Friday, December 16, 2011

Food wars: Putting 'exotic' into perspective

You've heard of Alien vs Predator, now how about sticking some monster food into the ring? Blindfold your cultural bias and see which food wins.

Durian vs Camembert

Common ground: Both have a stench that is tirelessly compared to old socks.

In the left corner: Durian. It grows on a tree, needs no preparation or additives and is choc-full of vitamins and minerals.

In the right corner: Camembert. Cheese is old milk that has been digested by bacteria. It's high in fat but also high in calcium and protein.

Bugs vs pork

Common ground: Both are used as insults to insinuate that a person is slovenly and disgusting.

In the left corner: Cockroaches. These bugs can live almost anywhere on essentially anything and can be raised in vast numbers. With 37% protein plus plenty of fatty acids, iron and calcium, they are very nutritious indeed. For cooking ideas click here.

In the right corner: Pork. Pigs are highly intelligent, mammals. Most pork we eat comes from pigs raised in such tight quarters they aren't able to change position through most of their adult life. To reduce infection from the pestilence in which they live, the animals are pumped with antibiotics. Meanwhile the massive amount of waste produced by the animals pollutes the air and may seep into the ground spreading health problems.

Kava vs beer

Common ground: Both dull your mental state and are used for relaxation and hanging out with the bros.

In the right corner: Kava. A bitter, muddy drink with a taste that improves as your mouth gets numbed by it. It's about the mellowest high you can imagine that's often described as an 'extreme well-being.' It makes you chilled out, no one ever fights. It's so imbedded into some Pacific cultures that a complicated ceremony has grown around it.

In the left corner: Beer. It can taste pretty awesome especially when chilled on a hot day. Ceremonially you say 'cheers' or maybe buy someone a beer as a nice gesture. But it makes some people violent and stupid. I'd hang out with a bunch of guys I didn't know drinking kava, but not beer.

So who won? I'm not about to eat bugs for dinner but I could go for some durian and a beer about now.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Searching for the Perfect Fijian Island

It was a tough job but somebody had to do . . . OK who am I kidding? Covering the remote islands of Fiji was possibly my most fun gig out of my seven years of working for Lonely Planet. Why? Well, it's not for the reasons you'd expect. The weather was terrible - I saw the sun maybe three hours in four weeks and I only got in the water five times; I drank about six beers total, had flights cancelled and skipped several meals due to my over-full work schedule. This wasn't your cliché fun in the sun voyage. No, the reason it was so great was for intangible factors that escape tourist brochures: the real, ever-present smiles, the way everything happens in the present (so forget planning or dwelling on anything), kava drinking at night to songs everyone knows, feeling safe all the time, a red hibiscus flower behind the ear, the list goes on. Fiji, to put it straight, is as heavenly for its culture as it is for its coral gardens and rainforests.

My first stop on this trip was Labasa, a landlocked sugar industry center that the guidebook describes as dusty and of little interest to travelers. I got off the plane after about 20 hours of flying and transfers, got my bag and found a taxi. The driver was a plump Indo-Fijian woman who, within five minutes of chatting, invited me to stay at her house. I didn't take her up on the offer because I'd already booked and paid for a hotel and I was too tired to want to worry about the politeness it requires to stay in someone's home, but I was touched by her gesture. Then stuff like this kept happening - and Labasa was the least friendly place I visited.

On the boat to Taveuni I met a woman with three children who invited me over for lunch. She was a school teacher. The house had three rooms without one piece of furniture although the walls were lined with giant sheets of brown painted tapa. We sat on woven pandanus mats and ate boiled eggs, toast and milky tea, laughed and chatted while the children gazed at me, intrigued - then her husband drove me to my guesthouse so I didn't have to pay for a taxi.

My job looking at hotels the next day was probably the most pleasant I've ever experienced. I saw about 10 hotels and guesthouses on foot and each one I stopped at (whether they had any idea what I was doing or not) invited me in for food or drink and I ended up sitting and talking with them all at least a half hour - way more time than I usually allot. Although I'd never met any of these people before it felt like I was visiting old friends. When I walked down the street random people would come up and just start talking to me, pleasantly and without any motive beyond being natural and nice. And this went on everywhere I went.

Towards the end of my trip I met another woman on a boat who invited me to stay in her village - which happened to be near several places I needed to visit. This was a highlight as anyone who has stayed in a Fijian village will tell you - I could write an entire blog post on this alone. The point is, you get invited, everywhere, and it's safe, fun and all warm and fuzzy.

When I hired a boat man to take me around islands he caught a bunch of fish and gave them all to me just because I said I liked fish. When 16 locals were drinking kava at night and playing music, they would make sure that every few songs would be an American song I'd probably know so I could sing along. They would figure out my music tastes without asking as the night wore on and would be able to dig up classics I not only knew but liked (4 Non Blonds' What's Up was a personal fave).

In the meantime five minutes anywhere became an hour, flights were cancelled constantly so tourists were missing international connections and I lost two work days because of airplane malfunctions. And nobody, not even the most uptight looking tourists with business meetings to get to, cared. Anyone who has been in Fiji more than a week knows that there's no point in fighting 'Fiji time' and you just gel yourself into the moment where, hey, you're in Fiji, so enjoy. Stress seems silly. The Internet never works so email becomes irrelevant. No one wears makeup or fashionable clothes, there are rarely mirrors anywhere and you begin to forget what you look like. Someone everyday will beckon you in for a bowl of kava and if you don't like kava just go in and sit with them anyway and it's OK. Fiji is that place where all the world's crap has been raked away to expose a clean and shiny humanity. It's refreshing and mesmerizing and it stays with you after you've left.

I spent my last few days on Viti Levu where I learned quickly that my pure Fiji experience unrolled the way it did because I was in the outer islands and not in the main tourist center. I got pick pocketed, ruthlessly hit on by beach boys and saw every other female I met get as aggressively hit on by hotel staff and local surfers to old Chinese shop owners. It was a transition back into the 'real' world, on the way to LAX with it's unsmiling TSA agents. Luckily my home is a good place and I've been tackling work with less stress than I usually do. The happy Fiji feeling will fade, this I know, but the lesson has been absorbed and I will try to remember that all this modern stuff is nothing compared to a smile and a shared cup of tea.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Passports With Purpose Round Three: Pearls for Libraries in Zambia

The day before yesterday Passports With Purpose (PWP) launched its third fundraiser, this year to build two libraries in Zambia. I was on a boat, a bus and then a plane on the day of the launch through last night (making my way from a remote isle in Fiji back home to Portland), so please excuse my tardiness, it has nothing to do with lack of enthusiasm for this annual project!

I do admit however that when I first heard that PWP was going to build libraries this year I was a bit disappointed. Yes I love books and learning and want the world to have access to this magical realm but aren't there other things that are more important like food, shelter and freedom from violence? As usual, the universe came and answered me. About four days ago, whilst on that small island in Fiji, I met an English woman who told me this story:

Angela was traveling through East Africa by bus. At a random dusty stop she heard a little boy very loudly and confidently proclaiming: "Public service announcement! Bananas contain potassium and are very good for your health! I have bananas for sale, get them here."

She found this adorable but she didn't like bananas. The little boy stopped at her bus window and asked her where she was from.

"England," she said.

"What part?"

She told him the town which was somewhere near South London.

The little boy then asked her what she thought of her local football team who he had seen play in a match on TV over the weekend - he knew the score. They chatted a little about football including the boy's favorite underdog team that happen to be the home team of another English couple sitting at the front of the bus.

"Here," said the boy after a few minutes. "Have a banana."

It was free gift but Angela didn't want a banana or get a freebee from this boy who surely needed the money so she refused.

Another boy nearby said innocently, "You don't want to be his friend?"

So Angela took the banana. With a quick thought, she decided to give the boys a magazine from the bus. The two boys immediately lit up, set down their bananas and poured over the magazine under a tree.

"All they wanted to do was read," Angela told me on that Fijian island. "I wished I could have given them a library's worth of books."

A light went off in my head; this is exactly what I was about to help do with PWP, except we're giving Zambian children two libraries worth of books. No it's not saving lives but it's certainly enhancing them and who's to say what's more important.

Now about my prize.

The "Mana Necklace" is Kamoka Pearls' signature adventure and travel jewelry and something I've worn on the road for years. Everything is sustainable from the pearl, grown with care in Ahe Atoll's lagoon in the Tuamotu Archipelago, to the kangaroo leather which is taken to quell over population in native stocks (it's also some of the strongest leather in the world).

The prize is a necklace on leather with a 10mm semi-round silver pink grade B pearl (great luster and two very small, nearly imperceptible blemishes) and an anklet with a 9.5mm medium tone grey-green-gold baroque grade B pearl (again very good luster with only a minor, scarcely visible scratch). You can see the details of the necklace line at but the anklet is a new product that isn't online yet - so this is a special pre-launch gift! The necklace is normally priced at $130 and the anklet is expected to be priced around $100 making the set worth around $230.

And if you're new here I might add that Kamoka Pearl is my family's farm run by my charming husband.

So please head over to the PWP website, bid on my prize and help build those libraries in Zambia!!!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

On The Road With a Lonely Planet Author: A Kid's Perspective

My first guest post to Coconut Radio is by my daughter, Jasmine. This was originally an assignment for her English class (about lying) but I liked it so much I asked her to re-word it a bit for my blog.

Here's her take on what it's like traveling with me:

When I was about ten my mom took me, my dad, and my brother on a research trip with her to Thailand. I had been on many “big trips” before but this time I was deemed old enough to be taken to work instead of being left with dad. I had always wondered what happened in the secret world of my mom’s work so I was quite excited.

Shortly after arriving in Phuket we dropped the boys off at a hotel and, even though we were jet-lagged and tired from the trip, went to research a few hostels before the day was over. The first place we went had a grouchy American expat working at the front desk who was a little too enthralled with a half finished grid of Sudoku. My mom and I went straight up and asked to see a room.

"What kind of room do you wanna see?" grumbled the woman, reluctantly looking up from her Sudoku.

"Just a two person room," answered my mom.

The lady got up from her chair and eyed us curiously. "You girls here on your own?" she asked doubtfully.

"No" I said. "We have two other people with us".

As she showed us to the room I caught a glimpse of a cockroach or some other exotic Southeast Asian bug and coughed from the strong smell of cigarettes. When the Sudoku lady finally opened the door to a simple white room lit by flickering neon lights with a bunk bed and a small, glass cube shower, I immediately went and to have a look. I soon regretted my curiosity when a dead gecko that had been smashed in the shower door fell onto my arm and made me jump backwards. The woman hardly reacted, apparently squished geckos in shower doors happened a lot here.

Since I was distracted by wiping the gecko goo off my arm I only caught part of the conversation when the woman asked my mom why we were there.

"My cousin and her boyfriend are coming and they want a good cheap place to stay," said my mom.

"What?" I said from across the room. "When? Are we going to see them?"

"Of course, we're meeting them in Koh Phi Phi remember?"

"No, you never said anything about meeting anyone."

Had I not been tired from the trip, and had that gecko not given me a shot of adrenaline I probably would have noticed the look on my mom’s face.

"Well, you could save yourself some time and buy them the Lonely Planet" said the lady, with the kind of hoarse chuckle characteristic of life long smokers.

"My cousin doesn't really trust the Lonely Planet" said my mom giving me the death stare.

"What? Doesn't she know you wrote it?"

My mom opened her mouth to say something but it was too late, her cover had been blown. The lady tried to be nicer to us by offering us tea and a free night at her hostel but she was obviously quite angry that we had come as normal people instead of with a whole crew of photographers and assistants, which is how a lot of people think guidebooks are written. Neither of us wanted to stay in that place any longer than we had to so when we finally got away from the woman who, was suddenly our best friend. We took a tuk-tuk back to the hotel.

My mom was a little angry with me at first but she said it was alright since she wasn’t going to put that place in the book anyway. The next day we had much better luck with our research and luckily the word didn’t spread about there being a Lonely Planet author on the island.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Culturally misunderstood small talk

"Eh Celeste poria ia 'oe!"

This means "Celeste, you're fat," and I'm frequently greeted this way by female Tahitian friends I haven't seen in awhile.

It's not a compliment. In the past rotundity may have been a sign of beauty for Tahitian women but the Western world has seeped in too deeply and now most people would prefer to be skinny. But the conversation starter has stuck and, unless you look almost sickly thin, or you're a known athlete, people will probably tell you you've put on weight or at least "haven't got any fatter." In a way it's like saying you look healthy and happy even though you're not going to win any beauty pageants.

No one means offence by these comments but I still don't like being told I'm fat. I always get offended -- I can't help it -- but I let it go as a cross-cultural faux pas I'm only aware of on my end.

And this has got me thinking about other similar small talk that Westerners find uncouth.

In Indonesia and Malaysia the classic conversation starter is "Where are you going?"

This question isn't meant to be answered literally although most Westerners don't know that so feel it's invasive.

"Why is it this guy on the street's business where I'm going?" people ask.

It's not, so just answer vaguely with something like the classic "jalan jalan," which means just wandering around.

In the same vein if you asked an Indonesian "How are you?" they'd find it weird. It's a pretty intimate question if you think about it. Why would you casually ask about someone's mental state? It's a big can of worms if you attempt to answer it honestly.

In China common small talk may start with "Have you eaten?" I like this one (perhaps because I'm poria). It insinuates getting invited in for a meal or going to eat somewhere yummy, although it's more of a polite thing to say than attached to any real expectations.

These are just a few and I'm sure there are many more examples of funny conversation starters from around the world. Please leave some in the comments! I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Channel Islands: California's Ocean Sanctuary

When you fly from Tahiti to Los Angeles you pass over very little land mass. If you're lucky you may peer down at a coral atoll in the Tuamotus about 45 minutes after takeoff but after that there's nothing but clouds and lots and lots of ocean. The first dots that come into view on the flight map as you're approaching Los Angeles are the Channel Islands. When the small yellow specks appear, it feels like an event after so much blue, and their names sound so much more exotic than the big stinky city where you're about to land - - think with a Latin accent: Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara Islands. The fact that they're so close to major civilization yet relatively unknown makes them all the more romantic. Ever since I first flew over these islands 20 years ago I've wanted to visit them and I finally got the chance this last Monday.

I went with my mother in law who used to live on a sailboat around the islands in the early 70s when she and my father in law had the first urchin fishing licenses in the region. She hadn't been back since. Her stories of those days involve wild storms, fixing broken rigging while eight months pregnant and plenty of crazy characters. Our day on Santa Cruz Island 40 years later was to be much more mellow.

Instead of a homemade cement-hull sailboat a la 1970, we set out on a modern catamaran complete with snack bar and commentary over the loud speakers. It was cold and foggy at our starting point at Ventura Harbor but the ocean was calm. Pelicans flocked on the rocky breakwater as we puttered out into opaque white nothingness.

A few minutes out we stopped at a red buoy where a group of sea lions rested while others swam around in the blue-brown silky water. The commentator promised we'd see more marine life before we reached the islands, possibly even whales. Then off we went into the mist.

Despite the fact that I get seasick on just about anything and everything, I didn't feel so bad this day. After about 45 minutes of un-eventful cruising a couple at the front of the boat spotted something that looked like whales. I went outside on the bow and soon saw two large fins surfacing and plunging like wheels in the distance. As we came closer the commentator announced that these were Risso's dolphins. Soon a few more swam near the boat, close enough that we could clearly see the black and white speckled markings covering their torpedo-shaped bodies. The adults of this species are easily ten feet long, with a particularly long dorsal fin. After a few minutes of oohing and aahing we motored away again.

Only a few minutes later we came into a massive nursery pod of common dolphins. Mothers, tiny babies, sisters and brothers all swam over to play in our wake. It was like a giant soup of mammals splashing or gliding just under the surface showing off their streamlined bodies. They continued to follow us as the silhouette of Santa Cruz Island started to immerge from the fog. Pelicans glided over us to rest on a white-stained rock. As we approached the dock at Scorpion Cove, the sky cleared just enough that the sun could reflect on the water exposing kelp beds through the pristine, clear bay - this cove is only about 20 miles from the California coast and yet the ocean is nearly as clear as Tahitian waters.

Santa Cruz is the largest of the Channel Islands with 96 square miles of near-treeless grassy hills (the highest peak is 2,000 ft), rocky coves, streams, beaches and sea caves. Now it's a protected area but it was once a cattle ranch and Scorpion Cove is strewn with rusted old farming vehicles and equipment that look like modern art pieces. Before Europeans arrived, the island was inhabited by the Chumash Native American Indians for some 9000 years and you're constantly reminded of this my the shell midden in the trails running all over the island.

We only had two hours which is far too short to get anywhere on this big island. Like the Galapagos Islands the Channel Islands' isolation means that there are 145 species of plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. I can't say I saw any of these, but we did get a good hike up to the top of a dry, grassy hill where the fog cleared letting us see the steep coastline and some of the old farming buildings in the valleys. Down near the dock we picked figs and dodged cawing black crows, mad that we were stealing their fruit. Then reluctantly we got back on the boat.

A day trip is lovely but doesn't do these islands justice. Now I want to go back with camping and diving equipment, a kayak and at least a few days to explore. In many ways these islands are what California would have looked like without the effects of development and as an ex-native, this landscape feels like home. Only 250,000 people make it out to the entire park per year making this one of the least visited national parks in the US.

Despite twenty years of dreaming, my expectations of the Channel Islands were met. With their complex history, natural beauty and a near-mystical allure, how could they not?

Our round-trip boat ride to Santa Cruz cost $56 on Island Packers ( For more information about the park go to

Monday, October 10, 2011

How I Became a Lonely Planet Author

The question I get after "what's it like being a Lonely Planet author" is "how did you get your job?" My response is usually, "long story," because it is. People don't like this answer for obvious reasons so, in continuation of last week's low down on what it's like on the road as guide book author, here's how I got my job and some thoughts on how you can get a job like mine. Spoiler: it's not easy.

For me it started in 1998 when I lived on Ahe Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. All we had for communication was a short wave radio and a satellite telephone (that cost $10 per minute) that we used mostly as a fax machine in emergencies. Just to put where I was in perspective, this atoll had no roads, no plumbing and only one little store selling canned food. When you see those cartoons of a stranded guy sitting under a coconut tree surrounded by shark-infested waters, that's pretty much where I was. I also had a two year old and a newborn baby. So, imagine my surprise when I got a fax from an old school friend asking if I'd be interested in writing the French Polynesia guidebook for Lonely Planet.

But it wasn't in the cards that time. My friend (unknown to me) was working as Lonely Planet's publicity manager and when she heard they were looking for Tahiti writers she thought of me. I faxed her back to let her know I was interested but by the time the communication had gone back and forth, Lonely Planet had found someone else. A few months later I got offered Tonga from the Australian office but this time the communications seemed to just dissolve somewhere between my remote atoll and the satellite, so once again, I lost the job. Looking back this was for the best since there's no way I could have done what was needed to be done from my remote location and with two very small kids.

Fast-forward to 2001 and the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference in Corte Madera, California. My family and I had recently moved to the much bigger island of Tahiti and I had started travel writing. I'd had a few things published and decided to attend the conference while visiting friends and family in the US. I had no idea Lonely Planet was going to be there and my school friend no longer worked there but I had had the seed put in my head that this was my dream job. Lonely Planet offered a workshop and I decided to take it.

On the last morning they told us all to wear good shoes and a sun hat and to get there at around 7am - the reason was a surprise. They drove us all into San Francisco and dropped us all off for about an hour to update a guidebook section. We had that night to write it all up and whoever did the best job would win two tickets to Europe and a chance to become an author; I think there were about 30 of us. I'll skip the details here, but I won.

We decided to go to Spain and Morocco that fall with the tickets. Unfortunately, a day before we were supposed to take the ferry from Spain to Tangiers, 9/11 happened. We were frozen, stuck in Spain with our two young kids, not knowing what to do. Instead of going to Morocco we got the first flight we could back to Tahiti. My husband's pearl business was severely effected by the plummeting economy and I suddenly had to work full time for him to try and save the business. Meanwhile, Lonely Planet's book sales dropped so dramatically that they closed the Oakland office where I'd just theoretically got a job, and everyone I'd just met was laid off. My chances of becoming an author again became just a dream.

Three years later, once the economy had settled a little bit, my family and I traveled to Mexico. Again, I'll skip the details of the trip but we ended up in this little coastal village called Chacahua on the Oaxaca coast. There were maybe four other foreigners in town and we became friends with an American woman at our guesthouse. Her name was Carolyn and, randomly, she was a managing editor for Lonely Planet. She also remembered me from the contest. We hung out for a few days and at the end she told me that, especially with my history with the company, that there was no reason I shouldn't be an author. Things had changed a bit by this time though so, via Carolyn writing a letter of introduction, I had to be accepted to write a sample chapter that would be reviewed by the recruiter. I was given the OK and then the sample took about two weeks to write (I did it once we were back home in Tahiti); after a few months of review and interview, I was accepted into the author pool.

Great, you think, but no. Getting accepted into the author pool doesn't guarantee work. A publishing schedule is sent out once a month and authors have to pitch for each individual title. Luckily for me, Tahiti was on the list and I secured my first gig within a few months. And the rest is history. Once the books I'm currently working on are out I will have contributed to over 30 Lonely Planet titles.

So how can you get a job? Honestly, it's harder today than it ever has been. The company hires very few new authors and only those who specialize in regions where they need people. To check the list go to - there were no listings when I wrote this post. This is your only hope.

I was lucky to have had connection, be in the right place at the right time and specialize in a region Lonely Planet needed but ultimately I can't imagine what I would be doing if I hadn't got this job. I kept the goal strongly in my head for years. You may not agree, but I'm a strong believer in the power of will mixed with gratitude to make things happen. I think anyone who wants this job badly enough and has the skills and work ethic to go after it, will eventually succeed. It just might take a long time.

Of course if you read my prior post about the realities of life on the road you might decide to keep your day job. For me though, through the hard pillows, blistered feet and days tied to my computer at home it's still what I love to do and what I hope to continue doing it for a long, long time.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Life On the Road For a Lonely Planet Author

It sounds like a dream job. Many people seem to imagine that Lonely Planet writers spend days on the beach with giant cocktails in carved out pineapples; nights involve lavish dinners, more cocktails and everywhere they go people are doing everything they can to make their stay in the country perfect. Often I hear hotels and restaurant I've visited complaining that I never even came through. This always makes me snicker because they must think I show up with a name tag, giant camera and a clipboard or something. Or maybe they just assume I'd introduce myself - that would be nice but honestly I don't have time to chat at length with dozens of hotels and restaurants everyday.

The reality of how authors research varies from author to author but, in my case, most places I go to never know I came through. I probably stayed in their cheapest room and I can't eat everywhere so usually I'll just stop in to a restaurant for a juice or maybe just ask to see their menu. They probably saw me and felt bad that I was on my own and wondered what would lead a woman my age to stray so far from home. They may not have noticed me at all. Other travelers never guess who I am either.

I often get asked "what it's like" and what I do on an ordinary day. So here goes. I'm going to write this as an average day in Southeast Asia since that's where I spend the most time. Warning: It's long and a lot less exciting than you think it will be.

7:15 I wake up in a hard bed with a really bad pillow, wash-up in the hostel's shared bathroom, and put on clothes I washed in the sink the day before that have been drying draped over chairs and whatnot. I turn off the fan and get out the door in 15 minutes.

7:30 Breakfast at my favorite local joint. This will often be a place I've put in the book for years. It's busy and I'm hardly able to get a table but I'm the only Westerner there. So much for Lonely Planet ruining places. If it doesn't serve banana pancakes and looks too foreign, people won't go there. I enjoy an amazing meal, check my email on my phone, read a local paper and map out my day on the back of a map I picked up at my hostel. I take a moment to enjoy the exoticness of where I'm sitting and I'm thankful of my situation; I pay then go.

8:15 Nothing is open yet which frustrates me because I'm in a hurry to get stuff done. I walk around town to see which Western style breakfast places are open so I can recommend them for people who like to eat before 10am.

9:00 I start looking at hotels. I have a list of new places I've found on the Internet, by traveler's recommendations, at tourist offices or through local friend's suggestions. I've mapped them all out as I heard of them. As I'm on my way to a place on my list, I pass another place I've never heard of, pop in and ask to see a room. The people don't ask who I am or why I'm there and enthusiastically show me around. I ask them a million questions and they tell me all sorts of fun stories about the place and give me their business card. It ends up being the coolest place I find all day. I sneak into a hidden corner once I'm back outside and jot messy notes in my notebook.

10:30 After an hour and a half of wandering around, looking at hotels and seeing what's new I start to see other travelers eating their Western breakfasts around town. I note which places are the busiest, check the menus and get a table at the one that looks the best. I order a cup of tea, catch up writing notes in my notebook about everything I've seen that morning then text a local friend to see if they can meet for lunch. Meanwhile, I chat with a nice English couple at the table next to me who give me a great detailed, review of a bike tour I won't have time to go on myself. They of course have no idea that they just gave their input to Lonely Planet.

11:00 There are a few places I have to see that are way out of town. I hop on a bus then walk about 10 minutes to find the first place, which has great reviews on Trip Advisor. From the mildewed outside and depressing, hard-to-get-to location I can tell it's a dud. I wake up a TV-hypnotized receptionist and she takes me to a stinky room with a stained carpet and a lint-filled air-con vent. A few confused looking older Americans are dining on white toast, jam and coffee in the cafe downstairs. I thank the receptionist but don't bother to get the price because there's no way I'm putting this place in the book.

12:00 I walk high-speed back to the bus stop. The bus never shows. It's about 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 percent humidity, my face is bright red and I feel awful. It starts to rain. I walk about ten minutes in my plastic-bag-like emergency rain poncho while cars whiz past and I'm sure they're all laughing at me in my silly poncho that makes me look like an orange balloon. A big truck sprays muddy water all over me. I finally hail a taxi.

12:40 I meet my friend who I haven't seen in two years at a new hole-in-the-wall she says is really good. She says I look like hell and laughs at my wet, muddy legs and plastic bag poncho. We talk about her love life, my love life then she orders all the stuff that's supposed to be so good. It's fabulous so I take extensive notes about it. We stuff ourselves while chatting about what's new around town. After lunch I decide to throw my ugly poncho away and buy an umbrella.

1:40 It's raining and my friend has the afternoon off so she asks me where I need to go. I've been to most of the museums etc in town before and from asking around I've found nothing has changed, but there's a new shopping mall in a district I don't know well that I'd like to check out. We go but on the way stop at a temple I've never heard of where they do some sort of ritual that people come from all over the country to take part in for good luck. We go in and do the ritual, I talk to the abbot who tells me the fascinating history of the place. I take notes but once in the car I realize I'll never have the space to put this awesome place in the book - plus it's out of the way and a little spooky so, like my breakfast joint, hardly anyone would go there anyway. I consider returning to this place one day for one of the hundreds of non-fiction travel books I've thought about writing.

3:00 We get to the mall and it looks like every other mall in Southeast Asia. I jot down the names of some of the stores, we get an ice cream then head back to town.

3:45 My friend drives me to all the other out of the way hotels I need to go to. They are all really boring. She also helps me find a cheap umbrella. Meanwhile I get a text from another friend who wants to know if I want to go out to dinner with a bunch of couch surfers. I say OK.

6:00 I go back to my hotel, shower and write a few emails. What I'd really like to do is take a nap but I'm afraid I'd sleep through dinner.

7:30 I meet my local friends, three couch surfers and a random expat Kiwi English teacher at a food stall area. My friend has told them all about me so they all ask me about my job. They of course want to know how much money I make and assume I have to save all my receipts that I'll send back to Lonely Planet who will reimburse me for any and all expenses. I tell them that I actually work from a lump sum and if I spend more I earn less. No one seems to really care so I try and change the subject. I excuse myself during dinner and take notes on the new stalls that have opened since the last time I was here.

8:30 I've managed to pick the brains of every person at dinner and have a few good suggestions for the next town I'm going to and another review of the bike tour I can't go on. I suggest we get dessert at a place I want to try.

9:00 We go get dessert then check out a local night market. Then everyone but my local friend and the Kiwi guy goes home. The rest of us decide to go check out a new bar.

9:30 It's sort of dead but we all sit and have a beer. By 10pm more people show up and by 11pm it's rocking.

11:30 We move on to a club down the road that has a surprisingly decent cover band from the Philippines. I go up to dance, get hit on by a 50+ year-old Australian military dude and a Nigerian gigolo then decide this is more depressing than fun and I'd better go home. A drunk Asian girl I was dancing next to hugs me like we're best friends and tells me I can stay at her house next time I'm in town. I thank her but know I'll never see her again. My friends walk me home.

1:30am Back to my board-like bed with the too-tall pillow of rocks. I set my alarm for 8am so I can catch the 9am bus out of town. I toss and turn for about half an hour recapping my day, turn on the light briefly to check for bed bugs then fall asleep.

After each research trip comes the write-up which, in general, equals the time spent on the road. My fellow author Leif Pettersen has captured this type of day on video better than I ever could in words. To see it click here. Enjoy!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Flower: Ko Lanta's One-Hit Wonder

She was around six foot two and skinny in a way that comes from ill-health rather than from exercise or lucky genes. The light bruises on her arms told me drugs were probably to blame and the poorly drawn eyebrows, thinning short blond hair and stubble on her chin told me she was less worried about personal hygiene than your ordinary transvestite. But she had an effervescent smile, and my spider senses told me she was a nice person.

"Oh the tuk-tuk's a great deal, best on the island, but it's for two people and you have to drive it yourself and there's really no point if you're by yourself," she told me in a fast, nasal, up and down drawl.

I had just stopped by to ask about a sign outside her door advertising a cheap rate on a tuk-tuk. This was on Ko Lanta in Southern Thailand so I had expected to meet a Thai person, not an American cross-dresser. I was still a bit taken aback.

"Where are you from?" I asked for lack of anything better to say.

"San Francisco and LA mostly. And you?"

"I grew up in San Francisco." I said.

"Really? Wow I haven't met anyone from home in ages. Do you want to come in and have some tea?"

Maybe it's because I'm from San Francisco and used to the freaks of the world, and I'm usually quite cautious when I travel alone, but I was intrigued by this person so didn't hesitate. In we went for tea.

"By the way, my name's Dok Mai which means flower in Thai," she told me, so I told her my name too. She smiled at me in approval.

Her home was on the ground floor of a shabby mixed commercial and residential block with a big parking lot in front. The floors were cheaply tiled and a stand up fan was blowing on a synthetic-upholstered floral couch. Along the wall were a few professional looking guitars. There was a lot of space and little furniture.

She brought us tea in a flurry of apologies for the state of the house, which was a little sloppy but mostly clean -- then she wasted no time to start talking, as if she hadn't spoken to anyone in months.

"Let me tell you about me," she said.

This made me happy because I wanted to know about Dok Mai and I was get tired of talking about myself with every new person I'd been meeting. Sometimes it's refreshing and relaxing to just get get talked at by another person without having to go into your own story. I was however a little worried about how long I was going to get stuck listening.

First Dok Mai told me about how she had run away from California because she had racked up a $1000 per day coke habit she wanted to leave behind. A friend suggested she get away from her problems by going to Kata Beach on Phuket, so without doing any research Dok Mai bought a ticket. She loved Kata more than anywhere she'd ever been but then someone told her about Ko Lanta, she went to visit and found she liked it even more than Kata. She'd been there ever since.

"I'm a musician you see," she said about ten minutes into the story. "Have you ever listened to KROQ in the Bay Area?"

"Wait isn't that an LA station?"

"Have you heard a song called You Want It You Got It?"

"Sounds familiar."

"Someone told me they still play it. Here I'll sing it for you."

She went and grabbed an acoustic guitar and began strumming. She cleared her voice, then out came a sound I had not expected. The tune had real soul, a universal appeal and her playing was flawless with a hypnotizing style. But it was her voice that was the most astounding. Imagine Aretha Franklin meets Boy George trying not to wake the neighbors. What I was suddenly watching was pure talent, that thing that performers search for their whole lives and rarely find, and this was just in a living room. Dok Mai was absolutely mind-blowingly good. I can't imagine how beautiful she'd have sounded on stage.

She finished and I applauded as enthusiastically as I felt. I was also pretty sure I'd heard the song before.

"That was amazing!" I said.

Dok Mai nodded knowingly.

"I'm playing in a cover band at the Somewhere Else bar tonight if you want to come?"

I did want to see her sing some more so told her I'd try and make it but that I had to go.

"Come back any time," she said as I left. Her eyes were a little glossy and she seemed a bit more out of it than when I had first arrived. I wondered if she hadn't taken a hit of something while taking the tea dishes back to the kitchen or something. Despite the awesome show, I was starting to feel uneasy - I was happy to be getting out of there.

When I got back to my guesthouse that night I saw Dok Mai sitting at a table at the onsite bar. Whether she had come to find me or not I don't know, but the fact she was there resurrected that uneasy feeling; I slipped into my room without her seeing me and didn't come out till she left about a half hour later. I'm not sure what I was worried about but despite her artistic brilliance something had gone off and I didn't want to get in any deeper with Dok Mai than I had already. Her show was at a beach about 45 minutes away and I didn't have a car or the expensive taxi fare, so that cinched my decision not to go. I never saw her again.

Since, I've tried Googling "You Want It You Got It" to no avail. It's a great song but I don't even know what name she had when she released the song. I hope that Dok Mai is continuing to find her peace on Lanta, however she chooses to find it. She is a nice person, just perhaps with more baggage than most people, myself included, can deal with. Maybe next time I go back I'll get to see her sing on stage. I know she won't remember me so I'll just keep my distance and enjoy.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Stuck in a Tunisian Restroom

I've been lucky on my travels not to have run into to serious trouble. One of the more laughable situations I've been in was getting stuck in a bus station restroom in Tunisia with my 12-year old-daughter, Jasmine. We could have been in there for hours if she hadn't saved us.

We had just taken a several-hours-long bumpy and dusty bus ride from Le Kef, in the north, and had arrived to transfer in Gafsa to get to our final destination of Tozeur. Needless to say we had to pee. Badly. So my husband and son watched our bags while Jasmine and I set off to find a bathroom.

Gafsa is a transportation hub so there were what seemed like hundreds of people darting to catch their bus or waiting for one in the extreme dry heat. The whole station was covered in a sticky black film from exhaust, desert dust and dirt from people's shoes. It smelled slightly like a burning tire.

We navigated past a staircase and around a few corners, all eyes on us as the only white people, till we found the ladies room. By this time we really had to go. The door was wide open so that anyone walking by could look into the stalls so I absent-mindedly kicked aside a small brick that was holding the door open for some privacy. We were the only people in the bathroom, which seemed strange.

We visited the stalls, washed our hands then went to the door to leave. There was no knob. I pushed on the door. It didn't budge. I tried to pull the door from the broken knob mechanism. No go. Hmmm. I checked the locking bit where the door connects with the jam and could see it was well and truly locked. Without some sort of tool, we were screwed.

"We're stuck," I said to Jasmine.

Just as I was about to start banging on the thick, probably sound-proof door and yell for help, Jasmine pulled her Swiss Army knife out of her day pack. I didn't even know she had brought it with her.

"I'll get us out, " she said confidently as she sprung out the tool she needed, stuck it in the knob hole, turned it and opened the door.


I guess there's a time when a parent sees that their kid has grown into a capable individual - and perhaps cooler and smarter than they are - but I have to admit I never expected this to happen in a stinky public restroom near the Sahara.

And she helped me remember something I already knew: carry a Swiss Army knife because, like dental floss and duct tape, it can fix things, save you or even impress your mom.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Middle of Somewhere

About 20 minutes from downtown Portland is the Columbia River Gorge, a temperate rainforest cut by a spacious, fast moving slab of brown river and sided by gargantuan waterfalls tumbling between pine tree cliffs; the terrain gets drier as you drive east on Hwy 84 till eventually it turns into endless rolls of dry farmland. And this region, a mere 150 miles out of liberal Portland is cowboy country, where everyone drives tank-sized pick up trucks that are graced with bumper stickers that say things like "Obama bin lyin'."

Perhaps it's because I've been out of the US so long that I love this hay-covered, gun-slinging, Republican America. I might feel like an over-educated, city-slicker driving around in my Japanese-made mini SUV, but it's this alienation that makes me feel like I've gone somewhere, like I've stepped away from my normal reality and been transported into another culture or even another era.

My family and I stop to get gas in Union, a dot of an Eastern Oregon town with charming Victorian buildings. The guy behind the service counter is friendly enough but eyes my family (and our Asian friend Sandra) a bit suspiciously; the only other patron is about six feet tall, 250 pounds and is wearing a shirt that reads "All of God's Creatures are best with meat and potaters." As I wait to pay for my gas behind Mr Meat, I read a hand written sign for the local raffle on the wall - - prizes include a side of beef, a side of pork and a gun. 

And this makes me giggle inside, then think for a second because I realize that I'm enjoying the Americana of this gas station as much as I would a junk store in Penang, Malaysia or maybe a carpet shop in Tunisia. I'm not from this America and I don't really feel comfortable here but it sure is fascinating. I feel like a tourist as much as I ever have and it's great.

Looking for last minute fishing equipment we get directed to a store in Pondosa about 20 miles down the road from Union. Actually it ends up that the store is the only thing at all in Pondosa. It's a homey early 1900s building shaded by an elm tree and we're greeted by an old dog and about six fluffy cats. The door looks like it leads to someone's living room more than to a store but sure enough, opening it triggers a "ding" and out comes a white haired woman who soon calls to her husband to ask if they have any fishing line. 

Nope, they don't have any fishing equipment but as we look around we realize this place is more of a museum than a store. You can get a cup of hot chocolate for 50 cents, the few boxes of tea and canned goods are covered with dust and next to register hangs a flash bar for a Polaroid camera (still in the box) as if this is the most likely thing customers might need as they check out. Old pictures of Pondosa (which was once a thriving mill town) grace the walls and the owners keep us in the store for a good half hour telling us about the history of the town. 

Pondosa's biggest claim to fame they tell us is that it's the geographical center of the US when you factor in Alaska and Hawaii. We are all impressed. Pondosa is awesome, this store alone could merit hours of exploration. On the way out we notice a small silver earring taped to a display counter with a note that says "Did you lose an earring?" The note looks about 10 years old.

We go to a nearby camp site next to a reservoir where we're kept awake by coyotes howling all night then, the next day, drive another 20 miles down a dirt road to a trail head where we hike into the mountains and camp for a few days (a whole other story). 

On the way home we stop in Pendleton, a more yuppie cowboy town, where women wear tight jeans and high heeled cowboy boots and the most popular place in town is the rockin' steakhouse with a mediocre cover band playing outdoors. This is the kind of place I could imagine staying in a B&B to experience truck driving, cowboy hat-wearing hunting culture with a gentrified buffer - kind of like folks in a resort and a tour bus might see Istanbul or Beijing. It's cool but I like Union's gas station better.

When I get home I Google Pondosa. Turns out the only folks claiming the town is the center of the 50 US states are the couple who own the store. All other data points towards Butte County, South Dakota although apparently the exact geographical center depends on several variables (I'm not sure which). But I don't feel duped by Pondosa and I know that lovely couple truly believe it is the geographic center of the United States. Whether it is or not, Pondosa is still the middle of somewhere and I'd sip a hot cocoa with its warm-hearted two-person population any time.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Worst Pick-Up Artist in the World

"You travel alone?"

While traveling in Southeast Asia I get this question daily. Some people are curious about why a woman would travel solo, others are concerned about my safety, while an annoying few, like this five-foot two-inch, long-haired fellow in Sulawesi, try (not very subtly) to feel out my potential as a quicky romance or a free-travel-with-benefits sugar mama.

This guy had just checked me into my bungalow on a fairly remote island, and I was obviously by myself, so there was no way to lie. Yup, I was alone and although he was a potential nuisance, I was going to be stuck with him on a small beach for a few days so instead of chucking him off my deck I chatted with him a few minutes about where I'd been and where I was going (these are the questions every Indonesian asks to make polite conversation). Then he left and I un-packed a bit and had a shower.

I settled on my terrace with a book and had read about five words when my new friend was back. This time he was carrying a photo album.

Without asking he grabbed a chair, pulled it over a little too close to mine and looked me in the eye. "I like older women," he told me in a heavy-lidded voice.

I guessed he was about 25 and somehow, during those all those years of life, he hadn't figured out that this was the worst pick up line ever.

"Here is Daniella my Italian girlfriend," he said, opening the photo album, his knee touching mine. The first picture showed a picture of him and a pretty blond woman on a motorbike. "She is older than you I think. Forty-five?"

You might wonder why I hadn't shooed this boy away after his first sentence. First, I think I was muddled about how old he actually thought I was (I was 37) but mostly, he was so bad at wooing women that I just had to see where it was all going. It was a social experiment.

"Ah, yes, I'm younger than that. She's very pretty."

"We meet here, she stay same room you. She like me. Take me to Bali and Lombok. Here we are at Bali guesthouse." He flipped through the pages glancing up at me from time to time with expectant eyes, perhaps to see if any of his moments with Daniella would inspire me to leap out of my chair and make passionate love to him right there on the terrace.

That didn't happen. He closed the album and once again looked into my eyes, his swirling with bedroom thoughts.

"You like me?"

"I'm married, no thanks." Social experiment over.

"Everybody married. Husband not here."

"No, I'm really married and totally not interested."

I was obviously not the first person to tell him this and in the end he was an OK guy, just a young horny one trying to get a free ride. He got up, giving me one last sultry look.

"Ok, I here you change mind and please don't tell my boss."

Over the next few days we hung out and drank beer together with all the other people staying at the guesthouse and I watched him fumble through a few other single women that turned up. Each time I saw him with his photo album I'd tease him and he'd laugh. I half wished Daniella would return, the only woman capable of falling for the worst pick up artist in the world.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Beer & Passion at Beard & Moustache Championships

The crowd is drunk and antsy for the show to start. Then, suddenly, a medium build man makes his way across the room and there's a noticeable drop in the rowdy volume. I know instantly this has to be Jack Passion and, with his lush orange beard tumbling gently to his waist, I now completely understand how he became the two-time world champion bearder in the full natural beard category.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, college students, soccer dads and grandpas are letting their manliness blossom in the form of facial hair. But while ordinary whiskers may be commonplace on the streets, they're nothing compared to the au natural, waxed or styled extravaganzas found at beard and moustache competitions scheduled regularly around the US and the world.

The Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective, Portland Oregon's beard and moustache chapter, started in June 2010. The interest however has been overwhelming. On January 24, 2011 the group hosted the first West Coast Beard and Moustache Championships drawing in competitors from around the state and as far away as Pennsylvania, Texas and California. The event, scheduled at the undesirable hour of 4pm on a Sunday by the folks at the Crystal Ballroom (who expected a poor turn out), saw people lining up around the block for up to two hours, causing the contest start an hour and a half late.

But this wasn't a problem for the competitors for whom beer and enjoying it with their fellow beardsmen is as important as showing up for the event.

Shawn Hasson, a young hopeful from Fresno in Scottish garb and endowed with a several-inch-long curled and waxed moustache tells me, "Really these shows are about meeting and hanging out with other bearded guys."

With a two-year-old moustache he's new to the scene and pays his own way to and from the shows but the fun, he says makes it worth the cost.

Around the ballroom beards are omni-present, from casual scruff and women in stick-on moustaches to the obvious stars with their long or flamboyantly styled facial hair. Many of the professional bearders are dressed in gimmicky costumes. Abe Lincoln is there as well as a garden gnome, several English gents with curled handlebar moustaches, some cowboys, a mafia looking fellow with a thick black moustache and dark glasses and a grey-haired guy in lederhosen and a beard down to his waist. They walk around happily getting their pictures snapped with their fans.

I talk with the mafia-looking guy, Steve Scarpa from Southern California who tells me his bearding career started in 2003 when he was "discovered" by Phil Olsen the president of Beard Team USA in the audience at a beard competition.

"Then there were 30 or 40 members," he tells me. "Now there are a couple hundred. It's exploding."

Scarpa introduces me to Brian Snoderly one of the founders of Stumptown Stash and Beard Collective who happens to be walking by. Snoderly has a manicured beard and moustache, a silver bar through his nose and the biggest "plug" earrings I've ever seen. It ends up Portland's bearding group was started by Crystal Ballroom employees, the venue of the night's contest, and the proceeds will go towards a scholarship fund at Portland State University. But Snoderly tells me, as everyone else has, that the shows are more about camaraderie and beer drinking than anything else.

"Steve Scarpa tattooed the Beard Team USA emblem on my calf last night do you want to see it?" he says pulling up his pant leg.

Just then another bearded man walks by and says "Showing everyone the tip of your penis again are you Brian?"

Much to my surprise, the star of this world, Jack Passion, who brought near-silence to a room of drunk people less than half an hour ago, stops to join our conversation, or possibly to get a glimpse of the end of Brian's penis. As you'd expect from a guy with a long ginger beard, Jack is easy-going and ready to talk with his fans, including me. He dispels the rumors I've heard that he's not competing this year to give other beards a chance and tells me, in what seems a forced breach of his humbleness, that he's "unbeatable." As for beards becoming more fashionable he says that "men love to be appreciated as men," and that from the night's turn-out, the Pacific Northwest has got to be a center of the facial hair fad in America.

But do chicks dig beards? Passion's Facial Hair Handbook website assures that "your beard or moustache will get you laid!" but at least at the West Coast Championships I notice that it does more than that: most competitors are accompanied by their undeniably attractive wives or girlfriends. Yes, there's something about a beard that gives a guy an honest, cuddly dad-vibe, and that's something many women would like to take home for more than the night.

The show starts with the natural beard and moustache competition and as the first contestant prances down the catwalk in a tight 70s shirt, kicking like a Vegas dancer, the crowd cheers as if Katy Perry just walked on stage. Next is a man's man kind-of-guy wearing a baseball cap and a button up blue shirt - he gets a cacophony of hoots from the crowd including a loud yell "Now that's sex!!!"

Once the twenty or so contestants have strutted their stuff the audience yells their favorites to the judges and I start to understand why I saw earplugs on sale by the bar. Following come the Partial Beard, Natural Moustache, Natural Full-Beard, Natural Full-Beard With Styled Moustache and lastly, the Freestyle Beard categories. Some of the contestants just walk the catwalk, perhaps caressing their facial locks, while others get in character by shooting fake guns, playing a toy electric guitar or ripping off their shirts exposing beer guts and tattoos.

The crowd never settles and every contestant gets catcalls and enthusiastic support. But even after the awards ceremony, I have to agree with the beardsmen I spoke to. This isn't an event about winning, it's about growing facial hair, getting appreciated for it and hanging out with other people who understand the pleasure that comes from tending a garden of whiskers. And then of course, there's the beer.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Traveling the Age Gap

I'm almost 40. I've traveled every year of my life, as the baby, the kid, the teen and the young adult. Then I became a traveling 30-something who still took risks but much more calculated ones than my 20 year-old counterpart; I still slept in cheap bamboo huts, took the bus and did most of my laundry by hand but splurged on a resort from time to time. My style of traveling changed through the years but I still hung out with the younger crowd as much as with a considerably older crowd and everything in between. The point seemed not to seek out people of my own age, but people who shared my passion.

But my world traveling view was shifted in Thailand two months ago. I'm still not sure if it's because I look older, act older or if travel style has changed radically in the younger generations, but for the first time I felt a sharp dividing line between myself and the gap year kids. Yes they have lots of tattoos and piercings but I think that's kind of cool. They drink a lot and so do I on occasion. Actually I don't care much what they do - if they're in Thailand and appreciating and enjoying the culture we should have something in common.

But the dividing line wasn't drawn by me. On a jungle path I pass a very young couple - we are the only people in any direction for maybe a kilometer but they avert their gaze to avoid saying hello. I say "hi," they don't answer. At a bus stop I'm surrounded by two or three converging groups of young travelers going to Krabi, they all chat with each other but I am invisible. I try to say something to join the conversation and they avoid answering. They're a clique that's never met and I'm already the geek. Soon I start noticing that the places I stay are mostly devoid of people under 30 and, although I hate to admit it, this makes me happy. When I do stay at places filled with 20 year-olds they bang doors and make noise all night keeping me awake; they avert eye-contact and make it impossible to make friends.

For a while I thought maybe I just looked like an extreme dork. It's true that a near-40 year-old woman traveling alone is culturally weird to lots of people but I'm gregarious enough to get past that. And these late-teens to early-twenties travelers aren't hanging out with anyone over 25, let alone the severely over the hill like me.

Luckily, my confidence issues were finally put to rest on Ko Phi Phi. I found this great place to stay (Phi Phi Hill) at the far end of Hat Yao. As my (28 year-old) friend and I were walking up the steps we passed a couple who were probably in their early 30s and I asked them how the place was.

"It's great!" the guy said. "No 20 year-olds."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Truck Stops & Penny Slots: An Ode to the American Road Trip

When you live on a small island there's no such thing as a road trip. Driving as far as you can around the two parts of Tahiti's figure eight takes four hours. One reason I wanted to move back to the States was to regain the sense of unlimited space that you can only have on a continent. Landlubbers who grow up with the amount of land Americans take for granted are pre-disposed to get a small dose "island fever" when dropped on a dot in the middle of the ocean. Some people get over it, I never did.

I was reminded of this last Friday when my good friend Dave came to town. Dave is one of the most interesting travelers I know. Growing up, his dad was a Greyhound mechanic so Dave had free bus tickets anywhere Greyhound went. So Dave would take off for weekends or sometimes weeks, riding buses to wherever he felt like going. He met crazy people, geniuses, pretty girls and wanderers and lived off hotdogs and potato chips. As he got older he learned to hop freight trains (he's the only person I know who has really done this) and once he got his own car he became a truck stop aficionado, driving around the States, always on the side of a blue-collar reality. By the time the two of us became friends in our early twenties he'd been to most US states, could tell you strange details of any Greyhound bus station in the nation and had the stinkiest, ugliest little brown car you ever saw ( it had a mouse living in it named it Rudyard).

So it's no surprise that my most memorable and real American road trip was with Dave - we just took off last minute with no idea where we were going.

We started in San Francisco, went north and our first stop was a truck stop near Vacaville. About 90 percent of the patrons in the vinyl-clad parking-lot-sized diner were men, big men in hefty plaid shirts with heaping plates of meat and potato-looking meals in front of them. It was so stereotypical it was nearly shocking. The waitresses had big hair and were probably in their late 40s, every booth was full of chatting big voices or silent loners bent over their pot roast and peas. No one took any notice of Dave and I as we took a booth and ate bacon, eggs and biscuits in gravy. It was like a scene in a movie.

We took similar stops farther north, through Truckee, where we stayed at a friend's place and played in the snow. The next day we went to Reno and Dave taught me the art of playing penny slots - play for pennies and get free booze from the cocktail waitresses who are there to get you drunk so you make bad decisions. I think we worked up to the nickle machines at some point but that's as loose with our cash as we got.

Reno was sharply cold and sadly empty. The half-blinking neon signs and desperate gamblers further painted the gloomy, seedy atmosphere. We ate all you can eat $1.99 buffets and tried to sleep in the stinky car but it was too cold - so we got cheap rooms at Circus Circus.

The next day we headed deeper into Nevada, past whole towns of trailer homes, flat streets with nothing higher than the electric poles and tawny, desolate mountains in the distance. We chugged up to Virginia City, went into a bar where a decent blues band were playing in the middle of the day then went to a cafe next door and drank sarsaparilla with views down the sandy mountain. Then we headed back over the Sierras to the pines and majesty of the forest. This was America, the same America you see in Tarantino flicks, the underbelly of vast spaces, un-glossed and untamed. It's something you can't find anywhere else in the world.

Years later I yearn to make another cheapskate road trip like the one I took with Dave but now I'm older, have a real job, two kids and a busy life so I'm not sure when I'll fit it in. But the road is still there, just waiting for a full tank of gas, and knowing that makes me happy.

Photo by Jasmine Humbert

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Southeast Asia: What NOT to Wear

Say you're in your hometown - be that New York, York, Melbourne, Madrid, wherever - and an obviously foreign couple walks by. The very hairy, pot-bellied man is wearing a loincloth with his butt fully exposed and the over-weight, saggy-buxom woman is wearing nothing but a few stripes of neon yellow body paint. The couple walks into a church, stomp in during a service, walk around without smiling and start snapping flash pictures. Are these people cool in their expression of their individuality and are they groovy ambassadors for their culture? They're a bit of a freak show perhaps but not much more.

To a Muslim man in Kota Bahru, Malaysia or an old woman selling fruit at a Thai Wat, this is about what it looks like when foreigners, the guy perhaps with his shirt off, the girl in short shorts and spaghetti straps, come through and tromp through their religious sites like they're a 7-11. Usually I keep quiet about what I think of people's travel style, but these types of travelers seem to be taking over the region more and more - in turn the locals start to dislike tourists and see them only as a depressing means by which to earn a buck.

During my last trip to Thailand I saw countless topless sunbathers on Muslim beaches, bra-less women wearing see-through tops while walking around conservative market towns and shirtless men walking around town. The most depressing moment was at Wat Tham Seua near Krabi Town where nearly every tourist I saw (and there were around 35 to 50 of them) was wearing shorts, tank tops or no shirt at all. Signs had been posted asking visitors to dress conservatively but no one seemed to notice - and of course a monk isn't going to come up to some couple dressed for the beach and give them a piece of his mind. Over and over again I wonder, what are these people thinking? Why do they travel so far only to disrespect the people in the country they're visiting? If they came to party why couldn't they just stay in Patong? And I'm not whining or yelling these questions, I really want to know. I'm stumped.

If you're reading this you're probably the type of person who would think to cover up before entering a foreign place of worship - or at least I hope you are. So thanks for listening to this rant. And if you have any ideas of how to ease this ballooning problem, please leave your comments. Also please share any thoughts you might have. I've heard people argue that they think they should be able to wear whatever they want wherever they want - you know freedom and all. But I'm a staunch believer of travelling light in all sense of the word including my impact on a culture.

PS: My paparazzi photo skills aren't tops but these are all photos from my last trip to Thailand.


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