Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fated to Be

I'm now visiting my parents in Cincinnati. Going through some old boxes in their house, I just came across a few baby photos of myself and realized that this blog, which is largely devoted to food, might well have been preordained.

If this were a painting, I'd entitle it "The Rapture of Sapuche..."

The crazy thing is, I really haven't changed much. I have a bit more hair (though not much), have stayed true to the same clothing fashions, still sometimes confuse my nose with my mouth, and still love me some fresh cornbread.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Trip Home and Some Experiences with Airport Hotels

My carbon footprint is shamefully large. With all the travel I do, it’s unavoidable—unless I stop traveling, which doesn’t appear to be in the cards for me. But the trip that I’m currently on, and for which I’m using 40,000 United Air Miles to travel for free (taxes and handling fees cost about $80) between HCMC and Honolulu, increases my footprint substantially. The itinerary for my flight home is taking me from Hanoi to HCMC, HCMC to Bangkok, Bangkok to Narita, and Narita to Honolulu. Total travel time including layovers: 35 hours. Countries passed through: 4, counting Vietnam. This is better than my return trip, which will take me more than 50 hours, through 5 countries, to go from Honolulu back to Hanoi. All to save about $1400. Is it worth it? I’m not really sure…

I did get bumped up from economy to business class on my flight to Bangkok, but it was only a 90-minute flight, so the upgrade was over almost as soon as it had begun. It was my first flight with Lufthansa, and I must say I enjoyed it. Especially the massage function in my chair, which felt good on the 2 square inches of my lower back that it worked on. But it was fun pressing the buttons on my console to make my seat wiggle slightly. The hulking German flight attendant was a bit scary and overly serious—I thought flight attendants are supposed to smile—but nonetheless the service was good.

When I got to Bangkok, I was faced with an 8 1/2-hour layover. Thinking that I’d do well to get some sleep—I can never sleep on planes—I decided to look for an airport hotel. That was, if I could get to the transit area through the mass of passengers bottlenecked in front of the only escalator going to the second floor, which was controlled by an airport employee who only allowed maybe 20 passengers to ascend every minute. It took 10 minutes just to get to the second floor, at which point I tried to locate an information booth to inquire where I could find and book a room. I was waved in a vague direction by a group of check-in agents chatting amongst themselves, and after five minutes of looking, I found two women at a tiny information kiosk, but they didn’t really seem to want to be bothered either. I interrupted them after waiting a couple minutes for them to end their conversation, and they, too, waved me lazily down some long corridor, saying the hotel was “at the end.” I walked and I walked, about 4 or 5 minutes total, but found nothing besides what appeared to be two private lounges. The corridor ended at a glass wall. So I turned back, found the information booth empty now, but tracked down the woman who’d misguided me and asked again where to find the hotel. This time she said it was halfway down the same corridor I’d traveled, across from departure gate A3. “Why didn’t you tell me that before?” I asked, but she just waved me off again.

(I seem to never have good luck in Thailand. So far: 2 hospital visits, a taxi “kidnapping,” hotels that falsely advertised, a sewage pipe that broke at the very moment I passed under it, an airline that dropped and broke my computer but refused to compensate me for it, riots, etc. So why do I keep going back?)

I found the hotel, but the prices made me think I was the victim of a bad joke. $89 for 4 hours? $130 for six hours? Highway robbery! I’ve stayed at airport hotels in Singapore and Seoul before, and the prices weren’t nearly so exorbitant. I asked if they had any photos of the rooms, but they only shook their heads. Well, what are the rooms like? I was told offhandedly that they were like rooms in any hotel. (Wow, such a helpful description.) Already exhausted from a poor night’s sleep, I decided to splurge for the 6-hour stay. Damnit, I wanted some shut-eye, especially since the next day would amount to 21 hours of sleepless travel. “Can I have a 4:30 wake-up call?” I asked. “Of course,” I was told. When I got to my room, it occurred to me that I didn’t actually see them program the call, so I rang them up to make sure they’d done it. “4:30,” I reminded them. They sighed. “Yes, sir, I’ve already set it up.”

The room was fine. I fell asleep after about half an hour. I was awakened by a call from the front desk staff, which had me leaping out of bed to answer it. When I turned on the light and checked the time, I couldn’t believe it was only 3:30! For $130, I certainly expected better. Especially since I double-checked with them about my wake-up time. When I checked out, I told the woman at the front desk—the same woman who’d checked me in—that she’d woken me up at the wrong time. I got no reply. Wanting a reply, I told her again. “So sorry, sir,” she mumbled, counting through a wad of money to return my $20 cash deposit on the room. The thrill she felt working there was palpable, and I felt it like a kick to my backside. I took my “free light refreshment” card to the second floor to see what I’d get, was asked to choose from among 5 items—juice, mixed fruit, water, tea or coffee, or toast/croissant—and opted for toast/croissant. Five minutes later I found myself being served juice, mixed fruit, water, coffee, and 2 pieces of toast and 2 mini-croissants. I guess it goes to show that not all miscommunications are bad…

By the time I got to Narita, I was already on hour 20-something, and I had another 5 hours to kill before my next flight. I found a day room with shower that was much, much cheaper than what I paid for in Bangkok. I ended up, rather self-indulgently again, paying $39 for three hours in a room with a bed and shower. Unfortunately, shortly after I lay down to sleep, I discovered that the hotel walls were very thin, and multiple guests, apparently, were using it in the fashion of a love hotel.

At least I could take a hot shower ($15 if you only use their shower facilities). They also gave me a bottle of water with the room, which would have otherwise cost me $2. So, I got a $2 water bottle, a $15 shower, and basically a $22 bed for 3 hours. But not really—the fact is it cost me $39.

For more about day rooms and shower facilities at Narita airport, check this URL:

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Friday, March 11, 2011


A week ago I was hired to teach English in Akita City, Japan. The headquarters of the school that hired me is located in Sendai, where yesterday's devastating earthquake and tsunami struck. I have no idea what the status is of the headquarters, its schools in northern Japan, or any of the people who work and study there. I emailed the person who hired me, telling them I hoped they were doing okay, but of course I haven't heard back from her.

For anyone who would like to help in the relief and recovery efforts in Japan, please see the following agency and organization websites, which I found online here at Yahoo News. Donations can be made through Network for Food's secure website. I will copy and paste the information below.

AMERICAN RED CROSS: Emergency Operation Centers are opened in the affected areas and staffed by the chapters. This disaster is on a scale larger than the Japanese Red Cross can typically manage. Donations to the American Red Cross can be allocated for the International Disaster Relief Fund, which then deploys to the region to help. Donate here.

GLOBALGIVING: Established a fund to disburse donations to organizations providing relief and emergency services to victims of the earthquake and tsunami. Donate here.

SAVE THE CHILDREN: Mobilizing to provide immediate humanitarian relief in the shape of emergency health care and provision of non-food items and shelter. Donate here.

SALVATION ARMY: The Salvation Army has been in Japan since 1895 and is currently providing emergency assistance to those in need. Donate here.

AMERICARES: Emergency team is on full alert, mobilizing resources and dispatching an emergency response manager to the region. Donate here.

CONVOY OF HOPE: Disaster Response team established connection with in-country partners who have been impacted by the damage and are identifying the needs and areas where Convoy of Hope may be of the greatest assistance. Donate here.

: Putting together relief teams, as well as supplies, and are in contact with partners in Japan and other affected countries to assess needs and coordinate our activities. Donate here.

SHELTER BOX: The first team is mobilizing to head to Japan and begin the response effort. Donate here.

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A New Publication

For anyone interested, Phoebe Journal has just published a piece of creative nonfiction I wrote. The essay, entitled "Birthday Trip to Pere La Chaise," can be found here:

In speaking with the editor at Phoebe, we realized something funny about my submission. Although it took them 15 months to respond to it, they weren't even accepting nonfiction submissions back then. I was lucky, obviously, that someone came across this piece when they did and liked it enough to recommend it for publication.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kratie, Cambodia (Day 3, Part 2)

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Back to Phnom Penh

I saw this poster near the market in Kratie. Strangely, the place wasn't a restaurant or bar, nor did they have American beer. Which is just as well. Who comes to Kratie for "American Time" (whatever that is) and horrible beer, anyway?

This morning I woke up at 5:30 to catch a tourist van (or “mini-bus”) from Kratie to Phnom Penh. I was told to expect a pick-up at 6 a.m., or maybe 6:30, or possibly 7, or maybe 7:30. I went to have breakfast at 6, was served at around 6:30, and at 7:20 the tourist van rolled in. Five of us found seats, then we were driven up the road about 400 meters and, without any explanation, made to get into another van. This proved to be quite interesting as an observer because some of us were going to Phnom Penh and others to Siem Reap. No one told us that we were all going to the same place initially, at which point we would separate, so there was a lot of disorder, including shouting between tourists (in English) and tourist company staff (in Khmer), and a German woman telling the staff “fuck off, don’t touch me,” and “be careful with my fucking equipment, you’ll break it handling it like that,” and later, in the van, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Slow down! (The driver was barreling through peaceful village roads full of wandering cats, dogs, chickens, and children at about 65 miles per hour.) I’ll fucking kill you if you hit something. I’ll kill you!” She turned out to be very nice, actually, and was in SE Asia to recruit local people to take part in music videos she and her partner were making over the course of their travels. Still, that kind of approach with people in Indochina is seriously counterproductive (as it is in 99% of the world). Cultural sensitivity? It goes both ways, of course, but there are lines you simply don’t cross. In my experience, telling people to fuck off and that you’ll kill them kinda crosses that line…

I ended up in a window seat, squeezed in with three Cambodian men, two pieces of luggage (piled up beneath my feet), and a live, tied-up chicken in a yellow plastic bag. One of the men beside me worked for the tourist company taking us to Phnom Penh. He deduced that I was traveling alone, and with various hand gestures he asked me why I didn’t have a wife with me as the Europeans on board did. I shrugged. Then he seemed to indicate that he and I would make a good pair, ending our exchange with his hands displaying “1” and “5” (or was it “5” and “1”?), whatever that means—I know I had no clue. Shortly after that he began to play with the hair on my arms, then inspected and stroked my fingers, then rubbed and tapped my fingernails, and when we stopped to pick up a Cambodian woman (with a wedding ring on her finger) he tried to introduce her to me. Wisely, she ignored him. I began to ignore him at this time, too, so he turned his attention on the German man with long blond hair sitting in front of us and started doing the same thing to him. About an hour later the man fell asleep with his head on my shoulder, and when I carefully leaned forward he fell bodily behind me and continued to sleep with his face wedged between the seat and my lower back. He was there for a good 30-40 minutes. On the positive side, I guess all of this made the time pass more quickly.

I was sad to leave Kratie, as it’s such a lovely, peaceful, slow-paced town. I was more than happy to leave my guesthouse, though. While the Cambodian staff at The Balcony were very nice, and worked hard in the kitchen to make some very tasty food, the Aussie owner left a lot to be desired. He had little good to say about Cambodian people, was stuffy and self-important, and wasn’t willing to help with the mini-millipede infestation I had in my room (even though he told me that millipede bites can be very dangerous). When I settled my bill at the end, he gave me change in paper bills, two of which had the corners substantially ripped off, and which I haven’t been able to spend anywhere since. I must say, too, that it would have been nice if the guesthouse had cleaned my room once in four days, changed my towel once, and emptied the bathroom wastebasket occasionally since guests are asked to refrain from flushing toilet paper. It would also be nice if they provided soap. Generally, when one arrives after a long journey, one wants to clean up just a little, and it's a bit disappointing to have to walk to the market and buy something so basic. I do not recommend The Balcony (despite the nice local staff), though I do recommend, highly, Oudom Sambath Hotel, whose owner was not only very friendly (and fluent in English), but also eager to help his guests. It’s more expensive than The Balcony (the most expensive room at OSH is $25, the least expensive is $8), but it’s still cheap and the quality of accommodations is much better here. The food is excellent, too. The owner has a harrowing story about growing up during the Cambodian conflict, and the fact that he is where he is today is amazing. If I return to Kratie, I’d want to support his business again, which in turn helps support his family, who were destitute and suffered a great deal not very long ago.

Oudom Sambath Hotel is located at 439 Rue Sumamari (Riverside Street). Tel: 072-971537.

FYI: I took Sorya Bus Lines from Phnom Penh to Kratie. The cost was $5, the bus was clean and comfortable, but the trip took 7.5 hours (not the 5 hours they quote). They stop twice for food/restrooms. For my return to Phnom Penh I booked a seat on a van through my hotel. The cost was $6.50 and the trip took 4.5 hours, with one stop for lunch shortly before arriving in Phnom Penh. The van was a bit cramped, and a bit crazy, but the trip’s shorter duration is worth whatever hassles I had to deal with.

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