Archive for the 'Blunders' Category



Adventures in Vietnamese Bureaucracy: Dong Hoi Visa Shenanigans

I didn't take many pictures amid all this. So here's a boat.

Blond and sun-crisp, with a Marlon Brandon mouth and board shorts, Ben was the first Westerner I’d seen in Dong Hoi.

He lit a cigarette and sighed as his driver secured my backpack to the roof of the SUV. “Where are you from in the States?”

“California.”

“Ah, well,” he exhaled an agitated puff, “this is like the Alabama of Vietnam.”

I’d only spent 20 hours in Dong Hoi, so I wasn’t exactly in the position to agree or disagree. But I could verify that during those hours, I hadn’t seen any other foreigners. I hadn’t been able to communicate with anyone, hadn’t seen any English or any Western food, and I certainly hadn’t seen the travel agency I so desperately needed.

My first clue that I was officially off the beaten path was when the minivan from Dong Ha had more or less slid the door open and pushed me out onto the main strip of Dong Hoi, the tout smiling and yelling back at me, “Dong Hoi.”

I’d been lured to this part of the country by the Phong Nha Farmstay, an independent, family-run homestay that was also one of the few outfitters to run tours to the newly opened Paradise Cave.

But what I needed first was a travel agency—the kind I’d see all over the other places I’d been in the country, English-language signs advertising tourism services. I needed a visa extension: my 3-month, multiple-entry one was due to expire just 4 days before I fly out. While in Laos, I’d spent a good hour researching extensions, grace periods, whether I should just apply for a new visa or try to extend the one I have. I’d come up with zero in the way of solid, conclusive information. You could, it was rumored, overstay by 48 hours with no penalty. After that? Both Google and the Vietnamese Immigration website were wholly unhelpful. My plan was: get to Vietnam, find a travel agency in Dong Hoi, drop my passport there while I went to the farmstay for four days, pick up my passport when I returned to Dong Hoi for my bus to Hanoi. It wasn’t air-tight, but it was the best I could devise.

But after circling a dusky Dong Hoi a few times, I determined that there were no travel agencies. Because there were no Western tourists. I picked up a SIM card and called Ben, from the Phong Nha Farmstay.

“Listen,” Ben told me after I explained my situation, “I’ve got a guy in Dong Hoi.” He gave me the info of a man named Hung. After an ensuing half-dozen phone calls triangulating between Ben, Hung and myself, I ended up at Hung’s office the next morning, 2km down the main highway, a small room crammed with computers and tourism posters—in Vietnamese.

“Why didn’t you just get another visa?” Hung drilled me.

“Because I didn’t know I needed to.”

“Why did you wait so long to apply for an extension?”

“Because I couldn’t find any information on whether I had to extend it or not.”

Hung sighed. “This will be a problem.” He lectured me on much easier it would have been to just get a new visa while I was in Laos. I nodded, not bothering to explain the obscurity of Vietnamese bureaucracy.

He made a phone call; I sipped a glass on tea. He wheeled back over to me, giving a grave-faced and round-about explanation for why I couldn’t apply for a normal extension, why I had to have a rush, one-day extension. Which cost $100.

At which point Ben called me. “How’s it going with the visa there?”

I explained the situation. He sighed. “Let me talk to Hung.” The phone passed back and forth a few times. “Okay, listen,” Ben told me, “what Hung’s telling me is that you can’t leave your passport in Dong Hoi, because if the extension gets denied, we could possibly get fined for having someone illegal at the farmstay.” I chuckled at the idea of myself being illegal. “So it looks like you’ve got to do the rush, sorry bout that.”

After the initial wave of nausea, I succumbed to the idea that I’d have to part with $100. Live and learn—and blog about it so that other poor saps can learn too. Hung told me he’d call when it was done, around 3 or 4 o’clock.

I commenced to wander around the sweltering town of Dong Hoi, the faded colonial streets, the floating restaurants and wooden fishing boats, waving at the boys on bicycles that called out “hello” at me. I’d retreated to the lobby of my hotel—where I’d been the only guest—when Hung called. “There’s a problem with your visa. You didn’t tell me you have a business visa.”

I let out a laugh. “Well, I didn’t know I had one. I applied for a tourist visa.”

“The Immigration office says they need a health check and a letter from your employer to extend your visa.”

“But I don’t have an employer. I don’t actually work in Vietnam. It’s a mistake.”

“Then you’ll have to go to Hanoi. Immigration here can’t do it.”

That was about the time Ben showed up, an SUV packed with family and supplies he’d picked up in Hue. “Well shit,” he said, “let’s drive over to Hung’s.”

There aren’t hardly any Westerners in this province, Ben explained, so they aren’t used to dealing with tourists. The Phong Nha Cave might be the biggest tourist attraction in Vietnam, but that was only for Vietnamese. Westerners are rare, and everything having to do with Westerners exceedingly difficult.

On the sidewalk in front of Hung’s office, Hung shook his head and handed my money back to me. We stood around and ate ice-cream from the corner store, brain-storming.

“I mean, fuck,” Ben said, “you could just overstay.”

His Vietnamese wife Vik shook her head. “No. Better to do it the legal way.”

We discussed options. I could take a bus to Hanoi that night, and get it sorted out there. I could take a bus to Hue, hoping I could sort it out there, then take a bus back to the farmstay. Or I could say fuck it.

“I mean, what’s the worst that’ll happen?” I asked. “Will they arrest me or detain me?”

“No, no. I think officially, they charge you $25 a day. But a mate of mine overstayed and they just waved him through. Worst, I say, is they put something in your passport saying you can’t come back for three years.”

I shrugged. “I can live with that.”

I had something less than a chuckle when I imagined myself actually being an illegal in Vietnam. But after all the day’s shenanigans, I really could live with it..

April 25: Sobreity and Getting Stolen From

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it wasn’t there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WTF Moment of the Day: Street Monkey

So about once a day here in Phnom Penh I have a massive WTF moment. I’ve been catalouging them: a boy stabbing birds, Western beggars, my guesthouse posting a sign about not offering “the sex services,” and pretty much any occasion I open the Phnom Penh Post. Strange things, bizarre things that my Western brain can’t compartmentalize—where all there is to do is shrug, shake your head and say “What the fuck…”

Today’s WTF moment came as I was walking home. It was a mellow day, filled with writing and street food, and I was retiring early, walking down a dusty road lined with corrugated metal fences, behind which the humming of machinery had ceased for the day. Men still wearing their hardhats bicycled past; teenagers in school uniforms clustered at the street corners, eating grilled meats from street stalls.

Then I saw this fellow:

Now, I’m familiar with street dogs and street cats and rats and mice and raccoons and squirrels—but WTF?! A street monkey? Phnom Penh isn’t the fucking jungle; it’s a city.

Where did the little guy comes from? Why wasn’t he in a zoo? Why was he just chilling there, riffling through a bag, trying to fish out a little food, sticking his red ass in the air as he repositioned? Why was no one doing anything? Why were they all going about their business like it was no big deal, perfectly normal for a hairy primate cousin to be out and about on a humid late afternoon?

I stood and watched him. I took a picture. A security guard down the road looked at me curiously—What’s this crazy white girl taking a picture of a monkey for?

The monkey tired of the plastic bag, threw it aside. He stretched his limbs and turned, looking into the traffic. He began to cross the street slowly, the same way I do, sensing out the rhythm of the road. He knew what he was doing. He was better at crossing the street than most tourists. The motobikes and tuk-tuks and cars slowed and swerved seamlessly around him—just another monkey cruising across the street.

Then he spotted me.

I still had my camera in my hands; maybe he was offended that I was taking pictures, objectifying him like an animal in a zoo. He gave me a real menacing look, bared his teeth slightly. He walked towards me.

Here I should clarify that I am 100% a city kid. I used to be afraid to swim in water I couldn’t see the bottom of. I’m easily impressed by the appearance of any stars whatsoever. Wildlife freaks me out about as much as uber urbanity freaks other people out. And everything is wildlife: from the geckos on the wall to the squeaks of bats. If it’s not a cat or dog, it’s probably got rabies and wants to eat you.

I thought of Greg, who I met bicycling breathlessly down a dirt road in Southern Italy. Greg was straight outta Queens, his speech peppered with more “yo”s than my own “hella”s. He’d just run into a herd of sheep in the road. He’d freaked—what were they doing? (“Probably grazing,” I offered.) Wildlife, fuck that. He hadn’t wasted any time in pedaling the other direction, and I immediately understood his panic.

And so the gangsta street monkey swaggered towards me. I moved slowly (“keep it cool, don’t ask scared, he can smell your fear”), stepping carefully, one foot at a time, in the opposite direction. When he disappeared between two parked cars, I walked briskly away, shaking my head and thinking, “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck.”

Lost in Navigational Translation: The Tuk-Tuk and Motorbike Drivers of Phnom Penh

“Tuk-tuk la-dee?” “La-dee, moto-bike!” “Where you go?” “La-dee, la-dee—you need moto-bike!”

This is the chorus you hear, endlessly, walking through central Phnom Penh. It’s like birds chattering, only more jarring, less song-like. It comes accompanied with a raised arm, two fingers extended—more of a summons than an offering of service.

By the touristy riverside, the touts can be pushy, but for the most part they’re just guys trying to make an honest(ish) buck. At first I tried to respond to all of them—Lisa ran a tuk-tuk company in Phnom Penh, given as part of her dowry, before the Khmer Rouge—so I feel a special responsibility to be respectful. I smiled politely and said “no” or “ot te.”

Eventually it got to be too much to respond to each other them, perched on their bikes at every street corner, crying out to you when you’re half-way down the block. I began to just shake my head, and soon stopped making eye contact. I started feeling like a bobble-head toy, my neck hurting from the constant swinging. Now I barely respond at all.

But I suppose that’s not so unusual, the constant barrage—being a Westerner in a city like Phnom Penh, where you stand out, gleaming of privilege and sweat and thin layer of sun screen. You take it in stride, a small price to pay for the relative welcoming warmness of the Cambodian people.

But here’s what is so unusual: most of these tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers have no idea how to navigate the city. A city, I should add, that’s laid out in a neat grid. And not just a grid, a numbered grid, where even numbered streets intersect the odd.

It is perhaps the easiest city I’ve ever learned. And I don’t make my living by driving its streets. So what, what, what is going on here?

It took me a few days to clue into it. I did a lot of walking at first, and when I did finally take a motorbike, chalked the confusion up to language barriers and my hotel’s offbeat location.

On Friday night, I was headed from a party back to my hotel. “Street 141 at 232,” I told the driver. The glassy gleam of incomprehension stared back at me, followed by a vague nod. This did not produce a feeling of confidence in me.

Must not know his English numbers yet, I thought and whipped out a piece of paper. I wrote the street numbers as largely and legibily as I could. I showed him. He nodded a little more vigoriously; we negotiated the price and I hopped on.

We slid down the wide Norodom Boulevard, nearly empty of its honking, and I felt the breeze of the night on my arms, my legs. I closed my eyes and let it kiss me.

I’d been in the city four days by that point—so I knew when we were making a wrong turn.

“Um, no,” I said and pointed back to Norodom. He shot me a confused glance. I pointed to the street sign. “This is only 156. We go to 232.” I waved my hand down the road.

A series of slow circlings and U-Turns ensued, me growing ever crankier on the back of the bike. It devolved to me leading the motorbike driver street-by-street back to the hotel.

He must be new at this, I thought as I finally hopped off.

But the phenomenon repeated itself: the glassy look, the vague nods, the wrong turns and aimless meandering. Another characteristic element to the typical un-joy-ride, I soon discovered, comes when you stop every couple blocks for the driver to discuss with other drivers the intended destination of the passenger, locked in some sort of secret code no one is able to decipher. Lots of pointing and shrugging ensues. This is apt to repeat two-to-four times before one finally arrives.

At first, I blamed it on my own inability to say Khmer numbers, and took to only writing locations, following it up with a big, you-get-it? grin.

The answer you always get is “okay, okay.” The ride you get is not always “okay, okay.”

I was utterly confused and out of ideas. Maybe they were guys from the countryside, who’d only just come to Phnom Penh. Maybe they didn’t know the city that well yet—but come on, how long does it take to learn a city? A numbered grid of a city at that?

No, no, there was something more going on here—some kind of deeper divide than just language or location familiarity. There was so kind of vast cultural chasm, a disconnect.

“Oh no, no, no,” Mathilde told me. “They don’t know street names, only landmarks. It’s better to say ‘near to Independence Monument,’ or ‘Royal Palace.’ These they know. But sometimes even then…”

I’ve worked that into my repertoire, a long, drawn-out process in which I use every means I can fathom to communicate my destination. “Sihanouk, near Independence Monument,” I told the driver yesterday.

We got closer this time, but just before the up-lit monument—positioned handsomely at the crossroads of two main thoroughfares and surrounded by the massive honking roundabout—we took a turn down a random sidestreet. I sighed. We U-Turned.

I reported my failure back to Mathilde. “They will always say ‘okay,’ even if they don’t know.”

“So, how do they work? How do they live and get around a city they don’t know at all?”

She shrugged, and I guess that’s all you can do. Because they must know it—there must be some way they know it, some entirely different way of interacting with a city and a landscape that doesn’t even occur to me, that I can’t even fathom—as foreign as another language, as mysterious as an alien scribble, written all over this city in a way I can’t read, can’t decipher—in a way that I can’t even see.

Perhaps I’ll figure out the mystery. But for now I’ll keep circling, keep ambling, keep pointing to a destination I can’t communicate, hidden somewhere in the gap between cultures—foreign, mystified and helmetless on the back of a Phnom Penh motorbike.

No Hue: Hue Riders Knock-Off

Um, is this supposed to be something important?

Mr. Loc is over it.

He slows the motorbike, pulling over to the skinny shoulder of the highway that wraps seductively around the lush green mountain. He points. “Photo.” It’s more of a command than a suggestion. I snap of shot of the vista—pretty, with rice paddies and a cloak of fog. But I couldn’t tell you any more about it.

That’s because Mr. Loc isn’t having it. He’s shown us the goddamn vista, his posture seems to say, what more do we want?

Even the most skilled and adept of independent travelers (and I’m certainly far from one of them) falls for an imitator sometimes. It happens: we’re tired, we’re rushed, our guard is down, it seems like a good idea. We wind up paying top dollar for a half-assed adventure.

I’d heard about the Hue Riders one night in Hanoi. Instead of a boring old tour bus, they take you on motorbikes from Hue to Hoi An, an historic trail that stops at waterfalls and pagodas and old American bunkers. “It’s supposed to be brillant,” one of Jacob’s friends told me, hunched on our plastic stools over the billow of BBQ smoke.

Killer. Sign me up.

I asked my hotel in Hue if they’d heard of the Hue Riders and they nodded enthusiastically, leading me over to the dude posted at the cafe next door. He thumbed through his photo album—him with smiling white girls, him with white dudes giving the thumbs up sign. He showed me an entry in his customer comment notebook from a girl who was “from your country!”

I couldn’t tell if it was cause to be suspicious, or if he was just that certain kind of proud that third-world tourism workers sometimes are. He showed me his business card: “FIFTEEN YEARS Experienced, All’s for your satisfaction.” But hey, it said “Hue Riders” under his name.

It was only later, after I’d paid and signed up, that the real suspicion began to mount. I googled Hue Riders. And holy shit, there was an actual, legit website. For the real Hue Riders. Of which Mr. Loc was not one.

Oh well, I told myself. Chalk another up to experience. Sometimes the DIY, hustling tour guides can be just as good as the bona fide ones your LP recommends.

Which is true. But Mr. Loc, I’m discovering, isn’t one of them.

He isn’t terrible; he’s just monumentally not into it. Fifteen years of experience has translated to boredom.

Our first stop was a fishing village off the highway: a dirt road strewn with debris; a couple of kids playing soccer; a clutter of wooden boats, docked and sleeping; nets laid out like the vacated skins of snakes.

“Fishing village,” was the extent of explaination given.

Joe, the upbeat and friendly male half of an American couple who’d also gotten roped into the tour, attempted to ask some questions. “Do they go out in the morning?” We got a sort of unintelligble, one-word answer.

Now at a mountain pass—but was it the first or the second pass?—I attempt to eavesdrop on the tour guide next to us. Something important about these cables, this view, something about Americans? I try to ask Mr. Loc. “Was this something important during the war?”

“Yes, I think so.”

Tourists at a former bunker

We move along. It’s a foggy, white-wrapped day, and all the sights we stop at are equally shrouded in hazy incomprehension. We stop by bunkers used during “the American War” (now a tourist trap—more on that in a later post). We stop off for overpriced coffee at a cheesy resort. We pull over at the roadside operation for a kind of cosmetic oil made from a local leaf. We stand around awkwardly as Mr. Loc tells us the prices of the different sized oils.

“Not much of an oil type myself,” Joe declares good-naturedly. He’s pathologically cheerful, in that particular American way, with his buzz cut and beaming cheeks. “When do we get to the waterfall?”

“No waterfall today,” Mr. Loc declares. “The weather,” he gestures around us, “road too slippery.” He makes a skid-and-crash motion with his hands. We nod solemnly, disappointed.

We stop at Marble Mountains, thrust from the flat earth near China Beach like a glittering rock of crystal. Pagodas and temples abound. Joe maintains his positivity, reading aloud from his Lonely Planet to make up for our lack of tour guide. I’m grateful for his unrelenting optimism.

Holy light

We wander into a cave that feels like a cathedral—a carved Buddha in the stone, incense like breath, sunlight filtering through the ceiling like the fingers of gods. There’s the hush of a holy place there; Joe reads that during the War, it was used as a VC hospital.

In a corner, a bat with a broken wing arches and flops. He squeaks intermittenly, and it sounds like a very small prayer, echoing against the rock.

We descend the mountain and find Mr. Loc waiting for us, leaned against the motorbike. “Okay, we go.”

I realize the thing about Mr. Loc isn’t that he’s rude or unknowledgable or even a shitty tour guide. It’s that he’s supremely Vietnamese. It’s this certain way, this certain attitude, that I’ve begun to understand, the same as in the nail shops at home—matter-of-fact, blunt, nothing sugar-coated or said sweetly. Here’s your tour. There’s a sight. Good? Okay.

“Vietnamese people aren’t very nice,” other travelers have told me. I understand where they’re coming from, but I don’t think it’s a simple matter of not being nice; I think it’s a profound cultural difference. (“You want pedicure? Okay, you pick a color.”) Brusk and brash—jarring as the chorus of honks from the motorbikes.

We arrive in Hoi An wind-blown and dirt-covered. My eyes well from the thousand particles of crap swimming around my contacts; my hair’s matted to my head from too many hours wearing a helmet.

Mr. Loc drops me at my hotel. “Happy?” It’s a business-like question.

I nod. Why not?

Albanian Death Flu, and The End to a Charmed Trip

Dog is my co-pilot?

It had been the best trip I’d ever been on. And, you know, I’ve been on a few trips.

But at last it happened: the perfect constellation that had hung above my trip cracked, shattered, rained down in a million filaments on to my cigarette-stained clothes until the smell writhed back out of rank layers. Not that I could smell it.

On my best trips—well, no, even on my worst trips—I don’t really feel in charge. That’s one of the things I love about traveling: it shatters any illusions of being in control, of running the show, so to speak. Serendipity drives the car; you just ride shotgun.

And I’d been really quite pleased with Serendipity’s navigational prowess on my latest trip, taking me to random small towns, big crazy cities, introducing me to rad people, giving endless writing material, keeping me in good spirits. I approved. “Job well done.”

But on my way back to Rome, something snagged, tripped, pulled the plug. It was my attitude. And my health. Things were no longer going my way. And so I ended my trip slumped over in a plastic airport chair, achy-boned, runny-nosed, sleep-deprived and pissed as fuck.

I didn’t want to leave Tirana. The only date I locked myself into on my itinerary-less travel was my flight from Tirana back to Rome, mostly to avoid another sleepless, freezing cold ferry ride. It was a cheap ticket, the kind you can’t change—so when I had to pass on the opportunity to drive up to Shkoder to get tattooed in an abandoned bunker and instead fly back to expensive-ass, whacked-ass Rome, I was slightly bummed. To say the least.

On the flight, I began to feel a tickle in my throat. I coughed. I assumed it was the result of the pack of cigarettes I’d smoked in the previous 48 hours, or the succession of late nights, or the guzzling of tap water that I wasn’t really supposed to be drinking. And it probably was those things. It was also the beginnings of what I’ve dubbed Albanian Death Flu (incidentally, also the name of my new metal band).

It started slow and steady as a rumbling drum beat—the amplified echo of my own heartbeat in congested ears. It’s okay, I could power through. I had a few different friends that also happened to be in Rome at the time that I wanted to meet up with, some events I wanted to check out; I’d fill the time.

It was like a see-saw: the more things unraveled, the shittier I felt. Or the other way around. Whatever. I never got in touch with any of my friends. The events either fell through or were kinda lame. After blissfully cheap, tourist-free Tirana, Rome was an expensive, American-swarmed jolt to my sick system. And I wasn’t helping myself any. I was cranky, torturing myself with the shoulda’s and why-didn’t-I’s. Serendipity may have been driving the car, but I was being a pretty big backseat driver.

It all came to a fevered pitch at the airport. I didn’t sleep at all the night before, six hours of tossing and turning and coughing and groaning. The overpriced train ride to the airport had robbed me of my last few Euros, so, with no cash for breakfast, the post-nasal drip stirred in my stomach in an unsettling stew. And I had no patience for my fellow travelers.

Rome is a most beloved destination of Americans, right up there with Paris and Disneyland. But it’s a pretty culturally conservative place—not a lot of contemporary arts or music going on—so it doesn’t tend to attract our most dynamic demographic, what I call our A-Team. It’s most popular with the Joe-and-Marge-from-Iowa demographic. Not that I have anything wrong with Joe and Marge; it can be, actually, just as culturally fascinating and foreign to observe them as Romans.

It’s just that Joe and Marge don’t travel much. They get stressed out easily, and they bicker with each other. They aren’t as adept to rolling with cultural differences, and feel it necessary to (loudly) point out contrasts and the discomfort those contrasts provide. They get lost easily. They aren’t urban people, and they get confused by public transportation, crowded spaces, the Italian irreverence for lines at espresso counters.

All this I’m more or less willing to take in stride. Except when I’m sick, nauseous, sleep-deprived, and generally fighting the gods of circumstance. Then I sit in a plastic airport chair with steam seeping out of my ears and one eyeball slowly twitching.

I gave up. I couldn’t fight it anymore. My body—and Serendipity—were trying to tell me something: the party was over. It was time to slow down, sit still and accept what came my way.

I went to a pharmacy and bought some mystery Italian cold medicine on my credit card. I changed a little cash back into Euros and bought a stale, overpriced panini. I moved over to an empty gate and slowly munched my bread in relative peace. Then I boarded my plane and promptly passed out in puddle of drool and sneezes (yeah, I was that person).

Even great trips have bad moments, and every trip, even the best, has to end. I suppose the trick is letting that happen gracefully. Still working on that one.

Travel Tip: Get Inventive

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time to get creative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bolsa Blues: Adventures in Cuban Plumbing

This is half of a narrative written about my raucous New Year’s in Havana. The first, less-gnarly half is being considered for publication (fingers crossed and breath held), but I’ve decided that this side of the story is far too raunchy to get accepted anywhere. So, I’ll inflicted you all with it…

Bolsa Blues or The Other Reason You Should Always Carry a Plastic Bag in Cuba

I waken to a pale face in half-light. It looks down at me, desperate and pleading-eyed, washed in a light sweat and slashed by the stripe of sun that invades through the crack in the wooden shutters.

“Dude,” I croak. “What the—“

A tight-throat urgency cuts me off. “The toilet’s busted,” my boyfriend declares. “And I gotta crap.”

It’s New Year’s Day, and we’re stark naked in our tiny casa particular room, somewhere near the crumbling heart of Havana. The cigars, Rumba and rum of the previous night rumbles in our stomachs.

It’s the cardinal rule of Latin American traveling: never flush the toilet paper. A continent-and-a-half held together by a rattling grid of rusty old pipes, the Western traveler is beseeched by earnest signs Scotch-taped to the walls of restrooms: “Dear Mr. Customer, Please to not put paper in the toilet.”

It’s a hard-to-break habit of ours, this depositing of smeared bundles into the toilet bowl; it takes a couple days to train the hand to shift, move, not drop the paper straight down but into a wastebasket beside the toilet. It was only our third day; we had a couple slips. But surely, I assured Adam the night before, nothing extreme enough to reek pipe-wrecking havoc.

But the plumbing gods were watching, laughing, and struck swiftly with their reprisal. And my boyfriend, beset with hangover bowels, is paying the price.

I leap from the tangled sheets, hair sticking straight up and nude. I peer in at the toilet from the doorway. “There’s no way,” Adam answers before I can ask.

He’s right—the mess inside has disintegrated into a thick, gurgling stew at the bottom of the bowl, streaks running down the sides. I glance back at Adam, hunched over and leaning against the wall. “It’s bad,” he tells me.

“Let’s get dressed and go somewhere.”

“Yeah, but where?”

Attempting to smoke a cigar, the previous night

He’s right again—all shops and restaurants in walking distance have less-than passable, if any, facilities. I suggest taking a cab to the fancy hotels in Centro and using their lobby bathrooms, a tactic we employed earlier during our outings. Adam shakes his head, “I don’t think I can make it. I’ve been holding it all night.”

I suggest trying to use the casa owners’ bathroom. I then consider the vocabulary necessary to construct a plausible explanation, and nix the idea. “You could go in the trash can,” I laugh. He chuckles, grimacing slightly. “Or in a plastic bag.” We laugh harder.

Our laugh gives way to silence. We look each other in the eye and nod. “Lemme see if we have one.”

I begin rummaging through our piles of clothes, books, snacks, while Adam sits on the rim of the tub, mentally preparing. “Got it!” I exclaim, waving like a flag the small plastic bag that carried the crackers we’d bought during our layover in Mexico. I hand it to him with a reassuring smile.

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

I shut the door behind me. I intend to go wait politely on the edge of the bed, but the camera appears in my hands. I creep towards the door, inch it open. He’s squatting in the middle of the room, veins bulged in concentration, with the black bag clutched under him. I get him in the frame; the camera clicks.

“Oh, come on! What the fuck!” he shouts. I giggle and slam the door.

“Really, Lauren,” he says from the other side. “Is that necessary?”

“Yes.” I laugh hysterically as I examine the view finder. “Yes, it is.”

He emerges from the bathroom a couple minutes later, eyes down. “Well?” I ask. He looks at me, nods. I peer in the bathroom; he’s neatly tied the handles of the bag and set the bundle on the edge of the tub.

“What do we do with it now?”

It seems wrong to leave it there, in plain view, when the poor owners will have deal with the mess in the toilet already. I picture us sneaking into the kitchen and throwing it in the trash, but that doesn’t seem right either. Nor does our sheepishly handing them the bag and running out of the apartment. “We could hide it in a drawer and flush it when the toilet’s working again,” I offer half-assedly.

“Do you have any idea how awful it’ll smell in here when a bag of shit’s been festering all day?” Adam, always the practical one, retorts.

“We could smuggle out in my bag.” It seems like a viable option.

Adam gets off the bed, moving towards the window. “I wonder if we could open these shutters.” He runs his hands down the solid wood covering the windows.

“You wouldn’t really throw it out of the window, would you?”

“You wanna carry my shit in your bag?”

We pry the latch open and groan the hinges open. Daylight blasts into the room; our pupils wince.

Adam stands on a chair, craning his neck to see as far out the window as the wrought-iron bars will allow. “What’s out there?”

He steps off the chair, defeated. “It’s one of those air shafts. People have all their laundry hanging up. And someone’s got a garden down at the bottom.” I refrain from a bad joke about fertilizer.

We collapse on the bed and stare at the ceiling. “Well,” I venture, “we could just put it in the bathroom trash can. I mean, it’s already got our used toilet paper in it, so I doubt they’d really look.”

“I guess you’re right.”

We get dressed quickly. I gingerly bury the plastic bag beneath the top layer of used toilet paper in the wastebasket. I put the lid down on the toilet before we leave the room.

“Bueno dia,” our casa owner greets us warmly, looking up from the newspaper.

“Bueno dia,” we mumble (we’ve learned to drop our “s”s, just not our toilet paper).

“Quieren desayuno?” his amicable, aproned wife asks.

“Um, no, no gracia.” We stand there for a moment, awkwardly. I take a step towards the owner. “Um, pardon, senor.” I fidget, look down. “Hay un problema en el bano.” He nods earnestly at me. “Lo siento.”

Maybe it’s a situation he’s encountered before—poor plumbing meets the foreigner’s paper-flushing habit, topped off with a rocking drinker’s shit. We exchange helpless smiles, and Adam and I scuttle out the front door as fast as we can.

Down on the street, we feel relieved. Neither one of us can stop laughing.

“I think,” Adam declares, “that you’re the best person to be in a bad poo situation with.”

“Really?” I beam at the compliment.

Malecon

“Well, yeah. I mean, anyone can be practical. That’s not really what you need in a bad poo situation. What you need is someone who will find it absolutely hilarious.”

I take his hand. “I’m honored.”

We continue down the street, holding hands under the half-clouded Cuban sky, towards the Malecon, and a new year.

Flyin’ with Ryan: What to Expect and How to Survive

DSCN3843I have seen the future of air travel. And it’s covered in Telecom ads.

If you haven’t been broke and in Europe in recent years, you may not be familiar with Ryanair. Among the no-frills airlines specializing in short distances and absurdly low prices, Ryanair is the most vile, audacious and offensive. And usually the cheapest.

The idea of an under-$50 flight gets most Americans all hot and bothered. It’s just another way those Europeans have it better than us—universal health care, social welfare systems that work, less violent crime, tougher environmental laws. And cheap flights. I’m talking 5 Euros cheap. I’m not sure why Europe gets to add this to their ever-expanding repertoire of ass-kicking, but my guess would be that the airlines have to compete with competent, efficient train service. Take Amtrak, or God forbid, Greyhound across the country? Down to LA? I think I’ll pay the $125.

When I was figuring out the general itinerary for my last trip, I checked out flight costs for my longest distances on FlyCheapo. I came across Ryanair, and thought there was something wrong. A one-hour flight from Marrakesh to Seville for 5 Euros? Porto to Madrid also for 5? Are you kidding me?

Well, yes and no. The thing with Ryanair is that there’s catches. Enough to warrant a mitt—or the ability to read fine print, follow rules to a tee, and tune out advertising assaults. And you’ll need a pinch of luck. I took 2 flights with Ryanair; here’s some survival tips on what to expect from Europe’s most infamous airline:

The first trick to surviving a Ryanair flight is to read every rule and instruction, and treat it like the gospel. It is. Any attempts to bend the rules promptly results in a hailstorm of fees. Size and weight requirements for both checked and carry-on luggage, for instance, aren’t approximations. Carry-on baggage over 10kg? That’ll be 20 Euros. Forget to print your boarding pass at home? That’ll be 40 Euros. Traveling with an infant, surf board or guitar? Another 20-40 Euros. You’ve gotta pay to check a bag, but if it exceeds 15 kg, there’s an additional per kilo charge. If you’re a non-EU citizen, you have to have your passport checked by immigration control; forget that, and, yes, it’s another 20 Euros.

In preparation for your Ryanair flight, don’t even think about fudging on the details. Check-in closes exactly 40 minutes before the flight departs; arrive even 3 minutes late and you’re SOL. Have your printed boarding pass in hand, and get your passport checked.

Get to the gate early. Don’t sit in the hard plastic chairs—stand as close to the gate as possible. Ryanair doesn’t assign seating, which at first seems counterintuitive—it takes longer for people to board when they’re elbowing and jostling and trying to find their own seats. But, as always, there’s a catch: you can pay 4 Euros for priority boarding. Most of the folks doing this are traveling with small children, or those infants they paid an extra 20 Euros to hold on their laps.

As boarding time approaches, expect to see a steely-faced attendant walking up and down the line of anxious passengers, examining each carry-on item. It must be under 10 kg, and it must be only one bag. That means purses, laptops, water bottles, plastic bags carrying your wilted sandwich from earlier that day—it all counts. This is where they really rake in the extra fees. I only saw one man successfully evade the attendant, putting a jacket on over his fanny pack and untucking his shirt so you couldn’t see the waist strap. Smooth.

When it comes time to board, don’t expect anything fancy like gates or protected corridors. You’ll be scurrying across the tarmac and scampering up stairs (front or back, they open both up for maximized efficiency). Hustle on to the plane while perky young attendants bark at you like PE teachers: keep moving! find a seat! don’t block the isle! move quickly! go!

You’ll discover a couple of unusual things about your Ryanair aircraft. One, there are no tray tables. That safety card with a creepy characters acting out worst-case scenarios will not be a folded card in a pocket, but pasted onto the seat back in front of you. The overhead bins will be covered in Telecom ads, like a bus or metro car.

Once you’ve buckled your seatbelt, you’ve successfully completed the first stage in surviving a Ryanair flight: you’ve negotiated the rules and fees. Now it’s time to sit back and… be marketed at.

It’s ingenious, really, and I’m not sure why other airlines haven’t thought of it yet. Maybe they have, and Ryanair’s just the only one ballsy enough to go through with it. They’ve got a captive audience on an airplane, and Ryanair makes use of this ideal situation. In a 55 minute flight, I counted 4 opportunities to buy things. Jonesing for a cigarette? Buy our Smokeless Cigarettes for only 6 Euros. Make use of Ryanair’s exclusive inflight mobile phone service, and text and chat your heart away for only 2 Euros a minute. Buy Nescafe coffee for only 3 Euros. Get your gambling fix by buying a scratch card for only 3 Euros—and don’t feel guilty because some undisclosed amount of the proceeds goes to charity (here the flight attendant actually walked the aisle saying, “Win 10,000 Euros, save the children”). And let’s not forget duty-free shopping.

All this means that the attendants are basically talking at you the entire flight. Part of the reason is that announcements and sales pitches need to be made in multiple languages, but still. I recommend headphones. A smiley “no thank you” is as effective as a mean scowl, so pick whichever one fits your mood. No charge.

Now, when you’re descending into your destination, you may think the battle’s almost over, but here’s where the luck comes into play. I was fortunate on my 2 flights, because I landed in the airports and cities I thought I’d be landing in. Not so for all Ryanair passengers. I’ve heard horror stories about people landing on some lonesome runway 20 kms from the city they’d booked for. Notice that on your Ryanair itinerary, specific airport names aren’t given, just the names of cities. This allows them to land in the regional area of whatever destination, but not necessarily the main (and more expensive) airport. So, if you’re among the unfortunate, how do you get to where you thought you were going? Ryanair is nice enough to arrange for a bus. Which you can ride for 20 Euros.

Seeing as though I landed where I was supposed to, only had one flight time changed and neurotically followed every rule, my Ryanair travel experience wasn’t so bad. I actually don’t mind being inundated with ads and paying checked bag fees if it means I’m flying for a total of 25 Euros. And judging from the number of filled seats, I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Ryanair certainly hasn’t won any friends with its wily antics (this guy is pissed), and there’s an art to surviving their flights. But until they start charging to use the bathroom (they lost on that one), I’ll still grab a cheap flight with them whenever I’m in Europe. And my guess is that US-based airlines will begin moving more in this direction—hey, they’re already charging for checked bags. Only their flights ain’t no 5 Euros. (Oh, Europe, there you go again…)

Marrakesh, You Broke Me Down

DSCN3558It was a long, hard, hot last day in Morocco, in Marrakesh, the pounding heart of the country´s tourism industry.

As I was venturing down the Atlantic Coast, south of Agadir and thoroughly ¨off the beaten path,¨ I was giving some serious thought to ditching out on my flight back into Europe, and spending the rest of my two weeks in Morocco. There was certainly enough to keep me occupied—I didn´t even make it to the Sahara!—and I felt like I´d hit my groove with Morocco. I was getting skilled at traversing the streets, haggling for taxis; I was in love with fresh-squeezed orange juice and mint tea; even my French was improving. We were vibing, Morocco and I, and it seemed a shame to cut out so soon.

But the prospect of Portugal, Western Europe´s ¨forgotten¨ country,  combined with a pre-purchased flight and a chance to wash my blue jeans and ditch that filthy blue scarf won out. I arrived in Marrakesh with just one day to soak in the crowning jewel of Morocco´s imperial cities, and its exotic lure.

I´d heard horror stories—travelers and Moroccans alike warned me that Marrakesh´s touts were the toughest, the street harassment the ugliest. I got off the bus from Tiznit suited up in my thickest armor, ready to do battle with a mean look and a linguistic sword of two words: la shokran, no thank you.

The problem with Marrakesh, or my problem with it, is that people like to touch. I don´t. As my grandma said, I´m ¨a real touch-me-not.¨ The men in Marrakesh really see no problem with poking you, grabbing your arm, pressing their bodies against yours, literally tugging you this way and that. I think it´s largely a cultural difference; Moroccans touch a lot, are extremely affectionate with one another, and I don´t think they view touching as the same kind of violation as Americans do. As in, get-your-fucking-hands-off-me, or touch-me-one-more-time-and-I-swear-to-God-I´ll-drop-your-ass-don´t-even-think-I´m-playing.

Not that I ever said either of those. But I thought it. And I suspect the wild-eyed, shocked look I gave the dudes who put their hands on me communicated well my very visceral reaction to unwanted contact. They, in turn, almost seemed offended that I was offended, got really defensive. It was one of those tough cultural clashes, and I refuse to admit I was in the wrong. Maybe just the different.

But there was, I have to admit, a kind of magic to the city. I always feel lame saying that about a place that´s really hyped up (as in, yes, Paris is all that). I was intermittently in awe of the city, and frustrated beyond belief.

I stayed right near Djemaa el Fna, the open-air market of insanity that really was everything it was cracked up to be. Imagine a county fair. Now add throbbing drums and shrill pipes; snake charmers and witch doctors; wrapped women hunched on plastic stools, ready to ready fortunes and paint henna. Picture billows of meat smoke, the glare of a thousand gas lamps on a thousand white tarps;  see gleaming date stands and pyramided orange juice carts; beggars hands and child shoe-shiners. Hear the zoom and honk of motorbikes; feel the buzz of bodies weaving around one another. Wrap it all in a breeze that comes eastward and touches everything, envelops it in one big ball of electric humanity, shakes it up furiously, like a snow globe—and you´re somewhere close.

I meant to treat myself to a fancy last dinner, but when I got to the white-linen restaurant, it felt sterile. I headed down to Djemaa el Fna, stopping to slurp  snails at a food stall along the way. I dined on a wooden bench under the white tarps of one of the skewer stalls, watching the multi-lingual touts and hustlers do their business, sometimes rudely, but mostly with a charming penache that was hard to refuse. The breeze blew, and I felt in love with the night, the place, the country.

I thought I´d seal the deal with some chocolate ice-cream. I made my way across the square, nimbly traversing the crowds, not responding to the barrage of ¨bonjours,¨eyes on the prize.

I heard a loud voice rumble, ¨Hey sweetie!¨ Though the crowd was thick, I had that prickly back-of-the-neck feeling that the call was directed at me. I didn´t look up, kept walking. ¨Hey sweetcakes!¨ it yelled again. Still, I kept moving. ¨It´s okay,¨ the voice hollered, ¨I like small boobies.¨

I whipped my head around and saw a reddened face laughing, jowls shaking in a grotesque mask of amusement. Other faces were turned to look at me and my shawl-covered chest (I mean, come on, a B-cup is not that small). My cheeks flushed; I muttered ¨piece of shit¨and stormed away, trying to lose myself in the throngs.

The face hadn´t been a teenager´s, but a grown man´s, which angered me more. It had seemed quite pleased that it had humiliated me, that other people had noticed and looked. I felt the blood in my body burning with frustration.

A well-dressed man sidled up next to me, holding a clip-board and a perky straw hat. I looked forward, didn´t acknowledge him.

¨That man,¨ he said to me, ¨you can´t get angry. You have to just accept and—¨ out of the corner of my eye, I saw him make a brushing-off gesture.

I sighed, not entirely sure of this man´s intentions, and not in the mood to risk it. ¨I know,¨ I respond. ¨But sometimes I get tired of accepting, of always being the one to have to accept.¨ I could feel hot tears in the corners of my eyes.

¨Where are you from?¨ the man asked.

I eyed him cautiously, as the question was usually a prelude to some kind of hustle. ¨The US.¨

¨Ah, welcome,¨ he nodded thoughtfully. He leaned forward, said softly, ¨Of all the things you remember, of all the things you take home, don´t take that.¨ He nodded again. ¨I´m sorry.¨ He paused, let the words and the sentiment linger there in the charged air for a moment, turned and was gone, swallowed into the crowd.

It was all a little too much for me, the intensity of extremes—the degradation, the laughing face, the twisted soul-sickness that makes someone humiliate another person—and now, such thoughtful tenderness. All of it from strangers, all of it strange, somehow finding me in the immensity of the crowd. The whole day had felt like that, a tugging between two places, between two sentiments, of both loving and hating a place.

DSCN3551I was exhausted. I decided not to fight it, not to try to be tough anymore. I went back to my hotel room and sobbed, for the overwhelming kindness and cruelness of it all. For being a woman, for being a person, in a place, a world, that is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful.


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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