Soccer With Turkish Communists: Part Two

This is part two of this story. For part one click here! Enjoy!

The soccer match was held in a small indoor arena. The tiny field of play is apparently supposed to make the match into a higher scoring affair. So, unlike full sized soccer, it would be a lot harder for me to hide and simply pass the ball when it came to me.

Onur quickly introduced me to the other ten players. Most of them were around our age except for one middle-aged, short chubby guy called Mustafa. Okay. I immediately set the minimum goal of at least playing better than Mustafa. I should at least be able to do that.

The match started and I set about stomping around in my huge hiking boots. At first things went well enough. I was teamed up with Onur and we jumped out to an early 2-0 lead. The ball would sometimes find its way to me and I would simply pass it off to the guys who knew what they were doing. Onur, who was basically directing me around the field, was pushing the opposing goal often, and our goalie was a stonewall. It was going so well, in fact, that by halftime out team was up 5-0. Excellent. Now, even if I did make some dumb mistakes, it wouldn’t even matter.

We came out for the second half and things started falling apart faster than in a Chinua Achebe novel. The opposing team scored three goals in as many minutes. I turned the ball over pretty much every time it came to me. Fortunately, Mustafa was doing as little as I was, so at least I wasn’t the only one coming up blank.

Still, my feet seemed to turn to stone as we got deeper into the game. Any pass to me bounced hard off my feet and to an opposing player. I couldn’t dribble the ball to save my life. The opposition scores again twice more. With ten minutes left it was tied.

With about seven minutes left, somehow I accidentally stumbled into a pretty good position. I was near the opposing goal and their keeper was focused on Onur as he dribbled the ball up and took a shot. Their keeper dove and made a beautiful save but the ball popped up into the air and headed right towards me. This is it! An open net. Nothing to stop me. The ball was at waist height. All I have to do is kick through the air and smash it into the empty goal. I’ll break the tie and be the hero! Here we go!

Whoosh!

Nothing but air. My kick popped the ball right back up into the air like a foul ball in baseball. It fell and a defender recovered it. I’d like to say my meter high, sweeping kick looked cool at least, but I probably looked like a spastic buffoon. We returned to defense and Onur ran up to me.

“Okay, James. Just stay here on defense. Don’t go up there. Stay here and defend against Mustafa.”

As deflating as that sounded I knew at least that I could do that. Mustafa is as bad as I am at this dumb sport!

With three minutes left Onur scored and we were up by one. If we could just hold this lead my ineptitude wouldn’t be too embarrassing. Just as I was thinking this, though, Mustafa found himself with the ball, coming straight at our goal. I knew what I had to do. I stick to him like a shadow and just as he was shooting I slid down on the ground like a baseball playing going into second base. The shot bounced off my leg and harmlessly away. Mustafa tripped over my leg, but whatever. I was pumped. I felt like I had just conquered the world as I stood up.

“Yeah! Did you see that block, Onur?” I yelled.
“That will be a penalty shot, James,” he replied.
What? What the goddamn shit?!

Apparently my slide block looked more like a slide tackle to the others and apparently that’s frowned upon in this sissy sport. The image of long-haired Europeans diving and crying at the least bit of contact flashed into my mind. I wished we were playing anything else at that moment.

So Mustafa had himself a penalty shot because of me. God, please don’t let him score. He’s been terrible like me all night. Just make him miss here again. I wished I could run up and trip him again as he was taking the shot.

Here he goes…

Damn.

Mustafa was running back, hands up in celebration. He scored and by his teammates’ reactions, they were just as surprised as I was. The game ended tied at six.

We all went into the clubhouse for tea but the conversation wasn’t about the match we just played. The news was on a nearby TV. Earlier that day a young bystander injured by police in protests in Istanbul had died. He was just going out for groceries when he was hit in the head by a teargas canister fires by police. Istanbul and the other major cities in the west of the country were seething with protests against Prime Minister Erdogan. It seemed a world away here in frozen Kagizman, though.

Onur turned to me. “Fucking Erdogan. Now he wants to limit things like Facebook and Twitter, too.” I had heard as much on the news. I was glad to see that Internet freedom was high on the list of communists living in eastern Turkey.

The next day we sat over breakfast (yogurt again) and Onur told me about his new girlfriend.
“I really like her, but I’m not sure if I want her to move in with me or anything.” (Onur was unmarried and young but lived alone. A rare thing throughout all of Asia.)
“But there aren’t many female communists like her in Kagizman. She’s probably the only one,” he laughed. “So, she’s probably the girl for me.” I was surprised how easily and quickly Onur kept opening up to even though he had only known me for one day.

I stayed for another day in Kagizman. Not because I was crazy about the town. Just because staying with Onur was one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had when traveling. As we said goodbye on my third day, he hugged me and smiled.

“You must practice soccer, my friend. You were so bad!” He laughed slapped me on the back like he had when we first met. “I hope we meet again, James!”
“Me, too, Onur,” I said, and I sincerely meant it.

———————-

I’ve been told by people all over the world (most off by friends and family in America) not to trust strangers. Or to be careful around people I don’t know. We’re all told this from a very young age but I still hear it from people today – adults telling other adults not to talk to strangers.

In my experience this has been some of the worst advice I’ve ever received. This isn’t unique to America though. I’ve heard it from friends in Japan. I’ve even been told by Indians in India not to trust any Indians! However, everywhere I go, the people I meet are welcoming, hospitable and gregarious.

If you listen to the media you’d think half the world is out to kidnap you (especially if they are – gasp! – Muslims). This is nonsense. I encounter far more kindness from those we paint as scary foreigners in scary lands than I do from my own countrymen in my own country. When we meet travelers in our homeland we naturally want them to see the best that our culture and country can offer. I know I felt that way when I would meet tourists in New York or Japan.

Solo travel on a budget inevitably leaves you in a vulnerable position. You don’t gave your guides to hold your hand, drivers to navigate for you, or traveling partners to lean on if you need a break. So it requires a certain level of trust in the people living where you’re traveling. When we see someone placing that trust in our us and our culture, it’s normal to want to reward it. I’ve been told that people who budget travel with their young children are witness to this hospitality more than anyone. It makes perfect sense. What better sign of trust can you show people than putting your children in the care of their society?

Still, it can be hard to keep this in mind. It’s tempting, when alone, to keep your guard up a bit too much. It happens to me every once-in-awhile despite my best efforts. However, whenever I find that happening, I can think back to my time in Kagizman. I was as far removed from my home as possible, completely unfamiliar with where I found myself. Yet thanks to the kindness of strangers, I felt as welcomed as I possibly could. So much for all those warnings we hear as children.

So, when you’re traveling, don’t listen to your old first grade teacher, yelling you to stay away from strangers. Don’t listen to the major media warning you about all the scary people and places. Be a little vulnerable and trust people. You never know when you might wind up playing soccer and drinking tea with folks you’d never have met otherwise.

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Soccer With Turkish Communists: Part 1

This is Part One of a two part story. Stay tuned for the conclusion next week. Also, I never thought I’d have to do this, but I’ve changed the names of anyone who comes up in this story. Not that this is incendiary material, but with the current political climate in Turkey, I don’t want anyone getting into trouble for their beliefs. So, if you’re reading this Prime Minister Erdogan, good luck finding out who these people are, ya jerk!

The sign on the bus said “Kagizman.” Up until a few hours ago I had no idea where Kagizman was. I didn’t even know that it existed. I imagine that few outside of eastern Turkey do.
Kagizman is near the eastern border of Turkey, not far from Armenia. The principle city in the region is called Kars and to most Turks Kars seems like “the middle of nowhere.” Kagizman is fifty miles deeper into that nowhere. The bus ride from Kars is impressive, though. It passes through the rolling Turkish steppe which is surrounded by dark, jagged peaks. Since it’s early March, everything is still blanketed in a thin layer of snow. It’s almost perfectly pristine — the only disruption comes from the rare horse tracks passing through. It’s untouched in that special way Central Asia and the former Silk Road can be. As I stare out the window at the scenery, however, I notice that everyone in the bus is staring at me. I’m probably the only foreigner to roll through these parts in a while. At seeing me notice his staring, one of the passengers smiles and breaks the silence.

“Why are you going to Kagizman? Are you filming a nature documentary or something?” he asks.
“Nope,” I reply with a chuckle.
“Then are you working with the CIA? On your way to Armenia? Azerbaijian? Or,” he gasps and points in a moment of realization, “Iran! You’re going to Iran, yes? Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone, my friend.”
I laugh again. “No, but I like your imagination.”
He would be one of only three people I encountered in Kagizman who could speak any English.

We arrive in Kagizman and I grab my backpack, lost in a quiet market square. It becomes immediately clear that the town is as far from liberal Istanbul socially as it is physically. Headscarved women cast quick, hesitatnt glances at me. The men all sit in dimly lit tea shops, playing cards and smoking. The only visible banners all feature the face of long time Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the ruling conservative Justice and Development Party. Long gone are the Starbucks and lingerie advertisements of the Europe-Asia straddling Istanbul. With the sun now setting, most of the streets are dark, unilluminated by either street or store lights.

I’m in eastern Turkey to visit the ancient Armenian capital of Ani. A thousand years ago, Ani rivaled Constantinople with 200,000 inhabitants and huge, grand cathedrals. Now it lies mostly in ruin on the modern border of Turkey and Armenia. With that border closed now for decades, Ani and its surroundings are almost entirely devoid of activity and life. It’s a thousand year old ghost town and just the sort of unique site I search for when traveling.

When traveling I try to use the online traveler network Couchsurfing as often as possible. Couchsurfing is more-or-less Facebook for backpackers except instead of looking at photos of people’s lunch, you use the site to offer or search for a place to stay. You have your profile, photos, friends, and all that stuff. When you plan on going to a new place, you search for it on the website and find locals who you can meet up and stay with. You need to trust strangers, however, so it turns some people off. Still, it’s a great way to get a perspective on a place that you’ll never find in a guidebook, and it’s why I’m now lost in the middle of Kagizman, miles away from anything else of note. I found one host in eastern Turkey who was relatively near Ani, but he wasn’t in Kars. He’s here in Kagizman.

I must have been easy to spot (large backpack, looking around like a moron, slight panic in my eyes) because my host Onur rushes up to me right as the last bus out of town pulls away. Onur is tall, with glasses and a crew cut. He greets me in the warm, traditional Turkish way — shaking hands and leaning in for an air kiss on each cheek.

“I saw you come off the bus! Welcome to Kagizman, my friend!” Many Turks have the habit of calling any foreigner they meet “my friend” but Onur’s face was lit up with a smile that made it seem like I actually was a long-lost friend. He  hustled down a sidestreet, away from the bus stop.
“I am doing a little work for a meeting right now at the teahouse. Can you join me and wait ten minutes? It’s no problem, yes?”
“No problem at all, Onur.” He flashed that mega-watt smile again and led me through the door of a non-descript teahouse.

A quick word on teahouses in Turkey: It often seems that teahouses are as institutional to Turkey as kebabs and carpets. Not a street goes by without at least a few of them. In smaller towns they seem to outnumber other shops by at least ten to one. Men, especially unemployed or retired ones, often spend half the day in a teahouse, downing countless hour-glass shaped cups of the leafy brew while playing backgammon or engaging in conversations on any and all topics.

This particular teahouse fit that bill perfectly. Onur sat down at a table surrounded by men, all of them older than him. He quickly introduced me to each man at the table – so quickly that I almost immediately forgot each name. Then, the smile disappeared from his face and he sat down, listening intently to the discussion. What with it being in Turkish, I couldn’t understand anything of what was said. However, it sounded important — not the sort of loose talk people usually engage in over tea. After ten minutes or so, some of the men started to stand, shook hands, air kissed, smiled in my direction, and left. Onur turned to me.

“We are discussing what to do for March 8. It is a very important day for us communists.” He looked around the room conspiratorily after saying the word ‘communist’ even though I doubted anyone outside of our table could understand English.
“There aren’t many communists in Turkey, so we must do something big for March 8.” He wasn’t kidding. As a Muslim country, and one that has long been at odds with Russia, communism never took off in Turkey. In addition, with the strong presence of Islam here in the east, it’s unlikely that many would look to the atheistic tendencies of communism as a positive.
“Why March 8, though?” I asked. “What’s special about that day?”
This time one of the men left at the table spoke up. “March 8 is International Womens’ Day. And women are very important to the revolution of the workers.” He looked very stern and determined as he spoke.
“Yes, it is true,” Onur said, smiling again. “But now let’s go. Come, we’ll relax at my flat.” And just like that, Onur was off leading me through the streets of Kagizman once more.

At Onur’s apartment he wasted no time welcoming me into his home with bottle of raki. Raki is an anise-based Turkish liquor. Basically, it tastes like licorice flavored vodka. At forty percent alcohol, it’s not to be trifled with. Turks serve it mixed with water which, somehow, turns it into a cloudy white color. It never failed to astound me that combining a perfectly clear liquor with perfectly clear water created a completely opaque mixture.

After a glass of raki, Onur turned to me with a serious look and said “James, can I ask you something important?”
“Uh, sure,” I responded, a little taken aback by Onur’s apparent immediate comfort around me.
“Okay. What does ‘eye-nt’ mean?”
“Eye-nt? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that word.”
Onur was unfazed. “You know, like ‘eye-nt no sunshine.’”
I still didn’t get it. This time Onur sung it in tune.
“Eye-nt no sunshine… WHEN SHE’S GONE! It’s not warm… WHEN SHE’S AWAY!” he was, somehow, both singing loudly and looking expectantly at me to see if I understood. This time I did.
“Ohhh, yes. Ain’t no sunshine! Ain’t!” I laughed and tried to explain the meaning of the word, ignoring the song’s double negative.
“Ah, I see. Thank you. You should be a teacher, James.”
“Well, I am. Or, I was, anyway.”
“Perfect, my friend!” he patted me on the back and poured another glass of raki.

Soon Onur began preparing dinner. As he did this, he treated me (and everyone else in the whole apartment complex) to an acapela version of Andy Williams’ “Cant Get Used To Losing You” followed by the afforementioned “Eye-nt No Sunshine.” As surreal as the feeling of listening to a Turkish communist sing Andy Williams in the middle of nowhere was, I still felt completely comfortable and at ease. Onur began to serve dinner.

“Here is some yogurt. It’s a Turkish food. I don’t think you have a word for it in English.”
I was confused. “For yogurt? Yes, we have a word for it. It’s ‘yogurt.’”
Onur looked at me like I was crazy. “No, this is a Turkish word. Not English.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s also English, Onur.”
“Okay, well it’s delicious, so eat it anyway,” he smiled.

(Side note: I later looked it up and Onur was at least correct that we took the Turkish word and directly co-opted it into English.)

Half way through dinner, Onur looked up at the clock with a start.
“Oh no! It’s almost nine o’clock!” he said.
“Why? What’s wrong with that?” I asked.
“I forgot. I have an indoor soccer match tonight at nine. Let’s get ready to go!” He dashed into his room and from there yelled out to me.
“James! I think we will have an extra spot for a player. You can play soccer, yes?”
I hesitated. I’m certainly a better-than-average basketball, baseball, and American football player. I love playing those sports. When it comes to soccer, however, I’m an absolute wreck. I’m comically bad at it. I also didn’t have anything resembling athletic shoes with me — only my bulky, round-the-world hiking boots. There was no way I would get out of the match without making at least a dozen clumsy mistakes and embarassing myself and probably Onur, too.
“Yes… I can play soccer. I’m not very good, though,” I replied. Onur had welcomed me so warmly today that I would feel terrible refusing his offer.
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m sure you will do fine. Let’s go, my friend!”

Part Two is coming next week! Will I actually wind up making a fool of myself trying to play soccer (spoiler alert: yes, I will). Then, at the end of the story, I get all preachy about travel! Exciting!

Seven Months On The Road, Seven Years In The Mind

No, dear readers, I havent forgotten about you! There are literally tens of people waiting for me to update this thing. I often feel rather rotten for not posting regularly. I have been writing on-and-off throughout my trip but, for whatever reason, I often balk at finishing, editing, and posting each piece. BUT THAT CHANGES NOW! Starting now, there will be a regular stream of stories Ive written during this journey. Buckle in, friends.

To bring you up to speed on this trip so far: Its been seven months now. Ive crossed through two continents and twelve countries. Im in the Czech Republic right now and writing this on a Czech keyboard, so please forgive any typos or spelling errors (my whole screen is underlined in red since this computer thinks I should be writing in Czech. It took me ten minutes to figure out how to make an @ symbol so apostrophes be damned, as well!)

The title refers to the fact these seven months of travel seem, in my mind and internal clock, like years. It blows my mind that it was only October when I was landing in South East Asia. Every day is spent meeting new people, learning new things, and going new places. It distorts time. It can be incredibly fatiguing (there will certainly be a post about that soon) but its a great feeling. If you want to live longer, just travel a lot. Itll certainly make you feel like Methuselah sometimes.  So, rest assured, Ive got tons of stories to share with you.

Oh… you wanted one of those stories now? Um… well, this was kinda just my “triumphant return” post. There will be one up next week, though. Til then, homies.

Icons and Optimism in Burma

“So, what do you think of ‘The Lady’?” my neighbor on the train asked me. He looked around conspiratorially before he asked – a habit left over from an all-to-recent era of government repression and undercover informants.

“The Lady? She’s great. I’ve been following the news about her since coming here,” I replied. I’ve been on this train for several hours and it’s hardly moved. Some sort of mudslide delay, not to mention the trains themselves are nearly seventy years old. Any chance for a conversation is more than welcome.

———-

‘The Lady’ is, as anyone who has been to Burma readily knows, Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the leader of the National League for Democracy and longtime opponent of the oppressive junta that has ruled this country for fifty years. Up until 2010, Suu Kyi had been in and out of house arrest. She spent most of the time since her party won a resounding electoral victory in 1990 confined to her house, unable to leave. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and countless other honors, she is now, arguably, the most famous democracy and human rights advocate working against oppression in government.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of beloved independence leader, Aung San. After leading his country to independence from Great Britain, Aung San was assassinated when his daughter was only two years old. His status as a national hero (to both the general public and ruling military) likely prevented the junta from simply disposing of (in one unsavory way or another) Suu Kyi at the start of the democracy movement twenty-five years ago. Instead, they resorted to killing, torturing and imprisoning thousands of her followers, including many NLD politicians who had just won elections.
Despite everything they did to stop her, wear her down, or defame her (including refusing her British husband a visa to visit her in the last days before he passed away from cancer), she kept up the struggle for democracy in Burma. Her popularity kept growing both at home and abroad. She’s long been the thing the Generals fear most; a diminutive, peaceful woman, nearly 70 years old now, who petrifies a modern army.

———-

Burma (or Myanmar if you prefer the recent arbitrary name change imposed by the dictatorship) is a unique country. There are quite a few quirks that pervade daily life for a visitor. For example, cars have their steering wheels on the right side of the vehicle, but also drive on that side of the road (the only country to do this.) This is a fine case of how Burma marches to the beat of the Generals’ drums. The reason for this odd driving setup is because, first, General Ne Win — the guy who started the whole tyrannical military government — heard from his on-hire mystical soothsayers that he would soon encounter trouble “from the Left.” Rather than take this to mean “from Left-Wing political groups” (as it was likely intended) he spazzed out and took it to mean, quite literally, from the direction ‘left.’

Ne Win also once declared that all Burmese money was immediately worthless and re-assigned all bill totals to multiples of nine (45, 90, etc). Why? Because a fortune teller told him that nine was his lucky number. A seemingly comical move but, of course, this essentially left every Burmese citizen without any legal money, wiping out their savings.
Also, this is the guy who killed or imprisoned everyone and anyone he wanted for nearly thirty years. Needless to say, he’s not held in high esteem amongst your average Burmese these days.

———-

“Our government… it is still very crazy. Very bad,” my companion on the train continues. “I was with the student revolution in 1988. Still many of us are in jail, it’s very bad.” The fact that he is opening up like this could probably be attributed to the fact that, in 2011, the military dictatorship finally relaxed some restrictions on the press and public expression. This wasn’t out of the goodness of their own hearts. They just wanted to convince the West to lift sanctions and encourage investment and tourism.
Three years ago, however, my now-talkative friend might have been hauled off to the notorious Insein Prison at night for saying things like this. Even after the reforms and the release of Suu Kyi and others, the junta still goes wild at times and shoots up minority Muslim or Christian villages in the restive borderlands of the country. The idea is that, so long as they are fighting “terrorists” or “communists” in the ethnic divisions of outer Burma, people will still believe they need a strong military in control. The fact that visitors and aid workers aren’t allowed into these parts of the country, though, show you just how little the government values transparency to this day.

———-

2015 may herald a change, though. The ruling party has promised free and fair elections slated for that year. This promise has been made before, of course. Back then in 1990, their words proved a hollow as the coconuts sold in the markets of Mandalay. This time, though, there have been the gradual reforms of the past few years, allowing many to feel optimistic.
Everyone (except maybe the military) seems to believe that if the elections are truly free and fair, Suu Kyi’s NLD will win easily and she will be propelled into the Presidency. Nowadays, photos, posters and calendars featuring ‘The  Lady’ are proudly displayed in most homes and shops. The NLD logo is emblazoned across hundreds of t-shirts on the streets of Burma. Finally given the chance to voice and display where their loyalties lie, most in the country are seizing the chance. You’d have to bury your head in the sand to not see where this will likely lead given a free election. It just remains to be seen if the Generals will be willing to watch their sworn opponent of over two decades ascend to the head of a real government here.

———-

“Do you think the NLD will win in 2015?” I ask my neighbor back on the train. He has, by this point, loaded up his cheek with a leaf of betel nut — the ubiquitous, dark red chaw that seemingly every man in Burma chews. We’ve stopped at a new station and he buys a bottle of water from a vendor passing through the aisle.

“Will the NLD win? Yes. Almost certainly. Will they truly be allowed to properly lead after they win? We’ll see.” He snorts out a laugh and spits a stream of betel nut juice out the window, staining the station platform red.

With Friends Like These, Who Needs Friends?

I woke up sick one morning recently. One of those things where any food or drink I take in gets immediately ejected from my body at one end or the other. It happens to every long-term tourist in southeast Asia at least once. Anyway, what follows is my journal from that morning:

————-

8:30 – The strangest thing about the town I’m in right now, Vang Vieng, is that nearly every bar, guesthouse, or restaurant plays DVDs of the sitcom Friends  nonstop. Today I woke up with some sort of stomach bug. I can’t keep food or drink down for more than twenty minutes. I needed to get out of my stuffy, constricting room so here I am, sitting in the guesthouse’s restaurant, staring at the TV and Friends. I’ve never been a fan of the show, but I guess I’ll have to make peace with it today.

8:55 – This show sucks. It makes me feel like an alien. After years of watching comedies like The Simpsons, Arrested Development, and Eastbound and Down, I’d forgotten how bizarre a laugh track is. Every time Matt LeBlanc says something stupid and the “audience” laughs and I don’t. I’m not trying to sound elitist. I hate that anti-populism shit. But am I missing something? Wasn’t this the most popular show in the English speaking world at one point?

9:10 – Vang Vieng is ground zero for backpacker partying in Laos. As recently as two years ago, this tiny town tucked between limestone cliffs was constantly flooded by bathing suit clad bros covered in body paint. The homemade LaoLao whiskey was so cheap that it was served in beach buckets for a few dollars. It was cheaper than bottled water. This combined with the right-of-passage of tubing down the beautiful river outside town to make Vang Vieng a heaven for 18 year old kids tasting freedom for the first time. Then a bunch of them started dying. On average, one tourist every two weeks drunkenly drowned or dove into shallow, rock-filled waters. Or they succumbed to alcohol poisoning or OD’d on some cocktail of the other available drugs. This came to a head when a prominent Australian politician’s son fell off his guesthouse’s balcony while on a bender. His death prompted Australia and the Laotian authorities to crack down on the lawlessness. Today a lot of the drinking still goes on, but not nearly at the rate it used to. The tubing is certainly still big business. I would likely be doing it right now if my digestive system wasn’t fighting a bitter civil war with my body right now.

9:40 – There’s no way Jennifer Anniston’s character could afford this amazing Manhattan apartment on a waitresses salary. I know Courtney Cox is her roommate, but c’mon. I don’t imagine Cox’s character could float Anniston’s rent. Haven’t these producers ever looked at NYC rent listings?!

10:00 – I’m pretty hungry. I can probably stomach some mint tea, right. Just something to fill my stomach. Some calming tea to keep my stomach settled. I can handle that, right?

10:20 – Nope.

10:25 – It took all of ten minutes for my body to reject that tea. It came up so fast that I had to lunge for the gutter outside the restaurant and spew it all up. The waitress watched all this happen. Now, I’m calmly sitting here, writing in this notebook. She’s looking at me like I’m some sort of crazy person. I don’t blame her.

10:52 – You know what’s cool about Laos? I haven’t seen a McDonald’s in, like, two weeks. That has to be a record for me!

11:00 – I hate this show and this goddamn theme song and all these stupid characters and the fact that they live in NYC but every single person, minor or main character, is white and what am I doing?!

11:20 – Oh no. This particular DVD has finished its run and now it’s repeating! I’m going to have to see these same shitty episodes again! I don’t think my body has the hydration or necessary calories to climb the steps back to my room. I cant escape!

11:30 – I can’t take my eyes off the TV. What is happening to me? I’d better order something to eat. My body needs something else to focus on other than Friends. Maybe I can handle planed steamed rice. Maybe.

12:00 – Nope.

12:17 – A few days ago I was in Luang Prabang. It was an amazing town. It’s a small city of French Indochine architecture and cafes, centuries old Buddhist temples, and more fruit shake stands than you can shake a stick at. (See what I did there?) The who place is on a tiny peninsula jutting out into the Mekong River. At dusk the sun sets behind mountains, creating the sort of riverside views you find on postcards. I couldn’t think of a better place to lose a few days. And really that’s been my trip in Laos. Hopping from place to place, relaxing and enjoying the nature in each. I can see why the Laotians are so calm and laid back.

12:30 – Oh, Chandler, you big goof. Don’t change your name! Phoebe’s right! Chandler Bing is a fine name. It’s fine the way it is! Your name is what makes you unique! Be a free spirit, like Phoebe! You don’t need to change your name to “Mark Johnson” to trust in yourself! I can’t wait to hear what kind of clever sarcastic remark Ross has to say about this!

12:34 – Oh God. The horror. The horror! What have I become?

————-

My stomach was better before the day was out. Just one of those 24 hour things I guess. Whether or not I’ll mentally recover from watching over four hours of Friends, though, remains to be seen.

Sabai Dee, Falang

I’m in a place called Nong Khiaw – a small mountain-framed town in central Laos. A week ago I didn’t even know this town existed. The same could be said for all the other towns in Laos I’ve been through so far: Huay Xai, Loung Nam Tha, and Udomxai.

I’m in the opening stages of a round the world trip I’ve been planning for over two years. It should take me to five continents and however many countries. It’s a strange feeling when something that’s been an abstract thought in your head – a goal, but always one on the horizon – is now your daily reality. It’s especially strange when it manifests itself in the form of a giant eagle.

Really. That wasn’t a metaphor or whatever.

20131021-185539.jpg There’s a huge eagle, like, five feet away from me as I write this. It’s perched right on the railing of this cafe. It doesn’t seem too bothered by my proximity, or the fact that I keep staring at it. The eagle is undoubtedly the cafe owner’s pet. There is a little water bowl nearby. I wonder if the owner lets the bird swoop around and catch mice whenever it’s hungry.

But anyway, back to Laos. Right. I’ve been here for about a week. The country is an independent traveler’s dream. It’s beautiful, relaxed, and not at all over-developed. Nong Khiaw, home of my eagle friend, is basically a two street town straddling the Nam Ou river. It’s surrounded by huge limestone karst mountains. Not a bad place to lose a few days.

But there is one strange thing about it: here in little Nong Khiaw there are two (2) Indian restaurants. They are right across from each other on the main street! I haven’t seen any other Indian places anywhere else yet in Laos. Both are owned and run by Indians and I have no idea how they wound up emigrating to the middle of nowhere in Laos. I could ask but that would spoil the mystery. Besides, every other eatery here town is your standard Laos & Western joint found everywhere in the country. Now there are suddenly two ethnic places across the street from each other?! Why are they so close? They’re undoubtedly reducing each others profits.
But that’s not all! Throughout town, guesthouses and shops all display little laminated advertisement signs for one or the other Indian restaurants. Some places have an advert for Deen, the apparently older of the two. Others have signs for Chennai, the new upstart subcontinent cookery on the block.
I like to imagine the two restaurants battling it out over turf in this rural Laotian backwater. Like the Hatfields and McCoys but with more spices and Bollywood films playing on old TVs in the corner.

Am I the only one fascinated by this?!? Probably, yes.

Anyway, my guesthouse had a sign up for Chennai. So I proudly declared my allegiance for noble Chennai in the heated Aloo Wars and went there for lunch.
It was alright.

20131021-191842.jpg Wasn’t this post going to be about Laos?

I, so far, haven’t been to Laos’ bigger tourist cities. So, up to this point, Laos has been all unpaved roads, verdant forests, and sleepy towns. Laotians are a lot more laid back than their neighbors throughout southeast Asia. Next I’m going to the UNESCO city Luang Prabang. So maybe these realities of Laos are about to change. I doubt, however, that it will change my very positive impression of Laos. It’s been a great place to start my big trip.

Stay tuned for another update on Laos soon!

E-Book Sample for “Humidity and Humility: Stories from Southeast Asia”.

This is a sample from my newly published e-book, Humidity and Humility: Stories from Southeast Asia. The book is written in partnership with Stupid Cancer and proceeds from sales go to the organization to help and support young adults with cancer. The book is a collection of four stories from my travels in Asia over the past few years. It can be found HERE. It can be downloaded for any Kindle or Kindle app (which are available for free through smartphone app stores or on your PC or Mac) Also, if you have an account at the very cool independent publisher website, SmashWords, you can find it there, as well. Thank you and I hope you enjoy this sample and the rest of the e-book!

 

Vietnam:

Buses, Motorbikes and Preserved Dead People.

Part One

I’m going to die on this bus. It’s going to plow headlong into an oncoming truck and careen offthe road, fall into the valley below and burst into flame, killing everyone onboard.

Or, a water buffalo will wander into our path and the driver will swerve out of the way. The bus will careen off the road, fall into the valley below and burst into flame, killing everyone onboard.

Or, it might just spontaneously combust, killing everyone onboard in a plume of flame and black smoke. The engine is slowly grinding away. The muffler, loosely tied to the bumper, is clanging around, creating (I imagine, anyway) a shower of sparks that will ignite the gas tank.

It’s almost enough to make me get up and start praying at the mini neon-lit Cao Dai shrine next to the driver.

***

I’m riding to a place called Sapa, near the Chinese border in northern Vietnam. From what I’ve heard, it’s beautiful part of the country – more of a grand landscape painting than a rural borderland. Verdant mountains and expansive, overgrown valleys spread out before me. Rows upon rows of terraced rice fields, ripe with the new harvest, climb the mountains like stairways. Waterfalls, wind-swept forests, and buffalo add life and movement to the scene. All this is set around the small nearby town and former hill fort preserved from the French colonial days.

Too bad my eyes are glued to the road ahead, watching the driver swerve through incoming traffic along the narrow mountainside road like Barry Sanders cutting through a defense. I’m just hoping he doesn’t turn too quickly and end my time in Sapa—not to mention my life—before it even gets started.

Let me tell you something about buses in Vietnam: a great deal of them look like remnants from a bygone era when safety was an afterthought (or a not-at-all-thought). You might find holdovers from the long decades of war the country went through: hulking American- or Russian-made beasts that belch diesel fumes and lumber along the road, ready to give out at any moment. You could also find yourself in a much smaller Korean or Japanese minibus from the 1980s. You’d think these would be safer (and on their own they are) but the huge, older buses seem hellbent on obliterating them. Riding in one of these in Vietnam is the road version of sticking a “Kick Me” sign on your back.

The dilapidated buses wouldn’t be that bad if it weren’t for the suicidal drivers. They wait until the bus is packed. If it can safely hold 40, he’ll wait until he has 80. If it can hold 80, he’ll wait until he has 1,207. After firing up the prehistoric engine, he’ll swerve in and out of oncoming traffic, going as fast as his old junker vehicle is capable of (a passenger can expect to go head-on with another bus in a high speed game of chicken dozens of times.) Unconcerned with the importance of axels, shocks and tires, the driver will speed over any bump, pothole or obstacle in his path. All the while, as gas fumes waft out the back of the bus, he’ll fire up a cigarette and look as if he’s ready to fall asleep.

You can also count on old, static-filled speakers being jury-rigged to the inside of the bus. These will play either Vietnamese metal (which, through the old speakers, sounds like distorted noise) or out of date American teen pop music (which, through any speakers, sounds like garbage.)

On this particular ride I’ve got the Vietnamese metal. Silver linings, I guess? With our bus fully loaded with passengers, a border guard takes a seat next to me, complete with an assault rifle slung across his lap. Every bump and hard turn thrusts the barrel of the gun into my side. He sees my discomfort and smiles.

No problem. Safety OK, safety OK!” he says in rapid-fire English while flashing a thumbs up.

He tells me his name is “Jimmy”, though he hastily adds “Not really”, and proceeds to tell me all about his job as a border guard. He has the enthusiasm of a new employee, which makes sense, as he looks about sixteen years old. His youth and easy smile only add to the surreal feeling of the gun pointing at my ribs.

As we zip around curves in the mountain road, going too fast in a bus that’s too old, I’m glad to have Jimmy as a distraction. He shows me photos of his family and girlfriend and gives me advice on the best places to eat in Lao Cai.

“Also, don’t go near the Chinese workers in Lao Cai. Maybe you’ll wind up in a box to be shipped to China,” he warns me, and laughs out loud. “No, no, that’s a joke… But seriously, don’t go near the Chinese in Lao Cai.” Having just left Lao Cai with no plans of going back I tell him I should be safe from any renegade Chinese smugglers.

Before he gets off the bus, he turns to me and says, “I’m going to the border now so please teach me how to ask for bribes from travelers in English.”

I’m in no position to refuse the kid with the assault rifle pointing at my gut, so I explain to him some of the complexities of the English language.

Your paperwork and visa is not in order” he says with a menacing tone.

I tell him that if he’s dealing with an American traveler he can say something like “I can’t grant you a visa. But I did just grant an entry visa to a Mr. Franklin and Jackson yesterday.” Jimmy tells me he doesn’t know who Mr. Franklin is, but he writes down the line anyway and practices it.

You’re a good man, James,” he says and starts to exit the bus. “If you’re ever in trouble in Vietnam, I will help.” It’s always good to be owed a favor.

***

Sapa is the center of tourism for the northern Vietnamese highlands. Much cooler and mountainous than the rest of Vietnam, it often seems like an entirely different country. Most of Sapa’s residents are not ethnic Vietnamese, but from one of the tribal groups that live in the region, the Hmong and Dzao. When I step off the bus several Dzao and Hmong women selling various handicrafts and clothing confront me for a sale.

Hello! Bonjour! Guten Tag! Hola!” they shout, covering many of the white-guy linguistic bases. I hustle to a guesthouse to set down my pack and rest.

The next morning, I’m sitting in an open air café sipping coffee and looking over hiking routes. The cafe faces out onto Sapa’s main business street, and the town is is waking up all around me with women setting up their market stalls. I hear a slow sputtering motor grinding its way towards me. I look down the street and see a small Honda motorbike crawling into town with a live, fully grown water buffalo strapped to the back. The buffalo is strangely sedate, moving its head around to look at other passing bikes. I’m stunned that the bike hasn’t collapsed under the weight. I’ve never seen anything like it. The buffalo is more than twice the size of the bike! Levered from behind, the front wheel of the bike rises ever so slightly every few meters. The driver notices me gawking, smiles and waves as he rolls on by. I take it as a sign to get out and do some hiking.

The valleys and hiking trails are worth the trip by themselves. Green mountains, calm streams and picturesque farming villages dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. I meet a group of Hmong teenagers walking back to their homes from Sapa and they guide me to a secluded rocky waterfall and swimming hole. They teach me how to play da cau, a game where you kick a badminton birdie back and forth between the players. I’m terrible at it, and my new friends laugh when I contort myself in circles. I think back to the bus ride. As beautiful as this place is, the memories of Sapa will fade. However, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the deathtrap of a bus I took here, the feeling of chatting with Jimmy, gun pointed at my ribs, or the sound of the motorbike’s motor grinding away as it hauled a water buffalo through town.

Travel is about the journey, not the destination. It’s about the experiences we have and the people we meet along the way. In the end, the end itself doesn’t matter much. It was an important lesson and I’m better off for it… I just wish I didn’t have to have an assault rifle pointed at me to learn it.