Nights of Melrose

As a connoisseur of the Great American Layover, I am always looking for interesting places to stop on the way from Canada to Mexico. Last year, I was lucky enough to find a cheap ticket from Boring City, Canada to Los Angeles, and another cheap ticket from Los Angeles to Mexico City. And so, my latest American adventure began.

Although the United States is not a cheap country, I do find a certain adventurous joy in trying to find ways to travel it cheaply. Perhaps it’s because the country’s seamy underbelly is so utterly enthralling, and there’s no better excuse to come up and close with said underbelly than by doing America on the cheap – which for me mostly means riding public transit and eating gruesome quantities of fried food. Regardless, one crucial ingredient of a cheap LA trip was cheap accommodations. In that regard, I got more than I could ever hope for from my Melrose Flophouse. One of the weirdest Airbnbs I’ve ever encountered, this $25/night West Hollywood wonder came pre-sold with reviews from people who essentially described it as either the greatest or worst place ever, depending entirely on one’s perspective.

And indeed, after arriving at the waking nightmare that is LAX and wading through Welcome Traffic on an airport bus and an Uber, I discovered that the flophouse was all I dreamed of and more. I was warmly received by the host, a woman who appeared to be from mainland China and had limited English skills to match. We had a pleasant chat, and she told me how the flophouse business was more lucrative than her previous business ventures – Truly, living the American dream. Soon enough, I was escorted to my “room”, which was basically a converted tool shed. Compared to the longer-term accomodations offered by the establishment, however, my room was strictly VIP. My neighbours appeared to be sleeping on mattresses on the ground, with whatever privacy they had provided by hanging sheets. Along with the sheets, the common area was scattered with assorted junk, brickabrack and deteritus, although amidst it all, the bathrooms were freakishly clean.

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The Singular Frustration of Putting Your Underwear on Backwards

Sometimes I wear boxers, and sometimes I wear briefs. And sometimes, I wear boxer-briefs. Overall, I’m not too dogmatic about my underwear. When I was not yet an adult, I wore tightie whities as some sort of default, in the same way that so much of what we do at a young age seems to be merely by default. Later on, perhaps after being mocked for my tight white briefs by a sharp-tongued female, I started wearing more boxers. More recently, I have swung toward a combination of boxers, briefs and Mexican grandpa underwear. Now, I call them Mexican grandpa underwear because:

  1. I bought them in Mexico, and
  2. A Mexican person told me that they’re the type of underwear grandpas wear.

Left to my own inferences, I would have assumed they were male stripper underwear – The front part covers only the barest minimum, and the back covers scarcely more. By wearing them, I open myself up to all manner of mockery. And yet, I continue to wear them. Why? Because:

  1. On the not-infrequent occasions when I lack access to free or cheap laundry services, I will buy precious time before my next load of laundry by hand-washing a minimum number of shirts and pairs of underwear. Such revealing undergarments involve a lot less fabric, and are thus much quicker to wash by hand.
  2. I believe anyone who sees you in your underwear is already someone who has granted you enough confidence (and vice versa) that you have nothing to fear from their mockery.

I refer to these underwear as Mexican grandpa underwear because I first purchased them in Mexico, but I have no illusions about them being somehow specific to Mexican culture in the same way that mariachis or tequila are. I was later able to acquire a pair in Malaysia, so maybe these types of underwear are endemic to countries whose names start with M, or countries with spicy food.

One reason I value my Mexican grandpa underwear is because they so proudly display an enormous label directly above the junk area. “Here be junk!”, they may as well say, though they in fact provide free advertising for the underwear manufacturer. Mockable though it may be, it at least reduces the risk of putting your underwear on backwards, which is a serious problem that can afflict both boxers and briefs.

The experience of an accidental underwear reversal would not be nearly so vexing if many pairs did not come so agonizingly close to fitting. Unfortunately, some pairs are only capable of swinging both ways to the extent that you can semi-successfully pull them up before realizing that you are now the victim of an underwear death trap. It is a horribly restrictive feeling.

As an added layer of indignity, the mind wanders into unwanted places while being squeezed by an ass-backwards (literally!) pair. The convenient front flap becomes a back flap of questionable convenience when reversed, leaving one to contemplate the logistics of making full use of such an accommodation.

As with so many things in life, an underwear reversal is the type of situation where partial success is infinitely worse than no success at all. There may be a metaphor buried in there,  and a rather pessimistic one. And indeed, these may sound like the words of a defeatist, but if refusing to attempt to put on a pair of underwear backwards makes me a coward, then baby, I don’t want to be brave.



My A&B Sound Family

The late ’90s and early aughts were a different time. You had to be at home to receive a phone call. Climate change was merely a minor concern instead of an enormous existential threat. Gonorrhea was easily treatable with antibiotics. And Top 40 music was actually a lot worse than it is now, no matter what you may think. (No, really – I’d take Ariana Grande, Drake and Lil Nas X over Matchbox 20, Puff Daddy and “Smooth” any damn day of the week.)

Another difference is that people bought music on shiny discs at stores built from some combination of brick and mortar. And so it was that I, a lonely, depressed, autistic teenager, made my weekly-or-more pilgrimages to the local music store (which also sold books, for some reason), A&B Sound. With a little bit of allowance and nothing better to do, I would wander over from my mom’s apartment to purchase bargain classical CDs, along with a little bit of hip-hop, and clearance Penguin Classics books. The combination of Shostakovich and Sophocles did wonders for my painfully cultivated self-image as a young intellectual who didn’t have many friends because I was, like, totally too deep for people. But more than that, it gave me an improbable feeling of community.

With the trauma of my parents’ fresh separation, going to a different school from my friends and almost getting expelled, and the overall toxic brew of autism, isolation and teenage hormones, I badly needed something to hold onto. Partly I found that through retail therapy – stretching out my allowance money to accumulate almost a thousand CDs, some of which I never listened to, and hundreds of books, the vast majority of which I never read. In retrospect, it was not an ideal method for filling the great black emptiness of my soul, speaking economically, environmentally, or psychospiritually. But the ragtag assortment of regular staff I interacted with during my visits made me feel, however loosely, like a member of my family. Here are the ones I remember:


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Peeing Makes Me Think I’m Dreaming

Dreams are a perfect example of what utterly exhausted cliches we all are. We seem to have so many of the same recurring dreams – being late for an exam, having all our teeth fall out, or finding ourselves in bed with a sexy hippopotamus. And as an avid enthusiast of drinking too much water before bed, I have had ample experience with the great shared human experience of pee-related dreams.

Some may involve being immersed in water, or some other thinly disguised metaphor for urination, but as far as I can recall, most of them just involve me peeing – I am nothing if not literal-minded. I pee, and pee, and pee some more, and the peeing never stops until I pee for real. (And if you’re wondering whether these dreams produce real world, uh, manifestations, I’m proud to say that they don’t.) I am an incredibly deep sleeper, which is both a blessing and a curse; in this case, it means that my body can remain asleep for impressive periods of time with a painfully overfilled bladder.

I’m now a little more careful with my fluid intake before bed – and I’ve had to factor in my body’s freakishly long turnaround time between the intake of water and the output of water byproduct. But I believe I’ve already endured so many of these prolonged R.E.M. pee fantasies that I have finally crossed the point of no return. That is – I’ve peed so much in dreams that peeing in real life will now sometimes feel like a dream.

It seems to happen most often at rows of urinals in public washrooms, at places like restaurants or airports. I may find myself outside with an urgent need to relieve myself, and the built-up discomfort will invoke memories of so many pee dreams from my past. At the precise moment that the sweet release begins, I will be overcome by an unreal feeling, as if I’m not quite sure whether I’m awake or dreaming. The dissipation of such profound discomfort should be enjoyable, but in this context it somehow becomes unnerving.

I’ve recently begun to entertain, more and more seriously, the idea what we are living in a simulation. There are so many nagging, unanswered questions about life that can be plausibly answered with the hypothesis that we are all just variables being endlessly tweaked and re-run inside an alien supercomputer. If the simulation is now revealing itself to me through pee-related glitching – well, at least the simulation has a sense of humour. And if nothing else, every trip to an airport urinal can be a reminder to maintain some degree of detached bemusement and not take all of this life stuff too seriously.

Notes for a Memoir – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Chapter 6: Scared Shitless – My First Six Months Abroad – Arriving overdressed and underprepared in the Philippines. Being young and therefore stupid, and thinking that everything new is automatically awesome, and that all attention is welcome. The beginning of my brief eight-year period when I believed that karaoke is the single greatest activity that a human being can participate in. Being utterly helpless for the first few weeks, and luckily being doted on endlessly by my host organization. Convincing my colleague to take me to the notorious Smoky Mountain housing project, where my presence was not entirely welcome; not yet being fully aware of the moral dubiousness of slum tourism. Beginning an epic war of attrition against my unwanted collagen surplus, with plenty of help from alcohol and the tropical sun.

Chapter 7: Becoming A Shithead – As I become less helpless, so do I become less likeable. Discovering the joys of going out every single night, overcompensating for my former pretentious hyper-intellectualism with desperate hyper-hedonism. Trying and failing to dance. Metrowalk and Tomas Morato Avenue. Becoming slightly less confused and slightly terrified by women.

Chapter 8: Ninh Binh – Leaving Manila and ending up in the middle of nowhere in Vietnam, surrounded by rice wine, dog meat, and people standing inappropriately close. Realizing that my Philippine culture shock wasn’t even real culture shock. Isolation, gradual descent into madness, and the brutality of the northern Vietnamese summer. John, Kate, and how I managed to only go half-mad in Ninh Binh. Learning Vietnamese, somehow. Bicycling everywhere and getting very sweaty. Crazy Hương and the gentle sadness of Hằng.

Crazy 9: Haiphong City – Replacing the spritual and physical assault of Ninh Binh with a full year of gentle boredom and the best seafood I’ve had in my whole damn life. Navy Beer, the greatest restaurant in the world. Keeping the company of the the substandard rascals who are the Haiphong expat community. My mysterious mini-stroke. My highly offensive local translator/liaison officer, and his multitudinous layers of reprehensibility. Power cuts, summer heat, more sweating. Doomed medium-distance romance with an enchanting Filipina expat in Hanoi.

Chapter 10: Back to Manila – Becoming a digital nomad in order to return to my favourite chaotic Asian megalopolis, for some reason. Cultivating my culinary and musical talents in a failed effort to be slightly less of a shithead. First glimmers of attempted adulting. Hanging out with Tyler, the womanizing professional poker player who looks like Ryan Gosling, and looking quite a bit less attractive when standing next to him. My long, awkwardly ambiguous “relationship” with D. Having my gay landlord attempt to lure me into a gay orgy due to his (not uncommon) misconception that I am a closeted gay man.

Chapter 11: Back to Manila, But This Time A Different Condo: A study in the effects of extremely polluted air on an extremely allergic body. Being the sickest I’ve ever been, as an adult, so far, and how it helped me fall in love with SpongeBob SquarePants. Myanmar, Bangkok, and my final schism with D.

Chapter 12: Because I Hate Being Happy, I Moved to Davao City – If it ain’t broke, by all means, do fix it. Leaving my comfortable (albeit highly polluted) life in Manila to begin anew in Davao City, the durian-scented land of death squads. Civic pride in extrajudicial killings. Accidentally getting dogs. Isolation, frustration, and steadily amassed regrets. Eating durian all day, everyday. Regularly drinking palm wine at 8 AM on a coconut plantation.  The slow death spiral of my uncomfortably mismatched friendship with C. Life in a lower-middle-income neighbourhood without fully paved roads. My sweet old neighbours, who shed literal tears when I moved away, for some reason – I don’t know if they’re still alive? Food was good!

Continued in Part 3

An Amazing Radish

It was an amazing radish. Henry stared at it, transfixed. Its beauty sparkled in his eyes like a loose sack of doorknobs.

The pain throbbed in his extremities like an intoxicated goose. With every ounce of his being, he fixated himself on the radish, trying to distract himself from the pain. But although he felt the soothing effects of that vision of purest root vegetable perfection, it wasnt enough to fully ease the pain. Henry was dying, and his body knew it.

The decay had been spreading noticeably over the last few months. Activities that were once merely uncomfortable had become excruciating. Henry took comfort in the radish, but like an addict, he kept needing a stronger radish fix, more and more frequently. His eyes were like an egg, with each eye half an egg. It felt like his entire life had become an endless procession of radish-gazing sessions, always transfixed by the beauty of the radish, but with diminishing returns. Even the most perfect, exquisitely formed radish was not enough to distract him from the constant spread of decay. His nose had nostrils.

And yet, intellectually, brushing aside the distractions of the pain, Henry knew that the radish he was looking at now was truly remarkable. He yearned for a simpler time, when such a flawless radish would have served as an object of chaste contemplation, instead of an imperfect distraction from the living hell that had become his daily life. The game of hockey is high in Vitamin K.

Suddenly, he felt a surge of self-loathing, creeping down his spine from the base of his neck. He roughly grasped the radish, flinging the refrigerator door open and thrusting the radish brusquely into the crisper. The pain now regained his full, uninterrupted focus, undisturbed by the self-deluding distractions of the radish. Soon his agony was so vivid and perfectly formed that he felt a bitter appreciation for its gruesome exquisiteness. Like a combatant yielding to a worthy competitor in reluctant admiration, he slumped down on the ground and let the pain overwhelm him.

He got up, fried an egg, and ate it. Good morning.

Initial Thoughts on the Maldives

So, it’s my third full day in the Maldives. And one of the most interesting things about going to the Maldives is the reactions you get when you’re telling people you’re going to the Maldives. Here they are, ranked from most to least frequent, and with my own responses:

  1. “Maldives! Oh em gee, you’re so lucky – that’s my dream destination!” – Well, in principle I recognize that I am lucky, but mostly I’m just dead inside. How I wish I could feel the kind of joy that you seem to feel – even vicariously! Please weep for me.
  2. “Maldives! You need to send me pictures!” – Well, maybe later…
  3. “Maldives! Isn’t that, like, where movie stars go?” – Well, yeah but not only, not anymore…
  4. “Maldives? Where’s that?” – Well, basically south of India…
  5. “Maldives! You must be rich!” – Well, not exactly, because…

In the last few years the Maldivian government has moved beyond the ultra-deluxe private island resort market and begun allowing tourist development on local islands. It’s still not a cheap place to travel – the logistics of providing anything close to western amenities in a remote archipelago of tiny islands remain daunting. And this is still a country that emphatically does not cater to the 21-year old Party Hostel Banana Pancake Gap Year Finding-Yourself Party Party Party Party Party Party demographic (a group for which I clearly have the utmost affection). So, if you can’t afford the debauchery of the private islands, where apparently anything goes; if hate alcohol and nightlife as much as I do, and love being on a traditional island where strict Islamic values prevail; and if don’t mind skimping on some frills like formal transportation, here’s how you can survive, if not thrive, in the Maldives on a Bloggerbels Cheapo budget:

    1. Pick an island that’s big enough to have a few local food options – Those tourist restaurants can be scary expensive. (Or, the same prices as in Canada, which is basically the same thing.)
    2. Pick an island with enough beaches that you don’t need to get on a boat everytime you want to go for a swim.(I chose the agricultural island of Thoddoo – one of the “biggest” islands in the country at about 3 kilometres across – for both of those reasons. Also, because they’re known for growing delicious papayas! Also, because I hoped it was far enough from the airport to not yet be totally inundated with mass tourism – but I only partially succeeded on the last point…)
    3. Instead of taking a speedboat like all sane people do, ride the much slower midnight fruit transport ferry from the capital of Male. Actually, after waiting for a while at an incredibly dodgy pier, one of the boatmen informed me that the boat was in fact leaving at 5 AM, and that I should really sleep on board until then so that nobody robs me. After mulling over whether I should accept a strange man’s invitation onto an unlit boat, I finally decided to be touched by his concern. However, I still had considerable difficulty hopping onto a gently swaying, fairly tall fruit transport without the benefit of a ladder. (Visions of my laptop falling into the Indian ocean!) Eventually I got onboard, had a surprisingly comfortable sleep on a floor mat as the boat rocked back and forth, woke up both refreshed and alive, and finally made it to the island by 10:30 AM.
    4. Go to a resort’s Facebook page and engage in an endlessly drawn-out Messenger conversation to get a better-than-listed deal on a room. I managed to snag an air-conditioned room with breakfast included for one week at $300 US, cash. Unfortunately, this is a very good deal for Maldives. And very importantly, and unusually, the hotel also has a public kitchen!
    5. Breakfast: Free hotel breakfast, but not until after going to the beach to buy fresh fish from a fisherman.Lunch: Cook attempted Maldivian fish curry with rice in the shared kitchen. Ingredients: Curry powder, coconut milk, onions, garlic, chillies. With most vegetables costing more than fish in this land-starved, marine life-rich country, you’d better really love eating fish… And I do!Dinner: A whole lot of tasty snacks and hot black tea at the local tea houses, which are exclusively patronized by men, most of whom seem to be Bangladeshi workers. (Although if you’re a woman, hopefully you won’t get anything worse than a whole lot of attention if you do go… I understand that they crack down hard on crimes against tourists here.) Even the various samosas and curry puffs are filled with fish – and I ain’t complaining!
    6. Of course, the worst way to save money in Maldives is to not go anywhere. The local beach is nice, but you do need to shell out a few USD to visit deserted islands, swim with the manta rays, and all that stuff – That is, after all, largely the purpose of being here.

Oh, and I almost forgot – how is it? Well, the beaches on Thoddoo would be considered very good, but not the very best, by the standards of the Philippines – a country which is, needless to say, much cheaper to travel. I’ll reserve full judgment until I go on a boat tour, which will be in a few days. It’s quite possible that the Maldives still has the Philippines beat in the marine life department, and there’s only one way to find out. Either way, however, it’s definitely a pleasant place with a unique culture, and I love observing local life – I’m fascinated to see how people live in a place that is so remote and where land is so incredibly scarce. Local people are a bit hard to figure out, but I’m working on it – I enjoy seeing their reactions when I greet them on my walks, which range from friendly to bewildered to totally deadpan.

And did you think I was joking about not showing any pictures? Nope – It wouldn’t be fair to do that before my island-hopping trips.

100 Reasons Mexico is the Greatest Country on Earth – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

    1. Fresh fruits and vegetables all year around! Oranges cheap enough for you to affordably make your own juice!
    2. The Mexico City Metro – In spite of all of its (considerable!) maintenance issues, it’s one of the largest metro networks in the world, and for 5 pesos ($0.25) US you can go pretty much anywhere you want within the city centre
    3. The Cineteca Nacional, an art and foreign cinema multiplex(!) in Mexico City, with 10(!!!) screens showing mostly non-commercial films, plus book stores, cafes, and a lot of really cool people
    4. Eating avocados everyday without feeling like a pretentious white person
    5. 20 peso ($1 US) chamber music recitals at the gorgeous Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, across from the equally lovely Alameda Central park
    6. Museums, so many museums – many of them housed in gorgeous old Spanish colonial buildings
    7. Cactus (cactuses? cacti?)
    8. Eating chili-and-lime flavoured crickets on the sidewalk in Puebla or Oaxaca – A handful a year are plenty for me, but I’m still glad to have them around!
    9. The fairly solid non-alcoholic options at most Mexican bars (for a teetotaler like me) – Clamato with spicy seasoning hits the spot if you don’t mind smelling like clams while trying to impress women, or there’s always a steady supply of sparkling water
    10. If you dance really, really badly (which I do), nobody seems to mind very much
    11. An entire karaoke bar full of drunk locals all belting out “Ahora Te Puedes Marchar” by Luis Miguel in unison
    12. Mole
    13. Widespread acceptance of international credit cards, even in midrange establishments
    14. Wonderful-sounding words and place names that start with “ch” – Churros, chimichanga, Chabacano, Chilpancingo
    15. Pollo asado
    16. Reasonably generous immigration policies
    17. Being able to see two dudes making out in random public places without anyone giving a shit (at least in Mexico City)
    18. The widespread presence of signs like this one (“In this establishment we do not discriminate against anyone for reasons of race, religion, sexual orientation, physical or socioeconomic condition, or for any other reason. But we do demand respect for this business and those who frequent it.”)

    19. General lack of burning hatred within the hearts of the local people
    20. The way people sing when they talk
    21. Well-lit public streets at night (at least within major cities)
    22. People’s – or at least, middle-class young people’s – nearly total lack of interest in religion
    23. I bought the most insanely durable pair of earbuds in my life for 25 pesos ($1.25 US) from a sidewalk vendor near the market in Merida. Generally, the way I mistreat my earbuds, I’ll lose sound in at least one side within two months, no matter how much I paid for them. As far as I can tell, this $1.25 special will never, ever die. And they sound pretty good, too!
    24. People’s surprisingly intense love of art and culture, and their overall intellectual curiousity
    25. Mexican men in cowboy hats look way cooler than white guys in cowboy hats
    26. All those manly-sounding men’s names – Luis, Jorge, Miguel, Manuel
    27. All those classy, sexy-ass women’s names – Daniela, Fernanda, Alejandra
    28. Fairly solid Internet speeds and reliability
    29. People adding -ito to every noun to make it more polite, like asking for azucarito (sugar) for your cafecito (coffee). To foreign ears, it doesn’t sound any more polite, just adorable.

Frank Throws Things That Are Food and Not Food

Frank is throwing things with all hands, all two. His hands are moving so fast, moving so fast that they’re really fast. After a day constrained by socks, all socked in by his socks, he surges to life. The throwing makes him surge. It makes him surge and makes him throw things. Things are flying through the air, hitting things. Some of the things being thrown are food; others things being thrown aren’t food. Some of the things having things thrown at them are food; others aren’t food.

Frank lets out a primal scream, raw and ragged, as his hands move in a throwing motion, moving as if they are throwing things, because they are. His hands are like things, too – Things that throw things. He’s dripping sweat, sweat dripping all down his completely naked body, wearing nothing – not even socks. His feet are naked too, because they’re not wearing socks. Frank is throwing things.

Eventually, Frank has thrown all the things. All thing-throwing possibilities are exhausted. His screams gradually turn into sobs, his sobs  into whimpers. Soon, his whimpers will become sniffles, then only silence. He picks up a few things and tries to throw them again, but they’ve already been thrown – Once thrown, a thrown thing can’t really be a thing to throw again. It has always been this way.

Frank gazes at the mess of thrown things strewn across the floor – some of them food, some of them not food and therefore not food. It is hopeless, it is futile, it is a colossal and extravagant waste. But as long as he has arms that can throw things, he will continue to throw things – some at other things, some at nothing; at no things, no things whatsoever. He will continue until his arms can throw no more, and once they cannot throw, he will throw his arms away, as well. But that is a long way away, in some unseen future. For now, Frank has thrown much, and in the future he will throw much more.

Tomorrow, Frank will put his socks back on.

100 Reasons Mexico is the Greatest Country on Earth – Part 1

With absolutely no offense intended towards countries #2 through 195… (Except for maybe numbers 190-195, because damn, they must be really terrible places.)

    1. In its Spanish form, the name “México” is fun to both say and write
    2. Being able to choose between five kinds of salsa for your tacos. My favorite: habanero en escabeche!
    3. Mexican guitar gods hopping onto public transit to give amazing mini-concerts of Mexican folk music – or, if you’re really lucky, electric blues – in exchange for a few pesos
    4. People in restaurants routinely saying “Buen provecho” (Bon appetit) to complete strangers
    5. Wide open spaces, out on the road without a soul in sight
    6. Cities that are lively but not overcrowded
    7. Smiles, so many smiles
    8. Also a lot of laughter
    9. Totally awesome-sounding indigenous place names. You’ve got Xochimilco and the Plaza of Popocatepetl in Mexico City, Xcaret (pronounced “Shkaret”) and Tixkokob in Yucatan state
    10. A lot of the states have amazing names, too: Hidalgo, Durango, Michoacan, Aguascalientes, Sinaloa, Guanajuato…
    11. Having no choice but to spend your day practicing and improving your Spanish with the local people on the street, and then being able to turn off your brain and speak English at the end of the day with your fancy local friends
    12. Almost all of the music that you’ll hear everywhere (except for reggaeton). Almost everything is in Spanish, almost none of it is the western pop you’d hear in other countries, and almost all of it is awesome (except for reggaeton).
    13. Cheese! I mean real, good, almost-European-quality cheese…
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