In travel, I have learned to appreciate the act of “getting there,” the inherent differences in modes of transport, the adventure of self-navigation, and the disorientation of arrival. Air travel, while having the transcendent feel of lift-off, always comes with the most complications: organization of liquids, security, timing, shoe-removal, passport control, customs, general airport racket and other irritations. Interestingly, the check-in, boarding and overall experience is quite different, depending on the airport and country of departure or arrival. Continue reading “Getting There”
One night in New York I was riding the subway from the Lower East Side back to Queens. Sitting at the end of the train and facing the car, I made eye contact with a large, rough, broken looking man, standing by the sliding door. I was going to smile, but after noticing the intensity in his eyes, I quickly looked away, perceiving the threat with animal instincts. Something wasn’t right. I tried to appear disinterested and distracted, feigning interest in my Ipod, and digging through my purse. I knew he was watching me. We went through two stops and on the third, when the door was about to open, the man stepped towards me, leaned over and spit in my face.
This was an aggressive, strategic blow of saliva: nothing light. It was personal. I wiped my face and when I stood up (not sure whether to try to hit him or just hurl some expletives), he got even closer, looking directly into my eyes and spit in my face again. Before I could do anything, he ran off the train, lost in the shuffle of the exit stairs. I watched the doors close as we pulled away from the platform.
Back in the train car, everyone was confused. A petite and elderly Asian woman drew a Kleenex from her purse and handed it to me in silence. An Israeli woman looked over and saw that I was crying, “What the fuck happened?” she asked me and I told her the story, which was not complicated: this was a random assault.
“If I would have seen that I would have chased him and beat his ass,” she kindly reassured me.
“Thanks,” I smiled, still trying to clear the spit smear from my face. I didn’t want to admit that I was seriously panicked about hepatitis, AIDS, and any number of viral or bacterial threats that accompany the visceral disgust of getting spit on by a stranger.
Pretty soon everyone in the train car is playing Sherlock Holmes, trying to figure out what made this guy so pissed off.
The teenage black girl: “Maybe he thought you looked like his girlfriend oh sumthin.”
Her mother: “Maybe you was in his seat.”
The hipster chick: “Maybe he got fired and just had a bad day.”
This was the least plausible. The guy was clearly insane and the rage was no one-time fluke. It was the kind of thing you could see in his eyes.
The pea-coat donning, Upper West Side woman: “Some people are just crazy you know? You never can tell who you are dealing with.”
My first night in Turkey I was told not to make eye contact with the men. I arrived in Kadikoy (a neighborhood on the Asian side, which I promptly named, the “Brooklyn of Istanbul”) wearing only sandals and dragging my bag out of the cab. It is cold and raining, and I follow four American girls to a small club, where we are sitting at a round table on the second floor of a bar, looking over the railing to a small stage rocking a Turkish cover band. Even though we were smoking rolled cigarettes and drinking wine, I felt like they were having some kind of first-night intervention, as I am told emphatically, “Don’t make eye contact. It’s different here. You can’t just smile at someone. They will take it the wrong way.” One of them had been recently assaulted.
There is an older Turkish man watching us from across the room, who I happen to make eye contact with, while listening to a table of women share horror stories about misinterpreted glances. Consciously, I stop myself from smiling and avert my eyes. I worry that it is already too late. Our eyes have met. Predator versus prey. I recall National Geographic scenes, the hunt or the eye contact of a mating ritual. There are human universals and then there are animal instincts. Either way, I have learned this lesson before.
Since traveling, I have encountered a large population of stray cats and dogs, particularly in Turkey and Greece. I am always surprised that they are allowed to run rampant through the streets and that the locals are accustomed to their presence, the same way we step over rats in the subway station.
The stray cats and dogs can be off-putting, especially if you hate cats as much as I do. They are everywhere—in the garbage cans, resting on the hoods of vehicles. A lot of the animals are pretty mangy, some missing legs and tails or with open wounds, protruding tumors and scars. Street life ain’t easy.
I worried about crossing paths with the wrong dog, like the guy in the subway; with one wrong move, I could be the next victim of an animal attack. One of the women who told me not to make eye contact with Turkish men is the same woman who said, “The dogs are not a problem here. They will protect you. They know who is good and who is bad. They know who to bark at and when something is wrong.”
Though I am a dog lover, I am also a cynic, and initially scoffed at the idea that the stray dogs are as trustworthy and loyal as a family pet, or more trustworthy than a Turkish man. Being a skeptic, I ask, “Isn’t this just a nature versus nurture question? What if one of the dogs is a bad seed? Any of those dogs could attack.”
She responds quickly, “There are no bad dogs, because dogs already know the bad ones and they will drive them out.” It sounds simple enough. Throughout my trip I encountered other travelers and locals who have had this similar experience with the stray dogs. Two Australian guys we met in Athens were actually getting robbed when the stray dogs attacked the assailants. Even in Greece they told me, “The dogs know who to protect. They see good people as part of the pack.”
Within a few days, I find that the stray dogs and cats are quite docile, living peaceably in the alleys, hidden in basements, and sleeping in packs around the water front. They are well fed and run along the streets, going in and out of the shops without even getting shooed out. I have seen them sleeping on couches outside furniture stores or inside the warm shops. I have watched old women lower boxes of food attached to ropes from their windows. On one of the more trendy avenues in Kadikoy, the waiter took our plates and delivered our leftovers to feed the stray dogs in the alley. Most of the dogs have tags to indicate that they have had their shots. They are cared for, like community pets.
On a side trip from Istanbul, we went to Cappadocia to visit the underground cities and famous dwelling caves. Arriving early in the morning on the night bus, I felt my first taste of snow this season. I was cold and tired, underdressed and underprepared for landing in the middle of Turkey without a connecting transit to the hostel. At the bus stop, we are approached by a man who says, “I will take you to your next stop. You go to Goreme. You come with me.” With no other options, we agree, and he brings us back into a small room. He shuts the door and tells us to wait.
We speak in hushed whispers. I try to leave to find some coffee at the terminal and he blocks me at the door, “No, you cannot go. Stay here.” Instead of allowing us to go get water and coffee, he pours water into small cups from his Thermos. Locked in this room, waiting for our “ride,” we notice that the man is drunk, and getting grabby, trying to put his arm around us, kiss me on the cheek. I fend him off, but things are getting awkward. It is only 7 in the morning and no one else is around. We stay because we have nowhere to go.
My girlfriend and I are starting to get nervous because we remember this is the same person we were warned about; the same tour company that has caused problems in the past, though, we have now missed our connection, if there ever was one. I start to get impatient and increasingly more demanding about when exactly we were leaving, who was driving and whether they even operate a legitimate service. Finally, the drunken grabber hails two guys from the back and throws them keys.
The two men take our bags and we follow outside to climb in the back of their “tour van,” an unmarked, run-down beater with shredded seats and a roaring muffler. Now careening down the narrow, snow-dusted streets, through the Turkish tundra, my friend reminds me that these people are known to steal money, and leave tourists stranded on the side of the road.
They did leave us on the road, but fortunately, close enough that we could walk. We found out later that they owed money to the hostel owner, who made a fist punching gesture when we explained who dropped us off. Except for the period of lock up and harassment, we arrived unscathed. We were relieved, though the head of tourism in Goreme tells us to file a formal complaint, “He is very bad man.”
Bad seeds often smell like old liquor and aggression.
Last week, instead of going home after the bar, we decided to buy beers and hang out down by the waterfront. The four of us sat in a row, looking out over the Bosphorus Strait, feeling the wind pick up into early morning. I turned around and found that a pack of stray dogs had approached the rocks and collectively, positioned themselves in a circle around us, employing a natural defense against predators. When anyone walked by, they would start barking, chasing away those who got too close. A drunk man walked by singing and started throwing rocks at the dogs. I felt protective of the dogs, of our pack.
I considered throwing rocks too.
The pack of stray dogs sat with us for a couple hours, occasionally darting off to chase a stray cat, but always returning to their aligned corners. When we stood to leave, the dogs rose too and followed us up the hill, towards the neighborhood. They watched, almost longingly, as we split off.
The next day, I was at a busy intersection and I spotted the same pack of dogs lying in a circle. When I walked by, I pet one of them on the head, said hello, smiled and continued on my way towards the ferry. After a couple blocks, I glanced down and the same dog was still walking next to me, looking up and wagging his tail. I turned around to see the other four were also in tow. They walked me down to the ferry, several blocks before turning back towards the center of town. Maybe they sensed I was foreign, or alone, or simply, that I was not a bad seed.
I am honing my animal instincts, but finding comfort in the pack.
Residing in a non-native English speaking country inspires linguistic and communicative innovation. Whether ordering a coffee, directing a cab driver, or when trying to convey larger ideas, like, “No, I do not want to go out with you,” expression demands the creative and the savvy.
After seven years of formal Spanish education and years of dating a French man, my foreign language abilities are no better off. I am becoming sort of hopeless, even with the expectation and potential of “full emersion.” In foreign countries, I have found it extremely difficult to remember and pronounce even the simplest of phrases. In Turkey, “teşekkür ederim” (“thank you”) has been repeated to me ad nauseam, but I still find myself mumbling in English and under my breath, rather than attempting Turkish. I speak English to everyone, as though, just saying the words means something. Subconsciously, I think that if I repeat the same thing more than once, it will eventually be understood. This parroting is not helpful to anyone.
In Hanoi, I decided it was high time for a hair color re-dye. Realizing that it would be impossible to explain color in broken English, I smooth my hands over my hair and point at a Paul Mitchell poster of a model with reddish blonde locks. The male colorist seems to understand and offers me a sample of color swatches while running his fingers through my knotted hair. When I confirm a reddish-brown, he smiles, nods his head, sharply gestures to the chair, and brings out the black cape.
I am a trusting person, so I sit in the chair and watch calmly, as he mixes the color bowl and uses a brush to paint my hair with bright purple dye. At no point was I able to assert that the dye was burning my scalp or that I worried it was going to be the very wrong hue. Also, miscommunication with a stylist is always a possibilty, regardless of what country you are in.
When the color is rinsed and the two assisting Vietnamese girls finish drying and spin my chair towards the mirror, my glowing red hair is revealed. I look a little bit like Pippi Lockstocking or Run Lola Run and am now a definite stand-out as I walk the streets of Hanoi. I tried to get used to it quickly, but remained shocked each time I caught my reflection in the shop windows. This hair was nothing subtle.
That night at my hotel, the manager knocked on the door of my room and announced, “You have phone call.” I was confused because no one knows where I am and I do not have friends in the neighborhood: “He says he wants ‘girl with red hair.’”
I am not hard to find. Again, Run Lola Run.
When I pick up the phone, the man on the other line says, “I see you. Want time with you.” I try to ask who it is, how he knows me, and make attempts to clarify his intentions. He just kept repeating, “Want to make time with you,” or “You make time with me?” I deduce that I am getting asked out by a Vietnamese man who I have never met, in barebones broken English, because, he spotted my garish red hair and followed me to the hotel. I try to kindly decline, though I am sure my response came off a bit rude, followed by a dial tone (this, need not be translated).
Most communications are based on necessity, and learning language never became so desperate, as in love. In a romantic fantasy, I imagine that most languages were transferred, not via commerce, but by lovers and suitors. In Cappadocia, Turkey, we stayed at a small hostel at the edge of Goreme, owned and operated by the native husband, “Mustafa,” and his wife, a South African woman, “Zeia,” who speaks English fluently. Mustafa is 11 years younger than his wife and, now into middle age, they are still very much in love. “A human being is a human being,” he tells me, after explaining he does not mind that she has gained weight over the years. I imagine him 20 years younger, barely through adolescence and trying to learn English to impress an older woman. Mustafa tells me, this is not so far off, and shares a secret, “To learn the language, you must touch the tongue.” He winks.
I have a friend who married a Portuguese woman, who was (not surprisingly) passionate and playful in the sack. The two had previously engaged in some sadistic dirty talking, where she would say things like, “You bastard,” and he would whisper, “You little bitch.” Anyway, experimenting with his newly acquired Portuguese, he says to her, “Sua desgraçada,” which he thought meant, “You naughty little whore.” His wife, taken aback, was initially offended, then started laughing and explained that the phrase actually translates into something like, “You unfortunate wretch,” which isn’t sexy at all.
There is something attractive about linguistic and communicative gaps- as though the mystery allows you to infer something more captivating (think dirty talking with no comprehension of the language at all). I once fell for a German, who used the most creative ways to express English. He was usually grammatically incorrect and often made no sense, though, I was always charmed by the way his ideas hung differently, more poignant, if only because the expressions were new. I wonder what he would have sounded like as a native English speaker. Perhaps, he would not have liked me as a native German speaker, either.
It is impossible to tell.
When unable to speak the same language, it is not uncommon to resort to gestures and pantomiming. It is an easy first and last resort: pointing to the desired pastry, using fingers to indicate numerical values, or a nod of the head to say “excuse me” or “hello.”
Sometimes pantomiming can get complicated, in other situations, downright dangerous. Like, yesterday, at Starbucks, I wanted a glass of water with my coffee. I did not know the Turkish word for water and the two male baristas did not understand English. When we are all smiling and looking very confused, I start putting my hand to my mouth gesturing a drinking motion, my mouth open, when again, they both look at each other and start laughing. I realize the gesture looks like the international sign for BJ, and I quickly close my mouth and put my hand back in my pocket.
Last week I was sitting with a friend at a café in Istanbul, chatting with the waiter, when he invited to a party in his village, “Everyone come for celebration,” then he says, “You know, for snip snip.” He makes the gesture of snipping off the tip of a finger.
“A circumcision party?” I ask him.
He looks confused, then says, “No, no, just a little bit of snip snip for the boys,” again gesturing scissors and a cutting motion on the tip of his finger. I am lost, because, the only thing that made sense was circumcision, but he insisted that no, it was not and continued to use his fingers as a point of reference. I have never heard of this custom and considered that maybe it was glossed over in Anthro 101.
Naively, I ask, “You cut tip of finger?” I use the same snipping motion with my gloves.
“Yes, you know for 8, 9, 10 years old boys.”
I am still confused, also really interested in this party. I try to clarify, “So this happened to you?” I point, “You– had snip snip party?”
“Yes, me. I have,” he says.
“Ok, can I see? Let me see your fingers,” I point to his hands and ask to see his scar.
His eyes get wide and he looks around, “No not here,” then laughs, “Too many people.”
My friend decides to nip this conversation in the bud (pun not intended), “You mean here,” (she points to the groin region), “Not here,” (points to her fingers).
“Ahhhh yes!” he says laughing. Finally, the pantomiming has paid off.
He emphasizes that circumcision is not as traumatic as it sounds: “Only little bit, then cry, then Turkish delight on tongue.” A Turkish delight is a small candy made of gel and dusted with powdered sugar. I remember the line from the They Might Be Giants song, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” that goes, “A Turkish Delight on a moonlit night.” Point of reference. Everything becomes clear.
I was a little disappointed to miss the Turkish village circumcision party, but had the feeling that maybe we were not linguistically equipped to participate. Imagine the awkwardness, “Congratulations?” or “Good luck?” These kinds of events are difficult enough, even without a language barrier. Also, my friend did not want to endure the coming-of-age screams.
My foreign language skills are partly lacking because I am afraid of being misunderstood or making a mistake, though in pantomiming and without a common language ground at all, it is likely that this will happen, anyway. Even in our own language, we are always subject to misinterpretation.
I have a friend who has been living in Korea for six years and every time I see her, I am always stunned by her broken English, wondering what happened. While traveling together recently, she has made things easier for us, having a calm, slow way of talking to natives. After speaking in broken English for the last few months, I start to understand why she would omit pronouns, drop unnecessary articles, and simplify the spoken word into non-grammatically functioning sentences. Habitually, she continues to do this, even with native English speakers. I have also met Americans abroad who, not only speak in broken English, they also have appropriated accents, something I have also started to sympathize with: English translates better when spoken with a native flair.
Usually, with a sufficient amount of desperation or desire, things work out, and everyone gathers enough information to get by. Sometimes it is best to just call out a translator off the street. There are still times, when communication becomes impossible, the foreign words are left dangling in the air and dead silence is punctuated by the throwing up of hands. It is in these cases, when I resort to a very long, hearty, smile. This smile lasts even longer when it is unnecessary or inappropriate. I probably come off looking like a well-prescribed Prozac patient, or in the best case scenario, just a friendly, redheaded foreigner.
Employing broken English, accents, pantomiming, gestures, awkward smiles… language and communication, generally, is fluid. As in love, it works best when we take risks… and, we will do, whatever works.
On a sunny London morning, a woman careened towards me with a baby carriage, smiling and bouncing with happy. I had just spilled hot coffee down my arm and the front of my shirt. Often, my awakening to children and babies is forced—an occurrence delivered with high-pitched screams and tension, for me, most evident, while trapped at the airport. At LAX, I was waiting to board my flight to Sydney, when a family comprised of two sunken eyed, exhausted parents and three children entered my world: there was the eldest girl in pigtails, under ten, her brother, not over six or seven, and some version of a toddler (girl or boy, I didn’t care, the parents didn’t seem to either, belied by the deliberately androgynous haircut).
As in many travel situations, I tried not to be overwhelmed by natural, unavoidable annoyances—other peoples odors, amplified announcements, delays, lost baggage, and harsh lighting. The most affecting irritations are invoked by the ignorance of others: this is the kind that cannot be so quickly diffused or excused. In this case, the parents thought it a socially responsible idea to give their children toy instruments—one had a drum, the other, a recorder, and the youngest, some kind of electronic percussion instrument. The parents were oblivious to the eye-rolling directed at them, remaining not only unaware and slouching, but unsympathetic to the fact that no one, not even the most desperate, unmarried, Midwestern girl, thinks their kids are as cute as they do. When the little bastards got bored, they threw their instruments on the carpet and wandered towards the windows, pounding and pawing, leaving large greasy fingerprints that were made visible by a setting sun through the glass, the planes hovering distantly, in an otherwise beautiful shot.
When children are present, IQ’s plummet: speech, manner of reason, and appreciation for the general welfare of the public is irrelevant—normal social skills need not apply. I have heard from some mother-friends of mine that walking out of the house covered in bodily fluids becomes normalized. Parents are swayed only by acts that will potentially quell their screaming children and move as quickly as possible through each moment, each day. As my one divorced single-father friend once so eloquently explained, You give up your whole life to take care of these ungrateful little pieces of people.
Waiting to board the ferry from Malaga to Melilla, I was stuck at a coffee shop guarding a pile of bags while my twenty-something travel buddies wandered around looking to find the ticket counter. I was stopped on the street by an Irish woman and her husband, also lost, having just given a confused, panoramic, sun-shielded glance of the pier. Both looked younger from far away than they did up close (skinny and smiling, even if falsely, signal youth). She had the kind of legs even Barbie would admire, slim and tan, wearing a short jean skirt like a high school cheerleader. They introduced themselves (“Sheila and Jim”) and we helped each other navigate entry, gather tickets, find the ramp and forge ahead with our bags. Lagging behind, I watched them holding hands and skipping up the ramp.
After boarding the ferry, I learned that the couple was in their mid-forties and had married late. They fell in love and both agreed they did not want to have children. They had traveled to Africa several times and were currently on an excursion to Chefchaouen to find some of the best hash in Morocco. They had done their research. Jim pulled out a notebook of literature on how to buy pot in Morocco, the illegalities, ways not to get caught and the best cities to find what you are looking for. They invited us to join them on their exploits, but we were headed 14 hours in the opposite direction.
Sheila and I bumped into each other as she was coming out of the bathroom and I had to ask, “Now, really, what is your secret? How did you get those legs?”
She laughed and said, “Everyone says that. It’s nothing really. I have my father’s skinny gene.” She asked me about what I was doing in Morocco and my travels. We talked rapidly and succinctly, each of us baring our own life story as though there were no other place to have this conversation, but in the hallway, outside the ferry bathroom on the Strait of Gibraltar. When she found out I had called off my wedding she said, “I think that is great. You know, there are so many young girls who just don’t even realize what is out there. They don’t even know what they are capable of. I decided very young not to have children, so it was never hard for me.”
Not that I am one of these “young girls” she describes, but the advice, support and confirmation was well-received. For the first time, I wasn’t being asked, “Don’t you want to be married?” or, “Why don’t you have children?”
Sheila was wild and hard, but also tender and motherly: when a button broke on my shirt, she kindly gave me some scissors and sewing equipment. When I broke the scissors, she smiled, and winked, then the lines on her sun-infused, freckled skin feathered when she refused the leftover Euros in my purse. Sheila and Jim gave us maps and led us off the boat, hailing us a cab and giving us instructions on how to get through customs at midnight.
A month later, I met an older woman on the train to Manchester traveling from the Grasmere Lake District in Northern England. She was returning to Spain to see her husband and children, striking me as lonely and overly gregarious, almost pushy, but proud to talk about her family. She told us about her daughters, one who had two children, and the other, a married lawyer who had made the decision not to have children at all. This was the only moment she ever looked sad, looking down at her hands that clenched tightly, “I fear she is missing on what is important. She may have her travel and her money, but what is it worth in the end?”
My parents try to goad me into the childrearing life-phase, explaining that, “No one is ever ready,” but it seems clear that some people are never ready and should not be populating this world at all. Recently, I stayed with a photographer friend in Minneapolis: early forties, single father, half-French, half-Mexican with beautiful tan skin, green eyes, and white teeth, like the grown child of a dentist. Ramon and I sat at the picnic table in his backyard, drinking wine while he showed me a photo album, spanning his college years through the present. Most of them were of girlfriends, including the mother of his child, and sundry models, one he introduced as a heroin addict who had since overdosed: “I have worked with the best,” he told me.
While he proudly explained that his daughter was the best thing that happened to him, the story was complicated. His model-girlfriend became pregnant only weeks before he intended to leave her and return to Mexico to become a filmmaker. For the first year, he played part-time father, coming in and out and contributing when necessary. After they separated, when his daughter was only two years old, he was called by Child Protective Services because his ex-girlfriend overdosed and ended up in rehab.
He was later awarded full-custody, which sparked a subsequent legal battle after her release. While looking at photographs, he showed me what was once a crucial piece of evidence during litigation: a photo taken of his toddler daughter draped over her strung out mother, covered and colored in make-up. There was something beautiful and haunting about the way his daughter had applied the eyeliner and blush, as though she mimicked the drug addict mother with dark, sunken eyes and heavy, pouting lips. The two small bodies were entwined, the child’s head resting on her mother’s naked and skinny hip. This photo that told a childhood of stories, was blown up poster-sized and called Evidence A.
The photo itself became infamous and he was awarded full custody. I suggested it was art.
I have a friend in New York, a few years shy of 40, who is unmarried and desperate for a child. Last time I visited her, we laid on our backs in her bed like crazy women, brainstorming how she could “accidentally” get her relatively new boyfriend to knock her up. In this case, the straightforward request would not do: he wasn’t ready and they weren’t married, though she felt her biological clock ticking inside her like a suicide bomb. The guy was also an overly responsible Wall Street type so it wasn’t like he was susceptible to any “fast ones.” We thought of the obvious: poking holes in the condoms or getting him drunk. When pressing other friends for suggestions, one recommended taking the used condom into the bathroom and pulling the turkey baster trick. Still, we found logistical, biological, and moral issues with this brilliant, but diabolical scheme.
This desperation is not unnoted. Children do become an extension of the self, even if unknowingly. It starts out biologically, then evolves, into general dependence and personal accountability, at some point sort of morphing into a kind of individual satisfaction though the inverse is also true. Considering the death of her child, I know of a woman who explained that even though she knew her son’s suicide was not her fault, she could not get over what felt like the death of something inside herthe death of herself. The parent-child relationship is one I have yet to understand, though its beauty and tragedy, often confusing, cannot be shorted.
Recently I have been impressed by the simple, utter joy experienced by grandparents. I sat at a café in Vietnam and was approached by an older couple who were announcing the birth of their first grandson. Without knowing me, or speaking English, they treated me to breakfast and coffee (announced via our translating waitress). In Dublin, I met a man at the bar who bought a round for the bar celebrating the birth of his grandson, explaining to me that, “Der ain’t any greater joy than seein yar grandbabes.” My own parents are like reborn Christians, dizzy with devotion to their new grandchildren. Recently, at a hotel, I met a man at the bar who glowed when he announced his daughter was having twins, even though she was still in college and unmarried. There is no shame when welcoming new life.
Since my brief return to the States, I have had to confront the reality of the overwhelming place that children occupy in the world. This was a summer of family reunions, birthday parties, weddings, showers and birth announcements, introductions to newborns, and the harrowing sense that time is pushing all of us forward. Grocery shopping, Interstate stops and suburbs remind me that the economy, culture and psychology of the world is directed at cultivating, socializing, and providing for the next generation. Why wouldn’t it?
My life is not amenable to children and I have not yet swallowed the rhetoric (women without children are selfish or sterile). Abandoning the Midwest seems like a good idea for now, where people like to procreate and mid-twenties pregnancy seems to catch like wildfire. Armies of families begin to form young, making it hard not to feel alone when everyone in your age bracket has at least two other bodies hanging from them.
Before I packed my car again and left for San Francisco, I was at a corner café/bar with a friend in Milwaukee. We were having mimosas in the afternoon before a thunderstorm forced everyone to huddle inside. In close quarters, the owner handed out serapes to keep us dry. While squeezing into a corner booth, we were approached by two children, a boy around eight, and his sister, probably five or six. This wasn’t the normal case of, “Jesus, where are your parents?” They were cute, funny, polite, and said things like, “When I grow up, I am going to be a rock star, a soccer player, or a restaurant owner,” (he had compelling reasons for all three). We talked about dinosaurs, favorite superpowers, fairies, vampires and children’s movies I hadn’t considered in years. Outside, the thunder crashed, the lightening lit the summer sky and the rain cut streams through the gutters and past the row of cars parked on the street. Until the storm settled, we played catch with a ball made of rubber bands, acted out dragon slayer scenes and pretended we were ninjas. Imagination transcends time and space…it didn’t matter where we were.
Though I am moving forward independently and perpetually feeling somewhat unhinged (for better or for worse), there is always the potential for new influences. Despite my reservations, I can embrace this one thing: channeling imagination and a kind of detachment from a world that has not yet jaded them, children make people happy…stupid happy, the kind of happy where you lose yourself, if only for a moment.
Given the formality of customs in Asia, the Vietnamese are surprisingly unreserved about personal interrogations. From most, I received the following line of questioning:
1) How old are you? (29)
2) Are you married? (No)
3) Do you have a boyfriend? (No)
This was usually followed by a longer conversation, where I am forced to explain why I am single. No reason is good enough, as their intuitive logic reminds me, “But you so pretty. Why such pretty girl with no man?” Certainly, something must be wrong.
I took a ride up the Vietnamese coast on a Harley with a driver who calls himself “Eddie Murphy” or “Fast Eddie” as he boasts on his business card. It took me an hour before he would tell me his Vietnamese name: one syllable, “Tahn.” Among our side trips to a Vietnamese cemetery, a house of wood carving artisans, and through the rice fields, he took me to a fishing village where I met a woman who was around 75 or 80 years old. She sat next to her husband who was spreading cow dung to seal the cracks of a coracle, a small fishing boat he would sell to the local fisherman.
After they ask me the normal round of questions, she says something in sharp, pointed Vietnamese, which was translated by a smiling Eddie Murphy: “She thinks you are a lesbian.” It is not the first time I have been asked.
In America, the interrogations are not so different. My great aunt approached me at a wedding last summer: “You know you are turning thirty this year, and the longer you wait, the harder it will be to find a good man.” I didn’t remind her that she married a lazy, unemployed alcoholic, a man I would have never married, even if I knew he could impregnate me with the future president.
In Istanbul, I meet a rocket scientist; an actual rocket scientist. He works to impress me with lines like, “Improvements in space technology focus on adjusting compression ratios across the turbine engines,” and, “Considering the rotation of the earth and the momentum of gravity, clearly, it is difficult to launch a rocket when you are far from the equator. This poses potential issues for the future of space mining.” He draws me a diagram on a napkin.
After ten years of dating, I don’t swoon, I snooze. I try to remember the last time I was rapt by a man.
In Turkey, I am staying with a house full of single women, between the ages of 28 and 31. Collectively, we are financially self-sufficient, educated, and single, arguably, by choice. We like to travel. One is so dead set against children and marriage that she had a voluntary hysterectomy when she was 22. While our circumstances are varied, I would say that, for us, the general excitement of dating and “finding a man” has worn off. Prince Charming and romantic love looks more like eating comfort food at McDonald’s rather than drinking champagne at The Ritz.
For those of us who are not ready to “settle down,” as they say, creating a viable defense for singledom is almost impossible. On our hike back from Ba Ho Falls outside of Nha Trang, I give Eddie Murphy the same line of questioning he gave me, “How old are you? Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend?” He is 32, unmarried and still lives at home. He sees nothing wrong with this, as most men are never forced to explain their choice or give a reason. When it comes up, they simply boast their ability to attract younger women, even into old age. As though this makes everything clear, he says, most unforgiving, “You are too old for single. You are too old for me,” then laughs.
I tell him I like younger men anyway.
In Istanbul, we decide to head to the Turkish bath. The experience feels like an odd combination of playing Slip and Slide, getting a car wash, and going to Sunday mass—except that everyone is topless. We are handed a towel and given a key to a small room where we lock up our things. I pass a round chamber where five Turkish women are thronged together and smoking cigarettes. They are naked and do not seem to care about the flesh that curves over their hips, the spreading patches of cellulite, or their hanging breasts, that swing dangerously close to the ashtray.
The Turkish bath house was built in the 15th century and smells like humidity, sweat and mold. The bath is held beneath a church-like dome with small stained-glassed windows, that cut angles of colored light in the marble floors. There are echoes of women yelling in Turkish from both ends of the building. The experience is simultaneously private and public: people do not do much talking, but the room is open to walk around, lay spread eagle on the middle of the marble flat bed, or sit naked in the sauna. It is not set like a massage parlor, because the purpose of the visit is to bathe: everyone is wet.
We are told to take off our clothes and each given a small bowl to ladle water from the private sinks. After some self-bathing and a trip to the sauna, we are sprawled out, wearing only swimsuit bottoms, on a marble slab that is set beneath the dome of the hamam. The masseuse uses a large glove to exfoliate, giving me orders in Turkish to roll over or hold up my arms. She then grabs a bucket full of soap, like the one I used to wash my father’s Ford Taurus in the driveway, roughly dragging the sponge over my body.
The proximity of the masseuse and her breasts is uncomfortable, I realize objectively, when I receive an accidental nipple smack in the face. Her breath is heavy, smelling like an ashtray that hasn’t been emptied for twenty years; her fire red hair and ashen face resemble the tip of a lit cigarette. When I lying on my back, she hovers over me, sweat from her brow dripping onto my face.
I feel that I might need a different kind of shower.
Slipping naked around marble, we collect our things and move back to the sinks. After rinsing, we sit naked with the women, who ask, “Good massage for you? We give good massage?” We say thank you and give them a tip, covering ourselves as we exit. Our skin is now exfoliated, clear, though I am covered with soap residue and stepping out into the brisk Turkish air, my hair wrapped in a towel.
I have also been naked at a Japanese onsen (hot spring), where the women separate from men, and getting naked is widely accepted. In other cultures, same sex customs dominate much of daily life.
Approaching the 30 mark gives any woman the shivers, single or not. This has nothing to do losing life’s momentum, but there is always the haunting feeling of missing the proverbial boat: things that must be accomplished, especially those with an age limit. As women, we fear the graying of our hair, the cruel workings of gravity on our skin, and the loss of attractiveness that rides out with youth.
The proverbial boat in this case (marriage), insulates us from our fear of ending up alone. Like my aunt so boldly informed me, without youth, without beauty, I will never be able to find a “good man.” She must be referring to that widespread pool of awesomeness I have already encountered.
Whether we are married or not, we will all get old. On the upside, camaraderie comes in all forms: the men playing Backgammon and sharing a hookah; the older women sitting naked in a circle at the Turkish baths. Then there are the widowed or divorced women and men I know back home, who have sustained life-long friendships and closeness with their families, companionship that gets them through their very real days, even after romantic love has faded or is lost.
At this point, running around Istanbul with a bunch of single women seems most appropriate. We coin the word: “T.I.L.F” (think Turk), watch MTV, and ignore the incoming phone calls from unimpressive locals and the host of men from our pasts. We visit the baths, ride the inter-continental ferry between Europe and Asia, admire the Aya Sophia, and share Turkish phrases that we use to confront the more pragmatic issues of the day.
Judgment is sort of irrelevant when you have people around; and, it helps to share the same worldview. Still, as single women, we will endure the interrogations. I need to learn how to succinctly articulate “contentedness” to strangers. Logic symbols? Venn diagram? Mathematical proof? I could carry around a napkin. For single women, a smile is never enough…
In a string of masochistic decisions, I decide to quit smoking while traveling: first in Bali, then in Thailand, then Vietnam, now in Turkey. So far, I am unaccomplished; it is the one routine that can bring me stability, comfort and familiarity regardless of the changing climates, languages, smells and general feeling of strangeness that comes with being in a foreign country. Also, I am in Istanbul, a city renowned for its unabashed public smoking and customary hookahs.
There was a woman on the corner next to my hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi that sold Pho, a rice noodle soup she ladled from a vat from early afternoon until the streets begin to shut down around 11 or 12 am. I sat with my legs crossed, only about a foot off the ground, on a plastic stool that looks more like a footrest. She doesn’t speak English, but spreads out chopsticks, a spoon, a tin of sliced limes and lettuce to stir into the broth. Other joiners come and go, while I sit in silence, holding the bowl close to my face, the steam creating a wet film over my cheeks and chin. The seat isn’t comfortable, but the soup is sustenance, and I have found familiarity in the corner and the habit of our exchange. While in Hanoi, I visit the soup woman nearly every day.
When experiencing the unfamiliar, the mind cannot help but seek out patterns. Like a cat, we find our way back to the same corner restaurant, the recognizable street vendor, surveying our territory, finding unusual habits and daily routines; even the homeless man becomes a landmark. It seems that the act of smoking is a comfort, where the cigarette itself acts as a kind of filter, against those sensations and dissonances our minds have not yet reconciled.
We were kicked out of the Veteran’s hospital in Chiang Mai on New Year’s Eve for a couple reasons: 1) I forgot to pick an end date for my reservation, and 2) Someone put a hole in the wall. The manager took a picture on his digital camera and approached me at the pool to ask what happened. I truly had no explanation, but offered him a plausible scenario having to do with bad sleeping habits.
In response, he tells me, “You- no more room.”
Instead of booking a room, we decide to head out for the night, leaving our bags with a friend. Though sans plan, we believe that with our charge cards and wits, we will be fine. After the fireworks were over and the floating lanterns had flickered out and fallen to the streets, the crowds broke up and we climbed into a tuk-tuk around three in the morning. I remembered there was a Sofitel somewhere outside of Chiang Mai and asked the driver if he could try to find it. When we stumbled in to ask about vacancy, the man behind the front desk looks us up and down: disheveled, drunk, and bloody feet (I had lost my flip flops).
Before we reach the front desk, he is already shaking his head, “No.”
We hail another driver from the street, hoping to find a room; any bed would do. I jump in and out from the backseat, running through dozens of lobbies, each attempt with the same result. After over an hour, I am near tears: shoeless, jacketless, and essentially homeless in Thailand. I am still not sure if we were simply unappealing clientele, or if there really was nowhere to stay, but eventually the tuk-tuk driver says, “Last stop. If no room, you sleep at my home.”
I look at my friend and shrug, unable to fathom what exactly it would look like, waking up on the floor of the cab driver’s house. On our last stop, we roll into what looks like an abandoned building, the lights are off, and there is no front of house: “This is last try,” he explains. He talks to a young man out front, wearing a leather jacket and smoking a cigarette next to his motorcycle. Leather pulls a key from his pocket and hands it to the driver.
The driver turns to us: “Follow me,” he says, and begins climbing the open air stairwell towards the second floor. When the door swings open, we didn’t even take the time to give a cursory review; we were asleep on the bed before the driver left the room.
In the clarity of morning, we discover, we were not in a hotel. A stranger’s clothes were folded in the dresser and a handmaid quilt covered the bed. The patio door opened to a back alley on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, where clothes draped on line were attached to our window sill. It was an abandoned apartment and the room was not for rent. We looked around for a lobby, someone who saw us come in, or cared that we were about to leave. Finally, we just walked out into the street without paying. Not that we were trying to rip them off, but this was not a hotel, and, we were squatters.
I am okay with bouts of homelessness, or, in travel, I am accustomed to feeling that I am lost or out of control. What is more frightening, is when I am reminded of the distance of “home.” These feelings are usually precipitated by familiarity, being brought back to a memory, a place, something so close, that it is inescapably moving. For me, the flashback usually comes in the form of music. There was the time I sat alone at a restaurant in Indonesia listening to “Here Comes My Baby,” or when the cab driver picked me up in Saigon and the radio was playing, “Killing Me Softly” by the Fugees; walking through the night market in Nha Trang listening to “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen.
The tourist industry has definitely picked up this need of travelers to find “home” even where it does not belong. There are the Western restaurants lining the streets boasting ingredients like “real cheese” and “large burritos” just to appease the tourists who are unhappy or dissatisfied with local cuisine. In Chiang Mai, there was a large Christmas tree in the lobby lined with little wrapped boxes and tinsel. When we went to Halong Bay off the coast of Hanoi, they thought it appropriate to blast the Titanic theme song from the boat (“Near, far…” etc.). To me, these Americanisms, make me feel even more disconnected: their foreignness reminds me of my own.
My last week in Chiang Mai, I had lost my wallet, my camera was stolen and my passport was being held at a tourist agency while I waited for a Vietnamese visa. The tour guide from our hotel (named “Kai”) drove me to pick up my visa and waited in the lobby while I walked up and down the street, denied time and time again by every ATM.
The emergency credit card didn’t work either. This was particularly stressful, as my Thai visa expired in only a few days. I had no access to money and it looked like I would face the additional fines of overstaying, while unable to get my passport returned. In all the commotion (my tears, throwing of receipts, and general dramatic performance in the passport office) Kai stepped up and paid the $90.00 to get my passport returned. Back in his car, I sat shotgun, like I do with my own father, while he gave me a paternal scolding and told me that I need to be more careful with my things.
After months of moving from hotel to hostel, through friends’ and strangers’ apartments, my definition of home has been reevaluated. I can’t help but nest where I land, even if only for a few days. The maids are like sisters, the manager is like my father, the front of house woman that asks questions like my mother; the back of house staff, like brothers. Some play familial roles, wondering where I have been, or what time I will be back. They tell me when my hair looks disheveled and remind me to eat fruit, instead of eggs for breakfast. There are these moments, when home is not so far away.
I made it out of Thailand, through Vietnam, and now to Turkey. There is an ebb and flow, in the current and rush of travel. Sometimes I am completely at ease, while other days, I am prepared to get catapulted to the streets, without money, homeless and/or squatting. There are also moments, I feel profoundly, like a foreigner.
And that is why, I am never surprised, every time I retreat back to light a cigarette, taking in the strange and unknown, through a filter I know so well.
My first night in Saigon, I haven’t slept in two days. I am past the point of being tired—wired, where no self-medication will suffice. The host at the front desk says I look weary and suggests that I go to the spa, “Ahh, night massage. Good for you. Help you get rest.” After cramming my Germanic body into a sleeper bus (the ergonomics clearly unsuited) for over 15 hours and the trepidation of arriving in a new country, I didn’t hesitate and scheduled an 11:30 (PM) appointment.
The ride is prearranged—on the back of a motorbike, through the night market and the back alley to a place called, “Entranced.” I climb off the back seat and return to the driver his weathered and cracked helmet. The tinted doors swing open to a bright waiting room with gold, green and pink floral wallpaper. I am greeted by an overly enthusiastic male and two soft-spoken women wearing long silk nightgowns, one slightly older, both half my height. They bow, the man hands me a cup of tea, and I am lead upstairs by the older woman who is now pulling me by the hand. Trying not to spill, I climb a winding dark stairwell, “Wat-cho step,” she tells me, anticipating the forthcoming trip on a piece of loose carpet.
On the third floor, she opens the door to a darkly lit room with four beds separated only by white linen curtains. There is steam unfurling from a bucket of hot stones and a loud fan that masks the sounds of honking motorbikes below. Before I can set down my purse, she points to me and gives me the directive, “You. Take off clothes.” She doesn’t look away and waits until my shoes are off, my pants are in a pile on the chair, and I am draping an arm over my chest, before she gestures to a bed, “Here.” I awkwardly climb on the table, lie down on my stomach and within seconds she is straddling me dumping oil from a jar on my arms and back. The massage is made up of quick, violent movements—fist pounding, lifting and dropping my limbs, cracking my toes and fingers, and a prolonged period of forceful kneading; in short, not relaxing–painful.
Wanting to leave, but having the suspicion that I had only been there about 20 minutes, I commit myself to the long haul, clench my fists and close my eyes. At some point, the younger woman enters and says something hurriedly in Vietnamese. The curtains are drawn closed around my bed and I hear the muffled sounds of a man outside. I recognize his American accent. The pitches of the women change, becoming more drawn out and sultry as they arrange his bed. I listen to him go through the same routine as myself, before he settles in and I am forced to endure the following conversation:
“How ohl ah-you?” she asks him.
He pauses and I can hear through his smile, “Forty six.”
After some hesitation, he asks, flirtatiously, “How old are you?”
“Nine-teen,” (giggles), then “You have fam-i-ry?”
“You married? You have wife?”
I can tell he is reluctant, wanting to avoid this conversation, but answers, “Yeah.” (Silence, then heavy breathing).
I then listened to a series of questions that I can only imagine were answered by head nods and gestures:
“You want dis?”
“Dis, good for youuuu?” the last word drawn out and punctuated by a slight moan. There is only a curtain between us and I am trapped between sloppy banter and slurping sound effects until my own massage finally ends. I am thrown a towel and whisked away, past his curtain, to the steam bath room two floors up, where the woman demands that I take off my underwear and closes the door. Looking around at the rotted tiles, the air so thick I can hardly breathe, I leave my underwear in place, and cling to my towel. I refuse to sit down. I am suffocated and the entire experience is becoming, not just a waste of money, but unbearable.
Abandoning the remainder of my “spa package,” I decide I want to leave. I open the door and start wandering down the hallway and the dim stairwells, looking for my clothes and purse. I hear her from a floor below when she yells, “NO! You go back in room!” I realized they took me up there so they could finish what was started with the American. She is intercepting me, when she yells, “You come here!” pulls me down a flight of stairs, and pushes me into a room without explanation, slamming the door in my face. I look around and realize, I am now, locked in a bathroom, standing in a towel (and my underwear, at least) waiting for this American guy to get off.
I jiggle the door handle and start knocking. First softly, then I am pounding. After a few minutes, the militant older masseuse opens the door smiling, as if nothing happened, and I say, “Just give me my clothes, I want to get out of here.” She understands, not my words, but my tone, and leads me back to the room where I quickly get dressed and grab my purse. The man has already been escorted out. Again, she takes my hand, holding it between hers, “My friend, my friend, you like me? You give me tip?” I hand her a five dollar bill just to end it all. She hugs me and says, “You are so beautiful. You very pretty,” a line I am certain she has used before.
This wasn’t my first run-in with the sex industry in Asia. I went to “Soi Cowboy” in Bangkok, where the street is lined with strip clubs and brothels, the women free to rent for an evening, or plausibly, a lifetime. The women stand impatiently, lined up, smoking cigarettes with painted, pouting lips, and drooping fake eyelashes, faint peach fuzz belying the gender of the surreptitious ladyboy.
I also went to a karaoke bar in Chiang Mai which operates as a front, the women hike up their skirts and bat their eyes as we enter. I feel bad for them, they look bored, withdrawn, sex appeal sucked dry with their own disinterest, “Let’s have them come in and sing with us!” I suggest.
“If you want to pay $1000 bucks to sing with them, go ahead,” my friend replies. I decide it’s not worth it.
There are some cities that look better in the dark: Austin, Tucson, and New Orleans, I suppose, most desert towns, and the American south, generally. This is my experience in cities throughout Asia, where nightlife, incandescence and the glow of entertainment, hide the smog and dirt your feet will kick up in daylight.
One night in Ho Chi Minh City, I head out with an English guy I met over breakfast. We had spent the day at the War Museum, examining the Agent Orange formaldehyde fetuses and decide that drinking was a necessary antidote. After a few beers on a busy corner, we are carving our way through narrower streets with blinking signs, when he asks, “Want to go to a brothel?”
Here we go.
The brothel is lit in blue lights, and marked by the shadows of dancing women in tight dresses. They have surprising curves. There is a man getting a lap dance in the back. After some cursory broken English is exchanged, a few of the women who are unoccupied sit down at the bar with us and take a shot.
We compare breast implants (this makes them trust me).
I see that the woman behind the bar is crying on the phone. When she hangs up, I ask her if she is okay, what is wrong. She is clearing mascara from under her eyes as she tells me that the man on the phone was an American, from Pennsylvania. He got her pregnant 10 years earlier and was very, how should I say, unreliable, about sending any support money for their daughter. From what I gathered, he also has a double life going on in a suburb back home with a bonus round wife and three kids. I imagine middle-management sloth and pudgy children with names like Steven, Sally, and Grace. His wife has no clue that he has fathered a child in Vietnam or that he left this woman begging and tending brothel.
She is still beautiful.
After being in Thailand and Vietnam, I felt the increasing compulsion to protect Asian women from Western men. I start getting pissed that there are no international child support laws and (drunkenly) consider waging a campaign before the U.N. As it gets later, the white men start trickling into the brothel and I pretend we are at a normal bar, just to put them off. They do not expect a blunt, American woman to come up and ask, “Hey, where you from? How long will you be here?” No one wants to answer questions and they know I can see through them. I successfully force at least three back out into the street. I am not doing these girls any favors, but still, I feel accomplished.
After leaving HCMC, I am in Nah Trang, a beach town about 12 hours north. There is a divorced man in his late 50’s from Chicago working up a story about the younger Asian women he has bagged on his short trip: “I feel like I am dreaming,” he says, making me mouth-barf. He is short, bald and unattractive, the kind of guy, you know, couldn’t get it back home. I think, “You are dreaming, buddy. A nice poverty stricken, war wounded afterthought. Glad scarcity is working for you.”
We are both staying in the same hotel, so we cannot help the daily run-ins. One morning he comes stumbling into the lobby. His forehead is bleeding and is eye is purple and half-shut. He is dabbing blood from his face with a dirty napkin.
Before I even ask, he starts in, “I like nightlife,” he says, “I like to go out late, you know. Maybe I had too many drinks.” I ask him what happened. Apparently, after he left the “club,” he was attacked by three Vietnamese women who charged him, knocked him down and stole his wallet. I hide my smile when I turn away, thinking there was some poetic justice in this robbery.
When talking to a younger Vietnamese man, I ask him what he thinks the older white men parading around his country, with young Asian women dangling like bracelets from their forearms. He thinks it is gross, especially when the men are really fat (he makes gestures of a swollen belly), but also concedes that he is not in their position. He says he doesn’t know what it is like to be a poor, Vietnamese woman: “They just want better life,” he says, “They want car, house, someone care for them.”
Not to glorify the exchange, but, these women are hard-asses, not to be pitied. They have been tried more than I can imagine or ever will. They are not helpless victims of culture, though they are the victims of poverty, which could force any of us into making different decisions, including unleashing some battery on an ugly, rich, fat white dude trying to get laid.
The Asian sex industry is not so foreign, like most differences once you examine them closely: to quote an American hero and our old friend, Puff Daddy, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”