Posts Tagged 'Blunders'



They’re Not Rat Turds, They’re Gecko Turds!

So, I’d been finding these on my terrace every morning:

Turds. Little fucking turds, a sprinkling of them. Festive, really, and one of the many reasons that sweeping one’s apartment is an activity that should occur on a daily basis (it doesn’t).

But I was willing to roll with it as long as the feces-confetti was contained to outer premises. I mean, there’s not a lot you can do about creatures crawling up on your balcony. The inside was where I drew the line.

But then finally, one morning, I walked into the kitchen, lit on the burner on my little camper stove, reached for some coffee and… they were there. Two little turds, right there on the counter.

I didn’t freak out, per se, but I was severely bummed. There’s a lot of “wildlife” that makes it into my life here, even in the city: ants and mosquitoes and insects and these fucking flying beetles that dive-bomb your face at night like miniature fighter jets. It’s why you get an apartment with screens on every single window (which I failed to do). It’s why I drew anti-ant chalk lines around every corner of every room, and why I finally forwent my eco-consciousness and purchased a can of Raid, which I now spray with zeal and frequency usually reserved for air freshenesr. Whatever, I’m adjusting—I’m from the Bay Area, and we don’t have this kind of shit there.

But we do have rodents: mice and rats. I’ve lived in houses and apartments with them, and they are no fucking fun. (An old boyfriend, living in one of Oakland’s more notorious punk houses, would sit up in the middle of the night and hiss like a cat when the rats in his room got too loud.) Putting out traps, removing the splattered bodies from the traps, opting for sticky paper, removing the little feet the desperate rats have tried to gnaw off in an attempt to escape—there’s no fun way to deal with them. And that morning, presented with two pristine specimens, I felt like I was looking upon two tiny calls to arms.

I scoured my kitchen, but couldn’t find any other evidence of them: no nibbled remains, no entry points. All my food was either in the fridge or in tightly sealed glass jars, and there were no holes in the walls or floors—the little fuckers would have had to crawl through window. It seemed rather dexterous, but possible.

After stalking around, eating my cereal, watering my plants and sweeping up the outside turds, I went down to the market to buy produce. There’s a soup stall I like, where massive metal bowls of different concoctions sit on cement blocks, above smoldering coals. I like the pumpkin fish soup, and it’s only 25 cents for serving, so I’m there all the time.

I was waiting amid the motorbikes and waving limbs of the other customers when I saw a friend walk by. We stood in the street, squinting and using our hands as sun visors, and chatted. I told her my story of woe.

She grinned. “I’ve got good news for you.”

I gave her a suspicious look.

“No, really. Was there a little white tip on the turds?”

“Yeah.”

She nodded. “They’re not rat turds. They’re gecko turds.”

“Thank God!” I exclaimed. Geckos are totally clean, they eat bugs, they make cute little squeaky noises (or big bellowing noises, if they’re larger) and they look damn cool, posted on the walls like those sticky toys we used to get from the quarter-prize machines.

I bought my soup, thanked my friend for yet another valuable insight, and trundled home to my apartment—NOT infested with rodents.

A small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Would rather, you know, they didn’t shit all over my counters and floors, but I’ll take what I can get.

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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.

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..

WTF Moment of the Day: Street Monkey

So about once a day here in Phnom Penh I have a massive WTF moment. I’ve been catalouging them: a boy stabbing birds, Western beggars, my guesthouse posting a sign about not offering “the sex services,” and pretty much any occasion I open the Phnom Penh Post. Strange things, bizarre things that my Western brain can’t compartmentalize—where all there is to do is shrug, shake your head and say “What the fuck…”

Today’s WTF moment came as I was walking home. It was a mellow day, filled with writing and street food, and I was retiring early, walking down a dusty road lined with corrugated metal fences, behind which the humming of machinery had ceased for the day. Men still wearing their hardhats bicycled past; teenagers in school uniforms clustered at the street corners, eating grilled meats from street stalls.

Then I saw this fellow:

Now, I’m familiar with street dogs and street cats and rats and mice and raccoons and squirrels—but WTF?! A street monkey? Phnom Penh isn’t the fucking jungle; it’s a city.

Where did the little guy comes from? Why wasn’t he in a zoo? Why was he just chilling there, riffling through a bag, trying to fish out a little food, sticking his red ass in the air as he repositioned? Why was no one doing anything? Why were they all going about their business like it was no big deal, perfectly normal for a hairy primate cousin to be out and about on a humid late afternoon?

I stood and watched him. I took a picture. A security guard down the road looked at me curiously—What’s this crazy white girl taking a picture of a monkey for?

The monkey tired of the plastic bag, threw it aside. He stretched his limbs and turned, looking into the traffic. He began to cross the street slowly, the same way I do, sensing out the rhythm of the road. He knew what he was doing. He was better at crossing the street than most tourists. The motobikes and tuk-tuks and cars slowed and swerved seamlessly around him—just another monkey cruising across the street.

Then he spotted me.

I still had my camera in my hands; maybe he was offended that I was taking pictures, objectifying him like an animal in a zoo. He gave me a real menacing look, bared his teeth slightly. He walked towards me.

Here I should clarify that I am 100% a city kid. I used to be afraid to swim in water I couldn’t see the bottom of. I’m easily impressed by the appearance of any stars whatsoever. Wildlife freaks me out about as much as uber urbanity freaks other people out. And everything is wildlife: from the geckos on the wall to the squeaks of bats. If it’s not a cat or dog, it’s probably got rabies and wants to eat you.

I thought of Greg, who I met bicycling breathlessly down a dirt road in Southern Italy. Greg was straight outta Queens, his speech peppered with more “yo”s than my own “hella”s. He’d just run into a herd of sheep in the road. He’d freaked—what were they doing? (“Probably grazing,” I offered.) Wildlife, fuck that. He hadn’t wasted any time in pedaling the other direction, and I immediately understood his panic.

And so the gangsta street monkey swaggered towards me. I moved slowly (“keep it cool, don’t ask scared, he can smell your fear”), stepping carefully, one foot at a time, in the opposite direction. When he disappeared between two parked cars, I walked briskly away, shaking my head and thinking, “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck.”

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.

No Hue: Hue Riders Knock-Off

Um, is this supposed to be something important?

Mr. Loc is over it.

He slows the motorbike, pulling over to the skinny shoulder of the highway that wraps seductively around the lush green mountain. He points. “Photo.” It’s more of a command than a suggestion. I snap of shot of the vista—pretty, with rice paddies and a cloak of fog. But I couldn’t tell you any more about it.

That’s because Mr. Loc isn’t having it. He’s shown us the goddamn vista, his posture seems to say, what more do we want?

Even the most skilled and adept of independent travelers (and I’m certainly far from one of them) falls for an imitator sometimes. It happens: we’re tired, we’re rushed, our guard is down, it seems like a good idea. We wind up paying top dollar for a half-assed adventure.

I’d heard about the Hue Riders one night in Hanoi. Instead of a boring old tour bus, they take you on motorbikes from Hue to Hoi An, an historic trail that stops at waterfalls and pagodas and old American bunkers. “It’s supposed to be brillant,” one of Jacob’s friends told me, hunched on our plastic stools over the billow of BBQ smoke.

Killer. Sign me up.

I asked my hotel in Hue if they’d heard of the Hue Riders and they nodded enthusiastically, leading me over to the dude posted at the cafe next door. He thumbed through his photo album—him with smiling white girls, him with white dudes giving the thumbs up sign. He showed me an entry in his customer comment notebook from a girl who was “from your country!”

I couldn’t tell if it was cause to be suspicious, or if he was just that certain kind of proud that third-world tourism workers sometimes are. He showed me his business card: “FIFTEEN YEARS Experienced, All’s for your satisfaction.” But hey, it said “Hue Riders” under his name.

It was only later, after I’d paid and signed up, that the real suspicion began to mount. I googled Hue Riders. And holy shit, there was an actual, legit website. For the real Hue Riders. Of which Mr. Loc was not one.

Oh well, I told myself. Chalk another up to experience. Sometimes the DIY, hustling tour guides can be just as good as the bona fide ones your LP recommends.

Which is true. But Mr. Loc, I’m discovering, isn’t one of them.

He isn’t terrible; he’s just monumentally not into it. Fifteen years of experience has translated to boredom.

Our first stop was a fishing village off the highway: a dirt road strewn with debris; a couple of kids playing soccer; a clutter of wooden boats, docked and sleeping; nets laid out like the vacated skins of snakes.

“Fishing village,” was the extent of explaination given.

Joe, the upbeat and friendly male half of an American couple who’d also gotten roped into the tour, attempted to ask some questions. “Do they go out in the morning?” We got a sort of unintelligble, one-word answer.

Now at a mountain pass—but was it the first or the second pass?—I attempt to eavesdrop on the tour guide next to us. Something important about these cables, this view, something about Americans? I try to ask Mr. Loc. “Was this something important during the war?”

“Yes, I think so.”

Tourists at a former bunker

We move along. It’s a foggy, white-wrapped day, and all the sights we stop at are equally shrouded in hazy incomprehension. We stop by bunkers used during “the American War” (now a tourist trap—more on that in a later post). We stop off for overpriced coffee at a cheesy resort. We pull over at the roadside operation for a kind of cosmetic oil made from a local leaf. We stand around awkwardly as Mr. Loc tells us the prices of the different sized oils.

“Not much of an oil type myself,” Joe declares good-naturedly. He’s pathologically cheerful, in that particular American way, with his buzz cut and beaming cheeks. “When do we get to the waterfall?”

“No waterfall today,” Mr. Loc declares. “The weather,” he gestures around us, “road too slippery.” He makes a skid-and-crash motion with his hands. We nod solemnly, disappointed.

We stop at Marble Mountains, thrust from the flat earth near China Beach like a glittering rock of crystal. Pagodas and temples abound. Joe maintains his positivity, reading aloud from his Lonely Planet to make up for our lack of tour guide. I’m grateful for his unrelenting optimism.

Holy light

We wander into a cave that feels like a cathedral—a carved Buddha in the stone, incense like breath, sunlight filtering through the ceiling like the fingers of gods. There’s the hush of a holy place there; Joe reads that during the War, it was used as a VC hospital.

In a corner, a bat with a broken wing arches and flops. He squeaks intermittenly, and it sounds like a very small prayer, echoing against the rock.

We descend the mountain and find Mr. Loc waiting for us, leaned against the motorbike. “Okay, we go.”

I realize the thing about Mr. Loc isn’t that he’s rude or unknowledgable or even a shitty tour guide. It’s that he’s supremely Vietnamese. It’s this certain way, this certain attitude, that I’ve begun to understand, the same as in the nail shops at home—matter-of-fact, blunt, nothing sugar-coated or said sweetly. Here’s your tour. There’s a sight. Good? Okay.

“Vietnamese people aren’t very nice,” other travelers have told me. I understand where they’re coming from, but I don’t think it’s a simple matter of not being nice; I think it’s a profound cultural difference. (“You want pedicure? Okay, you pick a color.”) Brusk and brash—jarring as the chorus of honks from the motorbikes.

We arrive in Hoi An wind-blown and dirt-covered. My eyes well from the thousand particles of crap swimming around my contacts; my hair’s matted to my head from too many hours wearing a helmet.

Mr. Loc drops me at my hotel. “Happy?” It’s a business-like question.

I nod. Why not?

Albanian Death Flu, and The End to a Charmed Trip

Dog is my co-pilot?

It had been the best trip I’d ever been on. And, you know, I’ve been on a few trips.

But at last it happened: the perfect constellation that had hung above my trip cracked, shattered, rained down in a million filaments on to my cigarette-stained clothes until the smell writhed back out of rank layers. Not that I could smell it.

On my best trips—well, no, even on my worst trips—I don’t really feel in charge. That’s one of the things I love about traveling: it shatters any illusions of being in control, of running the show, so to speak. Serendipity drives the car; you just ride shotgun.

And I’d been really quite pleased with Serendipity’s navigational prowess on my latest trip, taking me to random small towns, big crazy cities, introducing me to rad people, giving endless writing material, keeping me in good spirits. I approved. “Job well done.”

But on my way back to Rome, something snagged, tripped, pulled the plug. It was my attitude. And my health. Things were no longer going my way. And so I ended my trip slumped over in a plastic airport chair, achy-boned, runny-nosed, sleep-deprived and pissed as fuck.

I didn’t want to leave Tirana. The only date I locked myself into on my itinerary-less travel was my flight from Tirana back to Rome, mostly to avoid another sleepless, freezing cold ferry ride. It was a cheap ticket, the kind you can’t change—so when I had to pass on the opportunity to drive up to Shkoder to get tattooed in an abandoned bunker and instead fly back to expensive-ass, whacked-ass Rome, I was slightly bummed. To say the least.

On the flight, I began to feel a tickle in my throat. I coughed. I assumed it was the result of the pack of cigarettes I’d smoked in the previous 48 hours, or the succession of late nights, or the guzzling of tap water that I wasn’t really supposed to be drinking. And it probably was those things. It was also the beginnings of what I’ve dubbed Albanian Death Flu (incidentally, also the name of my new metal band).

It started slow and steady as a rumbling drum beat—the amplified echo of my own heartbeat in congested ears. It’s okay, I could power through. I had a few different friends that also happened to be in Rome at the time that I wanted to meet up with, some events I wanted to check out; I’d fill the time.

It was like a see-saw: the more things unraveled, the shittier I felt. Or the other way around. Whatever. I never got in touch with any of my friends. The events either fell through or were kinda lame. After blissfully cheap, tourist-free Tirana, Rome was an expensive, American-swarmed jolt to my sick system. And I wasn’t helping myself any. I was cranky, torturing myself with the shoulda’s and why-didn’t-I’s. Serendipity may have been driving the car, but I was being a pretty big backseat driver.

It all came to a fevered pitch at the airport. I didn’t sleep at all the night before, six hours of tossing and turning and coughing and groaning. The overpriced train ride to the airport had robbed me of my last few Euros, so, with no cash for breakfast, the post-nasal drip stirred in my stomach in an unsettling stew. And I had no patience for my fellow travelers.

Rome is a most beloved destination of Americans, right up there with Paris and Disneyland. But it’s a pretty culturally conservative place—not a lot of contemporary arts or music going on—so it doesn’t tend to attract our most dynamic demographic, what I call our A-Team. It’s most popular with the Joe-and-Marge-from-Iowa demographic. Not that I have anything wrong with Joe and Marge; it can be, actually, just as culturally fascinating and foreign to observe them as Romans.

It’s just that Joe and Marge don’t travel much. They get stressed out easily, and they bicker with each other. They aren’t as adept to rolling with cultural differences, and feel it necessary to (loudly) point out contrasts and the discomfort those contrasts provide. They get lost easily. They aren’t urban people, and they get confused by public transportation, crowded spaces, the Italian irreverence for lines at espresso counters.

All this I’m more or less willing to take in stride. Except when I’m sick, nauseous, sleep-deprived, and generally fighting the gods of circumstance. Then I sit in a plastic airport chair with steam seeping out of my ears and one eyeball slowly twitching.

I gave up. I couldn’t fight it anymore. My body—and Serendipity—were trying to tell me something: the party was over. It was time to slow down, sit still and accept what came my way.

I went to a pharmacy and bought some mystery Italian cold medicine on my credit card. I changed a little cash back into Euros and bought a stale, overpriced panini. I moved over to an empty gate and slowly munched my bread in relative peace. Then I boarded my plane and promptly passed out in puddle of drool and sneezes (yeah, I was that person).

Even great trips have bad moments, and every trip, even the best, has to end. I suppose the trick is letting that happen gracefully. Still working on that one.


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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