Penang Digest (AKA Tumble-Dry Only)

There were some changes for the worse since my last visit; I even, for the first few weeks there, began to wonder whether I was over Penang. But, by the time all had been said and done, I found myself even more down-in-thee-mouth than usual at time of departure. That there island is in my fuckin’ blood, it is…

June 22:

It’s June 22nd and there are no Durians in George Town. I knew the season was going to be running late this year, but this is not good. This is very, very not good. This is very, very, very, very, very, very, very not good.

To ease the pain, there could really be only one righteous course of action; viz., wandering around town to the various safety gear shops and taking pictures of their cone arrangements. Well, what would you do?

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June 23:

The thing about this goddam George Town Helmets project is that when I’m NOT out photographing them, I just end up getting more and more pissed off at the motorcycles — they’re loud, they’re smelly, they’re everywhere, their drivers would gleefully run down their own grandmamas were the latter attempting to cross the street, and cetera. But when I’m out snapping them, I couldn’t possibly love them more.

Have now got over 11,000 pics, but far from being bored by them, I’m still constantly amazed and thrilled when I sit down to review the catch at the end of each day. While I do know that nobody loves the George Town helmetry the way I do, what I don’t know is whether any single other person even likes them at all. Well, either way, here are a few of my faves from the first full day of shooting for this year…

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June 25:

Into the mystic.

Will be spending the next week with a few dozen other fanatics at Bao Sheng — aka Durianist Disneyland — under the tutelage of the one/only Durian Seng (whom, if I have anything to say about it, will be the subject of the next Errol Morris picture). Mouth-numbing Durian; sixty-year old trees; tree-to-table in thirty minutes…you know the drill.

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Am a little uncertain of my ability to pace myself — have never even spent two consecutive days gorging here, let alone seven. But it’s a good problem to have, I should think.

Talk at you on the other side (and, no, before-and-after pics of my belly will not be forthcoming)!

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July 1:

The last day at Bao Sheng Durian Farm is the saddest day in thee universe.

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July 2:

An unforgettable week at the Bao Sheng Durian Festival. I knew I was going to feast myself silly on the world’s best Durian; but what I didn’t rightly figure was how unstoppably awesome each and every one of my fellow festival attendees (not to mention the organizers and volunteers) would be. Highlights other than stuffing oneself silly on the world’s best Durian included…

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~ The farm’s irrepressible owner, Mr. Durian Seng. This is the man who, upon his father’s passing twenty-eight years ago, converted the farm to organic practices and undertook the massive financial risk of cutting down all of its Rambutan trees in order to allow more sunlight in to protect the Durian trees from the worms. The risk paid off, and the farm has remained organic to this day — possibly the only location in all of Malaysia, and one of very, very few in the world entire, in which one can walk in (or wake up, if lodging at the farm), sit down, fork over some cash, and be immediately treated to freshly fallen, organically grown Durian. No matter how many times I hear him recount his family’s and the farm’s Durian journey, it never fails to make my heart zing with emotion.

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~ “The Durian Sessions” — as dubbed by one of the Australian attendees who occasionally participated — during which my utterly brilliant British roomates, Sam and Andreas, regaled long into the night discussing conspiracy theories, ghosts, Khao San Road’s psychic Indian holy men and dark-alley ladyboys, false flag terror attacks, Kubrick, Princess Di, rotating jet-black clouds in the shape of Klingon craft, the media, Thai curries, and so much more as well. Good old Andreas was definitely channeling some kind of energy source these nights — it was at times nigh impossible for either Sam or myself to get a word in edgewise. But all for the better, I hasten to add, as he’s one of the two or three most entertaining raconteurs I ever have met — even at three or four o’clock in the AM.

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~ Some very competitively battled chess matches engaged with fellow attendees — my first time participating in on-farm chess since back in Hawaii. Believe me, people, farm chess is just the frickin’ shizzle.

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~ The hike up to the top of Penang Hill right through another of this year’s innumerable torrential downpours. This one, beginning shortly after we set out and not letting up until we’d nearly reached the summit, brought out the leeches as well — I don’t think any of the sixteen participants managed to escape being bitten once or twice. I cheated and wore an umbrella, I ought to confess — but in my defense, there’s almost nothing in this world I hate more than hiking in the rain; and had I known the storm would carry on as long as it did, there’s absolutely zero chance I’d have joined in. But, sometimes, casting one’s lot to fate turns out to be the wiser of choices…

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~ The positive vibes brought by the Scandinavian contingent — nine Swedes and one Dane, I think was the final count — singing songs before each meal, performing gymnastic feats, meeting and greeting with all people, making a point to always converse in English even among each other, winning all the fitness competitions, smiling from ear to ear, and just generally bubbling their way through the entire festival. If these peeps are even remotely representative of the population at large, I’d go live in Sweden in half a goddam heartbeat.

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~ The Tatami Lodge — a new space since my last visit, comprised of two levels of very basic rooms, and a large, open top level used as a gathering/workout/hangout space. Best of all, the rooms feature a commanding view down onto the steep slopes of the farm, as well as being a perfect location from which to watch the night skies’ hours-long lightning shows, and listen for the thwump of falling Durian. (Also best of all: There’s very little night-time mosquito activity right now, which made it practicable to throw the sliding doors wide, ditch the AC, and breathe deep the Durianic air.)

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~ The wonderfully charming characters serving as tour guides at the nearby Penang Tropical Fruit Farm — home to more than 300 species. The guides with whom we toured during the two visits — Ali and Roy — spoke exquisitely elocuted and accented British English, and were each fountains of knowledge and trivia. One interesting tidbit of which I’d certainly not been expecting to hear: Each evening at 5:00 in the PM, the farm releases the hounds to protect the perimeter against the band of monkeys lurking just beyond. Were it not thus, the monkeys would eat up all of the farm’s fruit in very short order.

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Needless to say, that’s just a scratching of the surface. I feel very humbled to have shared this fleeting moment with these loveliest of people…can’t wait to do it again next year!

July 10:

Fuckin’ BEAST MODE Penang. I et the one on the left, as its aroma was like almost none other. It was very good, though not quite living up to my olfactory expectations. Weighing in at just over four kilos, a Durian this size wouldn’t even elicit so much as a raised eyebrow in Thailand; but here in Penang, it’s most atypical.

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The season began very late — and the fruits are selling for about three times the normal price — on account of some very naughty rains which arrived right as the tress’d all flowered, back in February, and destroyed around 80% of the crop.

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Those that survived have been delicious — but, alas, I can only afford to eat one per day. [Sigh] Welcome to the new, climate-change-driven, normal…

July 10:

Some more recent highlights from thee City Of Helmets… 

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“Durian In Black” — that’s the term used at Bao Sheng’s to describe the blue-black discoloration in the flesh one sees in the specimen pictured here on thee left. It’s a sign of a very old tree; and, what’s more, a clue that a mouth-numbing experience awaits. And this one delivered as promised. Over the years, I’ve eaten a dozen or so numbing Durians at Bao Sheng, but I believe this was only the second I’ve tasted away from the farm.

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A Durian like that could easily be the highlight of one’s gustatory week — but I’m not even sure it was my favourite of the day. For, this unassuming looking fruit on the right here turned out to be of the type I’ve come to term “Outer Space Durians” — those few that deliver a barrage of flavour, texture, and aroma so indescribable, so stupefyingly mind-turning, so avant-garde as to alter one’s consciousness for a good ninety minutes or more: Spinning head, aimless wandering, karma daze, incoherent babbling, existential time-crisis, the whole nine yards.

So (says I), the Penang Durian season has officially hit its stride. Dunno how long its peak will even last — maybe only a couple of weeks. But even in this sorriest of seasons in many a decade, we find that those flowers which did survive February’s killing rains, and live on to complete the propagation ritual, thereafter received maximum TLC from their trees such that the quality seems to be even better this year than usual. Though I can only afford to eat of a couple per day, every last one I’ve tried since returning from the farm has been the picture of magnificence (or very close to).

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I may need to consider upping my budget limit, however: My favourite grower in the city — a husband and wife team whom had initially estimated they would begin selling some time in August — to-day informed me that they will have Durian “very soon”…and also that it will be “very expensive”. I won’t shell out for sub-par Durian — no way, no how. But for Durian from trees whose produce has exploded my gourd many times before now, and in a year in which the quality on the island is already to the utmost…well, who needs money in their account when they’ve got Penang, ain’t it?

Older British gentleman staying at my hotel related to me an ordeal he suffered on the day of his arrival, knocking himself silly when smashing his head upon one of George Town’s notorious too-low archways and opening up a gaping wound. Pretty interesting story, in fact — involving Chinese waitresses, rickshaw drivers, mean doctors, nice doctors, lots of bleeding blood, and cetera.

I was especially chuffed to note his frequent use of the word “poleaxed” to describe the event. It’s a word one doesn’t hear much, if at all, any more — especially in this context. I bid it makes a comeback. And that comeback begins with you, I daresay. Please try to use the word in a sentence whenever applicable; let’s get a goddam groundswell going here…

July 14:

When it’s Durian season in Penang, every morning is like Christmas morning. And that means, of course, that every night is like Christmas Eve: Giddy anticipation / impossible even to doze as time slows to a crawl, wondering-imagining what new gifts will turn up under the tree(s) come morningtime / fever-dreaming oneself into thee paroxysmal lather…

Ho ho ho (as the man did say) — here’s to another sleepless night, Penang style!

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July 15:

Oh snap, a Chinaman at the house next door to my hotel just blew off exactly 9,000 firecrackers (yes, I kept track). Not that Chinamen ever really need an excuse to set off fireworks, but, I sense a festival is in the offing…

July 16:

In Penang Malyasia, helmet uses you!

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July 17:

Am beginning to wonder if I’m being pranked, or something — this is now the third time, over the years, seeing a local person here in Penang wearing a Huskies t-shirt.

The first two were on foot, so I was able to approach them and excitedly explain that that was my alma mater they were proselytizing. But they each looked at me like as though I’d just arrived from Planet Almondinger with a bag full of dried turds. After some further explication, they just kind of shrugged their shoulders and moved on, without even so much as a smile.

That’s weird, right? I think it’s fuckin’ weird.

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July 24:

Just another day on the island. I don’t think these two were actually fixing to get hitched — but in Penang, one can never quite be sure…

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July 25:

Freshly fallen old-tree Ochee (AKA Black Thorn) from my second-favourite orchard in the Cosmos. I think my accountant had a stroke, but…if you have to ask, ain’t it?

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July 26:

Mark it: July 26, ’17. Probably going to end up being my favourite Durian of the year — and from a grower with whom I’ve previously had very little truck, no less. Curiouser and curiouser…

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July 31:

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No matter how many times the very same fate has befallen my dimpled ass, it’s always more than a little shocking the rapidity with which the season grinds to a halt here. Just four days ago I was eating unimpeachably spectacular fruits of both named and Kampung variety, dreaming that the Durian Summer could last forever. And now, here we see — in all its starkness — the chimera that those heady days represented: The last and final numbers from my Carnarvon homie.

Though his trees are not the most consistent on the island, and though there be some whose highs are undoubtedly greater, his orchard takes a back seat to nobody when it comes to producing inconceivably outre flavours and textures. Over the years, I’ve et far more of his Durians than any other grower’s; and, sure, I’ve had to chuck a few of them into the ocean — but, oh, when they hit the mark, your head spins ’round and ’round and then ’round some more.

Your humble narrator couldn’t ever have asked for a better Durian to end the season with than this behemoth D15 on the right here. A full eight hours after the fact, my mouth is still reeling from its effects, and there’s a possibility it may have permanently altered my neural pathways (I suppose I will know more about this come daybreak). Fuckin’-A (as we say in the States), that was a stone-cold, howling-ass wallop; won’t soon be forgotten.

A couple of end-of-season anecdotes, if I may.

First off, was just yesterday sitting and eating some good stuff in the park, when an older gentleman, Penang born and bred, appeared and sat beside me to talk for a while about both Durian and hiking. (Penangites love to talk about Durian…) After some time, he handed his phone to a passerby, instructing him to take a picture of the two of us whilst reasoning, “You don’t see this very often: White man eating Durian.”

“White Man Eating Durian” — I could never dream of a better epitaph than that!!

Secondly, there’s this Palestinian guy who sells “Palestine Pudding” out of a styrofoam cooler up at the Esplanade every evening. As often as not, he stops to chat with me for a while, as I sit watching the sun set over the sea eating a Watermelon or drinking some Coconuts. After nearly a month’s doing, he finally just the other day up and asked me, “What exactly are you doing here, anyway?” I explained to him about the sorrows of Durian addiction and blah blah, and he asked me to bring him some, as he’d not ever indulged.

Which, I did tonight honour his request. Appreciative though he was, he determined that it was not for him. So, I instead took the remainder of the small fruit over to a couple of guys — one older, one younger — who’d earlier taken a break from their lazing under a tree to give me a bit of a good-natured razz, trying to get me to give my Coconut to them. They were none too put off when I demurred, but nevertheless eagerly accepted my Durianic offering, the older gent announcing that in all his live-long days, he’d never been gifted a Durian before.

“In America,” he then continued, “thirty-seven thousand people die every year…because of a fart,” while making a, like, emanation motion from his bunghole. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

After thinking about it for some moments, I responded, “I believe you!” Which response generated a much bigger laugh than I’d expected. He said he couldn’t prove it, because he didn’t any longer have the evidence to hand; but that he’d read it in the paper years before. And with that, the 2017 Penang Durian season is a wrap.

Except…we can’t end it just yet, as my friend Lindsay Gasik is throwing, in just a few days’ time, a old-fashioned eat-‘n’-greet paparazzi party to celebrate the release of her spanking-new book-length love poem to the Penang Durian. I, myself, shall expect to read it cover to cover that very same night. Only then can we put this season officially to bed. It was a very expensive one — but also a very great one.

Oh, Penang, but where does thee time go?

August 2:

White man STILL eating Durian! After two or three days’ absence, I figured they were done for the year; but lo, there were a few more Kim Hu (Goldfish) winners on Mr. Tan’s table this very same AM.

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While this one didn’t quite poleaxe my dimpled ass the way its cousins were doing last week (or the way that D15 did day-before-yester), it nevertheless served as a potent reminder that Penang Durianism IS still possible in the month of August — three years ago, I’m now recalling, I et a great one as late as August the 10th. Well, I’ve still a few more days in town; let’s see if I can end up melting down my debit card once and for all.

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And for those who may find themselves wondering what is thee next measure after consuming five kilos’ worth of Penang-quality Durian, well, I’ll tell you: Thee next measure is lying down on one’s backside, gawking the trees and the clouds for minutes or months or millennia, and trying to unlock the Durians’ teachings. Who can accomplish *that* will, in all likelihood, be crowned the next Buddha…

August 3:

WE decide which is right…and which IS an illusion.

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August 5:

“Before They Pass Away” — photographer Jimmy Nelson’s completely beguiling survey of worldwide tribal cultures, on display here during George Town Festival’s monthlong run — is quite simply the most stunning series of images upon which I have ever set my eyes.

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The otherwordly nature of the subjects combined with the ultra-large-formats of the prints (some measuring in at a good six feet by three feet) have on two separate visits left me well and truly agog. My snaps here can give a bit of a flavour, but these photos MUST be seen in person to be believed. (Factually, even *then* you won’t believe them.)

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I wouldn’t say that I’d recommend it more highly than a screening of Ran or Lawrence Of Arabia; but it’s otherwise difficult to think of anything I’d be more eager to encourage a human person to take his/her dimpled ass out to go and see. Should this installation set up shop in your town: Run, don’t walk.

Oh, and before you ask — yes, I WILL be making myself one of them moss dunce caps. Maybe not to-day; maybe not tomorrow; but, believe me, it’s gonna happen…

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August 8:

Any questions? The young youth seen here flopping about like a hepped-up wriggly worm and pounding his or her (I could never figure out whether he or she was a he or a she) tambourine into the sidewalk like as if it were John Henry’s big sledge hammer was also yelping and howling just like at a goddam revivalist meetup. Well, born a hippie will always be, I suppose.

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August 14:

Lest one thought it was only thee motorcyclists, serves as proof that George Town’s bicyclists are exceptionally fashionable as well.

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Thailand Digest

A few words from the month in Thailand.  All pics are online at thee Flickr page.

May 24:

One never quite appreciates the majesty of awnings so much as when in Thailand. May not look it in the video, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a squall as intense as this one. And it stayed at or very near peak intensity for a looooong time, too — like thirty minutes or more, I’d guess. Welcome back in Bangkok!

May 25:

If I would have been told that I would arrive in Bangkok and something would shock me totally by bringing me an unbelievable joyment, I would surely have guessed that it would be at the ping-pong show. But no!, it’s in fact the A quality phone talk and the devices entertainment found in these delightfully hued s tereo earbuds — and for only 199 Thai Baht, no less. Shall the wonders ever cease?

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May 30 – June 11:

Chanthaburi, Thailand.  Where weird reigns, and Durian is truly king of all it surveys.

June 17:

Oof, my flattened ass is in open rebellion after having been made to endure yet another interminable third-class passage aboard the Thai railways. Every time, I wonder to myself how many more of these I can take. But, it’s gonna have to be at least one, as I’ve already purchased a ticket for the longest route in the entire system, departing in two days’ time. Masochism ? us…

Am here in Bangkok following a brief-but-mirthful trip up to Isan (the collective name given to Thailand’s northeastern provinces, near to the Lao and Cambodian frontiers; it’s famous for, among other things, its extremely spicy cuisine) to visit a friend; happy to report that Thailand has not lost its propensity to dazzle and delight, while, moreover, the remarkable Thai hospitality — about which, one will no doubt recall, I have heretofore spoken with great frequency and in the most glowing of terms — is, ever still, fully in its swing. Highlights of the jam-packed three-day itinerary included…

~ Calling in to four different English language classrooms at three different schools to chat up the eager students who, living in the countryside as they do, have rarely if ever had an opportunity to converse with a native English speaker. One of the stops, you can see, coincided with the school’s weekly “Scout Day”. I never laid witness to the setting of any bear traps; but did, at the least, put in a recess-time stint between the playfield pipes, as the students took it in turns to drill my (then) dimpled ass with a never-ending stream of shots on goal — including from the girls, by the way, one of whose excellently struck ball not only found the back corner of the net, but also just may have been the shot of the day.

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~ A crash course covering the intricacies of the twice-monthly Thai lottery. It so happens, I now have learnt, that any held ticket matching the last three digits with one of the two winning combinations for the three-digit category pockets a cool 4,000 Thai Baht (that translates to about 120 greenback smackers, if you wondered). I hadn’t known of the existence of this three-digit option. But, alack!, ALL of the vendors with whom we checked — they’re visible by the dozens, in constant patrol over every square metre of Thaispace, housing their tickets for sale in fashionable little briefcases emblazoned, for good luck, with the likenesses of known monks — had already sold out of tickets ending in my beloved 666 (“Hok-Hok-Hok,” when you’re speaking Thai). Damn and blast! All I’ve got to say is the fricking constabulary (as so, according to one vendor, the responsible parties were) had better stop buying up all the tickets with MY number on them…if’n they wanna know what’s good for their general goddam welfare, that is. Thinking on his feet, one entrepeneuring vendor tried his god damn darnedest to sell me a 999, arguing that, turned upside-down, it would be just as good as a 666 — but I was having not a whit of that shaky-arsed logic.

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~ A nice, weeklong breather betwixt the all-out Mango gluttonism of the month just past and the all-out Durian gluttonism of the month about to come, compliment many meals’ worth of very consistently high-quality Watermelons procured at absolutely dirt-cheap prices.

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~ A gorgeously scenic and wonderfully serene rowboat cruise in amongst the assembled floating fishing rigs and all (the fisherfolk spend the night in those little tin huts, and sell their catch next morning in the ad hoc fish market set up onshore), whilst being lorded over by cloud formations as impressive as any I’ve seen outside of western goddam Montana. Please be informed (if you’re now planning to drop all and come a-running here to take up thee fisherfolk lifestyle) that, by writ, fishing activities are limited to the hours of 6:00pm to 6:00am daily.

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~ Receiving roughly ten different sets of directions from roughly ten different neighbourhood dwellers, but eventually triangulating our way, for a look-see, to a little 200-tree Durian orchard — Durian trees are a most atypical sight for this area — so new they’ve not even begun selling the fruits yet (this year will be the first). The dickens ain’t got nothin’ on the supercuteness of these heavenly bodies!

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~ Spotting stuff-strutting peacocks and wicked beautiful foliage about the woodland grounds of the wonderful community temple pictured here. Unfortunately, the pics decidedly do not do this space justice — though its size is bordering on the gargantuan, its decor is much more elegant and restrained than one would normally expect to find in a temple of this size; while the atmosphere honestly comes very close to matching the je ne sais quoi spiritual eminence I’ve found in but a select few of Chiang Mai’s most hallowed chapels. Possibly this is owing to the lumber used in the construction — this was, I’m told, obtained from the dredging up of trees flooded under many decades prior with the completion of the local cement dam. Consequently, the boards here are much larger than what could otherwise have been found in the area for many, many a moon.

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~ Catching up with the latest town gossip. The most hi-larious development is that two brothers have opened identical shoppes selling convenience items, lottery tickets (natch), and funeral services — and sited them right next to each other! The vagaries of commerce being what they are, the brothers are not currently on speaking terms. Well, blood may be thicker than water, but it apparently still cannot quench the mad lust ensuing from single-minded pursuit of monetary gain. These two could stand to take in a screening of The Devil And Daniel Webster, methinks!

…and many else besides. But, as this correspondence has already grown far too unwieldy for use in polite society, I’ll, for to-day, dispense with the pleasantries and simply declare: Rocka rolla Thailand, how much I do love you so.

Next stop: Penang (oh yes, thy WILL be done)…

June 17:

Oy, I think thee thermometer repair fella (or gal) is going to have a windfall<>bonanza kind of day tomorrow after the scorching doled out to-day here in the world’s hottest city. (And somehow it feels even hotter at nighttime.) It’s one of those cold-shower-before-bed-even-though-the-dorm’s-A/C-is-running kind of nights.

I might drink twenty of these tomorrow. At minimum, it’ll be fifteen.

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June 18:

Here’s a tip for the next time you’re traveling in Thailand. You won’t see it often (at least I have not), but any time you DO see Dragonfruits priced at only 20 Baht to the kilo and looking all scummy and nasty and like they’re gonna die and everything, you don’t wait, you don’t pass Go, you don’t make a note to come back and get some later — you BUY them, toute de suite!

For, much as is the case with Papayas, the scummier and rattier and nastier they look on the outside, the sweeter and softer and more delicious they’ll taste on the inside.

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June 18:

Who knew there was a goddam Mangrove forest right in the heart of BKK? Definitely not me!

Having secured only about 30-44 minutes’ worth of sleep on the train from Udon Thani, I figured I’d have a lazy, relaxing day to recover and to begin to steel myself for the impending eighteen-hour trip to Hat Yai. But, somehow, there is no such thing as a “lazy, relaxing day” in Bangkok — the city’s heartbeat sends notions pulsing into your skull; one thing leads to another; and before you know it, you’ve logged another dozen miles on your pedometer.

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What it was, I suddenly got the notion that I would rather like to take the river taxi up to the Grand Palace area than to take the bus; and looking to see whether there were any piers near the hostel, noticed that there was, at least, a ferry pier, and that right there close was a park I’d never heard of before. On the map, it looked like any other Thai park, with a big water feature in the middle, some grass, a running track, and probably some exercise equipment, and so forth. It wasn’t in the direction of the Grand Palace, but, what thee Hell?, the ferryboat would be fun, and one could sit in the shade and drink some Coconuts. Plus, it looked like there were a bunch of hiking trails in the area around the park. Everybody wins, ain’t it?

So I schlepped my dimpled ass over there, only to find that the “park” was actually the aforesaid (and very pleasing indeed) Mangrove forest, and the “hiking trails” were actually miles and miles of criss-crossing concrete boardwalk. Turns out, it’s rather a popular activity to rent oneself a bicycle at the ferry landing and while away the hours tooling around beneath the canopy. Right here in Bangkok!

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According to the signage, the recently-deceased King, in 1977, extolled their virtues; and every since that moment it’s been trees-a-go-go all throughout Thailand. The present forest, too — “Bang Kachao”, it’s called — was begun at that time.

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After a few hours’ tooling around on foot, I had another look at the map, and figured out that I could take the boardwalk all the way to a different ferry pier, cross the river again, and be within spitting distance of the Museum Of Counterfeit Goods. Now, I’d thought that I’d visited every one of Bangkok’s little specialty museums — the stamps, the dolls, the cameras, the butterflies, the pottery, the trains, the longboats, the knickknacks, and on and on — but I’d never even heard of the Museum Of Counterfeit Goods, let alone having visited. Ooh, this was gonna be fun.

So I schlepped my dimpled ass back across the river, to the location of the building, and down an alley where it looked like the entrance must be. But the only sign of life down there was a guy making some weird-looking furniture. I tried to prove to him with the map that this space was supposed to be counterfeit goods, not weird furniture. But he didn’t know what the Hell I was on about, so he went into an adjacent office and retrieved three ladies who would. (One great thing about Thai people, among many, is that whenever they don’t know what the Hell you’re on about, they’ll scamper off somewhere and return in short order with an English-speaking compatriot or three.)

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After some time scrutinising the map, the ladies agreed that I’d stumbled myself into a straight-up conundrum.

Around the corner, then, I stopped at a little outdoor restaurant and solicited the help of the proprietor. She didn’t know what the Hell I was on about, but pointed me to one of the tables, where sat a young lady looking like she was approximately eight months three weeks six days and twenty-three hours pregnant. She snatched the phone out of my hand and began zooming in and out on the location. After about fifteen or twenty zooms, she bade me hang tight and loped into the salon (or whatever) that was right next to the restaurant. Surprisingly nimble, come to think of it, considering how pregnant she was.

After a while she came back, returned my phone to me, and indicated that I may as well go back whence I’d come, as I would not be finding any Museum Of Counterfeit Goods in this neighbourhood — to-day or ever. She may have been right about that one, but, what I did find in the neighbourhood was some pretty awesome street art.

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Was it as awesome as the museum would have been? Perhaps not. But, operating on the assumption that everything happens for a reason, I guess we can deduce that the reason some goofnut entered the Museum Of Counterfeit Goods at this location into OSM’s database was so that I and others would be led to that area in search of same, and end up appreciating the street art instead.

Huhn, it just occurred to me that the person who finagled the phantom museum onto the map must be none other that the graffiti artist hisself! Or herself. I think I just solved this fucking conundrum right now! I did eventually get the river taxi up to the Grand Palace, but by the time I’d arrived, it had already closed.

Just call me…down-but-not-out in Bangkok town.

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p.s. Which would you rather name your band — “Assembly Point” (logo included) or “Assembly Of Beautiful Fish”? Either way, you can’t go wrong!

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June 19:

Just checked out of De-Talak Hostel for possibly the last time, as new regulations may soon force its closure. It’s almost impossible to imagine arriving in Bangkok and not staying here; but, there it is, kids: Best appreciate the good times while you can, ’cause nothing in this world is permanent. Seems like I’ve been learning that lesson a lot of late…

No words could ever adequately express my admiration, Rata Chaipatikul. You made the best place ever.

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June 20:

It’s a looooong way riding the rails on Thailand’s southern line. But the benefit with such a long overnighter is that you get some hours of daylight at both the beginning and the end of the trip to take in the terrifically gorgeous countryside. Plus, it’s usually a lot less crowded than the northern lines, so one has the opportunity to stretch out and get some sleep.

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And whoso arrives here in Songkhla province (which includes both the cities of Songkhla and Hat Yai), will find perhaps the friendliest people in all of Thailand.

I’ve told before of the lady whom, having seen me walking barefoot down the street in the middle of the day, pulled up on her motorcycle intending to gift me a pair of flip-flops and a bottle of water; and of the lady who insisted on giving me a ride into town rather than letting me walk the few miles; and the mother and daughter who, thinking me lost, pulled over their station wagon and, with great concern, told me, “We want to help you”; and of the streetside vendors who went into DEFCON status in order to find somebody to explain to me in English why the floating market was not at that time operating.

And now, to-day, fresh off the train, I was walking barefoot through the clock tower plaza area drinking a Coconut, and heard somebody screaming, “You! You! You! You!” I turned in time to find the gentleman scurrying to grab a pair of flip-flops from under a bench to give to me.

Don’t get me wrong: The wayward farang will encounter this type of friendliness in all reaches of Thailand. It just seems a little, tiny bit more forthcoming down here in the southern reaches. (Walk down the street barefoot in Cambodia, by way of contrast, and you’ll get 9,000 people offering to sell you a pair of flip-flops. I love Cambodian people, but…Thai people definitely go that extra mile.)

Yep, departing Thailand is always a sad occasion.

June 20:

Aaaand boom goes the dyn-o-mite. The great good number was not on display, so the vendor had to procure it from a special locked drawer in the vending desk. But, procure it she did; and I am now down with the sound for the next drawing. Don’t forget to tune in July 1st to see how I did!

I told the lady staffing my guest house that if it turns out to be a winning ticket I would come back and share the prize with her. (I had earlier been trying to ascertain from her thee nearest place to purchase a lottery ticket, but with her limited English, she had thought I was looking for somewhere to do my laundry. …For which, considering the state of my wardrobe these days, I could hardly blame her.)

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Sri Lanka Digest

As per thee usual, my dimpled-yet-lazy dimpled ass elected, this last month, to pass updates on to the timeline rather that sitting down to compose any actual essays. The hyperlinks are to the specific timeline post in question, where there will be lots more pictures than those excerpted below.  For those interested, all my pics from Sri Lanka may be discovered at my Flickr page:

April 18:

Got a Chinese hostel-mate name of “Jackson”. I am pretty strongly of the opinion that my having come into possession of this information, and having in turn passed it on to you-all, marks the completion (I would personally say with smashing success, but your mileage might vary) of my spirit journey.

 April 26:

(Shortly) before the storm.

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May 1:

Were it simply a matter of loving the scenery, Sri Lanka would be almost without peer as a travel destination. From the spectacular and thrilling mountainous jungle vistas of the hill country to the, well, spectacular and thrilling vistas of the Indian Ocean down at sea level, it’s all so gorgeous, it almost hurts to look at it. (Here in Sri Lanka, at any rate, the phrase “achingly beautiful” is not just metaphor!) On top of which, Sri Lankan people — both in city and town — are quite friendly and always eager to help out a wayward foreigner.

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Alas, it’s not all sweetness and light, however. The quality of the fruit is, shockingly, quite shit. The Coconuts, Bananas, and Papayas are decent enough; but the Watermelons, Mangos, and Avocados: Shit, shit, and more shit. I don’t pretend to understand it, but them’s the facts. Further, the traffic and noise pollution are nearly unbearable; while Sri Lankans are as addicted to plastic (and especially the burning of plastic) as everyone else. And also, mosquito time is a good thirteen hours per day here — a real pain in the ass.

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On balance, I’m still not sure thumbs up or down — have got two more weeks’ time to figure that one out…

 May 2:

I may or may not be fixing to spend the remainder of my born days here in Haputhale.

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Okay, truthfully, I can’t. Though this may be the most insanely wonderfully beautiful hike ever have I taken, it’s nevertheless the same bugaboo about which I was bitching and moaning the other day: Lousy fruit and too-loud tuk-tuks. Adding insult to injury, my dimpled ass got rained upon like none other walking back to the hostel (“Holiday Home”, as it’s called here) with my lousy fruit I’d gone into town to fetch.

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NEVERTHELESS, can’t wait to try this hike again on thee morrow…

May 3:

Hold the, I say, hold thee muthafuckin’ phone: I’m actually finding some good fruit all up in here. Et a quite decent, if unremarkable Watermelon; a mighty fine Soursop; some excellent Mangosteens (which smashed my bank account in half — but, hey, it’s frickin’ Mangosteen!); and even a good Avo — the first I’ve encountered since arriving Sri Lanka. The first pic here is from my roadside lunch sit…

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May 5:

Didja ever feel like overflowing, with tears of unbridled joy, the Pacific Goddam Ocean…solely because you know a certain place exists? That’s how your humble narrator here feels about O little town of Haputhale.

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Though, I did make a little half-day-trip of the morning: Got the bus up to Badulla, the eastern terminus of the Hill Country rail line, and rode the rails back to Haputhale. This stretch is reputed to be the World’s most beautiful. And, indeed, pretty it was. However: a) The bus ride out to Badulla was every bit as scenic; b) Thailand’s Southern line — especially the stretch between Nakhon Si Thammarat and Hat Yai — beats this like a red-headed stepchild; c) Simply hiking around Haputhale is a far more satisfying experience, as I learnt yet again this after when discovering another stupendous trail — at which time, the aforesaid weeping re-commenced in earnest.

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Oh, and ever did I neglect to report…no mosquitoes in Haputhale! Leastways, not at this time of thee year. Even after torrential evening monsoon rains followed by hot/sunny days, it’s still too cool at night for the little fuckers’ comfort.

Haputhale, thy name is legend!

May 5:

The owner of my hostel just walked in with a fuckin’ disco ball which also jams out Sri Lankan dance music. Top that (if you can)!

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May 5:

Made this pic with Snapseed’s new multiple exposure feature — have included the two originals for reference. You can see I didn’t get ’em lined up perfectly. Still, pretty neat…

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May 7:

This was from a few days ago — extended Internetlessness in Haputhale delayed its posting ’til now…

Am trying to take fewer pics, and to simply enjoy the magic of each day in this place. It’s a difficult skill for me to master!

Took some country roads out to Diyatalawa, the next town over, then back to Haputhale along the railroad tracks. The return trip was rock and roll all over — so awesome walking along the tracks, where no tuk-tuks ever go!

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This was actually my first visit to a Sri Lankan temple — the presiding authority, nearly as I could make out, was a nine-year-old boy speaking impeccable British English. He was a bit distressed when he couldn’t get the blinking lights to work on this one shrine he was trying to show me (“Do you want to watch it?” he had asked, more amiably than you could possibly imagine, after explaining to me what lay behind the locked door in front of which we were standing), but was otherwise the most gracious host you ever did see. He had his own personal tuk-tuk driver, and everything — they later offered me a ride into Diyatalawa when they passed me on the way. I declined, but appreciated the hospitality, for sure.

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You mark my fuckin’ words: That little snot-nosed kid is going to get Monk Of The Year before it’s all said and done — if not Monk Of The Decade

May 8:

Me, I pay homage to the Ang He Durian, which is on the Bao Sheng Farm, which is on the island of Penang, which is in the country of Malaysia. But then, I guess we’ve all got our separate idiosyncrasies, haven’t we?

May 8:

Getting ready to head back to the lowlands for Lord Buddha’s birthday jam — but not before having taking part in a couple of strenuous hill-climbs featuring tasty views at the top.

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The first, back in Haputhale, up to Lipton’s Seat, the site where Thomas J. Lipton sat and pondered his next and newest bravura blah blah blah (it’s all in the enclosed sign). You get a bus from town about halfway up, then make the five-mile trek each way from there — actually, I was walking almost exclusively alongside plantation workers heading to their stations: Most of the tourists seem to get a tuk-tuk all the way up, or one of the infrequent mini-buses. But, come on, one shouldn’t be allowed to see the scenery without putting in the goddam effort, ain’t it? It’s a pretty walk up, through the tea plantation and all; not too much traffic; and the view is as advertised. You could spend an hour up there if you spent a moment — and one especially cool feature is it’s ever-changing: At one point completely enshrouded in mist, with basically zero visibility at all, and then twenty or thirty minutes later almost totally clear…for the cycle to then begin all over again.

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Next on the agenda, following the uber-lovely train passage to Hatton, and then a bus down here to Dalhousie, was the hike up the infamous 5,400 stone-step stairway to the top of Sri Pada, the most sacred pilgrimage site on the island. Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and hippies all claim the mountain as hallowed ground. I’d begun hearing about the hike almost before I even landed in Colombo. Basically, from the moment I’d checked in to the hostel, everyone set upon me imploring me to make the trek. One Australian girl said it was the best thing she’d done in her life; and one American gent couldn’t wait to show me his pictures of the triangle (see below).

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You’re supposed to drag your dimpled ass out of bed at 2:30 in the AM in order to make the summit by sunrise. And one MUST make the top by sunrise (I’ve learnt over and yet over again) because…well, I don’t know why the religious knuckleheads feel the need; something to do with Purifying The Soul™, presumably. But for the hippies, the life-altering event (seriously, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me so) is the appearance, shortly after sunrise, of a shadow in the shape of a (wait for it)…yes, of a triangle.

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“Ooookay,” I’ve been thinking for now three weeks’ time, “that’s it?” I mean, if it were in the shape of fuckin’ Ernest Borgnine, natch I’d be there with bells on. But, a triangle? I can give it a miss, I’d been thinking for those same three weeks’ time. Really, I just wanted to be able say I’ve clumb the 5,400 steps; there’s no way the views would be superior to what I’ve seen in Nepal — or even Haputhale. I had been thinking to set out at 5:00 or so, but at some point it occurred to me that I could go up at sunset instead, come back down by nine or ten o’clock, get a full night’s sleep, and spend the following day doing some day-hikes around the area. The only thing I wasn’t sure about was, would it be raining in the afternoon?

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So I arrived here to Dalhousie, checked in to the guest house, and asked the manager whether such an endeavour would be possible. Sure thing, he said — there wouldn’t even be any crowds at that time (on weekends, there are so many people up there, it takes something like five hours to move the last coupla hundred metres up to the temple — but they all come down after sunrise). Would it be raining, though, I wondered? Only a few drops, perhaps, he assured me; and said I could borrow a raincoat, so long as I promised to return it. The perfect crime!

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I was even happier after speaking, just by chance, with a German hostel-mate who’d arrived in a group of ten the previous night. He and one other had been thinking along the same lines as myself, and he said that it was similarly cloudy when they set out, but that they didn’t get rained on and the views were quite nice. I excitedly rushed into my room, threw some shit into my daypack, pranced outside, and…it was raining like a motherfucker. And continued to rain like a motherfucker — with some few brief slack periods — well into the evening.

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Well (as Chuck Knox always used to sagaciously remind us), we’ve gotta play the hand we’re dealt. Anyway, the hostel’s garden area was a nice place from which to watch the thunderstorming — and there were even some goddam fireflies about. Looking back now, I do think sunrise is the better time to go up, because you’re climbing when it’s nice and cool, then descending when it’s nice and warm, rather than the other way around. I got here just in the nick of time, too: After to-day, there are only two more days in the pilgrimage season (which coincides with the dry season). One can, I believe, still make the hike after that — but the temple is closed, there are no services, and the path is not lighted.

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So, 2:30 it was. The hostel’s owner, whom has been up the hill 1,500 times, gave us a little informational pep talk the night before; told us we were in luck going on a Monday, as it would be far less crowded; and said that if one gives oneself to the mountain, and to the jungle, then, something would happen to you. Nice words (really, I mean it) — but the circus atmosphere makes such a pursuit totally impossible. Shoppes are lining the path, selling not only food and beverage, but also plastic trinket crap, and even (I shit you not) loads and loads of stuffed animals. And there’s music, and shitloads of people going up and down; the whole nine yards. Kinda kills that particular mood, don’t it?

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The timing for the hike was listed about the same as the Lipton’s Seat hike, so I figured it would be roughly as difficult. Heh, I figured very, very wrong. This one was extremely difficult — mostly, I suppose, because the stairs are for the most part the same height as two normally-proportioned stairs. And every time you look up, the peak seems to be getting further and further away. I was kind of getting down on myself for struggling so much, but then began to realise that I was passing locals like as though they were standing still. So, despite all the huffing and puffing, I actually did make good time.

The sunrise was very pretty, of course; but it wasn’t such an enjoyable time. Despite there were far fewer people than on weekends, there were still tonnes of them, and loud temple music, and artificial lights, and temple structures and fencing obscuring the view, and so on. Worst of all: Babies screaming their guts out. I seen a very great many babes-in-arms being carried both up and down the hill, so I certainly rate those parents as hard-core. But, Christ, give ’em some nectar, or a tin of sardines…or at least a carton of Whoppers, for fuck’s sake. Anything to shut them the Hell up for a while. I do like being in crowds of people at times — concerts, or sporting events, or what have you. But for Nature Experiences™ (gotta admit it), I much prefer being alone.

Yes, after sunrise, the shadow did appear. No, it was not in the shape of Ernest Borgnine — nor even Dustin Hoffman. Yes, it was as stupid and/or lame as expected. I dunno; if triangles are your bag, you can take it from me: The Egyptian variety are FAR more interesting that the Sri Lankan.

There was a bunch of religious bullshit going on for an hour or so, but after that, the crowds started to thin, and one could walk around and enjoy the view more easily. And what a view it was! Was seeing that view the best thing I’ve ever done in my life? Not even close — any single day trekking in Nepal, to take only one example, beats this experience senseless. But it was very definitely worth the effort expended. And now I can say I’ve clumb the 5,400 steps of Sri Pada.

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I shared the walk down with a twenty-five-year-old Colomboite. Very nice fellow. He explained to me some angles concerning the trek that I otherwise would not have understood, and stuff like that. It was his seventh time making the pilgrimage, by five different routes (I’d only known of two, but apparently there are at least five). This time, he and a friend (who was still up the mountain suffering from cramps) had taken the Forest Route™ up to the top. Their plan was to camp out in a little-known cave overnight, before making the ascent this morning. Unfortunately, they got caught out in the rain for many an hour before arriving to the cave, shivering their asses off all the whole while.

We got to talking about leeches for some time — he said he’d had a hundred of them on him during the forest portion of the trek; and proceeded to tell me of all the ways, during his live-long life, he’d tried (and failed) to kill them. One time, he’d even squeezed one of them until his blood burst out, and he was sure it was dead, but then came to find out it was still alive. “That’s when I realised,” he declared, “that leeches are immortal.”

Back at the hostel, I almost had a pretty bad conniption when I thought I’d lost my all-time-righteous stocking cap that I purchased in Kathmandu three years back — but then it turned out I’d already packed it somewhere where I don’t normally pack it. Fuck, I’d hate to lose that hat!

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By the way, I should perhaps explain exactly what it means, up here in Hill Country, when I say I “got the bus” from Point A to Point B. Basically, every mile of road up here is fitted out with (approximately) nine trillion hairpin turns. The cliffs are extremely sheer, and the roads extremely narrow — essentially, they’re one-lane roads, though of course full-size and oversize vehicles are at all moments careening up and down in both directions. I think the bus drivers must get paid by the careen, in fact: They’re complete and total maniacs — talented ones at that. (I’ll give the locals this much, though: I’ve never seen a one, as is so common in mountain bus rides in Thailand and Laos, heaving their lunches into little plastic bags and then tossing them out the window. Sri Lankans really are made of pretty stout stuff…) The buses are always packed to the rafters, so you’re probably going to be standing. In which case, your only goal in life is to remain upright against the g-forces being arrayed against you every five seconds or so. If you do perchance get a seat — say you got on at the beginning of the line, or very soon after — you would then have the opportunity to, like, make a chart notating how many (few) inches of clearance the driver left between the back-inside wheel and the cliff’s edge for each turn until your destination. Or you could just sit back and enjoy the legendary views. Or whatever grabs your god damn fancy.

May 9:

Kandy: The “cultural center of Sri Lanka,” according to the guidebook. But if you enjoy breathing, please don’t ever, ever come here. The vehicles’ exhaust fumes are more suffocating and noxious even than on Chiang Mai’s moat road — and that’s really saying something.

So sad to be leaving the Hill Country; feel like I barely scratched its surface. This parting photo, of the Meskeliya Reservoir, is maybe the best shot I’ve ever gotten from the inside of a moving vehicle. They just never seem to work out; but, at long last, one did…

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May 12:

Oof, it’s hot out here — drank six Coconuts on the Buddha’s birthday, which I believe equals a personal best. They all call ’em “King Coconut” here, which at first I found a bit chintzy. But after one month’s indoctrination, am now fully on board, and can be heard walking down the street calling out at random intervals, “King Coconut!”

Meanwhile, though Colombo is not by any stretch among my favourite places, when it comes to the sun setting over the sea, it needn’t take a back seat to anyone. (Okay, it takes a back seat to Alexandria…but that’s about it.)

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May 12:

Holy fuck.

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May 12:

They celebrated the Buddha’s birfday the last two nights, and in Colombo the fine people were carrying on as if they’d just tasted victory in thee World Cup final.

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The city was awash in colour; electric lights and homemade lanterns adorning every possible surface — including, to great effect, forming tunnels over many roadways for blocks on end. Plus, free ice cream for all.

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The first night was marred, unfortunately, by the presence of every single motor-car on the island (or so it seemed) sitting idling in gridlock and spewing fumes so poisonous they make the eyes sting for any with the misfortune to be in the vicinity. The biggest street party of the year, and none of the streets were blocked off to traffic. I’d call it the boner of the decade — but it’s certainly the same every year. The second night, there was much less traffic (though still far too much, honestly), and it was at least possible to walk around and enjoy the tasty visual fantasia without being completely fumigated to death.

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Enjoyable though it was (whenever breathing was possible), it’s nowhere near the level of Bangkok’s Chinese New Year celebrations, for example. Surprisingly weak programming, honestly. But, anyway, worth a look if one happens to be in the area. What any of it has to do with the Buddha’s actual teachings…well, nobody likes a party-pooper, so, I guess we shan’t be asking such impertinent questions just now.

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Popped down here to Ambalangoda to-day to check out the area’s famous mask scene, and fell asleep on the train only to awaken just as it was pulling out of my station. Got off at the next stop, fifteen minutes down the line, and brought the bus back, so no big deal; but…I’m pretty sure that’s never happened to me before!

May 13:

How beautiful are these goddam Sri Lankan currency notes? Possibly maybe the world’s most, n’est pas?

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May 13:

Holy fuck again.

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May 13:

Next time ’round I’ll be a trout!

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 May 15:

Really wanted to stay in Ambalangoda one more night: It’s got skull-shattering sunsets, the ocean is in Beast Mode with the arrival of the monsoon (not good for swimming — but fun to watch!), the roof deck of my guest house had a perfect breeze at all times and was a terrific place from which to enjoy the nightly thunder/lightning activity, and…best King Coconuts on thee island (at a third the price for the same volume as in other locations, not to mention).

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However, I’d not yet visited Colombo’s National Museum, so I did my duty and made my way back up here last night. The museum is nice enough (more masks!), though, frankly, not essential.

Glad I came back, though, ’cause there were some very cool people at the hostel, including an Argentinian who told me all I ever needed to know (and then some) about his Vipassana experiences and a Kenyan who endeared himself to me very greatly by using the fuck-word with excellent frequency. So happy did this make me that I gifted him my fruit knife, which I must surrender before flying, but had been planning to sell for half the price I’d paid (or what).

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Have to say, my hostel-mates — both here and in Egypt — have been spectacularly interesting people, at more less every single stop. That’s always been true to some extent, but this year the effect has been hyper-realised.

A very few, if one would pardon the indulgence, random moments of the type which can’t be captured photographically, but which, in actual fact, are the moments that stick with yon traveller the most (or at least I so find).

 ~ The train pulls in to some backwater Hill Country town; just outside the station await three or four empty tuk-tuks — their drivers presumably over at the exit gate angling for customers. Blasting from one of the tuk-tuks is an (I’m guessing) Sinhalese cover of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”; it’s got a kind of calypso beat, very festive. Would love to hear that thing in its entirety. Anybody know it? Jeff Norman? Marc Hewson? Surely there’s some obsessive individual tracking every known Beatles cover, one would think?

~ Walking back to the guest house in Haputhale, a major squall arrived just as I was passing a little general store which happens to trade in King Coconuts. I grabbed one to drink while waiting out the storm under a nearby overhang. Occasionally, some impatient soul would brave the buckets of rain and come running down the hill to get something from the shoppe — including, at one point, a barefoot lady in a Burkha with an enormous grin on her face. That sight, in that moment, will be, I think, the most cherished memory from my visit here. And, combined with a similar sight in Alexandria, I think it’s feasible to propose a fine rule of thumb (if not Law Of Nature): Ladies + Burkhas + Running = Pure Entertainment Gold.

~ A boy sitting next to me on a bus from somewhere to some other where is playing Donkey Kong, Jr. on his very-small-screened phone. Fuck, the countless hours and quarters I spent playing that game, thirty-odd years ago, at the Redmond Pizza Haven! Brings back some memories.

~ A sign reads “Jesus Miracle Ministry”; another “Wash Master — We Groom Your Lifestyle”. Unlike in India where the English signage is extremely precise, it’s much more, let’s say, haphazard, here — more reminiscent of Southeast Asia. In fact, I’d say that in general Sri Lanka is much more similar to southern Thailand than it is to India.

~ A man steps onto the bus to sell I-don’t-remember-what; his sales pitch consisting entirely of the words, “Wadawadawadawada” spoken over and over again at light speed.

Just a few moments that especially stick out. There are dozens every day, of greater or lesser indelibility. And tomorrow (knock wood), I’ll be eating Durian in Kuala Lumpur…

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Egypt Digest: Sand & Sea

Here’s another digest of items originally sent to thee timeline. As before, hyperlinks point to the post in question, where one may find the full bevy of pics from which these-here have been sampled. For the pic-lookin’ enchilada entire, the Flickr page is now — quelle suprise! — completely up-to-date:

March 22:


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March 23:

Long story short, sixteen-hour hellride between Luxor and Alexandria — Egyptian trains are even more infested with screaming/careening brats than are Indian trains, and the menfolk carry on loud conversations long into the morning. Needless to say, I spent most of the journey tied to my headphones. At one point, in the two-second gap between songs, I did hear a gentleman across the aisle utter thee following snippet: “…seventy-four, seventy-five…”. Pretty sure those were the only English words I heard in the whole of the journey. Also, as it happens (syncho-fuckin’-nicity), the title of my favourite Connells song.

Life: It’s strange.

March 24:

Though I’ve barely been here twenty-four hours, I’m already falling hopelessly in love with Alexandria. (The hippies call it “Alex”, but I think that sounds pretty stupid, so will be sticking with the long form — or the locals’ “Al Iskandria”, perhaps — which is not only more pleasing to the ear, but more evocative as well.) What did it?

The one-eyed man looking up from his sheesha and merrily waving to me as I passed by. The little boy losing his shit when his teammate knifed a perfectly placed ball past the keeper and through the “goalposts” (two decent-sized rocks) during their four-a-side match on a concrete pitch down by the sea. One kitty-cat sunning itself atop a motor vehicle; another poking its head into a tub of minnows (or what) at the Anfoushy fresh market. The streetside vendor selling dinner plates emblazoned with Wonder Woman’s likeness. The young boy dressed in striped sweater and purple wraparound shades, holding his mother’s handing and chomping down a Falafel. The two older gentlemen dressed in track suits, eating fast food and consummating a business deal atop the trunk of a dented-up sedan. The afro-ed teen, leaning against a car and studying his letters, slyly returning my smile. The goofy lecture spilling out of yon local mosque’s PA speaker. The huge mound of handbags for sale splayed uncermoniously about the street corner. The Cantaloupe vendor happily asserting their quality and clapping me on the shoulder when he noticed that I’d returned, having quite enjoyed the first batch, to pick up another couple of.

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The “Coffe Shop” sitta warning me in heavily accented English not to stray too far from the tram tracks or go wandering down side alleys, lest “a very strong man”…he didn’t say what, but I gathered from his tone that I’d exit the encounter decidedly worse for the wear. The bright red and yellow Bell Peppers selling in the souk, each for about the price of a gumball. Young and old alike carting furniture to and fro’ like as though they were the Beverly Hillbillies — a sitting-room hutch in a flatbed tuk-tuk, for one example; a table and chair by hand, for another. The motor vehicle completely covered with shoes for sale. The splendid street art. The young man standing talking to a friend, wearing a Jamaican hat (forget Nasser, or even King Tut — Bob Marley is the Patron Saint of Egypt) and holding a soccer ball under his foot. My hotel’s night manager arguing, in Arabic, with the custodian for some time, before turning to me and announcing, “Is a crazy woman…crazy!”

The one-thousand-and-one alphabets etched into the side of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina — the modern-day reimagination, located more less at the same site, of the OG Wikipedia Of All Things, torched nearly unto oblivion, two thousand years back, in a fit of pique by a particularly irritable Roman emperor with a bit too much time on his hands — as well as its impossible-to-miss art installation, looking like a cross between the Bubbleator and the Death Star. The seaside juice bar dubbing itself “The King of Mangoes and Strawberries” (I’ve not yet attempted to verify — it’s certainly on my to-do list). The ginormous length of the seagulls’ wingspans; as well as (so far as I’m aware, this is not an entendre) the fishermen’s rods.

The pounding waves and shockingly perfect hues of the Mediterranean. I’ve seen some lovely colours in bodies of water before now — in Indonesia, Thailand, Hawaii, Penang…even Ballinger Lake. But I just don’t think I’ve ever seen any as achingly beautiful as the stretch of shore lining a little cove at Al Anfoushy beach here. The beach itself is nothing to write home, and the water is at this time of year still quite chilly — but, my oh my oh my oh my.

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I was standing there for many minutes’ time, admiring this very same sight, when my reverie was suddenly broken by a gruff-voiced man calling out, “Hey, captain! You are very strong?” I turned to see him pantomiming a heave-ho motion, and walked over to help he and his two companions drag his boat ashore. (He sang a little song to help us keep our heaves and our hos in sync). There were a couple of pieces of driftwood situated underneath the boat to help it roll, so it was a bit like Fitzcarraldo (I mean — just a bit). After we’d finished our labors, the little retarded boy who’d been tugging on the rope began repeatedly yelling at me what sounded for all the world like, “Fuck your mother!” I was a bit put off that he didn’t share his boss’s gratitude, but later deduced — when the guardman motioned for me to get my dimpled ass back from whence it had come — that he was actually just warning me to not proceed any further down the beach.

What’s not to love??

Sure, there is that old Egyptian bugaboo — when you’re wearing shoes, you’re treated lilke a Pharoah; when you’re not, you’re treated like a pariah. And crossing the street here is even more of a suicide mission than it is in Cairo. It’s all right, though: Nobody’s home town is perfect.

The first photo here is the view from my hotel room. At $12 per night, it’s a little more than I like to pay for accommodation, but it was the cheapest I could find. Anyway, with a view like this, gotta admit it’s pretty good value. Also, there’s a teevee in the room, in case in my free time I wanna get caught up on some Egyptian soapy operas…

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March 26:

No better advice ever was given.

March 27:

King Tut: He’s got a couple of couches; sleeps on the loveseat.

March 27:

Every city should have an El Mogmma building, sez I!

March 27:

Good work if you can get it!

March 27:

A few more funtime funtime scenes from Alexandria…

The giant fort out on the jetty of the Eastern Harbor looks like somebody’s Lego project gone wild, while the fleet of tricycles for rent nearby is sublime and ridiculous. The art galleries at the Bibliotheca are just sublime — a more important reason to visit than the famous reading room (houses eight million volumes, or something). The Lilliputian furnitures for sale smack in the middle of the fish market are just ridiculous (but entertaining as Hell…).

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The tram’s conductor issues me a ticket for the one-pound (about six cents) fare, then offers me a sip of his tea. Few minutes later, a teen boy jumps onto the moving vehicle, tells me for a while of his dreams to study American English (apparently in school they’re only allowed to learn British English) and travel in America, then announces that he’s going to jump out of the tram. I bid him peace, and as he jumps out of the moving vehicle, he screams, “Peace out!” then enthusiastically waves as the tram glides by.

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El Kobissi assessment: The hype is warranted; and the guys running the joint are very cool. On my first visit, one of them asked me my country of origin. When I told him, he reacted very positively, and shouted, “Obama!” “Yeah, Obama’s finished,” I corrected him as I moved outside to take a seat. “Now it’s Trump.” “Obama is finished,” the other repeated. Then they repeated it again when I returned the next day (this time for a double-dip; my third visit saw me quaffing in quadruplicate — two Strawberries and two Mangoes).

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Viewing Pompey’s Pillar — the city’s tallest remaining Roman structure — with the clouds rolling by is quite the mindfuck. Meantime, walking around the corner and into a Gilliamesque tableaux — two gorgeous mosques, during magic hour, in the middle of the rush-hour maelstrom — elicits similar emotions.

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Two fat ladies in burkhas gallop comically across the street to avoid being run down by the oncoming traffic. The first rule of Egyptian traffic is: There are no rules. From street level, the only goal is survival. But viewed from above, the chaos actually is rather balletic.

At sunset, over the harbor, innumerable birds endlessly circling. Reminds me of Kampot, but, the scenery here is a lot better.

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An old Calesh driver, noting the fruit in my hand, exclaims, “Banani! Banani!” When I give him the old thumbs-up, he claps me on the shoulder and asks my name. Later, when I’ve finished eating them, he intrudes, “Ally! Ally!” (Egyptians have a difficult time pronouncing my name, I’ve learnt) and tries to sell me on the virtues of an hour’s ride in his chariot. When I decline, he bids me feed my Banana peels to his horse, which I am only too happy to do. I may be calling Bananas “Bananis” for the rest of my live-long days.

When I snap a photo of a Santa hat in a car window, a man standing on the street smoking a cigarette warns me, “That car belongs to Mohammed Ahmoud, and he is working in this building.” “I like the hat,” I offer by way of calming his nerves. “Oh!” he proclaims, and I continue: “Santa Claus.” “Santa Claus,” both he and a passerby agree.

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A god-fearing seafarer performs his evening prayers right alongside his boat, while un autre — this one NOT so fearful — gives his a fresh coat of paint.

A senile old one-toothed man in the market kisses me on both cheeks. Two young men tell me he’s crazy, but then ask us to repeat the scene for posterity. The resulting photo is so great, I can’t believe I didn’t ask them to e-mail it to me…

Even in the dirtiest, dingiest, scummiest part of town, the tea shoppes still make deliveries on nice, silver trays. (I think Egyptians love drinking tea even more than Indians.)

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Not to be forgotten, the street art is still pretty awesome; and, also still, the best sight of all — the deep blue ocean rolling by.

 March 31:

Am in Siwa after three eventful days in Marsa Matruh. Will try to write a few words soon. For now, please enjoy some pics of one of the more scenic places ever I laid my god damned eyes. (Just remember, if they seem underwhelming, that the real live experience is ten million times better than the pics…)

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April 1:

I have trod many a fucking league to bring you some pictures to-day, friends; and many a fucking league have I trod.

First, all up into the Great Sand Sea — a ginormous panoramical expanse of windswept dunes, straight out of a god damn Hollywood picture-show, which bestrides the Egyptian/Libyan frontier — for one or two hours’ gazing at the sands, and all.

It actually took about an hour to finally leave behind the maddening drone of civilisation and its infernal gas-powered machines. But don’t never let ’em sell you a packaged-up tour, seen from the window of a cramped-and-reeking-of-petrol 4WD vehicle, I say; ’cause taking off thy shoes and hitting the road on one’s own, to do and go as whimsy pleases (doesn’t hurt to bring along a GPS unit and a flagon of water, natch!), is the only way to explore — and so much more economical, too. Three miles an hour, ain’t it?

Believe it or not, though I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune ten times or so; and though I’ve screened Lawrence Of Arabia a good thirty times or more; I’ve never really spent any good old-fashioned quality time walking amongst the giant, rolling waves of sand. Not really, anyhow. Not like this.

And so strong is the compulsion (hear ye now, the compulsion is so very strong) to just climb up this one last dune and see what lies beyond (hint: more dunes), that one or two hours’ galumphing turned itself into four or five easy as you please. But, finally, I did forlornly turn my dimpled ass back in the townward direction.

But, first, was the matter of traipsing through the palm groves (the world’s best Dates are grown here, it’s said — alas, they’re out of season, dangnabbit, save for the vacuum-packed gift-boxes lining the shoppes’ shelves), and visiting some of the dozens of natural springs dotting the oasis. The most famous of these, Cleopatra’s Bath, is pictured herein, bubbling away.

There was also the matter of checking out this one lake I’d spied on the map. It’s massively huge, though quite shallow, and bisected by an earthen bridge. The water is so clear that the colours — minerals, I’m guessing? — of the lake’s bottom show prettily through. It was blowing like sixty here — hmm, more like one-twenty, in fact — but there was hardly any traffic on the road, so it was a fun place to take a load off for a while.

Last on the agenda, a visit to the temple of the most notorious Oracle of the ancient world. Alexander The Great consulted it, back when; and some Persian king despatched an army of 50,000 men to destroy it no mercy (it had apparently given him some unwanted notices), which army was wholly swallowed up in a sandstorm, big style. True facts, I guess — though, whether one believes in the existence of coincidence is entirely a personal matter.

The Oracle itself is long gone, from what I could see, and the tomb is nothing special. But the views, from the top, looking out over the oasis and beyond, certainly made it worth the thirty-pound asking price.

Siwa town is utter shite, by the way. The guidebook calls it a rustic little watering hole in which to chillax the hours away pondering the imponderable. In point of fact, it’s all motorcycles and trucks and tri-cycles and babies screaming their lungs out forever and dust and horns blaring and power tools and plastic bags and cigarette smoke and people beating the shit out of their donkeys (or making them stand in the baking-hot sun for god-knows-how-long tied to a very short leash). It just never matters how far away you think you’ve travelled from the modern world and its innumerable ills, you cain’t ever escape. Human beings are the bunk everywhere.

That said, those willing to walk outside the town for forty-five minutes in any direction will find peace and quiet in spades here. It’s very worth the effort!

April 2:

Another day of sweet, sweet desolation and insanely rewarding views c/o the desert oasis. I can’t think of any place I’ve been to where I so despise the town and am so enraptured by its surroundings. I can’t even think of another contender, to be honest.

To-day, went in for a long walk around the salt lake — this one the other direction from town as yesterday’s. Shit, I never expected to be so bowled over by Egypt’s bodies of water as I have been. A real treat — although I now realise that I’d not properly appreciated how helpful yesterday’s passing clouds had been. This day were no clouds, no wind, no shade…and HOT pounding sun.

For the eventide entertainment, rented a bicycle and drove it back out to the Sea O’ Sand to watch the rays slip away — and hear nothing but the glorious stillness. Unbeatable!

 April 5:

Back in Alexandria just for a couple days before pushing on toward Sinai. Found accommodation for only eight bones per night. Pretty nice place, too. This is the view from the lounge area rather than the room, but, no complaints here.

First order of business: El Kobissi, King Of Mango and Strawberry. I shan’t depart ’til I have drunk the joint dry!

April 6:

It’s like a Life Of Brian outtake: Christ returns (hey, you’d be surly too if they’d just finished crucifying your dimpled ass) bearing not loaves nor fishes this time, but…cotton candy.

April 7:

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Al-Iskandariyah for…thee…WIN. Who could ever leaving here (I mean, not only Alexandria, but Egypt in general)? It’s still nine days until they throw my dimpled ass out, but I’m already feeling more reluctant to leave here than I have been from any place since my first visit to Laos, back in 2012.

[Insert wistful paragraph, from some literary classic I’ve never gotten around to reading, lamenting the passage of time.]

April 8:

Port Said, the northern outlet of the Suez Canal. I had guessed it was going to be fuckin’ supertankers-a-go-go up in here — but in a few hours of waiting, I seen nary a one. Sheez, that’s a bummer.

Kind of a nice town, though. There’s a free-of-charge ferry across the canal, some neat old architecture, an honest-to-god crosswalk (which, shockingly, is respected by the motorists), seagulls the size of which are rather astounding, and so forth. Best of all is the beach — certainly the water is not as beautiful as at other Mediterranean ports of call, but, still pretty at sunset time; and it’s quite wide and VERY long and straight, with almost no rubbish…and the waves are hypnotic, for sure.

All in all, I give the place a worth-a-visit grade.

April 9:

Did see some ships to-day, but am still pretty disappointed with the parsimonious traffic levels. I honestly thought there’d be several per hour going by ’round-the-clock.

There’s a tonne of English signage here — on account of, one presumes, the city’s status as a duty-free zone. It was, apparently, once the Mos Eisley of the Mediterranean; but it’s now wanting to be instead a boring old shoppers’ paradise. Quite surreal, actually, ’cause despite the shoppes are all here, there don’t seem to be any actual shoppers. Anyhow, a lot of the signs are pretty humorous — e.g.:

  • Baby Home
  • Dandy Shop
  • High Burger
  • Fosh Fosh
  • New Rex Cafe
  • Cow Boy
  • Pizza Sllorh [Hey, I never said they all make sense…]
  • Bob Marley For Sweets
  • General Co. For Silos & Storage
  • Total Women & Kids Wear
  • First One
  • Pop 21 Jeans Wear

The people here are a friendly and hospitable sort, as they are throughout Egypt (one man, along with his charming young daughter, even gave me a brief tour and told me some of the town’s history). They’ve different pastimes, however.

Image may contain: sky, outdoor and waterEverywhere else in Egypt, the three favourite passions (at least among the menfolk) are drinking tea, smoking sheesha, and watching soccer. In fact, I’ve come to believe that every conceivable activity in which one might engage is really just an excuse to drink tea — before, during, and after.

But the Port Saidians, they revolve around two altogether different suns, viz., running on the beach and washing their motor-cars. I shit you not, I’ve completely lost count of the number of individuals I’ve witnessed out with hose and sponge, keeping their rides spic ‘n’ span. Well, now you know.

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April 10:

I may get my dimpled ass blowed to smithereens, but at least if I do it’ll be here in Alexandria Rock City, in sight of the sea, imbibing of El Kobissi’s miraculous juices.

I had planned to get the bus from Port Said to Dahab, but, it turns out there’s no such bus to get — one must transfer in Cairo, making it a fourteen-hour trip out (not including the layover) and ten hours back; which would have left me with only a couple of days there. In addition to which, of course, the fucking jagoff gringos are up to their old tricks in the Middle East (hey, USA, congratulations: You managed, in scarcely two months’ time, to mint yet another in your uninterruptible line of war-criminal Presidents) and U.S.-funded goofnuts are letting off bombs in churches here. So, it’s probably best to steer clear of Sinai for now, where tensions were already running high…

Anyway, detouring back here is not exactly as if having drawn the shortest straw. Indeed, I’m beginning to feel about Alexandria the same way I feel about Bangkok: Every time I return, I wonder why I ever left.

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April 12:

Remember that line — “Don’t dream it, be it” — from Rocky Horror? Sure you do. That’s Iskandariyah all over. Maybe they should make it the advertising slogan (or what).

Would like to here stress that although the spectacular scenery, monumental architecture, and unearthed archeological treasures make for exciting photo opportunities (and, certainly, engaging with the former is a welcomed respite from the hustle/bustle of the Modern Metropolis™), it’s the friendliness, hospitality, spirit, and derring do of the Egyptian people that make it such an exciting and memorable location to visit. (Alas, they don’t generally like having their pictures taken…)

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While that’s true everywhere in Egypt, it seems to be just a little bit more true here. Alexandria: Don’t dream it, be it.

April 13:

Cameroonian Hostel-Mate: Every U.S. President (I’m sorry to say) is a motherfuck.

Me: I agree — you don’t have to be sorry!

In introducing me to his friend, whom he jokingly told me plays for the Cameroon National team, he explained their victory in the all-Africa cup thus: “We fucked Egypt 2-0.” Needless to say, I love this guy!

April 15:

The Egyptian joie de vivre — as contagious as it is crazy, as exhilarating as it is unquenchable — is a power to lift the heavens. Nowhere is that more true, I now realise, than here in Cairo. During my first stop here, I was too busy trying to get my bearings, and taking care of some logistical crap, and visiting some of the famous touristic sites, to really do any exploring of the city’s nooks and crannies.

I might say that I still prefer Alexandria, as the Mediterranean’s siren call is so magnetically compelling. But I am most surely looking forward to in (hopefully not so distant) future spending a lot more time in Cairo as well. Viva!

[Photos-don’t-do-it-justice alert. The thrill of this city and its wonderful people simply must be felt in person to be truly appreciated. Come on down, won’t you?]

April 15:

Here’s a video I made of some of Cairo’s soccer-playing kids. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do — a Swiss hostel-mate said she would have chosen different music; but in point of fact, this is the song that came into my head while I was watching them, and setting these scenes to this specific music was the reason I decided to shoot the footage in the first place. Anyways, watching this vid makes me incredibly happy…

April 15:

Have returned to finish my stay here in the same place in which it began — Thomas the impresario’s incomparable Giza digs.

Went for a wander to find some different angles from which to shoot the pyramids by, and — of course — the true highlight was the interactions with the neighbourhood people encountered en route. They’re still more camera-shy than I’d like, but at least that’s a little less so in Cairo and environs than elsewhere in the country.

This-here last sunset in Egypt, meantime, I dost believe qualifies as a quote/unquote “corker”.

April 17:

Have arrived in Colombo; and whilst I decide whether I have anything to declare (am leaning towards, “I shall consume every last Mango and Avocado on the island!”) here are some pics from thee last volley in amongst the Gizeh Plateau. It was hazier than per usual in the AM, giving the grounds a particularly ghostly ambience.

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By the way, had been somewhat dreading both the arrival and departure ends of this evening: Overstayed my Egyptian visa by a few days to get a cheaper flight; and had mistakenly entered, in the Sri Lankan e-visa application, my arrival as the 10th rather than the 17th. It would’ve run me about ninety greenback dollars if both countries had asked me to pony up — but neither Passport Control agent uttered so much as a peep.

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It’s a goddam Easter miracle (or what)!

 April 19:

Almost forgot: Very last photo in Egypt. Waiting for the gift of…

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Egypt Digest: The Nile Valley

A dearth of time, along with very slow Internet connections throughout Egypt have prevented me from blogging.  But here is a Nile Valley compendium from the ol’ timeline — the hyperlinks point to the specific entries in question — there’ll be lots more pics over there, but I’ll post a sampling from each entry here.  For the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle of photos, there are three Flickr sets:

For some commentary and more pics from Giza, see this blog’s previous post…

March 4:

Wikitravel says of this guest house that the “rooftop hangout is one of the coolest on the planet.” Am finding it difficult to disagree!

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March 4:

Oof, I am just about the last person they should’ve let near this goddam place with image manipulation capabilities at his/her disposal. But, c’est la goddam vie!

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March 5:

Wey oh, wey oh-oh, wey oh-oh, weeey ooooh…

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March 6:

Welcome to Cairo.

March 8:

Open-to-close (9:00am – 5:00pm) at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and still didn’t see everything. A lot of times, museums can be boring, or feel like a chore. Not here, I tells ya. Not here at all

March 9:

Some crazy gorgeous architecture in Cairo. (And other neat shit, too.)

March 10:

German Hostel-Mate: Where are you from (if I may ask)?

Me: Seattle.

Him: What is Seattle famous for? I forgot.

Me: Kurdt Cobain.

Him: Ah, yes! But isn’t there some “Sky Needle” that I have seen in the movie Sleepless In Seattle?

His friend: [Laughing at the mention of Sleepless In Seattle, then…] What kind of music is Kurt Cobain?

Hostel-Mate: Grunnge.

His friend: [Shrugging shoulders]

Hostel-Mate: [Banging head, singing] “Here we are now, entertain us”.

Me: [Laughing] It’s Space Needle, by the way.

(It’s much funnier if you imagine their German accents.)

March 12:

I feel a bit like Jack Buck to-day — “I don’t believe what I just saw” — after having visited the Luxor and Karnak temples here in Luxor. Impossible to describe the intense feeling seeing these works. No idea what kind of drugs those ancients were putting into their Wheaties, but they worked a treat! (That said, it’s still not even close to what Mother Nature can produce. Standing over the brink of the lower falls of the Grand Canyon of The Yellowstone, for example, tops this experience with room to spare.)

March 13:

Meanwhile, down by thee banks of El Nile, the noontide proceedings done took a sudden and/or dramatic turn when yon errant pass richocheted off an opposing player at just such an angle and at just such a velocity. “That’s going in the fucking river!” thunk I.

Sure enough, after a couple of high bounces, the splash landing was made. The gravity of the situation was told by the large and growing numbers of lookers-on — all of whom ended up offering to the brave young soul who had dared all to strip off and swim out to rescue the wayfaring ikon an exceptionally warm round of applause.

Them soccer balls is important!

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March 14:

A day on Luxor’s West Bank. Unfortunately, the truly mind-raking sites — the tombs at the Valleys of the Queens and Kings — are no-photo zones…

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March 17:

Well I had to come all the way to freakin’ Nubia to do it, but I’ve finally found my people. Got up early, booped the ferry over to the west side of thee river to look some ancient stuff, then wandered off into the desert for a few blissful hours’ peace and/or quiet, and finally back into town via yon local Nubian village.

Walking down the road, this fine gentleman, name of “Maghredi”, pointed at my bare feet and began lecturing me about the benefits of such practice. (During which lecture, he noticed me crinkling my nose at the waft of his compatriots’ second-hand smoke. “Sorry,” quoth he, “We smoke ganja in the morning.”) He was preaching to the goddam converted, but his words were music to my ears. I took his leave, and then a few hundred metres down the road, another gentleman reacted with great happiness to the sight of my barefoot striding.

Egyptians are very friendly toward the shod; but dare to remove your footwear, and they become surprisingly hostile. To be sure, in every other country in which I’ve travelled, the locals consider me a nitwit straight through — but after a few measures of good-natured ribbing, they let me on my way. The Barefoot Farang, and all.

Know ye now that if you arrive in Egypt, and want to walk as god intended, best come on down to Aswan and get your dimpled ass over to the west bank — the Nubians will treat you right, for sure!

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March 18:

I just wish to high Hell that I could recall all the little, nuanced details that add such vivid colour to these sorts of experiences: The police capitan languidly drawing upon his cigarette while making sure the situation was under control; the smartphone used to translate betwixt Arabic and English being ceremoniously passed to and fro’, its glow emanating like as though it were King Tut’s big, gold Ankh; the surreal, milky atmosphere painted in the sky; the Japanesian’s goofy hat; the sound of the muslim prayer call filling the air; the Chinesienne worriedly asking of her attempted phone call, “Does this sound mean I’m out of money?”; the look of glee settling over the people’s faces when the bag of peanuts was produced; and so very many more. Without these, the story just can’t be the same.

But, so, what I can say is that a dust storm the likes of which arrives but one day per year blowed in and stranded myself and five others here in Abu Simbel, three hours south of Aswan and site of one of the most prestigious archaeological finds in the whole of the Nile valley.

I had fallen in, a few days back, with a VERY cool trio — a Canadian, a Chinesienne, and a Japanesienne — from my hotel. I’d previously made plans to visit to-day, and they decided to come with, on their last day in Egypt before getting a ride on a merchant steamer to Sudan.

It was a bit cloudy in Aswan, but further south, became very windy and hazy. Still, we arrived just fine, had a grand time visiting the temples (assessment: the hype is warranted!), and arranged with two Japanesians also visiting the temples to share the microbus back to Aswan.

Negotiating the fare and time of departure was a bit trickier than expected — but eventually we were on our way…only to be stopped after about thirty minutes’ driving, and an hour or so later, sent back whence we’d come to have a li’l powwow with the presiding member of Simbel’s finest. He (a most charming accent he possessed) patiently explained to us that it was too dangerous to be out driving, and that he’d arranged with a local hotel for a very steep discount off its normal rate. So, here we are, spending eight dollars per each rather than its usual rate of fifty-seven smackers. Nice place, too — and even despite the storm, it’s got by far and away the best Internet hookup the whole of my time in Egypt. Go figure!


The 4:00am wakeup announcement that the storm had abated and that our driver was present set us on our way. This time, it was not weather, but instead police checkpoints that slowed us down. However, we arrived back to Aswan by 8:00 or so; the Japanesians immediately departing for the airport. The CanJapSin trio took a few minutes to pack, after which I saw them to their microbus up to the dam and their passage to Sudan, then set about on some more explorations about town. What a twenty-four hours that was! I should clarify that I was the whole time (until we got turned back, of course) under the impression that this weather was normal for the area — an effect of the lake, I thunk. Good thing it’s not, maybe, as I was loving enough to want to move there!

Almost lost in all the hubbub was the very impetus for the journey in the first place: The temples at Abu Simbel, though taking only a few hours to tour, are as masterfully realised as anything in Luxor — if not moreso. Confounded no-photo regs mean you’ll just have to trust me in re the interior. But have added some more snaps of the exterior — as well as some photo-op hijinks of my intrepid co-conspirators (they didn’t all exactly register the concept of “flipping the bird”, but, it turned out even better that way, perhaps)…

Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, people standing, sky, ocean, beach, child, outdoor and nature

Image may contain: 6 people, people smiling


March 20:

Aswan: It’s got ancient ruins, the eponymous high dam, a couple of small but excellent museums, and other suchlike tourist drawing cards; it’s got Nubians; it’s got sailboat rides on the frickin’ Nile river; it’s got boundless hectares of gorgeous, unspoilt desert through which to aimlessly ramble; it’s got parks and public gardens (these last are severely lacking in Egypt); it’s sunny and warm 365 days per year (or 364, as I very recently discovered), but cools down nicely in the evenings; it’s got produce stands, restaurants, cheap as street food, juice bars, and sheesha joints up the good old-fashioned yingyang; it’s got some pretty cool street art; its souk smells of incense rather than exhaust fumes (hardly any motorcycles enter!); the guidebook says there may be some crocodiles around; it’s got far less dust, rubble, and rubbish than everywhere elsewhere in the country; though it’s actually got more mosquitoes than the country at large, they’re still very few in number.

The only thing missing, from what I can gauge, is accommodation options geared toward the modern backpacker. If they’d put up a few guest houses with good mattresses, good roof decks, clean lavatories, good Internet connections, inviting common areas, and community kitchens, the hippies would be here in droves. (Oh, I guess they’d also need to make plenty of cheap beer available.)

Not that droves of hippies is necessarily a good thing — but at least it would save me from having to stay in the shittiest and noisiest of shitholes, as I have been doing for the last many days since my arrival here. At $4.11 per night for my own room, it’s difficult to complain too much; but I for one would rather spend a few more dinero for a dorm bed in a nice, clean place.

March 22:

Back in Luxor just for a day to visit the museum. Not a patch on the museum in Cairo, but certainly still time well spent!


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