Sunday, June 3, 2018

Don’t Get Mad, Get Lost

Over a late Sunday lunch today, nibbling at comfort food, my friend KO and I got around to reminiscing about a trip we took to Thailand some years ago.

We had a couple of days to kill in Bangkok. So of course, KO being KO awoke one morning and declared, “I must see the River Kwai or I will die.” (I am prone to exaggeration so shush!)

And so we toddled over to our nearest tourist information centre and asked the lady there how to get to the River Kwai. Her eyes turned to saucers as she exclaimed, “Kwaiiiii?!”

“Yes,” said I, thinking that this trip would probably take a few hours by bus. We could hop on in Bangkok, hop off at the River Kwai, KO would stare solemnly at the water and declare her will to live and we could all go about our normal Bangkok business by the early evening.

As if!

My heart sank as the lady traced a long, meandering line across the map to indicate where we’d have to travel. It was absolutely miles away. No direct buses. This was going to take a while. She scrawled a name in Thai on a piece of paper and handed it to us, telling us to show that scrap to people on the first bus out who’d then help with further direction. This was before Google Maps and great internet connectivity became a thing, by the way.

To date I have no idea what was on that scrap of paper, just that I hung onto it with every fibre of my being. After a bit of bumbling around, we made our way onto a local bus and showed the conductress, a middle-aged loud-voiced lady, the paper. She gave us our tickets.

We stayed seated on that bus for a very long time, an ominous feeling gathering heavier about us as we got further and further out of the city. Finally, multiple stops later, I tugged at the conductress’ sleeve as she walked past and pointed to the scrap of paper. She went ballistic and gestured and wailed and pointed.

Yes, we had clearly overshot our stop by miles. We hopped off the bus with the conductress’ voice ringing in our ears and flagged a cab back to a bus/van station we’d seen a little way behind. Wandering into the van station, we realised to our horror that nobody spoke any English. All we had was our scrap of paper and a lot of gesturing.

The details get fuzzy at this point as it has been quite a few years since this happened. There were a lot of people gathered around us – cabbies, some van personnel and some curious bystanders. There was a lot of gesturing and shouting – for some reason people thought that the louder they shouted in Thai, the higher the probability that we’d understand. Some paper drawings and dumb charades later, we had a vague idea of what the recommended plan of action was.

And then we were on our way in a van with a bunch of strangers. We had no clue where we were headed or how we’d make it back to Bangkok. I think we switched vans or hopped into another cab somewhere. We relentlessly pressed on, determined to get to Kwai come what may.

Finally, we made it to a busy bazaar of sorts. There were rows of stalls selling trinkets and junk jewellery, enthusiastic hawkers and even more enthusiastic cycle rickshaw guys. With some relief, we realised we were closer to a touristic area and people here spoke and understood a smidge of English.

Jostling through a crowd of excited vendors and curious people – half a dozen of whom called out to KO as “Indian” and me as “Pakistani” – we found a cycle rickshaw who agreed to take us the remaining way to the banks of the River Kwai.

We wandered up to the Burma border, along the banks of the river, munched some lunch with views of the river and a gigantic Buddha statue, hopped along the toy train tracks and finally decided to head back. This entailed more cycle rickshaws, vans and a bus that dropped us in the middle of nowhere in the twilight, but close enough to flag down a passing cab and get back to Bangkok city without too much of a dent in our wallets.

In all, we’d hopped 11 modes of transport that day and put our trust in dozens of strangers - all this to see what is essentially a rotting old bridge. Would we do it again? Not likely. However, it makes for one of our most fun Thai memories. Getting lost and just going with it rather than getting mad and going ballistic. We were tired, hot and quite worried, but not once did we turn on each other, snapping the other’s head off for being an idiot. The shared exasperating experience cemented our friendship even stronger than before. I don’t remember too much about the River Kwai, our destination. But I do remember getting there. As Elli, old boy, said, “The journey, not the destination matters…” That, and your fellow travellers.

Here’s to 30+ years of knowing KO.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

On Onsen: Bathing Like The Japanese

Japan has been on my bucket list for absolutely ages now – well, at least since I’d watch incomprehensible episodes of "Takeshi’s Castle" on cable TV for a daily shot of amusement. More recently, Aziz Ansari’s "Modern Romance" piqued my curiosity about Japanese society in general. With ‘Sakura’ i.e. the cherry blossom season approaching, the time was ripe.

I’ll get around to describing the rest of my travels around Japan soon (hopefully), but the one activity that has evoked the most curiosity in people around me after I returned was my visit to an ‘onsen’ – a Japanese public bath (with natural hot spring water). So here’s that blow-by-blow account of how it went.

Nagano is hot-spring country if you’re on the island of Honshu. There are numerous hot-spring-fed ‘onsens’ in the area so it was the natural choice to, quite literally, take the plunge.

At the entrance to the onsen, I was greeted by a large sign saying, "Bathing of people with tattoo will be refuse" with something that looked like a truncheon next to it. Thankfully, I haven’t got over my cowardice enough to brave a tattoo, so all was good in the hood. Next up, a row of coin-operated lockers to deposit my shoes.


Padding over to the lobby area, I gaped at a ticketing machine with dozens of options and prices, all unhelpfully marked in Japanese. However, the staff was very helpful and a lady immediately came over to explain it all and help me get the right ticket. For a paltry 650 Yen, I could shower, steam and soak in all of their various temperature-controlled pools as well as the outdoor one. There were dozens of other options such as renting or buying towels and so on.

Heading over to the bath entrance area, there was a clear demarcation between the entrances for men and women. Luckily, this was boldly marked in English signage as well so I avoided that boo-boo I once made back in the hot springs of Kulu (India)…. But that’s a story for another day; suffice to say that there are some traumatised men in that region. If you’re one of them, sorry, I didn’t mean to point AND laugh; yes, at 15 degrees C, it was a ‘very (ahem) cold day’ and it’s understandable you chose to dive into the pool in panic.

Anyhow, back to my onsen….

I entered a large and brightly lit locker-room area. It had rows of coin-operated lockers for storage of all belongings and rows of mirrors and hair dryers for after. It also had a lot of naked women. I realised instantly that I was bringing the average age down in the area by at least 50 years.

Stripping off and depositing my clothes and belongings in a locker, I made my way towards a completely steamed-over sliding glass door. The door slid open just as I approached and a genial old lady stepped through. Smiling and bowing, she said, “konnichiwa” (hello) and I returned the greeting. Just like two people passing each other on the street. Only we’re starkers.

There were rows of hand showers and taps, each with a mirror, a small plastic basin lying on a tiny plastic stool and bottles of shampoo, soap, and conditioner. I was glad I’d read up about onsen etiquette because the Japanese are particular about it and I really didn’t want to screw up.

Showering is serious business in Japan. Doubly so at a public bath where it’s customary to make a huge show of really scrubbing yourself clean before getting into the pools to soak. Women were sitting on the tiny stools, dipping wash cloths into the plastic basins and scrubbing themselves sore. Not many used the hand shower, preferring instead to keep filling the basins from the tap and applying the old dip-and-scrub technique.

I tried to follow suit, but was no match for my neighbour who sat there scrubbing herself for what seemed like forever and showed no signs of finishing even when I decided I was done at least 20 minutes later. After rinsing off the stool and replacing the basin atop it as I’d read I should do, I plodded over to the pool area.

Now, etiquette tells you to gently lower yourself into the pool. No diving and splashing, no dipping your towel into the water, and no putting your head underwater. It’s considered inappropriate to drop your towel into the water or wring it out into the pool. The Japanese women usually fold their towels and place them on their heads while they soak. I felt silly doing that and was paranoid that I’d end up dropping it into the water in my attempt to balance the thing on my conical head. So I folded it up neatly and placed it on the side as some helpful travel guides had advised.

As I soaked in the first indoor pool, I quickly became aware that I was possibly the only one with long hair and it probably shouldn’t be left free, bobbing around in the water around me. Casting a discreet look around, I spotted just one lady with slightly longish hair and she’d clipped it up. Thankfully, nobody had reprimanded me yet and I’d had the good sense to bring a hair clip into the shower area along with my towel, so I quickly piled the unruly tresses up on my head and secured them with the clip.

Nobody paid me any attention as I climbed in and out of the half a dozen different pools of varying temperatures, chemical compositions, and jets, bubbles and other sensory delights. The onsen I’d chosen is a local hangout and there were at least 15 to 20 local residents. Mostly octogenarians who clearly all knew each other. People sat around in pairs or trios, chatting away happily. Some soaking, some paddling their legs in the water.

As I walked past others standing around with their baskets of toiletries engrossed in pleasant conversation, it felt so ordinary. Like the genial old residents of my area at home meeting each other at the local market on Sundays and having a chinwag. Only they’re all starkers. This must be what naked dreams feel like?

That’s when I noticed a woman crawling on all fours. Yes, starkers and on her hands and knees. She was slowly crawling toward the shower area. This placed me in a sort of dilemma. Was she in trouble? Ill or dizzy? I didn’t want to stare, more so because her bum cheeks and things were in my direct line of vision. Should I go over and try to help?

And then I realised that none of the other chattering patrons were paying her any attention. They continued to stand around yammering while she slowly crawled past them. The sheer ridiculousness of the situation hit me. I felt that awful laughter bubbling up inside me. My lips were flinching in an anguished attempt to not crack a smile. Time to extricate myself quickly and hurry out to that outdoor pool where I could face the hillside and snigger unnoticed.

Gingerly making my way around an old lady who was quite comatose in the outdoor pool, I sank into the deliciously warm water and took in the view of the surrounding hills and the steaming tiny waterfalls feeding the pool that created a comforting, steady rippling sound.

Bliss? Yes, this was it. I closed my eyes and soaked for the longest time here. The water was magical. My skin felt tingly and was turning the brightest shade of pink while my entire body felt light.

The water can feel uncomfortably hot after a bit. I could feel my ears burning from the steam and my heart starting to beat very quickly. I moved further out of the water to take in some of the cool air, hugging the smooth round stones on the side for support. I felt slightly intoxicated and figured that I must now closely resemble the hot-spring-bathing snow monkeys with their expressions of intense bliss and semi-consciousness.

My prior reading up about the onsen experience had told me that light-headedness, racing heartbeat and so on were warning signs. And so I knew my body had had enough. As I made my way back to the shower area, side-stepping the yakking ladies on my slightly wobbly legs, the spectacle of the crawling lady made sense.

After quickly showering, reclaiming my clothes and drying my hair, I was ready to face the world again.

Would I recommend this? Absolutely. If I lived in Japan, there’s no other way I’d rather bathe. I’d be right in the thick of action with the bantering ladies and their dangling toiletry baskets.

It feels completely normal, natural, and is incredibly relaxing. For the prudish and coy: take heart. Nobody bats an eyelid or looks at you even. As the sole foreigner there, I attracted negligible attention. With all that steam, hot-spring-induced borderline delirium, and possible geriatric short-sightedness, you’re well covered. Just ask butt-naked crawling lady.

----------------

Pointers for travellers in the area:
  • This onsen, Uruoikan, is run by a hotel but is open to the public from 10AM to 6PM
  • It’s convenient as it is only a 20-minute walk from the city centre (Nagano station)
  • Apparently, there are free shuttle buses from the city centre too
  • The water is fed by natural hot springs and not artificially created
  • No tattoos allowed
  • There’s a restaurant and well-priced bakery if you’re ravenous after
  • You can buy/rent towels and other things
  • The staff speaks decent English and will help you figure it all out, no worries
  • If your own nudity bothers you, you could wrap a towel around yourself while moving from shower to pool area, but you will definitely stick out like a sore thumb and attract more attention to yourself that way 
  • This is a good bet if you’re keen on onsen but haven’t the time to make it to places like Shibu Onsen (which don’t have many baths open to the public, only guests, in any case)





Thursday, April 27, 2017

'X' marks the rot

Are you in touch with an 'ex' despite being in a happy relationship currently? Then, read no further really. You and I are from very different schools of thought.

Think about it. Anything that has the word 'ex' in it, is either dead, dangerous, useless or prone to leaving you with a painful rash. Off the top of my head: Tyrannosaurus Rex, explosives, excrement, Dexter, sexists, exhibitionists, hexobarbital, vortex, sexagenarians, spandex, sexagenarians in spandex….

A mopey face greeted me over a cup of morning coffee. I used my equivalent of the popular millennial ‘wassup’ greeting, which is to say, I said nothing but raised a quizzical brow.

“My ex is getting married.” Heavy sigh.

“And what about your current?” I asked with what I hoped was a sympathetic enough face. The same face I adopt when someone announces they stubbed a toe against a fire extinguisher and yet their request for a medal of valour was brutally quashed.

“My current? I’m married to her.”

“She must be really great if you married her.”

“Well, yeah. But….” The mopey veil cascaded over the face again.

My phone rang. A friend. I picked it up expecting to hear the usual chirpy “Hello!” Instead, I was met with a series of stifled sniffles and sobs. And it isn’t even flu season yet.

The story began with, “So my ex was in town and….”

You get my drift. Exes are bad news any which way you look at them. Some want to get back with you, some want to get their backs on you, you want to get back with some, get your back on some. It’s all very backward.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m stuck in a bad game of Scotland Yard. Everybody’s in pursuit Mr. (or Ms.) X. It makes for a really long, tedious game that really isn’t going to end well for anyone.

If you’re still hung up on your ex, then you’re being extremely disrespectful to your current partner. You aren’t doing the relationship any justice and you’re undeserving of any kind of love and effort they shower on you. Stop being a louse and cut somebody loose.

If that somebody is the ex, first off, get them off your damn Facebook and stop accidentally liking their pictures from 8 months ago on Instagram. There are enough psychopathic stalkers out there without you having to throw your clown hat into the demented ring.

When it comes to exes, the writing is quite clearly on the wall: Life allows you to exhale and exhilarate, if only you would exterminate, extinguish, extricate, excise, expunge, exclude, extirpate….

Mind Your Pees And Chews



The other day, I was in a public restroom at my office building. I was privy to a fascinating conversation. One sided. Simply because the lady in the next stall was busy talking on her cell phone while doing the deed. 

I mean, don't get me wrong. I was deeply happy for her since her son scored in the high 90s in his first grade exam and her aunty's hysterectomy went off without a hitch. However, I really did not need to know about the other son's persistent loose motions ("curry consistency") triggered by mangoes or the details about her father-in-law's prostrate examination.

The cell phone has successfully killed what remained of basic courtesy and simple decency. How often have I found myself seated at a table for a meal, pushing a bunch of potatoes around on my plate for amusement, simply because the three other people at the table are immersed in their phones?

The rot extends even further than the cell phone.

Have you ever opened a door for someone only to have them march through without so much as a nod of thanks as if it was your bounden duty to open doors for all of humanity? I constantly find myself stepping out of the way to avoid someone sauntering past without a thought for personal space. 

And as if adding insult to injury, the other day, this bumpkin not only shoved past me, but added a loud, ripe belch as he waddled past. I figured the belching may be some kind of pre-protozoan mode of communication for as he padded up to his desk one morning - the time people usually greet each other with a "hello" or "good morning", he let out yet another of those trademark belches. The only thing louder than those animalistic belches is his chomping and smacking while devouring lunch. 

The extent to which basic decency has eroded is appalling. 

I recently found myself in the role of a recovery agent - tackling someone who'd spent somebody else's money and then dodged repaying it for well over a year. Yes, my life gets interesting like that.
As it turns out, I am clearly better at pushing a person’s buttons than I am at pushing lift buttons (on account of being a 'germaphobe').  The money was repaid, but not without a whiny note about how difficult it was to have to pay and how "wrong" I was to have asked for it. 

Really? You spend somebody else's money that was not yours to spend in the first place (loosely referred to as "daylight robbery") and then crib about having to pay it back? That's a bit like stealing somebody's peanuts and then grumbling that they give you gas, no?

Shamelessness.

People, just stop it already. Stop with the bad manners, the screen gazing, the crudeness, the opportunistic selfishness. And the public flatulence.

That's all.

Please.

Thank you.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Woman's Career Is "Just An Option"



Not to panic, people! Sexism is alive and well. Just ask Trump. Or just call on people in my supposedly progressive neighbourhood.

Today, I was told that having a career is "just an option". Would such a statement have been thrown at a man? Absolutely not. Because, apparently, only men can have real jobs. For women, a job is just "an option". 

Deferring to the speaker's age (and possible signs of senility), I didn’t bother to retort. Sometimes it’s just best to let the half-wits think they’ve had the last word. Their words hold so little weight, it takes a whole lot of idiotic words, tacked clumsily together into barely intelligible ludicrous statements, for them to even become quote-worthy, you know?

Just what would these half-wits advise that us working women do with our lives? Marry men with "real jobs" and support them I suppose? In my case, this half-wit would rather have me spending my time looking after the day-to-day running of the apartment building in which we live. Don't get me wrong: I admire anyone who can take care of that AND keep up with a job that has round-the-clock demands. I am simply not cut out for it. I twirl and twirl and twirl, but Wonder Woman I am not.

Say, since my career is "just an option" that I can give up, who is going to pay to put food on my table? Since I’m a woman, clearly I should know my place and sponge off my parents perhaps? Or dip into the piggy bank of my brother, what with his real career and all. Or just depend on some random Mr. Money Bags, eh? Or wait... Jesus! He da man! He'll provide if I pray hard enough.

In this day and age, I am aghast that a woman’s career is still taken so lightly. I speak for both single and married women. 

For instance, single women friends have told me how they’ve been taunted for "having no responsibilities". As if marriage and babies are the only real responsibilities for women. How about running a house on your own? Planning your own life so that you’re never going to have to be financially dependent on somebody else? Single women run their own houses, pay rents and maintenance, commute a couple of hours to work each day, work 10 even 15-hour days, take on mortgages, support their parents, put food on their own dining tables, and so on. Those, dear half-wits, are responsibilities too. 

My married women friends, who "choose to continue working", fare no better. When they drag themselves in through the front door of their houses each evening after an exhausting day at work, what do they get? A nice warm cup of coffee is thrust into the hands of their spouse, while they’re dumped with a nice warm baby with a sopping, soiled diaper that needed to be changed three hours ago. Woohoo! Nothing says "Welcome home" better than squelchy poo!

I’ve heard men at a previous workplace tell us, their women counterparts, that they firmly believe men are the primary breadwinners while women are, by design, meant to be caregivers playing a supporting role. This sentiment voiced by men with shiny engineering degrees and fancy Master’s degrees. It just goes to show that education does nothing. Equality? Pfft! 

With such rampant misogynists around and women who continue to perpetuate the notion of this "career optional" mentality, are things really going to change any time soon? 

My boss, a woman I look up to and admire to the core of my being for doing it all and with such strength and poise, including co-founding the company, was recently asked by a business journalist how she supports her co-founder husband’s career. "Supports"? The fact that she co-founded the place is of no consequence – the natural assumption being that the men did the 'real work'. So a woman in a business is just there for what? Aesthetic purposes? To see that the coffee machines are in working order? To chase up on errant housecleaning staff?

Incidentally, in my apartment building, all maintenance responsibilities are carried out by women. Because, you know, the men have 'real jobs'. Yes, even the ones who’ve retired and vegetate in their houses all day. Ass scratching is a real job, you know. I believe the official designation is Chief Ass-ecutive Officer.

Anyway, what would I really know? After all, society says a working woman shouldn’t be taken seriously. Because a career is just an option. Just like a side of fries with your burger. 

I’m pretty sure this post is going to ruffle a lot of patriarchal feathers and raise some chauvinistic hackles. How dare this woman voice her opinion? How dare she speak out? How dare she place it on the internet for all the world to read? While I eagerly await their hate mail, I have one last thing to say to such indignant dunderheads:

Reading this blog post is just like a woman’s career to you – you know, optional.