Tuesday, October 28, 2008

the last two pages

So, I just got my new B2 business visa, and now that I have it, I can stay in Laos for a year and come and go as I please. Getting it was a bit of a story that I have reserved only for my friends and acquaintances on Facebook, most of whom I know personally. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but dealing with passport issues can be scary.

For example, I thought I wouldn't get let into Malaysia this past winter:

We were coming from Singapore and the Singapore immigration officials had told me, each time we went in and out of Singapore, that I needed to get a new passport. I thought they were just being anal. I mean, Singapore is where they used to stamp SHIT in your passport if you were a Suspected Hippie In Transit. So I just said "Thanks for the warning, and the mint," while to myself I was thinking, "What, no gum?"

So we get to Malaysia and they just kind of look at my passport and scratch their heads. The sexy but demure Muslim woman in the jersey- cotton headscarf uniform calls over the balding guy with the glasses. The guy waves for me to follow him and I go with him into a little side room. Valerie comes too.

I'm thinking maybe they are taking issue with my name because I'm a yid and Israelis aren't allowed in Malaysia. Or maybe it's just a routine customs check. I hope they don't think we have drugs. I wasn't really prepared for the whole rubber glove treatment.

But the guy just thumbs through the last two pages and shrugs his shoulders and laughs. I laugh too. Valerie just looked at me like I was crazy. He points to the empty pages and says "finished." It slowly dawned on me. He needed a bribe.

"No... not finished.. See?" I tapped the pages a little too abruptly. Valerie gave me a warning "Isaac..." The guy repeated, "Isaac- Muslim name." "Yes, Muslim name!" I said and laughed.

Picking up the passport, he laughed and said "cannot stamp- finished... see?" and handed it back to me. I looked closely. In tiny print on the sides of the last two pages it said "For additional pages only- do not emboss" or something to that effect.

"Oh! Now I understand! Oh, woops! I was wondering why they kept telling me I needed a new passport in Singapore. You see I blah blah blah..."

I carried on like this for too long until the guy just stamped my passport on the last page. What else could he do? He waved us through with a smile.

I felt like a schmuck. Valerie said "Maybe it's best in those kind of situations to just be quiet and find out what they want." She was right. But we made it into the country with smiles all around.

But now the problem was getting to the next country. I needed more pages!

So we went to the US consulate where I was told I would have to get a whole new passport. It wasn't because the passport was disheveled from living in my back pocket. Nor was it that I had handwritten on the first page ,"In case of death please donate my organs" which had prompted at least one US border guard to ask if I planned to die overseas. It was because the lamination over the photo had a tiny crack in it. So tiny.

Ten days later, my new passport arrived with an RFID chip embedded in it and pictures of the buffalo and Native Americans that were wiped out by previous generations of Americans. Having read that RFID chips are fairly insecure, I now carry my passport wrapped in tinfioil to match my proverbial tinfoil hat.

Of course, if someone wanted to copy my passport, they would have had ample opportunity when it was out of my hands for the Lao visa, as my friend Matthew recently pointed out. I hadn't thought of that. Eh, what are you gonna do?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Back in Laos!

Here we are, back in Vientiane. What a relief! We stayed a few weeks at various guest houses, and got our fill of the cheap eats around town. Valerie got a job teaching and we found an apartment thanks to JC realty who are the only ones in town worth their salt. The owner, Cameron, is from Australia and quite nice despite the bad rap Aussies get on our new favorite show "Flight of the Concords" which, thankfully, we are able to watch on HBO. Did I mention how much I love TV?

Cameron picked us up to see an apartment and a house, spoke Lao with the owners and negotiated for us. We went with the apartment because it is newer and nicer and we frankly don't need a huge house. We are very pleased with our new pad- a two bedroom, two bath, two story, furnished flat for $350 a month. This is pricey for Vientiane, but not outrageous. Though we know people who rent for less than $100 and have seen some places that cheap, they aren't places we want to live.

We're also pleased because we are a five minute walk from the gym, a bike ride from Valerie's school, and a 10 minute tuk tuk ride from downtown for about $1.20 give or take. We've got the aforementioned cable, and wireless internet with speeds up to 5Mb/s. There is a mini-mart across the street and several restaurants and shops within walking distance, though these days we are almost exclusively cooking for ourselves now that we can again. In general you can get almost anything you need here though, of course, imported items may cost a bit more.

In addition to the ease of daily life, which I have come to realize is very important to me, I just feel happy here because the people all around me are happy. In general, Laos seems to be a peaceful place where people aren't afraid to smile at strangers. We really only just arrived, but so far the vibe is quite friendly. I hope it stays that way.

So here we are. Time to get back to writing the screenplay, figure out a way to get the Xiosynth fixed or buy a new sound card and start playing music again.

Back in Bangkok for... One night.

Despite the PAD protests prompting Prime Minister Samak to call a state of emergency after the protesters stormed some airports, and despite my parents worrying, we had to go to Bangkok. Besides being our gateway to Laos, I still had yet to get the XIOsynth fixed. I knew exactly where in Bangkok to go- right around the corner from our guesthouse. And I figured this time I could wait a month for them to fix it. I had been going back and forth with Novation all summer via email about getting it fixed in the US and just got the run-around. So we had to go to Bangkok.

I always say we "had to" because, I guess, I really would rather avoid Bangkok. I mean I kind of enjoy the hubbub, but then there is something about the guy with no legs dragging himself down the street on his stomach, and the foul sewage smell, and the air pollution and the humidity and the crowds that I can't romanticize. It's just nasty in places and we always find ourselves in the mall to escape it, which is just as horrible, albeit air-conditioned.

So we had to go Bangkok. But I was happy because I was FINALLY going to get the XIOsynth fixed. Only, when I get home from dropping it off, the repair guy calls me and says sorry, they no longer fix nor distribute Novation products. Why? Because they can't get ahold of Novation on the phone and constantly get the run around from them, just like me. Arrgg! So I called the number they gave me for the new distributer, but am told sorry, they can only repair Novation products bought in Thailand. Double Arrggg!

The next night we boarded the overnight train for Nong Khai. We were finally going back to our new found home, Laos. Phew!

Hong Kong revisited

Somehow the summer went by and we found ourselves back in Hong Kong exactly a year later. This time we stayed with couchsurfers. It's the only way to travel if you ask me. You get the inside scoop and a built in network of friends.

I love Hong Kong. For some reason, I can't help singing to the tune of some Notorious B.I.G. song, "Hong Kong Motherfucker..." over and over. It drives Valerie crazy, but when you are walking around amid the throngs of people and the lights and traffic and the double decker trolleys and it's a million degrees out, what else can you sing? You're in Hong Kong, motherfucker.

This time we had tons of veggie dim sum. It was sooooo goood. Hong Kong motherfucker!


There is a track by Seksu Roba called LA FREEWAY that is the perfect soundtrack for my weekend. Jerry (DJ Ziploc) rented a red Mercedes convertible sports car with GPS (necessary for LA) and drove us around at a million miles an hour with the top down. Kind of like riding a bus in India on potholed roads around thousand foot drops, sometimes you just have to let go. No matter what, if you are with Jerry, you are going to have to fun, so just relax and enjoy the fact that you are alive for the time being.

We were there for our friend Alex Baker's rock steady wedding to Kerri Guse. When Alex's groomsmen came out in wayfarer shades strutting down the aisle to T-rex, you knew it was going to be a party.

For our part, Jerry and I both wore our custom tailored suits made in Thailand: he in his all white, three-piece with matching white leather shoes. and me in my off-white linen with southern gentleman hat looking vaguely like I stepped off the plane from Panama. Joe Pfeifer, whom Jerry was staying with, crashed the party. We figured it was OK since Valerie had to attend another friend of ours' wedding in Wisconsin, and our friend Jacob couldn't make it. Joe and Alex have friends in common so hopefully Alex didn't mind. Joe DJ'd the night before at a party in the hills where there was also a reggae band whose name I forget but who kept the revelers feeling irie. The next night we went to some bar in Santa Monica and saw some band who rocked. I can't remember the names, so I must have had a good time.

Other than that, it was just good to see my cousins- especially the newest addition Cousin Joshua who is, like the previously mentioned babies, ridiculously cute.

"BUS IT! Part II"

As Valerie says "A bus is a story." We had taken so many busses on our travels that it seemed only natural to take the bus up to Humboldt to see my mom rather than rent a car or fly. With gas and jet fuel prices being at an all time high, the bus seemed like the obvious choice. How bad could it be?

On the way up, the Amtrak driver, after showing up late, yelled at us for trying to board the bus without waiting in line- though the line was clearly for people putting their belongings underneath in the luggage compartment. An hour into the drive, we were already behind schedule, but the driver took an extended smoke break. At the next stop, he accidentally left someone behind whom we had to go back for. We ended up getting to Arcata a few hours late. What a yutz!

Spent a few days with my mom in Arcata, which was great. So good to see her. She took us to Rita's. Oh man, if you get a chance to go to Arcata, Rita's is some of the best Mexican food I've had.

On the way home, just to really get a whiff of the underbelly of American society, we took Greyhound. You know, you can take a chicken bus in a poorer country and have a lovely time. You might meet a toothless Gypsy popping one chocolate bon bon after another in Hungary, or be leaned on and held onto for support by ticket takers and old ladies in India, or help look after other people's kids in Laos. But nothing, nothing will prepare you for the palpable anger and unsavoriness that accompanies a ride on Greyhound.

Before you get on, you run the gauntlet of panhandlers from the rehab clinic across the street. That's OK- they're just trying to survive. Then the tattooed, Elvis-do, straight-from-a-John-Woo-film, cigarette voiced driver will explain over the PA that any shenanigans and he will not hesitate to kick you off the bus. And he will: when the guy who smokes a cigarette in the bathroom takes a break from telling all his friends on the other end of his cell phone "Yeah dude, I just got done seeing my son for the first time. No- different mother... On the ride up we totally partied in the back of the bus- someone had a joint and we busted out the vodka- she was hot but I didn't get her number..." Yep, the bus driver will righteously kick him off at the next stop even though it was "Just one puff, dude." Then the guy will plead his case with the driver and eventually be let back on to sit next to the fresh release from Pelican Bay Prison who will say it's because the driver is "one of those uppity yellows who thinks he is better than everyone." Finally the bus ride will culminate with some skanky lady calling the bus driver a "piece of shit" for yelling at everyone.

Now, contrast this with the California Shuttle bus ride I took down to LA a few weeks later to go to my friend Alex Baker's wedding. This is one of those "low-cost carrier" style bus companies where the first seats sold for any particular ride are only $5. I paid something like $19- much less than greyhound, mind you. But, the clientele are credit card holding, internet users who are less inclined to racial epithets and ad homonym attacks and more inclined to tip the driver.

Back in the US

A few movies and airplane meals later, we get to New York, get attitude from the coffee lady who won't give me change so I have to buy a five dollar cup of shitty coffee to make a phone call, and then I can't work the payphone. Seems you put the money in after you dial in New York. It's been a while since I have used a payphone, but I seem to recall in California you have to put the money in first.

So after losing all my quarters I try calling the operator to get them to credit me and am put on hold for what seemed like forever. Finally, I am told that they can send me a check. After being in the air for a day and a half, I lost my shit. I start banging the handset on the payphone and then I notice the cops nearby. They didn't bat an eye, so I banged a little more. Fuck it, it felt good.

In NY we stayed with our friends Ron and Betsy and their daughter Juliet in their Chelsea artist's loft for a couple of nights and then crashed at our friend Asaf's whom we met five years ago on a train in Vietnam. Saw Medeski Martin and Wood free in Prospect Park, got to chill with Bobo, and Jason Kleinman. After being away so long, it was really good to see friends.

After a few days in NY we headed up to Valerie's parent's place in East Lime Connecticut, where Lime Disease comes from. They have a massive TV and a million channels of cable. Since I have been writing a screenplay, I now have an excuse for watching hours and hours of television- I call it "doing research." Plus, I can actually sit a full two meters from the screen and still be able to see. Fuck yeah! I love TV!

We head up with her fam to the Adirondacks where we stay in a cabin for a week with her brother and sister in law and their new baby Gavin, who like all babies, is adorable. I plopped myself down in front of the computer and didn't move for the week, just wrote. I only went on one hike and never swam in the lake. I had to make up for time lost doing "research" and anyway couldn't be bothered with the heat and mosquitoes after being in Asia for nine months.

Hopped on Amtrack, or maybe it was MTA down to Boston where we stayed with Ben and Kim and their new daughter Samantha who is also just ridiculously cute. Their old pad in NY was tiny but overlooked the Hudson. Their new place is half of a house and is so nice and comfy, but they are used to the excitment of NY so they're not quite used to being back in Boston yet. Good riddance to NY I say. I like Boston better- much more chill. Guess I'm getting old.

Finally got home to Btown, chilled with the parental units for a few weeks and saw friends. Damn it feels good to be home. I missed my friends and family.

BKK to NYC via AUH on Etihad

After leaving Bangkok, unable to get the Novation XIO fixed--don't even get me started on Novation--we Flew Etihad Airlines to New York. When we changed planes in Abu Dhabi, we boarded with a group of refugees who all had UN name tags identifying them as such. It was either they (because they had never been on an airplane before?) or perhaps the uber-rich Sheiks with their five wives (because they couldn't be bothered to pick up after themselves?) who left the bathroom in shambles. I know it wasn't the group of American flight attendants flirting with a homeward-bound expat, because we were treated to their uninterrupted, inane banter for 15 hours straight. When one of the Sheik's wives called a flight attendant stupid for telling her to wear her seatbelt, that's when the flight got interesting.