A Night at the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco

2 11 2014

The doors to the 8th floor open from the elevator. The hallway of The Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco is the color of cream, decorated with gold-framed photography and glittering sconces. A comfortable feeling of luxury is present, however, I don’t feel as though I might break something.

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I have expectations. Who doesn’t when they travel to a new city? San Francisco had been the center of my conversations for weeks. I had asked nearly everyone what I should do, where I should stay, and what I should eat. The result was an overwhelming number of personal anecdotes that took me north of Sausalito, to a hole-in-the-wall eatery above a laundry mat in China Town. Suffice it to say, after several days of traveling up the coast, I was exhausted and in no mood to entertain such friendly advice. What I really wanted was a cocktail.

“Good afternoon, Miss Butler.”

The concierge behind a desk sits handsomely in a suit. I laugh uncomfortably, unsure of how he knows my name. In jest, I ask him.

“Because I must.”

Well, aren’t you mysterious.

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It seems impossible to talk about San Francisco as a locale, a place to be, a place to visit. The City by the Bay and the stories it offers are transcendent, as though existing simultaneously betwixt millions of separate realities. The sum of San Francisco’s metaphysical equation looks like a kaleidoscope. Somewhere out there, Tony Bennet is looking for his heart, an artist paints a picture, a businessman gets ready for work—I find it all incredibly romantic, yet exhausting on my first trip here.

The Club level of The Ritz-Carlton is alternatively constant. It provides a welcome sense of order, shelter, and rejuvenation from the bustle of life just a few stories below. I wave politely as I pass the concierge and head straight for the Club Lounge doused in wonderful afternoon sun. Dozens of brilliantly crafted edibles await, a sommelier is discussing a vintage and pouring wine, a small refrigerator has several bottles of cold beer. In a city where literally anything can happen, it’s nice to know that should I need another glass of Malbec to accompany my smelly plate of fine cheese, I can surely get it, and with a smile. The food service inside this private lounge changes throughout the day: breakfast, lunch, light appetizers before dinner, and evening desserts. It’s complimentary for all Club-level guests and is a wonderful place to mingle with friends, make new acquaintances, and attempt to discuss the endless activities planned for an evening.

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Inside my room, the calming neutral tones of good taste further relax my mood. The recent renovations where done respectfully to not overshadow the history of Nob Hill, nor discourage the reputation one might expect from The Ritz. White crown molding, classic fixtures, and a deep, very deep, marble bathtub. Proof that contemporary design can coexist with tradition, if one cares to try.

Less than 50 square miles define the borders of the second-most densely populated city in the United States. The busy intersections, lengthy lines at famous attractions, and crowded nightlife can be overwhelming. Therefore, The Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco has all the facilities one might need to exercise or rejuvenate the body or soul, including a fitness center, luxury spa, and personal concierge services.

I press my little black dress, step into black stilettos, and head to the place my soul needed most: Parallel 37.

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In a city known for its epicurean cuisine, The Ritz-Carlton stands proudly behind Parallel 37 as a dining destination worth noting to travelers and locals alike. While waiting for my company, I enjoy a craft cocktail called 8th Street East. It’s prepared slowly with Hooker’s House Rye, Carpano Antica, Campari and burnt orange. I sip slowly, watching as fading light crawls through orange shades covering the windows. The day is about to end—quite deliciously.

Chef de Cuisine Michael Rotondo asks if I have any dietary restrictions before he devises a tasting menu. My response, and recommendation to anyone every in this situation, is complete abandonment. Don’t worry about carbs, gluten, or strange meats. Allow the artist and the team to work, and I swear you will be dazzled.

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The server opens a bottle of Lanson Rose Champaign to begin the meal, presented with delicate slices of tuna belly over lemon puree. It’s esthetically beautiful. My soul is at peace. The seaweed sorbet that rests over a salad of grilled octopus and garlic melts slowly as I taste Domaine Daulny Sancerre, a classic expression of Sauvignon Blanc from France. In the 4th course, and in true abandonment, I delight in my first taste of sweetbread, prepared alongside game bird from South Africa, and paired with Merry Edwards pinot noir. A final course of antelope and rustic assortment of mushroom and pickled beat is the last savory note, accompanied by Hendry cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley.

Not to be outdone, pastry chef Andrea Correa presents a deconstructed cherry pie and pistachio crumble. The cherries are in season and burst with each bite. I contemplate the meal in its entirety—California cuisine with unexpected global notes mixed with exciting techniques used to amaze taste and presentation. I leave happy and full, rested and lively after good conversation and extremely professional service.

Outside, the white and polished exterior of the luxury hotel hints at a San Francisco I will never know—the architecture belonging to days long since passed, repurposed by the Ritz Carlton to start something brand new. An eager bellboy asks me where I’m headed. And as the door to a black Lincoln Navigator is opened for me, I remember, anything can happen.

“Take me somewhere fun.”

And off I went.





Finding my Spirit

20 01 2014

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

It was Christmas actually, and I wanted to catch some spirit not so easily found at the bottom of…well, you know. San Diego started to feel stale and I was a year older. The cool air from the west made my skin crawl as I contemplated 2013. I felt the horizon closing in, so, I headed east.

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Just the sound of Detroit from my silent Insatgram photo was enough to warrant strange questions from people who find no need to investigate a city that recently announced its bankruptcy. Point taken my friends. But this isn’t about Detroit or what’s broken or damaged in Michigan. Detroit just happened to be were my plane landed—about 30 minutes east of my destination, Ann Arbor. It’s the worst of times for some people in Detroit. For many, their pensions are gone, entire futures missing—the cold, hard reality of a story made of cold, hard American steel. I was just passing through.

I didn’t have to look hard for Yuletide. That’s all over the place this time of year in Ann Arbor. Downtown’s Main Street was decorated in lights and green wreaths to ensure good will towards men or perhaps to encourage boutique shopping. Long scarves—not the decorative kind—were tied-up tight around people’s faces, as hands swung free in mittens and gloves. Intellectual conversations chirped away about city council and various governing bodies responsible for public art commissions.

A short car ride away from Detroit there seems to be no sign of disadvantage, no sign of loss or sadness over things not yet collected. For the townies and students of Ann Arbor, it’s always the best of times. Sure, expect to freeze your ass off in the winter, but what else is new in the Midwest? And what else is there to do when said ass is freezing? Brewery tours, of course.

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Ann Arbor Brewing Company

The Michigan campus employs nearly 60,000 people and educates (presumably) approximately 40,000 students. Campus sits in the middle of everything and includes dozens of satellite locations for particular departments, miles a part from each other, in a spooky, omnipresent kind of way. And betwixt all the busy intersections of academia, world-class museums and North Shore apparel, there is an unbelievable thing happening—some of the most educated and community-minded people I have ever met, are getting hammered and eating some incredible food.

The notion seems counter intuitive that someplace so close to a city nobody wants to visit, might actually be thriving in culinary wonderland—literally, some of the best food I have ever eaten. Something so strange could only mean one thing: I was in the right place.

For example, the complex and Polish, Dill Pickle Soup from Amadeus Restaurant on Washington Street. House-brined grape tomatoes in spiced vinegar from Mani Osteria & Bar on Liberty. Ever hear of something called Lardo? It’s cured fat from the back of a free-range pig and they cut fresh slices to taste at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, world-famous delicatessen. The bounty of fine dining and craft beer and cocktails was ripe for the picking in the dead of winter, and although I had come to recharge my weary spirit, the spirits themselves where enough to take me away. So, away I went.

The butchers at Zingerman's Deli.

The butchers at Zingerman’s Deli.

The talent in Ann Arbor is surprisingly young, cool and way more into sustainable farming than any hipster I’ve ever met in Encinitas. The chefs, farmers, manufactures and brew-ha-has are doing a lot more than talking about what they eat and where it comes from—they’re actually making a difference in the way people consume their food. Walk down Main Street and you won’t see much of corporate America. These restaurants are one of a kind and a result of two important things: the city’s close proximity to major foodie destination, Chi Town, and the steady economic lifeblood pumped by Michigan University.

I sat down with Frank Fejeran, executive chef at The Raven’s Club—one of downtown’s newest additions—to learn a few things about how he ended up in Ann Arbor. Turns out Fejeran trained under Grant Achetz, decorated chef and culinary mad scientist based in Chicago. Coincidentally, Fejeran also worked briefly at 150 Grand in Escondido, Cali., a restaurant from my hometown, before he finally opened up shop in Ann Arbor. We exchanged euphemisms that implied the world is a rather small place to live and laughed at how ridiculous the traffic is the San Diego. Long story short, when the competition gets tough, the young professionals got moving, and many educated and talented people have wound up in smaller towns like Ann Arbor where it’s easier to make a go of things in such tough economic times. Rent is certainly cheaper.

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“Professional” beer tasting at Wolverine State Brewing.

Another thing people in the Midwest seem to be really good at is making beer. San Diego receives accolades for being the mirco-brewing capital of the country. But that doesn’t mean s*** to the people of Ann Arbor. And I’ll bet these corn-fed, bearded worriers could drink any frat-boy from San Diego State under the table with one of the high gravity beers their brewing in old bourbon barrels and wine casks. Seriously. Have you ever had a sour beer? It’s delicious. It’s weird. But it’s good. From light to dark, IPA to stout, there is something for everyone who enjoys a cold glass and good head. Some of the best advice I got from the brew master at Wolverine State Brewing was that everyone can enjoy an IPA, “…if you drink the right one.” I was skeptical, and already buzzed. But even this half-drunk, SoCal stranger found a hoppy friend to call her own. Bells, Two Hearted. If you ever get the chance, drink it.

And if you ever get the chance to eat Cuban food, I mean, really good Cuban food, do that too. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Ann Arbor on this culinary adventure, but I was deliciously surprised not once, but twice, and in two very different food joints. Lena, an art deco, flash-back and cocktail factory, offered up a variety of Cuban confections like Ecuadorian Humitas. Holy corn cakes batman! Lemongrass-tomatoe stew, chimichurri and melted queso fresco? I was literally burning calories as I ate it. For dinner, I ordered a traditional Cuban Sandwich, press-grilled on Avalon Telera bread with smoked ham, braised pork shoulder, manchego cheese, pickles and mustard aioli. Yep. I’m a traditionalist. After a long day of brewery tours, nothing is more satisfying than food without pretense. Nosce te ipsum, sandwich. The Cuban was the perfect accoutrement to my Hot Pepper & Peach Margarita, infused with hot pepper and peach tequila, fresh peach puree—house-made to order, which I did, twice.

The Cuban at Lena.

The Cuban at Lena.

Adding a little celebrity to the  culinary scene in Ann Arbor, is chef Eve Aronoff, a Top Chef contestant and owner of Frita Batidos on West Washington. Casual picnic tables lined the interior, encouraging group dinning and stranger conversations. Blue Ribbon cans in the cooler and real guacamole served alongside seriously addictive Cuban fried plantains was about all it took to make my list. Each picnic table came standard with a set of dominos, so plan on staying a while for happy hour. Hands down, a must eat in Ann Arbor—I tired half a dozen menu items and everything was superbly fried and awesomely terrible for you.

Freelance writing doesn’t pay well. One of the few, if not the only perk to the job, is getting sponsored to travel to obscure places and explore the people, the food—the alcohol—the history, and the amazing things that are happening simultaneously all around the world, all the time; existing regardless of our appreciation or acknowledgment, while we all continue to live our proverbial, self-absorbed lives. I like being a stranger in a strange place—it reminds me to stop being such as a** hole.

A rainbow of colors at Ashley's.

A rainbow of colors at Ashley’s.

If you get full on the fried stuff you can do one of two things. One, go to another brewery and drink light beer. Or two, keep eating, but get the salad. If you need a beer and you feel like mixing in with the 20-somethings, the best place to go is Ashley’s. This is the college go-to joint that sits across from the busiest intersection of campus. It’s old, it’s packed and it’s got more beers on draft than anywhere else in town. They’ve got beers you’ve never heard of and mixed with other beers in ways you didn’t even know where possible. This is where the last week of finals, ends. I had the privilege of sitting down with local beer historian, David Bardallis, to discuss his book, Ann Arbor Beer: The Hoppy History of Tree Town Brewing, to discuss how such an amazing brew scene could go so unjustifiably unnoticed by alcoholics the world over—disregard the inherent problem with that statement. He was a really nice guy and I wish I could remember more of what he said, but we had sampled near 40 beers that day and I was lit up like a Christmas tree. I think the gist of it was, “Cold weather equals drinking beer,” or “Major university plus college students to the power of hops.” Oh yeah, and a lot of German immigration.

Who am I kidding? I didn’t order any freakin’ salads. I was working, okay! For Ann Arbor’s version of Asian fusion a la Midwestern style, seek no further than Melange Bistro & Wine Bar on Main Street. This is where the far east meets steak and potatoes—a fine dining experience set in sexy lounge-style ambiance that makes you want to drink too much and kiss with tongue. I ordered the nachos—duck confit glazed in hoisin and served on a crispy wonton chip. The Duck Nachos were topped with manchego cheese, guacamole, fresh tomato and sriracha sour cream. Don’t worry, I ate them with my pinky up. From steaks to sushi, the menu is a globally influenced symphony of too-hard-to-pick main courses with a unique southeast Asian flare. After informing all of my dinner company that I would require a sample from each of their main course plates, I settled on the Short Rib, flavored with Asian accents and slow braised for 8 hours. Served with a natural braising reduction, yuzu daikon salad and whipped potatoes, I was not sharing. Paired with a glass of Clayhouse Malbec, I practically fell off my chair from sensory euphoria. Quite simply, perfection.

Short Rib at Melange.

Short Rib at Melange.

Small town America is a seductive mistress. Places like Ann Arbor romance the spirit with slow changes like the seasons—a tender leaf segment barely able to cling to the graying tree. Ann Arbor’s like a lot of hip, young cities: Portland, Austin, Asheville and so on—insert mustache and flannel joke here. It’s slow, it’s quirky and the community is fairly integrated economically. The result is more cooperative and less cannibalistic—though arguably there may have been some of that going on 30 minutes away. It remains unconfirmed.

The bad news was that I had fallen in love, again, with a place that discouraged the social  idiosyncrasies I dislike about southern California. Travel has that effect on me. The good news was that I had collected my sanity in an otherwise crazy time of year. I had gained some perspective on things—a real Christmas miracle. After my week in Ann Arbor, I was ready to go home and crawl back into my self-absorbed sand castle, this time a little wiser, a little happier to not live in a place that snows. And like all the amazing things happening in Ann Arbor, culinary or otherwise, this trip was a clear reminder that I set the table for myself each and every day. Somewhere, it’s the best of times. Somewhere else, it’s Detroit. The nice thing is that we all get to decide for ourselves.

Stay strange Ann Arbor.





A Little Bit Country

19 04 2013

It was Easter and I needed little travel-size bottles of Shampoo and toothpaste. The only store open on this particular Sunday was Walmart, a place I like to avoid most of the time due to crowded parking lots and the wild abundance of spandex. With my basket full of useless but adorable toiletries, I unloaded the loot to checkout.

“You must be going on a trip somewhere,” said Jodi, the pleasant Walmart associate. “Where are you going?” she asked politely.

Just as soon as Texas escaped from my lips, the gal behind me pipes up with, “I’m sorry!”

Confused, I look around to make sure she hasn’t offended anyone before I reply. I didn’t feel like starting any Walmart turf wars over something so stupid.

“You don’t like Texas?” I queried.

“Never been there. But who the heck would want to go anyways?” she asked rhetorically.

“Where are you vacationing in Texas?” asked Jodi.

“Fredericksburg. And it’s not a vacation. I’m working.”

I had never been to Texas, or anywhere particularly close to the South—though Texas is arguably large enough to occupy both northern and southern proclivities while still holding the same gun. I’ll also admit that growing up in California there does exist an unexamined prejudice towards Texas. It’s probably the same prejudice the woman in Walmart was expressing—the kind of chitchat that people use to relate to each other based on lack of experience and not any particular evidence. People do this all the time, but in my travels I’ve learned to curb my pubic opinions on culture, especially when that culture could beat the s*** out of me.

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In the spring, these Blue Bonnet wild flowers cover the hill country.

Fredericksburg has a population of just fewer than 13,000 people. “The Hill Country” is what the locals call it, because it rises significantly in elevation about an hour north of San Antonio and 70 miles west of Austin. To me it looked flat, but one woman’s rolling hillside is another woman’s steep mountain terrain and I had come to Fredericksburg to figure it out.

Germany and Texas are an unlikely pair, but in Fredericksburg a heritage of German immigration is proudly displayed on windows, street signs and a determined effort to protect this history from being swallowed-up by American homogeneity.

In the early 1900’s German was the most common language spoken in Fredericksburg. Originally a Spanish territory, Mexico controlled the territory until a majority sought emancipation for slaves circa 1824. This pissed off a bunch of crazy slave owners but to no avail. The result was a new republic and Sam Houston became the first president of the Republic of Texas. He favored the idea of annexation to the United States, which didn’t actually happen until 1845, when Texas became the 28th state incorporated into the Union. While all of this crazy s*** was going on, there was a mass movement of Germans to the south and central regions of Texas. Many of these Germans came thinking they would take root in the Republic of Texas, but leave it to a bunch of crazy white people to mess that up.

 “Sorry German farmers. You’re all Americans now!”

Moreover, safe passage, farm land and the dream of a better life were all promises that some German quasi-company sold to these down-trodden German families in the late 1920’s—families that paid about $300 to board a boat for 2 months, get smallpox, and head for the new world.

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Bad-ass Texans in Luckenbach Texas, a famous dance hall and debauchery destination.

Bottom line, these German immigrants were total bada** motherf******. They were fighting off crazy Comanche indian attacks, disease, unpredictable weather and several unfulfilled promises—the amount of land they had been promised was dramatically exaggerated, and what land they did receive, they had no idea how to use. Thanks to some Mormon folks living around the corner, they learned enough to get through some really bad storms and survive through enough seasons to start developing a little town that would later become home to just under 13,000 people. Incredible.

History is so boring when it’s laid out like this. I hate linear paths and I think most people do too, which is exactly why people have to go to Fredericksburg to understand why—especially if you’re from California—you should learn to hold your tongue inside a Walmart.

Here are some things I would recommend in the “The Hill Country”:

Wine Tasting

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Prepare to make a day of the 290 Wine Road, and prepare to have someone else drive your ass home.

If you’re a lover of the grapes, Texas is boasting one of the fastest growing wine industries in the county. Today there are over 300 wineries producing Texas wine, which reflect many of the same complex flavors found in the Mediterranean or other vines that grow at this longitude. Fredericksburg is home to dozens of unique tasting rooms and several very large wineries off the famous 290 Wine Road, including Becker, Grape Creek, Rancho Ponte and too many others to list.

Napa Valley draws all kinds of attention for its prestige and sophisticated pallet, but Texas Tuscany is a more relaxed and comfortable experience. The growers, owners and families within these vineyards can be seen walking about the facilities, talking with customers—sharing stories about last year’s harvest. And while each winery offers a unique tasting experience you can bet that you’ll leave having learned something new from knowledgeable and the most hospitable wine pourers you’ve ever met.

My personal favorite was the Becker Vineyard, which had an amazing farmhouses and special event venues that would be perfect for weddings, corporate meetings or my 27th birthday party. Try a bottle of the Raven, for about $40 this concentration with essences of chocolate, toffee, dates, and espresso is a blend of malbec and petit verdot. I have no idea what that means but I’m planning an entire meal around the bottle I brought home with me—grilled pork chops with a raspberry and chipotle compote I scored from Fischer & Wieser, a famous canner of all things worth pickling, saucing or jamming. Sown and reaped in Fredericksburg, the Fischer & Wieser brand is so successful that you can find some of their products at CostCo—not so small town, is it?

I met the owner of the jelly company, who was a crackled old German man who told me nobody in town liked him. I liked him instantly for being so honest and wanted to know more. We talked mostly politics and infrastructure and how annoying it is when society doesn’t listen to you even when you have ideas that will change the course of the world. He had just returned from Germany and said he was jet-lagged and apologized for his political speech. I told him I would vote for him if her ever went out for County Judge again—a position he held many years ago.

 Museums and History 

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Command central during the Vietnam War.

The National Museum of the Pacific War is incredible. The only Japanese midget submarine still intact from Pearl Harbor lives under this roof. There are audio histories that can only be heard at the museum as well and letters from troops to their mothers that can be read clearly from beautiful and well-lit cases. The tickets are good for 48 hours and that’s a huge benefit to guests—one could easily spend days looking at all of the information, artifacts and priceless treasures from WWII. The Nimitz Museum is also one-of- a-kind in Fredericksburg. The late Navy Admiral was born and raised in “The Hill Country” and the town is damn proud of it.

Another major attraction is Lyndon B. Johnson’s Ranch in the LBJ National Historic Park and the Texas White House. When Ladybird Johnson died a few years ago in 2007, the Ranch home and its hundreds of acres were donated to the National Park Services. Only recently has the public been allowed to tour the former home of President Johnson and experience the incredible life story that is woven into the earth there. The president’s entire life cycle can be traced in this single experience. The foundation of his birth home is still present along with the original schoolhouse he walked to as a young boy. The home he raised his family in and commanded the American Armed forces is completely persevered as it was in the 1970’s. The original beds, chairs, televisions, phones, family photos—everything eerily stands still in time and guests are now allowed to tour this home and experience the still country mist of this presidential history. My personal favorite was the Johnson’s dual closet, which had not been moved or touched by anyone, including the first lady, after Johnson’s death in 1973.

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Original artifacts from the war make way for silence and strange reflections of a past that I never lived.

When I’m in San Diego, around my people, my places, my things, nothing surprises me. Everything is predictable, comfortable, and easier to generalize than people who shop at Walmart. It’s so predictable that perhaps sometimes—myself included—we pretend to understand things outside of this common sphere, and it’s the things we think we know—the people or places we like to pretend to understand from afar, that often are the most surprising, the most beautiful, the most unexpectedly fun.

So please, the next time you’re in Walmart, buy your useless toiletries and shut the hell up. Because we’re all a little bit country whether we know it or not. Texas is enormous, and at some point all of our histories cross. You don’t have to believe in the right to bear arms to appreciate the great things happening in the Lone Star State, but you do have to leave California.





Leave It To Portland

28 08 2012

Since I started working in San Diego I have been obsessively trying to mold myself into a business women the only way I know how: working insane hours for little pay, neglecting my social life and buying all of my work attire at Express. I knew I needed to switch gears and get out of my mind for a while so I decided to go where nobody knows how to dress like a business woman, Portland, Oregon.

Portland is the place young people go to retire. It’s pedestrian and creatively weird. Nobody cares if you wear makeup or how much money you make because in Portland people actually talk to each other, which means you had better have something to say about the social injustice article in last week’s Mercury. Their neighborhoods look like the streets parents talk about growing up on, safe and quite and sweet.

People drink beers on patio sidewalks and listen to street musicians that look like Kurt Cobain. It’s not for everyone but for this tired pony, it was everything. I drove up the I-5 and caught up with friends in Seattle, another hip spot, separated by the wealth that circulates in the IT industry. I think every person I met in Seattle worked for Microsoft.

My trip to Portland and drive through Seattle was a grand week of beer tasting, food indulging and unadulterated hipster style, exactly what I needed to realize the following things.

I am never going to write a literary work that changes the world, solves a problem or is used in a college class to discuss literary genius. It’s just not going to happen. I can see by the last few posts that melodrama looks about as good on me as a hot-pink string bikini. It’s really very simple, when I’m happy, my writing is better and I see more traffic on this site. Most of that traffic is my mother looking for errors and poor spelling but also, so she can text me at 11:20pm and say something like:

Do U have 2 say fuck so many timz lamb-chop? :/

To which I reply:

Fuck-yeah, mom! : )

This trip to the Pacific northwest allowed me to remember what I love writing about: People in places – particularly myself, but other people too. I have been so consumed by my attempts at looking like I belong in a black Express suit that I have lost my voice altogether. My perspective in San Diego is nearsighted. Everything up close is stressing me out because it’s all I can see.

In the foreground is a beautiful, diverse, crazy-big planet covered in rock and water and it’s fucking flying in ellipsis through an endless black void – I don’t want to debate if the universe is expanding or not, so just go with it. I know who Steven Hawking is, alright! And compared to the shit going on out there, my life is as about as uncomfortable as a brown leather La-Z-Boy.  So, thank you Portland, for being a hot metaphorical shot of heroin to my brain and waking me up from this comatose I’ve been in for the last 8 months. I didn’t actually do heroin while I was there, but the 90’s are alive and well in Portland.

On another evening, while drinking Rudy draft beer (subtle hint of apricot, very good) I decided I should be writing more humor.

Guy in baseball hat: You’re a lot of fun, really upbeat. I like that.

Me, between sips of my beer: Yeah. Life’s too short. To be. Downbeat.

I didn’t realize what I was saying until I said it and you know what? I’m fucking right! It is too short to be crying over spilled milk, bad haircuts, and dead hamsters, lost shoes, or being broke. The only thing crying is good for is making people uncomfortable that don’t like crying.

Dictionary.com says:

Upbeat

adjective: it’s nice to read an upbeat story for a change: optimistic, cheerful, cheery,positive, confident, hopeful, sanguine, bullish, buoyant, gung-ho.

It’s true; I am surprisingly buoyant in water, especially in a string bikini. I haven’t felt gung-ho or sanguine (who has ever used that word before?) in a long time. Case-in-point, My Personal Apocalypse. I’ve been more or less blarrug. That’s a word I just made up to describe my personal denial, irreverence for being an adult and getting a 9-5 job and extraordinary talent at hiding all of this from the world. It was very important that a stranger remind me that under all of my Hemingway inspired melodrama I’m actually fun to be around.

Happiness is not something that passively happens to people, well, at least not writers. It’s something I have to work at, and a huge part of achieving it means finding a space both internally and externally that facilitates a desire to be myself and feel accepted. I don’t think moving to Seattle, growing a mustache and dating a bearded lumberjack named Chandler is going to make me happy. But leave it to apricot flavored beer and a week away from my boss to reveal the simple truth that something isn’t working for me in San Diego.

And that leads me to my final drug induced realization: My ego is enormous, and not in a way that makes me pretentious or rude (well, we all have our moments.) It’s in a way that’s limiting only to me. I am so worried about appearances that I often won’t make risky but potentially awesome decisions because I am afraid of social, financial or emotional chaos.

Perfect example:

I drive a beautiful 68′ Mercury Cougar (how hip of me!) It’s the only car I’ve ever owned and I love it like a family member. I refuse to let her go so that I may purchase a more practical and economically feasible car because I am convinced that Edith is part of who I am. Driving that car has contributed to several developing aspects of my personality. I have learned patience in mechanical failure, how to change oil and I have street-cred in my city because she sounds like a bat-out-of-hell. It makes me tough and cool and different. While I’m sweating my balls off in the summer on black leather seats and no air conditioning, people pass in Prius’ often smiling and waving at me like there’s a huge golden retriever named Rex hanging out of the window. Driving in the car with a very happy dog means the whole world smiles with you. My car is like riding inside a happy golden retriever named Rex. It makes people smile and I like that. But it also makes people flash gang signs on occasion. Those I don’t like as much, unless the guy is hot.

Wes-side!

In Southern California this ego-bulimia is an epidemic. For a lot of us it’s just easier to shut-up and deep-throat all the dumb shit we have to put up with in business, finances and relationships, but never-ever good food, that will make us fat. I feel stronger than ever that I’m not deep-throating anything that doesn’t return the favor.

I have this weird fantasy now of moving to Seattle and becoming queen of the hipsters! One Hipster to rule them all! I would wear Ray-Ban sunglasses and not wash my hair everyday and only wear red lipstick and I would develop some weird special dietary need like being a vegan.

 

I guess that was another revelation.

I’m a total hipster.





Feliz Navidad: Catching the Spirit in Mexico

13 12 2011

Nothing says Christmas in southern California, like a visit to Mexico. You’re reminded of the spirit of giving because most of the people there live well below the poverty line, so you can’t but accept humility and appreciate everything you have that’s separated by the iron wall cutting through the natural beauty of the Pacific Coast. Crossing into Tijuana, my cell phone lost signal faster than the drug cartels push a kilo of coke. Which is pretty fast I hear. My best friend advised me that driving down to some remote spot between Ensenada and Rosarito was not a good idea. She reminded me that there have been repeated stories of violence and gang warfare all throughout Mexico for the past decade. But where she saw an intimidating and potentially life threatening experience, I saw a chance to embrace my perpetual masochism, and get my third world country on. This certainly wasn’t the first time.

There are several ways to tempt death in Mexico. Driving is a huge one, people down there don’t give a damn if you have insurance. Eating the food. Sanitation standards are different if not nonexistent. Drinking the water is not advised so I stick to beer, which might lead to the ingestion of small amounts of rust, or other carcinogenic impurities because they reuse glass bottles and don’t clean them. And then there’s the police force, who are bent, twisted mo-fo’s that’ll take you for everything you’re worth. Useful tip: keep an extra forty bucks in your shoe. So whether you buy useless trinkets from an eight-year-old peddling the street, or you’re forced to give a cop everything you have, the spirit is all around you in Mexico.

But I’m not an idiot. I would never go to Mexico by myself, or with a group of white people. Instead, I went with three Mexicans. If you don’t have any Mexican friends I recommend that you get some or at least hire some for the trip, it makes life a lot easier and you’re in for a good time. Mexican people love to socialize over long meals and exponential drinking.

We played chicken a few times with oncoming traffic, escaped collision by mere inches. We rolled past check points where soldiers stood at the ready with semi-automatic weapons, loaded or not, they made you stare. And about an hour after we crossed the border, we crept slowly down the dirt road that lead to our destination, a seaside spot that felt like a secret.

The view was spectacular, tide pools framed in black rocks lead our eyes out to sea, the sun slowly setting into a dark wall of clouds sitting on the horizon. A man in the distance was scouring the rocks for muscles or clams. The sun, on fire, echoed the heat coming off a green chili and shrimp dish that I pretended wasn’t so spicy. We drank with the waiter, who was probably underage, and told embarrassing stories about each other. The sun went down and we all stopped.

It’s moments like these, when the world seems to stop spinning, that I feel the happiest. I love the ocean because it’s a natural reminder of how small we are. Waves crashing onto rocks supposes a metaphorical perspective. A cleansing of the old, and hope for the future. It’s something you feel, not something you can ever know. This is what the season is all about. So forget the gifts, tell the people you care about, that you care about them. Make some Mexican friends and go to Mexico.

Happy Holidays everyone. I wish you love and beautiful sunsets.





Homecoming

30 10 2011

The older I get the more I hate popular idioms. Mostly because people use them when they have nothing thoughtful to say, and they tend to stay with you for while. And this week, my first week home, I found myself repeating some useless advice in my head: Home is where the heart is. And I have no idea why I kept saying it. Maybe because somehow, I thought if I repeated it enough I might find some resolution to the way I am feeling.

I feel like I have been living out of a suitcase for the past fifteen months. I’ve unloaded a lot possessions along the way and it feels amazing to be so light. I packed for three weeks of European travel in about fifteen minutes. But what is weighing me down is this transient shift battling against my former, very anchored, habitual self. I get the sense that most people enjoy some level of stability or permanency; a sense of what is to come, at least an idea of how to speculate ones future. But when you barely have an address, when you pick up three different coin currencies off the bottom of the washing machine, look at them in your hand, you start to wonder: what am I doing? And if and when you figure it out, you wonder even more if you made the right decision.

I was lost. Somewhere between jobs, between countries, between thoughts on what I was going to do next. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could miss home when they’re touring through one of the most beautiful places on the planet: the French Riviera is beautiful. But somehow, while walking past the grand fountains in front of the infamous Monte Carlo Casino, I realized, I had no idea where I was. A ride along the Amalfi Coast is said to be a religious experience, but I wasn’t looking for God. I was thinking about home-whatever that means, my future, my past, and from time to time flirting with my super hot Italian cab driver, Antonio Sabato.

Missing home when you’re traveling is common I suppose; a natural reaction to stress, the unfamiliar. But when you finally make it back, wherever you came from, will it feel like home? Can we look into the faces of the people we love and expect the same kind of understanding that we learned to discover in ourselves? I think to some extent we can, but for anyone who has ever gone solo, attempted to question the fabric of their comfort, returning home feels less like returning and more like an invasion on static memories that have been in motion the whole time you were gone. Do I fit in here? Home hasn’t made sense to me for a long time, I left home because I didn’t understand it then. And in my search for clarity, I found more confusion. The more you learn about something the more you realize you know nothing about it at all. So more confused than ever, I’m in southern California looking for full-time work in a highly competitive field, and questioning the whole damn thing. I feel weird in a familiar place.

But you know what they say, time heals all wounds. That’s the annoying thing about idioms, they mean different things to different people. This is a common take: Home is a place where regardless of its make-up, feels good, feels the best to whoever has made it a home. It doesn’t mean you live with your family or friends, it’s simply the place or the people who you love to be around because it makes you the happiest. And I guess that’s why I feel so bothered by the whole notion. My heart doesn’t feel like it belongs anywhere in particular. I think I left a big piece of it in Korea. I definitely gave some of it up in Barcelona and Italy. And I feel like I have so much more of it to give, that it’s terrifying to think of it locked up inside a home. I’ve never been more scared in my whole life. Not even when I thought I was going to die in Vietnam from anaphylaxis shock. So after repeating the phrase a million times this week, wondering if there was some mystical power that would emerge from its intrinsic nature, I realized: I need to be a house.





Don’t Stop and Never Run

21 09 2011

Part VI: The gypsy

I like to shower twice a day. And I’m okay with that.

I woke up to sunlight and rice patty fields. It was morning. We were alive and as far as I could tell I didn’t have lice. Somehow I had fallen asleep with my head in my lap. My butt was asleep and my back hurt. Are we close? We stopped to go to the bathroom and stretch our legs. It was 8:00 a.m. and from  near-by conversation I gathered only about an hour or so away from Nha Trang. Anxious, time passed quickly as the scenery unfolded. Slowly, we crept down the side of a mountain covered in green jungle. To the east, an unobstructed horizon of ocean, gray with mist. A black water buffalo pulled a man driving a broken wagon; following the road down into a marina of torn and  faded fishing boats. We had arrived.

Mike and I were exhausted. It was plain to see on both our faces. I had been extra weight the whole night, and we were both getting sick of this tedious pace. The sleeper bus catastrophe mixed with the final bits of medicated delirium still working its way out of my system, were pushing us towards a schism.

We were sitting across from each other, bowls of pho steaming up my sunglasses. It was breakfast time and I was in the mood for a fight. Before our trip, Mike had gone through an emotional break up. But while adventuring through Vietnam, he had expressed some revelations about his feelings, and was determined to confide in her face-to-face today at the airport in Nha Trang; a meeting that seemed romantic and coincidental, but wasn’t. Shut up Mike. He had been practicing his lines over and over. I’m really over hearing about this Mike. Justifying his mistakes and calculating his comeback. Mike, I’m not sure this is a good idea. Like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, there would be Italian opera, and doves would fly. His mind painted pictures of grandeur that made me want to vomit. SHUT THE FUCK UP MIKE! I lost it. I need some space. I needed some time to myself. I told Mike I would find him in two days, and we would go from there. What are you going to do? At that point I had no idea, but I looked out at the crystal blue water and had a good feeling that I would be fine.

Alone in a bed, I slept the most glorious sleep of all sleeps. I splurged a bit on the room, but I didn’t care sprawled out on the king bed of cool cotton sheets. I turned the air-conditioning down so low I asked for more blankets. Yes. This is vacation. It was night when I woke up. The streets looked less crowded from the 14th floor window. I wandered through the neighborhood lit up in neon lights, cracking and buzzing, flickering on and off. It was raining, but it was so hot that nothing was wet. I had no idea what day it was or what time of evening, I just walked until I got hungry, sat down at a cafe and ordered an espresso. The hot sting of caffeine felt good. I listened to some French men on the patio speak the romance language, as the rain kept coming down. I wrote in my journal, listened to some music and paid my bill. I bought some ice cream around the corner and tried to eat it before it melted all over my hand. This was my pace.

Sometime the next day, after sunning too much on the beach and shopping, the phone rang in my room. Come have coffee with us. Feeling fixed for company, I was all for it and bounced down to the lobby ready for the beach. Romeo and Juliet were downstairs with someone I didn’t know. A young Vietnamese/American man who spoke natively, and had been gypsie-ing around Vietnam for almost a year, pausing the last few months to call Nha Trang home; Juliet apparently had a friend in Vietnam. I enjoyed him right away. He was well-traveled and educated, on the edge of being a hipster, but without the Rayban sunglasses and meaningless tattoos. He’s so pretentious. Mike didn’t care for him, but I was sure that had more to do with Mike’s romantic rendezvous including another set of balls.  Or maybe the doves didn’t show up. I don’t know. Over coffee and cigarettes the four of us exchanged funny tales of travel, taking in the beautiful scene from a garden table.

The gypsy promised us an authentic Vietnamese dining experience, so again we braved from sidewalk to sidewalk. Don’t stop, and never run. Huh? That’s how you should cross the street. He said it so matter-of-fact that I was almost insulted. But the gypsy is an experienced backpacker and knows what he was talking about. It worked. All of a sudden the stream of motor bikes didn’t seem so intimidating. I watched him and pretended to have the same confidence in my flip-flops. He was right. I thought this trick was spectacular. Mike was rolling his eyes.

We moved up a tight alley and stopped at a busy corner. An old washing drum had been transformed into a fire pit under a chicken-wire  grill. Now we’re talking. Rocky shell-fish was poured onto the flames peaking up thought the wire, snapping and cracking the sand and weeds from the clams, muscles, and snails. Dry and wet seasoning buckets were scattered about the sidewalk while a quick-handed old man artfully pinched out just the right amount onto the steaming meat. The smell of smoke mixed with salts, garlic and fresh-cut lemon grass meant one thing: this was going to be good. We sat around a small platsic-tea-party-table, Mike’s legs almost to his chest, and waited for our first course while we enjoyed a cool, sweet beverage made from seaweed. Intimidating in dark green, the gypsy said it was a health staple for locals and a popular dinner drink. It definitely tasted healthy, I’ll give him that. An old woman placed a bucket under our table and dinner was served. Small plastic plates covered in newspaper soaked up the runny juices and flavored oils spilling out the shell beds. Grilled muscles and oysters on the half shell, delicately dusted with crushed cashew and green onion. I burnt my lip a little as I sucked one down. Fantastic. It had the simple taste of ocean that all shell-fish possess, but rarely keep after freezing, or over-saucing. The lemon grass, oil, and garlic covering the clams and mussels was amazing, clearly from the hand of a cook who had been doing this a very long time. Next, sea snails served in a bowl of warm coconut milk. The trick is to suck it out really fast, and really hard. The sun was going down behind the buildings. Our bucket was getting full.  We ate and laughed,  savoring a truly unforgettable meal.

Nha Trang is gorgeous through and through; it penetrates with a gritty vibe of  lazy beach living. Time is lost under warm waves of ocean, the sun and tide a useful reminder to put on more sunscreen. It’s a beauty that teaches you to tell time with your body and not through the electronic extensions that define our modern time. Sleep when you’re tired. Eat when you’re hungry. Get wet when you’re hot. After the first night I thought: I could stay here forever. But I knew that wasn’t true. I could never be like the gypsy. As romantic as the idea sounded, I could never go long periods of time without work, without order or routine. I’m a creature of habit, not one of vicarious adventures on sleeper busses. I don’t need designer hand bags, but I like to shower twice a day, and I’m okay with that. Our adventure in Vietnam was coming to a close. Mike and I had seen some amazing places, faced relative uncertainty, and met wonderful people in the mix of disaster. The hectic race down the coast of Vietnam finally silenced by the stillness of Nha Trang; the timeless experience of sharing a slow meal, watching the sunset, smiling with strangers, and in the most simple way of expressing: just being alive. We run because it feels safer than looking around to consider where we are. We miss moments between the places or things we run to. Miss it all because we were so sure the grass would be greener in Nha Trang. And sometimes it is. Sometimes when we get there it’s everything you thought it would be. But likely, we soon find ourselves running off again, looking for something that keeps us moving all the time. And we can’t stop.

The gypsy had one more trick up his sleeve. We are going to a party. Where? On the beach. The night was cool in breeze, stars out in purple sky. Tall palms swayed in a seductive motion towards the shore. A huge white canopy had been erected like a circus tent over a large circle of beach, connecting a bar from the street down a dark path to a crowd of people dancing barefoot in the sand. It was like zion had moved off the hill and taken three hits of ecstasy; if God is a DJ, He was throwing this party. The tent glowed purple in black lights while colored beams of all kinds shot across the night air, arms reaching up, down tempo to an electro/house beat. There was only one problem. Mike and I had to catch a train to Ho Chi Mihn city at 7:00 a.m.. We both knew there was only one thing to do, and it started with a bucket of Long Island Ice Tea. Romeo and Juliet grabbed at each other playfully, while I toasted the gypsy to a wonderful evening. The four of us danced on the beach flipping up fans of sand. Mike put his arm around me and we smiled, laughing about our argument the day before. We raised our glasses. Well, at least we can sleep on the train. I laughed and pushed him to dance. Tomorrow could wait, right now all I could think about was how awesome it was that they were playing Daft Punk.

 

 

 

Dedicated to Michael Peterson. Thank you.





Don’t Stop and Never Run

29 08 2011

Part V: Sleeper Bus

I kept telling myself that this would be really funny someday.

The day we left Da Nang, all of my nervous hallucinations came to fruition. The road to Nha Trang was through the countryside, a dirt road with green jungle on both sides; uneven, steep, dark and, scary. Besides the rusty train tracks that connect the north and south, Vietnam lacks a comprehensive system of direct roadways into dozens of cities. But I had done a great bit of reading about traveling down the coast of Vietnam and was confident that an overnight sleeping bus would be perfect for getting us to Nha Trang. We could spend all day in Da Nang, sleep on the bus for 12 hours and wake up refreshed and ready to explore. How easy this sounded in my head.

The woman at the station was apathetic to our appointment, and didn’t see any problem with us waiting until the following day to travel to Nha Trang. But Mike was determined. He had been pining all week over his ex-girlfriend who was due to arrive in Nha Trang the same day, so the plan was to be there when she arrived and sweep her off her feet. I supported his effort, but his romantic idealism made me want to kill myself. Fortunately I was still high as a kite from taking excessive amounts of  my perception, so I wasn’t in any position to attempt and achieve a successful suicide. A few phone calls later the woman smiled, satisfied with a solution to what Mike was now regarding a problem of national importance. She said a van was on its way, and that the van would take us to the neighboring city of Hoi An, where we could catch a sleeper bus headed for Nha  Trang. Fine. Mike was restless, pacing back and forth, anxious to get to his princess. I was sitting in a chair sweating, staring at a wall, fading in and out of consciousness. I don’t remember the drive into Hoi An.

As soon as I fell out of the van I knew something was horribly wrong. About 30 foreigners speaking in languages from all over the world were spilling out of the booking office. They looked exhausted, falling over their bags, sitting and sleeping on each other. A family with two young children sat close to the desk of the operator, the mother fanning herself and son with a magazine. How long had they been here? By now it was well into the evening, and it was clear we were going to be late. The people in the office offered little consolation. When is the bus coming? Soon, very soon. But when? Soon. I didn’t know where we were, or how long we would be there, so Mike decided-for both of us-to get some dinner. The cafe food was boring and over-priced. The appeal might have been the free WiFi or western nuance, but as I fidgeted over my rice and vegetables, I couldn’t help but wish he had eaten across the street, on the little-plastic-tea-party-tables, lined in front of an outdoor kitchen where I knew the pho was being prepared by a women who didn’t care at all about presumptuous smears of sauce across a plate. Is this ketchup? Probably no WiFi, but I’m easy to please.

As the night wore on, we were making friends with people who like us, had been duped by this travel agency. But unlike us, most of these backpackers had been in Vietnam for sometime and were planning on staying. Two icy girls from France were taking a month-long holiday through the country, which put into perspective-yet again, how absurdly ambitions our itinerary was. But we had come this far, and I wasn’t about to give up just because some French girl in floral cotton pants and Keds was making me feel like a jerk for trying to keep a schedule. But our schedule was beginning to feel pointless, so at about 9:00 p.m. and after a handful of  blue and white pills,  I resolved to be content with the evening, however it went down. We would eventually leave, eventually arrive, and I would be fine; I was already starting to feel better. The medicine was working. From the booking office we boarded two small buses with our new friends and headed to yet another location where supposedly the large sleeper bus was waiting. To my surprise there it was, a double-decker, parked and waiting like an oasis in the desert. My backpack suddenly felt less heavy. After 7 hours of waiting around, we were finally on our way.

The sleeper bus is a unique experience; one I hope to never have again. It smells like hot vinyl and plastic, the ball pit at a Mc Donalds more specifically, and probably just as unsanitary. Down the length of the bus were two very slim isles that separated three rows of bunk beds. The beds are shorter than an adults average height and slant up so that the legs of one person fit under another persons back and head. They are padded like examination tables at a hospital and have the same cold quality. Each bed is set with a blanket and a pillow. Instantly I started telling myself that someday this would be really funny; that someday I would tell my children that I had been a badass in my youth and traveled via slave bus through Vietcong jungles and lived despite a brush with pubic lice and ring worm. But in this moment, I was terrified. I sat down on the bed and looked to my right where an old Vietnamese man was nestled tightly beside me. Hello. Behind me the French girl was wrapping herself in a lightweight sleeping bag, something I’m sure experienced backpackers carry with them. This French girl was really starting to piss me off. I was exhausted, so  instead of  freaking out, I decided to try to relax and make the most of a weird situation. The old man next to me was breathing hard and I could feel it on my neck. Yes. This will be hilarious. Televisions flipped down and played Vietnamese music videos. How do people sleep with these on? I looked at the French girl now reading a book with a light clipped to the hard cover. I really don’t like her. Sometime in the middle of the night I fell asleep.

What’s going on? I had no idea what time it was. It was still pitch black which meant that we hadn’t gone far and that I was still tired. We were on the side of the road somewhere down a straight dirt path with no lights. They were dumping our bags out from under the bus. What time is it? It was 3:00 a.m. and the bus driver was informing us that we needed to wait at this location for another bus that would be coming through to take us the rest of the way. I was so tired and beyond frustration that nothing could surprise or upset me at this point. Whatever. The bus pulled away, and me and about 28 other people were on the side of the road waiting, again. Waiting to live, waiting to die, I had no idea.

And then things got worse. Twenty minutes later, instead of a sleeper bus, two vans rolled up. No fucking way. We still had 8 hours of road to lay down. The men were explaining to us that there wasn’t going to be a sleeper bus to Nha Trang. This was our bus, two small vans that probably could fit 12 people comfortably if they weren’t also carrying backpacks and other luggage. We were 28 people and 28 bags. No way. Even if we could all fit, how were we supposed to endure 8 hours of rough terrain. I shouldn’t have asked that question. I was in the very back between Mike and a girl from western Europe. My knees were almost to my chest, I scrunched up on bags and held my breath when they tried to slid the van door closed. No way. But they just kept shoving people in, forcing us to double up on seats and share our personal space in ways I never dreamed possible with strangers. Mike was visibly in pain. This is going to be really funny someday.





Don’t Stop and Never Run

24 08 2011

Part III: Dead in the Road

A real life speakeasy!

An hour southeast from the airport we were headed into the famous French Quarter of Hanoi, known for the beautiful landscapes surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake, museums, architectural charm with modern convenience. The closer we got to our destination, the more frequently I held my breath as motor bikes weaved between trucks and cars sharing a narrow dirt road. Our cab driver’s foot was  sporadic and aggressive, but I had no choice but to trust that he had braved these uneven roads many nights before and lived. Then, just as I began to convince myself I wasn’t going to die, I saw a man on a motor bike not twenty feet from my back seat window, fly and land face down in the road, his head smashed, his bike sliding alongside him. Our car slowed to a crawl as we passed him and a large crowd of people staring and snapping pictures of the accident on their phones. I looked away immediately, and closing my eyes I told Mike I had changed my mind: I don’t want to ride on a motor bike anymore.

Admittedly, I know very little about Vietnamese history, and even less about its modern political and cultural conscience.  Having some experience living in a country that’s divided geographically and ideologically, I should have known that northern Vietnam would be distinct from the south, but like so many things on the trip so far, assumptions were becoming somewhat of a novelty.

For one thing, northern Vietnam seemed less friendly, less oriented toward the tourist. The people wore a hardness locked deep in their stares; down right terrifying when holding a semi-automatic weapon. Oh my God! Why is that guy looking at us? The people of Hanoi seemed far more pressed to make a deal, even if it meant lying. I could literally see the lies falling out from the bookies mouth, ripping me off in broad day light. But when you don’t speak the same language, it’s always a slanted conversation. Spoken English is less frequent in the north. In contrast, I was astonished by how fluent many of the people were in the south.

Hanoi’s main attractions were everything you would expect from a Lonely Planet description, but on the fringes it was clear that the city was desperately impoverished. Children ran around with no shoes on selling cigarettes, the elderly were hunched under ripped tarps to escape the sun, all while motor bikes tore through any sense of calm the city had to offer. This is fucking crazy. It was hot, and even as I strolled around the lake, I could feel the tension of people who were barely getting by; confronted with people who come from far away places to take pictures of  Uncle Ho, a political figure whose legacy is arguably the misery the poor in Vietnam suffer.

I became incredibly self-conscience of this economic inequality one afternoon. Lazily walking down a thin bit of road not consumed with motorists, Mike and I were window shopping and taking in the hectic rhythm these people call home. I think everyone who visits a poor foreign country likes to try their hand at a little friendly bargaining; and prices in Vietnam are considerably adjusted to match how much money the merchant could guess you were carrying, so it’s expected that you counter any offer that seems unreasonable. But I think there is an art to this, because the last thing a foreigner should do while traveling as a guest in someone elses country is disrespect a persons livelihood by teetering business power away from the merchant. Mike was going back and forth with a  woman over the price of a pair of Nike flip-flop sandals. He was pretty sure that the price was too high, and also not convinced that sandals had not previously been worn. He refused her set price and began to walk away. She quickly crumbled and called him back. The currency exchange in Vietnam is substantial and difficult to keep track of, especially if you’re like me, horrible with basic arithmetic. So to calculate the figures he busted out his iPhone 4 and slid open an application that converts Vietnam’s dong into U.S. dollars. He finally agreed to a price, paid the woman and walked away victorious. I had to say something. Don’t do that! I couldn’t help but mention that I thought it was crazy that he use a six hundred-dollar phone to determine if this poor woman was nickel and dime-ing him. I think he ended up paying 9 dollars for the sandals.

Another significant difference between the north and the south is the curfew. At about midnight, everything in Hanoi shut down. Windows barred, doors closed, lights off. This was a striking experience having come from Seoul, where literally the city never sleeps. But just like that, we found ourselves walking in the abandoned streets of the French Quarter, hungry and wishing we had bought beer for our hotel room. But as luck would have it, a friend of Mikes was living in Hanoi, and had contacted him through the hotel. She offered to take us out. Out where?

Ducking down under the mechanical gate that covered the front door and windows, we were suddenly inside a lively bar with several foreigners speaking English, mostly with accents from parts of Europe. A real life speakeasy! The lights were low, the music just above a hum, but it was good music; they served mediocre bar food and most importantly, they had beer. We sat in a party of five on a second story loft overlooking the heavy wood bar. I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin from my face as I became completely swept up in my imagination. I contemplated what would happen should we be discovered. I felt like a pirate, an outlaw, soaking in my imaginary rebellion almost as fast as the second round of cold beers. Mike’s friend was a lovely host, she came with company, none of whom can I recall the names of. Exchanging stories of travel and teaching abroad it was an intimate reminder of why I had moved to Korea in the first place: to meet people who had the balls to do something different, who had something to say about the world we live in. When it was time to leave, we slipped out a trap door with more locks on it than I could count. The streets were dead in static mist, still warm from the afternoon. I wanted to take a shower. It had been another long day.





Don’t Stop and Never Run

23 08 2011

Part II: Sanitation is Overrated

This would be good for me: I would train my immune system to withstand third world bacteria.

Motor bikes zipped through intersections, up onto sidewalks, and through alley-ways. Are they honking at me? A friend had warned me about crossing the streets in Vietnam, and within the first 30 seconds of seeing the chaos I understood why. As we dodged, stopped, took two steps forward, one back, and ran our way from sidewalk to sidewalk, I was wondering what else here might exceed my expectations.

Wandering about District 1, known mostly for being the most expensive ward in Ho Chi Minh, we finally came into one of the city’s notable crossings: Ben Thanh Market. There was nothing comfortable about shopping in this fair. People everywhere, pulling and pushing you to buy trinkets and knickknacks of every variety. The air was hot and unfamiliar smells lingered around every pile of souvenir t-shirts. But the bustle was lively, foreigners and local merchants mashed up against each other, shouting prices back and forth in a rise of noise. The make-shift  booths were so packed together I could barely make it through an aisle without my backpack taking down a tower of knock-off sunglasses. Through the maze of fabrics, jewelry, and wood carvings, we finally came to one side of the building that opened  to an outdoor  aquarium. The alley smelled of dead fish and other ocean life still swimming in tubs lined up along the walkway. Small fish, squid, crabs, you name it, where splashing around as men and woman cut and cleaned unidentifiable parts; washing the guts down onto the floor and into the sewer. I saw rats the size of possums ducking in and out of view as I clicked away on my camera. This is awesome! In the adjacent building the same seafood was being prepared in steaming bowls of soup, rolled into rice paper, and layered into fresh baguettes. It was time for lunch.

I’ve always been pretty adventurous when it comes to cuisine, but the adventure in Vietnam surely begins with a lack of sanitation standards. This is not your mother’s kitchen. It doesn’t smell like Lysol and lemon, no one wears gloves, and you feel like an asshole for requesting a napkin. We looked through the dingy plastic display cases for something to strike us, and after a few rounds about the different bar top kitchens, we sat and pointed to our lunch. One bite in, and I quickly stopped caring that the woman behind the counter was washing her dirty dishes in a tub on the floor with water that was cold and questionably without soap. I resolved that this would be good for me: I would train my immune system to withstand third world bacteria. Plus, the earthly sweet spring rolls and peanut sauce were too delicious to stop eating.

For dessert I was immediately drawn to a counter serving what appeared to be hot-pink and acid-green in a glass. What is this?  Though found in other Asian countries, Vietnamese Che is known for being particularly sweet; a blend of coconut milk, molasses, yogurt, and a rainbow of exotic fruit. I was feeling bold and asked for the dreaded durian, a fruit known for its pungent smell and acquired taste. The fruits and preparation vary depending on the season and location. A woman poured and layered her way to the top of the glass.  It was heavenly. The soft fleshy body of the fruit was custard-like, and complimented the crushed pomelo and banana oil. Chilled with shaved ice, the drink looks amateur but has an elegant taste and texture. Refreshing and fun, I was already trying to figure out how I could get these ingredients back in California. I could make a fortune!

Happy and full from our tour through Ben Thanh Market we decided to take a break in a dark, smoke-filled café with free WiFi. This is perhaps one of my favorite things to do while traveling: people watching and getting high on caffeine. And from the tinted panoramic window it was a first-rate show. A young Vietnamese boy was playing with his older brother in front of an electronics store. Used-looking cordless phones, alarm clocks and tape decks were spilling out onto the sidewalk like a 90’s plastic flashback. I think I use to have that CD player. The tanned boy was maybe four or five-years-old and unusually porky. His round cheeks and cherub belly were fun to watch as he ran after his equally porky brother. They threw rocks at each other, garbage from the street. Then, the young boy walked to the edge of the sidewalk, lifted up his shirt, pulled out his penis and pissed into the street, fully exposed while he watched his brother run back and forth. I couldn’t stop laughing as no one seemed to notice or care. Good for him. I’m sure there comes a time in a young man’s life when this type of display becomes inappropriate, but in this moment I was glad to be in a place where children enjoyed such an unusual freedom.

As evening fell, it was time to move. We headed to a domestic terminal where we had a flight to catch into Hanoi. While waiting to pass through security a cockroach the size of a mouse ran onto the floor, scaring the waiting people into a frenzy. Finally, a man with closed-toed shoes kicked it across the room into the other line. Good. It was their problem now. Our flight to Hanoi was delayed, which again sparked my anxiety into flashing images of me panhandling in rags to replace the passport I had lost after being robbed at gun point… under water. After remembering to breath, I decided to count cockroaches while Mike read his book.

About an hour before departure we took seats in the cafeteria and fueled up with some instant noodles. I had my feet up on a chair, hugging my knees and resting up for what I knew would be another long night. I noticed a man eyeing me a few times from across the tables but thought nothing of it. I was sure I looked amazing; fatigue and sweating has that effect on me. Mike went to the bathroom, and the man approached me. You should really get your feet off there. It’s incredibly rude you know. People have to sit there. I was shocked. Not because he said it in English, but because he made me feel like a jerk. And why? What had I done but rest my weary backpacker body! But shock soon turned into anger. I was pissed. How could someone be angry with me for leaning my feet on a chair when there where monster cockroaches about? How dare I? How dare he!  Even though it’s far from the cleanest or most sanitary country, the Vietnamese have serious respect for cleanliness and social grace, at least, the outward appearance of such. Mike came back from the bathroom. Did you wash your hands? No. Why would I?








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