Rome’s birthday brings back fond — and not so fond — memories of my days in gladiator school

Rome turned 2,770 Friday and Sunday Rome's Gladiator School marched to the Colosseum. In 2002, fresh from gladiator school, I was one of them.

Rome turned 2,770 Friday and Sunday Rome’s Gladiator School marched to the Colosseum. In 2002, fresh from gladiator school, I was one of them.

(Editor’s note: This is the lead chapter from my 2006 book, “An American Gladiator in Rome: Finding the Eternal Truth in the Infernal City.” Reprinting the chapter is in honor of Rome’s 2,770th birthday Friday. The school still exists today. Cheap plug: If you like the chapter, the book is available on Just hit this link.)


I stand in a sandy pit surrounded by torches in front of three dozen tourists hoping a stiff breeze doesn’t fly under my tunic. It’s way too short, and I weigh the embarrassment of revealing my brand of underwear to strangers against taking a Latin oath from a chunky tie salesman wearing animal skins.

It’s graduation day at Rome’s La Scuola dei Gladiatori (The Gladiator School), and I have just demonstrated how to take a sword and skewer, fillet and behead an opponent in six simple strokes. Two months of training had culminated in this ritual, surfacing in Rome after a 2,000-year absence. Somehow I don’t think when Spartacus took this oath, he was worried about bending over.

Paratus es virga caederi, flamma consumi, et ferrum recipere (Are you ready to strike with the rod, to be burned by the fire and die by the iron?),” Tiger Skin asks solemnly.

Ita (Yes),’’ I reply.

Possit ignis suam vim donare, posit tus deorum fidem donare! (May the fire give you the strength and incentive for loyalty to the gods!)’’ he says.

Nunc Caratacus, gladiator sum! (I am Caratacus, the gladiator!)” I say. I walk up to a stage filled with Roman soldiers and vestal virgins and received a diploma from a middle-aged printer who’s a dead ringer for Emperor Nero, except for the cell phone. I walk away to polite applause and wonder what one does with gladiator skills in the 21st century except maybe visit former bosses. I know one thing. After two months inside the Gruppo Storico Romano (Roman Historical Society), which runs the school, I know gladiators have not just returned to Hollywood. They’ve returned to Rome.

This group is made up of every walk of Roman society from cooks to flight attendants and is into this up to their breastplates. They have an entire armory of authentic weapons and armor. They refer to each other by their gladiator names. They hold gladiator battles, complete with weapons and, yes, animal skins, all over Italy. They have read Cicero’s ancient accounts of gladiators – in Latin. This whole love affair with Rome’s bloody past began four years ago. Sergei Iacomoni, a grizzled, rugged 49-year-old printer for the Bank of Italy and sometimes Nero, had seen the movie “Gladiator” five times. Already a wild fanatic about Roman history, he researched everything he could find on weaponry, fighting techniques and lifestyles of the ancient gladiators. He approached the Roman Historical Society about starting a school and today students take twice-weekly two-hour courses for two months and learn how to fight like men who inspired a nation, historians and movie studios everywhere.

Gladiators were the main event in an era when hundreds of thousands of men were slaughtered in the name of entertainment, when the Colosseum flowed with blood from gory killings by man and wild beast alike. Hollywood wouldn’t dare touch the true accuracy of what I learned really happened.

“I am Roman,” Iacomoni says. “This is my history.”

More than 70 students had lied about being ready to die by the iron. I am one of them.


My first exposure to gladiator school came like the many who watched me butcher Latin that day. I went to the historical society’s headquarters and watched a performance. I had read brief European dispatches about the school and pitched a story about joining the school for Smoke magazine. They bit as did about a half dozen newspaper travel editors. I made a couple phone calls and a man who gave his name as Morpheus invited me to the headquarters on a sunny March afternoon. I nearly fell off the bus when it dropped me off. The headquarters is on Appian Way. That’s the same road where, in the year 73 B.C., 6,000 gladiators were crucified after the Roman legions put down a near successful revolt (see “Spartacus, first failed union leader”). Down an adjacent gravel road is an abandoned bus garage where the Roman Historical Society has built a miniature Roman village. A small fire burns on a white Roman stand as I pass a tiny wooden cashier booth. A giant iron gong hangs with a wooden mallet. A life-size catapult rests on the other side of the sandy pit. Inside a tiny archway with the word “Taverna” is a table complete with ancient table settings and plastic food. I keep waiting for the sound track from “Gladiator.”

Morpheus hears my voice and steps outside to see me gazing at pictures of modern gladiators fighting in various Italian villages.

“We put a weapon in a person’s hand and they say, ‘What do I do?’ ” Morpheus says. “ ‘How do I kill someone?’ ”

Morpheus is really Guido Pecorelli, a short, wiry, 25-year-old student with short-cropped hair, Fu Manchu and dark, piercing eyes. Morpheus is his gladiator name, a name he took from the Greek god of dreams. I didn’t ask why. I was just told not to call him Guido. Ever. He takes me inside the gladiator armory. Along one wall are long spears lined up like giant toothpicks. On another row are helmets of various shapes and functions. Some have full faceguards. Others have large bulky points on the top. A few have armor stretching all the way down the back. Also along the wall is every blade man has ever known: axes, machetes, sabers, daggers, tridents the size of sculling oars. Full body armor, from leg guards to arm shields to chest plates, are scattered around like throw rugs. The place looks like a training camp for vandals. You could outfit three government coups from this room. I thought it was a nice touch that they added brooms, authentic replicas used in the Colosseum to sweep away blood and detached limbs.

I pick up one of the machetes. It was heavy, real heavy. The average machete weighs about seven pounds, the same as in Ancient Rome. All the weaponry and armor are hand made, and the ironworker soldered over the points and edges of the blades to make them less sharp. You probably couldn’t cut off a man’s arm, but you certainly could break it. Then again, I can’t imagine these guys passing themselves off as cold-blooded killers. The school’s graduates are normal overweight, middle-aged Romans who would look more fitting in a café watching a soccer game. The gladiator image loses some glitter when you see a guy in a tunic and full body armor with an ax in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

One guy is the spitting image of Joaquin Phoenix, the villain in “Gladiator.” Morpheus’ father, Giuseppe Pecorelli, oops, I mean Pertinax, stands about 5-foot-3 but screams real loud. He says he wanted “to get in touch with my warrior past.” These guys are serious.

“The Roman Empire was all over Europe,” Iacomoni says. “Everyone has something Roman in their history. I wanted to do something to give new life to what was beautiful and important. It is something from your history. Try to discover again your roots.”

I meet Giorgio Franchetti, known as Ferox, a 32-year-old flight attendant for Alitalia wearing full leg armor, armored shoulder pads, a leather belt with iron rings and a long gray cape. He’s carrying a machete.

“I left my house like this,” he says straight faced. “After a long period of fighting like a gladiator, you feel like a gladiator. At night here, when you don’t see modern Rome, with this magic and it’s dark, you can think back to that age. You feel the spirit. You feel a shiver.”

Then the demonstration begins and out steps a massive hunk of humanity named Aureus, “The Golden One.” Leonardo Lorenzini stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 280 pounds, about the size of three average-sized Romans. He has a roll of fat but his shoulders and chest are massive. He wears nothing but a bearskin rug across his chest. Ever see those anthropological charts showing the evolution of man? This guy is the third one from the left.

After a parade of gladiators carrying an arsenal of weapons, Aureus walks into the pit in front of about 60 high school boys visiting from Northern Italy. Up against him is this young kid, a muscular, good-looking Roman carrying a shield and a machete. Aureus smashes his ax against the shield and it reverberates like a gong. It’s the first audible “ooh’’ I hear from the crowd who keep yelling “Grande!” whenever Aureus comes by. The young kid takes a vertical swipe and Aureus catches it with his ax. Aureus follows with a backhand to the kid’s shield, knocking him into a backward somersault. The kid comes up charging full speed and Aureus, showing the agility of an NFL linebacker, steps away and uses his sword to deftly flick away the kid’s machete.

Seeing his opponent defenseless, Aureus drops his weapon and puts him in a bear hug. You can almost hear the bones crunch in Milan. He throws the kid on the ground and grabs his sword. Then, putting his foot on his chest, Aureus yells something unintelligible in Italian. The high school boys gleefully put their thumbs down, and he shoves his sword inches from the kid’s neck. That’s how the gladiators did it – except they didn’t miss the neck. In the background, on a small loudspeaker, I can hear the soundtrack of “Gladiator.”

Morpheus sees me as I’m about to leave.

“See you at practice Wednesday night,” he says with a demonic grin.


Gladiators on the annual parade route outside the Colosseum.

Gladiators on the annual parade route outside the Colosseum.

Morpheus and Pertinax pick me up in their silver Renault near the Vatican. We drive west out of the city past drab 1960s and ‘70s apartment houses to a square white building that looks like a DMV sub center. It’s one of the many simple, municipal gymnasiums the city built in the ‘90s. It’s about three-quarters the size of a high school gym covered with tumbling mats. One mat hangs from the ceiling to serve as a wall, separating us from a girls gymnastics class. Our section of the gym is lined with mirrors.

We are a long way from the Colosseum.

After a brief warm-up, Morpheus puts me under his wing. He gives me a crude, wooden practice sword wrapped in duct tape and shows me the crucial six-step program, or six ways to turn your opponent into second base. We stand in front of the mirror and get in the ready, or guardia, position: one foot slightly ahead with a bend of my knees and my hands up, one holding a wooden sword and the other an imaginary shield. It’s very similar to boxing except my weapon can’t hurt a hamster.

“Your right arm is your friend,” Morpheus says.

The six blows are really quite simple. For example, fendente is the playful act of smashing a sword onto the top of a man’s skull, splitting it in two. I guessed I wouldn’t be learning that word in Italian class. The others are more direct: alto dritto, a parallel swing to the neck, similar to hitting a high fastball in the way you get your arms extended; basso revescio, bending down and cutting below the knees, very effective for limiting your opponent to crawling if you have a tee time to catch; and affondo is a straight thrust to the stomach, the best way to kill a man if you want to see them squirm and bleed for a while. Alto revescio is a backhand alto dritto, and one blow is repeated each sequence.

Despite how simple they sound, they’re quite awkward. On the basso revescio I find myself leaning over on my follow through. I look like I’m watering a small plant. “You’re leaving yourself too open,’’ said Guido as he takes his sword and pretends to cut out my lower intestine. “Keep running through.’’ To help my form, we stand in front of the mirror and he tells me to look at my reflection as the opponent.

“Now pretend to cut off your head,’’ he says.

I fulfill a dozen copy editors’ fantasies by making a perfect parallel slash right below my chin. I look like an outtake from “The Omen.’’ We spend the next 90 minutes going through the same six strokes over and over again. Morpheus then shows me the defensive moves. He goes for the top of my skull and I hold up my sword just above my forehead parallel to the ground. It catches his sword in a perpendicular clash. He goes for my neck and I hold up my sword like Hano Sono’s laser in “Star Wars.’’ I twist my body to the left and catch his sword; I twist it to the right and catch it again. I go low and bend down and strike my sword toward the ground like it’s a putter and I just missed one from 2 feet.

“Perfetto! Perfetto!” he says. Suddenly, I want to put on a tunic and invade Greece. We go back and forth for 15 minutes. When it’s all choreographed and done properly, you never touch a hair. You also feel like you are partners in some weird ritual. “This is like dance steps,’’ I say innocently.

Guido stops. He looks as if he was about to take off the duct tape.

“This is not a dance,” he says, indignant. “This is a fight.’’

However, I can see where it would be a good workout. Before each practice, we do a half hour of calisthenics ranging from sprints to extended push-ups to hundreds of stomach crunches. Guido is real wiry. He’s short and taut. He said he lost more than 30 pounds in his one year of gladiator school. However, he was also young. I would be 46 in 15 days. I tell him I might be too old for this.

“You’re not too old,’’ he insists. “When you stop playing, that’s when you become too old.’’

During my first two weeks, I felt 66. I’d spend 90 minutes a night shuffling up and down mats, tapping my sword against my partner’s. It took me half a second to tell my basso from my alto. It had all the ferocity of two really ugly people doing the tango. In the Colosseum, I would’ve been American shish kabob by the time I reached someone’s reveschio. Pertinax would yell “ALTO DRITTO!” and I’d go through my mental flash cards before delivering a nice, soft even slice toward the neck like a Pete Sampras drop shot. At one point, Morpheus took my wimpy little fendente and told me to pretend I’m hitting an overhead smash and not patting a dog on the head.

“This is supposed to be a fight,” he says. “It looks better. It isn’t ‘tap, tap, tap, tap.’ ”

They once put me in the middle of the mat between Morpheus, Pertinax and another student, a portly, scruffy soldier in the Italian army who looks like Friar Tuck. Each guy went at me with a different blow, I’d have to defend, turn to the next guy and defend his blow, all in the same sequence. When done at full speed with full force, you look like one of the Four Musketeers defending a French castle. I couldn’t defend a cappuccino machine. I got my pivot foot confused and staggered around, nearly falling on various forms of wooden cutlery. I only got really frustrated once, but I calmed down. This isn’t golf. In gladiator school, it’s bad form, not to mention bad luck, to throw a machete.

“Tempo. Tempo. Tempo. (Time. Time. Time.)’’ Morpheus tells me.

So I take time. Over the next month, my six blows become my daily routine, my six commands my mantra. I’d come home from Italian class and practice my blows with a cheese knife. I’d shuffle up and down my marble floor, giving a fendente to a lamp, an alto dritto to my laptop, a basso revescio to a wastebasket. I’d walk up the stairs of my apartment building and give a Latin “Hail, Caesar” salute to perplexed resident cats. I’d stand before a mirror wearing a towel, imagining what I’d look like in a tunic. I stopped just short of calling my girlfriend “wench” or refusing silverware when I ate. By the fourth week, I about nailed it. I was swinging my little wooden sword in long, glorious death slices, ignoring Pertinax’s instruction of “Piano! Piano!” (Slowly! Slowly!). I shouted out “FENDENTE! ALTO ROVESCIO!’’ as I wheeled around the mat defending three men at once while delivering blows just as fast. It was starting to get fun. It was also starting to get scary. I fight off the urge to ask Pertinax to replace the wooden sword with the 15-pound ax. I want to draw blood even if it was my own.

I slowly become accepted. They even give me my gladiator name – two, in fact. The first was Flavus, Latin for “blonde one.” Flavus? It sounded like a disease. Then I off-handedly tell Morpheus I come from Scottish descent, and he races out to the car. He brings back a list of Scottish names. “You are now Caratacus.” Who? He tells me Caratacus was a Scottish warrior whose battles against invading Roman armies were so legendary he lived forever in Roman lore. I think it’s a real hip name until I mistakenly learn Caratacus was later beheaded in battle. I wonder how far these guys took this gladiator stuff.

Once I got to know them, the gladiators seem normal. Morpheus started in judo where his father’s a black belt, moved on to archery then to the medieval games held in various Rome parks on Sundays. His father learned about the gladiator school at a Rome book fair.

“Judo is a different kind of culture,” Morpheus says. “That’s the Orient. I’m Roman. Roman culture is 2,000 years old. I can do something that is mine.”

There have been three women come through the school, and none has stuck around as long as Barbara Milioni. Known as Nemesis, the 24-year-old entertainer was a black belt in judo at 16 and also a medieval war games refugee.

“I always liked men things,” she says. “I never played with a Barbie. I was playing with a car or a pistol.”

When friends grew out of the medieval games, a friend told her about the gladiator school that received very little notoriety in Rome. She had found her niche. She’s short but powerfully built with big shoulders and muscular thighs. She also looks typically Roman with the dark, beautiful face of a runway model. She’s a huge hit.

“For me, the comment you hear everywhere is ‘Xena,’ ” she says. “That’s my nightmare. Always. Always. But I hear also, ‘Hey, the girl is a good fighter.’ When they look at a girl, especially in something like this, I hear, ‘Oh, God, it’s a girl with all the men.’ But when they see me fight, they go, ‘Oh, she’s not bad.’ ”

The unofficial star of the show is Aureus. A 26-year-old cook at an elementary school, Aureus got tossed out of kickboxing for hitting opponents too hard. He often warms up for gladiator practice by high-kicking a heavy 6-foot stationary dummy clear into the gymnastics class. He saw a gladiator demonstration outside Castel Sant’Angelo, a 1st century castle near the Vatican, and said he’d do anything to join.

“I love a show,” he said one night after practice while blow-drying his back. “I love Gruppo Storico. I love fighting, but this is more. This is like warriors. If I was in a battle, I’d want another battle.’’

His dark, curly hair and blonde streaks make him look like a surfer on steroids. But there is nothing laid back about him. Some gladiators refuse to spar with him because they still value their lives.

“In his mind, he lives in the gladiator age,” Ferox says. “It’s true. He trains to fight all the time. He’s always trying to get stronger, harder. He makes the heaviest hits. He’s so serious. He smashed right through my shield and nearly broke my hand. If you met him 2,000 years ago in the Colosseum, you cross yourself because you’re going to die.”

In one of my most ill-advised bouts of over-confidence, I ask Pertinax if I can fight Aureus. During the second month, we often had free fights. There were no sequences. No planned attacks. We used foam rubber swords. Using real weapons for free fights is way too dangerous, they say. Still, I want a shot at the star, the king gladiator, the man thousands of ancient Romans would have paid good money to see. I want to throw away the wimpy foam rubber and use forged iron. Pertinax says no. Aureus say yes. After much pleading, Pertinax reluctantly agrees only if we did it in planned sequence – slooooowly.

Pertinax slips my forearm through the two leather holders behind his iron shield. It’s like carrying a door of a bank vault. While going through the sequence, Aureus gives me a basso rovescio to my lower leg and I try slamming his ax with my 7-pound sword. I miss. The sword hits the top of his finger and produces a half-inch gash.

NO BUONO! (NO GOOD!),’’ Pertinax says and takes my shield.

“NO PROBLEMA! NO PROBLEMA! (NO PROBLEM!),” Aureus reassures.

Uh-oh. Now I’ve made him mad. His eyes bore in on me like I’m a slice of Tiramisu. After a couple more blows, I miss a block on another basso rovescio and suddenly, heading right toward my frontal lobe, is a 15-pound iron ax. Aureus stops it one inch from my nose. My heart drops into my jockstrap, and I suddenly visualize what the last thing gladiators saw 2,000 years ago before getting their heads axed open like a cantaloupe.
A man like Aureus smiling over his blade.

Four things “Gladiator” didn’t tell you about gladiators:

* The warm blood of a fallen gladiator was believed to cure epilepsy. The Ancient Romans worshipped courage, and few in Rome were as revered as successful gladiators. Russell Crowe’s character showed how a gladiator could win freedom in the arena but if the movie was accurate, Crowe would have survived and built a villa on Palantine Hill with a bevy of young maidens. Then he’d go back to the arena every Sunday.

That’s because many gladiators liked it.

While they all began as slaves, the successful ones started earning high wages from agents and emperors whose longevity in office often depended on their ability to placate a bloodthirsty populace. Nero gave the gladiator Spiculus a palace. The son of Veianius, another famous gladiator, was made a knight. Ancient scratching on the walls in Pompeii called Celadus, “suspirium et decus puellarum” (the girls’ hero and heartthrob).’’ Possibly the most famous gladiator, Flamma, had his face appear on Roman coins as Mars, the god of war. Sculptors made statues of him. A female admirer gave him an estate. Street walls were inscribed, “Flamma is a girl’s sigh and prayer.” No wonder this guy refused the wooden sword, the symbol of a gladiator’s freedom, four times. Considering the tunics these guys had to wear, these are real rags-to-riches stories.

They also received a few breaks in the arena. Highly successful gladiators were rare and killing one didn’t help future attendance much. When two faced each other, it wasn’t always to the death. It was often to first blood. If a gladiator fell, the victor raised his sword to the crowd with his foot on the man’s chest and his sword over his head. The emperor waited for a crowd’s verdict and would often give mercy. But pity the poor fallen gladiator who was favored and cost the crowd money.

Gambling ran as rampant as the blood.

* Gladiators were often Romans. They were traitors. Anyone escaping the tough regiment of the Roman legions was turned into a slave. No wonder they had the biggest army until World War II. They also turned POWs into gladiators, one reason why you saw so many gladiators with different skin color. Since the Roman Empire stretched from Great Britain to Central Asia, the gladiator pens looked like a UN Executive Board meeting in tunics.

* Gladiator games began to honor the dead. According to Daniel Mannix’s excellent 1958 tome, “The Way of the Gladiator,” the first reports of gladiators come from 264 B.C. The brothers Marcus and Decimus Brutus, members of the Roman aristocracy and obviously bored, wished to honor their dead father by more than just the usual animal sacrifice. The brothers had heard that in prehistoric times, slaves fought over the grave of a popular leader. Why not bring back that ancient custom? Thus, more than 600 years of blood sport began.

It became huge. Three pairs of gladiators started it. By 145 B.C., 90 pairs fought over three days. It became a necessity for anyone running for office to put on gladiator games, and each emperor tried outdoing his predecessor. Marcus Aurelius held 230 one year. It was a difficult time in Rome. Warfare and violence were constant. After wars, emperors would stage gladiator battles to show how they killed the enemy. They tried new weapons in the arena for future use in the battlefield. The populace worked inhuman hours trying to keep the war machine grinding. Much as the National Football League does for American society, gladiator games became the diversion for the Roman society. Romans flooded into the makeshift arena in the Forum. The emperors Vespasian and Titus scored big points in the ballots in 80 A.D. by building the Flavian Ampitheater, later known as the Roman Colosseum. It seated 50,000 and admission was free. Theaters emptied in the middle of plays when word of gladiator games surfaced. Women were known to orgasm in the arena. Prostitutes lurked under the archways of the Colosseum to service men turned on by the bloodshed.

It eventually ended around 400 A.D. when the falling Roman Empire gave way to the rise of Christianity. The extreme measures the church took to counteract the bloodshed are one reason many historians believe Rome is the center of Christendom today.

And speaking of Christians …

* The gladiator games were far bloodier than ever depicted on the big screen. The gladiator battles were headliners of games also used to execute Christians, deemed heretics and terrorists by the Roman Empire. Christians viewed Rome – not entirely inaccurately – as the second Sodom. Then again, since at the time Christianity was just slightly older than your basic bar of Ivory soap, the Christians were considered heretics and suffered wholesale slaughter in the most inhumane manners possible. They were thrown in defenseless against wild tigers starved for a week. According to Cicero, it took about 30 seconds to corner and kill the poor, sniveling Christian and another half hour to eat the sinew, flesh and bones. (That’s one way to shut up sidewalk evangelists.) They were hooded and given sticks and torn apart by wild dogs. Apparently, the screams could be heard clear across Rome. They were covered in pitch and set afire to provide light, apparently marking the first night games in sports history.

For a few laughs, they would put a Christian in with two wild bears and given nothing but a musical instrument. They were told to imitate Morpheus (no relation to said gladiator), a Greek with music reputedly so sweet he could put to sleep wild animals. That wasn’t easy with two bears eyeing your head like a fudgesicle. Of course, his futile attempts and subsequent mauling were of great amusement to the Romans who hated Greeks and Christians.

The death tolls were astonishing. Augustus killed 10,000 Christians over eight shows. Emperor Trajan had 11,000 people killed over 122 days. Diocletian killed 17,000 in a month. They burned incense to help erase the stench.

Nietzsche philosophized that the Romans found no more worlds left to conquer, leaving them with only these sorry exhibitions. The more I learned about my adopted Roman past, the more I questioned what I was doing with a sword in my hand. I asked Iacomoni if he was glorifying one of the most gruesome, embarrassing periods in man’s history.

“Obviously, these are completely different times,’’ he says. “But I respect one thing about the Roman times. In war, when you had to fight someone, you had to be in front and see his eyes. Today, you may kill someone without seeing them.’’

Unsatisfied, I turned to Morpheus whose vision had been a guiding light through these entire two months.

“We’re not glorifying the killing of that time,’’ he says. “We glorify the people. We glorify the genius of the people at that time to build something enormous. The Colosseum was something enormous at that time. You have to be a genius, very powerful, very rich, but also very rich in culture. You must have a government with an open mind to know all the good things of other cultures and taking them for your culture.”

Which is why I’m standing in sand telling 30 tourists I am willing to die by the iron.


The closest a woman comes to orgasm when seeing me in full battle gear is a wink from a woman about my mom’s age. It’s the morning of graduation day, and it coincides with the 2,755th birthday of Rome. Every year on April 21, the entire Roman Historical Society dresses in full battle regalia of the gladiators and Roman Legionnaires, the Roman army, and marches from the Appian Way to the Colosseum. My girlfriend, Nancy, recruited (kicking and screaming) as a vestal virgin, and I are late. Way late. The police had informed the group that a road race that morning cancelled our parade. Nancy and I are not informed of this until we were walk up the gravel path and saw heavily armed men in tunics piling into Volvos and Lancias.

Morpheus tells me from the window of a passing car to get dressed and meet them at the Colosseum. As any rational gladiator would do, I become furious. I had no desire to get left behind and walk to the Colosseum dressed like an extra from “Saturday Night Live.” I race into the armory and another straggling gladiator helps me with a Legionnaire’s outfit: a short, very short, maroon tunic; a leather chest protector; a pointy iron helmet and a long wooden stick with a point on the end. I run out to see Nancy desperately trying to keep attached the side of her dress, a long white gown with a slit that violates a half dozen of Rome’s public decency laws. It reveals a lot of leg. A matronly aide at the headquarters hides her eyes as Nancy stagger steps back toward the gravel road. I make a mistake and tell her to hurry.

“SHUT UP, John!” she yells. “I’m wearing a bed sheet for you!”

I shut up.

We turn the corner onto Appian Way and I suddenly feel as if I’m falling into a bottomless cobblestone abyss. Everywhere I look are people. Staring. I may as well have be naked. Considering what I have on, I almost am. From the first car I see, the driver sticks his finger at me – his index, fortunately – and laughs. The next one honks his horn. Others smile and shake their heads. This is THE worst Halloween party I’ve ever not been invited to. I think about covering Morpheus in pitch. Suddenly, a late-model car screeches to a halt and a couple from a wedding get out and take their pictures with us. After that, I throw myself into the role. When people honk, I give the Hail Caesar salute. People give me the thumbs up sign, and I give them a raised fist. Russell Crowe wasn’t this campy.

When we reach the Colosseum, the parade is already in motion through a phalanx of tourists. Nancy falls in line between two tiny identical twins wearing smaller bed sheets, and I jump in with Legionnaires right out of 150 B.C. Tattoos, bent noses, scruffy beards. One guy next to me has a forehead the size of the left-field fence in Fenway Park. He has a huge back and bushy eyebrows. He looks at me as if I paid my way into a fantasy camp, which I had.

I fall into a steady march around the Colosseum to the slow, ominous beating of drums. Tourists surround me. Suddenly, it makes sense. I look through the Colosseum’s sun-drenched porticoes and imagine fighting for my life and honor as my gladiatorial predecessors did 2,000 years ago.

Then Nero buries me.

During a break, Iacomoni walks by and looks me over. He shakes his head. It isn’t good when Nero shakes his head. He looks at my stick and I notice I am the only one without an iron sword on the end. My stick is so much shorter than everyone else’s. I feel impotent. Then he looks at my tunic. He informs me that no Legionnaire in the history of Rome wore under his tunic a pair of gray University of Washington gym shorts. He tells me to take them off. Rome gets nearly 6 million tourists a year. I firmly believe all 6 million were at the Colosseum at that moment. I slip down my shorts to hoots and hollers that would embarrass a stripper. I shove my shorts down my chest protector and continue, slowly — and very humbly — to the statue of Julius Caesar and through the Forum. Tourists give us applause. A Japanese couple pose with me for pictures. One of the city’s phony Legionnaires who pose for tourists year round give us a Hail Caesar salute as we pass. He thinks we are real!

When we finally finish and pile into cars, Morpheus comes up to me in near tears.

“This is the first time in 2,000 years someone with gladiator dress is in the Forum!” he says, panting. “Two thousand years! We passed by the arch and my heart started to beat. I got so emotional.”

When I finally see my reflection in a window, I also feel like weeping. I look like a cross between a deranged stork and a sexual deviant. My legs are too skinny. My neck is so long my helmet makes me look like a real tall lamp. The bill of my helmet hangs over my eyes as if I’m wearing a dinner plate. Surrounding me are all these stocky, grizzled men – real Romans – whom I could see skewering 30 Christians before noon and then for lunch eating live cattle. And I don’t even have a point.

We return to Appian Way and my time in the Roman sun is about over. I give my oath, but want to answer in a much different way.

Magister: “Why are you in this arena?”

Answer: “I want to be a gladiator.” (I want to make an ass out of myself.)

Magister: “You must renounce your name. What is your new name?”

Answer: “Caractacus.” (My idol.)

Magister: “Are you ready to strike with the rod, to be burned by the fire and die by the iron?”

Answer: “Yes.” (No. I’m ready to strike out with female tourists, to be burned by this assignment and to die by embarrassment.)

Magister: “I give you the fire for the strength and loyalty of the gods!

But I play the game and scream Latin commands as I knife the air with my little wooden sword in a group demonstration. I want to join the veterans, all dressed in armor and animal skins as they try to behead each other. Instead, I stand on the sidelines and look down at the oracle proclaiming my culmination of two months work. I notice it was written out to “John Anderson.” They misspelled my name. No matter. It’s no longer my name.

“I am Caratacus,” I said, “the gladiator.”

Favignana: “No. 13 Clearest Water in the World” tantalizes sun worshippers off Sicily’s west coast

Favignana's Cala Rossa, once the site of a great Roman victory in the 3rd century BC, now sport's some of clearest water in the world. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Favignana’s Cala Rossa, once the site of a great Roman victory in the 3rd century BC, now sport’s some of clearest water in the world. Photo by Marina Pascucci

FAVIGNANA, Italy — I’m a sucker for world lists. The World’s Most Beautiful Mountains. The World’s Most Dangerous Highways. The World’s Best Restaurants. Facebook is filled with them every day. Being a water person, one list from made me stand up and look at my sunscreen supply: The World’s Clearest, Bluest Water.

I’m a scuba diver so water clarity is huge for me. Visibility is as important as water temperature. The water off Cozumel in the early ‘80s was so clear I could see a wall 100 meters from the one I was swimming along. The turquoise water in French Polynesia made it hard to differentiate the South Pacific from the sky.

Who knew that I could add to my list of aqua paradises by traveling only two hours from Rome?

Yes, there it was, No. 13 on The Weather Channel’s 2016 list: Favignana, more specifically, Cala Azzurra beach. I’d never heard of Favignana, either. It’s a small island off the west coast of Sicily sporting a name it took me a month to remember. My girlfriend, Marina Pascucci, is an ace photographer whose whole profession is based on clarity. She’d been to Favignana (pronounced fa-vin-YAH-nah) before and wanted to take me to another special place for my birthday. Last year it was Syracuse, Sicily. This year, we’d go back to Sicily. One more trip and I’ll be paying off politicians.

1. The Cook Islands
2. Cocos Island, Costa Rica
3. Knip Beach, Curacao
4. Five-Flower Lake, China
5. Maldives
6. Koh Lipe, Thailand
7. Jaco Island, East Timor
8. Marsa Matrouh, Egypt
9. Boracay, Philippines
10. Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
11. Los Roques, Venezuela
12. Lefkada, Greece
13. Cala Azzurra, Favignana, Italy
14. Havelock Island, Andaman Islands
15. To Sua Ocean Trench, Samoa

I’m sorry. That’s a crude stereotype of a Sicily that I have long since forgotten. Sicily has the best food in Italy, spectacular beaches, friendly people, fascinating history and, as I’d learn, some of the clearest waters in the world. Also, spring in Sicily is an almost ideal time to go. The warm weather has arrived before the waves of tourists. Prices are lower and there’s no need to wait in line for a cannoli.

Yes, the cannoli is always fresh in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Yes, the cannoli is always fresh in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I not only didn’t know anything about Favignana, I didn’t know how easy it is to reach. It’s a 1-hour, 10-minute RyanAir flight from Rome to Trapani, then a 30-minute ferry ride to Favignana four miles away. That’s it. In Italy it takes longer to buy a stamp.

Giuseppe “Jose” Tammaro, the 72-year-old owner of our Isola Mia hotel, met us at Favignana’s postcard-cute harbor. Sporting long, shocking white hair and shades, he looked like a movie director specializing in exotic locales. Or he could pass as an aging musician which he somewhat is. His folk music band, formed 15 years ago, is called Macuccusonu. A Favignana native who spends the winters in Northern Italian, he drove us the five minutes to Isola Mia, a series of one-story adobe-style bungalows connected with red-tiled roofs surrounding palm and Mediterranean pine trees. It’s like a small ranch in Arizona. Our room had a TV, refrigerator and space out back where we could eat our breakfast and stare out at the island countryside. Iose apologized for all the dirt in the courtyard. They were planting grass for the summer season. We barely noticed. It was as peaceful and quiet as anywhere we’ve been in Italy.

Isola Mia

Isola Mia

Favignana, the largest of the three Egadi islands, is only 14 square miles and shaped like a butterfly. The port and village form the head, with narrow roads snaking into the eastern peninsula and the more rural tracks in the larger western side featuring forests and grottoes .

A former Phoenician outpost during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century B.C., Favignana was where the Roman navy destroyed 120 Carthaginian ships in 241 BC. So many Phoenicians washed ashore that they called the beach forevermore, “Cala Rossa” (Red Cove). In truth, it was named for the beach’s red clay but the Roman military preferred its explanation for PR purposes.

Tuna fishing was Favignana's top industry for centuries. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Tuna fishing was Favignana’s top industry for centuries. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Since then, Favignana has been ruled by the Arabs, Normans, Aragonese and Spanish who discovered the waters had enough tuna for tapas from Madrid to Tierra del Fuego. The tuna industry ruled until declining in the 20th century. Taking over in the 1960s was tourism.

Not many come in spring. Water temperature is about 52 degrees, too cold for anything more than your more adventurous fur seals. Forget Italians. They don’t drink water 52 degrees. The time to come is the fall. The tourists have left but the warm waters, heated by Sicily’s steaming summer, are still around.

So Marina and I wandered the five minutes from Isola Mia through the narrow alleys lined with alabaster white apartments, tiny vegetable markets and cozy local trattorias. Near the harbor is a crude beach with some rusted boats behind a Cyclone fence. An old man played with his two dogs as we gazed at an apartment house with two balconies overlooking the sea. Near the harbor, the sea had the color of cobalt. We were told to get on a bike and explore to see the turquoise of tourist posters.

Piazza Madrice

Piazza Madrice

All the paths seem to lead to Piazza Madrice, a long courtyard anchored by the 18th-century Chiesa Madre Maria SS Immacolata on one end. On the corner is the nerve center of Favignana. Caffe Aegus serves some great pistachio gelato in town and a nice Nero d’Avalo, Sicily’s signature ruby-red wine. But you come here for the local rundown. It’s the perfect cross-section view of the island. As we settled into our seats, an old woman dressed in all black shuffled past us. Middle-aged men in street clothes played soccer on the cobblestones with surprising flair. Bells pealed from the church.

Next to our table sat an old man in a classic Sicilian fishing cap, the kind with the top squished down and pinned to the bill and what Marina once gave me. He hailed from Frosinone, a downtrodden town 55 miles south of Rome. He’s been in Favignana 42 years and lauded its famed scuba diving and snorkeling. I asked him about the stories of overfishing and he scoffed.

Locals in the piazza. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Locals in the piazza. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“No, there are more fish,” he said then gave me the single fist bump, the international hand signal of, ahem, procreation.

Like everywhere else in Sicily, fish is all over the menus here. Iose recommended Trattoria da Papu’. The fish theme overwhelmed us as we walked in to walls draped in fishnets, anchors, starfish, black and white photos of old fishermen and a gorgeous sunset photo from the 1980s.

Busiate al Profumo di Mare

Busiate al Profumo di Mare

Multiple trips to Sicily have changed my perspective on Italian food. Sicily shot right past Emilia-Romagna as the top region. The large variety of seafood is so fresh and the desserts — the cannoli, the granitas — are perfect for the hot Sicilian climate. And every trip I discover something new. At Papu’ I discovered busiate, a thick, twisty pasta that’s specialty to western Sicily. It’s perfect with my dish, Busiate al Profumo di Mare, busiate covered in shrimp, clams and bread crumbs. With a tuna and fried shrimp cocktail, that was all of 23 euros and a half-liter of house Nero d’Avalo was 6. You do the math.
Marina and me at Cala Rossa

Marina and me at Cala Rossa

The only ways to see Favignana are by boat or bike. A car is a waste of money. The island is too small for a car and you get no feel for the fresh Mediterranean breezes. And the quiet. Oh, it is so quiet on Favignana you can hear the birds’ singing almost make sense. We woke the next day and headed back to the harbor where Noleggio Ginevra had some of the nicest bikes I’ve ever rented. They’re modern hybrids with 30-plus gears and men’s and women’s versions. I’m just not comfortable enough in my manhood to ride a bike without a crossbar.
On the road in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

On the road in Favignana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Marina and I headed along the harbor before cutting inland and going south. We passed entire fields of golden rods lined with pine and lemon and cactus trees. Stone walls bordered off excavation sites with signs reading: “Attenti al cane” (Beware of dog).

Soon, we saw our tourist poster. To our left, stretching out from the craggy beach, sat a sea so turquoise I could see the bottom from atop the cliff. It was clear as any sea I’ve ever seen, making me kick myself for not bringing a swimsuit before remembering the water temps that would sterilize me for life. We parked our bikes and walked along the rocky cliffside trail. An old man stood next to his small trailer advertising “pane cunzatu,” a traditional Sicilian sandwich featuring tomatoes, anchovies and cheese. We stared down at the 80-foot drop and wondered how crowded this corner of the Mediterranean must get in August. Then we saw a sign.

Cala Rossa. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Cala Rossa. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Cala Rossa.

This is where the Phoenicians met their deaths in the 3rd century B.C. and where Italians meet their nirvana in the 21st century.

The problem with Favignana is it is so small, the locals figured, Who needs signs? As we cut inland, we got as lost as anyone can on an island with nothing more than a two-lane road. Favignana has a spiderweb of small roads careening around pleasant homes and fields. Unable to find the other beaches on our checklist, we stopped a man wearing gaiters. Maybe a fisherman, maybe a gardener, maybe Favignana is infested with leeches. It didn’t matter. He was flat out crazy as a loon. I asked directions and he said, “Parli italiano?” He then gave us directions Indiana Jones couldn’t follow. Marina didn’t understand him, either and she’s Italian.

After he grabbed my arm in emphasis, I shook away and we backtracked in the general direction of his protruding finger, assuming it was his index. We eventually wound our way down to the far southern coast where we saw Cala Tuono. Seagulls joined us and a picnicking couple on the cliff as we stared down at a long beach — covered in algae. Yes, the image was somewhat stained by the sight of green squishy substance you need flip-flops to navigate in spring. Yet looking out at the turquoise sea, I’d brave the gross texture under my feet knowing the pleasure that would envelop my body in time.

Cala Azzurra

Cala Azzurra

On the way back we passed a hiking group, the lone tourists we encountered on the weekend, and visited Cala Azzurra. Lined with resorts closed until summer, Cala Azzurra has a gorgeous view of 12th century Norman Fort of Santa Caterina towering over the village and beautiful turquoise swimming holes just feet from the shore.

In 15 minutes, we had pedaled back into town and parked at Paninoteca Costanza, a tiny deli with a sign featuring Wimpy, the burger-munching character from the American cartoon “Popeye,” holding a hamburger. It’s the one place on Favignana you can get a hamburger and hotdog, an unfortunately growing craze among Italian youth. We passed for the panino camparia, a fat chunk of freshly grilled tuna in a toasted sesame bun and lathered in mayo. For 6 euros, it was the best bargain in town.

My good friend, Giovanni Bertolani, floating in Favignana in summer.

My good friend, Giovanni Bertolani, floating in Favignana in summer.

I’ve long stopped asking Sicilians tired questions about the mafia and the pizzo (payoffs) and the past. Islands like Favignana are dotted all around Sicily and we plan on visiting many more.

After all, I plan on having many more birthdays.

Si Phan Don: Laos’ land of lotus eaters is 4,000 islands of bliss on the mighty Mekong

The Khone Phapheng waterfall is one of many in this far south end of Laos.

The Khone Phapheng waterfall is one of many in this far south end of Laos.

DON KHON, Laos — It took three days to travel from the northern tip of Laos to the southern tip. From what’s in front of me, it looks like I went from the tip of North America to the heart of the Amazon Jungle.

I’m sitting on my bungalow’s terrace staring out at the Mekong River. Birds are singing. A lone motor boat slowly buzzes by, its motor more soothing than irritating. Even the lone crowing rooster doesn’t feel so annoying here. Across the water is a string of palm trees, standing sentry to one of the most tranquil corners of Southeast Asia. I’m on Don Det, one of the islands of Si Phan Don. That’s Lao for “4,000 Islands,” a name I didn’t doubt the moment my motor boat maneuvered around dozens of them to arrive here.

Don Khon and the Mekong.

Don Khon and the Mekong.

The Mekong River, which stretches 2,600 miles from the southern tip of Vietnam to northwest China, is nowhere wider than it is right here. In the rainy season in spring, it stretches eight miles. I’ve been on the Amazon which stretches 30 miles wide in some places and seems more like an ocean than a river. But the Amazon doesn’t have 4,000 islands. They are sprinkled around this archipelago like potted plants. The crude longboat that carried me from the port town of Ban Nakasang maneuvered through islands no bigger than a schoolyard. But each one has a little pod of trees, like individual gardens. We passed the occasional fisherman. Water buffaloes bathed in the shallows. That was about it.

Of the 4,000 islands, two are the main destinations of travelers. Don Det is slowly becoming party central in southern Laos and has become a beacon for aficionados of baked marijuana goods. Nearby Don Khon is where one goes to get away from it all — or crash after too many baked marijuana goods. While sitting in the bottom of a cramped longboat, steaming through the mountains of northern Laos, I dreamed of a hammock, a book and a beer by the river. Brushing against my knee as I’m writing this is a hammock. On the table next to me is “The Coroner’s Lunch,” Colin Cotterill’s dark novel set in Laos. In the trash can in the corner is an empty Beerlao can, the first of many that will be consumed on this patio.

The view from my deck at Pan's Guesthouse.

The view from my deck at Pan’s Guesthouse.

Who knew heaven wasn’t in the sky but in a corner of Southeast Asia?

My bungalow is at Pam’s Guesthouse, run by a pretty middle-aged woman who doesn’t speak a word of English. It’s in a row of seven identical rooms, all facing the water, with stained bamboo surrounding the quaint patios. The room has two beds, both with tied-up mosquito nets and a large, clean bathroom and hot showers. A minibar chilled my beer and free bottles of water to Arctic lows in minutes.

Cost: $26 a night including breakfast. That’s expensive for Laos. That’s VERY expensive.

The energy I thought would be sapped from five straight days of hard traveling — trekking, motorboats, cramped buses — returned. I took a quick shower, raced to Pan’s kitchen, took a beer and came back to my patio. I drained the ice cold beer as the sun set behind the swaying palm tree to my left. I immediately fell asleep, looking like a bad drunk, passed out next to an empty beer bottle. I woke up to a pitch black night. I had to fumble to find my door.

Don Khon

Don Khon

But this is the land of lotus eaters. That’s a pretty white flower which covers the islands and puts your mind in a state where exertion and stress are as foreign as parkas and five-star hotels. Before exploring the Mekong by kayak, my itinerary will consist of breakfast and a hammock with a book on my chest. Life doesn’t move fast in Si Phan Don. Neither will I.


The Mekong River is the 12th longest in the world. It’s the 10th largest in water volume. It seems like I kayaked most of it in one day. At least my abs and upper legs feel like I’ve gone to northwest China and back. In reality, I only went four hours with lots of breaks. But I don’t remember being so thankful to see a muddy dock as I was when the sun set on southern Laos.

Longboats of the Mekong

Longboats of the Mekong

It was the needed completion of research for my story on adventure travel in Laos. If ziplining is the best way to see the karsts, kayaking is the best way to see the Mekong. Nowhere is the Mekong more powerful or beautiful than it is in this corner of Southeast Asia. I’m familiar with this river’s history. I once took a slow boat from Ho Chi Minh City to Cambodia. In that 180-mile stretch, the Mekong is the color of a soldier’s uniform after a month in “the shit.” It’s dirty brown, seemingly too thick for fish to swim let alone spawn. And hot? If I was a soldier during the Vietnam War, forget the Viet Cong. The heat would’ve killed me much sooner. I would’ve thrown myself on the horns of one of the water buffaloes who were forever soaking their massive bodies.

The water buffaloes I passed here looked positively happy. They swam in the water with their little snouts just above the surface. They shook water from their heads. They seemed to play.

The day started at my guesthouse where I met two young German women, Ramona, 28, and Tanya, 34, who signed up for the same kayak tour. We piled into a rickety longboat for a trip across to Don Det. We were led to a large guesthouse patio packed with travelers digging into the buffet breakfast.

Everyone here was on our trip.

Kayaking isn't as easy as it looks.

Kayaking isn’t as easy as it looks.

I was teamed with a little French girl whose name I couldn’t pronounce after three tries. Mirriam or Mirrim or Mirriamaman had just graduated from university and was traveling for three months. In a giant procession of 30 people, we all meandered down a muddy river bank where a squadron of kayaks awaited us. Calling these boats kayaks is like calling three-wheeled tuk-tuks limousines. The boats are big flat-bottom plastic boats with small insets for your butt and feet. There is virtually no back support. They are nothing like the one-man vessels where you’re tied in with the back firmly against the opening. To paddle, you must bend at the waist and rotate your arms over and over. Or, if you’re as inflexible as a week-old baguette like I am, you lay flat on your back and do it. I looked like a guy flying a kite from a hammock. However, sitting up for more than a few minutes had me nearly gasping for breath. About a dozen yoga lessons did nothing but convince me I’ll never be flexible — or a kayaker.

However, the scenery was unbelievable. The Mekong is Si Phan Don. You have to get in it to see it. We started and went out in the open water. We passed little green pods, the occasional boat with fishermen in conical hats, a bird in a tree sunning himself in the steamy heat. Miriam, or whomever, and I were a terrible team. She wasn’t terribly athletic; I’m not terribly flexible. Even with a shoddy, leather back brace on my rear seat, I couldn’t sit up for more than a few minutes. Laying back destroyed my leverage and we languished behind the small navy steaming upriver. My competitiveness and growing fatigue made me nearly forget the spectacular scenery around me. I vaguely remember the birds’ singing above, the lone fisherman’s motorboat or the water buffaloes chortling at our plodding kayak.

Li Phi Falls

Li Phi Falls

We finally docked and walked through a dusty village of stilted wooden houses where barefoot children ran up and gave us high fives. We descended a very precarious wooden staircase down a muddy river bank to a long rocky outcrop that served as a bathing area. To our right were Tat Somphamit. Known around here as Li Phi Falls, they were a countless collection of rapids that came cascading over a large collection of rock formations. The white water formed into a sea green stream that meandered past us as we sat resting in the sun. Some dangled their feet in the rapids. Other crazy Frenchmen risked broken ankles climbing to the top of the rocks. I found total bliss sitting in the middle of a rapid on the side, the pouring water gushing over my shoulders and down my legs, some of the water getting into my shorts. I had no intention of moving.

It was very cliquish. The French stayed with the French, the Germans with their Teutonic friends, the English-speaking Brits and Canadians stuck together. They all came from Don Det, the party island from where they compared the potency of marijuana cookies with marijuana pizza. (For future reference, fellow travelers, it’s pizza hands down.)

Selling egg rolls on the street in Ban Nakasang.

Selling egg rolls on the street in Ban Nakasang.

After a decent lunch of shish kabob and rice, we got back in the boats. This time one of the diminutive Lao guides got in mine. I took it as probation for falling so hopelessly behind the pack. He made some reference about upcoming rapids but even Lao know not to insult customers’ manhood. We paddled for about 30 minutes until we reached the widest part of the Mekong we’d seen. We were in a stretch of about three miles wide near the Cambodian border. We rested. I had no idea why but I didn’t complain. My upper legs cramped from pressing against the footholds for leverage. My back felt like I slept on a concrete floor for a week. I laid back, put my feet in the water and slowly splashed water on my face and chest. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than splashing yourself with waters from the Mekong.

Then I heard, “SAW IT! THERE!” I looked up. I forgot. This trip included a dolphin watch. I had previously blown it off. Javy, the Hungarian I trekked with in northern Laos, did this trip and saw nothing. He said Lao officials claim the dolphins all went to Cambodia; Cambodian officials claim they all went to Laos. It was pretty much a given that the dolphins didn’t really exist.

“I think we have a better chance of seeing the Loch Ness Monster here,” I yelled. No one laughed.

Then I heard, “THERE! LOOK!” It was one of the guides. Kayakers were chirping. The dolphins were starting to surface. I kept my eyes peeled and, soon, I saw them. Little dolphins, about three or four feet long were visible. Their sleek, gray bodies and cute eyes were coming up in the water. I saw two. They are Irrawaddy dolphins who look like normal dolphins with elephantiasis. Their heads are bulbous. Their eyes look like buttons. Nevertheless, the dolphins’ seemingly ugly stepchild is considered by islanders as reincarnations of humans with human spirit. Local folklore has Irrawaddy dolphins saving villagers from the jaws of crocodiles. Unfortunately, their numbers have gone from thousands to 60. Apparently, only 10 still inhabit these waters. Lao and Cambodian fishermen are using dynamite and electricity to fish. Even if that isn’t killing the dolphins, they get caught in the nets. Fishermen are reluctant to cut up an expensive net for the sake of a damn dolphin. However, a joint effort by the Lao Community Fisheries and the Dolphin Protection Project is replacing the nets if not the fishermen’s mentality.

The dolphins’ struggle isn’t over. Laos is lousy with dams. I saw seven built on other rivers in northern Laos and until recently, the only dams on the Mekong were in China. Now Xayaburi Dam in northern Laos, schedule to open in 2019, may open the floodgates for more dams, an ironic analogy, I know. The dams have turned Laos into potentially “the battery of Southeast Asia.” Selling electricity for not only its growing population and tourism trade but also to neighbors is huge for Laos, which as recently as the late ‘90s was one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Now the government is looking to dam more Mekong tributaries. Combine that with the increasing use of pesticides by Lao farmers and I figure I may be one of the last to see these beautiful creatures in the wild.

We paddled to shore again where we were met by an air-conditioned bus that took us along the mainland to one of the most remarkable natural sites in Laos. Khone Phapheng is the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia. It’s not that high — about 70 feet — but it’s huge. It is the confluence of six miles of rapids, which by the time they reach the falls, disgorges 390,000 cubic feet per second. A huge fenced-off viewing area hovers over the falls. Busloads of Thais and South Koreans pour in to take photos and buy ice cream from the frozen bins in the snack bar. In the 1860s, when France tried gaining a toehold in Southeast Asia, French explorers tried building a railroad into China. This waterfall defeated them. The lone trace the French still left is the shell of the rusted locomotive engine on display on Don Khon.

By 4 p.m., everyone was exhausted as we piled into the bus. We were hoping we’d get an AC ride back to our guesthouses. Then we realized we were on the mainland.

“No more paddling,” said one husky Brit, losing his machismo in exhaustion and rising heat.

Sunset on Don Det

Sunset on Don Det

We wound up on the same filthy dock where boats take tourists to the islands. But this time, we piled back into our kayaks and slowly plied our way to Don Det. I was whipped. I paddled for 60 seconds, maybe two minutes, and lay back as if shot by a sniper. Finally, when I saw the crude dock on Don Det, I started my kick. We landed and went up to the landing for a well-earned beer.
Don Det taxi

Don Det taxi

Our adventure wasn’t over. I was the only one in the group staying in Don Khon. Ramona and Tanya were the only ones staying on the other side of Don Det. Our trip included free transfers. No problem. We’d get rides back. Big problem. The ride was in a three-wheel motorized cart with a rickety wooden back end where the three of us rattled around like bags of rice. My back, already sore from sitting up in a kayak for four hours, was chaffed with every bump. It looked like a contraption that tilled rice when it wasn’t shepherding tourists around the island.

Ramona and Tanya became two of the nicer people I’d met. They stayed at the Mekong Guesthouse, a popular backpacker hangout with lots of communal bamboo hammocks. The previous tenant had left a bottle of Lions whisky, a caramel-colored concoction that looked like Johnny Walker except for the “PRODUCT OF LAOS” on the label.

We took a table with two German men: Jo, a straggly, skinny, road-weary guy from, like Tanya and Ramona, a small town in Bavaria, and Constan, a serious, bespectacled guy in his 30s who was from outside Cologne. Over the next four hours we drank shots of Lions mixed with the big bag of ice the tired, dumpy owner, Te, brought to our table. We mixed it with Coke, drank it straight and learned how to properly pronounce “chokdee,” the Lao word for cheers.

Living in teetotalling Rome for three years has dropped my tolerance for alcohol to the level of a 15-year-old boy. So it should come as no surprise that multiple shots of Lao whisky and bottles of beer had me announcing loud enough for the entire guesthouse to hear that Constan held a cigarette remarkably similar to Heinrich Himmler. I didn’t realize until I sobered up the next morning that I was the only one at a table full of Germans who was laughing.

However, we did laugh all night. I even turned my cell phone to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly to show the young Germans what music in my generation sounded like. Kayakers and travelers all drinking heavily and swapping notes of music and love and worlds beyond most imaginations. In the land of lotus eaters, the Mekong not only flows through our guesthouses but our hearts.

Trekking in Laos: It’s where the Himalayas end and life for the Akha tribe begins

Trekking in Northern Laos isn't very high but it's steep, beautiful and fascinating.

Trekking in Northern Laos isn’t very high but it’s steep, beautiful and fascinating.

PHONGSALI, Laos — You don’t realize how long a country like Laos is until you go to its northern border. Laos is 1,280 miles long. I went from sweltering along a river in Central Laos to freezing my membranes off in the Lao mountains. I sat in my crude hotel room in this quiet, mountain town of 15,000 about 10 miles from the Chinese border. Phongsali, the capital of the province that juts into southern China, is the jump off point for some of the best trekking in Southeast Asia. It felt like it. I sat on the hard bed in my black turtleneck and khakis, very thankful I brought a stocking cap. I’d need it all the next day when I’d try to stay warm in an Akha family’s bamboo shelter.

This is where Laos’ well-trodden tourist path veers off course. It is an absolute, stomach-turning ordeal to get here. I arrived from a 15-hour bus ride that was right out of the popular book series, “I Should Have Stayed Home.” This would be the “Public Bus Edition.” The bus I picked up in Luang Prabang looked fine from the outside. It was your basic pullman. But as I stepped inside I knew these 15 hours would feel like 15 days. The steps up were filthy. Black grease and dirt caked each step. Half the brown leather seats were broken. It was fortunately only half filled and I slid into one of the broken seats. I could use a seat that reclined almost horizontally. Forget the fact that a crane couldn’t return the seat to its upright position. I needed sleep.

It was 5 p.m.

From Luang Prabang to Phangsali is only about 250 miles. Yes, it took 15 hours. The road zigzagged as if going up one giant mountain. The bus rarely went more than 40 mph and stopped at every hamlet with a noodle shop. It slowly filled to the brim. I offered a mint to the young girl next to me. She took it without a word or smile. I brushed it off as an insolent youth rather than an indirect slap at an American whose military probably bombed her village or killed her grandfather.

Akha mother and children

Akha mother and children

Then I saw a young man hand her something else. It was a baby, maybe two or three months old wearing a red stocking cap. He must’ve been her young husband. She started breastfeeding him right next to me. I didn’t take offense to it. What I took offense to was when she adjusted her breasts, the kid kept landing in my lap, his eyes closed, waiting for the next tit.

Meanwhile, after only about five zags, a woman one row behind me and across the aisle started to get carsick. Violently. The driver’s assistant couldn’t get the little blue plastic vomit bags to her in time. One expulsion splattered on the floor, leaving a yellow and white mushy mosaic that started to wreak despite the drop in temperature. I found myself breathing through my mouth. Making matters worse, borrowing a page from FAA regulations requiring “all screaming children to sit within one plane row of John Henderson,” a kid behind the vomitorium started to cry like Pavarotti after he gets his hand slammed by a car door.

And it was only 8 p.m.

A woman's headdress indicates her marital status.

A woman’s headdress indicates her marital status.

I tried to read but there wasn’t a single light when the bus started moving. We were a dark, black bullet heading into the mountains of northern Laos. I looked outside and saw brief snapshots of villages I would never hope to find on a map. What I made out were very crude houses on stilts to protect from flooding. Single bulbs shined from cracks in wooden windows. Rusted bikes and building materials stood outside crude fences or cracked courtyards. No restaurants. No parks. In the morning, chickens livened up the scenery as did tired women hauling water from a single hose into the house. Laos has 49 ethnic groups and I could see some wearing native garb, black skirts or pants with colorful hand-sewn designs. Their faces were wrinkled from age and too many years in the cold.

We were finally disgorged in Phongsali at 9:15 a.m. I joined Pablo, a French-Bolivian I met at the Luang Prabang bus station, to find organized treks through Amazing Tours, one of the top adventure companies in all of Laos. The last time I went trekking in this part of the world, in 1978 not far away in Northern Thailand, I got typhoid and lost 20 pounds in eight days. All I want this time is a good photo for my wall.

It won’t be hard. Here we were at the top of Laos, the bookend of the Himalayas. Not many people come to this part of the world. But Phongsali is definitely worth the trip. It is the provincial capital but a capital in name only. It has one main drag, a dusty two-lane road lined with cheap retail stores, open-air restaurants and government offices. Phongsali borders China’s Yunnan Province and Yunnan architecture is prevalent. The roofs curve upward at the end, a bit like a Chinese temple.

This is also the easternmost point of the Himalayan foothills. This is the end of the Himalayas and you can tell in Phongsali. The town is built on a hill. To get to a bowl of very good noodle soup, Pablo and I had to walk down the steep hill to reach this open-air terrace where a woman stirred a gigantic bowl of steaming noodles with a big pile of freshly cut pork next to it. From the main drag, I could peek through the single and two-story buildings to the valley below. It’s constantly covered in mist, particularly in the heart of Laos’ winter. A pond sits mysteriously at the bottom of the hill. So do the light standards of what looks like a large football stadium over the highway entering town.

Akha children rarely associate with other hill tribes.

Akha children rarely associate with other hill tribes.

I could also tell it’s the Himalayas because it was COLD! My cell phone said it was 56 degrees. Tell that to my frosty nose. As soon as I dropped my bag in my small but tidy room, I put on the nice turtleneck I bought myself in Rome. I dug the stocking cap out from the bottom of my backpack, the same stocking cap I sat in my Rome apartment wondering for 15 minutes if I should take it.

The room at the Viphaphone Hotel was also freezing. The windows are tied together by a little red string, leaving a one-inch crack for the cold air to come in, making indoors and outdoors nearly indistinguishable. But the Western staff is here teaching locals hotel management skills. Between their guidance (the American co-manager rode me around town on her motorbike trying to find a working ATM) and the 80,000 kip (about $10) price, I wouldn’t stay anywhere else.

And the views … oh, I could’ve been in Switzerland with worse fondue. I’d read about the spectacular “endless mountains” of northern Laos. It’s true. They stretch forever, a long, green, forested horizon shadowed in mist. They’re not large craggy, snow-capped peaks you see in mountaineering books. We’re really only about 6,000 feet in elevation. But it was winter here and we were high above the clouds. The mist forms a beautiful blanket below the trees that stretch high around us.

The trekking group at the start, from left, Yohann and Orianne from Bordeaux, France; me; Jani from Budapest and Pablo, a French-Bolivian living in Santiago, Chile.

The trekking group at the start, from left, Yohann and Orianne from Bordeaux, France; me; Jani from Budapest and Pablo, a French-Bolivian living in Santiago, Chile.

The day started slow but went long into the first night. I joined the same group with Pablo, Jani from Budapest and Yohann and Orianne, a couple from Bordeaux, France. It was a good group: fit, open-minded, well-traveled, funny. Pablo, a professor in Santiago, Chile, was doing research on the effects communist governments have on hill tribes and asked more questions than I did.

It took us forever to get moving. We went to the local bus station where a beat-up bus on its last muffler drove for 45 minutes on a gravel road past hamlets, each one poorer than the next. Houses looked like old Lego structures, just a mishmash of wood planks, propped up by wood poles with a rock base. Boulders were everywhere. Mud paths separated the homes. A Cyclone fence protected the lower end of one house. Roofs consisted of corrugated metal.They looked as if they were built in about 90 minutes. An old woman in a high red knit cap squatted in the mud. Men in ballcaps laughed on the bus.

We stopped at a pretty lake for some decent noodle soup. The lake was formed by one of the six dams the Chinese have built. Our guide from Amazing Tours, Bounhak, or “Boss,” told us the Chinese build the dams but siphon all the electricity to China. After 20 years, they will give the power to Laos at no charge.

“What happens if the dams don’t last 20 years?” Pablo asked.

“We don’t like them much,” Boss said. “We import everything from China, but they’re no good. We make the material here, ship it to China to make products to sell to Laos.”

We all piled into a long motorboat for a 30-minute ride along Lake Nam Ngai. Here, finally, we were away from civilization. We didn’t see a single boat, not one fisherman, the entire trip. The only signs of man were some clear cutting in a rubber plantation on a steep hill. A banana plantation wasn’t far away. It was a lovely trip. The weather was perfect, maybe 70 degrees and the forested hills disappeared in the mist above us.

We passed a small cluster of bright white blowers in full bloom. Poppies. This is where a good opium production started but the hill tribes don’t use opium much anymore. Apparently, lao-lao, Laos’ infamous rice whisky, will do.

The boat landing at the start of the trek.

The boat landing at the start of the trek.

The boat stopped at a small, muddy landing where three hard-looking Lao greeted us by pulling the boat up the muddy shore. We donned our packs, tugged at our zippers and started trekking. Up. And up. And up. It was a 1 ½-hour slog straight up at about a 45-degree angle. The hike is described as moderate high to hard. It wasn’t so steep or difficult. We were hiking along a gravel service road. But it was relentless. It never leveled. Occasionally, a motorcyclist would speed down the hill with his back loaded with firewood that stretched nearly the entire width of the road. I had stripped to a sweat-free sport shirt and shorts and the cool breeze felt like an electric fan as I stared down at the incredible valley. The forest-covered mountains led to a valley that stretched all the way to the horizon. The air felt as fresh as a perfume store in Monaco.

Boss pointed to the top of the ridge, seemingly 10 kilometers away and 2,000 feet up. We could barely make out a couple of huts.

“That’s our first village,” he said. “Lunch.”



The village of Chakhampa is about a couple dozen structures scattered around a dirt hill. We were greeted by a whole group of piglets, cuddling and sleeping in the sun. Not far away, another group savaged the teats of their overstuffed mother who was being pushed all over the yard by her hungry offspring.

Chakhampa is just one of 600 villages in Phongsali Province, where 90 percent of the population of 177,000 is rural. Hill tribes primarily live on agriculture, selling rice, corn, cardamon, tea, sugarcane and sometimes rubber trees. There are nearly 6,000 acres of rice paddies in Phongsali Province.

The Akha are one of the 45 ethnic groups in Laos and one of the seven main ones. They are as isolated as any in the world. We were greeted by Akha women who always dress as if National Geographic photographers are going to show up. They wore black leggings with black skirts and heavily embroidered jackets. Their headdresses symbolize their marital status and each is individually designed, sometimes with items such as silver coins, monkey fur or dyed chicken feathers.

Actually, this is how they dress every day. It’s also how they make their lao-lao money, apparently, The women told Pablo they wanted 5,000 kip for a photo.

Nouje, the village chief of Chakhampa, smoking a bamboo pipe. Yes, it's tobacco.

Nouje, the village chief of Chakhampa, smoking a bamboo pipe. Yes, it’s tobacco.

The village chief, Nouje (pronounced No-ZEE), is 55 years old. He had never been outside the Phongsali Province. That’s almost as bad as never being out of Nebraska. He had a long face under a ballcap at a jaunty angle. He had the slightly round eyes of a Mongol. He looked tired.

Through Boss, Nouje told us a village chief’s tour in office lasts three years and he can hold the title three times for a total of nine years. Hey, there just aren’t enough men to go around in a village of 300 people. Like all people in Laos, he does have complaints with the government. He’s fighting to get water, electricity and a proper school. They use solar power for heat and must bring water up from a well and boil it. During the rainy season in summer, the village turns to mud. People get sick.

He turned to Boss and said, “You’re crazy for coming up here every day.”

And he does. Boss takes trekkers every day of the week. In fact, his girlfriend gave him a raft of heat the day before for working on Valentine’s Day. Boss is 34 and speaks very good English. He went to university for a couple of years and then went to work with hill tribes. He’s only been a guide for seven months but is a Wikipedia of information.

He’s also in damn good shape. He’s about 5-foot-3 but well proportioned with a handsome, round face that makes him look early 20s. He’s a fantastic guide. We’re lucky to have him. So is Laos.



Lunch was eight bowls gathered on a table: chicken, pork, spicy pork, coagulated eggs, two different green vegetables, fish with veggies and chili sauce. I’ve been violently ill three times from eating eggs in Asia and wouldn’t touch the eggs if I was 10 minutes from death. The chicken and pork, however, were fantastic. Grilled on an open flame, they were served in big wide chunks that you could eat with your hands. They could’ve passed as BBQ in any backyard in America.

We continued trekking upward another 2 ½ hours before we descended into another settlement. Peryenxang village also had $50 houses with $1 million views. It consisted of about 8-10 crude wood structures, propped up with boards and covered by bamboo thatched roofs. I wrote my journal in a common area, illuminated by two small solar-powered light bulbs hanging from a long pole.

Another huge feast was prepared: eggs, pickled vegetables, vegetable soup, fish filled with more bones than flesh and pork almost entirely fat. For after-dinner drinks, the village chief brought out a bottle of lao-lao and, like a good host, ate and drank with us. If every night was like this with visitors, I’m surprised the Akha don’t have a top-notch rehab center. Lao-lao can sometimes be lethal if made incorrectly and it’s made in many isolated areas of Laos. The lao-lao in Peryenxang, however, was top notch. It was smooth as silk and chilled from the mountain air.

A lao-lao toast in Peryenxang

A lao-lao toast in Peryenxang

In between shots, we had an increasingly incoherent conversation with the chief about the life of the Akha. They number 400,000 in Southeast Asia, a potentially solid political force if they ever get electricity. About 80,000 live in Northern Thailand, many of whom bolted Laos during the Civil War in the mid-20th century. The Akha are not Buddhists. They are animists who believe that the being who created earth and life gave Akha the “Akha Zang” (Akha Way), their guidelines for life. They believe that spirits and people were born of the same mother and lived together until a quarrel led to their separation. That led to the spirits going into the forest and people remaining in the villages. Since then, Akha believe that the spirits have caused illness and other unwelcome disruptions of human life.


Spirits, however, did not disrupt my morning. At precisely 3:45 a.m., every rooster started cock-a-doodle-doing. Not one. Not two. All of them. It’s like they all organized the night before and said, let’s screw with the trekkers who stayed up until 10 p.m. drinking lao-lao. Then came the women working in the kitchen. Boiling water. Pounding cotton. Bashing pans. Then the babies woke up, crying. All of them. Between the roosters, women and babies, it was like Grand Central Station with better views.



For breakfast we had something called Khaojepapa, a coagulated sticky rice mix with sweet sauce. It tastes like sweetened glue. After three small bites, I joined the group as we visited a one-room schoolhouse then made our way back to the boat, retracing our steps in brilliant sunshine. We passed back through Chakhampa. We saw a lot of men sitting on their haunches, like baseball catchers, without a lot to do but chat. They seemed oblivious to the gorgeous view right off an Oriental tapestry around them. I was mesmerized. For two days of trekking, putting up with a vomit-stained local bus for 15 hours was worth it.
School at Peryenxang

School at Peryenxang

This isn’t Colorado. This isn’t the Alps. This is more. The paths of Northern Laos are definitely worth beating.

An interview with a monk: My time becomes spiritual in Laos’ Buddhism capital

Me and Bounnakh, 19, outside his monastery in Luang Prabang.

Me and Bounnakh, 19, outside his monastery in Luang Prabang.

LUANG PRABANG, Laos — I’m writing this on the banks of the Mekong River, in a cafe that wouldn’t look out of place on the banks of the Seine. Maybe it’s the quality of the chocolate croissant and coffee I just had but I feel as tranquil as I did lounging around the streets of Paris on my many visits.

Or maybe, just maybe, it was the conversation I had the night before with a Lao monk. He’s 19 years old and has the maturity and tranquility of a man twice his age. As so many encounters on the road occur, this happened by chance. But in Luang Prabang, the chances of meeting a Buddhist monk are pretty good.

This is the center of Lao Buddhism and has been for more than 500 years. This town, at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, has so many temples no one has ever made an accurate count. It was once the center of the Lan Xang empire, a Khmer-supported society created in the 14th century. In 1512, Lan Xang’s king accepted Pha Bang, a revered Buddhist image from the Khmer monarchy. Luang Prabang means “Royal Pha Bang.” When Lan Xang broke up in the 17th century, Luang Prabang remained an independent empire separate from Vientiane, Laos’ current capital.

Luang Prabang remained a mechanical and spiritual center, and monks from all over Laos poured in. They’re still here. You notice it as soon as you walk outside. After checking into my 10-euro guesthouse across the street from the Mekong, I walked down the crude stone staircase to the banks of the river. The sun was setting. A sunbeam stretched clear across the river, perfectly illuminating narrow longboats as they came to shore. The mist-shrouded hills in the background added another portrait to the Oriental tapestry through which I’m traveling. If I had a white tablecloth, a bottle of wine and Marina, it would’ve been one of the most romantic scenes of my life. Hell, I would’ve settled for a bottle of Beerlao and a mutant monk.

The Mekong River at sunset in Luang Prabang.

The Mekong River at sunset in Luang Prabang.

I walked along the Mekong until it joined the Kahn, then I curled up the street where I started hearing the steady beat of a drum, like the backdrop of a war march. The sun had set and the dull outlines of gold and orange temples started to appear. I walked past Wat Sibounheuang, a huge temple in garish purple, orange and pink. The peacefulness in the golden light made me slow down and ponder one of the most tranquil moments of my trip.

I could hear rhythmic chanting inside, beautiful chanting by young voices. I peered through the narrow windows and could see the temple filled with saffron-robed monks. I stood and listened for a bit then went around to the entrance. About 30 of them, mostly teen-agers, kneeled in front of a huge golden Buddha.

The chanting ended and the monks filed out silently. One came out alone. He was young, thin with a round, kind face.

“Nice singing,” said one of the two other men observing.

“It wasn’t singing,” the young monk said in near perfect English, almost scolding. “It’s chanting. Singing is something else.”

He said his name is Bounnakh. He’s 19 and been at this monastery for five years.

“You speak good English,” I said. “Where did you learn?”

“I taught myself,” he said, smiling proudly while sitting on a crude sitting board stuck between two trees in the courtyard. “TV news. Some books.”

I asked him how he became a monk.

“I come from a village away from here,” he said pointing over some buildings across the street. “My primary school only had two grades. I wanted to continue studying. My parents didn’t have much money. They said, ‘You don’t have to go to secondary school. You can help on the farm.’
I didn’t want to help on the farm.”

He said one day a monk came to his village. Bounnakh told him he wanted to study.

“He said, ‘Yes. Come to the monastery,’” he said.

He was 12 years old and after a two-year study program, he came to the monastery and nas been here ever since. His English was remarkable. He used near perfect grammar and a vocabulary more enriched than any Lao I’ve met my first week. I asked him why he liked being a monk.

“I like to meditate,” he said. “When I first came here. I didn’t know anything.”

I told him about my exasperating experiment with meditation in India two years ago. I went in hoping to stop thinking of ways to kill various people from my past. I left meditation after realizing that during every meditation I wound up going through my to do list.

He smiled.

“It’s hard at first,” he said. “You must learn to breathe.”

“I did.”

“You must breathe deeply and hold it.”

“I did. I even concentrated on the four points of concentration, the chakras, the forehead, heart, belly and waistline.”

“When you first start, only concentrate on one point,” he said. “That’s easier.”

I asked him if he ever experiences stress. He thought for a minute. He crunched his saffron robe in his fist.


Then again, if your life is meditation and chanting, what stress can you have? However, I delved deeper. What is the dream of a young monk? I asked. He could do this life until the day he died. I asked him what he wanted to do.

“I want to go to university,” he said. “I want to study computers. Is that good?”

“Yes,” I said. “Very good. It’s the job of the future. Don’t work for a newspaper.”

He didn’t smile. Laos has two newspapers, the state-run communist rag and the Vientiane Times, its English counterpart. Soon, the U.S. may not have many more.

I asked him if he’ll continue being a monk at university. He pointed at his robe and smiled.

“No,” he said. “I want to leave. But I will continue to meditate.”

I shook his soft hand, bid him good luck and continued past another string of temples. This is how the world comes together, an American atheist who continually blasts his new government while basking in the luxury of Rome, meeting a humble young Lao monk with dreams of shedding his robe for the future world of computers. Not surprisingly, I had more in common with him than many fellow Americans: lack of material possessions, a love for other people who aren’t like me, a sense of bliss, a quest for peace.

Tak Bat, giving of alms, to Buddhist monks.

Tak Bat, giving of alms, to Buddhist monks.

The next morning, I woke at dawn to join the locals in their daily honoring of Buddhism and the men who represent it. It is called Tak Bat. It is the monks’ call to alms. Every day at dawn, the monks walk the streets of Luang Prabang in silent single file. Locals gather on the street, on their knees, and hand out little gifts: rice, sweets, chocolate. It is the Buddhists’ display of poverty and humility and the locals’ display of spirituality.

I walked up the quiet side street when a middle-aged woman grabbed my arm and rushed me up the way. What, are we fleeing a fire? She pushed a small bucket filled with little sweets and a big bowl of rice into my hand. She motioned me to a street corner where I knelt next to two women with their hands clasped in prayer.

The monks filed past us, each stopping for a moment. I put little balls of rice and wrapped chocolates into their big round bowls. Aged about 12 to 60, they all walked past, unsmiling, unspeaking. Breaking the perfect silence and my perfect mood, the woman who shepherded me here began shrieking, in obviously practiced English, “15,000 KIP! 15,000 KIP!” She wanted the equivalent of almost $2 for the gifts I handed out. Feeling like a rube and my spirituality broken by this blatant act of capitalism, not to mention fraud, I gave her 8,000 — and her bucket — and walked off.

I probably didn’t score many points on the spirituality meter. Bounnakh would not have approved. Yet he gave me a sense of spirituality I couldn’t get by giving. Maybe I’ll give meditation another try.