Quin's Progress


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Tattoo d’Etat

BrainsI have not been in my right mind for quite some time, gentle friends. Before the amused chorus of “you don’t say” rises from amongst you, I should be clear, this time, I’m talking about the right hemisphere of my actual brain. You know how, apparently, the left side of the brain controls logic, reason, analytical thought, and verbal skills, and the right side is where creativity, art, music, imagination and rainbow unicorns live? Well, I’m a lawyer, so you know my zip code is on the left side of town. I’m all about words, not pictures. Recently, however, I decided to pay a visit to the other side, just to have a look around.

That is a banana blossom, about to be turned into a scrumptious salad by yours truly, in Cambodia.

A banana blossom, about to be turned into a scrumptious salad by Yours Truly, in Cambodia.

It all happened quite innocently, at first. As I’ve mentioned before, I love to take cooking classes. As most such courses focus on formulae (recipes) and technique mastery—i.e., science—my left brain stays comfortably in command, while my poor right brain stands off to the side, whispering ways to freestyle the recipe into something even more magical with other ingredients when I get home.

That's supposed to be a flower.

That was supposed to be a flower.

I took several cooking classes in Vietnam, and each featured a segment on fruit and vegetable carving to garnish the finished plates. I, of course, sucked at that part. I even cut the bejeesus out of my thumb while attempting to render a lotus blossom from the butt end of a carrot.

IMG_0791I do not like sucking at things. (Insert Beavis & Butthead snicker here.) Ordinarily, if I can’t do something well, I just avoid it. And, although one might argue that I could easily avoid fruit carving, something about it challenged me. I became determined to master at least one tomato or carrot flower, even if it killed me.

Suck it, bitches.

Suck it, bitches.

So, I hired myself a fruit carving sensei, and buckled down. And I must say, aided by good instruction and the proper tools (there are special fruit carving knives), as well as a bunch of practice, I got to where I could turn out a respectable variety of blossoms and woodland creatures from everyday items found in your local produce aisle. IMG_0788Not too shabby, eh? Remember me next time you have a buffet table to decorate for a bridal shower or red carpet awards show viewing party.

Emboldened by my admittedly moderate success at crafting fantasy vegenalia, I decided to take it to the next level: Tattooing.  On people, not fruit. Such an obvious next step, I know, forgive my prosaicness.

IMG_0589As I quickly discovered, tattooing isn’t something you can just sign up for at the Learning Annex and go do. The people in the industry don’t make it easy to get in—and they shouldn’t. Basically, the way to learn is to get an established tattoo artist to teach you, in an apprenticeship. There are some instructional materials available for purchase online, but I wanted to do it properly, so I wasn’t about to go to correspondence school. After much investigation and multiple inquiries, the tattoo masters at Bangkok Ink agreed to take me on for tutelage.

IMG_0740Bangkok Ink has a deep bench of really talented tattoo artists, including Krit, who specializes in traditional bamboo tattooing—no machine, just tapping the tattoo into the skin by hand with long needles. This guy does cleaner, more precise work in bamboo than most artists can do with a machine. It’s something to behold. They also have a relationship with a Buddhist temple, where sacred Sak Yant tattoos—done bamboo style, and supposedly embodying a sort of protective magic charm—are blessed by a monk, and sealed with a piece of gold leaf.

IMG_0743When they have room, Bangkok Ink also takes on students. It’s kind of a commune of learning, where all the resident tattooists take part in helping out the newbies. You can even learn bamboo tattooing from Krit, if you want, but I wanted to start with the modern machine style.

Bangkok Ink's guard kitty.

Bangkok Ink’s guard kitty.

I was so nervous. I had no idea if I was going to have any aptitude for this at all, and I sure didn’t know if I was going to fit in at the shop. I was the oldest person there by a good margin, and my image is pretty clean cut. I could just see the cartoon thought bubbles over their heads when I walked in that first day, words in Comic Sans font, saying “What’s that middle-aged Farang (Thai for ‘foreigner’) lady doing here? Someone give her directions to Starbucks.”

This thing scared the crap out of me every time I rounded the corner.

This thing scared the crap out of me every time I rounded the corner.

To top it off, the day I arrived, nobody knew who I was, because they had been expecting a man (I get that a lot because of my name), and Aum, the tattoo artist who was supposed to teach me, was in the hospital following a bad motorcycle accident. But, when the owner, Martin, arrived, all got sorted out quickly, another artist took over the task of instructing me, and I got down to work.

IMG_0602It was all very informal, but immediately hands on. My teacher printed out some illustrations of various things off the internet, handed me some special carbon paper, and told me to make a stencil of the image by tracing over it to get the carbon on the back side of the paper. My first several tries were dreadful, and I got purple carbon paper ink all over myself and everything around me. IMG_0597After I got a stencil of a big, cabbagey-looking flower sort of passably acceptable, she gave me a hunk of pigskin they got from the butcher, and showed me how to transfer the stencil ink to the pigskin using a tube of Mennen SpeedStick deodorant. Then, as the stencil dried, it was time to learn how to assemble and use the tattoo machine.

IMG_0605I labored over my first practice effort for almost five and a half hours. When I was done, hand cramped into a nautilus curl, Martin looked at my work, dispassionately said “not good enough,” and went on about his business.

My first attempt.

My first attempt.

I was so demoralized, I went home that night thinking, “what the hell am I doing here?” I was sure I’d made a huge mistake.

But, Day 2 went a little better. Same routine: pick an image, make the stencil, transfer to pig skin, and ink with the machine.

Day 2

Day 2

Bucket o' Pigskin

Bucket o’ Pigskin

It was still not something you’d actually want to put on a human being’s body, but nevertheless, some improvement was evident. Praise was received. I verily skipped home. Maybe I wasn’t going to suck so much after all.

Ugh.

Ugh.

Day 3, tried shading. Another disaster. I almost cried. Suckage, assured. Dragged my ass home in a funk. This endeavor was going to turn me bipolar before long.

Waf, the Phenom.

Waf, the Phenom.

It didn’t help my morale any that there was another student there, Waf, from Belgium, who started two days before I had, and on his third day there was already working on real live people, doing beautiful work. Min and WafIn fairness, he was an artist to begin with, so he already had the skill and confidence to gracefully create images. This was just a new medium for him. He was great, right out of the gate. And, so nice and encouraging to me, too, as I struggled along my much steeper learning curve.  If he wasn’t so nice, I’d have been really jealous of him.

L->R:  Aum, Tom, Ori and Waf

L->R: Aum, Tom, Ori and Waf

Two other guys—Ori and Tom—who were not beginners (at least, not by the time I got there) were also in residence.  When they weren’t cracking us up, they were spending some time polishing their already impressive skills, banking some experience, and developing their individual styles.

Ori, inking his own leg. And me, in the mirror.

Ori, inking his own leg.
And me, in the mirror, taking the photo.

When the shop was quiet, Ori would get bored and tattoo his own leg, while sipping a beer for the pain. And, can I just tell you, even though he was half in the bag, and all twisted up like that, his lines came out as clean and perfect as if he’d used a ruler. Dude is a natural.  (Click here to see more of his work.)

Practice, Practice.

Practice, Practice.

I, on the other hand, was clearly not a natural. You could just hear the rusty gears creaking in my head and smell the smoke coming out of my ears as I concentrated so hard on getting the lines even and the shading nice and feathery. My teacher was pretty laissez faire, which was probably good, as I get very frustrated and touchy when I’m having a hard time mastering something.

Hung prominently in the shop.

Hung prominently in the shop.

From the look of the work I was turning out, I was having a very hard time. The only thing I had any immediate gift for was creative draping of pashminas around the other guys’ more modest female clients who didn’t want to expose too much while they were getting worked on. A useful skill, sure, but not what I was there for.

IMG_0679But, around day 5, something shifted. Things started to click, and the machine felt more natural in my hand. I held it less tightly, and it flowed more easily over the pigskin, and suddenly, my lines looked better. The shading looked softer. The colors were going in nice and solidly. Day 5 was a good day, indeed. In fact, at the end of it, my teacher said I was ready to work on a person. IMG_0745I said no, I’m not ready. But, Pang, the manager came by and looked over my shoulder, clucked with approval, and went and put my name on the schedule board for a live, human model the following Monday.

IMG_0831I tell you what, if there’s anything that’ll motivate you to spend the whole weekend hunched over a piece of spoiling pigskin in the Bangkok heat practicing lining and shading, it’s the knowledge that some naïve kid who wants a free tattoo is going to be putting his pristine arm in your hands to indelibly mark for all the world to see. I didn’t want some epic tattoo fail ending up on the Internet—or anywhere else, for that matter—on my watch.

My walk to work along the Saen Saep Canal in Bangkok.

My walk to work along the Saen Saep Canal in Bangkok.

Monday arrived—Day 8—and I hadn’t slept much. I made sure to eat a good breakfast so my hands wouldn’t shake, and went to the shop to await my first victim. When he arrived, two hours late, I was nervous, but composed. He didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Thai, so Aw, the shop assistant, translated for us. The model was a skinny slip of a kid of about 20, and he indicated he wanted his tattoo on the inner side of his forearm, but he didn’t have any particular image in mind. I found that strange, but I had bigger fish to fry.

Aw, our trusty shop assistant, and interpreter.

Aw, our trusty shop assistant, and interpreter.

We sat down at the computer together and sifted through various tattoo styles until he saw one he liked: a neo-traditional pocket watch flanked by some roses. He was a toothpick, though, so the image wrapped almost all the way around his arm, and he refused to let me shrink it to fit the flat part of his forearm. But, as Tim Gunn says, it was time to make it work.

All stenciled up and ready to go.

All stenciled up and ready to go.

In those last few seconds before I touched the needle to his skin for the first time, I stopped to take a breath, and looked at his clean, smooth baby skin. It was never going to be the same again. Whether it would look like a poem or like tire tracks by the end of the day was up to only me.

Ori, fixing my cable.

Ori, fixing the cable.

Unfortunately, I was beset by technical difficulties, right away. The power cable to my machine was wonky, and I kept losing power. Ori fixed that for me.  Then, because of the location of the tattoo site, and the way we were sitting, my boob was in the kid’s hand the whole time I was working.  He didn’t complain, though, and I forgot about it after a while.  Also, because I was obsessively cleaning the skin as I worked, the stencil was rubbing off.

Yes, my boob is in his hand.

Yes, my boob is in his hand.

Aum, who had returned from the hospital a couple days before, was standing over me, his eyes still swollen and black from his accident, urging me not to stop, to just continue working freehand.

Half-way, and the stencil is rubbing off.

Half-way, and the stencil is rubbing off.

But, he had a whole lot more confidence in me than I did that I could do that without utterly defacing this child’s arm. So, I kept stopping, referring back to the printed image, and manually drawing the stencil back on. After about the fifth time redrawing the stencil, though, Aum was getting impatient with me, saying we were going to be there all night.

Finito!  My very first tattoo on a real, live human.

Finito! My very first tattoo on a real, live human.

I said an inner “TAWANDA!!” and did my best to finish the rubbed-off parts freehand. And, for a first effort, I think it came out reasonably well. Only took six hours. And, boy, did I sleep like a rock that night.

IMG_0876

Did that one, too.

The ensuing days were a flurry of sweet, tough, Thai kids happy to let me cut my teeth on them in exchange for free tattoos. Oddly enough, they usually didn’t have any specific image in mind when they came in, frequently saying “Up to you,” when I’d ask (through an interpreter) what they wanted. Up to me? Really? Well, then guess who’s getting a tattoo of a penguin in a hula skirt dancing on the tip of a giant corndog! That usually got them engaged in the image selection process pretty quickly. It also ensured that I ended up doing a lot of skulls flanked by roses. It’s a classic choice, easy to make on the fly.

The picture he brought.

The picture he brought.

What I gave him.

What I gave him.

BOOM!

BOOM!

In fact, there was only one time someone came in already prepared with a picture of what he wanted. It was a kind of rough illustration of a knuckle dagger that he wanted tattooed on his tricep, exactly as pictured, but embellished with some blood dripping from the blade.  I had to do an especially good job on this one, too, as my victim had absolutely gorgeous work done already by my comrades—mostly by Tom—and I didn’t want my contribution to the glorious canvas of his body to be an ugly toad. In the end, both he and I were very happy with the result.

The Shop.

The Shop.

IMG_0709Once I found my footing, just being in the shop was a blast. We had a mild, comic uprising when someone put techno music on, as it made everyone’s lines come out all uneven and bumpy. In fact, the only music no one ever complained about was Johnny Cash. I settled a mystery for those who thought the clients were sniffing glue for the pain during tattoo sessions, by imparting my earlier acquired knowledge of the universal Thai addiction to menthol nasal inhalers (they really are great if you are feeling dizzy from the heat or pain). MuralWaf painted fantastic graphic murals—his original wheelhouse—on the exterior walls of the shop. Tom would sing while he worked. Pang would bring us food, sometimes with chicken feet in it, that we’d eat at the picnic table on the patio, sometimes under the laundry strung up to dry. PicnicGroups of loud, vacationing blonde girls would come in groups of three or four, get matching tattoos, and squawk away at the top of their voices about their supposedly-wild-but-actually-pretty-tame sexual exploits in a manner clearly contrived to garner the interest of the guys in the shop, but that resulted only in us making vicious fun of them after they’d left. (Seriously, ladies…no one cares who you blew.) It was very colorful, in more ways than one.

Pretty sure that's research.

Pretty sure that’s research.

One afternoon, we were all absorbed in our respective projects, and out of the quiet, Tom said: “Do you guys remember that Friends episode where Phoebe and Rachel go to get tattoos?” Ori, without even looking up, answered, “No, I didn’t watch that show.” I, however, had actually just been thinking about that very episode a couple days before, so I chimed in with, “Yes! And Phoebe chickened out, and just had a dot on her collarbone, saying ‘it’s a lily, as seen from space!’” To which, Tom responded “No, it was ‘This is a picture of the earth from space!” Ori finally interrupted us and said, in a mildly exasperated tone, “No, it was: “It’s the way my mother sees me from heaven.” Tom turned around, eyebrow cocked, and answered, “I thought you said you never watched it.” Ori shrugged. “Well, I didn’t want to admit seeing it, but if you’re going to quote it, you should at least get it right.”

(If the video doesn’t show above, click here.)

The last one I did before leaving.

The last one I did before leaving.

As my time at Bangkok Ink drew to a close, it was clear to me that, although I had come a very long way from that first disaster of a cabbage flower on pigskin, I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go if I’m going to be anything but a dilettante at this. I am really hoping to get back there someday, to see how much better I can become.  I’m also looking into other places in the world where I can continue to learn and improve my skills as I continue my travels.  We shall see.

Words to live by.

Words to live by.  Written on the wall of the shop.

If I’m honest, though, I think it’s safe to say that, unlike Waf and Ori and Tom, I’m just not an artist. I sense that the best I’ll ever be at this is a competent technician. I’ll always have to farm out creation of the actual artwork to a real artist, or, you know…the Internet. I can live with that, though. I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ll just never really be completely in my right mind. I mean, brain.


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Sunrise, Sunset

CheruquinIt’s holiday time, and once again, people everywhere are talking about miracles. So, gather ‘round, children, and I’ll tell you a tale of a truly rare wonder. An occurrence of such extraordinary unlikeliness and infrequency that seeing a giant octopus piloting Halley’s Comet like a chariot across the Golden Gate Bridge would seem banal by comparison.

It's a sleep mask.  Don't be afraid.

My favorite sleep mask.

I’m talking about me getting out of bed before dawn to see the sunrise. Not to compare this to the big, faith-based marvels that inspire our various winter festivities, but anyone who knows me, has worked with me, or tried to get me on the phone, much less up and dressed, before double-digit hours in the morning, will confirm that, for me to voluntarily haul my carcass upright and into motion while it’s still dark out, when the building isn’t even on fire…well, it’s gonna take nothing short of a forklift miracle.

But, such miracles do occur now and then. Usually as a result of peer pressure. And, to be honest, I always feel like I’ve been tricked; defrauded out of my early morning snuggle time by the promise of beholding tangerine magic that never quite delivers. But, I keep falling for it.

Rajendra and Bhawani.

Rajendra and Bhawani.

DSC00369

The terrace behind the Taj Mahal.

It all started years ago in India, when my friends Rajendra and Bhawani told me it would be simply inexcusable to miss seeing the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. I was pretty sure the Taj Mahal would look amazing at any time of day, so I politely declined. They were so persistent, though, that I started to worry that I might actually miss something astonishing if I didn’t make the effort. Accordingly, I dragged myself out of bed in the wee hours, grumbled resentfully through the dark streets of Agra, and followed Rajendra and Bhawani to the foggy marble terrace behind the Taj Mahal, where Rajendra said the view of the sun bursting over the horizon would be most awe inspiring. And we waited.

DSC00372There’s a river winding through the sands behind the Taj Mahal, and as dawn approached, daylight started to illuminate the land, and nearby villagers came out to the bank of the river…and squatted down. From above on the terrace, I had to squint to get a good look at them. It was getting lighter and lighter out, but we still hadn’t seen the sun come up. But, the lighter it got, the more villagers came to the river and copped a squat, and the clearer it became what they were doing.

DSC00398

Oh, hayell no.

I turned to Rajendra and said, “Are they doing what I think they’re doing?”  My friend Jennifer tried to lighten the mood, knowing well how much of a morning person I’m not. “No, I think they are taking pictures of the Taj Mahal! They are getting down low to frame the shot!” Bless her. She’s such an optimist.  I looked at Rajendra, the arch of my eyebrows demanding an answer. “Please tell me you didn’t drag me out of bed in the middle of the night just to come watch people poop on the river bank!” Rajendra laughed nervously, and said the people were, indeed, relieving themselves. I turned away in exasperation, and in the opposite direction, saw…the sun! It had come up on the other side!

DSC00383

On the other side.

“LOOK!” I shrieked and pointed, and Jennifer and Rajendra and Bhawani and I ran around to the front of the main tomb building, just in time to see the fat, amber yolk of the sun climb into the Indian sky over the tip of the red marble monuments on the, yes, east side of the complex.

DSC00400

Looks exactly the same at 3 p.m.

“Why were we back there watching people go to the bathroom in the river when the sunrise is over here!” I whined. Rajendra looked positively nonplussed. “I don’t understand, it usually comes up over there, I don’t know what happened this time,” he said. Well, that could happen to anybody. You know how unpredictable the sun can be.

Sunset in Koh Samui, Thailand.  And no one had to get up early to see it.

Sunset in Koh Samui, Thailand. And no one had to get up at an unchristian hour to see it.

After that, I swore I wasn’t getting up to see any more damned sunrises. Sunsets are just as good—no, better, because no one has to get up earlier than they want to, and they virtually demand to be accompanied by a relaxing cocktail. That’s definitely more my speed.

Fast forward to last year. I was on Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea. For some reason that made perfect sense to me at the time, I booked a hotel on the east coast, on the opposite side of the island from the main town. Unbeknownst to me, the hotel also happened to be next to a large, volcanic tuff cone named Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called “Sunrise Peak.” You can see where this is headed.

Seongsan Ilchulbong.

Seongsan Ilchulbong.

It was off-season, and when I arrived, it looked like I might be the only guest in the place. So, when the English-speaking gentleman the owner had dispatched to meet me upon check-in (that’s Korean hospitality for you) told me that they had set up a special sunrise viewing terrace just for me on the side of the building facing Seongsan Ilchulbong, and would be waiting for me at 5:15 a.m. with coffee and pastries and blankets for snuggling…well…it would have been rude to say no.

So, up I got. At least, this time, I didn’t have to go very far, and I didn’t have to watch anyone at their morning toilet. And there was coffee and pastry. That made it much more bearable. But, the sunrise still failed to deliver the advertised spiritual epiphany-inducing chills. In fact, as if sensing my bad attitude, it failed to show at all.

This is what it looked like just before dawn:

Before dawn.

Before dawn.

And this is what it looked like just after:

Just after dawn.

Just after dawn.

Pfft.  I shoulda stood in bed.  I renewed my vow that the only sunrise I would ever see would be one on the end of a long and festive night of carousing, not one I had to crawl out of bed for.

Anton.  Just look at that smile!

Anton.  And bakso.  Both wonderful!

Then came Anton. Anton is a professional driver (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004371273617&sk=about), and when he doesn’t have a client booked, he kills time doing airport runs from the Yogyakarta airport in Java. That’s how we met. We hit it off like a house fire, so I hired him to drive me around and show me the sights.

It's a tofu brand.

It’s a tofu brand.  No comment.

Lucky for me, he also knows all the good local places to eat, and introduced me to a bunch of Indonesian dishes I might never have discovered otherwise, like “bakso,” a wonderful meatball soup with noodles.  And a popular local tofu brand, called “Poo.”  No river bank required.

Borobudur.

Borobudur.

One of the most notable sights near Jogja is a massive, 9th century Buddhist temple called Borobudur. When I told Anton I wanted to go see it, he said we needed to set out at 4 a.m. to get there by sunrise. Oh no, I told him, nothing doing. I don’t care about the sunrise. We can just go around noon. He said okay, but knitted his eyebrows and looked down into his bakso. After a couple bites, he said, “Quin, if you want to go later, we can, but it will be very hot and very crowded. I don’t think you will like it.”

Borobudur.

Borobudur.

If there’s anything I hate more than getting up early, it’s oppressive heat and crushing crowds. He had my attention. I proposed we go at, like, 8 a.m., and avoid the heat.  Now, we were negotiating. He argued that we would still have to set out at 6:30 to get there by 8, and it would still be hot, and with all that discomfort, we wouldn’t even be rewarded with the sight of the sunrise. So, why not go a couple hours earlier, see the magical sunrise over the temple, with the Merapi volcano in the distance, and then get in and out of the temple before the bus tour groups show up and the heat gets too bad. He knew a secret, special place up on a hill over the temple where we could watch the sunrise, and it wouldn’t be crowded, and we wouldn’t have to pay the entrance fee the hotel near the temple charges to let people watch the sunset on their terrace. I reluctantly agreed.

That’s right.  Anton talked me not only into getting up, but into climbing a mountain before dawn!   He really is a wizard.  And this was my reward (if the video below does not show, click here):

Bee coming in for a landing on Buddha's head.

Bee coming in for a landing on Buddha’s head.

I have to admit, it was pretty cool. And we got in to Borobudur in time to see the giant bumblebees perching on the Buddha’s head–Buddhabees–before the stone got too hot in the sun for them to land. Point: Anton.

A week later, I asked Anton if he would take me to Mount Bromo, the big, active volcano in east Java.  It was a couple days’ drive away, but he was willing.  On the second day, Anton started preparing me for the idea that I would have to get up and trek up the mountain before dawn.

Buddhabee.

Buddhabee.

“Why,” I asked. “It’s a volcano, it’s open all day. We can go in the afternoon.

No, we can only drive up so far in my car, and then you have to take a jeep, and the jeep drivers only work in the morning.”

I bet we can find one who would be willing to go later,” I said confidently.

High tech security system on the wall at the lodge.

Cool high tech security system on the wall at the lodge at Mt. Bromo.

When we got up to the lodge at the edge of the ash plane surrounding the cone, Anton checked with his contact, who confirmed that it had to be a pre-dawn run. I was so annoyed. Anton assured me that, once again, the heat would be so ghastly in the afternoon, that the trade off of getting up early would be worth it.

Anton, freezing to death in the jeep.

Anton, freezing to death in the jeep.

Now, Mount Bromo is up at almost 8,000 feet, and it was really cold that night. It was the only time I broke out my packable down jacket in the entire year I have been on the road, so I was especially skeptical about this heat avoidance claim. But, there was nothing to be done. Anton–who ordinarily stays in bed while his clients meet the jeep driver for the trek up the mountain—after advocating so hard to make me go early, had to get up and go with me.  We froze our assets off in the dark in the back of the jeep, as it lumbered off-road across the moonscape to the side of the volcano, and began to climb. About two-thirds of the way up, the path was so jammed with jeeps and motorbikes, that we had to stop and hike the rest of the way on foot. This did not improve my mood.

Here comes the sun

Here comes the sun. From the opposite direction. Again.

Anton walked along a few paces ahead of me through the crowd, cheerfully offering falsehoods of encouragement, like “just a few more meters and we are there, Quin!” when we were clearly nowhere close.  Finally, at the top, there was a big, curved amphitheater carved into the hillside, from which you can look down onto the active, smoking cones of the volcano. And that is a truly remarkable view.  But, once again, the sun came up on the opposite side! Tricked again.  You would have to climb over the back side of the viewing platform and look out across the plains in the other direction to see the stupid sunrise. So, all that effort, and the sun came up in the wrong place.

P1110962Within a half hour after the sunrise, 99% of the people and the jeeps they came in were all gone. So, if we had waited, we could have driven right up to the top and hopped out of the jeep right at the amphitheater steps. P1110971And it wasn’t that hot. And I refuse to believe there isn’t a jeep driver willing to make a few extra bucks after the sunrise run is over. But, it sure was a marvelous, otherworldly sight. I’m just fairly sure it would be equally marvelous at noon. Or, even 9 a.m. Whatever. I’m not bitter.

P1080167In the meantime, I am back to my commitment to a “sunset only” policy for 2015. Sunsets are just more glamorous. And I’m more likely to be glamorous at the hour that they occur. I think we can all agree that’s an important factor.IMGP1939  So, for me to get up voluntarily just for another sunrise, well…it would take a miracle.


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A Hardworking Monkey is a Sexy Monkey

A man and his monkey...and their motorbike.

A man and his monkey…and their motorbike.

I was hanging out on Koh Samui in Thailand for a few weeks, at a pleasant little retreat on the west side of the island.  One day, this man showed up on a motorbike with a monkey.  (I assume the man was driving, but I have to confess, I didn’t really notice one way or the other, as I was too busy thinking that the monkey, at least, should have had on a helmet, and then designing said monkey helmet in my mind.)

CocoMonkeyThe monkey was a beautiful, very healthy macaque, with some fearsome fangs on him.  He also liked to pull his penis out and play it like a banjo.

Mr. CocoMonkey, on the job!

Mr. CocoMonkey, on the job!

The man quietly spoke a few words in Thai to the monkey, who then scampered up a coconut tree and started chucking coconuts down.  Apparently, this is his job.  He’s a CocoMonkey!  He was very efficient.  The man said he could pick about 500 coconuts per day.  This is handy, because coconuts are an important commercial product in Thailand, and it would take a human a long time to pick 500 coconuts.  A monkey can do it in a few hours.  Most farmers have two or three monkeys, who take turns picking coconuts, so no one gets overworked or too tired.

See him up there working?

See him up there working?

The monkeys are trained to go up, find the coconuts, spin the coconut until it snaps free from the tree, and then drop it on the ground.  The farmer usually takes it from there, and gathers them up.

There’s actually a coconut-picking “Monkey Training College” in Surat Thani, Thailand, just across from Koh Samui on the mainland.

Don't drive your shiny black Audi under where Coco Monkey is working. Coco Monkey don't give a shit.

Don’t drive your shiny black Audi under where CocoMonkey is working. CocoMonkey don’t give a shit.

The monkeys are trained with concepts from Buddhism, using kindness and gentleness to teach them their trade, never force or violence.  There are three levels of schooling at the Monkey Training College.  Elementary School teaches the monkey basic coconut picking, and how to free himself when his line gets hung up in the tree.  It costs about 6,000 Thai Bhat ($184 USD) to put a monkey through elementary school.  This is the extent of most monkeys’ training.  But, there is also Secondary Monkey School, where the monkeys are trained to gather the picked coconuts, put them in bags, and take them wherever they are instructed.  This extra training is expensive, though, at about 25,000 Thai Bhat ($767 USD) per monkey–a little beyond the budget of most farmers.  Then there is Monkey High School, which is customized to what the owner needs, and priced accordingly.

Koh Samui

Koh Samui

You can visit the Monkey Training College, and even stay overnight, so you can see the students in action:  http://www.firstmonkeyschool.com/index.html.  Or, you can just hang out on the beach in Koh Samui and wait for coconut picking day, and watch the Monkey College graduates, quite literally, throw down!