Travel

Searching for Havana: An Ice Cream Parlor, A Dive Bar, and Streets That Stink of Onions

It is a typically rainy night in Havana. Taka and I linger near the doorway, out of the rain, of Hotel Sevilla – one of those grand, colonial buildings that Cuba is known for – as Lori, a smartly-dressed young Cuban woman, asks the doormen to direct us to the dining room. Her friends will be performing opera songs for the dinner crowd this evening.

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We had thought that her asking would be the easiest way, her being a native speaker, a local, and much more respectable looking compared to my and Taka’s look of general haggardness. But the doormen are rude and dismissive towards her. It seems that they only reluctantly admit her to the hotel, the lobby decorated in a fashion fit for nobility; or, in this case, for foreign tourists. (more…)


So Long, Uncle Ho

hanoi lake

Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi.

I know beforehand that there will be a healthy portion of propaganda and I had seen the cult of personality still being pursued by the government, but I feel like I’m missing something at the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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Backpacks in Southern Vietnam

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Cai Rong floating market at sunrise.

Traveling from Cambodia to Vietnam by bus is like going from Three Oaks, Michigan directly to Times Square without everything between. The minibus is packed with a mix of foreigners with their legs crammed against the seats in front of them and locals. We pick up and drop off several people along the way as the bus swims through a sea of motorbikes like a shark through a school of minnows, honking the whole way.

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Brutality and Peace in Cambodia

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A cell at Tuol Sleng Prison, now a museum, previously a school.

Some of their faces show contempt or rage, others fear or an obvious resignation, while other faces are sadly innocent – a few even have smiles. I look at all the photographs they have of former prisoners at the Toul Sleng S21 Prison in Phnom Penh. Every photograph shows a little bit of humanity: the blind emotions of the children that were taken there, the rage of mothers that have just had their child taken from them, the dread of the old men that know they are doomed. All the heinous acts of torture and murder that were committed at this prison under the Khmer Rouge regime are documented.

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You Are Not a Good Photographer

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Inside Angkor Wat at dusk.

It’s pitch black outside but it’s easy to find my way. There’s only one way to go: the same way as the tour buses, vans, and tuk-tuks. It’s before sunrise and we’re headed to Angkor Wat. I arrive by bicycle to the biggest attraction at the Angkor ruins in Cambodia. I had read of people that had seen the sunrise from another ruin so I keep pedaling. After a hundred feet I can’t see my handlebars. I turn back and get a really expensive coffee from the cart out front.

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Pastis and River Dolphins

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Boats and buffaloes along the Mekong River.

I know they’re talking about me, but it doesn’t really matter as long as this is the place for the ferry across the river. I’ve got my mountain bike that I rented from Cambodia Rural Development Team (CRDT – a local non-profit) and after backtracking for a few minutes, I think I’ve found the town of Thom where I can take the ferry across the Mekong river and continue my trip. A group of people is standing around with motorbikes parked on the bank, so I figure this is probably the right place. After a while I become boring as a topic of conversation and people go back to chatting about something else unknown to me.

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Eastern Cambodian Oases

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Dirt roads in Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia.

My skin is red, not from sun, but from dirt. I’m riding through clouds of dust as motorbikes and the occasional truck passes me by, while kids wave to me from the side of the road. I’m on a mountain bike rented from my guesthouse and I’ve been told there are waterfalls around here. With my skin caked in red dirt and the sun beating down I’m having a hard time imagining that there is any water at all in eastern Cambodia.

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Hammocks and Noodle Soup

This is my first experience with the “sleeper bus.” These are double-decker buses with beds intended for sleeping on long rides, like the one I’m taking from Vientiane to Pakse, Laos. The dimensions seem to be designed for your average-sized Asian person, while most of the actual passengers are Westerners. I’m traveling alone and am hoping not to have to share this tiny space with a stranger. The ticket agent must be having a good day, because I am in fact alone in this tiny space curled into a ball so my legs will fit, bumping around and thanking every higher power there is that I’m not spooning with a stranger.

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The Laotian Sun Sets on 2014

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I can think of no better place to show up starving, famished even, than Luang Prabang, Laos. I have been traveling all day, winding up and down green mountains past beautiful scenery, and I’m really hungry. Nighttime in Luang Prabang is a smorgasbord. There are sandwiches on baguettes (the French-colonial vibe), soups, and down an alley of barbeque and buffets one can find anything they desire (of Laotian/Asian cuisine) for less than US$2.

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Inle Lake and Shan State

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The quintessential Inle Lake photograph.

“YOU SEE BIRD” is printed (in English) on a sign next to Inle Lake where there is a bird sanctuary. I laugh to myself but I don’t think anyone else on the boat notices. The five of us have rented a long tail boat for the day, after negotiating with a man who approached us on the streets of Nuangshwe, Myanmar. Hailing from France (2), Australia, Austria, and the USA, we represent three continents as we are driven past fisherman in the middle of the lake, accompanied by tourist snapping photos. Of course, I take a photo, too.

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Noodle Soup and a Few Laughs

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These huts on the banks of the Ayeyarawady River seem a world apart from the steel and concrete buildings constantly under construction in Mandalay.

The pre-colonial capital is overflowing with motorbikes, dust, and construction. The old palace, with its huge moat, sits monumental in the middle of a bustling and mostly monochrome cityscape. Temples and Pagodas stand out from the drab landscape. I find something about Mandalay charming. It’s dirty (though not like Yangon), noisy, and most of the buildings are hideous, but I like it.

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Ruined Temples and Smoking Drinking Spirits

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A monk getting his pose on with a view of Bagan.

I’m on top of an old temple, waiting around for the sunset with a bunch of German and French. About 20 minutes before, I am on top of a different temple, with a bunch of German and French. They are digging in early for the sunset views of Bagan. When the sun finally starts to descend below the hills, I hear the continuous clacking of camera shutters. I take out my camera and take a few shots, realizing that neither the camera nor its operator is capable of capturing a world-class shot of Bagan at sunset. I sit and enjoy instead, the sun’s rays reaching over and between the reddish ruins dotted across the plain.

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Bustle and Dirt and Devout Buddhists by Way of a Bumpy Train Ride

Bago

We waltzed right into this empty monastery full of golden Buddha statues.

My hotel in Mawlamyine arranges for my overnight bus to Yangon (Rangoon). It’s as easy as a phone call and a motorbike ride to the bus station: which is really just a dirt lot with some buses parked in front of a shop. While I wait I’m asked for my ticket several times and am eventually led to a seat in the front of a full bus. It is new, and a screen in the front is showing music videos. I situate myself with my neck pillow and blanket. Even though the bus is nice and the price seems fairly reasonable considering, I will eventually learn in Myanmar that foreigners get charged significantly more. Like hotels, the government requires companies catering to tourists to have a permit, and to charge them more than locals.

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Friends on a Friendship Bridge Roadtripping To a Place Called Mawlamyine

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A pagoda in the hills overlooking Mawlamyine and the Thanwlin River.

The driver is pussyfooting over the bumps in the road, I’ve just found a way to sit so my foot doesn’t go numb, and there is a guy seated in the middle of the two of us contorted in some way that I’m not able to comprehend. I’m trying to cut the guy some slack, crawling down this shitty road, the car packed full of things probably coming from the Thai border, and no lights except from cars. I’ve been traveling all day, and I’m ready to be at my hotel in Mawlamyine (colonial spelling: Moulmein).
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Lots of Sites, Little Excitement in Thailand

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I decide to skip a few tourist attractions in Bangkok.

“Nothing to see here,” I’m told by the owner of Jenny’s restaurant in the same alley as my Bangkok hostel. I don’t have high expectations but to hear from a local that I should not spend much time in Bangkok is a bit of a kick. My hostel is near but not too near the infamous Khao San Road. There you will find backpackers walking the streets with beers, men aggressively soliciting tailored suits, bars that serve pizza and margaritas, pad thai served from street carts, and just a large mess in general. It’s hard to believe that anyone would want to stay on this street, let alone spend any more than a few minutes on it.

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Contraband Whiskey, a Late Train, and Satellite Dishes

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A provincial train station along the way.

I am in the Thai border town of Pedang Besar, having crossed over from Pedang Besar, Malaysia. I’ve been directed down the road by a police officer to catch the bus to Hat Yai. As I’m walking past a large covered platform accommodating three large women, one of them asks, “Where you going?” I tell them and am told to sit down. This is the bus stop.

I am offered sliced papaya, which is delicious. They ask me if I speak Thai, and I respond in the negative. But that doesn’t stop them from speaking to me in Thai for the next ten minutes, giving stilted translations of what they’re saying along the way. I take out my phrasebook and pretend to study it.

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Delicious Food, Monks, and a Racist Bar Proprietor

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Kek Lok Si Temple from the street leading up to it.

I’ve just eaten some very tasty vegetarian Chinese buffet (that I would return to more than once while in Georgetown), and I’m walking around aimlessly. A couple of trishaw (bike taxi) drivers are seated on the sidewalk playing checkers with beer bottle caps. On the building across the street is a large mural of a trishaw driver lounging in his carriage, waiting for his next costumer.

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Mud, Tea, and Selfies

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Almost to the top of Gunang (Mount) Brinchang. This is the best view I got. It’s not so bad.

The temperature in KL is already miserable by the time we leave at 8 in the morning. As we ascend through the lush hills, the outside temperature starts to resemble the air-conditioned tundra that is common in these types of buses. The mountains are covered in greenery and fog. When we step off the bus in Tanah Rata, it is refreshingly un-miserable.

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Highways, Monkeys, Beer Towers

KL JalanAlor

Jalan Alor, an entire street of food stalls. At times, it feels like Mulberry Street in New York City. Hosts wielding menus try to draw you into their restaurant, which looks identical to the three next to it.

Just as I’m finishing up my meal on Jalan Alor, a street lined with restaurants – tables and chairs set up in the street – I feel a few drops, and then I see umbrellas being set up around the tables. I finish my beer, pay, and start walking. Within five minutes, it’s pouring. It’s that kind of downpour that you knew would come, that you even hoped would come, when it’s still hot and humid when the sun goes down.

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Ships, Steam Irons, and Noodles

It is so remarkably easy to walk around and see everything that one wonders whether the Hindu founders, the Portuguese conquerors, the Dutch, and then the British built this town as a major fort and trading post adjacent to the Straights of Melaka, or as a future attraction for weekenders with cameras. Large signs alert you to where you are: “Little India,” “Jonker Walk.”

Melaka Windmill

An old watermill on the river. The river cruise leaves from a few hundred meters away.

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Malls, Expensive Beer, and Colonial Buildings

 

Sing Skyline

Here’s a picture of a bunch of Banks. This is what I pictured before I visited Singapore

Walking through a mall I realize that one has to walk through a mall to do pretty much anything in Singapore. Not that I mind, the malls all air-conditioned. It is a welcome respite from the harsh weather. One can rest assured that they are always in close range of a Starbucks.

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Cows That Hike, Bikes that Don’t Work

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The bike is making strange squeaking sounds and it is becoming abundantly clear that I never learn. I have never had a good bicycle rental experience. Yet, when I arrive on Ometepe Island in the early afternoon, I rent a piece of crap from my hostel to go cruising. At first, everything seems fine and I’m enjoying myself, riding the paved road that is mostly devoid of cars. The occasional motorcycle passes or a horse-drawn cart lumbers along.

Moyogalpa, the largest town on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua, means in the local language something like ‘place of mosquitoes’. Sometimes, I think, I must really hate myself.

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Who Decides Where You Travel?

granada churchI walk into a beautiful café. The furnishings are contemporary and comfortable. I am served my café Americano with a glass of filtered water, gratis. What a lovely place, I think, as I look through my pictures while seated in a rocking chair. A couple is dropped off in a horse-drawn carriage that they have apparently rented for the afternoon. The owner is familiar with them. When I settle up the bill, the dream is over. I would have paid less for a coffee in Brooklyn. Maybe even half as much.

I am in Granada, Nicaragua trying to figure out why it is such a tourist destination. Experiences like the one in the café make me think that the formula is quite simple. People just have to start going to a place for one reason or another and then the process is simply self-perpetuating. Before long, there are several establishments that are expensive even for foreign visitors. Maybe it’s arbitrary.

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It’s Just Livin’ in Leon

Granada1A motorcycle passes me by as I walk to my accommodations. The woman on the back passenger seat daintily holds a cake with one hand, like a server carrying a tray of drinks.

Earlier, in my taxi to the center of town, we maneuver through the outskirts. Bicycle taxies roam the streets, juice vendors squeeze refreshments, the ubiquitous motorcycle zooms by, horse-drawn carts carry goods too burdensome for man. From the calm of the periphery, we pass through the crowded shop-lined streets. The market is bustling. Speakers blare dance rhythms, vendors lure in costumers. Taxies, pedestrians, motorcycles, bikes, horse carts: mingle in the streets.

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