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.
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
I 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.