Archive for the 'Safety' Category

Surviving Sunset, And My First Motorbike Accident

So, so much for that New Year’s Resolution.

To be fair, I was on my friend’s motorbike, so I was still acting in accordance with the half-assed guidelines I’d set for myself. But that’s not really the point, now is it? The point of not riding a motorbike was to avoid accidents, to avoid getting injured and thus avoid medical treatment and having to deal with open wounds in a swampy climate in which I am unaccustomed to dealing with open wounds.

As far as accidents go, it was pretty uneventful. We were on a dusty highway outside of town—though “highway” isn’t quite the right word. It’s a big road with a gravel-and-dirt shoulder, filled with wheezing trucks and swerving motorbikes and minivans full of black-eyed workers heading home, the unlucky of whom were relegated to sitting on the roof. It’s one of the big roads outside of town, lined with garment factories and gas stations and bakeries and endless rows of roadside markets selling t-shirts and produce and weird smoldering meats, from beneath endless rows of beach umbrellas displaying names of cell phone companies.

It’s one of those roads that make you realize how big this city actually is, how little of it you actually know, living in the expat bubble of the inner-city. Which is why we’d headed out there—my friend’s company put him up in a housing division out there and he’d kept telling me I had to see it: “It’s totally different out there. Makes the riverside look fancy.”

That and we were chasing the dusk—wanted photos of smoldering sunsets, red as a wound behind a horizon of dust and exhaust, this particular breed of humanity all cast in silhouette. Everything’s more beautiful as a silhouette; anything can be beautiful as a silhouette.

So we were weaving and rolling through the bottlenecks and break-necks, me on the back snapping photos and trying not to slide in too close to the driver, but knowing that each time we narrowly missed another bike, I’d reflexively squeeze my legs. You’re never sure if that’s the kind of message you want to send, or if you want to send a message at all. Sometime you do.

So I was only half paying attention when an old man wobbled slowly on a motorbike in front of us. He moved out from the shoulder suddenly, and we couldn’t slow down in time. We probably wouldn’t have fallen over if it hadn’t been for all the dust—the same dust that was making the sunset so damn pretty.

We fell, I skidded and it was over before I realized it happened. It didn’t hurt, because most things don’t hurt till later, unless they’re really bad. We stood up, shook off the dust and I laughed as the blood blossomed from my knee.

People from the storefronts and markets came out, stood along the dirt that passed as a sidewalk, and stared. “White girl bleeding on the side of the highway,” I thought and laughed. I waved.

They smiled and waved back.

Blurry, but still...

We cruised back towards my friend’s apartment, stopped at a pharmacy that was really just a medicine cabinet in the front of a family’s living room. The woman tsked at me in a motherly way, stroked my shoulder and disappeared; a smiley guy I took to be her husband tenderly cleaned me up.

The wound foamed under the hydrogen peroxide, and the Betadine was drippy and the color of old blood, rusty blood, and it stung but in a clean way. The smiley guy cut up gauze and taped my wound shut as my friend looked sheepishly on and apologized.

“Don’t apologize, it’s not your fault,” I said. Then, with a smile, “But if I’d been driving, I’d probably be apologizing too.”

Smiley charged us $2 and my friend insisted on paying, which I didn’t argue about. Then we headed back into the city center, everything blacker than night behind my sunglasses, which I still wore to keep the dirt out of my contacts. But he was right—the city center seemed fancy after that, developed and paved and rich.

So now I’ve got this knee to attend to. Three days and thrice-daily cleanings, and it’s still raw in spots. I’m waiting for the scab to form, cringing each time I look at it, wincing each time I rinse it in disinfectants. I always hate tending to wounds. It’s the same with getting tattooed—it’s not the thing itself that bothers me, it’s the healing, the dealing with it. Which is a metaphor, of course.

But before I’d gotten back on the bike—while I stood on that dusty roadside dripping fresh blood down my leg and feeling the stares on my body like sticky insects—I’d looked out and noticed the sunset.

It was goddamn beautiful.

So I hobbled over and snapped a photo.

Because everything is beautiful at sunset.

April 25: Sobreity and Getting Stolen From

Didn't take many picture in Vientiane. So here's one of people on the exercise equipment along the riverside.

Vientiane, April 25th: it was one of those perfect days. Until I found the money missing.

April 25th is my sobriety birthday, the day I get to think to myself—”This is the number of years my life has been getting better.” This year was eleven. Eleven years of slowly, sometimes painfully, learning to live in the world and in my own body without killing myself. It’s a pretty good thing to celebrate, not in a balloons-and-cake kind of way, but in a way that’s stiller, sweeter.

The theme of the day, I’d decided, was self-cafe. Which didn’t seem like it would be hard to achieve in Vientiane. We’d arrived the previous morning, slept off our 24-hour-bus-ride aches and spent the afternoon strolling around the town, eating at the local night market, reveling in all the differences from Cambodia (“Sidewalks!”).

The air was lighter, softer in Vientiane. We were farther north, and it was cooler, an oppressive edge eased. The streets were free of rubbish, and the traffic was mellow, orderly even—girls in sarongs riding side-saddle, holding frilly sun umbrellas. With its shady streets and fountain square, its cafes and riverside promenade, the city felt—I hate to say it—European.

Everyone had talked about how insanely mellow Laos is, how when you cross the border you exhale this breath you hadn’t know you’d been holding. And it was like that for me. So I decided to mellow out with it. April 25, there’d be no hard-core traveler shit, just doing things that felt good for me.

So I spent a couple hours writing in the morning, then went for fruit shakes and Western salads. We took a tuk-tuk out to a fitness center recommended by the guidebook; I ran sprints on the treadmill, swam in the pool, read in the sun, drank fancy coffee, got an hour-long massage. We went back into town and my friends treated me to Indian food. Cool air blew off the river, and I felt healthy, serene, filled with a simple kind of gratitude you don’t need words for.

“This has been a fucking great day,” I told my friends as we walked back to the guesthouse. “Really, guys—thanks for sharing it with me.”

I needed to stop off at our room to grab some more cash. I’d changed a bunch of US dollars the day before, and I never like to walk around with too much money on me—a lesson learned, I suppose, growing up in Oakland. I know you’re not supposed to leave anything of value in hotel rooms, but it always seemed a toss up to me. And in six years of traveling, I’d never had a problem.

Housekeeping had come, we noticed: fresh towels and soap packets. I reached into my bag, a pocket that I’d left, admittedly, half-zipped. I pulled out the book I’d tucked my cash into—as it happened, my favorite recovery daily reader (yeah, that’s right). I flipped to the page I’d stuck my money in—as it happened, that day, April 25.

And it wasn’t there.

“God. Damn. It.” I closed my eyes, dropped my arms to my side. “My money is gone.”

I commenced what I knew was a fruitless effort, digging through all my shit. Alicia and Suki joined in. “Did you put it here maybe?” opening another pocket, lifting up another pile of dirty laundry.

It was gone. $150, about 5 days worth of travel. And I knew there was nothing I could do. Every hotel room I’d ever stayed in, this one included, has had signs telling you they weren’t responsible for missing property. I had travel insurance, but how do you prove you had cash stolen?

And it was partially my fault. I hadn’t been careless, per se, but I hadn’t been as vigilant as I should have. I’d broken one of the cardinal rules of traveling, right along with leaving your bags unattended or keeping money in your back pocket.

I went down to reception, even though I knew, just like searching through the room, that talking to the manager would be fruitless.

I told him about the missing money. “I know there’s nothing you can do, but I just thought you should know.” He went through the motions of calling staff (“They said no one cleaned your room today.”), searching through the video recorder of the hallway (“I didn’t see anyone enter the room.”).

He told me they’d never had a problem before; a couple minutes later, he suggested I’d lost the money. “Maybe because you are three,” he offered. “Once we had three people staying, and they also lost something. They called the police; it was a big problem for us.”

I sighed a long, pained sigh. “I thought you said you’d never had a problem before.”

He shook his head, dismissing my observation. “I trust my staff.”

“Well, that’s good. But someone stole money from me, so I don’t.”

I sat down in the gaudily carved bench in the foyer, defeated. My brain ran through a list of should-have’s, why-didn’t-I’s. I pictured all the end-of-trip indulgences I wouldn’t be able to allow myself. I felt nauseous. I got, I’ll admit it, teary.

I went back upstairs, flopped down on the crisply folded sheets. I smirked at the irony of getting money stolen from a recovery text, on my sobriety birthday, a day that had been so healthful and serene.

What do you have control of in this situation? I asked myself. I couldn’t get the money back, couldn’t file a claim with my travel insurance, couldn’t prove that it was stolen in the first place. All I could come up with was my attitude.

I sighed again. Not a pained sigh, but a long exhale, the kind they say you do in Laos. So someone took my money. Was I going to let them take my serenity too?

It’s been a few days. And while I still feel the sting, while I have to be extra careful about what I spend money on, the main thing I remember from April 25, 2011 isn’t getting ripped off. It’s of taking care of myself, giving myself what I needed—a day of fitness and relaxing and good food—and sharing it with friends.

[For what it's worth, the hotel I stayed at was the Riverside Hotel. And they're breakfast was pretty awful to boot.]

Learning to Ride On a Motorbike in Hanoi

Hanoi is a bipolar child with a strict bedtime.

Clinging hands behind me to the metal rack, I try to suppress the involuntary flinching—a circumstantial case of Tourette’s. It’s Saturday morning, and my first ride aback a motorbike through the frenetic traffic of Hanoi.

If you want to see the word “clusterfuck” defined, acted out in an exquisite charade, snap on a spare helmet, straddle the seat of your friend’s motorbike and take a ride through the streets of Hanoi. Feel the blanket of exhaust haze whip up around you; feel your legs naked to the risk of a thousand near collisions; feel the breeze of your own mortality and the queasy cocktail of sweetened coffee, cigarettes and exhaust churn in your stomach.

See towers of Tet trees and blossom branches balanced aback bikes; see jugs of water and housewares, bundles of mysterious somethings tied on in impossible precariousness. See families of four smooshed onto a single bike; see the eyes of children placidly blinking in the madness. See drivers texting, pulling out without looking, barely slowly, pedestrians stepping out into the chaos of it all—women walking with baskets balanced on a piece of wood across their shoulders, liked Lady Justice, except it’s their mouths that are masked; their eyes remain wide open.

Hear the horns beep and squawk like a million hungry birds—seven million, to be exact, and every damn one of em has a motorbike and is riding their motorbike, lanes just vague suggestions, right-of-way a nonexistent notion.

See this all this because you’re in this, suddenly a part of this: a passenger in the strange dance that feels more like a riot or a mosh pit—but no, no, must be a dance because you keep skirting disaster, skirting death, and you keep wanting to clamp your eyes shut but can’t, can’t.

Riding aback a motorbike through Hanoi isn’t exactly a near-death experience. It feels more like being on an airplane with really bad turbulence: you trust the pilot but not the skies. You know you’re not actually going to die, but you really can’t wait for the whole damn thing to be over. You get off feeling like you’ve just stepped off a rickety old rollercoaster that’s safety permits are supremely suspect.

“The sidewalks in Hanoi aren’t really for walking,” Jacob throws over his shoulder. “They’re more for commerce. If you want to walk, you’ve pretty much gotta do it in the street.”

It’s not a walking town, he says, and it’s true—at times I don’t see a single pedestrian, just a weaving, wheezing sea of traffic. How do you get to know a place without walking it? How do you get a feel for feel for a place without your feet on its streets?

It gets easier. I tell myself to trust, to put faith in the fact no one seems to be crashing. It begins to feel like we’re moving along this barely perceptible tightrope that weaves in and out of other people’s tightropes, maybe like telephone wires—like our own personal orbit, the miracle of chance that we don’t collide, such a miracle that it can’t be chance at all, but driven by some other force I can only suspect, can feel at times in the smoggy breeze, but can’t come close to naming.

Nighttime is different. It’s as though someone flips a giant switch. By 11, the streets have cleared, suddenly swept of everything but a faint whisper, the asthmatic glow of the headlight. The streets seem smaller in the dark, emptied of their madness—they don’t seem like the same streets at all, but an entirely different place, a different city. An incredible stillness settles over the buildings, the pavement, the wires stretching and branches drooping and the shapes of shadows in the dim drizzle—as if none of it were real, all the daylight mania just a waking dream, a reverse nightmare.

By Sunday I’m able to hang on with only one hand and snap photos with the other. I’m comfortable enough to carry on a conversation as we drive. Jacob points out landmarks and tell little stories; I tell him how my parents were revolutionaries when they were young, how the met in a Communist meeting. He quizzes me Vietnamese numbers, phrases; we laugh about the universal asshole-ness of SUV drivers. We weave through the manic chaos of daytime, and I tell him Hanoi feels like a bipolar city.

Rain comes that night, along with a cold wind; we move more slowly through the vacant streets. I blink against the lashings of wet and my hands turn frigid. Slowly, I loosen my grip on the metal grating, and place both my hands in my pockets.

I’ve learned how to trust the gods of traffic and chaos. I’ve learned how to ride a motorbike in Hanoi.

Living With Vampires

It’s vampire season in Oakland.

We sit at the bar, piles of cash and cigarettes and half-drunk bottles of wine—another end to another shift. It’s past midnight, and we’re all tired, itching to get home. “Just another ten minutes, I swear!” JL calls from the loft.

We sit there—all four of us—off the clock and waiting. Because we can’t leave someone to walk out alone.

I used to wonder as a little kid which would be worse: to live with werewolves or vampires? Werewolves could pulverize through anything, but you only had to deal with them one night a month. Vampires, on the other hand, were tricky, the color of shadows, and out there every single night. As soon as the sun went down, the streets would become a different thing, sinister, a free-for-all, an anything-goes zone where at any moment a pale, hungry creature could leap out and attack. And you could harbor illusions about fighting them off, but really, what were the chances you could actually drive a stake through their heart? You’d be defenseless, and all they’d see would be your virgin neck and throbbing vein and they’d want a drink—a drink of blood that was now theirs.

I imagined the constant stress, the constant level of awareness, the little ways that living with such creatures would reshape your life (“I left something in my car. Oh well, I’ll have to get it in the morning; not worth risking it.”), and in the end, I’d always decide that vampires were worse.

And it’s a similar feeling in Oakland right now—that when the sun goes down, the shadows come alive, and go on the hunt. There’s been a rash of robberies and violent assaults among the circles I frequent, enough that I can’t discount it as the usual fifth-most-dangerous-city-in-the-country shenanigans. No one can.

I forget how much it’s there, this constant consideration in the back of my head. I won’t take the train into the city if it means I’ll be coming home after dark; I don’t want to risk the walk back to my car from the station. I don’t go jogging at night—or at least, I drive up into Piedmont to do it. I suck it up and pay for parking in order to park right outside the restaurant I work at, so I again don’t have to risk walking farther than I have to.

But it’s gone a step further this year. After two guys I worked with got robbed at gunpoint leaving the restaurant, we stopped walking out even in pairs—we all leave work together now. After a girl from another restaurant got abducted, robbed and tortured, we won’t even let our manager stay late, even if her car is literally 50 feet from the door. She rearranges her schedule so that she comes in early, gets her office work done, and can leave with everyone else.

It’s like being a prisoner in a way. There’s no comfort in the fact that the fear applies equally to men and women, or that it’s not even fear that drive you all, but rather a statistical likelihood. When a third guy you work with got his nose broken last week, the reaction was largely anger—at him. “What the fuck was he doing thinking he could walk three blocks by himself?”

I keep thinking about Tirana, about my first late night at a bar, when everyone I’d come with had left.

“Where can I catch a cab?”

“A cab? You can walk, you know, it’s only 15 minutes.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s late, and I’m alone…”

“Oh, but it’s totally safe.”

“I’d rather not risk it.”

A laugh. “Listen. In five years at the hostel, we’ve never heard of anyone ever having a problem.”

And it felt strange, walking through the two am streets, a foreign girl by herself. I couldn’t stop checking my back, walking briskly, staring down the few strangers I passed.

But eventually, I got used to it. And I almost felt giddy, elated by this strange sense of freedom—a sudden lightness and ease. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until you get a taste of something better.

Just after one of the guys at work who got robbed, he posted a really telling Facebook status: “I knew it was bound to happen, living in Oakland caught up with me.” And it kind of broke my heart, because at times I feel the same way—like I’m just waiting for my number to be drawn. That I can be as careful and cautious as I’d like, but eventually, one day, I’ll let my guard down or take a risk, and it’ll be me, my turn, my time to get bitten.

When we finally walk out, it’s after one am. “That,” I sigh, “was not 10 minutes.”

“Nope.”

“But it’s not like we coulda left her there.”

“Nope.”

And we get in our cars and drive own separate homes, where we’ll circle to find the closest spot, walk briskly to the gate and slam it shut, tightly behind us.

Travel Tip: Get Inventive

What to bring and how to pack—it’s always a hot topic. But no matter how well you prepare—no matter how many water purification tablets and rehydration pills you stuff into your waterproof, weather-resistant backpack—you can’t anticipate every twist and turn you’ll encounter on the road.

At some point, you’ll need to get inventive.

Let’s say you do something as innocent and seemingly unadventurous as going on a day hike. Now, some people tromp off with walking sticks, CamelBaks, and a fanny pack full of First Aid supplies. But those’re also the same folks that wear their jungle-proof hiking boots in the middle of the city. (In your preparedness, you must also consider fashion.)

Let’s say it’s a hot day at one of your top 3 travel secret spots. Let’s say that Bass Lake is sparkling cool, and filled with the intertubes and joyous clamor of hikers. You paddle out with a friend and see carefree bodies flying through the air, limbs ecstatically free for one airborne moment before splashing ceremoniously into the murky dark.

Let’s say you forget that both you and your friend are total effing city kids and have never once been on a rope swing. Let’s say that you don’t stop to consider the physics of the situation, the centrifugal force and the fact that some technique might be involved. Let’s say that all that’s going through your mind is—”Fuck yeah, rope swing!”

And let’s say that both you and your friend completely gnarl your hands and are left treading water with a mess of twisted and bloodied fingers.

It’s time to get creative.

First off, remember your First Aid training: reduce swelling (and bleeding) by raising the effected body part(s) above heart-level. This means treading water hands-up for 500+ feet back to shore. You can also call on your long-forgotten lifeguard training.

Next, you’ll want to get a second opinion. You’ll probably try to tell yourself that your wound “isn’t that bad, right?” You’ll attempt to move the effected body part in a perkily healthful manner to convince everyone—but mostly yourself—that no serious injury has occurred. At this stage, it helps to have friends with a firm grasp on reality.

When it’s determined that you are indeed effed up, you’ll need to provide some sort of make-shift care for yourself. You won’t always have gauze and splints and medical tape handy. You’ll have to make do with what you have right in front of you. Dig through your purse and discover that a Bic pen is about the length of your finger. Now how could you secure it to your effected digits to both provide support and restrict swelling? You think, look around…

Using your traveler ingenuity, you’ll end up with a perfectly workable—and dare I say, fashionable—solution: Bic-pen/shoelace splints:

Stop hiking? No way! You’re totally good to go.

Bonus tip: Don’t waste money on needless medical care. If you happen to be American, you’re already well-practiced in the delicate art of determining when medical attention is and is not absolutely necessary. Unless your shit is sideways and needs to be reset, a doctor isn’t going to do much for a broken finger. So save the pennies in your travel jar, go to Walgreens, and buy a splint and some medical tape. Total cost: $7.

Ass Whoopin on the AC Transit: Epic Beard Man, and Why I Don’t Ride the Bus Anymore

Celebrity sighting on the 53

The voice was barely discernible, muffled by whizzing traffic and excitement. “I just rode the bus with Epic Beard Man! He was giving out candy bars and autographs, and I got a photo with him!”

My friend’s Friday evening commute home had been spiced up by a sighting of Oakland’s latest internet phenomenon. As the number 53 heaved down Fruitvale Avenue, passengers posed for pictures and chanted “Epic Beard Man,” as the grizzlied old dude distributed candy from his backpack and basked in the adoration of the bus riders.

Regardless of your take on Oakland’s latest internet sensation—racist, vigilante or mentally ill bad-ass—one thing is for sure: Epic Beard Man has reached celebrity status. And while a heated, racialized debate rages in chat rooms and on blogs, the actual riders of AC Transit appear to have risen Epic Beard Man to the revered status of folk hero.

Quick low-down, in case you’re out of the loop: earlier this week, a YouTube video of an AC Transit (Alameda County Transit) altercation between a middle-aged black man and an elderly white man (now dubbed Epic Beard Man) made quite a stir—over a million page views in its first day, and countless comments and ensuing discussions over issues of race and safety in Oakland. The story was picked up by local blogs, news outlets, even the Huffington PostKnow Your Meme offers the most complete run-down of the controversy, featuring video responses that capture some telling Oakland sentiments.

You can go to YouTube and dig through all the remixes, follow-ups and tributes, but here’s the original video. Yes, it’s graphic:

It’s no surprise that the video is so popular. It’s another opportunity for people to glimpse into the dysfunctional “urban” reality of Oakland, and people outside of Oakland never seem to tire of that. Several years ago, the city’s other big internet phenomenon fascinated outsiders with its oh-so Oakland cultural collisions and colorful characters (I was living in East Oakland at the time, and the screeching sound of whistle tips really did echo through the streets at all hours).

While responses to the latest video vary, they largely fall into two camps: Epic Beard Man is a racist, or a hero. He’s either an old redneck who asks a black man to shine his shoes, then beats him, or he’s a tough dude who stands up to a punk-ass thug who’s instigating and harassing him. In general, the first camp seems to be populated by guilty white people and advocates of all things ghetto, while the second camp is composed of kids, bus riders and enthusiasts of drama and smack-downs.

My own response lies somewhere between the two. Both men are unstable, not the kind of people you want to sit next to and exactly the kind of people you meet on East Bay buses. Epic Beard Man is obviously not well, further evidenced by follow-up interviews; turns out he was also the star of another YouTube phenomenon, a video where he gets tased at an A’s game for unruly behavior. He’s a deranged old Vet with a tenuous grasp on reality, prone to violent outbursts. Not someone who should be milling around the streets, trying to take care of themselves, but hey, that’s America (thank you, Ronald Reagan). The other dude should have left it alone, realized Epic Beard Man was not all there and not worth the trouble—but in his bravado, he got pumped full of ego and shit-talking and, well, he got served.

What’s most interesting to me is how the people most closely related to the issues raised in the video reacted—that is, AC Transit riders and people with exhaustive experience dealing with both the tiringly whacked-out and tediously ghetto. Most of the folks I’ve talked to feel that while, yeah, Epic Beard Man is totally deranged, dude got what he deserved.

It reminds me of an issue several years ago when an Oakland resident was both vilified and exalted for standing up to the thug kids that plagued his block, in what became a violent incident. While both parties in this instance were African-American, so the race issue wasn’t raised, responses were similar: he was either a vigilante hero, or a villainous attacker of innocent youth. Throughout the controversy, the man insisted that all he wanted was a safe neighborhood in which to raise his kids—what I’d argue the majority of people in Oakland are looking for. In the end, he did what most of the families I grew up with did—unable to afford a nicer neighborhood in Oakland, he moved to one of the outlying working-class suburbs.

Responses to that issue, as well as this one, tap into some very central Oakland issues. While the man from a few years back was a much more sympathetic (and sane) character, and didn’t want to be a hero, many people regarded him as such. I think it speaks to the extent to which people are sick of all the bullshit. People are tired of dealing with puffed up a-holes who think they can say/do whatever to whoever and get away with it, tired of shit-talkers, instigators and intimidators. So much so that they’re willing to revere violent behavior.

The riders on the 53 last night, majority non-white, were literally cheering for Epic Beard Man. Yes, some of it was surely star-struckedness and a glorification of school-yard theatrics, but I think there was something deeper going on there, something almost beyond race. Most of the video responses I’ve encountered are, in fact, from people of color. Epic Beard Man may be nuts, but the other guy was an ass. There’s no video glorifying him—and I don’t think it’s just cause he was the loser in the altercation. It’s a strange thing: an incident so racialized, that at its core, to the people who deal with this stuff day in and day out, has more to do with harassment and basic respect than race.

That the incident took place on a bus is no coincidence. A San Francisco Chronicle blogger (and fellow gym goer) centered his coverage of the issue on the ridiculousness of AC Transit—for him, it was all evidence for why he doesn’t ride the buses in Oakland.

Word. I grew up riding AC Transit, and it served as a serious education in the world. The first post on this blog was a reflection of how riding the East Bay buses prepared me for world travel, while the very first piece I published, as a teenager in The East Bay Express, was a narrative about my fucked-up experiences on AC Transit (I used a line from the piece as the title for this post). While shit like this doesn’t go down on the vast majority of bus rides, it’s not some sort of exceptional incident—it just happened to be captured on tape. I’m grateful for the schooling AC Transit administered; as a result of vital life skills learned on those blue plastic seats, people generally don’t fuck with me. But I’m even more grateful to have a car now.

The Epic Beard Man hype will surely die down—like everything these days, it’ll be discussed and linked to and tweeted wildly, then fade into the buzzing gray, the next craze taking its place (in the digital age, it seems everyone’s 15 minutes of fame are whittled down to 15 seconds). But for the rest of us, the issues the video captures will continue on: race, safety, the crazies that fill AC Transit. They’ll continue to roam around, screaming and bleeding all over our commutes, and I will carry on with my self-centered, polluting aversion to East Bay mass transit.

But I will say—being on that 53 with my friend last night would have been an experience. If for nothing else than the photo ops.

Knuckle Bumps and Stomach Punches: VICE Under Fire

“Negligent.” “Contemptuous.” “Appalling substandard.” “Morally bankrupt.” “A modern version of a colonial diary.”

Ouch. It’s some harsh criticism that isn’t undeserved. The VICE Guide to Liberia, which I did a post about a few weeks ago, has ignited a cauldron of contempt on the blogosphere. Big-time media attention from CNN and the Huffington Post led to impassioned and eloquent arguments against the documentary, and some frighteningly truck-rally-esque endorsements. It’s got me thinking a lot about the travel series I’d formerly enjoyed and endorsed, despite its arrogance, and wondering: did VICE go too far?

Well, the answer is yes. Clearly. As I dug into the dozen or so blog posts, and the scores of ensuing comments, I learned more about the current situation in Liberia. VICE didn’t portray it fairly, or even close to fairly, and fell woefully short of providing the kind of context one would need to draw any kind of informed conclusions about the country. But I don’t think the series was entirely without merit, entirely evil and shallow. And buried beneath smirks and bro language (“heavy vibe” is used a lot), there’s still an emotional depth to the documentary that keeps it, for me, from being too simple of a case: black and white, Western and African, exploiter and exploited.

Most of the voices crying out against VICE are from people personally invested in the country—they’ve lived there, traveled there, done development work there. If I were emotionally linked to the country, I’d be pretty pissed too. Penelope MC’s post post relates stories and experiences of positive progress in Liberia, while Kate Thomas’ post shares some of the tourist-friendly spots. On The Faster Times, Adam Karlin delivers the most seething and meticulous critique of VICE I came across, picking apart the faulty journalistic practices employed. On the other end of the spectrum are the positive comments that fill the VBS website, which basically amount to a Beavis & Butthead “Whoa.” I found only one blog from someone with experience in Liberia that lauded the series, and the rationale there was a little odd. Christine Scott Cheng offered a more nuanced review, as does Ethan Zuckerman, arriving at the point that the series, however flawed, deserves to be watched. I agree.

A different view

The VICE Guide to Liberia paints a bleak picture—so much so that I was surprised, only a week after its release, to come across a New York Times article about the country’s burgeoning surf scene. I began to suspect VICE hadn’t captured the entirety of the situation in Liberia.

Indeed, one of the main qualms people have with the series is that it only shows the most fucked-up parts of Liberia, largely within the capital Monrovia. While it’s true that “this is just what VICE does,” I think that reasoning is a cop out. VICE hypes the situation: the first episode makes it seem like the war is still going on (though I’d argued subsequent episodes firmly depict the war as over), and the UN is claimed to be leaving the country, an incendiary claim that isn’t exactly true.

I don’t have any experience in Liberia, so I did what I always do in this situation: related it to Oakland. Someone could certainly go in to the worst neighborhoods of Oakland and do a series that made the whole city look like a dangerous, drug-riddled hellhole. And that would have pissed me off, for the exact same reason it did people invested in Liberia—the 80s are past, crime is down in Oakland, and a lot of people and organizations are working hard to enrich their communities. That being said, I don’t think going into those places, documenting and interviewing and excavating stories, would be entirely without value. They are hard, painful stories to hear, images to see, but they are true and deserve to be heard. More context certainly should have been provided—something like: “we went to the worst slums and interviewed former warlords”—so that the series didn’t appear to be a blanket of this-is-what-Liberia-is-like. But just because the stories featured weren’t representative of the whole doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard.

Ambassador setting up a Girls Empowerment Center

Other arguments against the series include sensationalism, stereotype indulgence and bad-assedness. People argue that host Shane Smith is exaggerating the situation so that he can look tough, and the series more daring, and that in the process he dehumanizes his subjects, treating them like animals in a zoo. There’s a lot of validity to these arguments. The war is over-hyped, and less discerning viewers could certainly draw erroneous conclusions. Shane Smith, to me, looks scared and freaked out in most of the footage; rather than a bad-ass, as many of the site’s commenters lauded him as, he seems wholly untough to me. Not saying that I’d react any better, just that the series didn’t make him seem cool to me.

But the argument I’ve been grappling the most with is the stereotyping and dehumanizing one. Africa is again portrayed as a hellhole, Africans as savage cannibals. I can agree with this statement, but my experience with the series was completely different.

Granted, I’m coming from a pretty left-wing perspective, but to me, the series didn’t evoke an Us Vs. Them reaction. To me, it served as an exploration of how generations of war, poverty and exploitation create dire situations not easily remedied. It’s not an African issue, but a human one. What happens to former warlords and child soldiers? Do they try to reform and make amends for their actions, like Joshua Blahyi, or stay whacked and ready for combat, like former General Rambo? What about the kids growing up in all that, the women and all those folks just trying to live life as they best they can?

The most interesting part of the series to me wasn’t the shocking wartime footage or discussions of cannibalism—it was the visits to the boys school of former soldiers, to the brothels and heroin dens. Not because it was shocking, because it wasn’t, but because of the eyes of the people shown, the pain-beyond-pain. For me, it was incredible humanizing, touched on that part of me that makes me feel like we’re all connected, together in this often fucked-up world. I can see how that wouldn’t evoke the same reaction in a lot of viewers, and maybe the emotional depth wasn’t in the coverage at all, but in my own reaction to it.

At the end of his review, Adam Karlin touched on what the real shortcoming of the VICE series is, to me: “Bad travel is about going somewhere and reconfirming everything you thought you knew before you left, and this is exactly what Vice does in Liberia.” I don’t feel like anything was learned by the people making the documentary—they were shocked, sure, but their ideas and opinions about what was going on appear to have remained unchanged. I’ve never been on a trip like that, where something in my understanding didn’t change. And I hope that I can retain enough open-mindedness and humility not to ever.

Whatever the conclusions, one thing’s for sure: the VICE Guide to Liberia garnered a lot of attention for the country. And for VICE. It got people talking, even if they didn’t want to, and got people like me, who had a hazy understanding of the present-day situation, spending hours online to dig deeper and learn more. It won’t be easily written off, which means there’s more to it than mere caricature and hip packaging. And it might mean that VICE does a more thorough, honest job next time. Cause God knows they certainly have the resources to.

There’s No Crackheads in Cuba, and Other Things that Strike the American Traveler as Strange

Havana Mural

Hands down, beyond a doubt, Cuba is the most different place I’ve ever traveled to.

Sure, I’ve been to non-Western countries; I’ve trekked through remote jungles studded with indigenous villages and spent a night in a water-world town-on-stilts where the night sky erupted with spontaneous flashes of thunderless lightning. But I’ve never been to another place where capitalism wasn’t a presence, and where the ensuing materialism and infiltration of American culture was so miniscule.

It’s impossible to talk about Cuba without getting into some kind of political discussion. Like everyone else, I’ve got my personal views—seeing as I was raised in a house that had 38 volumes of Lenin on the shelf, I’ll just let you guess what side of the spectrum I fall on.

But I’m not here to talk about that. Not really. What I want to talk about, and what’s of importance to the traveler to Cuba, are the ways in which Cuba is unlike any other country I’ve experienced. These reasons are inextricably linked to the country’s politics, to the revolution and the island’s legacy of struggle.

Yes, I realize I’m walking into a shitstorm. But we either dance delicately around these things, saying the same, tired, noncommittal niceties (Dante had a hell for that), or we get real—sit down, look it in the eye and say what we mean. (I’ll let you guess which option I think has more value.) Besides, I’m back home; I’ve got the toilet paper and functional plumbing to handle barrages of shit.

Oddity #1: Safety

One of the first things I read about Cuba was how safe it was. Touted in guidebooks to be paradise for solo female travelers, where any dark backalley can be delved into any time of day or night, I was willing to accept that Cuba was probably safer than Oakland. Most places are. I was still uneasy about rolling into the country with over a thousand dollars in cash on me, and neither my travel companion nor I could easily shed our well-grained habits of stone-facing strangers and checking our backs like motherfucks. But after a couple days, we loosened up. It was true: Cuba was mellow.

Break between innings

I suppose what strikes one as odd about the lack of violent crime in Cuba is that the country is so terribly poor. In the US, and most other countries in the world, poverty equals danger. From Rio’s famed favelas to Cairo’s ghettos of Sudanese refugees, to deep East Oakland, the relative safety of a neighborhood is most often directly proportionate to the level of wealth, or lack thereof. One look at the crumbling building facades and boys playing baseball with scrap pieces of plywood, and you start to understand just how poor Cuba is. And while, yes, there’s hustlers and pick-pockets, and yes, some laughing 12-year-olds tried to snatch my bag one night, the gravity of the threat of real violence isn’t there. (It would have sucked to have my bag stolen, but it sucks a lot worse to get a gun put under your chin.)

You can chalk Cuba’s safety up to a number of factors, depending on your politics and worldview: The police force is strong and no one wants to risk a lengthy stay in a Cuban prison. Protecting tourists is in the best interest of the island as a whole. Or you can think it’s got something to do with the fact that base needs like housing, education, medical care and some amount of food are all guaranteed by the Communist government, taking the edge of desperation out of the poverty equation.

Whatever the reason, walking around at night and realizing that you have no need to be weary is a strange feeling for an Oakland kid like me. Good thing we didn’t get used to it; less than 48 hours after getting home, my travel buddy was robbed at gunpoint. Welcome home.

Oddity #2: Lack of Homeless People and Drug Addicts

Cienfuegos

Beggars and bleary-eyed glue sniffers are par for the course in the cities of most poor countries. Even in one the wealthiest countries on earth (guess which one), pan-handlers, under-the-freeway encampments, and twitchy characters of all narcotic varieties are everyday fixtures on the streets, even in posh tourist attractions (San Francisco). After a couple of days wandering around Havana, I realized I hadn’t seen any cardboard alley homes and not a single crackhead. Weird.

During my time in Cuba, I got pan-handled maybe half a dozen times, and saw one toothless, staggering old lady that looked like the resident town wino. But when it came to hard-core addicts and homeless people, I didn’t see any.

The lack of homelessness is fairly obvious—the government provides housing. But Cuba is also really strict about the import of drugs. Not wanting to give the US any reason to invade, and perhaps still smarting from its soul-sucking era as a mafia paradise, the Cuban government put the ixnay on drugs, and today they’re really not a presence in Cuba. (Makes you wonder what would happen if the US made such a bold decision—oh wait, wasn’t that what the whole War on Drugs thing was about?)

The night we got home from Cuba, we went to see Neurosis play at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The venue is smack in the middle of the Tenderloin, one of the highest concentrations of human misery on the West Coast. We walked through urine-soaked sidewalks, crunching windshield glass and dodging screaming, contorted derelicts, in a kind of dazed state of shock. After two weeks in Cuba, it seemed inhumane that suffering like that could be tolerated, allowed to exist in such a rich, rich nation. It was the worst culture shock I’ve ever experienced.

Oddity #3: Lack of Advertising and Lots of Government Propaganda

Okay, you’re gonna see a lot of government propaganda. Pro-revolutionary billboards, Vive Fidel banners, smiling pictures of Hugo Chavez: it’s all a little unnerving, I’m not gonna lie. But then you realize why it seems like there’s so damn much of it in Cuba (aside from the fact that there is): there’s no other advertising out there.

You forget how much energy you spend blocking out flashing signs, automated voices, beautifully anorexic, air-brushed girls selling perfume and cell phones and chewing gum. Until you don’t have to do it. I’ve heard really high-end resorts make you feel the same way, like you can let your mental filters down and just relax. Well, until I get a rich sponsor, Cuba’s gonna be the closest I come.

If it’s true that you can learn a lot about a culture through its advertising, then it’s also true you can learn a lot about a culture about its lack of advertising. Cubans are insanely open and friendly, and while there’s plenty of cultural factors contributing, couldn’t one of the reasons be that they’re not constantly fending off the barrage of catchy slogans and glossy images of psychologically invasive advertising? At the same time, the government is an inescapable presence on the island; one is constantly given visual reminders of the pro-government stance everyone’s supposed to take.

It’s a stretch, but maybe. All I know for sure is that my brain got a real vacation in Cuba.

Oddity #4: Havana Has a Chinatown (With Three Chinese People in It)

And it’s actually the oldest Chinatown in the Western Hemisphere.

A then-vegan, I had a mean hankering for some tofu when I was in Havana. I thought my best bet was Chinatown, the touristy relic of Cuba’s once-robust Chinese population, originally brought over in the mid 19th century to work in the sugar fields. I elbowed amid the throngs on foreigners and grabbed a seat under the red awning of a restaurant whose menu listed something I assumed was bean cakes. Ten minutes later, a steaming plate of bean sprouts, and nothing but bean sprouts, was placed before me. My then-boyfriend laughed.

Havana’s Chinatown stands as a reminder that the country has plenty of pre-Castro history, often overshadowed. Most of the Chinese laborers brought over intermarried, infusing the Cuban cocktail with Asian genes; thus, there aren’t a whole lot of fully Chinese looking people left in Chinatown. I saw a couple dudes smoking in the traditional squat, but it was honestly the most un-Chinese Chinatown I’ve ever been to. And the most devoid of tofu.


Oddity #5: The Resilience of Cuban People

It’s kind of a Cuban cliche: some cigar-smoking, deeply wrinkled dude fixing a 30-year-old bicycle with a piece of dental floss and an old Coke can (or something to that extent). Cuban people are renowned as the global experts in reusing everything, wasting nothing, helping each other out and not complaining (partially because of political repression, but still). Cubans are like the one friend you have that can fix anything, who relishes in helping you figure out why your car is making that funny noise and who repairs the holes in their sneakers instead of tossing them to hang over the telephone wires. Yes, part of it is a result of years of rationing and making do, but I think it gets down to a deeper cultural characteristic, one born of imperialism.

Another gem from the Havana mural

The best explanation I read of why Cubans are so resilient and continue to come together and make do is that, by and large, they want the Revolution to succeed. (I’m not talking Miami Cubans now. And this isn’t necessarily my perspective, but a well-informed argument that made a lot of sense.) However deeply flawed and difficult the Revolution is, it’s still the first time in 500 years that the island’s been run by Cubans. From Spanish colonialism to puppet governments to foreign-owned sugar plantations, outsiders had the ultimate power in pre-Castro Cuba. The country was endemically violent and deeply divided down lines of race, class and ethnic origin—divisions that don’t disappear in 50 years, but have improved. Castro’s Revolution is the longest enduring era of Cuban control since the Spanish arrived on the island. That’s a really powerful statement, one that can help you understand why Cubans endure so much and continue to struggle.

Of course, one could easily argue that all this is at risk. The impending end to the US embargo will mean an immediate influx of American culture and goods. And however much outsiders may want Cuba to remain a junkie-free, billboard-less Eden of free health care and high literacy, the end of the embargo will be a damn good thing for Cubans. But I’m glad I got to go pre-post-embargo, and experience some of the strangest things an Oakland girl can.

Yankee in a Che Shirt: How To Travel to Cuba Independently and Illegally as an American

Americans you're likely to encounter in Cuba

Si, se puede!

Three years ago, I traveled to Cuba. I didn’t get a visa, didn’t book a tour, didn’t go with a dance troupe or salsa band (though that would have been killer). I did it the way I do everything, independently.

Fear mongers, nay sayers and foreign travel agencies would lead you to believe that independent travel to Cuba is dangerous and impossible. They’re the same people that make full and complete stops at every stop sign, and are too scared to ride the subway in NYC. Or else they’re trying to sell you something—the hustling taxi driver outside of the airport. They clamor cowardly behind the embargo.

Here’s the legality deal: as an American, you’re technically not banned from traveling to Cuba; you’re prohibited from spending money there. Whatever. If you didn’t obey your parents’ curfew as a teenager, are you really gonna start heeding authority now?

The fun thing about traveling to Cuba as an American is that it requires more effort, more digging. You can’t buy your plane tickets online; most worthwhile advice won’t come from guidebooks but fellow travelers, via forums like Thorn Tree. Basically, you have to work a little harder. But the reward is getting to go to one of the most un-Americanized countries in the world—remarkably only 90 miles from Florida.

I’m pretty sure it’s technically illegal to give Cuban travel advice to Americans. But eff that too. Here’s how I did it, how it worked and the gems of wisdom I smuggled back (along with the cigars):

Before You Go: Money and Packing

Your most important pre-travel preparation as an American is money. Your ATM and credit cards won’t work in Cuba, meaning you’ve pretty much got to bring everything you plan on spending with you. Travelers checks are a pain in the ass and have a hefty commission tacked on—which means you’ll be bringing cash. Lots and lots of cash.

If you’re like me, you’re not too thrilled at the idea of walking around with $1300 on your person. But keep in mind Cuba’s remarkably low crime rate, the absence of desperate drug addicts and your own street sense—you’re gonna be fine.

Another consideration is which type of currency to bring in. The greenback gets an extra 10% penalty fee on top of the standard 8% exchange commission, so most travelers opt to bring in Canadian dollars or Euros. It pays to do the math on conversions and figure out how much you’ll be hit by commissions and fees for dual exchange (changing from dollars into Euros into CUCs).

Another pre-trip consideration is what to bring, and what not to bring. This is for everyone, not just Americans. Charitable donations like medical supplies and clothes are greatly needed and appreciated, but check out regulations on what and how much to bring. Cuban Customs has some unusual regulations regarding the import of electronics and pornography, and is super strict about narcotics. Of particular concern to Americans is the prohibition of anti-revolutionary literature—make sure you don’t have any crazy right-wing, Miami ex-pat ramblings with you. Not that you would anyway.

Getting In: Booking a Flight

The easiest, most popular and often cheapest way for an American to get into Cuba is through Mexico, namely Cancun. Of course, Cancun is the #1 most suspicious transfer point, and word around the chat rooms is that you’re singled out by US Customs most often when arriving from Cancun. But it’s also an insanely popular destination, and I think the Mexican- to Cuban-vacationer ratio still works in your favor.

American travel agencies and airlines are prohibited from booking flights or giving any kind of assistance to Cuban travelers. But foreign airlines and agencies aren’t. So instead of shelling out big bucks to some Canadian company that’ll orchestrate the whole thing (for a mere 300% mark-up), do what I did: call a foreign airline at one of their international offices. I called Mexicana in Mexico City (52 55 2881 0000), requested to speak to an agent that spoke English (not a bad idea when purchasing something as expensive as plane tickets), and bought tickets from Mexico to Havana. Not as easy as Orbitz, but pretty damn close.

The way the flight times worked out, we ended up bookending our Cuban travels with overnight stays in Mexico. I thought I’d be smart and fly through Merida, whose Sunday night dance parties sounded infinitely preferable to Cancun’s binge-drinking co-eds. Turns out that you can’t fly directly from Merida to Havana, so we had to transfer in Cancun anyway. Ah well, better than a spending a night in Cancun.

Arriving: Surviving Customs

Passing through Cuban Customs is the most intimidating border crossing I’ve ever done. But, as I reminded my then-boyfriend and travel companion, Cuba wants to let you in. They need tourists’ money. They just wanna make sure you’re not there on an anti-revolution espionage mission. Fair enough.

Expect to stand in an impossibly long line. You’ll be instructed to approach the Customs booth by yourself. They’ll scowl at you, tell you to take off your glasses and look into the camera. They’ll photograph you, record you, enter every last bit of info on your passport into their computer. They’ll then stamp your tourist card, your golden ticket. Cuba doesn’t stamp passports, but $20 purchased tourist cards. Mexicana provided mine, but it’s a good idea to check your airline or prepurchase your card at a Cuban Embassy, as getting ahold of one at the airport sucks. And hang on to that baby—losing it is an expensive, bureaucratic hassle.

Once your passport is handed back to you, you’ll get directed through the floor-to-ceiling solid door that the travelers before you disappeared behind. It may seem like you’re being funneled into an interrogation room, but most likely, you’ll be headed off for a quick frisking and x-raying of your baggage. Drug sniffing dogs will accompany female agents in ridiculously short skin-tight mini-skirts—the most amusing part of your Customs experience.

While You’re There

Really? Couldn't have left the Confederate swim trunks at home?

Once you’re in Cuba, there’s not a lot in your day-to-day travels that’ll set you apart as American. You’ll have to deal with the money issue, but the good news is that everyone will guess you’re from somewhere other than the US. It’s a nice change of pace from the Frenchman breaking into sudden English with, “And where in the States are you from?”

Getting Out: Playing Dumb and Looking Innocent

The trickiest and most anxiety-inducing part of any American’s trip to Cuba is coming home. I’ve heard of Americans getting hassled by Cuban customs agents, but it’s pretty rare. The folks you have to worry about are the good ole’ boys (and girls) back home.

But first you have to worry about a double-entry stamp back in Mexico. This means that you’ll have a stamp for arriving in Mexico, no stamps for Cuba, but then another entry stamp for your return to Mexico; there’s a void in there, signaling nefarious activity.

You can handle this one of two ways: bribing the Mexican Customs agent to not stamp your passport (trickier at Cancun, where they’re more vigilant, but still possible), or by hoping for the best with a doubly stamped passport. We opted to bribe the Mexican Customs agent. We tucked a sizable peso note into our passports and softly asked not to be stamped. The agent grunted and handed us back our passports, unstamped. If you’ve got a heavily stamped passport to begin with, it might be worth saving the money and relying on the slim odds that the US Customs agent will bother to inspect your passport closely. I’ve never had an agent more than glance at my stamps.

Aside from the extensive, albeit poorly edited, advice by eco-hippies International Bike Fund (I mean that in a good way), any American who’s ever traveled to Cuba will be eager to give you plenty of tips and first-hand accounts on how to elude US Customs—whether you want to hear it or not. So here’s my two centavos:

Revolution anniversary poster I stole and smuggled back home

Reports vary, but up to 100,000 Americans are claimed to have visited Cuba last year. Most of them breeze through US Customs without a problem. There’s nothing that should single you out as particularly suspicious. Be respectful; don’t roll up to the counter smoking a cigar and wearing a Che hat. But don’t sweat it too much. Customs agents are doing their job, and you’re doing yours. They really don’t want to write out lengthy reports anyway. I truly regarded my traveling to Cuba as not too dissimilar from jay-walking—not supposed to really do it, but no big deal. Folks’ll tell you not to bring anything incriminating and obviously Cuban back with you, but eff that—I brought cigars and stolen street posters.

We arrived at SFO disheveled and tired with a horde of sunburnt vacationers. I of course did not write on my Immigration Card that I’d traveled to Cuba, nor did I list the goods I was smuggling back (why you gonna rat yourself out?). I smiled nicely at the agent, told her yes, I’d had a great time in Mexico, picked up my bags, passed em through the x-ray machine without incident, and headed home.

But enough out of me. Any Americans out there wanna share their Cuban travel experiences?

The French Won’t Save You: Recklessness, Fear and Safety Abroad

Military chillin in central Bogota

Military, chillin in central Bogota

We’d taken refuge from the soggy Bogota afternoon in the hostel’s dank kitchen, sat drinking coffee and swapping tales. Only my third trip out of the country, I sat quietly, listening to the boys one-up each other. No one could beat the Swede in zip-off pants.

He sat smugly, like a guru, doling out morsels of his tales in titillating tidbits. He’d dyed his hair brown, donned dark contacts, and backpacked through Iran, Iraq, Pakistan. He’d ridden buses rarely, walked mostly, and had almost been killed (purportedly) by an anti-American lynch mob. Sparks of awe and admiration flew from the enthralled eyes of other travelers.

One of the boys in his rapt audience turned to me, suddenly aware of my presence. He quizzed me on my basics: where was I from, how long was I traveling, did I speak Spanish. “What’s your itinerary?” was his final question. I bit my lip as he looked me over, sizing me up for what I was: an early-twenties American girl, not terribly well-traveled, with a mediocre accent and a minimal vocabulary. I recited my basic plan: Bogota, Medellin, Cartegena, Santa Marta and La Ciudad Perdida.

“Hmph,” he snorted. “Typical.” And with that, he turned his attention back to the blond god before him.

Fast forward several years and a couple thousand miles to this afternoon, as I rattled down the uneven pavement of Interstate 880, windows down and blasting NPR (yo, turn it up so it bumps). I’d just caught the beginning of a story on France’s proposal to charge tourists for rescues from risky spots while abroad. The hotly debated bill came about several months ago, prompted by a much-publicized rescue of French citizens who were captured by Somali pirates while pleasure-yachting around the Indian Ocean. Reportedly, public outrage at the travelers’ perceived irresponsibility was intense enough to inspire a bill that would require tourists rescued from dangerous situations abroad to repay rescue costs (aid workers and journalists excluded). A coordinating author from Lonely Planet was on hand to discuss the proposal and its implications, a discussion that centered around issues of travel safety, and real versus perceived dangers abroad.

Here’s something most independent travelers, including myself, rarely check before going abroad: the Department of State’s Current Travel Warnings. When you grow up amid a culture of fear mongering, it’s easy to get desensitized. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you think, the world’s sooo dangerous and I’ll get kidnapped and killed the moment I leave the US. Fear is one of three reasons discussed in Nomadic Matt’s article, Why American Don’t Travel Overseas. Once certain travelers step outside the country and see the rest of the world isn’t the depraved war zone it’s often portrayed to be, they get cocky. And brazen. And sometimes stupid.

Take that to the extreme: extreme tourism. I haven’t heard this term in awhile, but it was tossed around the hostel table in Bogota that afternoon. It refers to a type of off-the-beaten-path thrill-seeking travel that prides itself in brushes with danger. Real danger. As in, I’m-gonna-walk-through-Baghdad-just-to-prove-I-can danger. Implicit in this type of travel, I would argue, are entitlement and bragging rights.

Fresh stencil in Bogota

Fresh stencil in Bogota

Which begs the question: should risk-taking travelers enjoy the luxury of being rescued, at the expense of their countrymen? The French don’t seem to think so. Nor do the Germans. The United States—well, we don’t really need to worry about it, since so few of us travel to begin with. Reportedly vague and insufficient, the French bill also opens the door to a lot of loaded issues—namely, who decides what countries and regions are dangerous, and whether travelers are behaving recklessly?

I’ve been to three gasp-evoking places often deemed too dangerous for travelers (let alone a solo white girl): Caracas, Mexico City, the entire country of Colombia. I didn’t go to any of these places because they were considered dangerous, but despite them being considered dangerous. One I ended up in circumstantially, but the other two I sought out—I’d heard too many good things from other travelers. I did my research. Street sense and good luck got me through unscathed. But there’s certainly people who would have regarded my traveling in these places as reckless, stupid and asking for trouble.

I remember thinking Colombia was a lot like Oakland. Which isn’t true: armed military don’t roll through city streets, and you can’t smoke cigarettes inside shopping malls (not even Eastmont). But both places have a sort of infamy to them, a danger that either lures or deters. As in Oakland, many parts of Colombia feel totally safe; as in Oakland, other parts of Colombia continue to feed the unsafe reputation. To stay safe in Colombia, I did everything I already do in Oakland: don’t go out at night alone, stick to main streets in safe neighborhoods, don’t ride buses at night, check my back like a motherfuck.

The Swedish guy in the Colombian hostel reminded of suburban kids that move into Oakland warehouses (snark alert). They proudly tell you they live in the Lower Bottoms, Murder Dubs, Dirty 30s, Ghost Town. “The thugs aren’t that bad, really,” they tell you. Then, knowingly, as though they’re imparting some great gem of karmic street ethics upon you—”If you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you.” Then they mugged/assaulted/held at gunpoint, and they leave, go back to their suburbs bruised and bitter and hating the town they so recklessly glamorized.

There’s a certain romance with violence and danger that people who have no real experience with violence and danger have. It’s exciting, enlivening, visceral and real. It’s the wild-eyed rapture of Futurists (which for all of their sexism, fascism and idiocy still created some good art). It’s as easy to write off as the uninformed fear that keeps some folks away from Oakland, away from traveling, and comfortably cocooned in familiarity.

But neither side is right, neither view complete. They’re just two sides of the same coin—exoticizing someone else’s world, treating it as the Other, instead of attempting (however falteringly) to meet it, understand it and experience it as it is. Can I claim to have traveled so honorably? Not really. But I can claim to have tried.

DSCN1202_2_2

Good times with the Colombian military

Which could all be an elaborate rationalization for why the rules don’t apply to me—why I haven’t gotten into any real trouble while traveling, and why I would surely be rescued in the event of any dire incidents. And not expected to pay for it. (Because, after all, I’m not French.) But I suspect the truth lays somewhere muddled between all this, between embassies and travelers, the frightened and the intrepid, the streets of East Oakland, the seas of Somalia and hostel kitchen tables around the world.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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