Posts Tagged 'independent travel'

How To Rock in Kosovo

Show flier

1. Get up at 5am. Ease open the lock on your cupboard and stuff your purse full of the only socks and scarves you own. Leave the key on the counter and walk through the black-morning streets. Think about how Genti said this city was best at 4am—a different place without the cars, all smooth and still; think about how you’re an hour off but how he’s right.

Meet Robo at the bus stop, which isn’t a bus stop but a street corner with two wheezing vehicles, bumpers touching like a kiss. Drink an espresso and still fall asleep before the bus leaves.

2. Wake up when your ears start popping, look out the window and see only mist—a kind of apocalyptic mist that’s mixed with pollution so you don’t know which is which—mist and trash and dogs sleeping in the median by the border control. Think of “The Road.” Hand the man your passport, remark how you thought you’d be the only navy one, have Robo reply, “The others are former Yugoslavia passports.”

Hazy border median

It’s easy when the man comes back on the bus—he calls the names of everyone, groggy hands reclaiming documents—but for you, he just hands it over, doesn’t even look up.

3. Stop at the cafe, squat toilet and sensor towel dispenser. Eat a salad for a Euro, wrap the hunk of bread in napkins and tuck it in your purse. Robo goes across the road to the market, comes back with a bottle wrapped in newspaper and a plastic bag, “Like in America,” he says and laughs and drinks.

4. Fiddle-rock and Turkish pop, Kosovo countryside through the window: tire-less cars on the roof, pile of trash burning and man warms his hands, leans his ear into a cell phone. Dead dog in the ditch, blood-matted fur and lolling tongue. RC Cola ad. Hotel Luxory, Hotel Florida, Hotel OK—two points for honesty.

That's not a real beverage

5. Arrive at the Pristina bus station. Jay-walk across the overpass and remark how cars actually stop for you. See a Bill Clinton statue, see Yankee flag and American knock-off products everywhere: American Hot Dog, American Doughnut, American Cola. Say: “They must be the last country left on Earth that likes us.”

6. Go to Tingle Tangle, a hipster coffee shop that could be in Brooklyn or SF, except everyone’s smoking, smoking, inside and out, and a 10-year-old walks by, box full of cigarettes and you shake your head no. Sit in the sun and order a cappuccino, which you find out is a mocha, and look at the macchiato Bledi orders and say, “That’s a cappuccino,” and he says, “No, it’s a macchiato.”

Word.

The kids are different here, in Kosovo, where you’ve come for a music festival called Cow Fest, or something like that. They speak Albanian, but a different type of Albanian, more slang, they tell you, looser and more wild. The kids look more European or American or something—hip in the way we like to be hip, sweaters and beards and slept-on hair—less like Tirana, where most of the kids are trying so hard to look Western they just fail—an approximation based on music videos and bad Hollywood movies, a hauty snootiness the girls assume, cheap shoes and too-much make-up, in the face of that failure. Say something about this, and they tell you, “Yes, yes”—how Kosovo’s been more connected to the Western world, how in Yugoslavia they could travel while Albania was on lock-down, how the music scene is better here but how the city’s smaller, less dynamic.

Nod and drink your fake cappuccino. See an “Occupy Pristina” sticker, and open your purse, your notebook, dig out one the Obey stickers Greg gave you, metal drawer full. Peel off the back and put it up. Wonder if anyone will know what it means. Take a picture.

7. Take a taxi to the one cheap guesthouse in town, share it with Gredy, who’s got a half-melted face and you don’t ask why—with Mardi and Marin, who you remember from last year and who remember you too. Reception smells like stale smoke in the underground, and the cupboard’s got tea cups and condoms, and the staticy TV has an “I ❤ English" sticker on it. Astro-turf-style carpet runner, crash for a disco nap—bleary limbs back awake for the walk down the hill.

8. Sound check at Oda, the theater where the festival will be: velvet wallpaper and cement floors. First espresso’s free. We leave Mardi there, cello and guitars—walk through a shopping mall where Marin stares through the window at hiking boots, “They’re all shit in Albania”—just finished another season tour guiding and wants to get out of the country fast (Pristina doesn’t count), wants to go to Rome or Berlin, wants to play the guitar, wants to meet a nice girl.

But first he wants a hamburger, so we go to Route 66, an American style diner with the requisite Monroe/Dean/Elvis pictures, and a Mexican section on the laminated menu. Shake your head and order the sorriest, soggiest salad you've seen all trip.

9. Walk the town, the cold hurts: back to Tingle Tangle, over to the opening of a photography exhibit where they play Son House and you laugh. Some other smokey bar, always a smokey bar, and, no, you still don’t want a drink. Clear liquid in short glasses, a kind of grappa, and you feel like you’re in the way. Walk again, and the cold still hurts.

10. Go back to Oda, wait for the first band. Proceeds from the festival go to purchase cows for local farmers in need, and you ask how much a cow costs—“500 Euros.” Figure out your entrance bought 1% of a cow. Try to figure out how many people there are, how many cows you’ve bought so far. “It was bigger last year.”

Marin’s bummed cause the DJ he wanted to see has canceled, and Robo stands in the back, and the first band sucks, a jazzy quartet with a hip-hop-style MC. Go for another walk, the cold colder—buy chestnuts and sit at a table in the mall, shedding shells and tell Robo your writing dilemma and ask for advice. It’s slurry now, but solid. Nod and know what you have to do.

11. There’s a fleet of teenagers back at Oda, and the floor is sticky and a punk band is playing and they’re decent, despite shotty vocal levels. Nod and watch the limbs of a mini-pit thrash, silhouette against the stage lights, not too unlike home. You’ll decide later it was the best band of the night.

The next band “is real shit”—girl with dreads pinned into a bun, scatting while the band jams, but no real set, no real songs—so you sit against the back wall with your knees to your chest, which reminds you of being a teenager. They’ve only raised a cow and a half so far, “Last year it was seven,” and they say how the show wasn’t promoted this year, how everyone was fighting, how another band canceled last minute—how still, the scene is better than in Tirana, where they’ve nearly stopped having shows, where it’s all cover bands—“We lost our best guitarist to Pristina!” Marin exclaims as he grabs Bledi’s cheeks.

Decide it’s still decent enough to rock to, and nod your head, even though you’re sitting in the back and you’re tired, which is how you rock anyway these days—“Granny style,” you tell Robo and laugh, as he takes another swig from his plastic-bag bottle, America-style.

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

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

So, sometimes, success can be yours.

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

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

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

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

And the room rates drop like mad.

So really, what more could a cheapskate blogger want?

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

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

Proof I was there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled. “Yes, I’m alone today.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures in Lao Transit: Ban Natane to Savannakhet

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

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

Picturesque breakdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how we roll/paddle

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

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

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

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

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

I took one step into the stairwell and stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessing of String and Sticky Rice: Day One in Ban Natane

The man held my open palm in his. In it, he placed a small clump of sticky rice and pork. He raised his right hand to his face, murmured blessings in a language I didn’t understand. He waved a piece of string, then tied it around my wrist.

“He wishes you good health, good luck,” Pauline translated.

I smiled, bowed. Outside the open-air room, lightning stuttered the night sky white.

Sometimes you end up some weird-ass places traveling. Not that they’re weird, so much as it’s weird that you’re there, that you ended up there—that the gods of circumstance conspired, whispering in their thunderous perch above grey rock, to bring you there. And it was like that in Ban Natane.

To say Ban Natane is off the beaten path is an understatement. Cut off from the rest of world by impassable roads, the only way to reach it and its neighboring four villages is through the Kong Lo Cave. Which is how I got there.

I met Pauline trolling the town of Ban Na Hin for travel companions. The boat ride through the cave costs 100,000 kip, so I was on the lookout for people to split the ride with. Pauline sat on the computer in front of her guesthouse. As it turned out, she was a French anthropology student doing her Masters research on Ban Natane and its neighbors; she was meeting her local supervisor and translator the next day and headed back to the village for another 10-day stay. “If you’d like to come with us,” she made that characteristic French popping noise, “it’s no problem.”

On the sawng thaew ride to the cave’s entrance, she filled me in the details. A French NGO was sponsoring the development of eco-tourism in the Ban Natane area. To date, all homestays and eco-tourism in the area have focused on the Ban Kong Lo side of the cave—you take a boat ride through, come back and sleep on the more developed side of the cave.

“No one stays on this side,” she told me, “because tourists don’t know the villages are there.” Since the only viable way to reach the villages is through the cave, Ban Natane and its neighbors have remained quite isolated, not reaping the rewards/wealth of tourism. “In all of last year,” Pauline told me, “only 20 tourists came to Ban Natane.”

The eco-tourism project was focused on developing facilities for homestays and training locals to act as guides into the caves and waterfalls that surround the region. Pauline’s project focused on documenting the traditional agricultural way of life, interviewing locals about the history and their feelings about tourism, and then studying the impact.

Emerging

So the Kon Lo cave became, not my destination, but the passageway into another world. Which actually what it felt like—a limestone cavern like a mouth, dripping with stalagmites, the squeal and swoop of bats, where mist floated off the cool water like thin ghosts. It felt like moving through some deeply internal part of the earth, through its innards or petrified organs.

We emerged on the other side. Where most people turn around, we began walking down a dirt road. My cheap flip flops had finally busted, so I walked the 2km barefoot. In the distance, the sky grumbled. We arrived in Ban Natane just as the afternoon storm erupted.

My homestay was with one of the wealthier families in town. They owned the town’s only shop (and thus had packets of Nescafe in abundance), goods that had all been transported on skinny wooden boats through the cave, as they had been for generations. Even the TV. “TV only arrived here three months ago,” Pauline told me. “So the children,” she gestured towards the little ones gathered rapt around the glowing screen, “they are like this.”

The storm cleared and she showed me around the village. Everything enthralled me—I am, as previously admitted, a total city kid, so the presence alone of ducks, pigs, chickens and goats was thrilling, let alone the sarongs and hoes and looms beneath the stilted houses.

We shared dinner with the family that night, as we would for all our meals during my 2-day stay. As isolated as it is, the food was all local, not by trend as it is in the Bay Area, but by necessity—foraged snails, fish, frogs. “Frog season has just started,” Pauline translated from her Lao supervisor, “so we will eat a lot of frog.” (Sure enough, I had it 4 meals in a row.)

Walking that night, we three were called over to a large house. I could tell it was a wealthy person’s home because it had a ground floor, constructed of brick—like the TVs, this was new, Pauline told me, as traditional homes were all stilted and wooden. “It means you need more space, and have the money to build it.” She paused. “So modernity is already coming.”

Men sat on the floor around a type of altar, banana-leaf adorned in white flowers. It wasn’t a mystical vibe—they sat in polo shirts and slacks, chatting casually. A large silver bowl of pig parts, a leg and half a head, lay beside baskets of sticky rice.

We were motioned to sit, a village-made scarf thrown over our left shoulders. The man in charge began talking—“a blessing,” Pauline whispered. He held another man’s open palm, put a clump of food and a plastic cup of lao lao in it, chanted, tied the string. Then everyone commenced to bless each other.

“It’s a ceremony called baci,” Pauline translated. “They’re having it for special visitors—the district chief came today.” People took photos with digital cameras; I assumed those to be the wealthy and important visitors.

We were soon called into the mix. I wound up with a bangle of string around my right wrist and an even fuller tummy. The storms continued in the sky outside. Old men smiled as they blessed me, as they blessed each other.

And I had one of those moments when your life feels like a dream, some foreign place you don’t quite understand how you ended up in. Yes, I rode an old wooden boat through a cave and walked down a dirt road—but how I really got to Ban Natane or that ceremony, I suspected, had little to do with that. It didn’t make sense, to my Western mind, why I’d be so welcomed, so embraced here.

And so blessed.

***

Travel Tips: Getting to Ban Natane

It’s actually pretty simple, even if you don’t have an anthropologist as your guide. Take your day bag, sturdy plastic sandals, a good flashlight and some snacks with you on your boat ride. It’ll still cost 100,000 kip, even if you only take it one way. So it goes.

Get off at the snack stands. Only buy the snacks if you’re desperate; since they have to be transported through the cave, they’re fuck-all expensive. Anyway, there’ll be a blue sign that haphazardly explains the homestays:

From the snack stands, there’s two dirt roads. Facing the sign, Ban Natane is down the road to your left. Straight ahead, across the bridge, is another closer village, though from what I understand, there’s less facilities for homestays. If you arrive in Ban Natane and say “homestay,” you’ll get hooked up. Or just show up and look like a Westerner, and they’ll know what to do with you.

Bringing a Lao phrasebook would be goddamn useful. There may be some people floating around who speak a few scraps of English; there’s rumored to be an English teacher at the school in the village, though she was out of town when I was there. If you can manage to communicate, there’s bikes you can rent or a couple good treks to go on, if it’s the dry season. Next month, an NGO will be holding a tour guide training course for locals, so I imagine there will be much more in the way of communication and tour options shortly.

On The Road to Nowhere: Finding an Anti-Place, Part 2

Our pick-up truck bounded down the smooth pavement, creating a muggy breeze. We moved down a strip of the coast, a highway and a shade of green I think I’ll forever associate with Thailand, and that’s the place the people came through. It was 30 years ago and there’s not a lot left—unless you know where to look.

I didn’t. I kept craning my neck through the grating of the covered truck bed, trying to catch a sign for Khao Lan. I was lucky, I discovered, in that a giggly group of five teenage girls with straw mats and beach towels were getting off at Khao Lan as well. They’d spend the entire 40-minute ride squealing and chatting and texting. When we glided to an easy stop, they pointed and exclaimed to me, “Khao Lan!”

We trundled off, stood on the swampy roadside of a military checkpoint. “Beach?” one of the girls asked me shyly.

“Museum,” I replied.

“Museum,” she repeated softly. The word caused a buzz among her friends. “Museum!” one of them exclaimed assuredly, and pointed to a white structure obscured by the green.

I thanked them with a small bow of my head—I hadn’t learned “thank you” in Thai—and watched them disappear down the road.

The museum was modern, diagonal columns and a glass skylight structure that didn’t at all seem to fit the landscape. The adjoining parking lot was empty and the museum gates locked.

The guard at the military checkpoint back on the road made an eating motion. He pointed to his watch, held up one finger. I nodded and wandered back down towards the museum grounds, thinking how strangely simple it was, how much you could communicate without words, without a common language, just signs and gestures and hints, a smile and a bow.

Green signs were stuck amid the grasses, and those communicated a lot less. Were they marking something related to the camp that had once stood there? I couldn’t be sure, but photographed them just in case.

I walked deeper into the grounds. A buzz grew from the trees like a living thing, like it weren’t the product of a living thing, a million unseen insects, but an animal in and of itself. It whined and hissed and followed me down the road.

There were beaten bits of earth, what had once been a road. Chunks of cement remained, with earth growing back up around it, like a scab before it peels. There were clearings in the grass, and I tried to figure out if they were remains or something used for farming, the stray huts I could spot off between the trees.

But I walked further and found translated markers—something, not in a common language, but my language, a scribble I could understand. I held my breath and tried to imagine tents and roads and some 90,000 people.

I couldn’t. It was just wind and rubble, stairs to nowhere and the earth growing back up around.

The museum was open by the time I got back, and I slid off my shoes and stepped inside. A lone female attendant smiled at me and went back to sweeping the floor.

The museum was strange. It was mostly a tribute to the Queen, a tribute to her goodwill as evidenced by her selfless saving of Cambodian refugees. Everything was framed in that context—photographs of a glamorous white-skinned woman walking through a city of tents in a white suit, a floppy sun hat and Jackie-O sunglasses. She crouched beside the thin and sick, bellies swollen and eyes dulled, a look of practiced concern. She sat before a group of children, an opened book in her hands: The children listened rapt, the words of the Queen forever imprinted in their minds.

Subtext: Thailand is the only country in SE Asia to have never officially fallen under imperalist control.

But still, she’d done a good thing, a damn good thing. The museum included three life-size scenes that reminded me of wildlife dioramas, the kind my best friend meticulously restores, repainting eyes and gluing on fake fur.

Wax Cambodian figures, their bodies worn and their faces contorted by grief, stood in varying poses of despair, before a painting of thick jungle, more faces and bodies coming through the trees. Other scenes depicted varying elements of camp life: cooking pots of rice, a white woman holding a stethoscope to the chest of a small wax infant. The dark Cambodian bodies grew plumper, more solid.

I wondered if that’s what it’d looked like—the emergence from the woods and the camp life. I thought of the newsreel footage of camps I’d seen, the faces in the camps, and decided it was worse.

(“You’ve seen The Killing Fields?” Lisa asked my mom once. My mom said yes. Lisa nodded. “It was much worse.”)

For its oddity and drama, I wondered, if there were any other museums like this, that documented this particular snippet, this part of journey, this freeze-frame from the film reel of a movie you’ve never managed to see all of, keep catching out of sequence or coming in half-way through.

I stood barefoot in an empty museum of transience, while the earth outside slowly swallowed the remains of what was left, which wasn’t much at all. I tucked some crumbled bills into the donation box, slid my shoes back on, and stepped out into the heat.

Take Me To The Jungle, And Don’t Ever Take Me Back

Okay, so outdated pop culture references aside, hear me and hear me well: Jungle Beach is the stuff of backpacker folklore.

A rustic, simple homestay: a cluster of bamboo cabanas on a sandy lot, shaded by the whispering palms of trees; hammocks and hand-made lounge chairs; a communal dining room where guests gather twice a day for meals; thatched sun umbrellas stuck into the sand of a postcard beach.

Sometimes a place feels so special that you don’t really want to write about—as though writing about it would sully it, or giving it words—trying to give it words—would cheapen it, lessen it, and you want to keep it a private, precious thing.

I arrived at Jungle Beach a little heart-heavy (see previous post), a bit of melancholy sprung up, as though something tapped into a murmuring, gargling reserve of oil beneath the surface of me and wasn’t shooting out like a geyser, but rather seeping through, leaking out into the sunlight.

In any case, I crawled off the overnight bus a stop early, 40km outside Nha Trang—5:30 am on a dusty strip of highway that consituted the town Doc Let. I took a motorbike the next 20-some km, sleep-blurred and thirty-mouthed, to Jungle Beach. I arrived, and I didn’t ever want to leave.

It wasn’t the kind of place that immediately bowls you over. “This is nice,” I thought, as I curled up under a thin blanket, inside a soft blue mosquito net. But the place grew on me—or I grew into it.

Hours and days passed in some sort of other time zone. Wake up with the sun. Jog on the beach or do yoga on a mat in the shade. Eat breakfast. Do some writing, some reading. Lay on the beach. One of the workers comes out and says it’s lunchtime. Rise off my feet, sit at the communal table, pass bowls of meat and veggies and rice and sweet chili sauce. Have another coffee. Go back to the beach. Not even read, really, just lay there—lay there thinking, or not thinking, just watching the waves and feeling my own kind of waves inside, welling up, rising and receeding, as though I were standing on the banks of a monumental sadness, whose bounds I didn’t know, just the pull of its gravity. Cry sometimes, about nothing in particular.

Three pm, and someone comes out with a little plastic plate of fruit, pineapple or pomello or watermelon. Eat it with a toothpick, get a coconut, drink it and scrape it clean with a spoon. Go wade in the water, hopping waves or letting them pummel me, or floating on my back and watching the great white clouds walk across the sky. Shower, check my email, write. Gather for dinner and spend hours afterwards chatting with the other travelers—mostly couples, mostly German for some reason, but really cool people, different ages but all open and friendly. Feel like it’s midnight when it’s only 9, say good night and curl up under a thin blanket, inside a soft blue mosquito net. Repeat as necessary.

The place was built by a dude named Sylvio, who walks around shirtless and smoking, a tough old guy (see character study in upcoming post). He bought the land nearly 10 years ago, and built the place slowly, each cabana by hand, and it’s become the stuff of backpacker folklore.

One of the most impressive parts of Jungle Beach is the staff. The staff to guest ratio was almost 1:1, a friendly, laid-back Vietnamese staff that didn’t pander to the guests and fawn over them, but was attentive—in short, that actually seemed to really care that we had a good time. Ten years of working in the service industry, and I’ve decided that that’s all people really want—to feel taken care of, to feel like you actually give a shit. It’s a rare thing, and it doesn’t necessarily come with heafy price tags and swanky surroundings. It comes, to be completely and utterly trite, from the heart.

I spent four days and three nights doing virtually nothing at Jungle Beach. And as my depature neared, I found myself desperately not wanting to leave. I discovered, without having known it, that I really needed that time—to decompress, to clear out some space, to get ready for the project I’m about to embark on. And yet I didn’t feel rejuvenated, in a sense; I felt simply like I didn’t want to leave.

But what would another day have done? What would another week or year done? Will I ever actually work through all this whatever-it-is I carry in me? Will I ever be done? No, no, it was time to go.

But I can’t ever remember feeling so sad to leave a place. I looked around—it all seemed so precious. I actually almost cried. What the hell is all this? Am I going crazy? Am I becoming soft in my old age?

I got in the taxi and we bumped off, leaving the buildings and the thatched roofs and the gate and the barking dogs in a billow of dust behind us.


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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