Thursday, May 01, 2008

MISTY MOUNTAIN HOP, SIAMESE DREAM, & THE MERRY OLD LAND OF OZ

I’ve covered more mileage in the past month than in any previous month of my life. I’m in a new city in a new country where I’m searching for a job and a semi-permanent place to crash. Therefore, my editorial skills aren’t up to their usual standard. Here’s the shortest version of my latest journeys that I can muster without leaving out key details.

Brace yourselves.

We finished work on the movie. Well, to be more accurate, the 2nd Unit of the New Zealand crew of The Movie About A Famous Comic Book Character With Claws finished their work. Many hundreds of people will continue to work on the movie on sound stages in Sydney and special effects houses in Los Angeles for the next several months. It’s a big damn movie!

Once the wrap-up partying subsided, I began tying up loose ends in Queenstown. Naturally, that involved a bungy jump and a trek through the wilderness. The bungy jump was the world famous Nevis Highwire Bungy. The Nevis is a 472-foot jump with 8 full seconds of freefall into a rocky chasm. Remember that scene in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” when they’re falling and screaming on their way to Hell, pause quietly for a moment, and then start screaming again as they continue to fall? The Nevis is just like that. You jump. You scream. You stop screaming. You realize that you’re still falling. And then you scream again before you bounce back up a few hundred feet. My hands were shaking for 10 minutes afterwards. It rocked, and thanks to my flatmate Matt, I got a 20% discount. Cheers, geeza!
The aforementioned wilderness trek was the Routeburn Track. The Routeburn is a 3-day, 24-mile hike through the mountains, gorges and rainforests of the South Island of New Zealand. The first day was great. Sunny skies, fresh air, stunning mountain views and amazing stars at night. The next two days were… not quite so enjoyable. It rained. A lot. And it was windy. Very, very windy. Everything got soaked. Several times, I had to walk through raging streams on steep slopes that could have sent me plummeting down the mountainside a-la “Romancing the Stone.” Didn’t happen, thankfully. The moment I finished the track, the sun came out, and I successfully hitchhiked back to Queenstown (a 3-hour trip). It amazes me still that the two German guys who gave me the lift didn’t kick me out of the car, ‘cause I smelled so horrible after three days in the mud. Danke, dudes! Muchas danke!

After some farewell drinks with friends, I began the very long trip to Bangkok. Many means of transportation were involved in this endeavor. First was the 8-hour bus ride to Christchurch (an interesting city that I wish I saw more of - rent “Heavenly Creatures” someday to see why). Then there was the 6AM flight to Melbourne, where we were meant to have a 4-hour layover. Due to technical issues, we had to take a different plane and spend 14 fucking hours in the Melbourne airport terminal. Jetstar, which is Australia’s answer to Southwest Airlines (you know – Ghetto Air), did their best to compensate us with “refreshment vouchers.” The terminal had no proper restaurant but did have plenty of beer on tap, so basically the whole plane got drunk. Once we were airborne, everyone applauded and then passed out. We landed in Bangkok at 4:30AM. I got a cab to Khao San Road, which is Bangkok’s Backpacker Central. All tolled, from the time I left my cabin in Queenstown to the moment I checked into the D&D Inn in Bangkok, I had been in transit for 52 hours.

Ah, Thailand! You giant nut job of a nation! Bangkok is insane. It is a sweaty, seething, sprawling metropolis that seems to stretch out forever. If you want peace and quiet, do not go to Bangkok. Everything, and I mean everything, is for sale. Everywhere you look are cars, tuk tuks, pushcarts, Buddhist monks, prostitutes, transsexuals (or “Ladyboys” in the local parlance), aged hippies, food and drink vendors, Siamese cats, lactating dogs, counterfeit merchandise, Indian guys relentlessly selling cheap designer suits… it goes on and on. And it’s hotter than the surface of the sun on the muggiest day of all time.

I did my share of cultural stuff. I toured Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, both of which reminded me of World Showcase at Epcot Center. The temples were so astoundingly colorful and opulent, they just… I’m sorry… they were just very Disney-esque. Wat Pho had a 200-foot long golden Buddha laying in a pose that bore a striking resemblance to a reclining Anne Bancroft in “The Graduate.”

“Mr. Buddha, you’re trying to seduce me… aren’t you?” Everything comes back to a movie for me. And I know “The Graduate” is not Disney. But if Walt Disney had directed “The Graduate,” the Robinson’s house would have looked like Wat Pho.

If there is a Buddhist Hell, I’m sure that I’m on my way there thanks to those last few passages.

Anyway, Bangkok was wearing me out, so I took an overnight bus and a ferry to Koh Tao. Koh Tao is a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand where lots of people go to get cheap scuba diving certifications, myself included. Scuba diving is awesome! It really is like being an astronaut. We saw coral reefs, anemones, stingrays, giant clams, spiny sea urchins, and hundreds of schooling fish. It was fantastic, and I can’t wait to do it again.
My arrival in Koh Tao coincided with Songkran, the Thai New Year. Songkran is crazy. Everyone in the country spends three days dousing strangers with water. Dozens of children, teenagers, and responsible adults were lined up on the side of the dirt road near my dive school with buckets and super soakers. Whenever someone walked or drove by on a moped, they got soaked. As the day went on, it escalated and escalated. I hopped on the back of a truck with about 20 other people. It took more than an hour to get the 5 miles from our beach to Sai Ri, where most of the partying was going on. I have never seen anything like it. Hundreds and hundreds of strangers soaking one another and laughing their asses off. I wish I had pictures, but there was no way I was gonna risk getting my camera saturated. Good times.Scuba certification involved a lot of homework, so once I finished, I decided to move on to a new location for some unadulterated fun. I suppose that I could have headed up north and gotten more of an immersion into Thai culture, but hey, this wasn’t a National Geographic expedition. I was on vacation, so there. Off I went to the party island of Koh Phangan. Koh Phangan is just south of Koh Tao, and backpackers from around the world know it as a massive playground for tropical debauchery. It is home to the world famous Full Moon Parties that take place on Hat Rin Beach. Nearly every night is a party on Hat Rin Beach, but the Full Moon is really huge. Thousands of people rocked out ‘til the sun came up, and then they kept going. Everyone was a little nervous when it began. At the February party, an English guy went missing and was never found. And then in March, a 14-year old Thai kid stabbed a reveller to death. Nothing bad happened this time, thankfully. There was music everywhere, twirling fire sticks, bodies undulating, drinks flowing, 8-year old kids selling seashell necklaces at 3am, dudes pissing in the ocean as others swam in the darkness… it was massive, awesome and exhausting. Again, good times.

At this point, I have to give a shout out to all those European girls who feel completely free taking their tops off on the beach. On Koh Phangan, it was like I won the Boobie Lottery. They were everywhere! Technically, they shouldn’t be taking those things out in Thailand, since Thais don’t do public nudity. Thais go swimming fully clothed when its 100 degrees out, for Buddha’s sake. Didn’t stop those Swedish chicks, though. Cultural sensitivity only goes so far when European breasts are yearning to breathe free and soak up the sun. One funny phenomenon I noticed – some girls would sunbathe topless for hours as hundreds of gawking guys would stroll by, but when these girls decided to go for a swim, they’d walk down the shore covering their boobies with their hands until they got into the water, as if they think guys only look at knockers when they’re in motion. Hate to break it to ya, ladies, but as long as you’re showing them off (and even when you’re not), we’re gonna look at your boobs – bouncing or otherwise. Sorry I have no pictures, but I'm not that much of a perv.

I must also salute Thailand’s fantastic army of massage therapists. I got four massages in Thailand (and get those dirty thoughts right out of your minds, people - they were therapeutic, non-sexual, and totally legit!). Each cost the equivalent of about $10, and they worked wonders. I had a knot near my left shoulder blade that had been driving me insane for five years. It’s gone now. The lady who fixed it had me near tears on the table, but it was all worth it. Yay, Thailand!

So, after partying for a week in Koh Phangan, I had to head back to Bangkok to catch my flights to Australia. Once again, that involved a night bus and a redeye flight. My layover in Melbourne was only delayed by a half hour. And I was headed for Sydney…Crikey! I haven’t been in a big, world-class “western” city for quite a long time, and Sydney impresses easily. Well, the city center is nothing special, but anywhere near the harbor or beaches is pretty awesome. Of course, I had to make my way down to the Opera House as soon as I could. It’s pretty damn cool, but a little smaller than I had imagined. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, however, is friggin’ huge. It’s like the Sagamore Bridge on steroids. I took the train out to the famous Bondi Beach and did a nice walk along the cliffs as thunderstorms and rainbows were forming out over the Pacific. Gorgeous stuff.

When planning my flights to Sydney, I had totally forgotten that my arrival date, April 25th, is ANZAC Day, a major holiday for Australians and New Zealanders. It is sort of their version of Memorial Day, and takes place on the anniversary of the siege of Gallipoli in WWI (Rent the movie. It’s good.) during which thousands of Australian and Kiwi soldiers died. Australia has troops serving and dying in Iraq right now, so this was a big ANZAC Day for them. All over Sydney, there were memorial services taking place. I hung out for one at Martin Place. Hymns were sung, prayers were said, and then the priest reminded everyone “that ANZAC Day is also a day to party.” And party they did. Every guy in Sydney put on a uniform (no matter how far removed from an actual military garb that uniform might be) and hit the pubs. I saw lots of 17-year olds dudes in ill-fitting suits getting turned away by bouncers. It still throws me when I see teens drinking, legally, in public places. So sheltered, we Americans are.

Australia’s criminal history has ended up effecting my arrival in an amusing way. As is turns out, there is an infamous Melbourne crime family named – you guessed it – Moran. There is a bestselling book about the Moran family’s nefarious deeds, and as luck would have it, the book was turned into a miniseries that is currently airing on local television. Thusly, the name Moran is very much in the Australian zeitgeist at the moment. One of the key figures of Melbourne’s Morans is “crime mum” Judy Moran. I have an Aunt Judy. Unless she’s leading a double life organizing the criminal element on Nantucket that I haven’t heard about, she probably bears as much resemblance to her Aussie namesake as I do to any local gangsters of note. Every time I check into a hostel and provide my name, I get second looks. They always check my passport twice and look me up and down. Imagine that I was an Australian backpacker checking into an American hostel under the name Gotti, and you start to get the picture. I suppose that it doesn’t much help that I bear little resemblance to my passport photo anymore. But then again, how picky can a former penal colony really be about such matters?So yeah, Sydney’s nice. It’s Fashion Week here, so there are lots of skinny people running around in designer clothes, making my grubby backpacker attire look all the more shabby (or is it Shabby Chic?). Gotta do some shopping. After the horrendous toilets of Thailand, I wanted to kiss the pristine commodes of Australia. I thought better of it, though. As for exotic antipodean animals, my one sighting so far has been a flock (if that’s the right word) of enormous flying foxes that roost in the Royal Botanical Gardens. Name me another city where you can casually stroll through a lovely park and happen upon hundreds of salivating bats dangling googly-eyed from the trees. You don’t see that on The Common. Other strange encounters include fellow crewmembers from the movie. One of the visual effects guys almost hit me with his car, and I ran into some of the actors in a café in Bondi. Small world. Sadly, the Australian crew is already in place for the duration of the shoot, so I won’t be working on the movie anymore. It would be cool if they let me crash the wrap party, though. That party will rock, I’ll wager. In all likelihood, I’ll have to venture back into Hospitality World. At least the wages are better over here than in New Zealand. They damn well better be, ‘cause Sydney ain’t cheap! Unfortunately, I’m a bit late for the peak beach season here, so I’m gonna have to head up into Queensland to get some decent fun in the sun.

So there you have it, folks – my current life in a nutshell. Once I’ve gotten settled and have hung out with some more crazy Aussie critters, I’ll let you know. Until then, as another International Man of Mystery so eloquently put it, I’m spent.

4 comments:

Dayna said...

If you ever decide to return, you could probably get a job here if it actually materializes! http://www.enterprisenews.com/news/x2124115005

Anonymous said...

ysm wants you to know that Dayna is right...the plans for Massachusetts sound rather impressive.

Great photos; great writing! Hope you get to Alice Springs, to the Olgas and of course, to Uluru especially at sunset.

ysm

Anonymous said...

i really can't explain how envious i am of your flying fox sighting...
guess who!

loved the latest read - of course and murphy LOVES horton - THANKS Muncle Ike!

Flip said...

Good lord, Mike, you've lost a pile of weight! You sure you didn't get food poisoning in Bangkok? You look like a swarthy (or possibly Mexican) Kendal Warburton.