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.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

My White Whale

This is the famous Sydney Opera House. I spent three days looking for a good one of it.

The photos are now up on the Australia Photoset. Stop by, and take a look!

And now, for some panoramics. They might not show up correctly, so if they get cut off, just head on over to the Australia Photoset.

To the right, you'll see the Harbor Bridge. To the left, the Sydney Opera House as seen from the other side of the water. I walked from the inner city to where I took this photo. Took the train back (it was starting to get pretty cold!)

This is the view from our balcony where we stayed in the Gold Coast. Pretty, no?

The one without form

Wow, what an adventure.

I made a joke to Darren as I was leaving Sydney, that I was about to get on the plane and disappear from the world for two days. "Two days to go back to Manila? That's crazy talk," he responds.

Funny how things can come true sometimes.

My flight from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur was supposed to take off at 10:40. 10:40 rolls around, and nobody has boarded the plane yet. Turns out there's an engineering problem, and the guys just finished working on the issue. Unfortunately, it's now almost 11 pm, and Sydney has this flight curfew. No flights out of the area after 11. Yikes!

Well, the flight got delayed. We are to stay overnight in Sydney, and take the next plane out of the city, which is 12:30 pm next day. OK, guess that's not so bad. Other passengers, however, seem to be freaking out. Asking all sorts of questions, making demands. Popping my headphones on and turning on the tunes, I remember what Donna in Brisbane said. Those people with road rage? Yeah, they don't have good music, that's all. Life isn't so bad with good tunes.


The hotel isn't bad, in fact it's pretty nice. Includes breakfast. Can't say no to a free breakfast and a good clean room and bed!

Getting up in the morning, I mozy my way over to the airport and find out... after arriving in Kuala Lumpur, I'm to overnight again for the next flight to Manila from there isn't until the morning of the 2nd. Sigh. In the line, I chat up these two people speaking an interesting language. Turns out they're Italian and also got stuck on the same flight heading to Kuala Lumpur. It's funny but, when I hear Italians speaking to each other, it always sounds like they're mad at one another. Bla bla blah INO! Yakka yak GONZA! Blady blah CCHINI! Que puzza!

Eventually I learned that they're brother and sister and (like my original idea) the sister frequently gets mad at the brother. And because of that, I thought they were 'together' HAHAHA.

Anyway, one longass flight later, I arrive in Kuala Lumpur. It feels like the Philippines. One thousand percent humidity. Sweat condensing on the skin, constantly. Thankfully, my hotel is right next to the airport (free electric kart shuttle! Whee!), the room is super nice, and I get free dinner and breakfast.

Hey, while I'm here, might as well see the city a bit. Why yes, I'll tour a bit of KL on Malaysia Air's dollar. Why not?

Sometimes the choice without form is good. Very good.

Traveling Alone

The older you get, the more boring traveling alone becomes. It's different when you're younger---whether you're alone or not, traveling can be a blast. But as you age, the fun factor declines. Only the first couple of days are enjoyable. After that, the scenery becomes annoying, and people's voices start to grate. There's no escape, for if you close your eyes to block these out, all kinds of unpleasant memories pop up. It gets to be too much trouble to eat in a restaurant, and you find yourself checking you watch over and over as you wait for streetcars that never seem to arrive. Trying to make yourself understood in a foreign language becomes a total pain.

From Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

I, for one, hope that this never happens to me, at any point in my life. But if it does, it begs the question... why wait for retirement to explore this planet we live on?