07 April 2016


April 17th my parents arrive. May 8th I fly into Mexico City. These are the dates I’m drifting toward. Because my focus is on the future I’ve been letting stories come and go. To me this is a time between adventures, an inevitable lull in a long travel tale. But that is unfair because there have been plenty of stories worth remembering. 

Cebu, Philippines: It was night. It was hot. And I was wrecked. I had spent the previous ten hours lying on the floor of the Manila airport barely fueled by donuts, coffee and dim sum. A taxi would have been cheap and easy, but with the big Latin America adventure coming up I wanted to hone my budget travel skills, so I aimed for the Jeepney stand. Jeepneys are ubiquitous in the Philippines and you can take them anywhere for the change in your pocket. The line whittled down and I squeezed into a tin box decorated like a four-wheel acid trip—most of them are. Like a rube I said, “City Center?” The woman across from me laughed and asked me where I needed to go. I showed her the address of my hostel. “First you must take a ferry, come with us, we’ll show you!”

For ten minutes I caught glimpses of a dark city passing in the narrow space between passengers. At my stop (apparently) I put 8 pesos in an outstretched palm and watched it pass from hand to hand until it reached the driver. My guide was in her late forties or early fifties and jolly in every way. She took great pleasure in teasing me. “When we see my husband tell him that I was only helping you. He is very jealous!” The ferry cost an additional 13 pesos. As we crossed I was given a breakdown of the city; where each pier was located, the nice hotels, markets, restaurants. On the other side we met up with her husband and I thanked her for her help. “Wait wait,” she said. “I will take you.” She left her bags with hubby and pulled me down an alley where we got on another Jeepney. And then another. She took me straight to the front door of the hostel and would have walked me inside if I had let her. With her help I reached my destination a whooping $2 richer. Over the course of a long trip two dollars here and two dollars there starts to add up but that is secondary. The budget way is almost always the local way. It’s how you immerse in a place rather than hop from edifice to edifice. I got in a Jeepney and a local guided me through the real Cebu. She was kind and asked for nothing. She simply wanted a stranger to like her city. A taxi driver wouldn’t have given two shits.  

Koh Tao, Thailand: I was there to close out my life; sell stuff, file taxes, chill and save. I was expecting to be bored. Instead it turned into a succession of slow days and wild nights. When I was working I was working all the time. I had forgotten how fun Koh Tao can be when you have nothing to do. And I was surprised by how much separation the Philippines had given me. The island didn’t feel claustrophobic the way I thought it would. It felt like any other place I used to live. The last thing I packed was my red hammock. With a ticket for the night boat in my pocket I let the hammock sway. I was listening to a Spanish audio lesson, prepping for the big adventure.

Radio Voice: How do you say, “Do you want to drink something?”
Me: Quienes beber?
Radio Voice: Quienes beber algo?
Me: Shit. Algo. Something. Algo algo algo.

Push and sway.
Cebu, Philippines: My hostel was a filthy little horror show in a neighborhood with no food. I dragged my feet block by block sure that the next would be bustling with street stalls—a deep-fried oasis. Nope. The only thing I could find was a live music venue slinging burgers. The second I walked in fifteen pretty girls in blue mini-dresses suctioned onto me, rubbing my earlobes, caressing my sternum—blow jobs were clearly on the dessert menu. Normally I find these brothel-in-disguise places amusing, but I was tired and hungry so I just wanted the pretty mosquitoes to go away. I ordered a burger and a San Mig Light. The temperature of the room rose—testosterone puffing out steam. All around pink-faced sexpats were staring at me. Old wrinkly pervs, suddenly womanless, wondering who this young punk thought he was, stealing all the action. I ate my burger and didn’t flirt back. One-by-one the mosquitoes buzzed off in pursuit of easy money. The King of the Sexpats was sitting at a nearby table talking to a new pink face.

“Name’s Radar,” he said. “What’s your mood? Eenee Meenie Miney Moe.”

Ao Nang, Thailand: I was sipping bad Thai whiskey with my good buddy Blake. We were roommates in the Surat days and he was back for a one week visit. He is a “real” teacher now; 3rd grade on East Coast, America. The breeze was warm and the limestone cliffs were a window to a million years ago. These were the first drinks in what would become a five day bender. Blake was telling me about his job, which he likes a lot, but he is also concerned about the Monday to Friday grind, and more specifically the way yesterday, today and tomorrow tend to look the same. I felt a twinge of guilt because the 5:2 loop isn’t tangible anymore. It used to be within reach, an electric fence ready to zap me if I lost focus. But, I’ve gotten so accustomed to living out of a backpack that American Settled is no longer an electrified motivator. It’s just the way people live back home. Blake gave a speculative look at his half-empty glass of whiskey and said, “I didn’t think I’d be up for it, but this is kicking in. I feel good!” And so the madness began.

La Union, Philippines: My mouth was mucky with the residue of sleep. I was preparing breakfast; instant oatmeal with chunks of banana that I ripped off with my hands, instant coffee and a big ass bottle of water to wash away the muck. Behind me was a dilapidated room with a single naked bulb and fan that swept in noisy death spasms. I was steps from the sand with a clear view of the sea and the morning sky. The accommodation was basic but the setting was pure luxury.

I watched the gentle commotion of La Union; bronzed kids dragging over-sized surf boards, a stage being set for a concert later that night, vendors setting up tables at a local coffee shop to sell empanadas, natural honey, acai bowls and locally grown produce. This was a surf community on the rise—a place where local entrepreneurs were invested in each other’s success. I exhaled and a heaviness I didn’t know I’d been carrying went with it.

This trip to Central and South America is about more than travel; it is a scouting mission. I want to start a new business and I’m looking for my perfect beach town.
·         Known but feels undiscovered
·         Invested (or could be) in surfing
·         Affordable
·         A community that wants to grow without losing authenticity

And I am willing to be patient. My beach town is out there. I just need to find it.

Koh Lanta, Thailand: Day two of the bender. I felt better than I looked, so when Blake handed me a beer I didn’t object. It was 11am and we were sitting on a cement bench waiting for the ferry. “Just one,” he said, “To take the edge off.” I snorted. We crushed the first and then picked up speed. We ran through beers like we were on a Wipe Out course and we were. I don’t remember getting off the ferry.

BLACK. We are at a resort. How did we get here? There is no way I’m this drunk already. We took that purple ferry—to Koh Lanta—but where on Koh Lanta? Whatever, these are tomorrow problems. Where is the bar? We are lounging on pillows drinking big Leos on the rocks—Thai style. The bar has a funky reggae thing going. We agree that a nap would have ruined us. We are laughing at our own predictability. Is it sunset already? I should eat something. I should slow down.

BLACKER. We are at a different bar. How the f… Oh, wait. Yeah, yeah, I remember coming here. I’m holding a pool cue. There is a blonde girl in a white and black striped shirt looking at me expectantly. German? She’s German! I’ve been hitting on her…her…whatever her name is. Where is Blake? There he is, talking to that creepy dude that keeps hovering. I need to get him out of there. It’s my shot. Focus. Focus. And hit the big snowball.

BLACKEST. It’s morning and I’m curled up in the sand. There is a pebble in my mouth that is cutting into my cheek. I’m still drunk—drunker than I should have been at any point last night. A scorching self-loathing makes my skin burn hot and red. I force myself to sit up. I pat my pockets. My wallet is still there, at least there is that. Blake is waking up a few feet to my left. And there is that creepy dude! Not twenty yards away! What in the actual fuck! Blake and I walk back to the resort. He explains that he couldn’t find me in the bar or back at the room so he went out looking. He walked the beach in the dark until he literally tripped over me. Already face down in the sand he decided to sleep there. I’m mad at myself. Blake on the other hand is clearly amused. I know he is right. We’ll laugh about this forever.

Port Barton, Philippines: I love the vaguely undiscovered places and Port Barton sounded like my kind of town. I showed up at sundown with $10 in my pocket and no place to stay, which ended up being risky because Port Barton was a lot more rugged than I expected; a few criss-crossed dirt roads, electricity that only works in the evening, no ATM and more chickens than people. I had just enough money for a room and a meal. If I couldn’t figure out how to get money it would be a hungry hitch-hike to Puerto Princessa in the morning. I walked the dusty roads looking for something cheap and dirty. An older woman came running out of a nearby house. “Do you need accommodation? I have accommodation here!” Her name was Nelly and she turned out to be an absolute gem.

Nelly and her husband moved to Port Barton in 1983, when it “wasn’t so crowded.” They raised their children in the house they built not far from the beach. They retired with reluctance. Her husband would like to relax more but admits that it’s healthier to keep busy. Nelly wants nothing to do with lying about. Running her homestay, ridding the town of cock-fighting, tending to her farm, she’s got energy for it all and no time to slow down. She was quite the scholar in her youth, but started a family before she finished University. She is in her late sixties now and is itching to go back to school. Like I said, she is a keeper.  

I stayed in a little room in Nelly’s house for nearly a week. The money thing worked out. I was able to do a wire transfer to a local pawn shop and pick the cash up there. Port Barton was exactly what I had hoped it would be; long stretches of empty beach, hammocks strung from windblown palms, cheap eats and quiet nights. The travel circuit can be a blur of buses, beaches, parties and people mostly like you. It helps to step away; find a quiet spot to read books, nap away the time, and connect with locals rather than travelers. My room at Nelly’s was $8 per night and my favorite local eatery had a lunch special “Local Food + Rice” for about 70 cents. There were hammocks everywhere. I napped around. 

Nelly kept going on and on about taking a field trip to her farm. I was loving the beach chill and not exactly excited about it, but it was Nelly, I couldn’t say no. On my last day Nelly and her husband gathered their guests; me, a French woman who was living in Port Barton and writing a Philosophy book and a Polish dude who left home to disappear into the jungle and live off the land. He later told me with a straight face that making electricity from earth’s magnetic field is, “so easy.”

Wearing a floppy hat and carrying a walking stick Nelly led the way. At the end of the main beach we rounded the point and passed a litter of puppies prancing in the sand. A few minutes later I noticed that Nelly had one of the puppies in her arms.

“Did you take that?” I asked

“No! I talk to the man. He told me I can have a baby dog. This one will live on my farm!”

We crossed two more beaches, beautiful with nothing more than huts for harvesting coconuts. We turned onto a small footpath leading into the jungle and followed it to the top of a rounded hill and a clearing where Nelly and her husband kept their farm. It was a lovely little spot with fruit trees and fields of pineapple. Nelly served us sugary coffee and bread with peanut butter and I thought that was sustenance enough, but she was just getting started. Using all locally grown vegetables and coconut pulled straight from the tree she made an amazing soup served with rice. I gorged until my belly was round and still plucked a guava for dessert.

We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging. Nelly’s son had joined us. He lived on the farm and building it up was his great pride. This was tough for Nelly. He was a smart kid and an excellent student. She wanted him to become a priest. “He is happy out here,” she said. “I want my children to be happy.”

Nelly didn’t charge us a single peso for our field trip to the farm. She was fiercely insistent about that. “This is for my guests. Many times other people want to come to my farm but I always tell them no. This is not for them. It is special for my guests.”

“I’m glad you saw me walking by Nelly.”

And she smiled.

Karen Hill Tribe Village, Chiang Rai, Thailand: I spent five days alone in deep but comfortable isolation. The resort I stayed at was a pretty little place on the edge of the Mae Kok River. I was the only guest. The resort was in the Karen Hill Tribe village and all modern amenities were 30 km away in Chiang Rai. One day I decided to walk to the closest restaurant, a roadside joint near the entrance to a national park, it was a four hour excursion. The isolation was perfect, exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to hike, read, write and study. I wanted to detox from my recent wildness. And I did. The only person I spoke to during my stay was Nan the proprietor. He likes the quiet life and doesn't want too many tourists making too much noise. He is also something of an environmentalist. He does his best to educate the local tribes about the consequences of their destructive practices. He convinced the village to ban dynamiting for fish, but he hasn't been able to convince the rice farmers to stop control burning during the dry season. Throughout my stay skinny towers of white smoke rose from the hills making the air sting and taste of grim. "They only think about the money," Nan said. "They're poor, they need money now, sure. But, they don't think about our home. They don't care about the nature. This is no good." 

Nearing the End: I was looking forward to this like homework. I was excited to introduce mom and dad to Asia, but all that time between. I was worried that I would fill it with boredom, frustration and bitterness about the cause. Stupid really. I'm never bored abroad. And the last couple of months have proven why. This is a ride that never comes back around. It twists and turns, drops and climbs, but it never stretches out in a straight predictable line. I had all that time to kill and now it's gone. I tried to make it dull. I tried live simply and save my travel energy for Latin America. But the ride had different ideas. I went to the world's most beautiful beaches and ran wild at night. I reconnected with old friends and caught up on me time too. I veered off the tourist trail and met wonderful people like Jeepney Lady, Nelly and Nan.

I thought about being more practical, (well, I thought about thinking about it) but my happiness has never been on the long straight line. I like riding in the first car with my hands in the air shouting, "Fuck a 5:2 loop!" That works for me. That's why I live abroad with the weirdos and the wanderers and the harnessers of magnetic fields. 

But, a time of waiting can happen to anyone. So what would you do with empty months and nothing to do? Would you fix it? Would you stuff it full? Or would you just lull?

15 February 2016

Pants Are Not Important

I’m on a sleeper bus from Manila to Banaue. It’s cold as fuck in here. I’m wearing a hoodie cinched up tight and I shut off the air vents but neither effort made any difference. I’m not wearing pants. I’m wearing shorts and flip-flops because I’m from California and weather doesn’t change in my world. I hear coughing. I hear sniffling. I’m probably gonna get sick. I need this sleeping pill to kick-in so I can forget about my frozen balls. Maybe I should have worn pants?

When I was fourteen or fifteen I decided that I wanted to own a small resort on a tropical island and be an everyman about the place. I would tend bar and tell jokes and teach people how to wakeboard (because I was into that at the time). It would be a place that I was intensely proud of because every stitch of it was mine. When I was sixteen I found French Polynesia on a map, remembered that my Uncle Mike had said it was prettier than Hawaii, and decided then and there that Bora Bora would be my destination. I started studying French and the ins and outs of local government. Everyone thought I was crazy—a kid throwing himself into a dream that he’d never remember having. But I did remember. And as my adventures abroad grew longer people thought about that crazy kid, and his far out dream didn’t seem so far out anymore.

 I am at the top of a lush valley looking down. The hillsides have been carved into intricate rice terraces like an MC Escher sketch brought to life and grown green. Amazingly this valley has remained unchanged for 2000 years. Long before the Spanish or the Americans set their colonial boots in the Philippines the Ifugao people had created their master work. The terraces were about more than agriculture and trade they were the magnetic center of a proud people. In many ways that is still true today. The business of tourism has arrived but in an unpracticed way. The region is remote and it caters to outsiders with ramshackle newness. It took me more than two hours to hike up to this point. I’m tired. More tired than I should be. This is what I came to see but I’m not in the groove yet. I’m still in task mode; hike, take pictures, check check. It always takes time to adjust, to stop carving your name and moving on, to allow new places to color you.

I saw my former business as close enough to a dream come true and figured that over time I could learn to love it just the same. And it was awfully pretty. It had that gorgeous island location. The guests were happy and they laughed at my jokes. I had time to myself in the mornings before work. I didn’t have time to travel but that would come. It was a nice approximation. But, it was missing me. It wasn't my dream.

I’m wrapped in a blanket that looks like cowhide but isn’t as warm. I’m peeing. This is like the fifth time I’ve gotten up to pee tonight. Something is wrong. My body is rebelling. My forehead is hot and my feet are cold. I keep drinking water but the dry spot in my throat won’t absorb it. I’m turning door knobs now. I need an extra blanket and I’m alone in this place, locked in behind metal gates. This wasn’t supposed to happen yet. Every trip has bad days, but they were supposed to be weeks away. They were supposed to wait until I’m in deep and less likely to give a shit.

It’s not easy to share a dream. I’m not sure it should be done unless the dream was mutual from the start. I bought an approximation of my own dream. He sold a piece of the real the thing. Those are uneven portions and volatile ones at that. We have different perspectives on why and how the partnership ended, but I think it can be summed up fairly by saying; he needed me to be more like him and I needed him to be more like me. It ended, and that sucks, but I understand why. Aesthetically it was close, but my soul was never in those walls.

I’m in Sagada now, high up in the mountains of Northern Luzon. This place is seriously beautiful and has a great eco-friendly hippy vibe to it. I’m sure I’d be swimming in it if I didn’t feel like soupy dog shit. Yesterday I spent all day in bed. If I wanted to stand up I had to think about it for like ten minutes because I knew it was going to hurt that bad. I thought I felt a little better this morning. There is a bowl of yogurt in front of me, I can’t eat it. There is a cup of coffee in front of me, I can’t drink it. A few minutes ago I got so nauseous I blacked out for a second and came back covered in sweat. Is that bad?

Things end. Emotions burn off. And what remains looks pretty good actually. I’m better off financially than I was going in, I learned a few things about a business that has always interested me. And I got to live in paradise while doing it. I am a blue-eyed white boy from America with a college education, an interesting resume and enough money in the bank that I don’t have to work for awhile if I don’t want to. As far as the great big world is concerned that is hitting the lottery. What would you do if you had a little money and nothing but time? We are about to find out how I would answer that question.

The weird blackout sweat thing seemed to break my cold. I’m standing in front of the hanging coffins of Echo Valley. They are ok. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I don’t think so. I think it is one of those places that photographs well but feels like a teaser for tourists, like you’re being led through the gift shop instead of the real thing. Still it is an interesting tradition that dates back to the pre-missionary animist days. Sagada is predominately Anglican now and to get to the hanging coffins you have to walk through a church cemetery, but the local people maintain the right to be laid to rest in the old way. For the ritual the body is wrapped in death cloth and placed on a chair beside the hanging coffin. The family sits vigil and when they are ready the body is enclosed in its cliff side resting place. The decision to be buried in the old way is generally made long before death so most of the coffins were shaped and built by the people now resting within them.

Nothing but time and I can go anywhere. I spread out the map and waited for a region to pull me on a string, to fasten my heart like a runaway balloon. Central and South America; no other region came close. That part of the world has been a gaping hole on my travel resume, but I didn’t want pop-in for a couple weeks and pretend like I’d been there. I wanted to take my time, roll-around in it, disappear and reappear. And now I can do just that. The plan is to fly into Mexico City and travel south for as long as the travel cash lasts. And I want this trip to be different. I want to dig deeper than usual. Again I’ve got time. I’m projecting four months but maybe it’ll be six months or a year. I don’t know. I will definitely learn Spanish. I might stop and teach for awhile. I might enroll at a University and study. I might do volunteer work. I might find the perfect place to build the resort I've been dreaming about since I was a kid. I don’t know if this path will be better than the last, but maybe. And I can work with maybe. I can throw gas on maybe.

I slept hard and my cold is gone. I feel great. I’m on a bus. Again. This one looks like an old can of peas with glued on wheels. I’m traveling from Sagada to Baguio where I will catch yet another bus to a surf town called La Union. I was going to spend this trip focusing on productive type things, but I can’t. This is one of the most beautiful roads I have ever seen. It’s a winding nasty bit of business running along the ridgeline of a mountain range. There are sparse pine trees shooting up alongside the road and it could almost be the mountains of California if not for the terraced rice fields etching the valley below. I’ve been staring out the window for hours and the beauty won’t stop, it’s around every corner and down the center of every valley. I’m happy to watch, my mind is a clean and empty room. I’m in the travel groove. It took a couple of days to beat the sick and the gloom but I’m me again. I’m better than me. I’m me + traveling. The travel groove. The life groove.

This has never been a travel blog to me. It is an art project six years in the making. When I started MB Abroad I was very uncomfortable calling myself a writer or being called a writer by others. That has changed. I’ve realized that being a writer is more than the words you put on a page, it’s a born with it lens that defines how you interact with the world. I think in narrative. I speak in dialog. Look at my life; I clearly think that I’m a character in an unfinished adventure novel. And for the first time I’m cool with that. As you read through this entry you may have thought, “He just lost his business. Where are the punches? Where is the anger? He couldn’t have let it go already.” But, I have. The future I knew went POOF and one voice was louder than them all. It built and built and BOOMED; PLOT TWIST!!

I’m sitting on a porch outside my room. There are stars in the sky but the night is still deepest black. I can hear the ocean but I can’t see it. It is calling to me as it always does; singing about faraway places, promising that everything is going to be ok. But, I already knew that. I’m in the groove. I’m ready.

To write.

To live.

To never look back, wondering if I should have worn pants.

09 January 2016

The Postcard Project

UPDATE: The Postcard Project now has its own blog. Read the stories here: http://mbpostcardproject.blogspot.com/

I need a writing project. I have an idea. I need your help.

Send me a picture of an old postcard, a travel picture you love, or a picture of your someday place. I will use that postcard or picture to write a story. Not a story about you and your connection to that image or place. That is yours. The stories will follow my imagination. I have no idea where they'll end up, but we'll be in this together.

If you want to play along, and I hope that you do, send an image and a couple of lines about why you chose it to:

Email: mbartolomei@gmail.com
Subject: Postcard Project

MB Abroad

14 December 2015

Damn Right I'm My Mother's Son

When I was a kid, twelve years old maybe, a person on the other end of the phone made my mom cry. They accused her of having a “Pollyanna” view of the world. They told her that it “Can’t be sunshine all the time.” My mom cried because she couldn’t comprehend how anyone could see so much sadness where sadness didn’t need to be.

I saw her tears and balled-up my little fists, furious at the squawking voice on the other end of the electric lines. Why would anyone make my mom cry? And how could anyone think that happiness was bad?

At twelve my indignation was DNA shouting. My mom is human sunshine and I am my mother’s son. She didn’t teach me to be happy; she put a polish on what she had already given me. I’m not twelve anymore. I’m a grown man with a bald head and bad knees and yet my sunny view of the world has only gotten brighter—and not because of flourishing genetic optimism. I am also my father’s son; pragmatic, analytical. My happiness is never unquestioned. I dissect it—chop it up and examine the pieces. I wait. There are jolts that dissipate and joy that spreads from the center. I’m careful because a jolt is nothing to shout about, but joy certainly is.

I need you to know that my mom gave me optimism and that my dad taught me how to prove its worth, because I’m going shout now. I’m going to tell you a story, a story about yesterday, a pedestrian day whose ordinariness makes it the perfect choice. Parts of it will be mundane and parts of it grumbling, but as a whole I suspect it will read like Pollyanna chugging down a glass full of sunshine. I will not apologize for that. This happiness has been tested. This happiness is real.

Squawk at me voice. I dare you.

Palm trees jutting above a canopy of green, bright blues skies and the unseen sun burning a yellow penumbra that blurs the edge of the picture. The view is the same everyday and everyday it’s the sweet ass prize at the bottom of the cereal box. I stretch and groan, full of secret joy, as though I’m getting away with something naughty. As always the secret overwhelms me.

“Fuck yeah!”

It’s too early for articulate. I need coffee. And I’ve got just the place. From my porch the jungle garden opens up wide. I sit in my favorite chair and enjoy a simple breakfast. This is my routine. Most days I pour a second cup of coffee and read for awhile or tap away at stories I may or may not finish. I love a long slow morning and I’m getting good at it. The brain noise and excess energy are still there, but Island Time is drip drip dripping into the marrow.

There will be no second cup today, I’m working the early shift 9:30am – 6pm. This is unusual for me. Julie typically takes the early shift while Khai and I rotate the middle and late shifts. I like mixing it up, it changes how we interact with the guests. At night it’s about managing the staff and doing a vibe check: is this a party crowd or a chill crowd? During the day there is more busy work to be done, but we also get to give adventure advice. We get to spread out the map and tell tales about Koh Tao; diving, cliff jumping, nature walks around rocky cliffs and how to get to that bar that sells weed and mushroom shakes.

I fire up my motorcycle and let it idle. It is very pretty and totally unnecessary for commuting Koh Tao but I don’t care because it’s very pretty. In these idling moments I often think about…

I almost lied to you. I starting writing about how “In these idling moments” I compare this commute to past commutes, this job to past jobs. Happy, happier, happiest! And then I held down the backspace key. I made it all disappear. I may be the happiest I’ve ever been, but my present is not the result of a mended past. I’ve had great jobs, lived in amazing places, met exceptional people. The past is full of stories I get to tell. Today is the result of yesterday giving me a gentle push, “Go on. We’ll always be here.” The truth is when I’m sitting on my motorcycle, idling, the only thing I’m thinking about is how much I love riding motorcycles and how fun this ride is going to be.

The Taco Shack opens at 8am. Aor, our primary receptionist has been away helping her daughter transition into high school. Our backup receptionist/handyman, Wee is the first person I see. I haven’t even taken my sunglasses off and he is already reciting a rehearsed breakdown of who needs to check out, who needs to check in, who owes us money and what bull$%^ the kitchen staff has come up with so far. Aor does the same thing. I never correct their eagerness. It’s a good trait—pesky but adorably so. I knew Wee had been on time that morning because he always checks-in via Facebook. Facebook then sends me a push notification saying, “Wee Wee has checked in at the Taco Shack Restaurant and Hostel.” I haven’t had the heart to tell him that his nickname means “baby penis.”

Most mornings are smooth; some light accounting, a kitchen and housecleaning check, chatting up the guests about their plans for the day. Today is not smooth. Three guests have requested to check-out early. They were all staying in the same dorm and they all had the same complaints; noise and ants. I know immediately who and what is to blame. The previous evening a group of hard partying guys from that dorm had gone on the pub crawl. The pub crawl is messy. I am well acquainted with booze = messy. I am well acquainted with the siren song of 7-11 snackage in the waning hours of a binge night. I know what happened. Those drunken animals came back to the dorm, kept the party going till sunrise and left a feast for ants in their wake. I explain this to the unhappy guests and promise it won’t happen again. They still want out.

So now I’ve got three beds to fill and a room full of ants. I send a squadron of Burmese girls to deal with the ants. They have names like a musical scale: mee, Moe, MAY, TAY. Spotting the culprits is easy, it’s after 11am and they are the only ones still sleeping. I sympathize with them—been there, done that. But this is not their room. They are sharing it with strangers and they need to respect that. I wake them up. Boss face. Stern: “Get as drunk as you want. I don’t care. But shut it down before you get back here. If there are any more problems you’re gone.” My warning is met with four groans and a hiccup.

11am -12pm—rush hour; guests are checking out, guests are checking in, the staff is cleaning the rooms and everyone has questions. I have just finished explaining that the only sensible route to Phi Phi island is ferry + bus + ferry because the alternative would be a boat that swings south around Singapore. This geography reveal seems more crushing than obvious. Expectant faces are waiting. WIFI? Easy. Towels? Easy. Where is the beach? Ah, my favorite question. I tell the guest to join me outside. We sit down at a stone table. I unfold the map and position Koh Tao just right. I’m in no hurry because I need time to swallow the smartass responses sloshing around like dirty dish water. I trace a path north to sunsets and nightlife, south to beaches both popular and secret, east to viewpoints no one bothers to see. The guest has more questions, good questions. We are humming and people are starting to notice. Several new arrivals join us and I am painting Koh Tao in the brightest colors. Koh Tao turns to travel, the life, the road! I am basking in it now. I love this part. This is so much sunshine I almost feel guilty. I must be hogging it. I must be leaving someone in the shade.

I feel a gentle tap on my shoulder. A girl from the cleaning crew, Burmese and four-foot nothing, explains in broken Thai that there is a foreigner in one of the beds she is supposed to clean. My Thai isn’t even good enough to be broken but I understand what she is saying. “Mai pen rai,” I say. Don’t worry about it. I know who is in that bed. He has been extending (late) for more than a week. He isn’t going anywhere. Koh Tao has him.

There is a lull now. The hostel has several busy periods throughout the day and we use the time between to catch up on little things. I am in charge of the chalk work. We have two chalkboards on the patio, a small one for food and drink promotions and a big one for inspiration. I sit down on a bench looking for just that. The board has been wiped clean; it’s still a bit wet. I’m zoned out, watching the wetness wither under the heat—thinking. Got it! I soak the chalk so it will stick. Using every color in the box I write:

Travel! Throw away the things you shouldn’t have packed. Arrive with no exit in mind. Risk. Relax. Smile. You’re in Thailand!

Julie is here now. We sit against the back wall, which is hideously and inexplicably covered in Astroturf, chit-chatting about life, work and life again. No stress. Easy easy. The beginning of each shift is busy; we use that time to clear away behind-the-scenes work so we can concentrate on the guests, the atmosphere and the spoils of the gig. I let Julie do her thing. She handles most of the tasks I don’t want to deal with; ordering from Makro (think Costco), employee payroll, ticket services—Excel file numbness. My busy work is done and the patio is empty so I sit on the swing and let it rock. I feel a twitch, muscle memory telling me to work harder, find work if there is none to be found, climb the ladder! I wish, WISH, I could siphon that mentality out of myself and pour it into my employees. They know exactly where the bare minimum is. They curl-up on it. Nap on it. I twitch because I’m still learning how to be an employer not an employee. I can sit on the swing and do nothing at all, because I quite literally own it. This is my swing. I push off with my foot, rock it—this time with defiance.
“Mike! We have no mo pen.”

Tata is the wackiest of our wacky crew—frustrating and lovable in near equal doses. Anytime I can’t find her (which is often) she is either taking a selfie or in the toilet where I am convinced she is taking selfies.

“We have a lot of pens.” I hold up a green one and click it a few times to prove my point.

“No pen. Ben. BEN.”

“Ben? Show me.”

She shakes her head frustrated by her dumb-dumb boss. She marches into the kitchen and babbles to the girls in Burmese. One of them is going to have to take responsibility for this Ben business. Keep in mind these are grown “women” whom I have caught on several occasions wearing melon rinds as hats and sitting in empty Makro boxes playing choo-choo.

The eldest steps forward. With a solemn nod she says, “Ben.”

 I shrug my shoulders and give them my best what the fuck is a Ben look.

Tata has had enough. She holds up a crusty spoon and an even crustier pan. “BEN. BEN. No mo BEN.”

“OH, BEANS!! Bee-nnnns.”

Which reminds me… We have a shipment of refried beans waiting at the pier. I walk down the hill and onto a cargo ship. There is only one box left and the crew is looking at me, wondering if I’m going to end the mystery of who it belongs to. I pick it up. It’s heavy so I heft it onto my shoulder. The man behind the counter motions for me to sign and I do, right next to the line labeled Farang Food—foreigner food. My response to this seemingly derogatory label is always the same, mild offense overwhelmed by laughter. Crack open a can of refried beans and look at that goop. Imagine seeing that for the first time and imagine people eating it. To the uninitiated it must seem like a nameless thing; nameless until someone, anyone can prove they’d be willing to stick their snout in that crap. “Here white boy. Come on. Who’s a good Farang!?”

It’s 3pm and Khai just walked in. He is standing with his hands on his hips, surveying the place like an eagle in search of mice. I tell him about the early check-outs and he peppers me with questions. His questions in no way belie a lack of trust. He and I have an established Good Cop – Bad Cop routine. (Look, it says so on our lockers!) All of his questions amount to the same thing. Do I need to play Bad Cop? Or more accurately…can I!?

To the Astroturf wall! That hideous wall is the backdrop to our think-tank. It’s where all the big decisions are made. Today we have two important topics to discuss; renovations to the Mae Haad location and Sairee (followed by a thousand frustrated question marks.) Mae Haad is easy. High season is quickly approaching and we want to bash down walls before the masses arrive. We are really excited about the proposed changes; a bigger games area, a polished professional looking reception, a centralized and more efficient bar. We finalize the paper plans. Soon the hammers swing.
And then there is Sairee. There is an unfinished building in Sairee Beach, the tourist center of Koh Tao. We want it. We have a contract drafted and ready to sign. And yet for months it has gone unsigned. I won’t bore you with the minutiae. It’s a tired story—tug-of-war where there should be hugs and cheer. We talk about it every day, “We’re going to” shifted to “If we can.” I love you striped of honesty—a rote thing to say. And yet we hold out hope because if they would just hug-it-out, it could be so unbelievably, stupendously great.

The last couple hours roll by; conversations with guests, a game of pool, final bar checks and another day done. I’m off tomorrow. I should go out, socialize, flirt, but I’m not in the mood for all that, so I take a meandering route home aiming for a solo night in.

 I park my motorcycle by the beach and dangle my feet over the breaker wall. The sun is just below the horizon and the sky is an explosion of purple and orange. I don’t stay long. It’s always there, that riotous view, I just wanted a peek. I dust the sand off my shorts and go in search of sustenance. I pick-up a bottle of wine and a seafood salad called “Spicy Koh Tao Girl.” I ordered it the first time because of that ridiculous name and every time since because it’s delicious. I have everything I need for a long slow evening. I hurry, anxious to chill.

My hammock is made of soft red fabric held by white knotted ropes. It is slung low over my porch—low enough to reach the glass of wine on the ground and the bottle beside. I have been here for hours, listening to music, sipping, swaying. This is exactly what I wanted. Weightless time. Liquid me.

There is a pause in the music. A text message. It’s from Khai. He needs me to switch days off. He needs tomorrow, something personal. “No worries,” I reply. And it’s true. This change in schedule, this altered tomorrow, has zero effect on my pulse, my mind, my chill. Tomorrow will be like today and there is no “have to” about that.

I sip and push. I sway.

I am happy.      

15 October 2015

Rattle and Repose

I am walking up the street, across uneven pavement, dragging all my worldly belongings behind me. I haven’t slept in two days save a few fitful hours on a metal bench in the Bahrain airport. I feel drugged; stoned on anticipation with the coming crash pulling down.

I lift my bag up the green steps of the Taco Shack—my Taco Shack. Khai sees me and says, “You’re a sight for sore eyes.” There is an edge to his words. There has been an edge to all our communications recently. What he really means is, “It’s about fucking time.”

I don’t rest and we don’t chat. The restaurant is filling up. Half the tables are full. All the tables are full. We are bartenders. We are waiters. We are bus boys. We are receptionists. I have never been any of these things. I am overwhelmed.

We weren’t supposed to be this big. Not yet anyway. When Khai and I agreed to become business partners he had a twelve bed hostel, a cubby-hole sized restaurant and a staff of three. Less than a year later we have a 60 bed hostel, a restaurant with enough seating for every guest and a staff of ten. We have a new business partner too – a Taco Shack triumvirate.

The ballooning of our business happened because Imagine if came true.

Last summer we were sitting on the old Taco Shack patio; scheming. The place across the street had a spacious garden patio on a corner lot. Its potential was obvious, its waste shameful. “Imagine what we could do with that...”

My imagine was a few years off. Khai’s imagine, as always, was now.

At the time I couldn’t put any immediacy to Taco Shack plans because I still had Saudi Arabia to deal with. My investment money was out there in the desert, an inescapable trial. And what a bizarre trial it turned out to be.

I am in a desolate train station. The air is hot and heavy with dust and sand. I shift my weight knowing that it won’t bring comfort. The train is late and getting later. With every second that passes my worry increases. What if it doesn’t come at all? This train is special. It leads to a better life—a dream life. There are people in the station with me, good people, friends. I try to keep up with conversations and engage in their train station world, but my mind is fixed on those rails and the promise of where they lead. My friends aren’t going with me and I don’t want them to take my happiness personally, so I do my best to internalize hope, anxiety and the need to talk it out. The clock hand falls with an exhausted thump. Where is that goddamn train? 

For nine months the Taco Shack both fueled me and burned me out. There was a brief time midway through when I thought things were going to get easier. I was fully invested in the business and looking forward to saving up for future expansion. Then I got the email.

The place across the street with the patio and all that potential, our Imagine If, was available and an offer was on the table. It meant doubling my original investment and arriving in debt to the business. It meant that all the renovation would be done while I was still in Saudi unable to put my own stamp on my own future. I whispered caution while Khai bellowed, “Now!” I knew he was right. I wanted to bellow too. But…

It was so much money.

And I was so far away.

There is a joystick to my seemingly unpredictable life and it is always in my hands. I control the action. I move me. When we agreed to lease terms and began the expansion I handed the joystick to Khai. It wasn’t a happy choice. Logically I understood that the expansion needed to happen now. We couldn’t sit on that sizeable rent payment simply because I wanted to play architect too. But, the expansion was my chance to put a physical presence to our partnership. I had been telling people that I owned a hostel in Thailand, to see how it felt, to test its realness. No matter how many times I repeated it, it always felt like a loose tooth, wiggly and worrisome. I had invested everything, but that wasn’t enough. I needed some level of physical control in order to make owner feel real.

Khai finished the renovations a week before I was due to arrive. The pictures nearly burst me. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t swung a hammer or picked the paint. It didn’t matter that the soul of the place still worried me. My friend had built the greatest fort of all time and I needed to play.

I played until it hurt. And then I played some more.

I fall into bed. My feet are throbbing. I’ve worked fifteen hour days for more than a month and I’m still not used to the pace. Construction during the day; the waiter-busboy- bartender-receptionist shuffle at night—I feel ripped inside-out and hung out to dry. I lie on sandy sheets, staring into the dark, starving. I was too tired to stop at 7-11. I regret that now.

I crawl across the bed and open the mini-fridge. I feel around for the apples I’d nearly forgotten. I gnaw at the first like a horse being fed a sweet treat. I savor three more. I put the cores in a plastic bag and tie it up. The garbage can is across the room. I am not getting out of bed. I refuse. I slide the screen back and drop the apples outside. Sleep shuts me down. This is not rest; this is the machine repairing itself.

That’s how it was for what felt like a very long time. And then it all slowed down. In retrospect the slowdown was gradual, the predictable result of hiring a proper staff, gaining a new partner and practice. But, it didn’t feel gradual. One day I was sprinting, my heart hitting my sternum like hammer to gong, the next I was strutting, slightly bewildered by my sudden ease.

Our new partner’s name is Julie. Although she is new to you, she is not new to the story.

The version you know goes something like this…

Michael came to Koh Tao to visit his buddy Khai and see what was up with the hostel/taco joint he had seen on Facebook. Over the years they had both taken (sort of ) similar paths; stints teaching English, lots of backpacking and a magnetic pull towards Thailand. The visit wasn’t supposed to be anything major; a few nights and moving on. But Michael loved the hostel and listened intently to Khai’s ideas about the future and his need for the right kind of help. They shook hands and Taco Shack became a partnership.

But that is not where the story began.

 On his first trip to Thailand Khai met Julie. She invited him to Koh Tao, a place he had never heard of. They became great friends and years later when Khai decided to start a business he could think of no better place than the island Julie had shown him. His business flourished and he needed to find it a more permanent home. Coincidently, Julie was looking to close her shop in Mae Haad. Her shop became his restaurant and six months later Khai opened a hostel upstairs. He wanted more but he needed help. Julie was firmly entrenched in her family’s business and couldn’t be the partner he needed. Then fate showed up in the form of an old friend.

Michael came to Koh Tao to visit his buddy Khai... Etc Etc. A handshake. A partnership.

Imagine if came true! The business quadrupled in size and plans for the future were anything but small. Michael and Khai needed a third partner. Fate it seems was still hanging around. Julie became quite suddenly unentrenched from her family’s business. She waivered at first but the pull of potential was just too strong. The Taco Shack became a triumvirate!

In truth I don’t believe in fate. I believe that you make connections, pay attention and seize opportunities. But, I’m also a storyteller and the whole Khai wouldn’t be here without Julie, Michael wouldn’t be here without Khai, all for one and one for all, Taco Shack for life! narrative is easy to romanticize. And why not? We work well together. We’ve never had a discussion about defined roles because we’ve never had to. I’m not trying to paint over reality with a fairytale gloss, there are things, there are moments, but we have harmony and it shows. In a recent review we were described as being “like a little family.” That is tears to the eye stuff. I love that.  
I was spinning. I was wobbling. And now I can see. Things at the Taco Shack are humming along. I’ve swung a hammer and I’ve gotten dirty. Owner no longer feels wiggly and worrisome. The three of us are working well together and enjoying the free time our triumvirate provides. Those extra hours have made me realize that while I’ve been occupying space on Koh Tao, I haven’t really been living here. I need to get a life. I need to enjoy the spoils of the island, get myself a good group of friends, read, write and learn. I need to revel. And I need to whoop.

Those things will come. I just need to have the patience to absorb. And when I’ve done that, I’ll find something else to chase, it’s who I am. But I will be as close to content as I ever want to be. It will be my version of perfect; no longer spinning, no longer wobbling, picking up speed—reveling and whooping in that syncopated burst that comes in the rattle before repose.