Archive for the 'Budget' Category

8 Reasons I’m No Longer A Backpacker

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Someone walked in.

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

“Hey!”

Silence.

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

“The US.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Coupla days.”

“How long are you traveling?”

Shrug.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

But I hope they enjoy it.

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

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

So, sometimes, success can be yours.

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

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

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

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

And the room rates drop like mad.

So really, what more could a cheapskate blogger want?

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

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

Proof I was there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled. “Yes, I’m alone today.”

Adventures in Lao Transit: Ban Natane to Savannakhet

One hand tractor, a boat, two sawng thaew and a local bus so packed I had to crouch in the stairwell amid the rice sacks for 87km—I’ve had my Lao transit experience.

Tell other travelers you’re headed to Laos, and you’ll hear two things: “The people are so friendly, so nice!” and “Ugh, I was on this 12-hour chicken bus…”

Picturesque breakdown

Lao transit is infamous for being some of the ricketiest, breaking-down-ist in the SE Asia, maybe the world. Travelers hang weary heads over bottles of Beer Lao, swap war stories: the number of people standing in the aisle, the amount of livestock on board, the various strange cargo, number of break-downs and length of time to go 370km (12 hours is actually purty good). Instead of garnering scene cred, it seems more like commiserating, deriving solace from a shared trauma.

Given that context, my mission from remote Ban Natane to bustling metropolis Savannakhet was smooth, seamless, enjoyable even. An at a cool 10 hours, it could be said that I lucked the fuck out.

I awoke in Batane to a breakfast of fish soup, sticky rice and Nescafe. One of the men from the Baci ceremony a few nights prior came up the wooden ladder, chatted with Pauline’s supervisor. They nodded, glanced over at me. “Okay,” the supervisor said, “you go with him.”

With my transport clearly mapped out for me, I gathered my bags, said my good-byes. I left Ban Natane in a spray of brown water, thrown up from the wheels of another hand tractor. I’d gotten a little better at riding, crouched down, clutched the railing, teeth chattering with every dip and tree root. It’s a little like the squat toilet—it takes time, practice, to hone your particular method.

A half hour later, we arrived at the “dock”—a dirt slope where wooden boats lay half-submerged in the still river water. A small local group of men gathered, ranging from middle-aged to elderly, all with the lean muscles and chiseled features of people who’ve done hard labor their whole lives.

They commenced to scooping out water from one of the boats with a halved gasoline canister, assembling the engine and oars. Now, if you take the tourist boat, they allow a maximum of three passengers with two boatmen. But this was not the boat of life vests and Tevas (which would have been useful); this was the local boat, whose main purpose wasn’t to transport people but goods.

We piled six people, about a dozen parcels and one motorbike on that baby and cruised into the cave.

This is how we roll/paddle

Suffice to say, we bottomed out a half dozen times. Hopping out, pushing the boat, scooping water out, the crunching sound of rock—through a particular patch of rocks, the men had to unload the boat entirely, then reload it. They wouldn’t let me help. I stood in the damp cool and watched a sixty-some year-old man carry my backpack.

As they stood ankles in the water and moved boxes, one of the men lit a cigarette. In the light of his headlamp, I thought the dance of the smoke was about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was all still magical, majestic to me—the cave, the village, the way of life. But this was these men’s reality. They moved with efficiency, knowing the cave like I know the rhythm of the stoplights and crosswalks and trains. They seemed neither annoyed nor frustrated with the archaic and cumbersome method of transport. They had the expression of commuters. Except they smoked and laughed more.

On the other side of the cave, I bowed and said my thank-yous. I rode two largely uneventful sawng thaew—one back to Ban Na Hin, another to the Highway 13 crossroads. The sky thundered and the plastic bags of produce whipped and whistled in the wind.

It began to rain as I climbed off, hoisted my bag over my shoulder and dashed for an awning. I’d been told that buses to Savannakhet pass through the junction “all the time”—though what that meant in rural Lao speak, I wasn’t sure. I stood in a place that seemed like it wanted to be a bus stop, amid the fruit and sticky rice vendors, crouched down against the rain.

An old Korean bus rattled by, slowed to a stop. The tout leaned out the doorway, waved his arm at me as I jogged through the puddles. “Savannakhet?” I asked. “Yes, yes,” he nodded and ushered me in before I could think twice.

I took one step into the stairwell and stopped.

For the last 100km, managed to score a seat in the back. Catch: I had to climb over the piles of luggage to get there.

That’s because I couldn’t move any further. The crowd of people, luggage, cardboard boxes and rice sacks was so thick I had to wedge myself into the corner the bus door vacated when it closed, the leaky seal splashing a refreshing mist of Lao rain on my face.

Two grim-faced Westerners stood out in the crowd: a boy sitting on a blue plastic cooler, a girl standing behind him, trying to clutch anything she could. When a lumbering cow in the road made the driver screech and swerve, the girl lurched forward, toppling into several people and inspiring a chorus of “ooh”s.

“Twelve hours of this shit,” the boy told me later at a side-of-the-road piss stop (which I actually prefer to the squalid squat toilets you have to pay to us). “They told us when we got on in Vientiane that there’d be seats open at the next stop.”

They had twelve more hours to go, and were thoroughly spent on the authentic local experience.

We shared a what-the-hell-are-you-gonna-do laugh and crammed back on, men pulled zippers and stubbing out cigarettes. When the door closed, I wedged myself back into my corner, where I had just enough room to shift my weight from time to time. And sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.

Blessing of String and Sticky Rice: Day One in Ban Natane

The man held my open palm in his. In it, he placed a small clump of sticky rice and pork. He raised his right hand to his face, murmured blessings in a language I didn’t understand. He waved a piece of string, then tied it around my wrist.

“He wishes you good health, good luck,” Pauline translated.

I smiled, bowed. Outside the open-air room, lightning stuttered the night sky white.

Sometimes you end up some weird-ass places traveling. Not that they’re weird, so much as it’s weird that you’re there, that you ended up there—that the gods of circumstance conspired, whispering in their thunderous perch above grey rock, to bring you there. And it was like that in Ban Natane.

To say Ban Natane is off the beaten path is an understatement. Cut off from the rest of world by impassable roads, the only way to reach it and its neighboring four villages is through the Kong Lo Cave. Which is how I got there.

I met Pauline trolling the town of Ban Na Hin for travel companions. The boat ride through the cave costs 100,000 kip, so I was on the lookout for people to split the ride with. Pauline sat on the computer in front of her guesthouse. As it turned out, she was a French anthropology student doing her Masters research on Ban Natane and its neighbors; she was meeting her local supervisor and translator the next day and headed back to the village for another 10-day stay. “If you’d like to come with us,” she made that characteristic French popping noise, “it’s no problem.”

On the sawng thaew ride to the cave’s entrance, she filled me in the details. A French NGO was sponsoring the development of eco-tourism in the Ban Natane area. To date, all homestays and eco-tourism in the area have focused on the Ban Kong Lo side of the cave—you take a boat ride through, come back and sleep on the more developed side of the cave.

“No one stays on this side,” she told me, “because tourists don’t know the villages are there.” Since the only viable way to reach the villages is through the cave, Ban Natane and its neighbors have remained quite isolated, not reaping the rewards/wealth of tourism. “In all of last year,” Pauline told me, “only 20 tourists came to Ban Natane.”

The eco-tourism project was focused on developing facilities for homestays and training locals to act as guides into the caves and waterfalls that surround the region. Pauline’s project focused on documenting the traditional agricultural way of life, interviewing locals about the history and their feelings about tourism, and then studying the impact.

Emerging

So the Kon Lo cave became, not my destination, but the passageway into another world. Which actually what it felt like—a limestone cavern like a mouth, dripping with stalagmites, the squeal and swoop of bats, where mist floated off the cool water like thin ghosts. It felt like moving through some deeply internal part of the earth, through its innards or petrified organs.

We emerged on the other side. Where most people turn around, we began walking down a dirt road. My cheap flip flops had finally busted, so I walked the 2km barefoot. In the distance, the sky grumbled. We arrived in Ban Natane just as the afternoon storm erupted.

My homestay was with one of the wealthier families in town. They owned the town’s only shop (and thus had packets of Nescafe in abundance), goods that had all been transported on skinny wooden boats through the cave, as they had been for generations. Even the TV. “TV only arrived here three months ago,” Pauline told me. “So the children,” she gestured towards the little ones gathered rapt around the glowing screen, “they are like this.”

The storm cleared and she showed me around the village. Everything enthralled me—I am, as previously admitted, a total city kid, so the presence alone of ducks, pigs, chickens and goats was thrilling, let alone the sarongs and hoes and looms beneath the stilted houses.

We shared dinner with the family that night, as we would for all our meals during my 2-day stay. As isolated as it is, the food was all local, not by trend as it is in the Bay Area, but by necessity—foraged snails, fish, frogs. “Frog season has just started,” Pauline translated from her Lao supervisor, “so we will eat a lot of frog.” (Sure enough, I had it 4 meals in a row.)

Walking that night, we three were called over to a large house. I could tell it was a wealthy person’s home because it had a ground floor, constructed of brick—like the TVs, this was new, Pauline told me, as traditional homes were all stilted and wooden. “It means you need more space, and have the money to build it.” She paused. “So modernity is already coming.”

Men sat on the floor around a type of altar, banana-leaf adorned in white flowers. It wasn’t a mystical vibe—they sat in polo shirts and slacks, chatting casually. A large silver bowl of pig parts, a leg and half a head, lay beside baskets of sticky rice.

We were motioned to sit, a village-made scarf thrown over our left shoulders. The man in charge began talking—“a blessing,” Pauline whispered. He held another man’s open palm, put a clump of food and a plastic cup of lao lao in it, chanted, tied the string. Then everyone commenced to bless each other.

“It’s a ceremony called baci,” Pauline translated. “They’re having it for special visitors—the district chief came today.” People took photos with digital cameras; I assumed those to be the wealthy and important visitors.

We were soon called into the mix. I wound up with a bangle of string around my right wrist and an even fuller tummy. The storms continued in the sky outside. Old men smiled as they blessed me, as they blessed each other.

And I had one of those moments when your life feels like a dream, some foreign place you don’t quite understand how you ended up in. Yes, I rode an old wooden boat through a cave and walked down a dirt road—but how I really got to Ban Natane or that ceremony, I suspected, had little to do with that. It didn’t make sense, to my Western mind, why I’d be so welcomed, so embraced here.

And so blessed.

***

Travel Tips: Getting to Ban Natane

It’s actually pretty simple, even if you don’t have an anthropologist as your guide. Take your day bag, sturdy plastic sandals, a good flashlight and some snacks with you on your boat ride. It’ll still cost 100,000 kip, even if you only take it one way. So it goes.

Get off at the snack stands. Only buy the snacks if you’re desperate; since they have to be transported through the cave, they’re fuck-all expensive. Anyway, there’ll be a blue sign that haphazardly explains the homestays:

From the snack stands, there’s two dirt roads. Facing the sign, Ban Natane is down the road to your left. Straight ahead, across the bridge, is another closer village, though from what I understand, there’s less facilities for homestays. If you arrive in Ban Natane and say “homestay,” you’ll get hooked up. Or just show up and look like a Westerner, and they’ll know what to do with you.

Bringing a Lao phrasebook would be goddamn useful. There may be some people floating around who speak a few scraps of English; there’s rumored to be an English teacher at the school in the village, though she was out of town when I was there. If you can manage to communicate, there’s bikes you can rent or a couple good treks to go on, if it’s the dry season. Next month, an NGO will be holding a tour guide training course for locals, so I imagine there will be much more in the way of communication and tour options shortly.

Bananas and Plastic Bows: Sawng Thaew to Kong Lo Cave

Goat on the roof. Friendly driver.

Salt-and-pepper hair beneath a worn military cap, high cheekbones and pursed lips. He squeezes the bananas I’m clutching through their plastic bag, says something in Lao.

I smile, shake my head. He repeats; I repeat. He nods.

I can’t tell if he approves of the bananas or not.

When I climbed on the sawng thaew in Ban Na Hin, the old man slid over, made room for me between the empty gasoline barrels and bags of cabbage. We rumbled around the market. Old women climbed on with pink bags, still-alive fish flopping inside, while the driver kept climbing on the roof, adding to the goods secured atop: sacks of rice, a goat and my dusty red backpack.

The old man nudged me. “Kong Lo?” I nodded. He nodded. But where else would I have been going?

We headed out down the two-lane highway, lined with construction lots and signs for a Ford Motors Center. The main industry in Ban Na Hin isn’t tourism—as evidenced by the single-room tourism office surrounded by grass-chewing cows—but the nearby hydro-electric plant. The handful of guesthouses that run the length of the town’s main road are an afterthought, and the English spoken is minimal.

Despite this, Ban Na Hin is still the closest town to the Kon Lo Cave, a 7.5km limestone tunnel that’s purported to be creepy as shit and mildly reminiscent of the Greek underworld. But, 40-some winding kilometers from a main highway and serviced only by local buses and sawng thaew (pick-up trucks with two benches in the truckbed), what would be a top tourist attraction in any other country remains fairly off-the-beaten-path in Laos. Which, as much as the cave itself, is what lured me out here—after Vientiane and Luang Prabang, I was tourism-weary and in the mood for adventure.

So I don’t mind as it takes two hours to go the 45km to Kon Lo. Past rock that jutted from the earth like jagged teeth, past slash-and-burn fields were the land looked as though it were gasping—we stop at every village, delivering groceries, dropping off canisters of gasoline. I watch the landscape, the farms, the clouds that ito the rock like scraps of cloth that had been ripped off. And I people-watch.

And now, slyly, I study the old man beside me. He has soft yellow skin the texture of crushed silk. I notice on his sleeve, he has small plastic bows haphazardly safety-pinned on. Beside his army-green cap, I imagine them as military decorations, badges from a make-believe army. I imagine them as gifts from grandchildren, secured to his shirt and forgotten about.

I pull out my notebook, to jot down the image between the bumps that stutter my handwriting across the page. He leans over, looks at the notebook, watches me write. He nods as though he understands.

I can’t tell if he approves or not.

I smile, point to the plastic bow on his sleeve. He laughs. I give a thumbs-up.

He tugs his sleeve, begins to unfasten one of the pins. He takes my sleeve, pins the bow. I touch it, smile. He laughs. I laugh.

(A little later on the ride, I discover what the bows are: a bunch of teenagers lining the road come up to the sawng thaew and, through the poles, pin bows to our shirts. They smile and sing, holding out a collection for something.)

The sawng thaew thins of its passengers and produce as we rumble along. A tank of a woman with a soft, laughing face pushes her way out, waves at me. We stretch our legs in the luxurious space.

The old man waves his arm at the driver, stands to a hunch beneath the truck bed’s dome. I tap him as he begins to shuffle off.

I open my plastic bag and hand him a banana.

He smiles. I laugh, he laughs.

I think he approves.

He steps off the back of the truck, place his hands together and bows his head. I repeat.

***

Travel Tips: Getting to Kong Lo Cave

While researching Kong Lo Cave, the number one concern I encountered was over transport. The LP doesn’t have much info and it seems as though the lack of direct buses deters a lot of people from visiting.

Here’s the deal: Kong Lo and the nearby Ban Na Hin (nearest town, with guesthouses and an ATM) lie along Highway 8, which moves east from Highway 13. All buses between Vientiane/Paksan and Tha Khaek/Savanaket run down Highway 13, so the route you will often read recommended is to take one of these buses running along the 13, ask to get off at the junction, then take a sawng thaew to Ban Na Hin, where you can then take another sawng thaew to Kon Lo Cave or the nearby town, Ban Kong Lo, where it’s possible to homestay.

Another friendly fellow

I think it’s the transfers that deter people. It;s actually a lot less dodgy than it sounds. There’s enough of a trickle of backpackers that the bus drivers know where you’re headed—there’s not much else out here for tourists. Sawng thaew run from the junction to Ban Na Hin every 30-or-so minutes during the daytime, and there are supposedly a few direct sawng thaew to Ban Kong Lo every day, though it probably wouldn’t be worth waiting for those.

From Vientiane, there’s only one VIP bus to Tha Khaek a day at an inconvenient 1pm—journey takes about 6-7 hours, so you’d potentially be looking at doing the transfer after dark. Local buses, though, run every half hour beginning at 6am. They cost 60,000 kip, regardless of whether you get off at the junction or the final destination.

There’s also local buses to Lak Soa, the biggest town along Highway 8. The advantage of this bus is that you negate the feared transfer at the junction. These buses leave Vientiane every 2 hours, beginning also at 6am, and cost 75,000. This is the bus I took, and I recommend it: it was early enough in the day that the lack of AC was bearable, and even with a break-down, I still arrive in Ban Na Hin at 1pm.

I’ve also been told that there’s one daily bus directly from Vientiane to Ban Kong Lo that leaves between 9-10am. However, if there’s not enough people, the bus will be canceled, so it’s probably best not to risk it.

From Ban Na Hin, though, there’s only three official sawng thaew per day to Kong Lo—more evidence of the undeveloped tourist facilities. The first leaves the town bus station at 10-ish, the others at 1 and 3-ish. But in reality, they seem to leave more often than that. Otherwise, you’re looking at arranging private transport, about 100,000 kip versus the 25,000 for the bus.

Coming from the South, it appears as though your best bets would be to take a sawng thaew from Tha Khaek, which is well-connected to Savannakhet and Pakse, or one of the buses coming up the 13 and doing the transfer. I did meet some grumpy Brits who had gotten on the wrong bus and had the journey take a day and a half—”All this for a bloody cave.”

Which brings me to my biggest recommendation: treat the whole thing as journey-is-the-destination adventure. Don’t focus on just Getting To The Cave—everyone I met who did this seemed fairly annoyed, or at least had to qualify it with “worth the trek.” I was armed with snacks and in the mindset of “well, let’s see where this leads,” and I had a grand ole’ time.

Take Me To The Jungle, And Don’t Ever Take Me Back

Okay, so outdated pop culture references aside, hear me and hear me well: Jungle Beach is the stuff of backpacker folklore.

A rustic, simple homestay: a cluster of bamboo cabanas on a sandy lot, shaded by the whispering palms of trees; hammocks and hand-made lounge chairs; a communal dining room where guests gather twice a day for meals; thatched sun umbrellas stuck into the sand of a postcard beach.

Sometimes a place feels so special that you don’t really want to write about—as though writing about it would sully it, or giving it words—trying to give it words—would cheapen it, lessen it, and you want to keep it a private, precious thing.

I arrived at Jungle Beach a little heart-heavy (see previous post), a bit of melancholy sprung up, as though something tapped into a murmuring, gargling reserve of oil beneath the surface of me and wasn’t shooting out like a geyser, but rather seeping through, leaking out into the sunlight.

In any case, I crawled off the overnight bus a stop early, 40km outside Nha Trang—5:30 am on a dusty strip of highway that consituted the town Doc Let. I took a motorbike the next 20-some km, sleep-blurred and thirty-mouthed, to Jungle Beach. I arrived, and I didn’t ever want to leave.

It wasn’t the kind of place that immediately bowls you over. “This is nice,” I thought, as I curled up under a thin blanket, inside a soft blue mosquito net. But the place grew on me—or I grew into it.

Hours and days passed in some sort of other time zone. Wake up with the sun. Jog on the beach or do yoga on a mat in the shade. Eat breakfast. Do some writing, some reading. Lay on the beach. One of the workers comes out and says it’s lunchtime. Rise off my feet, sit at the communal table, pass bowls of meat and veggies and rice and sweet chili sauce. Have another coffee. Go back to the beach. Not even read, really, just lay there—lay there thinking, or not thinking, just watching the waves and feeling my own kind of waves inside, welling up, rising and receeding, as though I were standing on the banks of a monumental sadness, whose bounds I didn’t know, just the pull of its gravity. Cry sometimes, about nothing in particular.

Three pm, and someone comes out with a little plastic plate of fruit, pineapple or pomello or watermelon. Eat it with a toothpick, get a coconut, drink it and scrape it clean with a spoon. Go wade in the water, hopping waves or letting them pummel me, or floating on my back and watching the great white clouds walk across the sky. Shower, check my email, write. Gather for dinner and spend hours afterwards chatting with the other travelers—mostly couples, mostly German for some reason, but really cool people, different ages but all open and friendly. Feel like it’s midnight when it’s only 9, say good night and curl up under a thin blanket, inside a soft blue mosquito net. Repeat as necessary.

The place was built by a dude named Sylvio, who walks around shirtless and smoking, a tough old guy (see character study in upcoming post). He bought the land nearly 10 years ago, and built the place slowly, each cabana by hand, and it’s become the stuff of backpacker folklore.

One of the most impressive parts of Jungle Beach is the staff. The staff to guest ratio was almost 1:1, a friendly, laid-back Vietnamese staff that didn’t pander to the guests and fawn over them, but was attentive—in short, that actually seemed to really care that we had a good time. Ten years of working in the service industry, and I’ve decided that that’s all people really want—to feel taken care of, to feel like you actually give a shit. It’s a rare thing, and it doesn’t necessarily come with heafy price tags and swanky surroundings. It comes, to be completely and utterly trite, from the heart.

I spent four days and three nights doing virtually nothing at Jungle Beach. And as my depature neared, I found myself desperately not wanting to leave. I discovered, without having known it, that I really needed that time—to decompress, to clear out some space, to get ready for the project I’m about to embark on. And yet I didn’t feel rejuvenated, in a sense; I felt simply like I didn’t want to leave.

But what would another day have done? What would another week or year done? Will I ever actually work through all this whatever-it-is I carry in me? Will I ever be done? No, no, it was time to go.

But I can’t ever remember feeling so sad to leave a place. I looked around—it all seemed so precious. I actually almost cried. What the hell is all this? Am I going crazy? Am I becoming soft in my old age?

I got in the taxi and we bumped off, leaving the buildings and the thatched roofs and the gate and the barking dogs in a billow of dust behind us.

Tirana, Tirana, The One I’ve Been Waiting For

If Tirana were a boy, it’d be the boy I’ve been waiting to meet.

You rumble across the border, furious windshield wiper and donkeys in the dirt road, hills dripping lush green. You dash from the taxi to the minibus, puddle-footed and soaking-hooded, grab the last seat as a man climbs into the trunk compartment.

You rattle like this through the rainstorm, through a landscape of sheeps and shacks, the smooth round dome of abandoned bunkers, half-built buildings with sleeping bulldozers stuck in the mud, the carcasses of stipped-down cars piled in empty lots. The minibus driver turns on some kind of Albanian butt rock, and you silently thank him for knowing the exact right soundtrack for your entrance into the country.

I’d meant to travel around a bit in Albania, see a UNESCO town or two, climb in a bunker, poke around some old Ottoman castle. Which still all sounds awesome. But four hours in Tirana, and I knew I wouldn’t be going anywhere.

There’s only one other city I’ve walked into and felt this feeling, this long “yeeeesss” coming from some place between my ribs, near my gut, a forgotten organ of intuition. Some places just fit, and you just fit them, and Tirana is one of them.

It’s got a certain electric insanity, that infectious energy, without being a total free-for-all. It’s just dirty enough, has just enough street dogs and decrepit buildings, just enough business men, the click of just enough three-inch heels, attached to smooth legs and slim skirts. It’s like meeting a boy with just enough of “the dark side,” as Luke would say—not a total depraved junkie, but not squeaky clean and wholesome either: a chipped tooth and an ancient wound.

So I walked Tirana’s streets, its run-down markets and posh cafes, past Mercedes Benzes negoitating potholes, 10-years-old smoking cigarettes, old women roasting chestnuts, old men selling gum and lighters, gypsies sitting cross-legged with outstetched palms, the blare of the horns and the hum of the engines and the swoon of the city.

Within a few hours of staggering into the frenetic swarm of this city, I’d fallen in with the artsy, alternative crowd, finding myself at a rock show in a tiny, smokey bar in an otherwise-shuttered mall. The next night was K’tu Ka Art, a weekly show featuring local live music acts. It felt a lot like being at a small show at home, until I had it explained to me.

Apparently, bands in Albania work like this: they play cover songs. God-awful, Top 40, English-language cover songs. A band will book at a certain bar for a year. And every Friday and Saturday, people will go to same bar and hear the same band play the same cover songs.

“Bloody boring as hell,” Ghenti surmised, an indie-rocker dude in a Sonic Youth shirt and a Kurt Cobain sweater. He’d moved to Brighton when he was 16, but came back to Albania every year for a few weeks. So last year he started organizing weekly showcases of local bands, who played their own songs, singing in Albanian.

It’s a small group of people, maybe 30 or so, that are into that scene right now, into something different from the imported cool. And after two nights, I seem to know all of them. Yesterday, I walked around town and kept bumping into people I knew. It’s a funny feeling of belonging, of fitting into a place you just met. (“I feel like I’ve known you for years.”)

Tirana’s also an insanely safe and insanely cheap city. I can’t manage to spend more than $40 a day, and I can’t manage to feel uncomfortable walking its streets, even at 2am. (“Heaven must have sent you from above…”) The people are startlingly friendly, and I haven’t received any street harrassment—just a lot of stares for being the one tattooed girl in the whole city (more on that in another post).

The only drawback of the city, I told Robo, is that I smoke too much. It’s too easy and too cheap ($1.50 for a pack). It was the K’tu Ka Art afterparty, in a basement bar playing a soundtrack of “Vogue,” “Highway to Hell,” and “I Love Rock N Roll.”

“No, I think it’s a good thing,” Robo replied, yelling over the music.

“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

“It means you’re having fun.”

“Yeah, I’ll try telling my mom that,” I smiled, leaning in to the flicker of his lighter.

He leaned back, regarded me there: sitting at the bar, happy as could be with my can of Coke, singing along to cheesy hits with Tirana’s tiny clan of rock n roll kids.

He patted me on the shoulder. “You should be an advertisement for ‘Come to Albania.'”

I threw my head back and laughed.


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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