What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
GIGANTIC kites made from tissue paper, tape and bamboo. Incredible and beautiful!
Describe a typical day:
Awoke this morning at The Homestead, ready for our trip to explore Guatemala before heading south to El Salvador. First stop? The Giant Kite Festival in Sumpango, in celebration of Dia de los Muertos. The atmosphere at the event was similar to that of a fair or carnival, with food stands and kite flying competitions, but the most incredible part was gawking with head bent upward toward the sky at the colossal, colorful kites.
Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
There were people from all nationalities and backgrounds in attendance at the festival… many Guatemalans, but also European, American and Australian tourists. Unfortunately, the only talking I did was to order food or ask for a bathroom… other than that I was gazing and taking photos.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
I absolutely loved seeing the beautiful kites. They were works of art, and must have taken hours and hours to complete. What a labor of devotion and appreciation for a holiday that honors one’s ancestors. I disliked seeing them almost destroyed by the wind, after all the work that went into them. I wonder what they do with them after the event?
Describe a challenge you faced:
Our biggest challenge today was trying to decide which delicious food to eat. Ohh, and we did get stopped as we tried to leave town, by dancers in the street.
What new lesson did you learn?
I learned greater appreciation for the artistic abilities of the Guatemalan people. In the past, I haven’t necessarily considered this culture as being ‘artistic’, but the kites were truly masterpieces.
Next we’ll be headed to Antigua, Guatemala… one of my favorite Guatemalan cities!
One of the many great things about Europe is the magnificent way it celebrates the Christmas season. Throughout the continent, a spirit of festivity can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies.
With that said, this is the first in a series of posts on the various ways Christmas is celebrated in Europe. While each country has its own festive quirks, many of them share the greatest of the ancient traditions and it’s a joy to be enveloped by it.
Germany, for example, is one of the most magical places to experience the season. This seems ironic, as it’s arguably Europe’s most progressive, twenty-first century nation. But old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Austrian border to the Baltic Sea, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, Germany comes alive at the holidays. Its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.
The sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading the bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic old Germanic carols, their puffs of visible breath ascending into the sky on the frosty air.
Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the predominantly Catholic South and Protestant North (this, after all the birthplace of Luther and Protestantism). Jolly St. Nicholas looms in the dreams of children eager for the big day to arrive.
It’s a good reminder that there is more to Germany that Oktoberfest and the Autobahn. They keep the best of their ancient traditions very much alive as they indulge in the classic sights, sounds and tastes of Christmas festivity.
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Once a prosperous medieval port city, Bruges saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The Flemish jewel’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but my description of a city that offered authentic Gothic architecture, romantic canals and Crusader-era cathedral housing an ancient relic piqued her interest. She also seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the world (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300 and the historic Basilica of the Holy Blood (home of a priceless relic brought home to Bruges from the Crusades—the reputed blood of Jesus—and the Gothic artistry of the ancient City Hall.
Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and admired the pointy gilded architecture. After licking our fingers we checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church and then continued wandering along the canals that lace the city. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night.
The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of delectably pralines, a well-earned hangover, and a few good stories. I relished playing tour guide in Europe, and I still do.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.
“C’mon, try it.”
They floated in a thick, dark sauce. The nails had been cut off, but the rest of each finger stared back at me without eyes from the plastic plate, livid in vinegar. Truncated joints just below the feathers’ line. As I kept staring at my prospective dinner, I wondered how low a man can go to impress a pretty girl.
“So, will you try one?”
Her eyes were inquisitive windows open on her own world. A slot machine of emotions tilted inside of her head, trying to spit out the appropriate row of words to describe me as delusional. When she invited me out to try some of the best street food in Penang, she probably trusted me to be a different, more interesting date.
In Italy, chicken feet are not popular. They are not food. They don’t even appear at the poultry meat section, unless you buy a freshly slaughtered chicken. They get cut and thrown away as trash.
As I approached the soft, darkly simmered meat with chopsticks, my mother’s voice came abruptly in from a lost corner of my memory lane.
“During the War,” she whispered, “your grandmother’s family used to eat them.”
I had to trust her. They couldn’t be so terrible, after all.
I looked at my companion profile against a backdrop of sizzling pans and rugged Chinese limbs which rotated in and out of steamy pots. Her attention was completely fixed on my next move, keeping the final verdict tightly squeezed behind stretched lips. My idea of a romantic after-dinner stroll at the seaside was suspended between the plastic extension of my right thumb and index fingers, a soy-sogged poultry mutilation, and her candid foreign perfection.
I finally plucked it.
The virgin taste of tender slime melting in my mouth slightly surprised me as I found a bunch of tiny bones between my teeth.
“Spit them out on the table, it is OK,” she instructed me gently, savoring her relief at not having chosen a cultural idiot as a prospective boyfriend. I unleashed an awkward garter belt of unexploded chicken bones against the orange plastic of the table without injuring anyone.
“Good. Not many foreigners agree to try. Was it so bad, after all?”
The delusion had vanished from her face.
Shaking my head, I realized I just had my jackpot: a row of three Sevens, straight from the deep of her heart, started to fill the coin hopper that was standing empty between us until a minute before.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Ancient Mayan religious rites being performed in a Catholic cathedral… a unique blend of religions that tells stories about a part of the world with a conflicting history.
A journey is made of milestones. It has to. Without milestones, we would not be able to ponder our experiences, to stop and wonder about what we have accomplished during all this while.
One of the most shiny accomplishments of my 6 years stint on the road – on many roads, in many countries, with a particular deviancy for the shores of Southeast Asia – is to have become a published writer. And I would like to make it clear: I’m writing this post after I asked Rolf Potts whether or not he found such a display of self-promotion appropriate for Vagabonding. The answer was positive. Moreover, as my book’s not traditionally about the art of travel, he thought best to let me talk about it, instead of wait for a traditional review.
My debut novel titled Nazi Goreng has been published by Monsoon books from Singapore in mid October, and is slowly appearing online and distributed in bookstores across Southeast Asia, the USA, Australia and the UK. It’s a great accomplishment that makes the many hours spent honing the writing craft well worth. More than anything, it constitutes the greatest milestone of my past six years. And please consider: I’m not new to conquering experiences that few can boost to have under their belts. For example, hitchhiking from Singapore to Italy was one. Well, writing a book can be a similar process. It takes daily dedication to get you somewhere closer to reach your goal, your milestone that is. Chiseling a manuscript is a bit like hitching a ride: you never know what’s coming up next, nor when you will reach your destination.
Nazi Goreng talks about Malaysia in a way you never read before: it’s a fictional transposition of the racial tensions that one can only find in a country made up by different ethnic groups, where prayers are spelt to the sky in three languages, followed by wafts of sandalwood-scented smoke. It’s a dark assemblage of truths and fictional accounts based on my perplexing discovery of kuasa melayu (Malay power), a neo-Nazi group made up of brown skinned people. And most importantly, it’s a novel that doesn’t talk about the British or Japanese occupation of the country, a theme too often coupled with Malayan-based historical fiction. On the contrary, this book is the result of years of real-life observations, friendships, time spent scouring the dark halls of local underground music venues, trying to decipher the different habits and ways of thinking of three of the most diverse races of greater Asia who, somehow, had come to share the same turf. And I care to precise, mine are modern day observations. They are a patchwork of the fantastic and terrible experience that living in a country like Malaysia can be. It’s the apex of a personal trip to the inside of a particular Asian society, sung to the best of my mongrel minstrel’s abilities. It’s a way to keep myself sane after being on the road, on and off motion, for six long years.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, and if you are keen, some more information can be found here. What I would like to communicate is really quite simple: I believe that we must use travel to open up our minds in creative ways. We must elaborate on what we have seen, smelt, touched, experienced, otherwise the sense is lost. We must find that unique angle which is ours, and ours only, and just functions as an extension of our own selves. I believe that it is only in such a case that a voyage be well worth setting a milestone. It serves to remember a particular turning point, and grow to a different level.
Truth be told, I don’t even know if I am a ‘traveler’ anymore. I feel more like I had dug up a hole in a tropical island, and had slowly covered myself under a mound of sand. But it is from the security of this new shelter, buried deep into the secrecy of another culture who seems less foreign every passing day, that I have chiseled my milestone. If you are interested in admiring its fine carvings, and see how much passion I reversed into the craft, please click here. And if you like what you see, consider giving some peanuts to the monkey, for it might keep the typewriter well oiled and always functional.
Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work almost immediately. It’s amazing how profoundly engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.
As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with a local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d taken. The clusters of pixels in my camera contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.
It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community who lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—alone at sunset.
At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.
Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.
As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research I did and the photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.
I’m an avid reader. I’ve long made it a practice to choose books that followed my journeys. It’s a wonderful way to add depth and richness to my own experiences and observations, and to see the world through more eyes, more lives, than just my own.
Last summer I found myself on parade of bumpy bus rides across Vietnam and down the less traveled end of the Mekong River in Laos. With my legs folded on top of crates of fruit as the bus lumbered through the monsoon rutted mud roadways I paged my way, one country at a time, through Nelson Rand’s Conflict: Journeys through war and terror in Southeast Asia. This part of the continent has been, and in some places continues to be, a war ravaged corner of the world. It’s hard for me to imagine, shopping in the riverside markets and climbing through the gorgeous ruins of antiquity, planes flying over head, carpet bombing, families hiding out in the jungle, genocide, death, destruction. And yet, within my lifetime these have been realities in this part of the world. Instead of focusing on the big pictures and the official histories, Rand tells stories, first hand, of the people he’s met and the lives they’ve lived through war and terror, as the title suggests.
There is no shortage of interesting books to pick up on your travels through Southeast Asia, but if you’re looking for a well worn recommendation for a window into the heart of individual experiences across Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma, I heartily recommend this one.
GHOST MONEY by Andrew Nette
I believe that to be better travellers, we must know about the history of the places we visit. Ghost Money, a crime novel by Australian writer Andrew Nette, helps do the trick for Cambodia, the popular culture way. Pulp, to be precise. It paints a vivid, fluid description of the country in the mid 1990s, when Cambodia started to recover from the deadly domination of the Khmer Rouge. Ghost Money takes the reader by hand and help him wade through the darkness of Southeast Asia most unfortunate country’s recent past.
The prose slowly unearths important historical details, and it feels like a candle that’s been raised up high to keep the obscurity at bay. As we are pulled into the darkness by the firm grip of a narration that never seems to let go of our neck, we get to discover so much more about a Cambodia that’s gone past.
If protagonist Max Quinlan were a Chinese, he’d be called a “banana”: yellow outside, but white inside. A product of a Vietnamese-Australian lost relationship, Max is an ex-cop turned sour the way green apples do. His soul is definitely less white trash than a bogan’s, but is inevitably trapped inside an Australasian cocoon disguised for yellow skin. Such an interesting take on an otherwise quite clichéd sour ex-cop stereotype elevates Quinlan from the moshpit of decadent white detectives who lost their minds trying to negotiate the underbelly of Asia’s most terrifying literary cities. Regardless, also Max’s private life has started to smell like sulphur after things got out of control during an international post in Bangkok. Now, the man’s got to scrap off a living by locating missing people. And that’s exactly how he ends up on the mystery trail of Charles Avery, an Australian expat who’s disappeared without a trace, last stop Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At least, that’s where the evidence Quinlan finds in a Bangkok third-rate hotel room suggests – completed by the stench of a dead body with a cracked skull, nonetheless -. Hence, potentially to try to curb a haunting mistake of the past, our mixed-blood private eye trusts his gut feelings, and doesn’t think twice before getting on the next plane to Phnom Penh.
Ghost Money is like that: it starts with a frontal bang, then puts the car in reverse, slowly returns in the initial position, and pushes the pedal to the metal until it crashes against the wall once again. And again. Until Max Quinlan will piece together the parts of a lunatic puzzle using a golden thread of secrets and lies… and I am not going to spoil anymore of the plot.
If you like a good crime story that’s able to evoke the palm fringed, foul smelling Cambodian avenues and line them up with shady characters as if you’d just finished playing with an Ouija board, well, you’ve found a winner here. And a bunch of spirits willing to tell you some inconvenient Cambodian truths under their breath.
It all works so recklessly well that I am forced to recommend Ghost Money to all of those travellers, armchair and otherwise, who are thinking about visiting Cambodia for the first time. This book can help take a first bite of the country’s sweet-sour taste, masking it under an intricately woven shroud of fiction. A bite from an apple injected with black blood, a proper aftertaste of genocide. Completed by the acrid smell of cigarettes burnt on the tip of a dry tongue. A sizzingly exciting Asia noir read not to miss.
We’ve all heard horror stories from our friends—and have many of our own—about certain airline experiences. With the sheer volume of flights scheduled around the world on any given day, it is a statistical certainty that there will be the occasion snafu, and sometimes it’s your flight’s turn to have the bad day, and sometimes it isn’t. So, it’s generally wise to not let one friend’s horror story or isolated incident inform your opinion of an airline.
That’s what I thought when I head of a friend’s troubles with Air Berlin the other day. Living in Copenhagen, she was scheduled to fly to Miami for a short vacation to see family. Due to an epic screw-up on the airline’s part, she has found that the soonest she could reach her destination would be in two days, thus destroying her much-anticipated visit. This was compounded by the fact that they were reportedly rude and unhelpful.
She was crushed and angry, so I took her rant about the airline with a grain of salt, especially considering the sterling reputation of the normally efficient Germans. She was crushed and angry, so I took her rant about the airline with a grain of salt—until I read this.
In fairness, other friends who have flown the airline reported nothing but positive experiences. But when a major magazine runs a story about an airline’s slow-motion meltdown and includes the line, “Germany’s second-largest airline has become a mesmerizing spectacle of shaming and apology” in the first paragraph, there is definitely grounds for warning my fellow travelers to think twice before booking until the company sorts itself out.