Archive for the 'Sola' Category



Because Love Letters and Get Up From the War: Cambodian Teenagers Report on Gender Inequality

“Gender disparity”

I wrote the phrase in blue felt pen on the dingy white wipe board.

“What does this mean?” I asked, underlining the phrase for emphasis. Because it felt teacherly.

I looked out on a chorus of blank eyes.

Which is not actually what I looked out on, but what I’d like to think I did. Really, it was a chorus of chatter, back-of-the-classroom text messaging, shuffling, soda drinking, and probably only a half dozen eyes actually looking at me, the teacher, in the front of the class in my button-down shirt and skinny pants that haven’t been cleaned since Oakland.

This is teaching in Cambodia.

I haven’t written about it much, since I plan to write (and sell) funny disheartening funny pieces about the whole fiasco that is applying for, interviewing for and teaching in Cambodian schools. It’s a complete and total farce. Given that neighboring countries pay double, you really get the dregs of Western society over here. Reminders at the all-staff meeting for the university where I teach evening classes for high school students included: 1) come to class on time, 2) don’t tell your students dirty jokes, and 3) don’t come smelling like alcohol.

Note: Not “don’t come to school drunk.”

“Don’t come smelling like alcohol.”

Are we beginning to get the picture?

So I teach in this rundown ramshackle-ass classroom with trash in the corners and a door that won’t close all the way, that some industrious student wedges a plastic straw in the doorframe to keep it shut. The majority of class arrive late, play on their phones and cheat on tests—all of which I’d been warned of and told was best not to fight against—it’s a losing battle.

But I can’t get myself to totally not give a shit. Especially cause there’s those five kids that sit up near the front and actually appear to somewhat give a fuck. You know, the kind of kids whose eyes light up a bit, whose voices raise timidly after the dead silence of my glaringly obvious reading comp questions.

And as it turns out, they like to write. Well, they don’t actually like to write, they bitch and moan about it, but the class goes real quiet when I make them write paragraphs and when I read them, they’re grammatical bloodbaths but at least they’re original, ie not copied.

And, as a bonus for me, I make them write about shit in Cambodia, so that I can learn a thing or two. The first assignment was to write about how Cambodians celebrate Chinese New Year (cause they do). One kid wrote: “We burn the ghost money.” And if that’s not a goddamn beautiful line, I don’t know what is.

So tomorrow’s International Women’s Day. It’s a public holiday over in these parts, which baffled the shit out of me last year when I was here. Really? In a country with a fucking 80% domestic violence rate, endemic prostitution, fainting garment-factory employees and expatriated domestic help who live like slaves in neighboring countries?

There’s not a lot of irony going on in this country, so yes, really. But, you know, okay—at least we get a day off, right?

I’m supposed to do these listening exercises with them—I read aloud and check their comprehension. If you think reading comprehension is painful in this country, try listening comprehension. It’s painful stuff, and just to make it more painful (for me), I pick stuff not in their boring-ass American textbook that they can’t relate to (ie: the lesson on the NYC subway, to which I opened by asking, “Who’s been on a train before?” No hands raised. Now how the fuck do you teach that??). Noooo, there I go giving a shit again, and I bring in one of the English-language newspapers and read that shit aloud, stopping every few words to explain terms like “gender disparity.”

The gist of the article is that Cambodia ranks lower than any other country in the Southeast Asian region when it comes to gender equality, as measured by literacy, economic participation and empowerment. Of course, the government is disputing this, because disputing stone-cold facts is something they do.

Which I’m not dumb enough to begin a debate around. It’s in my contract that I can’t teach “controversial” material, which given the aforementioned propensity to deny inconvenient facts pretty much includes anything you’d read in the English-language newspapers. So I’m already pushing the envelope. I mean, this article’s got a quote from the (female) opposition party leader. (Should I be writing this on my blog?) That, and it took fifteen minutes to drag the above summary out of them.

So we focus on access to education, since “the Kingdom’s low ranking could largely be explained by social pressures that push women out of the education system.”

“What’s a ‘social pressure’?” I ask. I write the phrase on the boar beneath “gender disparity.”

More blank looks.

We hash it out, and come up with a good little list. A lot of the expected “a woman’s place is in the home” kind of stuff, but I’m surprised by “girls can’t study at the pagoda.” Boys can become monks and study for free; girls can’t become monks. That hadn’t occurred to me.

But I’m most surprised by how quickly some of them say “because the war.”

I just leave it there, on the board beside a bullet point: “war.”

I know better than to ask.

I point to our list. I inhale, “Now, what you’re going to do—” They groan. They know what’s coming. “—is write a paragraph telling me about why you think girls don’t go to school as much as boys in Cambodia. For those of you that have been listening,” I stare not at the kids who’ve been listening but at the ones in the back, “it’ll be easy.

“Oh, and this is how I’m going to take roll today. So you’d all better write something.”

They shuffle around and pass each other sheets of paper, and pretty soon they’re writing, scribbling, and it’s not quiet in the room, but as quiet as it gets—which is kind of like a jungle-quiet, with a constant buzz of insects and the occasional strange what-the-fuck animal call. (It’s usually a ringtone.)

I should say here that these are patently not the population the article is referring to. These girls are the privileged—they have iPhones and bedazzled purses and platform wedge sandals that remind me of Boogie Nights. They’re pursuing higher education, and their families have the means to send them to what is sadly considered one of the better schools in the city.

But still.

The “social pressure.”

“Pressure’s like a hand pushing on you,” I told them, demonstrating on my arm. “It’s what you feel whens something’s pushing on you.”

After fifteen minutes I collect the papers. We review some vocab and I let them go early, their eyes are so glazed.

I read the papers later, over dinner. Some gems:

“Because Khmer old culture they thought that women can’t go to school because if the women get high education they can write love letter to men and it not good for Khmer culture.”

“They think if the girls go to study, girls can go outside and have boyfriends, that is not the culture in Cambodia.”

“I think Cambodia is the small country that get up from war in 1993 and it’s stay from colonial a lot too. Long time Cambodia have one culture that unfair for girl is the boy can go to study but the girl cannot.”

“Some women in countryside [read: poor people] have low knowledge because the parents didn’t bring them to school. And the schools are far from the house. Some students in Phnom Penh didn’t study because they are allowed the foreiner [sic] tradition.”

“They think if women get high education or not is not important because they will become a housewife and only work in chicken and look after the child.”

“They’re think that if they agree the girl go to study, the girl can meet a lot of boy can write letter love and don’t listen parents advice.”

“Because the girl is 15 year old – 18 year old they alway get marries.” [We’ve reviewed “always” like 800 times, so this especially broke my heart.]

Those were from my more stellar students, most of whom are sit-at-fronters and girls to boot. As you can see, I’ve got my work cut out for me, when it comes to correcting and editing this stuff. Guess that’s what you get for giving a shit and trying to go all Dangerous Minds on these kids.

But strangely, it was the half-assed papers that got to me the most—the ones from the boys in the back of the room, who spent the whole class dicking off and then furiously scribbled shotty sentences, or even bulleted lists (NOT sentences, minus points!).

There’s an almost haiku-like starkness to them:

“We don’t have enough schools for students.
A lot of families are poor.
We just finish the war in 1979.”

“Because:
– don’t have money for them.
– Family don’t have enough money.
– Tranditional.
– War along time in the country
– Girl can help housework.”

“Because parents don’t have money to study. Some women is the countryside have low knowledge because the parents didn’t bring them to school. Cambodia have war.”

Or this one, the worst one, in terms of effort, information and sentence structure:

“Because Cambodia just get up from the war.”

Oh, there’s a sentimental old poet still knocking around inside me.

Screw it, I’ll give him the points for 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]

Vaguely Familiar Dude Reports on Phnom Penh Nightlife

shitty flickr photo, not going all undercover yet...

The pub is dark and grimy and does not smell like meat.

I look up the bar and down the bar. I turn to a red-faced old dude clutching a glass of beer. “Hey, there’s not a roast here, is there?”

He shakes his head long and slow.

It’s Sunday and we’re feeling indulgent—indulgent enough to have just spent two hours at the FCC rooftop, drinking happy hour drinks and staring into the maze of foot traffic on the riverside below, and indulgent enough to top it off with a massive $9 plate of meat and potatoes and veggies and Yorkshire pudding, all drenched in gravy and butter.

There’s Sunday Roasts all over this city, and I’ve been waiting for the week when I was in both the company and the mood for one. Which is tonight—a friend in from Vietnam, with money to burn and time to kill. But I have to remember where the supposed best one is. The Something Pub on Street 17something. Which is not this place.

The old dude takes a deep breath, then unleashes the knowledge: a string of roasts and reviews, both popular and personal, as well as directions to the nearest ones. It’s as though he’s been waiting for someone to ask.

They say that the sexpats are some of the most knowledgeable folks around—for whatever you think of them, they’ve been here the longest and know the city, the culture, the language the best. Whether or not it’s true, this dude is obviously the Roast Master.

He speaks for a few consecutive minutes. He doesn’t make eye contact once.

Which leaves me to survey the scene. I don’t go out much here—there’s not much other than bars and the vibe gets mega-seedy. So I feel like a bit of a voyeur, peeking into the other side: pool tables and bad rock music and men slouched in the corners, along the bar, and thin women—impossibly thin women, with sharp faces and short skirts—moving around them like hungry insects.

I see a dude at the end of the bar. He looks vaguely familiar—some kind of ambiguous Latino, in a Neurosis shirt, pulled-up white socks and black Vans, long metal dreads bound together by another dread, tied on a knot. Not a style the expats rock here—an Oakland breed. I eye him.

When Roast Master finishes his litany, I nod and thank him.

He still doesn’t look up from his beer.

We walk past Vaguely Familiar Dude. “Hey,” I call out, over heads and between shoulders, “you from the Bay?”

Glassy pupils pin at me. “Yeah.”

I nod. “I’ve seen you around. You’re friends with Georgina and Adam.”

A slow, sloppy recognition spills over his face. “Hey! I’ve seen you!”

The truth is, I’ve been seeing him for years—at shows and parties, across crowded rooms, one of those people permanently on the periphery of your life, fixtures of vague features and forgotten names, “the extras in the movie of me,” a friend once called them.

“What brings you here?” I ask. “Just traveling around?”

He nods. “Yeah, man, shit, just traveling. I been in Thailand and Laos, I met this dude—” slaps another guy on the shoulder, who grins bashfully—“at the airport, and we’ve just been cruisin.” He launches into a haphazard travelogue, rattling off an orderless list of places; there’s a slurry undercurrent moving beneath his words, an intonation of long nights and jig-saw days.

It’s like he’s been waiting for someone to ask.

“So, where’s the party at?” he asks me when he’s done.

“Ha!” I let a wry laugh burst out of me. “I’m the last person to ask. I’m grandma in this town.” Really, I’m grandma in every town, but I let it seem like it’s just Phnom Penh.

“You been here a long time or something?”

I shrug. “Well, I live here.”

He gives me a funny look. “You don’t go out none?”

“Not really, it’s…” I trail off. “Well, we gotta grab this roast before it runs out,” I motioned to my friend.

“What’s a roast?”

“It’s a British thing.” I shrug again. “Meat and potatoes.”

“Oh, right on. Well, fuckin cool seeing you.”

“For sure,” I smile. We turn to leave.

I glance back down the bar. Roast Master is a little redder, but still hasn’t moved.

**

We’re walking down the riverside again the next day, plastic bags of produce peeking out of my tote bag and tickling the back of my arm. At one of the restaurants, I see Vaguely Familiar Dude and his friend sitting in a pair of big wicker chairs.

We laugh. “What’s up, what’s up!” I say.

They look dim and yellow and worse for the wear—two pm but my guess is that this is breakfast. “How was your night?”

Vaguely Familiar Dude shakes his head. “Man, what’s up with this city?”

I smile. “What do you mean?”

“It’s like,” he looks back and forth, doesn’t bother to lower his voice, “it’s kinda trippy. Everywhere we went was just gross, man. Like, we’d sit down and bam!—hella girls would be all over us.”

I let another wry laugh come out of me. I’m not sure where it comes from, or what it’s supposed to mean. “Yeah, that’s kinda the jam here.” I don’t bother to lower my voice either.

We’d missed the roast the night before; by the time we arrived at the other pub, they’d sold out and most of the seats were empty. We ordered shepherd’s pies and talked lowly to each other, a wiry guy with blurred tattoos rolling a joint at the bar. We declined when he offered a toke, our friendly smiles mirroring his.

“So, like, everywhere?” Vaguely Familiar Dude asks.

“Kinda.” I tell him about the one spot I like, where a grumpy old Taiwanese dude with arguably the best vinyl collection in the country sits in a corner, plays weird records and scowls at people. “But sometimes there’s girls there too,” I add.

Vaguely Familiar Dude shakes his head. “It’s kinda trippy, man,” he repeats.

I don’t know him. Not really. But I’ve seen him for years, in shitty warehouses in shitty neighborhoods in our shitty hometown, and he doesn’t seem like the type to get skeezed out by nothing.

It was weird to me at first too, I want to say; I wanted to puke whenever I’d see those crispy old sexpats with their arms around skinny waists. But I’ve gotten used to it. It’s not that I don’t see it, but that it’s sunk into the background, become part of the visual noise of the city. I avoid it, but you can’t avoid it, and it doesn’t creep me out anymore. I take their roast recommendations.

But I don’t tell Vaguely Familiar Dude any of this. I’m not sure why. I’m embarrassed, in a funny way—that I’ve let it become normal.

He takes a handful of fries, smears them in ketchup and mashes them in his mouth. “You want one?” he asks from between the mush.

I smile. “Nah, I’m cool.”

A Not Entirely Atypical Tuk-Tuk Ride Home

9pm so I give him a good stare down, check the eyes for red and glaze and drunkenness. I watch the way he walks to the tuk-tuk, parked a few feet away from where we’ve haggled the fare. He walks straight enough to drive straight, so I sigh and start to climb in.

“Ok,” he says, sitting down on the bike, “7000.”

I pause, my foot on step. “No, 6000,” repeating the fare we agreed to.

A grin. “Ok, ok, 6000.”

I sit and he sits. He throws a look back at me.

“You want to smoke weed?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to.”

“You no smoke weed?”

I smile and play it coy, “No, I’m a good girl.”

“Oh. I thought you were mafia.”

“Oh, really?”

“I see your tattoo, I thought you mafia.”

“No,” shake my head, “not mafia.”

He throws his helmet on. He doesn’t clip the chin strap.

We take off and turn the corner and it’s the usual questions: where did I make my tattoos? (USA) Is that where I’m from? (Yes) How many? (I don’t know) How much it cost? (A lot. But it should, it lasts forever.) Do I like them? (which is not a usual question and I smile: Yes.)

“But you no smoke weed?”

“No.”

“You no want to be happy?”

“I’m already happy.”

“But you be more happy.”

“Not if I smoke weed.”

“Oh, you smoke weed before?”

“Long time ago. When I was young. But I’m old now.” (Coy again, and I think how, broken language aside, it’s not so different from conversations I have with backpackers or college kids or, fuck it, my own peers, in bars or at shows—not entirely atypical.)

He speaks pretty good English and he’s driving straight enough and even knows where we’re going, so all things said, he’s a damn good tuk-tuk driver. We move through the pitted streets, slowly settling from their daily buzz—meat smoke thinning, piles of trash waiting for pick-up.

More questions, his eyes in the side mirrors more than on the road: How long will I be in Cambodia? (One year) What do I do for work? (smile: I’m a writer) I live in a guesthouse or apartment? (bigger smile: Guesthouse tonight, but tomorrow I move to an apartment) You live with roommate or alone? (another smile: Alone) Why alone? (I want to) I come live with you? (No) Why? (I want to live alone)

We approach the Orussey Market: lights and umbrellas and neon plastic stools and buses parked and smoke, still plenty of smoke billowing and twisting and rising into the night. I tell him the name of my guesthouse.

“Oh, you stay there alone?”

“Yes.”

“I come stay with you?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want you to.”

“You no like boys?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You like girls?”

“I didn’t say that either.”

We pull up in front, parked motorbikes in the glow of the reception desk, long shadows of security guards sitting listless in plastic chairs. I pull out the bills and step out of the tuk-tuk, hand them to him.

He takes off his helmet. “Goodnight, madam.”

“Goodnight sir.”

“Sleep good.”

“You too.”

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.

An Anti-Social Trip to the Pyramids (In 5 Senses)

Dusty

Feel: Dusty wind on my cheeks, rustling through my hair—a bad place for contact lenses. A watery ouch, blinking madly.

Arms poking at me, fingers tapping—shove a postcard book in my face and flap it around.

Smell: Camel shit, horse shit—a stink, yes, but it’s a healthy, robust stink, blooming in the heat. Think of my dad, leaving the bathroom in the morning: “Ah, that smelled fertile—like it would make shit grow.”

Taste: Dry, thirsty crackle in my throat but too stubborn to buy overpriced bottled water. Linger of packaged jam from breakfast. The mint of my chapstick.

Sound: “Camel ride,” “Postcard, madam,” “Welcome to Egypt!” “Where you from?” “Camel ride, hello!”—haggle-hassle town, a chorus of cries, hungry touts with cracked feet and chipped teeth, sharp limbs and sharper eyes.

I understand the dynamic—I know my place in the global socioeconomic ladder, that I’m a Have, the 1%—or 10%, or whatever—but basically, not a Have Not. I understand that this is the price you pay, along with the admission, and that neither are very much.

But it’s aggravating as hell, which is kinda the point, the technique, if you will—and the best I can do right now is to ignore it, not engage or react, not look or respond. I bust a move from my old teenager bus riding days: wear headphones without the sound on, so I can still hear everything (in case it goes beyond annoying to threatening), but can pretend I don’t.

So I walk like that, then decide—Well, shit, may as well drown this shit out. So I turn to what was playing last—new Ty Segall, which is bad-ass but doesn’t fit the mood, the scene, the monumental, crumbling, cracked-lip ambiance. Stop and do a scroll through. Wait, wait…

Theeeeeere we go.

So I’ve got the drone-moan doom metal in my dome, and I’m mad-dogging it through the place. Touts and hustlers like flies to a light bulb—knock, knock, knock and you can’t get in.

Sight: Well, it’s the Pyramids, the effing Pyramids, and you know what that looks like. And you’ve probably heard that it’s plop in the middle of suburban sprawl, that there’s a shitshow of tour buses and taxis, that there’s a KFC across from the Sphinx, that there’s people everywhere, everywhere—climbing on the stones the signs tell you not to, posing for photos and I see, in a flash, 1000 framed photos on mantles and walls; I see a cacophony of Facebook profile shots and a clutter of newsfeeds; I see cards sent out at various holidays, see digital scrapbooks suffered through by captive relatives.

More Egyptian families than anything else, but the groups of teenage boys are second. They climb up the stone and flash smiles and hand gestures and gather around the viewfinder and nod in approval. They shout shit at me as I pass, but I’m like, “I can’t hear yyyyyyou”—even though secretly I can and (less secretly) they know I can.

But it’s the charade of the day, the game we play. I turn my headphones up louder.

Sight: Figure approaching, black clothes against the yellow dust. Alone, wearing headphones.

Feel: That I’m looking at some parallel version of myself, the Egyptian dude version. I can tell by his new clothes that he isn’t gonna try to sell me anything; can tell by his straight walk and forward gaze that he isn’t gonna hassle me, that he can’t be bothered to hassle a random Western girl.

Sound: “Funeralopooooooolis / Planet of the dead”

Smell: Dust in my nose.

Taste: Dust in my teeth.

Feel us approach each other like tangential lines, tangential lives, intersecting for one moment, then diverging into the big blank desert.

I give him the “yoyo, what’s up” nod.

He returns it without a smile.

Feel him walk away, disappear behind me and out of my sight.

He was cute, I realize. Goddammit—the one cute dude I’d want to talk to in this place.

I blink the dust from my contacts and keep walking

A Surf Board, A Cigarette and An Invitation to South Africa: Another Strange Exchange With Italian Men

Someone else's surf board, packed up...

Only 2 hours left to kill at the Fiumicino airport, where I’ve been sitting since 10am, waiting for my flight to Cairo—expensive Wifi day pass and four shots of espresso, getting my panini fix on.

They say you can’t tell anything about a place by its airport, but I say fuck that—two weeks in Albania, and the Rome airport feels exciting! diverse! worldly! Overweight American tourists! The Moldovan soccer team! A family of African royalty! I realize I haven’t seen any black people in two weeks, and only 1.5 Asians. I’ve barely seen any real denim or leather for that matter, and all the luxurious curly manes and hip lil mohawks make me giggle.

So I walk around making my mental list of goodbyes to the Western world: goodbye hipsters, goodbye tailored suits, goodbye potable tap water, goodbye cute boy across the cafe I keep making eyes at but am too chicken-shit realistic chicken-shit to talk to.

Heave my way through check-in, 18 kilos lighter and I step outside for a bit of fresh air cigarette. Dude’s standing there, big ole bag and a surfboard. Taking a picture with his iPhone. Smile and make the universal hand gesture for—“You want me to take a picture of you?”

He smiles back. “No, no, I just take a picture for my friend.” Smiles again. “Where you are from?”

California, which he approves of, because of the good waves, big waves. Yes, but cold, I say. Cold in Italy too. Where am I going? Cairo for a few days. And then? South Africa?

“No, close.” I smile, laugh. “Well, not close at all. Cambodia.”

“Cambodia?”

“Near Thailand.”

Blank look and a quick geography lesson, and the light flashes in his eyes. “Ah, Cambogia!” Scrutinizing squint: “But you are alone?” I nod. “No family, no boyfriend—“there, he said it—“Why?”

I shrug, laugh: “Who’s gonna come to Cambodia with me?”

“Me!”

And I laugh harder. “Oh yeah?”

“Yes, but first, South Africa.” He goes there twice a year, can’t stand the cold of an Italian winter—he’ll go for a month, come back for Christmas, head down there again. He’ll surf and live on the beach and I’m sure, I can tell by the lines in his face, not wear sunscreen.

“You like, you can come,” he suggests. I laugh again. I think he likes it.

Where have I been in Italy? Did I like it? Why didn’t I go to the Amalfi Coast—that’s where he’s from, he could have shown me around.

“I didn’t know you,” I smile, reminding him of the obvious.

He nods at the gray day, misting and cool. He hates the cold. I nod at the surfboard, “I can tell.”

Sleep-deprivation hunger blur gives a kick and I need one more espresso—just one more espresso—before the flight. That and he’s right—it’s cold, and what at first felt good now just feels… cold.

So I nod, say some kind of noncommittal goodbye, go to turn away. “Wait!” he calls out.

He opens his wallet, pulls out a card. “I am Lucio,” points to the name on the card, “That’s me. Next time you come to Italy, we go to Amalfi Coast, I show you my town, you meet my family.”

I smile, nod, put the card in my back pocket. “All right Lucio. I’ll be seeing you.”

Cause we all can dream, right?

Three Odd Interactions With The Men of Gjirokastra

1. Stone/dirt path scramble, muddy Converse and I’m chasing rubble: mad crumbled buildings in this town, falling like trash down the mountainside, and the urban explorer/trespasser in me can’t get enough.

Guy sitting on his stoop—track suit and cheap sunglasses, smoking what smells like weed. Give him a nod, which I can’t tell if he returns.

He watches me as I tromp past, up the hill and he whistles—makes a time-out signal with his hands, which I take to mean, “Don’t go traipsing on my fucking property, girl.” But he does it with a smile, so I smile back, and when I walk past again he says, “You speak Deutsch, American?”

“American.”

He nods. “Nice castle,” and juts his chin towards the stone mass in the distance.

“Very nice,” I reply.

He gestures whatever he’s smoking towards me. I shake my head no. “Have a good day.”

“Goodbye.”

2. Cobbled road in the old town, forty-five degree angle and I’m taking it slow. Pass an old dude I saw down in the new town—has one of the most intense shoe-polish toupees I’ve ever seen, hanging over his forehead like a black awning. I recognize him and he recognizes me—our eyes meet and I smile, nod.

He smiles and asks me something in Albanian.

I shake my head.

He sighs. “Deutsch, Italiana…”

“Ah, ah,” I answer, understanding. “American.”

“Detroit?”

“San Francisco.”

He nods and throws a barrage of Albanian at me. I shake my head again.

He points to his ring finger, then me.

I laugh, wave my hands no.

A woman appears at the window of the meat market we’re standing in front of, her face obscured by the glare on the glass. Our eyes meet and I smile.

3. “Can I sit down?”

I’m scrounging the last sunlight of the day, before it slips behind that mountain and casts everything in a funny pink glow. I look up from my book and nod.

His name is George, he served me my espresso in the sinking light—he asks me where I’m from and if I have friends in Gjirokastra.

“No. But I’ve only been here one day.”

He asks me if I have a mother and father back in the States, brothers and sisters—he asks me if I have a job, and I say no, and he asks why, and I say I quit. I tell him I’m a writer. I don’t think he understands.

“Why you are alone?”

I give him the usual answer: that my friends either don’t have time or don’t have money, so I travel alone. I give this answer regardless of language barriers, because the real answer is harder to explain. Most of time, I don’t think I know the real answer.

We try to chat, but it’s awkward and fails, and then the light is gone. So I smile and nod at my empty espresso cup and ask how much. He shakes his head. “Nothing. Now,” big broken smile, “you have a friend in Gjirokastra,” and points his thumb to his chest.

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.

Join 3,718 other followers

Tweet this Sh%t

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Buy This Sh#t

Categories