Saturday, June 7, 2008

Welcomed to the Bay with outstretched arms

Time to leave the Big Apple and move on, one step closer to home. I miss the city, the metro, my friends there, both new and old. I miss its large, juicy, delicious burgers/pizza/tacos, the loud (and very funny) black people, the funky smells and sights of Chinatown, and the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. I miss Abe, one of the most relaxed (and hence, relaxing) people I know, who lives the perfect lifestyle, a beautiful balance between a job that he absolutely loves and the free time to enjoy the money he earns in the laid back, artsy borough of Brooklyn. I miss Kat, her boundless enthusiasm and positive thinking, her geekiness about photography, the cute way she mock cries for unfortunate happenings, and the strange way that we're able to talk about family, dreams, and other personal things so easily.

I miss New York.

Onward and forward now, taking a flight that lasts much longer than I'd think (I always thought east to west coast flights were like 3-4 hours!) and landing in the city with my favorite weather year-round --- San Francisco --- and one of my favorite friends, Jon. After lugging my gigantic, overweight pack onto the BART, crossing to the East Bay and then depositing it into Jon's car, I'm immediately assaulted by the most foul, disgusting, horrifying news to reach my ears in about a year.

Jon starts telling me he's playing World of Warcraft again.

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

He starts telling me about daily quests that were added to help people make more gold, popping in for some quick 5-10 man instances once in a while, and leveling Cowcowmoo (Leslie's character) from 60-64 over the weekend. He doesn't stop telling me, despite my repeated outbursts of revulsion and outrage, about how fast and furiously fun his weekend was. Talk of WoW floods the car, Jon's mouth, a wide-open spigot, spewing a torrent of things I didn't want to hear.

Yeah right.

Not moments after I throw my stuff into his apartment, say hi to Bruce and sit down on the couch, Jon plops himself down on the big seat next to the couch and fires up his WoW ready laptop.

Moments after that, I break down and ask him where his discs are... *sigh*

San Francisco flew past like an easy breeze, lazily whisking itself around a few interesting things, but on the whole just passing time by. Not as whiz-bang as New York, but fun in its own, relaxing way.

Let's run down a few things done:
  • Rock Band with Jon, Leslie, Thom, and sometimes all 4 of us at once! I found out I love to sing! If only I knew more of these songs.
  • WoW with Jon, both of us leveling from 64-70.
A conversation we had in the car about WoW:
Jon: "A year is a decent break from the game."
Me: "WTF, that's just cuz you're PLAYING it now!"
  • Buying too much alcohol at BevMo. Jon calls me a "dumb son of a bitch" (really loudly, I might ad) because I didn't understand the importance of a good glass, and we proceed to bust up for days.
  • Heading to work with Jon one day, and then checking out this awesome place called Trappiste which serves over a hundred kinds of Belgium and trappiste beers later that afternoon. Cheese and cracker plate compliments all that delicious beer.
  • Going with Jon to a board game night at one of the specialty game stores in the area. I played a game that had to do with selling pieces of art, a game in the middle that had to do with amassing resources and building a cathedral, and Age of Empires III, the board game, which rewarded discovery and conquest of new lands as well as acquiring goods and men. Board games are such a strange beast. I end up playing however I feel at the moment and sometimes I just pick the really wrong strategy (AoE III, whoops!) and get hammered by all the other players, even though I'm like, in the last place. Cruelty, I say!!!
  • Talking to Jon about going out to eat in the city with Leslie and watching his world crumble around him. Jon really doesn't like the city for some reason, and will make it known TO EVERYONE how much he doesn't like the city and how much it's ruining his day thinking about how we might just go there to have dinner and a great time.
We went and had a great time anyway and Jon totally forgot about how bad the city is to him.
  • Lots and lots of Rock Band! Even once with Thom, Jon, Leslie and I, all rocking different instruments. What a freaking awesome game. Drums 4 lyfe!
  • Spending a great day going out to do some wine tasting at a cellar in Alameda and then heading out to walk the trail on land that used to be a landfill. And then seeing this:

It turns out local artists have come to this place creating all sorts of art out of the garbage out there. They even made some people and a dragon:

What a neat place to go walking around in!
  • Jon taking me to some amazing places to eat---a tiny tiny sandwich and soup shop where I had a delicious fresh sandwich with avocado, and Jon going for the scallop sandwich. Then, to Brazil Café, basically a stand in a parking lot with a crazy friendly Brazilian guy (possibly) handing out free mango shake tasters and putting together the best tri-tip sandwiches I've ever had the pleasure of wolfing down in front of all those hungry dogs at the landfill trail. Deeeelicious.
It's always a blast heading up to Nor Cal, soaking in the beautifully cool weather and hanging out with Jon and Leslie. Good times, good times!

Friday, May 30, 2008

That is some delicious apple

I forgot to mention that the day we searched out Jennifer Cafe and found the juiciest carnitas tacos in lower Manhattan, Abe's friend was part of or supposedly doing sound for a show that night in one of the nearby theatres called Offensive Women. It was basically 4 women doing some great comedy routines, some of them well acted and one very awkwardly raunchy (or just plain disgusting) caricature of a... redneck. A very rough one.

My continuing journey through the Big Apple would not have been what it was without Kim, Vi's older sister and good friend of my cousin Joanne. Having worked for the TV studios out here in New York, she made the perfect guide to her cousin My Linh and I, picking out some of the best places to eat and taking us to various famous stops around the city. Some notably delicious places are Roxy's Delicatessen, serving amazingly smooth and creamy cheesecakes (try the pumpkin one!) and Alice's Tea Cup, which does an amazing afternoon tea consisting of delectable sandwiches, your choice of fluffy scone (again, try the pumpkin!) and a comforting hot pot of any one of their flavorful teas, the choices numbering well over 100. 

Walking from one stop to the next, Kim and My Linh talk about seeing a Broadway show. I mention to them that Avenue Q was a really good one, having seen it in London, and they agree to check it out. Arriving at the Avenue Q doors, we find that it is, for some reason, closed for the night. What other options are there? How about the one called In The Heights, nominated for a Tony Best Musical? On the way, I learn from Kim that they are going to try getting rush tickets (a lottery done 2 hours before the show, usually raffling off the unsold tickets), and I hurredly mention that we'll have to depend on their luck because mine is usually not good enough for these things. Passing the 50% off Broadway ticket booth, we note that if we didn't succeed with rush, we can always come back and grab some tickets for half off the price. We get to the Richard Rodgers Theatre for In The Heights and put our name in the raffle bucket, waiting for the guy to step out and start the raffle. 

22 tickets available. Max tickets per picked person is 2. The guy stands up high, and rolls his hand around the bucket, looking for lucky son of a bitch #1.

Bucket guy: "And the first one is... Christopher Lim." 

Kim: "Dude, Chris, he said your name." 

Me: "What?" 

Bucket guy: "Hey, is there a Christopher Lim here? Anybody??"

Me: "Oh. OH! Oh shit! HEY OVER HERE!" 

And that was pretty much how I won two rush tickets to In The Heights. They cost $26.50 each, and it turns out the rush/unsold tickets are usually the front row Orchestra ones. So two tickets to FRONT ROW Broadway.

Holy fucking awesome, Batman.

I suggested to Kim that since I've already seen a show in London, they could take the tickets and I'd just find something to eat and head back. Kim mentioned that she had some errands to do, and to just see the show and watch after her cousin. Alright, sounds good to me, let's check this out!

A great, great cast, brilliant singers and excellent dance routines that fill the stage with life. Lin-Manuel Miranda as Usnavi is brilliant, spitting out words in a rap and flowing it into a song moments later. The cast's singing is sublime, Carla's especially, hitting all the notes beautifully, my eardrums soaking in all the magnificence. Comedy, love, tragedy, it's all in there, spilled out in a torrent of motion and dance, chorus and refrain. 

For $26.50 *dingggg*

A few days later, I once again meet up with Kim at the corner of Bryant Park, at about 6 am. Why so early you ask? Well, Kim's connections through the TV industry bring us to Good Morning America's summer concert series, and a free concert is being held in the park. She also has some kind of pull so she gets us into the VIP line and we head to the front of the stage.

YAAAaaaieeah! For some reason I always hear Lil Jon when I see Usher. OOKAAAaaaayyy!

One thing I learned from listening to the music at this concert is how much I love the acoustic instruments used. With a full band, the music had such presence, the sound very filling. I thought, "great, his album must sound just as good!" Went and downloaded it. Aaaaand....

His album SUCKS. After hearing the acoustic instruments at the concert, it felt like the music regressed into some weak rendition as his album spat half-hearted beats of synthetic piffle. Promptly deleted.

Another day found us stopping by the MoMA to see Olafur Eliasson's exhibit called "Take Your Time." Mirrors, lights, strobes, water are his paints and space is his canvas. Many of the works take entire rooms, starting with a black canvas absent of light and adding it in an interesting way. 

One of the works was, once again, a completely dark room. You hear falling water, not a cascade but a light shower. Strobe lights, popping a few times a second, freeze a series of falling droplets in time. A curtain of water, it is not; floating sparkles of light, it is.

Another work, another pitch black room. Instead of drops of water, it's a fine mist falling from the ceiling. A spotlight shines obliquely through this curtain of mist to create an indoor rainbow. 

One work even used a color to create a monochrome effect. Two hallways in the MoMA are illuminated with a series of flourescent bulbs, all with a deep yellow tint. With such a narrow band of color, you can only see everything in shades from yellow to black. 

Yes, these are some pretty cool exhibits. 

Somewhere in this madness, I was left in charge of My Linh and we decided to stop by the UNIQLO during the day after heading to PS1, the other half of the MoMA to continue checking out Olafur Eliasson's exhibits. I managed to pick up two shirts and the best fitting pair of jeans I've ever owned for way cheaper than I expected. Newfound respect for this store. Too bad it's only in New York, London, Paris and Japan. After UNIQLO, we headed to Brooklyn Heights to grab a good photo of the skyline, and we have this as a result.

Patience is really useful when hunting the photo. 

One of the reasons why I stayed in New York so long is beacuse of Letterman. I've always wanted to see his show live ever since I was like 12, when I used to watch his show with his Top 10s and Paul Schaeffer, who always reminded me of Arthur from The Tick. Having some guest passes for June 2nd's taping, I lept at the chance and was ready and waiting in line that afternoon. After being shuffled into the waiting room and patiently standing for a half hour while all preparations were finalized, we are finally let in to the Ed Sullvan Theatre. The set is much smaller than I anticipated! It was great to hear Paul Schaefer and his band play, and to watch Letterman do what he does best with his stars: interview. 

Alas, it's too bad Paul is kind of annoying, always jumping in with some strange comment, parroting Dave's words once in a while. It felt like he'd almost interrupt the flow of the show, but Letterman always pulls it back into motion. Afterwards, I would say that, given the stars at that time (none which I really knew) and Paul being a weirdo, it just felt like I just saw the show on TV. The only part that really sticks out differently is the music hitting you in the face so much more being live, and they show funny clips of other shows during commercials. 

Kim has some amazing friends. I met Marissa at Alice's Tea Cup where the two of them would go over stories about fun times in New York when Kim used to live here. My Linh and I sat mesmerized by her stories of her best friends and the things they used to do, Kirk, Chica, Rain and countless others that I forgot about. Chica is such a fun person, always with something hilarious to say about one of the stars. She will go on and on about so and so and this and that, and it's entertaining as hell to hear what she has to say about anyone and everyone! Later that night after Letterman, Kim mentioned that they were going to meet up with some friends, one guy named Rain. Who names themselves Rain? 

It turns out, awesome people. Rain is the guy that wrote, filmed and put together this hilarious webisode I caught a little before my trip. The reason why I know about it is because Ryan sent it to me mostly because the main character looks like our friend Arthur but talks like Woody Allen. Check it out at What a shock it was when we walked up and it's that guy! I was totally geeking out "Holy shit you're the guy from 72nd to Canal!" A very chill guy, hilarious as fuck and owns a photography studio in the Chinatown area (hence, Canal). I really wish he could continue the web series, it was great but alas, there's no funding for any more episodes at the moment. Hopefully they can get some soon. 

Speaking about photography, earlier that day, Kat and I got up early to get over to the Adorama in Manhattan, grab some strobes and pocketwizards and get down to strobing bizness. Doing my best to teach her what I could remember from my fundamentals in lighting class, we had a blast messing around with lights and taking photos of one another. I think I got a little impatient with answering lots of questions though, I know I interrupted Kat a few times. I hope I wasn't being so mean! 

Here's some of the results.


I wish we had more time to geek out about the photography stuff! We just ran out of time at the end of it all =/ Booo.

Overall, I really love New York. If I could get hired with Google or find some other company that had an office in New York, I would move there, possibly into Kat and Abe's closet, and work on photography stuff on the side. 

It would be beautiful.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Completion (Please Wait)

I'm going to finish this.

I've hit the ground running, starting to prepare for interviews, seeing some friends and finding old connections, and acclimating myself to the life and world that is here, Los Angeles, California (for example, I forgot the code for our house burglar alarm so the alarm blasted and now I'm waiting for Brinks to call so I can stop the police from coming and harassing me... yes, it has definitely been a while) that I have just not had the time to spend on photos and writing.

I hope to have a little break to get everything settled away and hopefully some time will open up so I can jot these thoughts down before they leave me forever!

It will come.

Plans for posts:
  • New York, part 2
  • San Francisco
  • Returning home
  • Overview, new thoughts, things learned (if I can figure them out and communicate them)
  • Statistics
  • A few thoughts on the responses I am getting

It WILL come.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Taking a bite out of the apple

Lugging my indescribably heavy bag to Heathrow, I send it off to the baggage check in and breathe a sigh of equal parts relief, bliss, and victory. Making sure all of my bits and pieces of carry on are with me, I'm on the plane and bid farewell to Europe as the ground fades away below.

I've flown so many times in the past few months that it's all pretty much automatic. Get to the airport early. Make sure to have the right confirmation codes and outbound flights (if necessary). Check in. Take off watch, belt, phone, etc. and pass through security. Immigration/passport checkpoint. Go to gate. Wait/read/buy/eat food. Board. Liftoff. Check check checkity check.

The whole preparation part, meanwhile, bothers me, those two to three hours of hurrying up to wait. Can we break the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle already? Can't someone just "beam me up?" All this time waiting for things is good for bookreading, but it does add up to a lot of wasted time...

Anyway, after an unexpectedly tame and short flight, I land in New York. Back to US soil. Back after 8 long months. I had thought that this moment would be filled with a kind of excitement, anticipation leading up to the moment I step off the plane, like reappearing in a land from which I vanished. Nope, I was just being silly. It just feels like just another place, another mundane featureless airport, another stop in the metro of life. But not the stop that moves you forward, more like the stop that you pass through on your normal commute. Nothing special, no change in feeling detected. I begin to wonder if I really did change or grow during this trip because I don't seem to consciously register it. Maybe it's all hidden from view.

Grabbing my bag and moving out to the arrivals area, I begin to spy for Kat, my host out here. So I actually never met her in person before. This itself isn't that weird; many of my hosts for CouchSurfing I haven't met in person until I actually see them, but those connections are made for that purpose and at least I've seen what they look like (CouchSurfers have photos of themselves). Kat I met randomly because she emailed me about some movie stills in Flickr and we just got to emailing about photoraphy, dreams, and whatever else, penpal style! Of like photographic minds (just like Armand too), I mentioned I'd be heading back to the states and she said well New York is on the way back, why not?

My thoughts exactly. 

I spy a paper with my name on it. How neat! That's never happened to me before. We head back to her place in Brooklyn and chat about great places to eat in the area (of course, it's always what I gotta know). I get to meet her boyfriend Abe later when he comes home from his job (sound guy for film sets, this one was for Pepsi) which is one of the coolest, chillest people I have met. Such great taste in music too. 

Delicious food is finally within decent financial reach after traversing through some of the most expensive places to eat in Europe. Early on, I went to have the New York style bagel sandwich at a local place which was absolutely delectable consisting of a toasted everything bagel (all kinds of seeds), two delicious fried eggs and a layer of sausage to round it all out, ketchup salt and pepper included. Cost? $3.65. Insanely priced food is, at last, history. 

Much of New York so far has been a whirlwind of events and happenings. My timing here must be something incredible as various friends from all over happen to be here when I am. Coinciding with the university graduations, many friends are in town, some from California, and one from London even. While having a delicious burger at a diner in Manhattan (Deluxe Diner) I got the chance to meet up with Chris Nguyen coming from LA for a graduation and do some work. It was so great to see him after so long and to finally have a chance to chat! The burger, by the way, was pretty much the best one I've had in ages. Meat cooked perfectly tender, it just melted away in the mouth, great fries and a decent amount of veggies to round it all out. However high Deluxe Diner raised the burger bar, any records held were totally smashed when I met up with Joe (who came from London for work reasons) and we went to the Shake Shack, located in the southeast corner of Madison Square Park. Famous for their burgers, the line is always at least a half hour long. I picked out this one called the Shake Stack, which is a layer of tomato, a layer of lettuce, cheese, a burger, a fried portobello mushroom layer, another cheese slice, and one more layer of burger. You don't really need me to describe what a feast it was, or how this burger was even MORE tasty and deliciously tender than Deluxe's. Just make it a point to go there yourself and wait in line for it when you're around these parts because it is just SO worth it.

Another thing that's great about being back in New York is having the foods that I really missed and could not get while away. Case in point: Mexican food. We all know that Los Angeles is arguably the best hub of Mexican food, and having sampled quite a few of their delicious restaurants, roach coaches and even El Parian (5/5 on The Great Taco Hunt) anything out here must be truly formidable to match my (self-proclaimed) discerning palate for the savory tortilla wrapped food.

Well, thanks to Abe, I found the spot. It's called Jennifer Cafe and it's on 67 1st Avenue at 4th St. How does it compare? Carne asada? Deep flavor, juicy and nicely tender, but a bit too much fat for my tastes. Pollo? Decent, bit dry. Carnitas? 

Oh... carnitas... *drool* You just can't lose with carnitas. It's got SO much pork juice oozing out of the meat and perfectly spiced. Totally destroyed my 8 month Mexican food craving. 

What else is good... Ah yes. After our Deluxe Diner feastlicious, Abe and I were still a bit hungry so we walked nearby to Koronet Pizza. For $3 you get a slice the size of home base, thin crusted New York style. I added pepperoni because I missed it so much, turning it into $4.25. It's big, it's tasty, and it's filling. 

Abe, by the way, is the real Galactus. After our meal at Deluxe, he finished off his slice of cheese, and I gave him half of mine. And you guys thought *I* could eat!

To be continued...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Cruising through the countryside

Another early wake up call (3:30 am), another trip to the airport when it's morning and still dark, and another super early flight brings us from the city of Fes, Morocco to Marseille, France. While in the airport, I realized that being charged 12€ to check in an extra bag of random clothes wasn't worth it, so I picked out some clothes and items that I would most likely not wear or use to throw away (of course, the cheapest stuff) and once again managed to pack everything into one bag.

Arriving in Marseille, we took a bus out to the city and then jumped on the metro a bit, hopping out at the stop near our CouchSurfer, Baptiste. After meeting Baptiste, his roommate Norman and Norman's girlfriend Anouk, everyone seemed a bit hesitant but after a bit of talking and getting to know each other, we relaxed and felt at home. Their place is great. It's very nicely decorated, a nice white/brown/red color scheme and cool sliding blinds. The livingroom is very open and has a balcony on the side, mostly used for smoking. Anouk is a budding photographer with brilliance. Her photos capture such raw emotion, are contrasty as hell and sharp as nails. Check them out when you have the chance. Baptiste is such a cool character. Hilarious timing, an amazing cook and a beer swilling filmmaker. He used to work for Troma (Cannibal, the Musical!) and loves his bloody zombie movies. Many, many requests to see his work were made, but alas, the answer was always "later."

Later that night, Baptiste handed us a bag full of different ties, wigs and whatnot. Time to head out. Without having to describe things, let's just look at the photos.

Work it

Cianar said I looked like a walking Stephen Hawking.

Rock out!

We headed out to a local Irish pub. After grabbing some beers (me, a 7up b/c of stomach issues) and sitting at a table outside, about two hours into the night, some random person came up to Cianar and mentioned something about his slick Japanese headband. What seemed like an innocently enough observation ballooned into a 5 hour talkfest about everything and anything, especially having to do with Jeremy and meeting up with him later for quite possibly would be a very explicit rendezvous.

And that's what Jeremy thought about the whole thing, as Baptiste blows a condom into a balloon and Norman looks ahead in disbelief.

Talking with Ryan while I was in the Philippines, we decided to get a car rental and drive around the countryside of France. We picked up our car, a nice Renault Clio, sort of a hatchback style car that can fit the 5 of us, we took it back to Baptiste's place and, being the awesome guy that he is, he offered to take us around to the city of Cassis! Driving through the countryside is amazing, lemme tell ya. Winding away from Marseille, the road goes up, up over a mountainside and winds through beautifully curvy and green hills. After a few more fun curves downward, we arrive at the tiny coastal city of Cassis. I don't remember too much about Cassis, but we talked about pétanque while watching some locals in the park play. Generally, the words that come to mind are: port, cold, wind. We did end up walking around the "Warning, danger" sign and go around the cliffside to the other side.

You really should click through to see the larger size.

Returning home, Baptiste threw down an amazing chicken and wine stew with about eleventy billion spices and good stuff. Despite my stomach issues, I ate more than thought possible. We talked a bit more about movies, film, and some of the ones that Baptiste liked. We saw Maniac, then moved on to Cannibal, the Musical, and finally, with a bit more beer and some egging on, Baptiste's films! Woohoo! Filled with film magic and some greatly gory special effects and makeup (and a enough male nudity to freak out the average American) each film was a horrific treat.

Bidding our eternal thanks, we took off to traverse the countryside and get ourselves to the next cities. We stopped at Aix-en-Provence for a few hours to see the city on foot, then continued to our hostel in Avignon. Pretty quiet place, and a great location---right across the river that looks into the old city of Avignon.

Here's the view:

See it large. It's worth it.

That night, we went into the city in search of food and found a great tapas place called Tapalocas. Excellent tapas, from chorizo and lentils to aubergine (eggplant) medleys and even delicious confectionery like churros and melted dark chocolate, this place was worth the crazy lost-in-the-Medina walk to get to. It also the best sangria I've ever had. Delicious!

One more day of driving around the south to head toward the salt flat area near the ocean, we stopped by a vinyard (unfortunately at closing time) and decided here that we would do Cianar's panorama.

So we did.

And it was good.

On the 14th, I headed for Bordeaux to visit Caroline and the rest of the guys headed to Paris to hang with Ryan's sister Julie and her chill husband Andrew. How was Bordeaux? It's like a nice small town, very walkable from top to bottom, covered in a day by foot easily. Unfortunately, Caroline was super busy with work (being a doctor does that kind of thing) so I didn't get to see her much, but I did go with her to this delicious sushi bar called Yako for her friend's birthday. Sushi there was awesome, fresh and tender and tasty.

My favorite thing in the city was this art piece called Miroir d'eau, the Water Mirror located in front of the Place du Bourse. Water randomly goes from 15 mm depth to less than 1 mm depth, and then sometimes a fine mist is sprayed, letting lots of people enjoy the cool water as they walk through.

If anything it makes for a nice photo.

Bordeaux is also known for its vinyards and what would be a visit to the vinyard capital of France without visiting it's vinyards? Taking a tour to two of the countryside vinyards, I arrived at Château Guiraud and tried their delicious 2002 sweet white and Château Beau-Site for their lovely smooth reds and white, which was so subtly sweet as to be perfect. Note: I don't know anything about wines, but they seemed good to me. Andrew, Julie's husband and an avid wine drinker (from what I know) remarked that it was fucking good. Awesome.

Odd thing on the train heading into Bordeaux. After a few stops, maybe half an hour before we got into the Bordeaux station, the train slows down and stops, and an announcement is made in French. After reading my book for half an hour (Kafka on the Shore by Murakami), train having not moved an inch, I started to wonder what was going on and asked the couple next to me what the problem was. They mentioned that the train had an accident; someone lept in front of it. Yikes! As the train finally started on its final leg to Bordeaux, in the window I could see many, many police cars and an ambulance, lights blazing into the night.

Odd that the same thing happened when I was in London on the tube last year. Hmm!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Through the desert

Ah, Morocco. What an experience. A supremely religious, nearly militant people mixed with enough poverty across the land to erase all sentiment and feeling for travelers. Many times I felt as if I were a target for silver tongued, sometimes flat-out liars (ah sir, the Medina is closed, I will show you a nearby hotel!), only after my precious gold dubloons moolah. Spend enough time walking through the city and your level of trust for the people walkig about the city slowly evaporates. Walking throughout the Medina also brought out unending calls of "Jackie Chan," the occasional "Japonese!" or a mock imitation of Bruce Lee kung fu moves and/or a bow as I passed by. What turned out to be initially amusing became annoying, eventually evolving into aggravating. Now I understand how Darren felt while walking throughout China.

Prayer is held frequently throughout the day, and even at night. Every time prayer is being held, the nearby mosque blasts out religious calls and singing through their massive speaker system to be heard by everyone in the nearby area. Even at 3:30-4 am in the morning. It feels vaguely authoritarian, as if I woke up in the world of V for Vendetta or 1984.

The impressions I got from the people and the culture are not to be taken as having a bad experience. These are just some thoughts that bubbled from my head as I was writing this, things that I didn't make notes about originally. Now let's move on to those other things I had planned to write about.

We arrived in Marrakech, spent a few days at a beautiful Riad (their version of a hostel/hotel) and then moved on to Fes to stay at an amazing traditional Moroccan house. Cianar, Ryan, Diana and Jeremy got to start their CouchSurfing experience at this beautiful place.

Marrakech and Fes are similar in some ways, yet have their own personality. There is an old city surrounded by ancient walls and gates---the Medina---which is usually surrounded by the newer city, of which a part is called the Ville Nouveille (the new city). The Ville Nouveille is, as you'd expect, more modernly designed with wide paved roads, big buildings of random apartment and condos, and lots of regular shops and stores lining the street. The Medina is something else altogether. It seems as if all the space was reserved for the buildings, built so large and close to one another that all life is relegated to the tiny alleyways, blood flowing through capillaries. Barely enough space for a car, yet men with mule drawn carts and others on scooters and bikes brave it anyway, often all at the same time where pedestrians abound. City markets, both held in the larger streets and even trickling down into the alleyways, are filled with a myriad of items for sale from the typical meticulously designed rugs and carpets that might come to mind, the shiny metalworks---teapots and other elaborate stands consisting of bronze, silver and copper---to the seemingly random---used appliances like beat up washers and dryers, old office phones, and even gears and sprokets pulled out of God (Allah?) knows what. Calls constantly made to the passers by, shopkeepers gabbing with their shopkeeping neighbors, the local mosques blasting out the afternoon prayer---everyone does their part to add to the noise and the chaos that makes the old city.

As with any different culture, you get to one of my favorite parts... the food. Food here is absolutely sublime. Start with the traditional Moroccan soup known as harira, a mixture of deliciously tangy tomato base with olive oil, chickpeas, lentils and enough spices to kickstart anyone's morning, it is thick, hearty and perfect for dipping the local bread. Couscous is another favorite, tiny grains best when cooked with the broth that comes oozing out of the lamb, chicken, or what have you as it is steamed to its fluffy goodness. And then, we arrive at the tajine. Tajine is the dish of the area, a local stew made with lamb, beef or chicken. Generously garnished with carrots, string beans, cilantro, potatoes, olives and sometimes with large beans and squash, then covered in a special clay pot and thrown into the heat, tajine is a mix of intense flavors, blended textures, and the tenderest juiciest meat soaked in spices and infused with the delicious flavors and aromas of the vegetables. Slow cooked to absolute perfection, chicken breast tastes as tender and juicy as the dark meat, making one wish that the dish just never ended. Top the meal off with the ubiquitous, deliciously refreshing mint tea, and you have the makings of culinary bliss.

See, it's not all bad.

Much of the trip has been spent visiting the Medina, and walking about to find the various cultural spots like the mosques and certain museums. Much of the trip also has been spent getting horribly lost for hours as the streets seem to lack proper signage and being pretty much covered by all the tall buildings makes it difficult to keep one's bearings. Eventually, after walking in seemingly random directions, we end up at the Medina wall or are able to see the tower of the mosque nearby where we're staying at, allowing us to find our way back, arriving at a restaurant which makes the food seem just that much better to us weary, starving (thankful) travelers.

Now that I'm traveling with friends, it makes things much more interesting. Logistics increase of course, as we have to ensure that we find places and CouchSurfing hosts that can accommodate all of us. I no longer only worry about myself, I have to keep up with the rest of them and catch up (say, when I stop a moment to take a shot) or turn around every so often to make sure we're still all together if I'm (infrequently) in the front of the line. That's just the boring stuff though, it's great to see old friends again and travel with them. Cianar is the same as always, throwing off witty banter and inappropriate (but missed) comments left and right, sometimes drawing awkward looks or laughs. Jeremy, I actually didn't know too well before, but he's an expert at deftly springing his wit on the situation at hand and a master of improvisation. Diana's blunt, blunt honesty may seem harsh or tactless until you hear the disarmingly cute voice that comes with it. And Ryan's endless razor sharp wit, who can't miss that?

Here's an example: Sitting at a café after being lost for a while, we stop to take a break, get some café au lait (coffee with milk) and some ice cream. Invariably, someone breaks out the cards and we launch into games of pusoy dos, taking a relaxing afternoon break in the cool shade and welcoming breeze of the café. Pusoy dos is a game where one's goal is to get rid of cards by putting down increasingly high hands, starting with singles, and then dropping up to 5-card poker hands. After an intense round of playing, a few straights and even a full house, Diana goes after the straight flush with her own 5-card hand: Q, K, A, 2 and a 3, dropping it with gusto onto the pile, big grin on her face. Ryan calmly turns to her, picks up the cards, and explains that the 3 can't wrap around in that straight, saying that "it's just like having four cool guys, and one very uncool girl." HAHAHAHA!

And then there's the Hammam experience. That one you get if you buy me a pint.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The best and the worst

So many people - aunts, uncles and cousins (from Zambo to Bacolod, and of course here in Manila - Anson, Andy, Hil, Andre and Bian), all my nephews and nieces (most of the crazy awesome ones in Zambo! Corinne and Mikey, I will miss you guys, geezers), dive homies (Robert, Mark--laziest dive instructor on the planet, Mel, Rania and Ices, and also Rhea---keep the blog stalking going---and Dengue Alert), crazy SAF guy that cut me while teaching me how to wield a knife correctly (Gilbert, you're nuts, seriously, learn some fuckin' English so your conversation isn't limited to "how to kill people" tutorials), and of course, 蕭玉銘, who absolutely rocks my world. Sucks to go. So many memories. So much time spent here, so much I will miss, my home away from home away from home.

I really love meeting these amazing people, people I can share stories with, hear stories about, and with what limited time I have had here (it always seems limited when you are just next to departing) push myself past my own boundaries, open up to others, learn about them, and as always, learn something about me.

I really hate knowing that for certain ones, this might be the last time I'll see any of them. Everyone has their own path, and while I'm glad to have crossed with theirs, it saddens me to know that crossing does not mean continuing with.

My footsteps will no longer be next to yours and that... kills me.

Here's to hoping they cross again.

So, au revoir, so long, goodbye, paalam. I'll miss you so God damn much.

Short and to some point, hopefully. 4 in the morning, hard to write.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Journey to the West

I'm preparing for Europe once again. Last time, my journey was solo. This time, I will join friends: Cianar, Ryan Kim, Diana Wong, and Jeremy Shranko.


List of things on the roster:
  • London
  • Marrekech, Morocco
  • Fes, Morocco
  • Marseille, South of France
  • Arles, South of France
  • Avignon, South of France
  • Aix-en-Provence, South of France
  • Paris
  • London
Looks like there's a bit of Africa on there too. Oooo.

We are thinking of renting a car for the South of France. Part of me can't wait to be behind the wheel of a manual shift car again. The last time I was behind the wheel? I got to park Rhea's car here in Manila and, while I only went like 2 feet, it really made me miss driving a stick. Watch out Frenchies, I'm comin to a street near you!

Issue so far is finding housing. France has a holiday the days we will be passing through the South, so everybody that's CouchSurfing is away or hosting other people, and the hostels and things are booked. I've been a bit lucky with some of the CouchSurfers and so has Diana, so we've got a few important places covered (Fes, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence) but we're gonna have to fall back to hostels and ever so kind friends/relatives for the other places.

Some thoughts on packing (light)

Let's talk about packing. Now that I'm heading back to Europe and doing the backpacking thing again, it's something that I've been thinking about lately and have to prepare for. I don't know if I ever mentioned how I packed for this trip. You must think, well, he's been gone for a longass time, must have brought a ton of things with him. Well, true, I do have a lot of different things, I just don't have a lot of stuff.

Backpacking is about packing light, about looking at everything you can possibly use out there and then breaking it down into the most necessary of things---the things that you won't be able to find out there---and then removing everything extraneous so that while you're walking, you don't look like I did when I was in the 7th grade, a tiny 90 pound Chinese boy carrying a locker's worth of binders and books. This is tougher than it sounds, because as the saying goes, "everything is essential, only some things more than others." You have to keep in mind, most small things can be bought along the way.

Let's talk numbers. 30-40 liters, maybe 50 liters max. That's not a very big amount, folks. That's about one backpack. Hence, the term, backpacking.

What did I bring on this trip? I started with:

  • Crumpler Karachi Outpost photography backpack, with foam dividers1 and laptop insert.
  • Macbook Pro, 15", with power cord
  • Canon EOS 30D Digital SLR
  • EF-S 17-55 mm f/2.8 IS lens
  • EF 75-300 f/3.5-5.6 lens. Thanks to Adrian for letting me borrow his zoom. I'm not carrying my fatty 70-200 across the world. That thing is too big.
  • Canon battery charger and extra battery
  • 60 GB 5th gen iPod. My storage for all the photos that I've been taking. I've filled 10 12 DVDs of photos, and that's after going through and deleting a bunch. About 45 50 gigabytes.
  • USB card reader
  • Cheap tripod1
  • Gorillapod SLR Zoom
  • Lonely Planet 2006 Edition Western Europe guidebook2
  • Leatherman uber-knife3
  • Sony Fontopia in-ear headphones (Asked for and got 25% off, $30, best evar)
  • Timex Ironman watch, the one Will Ferrel wore in Stranger Than Fiction.
  • Oakley Square Wire 2.0 Polarized. Now with more scratches than a DJ convention.
  • 1 tube of toothpaste small enough to go through airport security
  • 1 toothbrush, standard non electronic
  • 1 small bottle of shampoo*
  • 1 bar of travel soap*
  • 1 small bottle of gel*
  • 1 razor, few replacements*
  • 1 pair of khakis, dark olive
  • 1 pair of khakis, regular khaki color*
  • 2 AE collared shirts, one semifancy, one regular. Both blue (haha! It's like I have a uniform!)
  • 1 thin GAP jacket.
  • 1 REI travel undershirt*
  • 1 Nike (American) football dry fit shirt (used as undershirt)
  • 1 Travel towel*
  • 1 Travel boxers, Ex Officio
  • 1 Travel briefs, Ex Officio
  • 1 Joe Boxer knit boxers
  • 1 Old Navy dark blue tshirt*
  • 1 pair of 2 dollar sandals from WalMart*
  • 1 pair of Keen shoes (hybrid footwear, they call it) that I bought from REI a day before I left. These are amazing, taking all the terrain I've thrown at it and however many thousands of steps with pride. Because the toe end is shaped larger than the heel (for comfort) my Aunt calls them Mickey Mouse shoes.
* Vanished along the way.
1 I sent home because it was taking space, or a pain in my ass.
2 Left this with Joe in London.
3 On the way back to London, a security guy at the airport took it from me. Brought it all throughout the US and Europe for years, and they had to take it away at such a late stage. Go fig.

All that fits in my backpack. One backpack. I carry nothing else with me, no extra bags. Why did I pick this expensive ass Crumpler backpack (online $120 or so, you get ripped off at the photo store) instead of a $30 Jansport you can find at any sports shop? Because this bag is THICK, it's made to protect expensive photography equipment, and by design, you can only open it when it's taken off. Theft deterrent, protecting my stuff, carries everything. Works for me.

One backpack means I don't spend any time in the airport waiting for the baggage claim, dealing with the hassle of lost baggage or worrying about extra liabilities for all those thieves you hear about.

To many of you, this might come as a shocker. So little clothing! Ever try carrying a giant SLR, a laptop, extra electronic gadgetry, and then try to add a bunch of clothes? As my friend Cianar might say, "You ask the impossible!" I didn't have to bring all this stuff. I could have brought a point and shoot, 50 gigabytes of memory and left the laptop at home. But I don't have a point and shoot. Or 50 gigabytes of memory. And then I wouldn't have been able to capture these.

Compromise accepted.

Except for the pants, most things can be washed in the sink and dried within a few hours. Usually the people I stayed with would be so gracious as to let me use their laundry machine and keep my clothes so fresh and so clean, clean. Travel underwear and dry fit clothing (sweat wicking) is a godsend. As is that travel towel, which I am now lacking (sigh).

After being out here for a while, I heard that my dad also has bought a giant backpack, and plans to do some backpacking on his own, haha! Maybe it's never too late, eh? Although, I don't think I'm going to be as healthy as he is when I'm nearly 70 years old.

This also means I don't have any room for souvenirs. If you want something from the far ends of the earth, looks like you'll have to get it yourselves! Bahahaha! OK, this was a lie, I got some people in the Philippines souvenirs from Australia. And I got Cianar the special Seven Stars Custom cigs that he so loves (which, he'll be able to pack and use throughout Europe!) But that's it. Going back to Europe, I'm in backpack mode again.

Of course, I'm bound to pick up things along the way.
  • Countless bottles of toothpaste, gel, shampoo, bars of soap, extra razorblades, sunscreen.
  • Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Left it with Joe in London.
  • Plug converters for Europe system, UK system, and eventually Australia. These also mysteriously vanished.
  • Beanie, gloves, scarf from H&M in various spots around Europe. Scotland just got too damn cold.
  • Extra in-ear rubber piece for my Sony headphones. Lost one, and these things became useless.
  • Fleece jacket from Uni Qlo in London. Bit more warmth.
  • Awesome thick jacket from China which Ling bargained down for. He is a master of in-your-face bargaining.
  • Haruki Murakami's Dance Dance Dance, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, After Dark, Norwegian Wood, and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I gave all these to Lesli. She'll give them a good home.
  • Pair of sandals that I picked up walking around Manila, in the Divisoria (dirt cheap mall), about $30, which I have used the entire time.
  • Dry-fit faux Nike, Adidas shirts, $3 each in Ho Chi Minh City. My Adidas shirt (my fave) I left it in Australia.
  • Two pairs of faux Adidas shorts, 150 pesos for both (almost $4, used as swim trunks)
  • Real Nike dry-fit shirt.
  • Bunch of T-shirts from SM here in Philippines.
  • Some cheap shorts, also from SM.
  • Bunch of extra boxers from SM.
  • Open Water PADI SCUBA certification.
  • Nike pants, $50 free, because I needed pants to get into this lounge/bar and Alix wanted everyone to go along and drink. He offered to pay for part of it, and ended up just buying them. Thanks Alix! Now my fave pants, they fit well and hold stuff in the pockets better.
  • Shitload of dive gear: Aquamundo 1st/2nd stage regulators, BCD, wetsuit, booties, Abeam mask and snorkel.
  • Suunto Stinger dive computer.
  • Canon PowerShot A720 IS camera, and WP-DC16 underwater case. Sold to someone here in the Philippines for small profit.
  • Crumpler messenger bag, for Europe. This is my first messenger bag ever, and I love it.
  • Haruki Murakami's After the Quake, Kafka on the Shore, A Wild Sheep Chase. For the upcoming trip (buying books in Europe is too expensive)
  • New travel/superabsorbent towel to replace my lost one.
  • And of course, countless memories of people, places, friends and family. The best things to pick up along the way!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Second Bakery Attack

I'm still not sure I made the right choice when I told my wife about the bakery attack. But then, it might not have been a question of right and wrong. Which is to say that wrong choices can produce right results, and vice versa. I myself have adopted the position that, in fact, we never choose anything at all. Things happen. Or not.

If you look at it this way, it just so happens that I told my wife about the bakery attack. I hadn't been planning to bring it up--I had forgotten all about it--but it wasn't one of those now-that-you-mention-it kind of things, either.

What reminded me of the bakery attack was an unbearable hunger. It hit just before two o'clock in the morning. We had eaten a light supper at six, crawled into bed at nine-thirty, and gone to sleep. For some reason, we woke up at exactly the same moment. A few minutes later, the pangs struck with the force of the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. These were tremendous, overpowering hunger pangs.

Our refrigerator contained not a single item that could be technically categorized as food. We had a bottle of French dressing, six cans of beer, two shriveled onions, a stick of butter, and a box of refrigerator deodorizer. With only two weeks of married life behind us, we had yet to establish a precise conjugal understanding with regard to the rules of dietary behavior. Let alone anything else.

I had a job in a law firm at the time, and she was doing secretarial work at a design school. I was either twenty-eight or twenty-nine--why can't I remember the exact year we married?--and she was two years and eight months younger. Groceries were the last things on our minds.

We both felt too hungry to go back to sleep, but it hurt just to lie there. On the other hand, we were also too hungry to do anything useful. We got out of bed and drifted into the kitchen, ending up across the table from each other. What could have caused such violent hunger pangs?

We took turns opening the refrigerator door and hoping, but no matter how many times we looked inside, the contents never changed. Beer and onions and butter and dressing and deodorizer. It might have been possible to saute the onions in the butter, but there was no chance those two shriveled onions could fill our empty stomachs. Onions are meant to be eaten with other things. They are not the kind of food you use to satisfy an appetite.

"Would madame care for some French dressing sauteed in deodorizer?"

I expected her to ignore my attempt at humor, and she did. "Let's get in the car and look for an all-night restaurant," I said. "There must be one on the highway."

She rejected that suggestion. "We can't. You're not supposed to go out to eat after midnight." She was old-fashioned in that way.

I breathed once and said, "I guess not."

Whenever my wife expressed such an opinion (or thesis) back then, it reverberated in my ears with the authority of a revelation. Maybe that's what happens with newlyweds, I don't know. But when she said this to me, I began to think that this was a special hunger, not one that could be satisfied through the mere expedient of taking it to an all-night restaurant on the highway.

A special kind of hunger. And what might that be?

I can present it here in the form of a cinematic image.

One, I am in a little boat, floating on a quiet sea. Two, I look down, and in the water, I see the peak of a volcano thrusting up from the ocean floor. Three, the peak seems pretty close to the water's surface, but just how close I cannot tell. Four, this is because the hypertransparency of the water interferes with the perception of distance.

This is a fairly accurate description of the image that arose in my mind during the two or three seconds between the time my wife said she refused to go to an all-night restaurant and I agreed with my "I guess not." Not being Sigmund Freud, I was, of course, unable to analyze with any precision what this image signified, but I knew intuitively that it was a revelation. Which is why--the almost grotesque intensity of my hunger notwithstanding--I all but automatically agreed with her thesis (or declaration).

We did the only thing we could do: opened the beer. It was a lot better than eating those onions. She didn't like beer much, so we divided the cans, two for her, four for me. While I was drinking the first one, she searched the kitchen shelves like a squirrel in November. Eventually, she turned up a package that had four butter cookies in the bottom. They were leftovers, soft and soggy, but we each ate two, savoring every crumb.

It was no use. Upon this hunger of ours, as vast and boundless as the Sinai Peninsula, the butter cookies and beer left not a trace.

Time oozed through the dark like a lead weight in a fish's gut. I read the print on the aluminum beer cans. I stared at my watch. I looked at the refrigerator door. I turned the pages of yesterday's paper. I used the edge of a postcard to scrape together the cookie crumbs on the tabletop.

"I've never been this hungry in my whole life," she said. "I wonder if it has anything to do with being married."

"Maybe," I said. "Or maybe not."

While she hunted for more fragments of food, I leaned over the edge of my boat and looked down at the peak of the underwater volcano. The clarity of the ocean water all around the boat gave me an unsettled feeling, as if a hollow had opened somewhere behind my solar plexus--a hermetically sealed cavern that had neither entrance nor exit. Something about this weird sense of absence--this sense of the existential reality of nonexistence--resembled the paralyzing fear you might feel when you climb to the very top of a high steeple. This connection between hunger and acrophobia was a new discovery for me.

Which is when it occurred to me that I had once before had this same kind of experience. My stomach had been just as empty then...When?...Oh, sure, that was--

"The time of the bakery attack," I heard myself saying.

"The bakery attack? What are you talking about?"

And so it started.

"I once attacked a bakery. Long time ago. Not a big bakery. Not famous. The bread was nothing special. Not bad, either. One of those ordinary little neighborhood bakeries right in the middle of a block of shops. Some old guy ran it who did everything himself. Baked in the morning, and when he sold out, he closed up for the day."

"If you were going to attack a bakery, why that one?"

"Well, there was no point in attacking a big bakery. All we wanted was bread, not money. We were attackers, not robbers."

"We? Who's we?"

"My best friend back then. Ten years ago. We were so broke we couldn't buy toothpaste. Never had enough food. We did some pretty awful things to get our hands on food. The bakery attack was one."

"I don't get it." She looked hard at me. Her eyes could have been searching for a faded star in the morning sky. "Why didn't you get a job? You could have worked after school. That would have been easier than attacking bakeries."

"We didn't want to work. We were absolutely clear on that."

"Well, you're working now, aren't you?"

I nodded and sucked some more beer. Then I rubbed my eyes. A kind of beery mud had oozed into my brain and was struggling with hunger pangs.

"Times change. People change," I said. "Let's go back to bed. We've got to get up early."

"I'm not sleepy. I want you to tell me about the bakery attack."

"There's nothing to tell. No action. No excitement."

"Was it a success?"

I gave up on sleep and ripped open another beer. Once she gets interested in a story, she has to hear it all the way through. That's just the way she is.

"Well, it was kind of a success. And kind of not. We got what we wanted. But as a holdup, it didn't work. The baker gave us the bread before we could take it from him."


"Not exactly, no. That's the hard part." I shook my head. "The baker was a classical-music freak, and when we got there, he was listening to an album of Wagner overtures. So he made us a deal. If we would listen to the record all the way through, we could take as much bread as we liked. I talked it over with my buddy and we figured, Okay. It wouldn't be work in the purest sense of the word, and it wouldn't hurt anybody. So we put our knives back in our bag, pulled up a couple of chairs, and listened to the overtures to Tannhauser and The Flying Dutchman."

"And after that, you got your bread?"

"Right. Most of what he had in the shop. Stuffed it in our bag and took it home. Kept us fed for maybe four or five days." I took another sip. Like soundless waves from an undersea earthquake, my sleepiness gave my boat a long, slow rocking.

"Of course, we accomplished our mission. We got the bread. But you couldn't say we had committed a crime. It was more of an exchange. We listened to Wagner with him, and in return, we got our bread. Legally speaking, it was more like a commercial transaction."

"But listening to Wagner is not work," she said.

"Oh, no, absolutely not. If the baker had insisted that we wash his dishes or clean his windows or something, we would have turned him down. But he didn't. All he wanted from us was to listen to his Wagner LP from beginning to end. Nobody could have anticipated that. I mean--Wagner? It was like the baker put a curse on us. Now that I think of it, we should have refused. We should have threatened him with our knives and taken the damn bread. Then there wouldn't have been any problem."

"You had a problem?"

I rubbed my eyes again.

"Sort of. Nothing you could put your finger on. But things started to change after that. It was kind of a turning point. Like, I went back to the university, and I graduated, and I started working for the firm and studying the bar exam, and I met you and got married. I never did anything like that again. No more bakery attacks."

"That's it?"

"Yup, that's all there was to it." I drank the last of the beer. Now all six cans were gone. Six pull-tabs lay in the ashtray like scales from a mermaid.

Of course, it wasn't true that nothing had happened as a result of the bakery attack. There were plenty of things that you could have easily put your finger on, but I didn't want to talk about them with her.

"So, this friend of yours, what's he doing now?"

"I have no idea. Something happened, some nothing kind of thing, and we stopped hanging around together. I haven't seen him since. I don't know what he's doing."

For awhile, she didn't speak. She probably sensed that I wasn't telling her the whole story. But she wasn't ready to press me on it.

"Still," she said, "that's why you two broke up, isn't it? The bakery attack was the direct cause."

"Maybe so. I guess it was more intense than either of us realized. We talked about the relationship of bread to Wagner for days after that. We kept asking ourselves if we had made the right choice. We couldn't decide. Of course, if you look at it sensibly, we did make the right choice. Nobody got hurt. Everybody got what he wanted. The baker--I still can't figure out why he did what he did--but anyway, he succeeded with his Wagner propaganda. And we succeeded in stuffing our faces with bread.

"But even so, we had this feeling that we had made a terrible mistake. And somehow, this mistake has just stayed there, unresolved, casting a dark shadow on our lives. That's why I used the word 'curse.' It's true. It was like a curse."

"Do you think you still have it?"

I took the six pull-tabs from the ashtray and arranged them into an aluminum ring the size of a bracelet.

"Who knows? I don't know. I bet the world is full of curses. It's hard to tell which curse makes any one thing go wrong."

"That's not true." She looked right at me. "You can tell, if you think about it. And unless you, yourself, personally break the curse, it'll stick with you like a toothache. It'll torture you till you die. And not just you. Me, too."


"Well, I'm your best friend now, aren't I? Why do you think we're both so hungry? I never, ever, once in my life felt a hunger like this until I married you. Don't you think it's abnormal? Your curse is working on me, too."

I nodded. Then I broke up the ring of pull-tabs and put them back in the ashtray. I didn't know if she was right, but I did feel she was onto something.

The feeling of starvation was back, stronger than ever, and it was giving me a deep headache. Every twinge of my stomach was being transmitted to the core of my head by a clutch cable, as if my insides were equipped with all kinds of complicated machinery.

I took another look at my undersea volcano. The water was clearer than before--much clearer. Unless you looked closely, you might not even notice it was there. It felt as though the boat were floating in midair, with absolutely nothing to support it. I could see every little pebble on the bottom. All I had to do was reach out and touch them.

"We've only been living together for two weeks," she said, "but all this time I've been feeling some kind of weird presence." She looked directly into my eyes and brought her hands together on the tabletop, her fingers interlocking. "Of course, I didn't know it was a curse until now. This explains everything. You're under a curse."

"What kind of presence?"

"Like there's this heavy, dusty curtain that hasn't been washed for years, hanging down from the ceiling."

"Maybe it's not a curse. Maybe it's just me," I said, and smiled.

She did not smile.

"No, it's not you," she said.

"Okay, supposed you're right. Suppose it is a curse. What can I do about it?"

"Attack another bakery. Right away. Now. It's the only way."


"Yes. Now. While you're still hungry. You have to finish what you left unfinished."

"But it's the middle of the night. Would a bakery be open now?"

"We'll find one. Tokyo's a big city. There must be at least one all-night bakery."

We got into my old Corolla and started drifting around the streets of Tokyo at 2:30 a.m., looking for a bakery. There we were, me clutching the steering wheel, she in the navigator's seat, the two of us scanning the street like hungry eagles in search of prey. Stretched out on the backseat, long and stiff as a dead fish, was a Remington automatic shotgun. Its shells rustled dryly in the pocket of my wife's windbreaker. We had two black ski masks in the glove compartment. Why my wife owned a shotgun, I had no idea. Or ski masks. Neither of us had ever skied. But she didn't explain and I didn't ask. Married life is weird, I felt.

Impeccably equipped, we were nevertheless unable to find an all-night bakery. I drove through the empty streets, from Yoyogi to Shinjuku, on to Yosuya and Akasaka, Aoyama, Hiroo, Roppongi, Daikanyama, and Shibuya. Late-night Tokyo had all kinds of people and shops, but no bakeries.

Twice we encountered patrol cars. One was huddled at the side of the road, trying to look inconspicuous. The other slowly overtook us and crept past, finally moving off into the distance. Both times I grew damp under the arms, but my wife's concentration never faltered. She was looking for that bakery. Every time she shifted the angle of her body, the shotgun shells in her pocket rustled like buckwheat husks in an old-fashioned pillow.

"Let's forget it," I said. "There aren't any bakeries open at this time of night. You've got to plan for this kind of thing or else--"

"Stop the car!"

I slammed on the brakes.

"This is the place," she said.

The shops along the street had their shutters rolled down, forming dark, silent walls on either side. A barbershop sign hung in the dark like a twisted, chilling glass eye. There was a bright McDonald's hamburger sign some two hundred yards ahead, but nothing else.

"I don't see any bakery," I said.

Without a word, she opened the glove compartment and pulled out a roll of cloth-backed tape. Holding this, she stepped out of the car. I got out on my side. Kneeling at the front end, she tore off a length of tape and covered the numbers on the license plate. Then she went around to the back and did the same. There was a practiced efficiency to her movements. I stood on the curb staring at her.

"We're going to take that McDonald's," she said, as coolly as if she were announcing what we would have for dinner.

"McDonald's is not a bakery," I pointed out to her.

"It's like a bakery," she said. "Sometimes you have to compromise. Let's go."

I drove to the McDonald's and parked in the lot. She handed me the blanket-wrapped shotgun.

"I've never fired a gun in my life," I protested.

"You don't have to fire it. Just hold it. Okay? Do as I say. We walk right in, and as soon as they say, 'Welcome to McDonald's,' we slip on our masks. Got that?"

"Sure, but--"

"Then you shove the gun in their faces and make all the workers and customers get together. Fast. I'll do the rest."


"How many hamburgers do you think we'll need? Thirty?"

"I guess so." With a sigh, I took the shotgun and rolled back the blanket a little. The thing was as heavy as a sandbag and as black as a dark night.

"Do we really have to do this?" I asked, half to her and half to myself.

"Of course we do."

Wearing a McDonald's hat, the girl behind the counter flashed me a McDonald's smile and said, "Welcome to McDonald's." I hadn't thought that girls would work at McDonald's late at night, so the sight of her confused me for a second. But only for a second. I caught myself and pulled on the mask. Confronted with this suddenly masked duo, the girl gaped at us.

Obviously, the McDonald's hospitality manual said nothing about how do deal with a situation like this. She had been starting to form the phrase that comes after "Welcome to McDonald's," but her mouth seemed to stiffen and the words wouldn't come out. Even so, like a crescent moon in the dawn sky, the hint of a professional smile lingered at the edges of her lips.

As quickly as I could manage, I unwrapped the shotgun and aimed it in the direction of the tables, but the only customers there were a young couple--students, probably--and they were facedown on the plastic table, sound asleep. Their two heads and two strawberry-milk-shake cups were aligned on the table like an avant-garde sculpture. They slept the sleep of the dead. They didn't look likely to obstruct our operation, so I swung my shotgun back toward the counter.

All together, there were three McDonald's workers. The girl at the counter, the manager--a guy with a pale, egg-shaped face, probably in his late twenties--and a student type in the kitchen--a thin shadow of a guy with nothing on his face that you could read as an expression. They stood together behind the register, staring into the muzzle of my shotgun like tourists peering down an Incan well. No one screamed, and no one made a threatening move. The gun was so heavy I had to rest the barrel on top of the cash register, my finger on the trigger.

"I'll give you the money," said the manager, his voice hoarse. "They collected it at eleven, so we don't have too much, but you can have everything. We're insured."

"Lower the front shutter and turn off the sign," said my wife.

"Wait a minute," said the manager. "I can't do that. I'll be held responsible if I close up without permission."

My wife repeated her order, slowly. He seemed torn.

"You'd better do what she says," I warned him.

He looked at the muzzle of the gun atop the register, then at my wife, and then back at the gun. He finally resigned himself to the inevitable. He turned off the sign and hit a switch on an electrical panel that lowered the shutter. I kept my eye on him, worried that he might hit a burglar alarm, but apparently McDonald's don't have burglar alarms. Maybe it had never occurred to anybody to attack one.

The front shutter made a huge racket when it closed, like an empty bucket being smashed with a baseball bat, but the couple sleeping at their table was still out cold. Talk about a sound sleep: I hadn't seen anything like that in years.

"Thirty Big Macs. For takeout," said my wife.

"Let me just give you the money," pleaded the manager. "I'll give you more than you need. You can go buy food somewhere else. This is going to mess up my accounts and--"

"You'd better do what she says," I said again.

The three of them went into the kitchen area together and started making the thirty Big Macs. The student grilled the burgers, the manager put them in buns, and the girl wrapped them up. Nobody said a word.

I leaned against a big refrigerator, aiming the gun toward the griddle. The meat patties were lined up on the griddle like brown polka dots, sizzling. The sweet smell of grilling meat burrowed into every pore of my body like a swarm of microscopic bugs, dissolving into my blood and circulating to the farthest corners, then massing together inside my hermetically sealed hunger cavern, clinging to its pink walls.

A pile of white-wrapped burgers was growing nearby. I wanted to grab and tear into them, but I could not be certain that such an act would be consistent with our objective. I had to wait. In the hot kitchen area, I started sweating under my ski mask.

The McDonald's people sneaked glances at the muzzle of the shotgun. I scratched my ears with the little finger of my left hand. My ears always get itchy when I'm nervous. Jabbing my finger into an ear through the wool, I was making the gun barrel wobble up and down, which seemed to bother them. It couldn't have gone off accidentally, because I had the safety on, but they didn't know that and I wasn't about to tell them.

My wife counted the finished hamburgers and put them into two small shopping bags, fifteen burgers to a bag.

"Why do you have to do this?" the girl asked me. "Why don't you just take the money and buy something you like? What's the good of eating thirty Big Macs?"

I shook my head.

My wife explained, "We're sorry, really. But there weren't any bakeries open. If there had been, we would have attacked a bakery."

That seemed to satisfy them. At least they didn't ask any more questions. Then my wife ordered two large Cokes from the girl and paid for them.

"We're stealing bread, nothing else," she said. The girl responded with a complicated head movement, sort of like nodding and sort of like shaking. She was probably trying to do both at the same time. I thought I had some idea how she felt.

My wife then pulled a ball of twine from her pocket--she came equipped--and tied the three to a post as expertly as if she were sewing on buttons. She asked if the cord hurt, or if anyone wanted to go to the toilet, but no one said a word. I wrapped the gun in the blanket, she picked up the shopping bags, and out we went. The customers at the table were still asleep, like a couple of deep-sea fish. What would it have taken to rouse them from a sleep so deep?

We drove for a half hour, found an empty parking lot by a building, and pulled in. There we ate hamburgers and drank our Cokes. I sent six Big Macs down to the cavern of my stomach, and she ate four. That left twenty Big Macs in the back seat. Our hunger--that hunger that had felt as if it could go on forever--vanished as the dawn was breaking. The first light of the sun dyed the building's filthy walls purple and made a giant SONY BETA ad tower glow with painful intensity. Soon the whine of highway truck tires was joined by the chirping of birds. The American Armed Forces radio was playing cowboy music. We shared a cigarette. Afterward, she rested her head on my shoulder.

"Still was it really necessary for us. to do this?" I asked.

"Of course it was!" With one deep sigh, she fell asleep against me. She felt as soft and as light as a kitten.

Alone now, I leaned over the edge of my boat and looked down to the bottom of the sea. The volcano was gone. The water's calm surface reflected the blue of the sky. Little waves--like silk pajamas fluttering in a breeze--lapped against the side of the boat. There was nothing else.

I stretched out in the bottom of the boat and closed my eyes, waiting for the rising tide to carry me where I belonged.

by Haruki Murakami

With all the talk about Haruki Murakami I've had on here, I decided to give everyone one of his short stories, a few measures from the symphony illustrating his mastery of prose. Why did I pick this one? I just really got a kick out of reading it earlier today, and I thought it was one of his short stories that wrapped up nicely. He always has a manner of writing about the most mundane, ordinary events of life, and then spicing things up with a bit of the unusual to keep your eyes on the page until the very end. Brilliant.

The interesting thing you'll notice if you read a lot of his works is how his influences show through the characters choices and tastes. Many of them are really into jazz, old jazz. The events that the characters go through hint at the topics that fascinate him or possible events and tragedies in his life. There always seems to be an overall theme of loss. Infidelity, and how it's dealt with. Missing cats, and the incredible journey and memorable characters that mysteriously appear to influence the protagonist. Watching how the characters deal with loss, going along their multifaceted journeys toward something...anything that brings them to the next step, to keep from getting sucked into the past, confronting Murakami's humorous comparisons of events to pop culture and life, and experiencing wild, sometimes supernatural events... you'll wish his books were longer so they just wouldn't end.

Some of my fave books: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, and Dance Dance Dance.

Decide for yourself if you want to check them out. It's worth noting that you might not be able to stop.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Rainbow's End

Ulong Beach, Ulong Island, Republic of Palau - It's where they filmed Survivor: Palau!
Recipe for the perfect paradise, a.k.a. Palau
  • 1 sun, bright and warm
  • 1 beautiful archipelago, about 70 islands of limestone, mushroom shaped, some tiny, some long and large, covered in lush vegetation, stripped of people
  • A few beaches, white sand, free of garbage
  • 1 enormous seabed, including shallow areas, some underwater caverns, channels and canyons, underwater mountains, and dropoffs whose bottoms vanish from sight

  • A bunch of marine lakes, saltwater, created when the the islands rose above the surface
  • A myriad of corals, tube worms, sponges and anemones to bring color and flavor to the seabed: feathered, fan, bulb, cabbage, etc.

  • Underwater vegetation, a generous amount
  • Thousands of species of fish, colored with all shades and tints of the rainbow, of all shapes and sizes, as many schools as you can possibly find.
  • A bushel of rays, manta, spotted eagle, green. Small, large, you'll want them all.
  • As many sharks as you can find, all kinds. The bigger and more dangerous, the better.
  • A smattering of sea turtles, the gracefully gliding, peaceful kind
  • The purest, clearest oceanwater only found hundreds of miles away from any large civilizaton
  • A clear blue sky and clean air, free from pollutants
  • Pockets of beautiful white clouds and a few large gray ones heavy with rain
  • A few birds
  • Lots and lots of cute golden jellyfish, the harmless kind

Remove as many people from the archipelago as you can. Leave a few of the indigenous Palauans to stay and take care of things. Mix seabed and oceanwater in an area hundreds of miles away from civilization. Add corals to taste, coloring the seabed until satisfied. Throw in underwater vegetation, toss vigorously. Place the set of islands on top of seabed.

Throw some of the marine lakes in the low areas of large islands. Sprinkle the beaches sparsely around some of the islands, maybe less than 5% of island perimeter. Drop some birds around the islands, and a few in the water in between islands.

Throw all jellyfish in marine lakes. The one lake that has the most jellyfish, call that Jellyfish Lake, then take a moment to be proud of the immense bounty that is your unrelenting creativity. Take the copious rainbow colored fishes and spread liberally all around the islands. Some of the small ugly black fish, throw those in Jellyfish Lake for no good reason.

Put a few of the fish with huge eye sockets in cavernous dark areas, like Chandelier Cave and the Blue Holes.

Pick a few choice spots to place the rays, perhaps near the German Channel and New Drop Off, and possibly throw in some turtles for good measure. Looking at the giant mass of sharks left, decide to throw them everywhere, at random, mixing sharks of all kinds. Be liberal with the sharks around Blue Corner.

Bake everything in the heat of the sun for eons. When done, it should smell, feel, look, sound and taste like absolute bliss. Enjoy liberally with friends and diving buddies. Serves all those daring enough to visit it and go below the surface, until it is destroyed by time, Mother Nature or humanity.

The Republic of Palau from above. Paradise found.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Oh so bittersweet

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I'd like to do
Is to save everyday
Till eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I'd save everyday
Like a treasure and then
Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them

It was fun getting "interviewed" over dinner. See you, sometime.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Diver Down

Suunto Stinger dive computer... check.
Canon Powershot A720IS... check.
Underwater case for said digicam... check.
8 gigs of SD memory for said digicam... check.
Rash guard... check.

Mmm. Stinger.

All my new equipment is ready to go. So am I.

Diver Down!

Another dip in the ocean blue, this time in Puerto Galera, about two to three hours by car and then another hour to the resort (called Oceana) by boat.

Man, there's something about boats that makes me uneasy. Fortunately there are some unique remedies that, strangely, seem to combat seasickness. Skittles are strange and magical at keeping nausea at bay (it HAS to be Skittles), and if you have an orange or tangerine, peel off the rind and hold it up to your nose to sniff. It is unbelievably calming and reduces fatigue as well. And then you get to eat some of the yummy fruit. Can't complain about that.

What's on the menu this time? More corals, more fishes (many of them this time, more than Anilao) and things hidden in nooks and crannies. Since my underwater case is brand new, I needed to test it to ensure that it wouldn't leak at depth, so the first dive is camera less. It's a practice dive, taking things easy and getting back into the feel of things.

And now, for the real dive. With my camera! Wooo! This time, we head on over nearer to the shore where more boats are around. More divers, it would seem. This area specializes in... drumroll ...

WRECKS! Not one, but 3!

All sorts of things live on the derelict ship.



a lionfish,


The wreck itself is teeming with life of all kinds. So many fishes and corals make their home in the ribs of the boat itself. The shrimp hang out underneath the hull in the dark shadows, morays find a comfy nook somewhere to curl up in, and the starfish slowly creeps its way all over. It's a beautiful sight. This wreck is made entirely out of wood, so things seem to be pretty clear, a lack of particulates in the water allowing for good visibility.

There's also plenty of vegetation. I really love the unique plants that live down there.

Look at this thing. I love these puffy green things. The insides probably influence Hollywood movies with aliens.

Here's some other inhabitants.

While we visit the ships, a group of curious batfish come by to take a peek at what's going on.

These guys are big, slightly larger than a foot from mouth to tail. I wonder if they're delicious.

Somewhere along the way, a big lumbering shadow is spotted.

Pawikan! It's so big. Beautiful.

Other random things seen: A wee nudibranch hanging out in the sand.

Some strange fish that stays very still, even as I stick my lens up to its face. This is the first underwater photo I took with my camera.

Ooo. A snake.

The next day, we wake up again at the asscrack of dawn, and this time take the boat further out to an island on the horizon. The island itself is shaped like a boot (like Italy, except standing straight up) and we stop near the tip of the boot where some rocks are pointing out of the water. It turns out the rocks are the apex of an underwater mountain, which we are going to explore. Descending into the depths, we have to fight a current, and since we're constantly on the move, I'm not really taking photos, just trying to keep up, attempting to relax as I go along to conserve air.

I turn around, and half of our group is gone. Huh?

Continuing to streamline myself and cut through the current, we arrive at what seems to be a break in the mountain. The other divemaster instructs us to grab a hold of something so we can see over the edge. Being pushed around, I let go to find a clearer spot and... find myself getting further and further away from everyone. Current... strong... Fighting my way back to the rocks, I grab hold and peer over, seeing some gigantic fishes swimming about in a vast canvas of blue.

Returning to the ship, I get reaaaaaaaaly seasick, and thanks to the other divers who brought tangerines/oranges, I'm OK, but really tired. Half of our group decides to go back to the wreck and take it easy, while half of the group will persist.

Oh, what originally happened to the other half of the divers? Mel's regulator broke and started to freeflow. She had to be taken out before her air ran out.

Last dive: Back to the wrecks. Ah, relaxing. No currents to worry about. Except for Ices, who shot up too fast and had to breathe some gold ol' pure oxygen.

The current where the other group went was a lot stronger, and they had issues with their ascent, so they all had to breathe some pure oxygen too. Luckily for us, we stayed at the calm, relaxing wreck area, so we're all A-OK.

Until next time.

Tonight, I leave for Palau. Swimming with the sharks. Sounds great.