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A Toast to Trains

Posted by lifestyle On March - 13 - 2009

Because sometimes it just needs to be said.

By Leanne Schaeken

Most everyone has a preferred mode of travel, whether it is the classic autobahn, airplane, or boat.  The train-without hesitation or doubt-is my favourite.  Last Friday evening, as I settled in on train 79 from Toronto to Windsor, and the downtown lights blurred past, my fondness for trains, with their steadiness and gentle chug past countrysides, came back to me.  A train will hardly ever lead you toward a great adventure.  Perhaps it will take you to the next city or the next province, to your school or to your home.  It does not have the excitement of a plane or the banality of a bus.  A train ride is, simply, a delight.

I can distinctly remember my first train ride. Shockingly, I was fifteen.  It was an early Sunday morning in March.  The sun had begun to rise, streaking snow-dusted fields with its orange-golden rays.  After a skirt around town, my father parked our van alongside a train shed that had the word “Glencoe” scratched along its side.  We trudged my baggage to the front of the shed and waited for the sound of a whistle to break the cold, dense air. As we were waiting, I desperately ran through the helpful hints my sister had given me. For instance, she told me not to sit down in one of the quad seats because spending an eight-hour trip staring at another person is just plain awkward.  As the train slowed to a stop, I made my way to the opened door with trepidation.  It was my first step, and admittedly it was a step that was well overdue, out and away from home. Read the rest of this entry »

Digesting Japan, Pt. 1

Posted by lifestyle On October - 28 - 2008

A thrilling travel and food mini-series! Not a break-up story.

By Leo K. Moncel

Japan is crazy, right? Is there any other country that looms so large in the international imagination as a haven for the bizarre? Over the years, I became so used to hearing urban legends and ridiculous-sounding cultural generalizations about Japan that I started to disbelieve by default whatever I was told about it. I became certain that people were exaggerating the national character of Japan with each new conversation about it, like a fishing story. It seemed to have become a place known for extremes, used by people as a canvas on which to project their own outlandish visions. The truth about Japan, I assumed, was probably like most things in life: far more mundane than the fantasy.

I spent three weeks in Japan at the end of August. Upon my return, the first thing I was asked by a lot of people was, “What was the most surprising thing about Japan?” My response: surprise that it did actually conform to almost every outlandish-sounding generalization I’d rejected. It’s all there in smashing contradiction: neon lights, ancient temples, traditionalism, futurism, monoculturalism, fascination with the rest of the world, and crowds upon crowds. The surprise of Japan was that it was every bit as extreme as everyone had said it was.

Japan, a land where dreams come true!

If you think of tourism as a feast for the senses (and I have no problem with the undignified term “tourism” in my own context), then it was apparent from early on that Japan was going to be an incredibly varied banquet. Seen from my descending flight, the countryside abounded with bundles of bulbous forest that looked ripe enough to pluck. My Then Girlfriend (MTG from now on) helped me navigate the futuristic Narita Airport as we zipped by Leo Café and posed in front of the Leo Shop before renting a mobile phone at Leo Phone. I kicked myself for it, but I couldn’t help but think, “I’m big in Japan.”

Then we were outdoors — 32˚ in the mellow, late afternoon sun, and humid enough to swim. She drove me through the semi-rural Narita area, down empty single-lane roads; a huge orange sun was melting down into the deep green fields. “What are they growing?” I asked her. “Rice.” Of course. Thanks to National Geographic, my only mental image of rice paddies was that of tiered mountain plateaus. It hadn’t occurred to me rice that could be grown in flat fields. We took a shortcut to get back to MTG’s family home, a strikingly narrow little road that twisted insanely up a steep incline. Looming on either side were imposing Japanese houses, white with dark beams and iconic slanted roofs. More “Japanese” than I’d expected.

MTG’s house was an honest, suburban place. Still, a suburb of Tokyo is vastly different from a suburb of Toronto. There, even at the outermost reaches of suburbia, the planning is restrained and sensible, based on a grid. The burbs back out onto rice paddies, not North York-like stretches of showerhead emporium superstores. This is not a dig at Toronto, but a comment on our whole continent. The more of a thing possessed by humans, the more that thing is squandered, and North America is cursed with an abundance of space.

After a nap, MTG and I headed out for the subway system. Outside of the city, street lighting is little more than occasional, and patches of road and sidewalk can vanish right into blackness. Although it wasn’t yet 10:00 p.m., my discombobulated brain was certain it was 3:00 a.m. Our mission was to get to downtown Tokyo so we could board an overnight bus to Kyoto. On the train, I fought tooth and nail to stay awake and take in the bright, neon cityscape, but it was impossible. As I listed away into slumberland, the incomprehensible Japanese conversations around me slowed and slurred until the words recombined into English. My exhausted mind created something it could digest.

Taking the overnight bus to Kyoto, we arrived at daybreak. As the bus slowed and the other passengers were roused, I pulled the bus’ curtains back and peered single-eyed out at bright Kyoto. Somehow, in this half-dream time-flux, I’d been sent back to the 1970s. Beige buildings with round corners and square tiles — here it was, exactly like in my mother’s faded photographs.

Kyoto — a former capital of Japan — is deservedly famous for the history preserved in its monuments, but a more ordinary sense of history also lingers throughout its streets. The city bus carried us gently uphill towards the northwest edge of town where the city gradually receded to mountains. The city got older as we moved away from its centre, and I was delighted to see a little rust creep in, lending character to surgically clean Japan.

A roadway with a distinct sidewalk is something we take for granted in Canada. But even in orderly, prosperous Japan, a little bit of Asian street chaos bustles its way in. Many sidestreets, particularly in Kyoto, are like a hybrid street/alley, lined with little mom and pop shops, barbers and butchers; there’s a painted line where the cars aren’t recommended to drive, but they will if they decide to. It’s not unusual to be in a wide pedestrian plaza that’s crowded with people who suddenly start cramming to one side as a cab bullies its way through the herd. The uniquely Japanese part of the arrangement is that the cab doesn’t honk and the people don’t shout.

I could have walked those sidestreets all day, but MTG had grander plans and soon we were floating downriver on a boat tour, flanked on either side by mountains. Each tour boat had a crew of only three who rotated tasks, the hardest task by far being the actual rowing and banter. Our head rower was a bit of a show-off and virtually tailgated the boat ahead. I didn’t understand the Japanese tour but laughed anyways. I was just mesmerized to be so close to the mountains.

By the evening, things were already beginning to unravel between MTG and I, but after a civilized levelling of accusations, there was nothing to do but go out and eat. By nightfall, Kyoto’s northern downtown is virtually enchanted. Every little building glows, streets branch into sidestreets and down to tiny alleyways just wide enough for two to walk abreast. Following my guidebook, we found Musashi, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant that Frommer’s assured me was cheap. I was skeptical — it was late and the crowd was young.

When it comes to restaurants, I naturally try to find places that draw regulars. My trepidations were alleviated when a sour-faced old-timer arrived alone and hunched down on a corner seat with a mug of beer. This man didn’t give a shit if it was trendy. Every other concern I had was pushed away as we filled our mouths with some very exquisite sushi. One plate came by that was decidedly of flesh, not fish. I asked MTG if it was pork. “No,” she told me, “It’s horse.” Long-time readers can guess what happened next. Longish strips of streaky horsemeat were laid-out, sushi-style over a “thumb” of tightly packed sushi rice. I didn’t have to think twice before popping it in my mouth. It was, as I’d read about, somewhat tough. A bit of a let down. Japan, conversely, was shaping up to be every bit as intense as I’d heard it was, and I couldn’t have been more excited.

There ain’t no awkward conversation like South African awkward conversation!

By Alex Meyers

[For most of 2007, Alex Meyers worked as a volunteer for an AIDS education charity in South Africa, transplanting himself from his native Toronto. This story was written during that stay and has only now been released to the public. Enjoy! -Ed.]

It was like an afternoon out of “Suburban Motel”. [We at MONDO encourage references to obscure pieces of Canadiana. -Ed again.] I wish someone had been there to verify my story because by tomorrow I might not believe it happened at all.

So I’m sitting on a wall in Libode Town when I am approached by a weary-looking white man. This is quite unusual; I am not aware of any other white people living in the area.

“You a backpacker?” he plunges in without a greeting.

“No, I work in the rural Mphangana location.”

“You are the first white person I’ve seen around here in five months.”

“Do you live in Libode, sir?”

“I’m not ’sir’. That’s an English title. I am a baron. Baron von Braun. You can call me Andre.”

“Pleased to meet you, Bar- Andre.” We shake hands. His face is lined with age and his sandy thinning hair is buzz-cut short. I guess him to be in his late fifties. He wears a faded blue polo shirt tucked into his jeans. He carries a nylon gym bag.

“It has been five months since I’ve seen a white face in Libode,” he tells me again. “What do you do around here?”

“Oh, work with the young people and in the school talking about HIV and other sexual diseases.”

“Uh-huh. Do you want to come to my place? I have some beer. I just live above the bar.”

A strange man is offering me beer if I go to his house. I shrug my shoulders. “Yeah, sure. Lead the way.”

He leads me through the front doors of the little Grosvenor Hotel, the only hotel in town. For Libode, it is actually a pretty nice place. I have been in here before. The washrooms have cold and hot running water. Apparently they rent out rooms on a more permanent basis. As we walk up the stairs, Andre tells me that he knows every shabeen (shabeen – a 24-hour bar; misery lives here) and cab driver in town. I act impressed. At the end of the hallway we stop outside room number nine.
The only pieces of furniture in the small hotel room are a double bed and a pair of low bedside tables. The room is neat. A TV sits in a metal frame bolted to the wall. A box from Pie City sits on the TV. Below the TV are stacked a VCR, DVD player, and an ancient-looking microwave. In one corner of the room a fishing rod leans against the wall, and a neat stack of Penthouse magazines sit on the floor. A toaster occupies space on one bedside table. Through a door I see the washroom. The room is on the second floor, with a small balcony overlooking the bustling main road below.

“This is my permanent residence,” Andre tells me with a proud gesture around the room. “I got everything I need right here. I got my own TV. I can heat up my pies in the microwave. Take a seat,” he says waving to the neatly made bed. He rustles in the gym bag and produces two 750mL bottles of Carling Black Label.

“Are you South African, Andre?” I ask as he hands me a beer.

“No, I’m Irish, but I was born here and have spent the last twenty years here. I carry an Irish passport.”

“And what do you do here in Libode?”

“I’m an electrical engineer.” Andre goes to the closet and comes back with what seem to be electric trade magazines. “I’ve been searching on the internet for nine months and I’ve finally found it.”
He starts handing me internet print-outs of some sort of technical diagram. The words ‘John Thomas Henry – AMPLIFIER’ appear at the top of the page. This must be the ‘it’ that my host has been searching for. Andre is spouting technical jargon that means nothing to me. He becomes disgruntled; apparently my face does not express a suitable amount of admiration.

“You’ve never heard of the John Thomas Henry amplifier?”

“Uh, no, sorry. Should I have?”

“The man is a genius. He revolutionized electrical engineering.”

When I ask what type of work he is doing currently, he says with disgust that he is preparing for Nelson Mandela’s inevitable funeral at Qumu, Mandela’s childhood home.

“This grotesque operation involves hundreds of workers, thousands of lights and miles of fiber optic and electrical cables. When he eventually dies it will be the biggest, most elaborate televised funeral in history. It will be bigger than Churchill, bigger than Kennedy, bigger than Princess Diana.”

“All these preparations for a man who isn’t even dead yet.”

“Yes, exactly! If you were him how would you feel watching all these people digging your fucking grave?”

“It is rather morbid. But I guess they couldn’t just start setting things up after he dies. Not with the size of event he will receive.”

“What if his family just wants a small family service in his local church?”

“I guess it’s too late for that.”

Andre then starts complaining about the ineptitude of the black men who work for him at the funeral site.

“They wasted an entire afternoon delivering a tea kettle to Libode. They could have taken it on the way home. FUCK. Helen Keller could follow directions better!” he declares. “You know who Helen Keller is, don’t you?”

“Deaf, blind and mute, right?”

“Very good. But listen, I’m not racist.”

I have to stop myself from adding, “Yes, only when I’m drunk,” on his behalf.

“I’ve spent twenty years in this country and I’m the only person who doesn’t feel hatred. You and I know that when we walk down the street all these black people think…” he gestures out the balcony, “What do they think?”

“Um…That we have money?”

“They all think we’re rich. They beg ‘One rand, sir,’ or ‘Just two rand sir,’ or ‘Please, sir, a cigarette’…”

“I just ignore them.”

“…I tell them to fuck off. You wanna learn about the white man’s side of apartheid?” This is clearly a rhetorical question. I get the feeling that I am going to learn whether I want to or not.

“I want to show you a video.”

Andre opens a door in the bedside table and gets out a stack of VHS tapes. I wonder if he is going to show me some underground, pro-apartheid propaganda film. He turns the TV on. Coincidentally, the first image we see is Nelson Mandela. SABC is broadcasting events marking the 1000 day countdown to the start of the 2010 Soccer World Cup which will be hosted by South Africa.

The first tape he puts in looks like a South African soap opera. He tries other tapes, but none of them have the video he is looking for.

“Fuck. I must have recorded over them.” He gives up, sits down on the bed, and takes a swig of beer.

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from Canada.”

“Canada, eh? What part?”

“I’m from Toronto.”

“Hmm…Do you think I’ve ever been to Canada?”

“Umm… I really could not…”

“Lemme tell ya something…” (I am starting to get the feeling that Andre is starved for company and I can see why.) “…The love of my life, the girl I loved more than anyone else in the world, she moved to Vancouver.” Silence. I wonder if that’s the end of the story.

“So did you go after her?” I ask. My question awakens him from his reverie.

“What? Oh no, she met some new guy and had kids,” he says with surprising dispassion. “How old are you, Alex?”

“I’m twenty-one years old.”

“How old do you think I am?”

“Well, if I had to guess I’d say…”

“Lemme help you out. If you take your age and multiply by three I’m almost there. I’m sixty-three.” Andre takes this as the perfect opportunity to start telling me about his life while he paces the small room. He tells me about growing up in Liverpool, England, and pulls out a scrapbook to show me pictures of his childhood. He says that his aunt was friends with Paul McCartney’s mother and Paul gave Andre tickets to one of The Beatles’ very early shows, before they got big. Andre begins to quiz me on Beatles trivia.

“What was Ringo Starr’s name at birth? …Richard Strakey. Which Beatles have been knighted? …McCartney and George Harrison. What was the band’s original name…?”
When Andre finds my knowledge to be sorely lacking he gives me a lecture on Beatles history: “Did you know Ringo was selected as the drummer because he was the only one with a car?”

From Beatles trivia he goes on to tell me about his time as a roadie for Robert Plant, his trip to Woodstock, and his life as an aging hippy backpacker.

Watching him pace the room ranting on this and that, I have to suppress a smile because my new acquaintance reminds me of a high school substitute teacher who was only ever known as “The Drunken Irishman.”

I’m on my second beer and Andre is telling me about his time as a medic with the South African Defense Forces fighting the Cubans in Angola in the 1970s. Figure that one out:
-an IRISH citizen serving in the…
-SOUTH AFRICAN army in…
-ANGOLA, a former colony of…
-PORTUGAL, where they are fighting…
-CUBANS.
The Cold War was a messed up time. Andre even tells me that the Cubans were sponsored by Norway and Sweden, but I’ve never heard this angle, and I’m skeptical, although you never know who was sponsoring who in those days. Stranger things have happened. “Kid, have you ever heard of the Saturn-5 rocket?”

“No, I can’t say I ever have.”

“You ignorant fuck!” he screams. “The Saturn-5 rocket was the first spacecraft to – observe the dark side of the moon.”

“Like the Pink Floyd album?”

“Yes, exactly. See the Moon doesn’t rotate on its own axis like the Earth does. That’s why we only ever see the side facing us with the Sea of Tranquility.”

“That’s pretty cool. I never realized that before.”

He grunts. “So you’re Canadian, huh? I’ve got a movie you might like to watch. It’s really funny.”

Andre goes back to the bedside cabinet and, after rooting past some porn tapes, grabs another VHS. For half a second I thought it might be Canadian Bacon, though I’m not sure why. But no, I’m not that lucky. Instead it is Dudley Do-right, but it’s not even the original cartoon, but the Brendan Fraser remake. Dudley Do-Right seems like a strange pick for a sixty-three year old bachelor with a very limited movie collection.
Oddly enough I am just buzzed enough to laugh at the Canadian clichés. Alfred Molina (“Dr. Octopus”) makes a pretty good Snidely Whiplash. Once in a while, Andre casts me a glance to see if I am enjoying the movie as much as he clearly is, so I force an appreciative smile. I am pretty sure this would be a terrible movie if I were sober. (Who is this marketed to? Aging boomers who harbour fond memories of the original cartoon? Their dull-eyed, pudgy progeny who can’t get enough of watching Dudley fall out of his chair over and over again? Cynical, drunken, college students?)

I am sick of this, and I want to leave. Fortunately Andre relieves me of the need to excuse myself.
“I got a girl coming over at four, so you have to clear out soon.” I assume he means one of the local oysters. “There is one last thing I wanna show you.”

He leads me back out of the room and down the hall and unlocks a storage room. The shelves are cluttered with bits and pieces of broken electronic junk. Andre gigs out a box full of vinyl records. I start flipping through them and see records by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin I, The Eagles, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden.

“Impressive collection. Do you think I could listen to them some time?”

“No.” Okay then, that’s my cue to leave.

I grab my backpack and head back out into the bright sunlight of the real world. If this really was “Suburban Motel,” at least one of us would have been crying or bleeding by the end of the afternoon.

Travelepilogue: I Finally Made it to a Full Moon Party

Posted by lifestyle On June - 3 - 2008

A latter day Angkor Wat, apparently.

By Claire Brownell

If you’ve only heard of one thing about travelling in South East Asia, chances are it’s Koh Phagnan’s full moon party. The stuff of myths, lies, legends, and rumours. These giant monthly beach parties in the south of Thailand are a magnet for young travellers of the waste case variety. There’s a t-shirt sold in Thai souvenir shops that lists one of the “Ten Commandments of Backpackers” as “Thou shalt make a pilgrimage to a full moon party on Koh Phagnan at least once in your life.” And it’s true: Koh Phagnan takes on a Mecca-like quality for backpackers. I met people in Laos, Cambodia, and in the north of Thailand who swore that they had finally left the south for good, who then checked their calender and — discovering the full moon was in a few days — scrambled to book 36-hour bus trips back to Koh Phagnan in order to make another party. To hear people talk, South East Asia had two wonders of the world: Angkor Wat, and full moon on Koh Phagnan.

Koh Phagnan and its neighbouring islands actually experince a monthly high and low season based on the full moon. The hype surrounding it is about two-thirds positive and one-third negative. Prior to going myself, I couldn’t get much out of the people who loved it and kept going back except, “It’s amazing… you’ll love it… you have to go.”

The details on the negative side were more specific. There’s a huge market for drugs in a party environment like that, which means an equally huge opportunity for Thai police to take advantage of the country’s extremely strict anti-drug laws. Stories of bank accounts being emptied by people bailing their friends out of jail for thousands of dollars are common. Thefts also seem to happen more often than not; everyone I talked to seemed to have either gotten their wallet stolen on the beach or their bungalow broken into. Finally, there is the no fail equation of Excess Drinking + Stupidity = Disaster. An often quoted statistic that I believe to be true, but for which I have no reputable source whatsoever, is that at least one person dies every full moon party. Alcohol poisoning, drug overdose, drownings, drunk motorbike driving — the opportunities for biting the dust on Kho Phagnan are as limitless as human stupidity.

After finally experiencing it first hand, I give Koh Phagnan a mixed review. The things that are good about it are great, but the things that suck about it are truly awful.

I’ll start with the pros, and things that are awesome about Koh Phagnan:

1) PARTYING ON THE BEACH: Have you ever danced by the ocean in moonlight on a tropical island? Trust me, it’s nice. Haad Rin, the beach on Koh Phagnan where the action happens, is set up like one giant dance floor. Instead of being self-contained, the bars all open up onto the beach, with speakers directed outwards and fire shows grabbing people’s attention to the sand rather than to the indoors. This creates an environment that, in a weird way, reminds me more of bush parties and drinking in parks back in the day, than hanging out at a bar, complete with cops breaking it up when it gets too late or too rowdy. People bring their own liquor from the 7-11 or bucket stands and hop from bar to bar, mingling with everyone and creating impromptu groups. In fact, I don’t understand how the Haad Rin bars make money, because no one ever actually goes inside. I probably don’t want to know.

2) BUCKET STANDS: Lining the stretches of beach between bars are shoulder-to-shoulder stands selling buckets at bargain prices. I’ve discussed the beautiful and timeless tradition of selling drinks in buckets in South East Asia, but if you’re new, a bucket generally consists of ice, a mickey of your liquor of choice, a Redbull, pop, and fifteen zillion bendy straws, served in a plastic bucket complete with handle.

To differentiate the stands, they are painted with slogans such as “Fuckbucket,” “King Kong Bucket,” and “Jerusalem Bucket: Jesus’s Favourite.” Since they’re all selling the same product, the people working at the stands will reward you for customer loyalty with discounts and buy-two-get-one-free deals. Imagine, just imagine, if this was legal in Canada: no student would ever need a summer job again. It’s like a lemonade stand, but drunker and more fun.

3) YOU CAN ALWAYS FIND MUSIC YOU DON’T HATE: The lack of decent music has been a consistent gripe of mine from day one, and a major cause of homesickness. The entire South East Asian subcontinent has an unfortunate obsession with Sean Kingston and Shakira; “Suicidal” and “My Hips Don’t Lie” are heard about 800 times a day in stores, on the radio, and as cellphone ring tones. South East Asian pop music is a mostly horrible, if occasionally endearing, knock-off of boy bands and Céline Dion-style power ballads. Bars catering to foreigners tend to go for inoffensive mass appeal and play either Bob Marley and Oasis on repeat, or Justin Timberlake and the Black Eyed Peas if they’re trying to get people to dance.

Koh Phagnan, however, gets that not every traveller who’s into going out and dancing is into the same type of music, and a lot of the biggest partiers are into electronic music that you don’t hear on the radio. My stay on the island actually broadened my taste in music; I was convinced I hated house, when apparently I was just listening to the wrong stuff. The genius of the Haad Rin setup is that if you don’t like what one bar is playing, you can just walk a few feet to the next one, bringing your unfinished drink with you.

4) KOH PHAGNAN DOES WHATEVER THE HELL IT WANTS: The Thai police don’t joke around when it comes to drugs and serving drinks after hours (unless they’re making kickbacks and bribes, in which case they laugh all the way to the bank). Partying on Koh Phagnan, however, is the basis of most of the island’s economy. The locals fight for the right to party using a tactic I can only describe as large scale civil disobedience. Every night around two or three a.m., the bars and bucket stands start getting hassled by the cops to shut down, and every night they collectively ignore them. Since the police are outnumbered, there is only so much they can do if everyone just plain refuses to listen to them. By the time they get too persistent to be ignored, the party has winded down anyway.

In Koh Phagnan, alcohol is prohibited from being sold anywhere in the country the night before an election, to keep people from making their choice under the influence. (I love this concept: “Man, last night I got so shitfaced that I totally voted Conservative.”) This happened the night before the full moon party that I went to, so the bars just turned off their music and sold drinks using the “Pssst… hey fella… wanna buy a bucket?” system. Even though there were no lights and no music, hundreds of people were sitting on the beach, playing guitars, hanging out, and drinking. The scene could be interpreted as either a sad testament to alcoholism, or a political statement about resisting state power. If all those people were as committed to, oh say, environmentalism or nuclear disarmament as they are to drinking, we’d be set.

Having said that, here are the Things I Could Do Without on Koh Phagnan:

1) GETTING ROBBED IS 100% INEVITABLE: But actually, everyone gets robbed on Haad Rin. Either their bungalow gets broken into, or their purse, camera or wallet go missing on the beach. The combination of laughably easy to break into bungalows, and crowds of drunk people carrying wads of cash in dim lighting, make theft too easy and lucrative to resist for both locals and fellow travellers.

My friend Sadie had extra bad luck on this count. When our bungalow inevitably got broken into, she lost 5000 baht (about $165) in cash. Then, on the night of the full moon party, somebody poked her through the bars of the window of our friend’s room with a stick while she was napping. She doesn’t know why whoever it was did this, but assumes it was to see if there were valuables on the bed within reach, or to check for people sleeping before breaking in. Whatever the reason, she grabbed the stick, shook it at them, and yelled at the top of her lungs, scaring them away. The point is, there’s not much you can do except keep your valuables locked at reception and not carry a lot of cash around.

2) SLEAZY DUDES: Self explanatory. They’re everywhere in South East Asia, but there seems to be a disproportionate number of them on Koh Phagnan.

3) BLAMING EVERYTHING THAT GOES WRONG ON DRINKING AND DRUGS: In an effort to attract more “upscale” tourists, the police are stepping up their efforts to rein in Haad Rin’s anarchic, free-for-all atmosphere. It’s easy to convince people of the need for the crackdown by claiming that all this crazy partying is Unsafe! and Corrupting Our Youth! and the usual stuff like that. Obviously, drinking and drugs contribute to the high rate of accidents. In my opinion, however, there are three things that the cops and government could do that would be infinitely more effective in improving safety than forcing bars to stop playing music at two and charging kids extortionary fines for small drug offenses. These are:

  • Invest in street lights so that it’s harder to pull people into the bushes and rob and/or rape them, and so that motorbikes can see people before they hit them
  • Ban renting motorbikes to tourists. It seemed like every other person walking around had road rash scars, so just imagine how many people were in the hospital not walking around
  • Put a cap on the amount that clinics can charge for emergency medical services. The clinic on the beach was well known for inflating fees to ridiculous levels if they thought you were desperate enough to pay it.

But the authorities won’t do any of the above, because it’s easier and more lucrative to shut the whole thing down so that older tourists with families and money won’t be scared away from the resorts.

Aside from the the general pros and cons, the only real difference between the full moon party and any other night on Haad Rin is that there are about ten times more people. Travel agencies on neighbouring islands sell boat tickets to Koh Phagnan for the night. The huge crowds are actually incredibly annoying: getting anywhere close to any of the main bars is like shoving your way through a mosh pit. We eventually found a bar on the end of the beach that had booked a DJ playing music sufficiently underground and weird enough to keep the crowds away. We danced until daylight in a bucket-fuelled frenzy until we realized that we were the only ones left standing who weren’t on ecstasy, and that the sleeve tattoos we had painted on each other while pre-drinking looked a lot cooler at night. Standing in water that reflected a purple sunrise, an entire boatload of people bound for neighbouring Koh Samui waved good bye. It was pretty epic.

Overall, I give Koh Phagnan, oh, I don’t know, a four out of five, I guess. I had to take a few points off for getting burgled, sexually harassed, and almost run over. But I definitely get why people keep going back. Once you’ve been, every time you see a full moon, you think: Somewhere on an island in the south of Thailand, about 20,000 people are losing their shit.

And I’m missing it.

Travelogue: Český Krumlov

Posted by lifestyle On May - 27 - 2008

By Sarah Redbird

I had heard rumors of Český Krumlov — the quiet, southern Bohemia UNESCO heritage site situated along the Vltava River, which cradles the State Castle or Chateau Complex. I had heard it was best showcased in the fall, when the foliage of the surrounding hills frame the medieval architecture of the town centre. I had also heard that the chill imposed by the icy nature of late-September Prague was well remedied there. Having been given reprieve from my sojourn as a student at the Prague University of Economics on the mid-fall long weekend, I ventured out of my temporary home in the Czech metropolis and headed south for the hills.

After traversing Hlavní Nádraží — the traveling epicenter of Central Europe — I departed with my $10 CDN round-trip train ticket on a comfortable and semi-crowded coach class car. To the right lay hallways with windows opening to chest height, perfect for resting your arms and breathing in the country air while stretching your legs on the five-hour journey. The traveling time was inconsequential as the poignancy of some adage played on repeat in my head: “it’s all in the journey, not the destination.” Opposite to the hallway were the individual seating cars, capacity eight. In perfect early-twenties-Eastern-European-brood height rested a picture window encouraging one to gaze at the countryside as the train dipped and rose in its wake. Cottages dotted the landscape and families flew by, tilling their small plots of land. The layout of the train was one that paid respect to the many incarnations of the traveler: dreamer, gazer, stroller, sleeper.

Once in Český Krumlov, I fumbled downhill towards town. As if to test my worthiness of this retreat, a wooded area with a menacingly steep and rickety staircase seemed to be the sole bypass into town. The downward climb was daunting, but the view piqued my curiosity. The centre of Český Krumlov sat in front of me like a medieval snow globe stuck in time.

The descent ended at a cobblestone bridge leading me under a tower and into the town. My boldness in not booking accommodations ahead of time was quickly rewarded when directly to my left I spotted Hostel 99. Its owners were absent and the atmosphere was relaxed. Travelers and vagabonds alike lazily filtered into view and brought us through the motions of checking in. I remain unclear of who was working and who was simply filling in. In any case, a sense of community was established. I paid $10 for one night and dropped my backpack in a six-bed loft where I could almost smell the animals of stables past. Almost.

The draw of Český Krumlov is the castle, and, being a traveler, I was drawn.  There was a bridge to take you from the remainder of the town into the Chateau Complex. Wasting no time with spectacle, a bear living below the bridge drew gawkers climbing the brief ascent into the Complex, itself teeming with cafés, restaurants, stores, and an art gallery offering free admission.

After a few hours of touring, my belly full of local beer and my hands heavy with purchases of Dvořák CDs and postcards laden with the work of Holan, Kotík, and Holy, I headed back to the hostel to meet the other travelers with whom I would be spending the night.

I dined with Fred, a professional traveler from Norway, who made his home in the tower above my entry point and adjacent to the hostel. The potato pancakes and slow-roasted chicken we ate at the riverside restaurant forgave the slow service and hapless waitress. This dining location was Fred’s choice, after the underground candlelit restaurant on the other side of town appeared too crowded.

Later, we shared drinks at the Snake Bar with some travelers from Australia. “I just caught the bug,” one tells me in reference to a six-month journey that’s lead her from Asia to central Europe. A few beers, a shot of absinthe, and the caroling of various national anthems later, I headed back to the hostel. As we entered our room, an Englishman stirred in his bed and politely grumbled, “Do you know where I might find the loo?” Downstairs in the courtyard, a group of people resembling a United Nations meeting gathered by the fire. They had all begun their journeys in various locations, but found themselves in Český Krumlov as friends and storytellers. With the fire warming my face, I was reminded of a sentiment shared by my radical liberal Texan friend back in Prague, “Home is everywhere”. At that moment though, home was Český Krumlov.

Bangkok, Round Two

Posted by lifestyle On April - 22 - 2008

I spent half a year in Southeast Asia and all I got was this lousy life experience
By Claire Brownell

Stepping off a plane from Toronto, Bangkok looked like Cambodia. Stepping off a bus from Cambodia, Bangkok looked like Hollywood. It was fascinating. Everywhere Maggie and I looked, we saw landmarks of wealth and globalization that we hadn’t seen for months. Look, a skyscraper! A Burger King! A highway overpass! Even the tourists looked more attractive. Look, straightened hair, heels, manicures! Walking down Khao San for the first time, the second time, was like reverse culture shock. After seeing nothing but dust and potholes for months, it was dazzling, beautiful, and mesmerizing, whereas fresh out of Toronto the first things that caught my eye were beggars jumping over puddles of garbage water.

Our first time in Bangkok, my friends and I were twitchy deer in headlights. We were so determined to avoid the dozens of scams we had heard about that we did things that were, in retrospect, pretty hilarious. We walked everywhere, even if it was hours away, because we were convinced that every tuk tuk driver was out to rip us off in the infamous jewellery store scam. We avoided travel agencies like the plague and eyed everyone with a tourism authority badge or license with suspicion, convinced they were fakes. Ironically, all these safeguards and precautions stamped Brand Spanking New on our foreheads and made us a magnet for every huckster, bamboozler, and fast-talker in town. My memories of my first time in Bangkok generally involve all five senses being overwhelmed. It smelled like a diaper, it was covered in garbage, it was hot, people were yelling at me, cars were about to hit me, the concepts of squatter toilets and sanitary hoses were beyond me.

I braced myself for a similar bombardment when I got off the bus for Round Two. I figured it would be less intimidating after a few months of experience, but it went beyond that. It was a breeze. Hucksters actually left me alone after my first “No, thank you.” I didn’t get a single offer to be taken on a sightseeing tour for five baht, special price (code red for “Big Fat Scam”). Sometimes I actually strolled down entire streets without anyone trying to sell me something I didn’t want.

What gives? Who changed? Bangkok, or me? It seemed to be a little bit of both. Very little fazes me any more. Oh, I have to cross four lanes of highway traffic and there’s no pedestrian crosswalks or lights? That’s a walk in the park when you’ve ridden a motorbike in rush hour traffic in Vietnam. Is that a roach I see crawling out of that pile of garbage in the gutter? I’ve been to towns in Cambodia where the roads are composed of layers of compressed, fossilized plastic bags, cans, and bottle caps, with livestock casually grazing on the food waste. In fact, I found myself feeling nostalgic for the trademarks of less “modern” places. In Bangkok, when people need to get somewhere, they generally drive or take the bus. I never see twenty people sitting on a board strapped to a pickup truck on top of five cows and a hundred chickens. When people move, I guess they hire a van or something, but they certainly don’t strap the entire contents of their home (cabinets, sinks, dressers, tables) to a motorbike and drive it over to their new place. I never thought I would use these words to describe Bangkok, but after the rest of Southeast Asia, it’s kind of sanitized and dull.

I’ve also mastered the most important skill for a trip like this: the Polite but Firm No Thank You. During Bangkok, Round One, I realized that the clichéd Canadian qualities of politeness and deference were more ingrained in me than I’d thought. People would stop me and offer to sell me a tour, or whatever, and I’d say no thanks. They’d ask me where I was from and how long I’d been here, and I’d tell them (because to just walk away from a conversation was unthinkable!). Then they’d try and talk me into it, again, and I’d say no thanks, sorry, I have to get going… and they’d FOLLOW me! They’d keep up the small talk! They’d keep trying to pressure me! By all standards of Canadian manners, there is no polite way out of this. Add the fact that I was walking everywhere, and you can imagine how it sometimes took me 45 minutes to walk a block. It was infuriating.

For Bangkok Round Two, however, I had vast experience in the two cardinal rules of dealing with hasslers: the Polite but Firm No Thank You, and You Get Rude With Me, I Get Rude Right Back. The trick is to say “no thank you” firmly, one time, then shut off all further conversation. I’m actually a little worried that I may accidentally retain this habit when I get home, because by Canadian standards, this is unspeakably rude. But eventually, I realized that continuing the conversation was more impolite, in a way. Engaging in meaningless small talk when I’m determined not to buy whatever’s on offer just wastes their time. Once I mastered this crucial skill, I could even have fun with it. I’d say “no thank you” in a Donald Duck voice, or sing a song about how I don’t want anythiiiiiiiing… If I did I would have said somethiiiiiing…. The huckster would laugh, I would laugh, we’d give each other “you’re cool” head nods, and we’d go on our separate ways.

This skill combined with a mastery of Bangkok’s unbelievably cheap and efficient transit system turned it into a whole new city. I discovered the Chatuchak market, on the northern outskirts, filled with stalls run by independent designers selling unbelievably cool and original stuff at mind-bogglingly low prices. I wandered through China town, which was neat even though I was there on a Monday night, which is the Buddhist version of Sunday, and everything was closed (you’d think I would have figured that out by now). I spent an afternoon playing cards and smoking strawberry tobacco from a hookah at a café in Little Arabia. Khao San Road is still obnoxious and lame, though. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The more I travel, the more meaningless categories like “third world” or the currently trendy “Global South” really are. In a lot of ways, Bangkok is more developed than Toronto. There are fewer homeless people, plus they have a Skytrain AND a subway AND a reliable bus network. There’s obviously a shocking poverty problem in Thailand, but it just doesn’t compare to the normality of subsistence living in a shack with a garden and a couple of chickens in Cambodia, Laos, and, to some extent, Vietnam. It’s good to realize that I’ve actually learned something concrete about the world through my travels and haven’t just been killing brain cells with rice whiskey and Red Bull. It also makes me wonder how I’m going to deal with Toronto and real life after living in this alternate universe for six months. I’ll find out in about two-and-a-half weeks, I guess. Yikes.

Holiday in Cambodia

Posted by lifestyle On March - 25 - 2008

Don’t Forget to Pack a Wife!

By Claire Brownell

In the spring of 1980, the Dead Kennedys released “Holiday in Cambodia,” on Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. It was a year after Vietnamese occupation toppled Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for the massacre of one to two million people. A commentary on the hypocrisy of young, university educated liberals who claim an appropriated understanding of poor minorities, the song suggests such people take a holiday in Cambodia and see if they still think life in the ghetto is poetic and cool.

“And it’s a holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll do what you’re told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums’ got so much soul.”

So I’m sitting here in a ritzy tourist cafe in Siem Reap, listening to Frank Sinatra and drinking a banana shake, with a krama (traditional Cambodian scarf) tied around my neck, and reflecting on the beautiful irony of that song in 2008. I’m sure that in 1980, it would have been totally inconceivable to the Dead Kennedys that Cambodia would become a place where the type of people they deride in the song would actually voluntarily take a holiday. But it has. And they do. And I guess (gulp) I’m one of them. And it’s very possible that Jello Biafra would call me up from his office at the Green Party to tell me I’m a spineless liberal for what I’m about to write, and it’s very possible he would be right. Cambodia’s got problems. Big problems. Problems so big that my middle class white Canadian brain can’t even begin to wrap itself around them, even though I’ve been here for a month and a half. But goddammit, the slums here do have soul. There. I said it.

My friend Maggie has come up with a representation of Cambodia as experienced by a backpacker in pie chart form.

Cambodia: Composite Parts

  • 78% building shit (I hear most people call it “development”)
  • 15% livestock
  • 20% dust everywhere, especially my lungs
  • 32% consistently fantastic food
  • 17% sassy rude kids selling stuff, followed by realizing that they’ve outsmarted you by 55% by making you buy something you don’t want and have also just stolen 18% of your wallet
  • 67% garbage on fire
  • 19% being amazed that amazingly beautiful, mindblowing things has become normal
  • 12% heartbreak (amputees, prostitution, genocide museums, etc.)
  • 9% blackouts caused by someone tripping over the one extension cord that powers all of Cambodia
  • 14% being a celebrity to children under the age of six
  • 77% almost getting hit by a Lexus, a rickshaw, and a cart selling seashells at the same time
  • 97% paying less than a dollar for almost everything, including large bottles of whiskey
  • 99% lounging
  • 87% forgetting everything I ever learned in school, including how pie charts work

Now that you have a general idea of how things work here, I’m sure it’s easy to infer that the excess in Cambodia is just as shocking as the poverty. It would be fully possible to travel the high roller way, see only the major sites in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and not even realize that Cambodia is a poor country. I like to think that traveling dirty backpacker style and my (shortlived) career working at a bar run by a Khmer family have given me a bit more insight into the other side of Cambodian life (Sidenote: Khmer is the term for the Cambodian language and ethnicity, “Cambodian” refers to the nationality). For one thing, Khmer people are tough. Cambodians would be in hysterics over the Canadian definition of a hard life (and, in fact, laughing at Westerners seems to be a national pastime). Many work two full time jobs and also go to school nights and weekends. Kids learn to drive motorcycles and work as tour guides or sassy salespeople before Canadian kids lose their training wheels. Toronto teenaged thugs who think they’re gangsters should try talking to a Cambodian street kid for twenty minutes, and they’d realize their $300 Akademics jeans plus the half quarter of weed in their pocket would support the average Cambodian for almost a year. For another thing, the country and people have been through so much that I’m going to attempt to summarize the collective Khmer attitude I’ve observed in the following way: So much shit has happened, so much shit is still happening, so much shit will, by all laws of probability, continue to happen, that we might as well chill out on our hammocks and make the best of it while we can. Land mines, sex tourism, relatives killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide, children unable to afford school: these things exist, and we’re pretty fucking mad about it, but right now, let’s get drunk and go to a wedding.

These contrasts are most visible in Phnom Penh, the capital city. Ten times scarier than Gotham, a billion times more interesting than Toronto, and often strangely reminiscent of Montreal with its flats with winding staircases, Phnom Penh is definitely the coolest major city I’ve been to so far. It’s also only recently become a place you can travel without worrying about some political party tossing a hand grenade into a crowd or exchanging gunfire in pickup trucks. Tourists can go to the former Khmer Rouge prison, S-21, which had 20 000 inmates and 7 survivors, in the morning. Then they could rub shoulders with dresssed up rich Khmers at the mall, head to the slums for some one dollar fried rice, barter over whether two t-shirts are worth $3 or $2.50 at the Russian market, and see an entire pagoda plated in silver at the Royal Palace. They could dodge the traffic composed almost entirely of rattletrap motorbikes competing for space with Toyota Land Cruiser SUVs and Lexuses (Lexi? What the hell is the plural of Lexus?) to catch a spectacular sunset over the nuclear green Boeng Kak lake, then get some $5 cocktails at a riverside cafe with all the money they saved on t-shirts. None of it makes any sense, and none of it holds any justice. But in the words of one Khmer who ran a travel agency by my guesthouse, “Don’t worry, man. Just go get stoned, why not?”

You can see how a wide range of types of tourists would be attracted to Cambodia. There are the middle aged package tourist types who mostly want to check Angkor Wat off their list. At the other end of the spectrum are the scum of the earth sex tourists who are there for the unabashed and widespread prostitution. Then there’s everyone in between. Want to get baked all day by a stunning river? Head to Kampot. Backpacker who’s squandered your carefully planned budget at the bar? There’s a job for you bartending in Sihanoukville, or teaching English in Phnom Penh if you’re willing to stick around for a couple of months. Don’t mind a drunken bender in between seeing the most stunning sights on earth? Siem Reap has an entire street called “Bar Street.” Everyone wants to take a holiday in Cambodia. And very soon, even more people will, but they won’t be the young, ten-dollar-a-day budget travelers. There’s a joint Cambodia-Thailand visa in the works. A national park in Kampot is being bulldozed to make way for a giant casino and theme park. The entire beachfront bar strip of the backpacker ghetto Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville is being torn down to make way for resorts in the next month and a half. So get there soon, because Cambodia might not have much soul for long.

NYC Travelogue, Day Four

Posted by lifestyle On March - 18 - 2008

I feel ungood.

Sometimes you wake up… and you can’t find Nan Goldin
By Jenny Bundock

Due to my exposure to a freezing cold rain the day before, I was naturally the worst I had been all trip when we woke up for our final day in the city. It was eleven in the morning again, NeoCitran was in the scary water boiler and I was trying to warm up in the tub. We decided to go to MoMa since I am in visual arts, and I did want to see some photography before we left the city. We took the subway from Rockefeller Center rather painlessly to MoMa and enjoyed some of the cool stuff they have for all visitors like a free coat-check and free audio guides. (To be fair, when looking at contemporary art it really does help if there is something that explains to you why this particular canvas painted all blue is more important than that other one, or the one you yourself could paint for a nice round $6.50.) We took the advice of the sweet little old lady at the front (who I now know from going through an art education myself probably has a PhD) and started on the fifth floor. It was okay… Van Gogh, Picasso, Klimt… if you like “amazing” artwork…

Unfortunately I was too sick to do anything except try to stay upright. I found myself more than once actually leaning on a white wall, or crouching near a doorway clutching my audio guide, which was talking to me about something I wasn’t standing near because my face had hit random numbers on the keypad. It was terrible.

Being in my state, and having worked our way through to the third floor where they kept the photography (the MAIN reason we had come to MoMa, as I am a photography student, and those artists are where most of my knowledge lies) I took a quick look through what I thought to be a specialized showing of mostly black-and-white photos, things like Aget and Arbus. I was content and hungry, so before we looked for the ones I really came to see (like Nan Goldin!!) we broke for lunch.

There were two places to eat in MoMa, a restaurant on the third floor and a café on the second. We were on the third floor so we decided to try the restaurant first… but with lunch being priced around $20-$24 per plate, we ran for our lives to what we understood to be the “moderately priced” (ah ha, ah ha, it is to LAUGH) café. I’m not sure if it is just that we aren’t down with what cheap in NYC is, but the lunch we had at MoMa ended up being the most expensive meal we had the whole trip.

I ordered butternut squash ravioli, and Dyl ordered a chicken sandwich. That was our food, plus a latte because I needed the caffeine, and an iced tea so Dylan didn’t have to eat a dry sandwich all on its own, and it came to over $30. They proceeded to add a $3.10 tip to the meal on our behalf, and we were told to wait at a table to be served. When my ravioli arrived, I was blown away. There were five of them. FIVE lonely, sad, and expensive little raviolis that cost $13 without tip. I don’t think I’d ever been so disappointed with my quantity of food after paying so much. I guess this is what gourmet is all about, but I was downright distraught that I had to go the rest of the day on five raviolis.

not crying orphans sad, but sad.

The disappointment didn’t end there though. After heading back to the third floor, broke and un-full, I decided I would feel better if we could just find the Nan Goldin photos and the Jeff Wall stuff. Nan Goldin, for those of you who do not know me, is like, my patron saint. I love her. This year may actually be the first year out of five at university where someone doesn’t look me in the eye and excitedly ask me, “Have you heard of Nan Goldin?” after flipping through my photographs. She is the mother hen to my baby art heart… I excitedly found new energy despite my sickness and rounded the corner of the hall we hadn’t visited, assuming at the end would be the gallery with her photos…

DENIED! It was an exhibit on Helvetica. I became sort of flustered. I insisted we go back through the area we had come from, maybe I missed the part with the colour photos… I mean I could only remember seeing like one room with colour… MoMa could not have been all black and white… could it? Long story short, I made a bit of a scene crying on the escalator as it carried me to the second floor. I couldn’t find her, and I was sick, and my food was a rip-off; I was tired, cranky and all I wanted was those pictures. Being on the brink of hysterics, having a hard time keeping my exterior rather calm, I sharply replied, “No!” and “I can’t!” whenever Dylan said, “Let’s just ask them where they are!” It was a bad day.

I felt a bit better on the bottom floors, which contained wallpaper that was FULL of hidden penises and vaginas, as well as a plaque by Jenny Holzer that I adore, and wish I could put on my own wall. It read: “Some days you wake up and immediately start to worry. Nothing in particular is wrong it’s just the suspicion that forces are aligning quietly and there will be trouble. ” Doesn’t that sum life up, or at least the life of my mom, really nicely? I thought so.

We left MoMa and headed on the subway directly to NoHo so that Dylan could visit this massive wine store. (He’s a bit obsessed…) I was all the things from before (sick, cranky, hungry, depressed about Nan Goldin), plus now exhausted and standing in a wine store. I began leaning on several walls for support, as I was getting dizzy from fever, so being the saint that he clearly is, we left the wine store prematurely so that we could sit down for dinner again. We had originally planned to walk, but I guess I had started making less sense, or complaining more than usual, because Dylan almost randomly decided that we should take the subway to Lombardi’s, which is where we were going to get pizza for dinner. It was Valentine’s Day, so we were pretty sure that going to a classier joint was out of the question. We selected Lombardi’s because it seemed like a semi-sketchy place with a reasonably good reputation for pizza-pies, and that meant good food, and more importantly, no reservations necessary. (The wikipedia entry about the pizza place said that the owner’s son was once arrested for dealing heroin from the mafia out of the basement in the ’50s… he did seven years for selling the heroin, and then returned to his father’s business, to later take it over and eventually pass it along to his own son, who is the guy who owned it when we got there.) The place also claims to be the first registered pizza place in North America. I liked it okay; the pizza was enormous, and the dining room was split between two store fronts, so on our way to the table we had to walk through the entire kitchen following our waitress. It was pretty cool!

carefull…

Eventually we had eaten all we could, and we ventured back into the streets and down the nearest subway entrance and then back to our final moments in Times Square. I bought a record from the Virgin store, which took like 45 minutes, for one record, and then we watched some people make out in the “Nivea Garden of Love” they had put up for Valentine’s Day… I bought more drugs at the pharmacy… we packed, and since our flight was leaving around eight in the morning, and we had to be out at a quarter to five to get the cab back to Newark Airport, we went to bed around ten thirty.

All in all it was a really good trip. Wouldn’t you know it, the day I felt the best was the day we left… though after I got home my doctor was very unhappy with the amount of infection in my head/face/chest and prescribed me three weeks of 500 mg of amoxicillin, three times a day (an insane amount of medication for someone as small as I am). But I’m finally all better now, finished my meds, and thinking about when we can go back… in the summer next time though, and maybe when it’s not going to rain.

In short, I do heart NYC, and can honestly say out of all of the American cities I have been in, it freaked me out the least.

[Eds: pizza-pie or pizza pie? and should wikipedia be capitalized, or no? --Bri]

NYC Travelogue Continued

Posted by lifestyle On March - 11 - 2008

I’m 90% sure that the guy in all these photos is named “Dylan”

By Jenny Bundock (words and photos)

To see the last entry in this travelogue, click this link. It won’t bite.

Day Two
Sleeping till noon is no way to start off what you had decided previously would be an action-packed day full of adventure and learning how to ride the NYC subway. I recall getting up feeling as angry as can be, drinking a cup of NeoCitran using the dangerous little water boiler thing in our room that sputtered scalding hot water in a three-foot radius all around where you plugged it in. Drinking NeoCitran and avoiding the boiler’s corner of the room would become my “every morning in NYC” ritual. After that, we used the extensive map of the transit system to figure out how to get to the Museum of Natural History > (which we decided to go to almost entirely to see the big blue whale they have hanging from the ceiling, and more importantly, get a picture of Dylan with it. If you have ever seen the movie The Squid and the Whale, you understand). We were also going to try to go to the Met that same day, as it is right near there, but alas, there were but five hours while both places were open, so the Met would have to wait.

071-dylan-ount-the-whale.jpg

We managed to figure out how to get to where we wanted to go fairly easily after we had asked several guys trying to give us tickets to stand-up comedy where the subway entrance was. Foolishly, we assumed that you could get on the subway you wanted to be on at all the entrances… not true. It took us three tries and several blocks of walking to go down a flight of stairs that had a train going where we wanted at the bottom. The system, once you figured that part out, was exceptionally user friendly and easy to use! We became a little obsessed with the subway system, and rode it as much as possible, even if it was just a couple blocks. I’ll break away from the story here just to point out how much the TTC fucking sucks in comparison. The NYC subway system is probably ten times as complicated, and their city has over 10 million people in it, and yet, there was never a late train… we could always sit down once we got on that train… there were little electronically automated “you are here” type line maps in the trains, so you could tell how many stops you had left, or if the train you were on skipped the stop you wanted… there was also a board telling you who the person was that was in charge of that station, and where they were right now… and it only cost $2 a ride. If you bought $20 of rides on a card, from this easy automated machine beside the turnstile, it gave you a free two rides (so the ten rides you paid for became twelve, just for the hell of it)… and, the best part, you can get on the subway virtually anywhere at these mini-stations, where you go down a flight of stairs, and you are ON the platform, and if you want to go the other way, you go back up and cross the street and go down stairs on the other side. It really makes you realize how painfully weak the TTC is.

Anyways, we were on the awesomely organized subway with little pain at all, and on our way to the NHM. I knew there would be a lot of like, stuffed animals in there, but nothing could really prepare me for the lifelike settings they put them in. It was borderline twisted, but educational for sure. For example, I learned that my feet are the same size as the feet of a four-foot-tall, hairy version of a human being from thousands of years ago (woo hoo?). We also saw the skeleton of Lucy, who is damn tiny, and made of a lot fewer bones than I had thought she’d be. Unfortunately, I was still very sick, so though all of this was fun, I could not help but gripe non-stop and the family tree trailing us — who had brought everyone from their toddlers right on up to grandma — was not helping. It was like, everything we wanted to stop at for a second meant we were swallowed up by “Travelocity’s family-group rate vacation in NYC” crowding around us… and then mom calling back to grandma to “get a load of this here” and then four-foot-eleven grandma pushing her way in and calling behind her, insisting that Dad get the little four-year-old girl… who was having a grand old time just pulling her skirt up over her head and singing at the top of her lungs… and bring her over too so she can see… and then that girl starting to yell and bang the display case… and this happening to us no matter how far ahead we thought we were, every ten feet through a whole wing of the museum…

Officially turned off breeding for the next decade, we decided to head back to the hotel. I decided that I was not going anywhere until I had had a nap, because I’m a big mope when I am sick, and I put Dylan in charge of finding us some cheap place to eat. Being a student, he naturally put more emphasis on the value side of our meal than on the taste side. Old habits DO die hard. After my nap and Dylan’s research, we ended up at this sushi place that was definitely cheap, with mostly edible food, and a good value in amount of food per dollar spent… though on totally the wrong night. I was heavily medicated and not all that hungry, but being a vegetarian I have to eat like a hunter-gatherer (because I’m not sure when I’ll have food available again when living on restaurant food) so I ordered the vegetarian box meal, plus miso soup, because I was sick. This was moronic of me. I have never been given so much food in my life. On the upside we did get the quintessential NYC cups that have the Greek figures and “we are happy to serve you” written on them. That was worth the trip, and all the uneaten tempura.

088-good-cups.jpg

Since I was still under the weather, and we wanted to try and get up before noon the next day (fingers crossed), we decided to turn in around nine. Yep, all the way to New York, and we were in bed by ten o’clock at night. My Grandma would be so proud of my good behavior.

Day Three
Despite our best efforts, we were still asleep when ten thirty rolled around; by eleven we actually got up, and by noon, after my NeoCitran, we were out. On Wednesday’s agenda was the Metropolitan Museum, as we had not had a chance to go the day before. As you probably guessed, I was still sick… it was actually my worst day yet at that point, I was living on Sudafed and Advil, wandering in a daze. I had picked our subway stops, so we could walk the really smarmy areas of the city (Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, etc.), only there was a total downpour of freezing cold slush. We had to duck into some sketchy tourist shop to buy a $5 umbrella in a futile attempt to not get totally soaked on our way from the subway to the front door of the museum. We walked around in the rain for nearly 15 minutes until we found a friendly enough local to ask for directions. We knew that the museum was on the street we were standing on, and that it was facing the park, so we simply asked which direction the park was. Foolishly, we listened to that woman, and ten minutes and two blocks later we realized we were not walking towards the park. Once we were in a cab, we felt much better about our situation. The coffee I had been nursing was finally in me, and the cab had this awesome video screen in it that showed you on a map exactly where your cab was and where you were heading to. It was totally boss. We got to the museum, and having been soaked through our coats, so that our shirts and pants were also drenched, we felt more like warm lunch than any art. The cafeteria was amazing!!! I got baked macaroni and cheese, Dyl had a half-roast-chicken dinner with hand-cut French fries, and you could buy wine by the half bottle to drink, and for a reasonable $12 a piece. It was awesome.

084-henry-and-dylan-comparison.jpg

Since Dylan had decided to wear his suit to the Museum, everyone kept asking him if there was a bathroom nearby, thinking he was one of those people who tell you not to touch the art. After Dyl took his coat off and started carrying it on his arm, we had enough peace to continue through the building uninterrupted. We saw all the usual stuff, though the armor was probably some of the coolest stuff there. We were blown away that anyone could wear it at all without falling over. We saw the rest of the museum and ended our day; jumped back on the subway, went back to the hotel, I dried off and had my de-grumping nap, and then we went to this authentic Italian place for dinner. We were the only people eating at the restaurant, minus the mafia don in the front corner who greeted us on the way in and spent all night talking to a table of associates in Italian over pasta and smoking a cigar. There was also a sobbing woman who had been betrayed by her lover and her compassionate friend at the other end of the restaurant, but they were just nursing cappuccinos so I am not counting them either… we were the only ones with food, who didn’t own the place. Since this was the case, the entire staff was at our beck and call. They had this deal where you could have an appetizer, entrée, drink, and dessert of your choice from the menu for $24 even (there’s that student value sense again). Due to us being their only customers our appetizers came out in like four minutes, entrées just as we put our forks down, then dessert as the last bite hit out mouths, all before my latte had even cooled down. I felt rushed and awkward about us intruding on the lives of the other two patrons, so we left right after we paid, about 30 minutes after we had arrived… and the night was still young. We grabbed a drink at the hotel bar. A Harp beer from Nova Scotia counted as an import, so they charged me $7.50 for the one (and only) beer I drank. (A glass of wine for Dylan, $12… so it could always be worse.) We limped our wounded wallets back to bed by eleven thirty that night, watched Sex and the City (because it seemed only fitting), and then woke up at noon the next day for our last day in the city.

Next week: Day four, goodbye NYC!

Dear Mom: So I Kind of Work in a Cambodian Brothel

Posted by lifestyle On March - 4 - 2008

Sex Tourists: Kind of Sketchy. Who Knew?

By Claire Brownell

Dear Mom,
How are you? My travels are going well. You’ll be happy to hear that I’ve found a job. Vietnam was quite a bit more expensive than I expected it to be, so I thought it would be a good idea to settle down and save some money for a while. I work at a bar called The Dolphin Shack in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where I bartend and hand out fliers on the beach.

My fellow employees are all very friendly and show their appreciation for my work with lots of hugs and kisses. I’m even learning sign language from the deaf girls who work here. Granted, most of my sign language vocabulary consists of signs for various cocktails (my favourite being a tit squeeze for “Baileys and milk”), but at least I can rest assured that if I ever go deaf I can still order a drink at a bar. My generous salary consists of free accommodation, free food, free unlimited drinks, and the occasional tip. I think this is very reasonable given the more or less pleasant working conditions and life experience I’m accumulating. I think I may inquire about getting a staff discount from the resident drug dealer, though — it doesn’t seem fair that I should pay full price, especially since I’m sure I’ll be a regular customer. The hours are quite long: I work from nine p.m. to six a.m. I don’t really mind, though, because it’s a pleasant and well-maintained working environment. A cockroach has only fallen on my head once, which is pretty good for Cambodia. The last time one fell in the ice bucket, my boss even had the decency to fish it out for me.

They have a really intelligent incentive system for getting their employees to do a good job promoting the bar on the beach. On days when my co-workers and I come up with a creative theme or promotion for the night (pirate night, moustache night, etc.), the bar fills up with backpackers. On days when we’re lazy and don’t flier or just do it half-assed, the only people who come are the sex tourists and prostitutes. If you’ve never heard the phrase “sex tourist,” it’s exactly what it sounds like. Sometimes when there’s a lull, I entertain myself by thinking up nicknames for the sex tourists. They’re all named Steve, for “Steve the Sex Tourist,” but each gets their own descriptive prefix. Some of the regulars include Awkward Steve, Fat Steve, Old Steve, Whiskey Breath Steve, and my personal favourite, Steve le Sale Ivrogne (loosely translated, Steve the Nasty Drunk French Sex Tourist with Shitty Dreadlocks and Bad Teeth). You’ll be proud to hear that my years of hard work learning French are finally paying off in a professional setting.

I must admit that the sight of Fat Steve practically dry-humping a hooker on the bench of the bar made me vomit into my mouth a few nights ago, but like a good employee I swallowed it and carried on. You’ll also be happy to hear that the Steve phenomenon has inspired me to pledge myself to celibacy for the rest of my trip. It’s nice to know that even though I still have to watch out for malaria, typhoid fever, avian flu, flesh-eating disease, drunk motorbike drivers, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, hepatitis D (the forgotten hepatitis), alcoholism, and lung cancer, I won’t get AIDS or an illegitimate child. Actually, that gives me a new marketing idea for the bar: we should sell t-shirts that say “My husband went to Cambodia and all I got was this lousy STD” for the Steves to bring home to their wives.

You would be so proud of me if you could see all the useful skills I’m learning. These include pacing my drinking so I can stay awake throughout my shift without getting so sloppy I can’t make change, serving domino Jäger bombs, avoiding eye contact with people I don’t like to make them wait as long as possible for a drink, and telling people who drink mojitos to get fucked. Mojitos are really my main complaint about my job. I’m sure that at high class resorts they have such luxuries as crushed ice and blenders, but here at The Dolphin Shack, making a mojito is a painful process. First I have to crush ice cubes one by one by smashing them into my hand with a metal rod. Then I have to hand pick mint leaves off their stems. After I add the sugar and rum, I hand squeeze lime wedges into the cocktail shaker, making my hands sting from all the scratches from crushing ice and opening cans. Then I think about how much I wish I could make people spontaneously combust with my mind as I add the soda water and straw and serve it. I think that what really gets me is that mojitos aren’t even good. The result of all my hard work and suffering is a cocktail that tastes like sweet and sour asshole. So I’m considering starting a work-to-rule labour action. If I can organize all the bartenders in Sihanoukville to refuse to serve mojitos, maybe we can raise awareness about this serious and misunderstood occupational hazard. Maybe we could even stage a wildcat strike or something. I bet there would be riots on the streets if the townies couldn’t get their Capriosas for a night or two.

My coworker Maggie and I have gotten a couple of talkings-to about abusing our free drinks privileges. I try to restrain myself, but when you get paid in food and alcohol, every time I pour myself a new drink means I just gave myself a raise. I suppose my employers may have a point when say that making ourselves Buckets of Mystery (Malibu, gin, lime, grenadine, and Sprite: Maggie’s invention) and climbing into the rafters to take a break may not be the most professional conduct. However, at this point, since we’re the only two bartenders left, I think our jobs are pretty secure. They even recently gave us a motorbike and invited us to a wedding. Since there seems to be a direct relationship between “slacking off” and “getting free stuff” at the Dolphin Shack, we’re going to see what else they’ll throw at us if we start randomly not showing up for work or falling asleep on the bar. We’re hoping for a unicorn.

So in conclusion, mom, I’m alive and well, and should be able to get back on the road in a month or so. When I get home, I would really appreciate it if you could have a pizza, a bowl of guacamole, and a bed in a rehab centre ready for me. In the meantime, take care of yourself.

Day One in NYC

Posted by lifestyle On March - 4 - 2008

A Story of Human Endurance in the City Coated in Kindness

By Jenny Bundock

This year, over the reading week break we university students get, my partner and I went to New York City.

I’m not sure how many of you have been to New York, or how many of you have gone in February, when it is cold as death and raining non-stop, but this is the New York I have come to know. Previously, my only exposure to New York came from watching all five seasons of Sex and the City. Turns out this is a terrible representation of New York in the winter. I don’t think Kerri Bradshaw even owns a heavy coat.

My impression of New York was built on lies. I’m going to share with you my damp, slushy experiences with New York in an attempt to balance this false “perpetual dry weather” myth associated with New York. The day that we arrived in Newark, things seemed to be looking up quite nicely. Our flight the day before had been canceled, so we got to finish the third season of The Wire, (which we were sad we had to leave unfinished) and then leave blissfully in the AM the next day.

It was bitterly cold in Toronto, but I was excited to get on the ground in NY State, because for some foolish reason, I thought it would be milder there. I was dead wrong, but I’ll get to that. When we landed in Newark, our plane had been delayed, so the cab we had arranged to take us to Manhattan was tied up when we were finally on the ground. This could have been terrible except that they sent a stretch limo in its place, for no extra charge. (The limo was from like 1994, so it was being held together by electrical tape and staples in the back, and our driver had just finished a McDonald’s lunch, which he’d thrown over his shoulder into the back with us. But we still felt pretty classy.) When we arrived at our hotel, the first thing in our agenda was food. We walked a whole two blocks to the first place with a neon “pizza” sign, and being very excited, and in full-blown traveling Canadian mode which entails being over to top friendly, patient, chipper, and soft-spoken to Americans at all times, so that they feel naturally surly and inferior to our good-natured happy selves. You all do it. I know you do.

Anyways being as gentle and happy as possible I inquired about if a pizza slice I was interested in had any meat on it. “Hello there, beautiful day isn’t it! How are you feeling today? If possible can you please tell me if this pizza in the front is vegetarian friendly?” He responded with a short, annoyed “What?” and the woman behind the counter saved me from getting a pizza cutter imbedded in my face when she saw I was about to speak again by responding “There’s no meat there Hon” I took that one, and no one said another word to me the rest of the time.

Dylan and I ate our pizza and tried to map out our ambitious goals for what we wanted to see. We decided to walk as much as we could to see the city, as well as to cover as much ground as possible by doing two major landmarks a day. This was going to be an excellent trip!

On our way out to dinner, I began to notice I was developing a gigantic headache, I ignored this first sign of trouble and wandered out to dinner with Dylan, taking in the sites, our favorite being the drunkest man we’ve ever seen out in public. He could barely walk and was holding himself up by leaning all his weight onto the buildings, when one would end he would nearly fall over. We followed him to a wine store, which he basically crawled into, only to be tossed 30 whole seconds later. The best part was that it was Monday night at 5:00 pm, and he was in a full suit and tie ensemble, complete with shiny shoes. Our invented back-story for him was that he got canned for sleeping with his secretary who, it turns out, was only 17.

During dinner I felt increasingly sick, eventually dizzy, and on the way home we stopped to buy $30 worth of meds to cover whatever symptoms of mine could build overnight. Also concerned that I hadn’t pooped in a while, and fearing getting constipated from travel, I decided to take a couple “gentle female laxatives” which were apparently: “coated in kindness” or so said the pink box (awwww). Little did I know I would wake up at 3:00am, crawl painfully into the bathroom, start yelling with pain, loose consciousness while trying to reach for the door, and wake Dylan who would then find me passed out face-down on the carpet in the space between the bathroom and our bed.

For the record, I don’t recommend starting your vacations off this way or taking laxatives right before bed.

Eventually I stopped passing out randomly, complaining about my poor stomach and crying like a three-year old around 4-4:30 am, and being all tuckered out from keeping Dylan awake, I curled up in bed till noon the next day.

Next week: The Thrilling Continuation!

Fear and Loathing in Vietnam

Posted by lifestyle On February - 26 - 2008

Cu Chi Cu Chi Coo!

By Claire Brownell

My friends and I started this trip with very few concrete goals or plans. Those we did have included (1) buy a monkey and name it Korel the Warrior, (2) frequent an opium den (not even necessarily to smoke opium, just to, you know, hang out), and (3) go to Vietnam so we could start stories with “back in ‘Nam.” So far, #3 is the only one I’ve really followed through on. Unfortunately, Vietnam has been my least favourite place to travel so far. My experience can regrettably be summarized as “Back in ‘Nam, I had a constant low-grade anxiety attack.”

At first I couldn’t figure out why. There were the obvious factors: it’s loud, it’s hectic, people hassled me to buy stuff or marry their sons all the time. In Vietnam, the only traffic laws are as follows: small yields to big, honk your horn as much as possible, and survival of the most aggressive. This was a huge culture shock coming from Laos, which is the most chilled-out place on Earth. The other obvious factor is that Vietnam is not very backpacker friendly. There tended to be a lot more older travellers with money, and consequently the activities and hotel prices were geared towards them.

This still didn’t explain my perpetual uneasiness, though. I couldn’t shake this paranoia that made me feel like I was being watched, judged, monitored; that there was a file on me and my movements in some underground office in Hanoi. The longer I spent in Vietnam, the more I realized my paranoia wasn’t entirely unfounded. The tourism industry there is very tightly controlled by the government and the police. In places I visited in Thailand and Laos, there was usually a street or district where the guesthouses and bars were, but there were generally others scattered around, with locals and travellers mingled together throughout most of the town. In the places I visited in Vietnam, the hotels were all in one distinct area surrounded by plenty of restaurants, bars, and shops. If I ventured out of the district, I would unfailingly be the only non-Vietnamese person I saw. People would stare and point at me, huddled in groups. The message was clear: you don’t belong here.

A good example of this is Nha Trang, a city a bit south of halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). Nha Trang is one of those party towns like Vang Vieng where people spend way longer than they meant to because they keep accidentally getting drunk and missing their morning bus out of town. The tourist district in Nha Trang could be taken right out of the coast of the United States. The beach is immaculately groomed, garbage is meticulously picked up, and the nightlife has a distinctly Western feel. This was a big change from Danang, the city I crossed the border into, which is slightly off the standard tourist trail. Danang is covered in dirt and garbage and smells like sewage, but I felt like a local celebrity because I stuck out like a sore thumb and everyone went out of their way to talk to me and practice their English. My friend Sadie and I spent a day handing out fliers for a bar in Nha Trang in exchange for free drinks and food, which gave us a feel for just how tightly controlled and monitored the tourism industry is by the police, government, and Vietnamese business interests.

We were warned sharply not to flier in front of certain bars and restaurants. A coworker stopped in for a drink at a certain establishment, and we found out two hours later that rumours had been circulating that Sadie and I were there, too. Later that night, Sadie was talking to a guy she had met who worked at a different bar and one of the staff pulled out the chair from underneath her. When she got a little miffed about it, the manager told her that it was because the staff did not approve of the company she was keeping. We heard from another traveller we met that foreigners working long term in Vietnam often have their phones tapped. His friend’s would unexpectedly cut out when he switched to speaking German from English, presumably because whoever was tapping the phone could no longer understand what he was saying. This is all hearsay and speculation, of course; but I can say with confidence that the Vietnamese tourism industry is very tightly structured, and doing things that are off the beaten track is regarded with suspicion and disapproval. It’s the structure that creates gaudy tourist districts that are completely cut off from the rest of the local area and tries to keep people on guided tours instead of exploring on their own that I had a problem with.

I went on a couple of these guided tours, which I normally avoid like the plague, but as I’ve mentioned it’s always the cheapest and easiest option in Vietnam. There are some islands off the coast of Nha Trang, and some friends I had met were going on a boat tour to see them, so I gave it a shot. It soon became apparent that the only real exploration of the island that was going to happen was some snorkeling with busted equipment in cloudy water, and an hour spent lying on a beach. The rest of the tour was a “floating bar” (sitting on tubes and drinking sangria), lunch, and some really hilarious live entertainment. A group of Vietnamese guys with a guitar, a microphone, and a drum set made out of plastic bins played a bunch of covers and tried to coax people on stage to dance. Against my better judgment I found myself being pulled on a table to dance to “Yellow Submarine” in a bikini. I’m not saying I didn’t have a good time — it was fun, in a kitschy kind of way. All I’m saying is I wish there was an affordable way to see the islands without someone pulling me onto a table to dance in a bikini.

A more serious example is my experience at the Cu Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City. The Cu Chi tunnels are a network of underground passageways where people hid during the Vietnam War. Once again, the cheapest and easiest way to see them was to book a tour, so that’s what Sadie and I did. Unfortunately, no one told us that a war memorial where people had to live underground to avoid being shot to bits had been turned into an appalling tourist circus. It was eerily similar to Black Creek Pioneer Village — except instead of learning things like “this is how they made potpourri and candles,” we got “this is how they made the bombs and hidden traps to impale people.” Everything was displayed by these creepy mannequins in tableau, doing things like making mortars and cleaning guns. Every once in a while there would be a photo op. Here’s a hole where soldiers hid and fired when they heard footsteps, climb inside and smile for a picture! Here’s a tank where four soldiers were killed, climb on it and smile for a picture! The icing on the cake was that they had — excuse the caps lock and profanity — a FUCKING SHOOTING RANGE where you could pay to fire a gun. I guess the idea was to get a feel for what it was like to be a soldier, or satisfy some latent blood lust, or something. That meant there was this sickening background noise of gunfire while we were being taken on the tour. During the shooting range part, Sadie overheard two parents say to their son, “Alright lad, would you rather shoot the AK-47 or the hand held?” Worst of all, no one but Sadie and me seemed to be bothered by this. No matter what people’s opinions are on the Vietnam War or gun control, I would have hoped that humanity could at least have agreed that a place where a lot of people died should be treated with respect. I’m not sure who I should be angrier at — the people who turned the Cu Chi tunnels into a tourist trap, or the tourists who created a demand for it.

Even though I had a problem with the Vietnamese tourism industry, I really loved Vietnam itself. The best times I had there were when Sadie and I rented a motorbike and just drove around. I’m developing a destructive passion for motorbiking. Motorbikes are the main method of transportation in Southeast Asia. They’re not quite as badass as a proper motorcycle, but more badass than a scooter. Despite (or maybe because of) the constant risk of death or serious injury due to the traffic anarchy in Vietnam, I think motorbiking would be the way to see the country. One day, when I have more money, I want to start in Ho Chi Minh City and bike up to Hanoi and through China. I feel like that would be the way to really see the beautiful parts of the country that I only caught glimpses of out of bus windows — forests of palm trees, rice paddies, mountains, sand dunes. Of course, by the time I can afford to do that, I probably will have grown out of my death wish. But I can always dream.

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