30-hour day

I have not written much lately.  I have not done much of anything except work.

As part of my emergency medicine residency, I am required to complete two months of training at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.  I enjoy being back in the city of my graduate school days, but the schedule at Shock is absurd: 80+ hours per week and call shifts in which I remain awake at the hospital–making critical life or death decisions about patient care–for 30 hours straight.  It is brutal.  It is unhealthy for residents.  It is unsafe for patients.  Yet, the culture is one of “It has always been this way.”  That doesn’t mean it should stay this way.

I tell every patient, and am now telling you, that I have often been awake for more than 24 hours when I am trying to figure out how to save a person’s life.  My brain is so tired, I frequently have trouble speaking clearly.  Patients are universally, and justifiably, appalled by this information.  I hope the reader need not require hospitalization, but if you do, ask your doctor for how long she or he has been working on shift.  The answer may not be a comforting one.

Upwards of 250,000 Americans die every year from medical errors.  The medieval, ridiculous, dangerous culture surrounding physician work hours surely is a part of the problem.  Physicians apparently refuse to heal themselves, so it’s up to readers and patients to demand change, to demand well-rested doctors, and to demand oversight and penalties for renegade providers and institutions that push physicians beyond all reason and margins of safety.


Costa Rica – 2015

The new year finds me assigned to a new market, Latin America, a world region to which I, despite speaking fluent Spanish since college, have never traveled–unless one counts Houston.  And so, at 6:00 AM on a blustery, 12 F, January morning, I and my faithful 1.5 bags of luggage board a flight to San Jose, Costa Rica and prepare for the always illuminating first impressions of a new country.

If an eerie cleanliness characterizes the airports of Hong Kong and Singapore and a breezy urbanity that of Melbourne, then a jovial mayhem is the mark of San Jose International.  After clearing customs and immigration services, where bilingual signs proudly welcome tourists to the “Happiest Country in the World,” I proceed to the arrivals bay, a dingy and clamorous hall where hundreds of locals–or ticos, as native Costa Ricans are known–gather to await loved ones; many hold up name placards, some wave flags, all vociferate, and I even hear an air horn at one point.  The bored faces of nearby police officers suggest that the scene is neither unusual nor disruptive; and indeed, though the noise of the place is deafening, the prevailing mood is not intimidating but, consistent with the earlier signage, buoyant and cheerful.  I wend my way through the lively throngs to the outside street, where I am met by swaying palm trees, cerulean sky, a rush of balmy 75ºF wind, and no fewer than sixty-five excited, gesticulating cabbies speaking in friendly but incomprehensibly rapid Spanish.

My appeals for the cabbies to speak more slowly–más despacio, por favor–go unheeded, yet I remain confident as I turn to survey the taxi queue.  According to the US State Department website, which I dutifully consulted prior to my arrival, official city cabs are red with yellow triangles on the doors but are not permitted to pick up at the airport; instead, travelers should utilize only official airport transport, which will be a uniform “orange.”  Upon my first glance at the three-lanes-wide horde of waiting curbside vehicles, I realize immediately that no one from the State Department has ever actually obtained a cab at the San Jose airport.  The scene bursts with more varieties of orange than a Halloween-edition Crayola box.  Plain; bright; dull; burnt; tawny; bronze; fluorescent; copper; ocher; tangerine; some sort of stark yellow that clearly is fooling no one; and a jaundiced shade that reminds me of the skin of a psych patient I encountered in med school who had eaten nothing but carrots for two weeks.  “You need a damn color wheel for this,” I mutter as I continue to fend off the unstinting, ever-smiling swarm of drivers.

Rather than guessing at which citrus cab represents the official hue, the prudent course seems to me to hail one of the easily recognizable city cabs and bribe the driver for a ride.  I surreptitiously flag down one of the red, triangle-spangled chariots that has just finished dropping off passengers in the departures lane.  In my not-as-fluent-as-I-had-imagined Spanish, I attempt to explain my request and to give my hotel address to the driver–a squatty, middle-aged, tico male who listens patiently as I emit unintelligible sentence fragments.  After several minutes, he interjects softly in flawless, Ohioan English, “Sir, pardon my interruption, but if you would prefer, you may proceed in what I imagine is your native tongue of English.”  Upon saying this, he glances up into the rearview mirror, and wry crinkles appear around his eyes as he observes my shocked expression.  Laughing, he explains, “I lived in Cleveland for nine years, my surprised friend.  Now, let’s take you downtown.”

The airport lies a considerable distance from the urban core, and the consequently lengthy taxi ride gives me ample opportunity to study the surroundings.  San Jose and its sprawling metropolitan penumbra fill a large fertile basin known as the “Central Valley.” Coffee and pineapple plantations abound in the hinterlands through which we pass.  In the distance, the encompassing ring of lush, mountainous terrain reminds me faintly of Hong Kong, except that the hills here are taller with more diverse vegetation and that I’m riding in a circa-1980s Honda Accord with no seat belts and a missing hubcap instead of a pristine futuristic bullet train.  In addition, dilapidation, filth, and poverty are rampant and overt.  The same triad exists in HK, but one must look to sketchy back alleyways on the Kowloon Peninsula to find it.  On the road into San Jose, it lies exposed and raw.  Thin, dusty, poorly clad children play with tree branches in dirt lawns outside of tin-roofed huts that have corrugated, sheet metal walls.  Rough, pockmarked roads–including the major highway my cabbie takes–lack pavement stripes and shoulders; we pass several traffic accidents, which remind me uncomfortably of the sans seat belt status of my own conveyance.  At remote bus stops, long queues of locals wait to board overloaded buses that, evidenced by all of the open windows, must lack A/C.  In spite of these conditions, the ticos remain amiable.  The dusty children in the dirt yards grin and laugh hysterically at some ineffable, youthful game; the owners of the wrecked cars converse civilly with the on-site police; and, the passengers in the bus smile warmly at the gringo in his taxi.

As we enter into the city proper, the natural beauty of the landscape gives way to stately colonial architecture, cobblestone avenues, and tasteful public parks, and the poverty changes from the genial squalor of the countryside to the cramped, embittered, and crime-riddled despair of urban ghettos.  Which is exactly where my downtown hotel is located.  Though the building itself is luxurious, a white monolithic highrise with blue-paned windows, the surrounding neighborhood has some rough edges.  E.g., the hotel concierge, in response to my query about a restaurant for supper, kindly gives me some suggestions and then ends the dialogue by saying, loosely translated, “Enjoy dinner, there are many good options; just don’t stay out after dark.  They’ll never find your body.”  A local doctor with whom I speak on the phone the next day corroborates this message, saying, “Eh, Señor T, that area is, how do you say, no bueno for you.”

Later, after moving to a hotel located in the upscale San Jose suburb of Escazú, I learn that the inner-city is not quite as dangerous as portrayed, although tourists certainly should not tarry there alone after nightfall.  Ensconced among modern shopping malls, Moe’s Southwestern Grill, Outback Steakhouse, and Starbucks of Escazú, I find myself missing the gritty authenticity of the urban heart.  During my short two days there, I encountered true San Jose: narrow streets built for oxcarts; cheap, spicy food; exquisite local coffee; historic buildings; uncovered drainage ditches into which I lost a shoe at one point; knife fights; and of course, kind-hearted ticos.  As my first week in Costa Rica comes to its end, I vow to return downtown during the upcoming weekend, just not at night.

Costa Rica’s particularly stout national rum, guaro, and an equally stout car door, puerta del auto, combine to make my first weekend in San Jose a memorable–or, rather, difficult to remember–experience.

As I had vowed earlier in the week, after vacating the gritty urban center for the sterile, drab suburb of Escazú, I join a city tour on Saturday in order to return to downtown San Jose.  Mid-morning, a stark white minibus, henceforward referred to as “Moby,” pulls up to my hotel, and I join my fellow tourists: a pair of elderly couples from San Antonio who are on a three-month trek through Central America; a middle-aged Seattle man and his twenty-something Nicaraguan wife; a lively group of five gay Colombian college students on holiday; an obese Latino man from L.A. whose T-shirt reads simply “U.S.A.;” and a European family with two children, a polite five-year-old boy and his incessantly screaming infant brother.  Together with our guide, a bilingual tico named Oliver, we set off in Moby towards the metropolitan core.

We spend the afternoon variably driving and walking around the city and visiting important landmarks.  The National Theater: an ornate neoclassical structure built in 1890 during the height of Costa Rica’s coffee boom.  The National Cathedral: a small but tastefully designed temple adjacent to a central plaza; Mass is in session when we visit, but Oliver assures me it is okay to take photos of the worshipers as they sing “Jesus, nuestro Padre.”  The ecclesiastic moment apparently moves to spiritual action the anal sphincter of the European infant, who defecates in and around his diaper shortly after we reboard Moby.  An unpleasant few minutes thus ensue until we reach the next stop: various civic offices and the National Gold Museum, which houses much of the central bank’s hard gold reserves and a baby-changing station.  Overall, the buildings and parks are lovely and are a testament to the country’s relative wealth and governmental stability, but they fail to leave visitors breathless.  The infant’s bowel output does, however.

Possibly as recompense for the miasmatic diaper experience, Oliver ends the tour by taking us to a jewelry shop / pub.  An odd combination of enterprises elsewhere in the world; unremarkable in San Jose.  In a laughably stereotypical segregation of the sexes, the women of the group congregate by the shelves of shiny objects, the men by the shelves of shiny bottles.  I begin to order my usual, a menacing club soda, when Oliver recommends that we all try the national rum, known as guaro.  The LA man gives a resoundingly American “hell yeah,” and even the two codgers from San Antonio order glasses of the stuff.  “My liver’s shot anyway,” croaks the older of the two.  Not to be outdone by a couple of centenarians, I try a small sample of the poison, which tastes terrible.

As we return to our hotels, I am the final passenger to disembark, at roughly 9 p.m.  Attempting simultaneously to bid adieu to Oliver and to step down from Moby, I crash my forehead on a jagged edge of the bus door frame.  “Too much guaro for you, eh amigo?” Oliver laughs as he closes the door and drives away before I can explain that excess altitude, not alcohol, has caused my condition.  Clutching my now bleeding scalp and not wanting to answer awkward questions from the front desk staff, I rush up to my room and attempt to dress the wound.  The laceration sits neatly on a stress line over my right superior orbital bridge, and though I assiduously stanch the bleeding, the site reopens every time I raise my eyebrows.  At midnight, after yet another episode of bleeding, I finally allow myself to walk across the street to the ER at the hospital where I’ve been working for the past week.  I discuss my case with the on-call physician, who kindly bandages my wound without charge and who makes a few snide comments about gringos and guaro.

Nursing a substantial headache on Sunday morning, I elect for a leisurely day.  I stroll through San Jose’s largest park, Parque Sabana, and through the pedestrian-only shopping and restaurant lane known as Avenida Central.  Later in the evening, at a Peruvian restaurant nearby my hotel, the waiter points to my bandaged head and asks, “Qué hiciste?” – What did you do?

“Well, it started with a divinely inspired diaper…”

For my second weekend in Costa Rica, I follow the recommendations of several physician clients I’ve met and arrange a weekend trip to Monteverde: a remote mountain town–originally founded by agrarian Quakers–and nearby nature preserve set in the unique “cloud forest” region of the country’s northern highlands.  Though the area lies several hours from San Jose, the doctors assure me the trip is a leisurely bus ride with excellent vistas en route, and so early Saturday morning, I eagerly await the charter bus that will pick me up from my hotel.

It becomes quickly apparent that the Costa Rican notion of “leisurely” bus ride and mine do not align.  The charter bus that arrives at my hotel is an overcrowded, chrome-detailed, tan and white VW minivan pulled straight from the ’60s; I half-expect surfboards to be tied to the luggage rack.  The driver, Fernando, speaks no English and answers even Spanish inquiries with a furious scowl and an increase in the vehicle’s speed.  As we move northward, the vistas of surrounding plantations and distant coastlines are indeed lovely, but difficult to appreciate at a constant speed of 175 mph.  Once we arrive at the steep mountain road by which one ascends to Monteverde, the ride moves from unsettling to alarming to harrowing to white-knuckle, soiled undergarments terrifying.  The road is unpaved, one lane wide, studded with house-sized boulders, and utterly bereft of anything resembling a guardrail; Fernando, however, considers none of these features a sufficient reason to reduce his speed.  Seated on the “outer” side of the bus as it circles the mountain, I have an excellent vantage of the sheer precipice down which we will fall several hundred feet to our collective demise should Fernando’s concentration lapse even for a moment; in some places, our wheels come within mere inches of this edge.  Prayers, in the multiple languages spoken by our bus’s diverse collection of riders, fill the air.  By the time we reach the town of Monteverde, I understand fully why it boasts such a large religious element; grateful genuflection seems the only appropriate response upon one’s safe arrival.

In a cloud of gravel and Spanish swearwords, Fernando leaves me outside the door of the small B&B where I will stay the weekend.  An edentulous, kyphotic, 900-year-old native tico woman greets me warmly in Spanish and ushers me inside.  The facility has four cozy guest rooms, which branch outward from the main family room / kitchen / dining hall / reception area.  The ancient matriarch and her family manage the property.  Her spry, 450-year-old daughters are busily preparing the midday meal when I arrive; after allowing a respectful interval of time for me to settle in to my quarters, one of them softly knocks on my door and invites me to almuerzo.  The fare is simple–rice, beans, tortillas, and home-grown vegetables–but good and filling, and the atmosphere is even more wholesome.  The only other boarders, a middle-aged Swiss couple, and I eat alongside the family; and through a combination of Spanish, German, pidgin English, and universal laughter a lively conversation takes place.  After lunch, I have an hour to spare before my zip line tour begins.  I lie down to rest, only to awaken moments later due to shrill, Spanish shrieking, “Aye, aye, aye!  Afuera, afuera!  Mi Dios!  Mi Dios!  Monos!”  Wondering if Fernando has returned with a vengeance, I rush to the main room.  There I find one of the daughters brandishing a broom and driving from the kitchen three silver-faced monkeys that had opened the windows, sneaked in, and begun stealing bananas.  They hastily retreat to some nearby rubber trees, where they proceed to enjoy the spoils of their sortie.  After snapping some photos, I return to my room to prepare for the zip line.

This zip line tour at Monteverde will ultimately prove worthy of joining Melbourne’s Great Ocean Road and Hong Kong’s Big Buddha on my Life Tally of experiences that have added inimitable substance and meaning to my existence.  However, the afternoon begins on an unpromising note.  As a solo traveler, I am added to a large group of undergraduate business students who are in Costa Rica for a three-week international finance “course.”  (As an Honors biochemistry major in college, I often wondered what the business majors actually studied; now I know.)   The students’ obnoxious frivolity generates exasperated eye-rolling among the tico guides, who no doubt lump me with these gringos.  Once we reach the forest canopy, everything changes.  I allow the future politicians and bankers to speed ahead, while I discuss with the guides various details of the zipping technique: how to control my speed and orientation; which zip routes offer the best views; how to avoid crushing my meter-long legs against a tree trunk; etc.  Nothing in the guides’ friendly advice, though, prepares me for the first moment of sliding out into the abyss.

Hanging a hundred feet above the canopy, which itself is one hundred fifty feet above the forest floor, I speed forward into an all-consuming fog.  I can see neither sky nor surrounding hillsides; only a formless, grey void broken at odd intervals by sable-green silhouettes of the tallest ficus trees and by transient shadows of flying birds.  I am soaring in the clouds of the cloud forest.  Moisture quickly condenses on my face and hands, and I can taste the pure rain droplets.  No sound, save the soft zzz-zzz-zzz of the zip cable, breaks the primordial stillness of the air.  The scene has a Jurassic Park quality to it; I expect a pterodactyl to break abruptly, screeching, through the thick sheets of mist.  Some of the zip lines are nearly a kilometer in length, allowing for prolonged intervals of gliding through the magical ether, before ending in a sudden, jangling halt at a treetop platform where a friendly tico guide switches the rider to a different line to continue the journey.  The entire run of lines takes roughly two hours to complete, but feels timeless.

With my head still–yes, I’ll say it–in the clouds after the zip line experience, the remainder of my stay in Monteverde passes in an enjoyable blur.  Later in the evening on Saturday, I participate in a “night tour,” which involves walking at midnight into unmarked jungle, accompanied by a bilingual guide and a dim flashlight.  Sensing, perhaps, my mild trepidation, the guide assures me that the jaguars, though highly efficient and strictly nocturnal killing machines, rarely attack tourists.  “They no like gringo meat, you see?” he grins.  Thankfully, we encounter no big cats, but an abundance of other jungle fauna: sloths, a raccoon relative known as the coati, leaf-cutter ants, sleeping toucans, and a highly venomous side-striped pit viper.  The latter we spot clinging to a low hanging branch, roughly at head level.  “Ooh, this way,” my guide gasps excitedly, beckoning me closer to the fluorescent green snake, “Isn’t she beautiful?  Look at that color.  Look how the neck is poised, set to strike.  Get closer so you get a good picture.”  Just as I begin to pull out my camera, the guide adds, as an afterthought, “She’s crazy deadly, too.  One bite, and you’re muerto in minutes.”  I decide that a blurry photo from fifteen feet away is perfectly acceptable.

On Sunday morning, the jungle hikes continue, this time principally focused on birds.  After a brief visit to the hummingbird gardens, where the tiny avian sprites are so numerous and bold they frequently alight on visitors’ hands, I join a tour group led by a slightly saner guide than the one from the night tour.  We walk for several hours through the rich undergrowth of the forest, and spot several species of rare birds, though one outshines them all.  The quetzal.  A vanishingly rare and unbelievably beautiful bird, the quetzal was worshipped by ancient Mayans, and for good reason; it is large, nearly three feet in total length, and has brilliant green, blue, and red plumage with long and often white tail feathers.  Our guide descries one perched two hundred feet overhead, in the thinning, upper reaches of the canopy.  Through his telephoto zoom lens, we catch a fleeting glimpse of the resplendent creature before, with a flash of its broad wings, it disappears into the misty heavens.

Sunday afternoon arrives, and with it, my departure from Monteverde.  I wish to extend, if just for a few minutes, my stay in that mystical world, but Fernando brooks no compromise on the time schedule.  As he impatiently revs the bus engine outside my B&B, I say goodbye to the partly fossilized proprietress and pause to take in one last view of the cloud forests, earning in doing so a volley of angry honking and obscene gestures from Fernando.  As we careen down the mountainside back towards San Jose, my mind remains in the canopy, zipping along with the quetzals.

Work obligations during my third and final weekend in Costa Rica limit my sightseeing activities to a single day, but I make the most of it with a Sunday tripartite tour to Poas Volcano, Doka coffee plantation, and La Paz waterfalls.

Still reeling from Fernando’s driving of the previous weekend, I book this Sunday’s tour with a different company and am grateful to find that the vehicle arriving at my hotel is a spacious, modern van driven by a stately, grey-haired gentleman named Roberto.  The final passenger in the group, I join the other tourists already on board: a retired banker and his wife from Michigan; three elderly spinsters from Florida who have come to San Jose for dental implants; a pair of sultry Colombian strumpets; and a family of five Italians who are–predictably–vivacious, vocal, and effusive in praise of each and every sight we encounter.  I learn of their Italian heritage after conversing for several minutes in Spanish with the husband, only to realize slowly that his speech is difficult to understand not because it’s an obscure Hispanic dialect but because it’s a different language.  By this point in the drive, Roberto has conveyed us out of the central valley, and we ascend the switchbacking road up Poas, stopping first at the Doka coffee farm.

Set among several thousand idyllic acres of rich mountain soil fertilized by volcanic ash, the Doka plantation has operated for more than 70 years, across three generations of the same family, and produces truly superb coffee.  The guided tour takes us through the entire production process: from planting, cultivation, and harvest to shelling, drying, and roasting to packaging and export.  The experience is quite educational, though only a couple of highlights warrant mention.  I learn that 75% of the plantation’s coffee goes directly to Starbucks USA, and I immediately wonder how one obtains the job of Starbucks source researcher who travels to exotic locales to procure fine coffee.  During the roasting section of the tour, the guide explains that light roast may taste weaker than dark roast but, contrary to common belief, actually contains more caffeine per gram.  This information utterly dumbfounds most of the Americans present.  Indeed, the banker responds with an indignant, “Unbelievable!  All these years, I’ve been drinking the wrong brew.”  I smile, because this news is no news to me.  As part of the medical student indoctrination process, upperclassmen mentor the first-years on various survival strategies, one of the more crucial being how to obtain the most stimulant possible per student loan dollar.  Cocaine is highly effective, but regrettably illicit.  Purified caffeine extracts work well, but are expensive.  Coffee, that sweet nectar of life, meets most needs, but only a light roast can carry one through an all-night anatomy review of the brachial plexus.  Thinking of my mother, the only person I’ve ever met who drinks more coffee than a medical student, I purchase a couple of bags of beans at the Doka gift shop, and hasten back to the bus for our continued journey to the top of Poas.

The apex of Poas is an anticlimax, for heavy clouds and mist enshroud the mountaintop and completely obscure what I’m told is a stunning view of the volcanic crater.  Rather disappointed and nursing a severe headache from the heavy sulfur fumes in the air, I hasten back to the bus, where I converse with Roberto for several minutes while awaiting the return of the remainder of our group.  Roberto, in the characteristic optimism of the ticos, points out that the failed Poas attempt simply gives me an excuse to return one day to San Jose.  I like his perspective.  Once the group assembles, we depart for the day’s final destination: the La Paz Waterfalls.

Or, in Spanish, La Paz cataratas.  The place is a nature preserve similar to Monteverde but, owing to a lower elevation, falls under the “rain forest” rather than “cloud forest” designation and boasts waterfalls rather than zip-lines as its principal attraction.  These waterfalls consist of a series of four separate cascades, ranging from 30 to 120 feet in height, coursing through several kilometers of lush tropical growth, which is continuously dripping wet from the overspray of the falls.  The noise is thundering, a physical manifestation of the sheer energy behind the masses of flowing water.  Wrapped in a tattered green poncho that began disintegrating the moment I withdrew it from its packaging, I stand awestruck at the falls, and shivering from incipient hypothermia.  At the terminus of the hike, Roberto and his chariot wait for the now bedraggled passengers, and mercifully, he has prepared hot coffee for us.  Over said coffee, Roberto informs me that just five years ago, the entire La Paz region was destroyed in a tremendous earthquake, though one would never suspect it from the seamless beauty of the refuge.  I gaze with new respect upon the dense jungle from which I’ve just emerged.  Nature has an incredible resiliency, and I wonder for a moment if humanity will prove as enduring.

Metaphysical musings aside, the weekend forms a strong conclusion to my month in Costa Rica and to my short stint as a globe-trotting salesman.  My immediate path henceforward is as obscured as the caldera of Poas, but channeling Roberto’s optimism, great wonders may lie just beyond the mist.

Rolexes and Kleenexes

Orchard Road, in Singapore.
A bustling urban thoroughfare,
And playground for Ferraris and Bentleys,
With broad, polished promenades
Lined by haute shopping malls, Four Seasons hotels, and orchid topiaries
And frequented by financiers whose cufflinks
Are worth more than the GDPs of most countries.
Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Vertu, and Rolex storefronts dazzle pedestrians
Who perambulate, unhurried by pecuniary concerns, beneath multistory LED billboards.
Detritus, crime, poverty,
And last year’s summer fashions
Are quietly removed by robotic street-sweepers and secret police,
At the apogee of human civilization.

A rising, twenty-seven-year-old, recent medical graduate from the US,
I am in Singapore to conduct health systems research.
But in the evenings,
I walk this Fifth Avenue of the East,
Gleefully aware that the generous emoluments of my profession will soon grant me
Access to all the superfluous treasures around me.
I moisten the front of my underpants
As yet another sleek Lamborghini growls by.

Outside of an especially lavish galleria fittingly entitled PARAGON, a scene:
A disfigured, octogenarian Singaporean man.
He wears faded green trousers, clunky black boots with a hole over the right great toe,
And a soiled khaki button-up shirt with a crumpled collar.
His left leg hangs shriveled and lame;
The muscle atrophy and limb malformation are pathognomonic sequelae of paralytic polio.
(I’ve never before seen a real-life case.)
He has severe, untreated kyphoscoliosis,
Which leaves his back frozen in a gruesome spiral like a gnarled tree branch
And his torso bent in a permanent obeisance.
Hobbling along the sidewalk with a gait that lists continuously to the port side,
He proffers something to the chic passers-by,
Who either grimace and recoil
Or ignore him entirely.
He turns his face upwards to me.
His cloudy pupils reveal bilateral cataracts; his skin is leathery and deeply wrinkled.
His merchandise consists of little travel-size packages of Kleenex,
$2 each.

I have only $1.30 in spare change
Clinking in the front right pocket of my Armani slacks.
When I offer this sum,
He angrily shakes his head
And points to the cardboard sign indicating the $2 price.
I try to explain that the money is gratis, not intended to procure a product,
But the man continues to refuse.
Mortified to imagine my fellow orchardists witnessing the richly attired doctor
With a crippled beggar,
I hastily drop my coins into the red plastic cup that functions as his cash register
And flee.

Safely ensconced in a bistro terrace across the street,
I order supper and glance back towards the gargoyle,
Who is still attempting, unsuccessfully, to make sales.
Suddenly, his poliomyelitic leg catches on an ornate flagstone.
My stomach wrenches
As he stumbles,
Collapsing like a sodden sandbag,
Spilling his tissue packs and precious coins across the path.
He lies there for several minutes.
No one stops
To help him to his feet or to gather the scattered goods.
Laboriously, he and his grotesque frame rise to a crawling position,
And he scrabbles about to collect his various wares,
His rheumatic fingers in constant danger of being crushed
By handcrafted Italian loafers.

The organic, fair-trade falafel wrap and kale salad remain untouched on my plate;
Shame, indignation, and despair prove a heavy enough repast.
I feel nauseated.
An elegantly arranged orchid bed next to my table
Receives my vomitus.
This is the magnum opus of humanity:
Bilious stomach acid on one’s lips,
Which no Kleenex tissue
Or silk handkerchief
Can ever wipe clean.

Melbourne – 2014

My flight from Singapore to Melbourne is a red-eye, and as dawn breaks, we are en route 35,000 feet above the center of the Australian continent.  Though my economy-class seat violates Geneva Convention proscriptions on implements of torture, it does at least have a window, and peering out this tiny aperture, I look down upon what appears to be the surface of Mars.  The earth is red, windswept, scarred with dried-up riverbeds, and devoid of all human presence.  Yet, in spite of this rather stark introduction to Australia, my first week in Melbourne proves a literal and figurative breath of fresh air after three months in Southeast Asia.

As I step off the plane, a cool breeze and a medical team screening for Ebola greet me.   The screening protocol forces the plane to bypass the main terminal building and instead to park on the open tarmac, where passengers board sealed buses to an isolated checkpoint for health clearance before entering into the actual airport.  The entire process seems a bit unnecessary, considering our flight originated from Singapore and not West Africa, but the circuitous routing gives me ample time to enjoy the weather, which is fair, dry, and 60F with the aforementioned breeze.  I actually feel cold and wish for my jacket, which has lain wadded up and unused for three months in my luggage.  It is not possible to describe what the marked change in climate does for my psyche; I nearly break out in song, except that such a display would undoubtedly draw the attention of the medical personnel, who would then quarantine me for neurosyphilitic dementia or mad-cow disease.

Once the airport staff allows me to rejoin the rest of humanity, I proceed to the ground transportation desk and encounter the native Aussie accent for the first time.

A chipper young woman at the counter greets me, “G’day, mate!  How’re ya goin’? Headed to the CBD?”

It’s 8:30 a.m., I just completed an 8-hour sleepless flight, and I haven’t yet located a Starbucks.  Accordingly, my mentation lags, and I answer her, “I’m sorry, but I haven’t a clue as to what you just said.  Is this where I buy my ticket for the Skybus to the downtown hotels?”

“Righty-O, mate!  That’ll be $18.  Let me check the diary here…yep, catch it on your left in 10 minutes,” she responds with indefatigable energy, “Cheers!”

“Um, sure,” I mumble as I attempt to produce the correct fare from the wad of confusing, new currency in my hands. “And,” I add, “Where do I get some coffee?”

Once settled in my hotel, an ostentatiously named hovel called the Pegasus Apart’Hotel, I set out to experience the local cuisine, and only three blocks from my lodgings I discover the Queen Victoria Market, a 150-year-old farmers market and collection of eateries.  The first shop I encounter sells organic falafel and lentil wraps with flaxseed tortillas. Having spent the last three months eating the only vegetarian options available in Southeast Asia–namely, peanut butter sandwiches, chickpea masala, and Chinese mixed rice–I gleefully purchase and consume a socially indecent number of the wraps.  “I’m going to like Melbourne,” I predict, as I buy a spelt and chia seed roll for dessert.

On Monday, I begin to call physicians’ offices, only to discover that most are closed or are closing early and that all will be closed on Tuesday in honor of the Melbourne Cup.  My two grad school colleagues and close friends who live in Melbourne inform me that “The Cup” is a horse race.  An all-day extravaganza held at the Flemington Race Grounds and attended by more than 100,000 people, The Cup is a centuries-old tradition of such importance that it has its own public holiday.  Indeed, it carries the slogan, “The Race that Stops a Nation.”  My friends persuade me to attend, and so, early Tuesday morning, I don my nicest, semi-wrinkled, mildly sweat-stained dress wear and catch a train to Flemington.

If the reader wonders, these dress clothes are an absolute necessity because The Cup consists of 5% racing and 95% social/fashion affairs.  Attendees wear their finest finery, often with a nostalgic flair to celebrate the late 1800s roots of the event.  The men wear three piece suits complete with top hats, golden watch chains, and walking sticks; I even see one man sporting knickers and wielding a monocle.  Classy.  The ladies, of course, take things to a new level.  Spectacular dresses, opulent jewelry, frighteningly unstable shoes, but most of all, hats–outrageous hats.  Lacy sun visors; posy-decorated cups that sit aslant on the head; flamboyant sombrero-like devices.  One particular arrangement I see boasts a pair of enormous peacock feathers and gives its wearer a disturbingly insectoid appearance; I wonder whether to take a photo of the woman or to spray her with DEET.

Throughout the day, everyone stands around drinking champagne and, on occasion, looking towards the field to watch one of the races that take place every hour leading up to the main event: the actual Melbourne Cup race, with prize winnings in excess of $6 million USD.  This race is 3200 meters in length and lasts roughly 3 minutes, but the intense betting and anticipation surrounding it begin weeks in advance.  When the race does finally take place, the experience of being there to watch it is memorable.  I do not know anything about horse racing, and in fact harbor an irrational equinophobia, but the horses participating in the Melbourne Cup are clearly the finest thoroughbred creatures possible.  Their coats are luxurious and their musculature perfectly toned; when they move, every step lands with absolute precision, and they seem to glide or fly rather than run across the turf.  During the brief three-minute span of the race, the 100000+ fans unite in a deafening roar of inebriated cheering, followed by shouts of joy or lamentation depending on the outcomes of their bets.  Having no disposable income, I do not take place in the betting and instead simply watch the horses.  I have mentioned their beauty, but what strikes me during the actual running of the race is the frantic fear in their eyes as the jockeys push them beyond their physical limits.  It seems sad and perhaps cruel to force such exertion upon the animals, and in fact, two of the horses die immediately after the race.  Thus, I am glad to have experienced “The Cup” but leave it knowing that horse racing has no further appeal for me.

On my first Saturday, I take a self-designed walking tour of the Central Business District, which is the “CBD” referenced previously by the cheery clerk at the airport.  My grand walkabout covers nearly eight miles in a sweeping counterclockwise circle and requires about six hours to complete.  I begin in the industrial park turned chic housing sector known as the Docklands, and then proceed south across the Yarra River to the ritzy shopping and entertainment district called the Southbank.  Continuing eastward, I come across a large park containing the Shrine of Remembrance, which is a war memorial honoring the State of Victoria’s soldiers who fought in the world wars, and the Government House, which I believe is the residence of the governor of Victoria.  Turning northward and recrossing the Yarra, I find the Melbourne Cricket Grounds or MCG, Australia’s largest sports stadium and the home of Australian Rules Football, which apparently is a more barbaric variant of rugby.  Heading back into the city, I stroll through Fitzroy Gardens, where–for reasons unknown to me–one can find a 1/6th scale, miniature Tudor village.  Finally, I pass by the Carlton Gardens and Royal Exhibition Building, which played an important part in Melbourne’s hosting of an international fair in the late 1880s.  Sunburnt and footsore, I return to the mighty Pegasus late in the evening and eagerly anticipate Sunday’s adventure: The Great Ocean Road.

I must admit that I fear broaching the subject of the Great Ocean Road because no words of mine can possibly capture the unforgettable experience of driving this route or the splendid magnificence of the natural wonders that one encounters along the journey.  The Great Ocean Road runs for a couple hundred miles along the southern coast of Australia between Melbourne and Warnambool; and during its course, it provides travelers with nearly constant panoramas of the Southern Ocean, sea bluffs, beaches, picturesque surfing towns, inland jungles, and vineyards.  My two grad school colleagues offer to take me on the famous drive, and so, early Sunday morning, we rendezvous at my hotel and set off, picnic supplies in tow, southward out of Melbourne.

Our first stop, and the official start of the Road, is Torquay (pronounced “Tor-kee”), a world-renowned surfing village and beach.  Aside from a Surfing Museum, which consists largely of a collection of used surfboards that all look roughly the same to me but that draw awed comments like “Whoa” and “Sick, dude” from the sandy-haired surfers in attendance, the town is unremarkable.  We travel a bit further, to Anglesea, where we climb a promontory on which sits the famous Anglesea Lighthouse and where I get my first glimpse of the great coastline and of the Southern Ocean it borders.  Under a smooth and uninterrupted hemisphere of blue sky, the starkly white lighthouse stands atop the crest of a verdant green hillock, which ends abruptly in a sheer sandstone cliff falling hundreds of feet to the churning turquoise seafoam below.  The ocean stretches away to the southern horizon, and as a delicious, salty breeze steadily brushes my face, I marvel knowing that I’m standing on the last edge of the inhabited world; the only land over that horizon is Antarctica.

After Anglesea, we stop briefly at Erskine Falls in Lorne, the tallest waterfall in the state of Victoria, and at an unnamed beach to enjoy our picnic, but neither of these experiences–nor indeed many experiences from my entire life–compares with our final destination: the Twelve Apostles.

The Twelve Apostles are a series of monolithic, ochre, sandstone natural towers that rise vertically out of the sea where the surrounding coastline has eroded in a circumferential manner and has left the towers stranded in the water a few hundred yards from the beach cliffs.  The structures are enormous, and the sight of them poised like sentinels along the coast, defending Australia from the turbulent grey-green waters of the Southern Ocean, is indescribably captivating.  My friends and I stand awestruck and mute for quite some time, and if it weren’t for the 9000 other tourists crowding the viewing platforms, the moment may even have been spiritual.  As we drive away, returning to Melbourne via an inland route that passes through bucolic pastoral scenes and wine country, I cannot stop thinking of the Apostles and regretting that the photos I took will convey little of the majesty those sandy citadels possess.  I decide that touring the Great Ocean Road and visiting the Apostles form an experience so inspiring and impactful that a person’s time on Earth is, in some way, not fully complete without it.  I add it to my personal Life Tally, which is the–small but I hope ever growing–list of actions, accomplishments, and experiences upon which I can reflect at my life’s end and think “Yes, these things made my life meaningful and whole.”  I aim to add many more such memories in the future, but for now, as my friends drop me back at the Pegasus, I simply say to myself, “That was a right bloomin’ good first week.”

Blustery winds, overcast skies, frequent rain showers, and a resultant ennui limit my excursions on weekend #2 in Melbourne, but nonetheless, I manage on Saturday to book a tour to Phillip Island, an islet roughly 80 miles south of Melbourne and home to the famed Penguin Parade.

The “Penguin Express” tour, which at $95 USD is the cheapest and thus most appealing option to me, leaves from the CBD at about 16:00 in the afternoon.  A few minutes early, I arrive at the designated rendezvous point and am pleased to find a nice, modern coach bus filled with only a handful of passengers.  I had expected something more like my one and only experience traveling on a budget bus in the U.S., an experience that involved an overcrowded and under-maintained jalopy, a flatulent neighbor, and a necrotic diabetic foot ulcer.  Instead, the Express, as our driver, Rodney, or Rod, informs us, provides tourists with a comfortable yet quick outing to see the penguins and is especially lovely during, as now, the less crowded off-season.  The ride from the CBD to the island takes about 90 minutes, passing through abundant farming country similar to that which I saw with my grad school colleagues during our inland return route from the Great Ocean Road.  Thanks to sparse traffic, our bus arrives early to Cowes, the main town on Phillip Island, and Rod gives us an hour to stretch our legs and to grab dinner.  Faced with a score of “fish ‘n chips” outlets or Sailing Sam’s Porkhouse, I consume a questionably vegetarian Greek salad from a dingy diner and then head out to the beachside promenade that faces Bass Strait, the notoriously tempestuous sea abutting the southern shore of Australia.

As I stand on the boardwalk and gaze wistfully, musingly upon the gentle flight of seabirds and the turbulent waters of the strait, a whitish squawking cloud of feathers and beaks suddenly engulfs me.  Seagulls by the dozens, and swelling in rank by the second, converge in a riotous screeching frenzy at the very location at which I happen to stand.  They surround me; they fly into me; they defecate on my jacket.  Simultaneously shocked, terrified, and laughing hysterically, I begin to strike out blindly at the avian assailants and attempt to stumble away as the swarming mass reaches what must have been several hundred birds.  Eventually, I emerge from the ornithic Charybdis, only to find my Scylla: a pair of drunken seamen whose purposeful tossing of Cheetos over the ledge of the boardwalk had precipitated the violent episode.  Bleary-eyed and staggering, they smirk in an besotted manner, clearly expecting or perhaps desiring a confrontation.  “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” I quote from Asimov as I walk silently past them, though I do give them a steely glare that could have rivaled my mother’s.

After our pit stop in Cowes, and after I clean the gull feces from my clothes, we re-board the bus and continue towards the nature park in which the penguins live.  Because of our early arrival, Rod takes us on an impromptu, off-road journey around the perimeter of the park.  Our giant coach lumbers down narrow dirt paths as we encounter several other species of Aussie wildlife that also inhabit the park.  Foremost among these, wallabies.  Dark-colored, miniature kangaroos roughly 3 feet tall, wallabies seem to fill the role played by white-tailed deer in the U.S.  “Cute devils,” Rod explains, “but not the sharpest blokes when it comes to avoiding cars.”  We also catch a brief glimpse of Seal Rocks, a craggy outcropping of the island and the mating grounds for some 12,000 Australian Fur Seals.  The gathering dusk precludes us from seeing the seals and reminds us to hurry along in order to reach Summerland Beach in time for the night’s Parade. Every evening, just as dusk turns to twilight, bands of the world’s tiniest species of penguins (Eudyptula minor) appear on Phillip Island’s Summerland Beach to return to the sandy burrows where they spend the night.  This sight has become known as the Penguin Parade, one of Melbourne’s top attractions.  We arrive half an hour before the little penguins are due, which leaves me time to visit the gift shop and purchase an absurdly expensive poncho, for dark clouds and sputtering raindrops presage a rather unpleasant evening ahead.

Shrouded in my poncho and shivering on a cold bleacher seat on an exposed hillside overlooking the misty beach, I sit with about 1000 other tourists and await the arrival of our waddling, feathered hosts.  After what seems an interminable period of waiting and after watching an altercation between two tourist families over the right to use an umbrella on the crowded bleachers, I notice tiny objects flopping about in the surf at the edge of the beach.  The penguins have arrived, and an energized hush falls over the crowd.  Photography and lighting of any sort are strictly forbidden in the nature park to avoid blinding or frightening the penguins, and so, for a refreshing interval, time seems to slow as cell phones, cameras, GoPros, and tablets disappear.  The other visitors and I must rely solely upon our own vision and cerebral matter to record the experience.  The penguins, more clearly visible now as they emerge from the foaming surf and come ashore, are scarcely a foot in height, dumpy, and comically clumsy.  They gambol about at the beach edge until a critical mass, usually about a dozen of them, assembles, at which moment they make their break across the sand!  Shimmering black-white-black-white as their rapid waddling causes their tiny bodies to rotate and alternate between their dark backs and bright white fronts, they scurry across the beach and head towards the rocky inland hills where their burrows lie.  The little, frenetic herds remind me of young children playing soccer; an excitable mass moving together as one horde.  The entire spectacle is adorable, and I join in the collective “Awww” from the audience.
After watching six or seven packs make their rapid trans-sand dash, I leave the bleachers and walk along raised footpaths back towards the gift shop.  These boardwalks give visitors up-close views of the penguins as they, having made it across the beach, wend through the underbrush towards their burrows.  At this close range, I notice that the penguins truly are about a foot tall but that their back feathers are a deep blue, not black.  The little creatures now travel in smaller groups of five or six, and occasionally make soft cooing noises.  To my surprise and delight, the throng of onlookers remains faithful to the no-photo policy; the occasional deviant, betrayed by the sharp flash of his or her camera, is quickly and mercilessly chastised by the crowd.  By this time, the rain clouds have dissipated, and the night is clear and cool, the stars overhead radiant.  The quiet of the still air, the bright starlight, the excited but respectful murmurs of the tourists, the cute and guileless little penguins combine to make the moment magical, and I am glad to have made the journey.  Later, near midnight, as Rod transports us back to the city, I reflect on the evening.  Was the experience as emotionally moving as the Great Ocean Road?  No.  Was the ticket overpriced?  Probably.  Did I forfeit the money for a memorable few hours under the stars and for a worthy conservation effort?  Most definitely.  Does my jacket desperately need a wash?  Indeed.

On Saturday of my third week, I intend to visit the Healesville Sanctuary, a wildlife preserve located in rural Victoria outside of central Melbourne and home to a large variety of native Aussie fauna.  My Melbourne friends and many of the physician clients I’ve met have all recommended a visit, and with great eagerness, I climb aboard an early morning train from the CBD towards the distant hinterlands, where a series of bus transfers will bring me to the sanctuary.

At least, that is the plan.  I should note that most people, of any respectable financial means whatsoever, do not travel by public transportation to Healesville, for the route is complicated and time-consuming.  They take day tours via coach bus, much as I did to Phillip Island.  However, my finances allow for only one grand excursion per month, and having expended it on the Penguin Parade, I must resort to the web of subway trains, street trams, buses, broughams, rickshaws, sedan chairs, and perambulation whereby one may alternatively arrive at Healesville.  Alas, a rail network disruption en route interrupts this sequence and leaves my fellow passengers and me stranded, awaiting a rescue bus, for much of the afternoon in the quiet suburb of Lilydale.

My unexpected stop in Lilydale provides for a glimpse into the humdrum, day-to-day existence of local residents who live outside Melbourne’s glittering downtown sector.  The scenes could derive from any rustic town in the US.  Empty, cracked sidewalks and faded brick storefronts line the largely abandoned main street, while a plastic and unremarkable Walmartish shopping center bustles with the activity of young families pushing grocery-laden carts in an asphalt parking lot filled with SUVs.  Radiating outward from this commercial hub lie numerous residential estates containing a nauseous repetition of small, banal houses where whole generations of families grow, multiply, and ultimately wither, perhaps never passing beyond the confines of their particular hamlet.  The isolation and macroscopic negligibility of the quiet community weigh upon me like the many layers of dust covering its streets.  Eventually, the rescue bus arrives at the railway station, and as we travel back towards the city, I feel disquieted by the day’s encounters.  In outlying Melbourne as in rural America as even in the dystopian HDBs of Singapore, myriad lives pass without ever rippling the great surface of humanity, and I wonder whether one must do so to achieve meaningfulness and contentment.  Unable to decide the answer, I slip into a fitful slumber as the bus continues its steady, droning return to the city.

On Sunday afternoon, my two friends, who are physicians in Melbourne and who form a married couple coyly referred to as H&M by our classmates, meet me at Edithvale Beach, a popular weekend destination located just south of the urban core.  Arriving a few minutes before H&M, I have time to survey the landscape.  Bounded by sandy dunes, the beach’s tawny, curvilinear, flotsam-littered shoreline hugs the gentle, bluish grey waters of Port Phillip Bay, across which looms the picturesque downtown skyline.  Overhead, the sky is brilliant blue, but drifting herds of fluffy cumulus clouds provide periodic respite from the intense midday sun.  A bracing sea-breeze whips the flags of the lifeguard hut and sends small clouds of sand swirling through the air.  In orderly rows at the base of the dunes, vibrantly colored bathing houses, small sheds in which locals store their beach gear, give the scene a riotous, rainbow background.

Once H&M arrive, our activities involve nothing special.  We go for a brief swim in the bay, which despite the summertime weather is quite cold, and I challenge H to some freestyle races.  To dry off and to warm up, we stroll for several kilometers along the shoreline while viewing the bathing houses and discussing current events.  As evening falls and a golden and purple sunset projects across the bay, we picnic on a beachside table, our feet in the sand and our eyes feasting on the delicious spread of vegetarian dishes, curries, and sweets arranged before us.  Seagulls flit about as we eat and chat and laugh.  Like the softly lapping waves at the shore’s edge, our conversation ebbs and rises, naturally but steadily–from intense debate of contemporary public health issues to recollecting humorous stories to sharing in trite small talk.   During a peaceful lull in the dialogue, I peer across the bay and rejoice in the simple, ineffable pleasure of being among great friends.  Inwardly, I recall my question from the prior day: whether, to find fulfillment, one must impact humanity at large.  I am either arrogant or humble or naive or delusional enough to respond, for me personally, in the affirmative; but sitting there on the sand, listening to the rush of the breakers and the laughter of my friends, and tasting the salty night air, I understand why some may answer “no,” and be correct.

Brunei – 2014

“Wait…you want to send me where?” comes my somewhat shrill response after my boss reveals my newest travel destination: Brunei.

Unsure even of where Brunei exists on the globe, I research online about the country, and my findings alarm me.  Located on the northwestern edge of the Malaysian island of Borneo roughly two hours by air from Singapore, Brunei is a small Islamic nation that boasts tremendous oil and natural gas wealth.  The ruling king, or Sultan, has a net worth exceeding $40 billion US dollars; and with a total population of only 400,000 persons, the country possesses one of the highest per capita GDP figures in the world.  These data account for my boss’s interest in the market, but my mind dwells on other aspects of the country: namely, its recent implementation of hardline Sharia Islamic law, its geographic proximity to known jihadist organizations in Indonesia, and its constant 100% humidity level.  Nevertheless, because the US State Department lists no specific travel advisories for Brunei, I pluck up the courage–or, more accurately, rely on an abundance of hopeful naivete–and board my plane at Singapore Airport, and prepare to depart.

I say “prepare to depart” because that is all the initial flight achieves.  Shortly after the passengers have boarded, the jetway malfunctions and wedges against the side of our plane’s fuselage.  The captain immediately cancels the flight and orders the disembarkation of all crew and passengers.  We climb down stairs on the undamaged side of the aircraft and return to the airport terminal, where complimentary lunch and gift baskets placate us until Singapore Airlines can scrounge up a spare plane, a 777-300.  I try to imagine what it costs the airline to do this, for our entire host of passengers totals scarcely 100, yet we are to make use of a aircraft intended to carry nearly 400.  The boarding process this time proceeds uneventfully, and each passenger gets an entire row of seats to himself or herself.  Shortly after takeoff,  I stretch my frame horizontally across three adjacent berths and promptly fall asleep, thinking to myself, “Well, one could imagine worse beginnings to the trip.”

Evening approaches as we descend towards Brunei International Airport, and I peer out the window to catch my first glimpses of the country.  Instead of the urban megalopolis to which I have grown accustomed in my five weeks in Singapore, sparsely settled jungle spreads inland from turquoise waters of the South China Sea.  At irregular intervals, golden minarets of mosques rise above the treeline.  The few small office buildings of the capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, or BSB for short, are visible for just a moment before we land.  Entering the airport, I receive my first exposure to Brunei’s wealth and to its paradoxical lack of development.  The terminal building is luxurious–with marble floors, mahogany walls, chandeliers, brass balustrades, and sharply liveried attendants who greet disembarking passengers–yet lacks a bit of practicality.  The arrivals area has a KFC and a Burger King serving halal foods but lacks any service desks for arranging hotels or transportation or local SIM phone cards.  The information desk is unattended and, indeed, appears as though it hasn’t been attended in many months.  Because of my late arrival, the airport shuttle from my hotel is no longer available, and thus, unable to call the hotel, I find myself standing at the terminal exit and facing the country, without any idea of how to proceed and with a constant expectation of being attacked, abducted, savagely beaten, and held for ransom by some rogue militant group.

That is when I begin to notice the local Bruneians around me.  Aside from the Islamic dress worn by both women and men, their most immediately obvious feature is a relaxed and friendly demeanor.  No one seems in a particular hurry.  They stare at me, as is always the case in my Asia travels, but smile warmly when I meet their eyes.  Most speak only limited English, but none are unwilling to try to help me; one man even offers me his cell phone to call the hotel, but the number I have is incorrect.  They eventually direct me to the taxi stand, where I meet John.

John and his colleague Brandon will become my personal cabbies for the duration of my week-long stay.  Brunei has a grand total of 30 taxi cabs in the entire country, and therefore, visitors grow to know the drivers personally.  John is sixty-ish, a native Bruneian, married, with three grown children–two in the workforce, one still in college–and has an unerring knowledge of every street in Brunei.  His favorite vacation spot is Singapore, but he says the cabbies there are unhappy because “they’re chasing after money.”  Brandon, whom I meet the next day, is in his thirties, less experienced but enthusiastic, newly married, with a three-year-old daughter and a desire to one day visit NYC.  As John takes me from the airport to my hotel in BSB and en route points out distinctive buildings and explains local traditions and customs, I consider his frank kindness and that of the strangers at the airport, and I begin to question my fears about Brunei.

I will not bore the reader with details of my business experience in the country.  In short, I visit with many local doctors and quickly learn that the native population, though happy and given access to free public healthcare and subsidized housing, does not share directly in the abundant oil money.  The private physicians charge only $20-30 Bruneian dollars, or roughly $15 USD, for a typical consultation and cannot possibly afford the exorbitant costs of my company’s services.  Curiously, though, they seem more peaceful and contented than the overworked, highly paid, highly stressed doctors back in Singapore or back home in the States.

On Thursday, I have no physician appointments, and I decide to explore.  In the morning, I go to the Royal Regalia Museum, which chronicles the history of the Royal Family, uninterrupted rulers of Brunei for more than six centuries.  At the museum entrance, visitors must remove shoes and relinquish their phones and cameras, but the marvelous contents of the museum more than justify this slight inconvenience.  The museum’s many rooms contain priceless artifacts such as gem-studded ceremonial crowns, a gold-flaked chariot used in the current Sultan’s coronation, and dozens of silver and gold trinkets he received from world leaders for his Jubilee celebration.  Countless portraits and photographs praise “His Highness,” and for someone from a country established in large part in protestation against the tyranny of royalty, I find both interesting and slightly nauseating this unreserved adoration of a mortal man.

Later in the afternoon, I call Brandon and ask to go on a city tour.  For two hours, he takes me to various notable buildings and sites, and also serves as willing cameraman to take the obligatory cultural immersion photos of me standing in front of famous structures.  The first place we visit is the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, located in downtown BSB.  Constructed by the current Sultan’s late father, the mosque boasts an exterior facade of gleaming, unbroken white stone and minarets topped with domes of, I’m told, actual gold.  A moat surrounds the facility, and in the moat floats an enormous ornamental barge-like vessel, the purpose of which I do not know.  As a non-Muslim, I initially feel rather nervous about approaching the temple grounds, but the few worshipers I encounter react to my presence by waving cordially and by offering to answer any questions I may have.  I find myself once again disarmed by the Bruneian hospitality.  Brandon and I proceed next to the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, located further from the BSB core and built by the present Sultan.  This structure dwarfs its predecessor, and is stunning.  Whereas the father’s mosque is notable for its seamless white exterior, the son’s mosque is a splendid panoply of colors and patterns: jade, white marble, ebony, copper, and of course, gold.  The building spreads across several acres and boasts a massive dome plated with 24-carat gold; four giant minarets hundreds of feet tall and also gold-topped guard the four corners of the temple.  I take photos, knowing well that they will not capture the true presence of such a majestic structure.

After these religious sites, we visit several government buildings, beginning with the Royal Palace: the Istana Nurul Iman.  Unbelievable is the only word appropriate for this structure.  A sprawling estate located just outside of central BSB, the Palace is closed to the public and lies largely hidden behind hills.  From the front gates, where one can stop to take photos, only the–predictably–gold domes are visible, but one can nonetheless appreciate the enormity of the residence.  Some stats from Wikipedia will prove helpful.  The building, which cost upwards of $1.4 billion USD, has 17 floors, more than 1700 rooms (no, I didn’t insert an extra zero), a banquet hall capable of accommodating 5000 people, and an overall floor plan of more than 2 million square feet.  All of this for a single family.  Standing at the gate, I simply shake my head in wonder.  We then follow the Palace with a few civic buildings, such as Parliament House, but none can compare.  The Prime Minister’s office is approximately the size of the U.S. Capitol Building, and occasions an illuminating conversation with Brandon:

I ask Brandon, “Does the Prime Minister live at the office?  It’s huge!”

“No, he lives at the Palace.”

“I thought only the Sultan lives at Istana.”


“…I don’t underst–oh, wait.  The Sultan is the Prime Minister, isn’t he?”

“Yah, yah,” Brandon responds, chuckling, “He’s the boss.”

The remainder of my time in Brunei passes largely uneventfully.  Sure, some hooded men in a water taxi down by the riverfront badger me to go on a sketchy “river cruise”; and, a creepy man in an alleyway near the same waterfront asks me if I “need a girl”; and, the heat and humidity exceed any I have ever faced; and, vegetarian food does not exist in the country except in my hotel cafe where I eat every single meal. But otherwise, I experience no difficulties.  Some visitors might object to the countrywide ban on alcohol, but I don’t mind.  All that matters is the BSB business district has a Starbucks, though my usual order of a “light roast cafe misto with extra soy” requires several minutes of explanation to the barista.  As already noted several times, the people are uniformly amiable and inviting.  Not once do I have cause to fear for my safety–until I attempt a jungle hike, that is.

On Saturday, acting on Brandon’s recommendation, I set off on foot from my hotel towards a nearby nature park, Tasek Lama, where one can see a waterfall and, on occasion, the famed proboscis monkey found only on Borneo.  What begins as a leisurely stroll becomes, after I take a wrong turn, a harrowing trek across abandoned jungle in sweltering heat.  For what seems like days, I clamber along poorly marked footpaths, surrounded by thick vegetation and with nothing but my own footfalls for noise.  I find the waterfall, which is lovely but not exceptional, and meet no monkeys (I did encounter monkeys on a shorter trip elsewhere the next day).  My imagination, however, provides me with plenty of lurking jungle creatures–mostly large, carnivorous cats–with which to contend.  Eventually, after what was in reality probably only 90 minutes of wandering, I happen upon on Australian expat family out for exercise.

In as parched and scratchy a voice as I can manage, as though I just finished traversing the Mojave, I plead, “Waater, do you have water?”

“Sure, mate,” replies the father, “but you can also get some right there.”

He moves aside a palm frond to reveal the park’s main car lot and concession stand located about 50 yards away.  His nine-year-old daughter, who just completed the same hike as I did but without so much as even a flushed face, is cheerily bounding up the path while carrying a couple of bottles of water.

“Oh.  Yeah, right, of course,” I respond with breezy unconcern.

My sweat-soaked T-shirt belies this nonchalance, and the couple–undoubtedly fearing my immediate collapse from heat stroke–offers to drive me back to my hotel.  I shamelessly accept.

Two days later, John takes me back to the airport for my return to Singapore.  Along the way, in what was a first and will undoubtedly be a last for a taxi driver of mine, he treats me to a local breakfast: noodles and “kopi O,” a type of sweetened coffee also popular in Singapore.  He adamantly refuses to allow me to pay for the meal, though I, even with my meager salary, probably make in a month what he earns in a year.  This final stroke of kindness by John convinces me that my negative preconceptions about Brunei were, like many stereotypes and snap judgments, unfair and ungrounded.  For the record, though, my fears about finding any veggie food and about facing a humidity level matched only by underwater volcanic vent plumes were entirely valid.