Friday, January 10, 2014

Now that we're home and things have settled, I really do want to tell you some stories about our trip. Since I fell off the radar, we spent 5 weeks in the UK and Ireland. We ate and drank and loved all over London, we visited the medieval church where Jeff's parents were married and we saw more than 15 shows in 5 days at the Edinburgh Fringe. We drove 1000 kilometers around Ireland and then drove some more as we toured the South of France and Italy. Our transatlantic cruise, of course, was canceled, but our insurance company did fly us home first class. There's nothing like afternoon tea at 35 000 feet. (And nothing like self-administering a needle full of anticoagulants up there, either.)

And then there's life after the trip. A return to Toronto much earlier than anticipated, subletting one apartment while renovating two others. Considering a leap back into the rat race, and then deciding to be a manny instead. And I haven't had an ounce of alcohol in four months. Yes, there are stories in all that, too.

But when I think of our trip, my memories of the places we saw and the people we met cannot be separated from the maps created by my dear friend Paul. A Technicolor blast fills my brain every time I look at them, which you should know, is often. They're are as important to me as any picture I took along the way.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

When I was two, a drunken neighbour donned a gorilla costume, popped out from somewhere, swept me into his arms and ran around the house. I dreamt that monkey was gonna get me for years. In the 90s I sat rapt, watching night-vision footage of bombs and burning oil fields, and I thought the Gulf War was coming to get me. Several times weekly (during humid and volatile summers) I thought a twister was coming to get me. I dismantled my room, pulled posters and loose objects from their displays and tucked them into safe-keeping under my bed, or on particularly green-skied afternoons, all the way down to our basement where I buried them under couch cushions.

Bullies, cold and flu, brain aneurisms, you name it; even if I saw my dad wistfully palming a baseball glove, I worried he'd come searching for a moment of bonding. Looking back on my life, I kind of always thought something or someone was hunting me. In modern times my therapist refers to "legendary defensiveness", and I suppose it really is. Legendary, I mean. I was born and bred to feel under siege.

My heart (the physical one, tucked there behind my ribs) has always been a terrific pursuant. From a young age, I remember it beating wildly, like a coffee can full of June bugs. I remember feeling it and sometimes worrying it might explode. I was never athletic, so rarely concerned I'd be asked to push it to its limits, but it often happened when I was entirely at-rest, watching infomercials or reruns of Family Ties.

In my twenties I (reluctantly) attached its rhythm and sporadic dramatics to anxiety; eventually I learned how to breathe it into submission. Sometime before my 30th birthday I quietly celebrated my ability to quell its wild beating almost entirely. Bouts of anxiety came with garden-variety palpitations, thump-thump, of which there were many in The Year of Going Freelance. Then less as we packed our lives into streamlined cases for this journey around the world. While we were gone, so was the ruckus in my chest. It wasn't until our trip's coda that a month's worth of incessant fluttering had me anxious-squared: That's anxious about being anxious and it's a tough one to climb out from under. In London, palpitations turned into a tightness in my chest, as if someone were sitting on me. I noted to Jeff, as I do, that it felt like my organs had outgrown my body.

By the time we got to the South of France, I was having trouble sleeping. I'd wheeze and wake with a start, gasping. Our friends had joined us for two weeks and I wanted to soldier on, to enjoy our visit. And so we did. We enjoyed Cannes and Nice, Monaco and the towns of Cinque Terre. We rented a villa outside Seggiano in the heart of Tuscany before heading north for two days in Milan, then a few in Venice. While I avoided alcohol and often slipped to bed while the guys drank rosé long into the night, I did enjoy those parts, despite my growing inability to breathe.

Cinque Terre is a magical place. We stayed in La Spezia, a larger city near the strip of charming cliff-side towns, in a terrific apartment. We shopped for fresh fish in the open-air market, ate a ton of gelato, and craned our necks as we wandered through piazzas and narrow alleys. When we hopped a train toward the five towns, I was feeling the same: tight-chested, easily-winded, with a general malaise hovering just above the surface. Before long we were scaling a hill, larger than expected, between Vernazza and Corniglia. Rocky steps and steep hills; I couldn't breathe. An hour of this, slower with every crest, and I finally had it. My skin was cold, but my brain felt on-fire. I crouched, then sat, then I felt like vomiting so laid down on the ground, which smelled conspicuously of urine. Somewhere between a panic attack and cardiac arrest, things felt oddly grim. A cold sweat came over me and I remember Jeff saying something about my being grey. He held my legs up in the air and calmly told me to keep breathing. I looked up through the trees, now blurry and waving in slow motion.

Through a tunnel of muddled sounds I heard something about a nurse and a woman's face appeared inches from mine. A blonde American in her 50s sat on folded legs in the dirt, resting her hands on my chest. In just a moment or two she turned everything around; colour filled my face and I was able to breathe again. She told me my pulse was normal and then vanished. If Jeff and our friends weren't there to verify her actual existence, I think I'd question it myself.

By this point we were nearly over the top of the last hill, and I made my way down the other side. Breathing still wasn't easy, but I managed and soon found myself enjoying a honey gelato, a skinny, gooey comb jammed in the top.

By the time we got to Venice, things had gotten worse. I couldn't sleep and the bridges had me gasping. Venice is a walking town, no cars or bicycles, no South East Asian tuktuks to make a walk to dinner easier. After struggling to sleep that first night, I sought out a tourist-friendly medical centre and meandered through the streets in the morning. The guys went to the Biennale (Venice's biannual art festival) and I began what would be a week-long adventure through the Italian medical system, deemed second best in the world.

The Red Cross Clinic in San Marco Square was completely empty except for a handsome young doctor. I sat in front of him and said I couldn't breathe. A Polish woman appeared from behind a curtain (and a near-offensive amount of blue eye shadow) and tried to decipher what I meant. I mimed constricted breathing and she led me to a table. Without many words she attached the soon-to-be-familiar electrodes of an EKG monitor, muttered something about atrial fibrillation and told me I'd need to go to the hospital "right away".

Within minutes, four burly paramedics arrived at the clinic and carried me to their waiting boat. These situations have a way of making you celebrate tiny victories, and a ride in a water-ambulance seemed a pretty novel idea. I took a couple of photos and wondered if I might die.

I spent much of the afternoon being shuttled around different parts of the hospital, through its outdoor arcades and slow-moving vintage elevators. It'd take some time, but when I finally left the hospital 7 days later, I'd discover just how beautiful a place it is.

I was calm and felt okay, spending a few hours looking around at the (mostly) old people who filled the emergency ward. Just waiting. But I'm the type who likes that; if Anthony Edwards isn't crashing my gurney through a hospital door, it means I'm not dying. Instead I'd decipher the Star Trek colour code of this particular institution; doctors in white, orderlies too. Nurses wore teal and paramedics in heavy fluorescent coats came and went, dropping another patient in this purgatory between good health and bad.

Halfway through the day they wheeled-in a real and true Befana - the folkloric Italian witch. Her C-shaped chin curved up, nearly touching her hooked nose. Surely the witch in Snow White was modeled after this very woman. Her hair was gently swept behind a tortoise band, smooth and grey. Her skin was tan and youthful, for her 80+ years, though had gone crepey and puckered at the seams. But she lacked all the mystery and terror of a witch, instead just a tiny, vibrating shell under her yellow, government-issued hospital blanket. Every so often we'd lock eyes, hers weepy, and she'd mutter something which seemed rather urgent. "Inglese, I'd say," with a universally-understood shrug.

In those early hours I met Maria Cristina Pasqualetto, my new cardiologist, a very reserved and quite-serious woman in her mid- to late-30s. She was beautiful with the long-limbed grace of Gwyneth Paltrow, she might be played by a pixie-shorn Penelope Cruz in the movie of my life. Her English was good, but lacked ease, thus vaguely discomforting in its bluntness. "Your heart has problems," she stated. I couldn't help but think, "Well, anyone who knows me knows that."

Another of my brief trips out of triage took me through a series of outdoor promenades to radiology where a CT scan would rule-out a pulmonary embolism. There was a young man there, looking three-sheets-to-the-wind on pain meds, his arm in a temporary sling. His parents sat next to him and when he was called for his x-ray, his mother, crestfallen, crumpled into her husband's shoulder. I thought about my own mom, and the jarringly-innate desire to have her there; I'm not sure what these worried Italian parents thought when the foreigner in the wheelchair began to cry along with them.

Throughout everything we made good use of Google Translate, typing back and forth with the doctors and nurses in an attempt to avoid miscommunication. When one rather steely woman said the CT showed "pleura", I shrugged. "It doesn't translate," I insisted. Her screen, one side Inglese and the other Italian, showed pleura in both boxes. I searched my brain, deep in its frontal lobe, trying to dredge old French-language lessons. Pleura. Pluie. Rain. Water. Moisture. Fluid. "Fluid on my lungs!" I shouted, to their satisfaction. And with that, they told me I'd need to stay the night.

I was admitted and, without a vacancy in Cardiology, unceremoniously dumped into General Medicine where a series of scary theories were thrown around: cardiomyopathy (a virus in the heart), coronary artery disease, a selection of previously-asymptomatic congenital issues, hyperthyroidism ... the list seemed long and not particularly comforting. Nor were the three old men dying in the corners of this room. The ward didn't even offer the dignity of curtains between its beds, only a couple of feet between me and a sometimes-conscious man who intermittently shouted "Mamma Mia!" with cartoonish bravado. Tuesdays with Paolo.

That night, after Jeff left,  I was completely alone and, for the first time, acutely aware of my situation. A cloud of words I couldn't understand filled the air and my body had gone rogue. I'd spent the year traveling the world, seeing so many of the things I'd read about in our complete collection of encyclopedia. We'd organized and strategized nearly every hour of the 225 days that came before this one, and it was plainly obvious that level of control was gone. And so from the moment I stepped into the Red Cross clinic that morning, I saw the lesson here: I must trust these people and do what they say. And so I laid quietly, careful not to stir my heart.

The next week was a series of tests and efforts to rule-out that list of maybes. It was a horrifying angiogram and several echocardiograms and daily blood tests. Daily shift-changes brought varying degrees of English proficiency as nurses marched in and out of the private room Jeff had lobbied for upon my move to Cardiology. My favourite was a sturdy woman in her 50s with coarse red hair.  She couldn't string an an English sentence together, but when she plunged a needle full of blood thinners into my abdomen, she knew how it stung. While many would simply stick-and-run, she'd sympathetically wince, squeeze my hand and stay with me for those thirty-or-so seconds of pain. No words between us, just a shared moment of critical importance.

Sebastião, my favourite orderly and a brick shithouse of black hair and big white teeth, took Jeff aside on that first day to offer comfort (and gay-friendliness), "I see the sentimentality between you and have told the others. You'll be free to come and go whenever you like." And so he spent long days with me, watching shows and idly flipping through magazines. From this moment on, staff stopped asking Jeff to leave the room for blood pressure tests and they shared their latest findings with the both of us. I'll remember Sebastião forever for that simple gesture.

But Jeff would leave at night, and I'd lay in my bed listening to the beeping sounds at the nurses' station, wondering if it was my heart causing the commotion. I coaxed myself to sleep, feeling confident that my redheaded nurse would take good care of me.

They were sure of one thing: My heart, at this point, was working at about half its normal capacity. Persistent atrial fibrillation (ongoing for five weeks, since those days in cheery London town) had caused me to go into heart failure. This very-common arrhythmia, on its own, can't kill you, but when left to fester so long causes your heart to weaken and your blood to thicken, your risk of stroke swiftly rising. And so with meds to manage my heart rate, some to control its rhythm, anticoagulants and time, I would be back to normal. Dr. Maria Cristina Pasqualetto (you simply must say her whole name) warned in her matter-of-fact way: "Medicine. Rest. No whisky, no wine, no birra." She said we must go home, no more gallivanting around. And with that, Eat Gay Love would come to a bizarre halt.

And, whether I like it or not, life is different now. I can't tell if it's because we took this trip, or because of how it ended, or because of the things we saw along the way. I knew it would take time to digest the year we've had, but even more-so now. Life is different. I know that with my whole heart.


(The halls and arcades of Venice's Ospedale civile SS. Giovanni e Paolo.)


1) Atrial fibrillation is the most-common heart arrhythmia on the planet; millions have it. Most experience it in waves, lasting only a few minutes. Throughout my life I have been very aware of "palpitations" - a cute word for an arrhythmia - but it has never persisted for five weeks straight. When I'm off medication chances are I will experience AF regularly throughout the rest of my life. The key is to listen and beware of persistence.

2) Some heart issues are caused by "plumbing" and others are "electrical". Arrhythmias are the latter and often have very little to do with the condition of one's heart, their diet, or their fitness. Lots of tests proved that my heart, under normal circumstances, is entirely normal and healthy. In this particular situation, the arrhythmia was allowed to persist so long that it caused other problems. Heart attacks are a plumbing issue. Atrial fibrillation is not related to heart attack. I was never at risk of a heart attack and my heart is structurally sound.

3) In atrial fibrillation, the electrical signals that maintain the rhythm of the heart are out of sync. Often the upper chambers (the atria) of the heart will beat (vibrate, really, like a hummingbird) between 400 and 600 times per minute. The lower chambers cannot keep up, try as they may, which results in an arrhythmia. In a case of persistent fibrillation, the heart can exhaust itself and result in heart failure. (Of course, normal heart rates are between 60 and 80 per minute.)

4) Atrial fibrillation (especially persistent) disrupts efficient blood flow through the heart, and therefore the rest of the body. When your heart is working inefficiently, it has an impact on all organs, vital and otherwise. Getting the heart back into normal rhythm is critical. During disorganized beating, blood can collect between the upper and lower chambers, resulting in a stroke. People with AF are 5 times more likely to suffer one. After five persistent weeks in this condition, I was at particularly high risk, hence the very high amounts of anticoagulants (blood thinners) upon my arrival at the ER and throughout my stay.

5) In ridiculously simple terms, blood enters the heart, pumps, and then exits the heart. Yours should expel at least 55% (but not more than 70 or 80%) of the blood it takes on in order to feed the other vital organs. Mine was working at 28%: half its required function for good health. This means other vital organs weren't receiving enough blood, circulation was bad, and everything was just grinding to a halt. This is known as congestive heart failure.

5) I'm currently on a medication to control the electrical rhythm of my heart, one to lower the overall heart rate, and Aspirin to thin the blood. My heart is very close to the magic 55%.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I don't normally preface my writing, but felt I should let you know that I'm talking about a controversial subject in a rather non-controversial way. The following contains explicit content.

THAILAND DID NOT GRAB HOLD OF US AS PROMISED. It wasn't the so-called Land of Smiles, as indicated in national ad campaigns and tourist packets. In fact, smiles from locals were rare and, when offered, felt forced and rather insincere. It wasn't until we arrived in its capital, three weeks into our trip, that we began to see its charms. It took more than twenty days to find the place we belonged, one we will quite likely return to throughout our lives. Because Bangkok is special. And uncomfortable. It challenges you in ways Westerners aren't quite accustomed.

This city hits you in the face. First with its impressive airport, then with its terrible traffic, and often with its regular waves of sewer stench, which one cannot become immune to, despite having spent months in places where such smells are commonplace. It's a city which presents itself, warts and all, with easy confidence and a lazy shrug, as if to say: "What were you expecting?" It's imperative you leave all Western-world expectations at the door.

Bangkok would mark our first experience in a developing nation's metropolis. In the same steaming city block you'll find modern glass skyscrapers, a luxury shopping centre, and a private home constructed of corrugated steel, replete with a vibrating sea of rats consuming the food scraps that surround it. Flashy European cars fight for space alongside dilapidated tuktuks and barefoot locals schlepping baskets on their heads. Just a few meters above the congestion and chaos of the streets, a spotlessly-clean public transit network darts impressively, making Toronto's paltry excuse look worse than we thought. Stylish 30-somethings commute to work while traditionally dressed women, with ancient, craggy faces, tuck under your arm for a spot on the train.

Amidst the truly overwhelming hustle and bustle, people nap midday, curled gymnastically on their mopeds or twisted into a hammock in the cool shade of their storefront. They'll groggily sell you something, if they must, but work comes second to rest at the height of the day's heat. As the temperature rises quickly after breakfast, streets empty into air conditioned malls, of which there are a surprising many. Only tourists are ill-informed enough to flood temples at high noon, ourselves included. But the tricky part about Bangkok is managing your time; while it's much too hot to do anything during the day, you were up too late the night before to wake at dawn to take in the sites.

And so you find yourself meandering through Chatuchak Market, sweating angrily, while trying to  enjoy its thirty-five acres of counterfeit clothes and cages stacked high with flying squirrels or puppies so perfect you expect a robotic chirp and the stilted walk of a wind-up toy. Temple tours and river cruises, which should be fun and interesting, feel something akin to torture, so you retreat to your hotel for a swim and a nap before tentatively setting out again for dinner.

AND AS IF YOU'VE STEPPED INTO SOME SEEDY LAND OF OZ, EVERYTHING FEELS DIFFERENT WHEN THE SUN GOES DOWN IN BANGKOK. Locals wake from their naps and systematically turn sidewalks into markets, hundreds of stalls formed from clangy tubes of aluminum and tarpaulins. Shabby restaurants with cart-as-kitchen crop up in the narrowest spaces between buildings and steps leading to business towers are converted into vast shoe displays. Worn-out tourists wander haplessly and prepare for the other part of Bangkok, the part that exists more subtly during daylight hours but is always there, just beneath the surface. Girls whining "Masssaaaaaage!" from darkened shop windows, or men mumbling "You want boom boom? I have for you. Beautiful ladies, big tits," as you amble past them on your way to air conditioning. If you look one way, you'll find a Gucci store, if you look another, there are sure to be girls of questionable-maturity offering "spa services". All of this is amplified as the air cools and the neon lights buzz and crackle into full colour. 

Perhaps the most famous street in Bangkok's extensive network of sexual recesses is Patpong. An electric strip of fuchsia with a night market running down its middle, this double-wide alley is pedestrian-only, and features many "world famous" ping pong shows. Pop culture runs amok with the idea of zany Thai prostitutes firing hollow white balls from their bodies, and, well, they exist in much the way you would imagine. Nebbishy little trolls sidle-up to you when you're within a half-mile of the street, promising a great show, a laminated card in their hands outlining the featured performances.

1. Pussy Ping Pong
2. Pussy Cut Banana
3. Pussy Shoot Balloon
4. Pussy Smoke Cigarette

I'll spare you the sixteen each-more-riveting-than-the-last segments, but rest assured: You had no idea the female anatomy was capable of such feats. While oddly intriguing, this street had nothing of interest for us outside grey-market Lacoste polos and some rather convincing designer sunglasses. Wandering past the most-garish of Patpong's clubs, Super Pussy, one could peer inside the open door to catch lacklustre faces stomp around a long, raised catwalk, leaving very little to the imagination. If your eye lingered too long one of the club's henchmen would pull your arm, promising all your boom boom dreams realized if you would just come inside. It shared the tone of your average summer carnival, though with a decidedly sinister slant and somehow-worse teeth.

OUR BANGKOK EXPERIENCE WAS LARGELY GUIDED BY OUR FRIEND JOE, who'd come to meet us on Koh Samui a week earlier. After beaching ourselves and quietly catching up with him, the three of us ventured to the city where (as he's wont to do) Joe made friends with a motley crew: a sweet pair of Egyptians, a gregarious Lebanese pop singer, and a jarringly aggressive oil rigger from the sands of Alberta. He preferred his men fat, old, and white. "Unfortunately guys like that come to Thailand for the fuckin' twinky Asians," he'd growl only moments after meeting, "So I'm shit outta fuckin' luck!"

Joe met these characters at his hotel, Babylon, a high-end bathhouse with a buffet breakfast located near the city centre. When in Rome.

At each stop on this trip, we've dipped a toe into the local gay scene. And while Jeff and I aren't aficionados, we have visited our fair share of drag bars, strip clubs, and cabarets in various cities. So after shopping and picking our jaws up off of Patpong, our cabal headed to the section of Silom which features gay-owned restaurants, bars, and sex clubs. Bobby, the Lebanese pop star, had recently moved to Bangkok and seemed to know everyone in the vicinity, from tuktuk drivers to hotel doormen who hurried onto the street to greet him excitedly. We had a distinct advantage traveling with him, the perfect guide to this bizarre subculture. He'd introduce us to a place called Tawan, a cabaret and brothel more than 25 years old, specializing in muscle men.

On first blush the clubs in Bangkok are something of a cabaret-stripjoint-whorehouse combo, on a hit of acid with patently low production values. Laid out like your average small town dinner theatre, Tawan features a semicircle of chairs and low tables facing a half-moon stage. Mirrors line the walls, lighting is low, and the place is lousy with underwear-clad "dancers". In May (Bangkok's hottest month and lowest in terms of tourism) the place carries an intimidating 8:1 ratio, talent to patrons. I immediately notice the numbers dangling from their hips, the Dewey Decimal System of dick, an easy way to order-up what you might desire. "A number 56 with a side of fries, please."

WITH BOBBY, WE WERE USHERED TO THE FRONT ROW WHERE A BOTTLE OF WHISKY AND ALL NECESSARY ACCOUTREMENTS ARRIVED QUICKLY. Our guide gave us the lowdown: The vast majority of the dancers (ie. prostitutes) at Tawan were straight, often married with kids at home. Rates started at 20USD (625 Thai baht) for the night. Older white tourists (pharangs) were the main demo in Tawan, but in Bangkok there's a club for everyone; some cater to Japanese businessmen, Westerners, even the occasional local woman frequents a place like this. Before the programme begins, the models/dancers/prostitutes preen about, offering their wares and mingling with patrons. Often they linger in dark corners flexing their muscles absent-mindedly or lifting weights at the inexplicable gym set up beside the bar. Occasionally talent will be snatched up early, a good position I'd think, as you get to sit and drink with your investor and skip the choreographed dance routine.

In the interest of entertainment, these sex shows typically begin with a protracted ladyboy show. Any sexual tension that had mounted quickly dissolves as the lights drop and a familiar fanfare erupts. As the trumpets rise to their finish, I'm stuck wondering what the 20th Century Fox people would think of this doggedly illegal usage. Doe-eyed and statuesque, a gaggle of ladyboys appears from a hidden panel on-stage. 

Modeled after some kind of alternate-universe Disney Princess, they spin erratic circles on stage, their toes creeping over the ends of too-small strappy sandals. Choreography is second to personal expression and I can't help but notice large hands and Adam's apples, though their physicality is impressively feminine, all boneless, waving fingers and loose wrists. They have clearly worked hard to embody the characteristics of a certain kind of femininity, vacillating between sexy Barbie and grotesque clown. Some have impressive fake breasts and fine jawlines with slim shoulders and their hips wideset; these are the tell-tale signs of an early hormone regimen, a good surgeon, or both. With faces spackled into a sickly shade of chicken-fat-yellow and lips both bold and glossy, the notion of "a little goes a long way" was lost on these mugs. 

We'd been taking in as many ladyboy shows as we could while in Thailand. A bizarro mix of full-camp-drag and earnest-showgirl, it's critical to watch like you might a performance in Las Vegas. They are not drag queens, but rather transgender women, in various states of transition. The youngest among this group looked startlingly female, impossible to tell. She was all of 16 years old and somehow ended up here, opening a show which would soon feature acrobatic anal sex between a straight fitness model-cum-prostitute and an impossibly vacant guy whose only purpose was receiving end

After the slew of ladyboys scattered to the wings, the real show began with an alarming crack. Styled after the orgy scene in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, masked men flooded the stage in capes and masks in various shades of red velvet. They whipped their submissive counterparts (bedecked in dog collars and harnesses) while music blared and cheap strobes blinded the rather confused audience. While the commitment to storytelling was impressive, the production was jarring and kind of scary. At some point the faux-violent domination scene abruptly transitioned into a slow-jam dick sucking set to Trisha Yearwood's mid/late-90's hit "How Do I Live?" (I wish I were kidding. At least we could laugh through our discomfort.)

And I didn't feel particularly bad for these guys. While the sex trade in general conjures images of at-risk youth being thrust into a dangerous world, these muscle dudes were older, some in their early-40s, and generally strong and virile. They did not appear to be in any danger whatsoever. Without discounting the presumed emotional turmoil they suffer, I wasn't concerned for their safety. But after this rather earnest (and shocking) 30 minute performance, we left Tawan and visited another street in the district. Here we found neon lights screaming BOYS BOYS BOYS! FRESH BOYS! and the tone changed a bit.

HERE WE SAT STAGE-SIDE FOR ANOTHER KIND OF SHOW. While similarly acrobatic, this one involved guys with slight frames and young faces. Some appeared to be 14 years old. Of course we felt conflicted about even being here, as they preened down the runway en masse. With only 20 people in the bar, there were at least twice that on-stage.

At some point in the week, I decided I wanted to talk to these boys, to try to understand, get a sense of what propelled them into this world. But, you see, it's not exactly an open book. These clubs are owned by the police and without doing some legwork and procuring a translator, it would be difficult. And it was our last night in Bangkok by the time I got the guts to ask.

Spurred on by Joe, I flagged down a server and requested one of the guys join us at our seats. I felt like a creep, obviously, but hoped this would take the sweet-faced kid who'd been flirting with us out of the running before someone more committed got hold of him. His name, he said, was Music, and he was 19, though it's amazing how perfectly serviceable English vanishes when the question of age comes up. Suddenly he wasn't sure what year he was born.

I asked if he liked working at the club. He said no, but that he was paying for chef school. I decided to believe him. I still do. I asked where he was from, originally, and he said the island of Ko Phi Phi. Having just visited, I felt instantly connected to Music. He said his dad died in the 2005 tsunami, which hit the island hard, and that his mom still lives here. We sat together for those 20 minutes, chatting awkwardly between performances on-stage, our language and my obvious concern creating a barrier between us. He did his job, gently caressing my leg, and I countered with thoughtful questions about his well-being and compensation. (Both questionable.) Soon the lights started to come up and I said good bye. In my head I was already planning the trip back to dig deeper into this world.

We stumbled onto the glaring alley still teeming with sex and dubious decision making. Music, dressed like any other college kid in jeans and a t-shirt with a knapsack slung over his shoulder, hopped out of the club as if he was finishing up at any other part-time job. He smiled when he saw us and joined our group. I told him to stay safe and that if we came back to Bangkok we'd find him at whatever restaurant he would surely soon be working. I stuffed 500 baht into his hands, ensuring the bouncers could not see and take their cut, and he kissed me square on the lips. The as-promised smiles we'd sought out all across this country were finally coming through.

(I didn't take any photos, and none inside the clubs for obvious reasons, so the multi-talented Kevin Okorn created this illustration which perfectly depicts the bright lights/creep-city of Bangkok's sex district. Many thanks to him, and follow him on Twitter, too.)


1) Cabs are remarkably cheap in Bangkok; you can get clear across town for $2. But you must demand a metered cab ride, rather than negotiate a flat-rate. Drivers can be shady about this (and shady in general) but be firm, or just get out of the car and get another. One driver turned off the meter midway through my ride, then told me he wanted what would amount to three times more. I got extremely firm and even opened the car door threatening to leave the car. He then agreed to the price I was willing to pay. 

2) A note on tuktuks: They are fun and quick, but don't fall for their shenanigans. Thankfully we heard of this before arriving, so were prepared for it. Drivers will often quote a very cheap price, "with one stop". They'll then take you to a friend's shop and you'll be strong-armed into shopping. "No stops! Straight there!" If you're firm they will agree and won't mess around. Also make sure to carry the business card of your hotel to expedite your journey. They won't otherwise know how to get there.

3) You must visit the Chatuchak Market. You can get there via taxi or metro. It's a wild experience - more than 15 000 stores and stalls, they sell absolutely everything. From birds and lizards to t-shirts, this place is so neat. Open only on weekends.

4) We should be doing a better job of noting "gay-friendliness" on our trip. While we've stayed in a variety of places (those which specify gay-friendliness, and those that do not) we haven't noted which have made us feel generally comfortable. I'm happy to report we haven't had any issues in this regard, and almost always ask for rooms "with one bed". Nobody has hesitated or given us so much as "a look", which is very comforting. 

LOCATION: London, England, The United Kingdom
DATE AND TIME: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 6:00PM British Summer Time/Wednesday, August 28, 2013 1:00PM EST

Location: Bangkok, Thailand
We bounced around a little bit during our week in Bangkok, staying at three different hotels.

Accommodation: Babylon Bed and Breakfast 
Our friend Joe enjoyed a night here before meeting us in Koh Samui, so we headed back there with him. While it's a fun and scandalous place for singles, it wasn't really for us. After one night in the "Barracks" style room (a shared gym-style bathroom at the end of the hall, ie. a sex chamber) we left Joe to enjoy the debauchery while we found a new hotel. Don't get me wrong: The place is clean, the service is good, and the amenities are... ahem...plentiful, it just wasn't our scene. There's a great pool, gym, sauna, and a bar and restaurant. But the whole place is really just a semi-luxury bathhouse. Obviously very gay-friendly.

Accommodation: The Oaks Bangkok Sathorn 
The Oaks is the sister hotel to the Anantara, which is twice as fancy, but right next door. They share all hotel amenities, which include a gorgeous - and huge - outdoor pool, gym, and several restaurants. But The Oaks is considerably cheaper, very nice, and we were able to get a great, very large room for $60 a night - Remember we're in low-season. This hotel would easily cost four times that in Toronto or New York. It included a "kitchen" with a toaster and kettle, which we used, and a table and chairs. 

On an extended trip like this, I can't stress how nice it is to have a bit more space once in a while. We've found we enjoy larger spaces when we're in urban areas, whereas we can function with less in a more-rural environment. Because the hotel is also a luxury condominium, we had access to a laundry room, which is great for people traveling like us. Good location and excellent service. This was definitely one of the nicest hotels we've stayed in on this trip. Downfall: Wifi was free in the common spaces, but cost $10 a day for in-room access. This is so far out of line with the service level of the hotel and with current standards it almost blew our minds. But other aspects made up for it.
Tips: We only booked a couple of nights here, but then extended our stay in Bangkok. Unfortunately we couldn't get the same rate online, and the hotel couldn't offer it in-person, so we had to move on to keep things within budget. 

Accommodation: Sathorn Grace Executive Service Apartments 
This hotel was like the older, less-fancy version of The Oaks. A similar apartment-style layout. In the same neighbourhood. A great rooftop pool was a highlight. Service was fine, though not notable.


* Names have been changed. Except for Music. He already changed that.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

WE'VE BEEN SITTING ON A SECRET. When we were in Mykonos, our dear friend Ash wondered aloud how he and his husband Paul (known here for his beautiful maps) could meet us on the road, how we could orchestrate a vacation for them and a chance to see each other. Then, in a flash of brilliance, he decided he'd secretly plan it behind Paul's back, as an anniversary surprise. Leaving him blissfully out of the loop for six (torturous) weeks while we schemed and planned and texted back and forth across timezones, we mapped an epic road trip from Nice, France to Venice, Italy.

But I didn't want this part of the trip (maybe especially this part) to go without one of Paul's beautiful maps. We decided it'd be super-fun if he actually knew every detail, except the part about going. So several weeks before Ash told him, Paul sat in his studio creating yet another illustration, probably stewing that such a trip was even happening. He's been a real sport to draw all these locations for me, but little did he know, he was plotting his own two week adventure.

And so when the day came to tell him, Ash printed the map and tucked it into a card. Paul, his smile bigger than his guffaws of laughter, stared, cocked his head, as it sank it. This was his trip, too. (Video proof here.)

And so the boys will join us in the South of France where we'll meander through Cannes and Nice and Monaco before crossing into Italy where we've rented a series of incredible AirBnB's in La Spezia (Cinque Terre), Siena (just south of Florence), Milan and a canal house in Venice. We've hired a boat to sail the Mediterranean while in Cinque Terre and will have lunch in Bologna and dinner in Parma. We'll eat and gay and love like crazy. We miss these guys bigtimes and cannot wait for this to start.


You can see in the map that Jeff and I will continue to Rome, taking in the southern bits for a couple of weeks before we start our final leg; we'll fly from Italy's capital to Copenhagen to board a two-week cruise back to Florida. We have the time, and because it's a repositioning cruise (getting the boats back to the Caribbean for winter) it's cheaper than flying. The only horror: Wifi is prohibitively expensive, so we'll be disconnected for almost the entire trans-Atlantic voyage. This is a scarier proposition than ordering chicken in Thailand.

LOCATION: Edinburgh, Scotland
DATE AND TIME: Thursday, August 15, 2013 12:15PM British Summer Time/Thursday, August 15, 2013 7:15AM EST