Wednesday, July 23, 2014

100 Miles from a Bookstore

In the places where some of us spend the summer, there is no such thing as a bookstore. You cannot drop in casually or order a book sent home. Or perhaps the nearest bookstore does not have the kind of book you need. 

Yet books are necessities. There are long, rainy days when you crave reading... And you may be 100 miles from the nearest bookstore. Perhaps 1,000 miles....But there's a bookstore that works all summer long....If you're not sure what you want, just write and ask. It is waiting for you ... A letter will bring it instantly. There will be no delay. 

We arrange it so that each book arrives on the proper date. So when one book is read the next arrives automatically!

Words written by the sales staff at Amazon Books?

Not at all.

These words were written in 1915 by the sale staff at the old Scribners Bookstore on Fifth Avenue in NYC. It was a time when readers not only craved good books for a good price, they took advantage of stores like Scribners who were willing to go the extra mile by sending their books to the consumer "automatically." 

Scribners wasn't just a store. It was a publisher too, responsible for the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Scribners edited these authors, promoted their work, and sold their books in the Scribners bookstore, an outlet that attempted to deliver their products "instantly" to the consumer.

Sound familiar? 

Perhaps all publishers, bookstores, and authors can take a lesson from a system that worked quite well a century ago.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

End of the Road...

...or is it just the start?

A month on the global road:
--16,860 miles traveled by air, including a perfect circle around the globe, heading on an east-bound course the entire way (NYC to NYC) 
--Seven flights
--Six countries, three continents
--At least four different time zones (I've lost count)
--Temperatures ranging from 45F to 115F
--Modes of transportation: Airliner, boat, rickshaw, tuck tuck, tram, train, 4x4, car, van, elephant
--Food: vegetarian, seafood, mutton, beef

--Average amount of sleep per night: 4-5 hours
--Number of currencies: Four
--Terrorist attacks while en route to Dehli: two (both by Maoist Rebels aimed at the railroads. Total dead and injured: 100+)
--Top memories: The burning of the dead in Lumbini. The cleansing of the body in Varanasi, the giant orange swastika a holy backdrop. Monsoon rain and winds pummeling our little boat on the upper Ganges, and a human skull lying jaw up on the banks where we anchored and held onto our ratted rooftop tarp for dear life. Swimming downstream in the Ganges, nearly drowning when we hit a stretch of water so deep, the clear-over-gravel-color river turned to blue. The overnight train to Agra, sleeping beside dozens of Indians, young and old. The woman who rushed the train on a stop from Occha to Agra, slipping between the car and the platform, her right leg cut off just below the knee as the train pulled out of the station. Touching, for the first time, an elephant's ear, its smooth almost silky texture taking me by complete surprise. The nervousness of a rhino cooling itself with mud only a few feet away from where I stood in the back of the 4x4 ...

Next stop...who knows.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Dangerous Place

The train is late leaving Orchha.
Hordes of people wait in the station looking to get somewhere else. Ceiling fans mounted to platform shelters attempt to cool the stifling air but manage only to push it around. Air that makes your clothing stick to your body even at six thirty in the morning. The flies are relentless, as is the smell of stale urine and rotting garbage.

The train that will take us to Agra is late. But when it arrives, it's a mad rush to get on and to get off. People's very lives seem to depend upon this crucial transfer from ticket holder to train passenger, from passenger to the newly arrived.

I squeeze into a car marked B-1 represented in the white hand painted script of several languages. I step over suitcases, bags of onions and potatoes, sleeping children, and bodies everywhere. Someone is sleeping on my seat. An old man. He sees me coming, gets the gist of what's happening and gets up. He leaves, never to be seen again.

I set down my bags, pull my hat over my eyes, fall asleep.

An hour later, the train arrives in another station. It's the same deal. Masses of people waiting for the train. Men dressed in loose, bland colored clothing and sandals. Women dressed in colorful sarees, their rich black hair protected with thin veils, their black gem stone eyes accentuated by the blood red mark placed between them in the same manner as Catholic ashes.

The train whistle blows. Not everyone has boarded the train yet. I'm staring out the window when my eyes lock onto a woman who is beginning to panic. She's also dressed in a colorful saree and a veil. She's waving her hands in the air as if this gesture will make the conductor stop the train just for her. But instead the train begins to move. She runs for the still open door, but falls off the platform onto the tracks. The train doesn't buck or make even the slightest of odd movements or sounds when it cuts her left leg off. There are only the screams and shouts of the witnesses on the hot platform. The train stops. The woman is pulled up off of the tracks, her stump bleeding, the amputated leg left behind.
My fixer and I rush outside to see what we can do. But of course we can do nothing. Those who attempt to help the woman run the risk of making the situation worse, and even facing an inquiry of the law should that happen. The woman lies on her back, her hands raised over her head. No one does anything to help her. Her blood stains the hot platform. Soon it will attract the flies.

My fixer turns to me.
"There is a hospital here," he says. "Nearby. But it will take a long time for them to get here."
He shakes his head sadly, and turns.
I follow him back into our car.
As we sit back down, he turns to me once more.
"After the train leaves the station," he says, "they will retrieve her leg."



Friday, June 20, 2014

Border Crossings: Northern India

(Note: Please excuse the grammatical errors. I'm writing on the run...)

The sweat that soaks my khaki shirt has nothing to do with the relentless heat that covers this land like a heavy, hot water-soaked, wool blanket. I'm at the border between Nepal and India. It's six in the morning. Skies ominously overcast with gray/black clouds that threaten monsoon season rain. It's been raining heavily on and off all night and the narrow road that accesses both countries is nothing more than a thick layer of gooey brown mud that, taken along with the ramshackle single and two-story wood, concrete and brick buildings that flank it, looks more like the setting for a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.

My guide and I are stopped by a soldier dressed in olive green who bears a World War II era bolt-action rifle over his shoulder and a thick black leather belt around his waist. He tosses our backpacks onto a wood table and begins inspecting them inside and out. India's mega Hindu population gets along swimmingly with its smaller, but major Muslim population. However, no one gets along with the radical Islam component that has snaked its way into the country via Pakistan and other ports of entry. That said, the bags are checked thoroughly.

After looking us over ...up, down, and up again...the solider gives us the go ahead to proceed across the border. I've already made it through Nepal customs and received my stamp. But it wasn't Nepal I was worried about. What's in the back of my mind is all the trouble I got into recently at the American India Embassy back in the States. The short of it is that the embassy wouldn't issue my journalist's visa unless I met with them in person in Manhattan and attended one of their "press lectures" regarding the benefits of the "New Era India." An invitation I blew off entirely. I didn't come here for politics, but something else instead. Originally that reason was to research a new Chase Baker novel, and to write a couple of travel pieces while also writing for the Vox. But now, having spent a little more than a week in this part of the world that will slam you with a million different sensory alerts at once (from the persistent smells of curries to cow shit, from huge, colorfully decorated trucks speeding directly for you, to millions of people who peer at you with their dark, penetrating eyes as if you are the very first westerner they've ever seen), I'm not entirely sure I can put my reasons for being here into mere words.

Trudging through the mud past the many overloaded cars, 4X4s, and trucks queued up before the wood-pole gate, my guide points out the immigration office and, heart in my throat, I immediately go for it.

It's not much of an office. A couple of rooms in a very old building the interior of which is shaded by old wood shutters left over from the filming of Gunga Din. There's a counter on one side, and a wood table on the other. An overhead ceiling fan blows the hot humid air around somehow pleasantly, while behind the counter, a pot of tea boils atop a hot plate set upon an old wood desk that also supports a computer and a Royal typewriter from the 1950s.

There's a middle aged man manning the counter. He wears loose slacks and an even looser button down shirt. He collects my passport, along with those of a half dozen other people waiting to cross over the border. College kids mostly who look like they haven't slept or bathed in weeks. It makes me smile inside to know that I must appear as a much older version of their wanderlust-filled selves.
After filling out the immigration form, I hand the passport back to the counter man. He in turn hands it over to a second, smaller man, who takes it with him to the computer. As he runs the passport over a scanner I see my face pop up on the computer screen. This is it, I think. The moment where they'll ask me to accompany them into the back room where they'll spend hours lobbing questions about my intentions for visiting India. "Why did you not attend the lecture in New York?" the men will shout while blinding me with a single bright white light. Eventually, the tall one will turn to the smaller one. "See if you can get him to talk," he'll say. Then, as the tall man leaves the room, locking the door behind him, the smaller man remove his shirt, bearing a chest filled with scars from knife fights too numerous to count. He go behind a desk and pull something from out of a drawer. A pair of brass knuckles maybe. As he slips them onto his right hand, he'll smile at me, bearing a gold tooth. "So what's the weather like in New York this time of year?" he'll say.

But within a few minutes, something far different occurs.

The little man behind the desk takes hold of his stamp, and positioning it above the page that contains my visa, brings the inky business end down hard onto the page. The little man hands the big man the passport. And the big man, in turn, hands it to me. He smiles politely but genuinely.

"Welcome to India," he says. "I hope you enjoy your stay."


Check out the first Chase Baker adventure novel, THE SHROUD KEY, and look for CHASE BAKER AND THE GOLDEN CONDOR coming early this Fall. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Spiders, Elephants, and Rhinos in Chitwan National Game Park

(Author's Note: I'm writing this stuff on the run. Please excuse all screws ups of a grammatical nature)

If you find yourself in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, please be warned that where you decide to sit just might be dangerous to your health. I’m not much of a sitter, so I prefer to stand, which is exactly what I was doing in the back bed of our green 4X4 pickup as we were cruising a bumpy two-track through a section of tall elephant grass when my guide, Pardeep, an Indian of about 40, sternly spoke these words: “Vin, don’t move!”

I turned to stone, both my hands gripping the iron bar that runs horizontally across the length of the metal cab roof. A second later I felt the push of two fingers against the center of my spine and something being pulls away from it. The sensation was the same as if he’d pulled a briar off my gray T-shirt.

“Spider,” he said. “Big one too.” As if I needed to hear that.

I turned as the eco-conscious Pardeep, didn’t drop the spider and crush it with his rubber sandaled sole, but instead, tossed it over the truck’s side, so that it might scare the living crap out of the next safari customer it decides to latch onto. Okay, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but anyone who knows me well, also knows I don’t like spiders. So then, why come to Chitwan, the 900+ square kilometer game park located at the base of the Himalayas if I don’t like spiders? That’s like someone who pays for a fishing charter when fish scare him to death.

I’m here because of the big game that is still plentiful in these rugged and spectacularly green and lush surroundings. It’s June. Monsoon season. So it’s both hot and damp, with daytime giving way to plus 100-degree temps and the night sky opening up with storms so violent, even the wild elephants can be heard crying from miles away.

We made our way into the game park from our base lodge via canoe on the Rapidi river. The somewhat narrow and winding waterway, which eventually connects with the Ganges across the border in India, is teaming with bird life. Pardeep in particular is extremely knowledgeable about the birds (he’s also a world class wrestler), and his eyesight is so perfect, he can spot a rare bird from a couple hundred yards away, even when its concealed by the thick bush. The tall, thin, balding guide knows everything there is to know about every species of bird in the forest. That is, wing span, place of origin (many species originate in China across the mountain range), mating rituals, and of course, their calls. He raises up his arms, forms a horn with his two hands, and calls out to a Macaw. “Caw, caw, caw…” He then waits in silence until, sure enough, the macaw answers him. The smile on Pardeep’s face screams of success, satisfaction, and a true blood level love of the job.

But it isn’t until we come upon a family of Rhino’s bathing themselves in the river, that my heart begins to tremble. These dinosaur-like creatures weigh five ton a piece, and the spiked horn they don on their long, gray, bone-plated heads, is one of nature’s most perfect defense mechanisms.  I’m told that just a couple of years ago a guide was run down by an angry rhino and paid the ultimate price when the beast crushed him to death. Which is precisely the reason we don’t come too close to the family of rhinos bathing themselves in the river.

Rhinos protect their young at all costs. If we come too close in our flimsy wood canoe, the adult male will likely come after us, flip us, and do his best to kill us. And who can blame him? Nepal’s rhino population, like Africa’s, is under serious attack from poachers looking to kill the animals for their sharp tip, which they then smuggle to the Chinese who grind the bone down into a fine powder that sells for big bucks to middle age ChiCom businessmen who have trouble getting it up.

Fast forward four hours and we’ve left the river and are now motoring inside the game park in the back of the 4X4. We’re still moving through the tall grass and my entire body is still itching just thinking about the spider nearly dug its fangs into my spine. But all is forgotten when we spot a team of elephants that are driven by two young men. Boys really. Both elephants are large, one with both her ivory tusks intact, and the other with only one while its mate has somehow been broken off as evidence by the jagged root that barely sticks out of the jaw.

The driver stops the truck. I climb out of the back and immediately begin snapping pictures of the lead, double-tusked elephant as it makes its way towards us on the road.  I realize I’m taking a chance here because I’m using a flash and elephants don’t like a camera flash exploding in their face any more than your average human being does. But the huge animal takes it all in stride as his driver brings him to a lumbering stop only a few feet away. So close to me, in fact, I can reach out and touch him.

The boy driver is impossibly thin, barefooted, his feet positioned behind the elephant’s ears. He wears filthy jeans and an even dirtier button down shirt which he prefers to wear unbuttoned. His hair is thick and dark, as are his eyes. There’s an umbrella stuffed into the elephant’s neck bridle, which is made up of both thick rope and heavy chain. Gripped in the boy’s left hand is a tomahawk constructed of a metal axe head and a wooden handle. It looks identical to the kind of weapon a Native American would use for protection in America’s Badlands prior to the twentieth century.

I look up at the boy.

“Can I touch the elephant?” I say.

He stares not at me, but into me.

“Give me some water,” he says.

I unlatch my water bottle from my belt, toss it up to him. He snatches the bottle out of the air in a swift one-handed grab, unscrews the top, pours a generous drink into his mouth. Screwing the top back on, he tosses the bottle back to me.

“You may pet the ear,” he says.

With a somewhat trembling hand, I reach out and touch the ear of the elephant. Its skin is incredibly smooth. Like snake skin almost. It’s warm and alive. I can see why the boy likes to stuff his bare feet behind the ears. Not only is he able to steer the creature, but the skin feels extraordinarily pleasant against human skin.

I remove my hand and I thank the boy.

“Bye bye,” he says, giving the elephant a couple of well-placed heel kicks while making a clicking sound by manipulating his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Pulling out his umbrella, the boy opens it wide and holds it above his head to shield himself from the relentless sun. The elephant raises up its trunk, blows a combination mud and snot through it, and then heaves itself forward, like an old fashioned locomotive trying to pull away from a station with dozens of overloaded cars attached to its backside.

Moments later, I meet up with Pardeep back at the truck.

“You must be careful when touching the elephants in the wild,” he smiles. “They are easily frightened. They could hurt you very badly.”

I still feel the majestic animal’s smooth skin. I still see the gentleness in is deep black eyes. I could never imagine the creature hurting anything. It’s a mammoth wild animal that bears long sharp tusks. That’s not the elephant’s fault. But scaring it would be mine.

I climb back up into the back of the 4X4 pickup and we continue on further into the wild. From now on, I’m going to make sure I keep my distance from the spiders.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Kathmandu's Cavalcade

For the life of you, do not attempt to travel half way around the world by flying three different, back to back flights. No matter how good a flier you are, you will find yourself exhausted from lack of sleep. Your eyes will sting from lack of moisture. Your stomach will distend and cramp from too much gas buildup, and the interior mucous membranes in your nasal cavities will crack and bleed. If you insist on flying to four different countries on three different continents over the course of 2.5 days to make for a total of 26 hours in the air, make sure you break the trip up. And don't fly over the Bay of Bengal during a severe thunderstorm...It will scare the crap out of you. Unless of course, you're 19 and don't give a shit.

But the ill effects of three sleepless days and nights were quickly forgotten upon landing in Kathmandu, Nepal. Sure this is the home of Everest and expert climbers from all over the world who come here to scale the tallest mountain in the world (I know this debatable, but it's my blog so bear with me). However, Nepal's capital city of Kathmandu is a vibrant, ancient metropolis congested with people, young and old, who all seem to be moving rather quickly to some unknown destination. The bazaar itself is made up of narrow roads connected at odd angles as if no planning went into them. The roads are boarded with crumbling ancient architecture interspersed with Buddhist and Hindu temples. The smog pervades the air to the degree that, like in many Chinese cities, the locals don masks over their faces to filter the pollution. Some of these masks are made by famous clothing designers. The masks might match a woman's outfit and I imagine they cost a lot.   

Cows and rickshaws share the roads with cars and motorcycles, the latter combustion engine-powered machines forever competing for the finite space that exists on the byways but miraculously never smashing into one another or running anyone down. Drivers honk horns relentlessly and at times, you find it impossible to know who is honking the horn at who. 

The night life is vibrant to say the least. Kathmandu is a musician's paradise with the rattle and hum of live bands competing with one another from the many bars and eateries that exist within the bazaar. Last night I enjoyed a couple of beers while listening to a middle-aged man play trombone not to an accompanying band but instead to digitally pre-recorded tracks. This is 2014 after all, even if the Kathmandu of today could easily fill in for the Kathmandu of 1970, or 1935 for that matter. He was dressed in a long tunic over pantaloons that looked like pajamas. His feet were bare and he wore a long gray/black beard and even longer gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. I took him for a SoCal transplant, circa 1985, who came to find something to smoke and never left. 

I could tell you about the food and how fresh it is ... nan prepared over a stone fire...chicken and beef drowned in savory and crisp vegetables cut up in chunks...but I need to head back out to explore more in this city of adventurers and ancient history. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Colbert Declares War On Amazon and Me

                                           Books not selling on Amazon Stephen? That sucks, dude.

That knucklehead pee-in-your-pants class clown Stephen Colbert trashed Amazon Publishing a few days ago on his show because his books are aren't selling fast enough on the Amazon site.

Me sitting at a pretend news desk wearing a cheap suit: "Maybe your books aren't all that good?"
(Laugh track) oops...Live audience supplied by free tickets handed out in Times Square....

You can see the clip from the show here, where Class Clown Colbert does something really clever like giving Amazon the finger....twice...and get this, his hand is stuffed inside an Amazon delivery box, bubble wrap and all...HAHAHA!

I almost pissed my pants it was so funny. Guy's got serious talent.

Hey Stephen, there's a reason Amazon sells 50% of the books that are purchased by the reading public. Because they offer a great product at a reasonable price.

You just declared WAR on Amazon. I publish with Amazon Publishing's imprint, Thomas & Mercer, which means you are at WAR with me. I'd be happy to face off with you on your show about my experiences with AP.

If you don't like it, you can flip me off ... To my face.