Friday, November 25, 2016

"It's Thailand"

In the small beach town of Ao Nang, down a nondescript alley, wedged between trinket shops and Thai massage parlours is a most incongruous establishment: A shooting range. Despite being the size of a (small) 7-11, this plucky storefront boasted “SHOOT GLOCK!” and “TRY SNIPER RIFLE!” and displayed a conspicuous pile of hardware on the front counter by the lounging tout. Given the complete lack of soundproofing, not to mention any apparent reinforcement to the back wall of the shop (behind the plywood targets), we momentarily assumed that these were airsoft, or video games, or...well, anything sensible and sensical. But this is Thailand. At our slightest expression of interest, the tout leapt into action, proclaiming “THREE-FIFTY SEVEN! REAL MAGNUM!!” and swung an enormous Smith and Wesson revolver into view. “You shoot!” he encouraged, fumbling a handful of thumb-sized cartridges onto the counter. For just over a thousand baht, with no waiver, no training, and no personal protection whatsover (to say nothing of the unfortunate neighbors) you too can go Dirty Harry on the mean streets of Krabi.
Drive the front of your car and
don't wait for your turn, it'll never come.
Welcome to Thailand. It’s a thrumming country on the cusp of joining the first world, and in a pell-mell hurry to get there. The result is a national culture of devil-may-care pragmatism where a tenuous “it works” is the status quo. When we gawk at the rough edges and obvious potential for catastrophe, Thais seem to approach things with a combination of blithe optimism and zen fatalism. With a little practice, we’ve learned to adopt their standing cultural shrug and just say “It’s Thailand.”

A glance into the streets perfectly captures this this state of affairs. Bangkok traffic is famous for its relentless melee of cars, delivery vans, tuk tuks, scooters, food carts, and jaywalkers. The lane lines are a suggestion at best, as drivers form new lanes at will and impatient scooter riders fish ladder up the wrong side of the street. Pedestrians cross with reckless confidence and the ubiquitous traffic cops appear to direct cars essentially at random. And yet, it mostly works.

The neon lights and cheap speakers are all part of the fun.
Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the resigned disregard for Bangkok’s intractable gridlock--and the character of Thailand more generally--than the tuk tuk.  As we experienced on our tuk tuk food tour, they’re not meaningfully different than a bathtub with three wheels and a two-stroke engine. The driver straddles the front wheel, gearshift between his legs, and tears along with two terrified passengers sitting atop a bench seat that conceals the fuel tank, a pressurized gas canister essentially strapped in with hose clamps. Hop in, hold on, and don’t think too hard. Admittedly, the tuk tuk ought not to exist. It is not the product of a regulatory loophole, or a savvy compromise between four wheels and two. It lacks the maneuverability of a motorbike, and any of the safety or comfort features of a car.  The tuk tuk exists solely because tourists ride them, and tourists ride them because it’s fun (or “sanook”, if you want to dig a little deeper into the Thai national character.)

It's called a "Thai kitchen" and that refers to where it is,
not what it's cooking.
Cooking up a storm may well include cooking in a storm.
Even thinking that the tuk tuk exists as clever evasion of regulations or codes is, itself, a misread of Thailand. Instead, think about a place where asking for permission simply...isn’t considered. “Thai street food” is a common phrase you’ll see in cookbooks and travel shows but the real truth seems to be that in essence it’s *all* street food. Got a rolling cooler and a hibachi? Congrats, you’re in the restaurant business. Even for places with a fixed address, the average Bangkok restaurant seems like a hermit crab; it scuttled off the street to try out a storefront. Indeed, many hole in the wall spots stay true to their roots (or perhaps just maximize table space) by annexing the back alley for a fry kitchen. Those guys under the canvas tarp, sweating and toiling at woks over blazing charcoal blast furnaces jury-rigged from oil cans, they’re not hobos. They’re whipping up today’s special while getting blasted on pirated mp3’s and cheap hooch.

We have a dozen more examples, of course, from the jungle “Monkey Trail” constructed with a perilous economy of lumber to the Mad Max “long tail boats” powered by salvaged V6’s, crankshaft and all. When we marvel, sigh, and say “It’s Thailand”, it’s not a pejorative. In the race to hop aboard the first world economy train, everything is a first draft and there’s plenty of time to edit later.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Headless Buddhas and Floating Markets

Our first full day in Bangkok was not actually in Bangkok, but 40 miles north in the ancient capitol city of Ayutthaya. Pronounced “Ayudaya” (or “Iudea”), it was a sprawling, cultural center, royal residence, and seat of regional power from the 1300s to 1700s. Early Dutch ambassadors to the court of King Narai in the 1600s particularly remarked on the carefully planned city layout, and masterful use of rivers and canals for trade and logistics (and when the Dutch are impressed by your locks, you’ve done something right). Our understanding from the (somewhat scant) information at the site is that the city sat at the confluence of three rivers, and used the rivers, tidal flood plain, and purpose-built canals for a sort of water pressure arbitrage, resulting in an ability to shunt the flow of water at will around many miles of waterways. So, something like Amsterdam, Versailles, and Venice, rolled into one. They could even use the system for defense, arranging flows to flood surrounding fields at high tide and making the city effectively un-siegable, so add Mont Saint Michel to that list too.

Our first stop in Ayutthaya was, appropriately, a temple: Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Many of the best preserved ruins in the city are the ancient wats, of which there are 26 in the roughly twelve square miles of the old city center. The wats are striking -- my first impression was dominated by the sense of utterly exotic “otherness”. The tiered and spired prangs and stupas can’t be mistaken for any other culture; even if you don’t immediately recognize them as Buddhist, one glance is enough to know that we’re not in Kansas anymore. After the initial tableau sinks in, the next thing to notice are the Buddhas: 120 seated Buddhas ring the outmost wall, and every single one is missing its head. The signage at the site itself handwaves as much as is possible for a sign at a national historic landmark, something to the effect that the Buddhas once had heads, but now do not. Preston and I were both struck by the degree to which this seems to sweep a tremendously significant cultural event under the proverbial rug. The actual event was the sacking and razing of the entire city of Ayutthaya by the Burmese, in 1767. In addition to destroying the town, they desecrated the wats, making a particular effort to decapitate the Buddhas. In Thai and Buddhist culture, this is even a graver insult than it seems: the head is considered the most sacred and elevated part of the body so even touching someone’s head would be taken as deeply disrespectful (decapitation, of course, rather overshadows that).In Krystal and my travels, we found that Europeans don’t seem to miss a chance to point fingers about who has been setting fire to their city. Whatever the exact reason for glossing over the history lesson, we agreed that its notable absence says something just as interesting about the culture as its presence would have said about history.

After Wat Chaiwatthanaram, our next stop was to check off one of the reasons we were here in the first place: elephants. The Ayutthaya Royal Elephant Kraal, once a place for capturing and taming elephants as working animals, now houses a conservation program called Elephantstay. We’ve done the reading on elephant treatment and exploitation, as well as ethical managing of the animals. Some of the things I read suggested that elephants were innately not ridable and required brutal treatments to break before being suitable for riders. However, a lengthy conversation with a young animal conservationist at Elephantstay suggests that the situation is much more nuanced. She mentioned that one of the major challenges of running a conservation effort in the modern age is fending off ill-informed critiques and hate campaigns from self-proclaimed animal rights activists. Working elephants continue to be culturally important, and their utility to jungle people creates incentive to maintain habitat and a viable population. Conservation and breeding programs also need captive elephants to be visible and celebrated in order to create public awareness needed to fund species-wide efforts. I didn’t have time in our brief conversation to raise the question of the crushing process, but it’s clear that the relationship between laboring animals and conservation is complex. If it’s any barometer, the passion from the Elephantstay folks combined with their success (including scientific papers and 66 successful births) suggests that their view is well worth listening to.

Our final stop of the afternoon was the floating market. Nothing historical, just fun and funky and a bit touristy, but aimed more at Thai tourists than internationals. Previously, our local contact had provided advice for farang eating in Thailand; if the place has more than one table, it's probably a reasonably safe bet. A single table place, in his estimation, is the same kind of place that'll chill the fish on ice, and happily serve the same ice in your drink. With that as our working definition of a gringo-safe lunch spot we waded into the market. Eventually the smell of food and (unintelligible) shouts of a hawker drew us across a bridge and under a low canopy. Something grilling? Check. Noodles? Check. More than one table? Check. No other white folks? Er... check. We came for real Thai food, let's do this. As we sat down (shoes off, cross-legged on the floor, natch; in for a penny, in for a pound), a young woman showed up with menus. As we started to peruse, another young woman with another menu. Then a man, then a flurry of people and menus seemingly appearing from everywhere, and a shouting din as they all pressed for the merits of their various dishes. Our estimation had been wrong -- it wasn't a single restaurant but an all-out noodles-and-curry brawl from individual vendors. Our orders were met by counter-offers and one-upmanship (Why chicken? My shrimp better! No two rice, three!); I felt like I was one wrong hand gesture away from accidentally buying soybean futures or a hundred shares of a derivative swap. Eventually, orders placed, they all retired to their corners and within minutes dishes made their way from small stalls and even anchored boats to our table. Oh, and the woman with no menus at all and just a steady drumbeat of "LE-OH, LE-OH"? Yeah, turns out LEO is beer. Yes please. So -- a tableful of handmade dishes, enough rice to make it respectable, and beer for 5? That'll be 520 thai baht... or about $14.50 USD. Thailand, I think you and me are gonna get along just fine.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

House Special

One task that has proven surprisingly difficult is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the one that we've had in the works for the longest. Even before planning for this trip began, we've wanted to emulate the trick used to good effect by some of our widely traveled friends, who have on different occasions gotten their hands on a wallet card, lovingly handwritten  and carefully folded, saying something to the effect of "house special". One was in Mandarin for a unicycling trip to China, which they presented to the waitress or chef at off-the beaten path restaurants as a conversation starter and invitation to authenticity, a way to break out of the assumptions that might be built up around a group of laowai appearing in a restaurant that doesn't get too many foreigners. Another such card is handwritten in Thai is presented by way of passport or shibboleth at any putative Thai restaurant in the States, for the amusement and possible the vetting of the chef. (I suspect his is less of a request and more in the manner of a doctor's note, to the effect of "The gringo can take it. Make it Thai hot.")

An attempt was made, but this is *not* "the special of the house" 
There's lots to love about this idea, even apart from the unexpected menu items it might introduce us to. To our mind, it seems like a good way to break the ice and show respect for the culture and the establishment, and maybe learn something that passes by those relying on the "grunt and point" school. It seems like it should be a universal concept -- "Chef's special." "The special of the house." "The chef's favorite." What your restaurant is known for. As these increasing generalities are attempting to gesticulate at, we have never been to Thailand before, we want to see what they want to show us.

As it turns out, however, this little exercise started teaching us things about the culture even before we got to Thailand. Simply put: We still haven't managed to get one. I first inferred that we were swimming against the tide when the first puzzled reaction of a Thai-born friend was "How special?" Googling produced no clear answer, always an ominous sign that things are more complicated--indeed, usually a clue that you're asking the wrong question.

I also talked about the idea with a Thai flight attendant on the DC to Abu Dhabi leg of my flight. She was (perhaps stereotypically) enthusiastic about sharing her country and culture, but when I tried explaining our project, she was nonplussed. After some cajoling she eventually wrote down a phrase, but never seemed to click with the concept. When I had an opportunity to have the phrase translated by our expat host he explained, with a knowing laugh, that the result was "I want a plate of delicious food."

It has been instructive in that it caused me to re-think the basic project, from the perspective of the recipient. Perhaps, if I'm honest, the simple phrase "house special" is presumptuous, even brusque. It assumes a lot about the situation. As our expat host explains, the Bangkok dining scene is untroubled by market forces. It is perfectly possible, even likely, to see four noodle carts in a row, all selling the same dish. This would be unheard of in a culinary market where competitors attempt to distinguish themselves and restaurants and even individual chefs pride themselves on superior or even signature dishes. Instead, restaurants in Bangkok seem to exist primarily for the purpose of providing food to a notional hungry passerby. Although frustrating to our preconceived goal, this is actually a philosophy that I can appreciate.

The idea may not be a complete bust, however, because further discussion with our host lead to a more culturally meaningful area where such pride of place will come to the fore. In Chiang Mai and Krabi, respectively, Northern and Southern traditional cuisine will be on display. Chiang Mai is famed for complex, milder dishes that blend sweet with savory, whereas Krabi exemplifies the southern cuisine where spice is life and your safety is not guaranteed. So in Bangkok, perhaps the best you can do is ask for (and almost certainly receive) a plate of delicious food, but it seems that asking for "good northern cooking" or "good southern cooking" may evoke the right spirit.

Fried green chiles with chicken; Ayutthaya floating market
(Photo: Brittany Morton)
Finally, a discussion of Thai cuisine would not be complete without talking about rice. While we in the West think of Thai food as spicy, flavorful dishes of meat and vegetables and curry, over here it has repeatedly been made clear that the real place to start is with the rice. It is the staple grain crop, and the implicit, assumed background for every dish. The "entrees" that we're familiar with in an American Thai restaurant would be more properly thought of as flavoring for the rice in a Thai household. Want to eat authentic Thai? Order a lot of rice, and just one entree for your table. In fact, rice is even in the colloquial language: a standard idiomatic greeting, similar to the American "what's up?" is "gin khao reu yung?". The literal translation is "Have you eaten [rice] yet?" (the "rice" is implicit in the question). As Anthony Bourdain observed, if you have eaten today, how bad could things possibly be? And if you have eaten, of course you ate rice.

On Vegetarian Meals

"Nothing bad ever happens to a writer. It's all material." ~ Garrison Keillor

>Etihad Airways, in-flight somewhere between DC and Abu Dhabi.

Perhaps it's pure pragmatism that they give the vegetarian entree as a default to anyone who is asleep when the cart comes around. Part of me wonders if it's also because sleeping people don't object.

After surfacing from a fitful half sleep, I'm pleased to notice that a tray has appeared in front of me. I am less pleased to gradually realize that the questionable smell troubling the cabin (and my dreams) is emanating in part from my tray. Nonetheless, spurred on by a nagging hollow in my stomach and Mr. Hooten's admonition that "food is fuel", I peel back the foil to find...trouble. Breakfast appears to consist of okra and malice, with henchmen of shredded vegetables that seem to have been "cooked" without specifying a particular mode of cooking.

Blinking back bleariness, I conclude that this is probably not actually intended as breakfast (time zones being what they are), but then, I've never asked myself what breakfast is in the UAE. Still, I assume the mini Hershey bar accompaniment is not part of a balanced breakfast in any country.

I don't consider myself a picky eater, but running a serious sleep deficit and with a case of cotton mouth, this was rough sledding. After extracting the white rice and making a game stab at the vegetables, I declared defeat and looked for an exit strategy. I suspected I was in good company when I noticed that my seat mate had set his aside after opening each of the dishes but doing little more than pushing them around. This impression was confirmed as I pantomimed to ask if I could set my plate on his in the unused the middle seat. He reacted initially with a look of alarm when he thought I was offering him mine, which turned to bewilderment when he thought I was asking if I could have his uneaten portion.

We piled the dishes in the middle and shared a world weary shrug that made me wonder if every language has a phrase for "Eh, can't win 'em all".

You had me at S̄wạs̄dī

Flag of Thailand.svg
We're blowing the dust off our little corner of the web here: Rambling Rovers has been in hibernation since our shared ramble in Europe nine years ago. We've both had trips individually, but the process of bouncing ideas off each other is what really makes the fodder for this blog.

For this trip, we’re headed East. Our friend Brittany has family who are expats living in Thailand and we've been talking for years about going to visit them and explore the country. In the way of many plans, it stayed as a “maybe some day” thing, until they mentioned they might be returning to the States soon. With a deadline staring at us, schedules for our traveling companions suddenly cleared up: funny how that seems to work.

As travelers (and observers) from a Western background, we've long wanted to get to Asia. I subscribe to the parallax theory of understanding a thing: multiple perspectives help you comprehend it better, and the more and further apart the better. For an American, Europe is a substantial dose of new perspective, but Asia is, well, half again a world away.

As a first Asian destination, Thailand has some special character. Being smaller than China and India, Thai culture is less exported in the west: other than pad thai or The King and I, many Americans have less sense of what to expect of it. Similarly, because it has never been colonized (a fact that Thais are fiercely proud of), the culture is both unique and ancient. We don’t know exactly what to expect, and that’s part of the fun.

So, Thailand, here we come.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Rennes Without Reservations and the Mountain Monkery

For best results, kindly begin reading at the post immediately previous to this one, just below this one. That'll get you from Amsterdam to...well, just plain "Damn!", to "Damn fine, thank you." Er, that'll all make sense once you read it. I promise...~ed.

Rennes without Reservations(cont.)
...access by unknown and conceivably unfriendly strangers. We had our McGuyver moment when we took a length of black string and ran it between the necks of two empty water bottles which we cached in the shadows flanking the bottom of the escalator. Balancing a few coins on the cap of each bottle we ensured ourselves a bit of warning and an unpleasant surprise for anyone approaching unheralded.

We were roused early by a sudden grinding that marked the furling of the security grate that was our back door all night. Teeth chattering and more than a little grumpy from a night of only snatches of sleep on a hard, cold tile floor, we broke camp, dismantled the alarm system, climbed aboard the train and soaked in the magnificent luxury of a heated, upholstered train car. The sudden improvement in circumstances combined with the certainty that we were finally on our
way--and the brilliant sunrise over the French countryside--combined to lift our spirits dramatically. We arrived in St. Malo and decided that we were tired of public transportation; since we'd already slept on the ground and gone through the ritual of breaking camp we figured we'd just stay in backpacking mode and walk the 3 kilometers to the hostel. The walk helped not only to unwind knotted muscles but also gave us a wonderful view of St. Malo as it, too, roused itself for the morning. We passed a boulangerie just as its pretty young boulangere was opening the doors and grabbed the first baguette we saw, munching it contemplatively as we walked.

Once at the hostel we found that the room was not ready, as we'd hoped. Instead, something better: we hadn't been charged for it! Of course, this meant that we didn't have a place to crash and catch up on that sleep of which we'd been so cruelly deprived. It took only a minute of pondering, however, to realize that we were nearly standing on miles of nice warm bed; after all, St. Malo is known througout France for its wonderful beaches. We ditched the receptionist and our traveling clothes with an alacrity that bordered on insulting and fled for the sunny sand where we showed our appreciation for the scenery by prompltly passing out cold. Cold tiles and a dark train station were nothing but a fading memory and our time in St. Malo was of to a decidedly agreeable start (only slightly marred by the matching pair of brilliant red, totally lopsided sunburns we awoke to).

Monkery on the Mountain
Mont St. Michel was one of the places I'd been to before but I wanted to take Patrick there and visit it again for myself. It's probably Normandy's best known feature and, as far as I'm concerned, one of the jewels of France. The whole of the town is as fantastic as it is
improbable. The mountain rises out of the ocean itself, a steep jutting peak contrasting with a landscape of rolling hills. The massive tide fluxations of the Normandy coast mean that at times the ocean moat becomes instead a surreal expanse of tidal plains; a strange, reflective desert of shifting, sucking mud stretching for miles from the base of the mountain. Add to this strange scene the massive gothic abbey perched at the apex of the mountain, courtyards and chapel appearing to hang in space supported by no natural formation. Even from afar you can make out the golden figure of the Archangel Michael rising high above the tallest spire. The whole
structure appears to be straining heavenward. It has to be experienced to be understood and I was looking forward to being there again and sharing it with Patrick.

We caught the bus out of town, sharing it with all the other tourists and just following the crowd to make the correspondence in Pontorson, just a few miles from St. Michel. When the bus disgorged its scuttling mass of human cargo we vaguely remembered that there was a secondary, less-used entrance to the town but we demurred and decided to again follow the crowd. And what a crowd it was. St. Michel is a huge tourist spot, and so linearly designed that every inch of the switchbacking main street is peopled like a metro station at commute
time. It's a shame that so many people see it this way; I sense that in the silence of the early morning and late night the city reveals much more of its dignified and storied thousand year history.

Being in a crowd of tourists is always a bit of an affront to the sensibilities and we soon found a narrow, unmarked stairway rising steeply of the street level that caught our interest. It was heading up, which was approximately the right direction, and it was being used by exactly no one. These were all the selling points it needed; we took it. As we practically licked the stairs in front of us we gained ground enough to put us even with the rooftops along the street and wondered, as we wound through narrow alleys and MC Escher-like passages, if the joke was on us and we'd end up having to backtrack down to the madding crowd with our heads hung low. Just around the next corner, however, the stairs deposited us onto the cobblestone main street...right below the entrance to the abbey! We rejoined the crowd, having essentially cut in line ahead of 500 people, and wended our way up to get tickets, all the while joking in polyglot with our fellow line-standers that we might be smarter to gang up and call ourselves a "group" for the privelege of using the fast lane. We took our lunch on the vast terrasse of the abbey while we enjoyed the expansive view of French countryside and tidal plains from a sheer 100 meters above sea level.

A French docent warned us in conspiritorial tones that the English guided tours were hell at this time of the summer (and that, despite our clever plan, the French tours were "double hell") and so we opted for audioguides and our own pace to experience the abbey. I say "experience" because "see" does not encompass the feeling of grandeur, history, and spirituality of the place.

I was happy to hear confirmed my understanding of the legend of the founding of the abbey. In the late 10th century a local bishop had a dream in which St. Michael the archangel, commander of the armies of heaven, appeared to him and commanded him to build a monastery on the spot. This bishop, being a reasonable and prudent man, did pretty much nothing. After all, he knew that the devil could speak in dreams as well as the angels, and the point of a mountain seemed a dodgy place to build anything. Soon enough, though, the dream was repeated, with St. Michael appearing in heavenly glory to issue his command. The bishop was shaken but still sat tight, unwilling to stake his reputation or perhaps even his mortal soul on some nocturnal smoke and mirrors. This probably would have been the end of discussion, but, as the story goes, St. Michael wouldn't take no for an answer. Returning a 3rd time to the sleeping bishop, the archangel extended a flaming finger and punched a hole in the bishop's forhead. This was apparently all the proof that the bishop needed, for he jumped to work on the abbey immediately and personally supervised a great deal of the construction of what became one of the holiest pilgramage sites in France. (Amusing side note: the stained glass window that commerates this event takes slight liberties with the story, depicting the archangel merely laying his finger upon the bishop's head, as if by way of blessing. Apparently cranial puncture by angelic digit is not appropriate material for church windows.)

We finished our tour with still time left before the busses arrived and wandered what to do. We tried the boisson regional, a refreshing but filling apple cider that the Norman farmers produce with as much care and fierce dedication as any french vinter. Wandering down to the alternate entrance from earlier in the morning we confirmed that we could have dodged the crowd even better by entering through the gate ominously marked "Police Nationale". Apparently that's mostly to scare away the tourists. It apparently works. We chatted with several groups of French scouts in their very rugged and European-style uniforms; we were wearing the neckerchiefs we'd bought at Kandersteg in hopes of striking up conversations with other scouts on this 100th anniversary of the Baden Powell's founding of the scouting movement.

Finally we descended to the very base of the rocky mountain, where it disappears into the muddy tidal flats. Last time I was here, with a tour group and a chartered bus, there was no way I could have gotten all the way back into this out of the way spot, and I certainly wouldn't have had time to go OUT there. This time, however, we were on our own time and our own dime, lending a wonderful freedom. It looked like fun. It looked like a mostly good idea. It looked...amazingly muddy. Stripping down to pants only, we left everything of value just around the bend, safely out of sight and safely out of the morass. Tentatively we squished barefoot out onto the flats, sliding in the gooey mud as it alternatey slid out from under us or squirted between our toes. With an ungainly shuffle/skate we moved out past the dangerous rocks and found a ford across the delta the separated the "beach" from the plain proper. Once out there it was simply incredible. To be at eye level with the tidal plain allowed you to realize how vast it was, and walking out from the base of the mont we realized that we had a priveleged view that few tourists can ever get. No cars, no busses, no throngs of people...this is probably as close to what it really looked like in its heyday as you can see. We certainly took photos and gamboled around on the surreal landscape, sometimes sliding around, sometimes singing to an ankle, knee, or further.

That ought to get us up to speed. There are still 2 more days of St. Malo and 3 more days of Paris to share, but I'll do those once we're stateside.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Where am I going and why am I in this handbasket?

Yes, we're alive! I feel compelled to apologize for the dearth of updates (I'm sorry!) but I shan't dwell explaining it and instead I'll do my best to rectify it. At the very lest I'll provide some thumbnail sketches that you can ask for stories about later.

Last we spoke we were leaving Amsterdam via a day train, with no reservations. This fairly casual, off the cuff style had served us quite well to this point. Crowded Cinque Terre made room for us at Mama's pensione, Nicole and Olivier opened their arms to strangers in Fribourg, and Hili appeared as if divinely summoned to welcome us to Klosterneuberg. Even Budapest somehow guided us to the right place through a series of happy chances. We did well and perhaps were even a bit spoiled. So much the better. All the while we knew we were trading certainty for freedom and as we worked our way back west we started trading the other way. You want on the train, you reserve ahead of time and pay for the privelege. Same for hostels in the big tourist cities.

{They know the backstory, cut to the chase. Yessir!}

Let this diagram represent our intended route:
A) Amsterdam-->Paris-->St. Malo

Let this dog turd represent our actual route:

B) Amsterdam-->Brussels Nord-->Brussels Midi-->Brussels Centraal-->Paris Nort-->Paris Montparnasse-->Rennes--> NIGHT -->St. Malo.

Yup, thats right; after more than 11 hours of traveling we arrived 60km short of our goal and missed the last train by 30 minutes. Ouch. And we thought we had already paid for the hostel in St. Malo, so we didn't relish finding and paying for yet another room, in Rennes, at 10:00 at night. We elected to stay the night in the station and catch the first train in the morning. Whereupon the local yokels informed us that the station closes at night. I had some choice words, but we had no choice. It's really quite perspective-broadening to be put face to face with how little circumstances care if you are pissed at them; pretty soon I had to just let it go as getting mad was utterly not going to accomplish anything. Instead we turned our attention to something that I had never considered before: where's a good spot to sleep outside in an urban area? Alongside my newfound respect for homeless of all stripes I also recalled all my camping experience. Where's a good spot to sleep ANYWHERE? Well, I thought as we surveyed our concrete landscape, might as well start with the 5 W's of any survival campside: Weather, Wood, Water, Wigglies, and Widowmakers. Wood and water weren't a concern as we weren't planning on building a fire and boy scouts always bring extra water, but we still wanted a place out of the weather, away from any wigglies, and clear of any dangers that might make for unpleasant rousings, in this case other indigents, trains, and cops, in about that order. Fortunately, in a "you can only get better from here" turn of events, we found the escalator down to the entrance of the closed metro station. Stopped for the night, the escalator formed a narrow staircase down to a cave-like burrow that ended at the drawn security door that led to the station. Out of sight, out of the weather, and with a natural choke point to limit...

Continued in next post for reasons of readability and because this box in the Heathrow airport is crippled by the protective features they've installed on it.