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January 28, 2012

A birthday surprise

A birthday surprise

It was 7PM, and, as we made our evening plans, there were more than a few stifled yawns. Andrew’d been diving all day, we’d been in the sun all day, and Andrew had to be up again at 7AM for two more dives and a PADI test.

“I’ll definitely be more into going out tomorrow,” he said. Antje added that we could then celebrate his (knock on wood) upcoming PADI certification.

At this Inga smiled and said exactly what I’d been about to say. “Antje also has something to celebrate tomorrow.” Antje playfully rolled her eyes.

Antje’s not big on birthdays – and neither was Andrew, as it turned out. He’d had his 30th two days earlier, and, though we’d been with him, hadn’t mentioned it.

We ate on a beach-side, bamboo table, and afterwards walked down the only real “street” – bigger than a golf-cart path and a one-lane road. It’s kind of annoying, this street: motor-scooters putter by all the time, and it’s too small for that to be comfortable; when the Thais go by on their motor-scooter + side-buggy contraptions, you have to physically step off the side. Also, about a third of the tourists, and all the Thais, walk/drive on the left; the others walk/drive on the right. A whole lot of weaving.

On the plus side, though, it’s almost impossible to walk down this street without receiving three different coupons for various “TONIGHT ONLY!” drink specials. They’d always seemed to good to be true, so we usually trashed them. This time we tried one out.

“Are the drinks really 3-for-1?” we asked.


“So we can, um, get 3 gin and tonics for [$3]?”


Oh my goodness.

The only problem was that there were four of us, not three. But that wasn’t a problem either!

“Six gin and tonics, please!”

I watched him pour, waiting for the half-shot screw-over. He did the opposite, 2 parts gin to 1 part tonic. Yikes! But maybe the gin was watered down? A sip confirmed it wasn’t.

So this was going to be something of a night after all, and – on cue – FIRE!

These guys were even better, with chain-ball flames that they did amazing things with, like lighting their cigarettes, or making an angelic halo of fire above Andrew’s now motionless head. We clapped a lot and tried to tip, but they didn’t want the tips, just the clapping.

Somehow Inga’s drink had migrated my way, and in the middle of this amazing situation it reoccured to me:

Antje’s birthday was tomorrow! I had a gift, but now that I thought of it, I could do better.

Under the guise of buying another round, which I did, I snuck out of the bar and jogged toward our favorite breakfast place. They were still open! Why were they still open? It didn’t matter! I explained about Antje’s birthday.

“Would you be able to deliver breakfast to our bungalow tomorrow?”

The two guys conferred with each other in Thai for some time. They didn’t seem TOO happy about the request, but it seemed they’d acquiesced. One of them turned to me.


Oh. OK!

I jogged back to our bungalow place. They were open!

“Would you be able to deliver breakfast to our bungalow tomorrow?”

“Of course,” she smiled.

[note: This woman, whom I earlier implied might be a cockroach in her next life, had already, before this moment, redeemed that initial lie many times over through other small niceties. So I take that comment back unconditionally, and hereby change my Buddhist wager to her becoming, in her next life, a butterfly, seahorse, or giraffe.]

That completed, I jogged back to the bar, bought the drinks for a song, and delivered them to the table.

No one had noticed!

Emboldened, I left again ten minutes later, when Andrew went home, and accomplished errand #2.

This time they noticed the absence, though, and I had to lie (cockroach?) about where I’d been, what I’d been doing, and had to pretend to not be so sweaty. A half hour later, as we prepared to leave, Antje went over to the fire twirlers, hoping, this time, that they’d accept a small tip. Inga and I were alone, and as quickly as possible and in my suddenly really bad German I tried to explain what was planned for tomorrow. Inga looked very, very… confused. I repeated that Antje and I would probably meet up with Inga at around 4, that we’d be doing other stuff until that point. Somewhere in there the content seemed to get lost, or something got lost, but Inga said that she’d already picked up a card, and that we could all sign it–

–Antje was back.

All in all, things had worked out well, surprisingly well. And, the next morning, at 9AM sharp, someone knocked on our door.

The knock had ripped Antje out of a dream, and she sat up blinking, “Who’s that?”

“I have no idea,” I smiled. Then, tray of food in hand, I said, “Maybe it’s just a birthday breakfast?”

She was shocked, or maybe confused, or kept blinking at me. And, as politely as she could, she said:

“But it’s not my birthday.”


“Yes it is.” I checked the calendar.

It was…

…one day before her birthday.

What the hell?


How was that even–


“But Inga said –”

“She meant at midnight,” Antje clarified.

Oh yeah. They do that in Germany.

But how had I lost – or gained – an entire day?

Goddamnit, KO TAO! This could only happen on an island!

Depressed, I settled into breakfast in bed. Antje found it funny, even though German culture generally forbids pre-birthday celebrations as an omen of bad luck. Verboten! “Come on,” she said, “t’s funny. Or did you have other things planned?”

I didn’t tell her that the wheels were already in motion. I didn’t mention that things were happening that could no longer be stopped. Somewhere on this island there was a woman cracking her knuckles and preparing special ointments for Antje’s massage. And that could not be stopped, now. It was beyond my control, and I reclined in bed.

Antje took a shower. Really, the timing was perfect. She was dressed by 10AM, when the masseuse was supposed to arrive.

Luckily she was still keeping busy when 10:05 rolled around, then 10:10. Come on, masseuse! By 10:15, Antje’d had enough, though. “Aren’t we going?” she asked.

I did the kinds of things that people do in movie when they’re clearly stalling. I unpacked and repacked my backpack. I walked into the bathroom and pretended to be doing something in there. I took my wallet out and opened it. Oh look, 5 euros. “Something’s weird,” Antje said. I gave up.

“Something’s supposed to happen,” I said. “We have to stay here.”


“It’s a secret.”

Ten minutes later, nothing had happened.

I left and walked to the massage place. My request the night before – a morning massage for Antje in our bungalow – had caused something of a scandal in that establishment that I never really understood. When I’d left, the four masseuses and their clients, all Thai women, were tittering and looking my way. [note: now that I re-read that, or re-think it, I wonder if the words "for my wife" were lost in translation, and they thought I was brazenly asking for a special morning bungalow session. At the time, though, I thought it was related to sweatiness and gin-reek.]. Anyway, the staff recognized me immediately.

“1 o’clock!” the woman confirmed. “Massage, 1 o’clock!”

What? I’d written “10:00AM” on a piece of paper, and even underlined it. But this was good news.

“We come now,” the woman said.

“No, not now. Tomorrow? Tomorrow, 10AM?”

“Yes, yes.”

“OK, good. So tomorrow, 10AM?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Great. Tomorrow. 10AM.”

At least that was settled.

Happy fake-birthday, Antje!

December 2, 2011

REI v. Globetrotter, part deux

REI v. Globetrotter, part deux

It’s OK for rich people to go bananas in at Globetrotter. It’s OK for people with an American Express Gold card to buy rad stuff that’s from the future at REI. But for backpackers or bobos or the insecure middle class, these places can wipe an entire city off your travel map.

What they tap into, I think, is a deep-rooted human desire for safety, comfort, happiness, longevity, mildew-resistant textiles, dehydrated foods, and rock walls. They sell the illusion of control for situations that aren’t controllable. We have an evolutionary yearning for protection from dangerous animals like bears, sharks, snakes, bugs, scorpions, piranhas, jellyfish, gigantic venus fly-traps, and pigs. We therefore buy products like bear spray or shark strobes. We pick up that brand new cobra whip or a hippopatomus whistle. We completely blow our budgets, both on the defensive as well as the offensive. I bet there are more than a few dry suits out there that have never been wet. I bet there’s a SCUBA diver here or there who wears rock-climbing shoes instead of fins, just to use them.

Because Homo Sapien, god help us. We have a few known weaknesses. Our operating system has “bugs”. One common example is that we cannot hold dry spaghetti in our hand and know with any certainty whether that quantity will satisfy or disgust in ten minutes’ time. Another is Jerry Springer. REI and Globetrotter are weaknesses, too.

Some products that will probably exploit this weakness in 2020:

* Self-activating thermal gel for waterfall face dampness.

* Moss Glue.

* For extreme rainy hiking on slippery mountains, the Poncho-Parachute™

* Hiking boots that look like angry male skunks.

Take Antje’s brand new travel backpack. It’s a wonderful backpack, it was made in Colorado. But at the register it took us and our cashier (two adults and a senior) ten minutes and a phone call to find the complimentary rain sleeve. (Hidden in a pocket inside a pocket.)

Now, I like pockets. But not fifty pockets, not pockets inside of pockets. It’s tiring, unnecessary, and just like that tiny pocket in your jeans, you end up losing stuff that’s physically on your person, which causes double-anger. The backpack company’s called Osprey, and at some point, I believe, they had a Powerpoint presentation called “Pockets, pockets, pockets, pockets, pockets!” and the chairman applauded heartily with his big strong hands. Or maybe it’s just a Chinese manufacturer gone rogue.

Our most recent discovery was a secret compartment containing a five-liter plastic camel-pack that’s connected to a self-sealing hose which emerges from the backpack in a place I’ve now forgotten. Still, it’s pretty amazing. Five liters. Easily enough for an emergency bidet.

That’s not the only upside to pocket proliferation. We’ll be spending Christmas on the road, as well as Antje’s birthday. That makes for some tricky present situations. But you can bet where I’ll hide them!

Besides the backpack, the boots, and the seamless socks, we did buy a few other things. We now have water bottles and mosquito repellant and a first-aid kit. We have plastic cutlery and an inflatable travel pillow and one of those river bags that folds in on itself. We have a small pile of itty-bitties that will make our life more pleasant on the road. But, to the best of our ability, we restrained ourselves in la-la land. After touching more than a few sleeping backs of dream-like puffiness, we walked away.

So, a final warning to all travelers who’re planning to go to these stores: Be wise, be prudent. Don’t watch documentaries or drink coffee before you go, they’re too inspiring. And last, a little anecdote:

On the day of the typhoon simulator disaster, Antje’s parents were also there. But someone you might not have expected was there, too. He’s a chihuahua named Pipo*.
I don’t think he saw what happened inside that simulator. In fact, I don’t think he wanted to. But afterwards, as I was looking down at the pool, he came to my side.

He was trembling violently.

Because unlike us, Pipo knows that wind + rain in a box = 100% asinine. He knows that a little portable dog bowl made especially for trekking is not worth 29 euros. He knows that if you’re standing four stories above a pool then you should having walked up something to get there, damnit, that if you’re a believer in gravity, elevators are a blasphemy. He recognizes the superabundance of faux-dangers and real dangers at these stores for what they are: a danger cocktail. And so he trembles.

You can never have things under control. Just when you think you have things under control, your toenails fall off.

It was time for us to evacuate the store, and Pipo, his bladder.

I’m happy we did.

* Named after a Russian clown.


December 1, 2011

REI v. Globetrotter

REI v. Globetrotter

Everyone knows the feeling. You walk in with good intentions. You walk in meaning to buy hiking boots. After trying a few pairs on, though, you discover the hunting knife you’ve always dreamed of. It could easily kill a bear or cut down a tree, and it’s shiny enough to work as a mirror if you had to signal a ‘copter. Plus, people who kill bears in self defense always end up on the news. Nearby there’s a portable gas stove that you carry around for a while just to feel how light it is. Turns out it’s lighter than you could’ve possibly imagined. Then you discover a traveler’s towel the size of a silver dollar.

It’s only in the parking lot that you realize what you’ve done. It’s only then that you recognize your new hang glider for what it is: a hang glider. Also, it keeps trying to fly away on you. So you belay it to your new kayak and sit inside for a little think. “I’ll work a few extra hours next month,” you promise yourself, “and the next one, too. I’ll eat more ramen.” Unexpectedly you begin flying. Later, as you touch down on your lawn, your face turns red:

You forgot the hiking boots!

Situations like this happen every day at REI. In Germany it’s called Globetrotter. Their mission is the same:


These stores are the true “first stop” for most travelers, and there’s faux-danger all over the place.

At Globetrotter there’s a plexiglass ice box and a typhoon simulator, both for testing the thermal and waterproof qualities of jackets. That’s a good idea, isn’t it? I tried the typhoon simulator once, and it was a terrible experience. It’s all about the “jackets” in that department, and when there are too many jackets around, you develop extreme tunnel vision and fail to take into account any other portions of the human experience before stepping inside the simulator. As Antje hit the button, my heart was pounding and I hoped the goretex would hold. It did. But at about the 3-second mark I realized the goretex was delivering the water with perfect efficiency down my jeans and shoes, which were not only not waterproof, but wanted to keep the typhoon forever, as a souvenir. By the 10-second point they had.

One good thing about Globetrotter, though, is that if you’re soaked and don’t really feel like shopping anymore or being conversational, you can lean on the railing for a few minutes and look four stories down at the deep blue pool used for kayak trials and SCUBA training. It’s very peaceful. Then you can start shopping again, partly to keep warm.

It’s a writer’s duty to avoid cliches, but Globetrotter employees are about as German as [ your cliche here ]. They’re astonishingly well informed about their products and will cheerfully tell customers that approximately 40% of them are low quality “Scheisse.” You can actually be holding an expensive product in your hand, having crossed the mental “buy/not buy” threshold, only to be told, “This doesn’t work.” On the other hand, they usually follow up with something that I’ll call the “Qualität upsell”. When Antje and I decided we needed waterproof jackets, for example, we were steered away from the (expensive) jacket section toward the much cheaper poncho department. Once there, we got the Qualität upsell. It goes something like this:

Employee: “Do not buy this poncho, the stitching is not so good. Water can go into the poncho because of the stitching, they have made it wrong, unbelievable. But this one, the stitching is inside, the material is very thick, very heavy. It is more expensive, but you can use this absolutely forever, maybe for 50 years or something, maybe for your children.”
Customer: “Yes, I try it.”

Apparently jackets have an inherent flaw. Backpack straps can push water through a jacket, even “impermeable” ones. On the other hand, gigantic ponchos that billow up and over the backpack itself – a whole lotta fabric going on there – are a good way to ensure that you’re both waterproof and sensational.

My hiking boots were also an issue. My first two (cheaper) choices were rejected immediately by the sales rep. “Your feet will be wet, there is only goretex here, on this portion.” When a suitable pair was found, I was instructed to go home, blow-dry the leather until it was hot and the pores had opened up, and to then apply wax thoroughly – better twice. If not, the leather would crack. At this point Antje turned the boots over and asked (in German) if the soles would need replacing at some point. “Yes, you will have to replace the soles in ten years, there is absolutely no question.” The sales rep turned to me. After using these boots, he explained, for example on my first extended trek, I was to put the nozzle of a faucet inside and fill them to the top with ice-cold water. I asked if he could repeat that sentence in English for me. He did, and it registered the same. I asked him if he could maybe explain why I had to fill my boots with ice-cold water, what the purpose of that was. “Because this way,” he explained, “if there are any sodium crystals from your sweat then you can wash them out. If you do not then they will eat away the material inside.” Oh. That also reminded me: we should buy some hiking socks. I mentioned as much to Antje, who added that they should be seamless. Once, when she was in Norway on a scouts trip, her socks weren’t seamless and her toenails fell off.

Besides the fact that no one at REI would have been able to casually switch over into German to explain such a relevant product concern as the one above – “Lieber auf Deutsch?” – there’s another difference here. Had the REI employee even learned about that little sodium-related detail, he would have forgotten it, marijuana would have borrowed it from him. And it wouldn’t have mattered.

Because at REI the customer is KING, and if a king fills his boots with ice-cold water, it’s only because he wants to, because he’s never tried it before – not because it’s necessary. At REI, if Customer picks something up, it is perfect for him, it becomes pure gold, and he should buy it immediately. The employee is to the customer what a cloud is for an angel.

So if REI lets you sell yourself, goes along for the ride, and then rewards you for it at the end of each fiscal year, Globetrotter says the word “Qualität” until you begin to believe. Why buy low-quality “Scheisse,” anyway? What am I, a loser?


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