Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Point B (a short story)

I might just have to spend the next week homeless in a hammock..

I'm about to document one of the worst-delayed and lemons-to-lemonade kinda travel experiences i've ever dealt with in my 20 years of budget traveling. Yeah, we've all been there, snowed in at Orlando 'cause of weather in Chicago, missing the boat at Puerto Escondido... Its a chaotic world, and timetables are meant to be broken.

But if you'd indulge me by reading this little therapeutic outburst of text, i'll try my best to entertain :)

Its not so much the length or frustration of the delay (because i've certainly had worse) as much as the back to back misinformation, mystique and endless variables encountered each step of the way. I'm speaking of the wondrous and often mysterious ways of getting from point A to point B, in Thailand.

I'd been to the island of Koh Pha Ngan twice before, in 2005 and 2007; and in the 2 years between trips, it was easy to see that the word was out. My secret island was growing by leaps and bounds, and would soon no longer be tolerable by those accustomed to anything other than package tour hell and homogenization. But as the winter rains came to LA, i considered my options and decided that subletting my studio and taking 2 months in Thailand would be the way to go, and the island would be worth a look at least. And if all else fails, i'd head from there to Bali or something.

Emails to Thailand traveler friends i had met in years past had yielded precious little information... even amongst those who spent half a year at a time at my little island... just little bits like "yeah, everything's a little more crowded, a little more expensive..." pretty vague. For this trip, I was considering carting a couple bulky solar panels in addition to my usual dual-backpack music studio (as much as you could get into checked luggage without the oversize fees); so i had a sort of "special needs" in order to be able to take this trip as such, and so I'd email my friends back for details: But had they finally built the long-awaited road to the cove, or was it still boat access only? Is the internet access any faster, or cheaper (as a result of "progress" in paradise)?? All important things to know in terms of gauging what to bring, and the potential length of my stay.

At one point of the trip, i was hoping to hike to a particularly breath-taking and deserted cove and spend some time camping there with friends, doing music COMPLETELY off the grid. There was also the possibility of bringing a special WIFI antenna, so perhaps we could live-stream some of these "off-grid" jams! Sounds cool, but the intermittent replies i received back from these inquiries lacked the necessary details, and so as the time of my departure loomed closer, i opted to leave the solar panels behind this time, instead bringing: 2 Apple laptops (the new 13" and 17" MacBook Pros) with an array of controllers (LaunchPad, FaderFox, PadKontrol, bluetooth keyboard and mouse), HD video camera and mini tripod, buss-powered firewire and eSATA external hard drives (considering flaky generator power in bungalows), lots of rechargeable batteries for the monitoring system (a nice quality boombox), and the WIFI antenna.... essentially an extensive digital DJing set up with music and video production capabilities for who-knows-what might happen. I know i'd have some talented friends awaiting on the island, however i was well aware that most people come here to get AWAY from technology, communications and "obligations"; so as far as making any "plans" ahead of time, the gear logistics would be up to me. I'd be flying blind.

As soon as i landed in Bangkok i could sense a difference. The hotels were overbooked and the receptionists were unapologetic to say the least. The Thais who work in the travel services are quite efficient, but not exactly known for their "politeness"... when in doubt they just say "yes yes" to everything. Of course they've come across the aisle quite a bit to learn all of our different languages, so you can't fault them much for any lack of patience, let alone ability to share irony or abstract humor. (And when you meet a Thai who's fluent in your language, and WITHOUT a line of tourists waiting on them, you'll usually find them to be some of the warmest and best-humored people on the planet)

I spent a week in Bangkok in a decent $11 room with a rooftop pool; and so i took the opportunity to unpack ALL my hastily-packed gear from Los Angeles, and to set up my mobile music studio and see if everything was functioning correctly before i'd head to the wilds. My departure from LA was a story in itself, with bags that seemed to double in size right before throwing them in the car, racing through 9AM traffic to LAX, surrendering the check-ins to the TSA, sneaking 2 bulging carry-ons onboard, hyperventilating and barely making the plane (look, this guy's unshaven and sweating, carrying a lot of electronics, could be a terrorist). Though i'd hefted fragile music gear across the globe many times before, I could still put up a convincing argument against the old saying that "less is more". I'd come a long way since 6 weeks in Amsterdam summer '96 with a Powerbook 3400 and K2000 sampler. When you're taking a 2 month trip to Asia with the option to go 3 or 4, you're gonna want to bring as many techno toys as you can, to be ready for wherever the inspiration of the road leads you. But with options-galore, it was an excruciating process deciding what to bring and what to leave behind; what with connectivity and compatibility concerns, bang-for-your-buck, and especially, your back! And beyond the studio toys, and at the recommendation of a tech-savvy friend, 2 days before departure I finally decided to go out and buy an iPhone 3GS (used, and without AT+T contract, i'd buy a SIM card in Bangkok)... yes, the esteemed mini multimedia device which was on its way to becoming the most portable "musical instrument" on the planet. I'd learn how to use it while in transit.

Remarkable, but i didn't spend even one night "partying" in Bangkok... though i did indeed do the bit of obligatory shopping for electronic accessories at Pantip plaza, unlocking my iPhone.. and stocking up on island gear on Koh San Road. A friend of mine from San Francisco was also in Bangkok, and it wasn't until he sent me a text message saying "i guess you're gonna hold off on going to Koh Pha Ngan until after the Full Moon Party???" that it hit me: If i don't get to the island ASAP, there'll be no rooms available for me, and i'll be confronted with the ball-and-chain nightmare of 100 lbs and $9,000 of music gear between my 3 bags... with no home to stash em in. In fact it was probably already too late to get a room at the cove of my choice, so i figured i'd head for the quieter Thong Nai Pan on the north of the island, and stay there until after the Full Moon Party cleared out of Hat Rin, and ocean-view bungalows for $10 (with electricity!) would again be available at Hat Yuan... OK, i had a plan. I went to see "Mr Thai" the travel agent and learned that the 2nd class overnight train / bus / ferry combination was already booked for the night and i'd have to leave the next evening. My San Fran friend was on the fence as to whether accompany me, or else hang out with his new Thai girlfriend. In the end he decided to stay in Bangkok, but instead transferred his Thong Nai Pan room reservation to me. Cool, I was set.

I paid the extra $ in order to have a 4pm check-out, and spent most of the day between packing my room (sweating away in the non air-con), running upstairs for a swim at the pool deck, stepping out for some last-minute shopping on Koh San, followed by another quick swim, finally bundling all my bags, checking in one overflow bag for long-term storage, and leaving the hotel (!)... having one last little sit-down bite to eat before taking the taxi to the train station. Of course never trust a taxi driver's assessment of what a ride might cost you, and insist upon them running the meter. Then hope they take a direct route rather than an intentional bamboozle. So when a shameless tuk tuk driver reached out from the street corner and asked me where i was going, just for fun I asked how much to the train station and he says with a straight face "200 baht"... about $6 USD. I tossed him a glance of happy insanity and gave a little Pee Wee Herman laugh as i jumped into an air conditioned taxi right beside him. The driver said 80 baht, but i insisted on the meter. We made good time through the 5PM rush hour, and the fare came out to only 59 baht; and so i gave him his 80 baht anyway as he helped me grab my bags.

The train station had evolved considerably since my last visit in 2007. Now there were stadium-sized screens playing music videos with back to back cellphone commercials. A golden god-like character in a rice paddy holds a horn up to his mouth and blows out a huge "1-1-7-0!" in animated text. Across the valley, villagers dance to the beat and pick up their cellphones, calling and texting each other. Marshal McLuan was a prophet. Mass media begat the "Global Village", and now its in the palm of your hand (How long before its a chip implant?). Never before in the history of mankind has social change been so rapid, so tied to technology... and corporate profit. Some days i can foresee the utopia of it all, and other days all i see is Bladerunner. Factor in man's quest to be free vs. the powers-that-be, and I'm sure the next 10 to 20 years will trickle down to something perfectly in between.

Huge groups of schoolchildren were lined up single-file ready to go on field trips. Businessmen bustled by, street musicians jammed. It was Grand Central Station in South East Asia, and i grabbed some snippets with my iPhone's video cam. I was early for my train and had to ask which car i was in since they didn't put car numbers on the sides in anything other than Thai... made me feel like a real stupid tourist to have to ask... twice. I wondered if there might be some Thai version of Jack Kerouac out there somewhere, hopping boxcars. When i finally got onboard, it looked like they hadn't cleaned the 2nd class sleepers since the last time i rode them... in 2005! The sturdy pop-riveted walls were smudged everywhere with signs of travelers-past, the windows were dirty and a few cockroaches popped out to see what all the fuss was about.. unafraid. Fortunately when they undid the bunk compartments, the linens were all plastic-wrapped and freshly laundered. Also, a big change from 2005, now my compartment was mostly Thai travelers heading south, instead of foreign tourists. I had never traveled 1st or 3rd class by train, but i'm wondering if the traveling demographic of the Thais has improved in the past few years, or if this was just one exceptional trip i was on. Maybe all the tourists were riding those 600 baht double-decker buses, unaware that the seemingly bargain price was subsidized by the baggage-theft mafia; 'cause yes, its a well-known fact that sometime during the trip, while you're trying to sleep sitting up, the driver's assistant is climbing through the baggage hold, leisurely looking through the bags and grabbing cash and cameras. Its true. Look it up.

It was good to see the Thais in transit, in comfort... but i felt we should've all pitched in with some mops and rags, so we could've had a cleaner ride together. The thought of this labor made me finally FEEL the onslaught of my exhaustion... after all the running around and packing... and so i made one of the best decisions of the trip. I had visited a Thai pharmacy earlier that day to purchase a few prescription-free Valium... for specifically this purpose. With my most expensive gear-pack propped next to my pillow, and my 2nd most expensive bag tied to a pole a foot from my head, i let the train lull me to sleep.

I awoke slowly and noticed it was light outside and the train was still moving. Strange, as i was told we were to arrive at 5:30AM... just before sunrise. The left over effects of the Valium had me in a could-care-less kinda mode, so i dug into some of my rice snacks and just enjoyed the jungle scenery as it flew by. Soon i would be in paradise.

An hour flew by, and so I killed time by sending some email to friends and family on my new iPhone... "on the move, in the jungle"! My dad replied in real time, crossing 12 time zones. 2 hours later now, we were still moving. I asked a gruff-looking conductor in military type uniform, "Surrat Thani? When?" He wore his uniform proud like Napoleon, towering a foot above my head (i was seated).

"2 more stop", he said, and drew his radio like a sword from its sheath, barking some orders into it and marching out of our compartment, towards the front lines. I figured there was still plenty of time to catch the bus to the boat, and that the boat would surely be waiting for us (since i usually had to wait about 2 or 3 hours at the pier for the boat in the past), I watched other tourists in their panicky ways, but I didn't even bother to check the time. It was "all good".

I made sure my main bag was stowed carefully by the driver before grabbing a good seat on the bus... The driver told some other tourists "Bus, one hour... Boat, wait. No problem." Only fifteen minutes later we were pulling up at the pier. No boat was waiting. "Boat arrive 12:30" said the stationmaster... people grumbled. I calculated that i'd be a little late for my promised reservation check-in time of 2pm, so i emailed the reservations desk with my iPhone. I heard back within the hour. It was still "all good". When 12:30 came, i heard a disturbance coming from 2 Israeli-looking guys confronting the stationmaster. A bus had pulled up and we were all instructed to get inside. Apparently the boat would leave from another port, an hour's drive away. This might've explained the unexpectedly short 15 minute ride earlier... they were just stalling us (or maybe didn't want us to see people boarding the other boat.. already fully booked?). Thanks to the Valium, i STILL didn't care... too much. This was all part of the price of arriving in Paradise.

Some Frenchman gestured to me with a whiskey bottle and a smile, obviously drunk. His girlfriend frowned. This guy had all the mannerisms of a street bum.. mumbling to himself incomprehensibly, sudden jerky motions.. getting up to go do something, forgetting what it was, swaying a bit, and then slouching back down with a vacant smile, and then burying his head in his hands. The girl seemed a minimum of 15 years younger, and was obviously not drunk, nor appeared as homeless-ready as her companion. Sloppy Guy wore a Cesar Chavez t-shirt and had no carry-on luggage other than his whiskey bottle and Pepsi. The bus was loaded and ready to leave, except Sloppy was shouting and swaying in the back of the bus. I had no idea how the poor driver was able to understand this guy, but he motioned for Sloppy to come sit on the console by the driver's seat... 3 feet away from me... great. He flops down on his back, his head to the windshield I take an iPhone picture of this guy and his whiskey. The driver poses with him and smiles, saying the "Full Moon Party start early" and he puts the bus in gear and we're on our way. 2 or 3 hours til toes in the sand.

I overheard some Australians talking, "It was stifling... i couldn't sleep a bit the whole time it was stopped."

"Stopped?" i asked?

"Yeah, the train was stopped last night for 4 hours... and that's why we were late for the boat"

Thank you Valium! I slept right through this whole bit of hell!!!!

Sloppy Chavez is having a fitfull sleep on the driver's compartment, lashing about. Finally he gets up and walks, Charlie Chaplin style, from the front of the bus and back, falling into people along the way... The driver motions for him to sit back down up front. He lies down and slips back to unconsciousness, jerking... reminding me of a dog having a bad dream. His feet kick out and hit a girl sitting across from me. I kick him in the leg and his feet retract. His arms fly out and they hit the drivers wheel! The driver swats at him, and I spring up, ready to be Jack Bauer and save the bus, but the guy standing in the doorway beats me to it and pulls Sloppy by a belt-loop, away from the driver.

When we arrive at the ferry point, we're told we have to wait another hour for the boat.... I walk around and find an abandoned building, unlocked. I open the door and find that the room consists of a smooth polished marble floor... dancefloor? Well, if we get stuck here, i'll break out my boombox and we'll all have a party. I sit there for a few minutes, enjoying my own space and imagining what kind of strange events they might throw here. When i get back i find out that we've been told only 10 minutes till the boat arrives... but then 5 minutes later, the stationmaster says "45 minute"... what a game! Half an hour later, it shows up. We load up and i find an air conditioned compartment and get a nice seat.. all my gear's safe. Kick back and relax. First time in an air con boat... and its moving fast! 20 minutes later a conductor comes in and starts collecting 40 baht from passengers... as a surcharge for the air con. Even though its only a buck twenty five, I outright refuse to pay due to the switcheroo shit.. its the least they can do, and a few other passengers follow my lead. The guy gets a bit impatient and says we'd have to move to the outside seating. We say we're not leaving, and we wanna talk to his boss. He frowns... we've bummed him out... he yells something to a deck-hand, finally shrugs and leaves. We arrive at the island of Koh Samui 20 minutes later, next stop Koh Pha Ngan; and i go out on deck to make sure nobody unloads my bag. That's when i overhear some shouting... "5:30???!!!!" We're told we need to disembark and wait for the next boat... at 5:30! At this point, "Its all Good" turns into "You gotta be fucking kiddin me"... which turns into "Hell no, we won't go!". A few of us consider staging an uprising with a couple hundred waylayed and mismanaged travelers against a crew of 6 or so... hijacking and heading for Koh Pha Ngan... we humored this idea until one Brit spoke up and asked if anybody had their captain's license. Everybody laughs... even the Thais. Piracy would be cool, but none of us knew how to drive this boat.

Koh Samui was cloudy, shlocky, and from what i've read in the books, not at all my style of destination... though i considered just grabbing a room for the night and dealing with everything first thing the next day...hmmm... nah. I emailed my hotel reservation people again (what would i do without this iPhone?), telling them arrival was now maybe 7:30 or 8pm. I had lunch with a Hungarian guy and a Canadian girl who were heading to the Full Moon Party. I gave them some pointers on how to avoid the worst of it. "But be sure to go to the Afterhours... the next day at 11am... save your energy!" 'cause its better than the full moon party itself.

Soon 5:30 comes and goes.. and i ask the Hungarian guy to watch my gear while i go to talk to the boat manager in his office.... well, he's gone early for the day, and so i talk to a very polite travel agent. She says i'd have to pursue any complaint once i returned to Bangkok. And so i asked her to write (in Thai) on the back of my train ticket stub: "Because the train was 4 hours late, customer had to wait until 6pm for boat and lost his hotel reservation". (For all i knew, she might've just written "rock rock till you drop" in Thai... or "i'm with stupid". Refund, discount, voucher or whatever; i was going to register an official complaint (and offer some suggestions) to the agent of the "joint ticket" when i landed back in Bangkok... for what its worth (and probably not much). But at some point, the Thais could use a good dose of customer feedback.

Now it was right around 6pm and no sign of the boat.. people were getting edgy. Sloppy was spilling more whiskey (no sign of his girlfriend... did she finally leave him?) and some Irish travelers had each just cracked open another "40" of Singha beer, sittin on the sidewalk like happy winos, lads on one side, girls on the other. A beer would be nice, but regrettable later... but I was getting edgy too. No reply from the hotel people now. Edgy turned to angry... so I decided the need for my own instant mood-change and ask the Hungarian to watch my bag again while i sneak back into the restaurant bathroom to take one quick hit off a cheesy reggae bar joint i had rolled in Bangkok (not my preferred means of imbibing, but i didn't exactly have any Humbolt County homegrown, nor an oven available to bake any cookies). I exhaled out the little bathroom window vent and smiled at the teenage mischief at it all. I laughed at the irony that Sloppy could be out there publicly drunk and dangerous on fine commercial whiskey, but i had to sneak to a bathroom to enjoy my wiser choice of harmless but illegal (and therefore low-quality) elixir... on the sly. Take another hit and exhale out the funny little window... looking closer and now noticing that this vent doesn't lead outside... NO! It leads to the kitchen, and there's a prep cook 5 feet from my head, and the waitress is actually walking my way... with the special illegal aroma wafting their direction! I extinguish the joint in my hand and high-tail it out the door, through the restaurant, bowing and saying "Kup koon krup" (thank you) to the servers as i exit... just another funny tourist, heading for the boat.

When i get back, the little crowd is on the verge of uproar, but with nowhere to direct their energy. I decide that the time has come, and open up my biggest (and overflowing) backpack and pull out the high-powered boombox and select the song of the hour: Ship Of Fools by World Party! Was there ever a more appropriate track??? Heads turn... a couple people pick up on the lyrics and smile my direction. The Irish guys get up from their sidewalk perch and have a look at the boombox. I offer them to go ahead and hook-up their own iPod. Instantly i have a dozen new friends as the crowd gathers around our little boombox party, as people start grooving to the Irish lad's techno anthem of choice... real "hands in the air" kinda stuff... and the people cheer as the boat in question finally appears on the horizon.

Part II

After such an ice-breaker, we're all seated outside at the bow of the ship now... a real melting pot of nationalities represented, and the boombox is blaring away over the sounds of the whipping wind and the water. We pass the musical duties back and forth, trying out different tracks, and time finally flies. I see Koh Pha Ngan off in the distance and so i select the timeless My Sweet Lord by George Harrison... "Halleluya,... Hari Krishna...." Thank GOD (insert your choice of God), we've just about made it!

We land, and somehow i manage to maneuver one huge rolling pack, 2 backpacks and the boombox with shoulder strap, and shuffle my way out the boat with the boombox tuned to Bob Marley's Babylon by Bus... (and oh how we loved those 2 busses today)... one of the greatest live recordings of all time, with the Kingston crowd going wild in the track.. and our crowd singing along while exiting the boat, "... So we're gonna walk,.. walk! through the realms of creation... we the generation... wrapped in great tribulation... in this Exodus... The movement of Jah People...." We shuffle off the gang-plank en masse towards the shore, solidarity between strangers, and why stop the music now just 'cause we've "arrived"? Making our slow deliberate way down the pier, we're greeted by dozens of Thais hawking taxis and rooms, rooms and taxis, and tours.. and food... "Are you ready?!!" screams Bob, and the Kingston crowd erupts... Punky Reggae Party. One of the Thai hawkers looks at me funny 'cause the boombox is most certainly (and intentionally) adding to the rukus... making bi-lingual communications all the more difficult.. but Bob wails away "It take a joyful sound... to make the world go round"... and my assessment says that 65% wanted the boombox on and 35% wanted it off... So using the voting rules of Congress, i keep the boombox on... and now start taking funnier liberties with the tracks, ie) Kiss, by Prince (in that ridiculous falsetto) "Act your age Mama, not your shoe-size, and maybe we can do the twirl..." Guys nod and give the thumbs up... Girls groove a bit and smile at me as they make their way by....

OK, 15 minutes of utter chaos and now the party's over... most people have found their taxis and have ventured onward towards their respective quests for paradise. It seems i lost my Hungarian/Canadian friends in the confusion... waiting for them at the end of the pier (while concentrating on the steady flow of musical shenanigans); and damn, we were gonna share a taxi to Thong Nai Pan. And now i'm gonna have to find one of my own (as payback for my mischief?). "Ohhh... very sorry, very sorry... Thong Nai Pan, one person??? 1500 baht." said a kind-faced Thai driver carrying a sign with all the destinations and prices.

1500 baht? $50??? in Thailand? No way man...

"OK, 1200 baht, final price"... Final whatever, i'd sooner just collapse right here on the edge of the park and sleep til dawn than truck all the way to Thong Nai Pan, where i may or may NOT have a room waiting for me... Damn... I have to think about this.... I mean, really think about this. $9000 of semi-incognito and clumsy electronics on my back, wearing me down... i suppose i could just park myself under that palm tree over there until a solution comes my way... except the palm tree is surrounded by big puddles... looks like it rained here today. OK, i need shelter, soon as possible!!... and probably a shower. A curious Thai guy walks my way and says "Where going?"... He frowns when i say Thong Nai Pan, and i frown too... and then I picture myself under that palm tree... safe above the puddles, in a big hammock; and then boom, i remember my friend Hoppy's super-brief email from paradise. "Rooms are all full, but you could always sleep on a friend's porch til something opens up. It'd be worth it!". Porch means hammock... which seems way more appealing than schizophrenic trains or puddles n palm trees. "How about new road to Hat Yuan?" i ask the driver. Bigger frown.

"New road not good. Many rains, only 4 wheel, many expensive and no drive at night."

My options were few (and getting fewer as it got later): 1) Get a room here in Thong Sala (and the driver was surely trying to sell me one); or 2) go to Hat Rin and either a) try to get a room there amongst Full Moon Mania (last resort), or b) the super long-shot: Try to get a night-time boat from Hat Rin to Hat Tien, and then suffer with the packs a few hundred yards of jungle path from the beach in the dark (was it physically possible?), to try to find a surely-surprised Hoppy, 3 days early.

"OK my friend, How much to Hat Rin?"

"800 now, or wait for next boat... you pay 100"

The next boat took about 20 minutes to arrive and another 15 for my driver to round up a crew of 7 more people for Hat Rin. During the wait, my body had just shut down. I could no longer MOVE anymore to even allow the passengers to squeeze by me, but they can see my distress; and so they all carefully make their way around me.... all eager kids ready for the Full Moon, ha! And here i am: I gotta get in and out of Hat Rin as soon as possible! The driver lets me off at the pier and i shuffle along my way, an overloaded spectacle, like that Beavis and Butthead episode where they break into a pet shop and then try to escape, weighed down by a dozen dogs humping their legs... my bags... I'm struggling with a forced smile on my face towards some fishermen. "Hat Tien?" i ask.

They all look surprised and laugh, exchanging knowing looks. I say, "I know more difficult at night, and more expensive"

They say impossible. Big waves. No boats leaving tonight at any price.

"Other pier?" I ask. And i confirm that maybe some long-tail boat driver might brave the big waves and take me from Sunrise Beach... yeah, Sunrise Beach: ground zero for the Full Moon Party... and from the looks of Hat Rin you'd think it was already in progress, rather than 2 days away.

The cacophony of Hat Rin now is unlike any other time and place destination in the world, shy of maybe Burning Man on burn night. EVERY bar, shop, hotel and taxi is blaring a different sound system. Kids walk by, consuming, chattering in all kinds of languages, with rough translations and slang exclamations... my favorite being "Dude!!" with a French accent. Its just an audio soup on the senses... and mine have been taxxed to the max already today. But my tech-nomadic training has prepared me for things like this.. eyes on the prize. Sunrise Beach is a half mile away, and i'm going to have to wind through the heart of Hat Rin to get there. I press on.

The town has changed a lot in the past 5 years.. and i've heard stories about the sleepy little village it used to be, 15 years ago, before word began to travel. Now its the Las Vegas of rave... and in mostly all the bad ways. Somewhere along the line, somebody figured mixing Red Bull with whiskey would be best served in a plastic bucket with 3 or 4 straws.. and the street is littered with empty buckets. 7-11's are dotted along every boulevard, sometimes 2 at a time... Everywhere is day-glow, little pen-light lasers, junk food carts, soccer mob English kids, hardcore Germans and girls with too much make-up for the beach. If i had to pick one musical genre for the whole she-bang, it'd be cheesy diva house music torturously crossed with gangster hip hop, in other word lots of faux fashion mixed with even more attitude... on speed. In particular, the cheap and dangerous speed from Burma that probably 20% of these kids are on, some thinking that they had bought Ecstasy... instead getting a 24 hour ride on Burmese "Yaba". I hum myself a soothing song, pushing my muscles to the max... shuffling along, dogs a-humpin', half-way there... My Sweet Lord, Get me outa here!

I take a sharp left and there's the beach! At least 7000 people on the sand, and in the center of a big circle, somebody's doing a jump-rope... except the jump-rope is on fire. The crowd is stunned in absolute awe, eyes lit up like they were witnessing the launch of Apollo 13. Man learned to tame fire a few millenia ago, but here at Hat Rin, they're trying out the process all over again... juggling with it, lighting fireworks and cigarettes, random campfires and burning effigies. There's fire everywhere plus a whole new sloppy mix of even louder sound systems blaring onto the beach. This is where it will all happen in 48 hours... And tonight is just a mere fraction of what's to come. I drag my wheeled bag upon the sand with limited success.. and now only 50 yards to go to the water.. and OMG there's a lone long-tail boat in sight! Two girls are fidgeting a few yards away, arguing "Well YOU ask him... I mean i didn't have any luck when we were trying to order dinner".

"Hey there" i smile. "Where are you guys trying to go?"

"Hat Yuan" they frown, but now my smile gets bigger (as my ride just got discounted 67%)

The waves didn't look so big, but still the boarding process involved getting wet up to your knees, which meant i had to take extra precautions for my gear! One false move and all this effort would be for naught. The ocean-view electronic studio would be easily destroyed by single dip in the salt water bath, but this was a chance i'd have to take. And 500 baht was a bargain for this ride, considering the operating conditions. But now the driver can't start the boat, and we all sit there, rocked by the waves while he opens up the motor hatch and messes with some wires. His assistant is outside, up to his shoulders in water, steadying the boat, gazing back at the shore, watching the rocket's red glare... our flag was still there. 15 minutes go by, but hey, I'm now 30 hours into this journey from Bangkok, and i'm REALLY getting used to these delays. I've learned to meditate... amidst the apocalypse.

Finally we're under way, buffeted by a bigger wave every 5 seconds, but at least there's a rhythm to it; and as far as rhythms go, this one's much preferable to the competitive train-wreck of rhythms we're leaving behind on the beach... ah, the beach. The girls turn around to look at the fading lights of Hat Rin as a giant wave hits and showers us all in spray. The girls grab each other in fear, and the driver shouts "Don't move, Don't move", meaning don't allow the boat to rock right or left, lest we capsize. Now the girls are paralyzed, cooperating perfectly, in silence. Despite my concerns for the gear, the sheer exhaustion has me calm as can be. I'm dying to ask the girls where they're staying on Hat Yuan, because by the size of these waves, i already know that a beach landing on Hat Tien is out of the question. Ah yes, just another little snafu to ponder, and i envision myself sleeping on the sand tonight... one step up from the puddly palm tree. Even though the driver hasn't yet made any mention (and maybe he should've at least brought up the possibility when we were bargaining for the ride, eh? ethics??), i KNOW i'm going to be let off with the girls at Hat Yuan, which is logistically disastrous (but of course i'm getting used to this). There's just no way i could haul my bags over that mini mountain-climb to Hat Tien to find Hoppy and his hammock, and the chances of finding a room, ANY room at Hat Yuan at 10:30PM pre-Full Moon was like one tenth of one percent. I just surrender to the absurdity and laugh out loud to myself as we round the bend and the waves start hitting us sideways. The moon breaks through the clouds and i howl at it, softly, not wanting to break the driver's attention. I feel the warm embrace of insanity and try it on for size.... Why not just lock away my gear somewhere and voyage into the jungle and live off the land?

On perfect cue, the lights of Hat Yuan come into view, and with the glow of the moon, i can almost make out the porch of my old Barcelona Bungalow room... rented out to somebody else. Strangest homecoming ever, and with a tug at my heart and happy tears in my eyes, I feel like breaking out the boombox to herald our arrival, but can't think of anything angelic enough on my iPod. The waves have died down slightly, so i shout to one of the girls, "Oh by the way, where are you guys staying?" At least the universe has a sense of humor. Or perhaps the world of coincidence is starting to come around and bless me rather than way-lay me any further, ie) Is there a spark of significance to be considered from this? Out of all the hotels and bungalows on the beach, these package-tour type girls are staying at my beloved Barcelona... the rooms with the best views in Hat Yuan.

Almost there and on the edge of hilarity, I sit up, shake my shoulders and breathe deep... tropical air flying by at boat speed is a drug in itself. I cue another road song from the nostalgic database, and what's that verse? "On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair"... Hotel California. To say i'm ready for anything would now be an understatement. Good thing, 'cause the Thai driver is suddenly shouting "Hold on!" and he guns the engine, heading straight for the shore. The boat becomes a linebacker breaking through the tackling waves and heading for the touchdown from the 50 yard line... 40.... 30.... Now the girls become cheerleaders and i'm doing the play-by-play... "Last play of the game, folks! The clock's run out, and he's at the 20... the 10.... He's gonna make it! He's gonna make it! He scores!!!" The driver jets us right up on the sand... James Bond style. People on the beach applaud, and I jump out the boat headfirst and kiss the sand for the extra point. I arrive in Hat Yuan, 3 days early, salty, exhilarated and ready to be a gypsy! "How does it feel?" asked Bob Dylan, "to be without a home? like a complete unknown? like a Rolling Stone!!!!" Shelter be damned, i breath the tropical air and immediately realize that i wouldn't have made it HERE... NOW.. if the plans had gone as planned. One way or another, my Hat Rin gamble was the best decision in the world. Brushing the sand off and trying to look not too much like a pirate, I say "Hey girls, since you're staying at The Barcelona, i wonder if i could ask you a favor...."

The 3 of us climb the rickety winding staircase to the cliffside ocean view room. Outside on their balcony, i rip open my bags and start consolidating down to my most valuable gear vs. the stuff i could leave behind, stored with perfect strangers. I'm taking my 2 Apple laptops, one AC adapter, my iPhone and charge cable.... Throw in some suntan lotion, a sarong, sunglasses, and i'm good to go. One solitary survival backpack, and i'm hitting the hill for Hat Tien!

This is the almost real-time blog... the stuff that happened 3 to 4 days ago... Stay tuned for Part 3!


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