of colour and smell. Ducks and chickens cooked and hung in the window like medieval thieves.

Finally our store. I glance at my iPod. It's 6:55. There's no way we'll get back to the rendezvous point in time. My boy orders.

I'll have a Whopper plain, nothing on it but ketchup. Fries and a Coke."

What the hell, make it two. I'm a little hungry still.

Somewhere, a Singaporean chef weeps.