Anthony Bourdain Showed Us Our World

In the fall of 2006, news came across my yahoo home page that Steve Irwin had died. I was in my first big backpacking trek, riding the Eurail pass, drinking and eating my way through the European capitals. In the early morning hours, I left the cramped room full of seven other snoring and butt scratching budget travelers and signed onto a shared computer in a quiet hostel in East Berlin. The keyboard had buttons with Spanish, German and English letters. After struggling to find the @ sign, I managed to log in to my first and still existent yahoo account. In those days, yahoo was king. It was like HuffPost, Buzzfeed and Google had a website baby.

The headline of that September morning was that the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ died filming on location in Australia. He died doing what he loved most, pursuing wild creatures to show viewers a glimpse of the world that is out there. A world the majority won’t and might not even want to see. A wild world, a world of crocodiles, orangutans, sharks, giant spiders, massive lizards, sluggish sloths and even those damned sting rays. I saw an episode where he jumped into a crocodile infested river in the dark with only his ubiquitous khaki outfit and a headlamp. The croc swam away! That croc probably could be heard exclaiming to its own reptilian camera crew, “Crikey, didya see that human? He came rawght afteh me!”

He was one of the heroes of my youth, among the incongruous others in the list such as Pee-Wee Herman, Mark Recchi, Chris Farley and Jack Kerouac. I loved watching animals and he seemed to put them at ease, almost telepathically informing them they were on TV and could go about their business after a quick picture. In 2005, I was working in my friends’ sandwich shop in Austin, TX, and every day after the lunch rush, Crocodile Hunter reruns came on. While sweeping up the cracked old floors and wiping off the scattered sesame seeds on the tables, I’d watch ol’ Steve take me far away from that repetitive grind to Australia’s outback, Indonesia’s forests, coral reefs, deserts or even Antarctica.

Steve Irwin revealed a world through his travels, but also with his personality. His passion was unmistakably clear. That feeling of having lost an enthusiastic soul, someone who took us out to show us what we were never going to see, came again last week with the passing of Anthony Bourdain.

He was a New Jersey punk, chef, writer, traveler and recently, an activist, all of which was on display in his globe-trotting semi-documentaries. Bourdain’s shows went way past the sparkling Greek islands and elegant restaurants of Rick Steves’ Europe. They had none of the blatant marketing of Samantha Brown’s check out this fancy hotel show. Even when strange food was presented, it wasn’t to be eaten like a dare a la Andrew Zimmern. Anthony Bourdain is a synonym for adventure and discovery. He looked comfortable in even the craziest situations. South Africans shouting at him, cooking on the Congo River with no lights, hunting in Scotland, he’s cool. Only the Tokyo robot show seemed to faze him, he looked like me at twelve watching A Clockwork Orange.

While reading all the memorials on the internet, I saw one quote that collected my feelings. It came from N.Y. Times travel writer Lucas Peterson: “And if success, respect from your colleagues, getting to eat your way around the world and generally just being the coolest person on the planet doesn’t guarantee happiness, what hope do the rest of us have?” That’s what got me. I know outwardly having it all doesn’t fix the metaphorical inner void that feels so real, but damn. It’s heartbreaking when we see people who give so much of themselves, who in the end, seem to have given so much, there was an insuperable emptiness left at the end of the day. Yet, his terminal sadness won’t be what I remember about him.

Reading Bourdain’s graphic Kitchen Confidential while working in a restaurant made me feel like a soldier among the heat of the ovens or battling the thick steam of the dish room, proud of my working sweat, earning that six pack after work. His shows were always DVR’d on my TV. I’m not sure if there was a conscious notion of wanting to travel because of his show, but it definitely made it seem possible.

He didn’t like particular things or people. I thought that was so cool even when I disagreed with him. He spoke candidly. I’m too Libra balanced to let a situation get awkward. He ate everything. I still don’t think I’d eat live octopus, chicken feet or escargot. He wrote in his voice. I write like it’s for a good grade. My natural jealousy and envy of his work was tempered by knowing how hard travel can be, especially the places he went. But, I always respected him. I respected his reporting from the forgotten corners of the globe. I respected his food knowledge, his ability to talk to anyone and his pure joy of a simple thing like a bowl of noodles.

I was in Vietnam. My crappy hostel had no A/C, so I was up at the heat of sunrise. Marching out with my backpack for a long day of who knows what, I stopped at a street stall and order Pho Bo, beef with noodles. I sat on the small plastic stool, motorbikes whizzing past my table kicking up yesterday’s dust, and I took that first bite. Memorable. So are you my man.

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On Applying to Be The New York Times’ Travel Writer

When I was in elementary school, I had a globe with raised mountains and sunken seas on the surface. The tactile senses elicited by slowly roaming my dirty little fingers over the nubs conveyed a palpable sense of something beyond me, beyond my little town, in the mysterious lands across the Atlantic ocean in which I’d swim every summer. That was my instant and distinct connection to the larger world. What was out there? The New Jersey shoreline was awash in jellyfish and horseshoe crabs remnants, but what washed ashore in India or New Zealand? My little Appalachia Mountains appeared as mere bumps, but the Andes, that great backbone of South America, or the Swiss Alps, or the monstrous Himalayas were like knuckled fists, a menacing presence taunting my young mind. “You’ll never be here. You’ll never be near me.” Like hot girls turning mean, those big hills teased me with their distance and overall foreignness, which, similarly to hot girls, made me want them even more.

Antarctica was too weird to even make sense. You couldn’t really see it as it was hiding above the globe stand and what was there to see? I mean, there were no cartoon penguins there, and that’s the only draw to that frozen land besides the wild-eyed scientists who find snow drifts neat and ice cores sexy.

Australia was lacking in labels as only about 10% of the land is livable, so there were only a few cities even marked. I thought it was just a country for cool animals. Essentially it is. Marsupials with pouches, giant crocodiles, Tasmanian devils, the most poisonous snakes, spiders and orcs in the world. The aboriginals became part of that world tens of thousands of years ago, adapted and thus seemed so strange to the pale English invaders. People and animals change. Imagine how a kangaroo and horse might look at each other and think the other is the strange one.

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Russia was an epiphany. How could there be so much land? Why did they get to keep all of it? As a young kid, I thought biggest equals best, and that didn’t compute as we were taught to fear the evil empire of the Reds.

Asia also made no sense. The names were unknown and I couldn’t make up a vision of what it might be like there. All I could focus on was the massive heart of Asia in the raised and thus distorted land called Nepal. The Himalayas had white tops which meant very tall. Only a few peaks in the Rockies of North America had those white tops.

Winter-Desktop-Wallpaper-Himalaya-Mountain-FreshEurope held all the familiar names: Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, I could imagine what they looked like. Basically, America with older buildings. They were all part of my elementary history books. South America, vast and long, held the enigmatic and formidable Amazon River. Kids love learning about the massive anaconda or the shocking hunger of piranhas. South America felt like a neighbor to me, the neighbor you never see, the neighbor whose lights aren’t on, so you stop asking questions about who lives there.

And finally, there is Africa, the land of extremes. Giant animals, expansive deserts, bewildering jungles, a history tied by shackles to the New World. All my young mind knew of that continent was the mighty pyramids, mummies and King Tut. Egypt was a consuming fascination since I saw Bert & Ernie walk through the Natural History Museum followed by a dancing mummy.

Maps were my connection to the world, and I was lucky to have that. As a kid without YouTube and before the Planet Earth series, I could only imagine visiting the places scattered around the globe. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve done a bit of traveling and written about some of those experiences. Then, I saw the NY Times was looking for a travel writer to go to one city each week for a year. 52 places, 52 new experiences. Over 3,000 people applied. A young writer for New York Magazine got it. My hopes weren’t high to get the position, but the hope was still there. To be paid to travel and tell others about it is such a modern idea. The tripadvisor and yelp world looks to others who’ve passed that way before to enlighten the first timer. It’s a good system that has led me to many cool places of which I might not have known.

It’s easy to be critical of social media as a tool for inducing jealousy or a mechanism to promote the best photo of the best place with your best friends, but it also reminds us about what may still lie in our futures. The new travel writer for America’s most respected newspaper is one woman chosen from a motivated group of excited wannabe tourists. It’s fun to be a tourist, everything is new even as we bring all our old memories, issues and expectations. Travel gives us a chance to push out the old and invite the new. That remains my favorite part of being mobile in the world. What new will be found? What new is inside of me? What old will be left behind? What old will remain? Travel is searching, exploring, walking, listening, eating, sensing, active verbs in strange places. Travel and vacation are not always the same thing. Traveling requires effort; vacation requires time. Mixing the two is a recipe for a great trip.

The essay section wanted applicants to write a short description of: “The most interesting place you’ve ever been and why.” I’ve been many interesting places, but none more than Roma, Italia. Here is what I wrote:

The most interesting place I’ve ever been was Rome, Italy. There is no secret about why this place is infinitely interesting. The living history, the Egyptian obelisks, carved facades, murmuring fontanas, the Colosseo, the pizza, pasta, gelato and espresso, the youth among the ancient, wandering cats, beautiful women, whistling men, the grandiosity of Vatican City, and the simplicity of an evening café.

I’ve been to Rome three times, never stepping in the same street twice, though visiting several places multiple times. The shifting ambiance and shuffling crowd, stirring the city into a fluid radiance that has kept Rome dynamic for three millennia makes it truly an eternal city. It is a city to conjure history while soaking in the pleasant present.

Throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain to ensure your Roman return. Place your hand in The Mouth of Truth and hope you’ve spoken verità. Amble among the Roman Forum and walk in the steps of Caesar. Drop below ground to gaze into the sunken glare of ancient skulls. I did all those things, looked for sights from Roman Holiday, visited the museums, climbed the Spanish Steps and then saw a jazz show after an eight-course meal and a bottle of cheap, delicious wine.

I experienced a vague shock when confronted with the underbelly of the Colosseum. Gladiators fought to the death in a stadium as big as any pro football arena. It felt so human to know that for centuries humans have cheered for destructive combat. However, I doubt the Romans cared about C.T.E.

On a private tour from an ambassador, we visited some back rooms and private galleries in Vatican City, but mostly I remember the guide’s awful breath, the colorful outfits of the Swiss Guard and the art. I loved seeing the old maps of the “world” before one side of the globe knew about the other. The Vatican frescoes showed varied human perspectives of agony, glory or the mystery of faith.

There is an impression in Roma of a gentle hand guiding you down tiny walking streets, with centuries-old bricks and the hush of a little back alley, before thrusting you into a wide, grand piazza. There will be a statue, a café, a painter, a moment of realization that this city is designed to explore by foot, experiencing the endless beauty, stepping on the stones of antiquity, finding your own Rome.

My family is Italian, and I felt a connection to the land in my grandmother’s home high in the Dolomites; or my grandfather, whose name I carry, in the southern hustle of Naples. Italy is a conglomeration of many diverse regions, but the old saying, “All roads lead to Rome”, places this most interesting city at the heart of a magnificent country.

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Una Vista di Roma, Italia

I found this hidden amongst my old emails. It was a writing made upon my cell phone notes as I walked around the beautiful splendor of Rome.

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If Italy is like a painting disguised as a country, Rome is a statue disguised as a city. The colors all blend into a fabulous symmetry of life in perpetual sunset. Storefronts whose only advertising is a large window, trees like elderly men listlessly leaning in the Lazio winds, cobblestone streets whose scarred surfaces speak of the sumptuous Roman past. The buildings of Rome, mostly gilded by spectacular carvings, stand guard over the streets. Gypsy people sit marinating in their own filth with friendly dirty dogs at their feet. Fashionable people who deal in professionally looking good pass by the Gypsies without a glance. Rome is a blend of life. It is the eternal city because of its unmatched ability to combine the power of religion with the freedom of thought; the historical genius of DaVinci with the modern corruption of Berlusconi;  the intangible secrets within the histrionic sculptures giving a sense of life within the inanimate marble. You can walk among the ghosts of history here.
The magnificent Colosseo imagines itself as a relic, but it is alive in our minds. We can feel the anticipation and palpable excitement of those pagan days whenever we visit a modern stadium. 70,000 people cheering and pleading for action. What has changed in two thousand years besides the game? Spectators are still divided by class and there is always someone who loses.

The Vatican poses behind the vastness of St. Peter’s Square as a peaceful place of pious worship. But beneath the columns, under the mosaics, and below the imagery of a gentle religion lies the secret of corruptible power, irascible personalities, and an undeterred search for money. The church has power beyond the limited walls of Vatican City. They reach into the pockets of paupers in Piedmont, or the breeches of cowboys in Argentina. They’ve allowed themselves the financial gratuity of the trusting faithful, the miracle seekers who pray on blessed rosaries and sanctify themselves with “holy” water. Rome went from pagan capital to holy shrine in less than a millennia.
Rome’s power lies in the ancient aura. Satisfaction is almost guaranteed to all those who enter. No inclement weather, pushy tourists or expensive hotels can take away the private experience of seeing the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, or Spanish stairs with your own eyes. Perhaps that could be said for any travel, yet it’s hard to compare anything to Rome.

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Tucson to Flagstaff on a Greyhound

Electric wires escape into the dusty distance, mountains obscured by misty heat, roadside eateries offering lard laden beans and rice, shrub land of Arizona, expansive skies, dull land, dry land, cacti waiting for rain in a pose of “Don’t shoot!” Diverse people on the bus, baseball hats pulled low, ear-buds pumping personal jams, driver yelled at the thugs in the front for cursing. Sharing space with strangers.
24 hour tires. Massive trucks pass containing commerce. Tiny lizards and birds hide in bushes waiting for sunset. Waffle House. Lazy communities set in the shadows of random hills. Fast food and petrol stations. Little green signs pass offering a route to little towns with Spanish names. The southwest desert, adult shops, crappy hotels, truck stops, miles in every direction, Saguaros keeping guard over their little patch of dirt, brown stucco houses.
Phoenix arrives like a concrete bomb, the desert is replaced by billboards and landscaped roadways. IMAX, water parks, skyscrapers, office complexes, and a little rain begins to fall as we have caught up to the dark clouds. Those billboards advertising help for victims of domestic violence and diet coke, heat advisory warnings and triple cheeseburgers at McDonald’s. The small one story houses with dirty yards and spotless pickup trucks within view of the glimmering downtown showing financial segregation is alive and well. Whataburger makes its first appearance to my eyes since I last saw it in Austin almost 4 years ago, proclaiming its bottom flavored burgers as top notch. Palm trees. SUVs. Tattoo parlors. Tiny frontage road businesses await some action.
Now the cacti glazed hills have been replaced by the rocky cliffs dotted with pine and white oaks. The soft brown dirt is getting darker as we move into the red rocks approaching that monument of antiquity, the Grand Canyon. Rough terrain, straggly creeks, and the poorly named city of Montezuma Well. I’m not interested in how that water tastes. The fluffy white clouds seem to all resemble bunny heads and float by at low altitude, pockmarking that infinite blue sky.
The girl next to me, traveling three generations deep, grandma just a cute little shriveled raisin of age, mom wearing all pink with wiry hands-veins, tendons and muscles all visible under the mocha skin. This young girl next to me, with tanned leather skin that hasn’t taken on the rougher edges of her older generation relatives, looks like 14 but probably 24, she’s been holding a 4-6 item Burger King bag on her lap carefully with two folded hands since we left. She’s skinny and short and her feet barely touch the floor. The smell of her food bag has created a palpable urge to eat at BK, but I will resist. Her skin is mysteriously dark and deep brown. Her fingers have the clean manicured lines of Latina pride with an eternal dirt underneath where flesh meets nail from a lifetime of work in her young life.
Almost like crossing a finish line, suddenly there is snow on the ground and tall lean pine trees that understand winter weather well. Their bark is mottled brown and charcoal black. It looks like ski country now. Flurries fall as I exit the bus.

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Italy vs. Korea: Living Life Abroad

I’ve been to 10 countries this year but spent the bulk in either Italy or Korea. I think somehow I’m fully American diluted with Italian and Korean blood now. My roots spread far. Both countries have their pros and cons, but which is the better place to live?

Food

Italy—Everyone knows Italian food. Pasta, pizza, risotto, cheese and focaccia are staples of the Italian diet and world famous. No food incites more opinionated responses than, “Where is the best pizza?”

Korea—Not many people know Korean food. Korean BBQ has gotten recognition lately, but the diversity of food is what’s most appealing to me. There are soups for every ailment, vegetables for “power,” plenty of soothing white rice and that famous marinated meat is never hard to find. Also, kimchi is a magical food.

*VERDICT: Italy. They win simply because inventing pizza is forever unbeatable; however, whichever country I’m in, I crave the others’ cooking.

Movies

Italy—Famous for La Dolce Vita. There’s plenty of existential 1960’s films of the absurdity of life. Lots of cigarette smoking by men in black suits. At the current cinema, everything is dubbed into Italian, presumably because it sounds great, but makes the film less cohesive and impossible for me to watch.

Korea—Famous for Oldboy. There’s rarely a happy ending in Korean movies. At the cinema, they sell numbered seats to ensure fairness, cheap snacks and Hollywood movies shown in English. Also, they have cozy DVD rooms—win.

*VERDICT: Korea. Unconventional movies, private DVD theaters, and cinema in original language (that includes Russian dialogue in the new Die Hard movie).

Music

Italy—Famous for opera, but Italian MTV is pretty boring. The street performers can be entertaining.

Korea—Famous for K-pop, PSY’s silliness and long-legged lady singers. Friday nights are for watching girl groups parade onstage on muted TV’s in a restaurant, bar or sauna.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although K-pop chicks are contained dynamite, to hear Andrea Bocelli sing “Con Te Partirò” gives me chills every time.

Nightlife

Italy—The night is dominated by hanging out, gesticulating with cigarette in one hand and wine glass in the other.

Korea—People here get bombed wasted constantly and then sing karaoke.

*VERDICT: Korea. Despite the blatant alcoholism, I love karaoke (noraebang/노래방).

Sports

Italy—Four World Cup titles is quite an achievement. Serie A is a quality soccer league. Kids play soccer amid ancient ruins and use cathedral walls as goals, which is cool.

Korea—Sports is only for those with enough talent to play in the Olympics. The other kids must focus on their studies! But, they offer decent competitions in soccer, baseball and basketball leagues.

*VERDICT: Even. South Korea beat the Azzurri in the 2002 World Cup. But neither country dominates this aspect of life.

Friendliness

Italy—Old people are nice and helpful. Young people can’t be bothered with showing you the direction to Piazza San Giacomo.

Korea—Old people (especially the old ladies) push you out of their way. Young people can’t wait to help or talk to you about anything.

*VERDICT: Even. This category is fluid and changes depending on the person.

Ease of Living

Italy—There’s a three-hour daily lunch break in the shops, two weeks off in August, many retail stores close at 19:00, lots of coffee breaks and everything is closed on Sunday. You’d think that is helpful, but more to workers and less to consumers.

Korea—The 24-hour 7-11’s, karaoke, saunas and restaurants work to any time schedule. The >50-hour workweek is stressing and daunting.

*VERDICT: Even. Korea works too much and Italy works too little. (**NOTE: Internet is a major factor in ease of living and Korea wins big time in that area, but not enough to overcome their habit of six 12 hour days per week.)

Price

Italy—Euro. (1$=1.3Euro) To eat well, you have to pay for a first and second plate plus a vegetable, and the recycled water bottle (usually around 50$).

Korea—Won. (1$=1,052Won) To eat well, you pay 10-15$ for meat, unlimited vegetables, rice and free refills of water. Sometimes you get “service”=free food.

*VERDICT: Korea. This one is an easy choice.

Travel Opportunities

Italy—You are within striking distance of mainland Europe via EUrail or Ryan Air as well as anywhere in the magical land of Italy.

Korea—Mountains and beaches surround you, Incheon Airport is the best in the world and many places in Korea are completely unexplored and unspoiled.

*VERDICT: Even. Would you rather explore Europe or Asia? Both are charming.

Public Transit

Italy—Buses and trains are often late and there are decent subway lines in Milan and Rome.

Korea—Seoul has the biggest and longest subway in the world and punctual everything.

*VERDICT: Korea. You are never more than three blocks away from the subway in Seoul.

Language

Italy—Italian is quite possibly the most beautiful language on Earth, and only gets cuter to hear little kids arguing in it.

Korea—Korean is the easiest Asian language to learn to read, but complicated to speak.

*VERDICT: Italy. Ciao vs. Annyeong Haseyo.

Architecture

Italy—This country understands it. Angels hanging off of corners, fountains, piazzas, statues, obelisks, strange faces in the marble walls, naked lady door-knockers, mythical creatures guarding entrances, and The Colosseum!

Korea—They didn’t go from bottom to the top in 50 years by worrying about decoration. They just built for efficiency. Things are changing now, with expanding green spaces, Gangnam’s renaissance and new art projects.

*VERDICT: Italy. The everyday beauty has a salubrious energy.

History

Italy—Roma, Venezia, Marco Polo, Columbus, Caesar, and gladiators: “All roads lead to Rome.”

Korea—They are stuck between two giants of Asia: China and Japan. Koreans were constantly in the middle of the wars of those two ancient enemies.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although Korean history is fascinating, Italian history is undeniably more important in global impact.

People/Dog Watching

Italy—Dogs enter restaurants here with impunity. There are dogs of all sizes and most people are not scared to pet them. Having a coffee at an outdoor café offers great fodder for playful banter about the passing hipsters, fashionistas and archetypical stereotypes.

Korea—Dogs are predominantly small and decorative. Kids/young girls sometimes shriek at the touch of a dog’s tongue. Couples in identical clothing, businessmen in shiny suits and cheap shoes, kids practicing taekwondo in the park or 20 ajumma’s with identical permed hair provide ample opportunity for pithy observations.

*VERDICT: Even. There’s more diversity and acceptance of dogs in Italy, but things are just a bit crazier in Korea.

Women

Italy—They are famous for being hot. But, too many smoke cigarettes, and they do it in an affective manner as if it’s making them seem more attractive. It isn’t. Milano and Roma are sure to find you exceptionally fashionable, skinny model types riding Vespa’s with long hair streaming behind them. EX: Sophia Loren in 1965.

Korea—They are becoming more famous for producing beautiful, forever-young actresses and models. Many are conservative with upper body exposure but adore a short skirt. Visit Gangnam on a summer night for a glimpse of the plastic surgery obsessed climate of Korea. Nevertheless, some understand that their striking beauty comes from embracing their traditional features. EX: Kim Yuna in 2014.

*VERDICT: Korea. What can I say? My girlfriend is Korean, and she’s beautiful.

The answer is: 5 for Italy; 5 for Korea; 5 All Even

Honestly, what did you expect? I actually went at this subject expecting Korea to win because that is where I’ve enjoyed living most. Yet, when you take it all into consideration, Italy has lots of positives too. These 15 subjects are some major indices of quality of life for me. I suppose I love both of these countries too much to decide. (Shh. It’s Korea.)

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Sleeper Train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok

City dwellers wave goodbye to the train wearing the eponymous grins from the “Land of Smiles”, motorbikes sit idling at the crossing. Brick walls evaporate into the rice paddies. Two pretty Asian girls in glasses and ponytails settle in across from me, one thin and bird like, the other, cute and plump. I’m sweating and they are pulling out their shoulder wraps to prevent a chill from settling upon their ultra delicate skin. A group of strange people in colorful t-shirts are filling up the seats behind me, quiet surrounds us. I take off my earphones and hear only the click clack of the train. It’s a woody area now. Dense trees, all seem to be cousins of the same ancient seed. Not much roadside trash to be seen. Power lines remain visible. Some kind of building material lies dormant with spider webs yet stacked neatly, waiting to become useful. Railroad ties, tracks and wooden beams are abandoned and rotting slowly or perhaps have been replaced and are merely waiting to be recycled. We slow down for a moment at Kuhn Tan, which appears to be a town solely inhabited by strutting roosters. Our first tunnel, black inside and always a relaxing moment instead of the fear that going under a mountain should induce. A chubby girl on a hill is playing her tennis racket like a guitar and dancing about like Elvis. Her brother seems embarrassed by her behavior.
Night settles into itself like an old man kicking back a La-Z-Boy chair. The full moon rising up from the horizon, barely illuminating the rice fields, glowing golden gleams of glistening light. Right now, hundreds of miles south in the Gulf of Thailand, people in their second earth decade are applying day-glo paint to their taut appendages and taking shots, toasting in a bacchanalia of juvenile expression of life’s promise under that forgiving moon’s eye. They will drink from buckets, indulge in hallucinogens, and dance on the beach like a drunken and drugged version of Lord of the Flies. They will awake with gruesome hangovers and flock into social media proclaiming it to be the “greatest night ever” prefaced with a picture of hugging strangers masquerading as friends.
Distant lights flicker through the foliage. Smells of train food being served, soggy microwaved meats and saucy veggies served with that ubiquitous starch of Asia–rice. I take a paper towel to my face and futilely attempt to blot off the accumulated grease and grime of my earlier city walk. The towel becomes clear in places.
An androgynous ticket checker struts the aisles with an appeal to both sexes and in a pull and a push quickly turns two leather benches into a clean, crisp bed with white sheets.
Lightning strikes far away amplifying the dark vista with a sneeze of light. At a dreary train station a lady gets on with two plastic bags and a purse and sits opposite me assuring my feet a place on the ground for the duration. She takes out a pungent piece of sausage. It smells like beer spilled on the floor of a busy bar. The stench lingers in my nose making me hungry and nauseous simultaneously–a most confusing feeling–like when someone gives you unsolicited yet nevertheless good advice. Clouds casually hide the mouth of the moon as my new bunk mate asks for her bed, thus closing my window view and chasing me to my top berth.
I love having a little space all my own. I have a mesh cup holder, non functional light, pillow, blanket, curtain, leftover sunflower seeds from my boat ride last week and a new apple in Saran Wrap. There are three Simpsons loaded on my laptop, it’s 20:25–bedtime for train people.

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Sitting on the Slow Boat from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai

Green trees, brown water, red and blue boats, jagged, moist rocks poking up from the riverine depths. More Mekong sights, but this time–on the river, churning and chugging through the calm muddy currents. Engine grumbling behind, people spread out on used minivan seats, fires ashore. Trees like stars, uncountable and mesmerizing. Light rain, coldest air I’ve felt in 2 months, cruising speed.
Houses disguised as 3 sided shacks balanced on tenuous mud and sand slopes. Construction is not a paramount for river dwellers. Water buffalo striving for honor of laziest draft animal stand at the banks and pretending to chew gum and blankly stare at their reflections.
Beaches made of wonderfully light white sand, surrounded by hills, no footprints.
The river rapids slow us to a crawl. Whitewater rising and bubbling from the murky, mercurial depths, swirling in a pulse of surface energy. Some haggard man, teeth brutally stained from betel-nut rests on his haunches atop a black rock and barely even acknowledges our presence.
What dank fish live in this water? What muddy-eyed salamanders crawl beneath these smooth stones? What type of predator is here? No crocs, no barracuda, no sharks, no teeth, it’s like a river meant for toe dipping. Fish throw themselves into nets, bite unloaded lures, lunge past the tides and crawl ashore onto the grill. They are giving fish. The peaceful and fully edible Mekong.
The clouds are thick, obscuring any rays save the glimmer of sunshine. Fresh Rain smells mixed with parched boulders begin to permeate the aerated boat. Hours later, I have the answer to that great American bard of rock n roll, John Fogarty, I have seen rain coming down on a sunny day. Sun out, fisherman fishing, rain drizzling, rocks shining in the wet glare, we push on. Rivulets have carved tiny meandering hollows in the sandy shore.
Slowly, we approach shore. The old woman seemingly made entirely of sinewy muscle and old skin goes ashore on some dangerous rocks with a young boy dressed nicely. We leave them squatted on the rocks figuratively but almost literally, in the middle of nowhere. Rocks still drying, resemble wet, unmolded clay with a bumpy texture.
The scariest part of the Mekong is its opacity. No knowing the depths. Only wonder of the life below. It’s like the Mississippi, just a polite, helpful old river. Nothing to worry about here.
We finally pass some kids about dusk. They sit like friendly gargoyles upon the rocks, legs dangling, waving, most likely completely unaware of another world beyond the river and her murky wealth. Further on, we see a deeply tanned statue posing as a boy holding a net within a small cave like hole, ensconced by rocks.

2nd day
Started rainy, now sunny with puffy cottony clouds. Hills closer and higher, we pass a copse of singing trees. The peculiar little black birds tweeting a morning chorus to the river. Dense engine sound obfuscating the rich jungle din. Vines growing upon vines, branches hugging each other. The birdsong and frogs making an orchestra out of the shoreline, with me in a front row. Birds on flutes, frogs on horns, cicadas the drum and rhythm section. A leaf barren tree teems with black birds sitting, posing and chirping. Wifi towers planted on hillsides otherwise devoid of life hint of things deeper in those forests. Quarry, bulldozers, trucks, cranes, terraced hills, new bridge construction.
Nasty yellow foam bubbles swirling beside plastic rubbish and scattered debris. Styrofoam floating in sad circles in gentle whirlpools.
A woman in classic long Laos skirt and silky pink shirt spits phlegm wretched from the bowels of her gullet over the side of the boat for the sixth time in two hours. She spits as well (and as loud) as an outfielder. Cows and a fat pig sit on the beach dreaming calmly.
Journey complete and back on terra firma, legs twitchy for exercise, body sticky for shower, ears ringing from the incessant engine roar, I feel a sense of completion. Mekong will be behind me tomorrow, replaced by new Thai surprises.

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One Month in Laos >> View From a Bus

Laos
Buses held together with duct tape, given as goodwill gestures by more prosperous countries like Korea and Japan when they were deemed embarrassingly old and dirty, yet functional enough for their poorer neighbors to the south. Swirling fans above my head momentarily brush away the flies flitting through the cabin. One rest stop after another, we are boarded by ten women in sweaters, cotton stockings, dust masks, wool hats and baggy pants. They offer an incongruous amount of food for a bus ride. They have entire grilled chickens skewered on bamboo, 5 hard boiled eggs skewered, pork skewers, some kind of knuckle meat…skewered… bags of colored liquid, fruit bags, water bags and strange chips. Their clothing layers are three deep with no perspiration visible in these harshly hot temps. Crippled chickens lay in a pile, un-moving, un-clucking, awaiting the cleaver, awaiting the grill. Stumpy dogs sniff about the dust scraps with focused eyes. Cigarette butts tossed aside at varying lengths of completion. Ample piles of trash in the corner, beautiful red flowers on the trees above. Bus continues to idle. Air-con a stale breath of exhaled chemical ice.
A country where you can stop at any corner and push search wifi and nothing comes up. Highly unconnected and slow and unreliable when it is provided. The dust here is a white, sandy dust. Cambodia is more of a brown, dirty dust.
Moving into the dense jungle, verdant canopy thick like a giant outdoor greenhouse. White barked trees stuck like toothpicks under a pillow of broccoli, all the leaves blossoming at the top to meet the sun’s hale glare. We approach a 90^ turn and 3 vehicles have collided. A large truck hangs over the edge of the guardrail, oil seems to have leaked all over the road.
Another rest stop, another chance to look at mystery meat and colorful eggs in Saran Wrap. Like paying for a stomachache.
Indistinct shrub land and red clay dirt passes until a magnificent golden Buddha punches your eyes awake. He sits peacefully among desolation beside the one room tin roofed houses offering no tangible reprieve from poverty but rather a structured belief system intended to end suffering for these uneducated peasants–‘escape’–the true hallmark of religions. We pass a graveyard dedicated to revolutionaries. The tombs are yellow, shaped like taller WW1 German helmets.
In the mountains, white and yellow tubular flowers droop like fragrant tears, kids, faces dirty with exhaust fumes and play, trees everywhere with bare, burned patches possibly indicating the clear cutting of the modern world encroaching upon this paradise at 1,000 m above sea level. The hills round and solid, jagged and with chins raised look like scoliotic giants bent over, searching the landscape for their lost keys. Small black pigs wrinkling their nose toward our bus. Only green, varying shades of green paint the walls of life here. Cutbacks, switchbacks, up and down backs weaving astride the mountain. Jungle trees are more visible now. Full branches, healthy leaves, probably full of the same bugs that have buzzed and crawled all over me the past weeks. The drop down into the canyon from the road is dizzying. No guardrail. Only a stranger driving this hulk of a bus, with hopefully functional brakes. Road shoulder disappears and the houses are close enough to touch from my window. Thatch and tin, thin layers to keep the oppressive jungle out, or perhaps to let just a little in for good luck.
“Winding road ahead” sign taunts us as a mist begins to fall. Clouds securely belting the middle of the valley, prompting the mountains to peek above with their singular, expansive green eye.
Coming down from the heights, finding the chocolate river a la Willy Wonka Factory flowing imperceptibly past sunken boats and judicious palms. Civilization presents itself to us with lonely gas stations and rumbling pickup trucks. Rice paddies accepting the playful tickle of sprinkling raindrops behind us.

One Month in Vietnam

Vietnam makes you walk along its spine as you move through the country. You can go up or down. I went down. Starting in the misty, drizzly capital of Hanoi, an ancient town with the scrappy charm of a lived-in city. Giant, grizzled trees grow through sidewalks sheltering street food merchants. Gimcrack houses sit nestled among silent alleys. Tiny red and blue plastic chairs lay scattered along each corner. It’s a busy city with a mixture of hustle and relaxation. The population is either going or arriving. They arrive and watch the rest keep moving. The city bears many visible scars of age and strife which only adds to its charisma. The French influence apprises itself within the architecture, wide, tree-lined boulevards and cafes. The centerpiece lake, Hoan Kiem, gives off a flavor of tranquility among the commotion. The best food lives in Hanoi.

I slept on a night bus for the 13 hour drive south. Hue, the old capital, is rather indistinct apart from its massive ruins and tombs dedicated to king worship. The grid lined streets work well for sightseeing, as I wandered making three sided squares of exploration. A few days spent looking at old bricks and concrete and moving south again.

The silken, quiet town of Hoi An permeates a vibe of innocuousness. Walking lantern lined streets of oppressive cuteness, quiet cafes offering nickel beers, flashy tailors displaying their flamboyantly attired mannequins, tiny restaurants backlit in tasteful orange and red hues, it screams, “You can feel safe spending money here!” The UNESCO cultural heritage town will continue losing its historic spark as more foreign money continues to pour into the pockets of local merchants. Until then, we can enjoy the relaxing pace and historical significance.

Leaving the decorous realm of Hoi An behind, I pushed on to the seedy, sleazy, sparkling Nha Trang. It’s a beach town, a port of call for Russians, and a party stop for backpackers. Besides the standard resort style fare of watersports, spas and high rise hotels, there isn’t much to see here. Luckily, I found the smiling faces off the main drag to be a fun diversion to photograph. Here, travelers make the decision to visit to the mountain highlands of Da Lat, or the sandy duned beaches of Mui Ne. I opted for the former. The bus climbed through fog and mist up challenging mountain passes and as my ears popped I caught my first elevated vista of Vietnam. There is something glorious about mountain fog, untroubled, placid in its silent repose, like a blanket for the weary hills.

Da Lat reminded me of a place in Europe I’d never been. It’s familiar in a foreign way. It isn’t a great walking town, with steep hills, crumbly sidewalks and an expansive city center, but it had a gentle banana shaped lake planted within its belly that provided ample strolling space. The weird, Gaudi-esque “Crazy House” was a nice day trip, followed by the self-controlled roller coaster to the bottom of Datanla Waterfall. I began suffering traveler’s stomach here, and the cuisine of the city, being bland and boring, didn’t help matters. I could feel the sun flexing its solar muscles as the bus meandered down from the highlands.

Ho Chi Minh City/HCMC (Saigon) contains, in equal amounts, the elements heat and desire, mixing into a melange of laziness and lust. Food on every corner, drinks at every shop, coffee in every window, windows being washed, vegetables being peeled, bustling markets, honking buses, cars and bikes, neon lit high rises, the NEVER-ending murmur of a powerfully prosperous city creating the incompatible feeling of cognizant ignorance. You must allow in certain sensory images and sounds while becoming oblivious to others. Horns keep you apprised of speeding maniacs behind you, but you cannot allow each and every horn to rattle within your auditory frequency lest it permeate into a cacophony of permanent distraction. Each bar, grill, hostess cafe, massage parlor, eatery and lounge have a card proclaiming a promotional special for you. Your inner voyeur will be over-loaded with side-long glances into the cozy homes along tiny, damp alleys. Scavenging dogs trot about the streets, with flappy testicles or nipples respective of gender, looking both ways before crossing. Black hair is everywhere. Soggy sidewalks, messy bathrooms, warm beer; the glaring, bold heat and humidity of the south reaches its zenith in HCMC. Glistening bodies in the daylight hours presage the sticky, grime covered masses of the evening. It’s not a soothing city. It’s a busy city that doesn’t have time to notice how uncomfortable it feels.

The country is unrelentingly green. The mountains are sharp and covered with a mass mixture of evergreens, swampy cypresses and paradisiacal coconut trees.  The ramshackle houses, some built with palm fronds and discarded sheet metal, seem perfectly congruous among the roadside environment of rotting trash, mysterious fires and mangy mutts. Small, filthy restaurants line the dusty, country streets advertising soups, rice and overcooked meats.

The people have a surprising mix of faces with great variety in skin tones and facial features. Their mouths move quickly to match my smile and most seem to sell something; trinkets, clothes, fruits or services. They catch your eye and say, “Buy something.” “Hey, you.” “Excuse me.” “You like?” “Very good, very cheap.” “Come on, help me out.” They all have something you desperately need. They possess pushy but rather effective sales techniques, and continually out haggle me. The motorbike drivers offer you rides as though it were drugs. Late at night, or even under the noonday sun, you can hear their whispers as you walk past crowds of shoeless men lounging atop cushioned seats in various stages of sweaty relaxation, “Hey, man, hey.” “Taxi.” “You need motobike?” “Where you go?” “You wanna go motobike?” “Very cheap.” “Oh, there. Very far, motobike is better.”

I have trouble picturing the Vietnam my father’s wartime generation would have known. It was only 50 years ago, but the cities have moved fast. On the long bus rides, I caught some rare sights of rural and tourist neglected places. The Vietnamese fought so hard for so long for their freedom. The War Remnants Museum in HCMC is a devastating, penetrating, albeit one-sided, look into the century long battle against the French and Americans. They dug the longest tunnel system in the world and some lived underground for a decade. They continue to suffer from Agent Orange and forgotten mines. They came out of a brutal civil war and somehow are managing to work together to heal. Money helps the healing; tourists bring the money. It’s a puzzling socialistic republic they have here.

 

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People Are Strange And So Am I

            The people I see when I walk around the cities of the world simultaneously amaze, frighten, arouse, stimulate, disgust and amuse me. Some are unbearably attractive, others the kind of ugly that permeates from the inside out. Some are beautiful and life affirming in their actions, others make me feel complicit in their greed and cruelty, simply by being human. Some are good, some are bad, some are pretty, and some are not. I’m not looking to judge someone by their cover, but I am judging my own emotions and internal reactions to their external appearance and/or behavior. Without interacting or talking to these people, I form opinions about them, or just gaze in their direction in bemused wonder. Although it’s good that there isn’t one type of person or one style of person, it does make for some strangeness in my day, either on purpose or just by accident.

            On the subway today, I saw a man with a rather grotesquely oversized face contorted in a grimace with an old flip phone to his ear. He was moving his mouth like a cow chewing cud. He seemed unaware of anyone around him. I saw hundreds of women in high heels, holding cell phones in short skirts. I saw hundreds of men in varied colors of plaid shirts also holding cell phones. I saw a dirty old beggar with the heavy-duty rubber leg coverings lumbering down the streets playing that pathetic, lonely, and distant homeless man music on some raggedy old radio. I saw all the smiles of the employees of my favorite restaurant smile at me in unison when I told them the food is great as usual. I saw a diminutive old man in shabby, ill-fitting clothes using the touch screen map at a subway stop. He had that twisted face of a smile, frown and squinting into the sunlight all at once. He confused me. I caught eyes with one nice looking girl; we shared smirks. I saw families walking together, babies in strollers, kids arguing about nothing, parents happy to be out of the house. This isn’t some crazy festival day, or a holiday full of traveler’s angst, it was just a dreary September Saturday in Seoul.

            Last week, in Jeju Island, I was at a bus stop, when a woman approached me with a huge goiter on her neck the size of a tennis ball. It was highly noticeable. My friend, Alex, ran away, ostensibly to find a bush on which to urinate, but closer to the truth, he couldn’t handle her. She was grizzled, overly tan, sun-spotted and prone to staring. I thought to myself, yes, she’s scary, staring at you, holding a bag that’s dripping some mysterious liquid, but she’s probably just curious and old. I kept my face to her, while looking beyond her for the hopefully approaching bus. She suddenly spoke to me in the kind of voice in which you’ve heard cigarette-smoking snakes or dying vampires speak. A rather unsettling chill ran down my spine and settled in my sweaty shoes. She asked, in Korean, about my friend who ran away. Who knows what she said, the only word I could translate was “man” and she pointed in his direction. I managed a few polite Korean words to explain I didn’t know, but whatever information she wanted, she wasn’t going to get it. We hailed the next taxi that passed and left her at the eerie deserted bus stop as the sun slipped down over the hills.

            Not all people are pure weirdness incarnate. Some are capable of inspiring poetic lust, adoration or hedonistic passion simply by their walk, their talk or their charismatic aura. I’ve seen women that I’m certain I could learn to love and spend my life with pass by me, escaping into the ether of the daily shuffle. Their smell, or their shape, or their enchanting smile can captivate me and stay with me for any number of days. It’s amazing how much my feelings are connected to appearance. Yes, it’s slightly superficial, but with six billion people in the world, I’m entitled to some sort of vetting or examination test. I think we all do it do a certain degree. There are some people that match our internal inspection test and make us feel the wonderful, loving butterfly chills; and others that give us the creeps or make us feel the infinite sadness of the world through their eyes and we get that icy chill of mortality from them. You don’t have to travel the world to fall in love across the street or find the finite nature of society in a poor man’s empty cup; you only have to keep your senses aware, welcome your emotional reactions, and then act accordingly.