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.