Archive for the 'Sola' Category



Pizza and Love in Milan: Le Grand Fooding Milano 2011

The way to a man’s Italian’s French hipster’s anyone’s heart is through food. Especially pizza.

This is the main lesson I came away with from a weekend spent at Le Grand Fooding Milano. The others included: Italians don’t know what aioli is; there’s really no such thing as “Italian” food, and Northern Italians are shocked and somewhat scandalized by white pizza; Nespresso isn’t bad; there is perhaps no one more effortlessly chic and hip and fucking nice as a French foodie; as such, I will never be a Le Fooding girl; and it’s pretty easy to crash a food festival (and sneak into a Sheraton) as long as you work hard and smile a lot. And know the right people.

I spent the last weekend in Milan, at a three-day food event put on by the French culinary guide/movement/cultural phenomenon Le Fooding. While not terribly well-known in the States, they’ve been around 10 years in France, stirring shit up and throwing parties and breaking rules and basically being the anti-Michelin Guide.

The theme of Milan’s festival was international chefs cooking Italian food versus Italian chefs cooking Italian food, and, being one of the better-known Neapolitan-style pizza restaurants in the US, Pizzaiolo (where I waited tables for the past year and a half) was invited to attend. My co-workers/chefs Jed Cote and Jason Loeb were flown across the globe, put up in a Sheraton, given a pizza oven and prep kitchen and about 100kg of squid, and sent to represent us.

And, since I was in Italy, I decided, you know, what the fuck—I’m going too.

So I showed up with my backpack and messenger bag and hoodie and crashed the party.

Represent!

Well, it wasn’t crashing exactly. We just figured that if I showed up to the San Pelegrino prep kitchen with Jason and Jed in the morning, hung out and sliced tomatoes and picked herbs and shit, and if I rolled with them to the event, just acted like I was supposed to be there, you know, that it’d all work out.

And it did, and it’s a good thing it did, cause it turned out to be one of those races to the finish, getting the pizza dough right, and cutting the squid, and plating and serving all the slices at the party. More than just a freeloader, I ended up being really useful. And having a rocking good time.

In all its glory

We were there making one of our signature pies (and one of my favorites)—a squid, cherry tomato and aioli pizza. Simple, makes the most of our Northern Cali goodness—abundant, sustainable squid supplies, bomb cherry tomatoes in the summer. We were contracted to pump out 50 pizzas, enough to feed the 300 guests each night, in the hour and a half before they went into the dining room for the seated dinner featuring four dishes from four different chefs.

Hella squid

We spent the mornings prepping, and one of the things I wasn’t expecting was how different the ingredients and facilities would be. Of course, the very premise of the event brings up issues of authenticity, of what happens to a cuisine when you take it from its home and drag it across the planet like… a spaghetti noodle (thus the name). But I didn’t anticipate how the location change would affect our own pizza. Jed and Jason brought their own yeast and used the same OO flour we use at the restaurant, but the squid was larger in Milan, and the tomatoes were more like small Romas instead of Sungolds and Sweet 100s, and less acidic and sweet. We also had a smaller mixer that required 4 batches to make our usual one; we also transported the dough to the event in a trash bag (classy). The pie didn’t end up tasting exactly how it does at home, and I guess that’s part of the point—that locality is crucial, defining, and that when foods travel, they change.

Trash bag dough!

At the event space, which took “industrial chic” to new levels, I hung out while the boys got the fire cranking and set up. It was some truly awesome people-watching. All the Le Fooding people were young and impossibly chic in that particularly Parisian way, cardigans and scarves (the boys) and little boots and tights and drape-y tops (girls), and a look we dubbed “the urban equestrian.” In my younger, less settled incarnations, I would have spent the time comparing myself to them and ultimately feeling shitty about myself. But now it was just comical—“Do we even grow girls like that in North America?” I asked my friends, and they shook their heads so fact I thought they might fall off.

Le Fooding girls

It was kinda like the squid and the tomatoes.

There were also tons of Italian crew setting up, working on the lights and such—they were less chic, more working class, in their cargo pants. Then there were the security guards and the phalanx of confused-looking 18-year-old assistant cooks/mignonnes, and the caterers—and everyone chain-smoking, chain-smoking, like it was their job. (One of the girls at the arancini stand was smoking while she set up the deep fryer…)

The people attending the event were a different breed—mostly middle-class, middle-aged Italians, with a sprinkling of hip folks and a whole slew of media. While the boys cooked, I plated slices, and talked to folks.

“Pizza di Oakland,” I heard people mutter.

“Pizza di Aukland?”

“No, America. Near to San Francisco.”

“Ah, pizza di Oakland! This is how you do pizza in California?”

“Well, this is how we do pizza.” And a wink and smile.

But the real test was the reception, which we seemed to win. People were only supposed to get one slice, but, as per our stuff-everyone philosophy, we’d prepped enough for 20 or so extra pies. So I got the catch people’s eyes as they tentatively looked over, tried not to hover, and I got to smile and motion for them to eat another. And another. Kill em with kindness, but also with food.

At 8:30, the Le Fooding kids ran a little bell and herded everyone into the dining room. Which is when the real fun started. Technically, we were done. But while the important chefs scurried around with their mignonnes, plating 300 dishes, and a crew of young caterers lined up, wearing all black with fucking headlamps on, like it were a Vegas show—we got to do what we love best, which is love on people.

It’s part of the whole Pizzaiolo philosophy (and the reason I loved working their so much)—to love the shit out of people, through food. So we started cranking out the pies. First some of our neighbors: the arancini girls and the Mumm champagne kids, and the guys at the next pizza oven, from Pizza East in London. Then a couple for the security guards and the people working the front door. How about the two gender-ambiguous Filipino cleaners? Of course! The endlessly hungry-eyed mignonnes—sure! Hey you, founder and director of this big-deal culinary movement—you get enough squid? How bout you, firefighter? You cold, Pelegrino girl?—come huddle by the pizza oven for a few minutes.

Cause that’s what it’s really all about, right? That’s why we call it breaking bread, why we mark important events by gathering for meals, why every fucking culture in the world comes together for food. It’s about love and building relationships and making friends, not cause it’s gonna get you something or somewhere or even a reciprocal drink/dish/whatever, but because that’s what we do—that’s what cooks get into the business to do, and what I, it turns out, love most about the industry: the simple act of feeding people.

And that’s what I think, after three days, that Le Fooding is all about to. I’d scoured the internet for English-language articles about them, and the main thing I’d read from the big American food critics is that they didn’t understand what Le Fooding wanted, or what they were trying to do (reminds you of Occupy Wall Street a bit, huh?). But after the weekend, after seeing how intensely we broed down and how food enabled all that, became a kind of edible language, when real language failed—it’s not that hard for me to understand what they want. They want that: love.

By the third day, we knew everyone—everyone stopping by to say hello or waving as they passed—and we partied late into the night on Saturday, dancing and smoking and exchanging hugs and email addresses. And it came out, you know, that I wasn’t a chef and that I’d just kinda showed up, but there was so much love no one gave a shit—they gave me those French double cheek kisses and wished me well in Cambodia.

And it’s a shame to be leaving the restaurant industry after such a weekend. But, as Jed said, “Way to go out on top.”

And with a lot of fucking love. And a belly full of pizza, which I’ll miss almost as much as the love.

Loved these two!

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

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

So, sometimes, success can be yours.

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

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

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

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

And the room rates drop like mad.

So really, what more could a cheapskate blogger want?

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

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

Proof I was there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled. “Yes, I’m alone today.”

Rome, Like a Cannon Shot (Bella, You Must Be New At This)

I come into Rome like something shot out of a cannon—hair blown and thirsty, sweating in the thick denim and long layers I had to wear cause they wouldn’t fit in my backpack.

It started with the fact that my flight was 2 hours delayed. Which really started with the fact that I’d gotten about 7 hours of sleep in the 2 days prior; that I’d stood on a rush-hour E train all the way to the airport, all 60 fucking pounds of luggage draped around me so that my right fingers went numb holding on to the metal railing; with the fact that I actually nodded out a little bit at the terminal, all the eager/antsy middle-aged tourists in their neck pillows and compress socks buzzing around in anticipation of when the plane would actually arrive.

Couldn’t really sleep on the red-eye, which is rare for me—it was more freezing-cold than usual and since I’ve decided to bring half my closet with me, I didn’t have room for an extra blanket, which you really only need on flights and trains and buses anyway. But when you need it, fuck, you need it.

So I land with, what now?, 12 hours of sleep in a 3 day period? Doesn’t really matter anymore. Part of the trick of not ever really getting jetlag is that flying makes me so wonky, I’m out of it anyway, so I can rally and stay up for hours, or I can crash immediately. Or I can blaze bleary-eyed through a gleaming-stone ancient city and make all those novice traveler mistakes I like to think I’ve outgrown.

Get waved through immigration with barely a glance at my passport. This happens to me sometimes, when entering the EU, which is supposed to be all tripped out on the xenophobia tip, but I guess that only applies if you’re not white American. There isn’t even a long line—homeboy just glances at my picture (which doesn’t even look like me anymore, people tell me), his fingers barely grazing it, before pushing it back through the window, flicking his wrist and dismissing me. So, okay, that means I can stay forever, right?

But I’ve done this trek from Fiumicino to Termini enough times that I could kinda switch into automatic mode: the escalator down and the escalator up; the kiosk you don’t buy the train ticket at; the kiosk you do; the counter you get espresso at (not cause you need it, just to kill the time and get your heart racing more than it already is); the place where you validate your ticket; the number of machines you have to try before you find one that actually validates the ticket (usually 3); waiting waaaaay down the platform so that you’re away from the herd and can actually get a seat; how when you get to Termini you have to walk for like a mile down this loooong platform, how the station looks like a mirage in a desert down there, how when you finally reach it it isn’t an oasis at all but swarmed with rolling luggage and hustlers and pay phones that don’t work. Welcome to Rome, motherfucker.

I’m looking for the Laziali Tram—my fourth time in Rome and I’ve finally decided to fuck hostels near Termini, not even worth it. I did some research and found an affordable B&B outside of center, near Pigneto, which is where I want to stay anyway. So I walk down to the streetcars, which all look vintage and chic and rattly, like an old train model—I see the 5 and 14, which I suddenly remember are the trams that take you to Pigneto—where the hell that knowledge lay tucked in the bleary recesses of my brain, I don’t know.

But neither of them say “Laziali,” so shit, gotta keep looking. So I ask the dude sitting on the bench next to me, so I ask the tram driver, so I decide fuck it and try to go find a payphone to call dude at the B&B and ask him for better directions than the ones I scribbled for myself while waiting at the airport terminal. Phone steals 3 Euros and yells a series of tones in my ear—no luck. A cab maybe? They all look dicey.

Which is when I note to myself that I feel lighter, less encumbered. Which is when I notice that one of my bags is not with me—the one with my new laptop and my thyroid medication and fuck you, my makeup and cheap jewelry—important shit.

Ugh—that sudden razor of fear that cuts through your gut, laser of panic and you feel it radiate, shock you into focus. Dash back to the payphones—not there. Remember, as I lumber across the street as fast as I can, that I haven’t bought travel insurance yet—why?

But miracles of fucking miracles, my stuffed messenger bag is still sitting on the tram stop bench. The dude I asked for directions smiles sadly and shakes his head, as if to say: “Bella, you must be new at this.”

I gush a million thank yous, he tells me how lucky I am, especially in Rome, and I say, “Hell, in anywhere,” and I feel like a tired dog that’s gotten kicked in the ribs, like an old TV, shocked out of my static—I feel alive again.

“I watch your bag for you,” a squat man with an Indian/British accents tells me. “I ask everyone, ‘Is this your bag?'” Shakes his head. I gush a few more thank yous in his direction.

He asks me where I’m going, and he shakes his head again and points over to a bus parked across the street. “I’m going there too, come with me,” and shit, it’s not like I’m not gonna go with him—he coulda swiped all my stuff and he didn’t, so he can’t be half bad.

He walks with his chest kind of puffed out, has a sweater draped around his shoulders, sleeves tied sloppily or jauntily, I can’t decide—maybe both. He like to play the big shot, I can tell, I’m the man that knows this place, and it strikes me as a kind of pauper’s authority—but he’s obviously got a good heart beneath it.

He seems pleased that I know how to validate my ticket when I get on the bus (cause actually, I’m not new at this, I’m just a wreck). He asks me what country I’m from, tells me about his brother in Boston, how he wants to go to Boston—the usual immigrant conversation. He asks me if it’s my first time in Rome and I sigh and shake my head, “No, but you’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

I leave myself at his mercy, cause why not? My brain is bleary as fuck and I haven’t eaten and I’ve barely slept and he seems to take a kind of pleasure in leading me, in asking every Indian street peddler when we get off the bus where Via Capua is (even though I kinda know where it is), and I wait until the sign is right in front of us to point and say, “Look!”

And he walks me to the door of the B&B, which is locked because I’m about 3 hours later than I thought I’d be, and dude offers to wait with me, but I tell him “No, it’s cool.” And I thank him again and shake his hand and he wants to write me if he ever goes to the US, and I tell him I’m not going back for a long time. And he nods and gives me a different look—maybe he’s decided that I’m not new at this, I don’t know—and then he waves and walks back down the street, that puffed up chest leading the way.

Cities Like Boys: Vela and the New York Edition

So I’m a little late on this, but am stoked to tell y’all about a brand new venture I’m a part of: Vela.

The brainchild of ever-the-bad-ass Sarah Menkedick, Vela is a website that features the travel-related writing of six women. The site is a venue for women to write like women, and to define whatever that means ourselves—not to have to write in opposition to or in the style of the male-dominated publishing industry, just to do our own thing. “Written by Women”—check out Sarah’s spot-on manifesto for further thoughts.

I was beyond honored to be asked to be a part of the project. I’ve followed Sarah’s work for awhile, and she was the editor for my Glimpse project, so I was down to ride along with whatever she was scheming up. But the other ladies involved are just as awesome. Makes me wish we could have a meet-up or something, an anti-Sex-In-The-City lady date (no cosmos).

So the plan is that we publish one piece a week. This week was my turn. In “Cities Like Boys” I further the theme I touched upon in a blog post I wrote a few months back—how more and more, I relate to cities like people. In this piece, I focused on four cities that I feel like I’ve had relationships with. I made them boys, cause it was more fun that way.

So, furthering the theme (you can really get on a roll with this exercise), here’s a little epilogue—the New York edition:

JR eyes

You know, they say two things about New York—that he’s dangerous and that he’s rude. I’ve never found either to be true.

He’s a bit brusk, for sure—not all nicey-nice, and busy, always moving, defenses and filters and solid glass gleaming, to keep all the crazy out. But New York’s always been friendly with me, always eyed me kinda curiously—“You’re a different breed than we got out here”—the 21-year-old working student who hadn’t taken a vacation in four years; the vegan traveling with her brother, bleeding money; the girlfriend sleeping on the floor in Brooklyn, an apartment that shook like an earthquake when the subway rolled by; the 26-year-old couchsurfing with her best friend, a couple tattooed freaks. Toss in 2 day-long lay-overs, and New York’s seen me grow up in a way other cities hasn’t—the evolution of a traveler.

This time I came without maps or a guidebook or an itinerary, just left myself to the mercy of New York, and what that says about me now, I’m not sure.

But we’ve always been cool. And he’s got a sort of charm, you know, in all that toughness—the accent and the slang and the shit-talking and the posture—almost a kind of character he plays: the New York Guy.

And I’ve always been kinda enamored with it—a type of working-class macho we just don’t do on the West Coast. But it wasn’t until this time, this trip—curled up in the dim, light-shaft, perpetual-dusk of New York’s heart, an air mattress and the cling of old weed smoke—that I feel like I finally understood it.

It’s like a kind of persona he assumes—not an act, per se, but a version of himself he likes to present. And he turns it, not off and on (because it’s never all the way gone), but up and down, like a light dimmer, and I watched New York do that—on the street, in the subway, when some drunk bridge-and-tunnel guy was being a dick at 4am in the East Village—almost a type of defense: the New York Guy.

And it’s charming as shit. And I can’t help but laugh, and the Duane Reade clerks say, “Keep her smiling,” and New York says, “Yo, that’s that Cali smile”—and if New York were any other city, he’d say it with a wink. But he doesn’t.

Hey, it's a crappy iPhone 3 photo, don't judge

But then there’s this other side, that in all the previous trips I guess I’d only glimpsed. We took the train out to Roosevelt Island one night, broke into an abandoned small pox hospital, tromped through the dirt and gravel of a sleeping construction site towards the water, Manhattan like a glittering snow globe—a layer of glass and you can never quite touch it. It was still, and neither me or New York said a word for a moment. And then New York said, “Yo, this is like the Mercedes of trespassing,” and you both laughed. Then we rode the cable car back—up, up, beneath the belly of the bridge, steel wires quivering, and I thought how glad I was New York doesn’t get earthquakes.

And on the last night I curled up beside New York—started talking about my move and my project and without really meaning to, told New York about that gnarly shit that came up in Phnom Penh, that I’ve been too busy to think about the last few months but that I’ve felt sitting, waiting, watching, on the periphery of me.

And New York got real quiet, and it was only like a half hour later that New York said, “Yeah, I’ve got my own shit. And I think about it all the time.” I didn’t ask what that was—just listened and watched that other side, the one beneath the persona, unfold and open up—it all quivering under the veneer of “New York” like cable wires. I felt a monumental tenderness welling up in me, but it was a sad tenderness, because New York is something I could never quite touch, not then or now—not in 1 night or 5 days or 5 trips or nothing.

Because New York will ravage you. You’ll run with New York and pretend like you’re 22. You’ll eat dollar pizza and falafel and bagels, and you’ll drink 100 cups of battery-acid deli coffee. You’ll stay up till 4am, and when you wake you won’t be able to tell what time it is in the perpetual dusk. You’ll smoke on 7th-story fire escapes, and sneak up to Soho rooftops, and you’ll crunch through sidewalks of drunken miniskirts and food trucks, and you’ll be exhausted when you’re done—because you’re not 22, and you can feel the first chill of age rushing through you, an October breeze, and you’ll know that, won’t be able to forget that, even in all the fun and charm and “Yo, word?” of it—you’ll keep thinking of that song you listened to all goddamn summer: “You wanna get young but you’re just getting older.” And even New York can’t make you forget that. Or maybe he makes you think of it more.

But you can pretend for 5 days. And on the last day, the morning you leave, you’ll put on yesterday’s clothes and walk for coffee. You and New York will stand amid the trees, in front of a university neither one of you could afford, and you’ll give New York the biggest fucking hug you can; you’ll say thank you and you’ll mean it, fuck you’ll mean it.

And then you’ll flash that Cali smile, say something noncommittal, and you’ll walk away without looking. Because when you leave New York, it’s always best not to look.

Notes on a Visit to Occupy Wall Street

Here’s something really New York for you: the people most excited about Occupy Wall Street aren’t in New York.

Again and again, the conversation went like this:

“Yo, you been down to that Wall Street shit?” (I don’t really talk like that, I’m just pretending.)

“No. I’ve been meaning to.” Or: “I went past once.” Or even: “Aw, I heard about that. What’s it all about?”

It seems like the rest of the country is stoked, excited, curious, enlivened—reposting photos and quips and words of encouragement, a newsfeed cluttered with that shit. But here in New York, it seems to have fallen into the static of the city—one more thing to negotiate, maneuver around, one more cultural phenomenon in a city of never-ending, never-sleeping cultural phenomena.

But I’m not a New Yorker, so I had to go down there. Check it out, see it for myself.

It was busy and crowded and loud at Zuccotti Park, in the shadow of the new World Trade Center—but not that much more than a normal street, at least not for how much virtual buzz I’d been hearing.

The park was surrounded by people stoically holding signs, standing still for the passerbys and the cameras and the statement it all made. It was a pretty even split between the protesters and passerbys—a mix of locals and tourists, curious expressions and viewfinders, everyone stopping to read signs and snap photos. I even saw a few Asian tourists posing for photos with the protesters.

I moved around the periphery, then headed into the center of the square. The encampments had been cut with makeshift streets, pathways where people buzzed around. An internet station and a free kitchen had been set up (dispensing, of course, pizza). Tables with leaflets and fliers stood before volunteers who answered questions and otherwise engaged with folks passing by.

Amidst the revolutionary fervor, there was also a distinct, well, Telegraph Avenue vibe. For those not from the Bay, this basically means young gutterpunky white kids with backdreads, bandanas, and a herd of mangy sniffing dogs, most often seen clumped together with sleeping bags, spare-changing. I think these were the kids critics were referring to when they critiqued the movement as being all unemployed, dirty hippie kids.

Or that they were entitled middle-class kids. To be fair, there was a decent mix of people. (“I haven’t been arrested for civil disobedience in 35 years!” I heard one man gleefully exclaim.) But the majority of the protesters appeared to fall into that category, at least to me. Which makes sense. I mean, who was it that started the Vietnam War protests? Who was it that was out there marching for women’s suffrage? Educated, middle-class young people with the leisure time to protest are usually the group with which change starts.

And yes—there yoga mats and Tibetan prayer flags and a band that included a bango and a stand-up bass. So there was a lot one could get snarky about. And I did decide that it was no coincidence that Occupy Wall Street cropped up a week or so after Burning Man.

But, really, that stuff aside, it struck me as really cool that people were out there, actually talking. Apathy is the poison of the MTV generation, my generation, so even if there isn’t a totally clear agenda or consensus on why they’re even there, it’s a start, and I guess that’s the most important part.

But more than the protesters themselves, it was cool to see the passerbys. People lingered, read signs, made comments, engaged. Which is so incredibly rare to see in this country. Occupy Wall Street was inspired by the events of Tahrir Square, but I also couldn’t help but think about recent protests in Chile or Israel (didn’t hear much about those, did you?). Somewhere along the line, we Americans have learned not to protest, and when we do, the backlash is incredible. Just look at the media reaction to the protests.

So the fact that there were people out there, who wandered down just to check it out, was really exciting. Sure there were frustratingly ill-informed debates going on, but shit, at least people were talking—as if every person that came by would take a little piece of something with them, a thought or impression or just the idea that we could try to do something a little different.

Because that’s the thing about New York—even if the majority of the city doesn’t make it down to Occupy Wall Street, even if it gets lost in the frenetic buzz of life there, of sidewalks and subway cars and trying to keep your fucking head above water—even if it’s just a small percentage that comes by, that small percentage ends up still being a pretty decent size. And it’s still there, and it’s still doing something, changing something, if only the way we think. And it’s a start.

This dude: most definitely not an entitled college student

The Keeper, Yuba River Character Study

Didn't take a picture of The Keeper. Though he apparently doesn't mind. So here's a Flickr photo instead

He stood like a masthead on the wooden deck and yowled at the river.

His shirt flapped open in the breeze. The stomach was hard, muscles like little knots and skin tough as old leather. Cargo pants and sandals, not-quite-Birkenstocks. Eyes as spooky-clear and sharp as the river water, blazing from behind a scraggle of hair: shoulder-length gray and a light-socket beard that seemed reminiscent of those old miner photos, made you wonder if he wasn’t the descendant of some wayward band of them, a man born into the wrong era, or the last living vestige of an era that’s dying, been dying, might already be dead.

“He’s a dyin bread, for sure,” Alicia said as we tromped over the dirt path, stepping sideways so our worn old sneakers wouldn’t skid us into patches of poison oak. “Like a real-life troll gate keeper.”

Backpacks and coolers and limp plastic flotation devices—we were rolling 22-deep, a smattering of tattoos and a trail of cigarette smoke rode up from Oakland for an annual camping trip.

I could glimpse the river from the path: slick green between these flat, broad boulders, like a long line of really crooked molars. It was hot—Northern California hot, which isn’t really that hot—and each spot I saw along that Yuba River looked perfect, picturesque, a postcard of Sierra-Foothills pristine.

“The best spot is further down,” Chummy called back. “But we gotta to pay The Keeper.” And he smiled at the joke and people called out “Keeee-per” and we laughed.

“It’s the OG dude,” they’d explained, “that’s got one of the best swimming spots on the river on his property. There’s a fence and shit, a sign telling you you’re on private property, but you keep walking down and you get to this shack he built down there, where he lives and is always kinda hanging out. And you give him a couple beers or some weed or something, and listen to him talk for awhile, and he lets you pass.”

“I once took a photo of him,” Matt had said, “that I was gonna mail him, to some PO Box he’s got somewhere. I never did,” shrugged, “but he wrote the address down on one of those discharge papers they give you in jail—you know, we’re they’ve written down everything you have in your pockets and shit. It was all like: ‘$1.17 in change, a bus ticket, a pint of gin…’ Homeboy’d just gotten out of the drunk tank like the night before.”

“That guy is cool as shit,” Moe’d added, grinning. “The Keeper.”

And we tromped and skidded down, and sure enough: a wooden shack and the sharp glare off a tin roof and a gang of chickens clucking and a grizzlied old man standing in a semi-squat hollering at it all.

It seemed like a continuous stream of somewhat-intelligible drunk babble that we’d happened to walk in on—I could imagine him going on and on, with or without an audience, talking to himself and the chickens and the rocks and the river that didn’t ever stop flowing either.

“See that there,” pointed to a little fenced-in patch of green, “I call that My Feeble Attempt To Grow Something,” and yowled in laughter. A rooster yodeled back, as though in response. “Here you can hear the roosters crow all day long, yep. I been here, watching this tryin to grow—” pointed at the green again “—and haven’t left in damn near three weeks. Just had some people passin through to give me a few beers and some LSD from time to time and that’s all I need to live, you know what I’m sayin?”

Sadie opened her bag and handed him a few cold beers.

“Well alright, alright,” The Keeper said, nodding. “You are officially no longer tourists, you are guests, welcome. The only rules are that you bring back your cans and that you remember to come back, cause—” a pause here “—if you didn’t, it’d break my heart.”

“Yessir!”

“Keep coming back, it works!” The Keeper called out and laughed as we shuffled by. “And be careful on the rocks, watch your step—these are the most difficult steps you might take. Twelve steps, my own twelve steps,” and howled again in laughter, a not-quite-crazy kind of laughter that got swallowed by the rocks and the river and passing of the river, as we marched on to our swimming spot.

Going Native: The Anti-Irony of Khmer Glamour Photos

I sat once in a cafe in Tangier, Morocco. Some famous man-filled cafe where Western writers used to pen masterpieces, or cruise for ass, or trip out on then-exotic drugs, or most likely some combination of the three. It was popular with tourists—in the way that that Hemingway bar in Havana is popular—and with well-heeled locals. I was the only female, Western or otherwise, in the joint.

I watched as a man strode in—large, burly, brusque. He may or may not have had a white beard—I remember something about white hair, though his head was most definitely adorned with some scarf. He had that expat look of permanent sunburn and wizened self-satisfaction; he wore a long, flowing robe of ethnic print and carried a thick wooden staff. Two younger men, one with a notebook, another with a video camera and a microphone, followed as he walked purposefully over to what I assumed to be his regular table.

He leaned back in a posture of pontification, began what I imagined to be a long soliloquy, in French, on Moroccan culture and the changes therein over the last decades, as observed by his keen eye. The guy with the notebook nodded and scribbled. I watched the camera man look around at all the Moroccans in the cafe, wearing t-shirts and jeans, then back over at the burly old dude before his camera, his attire some approximation of those sepia-hued photographs old explorers and anthropologists took, that are now sold as postcards.

Our eyes met briefly. I smiled; the camera man looked embarrassed. I chuckled, imagined we were having the same thought:

My God—he’s gone native.

There are few things funnier to me than people taking themselves too seriously. Travelers/expats who over-identify with their adoptive countries provide endless amusement while on the road. So when I saw the pointed fingers and fake-gold-gleam of Khmer glamour photos, I knew it had to do it—my own chance to Go Native, as it were.

To clarify, this isn’t some chintzy gimmick produced for tourists; this is a Cambodian—nay, Southeast Asian—phenomenon. People dress up, get a pound of foundation and fake eyelashes slapped on, squeeze into gaudy garb and let themselves be molded into ridiculous poses, to be later Photoshopped several skin tones lighter and superimposed in front of illustrious sights like Angkor Wat, or the parlor of a well-to-do person’s house (a fireplace and Persian carpet are key). People do it for their wedding, for their coming-of-age, as family photos—it’s not uncommon to see a large framed print hanging in someone’s home.

It is, in short, the Khmer version of cheesy K-Mart photos. It’s is legit, authentic inauthenticity.

I hadn’t noticed the photography studios sprinkled around town until someone pointed them out. The sun-bleached signs of smiling couples, the window displays of sequined gowns—they’d faded into the visual static of Phnom Penh storefronts. Until I decided to get my own.

Khmer glamour photos are something of a rite of passage for Phnom Penh expats, especially the females. So I rounded up a posse, walked into the first decent-looking studio we passed on Monivong, and made an appointment to be turned into an Apsara princess.

At two o’clock on a sweltering Sunday, five of us clamored up the back stairs of a photography studio to the dressing room. It looked like the backstage of an Asian cabaret, make-up and sequins and traditional costumes stacked to the rafters.

There was only one girl doing hair and make-up; at about thirty minutes each, we ended up being there for a loooong time. My friends chose the $10, more modestly ridiculous options; I opted for the $15 Apsara extraordinaire, which included more fanciful skirt folds, extra fake-gold bangles, even a wig. Behold the transformation:

I'd never worn fake eyelashes before.

Looking sufficiently like a drag queen.

Through the mirror

Fancy folds

I went to Cambodia and all I got was this mullet

Lock and load.

A couple days later, I went back to the studio to pick up my prints—three prints were included in the $15 price. I thought of the dude I’d seen, years ago, in the cafe in Tangier. The difference, I decided, was humor. And self-awareness: I was doing it as a joke, a statement on the ridiculousness of myself in the Khmer cultural context and how I, at 5’10” and a riddling of tattoos, will never, ever blend in with or a be a part of that culture. The photos were tangible evidence of the chasm between worlds.

I smiled and laughed out loud and thanked the ladies again.

I went to meet a few other friends for dinner at the Chinese Noodle Restaurant. I took out my prints and they laughed—it was ridiculous, right?

I noticed the waitress peering over our shoulders. I felt suddenly self-conscious—would she be offended? Would the joke translate?

To my relief, the waitress smiled, a chipped tooth and deep lines. Then she reached over and took one of the photos in her hand, examined it more closely. “Very beautiful,” and she looked up at me with a kind of sincerity that made me blush.

This was not the reaction I’d expected. I felt somehow more embarrassed.

The waitress proceeded to pass my prints along to the other tables in the restaurant, all the women smiling and nodding and murmuring their approval. The women’s eyes glanced over at me and it was a kind of warmth I felt, maternal and accepting and utterly devoid of the snarky irony with which I’d walked into the photography studio with.

They didn’t think it was funny, and they weren’t offended. They thought it was beautiful.

I hung my head. “I’m an asshole,” I announced. Then, looking up and grinning, “But at least I’m a beautiful asshole.”

Phong Nha Farmstay, F*ck Yeah

I could tell by the way he slid the business card over to me, by the utter seriousness in his eyes, that he wasn’t fucking around. “Hands down, without a doubt,” he stabbed the card with his index finger, “the best thing I did in Vietnam.”

I put the Phong Nha Farmstay card in my wallet. It stayed there for nearly 3 months. I knew I’d be headed back through Vietnam for my flight home and, now, I knew where I’d be stopping along the way.

Central Vietnam’s caves have been making a lot of buzz lately. A few months ago, National Geographic ran a feature on the newly discovered Song Doong/World’s Biggest Cave. And Thien Duong/Paradise Cave, which had previously been thought to be the world’s biggest cave, officially opened for tourism. Not that I’m the biggest cave person in the world—just that I’ve traveled enough to know that the best recommendations often come, not from guidebooks and tourists offices, but from other travelers.

And so it went with Phong Nha Farmstay. Sure, I could have ventured out to the area independently. Or I could have done a day trip to Paradise Cave and been sufficiently blown away by the other-worldly spectacle of it: stalactites dripping and stalagmites rising, looking like sea kelp, so that I didn’t know where in the earth I was, so that I looked up at the cathedral of limestone and exclaimed, “Holy shit, I didn’t know the earth could do this.”

I could have stared out of a bus window at the Ke Bang National Park that contains the cave, as well as some 300 others, and I could have seen American bomb craters or perhaps even spotted the rare langur monkeys that we saw rattling around in the trees.

But I wouldn’t have ridden down Victory Highway. I wouldn’t have gotten to learn the local history so well. I wouldn’t have watched a former VN medic squat down beside a girl’s motorbike-accident wound and apply crushed penicillin to dry it out and keep the insects away. And I wouldn’t have had a pool to swim in or killer food to eat either.

Phong Nha Farmstay opened in December 2010, in the same month as Paradise Cave. While the nearby Phong Nha Cave was the second largest internal tourism site in Vietnam last year, the area is still largely unknown to Westerners—children still wave when you pass by, women touch your curly hair curiously and giggle, and you don’t see a single “Good Morning Vietnam” shirt for sale. But with the biodiversity and political history of Ke Bang National Park, and the never-ending quest of travelers to find the “real” fill-in-the-country’s-name, the region unlikely to stay that way.

Which is what Phong Nha Farmstay is banking on. Its 7 private rooms and 1 dorm room were never full during my 3 night stay, though this too is unlikely to stay that way. The place is run by Australian expat Ben and his Vietnamese wife Bich, who grew up in the Cu Nam village where the farmstay is located; milling around are also their infant son; Ben’s daughter; Bich’s mother (the medic), father and brother; and a slew of easy-going staff. They set the tone for a professional yet homey environment—solidifying my view that, more than uniforms and fawning, the best thing you can do in the service industry is really, truly give a shit about your product and your customers.

I took their 1-day tour of Ke Bang National Park and Paradise Cave. We rode on the back of motorbikes, down Victory Highway, which is officially closed to foreigners (Ben’s wrangled some kind of deal, I didn’t ask what), which was built to transport goods during the war. Riding down the near deserted highway, I couldn’t see any of the rare mammals or the thousands of species of plants or birds that the park contains—all I could see was dense green, the cliffs and peaks of mountains, the white flutter of butterflies along the roadside.

We made several stops along the way at sites important to the Vietnam/American War. North of the DMZ line, the Ho Chi Minh Trail runs through the park, which was heavily bombed during the war. A museum is currently being built. We stopped at the memorial 8 Ladies Cave, as well as a somewhat-obscured vista of a downed helicopter.

The tour was led by Ben and his buddy Dave, a white dude with deep smile wrinkles, a camouflage vest and a permanent cigarette dangling from his lips—the kind of semi-grizzled expat guys that off-road motorbikes and cold beer were made for. They were knowledgeable and funny and didn’t take themselves too seriously. Along for the ride was also their underling Tom, a recent transplant from Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, who had Iron Maiden board shorts and the greenest goddamn eyes I’ve ever seen.

Paradise Cave itself was a trip. It was designed by a private developer, and felt like a tasteful, eco-Disneyland. There was an automated turnstile and go-carts to transport the half-dozen tourists we saw. Unlike the nearby Phong Nha Cave, decked out in red, green and purple disco lights, Paradise Cave is lit with energy-efficient lighting. We wandered through the kilometer of deck open to the public, our voices the only ones echoing in the cavernous dark.

We then stopped by a mountain-stream river, where we stripped off our clothes and leaped from rocks and sunbathed and poked around the lagoons and sandy shores. We were lucky enough to spot some langur monkeys hopping around the trees on our way back to the farmstay, where we chilled and drank smoothies/beer.

And I have to agree with the random dude, whose name I forget, who handed me that business card all those months ago—Phong Nha Farmstay was the coolest thing I did in Vietnam. It gave me a fuller, more complete experience of the country—what it’s like outside of the cities and the tourist towns and even the beaches. I don’t think I’d be walking away, as I will in a few short days, with the same picture of Vietnam if I hadn’t gone there.

Sunset over the rice paddies

**

Travel Tips: Phong Nha Farmstay

Contact the farmstay, and they’ll make it easy to reach them—they’ll arrange a taxi from Dong Hoi, which costs about 370,000 dong. It’s best to come by plane or train; as there’s no official bus station that I could discern in Dong Hoi, it’ll be hard for the taxi to locate you otherwise. Dong Hoi is along the Reunification train line, and well-connected to other cities by bus.

The farmstay is a mid-range experience. Private rooms are $25-35 night, with air-con and hot water, and there’s a somewhat cramped 6-bed dorm room with beds for $8. Additional rooms are being built next door, at Bich’s brother’s house. Food is not cheap but delicious. It’s all at restaurant, not street food, prices, so you’ll be paying $2-6 per meal. It is, however, some of the best food I’ve eaten in Vietnam.

You can also expect to meet awesome fellow travelers. Like these Icelandic dudes. Bad asses all the way.

The 1-day tour of Ke Bang is $45, $50 with a driver, which is recommended. This is steep for a lot of backpackers, but like the food, definitely worth it. Besides, are you really gonna come all the way out there and not see the park/cave?

One of the goals of the farmstay is to train local folks in Western tourism. There’s a sweet note on the front page of the menu explaining that some staff have more experience than others, and that if mistakes are made, please communicate them. So when one guy was brought Coco Pops instead of Muesli, the situation was handled gracefully. You can tell a lot about a business by how they handle their mistakes, and in this regard, Phong Nha Farmstay proves itself as quality.

Adventures in Vietnamese Bureaucracy: Dong Hoi Visa Shenanigans

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

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

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

“California.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because I didn’t know I needed to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrugged. “I can live with that.”

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

Adventures in Lao Transit: Ban Natane to Savannakhet

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

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

Picturesque breakdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how we roll/paddle

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

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

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

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

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

I took one step into the stairwell and stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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