The Deadliest Catch

In the popular cable TV show, The Deadliest Catch, outdoorsy big-bearded men in heavy knitwear and galoshes routinely take on the elements as they attempt to harvest King Crabs in one of the world’s harshest environments. Reeling from side to side as their boat is pounded by massive waves in the Bering Sea, the drenched fishermen try futilely to steady themselves on deck while simultaneously trying to grasp and secure wildly swinging nets crammed with large gangly crabs. As water gushes and sloshes from left to right and back again, they try to remain upright on the dramatically heaving vessel calling out loudly to each other over the din, barking terse instructions and tactical safety advice.

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These are the scenes that flashed through my mind as I looked down nervously at a big menacing aluminum pot of swirling pish in the bathroom of the Hanoi-Saigon Reunification Express Train. It was circling ominously in a near-regular clockwise manner threatening to deluge seemingly more and more with each revolution. All the while the floor gleamed lucidly like the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial on a solemn overcast October evening. As the old French colonial train clattered forward on the 1930s era tracks, the lateral rhythm of the carriages drove the synchronicity of the oscillating privy, achieving some sinister state of restroom resonance. My first thought was to step on the flush control, which filled it up even more. Aaaargh! My second idea was to try that again, but that was interrupted and superseded by my immediate third thought which was to leave it alone and try to work with the harrowing situation.

I was hoping there was another powder room somewhere for the ladies as this one would’ve been a bit of a smoocher. There was a Belgian woman in my sleeper cabin who made a trip out at one point, presumably to the bathroom, but she didn’t say squat or make eye contact when she came back. I think she was traumatized.  But for men, you could stand well back and just fire right into the middle of it, or for dart enthusiasts, aim just above the bull’s-eye on the triple ring for the optimum shot. The experience overall was quite hypnotic, like some aquatic introduction to the Twilight Zone—I found that before long I was swaying my hips to the tempo of the soaker cycle. When I got back a Spanish guy in my compartment asked where the toilet was–I told him just to follow my footprints.

Notwithstanding the plumbing, physically getting to and from the John was quite a challenge. It was at the far end of the carriage: There were actually two lavatories there—a western style commode and an oriental squatter. But there were Vietnamese folks camped out everywhere in the corridors, especially at the ends of the carriages, sleeping on plastic boxes and other regional bric a brac. The squat toilet was completely blocked by itinerants leaving only an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom form of access to the head from hell. You had to pick your way through the snoozing squatters one careful step at a time over their luggage and legs and so on, all the while the old wagons rattled from side to side in sheer darkness, adding a comical layer of difficulty to the process. I was, of course, in one of the few first class coaches, where they advertise “soft” beds, with four couchettes to a compartment. But out on the corridors anything goes on the set of Blade Runner.

From my experience, there were three distinct, sequential phases of the night train—noisy natives, drunken dudes, and snoozing squatters, the latter described heretofore. The noisy native segment commenced as soon as the train had left Hanoi at 7:30 PM. In our compartment, over the loud aging rattle and rolling stock we could hear a piercing, continuing cacophony of commotion right outside our door. But it wasn’t a fight or anything like that—the locals were yelling oriental overtures at each other in order to communicate from far corners of corridors and coach ends where they had settled for the night.

Then, at just about midnight, the racket from the rambler encampment died down as the next phase began. Two doors or so down, we could hear the clickety clackety unlocking of the first of several ill-fitting compartment slide doors. “Dude, whatever happens on the train stays on the train,” said some emerging American extra from The Hangover. We couldn’t see this fellow but didn’t need to; it was now time for a little French Indo China railroad frat party in compartment 15.

Nevertheless, the details of this colorful account are not intended to convey criticism but to depict the memorable uniqueness and adventure that can be found even in the day-to-day minutia of what is nothing less than a fabulous journey throughout a beautiful, engaging country. Should I want merely to complain about trains I’ve got numerous British Rail stories. No, for I will never complain about voluntarily inserting myself directly into the fabric and context of a friendly, striving, vying nation with such a rich and troubled heritage. The train trip was all that I wanted and more and for that reason I’ll give it five stars on TripAdvisor should they care to publish my pish.

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The Art of Prayer

I’ve never really fully understood the art of prayer. As a boy, certainly I was herded with my equally oblivious acned brethren into the pine pews at the Cranhill Parish Church in the East End of Glasgow. Back then we would sit giggling about adolescent nonsense while the Minister, Mr. Reid, droned on in the background about God and baby Jesus, and he would try his absolute best to reign us in ever so gently into the whole concept of religion through contemporaneous interpretation of New Testament parables.

While the Good Samaritan, in the bible, came to the aid of a desperate, ailing Jewish fellow, he was now the fine young man who carried old Mrs. Jackson’s groceries all the way home from the Cooperative one dark, cold, rainy evening, and so on. But this kind of creative elucidation was a tough sell to interest us, and for all his almighty efforts, Mr. Reid had a Herculean task on his hands.

My best friend back then was Andrew Denholm, aka Dougal. I believe he was nicknamed so because his hair looked like Dougal the dog’s on the TV Show, Magic Roundabout: Although the true origin of his moniker would later become a point of contention, denial, and a mystery to most. But I’m sticking with the hairstyle lineage. I recall, in Polaroid detail, sitting next to Dougal in Cranhill Parish Church one Sunday, decades before iPhones, as he stared solemnly skyward during a particularly long recitation that revolved around a shepherd and a wayward flock of sheep. Ten minutes or so in, we were out of jokes and immature observations and after what seemed an eternity, the Minister closed his book, gazed mournfully downward, and got to our favorite part, “Amen.” And as I turned mercifully to Dougal he broke from his heavenly gaze, looked me directly in the eye and asked: “Guess how many light bulbs there are on the ceiling?”

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But when you grow up and you travel a bit you see that praying is actually quite serious and popular and people don’t usually giggle during it. For example, Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen is a colorful, fascinating five hundred year old Buddhist temple located across the Chao Phraya River in one of those endless indistinguishable suburbs of western Bangkok. While many of these types of temples appear similar from the outside the interiors are often surprisingly different. This one has multiple dissimilar levels for prayer and on the top floor has an unusual tall multicolored glass stupa in a luminous, emblazoned room. Praying here, in what could pass for Elton John’s bedroom, can actually be fairly interesting.

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Nevertheless you don’t just launch in shamelessly asking for daily bread, although I do imagine the overall idea is broadly the same. In these places of reverential worship, you do have to pay some attention to the little things: No hats in Europe, no shoes in Asia, yes hats in Israel. As far as the great Buddha is concerned, the statues are merely idols and when you pray, you may address the statue or trinket as you pay your respects directly to the great teacher himself. The process of prostration throws you open to your deity whereby it’s some variation of 1.) on your knees, 2.) arms to the chest, 3.) touch your head and nose, then 4.) hands down on the floor, dutifully followed by 5.) head bob to the surface, making sure you line up the elbows and knees. This part of the process is fairly easy to follow and you can practice it most places outside of Glasgow.

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It’s the messaging that I find to be a little more elusive. Paying your respects is one thing, but I’m pretty sure people just ask for all sorts of stuff, and when I look at some of them they’re obviously not getting what they’re asking for. Not that I’m knocking them of course, as they are faithful, which is arguably virtuous.

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And as you snoop around, there are what seems like a thousand Buddha effigies in the Wat Paknam, but this is a metric that is often touted and flouted in various places of worship such as the highly recommended elongated wooden Sanjusangendo Hall in Kyoto, Japan, that is host to a millennium ancient gold-lacquered Buddhas. And there is the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap where there is a wonderful, but somewhat random, collection of the figurines. To make a grand the Museum at Angkor has taken an approach reminiscent of a wholesale sports trophy outlet: Angkor’s museum is rightfully criticized for simply filling a big room with Ayutthaya-era Thai idols that have no aesthetic connection to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. But will the tourists from the East of Glasgow notice? Yes..…

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The Rise of Vietnam, Cambodia and Wales

Following an eight-year absence from the onset of the great recession, I returned recently to travel throughout Vietnam and Cambodia. These Third World countries, to use the vernacular of the outdated “Three Worlds” model, seem to have come a long way. For a Communist dictatorship, Vietnam sure has a lot of Prada: Welcome to the Bourgeois revolution! Cambodia’s present-day open market system and regime stability has led to increased investment all around; for example, Siem Reap used to be a sleepy little hovel with some awesome nearby temples, and now its streets are lined with 5-star hotels. In terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), both Vietnam and Cambodia are currently among the world’s fastest-growing, pushing 7%, led by India at 8%, while the large Chinese tortoise plods at around 6%. While this is driven mainly by global integration, I would say to you now, come visit these places while they still retain a palpable measure of uniquely identifiable ancestry.

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While I have traveled far and often, I must say too, that I learn constantly while I am on the road. For example, my lovely wife taught me recently how to journey around the world with four devices and only one charger, notwithstanding that I brought the adapters. This was an on-the-job-training exercise governed mainly by just-in-time principles and memory recall faculties.

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I genuinely believe that travel is vital and essential, and perhaps for some folks should be mandatory. I’m not thinking of it as a social program though—more like an unfunded Republican campaign ideal. Travel opens the mind, overcomes societal barriers, and creates collective respect and mutual understanding, something we could we use more of generally. We all probably have friends, acquaintances or family members who harbor random, ill-founded or misplaced grudges toward various segments of society, sometimes for eternity.

For example, I remember, with some peculiar fondness my first prospective brother-in-law’s disposition towards the proud nation of Wales. Opposing fans at a Wales-Scotland rugby game in Cardiff apparently harangued my would-be kinsman way back in the 1970s: He had traveled all the way down there from Scotland in the wee hours only to be berated and jostled by an angry horde of drunken Welshmen. Of course it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain welsh sobriety just by observation, but it’s a reasonable bet that alcohol was involved (#Rugby+Wales+Scotland). I can only but imagine the indelible trauma inflicted on my incipient in-law, “Adfyd a ddwg wybodaeth, a gwybodaeth ddoethineb and take that ya fat Scottish bastard.” To be fair, he was a little overweight at the time. While there are many commonalities between the realms of Scotland and Wales such as Celtic origin, domination by the British Crown, and being bombed by the Germans, my former prospective brother-in-law will always hate Wales. And for that I am truly saddened.

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Criticized for not visiting Vietnam earlier, Donald Trump has now arrived.

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Paula Abdul and Mr. Kay

“Lost in a dream, don’t know which way to go, if you are all that you seem, then baby I’m movin’ way too slow,” he sang excitedly as he walked spiritedly, but ever so slightly skipping. “This is where we’ll put the four thousand watt spots,” he said promptly dropping the melodic tone as he pointed up to the intricately patterned Rattanakosin edges of the oriental structure. “Behringer monitors all the way across here and four pairs of Yamaha floor speakers over there,” he continued, seamlessly motioning across an elaborate array of Ayutthayan-themed carvings and figures. “Sound will flood this whole beach,” he exclaimed proudly, juxtaposed against the Hindi-inspired iconographic backdrop. “You’ll hear it for miles.”

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Mr. Kay, as he is known, is a huge Paula Abdul fan, as well as an experienced, road-hardened audio-visual genius and concert planner. Here he was in one of the darkest corners of Asia, scoping out potential locations for an upcoming New Year’s special featuring Paula.

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“Elephants: Need to have elephants in the show,” he asserted dryly. “Don’t know if she likes elephants, though, or if she’s touchy on the whole animal rights thing, I’ll need to check,” he noted to himself quietly. “I’ve got one over here just in case.” Mr. Kay seemed like the type of guy that works in his sleep.

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The site was very impressive indeed, and would make for a truly great show, I thought to myself as I was leaving after receiving a short impromptu tour. But why Paula Abdul I wondered, is she still doing gigs? I could hear Mr. Kay picking up on the song again as I started up the stairs. “Straight up now tell me, do you really want to love me forever oh oh oh, or am I caught in a hit and run …”