Blog Archives

One Poor Correspondent

“I’ve been one poor correspondent
I’ve been too too hard to find
But that doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind”
-America, Sister Golden Hair

I’ve been both busy and lazy but it’s no excuse for not writing more.

While I was in London everything was a bit too boring, normal and well-explored. And so was I. It wasn’t worth writing, let alone reading.

I’ve been living in Seoul, South Korea for a couple of months and that’s definitely worth writing about. From a Miguk (American) perspective there’s a lot of hilarity to be had resulting from expectation gaps and cultural differences. I’ve got some notes on that and, well, we’ll see how it goes with getting those hammered into reasonable posts.

And for the month of May I’m living and working in Mexico City. And this is what has got me back on the keyboard clackity-clacking out some new posts. A combination with some time on my hands alone and lots of things I want to capture have gotten the juices flowing again and that means new posts. Which is good.

You can always stalk me on Foursquare, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and Photosynth.

Talk at you soon!

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Meandering in NOLA

I found myself in New Orleans over the weekend. I’ve been here twice before, but neither time was to see the city; each time was to be a part of a more generic tourist horde.

Once was in college when Mardi Gras coincided with Spring Break. A bunch of friends got together and all pitched in some sum of money that was almost a night’s stay. Then we packed ourselves – 6 if memory serves – into the biggest car we had drive the 10 hours from Atlanta. Space was limited so wardrobe was too. That wasn’t a bad thing since, given the general level of mess everywhere on Bourbon Street (the main Mardi Gras tourist party area), whatever you wore was sure to get ruined. If you’ve been you know what I’m talking about. I didn’t end up seeing much of anything outside of that debaucherous corridor.

The second time I was here was for a bachelor party and the results were similar. Lots of booze, little sleep and not much scenery. Ended up missing my flight, camping out at the airport all day waiting on a standby seat, then staying the night to take the first flight out Monday morning. Strike two for me here.

This time though the reason for the trip was not revelry, so I stood a good chance at getting to take in the culture.

Walked down Magazine Street, a quiet shopping street. Magazine has mostly smaller shops, unlike so many other similar streets in other cities like Boulder or New York. But then those places don’t have a Bourbon Street.

Grabbed a beer at The Bulldog which boasts over 80 beers on tap. They also have a beer tap fountain on the patio.

Even though I was stuffed I am a sucker for a good burrito. That’s how I found myself in Juan’s Flying Burrito. Great place, fantastic burrito.

Found a place called the Circle Bar. Lots of people standing outside a house, amongst buildings where no house should be. Accidentally happened into front row seats for the concert about to start.

That’s how I met Lips. She’s a singer in a band (Lips and the Trips) and invited me to come see her perform the next night at a coffee shop. So I said why not. They were good and got me into yet a different part of the town – equally as nice and quiet.

Then I headed down Frenchmen Street. That’s an area of town where live music is squeezed out of every corner and cubby and mixes together like a cajun dish or creole language. Went to a place called dba on a recommendation and it was fantastic. Good jazzy blues band played and some great beers on tap and in bottle, including the fantastic Racer 5 from Bear Republic.

All in all it was a great trip. I did make the requisite migration to Bourbon Street, but unlike a decade ago I found it didn’t interest me at all. It seemed just a smelly alley compared to the rest of the city. I know many people for whom New Orleans is their favorite city. And it’s growing on me too. It may not be San Francisco or Lasa, but it feels comfortable to me now. Just one good trip was all it took to wash away the iniquity of past lives there. So I’m looking forward to the next time I get the chance to head there.

Review – Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer

I just finished reading a book called Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, by Chuck Thompson. I devoured it with almost the passion of Kerouac writing On the Road, in just a couple of days. In the book I found support for just about every crackpot theory and harebrained idea I’ve had about travel. All the conversations I’ve had in broken English – some of it mine – at 4am in some back street alley in China or random Baltic cafe or even just my neighbor’s basement. It was amazing (not to mention somewhat gratifying and a bit of a relief to know I’m at least not the only kook) to see my words and thoughts in his typewriting. I’m not going to review the whole book, but I at least wanted to recap some of the things that struck me as I read through it.

  • Latin American police “corruption” is just a more efficient way of accomplishing the same thing. Cut out the lawyers, judges, court clerks, paperwork and everything and just pay the cop a nominal fee. Typically travelers will be confronted for doing something like speeding or not having the right documentation. The officer will, in a roundabout way, imply that there’s a small fee that can be paid on the spot which will allow the traveler to continue. And the American traveler will become indignant. You got caught doing something you knew you weren’t supposed to; pay the man. It’s a small price to pay to be back on your way and you can feel good that you helped the local constabulary put food on their table.
  • Most of the time the Americans are the most polite travelers. I’ve met more jackasses among the supposedly more civilized Europeans than anyone else. And that doesn’t count the numerous other of the English-speaking countries’ citizens that usually lead the pack in being idiots (I’m looking at you, New Zealand and South Africa). Note that this doesn’t apply to Americans in Tijuana and Cancun. I once watched a friend of mine scream in a hotel that he was the only reason anyone there had a job and he should be treated like a king. This despite the staff politely assigning him another room after he smashed his window and the glass fell into a playground. Even after his tirade they didn’t kick him out, though I was about to.
  • Travel is good for the soul and coming home is usually a bigger culture shock. After being somewhere else for a while you really start to see your homeland from an outsider’s eyes. For better or worse.
  • Horror stories are better than pleasant ones. There’s nothing quite as funny as hearing the near-slapstick comedy stories of misunderstanding and woe on the road. There’s nothing so compelling as hearing about a harrowing escape while getting shaken down by the Russian mafia. And there’s nothing more heartwarming than hearing of a travel angel who saved your bacon each time.
  • Things are never as bad or as dangerous as you hear. Yes, there’s corruption and danger and squalor out there in the rest of the world. But there is wherever you’re from, too. You just don’t think of it that way. Some of the happiest and most generous people live on less than a dollar a day. Some of the friendliest are in places people tell you are too dangerous. Some of the most honest and helpful are in the places supposedly most corrupt. When someone says “don’t go there” I usually put it on my to-do list.

But there were a couple of topics I rant about that I didn’t see in the book. Though he came close to these topics, the difference is enough that I feel like I have room to expound my ideas without stepping on the author’s toes.

The first crackpot theory I didn’t read about is that the worst words you can learn in a foreign language are “Do you speak English”. If they can, they’ll understand you in English. If they can’t, they won’t. But worse, it more often than not gives them the idea that you probably speak their language passably and so they won’t take the bait. But if you just go up and start talking to them, asking whatever question you had to begin with, they’ll usually reply back well enough or point you to someone who can. It wasn’t trial-and-error of an American lout that taught me that, but by observation of many a fellow traveler – also foreign but never American – who bristle indigently if the English is not good enough or the reply not polite enough. One of the funniest conversations I can say I have witnessed, though it’s only really funny in hindsight, is a Korean yelling at a Russian militia officer in his precinct and implying that it had been his colleagues who had stolen her DSLR along with her travel itinerary across Eastern Europe and the Middle East; each butchering my native tongue more the angrier they got. And neither pausing to apologize for not speaking the other’s language or suggesting such a dumb thing.

The second harebrained idea left unaddressed by the book is that I can never respect an American abroad who pretend to be Canadian. I don’t begrudge the Canadians at all, I’ve had great times with many of them. Nor do I resent Americans who are sometimes ashamed of their “home and native land.” No, it’s that these people tend to simply want to hide in the citizenship of the Great White North because they find it tiring to stand up to Eurotrash bullies whose only view of Americans has come through sitcoms and stereotypes. What’s the point of traveling thousands of miles to simply swim downstream because it’s easier? Why not go hang out at the Gap at the corner of Haight and Ashbury and complain about the fascist capitalist pigs while downing another granola bar you pretend wasn’t made by a billion dollar conglomerate, sourced by organic corporate farming (not that I’m against corporations or corporate food – I happen to enjoy quite a lot of it – I’m just against the hypocrisy of the delusional pseudo-hippies who are exactly the kind who follow the Lonely Planet guides’ every recommendation and consider themselves better than those on a package tour even though the effect is the same…but I’m off topic). One of the biggest rewards of traveling is experiencing different viewpoints, perspectives and ways of life. And a part of the responsibility attached to that is to be a good ambassador of your homeland. I absolutely revel in helping a fellow traveler see my country through my eyes, and they usually come away from the experience with an increased respect for Americans and the country. Several of these folks had been sworn enemies of Americans and their bible-thumping, two-Bush-electing, Big-Mac-eating (a German in Australia once asked how Americans could survive with only one McDonald’s around, and it being on the other side of the city), science-hating, racist (I’ve never met so many racists living in the South all my life as I have in my limited travels through Europe and Asia) dimwitted Ugly American ways.

There’s a follow-up book called To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism that just arrived and I’m getting ready to dig into it.

Americans’ Heaven Not Just For Christians

I stumbled across this nugget of news and I had to pass it along. According to the majority of Americans, Heaven is not just reserved for Christians. That is according to a couple of studies done by the Pew Research Center. In other words, for our European friends, most Americans are not fanatical evangelical Christians. That is something that many Europeans have asked me when I’ve been traveling. I guess that’s how we’re portrayed in the media over there, as backward barbarians – probably just before discussing the body count of the latest “football” stampedes.

I’m not saying that Americans have no problems or that Europeans aren’t also good people. But this is something that’s always bothered me about what Europeans think of Americans. Everyone on each side of the Atlantic (and across the globe really) should remember that what they see on TV and in the papers isn’t always necessarily reality. Everybody has a perspective and those often make their way into an article or report.

American Independence Day

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