Saturday, November 22, 2008

Finally, a few photos from Egypt

I'll try to put up some Romania photos later, but I did have a chance to upload a few from Egypt. You can find them on my Flickr page:

And here is one to wet your appetite:


Happy Thanksgiving to Everyone!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Was I supposed to let the monkey try the dates BEFORE I ate them?

Needless to say, I have more stories of Cairo than I can possibly type and I've only been here a few days.
Sooner or later I need to get back to you with more - such as the tale of negotiating a higher rater with the camel man if that meant the camel would RUN, or perhaps the tale of the man baking bread in the same taxi that was taking me downtown - but for now I just want to quickly tell a story that will drive home how absolutely byzantine this place is. Unbelievable. The layout of the buildings, the way people talk and behave, and, of course, the bureaucracy. So, as a case in point, I went to buy some liquor.
Let me first explain that I was buying this liqour with and for Alice, who has lived here about 2 and a half years. There are a few Egyptian liquors and wines, but they receive low marks - not surprising considering this is a Muslim country. However, one can only purchase imported alcohol from a duty-free shop. These shops are spread throughout the city, at least the portions of the city where a foreigner might be expected to go.
As a side note, Alice largely forbids me from going to places in Cairo where a foreigner might be expected to go, so this was a special trip. In the non-foreigner areas I've been meandering around, I've discovered that I a) appear unbelievably French, hopefully because I haven't shaved in three weeks (and that makes me look French?) and not because I smell (I apologize to all of my French friends for this shameful and inaccurate stereotype), and b) if I claim to be Canadian, everyone who hears me will immediately say, "Canada Dry!" Really. Everyone. EVERYONE.

On another side note, I started this post a couple of days ago and am only now finishing it, so I've stopped claiming to be Canadian. If I claim to be American in Cairo now that it is post-election, I am likely to get a round of applause. Frequently accompanied by the words, "Really? You elected the dark one?" I'm not making this stuff up, people.
Anyway, back to the duty-free shops: they are, as I said, spread throughout the city. However, one may only buy liquor from them using a foreign passport, and showing the time-stamped Egyptian visa proving you entered the country less than 36 hours ago. Within that 36 hours, you are allowed to purchase a maximum of 3 bottles of imported liquor, and then not again. (Unless you fly out of the country and re-enter, and get a new visa.)

So I'm in a duty-free shop to buy liquor, because it seems foolish to waste this rare opportunity for Alice. Here is the process one uses to make a purchase:

You enter the shop, and, of course, everything is behind a counter. While you are waiting for someone to help you, you ponder the bottles you can see on the shelves. After a very short wait - there is a cluster of people behind the counter - someone comes to help you. We'll call him, hmmm, "the bottle toucher." So the bottle toucher asks you what you want, and then takes them off the shelves and places them in front of you. Lets you pick them up and take a look at them. Ask questions about them. And then, confirming that is what you want to buy, he writes down on a little slip of paper the names of the three bottles. (In Arabic, of course, which is a rather beautiful language to look at, I must say.) You do not take the bottles. You do not take the slip of paper.

The slip of paper is taken a few feet down the counter to a second man, let's call him, "the form filler." The form filler takes the slip of paper from the bottle toucher, and then looks up at you, waiting. You figure out he wants your passport, so you give it to him. Perhaps he asks a question to confirm what is written on the slip of paper. Then he types the names of your three bottles into his computer. He looks at your passport. It is possible that the form filler types information from your passport into the computer as well - it is hard to be sure. He does not print the form. He, instead, takes a blank form from the desk in front of him and hand-writes the information of that copy. He puts the hand-written copy into your passport, at the page with the time-stamped Egyptian visa, and hands the passport back to you.

You shuffle to the left. There is now a short line. In this short line is a pretentious Australian man. (It is possible this step is not included at every duty-free shop.)

After listening to the pretentious Australian man, you arrive at a regular office desk, behind which stands a woman we shall call, "the receipt creator." She takes your passport and the handwritten form. She ponders your passport at great length. It is hard to read the time-stamped information, but she concurs that you are, indeed, a recent arrival. She enters into a register the amounts of the 3 bottles. These amounts, presumably, were written in Arabic on the form by the form filler. She prints out two copies of the receipt. The receipt creator then hand-writes, in your passport, next to the time-stamped Egyptian visa, the fact that you have purchased not 1, not 2, but your full allotment of 3 bottles. (There will be no repeating this process at another duty-free shop down the road.) She also writes this same information on both copies of the receipt. (You will not get to keep either copy of this receipt, by the way.) She signs her name in your passport, beside the information she has just entered. She signs both receipts. She asks you to sign both receipts. And then she hands your passport back to you, and hand a copy of the receipt to another man. For variety, we'll call this man, "Winged Hermes."

So Winged Hermes takes your receipt and carries it across the extremely small shop, to, yes, another man. This man will be called, "the money taker." The shop is, as I've said, extremely small, so Winged Hermes traveled, approximately, 9 feet. The money taker shows your receipt to you, and announces the amount of money you owe him. You hand him a credit card.

I'm going to skip over the part with the credit card, imagining that this part of the process will be familiar to all of you. It ends with you in possession of a receipt you can keep, and the small duty-free shop in possession of a small amount of your plastic money. Plastic money which will, I'm guessing, largely go toward paying significant labor costs....

And, finally, the bottle toucher, who was watching the last step of the process with the money taker, goes over to the spot on the counter where your bottles are still sitting, places these three bottles in a plastic shopping bag, and hands them to you. You are free to go.

If it isn't clear, let me mention again that Cairo is a bit byzantine.
And, as you may be able to guess, it will be hard for me to relate many stories quickly. However, I'll try and relate a few more. Oh, and if I don't have a chance to type it here, everyone MUST remember to ask me about Trash City. Oh, yes. That's a place.

Friday, October 31, 2008


Craig is in the Prague airport. He went out through passport control sporting only his light jacket and his fanny pack. Yes, his fanny pack. He departed the airport and took a long enough walk to determine that the actual city of Prague is too cold and too far to walk to on a medium length layover.

Well, mostly too cold. Craig is, perhaps, a bit of a sissy. He begs you to take into consideration that it is night in the Czech Republic, however, before you judge him too harshly.

Craig has returned to the airport and gone back through passport control, which, surprisingly, involved no security screening process whatsoever, and now sits at a small coffee stand not drinking coffee but typing, with slightly frigid fingers, pretentious blog postings in the third person.

It really was cold out there....

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bucuresti redux

It seems that photos just aren't going to be posted, at least not from here in Romania. Learn to live with disappointment.

I am, again, in Bucharest. To catch up those who may be behind - undoubtedly behind because I've had less chance to get to the internet and update you all than I might have hoped for - I've just returned from 5 days traveling at breakneck pace over the shoddy roads that meander about Romania. (I was assured earlier today that the highway I suddenly found myself traveling was not the ONLY highway in Romania. There is apparently another one as well.) So, as I said, to catch you up, I went from Bucharest north by northwest to Brasov, passing on the way within a couple of kilometers of Peles Castle.

Peles Castle is, according to guidebooks, one of the most crucial and must-see tourist destinations in Romania. We didn't stop.

We did stop in Doftona (completely misspelled), an abandoned prison which was architecturally stunning in its complete dilapidation, and daunting when I began to consider how much work would have to be done to make it look, well, not abandoned. But beautiful. Really beautiful. Central galleries that ended in single, massive arched windows, and walls that rose 30' on either side with narrow walkways to access closely packed cell doors. The fact that the walkways had lost the flooring and the roofing was gone in large sections only made it more stunning.

From there to Brasov,  to ponder churches and cobblestone streets, and to lunch with a cosmonaut whose name is so hard to pronounce I can't even type it. For the sake of story, we'll shorten his name to Dmitri-Demui Warshinsknomui. He was one of the first (last?) Romanian cosmonauts, and the autographed 5x7 card he gave me has a lovely photo of himself in full cosmonaut attire, sans glass helmet. That photo was inset into the larger and more current head shot of himself that he is using to run for the National Senate, representing Brasov. He was just about to officially launch his campaign, which means he and his two opponents will have to campaign for an entire month before the election at the end of November.

From Brasov we traveled up and through the Transylvanian mountains - the Carpathians I believe. to severely understate: the trip was uncomfortable, primarily because of poor road conditions, and slightly terrifying, primarily because safe passing distance while driving into oncoming traffic is slightly less distance than is required to keep the side view mirror attached to your vehicle.

I'm going to race through a bit here: from there we went down in a dark and foggy night to the city of Cluj-Napoca (not misspelled). Over the next few days we saw some of the things I mentioned in a previous posting, including rather more prisons than I needed to see. Every proud warden wanted to show us around COMPLETELY only to let us get to a few minutes of touring the dank basement at the end, which was largely all that we needed. The first couple of prisons were interesting, but the began to blur together.

After hitting the prison museum at Sighuet on the northern border with Ukraine, we turned to East and drove through the mountains to the city of Iasi, which was stock full of absolutely fabulous city exteriors, and farther from Bucharest than anyone would like. Then down , across the Danube by ferry, to the Black Sea, and to scouting of locations for work camps. (The original work camps in this area were to construct a canal from the Danube to the Black Sea. Those camps operated for a number of years in the 40s before the project was ended, and then deemed impossible, and the engineers who planned it killed for dreaming this impossible canal. Then the project was re-opened and I visited a rather impressive canal just yesterday.)

Now I am back, via one of the two Romanian highways, in Bucharest. A question was raised today and answered like this: if you were thrown from a plane above the city, there is a 10% chance you would land on the massive, massive, massive building Ceaucescu built in the middle of the city, a 30% chance you'd land on a communist housing block structure which can only be described as a hive, a 30% chance you'd land on a car stuck in traffic, and a 30% chance you'd land on a wild dog. The chances that you'd land on actually earth is such a statistical improbability, it can be refered to as impossible.

So, a few hours ago, while stuck in traffic between two hives, I looked over and saw a dog peeing on a kiosk of the sort one puts advertising posters. The sorts of posters one sees on construction fences in NYC and LA. Like other kiosks in the city, one poster is not torn down or cleaned off when the next is put up. You would just slather on a bit of wallpaper paste and put your poster over the last, and then move on to the next kiosk. This particular kiosk, however, had a full 8" of poster-depth. I kid you not. I had to jump out and measure. You could see it in cross-section, with peeling corners and edges, and posters had been glued one on top of the last to a full EIGHT INCHES. Crazy. And as I examined this absurdity, I realized that another poster was being, just then, glued on the opposite side.

It turns out that in a mere few days, on my birthday no less, Ace of Base will be performing here in Bucharest. A valuable poster indeed.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

I fully intended...

... to post a tale or two tonight, but I've used up all of my energy trying, and failing, to upload photos. Sorry about that. I can tell you, with full authority, that if you spend an hour being guided through a working, filthy, rank prison, then it is unreasonable to expect the abandoned prison in the foundation of the building will be less filthy or less rank. That prison did have a room full of convicted murderers making shoes, who seemed to be nice enough guys. At least nice enough to be given huge cobbler's needles. I also saw the store where they could buy merchandise with the money earned from cobbling, and had a moment, just before I walked in, where for some reason I fully expected to see a store where they could only buy shoes.

Fortunately, the prisoner's were spared that aggravation, and they were rewarded instead with the approximate contents of a 7-11. The DP with me on this trip claimed that if the prison store sold either Skittles or Dr. Pepper, he'd consider committing a crime just to gain access. I suggested - frankly, it seemed obvious to me - that he should steal the Skittles and the Dr. Pepper, which would really make it a win win scenario for him.

Humor aside, the prisoner's were receiving 30% of their pay themselves, with the other 70% going to the prison. It didn't strike me as a great deal, even for a temp agency, but I suppose they are a captive market.

Other than the 8 hour drive careening through hillside towns at a breakneck pace, nearly killing 3 wizened crones on 2 separate occasions, and nearly killing ourselves on 42,321 separate occasions, the only other thing I did today was spend 2 hours going through another prisoner turned into a musem of the communist era here in Romania. Incredible. If only I could show you the photos.

Goodnight. I'll save up energy for a better story next time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

No Pictures

The computer I'm using is USB enabled, as long as you don't take the phrase to mean, "able to use USB." So I have many photos, quirky to frightening, but I'm unable to post them to you. However, highlights of my day include:

- Listening to Elton John's "Sacrifice," as performed by a gypsy prisoner in the medium security ward of the Calea Rohova prison. He was accompanied quite well by a rather large prisoner playing a rather small Casio keyboard. It was, I must say, no more or less horrifying than the original version. My immediate instinct was to refer to it as an interrogation technique allowed under the Geneva conventions. I quickly confessed.

- Honestly, that particular area in the Calea Rohova prison was pretty interesting. Not remotely useful to the movie I'm hear to scout, but interesting nonetheless. There was a separate building called, "the club," which had a little indoor badminton area, a small stage for the playing of Elton John covers, a little library, and just an entrance lobby where prisoners could sit and read. Presumably books from the library. One particular prison with good english chatted with me for a few moments. I live in California. His sister lives in Ohio. It is my first time in Romania. How do I like it? I do like it, as it turns out, and oh, yes, it is my first trip. Right about here is where the conversation turned really unexpected - this particular prison inmate wanted to talk about the amazing opportunities available right now in Romania. It is a country full of opportunity. The unemployment rate in Bucharest is under 2 percent. All quite true, but not exactly what I expected to hear from the prison population.

- The maximum security building was incredible, primarily because of how low the security seemed. Well, that isn't quite true. There were guys that looked strikingly like SWAT (in full gear including the black mask) wandering through the narrow hallways. But the prisoners were incredibly nice and we were allowed into their rooms, at their invitation, with them just standing off to the side. And the rooms were truly jam-packed with stuff. Hundreds of paintings and woodcarvings they had done. Fish tanks. Little arrangements of wood and rope to dry socks and cloths. 1001 things to make weapons from, quite frankly. Hard to convey the feel of it without being able to upload a photo, but it was striking.

- We also went to Jilava prison, although we didn't tour the new, functioning prison there at all. I did manage to get in a wee-bit of trouble for including the guard tower in one of my photos, but it does save a lot of hassle to get in trouble when you are already in prison. Saves travel time.

- The old prison at Jilava was "umkempt." The kind of unkempt that starts with 3 feet of standing water. We saw quite a bit of it, crazy dark holes and rooms filled with tens of thousands of rags. We are putting in a request to go back there next week with hip-waders, to get into some areas we couldn't today. It wasn't the kind of water even I want to go into without a bit of protection.

- Saw a hospital. I was warned about the hospitals in Romania about a week ago. The warning was accurate. Yowzers. A thing you don't expect when scouting locations: being pushed into a room with 6 beds and 3 obviously sick patients and told just to check it out. Spend as long as you want.... I'm not entirely sure if the 3 older female patients thought the situation was odd, or if it was just me that was odd. I am rather tall.

And, last but not least, to Mike Horowitz, who told me he had heard the phrase, "pack of wild dogs" as often as he had heard the topic of Romania discussed: yes, Mike, I will be keeping that streak up. Packs of wild dogs - a big yes on that. Big, big yes.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Updating the Itinerary

I'm somehow slightly too frazzled and stressed for a proper posting.

What happened to my pleasant Romanian vacation?

I'm in downtown Bucharest. Today, gone by, and tomorrow are devoted to checking out the city - and by the city, I mean the traffic - and the forts that surround the city. There were 36 forts built around Bucharest slightly too late to be useful in WWI and not nearly impenetrable enough to be useful in WWII. Now, they seem to be the perfect place to house bats.

Thursday I'm headed out of Bucharest to do rather full circuit of the country, in the clockwise direction, hitting as many prisons as possible. Lots o' prisons. I'll have worked my way around the country to the Southeast corner by Monday, where I'll be checking out rock quarries on the Black Sea. And then, back to Bucharest.

And that is all I know of the plan so far.

Mild wackiness has occured on the trip, but nothing entertaining enough to break me from my frazzled state. I'll get back to you with something soon....


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Off to Bucharest and Cairo

Just testing out the old blog. Perhaps I'll have a tale or two to tell over the next few weeks of travels. Perhaps not. Time will tell.

The itinerary: (as much as I know of it anyway)

October 19: Fly to Bucharest, with a little pause in Rome
October 31: From Bucharest to Prague, arriving on...
November 1: in Cairo
November 11: Back to LA

That means I'll be on the road for my birthday. Sorry Peeps. :-)

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Link to Photos

Hi Everybody!

(By which I mean everybody still checking the blog to see if I post anything, which probably means I should just say hello to Michael.  If anybody else is out there, though, hello to you too!)

Michael asked for more photos, so I uploaded a bunch to flickr.  Just cut and paste this link, and you will find them:

They are in the order of the trip, with a few before and after the mountain, but most of them from the hike.  There aren't many of me, since these are all from my camera, and I haven't seen the photos on Mark's camera yet.

Happy January!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Home Again

I'm too tired to be entertaining, so I'm just going to fall into bed. But I wanted to let everyone know that Mark and I are safely back in LA. No problems on the trip back, although the nine hour bus ride from Moshi to Dar wasn't comfortable, to say the least. And was Heathrow Airport designed by Franz Kafka?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Breach Wall

Mark needed to stop by a different internet place to send an email, so I took the chance to post this photo. This is the breach wall, as mentioned in my last posting. I wish the photo did it more justice, but you get the idea.

The Breach Wall

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

at 5000 meters comes the madness....

mark and i are down from kilimanjaro, and back at the internet cafe with the deeply problematic shift keys.  i haven't the energy to do the blog entry the 8 days on the mountain deserve, but i'll start it out.

most importantly, we are both back and safe.  the claim that 50% of climbers make it to the summit proved true in our case.  mark made it to the top, but i did not.  igot pretty sick on the evening of day 4, at barranco camp.  not altitude sickness, but some sort of stomach parasite which still has my a bit laid out.  i also got mountain sickness at the upper reaches of the climb, but i knew from nepal that i was prone to that, so i had planned my itinerary around more acclimitization than average to try and avoid the problem.  i might have been alright with the altitude sickness, but the stomach problems led to pain and dizziness that pretty much took me out just short of the summit.  on the final night climb, i had to turn back at 3:30 am, while mark continued on to reach the summit less than two and a half hours later.  i was very close, but just couldn't marshall my body to do it.  (a wise choice -- it took me a full two and half hours to get back to camp at dawn because i was having so much trouble walking, meaning mark ascended the last 2000 or so feet in the same time it took me to descend that far.)  on a side note, i did make it about 2000 feet higher than our guide, who didn't feel well enough to even attempt the night ascent.

the trip, even feeling as lousy as i did, was amazing.  the mountain is beautiful.  i'll write again about it soon.  for now, here is a little recap.

day 1 -- the day it didn't rain -- a lovely day through the rainforest, and it was indeed the only day it didn't rain.  i'll dwell on weather more in the future, but on day 2 it rained all day, so we had to build tents, eat meals, everything in a driving rain.  on day 3 it was raining as we climbed, so at a certain altitude the rain turned to hail, and as we kept climbing turned to snow -- the middle couple of hours of the day was in a blistery and window snow storm.  on day 4 it merely rained, and not all day.  on day 5 it rained, and then hail at night.  on day 6, that's right, rain.  on day 7, it was fantastically beautiful for the night climb, although bitter, bitter cold, and for the daylight descent it was the most powerful rain yet, which turned to a painful hail, even through our gear, and on day 8, we made it to the basecamp and the jeep early enough to miss the rain.  but trust me, it is raining there now....

day 2 -- the day eligi became ill -- a steep climb (in pouring rain, yes) that mark and i hit hard and took without pause, so we could get to the camp in the afternoon and enjoy ourselves, plus do some extra climbing to acclimate.  in the middle of the day, i commented that our guide was going slowly -- and while i know a slow ascent is crucial on kilimanjaro and all the guides do it, i said to mark that i thought he couldn't go faster even if

day 3 -- the day with the good bathroom -- a good bathroom, in the context of this trip, means an outhouse that looks like nothing more than 3 and a half foot square closet with 5 inch square hole in the middle of the floor.  consider for a moment what constituted a "bad" bathroom....  one bit of genius that set this particular bathroom apart from the rest was the inclusion of a door.  i'll let you imagine the other innovations other bathrooms lacked.
day 4 -- the first day crossing 15,000 feet -- beautiful and snowy, i wish the weather had been nice enough to allow for more photos.  by the end of the day i had a clanging headache informing me of the altitude, even though after spending time at 15,000 feet we dropped back down to camp at just over 13,000.
day 5 -- the first day craig didn't eat -- in the morning, the headache was gone, but so was my stomach.  i wasn't able to eat anything all day, except for a few slices of cucumber.  our guide company estimates trekking kilimanjaro burns 5,000 calories a day, mark and i think that is far north of the real number, but i'm pretty sure it requires more than the 74 calories i was able to stomach.  also, i'd love to attach a photo here, but this computer lacks usb, so you will have to imagine "the breach wall."  our itinerary was planned out pretty carefully.  each obstacle of the hike was estimated to take a certain amount of time -- an hour or 3 hours or 30 minutes -- and then all of those added up to the estimation of the length of the day and when we would reach our next camp.  the first 40 minutes of day 5 was allocated to topping the breach wall: an 880 foot rock face rising nearly straight up from the campsite.  first we had to descend into a small valley, to assure that we had to climb the entire 880 feet, and then the wall.  i'm not even going to try and describe it beyond saying the term "wall" is 100% accurate.  it is absolutely not a hill.  the night before, as mark and i surveyed the wall, we couldn't see how it was even possible.  i have to say, i suspect more people get harmed climbing kili than anyone admits, and i think it starts at the breach wall.  when we reached camp that night, we heard of a porter who fell while carrying a tent for a large 12 person group that shadowed most of our trip.  i was told the porter was "ok," but when i asked if he was good ("zuri") i received only a shadowed glance.
day 6 -- the short day -- the campsite from the fifth night was easily the most desolate campsite i have ever seen, and we hiked through wastelands for only about 3 and a half hours before reaching before reaching what is now the most desolate campsite i have ever seen.  the location, our only campsite above 15,000 feet, is known as "barafu huts" which means "ice huts."  there are no huts, by the way.  ice, yes.  waking in the morning our breath had crystallized on the ceiling of the tent to make a hanging frost.  i wasn't able to eat any breakfast, but i managed a bit of lunch when we reached barafu, and then climbed another hundred meters to try to acclimate as much as possible.  i wasn't able to eat much dinner, unfortunately, but did have some vegetable soup and a few noodles.
day 7 -- the day of the death marches (also known as the second day craig didn't eat) -- i don't know how else to entitle the day, which was really 2 days.  from midnight to ten am was time to climb the last 4000 feet from barafu to the summit, and return.  mark stayed on the summit less than five minutes before having to flee the cold.  i was struggling on the side of the mountain, knowing that a full ascent was unlikely in my condition but having to take a shot at it since I was so close.  at 3:30 my stomach became unbearable.  i would have liked to wait it out, and then continue my ascent, but in the sub-freezing temperatures at 17,500 feet in the snow, sitting and waiting wasn't an option -- constant motion was all the kept you warm enough.  so, unable to go up, i had to begin a slow and methodical descent.  that, unbelievably, was only the first death march of the day.  eleven am to 5 pm was set aside for another 5,000 feet of descent.  5,000 feet down in less than 4 horizontal miles.  incredibly steep, and the rain and hail never let up.  an unbelievable misery.  my told descent in that 24 hour period was 7,000 feet, and mark's was 9,000.  our knees are knackered.  at reaching that night's campsite, we thought of ourselves as "off the mountain," even though we remained at over 10,000 feet in elevation.
day 8 -- the day we returned -- we hiked down the remaining 5,000 feet, this time over 6 miles, to the jeep that brought us back to moshi.  i managed to feel a bit better and enjoyed some breakfast, and now, in the evening, am feeling sick to my stomach but little worse than that.  the hike down i tried to take slowly, to enjoy our second journey through rainforest and colobus monkeys, but we were both so ready for a real bed (mark) and a real bathroom (me) that we covered the 5,000 feet and 6 miles in under 2 hours.  that included stopping for photos....
I hope everyone had a fabulous christmas eve and christmas day.  i was shivering on the side of a very tall mountain, but somewhere in the middle of that i thought of you all.  or i think i did.  i meant to....  in any case i am thinking of you now.  merry christmas.
now i'm going to enjoy a bathroom that involves fixtures.
with love,

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Just a quick update:

We've arrived in Moshi. The journey here can only be described as third-worldian. I'll give the full tale later, but let it be put this way -- we flew to an airport by accident we'd been assured we couldn't possibly get to, and then jumped off the plane, grabbed our luggage, and ran for the street before they realized we were leaving.... The terminal of our airport, by the way is photographed here:

Airport in Mweba

I'm not kidding. That is the terminal. The runway is that grass you see in the foreground. Notice the fire extinguisher on the hand truck....

So many little tidbits of stories to tell, but I'm afraid I'm off to dinner and then to bed early. Tomorrow begins the climb. Here is the view of the mountain from here:

Kili from the Coffee Tree Restaurant

It doesn't look that far away, right? The distance you are looking at is, roughly, the trek that starts early tomorrow. The day begins with a 3-hour 4-wheel drive that allegedly requires motion sickness pills, but the drive doesn't take us any closer. We'll just be shifting around to the bottom of the mountain on the west, so to the left side of the photo, and beginning from there.

This is the end of communication until we return. f all goes well, we'll be on top on Christmas day! Merry Christmas to everyone!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

You are in Dar

(in honor of sandy, this entry will be in second person.  in honor of the nearly useless shift key on this computer, this entry will be in lower case.)

you look longingly at the overhead luggage bin on the airplane.  your third flight has just ended, in nairobi, and you aren't going to be allowed off the plane as you wait for the next leg.  as you stand for a moment in the aisle of the plane, on tip toe and off, stretching and hitting your head on the exit sign, it can't help but occur to you that the overhead luggage bin is far more comfortable than your seat.  there is a bit of strut in the middle, but you could think of that as a stomach pillow and just stretch out up there.  is that allowed?  can you stick a luggage tag to your face, and perhaps scrawl the word samsonite on your forehead in permanent marker?

it isn't that you aren't used to traveling.  it isn't even that the rather intimidating man sitting in front of you leaned his seat all the way back, even before take-off and all the way through landing because the flight attendant seemed afraid to talk to him when she leaned everyone else's seats back up.  actually, you aren't allowed to complain about him, because the intimidating man in front of mark was able to lean his broken chair back even farther....  ok, you don't know what it is.  but you really, really want to stretch out to sleep in that overhead luggage compartment.

you don't.

you take another flight and get to dar.  you get a visa.  apparently they hand them out by height, starting with the shortest person.  you are in the line a long time....  a cab takes you to the econolodge.  it doesn't look to be related to the econolodge chain, unless perhaps the chain specializes in moldy front entries?  you need tanzanian shillings for the room, so you walk to the petrol station for an atm, to discover that your atm card doesn't work.  unfortunate.  you walk back, and send mark to the petrol station....

the room is quite nice, accepting that it is in the third world.  you fall asleep on the pallet almost immediately and rest 8 and a half hours, waking up, finally, refreshed.  a beautiful morning out on the balcony.  urban and filthy, but still a bit beautiful.

touts offer all kinds of ways to get to the town of moshi, but most can't manage it today.  the bus ride will be 8 hours, and you think of the small chairs and overhead luggage compartments.  a plane ticket for a one hour flight is purchased.  a bit more expensive, and you won't get to see all the little villages on the road, if there are some, but the single hour of travel is more temptation than you can resist.  and, finally, you sit at the airport internet cafe.  the airport has no interior rooms other than the gate, and you can't go there this early, a little self-serve super market, and the internet cafe.  it has an air conditioner.  the air inside isn't cool, but it is conditioned.  whatever that means.

when you get to moshi, you will write again.

you love everyone.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Leaving for Tanzania

The blog is back!


But don’t get too excited….


This trip is only a couple of weeks, and most of that is either on a mountain (8 days) or on a plane (3 days), so I don’t think you have many blog entries coming your way.  I’ll take many photos, of course, and perhaps I’ll be able to post a few from the road.  But perhaps not.  We’ll all find out together!


To start building a bit of expection, here is the itinerary:


December 14 – Depart LAX at 6:45 am.  To get us to the airport three hours before my flight – please exit row, please – a yellow cab is arriving at my driveway at the charming hour of 3:15 am.  Yeay!!!  (Us, by the way, refers to myself, and my friend Mark Guirguis, who is joining me on the entire venture.  Unless we are chased by an angry crash of rhinoceros, in which case I will take advantage of my longer legs and leave him behind.  But I’ll feel bad about it.)


December 15 – Having endured 30 hours of plane flights and layovers – NYC, Zurich, Nairobi – and a serious time zone change I will be in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania as of 9:05 pm.  I’ve been assured I can get a visa at the airport (cross your fingers) and I suspect I can find a place to stay that night without too much trouble (cross your other fingers.)


December 16 – Mark and I need to travel to Moshi.  We have no solution to this problem yet, but we believe we can find a short plane flight of about an hour, or perhaps a bus ride for 6 hours through Tanzania, or maybe a “cab?”  I’ll fill you in later.  If our luggage is lost en route to Tanzania, we’ll wait a day in Dar Es Salaam, in hopes it catches up.


December 17 & 18 – Rest in Moshi, acclimate to this tiny bit of altitude, and sort out final details with our guide company, which has already been booked.  I need to buy a Balaclava here in Moshi, because how can you climb Kili without a Balaclava?


December 19 – A 3 hour drive in a jeep is required to get us to the starting point of the trek, because some gangly over-achiever has selected a ludicrous starting point.  And then the hike begins:

Elevation Change + 650 M

Final Elevation 2650 M  

At the gate, we pick up our game ranger who will accompany us, as we might encounter elephants and buffaloes during our trek. We drive to the trailhead at Lemosho Glades and start our trek through the rain forest. In places, the vegetation is so untouched that it grows right across the narrow track. Our trek today will be along a little used track known as Chamber's Route. In about 3-4 hours, we reach our camp in the rain forest at Mti Mkubwa (Big Tree).


December 20 –


Elevation change + 950 M

Final Elevation 3,610 M

After breakfast, we start the climb cross the remaining rain forest towards the giant moorland zone. Today is a full day trek with an altitude gain of 2,000 ft. A great lunch stop is One, a beautiful valley just outside the Shira Crater at around 10,000 ft. After lunch, we cross into the Shira Caldera, a high altitude desert plateau that is rarely visited. Shira is the third of Kilimanjaro volcanic cones, and is filled with lava flow from Kibo Peak. The crater rim has been decimated by weather and volcanic action. Today you will get your first close views of Kibo - the dramatic summit of Kilimanjaro.


December 21 –


Elevation change: + 240 M

Final elevation: 3,850
After breakfast continue hike east across the Shira Plateau past the Shira Cathedral towards Shira Two camp. We only gain 700 feet in elevation – this allows us to acclimatize slowly to the altitude. The views of the plateau are nothing less than spectacular.


December 22 –


Elevation change: +100 M
Final elevation: 3950 M

Today is the last of the "easy days". It is about a 7-hour superb hike. We pass the Lava Tower, around the southern flank of Kibo, and slowly descend into the spectacular Barranco Valley, interspersed with giant lobelia and senecia plants. After arriving at our most spectacular campsite, everyone stands in awe at the foot of Kibo Peak, looming high above, on our left. Our camp is only 465 feet higher than where we were last night, but during the day,  we will have climbed to just over 14,000 feet. This is one of our most valuable days for acclimatization.


December 23 –


Elevation change: +240 M (787 ft)
Maximum elevation: 4190 M
Final elevation: 4000 M

On the eastern side of the valley, across the stream is the Barranco Wall - a 950 ft. barrier of volcanic rock.  Although it is tall and looks steep, it is very easy to climb.  This is our first challenge of the day. The views from the wall are nothing less than magnificent.  The rest of the day is spent skirting the base of Kibo peak over our left shoulder. We descend down into the Karanga Valley, where we rest up for the night before the tough climb up to Barafu hut.


December 24 –

BARAFU CAMP (15,088 ft.)

Elevation changes: +410 M (1,345 ft)
Final elevation: 4600 M

First thing, we will be making a steep hike out of the valley. The air starts getting quite thin, and we will be running short of breath. It is a tough, but rewarding uphill to the rocky, craggy slopes at the camp.  Barafu means, ice in Swahili, and it is extremely cold at this altitude. So, we will go to bed early because we will be waking at midnight for the final leg to Uhuru Peak.


December 25 –

BARAFU to UHURU PEAK (19,340 ft.) to Mweka CAMP (9,550 ft.)


Summit time: 7 hrs, Elevation change: +1300 M
Final elevation: 5896 M
Descent time: 5 hrs, Elevation change: -2800M
Final elevation: 3100 M
We dress warmly, because we start climbing around midnight, on the steepest and most demanding part of the mountain. The moon, if out, will provide enough light, and we will reach the Crater rim by sunrise, after a 7 hour hike, and welcome a new dawn.  From the Crater rim, rugged Mawenzi Peak is a thrilling sight, with the Kibo saddle still in darkness beneath you, and the crater's ice-walls looming ahead. We now continue to Uhuru Peak (1-2 hrs.) This is the highest point in Africa, and the world's highest solitary peak (19,340 ft). It is the best view in Africa!

The descent is invigorating. It is a good idea to have a little rest once in awhile as you continue down back to Barafu Camp (4 hours), and then down the Mweka route to Mweka camp (5 hours). This is where we spend our last night on the mountain.


December 26 –


Elevation change: -1250M
Final elevation: 1828 M

In the morning we walk down to the road head. After a welcome lunch, it is time to say "kwaheri" to the guide. We then get a lift back to the town of Moshi.  We are not at the same trail head as where we started, so it is a much shorter jeep ride….


December 27 –  Rest in Moshi.  Or, perhaps, get down off the mountain if we experienced delays.


December 28 – Now we need to reverse our travels to Dar Es Salaam, whatever they were….


December 29 – Back on a plane to Nairobi, and then Zurich, and then London, and finally LA.


December 30 – Back in Los Angeles!!!  But you’ll here from me again before then….


And since I have no photos of the trip to post yet, here is my nephew Carter – isn’t he awesome:



Saturday, February 24, 2007

A Quick Trip to Kentucky

As many of you no doubt recall, this blog was originally created to tell stories of my travels -- specifically in Thailand -- and since then I've been asked to blog a bit more. I have only today returned from a trip entertaining enough to warrant an entry.

First, to catch you up, those of you unfamiliar with what I've been working on lately:

In December I went to Kentucky. I was there from a Thursday evening through a Saturday morning, but the trip was for one 2 hour meeting on Friday afternoon. At Southeast, a large (9,000+ seats), non-denominational, but similar doctrinally to Southern Baptist, megachurch near Louisville, I was asked to design the set for their 2008 Easter Pageant, to be performed in their sanctuary. A big show. Cast of 500. Assorted livestock. And a huge multi-media component that entails them spending some half million dollars just on filming elements to be worked into the show.

To be more specific, I wasn't fully asked to design the set. I was asked to design a proposal, which they would pay me for, and then I would return and pitch that proposal, as would another designer, and they would choose from between us.

I explained how deeply problematic that was, but was told that as much as they agreed, the powers that be at the top (well, not quite the top) of the church heirarchy insisted this is the only way they would commit to spending so much money.

So I returned to LA, and although I procrastinated a great deal because of my annoyance with the process, I also put in time, much time, on this proposal, waiting for the day they would call and say,

"We need you to come out right away! As soon as possible! We need to make a decision on this."

That time came last weekend, and I booked a ticket to go to Louisville this past Thursday, with a return planned for today.

The week leading up to Thursday was hectic. Putting more work into the model. Reading the show again. Figuring out how exactly to stage a very elaborate story across a space measuring some 200 feet in width. YOu get the idea.

Finishing things just in time, I headed off to the airport, where I boarded the plane.

And sat on the tarmac. For about 3 hours. Not so bad. There are, however, no direct flights to Louisville, so I had a connection in Atlanta, which I missed. There was another flight, just one more, which I had also just missed. The airline gave me a hotel voucher and a meal voucher, which got me a hotel with an extremely slow shuttle service and all the airport food I could eat for $7, and told me not to get my luggage.

I had my laptop as a carry-on, but nothing else. Actually, they said I could request my luggage, but in all of the chaos at the Atlanta airport they recommended against it.

"It will take an hour or an hour and a half to get your bags, and right now it is already all set to go on the flight tomorrow morning to Louisville."

I decided to make do with whatever toothbrush the hotel would give me -- it turned out to be 3" long, bright yellow, and sporting 7 bristles -- and headed off for the night.

Let me speed through the rest of the story: my morning flight was delayed as well. My 9:30 meeting became a noon meeting, which became a 1 pm meeting.

I successfully made it to the meeting at 1 pm. Unfortunately, my luggage did not. Oh yes, that's right. My luggage was still, well, I don't quite know. In Atlanta?

So, to sum up, I flew across the country, with all the accompanying delays and hardships, to present a model and a series of drawings at a meeting which I instead attended without model or drawings. Instead, at the meeting, I batted my eyes a bit. Cracked the occasional joke. Filled the room with the very special odor I had picked up over two days of travel with no change of clothes. And was my general charming self.


I'll let y'all know if I get the job....

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Sunday, November 26, 2006

How to Castrate a Bull

This blog entry, much called for by my entire readership of six or seven, is entirely out of date, but I've just gotten the photos, so now seems an ok time to post it. This blog entry is also not for the faint of heart. Feel free to turn back now. No, really. You read the heading, right? Turn back.


The first rule of bull castration is probably to do it at the correct time; the calf shouldn't be too old or too young, and that depends a bit on the breed. That sounds like it ought to be the first rule, right?

But, for our purposes, the first rule of bull castration is to get somebody else to do it. You want your biggest part in the actual castration process to be deciding which side of the bull to stand on, the squeamish side or the, ummmm...... other side....

The bull is, at this point laying on its side. You could, perhaps, help out as it runs through the chute, catching it at the exit and cinching it down, then flipping the chute 90 degrees, so the young bull lays on its side, its neck caught in a mechanism that resembles nothing so much as a huge pair of chopsticks. The bull's torso is held in place -- at least as much as possible -- under a steel frame across its rib cage. Then a large fellow, let's call him Greg, holds one of the calf's rear legs in place with his foot, and uses both hands to hold the calf's other leg still.

This is the moment for that decision I told you about. You can either stand on the west side, looking at the bull's back, or on the east side, so you can look at the belly of the bull. The west side is a logical choice. You probably are already standing here, having just branded the calf's right rear hip with the "V 7 quarter circle" brand. (You had to apply the brand upside down because of the calf's position, making the brand look more like the "sun rises over LA" brand, which is somehow simultaneously amusing and horrifying.) So you are already here, on the west side, sliding the three branding irons back under the blow torch, looking at the unhappy calf's tongue lolling about as it drools miserably. There really isn't any reason to walk around to the east side, where....

What? You walked around to the east side? Oh... well... ok. Sure. The east side. Yeah. Good choice....

The first step here is to take the scalpel out of the little tub of red iodine. It is important to keep everything clean to avoid infection. Then you just lean over and slice off the bottom of scrotum. A young bull is already a bit of a hairy animal, so you can just grab a hold of a bit of hair as you cut away, and then toss that bit of hairy scrotum away when you are done. Don't worry. A dog will probably trot over to eat it.

Then, and I'm going to admit this defies all sense and expectation, you can put the scalpel away. You don't need it anymore. Instead you just tuck a couple fingers and your thumb through the new hole in the scrotum, grasp the testicles, and just pull them out. They come out easily, but remain attaching through the stretchy tubes that attach them too the pulls body. The tubes stretch and stretch, like you are pulling taffy. Eventually they'll snap, after a couple of feet, and then they ends will dangle, like strands of cheese hanging from a slice freshly pulled from a hot pile. YOu can grab all of this dangling sinew with your other hand and loop it up into the hand with the testicles, and then toss all of this into a coffee can. A coffee can full of testicles, of course, which surely someone will want to take home for the fryer.

And, expectation aside again, you are done. No need to stitch anything up. You cut a pretty small hole in the scrotum that won't bleed much and will heal on its own, and you have yanked (stretched?) out anything that might have fallen out on its own. So just go back to the west side, pop that calf back up onto its legs and send it on its way. I'm willing to guess that it is happy to go....

I warned you, didn't I?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

More the Uncle I

I'm sorry I've been so remiss in writing. A rather overwhelming busy-ness keeps intervening. But I needed to share a bit of news, so a brief entry:

As of yesterday I am an uncle! The amazing thing about being an uncle is that I had to do literally nothing to make it happen! People keep calling to congratulate me and I didn't have to do a single thing. Very exciting.

So, a photo:

Just Hatched

Carter James Siebels
Born June 24, 2006 at 9:00 am
7 lbs, 13 oz; and 21" long

Mother, father, and baby are all doing fine, but 2 of 3 are going to be in the hospital until Friday. Hopefully Carter will be fine home alone until then....

In other news:

The big white truck is now officially Rasputin. I tried it out for a few weeks and I was definitely driving a Rasputin. Fortinbras was a close second, with Dan and Floyd holding the runner up slots. Thank you greatly to the lovely Jessica Sharzer for suggesting the name.

It has an evil history and flavor to it -- "Rasputin." But what could be better than driving around in an evil truck?

"I'm so sorry officer, I didn't want to speed! It was Rasputin!"

"I'D sure like to help you move, but RASPUTIN won't do it."

"Mr. Romanov! Get your hands off Rasputin!"

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Great White Hope

Alrighty folks. We've got to name this big fella. So take a gander...


... and ponder the leading contenders:

- "Fortinbras" -- suggested by Jay, and I have to admit it elicited a belly laugh when I read it. But is it perhaps too militant? Or is it merely and appropriately rugged?

- "Dan" -- proposed by me, mostly because I like the idea of having a vehicle named simply, "Dan." Also, it seems to me the truck needs a blue-collar counterpoint to its sporty stylings -- note the silver wheel well trim.

- "David Duke" -- this amusing jewel comes from Stef, and I'm guessing it speaks for itself. As, indeed, does David Duke.

- "Beautiful" -- suggested by Robin, although I don't think she knows she suggested it.... A careful reading of her last email, however, and it was proffered up.

- "Snowflake" -- a natural follow-up to Papillon, suggested by Julia.

- "Ford" -- also a Julia suggestion. Witty.

- "Whitley" -- from Krista, after a camp she attended (either as a child, or just last summer -- that point wasn't clear).

- "Genet" -- suggested by Dale. And a good suggestion it is, but am I really snooty enough to name my truck Genet? Think very carefully before you answer that question....

- "Drugged up Dork" -- suggested by Jess. Oh, wait, I don't think that was for the truck. Apparently she was calling me that.

Because none of my pregnant or recently pregnant friends/family wanted any suggestions on naming their children, and because I repeatedly suggested "Craigina", "Craigifer", and "Craigette" anyway, I am opening up the field to any and all comments. Or you can suggest other names, at least until voting is closed. And I promise to name the truck whatever is most popular, as long as it is also whatever I decide I like best.


I write to tell the sad tale of the end of my beloved red truck, Papillon.

We had a good 2005. After Papillon took so quickly to a new radiator, I changed her timing belt and timing belt pulleys and readied myself for another joy filled 100,000 miles. Her engine was running beautifully and the red still gleamed -- although it did, admittedly, require ever more frequent washings.

But on the first of June, I’m afraid she strayed. An approaching Camry, clearly in admiration of Papillon’s shapely fenders, switched into my lane and the two took part in bit of head-on Toyota on Toyota action. Sad to say, the relationship didn’t go well, and neither vehicle escaped unscathed. Actually, both vehicles were completely, well, scathed. The fine folks at Mercury insurance decided that their Camry was responsible for leading my dearest Papillon on, and then leaving her heartbroken. (Although the phrase they used was “total loss.”)

I went to bid a final adieu to her this morning, gathered a box of my belongings that were still inside, and looked longingly back as I walked away. I will indeed miss that truck.

So, exit Papillon.


ENTER an as-of-yet unnamed WHITE TRUCK! A lovely Regular Cab Tundra, slightly used, but fabulously new to me. (I’ll be taking suggestions for names from upcoming passengers.)

On another front, more important but less entertaining, I’m thoroughly souped up on drugs. After a visit to the urgent care center and a couple of doctors, the medical establishment believes that I have escaped without broken vertebrae or ruptured discs. Woo hoo! I’ve been given a highly technical icing regimen to follow, as well as muscle relaxants and prescription pain killers. Expectations are that I’ll be completely fine within a couple of weeks.

I would like to ask this rhetorical question: why is that when I have to purchase medication myself – such as anti-malarials for Northern Thailand – that medication costs at least $150, but when someone else’s insurance is paying 100% of the cost, the medication costs less than $10?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Back in Los Angeles

I'm back in LA with many more stories to tell, but perhaps I'll have to catch up with everyone in person to have any hope of relaying those. And, for now, a few photos of Railey, the last place I was (other than Bangkok, which isn't nearly as photogenic, although I have a few good shots of there as well):

The isthmus from the top of an hour of rock climbing:

Railey Isthmus

The Princess Lagoon, buried inside the middle of one of those huge rocky cliffs, and at the bottom of another hour of rock climbing:

Princess Pool

A more classic view, from another hike:

Railey Southern Tip

A monkey (I mentioned there were monkeys, right?):

Railey Monkey

And a sunset:

Railey Sunset

Hope everyone is well!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Swimming with Monks

Swimming with Monks

Just a quick little update. I've managed to escape from Koh Tao and I'm now on the Andaman Sea side of Thailand, near Krabi. I'm "meeting" with a few volunteer organizations here, most Tsunami related, not really to do much volunteering right now but to get a sense of the different ways they work. All in all, they don't work, but interesting to meet all the people. And I still spend a lot of time with kids, but mostly just because they like that I know how to ask their name. And I still attract monks like flies to honey. Why is that?

I took a break yesterday morning to go on a little hike, something the sign called a nature trail. Three kilometers straight up and I was dripping in sweat. At least 2 of those three kilometers were through spiderwebs -- I was plastered with webs -- and surrounded by ants that looked like three black kiwi fruits strung together. A yorkie is a small dog but a mighty big ant. Anyway, I'm starting to seriously consider that I might not be able to make it, or that I might be eaten by a jaguar, when I finally reach the top and start coming down the other side and discover this 11-tier waterfall. Beautiful. And of course as soon as I'm stripped down to my underwear and going for a swim: monks. Lots and lots of monks. Little monks, big monks, and one particular monk that was definitely in between....

Koh Tao was great. I wish I could have spent a little more time diving but the doctor recommended against it when she put me on antibiotics. I spent quite a bit of time with a nice German couple on a month long honeymoon. Tom and Teda? And then I hopped a boat Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, and then Surat Thani, where I took a bus to Krabi, spent the night, and another boat to Railey. I'm back near Krabi now, because here is where the volunteer groups are, but I'll catch a long boat back to Railey this evening because I left my stuff there.

Another trip, to Ao Nang, tomorrow for someone else I want to meet, and hopefully a bit of kayaking in the afternoon. I'm too exhausted to regail you with funny tales today, so you'll have to do without.

I hope all is well with everyone!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I Was Tortured on Koh Tao

I went into a small shop, only one room, filled with shelves of bottles, jars, and tubs.  Some kind of apothecary, plus a small bamboo desk and two chairs, each the perch of a thai girl.  I was ordered to wait, shoeless, for 5 or 10 minutes, then one of the girls rose, went outside, and climbed in the cab of a black pick-up, Jamahkiri stenciled on the side.  The other girl tossed me in the back of the truck, my few belongings after me, and the truck sped off.  The sun beat down from a cloudless sky and sweat formed on my arms, legs, and my lip, ankle, the small of my back.  We paused at a gas station.  I was told to stay in the back. 3 minutes, 5 minutes passed.  We got no gas.  Nobody got in or out of the truck.  We drove off.
I began to climb out at the next stop, but the driver, a small Thai man, climbed out of the cab and shook his head.  He said, "Mai."  A woman, perhaps Chinese, got in the cab behind the driver and we drove again.  The pavement ended and the dirt road grew rough and rutted, then rocky.  We drove up and down, but slowly higher and higher up a mountain on the south side of the island.  I was thrown about the bed with every bump in the road, a collection of bumps. I flailed for handholds but found none and clung to the rollbar as best I could, watching for low limbs of the jungle overhead.  My bags flew about the bed unattended.
My muscles waned and the sweat on my forehead beaded and streamed.  We reached the peak and stopped again.  The driver ordered me out; I climbed over the wheel well and down to the dirt.  He pointed me to covered stone stairs.  I climbed slowly.Inside I was given water, and it was taken from me before I'd drank half.

My shoes were taken from me and I was pushed through a bead curtain onto a balcony of frail wood, high on a cliff face.  Between the slats beneath my feet I could see a plummeting death, and past the narrow railing lay open ocean.

I was made to strip off my clothes on this precipice, and made to shower, then given a narrow fabric cloth to wear.  Still dripping I was taken to a heavy wooden door and into a stone chamber, then pushed through another door into a black cave.  The cave was hot and steam filled my lungs.  I gasped for breath.  The heat and moisture weighed on me like bricks.  At the far end of the room was a tiny glass block and my eyes began to adjust to the meager light playing in the steam.  A massive boulder formed the roof and one side of the chamber.  A slab of stone seemed to be a bench on two other sides.  I sat down.  Instant agony. The stone was scalding.  I imagine I left a bit of burned thigh on the rock.  I could now see the steam billowing into the room (still more steam?) from directly beneath where I had sat down.

Now in the light I saw the chinese girl, in a sarong, sitting on the bench near the door.  I yearned to talk to her, to hear a friendly voice, to plan an escape from this mountain, but I felt only fear.  Was she like me?  Or was she one of my tormentors?  Bait to lure from me secrets I didn't know I kept?  Or perhaps a means to taunt me?  When I failed to greet her the door was cracked open and she was released.

I was alone.  Alone and hot and moist.  The air clung to me.  Imagine yourself plastered with boiled wet naps.  My eyelashes grew heavy with drops of water.  My body began to shrink as the heat melted both it and my soul.  I lay on the stone bench and tried to get beneath the stifling cloud, but it surrounded me.  My skin oozed moisture, in one direction of the other.  My lungs drowned fire.  The door opened and I was released.

My narrow cloth wrap was heavy with water and I held it around me as I followed this tormentor a few steps to a wooden palette.  On the wood lay a white cloth and she pointed my down to it. I lay down.

"On back, please."

I turned over and she began to coat my body, head to toe, in an oil, a shellac, perhaps a polyurethane. In Thai she called it, "Aloe Vera."  I turned over and she continued, leaving my side only long enough to get a second bucket. She seemed confused at the need for a second bucket.  And then she pulled the white cloth over me from both sides.  It was a shroud.  I was being mummified.  It grabbed my shellac coated skin and clung to me.  My feet stuck out the bottom.  She leaned in and said words that will haunt me forever,

"Twenty minute please."

What did this mean?  Did I have only 20 minutes to live?  Or worse, only 20 minute, not even a plural to cling to?  Or would this be my last 20 minutes of peace before the tormentor returned?

Ninety seconds later she returned and smeared something on my face.  She disappeared again. 

I lay immobile in my mummy's clothes.  I don't know how much time passed.  20 minute, perhaps.  But my shroud was pulled from me and I was pointed to a stone cubicle.  There I was made to shower again, hiding my nakedness from the open portal, and my tiny cloth decency was taken from me.  I was given only a tiny towel, and I did my best to cover myself before I was led away.

I lay on my back and she began to attack my face.  Pulling it and stretching it.  Pushing up on one cheek and down on the other.  Down on one cheek and up on the other.  She coated me with layer after layer of ointments and tidbits.  My face was stripped away.  This mistreatment continued for an hour.  An hour!  She placed weird leech things on my eyes and in the sucking blackness I heard her start a machine.  What a lawnmower would sound like if constructed only of recycled car tires.  The squealing, peeling sound of rubber raked against rubber as it was pulled to life.  She placed the machine's turning heat above my face and the ointments constricted and crushed my skin and muscle.  A bit like an Iron Maiden made with Liquid Nails (tm).  She pulled my face away and took the leeches from my eyes.

"Done here.  We go on."  I may have heard maniacal laughter.

The next room was the final stage of my undoing.  On my back.  On my stomach.  Sitting up.  I was beaten in every conceivable position.  She placed her feet inside my thigh and leaned away with my calf, pulling me apart.  Twisting.  And then more pummeling.  She put me in a headlock and then turned me around so I could ponder a mole on the small of my back.  And always back to the beating.  The beating.  An hour passed.  An hour and a half.

I realized I was not alone.  In another room other victims moaned for mercy.  I let out a whimper.  Suddenly she relented and allowed me to escape.  I hobbled from the room, knocking my head against the ceiling. I was shown to the precipice where I had left my belongings and, snatching them up, I ran for the door.  I bribed a woman at the exit 1580 baht and made my escape, to the back of the pick-up truck.  I huddled in the back as the truck bounced, careened down the "road" and was finally put out in the blackness of the jungle.  It was night.  Where was I?


All that aside, I am a bit stranded on Koh Tao.  A doctor here who doesn't speak a word of understandable english but writes it perfectly has put me on some unknown antibiotic.  My diving has been cut short as I try to recover from whatever has afflicted me -- headaches and one extremely large lump and a few other symptoms.  If it seems like this medicine is working then I'm going to try and make my way out of here tomorrow.

On the other hand, it isn't such a bad place to be stranded.  Here is a photo of my bungalow on Ao Tanote (a bay on the east side of the island):

My Bungalow on Koh Tao

And here is the view when I wake up in the middle of the night in my hammock:


Night View from the Hammock

And the road to Ao Tanote:


Road to Ao Tanote

Last but not least, most of my clothes didn't survive the orphanage experience, so here is what I look like in bungalow (in a shoddy self-portrait):


In the Bungalow

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Going to Koh Tao

I'm headed to Koh Tao in another marathon traveling session. A 12 hour train ride to Bangkok, followed by a few hours there -- I'm not sure how long it will take before I can get another train out -- but I can wander around the city for 4 or 5 hours, and then an 8 hour train ride to Chumphon. At that point I can either take the 6 hour midnight boat to Koh Tao, or decide I am too exhausted and stay the night in Chumphon for the boat the next day.

I have no idea what I'll be up to on Koh Tao, but I need a few days of rest, so I'm going to find a nice secluded bungalow on the beach on the secluded side of the island, rather than the busy-with-tourists side.

I suspect internet access will be harder to find over there, but I'll do what I can!

Friday, April 14, 2006

I Have Been Wet for 72 Hours

(Which means I am now adding a fungus to a list which already includes cuts, bruises, cuts with bruises, rashes, and rashes with cuts and bruises.)

The evening after the orphans and the octagenarians drenched me, I went to one of the Nong Khai temples to help dress "the car" which turned out to be a flat bed truck / parade float. We loaded four massive, seated, gold-leafed Buddhas onto the truck and lined them up facing front -- they, and the Buddhas on the other "cars" are clearly the stars of the event. The throwing of water is ostensibly to wash the Buddha images as you go into a new year. (The vast majority of water of actually thrown at whomever attracts the eye of the average water-thrower. Someone as attention grabbing as, say, a 200 cm tall white guy in the middle of a crowd of short Thais.)

After placing the Buddhas, I tied blocks of floral foam all around the base of them, as well as a huge round trellis at the back of the truck, while the temple Buddhas and their helpers prepared all the flowers, and then placed all of the flowers beautifully. We also placed, just behind the cab of the truck on either side, huge barrels of water, so the float riders would have ammunition. The evening would have qualified as rather dry, only a few water pistols -- most of the water throwing stops at sunset -- had it not been raining at the time.

The next day was hot and sticky, my sweat was already sweating in the few minutes before the ceremonies began. We started at 6 am, lining up outside the largest Wot in Nong Khai, everyone with platters full of individually wrapped food, and after the playing of the National Anthem the monks walked down the line with their bowls out and everyone filled their bowls with food. The live on just donated food -- officially they can't handle money -- and this ceremony is a big start to the Songkran festival. This all sounds rather orderly when I describe it, but you should instead imagine total chaos. Bodies pushing in from both sides of a narrow street; arms thrusting out holding juice boxes and dirty wads of unwrapped sticky rice; people kicking their shoes off to be shoeless when they put food into the bowls; the monks barely managing to squeeze through the tumult, tossed this way and that, as their helpers (handlers) push back into the crowd and occasionally scooping the contents of the bowls into big plastic bags so there is room for more single wrapped marshmallows and whatever those orange squares were that I was try to place rather than toss into the bowls. At one point I was definitely passed by a money tree: some kind of plant that had been speared with hundreds of chopsticks, a bill wedged and rubber banded into each stick. And a money goat as well went by, some kind of paper mache goat with the porcupine treatment of tattered baht notes. All in all, it was total chaos. Or so I thought. Chaos actually came later, after a quick and still comparatively dry breakfast.

Back at the temple, the temple workers, largely ignored by the monks, went through a long process removing the huge gold Buddha from the center of the room and lifting it on massive bamboo poles down and out of the building, and into a parade boat of sorts prepared for it in front. Meanwhile, the crowd outside of the temple, formed themselves into the definition of potential energy. The Buddhas would be walked around the temple, clockwise, three times before leaving off as the head of the parade, and all the way around the temple the people prepared themselves. Three other volunteers and I looked impotent standing the four 1 gallon buckets of water. All around us the way was packed with Thais, everyone with trash cans of ice water and hoses running off down alleys and water cannons, and, oh yes, two fire trucks -- the tanker kind with hundreds and hundreds of gallons of high pressure water at the ready. Everyone stood behind and these massive supplies of water and stared each other down across the sidewalk the Buddhas would be carried down. A few small children wandered around shooting their water pistols, but the true chaos was obviously lying in wait. From the east side of the temple we heard a massive cheer. The Buddhas were started their first trip around the temple, and going the opposite direction. I looked around me as everyone leaned in, but nobody touched the water. Katrine, a Danish volunteer splashed me with a little of her water, and we laughed, but everyone else lay in wait. The noise of chanting and screaming and cheering and splashing began to move around the temple and approach us.

And then they rounded the corner. A hundred men at least, in a tight and sopping wet scrum, holding the bamboo poles with one Buddha, and then another scrum and another Buddha, the whole crowd surrounded by soldiers forming a ring, hand in hand, to thrust the crowd apart and make sure the men had room enough to pass through. Some phenomenal display of military might mixed with unbelievable fraternity antics. And as they moved, ever so slowly, forward, the water was thrown. Buckets and buckets of it. I can't imagine how the men nearest the middle could even breathe. And bottles of perfume, like Tabasco bottles again, were shaken and splashed across the crowd. Wedged in between the scrums were more people, following along the circular parade, throwing water back into the crowd. We were all sopping wet in seconds, and after the last Buddha passed, we all paused, 1 minute, 2 minutes, and then they came again and the water again from in front of me and behind me and on either side. We had to run between passes of the Buddhas to a nice family we had met with huge trashcans filled with ice water who let us fill up again in exchange for dousing us with a few gallons. But it was worth it. Nam Ken, ice, was definitely the ammunition of choice.

After the three rounds of the temple, the crowd began to disburse, and most of us didn't have much water left. I found a spigot and filled up again to dump another gallon on Katrine, but there were only a few buckets and waterguns in action as the 5,000 or 10,000 of us made our way off the temple grounds. The other volunteers and I were all together when we reached a gate, a narrow gate, everyone had to pass through. A bottle neck. A laughing Thai woman spotted us; we did stand out after all. And as we waited 4 minutes or so to get through the gate she hit us with bucket after bucket of water. Thirty or forty gallons of water thrown, one after another, as we laughed and tried to escape.

Even our eventual escape wasn't quite what we expected. Through the gates to our bicycles and then the ride home. We had to get there to catch a tuk-tuk to Lan's house, but the main street had become a war zone. Crowds along both sides of the road throwing water, and jammed traffic going both directions, every vehicle a pick-up truck and every pick-up truck had a handful of people and a couple trash cans or metal drums of water. The trucks threw water at each other and down on the crowds at the street. The crowds on the street would dip buckets into kiddie pools of ice water and through them back at the trucks. Riding our bicycles we were beset on all sides. Bins and buckets and tubs of water would hit me coming from any and every direction. My bicycle was pushed to and fro in the onslaught and I could hardly steer. Motorcycles received the same treatment, and the trapped souls in tuk-tuks received a fearsome barage. I would jump off my bicycle with my bucket and fill it up in someone's trash can just to hit them directly in the face with the entire load. And they would return the favor. And everyone from teenagers to senior citizens would tell me to stop yelling, "hello! hello!" and then come up to me and rub talcum powder, or a mud of talcum and water, all over my face. When it got into my eyes I just had to wait a moment and bucket full of water would wash it away.

At this point, of course, the parade had not yet begun.... The volunteers who had painted with me, and Sabine -- we all loaded ourselves into a tuk-tuk and road down the highway to Lan's house to take part in the ceremony of washing her Buddhas. We carried them outside and placed them on a table, perhaps 40 in all, large and small, and then poured a mixture of water and perfume and 4 kinds of flower petals all over them. With the requisite lighting of incense as well, of course. And then we ate a quick lunch of noodles, and returned to Nong Khai (perhaps 5 km away) for the parade, soaked by passing trucks the whole way. Passing trucks coming into Nong Khai to join the celebration.

The parade looked just like our bike ride earlier, but, well, more so. Drunken celebrants by now offering beer and unknown home made hooch and whiskey. And talcum powder on my face, over and over and over again. I was asked and asked and asked something in Thai I couldn't quite figure out. ("Pom Pued Thai Dai Nid Noi. Pued Cha Cha Khrup," I would say to no avail.) I think it was the rough equivalent of, "Will you be my valentine?" but I really can't say for sure. They definitely said it with those drunken valentine eyes, though. And of course water. The Thais loved that I knew the words "Nam Ken" for ice, which I'd scream (squeal?) whenver I was hit with ice water and they'd laugh and clap me on the back and say, "Nam Ken! Nam Ken!" The volunteers and I, We all walked through town, up and down the main streets, to see it all, and everyone loved us. They loved everyone. Teenage boys would jump off trucks in motion to run up to us and hit us with powder, then jump back on the trucks to throw buckets of water at us. There was always at least a water gun hitting you from somewhere -- never a moment when you weren't getting wetter rather than dryer. It was, I can only say, total chaos. Total, total chaos. I tried and tried to find the actual "parade," meaning the part with the floats and the Buddhas, but trucks drove in both directions and the river that was the street was impossible to read, so I just wandered through it, meeting people and trying to drink as little of the undoubtedly dirty water as possible. (My throat is still sore, who knows from what?) And finally I spotted a float, a block away, going the wrong direction. I chased it, my blue bucket clutched in my hand, only pausing occasionally to return a particularly egregious barage. And I passed that float and then another and another, looking for mine. I finally found it. I wanted to ride and the Monks had offered.... But when I reached it, it was definitely full. The young monks threw some water at me. Had me empty my bucket into theirs and then gave me the water dripping off the Buddhas. I splashed that at them and then got more. We laughed and they gestured to the truck, but I couldn't see a spot. And, to be honest, I was exhausted.

I think it was around 4 pm. I didn't have a watch, of course. And I realized I had the keys of the other volunteers, who I had lost in the race to catch the floated Buddhas, because I was the one with a ziploc bag in my pocket, so I decided to make my way back to the house and make sure they weren't waiting outside. Which, of course, they were. Looking more strangly and exhausted than I was, and it hit us even harder an hour later. None of us could move the rest of the day and evening. We lay there remembering it is possible to get heat stroke while drenched in water. We could still hear blaring music and screaming and laughing from the main road as we lay there on the terrace, unmoving. We all had headaches, and plain aches, and I think everyone's throat hurt.

I crawled into bed at 10 pm. I think I ate a little something, but I can't quite remember. Oh, yes, a ham sandwich from a nearby german place run by a german expat. After dark we all braved the water to get there and eat something, and didn't hit many buckets of water on the way. A couple only.

The next day, still exhausted and we all looked a mess. I snuck to an internet cafe to see if I had any work emails I needed to answer, but it didn't work. And Christina did her laundry, about 3 buildings away, and I went to try and get throat lozenges for everyone from the closed pharmacy on the corner. And in the middle of the afternoon I just started to laugh, and then we all laughed. Christina was coming back from putting a second load of laundry in, while we were between backgammon games. She was dripping wet, and we all ignored it. It was so hysterically entertaining: the day was hot and clear and sunny, and we took for granted that anyone leaving the front door of our building would come back absolutely drenched. It was so obvious and predictable that we just ignored it when it happpened. You leave, you come back wet. And when I pointed it out, we all had to laugh. And eventually we all went for lunch, and came back soaking wet.