Archive for the 'Offbeat' Category

Things To Consider Before Trekking Fancy Pants Mountain

1. It is not actually called Fancy Pants Mountain. If you are unable to stop calling it Fancy Pants, because you cannot either remember or pronounce its real name, take this a sign.

2. Fansipan Mountain is the highest peak in Indochina (which sounds totally colonialist, but what the hell do you call the Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos region: “the region formerly known as Indochina”? RFKAI?) As such, you’ll be trekking up. As in, UP UP. It’s only a 15km trek up and you’ll probably think, “I’m back to jogging 10km a few times a week, I can toooootally handle it.” Kilometers are for suckers anyway.

It may be worthwhile to listen to your own bullshit detector.

3. Everything you read prior to the trek will use grandiose-sounding verbiage such as “conquering Fansipan Mountain.” You’ll think this is an overly zealous translation. You’ll also read that at the trek’s completion, you’ll receive a certificate verifying that you’ve “conquered Fansipan Mountain.” You’ll think this is a product of the Vietnamese affection for paperwork.

But consider this. Really consider this.

Fool’s Journey

4. As the highest peak in RFKAI, Fancy Pants Mountain will be cold. They’ll tell you this: “It’s cold up there.” Remember you haven’t been in anything close to “cold” in a nearly two years. Briefly consider the fruitless time and effort you’ve invested in finding clothing that fits you in this country. Decide not to bother trying to get real hiking boots or weather-resistant clothing. Borrow some long pants from your roommate, and put on your three-year-old trainers and a pair of leggings and DO THIS SHIT.

5. Consider the fact that you are not a good trekker. You don’t even really enjoy trekking. Remember La Ciudad Perdida? Yosemite’s Half-Dome? All those Muir Woods day hikes your parents took you on as a kid? You have never for one second liked trekking, or been any good at it.

Despite this, “getting out of the city” will seem like a good idea. Consider briefly of the itinerary: an overnight train; arrival at 6am; trek beginning at 9am; the trek; sleeping in a “longhouse”; trekking back; overnight train back to Hanoi at 7pm.

Consider that this is your weekend.

Or don’t. Buy some bottled water and a granola bar, put on your three-year-old trainers and a pair of leggings and DO THIS SHIT.

Comfy on the train

6. Dream about Roberto Bolano on the overnight train. Dream you’re sitting around a table at a youth hostel, freestyling short stories; dream that he is staring at you across the table.

Wake up giddy and in a puddle of your own drool. Consider how many times people must have woken up in puddles of their own drool ON THIS VERY PILLOW, whether or not they were dreaming of Roberto Bolano. Rinse your face; chug from the plastic bottle; swish the water in your mouth and spit it out; look at yourself in the foggy scratched mirror, your reflection foggy and scratched.

Think: “Let’s Do This Shit.”

7. Doing This Shit:

i. The trail will be muddy. Like, mad muddy. Shlup, shloop, gloop, glup, ankle-deep and sliding around, falling-in-the-shrubbery muddy. The porters will hand you a walking stick; this stick will become your best friend, despite the little blisters your own clutching causes.

ii. The trail will be foggy. You won’t be able to see shit, not more than a few meters in front of you or behind you.

iii. The trail will be rocky. It will not really be a trail so much as a series of rocks to climb up. Really, it should be called The Fancy Pants Mountain Rock-Climb, not a trek because you don’t actually get a good stride going very often.

iv. Your feet will get wet and muddy. It’s better to just accept it and slosh through than try and fight it. It’s faster too.

On the mountain with my “waa” face

v. The porters won’t speak English, so it’ll be best to go with a group of people who speak Vietnamese. Though Vietnamese won’t be the native language of the porters; they’ll speak Hmong. The porters will speak Hmong because they’ll be Hmong, and it’ll be the only trek you’ve been on with a female porter.

She will be a bad ass. Like, the definition of a bad ass: big phat tribal earrings the kids in SF would pay $300 for; knee-high rubber rain boots; skirt tied with a sash; sturdy-ass legs from doing this trek a minimum of TEN TIMES A MONTH, your friends will translate. All your food and gear will be stowed in a whisker basket she totes on her back. She’ll smile and have three gold teeth; you’ll think about how you miss gold teeth, seeing just a few as opposed to a whole goddamn grill the kids are sporting these days. Her fingers will be stained, black-rimmed nails, and she’ll never be out of breath.

Consider that she will be the coolest part of the trek.

Girl crush

vii. After seven hours you’ll arrive at the 2800 meter point. Consider you won’t know what this translates to in feet; consider that you won’t care.

You’ll go into the longhouse where you’ll be sleeping and it will no shit be one of the most squalid places you’ve ever seen. Consider that you’ve slept in some squalid situations, both urban and rural; consider that an old boyfriend lived in a West Oakland punk house called Dead Rat Beach. Consider that this longhouse will be worse than that.

Consider: the walls made of aluminum, a material that traps and magnifies the cold; the gaping hole in the door of the aluminum, through which a howling wind straight from the cold chest of China enters; the muddy-ass walkway; the raised wooden sleeping platform, damp from the cold; the trash beneath the sleeping platform; the scurry of the rats beneath the sleeping platform; the thin sleeping bags they’ll give you; the fact that the sleeping bags don’t zip; the fact that this trek has become mega popular with Vietnamese young people and that a group of sixteen with enter the house a couple hours after you do and that they will, in full Vietnamese fashion, talk and point and shout at each other for 6 of the 8 hours you attempt to sleep, and that this will annoy even the Vietnamese people you’ve come with.

In the longhouse with my cold face

Consider that the dinner will be nice, quite tasty really, more Chinese than Vietnamese, and that you’ll gorge yourself by the candlelight and that one of your trekking mates will have brought a bar of Toblerone and that he’ll break you off a chunk and HOLY SHIT that’ll be the best piece of Toblerone you’ve ever tasted.

Consider that you don’t even really like Toblerone. Consider that.

viii. Consider that the toughness-to-reward ratio of the trek will be low enough to inspire you skip the “conquering” bit. You will not get up at 5am will the others in your group and carry on to the top, but cuddle up and clench your eyes against the swimming of the flashlights, clamp your ears against the shouting of the other trekkers, and shiver inside your unzipped sleeping back, inside your roommate’s pants and the leggings you haven’t changed out of.

Your trek-mates who made it

You’ll head down the mountain around 8am with another girl in your group who has also bailed. Only now will you consider that the whole “I did it!” thing has never been a motivation for you. Only now consider that on the treks you’ve done in that past, you’ve never felt the swoon of accomplishment, victory over a physical challenge, but more of a “Now why did I put myself through THAT?”

Consider that you’ve always felt life was hard enough without CLIMBING A FRIGGIN MOUNTAIN on your weekend. Consider that the real “I did it!” for you is and always had been the everyday survival—the existing in the world—not this outdoor mountain shit. Consider that the real victory for you is the fact that you’ve damn near made it to 30 without killing yourself.

Consider that as you slip and slide and crawl on your ass back down the mountain.

Consider that the way down is always harder than the way up. Consider how that’s a metaphor. For all of it.

8. The best part of the trek will be when it’s over. You’ll get back to Sapa, a lovely little town you wish you had the energy to explore, and you’ll feel like you’ve been gone longer than 30-some hours. Since your friend arranged the whole thing through a tour agency, you’ll have access to a hotel room with a shower. It’ll be a dingy little hotel room with the same faded pink paint as your apartment in Phnom Penh, but the water pressure will be strong and the water will be hot and HOLY SHIT it’ll be the best shower you think you’ve ever taken. Consider that you like hot, strong showers, and have taken a lot of them.

Stagger across the road to a touristy cafe and order a burger, fries and a chocolate shake. Consider the last time you indulged in this trifecta; consider that you won’t be able to remember and that you won’t care. Consider that the shake will be a literal interpretation of a shake—milk and chocolate powder that were seemingly stirred together—and that it’ll still taste goddamn amazing.

9. Consider the train ride back. Despite the fact that the AC in your cabin won’t be working, you’ll konk out at 8pm. You will not dream about Roberto Bolano, and you will feel slightly ripped off by that.

You’ll arrive back in Hanoi at 5am, all matted hair and lip crust, everyone in your group too tired and sore to give proper goodbyes. You’ll hop on the back of a xe om, whiz through the sleepy pre-dawn streets.

You won’t have conquered Fancy Pants.

You won’t have conquered shit.

But goddammit, you’ll be on your way to conquer your own friggin bed.

You’ll pay the dude, slither down the alley, yank open the gate, crawl up the stairs and HOLY SHIT you will.

*

If you’ve considered all this and still want to do the trek, check out Mien’s much more informative and much less whiny post on the expedition.

Being An Asshole Abroad

I am one.

Not all the time. Not most of the time or even some of the time. But on ever so rare occasions (at least I like to think), I have been known to snap. I’d like to water it down, cushion the blow to the ego, but that doesn’t do anyone any good—I can be a big flaming asshole, and that’s just the truth of it.

That’s what my latest piece on World Hum “The Particular Anger of Powerlessness” was about. You guys might remember the piece—an earlier draft appeared on this blog around a year ago. It was a gamble publishing it for a couple reasons. One, it incriminates my parents for traveling illegally to Cuba. But the good news about having supportive parents is that they’re so stoked to see their kid get published, they’re willing to risk their own hides.

But the main gamble is that I was opening myself up to attack. It’s like going in for a knee in Muay Thai—better keep your hands by your face cause someone can clock you good at that proximity. Basically, I reveal myself to be an asshole in the piece. Or rather, I reveal myself at one of my asshole moments—one where I’m not the picture of cultural sensitivity or a deep, abiding sense of my own privilege. Instead, I’m the picture of An Ugly Westerner.

I knew I was doing it—leaving myself open. In fact, I knew I was doing it in the moment, when I acted that way, and it was mighty uncomfortable. It’s like I was watching myself do it and some other part of me was shaking my head—I knew how it looked. But I couldn’t help myself.

Why?

That’s the question I try to delve into in the piece. We all act like dicks sometimes, right? We’ve all flicked people off while driving; we’ve all snapped at grocery clerks; we’ve all been snippy at waitresses—whatever your version is, there’s been a moment when you’ve thought, “Fuck, did I really just do that?” There’s a certain vision one has of oneself and there’s moments that prove that vision, and there’s moments that contradict it. It’s easier to just push them aside and not think about them. It’s less easy to force yourself to go back and make amends. And it’s even less easy to delve into it, to look at it squarely—“This is not how I’d like to act, so why did I do it?”

My fifteen minutes on the Lao-Cambodian border last year was one of those moments. And the answer I came up with, after looking real hard at the situation, was powerlessness.

This may or may not be the right answer. But the point, at least I like to think, is that I wanted to look it. Cause travel pushes you beyond yourself, right? It pushes you out of your comfort zone; it exposes you to new things, some of which are exhilarating, some of which leave you fuming/confused/rushing for the bathroom. But the idea is that travel expands you, that you’re not the same after a trip, that you learn something—both about the world and yourself.

I knew some people would take up issue with it. And when the comments started to come in—“I thought we independent travelers were supposed to be culturally sensitive”; “Way to go, rubbing the guy’s poverty in his face, you definitely came out ahead there”—they didn’t really bother me. I mean, that was the shit I was saying to myself, in my own head. (I realize in retrospect that I should have worked that angle more explicitly in the piece, instead of leaving it hanging around in the subtext…)

The thing is, they’ve got a lot of valid points. The whole speaking-on-other-people’s-behalf thing makes me a wee uncomfortable, chimes itself of a kind of imperialist attitude—but yeah, you know, I get where they’re coming from. You do carry a certain amount of responsibility as an outsider in a someone else’s country, and there’s a certain level of respect one ought to conduct oneself with.

Which is a whole nuther rant for a whole nuther day. But what happens when you fall short of that? Or when you watch other people fall short of that?

It’s something I have ample opportunity to muse over, living here in the shitshow of Phnom Penh. I mean, fucking Cambodia—it’s Westerners Behaving Badly all over this MF. A lot of folks come here for the sole purpose of acting in ways they can’t get away with at home—sleeping with prostitutes, drinking all day, etc.

And believe me, I was way the fuck judgy at first. I remember standing in line at Lucky Supermarket, watching this guy in front of me totally berate the clerk for not wanting to accept a wrinkled $20. It was ugly. Being Cambodian, the clerk didn’t get back in the guy’s face, but instead apologized and groveled and looked real ashamed/embarrassed. Then I felt ashamed/embarrassed. I shot the guy dart-eyes and, after he left, apologized to the clerk on his behalf.

But you know what I’ve realized? Well, one, that apologizing for someone else’s behavior is not my job, regardless if we’re both Americans in another country. But more importantly, that milder versions of the same thing have happened to me. That—holy shit!—I’ve been on the other side of it. Maybe not that bad, but still. That afternoon on the Lao border was one of those times.

It’s humbling indeed to discover you have that in you. (As one friend says, “Cambodia reduces you to what you really are.”) I hate to say it, but I’ve snapped at tuk-tuk drivers, gotten mad at slow service, yelled at people in English when they’ve nearly run me over on the street. I’ve seen poor dudes from the countryside pissing on the sidewalk and blowing snot rockets and thought, “Ugh, poor people.” And I’ve been fucking horrified at myself.

I’ve talked to a lot of expats here about this and there’s always this cringy way we admit it. At least some of us admit it—that sometimes we snap and act like assholes. Maybe it’s the difference of living somewhere versus passing through on holiday—all the shit you could brush off in the moment becomes your life.

Whatever the reason, I realized I had to look at it. I mean, I’m here, this shit is happening, it’s not how I want to act, so I need to at least pretend to be a grown-up and deal with it.

There are some things I just don’t get. I mean, they can be explained to me and I can conceptualize some sort of understanding, but at it’s core it just seems wrong. Bribery and corruption are one of them. It’s a cultural difference, but guess what?—I’m culturally different. You will never convince me that bribery is okay, on any level, no matter how much it’s rationalized. (The same with pissing on the street. It just fucking smells.)

But here I am, in their country (which I can do, being privileged, and they by-and-large cannot)—so what do I do? Well, one is that I accept it bothers me. I don’t play the tape of oh-you-should-be-more-culturally-sensitive. Nope, I just accept that it doesn’t fucking seem right to me. The second is that I notice that it only reeeeally bothers me when my tolerance is down—when I’m stressed/tired/hungry/lonely/hot/dehydrated/whatever. So, in the interest of not being a raving asshole all the time, I do my best to not get stressed/tired/hungry/lonely/hot/dehydrated/whatever. When I’m taking care of myself, when I’m rested and full and happy, it’s a helluv a lot easier to shrug and say, “Well, that’s not how I roll, but so be it.”

It’s what I’d do now if I encountered the border situation today. I’ve grown a lot more comfortable with bribery—I don’t think it’s right, but I’m not gonna fucking fight it every day. And when I see dudes like the one at Lucky that day? Well, I don’t apologize for them but I also don’t really judge them anymore. Most times I honestly think, “Fuck, he must be having a real hard time, to be spreading that kind of negativity around.” It’s the kind of compassion I’d like for someone to look at me with, if they saw me acting like an asshole.

I get lots of great examples, living in this fine city, of how I don’t want to act. And the cool thing is, I’ve learned how to take them as just that: examples and nothing else. And then I try to be my own example of how I do wanna act.

All of which is to say, I’m a lot less bothered by other Westerners’ behavior. It’s kind of not my business. Of course, if you publish a piece about it, then you’re making it everyone’s business. But I did it cause I thought it was a productive thing to do, to come right out and say it. Like I said in my response, I’d love to see a piece by someone who really lost their shit—cussed out an old woman or some shit. Not for the shock value, but because I think looking at those uncomfortable parts of ourselves is really fucking important. Cause we all have them, right?

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe the folks that left those comments really have never had their moment of entitled asshole total-melt-down-ness. Maybe they’re uber-PC and culturally sensitive every minute of the every day, every trip they’ve taken, every waitress they’ve encountered, every shit driver that’s been in the fast lane in front of them. If they have, though, I don’t really want to know them—I don’t trust them.

Maybe I’ve just grown a really thick skin from all these years of writing. Maybe it’s one in the same—people are gonna say what they’re gonna say and do what they’re gonna do and god bless em for it.

And if I do see people who piss me off? Well, I’ve got a jam for that:

8 Reasons I’m No Longer A Backpacker

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Someone walked in.

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

“Hey!”

Silence.

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

“The US.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Coupla days.”

“How long are you traveling?”

Shrug.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

But I hope they enjoy it.

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

Wax refugees from Khao Lan

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

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

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

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

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

Cairo, Stencil City

I landed in Cairo like something shot out the bottom of a waterslide: a sharp gasp and splash of forward momentum, wedgie-style with a sting up the nose, blinking, shaking water from my ear for the four days. Completely unprepared, and didn’t know what to expect, except that I hadn’t even given it enough mental energy to expect anything.

Which isn’t entirely true—I expected it to be fairly modern, fairly developed. After two weeks in Albania, Cairo felt downright fancy, wealthy even. (There’s a Metro! When’s the next time I’m gonna get to ride a Metro?) I arrived during Eid, which is basically a four-day shitshow of fireworks, honking, running the streets—a Muslim teenage boy version of Girls Gone Wild.

But the daytimes are sleepy as fuck, Downtown dead, shuttered, traffic-less and breezy. I met up an old friend’s little sister, who I hadn’t seen since I was in high school (insert requisite “Oh my God, you’re a woman now!”). We ate koshari and drank Turkish coffee and wandered around, making our way over to Tahrir Square.

Where, if I’d stopped to think about it while I’d been crashing down that waterslide, I would have expected it: a shitton of political stencils.

Running around snapping photos, many of which Kate was able to translate and explain to me, turned out to be the dopest part of my four-day stay.

Leading up to the square, this is a pretty typical shot of what the walls are looking like down there. The half-face on the left is one of the more popular stencils, which I saw in various forms. It’s of Alexandrian blogger Khaled Said who was beaten and killed by the police, pre-Arab-Spring. Outcry and attention (speareheaded by FB group “We are all Khaled Said”) over his death are credited with fueling the flames that eventually led to the January 25th uprising.

Cool because I’d seen almost the exact same Anarchy head in Kosovo.

Another jailed blogger, Alaa Abdel Fattah.

Face on the left of the tree is of Mina Danial, another blogger who was killed.

The next batch are all on the wall by the American University.

“We are all the martyr Mina Danial.”

“Retribution for Mubarak.”

Date of a protest, alongside the star-and-fist logo of the revolutionary socialists. Stencils are apparently one of the primary ways protest dates get circulated.

“I am the brain, you are the muscle.” Liked that this lady walked into the shot.

Face on the left is of a TV newscaster (missed his name) who canceled his show rather than be censored.

A classic. Writing beneath reads: “Long Live the People of my Country.”

Writing inside the TV reads: “Go down to the streets”—ie, don’t rely on the TV/media to tell you what’s going on.

Another of Khaled Said. Quite liked the placement beside the doorway.

Never quite figured out what the cow meant, but there were a lot of them…

K, here’s one all the Occupiers can get down with: a banker being, um, poked, with a caption that reads: “Strike!”

Perhaps not the most well-executed, but reminded me of the Sherpard Fairey guns and roses piece.

Personal favorite, for obvious reasons (though only got groped once): “No touching. Castration awaits you.” Shit yeah!

Don’t have captions/translations/context for the rest of these. If anyone’s got any insights or context to offer, holler…

Metro stops.

…And, a typical street scene round the Square, with a lil hidden gem.

It was really cool and really fucking refreshing to see all these stencils up. You know, you come across a lot of jaded people—people who will tell you that street art is played out, has sold out, commercialized and commodified and done for. There’s an element of truth to what they say, sure, but I think that level of cynicism is dangerous.

So it was rad, all else aside, to see all this up, in this context. Street art is, in its origin and at its core, a political act. At least that’s how I see it. It may be all the other sceney bullshit too, but walking around Tahrir Sqaure, I was reminded of the crucial role it can still play, the dissent it can represent, and how it can be un-fucking-stoppable. And, in a place where there’s such intense repression and media censorship, street art plays a vital role.

It’s like social media—which can be be soul-sucking and superficial—if you let it. The same cynical voices will tell you that FB and Twitter are deteriorating authentic human interaction. Which very well may be true. But, if you look at the fuller picture—holy shit, look what it can do! Look how it can connect people. It’s not a coincidence that authorities, from Tahrir Square to BART, shut down cell phone reception in the face of protests. It’s not a coincidence that the majority of faces stenciled here are bloggers. Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot of BS that comes along with the territory, but that’s the world we live in, you know? And check out the crazy, amazing tools we have to make it a better place.

Street art is one.

How To Rock in Kosovo

Show flier

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

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

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

Hazy border median

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

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

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

That's not a real beverage

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

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

Word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes on Flying Into Albania

At the Bergamo airport outside Milan, and I’m in Albania before I’m in Albania.

Waiting at the gate, last flight of the night and it’s delayed—“ritardo,” which sounds like “retarded” and I laugh and take a picture, and get those sideways glances—“Girl, you’re not from here.”

And I’m not—one of the only people at the gate that isn’t Albanian, clutching a red passport and the clothing suddenly different, so un-Milan, where even the dogs are better groomed that me. At Gate 3, it’s faded loose blazers instead of crisp fitted ones; it’s cheap haircuts and scarves tied over the heads of old women. It’s scuffed low heels and calf-length skirts, thin linen—it’s hard faces, jaws and brows more pronounced, and skin chiseled too, even in the children—chiseled, as though the expressions were carved out of some kind of different living, different reality, and you could never quite assimilate, could you? I think—No.

I’m wrecked tired, stayed up till 5am with the Le Fooding kids, slept maybe 4 broken hours, and I’ve got a bottle of Pelegrino and my headphones cranked up, tapping my foot through a caffeine haze just to stay awake. Glances snag on me—not Italian, not Albanian, what the fuck?

An hour after we’re supposed to leave, and a shuttle bus pulls up to the gate. People push and jostle; a man tears our boarding passes, which look like they were created in MS Word, printed on Xerox paper, glossy-thin. The bus smells like wet and feet, and it lets us off at the stairs to the plane, which bears no markers, no logos, a surface so lumpy it looks like paper-mache. We scurry in through the cool Italian night, breath clouds and blinking lights.

They’ve got the first ten rows blocked off—I remember this from my last Belle Air flight—and I can’t really discern why. People push and prod, they yell instructions to each other over, motion over the heads, and I can’t discern that either. There’s an old woman in my seat, and the seat next to her, and I show her my ticket and she shakes her scarved head as if to say, “No.”

I shrug and the stewardess—dolled up like a retro Pan Am attendant, hair pinned and orange hat tucked jauntily to the side—she shrugs and motions me up to the front of the plane, to the unassigned rows, and I grab an extra seat.

A staticy safety announcement rushed through in 3 languages—sounds like the voice in a fast-food drive-thru—and it’s too quiet for me to hear anyway over the mechanical groans of the plane. There’s nothing identifiably “Belle Air” about the plane, save the cloths on the head rests, and I decide it must be some kind of generic rent-a-plane, which doesn’t make me feel terribly confident, but I close my eyes and wait for take-off—though really, in a lot of ways, all these ways, I’ve already taken off.

We take off, and I watch the lights of Milan dissipate, fade—goodbye Western world. We’re cruising at news-helicopter altitude, it seems, and I feel like I could reach out and touch the little lights, the clouds that snag on the wings and eventually swallow everything, everything.

The cabin lights keep dimming and brightening, like a kid playing with a switch. Outside, the sky crackles a yellow flash, illuminating the shapes of those clouds, and I imagine the static clinging to us like clothes from a dryer, or when a silent electricity is in the air and you don’t know it until you touch something and get that little shock—in the black above the Adriatic, but we’re already in Albania, a rattly, groany little generic bullet of Albania, carrying Albania through the sky.

Lights appear and we start to sink. The scarved woman in my seat stands up—she opens the overhead bin literally as we’re landing, the first bump and rumble, and others follow suit as we taxi, and the stewardesses stare ahead, bored-looking and don’t bother to point out the seat-belt sign or tell us to sit.

Another flight of stairs, another stinky shuttle bus, and a mad rush to the immigration desk. It’s a quarter-size line at the “Foreigner” counter, though I could have sworn I was the only non-Albanian, and a man elbows me to get there first, waves his wife over, and it seems like a monumental rush for nothing, so I just let out a half-laugh and watch.

A faded dim stamp I can barely read, slammed on top of another stamp, and I wonder what the point of it is. Three luggage carousels that all read flights from earlier that day. My backpack finally appears, on its side amid the luggage mummified in neon shrink-wrap.

No buses at midnight, so I grab a taxi, and he drives between the lanes, over the lanes, flashing his high beams like lightning or static or the cabin lights that could never sit still. We cruise into Tirana, and I see familiar sights—the crepe stand I liked, the gaudy shopping mall, the dug-up square beside the national museum, the statue that sits amid the construction like a warrior in a dead battlefield, the broad empty road where the futbol crowds shot off smoke bombs.

It’s like a boy I’d met once, thought I’d really liked and kept on thinking about, retelling the story to myself so that eventually I didn’t know if it were true or not anymore, if I’d made it up or not—but I’m back and it’s still all there and it’s real and I can’t help but smile at that—Tirana, Tirana, sleeping and dark but still as I left it.

The taxi stops at the gate to the hostel and the driver helps me with my bags and I pay him and then he pauses and looks at me, nods and smiles, reaches out to shake my hand—maybe because I’m American and he knows that’s what we do, I’m not sure why. But he shakes my hand and I shake his and he pats me on the back and I ring the bell and now I’m in Albania, really in Albania—I’ve arrived.


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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