28 February 2011


Tirtigangga, Bali, Indonesia: I like people. I like animals and plants and nature well enough, but really, it’s people I care for and choose to be surrounded by. I like big, ugly, dirty, crowded, noisy, exciting cities. I like exotic restaurants and thriving markets and sleazy nightlife. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It is rare that I want to visit anywhere else.

So what am I doing here?
This is Tirtigangga, Bali. It is the most beautiful, relaxing place I know contrary to everything I know that I love about the world. Maybe it’s because there are still people. I took a walk this morning around the rice terraces and had maybe a dozen conversations with people I passed by. The whole valley is a riot of greens and other natural colors, not a surface anywhere that isn’t in some way natural. Yet it is hacked and hewn and shaped entirely by the actions of people.

The sound of burbling water is everywhere and nearly all of it is because the water that was here naturally has been channeled and directed and contained for the use of the people who live here.

It is the most thoroughly unnatural natural environment I know and I’m spending a week here, hoping to get some writing done and maybe clean some of the filth out of my lungs from Bangkok and Jakarta and some of the filth out of my head from the same.

I’m planning on days spent waking up early for long walks in the rice terraces. A light breakfast, writing for a while, lunch, maybe a nap, maybe a massage, maybe some more writing, drinks on the terrace overlooking the Water Palace then dinner. Some reading then, then bed.

I’ve still got my attendant worries and demons, but this seems like as good a spot as any in which to either exorcise or battle them. At the moment it looks like it might pour rain, just in time to eat lunch, it seems like a good idea to me.

I haven’t really tried a place like this as a writing retreat before. Maybe it will work. I’m stuck on a couple of things and getting away from one’s routine is sometimes good for getting unstuck. We’ll see. Unfortunately if it works really well, it’s a long way to go when I need it again.

26 February 2011


Jakarta, Indonesia: There’s a reason why shopping malls are so popular in Jakarta – all over Southeast Asia for that matter. They generally beat being outside, even for locals who are accustomed to the conditions. Most importantly the air is conditioned, and for more than mere temperature and humidity. Inside a Jakarta shopping mall is one of the very few times that one is not subjected to billowing clouds of auto exhaust and other forms of pollution.

There are two kinds of malls. One sort is where locals shop. They tend to be large, ugly, slapdash sorts of concrete constructions filled with hundreds, no, thousands of small cubicles, shop spaces and counters selling an astounding array of lower end items made in Indonesia or India, Vietnam, Sir Lanka, Bangladesh, etc. There are still some Chinese products as well, but they are moving upmarket.

The local malls are jam packed. Motorbikes and bajaj (the dreadful, three-wheeled coughing, sputtering, exhaust and noise spewing mechanical contribution of India to the foulness of the typical Jakarta street) buzz around the outside of them like so many pestilent mosquitoes. Instead of malaria, these mosquitoes are responsible for respiratory ailments. Inside people scramble for bargains, haggling and socializing and catching some slight respite from the world outside, even if it is only in little gusts from fans or the occasional enclosed, air-conditioned shop.

The other malls are something else. They’re enormous, modern, opulent, created by some of the world’s greatest and most creative architects and designers. Looking at the shops inside them you have to wonder who buys anything here? And there are a lot of them – at least eight or nine megamalls by my loose count so far.

As I write this I’m in the Pacific Place Mall where there is a Bentley dealer on the ground floor. There are people in this country who can afford Bentleys. But there aren’t a lot of them and my guess is that those who can don’t trot on down to the showroom when they want to pick one up. They have a driver for that. Or the showroom comes to them at home.

There’s an Apple store and a SONY Style store and all sorts of stores that are almost entirely empty here on a rainy Saturday afternoon. There are people walking around, stealing glances into the shop windows, but other than food from the many restaurants, cafes and coffee bars in the food court, I don’t see anyone buying much of anything.

I think these malls, some of which are enormous – enormous enough to rival or surpass such American behemoths as the Mall of America – are more concerned with prestige for their builders – mostly wealthy Indonesian-Chinese families – than they are with actually turning a buck. Even in America, where more people can afford to buy all this overpriced designer stuff – or at least go into credit card debt for it – a mall like this wouldn’t have any sort of mass appeal.

They are very nice places, however, to escape the world outside. Something that really needs doing from time to time. And while I can’t heartily recommend the bebek goring (fried duck) that I had for lunch at Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, it was pretty amazing to find it there along with two of the spiciest sambals (chili sauce) that I have ever had, at a price that was about a dollar, maybe two more than you'd pay for it on the street - if you could find it on the street. There’s plenty else to choose from in any event. It was in a four story food court, featuring, maybe, a hundred or more venues. And it was starting to get crowded.

In these photos I have failed miserably to do any sort of justice to the over the top opulence that is the Grand Indonesia Shopping Town.The "Damn! I Love Indonesia" store.

24 February 2011


Jakarta, Indonesia: There's that thing about the noonday sun and I ought to know better.

Yesterday I took a walk, a simple walk. I took a taxi from my hotel to Sunda Kelapa - the old harbor here in Jakarta, one of my favorite places on the planet. I got there at about 10:30 in the morning and started heading out the jetty with the 15th century on my left and the 21st on my right. I soon picked up some company - a nice fellow who wanted me to buy a "Dayak" blowgun he was selling. I didn't want that but I was happy enough to have someone to practice my Indonesian with, so we walked together chatting happily about this that and the other for the better part of 1-1/2 hours. I'd pause to take pictures every so often. I bought us bottles of water to drink. There was no shade and, well, what they say about the equatorial sun is true - it's relentless.

I was having too good a time to notice.

So then we parted company and I walked over to Pasar Ikan - the fish market - and the neighborhood of Pluit that is nearby. And I walked around there for another hour and a half or more, pausing to take pictures, chat with people and look at stuff.

And there was some shade, not a lot but some, and as usual when I am walking around a place I love or somewhere new, I wasn't noticing that I might, just might be possibly getting tired and overheated.

I thought I might walk over to Cafe Batavia in the oldest colonial part of the city and have lunch. But I got somewhat turned around, possibly due to the fact that my brain was lightly poaching in my skull.

I walked across the river on a bridge and the stench nearly made me gag.I walked along and over numerous canals that might have once been nice, shady places to rest but are now teeming cesspools (literarlly) of feculence.

I knew things were getting dire when I began to regularly hear all the laughing. People in Indonesia are generally incredibly friendly, sympathetic, empathetic even, and certainly tolerant of the wacky ways of us bule. But that doesn't mean they won't laugh at you when you deserve it.

I deserved it. My walk around town had become some sort of perverse parade. See the sweat drenched, bright red, saggy clothed white guy shuffle past. I made light of myself to those I passed: "Saya bule panas." ("I am a hot white guy.") But after a while I couldn't even get that out.

I came to my senses at a big street and fell into a taxi, asking him to take me back to the hotel. I haven't left it since. I think I'm suffering from all sorts of exposure - to the sun, to the heat, to pollution, to mostly my own stupidity.

I'll get better and probably go out and do something similar again. Should you happen to read somewhere that I have keeled over dead in some exotic locale, don't waste much sympathy on me.

23 February 2011


Jakarta, Indonesia: In the early days of the non-aligned movement, in the early 1960s when it was heavily pushed by Indonesia's Sukarno and Cuba's Castro, a Cuban national baseball team came to Jakarta to play some games. Pak Haru, who I will be sharing a stage with on Saturday, was at those games. He's widely considered the father (pak) of Indonesian baseball. According to him, however, there is a bapak (grandfather) who he watched play in the games with Cuba. The bapak, too, will be on stage. As will the coach of the Indonesian National Baseball Team.

A couple of months ago I was invited to Indonesia to put on some presentations, and hold a workshop or two at a new U.S. Cultural Center called @america. The center targets Indonesians who want to study in the U.S., have studied in the U.S. and are generally interested in the U.S. and American culture.

But baseball? In Indonesia? I had my doubts.

Still, there are about 240 million Indonesians and anywhere from nine to nineteen million of them in Jakarta depending on where you draw the city's borders, and out of that crowd there are undoubtedly more than enough to fill the 200-400 capacity auditorium where I'll be on stage talking baseball. (And then in two weeks, talking about the "American Road Trip Tradition.")

I shall, among other things, attempt to explain - using diagrams - the suicide squeeze play (my personal favorite) to the audience. I will try to explain why I find homeruns boring, why I love Ichiro Suzuki and why I far preferred watching Greg Maddux pitch to Randy Johnson.

Yesterday, when meeting for the first time with Pak Haru, I tried to twist my love of baseball into the context of Indonesian shadow puppet plays. I was looked on with what can only be described as bemused tolerance. (Indonesians do bemused tolerance extremely well, except for on the rare occasions when they run amok - an Indonesian word that has made its way into English.)

I am not sure, but there may well be video evidence of this - possibly even live streaming video evidence on the @america website during the event. (4-6pm Jakarta time on Saturday. 1-3am in Los Angeles.) If you don't want to stay up for it I'll understand. And I'll let you know how it goes.

21 February 2011


Well, not really, I am blogging after all.

On nearly every single objective criteria by which people judge cities, Jakarta fails - miserably. It's filthy, crowded, hot, the infrastructure is a mess, getting around town is nightmarish, it's ugly by most standards, it has a whole lot of rats and too many open sewers and trash heaps and even fires seeming to randomly shoot up from places you don't want to think about under the sidewalks and some of the most grinding poverty on the planet.

I love it. When I get into one of the under air-conditioned taxis at the airport and start sweating on my way into town, my blood pressure drops at least 30 percent. My shoulders sag into an at-ease position. I breathe a long deep, exhaust-filled sigh of relief.

If I believed in past lives, which I don't, I'd be likely to say that in some previous existence I must have lived an extremely swell life in this place.

Most of you are probably glad you didn't come with me to dinner tonight.

I walked around the corner from my hotel, along a massively crowded street filled with honking and belching cars and high whiny sputtery motorbikes. I walked sort of balanced on the curb and sometimes in the gutter because the sidewalk is made up of a progression of cracked, cracking and entirely missing concrete blocks above an open sewer. Rats, some of them enormous, paid me no mind as they ran back and forth in front of me.

I passed small warung - outdoor food stalls with a seat or two and shops - where people sat in the smoke from cooking fires and the auto exhaust and the heat and the humidity, eating their dinners or having a cigarette. Everyone said good evening as I passed, and I returned the greeting.

I got to a collection of three warung, all of them offering nasi Padang - my favorite style of Indonesian cooking. It's from West Sumatra and is the spiciest of all Indonesian food. The benches and picnic tables in front of them were filled with taxi drivers. One of them scooted over to make room for me.

To order, all you have to do is look in the window of the cooking cart where dishes are piled high with food that's been cooked who knows when and point at what you want. I knew what I wanted so I ordered without looking - food that I know they will have at every nasi Padang joint in the world. I got a heaping plate of rice covered with beef rendang, grilled chicken, kangkung (a spinach like vegetable that kicks the ass of spinach) and sambal hijau - a freshly cooked mash up of fresh green chilies and dried anchovies. It came with a mug of lukewarm tea from Central Java. Most of the taxi drivers were eating with their hands and I started to as well. But then someone came out with a fork and spoon and since two other people were using them I wasn't too embarrassed to follow suit.

It was delicious. I did my best to have a conversation with the taxi drivers and they were very accommodating - politely correcting my Indonesian when I made mistakes and encouraging me to talk about ever more complicated topics.

When it came time to leave I was so full I could barely stand up. I paid my 15,000 rupiah ($1.50) - nope, not a typo - said my goodbyes and headed back along the street.

It took a while to get back to the hotel. All kinds of people wanted to stop and chat, learn a little something about what I was doing there, tell me a little something about themselves, practice their English or help me practice my Indonesian. There were no streetlights. It was dark and could have been scary. I was surrounded by thousands of people, nearly every single one of who was a great deal poorer than I am, yet there was a friendliness and camaraderie and genuine curiosity about each other that is unlike I have encountered anywhere else.

I did live here for about two years - 1995-97 - and the city is a great deal more crowded than it was then. I'm not sure what it would be like to live here anymore, but objectivity has nothing to do with my feelings for the place.

I think a lot of you might have your own version of Jakarta. My sister Nancy feels the same way about Mexico City and some places in Africa. I met someone once who thought that Bartlesville, Oklahoma is heaven on Earth. Are there any horrible places that you love? Have any idea why?

19 February 2011


Bangkok, Thailand: Last night as I was walking back from dinner to my hotel, I spent perhaps 10 minutes admiring the sheer poetry in motion of a truly lovely, very passable katoey (transsexual) walking ahead of me in what had to be at least five or six inch heels. She was dressed in a slinky, dark red backless dress that perfectly framed the very dramatic black and white dragon tattooed on her back. The sidewalk along Sukhumvit here in Bangkok is pretty rough ground - uneven, cracked, patches of dirt and mud, a variety of surfaces - and yet she maneuvered her way along it better than I have ever seen anyone walk in such heels. She seemed intent on wherever it was that she was headed or I would have offered to buy her a drink.

Not long before I fell into step behind her, I was approached by another, much less spectacular in every way, katoey along the street. This one threw her arms around me then brought a rather large hand down onto the crotch of my pants and started rubbing me in a more than merely suggestive manner. She huskily whispered in my ear, "I want smoking. I want smoking, you." I have seen this trick before and the moment she threw her arms around me, one of my hands slapped itself down hard over the pocket where my wallet was and stayed there throughout the encounter. It was not all that easy to pry her hand off of my crotch with just my one hand, but I finally did manage. I quipped, "Smoking's bad for you," but I don't think she got it.

I'm having my doubts about Bangkok. Not because of these encounters, but possibly I have now been here too much over the past 30 years since I first showed up with my mother in 1981 on our way to Pakistan. (That visit was notable for my mom and I encountering a street walker near the Oriental Hotel. When I said to the woman, "this is my mother," her perfectly reasonable response was, "don't worry, I do mommy, too." That was good for a lot of laughs.) During the 11 years I lived in Asia, Bangkok was one of the places I came most often for work - at least four or five times every year.

In GRAVE IMPORTS I describe this city as being not unlike a cesspool with a number of beautiful lotus blossoms floating on its surface. That is still true. This afternoon a friend and I shared a pork larb and a green papaya salad from a street vendor on a back street. It was quiet, peaceful, the vendor and a friend and a taxi driver who was parked nearby had a gentle laughter filled conversation, it was cool under the umbrella set up on the sidewalk and the food was great, and remarkably cheap. It was a very pleasant moment, a respite. It was the sort of moment that crops up unexpectedly in Bangkok, and allows you to catch your breath and not be driven insane by everything else that assaults your senses at every turn.

But this time I'm finding fewer such moments than in the past. The stench of, of, I'm not quite sure exactly what - money? greed? uncertainty? rank commercialism? lust? - seems more pervasive than before.

It feels like everything and everybody here is for sale, and aggressively so in a way that they weren't in previous years. Maybe it's just my perception as a now infrequent visitor. (I was last here in 2005.) But after a while, walking around, I begin to see everybody as if in some way they are for sale, and then I feel like an asshole for thinking that.

There must be so many of this city's people who are not at all for sale, or rather rent, who are simply trying to live their lives and get by the best they can. I know that they're there, but I haven't come across many of them. For the first time ever I walk around and feel like everybody wants something from me and doesn't want to give me anything real in return.

I see the beefy, solitary, sunburnt whitemen moving along the streets in that jerking, rolling way that bodybuilders walk and I don't want to see myself as one of them. And I don't want other people to see me that way. But maybe they do. I'm sure we all look alike to most of the Thai people who see us - bulky, hairy, loud and large; attractive only in so far as our money holds out.

I want Ratch, the bargirl who I bought dinner for last night and who I had a long conversation with about reading and writing and telling stories and Thai politics and the justification or not of violence to know me and like me and respect me for who I am. And there's something pathetic and arrogant about that on my part. Why should she? When I took her back to the bar and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek goodnight, she seemed relieved as she turned back into the loud, sweaty, smoky, booze-filled room where other men would simply pay to paw her and not bother her with all their talk or wanting to know her or to have her know them.

Many of the men I see with the stereotypical small brown woman in near ass-baring short skirts or super tight jeans look somehow even more alone than the ones without a companion. It's especially sad when the women turn to make sure their men aren't looking, then flash me an expectant smile as if to say, 'maybe you're a better bet than this guy. What can you do for me?'

It was different when I had real purpose in being here. When I was a working journalist and interviewing government officials and businessmen and writing about the place. Now I walk the streets and wonder how much I'm like those other guys.

There are beautiful temples, great busy markets and the river full of lively traffic. But here's what it mostly really looks like:
And those are prettier pictures than the reality, because I deliberately waited for brightly colored vehicles to enter the frame, and my camera decided to super saturate the colors.

The reality is that colors are muted, dusty, filtered through a haze of smog and smoke and grit in the air.

Don't get me wrong. I love big, crowded, noisy, dirty cities with all their brutality and fierce humanity and complexity and confusion and disorientation. And there's elements of all that that I still like here in Bangkok, remnants of what drew me to the place in the past. But I'm also uneasy about it, squirrely in a way that I haven't felt here before.

18 February 2011


I'm in Bangkok and I've written, rewritten and want to rewrite yet again a blog post about it. Plenty of mixed feelings going around and it doesn't make the task of telling you - my faithful readers - about it an easy one. Don't worry, I'll get there sometime in the next day or two.

But, by way of a teaser, here's a picture of what much of Bangkok really looks like as one walks around in the 90 + degree heat and poach-an-egg level of humidity. There are some pretty things in the city, hardly even so much as an entire pretty part of the city, though. The pictures most people bother showing of Bangkok leave out what it really looks like. Take a look at this, try to conjure up the heat and humidity and stench of auto exhaust and other pollutants and cooking odors ranging from appetizing to gag inducing, imagine the noise and the constant brushing against you of people on the street pressed together by endless rows of vendors and their stands crowding the sidewalks.
Keep in mind that the color in this picture is a great deal more saturated than the color really is here. Most things are viewed through a haze of smog and smoke and grit and it is only because my camera is lying to you that the colors look so vibrant.

But what this blogpost is, is a bit of BSP for my eBooks. They are now available in pretty much any format you might want: Kindle, B&N (Nook), and on LuLu for iGizmos, SONY E-Reader, etc.

If you want one - which of course you do - all you have to do is click on this paragraph to go to the page on my website where you can order whatever format suits you by clicking on the cover of the book you want. (You can also still order the paper and ink versions, ideally from your closest independent bookseller, but of course from Amazon and such places as well.)

15 February 2011


If you ever have the (good?) fortune to find yourself in a layover in the Taipei airport, and you can talk yourself into - or simply show your boarding pass - the Evergreen Lounge, have an espresso. They have excellent espresso. By far the very finest I have ever had in Asia and I have drunk a lot of espresso in Asia. It's surprising.

If its xiao long bao you're wanting, though, go back into the terminal and pay for it. There's some superb xlb to be found there.

Getting this far - a three hour layover before my flight leaves for Bangkok - was something of a chore.

I was told to get to Los Angeles International at least 2-1/2 hours before my flight. Traffic at rush hour was overly cooperative and I got there three hours early. It took 45 minutes to get through security. The only country in the world where I have gone through airport security and they make you take off your shoes or your computer out of your bag, is the U.S. I guess it's good for the show, because it's pretty meaningless in terms of actual screening.

Then, once you get through security, the LAX international departures terminal has the most meager and poor quality services of any international departure terminal I have ever been in. There were expensive old hot dogs to eat, or green around the edges sandwiches, and I was hungry. There were a wide variety of salted and sweet snacks and bottled beverages or super overpriced off brand cocktails. That was it. There's a crappy magazine stand, Sees Candy and a feeble excuse for a duty free.

There's not much sense in complaining about the flight. EVA Air is pretty nice, nicer than almost any U.S.-based airline. Food was crummy, it was crowded and the seats could be better. But at least they don't force you to stay in your seat. They actually let you stand in the areas outside the restroom and stretch and talk with other passengers - unlike U.S. carriers that seem to worry you'll be conspiring with someone if you do that. And they have a nice variety of Asian movies with English subtitles to watch if you don't want to watch the standard airplane cinematic fare.

People ask me "how was the flight?" and I never know what to say. What is there to say? Is there such a thing as a really good, much less great flight anymore?

"The flight didn't crash. I got there pretty much on time. It was fine."

I'm looking forward to my trip. I do have a very strange fondness for arriving in the airport in Jakarta, Indonesia. I'm hoping they haven't banned smoking in the terminal since I was last there. In the past, as soon as I would exit the plane I'd be hit square in the nose with the mingled scent of orchids and clove cigarettes. Something about that odor relaxes me. I'd take a deep breath and feel my blood pressure lowering.

Still, even though I've been in three different Jakarta train stations and none of them smell as good as the airport, it's a shame there isn't a fast train from L.A. to Asia. I love train travel.

In any event, this is just a short blog post by way of letting you know I'm on the road: to Bangkok, then Jakarta, then Bali, then back to Jakarta, then back to Bangkok than home - part work, mostly for fun. Check back for pictures and stories as the trip progresses.