Tuesday, 30 October 2012

USA 4 - SF 2 Carmel/Highway 101/Monterrey

Carmel is a small municipality by the Californian Monterrey coast. But I think most folks remember it for its town centre which is made up of a warren of single-storey shops arranged in a grid fashion. Roads are more pedestrian than traffic and beautified with shrubs and trees - kind of like Singapore. All in all, it was a very pleasant place to stroll in and shop at, which is what most people do when in Carmel.

When we were there, we found a range of shops. One sold large, hand-built R/C planes; another sold monogrammed bath towels and robes; yet another sold very colorful and jazzy knitted-wear from Australia. There were also a number of designer jewellery stores. The shops were not huge, each like a mid-sized convenience store or smaller. This kept the place cozy and homogeneous.

At the end of the town center was a quiet tree-shaded car park. Through this and a gap, we were told a footpath led to a beach and sea. May and I followed it and was surprised by what's on the other side.

Whence it was once quiet and shaded, there was now a scene of lively people frolicking in bright sunshine. What a change it was from a few moments ago!

The beach we were on was quite small. But the most unusual thing about it was that it had black sand. Were it some ancient volcanic residue? Apparently such sand is common along this section of the continental coastline.

But there was one more unusual thing. I observed that many of the teenage girls there were wearing cloth bikinis (in small red and black checks). They also wore wrap-skirts. It all seemed like a throwback to the '60s.

We strolled along the water edge for a while and tested its temperature. The sea was really cold. Since it was still April, we weren't surprised. As we were not intending to swim or picnic (the beach was crowded), we decided to head back to the town centre for some afternoon cake and coffee. May and I discussed where to go next after Monterrey. We were very good on time and looking at our map again, spotted Yosemite. It seemed to have quite a number of attractions and didn't look very far and very high. By our estimation, we could reach the place by 4pm with ample time to travel back. So decided we continued with our coffee and cake.

When evening fell, we retired to our room at the Western motel to rest. The Western was a family-oriented motel chain in the US that offered very clean and decent rooms at very reasonable prices. It was actually the first thing we saw entering Carmel town centre.

Highway 101

We left Carmel the next morning after a hearty breakfast. We then turned into Highway 101 which is the equivalent to Australia's Ocean Road. Needless to say, the drive was both enjoyable and scenic. Everything on the right was mostly ocean view. I only wished we had been driving an open top car and not the Toyota Tercel hardtop. But the Tercel was new, economical, and actually a rather decent drive.

May laid her head on my shoulder and squeezed my hand. She was really happy and content. It was wonderful to see her like that.


From Highway 101, we soon reached Monterrey. This was home to The Monterrey Cannery Row, a former fish canning factory-strip that was featured in John Steinbeck's novel of the same name. There's also a well-known sea aquarium which was purposely constructed as part of the sea.

One of the loveliest things we did was find a row of quaint cottage-shops by a beach. Around the place were wild grasses and many giant cattails that towered over me. They were all wispy and wind-blown, imbuing the location with a kind of forlorness and longing. Perhaps Steinbeck saw the same and wrote a book.

In town, we discovered an antique car rental business and posed for pictures with their 1920s-lookalike vehicles parked by the street. We then drove around to look at suitable accommodations to spend the night.

We eventually found a very lovely one with real stone firesides in their rooms. It was aptly called Fireside Lodge and was situated right opposite the US Navy's Postgrad School (at Sloate Ave) which was a top research facility and academic institution in the country, and world.

For good reason, May and I were very happy that night. I remember we making love like two newlyweds long into the night and morning.

Next story: Snow White & the Dwarves of Menopause
USA story continues here: USA 5 - Yosemite 1

USA 3 - SF 1 Muir Woods

My first trip to San Francisco was in the mid-90s. There were many things to see and do, but it was the places away from it that were the most memorable.

In the news at the time was the Scientology religion. It received worldwide attention that year due to its star follower, Tom Cruise, who was in the limelight again because of the release of his first Mission Impossible movie.

Before my trip to SF, I had just finished a major IT press conference in New Orleans and had stopped over in Los Angeles to meet up with my girlfriend May. She wanted to visited her aunt, an elderly Chinese widow who lived in Orange County. (She's someone who could speak Tamil even and has an interesting backstory. You can read more about her here.)

I decided to tag along because I wanted to say hi again to the old lady. I had met her five years prior during a stopover. That done, May and I then visited downtown LA by bus tour. It was just a day trip that ended with Universal Studios. The following day, we visited Knotts Berry Farm (an amusement theme-park) with May's 7-year-old nephew. It was a very memorable trip with lots of novel attractions. Afterwards, we flew off to SF.

We touched down in the same morning at around 9 A.M. The weather was sunny and the sky blue, puffed here and there by some pretty, shiny clouds. It felt bright, cheery and optimistic.

I had been told by practically everyone back home that one must drive in the "big o'l U-S-of-A", so after collecting our luggage, we headed straight to a car rental counter. It was Budget and the only car available then was a small saloon, the Toyota Tercel. The good thing about the package was that there would be no mileage limit - I could chalk up as many miles as I liked. (This is important if you don't want to end up with a ballooned bill at the end of the trip.)

The drive out of the airport to the city was OK. The highway was busy but not crowded. Along the way, we looked out for outlying warehouse sales. I've been asked by a colleague to shop for her some cycling jerseys. I did eventually buy her some very professional looking ones (read: fake sponsor logos) but found out that she was a terrible cyclist who just wanted to show off. Somehow, I wasn't surprised as she was someone who had to "save face" no matter what.

However, even thought we saw quite a few warehouses from the highway, not a single one had sales banners up. In a sense, the exercise was deja vu. A few years earlier, my then-manager Andrew had asked me to buy him waterski tow ropes. He said it was cheaper in the US. I found them in a huge warehouse sports shop near a White Castle burger joint in Indianapolis, the same eatery made famous by Harold and Kumar in their very funny Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle movie.

Driving on that left-hand drive highway, I realised that it wasn't too difficult to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road. In fact, it was downright easy.

You could say I was rather "garang" to drive that distance on my second try. The first was in LA a few days earlier but that was actually quite minimal as our stay there was short and the attractions nearby. The furthest we drove that few kilometres to Disneyland.

You might think May brave to sit beside me, but we had been long-time driving partners during many long-distance adventures in Malaysia. We practically drove as one - so similar were our driving styles. May is the only one girl I would trust my car to, no hesitation at all. And she has often done the same. (I thus often give people a earful when they say women cannot drive). Both May and I drive fast but we are both defensive and safe drivers. Many still-alive cows wandering the B-roads on Malaysia's East Coast can testify to take.

In any case, I found the mental switch to left-hand side driving easy. I also realised that driving on painted, regulated roads helps: You do not have to hurry for anyone if you just keep to your lane. It's the guy at the back who has to watch your tail and be patient. Remember that.

And driving an automatic overseas (not our choice) actually helps to lessen the learning curve. Safer to not fumble during gear changes at junctions and other traffic situations. And one does tend to look around at street signs more often when in an unfamiliar place. So the auto-gear helps. (May and I both love driving manual.)

The hotel that May and I were supposed to head to was somewhere on the edge of SF. But tried as we did, we couldn't find it. We could locate it on the map but physically, it wasn't there. And there wasn't any signage indicating its street name.

What's annoying is that both May and I were both good navigators. - Me more so because of my army training. But we were both stumped. After circulating the area for the fifth time (and getting ample practice making turns at a large traffic cross-junction) it was beginning to look like Groundhog Day - that movie which starred Bill Murray reliving the same day over and over again.

Finally, we decided we should stop at the Scientology church that was marked nearby the hotel on the map and somewhat on the main road. Sure enough, our hotel was located 100m up the street.

The reason the hotel was so well hidden were 1) it was in the shadow of some tall building; 2) the street it was on had no sign; 3) Access to it was via a easy-to-miss backlane.

I don't know. The experience was like trying to locate a particular Renoir in a huge and largely unfriendly museum with no signs to show the way. The funny thing is the hotel was named Renoir. And it was similarly old.

Old but clean. The hotel building reminded me of those granite ones from the '20s era, or like our own Asia Insurance Building at Raffles Place in Singapore.

We checked into our room, left our bags there and proceeded into the heart of the city. Our first stop was, of course, Ben's & Jerry's.

This ice-cream shop turned out to be at a very nice location. It was in a turn-off accosted by a small park with benches and trees. We ordered Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia, the latter recommended by an ice cream fan in my Science Fiction interest group.

May and I then proceeded to a park bench with our treats and sat down to watch the world go by. It was one of the more beautiful moments during our trip. I remember thinking of a similar place in the Back to the Future movie: Small town/town square/park bench. It's what us folks from Asia dream about visiting: an orderly and charming '50s America; a town which included a dreamy milkshake parlour.

I also wondered if I would still be sitting on that park bench with May many years hence. She looked positively radiant, if not a little impishly greedy, caused in no small part by the scrumptious flavours of the ice cream we were holding.

Fisherman's Wharf

The first stop we made after that was Fisherman's Wharf. I know, it's a very shamelessly touristy thing to do, but it had to be done. May had been to SF before and insisted I should try the clam chowder. Ok, it was delicious but a little overwhelming with all that cream.

Stuffed, we walked along the wharf a bit afterwards. It was crowded. Parked by the side was a submarine, a tourist attraction.  Elsewhere, there were human street statues performing. One was an elaborate all-silver angel with wings. Another was simpler, just a man in all white and a red cap. These 'statues' would remain unmoving until someone dropped money into their collection box. They would then come alive and strike an interesting pose. The man in white though, moved in a robotic manner.

By the side of the wharf was parked a submarine. It was meant as a tourist attraction.

Along the same boardwalk, a sign informed us that seals could be seen, but on that day, they were apparently suntanning on another jetty (Pier 34?) and out of sight. May and I joked that we should have made an appointment with the elusive critters first!

Next, we arrived at "Crooked Street" (Lombard Street) and drove down those crazy zigzag lanes. Another touristy thing done and checked off the list! We then headed back into the interior section of town to Borders, the new concept bookshop. I needed to buy something for a friend in my sci-fi group.

At the time, Borders hadn't come to Singapore yet. I had heard much about it and the way it operated. One could not only browse a book but sit in a comfy chair to finish the whole damn thing! I wondered then, given the prevailing kiasuism in Singapore, if the scheme would work in our fine city. I had faith in my fellow human beings, so I thought, why not? The most Borders had to do was replace those dog-earred copies of oft-read books. If they can bear the replacement costs, that is.

Turns out Borders did come to Singapore two years later but closed after a run of 13 years. Yes, patrons did abuse the system (not only Singaporeans though) the worst culprits being parents with toddlers. They forget Borders was a bookshop and not a library. The books in the Kids' Section were often left vandalised.

But the real reasons for their closure were financial and patrons complaining of poor title selection. Interestingly, another similar bookshop chain, Kinokuniya, from Japan is still operating. You can browse but they do not make it comfy for you.

Hilly Terrain

Driving to Borders we could see just how hilly SF was. The sheer inclines of some of its streets were unbelievable. We joked that SFsians must have big calf muscles. Or if anybody died from a dropped bowling ball incident, you know, from the top of a street and the ball rolling down at great speed. I think its kinetic energy would be so great as to knock over a tram car.

A terrorist won't need to make a bomb in this city. Just paint a few jihadist slogans on a few weighty bowling balls and let them rip.

Parking to get to Borders, we discovered SF's oldest press corp members' club along a street. As a journalist, that gave me a feeling of bon homie. It was fittingly located in an old part of town and in an old granite building.

From Borders we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and into Sausalito; and then on to the nearby Muir Woods Redwood Forest.

Giant Redwoods

If you have not seen a giant redwood tree before, the sight can be awe-inspiring, like meeting a very fat uncle for the very first time at a family gathering and you were but a skinny kid.

But here in this forest, the experience can be even more alarming when that giant tree you encounter is a fallen one. It's as if you have suddenly found yourself at the scene where David had smite down Goliath. The exposed roots, the tossed earth, and numerous creatures scurrying for new homes makes the scene even more calamitous and biblical. You cannot help but feel small in every sense of the word.

May and I posed for a picture. We then looked at each other and contemplated making out there and then. It must have been that end-of-the-world feeling the scene evoked.

But the thought of insect-like creatures scurrying up our naked asses put paid to that. We decided it would be better done at an old hotel somewhere in a hard-to-find section of the city. One that was located next to a church that sounded scientific.

Walking round the forest trail, we discovered a small clearing where a plague from the United Nations had been placed. It commemorated a meeting that was held there in 1945. Ooh, an orgy in the forest! Haha... But I don't think so. The sombre gathering looked more like a physicists' convention than a bunch of pacifist interlopers. They were all in rather deary garb and many of the men spotted peculiar facial hair.

From Muir Woods, we drove further north and ascended a hilly region. At the top, we stopped by a lovely white inn that sat by the edge of a mountain range. From its outward cafe patio, we could look out to admire the valley that encircled around and below. The trees in there were of all shades of green and I could only imagine how lovely the place must be during Autumn when shades of red, orange and brown burst into being.

As the evening drew near, we decided to head back to the city. We had some more clam chowder and retired to our hotel room. For some reason our love-making session evoked more of the ocean than was usual.

17-Mile Drive

The next morning, we checked out of Renoir and drove south, heading into Pebble Beach and its 17-Mile Drive. The houses and lawns there were all very neat and picturesque. A section of it was near traffic and reminded me of East Coast Park. At other places, there were a few cul de sacs or coves, abutted by rocks and wave-crashed. These areas reminded me of those in Sydney or Brisbane - even their wood-slatted summer houses painted in parts marine rust-red and pastel looked quite the same.

Along 17-Mile Drive, we soon arrived at the Lone Cypress. As its name implies, it's a single cypress tree sitting by itself rather defiantly on a rock outcrop. Its backdrop was magnificent, capturing part of the Monterrey drop-cliffs and a whole lot of the Pacific Ocean. We overheard someone say that seals could be seen at certain times of the year sunning on nearby rocks.

May and I got out of the car, admired the tree and sea view and left after 20 minutes. We believed the tree was more than 200 years old and thought better to let old things rest. I told May many a poet must have gone there to pen a pensive thought or two. She smiled and suggested I write her one. I said I would.

A signboard at the viewing point warned people of suicide. That didn't sit well with us and so we quickly left.

From the Lone Cypress, we drove on to Carmel, that tourist town which was once run by Clint Eastwood as Mayor. Besides that, it was also famous for a beach that had sand of a different color.

Next story: USA 4 - SF 2 Carmel/Highway 101/Monterrey

USA 2 - LA 2

I returned to LA five years later with my girlfriend May. She had not seen her aunt for a long time and so wanted to visit. I was coming off from a long press conference in New Orleans and needed some R&R. So we decided to meet up in LA, stay for a few days, and then scoot off to explore SF.

I met May at her aunt's home in Orange County. There were no gunshots to be heard this time coming in from the airport on the highway. Aunt Annie's house looked the same as before: white, grey - same nondescript.

The inside was the same: No change in furniture and the parrot, well, it still had the same lousy attitude.

Unlike everything that was same-o same-o around her, Aunt Annie had aged a little. She seemed paler and her walking problem a bit more exacerbated. Sons Ray and Steve looked middle-aged and heavier.

The greatest change was grandson Rian. He had grown from a baby to seven now. He was tall for his age and could easily be mistaken for a 10-year-old. Because of his parents, he had mixed-blood: half ang-moh (Ecuadorean), half Chinese (Singaporean ABC). Judging from his looks, he'd probably grow up to be handsome.

Having not see May for many years, Aunt Annie had a lot of catching up to do with this niece of hers. They did have a day or so before I arrived.

That evening, the family took us out to have Chinese dinner. No Indian food like the last time. Aunt Annie and I laughed over that. And I confessed that I was actually half-pulling her leg requesting to eat thosai masala. Anyway, I told her I thought it was marvellous that she could speak Tamil. She said she was just lucky to be studying in India at the time. She didn't have any playmates who were Chinese.

That night, May and I retired to Rian's room. Poor boy had to give up his room to us. I hadn't seen May in a while and we missed each other. Before dropping off to sleep we made ardent love. We got so tired that we woke up late. I felt apologetic afterwards as it's not in me to do it on someone else's bed. But I missed May.

Tour of LA

That morning, we decided to book an LA City tour. Again we (or I, actually) did that through Buena Park Hotel which was about a mile from Aunt Annie's place. The both of us were actually not keen on packaged tours but since LA was a city with many iconic attractions, we decided to do the smart thing and let someone familiar drive us around instead. Our rented a car we left parked outside the hotel to await our return.

The tour (a Combo one that included Universal Studios) brought us to many places: there was Mann's Chinese Theatre (where the Hollywood Stars' Walk of Fame was); Hollywood's biggest stars' homes; shopping at Rodeo Drive; lunch at Farmer's Market; and Universal Studio.

Mann's Chinese Theatre was a surprise. It was small and looked like a relic from Fu Manchu's time. Because it was tied to so many Hollywood red carpet events like the Oscars in the past, I had expected a more impressive building. The star's handprints in the front courtyard was another eyesore. They were done in plain cement and was really unglam. Only the Walk of Fame looked classy with their better tiles and handiwork. But still, the Walk was let down by the poor state of the surrounding sidewalks, which were cracked, old and broken. Places like LA make you appreciate the well-maintained public spaces of Singapore.

May found the star belonging to The Carpenters and took a picture with it. I took one with Bugs Bunny's. I've always been a fan of this smart-mouthed and quick-thinking cartoon rabbit (at times cross-dressing too) - encouraged in no small part by the fact that I was supposedly born under the Chinese zodiac sign of the Water Rabbit (Water Tiger, actually).

Bugs Bunny's Hunting Season (a.k.a Pronoun Trouble) cartoon remains my favourite clip of all time. Watch it, it's damn funny!

Because LA had been featured so many times on Singapore TV (in American movies and sitcoms no less), the tour brought out many familiar places in our memory. So even before we headed into Sunset Boulevard to see some of the stars' mega-rich homes, we'd already recognised places like Cedars Medical Centre (where many Hollywood stars go to heal or die), Hard Rock Cafe, City Hall, etc. I even recognised the oldest Catholic mission there. I think it was featured in Pretty Woman of Beverly Hills 90210.

Some of the Hollywood Stars' homes we saw were simply palatial (if not, why show them at all!). They belonged to Danny DeVito, Jack Nicholson and Charlie Chaplin. They were all along Sunset Boulevard. Just before that, The Comedy Club where almost all of Hollywood's famous stand-up comics made their debut. It was built in 1940 (formerly Ciro's) and opened in 1972. Truth be told, the front of the club was rather boring, like some catering tent. They should have retained the Ciro architectural look.

From the stars' homes, the tour coach took us to Rodeo Drive. It's a semi-wide street with glass-fronted shops on either side selling very expensive and branded stuff. Many of the shops were not walk in: You would have to make a booking first. Rodeo Drive was small and quite the letdown, actually. Champs Elysee (Paris) or Orchard Road (Singapore) were better. At Rodeo Drive was Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe restaurants, each with their own memorabilia on display inside their establishments. I found Planet more meaningful as I'm a film buff.

After Rodeo Drive, we had lunch at Farmer's Market. I don't remember it as a market as such, you know, like those in Seattle or Melbourne.

After lunch, the coach took us to our last destination, which was Universal Studios. There we took the Jurassic Park Ride, had our pictures taken with the huge jawbone of Jaws at a fake pier, saw a Beetlejuice stageshow (which was very entertaining) and learnt movie-making (foley and camera angles ala Alfred Hitchcock) at the pretend-lot of Back To The Future. Besides the house of AH's Psycho, the original DeLorean car was also on display there.

A memorable moment was during the Jurassic Park Ride when we visitors were supposed to be washed away by a runaway column of water. It was an Indiana Jones 'moment' and everybody in the tram car was thrilled by it.

Knotts Berry Farm

After our LA tour, May and I returned to her aunt's home in Orange County. The next day, we made plans to visit Knotts Berry Farm with May's nephew, Rian.

KBF was a Peanuts comics-character driven roller coaster theme park not unlike Disneyland with their Mickey Mouse and Gang. If you enjoy this comic strip by Charles Schultz, you will like KBF. The other outstanding attractions there included a forward and reverse corkscrew roller coaster ride called Boomerang; a Wild West town; a genuine Western-era steam train (with a staged train robbery); a museum cum gun shop, etc. I found Boomerang unusual: The ride was already thrilling going one way in a corkscrew manner, but at the end it goes backwards at the same speed. Never had I ridden a roller coaster quite like that before. Besides Boomerang, there were other high, thrilling rides like the Hammerhead and Parachute.

I went on the Boomerang ride with Rian. Poor boy came down looking green. But it was my fault. I had forgotten that he was only seven. But because he was tall, he qualified to take the ride. He complained afterwards of giddiness which caused me some concern. But it went away soon enough. Next we decided to try something a little more mundane but just as enjoyable: Winning a prize at an old American fair-style shooting gallery (the sort where metal targets gets pinged and a ponged and hopefully get knocked over?) It was nostalgic and challenging (if not rigged, that is).

The next day, May and I debated whether to drive or fly to SF. Given the kinds of long-hour jams on the highways, we decided it was safer to fly, and we did.

Next story: USA 3 - SF 1 Muir Woods

USA 1 - LA/San Diego/Tijuana

My first trip to Los Angeles was in the early 90s. I was enroute home (via the Pacific) after an engineering mission in the city of Indianapolis, Indiana and decided to stop over for a few days.

Being a film buff, it was exciting to finally set eyes on the white 'sci-fi' arches of LAX airport. I had seen them often in the movies and looking at them made me wonder where my own journey would take me. I got the answer not long after getting onto the highway. Sounds of gunfire could be heard coming from a suburban sprawl on the right. Later on TV I found out that it was due to some domestic disturbance. Shots were fired but there were no casualties. I had thought it was a gang turf-fight or worse, random shooting.

The place I was heading to was a girlfriend's aunt's home. This GF had suggested that I drop by LA for a bit of sightseeing and to do her the favour of passing her aunt something. Stuff that could break in the mail or cost a bomb to send via airmail. Stuff like, for example, a bottle of precious chinchalok (preserved shrimp paste). There was also a can of less expensive fish floss, something the aunt always requested from relatives in Singapore. She loved to have them with her rice porridge.

My cab arrived in Orange Country and stopped at a small suburban plot. The house was a modest one in grey and white with a garage and driveway. It was very clean and neat. Typical, I thought, remembering the countless ones I've see on TV, like in the X-Files. What mysteries lurked in this innocent looking suburban abode, I wondered. Will alien were-worms emerge from underneath and gobble me up?

I pressed the doorbell and an elderly lady opened the front door.  "TC?" she asked.

"Yes. Aunt Annie?" I countered.

"Yes. Come on in, come on in," she ushered.

The inside of the house was as nondescript as the outside but just as neat. Obviously, she kept a clean and tidy home. The hall opened to an open-plan kitchen. I noticed a cage. Inside was a middle-aged African Grey Parrot. "His name's Howard," Aunt Annie informed, moving to the counter to make me a drink. "Mind your fingers. He can be nasty with strangers."

"Tea or coffee?"

"Oh, coffee please," I said. It had been a long day and I wanted to perk up.

I liked animals and tried to coax Howard into make small talk. No luck. Howard simply edged away looking wary.

I next opened my suitcase and brought out three tubes of Pringles potato chips. "These are for you... from May," I said to Aunt Annie.

Upon hearing that, she opened her eyes wide, surprised and quite unbelieving. She then said: "We have these here, TC. You shouldn't have brought them!" Inside, I was smiling at my own prank and thought, As if!

"No, Aunt Annie," I confessed, "THESE are for you!"

At that I removed the contents inside the tubes. They were the bottles of chinchalok and fish floss.

Aunt Annie laughed. "Oh, TC, that was funny!"

"Do you know that I simply love these?" she added, fondling the chinchalok like some ash urn of a dead lover.

I smiled back at her feeling happy to have done something good. It also broke the ice. Aunt Annie, with her cultured manner of speaking and coiffured looks reminded me of women who grew up rich and powerful (kind of like Lucille Ball in her later years). I wasn't far off. I later learnt from May that her side of the family owned Gay World in Geylang and other properties. Home was along East Coast Road.

(I don't know why, but women of powerful men from the '60s era tend to have high foreheads, bouffant hair and a disproportionate head. Large pieces of jewellery too. They often speak with a deep, raspy voice. Their larger than life looks were probably to complement the men they marry: Men with big egos and ambitions.

I then sat down with Aunt Annie and made small talk. I found her to be a really nice person, down-to-earth and caring. She was also quite Christian in her beliefs.

In the evening, her son Steve, a systems analyst, came home. They then set about making me comfy in a spare room.

Steve was in his mid-30s and mild-mannered. When I told him about the shooting coming in from the airport, he pulled out a case from under his bed. "Oh, we are well protected," he said.

In the case were an M16 rifle and a Colt 45 revolver. I was gobsmacked!

The only M16 I ever handled was during National Service where it was kept in an armoury when not in use. Here, it is under a bed!

"We can go shoot in the desert when we find time," Steve suggested. I was ecstatic and looked forward to it. I then struck a James Bond pose in the doorway with his Colt 45 and had him  take a picture too. I still have that photo.

Bombay Masala

When time came for dinner, Aunt Annie asked what I wanted to eat. I had been away from home for more than a week then and missed my curry fix, so I cheekily said Masala Thosai. I was only half serious about it. The other half wanted everybody to eat something different.

But Aunt Annie took it to heart and actually brought the family and I to a small Indian eatery cum supermart in Orange County. What surprised me further was to find her conversing with the owner-chef in fluent Indian! I was again gobsmacked. In my whole life, I could count only two instances when I had seen a Chinese speak Tamil. Both happened in the 80s. One of the speakers was a public bus driver (Service 170); the other was a tailor.

Over dinner, Aunt Annie explained the reason behind her talent. She had spent her childhood in India. Her father was a career diplomat and she had schooled there for a number of years and so picked up some dialects; Tamil being one. She later married and followed her husband to America. He was Chinese and worked in law enforcement. But he had since passed away, leaving Aunt Annie with sons Raymond and Steve, now in their 30s. At the dinner was also Raymond's Ecuadorean wife and their two kids, both aged roughly five and two.

After dinner, the whole family adjourned to a cinema. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator II had just be released. The world world had been waiting for a sequel since the first movie premiered in 1984. And here it was in LA. (Back then, film releases in Singapore still lagged those in the US. The situation has since changed. So I was glad to have caught the T2 movie.)

Darkness Redefined

The next day, I decided to visit Disneyland. It is in Anaheim, very close to where I was in Orange County. It would be my first time there.

The theme park was exactly what I had seen on TV. Main Street, the Disney characters, etc. As an adult, these held little interest for me except as nostalgia. I had seen the images often on TV as a kid, especially that castle graphic during the closing credits. Back then we kids fantasized about going to Disneyland and didn't think we would ever get a chance - it being so far away in the "US of A". And there I was, walking behind those iconic castle walls and spires and mingling amidst its fairy tale characters and such. I was glad but felt maybe the visit was a couple of decades too late.

I explored Disneyland as much as I could and looked out for something to do that was age appropriate for myself. It would be a memento of sorts. Halfway through, I ran into the daily parade on Main Street. It was lively and a great photo opportunity.

After that, I found Space Adventure Tours and queued up for the ride. By the way, many of the kiddy rides around the theme park had super long queues, so I was glad I came by myself and not with a family of kids. Imagine having to spend half the time at the park waiting for stuff to happen! Fortunately for me, the queue at SAT was not too long.

I liked the SAT building. It has sweeping curves and fins reminiscent of the '50s jet-age. The Jetsons would feel right at home.

But the indoors were a different story. The design looked more like something from Star Wars. The whole place was modelled to look like a space port boarding facility (adventure tour, get it?)

Basically, the ride at SAT was an indoors roller coaster ride in this huge darkened dome. There was no light except for some distant pinpoints of light representing stars. The last visible thing I saw was a sign overhead that warned folks with heart ailments and on medication to quit the queue and give up. Otherwise, once the cart entered the blackness within, it was anyone's guess which way the roller coaster would turn, dip or climb. It's like wearing a blindfold but worse.

The darkness inside was so complete it felt like a bubble was pressing against me. It was suffocating like that. Also, unable to see anything, I wouldn't know if something was going to hit me. I would just die there in the dark. So the ride was unnerving in that sort of way. Otherwise, the twists and turns slapped you the same way any normal roller coaster ride would.

Sea World

Going to LA made me wonder about the whole Californian Peninsular. After seeing a Sea World promotional brochure, I decided to head on down to San Diego.

To get there, I booked  a seat on a coach tour. How I did it was quite efficient: I made use of hotel facilities nearby. About a mile from Aunt Annie's home was the Buena Park Hotel. Various transport options were available from there: tour coaches, shuttle services, cabs, etc. It did not matter if I was a guest. I could get in touch with the relevant service provider from a counter there. Also, in the hotel lobby was a rack full of tourist brochures of what-to-do and what-to-see. That beat planning my holiday from Aunt Annie's home and going through the Yellow Pages.

Sea World was huge and reminded me of Sentosa. There were exhibits both indoors and outdoors for creatures large and small. One very popular attraction were the staged shows at the Pool Arena. It could seat some 300 visitors. When I was there, I watched a fun and boppity '60s-themed ski and dance beach party act. Seals, dolphins and small whales were also part of the performance. There were also water ski stunts (skiers forming a two-tier tower) performed in the ocean right beside the Arena.

One of the outdoor exhibits I found fascinating was the Pink Dolphin Pool. You wouldn't expect a creature so large to be swimming in a low circular tank outside. But it was just that. Folks could come up close and touch them if they wanted. Another popular exhibit was the Ray Fish Pool. I liked that I could stroke and play with the creatures inside. There were starfishes and corals as well. To prevent abuse, staff were around to monitor and educate.

Sea World had a novelty machine I have never come across before. A coin-operated machine that presses a copper penny into a longer and flatter souvenir. Quite useful, actually. I also bought a fishing boat captain's cap: Blue with a black peak cap in front. It had followed me on many long cycling trips.

After Sea World, I went further south and crossed into Tijuana, Mexico. It was all part of the tour package that I had bought from an agent at Buena Park Hotel.

Tijuana Zebra

I was looking forward to Tijuana as I am a fan of the tequila drink. I used to be able to drink shots of it without getting drunk. I know, it is kind of weird considering that it has high alcoholic content. But then again, youth is youth. It can be like a filter that lets everything through. Only when you get older that that things start to get clogged up.

Tijuana was right at the border between the US and Mexico. As such, it's also a cowboy town. By that I mean it gives off a feral and "anything goes" kind of aura. I guess this is what happens at boundaries. Things get blurred and less definite. Escape and return; escape and return. It was the same at Golok, a town between Malaysia and Thailand.

The contrast on both sides of the border couldn't be more stark. As our tour bus rolled into Tijuana, a hillside shanty town came into view. In the bright sunshine, it didn't look dirty. But it was still a shanty town of zinc sheet and plywood homes. The only modern feature were the many satellite dishes that sprouted from the rooftops.

Further in were rows of two-storey shops (with five-foot ways) and an assortment of low tenements. They existed on both sides of this four-lane road our bus was on. The buildings looked dated and reminded me of the '70s and older. You could say this road we were on was then the main road into Tijuana. I could see it stretching all the way to a plateau mountain on the horizon and into the interior of Mexico (pronounced "meh-hi-ko").

Our bus eventually stopped near some sidewalk vendors outside a tequila shop. I noticed walking around that there were quite a few of these establishments, each touting their own gold standard of fine T (which is incidentally gold in color too). The proprietors were quick to leverage on the "worm in the tequila" myth, preferring to offer such fare eagerly, and claiming erroneously that such liquor was "better".

The sidewalk vendors, with their mats of wares on the floor, sold souvenirs and ethnic stuff. I observed that leather products (treated or otherwise) were popular. But mostly, they were too folksy in design to appeal to me. But I did pick up a rather cute tiny leather figurine of a sheriff on a keychain; it was two-tone in color and even had a star on its chest. Lacquered and hardened paper sculptures of rural folk - a farmer, a village woman with child, etc. - about a foot high, were also popular at the time. I bought two from a street vendor and hoped they won't be crushed on the flight home.

Perhaps the strangest sight I saw in Tijuana was this half ass and zebra. Folks could pay a fee to have their picture taken with it. I didn't after realising that the animal was actually a donkey painted to look like a mutated animal. I mean, it was pretty obvious. So how dumb did these folks take us for? Incredibly, this tradition (of painting donkeys) began in the early 20th century to make the donkeys appear better in black and white photos. They are now called Tijuana Zebras.

Next story: USA 2 - LA 2

Turpentine Turn-On

New story pending. ;-)

Next Story: USA 1 - LA/San Diego/Tijuana

Photocopy Passion

New story pending. :-)

Next story: Turpentine Turn-on

Sex Museum 1 - Paris

Over the course of my travels in Europe, I have come across a number of sex  museums. In Paris, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Prague, etc. A Vietnamese eatery in Avignon, France, actually used an exhibit cup I saw! In Japan, there was even a amateur one in a restaurant in Fukaya, Tokyo.

But none I've found in some gal's home, which is a pity. Just kidding!

Before you get all prudish and judgmental, let me tell you I am not one to indulge in pornography nor one to encourage it. Fine, if it is titillation for the sperm bank, but otherwise, I think a shapely gal in swimsuit (like those in Sports Illustrated) is good enough for me. Swell? Haha, no pun intended!

When overseas, a sex museum to me is just another museum. It is only worth its research and exhibits. Well, mostly the exhibits as they are rather unique and uncommon. Sex is after all a rather taboo status in most cultures. And of late I like a museum for its architectural statement as well (such as the Guggenheim museum in Bilboa). It adds to the overall visitor experience. Who knew!

Museum or not, I remember feeling rather shy about the first one I came across in Paris. It wasn't the same feeling as stepping into The Louvre in Paris nor the Prada in Madrid. Over at those two revered museums, once you step inside there's a sense of reverence. You cannot wait to see the work of the Masters. In a sex museum, what would a Masterful work constitute of?

At the time I had just finished checking out the Art Deco arches of the very ancient Metropole subway exit and standing outside at street level. On my right was the famed Moulin Rouge cabaret theatre with its iconic windmill atop on the roof. Opposite Moulin Rouge and just ahead where I stood was  the entrance to the Museum of Eroticism (Musee de l'Erotisme). It looked like an ordinary entrance to a gift emporium.

The MOE was not a standalone building but a double-storey shop below a row of apartments. Its fascade was like some gift emporium with a turnstile as gate entry. It was all colored in regal green, a shade more commonly found in a British gentleman's drawing room than in a bawdy establishment. Hey, maybe that's the reason for it. The British have been known to have weird hang-ups about sex.

To preserve my anonymity, I contemplated wearing sunglasses before going in. I also didn't want my face to be accidentally captured by a CCTV camera and plastered on a tourist poster wall. I think my friends would be surprised to find liberal me this embarrassed. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I have five sisters. My respect for women has been ingrained from a young age.

Being my first sex museum, I had my misconceptions. Was it more museum or sex shop? At MOE's gift shop were many toys for titillating the nether regions. There were condoms, postcards and suggestive lighters... that sort of thing. What we in prudish Singapore could find easily in the Bugis Street Market then.

Inside the museum, there were exhibits displayed in cupboards, open shelves, and on standalone pedestals. Right after the entrance was a Rodin statue of The Thinker, a rather fitting exhibit given its nakedness. The running joke at the time was The Thinker wondering where he had left his pants!

Along the wall after the cashier, were narrow glass cabinets. I was surprised to see many Chinese carved-ivory items there. Many were innocent everyday objects such as comb, powder box and wine cup. But cleverly hidden in these objects (like in the handle of the comb) was a naughty scene or thing. The scenes were usually of ancient dynastic people in various stages of disrobe. The hidden carved object was often the male appendage. Made of ivory, it is smooth and shiny - much like the real thing! Some of these objects were actually dildos of their time.

At the far end of this entrance hall was the centerpiece of the museum. It was a sculpture of pink travertine marble of a few limbless torsos stacked on top of one another in various acts of mutual fellatio or '69' positions, rising to some 3 m. At the very top, a lady's head about to devour the expressed labia of a woman's privates. I half expected it to be a water fountain piece.

Next, at a turn, was a Rodinesque statue of greenish cast iron showing a man in arched ecstasy. Only that he was missing arms and legs and a head. The arched dynamic of the body was for a reason: it had a humongous penis in full glory of erection. Curved like a blade and reaching the chest. Gosh, I think no woman can resist being aroused by that! And certainly one can hang a hat on that thing!

Art or pornography? It's hard to tell.

If art reflects life, then there is nothing to be ashamed of. We all do silly sexual things in private. Some more inventive than others.

I was thinking just that when I arrived on the second floor and came face to face with a contraption that's not too dissimilar to the one built by George Clooney's character in the movie Burn After Reading. It had the same aim to excite a woman "down there".

Made of wood, it is basically a chair with a bottom slat opened. A crank mechanism is built below. As the crank is turned, a feather is brought forth in the opening. So in this way, a person sitting on this contraption will have his or her privates stimulated. It's a two person thing (one to sit, another to crank), so I suppose it must have been used as a party machine. "Oh, it's my turn, my turn!" some guests must have blurted out in curious excitement.

I am sure there is a self-actuated version for the shyer types. I don't know why but I keep imagining back to those wanton and wasteful King Louis XIV-days, where folks wore white wigs, ceremonial make-up and corseted dresses. And those uninhibited courtiers as described in the French novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

My fave piece at the museum had to be this almost life-size photograph of a rather full woman lying on her side with her head propped up with an elbowed arm. Her breasts were large, skin smooth. Her hairstyle was bouffant-like from the '40s. The pix was in B&W and gave off an aura of olden day romance. The voluptuous lady wore nothing but a mask that covered only her eyes. Even then, I could tell that she was alluring and had some spirit. Standing just some centimeters away from this photograph was a tubular wire frame that traced the outline of her sexy figure. At one end, a loop attached to a wire. I could now see that it was some sort of electric buzzer game, the kind we used to build and play at school science fairs.

I forget how she would light up whenever I failed to move the loop around the frame without touching it. Actually, I think I rather preferred to stand back and admire the buff lady in the picture. She was properly voluptuous in the Marilyn Monroe way!

One funny sculpture on that floor was done in clay and it showed a burly 19th century workman (sans head) ferrying his long and over-sized penis on an improvised plank-barrow.

Strangely, I don't remember many in-your-face type of intercourse figures on display as one might expect. It was all mostly historical artifacts. Not surprisingly, the penises outdisplayed the vaginas by a factor of 7:1. Why is there more interest in the male organ than female? Is it because women were less promiscuous and hence needed more 'aids'? Or is it because a penis is typically a symbol of power and fertility?

All in all this first trip to the sex museum had been an eye opener, and an education. I didn't expect there to be so many artistic pieces. Good or bad, they are historical. And as pornographical objects they served both function and intrigue. We humans are sexual creatures and I don't expect these things to go away any time soon, what with robotics and WWW-enabled 4-D technologies spreading now through the Internet. We will find these too in a museum some day.

Next story: Photocopy Passion

A Giant Dildo In Hanover

Sometime in the mid-90s, I was invited by an Australian trade office to cover an IT fair in Hanover, Germany. They were sending a contingent over and wondered if the paper I was working for would do a spread of the products and services they were going to showcase. As our paper was regional, we agreed.

The show was the famous CeBIT IT fair. Each year, half a million IT professionals would flock there to check out new products and discuss deals. Some staggering 7000-8000 vendors would participate.

CeBIT then was large. If you think walking the Singapore Expo during CommunicAsia is tiring, try this megafair. Buses have to ferry you about the fairgrounds. The carpeted walkways through the exhibition halls alone totalled some 37km! It was a workout to try and see all the exhibition stands and also to attend all the accompanying technology conferences.

And the halls. There were some 37 numbered ones. Many as big as one Suntec hall. So, when we were told CeBIT was big, it was actually quite the understatement. It's one freaking gi-normous fair!!!

I've always considered it a fair no geek should miss. It's like the Mecca for any IT guy.

But CeBIT has since branched out to Shanghai, Sydney, Istanbul and Port Alegre, Brazil - testament to the global interest this world's biggest IT fair has managed to attract. Shanghai is the only CeBIT Asia site.

When CeBIT starts in Hanover, almost all its residents flee to the other parts of the state. They would camp out, go back to their parent's homes or bunk in with relatives. The residents then put up their now vacant apartments up for rent. For the duration of the  fair, these homeowners could earn as much as three times the normal rent. For a mid-sized apartment, that's a good return on value. I am told residents use the extra cash to travel, treat themselves, etc.

A taxi driver I met ran a transport service with the Fair. In the weeks that's not CeBIT, he would be off sailing the waters of Sweden in his own private yacht. What a life!

Transport then was not scarce but hotels were. Quite strange given that Hanover was supposed to be a "fair" city with many visitors around during convention time. Instead of a milieu of choices, there was only but one international hotel to meet demand (Sheraton, I think it was). The situation did not change many years later when I was in Hanover again, this time to bring a tech start-up there. I am not surprised if the situation is still the same today. Why should it change when the home-rental scheme is working so well. It even encourages residents to keep welcoming the out-of-town crowd.

My first trip there was rather eventful.

I had arrived in Hanover by plane and then took the tram line into the city. It was a short ride.

As I disembarked, it started to snow. It was nothing heavy, just light, dusting flakes. It was my first encounter and the whole scene felt really lovely.

I had always been good with directions and without difficulty found the apartment I was supposed to stay in. It was located on a street a turn and 100m away from the tram stop. My host, David, was having a cup of coffee in the cafe below. We exchanged greetings and he graciously helped to lug my luggage upstairs.

I was wearing my light blue winter jacket, a company issue from Hewlett Packard. My editor's wife worked there and he had kindly lent it to me on short term.

The apartment we were in was a private one. The same kind all over the city that got leased out once the Fair began. It felt kind of strange to be living in someone else's home knowing that they would soon be back... like I was trespassing. The weirdness extended to seeing their personal belongings around the apartment. Like music CDs, for example.

The apartment we were in was not huge but comfortable. It reminded me of an old home which too had a wooden floor. Outside, it was still Spring and the temperature had dropped to zero. So our first night there was rather cold. Too cold, actually.

David and I tried turning on the radiators but to no avail. In the morning, we considered the problem again and decided (with teeth almost chattering) that we could not go through another night shivering like girls. And so we set out to look for whatever furnace was supplying heat to the radiators in our rooms.

Turns out, our radiators were fed by a gas operated heater. David found it in the bathroom. He had at first thought it was a heater for the bath only. With that was fired up, the apartment was soon warmed up and we could at last do away with our jackets and body linens.

I had thought David to do better in such climes but he was like me, a guy who enjoyed the tropics. I later discovered that I actually liked the cold. But the layers of clothing was rather loathesome. And when the wind chill factor turned up, things could get really frosty and nasty. I debated with myself which was better: Cold or warm weather. I still don't know. With cold weather, I felt fresh most of the time, and slept less; much, much less. With warm weather, there's the sweating and dehydration. David agreed that the weather in his home Sydney was best. Outdoor aircon set at 22 Celsius all year round! I told him every Singaporean wished for that at least once in their lifetime.

During my stay there, St Patrick's Day occurred during one weekend. David's ancestry was Irish and he wanted to celebrate it. But since the cafe below our apartment was not in the mood of things, we decided to head to a genuine Irish bar in the city. It didn't look too far on the map (perhaps some 1-2 km) and so we decided to walk and enjoy the cool air outside.

After about 20mins and a few shortcuts through some backlanes, we got lost. It didn't help that there were no street signs. David spotted a dimly-lit store and suggested asking for directions there. What we thought at first a convenience store turned out to be a sex shop. Now it became clear to us why we ran into a few hookers not far outside. The ladies were all in sexy thigh-high boots, their shoulders draped in faux fur wraps. One beckoned us with a come-hither look but we politely declined and walked on. It must be tough to have to work on a chilly night like that.

The sex shop wasn't large. It was lined all round with narrow plywood shelves that were painted in lime neon-green. On them were filled novelty items in small windowed gift boxes or transparent wraps.

One shelf in particular had nothing but dildos of all sizes, colors and textures. It was behind a low glass counter filled with pager-like electronic stimulation aids. To one side, a small cash register counter. I remember vividly the color of the place: the stark neon green. It was also bathed in yellow light given off by a fluorescent tube wrapped in yellow cellophane.

One or two spots in the shop were separated by clear panel-curtains. I parted one of these and entered a small area. On the floor below was a shelf and trough. In it was the biggest artificial penis I had ever seen. It was about eight inches in diameter and 2.5 feet in length. There was a picture of a cow standing outside a barn on its box packaging. Was it for farm animals then?

I was not a farmer and neither was David. So we exchanged looks and burst out laughing. "What the hell...," David said, holding the gigantic dildo up admiringly. "Gosh, a woman would faint looking at this!"

Faint not just from its size but that the thing was also pimpled with studs. Does a cow really want that, need that?

"David, do they have these things in Australia?" I asked, understanding that they have a large bovine population there.

"Not that I am aware of," he answered, arching an eyebrow.

"And guess what, it's made in Taiwan!" I said, flipping the box for David to see. He was gobsmacked.

I then remembered Roald Dahl's My Uncle Oswald novel. In it, Uncle Oswald tried his hand at the novel business of bovine premium-sperm collection (and subsequent secret auction). A scene described how he had to stimulate a cow to attract a bull. It was all hand-action at the rear. With the cow excited and wet, the bull couldn't help but be turned on. At the very last moment when the bull mounts the cow, Uncle Oswald would slip a giant condom over its erect penis. In this way, the stud's precious sperm is collected. The first time was funny enough... but the second round was a riot!

I could not help but imagine that this giant dildo (which I was now holding up) was for masturbating a female cow. It could help in the secretion of juices and pheromones and put a smile on the creature's face (which reminds me of all the happy milk ads I watched as a child). I mean no woman would allow such a thing to come near her even if she was equipped to handle such superlative 'equipment'!

Moreover, I pity the farmhand who has to do it. What if the cow becomes fixated on him and follows him around. That was actually what happened to a chap in India after he went and fu**ed a cow. When the cow got clingy with the poor chap, everybody in the village then knew. I wonder where the guy went and hid his face after that! Or is it ok, like how it is a custom in one Mexican village: Horny teenage boys are encouraged to 'practise' on farm animals first, often the family mule. I tell you, being a farm animal in that place is no piece of cake (or piece of ass, just to be precise). PETA should look into it as a kind of animal abuse. Animals should have every right to pick their own penises.

After getting our directions from the owner - a middle-aged guy who was dressed in long grey like some character from an old sci-fi movie - we left the sex shop and made our way. We then passed Lortzing Station, which seemed right. The time was 9 P.M., still plenty before the pub got going. David had said 10 P.M. was best when the in-house band turned up. The streets we were on were deserted with only the yellow glow of the street lamps keeping us company. We warmed our hands in our pockets and trudged on.

We found the Irish pub at a corner of Bruder Street, which was rather cool as a name as it sounded like the rap word for 'brother'. Perhaps it is the German word for 'mate' which the Irish are fond of saying just like the Australians. Or simply because it was, after all, in a red light district.

The pub was simply called The Irish Pub. It's still there on Google View with the 'red drop' pointing erroneously a few doors away. Unusually, it had a single brown wooden door. But its side was the same like all Irish pubs: a huge lengthwise glass window lettered in ale-colored Old Ye print that let folks on the street look in. As we entered, the place was already packed with people ringing in St Patrick's Day. The band was early. It comprised of two youngish men on fiddle and guitar, and the music they played was typical Irish in Riverdance fashion: lively and feet-tapping. It was also loud, reverberated in part by the pub's small space.

Allison, a cute staffer from the Australian Trade Office was there too. I wondered if she digged Asian guys. That night, we drank lots of ale and sang drinking songs. I found such songs to be a unifying factor on such occasions. It does not matter which nationality you belonged to; a drinking song is a drinking song that's funny or rhyming to sing along with. It made me wonder about our own Singaporean pub ditties and all I could think of then were Di Tanjong Katong and Chan Mali Chan. I couldn't think of an English one except Two Dead Dogs Got Up To Fight, the one sung to the tune of a Chinese New Year song during campfire sing-alongs.

As expected, the night ended late. But no matter: It was a Friday night and we could all sleep in the next day. The work week at the fair was already done. Before we reached home, David and I dropped Allison off her place with our cab. Ah, those big beautiful smiling eyes of hers. Are they Irish? Must be, I told myself as my heart remained opened to all things Gaelic that bon vivant night.

Next story: Sex Museum 1 - Paris