Month: January 2012

THE GREAT BUST: TUK-TUK, LAKE TOBA

WHERE ARE THE UNWASHED MASSES OF EUROPEANS?

“Seven years ago we had many visitors,” Anne said, “but after tsunami and earthquake, very few come.” I was sitting at a table in the empty restaurant on the one road that circles through Tuk-Tuk, a village perched on a peninsula that sticks out into Indonesias largest freshwater body, Lake Toba, like a broken thumb. I sipped from a cup of ink black coffee, thick and grainy and strong as hell. I was trying to write in my notebook but Anne wasn’t having it. In fact, anywhere we go in this village it’s the same story: restaurants and guesthouses with nary a guest, and owners who are so happy for your business that they sit next to you and sling heaps of friendly questions your way.

Lake Toba was created by a volcanic explosion some 50,000 years ago, and is surrounded by green and grey highlands that surround the deep waters like the rim of a bowl. In the middle is Samosir Island, a rock escarpment that rises like a gnarly spine, with enough flat land for some farms villages, and the once-tourist magnet of Tuk-Tuk. The lake is well above sea level, and as a result a welcome bit cooler than the sauna that is the lowlands of Sumatra. The mornings are generally sunny and hot, but by late afternoon the clouds pour over the mountain ridges and turn the the sky grey and greyer. A wind whips the waters of the lake and any thought of the scorching tropical sun is immediately put to rest by the moody enironment.

Tuk-tuk looks like a backpackers’ haven. Countless guesthouses offer dead cheap accomodation with lakefront access. Open air restaurants serve up thick curries, pizzas, banana pancakes, and standard Indonesion fare (nasi goreng (fried rice) and mi goreng (fried ramen noodles) being omnipresent. (I’ve already downed about seven nasi goreng’s in the five days I’ve been on the island. The culinary die has been cast.) The local Batak people are all smiles and welcomes and probably the friendliest I’ve met anywhere on my travels. As Christians, they all drink, sell the hell out of Bintang beers, and are much more laid back than the rule-burdened Muslims that make up Indonesia’s religious majority. The place is beatiful, and as laid back as anywhere I’ve been in Laos, which sets the standard for chill. It’s easy on the wallet, the eyes, and the soul. The question is: Where are the people?

The place was built as a magnet for both international travelers and middle-class Indonesians, but the latter only make it in serious numbers on the big holidays. That leaves the Euros and Aussies and odd North American to fill in the gap, and since that big fucking wave, the tsunami of 2004, and the other earthquake that followed just months later, the flow of tourists has dried to a trickle. The word Sumatra, once known for rich coffee and exoticism, became synonymous with catastrophe, and nothing scares the travelers more than the threat of death. Sumatra is also a bitch to get to, especially this village of Tuk-Tuk. From Korea we had to fly to Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia, and then shoot over to Medan, Sumatra’s capital. From Medan we took a local minivan, which, after a five-hour white-knuckle marathon, delivered us on the shores of Lake Toba.

WHY DO THEY HAVE TO DRIVE LIKE TOTAL ASSHOLES?

We were happy to get out of Medan, despite the novelty of sleeping next to the biggest mosque in town. With the exception of travel in China’s Xinxiang province (where the call to prayer is muffled by authorities), I have spent no real time in the Muslim world. But that town was a dusty fume-filled pit and the three of us were glad to board the mini-bus and get the hell outta dodge. But beware what you wish for! For it soon became apparent that our driver was as masochistic as any I’ve encountered on third-word roads; he slammed the gas pedal and drove like a methed-up rabbit on the car, bus, and truck-choked two lane road that led to the town of Parapat, which sits on Lake Toba. Traffic was horrendous but shot forward with velocity, and it soon became apparant that our man was a compulsive passer, no matter what was headed our way in the opposite lane. He’s rush right up on the ass of whatever vehicle cruised in front of us, jerk into the other lane, shoot forward as menacingly fast as possible and then careen back into relative safety, twice coming within INCHES of clippin the oncoming car. He’d then rush and repeat. Rush and repeat – even on blind corners – horn blasting in a feeble attempt to “clear” whatever two-ton piece of metal may be rolling headlong our way. Minhee managed to sleep on my shoulder much of the time, closing her eyes in a kind of denial, while Sam and I gripped the seats in front of us and braced each time. This guy was so insane that even the couple of Indonesians aboard, who are well-used to such shenanigans, squealed in protest.

I can’t tell you, dear reader, how many times I’ve literally put my life in the hands of these dickheads who drive with some sort of chip on their shoulder, where, despite the obvious dangers and treacherous conditions, they feel compelled to go AS FAST AS POSSIBLE and pass any vehicle they roll upon – even the fast ones – as if their very manhood is as stake. And it’s not about deadlines. I’m sure this guy saved neither time and nor a tongue-lashing from his dispatcher. Half of these suicidal cuntbags have been drivers I’ve hired personally, who are supposed to go at a pace that the passengers are comfortable. But telling them to slow down is like telling a dog not to shit in the grass. Deaf ears and all of that.

THERE GOES THE CHRISTIAN VILLAGE

Anne, like all Batak people, is Christian. Church spires poke up all over the region, and the restaurants and homes of the locals are all adorned with crosses and depictions of Christ in many forms, both beautific and suffering. These people are seriously Jesus’d up.

“How is it living in a Muslim country?” I asked her directly. “Do you guys get along well around here.”

“Generally no problem,” Anne replied. “But the Muslims now, more are coming. Before not so many (a kind of inverse of tourists, it seems), but now…” She shook her head and raised her eyebrows. “They are not so friendly, you know. Always like this with the Christians,” she stuck her arm away from her body with her palm up, a literal representation of <at arm's length. “You know, for Christmas, we give our neighbors food that we cook. This is our tradition. The Muslims they take the food, but they never eat. They just throw away… if they give us gifts we take and eat, but they throw away. And if Batak woman marries Muslim man, we never can see her again. Muslim family doesn’t even allow her to go see her family, to go to wedding…”

“That is too bad,” I said. I tried to explain how her Muslim neighbors were probably not trying to be rude by throwing out the food they received, but just following the rules of halal, but this did little good to assuage her skepticism.

“Let’s just hope that, despite your differences, you can continue to live peacefully, side by side.”

She nodded her head in aggreement.

“And let’s really hope the travelers come back again.”

With that she smiled and laughed.

“Yes, yes. Let us hope. In the meantime, are you hungry? Nasi goreng?

MEDAN

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these sweaty missives – one of these reports banged out on a grungy keyboard under the flourescent lights of a PC room in a developing nation. But voila! Here we are again.

Minhee and I arrived in Indonesia today, followed thirty minutes later by Sammy, who booked on a different airliner. We are in Medan, which is the biggest city of Sumatra, the massive island where we’ll be spending the next three weeks. We spent the last two days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a cosmopotlitan sweatbox of a town that gives America’s “melting pot” idea a run for its money. KL is spanky, with shiny buildings and some stunning architecture, though look around corner into the smaller alleys and its all trash piles, shit, and decay. You can dress a town up all you want, but the tropics are the tropics.

We flew out of Busan on Wednesday morning and stopped off in Hong Kong for a few hours. I had barely slept for two days and was fighting the tail end of a self-induced sickness. Basically I drank my ass off for three days straight the weekend before leaving, and did some real damage to my insides, which were the same until yesterday. In Hong Kong I had the privelege to have the the first “publishing lunch” of my writing career, breaking bread, or more accurately, dim sum, with Mr. Marshall Moore, fellow writer and chief publisher at Signal 8 Press, the putter-outter of my book. I have “known” Marshall as an internet friend for seven years now; he personally offered to publish my book and did all of the editing work (which was akin to facial reconstruction surgery). It’s safe to say that we have had a reasonably close relationship over the years, kind of kindred spirit-ship turned professional, but up until two days ago I NEVER met the man in person. I was zombified from sleep dep and ill guts, but Minhee and I spent a couple of hours with the man and were both charmed. It’s nice when the real deal is as cool as it is on the internet.

KL was nice but generally pricey. We’re on the mega-backpackers’ budget on this outing, so its good to be on the ground in Indo, where, except for an ass-reamingly marked-up (and disgusting) lunch we choked down this afternoon, things are scandalously cheap, just how I like ’em.

What of Medan? Uh… it’s pretty much a gaping shithole, in that its dirty, car-clogged, and utterly charmless. It’s a transit point and a pure center of commerce, the transactions of Northern Sumatra’s resource-based economy all take place here. The sidewalks, when they exist at all, are death traps. They’re built three to five feet over runoff channels, and in many spots the concrete is missing altogether, creating an obstacle course of leg snapping gapes that must take their toll. The result is that the populace has forsaken the sidewalks and has instead taken to skirting the side of the roads, which are already overrun with buses, motorbikes, trucks, cars, and pedicabs. Getting about is dangerous business, and it’s a good thing booze is not widely available here.

Yes, we are in MUSLIM country. The Indonesians practice one of the more laid-back versions of the faith, but Islam is Islam and is nothing of not about RULES. Our little hotel room is right next door to the city’s main mosque, a massive domed structure that demands submissions from even us infidels. Today, being Friday, was an especially busy day there, with the hordes coming in to supplicated themselves before God while the meuzzin blares out the call to prayer, which is delivered over a sound system that would make Motorhead blush. But there is something romantic about being deep in the Muslim world. Minhee and I lay on our tiny bed this afternoon with the ceiling fan whirring and the window open, as an almost undetectable breeze blew on the curtain. The song of the muezzin rang throughout the neighborhood and echoed off the cracked walls or our humble room and for a moment we both remembered why we had come here. Bliss was achieved.

Despite this momentary bliss, we are leaving Medan as soon as possible. Tomorrow we shall kiss Sam goodbye (for the time) and board a bus south to Lake Toba, a volcanic water mass that is the largest in Southeast Asia. It is said to be deadly chilled-out there, so we hope that the spirit of wellness and relaxation seeps straight into our bones.

THE SAD SEASON

January, for many folks  in the northern part of the globe at least, is a depressing slog, a dreary return to normalcy after the forced cheer of the holidays.  The number on the year clock clicks ahead and we’re thrust into full winter, slightly refreshed from our new year’s vows, though made to reckon with the realities of life.  Many folks hate this collection of days, but the fact that my birthday lies in the dead center of the month has always brightened it up for me, though, now that I’m getting older, the time will come when a birthday is no longer a source of happiness, but rather a cause for alarm.  But January no longer means what is used to for me.  That was changed in 2008 and then 2009, when both my parents left us, less than a year apart.  This bleak month lived up to its reputation.

Today is the third anniversary of my mom’s death.  Three years ago today I was back in America after a mad pan-Asian rush to get to her bedside in time (I was on Thailand’s Koh Chang when I received the news that her hours were numbered).  And luck was with me (luckily), for I got there while she still lived, though she was unconscious and diminished not just in limb (she had lost both legs some months before), but also in spirit.  She slipped away a literal forty-five minutes after my arrival in her room, which can attributed to chance, but I’d like to think she was holding out for me.

My dad died less than a year before her; I was roused from sleep by a frantically buzzing phone and summoned home at once.  It was on that day that I discovered I could be out my door and on the ground in Seattle just a bit over sixteen hours.  Not bad.  I had gotten to my dad in time, as well.  I was afraid that he would die while I was in the air (a fear shared when I came home for mom), but he had narrowly cheated death the night before, and now had a breathing tube doing the work for him.  The morning after I arrived we gathered by his bedside while a nurse inched the tube out.  He briefly came to and attempted contact with his family – face-to-face, eye-to-eye – who now held hands and encircled his bed.  Soon it became apparent that he was getting little or no air; he thrashed like a fish in a boat.  Pain. They immediately threw a heap of morphine his way which vanquished his agony and sent him into what looked like a very deep and peaceful slumber.  He was gone within the hour.

I knew my parents weren’t well.  I knew that they could go at any time, but to lose both in less than a year – just days apart by date – scrambles my thoughts and causes my head to shake, even now, as I type.

So January is different now.  It will always be the sad season, the month when we lost both of them.  I even buried my mom on my birthday, while gut-punchingly sad, was one of the greatest honors ever bestowed upon me.  It was strangely appropriate.

I’ve been in Korea long enough to adopt some of the local customs.  My fiance has taught me the basics of the 제사 (“jae-sa” the Korean ancestral rite), which we’ve adapted to our own tastes, sort of a “퓨전 제사” (fusion jae-sa), as it were.  We’ve been cooking all day and will present the food on an altar of sorts, along with candles, flowers, and a photo of the folks.  After some bowing and talking to my parents’ spirits, we’ll eat and drink and remember them the best we can.  It helps to keep the memory alive, for memories, like anything unused, atrophy and eventually break down.

I won’t ever let that happen, mom and dad.

This is a promise.

 

 

THE HOLE

We do this silly comedy open mike once-a-month. It’s on tomorrow, and always a hoot:

Did I mention that it’s in Korea? If you would have told me ten years ago that I’d one day be doing comedy in Korea, I would have asked you what kind of meth you were shooting and demanded a hit.

FURTHER PROOF

It’s been an interesting day for the Americans with all the money:

The New York Times reports that the US ranks at the bottom of industrialized countries when it comes to social mobility. Evidently this is most pronounced at the top and the bottom, where the rich protect their wealth, and the poor remain trapped.

Well fuck me and call me Susan. So much for the “American Dream.” Can’t say I’m so surprised.

But fear not: the MEGA-RICH are doing better than ever. According to another study, of the world’s richest 1%, Americans make up HALF.

I don’t know whether to cheer or stab myself in the neck.

AND WE’RE OFF

It’s cold. I just walked for an hour and a half outside and froze my sack off, but I do live in Korea and it is winter, so this is to be expected. I’m trying to walk as much as possible to stave-off the lingering specter of fat bastard-dom, but I come from chunky people and age is taking its toll. But don’t they say that we burn more calories in freezing temperatures? I still don’t like it, though. Give me a treadmill in a warm gym any day, where I can putz about like a hamster on a Habitrail and watch CNN. I fucking hate CNN, but it is supposedly news, and it is in English. I have managed to become conversant in the local tongue over the seven-plus years I have called this ol’ port city home, but that doesn’t mean I’m anywhere near fluent, so English-y news is a must. Plus I’m old and stuck in my ways. And East Asian languages are really really hard.

So… that was my opening salvo for the new and improved HOMELY PLANET, otherwise known as SHOWBIZ CENTRAL. I started this blog in 2004 when I was a fresh-faced pup – just washed up on the rocky shores if this ancient peninsula. I was bursting with energy and enthusiasm, regularly spewing forth posts about the pepper-paste covered cuisine and bizarre contents of the street markets and the alleys and the classroom and nightly sessions of drowning myself in the country’s cheap, formaldehyde-laced lager. This blog became an outlet for the civil war brewing inside me, and guess what? Some people liked it. It never became super popular or garnered the respect of the expat blog douche-ocracy based up in Seoul, but I had plenty of readers and the comment threads alone became a kick in the pants.

But then something happened… the blog atrophied. I started writing for other venues, and then began work on my book, Dispatches from the Peninsula, (Buy it!!!) which I am fervently pimping here. So I stopped posting as much. I also kind of ran out of things to say about Korea. The place stopped being weird on a daily basis. Sure, sometimes I’d emerge from a state-of-the-art subway station only to find a 90-year-old woman selling a pile of tree bark and three dead octopus just meters from the entrance, but Korea just became a place where I lived. Home. I had squeezed the sponge for all it was worth.

I also noticed that the site which hosted my blog, Livejournal, had begun to decay from the inside out. Today the place it little more than a maggot-eaten carcass. Most all of my “friends” bolted eons ago, and the posts that show up on my “friends’ list” are dominated by another expat dude who puts up 17 posts a day obsessing on Lindsey Lohan and TV shows that I will never, ever watch. My blog has been on life support over there for the past year and a half, and it’s now time to pull the plug. Calling Dr. Kevorkian! Oh wait… he died this year… but unlike all of his patients, his passing was entirely unassisted.

So, here I am, making one more stab at it. I like writing, and moreover, I like writing for an audience, which is what blogging is all about, no? I don’t really know how to build an audience at this site, other than to whore it out on facebook. But, hell, I’ll do whatever it takes.

Thanks for reading. Y’all come back now, y’hear?