Saturday, January 06, 2007

What to Pack for Southeast Asia

Before I close the door on my travels in Southeast Asia, I have one pragmatic entry. This I wrote on my last day in Bangkok and while it may be like a Tarantino movie where they do things in backwards order, I think it is worth submitting.

So, you’re going to Southeast Asia. What should you bring? Nothing! It is very true that you can go to Thailand with only a passport, an ATM card and the clothes you are wearing. Although that would be a bit extreme, lean towards this truism while you pack. You can live without much more than you think. Even the electric toothbrush is unnecessary.

Do not bring anything like this (or at least make sure you really want to carry it around with you):

• A wool cardigan sweater
• Long pants
• Designer Jeans
• An ash tray
• Your favorite incense
• An 800 page hardcover novel
• An electric toothbrush charger (for the toothbrush you’re not bringing)
• A long sleeve shirt
• A mosquito net - Many people will disagree here, but for me, a mosquito net is a luxury. Trade your mosquito net for the ability to speak one sentence such as “I am hungry”. You can’t eat a mosquito net. Besides, there’s this stuff called mosquito repellant and other stuff called doxycycline
• A big plush Garfield beach towel!
• A big box of embossed linen stationary
• A big anything. No. Big. No. No. No. Small is good.
• Shoes – dancing shoes, combat boots, platform shoes, anything called a shoe. I wore $0.80 flip-flops for nearly 3 months. On travel days I wore $6 trekking sandals. Once I became a better flip-flop’er, I tossed the trekking sandals.
• A micro cassette recorder with a wireless microphone.
• Water bottle. In Asia each water purchase comes with a free bottle.

Finally, even more important than the cardigan, only under very unusual circumstances should you bring a Barbie doll. This is called “bringing sand to the beach”. I suggest having a long talk with your Barbie to explain why she would be much happier at home. If you are foolish (or foolish in love), you may find yourself run ragged in a Bangkok mall looking for super-petites, annoyed the whole time because you got a $30 ticket for snuffing a cigarette on the sidewalk. (Bangkok is a filthy city, but you can, and will, be fined for throwing cigarette butts out in certain areas. To be safe, always always always use an ash tray.)

Now, let’s get to what you should bring. These first 3 items are essential:

A map. A good current map. Hardly anyone in Thailand can read a map (in Laos, most people can), but it draws lots of attention and is a great conversation starter.

A bilingual dictionary. You are traveling in a foreign land, carry a dictionary. Carry it until you can speak the language. Consider this... If someone were to come into your day-to-day life and repeat the exact same incomprehensible phrase over and over, becoming louder and more frustrated with each iteration, wouldn't you eventually think to hand them a translation dictionary? They're bi-directional you know.

A small compass. Get a very inexpensive one (approx. $1USD). Attach this to the outside of your bag.

Here’s the rub… The compass, the map and the dictionary all work together. It’s sort of like pretending you’re exploring a place you’ve never been before.

Other things you might consider bringing.

A GSM cell phone (unlocked) A SIM card in Laos or Thailand costs about $10USD. Calling home from a local SIM card is only slightly higher than using the internet cafe phones. (My other option was to let Cingular GOUGE me at the insulting rate of $0.79/min - Hey, Cingular! Stop ripping off your customers, we don't all spend the whole year in Kansas).

So... Why have a cell phone in Southeast Asia? Here is some very smart advice, especially for the solo traveler. Arrange with a reliable friend or family member back home that you will text message them each time you change locations. This way if you disappear and you have been chopped into little bits in the jungle, someone has a way of knowing where to start looking for you.

It pains me to write this… consider bringing a guide book. A guidebook tells you a million things. Over 900,000 of those things are superfluous and/or outdated. To pass through a country, especially in SEA, you only need the names of towns, a map of the country and towns along the way and border crossing information. Having some suggestions for guesthouses is sometimes good, but I stopped reading them because they are riddled with inaccuracies. After that, you can figure it out.

Here is my advice on guidebooks. Get a compilation guidebook (Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, for example). Cut out the pages you need, bring them to a binder and have them soft cover spiral bound. All of a sudden, that two inch thick, space-gobbling, anchor of a book is now one centimeter thick. Whatever you are missing from your self-abridged guidebook, you can look up in any of the numerous bookshelves you will encounter.

More things you should bring…

Rubber bands. How do I sing thee praise, oh rubber-band.

Ziplock bags. Soap, passport, cell phone, receipts... (separate bags, right?)

Medium-sized, nylon, drawstring sacks to hold: toiletries in one and clothes in another (ok, I use one for shirts, one for underwear) If you can't stand the though of your dirty clothes fraternizing with your clean clothes, get another bag for the dirties. Make sure you have the kind of drawstring witha plastic clamp so you can cinch it down and secure it.

Smaller drawstring bags. Mesh is good because you can see through it. Sometimes, mesh is bad because you can see through it.

A flashlight … or a torch … or whatever else it’s called. Whatever your nomenclature, I suggest you bring a thingamajig which makes a bright light in the dark so you can find your way. (Favourite feature on my Thai cell phone… a flashlight)

Dental Floss. I kissed a pack of dental floss once. Do not underestimate the power of this lightweight travel and hygiene esssential.

Toothpaste. I specify "paste" and not "gel". If you prefer gel, or don't care, skip this part. Otherwise, know that there is no paste in Southeast Asia. You may find children's bubblegum flavoured past, but no mint paste except I did find some "night time" toothpaste where the label clearly explains how it is to be used... in Thai.

One pair of shorts.

Another pair of shorts. - Unless you can figure out how to get the first pair of shorts washed and still get around with causing a scandal, you will need the second pair.
However… A note on men’s shorts (which may apply to women too, but I don’t wear women’s clothing when I travel). I have a pair of mountain climbing type pants where there is a mesh lining, like a bathing suit liner. They have zip-off legs which are ideal for showing respect at wats (temples). When you roll up the legs they’re the size of a cigar and easy to store. The shorts dry really fast so you can feasibly wash them before bed and they will be dry when you wake up. Why do I not wear these shorts all the time? The mesh built-in underwear thing irritates my bum. Otherwise, this could solve the one short / two short problem and reduce the underwear quotient.

T-shirts. Yes, you can get t-shirts in Asia. DO NOT BRING YOUR FAVOURITE t-shirt, it will be ruined. Also, don't bring thick t-shirts; they're too bulky and take too long to dry. The thinner the material the better.

iPod/mp3 player. This could be your link to sanity on some endurance travel routes where the piece de resistance at the end of a 10 hour bus journey is a 45 minute long song on the karaoke TV where an effeminate redheaded man in a yellow jumpsuit sings (whines, actually) in a falsetto voice in a language you will never understand. Naturally, your seat mate will be singing along. I am not exaggerating - this happens more often than you would think. ... or you could leave the iPod at home and remove your ears en route with a carrot peeler.

Camera. I could nix the camera but my brother asked me to take lots of pictures. Personally, I prefer to look at things for as long as it takes to remember them.

USB Flash card. Forget about carrying blank CD's. Flash cards are more durable (they meay even survive the washing machine) and they are far more compact than CD's. One card is good for off-loading your photos from your camera (so figure 1gb to 2gb). Use another one to store scans of your passport, credit cards, driver's license, etc (250mb will more than suffice) NOTE: make sure you zip and password protect the second one. Use a password with a combination of numbers, uppercase letters, lowercase letters and do not use words found in the dictionary. Make sure the password is at least 12 characters long. The longer the better.
The price of these cards is very reasonable. I just picked up a 1GB card for $10USD. You can also pick them up in Bangkok, but don't expect them to be sold in Vieng Vang.

Single US dollar bills. These are extremely handy anywhere in the world. I never travel without a wad of singles. Don't expect a favorable exchange when you hand the customs officer two US twenties and he's stuffing kip or baht back through the window. Bind your singles in stacks of $20 (rubber bands?). Spread the bound stacks of bills 4 separate money envelopes and conceal them in different parts of your bag (bottom of a tightly cinched dirty underwear sack?). If you have some sort of dementia, bring a magic marker and you can keep a running balance on each envelope, using special color coded rubber bands to indicate which packet is less than $20.

INCLUDING everything listed, there are things you should not buy for your trip. If you already have them, bring them along. But if you don’t, you can get it when you need it:

• Mosquito Repellant
• Passport photos (wildly popular at border crossings and nightclubs).
• Re-hydration powder (the stuff in Laos tastes terrible so stock up in Thailand before crossing the Mekong)

Are you starting to get the idea?
Passport, ATM card, the clothes you are wearing. That’s it!

Maybe this helps someone out. Maybe it is dismissed. I dismissed a similar article not long ago and paid dearly for it with a torn shoulder ligament. Assuming you read this and think I am some crackpot with a 500 cubic inch pack of smelly clothes and you decide to ignore my advice, I have one more piece of practical information.

When you discover you are stuck in Asia with all the stuff I told you not to bring, and you also added a guitar, a rabbit skin beret, a three piece suit, extra socks, scuba diving equipment, Barbie’s dream beach house, a big bottle of mouthwash, a case of 35mm film, your own complete set of golf clubs, blank CD’s, a practice amp for the guitar and a curling iron, here is how to handle the situation.

Mailing these lovely possessions home or anywhere else will cost more than a month of expenses. Forget the idea of mailing anything other than a postcard or a letter. Get to Bangkok (or whatever city is your final departure) and store it at your guesthouse. Even with the additional travel expenses, this is still a fraction of the cost of mailing. Buy a smaller bag to hold what is absolutely necessary. Be prepared to carry this bag on your lap for 10 hours (remember the guy in the yellow jumpsuit?) You won’t always need to do so, but if you can, you have the option to never let your possessions out of your site.

“Every increased possession loads us with new weariness.”
John Ruskin

Friday, January 05, 2007

Sweetened Condensed Southeast Asia

Why did I not go right? Sure, there were some logistical issues, such as a closed border crossing, but that’s not really why I took a left and headed for Chang Mai. It was not the promise of trekking in the wet mountains of Pai. It was not the need for deodorant or medicine or any of the other frivolous items available in Thailand but not Laos. Nor was it the ticking clock of a two week visa. No, it was my travel companions that I picked up along the way that influenced my course.

I went through countless unpronounceable places, Mai’s and Xi’s and Chang’s and Aya’s. A mental map has checkmarks along a route of boats and buses and tuk tuk’s and riverside balconies strewn with empty beer bottles in the morning heat. There were wats and waterfalls and markets and riverboats where tracks of my footsteps have been stepped over a thousand times. When was that? I don’t know. Was it a week or a day or some other lifetime altogether? Does it matter? It simply was and all that matters, all that makes a lasting impression, is not the ground upon which I stood but the people who stood next to me. Their words and thoughts and actions reverberate inside my soul and I am a richer man for it. I have been to places of untold wealth and beauty; beautiful and cherished because of the souls who touched my heart in one way or another.

I’ve been tossed in a tube where waterside bars stick out bamboo poles and laugh at frightened and brave farang belly flopping from a wire into the river. I met cocky Americans who elude the question ‘Where are you from?’ because they are tired of hearing the opinions. I recall the color of my knuckles on a bus to Maung Noi as I swallowed hard the urge to yell, ‘Stop!’ – I need the children of this village; their laughter is my drink. I need the old woman of this town crouched over a fire; her experience is my bread. I walked in red clay squishing over the edges of 80 cent flipflops; it reminded me of the clay of childhood in Virginia. I’ve crouched down to smell it, does it smell the same as Fairfax before it was paved over? I thought of a friend from that time ; he health is in trouble now. My tears flood the mud while I pray to an imaginary god and hope I am terribly wrong because he is too young to die and his family is too kind to cry.

And then I made a left to Chang Mai because I could not make a right to Hanoi. For days I made my way, undeterred, sitting on boats and buses; sleeping with bed bugs, scratching my balls. In Pai, I sprayed them (my balls) with Deet which no one should ever do. The itching went away but the shock of the lesson is indelible.

From Chang Mai, I went south back to Bangkok where I got busted by police for making out between the train cars. I stumbled in the street and cut my toes trying to numb my feelings for the girl on the train. I got spit on by a whore and smiled until she went away. Asia can teach the westerner alternatives to rage and finer points of diplomacy.

Drunk or hung over or somewhere in between, I had to get out of Bangkok so I headed east to get away from the tourists and the playskol expeditions and to find a place where Ronald McDonald doesn’t wei, where English is not prolific, where white is unusual. I thought I would make it to Cambodia or Vietnam, but confusing Mukdahhan with Savannaket landed me back in Laos.

A hundred thousand scribbled words, a million laughs and many bottles of Johnny Walker later, I eventually found myself wearing long pants and shoes in the San Francisco airport thrilled with the fact I could speak English to every single person I saw. I chatted with baggage handlers. I chatted with a first time flyer. I chatted with a sandwich lady. I chatted with airport security (they didn’t want to chat at all). I chatted with nearly everyone I could find. Another quick flight and I was soaking in the dry desert heat, hugging my parents and trying not to ramble on too much about my adventures outside the shire.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Where to start?

When I last posted, I was battling ants in a red-clay village with only a hint of what lay ahead. My plan, as sketchy as it was, would have me head north and take a right into Vietnam. Well, in short, I never took that right. The times that followed were of absolute bliss and thoughts and words and lessons flowed through and around me like a long overdue bath of life. I regret that I have not shared those epiphanies here as they came to me and I struggle with a question; I ask myself, ‘How do I provide continuum or at least some coverage of the past 6 months, if I failed to post regularly?” or in more simple terms, “Where do I start?”

Before dealing with the June to December subject, let me first tell a story. I call this story “Where to Start?”

Sometime between university and career, I had a job as a pie baker for a gourmet ice cream store in Brooklyn. The process for making the pies was very simple. For each pie, use two frozen pie shells. Put filling in one, leave the other empty. Put a tray of empty shells and a tray of full shells in the convection oven for a few minutes then take them out. Place an empty pie shell over a full pie shell, pop off the top aluminum foil and then pinch the edges of the top and bottom shell together to give it a homemade look. Return the pies to the oven to bake. You see, this is a very simple process to produce a dozen or so pies in 45 minutes.

One day, I was baking pies when a parade of about 65 Jehovah’s Witnesses came in to each order a single scoop of vanilla ice cream in a sugar cone. This was not an unusual event at the ice cream shop. They were good customers, always polite and orderly and nearly always exact change, however it was a huge amount of work which the one person working the front of the store could not handle alone.

I had just taken the pie shells from the oven and flipped them all and was ready to pinch two trays of pies when the counter girl (in the industry known as “the scooper”) asked me to help out with the onslaught of customers. So I turned to Carl, a bit of an idiot savant but a great ice cream maker, and asked him to pinch the pies while I helped out the scooper. Then I dove into the strenuous process of scooping endless vanilla ice cream cones.

In between cones, I happened to look back into the kitchen and saw Carl hovering over the two trays of pies, his fingers poised to pinch at his chest level. He was not pinching, only hovering. Odd, I thought and dove back into the case to scoop another cone. Handing the cone over the counter to the delighted mendicant, I looked back to the kitchen again; still hovering, still not pinching. I put my scoop in the water and walked back to the kitchen.

“Hey, Carl,” I asked him, the pie shells cooling in front of him “what’s the problem, Carl?”

Carl squinted back at me, his fingers still in a pre-pinch mid-air posture and motioned to the dozen round pies before him. “I don’t know where to start,” he said, genuinely confused but also astoundingly astute of the conundrum. Carl had seen what I had never noticed. All the pies were circles, there was no beginning point from which to commence pinching and therefore, no pinching could occur.

“Anywhere,” I blurted, aware there was an army of customers still wanting my attention.

“Yes, but where?” he protested and moved his fingers closer to the pies, but still circling directionless like a blind hawk over an ocean of prey.

I knew Carl. I knew this conversation would last for hours if I could not tell him a direct point, so I did what any rational person would do. I put a pinch in a pie to get him started. Any pie. Any degree on the circle. It didn’t matter because where to start is not really important. What is important is that you must, absolutely, start.

That is the story of Where to Start. Now, let’s deal with what happened to June to December. It would ridiculous to postdate all the entries during that time frame, so instead, over the next few days, I will recap what occurred, submit of few of the “gems” that are worth transcribing and then we will be back up to speed on my journey to Samosa. I intend to then be a bit more diligent in documenting what happens from here.