see ‘artwork’ on the homepage for an archive of the drawings and paintings
Mekong Motorcycle Diaries
Riding a motorcycle through the Mekong Delta felt like skimming across the surface of a mirror. Checkered patches of white clouds and blue sky appear through the spaces in the rice paddies. The green bouquets and trees sprout symmetrically up and down. Even when the sun wasn’t shining we had the feeling that we were bisecting two parallel worlds as we sliced along the monotonous concrete road that was the same color as the sky. It was an engrossing grayness. The whole trip, we dodged monsoon-like rains; the roads were constantly puddled. The muddy pools reflected the world before us in an other below us.
The ‘other-side’ in the another—end-of-life—sense was a recurrent thread speeding through my mind as I worked the clutch with my left hand, shifted gears with my left foot, and controlled the speed of the Honda Winn with my right side. I had a little bit of prior experience driving a manual bike in Pacitan, Indonesia but I mostly took up the idiotically bold task of teaching myself how to ride while I navigated through the chaotically jam packed city streets of Ho Chi Minh into treacherous delta highways where trucks and semis follow one rule of the road: dodge me or die.
I chose to end the most action-packed year of my life with the most action packed idea imaginable. Hunter Rusack, the captain of my college rugby team approached me a few months ago about riding north through Vietnam. I told him I didn’t have enough time to cover the whole country, but if he wanted to come meet me in Ho Chi Minh, I’d saddle up and explore the Mekong Delta with him.
The Mekong Delta is on the southernmost tip of Vietnam. It’s a rice belt that produces 1/3 of the country’s rice supply and also exports abroad to the United States and Australia. There are other industries, orchars abound growing pepper and there are coconut groves. There is also an industrial wasteland where sand, gravels, and foods are processed in factories and moved along the waterways into ports.
Each year, during wet season, the whole region becomes extremely vulnerable to flooding as the Mekong River, one of the worlds largest that flows down from the Himalaya through Laos and Cambodia into Vietnam swells with snowmelt. The issues of flooding abound as dams are being built upstream in Laos and China that disrupt the natural flow. So low-lying, the region is especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Beheaded by the sea, Vietnam would lose one of it’s major sources of food. However, the Mekong Delta is an interesting place to look to because the south vietnamese are well adapted to living with water. Most trade occurs on the waterways. The canals are labelled more often than the roads. Fisherman live on floating houses above their nets, townspeople elevate their dwellings upon stilts. It’s a hotbed of do-it-you self, “litte-a” adaptation projects. It’s where people live with the water.
I was excited to get exploring. But my excitement was not without serious nerves about the risks involved in biking around the region.
I recalled the four motorcycle accidents I’ve witnessed this year. The collision in Paris where a scooter wedged tightly into the driver’s side door of a Fiat and sent the driver crashing onto the windshield, the crash in Buenos Aires that jellied my legs as I watched a man eject into the air like a rag doll as he rear ended a car, the one I didn’t can still hear, and the petty accident in Ho Chi Minh where I biker slipped in the rain and got his helmet bumped by the trailing taxi’s front bumper (lucking not the front wheel).
Even as I was riding comfortably working the controls, I was constantly reminded of the consequences of a crash. I heard screaming sirens of rusty miniature ambulances that made medieval medical attention look like a preferred option. I swelled fresh cut wood and saw carpenters were constructing coffins in the open door of a garage . The lush green fields were broken up only by white coffins occupied with bodies of the very men and women who once maintained those plots. They stood above the rice paddies like personal Parthenons, relics to a lifetime of laboring shin deep in the paddy below.
I’m thankful that these images kept popping up; they kept my 110cc engine churning 5 kilometers slower than it might have otherwise.
Of course I could be exaggerating the actual risks. I’m just rather stating what was on my mind. Regardless, the rewards of this six day five night adventure outweighed the concerns. This trip was one of the highlights of my year.
In my eyes, there was no other suitable way to wrap up and head home.
Our trip took us from a home stay on a river island, onto ferries crossing the Gulf of Thailand, to a dinner that perhaps got me a wedding proposal. It was a culmination of everything I’ve learned about traveling on the road. We were off the beaten down lonely planet path in the heart of the un-touristic Mekong. And best of all I had Hunter ‘down for anything’ Rusack as a wing.
He and I disagree on many things. For example, one of his most treasured possessions is his closet of high powered guns. I personally see no need for firearms besides casual hunting rifles or clay pigeon shotguns. On that issue alone we yell at each other in heated arguments. But we see eye to eye on the important things. For example, we 100% agree that the fish pedicure we went to was equally fun and tortuous. We side that rugby may be one of the best sports on earth. And most importantly, there is little better than a sip—healthy quaff—of good beer. These activities don’t comply safely with motorcycle trips but somehow we made it work.
The operation started by scouting out wheels. There is a distinct, and unfortunately quite dreary corner of Ho Chi Minh where most travelers perch during their day or two in Saigon. The alcohol soaked travelers become a magnet for prostitution, drugs, beggars, petty crime, and exploitive prices. It’s a characteristic Southeast Asian backpacker district and adds an alternate personality to the city’s charm. That’s where we went looking.
Since the British TV series Top Gear produced an episode where the hosts ride north along the coast of Vietnam, people, mostly Brits, have flocked to Vietnam to follow suit. It only took us about an hour to scout out a pair of second hand wheels with registration cards. A few of the bikes we found fit our needs but were missing the registration card.
We had read that traffic officers are rumored to turn a blind eye to westerners on motorcycles. It is in fact illegal to drive in Vietnam without a Vietnamese license. We opted for the risk averse option and sought out the blue cards. This turned to be a huge. We got pulled over our first hour on the road. Ill get to that.
Hunter bought a bike for 270 dollars and I rented mine for 700,000, dong, a little bit less than 35.
We strapped our bags on with bungee cords, turned the key, fired up the engine and turned slowly into the relentless stream of Saigon motorcycle traffic.
Remember playing in a pit of those plastic balls as a kid? You could dive around and swim in the infinite sea of bright color. From the top of a bridge looking down at a red light, that’s what the Ho Chi Minh traffic looks like.
Despite the sheer unfathomable numbers of gears, chains, and suffocating fumes of exhaust, the traffic is extremely navigable once you’re in it. The rule of thumb is to never make sudden movements and to always keep your line. Everything moves around you like you’re among an unbounded school of fish. Conventional rules don’t apply. Red lights are suggestions not law. In round-abouts, they’re is no right of way. It’s a gigantic game of chicken or British bulldog. A clear strategy is to find a bold driver and use him as a lead blocker, trailing in his wake as he moves the traffic to his liking. The traffic moves as cleanly as clockwork. For the incalculable volume of close encounters, there are shockingly few collisions.
Without GPS or a good map, we got lost 20 minutes into our ride. The road was the right name, but the accents were different. We found the right road and drove for two minutes before heavy drops of rain perspired from an daunting black cloud to the southwest. The heavy drops gave way to buckets of rain and we found shelter in a Carl’s Jr Hamburger shack. We were 20 minutes out of town but had driven for over an hour.
We got back on route 1a heading South and made it not too far before we got orange-flagged to the roadside by a traffic cop wearing a neat tan suit and a military cap. As I decelerated and pulled into the abandoned lot two officers were collecting cash from Vietnamese riders, I thought about an especially memorable Yvon Chouinard quote:
“The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.”
The cop didn’t have a full grasp of what he wanted from us, and he spoke no english, couldn’t hold our eye contact. He seized our blue cards, but we got them back after a few minutes with a bribe of about 25 dollars. Then went on our way. Hunter was pretty rattled about having to pay the fee. It bummed him out for the afternoon. But we were lucky. That was definitely the best of all possible situations.
We were on our way to the Delta. The Mekong Delta is described by guidebooks with descriptions that evoke pristine natural landscapes of “impossibly green shades”. But from the road side, all I saw was a archaic attempt at US strip mall. It was Sprawl that looked like it could have been cut and pasted from neither here nor there and all points between anywhere in India, Argentina, Bangladesh, China, or Indonesia and I’d assume then any developing nation.
It was a concrete slab, a monotonous wasteland that has been sloppily laid over the landscape. The concrete boxes, the plastic vinyl signs, the plastic chairs, and muddy roadside punctuated by burning piles of trash. The only things that signaled Vietnam was the text, the unique fruits and vegetables, and the eyes I saw between the small space between the brim of their helmet and the lip of their breathing masks to shield their lungs, perhaps uselessly, from the fumes of the industrial wasteland we were cruising through.
For the first six hours driving, our first day, this is all we saw.
Out of the gloom, I saw the suspension beams–as ice blue as the Perito Moreno glacier–of a colossal suspension bridge unfitting of the surrounding context. The bridge spans the first major tributary of the Mekong and sent us in a soaring loop a hundred feet above the river. We took cautious one-eyed glances over side out across the the watery expanse that filled the horizon, took a big gasp of fresh air, and descended down into Vinh Long, hopped on a ferry and found a home stay to spend the night.
Among the damp swamps, we spend the night in a bamboo hut shielded from the mosquitos and preying mantises by thin white nets. The home stay cooked us a Mekong River elephant fish that we wrapped up in rice paper spring rolls and gave us breakfast.
Back on the road the next day and out of clean clothes, we stopped on the roadside to buy Hawaiian shirts from a roadside vendor. It’s the little things.
We steadily made our way south by southwest towards the harbor town Rach Gia. The sights and smells improved slightly. We saw factories and processing planets loading goods onto wooden boats by conveyor belts, riverside homes were always built upon stilts, cup-like terra-cotta kilns came in clusters like upside down egg cartons. Massive piles of sand and gravel were loaded into thin barges that expanded their capacity significantly by retrofitting their vessels with bamboo and netting that fans out from the gunnels.
We got to Rach Gia at 1:45, assuming to hop on a 2 hour ferry, called the Superdong, and cross the Gulf of Thailand to Phu Quoc, an island ordained with white sand beaches. Little did we know that there are only two ferries a day. One at 8am and one at 1pm. So we were unknowingly locked into spending a night.
I went inside the ferry terminal to investigate tickets. The window was unoccupied. In this part of the world, our every move is followed by a handful of pairs of curious eyes. It feels like being a celebrity. My presence looming around the ticket counter was brought to the right man’s attention.
The right man was the wrong man. He was a grumpy old timer who was bothered that I broke a link in his chain smoking. Without looking at me—I had my best I’m lost and hopeless I’d love it with you would work with me here smile on—he fumbled around the desk, found a sign that read Bán Ra sold out, placed it firmly in front of me and turned around to walk out.
I knocked on the counter to get his attention–he didn’t like that–and asked what about tomorrow? while moving one of my hands from its clasped position in front of my chest to the right in a rainbow arc. He pointed at the sign. The next day?! as I moved my hand to the right as far as it would go. He pointed at the sign and looked at me probably questioning if I was illiterate. Next week!?!? I asked frustratedly, even though I knew I’d be on the other side of the world by then, and made that same gesture accompanied with a sweeping sideways head nod.
He lit up a cigarette inside and told me to fuck off with a look so telling it transcended verbal language.
Meanwhile, Hunter was outside standing guard over our goods. He was harassed by the two english speaking touts at the docks. They were pests in a ploy to steal our money. The only good thing these guys did was call him Strongman, which I commandeered and introduced Hunter as for the rest of the trip.
One guy said he could get us tickets on tomorrow mornings. He said they were 500,000 each but they were listed inside as 350,000 I was suspicious. He took us to an unoccupied Superdong booth a kilometer away from the dock. It remained unoccupied for some time so we sat down next to two toothless woman selling lottery tickets and shared our tropical fruit. I had a gut feeling that this guy was up to no good so I called up a Phu Quoc resort listing and asked where the ticket office was for the Superdong. I got a different address and demanded that the punk trying to steal our money take us there.
I walked into the ferry ticket office. Inside, I had a full-fledged argument in pen and ink diagramming while outside Hunter tried to fend off the same guy who was now trying to coax us into staying at one of his recommended hotels. I walked out 45 minutes later with two tickets and a pass to get our motorcycles on board.
The night at Rach Gia, we ate what was listed on the menu as ‘Interesting Social Clam.’ After, we posted up for a beer at a open kitchen, a home thats opened up to customers as most restaurants in rural Vietnam are. A gregarious grandmother seemed to unload the stale food in her fridge and cupboard onto us. She came out with dried squid saying try this! try this! Then came an unidentifiable fish try this! try! more! MORE! Then a green sour fruit. It was endless. It’s hard to know if those things are actually staples of Vietnamese diet or if they were just seeing how much these white monkeys go. We sure impressed them I think. We kept our stomachs bacteria free by chasing the oddities down with whiskey.
The grandmother took a liking, after a bit she was rubbing my chin and grabbing my cheeks. At one point she got on the phone with her granddaughter, a 16 or 17 year old girl who showed up like she was dressed for prom. Hunter was under the impression that I had a wedding date that next morning so I walked out and went to bed. The absurdity of it all dizzied me and I retreated to the chipped white walls of that night’s lodging. Hunter laid it into me for shattering the confidence of a poor teenage girl by walking out on her. She’ll get over it.
For the next two days it rained. We made it onto the island. Circumnavigated the whole thing. Not by choice. We got terribly lost but found some great riding along red dirt roads aside crystal blue lakes and through valleys and jungles.
At our hotel, Hunter fashioned together a backgammon board that occupied most of our time inside the hotel lobby sheltered from the storms. In a gap in the rain, we paddled around the bay in a tandem kayak and got flagged down once again but this time by a friendly old fisherman who wanted to have us aboard the deck of his bright turquoise and red trawler for tea. He was toothless and his broken up english sentences were interspersed with a sickly smoker’s cough. He had aged dark eyes behind his wrinkled eye lids and worked his way around his boat with ease given his age and poor health. He had a couple of homemade tattoos on his fingers that were only a slight shade off from his skin tone. His hands were as weathered as the shells and rocks that sway along the ocean floor. His pneumonia like cough between his long puffs of tobacco was sickly. I had a feeling we met him in his last days.
Later on that day we were walking along the road, when we heard booming music emitting from a tin shack. Some dancing old man walked out and Hunter had a dance off with him from 20 yards away. That was the price of the admission ticket to a full-on 2pm Karaoke party where some construction workers and their rainy day women were wasting away. The poured us beer and never let us see the bottoms of our glasses. They handed us small crabs that were probably just picked up from the beach and told to pop up in our mouths full shell. We gave the Vietnamese karaoke a try but it is impossible to keep up. After 15 minutes over being force fed watery beer, Hunter and I looked at each other, mutually understood we needed to leave, simultaneously stood up, thanked them in unison, and walked out together before it went in a more precarious direction than it already was headed. One whole shell crab was one too many.
After two nights on the island, sleeping to the sounds of rain and heavy waves crashing ashore, we head back to the mainland. The bumpy ferry ride misaligned the rear wheel of my bike and the chain came undone. Without worrying I found my zen and got the chain back into the proper place. But I think I should stick to canvas for my art of motorcycle maintenance proved insufficient. I only made it a kilometer before the chain popped off again and I broke down. Luckily I broke down right in front of a repair shop. About 6 people came over to lend a hand. But one guy took command. Hunter and I watched as he took pieces apart. Hunter knows a good deal about motorcycles and seemed to approve of what was happening. That quelled my worries… slightly. One fella drew diagrams to help me understand what was happening. They asked for 75 cents for their work, mostly screwing and unscrewing. I couldn’t believe how little they asked for and left his young soccer playing son with some spending money.
The next section of the ride was bread and butter, creme da la creme. The highway became a thin stretch of road. Too small for cars and trucks, the real sharks of the road.
On either side of us were expanses of green paddies. We saw pristine vistas through the breaks in the palm trees. We drove alongside a canal where small dug out canoes were parked in low hanging palm roofed garages. The homes were of bamboo and thatched palm. Many of the small walking bridges across the canal had rotted and collapsed with time so people ferried across on styrofoam boxes, plastic tubes, or wood boats if they were lucky and propelled themselves with their hands.
We dodged the rains. Vietnam’s roadways are dominated by motorcycle traffic. You can’t motorbike in the rain. In the United States or Europe, you see throngs of motorcycles posted up underneath bridges or overpasses during downpour. In Vietnam, about every 50 meters people open up their homes to offer coffee and hammocks for rest. It’s an extremely open culture. Privacy is not nearly as big a thing.
Vietnam is one of the safest countries on earth and we never felt uncomfortable in the Mekong. But we did avoid trudging through the countryside because of stories of unexploded mines and forgotten bombs from the Vietnam War. There are casualties and deaths every year, although they’re slowly tapering off with time.
Perhaps the harshest reminder of the war is seeing the left over effects of agent orange from the US’s use of chemical weapons that has caused deformations and grown defects even in generations that were not alive then.
But Vietnam has very much moved on from the war, especially in the South. We were welcomed everywhere with open arms. The gas chamber of my matte black Winn was adorned with a red star decal, right below in the shot my navy blue chuck taylors gripped the footholds.
We drove across to Can Tho, a city of over a million where we spent the next night. We went on an adventurous street food tasting. An aquafina bottle full of rice wine was forced down our throats by a rowdy local crowd at a hot pot restaurant we came across. I get the sense that the Vietnamese are big drinkers.
The rice wine was awful and I collapsed into bed early enough to recover by 5am the next morning to visit the floating markets that make Can Tho famous. The rivers and canals are the arterial highways and the way that produce moves from the farmland into the cities. We hired a man to take us out to the market and back.
On the ride back, our small wooden’s boat outrigged engine fumbled to a stop. The driver heaved it out of the water. The motor was knotted up in a large plastic bag. I wasn’t surprised the edges of the waterways are littered with detritus. He untangled the plastic and threw it right back in the water.
Connect the dots, brother.
That afternoon we made the long haul back to Ho Chi Minh. In fear of being cliche, here the journey was just as good, if not better than any of the destinations. It’s amazing the things that you see riding on the barely two seats of a two wheeled vehicle. A family of five. A couple carrying a 4 foot framed wedding photo. A lady carrying three geese. A lady with baskets and baskets of geese. The most creative people can’t even dream of it.
I can’t tell you how good it felt returning the keys without a scratch on me or the bike or even better without harming anything or anybody else.
Leaving Asia tonight. What a trip. Here’s to a year well lived. Mr. Thomas J. Watson, I owe you one.
I went downstairs after my nighttime shower (bucket of water) to find the dad and son sitting around their coffee table with a big XL popcorn size glass jar with dead geckos, bark, snake skins, and all sorts of other detritus soaking around in clear liquid. It looked like those big jars where 19th century doctors preserved brains and embryos.
The dad took out a ladle and poured me a glass. It wasn’t that bad. I had two. #homebrew
Jakarta Kota through the bamboo
View from the roof: Plastic Surgeon’s office
Ho Chi Minh Homestay
Here’s some recent work. Some are unfinished:
artINDO?HCMC (click the link)
The thatched roof ceiling usually covered with geckos hanging out near the warm lights slowly caved in as if collapsing in a slow motion time-lapse. As it caved the thatches of dried palm turned to green scales. I was startled to realize that the morphing architecture was in fact a gigantic fifteen foot Komodo dragon sliding down from its perch on the roof where it was hanging with the acrobatic agility of a reptile a fraction of its size. The dragon was focused elsewhere until I caught its eye. It started stalking me around the complex, slowly at first. I tried to evade it by running around corners and behind walls but it had me on its radar. It was clearly interested in eating me for dinner and began to accelerate its chase. I knew I wasn’t going to outrun it so I stepped forward with an umbrella to try to poke it where it was weakest: right in the eyeball. The umbrella simply would not penetrate the Komodo’s armored scales. But the dragon was too good at kung fu and took my wrist in its powerful gums which, to my luck, were toothless! But the danger was still imminent, the dragon was sucking my bruised and deformed arm into its body like I was liquid through a straw.
Luckily, my Dad showed up with a shotgun he found inside the branches of a christmas tree, gave me an Indiana Jones-like wink, then shot the Dragon dead twice in the head.Thanks Dad!
That’s how strange my dream was last night before I woke up to watch the Argentina-Netherlands world cup game at 3:30 yesterday morning.
I probably would not have woken up for that game had I not bet on it. Vietnam is a big betting country and the night before I had made a bet with the neighborhood barber: I pay him 5 dollars if the Dutch win; I get a free haircut if Argentina takes the cake.
Back to the dream. I’d love to hear any dream interpretations some of you might have. But I think it’s just a reflection on how awesomely odd my life has become since I moved into a Vietnamese household yesterday.
The house reminds me of the old woman that lives in the shoe with all her children. Like most houses in Ho Chi Minh, this one is extremely narrow, only about 12 feet across, but it’s almost 8 stories high. There are family members, neighborhood kids, and a few animals scattered about the place. I have no idea who is who.
There is a chicken that is staying fresh in the room off the living room. It’s a real big talker. Probably yelling “Freedom” over and over again in the style of Mel Gibson in Braveheart, but he says it so much that it loses dramatic effect. I’ll tell it to talk to my friend Stanton for some acting advice.
My host speaks mediocre english that’s pretty hard to understand. I hope she doesn’t read this. For example: She told me that there was an excellent spot to sit and draw houses on the riverbank from the Ritz.
“So its at the Ritz?!” I asked, a couple of times, then double checked a time or two more, perplexed that there was a luxury hotel chain here in District 8 of Ho Chi Minh.
Man, I must have looked like such an idiot wandering around the streets asking local vendors, who didn’t even understand me, where the Ritz was. Completely out of cards, I crossed over a bridge and got this amazing visual of stilt houses built along the river bank with Ho Chi Minh’s modern skyscrapers emerging in the background. Oh. She said the bridge.
The rest of them don’t speak a word of english.
I arrived in time for lunch yesterday, cooked by my host’s sister in law. The sister in law lives in a room in the house with her husband, who looks like he could be anywhere between my age and my brothers age (a 14 year gap). Since I’ve moved in he has not put on a shirt or shoes. He wears nothing but fancy suit pants without a belt and is sure to be found in front of the TV, usually sleeping.They have a 6 year old daughter who I’ve been tasked with teaching colors and facial features to. It will probably be the most significant english conversation I’ll have in the next two weeks so I’m looking forward to it. (She says Pink like bbbBBBink and Blue, LooOOO. She can’t pronunce a B sound unless shes trying to make a P sound, which she can’t pronounce). Within 30 seconds of meeting the daughter she was climbing over me like I was a jungle gym.
The father’s father died in the Vietnam War, I think. I haven’t really tred into those waters yet. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate. The father is 63 and has pictures of himself posing as an adolescent soldier in his army helmet. After taking me out for drinks one night, he put on his helmet and posed in front of the picture. He then went on to show me his portrait gallery in the living room. Ché hangs next to Nelson Mandela next to Putin next to Bill Clinton giving a copy of his autobiography to Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. Any of my government major friends want to give me an analysis of this man’s political views? The next night, he dressed me up in a bomber jacket, a beret, and aviators and had me stand in front of Ché while he took a picture. He digs my beard.
Who I thought was the father’s father’s wife is actually the fathers wife, but looks as though she could be the grandmother of the host. ( It’s really confusing. It’s impossible to tell who belongs to who and who’s with who, etc). So for the sake of clarity we’ll call her the matriarch of the family. The matriarch gave me a warm two handed hand shake when I arrived. Later on at lunch, she asked where I was from. I heard the english speaking host speak the Vietnamese word for America. She gave me a piercing 3 second look, as if she was de-coding my morals with her years of wisdom, then she returned her complete and utter concentration to happily slurping up the rest of her bowl of soup that had occupied all of her attention before hand.
They’ve turned to use alcohol rather than language to connect to me. The first time I met the father he handed me a hefty slug of Regal Chivas whiskey. Nice to meet you too. He was wearing nothing but camouflage. Camo cargo shorts, a camo t-shirt that read, “DEATH” in big bold letters. Underneath it says, “was our business” and on the back, “and business was good.” Because anything else would simply clash with the well-coordinated wardrobe, he has a camo baseball hat to cap it off.
He’s steadily become a little more sharp. He rocked a Hawaiian print swimsuit, then after put on trendy jeans with a v-neck sweater.
In the afternoon, I went out drawing and exploring the city’s waterways that separate district 8 from district 4 and district 1. I came back to my room after a couple of hours exploring to shower, then grabbed Catch 22 and came downstairs to read. The father showed up, laughed at me and mimed shooting me with an invisible blow gun that he made by curling up his fingers into his thumb in a circle and blowing into to. He then waved at me by making a shoo-ing action with his wrist. So I followed him.
I was pretty worried for a second. What the was he doing with that blow gun symbol? Does he want to go smoke something with me? Shit, opium?
We left the small alleys of the local neighborhood and went out onto the main road. We came to a small stand at the corner where we he showed me a glass case with all sorts of fish skins and street cuisine only identifiable by their potent stench of an object that should never have left the sea. He grumbled at me for my approval and I nodded and gave him a thumbs up, thinking please, no!
So we plopped down into small plastic armchairs that were only a foot from the ground, right in front of the main road to watch the nauseating flow of relentless motorcycle traffic made more dizzying by our saltwater snack. Hundreds of scooters and motorbikes would pass each minute like a infinitely long school of fish.
He ordered us beer, 333. He ‘cheers’ed me each time he wanted me to drink, which was just about every 15 seconds. Then would pick up my can to size up how much I drank in each gulp. Science! After each beer, he’d forcefully jam a ‘Pine Prime Gold’ Korean cigarette into his cigarette holder then shove that into his mouth. Once he thought he lost the holder and abruptly stood up to check the many pockets of his camo cargo shorts, underneath his hat, and around his friend’s neighboring table. I pointed at the ash tray where it was lying right where he left it.
I think my detective work and my willingness to eat some of the salty slab of fish skin he ordered was where I earned his approval.
After that, he’d occasionally break our conversational silence observing the evening street life and pat me on the back or jab my ribs with his elbow and break into a contagious laughter.
After a few beers, he started to teach me some crude Vietnamese words. The language is extremely tonal; there are 6 different accents you can put on each vowel. I really believe that I was saying the same thing. But my butchered pronunciation really agitated him. He’d shake his head disgustedly then, in an attempt to get me to understand, would mumble the proper way of saying in sets of six examples, each time louder and each time closer to my ear drum.
One of his friends picked up the bar tab as a welcoming gift and we went to the next spot. The father led me down the street–waddling because of his baggy cargo shorts and tripping over his sandals that are two sizes too big for him–to his friend’s barber shop. We had some more beer with the barber who is approaching 70, speaks pretty good english, fought in the war, and lost his wife a couple years ago so lives alone in a big house with a yappy dog. This is where I made my world cup bet.
(It’s was great talking to that Ho Chi Minh barber shop owner. I went back the day after to say hi and brag about the Argentinian net-minder’s beast mode saves. I told him the bet was off because penalties aren’t a clean way of winning a game. He agreed but said I could come for a free haircut anytime.)
The beer made us brethren, and we returned to the house. The father was stumbling around at this point, but still crossed the busy road as swiftly and safely as a mine-sweeper crosses a mine-field. He picked up some thinly sliced beef from the butcher then got home, rolled out a mat on the floor of the living room and was snoring within 3 seconds. When I got up for the game the next morning, he was still there. He woke up, made me noodles with egg and the thinly sliced beef, then went right back to sleep, only to wake for the penalty shootout, as if he already knew the decided outcome.
Yesterday, my host took me around the city on the back of her scooter. The roads are mayhem. Scooters drive in every direction at any time and there are millions upon millions of them. The city is more pleasant, cooler, and breezier than most Asian cities I’ve been too. I think thats party because the Vietnamese have decided to leave trees around in the city. There’s shade, greenery, and oxygen. After Dhaka, Varanasi, and Jakarta I’ve realized what a difference trees make. On the run into the center, I picked up some painting supplies and got a linen suit tailor fitted.
I was dropped off on a bridge to paint a scene. I sat down on a big pipe that dominated one half of the sidewalk and started to sketch. A homeless guy came up to me and started prodding me for money. He looked at what I was doing then started to give me advice on where to put my lines. Once he even tried to take the pen out of my hands to do it himself. I told him to stop. So he shifted his position from director into assistant. He held things for me so they wouldn’t blow away in the wind, gave me occasional approving sounds, and washed the brushes I wasn’t using. He got really into the creative process. It was awesome. At the end I reached into my wallet to give him a bit of money, to reciprocate for his service. It was the equivalent of 75 US cents, enough to get him a meal. (The street food here may be the best so far. It is. so. good). But he rejected the compensation. I’m not sure what that says, but it may say that he enjoyed the experience as much as I did. There are bigger things than dollar bills.
World Cup in Indo
Amidst the scent of clove flavored ‘kretec’ cigarettes (the national smell of Indonesia), the place had a faint smell of fish. I couldn’t distinguish if the garage smelled—stunk—because it was the stock hold for the local fisherman or if the odor emanated from the large parrot that was perched right above my head. The room was dimly lit by a projection of the Argentina-Nigeria World Cup game across the garage. When I sat down, I didn’t even notice the bird, whose head and neck was dressed with an incredibly pointy mohawk, mirroring many of the football players on the screen behind. The parrot could have bit my ear off as I sat down if it wanted to. I was startled to see it when I settled.
That was my ‘discreet’ entrance into the local gathering point for the world cup games which are played at 11pm, 3 am and 5 am in Indonesia. Indonesians don’t sleep.
But in rural Indonesia it’s impossible to walk into a room unnoticed.
I was with Robert, a German speaking Italian who has been coaching me a bit in the lineup beyond the surf break here in Pacitan (pronounced PaCHitan).
The peanut gallery, disguised momentarily as an audience, parted space in the middle of the room for us on a woven matt in the accommodating and generous nature of almost all communities I’ve visited in the ‘3rd world.’ We had no other option but to be swallowed in the middle of the sea of Indonesian men, the center of attention.
Around the room, grown men—most incredibly welcoming, many shirtless exposing their thin and boney bodies, some with rotting teeth, a few ominously staring us down—huddled together like kindergarteners on a foam mat. They were joined arm over shoulder, bound together in clusters of friends. A few leaned across tile steps, some were asleep, many added personal sound effects to headers, blocked shots, and pantomimed dives in the game, most were puffing away at thick unfiltered kretec cigarettes.
Using the glow of the screen, I looked around the dark room and saw crates, thick puddles from the tropical storm hammering outside. Rats and geckos lined the ceiling rafters. A bat occasionally flew in and frantically around the space then back out into the thunder and lightning outside.
Clashes of lightning lit up the midnight sky, casting the palm trees into perfect silhouettes. The thunder rumbled the ground like an earthquake or a tsunami wave coming ashore. Each tremor froze the play of game.
The weather had no effect on the jolly atmosphere inside. The men cheered impressive skill, laughed at goofy looking fans, and grimaced at rough fouls. They reacted to the game in the same way Americans did at a bar in Philadelphia, Bengalese did on the dirt mounts of the Sundarbans, or Argentinians did in Ushuaia or Buenos Aires. That’s whats amazing about the world cup. It levels billions from all corners of the globe.
The garage I just described is the one of the many odd places I’ve watched a world cup game so far in Indonesia.
In Jakarta, I was up from a restless sleep at 5 in the morning. I went out to go to 7-11, yes there are 7-11s in Jakarta, and found noise of a game coming from one of the cities alleyways. It’s a football crazed country. I wandered down the alley, stupidly explorative at the night’s darkest hour in a rough city. I found a television hooked up in the middle of the street, the power cable dangling out of a window 7 stories up above. Around the TV sat a gang of cigarette smokers who nonchalantly gave me a head nod when I stumbled upon the group. They were young, in their late 20s, and quite thuggish. Around them, some homeless men were sound asleep on doorsteps. The Netherlands were playing Spain, and giving them a good spanking. The football fans clearly knew there was a hostel with many westerners around the corner so were inviting to have me stick around to watch. The Indonesians made some remarks about the game that I couldn’t understand. We were both cheering for the Dutch so all was well. Although we couldn’t communicate, I went out for Nasi Goreng (fried rice) at a street stall across the street with them after the game for early breakfast.
11 months gone.
Jakarta: first impressions
I saw a guy juggling a soccer ball on the 8th floor of a scaffolding today. The floor was partially installed. If the ball dropped down a floor or two, he would slide down on the I-beams. It reminded me of ‘Man on Wire’ where the french tightrope walker went across the world trade center towers. But he wasn’t doing it to show off or get attention. I’m pretty sure I was the only person watching him, standing on the fringe of a busy road. Death was on the line; it didn’t stop him.
A nice young boy opened the door for me after I picked up a snack of mixed nuts from a convenience store. I thanked him cheerfully for his overly friendly gesture. He stuck out his hand in need of food or money. Oh…right.
Like in Bangladesh, I’ve gotten huge smiles here in Jakarta. For the most part, people are genuinely happy to have foreign visitors. It’s a very welcoming place. I was greeted by “Hello mister!” all over the city.
I went to the harbor, through the poverty stricken neighborhoods of North Jakarta (the most vulnerable to disaster). Many lived in tin shacks, some of the homes were even built on stilts on the water. At the harbor, men were loading cement onto gigantic wooden clipper-ships. The ships had gigantic bows then would bend like bananas into the water were the middle would sit only a couple feet above the water then the stern had large cabins and cockpits like cargo freighters. I paid a man five dollars to canoe me around the harbor. I didn’t enjoy the elderly man laboring on my behalf so I asked for the extra paddle. There were only a few strokes where I didn’t stroke through some sort of garbage or debris.
I got a tour of the Masjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia from a man named Bibi. The central prayer room was a fantastic indoor space with four floors of balconies for overflow.
The traffic in Jakarta is notable. There are times that its so slow that I want to get out and walk. But I cant get out of the taxi because I can’t even open the door. It’s not just bumber to bumber. Its window to window. Tire to tire. The city’s train line is practically empty most of the time so a great way to get North or South. It seems that the city’s transportation system is all about self ownership. There are millions of motorcycles and cars for those who can afford them. The traffic is a case in point that Adam Smith’s theory does not apply universally. The pursuit of self-interest does not lead to any societal benefits. It leads to a gridlocked traffic.
Jakarta is not walkable. Many streets don’t even have sidewalks. With no side walks, there are therefore no crosswalks. So you just have to go. And don’t make any sudden movements or you are mushed meat. The streets in India are more crowded, but here everything moves at much higher speeds making them much more intimidating to cross.
I saw a man put on his prayer cap underneath his helmet. (At least the majority of people here helmets). It’s swelteringly hot. So I can’t see why he put it on unless to say ‘The roads are dangerous. My safety will be decided by Allah.’
As the end nears (I even have a domestic US flight booked from NYC to Memphis for the final presentation and conference) I’m finding it strange to think about heading ‘home’. I’m getting closer and closer to committing to London next year.
Back in it…
Back to standing on the side of a one-way, two lane road for minutes figuring out how to cross–as if its more intimidating than multivariable calculus.
Back to toddlers standing helmet-less on the gas tanks of speeding motorcycles hanging over handlebars like they’re monkeybars and wives side-saddling the on the back cradling a baby.
Back to Muslim prayer calls amplifying out of indiscernable corners of the sky.
Back to cars making seven and a quarter lanes out of a four lane highway.
Back to a mega-city in the developing world. It’s hot, wet, and crowded.
I’ve landed in Jakarta, Indonesia. One of the worlds most sprawling, populated, and polluted cities. It is ranked up there next to Dhaka and Manilla as one of the most vulnerable to climate change on the planet. Each year the northern fringes of the city suffer massive floods. Not to mention the city is in the heart of the Pacific “ring of fire.”
Jakarta is on Java, the most populated island in the world. Java is one of 18,000 (give or take depending on the tides) islands in the Indonesian archipelago. It’s a country of 245 million, the fourth most populated in the world. Over 700 languages are spoken. The archipelago stretches for 5,000 miles across the equator and descends diagonally from west of the Malaysian peninsula all the way east to Northwest Australia.
Descending down into Jakarta, I got a fuller understanding of what it means to be built at sea level. Besides color and texture, the landform is not differentiated from the sea. They are on the same plane and blend together without a definitive coastline.
Jakarta is 35km from here. The topography does not change.
I was forewarned about the touts, thieves, and thugs at the Jakarta airport arrivals. My advisor hadn’t been to Mumbai, Kolkata, or Dhaka. We didn’t have a common denominator of shared experience so I took his warnings into consideration, but mostly shrugged them off.
Outside the airport, the freelancing cabbies were easily deflected with slight smiles and sideways “no thanks” head shakes. The touts could be confidently walked past. In comparison, outside of the central train station in New Delhi, I was followed for a quarter kilometer, poked, and prodded until I had to turn and go nose to nose (his nose was at my chest) to get him to back off.
I found the certified, trusted cab company recommended by the directions my hostel provided.
The cars here are modern and mostly Japansese: Suzukis or Toyotas. They are air conditioned, worlds ahead of the 30 year old fleet of HM Ambassadors held together with loose screws and duct tape that run the streets in India. But besides the material make-up of the roadways, the city’s chaos is on par, or perhaps even greater, than the South Asian giants.
As the largest city in Southeast Asia, the city sprawls on ceaselessly across the flat landscape. The traffic is severe. My ride from the airport craftily got into a chain of fifteen cars drifting, uncomfortably fast, in the wake of an ambulance. At least emergency response was be close by.
In many ways, its like I’ve come full circle back to the lowlands of the Netherlands, there are canals, levees, and sheer flatness. But Jakarta looks like the Netherlands through a filter of the future incorporating a lens of the 2080 projections of global warming and population growth. It feels like I’ve returned to Rotterdam, but almost apocalyptic. It’s as if the Dutch city has abandoned its commitment to green urban development completely. The urban expanse goes on and on.
On the ride into the city I caught some glimpses of the city’s canal ways, laced with garbage and stilt shanty-towns.
At traffic intersections, motorcycles charge off the red lights lights weaving in and out to get ahead of four, six, and eight wheeled vehicles as if they are gazelles or mice running out in front of a stampede of elephants.
It poured with rain today. When it stopped in the late afternoon. I went out to explore the neighborhood, dodging the puddles carefully along the fringe of the road. Like in many of the other ‘developing’ cities I’ve been to, the sidewalk is non-existent or occupied by impromptu restaurants, carts, garbage, and temporary (or permanent) shelters.
I made the mistake of wearing flip flops so my feet quickly turned into unrecognizable forms. I hope they don’t shrivel away into oblivion. People greeted my presence with a familiar look of inquisitiveness–a look that simultaneously says “What the fuck are you doing here?” and “Welcome! Glad you’ve come!” I usually give a head nod and a smile. Most the time that’s reciprocated by some of the biggest heartwarming smiles I’ve ever seen (even from some of the most thuggish looking people) that is rare to find in the hustle and bustle of our western cities.
A gang of skinny 12 year old boys passed by me. Each one had hair frozen solid with hair gel. They were toting cigarettes. One of the boldest gave me a “What’s up dude?!” nod as he toked his dart and blew the smoke in my face.
Welcome to Jakarta.
You’ll be happy to know that I’m an millionaire. I’ve got 1,500,000 Indonesian Rupiah in my back pocket, about 110 USD. It becomes monopoly money at this point.
The lady and the turtle
Her outfit of shin high fireman-red rain boots, aged blue jeans, a white v-neck t-shirt and a bob of permed black hair made her look like a clammer scouring the Cape Cod bay at low tide. She was short and elderly but she moved around her market stall swiftly.
From below a table, she picked up a turtle, which retreated into its shell in flight as it was transported from a watery bucket where it rested. She nonchalantly placed the turtle on a sanded down stump of wood and turned around to continue her conversation–or bargaining–with her customer, an extremely skinny man with wrinkled eyes who had a lit cigarette hanging from his bottom lip that wagged around like a loose screw as he talked. I couldn’t follow their Cantonese dialogue.
The turtle, oblivious to the transaction going on outside–on a layer of the universe beyond his realm of comprehension–set his feet down to feel out the new ground. After safe footing, he stuck his head out to take a look.
On that cue she grabbed a meat cleaver, an object unbefitting of her loving grandmotherly character, and decapitated the turtle without pausing her speech or taking her eyes off of her customer. The headless turtle squirmed its legs, as if to make a run for it, until they descended for fifteen long seconds into a terminal stillness.
The legs and shell were tossed into a pool of boiling water while the turtle head lay on the wooden chop-block, obviously out of context. Softened by the hot water, the turtle’s body was picked apart, opened up, artfully divided by the lady with tremendous skill and dexterity with the meat cleaver, put the pieces into a plastic bag, and then handed to the man.
This was the fish and meat market in Hong Kong. The turtle slaughter was just one tiny stall, a small component of a half kilometer of food processing. Vendors put their offerings–fish and meat that ranged from razor clams to pig snouts, ears, and hearts–on display in damp, smelly stalls that were lit by the glow of red lights. There were turtles, toads, and tuna steaks. Some of the steaks were so fresh they were still twitching. Behind the banter of the customer’s exchange, buzz saws scraped against frozen animal as they cut limbs into portions.
Sights like this are startling to see. It’s vulgar, barbaric even. We are used to collecting food from a grocery store fridge in plastic packaging. It’s too easy to forget the source. I’ve always been a believer that if you are willing to eat an animal you should also be willing to personally kill it. Not in order to be violent, dominant or aggressive, but to have a fuller understanding of cause and the effect.
I stumbled upon this market yesterday after hiking along Hong Kong island’s eastern ridge line to a beach called Tai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay). It’s amazing that a nature preserve and beautiful hiking trail is accessible within 30 minutes from the center of the city.