Archive for the 'Independent' Category

Til Your Money Runs Out: In Tai O, In Old Clothes

I could live here, I thought. I could stay here til my money runs out. I don’t need to go back; I don’t even know where “back” is.

I thought this as I walked through Tai O last night, down the narrow cement alley of a fishing village on the far end of one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands.

I’d been having fun in Hong Kong the previous three days, running around the city with a friend who just moved here. Running off and on subway cars, in and out of cabs, up and down hills, this cafe and that restaurant and not worrying about any of it.

Something about it made me feel young again—something about the hills and the air and the clatter of street cars, the Chinese characters, the speed and energy of it all. A toy city, trams that move like little clanking trains on a track, beneath tall skinny buildings—”you drew that too tall,” I wanted to tell whoever made them. A vertical city, a vertigo city, hills that remind me of San Francisco, wires in the air like San Francisco, air dry and cool like San Francisco. Homesick city, other-side-of-the-world city, not my real city, blinds clacking in the night breeze above the sofa where I slept, 22 stories up.

I’d been wearing all my old clothes too, things I hadn’t worn in over a year, things that smelled like mold and the bamboo of my wardrobe in my apartment in Hanoi. They were all a little faded though, a little worse for the wear: my jeans had shrunk, my Toms had holes in them, my hoodie was stretched out and linty. But for those first few days I was feeling like the person I used to be; “I feel like myself again!” I’d exclaimed. In the pockets I found boarding passes to flights I’d taken a year ago, on the other side of the planet, what felt like another life—ink blurred and also faded. I’d smiled before I’d thrown them away.

A night to kill out on an island, an excuse to “get away from it all,” though I’m not sure what “it all” even is anymore. Met up with some other friends, took a ferry and a cab up to a big bronze Buddha, “that’s a big Buddha!” Talked about old friends, about Oakland, hugged and parted ways. Bus down, down, down the mountain and into the town of Tai O just as the sun was setting.

Walking through the village, the silence of a day-trip town after all the day-trippers have gone. A fishing village, former village, burgeoning tourist trap, not quite one or the other but perfect in its inbetweenness—the echoes of television sets, voices laughing, the clack-clack of Chinese checkers and the squeak of a toddler’s shoes. Windows drawn and doors open, peaking in at the red altars and television sets, the little line of living rooms and the little line of lives.

Moonlight on the tin houses, a dozen cats crouched in the shadows along a door frame, necks all bent at the same angle. The metal gates drawn and the straw baskets on their bellies, but the smell of fish remaining. The smell of salt, the smell of gasoline, every beach town I’ve ever been in—Puerto Angel and Mirleft and Sveti Stefan, a scattering of places around the planet, all as still and breezy and insect-whiny as here.

I sat down on a stone ledge under a swollen ring of streetlight. Listened to the waves. I could stay here, I thought. Til my money runs out, I thought.

And I thought then of the previous night, when for whatever reason I’d started looking through old photos on my computer. They were mostly from trips I’d taken, a lot of them with an old boyfriend. And it was weird, for the first time the girl in the pictures struck me as another person. Like, I could remember being her but I had this super strong feeling that she wasn’t me anymore.

I’d leaned forward, squinted at the girl. She was prettier than she thought she was; she was skinnier than she thought she was too. Her hair didn’t look that stupid and her skin wasn’t all that bad and she had a lot less tattoos. She had a nice smile and she looked happy, I thought—happier than she thought she was.

What happened to that girl? The question had troubled me, sat in me, stirred in me as I trolled around all day, until I was sat down under the Tai O streetlight.

I’d left her. It’s like I’d been a train—a little toy train—and I’d pulled out of the station of that girl without even noticing, like those moments you look out the window and you think the outside is moving but really it’s you, or you think you’re moving but really it’s the outside, another train passing you by.

She’s gone, I thought, sitting on that ledge in tired old clothes that didn’t feel like mine anymore. She’s stuck there, smiling in those photographs, making silly faces. You slipped away from her, I thought, and now you want to reach out and touch her, smell her, feel the way her body is. Just looking at her hurts.

It’s too much. Sometimes it’s all too fucking much and you just want to curl up in some beach town, some fishing town, walk down the one road over and over, peeking in the doorways, hearing the sounds of TVs, voices and laughs you don’t understand, aren’t a part of—other people’s cooking—and you want to just stay there until your money runs out and your bones get old, weathered by the salt and the wind, become a relic like this, a rock like this—weeds growing up between the cracks.

How Hip-Hop Saved Me In Cairo

So. On my way to Cambodia I went to Cairo. (No, it’s not actually “on the way.”) I went with a lot of expectations and very little planning—pretty much a sure-fire way to ensure disappointment. It was really hard and kinda sucked. Until the last night.

You can read about it here. And then repost it, tweet it, tumble it, whatev. Cause that’s how we do.

Thanks.

Take Me Home, On a Malaysian Highway

This is what this song with forever be: the Malaysian countryside, flat and scrappy through the window of a bus. Me crying.

Sometimes songs get wedged in you; sometimes you know it when it’s happening, have that vague feeling of a future memory forming. Like hearing “Pumped Up Kicks” on the fire escape of a Soho loft, the first week I left home—afterparty of an art opening and 800 sleazy Italian guys offering me cigarettes, that sweet kid from Manchester in his first 2 weeks in the States, too shy to admit he was lonely. Which wasn’t the first time I’d heard the song—it was being shoved down my throat on a daily basis—but I don’t know, I just had this feeling then, that the air, the night, the lights from the apartment across the alley—that it was all being stored up somewhere and that whenever I’d hear the song from now on, this moment would come crashing back with a nostalgia for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Well, I heard “Pumped Up Kicks” in one of those malls in KL and turns out I was right—standing in the gleaming florescence of consumerism, I felt a kind of homesickness for that moment. In a city that wasn’t mine, talking to some kid I didn’t know, watching the dim figures move through the next building over. It doesn’t make sense, but I know you know what I’m talking about.

One of the ironic benefits of living abroad, I was telling a friend recently, is that I have so much more time to read music blogs and download music that, while I can’t actually go to any real shows, I’m way more in the loop than I was in the States. So a string of 4+ hour bus rides, chasing across the east coast of Malaysia, what ended up kind of characterizing my trip—it gave me lots of time to catch up on all the new albums I’d cluttered my phone with.

So, “Take Me Home.” It’ll be this: an overly air-conditioned bus, roadside restaurants passing through the tinted window—”restorans,” metal tins of food, men smoking and women’s scarves flapping. Smooth highway and pocked skin—the poor part of a rich country. Swinging curtain that won’t snap shut brushing my shoulder, bag of banana chips and that constant feeling of having to pee that I have on long bus rides. Two seats to myself so I can curl my knees and pretend that no one can see me when I start to tear up—when he hits the keys on that warbly keyboard and it sounds like something from a well come rise up—”I’ll be so still for you.”

I swear it’s not just that I’m about to get my period, that I’m not just tired—I straight start crying on my bus and I’m surprised by it, you know? Like—Really? This is happening right now? Yeah, yeah, it is.

It’s the night before maybe; the song stirs something in it. Wooden porch of a beach chalet, ramshackle sea-shell clatter, cat at my feet, bug spray and cigarettes and brandy in his cup. He offers me some; I say no. He has wrinkles in his forehead that makes him cuter. He has strings tied around his wrist and bad taste in music but it isn’t that that stops me. It’s something else, I’m not sure what, but I just can’t do it. I smile and say I’m tired and go back to my room before it can happen, before anything can happen, and something about that makes me wanna cry then, in that moment. But I don’t. I play (and lose) a couple games of Sudoku on my phone and snap out the light.

So maybe I’m making up for it now. But it’s not that even really that scene I think about now, not the moment of it at least, but more the feeling. The “goddammit.” The “this again.” The “damaged goods.” “Like a shadow of a shadow of a shadow.”

I’ve been joking about it, that I’m writing “How Not To Get Laid Across The Fucking Planet.” Since I don’t know what the hell else I’m writing. I’m doing research; I’m in character; I’m method acting. Hahaha, it’s all so fucking funny. I’m dragging myself across the planet like something caught beneath the tailpipe; I’m dragging myself down this Malaysian highway and I don’t know where I’m going—I’ve got no guidebook or maps—and I’m turning the music up so I can’t hear any of it, trailing behind me, scraping against the pavement and possibly screaming but probably just whimpering—behind me and I can’t hear it, except for now, in the pitch of a high note—”Like a foooooool.”

“What’s the dating scene in Phnom Penh like?” Josh asked me a couple days later. I spit out a sour psssh—”Fucking dismal,” I replied.

But I knew that, I knew that going in, and you wanna know the fucking truth? I sought that shit out. Like a kind of relief, like a cop out, like “I won’t have to deal with that at all.” So it was weird, you know—as weird as the shopping malls and overpasses and Starbucks—to be hit on in Malaysia. I should have been stoked right? I should have been giddily shouting a “fuck yeah” the way I was the first day in KL, right?

Well, I wasn’t. I was alone in a mold-smelling chalet; I was crying on a fucking bus; I was listening to sensitive bummer music some older version of me would have laughed at and closing my eyes and rocking my head like a goddamn blind person, feeling god-knows-what welling up inside me and pushing the backtrack button over and over and over, so I must have listened to that song like 12 times in a row—knowing that it was getting seared into me, that some future version of me was sitting somewhere, smiling in nostalgia hearing this song again. Why are we always nostalgic for the most painful shit? For the shit we never really had to begin with? Or is that just me?

The Malaysian highway passed. Eventually, I got where I was going.

8 Reasons I’m No Longer A Backpacker

1. I am embarrassed by my backpack.
It’s big and heavy. There are buckles and pouches and straps; they bunch my clothing and create sweat stains. I can’t make sudden turns without risking collision with pedestrians.

The physical backpack is a quintessential signifier of a backpacker. It says “everything I need I can carry on my person, without the help of doormen or rolley luggage wheels.” This idea is central to the identity of a backpacker and one to which I once felt a certain pride: “Train station steps? No problem.”

But something has changed. The backpack has become unwieldy and cumbersome. It probably doesn’t help that mine permanently smells like a Venezuelan waterfall (NOT as romantic as it sounds). I’m embarrassed by the sheer bulk of it, the way it reduces me to a sweaty blundering bumbler. It’s like a walk of shame every time I arrive somewhere—eyes lowered, head down, rushing to wherever I’m staying in order to dump the evidence and try to pass as a non-backpacker as quickly as possible.

The problem is, proper luggage is proper expensive. So until my income matches my new travel status, I’ll be lumbering down foreign sidewalks with sweat dripping down my back. (But at least I can make it up those stairs.)


2. I don’t like staying in hostels.
I’m all for meeting people and being social. But at the end of the day, all I really want to do is sit in my underpants and putter on the computer. And while I suppose I could do that in a hostel dorm, I don’t think it’s exactly the message I want to be sending (see #5).

As I’ve gotten older, I find I really need my own space when I travel—somewhere to relax and zone out, where I can sleep without earplugs and an eye mask. In Rome, I recently forewent the cheapo Termini hostels in favor of a bed-and-breakfast in a hipster neighborhood 30 minutes outside of center. The extra nightly cost: 25 Euros; amount which I enjoyed myself more than previous visits, on a scale of 1-10: 8.


3. I’m willing to spend more for comfort.
It used to be like a competition I had with myself—what’s the absolute cheapest I can do a trip? Pretty fucking cheap, in turns out. I managed to travel Western Europe for six weeks on 36 Euros a day. But guess what? It was the most miserable trip of my life.

Looking back, if I’d waited till I had a little more money, I could have traveled with more comfort—getting a sleeper cars on night trains, for instance, or eating something other than falafel. I would have enjoyed myself a lot more.

Moreover, I’ve learned that cheaper does not always mean more authentic. Some of my richest travel experiences have been those I’ve had to spend a little more for—on transit to remote regions, for instance, or on lodging in places where a backpacker ghetto doesn’t exist.

So, the $5, 8-hour bus to Siem Reap or the $10, 4-hour minibus that stops at a café with a western toilet? It’s a no-brainer now.


4. The “hostel conversation” makes me want to rip my eyeballs out.
Some destinations don’t have the mid-range bed-and-breakfast type accommodations I now favor; Tirana, Albania is one of them. So instead of staying at one of those cement-block high-rises cast in uplit neon, I bit the bullet and stayed at a hostel.

It was a nice hostel, with a patio and an herb garden and a daily breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and Nescafe. Every morning I’d wander downstairs, braless in my stretch pants, and fix myself plate. Invariably this scene would play out:

Someone walked in.

“Good morning,” I mumbled, waiting for the hot water to boil.

“Hey!”

Silence.

“So,” the cheerful backpacker said, “where are from?”

“The US.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Coupla days.”

“How long are you traveling?”

Shrug.

“How long are you staying here? What’s your itinerary?”

Shrug. “I’m just kinda here.” Then I walked out to the patio with my plate and mug.

It’s not like I was trying to be rude, though I’m sure it came across that way. But when you have the same conversation every morning for two weeks, it starts to wear on you.

I used to be enraptured by the hostel conversation, excited to be meeting so many different people from so many different countries. But it slowly became a kind of script—sizing up, determined someone’s stats. I realized that while I may be meeting different people from different places, we were all having the same conversation.


5. I’m not attracted to backpackers.
Ok, to be honest, I’ve never done much hooking up on the road. “A Guide To Hostel Sex” might still be one of Matador’s most popular articles, but the very premise has always struck me as utterly unappealing—the bunk beds, the moldy bathrooms, the condoms of questionable expiry. And there has never been anything attractive to me about a grown man in flip-flops and a tank top.

But there’s a new element that’s recently come into play: all the backpackers I see don’t look like grown men. They look like children. Sunburnt, drunk children.

Aside from being fresh out of their parents’ houses and relatively inexperienced in dating, I wonder what the hell I’d say to them. “So, you a Facebook account in middle school—what was that like?” “You were how old when 9/11 happened?” “Biggie is not old school!”

Wait, Biggie is old school. If you’re nineteen.


6. I want to do boring things.
Go to the shooting range and fire M-16s? Get shit-housed tubing in Vang Vieng? Rave at a full moon party on Koh Phangan?

Ugh. I’d rather sit at a café and stare at the street. Maybe read the local newspaper. Really, I could do that for hours. Which does not mean that I’m more cultured or intellectual than a backpacker, as much as I may want it to. It just means that I’m old and boring.


7. I’m less concerned if something’s “touristy.”
You know what place I like? Hoi An. It’s an old Vietnamese port town with crumbling French colonial buildings and tailor shops and bomb cao lau. And shittons of tourists on bicycles.

In previous years, the mere presence of other Westerners would have made me deem Hoi An as touristy and thus not the “real” Vietnam. And maybe it isn’t. But I like its mellow atmosphere. I’ve let myself like it.

In recent years, I’ve found myself caring a lot less about whether a place is touristy or authentic, or whether I’m a traveler or a tourist. In a lot of ways, I’m less self-conscious about being a foreigner in a place; I feel less of a need to define a place, or my position in that place.

I’m an outsider. And I’m okay with it. Now give me my cafe sua da and let me soak in the Hoi An vibe.


8. Backpackers make me smile.
I used to feel competitive with other backpackers (see the “sizing up” above). Why would some of the girls looks so effortlessly boho-chic while I was heat-rashy and varicosed? Why did some of them have cooler itineraries and longer trip dates? Why did they all speak better Spanish than me?

Living in a well-touristed city now, I see a lot of backpackers. They walk in droves along the riverside, long legs and smooth skin. Sometimes they walk slowly, and that’s annoying. Sometimes they’re really loud and drunk, and that’s even more annoying. But mostly I don’t even see them—they exist on a different plane and fade into the static of city life.

But every now and then I do see them—eating at the next table, buying bootleg DVDs at the market, lumbering lost with their big backpacks and asking me, “Hey, do you know where the Nomad Guesthouse is?”

And the thing is, they don’t annoy me in those moments. I look at them and it’s the same feeling I’d have when I’d go to the old punk club Gilman in Berkeley and see a group of teenage girls, huddled together and giggling. It’s a kind of tenderness I feel, like I’m looking at a younger version of myself. I see all the same immaturity and naïvity and excitement, and I know it so well it makes me smile.

But I also know that it’s not me anymore. That time is gone for me—it’s been passed down to these other, younger kids, with glowing skin and slim legs. I didn’t even notice it happening.

But I hope they enjoy it.

“The River That Empties Into The Ocean”: Glimpse Piece #2

Wax refugees from Khao Lan

So. Finally, finally, nearly a year after I originally landed on this continent, the second piece for my Glimpse project was published. You can check it out here.

The piece depicts my trip to the Thai border, where I searched for the remains for an old refugee camp my friends’ family passed through. If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ll recognize part of the journey. What I didn’t write about at the time—because I knew I wanted to save it for this piece—was the strangely fortuitous meeting that occurred after I’d returned to Cambodia, made entirely possible by this blog. (Hey, I still may not have monetized this thing, but at least I’m getting something out of it!)

With the publication of this piece, I’ve officially completed the Glimpse Correspondent program. As such, I was asked to write a few words about my experience. What I basically told him was how incredibly valuable the program was to me. Getting the clips was nice, getting a stipend was nice, but what it really came down to was the editorial guidance. Sarah hashed through some insanely deep-level edits with me, giving me the kind of feedback you usually have to pay a lot of fucking money for.

I was gonna come out here and do the project regardless—I’d already booked my tickets when I’d heard my project was accepted—but it would have ended up being a much different project if it hadn’t been for all the support and guidance I received. I think the process pushed me to grow a lot, both creatively and personally. And I secretly kind of doubt I’d be back out here now if that hadn’t happened.

So read up! It’s mega long, so grab some coffee and get comfy. Then tell me what you think—and what you for real think, not what you polite think. [Insert smiley face]

A Not Entirely Atypical Tuk-Tuk Ride Home

9pm so I give him a good stare down, check the eyes for red and glaze and drunkenness. I watch the way he walks to the tuk-tuk, parked a few feet away from where we’ve haggled the fare. He walks straight enough to drive straight, so I sigh and start to climb in.

“Ok,” he says, sitting down on the bike, “7000.”

I pause, my foot on step. “No, 6000,” repeating the fare we agreed to.

A grin. “Ok, ok, 6000.”

I sit and he sits. He throws a look back at me.

“You want to smoke weed?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to.”

“You no smoke weed?”

I smile and play it coy, “No, I’m a good girl.”

“Oh. I thought you were mafia.”

“Oh, really?”

“I see your tattoo, I thought you mafia.”

“No,” shake my head, “not mafia.”

He throws his helmet on. He doesn’t clip the chin strap.

We take off and turn the corner and it’s the usual questions: where did I make my tattoos? (USA) Is that where I’m from? (Yes) How many? (I don’t know) How much it cost? (A lot. But it should, it lasts forever.) Do I like them? (which is not a usual question and I smile: Yes.)

“But you no smoke weed?”

“No.”

“You no want to be happy?”

“I’m already happy.”

“But you be more happy.”

“Not if I smoke weed.”

“Oh, you smoke weed before?”

“Long time ago. When I was young. But I’m old now.” (Coy again, and I think how, broken language aside, it’s not so different from conversations I have with backpackers or college kids or, fuck it, my own peers, in bars or at shows—not entirely atypical.)

He speaks pretty good English and he’s driving straight enough and even knows where we’re going, so all things said, he’s a damn good tuk-tuk driver. We move through the pitted streets, slowly settling from their daily buzz—meat smoke thinning, piles of trash waiting for pick-up.

More questions, his eyes in the side mirrors more than on the road: How long will I be in Cambodia? (One year) What do I do for work? (smile: I’m a writer) I live in a guesthouse or apartment? (bigger smile: Guesthouse tonight, but tomorrow I move to an apartment) You live with roommate or alone? (another smile: Alone) Why alone? (I want to) I come live with you? (No) Why? (I want to live alone)

We approach the Orussey Market: lights and umbrellas and neon plastic stools and buses parked and smoke, still plenty of smoke billowing and twisting and rising into the night. I tell him the name of my guesthouse.

“Oh, you stay there alone?”

“Yes.”

“I come stay with you?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want you to.”

“You no like boys?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You like girls?”

“I didn’t say that either.”

We pull up in front, parked motorbikes in the glow of the reception desk, long shadows of security guards sitting listless in plastic chairs. I pull out the bills and step out of the tuk-tuk, hand them to him.

He takes off his helmet. “Goodnight, madam.”

“Goodnight sir.”

“Sleep good.”

“You too.”

How To Rock in Kosovo

Show flier

1. Get up at 5am. Ease open the lock on your cupboard and stuff your purse full of the only socks and scarves you own. Leave the key on the counter and walk through the black-morning streets. Think about how Genti said this city was best at 4am—a different place without the cars, all smooth and still; think about how you’re an hour off but how he’s right.

Meet Robo at the bus stop, which isn’t a bus stop but a street corner with two wheezing vehicles, bumpers touching like a kiss. Drink an espresso and still fall asleep before the bus leaves.

2. Wake up when your ears start popping, look out the window and see only mist—a kind of apocalyptic mist that’s mixed with pollution so you don’t know which is which—mist and trash and dogs sleeping in the median by the border control. Think of “The Road.” Hand the man your passport, remark how you thought you’d be the only navy one, have Robo reply, “The others are former Yugoslavia passports.”

Hazy border median

It’s easy when the man comes back on the bus—he calls the names of everyone, groggy hands reclaiming documents—but for you, he just hands it over, doesn’t even look up.

3. Stop at the cafe, squat toilet and sensor towel dispenser. Eat a salad for a Euro, wrap the hunk of bread in napkins and tuck it in your purse. Robo goes across the road to the market, comes back with a bottle wrapped in newspaper and a plastic bag, “Like in America,” he says and laughs and drinks.

4. Fiddle-rock and Turkish pop, Kosovo countryside through the window: tire-less cars on the roof, pile of trash burning and man warms his hands, leans his ear into a cell phone. Dead dog in the ditch, blood-matted fur and lolling tongue. RC Cola ad. Hotel Luxory, Hotel Florida, Hotel OK—two points for honesty.

That's not a real beverage

5. Arrive at the Pristina bus station. Jay-walk across the overpass and remark how cars actually stop for you. See a Bill Clinton statue, see Yankee flag and American knock-off products everywhere: American Hot Dog, American Doughnut, American Cola. Say: “They must be the last country left on Earth that likes us.”

6. Go to Tingle Tangle, a hipster coffee shop that could be in Brooklyn or SF, except everyone’s smoking, smoking, inside and out, and a 10-year-old walks by, box full of cigarettes and you shake your head no. Sit in the sun and order a cappuccino, which you find out is a mocha, and look at the macchiato Bledi orders and say, “That’s a cappuccino,” and he says, “No, it’s a macchiato.”

Word.

The kids are different here, in Kosovo, where you’ve come for a music festival called Cow Fest, or something like that. They speak Albanian, but a different type of Albanian, more slang, they tell you, looser and more wild. The kids look more European or American or something—hip in the way we like to be hip, sweaters and beards and slept-on hair—less like Tirana, where most of the kids are trying so hard to look Western they just fail—an approximation based on music videos and bad Hollywood movies, a hauty snootiness the girls assume, cheap shoes and too-much make-up, in the face of that failure. Say something about this, and they tell you, “Yes, yes”—how Kosovo’s been more connected to the Western world, how in Yugoslavia they could travel while Albania was on lock-down, how the music scene is better here but how the city’s smaller, less dynamic.

Nod and drink your fake cappuccino. See an “Occupy Pristina” sticker, and open your purse, your notebook, dig out one the Obey stickers Greg gave you, metal drawer full. Peel off the back and put it up. Wonder if anyone will know what it means. Take a picture.

7. Take a taxi to the one cheap guesthouse in town, share it with Gredy, who’s got a half-melted face and you don’t ask why—with Mardi and Marin, who you remember from last year and who remember you too. Reception smells like stale smoke in the underground, and the cupboard’s got tea cups and condoms, and the staticy TV has an “I <3 English" sticker on it. Astro-turf-style carpet runner, crash for a disco nap—bleary limbs back awake for the walk down the hill.

8. Sound check at Oda, the theater where the festival will be: velvet wallpaper and cement floors. First espresso’s free. We leave Mardi there, cello and guitars—walk through a shopping mall where Marin stares through the window at hiking boots, “They’re all shit in Albania”—just finished another season tour guiding and wants to get out of the country fast (Pristina doesn’t count), wants to go to Rome or Berlin, wants to play the guitar, wants to meet a nice girl.

But first he wants a hamburger, so we go to Route 66, an American style diner with the requisite Monroe/Dean/Elvis pictures, and a Mexican section on the laminated menu. Shake your head and order the sorriest, soggiest salad you've seen all trip.

9. Walk the town, the cold hurts: back to Tingle Tangle, over to the opening of a photography exhibit where they play Son House and you laugh. Some other smokey bar, always a smokey bar, and, no, you still don’t want a drink. Clear liquid in short glasses, a kind of grappa, and you feel like you’re in the way. Walk again, and the cold still hurts.

10. Go back to Oda, wait for the first band. Proceeds from the festival go to purchase cows for local farmers in need, and you ask how much a cow costs—”500 Euros.” Figure out your entrance bought 1% of a cow. Try to figure out how many people there are, how many cows you’ve bought so far. “It was bigger last year.”

Marin’s bummed cause the DJ he wanted to see has canceled, and Robo stands in the back, and the first band sucks, a jazzy quartet with a hip-hop-style MC. Go for another walk, the cold colder—buy chestnuts and sit at a table in the mall, shedding shells and tell Robo your writing dilemma and ask for advice. It’s slurry now, but solid. Nod and know what you have to do.

11. There’s a fleet of teenagers back at Oda, and the floor is sticky and a punk band is playing and they’re decent, despite shotty vocal levels. Nod and watch the limbs of a mini-pit thrash, silhouette against the stage lights, not too unlike home. You’ll decide later it was the best band of the night.

The next band “is real shit”—girl with dreads pinned into a bun, scatting while the band jams, but no real set, no real songs—so you sit against the back wall with your knees to your chest, which reminds you of being a teenager. They’ve only raised a cow and a half so far, “Last year it was seven,” and they say how the show wasn’t promoted this year, how everyone was fighting, how another band canceled last minute—how still, the scene is better than in Tirana, where they’ve nearly stopped having shows, where it’s all cover bands—”We lost our best guitarist to Pristina!” Marin exclaims as he grabs Bledi’s cheeks.

Decide it’s still decent enough to rock to, and nod your head, even though you’re sitting in the back and you’re tired, which is how you rock anyway these days—”Granny style,” you tell Robo and laugh, as he takes another swig from his plastic-bag bottle, America-style.

Gaeta, Inbetween-itis, and Why I Love a Beach Town in October

This is what I wanted: a chill, cheap beach town to hole up in and write for five days. This is what I got:

So, sometimes, success can be yours.

It starts because I have six days to kill in Italy, before meeting two chef friends at a French food hipster festival in Milan. This is what’s known as a luxury problem—a problem only because whiling away a near week in Italy means whiling it away in Euros, when I’m already short on funds. Plus there’s the hassle factor: I’m moving across the world, so I’ve got a lot of crap with me, and hauling it on this train and that bus and down some cobble-y old alleyway loses its charm real quick. All I wanted was to find somewhere mellow, about to shut down for the season, and park it. Catch up on writing and sleep, maybe do a couple yoga podcasts.

So I sent out a Twitter blast and emailed Liv over at I Eat My Pigeon, did a bit of Tripadvisor digging, and ended up in Gaeta. Cue the lights and music.

It’s kind of like having a really specific craving for, say, calamari, and stumbling upon some of the best damn squid you’ve ever eaten—same level of deep satisfaction. Which I don’t think many of the locals around here get, cause it’s the number one question I’ve been asked (after, you know, “Where are you from?”)—”Why Gaeta? Why now?”

A beach town in October is one of my all-time favorite things. Take last year’s Sveti Stephan, or the previous year’s Legzira Plage. There’s something about the end of the season, hot days and cool nights and everything twinged with nostalgia and pink. The businesses are all half-shuttered-up and the crowds have thinned and you’ve got the place, not to yourself, but to share with the locals and the last straggle of tourists, who you feel a sort of aren’t-we-oddballs comradery with.

And the room rates drop like mad.

So really, what more could a cheapskate blogger want?

I uncovered the B&B Un Letto A Gaeta on Tripadvisor, and decided that even if I couldn’t read the Italian reviews, it was still a good sign that there were four and five stars. It’s on a hill above an olive orchard, run by a dude with a killer record collection and good taste in art, and my private room is less than half what it cost 2 months ago, in the height of the tourist season.

I unpacked my bag five days ago, and let it become a little like home.

Proof I was there!

I got the chance to meet up with Liv, the International Woman of Mystery behind one of my favorite narrative travel blogs. We cruised around the region, known as the Ulysses Coast (cause apparently this is where it all went down)—we went to some of the neighboring towns and I got to glimpse into her life. She blogs mostly about the daily life of an expat, and it felt almost like walking into a novel you’ve read, and having it all be real, right in front of you—this character and that character, her friends and the cafe she writes at. (Someone was occupying her favorite table when we were there.)

We strolled around the ancient quarters and paused in front of Roman ruins and talked about writing and the freelance hustle, about expat life and being solo females. It feels good, the more expats I talk to and the more writers I talk to—less like I’m making some sort of horribly rash and insane leap, and more like a logical step in my career. It makes it all feel achievable and, well, normal.

Of course, though, she told me her friends had all been curious: they wanted to know why Geata, and why now?

The only other person occupying a room at the B&B also wanted to know—a college kid from Torino who’s renting a room for a few months while he studies here. I gave him the stock answer: “I love a beach town in October.”

Which is true, but it’s really more about the funny inbetween state a beach town in October encompasses. It infects you, and you become inbetween too. Locals have their guards down a bit more, and they start to recognize you, as you jog around in the morning or buy paninis or drink espresso, and they wave and say hello (in English cause you can’t ever manage to learn any Italian). You’re a tourist, for sure, but not an all-the-way tourist; in October, you’re something else. A familiar stranger, maybe—something inbetween.

Cause I’m here but not really here. I’m on my way, moving across the world, and I feel like I don’t have a right answer for those “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” questions. I’m not a “signora” and I’m not a “signorina.” I’m a traveler, in transit.

There’s a local specialty here, called tielle. It’s—get ready—like a savory pie stuffed with local calamari and olives and other good shit. It’s off the chains. I went with Liv for lunch to a super cute little spot in the medieval quarter of Gaeta; a few days later, after a rambling jog across town, I bellied up to their take-away window and ordered a slice.

The owner recognized me, said hello. “You are lonely today?”

I knew what he meant—I was alone, not with Liv. But the question, you know, in light of the name of this blog, struck me as funny. Cause I wasn’t lonely, cause he’d recognized me and so had a dude that had served me espresso the day before, who’d honked and waved as I’d panted up a hill, running—cause it was a beach town in October, one of my goddamn favorite things.

I smiled. “Yes, I’m alone today.”

Rome, Like a Cannon Shot (Bella, You Must Be New At This)

I come into Rome like something shot out of a cannon—hair blown and thirsty, sweating in the thick denim and long layers I had to wear cause they wouldn’t fit in my backpack.

It started with the fact that my flight was 2 hours delayed. Which really started with the fact that I’d gotten about 7 hours of sleep in the 2 days prior; that I’d stood on a rush-hour E train all the way to the airport, all 60 fucking pounds of luggage draped around me so that my right fingers went numb holding on to the metal railing; with the fact that I actually nodded out a little bit at the terminal, all the eager/antsy middle-aged tourists in their neck pillows and compress socks buzzing around in anticipation of when the plane would actually arrive.

Couldn’t really sleep on the red-eye, which is rare for me—it was more freezing-cold than usual and since I’ve decided to bring half my closet with me, I didn’t have room for an extra blanket, which you really only need on flights and trains and buses anyway. But when you need it, fuck, you need it.

So I land with, what now?, 12 hours of sleep in a 3 day period? Doesn’t really matter anymore. Part of the trick of not ever really getting jetlag is that flying makes me so wonky, I’m out of it anyway, so I can rally and stay up for hours, or I can crash immediately. Or I can blaze bleary-eyed through a gleaming-stone ancient city and make all those novice traveler mistakes I like to think I’ve outgrown.

Get waved through immigration with barely a glance at my passport. This happens to me sometimes, when entering the EU, which is supposed to be all tripped out on the xenophobia tip, but I guess that only applies if you’re not white American. There isn’t even a long line—homeboy just glances at my picture (which doesn’t even look like me anymore, people tell me), his fingers barely grazing it, before pushing it back through the window, flicking his wrist and dismissing me. So, okay, that means I can stay forever, right?

But I’ve done this trek from Fiumicino to Termini enough times that I could kinda switch into automatic mode: the escalator down and the escalator up; the kiosk you don’t buy the train ticket at; the kiosk you do; the counter you get espresso at (not cause you need it, just to kill the time and get your heart racing more than it already is); the place where you validate your ticket; the number of machines you have to try before you find one that actually validates the ticket (usually 3); waiting waaaaay down the platform so that you’re away from the herd and can actually get a seat; how when you get to Termini you have to walk for like a mile down this loooong platform, how the station looks like a mirage in a desert down there, how when you finally reach it it isn’t an oasis at all but swarmed with rolling luggage and hustlers and pay phones that don’t work. Welcome to Rome, motherfucker.

I’m looking for the Laziali Tram—my fourth time in Rome and I’ve finally decided to fuck hostels near Termini, not even worth it. I did some research and found an affordable B&B outside of center, near Pigneto, which is where I want to stay anyway. So I walk down to the streetcars, which all look vintage and chic and rattly, like an old train model—I see the 5 and 14, which I suddenly remember are the trams that take you to Pigneto—where the hell that knowledge lay tucked in the bleary recesses of my brain, I don’t know.

But neither of them say “Laziali,” so shit, gotta keep looking. So I ask the dude sitting on the bench next to me, so I ask the tram driver, so I decide fuck it and try to go find a payphone to call dude at the B&B and ask him for better directions than the ones I scribbled for myself while waiting at the airport terminal. Phone steals 3 Euros and yells a series of tones in my ear—no luck. A cab maybe? They all look dicey.

Which is when I note to myself that I feel lighter, less encumbered. Which is when I notice that one of my bags is not with me—the one with my new laptop and my thyroid medication and fuck you, my makeup and cheap jewelry—important shit.

Ugh—that sudden razor of fear that cuts through your gut, laser of panic and you feel it radiate, shock you into focus. Dash back to the payphones—not there. Remember, as I lumber across the street as fast as I can, that I haven’t bought travel insurance yet—why?

But miracles of fucking miracles, my stuffed messenger bag is still sitting on the tram stop bench. The dude I asked for directions smiles sadly and shakes his head, as if to say: “Bella, you must be new at this.”

I gush a million thank yous, he tells me how lucky I am, especially in Rome, and I say, “Hell, in anywhere,” and I feel like a tired dog that’s gotten kicked in the ribs, like an old TV, shocked out of my static—I feel alive again.

“I watch your bag for you,” a squat man with an Indian/British accents tells me. “I ask everyone, ‘Is this your bag?’” Shakes his head. I gush a few more thank yous in his direction.

He asks me where I’m going, and he shakes his head again and points over to a bus parked across the street. “I’m going there too, come with me,” and shit, it’s not like I’m not gonna go with him—he coulda swiped all my stuff and he didn’t, so he can’t be half bad.

He walks with his chest kind of puffed out, has a sweater draped around his shoulders, sleeves tied sloppily or jauntily, I can’t decide—maybe both. He like to play the big shot, I can tell, I’m the man that knows this place, and it strikes me as a kind of pauper’s authority—but he’s obviously got a good heart beneath it.

He seems pleased that I know how to validate my ticket when I get on the bus (cause actually, I’m not new at this, I’m just a wreck). He asks me what country I’m from, tells me about his brother in Boston, how he wants to go to Boston—the usual immigrant conversation. He asks me if it’s my first time in Rome and I sigh and shake my head, “No, but you’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

I leave myself at his mercy, cause why not? My brain is bleary as fuck and I haven’t eaten and I’ve barely slept and he seems to take a kind of pleasure in leading me, in asking every Indian street peddler when we get off the bus where Via Capua is (even though I kinda know where it is), and I wait until the sign is right in front of us to point and say, “Look!”

And he walks me to the door of the B&B, which is locked because I’m about 3 hours later than I thought I’d be, and dude offers to wait with me, but I tell him “No, it’s cool.” And I thank him again and shake his hand and he wants to write me if he ever goes to the US, and I tell him I’m not going back for a long time. And he nods and gives me a different look—maybe he’s decided that I’m not new at this, I don’t know—and then he waves and walks back down the street, that puffed up chest leading the way.

Cities Like Boys: Vela and the New York Edition

So I’m a little late on this, but am stoked to tell y’all about a brand new venture I’m a part of: Vela.

The brainchild of ever-the-bad-ass Sarah Menkedick, Vela is a website that features the travel-related writing of six women. The site is a venue for women to write like women, and to define whatever that means ourselves—not to have to write in opposition to or in the style of the male-dominated publishing industry, just to do our own thing. “Written by Women”—check out Sarah’s spot-on manifesto for further thoughts.

I was beyond honored to be asked to be a part of the project. I’ve followed Sarah’s work for awhile, and she was the editor for my Glimpse project, so I was down to ride along with whatever she was scheming up. But the other ladies involved are just as awesome. Makes me wish we could have a meet-up or something, an anti-Sex-In-The-City lady date (no cosmos).

So the plan is that we publish one piece a week. This week was my turn. In “Cities Like Boys” I further the theme I touched upon in a blog post I wrote a few months back—how more and more, I relate to cities like people. In this piece, I focused on four cities that I feel like I’ve had relationships with. I made them boys, cause it was more fun that way.

So, furthering the theme (you can really get on a roll with this exercise), here’s a little epilogue—the New York edition:

JR eyes

You know, they say two things about New York—that he’s dangerous and that he’s rude. I’ve never found either to be true.

He’s a bit brusk, for sure—not all nicey-nice, and busy, always moving, defenses and filters and solid glass gleaming, to keep all the crazy out. But New York’s always been friendly with me, always eyed me kinda curiously—”You’re a different breed than we got out here”—the 21-year-old working student who hadn’t taken a vacation in four years; the vegan traveling with her brother, bleeding money; the girlfriend sleeping on the floor in Brooklyn, an apartment that shook like an earthquake when the subway rolled by; the 26-year-old couchsurfing with her best friend, a couple tattooed freaks. Toss in 2 day-long lay-overs, and New York’s seen me grow up in a way other cities hasn’t—the evolution of a traveler.

This time I came without maps or a guidebook or an itinerary, just left myself to the mercy of New York, and what that says about me now, I’m not sure.

But we’ve always been cool. And he’s got a sort of charm, you know, in all that toughness—the accent and the slang and the shit-talking and the posture—almost a kind of character he plays: the New York Guy.

And I’ve always been kinda enamored with it—a type of working-class macho we just don’t do on the West Coast. But it wasn’t until this time, this trip—curled up in the dim, light-shaft, perpetual-dusk of New York’s heart, an air mattress and the cling of old weed smoke—that I feel like I finally understood it.

It’s like a kind of persona he assumes—not an act, per se, but a version of himself he likes to present. And he turns it, not off and on (because it’s never all the way gone), but up and down, like a light dimmer, and I watched New York do that—on the street, in the subway, when some drunk bridge-and-tunnel guy was being a dick at 4am in the East Village—almost a type of defense: the New York Guy.

And it’s charming as shit. And I can’t help but laugh, and the Duane Reade clerks say, “Keep her smiling,” and New York says, “Yo, that’s that Cali smile”—and if New York were any other city, he’d say it with a wink. But he doesn’t.

Hey, it's a crappy iPhone 3 photo, don't judge

But then there’s this other side, that in all the previous trips I guess I’d only glimpsed. We took the train out to Roosevelt Island one night, broke into an abandoned small pox hospital, tromped through the dirt and gravel of a sleeping construction site towards the water, Manhattan like a glittering snow globe—a layer of glass and you can never quite touch it. It was still, and neither me or New York said a word for a moment. And then New York said, “Yo, this is like the Mercedes of trespassing,” and you both laughed. Then we rode the cable car back—up, up, beneath the belly of the bridge, steel wires quivering, and I thought how glad I was New York doesn’t get earthquakes.

And on the last night I curled up beside New York—started talking about my move and my project and without really meaning to, told New York about that gnarly shit that came up in Phnom Penh, that I’ve been too busy to think about the last few months but that I’ve felt sitting, waiting, watching, on the periphery of me.

And New York got real quiet, and it was only like a half hour later that New York said, “Yeah, I’ve got my own shit. And I think about it all the time.” I didn’t ask what that was—just listened and watched that other side, the one beneath the persona, unfold and open up—it all quivering under the veneer of “New York” like cable wires. I felt a monumental tenderness welling up in me, but it was a sad tenderness, because New York is something I could never quite touch, not then or now—not in 1 night or 5 days or 5 trips or nothing.

Because New York will ravage you. You’ll run with New York and pretend like you’re 22. You’ll eat dollar pizza and falafel and bagels, and you’ll drink 100 cups of battery-acid deli coffee. You’ll stay up till 4am, and when you wake you won’t be able to tell what time it is in the perpetual dusk. You’ll smoke on 7th-story fire escapes, and sneak up to Soho rooftops, and you’ll crunch through sidewalks of drunken miniskirts and food trucks, and you’ll be exhausted when you’re done—because you’re not 22, and you can feel the first chill of age rushing through you, an October breeze, and you’ll know that, won’t be able to forget that, even in all the fun and charm and “Yo, word?” of it—you’ll keep thinking of that song you listened to all goddamn summer: “You wanna get young but you’re just getting older.” And even New York can’t make you forget that. Or maybe he makes you think of it more.

But you can pretend for 5 days. And on the last day, the morning you leave, you’ll put on yesterday’s clothes and walk for coffee. You and New York will stand amid the trees, in front of a university neither one of you could afford, and you’ll give New York the biggest fucking hug you can; you’ll say thank you and you’ll mean it, fuck you’ll mean it.

And then you’ll flash that Cali smile, say something noncommittal, and you’ll walk away without looking. Because when you leave New York, it’s always best not to look.


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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