How to Cross the Street in Southeast Asia

Spend any amount of time in Southeast Asia, and eventually you’ll have to cross the street. Sounds easy enough, but wait until you see your first impenetrable, tangled mass of traffic traveling full speed ahead coughing up exhaust and dust and soot and all the other nasty concoctions the road throws at you. You’re in for a wild ride. I’m no pro, admittedly, but I have crossed quite a few streets in Asia lately. Here’s several tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Motorbikes good, cars bad: Ah, the motorbike with Its constant purr advancing on you from all angles. These champion two-wheeled Asian workhorses are highly maneuverable, even when fully loaded with 5 passengers and a 50-pound bag of rice. You shouldn’t worry too much about motorbikes. Cars and trucks…well, those are a different story. Fortunately they are far outnumbered by motorbikes, giving you a fighting chance of successfully crossing the road. But it’s probably safe to say that no car in the history of Southeast Asia has ever politely stopped or slowed down for a pedestrian. The driver may even speed up to avoid having to wait for you to get by. It’s best not to get pancaked, so wait for a small gap in car/truck traffic before crossing.

This might be the best look you'll get.

This might be the best look you’ll get.

Cross slowly: Your first instinct upon encountering a busy Southeast Asian intersection may be to wait for a sizable gap in traffic (which won’t happen), sprint and weave (which will probably get you killed), or stand paralyzed on the corner while a nice doughnut lady incessantly demands that you purchase her goods (which you should probably consider).  No, do not trust your instincts here. Cross as if the street is littered with dog turds, placing one cautious but confident foot in front of the other as you needle your way to safety. Do not succumb to the frightened urge to alter your speed or adjust your course. Slight hiccups in your step will throw a motorbike driver off, potentially causing a chain reaction. Pick a line. Stick to it. Buy another doughnut on the other side.

Respect the traffic hierarchy: You, the lowly pedestrian, have little to no traffic clout on the street or even the sidewalk, for that matter. The bigger the vehicle, the more respect it earns. It goes like this: a bus trumps a truck, which trumps a car, which trumps a motorbike. The pedestrian simply gets squashed by all of the above. The bus can basically swerve all over the road at will, just as long as the driver blasts his horn every half second. Trucks, cars, and motorbikes can do the same, just as long as they stick to the hierarchy. Make sense? Listen carefully for those horns. I was spacing out dreaming of bun cha when I got mirrored pretty hard by a car trying to pass me on a narrow street. Hey, he gave me fair warning. My bad.

Keep you head on a swivel: Look left. Look right. Look straight ahead. Look behind you. Look a few degrees more to the left. More to the right. You get the idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if a motorbike peeled out of an elevator. Be ready for anything.

Traffic lights are merely suggestions: In fact, all traffic signs and laws are merely suggestions. If a red light doesn’t suit a motorbike driver’s schedule in Southeast Asia, he or she pays it no attention and proceeds through the intersection with very little caution. I was sitting shotgun in a taxi in Hanoi just the other day as an old woman blew a light that had turned red 5 seconds earlier resulting in a t-bone collision with another motorbike.

Really, crossing the street is not all that bad once you get the hang of doing it a few times. Good luck out there.

Urban Legends Still Creep Me Out

How exactly do you trace the origin of an urban legend?

Perhaps a better question: why bother?

Urban legends still give me the chills, well into my seemingly rational adulthood years. Oftentimes what makes for a good story is a healthy dose of malarkey and embellishment, the perfect recipe for untold thousands of creepy urban legends.

My hometown has its share of urban legends, some of them more believable than others.

The first example is a doozy. Drive a few miles down a specific gravel road until you cross the railroad tracks, at which point you’ll make a U-turn, parking a few feet from the tracks. Turn off your lights and wait patiently in silence for a ghostly milk truck to appear in your mirrors. Don’t glance out the back window. Doing so will discourage the milk truck from recreating its impending doom: a t-bone collision with a train, over and over again. You’ll see the crossing gate engage, both headlights rush towards you closer and closer; you’ll hear the train whistle, the screeching of metal, the explosions, the screaming;  And then…BAM! You’ve just witnessed a ghost train wreck.

Believers of another local urban legend report sightings of a nude female apparition wandering aimlessly on a stretch of country road, the exact site where years ago a woman was murdered, her body left to decay in a ditch. Or so the story goes. The woman is said to never look up as she stumbles, placing one clumsy foot in front of the other, perhaps eternally searching for help. Or revenge.

The third – and possibly the silliest – urban legend from my hometown involves another country road. This time you’ll slowly crest a hill with your headlights shining directly at a particular headstone in a long-forgotten graveyard. The headstone will glow mysteriously in the night, as if awakening haunted spirits from their slumber!

But the glowing headstone is not even the creepiest aspect of this legend! Look to your left, far up the hill, to a small, dilapidated farmhouse nobody has occupied in 50 years. So you think, until out comes a man with a mushroom shaped head, pointing a sawed-off shotgun at your car. You better step on the gas, man!

In reality, an old farmer is probably tired of dumb kids flashing their bright lights on his property every other night. He really should get that mushroom head thing checked out, though.

Anyway, I could go on about the adventures of a group of bored teenagers cruising country roads, making stories up and creeping each other out. Because I didn’t even tell you about the other farmhouse where a man who murdered his entire family 100 years ago waits patiently for his next victim to enter his residence (which we did, and nothing happened). I’ll save that for another time.

Because I’d rather hear about your local urban legends. I could use some fresh stories to pursue.

How to Make a Backcountry Sauna

Today’s topic is backcountry sauna construction. Buckle in.

First, make sure you physically victimize yourself over terrain like this:

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That’s me in the front, scanning the lay of the land for a proper sauna location.

Then, after you’re done feeding the troops tacos and instant refried beans, effectively putting an end to the bitchin’ and moanin’, you’ll want to get a fire going. Break out the whiskey, because things are about to get weird.

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Where’d that dog come from?

When you’re about a quarter of the way through your whiskey stash, ask your buddy if you can borrow his tarp. Your wife might roll her eyes and say something like “what are you doing with that thing?” Never mind the skepticism. Just wait until your sauna is steaming and they’re fighting for space. You’ll get the last laugh, trust me.

Start heating a few large rocks in the fire. I read somewhere that you’re not supposed to heat river rocks because they’ll explode in your face. So don’t do that. You should be fine with a few dry rocks.

As your rocks are heating, you’ll want to choose a proper sauna location, preferably near the fire. Here I am, a self-proclaimed backcountry sauna genius, using what the good Earth gave me:

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Hey, it’s all that was available.

By now, your fellow campers are at least curious. They might even get in on the construction phase. Which is good, because up to this point this was a one-man sauna (boring). High five your friends for letting their sauna guard down.

Now on to the minor details. Figure out a way to transport your super hot rocks. Load up on icy cold snowmelt from the nearby stream. And then hop in, robe or no robe. Doesn’t matter. You’re in backcountry sauna mode, dude!

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Sauna sesh in progress.

Slowly pour water over the rocks. Magical steam will appear. Nature is so mysterious like that.

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That’s a pretty crappy set-up, I’d say. But come on. It works. Not bad for a fist timer. I’d use a bigger tarp, and maybe heat my rocks a little longer next time. And kick all those bums out.

How to camp in bear country

A food chain demotion does not always make for a comfortable camping experience.

Face it, bears are big, strong, fast and wild creatures. And they live in the woods, where people typically do the majority of their backpacking.

Have no fear. With a little preparation and know-how, you can camp (somewhat) comfortably in bear country. Read on for a few tips.

Tip 1: Buy a bear canister.

You’ll spend more time playing camp food Tetris with your bear canister than actually using it on the trail. Sure, these things are kind of a pain in the butt to organize and load in your pack, but they’re designed to keep bears out of your food stash.

A bear might investigate your canister by stomping on it, nudging it it off a cliff, juggling it, or gnawing it like a chew toy. He might even use it as an ottomon. Who knows with bears sometimes.

Try as he might, he won’t even come close to cracking the seal. Bad for him. Good for you.

Tip 2: Smelly stuff is a no-no.

All your smelly stuff needs to go in the bear canister before you turn in for the night. Yeah, the already-brimming-with-food canister. I told you they’re a pain in the butt sometimes. So good luck with that.

Sunscreen, chap stick, hand sanitizer, scented condoms—these items need to go in the canister. Be vigilant. Double check your campsite for the not-so-obvious.

Bears have completely destroyed tents and cars to slurp down a tube of SPF 30. Weirdos, those bears.

Tip 3: Don’t cook anywhere near your campsite.

Because if you do, Mr. Bear will be mad you didn’t invite him to the diner party. And you don’t want Mr. Bear mad and feeling left out.

My suggestion: Cook somewhere along the trail, then continue hiking a ways until you reach your campsite. It’s certainly not the most convenient option, but at least your tent won’t smell like bacon. Bears love bacon.

If you do set up camp and then cook, be sure to do so downwind a few hundred yards. Bears have an uncanny sense of smell. They can smell those tasty camp enchiladas you’re cooking up. Bears love enchiladas, too.

Tip 4: Strip.

Get naked. Well, at least take off those smelly clothes once you’re done cooking. Put on your jammies and break out those s’mores. Which will go right back into the bear canister post-s’more session.

I don’t think bears are interested in crazy naked people dancing and chanting around the fire. Something to consider.

Tip 5: Scared of the dark? Wear earplugs.

Thank my wife for this one. She’s not so much scared of the dark as she is slightly worried about being dragged out of her sleeping bag at 3 in the morning by a bear with a tube of sunscreen hanging from his tooth.

She doesn’t hear a thing all night. I don’t wear earplugs and I hear pretty much everything. I’ve freaked myself out once or twice, too. She’s smarter than me. By a lot.

Tip 6: Chill out!

Sleeping in what basically amounts to a bear’s guesthouse can be an unnerving experience. Relax. Bear attacks are relatively rare, especially if you’re aware of your surroundings.

Bottom line: Don’t be a slob. Don’t smell like bacon.

On Tattoos and Stupid Decisions

Remember when you were 18 and you thought to your self, “Self, now would be  an awesome time to get the biggest, baddest tattoo ever since I am of a sound, reasonable, and now legal mind”?

Then maybe you thought what the hell, let’s get another tattoo, and another. Before you know it, you have several tattoos, all in perfectly placed spots on your body.

Good work. Those are permanent, you know. Your 30-year-old self wishes that wasn’t the case. Stupid 18-year-old self, always up to no good.

Do you have regretful tattoos? When did you get them, and where are they located on your body? What’s the story behind them? Go on. Do share.