Archive for the 'Tips' Category

Bumrungrad, 8th Wonder of the World

Look closely—that security guard is SMILING

I’ve got a new travel activity to recommend to all Americans: getting a friggin medical check-up at friggin Bumrungrad.

Okay, so maybe not all Americans, just those who aren’t Congressmen or insanely wealthy. But for the rest of yous, the 99%ers—you need to get on this. It’s more mind-blowing than Machu Picchu, more culturally enlightening than the Vatican, steeped in more WTF-age than riding reliable, affordable public transit in fill-in-the-blank Western European city, when you begin to realize what’s actually possible in the world and how your Americanness has caused you settle.

Behold Bumrungrad: 8th Wonder of the World.

Bumrungrad Hospital is a big glittery hospital in Bangkok and the first place most Southeast Asian expats with medical insurance hope to get whisked off to in the event of one of those horrible, limb-mangling accidents that seem to come along with living in this part of the world. It’s the stuff of expat folklore: gleaming facilities, attentive doctors, phalanxes of nurses, fucking fresh-cut flowers in your private hospital room and on-site Starbucks.

Friends had recommended going there for a comprehensive health screening, the Big Mac of annual physicals, and seeing as though I both worked like a motherfuck this summer and hadn’t had an annual physical in like four annuals, I decided to treat myself. I booked a Regular health check-up package, though with a liver function panel, chest X-ray, stool exam AND a PAP, there was nothing really “regular” about it. For shits and giggles and an extra $30, I tacked on a thyroid level test, another thing I’m supposed to do every year but hadn’t in several.

It was my first morning in Bangkok. After Malaysia, I was more prepared for the plunge-into-wealth-and-consumerism that trips to the developed world now entail. I sat outside a money exchange house, waiting for it to open (it was only 7:30; did Bangkok not get the memo about the Asian world opening up shop at 6am?), before giving up and grabbing a motorbike across town. We weaved through the law-abiding, lane-driving, car-ridden traffic (ah) and the air felt cold and dry (ah) and I thought, Shit, I must really be living somewhere intense if Bangkok feels like a mellow, comfortable city.

After twenty minutes of high-rises and stoplights people actually stopped at, we pulled up in front of what looked like a 4-star hotel—valets and mirrored pillars and pruned shrubbery. I giggled.

I rode an elevator up to the Welcome Center, where a man pressed his palms together and bowed while another man whisked a big rolley chair out and seated me behind this massive desk, the Bangkok skyline stretching out in the floor-to-ceiling windows behind. I felt like a millionaire about to open a bank account. The man behind the desk asked me a few stock questions, clicked my photo, asked me to please wait just a quick moment while they printed my health card. He returned in about two minutes, apologizing graciously for the delay.

Yes, that’s a koi fish pond.

Things got more ridiculous when I rode the elevator up to the next floor, where smooth-voiced receptionists confirmed my information, directed me to the cashier (who accepted US dollars), and whisked me back to start my blood work. What was happening? Why wasn’t I being ignored? Where were the surly receptionists with mile-long fingernails who couldn’t tell me how much my co-pay was? Where were the screaming children and tired single moms and the junkie freaking out and the random bleeding dude who wasn’t bleeding bad enough to be triaged and so was whimpering mournfully like a dog in the corner?

It reminded me of the first time I went to a non-Oakland-public-school and had an actual PE class. Like, with equipment and uniforms and planned units on specific sports and activities I was expected to partipate in. Wasn’t PE sit-on-the-bench-and-kick-it hour? I’d been confused but intrigued by this sudden plunge into functionality. Like, was this how the rest of the world acted?

I had the same kind of thoughts in Bumrungrad. Why wasn’t I waiting? Why was I at all moments being accompanied by someone, some smiling nurse who was answering my questions and efficiently-but-not-hurriedly directing me this way and that?

After I finished my blood work, the nurse handed me a juice box, “You can finish your fast now.” How nice, I thought. I’ve been fasting for 12 hours, so yeah, I could really go for a juice, thank you.

But the real kicker came when she led me to the next room where there was no shit a breakfast buffet. Like, bananas and yogurt and sweet buns and coffee and tea and more juice and a choice of whole or skimmed milk. I stocked up. I stocked up like a fucking white trash kid who’d snuck into Sizzler. I’d like to blame it on the fasting but that’s bullshit—in moments like these, our true natures emerge, and there I was balancing two bowls, a steaming cup of coffee and another juice box.

After scarfing down my breakfast, I got poked and podded by an OB-GYN who talked like a female version of the oh-sexy-girlfriend exchange student from Sixteen Candles (“vagina feel very gooooood“) and instructed me to do twenty Kegel exercises per day (“very good for the woooooman“). By the time they led to the next room, where they gave a key to a locker in which there was a little linen suit and slippers, I was semi-hysterical with giggles, in that way that trashy people who suddenly find themselves in un-trashy environments are. I used to work in a fine-dining restaurant that attracted a lot of these types and I was only mildly embarrassed to feel that same shit-eating grin stretching across my own face—only mildly because I was so damn happy.

So after the chest x-ray I went back to the breakfast buffet room to wait for my test results. As in, the test results that would be ready in ten minutes as opposed to FOUR FUCKING DAYS, if I called this automated number and successfully navigated the maze of prompts that seemed to lead in a tail-eating circle. I poured myself another cup of coffee and surveyed all the other patients—wealthy Asians with milky skin, wealthy Middle Easterners with scarves and iPhones, wealthy Westerners with blue jeans and bemused expressions. And me.

I started humming—“Blood checked, stool checked, everything checked, Oh you fancy huh? You fancy huh?”

Like any proper World Wonder, Bumrungrad is a testament to what the human will and intellect can execute when properly harnessed. It opens your mind, expands the possibilities, takes your breath away then checks to see that the breath is recovered in a healthy and age-appropriate interval.

But I’m no fool—this was health care for the 1%, which I happen to be a part of in Thailand. Maybe health care is this good in the States, if you’re like the President or Bill Gates. But still, it’s a fucking experience to step on to the other side, to feel what things could be like—to feel fancy, huh?

Going To The Bathroom Abroad: The Butt Hose Edition

This is my bathroom. As you can see, it’s nothing special (aside from how clean it is). It’s actually nicer than my last bathroom back in the States, with its black mold and peeling linoleum. Because contrary to what some folks back home have envisioned, I’m actually not living in a straw hut. Nor am I not taking dumps crouched down over a squat toilet. Using the bathroom is a totally Western affair.

Except.

Look closer—what’s that thing snaking out from the wall and resting perkily in its holster?

Why, it’s a butt hose.

I don’t know if that’s what it’s actually called, but that’s what I call it. Maybe I haven’t been looking closely, but I haven’t seen butt hoses outside of Asia.

At first they confounded me. What the fuck were you supposed to do with that thing? I thought it might be for cleaning and admittedly used it as such once—got a real good angle on those hard-to-reach tiles behind the toilet. But that couldn’t really explain why I’d see the butt hoses around town, in fairly squalid bathrooms where toilets were either missing seats or were of the squat variety, and where toilet paper was a laughably far-fetched wish.

You know those little old ladies that sit outside bus station bathrooms in Latin America and charge you to enter? You know how they give you one painstaking square of toilet paper? I was thinking that Southeast Asia could really stand to learn from that jam. I mean, the pay-to-stand-on-a-scale hustle appears to be worldwide, so why not the charge-for-toilet-paper hustle?

Haha---these signs are reeeeal funny, until you go into a bathroom with muddy foot prints on the toilet seat

Cause they don’t use it.

Word?

Word.

Well, not everyone doesn’t use it. But from what I hear, the butt hose is the Southeast Asian answer to toilet paper. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense: instead of smearing a dry piece of paper around there, you give the area a refreshing little spritz. It’s kind of genius, and far less intrusive and intimidating than a bidet, with its cranks and levers that strike fear and worries of cultural inadequacy into the hearts of Americans.

The butt hose takes up a lot less space too—just sits there innocuously against the wall, as if to say, “Use me if you’d like, madame.” It doesn’t stare at you from beside the toilet, in that way that makes you comfortable and unable to look away while you’re dropping one, wondering if you’re a less evolved human being because you can never figure out how to spell, much less use, that European contraption of ass-refinement. It’s a metaphor, really, when you think about it.

I’ve become a big fucking fan of the butt hose. Once it was explained to me, I began to work it in to my shit-taking repertoire—cautiously at first, perfecting my preferred angle and pressure. Now I’m a convert. A missionary, actually, since I felt the need to carry the good news to a friend over lunch yesterday:

“Dude, have you gotten into the butt hose?”

“The what?”

“You know, that hose you see in all the bathrooms?”

“Yeah, what’s up with that?”

[Insert semi-graphic demo and staring eyes from the neighboring tables.]

It’s really taken my dump-taking to a new level. But, because I’m so fucking international and can’t be confined to any one culture, I’ve taken to doubling up—using both the butt hose, then toilet paper to dry. It’s like a mini-shower for my nethers. And considering how much you sweat here, any extra freshening is a welcome affair.

So hello there, new friend. You’re looking fresh today. What’s that you say? Well, don’t mind if I do…

Travel Tip: Accessories Will Save You

Now really, there is just no need for this.

The rainy season may have arrived early in Laos this year. But think that means you’ve got to tromp around in ugly boots and plastic tarps?

I say nay. I say accessorize.

I once heard on Oprah that the difference between people and animals is our ability to accessorize. I couldn’t agree more. Enough of these chimpanzees in zip-off pants and Tevas. A proper display of one’s humanity obviously includes a few well-chosen statement pieces that take you from Backpacker Bum to Hobo Chic.

Take the belt. It is perhaps the most crucial travel fashion accessory—it is both practical and stylish. Kate Middleton recently made heads turn when she left the Buckingham Palace for a post-wedding getaway in a belted blue dress. There’s no reason one can’t have the same effect at tourist attractions in Laos.

The $2 plastic poncho purchased at the town market may not scream “Style Icon.” It may not be the most form-flattering and may make you feel like you’re wearing a sweaty trash bag with a too-small head hole. But don’t let that get you down.

Throw on that handy belt you’ve packed, and you suddenly have both a waistline and a powerful statement to make: “I will not be held back by weather conditions, budgetary restrictions nor poor local fashion standards.”

Yes, you can hold your head high, your pants up and your waistline in, all with one well-chosen and easily packable accessory. Oprah would be proud.

11 Dazed Hours in Hong Kong

If ever there was a place to wander around in a jet-lagged, head-cold haze with nothing more than a tourist bureau map, Hong Kong is it.

The 11-hour lay-over is actually what made me choose this flight to Hanoi (aside from the fact that it was the cheapest). I love long layovers; it’s like a two-for, a bonus. You get to extend the half-here-ness of transit onto a place—walk through its streets like it were a video game, or bumpy camcorder images from someone else’s vacation, or someone else’s dream, exuding a kind of impermenance that makes you impervious, imperceptible, a kind of illusion, a walking ghost in a half-here city.

Or it could just be the jet-lag talking.

Either way, Hong Kong is a trippy city to spend 11 hours sleepwalking through. Everything is clean, clear and predetermined: signs telling you where to go, signs reminding you to hold the handrailings, signs designating exactly where you should walk and where you should stand and which direction you should look for traffic and when you should be mindful of bicyclists.

It’s a subdued city, a city on Vicodin. Everyone talks in a low, pleasant voice; they smile slightly when they exchange words with you. Skyscrapers rise up to be swallowed in a white fog. Municipal workers sweep sidewalks, trim hedges, wear blue face masks and walk with their hands clasped behind their backs, or piously under their bellies. People walk with the self-possessed composure of business people on their lunch breaks. Shoes click, crosswalk signs hum, the gentle clatter of endless construction (what more could they be building?) echoes. Nothing is loud or jarring or overwhelming. Yes, it’s crowded, but there’s an order to everything—an organized insanity, a colonized chaos.

You could almost begin to suspect that you were in some George-Orwell-esque alternate reality, where everything seems real, resembles real, but really isn’t—just some placated approximation of a real place. Rolex, Prada, Couch, Ralph Lauren, Espirit, Starbucks, 711, Pret A Manger, Citibank, Geox—buildings that stack as neatly as Leggos and fish markets that don’t reek of fish, don’t reek of anything. The thinnest layer of soot covers the awnings, as if to remind you that it’s real—the slightest twinge of exhaust tickles your nose.

It doesn’t feel theme-parky or like a tourist charade, but rather like the city has in fact become this—a large, outdoor office park.

None of which is to say I didn’t enjoy my time wandering around Hong Kong—just that it felt more like one of the alternative realities from Inception than a real place. Which could have been the cocktail of jet lag and DayQuil and caffiene and bad airplane food swimming around inside me. It could have been the pork dumplings and Ramen noodles that tasted like childhood.

Yes, I Travel; No, I Don’t Have a Trust Fund: Budgetary Breakdown of a Working-Class Frequent Traveler

It’s happening again. I’m busily getting my life in order—writing post-dated rent checks and filing my taxes (before Feb 1!) and generally preparing my life at home to cruise on autopilot while I go travel—someone will eye me narrowly, a half-slit of suspicion, and ask, “So, how do you get to travel so much?”

Which is actually a question within a question—an implicit way of asking, “Where the hell do you get the money?” Which, given that I work as a waitress, is also to ask, “Who’s giving you the money to travel?”

They initially don’t believe me when I answer, “I save a lot.” Which is to say, “I budget like crazy.” Which is to say, “No one’s giving me money; every penny I have I earn.”

I’ve found myself breaking it down, taking it further, explaining my budgeting technique and demonstrating iPhone apps as Exhibit A in the No, I’m Not Secretly Rich defense trial. Which isn’t so much an effort to prove myself to other people (okay, maybe it’s a little that), but really to answer the question for myself. Because honestly, I don’t know how I afford it all either.

Through this recent round of explaining, I’ve begun to see more clearly that I’m a bit peculiar when it comes to money. I’m not sure where that comes from either. My family was pretty poor when I was growing up, and money was always a stressful issue, so it might grow out of that. Or it might just be who I am.

Either way, I’ve always been a budgeter. I’ve always kept meticulous track of my finances, my expenditures and income. I’ve never paid a bill late. I can always tell you exactly how much I have in my checking account. This is not normal. There weren’t any other 19-year-old punk kids who drew charts in their organizers with savings schedules and projected income based on the averaged income from the previous months. (Where there any other punk kids with organizers to begin with?)

So it’s not a new development, not solely a product of having a goal, something I love, to work towards and save for. Nor is this meticulous budgeting necessarily a product of not having anything but my own ability to work to fall back on. My background is purely working-class; there’s no trust funds, no investments or money market accounts, no heirlooms, no looming inheritances, nothing to pass along the generations but a propensity towards denial and socialism. My parents have done everything they can for me, given me everything they could give me, so it’s not like I’ve never had help. But I work for everything I have. Here’s how I do it.

Exhibit A: Realistic Budgeting

I live comfortably on $2,000 a month. This includes everything from necessities like rent and health insurance to indulgences like lattes and dinners out. It’s really important for me to work in modest indulgences, and to hold myself to them, to not try to “work harder, push more, save more.” Because it’s important for me to not feel like I’m constantly scrimping and saving for some future goal (and thus living in the future), but also allowing myself to enjoy today (and thus live in the present).

I long ago figured out how much I need to live comfortably and happily, to not feel like I’m depriving myself—a budgetary form of crash dieting. The number has slowly crept up the older I’ve gotten, because adult life is expensive; but my income has also crept up. Which brings us to…

Exhibit B: Knowing How Much I Earn

This sounds pretty basic, but when you work in a cash-based industry, it’s really easy to lose track—to wind up with a drawer full of twenties and no real idea how much you’re actually earning. A lot of people I’ve worked with over the years have no clue how much they make, and no idea where the hell the money all goes.

I currently take home between $2,500 and $3,000 a month. Which means I’m earning $500-1,000 more than my expenses. There’s a fuck of a lot you can do with that kind of money. Such as travel. And get tattooed.

Exhibit C: Treating Saving Like a Bill

I deposit money into my savings account on the 15th of every month. I treat it like another bill, instead of a if-I-have-money-leftover kind of thing. It’s pretty simple, and that’s all I have to say about it.

Exhibit D: Keeping Track of Everything I Spend

And I mean everything. I like to think of this more as “thorough” than “neurotic” (you say “potato”…). iPhone apps have made this infinitely easier, but I used to do it by hand, in my organizers, with crooked-line charts and bleeding ink.

Exhibit E: Maintaining a “Prudent Reserve”

In addition, or underneath, all my regular saving for travel, there’s a baseline I never dip beneath. I maintain a $2,000 “prudent reserve” for total emergencies—my car explodes, I break my leg and can’t work, etc. So even when I’m coming back from a trip, I’m never completely at zero. If disaster strikes, I’ll have enough to live on for at least a month.

The end result of all this is that I know where all my money is going, and exactly how much is coming in. There’s no murky intransparencies. I don’t have to stress out; I can be comfortable in the fact that there’ll be enough.

I realize this sounds like a lot—when I’m done explaining it all to someone, their eyes have invariable glazed over and they no longer doubt me when I say that I don’t have secret trust fund. They’ll shake their heads and say something to the effect of, “I could never…”

And I realize that this all sounds terribly tedious and like a lot of time and work. But for me, the energy I put into budgeting is far less than the emotional energy of worrying that there won’t be enough, that I won’t be okay. Budgeting for me allows for a kind of freedom—and not just the freedom to travel and do what I love. But that’s nice too.

Vietnam, Look For Me Cause Here I Come: How to Get A Visa

Yes, travel is exotic and life-altering and profoundly moving. Yes, you encounter new environments, new people, new customs, and in that way, also encounter some new piece of yourself. Yes, you become more cultured, more able to pepper cocktail conversations with ledes like, “Well, when I was learning tango in Buenos Aires…,” and “There’s really no comparison to actual Italian gelato…”

But there’s also the nitty-gritty, the laborious and unglamorous, the tedium of trip planning. It’s not fun, there’s no scene cred, and no one likes to talk about it.

So, with twelve days left until my departure to Southeast Asia, I’m taking a pause in the string of earth-shattering lyrical narratives to discuss the oh-so boring details necessary to Vietnam travel: visas.

The first step to any obligatory activity, whether it’s commuting or house cleaning, is to get yourself a killer soundtrack to lessen the annoyance. For this, I suggest listening to Abner Jay on repeat.

Having to obtain a visa before visiting a country is a strange and confusing process to those of us native to countries of privilege. As an American, you’re more or less used to waltzing up to a customs window, flashing a smile that gleams of tourist dollars, and getting your stamp. Some countries, like Chile and Brazil, charge you of reciprocal entry fee, a kind of fuck-you I can appreciate. But needing to arrange a visa prior to arrival? What kind of criminal do you think I am?

Once you get over the indignity that the majority of the world’s other citizens are subjected to, you’ll need to actually procure the said visa. Here’s what I learned, thanks to research and Thorn Tree, one of my all-time favorite travel resources.

There are no “visas on arrival” for Vietnam.

Other countries in Southeast Asia, yes. Vietnam, no. It’s pretty simple.

There are different types of visas.

For your basic Vietnam tourist visa, there’s a few options. You can go for a one- or three-month visa; you can also opt for single- or multiple-entry. There are no longer six-month tourist or business visas. This means that, if like me, you’re planning on cruising in and out of Vietnam for a period longer than three months, you’ll need to get a visa extension while you’re there. That’s a beast I’ll tackle when the time comes…

Visa costs aren’t fixed.

Figuring out exactly how much a Vietnam visa will cost is an adventure in obscurity. The Embassy and Consulate websites conveniently don’t tell you how much visas cost. Through poking around, I discovered that if you go directly through official channels—that is, the Embassy or Consulate—you can expect to pay anything from $70 for a one-month single-entry, to $150 for a three-month multiple-entry.

There are several companies (like this one) that facilitate visas, and their prices are far from fixed. Discounts apply for groups; the larger the group, the deeper the discount. Prices for these service range from a $20-$50 discount from official prices.

Going through the Embassy or Consulate is expensive, time-consuming and worrisome.

In most situations like this, I’m skeptical of companies with cheesy websites that offer deeply discounted prices on official services. So I’d decided to stick with getting a visa from the Consulate. But this meant handing over my passport. I’d either have to mail my passport to the Embassy and wait for it to be returned (hello anxiety), or get up early one morning and head out to the Vietnam Consulate in San Francisco. Here, I was told I’d need to give them my passport for processing, which would take around 5 days, and then come pick it up again. It sounded like a pain, but preferable to mailing my most sacred of travel possessions.

The night before I was to roust myself and cram onto the train with all the suit-and-ties, I discovered that…

There’s a way around all this. Kind of.

So, you can actually negate the visa process, in a way. You can get what’s called a Visa Approval Letter, an official document that allows you to get what is essentially a visa on arrival. The pluses are that it’s much cheaper, your passport doesn’t have to leave your possession, and you can do it from your computer. The two big catches are that you need to be arriving into one of the international airports (Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh), and you need to be ready to pay a $25-$50 “stamping” fee.

I used Vietnam Visa Pro, and while the actual entry into Vietnam remains to be experienced, I’m so far super happy with them. I paid $30 for an approval letter for a three-month multiple-entry. I paid via Paypal, which I liked since I’ve heard horror stories about stolen credit card numbers from shady foreign websites (incidentally, just had my credit card number stolen, but that’s another story). I heard back from the company promptly, and had my approval letter emailed to me in 2 business days. Printed it out, made copies of my passport photo, and am ready to roll!

Now all I’ve got to focus on is amassing some more exotic-sounding stories.

Boys, Boys, Boys: A Solo Female Traveler’s Experience With the Men of Southern Italy, Montenegro and Albania

You know the picture...

“Southern Italy, eh?” He gave me the raised eyebrow of caution. “Watch out for the men.”

This was Alex, his voice lifting above the roar of hair dryers and hip music at the salon, two days before I left on my trip.

A lady friend of his, he continued, had recently spent several weeks in the Mediterranean land of machismo. “Apparently, they all use the same line: ‘I have a girlfriend. But tonight, for you, no girlfriend.’ She said it got really old.”

I laughed. To be honest, it hadn’t crossed my mind yet. Dealing with the men of a country as a solo female traveler is usually one of the first things people ask me about when they hear I travel alone—right after the “is it safe” question. But the truth is, I’ve been doing this sola thing for awhile now, and whether or not the men somewhere will hound me to death doesn’t really factor into my travel considerations. Plus, I’ve done the majority of my traveling in Latin America, where sidewalks can at times feel like catwalks of degradation. As long as the men aren’t physically attacking me, I pretty much feel like I can handle it.

But Alex’s comment did give me pause. When it comes to safety (and drinking tap water), I throw caution to the wind in Europe. It’s the civilized, more highly evolved land of social safety nets and low crime. Hell, the vast majority of Europe is safer than my hometown. My hairdresser’s comment reminded me that, oh yeah, right, I’d be venturing off sola in a scant 48 hours and that maybe I’d ought to mentally prepare.

You stand out as a female solo traveler, and in a way, get to experience a culture more deeply, if no other reason than the fact that its men are talking to you more. My last trip took me to Southern Italy, Montenegro and the capital of Albania (and Croatia, but I only stayed for a day, so I’m not counting it). The men in each these countries treated me totally differently—and, I think, reveal a little something about the culture.

Italy

Oh, Italian men. They have quite the reputation. American women swoon for their accents, their sense of style, their motorinos and chest hair. And they’re known for hitting on pretty much anything that moves, serenading you with sweet odes of professed passion.

I don’t get it. And Italian men, apparently, don’t get me.

During my venture Rome-and-southwards, I was largely ignored by Italian men. Which suited me just fine. Again, having traveled heftily through Latin America and once through Morocco, I’m stoked on anything that isn’t street harassment. I’ll take being ignored over obscene insults any day.

But it did cause me wonder… Who the hell are all these American women who are getting hit on Italian men all the time? I’m a cute enough girl, but do you want to know why I wasn’t getting any attention from the dudes? Because they’re surrounded by Italian women—who are impossibly gorgeous and stylish, with their cascade of curly hair and their moody black eyeliner. I wouldn’t hit on me either.

Traveling through Southern Italy was like an adventure in mutual disinterest—as though every guy I passed on the street exchanged a brief little dialog with me: “Thanks but no thanks.” Italy is a pretty culturally conservative place, and I’m a pretty not culturally conservation person, in appearance or attitude. So it makes sense to me that the Italian men and I didn’t vibe. In person, that is.

While I was in Naples my Couchsurfing inbox got flooded with messages from shirtless dudes in sunglasses asking me if I needed a place to stay. (“Um, no.”) But this was the extent of the Italian sleaze I experienced—an indirect, easily ignored, half-assed attempt.

Maybe that was the secret to the purported flirtations of Italian men: that it’s largely impersonal, having less to do with you and whether or not there’s any real potential for something to happen, and more to do with, I dunno, not having anything else better to do? Hitting on someone just for the sake of hitting on someone?…

Montenegro

If ever a girl was thinking of a place to take advantage of men, Montenegro would be the place to do it. I had more offers for rides, tour guides, free drinks, places to stay, etc than anywhere else I’ve been.

But the curious thing was a) all the attention was from middle-aged men, no guys my own age, and b) they somehow managed to stay just on the right side of appropriate and respectful. I never felt violated or threatened by any of the Montenegrin men; it all just came across as really, really nice.

I was of course only getting the attention because I’m a pretty young(ish) American girl traveling alone. Montenegro is really trying to woo Western tourists, and I think I was something of an anomaly; there weren’t many Americans, weren’t many backpackers, weren’t many women alone. I think I was on the one hand intriguing for this reason; I think Montenegrins in general also really want tourists to feel welcome, want to take care of them. I must have sparked all the paternal instincts of the middle-aged men there. But somehow not in a demeaning way. Most curious.

Albania

At a certain point one night, it got ridiculous. I had to put on my sweater and get the hell off the dance floor.

It was like moths to a lightbulb. I have never received more male attention from males I actually wanted attention from than in Tirana. It was dangerous.

Albanians my age, it seems, really want to be Western. They’ve lived most of their lives in post-Communist Albania, but still relatively isolated from the rest of Europe. They’re ready, it seems, to be a part of the rest of the world.

For most kids, this striving seems to take the form of mainstream culture, the Top-40 kind. Stylistically, Tirana is filled with tons of extremely beautiful nouveau riche girls, who could, at first glance, blend in on Parisian sidewalks. You look a little closer and you realize that they don’t quite have it right yet; they wear a little too much make-up, their clothes not quite expensive enough.

But the point is, they’re trying really really hard. They have the posture, the poise, the carefully cultivated look of class in the arch of their fingers as they lean back and drag their cigarettes. They also don’t seem like a whole lot of fun—a little snobby, to be honest.

So I stood out, and not just for being foreign. There weren’t any other girls in Tirana like me, in sneakers and a band shirt, with short hair and tattoos. I’m a dime-a-dozen in the Bay Area, but in Tirana, I was the only act in town. And every single rock n roll dude, it seemed, was eying me. Or talking to me. Or offering me drinks or asking me out or wanting to dance with me.

Big-fish-in-a-little-pond syndrome. I’d never experienced it. After the initial rush of validation, though, it felt funny. It didn’t seem real and, in a way, it wasn’t.

It was like Genti’s indie rock band. An Albanian turned Brighton boy, Genti was just another dude in a band in England. But in Albania, he was becoming a big deal, selling a ton of albums and appearing on Albanian TV. It would have been easy, he told me, to really make it there. “But, I dunno,” he yelled over the barroom clatter, “do I really want to be the guy who was ‘really big in Albania’?”

I paused, and asked myself the same question. I was pretty damn sure that if all these rocker dudes were suddenly delivered into the Bay Area, they wouldn’t be tripping off me so much. I wanted to tell them, to put my hand gently on their shoulders and let them know, “Honey, there’s a big world out there, and it’s filled with a fuckton of cuter girls with more tattoos than me.”

But they’d have had to take my word for it. Cause it’s so damn hard for an Albanian to get a tourist visa, or to afford to travel anywhere where rock n roll girls live, places steeped in privilege.

So I did all I could do, which was to shake my head and laugh.


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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