As I write this, it’s Saturday afternoon in sunny Ban Po village on the island of Koh Samui (and in many other places besides), where the temperature just after lunch was “93, feels like 117”. I’m sitting in front of the fan, my hi-tech wicking shirt sopping wet so that I get the cooling effect of the evaporation, wondering how long before sitting in a wet shirt day after day results in me getting some rare tropical fungus. Any place that I put down a cool drink immediately acquires a small lake about it, each lake a new chance for evolution to raise up a happier species than our own — that chance soon to be dashed as I finish the drink, mop up the lake, and return the cycle of existence to its inevitable, sweltering death spiral. At this moment, I have 70 hours and 54 minutes until my plane departs, but who’s counting? Wait, let me dispel that mystery: I’m counting. For the love of gods, I’m counting. 70 hours and 53 minutes….
The Last of Koh Samui
The blog posts have been coming more slowly recently because, really, it’s not like much is happening. I’m in a beach house in a warm place doing very little of much note: playing ESO, reading books and Twitter (Twitter mostly), watching a bit of TV and video, and studying Japanese. (More on that last point later.) If it weren’t for the weather and the bugs it would be a delightful experience, and even with those it doesn’t suck, but it’s not like there’s much to write about.
There are occasional walks on the beach, and sitting out on the porch watching the ocean when there’s enough breeze to make moving away from the fan for any length of time a viable alternative. Since I’m going in a few days, I should probably post a last few bits of scenery. Honestly, there’s an awesome sunset pretty much every day, and after a while you just start deleting the photos. “Oh gods, so spectacular. Yeah, amazing. Sigh, yeah, that’s fantastic too. Get ’em away, I’m sick of ’em.” But here are a few:
It occurs to me that I’ve mostly showed beach & ocean photos, but there’s a whole island behind me that I’m not sure I’ve shown any of since the shots from the arriving ferry. Of course, I haven’t been to much of it, but still…
Ok, since I mentioned The Integral Trees, I have to include the cover, one of my favorite book covers of all time:
Funny side-note, as I mention not having read a book in 20 years: it occurred to me yesterday that a kid born when I started work at Fox would have just graduated high school and be going off to college in the fall.
Fuck that kid.
But I digress, where was I? Oh, yeah, scenery.
I’d like to be walking more than I am — I’m way too sedentary here. I mentioned previously that the ocean isn’t great for swimming, because of all the crap on the ocean floor. That crap washes up on the beach — you can see the tires washed up in the photo above, and there’s bottles and plastic bags, and sometimes broken, worn down, glass. I’m making it sound worse than it is, it’s cleaner than the Santa Monica beaches, though that’s a low bar. Really, the problem is the low grade stuff, bits of broken shells and rocks and coral and other stuff, that makes long walks in bare feet a bit challenging. So, I wear my sneakers to protect my feet, and my short socks to reduce the sand that would get into the sneakers, but that’s kind of a losing fight because the soles of my sneakers flares out a bit at the bottom. So, as I walk, the leading heel goes down into the sand, I roll forward on that leg and the other heel moves forward to be placed in turn, and then that first leg moves forward again — now carrying a small residue of sand, loosely clinging to that flared-out heel, and flinging it at the achilles tendon of the other leg that it’s now passing. So, my brisk walk down the beach is not just a “step step step step” process, it’s also a “fling fling fling fling” process. A small percentage of that flung sand falls down the back of the achilles tendon and into the (of necessity) imperfectly sealed shoe and the sock, and when I finally get home I have to shake everything out and brush off my legs before going inside to shower and cool off from the warm sunset walk.
If the sand is firm, the problem is blissfully reduced: the flared heel catches less of it. And when I’m walking through a patch with more ground up crap it’s better, because that stuff is larger and heavier than the sand grains and much less prone to flinging. But the beach texture varies widely here from patch to patch, day to day, and sometimes it’s just all loose sand that would have been fine barefoot but now is being poured down the back of my shoes in the Death of a Thousand Grains.
I’m trying to do more calisthenics at home, instead. (In front of a fan, with my shirt wet.)
I tell you, I get why I see so many retired old guys here who look like stick figures with gummi bear cummerbunds. Between the heat, the humidity, and the beach conditions, the entire environment is actively encouraging you to do nothing. Just sit, read a book, drink your tea, hopefully be at peace, but for gods’ sake, don’t move your body! It will only lead to tears.
Of course, on the plus side, they have cuttlefish.
At least, on the plus side, I don’t have to suffer alone.
This guy never made it inside, though he did catch a huge bug on my windowsill and made great work of swallowing it whole. But a couple of his much smaller cousins get in every day through a gap at the edge of a screen and make the rounds of my place, cleaning up the ants and other bugs, for which I’m grateful.
A few other notes about being here that I never got around to mentioning, and will here just to get them off my chest before I go:
- There are no seagulls. This struck me with some surprise, after I’d been here a couple of weeks. I thought seagulls were everywhere in the world, but apparently not; Wikipedia tells me that while they are pretty much everywhere, they’re less common on tropical islands. Go figure.
- One of my first beach walks, I saw a couple of locals combing through the sand just into the water, looking for something. I assumed that they’d dropped something and were trying to find it, and was going to offer to help, but thought, “What are the odds of me actually being helpful?” The next walk, someone else had lost something, what a coincidence! By the third walk I realized what was happening; they were combing the sand for mussels, some of which, at least, must feed the many restaurants along the beach here. Given the crap that washes up on the beach, I now understand the horribly unpleasant stomach problems my compatriots had on the plane after we left Bangkok, during my Nepal trip many years ago. My decision to skip shellfish here seems quite justified.
- The island out aways across the ocean has towns along the beach that turn on some amazingly intense green lights at night, from dusk until dawn. I don’t know what those little strips of emerald are for, out in the darkness, but they’re cool.
- I’d been here about 5 weeks when the electric instant water heater for the shower conked out. The owner replaced it quickly, but he couldn’t find the unit that he wanted and the one he picked is not ideal. It has a temperature dial but no Off switch, and the lowest setting is still much warmer than you want when you’re just sluicing off and trying to cool down after a hot walk, and since the water line runs through that heater, there’s no alternative. The water *has* to go through the heater. I did, eventually, figure out that if you turn the shower’s overall water knob down enough, the unit refuses to turn on, as a safety feature, so I’ve been taking some very low flow showers ever since. Less water and no heat, very environmentally friendly.
In preparation for my departure, I walked back to Maenam yesterday to get another haircut from the really great barber that Ian recommended. I didn’t really need it, but I’d be itching for one in 2 more weeks and it seemed better to get it now when I knew someone I liked. Maenam is about an hour’s walk east of here along the coast, walking by the side of the road in the heat, and it. Is. A. Schlepp. Last time, I left at 9:30am to try to beat the heat and the most direct sun, thinking based on Google Maps that the town was 40 minutes walk away. Either I read the map wrong, or the shop was farther than the general map location would imply, but it seemed like I was walking forever, and I was starting to give serious consideration to giving up, when I saw the traffic light that Ian had said it was near. So I got the excellent haircut, was *very* pleased, and then started walking back, now at nearly 11:00 — and stopped by a 7/11 for groceries along the way and had to lug them back the last 25 minutes of the route when I was already pretty tired. And, to top it off, I got my second and best(worst) sunburn yet. Worth it all for the haircut, but oy.
This time, I left at 8:30. And brought an umbrella which I popped open immediately, walking along the road with my comprehensive sun protection like a middle-aged Asian lady. I can be a little self-conscious about looking stupid in public (not an uncommon sensitivity, to be sure), but after a couple of months down here I’ve learned to make sacrifices in the name of comfort and this was a sacrifice well worth making. The walk there and back was still long — and I nearly had heart failure when I got there and thought they were closed, though it thankfully turned out I just had the shop front in the wrong place. But at least I was cooler, despite the day being warmer, and I got home without sunburn.
And that’s really about it. It’s now Sunday as I write this part and I’ve been in leaving prep mode for few days. I made my last grocery run 3 days ago, and I’ve timed all my food to be eaten by the time I leave (very proud of myself for that). I do laundry tomorrow. I’m going to close all the windows on Tuesday morning and finally turn on the A/C here, so that I don’t sweat through my traveling clothes, and I’ve made arrangements with Ian to take me to the airport at 12:30. And that, as they say, will be that.
So, things are coming together for this trip. I’ve been spending an hour or two a day studying Japanese, for the last few weeks, and that’s going well. I will not be able to manage even the simplest conversation, but at least I can say “thank you” (arigato, though I knew that already), “good morning” (ohayo gozaimasu), and “Where is Tokyo station?” (Toukyou eiki wa doko desu ka?), and the like. I’m learning vocabulary, and forgetting it immediately, but it’s a start. I can count, I can recognize all the letters of their two syllabic alphabets and read them, slowly. (Their third script, the logographic Chinese characters, will have to wait.) I was using the Pimsleur language tapes at first, but they go on and on using certain words (particles like “wa” and “ga” that are used constantly) without ever explaining them to me, expecting me to memorize the rote phrases, and it was driving me nuts. (FYI, I know roughly what those mean, but Pimsleur wasn’t giving me details and it was pretty confusing.) So I switched to the Human Japanese app and have been much happier with it. (Damnit, I’ve just realized I’ve forgotten the nicer way to how to ask where the restroom is. “Toire” isn’t a good enough word, must double-check the better one…. “otearai”. “Otearai”. “Oteari wa doko desu ka?”)
Getting there is going to be a bit of a pain. My trip goes:
- Leave Koh Samui at 2:15 pm, arrive Bangkok at 3:20 pm
- Leave Bangkok at 7:35 pm, arrive Beijing at 1:05 am
- Leave Beijing at 8:00 am, arrive Sapporo at 12:30 pm
From what I’ve read, there’s an in-terminal hotel in Beijing that I could sleep in, but I won’t really know till I get there. And, at the very best, I get between 4-5 hours sleep there, before I have to rise to make the next flight. I’m not sure if it will be worth trying it.
FYI, Japan is 2 hours further east than Thailand. So, 7am in Sapporo is 6pm in New York (13 hours ahead), 4pm in Montana (15 hours ahead), and 3pm on the west coast (16 hours ahead).
I’ve exchanged e-mails with Kenta Togashi, my Airbnb host for the first two weeks when I stay in Sapporo proper. He also does tours, so I’m going to take him up on that. And he asked immediately if I had Line, a free messaging service that’s very popular in Japan and has expanded quite a lot around the world since it was created. I remembered reading about Line, a year or two ago, so I thought, “Why not, if it’s common around here and I’ll be here for a while?” So I now have a Line account (userid = HowTaoBrownCow). It’s not much different from any texting client, like Twitter with no character limit, with good support for sending pictures and video. And you can send “stickers”, like oversized emoticons, some of which you can purchase (which funds the free system), though I’m not sure why people would bother with stickers. Kids, I guess.
The main airport in Sapporo is southeast of the city, about 25 minutes by rail, and the local train runs right there, so when Kenta said I could meet him at his place at 16:30, after he gets off work, it sounded pretty simple and Google helped with the transit details. (Because Japan is a civilized country and Google understands its public transit and can tell where things are.) His Airbnb page says he can do airport pickups, but public transit sounds easy enough. Fingers crossed that that optimism pays off.
He also immediately said that he was going to a baseball game on Saturday and did I want to join him, to which I replied, “Hell yeah!” (I’m paraphrasing.) Baseball is my favorite sport to watch in person (it’s boring on TV, like all sports except soccer), and seeing it in Japan, the only country that loves it as much as we do (or more) sounds awesome. I did worry about whether you could get food there — what if the Japanese were too neat to be eating in the bleachers? This page disabused me of that concern. I learned nothing of the sport from this page, but I learned that I can eat freely.
A couple of days later, Kenta also suggested that, if I wanted, I could join him for his Wednesday night English conversation class and the drinking party that was to follow. I told him that I may be wiped out from travel and no sleep, but if I’m up, I’m in. Drinking my first night sounds like the right way to start this visit! And maybe I’ll acquire language buddies for mutual
drinking learning? At a minimum, I’ve found a group of people desperate to speak more English; my language problems may be solved! (“Hey, you help me navigate Sapporo, I promise to not speak a word of Japanese the whole time we’re together. Seriously, happy to help.”)
And, on top of all that, he tells me that this weekend is the Hokkaido Shrine Festival! My timing rules!
FYI, the high tomorrow in Sapporo is supposed to be 70°. 70°! I may never leave.
BTW, I say that my timing is good… This isn’t just for this weekend. Most of the time I’ve been paying real attention to Japan — watching anime, reading manga, studying Buddhism, drinking sake — the exchange rate has been roughly 100 yen to the dollar. So, when I’d read manga and they’d say how much something cost, I had an easy translation for it. A few weeks ago, I checked to see how that was doing…
100 yen was now 83.5 cents! I was pretty excited about that, but I’ve checked a couple of times since and it keeps falling! At this moment, per my conversion app, 100 yen is 79.6 cents! This is the cheapest it’s been to visit Japan in years.
I’m drinking so much sake, it isn’t even funny. (No really, it’s not funny. I’ve misplaced the number of my AA sponsor. John, if you’re reading this, call me! No, wait… it was my AAA sponsor and I don’t have a car anymore so it doesn’t matter. Never mind.)
I mentioned that Kenta does tours, and I’ve found others online (like these, with some interesting mountain bike tours that sound fun). And the Wikitravel page has more suggestions for places to see. The Sapporo brewery is a must, and maybe I can find some sake brewery tours. I don’t expect to do all of it in these two weeks, but I’ve got 6 weeks here in my first leg, so I’ve got plenty of time.
So, I’ve got two weeks with Kenta, then I go a little out of the city proper to a place on the coast (but an easy rail ride in), here, where I’ll be for a month. It seems nice enough, and it’s super cheap that far out, just $346 for the month — actually cheaper to stay for a month than to stay for 2 weeks! Funny, the Airbnb listing shows it now as $313/month, probably due to the falling yen. Tempted to query Airbnb about that. Hmmm.
After that… well, best to synopsize my current plans:
- 6/10-6/24 : Sapporo, stay with Kenta
- 6/24-7/24 : Sapporo, stay with Kazunari
- 7/24-7/31 : Travel by rail down to Tokyo, spend 2 or 3 days there, continue on to southern Japan, take boat to Taiwan, stay for 2 or 3 days (Wingwah has persuaded me that staying longer may not suit my needs), then return the same way and take rail to Kyoto.
- 7/31 – 8/10 : Stay in Kyoto, see the *many* sights, visit Mt Fuji, do sake brewery tours. (I may do the Mt Fuji thing on the way down to Taiwan, since I’ve found some tours that leave from Tokyo.)
- 8/10-9/18 : Back to Sapporo
- 9/18-11/17 : Back to Chiang Mai to finish this round of foreign travel.
I had been seriously considering taking a major, paid, 2-week tour of Tokyo/Kyoto/Fuji, and others, here, which was going to cost me $4,500. Way outside my budget, but if there’s anyplace I’ve ever wanted to visit “the right way”, with a full on guided tour, it’s Japan. And I’ve been living pretty cheaply on this island, so I’ve been gaining ground on my annual fiscal planning, and I was getting ready to do it, though wincing. Then I got word that my old home loan company was sending me a check for overpayment during the sale process, for $3,600! (They sent it in December, and it only just got to me in Seattle, and is now expired. So they’re resending it to Seattle.) “Yes!”, I cried. “Now I can properly afford this!”
I was booking the tour, and they gave you an option to extend your stay in Tokyo — out of curiosity, I added a day at the end, and they charged me $175 for it! Now, that’s not out of line for a good hotel in a major city, and the tour agency gets their cut…. But I can stay in an Airbnb place for under $50! So I laughed and changed that back and continued booking. The tour also included a rail pass for the trip, and I planned to get a 3 week Japan Rail pass for this trip, so that was sort of wasted money, but no worries.
I’d reached the shopping cart checkout page, and was putting in my info, when I saw a “Coupon Code” field and thought, “Hm, maybe I can find a discount code from someone online, like a travel blogger who has a deal with this tour agency. It happens.” So I started looking. I wasn’t having much luck with that, and then I found a travel forum page where someone asked what people thought of this tour group. The consensus was that they were good, but one guy piped up, “They’re terrible, don’t bother” with no elaboration. So someone asked, reasonably, “Why do you say that?” And the guy basically said, look at what they’re giving you. You can do all of this on your own for a fraction of what they’re charging you.
I started to think about that: wasted Japan rail pass, charging a lot for hotels, the price only includes a few meals. If I stayed in Airbnb places, 14 days at $50/day or less is $700. I can take local day or half-day tours of places (that link above had a bunch for Kyoto) that are in the $50-$100 range, and I wouldn’t do that *every* day anyway, and would just wander and see the sights on my own for a few days at least. Maybe $1,000 at the outside for formal tours. I’ve just dropped the cost to $1,700, and it doesn’t look like I’ve lost much by doing it.
That decided me. I canceled the shopping cart, saved myself $2,800 that I can now spend on sake with a clear conscience. Winning!
Well, that’s got me caught up, for now. I now have 46 hours, 14.5 minutes until my plane leaves. My next post will probably be from Sapporo, sometime after Wednesday, wherein you may expect pictures of Japan and a story about the hangover that results from taking an English class. Adult education is hard!