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April 29th, 2006

Holy Hong Konger

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

Do you know what a person from Hong Kong is called? Hong Kongese? Hong Kongian? Nope, they would be a Hong Konger. Really.

What the Hong Kongers have is really a fascinating city. One of the most densely packed cities in the world. As you walk down the motor/sub/hall-ways you wonder just how many people are matching your stride above or below you on another level of the city. What they don’t have is any room left to improve. The city looks the same as it did almost 20 years ago. Cities like Beijing and Shanghai might as well be on different planets compared to their former selves.

One change I have noticed since I’ve been there is the erection of the fifth tallest building in the world. To be more accurate, I barely noticed this enhancement considering the amount of tall buildings on the Hong Kong skyline. Like kids who drive tricked-out Hondas though - once you fill every possible space with something, the only thing left to do is make it light up. If you happened to look out your window in Kowloon and past your drying laundry around eight p.m. you might think it’s finally happened. The stress has finally gotten to the office workforce and they’ve lost it. Window lights blink like computers in the Bat Cave computing the Joker’s current position, and then entire buildings blink on and off. Soon enough though you would stop worrying about the workforce and start worrying about the mothership. Bright laser beams start shooting out of buildings in every direction. Large green lines divide the clouds above Hong Kong island. Within milliseconds Kowloon shoots it’s own red beams back across the harbor frying the retinas of any unlucky souls left in their office (being a Star Wars fan I can’t help but wonder if this makes the Chinese the Empire, which would be reasonable if it wasn’t England on the other side of the water). It would all make sense however if you happened to be down by the harbor where they blare awful pop music (think: half-hour cell phone ring) to which the entire Lite Brite Orgasma is computer-choreographed to the cheers of the tourists who have come to Hong Kong to shop until they drop.

A better solution to the running out of land problem is just to make more land. The waterfront facing Kowloon on Hong Kong island is in the process of being reclaimed. I suppose you would have to consult a geologist to see who, historically, really had the spot first. Being some of the most polluted water in the world (remember all of those people packed together? yeah.), it won’t hurt to reclaim some. The Hong Kongers are in the process of building a beautiful new waterfront on the island side of the harbor. In the near future you will be able to go for a pleasant stroll through the gardens, sit in the grass, have a bubble tea and enjoy the battle for the galaxy from the island side. Although, maybe by the time it’s done the grass will light up and the flowers will shoot laser beams.

The real beauty of this city to me is its function as a natural archive. It is a port city that holds a world of useless antiques from the consumer age. It is a veritable museum of junk. What hasn’t been made there has been shipped out of there. Naked Batman People have small shops that are just crammed with every item that’s ever been sold. Being from America makes it especially fascinating as we’ve purchased every item that’s ever been sold. The complete line of Panasonic TV’s from 1977 to 1993: all boring, all with no intrinsic value whatsoever but here they are, like a family lined up for a family photo. A lightly used set of WWF Happy Meal toys complete with souvenir cups. Every out-of-date camera ever made including a Kodak “Disk” camera with a used disk of film still in it! A few gems can be found buried deep in the cardboard boxes that are all the stores have to show for organization - see naked Batman. Originally to have been painted black as the Caped Crusader we all know, this key chain was mistakenly painted semi-naked by some poor guy who wasn’t aware that The Dark Knight doesn’t go around fighting crime in red underpants. What does leave me confused however is the nonchalant hand waving pose. Maybe he’s supposed to have a garden hose in his right hand as he stands watering the bat-garden and waving to the neighbor. “Oh, Gladys you wouldn’t believe what guano has done for my hydrangeas!”

Since no one will ever buy most of this stuff, it will just sit there forever. Newer junk will push the older junk lower and lower in the cardboard boxes until one day the alien archeologists will be able to come and dig through the sedimented layers of Hong Kong to learn all about us.

“Look see this layer that’s all polished, white plastic?”

“Yeah, the one with the flecks of optional blue and white?”

“Yes, that is the iPeriod.”

“Fascinating.”

April 14th, 2006

Fry Powder

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

Fry the expensive!” I hear bouncing off the plate glass windows and back into my ears as I jerk myself upright. Panting, I begin to look around the room for the source of the scream. As I catch the reflection of a man covered in sweat in the full length mirror, I realize it was me.

I drag myself through the sheets and over to the medicine cabinet where I sift through the empty orange canisters that spill into the sink. I stare deep into the eyes that stare back feeling like a slippery chicken in the bowel of la casserole dish. I find the right container when the words printed on the sticky label slowly come into focus: Laver four treasure pill. I pop four, then two more for good measure.

The TV blinks on and I sink back into the bed with the remote. What happened last night? Like a Google search memories start to list themselves: Old wine in Shanghai, good to eat fish egg. My eyes stare at the headlights weaving like an electric cow river on the interstates threading along the horizon. The list continues, “Five food chun, fresh cloud swallows, harbor type cow shi…

The TV is white noise when I wake up. Is it still the middle of the same night or did days just pass? I mourn to burn the laurel blossom firm. The light of the TV implodes into a black hole as I press the “off” button. I slide my head under the pillow but jerk back when I hit something cold and hard. A .58 revolver. It weighs heavy in my hand as I watch my reflection bend grotesquely around its edges. I notice a white corner sticking out of the barrel. A small note threads out spinning with the rifling. Smoothing the note out it reads in a thick, red lipstick scrawl, “Sauce of XO explodes the green bean explodes the fresh you.”

Just as I start to check the chamber of the gun for bullets the door barks twice at me.

“Room service” the voice of the dog says.

I didn’t order any room service. Or did I? I don’t even know where the hell I am. I hold my breath trying to decide if I should respond.

Ginger spring onion fries the bullfrog” the door says.

Without missing a beat “Sand farmland frailty skin squab!” jumps out of my throat. What the heck is going on here? Who is this guy? Who am I?

The door groans as it’s smashed by a size 13 on the other side. This guy either wants his tip really bad or maybe, just maybe this isn’t room service. The revolver slides under my shirt and into the small of my back. It feels like home. My belt hugs it tight and I know it’s been there before. My roundhouse kick sends the TV through the window and eight feet of deadly ice shower the floor.

Before the TV even reaches the tenth floor I have two lengths of bed sheet tied together. The door splinters just as I sail out of the window on a 500 thread-count lifeline. Room service fires what sounds like a 12 gauge and shot flies out over the city.

Thai onions turn Eyes fish ball!” he yells, reloading his boom stick.

Butter many privates!” I respond as I head for what is going to be a painfully intimate view into my neighbor’s window two stories below.

My left hand whips behind my back and returns with the .58. It is pumping rounds into the glass while I’m still thinking “Well, great wall f*cks red. I’m a lefty.” My identical twin swings straight towards me and then dissolves into glittering confetti like a retirement party.

I crash into the bedroom feeling the glitter dig deep into my back. This should hurt, but it doesn’t. I shouldn’t be alive, but I am. What shocks me as I stand returning the .58 home is that I’m not shocked at all. My mind feels clear and even happy. Happy of the fact that by the weight of the revolver I knew I only had five shells and only used four to “open” my neighbor’s window leaving one in the chamber for room service.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing!?”

I look up still grinning to see a man and woman huddled under their own 500 thread-count life line. “Well, it’s like my uncle always used to say,” I answer. “Fry the pig pick the idea powder.”

April 7th, 2006

Mongol-Krome

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

Finally, we got to leave the bitter cold of Siberia as the train snaked into Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia: the coldest capitol on Earth. So much for heading south for the winter. Mongolia was a beautiful country that is still mostly just that - country. There are only a few paved roads around the capitol while the rest of the entire country is off-road territory.

This fact was hard to ignore as our taxi stumbled and skidded across the steppes to our ger camp. It was well worth the trip though because we had a chance to take some real ATV’s for a ride. How do you pass the quiet nights on the Mongolian plain? Why, sheep’s knuckle marbles of course!

Camera batteries froze and LCD’s blurred but the cameras kept going. I’m very happy with many of the pictures especially those from the Buddhist temple. Check out the collection of images on Vitreous Humor.

Well, that’s one more country conquered. Next country.

April 6th, 2006

Cost of Living: Part 3

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

Disclaimer: These statistics, though not made up, are only as accurate as time allows when doing research on a computer that costs two baht a minute.

The Census Bureau shows the cost of living in the USA broken down this way: Housing: 29%, groceries: 13%, utilities: 10%, transportation: 9%, health care: 4% and misc: 35%.

So let’s take a financial peek into the home of a backpacker.

They spend very little on housing, maybe $5 a day. However, housing is pretty loosely defined. It pretty much means a semi-permeable structure that’s above, around or somewhere next to you. This could be a room in a high-rise building or a mosquito net. It’s hard to cut this cost unless you want to sleep on benches outside. In which case you should read “The Cost of Living for a Hobo.” Needless to say, I am comparing a university graduate or super spy to a common backpacker not a bum.

Grocery cost can vary quite a bit for the no-account drifter. This is the item where you can really cut your costs depending on your resolve. I’ll say this varies from $10 a day to $1 a day depending on location and weight class. Eating what the locals eat can save you big bucks, but you can loose that savings in the hospital bill for E. coli poisoning. Calling food “meals” and trying to eat them on schedule can be dangerous for the pocket book. The miser will eat when the hunger pangs tell him to. Street food is a friend to the pennywise as well. Any food that comes from a “kitchen” that has wheels and handlebars is priced to sell.Utilities? Score one for the backpacker - or don’t score anything at all to be precise. There is no climate control on the road. Sweating and shivering become natural reactions the world around you, like breathing. Sometimes you have to wear all of your clothes to bed and sometimes you just sleep under a cold, running shower.

So much for your savings on utilities, because here we have transportation. This one can be deceiving if you don’t look at the overall picture. A local bus in china can cost as little as five cents while there is no budget transportation across oceans (no, not even freight ships. They charge around $100/day for weeks to bring passengers). So, while we spend $1,000+ a year at home on gas, it can cost that much just to get over the pond. Which, when you add in the affordable local travel costs after you get there, it makes this one even out a little.

Note regarding Transportation: The cost of living in terms of transportation may sometimes include dying. To ease the minds of worried mothers out there, here are some comforting stats: While the chance of dying driving a car is 1 in 17,625 it is only 1 in 6,696,307 on the good ‘ol bus and 1 in 10,283,615 on the romantic rails. Planes come in a little worse at 1 in 440,951 but that statistic includes space travel.

The average backpacker would screw up their eyebrows when you asked them about their health care costs. Most just don’t go to the doctor. I can tell you that after a slow-motion crash on a moped yesterday, I came away all patched up and just 85 cents poorer from the pharmacy. The smart (read: older) ones have travel insurance policies but we don’t tell our fellow travelers about these. The aire of danger is part of what makes backpacking so enticing. There is a reason that the Census Bureau keeps no statistic regarding chances of death while watching TV and eating chips.

Miscellaneous is a tough one. I know what you’re thinking, “I should be doing a lot less misc.” Conveniently, our biggest expense is an undefined money pit called miscellaneous. I shouldn’t say “undefined” because it has a definition:

Miscellaneous in the English language is a word used to describe a thing or a set of things that cannot be categorized into other categories. It can be distinguished from Etcetera as etcetera is a continuation of a set of things while this word deals with the incategorization of things.

So… uh, good luck with that. Miscellaneous would account for all the sightseeing you do while backpacking. Once you get to the paradise island planning to live out the year on your meager budget you realize that you should probably go see that amazing waterfall or that ancient temple or that solid gold Buddha. All of a sudden your budget is doubled with the cost of actually seeing the place you came so far to see. You thought you were just going to go to the lost Shangri-La and live there on a shoestring, but as soon as you arrive there it is: Miscellaneous.

So there it is: the backbacker’s financial breakdown. For yours truly it breaks down something like this: Housing: $5/day, Groceries: $5/day, transportation (this is for all travel costs over all days spent): $15/day, Health care: $1.5/day, Misc: $3/day. We’re talking about $30/day to live on the road. This is no $730 year that dude told you about in college. This is, in fact, a $10,950 year on the cheap end of the scale. OK, to put this in perspective: a liberal arts degree at UW Madison (cheap end of the scale being the four-year-scale) including housing and food would be $12,600. That figure does not include health care, the cost of a car and a whole lot of other Misc. So the costs are close, but you would have seen all of the waterfalls, temples and Buddhas in a textbook instead of in person. That’s if you even bought the textbook. Imagine the temple of Angkor Wat in all it’s photocopied glory.
One expense conspicuously missing from this analysis is the very one that makes it possible: The Internet. Not too many years ago this was not even listed under a backpacker’s expense report. The closest thing was postcards, and you could just throw them in the misc column. Now, this is a powerful force that can make or break entire countries in terms of their stayability. No internet = not sticking around.

“You know… the internet is half as much in Tajikistan.”

“OK, let’s go!”

The cheapest internet I’ve found on this trip was 37 cents/hour while the most expensive is over $5/hour. If you plan to spend three hours on the net every day, $1.10 vs. $9 is the kind of difference that can make the ocean less blue and the mountains less majestic. “You know, this island kinda sucks anyway.”

If you look at spending a couple hours on the internet every day, an average of $5 let’s say, that is now the same as your food and housing costs. If you’re paying normal rent at home, imagine paying $700/mo for internet! What used to be one more of the many things you no longer had to worry about while backpacking has become a guiding force that takes up a sixth of your budget. It seems that the net has made it easier to travel but harder to stay.

I will admit that I have been writing these last three posts from the most expensive end of the internet-cost scale. Now that I see the expense in numbers, cold, hard facts, right here in front of me, I have to end this discussion. I will give in and walk to the beach, just two minutes from where I sit and watch the sun set over white sand and a slow, rolling surf. Only because of the expense involved sitting here in front of the never setting glow of my monitor will I go soak up the intense beauty of the 100% free beach outside.

And that, my friends, is the cost of living.

April 3rd, 2006

Cost of Living: Part 2

Posted by natdavauer in Around the World

Back in the USA where we live in a location for more than one week at a time and all our belongings wouldn’t even fit into a backpack the size of a school bus, things are predictable. Not necessarily cheap, but being able to walk home from a bar in the dark and remember where home is exactly has its values. If you’re backpacking, you’ve heard somewhere that there are places in the world where the cost of living is drastically different. (Assuming you did not hear about backpacking in college while living 100% off mom and dad’s dime). “Different” being “cheap. Very, very cheap.”

“There are islands in Thailand where you can live for, like, two bucks a day dude!” I’ve heard this very sentence before, no wait… I’ve said this very sentence before. You could just find a dollar-a-day bungalow on the beach of some remote paradise island; throw in a couple of Coca-Colas and bam! There goes a year. A year that only costs $730 bucks or one month’s rent or 36 tanks of gas or half a root canal or a U2 ticket. I won’t even compare it to the amount of tuition that would get you an ILS degree at Madison.

Of course, like any student, a young backpacker’s mind is full of idealism, full of awe of those who came before him. Henry David Thoreau lived on Walden Pond for mere cents a day putting my paradise iIsland boast on “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Forget buying a Coke. Just grow your own sugarcane, molasses, carbonic acid, etc. The young idealistic Chris McCandless from “Into the Wild” saw Thoreau’s example and figured “why not?” Then he learned why not when he froze to death in a bus in Alaska. Which again leads me to bring up the paradise island offer: Couple bucks instead of free, but no freezing to death.

Alas, it is not to be. The legend of the year possible to be spent in paradise for cents on the dollar only exists in books and smoky dorm rooms. The first person to come back from the island $730 poorer lived the legend while his friends found it was four bucks a day when they got there. They of course quoted Nietzsche and said, “There are no eternal facts, as there are no absolute truths [dude].” Then the proceeded to say that there were now chicks on the beach with no tops on and that’s worth, well, like two bucks anyway.

This cycle goes on until you justify your trip to a place that costs just as much or more than home by buying board shorts at a slight discount figuring you’ve saved some money there. Board shorts that you wouldn’t have bought at home and are prone to fall apart when you get them there.

What this post needs is some statistics to back up this completely off base comparison. Well, it’s not going to have any. However, The Cost of Living: Part 3 will, I promise, be based in some sort of numeric, statistical dataset.

“Dude, I’m tellin’ ya bro, you can’t put a value on topless women!”