Sunday, December 28, 2008

My life in Microfinance

So I never really posted anything about microfinance, and honestly, I probably never will. In all honesty, it's interesting to read about in the NY times or similar, but to spend six months invested in nothing but can be a dreadful bore, what with all the talk of interest rates, variable repayment schedules on so-on. Nor is it it the silver bullet against poverty. In brief, it is an approach with incredible promise in extending the package of services we can offer the world's poor in pursuit of sustainable development, but we understand ridiculously little of how it works (the jury is even out on interest rates, too high, too low, do the poor even understand the notion of an interest rate, etc.), and we'll need to wait at least ten years (I think), until studies coming down the research pipeline, from institutes such as the one I used to work at (Center for Microfinance/Poverty Action Lab).

As part of my cop-out, I'm pasting in an article that my colleagues and I recently wrote for an economics quarterly. It neatly summarizes the project I worked on. Cheers ;)

Health insurance for India’s poor: All for one, one for Five Dollars

How should a society organize limited resources to finance healthcare for its citizens? A tough question, with many potential answers. An even tougher question might be how a poor society, with 600 million people living on under $2 a day, should finance its healthcare.

The Indian government has opted for a publicly funded health system, but limited by resources, and further burdened by its own corruption and bureaucracy, it has struggled to meet its population’s needs. While vertical programs have achieved some degree of success in combating diseases such as polio and tuberculosis, community health programs meant to address broader issues are less successful. Patients with other illnesses (e.g. hypertension) find government clinics and hospitals overworked, and under-resourced. To help fill this void, non-governmental organizations have stepped forward with their own solutions, but coverage is hardly universal, and often relies on capricious donor funding that only accounts for 2.3% of health expenditure in India1.

When government public health systems and NGO services are inadequate or unreachable, poor households often turn to fee-levying and generally unregulated private providers. These private providers typically offer decent care (though a substantial number of medical quacks operate in this space), at premium prices. Ultimately, households are the major financing source, accounting for 72% of total health expenditure, and moreover, since a very small percentage of households have health insurance, 98% of household healthcare spending is out-of-pocket2. This burden is particularly felt by low-income households, which are vulnerable to illnesses and their corresponding economic shocks.

Challenges at the household level
Take for example Fatima Begum, standing outside her small two bedroom hut in rural Karnataka. A diminutive, but noisy woman in her forties, Fatima relates a sobering story of her family’s health. It starts three months ago with her joint pain and a visit to a local government clinic; the prescribed medication from the visit achieved no improvement, and so Fatima visited additional clinicians. Rolling her eyes and smiling, she relates how her husband, Mohammad, suddenly experienced chest pain around the same time (Mohammed grunts to confirm the veracity of this account), and fearing for his life, the family rushed to hospitalize him in a nearby city, where he spent a night under supervision. Add illnesses of one of their children to this bill of health, and you arrive at 22,000 Indian rupees (INR), about $460, spent over the last three months. This is a staggering sum for a poor household which likely earns about INR 2,000 – 5,000 a month ($20-$50). Indeed, the family was unable to finance its healthcare needs through savings, and progressively borrowed money from relatives, then money-lenders, and eventually, resorted to selling household assets to avert complete ruin.

Can microfinance institutions play a positive role?
Enter PRATHAK Microfinance3, one of the major players in the Indian microfinance industry. Out in the dusty Deccan, not far from where Fatima lives, PRATHAK is exploring the use of a health insurance scheme among poor households. Fatima is already an PRATHAK client, having previously taken out a small loan to purchase livestock. However, had she renewed her loan, she could have chosen among several new health insurance options, which range from insuring only herself to insuring herself and up to four immediate family members. An insurance package, costing about 500 Rupees, insures families up to 20,000 Rupees. Insured individuals either obtain medical care with a provider of their choice and then file for reimbursement, or go to “network” hospitals where they receive care at no cost—a “cashless” claim. Had Fatima opted for family coverage, the policy would not have paid for all of her expenses, but it certainly could have covered the most expensive item, her husband’s hospitalization, at INR 15,000.

PRATHAK is not entirely unique among microfinance institutions (MFIs) in considering the implementation of insurance products. Globally, the microfinance industry has matured considerably from its early days, when Mohammed Yunus and the Grameen bank were considered audacious. Loans and savings products are increasingly well-understood, and improved technologies are facilitating the delivery of financial services to developing country households once considered “unbankable.” A few MFI giants have even crossed the controversial threshold of profitability, which to some is the critical indicator of sustainability.

As the microfinance industry has matured globally, it looks for new products to sustain its meteoric growth, and for many insurance products represent the new frontier. For some such products are means of gaining competitive advantage, as certain regions of the world now see unprecedented levels of competition for customers amongst MFIs. Other MFIs are exploring insurance products as a means of insuring their own portfolios; if clients can be protected from income shocks related to adverse events of weather, health and other uncertainties, they are more likely to repay their loans and invest the money in income generating ventures or assets (as opposed to smoothing capital requirements during health shocks). And finally, many pursue insurance based on moral imperatives.

However, economists have long understood that healthcare, and health insurance, function uniquely as commodities, and as such, can cause market-based solutions to malfunction badly, leading to market failures. Actually, some would say this is exactly the case in America, which relies on private insurance markets to provide health coverage. Terms familiar from a Principles of Economics course ring true in this respect: asymmetric information, moral hazard and adverse selection can limit the effectiveness of private health insurance.

In this respect, MFIs possess some unique characteristics that may make them unusually well-suited to deliver health insurance, and potentially sidestep such issues. PRATHAK makes health insurance mandatory for clients taking new loans, thus averting adverse selection. (Avoiding adverse selection, though highly important from an insurer’s perspective, can make an MFI vulnerable to competition. When MFIs are competing against other lenders, they risk losing clients who do not wish for a health insurance product, or to pay a premium, with their loan.) Moreover, large MFIs often serve millions of clients, providing a critical mass to make the risk-pooling required for health insurance feasible. Finally, MFIs have already developed the distribution networks necessary to service clients taking out loans (often on a weekly basis), and this infrastructure could easily lend itself to sustaining health insurance schemes.

The PRATHAK Experience: Challenges in Implementation
Nonetheless, PRATHAK faces many challenges. Behavioral economics tells us that people do not allocate their incomes rationally and that the poor are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of this irrationality.4 Anecdotal evidence—witnessed by the authors themselves—suggests that PRATHAK clients do not understand their health insurance. For example, they do not understand the purpose of paying money upfront for health care, which they later may or may not need later. PRATHAK worries that the mandatory nature of the health insurance program might decrease its primary business—small group loans for enterprise development. However, other insurance products, such as life insurance, have been successful nationwide in India thanks to strong government backing. Similarly, before PRATHAK can scale up its program, increased financial literacy and a standardized method for encouraging financial literacy at the community level are needed. Another issue involves reimbursement; some of PRATHAK’ clients complain that the filing process is too long and technical.

Administering health insurance in rural India also presents PRATHAK with many operational difficulties. The geographical distance between the client and the insurer causes great delays in reimbursements: the claims must travel from the client in her village, to her loan officer, then to PRATHAK headquarters in Hyderabad and finally to the third-party insurer in Mumbai for final processing. Reimbursements must travel the same route in the other direction. As a result, reimbursement claims initially took up to 6 months. PRATHAK says they have streamlined this process to less than one month.

Another operational difficulty that PRATHAK has encountered is finding “network” hospitals. These hospitals are advantageous because they do not require the client to pay any upfront costs, and PRATHAK can assure both quality and a reasonable cost to the insurer ahead of time. However, identifying hospitals in rural areas that meet the insurer’s standards has been difficult.

The Verdict is Out
Despite these complications, MFIs like PRATHAK are well-positioned to offer health insurance to the poor. Insurance requires a large base of people, and large MFIs have that base. MFIs have already successfully developed life insurance programs, and health insurance is the next natural step in the expansion of services. Moreover, the poor, who suffer enormously from health shocks, stand to benefit hugely from a health insurance product.

An important step in confirming its feasibility will be the use of rigorous evaluation. The authors of this article are currently running a five-year evaluation of PRATHAK’ health insurance product as a joint collaboration of the Centre for Micro Finance and MIT’s Poverty Action Lab. Respectively, these institutions are committed to conducting action-based research for microfinance and development interventions. Results of rigorous trials from such organizations will help verify if health insurance through MFIs can succeed (the authors certainly think it can), and if so, help identify the major hurdles to making it a success.

Poor societies, and poor households, such as those in India, face difficult choices in parceling out their income. Health is often not a priority until it becomes a calamity, but leaving individuals to pay out-of-pocket is too risky. In India, 24% of the population falls below the poverty line due to hospitalization. Indeed, health is vital to breaking poverty traps, and in countries such as India, where the government’s role is limited by resources and corruption, private solutions can help improve poor families’ access to health coverage. Through their unique delivery channels and large base of clients, major players in microfinance are well situated to help achieve that objective. Microfinance has already chalked up considerable success with its loans; perhaps it can score further gains with health insurance.

Update on me and Mumbai

First a quick personal update:

I’ve been accepted to a couple medical schools, but haven’t decided where to go. I don’ t need to, and likely won’t, decide till May 15th, so there’s no rush.

In the interim, I’ve quit my job (’s becoming a recurring theme for me to hand in a resignation every 6 months), and for now, I have 6 weeks off to enjoy my last few days in India. I’m relishing my time off (being a bum is highly underrated), and have a list of things to do (travel, self-improvement, family visits), that bears resemblance to that of a retiree (sans grandchildren). Some highlights from the next weeks: trips to Goa/Bombay, and Calcutta/Darjeeling/Sikkim, cooking lessons in Hyderabadi cuisine, exercise to shed the excess baggage gained thanks to the latter cuisine, and time with my crazy Jihadi family.

In anticipation of my own laziness, I’ve signed up for a new job that will only last 5 months, and entails 15 hours/week of work for a comfortable paycheck and accommodation included (in my, surely irrelevant, opinion, it’s not about working hard or smart, but working less ;). An important detail about the job: it involves teaching Chinese tikes how to speak English in Suzhou, a city located one hour from Shanghai. China features a booming job market in Teaching English as a Foreign Language jobs for native speakers, and recruits the same from the US/UK/Australia. I can’t help but think they’ll feel cheated when a brown guy shows up, no matter how clearly nasally American my accent.

Ok, update done

My blog is experiencing a bit of an identity crisis, given my relatively stationary existence since returning from my SE Asian adventure, but I recently read “Freakonomics” and one of the pleasures of the book was it’s distinct lack of theme. In that vein, I give up on trying to make this blog about anything more specific than the meanderings of my own perverse sense of curiosity. With that I give you an update on the Mumbai bombings:

I was recently in Mumbai for a lavish wedding hosted by Parsi friends of the family. It was a sumptuous affair, rife with glittering attire, sparkling small talk, and all the trappings of “Mumbai Society.” In short, it was trippy, trippy fun, given how utterly removed I am from any sort of “elite”. I felt like a millionaire playboy for a couple days, instead of a post-college bum...
However, the wedding also offered a chance to interact with some of the social elite of Mumbai, and understand how the recent attacks had played themselves out in the city’s psyche; I was particularly well-situated for this purpose, given the wedding’s location in South Bombay, where the targets of the attack were located.

In a nutshell, the mood was sober. Unlike many of the terrorist attacks in recent history, this one had hit the elite (a striking parallel to the 9/11 attacks), as the Taj Mahal Hotel and Trident occupy a central location in the social constellations of the the city rich and/or famous (one graduate of Mumbai’s elite Cathedral school told me he knew many of the victims, and that his family lunched at the Taj two or three times a week). For many, Christmas and the upcoming New Year’s celebrations will be decidedly low-key.

The attacks attracted disproportionate attention given their high profile targets (note, the attack at the Victoria Terminus, also a Mumbai landmark, but one frequented by a relatively pedestrian crowd, received considerably less press, and I’m about to committ the same sin in writing about the Taj Mahal hotel).

Incidentally, I visited the Taj Mahal Hotel the day after it re-opened, an astonishing three weeks after the attack. The management had done a spectacular job! Photos of the hotel from the attack were no less than a visual metaphor for the nature of strike, the well-appointed lobby riddled with random bullet holes, and smeared with blood. However, the lobby into which I stepped that day evidenced the attacks only by way of a temporary Tree of Life memorial, featuring the names of the dead. Apart from that, a few stores had been walled off, but very professionally, to the point where you would’ve only known had you visited the hotel earlier (I had).

My mom and I hadn’t come as terror tourists (though there were a fair share of those), but to visit the famous Gazdar Jewelry shop, where my family has frequently struck gold in finding rare and exquisite antique jewelry (shameless pun, I’m sorry); this trip was both to look for more, and to show our solidarity with the owner. The shop’s owner, an old family friend, waxed lyrical of the Tata heirs role in quickly rebuilding the hotel. He said the speech given at the re-opening speech the previous day was surprisingly moving, and Tata himself was moved to tears while thanking the hotel’s staff for their individual acts of courage, which certainly saved lives that day. Interestingly, I repeatedly heard Tata referenced in the ensuing days, by numerous Mumbaikers. It would appear that just as NYC collectively narrated its own patriot mythologies in the days following 9/11, the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai had curiously fixed Tata in the role of the fearless leader (akin to Guiliani in NYC). In a way, I think it quite appropriate. The Taj is certainly an elitist symbol, but its history can certainly be a source of national pride. In 1903’s, Jamsedji Tata had visited Watson's, then Mumbai’s most lavish hotel. He was turned away for being Indian, and vowed to build a hotel so magnificent and classic, he would neatly turn the snub on its head (note: there is considerable speculation that this story is apocryphal, and I'm inclined to believe it is, but what is history but a fable agreed upon). Regardless of his motivations, he undoubtedly built a hotel worthy of Mumbai: the Taj is undoubtedly a remarkable piece of Mumbai history, and in a sense, a symbol of Indian self-reliance (it’s also about as classy a “Fuck You” Tata could’ve offered his would be detractors). Its quick renovation following the attacks deepens it role a symbol of Indian defiance, this time, in the face of terrorism.

On that note, Indians have a remarkable threshold for chaos, and with it, terrorism. While America threw the relative equivalent of a national hissy fit in the wake of 9/11 (and not unrightly), most Indians regarded the 26/11 attacks with directed exasperation (the government screwed up royally, most feel), and an almost spiritual patience.

Finally, some Indians simply took no note at all. One of my cousins, a member of South Mumbai upwardly mobile youth (he’s an I-banking analyst, one of the increasingly rare few who still has a job), smoked himself silly with his friends on Mumbai’s finest hash. When I asked him with measured gravity (lest I upset him and his friends), about whether the attacks were directly traumatic, he replied with an irreverent grin: “Traumatic? Are you kidding? I fucking partied!....a two day vacation in the middle of the week. It was fricking sweet, I was high the whole time.”

Though not as classy as Tata’s retort, I suppose that’s as big a “Fuck You” to the terrorists as any.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Strangeness of India

It's been two months since my last post, again.....My life has been hijacked over the last few months by the process of getting into medical school, and I finally feel like I'm reaching solid ground again.

Hopefully, I'll actually start posting again, though I wonder if anyone is still reading this, after such a prolonged hiatus.

As for what I'm up to, I'm still working for the Center for Microfinance/Poverty Action Lab here in Hyderabad, in South India. Med school will start in July or August, depending on which school I go to, and I may end up anywhere from Cleveland (ugh...) to NYC.

But enough personal details, I regard this blog as a chance to offer novel insights to friends/family/the occasional stranger (I know this only because I get random comments on occasion), so to begin today's topic: The Strangeness of India.

Visitors to India, regardless of whether they like or dislike the country, are struck by the incredible strangeness, a sense of almost extraterrestrial displacement they experience when in India. They come with different compunctions; some come on infantile quests to experience "the spirituality of India," and leave as confusedly agnostic as when they arrived, others arrive to enjoy its vast cultural fares, it's cuisine, arts and monuments, and still more arrive with myriad reasons (save the world, find oneself, etc.). But all, I believe, are struck by a deep sense of mystery, as if staring into an impenetrable bank of fog, attempting to deduce the outline of the opposite shore, and its shrouded secrets. Many leave never to return again, simply shrugging their shoulders at its perplexity.

It's been almost a year that I've been here, and returning as an Indian-American makes for an interesting experience. I had my own well-formed and half-baked reasons for coming back. Largely, I wanted to save the world (hah!), and experience working life in a foreign country (more realistic). I've returned to India so many times over the last 23 years, I've cumulatively spent ~5 years of my life here, albeit in stuttering fragments. In all of that time, this vast, beautiful country has remained largely a mystery to me, in spite of its familiarity. I knew the roads of Hyderabad, the intersections that cascade down from the modern, luxury homes of Banjara Hills, eventually coursing into the sea of traffic around Charminar, a monument at the heart of the medieval Old City. I understood the need to bow and offer my salaam to elders, grasping at my mother's behest, the systems of etiquette and respect governing Muslim society in Hyderabad. I spoke enough Urdu to grasp the intricate swearing of young boys laboring in mechanic shops, who utter phrases so eloquently obscene, they might qualify as lurid poets of sorts.

And yet, for all my familiarity, I hardly understood this country. More remarkably, I did not even realize how little I understood of it, a phenomenon I have observed among many non-resident Indians, children of immigrants who may return to the country of their origin, but comprehend little of it, regardless of their fluency in local languages and comfort in getting around. Indeed, they demonstrate a wholesale lack of curiosity, taking for granted India, and the connections they enjoy to it (thereby, I think falling into the category of people who simply shrug their shoulders at how weird India is). I cannot blame them.

Though I did not hate India for the first 6 months after I moved back here, I certainly did not love it. It is a challenging place, and it's easy to get distracted by the nuisance of minutiae. Traffic, pollution, heat, so much of life here can be an assault on the senses.

However, after starting my job in microfinance, I have slowly warmed to India. The job is fairly interesting, and being occupied professionally contributes a considerable deal to my enjoyment of the country. However, it's more than that. Returning to the US for medical school interviews was great, seeing my dad, being reunited with all friends, and enjoying the big and small things that I missed about life in America. I loved being back in the States, which is why I have been perplexed that I am so content with my life in India.

Slowly though, comprehension has assembled itself among my thoughts. I'm not even going to try to summarize India, I can hardly think of a more idiotic exercise. In fact, I'm going to opt for a complete cop-out, and call this country a moving target. No one alive today, Indian or otherwise, fully understands India, and no one ever will. Think of it in terms of sheer cultural mass and inertia. There are more than a billion Indians today. They live in 28 states, speak an absurd number of languages, belong to myriad religions, eat foods unrecognizable to one another, comprise different socio-economic groups, and so on. On top of it all, all of these sub-cultures, sub-strata, etc. are dynamic, evolving, devolving, rising, falling, exploding, imploding, you get the idea.

In short, no one is ever going to have a f-ing clue what this country is about, and anyone, especially an Indian who professes to get India, is full of sh-t. In my humble (and opinionated) opinion that is.

So why do I like it here so much? It's like a circus. And therein lies the beauty. And I don't mean it's a circus in the physical sense, because of the poor infrastructure, and the creative adaptations people employ. Visitors describe the traffic, the crowds, etc as circus-like. I'd say that's a skin-deep assessment that might characterize any developing country. For me, India is like a circus because of the fantastically eccentric characters that people this bizarre nation. From my relatives, who firmly believe I won't get in to Mount Sinai medical school "because of the Jews," to my scheming office boy who is constantly inventing new ways of making money of his hapless employer (i.e. me), to the endless retinue of auto drivers, invariably shady fellows with filthy vocabularies, terrifying hygiene, and a sniffer dog-like ability to help me find marijuana. To engage with this cast is to experience India, to understand that you'll never understand, to realize how undeniably exotic the world-view of its citizens might be in relation to your own, and thus, how unrelatable.

To top it all off, if you have a pulse, it is impossible to remain a passive observer here. You can't go through life asleep in India; it'll bite you in the *ss before you make it five steps. Hence, even a disinterested participant is forced to learn.

In the recent few years of my life, I have actively sought out human experience, and people who possess trajectories of existence radically different from mine, sought them out as an entomologist might amass a diverse collection of butterflies. I suppose it's my way of understanding the possibilities of human experience. In this sense, India is a repository of wealth. It is a kaleidoscope of paradigm, in which people with radically different world-views regularly rub shoulders with one another. Though this may be held true of any country, I think the absurd range of differences in outlook characterize that which makes India so strange. And as I approach the completion of a year here, it is a slowly growing comprehension of these outlooks, rendered possible by improvements in my language, and cultural adaptation, that are making my time in India so delightful.

As I gain familiarity with this country, it appears no less strange; indeed, collectively, it appears stranger, and yet its individuals more comprehensible, making for an utterly exotic, yet personable, warm country.

Therein lies the charm.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Center for Micro Finance Work Culture

The following exchanges more or less sum up my work experience at CMF:

Me: Hey, Professionalism…
Professionalism: Yea?
Me: Suck it!

Me: Excuse me, 9-5 work schedule?
9-5 Work Schedule: What can I do for you?
Me: Blow me ;)

Me: Yo, Drug Testing
Random Drug Testing: Is something wrong?
Me: Randomize this! (exhales cloud of smoke)

Sorry, that last one was a shameless experimental design joke......

Amorous Indians and Chinese Americans

My colleague Theresa Chen sticks out like a sore thumb in rural India; plus she’s a foreign lady, and a lot of Indian men have wild assumptions about the virtue, or lack thereof, of foreign women. However, Theresa has perfected a method of getting rid of even the most ineligible bachelors, be they on train journeys, in shady Indian bars, or in random villages.

Indian Hopeful: Hello, how are you (grins stupidly…..)
Theresa: *with blank stare* How are YOU?
Indian Hopeful: ….ummm, I am very good thank you (caught off-guard, the hopeful will rack his thoughts for a suitable pick-up line and then….lightbulb)…..Do you like India?
Theresa: Do YOU like India?
Indian Hopeful: *nervous chuckle* What do you mean, this is my country?!!...(more racking of thoughts)….are you married? (they are always this smooth)
Theresa: Are YOU married?
Indian Hopeful: Is there an echo in here?
Theresa: Is there an echo in here?
Indian Hopeful: ummm, I’m going to go over there now….
Theresa: (smiling, softly and mostly to herself) ….suckaaaa

Monday, September 15, 2008

I'm back

It’s been a while, and I won’t lie…..I missed my blog. I think it’s time to come back.

I’m finally finished with medical school secondaries, and lying gratuitously on paper about my desire to attend medical school. Now I have medical school interviews scheduled, and have been frantically preparing to lie in person about my desire to attend medical school.

In case your wondering, no, I’m not being completely forced into this profession which being of the brown persuasion, I can’t blame you for thinking. No no, I am contemplating ruining the best years of my life entirely unpressured by my parents. To their credit, they’ve never forced me to do anything more drastic than eat my vegetables.

Indeed, I am in the midst of a raging quarter life crisis, and wondering what I want to do when I grow up; the thought of spending the next 7 years in medical education is terrifying to someone who is afraid of committing to anything at the present moment. Plus, reading medical student blog doesn’t help (check out the following for a shining example:

My angst is boring even me though, so I’ll fill you in on the details of my nutty Indian life. Long story short, I joined a development economics research institute about 3 months ago, and I really had no idea what to expect. My interview consisted of a lot of questions about randomization, statistical methods, etc.

I was thinking my job my consist of the same, but as I’m finding out, I’ve accepted what may be the zaniest position I will ever enjoy:

1.) On a quiet Monday, the window of our dilapidated 6 story office (actually a residential 3 br apartment illegally rented as an office) popped out while one of the office staff was cleaning it, and plummeted sixty feet to land in the middle of a busy thoroughfare. Thankfully no one was killed. Actually, no one was surprised either…..

2.) I made a 6 hour journey by Indian government bus from Gulbarga to Hyderabad. On Indian buses, strangers will sit on you, it’s quite normal and I was sat on, numerous times. If you ask them what they’re doing, they’ll look at YOU funny.

3.) Numerous village animals will interrupt surveys with clients. Chickens, goat, cats, dogs, and the like. Most memorably/adorably, I was accosted by a baby cow while training one of my surveyors. It was not interested in me so much as the green mat I was sitting, which it spent ten minutes thoughtfully grazing (I suppose it looked like vegetable matter), before the woman we were surveying had it chased off.

Into this mix, throw my insane, Jihadi Muslim family and bizarre expat friends (who have to be nuts, in the best way possible, for leaving cushy American/European/Japanese jobs to come earn a shitty salary while living in India), and you have the ingredients of a long strange dream.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


So I've taken a lengthy hiatus from maintaining my blog....I blame med school apps. I have about twenty essays of varying lengths to complete in the next few weeks, and it's time consuming.

A really brief update:

After my last post, I headed back to Hyderabad, and plunged right into my job. In a nutshell, I'm running a randomize control design evaluation of a health insurance product for poor, rural Indians. My field site, where the project is being conducted, is located about 5 hours from Hyderabad, and I typically visit once a week.

It's been a crazy four weeks adjusting to a job unlike any other I've had. It hasn't been entirely joyous, and at times, I've asked myself "What the hell have I gotten myself into?" But then there are always these amazing moments, like when a chicken wanders into a interview with a client in a village, and I feel very thankful for not having to sit in a sterile office environment day after day.

The last week has been particularly good. Our institute has flown in a bunch of grad students from the econ programs at Harvard and MIT for a two day institutional meet (in Pondicherry), in which we exchange ideas and training. Following that, we had a five day course (in Chennai) in evaluating social programs using a randomized control design methodology; it's basically been like college all over again, with all the other research associates and I (most of us in our early twenties), living in a hostel together and attending class during the day. The class was incredibly stimulating, taught by professors from Harvard/MIT Econ, and a prof from Harvard B-school (who was hilarious, as he constantly made fun of Harvard B-school students). More than anything though, the week was a chance to meet the professors who are running our institute, and to try to understand the paradigm with which they approach this work. It was also good to learn that they are as dedicated as the people working for them, and basically run J-PAL without receiving any payment for their time spent working on projects.

The week in Chennai is over though, and now it's time to head back to Hyderabad. Hopefully, my secondaries will be done soon, and I can start re-posting.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Culture Shock and Chennai

For the first time in my life, I have experienced culture shock upon arriving in India.  It's honestly never happened before, and I'm not sure why it happened this time.  Maybe it's because I came back from an idyllic two month trip, rather than just Minnesota, but for whatever reason, I've been squeamish about eating street food, street smells (usually a blend of human excreta, pollution, and food), the insane traffic, and the complete lack of personal space. 

It didn't help that my family hasn't stopped making fun of me since I arrived; as you can see from the photo of me at Uluwatu, I have a pretty mighty tan, and in India, a tan is not a good thing.  As you might know, like a lot of Asian countries, Indians subscribe to an implicit color caste system, in which lighter is better.  In the matrimonial sections of the newspaper classifieds (yes, people advertise eligible bachelors and bachelorettes in the newspaper here), almost every prospective spouse is advertised as fair (most of them are lying).  Moreover, there is an entire industry of skin bleaching products, with creams such as "Fair and Lovely."

Thus, as I'm hardly fair skinned anymore after three weeks of surfing, every time a family member sees me for the first time, they squeal with laughter, exclaiming "He's turned black, he's turned black!"  The clinic staff shout a chorus of "Negro, Negro!" anytime I get near......Indians have never won points for being politically correct.

Thankfully, I wasn't in Hyderabad long.  As some of you might know, I'm starting a new job, and traveled to Chennai, in the Deep South, to receive my orientation two days after arriving back in India.  My new employers, the Poverty Action Lab/Center for Microfinance require me to complete a number of formalities with the Indian government in order to begin work, so here I am.  Although it's good to get away from my family, I have to confess that Chennai is absurdly boring.  Despite being India's 4th largest city, and hub of growth in manufacturing, IT, and biotechnology, it's also very conservative.  The city more or less shuts down after 10:30 (including bars and nightclubs, no joke).  The climate is pretty awful (daytime temperatures around 100 degrees), the auto drivers extortionate, and it's actually pretty tough for non-Tamil speakers to get around.  Hyderabad is somewhat unique for the South in that Urdu/Hindi is quite commonly spoken because of the large Muslim population.  In Chennai on the other hand, there are virtually no Hindi speakers, making it difficult for even Indians to get around the city (I think I'm starting to understand what a tourist in India might feel like). 

Chennai apart, very little has happened involving my job.  I've actually spent the last five days sitting around my hostel room waiting for my new bank account to open (because I need the bank account to apply for a PAN card, the Indian equivalent of a social security ID).  In the meantime, I've been reading up on the microfinance industry (expect a summary post in the coming days), and applying to medical school (expect another summary post).

Perhentian pictures, Ubud, Surfing and Going Home

In case anyone is still curious, here are some pictures from the Perhentians, those tropical islands I visited in Malaysia some weeks ago:

It’s been a while since my last post, so I’ll quickly summarize my remaining weeks in Bali.

Before I do so though, I should comment on the experience of being Indian in Bali; the island sees droves of tourists every year, and we weren’t expecting special treatment. However, Indonesians LOVE Bollywood movies, and as were three of maybe six Indian tourists on the entire island (an almost certainly the only Indian surfers), invariably shopkeepers, touts, hotel owners, waiters, anyone really, would see us and start inquiring:
“You’re not from Australia, are you?”
“No, we’re not”
“New Delhi?”
“Yes” (it was easier than trying to teach them how to pronounce “Hyderabad”)
“Hey, hey, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gum, Kaal Ho Na Ho....
(all titles of Bollywood movies)
They would go on like this for a while, and soon start calling us by the names of certain actors. My cousin Sahan is about 6’2, and so would invariably be compared to Abishek Bachan. I was usually Shah Rukh Khan (not sure if that’s a compliment). Sadly, wherever Naj went, he was still Osama Bin Laden (to be fair though, he had a ridiculously large beard by this time).
I know a few Indian dance moves, and it would always elicit peals of laughter from crowds of spectators when I started dancing around, so by the second week in Bali, we more or less had a scripted performance to serve as an icebreaker. It was actually a lot of fun, and helped us meet a lot of people we would normally have never spoken to.

We attracted even more attention when Henny, a German exchange student joined our group; Henny is the stereotypical Aryan, with platinum blonde hair (it almost glowed in the the dark), blue eyes, and very fair skin. Naj pointed out that we looked like Goldilocks and the Three Bears when we were all together.

Following my last post, I made a three day trip to Ubud, the epicenter of art and culture in Bali. A village located 20 km inland from the ocean, Ubud became a center for the arts under the patronage of the Gianyar dynasty a few hundred years ago, and attracted artists and performer from across the island. Such was the inertia of this patronage, Ubud continued to be a cultural hotbed long after the end of royal support; its status was bolstered considerably by the influx of a large number of expatriate painters during the 20th century. Attracted by the lush, temperate climate (Ubud is vibrantly green), the spectacular vistas (traditional Balinese village life, rice paddy landscapes, volcano backdrops, you get the idea....), and the existing artistic traditions, these artists were to provoke a cultural renaissance, giving rise to the Ubud schoolof painting, a striking contemporary movement. I went to Ubud primarily to experience the fruits of Ubud’s artistic traditions and was not disappointed. The Neka Art museum, one of multiple collections in Ubud, has the largest concentration of top-quality works, and I was taken aback by the quality and accessibility of the art. Some of the work, particularly by a luminary import from Holland, Walter Spies (image at right), looked like something Diego Rivera might have painted had he lived in Bali. Moreover, many pieces were imbued with a sarcastic and raunchy sense of humor, subtly mocking politicians, sexual practices, tourism and other aspects of 20th century Balinese life.

In addition to sampling Ubud’s visual traditions, I enjoyed two traditional Balinese dance performances. I went to the performance with low expectations (because I’ve seen “traditional dances” staged specially for tourists in India, and was shocked by how poor they are compared traditional temple dances), but both performances were quite good. The first, accompanied by a ~20 man orchestra consisted of a medley of dances, all interpretations of a central Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. They are similar in style to South Indian dance, although they involve no facial expression, and tend to employ rather spectacular costumes (in one instance, a ten foot long mythical monster). The second dance was quite raucous. Probably the most recognizable Balinese dance, the Kecak, consists of a 50 man a capella chorus who also serve as extras and human set pieces as needed. By varying tone, rhythm and volume, the Kecak dancer/singers are able to create an almost orchestral sound by making only the sound “cak,” making for both an atmospheric and humorous backdrop the action of the main dancers.
When I wasn’t sampling Ubud’s cultural fares, I was sure to make trips out into the surrounding rice paddies. The Ubud countryside was characterized by mesmerizing vistas, in which staggered, geometrical panes of water (the flooded rice paddies), reflecting mountains and clouds animate the stillness.

Photos from the two dance performances, and a bike ride through the country side:

After returning from Ubud, our time more or less centered around surfing. By this point we had a stable group of friends, consisting of Jacopo, the Italian couchsurfer we had first met, Phillipe (a Swiss friend friend of Jacopo) and Henny, a German exchange student who was living in Bali. All of us were there to surf, and so a usual day would go something like this:

- Wake up, grab our boards, and surf until whatever break we were at got too crowded (by midday, some breaks were so crowded, you ran the risk of getting in fight with other surfers over a wave)
- Lounge on the beach till late afternoon, and depending on what the tide was going to be for the evening, head to surf spot that works best at low, medium or high tide.
- After surfing till sunset, the whole gang cleans up at their respective homes, and we’d all get on our motorcycles to meet up for dinner at one of the hundreds of restaurants in the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak area
- After dinner, go home and play guitar/watch a movie/talk about where we’re going to surf tomorrow

Below are some sunset pictures from Kuta beach at low tide:

The week before we left, a pretty epic swell hit the South Bali coastline, and waves were in the 8 - 10 feet range. That might not sound very big, but when you’re in the water, it’s pretty heavy (anything 10 feet and above begins to be potentially dangerous). The first day the swell hit, we didn’t even bother getting in the water. Even at the easiest surf spots, the waves were massive barrels that were closing out (i.e. breaking and then rapidly collapsing onto themselves, offering no ridable face). To underline the point, we saw a number of surfers limping out of the water with broken boards that day.
The surf did mellow out as the week wore on though, and the two days before we left made for some spectacular surfing. The day before we left, we visited on of Bali’s best and most visually spectacular spots, Uluwatu. Consisting of five different breaks, Uluwatu is rendered particularly dramatic by the jagged cliffs that overlook the breaks; moreover, to access any of the breaks, you have to descend a steep flight of stairs in to a cave which floods at high tide. Once in the cave, you hop on your board and paddle out over tropical reefs to gorgeous aquamarine waves (my photos are taken a low tide, so the cave is sort of dry)
I would have loved to surf Uluwatu, but it can be a dangerous break for beginners. The swell wasn’t particularly large, but the wave breaks over reef. If you wipe out (which I frequently do), there’s a good chance you’ll land on the reef, which has the texture of jagged concrete. I’d seen enough surfers in Kuta with entire sides bandaged to know it was a bad idea to go in. But as you can see from the photos below, plenty of surfers were catching great rides.

Leaving Bali was hard. I woke up early to surf the day we left, and enjoyed some of the best waves of the entire trip in a deserted line-up under a beautiful dawn sky....pretty, damn idyllic. My cousin Naj and I had been discussing how difficult it was going to be to go back to India (the overpopulation, the smell, the hassle, etc.). Sure enough, as soon as we get on our Thai Airways flight, we’ve been seated next to one of the only Indian men on the flight. When I try to get to my seat, instead of getting up into the aisle like most polite passengers, he merely slides his knees back a half inch, and gives me a stupid grin, as if he expects a gold star for effort. Naj and I actually burst out laughing. He then passed extremely foul gas the entire trip back, and snapped his fingers at air hostesses whenever he needed something. Bloody Indians......
When we landed in Hyderabad, it was no better. The customs officials regarded our surfboards with complete befuddlement, trying to decide if they could charge us import tax on “two dining tables with no legs.” The surfboards caused further problems when we got picked up as both were almost longer than the tiny 3-cylinder Maruti my family owns. Eventually, we reclined the seat and put Naj under both boards for the hour long ride home (you can see him at the end of the slide show above). The trip was largely uneventful, but it was nonetheless hard to go from island paradise to an overcrowded, polluted Indian city.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Indonesian Contexts

Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country (after China, India and America), encompasses the planets largest Archipelago, and constitutes its largest Muslim country, which makes me wonder why I know so damn little about it. Maybe it's just me, but it sometimes seems like the world forgets about the Indonesians. Whatever that case, I'll try to shed light on what I've learned since arriving.

Indonesia officially came into being as a modern nation state in 1949. Previously a Dutch colony, it declared its independence in 1945, three days after the Japanese surrender. The Dutch retook their colony by force, but international pressure, particularly from the US, which questioned the use of Marshall Plan investment for violent warfare. Shortly thereafter, the Republic of Indonesia came into being. Its initial years were disastrous, with widespread corruption, inflation and mismanagement. The situation worsened under the rule of Sukarno, who established his position with increasingly authoritarian policies. A miliary coup in 1965, though unsuccessful, resulted in a weakened Sukarno, who fell prey to the head of the military, General Suharto. Suharto was to rule for thirty years, from 1968 to 1998, and his reign was a mixed bag. The benefits of his policies of courting foreign investment, curbing inflation and re-entering the world economy (significantly bolstered by the countries abundance of natural resources), were curbed by his suppression of political opposition. The situation remained stable, aided by an unspoken social contract in which Indonesians saw their prosperity rise as long as they did not oppose Suharto's rule. However, the scales tipped in the Asian financial crisis of the late nineties, and Suharto was forced to resign. Shortly thereafter, Suharto's party lost badly in general elections. Since then, Indonesia has witnessed a gradual return to democracy.

Presently, Indonesia finds itself slowly crawling the ladder of economic development, while tackling endemic problems of corruption, terrorism and poverty. Although 16% of the country lives below the poverty line, I'd have to say that what I've seen thus far is better of than India. The roads are better, nobody looks like they're starving, and it's less polluted.

However, like India, Indonesia finds itself challenged to forge a national identity where there was none. The archipelago is vast and culurally very diverse, prompting the use of "Unity in Diversity" as a national motto. However, that has entailed an identity that is often dominated by the largest ethnic group, the Muslim Javans. Understandly, this causes tensions in places like Bali (which is Hindu majority). As such, the little news one often receives of Indonesia is reports of separatist violence and ethnic tensions.

I can't comment too much more on the political situation, but I can add a little based on personal impressions of Bali:

Balinese Hinduism: not Hinduism in its Indian sense, but more a blend of Indian Hinduism, Buddhism, and local animist beliefs. Balinese devotion is very tangible, as even the most touristed locales see the setting out of small devotional offerings on practically every door step every morning (they consist of cute little banana leaf boxes containing food and flowers). The temples are also ubiquitous, and very beautiful. Aesthetically, they balance the over-exuberance of Indian temples with the over-minimalist east Asian layouts, consisting of courtyards showered with stone statutes and covered with lush green moss and tropical vegetation. Finally, to add to the mix, almost all temples feature regular performances of dance and drama.

Indonesian Food: While it lacks the sophistication and exuberance of food found elsewhere in Asia, it's respectable, and VERY cheap (you can get a huge plate of food for less that a dollar). Mostly fried rices, and noodles, but some good soups as well.

Big Waves = Lazy Blogger

I've been pretty lazy about posting recently, but I think it's understandable. I arrived in Bali, Indonesia about two weeks ago, with one goal in mind: to learn how to surf.

Bali was "discovered" as a holiday destination in the 1930's and has been attracting droves of visitors ever since. The island is the crown jewel of Indonesia's tourist industry, with most of the development concentrated in the frenetic Kuta area. It draws a very diverse crowd, Australian/Japanese surfers, shoestring backpackers, ethnotourist, and upmarket luxury travelers.

What is surprising is that Balinese culture of the island is surprisingly intact. The local population is still very much traditional, and somehow manages to intake mass tourism while preserving the bulk of its traditions (see "Indonesian Contexts" for more on such traditions).

But back to surfing: I tried surfing for the first time about 9 months ago, in California, and was instantly hooked. I'm not one for adrenaline sports, but surfing blends a physical rush with a certain organic beauty; sweeping across the ocean on waves breaking against tropical beaches is often nothing short of sublime.

A little history lesson: The sport originated in Polynesia, notably Hawaii, having been firmly established as part of island culture there when Captain Cook arrived in 1778. Upon witnessing a surfer, the captain stated "I could not help concluding this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so smoothly by the sea." He got it right.

However, the sport truly took off in the 20th century with the invention of lighter fiberglass boards, and mass media (surfing movies such as "Gidget" telegraphing the experience across America and the world). By the 1950's, millions had taken up the sport, and a professional surfing circuit was coalescing. Fast forward to the present, and surfing has a worldwide following marketed to by a multibillion dollar global industry.

I won't bore you with a discussion on wave mechanics, so in short, a wave "breaks" or rise up out of the seat to form a ridable face when it passes over certain seafloor topologies. As such, waves can break over beaces, reefs, and so on. A surfer will paddle out to the "line-up" (usually identified by triangulating your position with two landmarks), and watch for approaching waves. Waves tend to come in sets of anywhere from ~5 to 20 waves, so often you can find yourself sitting on your board for a while. However, when you spot a wave, you start paddling towards shore, in an effort to match its speed and thus catch it. As soon as it starts to carry the surfboard, you quickly spring to your feet, executing the "pop-up," probably one of the toughest things for a beginner to learn. Once on the wave, you can ride it directly into shore, but its more fun to ride diagonally across the face of the wave. If you're good, you can execute various manuveurs, slashing up and down the wave, and even accelerating vertically over it. The most exciting, coveted and iconic of advanced surfing techniques is riding a "tube" or getting "barrelled." Only possible at a specific type of wave, tube riding entails surfing inside a wave that is breaking onto itself, thus forming a hollowed out tube of water. Since such waves often form in shallow water, and exert considerable hydraulics, they can be very dangerous (a notable example being the Banzi pipeline, where surfers have been killed).

Surfing is a strenuous sport, requiring considerable physical strength. You have to paddle constantly, to get out to the line-up, or to maintain position out in the ocean (there can be a lot of currents, rip tides and wind) and the pop-up entails rapidly hoisting your own bodyweight. Additionally it can be dangerous depending on conditions and experience.

Mostly though, it's just really fun. Couchsurfing once again proved to be the greatest travel tool, as I linked up with a local expat surfer upon arrival, Jacopo Simonetta, a laid-back Italian who moved to Bali 6 years ago to surf full-time. Jacopo was great, stereotypical italian meets surfer dude, who served as our surf mentor. I was to learn that Jacopo liked to push his students, when he took us to our first surf break, Batu Balan. As soon as I got out there, I knew it was going to be a rough ride. I'm in decent shape, but after paddling 200 meters out to the lineup, I was exhausted as the first set came in. I was also about to learn what it was to be "caught inside." When sets of waves break, it's a good idea to be outside where the waves are breaking (generally, this means left of right of the breaking face). It's a bad idea to be directly in the path of the wave, which is exactly where I was that first day out in the water. I won't soon forget watching a 6 foot wave jack up in front of me, as I experienced a sinking feeling that would soon become tangible. A second later, and I've been ripped off my board, as I swirl around underwater, feeling like I'm in a washing machine. Erupting to the surface, gasping for air, I look over just in time to see the next wave of the set bearing down on me. Repeat steps one and two a few times, and by the end of my first day, I was pretty beat. I tried catching a few waves, but it was just a another iteration of the same two step process, except that instead of being immediately dumped on by the waves, I was thrown face-first into the water (while trying to pop-up), and then dumped on by the waves.

A few days later, I still hadn't popped up on a wave at Batu Balan, but Jacopo decided to mess with us anyways by taking us to Dreamland, a pleasantly named surf break that is completely misleading. Dreamland is no doubt a gorgeous spot, where aquamarine waves break a few hundred meters out from soaring limestone cliffs. But the day we went out, it was a big swell, generating 6-10 foot waves. That might not sound very big, but when you're an inexperience surfer, it will scare the sh-t out of you. My cousin Naj and I paddled out, but I decided to wait outside the line-up while I watched Naj try a wave. Things looked optimistic, as Naj started to pop-up on a giant wave, and I cheered him on, but he hadn't generated enough speed to actually catch the fast moving waves. He also wasn't fast enough to evade the next wave of the set, and this time, he was caught "inside." I saw his little brown head disappear behind a wall of blue, and a second later, his board fluttered up into the air, having been vertically ejected by the force of the wave. I could only grimace, and I carefully paddled back to shore myself. There was no way in hell I was going to offer myself as a sacrifical lamb before the surf.

The next few days, we retreated to smaller breaks with 1-3 foot waves, and finally learned to pop-up. For the past week or so, I've been sticking to it, slowly grasping how to contend, and harness the turbulence of a breaking wave. It's been incredibly frustrating at times; I can't count how many times I've paddled into the line-up next to a pretty surfer girl, stroked for a wave, hoping to pop-up and impress previously identified girl, only to make face-first contact with the water shortly after popping up. And to add insult to injury, the same girl has then often cruised effortlessly by on the next wave as I get caught inside. To add injury to injury, one of the most dangerous components of surfing is your board itself. When you wipe-out, there's no time to see where you're board's going, and sometimes it's heading right at you. In the past three days, my board has given me a bloody nose and has left a large gash in my forehead (a wave caught my board from behind me, shot it into the air, and it landed fin-first on my head).

But as trite as it sounds, the challenge is a big part of what makes it such an addicting sport. It's not a team sport, and outside of professional surfing, it's not about competition. It's a very individual pursuit, one that almost underlines the existential loneliness of the human experience. You're out there, all alone, on an infinite canvas of water, and although a mentor can give you advice on shore, learning how to pop-up, to drop-in, to cut-back, all of that comes much more with experience in the water. And you face a lot of danger alone, be it perceived, or real. It's amazing how little a human voice carries on open water, and when you get caught inside, pulled out by a rip tide, or nailed by your own board, it's largely up to you to get yourself out safe.

The other big part of the sport is riding the waves of course. Racing at 10, 20 or 30 miles an hour across the ocean, gliding up and down a wave is pretty indescribable. One cannot help but conclude that such a man feels "the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so smoothly by the sea."

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Kuala Lampur

After leaving the Perhentians, I made a mad dash for Kuala Lampur, capital of Malaysia, and departure point for my flight to Bali. After covering 40km along the coast adjacent to the Perhentians, in search of a bus or train ticket, I found every seat on the national carriers to be sold out, as it was a holiday. But, at the last minute, I located a private company heading to KL, and hopped a night bus, arriving at 5 the next morning. The journey was pleasant, with twilight stops in desolate, cafes, where buses which would disembark colums of sleepy passengers to drink tea and eat Malay burgers. It made for a Malaysian version of the famous Edward Hopper painting, "Nighthawks."

I arrived in KL early the next morning, at 5 AM, and ate a South Indian breakfast at the only place that was open, a little diner tucked away under a skyscraper. Indian food is actually quite readily available because of a large minority of Indian Malaysians (I should note that Malaysia in general is an ethnically diverse country, with ~50% Malays, ~20% Chinese, ~10% Indians and a smattering of tribal groups), and we were often mistaken for Indian Malaysians.

Once the sun came up, I made my way to the Petronas towers, where I spent the day, reading, enjoying an art gallery, perusing the numerous cuisines in the food court, and enjoying the gleaming Asian modernity of KL.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Backpacker Culture and the Perhentian Islands

It's been a while, as the last two weeks have involved quite a bit of travel. From Khao Sok National Park, Naj and I made a last minute decision to attend some time in Malaysia to our trip. In particular, we wanted to visit the Perhentian Islands, a paradisical setting ~20 km of the coast of Northeast Malaysia. We hopped an early morning bus through Southern Thailand, and traveled through an area of the country for which the US State Department has actually issued a travel warning. In brief, Southern Thailand sees a slow transition from Thai culture and Buddhist religion, to Malay Muslim culture. In truth, the region probably should have been part of Malaysia, but as is so often the case in colonial history, the British did not include in Malaysia when carving out the latter. And so, since 2004, a shadowy insurgency has taken place, with the major players, and their motives unclear. It's likely part separatism, part terrorism, and part simple criminality. Whatever the motivation, thousands of innocents have been killed in a number of bomb blasts, and the ensuing government crackdown. Currently, the area is under martial rule, which is very evident. Every 30 minutes or so, we were stopped at a roadblock, where miliary personnel would peer through the windows, checking each passenger. Of course, seeing Naj and I, two bearded, Muslim-looking men, there gaze would linger with us, until the driver would explain we were simply idiot-tourist from India. I also had a Mexican-style mariachi hat I had bought, which by it's sheer absurdity served to defuse any doubt as to our harmlessness.

We made it out of Thailand just fine though, and walked across the border to Malaysia, spending the night in the coastal town of Kota Bahru. Later the next morning, we departed for the Perhentians.

The appeal of the Perhentians is two-fold. The obvious reason to visit is that they're simply gorgeous; neither features any paved roads, and electricity is only available for short periods of the night, preserving some degree of desert island atmosphere. Moreover, to move from one beach to the next, you have to take a water taxi, as the islands are clothed in thick jungle. Add to the isolation electric blue water, teeming with coral, fish and turtles, and you more or less have paradise. But the second facet of the Perhentians lies in the backpacking community one finds there.

I realize I should probably discuss backpacking culture somewhat, both to ground my experiences on the Perhentians, as well as on this trip. My earliest experiences with backpackers did not leave a favorable impression. As a young boy, I visited North India, and I remember the sight of mangy, European travelers hefting giant packs around ancient ruins as they peered out from under greasy bandanas. I regarded them with the same uneasy trepidation I reserved for stray dogs. 10 years later, and I find myself in their shoes.

Backpacking is simple in terms of details. Buy a large pack, fit in your toiletries, maybe 3 or 4 sets of clothes, a good pair of shoes, and little else. Then choose a destination where whatever money you've saved will stretch the longest (e.g. SE Asia), and travel for as long as you possibly can. And people do. I've met more than a dozen people who are traveling for one year. 6 months is average, and 1 month is a short hop.

Backpacking, and its accompanying mode of travel is not about vacation either. It entails putting yourself in less-than-comfortable situations, traveling as locals do, staying in grotty places, and eating street food. As such, it can actually be incredibly tiring. But it is also incredibly eye-opening. The benefit is two-fold. It is a departure from one's own routine, as well as exposure to radically different cultures. On this trip, I have learned to ride a motorbike, to enjoy a cold shower and how to play a didgeridoo.

As for an itinerary, probably the greatest beauty of an extended trip is the sheer freedom. To plan a trip down to the day in advance is inane. Rather, you might pick a few countries, a few historical cultural sites (e.g. Angkor Wat and the Grand Palace) or a few activities (e.g. surfing and motorcycling), and string those together over a few months. But the real delight is waking up, deciding you want to move, opening a map, randomly pointing a location, and thinking "There....that's where I go next." And it really can be that random. We heard about the Perhentians while in N. Thailand, and that's all it took to decide we would go.

Finally, backpacking in places that are hotspots for this style of travel means that an easy fraternity is always available. Moreover, it's not that you make friends because you're forced to. I think the selection bias inherent in deciding to make a long term trip ensures that backpacker trails are populated largely by interesting, laid-back, open minded people. In Bangkok, I spent my first two days with a gregarious French Canadian. In Chiang Mai, I drank whisky with an English expat. In Ko Phangan, I swam with New Zealanders. And in the Perhentians, I shared my room first with a Swedish girl (strictly platonic, we just needed to save money), and then with a Norwegian man. So there really is no need to be a lonely traveler. In fact, if you travel alone, you actually have the freedom to choose when to be alone, and when to buddy up for a days, or even weeks with another traveler(s).

And therein lies the second attraction of the Perhentians. They were only "discovered" by backpackers in the last 10 years, and are only now being slowly targeted for large-scale commerical development. For now, they offer a cheerful community in the middle of paradise. Staying on the beach just four days, we got to know four Norwegians who shared a snorkel trip with us, as well as myriad other characters. The beach was only 300m long, and by the end of the trip, we could reconize and even name a good number of the other travelers there. If I went to dinner alone, I usually ended up eating at someone elses table, having made new friends.

As for what we actually did on the Perhentians:

The islands are famed for their snorkeling and we spent many hours exploring reefs in the vicinity. The sea life was astounding! I swam with sharks, turtles, and countless fish. Some of the finned residents of the reef were reminiscent of South Beach drag queens, improbably shaped and dressed in neon colors. Also, I found Nemo. There were lots of clownfish, which have a charming habit of swimming up to you when you approached their sea anemone residences (I was greeted several times by entire families of clownfish when I hovered near an anemone).

When not snorkeling, I was usually busy playing beach volleyball or soccer with other travelers, and in the evenings, the entire community would congregate at one central bar, directly on the beach, and while away the hours to dance music until 3 or 4 AM. The bar was particularly fun, as almost every night, the moon was out, and you could spot thunderheads flashing in the distance while Europeans, Canadians and Aussies would get their dance on at the beach.

Oh, and of course, the seafood was brilliant. Every night, I had barbecued marlin, tuna, barracuda, squid or something similarly enticing.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Thank You!

To everyone who took the time to call or email, thanks so much! I haven't even gotten a chance to read my messages yet (internet is very expensive outside the major cities and towns), but I'll be in touch soon ;)

Waking up to Gibbon calls

From KPN, we traveled to Khao Sok National Park, one of Thailand's natural wonders. Located midway between the Andaman and Gulf coasts, Khao Sok is an impenetrable rainforest that is home to guars, leopards, tigers, monkeys, and ~150 species of birds. Characterized by massive limestone karsts that are carpeted in jungle it's most dramatic feature is Cheow Lan lake, created in the 1980's when the Khlong Saeng river was dammed to provide energy to the region. The result is an other-worldly landscape, in which limestone peaks dressed in emerald jungle rise from serene turqouise waters to scrape monsoon clouds.

We spent one day in a small tourist village outside the park, waiting out heavy rains while exploring the area with an informal guide at our guest house, a deaf, but somehow communicative Thai who showed us nearby caves and nature trails, all while happily smoking marijuana at every stop; we initially assumed he had an outlandish speech impediment (he could only moan and grunt), because he would repeatedly make phone calls in front of us. Later, we learned that he did this simply for kicks. He couldn't hear a word anyone was saying on the other end, he just liked the idea of calling them. But he was a great guide and the highlight of the day was bathing in a waterfall (as good as it sounds).

The next day, we made our way into Khao Sok with a different guide, a short, squat Thai with a pesudo-handlebar mustache. From the dam, we took a longtail boat out to a raft-house, our accommodation for the night. The raft house was a floating groupt of huts, flanking a larger dining hut, with bathrooms reachable by planks connecting the floating hamlet to shore. Every time another longtail went by, we found the entire set of huts and dining room rocking in the wake.

Rustic as it sounds, the setting made for one of the most achingly beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. The raft house looked out onto a broad cove of aquamarine water set against a treacherously steep karst mountain of tropical rainforest. Better yet, we were the only guests that night, so it was just us and a a very colorful group of Thais who worked on the boat. The boat staff were a raucous cast who paid us little attention except to make fun of us, and spent most of the evening getting drunk and high. They enjoyed a sort of roughshod, sexist bon amie, with the men referring to one another as "Sexy Man" or "Handsome Boy" (most were anything but ;) while harassing the two constantly giggling female cooks on the boat. They took to calling my bearded cousin Osama Bin Laden, and tried to tip our canoe whenever we made the mistake of getting close to where they were swimming.

In the afternoon, we took a sweaty hike into impossibly thick, dripping rainforest. Our guide was actually a little drunk, having just finished a Sansom bucket of his two minutes previously, but we made it back in one piece. While the hike was fun, we actually saw very little wildlife, as the canopy is home to most of the rainforest's diversity. However, we heard an abundance, birdsong, and monkey calls backdropped by the steady drone of cicadas and frog croaks.

The evening was just as gorgeous, with a full moon lighting up the entire bay. Naj and I sat listening to one of the boatsmen sing mournal Thai love ballads in the moonlight, a little too romantic for Muslim cousins to enjoy comfortably together (as many of my friends know, when it comes to my family, they think that incest is best). I drifted off to sleep later, hearing the occasional coo of an owl over the lapping of water at the bottom of my hut.

In the morning, I woke to the staccato whale song of gibbons calling across the lake; gibbons sounds totally unlike other monkeys, emitting extremely loud coos as they call to each other high in the tree trops. Their calls were only amplified by the steep ridges of the bay, and so the morning was anything but peaceful. Our guide took us out in a longtail boat, from which we saw a band of gibbons fighting with a group of longtail langurs for position in a fruit tree. The gibbons being smaller, lost, and one by one, we saw gibbons crash into the canopy below the fruit tree, akin to something out of a 1980's video game.

As the morning wore on, a storm rolled in, and we saw the most spectacular scenery yet, as columns of rain enveloped the karst mountains and dappled the lake.

Later a hike into a cave, and fresh fish for lunch more or less concluded our time in the park. A little sad, we made our way back to the village on the outskirts of the forest, where I'm writing this now.

However, tomorrow, a whole new country! At the last minute, we decided to spend sometime in Malaysia, so tomorrow, we make our way down to the border. But it won't be the same, waking up without gibbon calls.....

A 36 hour birthday

It's been a while since my last post; since, I spent a lazy two days in Bangkok, whiling away my time lazing about my hostel with friends, and shopping for pirated DVDs at MBK center, Bankok's budget mall of choice. From Bangkok, we made our way down to Ko Phan Ngan, the country's most famous backpacker island. A once quiet paradise, KPN has been transformed into a crazed party island, infamous for its monthly full moon parties, essentially beach front raves that draw anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 travelers and Thais to the island. With my 23rd year imminent, I felt the need to get stupid, and headed for the epicenter of the party Hat Rin beach. After an uncomfortable night on a train seat (virtually spooning an oversized 6'6 Canadian man who took up his entire seat and half of mine; needless to say, I was little spoon), and a day's passage through the faceless coastal town of Surat Thani, I joined my cousin Naj on Hat Rin beach (he'd chosen to take a flight). Hat Rin was reckoned to once be the most beautiful beach on the island, but it has been transformed into a theme parkey ghetto of burger joints and bars sprawling up and out from the water. It's still attractive by any measure, but is anything but tranquil.

I took a nap shortly after arriving, and woke up at 9 PM, a few hours before I turned 23. I had intended to take it easy, perhaps having a drink before turning in, but little did I know that it would be a good 12 hours before I got back to my beach hut. Naj and I headed to the beach where we met up with, Sebastian, a gregarious Swiss traveler he had met the day before. At night, the beach lights up with dozens of little drink stalls crammed between numerous waterfronts clubs and bars; local Thais peddlers with the crowds of tourists sipping from Sansom buckets (a bucket with a heady, cheap, and decidedly unhealthy mix of Red Bull, Sansom whisky and Coke). The evening was quiet, until a taxi pulled up, offering free rides to a pool party on another beach. Our trio hopped on, and minutes later, we were in the midst of a frattish orgy of drunk Canadians. 6 Sansom buckets, and 5 hours later, I was still there, chatting on the beach with an eccentric woman from Tennessee; it was strictly platonic, and I was mainly interested in her life story (grew up in a racist hick town, but had set out to see the world, saw India over 6 months, and now doing Thailand). It was a fun conversation, punctuated only by the moans of a stark naked couple making love a few feet over (no joke...after a while, such scenes are common place on Ko Phangan). It was now 4 AM, and Tennessee was ready to turn in, so we parted ways. No sooner did she walk off, I realized I had no idea where the hell I was. My thinking still hazy from the night's libations, I began to aimlessly wander dark streets littered with Thai prostitutes; I passed a man haggling with TWO prostitutes, an absurd scene that I could do little more than drunkenly knit my eyebrows at. 15 minutes later, only more lost, I found a prostitute of my own, but only to ask for directions (they were the only people still awake on that part of the island). Sheepishly I was led by the hand some ways before realizing she fully intended to do business, at which point I politely disentangled myself and walked the other way. It did little good. She started chasing me, with her pimp approaching from behind in a pickup truck heavy with his ward. Paranoid from the alcohol, I broke into a full run, and hid behind a resort bungalow, my labored breathing masked by the sounds of yet another couple fornicating in their hammock. Peaking out past the couple, I made sure my assailant had disappeared, and continued in the direction she had initially pointed to Hat Rin beach. I was shocked to find out she was right, and made my way their. I had assumed the night was over, but upon reaching the beach, I found the occupants of the hut next to mine, two friendly Germans and a New Zealander, amidst a haze of Thai prostitutes (I was to learn that the rejects of the night's trade make their way to Hat Rin beach to cruise the few remaining drunks). With my newfound friends I spent the final hours of nights trying to dance while harangued by the local sex workers. Eventually, we found ourselves sitting on the beach, watching the sun come up, having made two more friends, a pair of Brits who were sitting off the tail end of a mushroom trip. A swim, breakfast with the New Zealander, and a stumble back to the hut concluded the night at 9 AM.

But the first day of my 23rd year wasn't quite over. 3 hours later, I was awake again, swimming and playing soccer on the beach; as day turned to night, I found my hut neighbors, and from 7 PM onwards, the party was on again, this time beginning at our huts, with a small ensemble of guitarists, a maracca, and the New Zealander playing a didgeridoo. Later, we headed to the beach en masse, where we celebrated till I passed out from sheer exhaustion at one in the morning.

The next day, the hedonistic charm that had characterized my Hat Rin experience till then quickly dissolved. An uneventful gave way to another night, but this time, I chose to stay sober, and quickly discovered Hat Rin for what it is, a vapid orgy of self-indulgence. It wasn't simply being sober either; the full moon partyers had just begun to show up, and instead of a relatively sedate beach front crowd, there was a rowdy group of approximately one thousand people on the beach. I saw disgusting things that night; my German friends, who had been very charming till then, spent the night in a stupor induced by a mix of valium and alcohol. One was so wasted, he spent most of the night pursuing a lady-boy (I warned him repeatedly, but he was convinced she was a woman, and spent most of the night trying to sweet talk him). I found the other German the next morning, blindly being led by a sex worker, in spite of having a girlfriend of three years waiting for him at home. My English friends sat about the beach, flagging down drug peddlers, and snorting MDMA out of their cupped palms. Worst of all, as morning arrived to reveal drunken slobs passed out on the beach, I spotted a Thai prostitute with her eyes rolled back in her head, tottering about, head rolling lazily on her neck. She turned to me, and snarled, emitting a guttural, rabid gurgle, as blood from a undressed wound poured down her leg. Deflecting her hellish aspect, I returned to my hut and packed my things. It was a good birthday, but KPN, and Hat Rin beach in particular, turned out be a truly revolting destination. It was populated by the worst kind of travelers, those who care little about the customs, and culture of the country they are in.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Thai Contexts

I realize that I have written virtually nothing regarding Thai culture, politics and the like, which I regard as a bit of failure on my part (after all, travel is about deconstructing the mythologies and ideologies we create about exotic foreign lands into tangible human experiences). To that end, some broad impressions, based anecdotally and on reading (subject to extreme bias ;), follow:

Thai People:
I thought the tag-line "Land of a thousands smiles" was some hoaky selling point, but it isn't. Wherever you go in Thailand, you're greeted by broad, warm smiles. Thai people are particularly interesting for an Asian race. They're fun-loving and relatively lazy, so forget the stereotype of the driven Asian doctor/engineer/i-banker etc. These people like to party and have a good time.

Some interesting snippets: Racism is well and alive in Thailand. Although I can't make a blanket statement, the Chinese minority, 15% of the population, in Thailand isn't loved all round. A big part of the reason might be their rampant financial success. Many businessess are owned by ethnic Chinese, and Bangkok features its own Chinatown. Thais tried to block Chinese dominance politically, by passing laws that required Thai heritage for property ownership in certain instances, but the Chinese bypassed the law quite simply; they intermarried with Thais, giving rise to a significant number of Chinese-Thais.

On a separate note, Thais have a very apparent color-caste system, in which lighter is better, and European features attractive (many of the pop stars and entertainers are of mixed Euro/American-Thai heritage). Skin whitening products are advertised even more visibly than in India!

Thai Politics:
Incredibly curious to say the least. I had no idea before I visited, but Thailand is something of a constitutional monarchy. While the king isn't the designated leader of Thailand, he wields ENORMOUS influence; he is incredibly popular, enjoying broad support, in good part because he seems to be a leader with needs of the people at heart (he sponsors numerous development projects around the country, and exerts considerable sway on the country's political course; he's had prime ministers dismissed after disapproving speeches). However, somewhat ominously, public criticism of the king is not tolerated, and can be punishable by law. To add to the mix, while the king is massively popular, his son is regarded as a complete wanker (it doesn't help that he's featured in his own sex tape).

Even more colorfully, this country doesn't seem to have elections; instead, they have coups, if I'm correct, more than ten in the 20th century. However, they have been largely peaceful, perhaps in good part thanks to the stabilizing force of the monarchy (an expat living here told me he thought there would be civil war when the king dies).

The economy:
Don't know much about this yet, but I can comment that tourism is the biggest industry and you can tell by the sheer number of people visiting even in the low season.

Sex Industry:
Yes, it's as visible as you might be led to believe. Hardly a day has passed in which I haven't been offered a chance to roll in the hay with a Thai girl, and you constantly see white men with Thai women (interestingly, not all are old and fat; many are young and attractive white men, which is a bit puzzling). What's really interesting about the sex industry is its cultural origins. Contrary to popular belief, 95% of the industry is devoted to Thai men. Polygamy was an accepted part of Thai society till the 1930s when it was outlawed. However, the practice was simply diverted, with "minor" wives being replaced by visits to brothels (estimates are that 2/5ths of the male population visits sex workers at least twice a month). It amounts to a staggering 3% of the national economy, with most of the sex workers being sourced from the poor, rural northeastern region of Isaan. On the note of Thai sexuality, even more interesting is the presence of katoeys, or lady-boys. Very visible, and often gorgeous, lady-boys are not exclusively sex workers, and some anthropoligists have postulated that they fit the criteria of a third gender within Thai society. Refreshingly, homosexuality is widely tolerated tolerated in Thailand, and while flamboyancey is not encouraged, most Thais would think it low to reject a relative or friend based on their sexual orientation.

Rural-Urban divide:
46% of the population still lives in rural settings, and rural/urban Thais are almost like two different races. My rural host, Buen-Choi, would find Bangkok as alien as any foreign country.

It would seem that Thais love keeping pets. Dogs are the most obvious, and seem to be very pampered (the strays are well-nourished, and actual pets are morbidly obese). Cats and fish are popular as well, with the occasional rabbit, hamsters, and even sugar-glider thrown in for good measure. I still haven't figured out what thin line demarcates pets from food, apart from ornamental value.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Back in Bangkok

We finished the loop on Sunday, and I've been back in Bangkok since Monday AM, taking a break on my way south to the tropical beaches of south Thailand.

The last two days of the loop were as spectacular as the first. After Mae Hong Son, we made our way to Pai, a hippy new-agey town bisected by a wandering river in a valley. Pai is a great place to have your chakras aligned over a cup of ocea butter, wheatgrass-infused, fair trade organic, buddhist monk-grown tea. The town is populated by sets of dreadlocked, moonshiney Thais interspersed with strung-out, druggie hippies. We stayed in little bamboo huts by the river, where I passed the night reading "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac (it seemed too perfect a book to not read on a trip like this).

Rising late the next day, we embarked on the last day of the loop, which was also possibly the most fun riding. As we climbed into the mountains near Pai, clouds gathered and the sky muttered thunder. Drizzle felly idly, until the monsoon unzipped its fly, and started pissing rain. Not Minnesota-nice, sweet summer rain, but fat, pregnant-with-twins rain drops. Slicing through it felt like climbing into needles, cold speed, adrenalin rushing, a happy to be alive kind of ride. Looking like tropical fish in neon orange ponchos, we swam home to safe harbor, riding past curtains of rain from behind which lurking mountains occasionaly peered like peeping toms.

On our way home, we made a stop at a hot springs site famous for a geyser which belches sulphurous warm water. Unlike other hot springs site I've seen in northern Thailand where taking a bath in the water requires having it piped into a jacuzzi and mixed with cold water (the hot spring water is ~100 degree C when it comes out), this hot spring spawned a warm creek, which rambles through jungle before emerging in a clearing where it forms three deepish pools. Here you can choose your preferred temperature, and bathe in sight of mist covered mountains. We did exactly that, enjoying the contrast of air spiced by the cool Thai monsoon, and the warmth of the hot springs, all amdist an absolutely deserted valley. To the add the ambience, the only other visitors that ever showed up were a band of Buddhist monks on a road trip; they bathed in the pool above us, bartering snippets of their English for snippets of our Thai, while laughing at me skid all over the algae covered rocks surrounding the springs.

It was a magical end to a magical trip as Naj and I were discussing, when my spacy travel buddy realized he had lost the key to his motorbike. After a fruitless one hour search, we gave it up for lost, and made our way home on a single bike through the vanishing day. It was a mad ride in the dark, pelted by an endless parade of insects before we arrived in Chiang Mai. The next morning, we rode back out with a spare key picked up from the rental shop, and retrieved Naj's bike.

The same night, I hopped a train to Bangkok, and the present moment. Next stop, tropical beach, and after that, tropical rainforest ;)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Mae Hong Son Loop

The week has been incredible thus far, and I'm just processing all that has happened.

After my last post, Sunday morning, I had intended to take the day easy. But as usual, I hopped on my bike to head for lunch, and soon, I found myself motoring through the steep mountain forests of Doi Suthep, the largest mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. It was a wet, rainy ride, that only got wetter as I ascended into the clouds that shrouded the mountain. Catching glimpses of the city far below as I ascended curves steeped in clouds made for an atmospheric afternoon.

My cousin Naj arrived on Monday morning, via a flight from Bangkok. Naj and I met only a few months ago, but got along easily, and since we had both been planning on traveling, it was a natural choice to make this trip together. Immediately after he arrived, we got another motor bike, and headed out on a day trip, to the Mae Sa valley, a pretty area of gentle rolling hills 50km west of Chiang Mai. To unwind, we enjoyed Thai massages from two little old ladies back in the city; I was amazed by how strong these women were, as neither could've weighed more than 90lbs. Easily, the best massage I've ever had (Naj was so mellowed out, he fell down the steps on our way out).

Chiang Mai Day Trips

Tuesday morning, we shelved our larger packs in favor of mini-packs, and hit the road to Mae Hong Song. The Mae Hong Song Loop is a legendary 600km motorcycle ride through Thailand's most rugged landscapes. 80% of Mae Hong Son province is on a 45 degree incline, and by the time our journey is complete, we will have navigated almost 2000 hairpin bends (many also at 45 degree inclines/declines). Needless to say, it's been a wild ride.

Tuesday afternoon, we cruised into Doi Inthanon national park, a sprawling mountain reserve that is home to over 300 bird species, and Doi Inthanon, a specatuclar peak overlooking the region. Lunch by a waterfall was followed by a two hour hike around the summit, which included cutting through a cloud forest (again, we spent a good deal of time inside monsoon clouds). Our day went long, and we found ourselves racing the fading daylight to Mae Chaem, a village where we intended to stay for the night. Little did we know what was in store for the night.

On our way to Mae Chaem, we paused to take some photos of the sunset splashing brilliant hues across a peaceful farming valley. While doing so, a Thai man, in a dirty white t-shirt, and worn jeans, motored up to us on his bike, rattling off something in Thai. Puzzled, Naj and I exchanged quizzical glances; finally, he started miming "barn," and "sleep." I figured he was a tout trying to earn commission by taking us to a guest house, but thought, "What the hell, let's give it a try." We followed him through a tiny hamlet, on to increasingly rougher roads. Anxious thoughts crossed my mind....would there be a gang of Thai thugs waiting for us around the next corner? Was I being completely naive following him? It was getting dark, and we were well beyond the point where I could find my way back to the main road.

Our fears were misplaced, and we were to happen on one of the most embarrassingly warm acts of random kindness I've ever experienced. We followed our random host, Buen-Choi, as I would learn, to his ramshackle barn, where he insisted we stay the night. Later, I relaxed, but still assumed he was trying to earn a buck. I only realized that he was giving freely of his time, energy, and home, when he sat us down in the midst of the family, and served us dinner. Buen-choi had two adorable kids, a daughter of about eight, and a son of three, in addition to his elderly parents, and a brother my age. Amongst this cast of country Thais, he sat us down, and he fed us dinner, serving us in the only bowl he owned.

Dinner was interesting, consisting of a spicy dish of rubbery texture, and a vegetable curry, complemented by sticky rice. I ate blankly, stunned by the randomness of it all, watching Buen-choi's son play with a bucket full of pet frogs. It took about twenty minutes before it clicked. The frogs weren't pets....they were dinner, the rubbery dish.

As we ate, it became apparent that Buen-choi knew very little English, so I broke out my Thai phrase book, and started a stuttering conversation in phrase book Thai. One of the first things I figured out, flushing with embarrassment when I did, was that he refused to accept any money, for the dinner or the stay. He was doing it purely out of kindness. Later, I learned how old he was (thirty), the names of his kids (which I've forgotten), what his mother was making (she was in the back spinning cotton for blankets), and that he had a brother.

After dinner, we took family photos (we would later make prints for the family), and our host took us from the main house, where his parents and children slept, to the "barn" (an elevated wooden house where we would spend the night). Buen-choi made us instant coffee, boiling water over a wood fire, and we shared freshly rolled tobacco cigars while continuing a broken conversation. My phrase book turned out to be hilariously bizarre, as the largest section is devoted to "romance." A sample exchange in the phrase book:

Person 1: "That girl is very cute"
Person 2: "That's not a girl. He's a lady-boy."
Person 1: "He's very cute just the same"

even better yet:

Person 1: "Does that woman have a boyfriend...."
Person 2: "I don't know! Why do you ask?"
Person 1: "I suspect that he's handsome. I'm sure that he is tall and thin"
Person 2: "No. He's fatter than an elephant."

best of all:

Person 1: "Why didn't you kiss her?
Person 2: "Because I kissed the lady boy that was sitting next to her"
Person 1: "Why did you kiss him"
Person 2: "Because he was cuter than the girl" (frighteningly true in some cases)

Using the "romance" section, we learned that Buen-choi's wife had been cheating on him, and had run off with another man to Chiang Mai. It was heartbreakingly funny to see him mime "jealous," "lonely" and "I want to shoot him."

After coffee, both of us were practically passing out (it was only 9:30), so we politely took our leave of Buen-choi's company, and retreated to our "room" (We slept in the opposite corner of the room from Buen-choi and his brother). The night was unlike any other, the darkness all encompassing, penetrated only by the pinpoint glow of amorous fireflies and the melodic croak of tokays (alarmingly large, ~35cm, but harmless lizards).

In the morning, after an invigoratingly cold bucket shower in a corner of the barn, we ate breakfast in town, assembled a small care package for Buen-choi (whisky, cigarettes, candy for his kids, and a huge pack of instant coffee), and set off on our way. The man left our lives as quietly as he entered them, but I will never forget meeting him; easily one of the most humbling acts of random kindness I've ever experienced, rendered particularly significant by his poverty.

From Mae Chaem, we embarked on a hair-raising, bone-rattling ride to Mae La Noi, 120km away. Our journey took us on roads that coursed through mountains and valleys, and many times, over sheer precipices where mountains gave way to clouds. In Mae La Noi, we stayed in a sprawling country villa, the only place we could find in the tiny town (not actually a common stop on the loop).

Yesterday, we made the ride from Mae La Noi, to Mae Hong Son, the capital city of the same province, another crazy journey, at times, replete with hairpin turns and speeding trucks, but mostly, just deserted country roads winding past life-changing scenery.

The trip is roughly half over, but what a trip it has been! The sheer liberation of a motorcycle paired with the landscape of Mae Hong Son....a perfect complement, the travel equivalent of wine and cheese. It's reputation as a classic ride is richly deserved. Today, we ride to the hippy, new-agey town of Pai, for our last night. Tomorrow, we wake up before dawn, to see the sun rise over clouds from the mountains around just keeps getting better.

Mae Hong Son Loop Photos