Posts Tagged 'southeast asia'



Going To The Bathroom Abroad: The Butt Hose Edition

This is my bathroom. As you can see, it’s nothing special (aside from how clean it is). It’s actually nicer than my last bathroom back in the States, with its black mold and peeling linoleum. Because contrary to what some folks back home have envisioned, I’m actually not living in a straw hut. Nor am I not taking dumps crouched down over a squat toilet. Using the bathroom is a totally Western affair.

Except.

Look closer—what’s that thing snaking out from the wall and resting perkily in its holster?

Why, it’s a butt hose.

I don’t know if that’s what it’s actually called, but that’s what I call it. Maybe I haven’t been looking closely, but I haven’t seen butt hoses outside of Asia.

At first they confounded me. What the fuck were you supposed to do with that thing? I thought it might be for cleaning and admittedly used it as such once—got a real good angle on those hard-to-reach tiles behind the toilet. But that couldn’t really explain why I’d see the butt hoses around town, in fairly squalid bathrooms where toilets were either missing seats or were of the squat variety, and where toilet paper was a laughably far-fetched wish.

You know those little old ladies that sit outside bus station bathrooms in Latin America and charge you to enter? You know how they give you one painstaking square of toilet paper? I was thinking that Southeast Asia could really stand to learn from that jam. I mean, the pay-to-stand-on-a-scale hustle appears to be worldwide, so why not the charge-for-toilet-paper hustle?

Haha---these signs are reeeeal funny, until you go into a bathroom with muddy foot prints on the toilet seat

Cause they don’t use it.

Word?

Word.

Well, not everyone doesn’t use it. But from what I hear, the butt hose is the Southeast Asian answer to toilet paper. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense: instead of smearing a dry piece of paper around there, you give the area a refreshing little spritz. It’s kind of genius, and far less intrusive and intimidating than a bidet, with its cranks and levers that strike fear and worries of cultural inadequacy into the hearts of Americans.

The butt hose takes up a lot less space too—just sits there innocuously against the wall, as if to say, “Use me if you’d like, madame.” It doesn’t stare at you from beside the toilet, in that way that makes you comfortable and unable to look away while you’re dropping one, wondering if you’re a less evolved human being because you can never figure out how to spell, much less use, that European contraption of ass-refinement. It’s a metaphor, really, when you think about it.

I’ve become a big fucking fan of the butt hose. Once it was explained to me, I began to work it in to my shit-taking repertoire—cautiously at first, perfecting my preferred angle and pressure. Now I’m a convert. A missionary, actually, since I felt the need to carry the good news to a friend over lunch yesterday:

“Dude, have you gotten into the butt hose?”

“The what?”

“You know, that hose you see in all the bathrooms?”

“Yeah, what’s up with that?”

[Insert semi-graphic demo and staring eyes from the neighboring tables.]

It’s really taken my dump-taking to a new level. But, because I’m so fucking international and can’t be confined to any one culture, I’ve taken to doubling up—using both the butt hose, then toilet paper to dry. It’s like a mini-shower for my nethers. And considering how much you sweat here, any extra freshening is a welcome affair.

So hello there, new friend. You’re looking fresh today. What’s that you say? Well, don’t mind if I do…

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Too Legit: The Insanely Easy Process of Getting My One-Year Visa in Cambodia

So, yesterday I got this:

I walked back down to the travel agency, one of the 800 that line the riverside, where I’d dropped my passport off two days earlier. I handed the man the $288 fee, grinning like a jackass. “That was so easy!” I exclaimed.

He gave me a wonky eye.

“I don’t know of any other country where it’s so easy to get a visa.”

“Really?” he smiled that bashful Cambodian smile.

“Totally. Cambodia—very very easy.”

I got my change and left the office still grinning. (I think the man thought I was a little off.)

But it’s true: I’m no expert on immigration, visa and residency laws, but I don’t personally know of another country where you can show up, get a 30-day visa upon arrival and then extend that visa for a year, with no applications or procedures.

It’s one of the reasons I decided to make the move out here. I’d fantasized about living abroad for years. The EU/Schengen Zone was entirely out of the question. And even in relatively easy countries like Argentina and Thailand, you’ve got to make a visa run every 90 days; procuring a work permit is another whole hassle. Cambodia?—as far as everyone I’ve talked to can tell, work permits don’t exist in this country.

“Word’s getting out,” “Lisa,” my go-to lady on all things expat-related, told me. “There’s been a huge influx of expats in the last six months. They do this Thanksgiving dinner every year at this pub. This year, they sold out by 4pm. You should have heard the dudes on Khmer 440!”

“It won’t stay this way of long,” a US Immigration lawyer based here told me. “But for now, yes—it’s one of the easiest countries for foreigners to live and work in.”

It’s tempting to write an article, a how-to-get-a-Cambodian-visa guide. It’d involve very little research, since the process is so fucking easy. But, in my inflated sense of self-importance, I’m not entirely sure I want to help “the word get out.” You know how Seoul just announced that they’re kicking out all foreign English teachers by 2014? Exactly.

So I’ll share what I did: Upon arrival at the Phnom Penh airport, I got an “ordinary” visa. It costs $25, as opposed to the $20 tourist visa. Getting an ordinary visa instead of a tourist visa is literally as easy as checking a box on a form. Both visas are valid for 30 days; a tourist visa can only be extended once, however, for an additional 30-day period, while an ordinary visa can be extended for up to a year. So, a little before my ordinary visa was to expire, I popped into one of the travel agencies on the riverside and gave them my passport, along with a passport photo (they really love those extra passport photos in SE Asia). I came back two days later, paid dude, perhaps made a grinning ass out of myself, and that was that.

Just like that, I’m legit. Dare I say, too legit…

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Phnom Penh

Note: The literary nerds among you will recognize this as a rip-off play on Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

1. Lisa, American, 1.5 years:
“You get a lot of big egos,
people who think
they’re hot shit.
But you have to remember:
we’re all here cause
we can’t hack it out there”—
points outside,
beyond the street,
to the West—
“in the real world.”

2. Tommy, British, 6 years off-and-on
“Where else could I”—
hand tattoos and a missing eye—
“get a job teachin?”

3. Steven, American, 4 years
“This city’s a dangerous place
to have money
and a drinking problem.”

4. Kate, Australian, 7 months
“People do
what they can get away with:
drinking all day, sleeping
with prostitutes,
saying racist shit.”
Stirs margarita.
“This city reduces you
to what you really are.”

5. Sasha, American, 1 month
“I’ve never been anywhere
where I’ve felt so manic.”

6. Hank, American, 4 years
“In the time I’ve been here,
I’ve quit my job, no shit,
5 times. And each time,
whatever I’d lined up next
fell through. So”—
shrugs—“at a certain point, I just decided:
I’m gonna stay here
until I learn whatever lessons
I’m supposed to.”

7. Clare, American, 3 years
“It’s not that easy,
just picking up and leaving.
I have 19 employees, women
who depend on me
for their livelihoods.
But at the same time”—
looks out the tuk-tuk
at the street—
“I know I need to leave soon.
I can’t get stuck.”

8. Lisa (again)
“The thing about it is,
it all becomes normal.
You realize,
the guys sleeping with prostitutes—
they’re not all creepy and weird,
like you’d expect.
Most of them are totally normal.”
Surveys the bar
in one sweeping glance.
“I guess that’s the strangest thing:
how normal it all is.”

9. Boy in cafe, American accent, time unknown
“I can’t tell you
how many times it’s happened—
I go for an interview;
they ask me
to do a draft of a project;
they never call me back, but
they steal my ideas.”
Tosses pen across the table.
“They’re lazy
and sneaky
and can’t think for themselves.”

10. Martin, American, 6 years
“Whenever I get into that place,
you know,
when all of Cambodia
has got it wrong—
when no one knows how to drive
and every police officer is trying to get a bribe outta me—
that’s when I know I’ve got to sit down
and take a good long look
at me.”

11. Michelle, Australian, 3 years
“I tried.
Of course I tried.
But it’s hard to have Khmer friends
when you can’t tell them
you live with your boyfriend,
and they have be home
by 8 every night.”

12. Lisa (again)
“You totally just blew that guy off.
You do realize
that’s the last time
a white guy’s gonna hit on you
for a loooong time.”

13. Billy, British, 5 months
“There’s a lot of people like you,
moving here
cause it’s cheap
and they can do their art.
It’s not so different
from people moving to different cities
within a country
cause it’s cheaper and easier.”
Grins.
“I think it’s exciting.
Like Paris in the 20s.
Or something.”

Jogging Where Tanks Once Rolled

Aerobic dancing at Olympic Stadium

3pm, barefoot in the dim room, whirling fans and headphones on, staring at the screen. It’s my first trip back to the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, where I spent hours last spring, trolling through their archives of documentaries and newsreels and scanned photographs of the old Phnom Penh, before the war—which, it seems to me today, doesn’t look so different from the Phnom Penh outside the open-air terrace, just minus the new cars and sidewalks. Sometimes.

I’m back to refresh myself. I’m working on editing my second Glimpse piece. I wrote it over the summer and haven’t looked at it in months, so when I got Sarah’s comments, it all felt vague and faraway. I knew I needed something to kickstart me.

To be honest, I haven’t been thinking much about my project, or the Khmer Rouge, or any of it. Last time I’d arrived, it’d been on my mind constantly, a lens I saw everything through: everyone over 35 was a survivor. I couldn’t turn it off, and I’d hit the ground running, dove right in to the research and writing, the quest to understand.

And it’s not like I’ve forgotten all that—I can feel it, sitting there, off to the side and waiting, in the corner of the room when I can’t sleep at night—but my focus has been elsewhere. Getting an apartment. Buying all the crap I need—dishes and towels and non-neon-plastic chairs and Western bedsheets (really effing hard to find, btw). Reconnecting with the friends I’ve got left, and making new ones. Getting a phone and internet and finding a good laundry place and all that very unglamorous day-to-day stuff that’s part of life, part of living somewhere.

So I’ve pushed it all aside, knowing that it was waiting and that I’d come to it when I was ready (and, really, I’ve only been back two weeks). So it was with a little hesitation that I went to Bophana, took off my shoes and climbed the steps, climbed back in to The Reason I Came, and the thick-as-mud emotional difficulty of it all.

Most of the newsreels are in French, and I watch ones from the Thai refugee camps, 79-80; I watch the same newscaster in different suits, and fish out token words of French: “famine,” “guerre,” “mort.” Mostly I look at the faces, which are shell-shocked and gaunt.

I scroll down, down, down the list of archives, never-ending, thinking how long it would take someone to watch it all. I see “Rediscovered Propaganda Films” and click on it. There’s an English dubbed version, which is exciting. I watch and listen.

They show short films produced during the Khmer Rouge and narrate. They show staged shots from the camps, aerials of people like ants, carrying hoes and buckets, balanced on a stick over their shoulders, the way the soup ladies at the market do. They show close-ups of carefully selected workers smiling; they point out child workers and how to tell who was a New Person and who was an Old Person. They show clips of a poorly acted film Pol Pot directed, shortly before the regime fell—men reenact the defeat of Lon Nol’s army, twitching on the ground with arrows arranged around their bodies. The film was never made, and the shots I see now, in the dim viewing room, were assembled from found reels. I imagine them on a dirty floor somewhere, curled and brown.

The narrator points out inconsistencies: no one was supposed to have bourgeois personal items like watches or eyeglasses. But here’s Pol Pot, that smiling cult leader face, wearing a watch, and here’s Brother Number Three, wearing glasses, and here’s the regional leader Brother Number Two snubs, who’s later deemed a traitor and tortured and destroyed, along with his family. They freeze the frame on him, and he’s smiling, smiling.

This scene is at a party meeting; women with Soviet semi-automatic weapons march, and US artillery tanks roll past, left over from Lon Nol’s time. The setting looks vaguely familiar, and the narrator says: “The meeting took place in the otherwise empty Phnom Penh, at the Olympic Stadium.”

Holy shit, I think. Olympic Stadium is in the city center, near the guesthouse I stayed at when I arrived. Every dawn and dusk, they do aerobic dancing there, and people run and powerwalk and swing their limbs around; food vendors set up carts and plastic stools, and men play soccer in the dirt lot outside.

It’s my favorite place to go running in the city. In fact, I’m planning on going for a jog there tonight.

I squint at the screen and it’s all there: the steps I run, the contour of the stone tiers, the spires of the Royal Palace rising in the background. It’s newer and cleaner and nicer in the footage, but it’s the same place.

I don’t know what to do with that.

I walk back to my apartment with a funny little feeling in my stomach, like I’ve seen a ghost—like I’ve gotten up in the middle of night and everything familiar looks strange and different, and the thing that was sitting there waiting for me isn’t in the corner anymore but is moving across the room.

I put on my running shoes and spray some more mosquito repellent on, grab a water and go back downstairs, to the street to catch a motorbike over to the stadium.

It’s surreal when I get there. I walk past the rows of motorbikes and cars, the tuk-tuks covered in ads for the new Twilight movie. Teenage boys stare at me as I walk past their soccer game, say “Hello, hello!”

I walk beside the arena, which is locked and closed, my own face in the tinted windows. It was where the meeting had been, in the newsreel. I walk past where the shot of Pol Pot wearing a watch was, where Brother Number Two and Brother Number Three had trailed behind him, wearing eyeglasses and giving silent death sentences to smiling men.

A young boy carries a sack on his shoulder. He picks a plastic bottle out of the trash.

He walks closer to me, his eyes scouring the ground of recyclables.

I say hello, in Khmer, hand him my empty water bottle.

He smiles and puts it in his sack.

I say thank you, and walk towards the track, to jog where the tanks once rolled.

Going Native: The Anti-Irony of Khmer Glamour Photos

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

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

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

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

My God—he’s gone native.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'd never worn fake eyelashes before.

Looking sufficiently like a drag queen.

Through the mirror

Fancy folds

I went to Cambodia and all I got was this mullet

Lock and load.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headcheese, Chicken Feet and “You Are What You Eat”: How Travel’s Beaten the Squeamish Eater Out of Me

Jeffery was taking a machete to the disembodied pig’s head when I walked into work.

The other boys stood around watching. They looked up when they heard the door, grinned sheepishly at me. “Headcheese,” Colin said by way of explanation. “Sorry.”

I looked at the knives, the smeared aprons, the hunks of pig scattered about the wooden cutting board, and shrugged. “I think Southeast Asia has cured me of any squeamishness towards meat,” I laughed.

Food culture, it can be said, is a microcosm of culture. Traveling around, I’ve discovered that a society eats and its attitudes towards eating can be simultaneously one of the most telling and easily accessible aspects of a culture. In this way, eating in a foreign country is both a lofty, anthropological glimpse into the psyche of a culture, and a visceral adventure that often sends one dashing to the nearest squat toilet.

Case in point: there’s a certain semi-green queasy look Westerners wear when walking through a Southeast Asian street market. The plucked bodies hanging limply from hooks; the still-alive fish flopping out of their plastic tubs; the women waving fans at the flies that settle on heads, hooves, chunks of body; the smell of raw meat blooming in the humidity like irony mold—it’s all so utterly unlike the shrink-wrapped FDA-approved supermarket culture of the Western world.

And I’m not gonna lie: I was a bit unnerved at first. The literal rawness of market culture in Southeast Asia is jarring. Watching a teeny little woman crouch down in her pajama suit and hack off a chicken head seems brutal, surreal. Ordering a bowl of soup and seeing a chicken foot poke out of the translucent tangle of rice noodles is startling. And not at all appetizing.

Yes, I eat meat, your Westerness seems to say. But I don’t want to think about the fact that I eat meat. I don’t want to be confronted with the reality that I’m eating another living being.

When I was London a few years back, there was a big stir about Marcus the Lamb. It was being discussed on the talk radio station that played through my friend’s basement flat while we brewed morning coffee.

The story was this: as a lesson in the breeding and rearing of livestock, a primary school had adopted a lamb. The kids named the lamb Marcus, and did cute things like bottle feed him. Six months later, it was time for the lesson to culminate: Marcus was to be slaughtered. A shitstorm ensued.

Parents freaked, animal rights activists threatened, the headmistress was branded a murderer and some of the pupils were reported to develop stress-related insomnia. To their credit, the school officials remained firm: this was the point of the lesson—teaching urban children where their food comes from—and they weren’t going to cancel the lesson. A national debate raged, centering, it seemed, on the extent to which the urban, Western world has become disassociated from its food.

I considered this all as I chewed my toast in the gray London light. I’d been a non-vegan/vegetarian for a little over a year. During my 12 year run as a non-meat-eater, I’d maintained that meat eaters should know and acknowledge the reality of meat consumption. I wasn’t one of those PETA people plastering horror-movie pictures of slaughterhouses around town, but I’d always thought—Fuck, you eat the shit; you should be able to handle a head or a hoof or something.

And I had to hold myself to that when I started eating meat again at age 25. If I was gonna do it, I reasoned, I was gonna do all of it. I wasn’t going to hide from the fact of it, and I wasn’t going to be wasteful. Living in the Bay Area and working in the restaurant industry, it’s easy to make mindful, informed decisions about where one’s food is from, to nestle in the cozy, bedtime-story feeling a Cruelty Free label provides.

Way of advertising a butcher in Morocco. Flickr photo.

But then there’s the Southeast Asian food market. Or the goat head stew in a Moroccan medina. Or cabeza tacos in Mexico (or the Fruitvale, whatever). And by being confronted with heads and eyeballs and recognizable anatomy that doesn’t seem so different from our own, you’re also confronted with your Americanness, your Westerness.

But people are amazingly adaptable, and after a couple weeks you normalize your surroundings. You don’t look twice at the rows of raw meat, and you even acknowledge that while eating a fertilized duck egg is a mind-fuck—a bit like eating an abortion—it is goddamn delicious.

And then you come home and wonder what the fuck everyone is riled up about. Yeah, it’s headcheese, made from head meat, you think, What’s the big deal? Or you wait on a dude who sends back the whole shrimp on his plate cause the little head and eyeballs “Just ain’t cool.” And you think, Really, buddy? You’re a grown man; that’s just a lil ole head. But you laugh and shrug and say, “No problem,” cause you know that that’s just the culture he’s coming from. And it’s your job to make him happy, not to judge what kind of food he’s comfortable eating.

To say that Westerners, especially Americans, have become disassociated from our food is an understatement. (“Where does ketchup come from?” a friend asked her inner-city students once. “The store!”) You think of the old adage “You are what you eat,” and you wonder what the hell that means for us. It can’t, you reason, be anything good.

If you can tell a lot about a person by how they eat, what does a society’s food culture say about them? They say, for instance, that girls from alcoholic homes are exponentially more likely to develop eating disorders. If you extend that on a societal level, it’s a fascinating if unsettling picture of a national psyche. The ability of Americans, for instance, to feed themselves nourishing food in a way that’s free of drama and control and fad diets seems to have shattered, gotten lost somewhere; I think that the sanitized, shrink-wrapped, mass-produced foods we eat are a part of that.

We in the West, and especially the States, don’t know what the fuck we’re eating—or are so far removed from it we flip out at the potential of exposing our children to the age-old reality of meat eating. (For the record, it was the students themselves that voted to slaughter Marcus the Lamb. But one has to ask: would such a lesson ever even happen in the US? Assuming, of course, a school even had to funding for such a lesson…)

Growing up, my mom was convinced that the demise of the family dinner was inextricably linked to the break-down of the American family. She thus insisted that we all sit down, no matter how much homework we had, for a nightly family meal. This was, as you can imagine, infuriating for a moody teenager; I’d scowl at my plate until eventually someone would say something funny and we’d all sit and laugh and linger for an hour.

I’m grateful for that now, in the same way I’m grateful to have traveled to five different continents and gotten the squeamishness beaten out of me. There are some things I still won’t eat—shark fin soup, which is just plain wasteful; or that monkey-brain stew they make in China by pouring boiling water into a live monkey’s recently cracked skull—that’s just plain cruel. I don’t think I’m a particularly enlightened eater, nor do I think I’m gonna change the world by shopping at farmers markets.

I just think that I’ve gotten a bit more realistic, had a bit of my own barriers broken down. At least to the point that walking in on the making of headcheese doesn’t cause me to look twice.

Okay, so maybe I played with the eyeballs...

El Mac: Saigon Street Art

So here’s something cool I came across in my internet wanderings last week: a video of American street artist El Mac‘s piece he threw up in Saigon, “Kosom by the Mekong”:

El Mac – Sai Gon, Viet Nam “Kosoom by the Mekong” from Viet Nam The World Tour on Vimeo.

Just, you know, when you start to think you’re doing something cool by travel blogging, there’s some good ole’ street artists to totally blow your shit out of water.

Aside from the images making me nostalgic for Southeast Asia, what’s so cool to me about this is the opportunity for exchange. They say all art is a conversation, right? And us writers prattle on about authentic experiences and living like a local, but street art really offers the opportunity for that in a way that writing necessarily can’t—you know, the good ole’ Tower of Babel.

El Mac isn’t the first dude to be doing this sort of stuff: I got a chance last summer to catch up with Gaia about his work in Seoul, and of course JR is out there giving everyone’s heart a boner with his work. And I guess part of what’s so exciting to me about it is the chance for dialogue it offers—as though the artists were saying: “Hey, I’m here in your country, and this is what I see and this is how I express it, in my culture. And I’m gonna leave it here, for you to see and have, and what do you think of all that?”

And the question may not be being asked to me, but I think it’s fucking awesome.

And I wonder if there’s a way us writers could do something close, even with the limitations of language—if we could find a way to have a similar exchange, in the earnest and uncomplicated way one will point to an object and say it their language, then point to you, and you’ll say it in yours, and you’ll both smile at the difference of it, the arbitrariness of it—neither one’s way right or wrong, but just different, another little glimpse into the vast diversity of human expression.

I’m open to suggestions.

Read more about El Mac’s work here.


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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