Travel Geek

TRAVEL JOURNAL

We've always used email as our way of keeping in touch with friends and family back home as well as documenting our trips for future reference.     I won't bore you with every lost word but here's a selection of a few of the better ones.  They're not Fodors guide to visiting a place, they are just the ramblings of a sometimes weary, frequently sweaty pair of nomads.


South Africa

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Even in the far-flung reaches of Kwazulu-Natal, most of the grubby little backpacker dives offer basic kitchen facilities and – in an effort to survive our journey on both a culinary and financial level - we’ve taken to fending for ourselves one or two meals a day. Despite being raised in a family where ‘spicing it up’ mean splurging on some salt, Karen can somehow turn a tomato and clove of garlic into a meal.  She is my own, personal, gastronomic MacGyver.

Self-catering also offers the added benefit of getting to experience the SuperSpar Market where two surprising realizations settle in:  a) the produce is shockingly good for such a remote locale and b)  I am the only white guy in the entire grocery store.

Of course, I shouldn’t even notice this and I’m not proud that I did. After all, I like to think of myself as color blind in that West Coast, liberal, arts degree having, musical theatre loving, lots of my friends are gay/Muslim/Green Party/other-wise-marginalized minorities kind of way.

This isn’t a thing.  It’s a non-thing.   I’m not about black and white.   I am beyond labels.

Then again - not sure if I mentioned this - I am the ONLY white guy the grocery store.  I’m sorry, but it this is strange.  I don’t want it to be but, on some level, it’s just plain weird.  No, you know what it is? Just now occurred to me. It’s NEW.  Yes, that’s the thing. It’s new.  And as everyone plainly knows:

NEW = DIFFERENT = SCARY = BAD

Ergo:
NEW = BAD

Wait, that can’t be right.   Ihave a lot of black friends (this may or may not be true but it’s something you’re obligated  to add when you’re talking about how open minded you are).  Come to think of it, I don’t have a lot of black friends.  My friend Dave is black…ish.  I think he’s black.  Like, one of his parents is probably really black.  I'm pretty sure.  Shit, maybe I don’t have any black friends at all.  Wow.  What’s with that?  I don’t think of myself as living in a homogeneous little bubble but right now, here in the SuperSpar, I am thinking maybe I do.

WAIT!  Look over there! Another white guy! Hold the phone, he’s not just white, - he’s German!

HIM:  Hey, white guy.
ME:   What up?
HIM:  Keep it real, yo.
ME:   Word.

Okay, this exchange doesn’t actually take place.  But it could have. I feel certain it’s there, somewhere, in that quick eye contact, that slightly relieved look.

And then, out of the blue, a voice.

“Hey man, which one pops?”

A guy behind me (who has clearly snuck up on me with wanton disregard for my fragile existential state) wants to know which one pops.  He’s standing there, just looking right at me (sure, on paper it doesn’t sound all that aggressive).   This might be bad. I’m about 9000 miles from home, alone, in the SuperSpar and this guy is just standing there, staring at me waiting for an answer.
 
ME:     “Sorry, which does what?”
HIM:   “Which one pops?”

I am confused and he starts pointing at bottles on the shelf. Wine. Beer. Champagne. Sake. (I, too, was surprise to see Sake at the SuperSpar)

HIM:   “You know, POP”

And he’s right.  I do know.  The clouds part, the sky opens and I realize it’s time to do something drastic and unexpected.  I look him up and down, step a little forward and (throwing caution to the wind) I smile.

ME:     “Pop?”

He laughs and with broken words and a cumbersome accent he makes me understand. It’s his daughters 7th birthday and he wants to know which bottle does the big popping/explosion/overflow thing when you open it. He’s seen it, he knows one of these bottles does some amazing hydrotechnic trick. He wants that for her party, the noise and surprise and he’s never bought wine before.

My friend, I assure him, you’ve accosted the right white guy. I lead him to the champagne and (after not less than 45 minutes of basic champagne corkage safety instructions that encompass the chemical and physical implications of Boyles Law) he looks like the happiest guy alive.  He’s smiling back at me now and it’s overwhelming. I’m melting. He calls his wife over to show her the spoils of his victory. She's suitably impressed and introduces herself.

No, you’re right, not from around here at all. Yes, America. Traveling, with my wife.  Five weeks. Yeah, it’s an amazing place. Beautiful. Yes, they have, very friendly. Breathtaking. Really.  Now she’s smiling too, and I’m not sure I can take it.  I'm a puddle.  They smile one last time and twelve-items-or-less themselves out of my life forever.

Head high, eyes front, I walk through the SuperSpar. (Maybe not walking, maybe I’m skipping. Or doing some skipping, walking, floating combination that has never properly been named).  I’m skalking through the store, smiling at every shopper, every clerk I pass.

Everyone is a potential friend, a potential life I could know.  Someone here might invite us to dinner. Or drop by our place in Burbank next year for a long weekend. One of these people might actually stop long enough to notice the split-second when their journey and my journey were the same. 

I love the SuperSpar. Bad produce aside, it’s overflowing with the one thing I am always hungry for…possibility.

It’s like I’ve always said:
NEW = DIFFERENT = EXCITING = GOOD.
Ergo
NEW = GOOD

 


Nicaragua

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It’s with no small amount of guilt that I shoo away a kid of about 8 who approaches me with a “hello, amigo.” Enzo doesn’t notice. We’re sitting on the front steps of our hotel, me poring over the map of Granada and him captivated by the horse-drawn carriages that line the central square of this well-preserved Spanish colonial town.

Street kids—whether the pint-sized kitsch hawkers at Angkor Wat, the frequently belligerent Gypsy girls outside the Louvre, or the pack of 9-year-old boys who follow you Pied Piper-style to the bakery in Hue (where you inevitably buy them a loaf of bread)—are a fixture in the life of a traveler. Almost anywhere you go, there’s a predictable culture of children working tourists on the streets.

Emotionally, it’s complicated. Sometimes you want to give them all your money. Sometimes you want to yell at them to leave. Sometimes you want to jump in the middle of them and sing “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” An appropriate response seems impossible.

Even more so once you’re traveling with your own child.

Before I can shoo him away again, the Granadan street kid is playing hide-and-seek with Enzo, who’s howling with delight at having found someone closer to his size to play with. Every now and again, this grubby 8-year-old pops up from behind a planter and yells, “Estoy aqui!” which sends my 2-year-old screaming and scampering in that direction.

The next morning, as we head for breakfast, Enzo calls out “Estoy Aqui!” at random intervals—his first words in a foreign language.

At the local waffle house, we're tearing through the staggering platefuls of food when the first of the street kids appears, throwing us a forlorn “You gonna eat that toast?” look. In fact, we’re not going to eat the toast, so I reach down to the street and hand it off to him. At which point the manager shouts and chases the kid away. It’s a game of cat and mouse that will play out again and again while we sit here, the manager now paying particular attention to my side of the cafe since I’ve proven myself to be an easy mark. Of course, the manager won’t correct or scold me. I’m a paying customer, after all. But he’ll throw me a disapproving look and keep a better eye on my side of the patio. The last thing he needs is for packs of kids to run off his clientele.

And you can’t really blame the guy. The family from Richmond sitting behind us definitely doesn’t want some skinny, unwashed child asking them for a strip of bacon. That isn’t the holiday they signed up for. People get mad when poverty is waved in their face; it’s full of messy feelings of guilt, helplessness, self-doubt and the knowledge that there but for the randomness of the birth lottery go you. And—honestly—who wants to deal with any of that over waffles and coffee?

Enzo, of course, is dealing with nothing but the conundrum of how to get the chocolate chips out of his pancakes without having to actually eat the pancake.

He isn’t old enough to ask why he has piles of food—most of which he won’t eat—and that little boy gets yelled at for having my toast. He isn’t old enough to wonder aloud why this potential hide-and-seek partner can’t come have breakfast with us. He isn’t aware enough yet to ask all the obvious questions we’ll spend the rest of the meal ignoring. And I’m relieved. Because when he does, I have no idea what I’ll say.




Angkor Wat

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The four of us are perched on a high out-cropping on the backside of a thousand year old temple.  The jumble of stone slabs is worn smooth from age and weather.   Our fatigued joints and muscles, weary as they are from the treacherous, long climb up, are only too happy to luxuriate against the warm stones.    A precarious path behind us leads to a broken staircase heading down to the next landing.  Otherwise, our options for descent are decidedly more vertical.  Still, no one is thinking about leaving or how difficult it might be to do so when the time comes.   Mostly, we’re thinking about the hazy, orange glow that fills our view as the sun hovers endlessly just behind the tops of the trees.   The wind is picking up a little at a time, pushing the stagnant, hot day out into the jungle and animating the canopy.  

More than that, we are each wondering how long we can pull this off; this moment of bliss and near solitude.  Around here, it’s no small trick to escape the crowds and hucksters and – perhaps more to the point – your own relentless inner monologue.  For this brief moment, we’ve managed to do it and it is sublime.

We’re lounging on top of each other, a pile of backpacks and bodies, listening to the tourists and touts shuffle back across the open courtyard toward waiting taxis, buses and tuk-tuks.   Gone is the busload from the Midwest who spent exactly as long at the site as it took to snap a photo and casually insult the locals.  Likewise the honeymoon couple with whom we shared a microbus from town at sunrise.   The vendors and beggars have clocked out and the guards – if there are guards, none of us has seen one – are apparently occupied elsewhere.    Even James Bond, our favorite eight year old chewing gum salesman, seems to have called it a day ( but not before relieving each of us of a few dollars worth of change.)

It’s not quite dusk and it’s not sunset, not exactly.  There’s no name for this precise moment of the day and I’m going to let it stay that way since trying to label it would only ruin it - for me, anyway.

You can almost feel the entire, sprawling complex of tumbling, decaying stone breath a sigh of relief as it can once again shrug off the noise and weight of the crowd.   Like a very old, tired farm hand untethering from his plough.  This is the part of the day the great temple city of Angkor longs for from the moment the sun crests it’s magnificent, limestone gopuras.

Of course, this is a city equally familiar with activity and isolation. At the turn of the first millennium, Angkor was a thriving metropolis, home to one of the worlds most developed societies and distinct cultures.   At its peak, it was the largest urban environment on the planet, consuming over 1100 square miles (about the size of modern Los Angeles).  Four hundred years later it had been deserted and was lost to the Cambodian jungle for the better part of a century, only to be rediscovered and restored in the nineteenth century.    

These days there’s an uneasy stalemate between the jungle and temples.  The restored city of Angkor is a sort of war museum to the never ending lover’s quarrel that has raged between nature and civilization.   Here, a banyan tree erupts from the floor of a temple, its roots wrapping the altar in a ferocious embrace.  There, the roots of another delicately drape an ancient archway as if comforting it.  The city of Angkor wears the beauty and scars of its long estrangement from the rest of the world with grace.  There are moments you can almost believe this violent love affair between the jungle and the buildings was, somehow, part of the design.  Lying atop a high reach of the tallest temple staring at the city below, it’s difficult to imagine it in any other form.

The rhythmic song of crickets starts to grow but, unlike any night in the woods I’ve ever experienced, it’s merely the fist layer of a building symphony.   Other insect join in, first a dozen, then by the thousands.  Then still more, equal parts melodic and dissonant.  Fierce and impossibly loud, the sunset song builds now with whoops and howls and the occasional long, slow ‘GRAAAAAK’ from some local frog.   The jungle, in full voice, calling to its lover.

As a general rule, the four of us talk relentlessly but at this moment we seem to be giving each other the rare, precious gift of silence.  Maybe it’s the cacophony of the jungle or the stillness of the temple or the innate knowledge that the very best alone time is often spent with those you love the most.  




Rapa Nui

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It’s our third anniversary and we’re pretty well broke.  We have no business doing anything or going anywhere but one look at the big coffee table book of exotic places and Karen picks the most unlikely, unrealistic and far-flung destination she can find.  A week later, we have airline tickets and a pit in our collective stomach.   We shouldn’t be doing this but, of course, that’s the exact reason we have to do it.

Standing on the wind whipped shores of Rapa Nui you can actually feel the isolation.  It’s penetrating, like a cold, damp wind.    For two thousand kilometers in every direction there’s nothing but ocean and the occasional hunk of uninhabitable rock.   Not many people come here, it’s expensive and inconvenient but perhaps that’s part of what makes it so worth the trip.     If you’ve got an insatiable appetite for the undiscovered you’ll definitely meet your own kind on the crooked cobbled streets of Hanga Roa, the island’s only settlement.

Nearly two thousand years ago, other travelers stumbled upon this island.  Exactly who they were and how they navigated thousands of miles of open ocean remains a mystery.  They settled this rugged, unforgiving place  and  made a life at what must have seemed like the edge of the Earth, a world utterly and completely apart from the world they had known.  

Time, disease, slavery and war whittled their numbers to almost nothing but a handful of their descendants are still here, living as farmers or shopkeepers.  You can recognize them by the mane of black hair and wild eyes.   There is a lean ferocity about them. They are more likely to ride a horse to town than bring a car, more likely to spearfish than play futbol.  You can see in them the untamed spirit that brought their ancestors to this place.   But this is all that remains, these few people and the great, enigmatic statues that dot the coastline.

The sun is slipping into the ocean and the sky is ablaze.  Heavy waves hammer the rocky coast, trying to wash away any trace of this mysterious, far-away piece of earth. 

 It’s our fourth and final sunset and, as usual, we’re trying to figure out a way to not go home -- ever.  Of course, we will go home, we always do. Life has gravity and before long we’ll be pulled back into the world we’ve only just escaped.  But for now, we indulge the giddy, delicious fantasy of staying on the road.  We could vanish, like the people of this tiny island; built monuments to our past and then walk away – disappearing into the map forever. 




India

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The train platform at New Delhi central station is about as wretched a place as you want to find yourself in the wee hours of the morning.   It’s nearly two a.m. which, here in India, means that the 8pm overnight to Varanasi should depart in about an hour (ish).  Karen and I have staked out a small patch of concrete and dirt that is almost entirely free of rotting garbage and human waste.  We’ve gone a full three minutes without anyone trying to beg/sell/pilfer anything but the shitzu sized rats are getting bolder. One of them is actually leafing through my Lonely Planet book while another is laying waste to a bag of trail mix from our daypack.  I am exhausted and sweaty and cultivating a rash of mysterious origins. 

Look, I’m not a sissy.  I have trudged through more third-world shitholes than most people have ever heard of and, by and large, I’ve loved every minute of it.  I’ve survived Cambodian bedbugs, bowel trampling food poison in Petra and a four-hundred pound Bahamian customs officer with a serious crush on me.   And I dig it, I like a challenge.  

But right now, I’m spent.  There are parts of this experience that I just cannot square with my normally forgiving moral compass.   Yes, there’s “cultural distinctiveness” but there’s also bereft of civilized decency.   I’m not going to judge but, surely, there has to be a point where some foreign cultural norm clashes unforgivably with ones personal core beliefs.  Right?  
 
How am I supposed to see the beauty when I am so continually confronted with the backward and barbaric.

The four guys at the end of the train platform aren’t help my attutide even a little.  They are staring us down and giggling like a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirls.   They've been studying us and plotting their approach for about twenty minutes now.  When they finally make their play, they each shove someone else to the front of the pack as they approach, physically nominating a spokesman.  

The skinny one in the middle summons the courage to ask what they’ve clearly been discussing at length:

Skinny Guy:  Are you a love marriage? 


I’ll be honest and say I was appalled the first time I flipped open an Indian newspaper and found the section called 'Matrimonials.’   An entire section of the paper dedicated to families shilling their daughters in hopes of finding a suitable man.  Height, weight, education and family status are included and there are various sub-categories when the family is looking for a groom of a particular social status or occupation 

Families often go into unrecoverable debt to provide a dowry large enough to attract a higher status groom.   Assuming a proper dowry and provided the astrologer sees nothing bad in the commingling of signs, the match is made.

Divorce is legal, but rare.  A divorced woman is unlikely to find good employment and a family that takes in a divorced female is thought to bring shame into the house.
The truly tragic lot, however, belongs to widows.  A widow is an omen of bad fortune - surely anyone whose husband has died must carry terrible karma - and is often not welcome at family functions or celebrations.  Many family members will refuse to touch her or take meals in her presence.  It’s not uncommon for widowed women to turn to prostitution or begging to survive. In rare instances, a widow may choose 'sati', the ritual of joining your dead husband’s funeral pyre and burning to death.  The practice was banned in 1987 but it still happens and women who choose sati are, in some circles, glorified and worshiped.

This is what I am thinking as this tittering flock of strangers hovers in my personal space waiting for a reply.

And I tell them, “Yes, we’re a love marriage.”

And they giggle and nod and whisper something indecipherable to each other.

Hours later, as we settle into our mercifully cool and quiet train compartment, we meet Claire and Megan.  They’re British medical students who, like us, are wrapping up a glorious and torturous month of traveling around India.

Next stop for Claire is Washington, D.C. where she’s landed a much coveted spot training in an American ER.   Brimming with excitement, she tells me that there’s nowhere else for a medical student to get such frequent, hands-on experience with gunshot wounds.    Apparently, nowhere else in the world do people shoot each other on such a regular basis.

Late that night, crammed into a single berth, Karen and I are drifting off to the rhythmic clatter of the train.  I’m staring at the ceiling and wondering what Claire will think of my country once she’s come and gone.    It is equal parts amazing and imperfect, visionary and dysfunctional.

I’m hoping Claire will be good at seeing the beauty instead of the backward and barbaric.