HOUSE OF ROSE

blurred-palms-at-sunset-vince-cavataio

The girl slid the key out from its slot behind the dark wooden check-in desk. She waved a few loose strands of hair from her face and motioned for me to follow. I trudged behind, lugging my backpack and sweating. It was only nine in the morning and already hot. My mind was full of static; my eyes stung from lack of sleep.

The girl was willowy and brown-skinned, with a pouting mouth hedged in by thick, pink lips. She wore a short denim skirt and flip-flops that slapped the stones as she sashayed down the small path towards the communal room. The back of her skirt was slightly unzipped; I caught a glimpse of her blue underwear and felt a sudden flash of heat. I took a breath and swallowed. She was tall and long-limbed, with a bushel of hair pulled into a long ponytail that slightly bounced as she walked. She stopped at the door, inserted the key, and—flashing me a huge, toothy smile–unlocked it.

“Here is your room.”

“Thanks,” I said, plopping my pack down onto a thin mattress of a bed in the corner.

I did a quick scan. The room appeared to be empty. “Is there anyone else in here?”

“No. You have it to yourself… for now.”

“Lucky me.”

“Yes. Lucky you.” She lingered in the doorway, cutting a dark, leggy figure in the blast of morning light.

“I’m Chris. What’s your name?”

“Mirasol, but you call me Mira.”

“Mira.”

“Yes.”

I approached, offering my hand, which she accepted. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, Chris. Enjoy your stay at House of Rose.”

*

House of Rose sat at the end of a small side street on the very edge of Puerto Princesa, the capital of the Philippines’ Palawan Island. It was situated in a lush, palm tree-shaded area quite far from any action in town. The place was named for the woman who ran it–a Filipina in her mid-thirties–married to a hulking, bear of a Kiwi named Andy, who had bought the property some years before. The small compound contained a collection of bungalows, a kitchen, and an open-aired restaurant and bar, along with a cheap, above-ground swimming pool that was almost never occupied. The whole complex had a tattered, improvised feeling, as if one day Rose and Andy woke up and hastily decided to open their home up for visitors. That’s not to say that House of Rose lacked charms. Like the name suggests, the place was homey, informal, and relaxed. I felt comfortable straight away, perhaps because of its relative shabbiness. This decidedly unpretentious hostel was set far enough off that everyone was forced to mingle with each other. It was an island of sorts—a guest house adrift–where both the visitors and the staff were, in a way, captive. While this surely caused some to bristle, I knew straight away that this was the kind joint that brought out the friendliest in people, and was immediately glad I’d come.

I napped hard through the late morning and, after lunch, made my way to the nearby beach, which was one of House of Rose’s selling points. This cove was only accessible by a mucky trail leading through a mangrove swamp. The beach itself was small, with a forlorn hut staffed by a friendly dude selling soft drinks and renting some fourth-rate snorkeling gear, but lacking any outfitting of my own, I was forced to make do with what he had available.

Despite the sad state of the leaky mask and ill-fitting, blister-inducing flippers, the underwater scenery far exceeded my expectations, with a psychedelic array of coral and schools of skittish reef fish. This spectacle was nothing short of enchanting, so I propelled myself out of the little inlet towards the open sea, spurred on by the promise of viewing even more bizarre and chromatic sea life. I was happily dizzied, lost in this hypnotic return-to-the womb, when I suddenly came face-to-face with the undulating form of a blue and black banded sea snake. Though notoriously docile, these creatures are off-the-charts venomous. I could feel my heart thump in my throat. And despite the fact that I was enveloped in welcoming water and surrounded by neon splendor, I was now very aware that I was swimming alone in the South China Sea, surrounded by countless creatures that I knew next to nothing about. I was far from the solid ground and felt extremely vulnerable. If anything were to happen, I’d be toast. So I turned back towards the beach and paddled my legs with fervor. Mission aborted.

That evening I emerged from my room and joined a small group of guests in the dining area. We sipped drinks and watched Venus Williams obliterate an opponent on the flat screen above.

“She’s got legs just like I like ‘em,” said Bud. “Feet on one end and pussy on the other!”

He slapped my back as he howled at is his own joke. Matt and Scott, two young guys who, it turned out, were from my home town of Olympia, Washington, looked down to the table and visibly cringed. Andy, the barrel-gutted owner, sat nearby, smoking and nursing a bottle of San Miguel. He took a drag and smiled for what appeared to be the first time that day.

“I’d make quick work outta that, tell you what.” Bud finished off his drink. “But I’d better be careful, cuz you know what they say: Once you go black you never go back!”

Bud screamed again with laughter, looking around the room for any kindred spirits. I couldn’t help but crack a smile, and neither could the curly-headed Matt, who suddenly guffawed and looked to me, as if to say: Is this guy for real? Andy shook his head, chuckling to himself, while a Dutch couple in the back picked at their meal and gazed on in disgust.

“Hey Drew!” Bud shouted to his son, who stood behind the small wooden bar. “Give us another round of margaritas, lickety split!”

“Sure thing, Old Man.” Drew grabbed the bottle of Jose Cuervo, emptied it generously into the blender, and then pressed a button, filling the room with a high-pitched industrial grinding sound. He wore his white baseball hat backwards and his shirt unbuttoned, exposing a newly-purchased shark tooth necklace that dangled above his bronzed pecs and six-pack abs.

“You mind if I take some photos?” asked Scott.

“No problema, bro.” He began to pour the drinks. “You sure you don’t want one?”

“That’s fine. I’ll stick to Coke”

Drew slipped on a pair of shades, grabbed two margaritas and struck his best pose. Scott clicked away. Party on, bro.

“That’s mah boy!” Bud nodded in pride.

Unlike his son, Bud elected to go totally shirt-free, wearing just calf-length board shorts and flip-flops. He was around sixty years old and ridiculously tanned, with close cropped grey hair and a small, sinewy frame adorned with a couple of jailhouse tattoos. Bud bounced around House of Rose like a lightning ball, striking up a conversation with anyone in the vicinity, burning with the vitality and energy of a man more than half his age. He was from Texas and spoke in a harsh twang at volumes only found on the North American continent. Despite his obvious brashness, Bud was an expert charmer, and usually managed to elicit smiles out of even the most reserved visitors at House of Rose.

What Bud exactly did back in America was a mystery, though he was now retired–“on disability,” he claimed. It was difficult to discern exactly how he could be held back, physically, at least: The guy was a firecracker. He was now collecting a monthly check back home and living it up in tropical Asia, where he spent his days and nights drinking and whoring. He was most proud of the latter, talking up his sexual exploits with nary a whiff of shame.

“Last night me and Drew got us some whores,” he announced.

Scott raised his eyebrows.

“Oh, really?” Matt egged him on.
“Sure as shit,” he replied, nodding seriously and making eye contact with all three of us. He then yelled back to his son: “Ain’t that right, Drew?”

“What’s that, dad?”

“Last night we both got us some whores!”

Drew beamed a horsey smile and gave a thumbs up.

“Get this…” He lit a smoke and continued. “Mine was a skinny lil’ thang… felt like I could crack her pelvis straight in two. His was short and fat, with a big ol’ ass and a pair of tits like a couple of bags of milk.”

“You know I like me some booty, dad,” Drew confirmed, delivering fresh margaritas.

“Ain’t nothing wrong with a little cushion for the pushin’. But I prefer my meat close to the bone!” Bud grinned, exposing a set of teeth missing several key members.

“Now get this.” Bud stood up. “I was drillin’ into mine like a rabbit in heat…”

He demonstrated his best pelvic thrust.

“…and then I looked over at mah son, just a couple feet away, and he was doin’ the same. I turned to him and gave him a hi-five, right then and there!”

He recreated the moment, reaching into the air with his hand, which was met by Drew’s in one triumphant slap.

“Screw fishin’ or workin’ on cars! Bangin’ whores side-by-side—now THAT’s some real father-son bondin’!”

Bud cackled and grabbed his son around the shoulder in a half embrace. Drew looked on stupidly, chuckling under his breath. I took a sip of my newly concocted drink.

Bud took a breath and reflected, nearly choking up: “There ain’t many fathers who have a relationship like that with their son.”

“You’re a… lucky man.” Scott managed.

“How’s that margarita?” Drew inquired.

“It’s terrific. Damned good,” I said, telling the truth.

“Right on, bro! Did I tell you I know how to make ‘em or what?”

“You weren’t wrong there.”

“Hell no, bro!”

He offered up his hand for a “bro shake.” I clumsily obliged, attempting to follow his lead through the complicated, multi-step ritual that ended with us both pantomiming the smoking of a joint. He finished it all up with a fist bump with Matt and Scott.

Our little crew was soon joined by two more members of Bud’s entourage: His daughter, Brenda, and her husband, Chuck. They were also residents of the Lone Star State, and along with Drew, had flown out to the Philippines to visit the old man in his retirement haven. Brenda later confided that this is the only way they could visit their father, since he would be arrested if “he ever set foot on American soil again.” She had straight red hair, wore round glasses and only drank cola (“Don’t drink anymore since quitting crack,” she said.), while her big-bellied husband guzzled beer and explained why this trip was such a momentous occasion.

“I swore I’d never leave America again. I’m dead serious.”

“Why not?” asked Matt.

“Y’all ever heard of Hurricane Hugo?”

“Sure, I remember,” I said.

“Well I was on vacation in the Dominican Republic in ‘89 when it made landfall. It was pure hell, I tell ya. I was holed up in my hotel room for three days without runnin’ water or electricity. I thought I was gonna die. Never thought I’d be so glad to get home. When I finally got back to Houston the first thing I did was kiss the ground and swear that I’d never leave the USA again.”

“Sounds pretty intense,” said Matt. “Hey Chris, you ready to order? I’m starving.”

“Yeah, all that snorkeling today worked up my appetite.”

“Let me ask y’all something,” continued Chuck, in the manner of a Christian who is about to thickly lay on the Jesus pitch.

“Shoot away,” I offered.

His tone was heartland earnest. “Have you boys tried the Chicken Cordon Bleu?”

I had made the mistake of ordering this gut bomb back on Luzon and felt like I might die from intestinal blockage for hours afterwards. It seemed to be everywhere I turned in the Philippines–some uncelebrated national dish.

“You mean here?” I asked.

“Yes, sir. Right here.”

“Uh, no,” I replied. “I just got in this morning.”

“Well, y’all listen to me good.” He looked deep into my eyes. “Do yourself a favor and try it. Try the Cordon Bleu. Best thing on the menu—actually to hell with the menu—this here is the best damned Cordon Bleu I ever had! Ain’t that right Brenda?”

“Mmm-hmmm. It’s soooooo good…You really should try it.”

“Chicken Cordon Bleu. I’ve had it the last three nights in a row. I don’t even bother orderin’ anything else on anymore. Mmmm–mmmm. Cordon Bleu.”

While not morbidly obese, Chuck was well overweight and looked like he could benefit from a few less meals of breaded chicken breast, deep-fried and stuffed with cheese and ham… but that didn’t stop him from requesting it once again when Mira came over to take our order.

“Y’all gonna get it, too?” Chuck stared us down.

“Sure… uh… why not?” Matt obliged.

“How could I ignore such a recommendation?” said Scott, closing up the menu.

“And you, Chris?” Mira asked, cocking her head and smiling. Her hair was now let down and cascaded over her shoulders. She wore the same denim skirt as in the morning, but had since changed into a pink uniform polo shirt that read, House of Rose.

Chuck interjected: “I got three words for you, Chris: Cor. Don. Bleu.”

“Actually…I think I’ll go with the grilled barracuda instead.” I pointed to the menu entry to be absolutely clear. Mira’s English was decent, but not expansive. Chuck looked deflated.

“Oh, man, you’re missin’ out I tell ya.” He shook his head and looked to Brenda for concurrence. “What can I say? I tried.”

“Maybe next time,” I said, watching Mira’s long legs saunter back into the kitchen.

Kiwi Andy caught me mid-ogle: “You like her?”

“Uh…. What?”

“You fancy Mira?”

I offered a shrug, palms upturned.

“I give her one day off a week, just to give the others a chance.”

“Will you look at that,” Bud muttered, still enraptured by Venus’s moves on the TV. “Mmmm-mmm-mmm… I would eat the corn out of her shit.”

*

The next day I joined Scott and Matt in an expedition out of the exhaust-choked chaos of town. We rented motorcycles and headed north on the two-lane road, which soon opened up into green country, with the wild sea on our right. Our destination was Honda Bay, one of Palawan’s many marine sanctuaries. Once there, we chartered a boat for a day trip around the many islands which dot the bay, taking in the salty air and, more importantly, the array of life sea life pulsing underneath the water’s choppy blue surface. The highlight was Snake Island, named not for any resident reptiles—there were none—but rather for the thin, serpentine shape of the tiny landmass.

Right off of the main beach was a deep canyon, home to thousands of fish. The tour operators fed the fish daily—a dubious practice, conservation wise—but one that assured the snorkelers delivered to the area got the biggest bang for their buck. And the bang was mighty indeed. We snorkeled and looked on in amazement at the masses of fish gathered up–whole walls of finned creatures moving as one organism. Even the shallows were thick with shimmering, living clusters, deprogrammed of their natural fear of humans due to the feeding routines. I’ve never taken in such a spectacle—assuming that such delights were reserved for deep sea divers—and came to realize why Palawan had come to be billed as the crown jewel of the Philippines’ eco-tourism hot spots.

In the early evening I found myself seated alone at the tables of the House of Rose. I typed away on my laptop and uploaded files to Facebook, amazed that wireless technology had managed to reach even this remote corner of the Philippines. This novelty was short lived, though, as midway through my cyber-work, the power cut out.

“It happens all the time,” said Andy, shuffling into the space. “Power blackouts. No need to worry. We got a big generator to deal with this nonsense.”

Within a couple of minute the generator was fired up and power restored, though it sounded like a pickup truck with the exhaust pipe removed, a machine-gun combustion engine that destroyed any semblance of tranquility at House of Rose..

“You busy right now?”

“No.” I yelled, over the generator’s din.

“Come join me for a drink at my mate’s if you’d like.”

The old boy is warming up to me.

“Sure thing.”

I jumped into Andy’s van and he drove us to a tiny, open-air bar near the center of town. Andy double parked and as soon as we got out, we were greeted by the proprietor, a skinny, leathery man who appeared to be in his late 50’s. His name was Claude, and he hailed from Quebec, though like Andy, he was spending his golden years drinking away the hours in Puerto Princesa.

“This is Chris,” Andy said. “He’s a Yank, but don’t hold it against him.”

Claude warmly gripped my hand. “Welcome, my friend.”

Claude ushered us to a large outside table and promptly ordered a round of San Miguels from his much younger wife. The expat husband-to-wife massive age gap is de riguer in this part of the world. Such is the way of the Philippine retirement plan, I suppose.

We were soon joined by several other paunchy, middle-aged white dudes, all of whom were seasoned veterans of the Palawan scene. I sipped my beer and took my place at the end of the table, while the local boys talked shop. All of them were married to local women and at least made a partial living by offering booze, lodging, tours, and even girls to the visitors rolling through.

“Things are better these days,” said Jan, a white-haired Dutch guy who owned a small hotel.

“It’s about fuckin’ time,” added Andy.

“Was it slow before?” I asked, embracing the role of the greenhorn.

“You don’t know about the kidnapping?”

“What kidnapping?”

“Abu Sayaf? You, as an American should know these things,” said Jan.

“I know about Abu Sayaf,” I said, attempting recovery. “But aren’t they down south, in Mindanao?”

“That’s their base of operations,” said Andy. “But eight years back they kidnapped some tourists—including several Americans—from a resort here in Palawan.”

“Dos Palmas. Honda Bay,” added Claude.

“Honda Bay? I was just there today.”

Andy continued: “They came during the night, loaded them in a boat, and took them away to an island down south, where they held them in the jungle for several months. A few hostages were killed… some beheaded.”

Claude ran his hand across his throat and made a gagging sound.

“…though most were eventually freed by the army.”

“And a load of ransom money,” said Jan.

“Anyway,” Andy said, “as you can imagine, tourism to Palawan dropped off massively after that, which is ridiculous. It was just one targeted raid.”

“On the rich,” says Claude.

“Exactly,” said Andy. “You have nothing to worry about, Chris. I guarantee you that House of Rose will be the last place ever hit,”

“You are right about that my friend,” laughed Claude. “Even the terrorists have some taste.”

“Tell all of your friends to come,” said Jan. “And, if,” he lowers his voice, “while you’re here, you ever need a place to take a girl… I have rooms by the hour.”

“That is good to know,” I said.

Andy looked my way and shot me a wink.

Good and buzzing from the beer, we headed back to House of Rose just in time for dinner. The cast of characters from the night before was gathered up again. Brenda and Chuck sat in silence, gorging on their daily fix of Chicken Cordon Bleu. Chuck sported a white muscle shirt and improvised headband, and was broiled red by the sun, the kind of burn that is agonizing just to look at. Bud and Drew were next to them, beers and smokes in hand. I took a place at the adjacent table with Scott and Matt, who both plugged away on their laptops.

“Well look what the cat drug in!” said Bud. “Your lil’ gay buddies told me about your adventures today.”

“You really should check it out, Bud,” said Matt.

“It’s awesome,” added Scott, sipping from a Coke. “Check out my photos.”

“Well, we’re fixin’ to go tomorrow. Ain’t we?”

“Sure thing,” mumbled a miserable Chuck, mouth full of Cordon Bleu. “But y’all need to remind me to bring my sunscreen.”

“What are you doin’ tonight?” Drew asked. “You got any plans?”

“Here I am. What’s up?”

“Well the girls want to head out later, once they close up the kitchen. You wanna come, bro?”

“Count me in.”

“Not us,” said Chuck, looking up from his half-eaten plate. “I feel like I survived a napalm attack. My sizzled ass is goin’ to bed as soon as I’m done with this chow.”

After work, the women changed their clothes and came join us.

“You girls is lookin’ fine tonight!” exclaimed Bud.

Mira and Rose smiled, while the short, darker-skinned Dalisay gave him a death glare and hissed, “You try to touch me, old man, and I cut off your hand.”

“Cut whatever you want girl, just as long as it ain’t my pecker. I’m still usin’ it!”

The eight of us piled into two tricycles–the motorcycles with sidecars found throughout the Philippines–and headed away from House of Rose into the town center. The dirty streets were filled with pedestrians, motorcycles, a few cars, and many other tricycles. Like most developing countries at night, the side streets were dark save the lights of the vehicles. People stood and sat in front of gates and doorways, drinking, smoking, and gambling. Some had guitars and entertained each other with songs. Nearly everyone in the Philippines can sing decently and strum at least a few chords on a guitar–never have I been to a country so steeped in music. We passed by open air restaurants with their display cases full of meat and fish dishes, fried rice, pancit, lumpia, and adobo. A few neon-lit girly bars pumped out loud pop music in an attempt to lure in the men, and mange-ridden dogs wandered free.

“Where are we going?” I asked Mira, who was sandwiched against me in the small side car. I put my arm behind her and she leaned in close.

“Away from House of Rose!” she said, smiling. “We want to show you Princesa!”

The tricycles stopped at the town’s harbor and we all got out. We walked along a wide promenade lit up by white lights on green poles and took pictures of each other in groups and couples. The sticky Palawan air was cooler at the water’s edge, and both families and lovers strolled along and gazed out into the dark of the bay. A couple of large ships were moored at the docks, and I got the sense that the municipal authorities did everything they can to make sure that his part of the little city looked as spiffy as possible. A huge sign at the harbor’s edge spelled it out in white, stone lettering: WELCOME TO PUERTO PRINCESA

“How old are you, Mira?”

“Twenty-two.”

“How old are you?”

“Thirty-eight.”

“You are liar!” She slapped my shoulder. “Much younger.”

“Nope. Thirty eight.”

“You are American, yes?”

“Yes, but I live in Korea.”

“Korea? Why do you live in Korea?”

“Work. I teach there.”

“Korea is very cold, no?”

“Yes, right now, VERY cold.”

“I cannot stand the cold.” She shivered at the thought.

“Are you from Princesa?”

“No. I’m from Roxas… to the north.”

“Do you like working at House of Rose?”

“Is okay job… but many hours and little money. But I meet many people… many visitors… many countries.”

I paused for a moment: “Do you have a baby?”

To me this seems like a legitimate question, since nearly every woman under the age of twenty-five I’d seen or met in the Philippines had at least one kid. The Catholic Church’s imprint was visible everywhere in the country, especially in the form of millions of children birthed by very young mothers.

She grinned and answered without hesitation: “Yes, I have baby. A son. His name is Miguel. Look.”

She brought out her cell phone and showed me a picture of a chubby-faced toddler with huge brown eyes.

“Very cute.”

“I miss my little boy…”

“Where is he?”

“He lives with my mother… in Roxas.  I don’t see him so often.”

“It must be hard for you.”

“Yes, but I must make money.”

“Hey you guys!” Rose waved to us. “Come this way.”

We followed Rose and the rest of the posse along a trail leading up the hill that loomed over the harbor. Once we got to the top we came upon a cluster of large tents lit up with white Christmas lights. As we entered, I saw that they were packed with people shouting. The air was hazy with cigarette smoke and I could taste sawdust and sweat. A vivid sense of excitement burned in my skin.

“Hey Mira, what is this place?”

“Filipino casino!”

The crowds gathered around various low-stakes games of chance, all of which looked homemade. Each had a game master and groups of players throwing down bets, behind which stood even more spectators. We moved into the room, squeezing through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd.

“You wanna play?” I asked.

“Okay.”

We made our way to a huge table. In the middle was a sunken platform made up of squares of many colors. A hole was cut in the middle of each square. Along the edge of the table were colored rectangles that match the squares. This was where you placed your bet. Once all the bets were placed, a soccer ball was tossed onto the platform. It rolled and bounced about until eventually settling on a color. If the color matched that of your bet, it paid out.

I handed Mira some pesos and we both placed bets. The man tossed the ball onto the platform.

“Para para para!” she shouted. I know para means “stop” in Spanish and assume that they must have adopted it in Palawano. After all, Tagalog is full of Spanish words.

“Para! Para!” I shouted.

“Para!” Mira echoed, laughing.

The ball settled on orange. We won.

We ended the night at a strange club in town, complete with cover band. Filipinos are the kings of cabaret bands, providing the lounge entertainment for countless hotel bars and clubs throughout Asia. It’s no wonder that they’re also masters of the form in their own homeland.

We all ordered San Miguels and hit the dance floor when Matt joined the band on stage for a version of “Twist and Shout.” Matt was a guitarist for a few indie bands back home and strummed and belted out the Beatles classic with gusto, all while being backed up by an extremely courteous group of Filipino players, who appeared slightly bemused by the spectacle. After Matt’s stint sitting in, Bud bought several rounds of tequila shots for the table, and the girls tore it up, throwing out all of their best moves to a blaring soundtrack of pop favorites, with Lady Gaga and the Wondergirls heavy in the mix. The Filipinos love their pop, especially with an extra dollop of cheese on top. They adore music of all forms and have no time for scorn or self-involved irony.

It had been a long, sweaty day and I was spent. I drooped in the chair, nearly nodding off, thinking of my bed at House of Rose. Mira grabbed me by the hand and attempted to coax me back out to the floor, but my shoes felt like they were filled with wet sand and I just couldn’t keep up, so I collapsed back into the seat.

“Are you okay?” she shouted in my ear.

“Yeah yeah… fine. Just tired… and drunk.”

She sat down next to me and held my hand.

“Oh poor baby…” she teased. We watched Bud as he leapt and spun in crazed abandon, tapping from a seemingly infinite well of energy.

“I like you, Mira.”

“I like you, too.”

“I’m leaving on Wednesday.”

She nodded along with the beat, watching the old man continue to cut it up.

“Can I take you on a date tomorrow?”

*

After a day trip by motorcycle to the other side of the island, I returned to Princesa, killing time before my upcoming date with Mira. That evening I wandered away from the guesthouse toward the center of the town, eventually settling in at an open air bar and restaurant nestled on a side street. I sat alone, listening to techno pop music blare over the tables and sipping yet another cold San Miguel.

An old woman in a straw hat ambled past. She carried two baskets tied to a stick that lay balanced across her shoulders. She called out, “Balut! Balut!

“Have you ever tried balut?” asked the waitress, a perpetually-smiling young woman of about twenty.

“Isn’t that the half-formed baby ducked cooked in its egg shell?”

“Yes, that’s it, though these are baby chickens”

“Uh, no. I can say with some certainty that I have not eaten balut.”

“It’s good!” she laughed. “You want to try?”

I sipped and thought for moment before pulling the trigger: “Uh, sure…. hook me up with some chicken fetus.”

The waitress called to the old woman, who stopped, opened one of her baskets, and produced a white egg. The waitress paid and handed it to me. I felt its warmth radiate into the palm of my beer-cooled hand.

“Okay, now follow my directions. First, carefully crack.”

I nodded and tapped the top of the egg on the table.

“Good. Now peel away just a little bit… that’s good!”

“Okay, what next?”

“Drink the soup.”

“The soup?”

“Yes, drink the liquid inside. It is very good. Some say the best part.”

Again I followed her directions, putting the warm egg to my lips and tipping it towards my mouth.

“Go ahead and suck.”

I did as I was told. The balut broth was slightly salty and tasted very much of chicken. So far so good.

“Finished?”

I nodded.

“Now peel the shell away.”

I slowly stripped away the shell, revealing a hardened yellowish yolk and purple umbilical cord. Soon the alien head became visible, all slimy and pink, complete with bulging eyeballs and an almost fully-formed beak. A spider’s web of veins twisted underneath the sickly, translucent skin.

It was a grotesque form, reminding me of the baby in David Lynch’s classic film Eraserhead.

“Now eat,” instructed the waitress. I took a breath and went to take a bite before she stopped me: “All. Take all at once.”

“Okay,” I said, eyeing the hideous mass just inches from my face. “Here goes nothin’.”

With that I popped the whole balut into my mouth and chewed. As I bit down I felt my teeth slice through the yolk and into the flesh, followed by a burst of warm fluid from the semi-creature’s insides. The taste was intense–chicken concentrate–the very essence of poultry. But what disturbed me most was the crunching. I could clearly feel its tiny bones snap as I crushed and ground up the fetus in my chomping maw.

I quickly gulped the fleshy, gooey mass down, and chased it with beer in a frenzied attempt to purge every trace of balut from my unfortunate mouth. My stomach balked at the delivery, but the impulse soon passed, and I managed to keep it down.

The waitress looked on in pure joy, giggling, beaming, and punctuating the whole affair with sincere applause.

“Well done!” she praised. “It is very delicious, yes?”

*

Later that night I returned to House of Rose. The dining area was quiet, save a few of the guests that I didn’t know. Andy was there, smoking and drinking, of course, eyes fixed on the cricket highlights flashing on the TV. Rose saw me sit down and came over.

“Are you ready for your date?”

“Yes.”

“Just remember to use a condom,” added Dalisay as she walked by with some empty dishes.

It was nearly midnight by the time Mira emerged. After work she’d gone back to her shared room to shower, change, and put on some makeup. She wore the same denim skirt from the morning I arrived and a sleeveless black top, exposing her thin, round shoulders. I caught a hint of perfume as she walked up.

“Are you ready?”

“Sure… where are we going?”

“Let’s just ride and see…”

Mira got onto the back of the bike and we took off into the nearly-empty streets of the town. It was late, and with the exception of a few bars, and a restaurant or two, everything was closed up. She gripped my waist lightly and nestled her chin into the back of my shoulder.

“Do you want to meet my cousin? We can go to her house.”

We rode through the central business area with its haggard shopping center and fast food chains, past the impressive white and blue cathedral, and out to the far end of town. Mira directed me down a dirt road until we came across a small house. We stopped. The barks of several, unseen dogs echoed around the neighborhood and no lights were on inside. Mira lightly knocked on the door, but got no response. She knocked again: nothing.

“Maybe she is asleep…”

“Well what should we do?”

“Let us just ride.”

We rode back down the main strip into town, towards the airport and then turned around. We then headed back out towards her cousin’s place and turned around again, doing several laps through Princesa like cruisers in small town America. We talked about nothing, but just rode, savoring the night breeze that whipped through our hair and the damp warmth of each other’s bodies.

“Are you hungry, Chris?”

“Yeah, I could eat.”

We stopped off at one of the few restaurants still open. It was a Vietnamese noodle house. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, many Vietnamese fled their homeland via the sea. Some of them ended up on Palawan and are still around today, their noodle shops a testament to their presence.

Mira and I were the only customers. We ordered two bowls of chicken pho and colas, sitting under the restaurant’s buzzing, fluorescent lights, slurping the noodles and broth and sipping the soft drinks from plastic straws.

“Where do you go tomorrow?”

“I’m heading north, up to El Nido.”

“Are you coming back through Princesa?”

“I’m not sure yet. I may go all the way to Coron and fly back to Manila”

“You should come back during my day off and we can go the beach. Would you like that?”

“I would,” I said, waving away a fly.

We rode back to House of Rose as slowly as possible. Neither of us wanted to be there but it was very late and there was really nowhere else to go. I suddenly remember the offer Dutch Jan had made the day before: “If you ever need a room,” he said… but it didn’t seem that this was going to be that type of night. Mira worked hard, but wasn’t a working girl.

As we approached the guesthouse the streets got darker. The branches from the trees reached out over the lane, and moonlight sifted through.

“Stop here,” Mira said.

I killed the bike and just sat there. An orchestra of frogs chirped from the swamp nearby.

“Look at the stars,” she said, pointing up to through trees. There they were, glowing white; majestic.

We got off the bike and stood in the middle of the road, just looking up, afloat in the tropical night. I felt the warmth of her hand, her long fingers intertwining with mine. I turned to her, leaned in, and we kissed.

She smiled and laughed.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

I felt that warm wave rise again inside and placed my hands on her hips, feeling her bone through the strong denim of her skirt. I went in for another kiss, this time with more purpose and passion, but she placed her hand on my chest and lightly pushed me back.

“No.” Again she smiled, though I could see in her eyes that she didn’t trust me, that she knew exactly what I was after.

It was nearly four am when we returned to House of Rose. The place was dark and shut down.

“Oh no.”

“What?”

“I forgot my key,” Mira said. “I cannot unlock the room.”

“Well isn’t Dalisay in there?”

“Yes, but she is sleeping.”

“Wake her up.”

“No, no… she will be angry. I will stay out here until morning. Just two more hours.”

“Come to my bed. I have to get up at six as well. The van to El Nido comes at six thirty.”

“I cannot. It is against the rules.”

The temperature had dropped significantly and now a slight seaside chill hung in the air. I could see that Mira was cold. I went to my room and grabbed a light sweater from my pack and gave it to her.

“Here. Wear this.”

She slipped it on. It draped over her like a blanket.

We sat together in one of the wooden lounge chairs on the edge of the dining area. I held her and she rested her head on my shoulder. We listened to the sound of the night—dogs, frogs, crickets, far off music, motorbikes, cars and voices—until I dropped into sleep.

“Get up,” Mira said, kissing my forehead, bringing me back. “Go sleep. Go.”

We stood up together.

“Thanks for a great date, Mira.”

She nodded. I embraced her weakly, then turned and walked toward my room.

“You will come back for me?”

I stopped.

“You can come see me on my day off. We can go to the beach.”

I looked back towards her silhouette.

“Will you promise to come back?”

“I will,” I lied. “I promise.”

NEW REVIEW

Check out this terrific review from fellow Signal 8 writer Giacomo Lee for The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia:

‘I’d failed both my wife and myself, and vowed to never let that happen again.’

There’s a point halfway through this travelogue which really hits the reader in the gut. It comes when the writer returns to his hotel one night to find his wife highly distressed, and unusually quiet. Unbeknownst to him, she had been followed by men in a car, who then proceeded to hang around outside the couple’s hotel room, calling for her to come out to whatever foul end they had up their sleeves. While all this was happening, the writer had been out enjoying the nightlife of a new country, innocuously drinking in a bar with fellow travelers. He’s of course overcome by tremendous guilt upon finding out, and it’s put across with a brave and brute honesty that’ll make you take stock a little. The reason it really hits hard though is because up until this point, Chris Tharp does what all great travel writers should – he stays out of it. He paints the scene, shows us the locals and the ex-pats, gives us a little history. He himself rarely strays into the picture, and when he does, it usually hits the funny bone with some sort of hilarious observation. When that moment in the hotel comes though, you’ll be impressed by the sobering honesty of it. I couldn’t have put it down on paper, not for anyone.

But it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, for The Worst Motorcycle in Laos never pulls any punches in its 400 page trek across the Asian continent. Some of the scenes I will never forget for their haunting depiction of life on the extreme end of the poverty scale. There are moments when you’ll have to put the book down to think about what Tharp has just seen – a deformed child in a cart; a foul mouthed nine year old; the squalor of public defecation. This is important information, and it helps the book show a world that is changing, or very much needs to change.

The title should tell you this is writing by someone who skipped the planes, and traveled on the road, seeing life from ground level. It gave Tharp a chance to observe, and observe he does. He sees things which you and me would otherwise miss: the North Korean official on mysterious business in Laos; the travel agency advertising archaic fares; the invasion of a seaside village by rich Russians where once there were none.

He sees beauty too, with vivid descriptions of rural China in one of the book’s finest chapters. It’s fascinating enough to get a look into pre-Olympic China, but when we are later taken to the volatile Uyghur region of the country, it becomes a vital kind of reportage about somewhere that will most likely be whitewashed in the years to come. Another reason to read these very rough travels in Asia.

THE WORST MOTORCYCLE IN LAOS: ROUGH TRAVELS IN ASIA

moto2

NOW AVAILABLE IN BOTH PRINT AND E-BOOK VIA AMAZON AND OTHER FINE PURVEYORS OF BOOKS, SO GO AHEAD AND GET A COPY WHILE THE GETTIN’ IS GOOD!!!

In The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia, author Chris Tharp recounts his misadventures in countries across the region he’s called home for the last ten years. He takes us to the back-alley restaurants of Vietnam on a quest to eat cobra; to the neon streets of Japan, where he goes on tour with a jazz band, gets lost in the depraved depths of a comic book shop, and nearly causes a riot at a punk rock bar; to far Western China, where he narrowly misses a terrorist attack and endures a harrowing drive on the world’s highest highway. Whether he’s losing his lunch on the boat ride to the disputed Dokdo islets, surviving a bus wreck on a Korean highway, eating chicken embryos in the Philippines, or riding a dilapidated motorbike through the dirt tracks of Laos, Tharp delivers his tales with a mixture of honesty, wit, and humor that will inspire readers to strap on a backpack and hit the road.

But don’t just take my word for it. Hear what some other folks have to say:

“In The Worst Motorcycle in Laos,Tharp takes us on a wild ride from the neon streets of Tokyo to the dirt tracks of Indochina. The essays are insightful, humorous, and
unflinching. A great read for the active and armchair traveler alike.”

– Michael Breen, author of The Koreans

“Tharp’s done it again. He’s got a knack for finding himself in, shall we say, interesting places and situations: from fake flowers and monks to persistent touts,
these are the stories few can experience for themselves. Make no mistake, Tharp makes life happen on his own terms.”

– Chris Backe, travel blogger at One WeirdGlobe (www.oneweirdglobe.com)

“The Worst Motorcycle in Laos is a thoughtful rampage through the backwaters of Asia. Tharp writes about his travels with a refreshing, humble honesty, unafraid of
exploring the gritty and the grimy, the seedy and the sublime. Witty, poignant and at times even disturbing, this is a great read for both the seasoned journeyer and those
content to enjoy from the comfort of home.”

– Brandon W. Jones, author of All Woman and Springtime

“Illness, whether his stomach, or his motorcycle, forces Tharp to destinations he hadn’t planned. Going off the beaten path leads to revelations that aren’t just culinary ones, but philosophical quandaries that push toilet seats as well as his conscience. In that sense, the dynamic of Tharp’s journey isn’t so much that of Asia as it is the landscape of humanity. At the same time, his mix of visceral pain, self-deprecating humor, and unique cultural idiosyncrasies pervade throughout the travelogs and make for some damn good conversation.” – Peter Tieryas, Entropy Magazine

“Tharp’s writing is sharp witted… casual and inviting, I feel like I’m along for the ride. After finishing the book I felt like I always do after reading a good travel book, ready to hit the road.” – Laura Bronner, travel blogger at An American Abroad

NAME THAT RAT

nutria-portrait-ed

Recently I read about a 20,000 won ($20) bounty that the Korean government is offering for carcasses of river rats, which have invaded the Nakdong River basin near my home in Busan. This reminded me of a passage cut from my book, “Dispatches from the Peninsula,” where, on a motorcycle trip, we come face to face with these a few of these beasties. I make no claims that this is fantastic writing, and there is a reason this was sliced from the manuscript, but it still pleases me that it finally has managed to find an audience. Enjoy. 

Often the most satisfying – or at least the most memorable moments of a motorcycle trip – are those which are unplanned, those impromptu decisions to follow a small road sign and see what it is actually pointing you towards. We never know what the destination will have to offer, but often we are surprised. Such was the case with our last pit stop at Upo Wetland.

Real wetlands are few and far between in overly-built up Korea, where habitat preservation has taken a back seat to progress, so when we took the spur road that lead to the huge swamp that makes up Upo, we were suitably impressed.  The place sits in a massive bowl, ringed by steep embankments. It is host to a huge bird population, both year-round and migratory species. Upo is quiet, with just the whispers of hikers, photographers, and birders, along with the slow crunch of cars winding along the gravel road. We dismounted our bikes and took in the swamp from the main viewing area.  A whole day could be spent at Upo, hiking any one of the trails that rings the marsh, but we were short on time and just took in what we could.

We noticed a man in a small boat which he propelled with a long pole. He slowly made his way into the swamp and jumped out on a small island made from dirt and bushes. He produced a snare from his boat and lowered it into the brush, hooking what sounded like a moaning animal. The thing wailed and screamed like an infant as he wrested it from what seemed to a trap and then lifted the thrashing creature into the boat.

“What the fuck is that?” I asked. “A cat?”

“Yeah,” said Sir David. “They may trap cats out here to protect the native birds.”

“Cats, in swamp? I thought cats hated water.”  BC was more than skeptical.

“There’s no fucking way that’s a cat,” Sam chimed in. “Maybe it’s a nutria.”

“A what?” said BC

“Or a bagder,” Will opined.

We watched enraptured, as the man moved to a second island, and extracted a second creature.  It too screamed and moaned as he plucked it from the mud and into the boat.  For a couple of seconds we got a glimpse of the beast, but it was too far away to make out clearly. Once in the boat, the man went about to stuffing the creatures in what appeared to be large, empty rice bags.

“I don’t think they’re badgers.  I think they’re some kind of otters. Yeah, that’s an otter.”  I was sure. “They’re probably eating the bird eggs.”

“Why ain’t he killing it right then and there?  Why bother taking it in?” David was confused.

“Maybe they eat them in the village over there. Might be a delicacy,” Will thought.

“Could be a big ‘ol swamp rat.” said Sam.

“I don’t know… did you see the size of that thing?  Rats don’t get that big,” said BC.

“Swamp rats do,” Sam replied.

The trapper now poled the boat back towards shore, and we, along with a handful of Koreans, headed down to the embankment to see the creatures in person. Before he reached the shore, the man reached into the water and grabbed a few handfuls of aquatic plants. Food for the beasties.

I addressed the old man as he drifted in on boat. “Ajosshi, what kind of animals are those?”

“Nutrias!”

“I was right!” Sam was vindicated.  Nutrias are an invasive species from South America, a kind of semi-aquatic rodent.

When he reached the shore the trapper lifted one of the creatures out of the bag by the snare and set it on the ground, in front of us and a few gawking, photo snapping Korean tourists. The varmint hissed and gnashed its frighteningly long, yellow front teeth.  The thing looked more like a beaver than anything else, though a very ratty beaver. The old man poked at it with the stick for effect, and the critter at once gnawed at the poker.

“Wouldn’t want to stick your finger in there,” Sir David remarked.

The trapper put the nutria back into its bag and hauled both of them down a trail, with the group of us in tow.  The trail ended at a large cage, in which the trapped animals were deposited, along with their “feed” that was extracted from the swamp.

“Why are you saving them?” Sir David asked.

“Food.” The old man implied.

Sir David continued: “Are your going to eat them?”

“No!” He shook his head in disgust. “They’re for the lions!  The lions in the Seoul Zoo!”  He smiled, lit a thin cigarette, and marched off proudly.

“Wow.  Lion food.  Not a bad idea, really,” remarked BC.

With that, he hiked back to our bikes, fired them up,  and made off  towards the unfortunate town of Miryang.

 

 

EASTER SUNDAY, KOREA, 2014

lily

It’s a cloudy morning in Busan, another in string of dreary, cool days, but at least I’m up to enjoy it. One of the pluses of my recent motorcycle wreck and subsequent hospitalization is that my sleep schedule has shifted. For the first time in life I can count myself as an early bird, though I doubt this distinction will hold after I’m up and moving 100 percent. Like my mother, I have always been a decidedly nocturnal creature. I am convinced that such proclivities course through our veins, that they’re buried deep in our DNA.

Today is Easter, which makes me think of family, especially my mom. She was an avid celebrator of holidays, and Easter in our house was no exception. In the days leading up she’d marshal a couple of us to assist in the dying of the eggs, an activity that I fervently relished as a kid. Every year it was the same: a big pot of boiled white eggs and Paas Easter Egg dye, which was mixed with water and vinegar to achieve its result. The sharp odor of the vinegar pricked my nostrils and stung my eyes; even today one whiff transports me back to the dining room table with my sister Molly and my mom–hard at work dipping–a cigarette in one hand and a thin wire egg holder in the other.

On Easter morning we were treated to baskets filled with chocolate and of course, dyed eggs. Sometimes even a small wrapped gift was included, transforming the setting into a mini springtime Christmas. The chocolate usually took the form of a giant rabbit–the bigger the better. Afterwards I would compare my booty with that of the other kids on my road. Most prized was the solid chocolate bunny. The cheaper hollow version was usually consumed over the course of the day. The solid rabbit was an investment in chocolate. It literally could be gnawed and sucked on for days to come. Often the owner of the prized solid bunny would never even finish the thing: by Wednesday the half-melted hindquarters were eventually discarded, covered in a nasty film of dirt, dust, and drool.

Though my parents were certainly guilty of going all-in with regards to the commercial aspects of Easter, they didn’t indulge our every whim, and they made sure that we never forgot just why we were celebrating this day: All sugary contents of the basket were to be left untouched until AFTER mass.

And Easter mass was long, the longest mass of the year, clocking in at a good three hours. I remember being too small to see over the pew, essentially walled in as the old French priest droned on over the microphone in completely unintelligible English, blessing what seemed to be every single item in the church: In the costume and prop-heavy world of Roman Catholicism, this adds up to a lot of stuff. I fidgeted and wormed and swung my legs, dreaming of release, when I could run free, giant chocolate rabbit in hand. My mother acted as camp guard, silently castigating me with offended brown eyes, non-verbally suggesting that my squirreliness was an affront to God himself. The only respite from my utter, existential boredom was the constant shifting of positions: STAND, SIT, KNEEL, repeat. I am still convinced that these were invented solely to occupy those of us who find sitting still for long periods of time an exercise in torture.

After mass we’d pile into the big brown Chevy and head back home for a home cooked feed. On a couple of lucky occasions, I recall heading up to Tacoma, where we met up with some other relatives and were then unleashed upon a proper restaurant for Easter brunch. There were six of us in my immediate family and we could eat. We ‘d decimate the buffet, piling up on bacon, sausage, biscuits, home fries, pancakes, french toast, custom omelets and eggs Benedict smothered in oozing lakes Hollandaise sauce (my aversion to mayonnaise goes back as far as I can remember so I never partook of the latter). One year, after the meal, we posed for pictures in front of a rhododendron bush in bloom. A few years ago I came across some of these photographs when cleaning out my mom’s stuff: My dad wears a grey jacket and blue tie, and is puffed up with pride (and food)–all bushy mustache, glasses, and a closed-lip smile. My mom sports a pink dress and smiles uneasily; unlike my hammy father, she was never comfortable in front of the camera.

*          *          *

Despite my parents’ best efforts, religion never really stuck with me. This, combined with the fact that I have no kids of my own, means that I haven’t celebrated Easter since I was a child myself. Over the years I would call home on Easter, knowing that it was an important day for both my parents, whose faith was deep; but they’ve been gone for sometime now, so the day barely registers in my mind. It’s  just a thing that I used to observe, from a period so long back that it seems like another lifetime.

This year is different. I sit here, at my desk, in my tenth year in South Korea. The TV rests just feet away, flashing endless images of the Sewol ferry disaster. My wife sleeps poorly, splitting her time between the tiny screen of her phone and the larger screen of the television, starved for a morsel of good news. So far there’s been none.

It was Wednesday when the boat went down. I first learned about it just after eleven A.M. at the beginning of a class I teach for housewives. It’s a free talking course and the women in it are sharp as it gets. The Sewol came up immediately. They were all noticeably worried, but these concerns were immediately put to bed when one of the women stated that she had just heard great news during the drive to class: All the students had been rescued.

The women collectively exhaled and smiled. The crisis had been averted. In a perhaps patronizing turn, I remarked on how far Korea had come, how the country’s past reputation for public safety was less-than-stellar, how twenty years ago the outcome would have not been so good.

The women agreed and we quickly switched subjects.

It wasn’t until later in the day that I began to doubt the “everyone is rescued” story. Articles and posts on the internet presented wildly conflicting information. It seemed that many people, perhaps hundreds, were still missing. Did that mean they were still in the ship? Or perhaps, in the chaos of rescue, they had just not managed to count everybody.

Minhee and I went out for dinner at a shabu-shabu restaurant near my school, and it was here where we learned the grim reality of the situation. 179 people had been rescued, but nearly 300 were still missing. The earlier count had been wrong, mistakenly doubled up. The passengers–almost all students from Ansan’s Danwon High School–were presumed trapped inside of the ship, which had been almost fully submerged for hours now. Their parents were gathering in a gymnasium in the small port of Jindo, near the scene of the sinking. Both authorities and them were holding out hope. I could find none. It was now dark and the water was cold. Perhaps a few air pockets existed, but hypothermia would set in soon. The Sewol had been transformed into an underwater tomb.

As the days the wore on and scenes from the choppy grey water were replayed, the tally on the upper right screen of the TV changed little, with just a few numbers added to the official “dead” category. As of writing this, it stands at 179 rescued, 28 dead, and 269 missing. At this point we can probably merge the “missing” with the “dead,” which now includes a former member of the “rescued:” Danwon High School’s vice principal, Kang Min-kyu, who was so wracked with guilt and grief that he hanged himself from a tree.

This story has just been an endless barrage of bad news, cock-ups, and seemingly willful ineptitude. It’s been a cocktail of incompetence and negligence that far surpasses the criminal. The captain wasn’t on the bridge at the time, despite the fact that the area was known to be treacherous. And most unbelievably, after the ship began listing, he told the students–over the loudspeaker–that they should sit down and “stay put,” essentially passing a death sentence on hundreds. He was among the first to be rescued, in flagrant violation of every maritime convention known to mankind, and once safely ensconced in the hospital, he inexplicably saw fit to dry out his roll of fifty thousand won bills that had gotten soaked during the sinking. This was his priority.  He seems to have done almost everything wrong, and, not surprisingly, the country is calling for his head.

And then there’s the government response. Despite the fact that hundreds of divers have been on the scene, almost none have made it inside of the ship. Weather, poor visibility, and strong currents have been blamed. Offers of on-the-water aid from both the U.S. and Japanese navies has been spurned. Information has been spotty, contradictory, and inconsistent. Parents have been stonewalled, and to the outsider it appears that the rescue effort has consisted mainly of putting around on boats and some pulling bodies from the sea.

What I do know is that this country is in shock, but that shock is turning to grief coupled with incandescent anger. This is a national nightmare for Korea, by far the biggest catastrophe this nation has faced since I moved here nearly a decade ago. Watching the endlessly looped footage takes me back to a massive tragedy that struck my country: the attacks of 9/11. Though different in nature and circumstance, I can imagine that the Korean people are going through a similarly harrowing emotional process. My heart aches when I see shots of those students longing to see their friends once more, or those parents screaming out their children’s names. I too am sickened inside, and burn with indignation when I contemplate the details of this fiasco and clearly see just how preventable these deaths were.

So here we are, Easter Sunday, Korea, 2014. Hopefully the observant can find some joy in the spirit of the day. But for most folks, there will be no solace, because unlike the story of Christ’s resurrection, no one trapped in that boat is ever coming back.