Quin's Progress


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Whatever You Do, Don’t Crap Bananas

Myanmar FlagMingalaba, gentle friends! Greetings from Myanmar.

Oh, Myanmar. You really made me work for it, didn’t you? Having your embassies reject my visa applications because I wasn’t applying in my home country, giving me the run around about the visa-on-arrival program, and then finally having mercy on my passport in Singapore, notwithstanding the “Don’t Even Think of Applying for a Visa Here if You’re Not a Legal Singapore Resident” signs at the consulate.  And, now that I’m finally here, you’re trying to kill me.

Myanmar restaurant, but not the one where the fish bone got me.

Myanmar restaurant, but not the one where the fish bone got me.

First, there was the wily fish bone. I am not a picky eater, but I am a bit fussy about fish with little, thin bones. Perhaps there is a repressed, early childhood trauma at the root of it, I don’t know, but the idea of getting a fish bone stuck in my throat strikes such dread in me that I normally will have nothing to do with anything made from a fish smaller than a coffee table.

Mr. Ko in the Shan mountains.

Mr. Ko in the Shan mountains.

But, when my driver, Mr. Ko—who I only later discovered was not named Mr. Ko at all, but had told me to call him by that name (which, apparently, translates essentially to “Mr. Sir”), because he correctly surmised I would never be able to pronounce his real name—took me to a restaurant in a rural village in northern Shan State, and communicated as best he could in his limited English that the fish soup, made from a smallish catfish caught that day in the rice paddy, was the best, freshest thing on offer, I reluctantly acquiesced. And, of course, even though I was hyper-careful, I promptly got a bone stuck in my throat.

Evil fish bones.

The evil fish bones.

Pandemonium ensued in the little café. Good god, they couldn’t kill a foreigner, it would be terrible for business! After much shouting in Burmese and arm waving, the owner’s daughter rushed over with a bunch of bananas. Mr. Ko grabbed them, quickly peeled one, and handed it to me, urging me through hand gestures to eat it to knock the bone down my gullet.  I put a hunk of banana in my mouth, and as I began to chew, Mr. Ko exclaimed, “Don’t crap!”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Don’t CRAP!” he insisted.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” I assured him, as I continued to chew the banana.

Shan bananas.  Shananas.

Shan bananas. Shananas.

“DON’T CRAP BANANAS! DON’T CRAP BANANAS! DOOON’T CRAAAAAAAAAAP!!!!” he exhorted anxiously. Then, he put the back of his hand under my chin to stop me from chewing, and I finally got it. Makes sense, of course.  The banana has to be in one piece to knock the offending bone down, not chewed into goo that would slide around it. But, I could, at least, breathe with the bone stuck in there, and I was imagining a plug of banana getting lodged on top of the bone and cutting off my air, so I was hesitant. But, they all seemed to think it was a good idea, so, lacking any better solution, I complied. And it worked. As soon as I swallowed a piece of uncrapped banana, the bone dislodged, and peace was restored.

Hsipaw Train Station.

Hsipaw Train Station.

Then came the treacherous train. Two days after the fish bone incident, I got on a train in Hsipaw headed toward an old British hill station in the mountains north of Mandalay.  Myanmar RailwayI decided to spring for the extra forty cents to have a seat in the “First Class” car, which, as far as I could tell, differed from the “Ordinary Class” only in the assignment of individual seats, instead of open seating on benches.  Definitely worth forty cents.

MR BoobsWhen I got to my assigned seat, I noticed these fabric seat covers printed with a symbol that resembled saggy breasts. Having also seen this symbol painted on the entrance to various ladies’ restrooms, and noticing that the only other person seated in that area of the car was an elderly woman, I concluded that the symbol must be the Burmese character representing “women,” and these seats must be reserved for ladies.

LadyI made a conscious decision not to think any further about whether they were specifically reserved for old ladies with saggy breasts, and whether or not it was fair that I had been relegated to that zone without a proper inquiry.

Ladies' Room.

Ladies’ Room.

Turns out I was wrong, anyway. I later learned that the symbol is the Burmese word “ma,” which means both “women” and the abbreviated form of “Myanmar,” which is why it is printed on the seats of the Myanmar state railroad.  So, there you have it.

Bag o' tea.

Bag o’ tea.

Cheroots.

Cheroots.

My seat neighbor turned out to be quite a dame. She brought out tins of dried, sugared mango slices, tied plastic baggies of milk tea, and packages of cheroots—small, hand-rolled cigars—and passed them around to everyone, before producing a deck of cards and inviting folks to come play.

Game3She didn’t have to twist anyone’s arm, let me tell you.  Before I knew it, someone had upended a vegetable basket between the seats and placed a cushion on top to form a card table, and an ever-growing group of people crowded around, laughing, and smoking, and happily gambling away the meager contents of their respective wallets. Game4She offered to deal me in, but I couldn’t figure out what game they were playing, so I judiciously declined.

Systematically, that fabulous old broad took each of those guys to the cleaners. When one of them busted out of the game, she offered to buy his cheroots off him so he would have money to keep playing. Game2He went for it, and then she won the money back off him, leaving him without smokes or coin. She did it with such affable charm, though, none of her victims seemed to mind. I really admired her.

In the meantime, the train was bucking through the mountains like a bronco with a bee in its butt. Kids on a trainThe coaches jumped and jerked so violently, there were times when even my ample behind was thrown all the way into the air. We all had to hold on to keep from being pitched onto the floor, not that it disrupted the card game in the slightest. You could see through the aisle door how the coach ahead of ours was jerking and rocking back and forth like a metronome on amphetamines. It was more than a little disconcerting, but none of the other passengers seemed worried, so I figured it must be normal, and tried to roll with it. No pun intended.

Now I know why they included life insurance in the ticket fare!

Now I know why they included life insurance in the ticket fare!

I was concerned about angering Dale, though. He’s been pretty tame lately, and the fear of antagonizing him with this rock n’ roller coaster ride was real. Ultimately, after about five hours of being relentlessly jolted and jostled, I got off the train and got a private car down the remainder of the mountain.

Shan Noodles.

Shan Noodles.

That is why, when the train derailed in the forest about a half hour later, I was happily stuffing my face with Shan noodles at a roadside tea house, watching the “Chinese Horsemen” come down the highway from nearby China, carrying cheap, refurbished motorcycles—jocularly called Chinese Horses—on the backs of their own motorcycles, illegally importing them to waiting customers in the rural hill tribes.

Pyin Oo Lwin.

Pyin Oo Lwin.

I would never have known about the train crash, but the next day, in Pyin Oo Lwin town, I was accosted by a woman shouting “Hey, there you are! What happened to you?” When she caught up to me, she said she recognized me from the train, and that they had looked everywhere for me, but no one could find me. To the nonplussed look on my face, she said, “Did you get off early?” I said yes. “So, you don’t know that the train derailed?” No, I most certainly did not.

From the train window, shortly before I got off, and it crashed.

From the train window, shortly before I got off, and it crashed.

She then told me all about it. Apparently, three coaches, including the one I had been in, jumped off the tracks in the woods, far from any town or station, or even the highway. I worried about the card playing granny and her cohorts, but I was assured that no one was hurt, thankfully. The coaches had gone off the rails to the left, into a clearing, instead of to the right, which would have sent the whole train tumbling down the mountainside into a very deep ravine.

Shortly before it derailed.

Shortly before it derailed.

Someone called the police from a mobile phone, and the Gendarme soon came with pick-up trucks to get people out and down to the next decent size town, which was Pyin Oo Lwin.  All train service between Mandalay and Lashio, the last town before the Chinese border, was suspended until further notice, so they could clear the mess off the tracks.

It all sounded very dramatic and inconvenient. I was so grateful not to have been there. Can you imagine? I would have crapped bananas.


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The Yapese Welcome Wagon

Yap

Yap

Airport Greetresses

Airport Greetresses. Sorry, all I can give you is a shot of side-boob.

The first thing I saw after passing through the customs booth into the open shelter that is the Yap airport, was two smiling girls of about 18 or so, gleaming rosewood skin, tropical flower tiaras, and completely naked but for the rustling raffia skirts, full as a square dancer’s petticoats, barely clinging to their hips.  No coconut shell bras or bikini tops here.

Welcome Garland.

Welcome Garland.
(My boobs stayed covered.)

They welcomed us to Yap by draping around each of our necks a garland of fresh green, braided reeds, accentuated with delicate, watermelon-pink blossoms.  I had read that, in Yap, women are expected to cover their thighs, but not their breasts, so I wasn’t exactly surprised by their attire, but, not having had a chance to acclimate yet, my default social programming compelled me to respectfully avert my eyes from the exposed boobies.  Yapese Granny2Although I really did want to stare (you know what I always say:  everyone loves boobs), or at least, get a good photograph to share with y’all, I was just too tired to muster the nerve to ask permission, unsure if that would be considered rude.  Yapese Granny3(I wish I had, though, because except for those beauties at the airport, the only other native folks I saw in that particular state of traditional undress while I was in Yap were more on the elderly side, and as you can imagine, decades of gravity and sun exposure had their venerable chi-chis resembling tanned spaniels’ ears.

It's hard to stalk people from the front, sorry.

It’s hard to stalk people from the front, sorry.

Stealing more souls.

Stealing more souls in downtown Colonia,  Yap.

Even then, I was rendered a bashful, inwardly giggling idiot, stalking topless grannies in the grocery store with my camera, trying not to get caught photographing them, as it is, especially by the older generation, considered a theft of the soul.)

In the crowd that had turned out to meet the Saturday night plane (Yap only gets flights on Tuesdays and Saturdays, both late at night), I located Al, the owner of the Village View cottages where I would be staying (and, as it happens, the younger brother of one of the Grand Poobah chiefs of Yap).

Village View on Maap Island.

Village View on Maap Island.

He had come to fetch me and one other guest, a young Japanese woman who had come for the fantastic diving.  There are no lights along the long road to the northeast side of Maap island—one of the main islands that comprise Yap—and the road is not even paved after the turnoff to where Al’s five rustic beach cottages are located.

My cottage on Yap.

My cottage on Yap.

When we arrived, Al gave us each our keys, pointed out which cottage was assigned to whom, and aimed the truck’s headlights down the dirt trail so we could see where to find the only restaurant on that side of the island—the Moon Rize Restaurant and Dive Center—where we would be taking our meals.  He then left us, saying he’d be back the next day.

Village ViewIt was too dark to see when we arrived, but Al’s little cottages are right on the prettiest, most remote beach on Maap, have wrap-around porches, and are appropriately rustic to the locale—no TV, no phones, no cell signal, no internet connection.  NightShotThey do have power and plumbing, and air conditioning, though, which is all I really care about.  I threw my bags down and made a beeline for the bathroom, having forgotten to go at the airport before we set out through the jungle.  As soon as I was ensconced with my shorts around my ankles, I saw it:  the unholiest, most diabolical, hook-legged bulb of arachnoid evil, at least the size of the palm of my hand, giving me the multi-eyed stink-eye, not even a foot away from my knee.

Our beach.

Our beach.

I’m not sure how I managed to levitate my not-insubstantial form off the toilet and onto the sink vanity, still hobbled by my pants around my feet, and scramble crab-wise out of there without ever touching the floor, but I did.  You see, spiders are the things I am most terrified of in the world.  Call it irrational, I won’t argue, but when I seem them, my thoughts cease to form in words, coming instead in splashes of primary colors and alarm sirens, like the emergency broadcast system on steroids, and the only mental command I can obey is the primal directive to flee.  It’s not something I can control or reason my way around.  I have, over the years, begrudgingly developed the ability to dispose of smaller ones on my own (though not without hopping up and down and yelping like an overstimulated Pomeranian), but if they are bigger than, say, a dime, all I can do is run screaming.  Which is what I did in this instance.

This is where I found them.

The scene of the birthday party, the next day.

So, there I was, pulling up my pants in the road, evicted from my cottage by a big-ass spider in the middle of the night, with no ability to call Al to come back and save me.  The only other lights on in any of the cottages were in the one belonging to the Japanese girl who had come in from the airport with me, and somehow I didn’t think she was going to be much help; she was a shy, dainty little bijou, and didn’t speak any English.  I walked down the path toward the closed restaurant, hoping to find someone, anyone, who could help me exorcise the beast.  Or, preferably, just do it for me.  Thankfully, the heavens smiled on me, and I found a group of drunks smoking and laughing by the beach not far down the road.

The Moon Rize.

The Moon Rize.

A German-accented “Hallo!” greeted me out of the dark, and when I approached, a wild-haired, bare-chested Austrian stepped up to usher me into the circle.  “I am Sebastian,” he said, “but everyone calls me ‘Basti,’ or ‘Busty,’ because of my beautiful busen (German for ‘bosom’).  You can touch them if you want.”  He jutted his fuzzy, sunburned chest out for me to pet.  I reached up and gave his left nipple an affectionate tousle, and he recoiled with an expression mixed with surprise and delight.  “Ah! You can stay,” he announced, and introduced me around to the group.

My cottage, from the road.

My cottage, from the road.  In the daytime, obviously.

In addition to the aforementioned Basti, there was his stunning girlfriend whose birthday they were all celebrating, his adorable, hilarious friend and coworker in a documentary film company from Vienna, who he introduced simply as “Überfloof” (“because he has the softest, fluffiest hair…here, feel it!”  He was right, it was very soft), a golden Finnish guy who was a dead ringer for one of my friends from high school (assuming my friend has aged extremely well), and four or five Yapese locals from the village who had provided the “tuba” coconut wine on which all of them were bombed out of their gourds.  Well, that and some other things that were being passed around.

Some random pictures I took on Yap, because this part of the story takes place at night, and it was too dark to photograph anything.

Some random pictures I took on Yap, because this part of the story takes place at night, and it was too dark to photograph anything.

When I explained my spider predicament, Basti gallantly jumped up and accompanied me back to my cottage to help.  As we walked, he told me about a gargantuan furry, black spider he had encountered while filming a documentary in the rainforest of Brazil, and said that, unless this spider in my bathroom was truly, spectacularly large, he was going to be disappointed.  I was actually worried for a moment that my spider wouldn’t measure up.  Then he said, “unless it’s a…schwarze witwe…I don’t know how it’s called in English.”  He was talking about a black widow.  I answered him in German:  “Es ist keine schwarze witwe.”  He stopped and turned to me in surprise.  “Was, du sprichst Deutsch?  Das gibt’s doch wohl nicht!”  And, just like that, instant kinship.  (It always surprises Germans and Austrians to find a German-speaking American, but for some reason, it really blows their wigs up to run across one in a far-flung place, and Yap is about as far-flung as it gets.)

This can of Shasta Tiki Punch was bottled in Hayward, California, so it traveled just as far as I did to get to Yap.

This can of Shasta Tiki Punch was bottled in Hayward, California, so it traveled just as far as I did to get to Yap.

I was so flustered, I accidentally lead him to the wrong cottage at first—the one belonging to the Japanese girl.  As I futzed around unsuccessfully with the lock, I heard movement noise inside, and I thought it was the spider, in my mind, trashing the place like a Hell’s Angel in a bar fight.  “Oh my god, do you hear it?” I hissed at Basti, who just laughed at me.  I don’t know why she didn’t just open the door to see what we wanted.  But, then again, it was the middle of the night, and she’s probably sitting in Tokyo right now writing a blog post about how she narrowly avoided an untimely death when some crazy, Teutonic marauders tried to break into her cottage on her first night in Yap, as she cowered under the table, praying for them to go away.  Which we did as soon as I realized my error.

Once inside the correct cottage, I pushed the bathroom door open with my foot and jumped back out of the way.  Basti went inside and said, “Where is it?  I can’t even see it!”  I crept to the doorway and saw he was looking up, at the upper part of the wall.  “It’s down there!” I squeaked, pointing at the creature perched on the baseboard like it owned the place.  When he stepped back and asked if I had a Tupperware or something to put over it, I knew the thing had met his rigorous spider standards.  He grabbed a cup next to the sink and went in to capture it, while I uselessly leapt about out in the foyer, shrieking like I’d been run through with a spear.

EEEEK!!!

EEEEK!!!

“Get the camera ready!” he called to me.  “Come in now!”  But, I couldn’t do it; the trauma of too many mean boys over the years, pushing spiders into my face on their palms after purportedly rescuing me from them, has rendered me permanently distrustful.  And if he tried to put that octo-goblin in my face, they were going to have to airlift me to the psychiatric hospital in Guam.  “Come on, bring the camera!” he insisted.  “It’s safe, I promise!”  He said this last part in a reassuring enough tone that I fished my iPhone out of my bag—hands shaking, unsteady ululations of distress streaming nonstop from my constricted throat—and peeped around the doorjamb.

My hair still stands up just at the sight of this.  Yeesh!

My hair still stands up just at the sight of this. Yeesh!

He had the spider trapped under the glass on the wall, with his ear to the bottom, like he was eavesdropping on someone on the other side of the wall.  I practically climbed the door, just seeing the thing jerking around frenetically inside the glass, trying to climb inside Basti’s ear.  But, he ordered me with enough Austrian authority in his voice to “take some pictures, godammit,” that I managed to compose myself just enough to snap a few shots before my feet involuntarily conveyed me out of the room.

OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod!!!!

OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod!!!!

“I need something flat to slide underneath…no, not that, it’s convex…a flyer or something,” he instructed me, the top of his head just visible in the doorway.  There was nothing suitable anywhere in the room, and I was starting to panic afresh that the monster might get away in transit to the outdoors.  Then, I spotted a package of cookies I had bought earlier, and I started to frantically tear at it, so I could flatten out the box and give it to Basti to slip under the glass.  “Oh, good, perfect time to have some cookies,” he drawled at me derisively.  “I know you’re stressed out, go ahead, Schatz, have a cookie.  Have two!”

He's so lucky there wasn't a hole in the bottom of that cup.

He’s so lucky there wasn’t a hole in the bottom of that cup.

That made me laugh, which calmed me down enough to disassemble the cardboard package and reach it through the doorway to him.  I listened in a ridiculous, full-body clench from the other room as he cooed and apologized to the spider for pinching its leg, and gingerly, like he was removing a soufflé from the oven, carried it outside and pitched it into the yard.  “There.  Now, let’s go back to the party.  I think you could use a drink,” he said, unaware that what he had just done was, to me, the equivalent of slicing our thumbs open and binding them together in a blood brother ritual.

Now you know what it takes to earn my eternal devotion and gratitude.  Basti can now call on me to come bail him out of jail in Chiapas or Burundi or wherever, and I would totally do it.  And, after getting to know him a little better over the following week, I think there’s a decent chance that circumstance could actually come about.

He convinced our skipper to hand over the wheel of the boat.

He convinced our skipper to hand over the wheel of the boat.

There’s also an equal likelihood that, by the time I got there with the bail money, Basti would have already charmed the pants off his jailers, have the keys to his cell on a chain around his own neck, have them in stitches with his vivid accounts of, oh, say, the tiny eels that swim up the bums of unsuspecting sea cucumbers for safety (it’s a real thing, look it up).  They’d all be drinking and smoking and laughing in the jailhouse together, making fart jokes and naming their armpits after famous singing duos of the 60s and 70s (arms over his head, “Say ‘hallo’ to Ike and Tina!”).

Oh, it’ll happen.


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Happy Fountain of Boobies

Starbucks always gets my name wrong

Starbucks always gets my name wrong

Yesterday, I went to get my underarms lasered, and if you’ve ever had that done, you know how much I suffered.  So painful!  I swear, I need to take a wooden spoon with me to bite on.  But, as they say, beauty is pain, and if you read my post about Tata the Thai Face Slapper, you know I’m not afraid of it.  Anyway, the laser doctor (who looks and sounds just like Mr. Chow from the movie “The Hangover”) has his office in Union Square.  So, afterwards, I grabbed a latte at Starbucks and went to sit in my Happy Spot to wait for my ravaged armpits to stop stinging.

Ruth Asawa's "San Francisco Fountain." The "HH" stands for Hyatt Hotel that commissioned it in 1970.

Ruth Asawa’s “San Francisco Fountain”
The “HH” stands for Hyatt Hotel

I have several Happy Spots in and around San Francisco, and the one in Union Square is at Ruth Asawa‘s “San Francisco Fountain” on the steps outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Stockton, between Sutter and Post, right next to the Levi’s store.  I could be in the foulest of moods, actively planning my foes’ murders, but if I “set a spell,” as my Granny would say, in this spot, invariably, my smile returns, and my foes get to live to vex me another day.

Superman flying through downtown San Francisco

Superman flying through downtown San Francisco

This fountain is whimsical, magical and thoroughly, unabashedly fun.  It’s a fun-tain.  Completely covered in kajillions of comical little figures that look like they’re fashioned out of Play-doh, it is actually a relief map, of sorts, of the City of San Francisco.  Although I think anyone would love it, it really does take a denizen of our fair City to catch and truly appreciate some of its more obscure details.

Chinatown

Chinatown

It’s built into some brick steps, with the edge facing west at the top of the stairs representing the ocean, and the edge facing east toward the street representing the bay.  Scenes and figures depicting City landmarks, history and life adorn the fountain walls and rim, in roughly geographic order.

Golden Gate

Golden Gate

The Golden Gate Bridge is complete with its ever-present traffic, and its glorious towers extend up the side of the fountain wall and over the top of the rim into the water.

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

There’s Coit Tower peeking out on top of Telegraph Hill, Ghirardelli Square, Chinatown, the old Mint, City Hall, the Conservatory of Flowers and the Filbert Steps.  I can’t fit pictures of everything in this post, but, you name it, it’s there.  It really is a full tour of San Francisco all in one place!

"Support Your Local Chicken"

“Support Your Local Chicken”

Every time I come see this fountain, I make my way around it, inspecting it closely, laughing at the little figures and scenes, and I always, without exception, find something that escaped my notice before.  Like this time, I discovered this little chicken truck.  Look, how cute!

IMG_2459IMG_2419This is kind of juvenile of me, I know, but, one of my favorite things about it is, if you look closely, there are naked boobies all over this thing.  Everywhere.  It’s fabulous!  You know my old saying, “Everyone Loves Boobs.”  Young/old, men/women, gay/straight, it doesn’t matter, we’re all united in our affection for boobs.  Boobies are the universal singularity.  You know I’m right.

boobiesIMG_2398There are lots of lounging, tangled lovers sprinkled throughout, too.  I love that.  How can that not make you smile?

A shout-out to Carol Doda, the famous stripper

A shout-out to Carol Doda, the famous stripper, and her fantastic boobs

The fountain was commissioned by the Grand Hyatt in 1970, and created by artist Ruth Asawa, known as the “fountain lady” for her works like this one, as well as the gorgeous mermaid fountain in Ghirardelli Square–another of my favorites.  She molded the figures out of bread dough, and let it dry hard before it was cast in bronze.  She also built a model of the steps that the fountain would be set into in her back yard, to store the bronze panels as they were completed, so she could visualize the map of San Francisco as it took shape.

Lombard Street

Lombard Street

Asawa enlisted the help of a bunch of school kids and other visitors to mold some of the figures, to give life to her idea to “show what many hands working together could do.”  And as the plaque on the sidewalk explains, “[p]erhaps the most remarkable aspect of the fountain is that, in the end, Ruth succeeded in proving her point; it is her work, produced by many hands, and like all great folk monuments, it belongs to everyone.”

IMG_2474Notwithstanding that lovely “this belongs to everyone” sentiment, if I ever find the owner of this tag handle, I will sit on him and pound upholstery tacks into his gums and then squeeze lemon juice over the wounds.  I mean, really.  What the Hell?  Don’t get me wrong, I live in the Mission District, I can appreciate graffiti as street art.  But don’t be tagging works of art.  Especially not one as purely joyous as this one.  It’s bad, bad karma, not to mention, disrespectful and just plain rude.

As with every other time I’ve visited this spot, though, even this crude offense faded away and gave way to laughter and levity as I explored the happy little creatures that inhabit the fountain walls.  Thanks, Ruth, you made my day — again!

The old Fleishhacker Pool--once the largest pool in the world

The old Fleishhacker Pool–once the largest pool in the world

Not just boobies, there's naked bottoms, too!

Not just boobies, there’s naked bottoms, too!

Happy creatures at the beach

Happy creatures at the beach