Posts Tagged 'first impressions'

“It’s a Real City!”: Hanoi Through Cambodia Goggles

Tourist time with Uncle Ho!

“Hanoi: Refreshingly Free of Prostitutes”

This was the tagline that ran through my head my first few weeks living in Hanoi. Which perhaps isn’t most people’s dominant first impression of the city. Which perhaps says a helluva a lot more about me and where I was coming from, my Cambodia goggles, than it did about Hanoi itself.

I’ve been talking a lot to one of my friends here about first impressions of places, whether there’s any clout in them or if they’re all just superficial and uninformed and in the long run say more about the viewer than the place itself. (We’ve reached no verdicts but I’ll get back to you if we do.) Particularly we’ve been discussing the tendency of certain travel writers/memoirists to put places into what feels like a pre-determined box—the exotic romanticism of a place like Hanoi.

For instance, if a writer talks about the smells of “verdant green” and “incense wafting” in Hanoi, it makes you stop and think: “Really dude? Are we talking about the same Hanoi?” (“In Hanoi I just smell trash,” another writer friend said.) It’s like some people have already decided what a place is gonna be like and then goddammit, they go out looking for things that confirm that belief, bolster that vision, and seem to block out every other damn thing that may challenge or contradict their predetermined notions.

Which doesn’t actually tell you a whole lot about Hanoi, but does tell you a lot about the person experiencing Hanoi. For instance: last week I had two friends from Phnom Penh in Hanoi. It was another one of those long weekends that riddle the Cambodian calender like bullet-holes, a great excuse for them to bus-it and plane-it up to Hanoi to soak up some autumn breezes, street food and much-need kick it time.

I miss the hell out of my Phnom Penh friends, so it was great to catch up and roam around playing tourist. But one of the funniest things about my friends visiting was listening to their impressions of Hanoi, cause they were the exact same as mine when I arrived here. Which basically amounted to: “Holy shit, I’m in a developed country!”

Cambodia’s really gotta be one of the few countries you could come to Vietnam from and be impressed with the level of competence, wealth and infrastructure. Every time I saw the garbage collectors when I first came here—a mini-phalanx of women with rubber gloves and masks and UNIFORMS—I wanted to cry. When a xe om driver could read the address of where I was going, I nearly teared up. When my landlord installed a new stove top, with actual gas burners, I instagrammed that shit.

Both of my friends had been to Hanoi before, one more recently than the other, but their remarks were basically the same, including:

“People are so fat here!”
“Wow, a mountain bike!”
“Wow, a city bus!”
“Hanoi is like, a real city.”
“It feels like there’s so much more to explore here.”
“The beef is so good here.”
“People are kinda mean.”
“You can really feel that it’s a middle-income country.”

Comments like that made me feel good, made me laugh a bit too—when we stood on the corner and perused the poncho selection, the ones with the clear plastic in the front so you can put it over the front of your bike and still have the headlight visible (what I call the Teletubby Poncho). “The ponchos here are so nice,” running their fingers over the sturdy plastic. “How come people in Cambodia haven’t thought of this?”

All of which is great cause you hear a lot of bullshit about Vietnam—such as this god-awful post lamenting the deformed beggars (??) and fragile (haha!) Vietnamese women—shit that makes you think, “Are you sure you were in Hanoi and not Phnom Penh? Or did you just decide that Hanoi was gonna be a third-world shitshow and look for examples to confirm this belief? And when you didn’t find enough examples, you invented them?”

When I moved here there was a number of people I met who wanted to Tell Me How It Was In Vietnam. Sigh. I suppose they had good intentions, but it all chalked up to “Vietnam is so crazy!” And I just kept thinking, “Puh-lease. You clearly haven’t seen what I’ve seen.” So much so that I tuned out a lot of the lingering dysfunction and insanity of Vietnam, was so enamored with the functionality that it took me a few months to notice the things that really still weren’t developed.

All of which makes you wonder if you ever really see a place clearly, or if it’s all just an endless shifting of projections, in a Jacob’s Room sense. Which is bullshit—of course you can see a place clearly, it’s just a lot harder to do, takes a lot more thought and insight and care, and maybe only comes in fleeting moments of sensory assault.

Either way, it was great to spend a few days trolling around Hanoi in tourist-mode, seeing it again through Cambodia goggles.

My Legs in Laos and My Heart in Cambodia

From the bus

“It’s crazy,” Alicia leaned over and whispered, a precipitous landscape of green huffing past the bus window, “how much healthier people look here.”

We sat in the cramped seats of a leaky-window bus, an 11-hour ride from Vientiane up to Luang Prabang. We passed mountains of limestone that rose up like the Angkor towers, dense forest and slash-and-burn fields of black, where smoke spindled like skinny incense. Punctuating the wild were villages of thatched-roofs and rusty satellite dishes, women swatting plastic bags at the flies that hovered over their roadside produce stalls, dirt-faced children who looked up, startled from inside doorways, then smiled and waved.

It was our fourth day in Laos.

I nodded; Alicia was right. There were the racial differences—lighter skin, sharper eyes—but also a kind of impoverished solidity to the people: lean but sturdy, skin firmer, less taut than that of their Cambodian neighbors.

Laos ranks among the world’s poorest 20 countries, and it endured its own US-fueled war and rounds of secret, incessant bombing. But there’s a difference between Laos and Cambodia, a lack of trauma that feels palatable.

We arrived that night in Luang Prabang, the country’s biggest tourist attraction—a Unesco-site of colonial chill. Vientiane was pretty mellow itself, but it’s hard to get a feel for a country by one city, especially its capital, often bound to be wealthier than the rest of the place.

It’s been a week now, and little differences between Laos and Cambodia have continued to reveal themselves to me. Like there aren’t private security guards sitting in plastic chairs outside every restaurant and guesthouse. There aren’t girls, bare arms folded and legs crossed in short skirts, sitting in similar plastic chairs outside of karaokes. I haven’t seen twelve-year-olds on the sidewalk, hunched over and breathing deeply into plastic bags that fill and deflate, fill and deflate, with the rhythm of addiction.

The foreigners are different too. There’s more backpackers, nearly exclusively backpackers, it feels, all wearing a uniform of flip-flops, shorts, Beer Laos tank tops and hungover sunburns. I’ve only seen a few Western white men with local women, and in most of those instances, they’ve had mixed-race children in tow. I haven’t seen any older burn-out travelers, with missing teeth and weathered skin and the particular wiriness that decades of addiction bring (think Iggy Pop in sandals).

I’ve read the newspaper a few times; it hasn’t been filled with stories about child rapes and murders and bizarre happenings (ie: a monk being disrobed for getting caught having sex with a married woman). Signs in my guesthouses haven’t advised me against having sex with children. I don’t finish all my food at a street stall, go to pack it up and take with me, then realize there aren’t street kids to give it to. There’s sidewalks, and the electrical wires stretch down the streets in smooth, discernible lines.

I hadn’t expected these differences. They’d existed in Thailand, but Thailand is wealthier, didn’t survive a war just a few short decades ago. I’ve been experiencing them as a series of little moments, realizations, that have started to add up in me, assemble in a line, make some sort of shape—a constellation of tragedy, a map of the way tragedies continue to exist in us, reverberating like sound waves or the rings inside trees when you cut them down and turn them sideways.

Cambodia, I’d thought, didn’t seem like a place that a genocide had occurred in. Phnom Penh, when I’d first arrived and walked its blossom-lined streets, didn’t seem like a city that had been evacuated, abandoned, left to crumble and rot for four years.

But the longer I’d stayed, the more I’d become aware of these strange things, little fucked-up moments that sparked and burned like dying stars. They felt like glimpses in to something too terrifying to look at squarely. So I suppose I didn’t look, didn’t think about them more deeply than a passing pang. This is how you deal with suffering, the same way I step over junkies in the Tenderloin: you build a wall around yourself, and you need this wall—if you let it all in, you might snap, go over into that dark side you’ve glimpsed and not ever come back. It happens; it sounds dramatic but you’ve seen it happen, like the kid in middle school who takes too much acid one night and is never the same. It could be you.

What I mean to say is that I normalized all the trauma in Cambodia, in the way people normalize everything—begging children and tuk-tuk drivers that couldn’t read maps, karma-scarves faces atop pick-up trucks, eyes that blazed black in the dust.

Sometimes it takes leaving a place to really know it—the way I’ve come to know the US much better by having traveled outside it. And now that I’m in Laos, somewhere chiller and possessed by a less horrible history, I’ve suddenly become aware of all these observations that were collecting quietly in me. It’s made me reconsider Cambodia, redefine it by a comparison country. And oddly, it’s made me miss it, crave it, the way we love things we can’t save.

“I was glad I went,” Suki said as we strolled the night market tonight. “There were some cool moments and it was really educational, but man,” she paused, shook her head slightly and her earrings followed her, glimmering, “I was ready to leave. It was heavy there.”

“How do you mean?” the writer in me asked, wanting details, specifics, scenes to cite.

Spooky dolls at the market

“I don’t know, it was just this heaviness in the people.”

I looked around at the gentle bustle and glowing lights of the market, and nodded. “I think I know what you mean.”

There’s No Crackheads in Cuba, and Other Things that Strike the American Traveler as Strange

Havana Mural

Hands down, beyond a doubt, Cuba is the most different place I’ve ever traveled to.

Sure, I’ve been to non-Western countries; I’ve trekked through remote jungles studded with indigenous villages and spent a night in a water-world town-on-stilts where the night sky erupted with spontaneous flashes of thunderless lightning. But I’ve never been to another place where capitalism wasn’t a presence, and where the ensuing materialism and infiltration of American culture was so miniscule.

It’s impossible to talk about Cuba without getting into some kind of political discussion. Like everyone else, I’ve got my personal views—seeing as I was raised in a house that had 38 volumes of Lenin on the shelf, I’ll just let you guess what side of the spectrum I fall on.

But I’m not here to talk about that. Not really. What I want to talk about, and what’s of importance to the traveler to Cuba, are the ways in which Cuba is unlike any other country I’ve experienced. These reasons are inextricably linked to the country’s politics, to the revolution and the island’s legacy of struggle.

Yes, I realize I’m walking into a shitstorm. But we either dance delicately around these things, saying the same, tired, noncommittal niceties (Dante had a hell for that), or we get real—sit down, look it in the eye and say what we mean. (I’ll let you guess which option I think has more value.) Besides, I’m back home; I’ve got the toilet paper and functional plumbing to handle barrages of shit.

Oddity #1: Safety

One of the first things I read about Cuba was how safe it was. Touted in guidebooks to be paradise for solo female travelers, where any dark backalley can be delved into any time of day or night, I was willing to accept that Cuba was probably safer than Oakland. Most places are. I was still uneasy about rolling into the country with over a thousand dollars in cash on me, and neither my travel companion nor I could easily shed our well-grained habits of stone-facing strangers and checking our backs like motherfucks. But after a couple days, we loosened up. It was true: Cuba was mellow.

Break between innings

I suppose what strikes one as odd about the lack of violent crime in Cuba is that the country is so terribly poor. In the US, and most other countries in the world, poverty equals danger. From Rio’s famed favelas to Cairo’s ghettos of Sudanese refugees, to deep East Oakland, the relative safety of a neighborhood is most often directly proportionate to the level of wealth, or lack thereof. One look at the crumbling building facades and boys playing baseball with scrap pieces of plywood, and you start to understand just how poor Cuba is. And while, yes, there’s hustlers and pick-pockets, and yes, some laughing 12-year-olds tried to snatch my bag one night, the gravity of the threat of real violence isn’t there. (It would have sucked to have my bag stolen, but it sucks a lot worse to get a gun put under your chin.)

You can chalk Cuba’s safety up to a number of factors, depending on your politics and worldview: The police force is strong and no one wants to risk a lengthy stay in a Cuban prison. Protecting tourists is in the best interest of the island as a whole. Or you can think it’s got something to do with the fact that base needs like housing, education, medical care and some amount of food are all guaranteed by the Communist government, taking the edge of desperation out of the poverty equation.

Whatever the reason, walking around at night and realizing that you have no need to be weary is a strange feeling for an Oakland kid like me. Good thing we didn’t get used to it; less than 48 hours after getting home, my travel buddy was robbed at gunpoint. Welcome home.

Oddity #2: Lack of Homeless People and Drug Addicts

Cienfuegos

Beggars and bleary-eyed glue sniffers are par for the course in the cities of most poor countries. Even in one the wealthiest countries on earth (guess which one), pan-handlers, under-the-freeway encampments, and twitchy characters of all narcotic varieties are everyday fixtures on the streets, even in posh tourist attractions (San Francisco). After a couple of days wandering around Havana, I realized I hadn’t seen any cardboard alley homes and not a single crackhead. Weird.

During my time in Cuba, I got pan-handled maybe half a dozen times, and saw one toothless, staggering old lady that looked like the resident town wino. But when it came to hard-core addicts and homeless people, I didn’t see any.

The lack of homelessness is fairly obvious—the government provides housing. But Cuba is also really strict about the import of drugs. Not wanting to give the US any reason to invade, and perhaps still smarting from its soul-sucking era as a mafia paradise, the Cuban government put the ixnay on drugs, and today they’re really not a presence in Cuba. (Makes you wonder what would happen if the US made such a bold decision—oh wait, wasn’t that what the whole War on Drugs thing was about?)

The night we got home from Cuba, we went to see Neurosis play at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The venue is smack in the middle of the Tenderloin, one of the highest concentrations of human misery on the West Coast. We walked through urine-soaked sidewalks, crunching windshield glass and dodging screaming, contorted derelicts, in a kind of dazed state of shock. After two weeks in Cuba, it seemed inhumane that suffering like that could be tolerated, allowed to exist in such a rich, rich nation. It was the worst culture shock I’ve ever experienced.

Oddity #3: Lack of Advertising and Lots of Government Propaganda

Okay, you’re gonna see a lot of government propaganda. Pro-revolutionary billboards, Vive Fidel banners, smiling pictures of Hugo Chavez: it’s all a little unnerving, I’m not gonna lie. But then you realize why it seems like there’s so damn much of it in Cuba (aside from the fact that there is): there’s no other advertising out there.

You forget how much energy you spend blocking out flashing signs, automated voices, beautifully anorexic, air-brushed girls selling perfume and cell phones and chewing gum. Until you don’t have to do it. I’ve heard really high-end resorts make you feel the same way, like you can let your mental filters down and just relax. Well, until I get a rich sponsor, Cuba’s gonna be the closest I come.

If it’s true that you can learn a lot about a culture through its advertising, then it’s also true you can learn a lot about a culture about its lack of advertising. Cubans are insanely open and friendly, and while there’s plenty of cultural factors contributing, couldn’t one of the reasons be that they’re not constantly fending off the barrage of catchy slogans and glossy images of psychologically invasive advertising? At the same time, the government is an inescapable presence on the island; one is constantly given visual reminders of the pro-government stance everyone’s supposed to take.

It’s a stretch, but maybe. All I know for sure is that my brain got a real vacation in Cuba.

Oddity #4: Havana Has a Chinatown (With Three Chinese People in It)

And it’s actually the oldest Chinatown in the Western Hemisphere.

A then-vegan, I had a mean hankering for some tofu when I was in Havana. I thought my best bet was Chinatown, the touristy relic of Cuba’s once-robust Chinese population, originally brought over in the mid 19th century to work in the sugar fields. I elbowed amid the throngs on foreigners and grabbed a seat under the red awning of a restaurant whose menu listed something I assumed was bean cakes. Ten minutes later, a steaming plate of bean sprouts, and nothing but bean sprouts, was placed before me. My then-boyfriend laughed.

Havana’s Chinatown stands as a reminder that the country has plenty of pre-Castro history, often overshadowed. Most of the Chinese laborers brought over intermarried, infusing the Cuban cocktail with Asian genes; thus, there aren’t a whole lot of fully Chinese looking people left in Chinatown. I saw a couple dudes smoking in the traditional squat, but it was honestly the most un-Chinese Chinatown I’ve ever been to. And the most devoid of tofu.


Oddity #5: The Resilience of Cuban People

It’s kind of a Cuban cliche: some cigar-smoking, deeply wrinkled dude fixing a 30-year-old bicycle with a piece of dental floss and an old Coke can (or something to that extent). Cuban people are renowned as the global experts in reusing everything, wasting nothing, helping each other out and not complaining (partially because of political repression, but still). Cubans are like the one friend you have that can fix anything, who relishes in helping you figure out why your car is making that funny noise and who repairs the holes in their sneakers instead of tossing them to hang over the telephone wires. Yes, part of it is a result of years of rationing and making do, but I think it gets down to a deeper cultural characteristic, one born of imperialism.

Another gem from the Havana mural

The best explanation I read of why Cubans are so resilient and continue to come together and make do is that, by and large, they want the Revolution to succeed. (I’m not talking Miami Cubans now. And this isn’t necessarily my perspective, but a well-informed argument that made a lot of sense.) However deeply flawed and difficult the Revolution is, it’s still the first time in 500 years that the island’s been run by Cubans. From Spanish colonialism to puppet governments to foreign-owned sugar plantations, outsiders had the ultimate power in pre-Castro Cuba. The country was endemically violent and deeply divided down lines of race, class and ethnic origin—divisions that don’t disappear in 50 years, but have improved. Castro’s Revolution is the longest enduring era of Cuban control since the Spanish arrived on the island. That’s a really powerful statement, one that can help you understand why Cubans endure so much and continue to struggle.

Of course, one could easily argue that all this is at risk. The impending end to the US embargo will mean an immediate influx of American culture and goods. And however much outsiders may want Cuba to remain a junkie-free, billboard-less Eden of free health care and high literacy, the end of the embargo will be a damn good thing for Cubans. But I’m glad I got to go pre-post-embargo, and experience some of the strangest things an Oakland girl can.

Morocco: First Impressions

DSCN3259As I staggered off the Tarifa ferry, through the desserted port gates and into the quiet Tangier morning, I had a thought I’ve had before. It was the same thought I had as I first stared through a taxi window at the hazy Lima streets, when I first stepped out the Bogota airport, when I walked around big bad cities like Caracas and Mexico City. The thought is, “Oh. This is it?”

And I don’t mean it in a disappointed, anti-climatic way. The opposite, in fact. After all the hype, all the warnings and precautions, horror stories and wayward looks, my initial reaction to notorious destinations I’ve encountered is, “Hey, this isn’t so bad. Or so scary or different.”

Okay, I admit the squat toilet I used earlier in a restaurant bathroom was a little different. And I didn’t expect that hooded jellabas would look so curiously like clan robes. But, really—the intense cultural shock I’d been prepping for, again, didn’t hit.

My guidebook had prepared me to be inundated with pushy faux guides as soon as I left the port gates, to be lured into medina shops and held captive till I bought something, to be oogled and followed like a celebrity by sex-starved adolescents because I’m a solo Western female. Guess what? None of these things happened.

DSCN3241What did happen: I left the port gates, took a moment getting my orientation, and found the left luggage office. The clerk and I fumbled with mutally poor Spanish, and I left my backpack secure. I headed uphill, largely ignored by every passerby, and parked it at a cafe along the Grand Socco. I lazed, and have been wandering the Medina and Ville Nouvelle ever since. I plan on getting a coffee at the Beat-beloved Cafe Paris before meeting up with my couchsurfing host (only slightly concerned we won’t actually connect).

So far, the street harassment I so feared is, well, about what it is at home. Maybe less. A few young men have said hello in whatever white-person language they think I might speak; I’ve been the target of one gross kissing sound, and received one offer to be bought coffee. In short, Latin America still wins the prize for harassment, cat-calling and all-around-demeaning (but what kind of prize would that be?).  Attempts in Tangier have thus far proven half-hearted, generally good-natured and easy to brush off.

DSCN3236I’m also surprised by the dress of the women. I wasn’t expecting burkhas or even necesarily hijabs, but I’ve even seen some short sleeves—on the younger women, that is. I’m tromping around town in long sleeves, but I’ve seen many tourists in spaghetti straps and shorts. I have yet to see visible tattoos (does a knock-off Ed Hardy shirt count?), which I’ll take as a que to keep mine covered.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was for half the city to still be shut down for Eid (thus the killing of time in an internet cafe). The attractions I’d starred in my guidebook have all been closed, and I haven’t been able to find any open shops in which to buy better long-sleeve shirts in. I’m hoping for tomorrow.

As I wandered around the Medina’s narrow Medieval “streets” (some aren’t as wide as my arms’ reach), I came around a blind corner and narrowly missed walking dead into a hijab-donning middle-aged women. We paused, made eye contact; we both smiled and laughed, then went on our way. I guess this is the oh-so-frightening Morocco, Muslim, African and not all that different.


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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