Archive for the 'Being American' Category



The Anti-Irony of Cambodian Fashion: The English-Language T-Shirt Edition

“I like how cheesy it is, you know?” Mathilde said this morning, ashing her anorexic cigarette and looking across the street, at the teenagers hanging out at the Best Friend Cafe. Fake acid-wash skinny jeans, emo sideswiped hair-dos, bedazzled trucker hats positioned atop boys’ heads in a perch reminiscent of Abe Lincoln—the styles donned so earnestly by Cambodian youth would be only be seen on the most ironic of Western hipsters. And even then…

“It’s not so serious as in Europe,” she continued. “We would think this was so cheesy, but why not? If they like it, if they think it looks good, why not?”

One of the things I love most about Cambodian fashion—and it isn’t the stripper shoes or cutesy pajama prints or polka-dot pants—is the utter sincerity with which ridiculous clothing is worn. Ridiculous to Western eyes, I should say. And tonight this was exemplified by the t-shirts for sale at Phnom Penh’s Night Market.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, along the riverside, tents are erected and a fair-style stage put up; vendors set up booths, teenagers with mediocre voices and sleep-walk-y dance moves perform on stage, mobile phone companies set up opposing stands with megaphones blasting promotions at one another, food stalls sell skewers of myserious deep-fried meat products, and diners take off their shoes and sit on straw mats, eating off thin wooden sticks. It’s nice. It’s a good mix of foreigners and Khmers, the riverside breeze is sweet, and until the mosquitoes drive you away, it’s pretty fucking luxurious to sit out and enjoy the night.

So we’ve been making a habit of grabbing some food and sitting out under the stars—or what would be the stars, might be the stars, behind the haze of city lights and smog. You can’t really be sure anymore. You don’t really go there to buy things—some tourist trinkets, fake floral arrangements (okay, I bought one of those for my apartment), and clothing. Clothing for local teenagers, I should say.

Tonight I took to photographing some of the t-shirts I felt best exemplified the Cambodian fashion spirit within the particular sub-category of Putting English Words On A Shirt Immediately Makes It Cool.

Rule #1: It doesn’t really matter if what’s on a shirt makes sense or not—as long as there are English letters, you’re half-way there.

Rule #2: It really doesn’t matter.

Rule #3: Product placement is a key component of English-language t-shirt fashion. It doesn’t matter if it’s the actual logo of a product, as long as it refers a Western, and preferably American, product.

Hey Apple marketing masterminds: you should really think about doing a Cambodian edition of those PC vs Apple guys ads. Do you see any PC t-shirts out here? I don’t think so…

Rule (?) #4: It also doesn’t seem to matter if the senseless phrases evoke repulsive imagery of, say, spoiled food products.

“Punk Rock Tonight Love Me”: I almost bought this one. It was too small.

“Power Over Pimples”: Fuck yeah! As someone who endured 12 years of acne, I wanted to high-five this t-shirt and jump joyously in the air like… the people on this t-shirt. The text was also English, singing the praises of an acne-fighting cleansing solution.

So, um, in a country where a shitton of kids get strung out on glue sniffing and paint huffing, I didn’t know what to make of this. Was it supposed to be funny? One thing’s for sure: I don’t think the affected demographic is perusing for new shirts at the Night Market though…

Rule #5: Content Over Accuracy

“Joy, Look For It Evert Day”: This shirt says it all. There’s a certain sweetness to it all, what would be convenient to call an innocence, but I think it’s something other than that, less simple or more simple or in any case different.

“Cambodia’s not a post-modern culture,” someone was explaining to me. “So there’s not a lot of irony. There’s a playfulness for sure—but more of a sincerity to the work.”

She was talking about contemporary art, but I thought about her comment looking at the shirts tonight. And I think it’s true for the fashion as well. And I agree with Mathilde—I like it. Coming from a world of ironic everything—ironic moustaches, ironic wolf-howling-at-the-moon shirts, ironic gangsta rap listening and ghetto blasting, ironic malt liquor drinking and crack smoking (yes, really)—it’s pretty fucking refreshing to enter a world of sweetness and anti-irony. It’s not any less self-conscious, it’s just self-conscious in a different way. It makes you feel like we’ve missed something in the Western world, that we’ve lost something, gotten away from something, something I can’t quite name but that makes me horribly sad, in the smallest way, heavy like a pebble.

But I’m Western. And I can’t switch worlds, switch roles, ease myself into a different way of thinking. The t-shirts are, to me, ironic.

Yawning teenager working the teddy bear stand

A Morsel of Americanness, Here in Cambodia

If you look deep, deep into my center of my American soul, you will find that it’s not composed of car owning or monolingualism or even rock n roll.

It’s filled with peanut butter.

Australians have their Vegemite and the Swedes have their Muesli and the whole of Europe has their Nutella. But I am American, and my heart pumps, not red blood like yours but thick, chunky, light-brown swirls of peanut butter.

In previous posts, I’ve claimed that this love of the ground peanut is my number one American qualifier. I’ve gone so far as to consider a peanut butter tattoo, which I envision coming complete with a traditional-style banner that reads: “From my cold dead hands.” I effing love the stuff, and I miss it dearly when I travel. Usually, when homesickness and the craving for healthy fat gets the better of me, I search and search for a jar to no avail.

So imagine my sheer delight when I found this little gem of patriotism staring out from the shelf at me:

Not only is it delicious and nutritious, it comes with a prominent display of national pride. Now that’s what I call proper marketing.

Not Your Normal Expat Scene: Khmer Kids Coming Back to Cambodia

“This not your normal expat scene.”

That’s all I kept thinking last night, as I stood sweating and stomach-sore in the crowd. I’d dragged myself out to a show, what was described to me as an all-girl indie rock band that sang in Khmer. Killer. No traveler’s flu would make me miss this.

It was a funny mix—local men in dress shirts and slacks, women in those super foofy sparkly dresses; kids, some just in the crowd, others wearing matching shirts for some organization I couldn’t quite make out.

And there were your typical expats—Western, mostly white. Some of them were extremely well-groomed, reeking of cologne and hair spray and kissing their friends on both cheeks. Some of them wore that aren’t-I-so-cool-for-being-here look. Some tried to dance along or move to the beat, and it was sad and cute in the way it’s always sad and cute. And others just seemed to be there, watching, enjoying the show, because that’s what there was to do that night.

But the kids putting on the show—the kids on stage and holding the cameras and checking the sound—they were not your normal expats.

Your typical expat does not drop their “to be” verb (“She crazy”), doesn’t say “y’all” or “aight.” They don’t wear baggy jeans and puffy sneakers. They don’t start NGOs called Tiny Toones or hip-hop groups called Klap Ya Handz, written in Godfather font. They don’t breakdance or freestyle or bust—and they don’t do it in the language native to their new homes.

I’d heard about the show from Bel, a girl I’d found on Couchsurfing. We had plans to meet up for coffee and even though my stomach was already getting wonky, something told me not to flake.

She was a cool girl and we talked for awhile. Her boyfriend was a Khmer-American who’d moved back to Cambodia, with no intention of ever leaving again. “He’s the most patriotic Khmer you’ll ever meet,” she said, and later he showed me the tattoo of a famous Wat across his back.

“There’s a lot of foreign-born Khmers moving back,” Bel told me. “Lots of artists and young people. And they’re really motivated to do something here.”

I wanted to see this; I wanted to glimpse what this was. Sure, I knew of people going back to their parents’ countries for a visit, but to live? To give up everything they know to fight for something better in a country they hadn’t grown up in? This was something different.

And it was. The show place was buried deep inside the maze of a mall, shuttered shops and a blinking arcade, bowling alley and bumper cars. I got there earlyish, paid a $10 cover—normal for the US, but exorbitant for here.

On stage was a DJ, two turntables and a MacBook glowing. Two artists were on stage, doing ad hoc graffiti art on a make-shift wall. “Empire State of Mind” came on. It was like being at any hip-hop show at home—except a hell of a lot hotter.

The first act was a hip-hop group called Klap Ya Handz. They spoke in a working-class English, like kids that grow up in Oakland. But in the songs, they flowed in Khmer. For one song, they brought out traditional Khmer drummers that were, well, bad-ass. During another song, the lead girl did what she later called “Khmer hands,” a hip-hop take-off on the hand movements of traditional Khmer dancers.

Cambodia lost a whole generation of artists during the Khmer Rouge. Traditional dance was virtually erased and, after Pol Pot, there wasn’t anyone left to pass it on. I’d read accounts of the few survivors left trying to teach the next generation, and it being hard—they were more interested, as teenagers usually are, in contemporary things. Like hip-hop.

The headliner was Laura Mam and the Like Me’s. They’re a bluesy, all-girl rock band from San Jose, California (local love). They’re Khmer-American and sing in Khmer. The crowd obviously loved them, singing along and snapping photos and waving their arms. I was told that they came to play in Cambodia relatively often. Either way, they showed the same kind of passionate pride in their Khmer culture that the kids in Klap Ya Handz did.

They played a song called “Diaspora”: “for all the refugees living in diaspora around the world—and missing Cambodia.” The crowd went crazy.

No, this wasn’t your normal expat scene.

Your typical expat is someone of relative priviledge; they have, say, a university degree and the social mobility to pick up and move around the world. Maybe they studied abroad, or spent time backpacking around. In any event, it occurred to them to leave their home countries in the first place and they had the means, however meager, to do it. The ones I encounter are largely middle-class; the uber wealthy ones exist on another plane, and I only see them in passing—the immaculate girls on the streets of Hong Kong.

These kids were categorically Not That. They’re the kind of kids, in the kind of scene, that I miss when I leave the US; when I think about moving abroad, I think, “Man, there’s so much shit I’d be missing” and this is part of what I mean.

And they bring their Americanness—their very, very Americanness—back here. But they’re making something new with it; there’s that frenetic energy, that spark you feel when cultures collide and you see people that are so intensely passionate about what they’re doing, you can’t help but feel it too.

Of course, not all of them are coming back by choice. The US opted to deport foreign-born convicts, regardless of whether they’d served their time, and nearly 200 people who were, for all intents and purposes, American were sent “back” to Cambodia. They brought their culture, a street culture, and they brought their art. And they’re doing shit; they’re bringing this to the kids of Cambodia, the next generation (ie: Tiny Toones).

So basically, watch the fuck out for these kids.

There was a shirt I kept seeing in the crowd, tons of kids wearing it. Its design was a take-off on the Star Wars logo, and it read: “The Khmer Empire Strikes Back.”

This was my first glimpse into this, my looking-through-the-peep-hole into this. I fully intend on investigating this more during my time here. But last night, sickness was calling, and I had to head back to the hotel.

Americanness on the Road, Part II: It Ain’t All Bad

Yes, really: George W Bush Street, in Tirana

“America is the best country for a person with a disability to visit.”

This was Rob, sitting cross-legged on the roof terrace of the Tirana hostel. He continued, “For deaf people, it’s like a dream. It’s like going to Disneyland. Actually,” he ashed his cigarette, “Disneyland is great for people with disabilities too. Wheelchair accessibility and all.”

Chad looked confused. You could see the information smacking up against the wall of prejudice, his brow wincing from the pressure.

Chad didn’t like the US, and Chad was American.

Rob continued on, citing the revolutionary wonders of Civil Rights legislation and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in his English accent. Rob was in Tirana doing NGO work in the deaf community; Zhujeta, Rob’s girlfriend who helped run the hostel, also did work with the same NGO. Rob rattled off the comprehensive services available to deaf people in the US—from resources in public schools to telephone interpreters—vastly different from any other country in the world, including his native England.

Chad nodded, soaking it all in. “Wow,” he said thoughtfully. “I guess that’s one thing we didn’t fuck up.”

It’s easy for Americans to be jaded about our own country. There’s a lot of fucked-up shit going on in it, and we’ve caused a lot of suffering, both abroad and at home. It’s easy to fall into a sort of naive cynicism: our country is completely fucked. As young travelers, little ambassadors on hostel terraces, we feel it our duty to decry our country and lament its shortcomings, its sins, its unforgivable and deplorable acts. And there’s a lot to decry.

But it’s something like the Guilty White Person syndrome, the Bleeding Heart Liberal. This perspective—and God knows I fell prey to it for several years in my early traveling—lacks complexity, nuance. The US isn’t the evil empire, as easy and convenient as it’d be to think that. Just when you want to write it off, there’s something like the ADA to remind you of the revolutionary notion of equality written into the fabric, the very law of the land, that you can’t get away from—that, no matter how far we sway into the other side, keeps showing up and shaking things down.

It was funny to watch that information try to sort itself in the mind of someone who thought they’d neatly washed their hands of the issue: US = bad. Because the fact is, we only have ADA legislation as a product of Civil Rights legislation, and we only have that because of that little blip written into our constitution that declared all the men equal. Sure, it’s not what a bunch of rich white dudes in powdered wigs meant at the time, but too bad. And this is what, in my mind, makes our country such a complex, contradictory and ultimately fascinating place: this space for change, this tension built into it. That, and the incredible cultural cocktail that keep colliding, exploding, bubbling over and making something new.

It was even funnier to watch Chad struggle with the information that Bush Senior was the man who signed the ADA into effect.

Because things as big as people or countries are never that simple, never all one thing (“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes”—when in doubt, always quote Walt Whitman). It reminded me of a Middle Eastern friend of mine, an ethnic minority from Iraq, who told me her mother still thinks of Saddam Hussein as a great man, because he didn’t persecute Assyrians.

And there’s more than the ADA on the list of “things we didn’t fuck up.” But it wasn’t my job to teach or explain that to Chad; he’d have to figure it out for himself. I just sat back and watched the lightbulb turn on, a small flicker of awareness.

Later on, we sat playing music from someone’s iPod. “Welcome to the Jungle” came on, and I indulged in a moment of cheesiness. “To me,” I said, absently, not really thinking about it, “this is the epitome of America. This is what the US sounds like.”

Chad looked slightly taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s rock, good ole’ 80s hard rock. Which came out of rock n roll, which came out of the blues, which is about as fucking American as it gets. It comes from the core, you know, the soul of the country. And I fucking love it,” I added. “American music is my favorite music. In all its permutations—folk, country, soul, hip hop, grunge…”

“I guess I never thought of it that way,” Chad said. “I think of American music as, you know, the corporate Britney Spears shit.”

“Well, yeah, it’s that too. But that’s only a small bit of it.” I lowered my voice and leaned in. “No one can deny it: our music is pretty bad-ass.”

Americanness on the Road, Part I: Letting His Issues Be His Issues

“I hate your country’s politics.”

This was K, and this was the first thing he said to me.

We sat on the dark patio of a Tirana bar, table of ashtrays and beer bottles, the headlights and footsteps of surrounding streets obscured by a criss-cross fence. I’d arrived in the city only hours earlier, and had already found myself chasing fun with the group of people I’d hang with for the next five days.

K had just come in from Kosovo, in town for a gig where important record executives would be. He sang, or he played the guitar, or did both—it wasn’t clear. He had a red Adidas track jacket and the straw Fedora of male insecurity: a little too self-consciously cool.

He sat down at the table, said his hellos to old friends, was introduced to me. He asked where I was from, then crossed his arms, leaned back, eyes narrowed to a challenge, as if to say, “Come on, step to this, I dare you.” He announced his personal aversion to my country’s politics with smug satisfaction.

It was like K was trying to hand me a big bag of his bullshit. And I, in turn, got to firmly but without malice reply, “Actually, this is yours. And I’m just gonna let you hang on it.”

There was a time when I would have had to jump up and down to prove to K that I wasn’t one of those Americans. I would have cited my city of residence, my family’s long history in activism, personal lifestyle choices that reflect my commitment to anti-corporate, anti-imperialist values. I would have lamented the pervasive culture of ignorance and fear that paved the way for predatory politics, and when the bitch/blame-session reached its crescendo of discontent, I’d have thrown my hands up and announced my ultimate goal to marry someone with an EU passport and flee the whole mess.

I would have, in short, run laps to prove who I was to K, to win his validation and approval, this person I had just met, in some sort of attempt to resolve my own insecurity about my nationality.

Instead I shrugged, sighed, “Yeah, join the club, buddy.”

The rest of the tabled groaned at K. “What is that?” Robo asked, shoulders hunched and flicking ash, seeming a little uncomfortable at K’s underhanded assault on me. “That’s the first thing you say to someone?”

“Well, I do hate the US’s politics,” K defended himself.

“Yeah, but as the first thing to say?” Zhujeta cooed in her gentle, loving way. “Not even, ‘Nice to meet you.'” She titled her head in the same way as when she spoke to the begging gypsy kids that cruised past the table, “It’s rude, K.”

“Okay, okay,” K waved his hands as though they were little white flags. “Sorry, nice to meet you.”

I shrugged again. Whatever issue it was—whatever insecurity in K made him want to challenge someone, get them to prove themselves to him—I wasn’t going to get involved. That was between K and himself, not me. Or my Americanness.

Not Watching the World Cup

Watching the finals, four years ago in Merida

Four years ago. Cement and humidity. Rattling bus ride, stomach-sick and backpack-heavy, up and over, along the coast and back in again. Everything laced in car exhaust and heat, the smoke off cooking meat, the horn blows of “Hips Don’t Lie”—and the crackle of television sets, shoulders hunched around the static glow.

I’ll admit that I didn’t really know what the World Cup was before the last one. Cause I’m American and we’re generally not aware of things outside our own culture (as captured by this Simpsons episode). But four years ago, I got a crash course: I was traveling during the entire duration of the World Cup. I didn’t know shit about the game, and kindly fellow travelers tried repeatedly to educate me, but it was pretty much a loss. What got to me, though, was the way the World Cup consumed the places I was in, and completely took over daily life.

It started slowly. During the first rounds, just a couple dudes holed up in the kitchen of the youth hostel on drizzly Bogota afternoons. They made a list of all participating countries, along with offensive, politically incorrect nicknames they invented with their apparent oddles of free time (the only one I can remember is “Portugal: Little Brazil”).

As I snaked through the murderous mountains, bus break downs and military checkpoints, the intensity of the World Cup gathered speed. By the time I got to the sweltering, smoggy Caribbean coast, it was in full swing: TVs pulled out onto the Santa Marta street corners, men on folding cars, kids crosslegged, staring transfixed. Colombia wasn’t even in the games. It didn’t seem to matter.

I’ve heard reasons for why soccer isn’t big in the US, and why football (American football) is—basically, that football is tailor-made for commercial breaks and thus commercialization, while soccer’s lengthy sets make it untelevisable, in the American sense. It seemed like a plausible explanation. “I must say, it’s rather nice,” the British girl told me, leaning in and soft-voiced, “to have this one huge thing that America isn’t really a part of.”

I was in Merida, Venezuela for the final game. It was like Super Bowl Sunday times ten—you couldn’t really do anything else but watch the game. So I hung out at my hostel and pretended to follow along.

We went out for a walk after the end of the game, to survey the goings on. The city was transformed into a Venezuelan sideshow: a choke of traffic, horns and revving engines, kids hanging entire torsos out of the windows of moving vehicles, everyone chanting: “Italia! Italia!” I could only imagine what it must have been like in Italy.

The energy of it, the global ecstatic energy, felt like an addictive, consuming and altogether foreign thing. Was this what was going on while Americans were busy tailgating and spending $6 for a Budweiser? The raw emotion of it reminded me of a Sherman Alexie poem I’d read years ago:

On TV, more soccer riots in Europe.
There would be riots in American stadiums
during our particular games
if the people who had reason to riot
could pay the price for admission.

Like anything, like any time you travel and are surrounded by some awesome and immersive cultural force, you want to feel a part of it. But there’s always that little twinge, that hint, a prickle in the back of your neck, that you’re separate, somehow apart from—that you don’t really understand, not deeply enough, and that you’ll always be a little on the outside.

Do you ever play that game with yourself?—“the next time this happens, I wonder where I’ll be.” Four years older, but not where I supposed: still in the US, still waiting tables, still scraping money together here and there for little trips. Not the life I expected, or the one I even wanted, but the one I’ve ended up in: arrived in, disoriented and unsure, a noisy bus station on the smog-choked side of town.

So I didn’t join in the fuss this time around. I didn’t watch the games or pretend to follow along, didn’t ride the train out to Civic Center on Sunday to sit on the grass and squint at a big projection screen. I didn’t tweet my predictions or try to seem more international than I was really was by feigning interest (ahem, covered quite nicely here).

I let it pass quietly, peripherally—like a party going on in the apartment downstairs, when you look around the dim light of your bedroom and sigh. You put in some ear plugs and let the noise fade, feeling the foam expand as you fall asleep. In the morning, life returns to normal, and you try not to think about where you’ll be for the next one, in another four years.

If You Can’t Beat Em, Wear a Plastic Lei and Film Em

A long gleaming corridor. Palm trees and piped-in music. Our shoes squeaked along too-shiny floors as we walked deeper, further down, following the faint beating of drums and the smell of roasting pig, down into the belly of the beast: the Hilton Waikoloa Village, Kona.

Nevermind how I ended up there. Nevermind the maze of hallways, the gift shops, the cocktail lounges and swimming pool complexes, the shuttle ferry that glided down the artificial waterway, disrupting the shadows of high-rises, floors and floors of cookie-cutter hotel rooms, windows all right angles and white curtains. Nevermind that I’d paid $90 to wind up at the kind of place an independent traveler has nightmares about: a psuedo-cultural event at a corporate hotel. Nevermind that I felt like a vegan at MacDonald’s.

I was there and, goddamnit, I was going to have a good time.

Going to a Hilton luau to experience Hawaiian culture is like going on It’s A Small World to learn about global diversity. Which actually isn’t that far off of a comparison, seeing as though the great minds at Disneyland were employed in the developing of the Hilton, Kona (which explains why we kept remarking how much like Disneyland it felt). Commodified, codified, packaged up and watered down as much as the “2 Drinks Included!”, the Hilton luau was about as authentic as, say, Polynesian tattoos applied by a sun-burnt white dude with a sharpie.

I’m all for cultural experiences. And truth be told, the package tourism experience is real and true in its own right—something in the center of modern-day Hawaii, its economy, its culture, its day-to-day reality. So, in a way, you can’t get much more authentic than the genuine inauthenticity of package tourism in Hawaii. When you look at it honestly, it’s not any prettier than the corrugated-tin shantytowns that surround big cities like Lima or Rio—but still a huge part of life, real life, that deserves to be looked at.

So, in the name of cultural anthropology (and of fuck-it-I-spent-the-money-so-I-may-as-well-enjoy-myself), I infiltrated the Other Side: threw on a plastic lei, ate 5 plates of mediocre buffet food, drank my sugared-to-shit blended virgin cocktails, watched the fire throwers and hula dancers and even danced along. Think Hunter S Thompson and the Hell’s Angels, only a lot less cool.

I did not pay the $30 to keep a copy of this photo. I went broke-style and took a picture of the picture with my phone.

During the opening participatory hula dance, all I could think of was that scene in Dirty Dancing:

Through the course of the show, there was much hulaing, conga shell blowing, relating of digestible chunks of Pacific Island history, and audience participation. As the night wore on, and the Lava Flows kept coming, some folks got a little more into the Hawaiian spirit.

A curious element of the whole affair to me was the Young Hunky Native Boy aspect. Young guys—some appearing to be Hawaiian, others just really tanned white guys—trotted around in loin cloths, flexing and shaking and posing like Chip and Dale dances to a chorus of female cheers. The best was the fire dancer, a methed-out-looking white dude with a sleeve of tribal tattoos who punctuated the band’s high notes with his own ear-piercing hillbilly yoodle, in what could only be assumed to be a white trash mating call, hidden under a psuedo-ethnic guise (we were hip to him).

It made me uncomfortable, the way some of the women in the audience were responding, as if on cue, to the unabashed display of sexualized exoticism. If it had been the other way around, if the cheers had been directed at the female hula dancers, it would have been disgusting, deplorable. I wondered what made it different, more acceptable, when it came from women. It seemed to me to come from the same place, the same heart-breakingly exploitative place: “a young dark thing for my personal pleasure.”

They say tourism is the imperialism of the 21st century. They say Hawaii has prostituted herself to the whims of the West, that she’s syphilis-stricken and soul-sickened under that thick hair and pretty skin. I’m not really here to talk about all that. I just know that us Americans gasp at the idea of Chinese ethnic minority theme parks—but, um, Hawaii doesn’t seem too far off. And certainly not a luau at the Hilton.

We had a nice waitress. As we were gathering our things, she came to wish us a good night. It had come out, sometime during the course of the night, down on the other end of the table, where we were staying. The waitress grabbed my sister-in-law’s hand, “Oh, enjoy P.” Then, a little quieter, “You know, it’s really a great thing, what G did.”

Against the backdrop of the Hilton, against the gleaming stage lights and up-lit palm trees, the crackle of the sound system and the bustle of bus boys, she was right.

Domestic Travel for the 25% Club

It’s a tired, tongue-worn statistic that staggers gasping into travel discussions across the internet: only 25% of Americans hold passports.

Usually meant as a sad accounting for the geographic and cultural ignorance of Americans, it has the opposite effect on those of us in that illustrious quarter percent. We are the daring, the open-minded, the shrewd and worldly elder all the glowing faces at the campfire are huddled around. We have seen the world, and we have stories to tell. (Whether you not you really want to listen.) The only real travel is international travel—all else (minus the notable exception of New York City) is a petty bourgeois venture in the money-sucking heart of homogeneity.

“Is domestic travel really travel?”—it’s the kind of inane question that you unwittingly discover yourself debating (with yourself) over a slice of open road and steaming cup of gas station coffee. Travel within one’s own country is never an exotic thing—a kind of half-traveling, going through the motions, faking the orgasm of discovery. But when you’re American, and that country is a sprawling continent composed mostly of people who never leave it, domestic travel can sometimes seem like the antithesis of travel: giving up, giving in and coping out. And paying entirely too much for hotel rooms.

I got to thinking a lot about domestic travel on my very unglamorous, utterly unworldly last trip: driving through Southern California. It was so different from the type of travel I’d been doing the last few years: I had my car, I spoke the language, could use my cell phone and credit cards. There was no hassle, no “other”—but it most definitely was still travel. And now, as I’m getting ready to dash off to one equally unexotic locale (Texas) and the ultimate “paradise without a passport” destination (Hawaii), I’m thinking even more about what domestic travel means as an American.

I didn’t grow up traveling. International travel was one of those unfathomable luxuries of the wealthy. So when I left the US for the first time, it was literally like the world opened up to me. This occurred during a very dark time—namely, Bush’s presidency. The prevailing image of America, and Americans, was pretty much everything I was against. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was Canadian when abroad, but I didn’t want to be associated with anything American: capitalists, Christians, blond suburban girls. I was also broke, so traveling in places where rooms cost $7 a night was pretty much the only way to go. Thus, I left the country more than I left the immediate Bay Area and my ignorance went inverse: I knew the geography of Latin America better than the Midwest.

It’s true that the political tide has shifted, but it’s more than that. There’s so much to be against in the US—imperialism, corportatization, people who don’t believe in evolution—that it’s easy to forget all the good things. Our art is amazing; from hip-hop to punk rock to graffiti, pretty much everything I love was spawned out of the raging, pulsing cultural cocktail that is the United States.

And when I travel here, at home, I’m more able to dig in to those things that interest me—poke and scratch beneath the surface and get closer to what it means to be this, from this, born out of this. It goes beyond using the Yelp app in my phone to find a good coffee shop (which is goddamn useful). It goes beyond even just speaking the language, or doing so without an accent. Because I know the culture, am the culture, I know how to approach people, how get right in there and smile and make friends and discover cool shit I wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

The number one benefit of traveling within my own country is that I’m more able to dig in to what really fascinates me: people, how they live, the weird art/shit they make and the stories it tells. Domestic travel is a totally different beast from international, and I gotta admit that you don’t get the same knock-you-over-the-head rush. Rather than exploring the “other,” you’re exploring the known, and in that way, exploring yourself.

What does it really mean to be American? I used to think it had mostly to do with narrow-mindedness and consumerism. Maybe I’m just a cheeseball, maybe the Obama campaign really did give me some kind of hope, but I think it’s something much deeper than all that. I’m not sure what all it is, this being American, but I’m certain that somewhere down near the core of it is travel. There’s something very central about travel to the American psyche, a kind of open road that flows through the veins of the place, a Manifest Destiny born into us, to set wheels over earth. Stagecoaches, trains, automobiles, a country based upon more, upon Going West and Getting Yours. It’s not the jet-set , passport-stamping kind of travel. It’s visceral, grounded, rooted down into the earth, the dusty, craggy, bayoued and fertile earth.

Perhaps I’m settling into myself. Perhaps I’m just becoming accustomed to being a traveler and building a life around travel; being a member of that elite 25% isn’t so much a novelty anymore, it’s my life. I’m not the anxious teenager with a self-conscious mohawk; I’m the cranky old punk who doesn’t give a shit about dental-floss-sewn patches and would rather go to bed than party/do blow backstage (an actual anecdote from my weekend). And while my heart is in international travel, it doesn’t mean travel within the US is a waste of time and money (what I honestly used to think). It’s just a whole different experience, uses a whole different side of the brain.

Besides, what other country has Chaos in Tejas? (I’ll see you in the pit.)

Take Me Back to Bunker Hill: Finding What I Came For in Downtown LA

“Well,” my Dad asked, “did you find what you were looking for?”

I sat travel-dazed and dirty-socked at the dining room table. I’d fought the coming home blues all 372 miles up the 101, driven straight to my parents’ house to eat dinner, tell stories and delay actually arriving home a couple more hours. My car rested in the driveway like a tired horse, bag-laden and dirt-covered. I couldn’t remember having ever wanted to come home less.

Of course, my dad meant Los Angeles, its gritty and unglossy underside—had I found it? I’d made quite the to-do over my mission to dig in, delve beneath and uncover buried, bloody gems of LA’s uncommercializable heart—the skeletons in its closets, its alleyways, the voices that came through tattered paperbacks and the shrieking distortion of old punk LPs. Had I gotten there, found there, held a bit of there in my hands like it could be mine?

Downtown mural

I stayed mostly in Downtown, LA’s most un-LA area. Modestly tall buildings jangled with the light dancing off of cheap jewelry stores; young girls beckoned you to enter their stores, calling out the names of goods in Spanish; a legless beggar with perfectly combed hair occupied the pavement outside Clifton’s Cafeteria; Santeria markets abutted Art Deco theater marquees, sitting above boarded-up entrances and watching the street like purgatoried angels. Hipsters took morning strolls with their well-groomed dogs, past shopping carts and transient twitching, the encampments of misery that compose Skid Row. There were no Valley Girls, OC bros or Pilates-perfect MILFs. There was even a cafe that served Ritual coffee.

It’s called “Historic” Downtown, complete with markers and murals, and I crossed several groups of confused tourists, consulting street maps and looking up bewildered at the carcasses of LA history as if it say, “Huh?” You learn to take the term “history” with a grain of salt in California, but it went beyond that—this was barely even a Downtown. There were no bustling businessmen, no Banana Republics, no dudes hawking maps of celebrities’ homes on the street corner, no tourist facilities, not really any non-neighborhood locals. Working-class, non-white, unglamorous—this was Downtown LA.

I hiked over to Bunker Hill, a doomed and fruitless mission, I knew. It was once a down-and-out neighborhood that held, in the shadows of its slanted incline, flophouses and brothels, dive bars and cheap hotels, derelicts and drunkards and two of the best damn writers to come out of that cursed city. John Fante curled up in the liquor-soaked sweetness of the slum, while Charles Bukowski broke furniture and chased alcoholic insanity in its tenements. A 1950s revitalization project razed the ramshackle Victorians, paved over the shattered remains of lives and dreams and addictions, suffocating the howling ghosts neatly beneath office parks, wide streets and sterilized, sparkling sidewalks.

There was nothing to discover. I tromped up a San-Francisco-steep hill, glanced at the historical markers, cruised past the newspaper village of bare feet and cigarette butts outside the Central Library. I stood on a corner that will next week be renamed John Fante Square, and not a damn thing remained. Not a shadow, not an echo, not a ghost of a passing fit of madness. There was, to use a tired and perfect quote, no there there.

But of course, there never really had been. None of it was true, not all the way true, at least. Us writers and alcoholics are tragically skilled at romanticizing even the most sordid, harrowing of places and experiences—and in all likelihood, the actual Bunker Hill bore more resemblance to the modern-day Downtown than it did the gloriously gritty harem of passion portrayed in the novels I’ve loved. It was, most likely, a sweet little lie those boys told themselves, in their more tender of moments, when they ached for something to hold them, rock them, hum the lullaby of a childhood none of us really had. I know I’ve been guilty of rose-painting, perfuming the past, my own life, and it takes a photograph, something tangible, to jar me out of it, to remind myself how much it hurt, it bled, it puked and moaned; I saw people die, burn out, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”

So in that way, what I sought was all a mirage anyway. The narrow alleys and sagging Victorians of Bunker Hill may have been gone, but had the illusory soul of the place ever been more than that, a fevered dream? There was a current-day incarnation, just down the hill—laced with more sinister, soul-eating of drugs, for sure, with the rattle of shopping carts and broken lives—but it was probably a more accurate representation of Bunker Hill than those exalted odes to insanity, like the moment of pure genius and bliss before the trip goes back and the come-down shatters in.

But maybe it was all a mirage, Los Angeles—an oasis that keeps glimmering just a little further out in the sand. Katie told me about a girl she’d met in a penthouse one day (“typical LA story—went out for a coffee, met the Del Taco guy, went up to his apartment with his friends…”): perfectly thin and gorgeous, a 22-year-old model who’d run away from her Midwest home at 15, found herself stranded in California when the boyfriend ditched out, came to LA, rose in the ranks and behind the flashing of cameras, sat now on a leather sofa doing rails of cocaine off a glass coffee table. “She was the total LA person—came from somewhere else, chasing this glamourous illusion, the LA dream. She knew it was a dream, she was totally aware of it, but still too addicted to the dream to disconnect.”

Here’s what I learned: LA is a place for seekers. It seems it always has been, at least for the last 100 years or so. The City of Angeles, of a fleeting fulfillment you can almost, but never quite, grasp. There’s an LA dream, that’s not too unlike the American dream, that this too can be yours, that you too can find it, have it, hold it. It’s a flickering projection of images, like on the backs of eyelids or clean white screens, that’s so close to being real you could almost weep, almost believe it.

So did I find what I was looking for? Yes and no. It may have all been a dream to begin with, like the utopias of the almost-cults I visited. It had been bulldozed and redesigned with crisp corners and clean towers; it was living on in the ragged throats and stained clothes of Skid Row. It was a memory so old you don’t know whether it was a dream or not; it was a love song for the one you never really, but almost, had.

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.


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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