Monday, October 25, 2010

Cockfighting in Xishuanbanna

Cockfighting might as well be synonymous with animal abuse in the western world. But what I didn't know was that it is also exciting, fun and much less cruel than I had expected. What started as an off-the-beaten track travel curiosity turned into a full on culture experience.

Xishuanbanna is a prefecture in Yunnan province in southern China, a stone's throw away from Myanmar. Primarily populated with the Dai people, a close ethnic relative of Thais, in fact Xishanbanna can be considered China's little Thailand. Cockfighting seems to be an integral part of life. Farmers in the villages raises skinny fighting roosters and sells them for lots of cash. In the biggest city, JingHong, there is a cockfighting association where matches occurs daily until late in the evening.

Our travels took us in to the heart of the Xishuanbanna Cockfighting Association.

The association is located in a two story building with a courtyard. The lower level is open on three sides, and in the center of the floor, on a slightly raised platform, is a miniature boxing ring. Surrounded on three sides by plastic chairs, the remaining side of the ring is occupied by the referee and members of the house.  On the far side, opposite the referee and behind all the chairs, are series of long tables. That is the betting desk.

Cockfighting Ring

It took us a few minutes to understand how the system works. From a small room tucked away in a corner of the building we exchanged cash into plastic cards, akin to casino chips. It is interesting to note that gambling is illegal in China and a sign in the courtyard states that the maximum entertainment amount that can be played for is ¥10. Of course everyone ignores that advice. This is China after all.

There are two corners in the miniature boxing ring. The yellow (gold) corner, has a cage with one rooster and in the opposite white (silver) corner, there is a white box with the challenger rooster. It is designed so that we can see which rooster is in the yellow corner, but the identity of the rooster in the white corner is kept hidden until all bets are placed. After every match, the white box is taken to a hole in the back wall, and some unknown entity behind it switches the challenge rooster and pushes the box back out of the hole. Every now and then the yellow rooster is also swapped out. And as far as we can tell, the switching algorithm is completely random.

Bets are placed at the betting desk, staffed entirely by women. The bettors are, without exception, all men. Bets are accepted only in ¥10 increments. You can bet either on yellow or white. Upon winning, we get a payout of 190%. So for a ¥10 bet, we can win ¥19. The staff at the betting desk hands out either a yellow slip of paper or a white slip of paper, with the amount written on the slip. As we will see later, this is a major loophole that I exploited much to my amusement.

Once the head honcho at the betting desk signals bets are finished, the referee blows the whistle and the match begins. Two handlers go and fetch the two roosters out of their respective corners. That is when we get to see the white rooster for the first time. These roosters are made to face each other across a line painted in the ring. Once both of them have both of their feet firmly planted on the mat, the referee blows the whistle again and the handlers release the roosters. And the fight is on.

The fight is won by the rooster that knocks the other out of the ring. Sometimes this happens really fast. A rooster will fly over the head of the other one in an attack and in the process flings himself out of the ring and loses the fight. Other times this is a long and tedious process, with each rooster pecking and scratching the hell out of the other until one is thrown out of the ring. And then there are times that it doesn't happen at all. We've seen roosters engaging in staring contests and not making a single move until the referee blows the whistle marking a draw. In the case of a draw, another round is initiated between the same two roosters until one rises in triumph. Draws can also happen when both roosters fall out of the ring at nearly the same time. Of course the more rounds the fight goes, the more more exiting the match becomes. Although in 90% of the case, the fight is done in one round.

I had expected the fight to be bloody and ruthless. But it is neither of those things. Of course the rooster does not get a say whether it wants to fight or not. There is no choice. Some of the roosters seem to have been through quite a few fights and feathers on their necks have been long plucked out by rivals. But all the roosters gets to live and fight another day.

Now about the loophole. Since everyone is given either a yellow or white slip based on which rooster they bet on, it is immediately obvious who bet on what. We noticed that one guy seems to be betting for the house and putting down quite high amounts for each bet. So we just followed his bets. He didn't win every time, because that would be a blatant indication of cheating by the house, but he won more than he lost. And so I was able to turn a ¥10 investment into ¥76 at one point just by exploiting this information leak.

I know it's probably wrong to admit this, but cockfighting is a lot of fun. I was entertained for more than 2 hours with only ¥10, which is about $1.50 converted to US dollars. Given how there are not many places in the modern world left where this can be enjoyed, I certainly relish this unique travel experience.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Swimming in Iceland

At the foot of the volcano, the hills are covered in blackish gray ash. Rivers of mud left streaks like veins on the side of the mountain. Only 3 months ago, the eruption sent ash 9 kilometers into the air and shut down air traffic in most of europe. Walking at the bottom of the mighty beast today, I thought to myself, this is like taking a stroll on an alien planet.


My friends are walking ahead of me in a rapid clip. Why did they tell me to bring my swim trunks and towel? I could not fathom there is anything left in this mountain but death and destruction. Someone must have made a colossal mistake.

After a half hour hike that crossed a stream and some broken trails, suddenly, we come to an outdoor swimming pool. Amazing! Volcanic ash has covered portions of it, and the dressing room looks like a wreak.  But incredibly, the water is still clean and warm!

There is only one thing to do now. Go swimming!


I would not have thought about doing this in a million years! I've got awesome friends and this is a delightful surprise they set up for me. This has got to be the best experience in Iceland!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mugging at Gun Point

This past Saturday night I had the interesting but unfortunate experience of getting mugged at gun point. Here's how it went down.

I was walking home from a comedy show in downtown. I've done this walk a hundred times, and usually I would walk on Geary until Polk, and then walk up Polk to get home. This route is filled with pedestrians since both Geary and Polk are both full of bars. However, this night, I was walking a friend home and she lives on Leavenworth which is much less frequented by pedestrians.

I made two mistakes that night. I left her place at around 11:40 pm, and walked north on Leavenworth. I could have cut across to Polk but being lazy, I didn't feel like climbing the hills. The second mistake, I was texting on my phone. I figured Nob Hill is probably one of the safest neighborhoods in the city, so I thought nothing of it.

I remember crossing the cable car tracks on Washington, when suddenly an African-American male (5'6" to 5'8", heavy build, 180 lb to 200 lb) appeared in front of me. It took me a second to register, and I heard a click sound and saw that he had what looked like a gun at his hip (I wasn't too curious to find out if it was a real gun or not). Another split second before I realized that a car pulled up along the sidewalk and he jumped out of the car. This is how he pulled the magic materialize-out-of-nowhere routine.

Now my first thought is, "shit, I'm gonna get shot in the stomach". And yes, I was afraid and felt it in my guts.  He said something like "hand it over", which I immediately understood to mean my phone. So this is what a mugging looks like, I thought to myself.

For the past two years, I've been training in Krav Maga, which in retrospect has prepared me well in this situation. For a fraction of a second, I thought about doing a gun defense, and fight the guy off. Then the next fraction of a second, I decided it wasn't the best idea. I had only done gun defense in one class, and I'm not comfortable enough with the technique. Also, the gunman was holding the gun in a bladed stance, with the gun at the hip. I really don't know how to takeaway the gun from this position. It was dark, and he has an accomplice driving the car. The last thing I need is a struggle for the gun on a dark sidewalk.

I threw my iphone on the ground, and it landed on the sidewalk behind him. Then he motioned to his back pocket, he may have said something, but I understood immediately he wanted my wallet. I was also mentally prepared for this. I ran through scenarios like this in my head many times before. I took my wallet out, opened it, withdrew the cash and handed him the cash. He immediately took the cash and told me to turn around and walk away. I got to keep my wallet with my drivers license and credit cards.

It was over in less than 10 seconds. He picked up my phone from the ground, and jumped in the car and the car sped off. I caught a glimpse of the license plate, thanks to my awesome lasik corrected vision, and memorized the first few letters.

I walked over to a corner store that I knew would still be open, and used the pay phone just outside of it to call 911. Multiple police cars showed up in less than a minute. I made my police report, and tried to be as helpful as I could. At the end of it, I got a ride home in the police car. And being the first time in the back of a police cruiser, I can tell you it's extremely uncomfortable.

Only when I got home, I finally felt exhausted. The adrenaline rush was over. I felt a little shaky. But all things considered, I was not hurt, and only lost an old iphone with some cash. It was, in the words of my roommate, the best outcome in the worst situation.

I must say, the martial arts training did help a lot. I didn't feel like a victim. Yes, I was mugged, but I felt I was under control for the most part. Shit happens, the rest is how you react to it.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Secret to Retiring at 28

Two things happened this month. I turned 28 and I retired for the first time. Napoleon conquered Italy when he was 28 and Beethoven finished his first symphony around the same age. So I think I might be on the right train here. But where did this journey originate? And how did I find this train? I've been thinking more and more lately about what brought me here.

I was an intelligent but socially awkward kid in high school during the dot com boom. I read, with wide eyes filled with wonder, about the exploits of entrepreneurs, not much older than me at the time, striking millions overnight. It was then, when I first heard the term post-economic.  I thought it was a great concept. Why work as Camus' absurd hero, Sisyphus, when I can break out of the day-to-day cycle of everyman? I could buy a fast car, maybe even an aircraft carrier, or get my own island. And more importantly, the girl I had a crush on at the time, but was too shy to talk to, would fall madly in love with me.

And like that, the seed for the dream was planted.

Reality turned out a little differently. I don't own a car (anymore). I've only visited aircraft carrier museums (twice). I found out I'm not a fan of beaches (so island is out). And that particular girl just recently married a dashing Stanford graduate (and I'm very happy for her). But the one thing I really really wanted, to be post-economic and to shed my shackles, I got.

Looking back, I can't pin-point the exact starting point of this journey. Was it three years ago, when I dropped out of grad school? Or maybe it was ten years ago, when I went to college and was inspired by a friend who had a little taste of the dot com roller coaster. Maybe it went back even further. High school? Junior High? Maybe it was my entire life. Do I believe in destiny? (I do). Is it just dumb luck? (I don't think so).

Even if I don't know when the journey started, I do know a little about what it takes. A lot of hard work, that's a given. I kind of knew that before I went in, but I grossly underestimated how much was really required. But beyond hard work, I had the right partner. I could've worked myself to death and still got nowhere, if it wasn't for my partner, working equally as hard, if not harder, beside me, day in and day out. This has taught me everything I know today about relationships, trust, and my own failings as a human being. And then, there was luck or fate or destiny or whatever you call it. That invisible hand of god or gods that guided us every now and then. In short, I made it here because I wasn't alone, we worked hard, and we avoided enough landmines on the way.

Of course, my life isn't perfect. The past 10 years, as far as love and relationships are concerned, is one big write off. I guess I'm just not very good with people, but I'm changing that. Out of everything I've learned so far, the most important may be how to make dreams come true. As long as I follow my process, I know I can make anything in my life that is imperfect or deficient, better. I may never have the perfect life, but I do live a charmed life.

So now, I'm going to take a little break, hence the retirement. I want to use up a little of that freedom I saved up in my piggy bank and travel to far away places. When I come back, that's when the real fun begins. I've officially crossed over from working because I have to, to working because I want to. It would be a waste, for me and for humanity, if I never get to use my secret formula to change the world.

And someday, I will even share that secret formula.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On Failure

Last week, I failed.

There are two types of failures. In one case, you fail and haven't a clue why. In the other case, after the failure, you knew exactly why you failed. Last week's failure was of the latter type, which makes it more interesting to talk about.

The first reason for my failure is because I lost sight of the goal. I knew what I wanted before it happened and I remembered what I wanted after it ended. But while it was happening, I completely lost sight of my goal. In fact, I found exactly what I wanted; so perfect, so right. But not conscious of my goal at the time, I didn't work hard enough, I didn't push far enough, and I didn't value what I had enough. When the dust settled last week, all I was left was the feeling of stupidity and regret. That made me sick to my stomach.

The second reason for my failure is because until last week, I didn't realize that time is my enemy. I used to be cavalier about time, so much so that I could be considered lazy. For some reason, I thought that I had all the time in the world and with enough time, I will find clarity and solve my problems. But time never makes anything better. Time reduced the Roman Empire to rubbles and brought the mighty Qing dynasty to its knees. The clock started the moment it happened and I let the clock run out on me.

The last reason for my failure is because I ignored the problems. It's not that I didn't see the problems; I had ample warning ahead of time. I simply swept them under the rug. This is a particular nasty character flaw of mine that has manifested itself many times in my life. There are problems that scare me, because I don't know how to tackle them. So I ignore them in the hopes that they'll go away or become easier. That never happens. In fact the opposite is true. The more I ignore a problem the bigger it gets, until one day it explodes in my face.

The frustrating part is that I had all the tools to prevent the failure from happening. This makes the failure all the more difficult to swallow. Had I honestly tried my best and if then, I still failed, then it just wasn't meant to be. But I didn't do my best. Hence the regret.

On a higher level, a large part of my failure must be attributed to my mental state. When I'm having a good day, I'm an unstoppable genius. But when I'm having a bad day, I'm a pathetic shadow. In the past few months, I had more bad days than good, was more shadow than genius. And fortunately, this is something I have a lot of control over. So from henceforth, I will be having a lot more good days.

Look forward to seeing me on one of those days.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Love is a Battlefield

Valentine's day is the most commercialized holiday behind Christmas. I have a strange relationship with this day for the past few years. Every year on February 14th, I become reflective, almost philosophical. This year is no different.

Today, I am thinking about love. To be perfectly honest, love and I have a difficult relationship. Somehow, I was born with plenty of analytical intelligence and a deficit in emotional intelligence. This is a recent realization and it exposed to me just how imperfect of a human being I really am.

For the past few years, I've tried to get better at love, loving, and being loved. The road wasn't always smooth. But just looking back 2 years, I realized how far I've come. Sometimes, I think the journey may end soon, but after climbing over one mountain, another taller mountain looms in the distance. And suddenly, I am reminded: Love is a battlefield.

Love means battling your demons everyday. To me, this means facing my own shortcomings every waking second. My insecurities sometimes get the better of me. Sometimes I slip and fall down the mountain. Unfortunately, as in a real battlefield, love can be cruel and unforgiving. One false step and I must start over. And so, like Sisyphus, I often find myself walking down that hill to that awaiting rock.

If the story of Sisyphus is a tragedy, I have hopes that mine is not. Unlike our Greek hero, every time I roll that rock, I learn something new. I am a different person every time. The hill is different every time. And so is the rock. I know in that paradise I'm headed, there will be no rocks and no hills.

How do I know? I've seen it from a distance. My parents have been married for close to 30 years now. They are more in love now than I have ever seen them to be before and their love is only growing stronger. If I have to be Sisyphus, so that one day I may know the love that they know now, then I will gladly bear my burden.

Valentine's day isn't made for companies like Visa or Hallmark. Valentine's day is made for couples like my parents. It is with their love that they inspire the rest of us.

Happy Valentine's Day, mom and dad!