Good Morning Saigon! – My Crazy Travels

So, once I came back from the US, I took a week off travelling to meet my close friends in Singapore and do some work , as well as to celebrate the New Year. Once that was done, I packed my bags and was off again.

It was meant to be an ORD Trip for Ding Hao (he calls himself Damien now) and I- so we only booked our flight and hostel and left the rest to chance. We went for 5 days, 4 nights which in retrospect was a tad bit long. Neither of us had visited Vietnam before and so it was exciting. We heard a lot about our district – that there would be pickpocketing and all that stuff.

Some essential tips :

  1. Only travel on the registered Taxi Companies. Anyone else hustling you is going to be an invitation to trouble
  2. The motorbike ferries are certainly interesting but only go on it in the day – and if you’re really willing to take the risk
  3. Keep your belongings on you – split your cash and never carry anything that can be easily snatched – especially handbags

That being said, Damien and I were more than excited to begin.

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One thing you should know about Vietnam is that cars are rare on the streets. Instead you have swarms and swarms of motorbikes flooding the streets. There are every few pedestrians, in fact the walkways are mainly used to park motorbikes and not to walk.

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Our hostel was the exciting Phan Anh hostel in Pham Ngu Lao (the Backpacker’s District) . It was clean, service was great and they provide good breakfast. This was my first time in a hostel and I really enjoyed meeting so many interesting people along the way. We went out with some of them and had a blast.

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These are just some of the people we managed to meet and hang around with!

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On to the attractions now! The first thing we visited was the War Remnants museum. This was where they showed all the artifacts and weapons/equipment used in the Vietnam war, from a Vietnamese perspective. After reading through the museum information, you become a bit confused on who’s really on the right. Vietnam basically stood its ground that all its affairs are its own and the US had no business there.

And I guess in a lot of ways that’s valid. There’s definitely a lot more to the war than that but one of the saddest conclusions from the war was that all those who used to be Southern Vietnamese ended up migrating out because of fear of being punished by the Socialists. In the end, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh (after the great leader) to commemorate the success.  When you walk through this museum, you realise that a lot happened in this country and a lot of lives were hurt .

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One of the saddest exhibits in the museum is the Agent Orange exhibit, where they showed the effect the chemical agent had on the Vietnamese due to the US mass usage of it. It’s disgusting and abhorrent how anyone could do something like that to people. It reminded me why I served in the CBRD department of the army. To prevent evil occurrences like these.

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The day after we took a bus-ride down to Cu Chi tunnels to visit the infamous war tunnels. Now to digress for a while, the first day you reach the city, find an affordable tour agency and book your tours. The ones that matter most are the Cu Chi tunnels and the Mekong Delta trip – the rest are pretty lame and not necessary. We spent a total of $20USD for the bus-ride up to Cu Chi and back, as well as the bus-ride to Mekong and back, the ferry service, a lunch, and a hotel stay. Really value for money.

Ok back to Cu Chi tunnels. This was really  interesting. Granted, it has been commercialised for tourists, but there’s still a lot to learn. For one, these traps weren’t built by soldiers, but by the locals who converted to Guerillas to fight the US Soldiers. This is really a product of their innovation.

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Let’s take a break from the attractions to talk about the nightlife. Now as backpackers/young tourists, nightlife is an important aspect of travelling. You want to meet people and celebrate. Alcohol here is dirt cheap – you can get beer for a few cents off the dollar. We visited this club called Lush which has a really good mix of locals and expats , as well as good music. There was a lot of fun here 😀

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Based on the recommendation of a local friend, we visited Acoustic bar as well which is a really chill concept for local musicians to exhibit their skills. It’s really popular here – people support local music very avidly and for good reason. The music here is amazing. The bar is packed very early and you have to come slightly before 8 in order to even get a seat.

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Ok back to the attractions! My architecture buff took over as we visited some of the epic scenes in Saigon. This is the majestic Notre Dame Cathedral.

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Just next to it is the Post Office. It looks a lot like the Grand Central Station in New York, just slightly smaller. Also very grand.

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A few metres away is the Reunification Palace. It closes during lunch time so we didn’t get to go in. Again, another beautiful building.

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Now you probably realise I was on a selfie spree while in Vietnam. Most of my pictures are on Instagram to log my journeys so I had to follow the trend. I even infected Damien with the selfie virus.

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Most of you are probably looking forward to this. The food commentaries. Well, the first thing we ate in Vietnam was the Pho. Pho is this delicious noodle soup made with beef and rice noodles. Very simple, but can have so much diversity depending on the sauces and condiments you add that they provide on the table. Our favourite was Pho Le, which is apparently the local favourite. No tourists were there cos it’s really in the heartlands.

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Another local popular dish  is the Banh Mi, which is basically a snack sandwich. It’s made out of yam paste, vegetables and cured meat put in a baguette. It’s inspired from it’s French colonial past, and it’s really a good snack in the middle of the day, or for breakfast. It only costs 80 cents!

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The seafood is a must-try. This was at Hong Hai seafood – really cheap food . We had cockles, clams, escargot and all kinds of shellfish. AMAZING!

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Pho is not the only noodle there. There’s plenty of other noodles. This one is called Bun Bo Hue, which is made with carrot and has an oilier broth. But so amazing! We also had the Vietnamese Spring rolls, which is made from Rice Paper, and has lots of vegetables inside. You have to eat it with sweet chili sauce.

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They also have a local ice-cream shop that takes advantage of the fresh fruit in Vietnam, called Fanny. The ice-cream is really affordable and is a good counter to the heat in the area.

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Considering that Vietnam used to be under the French, it’s not uncommon to try the French food in the area. We went to this place called Le Forkette, which has affordable French Food at fine-dining service. I had the duck confit, and it was a joy chowing it down.

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Now, you can’t be eating the big-name items all the time. Near Pham Ngu Lao is the Backpacker Street where they serve all kinds of food. One night, we just grabbed a quick meal and I ordered the Vietnamese pancake. It’s a lot of seafood and meat with vegetables stuffed in a crispy shell. So sinfully good. We had this at Five Oysters.

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And a local drink, very few know about is the Egg Coffee. It’s coffee with a dollop of raw egg inside that adds a whole layer of flavour to the coffee. Must-try. Thanks to Samantha for recommending this to me.

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There are plenty of noodle dishes in Vietnam. I forgot the name of this one, but we just wanted a quick lunch and we ordered it from a streetside stall. It was really sweet from the peanuts but still a good meal.

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These are coconut cakes – damn shiok.

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And this is Pho Le, the one that I mentioned earlier. It was my last and best pho.

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Dessers are big here in Vietnam. They have their regular custard flan which is sweet but nothing exciting. This dessert below is highly recommended in the market, it’s very colourful. I can’t remember the name 😛

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And of course we have to talk about Vietnamese Coffee, which is basically filter coffee. When you’re there , take the opportunity to visit the local chain – it has a very distinctive Vietnamese name and looks like a Starbucks. Okay I found it, Trung Nguyen Coffee. The coffee is slightly stronger and tastes better than your Starbucks for sure.

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Now, we decided to take a 2D1N trip to Mekong Delta during our trip as well and took a 3 hour bus ride up to the area. The Mekong River is a huge span of water that supports so many lifestyles and jobs – you really wonder at how much power the river has.

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There were many things we did while on the tour, but my favourite was when they brought us on one of these smaller boats deep inside to the trails where we met the locals.

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We saw how they made coconut snacks – really sweet and chewy ones.

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We saw crocodile farms.

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We saw them make lacquer art – which is a really unique form of art that takes a lot of effort. Really earned my respect here.

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They took us on horse trails.

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And we of course visited the Floating Markets. The produce here are fresh and you should try one of the fruits.

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We also got a chance to visit a Rice Noodle Factory where we learnt how they make rice paper and then make noodles out of it.

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This is the fried noodle pizza – a good mid-day snack as well!

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And finally freshly made honey tea – with bees flying all over you. This was all from one trip to the River – can you imagine the diversity provided by it?

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On the last day, Damien and I decided to splurge all our remaining money buying souveniers. There are two markets you can go to. Ben Thanh Market is the tourist favourite because it’s accessible. You get grabbed a lot here so be careful, but you can haggle the prices very easily here. Try to cut your prices by more than 50% – they’re severly marked up here.

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Just 100m away is Saigon Square 1, where they also sell goods but the prices are less negotiable. That being said, the prices are generally lower here as well. So you can take your pick.

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There was a lot done in the short span of time in Saigon. We wished we booked a longer trip to visit Nah Trang beaches, Hoi and Hanoi, but that’s an adventure in itself.

Really take the opportunity to meet people while you’re in Saigon – that was one of the best decisions we made. Here’s wishing you all the best in your own trips!

geronimo

It’s New York – My Crazy Trips!

I’m back with another travel review! I must apologise for the delay, there’s been too much to  do and see. The adventurer in me has been let loose, and it’s raucously living life.

Okay, so back to my trip. After visiting Chicago, my family travelled further east to New York. What’s visiting the US without visiting New York right? I watch a lot of TV and Movies ( don’t ask me how, even I surprise myself) and so walking through New York was like walking through the theatricals you saw on screen. It was incredibly surreal and fascinatingly exciting.

We went down to the City on the first day, and explored Wall Street. This is where the Stock Exchange and all the other famous banks and financial buidlings are. We went on a weekend, so there wasn’t much crowd beyond the tourists, but I could just smell the stench of money here.

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We visited Rockefeller Centre as well, where NBC films most of its shows. I took a picture to look like 30Rock hehe. If possible, go up for the studio tours. You can check out where Jimmy Kimmel has his set, or where Friends shot their scenes! The film-maker in me got very excited.

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And then of course, one must visit Liberty Island to visit Lady Liberty! It’s a ferry ride away from Battery Park (where the security is Airport level and super tight). Try to book online for tickets to bring you up to the crown or pedestal, because on-site tickets only let you roam the island itself. It’s good enough for a decent selfie like mine, but I would have loved to have gone on top.

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Grand Central Station, where some of my favourite romance scenes (yes I watch lame lovey dovey movies as well ) have happened and also where Madagascar had its epic chase sequence. I swear, the place is grand, and still functioning. I recall Charlie Todd doing many amazing scenes here including the light-up, and the Harry Potten IRL scene.

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And then we have Times Square. It’s everything people say it is. The heart of commercialism , with huge billboard ad screens and millions of shops. The land-planning of the area is unique such it channels a rush of wind through the centre. It was basically freezing cold. I visited the place on Christmas. It was beautiful.

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Oh ya, one of my favourite pictures is this one of a bird with the skyline in the background. It flew so close to us, I had to snap it.

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Now comes the food! Now there’s a lot more food I haven’t tried while being in NY. I wanted to try White Castle, some of the famous steakhouses, some of the famous pizzas in Little Italy but I couldn’t . Too little  time, too many calories.

I did manage to try these though! IHOP was one of those things you have to visit just to try it. Sinful pancakes – but oh  so good.

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We also had Korean food in Koreatown. Now , when it’s freezing cold outside, Korean BBQ is dabomb. Had this with Preston, together with Kimchi Soup. We really enjoyed this meal. In fact, I want to go back once I get the chance to.

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The rest of the meals were pizza, your normal mishmash of American cuisine, or something in the middle.

Now, I’m an architecture buff. And like I’ve mentioned, the US has amazing architecture. The Statue of Liberty was shipped from Italy, but still, look how amazing it stands in the middle of the island.

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Just walking through the city, you can feel tiny, with grand buildings flanking you. I’m glad Singapore’s main areas are not like these, I wouldn’t like to perpetually feel like an ant.

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The famous bull of Wall Street is also a tourist attraction. It’s derived from the term “Bullish Market” which means the market is doing extremely well – love how ferocious and strong it  looks. Now that’s machoism.

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We also visited World Trade Centre, or rather the site of the destroyed one. This was a really sobering experience because you recall the news coverage and the lives that were lost. The memorial pools have the names of the people who passed etched into it, and you can touch and feel the shapeless void left behind. It’s really a tragic memory.

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But at the same time, it’s a story of hope. They’re rebuilding the tower stronger and louder, as a sign of recovery. If you read my Chicago post, you realise it’s an American spirit. That when you’re beaten down, you pick yourself up and come back stronger. Hope and recovery – it’s the heartbeat here. You feel like you  always have a shot. Very impressed.

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One of my best memories was meeting up with the EDB peeps while in NY. I’ll always love  having friends in every town I visit – sharing experiences and making new ones.

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So that more or less concludes my trip to New York. There’s definitely a lot more stories to share, but I’ll  leave those for my Facebook Albums, or my storytelling in person to cover. This should give a gist to those who ask me what to do in NY .

My more in-demand post – My Weekend in Vietnam – should be out by the weekend! One of my favourite trips as well. Look out for that one!

Till then, keep believing people!

geronimo.

vulnerable.

two hours past noon
and im staring right past you

my fingers twitch
my shirt gives a ruffle

the words are stuck
they used to be smooth

but with you im hopeless
i quiver inside

because to you i cant lie
to you i would die

to you i would be vulnerable
to you i will always fly

~

Chicago Baby! – My Crazy Travels

I’m Back! It’s a bittersweet feeling back after being away for so long. I love the adventure and novelty of being overseas , yet I’m always attached to the things I hold dear. At the end of the day, I still care about Singapore dearly.

From Mid- December to End December,  I visited the United States for various reasons – mainly to visit Northwestern University and have a good post-ORD holiday. It’s also very likely the last family holiday my family has in a while because my brother is starting his A Levels next year and I’ll be matriculating in September.

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One of the  biggest things I was looking forward to was finally seeing snow  – I was going in the winter and the weather forecasts were promising chilly winds in Chicago. I don’t know what was wrong with me but I was actually excited for this. Worst Thing to Look Forward to but more about that later.

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When snow first started dropping, my heart jumped out. We were going to be spending Christmas in New York later and I was really looking forward to a White Christmas (it didn’t play out …) . Snow is  cool, because it’s so delicate and just flutters around. It’s not like rain which just punches through your skin, snow is actually beautiful. You can also observe really interesting designs on snowflakes. But with great wonder comes its fair share of difficulties. 40% of our luggage to the US was actually Winter Clothes. My family adopted the philosophy that since we have never been to a winter climate as a family before we better overprepare rather than underprepare. Ya, we had like 10 luggages guys.

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One reason why I was really looking forward to coming to Chicago is the fact that this was a monumental city. Famous people did amazing things here – and the first skyscraper was built in Chicago as well. I’m an architecture fanboy when it comes to beautiful buildings. I find it delightful how people craft things out of thin air – and I imagine the tireless effort it took to construct such things. Chicago is also where a lot of famous actors like David Schwimmer made their break.When I was in Italian Village, a really good authentic Italian restaurant, I saw them showing off all  the famous people that had come there, including James Gandolfini, Rahm Emmanuel and Jerry Seinfeld. Wow right?

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The cityscape was just breath-taking to wake up  to each morning. It was almost like you’re an ant, crawling amongst giant buildings.

Ok now onto the important stuff : Food. Everyone  has asked me what’s the must-eats in Chicago. First thing first : The Chicago Dog. Now American hot-dogs are nothing crazy by themselves – it’s like our version of the curry puff, a cheap accessible snack.  What’s really good about the Chicago dog is the variety of flavours on it : there’s a dill pickle, a tomato, relish, mustard, ketchup and my favourite : a pepper. It’s easy to find it in any public location .  I didn’t really enjoy it too much – it was an interesting concoction but beyond that I missed a good regular hotdog with good relish.

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Of course, when you think of America, you think of burgers as well. I didn’t try many burgers while in the US (which I regret , but there was really too much to try) but I did try the burgers from Five Guys which is a chain here. They really grill their burgers well and the meat is fresh. Oh man, I loved this burger. Been craving a good burger since.

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What’s Chicago without the deep-dish pizza eh?  The pizza is basically a pie where the bottom is a huge layer of dough and cheese. I personally liked the BBQ Chicken Pizza , but my family said the Meatball was better. I’m weird. We ate ours at Giordano’s which is apparently the best pies, but there are reputably better ones with better crusts / flavours. I’ll be studying here for the next four years so I’ll give my review then 😛

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Now when I hit Chicago, there was one place I wanted to go the most. Harry Caray’s Steakhouse. It’s reputably the best steakhouse in town.  I had a 12oz Dry Aged Steak – which was pure heaven. The steakhouse is a real chill place with all sorts of memorabilia. There’s also Morton’s in the US for those who want to try those , but I was insistent on the local favourite.

We visited the Sears towers (now the Willis Towers) to check  out the view . I wasn’t disappointed. The Willis Towers was the tallest building in the World for some time, especially since it was intentional to show the prowess of Chicago after the great Chicago fire which wiped off the whole downtown of the city. Now if that’s not a comeback story to inspire you,  I don’t know what is. Hearing the determination of the people behind the tower, I felt compelled to dig in deep when I felt exhausted by my own worries. There’s big things waiting.

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Of course, I took a trip to the main reason behind the whole trip. We went uptown to Evanston where the winds are colder and the houses are beautiful to visit Northwestern University. I could say a lot about my college – but I’ll only say this. I can’t wait to go in. REALLY!

There are plenty of cool things to visit in Chicago itself . I loved the Bean which is the ultimate selfie prop. It’s a huge reflective art-piece where you can see yourself and everything around you. I like how you feel like you’re staring into an abyss at certain angles. A friend of mine challenged me to try taking a picture without anyone else inside  – that’s pretty hard. You guys should try it yourselves.

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The Field Museum is a must visit. I actually enjoyed this museum – it was grand, and had artifacts that were actually interesting. SUE is the star of the show though – most of the bones in the skeleton are from actual excavation. It’s very grand and reminds you that you’re very small.

My dad got super excited to visit Moody Bible Institute as well – started by DL Moody , one of the biggest Christian Educators in the world who has inspired so many people to take up the cross and grow deep in the word. Inspiring people make big differences in turning points of our lives.

The Art Institute of Chicago was swanky as well – it was HUGE, I gave up after 20%. But the artifacts and paintings that I did see – oh wow. Below is one of the exhibits in the room of miniatures where the artist organised the construction of finely detailed miniatures. My trip to the US surprisingly grew my appreciation of the finer things like art, theatre and music.

The Navy Pier is a to-go in the summer. Unfortunately in the Winter, it was closed and looked pretty dreary. Damnit.

In addition to shopping, eating and visiting the sights – Chicago is simply a beautiful place to visit. The Winter is killer but truly a sight. I met Laura in NY and she showed me some of the same pictures I took but in Summer and it’s a whole nother set of sights on its own. I”m looking forward to coming here soon – will be posting my travelogues on NY and Vietnam soon!

Till then,

Geronimo

an unyielding truth – say something, i’m giving up on you

As you all know, when I can’t express what I feel , I write out a story to describe it

Here goes.

___

Ginger had walked into the Last Resort Saloon. There were few faces inside the musty outlet – old stooges who sat on stools by lonely tables and a drunken narcoleptic at the bar.  He walked to the corner of the granite bar and climbed onto the shaky stool.

The bar was the only thing that stood out in the whole saloon – its finish was new and deliberate. Ginger placed his elbows firmly on it and whistled to the barmaid.The buxotic babe straddled over and leaned onto the counter.

“Whatcha having, honey?” she slurred.

Ginger’s eyes shifted onto the nametag on the barmaid’s left tit.  He raised his eyebrow quizzically.

“The name’s Goddess, Goddess Tanary. ‘Ma parents gave it to me as a kid and I reckoned it was a name that people would remember. Now are you gonna keep on staring at my tits or are you gonna order something, honey?”

Ginger briefly glanced back up at the barmaid’s face before looking beyond her to the bar. He pointed his finger at a bottle on the top shelf, right at the side.

“The Macallan 55? Honey, you better have enough to pay” she said

Ginger just nodded his head, and continued to take out a cigarette to light. As he started smoking, the barmaid poured the Macallan into a chilled whiskey glass. Everyone knew, you only drank this straight.

She pushed the glass over to him and proceeded to turn away from him before she stopped.

“I don’t normally ask people this,but I can’t help it with you, honey. What’s your story?” she turned back and questioned.

Ginger put his nose into the mouth of the glass and inhaled deeply the whiskey fumes. He closed his eyes and let his mind wander for a bit. The sip came next, he felt the gold liquid flow down his throat and burn a bit inside.

“I’m heading beyond the Saloon” he said nonchalantly.

“You’re another one of them dreamers then?” the barmaid replied. She grabbed her own stool and sat across him.

“They call me Ginger ” he said.

“You hair is black.” the barmaid almost immediately retorted.

“The name’s still Ginger. I’m looking for the ultimate experience”

“Beyond the Saloon is the place for you then. If you’re here, you’re probably ready to let everything else go. This is where the most hopeless of dreamers come”

“That’s my anthem. I realised it just today- that I was bored, that sitting and sipping coffee with people I couldn’t care less about wasn’t my song, and that I must get lost to find something new”

“You’re all fools, honey. Follow me” the barmaid said, and walked to the door exiting to a back-room. She opened it, and let the Dreamer walk in.

“Take a look at that window. What do you see?” the barmaid pointed to a small window at the end of the room.

Ginger walked over and peered in.

“They’re all lost. So many of them, just walking around, just aimless and lost” he said, nails piercing into the wood framing the window.

“They were all dreamers. They still are, but look what happens when you cross the Saloon”

“Is there nothing to discover?” Ginger asked, still irked by the realization.

“They’re discovering something new every second. They’ve put themselves into a world that they’re finally happy with, but they’re no longer part of this one. It’s their ultimate experience”

“That can’t be. There must be more to this world, more to our existence. The Saloon was the marker of all that was safe, is there nothing beyond it?”

“There’s only what you want to see. Honey, you sure you still want to go?”

“I have to , now. I drank the Macallan. ”

“That you did. Let’s get onto it then”

“I want to say something though. I thought about it abit. I don’t mind crossing the Saloon now. What this world has to  offer is too little for me. The conversations bore me to sleep, the excitements are limited to giggles that slither away quickly, we are but random metrics on a larger graph.I would rather make my own world”

“You’d rather be God. That’s why your kind cross the Saloon anyway. And that’s why I’m the Goddess. It’s time” the barmaid said for the final time. She grabbed a knife hidden in her apron pocket, and quickly plunged it into the gut of the Dreamer.

The Dreamer whelped, and sunk straight onto the floor, immediately unconscious. The barmaid walked over to the window and waited.

A figure formed outside the window, on the other side. Slowly it gathered, and finally the barmaid was staring back at Ginger.

“You’re free now. Go , go and dream wild and endless dreams.”

She walked back to the granite bar. The next dreamer would come soon. His moment of last resort would be hers.

___

geronimo.