Tag Archives: adventure

The Old World

I always loved going to the East Coast. I never failed to be taken by the sense of history that envelope those cities. There are the obvious landmarks, of course, the walk along the Freedom Trail in Boston, the marathon of the National Mall in DC – where significant sites are piled one on top of another. But it goes beyond that. There is just this incredible feeling of well-wornness, of character, of being through shit that we do not have on the West Coast. It permeates the streets, the buildings, the people most of all.

That aspect of Boston resonated with me when I lived there. The parts of the city that looked like they had seen better days. Street cars that screeched like nails on chalkboards, and ran 15 minutes late with regularity. People who lived with a constant chip on their shoulders, probably from having to shovel snow for months on end. I’d expect the drainage system to deal with rain better but it didn’t. It was just good enough. And that was the city. There was an element of survival, of endurance ever-present. Boston was painfully worn in.

I like to describe Tokyo as the living vision of the future we once imagined in the 1980s. I see Europe, conversely, as a throwback – a stalwart of the 18th century. I offer many caveats. I have only lived on the continent for nine months. I reside in a city and a country that each occupy unique spaces even within the European sphere. And I am well aware that Europe is a continent and therefore less amenable to any sort of umbrella characterization than a city or country. But I offer one nonetheless. It’s like time moved on, but Europe did not. For better and for worse.

I am likely infusing my feelings of places with broad swaths of world history. Boston HAS seen better days. Tokyo WAS the future in the 80s. Europe’s heyday WAS the 18th century.* But feeling and historical reality are inextricably linked. Ultimately, there is something about Europe that feels like a continent trying to protect, or perhaps recapture, its past. It is an active anachronism, but notably does not appear effortful or defensive in the process – Europe being too self-assured for either.

*I use “18th century” symbolically, as I am too ignorant to pinpoint the relevant period du jour. I’m an American, after all.

Europe has a presence. It’s not intimidating, though it can be. Rather, it stands coolly confident, with an identity that is almost if not completely common across the continent. Each city gives off a vibe akin to what I experience from the East Coast, but with a far more amplified sense of history and character and sense of comfort. Every place is as well-rounded as the next, as though they operate in their own bubbles, with slight but perceptible variation across various dimensions betwixt them.

Being shallow, the physical features strike me first. The majesty of the train stations. The overwhelming castles and churches. The statues and busts to spare, not only in museums and outside parliament buildings but at intersections and fountains and neighborhood parks. Indeed, it is precisely the everyday that I find most captivating. Every building, almost without fail, memorable in its balcony or roof or windows or windowpanes or ivy on walls. Modernity conspicuously absent, quietly rejected.

The past permeates every part of every city, but in a manner that somehow accentuates history rather than age. Charm is never lacking: in the decidedly mom-and-pop restaurants where the space seems slightly off and none of the tables are quite aligned, the boutiques resting on the ground floor of apartment complexes that never seem to open for business, even the street signs that curiously seem to prioritize vanity over practicality, for instance being located on building sides instead of free-standing.

It is more fundamental than the physical, however. The very way of life in Europe often appears stubbornly set in the past. Upon arrival, I could not help but notice the carefree way in which people stroll, chat, lounge, as though unencumbered, even unconditioned by modernity and the clock. It was especially pronounced coming from Tokyo. People are so at ease here, and what is more, they are at ease being at ease, whether on a balcony or restaurant patio or at the park. Even service seems to come at its leisure.

There are oddities associated with the past that manifests also, reinforcing the temporal displacement of the continent. I listen to a presentation from a man named Bernd sporting a bowtie as if any of that is a normal occurrence in the year 2017. I find water fountains with beautiful lion heads as taps at every other intersection but never a metallic 20th century concoction at a public venue. I interact with waiters who act so uptight as though they were preserving the sanctity of dining itself.

Of course, there are frustrations in inhabiting a world and a time that do not feel like my own. As with Japan, I do not wish to romanticize Europe. There are times when I wish I could get in and out of a restaurant in 40 minutes, places I wish would be open after 7 pm weeknights or anytime Sundays, environments I wish could adopt a space on the continuum away from their formality and stuffiness and towards my roughness around the edges. Yet, it is hard not to romanticize a place that literally harkens back to the Age of Romanticism.

Indeed, the sense of history and character and charm is never lacking. Like I said, I always did love going to the East Coast. And living on the European continent is akin to that, only amplified: richer, deeper, and more memorable. Ultimately, it is older – and I’m grateful for it.

Japan: Year Three

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*drafted July 30, 2016

This seems appropriate. Three weeks before I’m to leave the country, I don’t know where my next destination is. In fact, there’s a decent chance that the answer to that question – and to that of the inextricably linked, “Did I get the job?” – actually reached my inbox sometime in the past few hours. But I have no idea. I’m in a mountain lodge, no wi-fi, no shower actually, putting this down with pen and paper. Because I got stuck on a hike that took longer than anticipated. Because the last bus took off at the unconscionably early time of 4:40 pm. But mostly, because I needed to get away from it all – the uncertainty, the stress, the crowds, and especially my own head space. Like I said, this seems appropriate.

The Japan experience has had its flaws. This is an understatement, and certainly more than enough space has been devoted on particular aspects of these flaws. But perhaps it is natural, at this late stage, to overlook those, and to consider the past three years of my life with rose-colored glasses. And that is indeed some of what I have been doing for what feels like months as endgame in Japan draws near. I suspect some of it resembles a senioritis of sorts. But I would vehemently disagree with the idea that nostalgia is all there is. Because ultimately, this has been an incredible, exhilarating experience. And it is now legitimately fucking hard to let go.

I’m leaving Japan because my fellowship is up. I’m not trying like hell to stay because the ceiling for both my personal and professional lives here are severely limited. Job opportunities tend to be few and far between. Dating has not exactly been a rousing success. My social circle remains generally confined to work colleagues, and as fantastic as one of those relationships has been, that too is not the healthiest of circumstance. I see my family much less than I would like, and my relationship with friends stateside deteriorates further with every year I spend here, more and more milestones passing by. So why then is it so difficult to leave? Why then am I not champing at the bit to move on?

The uncertainty doesn’t help, that’s for sure. That I am diving into the great unknown provides requisite pause. But familiarity explains only so much. No, what makes it so difficult to leave comes down simply to what I am leaving behind. The coolest city in the world, exuding life and vibrancy and excitement, filled at times with grandeur and decadence, at others marked by restraint and purity, and sometimes, yes, a fair bit of weirdness. A country full of wonders, with a seemingly endless supply of vast natural landscapes to get lost in and quaint towns and villages and spaces to absorb, with all my senses. And people who I connected with, in an almost visceral way, in a way that we only could here, because of the circumstance of Tokyo, Japan that envelops us all.

Who knows. Maybe some of this is bullshit. Maybe what is killing me is, as per usual, impending heartache. But whatever the reason, I’ve come – if not quite full circle – then most of a circle. Three years in Japan. Time of my life. Will you look at that.

The Southeast Asia Travelogues

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From December 19th to January 3rd, I took a trip to Thailand, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. Some thoughts I jotted down along the way:

December 19

What is it about being on an airplane that makes you reevaluate your life? Is it the act itself, your helplessness laid bare in a glorified metal container cast through the skies? Perhaps it’s the sheer amount of time to yourself, in-flight entertainment aside, inevitably turning you inward. Mostly, I think it’s the trip that the ride bookends on one end or the other, providing natural markers for a period of your life, no matter its length. There is after all a moment in the air when your focus snaps back, when you realize it’s time to return to real life, and all that it entails. And in that moment, it seems impossible not to think about precisely what it entails.

December 20

I stepped in shit today. Cow or horse, I’m not sure. But I was immersed in my phone when I felt the squish – prolonged, deep. The smell wafted up shortly thereafter. I could only laugh. It was a quintessentially me thing to happen. I’m the guy who knocks over an open bottle of red wine on its side at a conference dinner. I’m the guy who heaves a football on the beach and has it hit a teenage girl in the face. I’m the guy who steps in shit my first full day in Thailand.

But at the same time, I’m also the guy whose errant football throw causes no injury, leaves no mark but embarrassment – mine of course. The wine spill I created somehow avoids my colleague’s dress altogether, containing itself to a small dish that the restaurant replaces. So I stepped in shit my first day in Thailand. But it didn’t smear much, and the smell didn’t linger long. All in all, like I said, a quintessentially me thing to happen.

*Another took place the evening prior, when I agreed to pay 30 baht (~$1) to a red car – essentially a group taxi – and ended up giving him 3 baht (~$.10) instead, basically because I couldn’t read my coins and just took a stab at it. I figured it out hours later only when I googled the denominations. I suppose the four other passengers paying at the same time provided the perfect cover, unbeknownst to them and me.

December 21

A pigeon pooped on my face today. ON my face. It hit the top of my glasses frame, grazed down my cheek, and then hit my shirt full on. Well played, universe.

In Thailand, what they do in the cinema is show two previews, then two commercials, another preview, a few more ads, one final preview, about six more ads, a reminder to turn off your cell phone, the king’s anthem (which everyone stands for), the coke and popcorn ad, and then the movie. Something like that, it’s hard to recall the exact 40-minute inane sequence. Then again, I got to watch Star Wars for about $5 in a theater with maybe 10 other people.

December 23

How dose it feel to be the living embodiment of a stereotype? Three real bros, brahs even, strolled past my seat at Thapae Stadium last night for Muay Thai boxing. Half an hour late, they were altogether unfazed by the in-progress bout between two kids who couldn’t have been more than 10. Immediately, they acted the part of jocks generally found only in a 1980s high school comedy. “Knock his ass out!” “Red’s got the look!” They ordered alcohol almost immediately, with one declaring his intent to “get wrecked,” the plan being “to get some pussy tonight.” There was nothing particularly egregious about their behavior: they didn’t harass anyone, didn’t make unwanted advances. But their presence was surely felt. They were white guys in their 30s. This is Thailand, after all.

A short review of Episode VII. The Force Awakens is a lazy, tired movie. Everything is the same as always: the plot, the characters, the dynamics, the conflict, down to the new Death Star planet, whatever the fuck they called it. Maybe they go somewhere drastically different with the characters and the storyline in the next movie, that’s fine. But for now, they remade A New Hope and somehow the world decided it was sufficient.

December 24

Jerry Seinfeld has a joke about how airport food prices seem to be set with complete ignorance of the outside world. I’ve been paying anywhere from 40 to 90 baht ($1-3) for meals in Chiang Mai, delicious without exception. But the Bangkok airport charged an obscene 140 baht ($5) for a small, prepackaged bowl of wonton noodle soup with roast duck they clearly microwaved. Its quality fell not only well below street fare but even the instant wonton noodle soup found in any neighborhood Costco. I suppose there’s some sense of comfort derived from the knowledge that third world airports too fuck over their citizenry, along with anybody in transit. Regardless, I finished the noodle and then promptly proceeded to McDonalds for a McChicken value meal. C’est la vie.

December 25

All I wanted was a ride from the airport to my guesthouse. The taxi driver (officially sanctioned) wanted to be hired for the full day. Shame was his tactic. Our pleasantries quickly devolved once I informed him I intended on biking around Angkor Wat by myself. Why travel if I wasn’t willing to spend money, he queried? He made a racist characterization about Chinese people, then started in on my guesthouse, giving me shit about the lack of a swimming pool, the sorry state of its bathrooms. Other Cambodians, he said, being super subtle, would look down at me. Other Cambodians, he said, wouldn’t travel at all if they had to be prudent. They’d be downright embarrassed in my shoes.

It’s strange to know exactly what it was that he was trying to do and to be affected by it nevertheless. I still wasn’t planning on hiring any driver, let alone him, but I was somehow shamed a little bit by his words, even pissed. My initial attempts to justify my prudence, in a conversation I had severely initially misjudged as standard taxi banter, became more brusque. “Fuck them,” I said, referring to the imaginary judgmental Cambodians he spoke of. I didn’t know what else to say: me, the over-privileged vacationer to a third-world cab driver, no matter how much of a dick he was? So I said no more. I put in my earbuds until we arrived, grabbed my stuff without so much of a “thank you,” and went on my way.

I’ve been in Cambodia for less than 24 hours, and I’m not a fan. Everyone has something to sell: “buy something, sir?” are the first words I am greeted with by every street vendor. They follow me through their store if I go in, or alongside it if I walk past, tracking my line of sight. The tuk tuk drivers that flood every available space on the street ask if I need a ride, and when I refuse or do not respond, quietly whisper if I am looking for a “lady massage” or company for the evening. Later on, after I have been accosted by dozens of these offers, a few are taken aback by my visible annoyance. This may be the culture, but I am not the audience.

December 26

I’m an awkward vacationer. I feel strange about taking too much time before getting started in the morning, guilty if I’m back in the hotel too early in the evenings. I have no sense of ease about doing whatever the fuck I feel like, even on my own vacation. I cannot lounge around for hours on end – that is, unless I have already set aside the time for lounging around. I imagine it’s a psychological parallel to my struggles when I hike downhill, or when I go swimming. I need to feel the ground beneath me. I need a sense of order, of control.

December 27

The van stopped at a few other guesthouses, picking up passengers on the way to the bus station. The first, a cute British girl, was winding down a six-week trip – three in China, three in Cambodia. She worked for a children’s rights organization in London, had the excuse of touching base with other, developing-world NGOs for the purpose of trading notes. The last, a British guy, had quit his job back in February, and had been on the road since September in an epic journey that already encompassed of Europe and the Middle East. He’d be at it until May. Both were friendly; neither the least bit obnoxious. But when the van reached its destination, and we filed onto the bus to Phnom Penh, I was relieved to find neither was sitting next to me.

I’m not the kind of person who makes lasting friendships in hostels, or even forms the kind of temporary bonds that rearranges an itinerary for parts of a trip. I don’t begrudge people prone to such tendencies – my sister being one of them – but I certainly cast a skeptical eye, and I am a downright judgmental asshole when I see horseshit articles about how “the most meaningful relationship I ever formed was during a four hour layover with a guy I haven’t talked to since” or whatnot. I suppose I only believe in something that’s ultimately transferrable beyond the time and the space, beyond the transience of an experience, no matter how unique the experience.

There are so many goddamned people in this world. Why am I so privileged? How did I get so lucky? I see it all here, the kind of lives ordinary people have to lead – the kind of lives that, almost unfathomable to me, my parents and grandparents led – and I wonder why I got to escape. Why I sit contemplating rather than toiling. I find it impossible to believe in a higher power, because if one did exist, I’d like to think they wouldn’t make people wait, people suffer, people toil. Because this very well may be eternity already.

December 28

There is a small exhibition in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) about how the world stood by as the Khmer Rouge perpetrated unthinkable atrocities on their own population. It focuses in particular on a Swedish delegation that toured the country in the late 1970s, got the five-star treatment, and essentially became Pol Pot’s biggest sympathizers on the world stage. “How could they have been so blind?” the museum yearns to scream. “How were they so easily fooled?” a delegate member reflects with remorse. I couldn’t help but think of what’s going on in North Korea right now. “Never again,” we always say, but that can only come after the fact.

Two of the 12 survivors (of roughly 20,000 prisoners) of S-21 were there at the museum. They’re there regularly, living testaments to the hell that took place just four decades ago. One was an artist who survived because his captors took a liking to his portraits; another proved his worth by repairing machinery. I had just learned about their stories, walked inside the same four walls where they were held, a prison that was once a school and had now become an educational institution once again. I didn’t end up approaching either man. What is there to say?

December 29

I needed a tuk tuk for a short journey, half a mile at the most. In my defense, the sun was unforgiving, and I had come down with a cold. Anyhow, the first would-be driver couldn’t understand where I wanted to go. So I found another, laying in his carriage, not a worry in the world. “Central Market,” I directed towards him. He didn’t budge. A huge grin crept over his face. “Too lazy,” he replied. I laughed. My favorite person in this country.

December 30

There are beggars a block away from the Royal Palace; the unmistakable stench of human waste noticeable in the air. Down the street from the Russian embassy, there stands decrepit complexes – slums too kind a word – that look far older than they possibly can be. At the riverside, children urinate in plain sight, garbage lays everywhere; all of it a stone’s toss from the restaurants and lounges that line the nearby street. Yet, Phnom Penh is not a city marked by contradiction. No, the luxury that does exist remains the clear exception. I spend my last few hours in Aeon Mall, the epitome of everything the city, the country, is not: clean, modern, developed. It is a first world experience amidst a strictly third world locale, and thus surreal in its own way.

January 3

My family immigrated to the United States when I was six. I’ve been back to Hong Kong just a handful of times since, visiting relatives who stayed behind. It always feels surreal. I might look like everyone else here, but to begin, my Cantonese is limited and I’m culturally out of sorts. But the strangeness of it doesn’t really concern the fact that I don’t feel at home in the place where I was born. It’s that I get a glimpse of what my life could have been had I stayed.

That feeling was amplified this time, the visit itself different. I stayed at home with my grandmother, chatting, mostly listening. I went to a barbeque my cousin had with friends. Another cousin took me out drinking, his wife teaching me dice games until the break of dawn. My aunt and uncle made dinner another night; I lingered afterwards, watching Inside Out and playing board games with their eight-year-old granddaughter. I spent New Year’s Eve with friends visiting from the States.

In short, I wasn’t the center of attention at big gatherings on either side of the family. Instead, I was just a part of things. The life I left behind, the life that could have been, felt far more vivid, far more real as a result. I usually leave Hong Kong with my heart warmed, reminded of the presence of loved ones on the other side of the world. This time, it was strangely bittersweet. I recognize it undoubtedly speaks less to Hong Kong than it does my current vulnerability – in Japan, in life. Still, I’ve never felt that before.

A Week in Paradise, Just About

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The hype for Bali was off the charts. Everyone whom I talked to about the small Indonesian island described the place like some sort of paradise on Earth, lost in time and space, unmatched in spite of – or because of – it being a tourist hotbed. It seemed to have many faces, many facets. For my sister and her fiancé, it was a land of adventure. It was a family playground for an Australian colleague, a place of pampering for a Japanese friend. All of them described it with reverence, the word “magical” bandied about enough I envisioned singing animals and fairies and princesses.

Hype being what it is, me being who I am, I arrived holding no small bit of cynicism. The ride from the airport was immediately disconcerting; it had been a while since I travelled in the third world. The drive was a shitshow, a cavalcade of motorbikes and roadside shacks, poverty on full display as my officially sanctioned taxi raced down side streets and alleyways. We were soon engulfed by traffic, chaotic traffic. My driver dropped me off at a standstill intersection he claimed was five minutes from my homestay. Stupidly, I acquiesced.* Armed with a useless Google Maps printout, and getting sporadic help from locals, it was about a 25 minute walk.

*Evidently my assertiveness ends at Japan’s borders.

The first day and a half was a manifestation of my worst fears about the trip. Kuta – Bali’s main hub – was gross. In the physical sense, for one: trash everywhere, including on the beach. But it wasn’t just that. It was local shacks and rundown stores next to fancy restaurants and resorts. Streets were marked by the aggressive call of merchants, by incessant offers for massages and taxis and tours and weed. The first night, I witnessed a group of drunken tourists contemplating whether to comply with a lady of the night’s request to see their “bananas.” I couldn’t walk away fast enough. All of it was disgusting.

The island was beginning to feel like an enormous tourist trap. The driver I hired for my first full day was fine – the price was fair and he was friendly*– but he too fed into the beast. He kept trying to impose this supposedly-amazing place called “Turtle Island” into my itinerary, a place I had discovered earlier with the benefit of the internet was kind of a scam. I resisted. Even the beach I found myself on was beautiful to be sure, but devoid of character, dotted by resorts and makeshift booths – manned by aggressive vendors, of course – offering surf or parasail or jetski lessons. Everyone had something to sell.

*Too friendly. As the day wore on, he started catcalling every female we passed in the car, saying “Ooh la la” loud enough to turn heads. Guys are the worst.

Not all of it was awful, of course. I went to two small, stunning beaches next, had a good lunch, then watched a ritual dance at sunset. But most of it still felt somewhat concocted: the beaches segregated from the surrounding areas, designated for tourists; the temple’s open-air arena recalling a luau or worse, a Vegas show. I couldn’t reconcile my slice of the island with the grandeur everyone described. Back in Kuta, I met up briefly with Panek (“Jack”), a local guide my sister had recommended. We made tentative plans for the rest of my stay. Still, at the bar that night, I found myself googling things like “Bali overrated?”

The trip turned the next day. Maybe I just turned. It was, and I appreciate this fully only in retrospect, Christmas. As planned, I shifted base to Ubud, a smaller town to the north. It made all the difference; even the ride helped. From the back of Jack’s motorbike, I soaked in the beauty of the island for the first time – villages, fields, sheer greenery. I had seen some of it the day before, but it was refreshing to breathe the air, to not think about ulterior motives. Plus, Ubud had personality: shops that were distinguishable from one another, destinations that didn’t feel manufactured. It felt more than just the façade of a community, of character.

Christmas also marked the best culinary day of my life. It started with a fresh banana pancake from my homestay hosts in Kuta. I then had two of the island’s signatures in Ubud: suckling pig for lunch, smoked duck for dinner. The meat was fresh, the sauces bold. Feeling ambitious, I had a second dinner at a hole in the wall, a tuna bathed in a sensational Balinese sauce over rice. Those meals – surrounding a day at two beautiful locales, a monkey sanctuary and an art museum – were transcendent. They even underscored the fact that food had been the constant when I was grumbling around in Kuta.

I arranged a cycling tour through Jack the next day. It was another highlight. Accompanied by a local guide, six of us biked our way downhill, through rice fields and villages and nothing in particular. We stopped at a local temple and toured a traditional home – where the grandmother offered us a taste of a spice-filled meat she was cooking in banana leaves. It was all pre-arranged, of course, and there were plenty of other groups around us, if just out of sight. Still, there was an authenticity to the experience, compounded when it poured rain for the last third of the ride. I loved it.

I understood Bali a bit more after that. Sure, the traditional house I toured was visited multiple times that day. Hell, at a coffee plantation, I watched as two kids put away their grinding and roasting tools the moment the tourists turned away. But the commercialization is Bali too. It is in and around that environment that the locals live their lives. Jack and I were riding through a village on motorbike the next day when we saw an oncoming crowd. We pulled over, and witnessed an entire village parading by in their Sunday best, a ceremony to commemorate the end of the year. Less than a mile from where the cycling tour had taken place, we were the only outsiders here.

Ultimately, I did get a bit of everything from Bali. I went to another art museum in a gorgeous locale on the outskirts of Ubud. I heard live music at a couple of restaurants in town, watched as couples salsa danced to their hearts’ content. I went on a rafting excursion on the Telaga Waja. I visited Tanah Lot, the Tegalalang Rice Terrace, and Lake Batur, all on the back of Jack’s motorbike. Mostly, I ate and drank and walked around, taking it all in. There were a few things I missed out on, but it was a full trip nevertheless.

The island has definite flaws. Its fundamental contradiction centers on its tourist-dominated culture paired with everything else – its nature, its simplicity, its beauty. Even outside the confines of town, Jack and I had a guy ride up alongside us to see if I needed a place to stay: a sales job on motorbikes at full-speed. I would venture to say that nobody rediscovers or reinvents Bali. I daresay nobody even really finds themselves, all Julia Roberts-like. But personally, I ate unbelievable food, saw haunting landscapes, and had some great adventures. I didn’t quite find Bali magical, but it’s a pretty amazing place, and a properly rated one at that.

++Apropos of nothing, I figured out on the trip that Indonesia was essentially the 13th country I’ve visited (counting Hong Kong, Macau, and China as one). I then withdrew 6.66 million rupiah across two transactions (not consciously), and also had a black cat run across my path. My last day in Bali, I slipped on some rocks and cartoonishly flailed and fell on my ass at a major tourist attraction, had a pretty severe allergic reaction to shellfish / bad water that had my face puffy and my body covered in hives briefly, and now I’m spending the night at the airport because a delayed flight made me miss the last train home – after being kept up the previous night at the hotel by a mysterious and constant whirling noise. Not that I’m the superstitious sort. I’m just grateful my plane made it back.