Saturday, August 30, 2008

colonialism at its . . .finest?

Luang Prabang is the old French administrative capital in Laos, and I'd heard from scores of people that it is an amazing place to relax for a while -- good food, good strolling, good everything. And I love Marguerite Duras' "The Lover," a story set in 19th century French Indochina that was strikingly beautiful. So I was looking forward to spending some time here. I'll admit, it's stunning -- they did a great job of preserving the old French colonial architecture, and the crumbling buildings set amidst all the overgrown foliage are quite striking and atmospheric. The evenings here are warm and humid and seductive. LPB still has the smoke and street food and motorbikes that all Laotian towns have, and it adds to the sort of romance and adventure of it all. But it's all very . . .French. And it's been stirring my shit up ever since I got here.

This is the first real colonial town I've ever been to. I've been to the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony for 300 years, but it doesn't feel like Spain.  Same with India. It feels like India everywhere you go, and that is the main allure of it. I guess the thing that threw me off about LPB is that everyone enjoys it because of its colonial influence. Laos is all one-road towns and dirt roads and tiny villages, yet here is LPB, a total anomaly in the country. LPB isn't Laos, it's a gorgeous, tropical 19th century French town; a French friend even told me that LPB has better baguettes than Paris. Couples walk arm-in-arm reveling in the beauty of it all, but I just feel like an asshole. It feels too wistful for something that was, in every other respect, horrible. It's pretty hard to reconcile the romantic in me that loves LPB's aesthetic, with the guilt-ridden historian in me that doubts that any joy can be found in colonialism, even symbols of previous colonialism. I don't understand how I'm supposed to forget that the French barged in with total disregard for the Laotians, never integrated into the culture, and created LPB, an unnatural town that was ground zero for their claims to superiority, let alone think that it's all so romantic. Beauty is only skin-deep here.

note: this isn't a post to rag on the French, or imply anything about French people. colonialism wasn't limited to the French, and anyway every world power does horrible things. I mean, come on, I'm from the U.S.!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"oh I miss new york, I can't wait to . . .mmm, is that pad thai?"

I've really been missing NYC, but I have to admit, Thailand is probably one of the best places on earth to forget your woes and distract yourself by means of delicious food. Think of your favorite thai restaurant, then imagine a world where you can find your favorite dishes on every corner, steaming hot and made fresh in about 3 minutes, for about $1. and the best part is that I haven't gotten sick yet (ahem, India). seriously, everytime I think about hopping on a plane back home, I pass a noodle stall and, well, obviously I'm still here.

I swear, every street has some sort of setup that looks like this. how am I supposed to moan and pout about being away from home when there are so many curry stalls to be conquered?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

home sweet home

Long-term backpackers are a really cool, interesting bunch. in the same way that I started seeing NYC from a new perspective after being away for so long, I think that being jolted back into the travelling world after a month in my old routine has gotten me thinking about what the common denominator is. I've had the "travelling conversation" (ie where are you from? where have you been? where are you going? why did you leave? etc) with hundreds of people, and the number of stories out there is staggering. but everyone left family, friends and everything else they love and are familiar with, and regardless of the story, it takes a special kind of balls to do that. so they must be searching for something that is, at least temporarily, more urgent. I used to believe I was above all this and that I was just travelling because it was the natural break in my life, but after a month and a half back home in NYC, I think the majority of travellers, including myself, are looking for a place to fit in. a home, or enough time away to be reminded of how great home really is. not that I think people are necessarily aware of this. I only realized that it was home I was truly searching for after I actually came back home to NYC only to leave it again a month and a half later, one of the more painful things I've ever had to do.

I've always raved about NYC to anyone who would listen, but I never really appreciated my life there until I left for places that were completely different, and met people who were on a totally different wavelength. I thought this year would be a scouting trip of sorts, a time to find cities where Michael and I might want to live abroad one day. well, it turns out that I didn't fit in anywhere, and while there are a few places that are so cool I'd definitely live there for a couple of years tops, none of them would ever feel like home. I never achieved "blessed, blessed anonymity" (to quote a friend from India, Matt), and everywhere I went, I felt like an other. in Asia, sometimes I'd get mistaken for Indian or Chinese or Thai and I'd think ahh finally, I'll get treated like a local, but when I started speaking I'd get treated like a tourist anyway. even in the Philippines, my own motherland, I still couldn't blend in like everyone else -- I'd speak the local language and I still couldn't get a break because my accent was all wrong.* I was stoked for Europe, the new melting pot where at least I wouldn't be hassled if I wanted a taxi or went to the market, but I found that there were still issues. Cultural attitudes were pretty disparate from mine, and I was even more aware of how "American" I was. not that anyone's attitude was a bad thing, but you know. I was just different.

so after feeling like a total wandering vagrant without a community for 6 months, mildly distrustful right off the bat and grizzled from getting ripped off/hassled so often, I was pretty apprehensive about getting back to the city I'd originally thought was my home -- after how I'd been treated everywhere else, who knew? but it took exactly an hour for me to get over that apprehension. I was going through NYC passport control, and the border officer was rifling through the pages. He asked me where I'd been, told me that he and his wife had loved Berlin (small talk?! wow!), gave me a big grin (an unnecessary smile?! soo American!), and said, "Welcome home." and in the following 6 weeks that I had in NYC, I was half local, half traveller rediscovering it all. home means something different to everyone, but the combination of Michael, community, Brooklyn, vibe, excitement, food and parties was everything I wanted in a happy life. the city just seemed shinier this time around.

then I left, to finish up travelling. 3 months is a drop in the bucket compared to the year I was away from NYC, but somehow this is more painful. if you love your home, you know what I'm talking about -- you think about it constantly whenever you're not there and can't wait to get back. I had to take a detour through 12 countries to find my way back home, but better late than never.

*(I understand that in these developing countries, the way locals treat tourists is often a matter of necessity. everyone has a family to support, and whatever they're overcharging me is tiny relative to my western dollar. but still, it was hard to reconcile that with a gut feeling that had been instilled in me as a child: treat others the way you'd like to be treated, and everyone should be treated equally.)

aww, Brooklyn. I don't live in any of these houses, but I wish I did.

Friday, June 20, 2008

broke and bipolar

During my time in europe, I have been so careful about not spending too much money, since I still have 4 months of travel ahead of me and europe is unbelievably expensive -- I pretty much live on street food like doner kebabs, dunplings, pierogies, etc., and I couchsurfed in cities where I´d be spending more than 2 days so I could cut down on costs. I've bought a couple of souvenirs for Michael, but that's it. I decided not to go to the taj mahal because it was $25 to get in; similarly, I bypassed the kremlin in moscow because I deemed it too expensive. not to mention the tv tower and jewish museum in berlin, wawel cathedral in krakow, the list goes on and on. granted, I didn´t particularly care about going into these places -- the whole, 'if you've seen one castle, you've seen them all' and 'I'll see them next time' mentality -- but still, I caught a lot of flack for not seeing some of these cultural icons. unfortunately, all of my penny-pinching was blown in about an hour of shopping at 4 of brussels finest chocolatiers and biscuteries.

Belgium is perhaps the chocolate capital of the world, so Michael and I agreed that I should buy a few bars of chocolate for us to try together when we reunite. 'A few bars of chocolate' turned into:
9 mini bars of chocolate in assorted flavors from Neuhaus, the legendary belgian chocolatier;
2 huge bars of chocolate in milk and dark, a pot of praline sauce, and a small box of truffles from Wittemer, the best chocolatier in Brussels as reported by the two belgians who worked at my hostel;
250g of chocolate covered spice cookies, 250g of chocolate almond biscuits, and 100g of florentines from Dandoy, a little biscuterie with awards plastered all around the walls;
2 bars of chocolate in dark and mille feuilles, 2 tubes of chocolate covered pralines in milk and dark, and a small box of assorted chocolate covered pralines from Galler, a trendy boutique chocolatier.

Total for impulsive chocolate binge: €95. the exchange rate is $1.60 to the euro, I think you can do the math.

what went through my mind as I was spending more on chocolate than some families make in a few months? well, nothing, until I had just stepped out of Neuhaus -- it was the 3rd of 4 stops, and afterward I suddenly thought, shit, I think I've already spent €70 on chocolate. my next thought? 'oh but I told michael I'd go to 3 chocolatiers and that biscuiterie didn't count. so far I have Neuhaus as a control, but only one other brand of chocolate to compare it to. onward to Galler!' where I proceeded to blow an additional €25 on chocolate.

when I finally realized the insanity of what I' d done, I called Michael in near-hysterics, alternately flaggelating myself for how foolish I was, lamenting how he couldn't possibly want to marry someone who could spend that much on artesanal chocolate, and scolding him for not being here to stop me from such lapses in judgment.

the lesson here? don't bring your credit card to the chocolate shops of belgium.

(I almost took a picture to post on this blog, but considering how much money I spent, the chocolate takes up embarrassingly little space. tear.)

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I was in Krakow for a couple of days, and I initially thought that I would try to avoid Auschwitz, which is only an hour and a half away. I've been to the Holocaust Museum in DC, so I know what happened and I've seen all of the sad family photographs and personal effects of people who died. and I wasn't sure I'd want to see an actual concentration camp and retrace the footsteps of so many people who suffered - does it get any more depressing than that? but in the end, I was convinced by my roommates at the hostel that, really, it's my duty to go once in life. so I went, and even though I'm glad I did, I never, ever want to go back.

everyone knows about Auschwitz, so I won't bother rehashing the history of the place. and I hope you've seen Schindler's List or something, because I didn't have the heart to take pictures. but the first thing you notice about Auschwitz is that it is huge. logically it should be, but I guess I never thought about the scale of the operation when I learned about it. but it's at least a kilometer long and wide.

the second thing you notice is how quiet it is. Poland is a beautifully green and fertile country that oozes with life, and even on the bus ride to Auschwitz, I was surprised to see how many thriving communities we passed -- I just assumed that everyone would be too freaked out to live anywhere near it, but no, life went on. when you get to Auschwitz, you're dropped off at Auschwitz-I, which has been converted to a museum; to get to Birkenau, the actual concentration camp, you have to either wait for an hourly bus or walk 3km. I walked the 3km and it was one of the quietest walks of my life, despite the fact I was walking on a main road with the occasional car passing by. I just assumed that I was imagining how quiet it was because I was feeling really solemn, but I figured out what it was once I got to Birkenau. Birkenau is, hands-down, the quietest place I've ever been. don't get me wrong, I've been to deserted islands and I was just in mongolia, which is one of the most remote places you can go. I know what quiet sounds like. but what I realized at Birkenau is that life has sound, even if one never stops to notice. It's only once you get to a place as lifeless and awful and unforgiving as Birkenau that you notice how much more quiet a place can get.

for me, it wasn't seeing the old barracks or even the ruins of the crematoriums that finally pounded in the devastation of what happened. it was all of the smaller details that are overlooked in textbooks and museums. like I would walk down a gravel path, and there would be a sign informing me that Jews who were chosen to be sent to the gas chamber immediately upon arrival would be herded down this path. or you can still see a lot of scratchings on the barrack walls made by the prisoners. or the one that really got to me -- Auschwitz has no shade, and it was a pretty hot day, so I veered off the path into the trees to cool off a bit. at one point, I came across a sign saying that when crematoriums were full, women and children used to wait among the trees for their turn to die.

I won't bother trying to analyze Auschwitz any further -- it's a personal experience that is different for everyone, and honestly I think it will take a long, long time to deconstruct everything I felt there. there's not much more to say about Auschwitz except that you should go once in your life, not only to honor the dead, but also to gain a new appreciation on the life you have.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


I grew up in Chicago, land of slaughterhouses, polish sausages and deep-dish pizzas so unhealthy they will make you cry uncle. and I was raised in a Filipino household, which is all about meat, meat and more meat, with rice to weigh it down in your stomach and vegetables served sort of as an overstewed afterthought. and I love to bake, so much so that I often bake too much and keep the leftovers in the freezer to eat for breakfast. so I like to think that I can hold my own when it comes to fatty, carb-heavy cuisines that lead to obesity and heart disease. however, Lithuanian cuisine has humbled me and my arteries.

I read about these kepta duona in the Lonely Planet, and they described them as "fried bread sticks oozing garlic." so I was envisioning some sort of pan-fried garlic bread, like when you grill a cheese sandwich. well, not really.

not only were they deep-fried so thoroughly that my jaw started hurting from all the chewing, but come on. does it really need to be smothered in cheese? even someone from Wisconsin wouldn't have the nerve to do something so gratuitous. since these are considered beer snacks, I was curious to see what the main courses were like.

this is the infamous zeppelin -- people at my hostel warned me that I would shorten my lifespan considerably if I ate one, and now I see why. it is basically a potato stuffed with minced meat and cream, and then doused in sour cream, butter and bacon bits. now these are all ingredients that I consider ideal in most circumstances, but in these quantities? do Lithuanians have no shame? I don't know if you can tell, but there is a layer of what I think is straight-up lard covering the plate. unbelievably, one zeppelin is considered a half-order -- I nearly threw up watching the woman at the next table eating a full order.

white nights = best insomnia ever

the White Nights are something everyone in st. petersburg looks forward to -- after a long winter where the sun rises at 9am and sets at 2pm, everyone is jonesing for some sun. well, 'some' sun is a bit of an understatement -- when I was there, the sun sort of set for about 2 hours before coming back up again at 3am, and apparently around the summer solstice, the sun stays on the horizon all night long. it's really neat, as long as you have some sleeping pills or nyquil handy -- my circadian rhythms were completely thrown off, and judging by the amount of people strolling the promenades and sitting in cafes, so was everyone else's.

11:45pm, the canals off nevsky prospect

12:15am, the rostral columns

12:30am, the museums across the neva river

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

what the Lonely Planet doesn't tell you about the trans-siberian

I broke up my trans-siberian journey into 3 different legs -- Beijing:UB, UB:Irkutsk, Irkutsk:Moscow -- and the first 2 trains were pretty tame, as I had expected from reading up on my trusted Lonely Planet. Maybe that's because there's only 1 express train/wk right now that stops off in UB between Beijing-Russia, so naturally it will be filled with westerners, and UB:Irkutsk is relatively short at 28 hours so perhaps that's not enough time to get into the full swing of train dynamics. But my journey from Irkutsk to Moscow was a 3-night/4-day slog through Russia, which afforded me plenty of time to meet/avoid various people on the train as well as curse my Lonely Planet for not better-informing me about what to expect.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the train ride overall -- there is beautiful scenery outside, ample time to read and listen to music, and great people-watching. and I don't think all trains are like this -- 2 of my friends from Irkutsk were on train #1, the Rossiya, which is as tricked out as you can get and costs about $80 more as a result. But if you take a regular express train, you can expect any/all of the following:

1) crazy Mongolian traders: I had no idea these people existed until 4 days ago, perhaps the LP writers lucked out and didn't run into them. the traders buy a load of cheap wares in China (jeans, shirts, tracksuits, blankets, etc), and then get on the train with not only boxes of this stuff, but mannequins for displaying the clothing. the train had been an hour late arriving in Irkutsk from Mongolia, and 2 friends I met on the train told me that it was because the traders took so long getting through Russian customs. apparently most of them pony up some cash for bribing Russian border patrol, but those who come up short are kicked off the train (but not before a lot of screaming and cursing apparently). furthermore, to avoid customs tax, the traders usually distribute their wares to other non-traders throughout the train car (who are also bribed) so that it looks like they have less stuff. if you think there's a lot of bribing going on, just wait.

so once they get across the border, what happens? they sell the clothing on russian train platforms or from the train car during the short 20-min breaks we get every few hours. russians must come to the train station just to shop, because it is mayhem outside and there aren't very many people getting on the train. the traders bribe the provodnitsas so they can sell from the entrance of the train car, so if both doors to your carriage are blocked up by traders, well you're just shit out of luck and you're not going to get outside for fresh air until Moscow.

the traders also bribe the manager of the dining car so they can use the tables to prepare for arrival at each station, i.e. dressing mannequins, taping boxes, etc. and when they're not doing that, they're in the dining car anyway, getting wasted at 10am, chain-smoking, getting into fights, harassing their women, and generally being the source of eye-rolling from Russians all around. I thought the traders were Russian at first and I asked the dining car manager something about whether they live in Moscow, and he was like, "nyet, nyet, mongolian!" and gave me this look as if to say, we might like a bit of the drinky-drinky, but we're not bootleg heathens!

once the train gets to Moscow, the traders don't even get off -- they have tickets to go back to Mongolia on the same train. this repeats itself all summer long apparently, with traders getting off just to buy more stuff.

2) crazy provodnitsas: provodnitsas are the train carriage attendants who are in charge of distributing linens, cleaning bathrooms, and generally insuring your well-being on the train. I was lucky and had 2 really nice provodnitsas who were cool with my requests to borrow a knife, turn down the light, etc. but 2 of my friends in the next carriage over had fascist provodnitsas, who wouldn't let them off the train at stops and continuously locked the women's bathroom in the train car for their exclusive use. my friend Elsa told me a great story about how the provodnitsa was cleaning the bathroom, so she waited in the hallway until the cleaning was done. the provodnitsa noticed her, then locked the door to the bathroom and walked off.

3) lots of roommates: no one gets off the mongolian train carriages since they were mainly full off traders bound for Moscow, but I was in a russian train carriage, which is an entirely different story. most Russians thought I was insane for taking the train instead of just flying to Moscow; they were only on the train for 1 night max. as a result, I went through 12 different roommates in the span of 3 nights, ranging in age from 7 mos. old to mid-80's.

4) russian vs. mongolian train cars: if your journey originates in mongolia, you get on a mongolian train car, and if you start in russia, you get on a russian train car. I didn't think there was much difference until day 2, when it was swelteringly hot in siberia for some reason and none of the windows in the russian train car would open. everyone starts sweating, and when you're on a long-haul train with no showers, that is serious trouble. meanwhile, my friends in the mongolian train car were enjoying nice summery breezes.

5) nonexistent train platform food: I had brought limited provisions with me on the train thinking that it would be easy to find hot station food for at least one meal each day. after all, the LP said that the choice of fresh items on train platforms was excellent, ranging from grilled chicken, dumplings, forest berries, etc. well it turns out that LP is full of shit :) I asked about hot food at all the stops, but most of the them only had kiosks selling more ramen noodles and cookies. of approximately 13 stops between Irkutsk and Moscow, only the following stops had real food:
Zima -- sketchy looking fried pies sitting around at room temp for lord only knows how long, filled with an even more mysterious meat; one of my russian roommates advised avoiding them at all costs, saying they were probably filled with "sausage from cat or dog."
Novosibirsk -- my friends came back with succulent looking pieces of grilled chicken. unfortunately, I had been lounging in the dining car and mongolian traders were blocking both exits, so I couldn't get off the train.
Yekaterinburg -- I don't know if this counts, because I left the station and crossed the street to buy hot meat-filled pastries so technically it wasn't train platform food.

6) time zones: it's already pretty disorienting to go through 3 russian time zones in a day at the beginning of summer, when the sun sets at 10:30pm as it is and you're basically chasing the sun, elongating all your sunsets on the train. not to mention the fact that all trains run on moscow time, but operate on local time -- so if you're looking at your train ticket and it says your train leaves at 10:30 am from Irkutsk, because Irkutsk is 5 hrs ahead of moscow, you should get to the station for 3:30pm. but try going from Ulan Bator in Mongolia to Irkutsk, which is further west since it's in russia, yet you gain an hour's time. huh?

7) almost no westerners: I thought there would be a ton of backpackers on the train from Irkutsk to Moscow. but most people go in the other direction, so there were only 5 of us on the train. so don't go thinking that it's necessarily going to be a travelling hostel, because it might be more like a mongolian barrio :)
Lonely Planet, I am disappointed in you.

Friday, May 30, 2008

hypertension and obesity, here I come

the train journey from Irkutsk to Moscow takes 4 days, 3 nights. part of the fun is the grocery shopping -- at the main supermarket in Irkutsk, you usually see other travellers and debate which bread looks less stale, whether you'll get hepatitis from the apples, how long cheese will last without a refrigerator, etc. but considering the limited selection in siberian supermarkets, in the end, there's really no way to avoid a total junk food binge. this is my booty for the 4 days (and this assumes I'll be eating russian train platform food like dumplings, blintzes, etc.!):

in case you couldn't make out everything, here's a list:

5 bowls of ramen, in assorted beef flavors
4 rolls of bread
jar of nutella
jar of peanut butter
4 bananas
bag of oranges
2 types of chocolate cookies
hazelnut chocolate bar
chocolate pretzels
styrofoam tray of apples
canned peaches
2 bottles of unidentifiable fruit juice
can of peanuts

and to think, I demurred on the bacon flavored pringles because I thought they'd be too unhealthy.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Brehmer, this one's for you

I haven't had a toilet post in over a month (gasp!), but central mongolia's, uh, "toilets" certainly deserve a mention. I'm no stranger to squat toilets (see any number of posts on this), and I've definitely used some outhouses before, but the thing I loved about Mongolian outhouses was the combination of sheer-drop-to-the-bottom and wind velocity that combined for a unique bathroom experience. I never understood why guys liked pissing off cliffs so much until I was pissing into a 20ft. deep hole and the wind was causing a sort of arc-ing effect I'd never had the joy of seeing before. folks, I officially have penis envy.

next time, I'm flying

it takes a notoriously long time to get anywhere in the philippines, esp during typhoon season -- you're already talking about buses to ferries to more buses, and delays throw everything off. Michael and I had to go to Marinduque, the island where my grandmother is from, for a family reunion and both legs of the journey were pretty legendary, and apparently, fairly typical.

Getting to Marinduque went something like this:
1) my parents arranged a door-to-door service that picks you up from your house in Manila, takes you to the pier, gets you on the boat, then drives you to wherever you need to go in Marinduque. my mom, aunt, Michael and I are squished into the backseat of a 15-passenger van. Duration of car ride to pier: 4.5 hours

2) we catch the midnight ferry to Marinduque and it is a serious health and safety hazard. the boat fits maybe 300 but there are about twice that number sitting on the floor, standing on the decks, and squeezing into the bathrooms. life jackets are in a locked cabinet in the back of the boat. meanwhile, the waves are so rough that someone is walking around handing out plastic bags for people to puke in. a little kid is puking next to Michael, and his puke bag keeps swinging against Michael's leg. Duration of ferry ride: 3 hours

3) we finally get to Marinduque -- the car from Manila is parked below deck, and we return to find that the people who chose to stay in the car during the boat ride have puked all over the steps to the car. Duration of car ride to final destination: 1 hour

Trip summary: we left the house in Manila at 7pm only to arrive at the resort in Marinduque at 4am.

Leaving Marinduque:
1) all the ferries were cancelled for the whole time we were in Marinduque, due to bad weather. on the day we are supposed to leave, the ferries decide to run again, mid-afternoon. we race to catch the 4pm ferry, only to miss it by 15 min. the next ferry is at 7pm. Supposed wait time: 2 hrs, 45 min

2) the 7pm ferry finally rolls up at 9pm. Actual wait time: 4 hrs, 45 min

3) ignoring the station master's request to please stay in the waiting room, everyone rushes to the pier. we watch as people, then cars are unloaded. then we watch as locals take a cart (note the singular, not plural form) back and forth to the ferry to unload bags of produce, which keep falling off the cart as it is rolled down the plank. Duration of ridiculously inefficient unloading process: 1 hr

4) finally, all the stupid produce is off the boat. the boat guy gives the signal and people start sprinting up the plank to get the choice seats on the top level, i.e. open-air seating with easy access to balconies in case of puking. Duration of wait to get everyone sorted: 1.5 hr

5) we finally, finally leave, 4 1/2 hrs after we were supposed to. Duration of boat ride back to mainland: 3 hrs

6) we catch a bus back to Manila, and the driver is blasting 80's ballads like "lady in red," "you just don't love me no more," and every phil collins song I've ever heard. Duration of bus ride: 3.5 hours

7) we are dropped off at the bus stop near my cousin's house and walk back, grizzled and disheveled. Duration of walk: 30 min., + 10 min. for the guards to verify that these dirty hippies are, in fact, related to someone in this nice subdivision

Trip summary: we left the resort in Marinduque at 3:30pm, only to arrive at the house in Manila at 6:30am

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I triple dog dare you . . .

Balut is probably the philippines' most infamous dish -- it is a half-hatched duck embryo that is boiled at an early stage of development and then eaten with salt. I've heard comparisons to everything from soft-shell crab (since there is a beak and feet) to "it tastes just like chicken and egg, together," but since I was too scared to try it while growing up, I could never verify these claims. however, last night my aunt was kind enough to buy 6 balut for michael and I to try. I made the foolish mistake of trying to dissect mine first (as opposed to closing my eyes and downing it like a shot, my mom's method of choice), so unfortunately, I was so grossed out by what I saw that I backed down at the last minute. but watching my aunt and michael eat was pretty fascinating; if you are ever going to try balut, follow these steps:

1) when you look at the egg, one end should be slightly wider than the other. that's the top, and you want to tap that end against the table until it cracks.
2) take off the top bit of shell and suck out the juice. don't worry, you won't be drinking blood -- it's a clear liquid that is sort of like an eggy chicken broth

3) start peeling off the rest of the shell. you'll notice that the bottom part of the balut is hard -- that is some sort of placenta-esque thing that you don't want to eat

4) scrape off the embryonic membrane (this is where I got a bit squeamish) note: whatever you do, don't separate the wings, because the head/beak is underneath and it actually looks like a chicken. and the black stuff is the beginnings of feathers. just FYI

5) throw some salt on it. bottoms up!

Monday, May 12, 2008

and the award for best island ever goes to . . .

Pamilacan Island is right off the coast of Bohol, the #2 tourist destination in the philippines, so it is pretty amazing how tourism has been so slow to develop here -- in the middle of high season, Michael and I were the only foreigners staying on the island. Pamilacan has everything your typical deserted island has to offer -- beautiful skies and seas, no roads (so no loud jeepneys or tricycles), no restaurants (you eat with local families), and not much to do (bring a few books). but the thing I really loved most was how seamlessly we integrated into the local community while we were there.

in most of the places I've been to, tourists are treated like an 'other.' maybe tourism is helping the decline of the local culture, so people aren't very happy to see you, or sometimes touristy spots are nowhere near where families live, so you get a skewed vision of what a country is like, or lord knows what other reasons there are. but in Pamilacan, random people would sit down and talk with us while we ate, and there was no shortage of little kids who were totally happy to play with us, complete strangers. and our hut was in the middle of everything -- the neighbor's roosters would crow right behind our outhouse at down, and at night we listened to singing at the church in preparation for the town's fiesta. perhaps it's the dynamics of the island itself -- Pamilacan is inhabited by whaling families who all know each other, and ever since the ban on whaling was passed in the 90's, they've all been in the same we're-fucked-unless-we-figure-something-else-out boat. in any case, when we arrived in Pamilacan, we were basically treated like family the entire time. which really made me appreciate how easy it is to find a deserted island, but how hard it is to find a deserted community that will accept you.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

on the Bund, everyone is a 13-year-old kid

the Oriental Pearl tower is probably the most striking building on Shanghai's skyline -- it's the one that sort of looks like a giant, unnecessary phallus meets the Jetsons. the best place to see it is on the Bund side of the river, and walking along you eventually get to a stretch of sidewalk that is just clogged with tourists. why? because the building in front of the oriental pearl has two spherical ends to it, and at this point on the sidewalk, they look like . . .well, you know what I'm getting at, we're all adults here. though "adults" might be a stretch, judging from some of the looks of glee on tourists' faces.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

suddenly, the po-po isn't looking so bad after all

the Dongyue Temple in Beijing is a Taoist complex that basically takes the concept of 'hell' to a completely surreal level. I thought the rat temple in deshnok was creepy (see "kind of like being back home on the J train platform"), but Dongyue turns hell into a bureaucracy, with departments lining the temple bearing names like "Department of River Gods," "Deep-rooted Disease Department," and "Department for Suppressing Schemes." huh? considering that about all I know about Taoism is what I gathered from the cover of The Tao of Pooh (having not even read it), all this focus on death, sickliness and sin is a little unsettling. or at the very least, un-Pooh.

this is my favorite department. you know that if you get sent here, you're in for all sorts of fucked up, middle-ages kind of pain. especially since these guys . . .

. . .are the ones who run the department.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

unleashing my inner yuppie

I've been in Beijing for about a week now, and yeah the forbidden city is great and there are a lot of cool temples around, but what I've been really enjoying is eating at all the bougie restaurants I otherwise can't afford in NYC.

I'm not really sure what is going on -- most places we've eaten at have been maybe 1/3 full, usually not even that. perhaps with all the western business in the area, entrepreneurs are jumping the gun and supply is exceeding demand? maybe they're getting ready for the influx of foreigners during the olympics? maybe we're going on off-nights? perhaps chinese people don't like contemporary fusion cuisine? but either way, we're going to semi-empty restaurants that should cost 4 times more than what we're paying. I normally don't care much for how artsy my environs are (I just want good food and a lot of it), but beijing is making me appreciate just how nice it is to dine in the midst of original art, or perch on one-of-a-kind stools.

cafe Sambal URBAN -- I swear to god, that is how it was written on the business card

Garden of Delight, located in a renovated alleyway. that's totally brooklyn as it is, but they also turned their giant white planter (yes, that thing with the banana plant in it) into a toilet pod.  tiiiight.

duck de chine -- exposed brick and handsome mahogany inside a converted factory? please, that is the original bourgeois

my lungs long for los angeles

according to the World Bank, 16 of the world's 20 smoggiest cities are in China -- so I figured Beijing would be bad, but since the olympics is happening in a mere 3 months, it must be getting better by the day, right? not really.

apparently all the coal power plants have been shut down and polluting trucks have been banned in the past couple of months, and soon all construction will be stopped. and locals have been telling us that it used to be so much worse -- doctors used to advise residents not to go outside and sometimes you couldn't see a skyscraper across the street. but even with all the improvements, it sucks to breathe here. and the pollution is so bad that each day, I break out in hives on a different part of my body. good times!

a relatively good day

most days were like this

I took quite a few antihistamines this day

Saturday, April 26, 2008

lost in translation

I know that poking fun at chinese interpretations of english is a pretty cheap shot, but I feel like these two should be exempt.

this is from the menu of one of Guilin airport's chinese restaurants -- this isn't exactly a small regional airport, you can fly direct here from London. I wonder what 'sliced meat cloud' is?

and this is a wet towelette that Air China gave me after my meal -- Air China is part of the star alliance that also includes United, Lufthansa, etc., so it's not like they don't have contact with the western world. but perhaps they don't have much contact with middle eastern patrons?

obviously, someone smoked up and then watched 'bubble boy'

Zorbing is all the rage in Manali, for obvious reasons.

I mean, who wouldn't want to be shoved into a big plastic ball with an opening that is eerily reminiscent of an anus?

and then get strapped in and rolled down a hill, with 3 indian guys running alongside you "in case anything goes wrong."

I just feel bad for this poor guy, who has to slog up that hill only to . . .run our muddy shoes down.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

next time, I'll try "ladies room"

I've been pretty lazy about blogging lately, for a couple of reasons -- 1) toward the end of my stay in india, I was starting to get a little stir crazy, so I sort of shut down for a bit, and 2) once I left india and arrived in hong kong, I was too busy lapping up western amenities and culture to think about writing. I'll have to backtrack at some point so I can finish my thoughts on india, but meanwhile I'll write a little about my experiences so far in china. if you've been following my blog, you can probably guess what this will be about. yup, toilets.

so I've been on the chinese mainland for about 4 days now, and I grossly underestimated how necessary a working knowledge of mandarin is. today, I went cycling in the countryside with 2 friends, Sara and Cameron, and at one point I needed to find a bathroom. I walked over to a little chinese roadside eatery and asked if there was a toilet. she obviously didn't understand. here's the rest of the, uh, conversation --

me: toilet . . .uh, bathroom?
woman: (looks at me blankly)
me: [thinks to self, shit, how do I gesture this?] uh okay. toilet? [mimes squatting down on toilet, on pavement in front of passing bicyclists and nearby farmers]
woman: (smiles, says something in chinese, but still doesn't understand)
me: [thinks to self, fuck, what else can I do?] uh . . .okay. you know eating? [mimes shovelling food into mouth] then finish? [mimes rubbing belly with peaceful look on face] then toilet? [mimes squatting on toilet again, this time to the amusement of a passing tractor]
woman: (smiles, says in chinese, obviously has no idea what I am doing)

at this point, I give up and walk back to Sara in defeat. Sara speaks some mandarin so says she will try to talk to the woman. she comes back laughing -- apparently if I had just asked for the w.c., the woman would have understood. I come back to the eatery shyly, and meanwhile all the chinese staff are in hysterics because they finally understand what all my pantomiming meant. folks, the lesson of the story is this: exhaust every single word you know for 'toilet' before you start trying to act it out.

Friday, March 28, 2008

you know it's hard out here for a pimp. I mean, rickshaw driver.

my friend Bjorn is learning Hindi and as I was flipping through his lesson book, I noticed this. man, I definitely would have paid more attention in french if we had anything half this interesting to translate.

dirty hippie alert #4: modern "dancers"

yesterday, my friend Bjorn asked me and another friend, Philip, if we wanted to go to a japanese dance performance. my initial thought was, awesome, maybe it's kabuki! no, it was even better. I don't even remember the name of the style of dance, but it's all about letting your inner being express itself. in a later conversation, one of the dancers called it "a dance of the subconscious."

this guy's inner being seemed to like clinging to the walls and acting super "special". I mean, christ, how else do you describe this.

and apparently his inner being is actually a monkey.

during all the performances, the other dancers would sit to the side and "feel inspired" by the dance. you can't really tell in this picture, but the guy in the black is swaying in circles, the woman in pink is bobbing up and down, and the woman in yellow is snarling and clawing at the floor.

this is during the finale, when all 5 dancers let their inner beings start interacting.

it started raining, so obviously their inner beings wanted to go outside and be in harmony with nature.

theatre was in the stunningly beautiful, large home of the japanese teacher, overlooking the mountains. the dancer pictured below told me that you have to take the course for a minimum of 3 months, and I couldn't help thinking, you sucker, you are paying the utilities for this guy's pool so that he can teach you crap. absolute crap.

later that night, Bjorn, Philip and I were sitting around shooting the shit and the performance came up. I won't name names, but here's a little slice of our deconstruction. see if you can guess who said what:

"it was really interesting, I think it was about the ego overcoming the self."
"maybe, I thought it was more about life and death and the struggle of the spirit to break free of that cycle."
"uh huh. hmmm. yeah . . .I could, uh, see that."

just to be clear (so I don't go to hell for this post), Bjorn and Philip are awesome and the dancers I talked to were really cool. and I'm sure the dance is therapeutic and all that, and who knows what sort of fucked up dance my inner being would do. but I really, really have no interest in finding out :)

dirty hippie alert #3: the osho devotee

my past couple of posts have been pretty serious, so I figured I would counter with some dirty hippie action. I've been slacking on the alerts due to a combination of slow internet connection and always forgetting to bring my camera to the internet cafe. this is actually an alert from february, when I was visiting my friend Cyrille in pune.

this was taken outside a german bakery near the osho ashram. for those of you who don't know osho, he is hot shit over here. officially, he is an indian guru who spent time in oregon establishing a commune, and was subsequently deported for immigration violations and tax fraud. unofficially, he is the "sex guru." he's got a pretty open attitude toward sex -- so open that in order to take workshops at his ashram, men and women (mainly westerners) are required to take an HIV text. why? because osho's belief is that people should be free to act on their sexual impulses, and if that means orgies in the public gardens for everyone to see (I've actually heard reports of this), then so be it. unsurprisingly, the demographic at the ashram apparently becomes somewhat skewed, with older western men comprising the majority of devotees. like this guy. come to papa!

the worth of the west

during my time in india, I've had to defend myself against a fair amount of anti-americanism -- there aren't very many americans travelling in this region, so the few americans who are here end up being a sort of whipping post for frustrated europeans, australians, and other folk. after explaining to them that more than half of americans actually disagree with bush and that I myself worked for 5 years against his domestic policy, they usually let up a little. then we inevitably talk about obama v. hillary, and everyone is excited to see what happens. weirdly, all these conversations have sort of reinforced why I love the u.s. -- sure we've been in a dark time with bush, but people have never stopped trying to change things. and now, with the democratic primaries, there is so much potential for good in the future. coupled with the fact that the past few weeks in india have been really trying, I've been oozing with pride over the fact that I'm from the western world -- women are treated unbelievably better and have much more self-expression, I don't constantly worry about getting ripped off or taken for a ride, we don't throw our garbage in the street or river, etc. if patriotism was about western values and the western way of living, I would be uncle sam's favorite poster child.

all that has changed in dharamsala. it is sobering to understand how much power the west has, and how frustratingly little they do with it, particularly in situations like tibet. I thought I knew what 'marginalized' meant through my work in the u.s. (of COURSE, big drug companies are going to take advantage of old people! of COURSE, wealthy companies are going to exploit their workers!), but the situation with these tibetans is really opening my eyes to how much worse marginalization can get. the organizer in me wants to build a movement from the ground up, but how do you do that against a behemoth like china that doesn't actually give a shit? how do you do that when your people are so spread out and your real government is in exile? what the tibetans need is outside interference, but how do you do that when no country will be your advocate because in the end, it's not worth it, literally? the western world could band together for human rights so easily, and yet they choose not to. over and over again in so many parts of the world.

I've been reading stories about western 'support' for tibet and I don't know if I should laugh or cry. like when pelosi was here, sure she met with the dalai lama but she was so careful to word what she said, because her hands are tied by u.s. interests in china. but for days after, monks were carrying american flags. even yesterday, I had 2 monks approach me, ask if I was american, and when I replied yes, they gave me a big smile. for once, being american scored me bonus points. but for once, I wished one of them had called me out on it. it is so upsetting to be identified with a country that will inevitably let them down because it doesn't have the balls to go against its economic self-interest, because it doesn't have the balls to take the moral high ground.

after the holocaust, everyone said 'never again.' and yet, my beloved country and my beloved western world, with all of its money and power, still can't do the right thing.

this guy is part of a group of young tibetans that paints anti-china/pro-tibet tshirts all day long. here he is, with the beginnings of a shirt that will show the tibetan and u.s. flags intertwined. as if my heart weren't breaking enough as it is.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

free tibet

I am in dharamsala right now, where the dalai lama is living in exile. usually it's pretty shanti shanti here, but things have changed ever since the massacres in lhasa in mid-march. half of the tibetan shops were closed when I arrived, out of solidarity with the strikes in tibet. tibetans, even the monks, are painting their faces with pro-tibet slogans. everyone, including foreigners, is displaying a tibetan flag. there are at least 2 different hunger strikes going on. walls throughout the town are papered with news articles from around the world regarding the massacre, pictures of murdered monks, and painted signs expressing tibetan frustration. there are continuous marches throughout the day, and candlelight vigils and prayers at the temple complex at night.

as a western liberal, I've always known I should be pro-tibet, but I never actually felt what that meant until I got here. it is really sobering to see how little power and leverage these people have against a behemoth like china, and how no country will actually step up to defend these people if it means acting against their economic interests. for example, nancy pelosi and 9 senators came to dharamsala to meet with the dalai lama, and there are still signs up saying "thank you, united states, for supporting the tibetan cause." that makes me want to cry.