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Robert 'One-Man' Johnson: Places in the World

Night Driving in Thailand - January 21, 2015



Having lived in Japan and rented cars in England and New Zealand, I have driven on the left side of the road before.  True, I occasionally turn on the windshield wipers to signal a turn, but  as long as I repeat the mantra, "Keep to the left. keep to the left!"  I am, generally speaking, OK.  Nervous, but OK.


But driving in Thailand is a bit more challenging, especially in rural Thailand and even more so at night.  For one thing, two-lane roads seem to be more than two lanes.  It is normal and acceptable for people to pass down the middle.  It's simple really.  The person being passed moves over and the oncoming driver does too.  This creates a sort of a third lane down the middle.  A grateful driver may flash their lights in appreciation. (Nobody in Thailand ever honks their horn.)  The shoulder-less roads have reflector marker posts on each side at just the right height so they look just like the reflectors on vehicles themselves.  It starts to get a bit confusing and, on mountain curves, your hair begins to stand on the back of your neck.   


Huge, double-decker tourist buses on the all-night drive from Bangkok seem to have the understood right-of-way.  They plow down the middle of the road with impunity. For some reason they do not use their headlights at night.   Wide-eyed long-haul bus drivers, who frequently sniff at benzedrine inhalers to stay awake, peer into the moonlight at 70 miles per hour even in the towns. If they have an accident, they may just jump out of the bus and run into the jungle to avoid prosecution.


After driving for a while, you might begin to relax a bit and get used to it all.  You convince yourself there seems to be plenty of room on the road, except that now there are also small extra added lanes on the outside of both auto lanes to accommodate the sudden horde of motorcycles.  It starts to get a bit crowded and chaotic.  Add to this the fact that the motorcycles and scooters usually have one to three passengers, including babes in arms, and that some of the motorcycles have side-cars stacked high with various goods and produce.  


In some areas, great numbers of pedestrians use the motorcycle lanes as well.  On their way to town for the evening or home after work, frequently clad in dark clothing and walking two abreast holding hands (both men and women), they casually step aside, if necessary, off the road slightly.  They don't seem to be concerned at all as their clothes flap in the breeze of passing vehicles.  


Packs of street dogs bark and snap at your wheels as you pass.  Roosters chase hens and stop to peck at flattened snakes and lizards.  In a final note, add the occasional elephant, almost invisible in dark grey, but with battery-operated running lights hanging from forehead and butt, strolling home after a hard day of work in the teak forests.


White knuckled, butt puckered, you hope the Buddha is watching over you.

Golfing in Thailand - January 20, 2015

 

Margery and I decided to take our October break in Khao Lak, the area on the Andaman Sea that was so hard hit by the Tsunami five years ago.  We flew into Phuket airport, rented a car and drove the 100k up to our resort on the beach.   It was what we would call a five star place.  Our room even had a swim-out pool area where you just step into the water outside your sliding door.  She found the place online and it was only 200 bucks total for 7 nights.  The hotel was almost empty.  We only saw a few other people the first two nights, although a large group of Russian tourists showed up yesterday.  It was low season because of the monsoon, but you got the idea that people are still creeped out about the events of five years before.

I had brought my golf clubs with me and decided to go out solo.  Margery said she would spend the day beach-combing and swimming and maybe have a spa treatment.  I drove about 20 minutes south to the Tulambu Royal Navy Golf course.  I checked in and paid my greens fee and, as I was heading to hole #1, two geezers were just going into the clubhouse.  I asked them if they were a twosome and could I join them?  They smiled and agreed.

One was a Brit named Peter, 77 years old, but amazingly fit.  He had been living in the area for almost 25 years.  The other guy, who bore a striking resemblance to my uncle Vernon Valentine Johnson, was a Swede who had come to Thailand 10 years earlier after his wife had died and he has since never left.  His face looked so compellingly familiar I had to ask him where he had come from in Sweden.  He replied, "Skane".  Wow!  That is the area where both my grandmother and grandfather emigrated from in the late 1800s.  I told him of my lineage and how much he resembled my family members and he was amazed. We joked and laughed the whole way like long lost relatives. 

Peter was very nice, but a bit more reserved.  He had few stories, but when I made a poor shot, he just said, "Never mind. It's a beautiful day!"  Neither of them were long hitters, but both were very straight and consistent with all their shots.  We played match play and I only won two holes.  Erik, who had broken his back a few years before, swung only with his arms but still hit short but straight shots onto the fairway and won four holes.   Peter was a lefty and at 77 still played really well.  He won six of the holes and the rest were ties.  They were long-time members and really knew the course well.  It had the most water and sand of any course I have played.

The golf course, though difficult, was beautiful.  It ran along the seaside with a mix of palm trees, hardwoods of some kind, and a weird tree with roots that went down from high limbs and then bored into the ground.  Birds of all kinds were chirping away. Lots of exotic flowers were growing everywhere. Our caddies were really excellent (caddies are mandatory in Thailand).  My caddie was adept at reading my mind and handing me the right club, giving me my water bottle when I was thirsty, and also offering good advice on putts.  She laughed and smiled the whole time.  She was caddie number 31 (they did not have name tags).

The subject of the tsunami came up as the three of us were were teeing off on Number 16, a beautiful hole with the sandy beach on the right for the entire distance.  Erik, the Swede, said that he had been having breakfast with his Thai wife and saw the gigantic wave coming.  He was on his second floor balcony and when the water came, he was just plain confused.  He remembers he first got up on his chair and then he got on top of the table.  He and his wife both grabbed the edge of the roof and held on for dear life.  There is a big reef running alongside his beach area and he reckons that that is what saved his life.  He said he saw his car float away out of the corner of his eye. 

When the wave subsided, he ran down to where the car had beached, opened the car door and let the water out, put the key in and amazingly started the car and began frantically trying to help find survivors in the area.  Peter the Englishman had very little comment about that day.  Many people lost friends and relatives.

The Tulambu Royal Navy Golf Course is also a barracks area for Thai sailors and their families.  All of them were killed that day in their housing units.  The club house, which was of heavy concrete construction survived, although the windows were blown out and the place was completely filled with sand from the beach. The staff on duty that day, all of the golfers, and the caddies out on the course were washed away and drowned except for one caddie who climbed up into a tree and held on as the 60 foot wall of water washed through. 

31 must be a lucky number.

Golfing in Thailand Part 2 - January 19, 2015

 

With the Red Shirts and the army at odds, Bangkok is not a lot of fun right now.  Margery and I decided to take off for the weekend on a combination sightseeing and golfing expedition to Kanchanaburi, on the River Kwai.  It is about 150 kilometers due west of Bangkok and only about 50 kilometers from the Myanmar (Burmese) border. 

Kanchanaburi is the famous site of the World War Two prisoner camp and the bridge and it is hard not to whistle that familiar theme from the movie as you head down the road.  We had hired a van and driver and were joined by Nancy and Mike Harris, originally from Iowa, and like us, long time overseas educators.  Mike is retired and Nancy is a math teacher at ISB.

Yahoo Weather for Kanchanaburi said ‘105 degrees Fahrenheit’.   Heat index was casually listed as, “Feels like 115 degrees”.  That’s pretty hot, I guess.  We settled into our rooms at Nichigo Golf Resort.  We were the only ones there.  The troubles here have caused many people to cancel their holidays, plus, I suppose the heat might have put a few people off.  Our AC was not working so we had to change rooms.  A sign outside room 224 read, ‘No Spikes Inside’.  Our wooden floor looked like someone had failed to follow the rules.

Margery and Nancy made arrangements with the driver to do some exploring and shopping the next morning.  Mike and I made tee times at 6:30 AM.  We met at 6 for an ‘American Breakfast’.  Two funky looking eggs, two slices of mystery meat, some mashed potatoes, Tang, a couple of pallid looking chicken sausages and a slice of pineapple.  I decided to try the ‘Thai Breakfast’ the next day.  Couldn’t be much worse.  We paid our greens fees and walked out to meet our caddies.  We had already decided that maybe renting an electric cart would be a good idea.  115 degrees, remember! 

The course was incredibly beautiful, green and lush with mountains in the background, water everywhere with birds of all kinds making a lot of noise.  We never did see the monkeys, but you could hear them.  The trees were in full beauty ranging from that wonderful spring green to white to riotous Flame Trees the color of firecrackers.  I hit my first tee shot long but slightly to the right, at the base of a gorgeous tree.

 As I stepped up to hit the ball, I instinctively leaped up in the air.  I am not sure what a nano-second really is, but it seems an appropriate measurement.  I dropped my club, frantically brushing off about 100 fire ants.  They got in at least four tasty bites before I could retrieve my club, gain my composure and take a ‘free drop’.  It was my first encounter of that day with the animals inhabiting the course. 

We progressed through the round and I seemed to be the designated driver.  After another tee shot, we jumped in the cart with the two caddies on the back.  As we went around a curve, I drove over what I thought was a tree branch across the cart path.  It was slim and about 5 feet long, hardly noticeable as the rubber wheels passed over it.  The caddies simultaneously let out a sound between a whoop and a shriek.  Mike said, ‘Snake…big snake!’  The caddie said, ‘Cobra!’, with her Thai accent on the final syllable.  I did not have rear view mirrors.  I asked Mike if he wanted me to turn around to check it out again.  His answer, ‘Nooooh!’  I stopped and looked behind me.  The snake was gone, back into the woods along the cart path.  I think all of us were a bit more vigilant for the rest of the round.

Although we saw lots of birds in the water and rising off each green where they perhaps were gathering sand for their gizzards, we didn’t see any more non-feathered life until some time in the third nine. (Yes, we did 27 holes both days!)  As I raced around another corner, I swerved hard to avoid a 4 foot Monitor lizard which seemed never to consider the possibility that I wouldn’t avoid it.  It was dark green with yellow stripes along its body, much like an American garter snake.  It had a forked tongue.  It looked bored.

The only other truly memorable event of the day (I didn’t shoot well enough to make any television highlight reels) was when I lined up to hit an errant second shot on number 6.  I could see the green and the flag fluttering in the slight breeze.  As I went into my practice swing, the caddie said, rather sharply, ‘Sai, Sai!’  That means ‘left’ in Thai.  I disregarded her advice and hit a great shot, under some tree branches and directly toward the pin.  Unfortunately, the green for number 6 was 30 degrees ‘Sai’ from number 9, the hole I was aiming for.  I took a triple bogey on that one.  The caddie appeared somewhat disgusted.

The final morning, after our 27 holes, we trundled our gear to the van and drove back to Bangkok.  Our apartment is in the extreme northwest of the city, well away from the barricades and the burning car tires and the location where yesterday 8 people died and 150 others were injured.  I don’t think I will go downtown tomorrow night to sit in with the band at Nomads Bar.

Chiang Mai Massage - January 18, 2015

 

Margery, Fran (our friend from Milwaukee) and I flew to Chiang Mai for the weekend.  Chiang Mai is an unusually beautiful place in mountainous northern Thailand.   There are about a million people in the whole area, but the central old city is very small, only a couple miles square.  About a hundred temples and wats exist in this confined place, intricately decorated with bright paint and gold leaf.  A muddy river bisects the city and there are also many klongs, or canals throughout.  As a result, the town has a very peaceful feel to it.  It moves at a slower pace than Bangkok.  Additionally, its tourism is largely backpackers, young people seemingly on a mission to explore and enjoy Nature rather than to just 'party'.  

There is less evidence of the sleaze of some of the other Thai tourism centers such as Pat Pong or Pattaya or Koh Samui. There seems to be an emphasis on ‘eco-tourism’ and ‘adventuring’ as attractions for the 21st century hippie-types.  The whole vibe hints at an almost college-town atmosphere.  The biggest fad right now is zip-line tours that take you through the forest canopy at high speed.  That kind of experience, along with white water rafting, mountain biking and bungy jumping, is perhaps less attractive for gimped-up senior citizens like us.

A strong attraction for Margery and Fran was the shopping.  Textiles, especially brightly woven stuff from the hill tribes (Hmong and Karen mostly) are everywhere.  Lots of shops sold loose gems and finely made jewelry.  Street-side stalls and blankets on the sidewalk displayed carved wooden elephants and amulets.  There is a Saturday open market, a Sunday market and a Night Market, which only opens after dark.  I can only do about a half hour of look/stop, look/stop, pick up/examine, before my eyes glaze over and I need to retreat to some sit-down place for a glass of beer with ice in it…yes, I have been corrupted by Asian customs! 

But, the food, the food, the food!  Fiery coconut curry soup with egg noodles (called bahmee), braised chicken legs and fresh pickled cabbage and a topping of crunchy deep-fried egg noodles with a squeeze of lime.  What a mélange of textures and tastes!  The dish is called Khao Soi Gai and it is my favorite, especially washed down with Chang beer, a powerful (6%) beverage.  I am also a fool for deep-fried air-dried pork covered with sesame seeds.  It is almost like pork jerky but more tender and delicious.  The spring rolls are different from those of China, filled with black mushrooms, sprouts and minced pork.  There are many kinds of hand-made sausages, all very garlicky and spiiiii-cy!  Follow it all up with chunks of sweet, fresh, juicy mango over sticky rice and covered with sweet coconut cream to cool the fire.

One downside of the trip was air quality.  Farmers are burning the rice fields, as they must, three times per year.  As we landed the night before, we could see fires everywhere. There was a blood-red-sunset haze and you couldn’t see the mountains in the distance.  Next morning, my eyes were burning and before long, my asthma kicked in.  I was reminded of my time in Japan and I had to haul out the old Albuterol inhaler for a few snorts to ease my breathing.  I put on one of those masks that we bought at a street side pharmacy, but I think they almost make matters worse as there seems to be even less air coming in with it on than with it off!

Still, I hung on into the day and after visiting yet another temple, we stopped for fresh pineapple juice and then decided that we should take a break and get a massage.  Our seven years in China have both Margery and me addicted.   We have discovered the joys of Blind Massage and their ability to relax and take away fatigue and knotted muscles.  In Asia, blind people are often employed to give massage and we have learned that they usually are the best.  They seem to ‘see’ with their hands and have an uncanny ability to find and remove knots and relieve soreness.  We found a place named Chiang Mai Conservation Blind Massage #2.  It looked clean and inviting to us. 

We paid our 220 baht (7 bucks) for 90 minutes and filed into a room lined with mats on tables. We were fully clothed.  Fresh clean sheets were put down and pillows provided by sighted attendants.  Three people entered.  One felt his way along the wall and to my table.  The other two, both female, seemed to know exactly where to go.  Margery’s masseuse?  masseur? whatever, massage person…was profoundly blind, with deeply sunken eye sockets and the stereotypical appearance of a person blind from birth.  She was extremely soft spoken but carried on conversations with both her colleagues during the whole procedure.  The other two people were chatty as well, paying attention to us only with their hands.

My guy had an extremely powerful grip and I knew immediately I was in trouble.  He started with my feet.  I can’t understand how a person can cause such pain with a fingertip.  I grunted and asked him to be a little bit more gentle.  Perhaps he had a hearing deficit also.  After brutalizing my feet and calves and up to my thighs, he had me flip over on my stomach and commenced to reefing on my back, often bearing down directly with the point of his elbow.  He found some spots on my shoulder blades that caused me to moan in pain.  As I was gasping for breath, Margery’s massager turned toward me with a beatific and gentle smile. Both Margery and Fran burst out laughing as she advised me in a soft voice in perhaps the only English she knew, 

“No whining.” 

My Vietnamese Haircut - January 17, 2015

 

I haven't had a barber cut my hair since 1983 in Turkey, and that was an awful experience.  It was only our second week in that country.  I didn't have any language, but thought I could handle it with a small Turkish/English dictionary.  Well, I got the word order completely wrong and instead of taking a little off, the barber only left a little.  It was military style for the next couple of months.

So, I'm walking down the street in the beautiful little town of Hoi An, Vietnam, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Margery is off shopping somewhere and I have some time to kill.  I pass by this tiny little street-side place and a guy says, "Haircut!  Two Dollah!"  For some reason, I am compelled to go in.  I did need a haircut and Margery has been too busy lately.  I have been hacking away at it in the mirror for the past few weeks and it looks pretty scruffy.  So, I sit down in the single chair and begin to give directions in English to the guy.  It turns out the only thing he actually does know in English is "Haircut! Two Dollah!"  Uh, oh! 

He takes out a pair of thinning shears, which is anachronistic, as my hair is already thin, but…Hey! Who wants fat hair?  I notice that he is somewhat cross-eyed as he whistles some sort of Vietnamese folk song.  He snips away wildly for a minute or so with the thinning shears. He then shifts to the real scissors.  I am a bit nervous, but I can see in the mirror that he is doing a pretty good job, so I begin to relax.  In less than five minutes, the haircut is finished.   I think I am done. 

He sweeps off my grey hair on to the floor to mix with the dyed black hair of everyone else in the city and then grabs what looks like a medical scalpel.  He slides a new blade in it and then dry shaves the back of my neck and around my ears. Still OK. Then, he pulls my shirt back and starts to shave down my back.  Hell, I’m a Swede!  I don't have any hair on my back!  Then he lays the chair back and starts to shave my face.  No lather!  He does deep inside my ears and then shaves my forehead!  Scraping away inside my nose, on my cheekbones, outside my nose, in between my eyebrows, my eyelids!  What kind of hair could be growing on your eyelids?  

He dribbles some aftershave on his hands and commences to lightly slapping my face.  Biff! Baff! Biff!  It doesn't hurt, but somehow seems undignified.  Next, he puts a cold, damp cloth on my whole face and begins to vigorously rub everything, including my eye sockets.

He takes the cold washcloth off and grabs a long thin tool with a little scoop on the end.  He puts on a light, like a miner's light, on his head and, before I can say anything, he is deep inside my ear canals scraping away.  I feel like I am going to throw up, but I don't dare move for fear he will do some damage.  Then he takes a small brush and spins it around in my ears, I guess to clean out the debris.  That finished, he puts some drops in my eyes and again, before I can say anything, he cleans out my tear ducts with a needle.  Visions of dripping infection and blindness pass through my mind, but it is over in a second and doesn't hurt.

Satisfied, the barber gives me a quick massage, a violent shoulder rub followed by a rhythmic whacking and pounding with his hands. Suddenly sweeping the cloth off my body and spinning like a toreador, he turns to the street and yells out,   "Hair cut! Two dollah!

My First Guitar - January 16, 2015


Still dark on Christmas morning 1955, as the rest of the family sleeps, lights on the tree lead me from the bedroom.  I had made it pleadingly clear to my ma and pa that the only thing I wanted this year was a guitar, but I had been told it was ‘out of the question’.  I had failed my father previously with an unenthusiastic attempt to learn the dreaded accordion bought the year before. Unable to master sight-reading music, bored by dated Italian melodies and polkas, I finally asked my father to please return it to the music store.  He had been sorely disappointed.  No more money wasted on musical instruments!

But, in the twinkling light I saw it.  The stenciled name on the peg head said, “Harmony”.  In a paper bag, tied with ribbon to the neck, was a silken cord, a tuning pipe, and a small instruction book.  I couldn’t wait. I attached the loop of the braided cord to the peg at the bottom of the guitar and tied the other end to the peg head.  I stood to look at myself in the mirror, admiring the guitar, affecting an Elvis Presley pose.  Suddenly, the silk loop gave way and the guitar crashed to the floor.  The sleeping house was awakened by a wail.  Mother, father, and four brothers stumbled from their beds to witness a softly sobbing boy holding a guitar with a crack that extended completely around the lower side of the instrument.  Not a good start to a 12-year-old’s Christmas day. 

In the afternoon, somewhat recovered, but still feeling disgraced and disgusted, I retired to the basement rec-room and examined the tragedy.  I squeezed the two halves of the guitar together and used strips of masking tape to hold the pieces in place.  I opened the Nick Manoloff Five-Minute Guitar Book to the first page, fingering the chord diagrams, one by one.  I remembered the tuning pipe with its six notes.   I blew into it, turning the tuning keys until the notes were approximately the same.  The first song in the book was, Oh Susanna, key of D.  The strings were thick, the action high, and the pain in my little fingertips was immediately intense.  Determined not to disappoint my father again, I spent the afternoon repeating the chord patterns until blood spilled from my right forefinger as I strummed away.  Water blisters formed on each of my left fingertips.

In the ensuing days of Christmas vacation, the pain disappeared from my now-callused fingertips and I learned to use a home-made plastic pick to strum the strings.  The chord forms came faster and more fluidly, and I used some of the chords from Oh Susanna to play Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel.  I re-examined my masking tape repairs of the guitar.  The sound was acceptable, but the cosmetics bothered me.  The cheap plywood guitar had been made to mimic the look of a 1950s automobile.  Two chrome strips screwed to the top of the guitar bordered the two-tone paint job of copper and silver.  It was truly grotesque.  I found some white glue and carefully glued the two halves back together, using more masking tape as clamps.  Removing the chrome strips, I filled the screw holes with some plastic wood and, after masking off the neck, painted the entire guitar a glossy black.  Cool!  After the paint dried, I took white adhesive tape and disguised the glue joint with a ‘racing stripe’ on each side of the guitar.  The new look induced a new period of practice and improvement.  I sang and played for my family that evening with my brothers beating on kitchen pots and pans for percussion.  Love Me Tender…

Spring came and baseball season arrived.  The guitar went into the closet, instantly forgotten.  As the school year came to an end, one sunny morning I rode to class on a bicycle borrowed from my brother.  My thoughts were focused on after-school try-outs for the Babe Ruth League that began on the weekend.  Suddenly, a truck rushed through the intersection, skidding into the bicycle and throwing me through the air to land at the base of a large tree.  My right arm was shredded from the broken headlight on the truck and I lost consciousness.  Lying in the hospital with 55 stitches in my right arm, I realized that baseball was not going to be happening for me that summer or perhaps ever.  The doctor and my father advised me that perhaps playing the guitar would be good rehabilitation. 

A few months later, a small insurance check arrived.  The paltry 300 dollar award was shared between me and the needs of the family, 150 bucks for a new TV antenna for the roof and 150 for a new Danelectro guitar and a Gibson amplifier for me… guitar number 2.  57 years and 26 guitars later, the story continues.

 Almost 60 years of guitars

The list:  (does not include project and experimental guitars not used on stage)

1.  1950’s Harmony   (junked)
2.   Danelectro U1 single pickup, black (trade-in)
3.   Gibson ES135 single pickup electric (sold)"
4.   pre-war Gibson J-45 acoustic  (trade-in)
5.   60s Framus 12-string  (trade-in)
6.   1963 Martin D-28 (sold 1990)
7.   60s Univox electric (trade-in)
8.   60s Gretsch Anniversary model (trade-in)
9.   1967 Gibson ES 335 (trade-in)
10. 1936 National Duolian *
11. Bischoff custom 12-string (sold)
12. 1950s Epiphone Emperor (trade-in)
13. 1950s National ‘Map’ electric (sold)
14. Steinberger headless electric (sold)
15. No-name Travel guitar (Japan) (junked)
16. Warmoth/StewMac strat clone headless *
17. Ozkarpat headless acoustic  #1 prototype (junked)
18. Johnson arch-top Electric  (junked)
19. Ozkarpat headless acoustic #2  *
20. Ozkarpat headless electric 12 string  *
21. Eastman  910CE archtop jazz (sold)
22. Eastman El Rey electric  *
23. Eastman 804 archtop  *
24. Eastman El Rey A0 (prototype) *
25. Johnson Triolian  (sold)
26. Korean parlor acoustic (prototype)   *
27. Klein clone (custom built by Anothai Thititan of Bangkok)  (sold)
28. 70s Krafter 12-string acoustic  *

Music in Japan - January 15, 2015

 

I just woke up at 7:40 to the cheery sound of the maid yelling, "Sawatdee Kha!  Sabaidee Mai Kha?"  (Good morning!  Are you sick?)  I think my 9 hours last night will finally bring me back to normal after an exhausting but enjoyable trip.  Eight consecutive nights in clubs with requisite after-hours beer and food, most nights until 3 or 4 AM.  That is the blues life I experience whenever I play music in Japan!  These folks surely know how to party.

 My first night was in a club called Little Village (  it is named after the Ry Cooder/John Hiatt album).  The owner is Koichiro Taniguchi who wrote and sang Country Boy on my Flusteration album.  The place was packed at 22 bucks a head (although it is about the size of most American living rooms).  I suppose 35 people were shoehorned in.  Little Village has a great sound system and I was joined by my host, Hikita on bass.  Koichiro got up and we did duets of Stray Dog Blues and Country Boy.  I came outside at the end of the show to snow falling from the Nagoya sky.  It was very cold and I was happy I had borrowed a coat from a friend on arrival. 

The next night I played an American style sports bar called Shooters.  The clientele was almost all gaijin, mostly English teachers and industrialists, many old friends from the 90s.  I was joined by Ishi-san, guitarist on three of my CDs on hot electric guitar and a few guest numbers by a guy known as BB Kawai.  His expertise is a very good reproduction of the BB King guitar sound, so I added him on a few blues tunes.  He saw Buddy Guy once and so had installed a wireless unit and now walks through the crowd as he plays his solos.

Daytimes I like to jump on the subway and wander around Nagoya.  There is a temple area called Osukannon that also has lots of used goods stores and is a center of Brazilian immigrants.  The largest population of Japanese outside of Japan is Brazil.  Still, things cost so much here!  A bowl of feijoiada was 17 dollars.  Just a bowl of black bean soup!  Costs have really risen since we lived there in the 90s.  Then, a single piece of celery was then an astounding buck fifty.  Now, it is 2 dollars and 50 cents!  A bowl of ramen noodles is 12 bucks. The taxi meter starts at 5 dollars and a short trip downtown is 35 bucks.  70 dollars to the airport.  Draft beer in clubs is 7 dollars and a glass of Guinness 12.  My host, Hikita drinks I.W. Harper whiskey and one night his bill was 85 dollars!  Luckily for me, everything was comped, food and beverage! 

As I was walking around Osukannon, I saw a place selling Turkish food.  The guy inside, obviously not Japanese, said, Hello!  I responded in Turkish and his jaw dropped.  It turned out he had only been in Japan for a month and it was the first Turkish he had heard spoken.  I had a doner sandwich and invited him to come to hear the music.  He showed up that night with his tiny Japanese wife.  He had met her when she was touristing in Istanbul and the ensuing romance ended up with him running a restaurant in Nagoya.

I was scheduled to have a night off on Monday night, but we played a tiny little club called Forest.  I had never been there before, but the proprietor is a friend of a friend and also a sort of guitar player who really just wanted me to play there so he could join in on a few numbers.  It was OK by me and he filled me with Guinness and home-made Italian food afterwards.  Oh, he also slipped me a ten thousand yen note which is worth about 110 bucks these days.  Takobow, who had played on my Bruise album, showed up with a djembe and filled in the rhythm along with the new Foot Stomp Box that I found in a small shop in Osukannon.  It was made of wood and sounds really great.  

Tuesday night I played a joint in downtown Nagoya called Otis.  They had a 60s Rock-Ola jukebox prominently displayed and filled with vintage 45s of R and B stuff, mostly Muscle Shoals albums.  The guy had pictures of Otis Redding all over the place.  I obliged the vibe with renditions of Dock of the Bay and Hard To Handle and he was very pleased.  Oddly, the opening act was a young Japanese woman dressed like an American Indian with braids, buckskin outfit with fringe and cowboy boots.  She played slide guitar on a wooden bodied resonator guitar and sang Bonnie Raitt covers.  She played well, but had a serious pronunciation problem as she sang, "Rove Has No Plide?" 

Wednesday night was a return to the first place I played in Nagoya, sort of a home away from home.  It is called Country Joe and has been open since 1974.  It has a mix of blues and country music playing 4 nights a week.  I had a great crowd and Tangiku, a percussionist from Tokyo was down to play the rest of my nights on the mini-tour.  He has an unusual kit. He sits on a cajon, one of those Mexican rhythm boxes and plays snare drum, high hat, loads of tiny little cymbals and bells and noisemakers of all types.  A tasty player with a jazz sensibility.  I let him take a lot of solos to the crowd's delight.  Ishi-san was also there on guitar with Hikita on bass.  It was Country Joe’s birthday.  He is the same age as me. 

Thursday night I played another new club called Misfits.  It is run by an American guy with a Brit/Japanese guy who cooked and also sang original songs.  Part of that deal was sharing the stage with this guy.  Also, a young Canadian woman sang some Bonnie Raitt covers with her Japanese guitar player boyfriend.  The club was so small, and the vibe so much like a living room, that all this seemed to work.  I think it only held 20 people.  They served macaroni and cheese to the clientele along with copious amounts of Sapporo beer.

Friday, I split the bill at Armadillo with a local country music band calling themselves Austin City Limits.  It was humorous to see these tiny little Japanese guys and the female singer all gussied up in full regalia.  Cowboy boots, big hats, belt buckles the size of hubcaps and fringe everywhere. Buck Owens songs on a vintage '54 Telecaster.  The female singer came off the stage in the middle of numbers and, in a small area in front, did some line dance moves.  My trio opened and then we joined the band for a few songs.  I sang a verse and harmonized on Country Roads.  It all sounded pretty good with that Tele guy doing some amazing trebley chicken-pickin'!  A very happy vibe and I have gotten 2 emails from the players already telling me how much they enjoyed the exchange.

Saturday, I was back to Little Village which I had played one week earlier.  Koichiro and his girl friend run it as a two person operation with both of them cooking, waiting tables and tending bar.  If it is possible we even had more people in on the final night.  Several people attended at least 4 of the 8 evenings in town so I tried to vary the material as much as possible. One guy, a wine salesman originally from New York and a graduate of the CIA, the culinary arts institute, brought in a couple of bottles of really good red wine to share with me.  That raised a few eyebrows, but he didn't seem to care.  He promised on the next trip to have a paired wine dinner for me.  I could dig that!  He had bought both of the albums I had with me the first night and enjoyed calling requests from them. 

My flight was at 11 Sunday and Japanese security is very tight, so I decided I had to leave for the airport by 7:30.  We ended up watching The Godfather on Hikita's big screen TV while drinking beer and eating sashimi chicken, and squid poached in various Japanese liquids, mirin, sake, soy sauce, squid ink etc. Big bowls of rice. No sense going to bed at 5:30!   

Hikita's driver picked me up promptly at 7:30 and I slept on the drive to the airport. Hikita has an architectural business and is very rich.  He has lost his license for DUI, so he has a daytime and a nighttime chauffeur.  I stayed in his million dollar condo.   I had my own room rather than some futon on the floor in the corner and a Tempurpedic bed and pillows. His 26 year old Indonesian wife waited on me hand and foot and cooked some of the best food I have eaten in my life.  I got up one morning to halibut cheeks broiled with soy sauce and butter, marinated mackerel, baby squid sauteed (it must be in season), steamed broccolli with mayonnaisse, miso soup (from scratch) and the wonderful Japanese rice.  She is learning how to speak Japanese and how to cook Japanese as well.  I usually watched her prepare meals and picked up some tips about Indonesian food.  Just another perk of the trip.  

So, in spite of the 700 dollar plane ticket and the high costs of everything in Japan, I brought home some money and had a wonderful time.  It has taken me three days to get back to normal.  Thursday night I play at the local bar, Friday I am going golfing with the boys, Saturday playing music again.  Next week is the Blues festival.  I am tired, but life is good and I am back with Margery again.  Now I am off to the gym to try to get my aerobic health back (every Japanese male smokes and the air is rough in the bars) and I have a bit of a beach ball underneath my tee shirt from too much rice!  It is 93 degrees outside in lovely Bangkok!    

Paris on 350 dollars a day - January 14, 2015

 

When we came to Bangkok to work, it was on a one–year, temporary fill-in contract.  We thought it would be nice to get out of the Midwest cold, and the extra money would help to lessen our sticker-shock at the cost of living in 21st century America.  When the school asked Margery to extend that temp contract for one more year, well, that is really what you would call a ‘windfall’. 

During our time in Istanbul we had become close to a wonderful Turkish couple, Fusun and Arman Eligolu.  As we spent time together during that first five years together, and after several returns, we frequently discussed our mutual goal to someday ‘get to Paris’ and spend some time there.  As Margery and I entered retirement in 2009, we actually wrote to them and sadly stated that, Alas! Paris was beyond our means.  That is, it was, until our recent windfall!  We quickly rationalized what well could be a very expensive vacation, and Fusun and Arman were excited at the chance for us to fulfill our long time dream. 

We asked the Elioglus to please find us a ‘reasonable’ hotel during the April break this year.  We placed that aspect in their hands because Fusun is fluent in French and both had been to Paris several times before.  Well, reservations were made in a ‘reasonable’ hotel.  Six nights at 159 Euros per night!  Gulp!  Do the math!  Over 200 bucks a night!  Still, we figured, OK…we would bite the bullet and live it up, just one time. 

We flew into Charles De Gaulle airport and, trying to save a few bucks, we took the train into town.  18 dollars each (instead of 90 dollars for a taxi.) When we got to our hotel, we found that it was in a wonderful location, not far from the River Seine and all the famous sights of Paris.  The hotel itself was clean, but the room was tiny!  So tiny that the toilet was in one ‘closet’ and the bath in another.  When you shut the toilet door and were sitting, the door touched your knees.  The latch was tricky and if you bumped it slightly, it swung open to present you, fully a-throne!

No matter.  We didn’t come to Paris to sit in our room. We were off immediately to see the town.  We walked our legs off and believe me, it is the most beautiful city in the world.  We saw museums every day, strolled through incredible gardens just coming into spring bloom, and ate some of the most fantastic food in tiny little local places.  All the food and wine was wonderful and the bread is to die for.  But, we quickly discovered that the dollar is pretty weak against the Euro.  Breakfast was included in the hotel fees, but lunch in a small bistro was always 50 bucks or more, depending on what you had to drink.  Evening meals were even more expensive, often pushing a hundred bucks per person if you had a couple of glasses of wine.

As the sixth and final day of our vacation approached, we felt that we would certainly be glad to return to Bangkok, where food and the costs of daily life are half what they are in the States and miniscule compared to France.  We had had a wonderful time, but we had overspent our budget by several times. 

 We said goodbye to our Turkish pals, who had an afternoon flight, and began packing ourselves for our noontime flight the next day.  We went out for a final supper together and, on our return to the hotel, we found out the bad news.  

The airport was closed due to the volcanic eruption on Iceland!  They had no idea how long the closure would be, perhaps a week, but maybe as much as a month!  We pondered our limited funds and the huge dent we had already made in them.  We went the next day to the offices of Malaysian air.  They took our names, but asked us to ‘Check the website’.  The website said, “Call this number.”  We called and it was always busy. You were put in a queue to wait sometimes for 20 minutes long distance before suddenly having the connection severed.  Hey…I don’t think anyone wants to talk to us! 

We thought about taking a train south and flying from Italy or Greece or Turkey, but the trains were ‘on strike’!  All rental cars were booked.  There was literally nothing to do but wait.  We went into survival mode.  We moved to a cheap hotel, cheap being only 100 Euros or 130 bucks a night!  The carpet was frayed and seedy, but at least you didn’t have to step over bodies to get inside.  Instead of fancy restaurants, we bought a loaf of bread, some cheese and a rotisserie chicken and a bottle of cheap wine.  The chicken cost 25 dollars, but hey, it lasted for three frugal meals.  

We sat on the balcony of our hotel and overlooked the people on the street.  Fashion models with cigarettes in hand, clowns and beggars, and men with ostentatious silk scarves strolled the sidewalk past musicians who played with incredible virtuosity, a bucket for tips at their feet.  I kicked myself for not bringing a guitar.  I think I might have eased the finances as a ‘trapped’ American with a sign around my neck, “Kicked in the Ash!.

 Margery emailed her sister in Iowa and asked her to call the bank and tell them of our situation.  They said they would cover us if need be.  It all would work out.  As days went by, we relaxed somewhat about the whole thing.  I mean when things are beyond your control, what you gonna do?  We saw more galleries and gardens (the upside) and ate more wonderful food (both a positive and negative).  I had Foie Gras (goose liver) five times and inhaled duck confit and cassoulet!  We saw several wonderful musical groups performing on the street and in the subways.  We found a great Turkish restaurant with jovial Turks who seemed delighted that we could speak to them.  We went to the local flea market and found a club called Django where gypsy jazz guitar players were in session, my highlight of the trip!

After a week, the airport suddenly re-opened, but ‘only for those with current flights and boarding passes!’  Our tickets, sadly, were for a week earlier and the internet said they would honor only current ticket holders.  Our efforts to contact the airline had failed, so in the early morning we trundled our bags several blocks to a train station and rode out to the airport.  There was a tremendous queue at the Malaysian Airlines ticket counter.  It was the same for all airlines.  We took a deep breath and looked for someone official. 

Stifling the whining panic that we actually felt, we carefully and cheerfully told our story to a French employee who appeared to be a supervisor.  To our surprise, he told us that he would put us on the standby list, in first position!  And so, on chance and luck, we boarded the plane and flew to Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur, much lighter in the pocketbook but pleased that we had just had two irreplaceable weeks of April in Paris!

 As a footnote:  We found the notion of the surly French to be a myth, seemingly perpetuated by comedians and media people.  Every person we encountered, waiters, hotel staff, store personnel, bus drivers and people on the street, all were extremely helpful and downright friendly to us.   Vive la France!

The Sea Turtle - January 13, 2015

 

We had begun to despair ever witnessing the laying of the eggs.  We had made two annual trips of 70 kilometers up to ‘Turtle Beach’, north of the Saudi Arabian city of Yanbu.  Each night, we camped out in our tents silently awaiting the arrival of the turtles.  Mounds were everywhere as well as tracks made by the heavy bodies as they trundled their unwieldy half ton shells up from the beach to a suitable nesting site.  Each night we waited but inevitably sleep overcame us.  In the morning, like a Santa Claus visit, evidence of freshly dug and covered nests was there before our eyes.  How could we not have heard the sound?  In bright sunlight, we wandered the shore, finding broken egg shells mixed with dead and occasionally mutilated baby turtles.  The predators obviously were having nightly feasts on the hatchlings.  We knew that only two of each thousand eggs would yield adult turtles who would then return to the same beach several times a year, following the full moon to their parental destiny.  Perhaps next year…

In the third year chance was in our favor.  Quietly waiting on shore, we sensed, rather than saw or heard, the ghostly figure as she moved from waves to shore and slowly onto the sand and rock-covered beach.  We carefully followed her quest, her movements lit by the beam of a small flashlight.  She began to dig, casting sand three or four meters behind her in rhythmic hails.  As she worked, the great beast went into a trancelike state and we carefully advanced for closer observation.  We watched as her initial movements became more and more precise.  The hole now was only a foot in diameter but half a meter deep and, as dry sand yielded to damp, clearly was becoming a receptacle for eggs.  Unexpectedly, the digging turned to scrabbling in increasingly frantic attempts to remove a large piece of buried coral.  Forming a human chain we lowered one of our members, arm extended, into the hole timing the reach with the movements of the desperate flippers.  There!  Success!  The offending piece of coral was extracted and digging continued.  As we lay down beside her on the sand, we noticed copious tears flowing from her eyes.  Suddenly, ping-pong ball eggs covered with a slippery coating began filling the hole.  We lost count at 80.  The hole was the refilled with sand, carefully patted until, with new purpose, the turtle turned and made her way towards the water and the waiting moon.

As we watched her departure, a faint skittering sound off to our right was heard.  A tiny baby turtle, newly hatched, was headed toward our flashlight.  Confused by the light, it was actually climbing away from the water, away from safety.  We reoriented the baby by using the light as a beacon. As it made its U-turn toward the shore, the baby suddenly fell into a hole previously dug by an unsuccessful mother, perhaps frightened by a desert fox.  The baby turtle tried to scramble out of the hole, but fell back each time with the disintegrating walls.  Newly-born and low on energy, it was becoming fatigued.  We carefully reached in and deposited the baby on the incoming tide, using the flashlight’s artificial moon to guide it on its fateful journey to adulthood.

shoe shopping - January 13, 2015

 

I bought a pair of Crocs the other day.  I swore I would never do that.  They look so dumb and ‘nerdy’. I still have bad memories of those Kalso Earth Shoes in the 60s. An unwanted pair of Birkenstocks is gathering dust in our closet in Iowa City.  I used to buy mail order shoes from Mason Shoe Company of Chippewa Falls just to avoid the association with hippie footwear and fad brand names.  Furthermore, I hate to just ‘follow fashion’ and I am repulsed by the whole mass-marketing routine.  I usually cut the logos off stuff as soon as I buy it.  In silent rebellion, I even sometimes magic marker over visible brand names. 

When did this happen?  When did people start walking around wearing ‘advertising’ for big companies?  They used to pay people to stroll around with ‘sandwich boards’ advertising various products.  Now it seems, we all do it for free. I can actually recall the first time I saw a T-shirt with an advertisement on it.  I thought it was ludicrous.  Why would someone pay to wear an advertisement?  Now, they have whole stores just selling clothes with ads on them.  (OK, I admit, I do make an exception for the advertisement of beer on t-shirts.  I mean, how else is a guy able to demonstrate his taste, discernment, and masculine solidarity.) 

Back to the shoes…

So, we were in a shopping mall in Bangkok not far from our apartment complex.  I accompany Margery on these expeditions as a gesture of love and friendship.  It has eased our 38 years together and it is a small price to pay for ‘tradeoffs’, such as my snoring, late night pub ramblings, golf outings, and music store visits to research ‘new gear’. 

I believe, like most rational folks, that women ‘shop’ and men ‘buy’.  That day, I wasn’t shopping for shoes.  I had no intention to buy shoes.  I already have: a pair of shoes to teach in, a pair of funky flip flops, running shoes, and a pair of those Velcro sandals that Margery coerced me into buying.  I don’t need more shoes!  But, there it was, this huge, brightly lit store featuring these crazy new plastic clogs that everyone seems to be wearing. 

Margery said, “Just look!” 

I knowingly replied, “They won’t have size 13!”

I figured I was off the hook.  (We are in the orient where men’s feet are seldom more than size 9.)  I took my accustomed seat in the ‘husband’s chair’ that every smart storeowner provides for men waiting out the interminable period where the wife picks up and carefully ‘feels’ every single item in the store.

“Here’s a pair of 13s!  Please! Just try them on.”  

So I did. 

Damn!  They were even lighter than my running shoes!  No laces! (In our house, since living with the customs of Turkey, Japan, China and now Thailand, it is ‘shoes off’.) I hate standing on one foot, fumbling, stumbling around, trying to tie up my shoelaces without falling on my butt.  Even the Velcro things are a pain to put on and take off. 

I stepped into these odd shoes and I walked around in the store for a bit. Whoa! They felt really, really comfortable!  They were plain black with weird little holes in them, good arch support, seemingly skid proof on the tile floor. No break in.  Instant comfort!  Still, I balked. Dweeb shoes!  Have some dignity!

“You don’t have to shine them!  If they get dirty, you can just wash them with water! Chefs and nurses buy them because they are so comfortable! They are supposed to be good for your back!  Mario Batali, that Italian chef on the Food Channel, endorses them!”

I wear my Crocs everyday. My fashion independence seems to be vanishing, faster than my hair.

Friday Morning, Saudi Arabia - January 10, 2015

 

In the beautiful city of Jeddah, the early morning sun wakes us, streaming through gauzy curtains in a 5 star hotel on a seaside avenue.  Friday is a day of prayer equivalent to Sunday in most western existences.  Stores are closed all day and people are either in their homes or at the mosque for one of the five daily prayers.  What a chance to explore this ancient city, close to Mecca, Medina and the holiest sites of Islam.

After a sumptuous buffet breakfast, we head to the parking lot, climbing into the dust-covered Land Rover.  Turning out into empty streets, we travel through the downtown through the empty marketplace into the old city with its rabbit-warren streets then, onto a long seaside boulevard filled with gigantic multi-colored sculptures.  We get out of the car and wander on the strand looking past the huge artworks to the morning haze over the Red Sea.  The temperature begins to rise with the sun and, as midday approaches, we look for shade.  It may be a dry heat, but it is intense.  We don’t perspire at all.  Our skins are dry from instant evaporation.

Rumbling stomachs tell us it is time to return to the hotel and its wonderful restaurant.  As we make our way back, we encounter a roadblock with milling people and Saudi police.  We stop, back away and try a different route.  It is also blocked.  A rule of thumb in overseas life is to retreat from crowds because we have learned that curiosity can be dangerous.

Yet another roadblock is avoided till miraculously, a fourth route diverts us wrong-way down a one-way street, through an alley that scrapes the rearview mirrors on both sides, finally revealing the salvation of the hotel parking lot.

With a sigh of relief we enter the hotel to find a queue of people exiting purposefully, obviously on their way somewhere, with common intent.  The doorman smiles gently with hand on heart and says, “Sir and Madame, are you not going to the beheading? Please hurry, it will begin in only a few minutes” With shocked and shaking heads, we hurry to the elevator and up to our suite.  Opening the curtains we look down from our luxurious room to a city square packed with portable bleachers erected overnight already filled to capacity.  We see a stage lined with dignitaries and a white-clothed man with checkered headdress and a gigantic sword.  Three cowering figures await the inevitable.  The imam rises slowly with a hand-held microphone.  Through the cheap and tinny sound of the public address system comes the pious call to the heavens. 

“Allah hu akbar!  Allaaaaa hu akbar!”

We close the curtains and turn CNN up to full volume.

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