Thursday, February 20, 2014

#JUNGLE PROBLEMS



In the jungle you may encounter things that you never expected to see, do things you never thought you would have to do, get yourself in situations that you never thought possible and the smallest things can become very big problems. These are #Jungle Problems.

My #Jungle Problem started when I had to leave the jungle and spend the day in the big city. I had errands to do so  I woke up at the crack of dawn upriver, deep in the Amazon rainforest. Mist still clung to the trees like a wet blanket and large fan leafs dripped condensation onto the forest floor with a incecent pitter-patter.

I am able to catch a ride in a canoe full of oil pipeline workers who are heading  downriver to the bridge crossing where they can get supplies in the small store that sells cigarettes, coca-cola and superglue. The canoe ride is pure luck but easily beats the normal routine that involves walking the 5 kilometers out of the jungle along the “path,” The jungle path takes you on a muddy slog through the forest, over bamboo bridges, though fields filled with snakes and aggressive bulls, along precarious drop offs, through swamps and through the lattice work of spider webs the criss-cross the jungle and are inhabited by fist size arachnids. I had walked that trail once before and I knew I would have to walk it on the way home, probably in the dark.  I double check that I have my headlamp but find I have no batteries left. I make a mental note to get new batteries in town and say goodbye to the pipeline workers at the bridge.

 I thumb a ride into town with a group of  Cacao farmers going into the city of Tena from the bush. They throw me in the back of their Toyota Hilux truck. I am about to light up a cigarette as I notice that I am sitting on three or four huge canisters of propane. They bump together, clatter and clank and we bounce over the washboard of the dirt road. I figure that is enough agitation for a quantity of propane like that. I put aside my cigarette.

We pass the place where a few days before a villager was beaten to death in a drunken brawl, his cell phone and wallet stolen as his face was smashed to bits with savage kicks. The assailants feet were covered in knock-off fake converse, leaving the mark of their imitation brand “Super Bueno” imprinted in blood on the cadaver. It is the best lead the police have on who the assailant is. Only 1 in 4 Ecuadorians have knock-off converse so the chances of catching the at large, belligerent killer is about 1 in 25 million.

As I ride in the back of the pickup truck the cover of fog burns off, giving way reluctantly to the blinding, blistering heat of the tropical sun. The insects come alive immediately with an electric chorus of bussing and whistling and humming that fills the air with ambient audio claustrophobia. The Ecuadorian rainforest is one of the few places on earth that has never been frozen, even in the deepest of ice ages. This means that life here has been in constant combat with itself for hundreds of millions of years undisturbed. It has been in a constant and continual state of evolution, filling each niche possible with a creature honed to seize every available opportunity in the most efficient manner possible. The biomass is staggering, the earth pulsing with life in every direction.

We cross a rickets suspension bridge in the truck. It is a modern bridge, built with steel cables rather than vines but it sways anyways, creaking and groaning as we pass over the raging torrent of the river below.

We reach the city and I bail out of the back of the truck with a wave and a nod of thanks. I offer the oil workers a dollar for their help and they refuse repeatedly. “Enjoy the party,” they say. “What party,” I think. Then I look around.

The place is bustling. More life than I have seen in weeks since I have been tucked up river in the forest. Dancing and parades in the streets, lots of fireworks, music blasting out of immense speakers strapped to the tops of cars, costumes everywhere and lots and lots of drinking.  Tena is celebrating their founding, nearly 500 years ago when a group of missionaries came upon a sleepy village in this spot. They carved out a chunk of jungle and built a church. The rest is history. The Museum in Tena has pictures of the founding of Tena in the 1500’s. The only problem is that cameras weren’t invented in the 1500’s. I didn’t want to be the one to break that shattering news to the Curator however.

I need new shoes (brand Super Bueno) and insect repellent and batteries for my headlamp (I congratulated myself for remembering this very important detail).  I also need a meal. I pass the tanks filled with Pirahnans, I avoid the expensive Pizza restaurants with menus in English, I deliberate and almost go into a restaurant serving a set menu of meat and rice for 2 dollars. Instead I settle on mystery meat over French fries, flies included for extra protein and flavor.

I spend most of the day in town soaking in the festivities and I successfully aquire all of my supplies. I head to the bus station to get the last bus back into the jungle, back to my bridge where I will begin my trek home through the jungle.

It is sunset, the warm glow of the final light of the day illuminating the smoke and chaos of town in a warm glow of gold, like looking through a jar of honey. I dig into my bag and take out my new batteries. I unscrew my headlamp and try to remove the old batteries. They won’t come out. I pull and prod, shake and whisper words of encouragement to the little buggers. They need to come out. I need light to get home. I am sitting on the last bus of the day heading back to the jungle and if I miss it I am stuck. If I arrive at the bridge without light I must face the path through the jungle in complete darkness, a prospect that is not just frightening but would be downright impossible. I would have to spend the night on the road and be eaten alive by mosquitos, no-see em’s and bullet ants.

I get out my knife and try to pry out the batteries in a final stroke of genius. Instead of extracting the batteries I manage to break the entire apparatus in half, destroying my headlamp. Hence my #Jungle Problems really begins. Normally a broken headlamp would be inconvenient in this situation it is catastrophic. Never has a stroke of the knife and a shard of broken plastic been so central to my well-being. The bus is revving it’s engines and getting ready to depart. No light equals misery or even a nasty dark death on a jungle path somewhere trying to find ones way home. I need a solution…….fast.

There is a small store at the bus station so I slip off the bus as quickly as I can.  I ask in desperation if they sell flashlights or headlamps. Of course they don’t. I see a tube of super glue and I settle on that instead. I get on the bus, knowing that if I don’t MacGyver a solution by the time I get to the bridge I am well and truly down shit creek without a headlamp.

I begin the surgical operation on my headlamp, crammed between a drunk man, a nursing woman and a blind man playing his guitar for change. I carefully try to re align all of the pieces that I have destroyed, matching metal on metal, keeping the points of contact as clear as I can of glue while still creating a solid layer of binding goop.

I finish my headlamp surgery, I insert my new batteries and close my eyes because I am too nervous to watch as I try to click on the lamp. I know that my operation has worked because the nursing woman next to me elbows me in the side, my fresh battery LED headlamp is shining directly in her face at point blank range, blinding her and her baby. I am saved!

I make it back through the dark jungle without much incident but drenched in sweat and covered in spider webs. I walk up to our lodge just as dinner is being served. I am muddy, bedraggled, exhausted and happy to be home. “How was the day in the big city,” my friends ask. “Oh” I say, “no big deal, you know just #Jungle Problems.” Everyone laughs. No need to say more. They all understand.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Atman is Brahman


VARANASI, INDIA

The river Ganga flows by like it has for thousands of years, even before this great and ancient city which surrounds me appeared on its banks. The Ghats of Varanasi, India creep out from the entrails of the catacomb like Manikarnika district and disappear into the muddy flow of the holy water. Giver of life, embracer of the dead, lifeblood of India, the Ganga flows on. Varanasi, the holiest of all holy cities to over 850 million Hindus worldwide decays into the waters. It is a city both pulsing with life and crumbling at its foundations. The ultimate symbol of a country rooted firmly in its past while blossoming towards its future potential.

The eldest son of a deceased set of parents squats amongst the squalor and smoke. His best friend, maybe his uncle stands over him and produces a disposable straight razor, the type that looks like it belongs in an exacto-knife. The helper dips his dark russet hands into a bucket of Ganga water he has brought up from the riverbank. His palms look like buttery carmel contrasting with his dark sun baked forearms. He dumps the water over the head of the stoic son, grabs a handful of his dark black hair in his fist and begins to shave him.

The smell of burning bodies wafts past as I watch this ancient ritual unfold. A funeral prossession passes by un-noticing, focused on their own duties, the duty of burning their loved one on the Ghats and casting their ashes into the river. Once this task is completed it will guarantee the transcendence of their dead relative beyond the Karmic cycle of Samsara. It will elevate them directly to Moksha, to Nirvana. Placing the ashes of the dead in the river it is the ultimate and only shortcut to a utopian afterlife.

Hunks of thick black hair waft un-ceremoniously from the scalp of the grieving son as his head continues to be shaved. The river water is the only lubricant used to soften the cold burn of the razor as it removes the hair. Only one tuft of hair is left un-scathed in the center of the back of the skull, a hairstyle reserved for those who have lost two parents. It looks lonely and out of place like a single fir tree on a ridge that has been mowed down by hungry axes. The razor is cast aside amongst the dirt and trash where it will wait for the bare feet of untouchable children. This is one of the holiest sites in all of India and so it remains Indian through and through, trash is trash, nothing more. It lies in piles everywhere around the funeral pyres, the razor now hidden amongst it like countless others.

Varanasi, the city of compassion of love of history of shit. Shit is everywhere. People shit, dog shit, cow shit, monkey shit, goat shit, big shits, small shits, hard shits, soft shits. It lays in the open, it lays in the shadows, it cakes the walls in small patties which are collected and molded everyday so that they can dry in the sun and be used for firewood. The shit mingles with the trash in the heat of the day, it becomes stomped upon and ground into a fine pulp which atomizes and rises into the heat of the day like a fog for all to inhale. All is one in Varanasi, Atman in Brahman the world is illusion, we are all part of each other.

The grieving son picks his way down to the river bank weaving between funeral pyres which are already raging, sizzling bodies piled on top turning to holy ash. He finds his pile of wood, stacked like Lincoln Logs in a small depression which has been carved into the river clay. It has been the site of other funerals, thousands of them for thousands of years and one just yesterday. Today it is his pyre, he dumps rose wood chips and sweet oils over the wood and prepares to ignite the pile.

The publicness is suffocating. It seems strange, inconsiderate, distasteful to have such an intimate moment as the final rights of your loved ones laid bare and disclosed in the open. The ceremony, the goodbyes, the tears are there for all to see. The city goes about its business as it always has and always will. From birth to death, life happens amongst a tide of humanity here. Within sight of the funeral youngsters play an impromptu game of cricket, a pair of young lovers flirt hoping no one they know will see, women wash their clothes in the river, children do flips into the water and a con man ambles up to a group of shocked tourists ready to make his share. Life continues on as one life ends.

The son has disappeared momentarily into the chaos above the Ghats. He returns with a procession, his dead mother carried on their shoulders. She is draped in silks and covered in flowers. She is placed on the pile of wood. The son lights the pile with a flame that has been pulled from a sacred fire which has burned in Varanasi for over 2,000 years. According to legend it was lit by the patron Lord Shiva and has been the igniter for all cremations ever since. The small flames begin to lick upward slowly and timidly until they catch sweet oil and aggressively burst to life. The smoke is billowing, the soft wet body of a human being fighting to suffocate the flame. The flame expanding wildly, seeming to know that it has nowhere to go but grow.

The son watches as his dead mother is enveloped in flame. More logs are piled on top as he tends the fire diligently. At times the fire shifts or collapses, revealing the simmering corpse in its midst. Vital organs have burst through the stomach boiling and spitting, exposed to sunlight for the first time only to be met with flame. The logs are piled on again. Again concealing the shell of a human being.

A holy man pauses behind me as intrigued at the scene as I am. His long beard drops to his waist, ivory colored with yellowish strands flowing from his slightly darker mustache. He is dressed in bright orange, a walking stick in one hand. He has bare cracked feet with thick grissled toenails. His hair is wound about his head, the long dreadlocks twisted like a crown of disarray. He has walked here on a pilgrimage from the foothills of the Himalayas. It is the second time he has made this journey on foot. He draws energy from the vibrancy of the city.

The fire has begun to die down. Most of the body is gone but the head hangs out of one end of the fire, the silks which covered it long seared away, the teeth of the skull exposed behind charred lips. The son looks at the carcass of his mother. His duties are almost done. He raises a thick baseball bat sized pole over his head and pauses. Then with all his might he brings the bludgeon down upon the skull. Hot curd-like brains arc into the air as the skull cracks open. They splat into the ash, the earth and the fire with a sizzle. He has released her soul. It is free. He has done his duty as the eldest son. What remains of the body is flopped back onto the fire and a final wave of firewood is layered on top.

I think of the pride the son feels for doing this duty. For having the honor to burn his mother’s body here in Varanasi, for releasing her soul not only from her skull but from the endless cycle of re-birth. I watch as the fire dies down again. I watch as he gathers the ashes of his mother and carries them on a boat into the river. I watch as he dumps them over the side. I look at the children doing flips into the river and the intake for the cities water supply a kilometer farther downriver. I smile. We breath each others shit and drink each others bodies. Atman is Brahman.


AUTHORS NOTE: It is sacrilegious to take photos of the actual pyres at the Manikarnika burning Ghat. For this reason i abstained from shooting. Guess you will have to use your imagination.......

Saturday, December 3, 2011

FROM THE EARTH TO THE VESSEL


NORTHWEST BEER ENTHUSIASTS CELEBRATE FOOD AND BREW UNDER THE FULL MOON.

As I sit outside the idling pickup truck I take a sip from the growler of beer that we brought along for just this occasion. The falling snow begins to increase into wind whipped flurries that bite through our layers of clothing. The lunar force of the evening is clear as the extreme low tide before us reveals the mudflats stretching out like slick sulfur chocolate, cradling the treasure we seek on its surface. The full moon has become completely obscured by the rising snowstorm but with a pull off the growler my companion lays down how our mission is going to work, “keep your light down and make it quick,” he says, “with any luck we can be out of here in 20 minutes.” Without another word we muck our way out into the bay, hands already freezing and the snow quickly accumulating on the soupy gelatin of the mud.

It is the middle of November and the eve of Brewfest, a completely renegade, utterly underground and fantastically one-of-a-kind homebrew festival in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Tonight as we shiver our way towards the center of the bay by headlamp, we are searching for essential vitals for the coming festivities, specifically fresh wild oysters.

Joe Steel is the founder and host of Brewfest and carries two milk crates slung across his shoulders dangling in balance from a piece of dowel. As we scour the ground for oysters to throw in the crates the accumulating snow makes distinguishing a rock from a mollusk nearly impossible. We fumble with numb fingers to flip over every stone for further inspection trying to decipher in the dim light whether it be a crusty rock or tasty morsel.

It is essential to be quick, not because what we are doing is illegal per-se, but rather because it is much better to be low profile about our activities.

In fact, “low profile” seems to be one of the manifestos of Brewfest which strives to be an un-marketed, off the map celebration for the true Northewest food and brew enthusiast. For this reason, the quicker we can finish our oyster hunt the less chance there is of attracting unwanted attention. After some time, long after out fingers are screaming with cold, the crates have been filled, and we slip back to the truck, take a sip of beer in recognition of the completed mission and zip back towards the wood fired warmth of Steel's house. The final preparatory step has been completed. Now comes the celebration.

Brewfest has been an island tradition since 1989 and is above all interactive. Everyone who comes brings something to the table whether it is knowledge, food, music, beer or cheer. The festival originated as an event to promote the exchange of information about beer brewing and to celebrate the abundant bounty of local food in the Pacific Northwest.

“Everyone comes here to share knowledge and learn, then they can take that knowledge brew their own beer or just be a little bit more aware of what it takes to make beer,” says Steel. “The food is of course also an important aspect,” he adds. “It is about an attitude of we can do this locally.”

Brewfest is also about commitment. The day after the oyster gathering the snow has stopped but the weather remains temperamental and frigid cold. There is a reason that Brewfest is held in the beginning of winter: it weeds out the casual attendee and encourages only those who truly resonate with the ideals of Brewfest to show up at the outside festival. “I am really not into people just showing up to be seen,” says Steel, “There is no red carpet at this event. You have to want to be here if it is snowing.”


Despite the cold the crowd begins to trickle in during the early afternoon. A raging fire is lit against a natural rock outcropping that warms to forms a giant thermal mass, radiating heat into the outdoor festival area. Before long a small wool-bundled crowd has congregated and the kegs of homebrewed beer begin to stack up. Along one side of the clearing a special “beer bench” has been constructed between two trees, the kegs and bottles of CO2 are placed underneath the bench with the taps popping up through the middle of the planks. Above the bench a string is hung and dangling above each keg is the beer’s name and its entry number.

Although Brewfest is ultimately about sharing what you have and contributing to the festivities, for some there is another more competitive undertone. Brewfest is also a beer competition. As the night unfolds, both a formal and informal judging of all the homebrew occurs.

The competitive aspect of Brewfest originally came about in accordance with the virtues of the party: participation. In the early days of the festival renowned glass artist Lark Dalton wanted to contribute his talents and began bringing hand blown drinking glasses and traditional drinking yards to give away as gifts. In order to give out the locally blown glassware the competition was established to dictate who got what. From then on the competition became a Brewfest standard, jovial and informal to be sure, but simultaneously prestigious and an important status gain for the winning participants.

Although Steel acknowledges that the homebrew competition is an important factor in the event, for him the emphasis still lies in the community gathering and the celebration of local food and beers. He points out that there are no categories and the judging is highly subjective since the judges themselves are picked at random from the crowd.

“Lark wanted to offer something and so we had to start judging to give out the prizes,” he concedes, “but the judging part to me is irrelevant, how do you judge a Hefeweizen against an Ale, and an IPA and a Stout?” Plus he adds, “After sampling up to 20 beers in a row how can you compare them all?”

Despite Steel’s apprehension towards the judging procedures he has often done well in the rankings. This year he is particularly proud of his entree, which he has named Kiwi Dark. If Brewfest was to have a mascot beer Kiwi Dark would be it. Forget the hype of a 100 mile beer, the Kiwi Dark is completely sourced within about 10 miles of the festival with the barley grown down the road , then malted on site and the hops grown in the garden. The beer is a crowning achievement for Steel and speaks exactly to the heart of Brewfest being local and self-sustaining.

“I have always had this dream of having a beer that is completely from the island,” he says. Now, after decades of experiments using increasingly local ingredients he has finally achieved that dream completely. The only question remaining is of course the most important one of all: whether the beer will be any good to drink.


As the night wears on the camaraderie and good cheer of the event continues to unfold. Before long the sound of a guitar is wafting through the congregation, soon a harmonica joins in, followed by a washboard and an assortment of percussion instruments ranging from hand drums to forks beating on pint glasses. Eventually there is a full on impromptu jam accompanied by singing and dancing. Platters of succulent food continue to pour in as more people arrive and local veggies, potatoes, carrots and bread are placed on the communal food table.

The raging fire which is the epicenter of the festivities is converted to its duel purpose as the wild flames are manipulated to one side and rubies of glowing hot coals are raked out of the inferno towards the grill. Locally hunted hunks of venison sizzle as they are slapped down over the coals, the bounty of oysters from the previous night are roasted in their shells to perfection, slabs of filleted, succulently marinated sockeye come off the fire steaming and black cod collars, dripping with aromatic oils are served up for anyone who is hungry.

As I wander through the scene I notice that the “official” judges are being selected from the crowd. The judging panel is chosen not for individual brewing prowess, but for the diversity in taste and beer connoisseurship that only a random selection from the audience can bring. This year Kevin Pierce, Head Brewer at Anacortes Brewery, has been given the daunting job of organizing the eclectic group.

“We have a young judging panel this year,” he remarks, “its pretty cool, we have some different faces than normal.”

Pierce has been coming to Brewfest for eight years and has entered homebrew in the festival in the past. “I respect this festival because people put their heart and soul into their homebrew,” says Pierce who has been to a multitude of beer festivals across the Northwest as a professional brew master.

Tonight however Pierce isn’t here to represent his brewery, he is here simply for the pleasure of the experience, “It is always amazing to see these guys get together, it is such a community and such a commitment with people growing their own hops and barley. They really take pride in it,” he says.

Pierce diligently works to herd the six selected judges away from the hubbub of the main festival area into a special tasting shack built above the main party. As the mayhem increases below the judges above start to get down to business, undertaking the great responsibility of drinking with a little more intention.

Eighteen homebrewed beers are officially entered and once the judges are separated from the masses, the beer samples are brought up to the judging area in 18 concisely labeled Mason jars. As the beers are lined out along the table they make an earthy spectrum of color ranging from nearly complete black to a brew of greenish Kombucha color. With everything ready and a platter of specially prepared, piping hot food laid out on the table before them, the judges brandish their cups for their first sample. Pierce pours a shot of beer from Mason jar #1 into each of the six glasses of the judges. With a clink and a cheers the judging begins and the first sample goes down the hatch.

One after another every beer is tasted and given a value of 1 to 5 by each judge, making the total potential score for each beer 30 points. Once all the judges give their assessment the total is marked on a ledger next to the beer’s official number.

The homebrewed beers are impressive. Out of 18 entered about 15 of them are “pretty damn tasty” according to the judges. After a serious sampling marathon the judges are able to narrow down the entrees to 6 beers that received a total of over 20 points each. As the festivities below the judging area continue to get more boisterous the judges begin to get antsy, ready to rejoin the main group and get down to some serious socializing with the main crowd.

As Steel predicted earlier, once everyone has consumed 18 samples, the specifics of the ranking get less important. In the end all six finalist are close in score and a hasty re-taste organizes the top six beers into a semi random hierarchy. Finally the official winner is decided upon and written on a piece of paper.

The party is in full swing when I get back to the main crowd from the judging shack. Everyone is stuffed with unbelievable food and their cups are brimming with beer. Many of the 18 kegs have been finished off, the first ones to go coinciding almost exactly with the top choices from the judges. Although the night is bitter cold everyone is jovial and somehow the frigid night air seems to be warded off by the fire and gathered crowd. The full moon peeks from behind the clouds illuminating everything with a silvery ambiance that dissolves into the glow of the fire. Amongst the clatter and chatter a whistle blows and Lark Dalton, the glass master himself steps above the crowd on a rock outcropping with raised hands. Finally it is time to announce the winners of the competition and I am eager to see how Steel’s 10 mile beer, the Kiwi Dark will fair.

Remarkably the crowd quiets down as Pierce approaches the impromptu podium with the official rankings and hands it off to Dalton. “Number eighteen, lets hear a cheer for number eighteen,” begins Dalton and the crowd erupts into rowdy cheers and applause all for the winner of last place.

Each beer is celebrated regardless of its ranking in the competition as the crowd expresses their thanks to the brewers through applause, jeering and cajoling. Each contestant receives a prize from Dalton who produces beautiful hand-blown vessels one after the other. Each brewer is then pressured into a public speech. Some contestants keep it short and sweet, some are sincere and heartfelt and others dictate drunken and playful stories or jokes to the crowd.

The prizes become more impressive as the rankings go up until finally, for third place beautiful hand blown yards are unveiled. “Coming in at number three, number three,” says Dalton, “Kiwi Dark!” The crowd goes absolutely wild as Joe Steel clambers up towards Dalton to receive his prize. In the blind taste test, the 10 mile beer has made it to the podium.

“I want to thank each and every one of you, without all of us here this would not be what it is,” says Steel as he accepts the hand blown yard as his prize, “this beer is all island, it has been a passion of mine to make a beer that is close to us. We can do it here.” With that, a boisterous applause and three cheers from the crowd drown Steel out.

After the rest of the prizes have been handed out Brewfest gets back to being Brewfest. People continue to eat, drink, make merry and share knowledge of local beer, goods and food late into the night. Long after the full moon has set behind the hills the sun eventually rises to find only a few scattered people left huddled around the fire. The area is amazingly clean with only oyster shells and venison bones left as evidence of the delicious feast and celebration.

Brewfest remains a truly organic festival, a celebration of lifestyle as well as beer and bounty. It is testament to the local knowledge of the islanders as well as their commitment and participation to brewing culture in the Northwest .

“This is a celebration of where we are from” says Steel in the morning, “everything here comes directly from the earth to the vessel, that is what it is all about.”

“Well that and barley, hops and water,” he adds with a sip off his Kiwi Dark.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

One Day At Angkor: Part 2

The blackness of night whips by and we are again heading due North into the heart of the Angkor complex. The only reason that this mission might work is because of our transportation: The Minsk. Otherwise, no Tuk Tuk driver would be stupid enough to let us hire them for the undertaking and an assault on foot would prove disastrous since it would be impossible to outrun night guards on speeder bikes if worse came to worse.

Instead of taking the main road into Angkor where the largest concentration of guards patrol, we turn off a few kilometers before the ruins and take the back way that we had scouted a few days before. Revving at full speed we approach the smaller guard post which is responsible for stopping tourists from entering the complex after sunset. We are counting on the fact that many locals must use the roads around the ruins to get to their villages and homes that are scattered throughout the area. Their presence there rightfully grandfathered in, so some traffic at night is expected. The idea is that the guard will never suspect a motorbike at 11 o’clock at night to carry two foreigners. It is illegal to rent motorbikes in Siem Reap, so just the fact that we are on two-wheeled transportation makes us look un-suspect. We keep our heads down, wrap our faces with shirts and pull our hats low over our brows.

Then all of the sudden, before we even have time to worry ourselves into a frenzy, we zip past the guard post, our little headlight streaking by, our engine popping and churning, spitting out black smoke from the excess of engine oil we un-proportionally mixed in with the gasoline. We look pretty standard I guess, an overloaded bike, belching sooty exhaust, heading home in a hurry. We make it through.

The trees break around us into a clearing and we see it: Angkor Wat, the most famous temple of the Angkor complex and the focal point of ancient religious life in Khmer society. An enormous feat of architecture and manpower, Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world and one of the most iconic buildings in history. The place is normally crawling with tourists, but this night, under the silvery blue of the full moon, it stands like a silent sentinel, resting from the onslaught of feet and the flashes of cameras that it endures everyday. We have the place to ourselves.

We circle around to the west side of Angkor Wat and park the Minsk stealthily behind a tree. Every once in a while a car or motorcycle approaches and we duck behind bushes to avoid the revealing glow of their headlights. Some of the traffic is undoubtedly locals, but others are certainly night guards. It is highly illegal to be in the temples after dark and the consequences of getting caught are dire, either jail or a lot of bribe money. We are illegally tromping through a UNESCO world heritage site and I feel scandalous, but not guilty. I feel blessed. I feel like we are there for the right reasons, with the right intent, we are there to celebrate the New Year as it should be celebrated and where it should be celebrated. At Khmer cultural ground zero.

We grab our supplies and hammocks off the bike and make a dash across the large clearing to the sandstone bridge that crosses the 160 meter wide moat into central Angkor Wat. We quickly survey the surrounding area, noting there are no headlights approaching and make a run for the walled city, completely exposed as we dart towards our destination.

The doorway of the outer wall frames the interior of Angkor Wat perfectly as I walk through it, the frame growing and growing as my perspective changes until it finally dissolves out of my peripheral vision and I enter the full grandeur of the scene. I feel like I have crossed into another world, walked through a portal, walked into a picture or a painting, walked out of my time and place into a place of enchantment and mystery. Suddenly I am inside the magic and although it is nighttime, the moon illuminates the structure perfectly, its nightly hue making everything look even more mystical. My first un-obstructed view gives me a commanding panorama of the temple center. Five enormous towers stretch into the sky, one for each cardinal direction and a fifth in the very center, 65 meters high, symbolizing Mt. Meru, home to the pantheon of Hindu gods.

We cross the causeway which links the outer walls and gallery with the central structure. From the outside of the moat to the center of the temple is about 730 meters, ¾ of a kilometer. Keeping to the shadows and keeping quite we enter the main temple, past the ancient bathhouses and towards the central towers. There we scale up the insanely steep stair sets, passing signs of “Do Not Enter” we crawl up into the focal point of the symbolic center of Angkor society.

On the eve of the year 2555 of the Khmer calendar we climb to the very center tower of Angkor Wat, string our hammocks amongst the temple pillars and stare in awe at our surroundings. From the vantage point of our new bedroom the sprawling grandeur of Angkor Wat spreads out below us in every direction. The temple is literally radiating heat, pulsing like a living entity, the enormous thermal mass of millions of pounds of sandstone releasing its stored energy into the night sky.


Never before and never again will a human being be in Angkor Wat, in the middle of the night, under the full moon, as the cycle of time brings in the year 2555. That window of opportunity, that exact moment in history came and then went and my buddy and I sit in silence and realize we are the only ones who will ever have witnessed it. For the rest of the history of the Universe that moment is ours. It feels magic, epic, exhilarating and highly illegal.

It is incredibly humbling to think of the celebrations that took place at Angkor Wat 1,000 years ago during the New Years. In fact, it was probably the largest celebration on the planet. But here we are, looking out at the now silent grandeur of Angkor Wat, feeling lucky and feeling small, but feeling literally on top of the world.We sleep in our swinging hammocks for a few hours until daybreak and then stealthily make our way down from the temple just as the hordes of tourists begin to arrive for the official opening of the park at 5:30 AM. We have no tickets since we have squatted the whole night through, but we slowly mingled in with all of the camera-toting travelers. We have perfect cover, able to blend in with the newly arrived crowd even though really we have been in the temple for hours already, taking in a view and experience that none of them could ever imagine.

We casually snap a few shots of the sunrise over Angkor Wat with the rest of the crowd and then stroll straight out the main gate, smiling and waving at the guards as we pass (you never get checked for a ticket on the way out). I feel like a jewel thief that just completed a caper and is strolling through the open streets with a bag of stolen goods. We are all smiles, just two more tourists walking past the authorities. Beneath my mask of serenity I am internally bursting, knowing that I have acquired something precious and fleeting from Angkor. A memory I will never forget for the rest of my life.










Friday, April 29, 2011

One Day At Angkor: Part 1

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA

My eyes blink awake to see morning light pouring into the room. I am barely able to un-glue my tongue from the roof of my mouth, that sticky sick feeling of whisky and cigarettes still clinging to my mouth like a bad memory. It is day three of the Khmer New Year Celebration, the final day. Tomorrow marks the year 2555 on the ancient Angkorian calendar and there is no time for feeling sorry for myself, no time to allow a magnitude 9 hangover to keep me down. It is bright and early, the sun is just coming up and even though my head has just hit the pillow it is time to get up.

I pull myself together the best I can, brush my teeth, take a cold shower and hit the streets. The morning sun over Siem Reap, Cambodia is already blasting too bright for my delicate eyes which means two things: I am late and I need my sunglasses. I fish my shades out of my pack and then remember that I had lost my rental bike the night before. This means I have no transportation which doesn’t help my tardiness.

I begin walking due north out of Siem Reap, heading towards the sprawling temple complex of Angkor. I manage to thumb a ride on the back of a Moped, the driver heading out to Angkor to peddle his wares to the minions of tourists from around the world.

I make it to Ta Prohm, just as the perfect morning sunlight hits the ruins through the jungle foliage. Ta Prohm in the most “authentic” of all the immediate Angkor ruins, meaning it was so completely overrun by jungle upon it’s re-discovery that it was utterly impossible to untangle the stonework from the encroachment of the forest. It is a maze of jumbled rocks, huge tree roots and crumbling towers. Its east gate is topped with an eerie all seeing quadruple face relief, typical of later Angkorian architecture. The faces seem to look in every direction at once, a mask of serenity but also surveillance. It is said that in the later centuries of the Angkor period, the empire was divided up into 54 separate states. The faces are incorporated into the architecture to send a clear message: “we are watching.” They were an important symbol for a kingdom that had become diverse and sprawling, with a long history of revolt and usurpation.

I sit on a broken piece of a sandstone pillar and look up and the faces glowing with morning filtered sunlight. They stare back. I wait. I am supposed to be meeting my friend here, he should be arriving at any moment on a 1967 Soviet-imported Minsk motorbike. He picked the bike up somewhere along the trail in Vietnam. It had been used to run weapons between Viet Cong strongholds in the war years before changing hands over and over until it arrived firmly under the weight of my buddies backpack. He had been traveling for two months with it, all throughout Vietnam and now finally across the border into Cambodia. We had agreed to meet at Ta Prohm to go on an excursion together out to some of the farther constructed complexes, places that you can’t get to normally without your own transportation. I am a little late. Hitchhiking never goes well with schedules.

Through the dust and chaos of the traffic which has began to descend upon Ta Prahm for the morning light photo ops, I see Chris approaching. The Minsk is rattling along, the two-stroke engine popping like a lawn mower. Chris’s face is all smiles. He wears a cut off plaid shirt, headband, jean shorts and haggard flip flows. He looks like he has been on the road. He looks at one with the bike. He looks as excited as I am.

We head to a local food stand and pound down some Lok Lak; fried beef hunks, covered in mystery sauce and served over rice with onions. It s the Khmer food staple, whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is a hearty meal and we both know we are going to need it for the day’s adventures.

I strap my red day bag over the back of the bike as he restarts the engine with a pop. I grab his backpack, sling it over my shoulders and settle onto the back of the bike. It is not a large bike and I struggle to find a place for my feet amongst the frame. There are no pegs for the second passenger, the bike is as bare bones as it gets, utilitarian to the core. The only reason it has survived for 50 years is by its hardy simplicity.

After some awkward flailing and re-adjustments we zip away from the main Angkor complex into the countryside.

Now some people know this, some people don’t, but there is really no better way to see a place than by motorbike. It is the ultimate vehicle, personal in the sense that the scenery is literally washing over you, the wind and smells confronting you as you drive past whether you like it or not. Food stands, animal carcasses, burning trash piles, sulfury swamps, or cool lake air, whatever you pass you literally seem to taste. Cruising past other travelers huddled into tour buses or expensive Tuk-Tuk’s we fly deeper into rural Cambodia. We are going on the path less trodden, out first stop the mystic carved river banks of Kbal Pean located about 30 kilometers outside of Angkor proper.


The scenery becomes more rural as we continue on. Houses built on stilts are the most common type of construction, high enough off the ground so that when the rains come and flood the fields for growing season, their livelihoods remain dry and elevated. Farmland stretches out in every direction, cows graze along the road or take a nap in the center of the thoroughfare. Dogs go about their lazy lives, yawning and sprawling in the shade as the temperature continues to climb. Huge post apocalyptic tractor contraptions become the most standard vehicle, their engines un-covered, churn way out front, attached to a swivel that extends back like an elongated rotatiller. The handles are attached to the swivel and controlled by the driver who is perched on a makeshift cart. Sometimes dozens of Khmer’s are stacked onto the cart going to or from work.

We pull up to Kbal Pean after a brisk ride, stopping far enough down the path so that we don’t have to pay to park the bike. From there we head into the jungle, the electric buzz of insects are everywhere, clicking and chattering. The Cambodian jungle hangs thick around the path, vines draping down like huge swings, boulders swallowed by root systems and the sun absolutely blasting through the canopy any place that it filters through the jungle thicket.

For an hour or so we hike upward, along cliff sides which overlook the valley below, scrambling over broken rock and under debris. Finally we reach the river bed and behold the ancient carving therein. In the rainy season the river rages downward, helping to sustain the crops of the lower Khmer’s for thousands of years. In the dry season, the water shrinks to no more than a trickle and it was then that the ancient artists of Angkor came to do their work.


The riverbed itself is carved into intricate designs. Relief’s of gods and kings as well as purely decorative patterns mingle with the natural rock, some times hidden behind a bolder, sometimes tucked up on the cliff side. Everywhere we look we can see another secret, another piece of art that took untold hours to carve. Lingams and Yoni’s are everywhere, by far the favorite decoration of the area. The belief was that water was the center of ancient Khmer life, it was the nectar the nourished the entire civilization. The riverbed was carved to honor that water, so that the river would flow over Gods and Kings before reaching the lowlands. It is an impressive sight and unimaginable that the carvings remained in such detail after being flooded by ragging torrents of water every season for thousands of years.

Local kids play in the trickle of the waterfall and in the punchbowl in the stone which the water has created over

countless wet seasons. Locals are lounging in hammocks, cooking fish over small fires and enjoying the coolness of the jungle shade. It is fascinating to think of their ancestors before them putting tool to stone to create the timeless pieces that remain today. It is impossible to not be overwhelmed by the richness of history and culture here, it is everywhere, literally carved into the living stone.

We head back down out of the sacred hills, we still have a lot of ground to cover today and the sun is reaching it’s zenith in the sky. Fully flexing its power, the heat makes both of us sweat profusely on our down hike. We get back to the bike, un-lock the chain we have woven between the back tire spokes and get situated. The Minsk has no ignition key and when she is feeling good tempered, she can be kick started at any time and driven away unless proper lock-down precautions are taken. After we de-tangle her, she starts right up and with map in hand we zip back out onto the main road.

Our map is haggard and out of date, crumpled and soggy, but it is our only reference. Our next intended stop is Beng Mealea, one of the most mysterious ruins of the Angkor period. It was built along the old highway system which linked the urban and political center of Angkor Wat with the rest of the outlying cities. It is a less visited ruin because it lies far away from the cluster of structures, which are on the standard tour of the “Angkor complex.” The mystery of Beng Mealea lies in its decay which is nearly absolute. The re-colonization of the site by the jungle after Angkor decline was thorough and devastating, completely overrunning the defenses of the outer wall which, although effective against invaders, could do nothing against the juggernaut of raw nature.

The ruin lays somewhere off to the east. We are not sure exactly how to get there but that is precisely why we are going. No one goes there.

After an hour of riding and a few stops to rest our aching asses and slurp down some moderately cool refreshments from roadside vendors, we reach a crossroad; a crossroad that doesn’t look like anything on the map at all. We know the correct direction to go and we know that the ruin lies six kilometers from the ancient and sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen. We can see the “mountain” rising up to our left, looking like a long finger of jungle covered cliffs that stretch as far as the eye can see into the country side. The left fork of the crossroad heads in that direction, but it looks far from well maintained. The pavement abruptly stops and turns into an iron-red dirt track cutting into the alluvial plain. The “road” doesn’t exist on our map, but we are sure that it must lead to our secret ruin. At this point it is the only logical road to take: the road less traveled.

We peel off into the dust and grime of the un-pavement and immediately wash out in the deep sand which gathers in piles at various points along the road. Nearly taking a bad spill mere moments after the inception of our new plan, we stop again and take a few deep breaths. “We better just take this slow,” I say looking down at my calf that is throbbing after being burnt when the exhaust pipe of the bike lay over on top of my leg. “Um yeah,” says Chris, “ I have never really ridden a bike off road before, let alone with two people.”

An awkward silence follows as we both gaze down the dirt track that leads for unknown kilometers into the countryside. Then at the same time we both exclaim, “We’ll be fine,” and with a chuckle we take off again.

Chris is actually a master off-roader, he just didn’t know it yet. Before long we hit our rhythm, zipping in and out of crater sized potholes, around drainage ditches, sand pits and jumbles of rock. We are truly off the beaten track, in the middle of nowhere now, paralleling Phnom Kulen as we head nearly due east. The surrounding area is farmland as far as the eye can see in every direction.


We stop for a rest after some time, giving ourselves a break from the constant borage of bumps and jolting which we have endured for what seems like hours. Stopped on a small bridge over a lagoon the scenery is timeless. It feels like we could be in any moment of time in the last few thousand years. Nothing is around but low-tech cultivated farmland, a dirt track, a magical mountain, a few palm trees and us. Well, and the motorbike which is barely from this century.

Eventually up ahead we spot pavement again. It is an exhilarating feeling. Although we still don’t know where we are, at least we know that some kind of humans must use this part of the road. We must be nearing something. The long finger of Phnom Kulen has slowly sloped back down to the lower levels of the plains, meaning that according to our calculations, the ruins should only be 6 kilometers farther east and an unknown number of K north.

We are beginning to look like total disasters. We are both completely covered in mud. The mud started as dust but after in combined with the perspiration which has erupted out of our bodies while riding through the mid day heat it turned to pure slimy grime. We make it into a town finally and promptly, as if on cue, as if the bike had done its best to avert a total disaster but can take the abuse no more, we blow out our back tire.

Now this kind of break down could have been really really bad. If it happened out in the middle of the dirty track we would have been really and truly fucked. We would have been hiking in the heat for hours with no hope of help. However, after Chris managed to keep the bike upright long enough to not kill us both, we coasted to the side of the road and a little convenience shack. There we ordered beers and asked if it was possible to fix a tire in this small outpost of a town. Well as it turns out, directly across the road, not even 100 ft away was a little stand that specialized in inner tube repair. It is probably the only place which provides such a service for hundreds of kilometers and we have basically blown a tire at their doorstep.

We roll the Minsk over to the workshop and throw the bike up on wooden blocks. We then rip out the inner tube, dowse it in water and pump air into the dilapidated tube which already looks like a Frankenstein creation of puncture patchwork. Sure enough the hiss of escaping air and the bubbles which the puncture whips up leads us right to the hole. Some kind un-identifiable metal object had ripped right into the inner tube.

At this point Chris drops his camera in a giant vat of stagnant water and simultaneously finds a filthy forgotten hammock on the workshop floor. Our luck is getting eerily Shawnish, sure we popped a tire, but then we were easily saved, Chris destroys his camera but then finds an important object for our later night’s plan. We have been looking for a hammock for Chris all day, the reason for which is a dangerous mission to be embarked upon after dark. The hammock is a filthy pile of flea ridden garbage but Chris was stoked, he bought it from the tire fixer for 50 cents and paid him another dollar for the patch.

With uncanny efficiency, the type that can only come from having your entire livelihood and career be based off of fixing flat tires, the local tire guy fixes us up, throws on a patch, lathers some kind of crazy glue all over the tube, sets it all briefly on fire to seal every thing up and send us on our way. One tire fixed, one hammock acquired, one phone down.

At this point it is getting late. We know that we want to spend a good amount of time exploring the temple of Beng Maelea and there is only a few more hours of daylight left. We are both starving, we haven’t eaten since early in the morning and have been hiking and biking intensively all day. That said, there is no time for food now, if we want to get our temple ramble on we need to do it now. We know we are close so we skip food, skip buying water and tear off northward, hoping to see the temple soon.

We know we are on the right track when we see a massive checkpoint up ahead. The type of place where you stop, pay an entrance fee and get a ticket to go in. We stop a little way away, watching a few locals go through unmolested, just waved through by the guards. “OK man,” I say, “whatever you do, just don’t make eye contact and look like we know what we are doing. And if things go bad, just gun it.” With that we rip off toward the checkpoint, accelerating through the gates as the guards wave and yell and try to get our attention. We just look straight ahead and fly past, the Minsk popping along, revved up into the red, screaming as we zip through.

Beng Maelea appears suddenly. The massive ancient moat which surrounds the city alerting us initially to its presence. We park our bike at the ancient stone bridge over the moat which is adorned with 9 headed dragons. No time to lock up the bike, we just have to trust that no one is sinister enough or smart enough to steal her. We run across the moat, over the ancient bridge towards the central ruin.

Beng Maelea is tragically beautiful. On approach it looks like a total pile of rubble. The main gate has an avalanche of sandstone blocks pouring out of it. You can immediately tell its former grandeur was epic in proportions and beautifully constructed, but Beng Maelea is also a perfect symbol of the crumbling of Angkorian society. Grand in scope but brutally destroyed upon its downfall. We climb straight up the mountain of rubble and ignore the semi-established path which circles around to the north. It is time for some proper temple rambling and Beng Maelea is the absolute best place to do it. Left basically as it was found, it is a labyrinth of dark corridors, collapsed towers, impressive walls and intricate carvings. There is no security, no rules, you go where you want, where your interest takes you, trying to re-construct in your mind what this sprawling complex looked like in it heyday.


The way that the jungle has annihilated the place is more than impressive. Huge trees sprout up in the most un-likely of places, on doorway arches, over walls, winding between statues. One of the most humbling thoughts is that although the trees are massive and ancient, probably 2-3 meters thick and hundreds of years old, these trees are the grandchildren of the original flora invaders. They are babies in the re-colonization campaign of the jungle. The total destruction of the structures can not be understood with the current jungle, but only if you remember that this is the third generation of assault, huge corridors and roofs which now lay in total disrepair where attacked centuries ago, finally crumbled under the wait of the jungle, only to have the trees which annihilated them die themselves, fall over, decompose and disappear. The effect is that although the destruction seem incomprehensible it must be seen in the context of millennia.


The best way to explore Beng Maelea is to take the high road. Most of the roofs of the temple have long collapsed, which means that the thousands of tons of stone which had created intricate arches and watertight corridors have all fallen inward, filling the spaces below which they once sheltered. The best way to get around is to crawl over the walls, using them as elevated highways to get from one place or the other. In this way, not only are you up four or five meters up and can move free from the rubble, but you also have a commanding view of the entire complex.

One of the most intriguing intricacies of a temple ramble is to see a random piece of sandstone block, cast amongst the debris of a thousand other sandstone blocks, no more special than anything else, a lonely piece stone which was once part of something greater. On this one block, which I randomly decided to focus on there are unbelievably skilled carvings. Now it lies cast aside, no more special than the pile it rests on, but so intricate, such an amazing achievement. Every piece of debris tells a unique piece of the overall story, a story of a culture which placed unbelievable amounts of emphasis on their architecture and art, creating spaces that were greater than their individual parts, but also fascinating in their detail. They created pieces of art which were livable.


This is exactly why I came to Cambodia. This is the dream I have had since I was a little boy, experiencing the magic and mystic of Angkor. Fueled off Tintin, Indiana Jones and National Geographic’s it is this experience that I wanted. A true exploration of something ancient and mysterious, still half swallowed by jungle where any discovery you make may be the key to unlocking thousand year old secrets. We get lost for hours, sometimes together sometimes separating as our noses and eyes are close to the ground searching for something precious or fascinating.

We left Bang Maelea completely starving and completely dehydrated. The Minsk was still parked at the ancient bridge right where we left her, so that was one good thing. We headed off back towards Siem Reap, only one part of our mission left to accomplish, the most illegal part, the part that involves hammocks.

Chris has broken his flip flop in our ramblings, which just adds to our general demeanor of flusteredness. We are filthy, hungry, thirsty, out of money and ready to get back. We take off back in the direction we came, again gunning it through the security gate as guards try to run out and pull us from the bike. We bypass the “non-road” we had taken along the base of Phnom Kulen and take the normal highway.

Just when the ol’ Minsk gets up to speed and we are feeling like we are finally heading back toward civilization she gives a sputter and a cough and dies. We coast to the side of the road. Out of gas in the middle of nowhere. “Last time I was on a motorbike I ran out of gas, “ I say. “Well, in two months of riding around half of Asia I have never run out of gas, “ replies Chris. “It must be your luck.” The poor guy doesn’t know how true that probably is. The hazards of traveling with me, the ups and downs of Shawn luck when it strikes hard can be unrelenting. Sometimes I feel like I should come with a warning label telling my future travel buddies the hazards they are engaging in just being near me when I am on the road.

At this point there is no option but to send me on ahead as Chris stays behind and slowly pushes the exhausted bike down the road. I hitch a ride on an Ox cart with a kind faced old man and his young son. The cart is piled high with huge blocks of charcoal. I scramble up on top and promise Chris that I will return as soon as I can with a litre of gas. We manage to extrapolate that a side of the road gas-station is only a few kilometers up ahead where they sell litre’s of gas in whisky bottles. So off I jostle down the road, the sun is now setting and casting brilliant swaths of orange across the sky. I laugh at my predicament and praise life for its randomness from my new throne on top of the charcoal. The scenery is beautiful and wild, I feel totally isolated in my predicament, somewhere in the Cambodian countryside hitchhiking on an Ox cart.

I arrive at the gas station and buy a litre of gas in a glass bottle of Red Label Whisky. I walk back out onto the road to start thumbing in the opposite direction back towards Chris when I see a commotion up ahead. Something is coming up the road towards me, I can see its headlight, but it sounds like it is working really hard for such an even grade of road. As the vehicle approaches and materializes out of the near dark duskness I see that it is Chris, still riding the Minsk, but being pulled along by a moped driven by too saintly young ladies. With one hand he is steering and with the other hand is gripping the rack on the back of their Moped. He had done a little hitchhiking of his own.

So we met in perfect timing, dump the gas into the tank, sincerely thank all of our saviors, the women, the ox cart driver, his son and the shady whisky bottle slinging gas station attendants. Again we zip off, this time into the blackness of night.

Now we are really and truly exhausted. We still haven’t eaten since breakfast and our water was long gone hours ago, all that we want is to reach Siem Reap where we know there is civilization and we can prepare for the final and most ambitious mission of the day. As we will ourselves forward, thinking of nothing but the approaching city we again feel the Minks sputter under our bums. Thinking this must be some cruel joke we pull over on the road, unable to believe the sad but true: we are out of gas again.

Again we start walking, pushing the Minsk along with us. We have bigger problems than normal because the two-stroke oil which must be mixed with the gasoline is also completely depleted. We need a legit gas station or mechanic shop or we are doomed. As Shawn luck would have it, after a mere 10 minutes of walking we come upon a moto repair shop and garage, out in the middle of nowhere. They supply us with both gasoline and oil and again we prepair to leave. This time though the Minsk is less cooperative. The kick-start won’t work so Chris has to bump start her on the flat road. It is one of the funniest things I have seen in a long while, Chris on the seat of the bike, his two legs working like giant paddles on either side of the bike as he wobbles down the road trying to get enough speed for the motor to turn over. Traffic is zipping by, nearly clipping him as he weaves in and off the shoulder. Finally I hear the motor catch and rev up. We are good to go, I hop on the back and we make our final approach to Siem Reap.

Civilization has never looked so good. We look like total messes. Dirty, grime and filth, broken flip-flops, sunburned, sullen dehydrated faces and darting eyes which come from extreme hunger and fatigue. We stop and eat some noodles, some of the best food of my life. Then quickly I head to my room, grab my hammock, Chris goes to his place and takes a quick shower. We meet up again in 10 minutes flat and prepare for the final stage of our crazy Khmer New Years day. The best part, the most dangerous part, the most illegal part is mere moments away. We are both nearly shaking with anticipation about what we are about to do. It is a ballsy move, historical, it has never been attempted and it is the pinnacle of the adventure. Again I pile on the bike and off we zip into the night hoping that the ration of good to bad luck from the day puts us ahead for this next phase. The stars are shining brightly as we head into the forest, I look up and think to myself, “we are going to need a lucky star for this one.”

(Continued soon, promise)



Saturday, April 2, 2011

Koh Tao Emergency


















The Island of Koh Tao has been destroyed. The catastrophe began shortly after we finished our diving certification, which was in a sense the only good luck about this debacle; at least we got semi-clear water for our underwater excursions. As always, the beginning seems innocent enough, in this case just a stiff breeze ripping in from the east, battering the far side of the island.

Then the rain began to pound and refused to stop. At first we all went swimming, basking in the bath warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand as the drops slammed down, raining up at me from the sea. Next small streams began to appear around the island, starting as little rivulets of water trickling through any low spaces; along the roads, down the paths, between the bungalows and the alleys between nightspots. That first onslaught was only a jab however, like an exploratory blow from a kick boxer simply trying to find a weakness before the true attack comes.

The situation quickly became more serious and the amount of rain and wind became anomalous, something that no one had seen this time of year, something to banter about around the bar or in the bungalow. These observations soon became irrelevant and the trivialness of “noticing” the bad weather became clear and the island deteriorated into a full blown crisis. Buildings began to flood, streets filled up into rivers and the pavement of the roads was washed out to sea like pebbles. As the torrents continued the situation only became worse. There was nothing anyone could do but sit back and watch the destruction. The seas were whipped into a frenzy of large powerful swells. The boats and the ferries completely stopped normal operation. Everyone who was on the island was stuck on the island, there together weathering the storm.

The electricity began to become intermittent, some say because the generators were running low on fuel and re-supplies could not make it out from the mainland, some figured it was just the standard destruction that occurs to power lines when high winds send debris whipping around like pieces of straw. Nevertheless, the power became sketchy, both Internet servers on the island went down and supplies and basic food stuffs in the stores began to dwindle.

The Royal Navy got called in to help. Not because the food was getting low, but rather because the supplies of beer and cigarettes were nearly exhausted. It was rumored that the Prime Minister of Thailand himself made the executive decision upon hearing the dire news and decided to intervene in order to prevent the island from being ripped apart by its inhabitants.

Word came down that an aircraft carrier would be sent in the morning to evacuate whoever was in need. People had been stranded for days, missed flights, overstayed visas, dealing with serious medical issues and missed obligations elsewhere. We all waited for the morning when we were told to assemble on the south end of the island for be transported to the mainland.

In the meantime things continued to deteriorate, rivers of mud had flowed down the mountainside and washed out buildings and homes. Businesses were completely flooded, sandbags were scattered everywhere but were ineffective against the sheer magnitude of water. The main tourist strip looked like it had been hit with a bomb, large parts of the paving had been annihilated and the route became impassible. To get anywhere you had to wade through knee deep water. Tourists woke up with their belongings floating around them and the water lapping into their room through the windows. Entire beach front establishments were disintegrated and washed out to sea. The aqua marine blue waters of the island turned to muddy trash filled soup. The bays were filled with boat carcasses, half submerged, smashed into each other and left to be destroyed in the surf. Palm trees lay strewn everywhere, the soil beneath their roots was literally carried away beneath them until they toppled over like matchsticks.

I heard that more rain fell on Koh Tao in just three days than they receive in the entire year and that is including their monsoon season.

The best way to get around became to go as naked as possible, because any clothing which you wore was soaked within minutes. In fact laundry and hygiene in general was becoming a major problem. Nothing was able to dry in the humid and wet climate and slowly backpacks filled up with damp mildewing clothing. The sun worshiping tourist crowd became a herd of rain-poncho clad recluses. Everyone who normally paraded around basking in sun-tanned glory now resembled odd moving Christmas ornaments, each locally bought poncho of pastel pink, blue or green bumping into each other as they mucked through the mud.

So everyone arrived at the secret pier in the morning to get evacuated from the mayham. Miscommunication was at an all time high. No one knew what was happening, only rumors that had circulated the night before. According to one Austin Powers looking Brit, “The aircraft carrier will be bigger than the whole Island of Kho Tao, and I should know, the British invented the aircraft carrier after all.” The scene was a full on refugee looking situation, except with a little more beer. Everyone that needed to escape had shoved into the lobby of the Koh Tao Resort and were barricaded against the wind and rain which continued to howl outside.

Eventually somebody hooked up the PA system and began to speak into the microphone. The Royal Navy aircraft carrier would indeed be arriving soon and all that we needed to do was line up, sign a sheet which verified we were trying to make and escape (for insurance reasons they assured) and wait for the boat to arrive. There were close to 1,000 people trying to evacuate and so the seen quickly became chaotic, everyone began by rushing to try and sing up first, but this was obviously hyper-counter productive. Eventually we were convinced by the woman with the microphone that everything would be much better if we just calmed down, relaxed, sent one representative for each group traveling together and lined up orderly. “Don’t worry,” she said, “the Navy is here and everyone will be getting taken out of here like one big happy family.”

Finally everyone had calmed enough to actually register. Each person was given a ticket and a sticker, the color corresponding to the destination we were hoping to reach. I had purple for Bangkok. I was labeled.

Suddenly out of nowhere the massive hulk of the aircraft carrier appeared out of the sea mist and froth of the ocean. Looming massively out of place on the once serene Thai waters it seemed to completely juxtapose itself against the experience that we were all hoping to find on Koh Tao: relaxation, remoteness and chillness. Nevertheless it was inspiring, it was hope, it looked like a formidable force and a true tangible escape route. A cheer rose up from the crowd. We were going to be saved! We would make it out of this place finally, the government was taking care of it, bless the Thai Prime Minister and the Navy’s resourcefulness…….or so we thought.

It took about an hour and a half for the ship to find proper moorage. I can’t speculate about why it was so difficult, it seems like a boat that size, with an anchor that size should be able to drop line pretty much anywhere in the world. For some reason, the Thai seafloor was proving difficult and we watched and anticipated as it did tiny concentric circle patrols just out of reach, looking for a place to whole-up.

The scene in the resort was post-apocalyptic. Little groups of travelers had huddled on the floor, circling up around their bags like pioneers protecting themselves against attacking marauders. Trash was strewn everywhere and everyone looked truly disheveled and confused. Each time an announcement was made the hubbub would subside enough to get the message that nobody knew anything about anything and we would go back to dozing, talking, card playing, reading, music playing or staring off into the wall.

Finally a boat arrived from the carrier, it tied up at a pier near the resort and began to accept passengers. The feeling was actually quite positive at that moment, it seemed like things were finally really happening. Small “long tails,” local boats with three meter long propeller tipped drive shafts attached to car engines, would be ferrying us out to larger boats, which would in turn take us out to the carrier that was still farther out awaiting our arrival. From there the carrier would take us to a port town near Bangkok where we would meet up with government hired buses to take us into the countries capitol. Neat diagrams were drawn up on poster board and posted around to illustrate the effectiveness of the strategy and put everyone and ease. The problem was that once again everyone wanted to rush the boats, once again we were soothed by the folks on the microphone who assured us it was much better to stay indoors, away form the rain and wind and just wait patiently.

Helicopters began to make runs to the island. Whipping over us with the stereotypical “Whump, Whump,” that you have heard on a thousand movies. Like giant metallic bees they whirred overhead, back and forth back and forth, flying deafeningly low. The helicopters began taking the disabled, the elderly, the pregnant and otherwise needy travelers to the boat. It was a simultaneously exciting and desperate feeling. It felt like there was no way that anything other than success was possible, the government had come to our rescue afterall. However as time went by most of the weary group remained stranded. It seemed like no one was getting anywhere.

Hours past and we waited full of hope. As we looked out at the hulk of the Navy boat just out of reach the storm began to again flex its elemental muscles. The long tails stopped making shuttle runs, there was no way to get us from the shallow waters of the resort out to the carrier. The storm was just too strong. Soon even the helicopters, which we had assumed could weather almost anything, stopped their patrols and evacuation. The weather simply refused to let us escape from the island. With all of the force of the Thai’s largest Navy vessel there to assist us, the temperament of Poseidon prevailed. For twelve hours I waited, little food, little water, waiting for a turn in the weather, waiting for shuttle services to resume by air or sea. The inactivity of the evacuation process became eerie. Doom settled in.

Finally the intercom system screeched and crackled as someone picked up the microphone and cleared their throat. The announcement came through, no one else could be evacuated that day, the waves were just too big to get out by boat and the wind was too strong for the helicopters to keep flying. Everyone who was not already on board was going to need to wait it out. “We’re sorry, but there is no way to get you out of here. If you have family already onboard, you are sick or injured or have a flight in the morning we can take another ten people,” said the speaker to the crowd of 1,000 refugees. Chaos.

The hulk of the carrier seemed so close you could touch it but there was no way to reach her. The helicopters had seemed so invincible yet the silence in the sky that had replaced their rotors seemed deafening. Both a literal and emotional cloud settled over us as the news sunk in. People began to burst into tears, make bribery attempts, hire private boats to take them out to the carrier and attemptl to ie their way onto the last emergency helicopter.

Exhausted, emotionally destroyed and hopeless we slunk back towards the destruction in the interior of the island, looking for somewhere dry to rest our head for the evening. We were stuck again, our only hope was the compassion of the weather gods. The Navy boat raised anchor and steamed off towards the mainland, leaving us all behind. Maybe we will get out tomorrow…….