Archive for the 'Sola' Category



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.

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.”

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.

National Geographic Moment: Gecko Vs. Praying Mantis, Bungalow Porch

Alicia got the shot; I can't take credit.

So I love traveling sola. You know that by now. But one of the great things about traveling with friends—and fucking cool friends at that—is that they open your eyes to things you’d normally never notice. You end up, say, in a towel at 11pm on the porch of your bungalow in the Kep hillside, watching a gecko and a praying mantis the size on your middle finger in a life-and-death stare-off amid the rafters.

My best friend Alicia is a science lady. She’s a taxidermist and has a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of animals and insects. I know shit about science, skirted through classes in high school with charm and wandering eyes. All bird calls kind of sound the same to me, but Alicia will pause, listen, then tell you all about the species that made the noise, usually some cool anecdote to go along with it. It’s kind of like having your own personal nature guide.

So when she stopped in her tracks along a dirt road outside one of the Angkor temples, I knew it had to be something good. She brushed off a frenzied pile of ants, stared at the dead body that had caused the swarming excitement. “Oh, rad!” she exclaimed, carefully picking up the insect, an unhatched cicada. She explained the reasons behind its rarity while sliding it gently into used film canister. She was bringing it back for a co-worker at Academy of Science.

And so when she tapped gently on the door to my bungalow as I was stepping out of the shower, I knew I’d better open it. “Hey,” she whispered in the glow of the porch light, “check it out.”

It was the biggest praying mantis I’d ever seen. Which isn’t saying much, since I’d only seen my first a few hours earlier. But it was big, is the point. It was near-frozen, its head bobbing gently as it stared at a small moth.

“Look,” Alicia pointed to a green head peeking out behind the rafter. It was one of the big geckos, the kind that makes the belly noise you hear in the night all over this region. I’d never have seen a big one before.

“A stare down?” I asked.

Alicia nodded. “They’re both ambush predators, so they’re waiting for someone to come close.” The praying mantis was waiting for the moth, unaware that the gecko was waiting for him. “They could sit like that all night.”

I shrugged, clutching the towel around me. “I’ll give it a few minutes.” We stared, surrounded by the buzzing blackness of a tropical evening.

Suddenly, a huge moth swooped by. The praying mantis forgot the tinier moth sleeping on the rafter, which darted away, and lunged towards the larger moth. They danced like that for a few flurried seconds—nimble bright green chasing a flurry of grey and black wings. “Oh damn!” we exclaimed. It was like a nature show, gone live.

The praying mantis leapt toward the mammoth moth, not realizing it was landing within reach of the gecko, who’d held still throughout the chase. One swift dive, and the mantis became nothing more than thin green neon hanging out of the mouth of a darker, reptilian green.

The gecko slunk behind the rafter to consume its prize. Both moths had disappeared into the night.

“Well,” I said, nodding, “that was fucking cool. Thanks for the heads up, dude.”

“No problem,” Alicia laughed. “Little excitement for your evening.”

We said good-night and disappeared behind adjoining doors.

Photo Essay: Kep’s Abandoned Mansions

Before the war, beach-side Kep was a fashionable get-away for Phnom Penh’s well-heeled. Opulent homes were built into the cicada-buzzing green slopes, washed in the smell of salt and seafood. They were all abandoned, of course, in 1975; as the war reached on into the 90s, the facades crumbled and the green grew up in the cracks. It’s pretty much stayed that way since.

Kep is on track to regain its by-gone glory. For better or worse, bulldozers lumber across construction lots where crisp new buildings arch up behind shotty scaffolding. For now, Kep is a mellow mix of vacationing Cambodian families and independent Western travelers. Fishermen reel their nets, women season crab in fresh Kampot pepper and their adolescent children serve you at beach-side shack restaurants. You can hop on a boat and cruise out to Rabbit Island, where hammocks and coconuts and ramshackle bungalows will lure you away from any noble ambitions to trek to the top of the jungle-y island.

And of course, you can traipse through the remains of Kep’s past.

Makes my heart flutter

The squat toilet shall never die

The tile survives

View from the former second-story balcony

Peeking out: view from the street

Looking up

Looking out

Between the trees

Rising up

The walls of some of the buildings were covered, not in traditional graffiti, but children’s scribbles: faces, indiscernible Khmer, dirty drawings of women. It somehow made it sweeter, lent an innocence to the rubble that made you think of it, not as a relic of war and the country’s painstakingly slow march towards recovery, but instead as a child’s play place, a fantasy land, safe and hidden.

It’s hard to know what to say about Kep. The urban explorer in me was pretty stoked to traipse through abandoned building after abandoned building, surveying what was left and what was gone and what was growing up amid the crumble. But you couldn’t help but feel a sadness, adventuring around in this way you love, because you knew the reason for it was so heart-breaking.

It’s also hard to know what to say about the new development, the sure wave of resort tourism it will bring. It won’t be the same, that’s for sure, but will it actually go back to being something more similar to what it once was, before the war?

There’s no way to know right now. But I will say it’s a damn good place to hole of for a few days, eating crab and swimming in the ocean and climbing through ruins.

A Room of One’s Own, Phnom Penh

My mind is a land of contrasts. (How’s that for cliche?)

I love travel. I love the bag-and-purse of it, of having everything you need fit in a 18 kg bundle on your back. I love the not knowing, the pick-up-and-go of it, love arriving in a city dazed and cramp-legged, and I love walking new streets—the landscape of the unfamiliar. I even love the train-and-bus of it, the bump-of-the-road of it, looking out of a window at alien earth that sometimes seems a mirror to the alien earth inside myself, and thinking my nothing thoughts.

But I also love the notion of home—not a notion, really, but a feeling. I love running into people I know at the market. I love my favorite table at my favorite cafe. I love the comfort of routines, little rituals, the prayer inside the doing of everyday tasks. And I love the sense of having an anchor, somewhere deep inside you—that no matter where you go, there’s a place to go back to.

Which might be why I’ve never moved out of the US, or hell, even out of Oakland—some kind of magnetism that always pulls me back to my hometown, no matter how far I wander. Oh sure, I fantasize and I’ve plotted and planned, but when it’s come right down to it, I’ve never actually left.

I didn’t want to feel transient in Phnom Penh. I’ll be here for around six weeks of my 2+ months in Cambodia, and it’d be easy enough to just stay in a hotel. You can get a decent one for $10-13, with wifi and air-con and someone that comes to clean it everyday (an endlessly thrilling novelty for a budget traveler such as a myself). It would have been easier—everything pre-arranged, crisp corners and clean counters. It also would have been sterile.

I didn’t want to have to leave a key at reception every morning. I didn’t want the posse of motorbike drivers posted outside the door, waiting for Western customers. I didn’t really, when it came down to it, want someone else cleaning up after me everyday.

I wanted a room of my own.

I asked around about people looking to sublet, but didn’t come up with anything. So I just started walking around, looking for “For Rent” signs. I wanted to stay in the neighborhood my Couchsurfing host was in, slightly north of Center and a little mellower, where the pace is that of local folks living local life.

I found a place on Street 84. It’s not the nicest apartment—quite threadbare, actually, and it doesn’t have wifi. It’s not the cheapest either—not expensive, but if I’d spent longer searching, I’m sure I could have found a decent room for less. Once I pay for a month’s worth of electricity, it’ll end up only being slightly less than a midrange hotel.

But I have a room of my own.

I have a little vanity in the bedroom. It’s got small shelves and a mirror and a little drawer with a lock, a stool with a floral-patterned cushion that rolls out. I tenderly unpacked all my lady things—make-up and headbands and jewlery—arranged them on the shelves. I put my passport in the drawer. In the mornings I roll out the stool and open my jar of face powder and see my face in the mirror, looking back.

I have a small kitchen with a metal tub of a sink and a small tiled counter; I have a bathroom where the showderhead is beside the toilet and there’s no curtain to separate the two spaces, but it’s just enough room for one. Yesterday I went to the central market and bought toilet paper and dish soap and a sponge and a couple plastic plates and bowls, and I’ve placed them next to the handtowel the landlady supplied me with, which I folded into a neat rectangle.

There’s a fan in the other room that takes awhile to get going—I’ve got to pull the string cord four, five, six times to awaken it to its buzzing. There’s a metal table and a single chair and a TV set that I’ve left unplugged. There’s a refrigerator that must have come from some convenience store, a small, three-shelf thing covered in Pepsi logos. I’ve placed a container of Laughing Cow cheese inside, some yogurts, a mango the landlady gave me when I moved in. At night it beams like a fluorescent night-light, casting a glow throughout the apartment, and I hear it humming when I roll over in my sleep.

There’s big metal doors that I have to heave open and tug shut. Red contact paper has been placed over the thick glass, to make it opaque, and the light that shines through in the daytime makes the room look lurid. It’s got a big padlock that slides through the metal rings, and an old-fashioned skeleton-type key that was given to me on a shoestring and I keep it my purse, I carry it with me, all over this city—the key to my own room.

I love it. It’s barely furnished and virtually without windows and only mine for a month—but for that month it’s mine. My own room, my own sense of home, in Phnom Penh.

Lost in Navigational Translation: The Tuk-Tuk and Motorbike Drivers of Phnom Penh

“Tuk-tuk la-dee?” “La-dee, moto-bike!” “Where you go?” “La-dee, la-dee—you need moto-bike!”

This is the chorus you hear, endlessly, walking through central Phnom Penh. It’s like birds chattering, only more jarring, less song-like. It comes accompanied with a raised arm, two fingers extended—more of a summons than an offering of service.

By the touristy riverside, the touts can be pushy, but for the most part they’re just guys trying to make an honest(ish) buck. At first I tried to respond to all of them—Lisa ran a tuk-tuk company in Phnom Penh, given as part of her dowry, before the Khmer Rouge—so I feel a special responsibility to be respectful. I smiled politely and said “no” or “ot te.”

Eventually it got to be too much to respond to each other them, perched on their bikes at every street corner, crying out to you when you’re half-way down the block. I began to just shake my head, and soon stopped making eye contact. I started feeling like a bobble-head toy, my neck hurting from the constant swinging. Now I barely respond at all.

But I suppose that’s not so unusual, the constant barrage—being a Westerner in a city like Phnom Penh, where you stand out, gleaming of privilege and sweat and thin layer of sun screen. You take it in stride, a small price to pay for the relative welcoming warmness of the Cambodian people.

But here’s what is so unusual: most of these tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers have no idea how to navigate the city. A city, I should add, that’s laid out in a neat grid. And not just a grid, a numbered grid, where even numbered streets intersect the odd.

It is perhaps the easiest city I’ve ever learned. And I don’t make my living by driving its streets. So what, what, what is going on here?

It took me a few days to clue into it. I did a lot of walking at first, and when I did finally take a motorbike, chalked the confusion up to language barriers and my hotel’s offbeat location.

On Friday night, I was headed from a party back to my hotel. “Street 141 at 232,” I told the driver. The glassy gleam of incomprehension stared back at me, followed by a vague nod. This did not produce a feeling of confidence in me.

Must not know his English numbers yet, I thought and whipped out a piece of paper. I wrote the street numbers as largely and legibily as I could. I showed him. He nodded a little more vigoriously; we negotiated the price and I hopped on.

We slid down the wide Norodom Boulevard, nearly empty of its honking, and I felt the breeze of the night on my arms, my legs. I closed my eyes and let it kiss me.

I’d been in the city four days by that point—so I knew when we were making a wrong turn.

“Um, no,” I said and pointed back to Norodom. He shot me a confused glance. I pointed to the street sign. “This is only 156. We go to 232.” I waved my hand down the road.

A series of slow circlings and U-Turns ensued, me growing ever crankier on the back of the bike. It devolved to me leading the motorbike driver street-by-street back to the hotel.

He must be new at this, I thought as I finally hopped off.

But the phenomenon repeated itself: the glassy look, the vague nods, the wrong turns and aimless meandering. Another characteristic element to the typical un-joy-ride, I soon discovered, comes when you stop every couple blocks for the driver to discuss with other drivers the intended destination of the passenger, locked in some sort of secret code no one is able to decipher. Lots of pointing and shrugging ensues. This is apt to repeat two-to-four times before one finally arrives.

At first, I blamed it on my own inability to say Khmer numbers, and took to only writing locations, following it up with a big, you-get-it? grin.

The answer you always get is “okay, okay.” The ride you get is not always “okay, okay.”

I was utterly confused and out of ideas. Maybe they were guys from the countryside, who’d only just come to Phnom Penh. Maybe they didn’t know the city that well yet—but come on, how long does it take to learn a city? A numbered grid of a city at that?

No, no, there was something more going on here—some kind of deeper divide than just language or location familiarity. There was so kind of vast cultural chasm, a disconnect.

“Oh no, no, no,” Mathilde told me. “They don’t know street names, only landmarks. It’s better to say ‘near to Independence Monument,’ or ‘Royal Palace.’ These they know. But sometimes even then…”

I’ve worked that into my repertoire, a long, drawn-out process in which I use every means I can fathom to communicate my destination. “Sihanouk, near Independence Monument,” I told the driver yesterday.

We got closer this time, but just before the up-lit monument—positioned handsomely at the crossroads of two main thoroughfares and surrounded by the massive honking roundabout—we took a turn down a random sidestreet. I sighed. We U-Turned.

I reported my failure back to Mathilde. “They will always say ‘okay,’ even if they don’t know.”

“So, how do they work? How do they live and get around a city they don’t know at all?”

She shrugged, and I guess that’s all you can do. Because they must know it—there must be some way they know it, some entirely different way of interacting with a city and a landscape that doesn’t even occur to me, that I can’t even fathom—as foreign as another language, as mysterious as an alien scribble, written all over this city in a way I can’t read, can’t decipher—in a way that I can’t even see.

Perhaps I’ll figure out the mystery. But for now I’ll keep circling, keep ambling, keep pointing to a destination I can’t communicate, hidden somewhere in the gap between cultures—foreign, mystified and helmetless on the back of a Phnom Penh motorbike.

Saigon’s Secret Cities

Zero points for subtlety

It seemed like LA to me: glitzy buildings, endless traffic, neon lights reflecting off the hoods of gleaming cars. After two weeks in Vietnam, Saigon’s wide roads and rows of Western shops, its construction cranes turning this way, that way, like slow skeletal animals—it all seemed terribly wealthy to me.

And even more than Hanoi, there seemed to be no break in Saigon, nowhere to rest or even catch your breath from the heat and exhaust and honking, the billboards and the building, always building—more, higher, newer: an unrelenting city, like hot breath on the back of your neck.

But if you looked, if someone showed you, you could find them—passageways, skinny portals to other places, other cities, secret cities just behind the surface.

You don’t notice them at first—or you think they’re dead-end alleys, nothing gaps between buildings—no wider than a doorway, and you step through them, into them, into another world: alley streets that wind inside city blocks, where people sit in doorways and women crouch over grills of smoking meat and children run and laundry hangs and TVs flash beside flashing altars and telephone wires stretch in impossible tangles, like dreadlocks—in short, where everyday life is lived.

It’s cool and quiet inside—the buildings are high and the alley streets narrow. You pass a succession of doorways, more glimpses into the lives of the people inside, a flood of images: families huddled on the floor around a big cooker, eating rice; chickens clucking around; old men napping in hammocks; women lighting incense and raising it and waving it and tucking it in a crevice to smolder and smoke.

It feels like a Moroccan medina, those deep parts when you wander far enough—little shops set up in the front rooms of people’s homes, the random internet cafe, children running everywhere, squealing and toddling off into doorways. Only the smell is of fish instead of spices, and it’s motorbikes instead of donkeys you have to look out for.

But it’s the same sense of feeling strangely at home, even though it’s so far from your own home, anything you know of home. There’s something incredibly comforting about the living of everyday life. For those of us that have treaded onto the dark side—maybe for all of us—there’s something really precious about the doing of everyday tasks, a simple joy in being a part of the world, a simple part of it all—even if only as a passing shadow on the wall, a white girl snapping photos and peering in crevices and smiling and waving when the children exclaim “Hello! Hello!” in an English they barely know.

You wander and rove, twist and turn, and then suddenly you’re back out on the surface, the wide swarming streets, an assault of heat and honking. It feels addicitive—you want more, you want to go back, go back under. You find another small portal and dive into the cool dark shadows.

It starts to feel like water, like bobbing up and down, in and under the surface, submerging and coming up for air—only you’re not sure which is the breathing and which is holding, cheeks full and a quiet burn rising through the chest.

You move in a strange space through caverns, observing the private lives of organisms you feel you’re somehow distantly related to; you move through a still, dark world terribly foreign but also somehow familiar, somehow like home—at home, in the secret cities of Saigon.

Hanoi’s Secret Cafe

I love rooftops, and I love rooftops in cities—sitting up on your bird’s perch and watching the strange dance of it all.

There’s no pigeons in Hanoi (except the ones you see plucked and pink at the food stalls), and there’s virtually no places to take respite.

Jacob told me about the secret cafe—not so much a secret, but a nameless, signless place you could never find without looking for it. On a road behind Turtle Lake, beside an especially terrifying roundabout, at the heart of the chaos—a nondescript storefront shop selling all the usual lanterns and bags and lacquered art. You walk past it, through it, down and back, what looks like the dim hallway to some squalid toilet.

It actually leads to a cafe, opening up into a courtyard that evokes the same “ah” sensation as stepping into a riad from the din of a Moroccan medina. A girl thrust a menu at me and told me I needed to order there, right there, before going any further. I pointed to the coffee with milk and egg white, as recommended, and the girl moved aside and let me pass.

I climbed up a flight of stairs, past a set of carved doors left ajar, revealing a glowing, smoldering altar within. Up another skinny staircase, and I was at a quiet little terrace that overlooked the lake, the skyline, the swarming street, the madness of the city.

It was my fourth day in Hanoi, and I was only then beginning to make sense of it. Its roads were a tangle of incomprehension, like lines in a palm whose fortune you couldn’t quite decipher—electrical wires and branches the gentle hatch marks that lay like a webbing, even less decipherable in what was certainly a story, certainly trying to say something.

But on the terrace it almost made sense, or at least begin to take shape. The other tables were sparsely inhabited by couples, leaning in and speaking low, by a few other foreigners smoking and reading. My egg white coffee came and it was goddamn delicious, thick and like a milkshake. I spooned it to myself like I were my own infant and sat there, just sat, thinking my nothing thoughts and watching.

It was refreshing, to be up there like a bird, in a city that doesn’t have any—to enjoy a moment of peace amid the frenzy. Which is a metaphor for life, in the way it’s all a metaphor for life—one great metaphor beneath the surface of everyday, at the center of everyday, everything just an arrow, pointing, leading, hinting us towards some soft secret (down a passageway, behind a trinket shop)—nudging us towards something we can’t possibly ever know or say, can only sense sometimes, in the still moments—can only approximate, speak about in abstractions, relationally. Which is why it’s a metaphor in the first place, and not The Real Thing—why we need metaphors and egg white foam in thick coffee and pretty little terraces to take a breather on.

Hanoi Secret Cafe: 11 Hang Gai

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

You know the picture...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montenegro

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

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

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

Albania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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