Oh, Australia

Can you talk like an Australian? What are sunnies, Eskies, helies, pollies. (Sunglasses, Eskimo coolers, helicopters, politicians.)

Got it? So then, what is sosh, or goss, or satched, or mackers? (Social, gossip, saturated, McDonalds hamburgers.)

No worries, mate. You’re all right. Which means, “You’re welcome.” Roight.

Australia offered us the very best vacation we’ve had in a long time. I’ve only just recovered from 9 flights in 16 days. Incidentally, I will never have anything to great to say about Qantas airlines. There’s no alternative but to take them across the country. It’s this monopoly, I think, that makes the service so cavalier. The agent at the check-in desk insists that we’ll have to speak to customer service if my husband and I prefer to sit together. This after having had reservations for 3 months. The customer rep instantly finds us adjoining seats. “She didn’t spend too much time looking, did she?” he commiserates.

Checking in at the Melbourne airport, the woman at the counter points us to new QuickCheck in machines. The machine directs us to the service representative. We go back to her. She points to another counter with the wand from her lip gloss. She says with irritation, “That’s what happens when you have old tickets.” A roving floor manager eventually directs us back to the same woman who makes her feeble apologies.

I’m not right behind my husband when we are checking in at the departure gate because I turned to apologize to an older woman for cutting in front of her. The agent taking our tickets, his face ferociously furrowed and condescending, spits out cold and hard as an angry cop: “Stay close. Stay close!”

Perhaps we’re just used to a gentler customer service in Northern California?

At the Alice Springs Desert Park the ticket taker is absent from the window. We can see her attending to a woman who’s gotten off our van and has pushed through the turnstile into the gift shop. We push through to get our tickets taken too, and get scolded for not first dinging the retro service bell.

When we stop off for lunch at the Apollo Bay Hotel on the Great Ocean Road, we don’t get our food for 20 minutes. People from on our Grayline tour have all eaten and are leaving. My husband goes up and asks if our food will be coming soon. The sour cashier says she’ll check. She doesn’t report back. Five minutes later he goes again to get an update. She tells him he’s annoying and to go sit down. When he demurs, she says she’s going to get the manager. Please do, he tells her, losing his native sweetness. Apologies all round. But, God Almighty. The customer as enemy?

Tired of my whining yet? Let me rant a little more, though. I need to.

We are in the elevator at the top of the Sydney Tower. Five laughing British teenagers, rowdy, hopped-up on group mentality and testosterone turn to me. One of them, guffawing, asks if he could take my photo. They’ve mistaken me for an Aboriginal woman. Their manner changes the instant I tell them I’m also a tourist from America.

The Aboriginal people. It’s a sad story, really. We see more of them in Alice Springs than we’d seen previously in our trip. As with all indigenous peoples, they suffer from poverty, disease, alcoholism, illiteracy, malaise. They seem to hold fast to ancient ways. Because of their very pronounced sense of family, we see them walking in groups, in their unhurried way; we see them sitting placid on the ground everywhere, not even plucking at the blades of grass. They just stare out as if they’re waiting for something they know will not be coming any time soon.

My sense is that the population around them treats them like children. Sees them as wallpaper. Or some ancient, irrelevant tribe. The hotel clerk at the Alice Springs Resort looks away from me as if I might singe her eyes. Aboriginal fatigue, perhaps. We arrive before check-in time, as is always the case. Unlike other many-starred hotels, we wait, and wait, and wait, for our room to be ready; we have lunch before we force the issue and ask her if she knows when a room will be available. She goes and consults with her supervisor, and, oh, miracle des miracles, we are checked in immediately.

But you can run into bad and prickly service anywhere. Right? Right?

Navigating this photo gallery may be confusing. See “Help,” if you need it, at the bottom right hand corner. Toggle F11 for a bigger screen.

[tags] Qantas, Apollo Bay Hotel, Aboriginal, Alice Springs Resort, Australia, Photo Gallery[/tags]

The Olgas & Uluru

The Outback. Here we fancily stay at “Sails In The Desert,” a hotel that sprawls over some acreage. It’s a gorgeous place where the staff is young, fervent, effervescent, wonderful. They are, literally, a sweet oasis in the usual nippy Australian service we’d become almost accustomed to.

The shot below is of a stand of Ghost Gum trees in the hotel’s courtyard. What’s interesting here is that the barks of these trees are covered with a fine dusting of white powder. According to the guide, the Aboriginal people used this white resin as a sunscreen.

[Click on photos to enlarge]

Ghost Gum Trees

Now. Why Aboriginal people would need sunscreen on their dark faces, I’m sure I do not know.

But, to continue. The Outback is high desert, of course, and operatic. It’s hot as the gates of Hades by day, and cold as Satan’s heart at night. The tourist industry has manufactured a “town centre,” which is a cluster of hotels, a restaurant, a cute shopping center with shuttle service that you will never need to get around.

And, here, at night when the cloudless blue desert sky turns black, the sky is littered wiith stars. They take their bold stage turns in the absence of city lights. Unbelievable as it is, to me, we see the milky way with our naked eyes. By telescope we see stars powdering stars.

Nevertheless, the absolute star of the show, and the whole point of being here, is to see, Kata Tjuta, a/k/a “The Olgas” and Uluru a/k/a “Ayers Rock.” We are happy that in private we scoffed at the driver in Melbourne who told us that if he were a travel agent, he’d never even mention Ayers Rock: “It’s just big rock in the desert.”

First View of Uluru

Is it any stretch of the imagination to understand why the Aboriginal people regard this great, red monolith as sacred, really? I mean, just look at the changing colors in my point-‘n-shoot photos. But first, some instructions: Navigating the photo gallery may be confusing. See “Help,” if you need it, at the bottom right hand corner. Toggle F11 for a bigger screen.

We were only two of the hordes of people pulled up on Grayline Tour buses to toast, with champagne, wine and finger food, sunset at “The Rock.” To be sure, the changes were so subtle, so gradual, that people didn’t applaud as they do the last sizzle of sunset on Ocean Beach in SF, for instance.

I’m telling you, these changing colors are why fools, like me, set the alarm for 5 am — on vacation — and stand hungry and freezing our bits to see exactly what color sunrise would paint Uluru. Madness. But I dare you to find the rare tourist without Red Rock fever!

[tag] Australia, The Outback, “Sails in the Desert”, Ghost Gum Trees, Melbourne, Aboriginal people, Kata Tjuta, Uluru, The Rock, Ayers Rock, The Olgas, Photo Gallery [/tag]

Cairns – Not “Keerns;” It’s “CANS,” Mate!

If you’re anything like me, here’s what 25 straight hours of traveling and the complete disappearance of a whole day, will do for you:

    1. You will ask yourself, so what in hell is fun about vacations anyway?
    2. Your body will have a deep-bone fatigue in which you think your legs could not ache any more if they were being amputated.
    3. Your husband will suggest a ride in a helicopter and you will think: yes, my husband needs another, more intrepid wife.
    4. You will tell yourself that it is better to die with your beloved in a helicopter crash than to be a surviving spouse.
    5. You will see yourself from all angles in a multi-faceted hotel mirror and you will think: this is how I look to other people. And you will want to die in a helicopter crash.
    6. You will sleep for 10 hours. You will wake up singing. You will sit out on the balcony overlooking the blue-steel ocean, you will amble through the rainforest of the hotel grounds, you will have an enormous breakfast, and the excitement of being in Australia will totally overwhelm you. Depressed? Who? Me? Nah.

It’s winter in Cairns, Australia. Sunset comes early. But it is wildly tropical—as tropical as Hawaii, or Singapore. It’s perhaps 70 degrees and stunning. It is, of course, the jumping-off point to visit the Great Barrier reefs. It’s also a good place to take a day trip to Green Island with it’s lush rainforest, or Fitzroy Island where you can see fish swimming over the coral reef. See photos here.

From Cairns you can also hop the Kuranda Rail and Skyrail tour. You take this very pleasant antique train ride to Kuranda, stop off at Barron Falls, la, la, la, get off all happy like a fool. You visit Birdland, have a little lunch. And then it’s time to take the skyrail. Now, I’ve done this before in Singapore, and not without event. Yet, here we are again. Again riding a fool cable car high, more than high, 90-minute, panic-high over the rainforest where I and the other two women I’ve only just met, pretend to be brave and end up singing “Whistle a Happy Tune,” to calm ourselves. We might well have been in that helicopter. We end up at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Park which, if we’d gone by car, would’ve been a 10-minute drive. All that tsouris for nothing. Well, Jesus H.

So, here in Northern Australia, you’ve got your basic tropical flora:

[Click on photos to enlarge]

Banyan, er, Fig Tree Waist-High Scarlet Salvias

Sweetsops! – “Custard Apples” Tropicana From the Hotel

Then there’s the beautiful, curved, newish Esplanade. A great, wonderful, safe, recreational treat for both locals and tourists. For here you can:

Make Like a Matador Near Sunset Swim in the Huge, Shallow Pool
Crab a Yard from the Shore BBQ at a Free, Gas Barbie
Form a Human Pyramid at Dusk Or Just Sit. And Watch

Or Sit. And commune with:

Twilight Blue Evening in Cairns

[tag]Cairns, Esplanade, Birdland, Kuranda, Tjapukai Aboriginal Park, Banyan [/tag]

Dup Dup!

I got off the hospital elevator, looked up, and found myself outside the morgue.

It’s unobtrusive, of course, the morgue. I only knew I was standing outside the door because there was a man there, 65 or older, a confused man with a very deep limp, loud in saying he was supposed to pick up a body; did anyone know where he should be?

Well, now. If there was any doubt in my mind that my brain is bicameral — half-Jamaican, half-American, all such doubts went out the damn back door.

My American brain, said, Oh, crap. I really zoned out and missed my floor. I wonder how this one old, handicapped guy is going to load a corpse in a vehicle all by himself?

My Jamaican brain screamed this: [Translation]

I’ve seen dead bodies before. My siblings and I have gone to identify my chilled mother on a slab in a Kingston funeral parlor. You can probably imagine that I was haunted for a very long time by the ugly image of the workers sitting her body up to dress her for burial. It wasn’t until I wrote about it that I was completely exorcised.

Also, as a teenager I’d gone with my neighbor and friend, Paula, to identify the body of a young woman who worked for her family. The young woman had fallen off the back of a truck and had been killed. I’m hazy on exactly why I’d gone to the hospital with Paula (her own mother had died,) but I remember the stiff bloody body and the green tail-less lizard hung high on the wall.

So, why was I so spooked standing outside this locked hospital morgue in San Francisco?

Because I was unprepared, caught off-guard.

Because when I was a girl in rural Jamaica, everyone was freaked when a corpse was carried from the hospital. On a shuddering litter. With great ceremony and liquor and chanting and bottle-lamps along dark country roads on the shoulders of frenzied men — viz the liquor and chanting.

Because my nicely-educated mother was afraid of only two things: the dead and the insane.

Because our nursemaids told us duppy stories at night, the only light the fire over which they roasted sweet potatoes. Know this: there are no good duppies. The baddest one, though, is the rolling calf, and if you listened carefully, sometimes in the middle of the night you can hear the rattle of its chains. Bet you didn’t know that!

And bet you didn’t know that duppies live at the foot of cotton trees. Or that you shouldn’t ever pitch water from any container into the dark of night without warning the duppies. Bet you didn’t know that you can banish every duppy by florid, extravagant swearing or blaspheming loudly: JESUS CHRIST! Or that you can ward off a duppy by wearing red panties inside out?

Do I believe this shinola now? Nah. Not really.

But, I swear my Jamaican brain trumped my American brain in that hospital corridor. I, the very nosiest of them all, a woman who watches everything and sets down notes later, hightailed it the hell out of there, boy. Can’t help wondering how that old guy got the corpse to the car single-handedly, though.

[tags] Jamaican, duppies, rolling calf, Dup Dup, bottle lamps[/tags]

This Is Only A Test

I’m guessing most people will know where these photos were taken? If you don’t, though, c’mon, Boonoonoonoos, let’s have some minor fun. Three things:

1. Without looking at the last photo, where’s this?
2. The photo pairs might have some commonality? Um, visual puns?
3. Guess which photo subject I absolutely liked best!

[Click on photos to enlarge]
a . Smoking Heart of Volcano b. Sizzling Lava Meets the Ocean
c.Newly Cooled Lava d. Ancient Lava
Monster Man
e. Ancient God & His Weapon! f. Nouvelle Garde
g. Petroglyphs h. White Coral Graffiti
i. Rest in Peace j. Rest in Peace
k. Feminine? l. Masculine?
m. Flameless Overwintering Tree n. Boasting Green Giraffes
o. White Falls p. Red Falls
All Photos Taken on
the Big Island, Hawaii
Easter, 2006
q. Dancing Women, Airport

a.-d. Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
e. Aki‘i, guardian of the place of refuge, Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park
f. Handcarved Tiki at the Hawai‘i Tropical Botanical Garden
g. Puako Petroglyphs
h. Coral Graffiti along the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway
i. Roadside memorial to accident victim on Highway 19
j.-k. Exotic “blooms” at Hawai‘i Tropical Botanical Garden
m. Poinciana (Flame) tree. In season the vivid scarlet flowers overrun the delicate foliage.
n. Coconut Trees at Hilo
o. ‘Akaka Falls
p. Heliconias (“Lobster Claws”) at Hawai‘i Tropical Botanical Garden

A What?

Some friends, a couple, had us over for dinner one cold, cold evening in New York. We were having the usual catching-up chit chat over wine and preliminary finger food — trips taken, health of elderly parents, the usual. The husband, a doctor, mentioned a friend who had found himself in a terrible situation: The man had been driving upstate, had fallen asleep and his car had overturned. The man’s girlfriend, a woman he was on the verge of leaving, was very seriously injured.

You know how it’s said that a writer in an accident will note exactly how the blood pearls as it pours out of a wound, will record the precise angle of a broken limb? I knew instantly that I would write about this incident. Man, I took in every fine detail. It was so Ethan Frome.

“It’s a deliberate weird hybrid.
A long mixed metaphor. A kind of catachresis.”

Five years later, I took the basic frame of the facts, added a bit of fiction, and forged the language of one medium on to another. I’m not sure what to call the resulting piece. It’s a deliberate weird hybrid. A long mixed metaphor. A kind of catachresis.

The piece seemed so odd to me that I’d kept it on my hard drive since the spring of 2003. I recently sent it out, and it was published. You can read it here in Switchback, an online literary magazine.
[tags] Ethan Frome, catachresis[/tags]

Me, Me, Me

Haven’t been here lately. Two reasons, mainly:

One, the demands of rewriting the accurséd novel. Which is an insistent elephant foot on my chest. I cannot allow myself to write here because blogging squanders time. Big time. It was Calvin Trillin, I believe, who confessed that he feels pressure every time he has to write a note; he writes and rewrites it – even if it’s a note to put on his car. I know the feeling. A friend at work told me she found a typo in one of these posts. How funny that is, she said, because you’re an editor!

Two, writing here has started to feel faintly narcissistic to me. I mean, it feels like I’m only writing about myself, the subject I know best, of course. But, still. Feels weird. Perhaps because my father frowned on showing off? In our household, self-promotion = conceitedness = vanity. Not a good thing. Besides, who really cares what in hell I’m up to anyway?

A handful of people. My family, maybe. But I built this website because I wanted to have a permanent marker that I did actually walk this earth, and that I did write some stuff. I also wanted a place to direct people who ask me questions about my writing. Goes like this:

Hi, I hear you’re a writer!

Yes, I am.

Have you been published?

A little bit…

Will I have read anything you’ve written?

Uh. No.

See. Wouldn’t that make you feel like Ferdie, as they say in Jamaica? Yet, confidentially? I like that my listed occupation on my passport, on my tax returns is “writer.” That, because of all the corporate content I used to churn out for very handsome pay. Until I decided that writing in pantyhose, on eight-hour deadlines was the worst job I’d ever had.

Worse than my first job in America: a $90-a-week secretarial job in a perfume and flavor company in Cincinnati, Ohio when I’d come home reeking of the flavor of the day. Tangerine. New car aroma. Ox musk. Worse than temping with a bunch of certifiable flakes in an insurance company being closed down by its corporate headquarters. Worse than my college job of Weekend Word Processing Supervisor in a law firm at the height of Wall Street mergers and acquisitions. Lord, I’ve had some jobs, haven’t I?

So, people ask about the writing. Sometimes people ask more than once, twice, to let them read my work. Experience tells me it’s the idea of reading the stuff that non-writers like. They never get around to it — a manuscript in its raw form is hard to read, double-spaced and loose-leafed as it is. I know this as I know someone will leave the paper tray in the copy machine empty. Yet I hand it over.

It’s even worse with the website. The same people who say they can’t wait to read my work, have no real interest in logging on. [Incidentally, you might’ve read my last post where I invited writers to comment on rewriting. I wasn’t optimistic that anyone would. But my soliciting email did yield two comments – which I promptly lost when I deleted something on the backend, crashing the site. For the record, both Mary and Irene agreed with Karl that rewriting is a fresh and exciting opportunity for fiction writers.]

Then in troubleshooting my crashed site at WordPress, the weblog platform I use here, I stumbled on Lorelle VanFossen’s article on the writer as blogger, which then led me to this interesting piece,
The Author’s Dilemma: To Blog or Not to Blog by Claire E. White. Told you I was a master squanderer of time!

So, two questions:

One, should writers blogs?

And, two, how do you get over writing about yourself?

Post-Croup & Regroup

Happy to say I’m feeling better. My health restored, my will to rewrite invigorated — however briefly. Not that it’s been easy. I’m on Word Document REWRITES.v3. But I’m sucking it up, plugging away without too much whining.

Hey, what happened here? I’m still not sure. I’m thinking that the sick bay gave me plenty of time to think, or prewrite, as I like to call my procrastination. That plus, a thousand thanks to the 77th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., I’ve had the luxury of three unvarnished days to sit with the piece. Which means, of course, that my social life is null and void. But my best buddies and I have been here before.

It also didn’t hurt that my friend and MFA advisor at USF, Karl Soehnlein, mentioned in an email that he prefers rewriting over the birthing process. Karl’s new novel, “You Can Say You Knew Me When,” came out late last year to wild acclaim. Buy it and see for yourself if it isn’t a great read, funny, lyrical, with the steamiest sex ever. After two published novels he should know from rewrites. But, oh, my sweet baby lord, enjoying it? What a concept.

Made me think, though, that maybe there are plenty of writers out there who actually look forward to reworking their books? I’m canvassing writers I know and inviting them to leave comments here. It could be very interesting what they have to say. But don’t hold your breath, now. Folks reading and responding to something in yet another blog? Not so much. (Please feel free to leave your comments here. I’m honestly very interested in your experience with rewriting.)

I’m also hoping they’ll help me with my sub-fears that after I’ve slashed and patched the novel, it will have a new set of weaknesses. That it’ll have continuity problems. That my strongest character will get degraded. That the new pieces will majorly suck. Like that.

In the meantime, my monkey brain has me up at 5 am. And, lo, I’m enjoying getting to the computer. It’s me, the tired moon, the thin, fresh, still morning darkness, the lowing of a fog horn. It’s magic, truly.
[tags] USF, Karl Soehnlein, rewrites[/tags]


This is how I procrastinated this week and didn’t start the rewrites on my new novel, “Grace Notes:”

Went to bed on Monday evening, perfectly fine. Kissed the Sweetie goodnight, turned over. From the dark comes an ugly, raging flu. Fever, snot, pounding headache, wimpy legs. Despite a prophylactic flu shot last November. I’ve just come back from Asia. Bird flu. We’re just going to pack that thought away.

Is this my admitted soma flaring? (Not for nothin’ psychosomatic has soma at its roots.) I have white-coat hypertension in every doctor’s/dentist’s office; if my sweet doctor’s stethoscope should linger on me for more than a beat, I’m sure I’m in for grim news. I ate apples successfully before the allergist casually tagged it on the end of my little list of allergens. Now apples (and every piece of stone fruit) has me hacking, sneezin’ and wheezin’. A touch of apple core to my skin sometimes welts me. It’s wild.

I’m just going to put it out there: I loathe re-writing. And now my body has joined me in postponing the inevitable. To me, rewriting is like having finished knitting the entire back portion of a sweater while watching a movie, say, and in casting off, found to my horror that I’ve dropped a number of stitches way down at the ribbing, in the middle, all over.

It’s not that I think every word comes out of me in pearls. Not by any, any long stretch. Even though I do agonize over every word, worry every image, work and rework dialogue. God knows sometimes one paragraph has taken me a whole week to polish, to squeeze double meanings from words. Words that, when all is said and done, only I care about. People are looking for a good story, mostly. Many times I’ll convince myself the sentences are too ripe, the skin sheen way too purple. I cut and save them anyway. Just in case.

This was my darkest secret for a while, not rewriting much, until Marilynne Robinson answered a question by revealing — OUT IN THE OPEN — that she doesn’t do much rewriting. Marilynne! My girl. Incidentally, you can hear my friend, Roseanne Pereira, interview her here.

But, yo, I’m no Marilynne Robinson. My novel has major holes, the end’s rushed and unbelievable. There are whole sections that need the brutal pollarding the city of San Francisco gives its London Plane trees. I know this.

But, I so CRAVE the new. I cannot bear to revisit a book, a movie, a country, a dead relationship, the sameness of breakfast. I’m bored with my own work. Sick of my style, as I imagine a singer might sometimes be of her voice. I have, what we call derisively in my household, “an insatiable need to know.” Which has me saving unread newspapers. Which has me secretly planning to watch junk shows like Cops on the Fox Saturday night TV lineup. What? Like John Updike and Nicholson Baker haven’t written about watching that show? I know; I couldn’t carry the water for either of those two guys. I’m just sayin’.

Yet. The damn rewrite is due. In the meantime, my body has taken over. I’ve been out of work sick four days. This never happens. I’m so unaccustomed to being sick that I often have to give myself the sick test. Do you still feel bad after a shower? Are you whimpering? Is the bed calling?

Yes, yes, and yes. The doctor said I could feel bad for another week or two. My cough may worsen, she says. Well, c’mon, let’s just pile that on the load of guilt I’m shouldering.

The novel is waiting. I’ll try again to read the stuff tomorrow. My fever will flare, my cheeks will burn, I’m guessing; my head will pound with my pulse just like it’s doing right this minute. But, um, look how easy for me to be at the computer. Of course, it’s easy. I’m writing something neeewwwwww!

[tags]Grace Notes, rewrites, John Updike, Nicholson Baker, Marilynne Robinson, Cops, pollarding, San Francisco trees, stone fruit allergies[/tags]


Singapore is clean and green. A relief from Bangkok. The road from the airport is a boulevard, an allee with mature flame trees, flowerless now, to be sure, in this rainy season. Palm trees line the median. Everywhere it is rainforest lush. It is also the season of frequent afternoon and early-evening thunderstorms.

The city itself is clean and orderly and efficient. In Bangkok getting through immigration took 45 minutes. In Singapore, 5. This is the Singapore where the immigration form issued on the plane reads: “Warning: Death for drug traffickers under Singapore law.” Here there are steep fines for littering, for jaywalking. Chewing gum is prohibited; (we looked – they don’t even sell it in the 7/11.) People stand behind designated lines on the subway platform and allow disembarking passengers to, well, disembark without pushing.

I feel like I have to tiptoe here. And it gladdens my heart to find, in an underground passageway, a place where clots of teenagers hang out. They practice intricate hip hop moves to beats from tinny boom boxes. They yell and laugh; the melancholy play guitars cross-legged and watch. They ignore the no-skateboarding signs. They leave food wrappers about. But absolutely no graffiti tattoos any wall. Above ground, the only other sign of slight disorder is the drying wash hung like banners from poles from the balconies of the deliberately- integrated, clean, and ugly-hued public housing buildings.

Interesting how this polyglot city comes together easily. Signage comes by government mandate in a quatrain of English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. On the subway, I eavesdrop on adolescent gossip that dips in and out of English. When I turn around to see their faces, I’m surprised that one of the girls is Chinese, another Malaysian, the other Eurasian.

Sign in Malay, Tamil, English, Mandarin

We cram our 3 days here. We visit the historic Raffles Hotel where the Singapore Sling was invented. I don’t knock one back — too sugary, I assume. But, I genuflect in the Writers Bar where Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling allegedly hung out. In the evening we hop on a tram and cruise through the dark on a night safari accompanied by a Disney-chirpy narrator. The exotic animals ignore us, really. The lions, the tigers barely looked up, deer, aloof giraffes look past us, hyenas put on a fightfest for us, bullfrogs give stereod bass choruses.

Next day we visit the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple in the heart of a pristine Chinatown (yes, Chinatown.) We buy beautifully embroidered linens in Little India, we eat Turkish food a pebble’s throw away from the spectacular Sultan Mosque on Arab Street. We sweat through the extraordinarily lovely National Orchid Garden. We go to Sentosa Island by cable car way too damn high over forest and water. We admire giant species of butterflies; we walk through an acrylic tunnel and watch sharks, stingrays, thick-lipped fishes swim overhead. We endure the cartoony Musical Fountain – Dance of Fire and Water Show, while we get soaked by a sudden hard rain.

The next day we cruise and try to photograph the colorful shophouses built by early Chinese immigrants on the south side of the River because it resembled the concaved belly of a carp – a guarantee of wealth and prosperity. Comfortable on the boat, we admired the contrast of the restored godowns with the towering skyscrapers, lazed briefly. For, mercy, there’s so much more to see, to do. We visit the financial center; we admire an outdoor Botero, an unexpected Dali sculpture in a courtyard. We walk and walk.

And through it all, my feet are pieces of raw meat. My camera hisses, Woman, put me down. The waist of my loose slacks? Not so loose anymore. Way different for me, too, that I could actually be looking forward to resting on the marathon flight home. We leave Singapore at 8 AM and arrive in San Francisco at 9 AM on the same day. Yaaay, for business class. Our first.

[Click on photos to enlarge]

Grand Palace

14-ct Gold at Grand Palace

Close-up of a Chapel

Monkly advice at Wat Phra Kaew Wat

Another Close-up View

We Rode one of These Elephants!

Nectar Drips from This Coconut Bud

Boiling Coconut Sugar

Floating Market

Psst, Wanna See Bangkok Too?

I find myself reluctant to write about Bangkok. Cause who am I to talk? I’m a Third-World Girl. And it slashes my heart when people comment to me about Jamaica’s poverty. Or the pestering flock of folks trying to sell them touristware.

But, Lord. Bangkok. Sure, our luxe hotel room looks over the Chao Phraya River with its beautiful night glide of lighted long boats, but just steps away the poverty starts. So does the noise of tuk-tuks, the endless high whine of motorcycles, a misty exhaust that chokes, rubs throats and eyes raw.

There’s also the smell of scam. (A taxi driver tries to persuade us that he’s taken us to the restaurant the concierge has written out in the embroidery-like Thai script. His friend, the restaurant owner assures us that it is the place. But they’re busted by an unwitting waitress.) A vendor tries to persuade us that the price of one set of place mats is 180 bhats, the price for two identical sets is 450.

I’m sad that I feel disappointed by the look of Bangkok. Years of soot cling to old, unloved buildings. Disorderly electrical wiring sway heavily from overburdened poles. We take a leisurely cruise in a worn motorized boat along the canals. I fear the water. For it is a member of the Thai family. Makeshift houses line the river in which people bathe, wash clothes, go potty.

It’s the cooler rainy season, yet the 3-H’s still rule: hot, humid, hazy. Now factor in the unrelenting rot dtit (traffic jam). Service in restaurants is way more leisurely than any country we’ve ever visited. Not so fun. Food’s cheap and terrific, though, and the a/c works like a sumbitch.

Yet the tourist buses pull up and disgorge expectant people. So do the taxicabs — each having their undercarriage inspected by pole-mounted mirrors. And, I think to myself, how strong the sexual impulse is, really. Our same scammy taxi driver couldn’t shut up about taking us to a sex club, telling us, when we decline his offer, that it is very popular tourist attraction. It’s also hard not to notice how many male American couples there are. That’s 14 or more hours on a plane. You just know that the Thai sex scene has to be white hot. The 3H’s.

We had a decent time, nevertheless, you know? We spent Christmas Day sightseeing two wats (temples): The stunning Grand Palace which was the seat of the court of old Siam, and the adjacent Wat Phra Keo. We forget to miss Christmas it is so beautiful, so ornate, so magnificent. See photos below. And later in the day, I get very satisfying Christmas presents: jewels, opulent raw silk stuffs. My poor husband is relieved; I’d balked big-time at holiday traveling.

The next day, I learn that in Thailand they make sugar from the nectar that drips from the cut flower buds of coconuts. Come again? How is it that with all the coconuts in Jamaica this is news to me? Tastes double-yum, like Jamaican coconut drops.

On this same day, I ride an elephant. I breathe deeply, talk myself down from my snake phobia when there’s also a monster boa constrictor around someone’s shoulders. I gaze fondly at florid tropical flowers. We spend several humid hours cruising the floating markets, as we had the night before in the night market. We shop with our eyes; we find nothing we must have. But, I suck coconut water from the green husk with a straw, and I discover after one bite that those egg-sized brown fruits, La-mut, are naseberries! My childhood comes full-rushing back.

Hey, what pollution, what traffic, what grime, what noise?

[tags]Bangkok, floating market, coconut sugar, Grand Palace[/tags]

Hong Kong. Come With?

[Click on photos to enlarge]

Hong Kong. Oh, could it be any more stunning than it is right this minute, decked full red, gift-wrapped and Christmas lit? Red and albino poinsettias mass, are bunched, are grouped, crowd window boxes, line avenues and streets, storefronts.

Christmas is secular here, of course, unless you want to count the lit stars suspended from invisible wire in front of the ritzy Peninsula Hotel. But there’s no Baby Jesus. The joyous lights on every building for a mile or more wink, tic, tic, race as you would expect, but also cast long festive trails on Victoria Harbour’s night water that links Kowloon on the mainland to Hong Kong Island’s business center. I had no tripod so the photos posted are execrable, but you’ll get the picture. Har.

Interesting how the thin skyscrapers reflect the aesthete of the people, thin as cigarette boats, cosmopolitan. See the daytime photo too, taken from a sampan belching diesel fumes. Yin and yang here, right? The moneyed soaring skyscrapers, the poverty of the houseboats on the jade water, some of the folks living on them, the guide says, are eighty years and older and have never come ashore. Could be tourist hype, no doubt, but one look at the mild faces and I could so believe. I put my camera down when they stare out at yet another set of tourists; I wave instead.

On the city streets I realize I’ve lost my New York walking skills. I dodge and weave the sidewalk hordes. Maybe we should be walking on the left, I say to my uncomplaining husband, England’s handprint still hardpressed in the way they drive on the left. Switching to the left side of the street doesn’t really work. I dodge and weave, I shake my head no, thank you, no thank you, no thank you to the Indian or Pakistani men who hand me their flyers, I can make you a suit; I’m good at it, come and have a look. Watches, Madame? I dodge and weave, am one of the few black tourists, polite even though, Leave me the hell alone, I’m begging you, is caged behind my teeth.

We are good tourists. We go up to Victoria Peak by tram, funicular style, the spectacular skyline view hazed this day. We go shopping for cashmere and pashminas in Stanley Market, we take a double-decker tram around Hong Kong Island for the novelty, to see more of the city, to experience, man. Our hotel is luxurious and comfortable. Choice fruit in a swan-shaped bowl arrives because we ask a worker in an adjoining room whether they’d finished making up our room (half eaten in photo.) Only when there’s surprise on his face do we realize that perhaps they’ve left the folded spreads off the bed for our convenience. We assure him it’s okay. Really. But, do you think we could have an extra pillow? Not ten minutes later, here comes the burnished fruit. Yeah, baby.

I love Hong Kong. Our beautiful city guide, Kenn, is very fluent in this totally bilingual city, but apologizes for her “chinglish”, Chinese English. I look away and I know that’s a term I’ll not ever be comfortable saying. It’s way too close to a word that I don’t ever want to come out of my brain. I learn that the bathroom is “the happy room,” learn that they refer to themselves as Hongkongese; she mentions the Shanghainese. I don’t know why I’m surprised? People in Taiwan are Taiwanese.

In Hong Kong, the scaffolding on buildings is bamboo – even on skyscrapers. In Hong Kong there’s a queue 15 people long outside the Louis Vuitton, outside the Gucci shops on Canton Road. In Hong Kong teenaged girls walk easily for blocks, hands linked liked lovers; they giggle and whisper. In Hong Kong the fragile leaves of the poinsettias remain unquailed and tropical, even though everyone here is wearing light down jackets, the women yoked by their scarves tied in the same noosed style against 40-degree temperatures. Spindly boughs of bougainvillea still bow, purple orchid-like Bauhinia flowers still nest high on trees. We are all freezing.

On Lantau Island we stop at the Tai O Fishing village, walk through the long narrow alley lined with dried seafood of every kind, blow lungs hung like loofah, dried blowfish. I use my first squat toilet behind a door that only comes up to my waist. I take the requisite documenting photo. As I walk along the pathway the villagers cannot take their frank stares from me, even when I smile and nod to shame them. A four-year-old points at me, her index finger up to her little cheek. Later at the Buddhist Temple, where the world’s tallest outdoor seated bronze Buddha statue reigns with his enlightened smile, a broadly-smiling young woman, her hair pink-punked, poses with me for a photo, her head leaned closed to mine. Back in Hong Kong a seven-year-old spots me, looks back at me, prods her ancient grandmother to turn to look at me. What? There are knots of African men on the streets not four streets over; what’s the deal? I don’t know how to feel, really. Like a chicken geek in a traveling circus, like a film star, pawed at by people’s non-malicious curiosity. I just feel, like, I dunno, slimed?

Hey, stop gawking at me. I nod and smile, good morning, Zou san.

Full of It

I’m on the verge of rewriting my novel, “Grace Notes.” I’m already swollen with it.

My dreams – streaming and colorful – have become even more Technicolor. My eyes have taken on that keenness I get when I’m in the throes of making stuff up. I’ve begun again to be acute, to note all things: the stops and starts of a woman newly arrived at a noon Christmas party, her body tightly coiled, her harnessed desire for a cocktail over food making her conversation unfocused. I see, and can almost taste, the fat moon over the bay at Sausalito.

Words are again beginning to haunt me again. The pretty ones, like gamboge, a color the yellow of amber. Funky ones appear, too, from ether. Ooo, my brain coos, ooo; I get to use bumf. A word that has two meanings: toilet paper, or throwaway paper like junk mail. You just know I’m itching to use that one. And probably won’t, scared away by the ghost of an editor’s hectoring pen. (See? The catastrophizing has also begun!)

I know already that on the good days when the work sings, I will ask myself, how is it that I didn’t know I could write till freshman English at the University of Cincinnati? If it weren’t for the kindly, dying teacher who told me after class that I had a flair for writing, would the desire to sling words out? Doubt it. At age 12, I’d convinced myself that I’d lifted something from a novel. My British second form teacher had cocked her head and asked if my line, “a riot of bougainvillea blood flowers” was original. And, how did I explain away the early poems? C’mon now, which teenager doesn’t scribble heartbreak verse? To this day, poems are my stepchildren.

I also know already that when the writing’s not going well, I will slap my broad black desk hard. Tears will stand in my eyes. I will swear long and cruel in vivid, living colors. If you know me, kiss me.

Gray, Yeah, But Old?

On the San Francisco Muni bus, younger women get up to give me their seats; they give me their benevolent smiles.

It’s the hair.

I ask for a monthly Muni pass at Safeway, and the check-out guy, says, “Sure, would that be a Senior Pass?” My husband cannot stop laughing.

It’s the gray hair.

A very disheveled black man, reeking of the chemical sweetness of crystal meth, sits beside me on the bus, leans his head on my shoulder and tells me he likes old women. Not older. Old.

It’s the materfrickin’ gray-tweed hair!

Maybe I should just quit riding the bus altogether is what I’m thinking. I mean, does this happen to pretty-boy Anderson Cooper on CNN? Oh, I don’t think so.

Of course, I’ve agonized about dyeing my hair to its original black gloss. My two older sisters, for example, have not a whit of white hair – except perhaps if you go nitpicking. One of them was carded in a department store when she asked for the discount for the 55 and older crowd.

It has also passed through my mind a time or three that my friends and co-workers might just wish I’d go ahead and reach for the dye dispenser. The way you want the guy with the very crooked bottom teeth to go get them fixed, the way you want that pretty plump girl in Accounting to lose some weight, Aaron Neville to get his huge Milk Dud of a mole taken care of.

It’s also a worry that potential publishers will reject me out of hair, hand because I’m not the rockin’ young author, you know? Last week at my friend Abeer’s reading, the moderator plugged and plugged a writing contest eligible for writers 35 and younger. Well. That leaves me the hell out. It’s bad enough that an agent confided to me that my first book couldn’t get through “marketing,” and that an editor at a major publishing house told me nobody wants to read about Jamaica – they want to read about Europe. I’m already at a disadvantage.

You will never know how I agonized about the photo on the About Jennifer page which, in the end, I left un-Photoshopped. Only because when we did it, it looked a touch artificial, the hair. Very same reason I don’t color it. This is the same hair I always seem to be writing about, the same hair that black women gush over at the hair salon. They tell me it looks good with my skin color, which is coffee without a single trace of cream. They tell me how beautiful it is. They lie, I think.

All it does is suggest to folks that they get up from their seats and let me sit down; they hang back to let me board the bus first; they call me old to my face.

If I’m old, how is it that I have this on my mp3 player? As well as this. All right, so I also have this,and this can make me weepy. Maybe I am old?

1. Kanye West/Jamie Foxx-Golddigger; 2. Damian Marley-Welcome To Jamrock; 3. Ron Isley-Burt Bacharach-Anyone Who Had a Heart; 4. George Frideric Handel- Xerxes-Largo

Hey, Jenny, Jennie, Jenn, Jens

…If seeing
your name
in the obits
ain’t freaky…

Okay, raise your hands if your name is also Jennifer Coke. Yeow. Can you believe how many of us there are, truly?

Hello, my googlegängers! I guess I feel fortunate to have snagged the domain name before the Jen doing real estate in MO, or the cool middle school teacher in TX, the rehab guru in NC, the Jen volunteering in community radio in AZ, or that nice Jen who adopted the Chilean Flamingo at the San Francisco Zoo. And I feel infinitely more lucky than Jennifer Coke from Redwood City who died at age 29. Car crash. If seeing your name in the obituaries ain’t freaky.

Plain truth is I’m not now nor have I ever been a Jen. It has always been the whole rhythmic name, my middle name, my mother trying to balance the meter by giving me a short and punchy first name that she never intended to use. Yes, shhhh – I’m a G. Jennifer Coke.

But never a Jen or Jenny, which I don’t so much like. I’ve been a Jennifer way before it was the nom du jour, you know? In fact, I’ve been one so long, I get the double blink when I show up in person. People look past me when they call my name in reception areas. A man in Spain, asks me in Russian-accented English, if I had changed my name. No-no, I tell him. I was named after Jennifer Jones, the actress. He nods his head but his face is blank; it’s clear he doesn’t know that name from Adam.

Speaking of actresses. How disappointing it is that this Jennifer Coke who’s listed in various French websites as one of the leads in the movie, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives isn’t one of us at all. She really is Jennifer Cooke.

Course, I’ve been called that a hundred times, too. But that’s a whole nother story.