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Mike's Random Thoughts From The Road #8
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more of my favorite stories from the road.
1. on the northern coast of northern ireland, on the rocky shores of the atlantic at the foot of towering green cliffs, sits the giant's causeway. it is an area of hexagonal towers grouped together forming a pathway out into the sea. the rock towers are so closely packed and so perfectly shaped that the first people to discover them figured they were man-made. the explanation they gave goes like this:

finn macool, the irish giant, decided one day to build a causeway so he could walk across the water to scotland to kick the scottish giant's ass. he created these hexagonal rock towers as stepping stones over the sea, plunking them down as he went. when he got to scotland he sought out the house of the native giant. he found it but when he peered inside the giant was sleeping and finn was shocked at how huge he was - much bigger than your man finn. realizing he was out-matched, macool turned around and ran back home over the causeway. the scottish giant was stirred out of his sleep and realized that finn had been there. infuriated, he ran over the giant's causeway to ireland to beat the shit out of finn. now finn's wife was a smart woman and when she heard the scottish giant's footsteps thundering toward them on the causeway she grabbed finn, dressed him up like a baby, and stuffed him in the crib. when the scottish giant arrived breathing heavy and full of rage, he searched for finn but only saw what he thought was finn's baby son laying in a crib sleeping. the giant saw how huge finn's baby was and could only imagine how huge finn himself was. he realized he'd be killed if finn came around so he turned on his heel and fled back to scotland over the causeway, destroying it as he ran. and that is why you see hexgonal rock formations in scotland very similar to those in northern ireland...the remaining fragments of the giant's causeway.

geologists have an explanation for it all involving rocks and plate tectonics but it's obvious bullshit.
2. my buddy hood liang ee from malaysia was driving zac and i through the streets of penang when i started talking about my trip around the world. i mentioned that i took a strange route by working first and then leaving while most americans my age are buying houses and settling down. i said that i didn't want to miss the opportunity and hood nodded in agreement.

"you only live once," he said.

"my god," i said from the passenger seat, "is that weird to hear coming from a buddhist."
3. i needed a bottle but didn't have one. the dutch next door had an empty one liter bottle in a trash bag which was tied to the door handle - can i use it? sure.

i was on the trans-siberian railway, the massive train journey from moscow, russia to beijing, china - specifically the leg from ulaan baatar, mongolia to beijing - and i had to take a whopping piss. during the border crossings they lock the bathrooms on the train. no big deal if i hadn't just drank about 38 beers without using the can once. i had to go bad. real, real bad. go outside, right? wrong. during the 6 hour crossing between mongolia and china they change all the wheels on the train since the rails are different between the two countries. my car was disconnected from all the other cars and was dangling 10 feet (3 meters) above the tracks. i was about to burst but had nowhere to go.

nowhere but into a bottle.

i grabbed the bottle from the dutch and brought it into my cabin. sorry ladies.

that's right. sorry ladies. i was sharing the cabin with two middle-aged mongolian women. i was going to have to let loose this raging urine river right in front of two women. mia, the older woman who only spoke a bit of russian and no english, started getting her shoes on - she was going to leave to give me some privacy. but instead her and the other woman slid over to the bunk below mine so they couldn't see me. there were four bunks in the room; two up, two down. i went up to the top bunk above them to let loose the storm. loosening my belt and pants did nothing to ease the alarming pressure from my bladder. i got on my knees, faced the wall and uncorked into the bottle, embarrassed by the noise of the stream hitting the bottle walls. jesus. they could hear everything in the silent cabin but oh my lord did it relieve me. my offering reached the top of the bottle but i still had enough to fill a small pond in my bladder - shit. i had to shut off and was surprised i could. the garbage cans are locked on the borders too so i had to sit in my bunk with a bottle of warm piss in the corner - gnarly. god bless the ladies for never making me feel like the total ass i was.

the next morning i thanked the dutch for the bottle, telling them it saved my life. the moral of the story? always carry an empty two liter bottle aboard a train. oh, well, i guess you could just take a piss before you reach a border on a train and save yourself the trouble.

remember one of those two things at least.
4. when i got to pingyao, china my wrist was very sore. two days later when i got to xi'an, i could barely move it. something had happened to it in beijing-i think playing guitar at the youth hostel for 7 straight hours did it-and now it was really hurting. i walked through the streets of xi'an looking for something i could rub on it. i had it wrapped up in a scarf which immobilized it but i figured some chinese medicine might hasten it's healing. neil and i walked around until we found a store filled with glass-cased counters behind which stood women in white coats-looked like a pharmacy to me. of course there was no chance they spoke english so i wasn't sure what i was going to say. i unwrapped the light purple scarf from my wrist and pointed to the swelled muscle. "ow," i said. a wide-faced chinese woman and her co-worker looked at my wrist and then up to me, asking me something in chinese. no idea at all. i just pointed to my wrist again and said "ow." the first one walked around to another counter as the other woman looked at me smiling. she returned with two things: a tube of cream and a box of pills. she demonstrated that i should rub the cream on my wrist. she turned the box of pills over and revealed directions and ingredients written in english-very good since i wasn't going to ingest mystery pills. i almost wished the ingredients were only in chinese though once i got to ingredient #4: ground beetles. ugh. i payed for both medicines and administered both back in the hostel. nothing. my wrist still throbbed with pain.

later in the day neil and i were walking around and i was complaining about my wrist. he couldn't stand it anymore and grabbed me by the good arm and dragged me into a store that looked like a medical clinic. non english-speaking chinese women in white coats immediately swarmed around me. they took me back to an examining room where we had a worthless conversation about my ailing wrist. they poked at it, massaged it, and asked me questions in chinese. i sat there wondering why i came in-we could not communicate at all with each other. the scarf and the ground beetles would be fine. they lead me to the front room and sat me on a chair. the three doctors left me and gathered in another room full of glass shelves and discussed the antidote. i had no idea what was going to happen. people from the street walked into the clinic to look at me. they stood in a group around me, staring at the long-haired western freak sitting dejected on a green plastic chair.

the docs then appeared again with the remedy: a cardboard box. they had emptied a small brown box of its contents, cut the lid off it, and were now going to tie it to my wrist with some gauze. i started laughing, incredulous that this was their solution. two of them attended to me as the others looked on. there was a lot of laughter in the room. they chattered in chinese as i sat there smiling at their make-shift solution. they lightly wrapped me up and then outfitted me with a sling. i wondered how much this brilliant treatment was going to cost me. when they finished i asked with my hands "how much?" they held up three fingers and one girl shouted out "three money!" to an eruption of laughter. 3 yuan, or about 40 cents. neil paid the bill and we left, saying thank you in mandarin to the doctors.

the treatment wasn't even worth 40 cents-i removed the splint as soon as we rounded the corner from the clinic-but the memory of it is priceless. about 4 days later my wrist felt much better. i guess the beetles finally found their way to the end of my arm and got the job done.
5. it seems like everyone i meet speaks at least two languages. i only speak one and am lucky that it's the common language of travelers otherwise i'd be having a hell of a time out here. i was lamenting this fact as i cycled through sweden where everyone speaks swedish, english, and usually a couple more languages. as i rolled past a house out in the country i saw a large dog eye-balling me. as i drew closer he sprang from the porch and sprinted toward me. i sped up trying to get away from him. his owner saw what was going on and yelled something in swedish to the dog. he immediately stopped in his tracks, turned around, and returned to the porch. i was relieved but at the same time was pissed that even a dog understands more languages than i do.
6. i boarded the trans-siberian railway in ulaan baatar, mongolia headed for beijing, china. i was the first one into my 4 bed cabin so i chucked my backpack and laptop case onto the empty top left bunk. as you walked into the small cabin, you had two bunks on your left and two on your right. two up, two down. my stuff was on the top left bunk next to a pile of pillows and blankets. i turned around, walked into the hallway, and looked out at the other passengers as they climbed aboard the train. i examined them all wondering who would be my roommates during the 36 hour journey. after a few minutes, two mongolian guys, one short and skinny with a pock-marked face, the other huge and muscular with a long black leather coat and sunglasses, indicated to me that they were in my cabin. i stood aside from the door and thought to myself "ok, i'm traveling with these two guys for the next 36 hours - wonder if we'll be able to talk to each other?" they walked into the cabin and i continued to look out the hallway window at the rest of the passengers. actually the big guy stood outside the cabin in the hallway next to me while the small guy went inside. after two minutes i became suspicious. why did these two not have any bags? why was the big guy outside the room constantly removing and then putting back on his jacket? something seemed wrong and so i decided to have look inside the cabin. the big guy didn't want me to get by him. he clogged up the doorway so i couldn't see in. i said "excuse me" several times but he stood there stoney silent with his elbows pointing out from his sides blocking the way. finally i pushed by him and saw the skinny guy zipping up the case to my laptop. i forced myself the rest of the way into the cabin and shouted:

"HEY! what are you doing!?!?!"

he looked at me innocently and sheepishly, pointing to the pillows next to my laptop, asking if he could use one of them. i wasn't buying it.

"you don't want a fucking pillow-you were in my laptop case," i said although he didn't understand much english. he played innocent and shrugged his shoulders. he had left the laptop case slightly unzipped and i could tell by the sag of it that the laptop was gone. i exploded at this guy. "where the FUCK is my computer?!?!" he shrugged again. i was facing him with my arms on the top bunks blocking his way. the huge guy was still standing directly behind me. the hair was standing up on my neck and nerves crawled in my stomach. i was shaking a bit but felt mostly in control.

"you are the only one in here. you are not leaving until i get my fucking computer. give me my god damn laptop, right now!" i screamed into his ugly face. his countenance then dropped, his expression changed from innocent to defensive.

"fuck? fucking?" he asked with a twisted, questioning face. he moved toward me threateningly. he was trying to intimidate me but he was going to have to kill me to get past me with my laptop which contained irreplaceable writing, photos, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. he dropped his arms to his side and i thought he was going to punch me. i braced myself and stepped closer to him.

"GIVE ME MY FUCKING COMPUTER RIGHT NOW!!!" i shouted. i thought about yelling for help-there were many people aboard the train-but within the cabins you were quite isolated so i just put on an aggressive face and let him know i was dead serious. he just shrugged his shoulders again. i looked him over, noticing his crappy knit sweater and skinny weathered face. i thought about punching him but then remembered the hulking mass wrapped in a black leather coat behind me-he could rip me in half with one finger. i worried about him grabbing me and holding me down as the other ran away with my computer but could do nothing about it so i just shouted my demands again:

"YOU ARE NOT FUCKING LEAVING HERE UNTIL I GET MY COMPUTER. WHERE IS IT?"

he dipped his head and raised his shoulders, saying with his body "oh, you mean this?" as he reached under the mattress of the opposite top bunk, revealing my precious. i violently snatched it from him. he gave me an "ok, you got me look" and tried to make peace with me. i put my machine back into its case as he ran past me. i quickly looked around to make sure my other stuff was undisturbed. i then turned to exit my cabin, thinking i should warn the train staff or at least the other passengers. the train staff obviously let these guys on without tickets-they were probably their partners-so i just decided to warn the other passengers. but the big guy wasn't letting me out. he stood in the doorway of my cabin blocking the way. he just stared at me through his dark shades with absolutely no expression on his wide face. he reached into an interior pocket and my nerves electrified as i expected him to produce a knife and stab me with it. he didn't pull anything out though, he just kept reaching in and out of his pockets almost like someone scratching dozens of equally irritating mosquito bites. it still seemed as though he would do something violent at any moment though so i finally said "why don't you leave? i don't want any more trouble." his partner was waiting for him, probably to go to the next car to rob more people, so he turned and left, giving me one last menacing look as he did. as they made their way down the hall, i shouted out that they were thieves and that everyone should watch their belongings. amazingly even though i gave that warning, two people in the next cabin had their cameras stolen out of the cases they had attached to their belts.

i was so glad that i caught them in the act and that i still had my laptop (and my life) but i felt disgusted about thieves and how many there are in the world, about how they only think of themselves and not at all of how their actions affect their victims. i would have lost every priceless picture i have taken on this trip and he would have made $500, an unfair trade...how can people be that evil? i'm not sure how, but i do know they are everywhere: in mongolia, in portugal, in chicago, everywhere, so watch your stuff-it only takes a second for some piece of shit to steal your treasures...
keep on keepin' on,
mike
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