Where’s Mommy?
August 3-8, 2003

Jossi pooped on the plane.

Twice.

Thus began my 5 day vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I was joining Tom, Andrea and their just-turned-two-year-old daughter, Jocelyn. Andrea had arranged a travel package where one price included air fare, room and board, and unlimited drinks at the hotel bars. It would be a week of intensive relaxation and babysitting.

After the 3-hour, 2-diaper flight, we took a bus to our hotel: La Jolla de Mismaloya. This beach-front resort featured an expansive courtyard with multiple pools, gardens, and fake rock formations. There were two restaurants, plus a Cantina and a Sports Bar. The four of us shared a suite, with a separate bedroom for Jossi.

Puerto Vallarta is on the Pacific coast of Mexico, in the region of Jalisco. Jalisco is located in the heart of Mexico. And the heart of Mexico is located in Jalisco, in a town called Tequila. The town of Tequila is surrounded by Agave plants and is very scenic. But it was too far away to visit without abandoning our goal of complete relaxation. So we let Tequila come to us.

On the first morning, there was some guy swimming out in the ocean. I’ve never been much of a swimmer myself. But then I started dating Jennifer, and she was training for a triathlon. In order to spend as much time with her as possible, I joined Jennifer on many runs, bike rides, and even swims. I eventually decided that if I was going to do the training, I might as well do the race. And so, a week before leaving for Puerto Vallarta, I signed up for the Treasure Island triathlon (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run). It’s November 1.

And so I was the guy out there swimming.

After my swim, I joined Tom, Andrea, and Jossi in the pool. As usual, the hotel was playing upbeat Mexican music. Tom and I waded over to the swim-up bar. Tom’s one requirement for Andrea in choosing a hotel was that there be a swim-up bar. Tom theorized that most swimming pool accidents occur while getting in and out of the pool; so a swim-up bar was an important safety feature.

The drinks and service at the bar were first-rate. The hotel had issued us bracelets that we would flash to get free drinks – great fun. Soon Andrea and Jossi joined us. Jossi impressed the bartender by standing on her stool and “bellying up” to the bar. We beamed with pride.

That afternoon, back at the room, I took my first turn at babysitting. Jossi was taking a nap. I volunteered to stay with her so Tom and Andrea could go relax by the pool. They hesitated, not wanting to leave me alone with the baby when she wakes up. She would cry horribly, they said.

But I insisted, and they went to the pool. Before leaving, Andrea told me that when Jossi wakes up I should ignore the cries, scoop her up, and bring her down to the pool. Jossi had been sleeping for 20 minutes. Hopefully she’d sleep another hour.

She slept another five minutes.

When the crying started, I waited, hoping our vacationing baby would go back to sleep. But her cries only got louder, so I opened the door and went in.

Jossi was standing on her bed. Her nose was an inch from the wall, as if she was trying to walk through it. Her fists were clenched, tears were running down her cheeks, and she was wailing. This was bad.

I crawled onto the bed, and we had a conversation that went something like this:

“Hi, Jossi.”

“Go away!”

“Are you done sleeping?”

“Mommy!”

“Let’s go find mommy.”

“No! I want Mommy!”

“Right. Let’s go down to mommy.”

“No! Go Away!  Mommy!”

The dialog ended with Jossi crying back into the wall.

Determined not to be intimidated by a two-year-old, I brought her to the edge of the bed, put on her shoes, scooped her up, and told her we were going to mommy and daddy.

Now that it was clear we were on our way, Jossi settled down a bit. But I wasn’t happy. I was supposed to give Tom and Andrea some “away time.” I was failing.

So I stalled.

Andrea had given me a bag of dried cherries – Jossi’s favorite snack.

“Jossi, before we leave, do you want a cherry?”

“Two.”

“Okay, two. That a girl. Here’s a third. Good. How about a fourth?”

“Mommy!!!”

“Okay, no more cherries. But before we leave, we need to turn off all the lights. Here’s one. <<click>>  Jossi, where are the other lights?”

Jossi directed me to all the light switches.

“Okay, good, we can go now. But first we need to close all the doors.” Jossi helped me close the door to her room, the balcony, the closet, and all the cabinets.

We then left the hotel room. We were on the 8th floor. We took the steps. At each floor, we stopped and looked at the view.

When we reached the ground floor, we took the long way to the pool, around the back of the hotel.

“Hey, Jossi, check it out, it’s the administrative offices. Wave to the nice man at the desk.”

She waved. The nice man smiled.

“Look, Jossi, this is where they prepare our food. Are you hungry? Want a cherry?”

We found a garden and looked for birds.

We stopped at a fountain and watched the water.

We eventually made our way to the hotel entrance. I sat on the curb, with Jossi standing next to me, and we observed taxis dropping off guests. She was fascinated by this. Suddenly Jossi turned to me, put her head on my shoulder, and gave me a hug. This was good.

We made our way back to mommy and daddy. When I told them that Jossi had only slept another five minutes, they were amazed. We had been away for two hours.

That night Tom and I went out, looking for a way to celebrate my babysitting tour de force. The town was a long bus ride away, so we figured there’d be some nightlife at the hotel. We figured wrong. No one was by the pool. The restaurants were closed. The Cantina, featuring nightly tequila tastings, was open, but empty. We finally went into the hotel’s sports bar.

It was packed.

With kids.

They were playing arcade games, air hockey, and pool. Some were dancing to music from the juke box. They were choosing the wrong songs.

Having nowhere else to go, we got a couple beers and played a Truck Driver video game. I drove. Tom operated the CB. We then muscled in on the air hockey table. We played a few games, then called it a night.

The next morning, Tom and I paddled kayaks out to what was either a really big rock or very small island. It was just us and the pelicans, until a big boat dumped off about 75 snorklers wearing orange life vests. So we paddled over to the other side of the island. Now it was just us and the … vultures?

“We should probably get back to relieve Andrea,” said Tom.

“Yeah,” said I.

That afternoon Tom stayed with Jossi, while I accompanied Andrea into town to do some shopping. We walked through a market of stands selling gift items. Each time we approached a stand, a salesperson standing outside would say, “My turn!”

I bought a hat from the first person who didn’t say that.

That night, back at the hotel, Tom and I went to the Cantina and tasted some tequilas. We then went to the Sports Bar, but we couldn’t take all the teenagers, so we sat outside and played chess.

After breakfast the next morning, I left for another ocean swim. A bit later, Tom and Jossi came out to the beach to watch me. But I had forgotten my goggles and gone back to the room, so it was someone they saw swimming.

“Nice form,” thought Tom, “and nice … hair?”

I did eventually take my swim, then joined the family back at the pool. We played pool volleyball. After the game, Tom and I went to the bar and ordered Bloody Mary’s. But the bartender apparently misunderstood because he served us funny-looking drinks that were pink on the bottom and white on top. They were quite … well, feminine. We then noticed that three of the guys we’d been playing volleyball against were at the other end of the bar, pointing at our drinks and laughing.

The drinks were good, though.

That afternoon I embarked on my next babysitting adventure. We were all at the pool, and I volunteered to take for a walk. We went over to the kiddie pool and watched people go down a slide. We were there about twenty minutes when I saw Tom approaching. He signaled that he could relieve me. But I waved him off – I could do better than 20 minutes. So I turned away, not wanting Tom to have a chance to insist. As I turned, Tom was making a gesture that I didn’t catch. In retrospect, he may have been indicating that he and Andrea were going back to the room.

A bit later, Jossi got bored with the kiddie pool, so I picked her up, and we went for a slow walk around the pool complex. We were about half way around when Jossi uttered, “Mommy?”

No problem. “Look at the pretty flowers, Jossi,”

“Where’s Mommy?”

“Mommy is relaxing with Daddy. Let’s go see what’s over here.” We continued our walk.

“I want Mommy.” There was more urgency in Jossi’s voice.

“Mommy is having fun. Look at that pretty waterfall.”

Jossi started to cry.

“Okay, Jossi, lets go find Mommy.”

She stopped crying. I began walking faster.

When we were around the bend from where Mommy was last seen, Jossi could no longer hold back:  “Waaahh!  Whaaahh!”

“Jossi, Jossi, she’s right around the corner. Let’s make mommy happy and not be crying when she sees you. Okay, sweetie?”

Jossi fought back the tears. A real trooper. We rounded the corner.

We saw the chair with Mommy’s stuff. But there was no mommy.

“Mommy?” Jossi and I both uttered.

I had to think fast. “Okay, Jossi, Mommy and Daddy probably went to look for us at the kiddie pool.” I carried Jossi over.

Nada.

“Whaaaah! Mommy!”

People were watching. I felt sure they were thinking that I had stolen this poor, screaming baby from her mother.

“I think Mommy and Daddy went to the beach. Let’s go there.” We walked the 25 yards to the beach, where we found sand, waves, beachgoers … but no parents that we recognized.

“Waaaaahh!”

I now had to decide whether to take Jossi up to the room. I knew Tom and Andrea might be there, but I was horrified by the thought of how Jossi would react if they weren’t. So we went back to the pool and the staring guests.

“Mommy and Daddy will be right back. We need to watch their things till they return. Will you help do that, Jossi?”

Amazingly, this worked. But only for a minute. Then it was over. Jossi began crying at the top of her lungs.

I had no choice but to flee with my kidnapped baby and go to the room. In the elevator, Jossi became eerily silent. When we reached the door to the room, she began crying again. I held my breath as a I fumbled for the key.

Mommy opened the door.

The next 30 seconds went like this: Andrea took Jossi from my arms into hers, I went outside to our balcony, Tom brought me a beer from the mini-bar, Jossie threw up all over mommy.

[Jocelyn, if you ever read this, thank you for waiting. Now apologize to your mother.]

That night Tom and I went out, looking for a way to forget my babysitting trauma. We walked up the hill to a picturesque restaurant and bar that had been the set for “Night of the Iguana,” a classic film where Richard Burton plays a middle-aged minister who keeps getting seduced by young women and seeks refuge in Puerto Vallarta. We looked at movie pictures on the walls, then began walking back to our hotel.

Along the way, we heard music coming from the side of the road. Feeling adventurous, Tom and I walked up a dirt path and found a little outdoor bar with a thatch roof, dilapidated pool table, and old jukebox. Some local villagers were there.

An older man sitting at a table waved us over to join him for a beer. His name was Manuel. He was a fisherman. We bought him a beer. He told us about how our hotel was built where their village used to be and that the villagers had to relocate. After he loosened up, he began referring to our hotel as “the fucking hotel.”

After he loosened up even more, he asked if we wanted some girls.

We politely said no. Perhaps too politely, because a couple minutes later, there she was, a girl. She looked to be about 16. She sat at our table and started flirting with Tom.

Tom showed her his ring and said, “I’m married.” He then added: “But my friend here isn’t. And he’s good-looking.”

Thanks, Tom.

The girl immediately turned her attention to me. “Ohhhh, yes, he’s very good-looking.” She then called over our waitress and said, “Isn’t he handsome?” The waitress looked at me, then just laughed.

Bonding with the locals wasn’t going according to plan, so we finished our beers, walked back to the fucking hotel, and played air hockey with the teenagers.

On the last morning, Tom and I rode mountain bikes a few miles up the hill to the set of “The Predator,” an 80’s movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. As Californians, this was important political research.

Back at the hotel, the family faced a dilemma. Our all-you-can-eat-and-drink deal ended at 2pm. But our shuttle to the airport wouldn’t leave till 6pm. This meant 4 hours of awkwardness during which we’d have to pay for stuff.

Not having free access to the swim-up bar proved a difficult adjustment, and we had to try hard to distract ourselves. By the end of the afternoon, Tom and I had confiscated Jossi’s blow-up inner tube and were tossing it at each other, trying to land it over each other’s head.

I’m not sure what the hotel staff and guests thought about the two bald guys and their game of human horseshoes, but one thing was clear: it was time for them to go home.

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The Philippines
August 10-16, 2003

I was home for 24 hours, then went to the other side of the world with my friend’s wife.

The friend: Bill
The friend’s wife: Gia

Bill and I met in high school. We became friends because we were both playing a computer game called Zork, a ‘text adventure’ where you make the decisions for the hero of an interactive story. We talked about it incessantly.

One of us, at least, eventually found a wife in spite of the Zork-thing.

Gia grew up in the Philippines. From her stories, I’d gathered that she spent her childhood surrounded by servants, exotic fruit, big bugs, and political intrigue. She went to college in America and met Bill shortly afterwards. They now have a two year old boy, Giles.

Before I left for Puerto Vallarta, Gia told me that she was going to the Philippines for a one-week trip to visit her sick grandmother. Bill would be staying home to take care of Giles, so she invited me to tag along.

And so I would be going to Asia for my first time.

We flew Philippine Airlines. Gia’s mother, Mrs. Ferry, was able to upgrade our tickets to Business Class … perhaps because Gia’s father, Mr. Ferry, used to be the Minister of Transportation under Ferdinand Marcos.

Ferdinand Marcos was the president/dictator of the Philippines from 1965-1986. In the early ‘80’s, Marcos’ power was threatened by a popular political rival, Beningno Aquino. In 1983 Aquino was assassinated, and people suspected that Marcos was behind it. The outpouring of support for Aquino inspired his widow, Cory Aquino, to run against Marcos in the 1986 election. Marcos won, but the Filipino people believed that the election was rigged and drove Marcos into exile (he sought refuge in America, which is when we learned that his wife, Imelda, owned several thousand pairs of shoes.) Anyway, Cory Aquino took over (she was sworn in at a nightclub) and served 6 years. During her tenure, there were 6 coup attempts, all of which failed. In 1992 she was succeeded by her Secretary of Defense, Fidel Ramos, who had the important qualification of being the guy who foiled the 6 coup attempts. Ramos served until 1998, at which point he lost an election to Joseph Estrada, who had the important qualification of being a TV star. Estrada’s presidency, befitting his prior career, was a soap opera of sex and lies. In 2001 public outrage over Estrada’s blatant corruption and numerous mistresses forced him to resign. Gloria Arroyo replaced him. She was still in power during my visit, having survived a failed military mutiny just a few weeks prior to my arrival.

The Ferry’s driver picked us up from the airport. The streets of Manila were filled with Jeepneys: Jeeps, supposedly left from WWII, that have been stretched so that 20 people can be crammed in back. Jeepneys are the Filipino version of the Central American busses.

To get to Gia’s house, we drove past a shanty town slum, then through a gated middle-class area, then into a gated upper-class neighborhood. We had a sticker on our car that allowed us to drive through the gates.

Mr. and Mrs. Ferry greeted us at the house, and we sat down to a breakfast of aforementioned exotic fruit, served by aforementioned servants. The aforementioned big bugs were not present.

After a nap, we visited Mr. Ferry’s place of work. Mr. Ferry is a semi-retired lawyer. On the wall of his office, I read a newspaper article about his service as Minister of Transportation. The article praised Mr. Ferry for his success in fighting the corruption which was running rampant. Although it wasn’t mentioned in the article, I knew that Mr. Ferry’s efforts resulted in threats to his family, which I suspect is one reason Gia was sent to America for college.

Gia and I then went to Mrs. Ferry’s office, where she runs the Philippines division of an international pharmaceutical research and consulting company. She took us to lunch at the Manila Polo Club, where Gia hung out when she was growing up. The place was huge. There were tennis courts, a softball field, pool tables, ping pong tables, badminton courts, 25 and 50 meter pools, a golf driving range, a horse riding course, a library, multiple restaurants, and, yes, a Polo field.

After lunch, we drove around Manila. We passed by the Rockport Apartments, the locale of the attempted mutiny against Gloria Arroyo three weeks earlier.

We didn’t go in.

The next morning I was the first one to the breakfast table. There I was, just me, with a bunch of unidentifiable fruit, a Filipino newspaper written in English, and some Turkey SPAM.

I read the paper.

The front-page headlines announced who was behind the military mutiny against President Arroyo. Amazingly, the mutiny was secretly orchestrated by the wife of Joseph Estrada (the former president) and one of his mistresses.  That’s right, Estrada’s wife AND his mistress conspired to avenge him! Reading the articles, however, revealed that there was no proof. It was, to my disappointment, only a theory. I had heard that the Filipino press was sensationalist, but this was ridiculous.

After breakfast, I did some e-mail using the Internet connection in Mr. Ferry’s home office.

Mr. Ferry’s “home office” is actually house in the back yard. It features a computer, a dozen chess sets, a projection TV, and a collection of DVD’s numbering in the thousands. When Bill joins Gia on her trips home, this is where you can find him.

Mr. Ferry’s office also has a world globe. Looking at the globe, I was struck by the waste of coming all the way to Asia and only staying for one week.

I should go visit people!

I then thought of Dave’s mom, Penny. When Dave and I were in high school, Dave’s mother was working at a successful real estate firm that she co-founded. But she gave that up to pursue a more spiritually meaningful life. She was now living in India, where she was using her home as a shelter for stray dogs.

Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner … I could go to India and help take care of doggies! And so I e-mailed Dave asking if he thought his mom would like a visitor. More on this later.

I joined the Ferry’s on a day trip to Tagaytay, a nearby volcano. On the way we drove through a town that was lined with dozens of roadside stores. Each store was a small house with a big sign. The signs were more endearing than helpful. They read: “Mary’s Store”, “Don’s Store”, “Rica’s Store”, etc.

We arrived to the top of the volcano, where there was, of course, a golf course. At the clubhouse we met a friend of Mrs. Ferry who lived in a nearby volcano-side condo. She had arranged for us to be given a tour of a deluxe log cabin built by the infamous ex-president Estrada. Estrada had the huge cabin built for one of his mistresses. Now people can rent out the cabin for $1,000 per night. And that doesn’t even include the mistress.

After arriving back home, Mr. Ferry and I went out to the back house/office to watch a movie. He tasked me with selecting a movie from the thousands of DVD’s lining the walls. As I browsed the titles, I felt like my entire identity would be determined by the movie I picked. Mr. Ferry was watching. The pressure was immense. And I wasn’t even courting Gia.

I finally gave in to my insecurities and asked Mr. Ferry for a recommendation. He suggested a film called Insomnia. I took his suggestion. But I don’t remember much of the movie. Despite the title, I found it difficult to keep awake.

The next morning, I again arrived to breakfast early. The paper had abandoned the notion that the coup attempt was orchestrated by Estrada’s women. It was now known that the mutiny was a spontaneous act by some disgruntled military officers.

It was now Thursday. Gia and I were scheduled to fly home on Monday. I did not yet know if I’d be going to India, and I was thinking of making a quick weekend excursion before Monday’s possible return home. When Mr. Ferry sat down to breakfast, I shared my thoughts. He recommended that I visit Hong Kong. Gia arrived to the table. She said that I should go to Singapore. Mrs. Ferry then sat down. Her suggestion wasBangkok.

The only thing they agreed upon was that I should go somewhere.

I decided on Hong Kong. It was closest.

I spent the day with Gia getting my flight for the next day. The highlight was lunch: an authentic Filipino meal consisting of, I wrote it down, Sisig (diced beef and pig’s lard), Laing (spinach sautéed in coconut milk), and rice with fish. We washed it down with coconut juice.

That evening I joined Gia in a night out with some of her childhood friends. We went to Lanny and Eileen’s place, a fancy, downtown, high-rise condo. Kit and Lisa joined us there. We then went to a restaurant where we were met by Joel and Fay. Gia and her friends reminisced and gossiped all night. The group was fun, smart, sophisticated, and spoke perfect English. It didn’t feel like I was on the other side of the world.

The next morning, I was driven to the airport at 4:30 am for my flight to Hong Kong. It was too early to read the paper, so I never found out what theory that day’s paper held in store for the Filipino public.

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Hong Kong Weekend
August 17-20, 2003

The first five things I learned about Hong Kong were:

#1 – It is only a 1 hour and 20 minute flight from Manila, over the South China Sea.
#2 – Set amid coastal islands and jutting mountains, with skyscrapers and ships as far as the eye can see, Hong Kong is a stunning sight from an airplane.
#3 – The airport is nice too.
#4 – If you tip an old Chinese guy and he starts doing a slow-motion martial attack on you, he’s only bowing.
#5 – In Hong Kong, they drive on the left side of the road.

I splurged on a nice hotel. My room was ultra-modern and chic, with a nice view.

I did laundry in the bathroom sink.

After hanging my wet clothes, I went for a walk, looking for a place to eat. The few restaurants I found were too scary to go into, so I settled for a hot dog from a store.

Back at my room, I was finally able to reach Dave’s mom, Penny, in India. She was thrilled that I might visit. In addition to wanting to see me, she could use my help with the dogs.

And so it was decided, I would be going to India.

But first I needed a Visa. To get a Visa, you need to go to a U.S. embassy, ask for the Visa, then pick it up 5 days later at the same embassy. That meant staying in one place for a week, either in Hong Kong or somewhere else. My hot dog hadn’t settled well, so I was leaning towards somewhere else.

Thailand was on the way to India – and I love Thai food. So I sent e-mail to friends asking what they thought of Thailand as the next Following Alex destination. Mike Bank, who you know from the Budapest/Vienna/Prague entries, replied that in Thailandyou can get a 2 hour massage for $5.

And so it was decided, I would be going to Thailand.

Then India.

With my trip extended, I couldn’t keep slacking off on my triathlon training. So I went to the hotel’s gym on the 32nd floor and ran on the treadmill. As I gazed out over Hong Kong, it occurred to me that world travel and triathlon training might not be a bad combination.

It was now time for dinner, so I again ventured out in search of food – this time in a different direction. The first place I found was the Happy Kitchen Express. I kept walking. I finally ended up at a place called the Fantasy Vegetarian Restaurant.

Everything on the menu was so cheap that I decided to order the most expensive dish: shark-fin soup.

Shark-fin soup is a delicacy in China. They consider it to be an aphrodisiac.

Eating shark-fin soup is an ethical no-no because it encourages “finning,” a horrible practice where people cut the fin off a shark, then leave it to drown. But my conscience is clear because a) I didn’t know about finning at the time and b) the waitress wouldn’t serve me shark-fin soup anyway. When I asked for a large bowl, she said “too big.” When I asked for a small bowl, she said “not for you.”

Apparently I would have been a waste of a perfectly good aphrodisiac.

She then suggested something that I did not understand. I smiled and nodded. She returned 30 seconds later with a big bowl of soup made from beans, vegetables and cashews.

I smiled and ate the soup.

She then brought dessert. I smiled again – it was more soup, this time made from pineapple and corn.

After my super soup supper, I was ready for anything. So I got on the subway, to go anywhere.

The Hong Kong subway is very user-friendly. It’s modern, it’s clean, and there’s a map in each car with lights that turn on to show you where you are. You’re on your own, however, in not mixing up the Wan Chai station with the Chai Wan station or the Sheung Wan station with the Tsuen Wan station.

I got off somewhere, walked along some pier, saw some big buildings, stopped at some Internet café and did some e-mail. I then retraced my steps back to the hotel, where I perused my Lonely Planet guide book to find a less expensive, more authentic, place to stay. I decided on a room at the “notorious” Chung King Mansion.

The next morning I was ready to leave. But my clothes were not. They were still wet. So I spent an hour using the room’s low-powered hair dryer to finish drying them. I then subwayed over to the Kowloon district, home to the Chung King Mansion.

The Chung King Mansion is not a mansion. It is not even a house. Rather, it’s a 25 story concrete building with walls that are black with soot. The ground floor is junk market: a maze of flimsy stands selling suspicious merchandise to seedy patrons. My elevator was located deep in this maze. Outside the elevator was a TV screen showing the inside of the elevator. This way, if someone was getting mugged in the elevator, the next guy would know to be careful.

As I rode up, I saw that each floor was different. There were apartments, businesses, eateries, and what were probably sweatshops. When I got off at my floor, I was relieved to find a clean, well-lit guest house. The owner was friendly and showed me to my room. It was a tiny 10’x6′ room, but it had air conditioning and a TV with 4 stations (3 of which were the same).

I took a nap in my 60 square foot sanctuary, then went back to my original, fancy hotel, where I had forgotten a shirt hanging in the shower. A maid retrieved the shirt for me from the hotel’s laundry room, where they had been in the process of re-washing it.

With my wet shirt in a plastic bag, I proceeded on to Hong Kong’s biggest tourist attraction: Victoria Peak. On the way, I walked through the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, filled with exotic birds, beautiful plants, and signs pointing to the Jaguar exhibit.

The Jaguar was asleep.

Victoria Peak is accessible by a little old train that climbs an insanely steep mountain. At the top are restaurants and shops surrounding a plaza. From the plaza, one has a breathtaking view of Hong Kong, far below. The place was packed with tourists. They were all Asian, though, so I was a tourist among tourists.

On the train ride down the mountain, I sat next to a cute little girl about 8 years old. She spent the first half of the ride giggling at me and the second half practicing the few English words that she knew. Her parents seemed happy that she was getting to interact with an American. So now I was both a tourist and a tourist attraction. I guess, in life, that’s what we all are.

I found a place for dinner: a traditional Chinese buffet. The restaurant was closing, so I barely had time to race through the buffet for one pile of food. It was enough.

My post-dinner walk brought me to a district that catered to ex-pats. There were lots of clubs and go-go bars. As I walked by the fourth one of the latter, I decided to look in.

I parted the black curtains and stepped inside.

Time slowed down as I absorbed the scene. There was a bar. There was a stage behind the bar. There was music. There were attractive, barely dressed, Asian women. Lots of them. Some were dancing on the stage, some were just milling about, and two were talking to the overweight Caucasian guy sitting at the bar.

Even with time slowed down, it was only an instant before a dozen topless women were turning to smile at me. Some said hello. Some waved demurely. Some just kept smiling. Each, in her own way, was beckoning me to come in.

I felt the sirens’ call.

But then I caught the eye of the overweight Caucasian guy.

He wasn’t beckoning me in.

The spell was broken, and I stepped back outside.

I went shopping instead.

Hong Kong is like Las Vegas: the buildings are big, the lights are bright, and the streets are crowded. But instead of gambling, people are shopping. Back on Nathan Road, outside the Chung King mansion, it was 11pm and there were throngs of people shopping. I did my part, patronizing a 4-story cosmetics store, where I purchased sun tan lotion, vitamins, and shaving cream.

I then returned to my room, alone with my broken spell.

My flight to Bangkok was the next afternoon.

I started the morning with a walk through Kowloon Park, a peaceful setting filled with gardens, ponds, and people doing Tai Chi and meditating. There was a McDonalds too, so I got an Egg McMuffin.

I had some time before my flight, so I went to the Seasons Fitness Center, a high-end health club in the financial district. I bought a day-pass, then rode a stationary bike, lifted weights, and went for a swim.

The pool only had two lanes. I was alone at first, but then a woman joined me. She was swimming faster than me, but it wasn’t a problem because we each had our own lane.

Then this other guy showed up. He chose to share my lane, incorrectly assuming that the guy swimming freestyle would be going faster than the middle-aged woman doing the breast stroke.

As much as I did not want to share my lane, I was at least prepared because Jennifer had taught me proper lane sharing etiquette. When sharing a lane, you stay on the right side. When you get to the end of the pool, you move over, then swim back on the right side. This way the swimmers are following each other around in a circle. If a slower swimmer sees that a faster swimmer is about to catch up, he waits at the end of the pool until the faster swimmer passes.

This other guy looked like an experienced swimmer, so I figured he knew the rule.

As we were swimming towards each other, I made sure to stay to the right. When we were getting close, I looked up ahead. He was on my side of the lane, headed directly at me! We were going to crash if one of us didn’t move over.

I was felt strongly about not moving for this guy, so I stayed the course.

So did he.

We got closer. And closer. We were about to collide. Then it occurred to me.

In Hong Kong, they drive on the left side of the road.

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Alone in Thailand
August 20-26, 2003

I was in Thailand. So when I ordered an “Iced Tea”, I was expecting the traditional sweet and creamy drink you get in Thai restaurants. I really like those.

They served me a Lipton.

It turns out that in Thailand, if you want a Thai Iced Tea, you need to ask for a “Traditional Thai Iced Tea”.

But enough about tea.

The Thai tradition that I was really looking forward to was a Thai massage. Also known as Ancient Massage, the practice originates from the time of the Buddha and shares many of the principles of yoga. I had never had a Thai massage before but had heard that you wear pajama-like clothing while a masseuse stretches and massages you, sometimes with her feet.

According to ancientmassage.com, a Thai Massage has the following benefits:

For the receiver

The joy of receiving
Calmness and rest
The simplicity of accepting help
A refreshed spirit
A general increase of energy
An opening of the meridians and blocked areas of the body
Relief for pain and muscle tension
The body and mind (heart) are strengthened and rejuvenated
Blood and lymph circulation are improved
An increase in flexibility
The nervous system is balanced
Deep relaxation is facilitated

For the giver

The joy of generosity
The joy of compassion
The joy of equanimity
The joy of oneness
Feeling of loving kindness
The adamantine pride of the healer

Whether or not you know what adamantine means, getting a Thai massage should be a priority for anyone visiting Thailand.

But it turns out that in Thailand, if you want a Thai Massage, you need to ask for a “Traditional Thai Massage”.

I learned that this way …

My flight into Bangkok arrived at night, so I didn’t get to the hotel till 10pm. It was raining, so I wandered around the indoor hotel shops. They were all closed – except one.

The sign read: Hair Salon & Massage.

Somewhat to my surprise, I went in.

I told the woman at the counter that I’d like a massage. She quoted me a price, then brought me through a black curtain into a small room with a massage table.

She left me to change into a skimpy towel. The towel didn’t seem to be the right attire for stretching, but I went with it.

I lay face down on the table, with the towel covering roughly 5% of my body. She came back in and began massaging my legs. With oil. Without her blouse.

Now I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck – I knew this massage could go any number of directions. But I tried to put all the awkward possibilities out of my mind and just relax.

I was enjoying my leg rub when a sudden, stirring sensation raced through my body. The fingernails of my masseuse had just brushed against things I didn’t even know were accessible from back there.

I told myself it was an accident.

I hoped it would happen again.

It did, several times, and for a few exhilarating minutes, I was a hapless but happy victim of a masseuse with errant fingernails.

Then she started talking.

In broken English, she conveyed that there were more options available beyond just a massage.

I was reluctant. She was persistent. The rest of the hour was part massage, part sales pitch.

My reluctance won out. Well, mostly.

So there you have it – my first two hours in Thailand.

The next day, after sleeping in, my first my first order of business was to apply for my Visa for India. I took a cab to the Indian Embassy, where I found a line out the door. There was no way I’d get through before the end of the day, so I grabbed the forms I needed and left. I would come back the next day – earlier.

Having no plans for the rest of the afternoon, or week for that matter, I went for a walk.

On just about every block, there was a sign saying “Traditional Thai Massage.”

I summoned my nerve and went into one of the nicer looking places – a hair parlor where, this time, people were actually getting their hair done. I requested a 2 hour Traditional Thai Massage. The price on the wall was $7.

The lady took me in back, had me take off my shoes, and sent me up some steps to a well-heated room with pads along the floor. On one of the pads sat a Thai girl, about 16, reading a magazine. She jumped up and, with a shy smile, told me her name – it sounded like “Jan.” She then handed me some clothes that did indeed look like pajamas.

I changed behind a curtain, then sat on one of the pads. Jan brought out some warm water and proceeded to scrub my feet with a brush.

Pajamas. Feet scrubbing. This would be good.

And it was.

For two blissful hours, she massaged and stretched me – often standing on my back to get better leverage.

During the best moments, I had the sensation that the goodwill of everyone on the planet was being channeled through Jan to me.

Maybe it was. If so, thank you.

After my spiritually uplifting massage, I continued on my totally aimless walk. I soon found myself at the entrance to a street that was closed to traffic. On each side of the street were colorful buildings with cheesey, country-western facades. Over the entrance to the street was an arched sign covered with lights. It read “Soi Cowboy – Street of Entertainment.”

I walked down the street, quickly realizing that it was entertainment of the adult variety. The buildings were all pubs or go-go bars. They had names like Raw Hide, Moonshine Joint, Lucky Star, Fanny’s, Cactus Club, and Apache. Being daytime, the street was a ghost town. I didn’t stick around to see what came out at night.

I was now almost a day into my Thailand visit, and I still had no idea how I would spend my week. I was seriously considering spending the entire time getting seven dollar, 2-hour Thai massages. Were it not for the fact that I would be chronicling my week in Following Alex, I may well have done so.

Instead I decided to go on a group bike tour. A bike tour would be a perfect way to see the country, meet people, and stay in shape for my triathlon. So I went to a travel agent.

There was a 4 day bike tour that was perfect. We’d be cycling amid tropical fruit orchards and coconut plantations, by traditional Thai temples, houses, and schools, along a floating market on the Meklong River, past the world’s highest pagoda, across the Bridge over the River Kwai, and through the ancient city of Ayutthaya.

But the tour had just left the day before. And there were no other bike tour options for the next few days.

So I did the next best thing – I went to the Bangkok 24-hour Fitness and bought a week-long pass. I could take spinning classes.

There were no more spinning classes that day, so I rode the elliptical stairmaster. In addition to pedals, this clever machine has hand-holds that go back and forth, allowing you to workout your arms as well as your legs. And there’s even a cup-holder.

But be careful as you drink. When you’re raising your water bottle, it’s possible for one of the moving hand-holds to smack the bottle into your face and dump the water all over you.

Fortunately there’s a snack bar right behind you, where you can buy a replacement bottle of water. And you’re in Asia, so it’s unlikely that you were seen by anyone you know.

Early the morning I went to the Indian Embassy with my Visa forms. In line I spoke to a guy from Ireland who had given up the farm (literally) to move to India to become, best I could tell, a full-time meditator (that’s meditator, not mediator). I submitted my Visa request, then began a day seeing Bangkok.

A river runs through Bangkok, and there are many canals, called “klongs,” which meander through the city. The guide books recommend taking a river taxi along these klongs to see how the “klong people” have been living for centuries. I got onto a boat taxi with the intention of doing just that, but after 5 minutes I had the driver stop and drop me off. The boat was spewing exhaust into what was already a smoggy city, and I couldn’t bring myself to further pollute the backyards of folks already unfortunate enough to be named klong people.

I now found myself in Chinatown, where I wandered around on foot. The highlight was happening across four straight blocks of shops with nothing but used car parts. In the middle of each shop was a huge pile of random parts black with grease. Guys were standing around cleaning the parts, making smaller piles of organized, clean and shiny parts.

Later that night I took a Tuk-Tuk to Lupinee Stadium to watch some Thai boxing.

Glossary for the above sentence:

Tuk-Tuk – a motorized rickshaw used for taxi service. So-named because of the sound of the engine.

Lupinee Stadium – a small stadium with a tin roof and urinals that are visible from the stands

Thai Boxing – like American boxing, but the fighters kick as well as punch. Even when they get tired and hug each other, they keep kicking.

The main event was Lithichai vs. Prech Sinil. I don’t know who won because I never could figure out who was who.

By the next day, it was clear to me that I could not spend an entire week in Bangkok. So I went back to a travel agent and signed up for a 3-day “River Kwai Tour.” I had heard of the movie, “The Bridge of the River Kwai,” but did not know the historical significance. The tour was leaving the next day, so I would soon find out. In the mean time, I took a spinning class.

The spinning room of the Bangkok 24 Hour Fitness is on the 50th floor, with a view ofBangkok.

I mounted one of the stationary bikes. There were about 30 other riders, who I could see in the mirror that extended along the front wall. The lights dimmed, the music started, and the class began.

I was the lone white guy, and I rode like the wind.

(Riding like the wind, by the way, is not difficult to do when you’re indoors.)

It was 15 minutes into the workout when the song by The Carpenters, “Sing, Sing a Song” (first performed on Sesame Street) began playing.

It was then that something significant happened: I learned that I do in fact look like Kermit the Frog.

More than one person in my life has told me that I have both the looks and charm of Kermit the Frog. I like Kermit, so it didn’t bother me.

Anyway, there I was, pedaling away. I sat up and turned to look out the window at the view Bangkok. When I turned back, I looked into the mirror and saw the reflection of 30 riders hunched over. Except on one bike, with his head sticking up above the rest, was Kermit the Frog.

I took me a full two seconds to realize that the green shirt and bald head belonged to me, not Kermit.

I then got the giggles.

So there I was: giggling, listening to an upbeat version of “Sing, Sing A Song”, surrounded by fellow sweaty humans pedaling away on bikes that weren’t moving – all while 50 stories above Bangkok. My giggling turned into euphoria. Just as during my traditional Thai massage, I felt one with the world.

At 6:30am the next morning, I got in a bus where I joined 12 other members of the world going on the River Kwai tour. After driving a few hours, we stopped at a cemetery. Most of the graves were for Australian, Dutch, and English soldiers from World War II. I knew nothing about what I was looking out, so I bought a pamphlet from a peddler. And I learned.

In order to supply their troops in Burma, the Japanese decided to build a railroad fromBangkok to Rangoon, through the dense Thailand/Burma jungle. To do it, they used 68,000 allied POW’s and 200,000 Asian slave workers. The railroad became known as the Death Railway because 96,000 prisoners were worked to death while building it.

After visiting the cemetery, we drove to the Bridge over the River Kwai, made famous by the movie of the same name. Allied forces were able to bomb this bridge to hinder use of the Death Railway.

At lunch, our group sat at two tables. I sat across from an Australian couple in their 60’s: Graham and Jen. Graham kept cracking jokes. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand a word he said. He’d say something, apparently funny, then raise his bushy eyebrows, open his mouth, and hold his breath – waiting for me to laugh. I’d try to figure out what he had said, then give up and chuckle a little so he could breathe again.

Meanwhile, at the other table, there were three pretty English girls in their early 20’s. I would learn later that their names were Amanda, Elizabeth, and Sophie, and that they were on their way home after spending a month in New Zealand. Amanda was a petite brunette with big brown eyes. Elizabeth was tall with beautiful blonde hair. And Sophie, well, Sophie had a figure to make England proud.

I had table envy.

After lunch, we boarded a boat to take us up the River Kwai. The boat was narrow, so we sat two-by-two.

Sophie sat next to me.

God Save the Queen.

Our destination was a lodge called “The River Rafts,” near the border with Burma. The River Rafts is a lodge consisting of about 25 floating huts, made of bamboo and thatch, attached to a dock that runs along the river for about 100 yards.

I walked with Amanda, Elizabeth, and Sophie to our huts. Their hut turned out to be right next to mine!

We dropped off our bags, then met on the dock outside our huts, which was on the downstream end of the dock. We talked for a bit, but talking isn’t my strong point, so I put on my bathing suit and ran to the upstream end of the dock.

I then jumped into the River Kwai.

Floating down the river, looking up at the jungle hills, was both peaceful and exhilarating. As I approached the end of the dock, I swam over and grabbed a ladder. I climbed up, to be greeted by three excited English girls.

I did it again, this time with Amanda. Then Sophie joined us. Then, after a fair bit of prodding, Elizabeth jumped in too.

So there I was, in the Thailand jungle, with three vacationing, bikini-clad 20-year-olds, repeatedly running up a dock, jumping in the water, and floating down the River Kwai.

It would have taken being eaten by an alligator to have made this a bad day. (How likely that actually was, I’m not sure.)

Regardless, the rest of the day went like this:

Went for an elephant ride, ate a dinner of traditional Burmese food, watched a musical performance by the local village children, drank Singha’s (the local beer) with Amanda, Sophie, and Elizabeth while playing a card game called “shithead,” retired to my bamboo hut, blew out the lantern, listened to the lapping water, and fell asleep happy.

The next morning was more somber. Our tour group was taken to a part of the Death Railway called Hellfire Pass, where the POW’s and slaves had to cut a 500 meter path out of solid rock. They worked through the night by candlelight. The stretch is calledHellfire Pass because the scene of half-naked men being worked to exhaustion, amid flickering candlelight, was a scene from hell.

Of the1,000 men who worked on the pass, 400 died in the process. Inscribed on a rock wall of the pass are the words: “When you go home, tell them of us and say, we gave our tomorrow for your today.”

And so, as I tell you of my today, I tell you of them.

The next day, the girls and I went for a boat ride up the river to the Lawa Caves. TheLawa Caves provide your standard cave fare: bats, snakes, slippery rocks, low passages, etc.  At the entrance to the caves is a statue of Buddha – to protect visitors. Where America has waivers, Thailand has Buddha’s.

Thanks to our buddy Buddha, we all survived the caves and finished our River Kwai tour without any mishaps. When the tour bus brought us back to Bangkok, I had to decide on a new hotel. In what was one of the easier decisions of the trip, I agreed to stay at the same hotel as my three British friends.

After getting my room, I went to the pool, swam half a kilometer, was met there by Sophie, Amanda, and Elizabeth, splashed around with them for half and hour, then swam another kilometer. Not a bad way to train for a triathlon.

Yes, I’m bragging.  But hey, 20 years from now, I’m going to want to remember this.

I met the girls later for dinner at the hotel restaurant. They were all made up. I hate playing favorites, but Amanda was a knock-out. We had Singapore Slings, then a dinner of New Zealand lamb chops and wine. Then we went to the lounge where the girls had more Slings, and I sampled the Thai whiskey.

Yes, I’m still bragging.

But now I’m done. The girls went to their room. I went to mine. It was sad because they were leaving for England the next day. I met them for breakfast, and we said our goodbyes.

Once again, I was alone in Bangkok.

Once again, I got Traditional Thai massage.

Then I picked up my Visa at the Indian Embassy. Then I took 2 spinning classes in a row, but without any Kermit moments.

The next day I took a taxi to the airport, for my flight to Mumbai, India.

I’ll meet you there.

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Jai Baba!
August 27 – Sept.4, 2003

“Where are you, dear?”

“Mumbai.”

“You devil, you. Keep your head down and take the first train to Ahmednagar.”

I was talking to Pat. She had a deep voice and thick Australian accent. I had no idea who she was.

I had been talking on the phone to my friend’s mother, Penny. She was living in India, in a small town called Ahmednagor, where she had turned her home into a shelter for stray dogs. I would be visiting her, and she was elated that I had made it to Mumbai. But when it came time to give me directions from there to Ahmednagar, she said, “Hold on. Talk to Pat. She’s better at this.”

Pat, I would learn, also lived in Ahmedganor, where she ran The Pilgrim Center for worshippers of Meher Baba.

Meher Baba was an Indian mystic who was born in 1894 and died … I mean, dropped his body … in 1969. Apparently people who met Baba fell divinely in love with him. As his teachings spread, people would fall in love with him without even meeting him. These people are called “Baba Lovers.”

Baba Lovers believe that Baba was The Avatar – a manifestation of God on earth. Although initially quiet on the subject himself, Baba eventually acknowledged that it was true: he was the Messiah.

But Baba was not dogmatic. In his words:

I have not come to establish any cult, society or organization, nor even to establish a new religion. The religion that I shall give teaches the knowledge of the One behind the many.

He said his message would be kept alive, not through religion, but through those who:

live the life of complete renunciation of falsehood, lies, hatred, greed and lust; and who, to accomplish all this do no lustful actions, do no harm to anyone, do no backbiting, do not seek material possessions or power, who accept no homage, neither covet honour nor shun disgrace, and fear no one and nothing; by those who rely wholly and solely on God, believe in the lovers of God and in the reality of Manifestation, and yet do not expect any spiritual or material reward; who do not let go the hand of Truth, and who without being upset by calamities, bravely and wholeheartedly face all hardships with one hundred percent cheerfulness, and give no importance to caste, creed, and religious ceremonies.

He was also the one who said:

Don’t worry. Be happy.

(I’m serious. Although the full quote is “Do your best. Don’t worry. Be happy.”)

Meher Baba’s tomb is near Ahmedgannar.  Baba Lovers come from around the world to visit. When they do, they stay at the Pilgrim Center, run by Penny’s friend Pat. And so I was probably not the first person to have been told:

“You devil you. Keep your head down and take the next train to ….”

At the train station, I asked for the next train to Ahmedgonner. The lady said it was leaving that night. I bought a ticket, spent the day walking around Mumbai, then boarded my train.

I walked down the aisle of the car. To the left of the aisle were bunks. To the right were seats. A luggage rack was over the seats. I put my bag up on the rack, sat down, and waited for the train to depart Mumbai. Someone walked by. A few seconds later, I felt thirsty, and so I stood up to get some water from my bag.

My bag was gone.

My bag, I saw a second later, was still on the rack, but further up the car. Apparently the guy who had just walked by was pushing my bag along the rack, hoping to get to the exit with it. He must have seen me getting up and aborted his scheme.

I got my bag and put it at my feet. This way I could look at it while keeping my head down.

The train’s passengers were a mix of commuters and sleepers. The commuters wore business clothes. The sleepers wore pajamas. The commuters and sleepers played cards together. At each stop, some commuters would get off, until there were just sleepers. And me.

When the card game ended, we all claimed bunks. I went to sleep spooning my bag.

I awoke to see the sunrise, at which point the train started making frequent stops. It was hard to see any signs on the platforms, so at each one I would ask, “Ahmagonner?

Finally, at one of the stops, a nice man told me to get off. I did.

The sign read, “Ahmednagar.” (probably the correct spelling.)

I had arrived to my destination, and so I will now introduce its cast:

Penny. The mother of my friend, Dave. When I first met her 20 years ago, she was running a successful Silicon Valley real estate firm that she founded. She eventually gave that up to pursue a more spiritual path. She was now living in India with 40 dogs – caring for them while trying to find them homes in a country where dogs do not hold great esteem.

Pat. Penny’s friend who runs the Pilgrim Center for worshippers of Meher Baba.

Ramish. Super nice, middle-aged, Indian man who manages the girls

The girls. Five adorable Indian girls who work at Penny’s house. They clean and care for the dogs – all while wearing beautiful saris. They didn’t speak English, but we bonded each time one of them brought me a cup of Chai tea.

Dr. Santosh. A young Indian veterinarian who made house calls.

Maitra. Try to guess.

Bal Nathu.
Very old, but still living, disciple and friend of Meher Baba.

Scoop. I’m getting to Scoop now.

Penny picked me up from the train station. We were driving to her house.

“Oh my.” Penny stopped the car. “Go get it,” she said.

“Huh?”

“There, in the field!” She pointed to something scurrying in the dirt. It looked like a big rat

“Go get it!”

I got out of the car and went after it.

So there I was. In India. In India, with my friend’s mom. In India, with my friend’s mom, chasing down a small animal in a roadside field.

I caught up to the dog. It was starving. Most of its hair had fallen out. Its stomach was bloated. It was, I could now tell, just a puppy – only weeks old.

I tried to pick it up, but it scurried away. To this homeless creature, I was just another threat.

I chased it down and reached for it again. This time it did not move. Perhaps it froze in fright. Perhaps it had no strength left. Perhaps it figured it had nothing to lose. Whatever the reason, this puppy accepted me as its fate.

I scooped him up.

Penny’s home was a square, concrete house. A fenced-in walkway surrounded the house. The walkway was subdivided into sections, each belonging to a group of puppies. An adjacent fenced-in yard was home to a dozen full-grown dogs. Inside the house, six of the youngest puppies lived in the kitchen. There was also Penny’s room, a guest room, and a living room. Some of the puppies had access to the living room during puppy visiting hours.

Many of the puppies at the house had canine distemper – a contagious, often fatal, respiratory disease. Try as they might – scrubbing cages was a daily chore – the girls were unable to keep contain the germs. Each puppy that dropped its body broke Penny’s heart.

When we arrived at the house, I met Ramish. He greeted me with a big smile.

I then met the girls. They greeted me with shy ones.

Penny washed Scoop, gave him medicine for the intestinal worms, and put him in my room with a bowl of chicken broth and rice. (Penny decided that Scoop would be staying in my room – to keep him away from the sick puppies.) He was lethargic and reclusive, and I wondered whether he would recover from the ordeal of his infancy.

After Scoop and I were settled, Penny took me to the Pilgrim Center for lunch.  I won’t dwell on the meals at the Pilgrim Center. Suffice it to say that the people aren’t there for the food.

We then drove into the countryside to run a couple errands. We went to a farm and picked up two puppies to be neutered.

Then we went to another farm to check up on a dog that had recently been adopted. We drove over a field of loose dirt to the house. There we found the dog tied up to a tree. I watched as Penny scolded the Indian family for tying up the dog. The Indian family just stared at her, not knowing what to think of this white woman expounding canine rights.

Meanwhile it was starting to rain. It crossed my mind that the dirt field could become mud, and we might be stranded with the annoyed Indian family and their tied up dog. But I didn’t worry and remained happy. And we were able to drive away. Barely.

From there we went to the tomb of Meher Baba. Penny was paying her respects. I was being introduced.

I felt awkward. I was probably the first person to ever make Ahmednagar their international travel destination and NOT be a Baba Lover.

But would I become one?

I stood before the tomb, waiting for a wave of happiness or insight …

Nothing.

We proceeded to dinner at a restaurant, where we talked about spirituality.  Penny spoke about how we should follow our heart as to how to serve. Helping the dogs was her way of serving.

My service, the next day, was to scrub dog cages. Dr. Santosh would be coming the following day to perform several neutering/spaying operations, and so the cages would need to be a sterile as possible for the post-op recovery. And so I joined the girls and scrubbed.

That night Penny came down with the flu and could not take here weekly call from Maitra. She asked that I speak to her instead. With some hesitation, I agreed.

Maitra was Penny’s psychic.

Maitra told me that, in a former life, I was a Japanese sword maker. And in a subsequent former life, I was a Chinese merchant who wrote lots of contracts. When I asked about my current life, she was less specific.

Shortly after going to sleep, I was woken up by a puppy howling outside. I didn’t want the noise to keep Penny awake, so I went outside to calm it. When it saw me, the puppy stopped howling and began to jump on me and lick me relentlessly. It was as happy as one could imagine anything being. When it was with me, it was the incarnation of joy. But this puppy had distemper. It was dying.

Every time I went back inside, the puppy would start howling again. And so I spent a good part of the night outside with it.

Dr. Santosh arrived the next morning and performed the neutering and spaying operations. I then accompanied him as he gave shots to 20 puppies. His last task, after much agonizing with Penny over the decision, was to euthanize one of the sickest puppies.

Penny held the puppy in her arms, stroking its head, as Dr. Santosh made the injection. I watched from a distance. It was the puppy I was with the night before, and it was leaving this world.

Pat came by that evening. She brought beer.  Bless her.

And bless Penny.

I went to bed, a bit lonely and a bit sad. But then …

Scoop, for the first time, wanted to play.

The next day Penny took me to the former home of Meher Baba, which is now the residence for his remaining disciples. The disciples are very old and spend their days receiving visitors.

There were pictures of Baba all over the place. Baba was a goofy looking man. He looked like a cute and pudgy Groucho Marx. He was fond of wearing a skirt, a white blazer, and a flower lei.

The seemingly most important of the disciples was named Bal. He has written books about Baba, and he signed one for me. He told me that people do not come to this place unless called by Baba.

Once again, I felt awkward. I just wasn’t feeling the urge to become a Baba Lover. But then it hit me.

I wasn’t there to become a Baba Lover. I was there to witness Baba Lovers. I wasn’t there to help puppies. I was there to witness Penny helping puppies. If Baba had indeed called me to this place, it was for journal time. Could it be that Following Alex has struck some divine cord?

Probably not. But it’s a nice thought.

That afternoon I went for a run. People along the way, especially the children, greeted me with waves and smiles, enthusiastically yelling, “Jai Baba!” You see, “Jai Baba!” is how Baba Lovers greet each other. And, me being a white person, they assumed I was there on a pilgrimage. And that was fine with me.

Jai Baba!

That night at Penny’s house, some of the puppies were allowed into the living room. I decided to bring out Scoop from my room. I put him on my lap, not wanting him to catch the distemper, while the other puppies ran around. When a puppy would get near us, Scoop would growl.

<grrrrrrrrr>

Except that Scoop had the hiccups.

<grrrr –hic- grrrrr –hic>

I spent the next couple days fixing Penny’s computer and doing random stuff like helping Dr. Santosh catch a rabid, maggot-infested dog in a field, so that he could end its misery.

And twice each day, lest I ever forget, I was served Chai tea by Indian girls wearing saris.

It was now time to go home. Scoop, it will not surprise you, was coming with me. Penny had her driver take us to Mumbai. She gave me a little dog crate for Scoop and a sedative to give him before the long flight.

At the airport, Scoop was quite a sight. He was no longer bloated, his hair had grown back, and he had become remarkably cute. No bigger than a football, he pranced proudly at my side on his little leash. When Indians in the airport saw him, they were surprised – but then smiled. I considered the idea of taking Scoop on a walking tour of India in order to change the nation’s attitude toward dogs. We could be Penny’s emissaries.

But we stuck to the plan of going home to San Francisco.

At the airline ticket counter, they wanted to weigh Scoop. When I looked down I saw Scoop starting to squat. No! I yanked his leash. The airport floor was slick, and the yank resulted in Scoop sliding over to me – squatting all the way. I grabbed him and put him in his crate in time for him to poop on the newspaper. Close call.

After he pooped, I lifted him up onto the scale. I should have waited, though, because while I was moving him he peed all over me.

We had a 3 hour layover at the Bangkok airport. There was a place to get a Thai massage. But I didn’t go in. Instead I went to the store and then lined Scoop’s crate with Pampers.

⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯

The Outhouses of Kilamanjaro
September 7-19, 2005

Tom said …

(I’m skiping ahead – it’s now 2 years after India.).

Tom said …

“You should meet my friend Laneya. She’s looking for someone to climb Mt. Kilmanjaro with her.”

Luan said …

(Luan is a friend of my mom. She’s a kick.)

Luan said …

“You should bring a piss helmet.”

A piss helmet?

“When Ernest Hemingway was in Africa, he wore a piss helmet.”

I deduced that a piss helmet was a hat that doubled as a chamber pot.

“I don’t have a piss helmet.”

“I’ll buy you one.”

Ummmm.

“Really, I want you to have a piss helmet.”

Luan insisted, but I resisted, and to this day a piss helmet has never been on my head.

I’m pretty sure.

Anyway … back to Laneya. We met. We got along. She took me to Africa.

But before we get to that, let me update you on Scoop. You remember Scoop, the bedraggled puppy I picked up in India. (We met. We got along. I took him to America.)

Scoop cleaned up nicely. He became an exceptionally cute puppy who grew into a beautiful, regal-looking dog. He is intelligent, playful, and has a zest for life of which I am envious.

And he poops.

If you live in an apartment in the city, when and where your dog poops is an ongoing concern. Each time my parents take Scoop to dog sit, they ask, “Has he pooped?” When I pick him up, I ask, “Did he poop?”

Anyway …  Laneya and I flew to Africa.

On the way, we had an 8 hour layover in Amsterdam. We walked around. At one point we found ourselves in the part of town where the mannequins in the windows are real.

And you can rent them.

And I didn’t.

We arrived in Nairobi, Kenya. We walked around. Some guy followed us the whole time. We cut our walk short and spent the afternoon at the hotel pool, pondering our upcoming adventure …

Mt. Kilimanjaro.

An extinct volcano.

“The roof of Africa.”

Mt. Kilimanjaro is so high …

How high is it?

Mt. Kilimanjaro is so high (19,563 feet) that there’s a glacier at the top – even though you’re on the equator.

Despite the height, Kilimanjaro can be hiked without mountaineering experience. And so the highest point in Africa has become an international tourist attraction, with hundreds of people trekking up at any one time.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Although the first few days are a walk in the park, the last day is brutal. It begins at Kibu Hut, the highest base camp, at 15,520 feet. Hikers wake up at midnight so that they can attempt to make it to the summit at Uhuru Peak, at 19,340 feet, by sunrise and have time to return to a lower altitude camp, at 12,140 feet,by sunset.  

To get from Kibu Hut to Urhuru Peak, hikers must overcome 3 foes: the grade (which dramatically steepens to 30 degrees), the altitude, and the bitter cold wind. Many do not make it to the top. But I’m getting ahead of myself …

The next morning, from Nairobi, we took a bus to Tanzania. Driving through the heart ofAfrica, we saw many animals.

All of them goats.

We arrived at the Mountain Inn, the lodge where we would stay before and after our jaunt up Kilimanjaro. The lodge was run by Shah Tours, the local tour operator that Laneya had chosen.

You see, you are not allowed to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro unless you hire a tour operator who provides a guide and porters. The guide leads you up the path, and the porters carry most of your stuff, set up your camp, and prepare your meals. The point is to allow for a high volume of traffic going safely up the mountain, while providing jobs for the local Tanzanians.

Our guide was named Joseph. Our porters were Ashanteell, Simon and Akasin. An unnamed driver drove us around to the back of the mountain to a lumber camp that was the beginning of the Rongai Trail. We would be hiking the less-used Rongai Trail up the back of the mountain to Kibo Hut. After climbing to the summit, we would come back the front of the mountain along the more popular route.

Our 5-day trek began as a gentle walk through wooded foothills. Along the way we passed a group of jolly English hikers. They had the effect of making me wish our destination that night was a pub rather than a campsite.

But it was a campsite. And the campsite was full, so our porters set up our tent a little ways away, near one of the outhouses.

After dinner Ashanteel brought us a thermos of boiling water for tea. But we didn’t want tea, so we didn’t open the thermos, thinking it would be nice to have hot water in the morning.

I slept a couple hours, then woke up needing to use the outhouse. The outhouse was close, so I walked to it with bare feet. There was a full moon, so I didn’t take my headlamp.

If this outhouse had been rectangular in shape, like most outhouses, I would have been able to leave the door open and pee by moonlight. But this particular outhouse was an L-shape, so I had to walk around a corner to get to the hole in the floor. Hence, it was dark.

I peed on my foot.

No problem – I groggily made my way back to the tent, found the thermos, opened it, and poured water over my foot to clean it off.

Because people were sleeping, I muffled my cry of pain.

Hemingway, I am not.

On the next day of walking, we came passed a group of French hikers, and then a group of Japanese hikers.  The French were in good spirits and talkative. The Japanese were quiet and wore white hats.

We camped at a place called “3rd Cave.” The site featured an outhouse with a stunning view of the high desert far below.

The next day was our altitude acclamation day – meaning we would spend a day at the same altitude so that our bodies could adjust to there being less air in the air. We went for a short hike in the morning, read our books in the afternoon, and spent the night at the same camp. The following morning we would make our ascent to Kibu Hut, where we would sleep a few hours, then get up at midnight to make the final ascent.

Because we are reaching the climax of our story, let’s take a moment to recap:

We spent 10 hours flying from San Francisco to Amsterdam. 8 hours in Amsterdam. 8 hours flying to Kenya. A day and night in Nairobi. A day getting to Tanzania, and a night at the Mountain Inn. Then 3 days on this mountain in Africa.

So you may be asking yourself …

“Has Alex pooped?”

No, he has not. But thank you for asking.

Anyway … Laneya and I (and our guide and porters) set off the next morning. The trail was steeper than the prior days, but still not bad. And yet I was finding it difficult. When we stopped to take our pulses, Laneya’s was fine, but mine was through the roof.

We reached Kibu Hut a little before sunset. The prior two days we were drinking bad water that had we had to boil and treat with iodine, so we were happy to find that they were selling “Mt. Kilamanjaro” brand bottled water at the camp. We bought a few bottles.

Ashanteel brought us a bucket of water so we could wash up before dinner. I took off my jacket (we’re now at 15,500 feet, and there is a strong, cold wind) and splashed water on my face.

I almost fell over.

In a split second, the cold wind hitting my wet face unleashed my fever. Chills swept through my body, and I lost all strength. I staggered into the tent, crawled into my sleeping bag. I shivered for the next two hours, while turning away Ashenteel’s repeated attempts to make me eat dinner.

And that was just the beginning. What followed was a hellish night of sprinting back and forth from the tent to the outhouses.

One piss helmet would not have been enough.

By the time midnight arrived, I was feeling a bit better, but in no condition to attempt the final ascent. I assured Laneya that I was fine, and so she went up without me.

I stayed in the tent. I slept off-and-on and forced myself to drink water and eat crackers and Goo™. (Goo is energy food in the form of a gel that you squeeze out of a little packet.)

When the sun rose that day, Laneya was on the top of  Mt. Kilmanjaro. Of all the people who left that morning, she was the first one to reach the roof of Africa.

When the sun rose that day, I was in a fetal position, sucking on a packet of Goo, staring at the picture of Mt. Kilamanjaro on my water bottle.

When Laneya returned near noon, I had regained some strength, so we packed up and proceeded down the mountain to the lower camp. My difficulties from the night before were still running their course, so I was relieved to find out that the trail down had many outhouses along the way.

I put each one to its highest and best use.

Hemingway, I am not.

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