Thursday, January 20, 2011
The Shanghai chaperone trip went swimmingly. I really do love that job and am going to try to do more of that kind of work. I loved the kids and my fellow chaperones and had a blast. The work itself was easy and went smoothly thanks to the well behaved students and unfailingly helpful teachers. Hooray! In fact it made me seriously consider looking for some sort of work involving kids but I'll save that until the journalist dream has fizzled. The only downside, other than the giardia and the treatment which left me kind of wiped out and nutrient deficient and unable to drink, was of my own doing entirely. I had stocked my ipod with my new Christmas cds and my constant listening to of Taylor Swift and Ke$ha, the innocence of youth always swiftly followed but the squandering of that innocence, coupled with being constantly surrounded by sixteen year olds made me oddly nostalgic, sentimental and sad. Not to worry, by listening exclusively to NWA for the remainder of trip I got back some balance and regained my gangsta outlook.
Anyway, the trip ended as they always do and and after a very pleasant evening with an old friend from High School now living in Shanghai (thanks for the hospitality JJ), I hopped a plane to Hong Kong to be met by one of my best friends in the world, Lucky, the bear loving genius and Argentine shit show extraordinaire. Since then (about ten days ago) my life has fallen into a very pleasant pattern. I'm staying on a futon in Lucky's changing room sized apartment out in the New Territories. Everyday I wake up late and go out and grab a Hong Kong breakfast of egg tart and milk tea or a ham omelet or noodle soup. Then I go back home and do some work. I've started a food blog that I am trying to take seriously and I also keep up a steady stream of emails with my resume out to magazines and newspapers and random heads throughout the area. So far things are going pretty well. I'm making pretty good money editing college admissions essays for students trying to study in the U.S. from Mainland China; I've got an interview for an internship at a food magazine set up for tomorrow and other interviews set up for various magazines and newspapers next week. Then after I work I might head across the street to the tiny barber shop for an old fashioned hot towel straight razor shave, then head out to meet Lucky after work. We'll have a fat dinner feast grab some dessert then head home to watch Always Sunny in Philadelphia, practice some Cantonese then knock out. If its a weekend we'll head downtown, meet up with Lucky's savage as fuck friends: Killer, Piano and Rainbow Ryder and hit the town hard. Then as always the cycle continues.
Aside from missing my girlfriend I'm finding it very difficult to complain at the moment....
Saturday, January 9, 2010
It is pretty wild here. I live in house in a little gated compound that we share with one other house. A doctor used to live there but when the government stopped paying doctors’ salaries he was forced to emigrate. It’s remained empty since except for a memorable three weeks when the entire twenty seven man policemen’s soccer team moved in for their annual tournament with the military team. Our other neighbor over the fence is the Pilipino slot machine king of Kara (the name of the town is Kara) but he lives in the capital now so we never see him. He does have a really cute doggie and a pretty friendly staff so that’s a bonus. Across the street we’ve got a hair-cutting place, a few general type stores (dried pasta, tomato paste etc etc) and two bars. One is called Bar Euro Chic and is run by this super sweet lady, the other we call “the ass hole bar” and it is staffed by ass holes. Down the major street perpendicular to our street is a small outdoor market with tomatoes and onions and ginger and stuff and then the rest of the block is taken up by chook stands. Chook is a kind of warm and fizzy alcohol made of sorghum. Chook stands are shacks with a circle of benches around a plastic trash can where a, usually insane, women spoons out big calabashes of the stuff for about 11 cents each. In my experience about five percent of all chook sold is consumed by infants. At night the street fills up with vendors selling fried snackies like yam fried with spicy chili sauce and fermented bean beignets. On the next street is a big outdoor bar with two food stalls that sell bbq’d goat and guinea hen as well as fish and street salad. Did I mention the food here is bangin? Who knew? For breakfast there are omelet sandwiches and coffee made with sweetened condensed milk and for lunch the local nomads, the Fulani, sell homemade farmer’s cheese which is served with either a tomato sauce or a spicy sesame sauce. The staples here are fufu or pate with is basically just a super starch made by pounding either rice, corn or flower until becomes a big gummy pasty lump. It’s actually really bangin. Most of the food is fried carbohydrates (they sell deep fried baguettes here), so it is pretty funny when a Peace Corps Volunteer is assigned to assist a small, impoverished village and ends up gaining a hundred pounds.
Everyone here thinks I look like Jesus for some reason. Everybody calls me Jesus. They cross themselves on the street and give me the thumbs up. It’s all very strange because this is an extremely religious country. No big deal but it does get awkward when local children stream out of their houses with smiles and tears in their eyes and hug me whispering “Jesus”.
The hair here is fucking wild. I remember watching the Ricky Lake weave contests when I was home sick from school and they have nothing on African hair. Women here change their hair style dramatically almost every single day so on one day the market lady will have ass length braids, then a super modern bob, then Coolio braids. Some of the shit is so awesome. I’m thinking about making a new photo blog called West African Weave Enthusiast.
Because Liza is in the Peace Corps we can use the ambassador’s residence’s pool and tennis courts when we are in the capital. Last time we were there, relaxing poolside and drinking the cold sodas his staff had brought us, we heard a shot fired just on the other side of the wall. No one reacted and the staff did not even look up. Some minutes later more shots fired, this time with screaming and the sounds of a ruckus. The sounds died down and still no reaction. Upon leaving the compound people were going about their business as if nothing had happened. Although we did see an escalade truck full of soldiers and with a mounted machine gun driving down the street. The whole experience made me feel like a real ex patriot.
For Christmas Liza and I went on a road trip from where we live to the capital, then across the coast to Ghana, then across the whole coast of Ghana and eventually to the capital of neighboring Cote D’ivoire. Ghana was AMAZING. Everyone should stop what they are doing right now and go. Now is the time. Everyone in Africa loves America now because of Obama. Most cars have little American flags in them and lots of bars and restaurants are painted with American flags and named Obama Its even wilder in Ghana where Obama just visited. The roads are lined with billboards of him and the Ghanaian president under the heading “Catalysts For Change”. After backwards, impoverished and oppressed Togo it was wild to see a thriving, vibrant democratic state just next store. When we were there people were enraged at Vodaphone for raising their rates so picketers gathered outside of Vodaphone head quarters until the management agreed to meet with them and lower rates. How wild is that! Can you imagine going down to protest AT&T in the US? Ghana had malls, cinemas nicer than in the US, Internet cafes, restaurants and roads. The mall was especially nice (I found out later it is actually owned by the president of Togo that corrupt bastard). They had a food court and an apple store. There was a grey goose promotion on when we arrived so they gave you free shots when you walked in the door. We spent an about ten hours there. Although impressive, the whole mall concept seemed a little new to some Ghanaians. Floor to ceiling display windows in one store had suction cup signs up that said “CAUTION GLASS”, Liza laughingly asked the proprietor whether they had a lot of people crashing through the windows before the signs went up, he looked away embarrassed and said “no no no of course not”. Well, less than an hour later I was standing in another store, this one without signs on the windows, and watched as a confused looking hipster guy walked face first and hard into the window. Nose pressed against the glass, arms and legs splayed out like a bugs bunny cartoon, face full of disbelief and shock.
We spent Christmas itself on a beautiful beach near the Ivorian border drinking the milk out of the coconuts dotting the sand and floating in the luke warm water. On Christmas Eve I watched 53 baby turtles hatch and scamper to the ocean. We went out partying twice in Ghana once we stumbled in to an all you can drink Christmas party at a bar and stayed for about six hours. When the music was playing people went buck wild and the place popped off harder then anywhere I’ve ever been (not counting the Gangway) but about every three songs this dude looking like the muscley Neville brother would stand up and do pop ballad karaoke. Everyone would look disgusted and sit down. After about the fifth time this happened Liza asked the owner (a lovely and charming two hundred pound British soccer fan) what the deal was. He explained apologetically that if they didn’t break up the music then the revelers would go into a frenzy and tear up the bar. It sounded a bit racist to me but by one o clock they had over powered the karaoke singer and were using the mike to freestyle (incredibly) and frenzy was so obviously immanent that the owner had to grab the mic himself and calm everyone down with his rendition of Eric Clapton (my darling you look wonderful tonight…). The next time we went out we met a secretly married gay couple. We drove around in their land rover listening to techno and ended up in an empty club eating cheeseburgers. It felt like coming home.
One day at a beach side bar we heard a fight break out and looked up in time to see two disreputable looking African women screaming on either side of a sunburned and bald white guy in a polo shirt and cargo shorts (the uniform of the sex tourist). They kept screaming, the man remaining silent, until the angrier of the two reached up into his shorts and grabbed his penis, hard. She then shook it angrily until the other woman backed down. The man did no react at all. I have no idea at all what was happening. It was one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen.
The Ivory Coast is completely insane. For decades it was the sole example of a prosperous modern West African state and then in the nineties it descended into over ten years of death squads, warlords and wide spread atrocity. Now it is apparently safe as long as you don’t mind showing your passport to cops and soldiers every ten feet but boy oh boy is it weird. The Miami skyline is still in tact, the modern freeways, the wide Parisian boulevards and large parks are all still there but it feels empty. The windows are broken or boarded up, buildings are sun bleached and peeling, roads are mostly empty and trash strewn, the large leafy trees that shade the streets are all swarming with bats who in the evenings swerve and dive around the sky scrapers filling the air with bat-chatter. The fact that Abidjan (the capital) still has Mercedes filled with fat French men speeding though its streets, fancy restaurants, modern hotels and large over-air conditioned super markets make it even weirder. It feels like walking around a zombie movie. Something is definitely not right there.
As I write this we’re back from our vacation. We had a New Years Eve party here at the house that got pretty wild and partly as a new years resolution and partly in response to our life style on vacation Liza and I are starting a health kick, cooking more and walking everywhere instead of taking motorcycle taxis. I’m taking French lessons, cooking everyday and missing you all very much. Life is simple and moving slowly in that really really good way. Come visit me.
P.S. The word for joke in French is Blog. I think that’s about right.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Istanbul is huge. It has about 25 million people (!) and the various districts are like cities unto themselves. Some feel like paris, some Beirut and some NYC with everythting in between. It is a huely litereary society with tons of newspapers, celebrity authors, and book shops on every corner. The night life is also HUGE.
My first forray into Istanbul after dark was less than succesful. Toby, a british bookie I befreinded (dave? maybe?), and I headed off around midnight and on the well intentioned but misguided advise of a cab driver ended up in a shady pseudo red light district populated mostly by eastern europeans. I had also, apparently, underestimated how blasted Toby really was but got the picture when he proceeded to vomit outside of the cab. I had honestly only had like two beers at this point and was a bit taken aback. Also nothing spells easy money to a Russian night club owner than a cab full of tourists one of whome is already vomiting. Anyway, I ordered a few over priced beers, and we all discussed where to go from here. A large Russian bouncer came over, concerened with our lack of spending and asked what we were looking for. Toby fell into a discussion with him which I couldn't hear. I assumed he was asking where a dance club was or something. Obviously the bouncer's english wasn't so good because he brought over a napkin and pen for Mo to write his requests on. I wasn't really paying attention. Toby was writng on the napkin but also nodding off. When the napkin got passed back to the bouncer. In the candle light I read:
Uh oh. This was certainly not the turn I wanted the evening to take, especially not in the shadiest club in Istanbul. I thought Toby had been joking and was rectafying the situation when he snatched the napkin back from the bouncer. Instead I watched him draw helpful illustrations on his napkin. One of a pot leaf and one of breasts. It was at this point that the bookie and I took more charge, leading Toby out of the club and baack to our waiting beds.
The next night was a much greater success. I made freinds with a chraming Australian couple and with the man who worked the front desk of the hostel, we hit the town. We started at a lovely open air rooftop beer garden terrace and after a few hours made our way to a club famous for its Balkan dance music. It was above another larger techno club and we walked up six flights of stairs to a small but packed club. There were windows 360 degrees around the space and were dancing literally pressed up against them with seeminly nothing sperating us from the Istanbul skyline and the Bosphorus below. That place was amazing and I danced for maybe three hours until I was literaly too exhausted to stand.
The days were also not without adventure. One of my jobs was to write up my general impression of the vibes of the hotels I visited from the lobbies. I visited the huge Swiss Hotel and wrote in my notes "The lobby is packed with people, although they are oddly aloof and seem very nervous". Only later did I notice the large banners,
"WELCOME TO THE NOCTURNAL VOIDING DISORDER CONVENTION ISTANBUL 2009"
I made it a habit of arriving at the nicer hotels in flip flops and stretched out t-shirts, smelling like a hostel. It wasn't a concious decision but it was all I had and I figured if they discriminated against me (none of them did at all) I could write them up as having bad service. Got em. Anyway, one of the major perks of this gig was using the bathrooms of all the five star hotels. I was especially thrilled to try out the Ritz bathroom and had been holding it all day in preperation. I had noticed that many Turkish toilets had this weird nozzle thing projecting from the toiled bowl. I now noticed the ritz toilet also had one and that the toilet itself was attatched to a kind of nob on the wall by a gleaming silver hose. After my bussiness was done I stood eyeing this nob for a while and ultimatly couldn't resist so I gave it a good solid turn. Immediatly a powerful jet of water shot from the hose soaking the entire stall and leaving me utterly drenched from the knees down. I had to conduct my hotel tour squeaking my way loudly across the marble floors, and pushing the Ritz's famaous service to the limit when I left puddles and soggy foot prints across their presidential suite.
Anyway, those are all of the adventures I care to retell in a public forum. I'm in Damascus now and it is abslutly nuts. Completely insane. I'll write more later. Probably from Paris.
Its been a minute since I've written anything so here goes. Lets go back about two weeks. I'm in Almaty, the major city in Kazakstan, considering where to go. The plan was to take the train from Almaty to Aktau on the Caspian Sea then a ferry to Baku in Azerbaijan. From Baku to Georgia by train and then also by train fro Tiblisi Georgia to Istanbul Turkey. Anyway that was the plan so I went online to check out logisitics and a few things came up. First, the train from Almaty to Aktau takes 67 hours. This sucks, I love trains but it would push the whole schedule in my head up like three days. Second, apparently since the Georgian war the ferry across the Caspian is unreliable as hell. Often your forced to wait in Aktau for between 15 and 30 days waitng for a space to open up all the while dispensing bribes with abandon. Multiple travelers recomended "sleeping on the docks with Kazak truckers to ensure a spot". This would be ok I guess if Aktau were bangin. The only thing my lonely planet had to say about Aktau, other than you can cath the ferry from there, is that violent muggings against foreigners have been on the rise in recent years. So, basicaly 15-30 days sleeping with truckers on the docks of a city famous for its violent muggings. I was still fairly undetered until the third bit of news, the ferry is supposed to take eight hours but more commonly takes between 30-36 hours. In order to secure a room at all once onboard you must bribe the captain. Here's the kicker: the entire ship is served by one toilet which everyone recomends not using. This same ferry sunk in 2006 killing everyone onboard. Also, my good freind Owen has been haunted by premonitions I was going to meet with disaster on the caspian and for about five months now has been warning me not to go. All this aside I would be remiss if I didnt tell you the big reason. I miss my girlfriend. The thought of putting another thirty days between us was,well, absolutly unthinkable.
So, fuck it. The whole point of this trip was to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted so I decided to check airfares to Baku then continue by train from there. Well, as it turns out all airfare to Baku connects through istanbul, where I'm heading anyway. So, I decided to fuck Azerbaijan and Georgia (there are thousands of years of precedent for this) and just fly to Istanbul. On the same web page I saw that flights from Damascus were cheaper and at an hour and a half much shorter than the 28 hour bus trip so, what the hell, I booked that too.
At this point I was on a roll and giddy with acomplishment. God knows backpacking across Europe when single is fun. Also traveling through europe with your loved one would be amazing. But, I could see my european leg of the trip all too clearly. Getting drunk enough in the mornings to make bad financial decisions involving large meals, napping the day away trying to block out the sounds of Manau Chao from fellow-hostel dwellers and spending the time I wasn't hungover in bed or using my mother's credit card at restaurants I had seen on "No Reservations" at the internet cafe cursing the sorry state of African internet access. So, I booked a flight from Damascus to Paris, and then obviously one from Paris to Togo. Arriving November third cutting my trip by a mere 20 days and cleanly cutting off the eurpean leg.
So, say what you want but I am straight up thrilled.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Two hours later he arrived. He was about five foot five, bald and snaggle toothed. He carried a brief case and wore a suit made of something between crushed velvet and corduroy and a wide striped shirt like an escaped convict in a silent movie. Something about him put me on guard. Upon first seeing him the voice in my head said "This man will hurt me"... so I invited him in.
First he went to the bathroom and after a few minutes emerged wearing a bright pink nurse's shirt with "medical services" in navy over the pocket, grey jogging shorts and black business socks that came to just bellow the knee. He then put the comforter from my bed on the floor and began unpacking his brief case. I saw it was full of all of these weird plastic devices with screws and suction cups that I had never seen before and can't really describe. Luckily he only took out some oil and a little plastic knobby thingy. He then pointed at me, pointed at the blanket on the floor and said "sleep".
I did and so began the most painful massage I have ever had. He was STRONG and it hurt so much I had trouble breathing. Once when he was breaking the bones in my foot I actually sat up and gasped:
Me: Yes... a little. Can you do it a little softer?
Man: Pain. Yes, pain massage. Now.... Sleep!
By the mid point my body was literally recoiling under his touch and I kept inadvertently trying to squirm away from him. He must have noticed but only said "after massage relax" and didn't let up. In my head it occurred to me that maybe he was some kind of genius and that if I could only bear the pain perhaps he would fix all of my back and neck problems. His final move was to grab my limbs then throw himself on top of me popping my joints, neck and back.
When I rolled over and saw him again, putting on his watch and packing up his bag, something had changed. He didn't look creepy anymore. He looked sweet. A smiling, shy little guy. He kept trying to ask me in broken english if the massage was good, if I was ok and telling me to drink lots of water. He looked almost apologetic as if he knew it had hurt. I found him completely endearing and sympathetic. Here was this forty year old guy, in rugged-ass Kyrgyzstan, who had dedicated his life to medical massage.
Anyway, he just left. He said in two hours I would feel amazing. Right now I feel exhausted. I'm supposed to check out the night life here for my article but I'm so tired and everyone keeps warning me it is dangerous here at night. Maybe just one or two discos...
After I crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan the soldiers literally forced me into another car. Before we left I saw the driver paying off the guards and then began calling all of his friends on the cell phone. Again, the only word I understood was "americansky". I called my girlfriend and told her I thought he was gonna leave me someplace and escape with the money. It was one in the morning and Kyrgyzstan was desolate. Girlfriend was understandably concerned when we pulled up to a little house and the driver gestured for me to get out of the car and off of the phone.
It turns out I shouldn't have judged him so harshly. Inside the house he had me sit down on the floor around a table cloth and a sleepy woman brought me bread and candies and even cut open an amazing watermelon. He passed me the usual tea cup of vodka but this time said "Niet Vodka!" and wrote out 1oo proof ++ on the table cloth with his finger. It burned more than anything I have ever had to drink in my life. When I left they gave me a large bag of apples as a gift.
Feeling much more relaxed and incredibly happy I stood in the cool alpine air under a huge sky of stars and waited for the guy to put his things in the car then three of his friends, two men and a super cute little kid, arrived and we were off.
Although long, uncomfortable and exhausting the drive was amazing. At night the Kirghiz steppe was empty and stretched forever under the moonlight. The wind howled. Kyrgyzstan has the largest population of wolves in the world and boy does it seem appropriate. This is wolf country for sure. I napped on and off and watched the sun rise over towering snow capped mountains. We crossed two mountain ranges, even taller than the ones in Tajikistan, and once came down from the clouds to find a vast sparkling bright blue alpine lake. We passed yurts with nomads on horse back herding sheep or selling home made yogurt and honey on the roadside. It was breathtaking.
Also breathtaking was when we were coming up the mountain on an icey switch back when the driver started a race with the car next to us. They would gun it up the mountain around blind hair pin turns consistently swerving out of the way just in time to avoid downhill bearing semi trucks with horns blaring.
Eventually after a series of wild and vivid dreams and listening to 2pacs greatest hits twice we arrived. I dont even remember showering or getting into bed but I awoke clean and rested.
Monday, October 12, 2009
A few final notes on Uzbekistan:
In the country side here they burn something that smells just like Reses Peanut Butter cups. If they were made out of real home roasted peanuts and dark chocolate. I have no Idea what it is.
The water is not potable so everyone drinks bottled water. Nothing new there but in Uzbekistan all the water is sparkling! It's heavenly.
Lonely Planet always claims every place has the most hospitable people in the world. They're always saying that strangers will offer you tea or dinner and take you to there homes. Anyway when I'm traveling and my guide book says that I'm like "Where the hell are these people? I'm fucking thirsty!" Well it turns out theyre in Uzbekistan.
Child labour is a big problem in Uzbekistan. Children are conscripted every year from school to work the cotton harvest. Uzbeks all deny this but it is well known and the fields are full of little kids stooped under cotton bails (I saw them everywhere). Not only that but children as young as like nine do all kinds of jobs. Also there seems to be a high rate of that Benjamin Button genetic disease probably because of all the soviet biological weapon testing here (seriously). So you never know whether the little guy in the tiny bow tie bringing you your menu is an exploited eleven year old or a wizened man child.