Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Poker in the Rear, Part 1

The small cubicle in the back of the Thai restaurant started filling with smoke quickly. I wiped my eyes and fumbled with my chips in mock desperation. “Um, fine, I call. Ten dollars.” I said, feigning an air of discontent.

“It’s a big pot gentlemen, flip them cards over.” Big Bob said, bristling his hand through his long, graying beard.

The skinny man in the corner with the thick angular glasses and thin yellowing teeth flipped his two cards.

The ten and the queen in his hand matched the ten and queen on the table.

“Two pair. Not fucking bad. Can you beat that John?” Bob said, announcing the end results of the poker hand like Bob Costas might wrap up a baseball game.

Without talking, I rolled my two cards over one at a time. To increase drama and tension, I slowly flipped the first queen.

“Uh, now a pair already,” Bob said, his red face like frozen ground under his snowy beard. His wife owned the place, and he was drinking the house tequila with sustained vigor.

I flipped over the second queen in my hand. I smiled politely.

“Shit, I fucking knew it. You can stop doing that now, John. You can stop winning!” Skinny Doug said, playfully at the end, but rooted in the discontent of just losing $50.

It was getting harder to play poker with people.

It all started in Tinian.

Picture an island, emaciated and green- population 2,500. Picture endless fields of sword grass and randomly plotted coconut and betel palms, leaning into the wind that blows from the Southeast. Picture farmsteads, one gas station, and no stoplights.

Now picture a 50 million dollar casino plunked right on its shoulders.

Welcome to Tinian. Welcome to the Dynasty Hotel and Casino.

The ferry docked after a painful hour of rocking, turning, and rolling. Thank the flying spaghetti monster it was free- I seldom found the desire to pay for something as disturbing as the Saipan-Tinian vomit comet. The ship’s design left little to my imagination what bacon and eggs looked like in the bottom of a plastic ‘courtesy bag.’

Jenn, spending most of her life in Florida on the water, scoffed at my queasy landlubbering. She pushed me up the walkway once the large modern looking ferry was moored. The whole dock complex was the size of a parking lot in front of a fast food restaurant, and the security barrier separating it from the rest of the island consisted of strewn debris and spent metal storage containers. I would imagine that anyone looking to break into the meager dock, for whatever reason, would have to contend with tetanus as the primary security measure.

“I thought Saipan was small,” Jenn said, pulling a gold and black damask bag behind her head. She had on oversized sunglasses that made her look like Elton John in drag. Her pulled back red hair shimmered in the morning’s strong sun.

“How do we get to the casino,” I said, looking forward at the nothingness and jungle that flanked the dock. Beyond the asphalt-flatness lied little else.

“Probably that tour bus sitting at the end of the parking lot that says ‘Dynasty’ on the side,” She said sardonically, pulling her shades away to get a better look.

“Ass-hole,” I said in my most irritating way. Pulling her by the arm, we walked towards the bus.

We fought our way past a tide of Japanese tourists who were just coming off the upper deck of the ferry. The upstairs, I knew from anecdotes, was far less perturbing to the stomach, as ferry rides go.

The bus’s engine revved in the hot parking lot. It was only 10am but already the sun made the asphalt blister with iridescent waves of heat. We jumped on, and fought our way through Japanese tourists determined to find seats. The bus was fancy and chartered, but was aging, and stunk of smoke. It was freezing in there, just coming off the tepid-temperatured ferry, and ferociously warm dock, we welcomed the cold.

We weaved our way down a single lane road, narrowly avoiding catastrophe from oncoming, slow moving pick up trucks. The road winded along the beachfront, giving us a glimpse of Goat Island to the east. The island-which is actually named Aguiguan- is called Goat Island because Magellan peppered it with goats when he ‘found’ these islands hundreds of years ago. As the anecdote went, explorers then would leave animals to graze on small islands, so if they were to return, they’d have something to eat.

Magellan put pigs and goats on Saipan and Tinian too, but they always ended missing when they got back. In fact, the sailors lost everything they put on the island to the local inhabitants, and often, would even lose whatever wasn’t nailed down to the boats. They ended up naming these islands Islas de ladrones, or isle of thieves. I found this ironic, given the money the Dynasty planned on taking from these Chinese tourists, with all the house odds games, like blackjack, horseracing, and Roulette.

I just came for the poker.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Bali Update

The first thing you notice when you wake up in Bali is the incense. No matter how inundated with the smell you become, no matter how omnipresent the slow burning sticks are, it is always the first thing you smell.

Walking into markets, in hotels, restaurants and bars- all have Hindu offerings that unclude burning insence.

In fact, walking off the plane and entering the Nghurai Airport, in Denpasar, Bali, the smell hits you with the voracity of a jet engine.

An ubiquitouse symbol of the Hindu culture pervading Bali, one can't help but be enamoured with the peacefullness of the Hindu tradition.

Traveling north from the busy tourist district of Kuta to the countryside of Ubud, I watched the small fragrant flowers and little rice crackers bounce in the palm-frond casing of the offering. The rain that started on the first day hadn't subsided much- the small concrete channels on the side of the narrow road swelled with brown muddy rainwater.

I stared at that offering and I thought about what it meant. I thought about how the island of Bali, which was predominantly Hindu, had been affected drastically by a in small contingency of Malaysian Islamic Extremist who continued to wage a campaign of terror in Bali. How in October, 27 people were killed by a suicide bomber. How days earlier in Java, the larger Indonesian island to the west, another suicide bomber ripped through a Christian market killing many more.

Yet, the women here still walk, baskets of vegetables and snacks for sale balance precariously on their heads; the motor bikes still roar by, constantly narrowly avoiding catastrophe; the venders still hock their goods on an ever decreasing stream of tourists, still haggling expertly for their handicrafts. Life goes on, but ask any cabby how business is, and you will inevitably hear, "vert slow."