Sunday, October 24, 2004

Pakistan: The Islamabad Animal Penitentiary

One fine Islamabad Sunday afternoon, I decided to check out the Marghzar Zoo. Before I went, I mentioned it to one of my friends. She was sure the conditions for the animals would be horrible and refused to go.

I went alone.

I pulled up and parked my car. Almost immediately, I was being harassed by a young man carrying a box and some tickets. He could speak very little English, and I could speak very little Urdu. I wasn’t clear if he was the parking lot attendant or if he was trying to get money for something else.

In the end, I concluded that he was collecting money for his mosque. Or I think that was his story anyway.

I made a 50 rupee donation (84 cents) and walked up to the zoo entrance.

I was dressed like a local, and with my beard, I was blending in pretty good. I went to the ticket seller, and he charged me the locals’ ticket price of 5 rupees (8 cents). The foreigner ticket was twice as much, but 10 rupees is still pretty cheap.

I spoke to the guy, and of course when I did, he could tell I wasn’t a local.

He was about to ask for the 10 rupees when another employee who was hanging around the ticket booth spoke up. “Just let him pay 5 rupees. There is nothing to see here anyway.”

Then the man spoke to me directly. “Our lion is particularly bad," he told me. "Maybe he will even die today.”

At this point I was sold for sure.

The ticket seller agreed that the zoo had a few problems, and he waved me inside.

The zoo was pretty much like any other zoo I’ve ever been to, in that I have never seen any zoo where the animals looked particularly happy to be in captivity.

At this zoo, they had monkeys, jaguars, several types of deer and antelope, ostriches, jackals, foxes, birds, elephants, and the much-hyped lion.

Most of these animals looked pretty miserable, but like I said before, no more so than in most other animal parks. When I passed by, the lion was sacked out. Just taking a power nap, I’m sure.

Toward the back of the grounds, there were children having pony rides. There was also a balloon guy.

There were a lot of families at the zoo, and many seemed to be just chilling out rather than looking at the animals.

At some of the exhibits, the animals were in cages with bars. Then there was a space and a little further out, there was a low fence to keep people out. Several times, Pakistanis would walk over the fence and go stand at the cage to pose for pictures. The guard would make a token attempt to keep them behind the fence, but not much of one. Most of the time, he didn’t even bother getting out of his seat.

Once I had looked at everything and was heading for the exit, the elephant guy called me over.

He brought an elephant over to the fence, and posed with it. He was speaking to me in Urdu, so I don’t know what he was saying. Maybe he was just taking pride in his work and telling me elephant facts. Probably more reasonably, he was either directly or indirectly asking me for a tip.

I told him I didn’t speak Urdu, snapped a picture, and moved on.

Before I left, I stopped at the snack bar and had an 8-rupee bottle of Pepsi.

Now one day, I’ll be able to bore young children with my stories of how in my youth, I could buy a ticket to the zoo and a coke and still have change left over from a quarter.

That alone made the trip a success – all the rest was gravy.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

India: Round Two

So, I came back from 3 weeks of vacation, spent a week in the office, and then went to a week-long conference in India. I live a rough life.

The conference was for entry-level State Department employees, and it was held in Delhi, October 12-15. I went with 6 colleagues from Pakistan (if I recall correctly), and for those official sorts who might be reading this, we all found the conference to be beneficial, insightful, reaffirming, and all the rest.

This story, however, is not about the conference. It is about the events surrounding the conference.

Monday, the 11th, was Columbus Day, so we ended up with a three-day weekend immediately preceding the conference. Due to flight schedules, and our desire to do a little sight-seeing, the majority of us left for the conference on Saturday morning.

For those of you who don’t know, my camera was lifted last time I was in India, so before I went this time, roughly a million people told me not to lose my camera. I assured them that wouldn’t be a problem.

Anyhow, at the airport that Saturday morning, there were several of us participants, and also Ambassador Katherine Peterson who had stopped in Islamabad on her way to the conference from DC. She was a presenter.

We had come to the airport in separate vehicles, so we participants went to sit at the gate with all the riffraff to wait for the flight. The Ambassador, meanwhile, was waiting in the VIP lounge.

Just when boarding was about to begin, we received word from one of our Pakistani expeditors that the Ambassador had requested for us to join her in the VIP lounge.

So, we went over to the land of fancy leather couches.

As I said before, boarding was about to start when we left the gate. The regular passengers boarded and we waited. After we had waited for about half an hour in the VIP lounge, a van picked us up and took us to the plane. So as not to make VIPs wait a long time on the plane before take-off, they are loaded last. It’s a perk for most people, I guess.

For me it was not.

As we loaded on, most of the party was seated toward the front of the plane. My seat was in the next-to-last row. As I was walking down the aisle, everyone was giving me the evil eye, like people always give to the person who boards late. My carry-on was a backpack, and, of course, all the overhead compartments around my seat were full at this point. It was a little too big to fit under the seat.

I told the flight attendant to just throw it in the bottom of the plane with the checked bags, but he didn’t want to for some reason. He walked down the whole plane, checking every overhead compartment. And eventually, he found a spot to crunch my bag into, many, many rows away.

My bag secured, I crawled over two people who were too lazy to move, so I could get to the window seat.

And we were off.

There are no direct flights from Islamabad to Delhi, so we had to stop in Lahore. When we touched down, I had to wait for basically the whole plane to deplane before I could get off.

The rest of the American group was waiting, and they were beginning to wonder what had happened to me.

From Lahore, most of the group was going to wait around for about 4 hours and then fly to Delhi.

I opted instead to catch a quick ride to the border, walk across to India, and then take the train to Delhi. My good friend Nenita had decided to join me.

I had crossed the border and caught the train to Delhi before, so I knew pretty well what to expect.

Nenita and I peeled off from the group, and took the 30 minute drive to the Wagah border crossing.

We cleared Pakistani customs and passport control. Then we headed for India. Our last contact with Pakistan was with the border crossing official, who had to enter us in the out-going ledger.

This guy was the same man who had been on duty when I crossed last time. That time, he “jokingly” hit me up for a visa. This time, he also had some small talk for us.

“So you are working in Islamabad?”


“How is Islamabad?”

“Islamabad is great.”

“Good. And how is Iraq?”

“We don’t work in Iraq. We don’t know.”

“You are diplomat. You know everything.”

“Most of what we know about Iraq is the same information that is on the news.”

“Yes, yes… But let’s just talk person to person, just like human beings. Nothing official.”


“Tell me. Is it OK to kill innocent people?”

“Of course not.”

“That’s right. And is it OK to rape women?”


“Right. And is it good to shoot people and drop bombs on them?”


“That’s right again. Every religion on Earth is against the killing of innocent people, and the drinking, and the raping of women.”

It struck me how he wormed alcohol into the discussion, which is in fact not specifically banned by many religions.

Nenita and I had been ambushed, but we explained that no Americans supported the killing of innocents and that Americans hated violence as much as the rest of the world.

The border guard was shaking his head, as if to say, “What a pity – still sticking to the party line.”

I just wanted him to shut-up and write our particulars in the book so we could be on our way.

In a short bit, the guard changed the topic.

“So who will win the election – Bush or Kerry?”

“Who knows? It’s a dead tie.”

And at the time, it was dead even. No one could have answered his question.

So he rephrased, “Well, who do you think will win?”

To which Nenita responded, “We don’t know, but we will work to support whoever it is.”

And with that, the guard broke out laughing. “Yes, yes. You work for government; I work for government. You can’t say anything; I can’t say anything. None of us wants to lose our job for too much talking.”

He finally handed our passports back, we all shook hands, and we continued on to India.

During that exchange, Nenita and I were the face of America, and we had a zit on our nose. Figuratively speaking, that is.

As Nenita and I walked on, we ranted a few minutes at the gall of this guy to lecture us on the evils of killing and so forth. It must be OK when the violence is directed against unchaste women or when the killing is of Indians in Kashmir.

At the time we were crossing the border, a shipment of figs was also crossing. There was a truck parked on either side, and a team of laborers with each. The figs were going from Pakistan to India. Each Pakistani laborer would grab some crates from the truck, put a few on his head, and take off running to the border. At the border, there was a line of Indian laborers waiting, and the first in line would take the load from the Pakistani, put it on his head and run back to load the truck on the Indian side. It was quite the production.

The Indian side seemed to have a lot more laborers than did the Pakistani side. As such, there were a lot of Indians sitting on the road waiting at the ready for the order to run for some figs.

The waiting laborers were lined up in dozens of rows, and everyone was in a uniform of a blue tunic thing and a blue turban. The scene practically begged to be photographed, but I wasn’t interested in even trying. I think it’s offensive to just photo people without permission, and with such a large group, there’d be no way to get everyone’s blessing.

Nenita decided she wanted a picture, so she raised her camera. Immediately, there was a ruckus. Several of the men stood up and yelled “No photographs!”

Nenita put her camera away, and the men carefully watched us as we walked by.

We cleared Indian border control, customs, and passport control without further incident. Just inside the border, we stopped at the small group of shops and restaurants to change some money.

Since we were coming out of dry Pakistan, the restaurateurs all tried to tempt us with cold beer. Unfortunately for them, we have ample access to alcohol through the embassy, so it was no temptation whatsoever.

We passed on the beer and caught a taxi to Amritsar. Our car was an ancient boxy deal called an Ambassador. The dashboard looked like a cockpit in an old plane. None of the gauges seemed to be working. The Ambassador purred like a kitten – one close to death.

The ride was about half an hour, but Nenita didn’t last 5 minutes. She was out cold, and didn’t wake up until we got into the honking, snarled traffic close to the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

The Golden Temple is the holiest place of Sikhs. Nenita and I checked our luggage, checked our shoes, covered our heads, and went to check it out.

The Golden Temple sits in the middle of a large pool, and the whole thing is surrounded by a large white marble structure. Many people were taking a dip in the spiritual waters.

It was a fine day, and Nenita and I got some cool photos.

Once we finished at the Temple, we were off to the train station. There were several bike rickshaws waiting around, and when they saw us walking by, they descended on us. After some quick bargaining, we had a guy pedaling us and our luggage a few kilometers down the road for less than a dollar.

On my last trip to India, I had a hell of a time getting a ticket at the train station. This time, I knew how to do it. We got our tickets with virtually no waiting. To get any sort of good seat – like in an air conditioned car or in a sleeper compartment – you need to really book ahead. If you don’t, chances are that there will not be space available.

Nenita and I did not book ahead, because we both agreed that it didn’t matter what class we rode in.

Like my last trip, we ended up with tickets in the unreserved (steerage) section. The unreserved cars are not air-conditioned. They are the ones filled with the huddled masses. At 2 bucks a pop for tickets, though, we weren’t complaining.

We had to wait on the platform for maybe 45 minutes, and several beggars came by. Nenita gave them M&Ms in their begging bowls.

When the train eventually arrived, Nenita and I loaded up. We couldn’t find two window seats in the same booth, so we took a bench and Nenita gave me the window.

She went to sleep shortly after we left the station.

There were tons of people in the car, and with the exception of a group of young men who were all smiles and seemed to be up to no good, everyone put on a blank expression and zoned out. Everyone looked miserable right from the start.

Our train was called the Super Express. This was blatant false advertising. It went super slow, and it stopped at every station – and there were many. It took us over eight hours to cover 450 km. That’s an average speed of less than 35 mph. Super Express, indeed.

When we got to the Delhi train station, it was nearly midnight. Almost as soon as we got off the train, a taxi driver rounded us up. We figured he was as good as any, so we went with him to his miniature van (not to be confused with a mini van).

We told him we wanted him to use the meter, and he agreed, after telling us all the surcharges we were subject to (off-hours rate and so forth). We agreed to everything, and we were off.

And the meter was going crazy. The main unit of money in India is the rupee. The rupee is divided into 100 paises, like a dollar is divided into 100 cents. Anyhow, it seemed this meter was counting in paises, and it was really cranking.

The meter was already showing a few thousand and we were barely out of the parking lot at the train station.

Nenita asked the driver, “Are you sure that’s working correctly?”

And he replied, “Yes, madam. Just divide by 28 to calculate rupees.”

I don’t know what the units were, but the conversion wasn’t a factor of 28. I was crunching the numbers as we drove, and the final fare that he asked us for in rupees was neither a factor of 28 or 100 of the number showing on the meter. He charged us like 12 dollars total for a 30 minute ride, so we didn’t care. It was cheap enough, however he was calculating.

The conference was at the Hyatt Regency, and it was a nice place.

My original plan had been to drop Nenita off at the hotel and then go immediately off on an excursion. Since the train had taken so long and it was so late, Nenita offered for me to crash in her room and then head off early the next morning. I was tired, so I accepted her offer.

We were both starving, so we walked down the street from the hotel trying to find a place to eat. There were no restaurants whatsoever within walking distance, so we went back and ate at the hotel. Even at the hotel, all the restaurants had closed except for the 24-hour café.

After a hot shower and a good night’s rest, I overslept. I had intended to wake up by 6:00 to take the 6 hour bus ride to Jaipur, west of Delhi. I woke up at a little before 8:30.

I packed up my stuff. Nenita suggested that I leave all the things I wouldn’t need in Jaipur (like my clothes for the conference) with her, and I did. Then I caught a tuk-tuk down to the bus station.

I made it in time for the 9:00 bus, and I sprang for the air-conditioned one, which only cost a few bucks.

The bus was nearly empty. Everyone on the aisle shifted over to window seats.

I spent my time looking out the window and snoozing. It was so much more comfortable than the train.

After a long time, we stopped at a tourist rest stop. There were several snack vendors, a restaurant, bathrooms, and a parking lot full of buses. We all piled out of the bus, and several of the men just walked over and started peeing against the back of the building or in the grass. I’m all for open-air urination, but this seemed a little silly, considering the large capacity restroom that was maybe 30 feet away. It had plumbing and it was pretty clean.

After about 15 minutes, the driver opened the doors and started honking the horn to signify the imminent departure of the bus. Everyone loaded inside, and of course there was one guy who was late and had to run after the bus. Sucker.

Three more hours of window-watching and snoozing, and we hit the outskirts of Jaipur. It had been raining off and on the whole trip, and it had started again. Jaipur is in the midst of some hills, and as we climbed upward, the air got cooler. Everyone was turning their A/C nozzles down. When we got to the town, I whipped out my Lonely Planet so I could quickly research a place to stay once we stopped. The sky was pitch black, and I was expecting a wet walk to the guesthouse.

Luckily, it did rain buckets, but it stopped before we got to the bus station.

At the station, I set out walking for a guesthouse that was nearby. There were a lot of men around trying to round up business for their partners with tuk-tuks. One guy offered me a sweet deal, and I agreed. We went over to his brother Ravi’s tuk-tuk, and he drove me to the guesthouse.

At the guesthouse, Ravi offered to wait while I checked in, so that he could show me the sites of Jaipur.

I went to the check-in desk, and the attendant was like, “Sure you can stay here.” Then he handed me a key. I was like, “Isn’t there anything to sign or fill out?” to which he asked me when I would be leaving. When I told him that I would be gone by 8:00 the next morning, he confirmed that no, there was nothing I needed to fill out.

This seemed crazy to me. He didn’t know so much as my name. I could have literally destroyed the room and stolen everything that wasn’t nailed down, and there would have been nothing he could have done to find me.

I didn’t waste too much energy thinking about this, though. Afterall, he was probably pulling a scam of some sort on someone (someone other than me hopefully), although I don’t know what it would be.

I tossed my bags in my room. Then Ravi and I settled on a price for the touring, and we were off. It was around 3:30 when we started.

We started by driving through the old city. Jaipur is called the Pink City because the old city was painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales who visited in the late 1800s. It is supposed to look awesome at sunset, but I wouldn’t know. It looked pretty average in full sun.

In the old city, there are several main markets, each specializing in a certain type of thing like textiles or jewelry. Ravi warned me that all the vendors in the old city were rip-offs. He offered a lot of advice like this, and it left me with a sense that he was trying a little too hard to appear like he was looking out for me. It seemed a little greasy.

Our first attraction was Jantar Mantar, which was an old observatory. It had a lot of cool structures that were used to track the positions of the planets and so forth. The most prominent piece was a huge sundial. The shadow-casting part was several stories high. There were a lot of young school kids in uniform at the observatory.

After the observatory, we went to the City Palace. It was basically a big park surrounded by a wall and some buildings. Ravi dropped me off at the back entrance, and there were five naked children playing in a small hill of sand on the side of the road. They probably ranged from 2 to 10. Ravi pointed them out to me like he thought I would be amused. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen them already.

When I started walking toward the Palace entrance, the naked kids got out of the sand and lined up for me to take a photo. Then the mother (their handler?) came running out. It was so lame. She had this whole I’m-so-embarrassed-at-my-kids-but-you-can-photograph-them-for-a-fee act going. She didn’t speak English, but the gesturing said it all. The scene was way over the line of exploitation, so I brushed the whole crew off.

Everyone hanging around the gate looked shocked when I didn’t go for the bait.

A little ways away, there was also a naked old man routing around in a sand pile. He was mentally handicapped.

I didn’t find the City Palace to be that impressive. The thing that I liked the most was all the old men chilling out, playing cards all around the grounds.

I hadn’t thought about it at the time since it was sunny and I wasn’t paying attention to the time, but all the attractions in the town closed at 4:30. Since I got a late start, I wasted most of my time at just 2 sites. By the time I finished at the City Palace, it was nearly closing time. Ravi said he could get me in to one more site, so we sped off in the tuk-tuk. As we were heading down an alley, he hit a pot hole that caused me to fly up. I cracked my head on a metal bar over the seat.

Ravi pulled to the side of the road while I was hunched over, holding my head. He was like, “Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir.”

The pain went away after a second, and we continued on. I kept my head low the rest of the ride.

As we approached this last site, the name of which I forget, Ravi briefed me on the payment procedure:

“There is a Brahmin caretaker for this temple. When we leave, I will tell you that he is the one you should pay for visiting the temple. You will then ask him how much to pay. He will tell you, ‘As you wish,’ and you should give him maybe 20 rupees [about 50 cents]. Most Americans don’t know, and they give 2 or 3 hundred. That’s too much.”

I was clear on the payment procedure, so we went in for a look. The old Brahmin opened the gate and let us inside. It was past closing time, so Ravi and I made a very quick round of the place, looking at the statues and carvings.

Then we left.

Outside, the Brahmin opened the gate for us. Ravi prompted me, and the three of us went through the whole payment dance. It was like we were following a script. I paid the guy his 20 rupees.

Just outside the gate to this site, there were stairs climbing into the hills on either side. Toward the right, the stairs led toward another temple on the top of the hills. It was a temple of Ganish, the elephant-head guy, and it had his ancient Hindu symbol on the side – a huge red swastika.

I didn’t go all the way to the temple since it was probably closed anyway.

I just walked halfway up the steps to take in the nice view of the city. The whole way, I was followed and harassed by several young children who wanted money. They were surely determined. I kept telling them ‘no’ in Urdu, which is basically the same language as Hindi. I would also tell them to go away but I could only remember the polite imperative, so I was telling the urchins something more on the lines of “you please leave, sir” as opposed to something more appropriate like, “beat it, kid!”

They hounded me the whole climb up and down, and during my break at the midway point. They were getting on my nerves. They got no money.

Since all the sites were closed at this point, Ravi started trying to push shopping. Earlier, he had told me that other tuk-tuk drivers would harass their passengers to visit certain stores so that they could get a commission, but that he didn’t do that to his passengers. Oddly enough, though, that seemed to be exactly what Ravi was doing. He knew a great carpet factory I should see, as well as a garment factory and a jeweler.

I didn’t want to see any of these.

Having done these factory visits before, I knew exactly what would happen. I would get a quick, boring look at the production of the carpets and clothing and jewelry, and then I would be subjected to high pressure sales tactics in the factory showroom. Thanks, but no thanks.

I asked Ravi instead to take me to a restaurant with good Rajasthani food.

The place he took me was right across from the bus station, and there was a good crowd of people there. I had a dish of assorted vegetable preparations, some sweet lassi (yogurt drink), and tea. It was good. Normally, curries and things come with either rice or bread to sop up the sauce. Here, they served crumbly bread balls that were sort of like hush puppies. You would crumble them in the sauce and then scoop it up and eat it.

The waiter noticed which vegetables I was eating the fastest, and brought me seconds on those.

After my meal, I walked back over to the tuk-tuk, and Ravi dropped me back at the guesthouse. I paid him his fee and a tip, and he was like, “I need to ask you a favor. Please don’t tell my brother how much you paid me. He’s the one who brought you to my tuk-tuk this afternoon. He is very lazy and drinks all the time.”

I told him that his secret was safe with me. I doubted I would see him or his brother again, anyway.

Before he left, he offered to pick me up in the morning to take me back to the bus station. I told him that wouldn’t be necessary.

It was dusk, and I set out to explore town on foot. My plan was to catch a Bollywood flick at the theater in Jaipur, which is supposed to be one of India’s finest.

Five minutes into my walk, a young hip Indian guy walked up to me and greeted me in his British English. We had the usual exchange (the hello, the what’s your name, the where are you from, the how do you like Jaipur, the when did you arrive, and the how long are you staying). Then he moved on to other matters:

“Tell me. Why are Americans so rude nowadays? They are so standoffish and they don’t talk to anybody. It didn’t used to be like this.”

Once again, I was the face of America. I could sense the lad was troubled, so I put on my counselor hat.

“I know less Americans are traveling to this part of the world today, but I don’t see why they would be any more or less rude than in the past. What specific problems have you had?”

To which he responded, “Just the other day, there was an American here with many piercings on his face. I asked him about them, and he was very rude.”

“Oh, yeah? What happened?”

“He told me to f**k off!”

Stifling a laugh, I explained how people who do things like excessively pierce their faces can sometimes be self-conscious about their body modifications and how when he asked about the piercings, the piercee may have felt he was making fun of him.

Then I gave him another angle. I told him to consider an Indian with a red forehead dot visiting the U.S. A small percentage of Americans might be jerks and make fun, but the vast majority would just be curious. They might ask about it or they might just stare. Either way, this could get annoying after a while, and the Indian might eventually get pissed off at someone for staring or asking about the dot. And so I explained how maybe the pieceree had just reached his limit of being gawked at and lashed out.

Or there was the third possibility that the guy was just a jerk.

The young man was pleased with my insightful answer, but he still had one more question for me. “Why do you have a beard?”

To which I told him to f**k off.

No, not really.

I told him it was on account of my Muslim heritage.

No, not really.

I told him I just grew it for kicks and it was easier than shaving every day.

And that was the end of our discussion.

As we parted, we shook hands and he tried to do the urban black handshake deal with me. He was doing different grips and thumb grabs and all, but I clearly wasn’t versed in the maneuver.

I continued walking toward the theater. It was dark by now.

I found the theater easy enough, and it was doing a brisk business. The show playing was Dhoom (an Indian movie along the lines of The Fast and the Furious except with motorcycles instead of cars). The next showing I could catch was at 10:00, so I had a lot of time to kill.

I wandered around, briefly looking at shops as I passed. Outside one shopping center with a few stores and a few restaurants, there were 3 Indians sitting with a hippie-looking Brit. We made a little small talk, during which one of the Indians proudly pointed out his t-shirt to me. It said “America’s #1 Mayor”. I wasn’t sure if the name of some actual mayor was on the back or if the shirt was saying the kid was the #1 mayor. He just kept pointing to the top lines and saying, “America number one. America number one.”

I told him it was a fine shirt, and I continued on.

As I was walking, I didn’t see any other Westerners besides the hippie Brit. I got gawked at by the locals and bothered by the beggars.

In no time flat, I was targeted by another young man.

He was walking in the opposite direction I was, and he stopped to tell me that my beard looked smart.

I thanked him.

Then we went into the small talk again. This was another Ravi.

He explained how he liked to learn everything he could from visitors because he didn’t have the opportunity to travel. After the usual questions, he asked where I had been before Jaipur. I told him that I came from Pakistan to Delhi and then to Jaipur. He honed in on the Pakistan, and asked why I was visiting there. I told him that I wasn’t visiting – that I lived and worked in Pakistan.

At this, he literally jumped back and was like, “Are you a terrorist?”

I was thinking, “Good one, retard,” but I instead answered him, “No. Are you a terrorist?”

And, of course, he denied being one.

Like the last kid, he went on to relay his tales of American standoffishness. His story involved a traveler who kept insisting he was Canadian. Then after some grilling, he admitted to Ravi that he was really American, but that he was afraid to be identified as such.

Not to be insensitive, but what a loser! Firstly, India isn’t known to be hostile against Americans. And secondly, if the guy wanted to lie, he could have at least stuck to his story instead of getting caught in it.

Ravi proudly explained how he knew from the start that the guy was American and not Canadian because of his accent. Then he went on to sermonize about how honesty is the best policy.

Ravi asked what I was doing for the rest of the night, and I told him I was going to catch the 10:00 movie. He checked his watch and told me that I still had some time to kill. Then he asked if I wouldn’t join him for a beer while I waited.

I agreed and we went into a bar called Bouncer’s that was near where we were talking. Not realizing the power I wielded, I commented to Ravi that it was kind of dark inside. Ravi immediately called a member of the bar staff over and had him brighten the lights. I told Ravi that I was just making a comment and that I wasn’t expecting them to change the lights on my account. It was done, though, so I just left it alone.

We ordered a few Kingfisher beers, and before they arrived, a friend of Ravi’s came in. He was a weaselly guy named Sanjay.

Turns out that they normally hang out in one of two bars. Sanjay was waiting in the other for Ravi, and when he didn’t show, he figured correctly that he was in Bouncer’s.

Sanjay was the dominant friend, and he decided that they should take me to the other bar, which was supposed to be nicer.

I didn’t care either way, so I agreed.

We cancelled our beer order, and walked around the corner to a hotel bar called something like 2K2 Bar.

Like at Bouncer’s, the room was full of guys and not a single woman.

We walked upstairs to the seating area and took a table. There was Indian music blasting. The TV over the bar was showing a fashion show.

I ordered a large bottle of beer. It was Kingfisher Strong (or something like that) with twice the alcohol of the regular. It came with a complimentary napkin full of potato chips.

Sanjay poured me a glass and handed it to me. I was waiting for him and Ravi to fill their glasses, but they said they were going to wait a little longer to order beer for themselves. They told me it was their custom for the guest to drink first. As I had the huge bottle, I filled their glasses anyway and we toasted.

Then the drinking started. They both kept telling me how much they loved beer and how they always drank a lot. That was funny, since they were nursing their beers something fierce.

I was drinking at a regular pace, and every time I would put my glass down, they would top it off. I got the distinct feeling that they were trying to get me drunk.

I relished the challenge, though. I had been in training for just such an occasion for the past 18 months on the Islamabad party circuit. These jokers didn’t know who they were dealing with.

When one bottle was emptied, the bartender would replace it. And so the night began.

We talked as I drank and they nursed. They were both in business and had traveled extensively (so much for Ravi’s “honesty is the best policy” bit). They each probably listed 20 countries they had visited, including the U.S., and here Ravi had been telling me that he didn’t have opportunity to travel.

Sanjay was also a legal resident of Nepal, where he had one of his businesses.

They asked where I worked and I told them the Embassy. At this, the genius Ravi tells me, “Never tell people that you work at the Embassy. That is why shopkeepers charge you too much and the beggars ask you for money. Tell them you work for the Red Cross.”

His advice was all good and well, but I don’t generally tell beggars and shopkeepers what I do for a living in the first place. If I did announce I worked for the Red Cross, I seriously doubt I’d be getting any sweet deals. And yet again, what happened to Mr. Honesty?

Ravi’s ignorance was nicely coupled with Sanjay’s sliminess. Sanjay told me about his wife and new baby… and his girlfriend.

They told me that they knew several Americans who were in Jaipur learning Hindi. They offered to organize a small house party in my honor with the other Americans, but I told them not to bother. Between the bar and my movie at 10:00, I didn’t have time.

Once that offer was declined, Ravi suddenly remembered that there would be some Hindu festival later that night. It didn’t take much convincing before I agreed to join them for this festival. One of their other friends had a car and he would be by later to take them.

When I said I would go, Ravi was especially pleased.

Meanwhile, Sanjay had turned his attention to the music in the bar. He yelled to the waiter, who went to the stereo and turned it up.

Sanjay was like, “This is a great song.” And it must have been because every guy in the bar started belting it out.

I would not have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. It was totally a Bollywood moment.

This continued song after song. Each song was “a great song.” I had no choice but to continue working on my beer.

Ravi turned to me at one point and told me how he and Sanjay ruled this bar. And it appeared to be true. They were the only ones ordering the waiter around to adjust the volume or change the song.

The music was deafening.

As if things were interesting enough already, things got weirder. Three men dressed as women entered the bar. I don’t know if the preferred term is transvestite or cross-dresser, so I’ll just use transvestite.

Anyhow, these 3 transvestites came in, and all of the men started hooting and howling.

Of the 3 transvestites, only one could have maybe passed as a woman. The others were too tall and they had large manly facial features.

They came in and sat at the table directly behind us.

Sanjay gave me the eyebrow wag and asked what I thought of the ladies. I told him it was pretty obvious that they were men.

He thought I was pretty sharp. He explained how actual women only went to expensive hotel bars, and how they generally only drank tequila which was considered classy.

The transvestites were the center of attention. They flirted with the guys, who in turn flirted back.

Sanjay and Ravi were giddy with excitement. They kept telling me, “The gays are going to dance soon. The gays are going to dance soon.” And before long, a clamor rose for the transvestites to dance.

After a few more Bollywood sing-a-longs, they obliged.

It was awful. First the transvestites danced alone. Then guys went out and joined them. There they were freaky dancing with the transvestites, and the whole scene was all the more disturbing since the transvestites danced like men. It might have been different if they moved like women, but they didn’t.

At one point, the “pretty” transvestite tried to draw me out on the floor with some scarf flapping. There wasn’t enough liquor in the building for that.

Before long, one of the guys got out of hand, and the fake breast of one of the transvestites got knocked out of place. All three stormed off in a huff and left the bar.

There was a long wave of laughter, and then things settled back down to the sing-a-long.

Shortly after the transvestites left, genius Ravi turned, laughing to himself, and whispered to me, “Those were mens.”


I was like, “Yeah, I know.”

After a little longer, Ravi asked if I was ready to go to the festival. I told him I was, so he went to call his friend with the car.

When the waiter brought the bill, my two companions suddenly remembered that they forgot to get money before they came. Convenient. We had drunk about 3 liters of beer, and since I had probably drunk at least 2 of those on my own, I didn’t mind paying. That and the fact that it all totaled around seven bucks.

I was nowhere close to being drunk.

Now that we were ready to leave, I went to the bathroom. I had needed to pee for a long time, but I got the feeling that if I had left the table earlier I would have come back to a ruffinol in my beer. These guys were shifty.

At this point, you might be asking yourself why I would purposely get in a car with perfect strangers who I suspected would ruffie my beer if given the chance. My answer to that is that they didn’t seem violent to me. The worst thing that I could see them doing was robbing me blind.

And since I am writing this story, I clearly walked away from the incident.

Anyhow, when I came back from the bathroom, Sanjay had a surprise for me. He had selected an American song in my honor. So I took my seat with a sense of impending doom. And there I was, sitting at my table with about 30 Indian guys singing Barbie Girl to me. Sanjay was hanging all over my chair getting up in my face as he sang.

After the longest 3 minutes of my life, that damn song ended. And right after that, I told Ravi and Sanjay that I was going to wait for the car outside.

Sanjay was like, “Oh, did we make you uncomfortable?”

To which I told him, “No, but we also have a tradition where I come from: You leave the bar after you pay your bill.”

Ravi bolted out to check on the car’s arrival. He came back to tell me that it would be there in 5 minutes.

I went outside to wait. I was there with all the drivers and hotel service personnel.

As soon as I got outside, the sky opened up. It was a torrential downpour. All of us outside huddled under the covered walkway, but it was raining so hard, there was a lot of splatter and we still got pretty wet.

Five minutes came and went. Then 10 minutes. Ravi told me again that the car would be there any minute.

Twenty minutes passed. I figured that the car might have been delayed because of the rain, but I also wasn’t going to wait around all night. I decided that when 45 minutes hit, I was leaving.

And before long, I was outta there. By the time I left it was close to midnight. Ravi and Sanjay didn’t see me leave, so I undoubtedly became the next standoffish American for the stories they would share with travelers they would encounter in the future.

The rain had been so intense that the streets were totally flooded. For a while, I was able to avoid the water by using the sidewalks, but there were no sidewalks for a long stretch of my walk.

At the end of the sidewalk, there was a large group of people. Seeing that the water wasn’t going anywhere fast, I took off my shoes and socks and continued on my way.

I was walking in the street, in water nearly to my knees, barefoot. And I was slightly pissed off. Aside from the rain, I was angry at Ravi for causing me to miss the movie and the Hindu festival.

I must have been looking pretty hard as I walked down the street because even the beggars left me alone. This made me laugh out loud. And this made people look at me more strangely, I think.

Eventually, the water drained enough so that there were dry places to walk. I put on my shoes and continued.

After a while, I came upon two guys named DJ and VJ (or maybe Deejay and Veejay or Dijay and Vijay?). We had a nice chat whereby they kept asking me in Hindi if I could give them 50 rupees so they could buy alcohol. I acted confused and kept telling them that they were very generous but I couldn’t accept their money. This was actually good fun, and we were all laughing a lot.

Then this bike rickshaw driver named Ramlad drove up. He started going off about these two guys, telling me how they are always up to no good and so forth.

Ramlad killed the fun and DJ and VJ left, so I took a ride in his rickshaw back to the guesthouse. During the ride, he told me how he just likes to help people and how he wanted to give me a free ride home. I told him that was cool.

When we got to the guesthouse, I offered him the going rate for the ride he gave me, and he took the money without a moment’s hesitation. I guess he didn’t want to give me a free ride that badly.

Like Ravi, the tuk-tuk driver, he offered to pick me up in the morning if I wanted a ride. I told him thanks, but no.

I was muddy, so I hit the shower before bed. There was no towel provided and I forgot to bring one. I guess I can’t complain since the rate was only $8 a day.

I air-dried under the ceiling fan and went to bed.

Meanwhile, off at Guardian Angel Headquarters, my account rep was feeling a bit stressed. That very night, he put in a transfer request for a less stupid ward who wouldn’t be so much trouble.

I had a good night’s sleep, woke up on time, and was out of the guesthouse by 8:00 as I had said I would be. I walked to the bus station which was a few kilometers away, stopping for breakfast along the way.

At the bus station, I caught a bus to Delhi. So as to get out quicker, I didn’t wait for a bus with A/C.

Unlike the ride to Jaipur where the bus was practically empty, this bus was totally full.

I was seated next to a young woman, and I had the window seat. I had the window open. She reached across me and closed it. Evidently, she was cold.

The ride back to Delhi was much the same as the ride out of Delhi, only I slept less and stared out the window more.

A few hours into the ride, a young woman went up and was having a conversation with the driver and the bus supervisor guy. Then she started watching out the window. Meanwhile, the driver slowed the bus down, waiting for her signal. I assumed that she was getting off between stops so that she could access her village or something. That wasn’t the case. She was scouting for a place to use the bathroom.

Eventually she called the bus to a stop, and ran down the road toward a house. Several men also got off and relieved themselves a few feet from the bus. Then everyone piled back on and we were off.

Not fifteen minutes later, we were cruising down the road, overtaking a truck that was transporting steel beams. Thanks to some slick bus driving, we rammed the truck. It practically tore the door off the bus. All the Indians were tsking.

The truck pulled over in the shoulder, and we pulled up next to it. The drivers started yelling at each other in Hindi. I was curious as to what our driver was yelling since it was totally his fault.

Before long, several of the passengers on the bus started yelling out the windows. It was crazy. Then passers-by started gathering outside.

I was waiting to see if they would start singing, but this Bollywood scenario never materialized.

People were really getting hot under the collar. One or two guys were arguing in English and the guy on the bus was yelling about how this stupid accident was holding up a whole bus load of people.

While we were stopped, the bus supervisor tied a rope around the bashed-up door to hold in on to the bus. And soon enough we were off.

In no time, we were all back to zoning out and sleeping.

Then we were back at the half-way point rest stop area.

We all debussed, ate snacks, and used the bathrooms. Then we loaded back up.

Before long, we had another situation develop.

All along the route, the road would go through villages. In the villages, there would be people all around and at one village area, there were speed bumps.

Our driver wasn’t paying attention, and we hit the first speed bump pretty much at full speed.

The back of the bus flew up, and when it came down, the back window came down on the people in the back row as a shower of glass. This was one of the highlights of my whole trip. Several of us were laughing – including many of the people covered in glass. Now that’s a good attitude!

Unfortunately, since the bus was full, everyone had to stay put, glass or no.

We arrived in Delhi without breaking anything else or exploding, so that was good. Once we stopped at the bus station, the driver came back asking what the people had done to his window. As you can imagine, he got an earful from the passengers. It was his fault afterall.

At the bus station, there were several tuk-tuks waiting for customers. Their prices were ridiculous, so I skipped them and walked down the road.

Close to the India Gate monument, I caught a tuk-tuk at a much better price. He was carrying on about losing money with the fare I wanted, but I was insistent. The driver and I finally agreed on a fixed price, but I had him turn on the meter just for kicks. When we arrived at the Hyatt, the meter was lower than the straight price we had agreed on. I pointed this out to show the driver what a good deal I was giving him. He wasn’t amused.

I went inside and checked in. Since Nenita was holding most of my things, I only had the clothes I was wearing (which were 3 dusty days old at this point), my camera, and my toiletries kit.

I called Nenita’s room. No answer.

As it turned out, she had gone on a day-trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra. The trip was an optional part of the conference, but I had already been to the Taj and wasn’t interested in going a second time.

The clothes I was wearing were too skanky to walk around the hotel in, so I ordered room service for dinner and sat in my room and watched TV. Every 20 or 30 minutes, I’d call Nenita’s room. She got in late, and my whole afternoon was wasted.

After she got back in the evening, I went to get my stuff. I went with another good friend, Josie.

When Nenita answered her door, I commented that her t-shirt was funny. It had a picture of a camel, and the caption read, “Rajasthan – a great place for a good hump.” She proudly told me how she had bought it at one of the hotel stores.

Then we talked briefly, and I got my things that Nenita was holding for me.

As we left, Josie and I were talking. Josie was like, “She has no idea what her shirt is referring to. You have to tell her.”

I couldn’t believe it. Surely Nenita was aware that her t-shirt had a double meaning.

She wasn’t.

I explained the shirt to her later, and she was mortified. Poor Nenita. The funniest thing to me about the whole incident was that she’s the same age as my parents.

Nenita changed shirts, and the camel shirt was permanently out of circulation after that. Pity.

At the conference, I got to see several people that I knew from orientation and a few that I used to work with in Islamabad. Of the orientation crowd, I saw my good friends Felicia and Diana.

Near the end of the first day of the conference, I checked my e-mail for the first time in several days. I received an e-mail from my father dated a few days earlier, notifying me of my grandfather’s death. He had been in a coma for a few weeks after undergoing surgery, so it wasn’t a total shock. So, although I loved Grandpa, there were no tears. As I continued to open my e-mails, I opened another from my father. This one got to me. It turns out that my mother and her brother (my uncle) had taken Grandpa off life support and watched him breathe his last. Pulling the plug is a big responsibility and I wished I had been around to offer support to Mom.

An unfortunate aspect of all this was that I had mentioned to my parents that I would be going to India, but only in passing. They ended up not remembering, and they didn’t know how to contact me.

By the time I read the e-mails, there were only 2 days before the funeral was to take place in Virginia.

I researched flights that afternoon and the following morning, and with the help of the onsite travel agent who was assigned to the Embassy in Delhi, I got some tickets reserved. They were very expensive, as one would expect for last minute fares from Delhi to Virginia, so I asked my parents what they thought before I bought them. They both agreed that I shouldn’t spend so much money for the funeral, and they felt Grandpa would agree.

And so I didn’t go.

On the day that I had gotten the news, I pretty much had the computer room to myself. After I started looking normal again, Josie came in to check her e-mail and immediately asked what was wrong.

I told her.

Later that afternoon, we had a 20-minute break in the conference schedule, and we decided to go get a drink.

We went to the hotel bar and ordered. There were no other customers. The waiter was intolerably slow, especially considering the time limit of the break, but our drinks eventually came.

We had a toast for Grandpa Jim, downed our drinks, and went back for the last few presentations of the day.

That evening, I went to a reception, and then I went with my good friend Matt to catch a Bollywood movie – finally.

Dhoom wasn’t playing at the theater we went to. The feature we watched instead was called Bride and Prejudice – a faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice taking place in modern-day India. It was in English.

At this theater, all the seats were sold by number, unlike in the States where you buy a ticket and then go sit wherever you want.

Matt and I opted for the best tickets – premium class – and they cost about $3. The ticket seller told us that he would give us good seats. The theater was a single screen, similar to the Uptown in DC, and our premium class seats were on the front row in the center of the balcony. We got awesome seats.

When we went to our seats, there was an old lady already sitting there. We had her move out of our assigned seats. She did move, but she kept asking us to scoot down so there would be room for her family to sit.

Seeing as how her family didn’t have tickets for these seats, Matt told her that we wouldn’t be moving. Then he turned to me and was like, “Looks like someone is trying to get a free upgrade to premium class.” That cracked me up.

The lady ended up with her family more on the fringes of the balcony area.

I had popcorn and Coke, and the movie was pretty good. The whole experience was a great way to end a downer of a day.

Plus it was a special treat just going to a theater. In Islamabad, the only theater in town got burned down in a riot last year and was never rebuilt. And before that, it was off-limits due to security concerns, anyway.

The next day, after the end of the conference presentations, I went shopping with my good friend Julie.

We didn’t buy much, but I was able to chalk up another traffic accident. This time, our taxi ran into a motorcycle and knocked the driver onto the road. After a bit of a discussion, he rode off and so did we.

All this crashing – the motorcycle guy and the earlier 2 incidents on the bus from Jaipur – was something I hadn’t expected. Sure, the traffic in India is a mess, but I had always assumed that it just magically worked itself out somehow. Clearly, it wasn’t working out for everyone, though.

Julie and I had been shopping at a craft market called Dilli Haat, and an expensive handicraft emporium. All I got was a cheap paper mache cow from Dilli Haat. It looked like a child had made it.

After shopping, I went touring with Matt.

We grabbed a taxi from the Hyatt taxi queue, and our driver was a guy named Krishna Rit (sounds like Reet).

We hit Safdarjang’s Tomb first. Matt talked us in at the local’s price using his Pakistani diplomatic card (I hadn’t brought mine), and the savings were substantial. The Tomb was nice and well maintained.

Next we went to Humayun’s Tomb. This time, the ticket seller again sold us locals tickets, but when we went to the entrance, the ticket collector wouldn’t accept them. We paid the foreigner price. Humayun’s Tomb was impressive. Its architecture was a precursor to the Taj Mahal.

By the time we left, it was getting dark. We had Krishna take us to see the illuminated India Gate. After that, we drove down the main avenue where all the government buildings were located, and stopped to look at someone’s house – the president’s I think. We both agreed the house was ugly.

I had a dinner to go to that night, and time was getting short.

Matt wanted to get dropped off at Connaught Place, so we decided that we would drop him there and then I would have the driver drop me off at my dinner.

Connaught Place is an area of stores and restaurants around a traffic circle. It is the center of Delhi, and any fool driver would know how to find it.

According to the map, Connaught Place was only a few streets from India Gate. Yet Krishna Rit was weaving through all sorts of back streets and alleys.

Matt was looking at the map, and repeatedly asked Krishna where we were going. Krishna kept insisting that we were going to Connaught Place.

And after 10 or 15 minutes, we stopped – not at Connaught Place, but at a handicraft emporium. It was the same rip-off place Julie and I had been to that afternoon. I had also been taken there on my last trip to Delhi in May. This place must have paid a good commission, though, because all the drivers were always trying to funnel people there.

Matt was quite perturbed. He and Krishna had words in Urdu, during which Matt told him that we would not be paying the full meter price since it was artificially inflated by the unwanted detour to the craft emporium. And part of the discount we would take was punitive, of course.

Krishna knew he was busted and didn’t offer much of an argument.

After that, we dropped Matt at Connaught Place and continued on to the house where I was to have dinner. During the ride, Krishna continued to rationalize his detour to me. He was getting on my nerves.

After stopping several times for directions, he finally found the house. I paid him his reduced fare and told him not to wait.

Dinner was great.

The next evening, Matt and I continued touring. We hit the Qutb Minar. The main thing here was a large victory tower, which we photographed excessively. Another cool thing here was the iron pillar. It was over 2,000 years old and was forged with such purity that it had never rusted. Modern scientists still don’t know how the Indians made it since the technology that was used has been lost.

While Matt and I were touring the Qutb Minar complex, an old Indian woman pointed out some cool angles to photograph the tower. Having fallen for this at the Taj on my first trip to India, I knew that as soon as I took her advice and photo-ed from her suggested vantage, she would start hounding me for a tip. I brushed this woman off. Then when she went to harass other tourists, I took some photos from her suggested spot. It was a nice spot, which is no shocker. If I hung around at the same place every day, I’d probably know all the cool views too.

Matt wasn’t familiar with the photo advice scheme, but we watched the helpful old woman working on a European woman and the scene played out like I knew it would. The tourist coughed up some rupees.

There was a barbeque that night at the Embassy’s American Club, so we didn’t tour any more after Qutb Minar.

I stayed for a short while at the barbeque and then went back into town for some shopping.

The shopping was good in Delhi. One night I went shopping with Nenita and Diana. We went to a government craft store and got some awesome stuff. Then we went shopping in the Janpath Market area, and got some real treasurers. A lot of Tibetan things come into India. Nenita ended up with some Dragon-shaped trumpets, and I got a cool evil looking mask that was supposed to scare bad spirits away. Diana made some interesting purchases as well. She and Nenita also got several pieces of jewelry – anklets I think.

Nenita, all the while, was on a mission. She was on the hunt for scorpion or dragon jewelry. She would ask every vendor if he had anything, and she kept coming up empty.

We eventually ended up at Dilli Haat.

Diana was a Dilli Haat junkie. I think she went there everyday of the conference at least once. I started to suspect that she had a serious problem one day when we were having a video teleconference with Colin Powell. When it came time for questions, Diana took the mike and asked the Secretary, “Can I go to Dilli Haat now?” Then she started twitching and drooling, before collapsing on the floor. The Secretary took it all in stride.

I got some good deals at Dilli Haat, using my favorite bargaining device – the walk-away.

It was fun watching the others bargain, especially Nenita. She’s not the least bit aggressive. Rather, she bargains with an almost exaggerated cheerfulness. Like the rest of us, it worked sometimes and sometimes it didn’t.

On our last night in Delhi, Friday night, Nenita and I went for a little more shopping, and then we went to dinner with our good friend Chris, also from Islamabad. He was in Delhi attending another conference.

Chris had hired a car for the day, so he picked Nenita and me up at the hotel. Having spent so much time together, Chris and the driver had developed quite a rapport. The driver cracked me up, though. He was this little guy, driving this big car, and you could tell that he just wanted to please. Unfortunately, he couldn’t understand everything that was said to him since his English had a few kinks.

A few days before, Nenita, Julie, and I had gone to dinner at the Indian restaurant in the Hyatt. The quote on the menu was something to the effect of “Enjoy the flavors of Indian street cuisine”. The food tasted good enough, but it definitely wasn’t at street prices. We didn’t have that much food and we ended up paying like literally 50 bucks a head. That would last for weeks if we had used it on actual street food, instead of gourmet street food.

Anyhow, we didn’t want to have a repeat of that, so we went with Chris to a restaurant outside the hotel – one that locals might eat at.

We had his driver drop us off, and Chris told him to be back in an hour and a half.

Then we sat down for some serious grub. I was cracking up the whole meal watching the waiters misunderstand things and in turn watching Chris and Nenita’s reactions. Not to mention, Chris is an endless source of corny jokes and puns.

Nenita kept telling me to stop laughing so much, but I couldn’t help her out with that one.

The food was tasty and cheap – a winning combination.

When we finished, the driver wasn’t around, so we walked down the street to see what was happening at the little shops. This was not a good shopping area, and it didn’t take us long to realize there wasn’t anything for us to do there.

As we were walking back toward the restaurant to wait for the car, the little guy in the big car came driving down the road and got us.

He had picked up one of his friends while we were eating.

After that, we went back to the hotel. I was tired so I called it a night.

The flight schedules were limited for our return to Islamabad, so we all ended up on the Saturday afternoon flight.

That left Saturday morning open for touring.

Matt and I were going to go, but he overslept. He told me to go without him, so I went with Nenita.

We went out to the taxi queue and we ended up in Krishna Rit’s car. I recognized that he was familiar, but I couldn’t recall how I knew him.

He agreed to drive us around for 100 rupees an hour (a little over $2 US), which was a pretty common price.

Our first stop was to the Railway Museum.

We arrived before it opened, so we had to stand around for about 10 minutes.

The museum itself was pretty worn-out. The neat part was all the locomotives from throughout India’s history that were displayed on the lawn.

Matt seemed to have been maybe half an hour to an hour behind us. We saw him at the Railway Museum when we were close to leaving.

Right when we left, a group of young school kids filed in with their teachers.

Our next stop was to Old Delhi to visit Jama Masjid and the Red Fort.

Taxis are not allowed in the Old City, so there comes a point when you have to leave your taxi and either walk or hire a bike rickshaw to go the rest of the way.

Krishna Rit explained this to us and pulled up near a shop. There were rickshaws all up and down the road.

He told us to go into the shop “just to have a look” and the shopkeeper would provide us a rickshaw free of charge to go into Old Delhi.

We told him that we were not going to have a look and that we weren’t interested in the free rickshaw.

At this point, things started getting heated, and I was able to place Krishna as the same guy who had been a pain with me and Matt earlier in the week.

We told him that we would just hire a rickshaw from the street, and he and shopkeeper started accusing all the other drivers of being crooks. Only their recommended rickshaw driver was honest, supposedly.

This hassle lasted for several minutes, and several drivers and passers-by nosed by to see what the issue was.

At this point, there was no way in hell that Nenita and I were going in that store. It was a matter of principle.

We ended up getting our own rickshaw and heading into Old Delhi.

The first place we hit was Jama Masjid, which is the largest mosque in India. In India, the pricing structure for attractions included a price for Indians, a price for foreigners, and an additional charge for cameras.

When we got up to the entrance of Jama Masjid, my camera was clearly visible, so I paid the foreigner-with-camera price. Nenita had her camera in her purse, so the ticket man asked her if she had a camera. Her memory card was full, so she wasn’t going to use her camera. She should have just said she didn’t have one, but instead she opted to try and explain that she had one but wouldn’t be using it. This didn’t fly, and the guy insisted that she pay. It was only a few rupees more, so she paid it. She was pissed, though.

After we looked around at the mosque, we went to the Red Fort. The fort in Lahore is similar, and I’ve been to that one 3 times. I wasn’t overly impressed with the Red Fort.

While we were at the Fort, we ran into Matt again.

After the Red Fort, we decided to walk through the choked markets of Old Delhi. Nenita was looking for some casual shirts, and it looked like a good place to find some.

As we walked along, people kept trying to latch on to us and steer us to their shops. It was getting annoying.

This one guy asked what we wanted and Nenita described the shirts she was looking for. Supposedly, this guy knew a place where there were many stores lined up that were selling shirts like this. We foolishly followed him.

After we had walked completely away from the main market street, he showed us a shop. It was definitely not part of a long line of shirt shops. It was either a store he owned or one that was paying him a commission. We were not amused with the dumpy store, considering the hike we had made to get to it. We left.

This guy wouldn’t take a hint.

As we continued shopping, he offered comments on everything. “That shirt is poor quality. This shop is expensive. I know where you can get more colors.”

He was getting to be a royal pain. I was like, “We are not going to your store, and we do not want your advice. Please leave.”

And he stayed around and continued to bother us. The sad part is that I think he actually thought that we might be compelled to give him a second chance if he kept “helping” us.

Our time was running out before we had to be back at the hotel to catch the car to the airport. We went back to the rickshaw.

The driver pedaled us back to Krishna’s taxi. I don’t know about Nenita, but I was tempted to not go back to Krishna and just catch another taxi back to the hotel. Of course, that would have been dishonest since we owed him for at least the driving he had already done.

When we got back to the car, we paid our rickshaw guy, and then Krishna started his whining again.

“Just have a look! Don’t buy! Just have a look!”

Nenita and I loaded into the van and closed the doors. There was a snake charmer outside with a cobra in a basket.

Krishna saw us in the car and got into the driver’s seat in a huff.

Then he was like, “When I gave you the rate this morning, that was special price. If you won’t go inside, the deal is off. Now I will use the meter. I gave you low price because I will get store commission. No look inside, then no special price. The deal is off!”

The meter had not been turned on the whole trip, so I don’t know how he would have charged us for that anyway.

It wasn’t an issue, though. I told him that we would pay him what we had agreed to pay him and that was the end of the discussion.

At that, we were off, and Krishna started belly-aching about needing to get home. We were paying him for a 5 hour block, and we still had time left.

I had him drop me off at a store, and then he took Nenita back to the hotel.

I came to find out later from Nenita that he ran out of gas before they got to the hotel. That was a nice touch to the already stellar service he was providing.

I looked around the market a little and came back to the hotel. And soon we all loaded up and went to the airport.

At check-in, there was a small annoyance. At the conference, we had been told by the travel agent that all of our tickets had been reconfirmed for our return flights. This was not the case. Everyone had been reconfirmed except me and Matt.

Matt asked them if the flight was full and they told him that once the people who had reconfirmed their seats were accounted for, there were still 20-something seats available.

They wanted us to wait until all the confirmed passengers had checked-in, but this didn’t make sense.

By the time we were checking-in, it was too late for anyone else to reconfirm. Those who hadn’t yet reconfirmed, but were holding valid tickets, should have then been handled on a first-come-first-served basis. Since there were at least 20 seats, and since we were there first, the airline should have just assigned us seats on the spot. I’m sure that’s what any other airline would have done.

Eventually they did check us in without making us wait until the end of the check-in period. They didn’t do it without making a stink though.

As we flew from Delhi to Lahore, I had a window seat, and the sunset was superb.

A few hours at the Lahore Airport, an hour more in the air, and we were back in Islamabad.

And before long, I was safe at home – camera, cow, and all.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

USA, Thailand, and Cambodia: The Familiar and the Foreign: Two Vacations Rolled Into One

For my last major vacation, over the course of three weeks, I went to the U.S., Cambodia, and Thailand.

Here is a full accounting, starting at the beginning. Actually, I need to start a little before the beginning.

With two days before my vacation was to begin, it was a Friday, and I had lunch with my good friend, Traci, at the Embassy’s American Club. To be specific I had a big steaming plate of beef fajitas, some Coronas, and ice cream pie for dessert. It was good going down.

Unfortunately, within a few hours I could tell that there would be trouble. The stomach was having technical difficulties.

The American Club is one of the few eateries in Islamabad that is actually inspected, but nothing is foolproof, especially when it comes to food service. A single dirty leaf in a salad or a bit of bad sour cream can cause trouble. It’s the “bad shrimp” phenomenon. I had gotten sick at the Club before, so this instance wasn’t a total shock.

Anyhow, after that meal, I was feeling uncomfortable enough that I skipped Happy Hour that evening. At this point, some of you, no doubt, recognize that this is unusual. But, yes, friends, it’s true. I was too ill for even one drink.

As I was too sick, I went home with no happy hour, no partying.

And the next day was Saturday. I slept late and then went around town tending to the details I needed to handle before leaving.

Later that night, I had my last meal in town with my good friend, Portia. We went for Chinese, and although I wasn’t back to 100 percent, I ate and enjoyed myself. It was a colossal mistake.

The Chinese food, which undoubtedly had plenty of contaminants of its own, joined with the germs from the Club and caused all kinds of havoc.

There were several parties that night that Portia was twisting my arm to attend. Since I hadn’t yet packed, I opted to go on home instead.

And so I packed. And then I went to bed. And every few hours, I was on the toilet. It was a long night.

Early the next day, the driver came to take me to the airport. I was probably 10 pounds lighter from all the bathroom action throughout the night, but it was all good – my vacation had officially started.

We picked up another American (someone I had never seen) and went to the airport. Even in the early hours on a Sunday, we passed a few fields with youngsters already playing cricket. I was impressed.

The driver kicked me and the other guy out at the airport with 3 hours remaining before our flight. By any standard, I had plenty of time to get to the gate. Any standard, that is, except the Pakistani airport standard.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but navigating the Islamabad airport is quite an experience. When I was there last, you didn’t really have to fight the mob until you were inside the airport. This time, they had put up another security check at the entrance to the airport building so that there was a huge bottleneck – a mob of people fighting just to get in the door. It was amazing. I kind of weaseled into a line and very, very gradually, I funneled toward the entrance to the airport. The other American who came with me got pulled out of line by some airport employee. I could see that he was going to whisk him to the front, but I didn’t go. For one, I wasn’t invited, and I didn’t want to invite myself. (Probably the porter didn’t ask me to go because I had a full beard.) And secondly, I didn’t want to go. I wanted to go through the airport rigamarole without Western privilege – like a regular Pakistani.

The airport guy did come back for me later, but I stayed in the mob just for kicks.

After literally two hours, I got inside the airport. It was a joyous occasion.

From there, I got in line after line, check after check. There were other Western diplomats trying to get on the British Air flight like I was, and they were totally stressing out as we stood in all these lines.

I was not worried, for it had been my experience in the past that the airplanes would wait at the gate extra long (at times up to an hour after the scheduled flight time) in order to accommodate the passengers locked in the sea of humanity trying to get checked in.

And eventually I got through all the checks. I even got to the boarding gate while the official boarding period was still going.

And that is the greatest thing about Islamabad International Airport: once you reach the plane, it’s like you’ve really accomplished something. You’ve earned it. It’s magical.

At the gate, I saw the other American who took the expedited service.

Since I was going around the world on this vacation, I had downgraded all of my business class tickets to coach, in order to stretch my money.

I got the middle seat on a side aisle, so I had a person on my right and one on my left. I wedged on it and settled in for the flight.

Back in coach, the flight was awful. It was like pulling teeth just to get a glass of water.

Meanwhile, everyone in business and first class was living the good life.

I foolishly ate the breakfast sandwich they served us, and settled in for the lame entertainment programming that was available.

Within a few hours of eating breakfast, it was being jettisoned out in the airplane lavatory.

After nine quick hours and a few more trips to the bathroom, we landed in London. It was maybe 70 degrees and sunny – by all accounts a perfectly lovely day.

Having come from hot Islamabad in addition to being sick, I was freezing cold.

I found my connecting flight and waited around for a mere four hours for boarding. Since I wasn’t flying business class, I didn’t get to use the lounge.

At the gate, I got the full security probing. It may have been random, but I’m sure coming out of Islamabad on a one-way ticket didn’t help my case. Not that I really cared that someone took everything out of my bags and spread it on a table for the world to see.

For this flight, I was still in coach. This time, I was in the center seat in the center aisle, meaning that I had two people on my right and two on my left.

I didn’t eat or drink anything, and managed to keep my bathroom visits down to two for this leg of the trip.

Eight quick hours later, we landed in DC. I was wrapped in two blankets, looking like I had Ebola.

Washington, D.C.

My good friend, Sumera, met me at the airport. I hadn’t seen her in several months, but it didn’t seem so long once I saw her.

I was in no condition to eat, so we didn’t stop for dinner. As Sumera drove me back to her apartment, we caught each other up on the latest happenings in DC and Islamabad.

I stayed at Sumera’s for 6 nights, and she was a superb host.

While I was in Washington, I looked up my other friends. I know several people in DC from the State Department, from graduate school, from my old neighborhood, and from my old job. I had a schedule worked out, and it mostly involved visiting people for meals. As I was sick, this didn’t work so well.

In an attempt to kill the germs I harbored, I would go without eating for long periods, like 24 to 36 hours at a stretch.

At the end of each such period of fasting, I would enjoy a day of eating. I never did fast long enough to kill everything, though, so when I would start eating again, the results were painful, let’s say.

My low point was the night I had dinner with several of my former colleagues from Islamabad. We ate at the Macaroni Grill, and it didn’t take. I was in the bathroom every 10 minutes that night. I could feel my lasagna sitting in my stomach all night long, although I’m sure it was the red wine that caused most of the trouble.

My time in DC was excellent. I met with most of the people I wanted to see, avoided most of the people I didn’t want to see, went shopping with my good friend Erika, had drinks in bars, ate good food, ran into people that I like but hadn’t expected to see, and didn’t do a single tourist thing. I like monuments and museums as much as the next guy, but I was having some burnout.

I also met with my handler at the State Department. We discussed where I wanted to go for my next assignment. My first choice was Bulgaria, and she said she thought she could make it happen for me.

The weather in DC was rainy and a bit chilly.

On my last night, Sumera cooked dinner and invited people over. One of the hurricanes that had steamrolled through Florida hit DC that night. There were dozens of tornadoes in the DC area, and although we didn’t see any of them, we could see lightening strikes peppering the city through Sumera’s windows that provided a sweet view of everything.

The dinner was perfectly executed.

The next morning, I was scheduled to fly down to Tennessee to see my family. After the violent weather the night before, I was pleasantly surprised to see that flights were running on schedule.

Sumera had a high-speed electronic scale, and I had been weighing myself throughout my stay. The morning I left, I was down 12 pounds from my pre-vacation weight. Giardia beats Atkins hands down.

Anyhow, Sumera kicked me out at the airport.

Just to have a little fun with the family, I decided to travel this segment dressed in native Pakistani clothing. I had on my shalwar kamiz (long shirt with baggy pants that looks sort of like pajamas), my Pakistani hat, and my sandals. People (diplomats, missionaries, tourists, etc.) do this from time to time, so it’s not like it’s anything original. I specifically decided to do it after my good friend Colin told me he was going to do it.

I was walking through Dulles Airport all decked out, and, while I did get some stares, no one much cared. What struck me was the number of airport personnel I encountered who seemed to be South Asian. I’m sure they considered me a poser, and if they did, they would have been exactly right.

The flight went fine, and in two short hours, I was in Nashville.


Ideally, I was supposed to come out of the terminal, and my family would be there waiting for me. Then they could make fun of my clothes, and my little brothers could porter my luggage out to the car. The thought of seeing the family left me with a cheesy grin on my face that I couldn’t shake.

When they weren’t waiting at the visitor’s area, my smile began to fade. When they weren’t waiting at baggage claim, it faded more. I felt silly for having been so excited.

After 30 minutes, there was no trace of the smile (or my family for that matter). Everyone else had gone from baggage claim by now. It was just me, the janitors, and the airline people.

A few minutes more, and my father came in with two of my little brothers, Patrick and John. I saw them before they saw me, so I walked up behind them.

I tapped Patrick on the shoulder, and he turned around. He did a quick double-take, and then said, “Dad, here’s Chris.”

Dad turned around and was like, “Where, where? I don’t see him.” (Mind you, there were no other people in the area besides the four of us standing there in a clump.)

My smile came back.

I was like, “I’m right here,” and I was literally an arms-length away.

Dad really got a kick out of my appearance. He told me to stay inside the airport while he went back to the car to tell Mom that I had a surprise.

So I waited, and after a moment, one of my brothers came and told me it was time to go to the car.

I went out, and Mom and my two little sisters, Maria and Rebecca, were glad to see me. They weren’t so bowled-over as Dad was, though.

Turns out that when Dad had told them I had a surprise, Rebecca had correctly guessed that I had a beard. Mom, on the other hand, had guessed (hoped?) incorrectly that the surprise was a traveling companion – perhaps a fiancée. No such luck.

I spent 5 nights in Tennessee, and it was a relaxing time. All the kids had school, and all the adults had work, so I spent half of every weekday alone. I used this time to run a few errands in town, to play with our dog, and mostly to catch-up on TV. All my old friends were there: Jerry Springer, Spongebob, Judge Judy, the Food Network, the Simpsons, reality programming.

At the time, Rebecca had enlisted in the Air Force. Her date for reporting for basic training had passed, but she had to wait for a slot in her specialty to open before she could go. While I was home, I think we had 2 instances where her bonehead recruiter called to tell her that it was time and that she needed to be at the airport in less than 24 hours to ship off. Both times, it was a false alarm, but Mom was a basket case just the same.

As of this writing, Becca has graduated Boot Camp. Rock On!

We celebrated Dad’s birthday while I was there with a cake and a trip to the steakhouse. We got the worst service in the world. Our waiter kept telling us how he was working 10 tables, or something lame like that. He seemed half apologetic, and half like he thought we should be impressed. We were not. I gave him way too generous a tip.

My last night in Tennessee, I went to visit my older brother, David, and his family. They live a few streets from my parents.

David and his wife have 4 young daughters and a baby son. The boy couldn’t walk at the time, so he didn’t cause any trouble. The girls, on the other hand, went bonkers. To put it mildly, they approach life with a feral enthusiasm. I walked in the door, and they mobbed me. After a few photos, they started jumping around the room, literally.

My oldest niece had cheerleading try-outs the next day, so she (and the other girls) practiced their flips in the living room. I was glad no one wiped-out while I was there.

After the floor show, the girls moved on to other pursuits. Some went to fight over DVDs, some went to “play” the piano, and some took to jumping on the couch. Their groupings kept changing, so they all managed to get into everything.

And then, like clockwork, it happened. Someone got hurt.

There was some disagreement among the girls over the circumstances around the incident. The one fact that no one disputed: someone bit the dust. The victim claimed she was pushed, and the alleged perp denied everything, claiming that her sister fell on her own. And of course, the oldest girl chimed in as the eyewitness.

As if the crying and finger pointing weren’t bad enough, I got to sit there for the lecture that ensued from the parents.

Finally, the girls went to another room, and I got to chat with David. He had a new jar of moonshine, so we did shots. I’m not crazy about the taste of sour mash, but it wasn’t bad going down.

My sister, Maria, came with me to David’s, and after a few hours, we tried to peel away. David is a big fan of the long good-bye, so it took a real effort to get out of the house and into the car. It was good to see him though.

And it was good to see the rest of my family.

The following morning, Dad drove me to the airport.

From Nashville, it was around 2 hours to Chicago, where I had to change planes. As we were landing in Chicago, the plane I was on was mirrored by another plane that was landing on the next runway over. It was cool.

Four quick hours from Chicago, I landed in San Diego.

San Diego

I was going to San Diego to visit my friend Dennis from Islamabad, and he was waiting for me at the airport.

I arrived on a Thursday. Dennis had taken the day off, and he showed me some of the highlights of the area. I filled him in on all the happenings in Islamabad that would be of any interest to him.

That afternoon, I met Dennis’s family – his lovely and talented wife Miriam, and his kids Simon, 7, and Mira, 5. Simon and Mira were awesome. They were well-mannered and intelligent, and they took an immediate liking to me (I think). We would goof off and play silly games. Unfortunately, I would always tire of the games first. They were normal kids, though, so there were a few fights and a few bouts of crankiness.

Simon and Mira had a ton of general questions for me – Why are you hairy? How old are you? Do you speak Tagalog? (Dennis and his family are Filipino.) Do you like watching TV? Why don’t you cut your beard off?

And then there were the more pointed questions – Are you married? How come you aren’t married? Are you going to have children? Do you want to marry our aunt? When will you get married? Will you marry a beautiful lady?

Between the kids and to a lesser extent Dennis and Miriam, I was catching a slight hint that they thought I should get married as soon as possible.

As a matter of fact, I think every Filipino I have met has taken a keen interest in my marital status. I’ve just never encountered this phenomenon with such young children.

Pregnant Filipino moms must all buy those wombphones and play a tape that loops this message to the fetus: …...MARRIAGE IS HAPPINESS…… KARAOKE IS YOUR FRIEND…... MARRIAGE IS HAPPINESS…… KARAOKE IS YOUR FRIEND…... MARRIAGE IS HAPPINESS……

Anyhow, I stayed at Dennis’s for 3 nights, and on the first, he barbequed. While we waited, Simon put on his favorite video – a Muppets music video of a song called “Rock Around the Clock” (different than that oldie by the same name). The red Muppet guys with horns for noses sang it, and Simon couldn’t get enough. Every time it ended, he’d rewind. So we watched and watched and watched. And I’m singing “Rock Around the Clock” this very minute. It’s quite catchy in its own Sesame Street kind of way.

Dinner was first rate. It was followed by Filipino ice cream.

Afterward, the kids and I watched Cartoon Network.

As we watched, Mira started this thing where she kept telling me she wanted to see me naked. (Remember she is 5 years old.) I don’t think she meant nude, but rather, she wanted to see some of the skin normally covered by my clothes. She’s like, “I’ve seen Mommy and Daddy naked.”

And I was like, “Well, you can’t see me.”

She was getting a little hyper, so I was expending a lot of energy distracting her from the topic of nakedness.

Evidently, I didn’t do a good enough job. A few moments later, I felt a little hand lift the back of my shirt. No more than a few inches of my lower back were exposed, but Mira was satisfied. She started shouting, “I saw Chris naked! I saw Chris naked!”

At the time, I was upstairs with Simon and Mira, and their parents were both downstairs. They didn’t know what we were doing upstairs, and what Mira was shouting did not sound appropriate, to say the least.

I thought to myself, “Crap!”

And, I responded to Mira, “Oh, no, you didn’t see me naked!” in a playful tone, but loud enough for the whole house to hear.

Crisis averted.

During my stay, I took over Simon’s room. He had to go to Mira’s room.

They were given orders to stay out of the room while I was there, but every morning they would come in numerous times to see if I was awake yet. They weren’t noisy, but most people can tell when someone enters the room even if they aren’t fully alert. I would ignore them until I was ready to get up, since had I given any indication I was awake, I would have had to get out of bed and do something.

My second day, Dennis had work and the kids had school, so Miriam dropped me off at the trolley stop and I explored on my own.

I ended up going to a big mall and wasting some money. Then I walked through some less glamorous San Diego neighborhoods.

I ended my day by going to San Ysidro, which is the American side of the Mexican border, just across from Tijuana.

That night, Miriam cooked Filipino food, and it was excellente.

After a few beers and a little more Cartoon Network, and it was time for bed.

My last day in San Diego, we went to the beach. I went swimming, and Mira got to see me “naked” again.

At the beach, we had some fish tacos for lunch.

That night, we had dinner at a Filipino restaurant, and later Dennis and I kicked it like we did back in Islamabad – with screwdrivers.

The kids went to bed, and we drank and watched movies. The first show we watched was Zoolander, which neither of us had seen. While it did have its moments, neither of us was overly impressed, even with the alcohol. Next, we watched Kill Bill vol. I, and I enjoyed it immensely. Even as I was watching, I got the feeling that I was laughing too much, possibly due to the alcohol. I mean violence is funny, but not that funny.

The next morning, I was back at the airport.

I caught a quick hour and a half flight to San Fran, and from there, I got on the long one: twenty-one and a half hours from San Francisco to Bangkok, in coach. While that did include a stop for a few hours in Tokyo, it was a grueling stretch. I was flying United yet again, so I got to listen to the same audio programming and watch a different, yet equally crappy, selection of movies as before (Garfield the Movie, anyone?).

The most grueling part of these segments was Tokyo to Bangkok.

On this part, I was once again seated in the middle of the interior block of seats. I took my seat, and then the guy who would be seated next to me came in from the other direction. He was a large (fat) guy, maybe 40 years old, with Parkinsons, so between his girth and his shaking, it was a production getting him seated. He was traveling with another guy, and I couldn’t figure out why his friend didn’t give him the aisle. I couldn’t figure out initially, anyway.

I caught on soon enough.

This guy was on a mission to “save me” or some such.

The first thing he says to me is, “Don’t I know you from Catholic Charities?”

Perhaps this was his clever intro, but I was not looking for a conversation. I told him no. Of course, he was traveling with Catholic Charities.

It was late, and I wanted to sleep, so I answered his questions as abruptly as I could and closed my eyes. This guy wouldn’t shut up, though.

After a while, I started ignoring him, and his friend on the other side turned and asked him how it was going.

His reply: “We’ve got a tough cookie.”

Damn skippy.

Unfortunately, he took me as a challenge.

He asked me about my travels, and I told him I was on the way to Cambodia.

Then he asked where I had been before, and I told him a few of the places.

He was like, “It sounds like you live a very exciting life.”

And he continued, “But, you know what’s more exciting?”

I replied, “Many things, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, that’s right. But, the most exciting thing is spreading the gospel. Just think of it. You in Cambodia with the Good Book, bringing the good news to the people.”

And I was instantly sold. I stood up and testified right there on the plane. Yeah, right.

No, in reality, I would give disinterested responses like, “That’s nice,” but this guy kept going and going. His mouth was in constant motion.

I got to hear about all his travels of the past year – a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, missionary work in Africa, and on and on. (I’m sure his traveling frenzy was not unrelated to his illness.) He went on to share his favorite verses, what crossed his mind at retreat, and blah, blah, blah.

There was a small Asian woman on my left and she kept looking at me sympathetically.

The only time the guy stopped talking was when, at some ungodly hour, they served us dinner.

No sooner than they had cleared his plate away, he was back at it.

Finally, I was like, “Listen, I’m trying to get some sleep. Please don’t talk to me.”

“OK, but can I ask you for one thing?”


“Can I pray for you?”

To which I told him fine – thinking that he meant he would remember me in his prayers.

That was not what he meant.

He turned toward me, raised his shaky arms over me, and started his prayer right there.

Perhaps it would have moved me if I weren’t so tired and pissed off, and if he didn’t mumble so much.

After the prayer, he did leave me alone. Of course, I didn’t get but 20 minutes of peace and quiet before we started our descent into Bangkok.

As sweaty and sticky as it is, I was never so glad to arrive in Bangkok. It meant freedom from Chuck the Evangelist.

Somewhere between San Diego and Bangkok, we had crossed the International Date Line traveling west, and poof! we lost a day. I think that’s a bigger letdown than flying east and gradually losing a day as you cross time zone after time zone. I guess the way we did it is the more quick and painless way, though, like ripping off a band-aid.

In Bangkok, I caught the shuttle to one of the airport hotels. I checked in after midnight and had to leave at 5 A.M. to catch my flight to Cambodia. It was a total waste of 30 bucks. I should have just slept in the chairs at the airport.

Bright and early, I was on the first prop plane to Siem Reap, home of the famous Angkor Watt temple complex.


The flight took an hour.

As we came out of the clouds in our approach to the airport, the scenery was awesome. There were a lot of marshy areas, and a lot of jungly areas. And between the two, there were fields and palm trees. The sky was clear, and life was good. Several passengers started photographing out of the plane windows.

We landed, followed our flight attendant to the terminal, purchased visas, and got our luggage.

I had made a reservation at a guesthouse, and I had booked a car as well. My driver was waiting for me with my name on a sign, but he was toward the back of the pack of drivers. The other taxi drivers and hotel shuttle drivers knew me by name and pointed me toward him, once I told them I wasn’t going to hire them. They must have been discussing clients while they waited for the plane.

As is often the case with these types of pick-ups, the spelling of my name on the sign was pretty unusual. It looked Russian to me with the shortage of vowels.

The pick-up vehicle was a tuk-tuk type deal – basically a small trailer with a seat hooked to a motorcycle. It took about half an hour to get to the guesthouse, and the locals and I stared each down with equal curiosity along the way.

My main reason for visiting Cambodia was to see Angkor Watt, and since I was only staying for 2 and a half days, I dropped my bags in my room and immediately headed for the temples.

The temple complex was totally awesome. Angkor Watt is the main, and most famous temple, but the name is also used to refer to the whole complex. There are actually dozens of temples and structures there that were built over several centuries.

I went with the guesthouse driver, and our first stop was the Bayon temple. It is famous for the huge stone faces that are scattered all around it. As I walked up to the site, a Cambodian boy started talking to me. I could tell that he was weaseling his way into being my guide, but he was too slick for me. I let him go ahead with his spiel. He pointed out several carvings and whatnot, but nothing that I wouldn’t have found by myself. He also started into some history. He was telling me about the Khmer Rouge destroying artifacts, and I thought at first that he was saying Cameroon.

After a few minutes, we came to some stairs leading up to another level of the temple. The boy refused to go any further. Evidently, temple guides are very territorial and he didn’t want to get beat down for moving in on someone else’s turf. I paid him a tip and went on my own to the next level.

After Bayon, I did several more temples, and it was a tiring experience.

At Angkor Watt, there are tons of temples, as I said before. The cool thing, though, is that hardly anything is off-limits. You can go practically everywhere, and, if you have no regard for preserving cultural treasures, you can touch practically anything. The only thing to stop you is the occasional sign instructing you not to touch. A kind of funny result of this: on many of the carvings of women the stone breasts were much darker and smoother than the rest of the carving, due to countless tourists giving a rub. Other statues (men, animals, geometrics, etc.) also had the occasional smooth spot, but not as consistently as the women statues.

Angkor Watt is in the jungle, and I was burning up. Plus, since Pakistan is a non-shorts country, I was unaccustomed to having bare legs. My calves got royally burned.

All the temples had a cadre of hawkers around them. They were selling food or drinks or souvenirs. When you’d walk by, they would all be shouting and some would run out to you with their products. I would always tell them that I wasn’t interested and that I wasn’t going to buy anything.

When they would see that I wasn’t going to buy anything on my first pass, they’d tell me to remember them on my way out of the site. I’d always tell them specifically that I would not remember them and that I wasn’t going to buy anything on my way out either. Yet almost without fail, they’d flag me down as I was leaving, saying, “Sir, you said you would come back after you finished at the temple.”

To this I would respond, “I specifically said I wasn’t coming back,” and then I would walk on.

At one point, I was totally parched, so I actually bought a large bottle of water from one of the hawkers. She was asking a dollar for a liter, and I paid it straight out.

And as soon as I handed her the dollar, the woman shouted to her friends, “He paid one dollar! I can’t believe it. He paid a dollar!”

I was thinking, “Damn, she could have waited until I left to mock me or at least have not done it in English.”

It was all good though. I was thirsty so it was worth the “premium” I paid. Besides, that was the last time I got royally suckered on the water. From then on, it was 25 cents for that size.

I also got a few t-shirts from a different vendor. They were a steal at a dollar a piece.

Anyhow, I saw several temples, and before long, I got a powerful hunger. It was time for lunch, and I asked the driver to take me to a place to eat. He said he knew just the right spot.

He drove me to the Angkor Watt temple, which draws the most tourists, and therefore has the most hawkers around it. I walked in to the restaurant he dropped me at, and took a seat. There was one other couple inside. They were western, and I think they were Americans.

The waitress brought me a menu. I read it, closed it, and got up. The waitress came rushing over, asking me, “What’s wrong?”

“This is way too expensive," I told her. "I’m going to eat off the street.” And I left.

The couple still in the restaurant was snickering, but I didn’t care.

I got a bowl of noodles with beef for less than a dollar from a woman outside the restaurant, and this place was charging 6 bucks for the same. A chair and a table isn’t that important to me. To put it in further perspective, my room cost $10 a day and my car and driver cost the same per day.

Speaking of the driver, he watched me enter the restaurant and then leave and go eat off the street. He was thoroughly confused.

After lunch, I went and saw more temples.

Almost all of the temples had a lot of stairs and several levels. And since the stairs were there, they had to be climbed. Usually, it wasn’t really worth it since the upper levels were often the same or less impressive than the lower ones. Plus, these steps were often times steep, so it was easier to climb than to descend them.

It was hilarious, though. You’d see everyone, myself included, confidently walking up the monster steps. Then when it was time to go back down, there would be a lot of people standing on the top step taking a minute to convince themselves to go down. Then once they’d start down, a lot of people would either be scooting on their butts or going at turtle speed or walking backwards or using other funny techniques. Some people took off their shoes. The best was when someone was trying to look tough and you could tell he was freaking out.

Anyhow, that afternoon, I went to several more temples.

At a lot of the temples, people approached me intending to get me to hire them as guides. After I fell for it the first time, I wasn’t going to let it happen again.

The exchange would go as such:

“Hello, sir,”


“How are you?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“Fine. Where are you from?”

“The U.S.”

“I like America. U.S.A. is number one.”

“Thanks. Your country is also very nice.”

“Sir, this temple was completed in…”

“I’m sorry, but, before you go any further, I don’t want a guide.”

And the kid would vanish.

This scenario played out again and again.

After a full day of touring, my driver took me to one of the temples to watch the sunset.

Everyone else had the same idea. To get to the temple, there was a big hill you had to climb. Either that or hire an elephant to carry your lazy butt up.

At the top, there were a ton of people waiting for the sun to fall. I grabbed a seat on a ledge and a French couple sat with me. I killed a bunch of time demonstrating my camera for the husband. Nikon should be paying me a commission for all the people I’ve shown my D70 to. It’s like I’m a salesman.

Eventually, the sun left, and the sunset was nice. However, it was not as dramatic as many people had wanted and their disappointment was obvious.

Once the sun had set, the park was official closed. The park rangers kicked us all out.

After that, I went back to the guesthouse. Some young women had taken over the TV room, so I watched some episodes of “Sex and the City” with them.

Then I went to dinner.

I walked down to the main street in search of some local cuisine. There were many restaurants and several bars, and in front of each there were girls trying to attract customers.

I bypassed all the Chinese restaurants and settled on a place serving Khmer food.

This was not a very happening place, and I was the only foreigner inside. I ordered some Angkor beer and a local noodle dish.

At least the beer was good. The noodles were awful. They were so overcooked, they were mush. It was like eating baby food – very greasy baby food.

After dinner, I walked back to the guesthouse.

Along the way, I stopped in at a massage parlor for a massage.

It sucked. It cost three dollars for an hour and a half, and, even at that, it was a rip-off.

I’m sure this place specialized in other services, if you catch my drift, but I wasn’t interested in that.

I went home and had a good night’s sleep.

The next day, I went back to the temples.

My legs were worn-out from all the climbing the day before, but I still found myself climbing every stair I saw.

At one temple, toward the end of the day, I came across the first real beggars of my trip to Cambodia. There were plenty of people looking for money, but most were offering some service or product.

Anyhow, at this one temple, there were a bunch of grifter children. They would approach you and ask you what country you were from. You would tell them your country. Then they’d tell you the capital and ask for a coin from your country. If you didn’t have a coin, they’d ask for candy. It was quite entertaining.

“Hello, what is your country?”


“The United States of America. Capital: Washington DC. Can I have a coin from your country?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any.”

“Can I have some candy?”

“Sorry, but I don’t have any.”

These kids were pretty good. I only told the first one I was from the U.S. The rest I would tell some other, less common country, like in a geography quiz. And they passed the test.

In the end, I only paid one of these beggars, and that was only because I took a picture of him looking pretty downtrodden. He deserved it, I suppose.

While I’m on the subject of beggars, there was one thing that kind of gave me an uneasy feeling. I was approached several times by policemen and other gun-toting law enforcement types who were looking for money. They would always start by offering to sell me their badges. When I would say no to that, some would leave. Others would continue to push the badges, or else try to get money another way, like offering themselves as guides.

None of the cops ever caused me any trouble, but the potential for a problem to develop in a situation like that is pretty high. I mean, a cop could make your life pretty miserable if he wanted to.

Anyhow, let’s get back to the story.

As I was touring the temples on my second day, there were several other tourists I kept running into at each stop. One of these people who kept reappearing, a Japanese guy in a cowboy hat, came in handy for photos. We would exchange cameras, and he would photograph me and I would photograph him. We did this at several sites.

That night, I didn’t stick around the temples for sunset.

I went back to the guesthouse, and then back out into town. I hit the markets and didn’t see much that interested me.

I went out to check out the bars. I went to a few of the supposedly happening places, but nothing much was going on.

It was a Wednesday, so I didn’t expect a huge turnout. Still, I expected a lot more people than I saw. Afterall, most of the people who would be in the bars in Siem Reap would be tourists, and tourists, by definition, are on vacation, and as such don’t need to wait until the weekend to party.

There was this place called the Dead Fish Tower that was touted on the web, so I went to check it out. It’s supposed to resemble a tree house, and most of the seating is on an elevated level. Drink and food orders are delivered up by different pulleys and levers. It was neat-looking, but as soon as I stepped onto the upper level, I decided not to stay. The floor felt to be thin plywood. It sagged under the weight of each step. I could only imagine how it would be if a crowd actually showed up.

Anyhow, I didn’t much want to be around when the second floor collapsed, and I left.

Another strike against the Dead Fish was its lack of any happy hour at all. Everything was always full price. When I told the waiter how I thought the lack of happy hour was lame, he told me that they had gotten rid of it in exchange for getting some internet terminals at the bar. Considering that the 2 computers were both out of order and covered with cobwebs, it was a lousy trade to be sure.

With internet on my mind, I went a few doors down from the Dead Fish to an internet café. It only cost a dollar an hour, but the connection was so bad that I was only able to send a single e-mail in that time. The owner took note of the slow speed and gave me a cut rate – an hour for only 75 cents.

I ended the night at another bar called the Ivy, also recommended on the net and in the guidebooks, and it was nice enough. Unlike the Dead Fish, they had drink specials. Good food too. The crowd was pretty sad, though. Besides me, there were 4 other guys in the place. Two were playing pool, and the other two were sitting alone at different corners of the bar. They both looked like they were fighting to stay awake.

I had a few more Angkor beers and went back to the guesthouse. It was 11:30.

The next day was my last in Cambodia, and I would be flying out at noon. I was beat from the temples – sore legs, sunburn, and probably a bite from every mosquito in the jungle – so I decided to take it easy.

I got up, had some continental breakfast, and went to watch TV. I was the only one around, so I got to pick a DVD. Not exactly sure what it was, I selected Jackass, the Movie.

I started the movie, and laid down on one of the lounge chairs to watch. The driver and 3 other guys who worked at the guesthouse materialized and also took seats. And the movie played.

For those of you who don’t know, Jackass is a movie based on a TV show by the same name, in which the principle characters do stunts that are either painful or embarrassing or, preferably, both. A lot of the stunts involve genitals and nudity.

Anyhow, here I was with 4 Cambodians watching this, and it was uncomfortable to say the least. It was mostly silent the whole time, with the exception of a few scenes that had us all rolling.

We watched the whole thing, mainly because I was playing it cool, acting like I didn’t think anything of it. Really, I didn’t think it had much redeeming value. Also, I didn’t turn it off because I figured that since they owned the DVD, they were probably familiar with the show, and since they came over, they must want to watch it.

Once the credits played, I put the DVD away and went back to the market.

In Cambodia, the official currency is the Cambodian riel. However, the U.S. dollar is the preferred currency. Everyone took dollars, and prices were even listed in menus and on signs in dollars only. It was convenient that I didn’t have to change any money. A lot of people would take payment in dollars and then give the change in riels, though, so I did end up with some.

At the market, most of the handicrafts were just like the ones in Thailand. That was no shocker since they are neighbors. Unfortunately for the vendors, most of the stuff didn’t interest me in either place, although things were cheaper in Cambodia. Like many South Asian countries, there were also a lot of shops selling ready-made clothing. However, unlike Pakistan where, for example, a Gap label on a piece of clothing is surely bogus, in Cambodia, there were many things with brand labels that were real. Either that, or they had done their homework and copied well. In either case, I recognized several things of which I had bought the exact same thing in the States for a lot more.

Probably the clothing I saw with genuine brand labels was either not export quality, or else had been stolen from the local sweatshops and put on sale.

I didn’t get much in the markets – just another dollar t-shirt and a pack of cigarettes for my brother’s collection of smokes from around the world.

Noon came soon enough, and I was off to the airport.

It was a windy day, and our plane was delayed in its arrival to Siem Reap.

It showed up an hour late, and turned around and took us back to Bangkok.

At the Bangkok airport, I transferred for a domestic connection to the tropical island of Koh Samui.

We were in another small prop plane and it was not a smooth ride.

A little over an hour later, we touched down on Samui.

Koh Samui

As in Cambodia, I had booked a room and an airport pick-up.

I got off the plane, got my bags, and cleared customs. Then I walked through the pick-up area and read all the signs the drivers were holding. My name wasn’t there.

I called the resort place where I had booked, and the owner answered. Her name was Valerie (she was French, so the accent was on the last syllable). She sounded like a real featherbrain. She explained how I had arrived on the driver’s day off, so she was going to pick me up herself, but she ended up forgetting.

The short of it was that I had to catch a cab to the bottom of the hill where the resort was. The resort itself was a jungle resort, not a beach resort, and it was up a huge hill that overlooked the sea. The road was steep with deep fissures, and regular cars couldn’t make the trip.

I took the taxi and Valerie met me in her truck and drove me up to the resort. It was dark when I arrived, but the compound was still nice-looking.

Valerie, as I mentioned, was French. Her boyfriend, It, was Thai, and they had 2 children, a daughter, Chili, who was maybe 4 and an infant son, Pauwi.

The daughter could speak Thai, French, and English. She tossed a few questions at me, including the old, “Why do you have a beard?” I wasn’t sure if her question was why did I choose to have a beard, or – since most Thai men couldn’t grow beards if they wanted to – if her question was about how I physically came to have hair growing out of my jaw.

I told her that I had the beard cause I felt like it, and she was satisfied.

Valerie’s family and the staff were totally cool.

My first night, I sat by the pool and had some Thai beer. The mosquitoes had a field day.

My hut was a small, unair-conditioned deal. The main room was mostly filled with the bed and mosquito netting. Then there was a separate bathroom and shower.

That night, without A/C, I roasted.

I wasn’t sleeping that well, so I got up and watched the sun rise over the bay.

Later, at breakfast, Valerie and I were talking. It turned out that she knew a Frenchman who worked for the UN in Islamabad. I didn’t know him. She was going to have me look him up, but there was really no point since his tour was nearly over.

At breakfast, she suggested that I take a tour of the island. A friend of hers ran a touring business, so she recommended him. It sounded good and well to me, so I went for it. And half an hour later, I was in a jeep on Mr. Ung’s Magical Island Safari Tour.

My group consisted of 2 jeeps and about 20 people. The twenty people were not a single group, but several small ones. Oddly enough, though, they were all German. Evidently, Koh Samui is a huge German vacation spot.

What luck! I hate the sound of spoken German, and I got to listen to it all day.

Other than the Thai guide, no one spoke to me the whole day, except at lunch when one of the German ladies told me I looked whitish. Her friend clarified that they thought I looked ill. I told them that I was fine, just naturally pasty.

Of course, to be fair, I didn’t initiate any conversations with them, either.

It was on this jeep safari that I came to the realization that Koh Samui was not a good way to finish my vacation. The reason was twofold. Koh Samui is a beautiful island, and as such, a magnet for couples and honeymooners, in particular. I was there for 3 days, and I was constantly asked – in a mixture of amazement and pity – if I was there alone. I think I was the only party of one on the whole island.

That wasn’t so bad compared to the second problem. The rainy season kicked off while I was there, and it rained for most of my visit.

So getting back to the safari, our first stop was to some rock formations that looked like male and female genitalia. Not too impressive.

Next we went to a wildlife park, where we watched an elephant show and a monkey show, and then rode elephants around a loop.

The elephant show was painful to watch. The elephants looked totally miserable and the tricks they were made to do didn’t look natural or safe – and they weren’t. On a lot of the tricks, the elephants would shakily get into a position and hold it for a brief second before dropping back to all fours. Half the audience was horrified, and the other half was cheering.

After the tricks, the trainer brought the elephants over to the crowd and people posed with them for photos. One lame guy had bought a bunch of bananas at the food table outside the entrance to the show area, and kept acting shocked that the elephants were frisking him down to get them. What did he expect to happen when he brought the bananas over?

After the elephant show, there was a monkey show. It consisted of a monkey on a long tether climbing up a coconut tree and twisting off a coconut. It was a real snooze since the tree that the monkey was climbing was hardly visible from the bleachers. Like the elephants, the monkey didn’t seem to be having a real good time. He was straining at his leash, as if he were trying to go the wrong direction just to cheese off his trainer.

After the tree-climbing deal, the trainer was like, “Now I will show you how we train monkeys to get coconuts in Thailand.”

He held up a coconut by its stem, and the monkey started twisting it with his little hands. After several twists, the coconut broke off, and some people cheered. Most didn’t.

I thought it was lame – he wasn’t showing us how they trained monkeys. He was just showing us a monkey that was already trained.

With the animal shows finished, it was time to go “elephant trekking”. The trek was just a 20 minute walk around the animal park, often times with a view of the backs of the cages.

I boarded my elephant and my elephant handler looked like Martin Yan (from the cooking show Yan Can Cook that used to air back in the day). He didn’t look like the Yan of today, but rather the young one that I saw on TV in the 80s when Mom would watch his show.

So me and Martin Yan were on our trek, and he asked me the usual questions. When he heard I was from the U.S., he started singing a little song: “America has all the money; I have no money”. Then he would smile at me and sing his song again.

Call me culturally insensitive, but he was really annoying me.

At one point, he offered to take me on a detour to see something. I couldn’t understand what, but it didn’t matter. I told him to just take me back to the loading ramp.

We got to the ramp and I got off. And his song remained true – he got no tip. America left with all the money.

Before the group left the animal park, we took a short walk up to a small waterfall. Some people jumped in the pool at the bottom. I didn’t bother. It was a cold rainy day and I didn’t feel like getting soaked.

The next stop on the tour was lunch, and the restaurant was high in the hills. Up to this point, it was drizzling. Now it started raining much harder.

This ride up and down the hills was the highlight of the tour. The terrain was so bad and wet to boot that the drivers had to time everything – the shifting, the steering, the gas – perfectly. The vehicles were military jeeps. Supposedly regular 4-wheel-drive vehicles couldn’t have made the trip.

Since I was the one who didn’t fit in with the group and since I was alone, the tour guide had seated me up front in the passenger seat. At one point we couldn’t get up a slope, so most of the Germans in the back had to get out. We drove up in the jeep, and they had to walk up the hill in the mud and rain and meet us.

Through the course of the drive, we passed several overlooks. We didn’t stop at any of them since it was completely cloudy.

By the time we got to the restaurant it was raining buckets. Lunch was served family style, and it was good. Unfortunately, the sun was hidden and everyone was wet, so we were all freezing.

After lunch, we continued 4-wheeling down and out of the hills.

Next we went to a Buddha garden, where some guy had devoted his life to landscaping and building structures around several pieces of Buddhist statuary.

Some of the German girls took pictures posed as if they were licking the breasts of a female statue. Classy!

Our last stop was to the Big Buddha beach, which is famous for the Big Buddha. None of us cared to approach for a closer look, so we all photographed from the bottom of the stairs leading to it. It was still raining, and no one much felt like taking off their shoes.

And thus ended Mr. Ung’s Magical Island Safari Tour.

Not to sound ungrateful for Valerie’s suggestion, but I wished I had opted for Mr. Ung’s Magical Deep Sea Fishing Trip instead.

After the tour, I had the driver drop me off in town.

The main drag on Samui is along Chewang Beach, and it’s like a mini Bangkok. There are shops, bars, restaurants, tailors, and, of course, massage parlors.

I did a lot of walking, had some food and drink, and bought a few things. Then I called it a night and went back to my hut.

I had some good Thai food at the resort restaurant, and the mosquitoes feasted on me. When they finished sucking my blood, they looked like grapes. They were too fat to fly, so they would just crawl away. There were tons more than the night before.

The next day was my last full day, and I went back to the strip. I didn’t stay long, and spent the remainder of the day at the beach. The water was warm and clear. Unfortunately, it continued to rain all day long.

That evening, instead of calling Valerie for a pick-up, I decided to walk back to the resort. I found my way easy enough, and I started hiking up the monster hill. I believe she told me the road was 2 kilometers from top to bottom. Anyhow, it was a beast to walk. The steepest part was at least a 45-degree grade, and it was the only paved portion. As I was chugging up this section, It passed me driving down the hill on his way to the store.

That evening, I had drinks with the other 2 guests who were there. They were Australian.

The next day, I did pretty much the same thing – I puttered around town for a bit and went to the beach. I didn’t walk home though.

Back at the resort, I decided to finally use the pool.

I jumped in and was having a nice relaxing soak. Then I realized that I still had my wallet in my pocket. It was a cryin’ shame.

I got out of the pool, and walked up to the bar. I asked the bartender, who was also a general go-to guy, if he had a hairdryer I could borrow, and I don’t think he even knew what one was. I did a gesture to describe a hairdryer, and he thought I was worried about my hair.

I showed him my wallet, and he finally caught on.

The best he could do was provide towels, so he spread two bar towels across the bar. I laid out each bill and card from my wallet, and it was kind of embarrassing.

I have traveled and exchanged money in several countries. When I leave a country, I rarely change my money back since I never have more than the equivalent of 50 U.S. dollars, and I kind of like keeping all the foreign money. The dumb part was, though, that I had all this money, much from previous vacations, still in my wallet.

I was carrying over 60 bills, in 6 currencies. I had American greenbacks, Pakistani rupees, Cambodian riel, Thai baht, Chinese RMB, and Indian rupees, and everything was soaked.

I laid all the bills out, and the whole staff came over to look. Valerie and Chili also came for a look.

There were hands everywhere, grabbing bills for a closer look. I didn’t mind and mostly watched to make sure that my American dollars, which were hundreds, didn’t walk off. All the different monies lead to some questions about where all I had traveled before.

Then they started judging the money based on two categories: best looking person and best overall look. They decided that the Thai king was the most attractive person. They thought I would stick up for Benjamin Franklin, but I told them that we respected him for his mind, not his looks. For the best overall design, they picked one of the smaller-denomination Chinese RMB.
The bartender was very interested in the money. I gave him some of the worthless denominations (those worth less – sometimes, much less – than a dollar) from all of the currencies except the Thai and American, and he looked like a kid in a candy shop.

After a bit, the money was pretty dry, so I put the bills in the pages of a book to dry the rest of the way.

As it was my last night, I had dinner and settled my account.

Valerie and It dashed off shortly before I did, on the way to the doctor. Earlier It had stepped on some spiky plant that went through his foot. It was now infected and he was in some serious pain.

The driver dropped me off at the airport, and it was still rainy and cloudy. The plane I was supposed to catch was late. All the flights for the day had gotten pushed back though, so they changed my ticket and put me on the next flight that was departing. Traveling alone was to my advantage in that situation.

It was another bumpy ride, but we landed back in Bangkok without much drama. The flight landed at the time I was scheduled to land had my original flight gone on time, so I was happy enough. Unfortunately for the people who were ticketed on the plane from the start, it was an hour and a half late.

A delay of an hour and a half shouldn’t normally cause that much havoc with connections, but one young French couple clearly had not allowed enough time. The wife was making a big fuss. The flight attendants were calling all around, and they managed to have the connecting flight wait and to get their bags immediately transferred. The woman was totally ungrateful and kept whining, “We aren’t going to make it. We aren’t going to make it.” If we had been in a movie, someone would have gone over to her and slapped her several times. She could have used it.

I got my stuff and caught a taxi to my hotel.


Bangkok was just as busy and dirty and hot and sweaty as I remembered it. In reference to Gotham City in the first Batman movie, Joker shouts, “This town needs an enema!” Well, that goes double for Bangkok.

I arrived on a Saturday night, so I checked-in to my hotel and then walked around town. I had dinner at a bar among the bar girls and called it a night.

The next day, I went to the weekend market on the edge of town. This particular market is huge, and is said to be the largest shopping area in the world.

I didn’t buy anything since I didn’t want to lug anything else around in my luggage, but this was definitely my kind of place. I spent a few hours looking around and elbowing my way through walls of people. Then I rode the skytrain back downtown.

By now, my time was nearly up, so I hit the mall and had a Dairy Queen Blizzard. It would have to tide me over for possibly 9 more months.

Then it was back to the hotel and on to the airport. Since it was Sunday, traffic was lighter than usual.

We loaded up and took off, and I slept for most of the flight. A quick four hours and forty minutes later, I was in Lahore – back in Pakistan.

The way the flight schedules fell, I couldn’t get back to Islamabad from Bangkok without overnighting in Lahore.

We got to Lahore close to midnight and the driver from the Avari Hotel was there to receive me and a few other passengers.

The Avari was a swell way to end my vacation. In Bangkok, I had stayed at a junky property. The Avari was a much nicer hotel, and the staff was much more friendly. I watched a little TV, and sent some text messages to my friends in Islamabad, since my cell phone now had service again. It was late, but I got some immediate responses.

The only downside of my brief stop in Lahore was that it was too brief. I got there after midnight and left by 6:00 AM so I could catch the first flight to Islamabad.

In no time flat, I was back in Islamabad, and my vacation was done.

As always, it was great to return to my house. My guard was glad to see me and asked how my family was. That is one of the few things he can say in English.

I dropped my bags at my house, and then it was straight to the office. Oh joy!

All told, over the course of 3 weeks, I spent 55 and a half hours with my butt in coach on 14 different flights. And I circled the globe in the process.

The germs in my gut accomplished the same feat!

Anyhow, I got to hang with some of my favorite people, see some neat stuff, and do some cool things. So even with a snag here or there along the way, this vacation was not too shabby. Not too shabby, indeed.