Snackless and Frustrated in Romblon, Philippines

     Not many people know this, and I’m not sure I should be sharing this with you, but we at the CIA (plenty of people suspect that all this traveling I do is just a front for my job at the CIA, so I might as well come out now. I do work for the CIA—as a janitor, but still) are in advanced development for an effective alternative to waterboarding, which has been too controversial for the namby pamby public. The new plan is to have detainees ask for directions from Filipinos. Early studies have conclusively shown that it is the same level of torture.
     It’s true. We are going to lock them in a room with a Filipino and then ask a few basic questions until they pull all their hair out or blood comes out of their ears. Very effective.

carabao sunrise

     Leaving Carabao Island at sunrise for Tablas, then Romblon.


     It is nothing less than sheer agony to try and get directions from a Filipino. A root of this is the school of thought that wrong directions are better than no directions as it is a way of “saving face” by not having to admit you don’t know something, which drives me insane. It is by no means strictly a Filipino phenomenon, but it is an epidemic here.
     The woman in the Romblon tourist office was dumbstruck when I asked her about places to stay in town. (I asked if I was really the first person to ask this question, and another woman gave a fantastic answer, saying that usually only couples come in.) When she finally came up with something, she pointed to a street and said it was on the left side. Fifteen minutes later I come back red-faced, telling her there is nothing on the left. She then said to go left, then right, then when I got to the market, ask someone. (I felt a little bad later when someone told me that her job wasn’t “supported” by the city, adding that “she doesn’t even get a snack.” Well, OK then, I give poor directions when I am snackless, too.)
     At least she tried. Usually Filipinos start looking nervously left and right and say to take a taxi. Taking a taxi is the answer to everything.
     I made small talk with a girl in a shop in tiny San Agustin, Tablas and when I asked where the Sharapova Internet Cafe(!) was, she started to formulate an answer in her head but then burst into anxiety-ridden laughter at being unable to do anything but freeze up. She could have pointed, she could have said to go one street that way and one street that way, but she was unable to communicate anything, and she spoke English fine. I don’t get it.
waitress and boy

     “Hi, I’m here to apply for the boy position. I have experience.”


     For a country that purports to speak English, I have a lot of communication problems. I can’t put my finger on why. English on a basic level is spoken, yes, but either I am not expressing myself the right way or my accent/mumbling throws them or my word choice isn’t right or I don’t know what the problem is, but it’s a problem.
     My frustration is misguided. I know I am the one in the wrong. I am the one making the demand that we communicate in a language that isn’t their first. English isn’t the lingua franca here, Tagalog is. Still, this is a common exchange:
     Me: What time is the next jeep?
     Filipino: 2pm.
     Me: There isn’t one earlier?
     Filipino: Yes, 10am.
marble starbucks

     Romblon is famous for marble production. I wonder how much a handmade marble Starbucks mug goes for on ebay?


romblon view far

     This is the view from the cell phone tower above town. It was a little hazy, but not this hazy. Why do my photos have that foggy, washed out, Barbara Walters soft focus to them?


romblon view near

     Romblon town is not a big place, but its dense with three and four-story buildings as it sits ensconced among hills on three sides. When Typhoon Yolanda crushed the country last year, devastating large swathes of the Philippines, a guy told me they played basketball on the covered court during the storm as it was passing over. No damage.


     I was in a foul mood by the time I got to Romblon. A boat from Carabao to Santa Fe, Tablas (one hour, 100 pesos), then an excruciatingly slow jeep where I couldn’t sit straight, another uncomfortable boat ride from San Agustin (I think another one hour and 100 pesos) and then the snack-less tourist office lady.
     I might have been imagining things, but the people on Romblon island seemed a little reticent towards me. After you talk with someone, it is like anywhere else in the Philippines and you are fast friends, but at first contact people seem a tad aloof. I was wondering if it was related to the other foreigners I saw. I met one traveling couple, but otherwise, it looked to be only long-term residents (i.e. the old, the fat, and the haggard.)
     In the course of doing research about this island and the one next door, Sibuyan, I came across this guy’s story about a German living there. Westerners might not be held in the highest regard, though it could be a skewed perspective or it all could be in my head.
     Foreigners aren’t allowed to own land so they either marry a local or go through an intermediary. One foreigner told me the trick was to get a dim local as the front man and he/she is happy if they are paid a small stipend every month. That sounds like a risky strategy, as I can’t believe someone isn’t whispering into their ear that they are the true owner and can take over. It’s a shame to hear people talk like that about Filipinos, too, as it perpetuates the idea that the land and the people are ripe for exploiting.
bicycle roast chicken

     A bicycle roast chicken business. I would have killed to have one of these in college.


tiamban beach

     I went to nearby Tiamban, but they had an entrance fee for access to the (public) beach, which I can’t abide, so I walked back to Bonbon Beach and then through Tiamban. I wish I could have gotten away with a picture of a couple I walked past, a classic scene of a very old western man making grunting noises while reading the paper as his young, vibrant-looking Filipina wife was painting a beach scene but with her back to the beach.


romblon high school

     Spacious Romblon High School. It initially feels a little weird to trespass on to a big high school campus, everyone staring at the outsider, but I went slowly toward the court, made some small talk, and was invited to play with a bunch of students and their basketball teacher. I set the good example, passing a lot, playing defense, taking one shot in half an hour, and afterward, the teacher was so thrilled that when I saw him in town later he wanted me to take his motorbike the next day to tour around the island.


giant squid

     A couple of giant squid sold at the market.


kid posing
PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     I stayed at Fel-Mar Pension House in Romblon town, also known as Marble Pension because it’s made of said stone. 300 pesos, as I recall. It’s just on the left. Shared comfort room (shower and toilet) but TV with cable that shows NBA games live. I believe it is the only cheap place in town, though I saw a sign for a lodging room by the port that looked from the outside too sad to even consider.
     Romblon, by the way, is the name of the province that incorporates Carabao, Tablas, and Sibuyan islands, and then Romblon is also an island in Romblon province.

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Escaping the Hell of Boracay in Carabao

     Everything wrong about Boracay can be summed up by the fact there are no basketball courts, which is because there is no central plaza, no community, no planning. There might be one tucked away from my eyes; I could only handle a day in hell. The crowds were overwhelming. It was amazing. Tons of Koreans. Tons. TONS! I weighed them all, and it was tons, and that was just one nationality. I have haven’t seen more than a dozen travelers in three weeks, and now I see thousands.

boracay crowds

     A small, small sample size


     7107 islands in the Philippines, and Boracay is the most famous. Why are people all over the world coming to this over-developed little island, this speck on the map with two McDonald’s, a Starbucks and a mall coming soon?
     Boracay’s selling points are its sandy beach and fantastic sunsets, but the beach is very narrow in parts with no space to enjoy it since it is crowded like Coney Island on the Fourth of July. I saw a guy trying to run on the beach but it was hopeless, like negotiating an obstacle course. The water was clear but chilly, this being the coldest time of year. The only reasons to come to Boracay are wind/kitesurfing or to party with lots and lots of people. Then you are in heaven. Nothing else can be defended.
     Wait, let me wipe the foam from my mouth. OK, I’m good now.
boracay sunset1

     No, I’m telling you, Boracay is really, really bad.


boracay sunset2

     Seriously, you won’t enjoy yourself!


boracay sunset3

     Anyohaseyo! Pass the kimchi!


VIVA CARABAO!
     The real question is how Carabao (also called Hambil), the next island to the north, can remain unaffected while its neighbor is bursting at the seams. It’s startling how calm and peaceful it is in comparison. Same sunset, same white sand (but on the sunrise side,) but a low-illuminated village means a night sky filled with stars.
boracay sea urchins

     Saw innumerable sea urchins and starfish in the shallow waters leaving Boracay. Sea urchins freak me out since my “minor operation” in Vietnam when I had to take a dozen needles out of my feet.


boracay boatman

     My boatman from Boracay. You will need to bargain. I paid 100 pesos. I actually paid 150 pesos because I liked him and he had ten kids. I asked why ten and he said some were “unexpected.” Philippines is a country that might be better served with 20 million people rather than approaching 100 million. There is zero family planning, but that’s a rant for another time.


carabao girl balloon

     This was my boatman’s niece, I think he said. I made an animal balloon for her in a cynical ploy to be short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize.


carabao sign

     Notice the pawn shop in the background. There’s always the pawn shop.


     Carabao means water buffalo. Consensus appears to be that it once was populated by them but the tourist office claims the island is in the shape of one from a certain angle, which, if this were a Rorschach Test, would be deeply unsettling.
     The boatman left me off near San Jose, the only real village. I meandered on the sandy path and barely noticed a faint sign for a tourist information office in a building on the beach with a Jetsons round spaceship design. I went upstairs and gabbed with the three girls (Three! For a place with almost zero tourism!) demanding to know where the Jollibee was. I noticed a bed in one of the adjoining small rooms and they said they rent it out to make some extra money. That’s a great idea. I stayed just for that reason as well as its great location: I love falling asleep to waves gently lapping on the shore below, though less thrilled by the 5am wake-up call of roosters, barking dogs, and people kibbutzing around.
san jose beach

     The tourist information office by the beach, aka my home for two nights.


     There is no real road outside of San Jose. I saw only two vehicles during my stay. Instead, there is a two meter wide concrete strip around the perimeter of the island so everyone uses motorbikes.
     I hitchhiked to the grungier west coast for the sunset in Lanas and Tinapan Beach and then paid a guy too small for his motorcycle 50 pesos to come back. Sitting behind him, he reeked of rum. He said his uncle was the ex-mayor who owns the only place open at night and where the few people here come to hang out by the beach, Five Thirteen. (The gossip is that he was the ex-mayor because he paid the government employees only half their salary.)
     I played basketball one afternoon with the present mayor’s son. The basketball court, like in most small towns, is the center of the town, often more than the Catholic Church. It sits next to a police station. I asked him why Carabao has a police station since there can’t be any crime, and with perfect timing two officers were escorting a man in handcuffs across the basketball court. Public drunkenness.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION (44 pesos = US$1)
     There’s a transgender person named Michael by day and Ella by night who rents a room upstairs from his/her eatery for 150 pesos a night. At night there are only two or three places to eat if you don’t want to be in a resort, and Ella’s is the only restaurant, but even then you should order earlier. That is a drawback of Carabao.

carabao bed view

          Staying in the tourist information office costs 300 pesos but there is no shower; they bring you well water and you ladle it on you. I guess it isn’t for everyone, but it’s cool to have the whole little building to yourself, and this is your view.


     The island has electricity from 4-6am and 1-10pm. There is wifi at Five Thirteen. The password is “republic”.
     Boats
     From Caticlan on the northwest tip of Panay island to Boracay it’s 25 pesos for the boat, 75 pesos for a completely bogus environmental fee and 100 pesos for a completely bogus terminal fee. I’m completely cynical about these fees. Of course, the pier in Boracay is a shambles; the fee money is lining someone’s pockets.
     There are two boats a day from Caticlan to San Jose, Carabao, bypassing Boracay at 9am and 3pm, but the port is is actually in Tabon a few km away, and almost no one in Caticlan knows about it, especially the brain-dead people at tourist information.
     From Boracay to Carabao there is no scheduled boat, but several people told me that half the island comes over to work in Boracay–—a nice commute!—–so that means early morning and late afternoon there is plenty of traffic. I went on the eastern side, Bulabog, on the northern end, but I heard it would be better to find a boat on the western side, White Beach, by Station One.
     Hurry up and go to Carabao; they’re building an airport.
carabao sunset

     See? Carabao has spectacular sunsets, too! Take that, Boracay!


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Couchsurfing in Philippines at the Ati Atihan Festival

girls 19

     Aren’t these girls pretty? They invited me to dance with them and then they started joking about who was single in the group. One girl pointed out another and told me to go for her. They all looked quite young. I asked, “How old is she?”
     “19,” she said, and then added, “Is it enough?”


     I wouldn’t have visited Kalibo during the Ati Atihan Festival if I hadn’t a place to stay. It’s arguably the biggest event in the Philippines with all the accompanying hassle, then there’s either there’s no place to stay or prices are tripled. I was confused about which week Ati Atihan was when I sent a Couchsurfing request to the most active member in the community, a girl named Jamaica who lives in a suburb 10km down the coast called New Washington.
     She said she would “save a piece of floor” for me. It meant a mattress on the ground, which was fine. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes ravaged me and the street noise made it hard to sleep, but you know me, I’m a fighter, an adrenalin junkie, I fly on burning planes, so I persevered.
mosquito bites wrist

     A small sample


     Jamaica wasn’t turning anyone down, it seemed. I think she had 13 or 14 people the last night I was there. (My Couchsurfing host in Recife, Brazil, another give-you-the-shirt-off-her-back type, told me she had 37 guests during Carnival.) I met a gentle Bulgarian couple, an Italian girl working in Burma, several Filipinos, along with this bunch:
ati atihan costume

     Jamaica in the middle, a British couple on the left, and a Canadian and German on the right. I don’t know if I am allowed to use their names. In town I walked five meters behind the two girls on the right and saw the ruckus they caused: people calling out, wanting endless photos or everyone merely smiling in appreciation. The Pope in Manila got less attention.


     I know that most people have a Couchsurfing visit and it doesn’t stick with them, but I had another of those moments where I realized that traveling by yourself for too long makes you dumb. You need to interact with your peers, even if my peers are half my age and look at me funny that I imagine myself as their equal.
     I remember reading about a guy who walked around America for years and he said the important thing was to be around people once in a while so he could recalibrate himself. I would take that further and say that you need to be around others to see how they do things and learn what their perspective is. Traveling alone for too long is to be in a vacuum, a bubble, and you become distant without it becoming apparent. (I am so DEEP—and I blog for free! It’s just not right.)
ati atihan sign

     One night Jamaica invited her visitors to go to her college reunion party. (Who does that? I aspire to be that kind of Couchsurfing host if I ever live somewhere.) It’s almost redundant to say that her classmates were very friendly and welcoming and we marched/danced with them during a part of the festival the next day. They let me hold their sign.


ati atihan band

     Notice the sponsor: Onin’s Party Needs. All kinds of big and small businesses were sponsors: Cebu Pacific Air, Manpower, Dunkin Donuts, a local stationery store, a group called The Snakeman Family, etc.


ati atihan green
     The main difference between the Ati Atihan Festival and the other wannabes, I was told, is audience participation. All the other festivals are mostly watching a parade go by. In Kalibo you are allowed and expected to join and everyone mixes in and dances around with slowly marching bands. My photos don’t do the festival justice and my internet connection won’t let me upload any video, which I might add here later.
ati atihan avatar
     Every band had two and only two instruments: a hand-held xylophone thing that I am sure has a name, and a drum, many variations of drums, all pulsating, all still in my head days later as I type this. There didn’t seem to be many variations of songs, I heard “Top of the world” by the Carpenters(!) over and over, but after a while they all gelled into one long, almost hypnotic trance.
     Bands would disappear down side streets, loop around, reappear in the main square and when they passed each other, sometimes one band would stop playing just long enough to get in sync and then they’d play the same song, the crowd roaring in approval.
girl in colors
     I was struck by how many girls young enough to need two hands to hold a big bottle of beer being passed around were dancing with abandon, no one hassling them, free as can be. Even boys in their early teens dancing together weren’t uncool. Everyone was just having an unself-conscious good time.
     Lots of bottles of alcohol were proffered. Each bottle probably had 500 lips on it by the time it was offered to us, and the more hardcore ones imbibed. I’m not hardcore.
     It was noticeable how little trouble there was despite the huge numbers of people which is testament to the good nature of Filipinos. Some nationalities, when they start drinking, they want to fight. When Filipinos drink, they want to sing and dance. I did see one guy running through the crowd with a lot of blood on the back of his neck and two guys hotly pursuing him. He might have been knifed, so maybe there was one potential stabbing and a genocide or two, but that’s it!
     The police have really nothing to do. A Canadian guy who joined us told me he asked to use the police station’s bathroom and he was invited in, offered part of their buffet, they wanted photos, etc. They, like everyone else, would smile or give a thumbs up or shout to be heard over the music, “Are you enjoy!”
ati atihan drinking
ati atihan ticket

     A ticket for using the toilet, the photo you were dying to see. I am so in tune with my readers.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Hitchhiking in Philippines: Tibiao and the Antique Coast

     Tibiao would have been better if Village Crazy Woman would have stopped following me around and bumming me out. It’s never the Village Supermodel or Village Groupie that gloms on to me, it’s the deranged, disheveled, wild-haired woman the town gives a wide space to. Near me she was muttering to herself and when I would walk away she would follow and keep yelling something that had everyone looking at me even more than they usually would to a rare visitor.
     I thought a brisk walk on the lonely beach would discourage her, but she followed and when I looked to see if she was still with me, she had dropped her pants. I didn’t look long enough to see what she was doing, but I turned around and headed back to town to eventually shake her.

tricycle wifi

     Those Filipinos, I like their sense of humor.


     I hitchhiked from Iloilo westward to the coastal province of Antique (An-TEE-kay). (I’m on the island of Panay, but I never hear the word uttered; people identify more with their province: Antique, Iloilo, Aklan, Capiz, etc.) It took eight or nine rides, and only one seemed to really understand the concept of hitchhiking, two Peace Corps girls, but the others just thought they would help me with a ride, which, I guess, is the concept of hitchhiking.
     It took some time. There aren’t a whole lot of private cars heading to the sparsely populated west coast, but I didn’t mind and enjoyed the warmer weather, the rice fields, lushness and craggy mountain range running along the north-south axis.
     Economically, it’s a little crazy to hitchhike since the local buses are so cheap and frequent, but I met an interesting variety of people and getting stuck at dusk with this sunset about 30km south of Tibiao wasn’t half bad:
antique sunset
tibiao basketball

     In Tibiao I didn’t play basketball because the court was used for the village championship. I came across it when I heard distant screams. Who knew passions could be so ignited for local basketball? It was like Friday Night Lights except instead of Texas football it was Philippines basketball. The village is so saturated with players that they are divided by a few blocks rather than neighborhoods. Sorry for the sucky photo. I don’t have the bandwidth to download a short video I made.


tibiao tax

     It was tax day and the local government came across the street and put some desks in the middle of the basketball court while kids played all around (notice the lack of shoes) so people could more easily pay their taxes. My new friend Helen said the rate is .1% and students are capped at 10 pesos or something like this.


     In the next town another 30km or so up, Culasi, in the late afternoon I put my shoes on and found the town’s main basketball court. There’s always one. I merely walked toward a guy watching a game and he said, “Do you want to play?” That’s My Philippines! I had a nice run with the boys. There was a police officer, a prison guard, and a teacher among them, I was told. So nice to be welcomed to play like that. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to imagine a Filipino guy being welcomed as warmly on an American court. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong.
tibiao fishing

     The daily ritual of gathering fish from a big net at sundown.


     PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     Village Crazy Woman aside, I enjoyed small town Tibiao, and there were two interesting accommodation options. I got some sleep at Homtel, a place on the University of Antique campus (read: no roosters at dawn) with the added benefit of always being around dozens and dozens of pretty, smiling girls. 300 pesos for my own room. (45 pesos = $1.)
Homtel on University of Antique campus

     I got myself in hot water with one of the staff when I texted before my arrival, “Are there fireflies every night?” I had read that Tibiao was known for them, but “firefly” can also mean an easy girl, and the reply was curt: “I’m sorry we don’t have. Just look for other hotels.”


     The other is called Alowihaw Bed and Breakfast (alowihawbedandbreakfast@gmail.com–—I can’t believe that email name was available!) just down the road from the Tibiao Bakery (an island-wide renowned place that manages to not bake anything fresh and everything tastes like a variation of a hot dog bun; the Philippines is a mystery to me sometimes.) It is a perpetually empty place in a doctor’s groovy old house that doubles as a clinic. I would have paid the 400 pesos if the room didn’t have a heavy musty smell.
     In Culasi I stayed at Anna Sophie Guest House (400 pesos). I tried to arrange getting out to nearby Malalison Island (also called Mararison) but after hanging out by the pier for a spell, I couldn’t manage a ride other than chartering a whole boat, which I didn’t want to do. The owner of the guest house said I could take the workers’ boat back to Malalison before dark, but by that time I gave up on the idea.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Guimaras: (almost) everything right about Philippines

     Greetings from the Western Visayas! Who? What? Where? It’s somewhat overlooked even within the Philippines, so here is a map. Guimaras is an island between the biggest cities in the region, Iloilo and Bacolod.

mango country

     Mango country indeed. Few countries are as famous for mangoes than Philippines, and Guimaras is the mango capital of the Philippines. Alas, mango season is April/May.


     It’s in these unprepossessing little places where I get to experience My Philippines:
     I paid an unannounced visit to the government mango research center on the edge of the main town of San Miguel. It’s not meant for visitors, but I popped my head in and spoke with the big boss for fifteen minutes, who was patient and welcoming with my quasi interview. Try that in a US government office anywhere and see how it goes.
     Then I went to the capital building to check out their basketball and tennis courts. (Philippines is to basketball what Germany is to soccer. In Germany a village of a thousand people will have an immaculate soccer field better than any found at an American high school and most colleges. In Philippines you can hardly throw a stale pan de sal without hitting one of the very homemade basketball hoops all over the country, all improvised slapdash construction and few with pavement underfoot, but a basket all the same.) Inside the basketball arena is the emergency response center for natural disasters. A guy was on the computer when I poked my head in to ask if they had a basketball I could borrow to shoot around. As if it were a command, he instantly got up to corral some friends and play with me.
san miguel basketball

     These fine chaps and I dallied in a bit of basketball one splendid afternoon. (I feel very British in my black socks and black shoes.)


     The next time some barefoot high school kids played with me. I had enough fun that I considered staying an extra day just to play with them, something that was surely inexplicable to them–—or to anyone.
     Walking outside, a guy teaching tennis to little kids asked me if I played, and when I said yes, he told a kid to give me his racket so we could rally. After a few minutes I felt bad stealing the kids’ precious court time so I summoned the kid back.
     The point is that this is how Filipinos are. Yes, I am the exotic white man, but I think they’d be pretty welcoming to most anyone of any color, race or creed.
     So that is what I like about Philippines. I suppose it’s a shame to travel a third of the way around the world to play tennis and basketball. (That sound you heard was the carbon footprint people throwing up in their mouths.) Simply put, the Filipino’s friendliness and openness are why I am back here for the fifth time. I’ve been to India five times, too, but the people make me crazy there, so let’s just move on.
mango pizza

     On another visit to the emergency response center the operational head gave me some mango pizza that had been delivered. It is nothing more than thin mango slices in a cheese pizza, but it’s pretty good.


guisi beach

     Alubihod is the big name beach on the island, but it’s no great shakes. It is entirely fronted by so-called resorts and the water was surprisingly cold. The beaches are public, but the resorts want to have you pay for access. The next day I went further away to Guisi, pictured here, which is more the real deal.


lechon manok guimaras

     On the corner of the main intersection in San Miguel sits Papzy’s Lechon Manok, roasted chicken on a spit. I got to talking with Edward, a good-natured guy who told me all the ins and outs of the roasted chicken business. I asked him for his secret recipe, but he only allowed that he used condensed milk, a brown sugar mixture of some kind, and he stuffed them with lemongrass. 195 pesos (US$4.40) for a whole chicken. If you want to eat warm, non-fatty food in the evenings in the village, this is about it. Edward invited me to Sunday dinner, but I was leaving that day.


     Hitchhiking would be a lot easier if there wasn’t such a dearth of private vehicles on the island. I did manage to hitchhike to the most well-known beach, Alubihod, with a Filipino-American and then a Filipino-Canadian on the way back.
     The Filipino-American told me quite a few Americans own nice places tucked away off the main roads. There is a paved road that makes a circumference of the island with lots of dirt roads going into the hinterland. It is odd that Guimaras isn’t more developed. It is so close to a city, unlike Siquijor or Camiguin, which are more on the map, so to speak. I asked the Filipino-American what he misses from the city, Iloilo. He said, “A real sandwich with bread and melted cheese.” Whatever floats your boat, brother.
guisi hitchhike

     Got a ride hitchhiking out of Guisi with these guys in their contraption. It’s funny to see the locals do a double take when they see me go by.


hitchhike tractor

     I hitchhiked out to the northeast coast of Guimaras to East Valencia (horrible, don’t waste your time) and got a ride with this tractor-turned-jeep.


boy on cow

     The three amigos


drying fish

     drying fish


kids jeepney

     This is how I like jeepneys: from ten meters away and preferably with the engine off. If you are in the middle of this, you may as well travel in the trunk of a car next time for the same visceral experience.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     I thought of going to Guimaras as a day trip from Iloilo; it’s only twenty minutes by boat and I couldn’t come up with much information about accommodation, but I’m glad I struck out on my own, and I stayed five nights. That’s reason #55,523 why you should pack light: flexibility.
     I slept at the cheapest place known to man on the island, Sidewalkers Pension House in San Miguel for 150 pesos (45 pesos = US$1) a night. There is a place with similar-looking rooms called Small Wings Pension Inn that is 300 pesos a night. it appears to have a shower while Sidewalkers has merely a bucket of water you fill up and ladle over your head. The toilet is not squat, but not sittable either—the worst of both worlds. Who invented that?
thin mattresses

     Sidewalkers had a drafty, cold room with thin pieces of foam to sleep on. I had to put three together from the other beds to make it tolerable.


     The most interesting place to stay would be the Trappist Monastery just south of town, 700 pesos for a fan room and three meals (“plus two snacks” the lady added) Aircon rooms are 800 pesos a night, but it’s overkill; I have hardly used a fan since I came to the Philippines as nights are mild, even a titch chilly. I went to check it out as well as a rumor that they make mango piayas there. The rooms look the same as any other no-frills cheap place, but at least the paint wasn’t chipping off and everything corroding. It was nearly empty, too.
     There’s really only one place to eat if you don’t want a carinderia (simple restaurant food that sits out cold all day), Isla Kusina. A karaoke session broke out one night, everyone taking turns singing the Top 40 from 1978. Philippines is the best.
     Guimaras has a new post office in the capitol building. It is just a guy behind a desk who wants to know how much your postcard weighs before he can say how much it will cost to send, but still.
     There are prisons on both ends of town. I don’t know what you do with that information. Maybe it isn’t so practical.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Philippines, Land of Hot Chicks and Intensive Frisking

hot chicks

Philippines is full of lonely hot chicks! Paradise!


     This is my fifth time in Philippines. (Is it Philippines or “the Philippines”? It’s a mystery on the same level as why jeepney drivers sit to the right of the steering wheel and why you seldom see fresh coconuts sold on the street. Anyway, my last time was wasted mostly in Manila because I saw a dentist there and forgot I was arriving before Easter, which is the busiest time of year; it was a huge mess. The Pope is coming to (the) Philippines next week and he is making the same mistake: spending too much time in Manila and not enough in the provinces. Unless he’s getting dental work done, he needs to fire his advisers. I’m available.
     This time I made sure to fly out as soon as I got into Manila. I bought a one-way, $54 Cebu Pacific Air ticket to fly southward one hour to Bacolod for no reason at all with the vague plan to see Negros and Panay islands and make it up as I go along, which is all I ever do anyway.
intensive frisking

     “Hi, I just came for the intensive frisking. Do you mind if I go in a circle all afternoon?”


     At Manila airport I asked a security guard if I could bring my water bottle through, and he said sure, as long as I would drink from it after passing through the metal detector, but by then, in our small talk, he forgot about it. Instead, he was fixated on me traveling alone, peppering me with questions about why I wouldn’t be with somebody. I hear it all the time. Five times in Philippines gets you used to that.
     I could be dragging a surface-to-air missile through an airport metal detector with “Abu Sayyaf” written on the side and a Filipino security guard will always be more interested as to why I am traveling alone. “Sir, where is your companion? Why only one? No family?”
     Throughout the terminal, on every single TV, what was broadcast was not CNN or some nature channel highlighting the beauty of the country, rather it was the Sacramento/Minnesota NBA game. That’s a serious love of basketball. You couldn’t pay an American to watch a matchup of those two teams, but in the airport I saw many in rapt attention. All over the country you find NBA games live on TV in the morning and repeated for evening prime time viewing. It’s great.
     If an NBA team were smart, they would sign a Filipino point guard. The team would instantly be the toast of the country, sell 96 million t-shirts and have a nation under its spell. If I’m not too busy advising the Pope on his travel plans, I’d happily be the consigliere to the NBA in my free time.
bongbongs
     I had imagined Bacolod would be an atmospheric, provincial backwater and I read rumors that it is a foodie town, which Philippines needs a thousand more of, but I never got a solid impression. It rained the entire time and the Bacolod Pension House, already heavy on the scruff, was making me crazy with 3am parties, so I only stayed two wet nights.
     Bacolod is renowned for chicken inasal (grilled chicken in a marinade of spices) and piaya (a kind of thin pancake with a sweet molasses filling). They’re both great, but not exactly enough to risk my life getting here.
bacolod karaoke

     Filipinos are mad about music. Any way I express this will be severely understating it. What country doesn’t like singing and dancing? But, no, you don’t understand, it’s different here. It’s their oxygen. At this humdrum, nearly empty food court in Bacolod I saw these two talented girls. Even the humble keyboardist broke out a very strong, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”


     I took a 225 peso ($5), 75 minute ferry boat west to Iloilo on the island of Panay, which is a step up in charm, but I found it only so-so. The foul-smelling, noisy abundance of jeepneys doesn’t help its ambience, but my anti-jeepney screed is for another time.
     I have only found my Filipino groove in the place I just arrived, nearby Guimaras island, but that’s next blog post. Let me soak it in a while. I already have a title: “Guimaras: everything right about the Philippines.”
visa free filipinos

     A sign on a travel agency. What do Filipinos do with this information? What do they think when they see they can stay 90 days in Zambia? I’m confused.


churchandstate

     Talk about the intersection of church and state. I can’t recall ever seeing a church using it’s building as a giant billboard for political advertising. It’s a shame. This is the story behind it.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     Low-end accommodation in Philippines is rough on the soul, but you get what you pay for. I checked at least a dozen cheap hotels and pensions in Silay, Bacolod, and Iloilo, and not one challenged my belief that travel is evil. We all really need to stop traveling.
     Ong Bun Pension House with branches in Bacolod and Iloilo reined me in with their website, but websites not named TheDromomaniac.com can sometimes lie. It seemed that in this case, three seconds after it was finished being built/renovated, they quickly took all the photos for the website, because the reality is something different. Both branches attract traffic because they’re the cheapest places around and have rooms starting at just 150 pesos (US$3.30) for a fan single.
     The Bacolod Ong Bun was one of the first places I saw right off the plane in a daze from my five flights to get there. At 2pm I was at the reception when a fresh-faced happy young couple were checking out. I turned to the girl and asked, “Oh, is it that kind of hotel?” She gave a wry, Mona Lisa smile, not wanting to lie, but not eager to start a conversation about it. I found the place super sad but then realized a dozen pensions later that it is standard and I simply have to acclimate myself.
     Even so, the Iloilo Ong Bun is more asylum than hotel. It has a location and price that can’t be beat, so it fills up every afternoon with rowdy groups of locals. It’s a madhouse with wretched bathrooms—“comfort rooms” or “C.R.” they’re called—to match.
ong bun pension

     Ong Bun Iloilo


ong bun cell

     Ong Bun, more cell than room


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

The worst flight ever

     I had the worst or second worst flight of my life. Right up there is flying with hundreds of distressed Ethiopian maids in fits of hysteria from Bahrain to Addis Ababa, but at least that plane was functioning correctly. In this case, an engine blew in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Allow me to tell the journey chronologically because I know everyone wants to hear about Honolulu airport’s bathrooms, too.
     Earlier this week I impulsively bought a one-way ticket to Manila on United Airlines leaving on New Year’s Eve for $558. (I know, I know, I’m not happy about it either.) I would actually be missing New Year’s Eve because I was flying over the International Date Line before midnight, not that I had anyone to celebrate with me anyway. (I know, I know, I’m not happy about it either.) It was a crusher of a flight: San Francisco-Honolulu-Guam-Manila, 20+ hours, plus a Philippine domestic flight seven hours afterward.

sf view

     View of good old San Francisco after liftoff. Why did I leave again?


     The wonderfully outdated Honolulu airport is something to behold. No screens inside the terminal telling you what gate your flight is, no wifi, few amenities, just some old dark wooden native designs on the walls. Walking into one of the antiquated bathrooms with the ravaged tile floor made me nostalgic for my elementary school. It’s as if the Hawaiians are saying, “Look, we just don’t care about the airport. It serves its purpose. We’ll just have a few shops and we’re cool with it looking like a rundown 1970’s tiki bar.”
     I was impressed by Hawai’i’i’i’i from the air even though I saw only the humdrum approach over Kailua and around Honolulu. It was striking to see the stark, craggy mountains and glossy-photo-mag-perfect sea. Throw in the beautiful people working at the airport and their pretty smiles and pleasant disposition and it has whet my appetite for returning.
     I had the opposite experience the last time I had a stopover in Honolulu, also on a one-way ticket to Manila (where a man on the flight, after I told him it would be my first time to the Philippines, shouted for half the plane to hear, “SO YOU’RE A VIRGIN TO THE PHILIPPINES? YOU ARE GOING TO LOOOVE THE LADIES!!!) For some reason, maybe it was my loud, primary-color clothes, I was taken out from the transit area and through a set of unmarked doors. I was instructed to lean against the wall to be searched in a hallway next to an unused open elevator, mafia style. It was never explained to me what I might have done.
hawaiian mens toilet

     Honolulu airport men’s bathroom signage


     The flight was late in arriving to Guam so we all made a race of it for the connecting flight to Manila. Everyone was pretty spent at this point so they kept the lights off in the aircraft to allow an attempt at sleeping. I hadn’t bothered looking out the window, but I heard a small commotion and saw this:

     This isn’t what you want to see in the middle of the night. I had dozed and wasn’t sure how far we were from land, but I knew we were screwed if we were going down. A flight attendant came by and she craned her neck over me to see the flames—those are flames, right?—whereupon she quickly phoned the cockpit.
     After a very unnerving 10 or 15 minutes where one wonders about the meaning of life and what unfinished business there is, the captain announced that there was a problem with the engine and we were returning to Guam, which would take about an hour and 20 minutes. He warned us that that he was about to shut off the bad engine and I guess there are balance issues, so it was an amazing bit of skill that the pilot turned the plane 180 degrees without me noticing it.

guam manila map

     Guam to Manila is 3.5 hours; when you are 80 minutes west of Guam and at least a good hour from Yap Islands, that’s remote. (I once sold a Yap license plate that I bought at a Berlin flea market on ebay for only $12. What is wrong with people these days?)


     When we got on the next aircraft with the same crew, I overheard a flight attendant telling a passenger that in seventeen years of flying, she had never encountered anything like it. Then, once underway, the pilot got on the intercom and in that very practiced, breezy way they speak, said that in fifteen years of flying, he had never encountered anything like it.
     But the drama wasn’t over, oh no. Soon after liftoff, a teenage girl sitting across the aisle from me had a seizure. I couldn’t tell if this was a regular occurrence as her parents grew increasingly flustered and a flight attendant had to get on the intercom to ask if there was a doctor on board. She was carried to the back row for the rest of the flight. I saw her in a wheelchair later in the terminal looking dazed, but OK.
united letter

     I spent over an hour trying to get United staff in Guam and Manila to do something about my next flight that I had missed. I thought I had planned perfectly for by scheduling it seven hours after my arrival in Manila, but my arrival was exactly seven hours late. United’s supervisors could only suggest I send an email to complain—the black hole—but I squeezed this letter out of them. I like the tone of the last sentence: we don’t know why we’re doing this, but if it gets him off our backs, then we’re OK with it.
     Cebu Pacific Air is an ultra-low cost, don’t-come-crying-to-us-about-your-missed-flight airline, and yet the girl at the counter merely looked at the old reservation and put me on the next flight out to Bacolod without a word. Long live Cebu Pacific!


manny pacquiao plane

     View of Manila Airport and an AirAsia Manny Pacquiao plane on my fifth flight of the journey, an hour south to Bacolod. Five days before, an AirAsia flight had crashed, killing everyone, and three days before, another AirAsia jet overran the runway on Panay, the island I am on now. On my flight it was rainy and windy and the pilot seemed to not want to take any chances, landing 3cm after the start of the runway.


     I thought the doomed flight would be a big news story in light of the other bad flight news from Southeast Asia, but only the Guam press seemed interested. United put out a statement saying, “After take-off our flight crew reported engine vibration and an illuminated oil filter bypass light prompting our precautionary return to Guam.” No one wants to say the f-word—fire.

     Two quick random rants:
     How can San Francisco’s BART metro trains look so shabby? Have they not once been renovated since the 70’s? All the wealth in the Bay Area and it’s embarrassing how tired and scruffy they look. Cairo metro has better looking trains.
     United thinks it’s cool to fly 5.5 hours to Hawaii and 7.5 hours to Guam and not serve you food—or, I should say in airline parlance, they give you the option to purchase food. I planned ahead, buying a small mountain of sandwiches for the trip from a Subway shop run my two Filipinos from Iloilo (where I am writing this now) but come on.
     I am for Guam’s independence just so United is compelled to serve food on the international flight. On the second go-round to Manila, United didn’t serve food at all, just a golf ball-sized old muffin. In Guam airport while we were waiting for the new aircraft they brought out a few dozen snacks and drinks, not enough for even half the 164 passengers. Bush league. However, it is noteworthy that I was the only one stirred up about it, it appeared. Other than one man upset about something with his ticket, I was struck by the fact that I didn’t see one Filipino visibly bothered by our predicament and they calmly waited it out. Kudos to them. If it was a plane full of Americans, it would have been ugly.

     Update: United has offered to give me a $150 certificate for a future flight or 7500 frequent flyer miles. Both had conditions that confused me; I went with the $150.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     I couldn’t check in for my flight online because I had booked a one-way ticket and read that I had to show an onward ticket. I dutifully invented one, as I do, but at the airport the United agent only cared about knowing what date I intended to leave Philippines in order to enter it at the kiosk. She didn’t care to see it. I don’t know if it was related to my telling her that she looked like Zoe Saldana and she exclaiming that it was her favorite actress, but someone more Rico Suave than me can maybe work it better to distract the agent, who really doesn’t care and is just following protocol.
     Philippines immigration in Manila also asked for the date of my departure without wanting to see the ticket. In their case I think they just want to hear that it will be less than 30 days since that’s how long the visa on arrival is.
     When booking seats online take the best seat you can at the time and then log in again closer to your flight and you might be surprised how many seats free up. I managed to arrange it so I sat without someone next to me for the first three flights.
     The lesson of the day is that we should never fly. We should hardly travel. Live locally. Don’t go anywhere where it involves more than a couple hours of driving, or better, hitchhiking. Accordingly, we should have no long-distance friends. That’s the lesson. I should have negotiated with United for one last flight back to Hawai’i’i’i’i and never leave.
     As it is, this is probably the beginning of the 29th straight year where I am traveling for over six months, which fills me with embarrassment much more than pride. Let’s hope that the first day of the year/trip is the worst day of the year/trip.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Forgotten, fantastic, unappreciated 80’s music

     Who cares about 80s music? You should! It wasn’t just U2, R.E.M. and Cyndi Lauper. When I went to college—I went to college!—I was a DJ at the campus radio station, KCSB 91.9 FM, for three years. I played alternative 60s music with a show called “Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out”, but it felt restrictive to limit myself to that decade, even if I managed to unearth gems like The Travel Agency and Vanilla Fudge. I always volunteered to fill in for any other DJ’s time slot and play the progressive music of the day, which left an indelible impression on me.
     Some of these songs had a blip of popularity, some were under the radar even at the time. To appreciate these songs I have suggested the best time to listen. You have to be in the right mood to give these a chanc, though in a lot of cases, they lose something when you watch the videos. This was the early days of MTV and bands were, let’s say politely, finding their way with uneven results. No matter. Let’s do this!

Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls – “Before Too Long
     Why don’t we start in Australia? “Before Too Long” is a simple, pop masterpiece with a decent video which makes it stand out from all the dreck of the time. Whenever Paul Kelly toured America, he had to change the band name as “coloured girls” was too inflammatory. I don’t know if anything has changed since.
     Best time to listen: after you’ve thrown that god-awful vegemite in the trash, when you need a simple pick-me-up.
     If you are into this you might like: Hoodoo Gurus – “I Want You Back, Ratcat – “That Ain’t Bad (though there’s a loooot of antipathy for Ratcat among Australians, which I’ve never understood. Maybe the singer is too pretty boy), and Hunters and Collectors – “Do You See What I See?.

Let’s Active – “Every Word Means No
     When I drove around the country watching baseball games with my college roommate we showed up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to see the singer Mitch Easter and his famous Drive-in Studio where R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” was recorded. We met his father who let us poke our head in. Socially, the 80s were like communist Eastern Europe: in an era without cell phones, it wasn’t such a big deal to show up at someone’s house unannounced and uninvited.
     Best time to listen: during those fleeting moments when you aren’t put off by guys wearing eyeliner, when you can’t get enough of puppies in videos.
     If you are into this you might like: Matthew Sweet – “I’ve Been Waiting, another infectious, pure pop song. (If you haven’t guessed yet, the secret to any good song is backing vocals) Translator – “Everywhere That I’m Not (but a painfully bad video, I’m warning you. Major cringe.), The Bluebells – “Cath, though I don’t feel too strongly about it, and The Alarm – “The Stand.

Gang of Four – “I Love a Man in a Uniform
     ‘Twas tough to decide between this and “A Man with a Good Car“. Gang of Four had a moment in the sun, but they have fallen off the map, lamentably. Great band name, too. (What are horrible band names? The Cars, The Police, Backstreet Boys.) The British were miles ahead of the Americans in many respects, musically. It seemed they were always pushing the envelope more than us.
     Best time to listen: When you have an appreciation for grainy videos, when you want to have an impromptu dance-off with the fun-loving guards on Tiananmen Square.
     If you are into this you might like: Human League – “The Lebanon, Gene Loves Jezebel – “Desire and Bow Wow Wow – “Do You Wanna Hold Me? (It’s amazing to think that the singer was a 13-year-old Burmese kid discovered while working in a dry cleaners in London.)

Toy Dolls – “Dig That Groove Baby“.
     Why is it that usually I can’t hear the accent when British people sing? In this frenetic song it is inescapable. Who are the Toy Dolls of 2014? How does anyone hear new music these days in such a disjointed musical world? Who are the tastemakers? Why so many questions when all you came here for was to listen to some songs?
     Best time to listen: when you’re out of Red Bull, when in need of an alarm clock tone, when you don’t mind misunderstanding most of a song.
     If you are into this you might like: Paleface “Burn and Rob, The Dickies – “Banana Splits, D.O.A. – “Whatcha Gonna Do?, and Agent Orange – “Somebody to Love“.

Spike in Vain – “e.k.g.
     Another DJ at the radio station, Eric Stone, turned me on to this obscure Ohio band. It seemed impossibly heavy at the time, though feels almost pop-ish now.
     Best time to listen: when your wife leaves you, during prostate exams, while being waterboarded.
     It might be a stretch, but if you are into this you might like: Minutemen – “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love“, Superchunk – “Slack Motherfucker, and maybe Dinosaur Jr. – “Just Like Heaven.

Wasted Youth – “Buckethead
     What do you call this? Thrash? Speedcore? Lullaby? I don’t know, but it was way ahead of its time by a band that had suddenly changed its sound.
     Best time to listen: before doing crimes, on overnight buses in India, while having bamboo splints shoved up your fingernails.
     If you are into this you might like: Black Flag – “Wound Up with the redoubtable Henry Rollins, this video shows the guy’s bottomless energy, Onslaught – “Power From Hell, and Husker Du – “Eight Miles High

Game Theory – “24
     Straight out of Davis, California, home of one of the many schools I was going to transfer to but got cold feet at the last moment. Everyone finds this song too flimsy or lightweight but never in an ethereal sense. It’s just important to hear it at the right time.
     Best time to listen: A rainy, lazy Sunday morning. Do not listen when preoccupied, in hot weather, or in a good mood.
     If you are into this you might like: Pylon – “Crazy, Billy Bragg – “The Milkman of Human Kindness, and The Church – “Under The Milky Way.

The Basics – “Run By You
     This was the band of my college roommate, Marc Taub, but don’t dismiss this out of hand. The Basics went on tour with General Public whom you might know from their big hit, “Tenderness” or more likely know from their previous, seminal band, English Beat. The Basics were a mainstay at UCSB college parties. I didn’t know how good I had it. It’s amusing that a business called Puke N Vomit sells the record.
     Best time to listen: in a nostalgic mood, when I realize the $75 I paid for Marc’s Fender acoustic when he was broke was money well spent (though I am the worst guitarist for someone who owns six guitars.)
     If you are into this you might like: Bad Manners – “Lip Up Fatty“, The Selecter – “Three Minute Hero“. and Fishbone – “Ugly
     Now that I think about it, there is a lot of forgotten, fantastic, unappreciated 90’s music, too…

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Ten months later, the end: Bangkok to Los Angeles

eat am are

     More verbs, please!


     After exactly ten months away, the end of the trip is here. Ten months is a long time to be running around, if you weren’t sure. For the 28th straight year of my post-university life, I have been traveling at least six months of the year. That’s too much, if you weren’t sure. My longest trip was twelve months and twelve days, and I was brain-dead the last month or three. This time I paced myself better with a couple of house-sitting gigs and some laziness in Europe. I look back at it now as wasted time since I didn’t go to Africa when it was sitting right there below me, but, psychologically, in the big picture it might have been the right thing to do.
     The end found me in Bangkok. Everyone finds themselves in Bangkok, the hub of Asia, at some point. As much of a magnet that it is, most travelers don’t like to dwell. (Some think that boiling pots of danger lurk on every corner.) I can easily stay for a week, but I am always easily entertained in big cities.
     Besides, it can take a lot of time to accomplish anything in one day in this sprawling megapolis. My goal in Bangkok is to never use taxis and, of course, tuk-tuks to get around, but I need buffer time to allow for the challenging bus system. Thais sometimes very happily will give you directions that are completely wrong, probably because of the belief that wrong directions are better than no directions. Even when I think I am on top of things with my destination written in Thai for the ticket person, it can still be problematic because they are sometimes illiterate, which always embarrasses me more than they appear to be.
bkk apt sign

     This looks like some deal. I don’t know what the asterisk might mean, but 5500 baht is US$167.


bkk boat hyacinth

     Bangkok’s mighty Chao Phraya River is plagued with this water hyacinth.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION #1:
     I flew from Phuket to Bangkok for only $35 net on Malindo Air which is also called Thai LionAir. One free checked bag, too. The bus would have been 10-12 hours and $20. (A quick aside: I considered taking the bus for exactly three seconds. Young Kent Foster would have taken the bus and thought to himself, “With that $15 I saved, I can stay in a ragged guest house for three days. Cha-ching!” Sometimes I don’t miss being Young Kent Foster.)
     The public transport secret for Bangkok is the Saen Saeb boat that goes from near Khao San Road/Democracy Monument eastward to the Siam Square area and beyond. This is the map of the route. It’s unique and fun and a godsend to go quickly across town. If you are a woman wearing a skirt or a shy Scotsman in a kilt, it could get a little awkward to discreetly climb over the rope and down into the boat.
     Where to stay in Bangkok? It’s the question on everyone’s minds because so many travelers have huge backpacks and “can’t be bothered”—I hate this expression—to change places, so they plant themselves firmly and suffer the consequences if they don’t like it. Be flexible! I often ask guest house managers if travelers reserve rooms in advance versus just walking in, and it seems that the average is about 90% book in advance. That’s too high.
     I stayed in three places: Fab Hostel for 450 baht (US$14) for a single, kind of near Silom Road, a bit of a walk south of Surasak BTS station, Sawatdee Guest House in Thewet (north of Khao San Road near the National Library) for 250 baht for a single—I’ve stayed in every guest house in Thewet now—and an official HI hostel by Victory Monument for 390 baht for a dorm bed.
     I used Travelfish to check out my accommodation options, but the problem with any information in Bangkok is that too much changes too fast. The cool, hip new guest house from 2013 very quickly turns into an overrun, clogged-drain nightmare like every other Bangkok guest house by 2014.
fab hostel

     Fab hostel doesn’t look like you are in a huge city, does it?


     LOS ANGELES!
     The theme music for Los Angeles is by an under-appreciated 1980s LA punk band called “X”. (When is punk coming back? The time is right and it’s desperately needed.) The wretched airport aside, I always look forward to Los Angeles, one of the world’s great cities. Everyone thinks I am joking when I say that, preferring San Francisco, but LA is just hard to get to know as it is too large and unwieldy for travelers passing through to digest.
am pm drink

     Back in the Land of Giant Drinks. 100 ounces (3 liters!)


trader joes salt

     Kosher salt from Pakistan(!) packed in South Africa(!!) and sold in USA(!!!)


valley smog

     Great to be back in Beijing—wait, where am I? This is about an hour north of Los Angeles coming over Grapevine. If you know the John Steinbeck book, “The Grapes of Wrath”, this is the pass the Joads come over and find the fertile land of plenty. Nowadays the Central Valley has the worst air pollution in America, worse than Los Angeles’, but when it’s 32C (90F) in November, I say that breathing is overrated. Did you know that beyond that haze is where 90% of the entire world’s almonds are grown? And don’t get me started on grapes, walnuts, oranges, cotton, figs, rice, dairy…


PRACTICAL INFORMATION #2:
     I flew from Bangkok to Los Angeles on China Southern Airlines for $566 one way. I know, I’m not happy about it either. Cheaper would have been to fly on norwegian.com via Europe, but that’s much longer and I hate flying. Turbulence kills me, and it is unnerving to hear Chinese pilots with their shaky English. Maybe I should have gone with the sing-songy Norwegians.
     My dear foreign friends! Don’t fly into a US airport and expect to stop by a tourist information office to get yourself sorted. They don’t exist. (Am I mistaken? I can’t think of any off the top of my head.)
     My destiny might be to work at Los Angeles Airport in a true tourist information office. I like helping travelers and Los Angeles is a black hole for good information. LAX only has a volunteer post where the staff gamely try and help people with transport and hotel questions, but it is unconscionable that the Great City of Los Angeles doesn’t see the value of having a professional service or believe that this first impression for visitors is important. As it is, travelers are thrown to the wolves, and Los Angeles is extremely traveler-unfriendly. Stay tuned.
dusty tennis

     Did I mention I have been away ten months?


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Thailand, world heavyweight night market champion

be plump

     The Thais, they are very direct people, no mucking about.


     Yes, it’s true, Thailand does night markets better than any other country I know, and I know a few countries. I gushed about them last time I was in Bangkok and northern Thailand, and I’m still impressed. The venues are often in attractive surroundings whether in Phuket on the most beautiful street or in Bangkok among shops selling vintage American memorabilia and old classic cars and motorcycles. Most people sell new stuff, but it’s not uncommon to have a cool mix of homemade things, oddball items you don’t see anywhere else, and things that make you stop in your tracks, like obscure 1970s records or Japanese baseball uniforms.
     Speaking of which, before I start foaming at the mouth and this turns into a lovefest, I still say Japanese flea markets are the best, mainly because they have the weird, quality second hand stuff I like, but Thailand is more festive and it might be out-Japaning Japan in the cuteness game.
     The night markets are one explanation as to why women love Thailand: everything is cute: the presentation is low-key, the venues are calm, the delicious food is all in bite-sized portions, the clothes are petite and subtly stylish, not to mention the general inexpensivosity. It’s all one big, cozy, fun, safe night out.
texaco poser

     There is an epidemic in Asia of people needing to pose next to something, anything. I don’t get it. Is this an extension of the selfie obsession? (I would say the number one thing sold on the beaches of Thailand is a metal rod that attaches to your smartphone which lets you take a selfie two feet farther away.) People had to wait their turn to take their photo next to the Texaco pump, fiddling with the nozzle. This girl’s boyfriend wasn’t pleased with me.


thalang singer

     The Sunday night Market on Thalang Street in Phuket Town. Every night market in Thailand has live music, often several acts at the same time.


phuket shirt

     Bought at the Thalang Sunday Market for 180 baht (US$5.75), pricey for Thailand. It’s rare to find anything in a night market that costs more than 300 baht (US$10 max).


indy market sign
indy market food
indy market sushi

     Sushi? Sushi! There’s usually one sushi seller per market, usually 5-8 baht (US 20 cents) per piece.


muslim food venders

     The woman laughed when I returned for another sticky rice with sweetened, dried meat, chiding me, “Again?!”


SEMI-PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     Krabi‘s night market is really all about food, but it is fun and busy. Both nights I was there it rained, so I had nothing to do but continue my pork-eating binge. Spain and Thailand are the two pork-eating capitals for me. In Thailand they make an addicting sour sausage that comes from the Northeast.
     The Indy Market in Phuket Town is supposedly for teenagers to sell their stuff, but some teenagers looked pretty old. It’s Wed-Fri nights, small, but with a nice variety of goods and foods on offer.
     The Sunday evening Thalang Street Market in Phuket Town is on…Sunday evening. Thank you. It’s a blast, but I get the feeling it will turn into Chiang Mai’s and become too crowded. Go while it’s perfect.
     On the north end of Karon Beach there is a night market on Tuesday evenings, but it’s bogus and not worth your time unless you are nearby.
     There is something newish in Bangkok called JJ Green (Chatuchak is also known as Jatujak, or JJ) on the north side of Chatuchak Market on Saturday and Sunday evenings. It’s excellent, maybe my favorite one. Fantastic atmosphere, also on the verge of becoming too popular, but it’s a big space.
     The Talad Rot Fai (Train Market) used to be just to the west of Chatuchak Market by the train tracks but then moved to the far other end of Bangkok and kept its name, confusingly. I went on a drizzly evening, so I couldn’t get a full taste of it, but the most interesting sellers are way in the back by the driving range. It’s Thurs-Sun evenings. The easiest way to get there is to take the BTS Skytrain to On Nut station and find the seungthaew (pickup truck, 7 baht) that is going to Seacon Square, then walk behind it from the Tesco Lotus end.
     The Thieves Market at Khlong Thom by Worrachak and Charoen Krung Roads is worth checking out, but it’s a zoo. I believe it is a day market most days but a night market on Saturday and possibly other days. Getting reliable. recent information is tough and you can’t trust every website you see, except TheDromomaniac.com.
     Chatuchak Market is the granddaddy of them all, though it’s only a day market. I don’t lose sleep if I am in town and don’t go, but I understand that it is too much of an institution to pass on if you have never been there before. I make a beeline to one shop I like that sells unique t-shirts, but nothing else stirs me.
     I went last weekend. There is a police office next to Chatuchak Market that also acts as tourist information. I always pop in because they speak good English. It was only later when I realized this was a strange conversation:
     Me: “How do I get to the Thieves Market?
     Policeman: “It’s near Chinatown. Are you looking for illegal DVDs?”
     Me: “No, just looking for second hand stuff, old things. What do they have there?”
     Policeman: “It was known as a place for stolen items, but now most people go there for illegal DVDs.”
     And then the helpful policeman told me the wrong bus and it took hours to get there.
thai job low pay

     These markets might be for middle-to-upper class Thais. This is a job announcement for a fast food place in a mall in Bangkok. The pay for the part time job is 37-41 baht an hour, which is about US$1.20. As I said in my last post, Bangkok is cheap, but it’s not that cheap, and that’s from a foreigner’s perspective. It’s hard to find noodle soup for 40 baht, and one shouldn’t have to work an hour to afford a simple noodle soup. It must be tough to survive at that wage.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

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