Laowai Comics: How to Speak KoreanPublished on March 14, 2014
How to Travel Cheaply — AnywherePublished on March 14, 2014
The memory of losing fifteen pounds (~6.8 kg) over a few weeks for lack of food money was burned freshly into my brain. After that experience, though not as rough as it sounds, I decided to never cut the budget too close again. When your natural body scent noticeably resembles boiled potatoes because that’s the source of nearly all your calories — well, enough said.
For my next stint overseas I was much more budget-minded. If you only plan to make a few long trips abroad during your lifetime, you need to see and do everything while you can. This can become expensive quickly. On the other hand, if you intend to travel for most of your life, you can move slowly, cut costs and travel longer with less money.
A short break came up during the semester in Hong Kong and I decided to travel somewhere. Most of the other foreign students caught flights to Shanghai, Beijing or the Philippines — not a bank-breaker, but a few hundred USD nonetheless. As for myself, I’ve never cared much about where I go, as long as it’s someplace new. With that in mind I chose a different, cheaper route. I caught a train north to the mainland Chinese border, and bounced around southern China from there.
If you’re interested in traveling in China, at some point you will hear about the cities of Guilin and Yangshuo. These towns are well established routes on the modern backpacker trail. The gorgeous karst limestone peaks along the adjacent Li River have been attracting domestic tourists for millennia, actually — long before the rubber-soled, hemp-necklaced traveler took root.
After a week of playing around in the southern border cities, I stopped in over-trafficked Guilin and moved on immediately to Yanghshuo. Locals told me Yangshuo would be less patchouli-scented, and their assumptions were spot-on. The balance of Western tourists between the two cities may have since changed due to Yangshuo’s discovery by the rock climbing world, but at the time it was definitely more ‘Chinese-feeling’.
In my nineteen year old’s inflated sense of self-importance, being the only foreign face in the crowd was the key to having a ‘pure’ experience. It would take me a few more years to get over the pointless “I’m a traveler, not a tourist” facade. Nevertheless, even during my zealous pursuit of exoticism for the sake of my young ego, I knew that some things are pretty much guaranteed: if there’s a beautiful place close to a big population center, you can bet there will be tourists. No big deal. Although considering how loudly some travelers moan about tourism, a scientific mind must assume that someone is forcing these free spirited non-conformists to eat at chain pizza joints and pound Heinekens at Monday-night English karaoke.
Any place with a tourist infrastructure will quickly let you know what the “must-do” activities are. In this case the heavily-jacketed touts at the Yangshuo bus station were all shouting about Li River bamboo raft tours. Asking around, the going rate seemed to be the equivalent of sixty dollars USD (pre-haggling) for a day trip down the famed river. A ridiculous price considering hostels in town ran about five bucks a night. Spending a day being misted by wet wind didn’t sound so fun in the November cold anyway, especially with the water rushing over the bottom of the raft. Still, I asked for some details. Where does it start? Where does it end? What is the best part of the trip?
As the responses all came with similar answers a pattern emerged, the gears in my budget traveler’s mind were turning. All of these tours seemed to start in the town of Xingping and make their way back to Yangshuo. Rather than paying so much for a raft tour, maybe there was an alternative?
A night in Yangshuo and a bit of pestering the locals gave me all the information I needed. The next day, I hopped on a local bus with the Chinese symbols for “Xingping” scrawled in my notebook, alongside the name of an empty hostel with three dollar dorm beds. I seemed to be the only traveler in town. It was so late in the season that everyone but the bus station touts had given up on standing outside, trying to scream me into their establishments.
I spent the next few days in some much-needed peace, some rest and respite from the energy of Hong Kong. I lulled away the hours with walks along that sixty dollar river, moving at my own pace and stopping to explore this and that. The pleasure was worth every cent I didn’t have to spend. My days were quiet and calm, interrupted only by a fundamentalist Chinese hostel worker trying to convert me to her brand of Christianity (is ‘reverse-colonialism’ a word yet?), and the cackle of an ancient Chinese woman as I slipped from a log footbridge into the frigid river. She seemed highly amused to demonstrate the ease with which she crossed the slick wood, wearing her flip-flops that appeared to be older than me. Such are the strange, simple and beautiful quirks of travel.
If there’s a lesson to be had here, it’s that by moving slowly and intentionally, even “cheap” travels can be made cheaper — and it is often more enjoyable that way. When I come back to Yangshuo, I may take the bamboo raft tour… but I probably won’t. I will probably still save the money and do some hiking instead.
Most of my friends who spent the university break flying off to distant cities are now back home, and only a few have done any long-traveling since. This is their choice and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not for me. When I sit in some dusty noodle bar on the side of a road whose name I can’t pronounce, I find myself repeating again the mantra. “Live cheaply, live humbly, and you can travel anywhere if you take your time.”
The Disenchanting World of Chinese Costume Photography@ShivajiAuthor Published on March 12, 2014
The bait was simply irresistible. Straight in my face: a collage of Tang Dynasty characters. I could be one of them too. I could be Tripitaka, long tails flowing down my ears. I could be General Zhang Liang, with spiky armored plates all over my body and a menacing sword. Or perhaps, I should become a Tang prince, taking a leisurely stroll beside a lotus pond, caressing my beard and making sure my shirt sleeve folds are just right. And surprise, surprise, I could even dress up like a court eunuch. As I stood mesmerized in front of this dream collage, the sales lady delivered the deal clincher, “Only 20 yuan here, at Yan’an, you pay 40.”
The place is just outside the Big Goose Pagoda at Xi’an, China. The traps had been set up at several vantage points, collage of costume photographs pasted on cardboard. These are common in all tourist attractions in China. There are some local flavors too. In Yan’an, holy site #2 for communists, you could dress up like a soldier from the Long March, with a plastic pistol and a toy mule. Costume photography is one of those greatest tourist moments in China and demand is high in this society hungry for antiquity long after the cultural purges of the Cultural Revolution.
As soon as we nodded the photographer arrived. She was in her forties, with a weather beaten skin, dressed in well-worn but not well-washed t-shirt and jeans. A professional looking camera hung from her neck. Otherwise, she could be mistaken for a Christmas tree, big bags dangling from all around her. We followed her inside a souvenir shop, walked up a few floors and then finally, after a good fifteen minutes of walking, we were at the studio.
This time-machine cum studio was dim and greasy. First, there was a huge plastic throne, all gilded. Then followed a wallpaper imitating a bamboo forest, then a wallpaper imitating a lotus pond, then a lot of trash and junk, broken imitation terracotta statue, and a crazy horse; heavily duct-taped. On the opposite wall, there was a backdrop of heaven, then another lotus pond scene, then again a lot of trash, headless terracotta soldier, air-cooler, and broken props. The carpet pretending to be a verdant lawn was crumpled. An umbrella, a hand-fan and a plastic sword lay on the floor without purpose. A fake guzheng and a fake pipa had the same fate; their strings were made of washing lines.
We walked past the studio to the dressing room. Four other customers were dressing up, three girls and one boy, all teenagers. These princesses were wearing snickers and big floral headgear with horns. The boy had chosen to be a warrior. Each customer had their own photographer, all women. The closet was overflowing with costumes and it was hard to choose any in this abundance. There was a big group of villagers who had just come in and were waiting behind us. We just took whatever we could pick up. I would be Tripitaka, the fictionalized version of Huen Tsang. My wife would be the princess who tries to allure him; an obstacle in his holy journey to get Buddhist scriptures from India. The photographer quickly fit the costumes on us with Velcro. I, an Indian Huen Tsang, drew laughs from everyone around. By the way, Tang Dynasty costumes seemed perfectly designed for Hot Yoga, for as soon as we wore them, we began sweating profusely.
Back at the studio, a queue had already formed for the backdrops. When our turn came, the photographer became a sudden bundle of energy, “Make a lotus with your hands, ok, look at camera, smile, ok, now make Orchid finger pose, ok, smile, click, now point your finger to the left, look at your finger, smile, click… now move to the bamboo garden, put the umbrella behind you, look, smile, click.. leave the umbrella, move to the throne, sit, spread out your hands, look up, smile, click, one leg forward, click.. you want the horse? No? Ok, move over to the lake then, sit down, touch the strings of the guzheng, Not like that, no, ok, click, now look up, smile, Orchid finger pose, no, no, why orchid finger pose on guzheng, just look down, click.. wait, your headgear is falling…ok, now, look down, click…lotus pond now, want to do something funny, ok, never mind, click, want more? Ok then, come, choose what you want at that desk.”
She had taken fifty photographs in ten minutes, talking non-stop, juggling around all the bags she was carrying. We were sweating profusely but delighted that we were finally leaving our mark in human history.
The processing counter was a computer whose display had been somehow held up with used soda bottles and tape. At the processing counter, you have to follow Hamurabi’s code of law:
“You will be shown the pictures on the computer screen one by one. Before moving on to the next picture, you have to decide whether you want a print of the picture or not. You can’t go back. Once you have shortlisted the pictures, you can’t again select from among these. You have to buy all of these, 20 yuan for each. You can and you should laminate these, 2 yuan a piece.”
Most of our pictures were blurred. Backdrops had encroached into each other’s territory. The red carpet at the center of the studio was overlapping with the fake lawn in most photographs. The photographers, after all, are not photographers. They are just migrants from the interior, most probably farmers given their weather-beaten skins, trying to eke out a living. The idea is to take a lot of pictures in a short time and hope that some of them turn out to the customer’s liking. The photographers are incentivized through commissions for each photo selected.
And how did it feel to be Tripitaka? Of course, it is suffocating hot to be a Tang Dynasty personality. When I was dressed and waiting in the queue for the backdrops, I felt anxious; “Move on others, give me my turn.” And while I was against the backdrops, I transformed into a tea-party radical; worried from all the clicks; what will the total bill come to? And yes, it was tempting to drool over the uniqueness of the man who managed to form a tenuous link between two neighboring civilizations which couldn’t be any further apart.
How to Make the Most of Your Travels, Get to Amazing Places, and Meet Interesting People@BuddStBrewery Published on March 9, 2014
“Drive down the highway, go on for a stretch and then turn off somewhere where you don’t see any cars and then go on a bit further. You’ll see the real Australia,” a publican in the Northern Territory.
It was a typical Friday at my language school. The end of the week involves a more casual approach to learning. Trips to libraries, museums, or perhaps a tour of the graffiti covered laneways around Melbourne. This particular afternoon we were planning to watch ‘Bad News Bears’, a classic American 1970s comedy with mixed morals and a drunk protagonist. Maybe on this day I felt kinship with Walter Matthau, minus the beer in hand.
Before the film started I was chatting with one of my graduating Japanese students. The typical interview that I have had literally hundreds, if not thousands of times. How was the class? What are you doing in the future? Did you like Melbourne? Australia?
My students response was fairly typical.
“I don’t like Australia, it’s boring.”
“Really,” I replied. Like a script from a bad TV series I knew her lines by heart.
There is nothing to do.
All the shops close too early.
It’s too expensive. (this is painfully true, to be fair)
I thought about giving her my typical line about getting out into nature and going camping but I spared her. It makes me feel like an old nagger. I’ve heard this all before and maybe in my near 5 years of teaching in Australia I have met only one or two students who have actually discovered what makes Australia so great.
As a publican in the NT told me over a cold lager, the greatness of this country lies in getting out of the cities and exploring what this unique continent has to offer. Melbourne is great, trendy, and full of amazing food. To say Sydney is gorgeous is as close to a universal travel truth a you can find. They are great places to live and work and explore, but these are two small places on a big continent.
For homework in my classes. I often try to get my students to ask questions to ordinary Australians on the trains, trams, or at the shops. Questions range from the fairly typical “How are you?” to a bit more targeted “What is the most beautiful/amazing/interesting thing you have seen in Australia?”
It’s understandable that these assignments can be daunting, tedious, and annoying, but the purpose behind them is twofold. The obvious one is to get students practicing English, the second is to try to get some of my students to see that being engaging with people can make interesting, quirky adventures happen. Maybe that beautiful spot is a bus ride away or maybe after striking up a conversation they might be tipped off to a great, cheap restaurant around the corner, or, in true traveler fashion, get invited to someone’s home.
Australia is a big, expensive, time-consuming place to travel in, but all this can be mitigated with creativity, ingenuity and a bit of pluck. There are several community centres that offer free meals and a chance to socialize with other people (Food Not Bombs being the most prevalent), while hitching is still an option. In Melbourne, an organization called CERES runs an organic farm and bike workshop where you can build your own bike and ride it off for the price of a membership ($10 a year).
If you were willing to get dirty there are a myriad options for farm work and free campsites that will take you across the country. The rewards are immense.
A few years ago, a group of friends and myself wanted to hike along the Great Southwest Track. It starts on the border of Victoria and South Australia and passes along the rough Victorian coastline before returning to the town of Portland, Victoria. When doing research we realized that by taking the train we would be left pretty well short of the trailhead. We called the local ranger and asked him if there was a local bus that we could jump on. He said no, but offered to come pick us up (in the middle of the night no less) and let us camp in his front yard and drive us to the trail in the morning. He was just happy some people were interested in coming for the walk. We spent the next four days on the edge of the world, passing stunning cliffs, sleeping seals, and walking along a petrified forest. By making a phone call and just talking to someone we were given four days of adventure.
This is not meant to be an ad for Australian tourism, nor am I simply chastising ESL students. Very few people are aware that it is entirely possible to go and swim with stingrays on a beach withing walking distance of the public transport. I realize many people come here specifically to make money and a lot of people have no interest in nature or spending long hours in a car or bus. But for those who do there is a lot of subtle joys that Australia can offer. I think this is true for pretty much anywhere you travel.
This morning, after sleeping late I sipped my coffee in my backyard while reading Philip Hoare’s Whale. In our fig tree I noticed the rainbow larakeets hopping around looking for figs for breakfast. I daydreamed about going back to the coast and spotting a blue whale and then thought about the bats that would replace the Larakeets at night. Stunning beauty and life all over a cup of coffee in a city of 4 million people. I decided to try get a photograph of our brightly coloured friends, but as I stood up the larakeets, in typical darting fashion, flew off, leaving only the branches shaking in the wind. The rustling of the leaves seemed to whisper so many things, but none of those whispers said boring.
How to Navigate Bureaucracy When Traveling Perpetually and Living Abroad Pt.1@vagabondjourney Published on March 7, 2014
There’s the real world and then there’s the paper world. Things may not always work out in the real world but they are always perfect in the paper world.
I learned this lesson early on as an archaeologist, and it’s stuck with me though all facets of life that require the blending of the reality with the official — i.e. filling out and filing of any type of official document. When I’m in such a situation I read the questions on the form and I ask myself:
What is the simplest, most ordinary way that I can fill this out and still maintain a fleck of truth?
I fill out all documents like I do immigration arrival forms.
When I pull up to an immigration booth and take that little form my aim isn’t to answer those questions as truthfully as possible, my aim is to answer them as simply as possible and truthful enough.
Now is it simpler to say that I’m an independent journalist who blogs and works on books who’s going to spend my time asking people a lot of prying questions and taking photos of strange things, or is it simpler to say that I’m a webmaster who’s going to be an ordinary tourist who just wants to see the sites like every other ordinary tourist?
I’m not going to say that I know anybody in the country, I’m not going to say that I’m going to be staying at a friend’s house, I’m not going to say that I’m going to some far flung place that no tourist has ever gone before. No, I’m going to fill the profile of what I’m claiming to be.
This methodology changes little regardless of the type of official paperwork I’m filling out. I have an official narrative, an official profile and I stick with it.
The fact of the matter is that you need to be classifiable, you need to be easy to rank and file. If you fall through the cracks you’re going to cog the gears of the machine. Don’t try to be unique, don’t try to prove that you tread un-stomped trails, that you’ve hacked life and live like no other. That’s too interesting, and interesting is the last thing you want to be when standing before officialdom. Figure out how to look as run of the mill as possible, construct an official narrative, and go with it. The best way to truly fall through the cracks of bureaucracy is to look like you fit right in.
The real world of the perpetual traveler is often complex, but the paper world can often be as simple as you make it.
When I was a university student some questions arose about where I actually lived. I lived nowhere, I’d been traveling for years and years. So like bonehead I tried to explain this. I compiled a list of 50 or so places that I have stayed over the previous few years and submitted it. It apparently made whoever received it go cross-eyed. It wouldn’t fly, I couldn’t be categorized, and I almost lost a good deal of financial aid. So I backtracked, said I misunderstood the question, and submitted a single address from NY State. “I live here and always have.” Simple. I never had a reason to alter this strategy since.
I recently received two travel questions from readers who’ve found themselves stuck between the cracks of the system.
The first came from an Australian who’s has been married to a Dutch woman for 18 years and apparently never bothered to go through the process of gaining EU citizenship — which is, admittedly, a rather arduous thing to do. He said that they’ve been working on yachts around the world since 2006, and technically didn’t have any country of residence as they haven’t stayed anywhere long enough. Now they want to cauterize their traveling life and set up a base in France. The problem: his visa is running out.
The French authorities tell him that he needs to return to Australia to apply for a D visa — which is something there’s no getting around — but he refuses to do so because he says that he’s no longer an Australian resident as he’s been away from the country for 18 years. The guy’s stuck in a Catch-22 of perpetual travel: if you don’t stay anywhere long enough during the span of a year you’re technically a resident of nowhere. Residency and citizenship are two different things, your citizenship always stays valid unless you denounce or change it, but residency can expire, and it’s requirements are different depending on whatever political entity you’re dealing with.
While this guy’s case truly doesn’t have anything to do with residency, he is still a good example of how not to approach officialdom when traveling and living abroad.
The reality of the life of a perpetual traveler doesn’t naturally fit within the bounds of the paper world, so simplify, simplify, simplify it until it does.
I received another question from a reader who’s from the USA but has been living in Europe doing an art project or something like that. Her visa was set to run out just as she moved from Austria to France. She petitioned the French authorities for a visa extension, and they just set her spinning in circles — like they tend to do. Coming to her aid was an organization in Germany who specializes in getting longer term visas for artists. The caveat: she needs to provide a German address.
The solution appeared too simple. I replied:
“There is the real world and there is the paper world. Your official address does not have to be the one you actually live at, and as immigration checks between Schengen countries are random and informal there is no telling how long you actually stay any country. Germany, by all accounts, is your best bet.”
Officialdom tends to care about what we put down on the documents we submit to them, and just so they check out and are consistent, 99% of the time that’s it. We’re the rabble, the men in black are not going to go door to door looking for us. But there is this mental ridgy, this stubbornness, or fear that many people seem to have when approaching officialdom. They seem to want to make the system bend or make exceptions for their particular, unique cases, or they are scared into being overly specific. Though I’ve learned that it’s far easier to morph and appear to fit within the contours of the system than it is to bend its iron mold. In other words, it’s way easier to fall between the cracks if you appear to fit right in.
There’s the real world and then there’s the paper world. Things may not always work out in the real world but they are always perfect in the paper world.
Vagabond Newsletter 011 – March 5, 2014@vagabondjourney Published on March 5, 2014
This past month at Vagabond Journey has been a good one. The blogging team for 2014 has pulled itself together, and is starting to cranked out the posts, and I don’t think I’ve seen the outside of my room in 30 days.
I’m shoulder deep in my ghost cities book, but the end is in sight. I have two or three more weeks to finish, and that’s it. There are still so many questions to ask, people to talk to, things to write about . . . but this is always going to be the case with such a big project. The best projects are those that seem like deep, dark pits. You fall down deep into it and then spend the next 3 to 6 months clawing your way back out. The top always seems impossibly far away and each time you climb up a little you fall back down to the bottom. It seems as if the end will never come throughout, but you keep at it. Eventually, you climb out — or so you hope. For me here, I still can’t see the light, but I know it’s out there somewhere, so I keep clawing . . . typing.
We’ve had a couple new authors on Vagabond Journey since the last newsletter. Shivaji Das and Izaak Diggs have submitted some articles this past month. Keep on the lookout for weekly posts from Shivaji about Kawah Ijen, a volcano where miners risk their lives to extract sulfur and costume photography in China and Huxian farmer paintings.
Gar Williams, the Senior Vagabond, has uploaded his entire personal blog to Vagabond Journey. This is a big event, as there are a lot of good stories in there about what brought him to start traveling, where he comes from, his approach on life, and what he’s after. Essential reading. Read them all in Gar’s archive.
Send to Amazon button
You can now send each article on Vagabond Journey to your Kindle for free. Just click on the “send to Kindle” button at the top of each post and it will send the content with photos over. If you’d rather, you can subscribe by Kindle and get each post sent to your Kindle reader automatically for $.99 per month. Subscribe by Kindle.
After letting the email newsletter go for far too long, I’ve started tightening it up a few days ago. It should now look and function a lot better. If you have any suggestions for it, let me know. If you haven’t already, you can subscribe here for free.
Horrible. Business as usual. I was invited into the Chitika Gold advertising program — the highest level they have available — and I will share the results just because they’re so hilarious and show the economic side of web publishing pretty clearly:
Views | Clicks | CTR | CPM | Earnings
34,993 | 126 | 0.36% | $0.07 | $2.38
Over a short span of time I showed their ads on my pages over 34k times, sent their advertisers 126 clicks, and only made $2.38! That is so low I have to laugh. There is no worst advertising program out there that I know of. A respectable ad program will pay an average of $.50 per click. So I sent this company’s clients over $60 worth of traffic for $2.38! Needless to say, I removed their ads fast.
Don’t become a blogger to make money. Just don’t do it.
I’m still running other ad programs that pay more, but this has never been a very lucrative occupation. Though there is a threshold of roughly 50k page views per day that if a site can cross an entire spectrum of advertising options will open up. The goal here is to cross that threshold and be able to completely fund the travels of a dozen or so writers. Though, like most business endeavors, it’s hard to get over the hump without an initial financial boost. I’ve sort of been hoping that I could find a 50G start up fund in a basement somewhere these past couple of years, but it’s not looking like this is going to happen haha. That said, after my book is finished I will start putting a few other strategies into play to earn more money so I can justify investing more into the site.
- Lawrence Hamilton travels each weekend around Australia. He’s going to Sri Lanka soon.
- Shivaji Das is currently in India but is going to South Korea this week.
- Gar Williams is in Ecuador.
- Michael Britton is in India.
- Apol Danganan is in Manila.
- I’m in China.
Look for stories coming soon from all the places mentioned above.
I’m making it a goal to publish a travel story and a travel tutorial per day, five days per week, and a long read on Sunday mornings. We’re kicking out the travel stories pretty good, but I need some help on the tips front. If anybody out there has a lot of travel experience and wants to write some tutorials, get in touch.
Having travelers offering to contribute stories really makes my day, but if I were to get an email from a desk jockey looking for an internship I’d probably croak from excitement. At the end of the day publishing happens in front of a computers, and while it’s difficult to find good travel writers, it’s almost impossible to find a solid journalistic grunt — especially for what I can pay, which is nothing right now (though I hope to change this again soon).
I’m looking for someone to do a daily column on world culture and expedition news who can also write high quality and entertaining lists (a very valuable art that’s surprisingly difficult to master). The position would consist of interview people going on big scientific or sporting expeditions (swimmers, mountaineers, scientists), researching interesting aspects of cultures of their choice, and doing a good, informative list per week. I don’t have much to trade this person other than advice and the potentiality that I hope to make more money again soon so I can go back to paying writers. Honestly, I don’t have much to bargain with right now.
The life of a professional webmaster is a life of tweaking code and doing site redesigns. You always think it’s going to end and you’ll come up with a design that lasts, but the alterations just keep coming. When I need a break from the endless procession of ticking out words I do a little design work. So if you have any advice or have seen something cool on another site that you’d like to see here, please let me know.
I’m also looking for some guinea pigs to test some ideas and to gather information on a few topics. More on this soon.
My wife, Hannah, has taken over our Facebook page, and it has really picked up momentum. There are daily challenges, so go and test your travel knowledge . . . and “like” it while you’re there. Vagabond Journey on Facebook.
Coming this month
The ghost cities book should be finished this month, and the first thing I’m probably going to do after it’s done is something ridiculous like start writing another book on Chinese youth/ counter-culture. I hope our other writers have a little more sanity and go off and have some crazy adventures to share.
That’s it for now. If anyone has any questions, advice, wants to submit some articles, please get in touch.
Thanks for everything,
The Colored Lakes of Kelimutu@ShivajiAuthor Published on March 4, 2014
It had been raining all week. The sky was completely blanketed in grey. But we took a chance and decided to visit the crater. My wife, Lobo, and I had only this chance to see the colored lakes of Kelimutu in the island of Flores in Indonesia.
As we climbed, the mist got denser. We could barely see what lay ahead. Two French tourists were coming down, “We couldn’t see anything. We spent three days here and everyday it’s the same. We are so glad we are leaving tomorrow.” The local Lio tribe believe that visitors hoping to get a clear sky when visiting Kelimutu should bring small gifts for Konde Ratu, the guardian spirit. We realized in horror that we had nothing.
But as soon as we crossed the park entrance, the sky began to clear up. Konde Ratu had accepted the entrance fee as our gift. Bit by bit, as we climbed higher, we could see more around us. Soon the first rays of sunlight hit our faces. We screamed in delight, “Yes, Mr. Sun! You can do it.” We ran to the lakes like two kids chasing the last remaining packet of candy in the world.
Mr. Sun kept trying his best to sweep out the mess in the sky and when we arrived at the first lake, there was just a candyfloss sized cloud reluctantly climbing out of the crater. From the viewing point, guarded by an annoying red railing, we saw the swimming pool sized turquoise lake. It was a little unimpressive for its reputation, but we were exhilarated more at the fortunate turn of events. Restless, we bumped into every inch of the railing to catch a view from all angles, like two urchins trying to get rid of the ice slipped through our clothes.
Tucked just above one corner of the first lake was the second, another turquoise water body. Scraggy and lifeless rocky walls in red enclosed the lakes. We rushed to the highest point from where all three lakes would be visible, afraid that the sun would set soon. The third lake was a bowl of Coca Cola. The sun glared from behind its walls making it difficult to keep looking at it for long. It was alive. It held the position of power in this rotating arrangement among the three, determined by the movement of the sky around the sun.
The Lio call this lake Tiwu Ata Mbupu. The first lake from the park entrance is called Tiwu Ata Polo. The third lake is called Tiwu Nua Muri Koohi Fah. Scientists simply call them by the acronyms: TAM, TAP and TiN.
The Lio believe that the spirits of people who die at an old age go to reside at TAM, of those who die young go to TiN, and of those who had been evil are condemned to TAP. Konde Ratu assigns the lakes to each spirit. TAP didn’t seem to be a worse place than TAM or TiN, except for that ugly red railing around it.
The colors of these volcanic lakes had been different a few years back. The turquoise lakes had then been red and green. As their water levels change because of rainfall, evaporation and seepage different salts from the rocks dissolve in varying concentrations, thus giving the lakes a change of coating every few years. The Lio believe that the lakes change color with the changing moods of the resident ancestral spirits.
Suddenly, we realized that we were the only ones at Kelimutu. We shut our mouth, having congratulated ourselves enough for our prescient planning. The silence of the place, alive and encroaching, enveloped us. We listened to this mysteriously interrupted silence. We heard the soft roar of an army of approaching wind. Muffled explosions were happening inside the lakes from time to time. Perhaps something went inside the turquoise lake? Ripples here and there; something came up? As shelters for spirits the lakes are extremely crowded spaces and these upwellings are testimonial to the constant jostling that happens inside. Giant shadows moved back and forth and the lakes underneath gained new shapes with them.
Behind the walls of the lakes, someone was pulling over a massive blanket of white clouds. Soon, we were sitting on a rock island jutting out from an endless sea of clouds. A pall of mist began touching our faces like a blind old lady. We felt each needle point of moisture twinkling in the sunlight. A rainbow appeared from nowhere and, as if it was already not enough, halos appeared over our soft shadows. We were tempted to say “I love you” to each other. But words were superfluous in this timeless expanse, watched over by the ancestors.
How to reach Kelimutu:
The colored lakes of Kelimutu can be reached from the village of Moni in Flores, Indonesia. Moni can be reached by a two to three hour drive from the nearest towns of Ende or Maumere. Flights are available to both these towns from major cities in Indonesia. Alternatively, one can arrive by Pelni ships to either of these towns from other major ports of Indonesia.
This is an excerpt from the author’s book, Journeys With the Caterpillar, a humble and humorous attempt to capture the dramatic simplicity of Nusa Tenggara Timur(NTT) in Indonesia, covering the islands of Flores, Komodo, Rinca and Sumba. You can buy the complete book here on Amazon for $2.99.
A Wake Up Call From The New China Generation@vagabondjourney Published on March 4, 2014
I leaned back in my seat, closed my eyes, and fell asleep. The slight vibrations sent up from the tracks below sort of rocked me. There are few things more comfortable than sleeping on a train. Perfect. Three or so hours slip by, then suddenly I’m jolted awake. I shake to a start and peered at my tormentor. It was the guy sitting next to me.
“Would you like one?” he asked and handed me a Hershey Kiss.
What the? … This guy was just looking out the window silently, showing absolutely no interest in me for the first three hours of the ride and now he suddenly got inspired to wake me up from a full-on sleep to offer me a fckng Hersey Kiss?
It was too odd to be irritating, curiosity usurped annoyance. I took the chocolate and looked at the guy. Mid to late twenties, thin, thick black plastic glasses, typing a WeChat message — standard geek. I kept watching him. There was something peculiar about this guy beyond the fact that he’d just woken up a peacefully sleeping stranger on a train to share a chocolate and then went back to what he was doing without another word. It’s not my impression that I was snoring or drooling on his shoulder or anything. He made himself a cup of instant coffee. Nescafe and Hershey chocolate — not uncommon commodities in China but a shear indication of mindset nonetheless. I figured I’d may as well start talking to him, the least this guy could do was tell me something interesting to make up for ruining my nap.
We made small talk. He mentioned casually that he was part of the team that reverse engineered Quora and made the Chinese equivalent, Zhihu.com. My ears perked up, that was a relatively renown Chinese swipe job. I began throttling him with questions.
“So you stole what Quora did and made a Chinese version of it?”
“I guess, yes,” he replied simply.
“Did Quora get angry that you made a Chinese copy of their site?”
“I think maybe they were angry. But they wanted to know how we did it, so we sent them a report. Now I think they are not very angry anymore.”
Zhihu, which means “Do you know?” in Mandarin is one of the top social sites in China, bringing in over 40 million monthly users.
He did software design (theft) but earlier mentioned that he studied civil engineering in university. I asked how that works. He laughed at me: “I was told when I entered university that I can study civil engineering, so that’s what I did.” Fair enough.
The train was speeding by an area that had been cleared out to build an elevated highway. The construction area gouged out the side of a village. The houses that were allowed to stay now had backhoes butting up against them, and would soon have a highway passing by overhead. It provoked a memory.
“I worked on building roads but I saw them making a high-speed rail line,” my new companion began. “They built it overhead, like a bridge, right over some guy’s house. Like this.” He then drew a picture of a house with a T-shape over it. “This guy doesn’t get any money, they say that the track was not on his land so he doesn’t get anything. But every time a train goes by it goes right over his house and it’s very loud.”
We talked about evictions. I was currently riding up country to finish covering a story about a nail house. He worked on the opposite side of the line.
“What America and the rest of the world does not understand is that things work differently in China,” he began. “You can do things here that you can’t do anywhere else. In America, governments can’t just easily kick people out of their homes to make a new rail line.”
I tried explaining our eminent domain practices, but cut it short. No country in the world even comes close to matching the shear number of forced evictions that China has carried out since the beginning of the economic boom period. In a joint study done by Landesa Rural Development Institute, Renmin University, and Michigan State University, it was found that upwards of 4 million rural Chinese are being relocated each year, which has affected 64 million families, roughly 16% of the total population, and has impacted 43 percent of the villages in the country.
“When we go to other countries we see that things are not like this everywhere,” he added as we looked out the window as we sped past another village.
I asked him about his work as a civil engineer. He was just a young grunt in this profession, but I was curious about what he saw and experienced.
“I would sometimes go to dinner with the government people who would oversee our projects,” he began. “We would drive out and meet them on the highway at the border of our city and give them cigarettes and hong bao that had 200 or 400 RMB. Then we would go and have lunch at a really good restaurant in a house that nobody else knows about. Then later on we would have dinner. We would order all kinds of animals. Sometimes peacock, which is served in a very yellow soup. One time a guy ordered dog and tried to make us all eat it.”
“I used to score road conditions and I once gave a very low score for one road that was very bad. The next time I went back there the road maintenance committee tried to give me a present. They had a big package of something and a hong bao. I refused to take it. They said, ‘Why not? I give to your boss, I give to your colleagues, why won’t you take it?” It is my name that is on the paper so if something goes wrong it is my problem. They then knew that I wasn’t one of them.”
He then told me about how the inspector of the collapsed Rainbow Bridge was given 20 years in prison for taking hong bao to approve low quality construction.
“It is not worth the 4,000 RMB per month they pay me.”
“One day when I went back to the office at the end of the work day my boss called me into his office. He said congratulations and was all happy. He said that I was approved to become a member of the Communist Party. I said hell no. He said, ‘I don’t understand you. I don’t understand why a young guy like you wouldn’t want this.’ I thought that then would be a good time to quit.”
As the president had recently been making a much publicized purge of corruption in the party, I asked my companion if he ever knew of anyone who was shuanggui’ed, the sometimes brutal CPC discipline procedure.
“My ex, ex boss was punished. He was caught taking a bribe of 10,000 RMB. So he had to go to work for four years but did nothing. That was his punishment! He just sat in his office every day for four years doing nothing. After four years he was made the head of a water treatment facility and everything went back to normal for him. That was no punishment! The CPC doesn’t really punish its members just so they always stay loyal to the party.”
I mildly countered him, mentioning how Bo Xilai was punished. But my companion just laughed at my nativity and told me that Mr. Bo is currently a resident of Qingchang, the same prison that Mao’s wife was held in. “It is said that he eats organic food, has good wine, and wears a suit.”
But then he added, “Even the rich people are very anxious because they know that if one thing goes wrong or they upset the wrong person that they can lose everything.”
We were talking politics now, and I asked him what he thinks the Chinese Dream really means. Again, laughed at me.
“Chinese Dream? It doesn’t mean anything! It’s just something the party says to confuse people.”
This term has been getting thrown around since the current administration took over, and represents an ideological framework of what the role of the individual is as China continues its political and economic assent. The streets of the country are covered with posters of rotund dolls bearing messages like, “Dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation.” It’s propaganda not unlike that of the time of Mao. Though it’s my impression that it doesn’t seem to be gaining any real traction with the populous, and most just ignore it. When asked what these slogans really mean many just sort of shrug and say they have no idea.
At the time I had this conversation a summary of the CPC’s Third Plenum meeting was just made public, so I asked my companion if he bothered reading it. He said he did but added that it didn’t make any sense, which is more or less the predominant sentiment among people who struggled through the cryptic, twisty, multifaceted text. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he repeated.
“When we are in school we are taught Mao Zedong policy and Deng Xiaoping policy and all of the CPC policies. They teach us this and teach us this until we can’t think anything else,” he said.
I asked him what he thought of the political transitions that have happened in the past thirty or so years, but he didn’t seem impressed. “Before they broke into your house and took everything. Now they walk in, talk and act nice and take only a few things at a time. America assumes that Chinese leaders will get better and start to do the right thing, but they won’t. America does not understand how evil these people are. There is no measure for how evil they are.”
I asked him what he thought of the current president.
“He doesn’t say so much so maybe they thought he would just do what they tell him.”
“Who are they?” I asked.
“The people who really run the government,” he said simply, as though talking about white rice. “We have a saying: Zhu miao tang zhi gao’ It means, ‘Living deep in the Miao Tang.’ It is like a problem that is so deep that you can’t see the answer.” I asked him what miao tang meant. He thought of a translation for a moment, then said that it meant temple house, “like the place in the Forbidden City where decisions would be made, the place where ancient lords worshiped and had meetings.” His explanation then got a little fuzzy, and I’m unsure if he was expressing himself as well as he wished. “It’s like they see you but you can’t see them,” he concluded.
He then described how he thinks the government of China is made up:
He was talking shadow government stuff, the same things that people rage about from Omaha to Osaka. I’ve had this conversation before in China, and his were not uncommon sentiments and probably to be expected in a country where even the official government functions like a secret society.
This reminded me of a story from an American journalist working in the Middle East that was in some documentary that I saw. The journalist pressed an Egyptian women to backup a rather ludicrous political statement she made. Defeated, she said something to the effect of, “The government doesn’t give us any information so we have to make it up for ourselves.” The same can be said for China.
I asked my companion if he talks openly to other Chinese people about things like this, and he replied, “We don’t talk about this to each other. Common people can’t do anything so we don’t give a shit.”
I highly doubted the first part of this statement, as it is innumerable the amount of times that Chinese people have gone off on similar rants to me. It seems as if you have an 8 out of 10 shot at pulling the rip cord of a taxi driver and launching a diatribe on politics just by asking the guy what he thinks of his country. They usually start out with, “In American you have democracy. In China we have no democracy, we have no human rights . . . ” and continue on from there. I can’t be the only one they’re saying this stuff to.
Heretical outlooks seem to be the norm here, it’s extremely rare that I’ve ever met anyone who is not among the 8% of the population who are CPC members who express support for it. In an odd way this unites the country, which is perhaps an unintended hallmark of a one party system. Everyone seems to be calling for reforms, but these calls are coming from exact opposite sides of the political field. Half is yelling for more liberties, more political and economic openness, for democracy, less authoritarianism and increased internationalization, while the other half seems to want to return to the “glory days” of communism when “everyone had the same.” “Everybody in China is on fire,” is how it was once put to me.
Our conversation then turned a little more personal. I asked him if he had a girlfriend, and he just laughed. “Dating is coercion,” he said in English. “My parents once told me that I should date some girl they knew. They said that we should be boyfriend and girlfriend for a couple of years and then get married and get a house. I said go fck yourself, I never even met her!”
Of course, this was an expression, he didn’t really tell his parents to go boink themselves. But again, his sentiments were not uncommon. This is a country where marriage is more or less a high pressure economic arrangement between families, and it has been reported that 2/3 of young people direly fear the union of man and wife.
More on Vagabond Journey: Marriage in China, What’s Love Got to do With it?
I publish this conversation not because my train companion’s outlooks were rare and unusual, but because of the opposite: they are rather common. There is a massive undercurrent in Chinese society that’s not going the direction it appears on the surface. There is an entire class of young adults who were born with one foot in the Old China and the other in the New who don’t seem to know where they stand. They are the first generation to grow up in the Reform and Opening period, and take their country’s gains for granted. They are China’s internationalized sect. They are educated, seek opinions beyond what they were taught in school, speak foreign languages, live entangled within the internet. They are information seekers who want change and are not afraid to express it. They are the linchpins who will more than likely establish a revised social protocol when come of age and take the helm, but for now they grudgingly float along with the tide, ranting to foreigners on trains.
The Dream, Death, and Rebirth of AmboyPublished on March 3, 2014
It was twilight when we approached Amboy driving west on the National Highway. Seeing the doors to the old cabins open we pulled off the road. Candy started taking pictures while I stuck my head in one of the cabins; it was maybe fourteen feet square, just one room with a small bathroom and an ancient looking wall heater. Fifty yards to the east was the Amboy School, now deserted and protected by a chain link fence. A couple hundred yards to the west was a filling station and Roy’s Motel and Cafe. We were there twenty minutes and maybe half a dozen cars passed by. Not a bad count for an obscure, desert road but disappointing for a town that had been shaped out of such a big dream.
In the late 1930s the gas station was opened by Roy Crowl who became partners with his son-in-law Herman “Buster” Burris a few years after that. It was Buster that had the dream, running power himself from Barstow. At its peak the town had 700 residents and Roy’s employed 70 people. When Interstate 40 was completed in 1972 so began the slow death of Amboy. Rather than see what he had poured his life into be slowly lost to the desert, Buster bulldozed most of the town himself.
Thirty years passed. Buster retired and eventually died. Investors came and went and at one point the entire city was for sale on EBay. It is currently owned by Albert Okura, owner of Juan Pollo chain of restaurants. According the the Juan Pollo website, Mr. Okura plans to reopen the restaurant and motel. That was in 2011; three years later those facilities remain closed. As we pulled back onto the remains of old route 66, I wondered if Amboy would be granted its rebirth or if that would remain yet another unrealized dream.
Two miles to the west of town is the Amboy Crater. When smoke was spotted curling from the dormant volcano in the mid-forties, both the highway and the railroad were closed for 72 hours. The panic only dissipated when a plane was brought in from Los Angeles and the smoke was revealed to be an elaborate prank by some high school students. Pulling onto the one lane road up to the crater I thought about those kids. They were probably bored and frustrated; strung out on the impatient itch of youth and feeling stuck in a small, dusty town as cars passed through to Los Angeles or Chicago or any other big city along US 66. Too young to have fought in the war and not bold enough to set out for the big city, they dragged a bunch of old tires and lumber up to the crater and played one of the best high school pranks ever.
A family was setting up camp as we walked up the path to the viewing area. It was getting dark but we still climbed the fence and set off across the rocky ground strewn with lava. Stars were emerging in the darkening sky like bright eyes opening. A few minutes from the campground the quiet and still was unearthly. Looking up at the crater it was easy to imagine we were on another planet. The beauty was profound as was the solitude. Both of us just stood there for several minutes without speaking, not wanting to leave but realizing with night comes a sharp chill to the desert.
Walking back I thought about those teenagers starting that fire in the crater, I also thought of Buster. Legend has it when he came to the area for the first time he blurted out “Who left the oven on?!” Despite that first response he fell deeply in love with place and spent all his time and energy on a dream that was probably doomed from the beginning. I see him out there, driving a battered Studebaker pickup stringing wire onto poles in order to bring electricity to Amboy, and I understand him. The desert is not for everyone. For most people it is a place to pass through in a hurry or to get lost in and perish. For some of us like Buster, there is a different sort of getting lost; lost in a harsh yet magical land that few understand. It is a land of fires, and a land of dreams.
Atypical Travel: The Life of A Traveling Ice Hockey Player@vagabondjourney Published on March 2, 2014
Naoki Kaneko travels the world playing ice hockey. Originally from Japan, he has been bouncing around various hockey leagues in the USA and Europe for the past five years. He does what he loves, sees the world, and gets paid for it. Naoki is this week’s guest on Vagabond Journey’s Atypical Travel series.
Could you tell us a little about your hockey playing history? When and where did you start playing? What teams have you played for?
I’m from Japan but I used to live in NY for 5 years when I was a kid. I started to play hockey in NY when I was 6 years old. I played 1 year in NY and went back to Japan. I continue to play hockey in Japan till middle of my university. I rest my university to try to play outside of Japan. I went to Canada for junior leagues. After that I went for a tryout in US. I made it, but I had problem with VISA, so I rest with a semi pro team in WI [Madison Blues]. Next season I flew to France and here I am.
Could you tell us about hockey in Japan, its history, and some of the culture that surrounds it?
Hockey in Japan is still a minor sport. But there is lots of people who play all around Japan. But the other sports, like baseball and soccer are too big in Japan. So still no chance for hockey to be big. There is only one professional league playing with Chinese and Korean teams now. There used to be a only Japanese teams league. Hockey was trying to get big when the Nagano Olympics were held. But lots of companies started not to put money for hockey. And hockey got smaller and smaller.
How do you fund your hockey career? Do you make enough money playing hockey to cover all of your expenses?
While I’m in team, the team pays everything for me. They give me salary, house, equipment, airplane tickets (sometimes I pay by myself for the ticket). When I’m back in Japan (It’s only 3 or 4 months) I stay at my parents house and I work.
When did you realize that you could make a living playing hockey professionally?
I really don’t know about that. Maybe when I make the tryout in US for the first year challenge outside of Japan. Cause I noticed that I had enough speed and technique even though I’m a short guy.
What is it about hockey that made you want to devote your life to it?
I don’t know how to say it. But its everything for me. I believe my life is just to play hockey. I just can’t quit thinking about it and playing it.
How do people in Japan react when you tell them that you play hockey for a profession? Is this reaction different in other countries?
I think almost the same reaction even if it’s a different country. “Great thing that you can earn money doing what you like,” “I wish I could do the same thing,” “Living in the dream,” “Do what you can when you are young.”
Nobody said to me, but some of the people in Japan maybe will think, “It’s not gonna continue for long term, get a stable job and save money for the future.” This thinking comes from the Japanese culture.
What does your family think of your career choice?
Everyone is cheering and supporting me a lot. Especially my parents. I have a younger sister and brother. My sister always says, “I’m envious because you can go to other countries for work doing what you like.” My brother who plays hockey too is trying to be like me.
What is the life of a minor league hockey player really like? What is the day to day routine? What are the best parts? The worst parts?
Because it’s a minor league lots of players have a side job. So if you have one, you work a bit and play hockey. But like me, I can’t speak good enough french and don’t have an EU passport. You don’t have much things to do. Go to the gym and maybe coach the kids. Best part for me is I can just play hockey and train in gym for hockey and get money for that. The worst is you really get bored. There is day that I don’t go out. haha.
Why did you go to France to play hockey?
I have an American friend who is a professional hockey player. He knows lots of people around the world. He had a good contact in France and he thought France would be a good place for me to play, so he introduced me to the team. I flew and make them see me, and got on the team.
When you first arrived in France, what surprised you?
People keep speaking in French even though I don’t understand. They don’t try to speak in English except some of the young people. haha.
What have been the challenges of playing hockey in Europe? How is it different than in Japan?
Wherever I go I’m one of the shortest guy, so I’m always thinking to skate fast and not to get smashed. I train my lower body and core a lot. So far, it’s working good. It’s always a good challenge that I notice what I need to be more better. Big difference [between hockey] in Japan [and Europe] is the physical play. Japanese are small and don’t hit a lot. But they skate very good and more system play.
How has hockey provided you with an opportunity to travel, what other countries and cities have you gotten to experience because of hockey?
It gives me a lot of opportunity to travel. To play for regular seasons, I have just played in US (1year) and France (4years). But I traveled to other countries to join hockey tournaments or for tryouts. I have been to US: NY, WI, TN; Ottawa, Canada; Tampere, Finland; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Belgium; Germany; France: Morzine, Metz, Tours; China: Harbin, Hong Kong.
Do you have any funny/ interesting stories about playing hockey abroad that you would like to share?
I think it’s not a funny story but almost everyone gets surprise that there is hockey in Japan. And they get surprise at how good I can play too. And wherever I go, at the first everyone says, “You are Chinese!!” And after I say that I’m Japanese, “Sushi” comes first. I have a Japanese friend who also plays in France. He skates very fast so the kids call him “Speed Sushi” haha.
What are your future plans?
I want to continue my career util around 30 years old. I don’t care if it’s not the top league but I want to go to other countries to see lots of style of hockey. After that I want to do coaching. I don’t know which country. But I want to make hockey big in Japan. So maybe try to work with it in Japan.
About the Atypical Travel Series
There are many ways to travel the world that go beyond backpacking to tourist sites or teaching English. The Atypical Travel series on Vagabond Journey features individuals who are living lives on the road but typically fall off the radar of what we think of when we say “world traveler.” Read the other stories in this series here.
Traditional Chinese Breast Massage Giving Women Bigger Boobs?@vagabondjourney Published on March 1, 2014
It is a common opinion in China that massaging a woman’s breasts can make them increase in size. To these ends, breast massage is a common practice here and is a standard service in Chinese spas.
The information in this posts comes via my wife, who has access to the rather intriguing world of the modern Chinese spa. These places are super modern, fancy, high class establishments that preform a blend of ancient Chinese beauty remedies and traditional massage mixed with modern technologies and cosmetics. They offer everything from fat massages to make people skinnier to laser wrinkle treatment, traditional cupping to eye liner, fish that bite the crud off your feet to manicures.
Last night, my wife returned from the spa and told me about the boob massage. I had no idea that such a thing existed. These massages are not only done to increase the volume of the breasts but to tighten and firm them up as well, and are especially recommended for women who had just finished weaning. My wife’s friend had just stopped breastfeeding four months ago, and went in for a tune up.
“Kneading, rolling, pinching the nipple,” was how my wife described the process.
The masseuse didn’t seem to mind the fact that she was leaking. “Everybody was all like, whoa, there’s so much milk.”
Though breast massage is a service at a spa, most women, apparently, just do it at home.
The predominant take of allopathic medicine is that breast massages may show temporary results, but this is only due to an increased blood flow to the simulated area and doesn’t have any permanent impact. Though women here in China claim that it works — and they’ve been doing it for a handful of millennia. As I have no means of testing these claims, I can’t necessarily refute them, but breasts being enlarged through massage sounds a little like another common Chinese claim: that playing basketball can make people grow taller.
Modern China is a mix of traditional practices and ancient folk beliefs scrambled in with modern technology and practice, resulting in a fascinating and often surreal mix that runs flush together without contradiction.
How Being a Digital Nomad Destroyed my Feet@vagabondjourney Published on February 28, 2014
A traveler’s feet are everything, it’s their prime vehicle of locomotion. You can lose an arm, an ear, some fingers, a testicle and you may look like a monster, but it’s not really going to impact your ability to move form one place to another. But as soon as your lower extremities start failing you’re in for some rough times on the road. As with most things that go awry, I didn’t fully understand this when I needed to.
I have two shifts: A) I travel, visit places, interview people, take photos, make videos, climb mountains, ride a bicycle for hundreds of miles, go and check out the things I read news stories about, and B) I sit in front of a computer writing it all up and publishing. For a stint in winter of early 2010 I was stuck in B mode, nailed to my keyboard. I didn’t move for a week. I sat in an upright wooden chair in Maine, in the cold, and my feet sat idle in a thin pair of socks on a frozen hardwood floor.
My feet froze. My toes swelled up, sprouted big red welts which subsequently burst open kind of like the falling action of a blister. They were sore and stiff and numb, but easy to ignore while in a fury of work. I wasn’t going to whine about my poor little toes — or, apparently, take care of them.
When I left Maine for the Dominican Republic my foot problem cleared up, and I forgot about it. But the problem was to occur again three times over the following three years, always in winter climates, always when locked in a prolonged bout of computer work. There was a clear connection between whatever was happening to my feet, cold, and idleness, but I didn’t worry about it too much, as whenever I’d shift into travel gear or departed from the cold climate my toes would deflate and go back to normal. I thought the issue was simply blisters, and wrote some tips about assuaging them.
More on Vagabond Journey: How to Care for Your Feet When Traveling
Now my toes have ballooned up again. This time I figured I would find out what was causing it.
Chilblains; also known as pernio and perniosis is a medical condition that is often confused with frostbite and trench foot. Chilblains are a tissue injury that occurs when a predisposed individual is exposed to cold and humidity. The cold exposure damages capillary beds in the skin, which in turn can cause redness, itching, blisters, and inflammation. Chilblains can be prevented by keeping the feet and hands warm in cold weather. Chilblains can be idiopathic but may also be a manifestation of a serious medical condition that needs to be investigated.
I looked at the images on the page. I looked down at my toes. It was a pretty exact match: chilblains.
What causes Chilblains?
The exact reason chilblains occur is unknown. They may be an abnormal reaction of your body to cold exposure followed by rewarming. Rewarming of cold skin can cause small blood vessels under the skin to expand more quickly than nearby larger blood vessels can handle, resulting in a “bottleneck” effect and the blood leaking into nearby tissues.
As with many problems this could have been easily avoided. Warm socks, slippers, stepping away from the work and taking care of myself . . . There are not many hazards inherent to the computer work phase of being a digital nomad, you just sit around in a room typing, but this, apparently, is a hazard in and of itself.
Yet another reason to keep moving.
More on Vagabond Journey: The Security of Perpetual Travel is the Ability to Leave
Interview: What You Should Know About China’s Copycat Architecture@vagabondjourney Published on February 27, 2014
Western and classical Chinese architecture has become extremely common throughout China over the past couple of decades. There are now literally hundreds of towns that look like France, California, England, Austria, and film sets of the Ming Dynasty. China now has dozens of White Houses and almost as many Eiffel Towers, not to mention all the Château de Maisons-Laffittes, Arc de Triomphes, and miniature replicas of the Sydney Opera House. This type of architectural appropriation has pretty much become a new Chinese style, as it is now a normal part of the urban landscape throughout the country.
If you spend any amount of time traveling through the suburbs of China’s cities it’s impossible to avoid this duplitecture, but what does it all mean? While I’ve visited many of these places over the past couple of years and have written extensively on the topic, I still had many questions. So I consulted with Bianca Bosker, the author of Original Copies, a book which investigates China’s duplitecture movement in depth.
Could you give me an outline of the emergence of the Western architecture movement in China? In its current rendition, when and where did it begin and how?
China’s duplitecture movement took off in the 1990s when the Chinese government relaxed its rules on private property ownership, allowing real estate developers to build, market and sell homes. As the number of residential developments grew, so too did the prevalence of China’s Western-style copycat architecture: in a crowded market, developers looked for ways to brand their communities and set them apart in the eyes of an increasingly discriminating set of homebuyers. Since the Baroque, Mediterranean or Beverly Hills-themed neighborhoods could sell for more money – and more quickly – than their more generic counterparts, more and more of them appeared. The European and American architecture evokes an entire lifestyle that real estate agents can pitch with the homes. The homeowners aren’t just buying shelter when they buy into these theme-towns. They’re also buying the appearance of success.
China’s current copycat architecture is merely the latest manifestation of its long history of landscape replication. As I argue in my book, China actually has a tradition of architectural mimicry that goes back over two thousand years. In the third century B.C., for example, emperor Qin Shi Huang celebrated his defeat of rival kingdoms by building replicas of their palaces in his own capital city. Other rulers showed off their authority by building elaborate gardens that were pre-modern versions of today’s theme parks. That past is key for understanding the present.
How widespread has this practice become? Roughly how many Western themed villages do you estimate there are in China now?
As I’m sure you know from your own time in China, it’s all but impossible to travel China’s suburbs without stumbling into a Versailles or Tuscany. Shanghai boasts so many Euro-style developments, one can now complete the European “Grand Tour” without ever leaving Shanghai and in the course of a single day.
Yet it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact prevalence of China’s duplitecture given that these copies ranges in size from single homes to enormous gated communities. It’s safe to say there are hundreds of these themed developments that have sprung up. A designer for Vanke, China’s largest private real estate developer, estimated that two-thirds of the company’s properties are built in a Western style.
What do you think these architectural symbols of the West mean for the Chinese?
Forget “fake it ‘till you make it.” China’s theme towns stem from a “fake it once you make it” mentality.
The duplitecture can serve the same purpose as a Chanel logo on a designer purse: they’re status symbols that are meant to convey an air of worldliness and accomplishment for the people living within. In China, the Western “brand” still enjoys certain connotations of luxury, sophistication, wealth, power and prestige, and the homebuyers who move into the fake Frances or Californias believe their themed neighborhood will show them to be successful and worldly. As a Shenzhen resident observed of her Western-themed housing complex, “ [l]iving here means we have a social identity at the upper level.”
The home has reemerged as an important expression of identity and the Western developments – which their marketers attempt to link to the global jet set or royalty of yore — are seen as an effective way of showcasing upward mobility for the residents within.
Why do you think so many places in China have decided to build anachronistic European style villages and reproductions of famous buildings/ landmarks? What is the influence? What is gained from utilizing this style?
China’s duplitecture champions have been extremely deliberate about which landmarks they choose to replicate. Only those structures with an instantly-recognizable tourist-destination identity, as well as associations with wealth and influence, are deemed worth recreating. Poland-villes or Sarajevo-towns are nowhere to be found among China’s theme-towns – while the White House, a symbol of power if there ever was one, is the most copied building in the country. The recreated Venices and Amsterdams are far from a form of West worship by the Chinese, but rather a form of architectural propaganda intended to showcase the nation’s ability to “own” Western cultural and technical expression. (It’s worth noting that many duplitecture developments have been spearheaded by the Chinese government).
By recreating Paris, China isn’t paying homage to France. It’s celebrating China’s progress, deep pockets and power. Just as the architecture of their enemies were transposed by China´s pre-modern, imperial rulers to show off their strength, these reproductions are meant to tell the world, and China’s own population, that China is so mighty it can figuratively rearrange the universe and “own” the landmarks the West holds most dear. This necessitates copying not only European styles of architecture, but specific cities and destinations, like Versailles, Manhattan or Hallstatt, an Austrian UNESCO World Heritage Site.
These reproductions of famous sites also enable a kind of domestic sightseeing: they allow China’s populace to “see the world” without ever leaving the People’s Republic.
How are these foreign themed towns linked to suburban redevelopment/ revitalization?
What’s fascinating about these places is that China hasn’t opted to copy the latest and greatest in architecture or technology, which it easily could have. Instead, it’s replicated not just anachronistic architecture, but also outdated design principles the rest of the world has long soured on. These gated communities, mostly located outside the city center, exacerbate China’s urban sprawl. And ecologically speaking, they’re a total disaster: water heavy, land intensive and deeply car dependent, they replicate some of most problematic urban design practices. In recreating Western architecture, China is also repeating many of the West’s mistakes.
How are these Western towns marketed?
Through their names, slogans, brochures, landscaping and agents’ sales pitches, these developments present themselves as embodiments of the very pinnacle of European and American culture. They promise potential residents not only all the comforts of the global elite, but entry into a higher social class. Many even go so far as to suggest homeowners will gain access to all the privileges and perks of old-world aristocrats. These towns often have names that reference the nobility, like “Top Aristocrat,” “Majesty Manor” and “Palais de Fortune,” and their marketing materials are full of allusions to the high-living ways of dukes and duchesses. Beverly Hills invites homebuyers to a “land of courtly enjoyment,” while Thames Town claims that stepping into the British-themed development means entering “the territory of the aristocracy, and a world of prestige.” The marketing positions these Western-style landscapes as the key component of a refined lifestyle, and a miniaturized version of the global arena, with the homeowner occupying the highest rank attainable. The real estate agents behind these theme-towns have, using the architecture of the West, crafted a lifestyle that resonates with homebuyers and has become the heart of the new Chinese dream.
The Western nature of the towns is relentlessly stressed at every turn. Sales agents will immediately point out to potential buyers that the architecture is in a European style, recreates the feel of a European town, and was designed by a European firm (even if it’s untrue). Some will offer authentic Western lifestyle amenities that are consistent with their foreign theme. Thames Town, among others, has pubs and coffee shops, in keeping with its English theme, while Tianducheng has hosted a “French Culture Festival” with training on French food, manners and art. Others try to enhance their authenticity by showcasing visits by foreign guests. The English-themed Stratford community even assures its residents they will rub shoulders with foreigners. “The people pushing the baby carriage in the park could be a British couple that lives next door,” the brochure promises.
What is the impact that they have on the local population (as in the people living nearby, not the ones relocated — i.e. places like Gaoqiao Dutch town, Anting, and Hallstatt that are in proximity of neighboring communities)? What have you found the locals’ reaction to be in regards to the new foreign themed developments going up near to where they live?
Though of course it depends on the location and the development, I found the neighbors living next to China’s new Frances and Italys largely displeased by what they saw as a waste of land and money. In the case of Shanghai’s Scandinavian-themed Luodian Town, for example, “locals” saw the European development as out of touch with their needs – its homes too expensive by far – and an unnecessary investment that had replaced a perfectly fine community. To build Luodian Town, its developers first had to evict existing residents from the land they planned to build on, yet the Nordic homes they built have remained mostly empty since its completion. In short, Luodian Town’s neighbors have watched a bustling neighborhood replaced by a ghost town. Others who’ve seen these expansive theme-towns erected complain that the lavish towns make poor use of good land. Vast villas sit on sprawling lawns that some of its neighbors would have put to use farming even mattress-sized corners of fruits and vegetables.
These developments also risk exacerbating social tensions in a country with one of the greatest wealth discrepancies in the world. Many of these theme towns are, by design, spectacles of conspicuous consumption, and those who live near them are quick to comment on the lavish lifestyles of the homeowners within. These developments showcase the vast differences between the “haves’ and the “have nots” in such a clear and drastic way that could make them catalysts of resentment and discontent.
Yet even those who criticize the copycat communities dream of being able to indulge in the same residential fantasy, and admire their Western style. A resident who lived near Luodian Town called it a “waste”. But, he added, if he could afford a home there, he would: “I like everything about this place,” he said. “There´s nothing I dislike.”
Where do you think this architectural movement will go? Do you think it is a temporary phenomenon that coincides with the ascending adolescent phase of the New China or do you think that this is something lasting? Or do you think it is already going out of style? How do you think this phase of architecture will be remembered?
I think China’s impulse to copy will prove lasting, though what it chooses to replicate may change. Already, these European and American developments are being supplemented by communities built in a traditional Chinese style. And “green” architecture has become a compelling brand in the marketplace, although many of these so-called “eco” communities offer little more than the same sprawling McMansions under a different name. This trend suggests that there will be a greater diversity of architectural styles in China, with the “ye-olde England” or “Versailles” look just a few of an expanding number for homebuyers to choose from.
I think this phase of architecture will be remembered much as it’s seen now: unfairly. People decry China’s duplitecture as a tacky, trashy even “terrifying” kind of rip-off architecture, but I believe it’s much more than that. As extravagant and bizarre as many of these communities might be, they are also testaments to the new freedoms, choice and avenues for personal expression China’s citizens can lay claim to in the wake of political reforms. Even the ghost towns are valuable in their own right: they may be remembered not as evidence of China’s rise, as their supporters intended, but as proof of the limits of the state’s command and control approach. These empty landscapes are powerful markers of the ways the government’s top-down, “we-know-best” attitude is being vigorously challenged by the market economy.
Do you think these replicas are an over-compensation for a national inferiority-complex? Why? Why not?
China certainly feels it has something to prove, and the country’s duplitecture stems in large part from this impulse. It’s not that China has lost interest in its own culture. Indeed, the residents of these theme-towns avidly combine from Eastern and Western traditions in their daily lives, and China has a growing crop of developments build in a traditional Chinese theme. But the Western architecture that China so avidly copies is believed by its domestic champions to be an internationally understood marker of achievement. China is using these copies of the White House or Venice as a kind of architectural language it believes the world recognizes as a symbol of success. What’s ironic is that the West has mostly looked upon China’s duplitecture and laughed. Viewers abroad see the architecture as humorous, silly, unimaginative, not impressive–hardly the reaction for which its builders had hoped.
It should be noted, however, that there are also very practical motivations leading China’s architectural mimicry. For developers, imitating existing styles – rather than inventing new ones – is a much cheaper, faster way to build the homes that are in high demand.
What are these Western style developments trying to prove? What are they trying to say to the world?
China’s duplitecture has a clear message to the world: Whatever you’ve accomplished, we can do, too – only bigger and faster. China’s massive Western theme-towns, frequently championed by the government, are intended as monuments to China’s power and control. It can figuratively possess the best of the West, be it Dorchester or the White House. To show they’re making it big, China has turned to faking it big.
How are China’s Western copies original?
Other cultures have dabbled in architectural mimicry—just look at Ivy League architecture in the United States, for example. But China is copying Western architecture at a scale, pace and level of detail that is unmatched and unprecedented anywhere else. Instead of copying a building here and a building there, China has recreated a city here and a city there. Its duplitecture developments can house entire U.S. towns, and the scrupulousness with which the originals have been replicated is stunning. No detail is too small to overlook, and developers will often import materials from abroad, or send architects to scout out the original on location in order to ensure their copy is as faithful as possible.
Yet more than that, what sets apart these copies and makes them unique are the catalysts behind them. The architecture is foreign, yet the factors driving this massive movement in mimicry are uniquely Chinese. As my book details, these developments arose out of a marriage of tradition, politics, social upheaval and desire that is distinct to China. As one Thames Town resident observed of her British-style home, “The hardware may be all Western, but the software is all Chinese.”
Bianca Bosker is the Executive Tech Editor of the Huffington Post. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, Fast Company, Conde Nast Traveler, and the Oregonian, among other publications. She is the author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China and the co-author of a book on the cultural history of bowling entitled Bowled Over: A Roll Down Memory Lane. Visit her website at BiancaBosker.com.
Check out Bianca’s excellent study on China’s duplitecture movement here:
Duchang: A Normal Day of Traveling in Normal China@vagabondjourney Published on February 26, 2014
The bus driver wouldn’t slow down, even after the dead body.
The fog was so thick that morning in the Poyang Lake region of Jiangxi province that we couldn’t see the taillights of the truck in front of us, or, for that matter, the headlights of the car barreling towards us as we drove in the other lane trying to pass. To put it simply, the conditions were hazardous. Nobody on that road to Duchang could see pretty much anything. The visibility was lower than from a Hebei high-rise in at the peak of an airpocalypse, but the drivers on the road did not react, take caution, or alter their driving. It was business as usual. Only after nearly smashing into a van head on did the driver flipped on his headlights. After that he seemed to be out of ideas. Slowing down or not driving in the other lane into oncoming traffic did not seem to cross his mind. Nobody else seemed concerned, the women sitting next to me were gossiping loudly. I starred out the window into the opaque fuzz.
Then we saw it: a smashed up moped laying in the middle of the road and the tractor trailer we’d tried to pass a handful of moments before stretched sideways across the opposite lane. We knew it was bad. Two women sitting next to me shrieked, then gasped when we saw what came next. A man’s legs were sticking out scissor-like from beneath one of the tires of the trailer. The body was squashed completely flat. Finally, the driver slowed down, but this was just so he could gawk a little longer at the carnage. It was so perfectly gruesome that it was difficult to fully believe it wasn’t set up, like a Halloween prop or something for a stage set. Though this is perhaps a natural reaction to the gruesome, a suspension of reality to keep our faculties intact.
The bus picked up its pace. I thought the ride would be somber from then on out, but it wasn’t. Hardly a minute had passed since the women gasped that they were again joking around, loudly gossiping. The men on the bus acted like they witnessed nothing. Nobody even bothered to say a single word about what we all just saw, most hardly even reacted. Maybe the people here are just used to such scenes of raw life. Or maybe the stoic, pragmatic streak of this culture just mutes such uncomfortable discussions. Or maybe that’s the normal way humans react to such scenes.
Though in China such scenes seem to be more prominently put on display. In the bus stations of this country there are often looping videos that show gruesome accidents and their after effects. I’m not sure what the tactic is here, as they are shown to people who are about to board buses and head out on the same highways of the scenes from the videos. Do they just want to scare us? If so, it doesn’t seem to work — people watch these scenes of destruction and bloodshed as languidly as they do the latest propaganda clip about the Chinese Dream, whatever the hell that is. Outside of the stations there are often billboards that have photos of horrifying accidents with slogans about driving safely and visuals of the police doing their job. These photos are often as graphic as the scene we just witnessed on the bus, and they tend to draw passersby to a momentary halt, apparently for the mild entertainment value. Carnage is a mild amusement that draws crowds everywhere.
The bus driver was now going as fast as ever. The unwillingness or inability to alter behavior or a concept to meet changing circumstances is an interesting tendency in this culture. I can’t figure how the logical chain of cause and effect so often appears to be broken here — or perhaps self-preservation isn’t as high on many people’s list of priorities as I would think it should be. Cultural contrasts are usually most stark when manifested in the little things we take for granted.
We soon arrived in Duchang. I began walking towards Poyang Lake and felt amazingly good. The sun was shinning, I opened my jacket and let it blow back in the wind, I put on my sunglasses and looked out at the road ahead. There was action in the streets, people were husking chickens and welding metal parts on the sidewalk, people were sitting around little plastic lawn tables playing checkers, the sidewalk was an obstacle course of junk, random things, and squatting men. I stomped down that road and heard each footstep, gear grind, horn honk, and loquacious cackle clearly. There was someplace to go and something to do here. Though my joy was perhaps unfounded, I was just going to look at a mud pit.
I walked to the edge of the city and found myself in a new development zone — of course. Apparently, Duchang decided to build itself a giant clock tower and shopping mall out in some shrub land. Neither were yet functioning, neither even had a residential area within reasonable distance. They were to be a part of the city’s new plan to renew their waterfront. Nobody seemed to care that it doesn’t have any water for most of the year.
Poyang Lake was as dry as the media reports claimed. I took my photos, made my videos, and talked to whoever I could find. There really weren’t many people out there — but if there were it would have been rather strange. I stood in the middle of a field strewn with abandoned boats that were beached when the waters quickly receded in the autumn. Grasses were growing up between fishing vessels, cows were milling about chewing it. This was supposed to be a lake.
More on Vagabond Journey: What Happens When China’s Largest Lake Disappears
I collected enough content for my story and walked back towards town on the other road that connects to the lake. On this side Duchang was also building a new area. Not even the absence of a lake could deter the local government from developing the lakefront. They wanted a flowing wave of high-rise apartments running along the waterfront, but it was clear that they would have to make it themselves. So they pumped water in from the retreating lake beyond and barricading it in. The result was one of those disorienting scenes of artificiality that are almost normal in China: you look out at where the largest lake in China should be, and there is an immense cavity of dirt, then turn around and look at a city rising above a glistening reservoir.
I arrived in town to find it covered in laundry. The fronts of apartment buildings were draped in sheets, the lawns in parks were covered in pillow cases and blankets, the railings around the lake were used as posts to hang quilts, and the trees were decked out in bed clothes.
More on Vagabond Journey: Why the Chinese Hang Their Blankets in the Sun
I then turned up a street and headed into town to find a cheap hotel that would accept me. Foreigners are still banned from most hotels in China, as it requires a special permit. Though I couldn’t imagine any hotel in this small city having such a thing — why would they, how many foreigners are really stumbling into Duchang anyway? I had two options: hike around town poking my head into every hotel I find and hope they let me stay or find some help.
I heard two girls chatting rather merrily walking up behind me. I glanced back quickly. They were college age. Perfect. Just about anywhere in the world if you want someone to show you around a new town look for a college student. I slowed my pace a little, they walked up next to me, and peered over curiously. A greeting just seemed natural.
They went to college in nearby Nanchang, and just arrived home for spring break the day before. They wondered what I was doing in their town. I told the truth, that I’d come to see the lake. Though this seemed too odd, as there wasn’t a lake at this time of year, so I told them that I was writing an article about the lack of water. They waxed on a little about how they never saw a foreigner in their city before.
They took me to the city’s central department store complex. It was a messy, working class kind of shopping center that had big bins of merchandise strewn all over for people to dig through, not the posh and neat middle class kind of mall that are the prides of the municipalities that build them. They showed me the way to a greasy fast food chicken place. I ate a chicken sandwich. This small, 150,000 person city didn’t have a KFC, which is probably the optimum measure of remoteness in this country.
I became the college student’s responsibility. They would show me around and make sure I had everything I wanted and was content. Hospitality is voracious here. You could show up in pretty much any city in this country that’s off the tourist grid, walk away from the stooges at the stations, throw up your arms and say “help me,” and invariably someone will grab you and tow you around all day. It’s almost too easy to make acquaintances here.
“What kind of hotel do you want?” one of the girls asked.
“A cheap one.”
They talked to each other for a moment, pointed in a coupled different directions, then lead me around a corner and into a small inn. I doubt I would have found the place, though I’ve been traveling in this country for years, can read signs, and speak functional Mandarin. The inn was fully zebra-stripped into the matrix of the street — every shopfront looked exactly the same — and it was crowded out of view by two flower shops. There wasn’t much of a question as to whether they’d let me stay. I came as a friend of local Chinese people, so that automatically made me slightly less strange and foreign. It would also increase the embarrassment for the hotel owner if she was to deny me on the basis of nationality. The accommodation laws of China are not widely known, and I had to question whether the hotel even knew they needed a special permit to house me, as I highly doubt this situation had ever come up before. The cost for a private room was 20 RMB, $3.25.
The college students’ job was essentially done, and they sort of awkwardly looked at me as though I had to formally release them from duty or something. “Thank you, goodbye.”
I walked back out into the street. It was getting to be early evening, the buildings had a crepuscular tint and shadows grew long. I watched two old women sitting in the street rebuilding some cheap, discarded synthetic shoes that didn’t seem worth the effort and an old man who sold a peculiar type of herb that he cut into slices with a home made apparatus that looked like a small paper cutter.
I flagged down a taxi and requested to be taken to the hill that has a temple on it that overlooks the lake. I chatted with the driver along the way, answered all the usual questions about America and what I think of China. He apparently got a kick out of it, and significantly lowered the fare when I went to pay.
I walked up the hill through the grounds of an old temple, and stood next to the large pagoda that rose from its apex. I looked out over the lake that had shriveled up to vein-like rivulets. The sun went down and the pagoda’s lights were flipped on. It blazed on top of the hill like a giant lantern hanging from the rafters of the city. The nightly laser light show began, and gyrating green beams where shot down upon the town below.
It was a normal day of travel in normal China.
Laowai Comics: How Loud is a Chinese Restaurant?Published on February 26, 2014
The Strange Lives of Komodo Dragons@ShivajiAuthor Published on February 25, 2014
At the airport in Labuan Bajo, there were glamorous pictures of Komodo Dragons everywhere. One was posing in front of a secluded beach. One was looking back at a sunset.
We arranged for a small wooden boat to take us to Rinca and Komodo Islands. The crew comprised of a father and son duo, Captain Rudy and Grushal. In the bright sun, the sea, surrounding islands, and the sky provided deep contrasts. The islands comprised of small hills uniformly carpeted with lime green grass, looking rough. These islands were rather arid. One island only had a lone tree at the top of its hill. On another island, a stretch of hills had a line of trees only at the top as if they decided to climb up from wherever they were born to settle down in a line to enjoy the best vantage point.
After two hours of sailing, we reached Rinca. We saw over a hundred mangrove saplings with small cardboard signs next to each of these with names of people and their country of origin written on them. When we asked our guide, Adi, he said, “Those are the names of people killed by the Komodo Dragons. They didn’t bother to take guides and look what happened to them.” But I was skeptical of this ferocious image portrayed by the nature television channels, used to hype up any physical trait of the animals they had managed to make a film on. On further nagging, Adi relented, “Don’t worry, those were names of people who had planted those saplings under a conservation program.”
Adi took another shot at melancholy, “Women having periods better avoid visiting the Komodos. They can smell blood from far and can come chasing.” Just when I thought Adi would begin blaming the Komodos for global warming, we came across the park’s kitchen. A dozen dragons were slumbering under and around the stilted house. Adi screamed, “These are pensioner Komodos, old lazy hags hoping to get easy food from a kind cook.”
These Komodos looked uninterested in anyone around. There were seven of them, some females, which are smaller. They were far from any anthropomorphic idea of beauty. Their dotted dark brown skin had many wrinkles and at the neck. Their big claws were hooked. An inverted smile adorned their faces, like a constant pout from a century old grumpy grandmother. They were surrounded by tourists who were gasping at every small move they made: a flick of the long forked yellow tongue, a gentle nudge from their hind legs, a slow fall of a thick lump of saliva from one’s upper teeth, or a menacing slow turn of the neck to look right into someone’s eyes.
But I felt that they have a particularly adorable way of lying down with their small chubby hands and legs spread out perpendicular to their bodies. This makes it appear as if the komodos are somehow grappling on to an earth that they know is constantly rotating and that things are not as stable as they appear. And with their rather endearingly round black and shiny eyes, they seem to appeal to everyone around to join them in lying down and hold onto the ground.
Adi broke my meditation, “Tell me three similarities between humans and komodos…. Well, their babies take nine months to come out. They also suffer from bad breath. And they are usually monogamous. Ok, that’s not a similarity, is it?” he laughed boisterously, “But there are many differences too. There are four males for every female komodo. And komodo mothers can give birth without needing a man.” He looked at me, “Imagine if you were a komodo male. You will have to overcome all these struggles and then you will end up with a partner who has bad breath.”
After Rinca, we visited Komodo Island too, where there were a few dragons around water holes and on hill tops. There are around three thousand dragons left in the world, and just under half of them are in Rinca. Komodo Island had the largest population while some parts of Flores and the surrounding islands have only a handful.
As the sun was about to say goodbye, we dropped anchor at a small bay at Komodo Island in Indonesia. As I sat at the front of the boat, the sense of enormity of the landscape in its entirety started to set in. The sun was now distributing its parting gift to mankind, an array of colours in the sky. The bright green of the surrounding hills and the blue of the sea gently fell asleep. The sun left after tenderly pulling a giant dark blanket over them. A bunch of flying foxes, which locals call ‘Batman’, left the hills.
Three small canoes were approaching us, a lone rower in each of them. They put a knot around our boat and stabilized their canoes. One offered us beer, another pulled out small wooden statues of Komodo Dragons while the other asked us if we want to buy some fish. When we smiled and declined, they just hung around holding on to our boat. Their clothes were stained and tattered. I asked them their names: Ashi, Edi and Tesh. They climbed on to our boat and sat down in front of me. They kept looking at me quietly. I tried to have a conversation in my broken Bahasa Indonesian. Lobo, my wife, came over and sat next to me.
In the dim lights, all I could see was their lean frames with white eyes. They came from the small village on Komodo Island. They had a habit of speaking in unison reiterating each other. “I am twenty, he is thirty three,” said two of them. Simultaneously, the other guy said, “I am thirty-three; these two are in their twenties.” “I am already married and I have a daughter,” said Edi and Tesh together while Ashi stopped at, “I am already married.” We got them thinking by asking what they would like their daughters to become when they grew up. Now they were speaking separately. Edi said, “Teacher, or perhaps doctor.” Tesh repeated and Ashi nodded in agreement. Then Tesh said, “No, no, she should become a police woman.” Everyone agreed again. “There is a lot of corruption,” said Ashi. “Police keep harassing us, our daughters can punch them and change them,” said Edi. We all agreed amid laughter. Edi then suggested, “Why stop at police woman, why not become the President of Indonesia? Even more punch.” More laughter followed.
Ashi said, “The local population here are descendants of convicts who had been exiled from the nearby island of Sumbawa many years ago. We revere the dragons. Tesh interjected, “We used to feed deer meat to the dragons once every year. Now, the government doesn’t allow us.”
At times we just sat quietly, looking at one another. Tesh said with an air of authority, pointing his finger at us and then throwing it down, “I liked talking to you two.” He said that in a rough way that seemed completely earnest. I loved that moment; complete strangers connected by the fragile thread of my broken Bahasa Indonesian and a much more intricate and complicated mesh of threads making strangers want to know about each other.
As they prepared to sail away, Edi asked, “Do you have some medicines? My daughter has fever for the last two days.” I gave him some medicines with directions but asked him to definitely consult a doctor if things don’t improve. Edi agreed to do so but the three spoke together again, “Our village has no doctor. We only have a mosque.”
After dinner, we went up to the roof of the boat. Our boat turned off its lights and the noisy generators. In the vast darkness that followed, the starlight was still providing silhouette to the hills. What were the Komodo Dragons doing over there?
In this moonless night, distant galaxies were visible as glittering mist. The sky was a dark bowl punctured by several small holes through which the universe was pouring in. The sea below was rippling gently. We could hear small fish breaking the surface every now and then. And then we noticed the magic of the reflections of two bright stars flirting with each other. In the rippling water, their reflections kissed and then jumped away. These stars, separated by billions of light years for billions of years, got to embrace and play with each other every night in these waters. As we watched this miracle, we recounted how our own lives had criss-crossed. Both of us had been born in small towns in China and India respectively. How did we overcome geography, our birth into different religions, our years of upbringing in different cultures, our food habits, and belief systems to come to accept one another as soul mates?
That night, the conditions at Komodo Island were as such. We felt as one with the stars, the sky, the hills, the sea, what lied deep within the sea, the fish, the Batman, Captain Rudy and Grushal, Edi, Tesh, and Ashi. We kissed.
This is an excerpt from the author’s book, Journeys With the Caterpillar, a humble and humorous attempt to capture the dramatic simplicity of Nusa Tenggara Timur(NTT) in Indonesia, covering the islands of Flores, Komodo, Rinca and Sumba. You can buy the complete book here on Amazon for $2.99.
What the Super Bowl Means to the Traveler@BuddStBrewery Published on February 25, 2014
Sports provide some sort of equilibrium as I travel. After leaving the US behind more than ten years ago, I still find myself clicking over to ESPN or Deadspin to read the latest news or laugh at some inane gossip about which team or player has been trash talking each other. There is something oddly comforting about the ultimately meaningless spread of statistics that I find myself reading, whether it is in Vietnam or Australia.
The Super Bowl is no different. Like pages in a passport the Super Bowl marks a time and place. A way to measure where I was in my life and the people and adventures I was involved with. This year was was the same song and dance. Seattle vs. Denver. The starting quarterback for Denver is Peyton Manning. Last time he played in a Super Bowl, I was still in Melbourne and was teaching English at a prestigious university. My then girlfriend (now wife) and I were planning a year sabbatical around India and North America.
The last time Seattle played in the Super Bowl I was in Nepal, stuck on the border during a Maoist ordered general strike. After hiring a rickshaw to take us to Lumbini and the birthplace of the Buddha, I can recall waiting not so patiently for a very slow Internet connection to find out who won that game.
This year the Super Bowl was played in February, I was knee deep in work, starting at Vagabond Journey, and sending an application out for an Australian passport and then making of plans to go to Sri Lanka. I was again teaching English at another university which happened to be located in the heart of Melbourne, and this year the city was playing host to a Super Bowl party in Federation Square, which is a sort of a cultural center in the central business district of the city. It is not unusual to see signs up to watch the Super Bowl around pubs or betting locales in Melbourne, but this was my first experience seeing it advertised on such a large scale.
I decided on my break at work to duck over and try to catch a few minutes of the game. I was initially stunned at the size of the event, there was easily several thousand people filling the square. The organizers had built bleachers to go along with ‘Authentic New York” hot dog stands, giant inflatable football helmets, and even cheerleaders dancing in front of the big screen during the commercials. Due to some media restrictions the famous Super Bowl commercials are actually not broadcast during the game in Australia.
My initial thought was, “Holy Shit, people love American stuff.” I instantly felt right at home but at the same time on the complete opposite side of the world. For those curious about the time difference, the game was played at roughly lunchtime on Monday in Melbourne, which translates to Sunday night on the East Coast of the USA.
After mingling with the crowd I came to the conclusion that roughly 90 percent were American/Canadian with a few curious Aussie on-lookers. I always take the piss on my friends by saying that Australians would happily go see competitive hopskotch as long as it was live, but it seemed to me that the time and pacing of the NFL (or American Football or Gridiron as it can be called) tested the stamina of even the most dedicated Australian sports fan. Unless someone had some money on the game (which a lot of Aussies just might) it seemed to be a passing interest for most of the otherwise sports mad country.
The day was overcast and muggy. I resisted the urge to have a beer (although it was a bit past noon and I had two more hours to teach) and instead had a coffee and settled in with a tandoori chicken sandwich. It was a bit into the second quarter and already the game was out of hand, 15-0 in favor of Seattle. An Aussie guy next to me started asking some questions about the rules of the game and some background information on the players. I told him the history of the Manning face. That Peyton Manning, although a great quarterback, has a history of stuffing it up in the big game and making a horrible facial grimace.
Right on cue, Manning throws a perfect pass to the Seattle defense, 22-0. For all intents and purposes the game is already over. I felt like a savant for calling it so perfectly. I bid my new friend adieu and walked back to work.
Over the loudspeaker an Aussie man was urging fans not to leave during halftime.
“We might not have Bruno Mars but we will have a sausage eating contest! And no I will not make the obvious joke that gets me fired!”
I laughed out loud. Even that mild dick joke wouldn’t go down in my small Kentucky town where many people gather at church to watch the big game. There seemed to still be an underlying Aussie spirit in this giant celebration of American sports slaughter.
The symmetry seemed too perfect. Years ago I was an excitable young teacher with plans of going to the subcontinent and Manning mucked up a Super Bowl. Now, the excitement is still here and another trip broods on the horizon, another year and another Super Bowl that Manning fcks up. The traveler marches on.
Chinese Woman Gives Birth to Baby in Toilet of Train, Leaves it There@vagabondjourney Published on February 25, 2014
After traveling in China for an extended amount of time you expect to find various unflattering substances that come out of people plopped, dripped, spat, and splattered all over the train bathrooms, but a newborn baby is not one of them. On February 19th, a woman gave birth in the bathroom of a train bound for Guangdong, and left it there — covered in blood, shivering, teetering on the edge of the toilet.
This story seems incredibly on many different fronts. First of all, a women gave birth in the bathroom of a train. Second, she did so unassisted by medical personnel, and possibly solo. Third, nobody seemed to have noticed (the births I’ve been to weren’t necessarily quiet events). Forth, the woman pulled up her pants, cleaned herself up, and got away, apparently without looking like she’d just given birth. Fifth, A WOMAN GAVE BIRTH IN THE BATHROOM OF A TRAIN — I think I need to say this last one twice.
Imagine the rocking, the sudden stops, the cramped space . . .
Now I understand the fortitude this culture has when it comes to doing something they want to do, and I also understand what social pressure can do to the people here, but to give birth in the bathroom of a crowded Chinese train and then get away with in unnoticed seems absolutely incredible.
Whatever the case, the baby boy was rescued and is in critical condition, though is reported to be doing better.
Now that’s a crappy way to come into . . . I’ll spare you this one.
The Myth of China’s Big and Crowded Cities@vagabondjourney Published on February 24, 2014
I looked out over a flat, wide-open landscape of farmland, fallow fields, and dirt lots stretching far into the distance. A small brick shack was to my right. An old woman wearing a tattered quilted coat, matching pants, and a grey wool cap was standing outside of it. She was bent over a small patch of bok choy, diligently hoeing. Three dogs ran in circles, barking and nipping at each other. A gaggle of ducks scampered down into a small mud pit that passed for a pond. Chickens pecked at the stones that were strewn over the narrow dirt road. I was in Shanghai, the most populated city in the world.
If I was to tell you that a large portion of Shanghai is made up of small villages, meager towns, and seemingly endless expanses of farmland you may not believe me. The images that this city conjure up are those of crowds, congestion, traffic, smog, packed metro cars, and busy streets — in a word: Shanghai. This is the most populated city on the planet we’re talking about after all, and the popular view of Shanghai is the truth: the place is a packed, ultra-kinetic, overflowing bucket of humanity . . . for part of the city. The other Shanghai is more hidden, less known, and way more empty. It rings the Huangpu central area like an obese, buxom woman hugging a chihuahua, it’s a buffer zone full of factories, old villages, broken down huts, budding new towns, ghost towns, migrant worker slums, and enough cropland to cover Los Angeles one and a half times. Shanghai is one of the largest cities on earth, but this is where the discrepancy lies:
What is called a city in China is a little different than what is called a city elsewhere in the world.
In China, the word “city” is an administrative term alone, and much of the land area designated by it is urban in name only. In the west, we tend to think of cities as being places that shelter millions in high-density housing, traffic jams, crowded subways, and streets full of people, but in China that’s not necessarily the case. “City” here just means an area of land that’s presided over by the municipal level of government.
In practice, the political divvying up of land in China is akin to zoning. There are two main administrative spheres: urban and rural. Depending on what side of this line a given area falls on determines what can be built on it, what it can be used for, and how it can be developed. Land that is zoned as urban falls under the control of a municipal government, and is automatically attributed to being part of a city. As more and more rural land is being rezoned as urban, the reach of China’s municipalities grows and grows, which leads to “cities” that contain hundreds to thousands of square kilometers of farms, villages, small towns, and the occasional stretch of mountains and forests. So you can be way out in what appears to be the countryside while still technically being in a city in China.
Chongqing is an even better example of the truly massive size and landscape diversity of China’s urban areas than Shanghai. This municipality, which was sectioned off from Sichuan province in 1997, is the size of North Carolina. 28 million residents technically live in this “city,” but only 4.5 million of them actually dwell in the urbanized area. Chongqing, in fact, is well known for its mountains, lakes, and forests — landscapes which generally don’t fit into our paradigm of what a city contains.
Though China has even larger cities than Chongqing. Jiuquan, in Gansu province, spans 191,342 sq km and stretches for more than 600 km from east to west, while Hulunbuir, in Inner Mongolia, the largest municipal area in the world, is the size of New Zealand. Though most of what these two municipal entities contain is empty desert or grasslands. Contrary to their nomenclature, they are definitely not very urban places.
Likewise, the population counts of Chinese cities are misleading, as not everybody who lives in an urban area necessarily dwells in an urban landscape. When we hear that an internationally unknown city like Changzhou has a population that’s on par with greater Boston, our first reaction is to think that China is a very, very crowded place. But this is not necessarily the case. Changzhou, like most other cities across the country, has swallowed up many of the rural villages and counties that surround it, bringing its area to 4,375 sq km, which is larger than French Polynesia. But only 260 sq km of this land has actually been urbanized. Likewise, only 800,000 of the city’s 4.6 million people actually live in an area that’s even remotely city-like, which leads to the question of how many of China’s 700 million urbanites are truly city dwellers?
While it’s true that China is urbanizing rapidly, much of this is administrative. The boundaries of many cities are being pulled out farther and farther from their central cores, turning more land and more people instantly urban. The scale of these expansions are staggering, Shanghai’s population has grown by eight million and its size has increased nearly seven fold in the past 15 years, and even the relatively minor Changzhou recently received approval from the central government to absorb yet another 1,872 sq km of surrounding farm land, an addition that’s larger than Houston. As Chinese cities expand a major discrepancy rises to the surface: the lack of standardization as to what a city actually is and isn’t makes China’s urban areas appear far larger and more populated than they actually are. While China’s cities are certainly very large and highly populated they’re not as big and crowded as the numbers make them seem.
Though the next phase in China’s development will be defined by what actually happens in the liminal zones between where the skyscrapers dwindle off and the city limits end. What is today urban zoned rural land full of old ladies hoeing bok choi stands a good chance of sporting high-rises and shopping malls tomorrow. While it is difficult to really delineate the boundaries of urbanization in China, there is one thing that is certain: these spacious rural areas on the peripheries of urban cores will not stay that way for very long.
What Vic Wild Can Teach Us About Finding a Job@vagabondjourney Published on February 23, 2014
I watched Vic Wild win two gold metals for Russia in parallel slalom snowboarding. The Russians in the audience were going wild, no pun intended. Their cheers were louder and crazier than normal, even for a Russian winning a gold in Russia’s Olympics. This was probably because the champion was not born in Russia, he chose Russia.
Wild is an American who married a Russian snowboarder then got fast tracked into Russian citizenship so he could compete on their national team. He’s essentially a defector. But that’s not what’s interesting in and of itself — who cares if someone would rather live in Russia with his wife than the USA? What’s interesting is that the reason he claimed to have jumped ship was because Russia backs his sport, whereas the USA doesn’t, and could provide him with a better opportunity for success and a better lifestyle along the way.
“Russia is a country that made it possible for me to win,” he said, “Had I stayed in the US, I’d probably be still sitting at home, doing some ordinary job, doing something banal, and not interesting.”
The US dissolved it’s alpine snowboarding program in 2010, after the last Winter Olympics. So rather than struggling to fund himself and his training — possibly through sleeping out of a Toyota Tundra living off of donations like US Olympian snowboarder, Justin Reiter – Vic split. Russia provided him with an opportunity he otherwise wouldn’t have had — a stark reversal of the way athletic defectors historically flow.
Though this goes far beyond athletics, it’s a trend that will define the world in this era: skilled professionals from all over the world are fleeing their countries in droves for better opportunities abroad. China is full of “defectors” — professionals from other countries who come here for better jobs and a higher standard of living. The country is packed with foreign engineers, architects, journalists, professors, supply chain managers, pilots, administrators, researchers, restaurateurs, merchandisers, office grunts, import/ export traders, consultants, and an army of miscellaneously educated individuals toiling as English teachers for lack of a better opportunity at home. The same is true of the other BRICS countries and many more lesser known developing countries around the world.
“We all come here for the same reason,” a Brazilian airline pilot said to me the other day, “the opportunity.”
Why work in a lower position for less money in your home country when you can go abroad and get a job worthy of your expertise, make more money, and ultimately live better?
I recently listened to a twenty something American guy trying to convince a group of Chinese people that there wasn’t any opportunities anymore in the USA. It was the typical “Obama’s shipping all our jobs abroad” crap that people tend to say no matter who the president is. They said the same about Bush, they said the same about Clinton, and they will say the same about the next guy that takes over. This isn’t a movement devised by any particular administration of any particular country, it’s the way it is everywhere. But this guy continued moaning on about how he has all the creds but couldn’t find a job as a teacher, and how nobody can get anywhere these days in America. He was a loafing drunk. I wouldn’t have hired the guy to teach kids based on his personality alone, and my people standards are fairly low.
I heard the same line from another young American guy about how couldn’t find a teaching job in NYC, but he had apparently rendered himself so dumb from habitual drug use that he couldn’t string together a coherent sentence, he kept repeating himself, and seriously asked me my name three times during our five minute conversation. He complained about his job teaching kindergarten in Shanghai, but it was my take that he should have been thankful that he could have even of gotten hired there.
A much sadder case was a young guy teaching English in China who had severe spectrum disorder or some other kind of psychological ailment. Although he had a masters degree in teaching but couldn’t find a job in his home country, but this probably had less to do with his creds than the way he engaged people.
All three of these guys were virtually unhireable in schools in the USA.
Though all three of these guys didn’t sit around lamenting their fates in the USA, they didn’t sit around moaning and groaning and working at Starbucks, they had the fortitude and insight to pack their bags and get out. They went overseas to where the jobs are. They came to China. One works as a biology teacher and the others teach English. They all receive decent paychecks and have the chance to “pad their resumes” for the next time they take a shot at the job market in their home country.
Just because someone is not successful doesn’t mean that they didn’t have the opportunity for success. A chance to get an education and training in a profession is no a guarantee that it will actually transpire. These three guys were able to get educations at US universities which enabled them to seek employment abroad and increase their chances for success. In a word, they were provided with opportunity.
What these guys did isn’t particularly difficult. I point out them out in particular because they didn’t seem to have any inherent traits or backgrounds that provided them with a leg up, so to speak. If I began telling the stories of the all the traders and tech specialists and business owners who have made a success of going abroad then it may seem as if they have something you don’t. These three guys I outline here are examples to say anybody can do this.
My sister got a masters degree to be a school psychologist, an occupation that each school district generally only hires one of. Upon graduating, her odds of finding a job in New York state, where she’s from, were nil. She sent out a few resumes, got called in to be a filler interviewee a couple of times, but it soon became clear that it just wasn’t going to happen. She didn’t mope around complaining about how the system failed her and how there wasn’t any opportunity. She didn’t give up and don the green apron. No, she extended her borders and began looking for work nationwide. She ended up selling her house and moving with her three kids to Montana, and now makes a good wage doing exactly what she spent years studying to do.
These stories are no longer those of exceptional people who pushed themselves to any exceptional lengths or the tales of travelers, but are the narratives of an increasing number of ordinary stiffs who must shift cities, states, and countries to build their professions. This is the world we now live in, and it’s far easier to change our paradigms than it is to change our reality.
And this is the moral of the story:
If you’re not prepared to pack your bags and go out and see what opportunity there is available for you then I have no idea how you can claim there isn’t any. That’s like doing an Easter egg hunt from a lawn chair. Sure, maybe there’s a golden egg sitting right under you, but I doubt it
The land of opportunity no longer begins or ends at the border of any political entity. “Opportunity” is global. The system isn’t broken, it’s just different. Mexicans, Chinese people, Indians, and Brazilians are going to the USA to seize opportunity, and Americans are going to Mexico, China, India, and Brazil for the same. What’s truly interesting here is that the flow of opportunity isn’t going into any single geographic node, it’s scattered worldwide. We now need to be ready to move, travel across the country, go across the planet to the places where our particular expertise is needed. Opportunity is out there, we just need to go to Xiamen, Dili, Bishkek, Astana, Whitefish, and Baku. The backwaters of yesterday are defining our world today, and these are the places that need talent.
Vic Wild didn’t quit because the USA couldn’t provide for him, he didn’t sit around moaning about how the Olympic committee cut his sport and how his dream was stricken from him. No, the guy just went to a country where he could do what he wanted. He won two gold metals, my sister makes a good living doing what she wants, and a mass of educated westerners are engaging in professions around the world that they never could have found at home.
Yes, it’s true, jobs are being shipped abroad but there is nothing that says that you can’t abroad too. Opportunity rarely just comes to anybody, we have to go out and find it — and the hunt will take many of us around the world.
If you find yourself in a rut, over-educated and underemployed, just leave, jut go. There is a whole world of opportunity out here.