Hands On An Eggplant Sub

This past Saturday, Homeslice Pizza (Austin’s best pizzeria) threw a carnival to celebrate its third anniversary. One of the many contests was an eating contest, which I had been looking forward to for days.

Unfortunately, I had gone out drinking the night before with my friend Dan’s band, who was playing a couple gigs in Austin and crashing at our place. They had been underpaid by the bar but were compensated with an open bar tab for the rest of the night, a windfall they shared with me. While we certainly had a lot of fun (we ate late night drunk food at a table next to RZA), my head was a little cloudy the next day and I regrettably ate breakfast tacos, torpedoing my chances at the pizza-eating contest.

My performance in the box-folding contest was forgettable; I was knocked out in the first heat. But as I was walking away the MC told me about the Hands On An Eggplant Sub contest, which I spontaneously decided to enter. The rules, adapted from the famous Hands On A Hardbody contest/documentary, were pretty simple.

1. Contestants must place a hand on the eggplant sub.
2. The contestant whose hand lasts the longest wins.
3. No sitting.
4. No booze or smoking.
5. No foul play.
6. Contestants get a ten minute bathroom break every ten hours.
7. No soiling oneself.

The winner got a free large pizza with unlimited toppings every time (s)he walks through the door for a year. A YEAR!

Last year’s contest went 31 hours and involved lots of drinking, rowdiness, foul play and self-soiling, and the winner only got a Wii.

There were quite a few folks interested who I tried to dissuade by loudly joking about my unemployment as both a financial motivator and lack of obligations. Three others entered undeterred.

The only other guy was a high school kid who quit after an hour or two. The next to fall was a gal whose boyfriend had been beaten in the eating contest, taking the wind out of her sails. It came down to me and Sonia.

Unfortunately, Sonia seemed ready to rock. She had quite a network of friends and family who came by throughout the day to bring her tacos, blankets and warm wishes. Her boyfriend tried to bribe me $100 to give up so they could have dinner together. She’s a student and had her next class on Tuesday morning, which was a long way from Saturday afternoon.

The afternoon was actually pretty fun. People were really friendly. They were amused by our predicament, jealous of the potential prize, shocked by the infrequency of bathroom breaks and generally encouraging overall. Sonia and I set up a tip jar (proceeds going to the loser) that was well received, and things were going pretty well.

When the sun went down, things changed. A cold front had blown in a a day or two before, and the low that night was in the 30’s. Sonia and I shivered as we dug our fingers into the gooey sub to shield them from the wind. The carnival ended and people went home, leaving Sonia and I to hang out with the cold folks waiting for a table and our friends who dropped by periodically.

My feet were sore and I had to pee, and the midnight bathroom break seemed pretty far off. I wasn’t real excited about the prospect of spending the next 30-60 hours standing outside Homeslice with my hands in an eggplant sub while standing in my sleeping bag. Sonia seemed pretty unfazed.

At around 9pm, about seven hours after we started, Sonia needed to readjust her blankets again. In an infamous blip of consciousness, she took her hand off the sub to help her other hand and suddenly cried out once she realized what she had done.

I couldn’t believe my eyes, and literally stared at her for like 15 seconds while my mind processed what had happened. I had won! I started jumping up and down and screaming, spiking my hat on the ground like a football in the endzone.

When you’re entire reality for hours and hours and hours is “keep your hand on an eggplant sub”, the thought of taking your hand off doesn’t come naturally. I kept my hand firmly planted in the sub until a judge came out (with a beer for each of us) and ruled it official. I WON!!!!!!

Luckily some of my friends were there to witness it, and we decided to celebrate with pizza on me and beer on them, a formula I plan to repeat frequently over the next 362 days.

Erin wasn’t real thrilled with any part of the situation (my decision to surprise her after she got off work was a tactical mistake) or the fact that the agreed-upon three musicians crashing with us had doubled, but her mood brightened considerably when she got my hysterical call that I had won. She enjoyed the first of many pizzas on me, and we realized that for the next year we will never have one of those nights where we’re too lazy to cook/clean.

Afterwards I walked down to 6th street, hoping to catch the last bit of the band’s set. I found them on a street corner and walked up to them with my arms outstretched in victory. When they saw me we all started screaming and jumping and celebrating. My voice is still a little hoarse.

It’s been a couple of days now, and I’m still blown away. Large pizzas with lots of toppings cost about $30, if I eat three a week (I’m trying to pace myself) than I’ll eat $4500 worth of pizza in a year. That’s a lot of money/pizza, especially for someone who’s unemployed and lives two blocks away.

I took home the four-foot-long sub as proof of my glory, and have been trying to figure out a way to preserve, bronze or mount it. My posting on Craigslist has introduced me to a fascinating array of artists, taxidermists and food scientists.

To anyone who’s been considering a visit to Austin, pizza’s on me. The road has returned to its providing ways.

Spent

For the last six weeks, I’ve been going to the mat for Michael Skelly, a wind energy entrepreneur / immigrant / Peace Corps vet / Harvard MBA who has been running for congress in Houston.  It has been without a doubt one of the longest and most exhausting six weeks of my life.  From the moment I was picked up at the hurricane-battered greyhound station, I’ve devoted basically every waking second to this campaign.

I have worked 90 hours a week away from loved ones and all sources of recreation and rejuvenation.  I’ve planned fundraisers and mucked through excel.  I’ve knocked on hundreds of doors, written thousands of emails and called bajillions of people.  I’ve eaten handfuls of trail mix for lunch and day-old pizza on the bus for dinner.  I’ve dealt with students and ambassadors, Jews and Muslims, energy executives and hippies, a governor and a homeless guy.  I’ve been hung up on, called a douchebag, told to fuck off and had doors slammed in my face.  Yesterday my colleague had a gun pulled on him.  By a minister.

I literally gave it my all, in concert with a dozen other 20-somethings who went all out for a guy who was clearly the more competent, intelligent, thoughtful choice.

And we lost.  Big.

All I know is that much of the country is tearfully celebrating a historic night that can be summed up in the phrase “Yes we can”, while all I can think of is “No we didn’t.”  I’m elated that Obama (and Hagan, and Udall, and the other Udall, and lots of others) won tonight.  Watching Obama’s speech tonight really moved me, but I feel sorta like the kid in high school who didn’t get invited to the cool kids’ party.

When you work and sweat and stumble and falter and struggle for a victory that everyone says is unattainable, you simply get more motivated. Until you actually lose, and then you’re crushed.

Yesterday I was fought as hard as I could for a guy I believed in.  Tonight I cried onstage as he conceded.  Tomorrow I’m unemployed.

I talked to someone tonight who suggested I was being selfish by languishing in my wasted effort rather than celebrating the collective joy that rang up from jubilant Obama supporters across the country.  It’s a fair point.  Tomorrow I plan on reading every “historic moment” type of story I can find to help me focus on the positive aspects of this historic election.  I’m also going to sleep.

Meanwhile I sit here in my Skelly t-shirt that I’ve been wearing for the last five days and try to take comfort in the Southern Comfort and the thought that maybe Culberson won’t rip up any more train tracks for highway lanes any time soon.

During a visit to South Africa in 1966, Bobby Kennedy said:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

I’d like to think that my efforts were part of some larger convergence of ripples meant to create change, but sadly I feel very divorced from all the other people who toiled in other races for candidates I also believe in, ie Obama.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll think of this whole endeavor as an interesting experience.  But right now I just feel drunk, hollow and spent.  Can’t say the road provided on this one.

Surrender

Seth: We surrender. Erin and I will be returning to the US in three weeks. Rather than spend our precious time hopelessly trying to keep the blog updated, we’re temporarily giving up.

When we get back to America and have a bit of spare time, we plan on blogging the rest of the trip. Whether that will actually happen or not, we don’t know.

Although it’s been great to keep y’all in the loop, the primary purpose of this blog for us has been to preserve some memories before they all jumble together in our minds. Since we want to remember the last six weeks of the trip, we theoretically ought to be inspired to finish the posts.

In the meantime, we plan on spending more of our time in hammocks, and less in internet cafes.

Leaving ANDC

Erin: Although we only spent a few weeks with the kids of A New Day Cambodia, we got quite attached to them and it was much more difficult than I expected to say goodbye. I definitely shed a few tears as we walked out the gates for the last time. We tried our best to read with them in the afternoons, and some days we held their attention better than others. Oftentimes, we lost the little ones to a game that looked kind of like jacks but was played with tiny plastic animals. They also were quick to figure out that Seth could be easily distracted into playing a game instead of reading…

Seth and I were both laughing on the last day when we broke out the camera and they all grabbed books to pose for pictures. If only they were always so enthusiastic! All joking aside, the kids who did come and read with us on most days definitely made an improvement in terms of their word recognition and pronunciation, so that was very rewarding for us to see.

Urban Mango Harvesting

Seth: One day I came across these guys trying to knock mangoes (sp?) off a tree. I stopped to watch and they gave me the first one they “harvested”. I tried my hand with the bamboo pole but was less successful.

Purim Craziness

Seth: So Purim was a big, big hit. Everything went perfectly. The party started off quiet with cross-dressing limited to the committed few guys and gals, but it soon metastasized. Everyone went wild, and it was one of the most fun parties I’ve ever been to, let alone organized. Here are the photos.

Road Rules In Phnom Penh

Seth: One of the amusing little joys of life in Phnom Penh is utilizing the public transit system. And by that, I mean dudes with motorcycles.

I’ve never been to any city anywhere near this size that has no bus/train system. Since none exists, “motodops” flourish on every street corner.

Apparently, they installed bus services a few years ago. But they failed due to unhappy motodops and spoiled residents used to cheap door-to-door transportation.

Motodops use baseball caps to identify themselves, and can be seen on the majority of Phnom Penh’s street corners playing cards and soliciting passers-by.

Even though Phnom Penh has a logical grid system with even-numbered east/west streets and odd numbered north/south streets, the motodops rarely know street numbers. They do know major landmarks and Buddhist temples, as we learned after several frustrating negotiation sessions. Apparently, we’re staying near Wat Langka.

The driver in the photo is named Hy (rhymes with “bee”). We’ve adopted him as our official motodop to take us to work, since he knows how to get us to the actual building. If he’s not around, we have to go through two or three motodops before one finally understands our pronunciation of “Russian Hospital”, the closest landmark to the center where we work.

The last syllable (in English or Khmer) has to be heavily accented, or you’ll never be understood. Again, we’ve learned this the hard way. “Hospital” is unrecognizable, but “hospiTAL” naturally means hospital.

Driving rules here are somewhat chaotic. Like many places with accelerated modernization, there is always a system of road rules, regardless of whether visitors understand it or not. Here are a few that we’ve picked up on:

Driving on the correct side of the road is more of a general guideline than a ironclad rule. So if you’re turning left (they drive on the right side here, which is weird for us now), you just cross into oncoming traffic about 100 meters before the turn, weave through the oncoming motos/SUVs, and make the turn.

If you want to go one direction but you’re starting on the wrong side of the road, simply go against the grain of traffic, slowly picking your way until you reach the side of the road you wish to be on. Be careful though! The area closest to the sidewalk has drivers going all direction, so don’t stray too far.

Petrol stations serve a two-fold purpose: sell gas to the public and offering a way to cut through a light without having to wait. The stations don’t seem to mind the constant stream of motos driving through, many have even attracted snack-cart vendors and the like.

Safety is important. While helmets are rare, most motodops have dustmasks to protect their lungs.

Pile on as many humans as you can possibly fit onto a moto.

It is best to turn when a car/SUV is turning in the same direction you are. Let it go first, and turn parallel to it to take advantage of its fearsome size. It creates a wall of protection that no motodop going the other way will challenge.

However ridiculous these “rules” may sound, the system actually works. Everyone understands the rules, so everyone obeys them. We haven’t seen one accident, although we’ve heard plenty of old wives tales.

CPP: Cambodian Purim Party

Seth: Tonight I’m hosting a Purim party at the guesthouse where Erin and I are staying. I’ve downloaded a Megillah, bought some booze, baked some hamantaschen and printed some flyers, so I’m all ready to go. It’s all you can drink for $3 ($2 if you come in costume, $1 if you cross dress). Sovy, the owner of our guesthouse and my frequent chess adversary, is going to sell spring rolls, beer and “happy shakes” to make a few bucks for himself and supplement my offerings of hard alcohol and hamantaschen.

Annette, the woman who runs the NGO we’ve been volunteering at, is married to Neil, who is Jewish. I sent him an electronic copy of the flyer I put up around town, and he forwarded it to the Jews he knows here in Cambodia. While most aren’t coming and started up a more “kid-friendly” Purim party, one offered to bake hamantaschen, so I arranged to make mine with her.

This was a clever move on my part, because much of what you see in the photo is not actually mine. I neglected to pack my stove, oven, rolling pin, blue oven mitt and cookie tray on this trip, so finding someone who had all these things made hamantachen-baking more easy than it otherwise would have been.

I brought papaya-pineapple and rose apple jam for the fillings, and Nicole, my lovely hostess, made the dough and a cinnamon-walnut filling and provided the fully-stocked kitchen. While we baked we discussed the NGO/expat scene here in Phnom Penh, and the life of an aid worker. She grew up as an expat kid in Thailand, India and Indonesia, and has worked for NGOs in Uganda and Burma, so she’s had a pretty interesting life. We had a nice talk, and the hamantaschen came out pretty tasty. And in case you doubt my baking prowess, the ones I’m pulling out of the oven in the photo are chocolate (with rose apple filling), not burnt.

On the flyer I asked people to RSVP so I’d know how much booze to buy and how many hamantaschen to make. I only got four replies, but I heard some variant of “I think I might stop by” from at least a dozen other people, which was not so helpful. I settled on two bottles of vodka and one each of whiskey and rum, plus mixers. That set me back $42, which is a week’s lodging for us, so I hope I don’t end up too much in the hole for the party. We’ll see…

And for those of you wondering about this post’s title, the ruling party of Cambodia’s kleptocracy is also called the CPP, for Cambodian People’s Party. My party will definitely be more fun.

Meet Roo

Erin: This little guy hangs out near one of the internet cafes by our hostel. At first, I thought he had just wandered into the area by mistake, but we see him at the same place most every day so I think he must be someone’s pet. His spine/tail is kind of twisted, giving him the pot-bellied look you see in the photo, but he doesn’t appear to be in any pain. Although he is only about half the size of an average rooster, he proudly struts his stuff around the patio.

I told Seth I wanted to take Roo home with us, but he jokingly reminded me that trying to bring a chicken from Southeast Asia through Hong Kong (where we have a layover) and then back into the US probably wouldn’t be looked upon too kindly by bird flu scientists. I then proposed crafting a tiny chicken-sized SARS mask for Roo to wear on the plane as a way to ease their fears. Unfortunately, I think we’re just going to have to say goodbye to our little buddy here in Phnom Penh.

The Temples of Angkor

Erin: This post is about three weeks overdue, in large part because I think we’ve both been struggling with how to put into words how incredible these structures are. Seth had been to Siem Reap before and done a one day mad dash around the area, but this was my first time. I generally get “templed out” fairly easily, but the days we spent exploring were a real treat. Some of my highlights were nature reasserting its dominance at Ta Prohm, the intricate carvings and beautiful pink sandstone coloring of Banteay Srei, and the looming faces of Bayon. Without further failed attempts to describe what we saw, I think I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves.

A Toast to Mary McGuire

Erin: These days, we don’t have much need to know what date it is, so while filling out my visa application in the Laos embassy on Monday I was surprised to note that it was the 17th of March, St. Patrick’s Day. How could I have forgotten? It’s always a big celebration with my dad’s side of the family and we have many fun associated traditions (hope you guys all had a great time on the slopes last weekend!). One of these traditions is in memory of my great grandmother Mary McGuire, who every year used to commemorate the day by sitting down at her table with a glass of whiskey and a cigar. As my brothers and cousins and I were growing up, you can imagine some of the looks and comments from teachers when there were class projects about family traditions and we said, “We drink whiskey and smoke cigars!”

Well, it certainly wasn’t the same being halfway around the world without a big group of family around (and also without costumes!), but Seth and I nevertheless managed to find some whiskey and raised our glasses to Mary McGuire. Love to you all! Miss you!

Sorry! And An Update

Oops! Sorry about the four youtube posts that went up. I tried posting the video a week ago four times and it never posted. Until now. So I’m sorry for clogging up everyone’s inbox with garbage. And in general, sorry for the lack of posts. We certainly have the ability to blog, we just haven’t gotten around to it.

We’re currently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We got here about ten days ago, and we’ll be here for another two weeks or so.

It’s been nice to be a little less transient. We’re staying at a place that feels like home. They have a hammock, a terrace, a huge library, pleasant ambient music and a good-natured owner that likes board games.

Most afternoons we volunteer at a local NGO that helps kids who used to live in the dump. We read to them and teach them English and computer skills. I’m also helping the organization with some technical stuff. Since our work there is only a few hours a day, we have plenty of time for doing nothing.

Phnom Penh has a thriving expat scene. It’s really weird and mildly revolting, but pleasant and addicting at the same time. I’ll go into it in more detail in later posts. In a nutshell, hundreds of NGOs work here, and their employees fund a vibrant world of yoga studios, documentary festivals, Indian restaurants, organic rice, interesting-sounding symposia, art exhibits, etc.

So we oblige.  Even with all these things that white people like, we’re living for about $30 a day between the two of us.  In San Francisco, we never had the time or the money to do this stuff, but here/now we do!

So all is well.

Lexus Sticker

Seth: Most of the Lexus SUVs have huge stickers on each side that say “Lexus”. Apparently, the stickers cost $200. It is used to alert others that the car you are sullying with your eyes is, in fact, a Lexus. This helps clear things up for those who could not otherwise tell the make of the vehicle.

Curiously, I’ve only seen these ridiculously stickers on Lexi (is that the plural of Lexus?), but theoretically they could be put on any car.

So here’s my latest scheme: I will import Lexus stickers for you, my dear readers. If you Paypal me $300, you too can have a gaudy Lexus sticker. You can put it on your 1984 Datsun and fool everyone into believing that you are fabulously wealthy. I’m taking orders now!

Visitors!

Seth: We went to Siam Reap mainly to hang out with Randy and Jeff. “Aunt” Randy is always fun to hang out with, and holds the distinct title of being the only friend or family member of ours to visit us somewhere on our trip.

We managed to stay at a hotel only five minutes away from theirs, so we could easily walk back and forth. Theirs had a pool, AC, fresh fruit and other luxuries that we took advantage of at their prodding. It didn’t take much. I’m pretty sure that their hotel cost more than ours, which at $5 was actually quite the bargain. Nevertheless, they were happy to share.

We managed to spend a few hours a day together for the three or so days that our trips overlapped. It was nice to talk politics with real Americans who have been in America recently. At first it was a little weird to speak with intelligent people who speak English so well. It’s been a while since we’ve had that opportunity. Jeff is really quick-witted, so it took some time getting used to his sarcasm which we haven’t heard recently.

Jeff, by the way, was hilarious to shop with. He learned enough Khmer to charm whoever he was bargaining with. What started as a hard-nosed negotiation turned into a congenial conversation, complete with family details, gossip, jokes, etc. Jeff even managed to have friendly interactions with the tuk-tuk drivers, whom we usually view as nuisances at best. He would just take over, and within minutes everyone was cracking up, and he managed to keep a smile on the seller’s face while paying no more than 1/3 the asking price. I wished we could just bottle Jeff up for all of our negotiating needs.

As usual with Randy, she was way too nice to us. She delivered and then mailed my ballot, which Dallas County had been kind enough to send to her house. She and Jeff also gave us access to her and Jeff’s Angkor Wat guide and driver once they were became “templed out”. And at the end of the trip, they gave us all kinds of useful supplies like ziploc bags, a recent copy of The New Yorker, two scarves, some malarone, a recent guidebook for Cambodia and a crisp $50 bill. This from the woman who is storing 90% of what we own in her basement in San Francisco.

So it was a lot of fun, we were sorry to see them go. If any of y’all want to meet up with us, its not too late!

Lexus from Texas, in Cambodia

Seth: Oddly enough, there are tons of Lexus SUVs here in Cambodia. Apparently, the Cambodians who emigrated to the US are exporting cars back to Cambodia, the most popular being Toyota Camrys and Lexus SUVs. Sometimes they still have their state registration tags, such as this one. Other times they’ll have bumper stickers for regional universities, sports teams, etc.

Rumor has it that Cambodia’s rich can order special motorbikes which are then stolen-to-order in Japan. I find that hilarious, but I guess it’s more efficient on a global scale then building a car in Japan and exporting it to Texas, where it is then re-exported to Cambodia.