Thursday, May 19, 2005

Zach explains the "Otter Clambake"

[This is a guest post by the esteemed Zach Pousman. He's got a theory about good omens and bad omens that is needed for me to tell the story. So I figure I'll just let him tell the whole darn thing.]

Before I can get to the story, I must explain something regarding good omens and bad omens. Good omens and bad omens are important to everyone, but most importantly to travelers. I believe this is because a traveler is the least likely to be able to control all of the things that will happen to him or her. When one is put repeatedly into positions where one is not in control, one begins to look for omens. The problem is that some omens are both good *and* bad. Our story includes one of these "both good and bad at the same time" omens. But, it seems, that there is not a word in the english language to describe this situation.

So E and I coined one: It's an otter clambake.

Why an otter clambake you ask? I'll explain. It's from a surfing trip I made out to Santa Cruz California in 2003. It was my first time surfing in the Pacific Northwest, and I was in for a treat. The waves were great, the water was a balmy 55° f (that's 10 C to you non-USAians), and there were otters in the lineup. The otter is a playful creature, and they were popping up all over wave zone, riding the waves, and generally being really cute. Otters come into the surf-zone to eat, not just to play. They dive down to the sea bed to get clams or mussels from the bottom and they also grab a small stone. The otters then surface, and while swimming along on their backs, their whiskers glistening, they crack open the clams with the rocks and eat the goodness inside. Now this is all well and good for the otters. And I thought it was oh so cute. But then my local friend told me that we were in the middle of a great white shark feeding ground. And lo, the great white's favorite meal (after seal, I think)? Otters.

Now, one might think that otters are a bad omen. The logic goes like this: Otters are here. Sharks eat otters. Ergo, sharks will be here. And hungry. But then, perhaps there's another line of reasoning that makes the otters a good omen -- it goes like this: Otters are here. Sharks eat otters. But if sharks were around, the otters would leave. So otters *still* being here is a good sign. Now both of these stories are potentially true, and it's impossible to tell which is the correct one. It's even possible that the data (shark bites in Santa Cruz in this case) is not correlated with otters being out or not. Maybe they're a non-factor. Maybe instead it's whether it's a sunny day or a cloudy day that is statistically significant. But it doesn't matter, because the person in that situation, sitting in a cold wetsuit, keeps on switching in his head which way the otters are pointing. It's a connundrum. And it's, for lack of a better word, an otter clambake.

Now we can get back to our story, which is the continuing saga of e and i getting from the Pehrentian Islands to Bangkok, Thailand. While avoiding, to make our parents feel safer, the contentious parts of southern Thailand (that we already toured through yesterday in an ironic twist)

In yesterday's installment, we made a gruelling 6 1/2 hour, three-times-the-bus-ticket-price cab ride with two Kotu Bharu locals who were very, very impressed with the tollbooths along the ride. We feared that they had not ever been to Penang before, a fear that was borne out by our 1 hour search for the hotel after arriving on the island. Anyway, after a shower and quick bite, we fell asleep, hoping to buy tickets for a Butterworth to bangkok overnight train. But it was not to be. Oh, the buying was to be -- I took off early, before breakfast, to go down to the ferry terminal to buy tickets (the Butterworth train station being directly at the other side of the ferry) and was successful in securing 2 berths in the aircon compartment -- but the actual getting on the train part, that part was not happening at least from Butterworth. See, when we arrived at the train station, there was a sign at the door, and a nice gentleman from the train company as well, to tell us that the train we wanted was canceled for the day. Sorry. Refunds Inside. The man informed us that there were 2 other westerners who were in a similar boat and that they had just left to catch a bus. So we raced out the door and into a waiting car.

I believed that he was taking us to the bus station. But it's hard to communicate, so I just let him drive the 2 minutes. He's taking us, surprise, to his friends cab-stand where the two westerners (germans? we never found out) were also waiting. We see them jumping in and taking off and we're sent to the counter (a rickety homemade desk if you must ask) to buy tickets. The cabs are going to Hat Yai, the one city that's mentioned specifically in the State Department's travel advisory on Thailand. Hat Yai is the main transportation hub for southern Thailand. Two rail-lines and countless bus routes arrive, leave, and switch here. And it's the only place to catch the train to Bangkok (only a 17 hour ride this time). And it's our destination. But the tickets are twice as much as we've seen in town, but we get hurried into making a decision and decide to go with the cab. And then I don't have any ringgit -- I had nearly 100 when we left the house, but, since the train tickets were already bought, and we didn't need them, I spent a few on breakfast and a magazine for the long trip ahead. So now I don't have the 90 it's going to cost to get to Hat Yai. I do, however, have thai bhat. The exchange rate works out to 90 = 900 give or take 5 bhat (it's very close). But the guys at the cab stand won't do the trip for less than 1000. So that's that (what am I going to do at that point?! Walk away and find our own ride, in the rain, for $2.50?!). And off we go.

We arrive in Hat Yai, after a comfortable and air conditioned ride with a long discussion about the crumbling of the american education system in the middle. And that's where the otter clambake begins. Because the train station in Hat Yai is swarming with military guys and regular police, too. They're wanding with a metal detector everyone who goes inside (except us scruffy backpackers with big bags -- we're clearly not the target of the dragnet). They're standing around, guns at their sides, with bored expressions. But it's a clambake, right? Because maybe their presence is a good omen (soldiers = safety). But then again, maybe it's a bad omen (soldiers = targets for bombings, as per the bombing two weeks ago). Now, I don't know which rationale is the right one -- whether the soldiers were actually making us safer or actually making us less safe. It's an odd feeling, to keep on flipping those reasons back and forth in your head, as you wait in line to buy tickets. But tickets were purchased (we had to buy first class because 2nd was sold out of seats anywhere near one another), and we high-tailed it out of there. We decided that we'd spend as little time as possible in the train station itself. So we had 2 hours to kill.

We strolled around, looking at what the part of Hat Yai across from the train station had to offer. Mechanics, hair salons, and small shops (though there was a really interesting cab company that had a fleet of 1950s Mercedes Benz sedans, complete with peeling paint, matching hubcaps, and fins!). So we stroll. And it starts to rain. And then it starts to pour. Sheets of rain come down for about 10 minutes before we decided to give up and plop into a half-hair-salon-half-restaurant spot where the proprietor (and mom of the two hair girls) doesn't speak a lick of english. We have "what they're having" (gesturing to a nearby table), and we got some rice and various sauces for 100B. The proprietor was very happy to have us, and thanked us profusely. We took off and did some internetting and then bought some fruit and snacks for the ride.

We got to the train station at 5:10 and the train left promptly at 5:20, with me still flipping the otter clambake over and over in my head. Maybe the soldiers were a good thing... maybe they're the freaking shark bait! Naw, but having them here is keeping us safe... etc. etc. But the trainride was spectacularly comfortable, clean, and even, dare I say, restful. The beds were nice, the food was alright (though expensive -- esp. since we didn't get the bill until the morning), and the company was spectacular. We got into BKK this morning at 10:30 and we'll be exploring (and shooting) the super-big weekend market tomorrow.


Blogger Dan O'Hern said...

There seem to be fewer clambakes in
the States esp. in Goshen NY. That's all I know and since I want to play more rounds of golf I plan
to stay home for a while. Don't know what it is like to get shrapnel in the chest but I can pass on it. So glad you made it home safely and congrads on your
admission into the bar. Hey if you
get a chance read the kite runner
great book good look at the Taliban. Love Dan and fully enjoyed
your blogspot.

4:10 AM  
Blogger ninar said...

crazy, can't wait to see you. YOU HAVE TO GO TO THE PET SECTION OF THE MARKET AND SEE THE HUGE GOLDFISH. like footballs i tell you.

i'm sad too that your blog is ending. far more enjoyable then actually spending time with your ugly mugs.

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