Monday, January 28, 2013

Lessons From a Wise Sky. How to Behave Poorly on a Plane: a Primer

Anyone can behave considerately on a plane, but it takes real talent and a will of steel to make an ass of oneself in such a controled environment. If you follow these simple guidelines, however, you'll have no problem--but you'll certainly cause a few.

1. Piss-poor comportment on a plane begins even before the plane has left the ground, in fact even before you've boarded the bird. Here's how: Your boarding pass clearly states that your seat is 18f, but go ahead and get in the queue when the ground crew invites rows 35-50 to board the plane. If you muscle your way all the way to the front of the queue, you'll be perfectly positioned to carry out number 2.

2. Do NOT be in hurry. Take your time placing your twelve carry-on bags in the overhead compartment, and stick your behind into the aisle so that no one seated in rows 35-50 can get past you. If you're lucky, you'll be solely responsible for a late take-off. You won't be loved, but you will be noticed. And, after all, it's better to be noticed than loved. Right?

3. Headphones on? Check. iPad on? Check. Seatback reclined? Check. Tray table down? Check. If your mobile telephone is working, you should take this opportunity to call 20 people and have ridiculously superficial conversations--loudly--so that you miss the announcement to 'turn off all electronic equipment, return your seatback to the upright position and put your tray tables up'. Now, here's a nuance that slathers gravy all over this one: pretend you don't speak English when the flight attendant tries to get you ready for take-off.

4. You'd think take-off wouldn't avail you of any opportunities for practicing your piss-poor plane comportment--but it does. Why not stand up and go to the lavatory? The one in the front of the plane is best: you'll look more like a terrorist. Short of screaming 'I have a bomb!' getting out of your seat during take-off or landing is the piss-poorest prank you can pull on a plane. And I'm done with the Ps. No worries.

5. Fart. A lot.

6. Did you know it's considered good behavior to return your seatbacks to the upright position during meals? You won't want to remember this. In fact, to mix things up, you'll want to go horizontal on the guy behind you just as he's leaning forward to take a bite of his penne pasta in tomato sauce or just as he's leaning forwad to sip his red wine. If you do this just right--and with the right thrust--you won't make any new friends, but you will be noticed. (See number 2 above.)

7. You're generally a happy person. You enjoy meeting new people, and you love to talk. And talk. And talk. Who's the most entertaining rowmate on the plane? You are! If you're rowmate is reading or listening to music or watching a movie, stare at him until he has to look at you. "What'cha watching, amigo?" Expect an answer. If he doesn't remove his earbuds, remove them for him. And then talk, about anything. Tell this person your life story. Ask him to take notes.

8. And because you enjoy hearing yourself talk, you'll want to entertain the flight attendants while they're trying to get ready to serve 400 people dinner. Amble back to the galley and just talk...about anything. Talk to the flight attendants about your travels, about your family, about your health problems. And because we need a bit of gravy on this one too, hold a glass out occasionally for them to fill with red wine (it's their job!). Then ask for the bottle when they try to leave.

9. If you don't feel gassy at least you can smell bad generally. Bathing before boarding a plane is considerate, but it probably won't get you noticed . . . unless you bathe in something cloyingly pretty. Don't do that. Be noticed. Be strong.

10. If you really want to be noticed on a plane these days, you need to get a little wacky. If you've done all the above, you're on the right path. Why not take the path to the pinnacle of piss-poor plane comportment? (Sorry, I really really thought I was done with the silly alliteration.) Throwing up is nice, but make sure you do it ON someone. Don't waste it. And, whatever you do, don't apologize. After all, you were the one who was sick. You are the one who matters here. You are the center of attention on this flight.

Read other installments of Lessons from a Wise Sky.

I must be off,

Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type, available from Amazon Anything and lots of other online bookstores. If you ask your local bookstore to order it, you'll get a sweet virtual kiss from the author.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Expat Author Interview with James Claffey

James Claffey
James Claffey, originally from County Westmeath in the Irish midlands, has lived in the US for almost 20 years. At present he lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria California, a coastal town south of Santa Barbara. In the Olde World he was a professional racket stringer and worked at Wimbledon for a number of years. Some high-school students were also very lucky to have him as an English teacher. These days Claffey's short stories can be found in lots and lots of literary journals and litzines.


IMBO: Welcome to I Must Be Off! James, you have exploded onto the indie lit scene in the last year. What was the first story you published? And was this before you moved to the US or after?

ClaffeyEverything I've published has been since I moved here, though I am so happy to have several stories featured back home in lit mags and online journals. I've been most fortunate with publications, and a lot of that is down to sheer doggedness in the submissions process. The first fiction I published: "Bingo Night" at Up the Staircase. I owe Stephanie and April a big thank you for taking it and for subsequent work they've accepted. I wrote the story on summer break from grad school, sitting around a table with my wife and our friend, Ann, another writer, and we were doing short 10-minute quick-writes, and it came directly from one of the prompts. I got the acceptance email at a Superbowl party in Baton Rouge as I was watching the saints win. 

IMBO: Did you tell the people you were with about the acceptance? How did this happen?

No. I think at the time I told my wife, only. We were all too insane watching the Saints finally come good.

IMBO: What was life like in Ireland before you moved to the US? I know you've said you started publishing once you moved to California, but you must have been writing in Ireland. What brought the writer out? 
Rathgar House, Dubln
: Life was decent enough. I was working a retail job, playing a lot of chess, tennis, reading like a madman, watching all the great foreign movies that came to town. My friend, Joe, and I used go to the lighthouse cinema on Middle Abbey Street in Dublin with a bottle of wine hidden in my coat, and sink into movies like raise the red lantern, monsieur hire, le bal, au revoir les enfants, the hairdresser's husband, so many more...

IMBO: This sounds grand. I don't remember my own youth being nearly this interesting. So what brought you to America?

Claffey: I got my green card in 1991, back when people were sending hundreds, thousands in some cases, of applications. I sent one, purely to shut some friend up who had been applying like crazy. When the letter came from the US immigration people I couldn't remember applying! I talked with my mother at home over new year about that time, and she remembers the letter coming and my surprise. As for writing, I was not writing in Ireland. When I was nineteen I wrote one chapter of a fantasy novel (I'd been reading Raymond E. Feist and Stephen Donaldson), and read it aloud to a group of friends in a cafe in Dublin's Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, and that was all I wrote! I grew up in a home where literacy was cherished, surrounded by books, my mother an avid reader, a theatrical background, a huge Jane Austen fan, a big lover of detective fiction; and my father would read Zane Grey westerns and Dick Francis thrillers. But to write, not possible, not with the weight of provincial/parochial Ireland telling you your limitations. We lived around the corner from George Russell (AE) house, and very close to Joyce's birthplace, and there was no way you could imagine being a writer with the oppressive pantheon of Irish writers so close above your head like an impending avalanche of scorn! Maybe it was all the books in our house, or maybe it was simply being raised by a family of storytellers (my father was a great teller of stories). I wanted to write, but I was shy, insecure, and couldn't see myself as being worthy of writing. It was only when I did my undergraduate degree at UC Irvine and took a writing workshop that I thought to myself, "I can do this here"; and after getting into the undergrad workshops led by Geoffrey Wolff, I knew that not only was this something I wanted to do, but it was something I could do. He was a wonderful teacher and mentor for me to encounter at that stage, and when I didn't get into their MFA program (they were the only place I applied then), I took it as a sign that I wasn't to be a writer, and stopped again for some years. Only after meeting my wife, Maureen, did I finally get the message. She was the one who convinced me that if I wanted to write and be a writer, I simply needed to sit down and write (same advice I got in a workshop from Natalie Goldberg, only Natalie wasn't as polite about it!). 
IMBO: How lucky you are to have such a supportive partner and supportive mentors. Have you noticed an evolution in your writing? Has California changed you?

Claffey: I'm blessed to have someone like Maureen, who understands the writing life, and has experienced its ups and downs. She just had her novella, Women Float, picked up by CCLaP, and she's been working to publish it for a long, long time. Still, being married to a writer does have its struggles and we navigate those waters as best we can! As far as writing evolution goes, yes, once I learned to stop writing what I thought people wanted to read, things changed. At first I was so worried about people liking what I wrote, that I trotted out hackneyed nonsense. It was working with the late Jeanne Leiby at LSU that cured me of my nonsense. She was pretty damn frank, about most everything under the sun, and she spent countless hours with me, going over my writing, scything the pages with her pen, rolling her eyes at my poorly chosen metaphors, she'd say, "Your metaphors are terrible." and she was right. Between her sharp editor's eye, and that of Jim Wilcox, the program director, a former Random House editor, and a fine writer, too, I learned so much about writing clean, well-written prose. I still lapse into my old maudlin ways, but most of the time I spot the lapses and correct them before it's too late. As for California changing me? I'm far less concerned with what people think about my writing, or me for that matter, compared with when I was living in Ireland. Of course, I'm older, hopefully wiser, and thanks to some good old-fashioned US therapy, I have a better understanding of who I am and why I do things the way I do them, now. I wish I could say I'm more "go with the flow," as many Californians are, but when I tried to tell my wife and a friend a while back that I thought I was more go with the flow, they both laughed, and said, "James, sorry to break it to you, but you're not go with the flow." Living here also gives me a better appreciation of where I came from: to know I am created from a different landscape, a small island of rivers and bogs, of pubs and churches. I am more relaxed here, away from the heavy social expectations of Ireland, but Ireland is in me, and always will be the greater part of me, no matter how long I remain in the States.

James and Maisie
IMBO: Do you see yourself staying in the US?

Claffey: Yes. We're very settled in our coastal Californian world. It's pretty damn idyllic living in the midst of all these avocado trees, and it's a great place to bring up our daughter, Maisie, and every month we have my son with my ex-wife, Simon (who doesn't quite get "rural" life without a television set). Ideally, I'd love to be able to work three or four months in Ireland every year, and the rest here in the States, but that's not viable at the moment. When I go home now, I feel a palpable sense of my existing outside of things there, watching my brothers and their families live and grow up without seeing them all the time. There's a definite sense of wistfulness that comes with not being in Ireland any more, but home is here in America and I don't see that changing.

IMBO: I love avocado trees. They're so big and heavy looking. Do you like guacamole and do you have your own recipe? I understand the "palpable sense of my existing outside of things". I visit my family and my ever-dwindling group of friends in the US maybe two or three times a year, but my life has been in Germany for the last 17 years. Some people would say Ireland is idyllic. I've thought so on occasion. Why do you think California has become your idyll?

Claffey: Love guacamole, and yes, I have become the de facto guacamole maker for family functions, usurping the native avocado growers at their own game. One of my favorite recipes is to cut avocados and tomatoes into cubes, mix in red onion chopped fine, add lemon juice, salt, pepper, hot sauce, and pomegranate seeds, and it's a favorite at Thanksgiving/Christmas events.
The Avocado House
As for idylls, there's something to the light of evening here in coastal California that is quite wonderful. In many ways this world is far from idyllic--the work thing, the traffic, and the difficulties in finding an engaged and empowering writing community--but to live in nature, to be able to spend so much time by the ocean, to walk the hills and see the wildlife so near, it's amazing. Ireland too has its draws, and I certainly miss being able to get a decent pint of Guinness! Also, there's a freedom to life in California that's opposite to the parochial world I grew up in, so I appreciate that.

IMBO: Turning now to that world and to one of your stories (although I have made a note of the pomegranate seeds in the guacamole: this sounds incredible). "Holy Communion"--set in a leafy Dublin suburb--is a stunning narrative about a once-rich-now-poor boy who steals money during communion at the church on the corner of Leicester Ave and Rathgar Road. When did you write it and what, if anything, does this story say about class, economics and religion?

Claffey: Thanks for the compliment about the story. I wrote it late-summer 2012 as part of a novel I'm working on at the moment. Growing up in Dublin, class and social position were closely aligned with the power and weight of the Catholic church, and I wanted to convey that oppressive religious power through the image of Jesus on the cross, and the ritual of the mass--the people lining up for communion, the "dance" that is the whole ceremonial aspect of Catholicism. In a way, I perceived the Irish of that time to be parts of a greater machine, all fitting in to their assigned role, whether it be postman, accountant, electrician, writer, and it seemed to me at least, that there was little hope of rejecting that role you fulfilled, unless of course you extricated yourself from the whole thing by seeking a life elsewhere. Certainly, one could do so and remain in that world, but the church and the social contract of the time was so powerful a thing that one ran the risk of ostracizing oneself from society at large. I understand better now why so many of our writers fled the country, so they could write about it without fear of reprisal, and also by gaining the necessary distance to be able to do so. Ireland is changing and now writers like Kevin Barry are able to write wonderfully subversive prose from a much closer perspective. Still, when I was there recently for our daughter's baptism, the orderliness of life was still apparent, and the hold of the church, though clearly diminished, still palpable. I mean, at 12 and 6 each day the Angelus prayer bells ring out on the radio, much like the Muezzin's call to prayer. That world calls to me creatively, and is the bedrock of my writing, and God-willing, I'll be able to tap that source and write my stories for a long time to come.

IMBO: I was raised Baptist in the South, so I feel a similar creative call. Finally, James, if you had to pick one other expat writer to tell my readers about, who would it be?

Claffey: I try to keep up with other Irish writers and their works.One of my favorites, Ethel Rohan, is an Irish writer living in the Bay Area who writes marvelous stories and articles. I admire how Ethel writes from her Irish past in a fresh and challenging manner, and I particularly love her story, Haunt, in FWriction : review. Also, the Move, at Matter Press is pretty damn great. And then there are the ex-pat writers from Ireland who reside in the NY Times bestseller lists, like Colum McCann and Emma Donohue, both writing magnificent fiction, garnering prizes and praise from all corners.

IMBO: James, it's been great having you here at I Must Be Off! Your story is remarkable; thanks for sharing it. It goes without saying that I wish you tonnes of success.

Claffey: Chris, thanks for giving me the opportunity to waffle on about myself and writing! It's been a blast.


Recent publications James Claffey include . . .

Thumbnail 4: mercury retrograde & childbirth 
Metazen Christmas Ebook: cold-boned and dead
Jet Fuel Review: the blow 
Tuck Magazine: first communion 
Apocrypha and Abstractions: silenced by a widowmaker
Thrice Fiction Magazine: the cane flays bare & softening of the skull

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type, available from Amazon Anything. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Gluten-free through Southeast Asia?

I had such good intentions. I was going to print off dietary-requirements cards available free from Celiac Travel to use on our trip through Singapore, Thailand and Bali. I was going to buy a bottle of gluten-free soy sauce. In essence, I was going to turn over several new leaves: I was actually going to prepare for a trip. Well, time got away from me. And that's a lie. I just forgot.

So off we went, Franco the North Italian Ham Curer and myself. Our first stop was Singapore. New Year's Eve. Marina Bay. Too expensive to eat anyway. So no worries, right? While we were waiting for the fireworks ballet to begin we indulged in a few exorbitantly priced ciders. I think they were 12 Singapore dollars a pint. We ate fairly reasonably at one of the food stalls at Clarke Quay, where you can find other cuisine besides Asian--always a problem because of the dreaded soy sauce, which is essentially wheat sauce.

I really could have used those dietary-requirements cards. The following conversation happened so many times on our trip that it became a joke:

ME: Hello, dear waiter. Is there soy sauce in this dish?

WAITER: Soy sauce, yes! I get for you.

ME:  No, no. I can't eat soy sauce.

::blank stare with smile::

ME: I'm allergic [which I'm not, but saying so usually works].

WAITER: Oh, no soy sauce. This dish no soy sauce.

ADORABLE ME: But you just said it did.

In the end, you can't really know if you've made yourself understood or not, or if the waiter is really taking you seriously. When the dish comes, you stare at it, you hesitate, you decide to ask again just to make sure--so you flag the waiter down.

ME: I just want to make sure. So there's no soy sauce in this dish, right?

WAITER: Soy sauce! I get for you.

And then he trots off to get you extra soy sauce. It is at this point that you will turn to your own Franco the North Italian Ham Curer and say, "Look on the bright side: I won't gain any weight on this trip." The cards would have come in handy.

So if you're not willing to take the chance (and you were too lazy, forgetful, negligent, ya-de-ya to get the dietary-requirements cards), you'll need to stay away from the Asian food. You can, as always, indulge in food from the subcontinent. Asking about wheat in an Indian restaurant is much easier (the following conversation is from two Indian restaurants in the holiday-hell resort of Patong Beach, Thailand):

ME: You don't use wheat flour in your sauces, do you?

WAITER: Of course not. We use wheat flour only in the naan bread.

ME: I love you, and not just because of your beautiful skin and dreamy eyes.

WAITER: Most people love me because I am lightly redolent of curry.

ME: (leaning forward) Indeed you are. I'll add this to the list. And I'll have the lamb vindaloo. Make me hurt.

WAITER: Will do, sir. And would you like naan bread with that? Just kidding.

I coerced my traveling companions to eat Indian a few times on our trip. Otherwise, I ate steamed rice, fries and a multivitamin. Once in Kuta and once atop the Marina Bay Sands hotel, I ordered a salad. Wonderful, right? Well not so wonderful. In Kuta, between ordering and receiving my chef's salad (yes, in Kuta you will be transported back to the 70s when a chef's salad was all the rage), I had second thoughts about eating it, imagining myself in the hospital with hepatitis. And then the salad (18 Singapore dollars) at the Marina Bay Sands came with great-big-honking-but-beautiful croutons. I always forget about the danger of beautiful croutons.
But . . . We encountered an unexpected gem in Ubud, Bali.  The restaurant Bhakti Asih was empty when we arrived. It was early in the evening, but my traveling companions claimed it had been full the evening before. So we ate there. I ordered the nachos after the waiter confirmed the chips were all corn. And Franco the North Italian Ham Curer ordered me some fries because he intuitively knew the nachos wouldn't be enough. He was right. The nachos weren't a lot of food, but they were also only around 4 dollars. The prices in general are incredibly reasonable at Bhakti Asih. And the fries were so good that we ordered another portion. Homemade and delicious: they were a real treat for me.

What is your experience? Are you a Celiac Traveler? And have you traveled in Asia with the Gluten-free restaurants cards? Not as lazy as me? I'd love to hear from you.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type, available from Amazon.anything and lots of other online bookstores. Just Google "s teri otype" to find out more about the book or you can go here to finding out EVERYTHING

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Late in 2011 I was stoked to have a story included in STRIPPED, a collection of anonymous flash. The concept underpinning the collection was that the stories--which all deal in some way with gender or how the roles we play as men and women affect our writing or our writing style--would be genderless. The reader, in this case, would not have the luxury of knowing whether a man or a woman wrote the story. For some readers this might be infuriating, but I think for most it's a challenge and a mystery--one that will be solved by Nicole Monaghan on February 1. Come back to I Must Be Off on February 1 for a link to the BIG REVEAL.

The writers in this collection are truly an all-star cast: 

The Women – Erin Fitzgerald, Ethel Rohan, Gay Degani, Gill Hoffs, Heather Fowler, Jeanne Holtzman, Jessica Charest, Kathy Fish, Kerri Schuster, Kierstin Bridger, Meg Tuite, Michelle Reale, Myfanwy Collins, Nicole Monaghan, Pamela Painter, Rae Bryant, Roxane Gay, Sara Lippmann, Sherrie Flick, Tara Laskowski, Tara L. Masih

The Men -
Casey Hannan, Christopher Allen, Curtis Smith, Devan Goldstein, Eric Bosse, J. Bradley, Ken Pobo, Len Kuntz, Marc Nieson, Marc Schuster, Michael Martone, Nathan Long, Peter Schwartz, Randall Brown, Robert Swartwood, Robert Vaughan, Rusty Barnes, Scott Garson, Sean Lovelace, Sheldon Lee Compton, William Henderson

An excellent gender analysis of the collection has been conducted by Zin Kenter at the blog A Just Recompense. This is a fascinating look at the collection and an attempt to guess the gender of each author. I'm thrilled all three of the tests got my story wrong. Or did they? Hahahaha. You'll just have to wait for February 1 to find out. (Update! You can match the story with the author HERE!)

I must be off,

Bali is Adorable

Bali is adorable. As long as you stay away from the beach. Most people who visit Bali book a beach holiday in Kuta. They hang around the pool and drink cocktails, listening to bad renditions of "Raindrops Keep Failling on My Head" and "My Heart Will Go On" droning from the speakers in the bar. They do this because the "promenade" in Kuta is not that interesting and in some places downright dirty.

The main street in Kuta is indescribably jammed with cars and motorcycles and tourists dodging the cars and motorcycles. There are security guards at the larger hotels and restaurants who try to help cars out into the madness, but pedestrians are largely left to their own courage and speed getting across the street.

The last time we were in Kuta, a downpour turned this street into a river about a foot deep. This time there were no flash floods, but there were puddles to maneuver. And of course my toe was a concern. I wasn't supposed to get it wet--and certainly not with the filthy water on the streets in Kuta. Despite the care I took in keeping my foot out of these puddles, a teenager managed to splash me when he jumped over a puddle in front of me. My toe has not fallen off yet, so I think I'm good.

The Mansion Resort, Hotel and Spa
If you travel to Bali, stay near Ubud in The Mansion. You'll be thrilled you did. You'll also be thrilled if you get the great price we got. It was low season (January), and it was pouring down rain when we arrived late in the evening. The hotel staff, though, received us like visiting royalty. And like the Royal Pains in the Asses we are, we asked them to open up the kitchen for us so that we could eat something after our long journey. It had been a long trip from Phuket with an unexpected 6-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur. They obliged. Six people waited on us. Terima Kasih, guys! Sweet people.

The fog in the background is a daily mosquito smoking. Much Welcomed.

The grounds are dappled with sculptures and meticulously groomed gardens and fountains.

The semi-private jacuzzi right outside our rooms.

By the time we finished our late-night snack, it had stopped raining. Our rooms were down a path and through one of the many doors that Hindus believe keeps evil spirits out of homes. I found the threshold quite easy to step over, which must mean I'm a good spirit. The rooms are dreamily appointed, and there was a jacuzzi right outside our rooms. I wasn't able to enjoy this, of course, due to my toe, but Ingo the Mackerel Egg Museum Curator loved it, said he felt "alive" after a dip.

"Did you feel 'dead' before?" I asked him.

"It's just an expression," he replied.

"After a dip in a hot tub I sometimes feel 'loose' or 'peaceful' or 'focused,'" I suggested.

"I felt 'alive'," he said.

"Still sounds too general to me," I said, "like it goes without saying, you know?" But Ingo the Mackerel Egg Museum Curator wasn't having any editing.

The next day, because my toe was still a concern, I stayed at The Mansion while my traveling companions took the hotel's free shuttle into Ubud, the cultural center of Bali. Ubud is a small town by any measure. There are only a few shopping streets, but the shops are well worth braving the narrow, dilapidated sidewalks. If you are an art lover, you'll find yourself spending hours poring over paintings and sculptures. If you love Starbucks, you'll be fascinated by the most beautiful Starbucks in the world. I see some of you Starbucks haters rolling your eyes, but this is one Starbucks you just have to see and appreciate.

My favorite Starbucks, Ubud

This is right outside the doors of my favorite Starbucks.

The building on the left is the Starbucks with outdoor seating there to the left--and this is your view!

 If you travel to Bali and you stay in Ubud, you also have to hire a driver and explore the island. It will cost around 20 dollars for the entire day. Our driver, Ketut, was quite helpful and informative. He's the fourth child in his family, which you know by his name. He also told us what the flower offerings mean and how often the Balinese harvest rice, and lots of other things. Great guy, Ketut.

These ladies were so sweet and gracious to let us take pictures of them drying rice.

If you tavel to Bali, stay in Ubud and explore the island with a driver for 20 dollars, you'll come in contact with more of the Balinese culture than if you stay in your hotel in Kuta listening to "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" looping and looping and looping. They never change the CD. But you will also come in contact with some very persistent peddlers and beggars. Say NO, don't take anything they try to put in your hand, and keep walking. If you really want the Bali t-shirt they're foisting upon you, offer to pay a third of what they're asking. These t-shirts are crap. They're going to fade the nanosecond you wash them. The I LOVE BALI on the front won't be visible at all. I know. Ingo the Mackerel Egg Museum Curator bought three of them. He never learns.

Next time I'm going to tell you about my first acupressure treatment. It's going to be painful.

To continue with I Must Be Off! A-Z, go to C is for Canada.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type, available from Amazon.anything.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Not So Pretty in Patong

We have now been to Phuket and Patong beach--a tourist mecca for Who-the-Hell-knows-why--three times. To get to Patong from the airport on Phuket, you have to take a taxi for almost an hour with the final hurdle of a mountain that is the bane of many a bus driver. One of our bus drivers was driving up this mountain so slowly that I thought he might shift into 1/2 gear. If we'd been driving any more slowly, we'd have rolled back down the mountain. Everyone on the bus was leaning forward.

Patong is a party. If you're 22, Australian and drunk you'll love Patong. Otherwise, you'll find Patong off-putting, crowded and smelly. On our first morning there, Augusten the Bat Ophthalmologist's Assistant and I went on an early morning beach jaunt because I thought I might be able to get a sunrise photo. Of course Patong Beach faces the west, and I am famous for being orientationally challenged. I did, however, get these lovely photos of the beach. Lovely.

The town was devastated by the tsunami a decade ago, but it has rebuilt. There are now tsunami warning signs telling you where and how far to run if you hear the alarm. "You" will probably be 22, Australian and drunk off your Vegemite, so you should acquaint yourself with the evacuation routes when you're sober, which is never. Oh, maybe I'm being a bit hard on Patong (and 22-year-old Aussies). Wait, no I'm not. Patong stinks, and 22-year-old Aussies are too pretty for their own good.

Chances are, you'll choose a restaurant right next to a sewer vent, or you'll spend a few hours at the hospital getting antibiotics for your food poisoning (The hospital is lovely by the way. The nurse who changed my bandage was especially helpful and skilled at dressing wounds.), or you'll injure your foot and spend the next few days limping around hoping botoxed Russian trophy wives don't squash your poor toe with their stilettos.

Ah yes, the wound. The toe. Maybe that's why I'm giving Patong the blogorial finger. I've written about it in another post, but I'll tell you about it again in case you missed it. If you're squeamish, close your left eye now.

My toe hours after the incident, still bleeding
Why do partners fight on holiday? This was the topic of conversation the morning after my toe debacle. In the taxi on the way to the ferry, Augusten the Bat Ophthalmologist's Assistant and I decided that couples who fight on holiday are also couples who fight all the time at home. Their neighbors sponsor their holiday to get a break from their yelling and banging at 2:00 a.m. You see, I got up at 4:00 a.m. to "ask" the guy upstairs to stop banging on his hotel door. In his own words this was "a family matter."

"But I can hear you, and I'm not in your family," I didn't reply. Instead, I tripped on the step in front of my hotel door and ripped the toenail half off my right big toe. THIS is why Patong has lost some of its panache. I'm sure Patong was beautiful 30 years ago, but now it's a tourist trap populated with hundreds of shops selling the same t-shirts and thousands of young girls (and boys) crying, "Massage? Massage?"

"Yes, I would love a massage," I would say. "Do you know how to deal with an injured shoulder? Can you promise me I won't come away more injured than I am now?"

Blank stare. "Massage? Massage?"

The main Party drag in Patong
The upshot is, if you really need massage therapy, you shouldn't put yourself in the hands of a person who sits on the side of the road all day, crying "Massage? Massage?" The last time I was in Patong, I stayed in a very nice hotel away from the busy part of the beach and had a professional massage. She bent me like a pretzel, which was good. At that time I didn't have any problems with my shoulders. This time, I just showed the people my toe and they left me alone.

Have I had enough of Patong? Yep. Walking a mile back to my hotel from the hospital after having my toe cleaned and dressed for the fourth time, I decided I was done with the filthy streets. Done with the taxi mafia. Done with vendors grabbing me and trying to pull me into their shops. Done with crowds. Well, I've always been done with crowds. Done with sand, done with beaches. Done with beaches covered with rubbish. Done with buff 22-year-old Aussies who make me feel old and pot-bellied. Done. And I'm sure these feelings are only because of my need to blame Patong for my injured toe. I'm sure I'll feel differently once the bleeding has stopped and I have a new toenail. A pretty new toenail.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. Buy it HERE now while the price is still low.

Monday, January 14, 2013

From the Top of Singapore

The Pool at the Skypark atop the Marina Bay Sands Hotel


I'm writing this post while my laptop imports the pictures from our trip to Singapore, Thailand and Bali (with an unexpected detour to Kuala Lumpur), and I'm sure I'll be done with this post before the import is done. Even after I deleted at least 200 photos, I still have 555 from the trip. What a photogenic place our world is.

We started in Singapore on December 30 and celebrated New Year's Eve at Marina Bay. I don't have any pictures right now of the fireworks. I was certain it would rain, so I left my camera at the hotel. It did not rain. Well, it did rain fireworks. It also danced and sang fireworks. Singapore does fireworks miraculously. It was more like a ballet of light than a fireworks display. It brought tears. And I know I'm a sap.

Have you been to Singapore? And if you have, how did you pay to eat out? We travel a lot, but we don't spend a lot of money in comparison to all the people I see eating at restaurants for 300 Singapore dollars a pop. We grab something to drink at a 7/11 and eat far away from the expensive (really nice) restaurants. You can eat inexpensively in Singapore if you eat where the locals eat. On New Year's Eve we splurged and had a few ciders before the fireworks (80 dollars).

The same day we also headed to Sentosa, the beach. The weather was not good. It was a day of ducking under roofs and jumping over puddles. The pearl of the day, however, was the Aquarium. We'd been there before, but it's always worth a visit. I love animals. And silence. I should have become a monk-slash-vet.

We left Singapore the next day for Phuket, but I'm going to fast-forward to the end of our trip when we returned to Singapore, leaving Thailand for another post. After almost two weeks of mosquito-ridden climes, we treated ourselves to an indulgence that was really worth (almost) every penny. Actually, it was my birthday present, Christmas present and anniverary present rolled up into one . . . for the next few years. We stayed at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, an amazing place.

The Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Singapore
Humor me: we almost never stay in nice hotels, let alone world-class ones; we travel too much to do this. In Cuzco, Peru we had coffee at the Hotel Monasterio, ranked as one of the world's best small hotels, and pretended we were staying there. It was so peaceful . . . and around 700 a night. In Puno, Peru we had dinner at a grand hotel on Titicaca Lake but only because I refused to eat any more bacteria-infested chicken. I was pretty sick, and this post isn't about Peru . . . onward.

The Marina Bay Sands Hotel is a work of architectural and engineering genius. I was genuinely excited to be there (the last time we were in Singapore, we couldn't get reservations to eat in the restaurant at the top). The longest hotel swimming pool in the world sits atop the hotel on the 57th floor. The sun was broiling, but I stayed. It was such a treat to be there that I risked skin cancer. And I ordered wine (once I heard it was my birthday/Christmas/anniversary present--well come on) for 16 dollars a half-full glass. And a salad for 18. Wine is exorbitantly expensive in Southeast Asia.

We stayed only one night in the hotel; longer would have split our budget right up the seat of the pants. We did, however, have a full day in Singapore before our flight at 11.55 p.m. There were two places we absolutely had to see: the botanic garden and the new Gardens by the Bay. Both are free, and each is a MUST SEE.

The Singapore Botanic Garden was created in 1822 by Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, but closed just seven years later. The grounds were used mainly for experimentation with crops at first but now provide Singaporeans with one of--if not the best--botanic gardens in the world. Spread over 183 acres, the gardens are too much for just one day.

When it comes to orientation, I'm not an over-achiever. I rarely know (or care) where I am. Getting to the Gardens By the Bay was a feat, and we are already at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel directly across from the Gardens. It took us 30 minutes to find the passage, but as fate would have it we found the Gardens at exactly the right time: two minutes before the Light Show started.

The Light Show at The Gardens By the Bay, Singapore

The Gardens By the Bay are new, 250 acres grand and destined to become Singapore's newest symbol next to the Marina Bay Sands and the Merlion in the bay. In five or six years the "Supertree" towers will be covered in plants and look more like the designers intended: a mix between the technical and natural worlds. This is a magical, beautiful place with one problem: the sewage system runs directly beneath the main tower, so when you're sitting there watching the fascinating light show, you're also wincing away the smell of Singapore's crap wafting up from the vents. Still . . . amazing.

I've been home in Munich for a few hours now, but my thoughts are still in Singapore. I wish I could pull this city a bit closer to Europe.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Three Things I'm Thankful for

Things don't always go as planned. Four days ago, I got up in the middle of the night to let the guy upstairs know that his domestic problem really didn't need to become a hotel-wide problem: he was banging and banging on his hotel door presumably because his traveling companion had locked him out, and also presumably for very good reason.

I tripped on a step right outside my door and tore the toenail half off my (poor, unassuming never-hurt-nobody) right big toe. Helter skelter. Blood everywhere. Crime scene. Slipping in the blood. OK now I'm exaggerating a teensie-weensie bit. But only teensie-weensie. We got the wound dressed with the hotel's piddly first aid kit, returned to the room, mopped the bloody floor and lay down to wait for sunrise . . . because in just a few hours we were taking the ferry to Phi Phi Island. When we got to the island we went directly to the hospital to have the wound cleaned and dressed by a professional, a sweet and smiling little person . . . with a syringe from the 50s.

"We have to take off toenail," she said, "Or it become infected and you die miserable death."

"I'll probably do that anyway," I said. "Let's not fool ourselves."

She giggled.

I giggled. And you know we didn't say this . . . at least not the part after 'infected'. She was right of course. The toenail had to come off.

"I give shot. Hurt a lot. Then no pain." In hindsight, it might have been good to question the logic of this. Pain now or pain later? Does it really matter?

To deaden the toe in order to pluck my toenail off, the sweet-smiling person gave my (poor, helpless and completely innocent) toe six shots with a needle--I swear just the thought makes me weepy again--almost as large as a nail, and each shot felt like she was hammering a nail into my toe. I screamed so loud that my traveling companions decided to go shopping and Peter the Russian Goldsmith Insurer started snapping pictures (none of which I'll be showing). And then no pain. And then no pain?? I think this was a lie.

Later when she was putting the last touches on my bandage, she giggled again and said, "I sorry I make you cry." I simply smiled, thought I bet you are and said it was OK. I didn't tell her that she actually meant scream, not cry. I didn't cry. I screamed bloody bloody murder. It's different. 

That was four days ago. Today I take my last antibiotics. I stopped taking the painkillers two days ago. I've been to the hospital 4 times now. Each time I got the wound cleaned and dressed it cost around 4 euros. I'm thankful that it didn't cost 50 euros. Yes, I'm thankful. It's all part of the adventure.

This morning I woke up and downloaded a beautiful song written by my good friend Lori Fischer and her writing partner Don Chaffer. The song is about Three Things...that we should be grateful for. We do really need to be more aware of and grateful for the good things that happen to us. They are happening all around us. My friend Paola Fornari Hanna has also reminded me of this fact so many times.

Last night as we sloshed our way through the flood roads of Bali in a taxi toward our hotel, I laughed and said, "I hope our hotel room is nice, because I'll probably be spending a lot of time there in the next few days." It was (and still is) raining torrentially, and I'm not supposed to get my toe wet. We're staying at The Mansion Resort Hotel and Spa near Ubud. We got a great deal, so I didn't know at all what to expect. Actually, I never know what to expect. I'm grateful for surprises. Nice ones of course.

The Mansion Resort Hotel and Spa is a beautiful, dreamy surprise. It's a great place to put your banged-up foot up and enjoy the rain. I am grateful for the rain. It will compel me to write today. And there's a doctor here at the hotel who will clean and dress my (poor, senseless and dopey) toe later.

Are you having a day when finding three things to be thankful for would lift you up a bit?

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Another Day on Phi Phi Island

Traveling in Southeast Asia right now. It's hot, it's buggy. We have at least 10 species in our bungalow on Phi Phi Island right now, but we also have a gecko and a mosquito net. Despite these little saviors, we also have plenty of bites.

Ko Phi Phi Don is a haven for party-ers, mostly Aussies and mostly 22 years old, full of muscle (like the song) and ready to dance (certainly, although I have no first-hand evidence to report) until 4 a.m. The music they groove to sounds like a mix of road construction, airstrike and Gangnam Style. I have to say that it grows on you as you lie in bed wondering when the urge to sleep will finally override the need to figure out the music.

A Clown Fish
I have been to the hospital three times on Phi Phi Island, a story of its own later. Later. The upshot of the injury is that I can't get near the water for a few days. Yesterday "we" went snorkeling. I wouldn't have gone in the water anyway, but hearing Peter the Russian Goldsmith Insurer yelling Hey another one that looks like Nemo! (I'm translating from Russian of course) made my heart sink to the bottom of the long wooden boat we rented for about 30 dollars. My only consolation was that Peter the Russian Goldsmith Insurer didn't actually see a clownfish (if his description--yellow with a long fin that trailed behind it--is accurate). Actually, his description makes me doubt whether he paid attention to the movie at all. I'm sure he missed the movie's message--to keep swimming toward your goal. I didn't miss it. I don't enjoy swimming, but I'm pretty sure the writers meant it metaphorically.

I'm having trouble walking, so Peter the Russian Goldsmith Insurer has left me at an Internet cafe. A few minutes ago he walked by and promised me that an order of French fries would be appearing in 10 minutes. It has been exactly 10 minutes. No fries.

Our hotel is a death trap. Mom, if you're reading this, I'm totally exaggerating. Everyone else, I'm not even telling the half of it. The hotel is on the side of a hill, and our bungalows are at the top--the very top. The owners must have seen me with my bandaged foot and said Put him at top of mountain. Make little white boy climb insurmountable treacherous stair. Uh-huh. The stairs and railings are rotting horribly. If you are one of those guys who comes back to your hotel at 4 a.m. drunk out of your gourd, you'll breathe your last breath on these stairs. You'll lean against a railing and land at the bottom of the hill . . . with tetanus and three broken arms. You are, after all, drunk.

That said, the guys who run the hotel are really nice FC-Bayern fans. You can't beat nice (FC Bayern fan) in this world. Or maybe you could if you fixed your stairs . . . and played something else on the CD player at breakfast besides Adult Contemporary hits from the 70s.

I'm told this picture was taken right before I started screaming. Life was still good.

I must be off (still no fries),

To continue with I Must Be Off! A-Z, go to L is for Lyon. 


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Ficton, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day.