Philippines and Japan 2016

One moment I find myself waiting for a train in the dark with snow falling and only 18 degrees to keep me company and another moment, I find myself with a surplus of sun and 87 degrees, waking up from a nap to the sounds of 25 five-year olds singing songs in Tagalog while a man accompanies on guitar.

I’m in a bedroom above a nursery school and the children are in a small covered courtyard of a Montessori pre-school that serves 100 children. The school is owned by Pam’s (my Filipina lady) mother. We’re in Los Baños which is a town located about an hour southeast of Manila in the Philippines. The school and residence are down a small street off a busy street that, in Southeast Asian fashion, is more densely saturated with shops than the busiest of malls. You will literally miss one of these shops if you blink as you walk by, even at a sad man’s pace.

Down Pam’s street, the one she moved to when she was 16, the utility wires above look like an angry pile of black spaghetti running from pole to pole, with a stray noodle hanging down to the ground here and there. Everywhere you look, there are people who are busy merely existing. I look at many of these ambling citizens and have no idea what they do and it thrills me. America is full of people that love to put on a coat of purpose before they leave their house but not here. Folks here have clearly mastered the art of chilling. But like agents of The Matrix that morph into a random person from out of nowhere to complete a task, a random person that appears to be part of the generic field of citizenry will come to life as if taken control by an invisible agent, grab a wheel barrow, shovel some earthly matter into it and carry it away to a place that hopefully has use for it.

So this is what I love about travel in the modern age, quickly being transported from one environment to a very different one.

But this does not stop me from detesting the whole travel process…

The babies. A human very early in its development seated nine rows away cries for 10 of the 17 hours on the plane bound for Hong Kong (but crying that is spread out over the entire journey so the little turd may have as well cried inside my brain for the rest of my life).

The jetlag. Ironically, I was watching the new James Bond film Spectre and was reminded of the most ludicrous element of spy films. No one ever gets jetlag. I adore the way a character will be in a chase in St. Petersburg, crash into a cop car, climb out of a flaming auto wreck, lay out a couple local police chumps with some karate chops, sneak onto an airplane through the landing gear as it’s taking off, manage to get a seat in first class, fly to Hawaii, and then trot off the plane like they spent a weekend in the most exclusive European spa.

The airplane farts. Even if you or anyone in the three-seat radius of you did not have any of their own (unlikely), you always end up smelling like a barrel of airplane farts by the journey’s end.

This trip was unique due to having a “lady in tow” or more accurately expressed, “a special lady in tow”. Either way, it was great to do my yearly long sojourn with Pam, to share in her excitement as we headed to the Philippines for two weeks so we could spend time with her mother and sister (and eventually her extended family at a reunion). At the end of the two weeks, Pam would return to Boston and I would carry onto Japan for 11 days and then back to the Philippines for nine more days where I would visit a remote group of islands called Batanes.

For now I was slowly acclimating myself to my new sultry surroundings and time zone which was all greatly glorified by the casual but effective hospitality of Pam’s mother and housekeeper, Susan, whose cooking awoke parts of me I knew not existed.

On the second day, Pam and I took an odd-looking vehicle called a “jeepney” that looked like a bus to the base of the nearby modest mountain named Mount Makiling. Makiling is located on the campus of University of Philippines Los Baños, Pam’s alma mater just a 15-minute walk from her house.

Mount Makiling’s Mud Spring never knew it would play a part in the most vicious picture ever taken…
…or most tender.

These jeepneys I mentioned are everywhere. They look like American jeeps but are extended with bench seating and are boarded in the rear. They are often shiny and colorful with entertaining lights and designs. The sides are open, allowing passengers to inhale generous amounts of diesel fumes and other pollution lingering about. When you take your seat, you pass your money down the line until it reaches the driver who sits in a cockpit riddled with more blind spots than an advanced Glaucoma patient. He (that’s right, I only saw male drivers – ladies are too smart to do this job) then counts your change and hands it back to you while driving.

The grill on this jeepney is precious.

That afternoon, Pam’s mother drove us to a hot spring called Laguna Springs. The spring itself was at one corner of a large pool surrounded by a covered eating area and hotel. One great feature of the spring and pool was that it was filled with small tilapia that, if you remained still, would come up to you and nibble at your legs and feet. I believe they were feeding on dead skin cells which makes me want to never eat tilapia again unless it was guaranteed that the tilapias were feeding on legs as sexy as mine (unlikely).

The other bold component of Laguna Springs was that at the other end, where the spring water exited into a massive lake, there was an area where two contradictory things happened: 1) you could receive a massage and body wash, and 2) children swam. Now, when I agreed to a massage, I thought it would be performed by a lady in a room and not involving a wash but instead, I got placed on a ledge next to the water, seven feet from playing and swimming children. Looking for my masseuse, I turned my attention to the lifeguard chair where a young man was exiting his station and walking over to me. Good Lord. He came over and proceeded to not only massage me in front of children but wash me as if I were an impudent toddler.

Things got real hectic when he laid me down on my stomach, pulled my shorts down to the point that I looked like a veteran plumber and washed my upper ass. What kind of lifeguard is this?! He was supposed to guarding my life and up until now, he only brought danger into my life. And what were these poor Filipino children thinking…“Damn white people, stop coming to our country and showing us your butts!”

Hungry, naughty tilapia feasting on my legs (circled in yellow).

The next day, Pam, her mother, and I were driven to Caliraya by Pam’s mother’s driver/employee, Marlon. The first order of business was eating an epic meal at a restaurant named Halo Halo. We all sampled their signature dessert drink which combined coconut, ice cream, beans, and various fruits that were previously fried in sugar. It was complex but memorable.

A weird clock I saw in Caliraya. I’ve never seen a clock created with the purpose of promoting one show.

From there we drove up a small mountain to a man-made lake and hired a boat with a driver for an hour. At the other end of the lake was an odd, gaudy, decaying compound that could have been a beauty but instead came off as the grounds of a drug lord with mediocre taste that was imprisoned four years ago and lost all of his friends and family. I was told the property was private and owned by an old general. That said, it came as a neat surprise when we were allowed to land our boat on their dock and walk around since the general was elsewhere.

Please take note of the tasteful, plastic, naked ladies.
The REAL tasteful ladies (not made of plastic either).

On our way back, Pam and I were dropped off at a railroad crossing for a rail line that was narrow and so decrepit looking I assumed it was abandoned. Apparently, trains still ran a couple times a day here. While the trains were not running, young men pushed very simple trolleys that were essentially a wooden bench on wheels along the tracks with a few passengers on them for small money. Pam and I boarded one and were pushed along for about a mile.

Boarding the train trolley bound for Tender Town.

As we glided along, we were flanked by tiny hovels populated by happy squatters that would smile and wave at us. When a trolley came the other way, the trolley with fewer passengers would stop and the driver would lift the trolley off the tracks so the other could pass. At one point, the trolley paused over a very narrow bridge that took us over a 30-foot deep gorge giving us a wonderful Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom mine cart sensation.

I still couldn’t get over the fact a real train traveled on this line and sincerely hoped our trolley driver had mastered the current train schedule as we would have fared poorly in a collision. I was also amazed by the proximity of the smiling squatters.


A quick aside, being in the Philippines reminded me of a phenomenon that seems to exist in the world. The more “worlds” your country has, the more barking dogs it seems to have.  So a Third World country has more dogs than a First World country. I’m not sure how many worlds the Philippines has but if you were to base its world status on barking dogs alone, it would have to be classified as a Sixth World country. If the Philippines is truly a Second World country, then perhaps we are witnessing a potent anomaly.

Correction: it should read “hundreds of thousands” in the parentheses.

That night, Pam’s sister Nikki came to the house with her three daughters Bea, Kiara, and Siri. Also in their group was their driver Jun and nanny Belle. The next morning we all boarded Nikki’s small box truck that had been divinely converted into a sort of camper/travel van and headed to a family reunion. We first made a stop at the recent burial site of Pam’s father. He passed away shortly after the first date Pam and I had. Pam spent three weeks with her father towards and after the end. Although we had only one date, Pam continued to text me during that time, searching for some comical, witty banter that would help take her mind off her sorrows. There was a second date after she returned so my banter must have been useful.

Nikki’s ride or the “Filipino Mystery Machine”.

The remainder of the trip made me understand why so many people in the Philippines hired drivers. The traffic we drove through was not only thicker than Burt Reynold’s mustache, it was wilder than Friedrich Nietzsche’s mustache. Every vehicle you can imagine that has wheels was dodging in and out with prehistoric disorganization. Driving here requires nerves of steel-coated diamonds, a stern rejection of fatigue, and the patience of an inner city mother.

Burt Reynold’s beauty.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s wild glory.

Once we were at the reunion, we ate like spoiled conquerors and I met a myriad of uncles, aunts, and cousins. When the eating finished, the ladies literally did a Zumba class (please savor the video proof).


That night we drove back in our Autobot leisure vehicle to Nikki’s house. Again we tasted legendary traffic. It was so bad, my bladder near burst in response to all the water and beer I consumed earlier. Nikki actually gave me their emergency plastic pee bottle “For Men” but when I looked around and saw Pam, Nikki, Nikki’s daughters, I just couldn’t pull the proverbial pee trigger. We eventually pulled into a gas station and I soon experienced a euphoria that is better than eating dark chocolate while receiving a promotion.

With the manners of a groomed British gentleman and the haircut of an Asian warrior, Nikki’s husband Jake made his introduction to me to me at his home. Nikki, Jake, the three little ladies, and their 15-year old son Diego lived in a recently built cozy affair located above their acupuncture office. A couple hours later, I was sharing a snug bedroom with Diego, Pam’s mother, and Pam. Because life is often perfect, I found myself falling asleep to the sounds of Diego practicing his card tricks four feet away and late into the night.

In the morning, we boarded the Mystery Machine and were dropped at the airport. An hour later, we touched down in the island of Palawan. A short van ride brought us to our hotel for the next three nights: Acacia Tree. In search of a beach, Pam, Diego, and I took the first of many “tricycle” rides to “Pristine Beach”. Tricycles are flimsy, often rusting metal carriages attached to the side of a motorcycle. They’re tiny, uncomfortable and full of an undeniable and inexpensive Third World flavor. And by the way, Pristine Beach, was a name void of accuracy. The beach offered little more than smoking, Speedo-clad European filth.

The back of a racy tricycle. And yes, I’m unbelievably white.

That evening, all of us toured through some mangrove forest in small paddle boats to view fireflies. Due to the surroundings, breezes, darkness, and horny insects, Pam and I did our very best to sneak in a few cuddles. Not even our smart-ass tour guide picked up on our hidden arts of G-rated affection.

The next morning we started in on a three-island tour that involved snorkeling, swimming, and diving off those really fun, high, bouncy diving boards that seem to not exist anymore in the US due to our country’s desire to suck the life out of life. As great as the fish watching was, I was more awed by the solitary, tall, pickled, smoking, slightly over-sunned, drastically over-partied white guy in a Speedo that was often seen moving through each island with a subtle lack of purpose and decency. If yesterday’s “Pristine Beach” ever decided to print up its own marketing literature, this beast would have been on every page. Usually such creatures travel in groups since at some point, one of them will need to bum a light off the other. You can imagine my excitement when I spotted this lone wolf.

In your mind, try to envision that nasty Speedo guy stumbling around the palm trees.

The other highlight of the trip was little 2 ½ year-old Siri’s fondness of me. She was told to call me “Tito Chris” (Uncle Chris) but all she could get out was “‘to ‘tiss”. Every time I came within a 20-foot radius of this splendid little squirrel, all I would here is “’to ‘ tiss!! ‘to ‘tiss!!”

“What can I tell you?” Jake said. “Siri likes white boys. She has a real colonial mentality.”

Little Siri…complete with Neil Diamond’s early 80′s hairdo.

The next day’s tour brought us to an underground river that was full of darkness and dropping bat shit. The other activity we enjoyed was zip lining off a high point in the jungle over a stunning bay. It ended with an absolutely unwarned, abrupt, spine-crushing stop.

A fraction of a moment before spine damage.
Entrance to the Underwater River.

After everyone went to sleep, Jake and I enjoyed a beer in the open-aired lobby/bar area. Thirty minutes later, a tall, thinner, kind of handsome, more arrogant version of Thor arrived with two ladies in a tricycle. After unsuccessfully trying to convince the driver it was okay to pay in Taiwanese currency, he asked us for change in a demanding tone. We turned Thor down, forcing him to collect the fare from his drunken broads. To save face, he picked up the black feral hotel cat and cuddled and kissed it while he smoked a cigarette under a leftover Valentine’s Day decoration that simply said “LOVE” in giant letters. After squeezing out every last drop of love from kitty and probably contracting gonorrhea of the face, he walked over to the pool, removed all of his clothes and skinny-dipped like a 70’s tennis club pro.

Sadly I don’t have a picture of Thor but hopefully this shot of Palawan locals riding on top of a bus will ease your pain.

A couple days later, back in Los Baños, Pam and I decided to climb Mount Makiling with her cousin Chris. The 1100-meter peak stood watch over the town and was as much a part of the local scenery as the traffic. We met our guide Henry who was to lead us on our eight-kilometer campaign of pleasure to the peak.  The initial part of our ascent was on road that was slowly being redone. It was interesting to note the techniques being employed by the workers since they had far less money and resources than a comparable American construction crew. For example, the tar that was used to seal the concrete joints was heated over a small wood fire and then gently poured by hand from a bucket into the joints that were cleaned with a small broom made from some sort of plant stalks.  In the US, I’m sure there’s some machine that cleans the surface and then accurately applies hot tar that was heated within the machine itself, all in a ¼ of the time.

A little further on, we came upon some extremely rudimentary shops and a village. Henry told me that the children here had to wake up at 2AM so they could make the long walk to school in time. Incredible.

Henry was one of seven rangers that watched over Makiling and its protected lands. One of their duties was to report illegal logging which, at first, I thought this would be petty, disorganized crime. Then I thought of the countless roadside furniture dealers selling impressive wooden pieces and realized this activity may be larger in scale. I listened as Henry described how the loggers, armed with guns, would have someone on lookout further down the mountain while they cut down trees.

What really chilled me was the story he shared of his close forest ranger friend who was about to testify against some illegal loggers but was shot to death before he had the opportunity. It was sad and strange when Henry even knew the caliber gun (a .45) that killed his friend. This illegal logging was something that clearly involved powerful people.

We made it to the top in three hours and 45 minutes but not before dodging poisonous, rash-inducing plants and skanky leeches. I removed three or four from my shoes but the guide found at least 15 on his body. As Henry went first on the trail, he inadvertently gathered the lion’s share of these little bastards on himself. For this fact alone he earned his pay.

Hiking Makiling…
…more Makiling…
…I swear this is the last one.
Oh boy.

The next day Pam’s sister Nikki arrived in Los Baños. Nikki, Pam, cousin Chris, and I drove an hour to the town of Pagsanjan with the desire of “shooting the rapids”. This involved being paddled up the Pagsanjan River in two boats that were each manned by two guides. The guides paddled, dragged, and pushed the boat up river which often turned into mild rapids and finished at a laguna where a large waterfall thundered into the water. Here we boarded a bamboo raft that was slowly guided through the falls where we were pounded like Rocky in his first fight with Clubber Lang.

Shooting those darn rapids.

On the way up and down, the guides would swing a leg out of the boat to the right or left and somehow push off an irregularly-shaped rock that passed by with admirable timing and athleticism. The other performance they gave was one in acting. I was warned beforehand that they might put on a show of fatigue and desperation in hopes of earning more tips. Sure enough, the guide in the back moaned like an unsuccessful whore which is ironic since at one point he exclaimed, in Tagalog and to no one in particular, “Your mother is a whore!”

To the left of my head (which is not nearly as bald as it looks in this damn picture) is the waterfal we got pounded under.

For lunch, we stopped at the same restaurant from last week, Halo-Halo. Eating here reminded me of how this trip contained a constant effort of trying to find a way of offsetting the unbelievable amounts of not just meat but fatty, fried meats. So whenever a group of us ordered multiple plates to share, I became the one who, in efforts to bring balance to the food force, ordered a vegetable dish. In the US, if you order a dish under the heading of “Vegetable”, you can expect to have vegetables and only vegetables in that dish. However, no matter what vegetable dish you order in the Philippines, they love to sneak in pork. The Philippines loves pork. They love it so much they will eat every part of it. I have eaten a pig’s intestines, feet, and face in the past week alone. And they will not tell you that there is pork in the “vegetable” dish; it’s up to you to assume its presence. The only place I have not found pork here is inside coconuts but I’m sure the nearby agricultural institute is working hard to resolve this alarming trend.

And oh, during the drive home, we stopped to pose for pictures with wooden sculptures of Iron Man and Thor (the real Thor…not the crappy, feral cat-kissing Thor from Palawan).

And we also rode the Los Baños Express again!


Another truth of this wonderful country that finally became clear to me was the Philippines is one of the best countries in the world for English-speaking Westerners to visit. It has all the vibrance that strikes a westerner as a continuous bombardment of oddities on the senses but it also has a population that speak better English than any other non-English-speaking country I have ever been to. The US and the Philippines also have two religions in common: that of Catholicism and that of basketball. Basketball is all over the television. It has more time on TV than repeat episodes of Friends. I found myself in the remotest of villages and still I would find a basketball court.

That night, Marlon drove Pam, Pam’s mother, cousin Chris, and I to Aunt Odette’s home in the posh neighborhood of West Grove. Once again, I was surrounded by Pam’s extended family. At one point, Pam’s aunt Angela challenged me to eat the mind-blowing delicacy known as “balut”. Balut is simply a duck embryo you eat in a style of your choosing. Some like to suck the yolk out and then eat the duck embryo afterwards but either way, I was going to stand firm on my balut refusal. Still, Angela held a balut in her hand and taunted me, “If you love Pam, you’ll eat the balut!” The entire gang roared in excitement and laughter at this challenge but still I carried on with my balut strike.

Irony is often impatient and wishes to party promptly.

I’ve never played poker in my life. When all of Pam’s extended family decided to play, I chose to watch the game. After 90 minutes of watching them play, they asked me if I wanted to join. I warned them I would need to play with a cheat sheet and they were happy to accommodate my novice ways. As I began playing, I quickly realized that half of poker was understanding the psychology of your opponents. After carefully watching these players (many of whom were very experienced), I had a decent measure of each person’s personality and how they might behave under certain circumstances.

So now I was swimming in a shark tank full of carnivorous Filipino poker veterans. At some point shortly after midnight, I miraculously managed to win the entire game. I was the surprise victor of a whopping 1100 Filipino pesos or $21. As luck would have it, this was the exact amount needed to pay for Pam’s delayed Valentine’s Day gift, a Zumba instructor for her Zumba party. And I would be lying if I said that part of these earnings did not also help to secure beer and laxatives.

The other thing perhaps better than winning the money was watching the faces of these experienced poker players as they were beaten by a guy using a poker cheat sheet. And like that, I was avenged for my previous balut grilling.

Poker Dominator surrounded by his lovely opponents, his earnings, and of course, his lady.


A couple days later, Pam and I made our way to Tagatay where we viewed the large lake from the very high point that was President Marcos’ unfinished mansion. Marcos was a dictator that decided to hold onto his elected office for 20 years. He instituted martial law but possibly worse is the fact that his wife owned 3000 pairs of shoes. The greatest opponent of Marcos was Ninoy Aquino who upon returning from exile was shot to death. Through peaceful protests, Marcos was eventually removed and the wife of Aquino, who was a housewife up until this point, was encouraged and ultimately elected as the next president. Today, Aquino’s son is the President of the Philippines and to top it off, Manila’s international airport is named after Ninoy Aquino which sounds cool until you melt with frustration in your car as you drive one mile in one hour to get from one terminal to the next in Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Our driver then took us 20 minutes to Jake’s family’s pig breeding farm in Alfonso. When we entered the gate, our vehicle was greeted by a car wash to control incoming contaminants (I think) and a man with a shotgun that smiled a lot. Once inside, I reconnected with Diego, Bea, Kiara, and Siri (the little magical lady that referred to me as “’to ‘tiss”). Naturally, my next move was to ride a small horse. This was followed by an informal but informative tour of the grounds by Diego. I was amazed by the lack of odor. Diego told me that all of the pig’s aftermarket products were stored in an enclosed area that created biogas which powered parts of the farm. As we walked through all of the pens, I could hear soft rock playing over a stereo system which was to soothe the pigs. Pig farms…where all soft rock goes to die.

Gurl getting rowdy on her horse.

This horse looks like Tina Turner.

The day Pam and I left, it hit me. Susan would no longer be there to cook incredible meals and provide a clothes washing service better than the finest overpriced European washing machines (she scrubbed them by hand). I felt doomed and sad. Part of me wished to move to the Philippines since most home service staff was priced so low, it was easy to feel like a Victorian business tycoon.

Our driver Orlando dropped Pam at her terminal first where we offered each other a goodbye that was equals parts tender and genuine. I got back in the car and became quickly ecstatic that my flight didn’t leave for another four and half hours as the mile we had to travel to my terminal took us about 35 minutes.

I’m glad I’m not a utility worker in the Philippines.

Later that evening, my plane landed in Osaka, Japan. From there I took a train up to Kyoto and a cab to my hotel for the next seven nights, Eco and Tek Hotel. On this and all other train rides I experienced, every single conductor was dressed with the regality and precision of a naval Admiral and when they left a train car, they would turn to face the passengers and respectfully bow.

My room was small but very clean and comfortable and tucked away in a charming residential neighborhood. In line with most others in Japan, my toilet was more advanced than a PET scan machine. There were all kinds of buttons with Japanese instructions that did God knows what. I do know that my toilet seat was unnaturally warm and if I was feeling frisky, I could press a button that would pressure-wash that which offends most.

The next day I spent seven hours simply walking around the city, visiting Chion-in Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Shijo dori Street, the old downtown area including Nishiki Market and Ponto-cho. Nishiki Market is a 500-meter barrage of vendors assaulting you with incredible, fresh, and sometimes bold answers to hunger. One of the boldest options was tiny octopi whose heads were stuffed with a quail egg. I nearly boarded a plane home when I saw this but later, when I saw a television program about the overweight cats of overweight sumo wrestlers, I decided Japan was for me.

From a restaurant in Kyoto: the oddest product description I have seen on a towelette wrapper.

In the entrance of the long, narrow neighborhood of Ponto-cho, a sign in English discussed its unique past. According to the sign, in the 1700’s, it became a “gay community”. Believe it or not, some person or persons tried to rub off the word “gay”! I haven’t consulted MIT or NASA on this but I’m fairly certain gayness is here to stay, even if we try to rub the word off signs. Or maybe I’m interpreting this wrong; maybe so many people have lovingly touched the word “gay” over the years that it has started to wear off.

The other thing that struck me was just how different Japan was from the Philippines. In the Philippines, the pollution of every kind (noise, air, litter) was not able to be ignored. Every time a jeepney lurched forward, an inefficient belch roared from the engine and a blast of dark smoke fled from the tailpipe. Trash seems to be found more often on the ground than in the trash cans. Stray barking dogs seem moments away from performing a violent, successful coup of human society but in the meantime seem content with crapping everywhere. The driving styles are erratic at best and just ten seconds behind the wheel would give a westerner an ulcer. Many of the homes are thrown together with whatever used materials are lying about, giving it the feel of the movie set of Mad Max. People walk out into traffic, illegally, trying to cross through a steady stream of unpredictable drivers but who can blame these vigilante pedestrians when they receive virtually no respect from drivers when legally trying to pass through a crosswalk.

A construction site in the Philippines is typically a haphazard and sloppy affair that may be worked on one day but abandoned for a week. The air in the Philippines seems to be constantly filled with the sounds of shouting people, dogs, chickens, loud engines, and too many other things to name. The toilets in the Philippines are often, in a word, grim. A respectable house or business will be fine in this regard but the instant you find yourself relying on the public domain for the servicing of your movements, I will weep for you.

In Japan, all is clean, when a car drives, it is barely heard and no visual effects are detected. Litter is scarce and the urban waterways seem to be sourced from God’s water fountain. As of yet, I’ve seen only two dogs and they were both the size of large cats, on leashes, silent as monks, and wearing perfectly fitting T-shirts. The driving is logical and organized and there appears to be a purveying air of respect on the road. All structures seem well-constructed and immaculately maintained like the set of Truman Show or the picture of a completed structure on a Lego box. Most everyone strictly observes the pedestrian signals (including the drivers!). The construction sites here have the look and feel of an expensive manicure; it’s contained and flanked with flaggers holding lit rods and wearing vests with blinking lights. There is an economy of noise in the air. No one shouts. It is a great place to sleep. And as I mentioned before, the toilet experience here is filled with so much wonder and dimension, they deserve their own cable TV station to properly represent and explore this profound facet of Japanese culture (and that goes for the public toilets which are never in short supply).

But if you were to ask me which place I like better, I would not know how to respond. Japan’s culture is something that rightfully demands your admiration. It is like a perfectly engineered clock that never falters. The citizens are well-mannered, respectful, and polite. The pursuit of perfection is seen everywhere and once being here, it is plain as day why they are a powerful nation given their limited resources.

With the Filipinos, everything is easy. As cousin Chris’ American fiancée noted, if the original plan fails, Filipinos rarely get upset. They quickly and nonchalantly change gears and do something else. Part of this, I believe, is due to their realization that as long as they are engaged in some activity that involves a group of people that they like being around, the actual activity itself is a peripheral concern. Filipinos are incredibly family-oriented and I’m not sure I’ve ever been around a society that is so genuinely at ease among their other family members (or friends).

The Filipinos handle adversity very well. With all the bad driving and traffic conditions similar to a grocery store parking lot on Christmas Eve, I saw almost no road rage. In America, if someone turns onto a road, causing another driver to brake for a fraction of a second, that other driver will have a toddler’s tantrum.

Filipinos are infinitely happier with infinitely less. Filipinos smile. Even the police smile!

If there was a party to be had, I would want the Japanese to organize it but I would want to party with the Filipinos.

The following day I rented a bicycle and rode south along the Kamo River and then over to the Fushimi Inari Temple with its small mountain covered in forests and shrines. I’m not sure if I’ve managed to hit Kyoto during some epic, city-wide costume party but this was the second day I saw at least 100 people (especially young adults) dressed in beautiful traditional garb. Of course, each person in said outfit was contrasted nicely by a smart phone in hand. Or in the case of a young lady, her contrasting outfit combined a stunning, perfectly worn kimono with a pair of Chuck Taylors on her feet.

It was like a Wednesday or something during the day and people are in Halloween outfits.

I then road north to the temple of Kiyomizu-dera and then, more importantly, road further north to Musashi Sushi where I encountered my first sushi train. You sit down at a counter and simply grab whatever small sushi dish looks to be a winner as it moves by on a conveyor belt. Once you’re done, a waitress counts your plates and bills you accordingly. This allows you to have a great sushi meal very quickly and cheaply.

More Kiyomizu-dera
Another Kiyomizu-dera shot…I’m assuming they used this building as their discotheque and casino.
Sushi train, y’all.

The next day I took a 45-minute bullet train ride west to Himeji Castle. The castle dates back to the 1400’s although its current form was not achieved until the early 1600’s. While much of the area just outside the castle was devastated by bombing in World War II, the castle miraculously survived which is even more amazing when you realize it was considered a military site during the war and was actually bombed in the main tower (incredibly, the bomb did not go off).

Himeji…impervious to bird droppings.

One of the castles most important historical figures was a samurai by the name of Kuroda Kanbei. He was also a very good political strategist and Christian convert. Becoming a samurai, involving yourself in political intrigue, living in an awe-inspiring castle…if ever there was a Christian that followed the “What would Jesus do?” creed better than this, I have yet to hear about it.

Progressive interracial tree romance.

Here is a good place to discuss some observations I have made of Japan:

1) Lots of Japanese have a quick, short stride that involves foot-dragging, sort of like the way a lady in slippers might run for a ringing phone. I assume shoes are not free here so this walking style must get pricey.

2) Even outside, you’re only allowed to smoke in designated areas that have the feel and often the look of a penalty box.

3) Japan often looks like an ER with so many of its citizens wearing face masks. At first, this was supposedly done to keep your illness from spreading. Now it often has more to do with people trying to prevent acquiring an illness. There’s also a fair amount of people that wear masks so no one will bother them since others see your mask and think that you’re sick, making them less likely to talk to you. Wearing these masks also makes it far more difficult for others to read your facial expressions.

4) There is a s#*t-ton of old people here. Unless each one of these older dears is a Benjamin Button, Japan may want to look into this.

5) There is a s#*t-ton of beautiful, stunning women here and the feeling I get from every single one of them is that they don’t have the slightest desire to go to the prom with me. But it’s all good; I got me a Filipina lady that not only wants to go to the prom with me but likes to wear my varsity letter jacket to sleep every night.

6) Trust seems vital to the Japanese. To demonstrate this, I took a picture of a jobsite closed down for the day on Saturday at 5:30PM. Pay close attention to the expensive power tools simply chilling in plain view. Never in a million years would an American contractor (including myself) leave his or her tools out in the open after leaving a site. I also love how clean and orderly everything is.

In the US, these unwatched tools would be promptly stolen (the outhouse too).

7) Here is the strangest, hands down, Christmas decoration I have ever seen that is hanging on the wall of my hotel.


8) You’ll be walking down a normal city street and without warning; it will turn into a mall.

Not a hat I was expecting to see being sold in Japan.
Yah bro.

Today I rode a bicycle six miles west to Togetsu-kyo Bridge. After crossing over the bridge, I went south into a park area where I stumbled upon what appeared to be a kite-flying contest. I’ve always felt that a fantastic indicator of an evolved society is its ability to conduct a successful kite-flying contest. While each contestant ran out with their kite, a guy would dramatically beat a drum. Under self-induced pressure to top this cultural gift, I decided to hike 20 minutes up a hill to the Arashiyama Monkey Park where monkeys are allowed to run free.

All of this just for kites.
Chillin’ with monkeys.

Ride in Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest (I’m pretty sure that kid in the chariot thing is a brat).


Most people like to take pictures of the cherry blossoms while I prefer to take pictures of the people that take pictures of the cherry blossoms.
And then gurl was like, “F*#k it…I’m gonna use a teddy bear head for a purse.”

For dinner, things got very special. Someone had told me about an odd unique place by the name of Okariba. Walking by it, nothing would alert you to its presence. It occupies a small space on the first floor of what appears to be a boring-five story concrete apartment building. When you step inside, you feel like you’re inside a hunting lodge. Everything is wood and hanging on the walls are all sorts of hunting paraphernalia and other random things. In fact, when I took my seat in the back corner in what was the last available seat shared with restaurant supplies, I leaned back into a hanging belt of what I prayed was an inactive Remington shotgun shell belt. I looked around and saw what seemed to be mainly locals huddled into this small space. The air was being dominated by the smoke of some type of cooking meat. The owner returned and in a rough but comparatively good English, asked, “Are you hungry?”

“Sure”, I said. He nodded, walked away, never gave me a menu, and returned 15 minutes later with a heaping pile of delicious wild boar.

While I was disciplining my meal, a Japanese couple in their 60’s sat to the right of me in a space that, up until now, was occupied by one of the owner’s hunting buddies whose picture was on the wall near my head. The couple lived nearby and appeared to be good friends of the owner. The woman’s name was Shigeno and she trained people how to use kimonos and hakamas.

As the night progressed, things only got better. As the place thinned out, the owner and his employee spent more and more time with us and kept bringing out food for me to try, the most exotic including locusts and bee larvae. Soon he was pouring me sake and eventually went to the refrigerator in efforts to furnish me with some of his high-grade sake. He told me where he hunted and that all the food was captured by him. He then held up a pretend rifle and said, “All food here is organic!”

Shigeno even shared some of her food with me and was kind enough to supply me with two bookmarks made with fine Japanese cloth. She pointed at both and said, “one for your girlfriend”. So the lesson of love learned here is that if I ever find myself single, I will still tell everyone I have a girlfriend so people give me two of everything.

Inside Okariba.
A bowl of fried locusts that, for some reason, I ate.
The owner of Okariba and I.

The next morning I took a train or two down to the nearby city of Nara to view the Todai-ji temple which is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world and houses a 50-foot bronze Buddha statue.


Don’t get me wrong, this is intense and superb but there’s a chance I was more awed by the fact that not just in the massive park grounds around the temple but even into the city are wild deer walking around! It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. These deer chill among us like domesticated robots. My experiences with deer at home are fleeting at best; once a deer detects me, it runs away from like a vegetarian runs away from a pile of steaks. In Nara, the deer will actually approach you like a confident, weathered prostitute. You also have the option of buying some crackers for $1.50 and feeding them, thereby increasing the probability of a filthy deer advance.


But, there were signs warning people to be careful around the deer. The following sign displays the four favorite wrestling moves deer like to perform on unsuspecting tourists.

I’ve tried to pick a favorite drawing in this sign and failed every time.

The next day I boarded the Shinkansen (bullet train) and travelled east to Odawara and then on to the resort town of Hakone, known for its many “onsen” or hot baths. When I checked in, the man at the reception desk informed me of all the splendors of the hotel and that I was expected to wear my yukata (traditional robe) to breakfast.

Fuji as seen from the Shinkansen.

If I was a Petty Officer 3rd Class in a submarine, I would be the luckiest person in the galaxy to have the room I was in. But since I am not a Petty Officer 3rd Class in a submarine and am on dry land, I am left only to define myself as a guy staying in a converted janitor’s closet. The whopping 140 square feet affair is well-equipped but suffers from the fact it’s only 140 square feet and has one window measuring one square foot in size. Ultimately, I feel like I stabbed an inmate and was put in the hole for 30 days.

After exiting my rabbit hole, I headed over to the nude-bathing onsen where I got to hang out with a lot of old Japanese junk. In line again with the Japanese obsession with cleanliness, I had to follow a strict set of rules before and during my bathing experience. One of the rules was thoroughly scrubbing yourself down at a seated shower station beforehand (and you had to remain seated). Another rule dictated I could not bring a bathing suit or towel into the onsen. And what’s more, you’re not allowed to enter the baths if you have any tattoos! This is clearly an attempt to keep American rock stars and confused college ladies out of the onsen.

When I awoke the next morning, I proudly put on my yukata with the help of an instruction sheet in my room. Due to the limited range of leg movement while wearing my robe, I shuffled my way to the restaurant wearing slippers on my feet, looking like I was trying to build up an electric shock in my body that I would childishly shock someone with. When I entered the large dining area, filled with over 100 Japanese folk, I soon realized I was perhaps one of eight people wearing a yukata to breakfast, making me look like one of those Caucasian putzs who was ineffectively trying to assimilate to Japanese culture. It got worse when I got on the elevator and two Japanese ladies looked at me with slight surprise and one said to me as if trying to be nice and supportive to a five-year old that tied his shoes for the first time in his life, “Ohhh, it looks good! Very comfortable!”

Sorry Tom Cruise, looks like you weren’t the last Samurai after all. I’ve got my Samurai papers to prove it (in my right hand).

After touring around the Hakone area in a train, a funicular, a bus, a cable car, and a boat, I decided to hike over a small mountain and back down towards my hotel. I saw a wild boar at one point but he/she darted away before I got a good look. Later on in the hike, I paused for a moment, standing perfectly still in a heavily wooded valley. Soon after, a family of boar started walking above me, towards where I came from. Although they did not see me, the leader, who I believe was the mother, stopped and began to take the air in with her enormous nose in brief, powerful inhalations. The family members behind her stopped and awaited her cue. As she was close to my current position and where I had just been, I assumed she smelled my appetizing presence. She continued to analyze my aroma until finally she turned and hastily ran in the direction she came with the family following suit. I felt embarrassed and insulted. I didn’t think I smelled that bad. I guess next time I’ll wear some Drakkar Noir before initiating a hike.

After Hakone, I took a train north to Tokyo. Once there I felt like I was in the most intricate Lego set of all time. I marveled how, with even the volume of all things imaginable, Tokyo managed to remain orderly and clean for the most part. During my 48 hours, I did the following:

1) Check into my hotel next to Nippori Station, a modest hotel that probably looked great 20 years ago but now was tired and smelled like the polyester shirt of a dead chain smoker.

2) Visit the “Skytree” tower upon my hotel’s recommendation but promptly requested the structure to “eat it” when it asked me for $20 to visit the observation deck.

Eat it, Skytree.

3) Visit the Shibamata neighborhood, known for its old preserved street that was from the Showa Era, and due to my fatigue, lounged on a park bench with the authority of a welfare legend.

4) Ate dinner at what soon became an annoyingly chipper, cheery sushi restaurant by the name of Shushizanami in the Ueno neighborhood, a neighborhood packed with little shops and restaurants, bright lights, and more importantly, offers to have filthy things done to your body.

5) Return to Ueno to visit Ueno Park and saw its beehive-like shopping district sans scandal.

6) Walk around the overly stimulating “Electric Town” in the Akihabra district where ladies dressed as provocative young maids coaxed you into their cafes and then walked through eight floors of department and electronics madness in the Yodabashi Camera store (and was gifted with Journey being played on their stereo demo station). I should also add that Japan is weirdly infatuated with massage chairs, witnessed by an amazing diverse display of them on the same floor as the stereos or what I now refer to as the “Journey Floor”.


7) Walk around half of the three-mile moat that surrounds the Imperial Palace.

8) Visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building where I was able to visit the Observation Deck on the 45th floor for free! (Eat that and preferably develop an intestinal malady Sky Tree!)

Tokyo on the house.

9) Discover a great little neighborhood in Nippori on the other side of the train station that gave me a great friendly dining experience at the family-run Ariya and a very fortuitous encounter at a very underground jazz bar.

The last item was the perfect way to end the Japan leg of my trip. I walked by an open door leading upstairs and could hear only the good kind of jazz descending down to me. I ascended up to its source and was confronted with a tiny bar with stacks of vinyl records on the walls and four older gents loving life at the bar. The sound system projecting the all-vinyl sounds was old but its sound was perfect. The patrons were all Japanese and took turns talking to me. One refused to give me his real name and when I did ask, he said his name was “Mystery”. When Mystery and I completed our talk, a slightly older man by the name of Shinichiro walked over and introduced himself. Shinichiro grew up in the Nippori area but has spent the past 35 years in Okinawa doing underwater research. He was back in Tokyo on a visit and said I was very lucky to have stumbled upon this tiny little place that offered a rare jazz experience in Tokyo. This space has been opened for more than 50 years. But due to tight or nonexistent profit margins (which explains my $9 beer), was only open on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The man behind the bar was actually a dentist and had a more charitable, hobby-like yet passionate approach to his role as bar keep. As I looked around, I laughed to myself and realized how glad my lady back home probably was that I liked jazz. Any risk of an illicit affair or casual STD-contraction was a distance away from me that could not be measured.

Jazz bar or “place to avoid ladies”.
This is what a man named “Mystery” looks like (this could actually be said about either one of us).

As I left Tokyo, I soaked in the last bits of neatness and order offered me. The air was that of a pleasant spring day. When I came out of the airport in Manila, the glorious disarray and heat hit me like an impersonal bully. When some sort of taxi dispatcher guy came up to me, I told him my hotel was less than 2 miles away. He told me the fare would be P1000, the same rate I paid to travel 30 miles to the airport, two weeks previously. I told him I would walk. Other cab drivers came over and offered lower fares but it was too late; my stubbornness had set in.

My walk led me through a museum known as “A Place That Could Not Be More Opposite of Japan”. Just outside of the airport, the sun was setting and I saw little fires, in a public or abandoned grassy area and heard the voices of families around them. Sloppy engines roared by me and I could feel the filthy air on my tongue and in my eyeballs. I took a left down Airport Road and the surroundings condensed into a throbbing neighborhood that had the personality of a 13-year old whose parents left him alone for the weekend. Out of one bar, I could hear two or three men doing a horrible rendition of Steve Perry’s Foolish Heart. Feral cats thinner than supermodels scavenged for anything they could find. More little fires glowed in alleys. A very used woman sitting in a chair on the narrow sidewalk offered me a fortune consultation. Motorized tricycles and trucks and cars beeped and aggressively gobbled up any free space they could find on the road. Outside of a small convenience store, I (and hundreds of other passerby’s) had to literally step over a shirtless man that was sleeping, unconscious or dead. The entire scene was ripe and reminiscent of one from a Mad Max movie. But oddly, not once did I fear for my safety. No one looked at me or motioned toward me in a menacing way.

I fell asleep in my hotel a couple hours later and woke up at 4AM the next morning to go back to the airport. I caught a 6AM flight on one of those Indiana Jones propeller planes to Batanes where I would be for eight days. Part of the Philippines, Batanes are a small collection of islands located about 100 miles north of the main island Luzon, Philippines and 120 miles south of Taiwan. The airport in the capital town of Basco looked like a small state highway rest stop but it’s enough to handle the one or two small passenger flights a day.

Basco Airport.

The island reminded me of a warmer Ireland. The greenness mixed with a rocky/hilly topography made one think of Western Ireland or Scotland. The weather was similar in one way: very unpredictable. When I walked the 100 meters to my guest house, it was sunny although misting. Par for the Philippines, there were various little construction projects everywhere that were being worked on so slowly or so sporadically, they looked abandoned. In fact, next to my guest house was a building that looked like it suffered the wrong end of a bomb. But at the same time, rough scaffolding constructed of random lumber and tree limbs had been assembled throughout the structure.

When I walked by the open, half-built or half-destroyed (I couldn’t tell) structure, I saw a simple table set up on the dirt floor with clothes hanging everywhere. Inside, four or five amiable and seated chaps greeted me. They were either workers living or citizens squatting in this humble living space (again, I couldn’t tell). Either way, my hopes were that these gentlemen were Basco’s version of “Mack and the boys” that live in the Palace Flophouse in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (the friendly homeless guys that live in a semi-abandoned warehouse in Monterrey).

Speaking of characters of Cannery Row, I met another man that easily could have been in this brilliant novel. When I say “met”, I should really say “observed” since this man of an indistinguishable age was lying on his back in the middle of the street. At first I thought he was dead but then I noticed his stomach was moving. His eyes were wide open but perceived nothing. I asked a woman standing over him if we should call the nearby hospital and she said, “No. He’s just drunk.”

Boulder Beach
Santo Domingo Cathedral

Here I am in a lighthouse. If it was the duty of the lighthouse keeper to look for ladies instead of ships, I would be a lighthouse keeper.

The day I arrived and the next two days I toured the main island and another nearby named Sabtang with BISUMI Tours. The landscape was inspiring. On the second day, when our boat landed at Sabtang , we waited to register with some officials in an area between a church and a school. Our timing could not have been better; all the students were on the front lawn singing and shortly after, performing dance routines. This took place every morning before classes started. These poor little creatures had to do this routine in front of a pile of gawking tourists with cameras a few times a week. It was enough to make a child run away.


Shortly after, a woman I sat next to on the plane the day before rushed over and greeted me enthusiastically. She then told her older lady friends how she sat next to me on the plane and soon I found myself in a picture-taking ceremony with a large group of 60-something Filipina ladies I did not know. When I wrapped up with my new ladies, I was then asked to be in some more pictures with the local police officers (one of which was a police lady…yum). I kid you not when I tell you that they tried to set me up with the single police lady. It’s great when fantasies land in your lap but it sucks when you can’t do anything about them.

I reflected on this extra attention I received and as much as I wanted to attribute it to nice looks, nice hair, and even nicer breath, it was not so. It was probably due to the fact that of the 150 or more tourists, I was one of two white people.

Good luck figuring this one out.

The following morning at breakfast, I chatted with Emil, the husband of Evelyn the maid. It turned out he served as a chef on an oil tanker for 22 years. I asked him if he liked it and he returned, “Not really. I only did it for my kids. I had to pay for their education.” Emil told me he would be out at sea for anywhere between four to six months.  His typical rotation would be six months on and three months off (although once he was on board for 11 months since they could not find a replacement for him). And just when Emil seemed like the greatest gent of our times, he outdid himself by letting me use one of his motorbikes for the remainder of my trip.

At one stop on our tour, we visited an old church in Mahatao. Next to the church was a room that was filled with hundreds of blank books that allowed people to come in and either read entries of past visitors or write their own. As luck would have it, I pick up a book, start thumbing through it, and find an entry from Bermuda’s most famous performer, Barry Tattle! And according to the date, he was there on the same day! This is a picture of his entry.
Trying to outdo this natural drama is a fool’s errand.

After the tour ended that day, I walked towards my dinner destination, Octagon Restarant. I spotted a tricycle parked on the side of the road so I went over to a group of fellas chilling outside nearby. One man stood up and tried to fetch the tricycle driver but his lady appeared and informed us he could not drive me since he had been drinking. Then the first man I spoke to offered to give me a ride himself on his motorbike. When we arrived, I thanked him and offered him some money but he refused. I told him my name, shook his hand and asked his. He replied, “The Principal of Uganda.”

As I took my seat, I spotted three ladies from my tour: Charmaine, Marian, and Gina. We decided it best for the world that we eat together. As I ate with them, I started to realize that most if not all Filipina ladies are extremely humble. My Filipina lady is extremely (perhaps dangerously) educated and quite accomplished in her career experiences but you wouldn’t know it when you speak with her. My lady dining companions were also quite understated about their achievements. The other thing that was reinforced is that any time you get some Filipina ladies together, please expect abundant and equal measures of chatting, smiling, and laughing.

The ladies I dined with. Funny thing about this picture is that is was actually taken a day or two before I met these dear ladies. I happened to be eating next to them at the same restaurant when they asked their waitress to take this picture, thereby catching my visual energy in the background. But the funniest thing about this picture is that just after it, I moved my chair slightly back, causing one of the chair legs to slide off the edge of the concrete floor which caused the chair and I to fall over (which the ladies kindly remembered when I met them).

The following day I drove the motorbike to the small fishing village of Diura. After parking my bike, I walked a little under a mile down a rough dirt road that went along the sea. I eventually ended up at what the locals refer to as “The Fountain of Youth”. Locals channeled a small stream into a manmade pool out in the middle of nowhere. The pool sat on the edge of a beach with no one in site. I took a dive into its healing waters, hoping to at least grow a few hairs back on my head.

Fountain of Youth

As I drove around, people would often stop what they were doing and watch me pass by. It was a somewhat rare thing to see a whitey on their island but seeing one drive by on a Mountain Dew-colored motorbike was more bizarre than seeing an Eskimo parasailing in Iowa. Everywhere I went I was looked at and smiled at. As I entered a little canteen, I passed by some young boys and said “Hello gentlemen!”. They giggled and ran off. After I finished my meal, I took a quick dip in a small lagoon. When I went back to my bike, there were three goats trying to steal my bike. Punks.

Goats caught in the act of trying to steal my wheels.

For dinner, I was invited to dine with three other Filipina ladies at their exquisite guest house called Fundacion Pacita which was perched high on green hills right at the water’s edge. There was Susan, a gracious lady in her 70’s who ran an accomplished ballet studio and her two sensationally pleasant nieces, Trixie and Mia. As it turned out, Susan was the mother of one of the Philippines most famous ballet dancers, Lisa Macuja, who became the first Filipina prima ballerina and first foreign soloist to ever join the Kirov Ballet in Russia. Lisa is now in her early 50’s and still dances occasionally.

Susan took a liking to me partially because I’m dating one of her country-ladies and mostly because my manners are noteworthy. And…Susan-In-Her-Seventies promised to Facebook me! (Further proof that gurl still got it.)

The next day I hired a guide to hike up the top of nearby Mount Iraya. Once an active volcano, Iraya stands just over 1000 meters. Ferand, my guide, met me at 6AM and we proceeded to our start point. The hike was a tad brutal, due in large part to the fact that the trail went straight up with no hint of a switchback path. The further up you went, the less maintained the trail was. We were battling through dense vegetation making us feel like we were making our way through a 1970’s NBA All-Star afro.

Mt. Iraya

Ferand did this nasty, wet, muddy hike in a worn pair of Air Jordans. When I asked him if he had another pair of shoes to change into afterwards, he answered no. But this is how it is in the Philippines and even more so in Batanes. People here are like cartoon characters in the sense they seem to do all their activities in the same outfit. Workers doing heavy construction work will look like they just walked off a basketball court (and will often be wearing flip flops).

Due to the grueling nature of the hike, we talked little. However we did manage to have short conversations whenever we took short breaks. I learned that Ferand was 22 and leaving Batanes for the first time in his life the following week. He was headed for Manila with some sort of Christian group. I really do wish I could have been there to watch his face as he flew in a plane and walked through a major, polluted, noisy city for the very first time in his life.

View from high up Iraya (airport is off to the right).

Later on I toured a little on the motorbike and decided to stop by the lighthouse just north of town. Once again, the locals looked at me in wonder. When I parked my bike near the lighthouse, a group of people were getting into a pickup truck and onto their motorbikes. A woman around 60 asked me if I had a companion with me. I told her no and that I was a lone wolf on this journey. She pointed at her younger lady friend and said, “How about her? She’s single!” I was simply falling in love with the fact that Batanes was trying to set me up with their single sisters.

And guess what? It happened again the next day! I ran into some nice folks at the Honesty Coffee Shop which is a completely unstaffed shop where you go in, take what you want and pay for it by simply putting your money into a wooden box. The daughter of the lady that started the shop 20 years ago mentioned herself as a potential candidate as the target of my affections. She then offered her visiting friend from Manila as another option. This island was like one big dating game show.

Hot jeepney.

As fantastic as this was, it may have been surpassed by an experience I had later that day. Every day around 3:30PM, the town opens up the airport runway to the public so they can do whatever their heart desires (except skinny-dipping). I decided to light the strip up with my 100cc motorbike. Please soak in the video of my stunt.


Looking out my bedroom window, I mean, view from the end of the runway.

My last full day in the Philippines ended up being an unexpected gift. I spent the day with Pam’s sister Nikki and her family. I got picked up by their driver Jun in the Mystery Machine and was driven to their home in Quezon City in Manila. When I entered their home, I was greeted instantly by the lovely and little Siri. She said “’to ‘tiss” and then proceeded to hug my leg for a length of time that would have been awkward if she had been an adult.

After lunch, Nikki, Diego, Bea, Kiara, and I engaged in an activity I was not expecting: ice skating. The mall culture in the Philippines is a potent one. In their enormous malls will be everything one could dream up, in this case, an ice skating rink on the fifth floor overlooking Manila. The rental skates were duller than a spoon and the ice was less smooth than the face of a 90-year old sea captain but we managed to have a great time. I took a devilish pride in simultaneously scaring and impressing Bea and Kiara as I built up a lot of speed and then sprayed them with snow as I executed a long dramatic hockey stop right next to them. Kiara took her revenge by forcing me to skate backwards while holding her hands for over an hour so she could have something to steady herself on.

Someone had to be the token white guy skating in shorts on the 5th floor of a mall in Manila. (L to R: Diego, me, Kiara, Bea)
Gurl enacts her revenge.

The only logical thing to do after that was to experience my first ever acupuncture session by the hands of master healer and Asian-Warrior-Haircut-Fella Jake (Nikki’s husband). It was fantastic although I did not realize the after effects of “cupping”. Cupping is when the practitioner creates a powerful suction with, in this case, glass cups on the skin in efforts to bring about the benefits of a massage but in reverse (and to remove any lingering skank in your body). When I looked at my back later that night, it looked like a massive octopus had given me hickies all over my back. Would I “cup” again given the chance? Damn right I would.

This was followed by yet another logical choice of activities: Qigong (chi kung). Qigong is an activity designed to make you look like a Caucasian left wing radical that sweats incense and gathers with others in the more hidden parts of a large city park with the purpose of chanting and moving their body in ways that make Republicans nervous. That said, I did enjoy this more mellow form of Tai Chi and coupled with the acupuncture, I observed elevated levels of energy.

We all then ate with Jake’s family nearby which was glorious…the perfect last supper in my five-week pursuit of pleasure and profound culture. We discussed the family’s impressive pig breeding business, politics, my scandalous career as a comedian, and so many other things that stimulate the intellect.

The next morning, I said goodbye to Manila’s increasing heat and humidity and spent several hours flying back to Boston where I was forced to explain to my lady why I had large circular hickies all over my back.

Chile and Argentina 2015

Five and a half feet of snow in 17 days and temperatures of five below zero drive you to extreme things.  For me, it drove me south.  When I say south, I don’t mean Florida or Aruba; I mean the southern hemisphere.  I felt compelled to journey to a place where I could experience a reversal of seasons.  Being in a warm place that was still technically in winter was not good enough.  Our Boston winter was turning so grim I needed to go somewhere that was legitimately in summer.  Summer is more than weather; it’s a way of life that people get into.  You get to see a whole group of people let their hair down.  It’s almost like seeing your boss a little drunk at a cookout.  No matter the type of person, the summer version is always at least a touch more carefree and pleasant.

Of course I planned my trip to Chile and Argentina long before I knew Boston would turn into Hoth of Star Wars or the direst winter north of The Wall.  But once winter decided to rear its foul, butt-ugly head in late January, my month-long trip became all the more compelling.  But being the ill-mannered bitch this winter was, she saw it fit to delay my trip one day by way of a three-day snow storm.  I detest the naming of non-hurricane storms but this one deserved any of the following names:

1) Bitch
2) Lord Vader
3) Judas
4) Stalin
5) Elevator Fart

My Nigerian cab driver took me to the airport in a relic of a Ford LTD Crown Victoria.  I’m often too thrifty to bother with such highbrow transport but Superstorm Stalin had shut down the MBTA that day.  I forget why, but we discussed the various aging trends of different races.  I thought that white people get more wrinkles, gray hairs and hair loss than black folks as they age.

My cab driver replied, “Maybe but black people tend to die younger.”

I thought on this briefly and offered a positive perspective, “Okay but at least you look better when you die.”

On my way down to Atlanta, I sat next to Jana and Rick, a married couple in their 50’s and 60’s who were on their way to Mardi Gras.  My next aviational leg to Santiago had me sitting next to a Chilean native that was now a hospital chaplain in Dayton, Ohio.  Life takes us to interesting, unique places.  I bet no Chilean guidance counselor saw that one coming.  His name was Raul and when I told him that was my chosen high school Spanish class name, we formed a bond so strong I knew I could count on him to watch my back as I gobbled down a sleeping pill.  By “watch my back”, I mean “make sure the stewardess puts a breakfast on my tray table even if I appear to be dead”.  Anything else that may happen to me was of small import.

Check out these creepy ear plugs I got on my flight. They look like Caucasian children’s fingertips.

Prior to leaving, I had reserved a car through a gentleman named Andres.  Outside the airport, I met one of his employees who introduced me to my vehicle.  I left Santiago immediately and headed to Valparaiso.  Once there, it only took me two hours to find my hotel.  I asked about 12 Valparaisins and was given confusing directions not just from them but from people they would call on their cell phones to let me speak with.  I appreciated the immense efforts they made but I hope to never get lost in Chile again.  Also, I’m not sure if you call Valparaiso residents “Valparaisins” but I will do so any way since “Valaparaisin” contains the word “raisin”.

When I finally arrived at my hotel, I got out of the car and for the first time noticed that it not only appeared to be a few years older than the 2014 or newer model I was promised but that the tires were more bald than me in 20 years.  And, the maps and air compressor he claimed would be in the car were also missing.  On top of this, I would later discover that my wiper blades were less effective at removing water from a windshield than a comb and that the mobile phone that came in the car that was supposed to have 40 incoming/outgoing calls had two which I believe is about how many calls you get when you’re arrested.

Bald tires. Check out those holes on the top. Looks like an IMAX theater closeup of Laurence Fishburne’s face.

Costa Azul is owned by an amiable Slovenian couple named Luka and Nina.  This small guest house is in the congested neighborhood known as Playa Ancha which is perched on a hill that overlooks downtown Valparaiso and the harbor.  Valparaiso is, what someone told me, a “quirky port town”.  That description definitely functions properly.  There are steep hills with small buildings clinging to them, giving the appearance of a layered cake.  Oh, and the bus drivers are crazier and bolder than a drunken Jedi pilot.  My bus driver bombed down steep curving streets like Steve McQueen in Bullitt.  So that’s the best way to envision this experience: if Steve McQueen was in Valparaiso, was trying to get his pregnant wife to the hospital or was simply late to work and happened to be driving a bus.

In Valparaiso…a shot of some colorful stairs, street art, and a guy with some brand new sneakers and a hat worn by vacationing spies.
More delectable street art. Not sure I can get on board with those guy’s backpacks though.

The next day I left Costa Azul and said farewell to Luka and Nina.  I once more internally remarked on Nina’s Slovenian attractiveness.  Luka isn’t unattractive but he’ll simply have to find space in someone else’s fantasy.

Eleven hours later, I arrived in Pucon.  I passed so many hitchhikers along the way that you would have needed to hire at least five school buses to pick them all up.  If I was someone that liked using the phrase “Damn Commies!”, I would have been in a state of ecstasy.

Once again, it took me an hour of multiple sets of contradictory directions to find my lodging.  Ellie’s B&B is run by a nice lady and her teenaged daughter.  It was great to find out that this guest house was a mile or so away from a smoking, active volcano that was due to burst any year, showing higher than normal seismic activity.  And just like Valparaiso, I appeared to be the central body of a planetary system comprised of barking dogs.  Some of these planets were domesticated but many were quite feral.

Could the skirt on this ladies room symbol be any shorter? Filthy.

The morning after I arrived, I managed to break the toilet.  To be fair, the flapper (the piece at the bottom of the tank that is lifted up to let water out of the tank) was on its way out and I happened to be the straw that broke the toilet’s back.  But because this happened on my watch, I travelled down to Chile’s version of the Home Depot with a photo of the piece I needed.  I showed this photo to one of their employees who then took me to their lighting section.  She pointed to a light and smiled.  I showed her the picture again and said “toilet…agua”.

Before things spiraled further out of control by way of me attempting to install a light fixture in a toilet, another employee directed me to the plumbing section.  Maybe she wanted me to install a light in the toilet like one would see in a swimming pool.  Maybe “night peeing” is all the rage in Chile.

After securing the part, I returned to Ellie’s house and, in Spanish, had to explain to her daughter that although I broke their toilet, I was now fixing it.  The whole ordeal made me yearn for constipation.

During the day, I hiked through the beautiful national park known as Huerquehue.  Today, like all the days thus far, was enjoying the best kind of weather you could hope for in Boston during the month made popular by the band Earth Wind and Fire: September.  The scenery was inspired, containing mountains, lakes and forests.

View in Huerquehue.
More Huerquehue.

For dinner, I ate at a small table on the sidewalk outside of Club 77 and got the better of some fish, vegetables, potato balls and wine.  I must say, the quality and polite prices of wine in Chile really do make up for all of those barking dogs and bad directions.  As I sat there, I was entertained by musicians that stopped at all the restaurants and cafés along the street to play a couple of songs.  Upon completion, they came to me with a hat and asked for money.  Their music was good unlike the absurd techno blasting out of a slowly passing Jeep Wrangler, techno so terrible it literally sounded like a fax machine.

It was midnight when I finished up and as I looked around, I was amazed by all the families with children that were still out.  No one looked tired.  Midnight in Chile looked like 8PM in America.

The following day I drove downtown.  Pucon’s center is a grid with noticeable bustle.  I parked my car and was immediately approached by a man in a bright green vest, holding a handheld credit card machine.  He put a ticket on my windshield and told me I would pay him when I return.  Perhaps this system allowed some sort of financial benefit to the town and/or the driver but it also required a lot of employees to cover the entire grid.  I found it odd, like some sort of pre-Industrial Revolution business model combined with modern technology.  I thought parking meters sorted this process out but who asked me?

This experience seemed to be a recurring thing in Chile: a high employee to customer ratio.  Every gas station I’ve been to has had more employees than a 1950’s American gas station.  Nina and Luka in Valparaiso have also confirmed my sightings, telling me you will often see a high number of wait staff in restaurants and cafés.  On the whole, I would say things operate less efficiently here but if that’s the cost I have to pay for friendly faces and great cheap wine, I’m most certainly willing to pay it.

I headed out of town and down a gravel road to a mountain’s edge.  After a brief hike, I swam in Lake Villarica.  It was a treat to wade in the water, while looking at the volcano who continued to puff away like an Italian mob boss.

Smoking in the boys room.

On my way back to Ellie’s, I stumbled upon a fair where I drank/ate mote con huesillo.  This is a strange affair consisting of sweet liquid, chunks of wheat swimming around the bottom like lazy catfish and a very saturated dried peach that floats on top.  At the end of a muddy field stood a stage with large speakers on it.  In the middle of the stage was a woman in a long, simple but somewhat elegant black dress which contrasted nicely with the extremely casual garb found on everyone else.  This lady controlled various karaoke backing tracks with an iPad that she then sang to on a microphone.  Her voice was good but she seemed a tad out of place in this casual backyard environment.  In front of here were playing children and the occasional person crossing over to the other side of the field.  Right next to her stage was a carnival game tent.  All in all, it was a live performer’s nightmare.

I also forgot to mention the cooked animal carcasses in front of the stage. The guy in red is so sad.

After another marvelous, clock-stopping breakfast the following morning, I bid farewell to Ellie and drove south through precious natural landscapes of hills and fields and large lakes.  I eventually arrived at my accommodation for the next two nights: Parque Ilihue which consisted of only a couple cabins that were wedged between a steep, small mountain and the southern shore of Lago (Lake) Ranco.  As I settled in, I turned on the TV and watched Star Wars, Episode 3, Revenge of the Sith dubbed in Spanish; it didn’t matter what happened with the rest of my stay, this place getting a five-star review on TripAdvisor.  For some reason, a Spanish-speaking Yoda made much more sense to me.

As I read in bed, I heard a horse walk up to my window, only a few feet away, and start eating.  Of course, once again, this was followed by the sound of barking dogs which unfortunately bounced off the large rock mass standing tall and less than 100 yards away.

As I wrote outside on the small porch the following morning, six little pigs hustled over to my cabin.  At first, it seemed like some dark, macabre form of room service.  I didn’t recall ordering bacon though.  But the cute little slobs grunted and jogged by me, running into a garden where they were soon shooed off by some kind of garden lady.

Chow time! (for me)

I asked Gabriel, the owner, if there was a way to climb the mountain behind Parque Ilihue.  He said I could drive up.  He then pointed to a specific point and brought a house to my attention that was so high up it was barely visible.  Gabriel told me an old woman lived there and that she allowed people to enter her property and take in the view.  In return, it would be considered amiable if you gave her a little something.  I assume he meant cash but who knows?  Maybe that high-altitude living has allowed for an undying amorous appetite in this older model.

I drove up the squirrely gravel road and looked for two hubcaps attached to a post; this marked the location.  When I found it, I pulled over and began a small ascent up to her house.  As I did, I heard voices from the property across the street.  Due to the open, bowl-shaped area we were in, the sound reached me quite well, despite the 130 or so yards that separated us.  I looked down and saw a very large pig running towards me.  Unsure if it was some sort of dangerous watchpig, I stopped and a young man ran up to me.  I explained to Francisco the purpose of my visit.  He informed me that the house belonged to his grandmother and I was welcome to take pictures.

We walked through a few barking dogs and came upon a backyard that dropped off into nothing.  And as expected, in brilliant non-American fashion, there was not even a hint of a fence or railing to keep humans and poorly kicked soccer balls from tumbling off the edge.  Beyond this edge was a view of angels.  I could see down to Parque Ilihue, the surrounding fields, the lake and all the mountain finery that bordered it.  I thanked Francisco for his time, handed him a little cash and said “para la comida de los perros” (for dog food).

That night I ate at the Parque Ilihue restaurant.  Much of what I ate came from the surrounding farm, including the pork.  Sorry little piggies.  Looks like I just ate your uncle.

At two in the morning, I received a text from Andres, the rental car gent, telling me that he emailed me a name and address of where I could get new tires.  Initially, he proposed I pay for it and that he would reimburse me.  I said no; he would pay for it.  Ultimately, he sent me to the wrong city, forcing me to drive a little further out of my way.  Fortunately, I was able to shop for gifts and play with a tiny kitten while I waited for the new tires.

We had some good times together, kitty.

With new tires, I drove back towards Puerto Varas.  I tried not to reflect on how terrible this car rental experience had been.  Thankfully I had it in me to let it go, reminding myself my days ahead involved great food and wine and lacked alarm clocks and hammers (I’m a handyman).  Also adding to my amnesia of the foolishness was arriving at my next stop, Casa Ko, which was located 23 miles east of Puerto Varas and a couple miles off the main road and Lago Llanquihue.  The setting was immaculate: a 60-year old farm house surrounded by trees and fields and a perfect view of Osorno Volcano.  In fact, my bedroom had a small balcony that looked right at this volcano.  Yet again, there were all kinds of animals, including a friendly goat that found my presence necessary.

View from my room.
The goat actually had a lot on her mind.

Dinner that evening was memorable.  The other guests and I ate fresh food (some of it grown on site) and shared stories.  There was a Mexican lady in her early 50’s, a Uruguayan man and his Danish wife, a French lady and her British husband with their daughter and a young Swiss couple enjoying the last six weeks of an epic 10-month long southern hemisphere tour.

The next day I involved myself in a six-hour hike that climbed up part way of Calbuco, yet another volcano that was located just behind Casa Ko.

The following morning, I said goodbye to everyone and drove back through Puerto Varas, then south past Puerto Montt and boarded a car ferry that took me to Chiloe, an island just off the coast.  I decided that I needed to see some penguins so I did the logical thing of driving to their home on the northwest side of the island.

Clearly their toilet has been broken for quite some time.

Afterwards I checked into my guest house which was located a few miles north of Chiloe’s biggest town, Castro.  It was on top of a hill and surrounded by rolling farm pastures so the view was solid but this place was not one that would ever taste my repeat business.  Comparatively speaking, this place was not cheap which is fine as long as the establishment proves its worth.  But my room, being a tiny little box that is located in a tiny little loft area that seemed to collect all the heat in the house, did not prove its worth.  To make matters worse, my room had windows that didn’t open.  Better still, due to the ceiling being pitched, the wall that contained the door was so low that you had to duck your head or suffer an unwanted head bang (which I suffered a few times).  The lodging was worse than one could expect being a prisoner on a WW2 Russian submarine.

The rest of the place had some admirable qualities: there was a small restaurant that looked out onto the valley; there was a nice room with a small deck that shared the same view.  But, the whole place suffered from diabolical craftsmanship.  Much of the construction appeared to be completed by a dumb angry baby.

The weather was not as elegant as the lakes district, the traffic into Castro was a bit much, my lodging was below par, and the penguins were more boring than an ant farm.  Chiloe was starting to feel like a low point of the trip.

This would all change quickly.

The next day as I walked back from a beach in Chiloe National Park, a lady ahead of me slowed down to ask me a question about a nearby path.  Soon after, we were engaged in conversation as her two friends walked ahead of us.  Isabella is a 34-year old environmental engineer from Santiago.  She was visiting Chiloe with two friends.  The first, Jesica, is a feisty accountant (who knew such things existed) from Vina del Mar.  The second, Alfonso, is a lab technician in Santiago who Jesica and Isabella actually met for the first time in Chiloe a couple days previously.

By the end of our walk, we were already making plans to meet for a drink later.  They even invited me to join them on a tour of a smaller island known as Mechuque, located just two miles off the eastern coast of Chiloe in the Gulf of Ancud.

That night we all met at a small bar restaurant in Castro.  As earlier in the day, there was that fantastic group dynamic of two people (Alfonso and Jesica) doing their best to make sure that Isabella and I were given ample time to talk alone.  Yet, this “rare time” was tempered with some group chat.  As my conversation with Isabella evolved, so did my boldness.  After discovering that Alfonso and Jesica were heading back to Santiago in a couple days and that Isabella, who was in the midst of a glorious, welcomed “in between jobs” spell with no set plans for the remainder of an open-ended vacation, I asked her to join me for the remainder of my trip.  Before she could reply, I told her to think on it.

The next day, the four of us took a boat to Mechuque.  There we watched the preparation of a cuisine unique to Chiloe: curanto.  Curanto is literally made in a large hole in the ground.  Hot stones are placed down first with layers of shellfish, chicken, pork, potatoes and sausages above.  On top of that, large green leaves known as nalca are placed with a wet sack, dirt and grass above, creating a crude pressure cooker-like environment.  When the dish was complete, the 50 or so of us on the tour sat at long tables and tested this ancient dish.  As I sat down, I noticed I was only one of two “gringos” and the only American on this tour and most likely on this tiny island.  For some reason, that made me slightly proud.

Thank you for wearing hairnets, ladies.

During the meal, Isabella looked at me and with slightly imperfect yet alluring English, spoke, “I have thought about the proposal you made about the travelling and my answer is yes.  I would like to go with you if that is okay.”

To me, this was jazz.  I did a decent job of suppressing my boyish excitement.  I was trying to talk but at the same time making sure I didn’t botch this choice opportunity.

That night, we all met again in Castro for a drink but this time others from the tour joined us.  One was the only other gringo on the tour, a Swiss gent.  When he heard my last name, he exclaimed, “Coxen?!  Your name sounds just like the Swiss German word ‘koksen’ which means ‘doing lines of cocaine’!”  Was it too late for me to become an 80’s Swiss metal god?  I felt that this small fact about my name was clearly enough to take me to the top regardless of my age or gray chest hairs.

The following day I left Chiloe.  Isabella’s plan was to stay another day in Chiloe and then visit a friend in Puerto Montt for a night.  I directed my car and my leisurely energies to Puerto Octay, a small town on the north side of Lago Llanquihue.  My lodging was located a couple miles north of town.  This guest house called “Zapato Amarillo” or “Yellow Shoe” was run by a fantastically pleasant couple comprised of a Swiss man named Amrin and his Chilean wife, Nadia.  That night I dined in fine style with two older couples: a Chilean couple from Santiago and a German couple in the midst of a six-month, multi-country, bi-hemispheral journey.

This really does look like an absurdly fake background from a 1950′s movie set.

The next morning I made it so with a truly effective breakfast in the dining room that looked out at Osorno Volcano, the same volcano that my room in Casa Ko across the shore looked at.  Looking at this volcano while I ate was not enough.  I had to walk around it, close enough to be fried by one of its deadly burps (although that would be highly unlikely since this volcano has not suffered acid indigestion since 1869).  So I got in my filthy car and drove towards the volcano.  My plan was to hike around an elevated hike that took me part way around Osorno and gave me a potent view of Lago Todos Los Santos.

I turned off the main road and onto a 13-mile gravel road that ended at the trail head.  At the beginning of this gravel road, I spotted a woman in her late 60’s and a young boy on the side of the road with their thumbs up.  Of course, I took this as the international sign of hitchhiking.  Had their thumbs been turned down, I would have taken that as a sign that they were bitchhiking.  I pulled over and picked them up.  I didn’t understand all they said but I did learn that the five-year old boy was the lady’s grandson.  I forget the young lad’s name but I will never forget his drive and ease with correcting my Spanish grammar and pronunciation.

After dropping them off, I carried on up the slowly ascending gravel road that grew narrower.  At the road’s end, I parked my car at a small house that served as a tiny, rarely used café and lodging for a young German man named Karl.  A friend owned the property but Karl had volunteered to oversee this remote outpost for several months.  I looked around and tried to imagine such a sparse existence and its effect on the mind.  He was a man in his 20’s with no TV, internet connection and practically no electricity (save the little he had from a small solar panel).  He seemed to linger as I prepared myself for my hike.  Clearly he knew I wanted to be on my way but I could tell he yearned for some human contact.

When I returned from my hike, he came back out and we talked some more.  He became eager to discuss his existence with me.  I often show a soft spot for those that live willingly or unwillingly on the fringe.  He told me that pumas often haunted him at night but that he had a weapon to defend himself from ridiculous puma attacks.  He then went into his house and returned with a black handgun.

I was starting to get nervous.

I also noticed a knife in a leather sheath hanging from his hip.  Was that there before?  I don’t think it was but I couldn’t be sure.  However, I did remain calm.

He removed the cartridge and handed me the weapon for my inspection.  The gun smelled of oil, telling me he kept this sidearm in fine working order.  I gave it back to him and he reinserted the cartridge.


Oddly, he put the gun back into my hand and said, “Fire it if you like.”

I tried to hide my surprise and confusion and asked, “Uhh, where do I fire it?”

“Wherever,” he replied with a casual tone that I could not yet discern was genuine or not.

I aimed at a pile of wood.  Out of all the inanimate objects in my field of vision, I felt the pile of wood was most likely to be guilty of some reprehensible transgression.   I pulled the trigger.  The sound echoed of the mountainsides dramatically but something was missing.  I felt virtually no recoil.  I told Karl that I expected the gun to kick back when I fired it.  With a smile that most people would miss, he informed me that this handgun contained only blanks that were only intended to scare off animals with a loud sound.  And from what I could tell, it also did a grand job at scaring off any potential café customers.  I handed the gun back to him.

God, this was all bizarre.  The handgun exchange now seemed to me as some sort of test.  Perhaps part of him hoped I pointed the gun at him so he could test his Rambo knife on my American flesh.  Maybe I was imagining all of this.  Maybe these were my final moments on Earth before I was killed by a tortured German hermit.

As he showed me around the outside of his cabin, I looked in a window and saw the type of poster on a wall that you typically see in the dirty back office of a mechanic.  I could also hear the angry sounds of death metal music that could not be played too loud due to the small amount of energy at hand.  I then turned my head and saw an axe freshly stuck into a large log. Or, I thought, I guess I could be killed that way.

But suddenly the tone of the situation changed a little.  He began to show me the remains of a ten-room hotel on the property that burnt down in 1997.  He and the owner were slowly in the process of rebuilding it.  I now felt slightly more at ease; from the little I know, it seems bad for business to murder a tourist before opening your doors.

I bid Karl farewell and realized or hoped it was my imagination to blame for my apprehension.  I hoped my time spent talking to him was mildly therapeutic for him.

The following day I picked up Isabella from Puerto Montt and together we drove towards Argentina.  After a multistage, complex border-crossing procedure, we made it to Villa La Angostura, a lovely, nicely-paced mountain town on the northern shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi.  The day before, I emailed our hotel, Hosteria Pichi Rincon to tell them I was now travelling with a friend.  She asked me if I wanted a room with two twin beds or one matrimonial.  Wow, I thought, this is a crucial junction.  I have to decide if Isabella is going to be a “two twin bed” friend or a “matrimonial bed” friend.  Would she be offended to find a room with only one bed?  Is the fact that she decided to travel alone with me enough to assume a matrimonial bed status?  And if that is the case, will she think of me as a boner-less wisp if I don’t request a matrimonial bed?

Although single, I had felt I had been sidelined with some sort of mysterious, unknown injury that had kept me out of the Lust Olympics for a long time so I felt incredibly rusty with all of this.  But, the previous looks in her eyes told me there was a good chance that she would become a “matrimonial bed” friend (but I couldn’t be 100% sure).

I chose the matrimonial.

Fully comfortable and confident with my decision, Isabella and I followed the friendly manager, Rosana, to our room.  With great anticipation, I waited to study her face.  It would tell me all I had to know.  The door opened.  There it was: basking in the afternoon sunlight, a neat and sexy matrimonial bed.  I turned my head to her but then caught some other awful ogre in the background.  On the other side of the room was also a twin bed.  Damn!  This could screw up everything!  I felt mixed signals were now being transmitted.  I wanted to take that stupid twin bed out the back door and set it in fire in the back lawn.

She put her bag on the twin bed and I put my belongings on the matrimonial.  Damn it.

After unpacking, we sat down on the romance-wrecking twin bed and discussed our dining options.  The hell with this, I thought.

I kissed her.

And the response was positive.

But being classy, respectable and hungry grownups, we took a time out from this baseball game with a runner on first so we could secure some dinner.  After our meal, we picked up a bottle of red wine and a Cuban cigar.  The plan was to walk around while I smoked.  We shared a lot about ourselves on the ride to Villa La Angostura but suddenly the stakes were raised.  The subject of “last time we had sex” bubbled up to the conversational surface.  Before I tell you the amount of time for me, I must warn you that it is Rated G…“G” as in it has been so long that my sex life could be discussed with a general audience or in a Disney movie and “G” as in “Grim”.  I took a deep breath…”Four years.”

“Mentira (Lie)!” she shouted as her mouth dropped and her eyes bulged.  It always gives me great pleasure to tell something to somebody that throws their face and body off the neutral ground they tend to gravitate towards.

Isabella asked me a few times if I was lying.  Once she was satisfied I was telling the truth and the shock subsided, she clung to me a little closer and displayed what can best be described as smiling body language.  We continued to walk a little and after some bold thought she turned to me and asked me with a welcome South American confidence and comfort, “Will you have sex with me tonight?”

Good Lord.  I couldn’t believe this four-year drought might actually come to an end.  Rain clouds were gathering and the glorious sound of thunder grew louder and the first majestic drops were now striking my face.  With an Irish Catholic awkwardness that will never be capable of destruction, I told her, “Well, uhhhh, sure…of course!”

On our way back, we found a small supermarket that seemed to sell everything, making it the perfect target for rioters in the event of an apocalypse.  To frame it even better, it was the type of store where the actual event took place: it was Tuesday at 10PM in Argentina and I was waiting in the line to buy a wine bottle opener, wine glasses, chocolate, chewing gum and some condoms while the man in front of me was waiting to purchase a Black & Decker power drill.  This is exactly the type of experience I fantasize about when travelling.  The lead up was great too.  Isabella and I looked at condoms together which was a first.  I usually procure these scandal makers on my own.  Her presence turned out to be quite beneficial since I had never bought condoms in Spanish.

So there we were.  An unlikely couple making our way back to our charming hotel with a wine opener, a bottle of wine, chocolate, condoms and some chewing gum.  We just couldn’t lose.

Still no idea what the hell was going on here.

The elements of the next day were ones that could all be found on the Periodic Table of Pleasure.  There was a hike, a dip in Lago Nahuel Huapi, some fine trout at lunch, a professional nap and ultimately a fine dinner.  At dinner, I had enjoyed one of the dynamics of Argentina’s struggling economy: the negotiation of the blue dollar (the unofficial rate between the peso and the dollar).  Our sexy American dollars are highly sought after in Argentina to the point that most businesses (and individuals) accept and prefer them.  This is important to know since the official rate, as in the one you would get at an ATM or when using your credit card, is around 8.5 pesos to the dollar while a good blue dollar rate will get 12 or more.  You don’t have to be good with numbers to realize this blue dollar rate will allow you to get 50% fatter and 50% drunker on your vacation.

Before travelling to South America, I had read in a few places that folks you’re exchanging with prefer 50 and 100-dollar bills that are new.  This is why I paid my bank a visit shortly before I left and loaded up on 50’s and 100’s that were paper cut new.  This was all confirmed with the owner of the restaurant we were dining at who was willing to make a personal exchange with me.   As always, Isabella’s perfect Spanish and lady manners provided the perfect lubrication to the process, keeping the deal squeak and friction free.

For dessert, we enjoyed red wine, rare time and a most tender therapy.

A top shelf lady.

After breakfast, we said goodbye to Rosana and drove south to Lago Puelo.  Just before our final destination, we decided to drive through Bolson to look for some good Cuban cigars (which were hard to come by).  I was tired and at one point briefly drove down a busy wrong way while cars came right at me.  In Boston, this would have caused rage beyond calculation.  But here, it got me a guy who playfully said in a conversational volume “Hey hermano”.  He called me his brother and his tone was one that could have been mistaken for friendship.

Once I gathered my wits and got back on the right side of the road, I began to notice how dirty the air was.  At first I thought it was dust that resulted from the very dry conditions and dirt roads but once at our guest house known as Huala Hostel, the owner Dalva told us it was due to multiple forest fires that were not too far off.  The smell, taste and sight of smoke were thick enough to stir up concern at first but the locals did not seem to be too worried with this chimney-like atmosphere.  Well, I guess we could always chill in the nearby lake if the fire knocked on our door.

If you like meat, Argentina is your place.  The quantity and quality is enough to send a vegetarian into a disgust-induced coma.  This night we ate at Luz de Luna and absorbed a meal that, upon retrospect, should have been put into a time capsule to prove to future generations that they will never be as great as we are.  It was merely a leg of lamb on top of some papas fritas but the lamb itself had been slow-cooked for several hours with a combination of rosemary, other spices and clearly a lot of love.  This was easily the best lamb I ever had.  You could practically will the meat off the bone with your mind, requiring little to no physical effort.

The staff was a bunch of sweethearts.  They all seemed happy to be there and gave an inspired performance.  I even had the honor of shaking hands with the chef who humbly described the culinary and enlightened journey of my dish.  And, if you still had some available real estate in your belly after that victorious Viking conquest after-battle meal, you had a galaxy of fresh ice cream to explore (which we did).

Driving back from an afternoon of lake pleasure the following day, it started to dawn on me that Argentina looked like scenes out of Mad Max sometimes.  The landscape was arid and many of the cars were cartoonishly old and battered looking as if it had been 20 years since the last new car was made.  Cars that would have been scrapped before the Great Demise were still being used out of sheer necessity.  These cars had mismatched hoods (and some didn’t even have hoods).  They were often heavily damaged and held together with random materials and some desperate emotion.

Mad Max Beyond Argentina

That evening, Isabella and I ate at the same restaurant again and retired afterwards to Dalva’s relaxing yard.  No matter where we went, Flora the small lady cat was sure to follow.  Flora was one of Dalva’s many animals and once I gave her some leftover trout, she decided to attach herself to my presence.  She even came into our room, jumped into my suitcase and onto our bed.  It was like she was some strange alternative to the evening mint you might find on your pillow in a fancy hotel.

Gurlfriend in my suitcase.
Gurlfriend on my bed!

When we finished breakfast the next day, Isabella and I set sail for a southern village in the southern shore of Lago Traful known simply as Villa Traful.  With no reservation and a positive attitude, we touched down on a lakeside camping/cabin arrangement with marvelous views and food.  During our dinner outside on the deck, we experienced heavenly visuals and another of Argentina’s common elements.  The element I speak of is a stray dog begging at your table.  My first inclination was to ignore these dogs since I knew that no matter what I gave them, they would probably use it to buy booze.  In all fairness, these dogs are looking for a combination of love and food and they’re usually nice but while I’m eating, I don’t often desire the presence of begging creatures.  Sometimes the owner or manager may shoo them away but they always return.

After Isabella and I ate our breakfast the following morning at a table next to our cabin, another cat befriended me and became the lucky recipient of a bowl of milk.

I must have been a deranged old lady with 17 feral cats in her house in another life.

The next day we drove north through cinematic countryside to San Martin De Los Andes.  With its grid street system elegantly placed in a valley on the eastern shore of Lago Lacar, this town was already speaking sweet nothings to me before I even got out of the car.

On the way, however, I did have one minor altercation.  One thing I really do admire about the South American lady is that she not only shows no fear with a roadside pee, she practically embraces the concept.  So we pulled over to the side of the road to release our liquid tension.  While she chose a spot right next to the car, I laughed at her indecent proximity to the road and dashed through some tall vegetation to attain more cover.  Thinking all the while I was the wiser, I returned to the car and looked down at my legs; they were absurdly covered in sharp burrs.  It took about 10 minutes to removes these little f#*ks, a process made worse by the sting I received by the sharp burrs themselves and Isabella’s vengeful laughter.

For the next three nights, we checked into Apartamento Maiten, located in a quiet corner of San Martin.  We had a nice two-floor affair with a warm wooden interior, two bedrooms, a kitchen and an effective little balcony in the back.  The next day, a maid called our telephone and asked when she could clean our unit.  In efforts to preserve global resources and avoid an interruption, I told her not to bother.  “Somos personas limpias (we are clean people)” was the reason I gave her which drew about 45 seconds of powerful laughter from Isabella who overhead my chat from upstairs.

Sensuality takes many forms. In this case, it expresses itself via a combination of illustrious red wine, a long awaited Cuban cigar, a novel about the last century, a suede jacket, the spy-film inspiring location of San Martin De Los Andes, Argentina, and a lovely Chilean lady photographer that speaks just enough English to keep things interesting.

We then made an effort to track down some lodging for our next stop.  Although we didn’t know exactly where it would be, we knew it would on the other side of the Andes in Chile.  First we decided to take a gravel road pass that took us into Chile and then take a three-hour ferry ride over a long thin lake caught between two mountains and ultimately to the beautiful Huilo Huilo national park.

This idea disintegrated when we discovered we wouldn’t be able to book a ferry until three days after our desired departure date so we pursued the idea of a more northern pass, Mamuil Malal.  This pass was meant to be stunning and would bring us through Pucon where I was three weeks previously.  Thinking we might get a good deal on lodging due to the end of busy season, we called several places in the Pucon area to get pricing.  Unfortunately, prices still seemed locked in their high season mode.  Although we didn’t book anything, we decided that the Pucon area would be our next stop and that we would book something later that day.

We headed into town and stopped in at a small bakery.  On the wall, a flat-screen TV was showing the news.  There was footage of a volcano erupting which naturally grabbed my attention but what really caught me off guard were the words below the footage: “Volcan Villarica, Pucon”.  I looked at Isabella and said “Pienso que necesitamos buscar una otra via a Chile. (I think we need to find another route into Chile)”.  The titillating combination of the volcanic eruption and my mastery of Spanish clearly distracted Isabella to the point she no longer owned the mental capacity needed to purchase something at the bakery (that’s how I saw it anyways) so we moved on to a nice little restaurant to order some takeaway.  On our way, we decided to go back into Chile the way we came and to stay over at two of my favorite lodging options that Isabella could now see: Casa Ko and Zapato Amarillo.

Pondering the eruption a little more, I noticed two interesting elements of this event.  One, it seemed like everywhere we went was falling apart after we left or right before we arrived.  Both of us had visited Dalcahue on the island of Chiloe and a week later, a massive forest fire swept through the area.  As I mentioned before, near Lago Puelo, forest fires were popping up like teen dreams before, during and after we left.  Now Villarica blew its stack after I left.  I wasn’t sure if this made me important in some way or simply some asshole that brought about bad fortune.

The other thing of note was that when we tried to negotiate with hotels earlier in the day before knowing of the eruption, I either couldn’t get a lower price or they were booked up.  What?!  A volcano was erupting in their backyard!  Hotels should have been empty and we should have been given entire floors of buildings to ourselves for $5 a night and all the free shower caps we could handle.  These hotels should have been starving for business, given the natural disaster.

In Argentina, school children wear lab coats for some reason. I was told it’s to keep their uniforms from getting dirty. Either way, it’s weird and fantastic.

That night we ate at Torino Bar and Bistro and ate a meal that is still waiting for words to be invented to justly describe it.  All I can tell you is that my dish involved a pile of legendary meat covered in cheese and tomatoes with an appropriate amount of garlic found in each bite.  In the end, a sensational crème brûlée took us to where we needed to be.  We were so stuffed with edible pleasure after this that the only option was to burn off calories at a nearby lousy video arcade.

Other than a couple okay driving games, this arcade left me yearning for much more.

I’m not sure this fine meal was to blame but something unkindly lingered in my digestive track for the next several days causing stomach aches and brown problems.  If I had to guess, my decadence hit a point of critical mass and became more than my body could bear.  Luckily it did not keep me from making it back to Chile and to Casa Ko where we were still able to visit the pristine region of Cochamo.

After a hike, we hung out with the locals that were all sitting in front of a house located at the trail head.  Isabella was lovely enough to find me a soothing cup of Lady Tea (chamomile).  She instead opted to have the traditional drink of Argentina and southern Chile: mate (pronounced mah-tay).  I love mate and drink it at home in the states but I thought it wise to avoid any stimulating drinks in my current condition.  However, stimulating ladies were still allowed in my daily regimen.

It was great to watch how these people drank mate and how communal it was.  There was only one gourd on the table and it was shared by everyone that wanted to drink mate.  Sticking out of the gourd was a metal straw that had a filter on the bottom to keep out the mate leaves that constituted at least 50% of the gourd’s content.  Someone would typically finish the gourd off and pour some hot water back into it.  Then someone else would come by a moment later and do the same thing.  When the flavor weakened, someone would dump out the old wet leaves and replace them with new ones and begin the process all over again.  Watching this, I had to guess that everyone in South America had contracted Mono within the same week decades ago.

At Casa Ko that night, we met a lovely team from Germany named Liselle and Raul.  Raul was originally from Chile but had to leave 35 or so years earlier to escape the harsh political regime of Augusto Pinochet.  Interestingly enough, his ancestry contained no Chilean elements.  He was actually 50% Italian, 25% Spanish and 25% Irish.

Also intriguing was his look.  His skin was tan and his salt and pepper hair was long and straggly and thinning a bit in the crown area.  His short beard was white and politely matched his eyebrows.  He had round cheeks and the eyes of William H Macy.  And these eyes were always filled with life and activity.  Liselle was also noteworthy in her appearance.  She was very petite, probably not standing much higher than the kindergarteners she worked with at her job.  Her hair was short and her smile had the staying power of a tattoo.

Isabella and I became quick friends with these two lovelies.  In fact, Isabella became friends with almost everyone with undeniable ease.  I’m fairly skilled at meeting new people but Isabella excelled at it which brought yet another welcomed level of vitality to my trip.

Pristine happening near Casa Ko.

We left Casa Ko on what would be the first and only day of rain of my month-long sojourn.  Due to the weather and my malfunctioning digestive services, we did something I love doing when travelling: we went to the movies.  To me, watching a movie in a theater is like going to sleep.  Coming out of the theater is like waking up.  You almost forget where you are and your mind expects its familiar environment.  Exiting into a Chilean mall was almost as good as the film itself (Kingsman).

When the movie ended, we drove north to Puerto Octay to stay again at Zapato Amarillo.  We arrived at dinner time and sat across from a vivacious Dutch couple in their early 60’s.  Karla was pleasant and most certainly the “straight man” in the double act.  Her husband Richard was bombastic in both demeanor and appearance.  This tall man had a face that provided no challenge to a caricature artist.  His wild white-grey hair sprouted up from his head and then down the sides like a tuft of overgrown grass.  His mustache and accompanying patch below his mouth were also white-grey.

To be just, his mustache was worthy of a dedicated wing in the Jedi Archives.  It was a giant push broom of a thing with light tobacco stains towards the bottom.  His nose looked as if it had been broken once or twice and hastily put back into place.  And when he laughed, which was often, it was an all-encompassing laughter that somehow turned his face into even more of a caricature rendering.  It was amazing to me how in just two days, Isabella and I met two different couples that we both would have felt comfortable engaging in some sort of multi-couple dancing event with.

The following day, we ran into Raul and Liselle in the German-styled town of Frutillar.  We enjoyed an effortless stroll and dining experience with these two winners.  We got a kick out of all the German themes that kept popping up.  They were reminders that many Germans settled in southern Chile long ago.  While most of these settlers were good folks, there were a minority of Nazis that fled to the region (and many other parts of South America) after WW2 in efforts to escape punishment for their war crimes.  In fact, the night before, Richard and Karla told us how they happened upon some sort of remote guest house in a remote part of Chile that stank of a dark Nazi past.

After Zapato Amarillo, we made the long drive north towards Santiago.  About two hours south of Santiago, we decided to spend a couple days in part of Chilean wine country.  The area we decided on was Colchaqua Valley and the town was Santa Cruz.  During our stay, we pretentiously visited a winery, an experience humbled only by the fact that we were wearing hiking boots.

On our last day, we drove north towards Santiago and with a little time to kill, Isabella decided to take me up in a funicular to the top of San Cristobal Hill where one could see all of the city and beyond.  Back on the ground we ate at a restaurant nearby where I was able to savor some pastel de choclo one more time.  Afterwards we drove to the airport.  We sat outside for a couple hours.  I was waiting for my plane and she was waiting for a friend to pick her up.  The surrounding scenery may not have been dramatic but the weather and company were exotic to me.

We walked back into the airport.  It was time for me to make my way through security.  Before I went in, I paused and said some parting words to Isabella.  She seemed a little sad.  I looked at her and asked, “Are you going to be okay?”  Upon hearing my question, she put a slightly out of character, defiant smile on her face and said, “Always.”