This was around photo number 43.
We have circumnavigated the great moat around the Golden Temple and are simply basking in the atmosphere. The sounds of tablas echo over loudspeaker while deep inside Harmandir Sahib, old men sing verses in quavering voices. Pilgrims are everywhere: bathing in the holy waters, sharing in the communal langar, bringing offerings into the temple. Sikhs come from around the world to pray and join together here, in Amritsar. It is calm and still, and the white marble is cool below thousands of bare feet.
A man approaches us, throws his arms around Ty and I, and smiles wide for a camera held by his wife. They take five photos with enormous grins. There is no preamble or permission, though he thanks us and his son sweetly tries out some of his English on us. Not that it’s a big deal. It’s about the fifth picture we’ve had taken of us today.
Another time, we are splashing about in a waterfall outside of Luang Prabang. There is a rope swing and a perfect place to take a leap into the water, which I do after nervously vetting the pool below for jagged rocks that I might eviscerate myself upon. A tour bus lets out, and a crowd of Chinese tourists begins to pass in one great orbit, but they are caught, as though stuck in some gravity well. Ty and Faith are inching along a tree branch to a rope swing, he enormously tall, and Faith blonde and sporting a pretty serious leg tattoo. We are weird looking, probably, but we are not quite prepared for the wave of excitement that overtakes the crowd, as they shoot hundreds of photos of us leaping into the water (though we do not perish, which would have probably made the photos a lot more interesting). Several of the tourists later approach Ty and happily share the photos with him, which he admits are immaculately shot and make him look pretty adventurous.
Marble Buddha and his stalagmite buds.
Ty has grown obsessed with the idea of a scooter. Of riding one. Of owning one. Of being on one. Of being adjacent to one. In his mind, I imagine there is a vision of him with a black helmet, a coat with a scorpion embossed on the back, of an epic steeple chase across the continent. On his initiative, we decide to spend a day scooting, although both Faith and I are reluctant to drive them ourselves. Faith’s concern is probably just nerves, and they ride together on one scooter to save on costs. My concerns are more realistic, as leaving me alone on a scooter means I would almost certainly crash it, break both of my legs, and somehow end up tangled in seaweed.
We set off in different directions, Faith and Ty on their scooter, while I ride on an impressive motorcycle owned and driven by an elderly Vietnamese man who refuses to tell me his name. I look out to the horizon: the first stop has to be the Marble Mountains.
They make marble things there.
The mountains are notable for the expensive rocks contained within, but also for a hiking trail leading into and around the biggest mountain, as well as two caves lodged within.
If contestants were chosen for t-shirt cleverness, we would have been shoe-ins.
I present to you, gentle readers, a timeline exploring how my life in between teaching jobs has become kind of a cartoon without me noticing.
10:24 a.m. I arrive at the Sony Centre with my cousin Zack, and meet several friends already in line. We have tickets to the Price is Right, and have heard that you have to show up disturbingly early in order to secure your position in the draw to be a contestant. We are in line between two elderly people in wheelchairs, and four young people conversing suspiciously in Czech.
10:43 a.m. It is fairly cold outside, and we send off members of the group for the first of several coffee runs of the day. Hannan was brought several camping chairs and we begin huddling together with them.
11:02 a.m. We have discussed it in line, but several people were not previously aware that this is The Price is Right Live. Drew Carrey is not present, nor are any of the remaining Barker’s Beauties, and no matter how memorable we act when we are called down for contestantship, we will never be immortalized in daytime television history. Deep disappointment washes through the line-up, which has ballooned to 17 people.
The safe was not for sale, otherwise you best believe it would have come home with me.
We arrive in Luang Prabang at dusk, a pedestrian market overtaking the downtown square. Gold-plated trinkets glint in the early evening, and everywhere are blankets. They are covered in shoes, leather notebooks, dresses, pens, tchotchkes, jewellery. The sun is hazy over a grand temple on a hill, and we slowly find our way to our accommodation. It is dark, and we are no longer on a boat, so all is well.
We have acquired new travel friends, the only people on the boat we deemed tolerable enough to spend time with. Together we explore the town, climbing the steep ridge to the central peak of the hill overlooking the countryside. People gather here each day, gaze out over the skyline, watch the sunset on a distant mountain. The sky turns red, then purple, and a husky blue before we walk back down into town.
We stop in a convenience store and purchase a bottle of Lao whiskey called “True Manhood.” A man flashes a grotesque, distended bicep across the label, his masculine prowess communicating exactly how bombed you’re going to get. It is likely flammable and probably mostly turpentine, and a tall bottle of it costs the equivalent of $1.25. Are we going to die? Probably. At the very least, we are going to go blind. We drink late into the night, until the streets are quiet and the sky is dark, watching hours and hours of Mandarin language MTV on satellite television.
Chiang Rai is a whim city for us. We have been rocketing through Thailand, and think making a run at the Laos border directly from Chiang Mai would tire us. Chiang Rai is only three hours away, and there is a regular bus service! Also, they had very similar names. Off we go.
The owner of our B&B is middle-aged, speaks flawless English, and her house feels delicate and genteel. We hide our drinking not just to appease her rules, but also because we suddenly feel the urge not to disappoint her. We don’t stop drinking, certainly, we just learn to become ashamed.
She scoffs when we suggest taking a tuk-tuk to the White Temple. We’ve heard good things, but have been told it is out of town and difficult to find. Our suddenly surrogate mom shakes her weary head, writes down some instructions in Thai and English, and tells us to simply walk to the market and find our way onto the local bus. Tuk-tuks, she implies, probably knowing we have already fallen victim to them numerous times, are for suckers. Find the local bus, pay the twenty cents, and you will get there in one piece.
What a glorious day for a kite. Or erotic photos. One of those two.
We had finally broken out Felonius, the kite. This sprawling phoenix burst into the calm, azure Phuket skies as we started off our first days on the beach. We were looking for respite and believed we had definitely found it, as the water stretched out before us in sparkling crystal waves and the sand stayed clear, as though thorough and expedient staff were combing it every ten to fifteen minutes while everyone took a smoothie break. It was a beautiful day, we had already slathered ourselves in SPF 1000, and middle-aged ladies in windbreakers jogged up to offer us fresh fruit.
In time, though, we noticed a strange facet about the makeup of Karon beach. It was packed full of white people, which was of course common in tourist-friendly Thailand. But they were all the same kind of white people: statuesque, blonde, tall in some alien way. They spoke perfect English, but would occasionally ask us native speakers for tips or specific words. They were teutonic and bronzed and all went to the gym every single day. We came to realize that we were on the Germans’ beach.
What? It’s just a giant fishpile.
I sat alone in Rodeo Square in Incheon, and took, for the first time in a long time, a real look around. The buildings were tall, even here in a major bar and café zone, with 10 storey parking lots and apartments overlooking the scrum. Facing the south was a building that included Strawberry Massage Parlour, Funny Funny, and a barbershop where you could also buy coffee and jagerbombs. Looming behind me was an enormous cartoon Blackbeard, advertising Pirate Hof. Everywhere people were grilling meat, as steam and smoke poured out into the square. High above me was a club where the lights turn on for short intervals during which you are allowed to buy drinks; in the interval of darkness, you are allowed only to dance. Nearby several women in complementarily hued mini-skirts and enormous heels strut together, handing out fliers and inviting men to a bar where you can pay them to talk and be nice to you. Several feet from them are dapper dudes offering the same service. The women’s strategy is to look alluring and easy-to-please, the men’s to look aloof and uninterested. They are all the professionally attractive. A new chicken place has opened: in the centre of the square, a woman is running a lottery, another woman is dancing with her face frozen in boredom, and a short man in Juggalo makeup wanders around on stilts.
Pink fur flashes through my periphery: the man in the full-body bunny costume has once more completed his loping circuit of the outer perimeter. I refuse the flier he offers me.
It strikes me for the first time in years that I am in a very weird place.
Dip and rinse. You need to cleanse before the weird.
It is, I suppose, a chicken and the egg sort of thing, blended with a healthy dose of confirmation bias. Was Tokyo always a weird place? Or did people seek out weird things, and those things became popular, and thus the bizarre and the ludicrous in turn grew more profitable, more popular, more verdant and lushly crazy? If you go into Tokyo, Japan, seeking mainly to have the weirdest time you can, isn’t it just your own fault for then leaving and thinking of the place as, essentially, an enormous, metropolitan Wonka Chocolate Factory? The answer to many of these questions may be yes.
Which is a way of saying: my weekend in Tokyo was pretty weird, everybody. Just as I wanted.
Vote for 3.
My fluency being middling and bereft of the necessary vocabulary as it is, the recent election in Korea has mostly gone way over my head. Everywhere, people speak into microphones and stare meaningfully into television cameras, and none of it makes a lick of sense, because I don’t really know any words about the economy in Korean. With that, it has become a sort of sea of unending gibberish, impassioned and grim and stern and hopeful and holding all of the emotions of mankind looking forward to building tomorrow–a beautiful orchestral piece played only on kazoos and singing saws. And it has led to a discovery:
An election, with all the icky politics removed, is pretty damned wacky.
My excitement to finally have a visitor in Korea was pretty palpable. That I would both be repaying a similar degree of touristy kindness to Greg and Agatha for showing me around China, hosting old friends from the university days, and showing off both the country that I’ve grown to love and the language that I speak with a kind of childish competence makes the experience all the more fulfilling. There is a lot to show in this country, but I think the primary function of tour-guiding someone around should, as always, be to immerse them in as much local weirdness as possible.