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I’m sorry, Baby. I’ll never do it again.

10 April 2011
by

Chicago has come bearing flowers and candy this morning, apologizing for all its bad behavior this winter. It’s 9:45am and already 72 degrees. This seems to be the cycle every year. Chicago gets angry and mistreats us for a few months and then comes back with apologies sometime around late spring/early summer. I guess since the apology is coming pretty early this year – and since we missed 2/3 of its bad behavior anyway – I think we’ll take Chicago back.

Like we always do.

We’re ba-a-a-ack!

2 April 2011
by

Okay, really, we got back to Chicago at the end of February. We then proceeded to immediately freeze into human ice cubes upon stepping foot outside of O’Hare. Since we just recently thawed and were able to return to our apartment and work and school and all that fun real life stuff, we’ve gotten a little behind on updates. We do have so much more to tell, though! We’ve got trips to Hong Kong and Hanoi and Dubai and really this is just my passive aggressive way of hinting to MC that he should update. So stay tuned, there’s much more to come…

Durian. Why God, why? (Foods Never to Eat Part 2)

20 February 2011
by

We had our first (and last) encounter with the local—ahem—delicacy known as “durian” the other night.

Durian

Durian. Yuck.

Though considered a delicacy among the locals and a sort of rite of passage for any tourist, this fruit has absolutely zero redeeming value. Even if it contained the cure for cancer, I’d be willing to wait for an alternative. It’s such an offensive “food” (the very definition of which is liberally distorted by including this thing in it) that it is not allowed in most public or private places and is usually served in abandoned parking lots away from civilization.

It's such a heinous violation, they don't even fine you...they make you eat more durian.

You’re probably driven to ask: “But if everyone eats it, how could it be so offensive?”

I will tell you.

To start, it grows in a giant pod that looks like a large pineapple without the tuft, except that it’s roughly the size and shape of a rugby ball and covered in sharp, curved barbs that draw blood if you’re careless enough to handle it the wrong way. Or if you happen to be standing underneath as it plummets down upon your head from its lofty perches high in the jungle canopy.
For reference, the guys that sell it handle it with the type of chain mail gloves they use to feed sharks on the Discovery Channel.

Death from above to make death in your mouth.

These are clearly hints from Nature.

Second, the smell that emanates from this wretched fruit is like fresh asphalt covered in the drippings from a fetid garbage dumpster behind a Long John Silver’s on a sweltering August afternoon in Tucson.

Nature: “That was warning number two.”

Assuming you’ve not been dissuaded by these very clear signals and dare to put this thing near your mouth, you’re met by another round of sensations further bolstering Nature’s exhortations to reconsider.

The “fruit”—which is accessible only by hacking the pod open with a machete—resembles a putrefying yellow-green human kidney, with a large avocado-like seed in the middle. The exterior is reminiscent of the skin on Jell-O pudding, while the meat inside is like crème brulée with citrus pulp in it.

Nature: “You’re seriously still going to do this?”
You: “I’m considering it…”
Nature: “Moron.”

The taste is at first somewhat sweet and creamy, but immediately brings to the tongue the flavors associated with the aforementioned smell.

And then there are the burps.

The burps can last up to several days, as proven by Al, who was able to consume a full kidney with some fava beans and a nice chianti (in contrast, I was only able to make it through a single bite—and was immediately revolted as it assaulted me on all fronts). She paid for it dearly, however, as the taste lingered in her mouth and upset her stomach for two days, and when she burped later that night, it smelled as if we had just received a full delivery of fresh durian right there in the bedroom.

Total turn-on.

You: “Nature, you’re an a-hole. No one deserves that.”
Nature: “I tried to tell you…”

Moral of the story: Listen to Nature: don’t eat foods that could kill you and smell like sh¡t.

Still reeling

Weekend(ish) Update 03: One Night In Bangkok, or Wat’s Up With the Ding-Dang Ping-Pong in Patpong? Vol. 2

13 February 2011
by

Naw, but other stuff did happen in Bangkok.

So let us tell you about it in lurid and explicit detail!

For context, we had planned this trip in concert with our gracious Singaporean hosts, who were going there to meet some old friends who lived outside the city. Given that everyone had a few days off from class and work, we decided to make it a group project.

Due to recent changes in Al’s class schedule, however, we were forced to amend our travel plans (for the first of many times…thank you educational bureaucracy—cracker jack job!). This meant we got to take the 6:30a flight on Thursday instead of the more temporally-appropriate Wednesday evening flight we had originally booked. No biggie. As previously mentioned, getting up so early and hanging out at the airport can be inspiring.

We arrived at the very futuristic Suvarnabhumi Spaceport Airport around 8:30a after an uneventful flight. The arduously long lines at passport control gave us time to be immersed in, and reflect upon, the glories of King Rama IX, the current regent of Thailand, who—in addition to attending to the affairs of state—finds the time to be an accomplished saxophonist, writer and inventor with over three patents to his name! We learned all of this via the Orwellian TV monitors positioned over each entry queue. Beware: The Big Thai is watching YOU!

The Big Thai

The Big Thai

After passing inspection from a very stern-faced lady—who we’re sure would not have taken kindly to that previous statement (the Thai people are very VERY allegiant and supportive of their royals, we discovered)—we made it down to the taxi queue, with none of the shenanigans we encountered in Bali. On our long ride to our hotel, what struck us most—other than the insane volume of traffic—was the unending and seemingly haphazard sprawl of the city. It extends as far as the eye can see in every direction, without any clearly-defined central core. Acres of low buildings are randomly punctuated by 60+ storey high-rises, and it’s rare that more than two or three of these appear on the same block. The high-rises are, however, striking in their modernity, and several caught our attention by pushing the boundaries of architectural design. Down at street level, the seeming calm of the city as viewed from the elevated expressway quickly devolves into a veritable clusterphoque of meandering main streets colliding at bizarre angles and bristling with innumerable side streets and alleyways. The best part is that there’s apparently only a handful of main streets (thanon), with virtually all other streets being named as secondary to them (soi). To make it even more fun, these secondary streets usually have their own sub-secondary streets. Here’s an example from Wikitravel that gives more insight than we ever could:

Thus, an address like “25 Sukhumvit Soi 3” means house / building number 25 on the 3rd soi of Sukhumvit Road. While the soi numbers on each side will always advance upward, the numbers often do not advance evenly between sides—for example, soi 55 could be across from soi 36. Many well-known sois have an additional name, which can be used instead of the number. Sukhumvit Soi 4 is also known as “Soi Nana”, so the address above might thus also be expressed as “25 Soi Nana”. The extension /x is used for new streets created between existing streets, as seen in Sukhumvits soi pattern 7, 7/1, 7/2, 9, 11.

As you can probably deduce, this expertly refined system makes mail delivery a breeze, and Bangkok’s postal system excels in on-time and accurate delivery.

Turns out, the reason for this seemingly random urban organizational scheme is the fact that Bangkok was originally more-or-less a floating city, built along the banks of the Chao Phraya river and its innumerable marshy tributaries. As the city developed, these tributaries became filled in and paved over, but their courses remained the same. Thus, the roads run like the tributaries they succeeded.

Boats on the river

Boats on the river

To avoid the confusing congestion, we often took the exceptionally modern Skyway elevated train system that makes the Chicago El seem like a steam-powered relic. This train was fast, clean, quiet, easily accessible and provided a great escape from the hustle and bustle down on the street.

Skyway Tracks

Skyway Tracks

And not that the street scene should be missed. It is a whirling, buzzing, honking, chattering cavalcade of color and visual texture, a mix of striking modernity mashed up against traditional lifestyles. Street vendors ply their wares on the sidewalks, food is cooked inches away from oncoming traffic, and between the relentless touts, tuk-tuk drivers and pickpockets, there is enough going on to keep you adequately distracted for days.

But we digest. Back to the story at hand.

We finally arrived at the hotel around 10 am, just in time to meet our gracious hosts for breakfast and wrangle the last bits of bacon off the buffet.

Our plan—based partially on the sage advice of the NY Times 36 Hours series (a great travel reference, by the way…except for their Pittsburgh suggestions…damn un-Funicular. But that’s another story)—had been to go templing and visit a few of the vast array of wats around the city. Given our exhausted state, however, we were easily convinced to attempt a go at a Thai massage, as that was our hosts’ first intention of the day and we’re flexible people.

We took a taxi and an hour to go the 10 or so blocks to the massage parlor, which was a nice, zen environment replete with candles, incense and bubbling water fixtures. We were taken upstairs to the massage area, which consisted of a hallway lined by small little rooms with thin mattresses on the floor (don’t worry, Ma, the sheets were clean). Handed a stack of clothing, we were instructed to change out of our street clothes into what turned about to be the Thai massage version of hospital scrubs. A few moments later, our two masseuses arrived, and that’s when the carnage began.

Thai massage, it turns out, is in no way pleasant. It’s actually about one red-hot poker away from what goes on in the basement of a Turkish prison. You lie there in your masscrubs and are basically squeezed, bent, pulled, smacked, twisted and folded in about whatever direction the masseuse fancies. I kept yelling out “Onomatopoeia!” (that’s the safe word that works at home), but it didn’t seem to help. And it’s not just you lying on your back while they touch you with their hands. Oh no, dear friends, it’s full contact. I never felt more like a jungle gym. It probably didn’t help that the girl working me over was all of 3’7″ and not an ounce over 75 pounds soaking wet. She was really throwing herself into it and I’m not sure who got more of a workout, me or her.

Al’s veteran rubber-downer, however, was a beast of a woman and at times I thought I could hear Al’s bones breaking under her assault. It was also humorous to hear the lady repeatedly belch while working. Apparently the rule of waiting 30 minutes after eating before getting back in the pool should extend to Thai massage. To add insult to injury, the two masseuses kept exchanging low and exasperated chatter that we can only assume was about us and our gargantuan proportions. And since their English was limited, the method of communicating new positions was to either physically move our limbs or to smack us and point to the other victim in an effort to encourage us to assume that position. After two hours of this brutality, we were done, and felt oddly relaxed. I was about to utter “Thank you ma’am, may I have another…” but figured it was probably wiser to walk away.

After our massage, we limped over to the Siam shopping district to grab some food. Here we bumped into a very talkative university student who was just as eager to practice her English as point us in the right direction. On her advice, we popped into a small local joint and had an amazing feast. A variety of spicy pork and chicken dishes along with heaping bowls of rice and big, cold beers, all for about $5 US. It’s nice to finally be in a part of the world where the dollar is actually stronger than the local currency. After lunch, we parted ways, our hosts going shopping while we headed off to the Jim Thompson House.

Good and Cheap!

Good and Cheap!

Jim Thompson was a former architect and OSS officer from Delaware who had been stationed in Bangkok at the end of World War II. Falling in love with Thailand, he stayed on after the fact, taking a great interest in the traditional Thai silk industry, which had fallen off in recent years. Through his American connections, he is credited with single-handedly reviving the entire Thai silk industry in the 1950s & ’60s, before mysteriously disappearing in the Malaysian jungles in the late 1960s. At any rate, as a Thaificianado, he bought several traditional Thai homes and had them dismantled and reassembled in Bangkok into one contiguous housing complex, which is now the Jim Thompson House and Museum. The place is a beautiful and quiet respite from the surrounding urban chaos, with large fish ponds and a variety of ancient and unique elements of Thai art and architecture on display. It should not be missed.

Jim Thompson's House

Jim’s Digs

Rejoining our friends, we headed off for drinks at the Oriental Hotel, famed jewel of the city and exquisitely posh digs. We encountered some minor trouble with the map (can’t imagine why), so it took a little longer than anticipated to get there. Luckily, this also meant that it was sunset, which made our drinks on the waterfront all the more pleasurable. While not generally prone to tropical drinks, I found myself compelled to try a whiskey mojito—and for more reasons than the menu said that it was Pierce Brosnan’s favorite drink at the Oriental. Although, if it’s good enough for James Bond, it’s good enough for me. Finishing our drinks, we headed back to our hotel, grabbing some grub in the hotel restaurant.

It was at this juncture where we made the fateful decision to visit the Patpong neighborhood, where we learned a lot of things. Among them:
- Bangkok’s reputation as the place to go for plastic surgery is very well deserved
- 6,400 Thai baht is approximately $200 US, and is way too much to be expected to pay for four beers
- ping-pong is a completely different game in Patpong
- if the guidebook makes the effort to put a warning about not doing specific things, it should probably be heeded

They know what they're talking about

They know what they’re talking about...

Thanks to the graciousness of a particular bar host/ess, we managed to emerge from Patpong, thankfully no worse for the wear. We did, however, need to burn our clothes. And fumigate our hotel room.

We didn't go here

We did NOT go here.

Seeking to redeem our souls, we headed out on Friday morning for the temples we missed the previous day. We first hit Wat Arun, which is across the river from the main city and marveled at the level of intricacy and detail of the spires, which are uniquely adorned with sherds of broken pottery donated by the local community.

Wat Arun

Wat Arun tower

Taking a river taxi back across, we cheated our way into Wat Pho, to glimpse the gigantic Reclining Buddha, which was impressive in its scale.

I see you!

I see you!

By now our time was fleeting, so we returned to the hotel to gather our bags and make our way to the airport. All in all, we enjoyed Bangkok, though the noise, grit, urban chaos and having to be constantly on guard for scams did wear on us after a while.

In sum: you have to go there at least once, if not for the massage, then definitely for the ping-pong.

How to get to School, Singapore Style

11 February 2011
by

Step 1: Walk to bus stop in sweltering heat and humidity dodging speeding traffic while playing own personal game of frogger. Realize both sunglasses and umbrella are back in apartment. Shrug shoulders assuming sun isn’t that bright and there’s no sign of rain. Shake fist in frustration at sky when downpour begins five minutes later.

Step 2: Wait for six to ten minutes for bus as stated on bus schedule. Then wait another five minutes. Then wait two more minutes. Furiously wave down approaching bus, scramble on, touch bus pass to reader to charge for ride.

Step 3: Scan bus for seat. Give up and stand for thirty-minute ride. While standing and gripping tightly to metal bar so as to not careen into other passengers as bus driver enthusiastically applies brake with unsettling regularity, search frantically for screen signaling stops. Realize there is no indicator and start counting bus stops. Don’t forget to count the stops that get skipped.

Step 4: Once at stop, press stop button while praying it’s the correct button and not some emergency stop that will sound an alarm system thereby causing all passengers to evacuate the bus. Breathe huge sigh of relief when alarm does not sound.

Step 5: Exit bus. Realize as soon as bus doors close that 1) you have forgotten to tap bus card while exiting and will be charged the maximum fare and 2) you are at the wrong stop and have another half mile to walk.

Step 6: Arrive at train station after half mile walk. Shiver uncontrollably under blast of air conditioning from train. Otherwise, process of taking train is eerily smooth. Praise Singaporean public transportation.

Step 7: Disembark from train and search for next bus stop. After walking in three full circles of one-half mile each, searching for apparently invisible bus stop, arrive just as bus is pulling away.

Step 8: Thirty-five minutes later, when next bus appears, board. Search for reader to pay. Realize this bus is a free shuttle and works on a completely different system. (i.e. no frantic waving necessary, bus automatically stops. maybe.)

Step 9: Realize that while free shuttle is a little more user friendly, there is still no indicator of stops either on the bus or on the bus stop shelters. Stare intently out window hoping to recognize at least one building on campus.

Step 10: Upon noticing one vaguely familiar building, alight from bus.

Step 11: Pull out campus map after realizing that vaguely familiar building is only familiar because every building on campus looks exactly the same.

Step 12:  Shake fist again at sky as sudden torrential downpour ruins map.

Step 13: Begin walking in randomly-chosen direction and finally see truly familiar building after circumnavigating campus three times. Look at watch and realize class is over.

Step 14: Turn around. Go home. Try again tomorrow.

Weekend(ish) Update 03: One Night In Bangkok, or Wat’s Up With the Ding-Dang Ping-Pong in Patpong?

9 February 2011
by

Greetings Dear Readers:
Some apologies are due.

First, please pardon—once again—the delay of “substantial” posts. We know you’ve been holding your collective breath waiting for meaningful updates as we tried to ply you with distractionary tidbits. We appreciate your patience and offer a variety of excuses as to the hold-up, so please, select your favorite:

.


Option 1: 

A Lack of Deadlines and the Over-Exuberance of Literary Gusto

Chucky D.

“If it pleases you to pay me by the word, I shall gladly write hastily and in exceptionally garrulous statements of copious abundance!”

Sometimes in our zeal to embellish our otherwise drab travels, we lose sight of the fact that our adoring public awaits, anxious to hang on our every word. It would help to have deadlines (or at least to get paid by the word in Dickensian fashion), as it might motivate us more thoroughly.

Option 2: 

Lunar New Year

Ravenous Good Luck Lions

The Good Luck Lions are made of people! Peeeooopple!

It was Lunar New Year last weekend, which meant everything descended into diversionary chaos as we were mauled by celebratory lion dancers and mobbed by grubby little kids scrambling to collect the plastic good luck coins tossed by these marauding would-be felines (more on this later).

Option 3: 

Dengue Fever

Dengue Dude

Maybe a little more fog over here next time, bub.

We actually were stricken with what we believe to be a mild case of Dengue Fever. This annoying little cousin of malaria travels in mosquitoes, and despite the efforts of the Dengue Dudes (see photo), one got through their defenses and shared its biohazardous bounty with us. Fever and aches for a couple days, nothing big. Thankfully it coincided with Lunar New Year and the cable company had opened up all the subscription movie channels, so we were adequately distracted (note: Inception: not that complicated…don’t know what all the fuss was about).

 

Second, for everyone who has had “One Night In Bangkok” stuck in their head since we put up that intermediate post, we are truly sorry. If it weren’t for the occasional respite provided by the Vegemite-sandwich-wielding Brussel-ian, we probably would have thrown ourselves out the window by now. Or at least attempted a sprint to the bus stop at rush hour with complete disregard for the crosswalk.

At any rate, as we’re leaving for Hong Kong tomorrow morning, we figured better get a Bangkok post up before we forget everything.

So, without further ado, here is the answer to mothers’ concerns about the level of debauchery in Bangkok:

Editor’s Note: this post has been sanitized so that all of you wasting company dollars reading this dreck and drivel on office time may proceed without fear of reprisal.

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Stay tuned for our Hong Kong update!

Early Morning Airport Poetry

2 February 2011
by

While waiting for our recent early-morning flight to Bangkok (and apparently delusional from lack of sleep), we noticed the line next to us was exceptionally long. Stepping back to see the destination, we were inspired to express ourselves through the majesty of syllabically-restrained poetry.

Haikou inspires Haikus

Note to self today:
Line for Haikou is real long.
Refrigerator.

 

Take that Longfellow. Who’s the poet that knows it now?! BOOM!

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