Monday, November 13, 2017

Dispatch from an antique writing desk.

I'm typing at the antique writing desk I inherited from my Great Aunt Joan, which is easily my favorite piece of furniture in my new apartment. The apartment isn't new, of course; it's in an old Chicago building, squeaky wood floors, radiators painted white. But the windows are new, and the on-site handyman is friendly and reliable.

I haven't finished putting things together yet—another bookshelf is on the way tomorrow, a sofa and four dining chairs on Friday. My credit card bill is higher than it's ever been. But the good news is that I'll be able to afford it. My job may not be particularly glamorous, but as they say, it pays the bills. And I genuinely like my coworkers to boot.

I must take a moment to proclaim my eternal gratitude for Meg, Molly, Alex, Valy, Jon, and Felipe, who gamely lugged all my heavy objects up three narrow flights of stairs. They also kept me focused that evening at Target, when I had to stock my kitchen and bathroom. I'm not the most domestic person, and I honestly might have started crying in the middle of the store if they hadn't been there to tell me what I needed to buy.

Between all the moving and furniture-assembling—not to mention adjusting to the new commute—I haven't had much time to write. The first week of November I was so frustrated by my lack of literary progress that I forced myself to enter (b)OINK zine's 35mm fiction contest, so that if I produced nothing else, I could at least say that I had written 35 words. 

Then I found out I won the contest, which felt (and still feels) amazing. Thanks, (b)OINK!

My goal is to completely finish revising my novel by the end of this month. I'm essentially already there; I just have one scene that I need to edit, but I know how I'm going to edit it. And now I need to thank more people! Leta, Laura, Tim, Felipe—the novel would not exist in its current form without your sharp eyes and sharper brains.

Other things that have happened lately:
  • I went to see Arcade Fire with Gena. Two enthusiastic thumbs up.
  • I went to see Murder on the Orient Express with my family for my dad's birthday. Two disappointed thumbs down.
  • I joined the local YMCA, which has an indoor track and $40/month membership fees. Cue that disco classic

Monday, October 23, 2017

Fall 2017 Playlist: Annotated

As many of you know, I was obsessed with making mix CDs in high school. Obsessed. I'm sure I made hundreds, though only twenty or thirty have survived my teenage years; a while back I recreated as many of them as I could on Spotify.

Recently I've realized that I miss making curated playlists. I've still made plenty of playlists since the triumph of digital music, but mostly they're just related to a genre or era; I throw as many relevant songs in as I can, then put it on shuffle. But that sort of playlist-making doesn't bring the same satisfaction as taking the time to put the songs in a specific order.

That's why I've decided to start making seasonal mixes every few months. I started with my Summer 2017 playlist, and while that was great, I think I'll have even more fun if I annotate the playlists on this blog. In that spirit, let me introduce you to Fall 2017:

1. WILD FLAG, "Glass Tambourine" - Though my musical tastes bend toward the acoustic side of the spectrum in autumn, I wanted something with a bit more oomph to kick things off. A few weeks ago I rediscovered WILD FLAG, a post-punk band featuring members of Sleater-Kinney. Sometime in 2010-ish, Meg's husband (!!!) Marc was doing sound for WILD FLAG at Metro, and he managed to get us backstage. And that's when Carrie Brownstein offered me a beer. Carrie Brownstein. Me. Beer. Carrie Brownstein. I could hardly speak.

2. The Zombies, "She's Not There" - I never like to stick to one decade with my playlists, and I will always and forever love the 60s. I feel as though The Zombies were simultaneously the epitome of their time and way ahead of their time.

3. Childish Gambino, "Baby Boy" - I've been listening to Childish Gambino's "Awaken, My Love!"  regularly since it came out last winter. Can't get enough of that soulful sound. Thought this one did a good job of matching the retro vibe while pulling the mix back into the present.

4. Arcade Fire, "Good God Damn" - Though I can't say Everything Now is my favorite Arcade Fire album, it still has many solid tracks--this being one of them. The bass line here follows the groove from the previous track nicely. In my opinion, anyway.

5. Mountain Goats, "Rage of Travers" - This was one of the trickiest transitions on the playlist. I knew I wanted to include something off Mountain Goats' newest album Goths, but I couldn't quite figure out where to place it. The emphasis on the bass in this track called back to "Good God Damn" enough that I thought it might work. You'll have to let me know whether I was successful.

6. Jamila Woods feat. Nico Segal, "Breadcrumbs" - Uh-mazing Chicago artist Jamila Woods' album HEAVN came out a while ago, but it only recently became available on Spotify. I knew I had to add something of hers; the horns in "Breadcrumbs" formed a bridge between the horns in the Mountain Goats track and the horns in the following track.

7. Twin Danger, "No One Knows" - Because who doesn't love a 40's jazz-style cover of Queens of the Stone Age's first big hit? I also had Twin Peaks on the brain while making this playlist, since I'd just watched the finale of the new series, and this song struck me as something David Lynch might have used for the soundtrack, had he known about it.

8. Rebekah Del Rio, "No Stars" - This is a song David Lynch really did use for the new Twin Peaks soundtrack. It's so repetitive that it ought to be boring, but the melody is beautiful enough that it keeps me entranced.

9. Ezra Furman, "Driving Down to L.A." - I also had trouble placing this song; originally I hadn't intended to include Ezra Furman at all, but then he dropped a new single. My hands were tied. I felt that the beginning of the song was quiet enough to follow "No Stars," but was also modern enough to pull the playlist back into the present.

10. Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton, "Legend of the Wild Horse" - I've been a big fan of all Emily Haines' musical projects since I was in high school, and though I'm not in love with the Soft Skeleton's new Choir of the Mind album, I do find this song rather hypnotizing.

11. Jon Batiste, Leon Bridges, & Gary Clark Jr., "Ohio" - A legendary Neil Young song covered by three legendary artists. It's much quieter than the original, with gorgeous harmonies. Perfect for autumn nights, as well as the current political climate (unfortunately).

12. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Mary Jane's Last Dance" - I've never been particularly interested in Tom Petty, but when he passed I felt like I ought to pay tribute. This is one song of his that I do enjoy, and I added it here to pick up the pace of the mix a bit.

13. Waxahatchee, "8 Ball" - If you ignore the lyrics, this song sounds like a sunny autumn day. A generally cheerful melody with something of an edge to it. Whenever I hear this track I'm reminded that I don't listen to Waxahatchee nearly enough.

14. Feist, "Young Up" - I haven't listened to Feist consistently since her ultra-famous 2007 album The Reminder, but I looooove her new album Pleasure. Her songs are so simply constructed, and yet they seem to have great musical depth.

15. The Cactus Blossoms, "Mississippi" - This is another one that I liked from the new Twin Peaks soundtrack. It's a blatant rip-off of The Everly Brothers, but it's delightful, so I don't care. I placed it here to pull the playlist back in a retro direction for a few tracks.

16. Fleetwood Mac, "Gold Dust Woman" - I had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Stevie Nicks in September at Ravinia. She taught us many important life lessons between songs--for example, that it's important to own a car so that when you want to leave a man, you can really leave him. I wanted to commemorate that magical experience with a track featuring her sultry vocals.

17. Bittersweet Drive, "Buried Below" - This song is on the playlist because nepotism! Seriously though--Bittersweet Drive may be my sister's band, but I believe I'd love this song even if I had no personal connection. The first time I heard it, I knew "Buried Below" was for Fall.

18. DM Stith, "Cormorant" - Mr. Stith took his sweet time releasing a follow-up to his first album Heavy Ghost, but the wait for Pigeonheart was worth it. Many of the songs on Pigeonheart have a bit more drive behind them than this one, but the echoey background vocals on "Cormorant" remind me of the cool, whipping breezes that herald a storm.

19. The Beatles, "Long, Long, Long" - This Fab 4 deep cut is actually the first song I added to the playlist, but it ended up all the way at the bottom. I love the quiet organ in this one. And yet the final minutes of the song are so harsh compared to the rest of it that I didn't want this track to end the playlist altogether.

20. Kesha, "Spaceship" - What a wonderful song. It's simple and sweet and pretty, and the lyrics are quirky and hopeful. A much more optimistic way for the playlist to finish. I must say, Kesha's Rainbow may be my favorite album this year. It's up there, at least.

Please give it a listen and let me know what you think. Sharing mixes is the best part!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Tale of Two Weddings

A major reason I've been blogging so infrequently is that most of my spare time has been wrapped up in weddings. My dear friend Gena married Marty—the redhead of her dreams—on September 23rd, and my best-friend-more-like-my-sibling Meg married noted anarchist, musician, and vegan chef Marc just last night—Friday the 13th, of course. I was a bridesmaid in both weddings—in fact, I was Unicorn of Honor in the latter—so for the past few months my weekends have consisted of showers, bachelorette parties, and crafting sessions.

Now that both happy occasions have passed, I believe a recap is in order.

#GenaMartyParty

The morning after a rehearsal dinner at Rock Bottom that can only be described as jolly, we awoke to a beautiful, sunny September day—except that it was 90 degrees fahrenheit. Catalina, Felipe, and I grabbed breakfast at Dollop (obviously better than the fancy hotel breakfast Gena & Co. had, nbd) and headed to the W Hotel for hair, makeup, the works.

With Kesha blasting in the background and Zero Dark Thirty on TV (yeah, I know), we groomed and preened. I threw on the emergency dress that I ordered from Amazon a week before the wedding because I gained too much weight in Southeast Asia to fit into my original dress, and it ended up looking better than my original dress anyway.

Gena was a statuesque, shimmering city bride. Marty resembled a wealthy oil baron—in a good way. Dapper AF.

#genamartyparty
We took some pictures in the hotel, then piled onto a trolley to play supermodel in Millennium Park. There was no air conditioning on the trolley. We survived.

Loft on Lake was the wedding venue, and it had everything you could ever want for a chic urban ceremony—exposed brick walls, a bright skylight, simple bulbs draped across the ceiling. I am not one to sniffle, but I sure did sniffle during this marriage. My friends just looked so damn in love with each other! I couldn't help it!

Afterwards we drank beer home-brewed by Gena's dad and stuffed ourselves silly with steak and pasta and salad and gelato (!!!). The DJ did this great through-the-decades sort of set, kicking things off with The Beatles and ending the night with Chance the Rapper. When he played The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" we collectively lost our minds.

I danced. A lot. Very sweaty.

At the end of the night we headed next door to McDonald's for McFlurries and chicken tenders. A McFlurry has never tasted so good.

Gena, Marty—I love you. If I ever get married someday, I hope he adores me as much as you two so blatantly adore each other. Your wedding was a rose-gold, glorious blossom of an event.

#HolyCatrimony

The morning after a rehearsal dinner at Revolution Brewing that can only be described as boisterous (there was a flash mob and everything!), we awoke to the one day this week that it didn't rain—thank goodness. I tied on my new purple Chuck Taylors and walked over to Stan Mansion, the fancy-but-potentially-haunted wedding venue.

Inside the mansion's gorgeous bridal suite, we readied ourselves for the party of the century. Laura did our makeup one by one while the rest of us ate bagels and drank mimosas. Eventually we slipped into our black dresses, knotted our paisley bowties, clipped on our feathery fascinators, and stepped outside for pictures by none other than Braden Nesin, who I hadn't seen in a good long while. Virtually every aspect of this wedding was a wonderful reunion of some sort.

Meg was Marie Antoinette—if Marie Antoinette were super goth. Marc was a sharp-dressed, punk-rock dream. Total babes.

The ceremony was like something out of a movie—I still can't quite believe it really happened. Anastasia balanced humor and sincerity perfectly as the officiant, and we all got to wiggle while Katy read Worm Loves Worm. Molly, Leta, and I sang three-part harmonies on Bright Eyes' "First Day of My Life."

For cocktail hour: a performance by spooky drag queen Discord Addams. For dinner: VEGAN. TACO. BAR. Enough said.

After we ate, I gave a speech! In front of hundreds of people! I hear it went well, but I don't remember much. I'm glad people liked it—I thought it was funny when I wrote it, but you never know with that sort of thing.

Then it was time for my semi-private J.C. Brooks concert. I've never been to a wedding that had an actual band before, and let me tell you, they're one hell of a wedding band. Of course, they're one hell of a band in general, which is why I suggested them in the first place. Very glad my not-so-sneaky musical scheme paid off—though I wish Gena had been there to see it with me, since she is my J.C. Brooks-loving soulmate.

I danced. A lot. Very sweaty.

At the end of the night I went back to Meg & Marc's and crashed. Don't worry—they stayed at the venue's bridal suite again, so I wasn't interrupting anything, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. This morning we brunched at Ground Control, and I ate so much delicious food that I haven't wanted to eat since.

Meg, Marc—I'd marry you both if I could. As weird as you are, you're the Platonic ideal of what a supportive relationship should be, and I've learned a lot about love from you. Your wedding was a majestic soiree, sweet and warm as whiskey with a jack-o-lantern glow.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Monday

Last night, when I was going over today's schedule in my Passion Planner, I wrote this as today's focus: "It's okay if Monday isn't perfect."

Well, Monday was far from perfect.

I'm glad and grateful that all my friends in Las Vegas are safe. I'm sad that I'm not there to hug them. I'm outraged that our government still hasn't done anything about the gun problem in this country, that they act like nothing can be done. Thoughts and prayers after the fact--however sincere--aren't going to prevent horrors like this from happening in the future.

It should be as difficult to get a gun license as it is to get a driver's license. Extensive training, then 40-50 hours of supervision. And we need to entirely ban assault rifles, which are good for nothing but mass murder.

Ideally we'd just chuck guns out altogether, but god forbid (mostly) white people lose their freedom to hunt for sport. I write this, by the way, knowing that my dad's healthy collection of hunting rifles and handguns is only a floor below me in the basement. It's an issue where we'll never see eye to eye--which saddens me. It saddens me to know that my dad doesn't care how many people die. Or maybe he cares on some level--he says he cares, and I want to believe him--but he obviously doesn't care enough. His hobby is more important to him than their lives.

How do you come to terms with that? How do you come to terms with the fact that your father, who you love, and who loves you, can't seem to muster anything more than vague sympathy for the victims of mass shootings?

Seriously. Suggestions appreciated.

Here are some things you can do to help:
===

In happier news, Pithead Chapel published my story "In Captivity" in their October issue. Appropriately, it's about grieving. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Beep Beep, Beep Beep, Yeah


The big news in my life right now is that I bought a car. She’s a 2017 Toyota Prius C, electric orange.
Her name is Geri.
(Short for Tangerine, but also a nod to the great Geri Halliwell, a.k.a. Ginger Spice.)
I wasn’t excited about this development at first. As you may remember, the VW Beetle I’d been driving in Vegas died very early in my road trip back to Chicago last year. That car was never technically mine to begin with—it was my mom’s, and because she just-so-happened to purchase a new car at the same I left for grad school, she was kind enough to give me her old one. The VW Passat we leased in St. George, Utah after the Beetle perished was also theirs, and it now resides in Florida, at their snowbird residence.
So I knew I was going to have to bite the bullet and buy my own car—at some point. However, I didn’t think it would happen quite so soon. I was under the impression that sharing a car with my mom was going well, since my dad could easily drive her to work.
My impression was incorrect.
Last Wednesday night, my parents—impatient and tired of sharing—kidnapped me and took me to the Kenosha CarMax. After various negotiations and test drives and credit applications and all that nonsense, we returned on Thursday night so I could sign on the dotted line.
Lines, actually. You have to sign a lot of stuff to buy a car!
Now Geri is mine—and I’m extremely happy with her, for the record. I consider her my new pet. She’s nice and small and easy to park. She’s a hybrid, so I’m not totally murdering the environment—and I save a lot of gas money in the process. In fact, she tells me how much money I spent on each drive after I turn the ignition. And there’s this screen on the dashboard that shows when the fuel engine is powering the car, and when the battery engine is powering the car, and when the wheels and brakes are powering the battery—it’s super interesting and also super distracting.
I get to make car payments for the next six years of my life, but, you know. C’est la vie. At least I’m mobile.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Business School Ruins People

My new job has been going well. I like all my coworkers--though there are so many of them that it's difficult to remember everyone's name. I keep trying to glance at their badges, but oftentimes they're flipped around. Meg decorated my cubicle so that it's #officeunicorn chic, and I brought in my glitter lava lamp to match the aesthetic. Feeling very much like Peggy Olson at the end of Mad Men:



via GIPHY

Minus the cigarette, of course.

As of right now, I have only two problems with the job. One is the commute. It's actually not that bad, since I'm still at my parents' place in the suburbs. But until recently I've been rolling out of bed between 8 and 9. Now I have to get up between 6 and 6:30, and it's making me outrageously exhausted. I'm pretty much useless during the evenings. But I'm sure I'll get used to the lack of sleep.

My other problem isn't really a problem--it's more like a mild annoyance. But as someone who loves language, I can't help but find it troubling.

Business school ruins people. Or rather, it ruins their ability to communicate clearly.

I've sat in on several meetings this week in order to acclimate myself to the inner workings of the company, and so many times I've heard people reject simple statements in favor of business school terminology that garbles their meaning.

The most egregious phrase I've come across is "communication deliverables." Why don't you just say "communications"? Because at least two people are required for communications to occur, the word itself implies delivery. Why waste your breath on the unnecessary extra word?

There are others. The ubiquity of "utilize" instead of the simpler "use." Everything is a "proposition" instead of a philosophy or an idea, all solutions or responses must be "facilitated." Acronyms abound. Meg warned me that I might hear about "learnings," as in: "What learnings did you take away from this seminar?"

::shudder::

I should mention that this isn't an issue on my own team--thank goodness. But I suspect that's because most of us studied English or Journalism or some other subject where obfuscation is the enemy. Strangely, I get the impression that the people who do use business school terminology think that their jargon is making things clearer. I want to assure them that it most certainly is not.

Except I won't assure them of that aloud, because it's my first week and I don't want to get fired.

If you're not sure what I'm talking about when I mention business school terminology, please refer to The New Yorker's delightful parody "A Deep Dive to Remember: A Love Story Between Business Managers, Written By A Business Manager."

This is my life now.

===

In totally unrelated news, Black Lives Matter is having a fundraiser. If you've been condemning white supremacy all week on social media but haven't taken any concrete steps to destroy it, I encourage you to put your money where your mouth is.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Updates!

I am the worst at blogging right now. In my defense, my life has felt kind of like this lately:



via GIPHY

Exciting! But hard work.

Here are some cool things that have happened:

  • My story "Fame is the Opposite of Love" was the runner-up in Round 1 of Midwestern Gothic's Summer 2017 Flash Fiction Series. You should read it because you love me, and also because it's fewer than 500 words. 
  • I started a new job at Allstate. My official title is "Corporate Relations Senior Consultant," but really what I do is work on the company's internal social media site. My observations about corporate life can be found on Twitter via the hashtag #officeunicorn, because that is what I am--as opposed to my esteemed colleague and best friend Meg, who is #officegoth. It should be noted that any views expressed on my social media channels are solely my own, and have nothing to do with Allstate. It's only my first week, you guys. You can't expect me to be the voice of the company just yet.
I'm going to make an effort to blog every Friday, I think. That way there won't be such long gaps. Plus, that kind of journaling will be good for my mental health. So much is changing right now! It will help to write my feelings down. And lucky you! You get to read them.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Kids in America

As I have so many times before, I must apologize for the long silence. Between my part time job, my freelance work, applying for new jobs, volunteering for Split Lip, and participating in two separate bridal parties, I have very little spare time. Unfortunately, I've had to shove blogging down to the bottom of my list. But rest assured, I got back to the United States safe and sound, and I've reconnected with most of my friends and family. It's good to be home.

But today I don't want to talk about any of that. 

Today I want to talk about teenagers.

Over the past few days, I've been watching the CW show Riverdale while I eat dinner. It's based on the characters from classic Archie comics--but instead of following the wholesome, all-American plots from the comics, the show's creators have turned it into a campy, murder mystery noir. It's utterly delightful. It's feminist, and they at least try to address issues of race (Josie & the Pussycats are black!)--though they could still do a lot better on that front. Jughead is my boyfriend. Back off, ladies. 

He's one of the oldest "teenage" actors on the show, so that makes me feel like less of a creep.

Anyway, Riverdale has once again made me wonder why I love stories about teenagers so much. I really do. 1990's teen comedies are my favorite movie genre. 10 Things I Hate About You, Empire Records, Clueless--I could watch them once a month and never get sick of them. Some 1980's and early 2000's teen comedies are strong enough that I consider them 1990's teen comedies as well. Heathers and Mean Girls certainly make the cut. John Hughes movies are okay. I still like them, but they don't hold a candle to the renaissance of the 90's. 

I enjoy reading stories about teenagers as well. During my recent trip to Southeast Asia, I devoured seven YA novels, most of which were fantastic--with a few notable exceptions. You can read my reviews of them here. I also like books for adults that feature teenage protagonists. Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Karen Russell's Swamplandia! come to mind.

And of course, I frequently write about teenagers. My novel is a YA novel. Obviously, there's something about adolescence that appeals to me.

It's not nostalgia for my own teenage years. Not that they were horrific--middle school and junior high were much worse--but I do feel like my life generally improves the older I get. I wouldn't go back to being a teenager, that's for sure.

Part of it is probably that everyone loves a good "coming of age" story, and teen stories almost always provide that narrative. But I think there's more to it than that. I suspect my preference has something to do with teenage emotions, which are ALL OVER THE DAMN PLACE. Adults often accuse teens of being melodramatic as though it's a bad thing. But I find it wonderful that every little thing matters so very much to teenagers. Any small rejection, and it's the end of the world. Any sign of requited love, and it's the best day ever.

And at the same time, teens seem better equipped to handle situations that are truly dramatic, perhaps because they're already so steeped in their emotions that they don't feel as though they have to hide them. Terrible, tragic events often occur in these stories, and the teens either get themselves through it without the help of adults, or they're the ones helping the adults through it. In Empire Records, for instance, Joe Reaves is ready to give up his record store after Lucas' major monetary mistake--but the teenage employees feel such loyalty to Joe and to the shop that they come up with a ridiculous plan to save it. They have significantly more hope than Joe.

I consider myself a fairly optimistic person. But I honestly think I'm jealous of teenagers, and that's why I enjoy their stories. I was raised Catholic and Midwestern--hiding our emotions is just what we do. Not even hiding them, exactly. It's more like we wouldn't want to burden others with our feelings. It's impolite. It's shameful.

I've tried to push back against this damaging impulse in my own adult life--with some success, I think--but it's a hard habit to break. And so I'm envious of these fictional teenagers, who are unabashedly open and free.

And on that note, let's listen to Kim Wilde's 1981 classic "Kids in America," since it's been stuck in my head ever since I used it as the title for this post. And because Archie and Veronica covered it on the episode of Riverdale I watched last night.  

Monday, June 5, 2017

DAD --> PQC --> SGN

The bad news: I'm flying back to the States on Wednesday.

The good news: I'm flying back to the States on Wednesday.

As you can tell, I have mixed feelings about this. I'm obviously excited to get back to all my friends and family, but at the same time, I love the nomad life! Despite its disadvantages, it suits me.

I returned to Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday afternoon, and received a warm welcome at The Common Room Project, where I originally stayed when I first arrived. They were so happy to see me they even gave me the big bed. :) 

Phu Quoc Vietnam harbor boats
But before my return to Saigon, I visited Phu Quoc Island. I'm not much of a beach person--and Phu Quoc Island is pretty much all beach--but I wanted to go snorkeling. I'd never been snorkeling. I booked a tour through my hostel and headed out on a boat. Then they gave me a mask and breathing tube and basically just told me to jump in the ocean and go. A little more instruction would have been appreciated--it took me a while to get used to blowing water out of the tube. Or maybe I was doing something wrong and there shouldn't have been water in there at all? No idea. 

That said, I had a nice time. I suspect it wasn't the most spectacular place to snorkel. There was coral, and some fish. But not bright coral or huge fish. For a first time, though, it'll do. At least I didn't get stung by a jellyfish or a sea urchin or anything.

When we were finished with our second snorkeling...dive? I don't know what you'd call it. When we were finished with our second round of snorkeling, the friendly Russian couple I met on the boat looked at me askance. "You still very pale. You like milk."

Painfully accurate.

Phu Quoc also had one of my favorite night markets that I visited. Plenty of fresh seafood--although it was a bit pricier than your average market. One night I got Indian food, and I swear the garlic naan was the size of a large pizza. Needless to say, I did not finish it.

What have I been up to in HCMC? Mostly buying souvenirs. YOU'RE WELCOME. Ben Thanh Market was just as miserable as I expected it to be. Well, to be fair, the market itself was not miserable. Bartering is miserable. It is an utterly joyless process. I'm sure I paid more than I should have for lots of things--but I think I got good deals on a few items, at least.

Afterwards I rewarded myself with a trip to Propaganda, a chic bistro that serves upscale Vietnamese food in a room filled with 50's and 60's propaganda art. However, I sat on the patio. I had a beer and crunchy tri-colored rice with shredded chicken and a fried egg on top. It was delicious.

Cu Chi Tunnels Vietnam
Today I took a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels--part of the massive system of tunnels built by the guerrilla fighters during the Vietnam War. The whole site is swimming with tourists, of course, but it was interesting to see. Showing off the traps full of sharp spikes that they used against American soldiers--still interesting, but also kind of disturbing. My favorite part was when they actually let us climb through the tunnels. Thank goodness I'm not claustrophobic! I didn't have to crawl, but I was crouched to the point that my stomach met my knees, and my backpack scraped the ceiling. There were only a few inches on either side of my body, too. And when we climbed out on the other side, our guide told us that they had doubled the size of the tunnels before they allowed tourists to visit. Doubled! At the original size, I would have been shimmying along on my stomach for sure.

Our guide essentially forced us to take photos at one of the hidden tunnel entrances. There was this Australian guy in my group who had quite a gut, and he literally got stuck. It took three other men to pull him out.

Tonight there's a family dinner at my hostel, and then tomorrow is my last full day! I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to do.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

HUI --> DAD --> Hoi An

Preface: I wrote this yesterday while lounging on a riverside patio in Hoi An. Today I'm navigating multiple airports on my way to Phu Quoc Island--but more on that later. For the record, the dinner I ended up having at Morning Glory was one of the best things I've eaten in Vietnam. As was the second dinner that I had back at the homestay--though second dinner was not the best choice for my digestive tract. Still, no regrets.

Greetings from beautiful Hoi An, one of those aggressively charming towns designed to make tourists throw their money away. Mackinac Island, Carmel-by-the-Sea--you get the idea. I don't mean this in a disparaging way. To the contrary, Hoi An is one of my favorite places that I've visited so far. I suspect it's impossible not to feel relaxed here.

The rest of my time in Hue wasn't bad, exactly, but I wouldn't call it relaxing, either. The day after the horrible heat, I couldn't bring myself to trek to any more tourist attractions--I was wiped out. Instead I spent the day in cafes, working on my novel. Physically restful, perhaps, but mentally exhausting. Then, after dinner with Mina and some of her friends, it began to rain.

And rain. And rain.

The downpour didn't stop until well into the next day. However, the release of the rain tipped some atmospheric scale, and the temperature finally became bearable. My last day in Hue was probably my favorite. I visited the Le Ba Dang Museum, which celebrates the work of the Vietnamese painter and sculptor. I negotiated what I believe to be an amazing deal to visit Thien Mu Pagoda--the xe om driver took me there, waited for me, and drove me back for only 60,000 dong (less than $3). I hate haggling, so I was proud of myself for that one. The pagoda is gorgeous, tucked between tall pine trees, high above the Perfume River. That evening I spontaneously had dinner with a fellow American who quit her job to go diving in Thailand for nine months, as well as a Canadian retiree. Afterwards we sat at a cafe along the river and watched the lights on the bridge change colors.

Despite the pleasant day, Hoi An was a welcome change of pace. Once a major trading port, the "ancient town" is full of historical houses and temples, its streets strung with colorful lanterns. The town is famous for its tailors and leather workers, who will make custom-made clothes, bags, and shoes for tourists in a matter of hours, all for a fraction of the price that it would cost in the U.S. or Europe. There are also hundreds of cafes and restaurants, where visitors can sample local cuisine, or just chill out with a cup of coffee or a 5,000 dong glass of "fresh beer." Bicycles are perhaps the most popular form of transport in Hoi An--especially for tourists--and just a few miles away from town, a lovely ride through the rice paddies, is the beach.

Like I said: aggressively charming.

My homestay is wonderful, too. I have my own gigantic room and private bathroom. There are bicycles I can take whenever I want for free. Mimi and Long and the other staff are amazing--about my age, and always willing to sit down and chat. It's fun to hang out with them. My first night in town, we all had a huge family dinner night. We bought food at the local market, and we made spring rolls and eggplant and morning glory and papaya salad and squid and soup. Not to mention all the fruit for dessert. Have you ever had a mangosteen? If not, you ought to make it happen ASAP.

Oh, there's also a tiny kitten at the homestay who has stolen my heart. Her name is Tuna.

Anyway, if you ever come to Hoi An, you must book Riceflower Homestay for your accommodations. But where should you shop?

The amount of tailors' shops in the town is overwhelming, so I just walked into one that had a good TripAdvisor rating. Fortunately, Cloth Shop Din Din lived up to its reputation. I knew I wanted a blazer, since I can never find any that fit in the U.S. If it fits my waist, it's always too small for my arms, and vice-versa. But I also wanted something more fun, so I decided to go for a jumpsuit. I got to select the designs and fabrics of both, and both pieces were ready the next day. I came in for adjustments, and they already fit perfectly. The price was so low that I didn't have the heart to barter.

I wasn't going to buy a pair of shoes. I was determined not to. Then I saw a pair of light turquoise suede boots outside of Friendly Shoe Shop, and all my resolve crumbled. They measured my feet and legs, and they let me select the leather--they no longer had the display color, so I happily settled for a bolder blue. The boots were ready for adjustments later that same day, and when I double checked the final product today, they offered to ship it to the States for me. The cost of the custom boots plus shipping: slightly over $100. More than I'd normally pay for shoes, of course--but the shoes I normally buy are cheap and fall apart after a few months. I'm glad I made the investment, which was still a far smaller investment than I would have made for the same quality in the U.S.

It's a good thing I only have a part-time job right now, or else I might be lugging home a whole new wardrobe.

Where should you eat in Hoi An? Pretty much anywhere--everything I've tried has been delicious. I tried Cao Lau, a local specialty, at Vy's Market, on their patio along the river. I tried the "Mixed Bread" sandwich at the Anthony Bourdain-approved Banh Mi Phuong, which had a little bit of everything, and was ridiculously flavorful. I tried another local specialty, White Rose dumplings, at Coco, a restaurant tucked into a sleepy curve in the river. I tried Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancake) at the town market. Tonight I'm going to give the much-recommended Morning Glory a shot.

This morning I biked to the beach, read a book by the waves, watched these tiny, translucent crabs scuttle sideways along the sand. By the time I leave Hoi An, I'll have biked something like 25 miles--nothing for regular bikers, but considering that I hardly ever do it, and that the last time I tried I literally crashed into a wall (goddamn fixies), I'm quite proud of myself. It's the small things.

I should stop writing. I've been at this cafe for hours, and they're probably tired of me taking up prime riverside real estate.

Next door they're playing "Cowboy Take Me Away" by the Dixie Chicks. Feels appropriate for some reason.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

HAN --> HUI

I am coming back to the States in less than two weeks! LESS THAN TWO WEEKS! How did this happen?

In some ways, I'm ready. I can't wait to be a comfortable temperature again, can't wait to throw toilet paper into the toilet again, can't wait to not be accosted by taxi/tuk-tuk/motorcycle/whatever drivers everywhere I go. But at the same time, I don't want the adventuring to end. 

I have real fears about my future. Sure, everybody does. But it's less about what I'll do with myself, and more about whether I'll ever be satisfied doing anything long term. One reason I enjoy traveling so much is that it involves constant distraction and constant change. It's impossible to be bored (and much harder to be anxious) when virtually everything is different from my regular life, when even the smallest tasks become a challenge, a puzzle to solve. 

I'm afraid that I'll never want to settle down in one place. Never want to hold a job for more than a few years. Not that I'm required to do those things simply because society tells me so. But I also don't want to live my life in a perpetually dissatisfied state. Most people are dissatisfied with little things, but I worry that I have a deeper, existential dissatisfaction to wrestle. Not sure what to do about that. 

Here's one thing I can do about it right now: not think about it, because I still have (less than) two weeks in Vietnam. 

The rest of my time in Hanoi was good. I finally figured out how to get a Grab driver to come close enough to my Airbnb to catch a ride. I visited Hua Lo Prison--the famous Hanoi Hilton--which appealed to my love for history. The propaganda there is out of this world. They literally have a section about how wonderfully they treated the American POWs--pictures of John McCain being treated by their doctors, the cozy sweaters they gave to the prisoners. Knowing the other side of the story, it was surreal. 

I went to a Harry Potter cafe called Always and drank a Butterbeer, because Harry Potter. It was surprisingly delicious--tasted like a buttery root beer float. I tried bun cha, a traditional Hanoi dish. On my last day in the city, a friendly fellow tourist paid for my ticket to the Fine Arts Museum. I did work on my book, but not as much as I wanted to. I'm trying to squeeze in some serious work days during my trip south. 

After Hanoi I took an overnight Halong Bay cruise, which is apparently just one of those Things You Must Do in Vietnam. I'd never been on a cruise before, and I learned something important about myself: I don't like cruises very much. Being on the boat was great, and Halong Bay is as gorgeous as everyone says it is--but what's with the group activities? Why no unstructured time? Aren't cruises supposed to be relaxing? 

To be fair, some of my ire may have been due to the fact that I finished reading Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You The Sun while on the boat, and it made my emotions go haywire and all I wanted to do was stare out at the ocean and scream. In a good way. Despite the cliche ending, it is one of the best books I've ever read. The language was mind-blowing. 

After the cruise they drove us back to Hanoi, where I immediately jumped on a sleeper train to Hue. I was all excited that I had paid for a first class ticket, that I'd be riding the train in relative luxury--only to discover that Vietnamese sleeper trains are not like Thai sleeper trains. The cabin was basically about the same comfort level as Thai second class. And there were cockroaches.


Normally I try to destroy traditional gender roles whenever possible, but in this case I let the two 19-year-old British boys in the bunks below me act like Manly Men and kill the big scary bugs. And their chivalry did not end there--they loaned this fair maiden one of their mosquito nets so I didn't have to worry about the roaches crawling inside my ears or mouth, at the very least. I did not sleep much. 

I've been in Hue for almost two full days now. Yesterday I reconnected with Mina, who I met in Siem Reap, and we walked around Hue's famous Imperial City. It was an interesting site, but the day was too hot. Just too hot. I had another one of my panic-esque frustration-at-the-heat attacks last night, where I nearly started crying because I was so uncomfortable. 

But I'm feeling better today--taking it easy. Eating food. Window shopping. Relaxing in cafes. My hostel's not my favorite, but there is a puppy, so that makes it better. Puppies make everything better. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Hanoi Pocket Universe

I'm having an...interesting time in Hanoi. Not necessarily a bad time. But it is unusual, in several regards.

My Airbnb is gorgeous. I wish I could pick it up and move it to the United States and live inside it forever. And it's the perfect place to have my own personal writing retreat--because it doesn't exist. Or perhaps, as my friend Tim suggested, it exists within some kind of pocket universe. If I turn on my GPS inside the house, it appears as though I'm on no street at all. That's because it's tucked away in a tiny alley behind other, larger streets.

This only poses a problem when I want to take a break from writing and, you know, see Hanoi. Because it does not exist on a street, taxi drivers can't find it. In order to use my Grab app, I have to go to a cafe on a major street and purchase a beverage that I don't want so that I can use their wifi and have the driver pick me up there. The same problem occurs when I'm on my way back. I point out the general area where I'm going to the driver, and tell them that I'll direct them when we get close, but they seem awfully skeptical. Which makes sense, I suppose. I don't exactly look like a local.

Why don't I just walk, you ask? Great idea! I love walking. The trouble is that there is a very large, very busy highway separating me from the direction I'd have to walk in order to reach any tourist attractions. Even if I could dodge the cars and bikes, the center of the highway is fenced in--a storage area for shipping trucks of some kind.

On the bright side: I'm getting lots of writing and editing done! But also: I'm trapped!

I'm being hyperbolic, of course. I have gone out and visited a few places. One day I took a Grab bike to the Vietnam Women's Museum, which was great. My favorite part was the "Women in History" section, which mostly discussed women's role during the revolutionary period. One young woman, when sentenced to twenty years in prison, apparently told the judge something to the effect of "I don't recognize your authority to give that sentence." Let us all be as bold as this young revolutionary.

Another evening I visited the Hanoi Social Club, which often pops up on lists of coolest places to eat in Hanoi. And it was cool--housed in an old colonial building, filled with eclectic vintage furniture and decor. What those reviews didn't mention (or maybe they did, and I didn't look closely enough) was that they only serve Western food. A little boring, I suppose, but the veggie burger was good.

There's a sweet woman who comes to clean the Airbnb each day, and she asked if I'd be willing to meet her daughter, Huang (I'm probably spelling that wrong), who wanted to practice her English. I said yes, of course. Turns out Huang is my age and also between jobs/life situations--I guess it's nice that it's such a universal thing? We're all in this together? Anyway, Huang has her own motorbike, so she and I went to the Temple of Literature--essentially Hanoi's first university--and the Ho Chi Minh Museum.

The second stop got a little weird--it's clear that Huang has been taught to believe that Ho Chi Minh was basically perfect, and I figured that inside the Ho Chi Minh Museum was probably a bad place to disillusion her. Not that I even have any right to disillusion her! I mean, I doubt Ho Chi Minh was quite as evil as the U.S. made him out to be, but he's definitely no saint. So I just sort of nodded my head and said "uh huh" a lot while we looked at the many gifts he received made from the scraps of downed American planes. Seemed to work out.

Side note: Ho Chi Minh was a polyglot, and he wrote lots of letters in French--which were the only ones I was able to read at the museum. It made me realize that I miss reading in French. I'll have to pick up a French book again soon.

We also saw the Presidential Palace and the house where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked while he was in power. Houses, actually--there was a Western-style home with a garage full of fancy cars, and a simple house on stilts that he apparently had built to remind him of where he grew up. The grounds on which both houses are located are stunning--a lush garden complete with a giant pond full of fish that Ho Chi Minh loved to feed.

I was so exhausted after our outing that I sat down to do some work and totally conked out. Woke up an hour later, completely disoriented. Overall, though, a delightful day. We may go out and do something again tomorrow.

I've had a few other misadventures. The first day I needed to go grocery shopping, but I couldn't see any grocery stores nearby on the map. There was, however, a giant shopping mall about a half mile away. It seems like most Asian shopping malls I've visited have grocery stores, too, so I decided to give it a shot. The Times City Mega-Mall is owned by Vingroup, which also owns literally everything else in that area. The luxury apartments were run by Vinhomes, and they were located next to VinSchool. I went grocery shopping at VinMart. It was a little creepy.

I always get nervous in grocery stores abroad because I can't read any of the labels--especially when it comes to produce. I picked up only things that were familiar to me--bananas, apples, tomatoes eggplant. I grabbed what I hoped was basil, and I lucked out. I made a strategic error, however. The loose produce--bananas, apples, etc.--I bagged and had weighed and price-tagged by a clerk in the produce area. But I didn't think I had to do that with the pre-packaged items, like basil or tomatoes. I was wrong. When I got to the register, I had to run back to the produce area, fix the un-tagged items, and run back--holding up the whole line, of course. That was fun.

Then there's my stomach. Well, not my stomach--my stomach actually feels fine. But I must have picked up some kind of bacteria while I was in Laos (it started on my last day there), and now whatever goes into my stomach does not stay there for very long. I'm not quite sure what to do. It seems alarmist to go to the doctor. My appetite is intact, I'm drinking plenty of fluids. No fever, as far as I can tell. On the other hand, how long do I let this go on? It's already day 6. Any advice?

Aaaaand I just shattered one of my host's handmade pottery bowls while I was trying to make myself a cup of tea. So that's cool. Guess I should probably stop blogging now and clean this up.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

LPQ --> HAN

Made it back to Vietnam! Though I'm at the opposite end of the country this time. Haven't seen much of Hanoi yet--I arrived late last night and stumbled into my hostel dorm room, which was full of dudes who aren't quite old enough to have figured out that cologne is not an adequate substitute for bathing. But don't worry: today I move into my Airbnb, where I'll have my own room--with a balcony, no less! And there I shall stay for (nearly) two glorious weeks, hiding from the world and writing. After more than a month of constant socializing, I'm excited for some alone time.

How was Luang Prabang, you ask? I have mixed feelings. I honestly believe it could have been one of the best stops of my trip--if it hadn't been for the particulars of my hostel and the particulars of the weather.

Luang Prabang is so beautiful that I'm surprised it hasn't inspired infinite tomes of poetry. Maybe it has. Set in a valley surrounded by lush, misty mountains, the entire town is designated a world heritage site. Though it has existed for thousands of years, it's the only city I've visited in Southeast Asia where I got the distinct impression that they must have had to carve it out of the jungle in order to create it. The plant life creeps in everywhere.

And so do the mosquitoes. I took every precaution I could, but I still got bit a few times. They were relentless--even in my hostel dorm, which was problematic for sleeping.

Actually, everything about my hostel dorm was problematic for sleeping. The mattresses were so hard that we may as well have slept on the floor (and I typically like a firm mattress!), and though there was an air conditioner in the room, it didn't really work. One night I had--not a panic attack, exactly, but more like a fit of frustration and hopelessness. I was SO hot and SO sticky and I couldn't remember the last time I had felt comfortable and I nearly started crying. Thankfully, it passed after a few minutes.

On the bright side, I met another wonderful bunch of travelers in my hostel--mostly from the UK, but one from the States and one from Canada--and we had many adventures.

The highlight of my trip was our trip to Kuang Si Waterfalls, which is about an hour away from Luang Prabang along a winding, rural road. This jungle oasis paradise looks too gorgeous to be real, the type of place that should only exist in movies. We swam in the clear, cold water and sunbathed on top of the washed rocks. You know those fish baths they have at spas? Where the little fish nibble away your dead skin? Droves of those fish live in the falls, and it was very funny to watch the shocked expressions of those who had never experienced such a sensation before.

Other highlights: climbing Mount Phou Si to watch the sunset over the Mekong River, visiting the night market (which features more actual handicrafts than most Southeast Asian markets), stuffing our bellies with too much street food, eating a truly delicious meal at Khaiphaen (seriously--if you ever go to LP, don't miss it), examining the intricate glass murals at Wat Xieng Thong. Oh, and the first night we got a little tipsy and broke the government-imposed midnight curfew to go to the secret bowling alley? That was fun.

One evening we went to a free screening of this silent film from 1927 called Chang. About a tribal family from Laos, it's considered one of the first documentaries--though it seemed awfully staged to me. The team of American filmmakers who produced and shot it eventually went on to make King Kong. I figured it would probably be racist--which it was, of course. But what I wasn't expecting was all the animal cruelty. I'm sure Kru's family really did have to kill animals in order to survive in the jungle in 1927--but I'm also sure that the filmmakers killed many more animals just so we could see it on film. And they didn't kill the baby elephant...but yeah. I walked away disturbed. Watch Chang at your own risk.

We spent another evening at a bar called Utopia, which is only accessible by navigating through several alleys. But once you arrive, there's a sprawling, wooden structure lit only by candles, and the floor is spread with soft beds for reclining. I imagine it must be what opium dens were/are like, but without the opium. Actually, some people probably did have opium--multiple tuk-tuk drivers tried to sell it to us. They were uniformly unhappy when we declined. At any rate, it was a lovely bar, even if it was a fire hazard.

Despite all my wonderful experiences in Luang Prabang, I was happy to leave--if only to focus on my writing for a while. And air conditioning. And swift wifi connections. Definitely want to focus on those wifi connections.

At the same time, I am sad--returning to Vietnam means that I have less than a month left in my trip! How did that happen? I suppose I'll just have to make the most of it.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

CNX --> LPQ

Greetings from Luang Prabang, Laos. I've only been here about two full days, but I've already seen plenty of temples, been bitten by fish, and gone bowling.

More on that later. First, let me tell you about Chiang Mai.

I don't have a lot of time--work is overwhelming this week--but I'll try to be as descriptive as I can. Chiang Mai is far smaller than Bangkok, and far more relaxed. You can actually walk around. On the other hand, the entire town is geared primarily toward tourists. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing--in fact, it's often convenient.

<rant> I hate it when people go searching for "authentic" experiences. Is the Eiffel Tower any less authentic because people hawk keychains in front of it? Is it any less the structure that it's meant to be? Of course not. But whenever tourists visit countries where the people aren't primarily white, they're immediately upset that their experience hasn't been authentic enough. What are you looking for, exactly? Dire poverty? Do you want people to reject modern conveniences simply so that they can appear quaint to you? That. Is. Racist. </rant>

Okay--enough ranting. Here are my favorite things about Chiang Mai:
  1. New Friends - At my hostel, I was fortunate enough to meet the effervescent Rupal (from England) and the sweet Anca (from Germany), two other solo female travelers who quickly became my companions. We were practically inseparable, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. 
  2. Elephants - As far as activities are concerned, this was easily the highlight of my trip to Chiang Mai. On Rupal & Anca's recommendation, I visited Happy Elephant Home, a small elephant sanctuary about an hour north of the city. They have only five pachyderms--three adults and two babies--all of whom have been rescued from mining and logging companies or trekking camps. What's more, I was one of only three people on the afternoon tour. We started by chopping up some sugarcane with machetes. Yeah, that's right--I said machetes. (I'm really bad at using a machete, you guys--but not dangerously bad.) Then we went to feed our new friends, who are basically gigantic dogs. They just want to eat your food. They will poke you with their trunks until you give them the food. It was magical. I have video and I will watch it whenever I am sad for the rest of my life.
  3. Ploen Ruedee Night Market - Most markets in Southeast Asia are largely the same, and quite frankly, I'm about marketed out at this point. But Ploen Ruedee Night Market is different. The focus is more on food than on clothing or souvenirs, and its many booths feature cuisine both from Thailand and from around the world. The small square where it takes place is strewn with different kinds of tables, and even bales of hay, all centered around a stage where live bands play. Strings of festive flags and lights dangle from one end to the other. It was right next door to my hostel, and I wouldn't have even known it was there if it weren't for Rupal and Anca--it was through an unmarked door and behind a wall. Chiang Mai's regular Night Bazaar is a well-known hotspot for tourists, and I visited that, too--Anca and I discovered we were both pretty good Jenga players over a round of 90 baht mojitos--but Ploen Ruedee was still my favorite. It's basically for hipsters, so it's slightly more expensive--but not absurdly so. 
  4. North Gate Jazz Co-Op - This little hole-in-the-wall jazz place is simply delightful. Bands play every night at 9 and 11 p.m., and there isn't a lot of seating, so the crowd usually spills into the street. We were sitting upstairs--a little harder to see the bands, but still fun. In my last post, I mentioned that I might go to North Gate or to a rock club frequented by locals. That night I did go to the rock club, Nabe--and I was disappointed. It was indeed frequented by locals, but I must have come on weepy acoustic night. It was just this one guy up there with his guitar, and while he had a nice voice, it made me a bit depressed. I left after his Simon & Garfunkel medley. 
  5. Temples - Like most cities in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai has some spectacular temples. But personally, I preferred some of its less famous temples to the ones more commonly frequented by tourists--they were just prettier. Wat Bupparam, right next to my hostel, was very old and very beautiful. And Wat Phan Tao is entirely made of teak. At Wat Chedi Luang, one of the more famous temples, I did get to participate in Monk Chat, which is exactly what it sounds like. I sat down and chatted with some monks for a while--novices who were trying to practice their English. And while Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was ridiculously busy, it had spectacular city views, since it's on top of a nearby mountain. I'm very glad we took a taxi instead of hiking the monk's trail. Too hot. 
I wanted to take a day trip to Chiang Rai as well, but it wasn't in the cards. I tried to book a tour, but it was full. I tried to book a local bus online, but their website wasn't processing payments. I guess it's just another reason to go back to Thailand someday. And anyway, my trip to Chiang Mai was enough fun as-is.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

BKK --> CNX

Bangkok is huge.

It's huge, and it's a lot like other international cities. I feel like I could have spent one fewer day there and I would have had roughly the same experience--though it's possible I simply mismanaged my time. Which isn't to suggest my trip was anything less than lovely.

Summer Street seafood bangkok
The food was excellent. I tried to stick with street food, for the most part, as it's always better. (This is an indisputable fact. Don't @ me.) My first night I walked over to this food truck called Summer Street in Ari, the neighborhood where I was staying, as it was supposed to have the best seafood in that part of town. And the seafood was good--but I didn't realize I had to cook it myself over a miniature charcoal grill they brought to my table. It's a miracle I didn't poison myself. 

Summer Street was pretty bougie for street food. Much less bougie was the street food in Bangkok's bustling Chinatown. I was eating a plate of roasted duck over rice when I was suddenly joined by three teenage girls who were working on a video project for their English class--they wanted me to proofread their script. Putting my Master's degree to good use, I guess. I also had some authentic Pad Thai at the enormous Chatuchak Weekend Market, which is basically like every other market in Southeast Asia, but bigger. I maybe got some of you a souvenir...

I ate at a few restaurants, too. My hostel, The Yard, was full of interesting people, many of whom were also hungry from time to time. One evening I went to a local Ari joint called Lay Lao with Kai, a Taiwanese woman who was taking a vacation from her job managing a shoe factory in Vietnam. As you do. Another day I grabbed burgers at Paper Butter, which was right next door to our hostel, with fellow travelers from the Netherlands and from Los Angeles. Don't get on my case for eating a burger--Bangkok could give Chicago a run for its money when it comes to gourmet burger places. They're everywhere. 

One day I ate at the mall. Again, don't get on my case--most lists of "must-see things in Bangkok" include the mall. Any mall, really. Shopping malls may be dying out in the United States, but in Bangkok, they're spectacular. I visited three major malls off the Siam BTS stop: Siam Paragon, Siam Center, and Siam Discovery. Siam Paragon's the fancy one, filled with designer boutiques and car dealerships. Yes, I said car dealerships. In the mall. My favorite was Siam Center, which featured lots of clothes from Thai designers. I picked up a pair of earrings from Bangkok-based Motta Shop. And by the time I got to Siam Discovery I was, quite frankly, tuckered out. But I still walked over the skyway to the MBK Center, which is more like a street market, but indoors. 

I have to say, the mall provided my least favorite meal of the trip. Not altogether surprising.

Obviously, I spent one day hitting the Major Tourist Sites. Getting there was quite an adventure. Ari is somewhat far-flung, so I had to take one BTS train to another BTS train, and then I had to catch the express boat along the Chao Phraya River. I wish more cities had nautical public transportation. 

It's no secret that I have the aesthetic tastes of a magpie--I love brightly colored, shiny things. So the Grand Palace was my kind of property. Everything was gold-leafed or bejeweled. Everything-everything. My only complaint was that I took a wrong turn, and I somehow exited before I explored the whole site. But that's on me. Along the outside walls of the palace, hundreds (if not thousands) of local Thai people were lined up, dressed in black, mourning their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last October. Apparently he was enormously beloved--he spent more than 70 years on the throne. The official mourning period ends this October, at which point his son will be crowned--at least according to the articles I read about it.
buddha feet bangkok wat pho

After the palace I walked over to nearby Wat Pho, famous for its gigantic reclining Buddha statue. The statue was impressive indeed--especially its feet--but I think I enjoyed taking in all the other architecture more. There are dozens of buildings, all of which are beautifully sculpted and decorated. After a quick lunch and an ice cream cone to beat the heat, I took a ferry across the river to Wat Arun, a smaller but no less gorgeous temple. 

Can't get enough of those temples. Each one is just as good as the last.

My last day in Bangkok was, perhaps, my favorite: I headed to the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, a modern art museum that is air-conditioned and 100% free. Many of the exhibits at the BACC were interactive--like the brand new nation of Nid Noi Tan, where you had to vote in the election determining which material the state would use to construct future buildings (wood, bamboo, or steel), and where you had to stand on a brick stage and hug fellow passers-by whenever the national anthem was played over the speakers. You could also view Nid Noi Tan's "traditional" garb, and explore the red light district, where people have sex using only their hands.

It was a fun exhibit. 

Bangkok Art and Culture Centre BACC
That evening I headed to the train station with new-friend-who-makes-documentaries-for-the-BBC, so that we could catch the sleeper train to Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. The woman below me snored, and my toes were a bit cold, but other than that it was fine. Got a lot of editing done on my novel, actually--you probably thought I'd forgotten all about that whole writing thing.

I am currently writing to you from Chiang Mai. I've spent most of the day wandering around the older portion of the city, which is surrounded by a brick wall and the remains of a moat. I visited the Lanna Folklife Museum to learn about the local culture. Next on the docket is dinner, and then I'm either going to a jazz club or to a divey rock bar. 

Decisions, decisions.

Friday, April 28, 2017

SIN --> BKK

Remember the cold that was tickling at the back of my throat? It turned into a full-blown upper-respiratory disaster.

When I got to Singapore, my nose, throat, and lungs were filled with all kinds of gunk--not to mention the headache, bodyache, and sore throat. Just in time to infect my dear cousin Erin! She was gracious enough to let me stay in her hotel room at the Grand Hyatt while she attended a conference, and I would like to apologize now to her and to her entire family for very probably making them ill.

As you can imagine, most of my trip to glamorous Singapore was spent in bed, attempting to recover--I even took a hot bath one night to clear my sinuses. But I did manage to get out of the hotel room a few times.

After sleeping for ten hours my first night there, I willed myself from beneath the covers and into the shower, and later out onto the street. I picked up some cold/flu medicine at 7-11, which helped. My first thought while walking through the crowds: HOLY MOLY I AM UNDERDRESSED. Admittedly, I was staying in a commercial area, but even so, everybody was perfectly put together, their outfits at the height of fashion.

I, on the other hand, was wearing a Harry Potter t-shirt.

Honestly, I found the city almost...creepy somehow? Have you watched the show Westworld? In that story, Westworld is a theme park created to mimic an 1800's wild-west town, where visitors can interact with hyperrealistic androids who have no idea they aren't real. Singapore seemed like a Westworld-esque theme park of a modern Western city. The streets were spotless--and yet it was very difficult to find trash cans. The MRT subway was clean, on time and efficient. Giant shopping malls were everywhere. The people were dressed to the nines, and every individual with whom I interacted, even briefly, struck me as cheerful and optimistic.

Like I said: creepy.

I visited two cafes that day: My Awesome Cafe, which was undoubtedly awesome, albeit expensive; and Dapper Coffee, which seemed more like a bar, and actually had a fully stocked bar, even though it was only open from 9-5. I went to the first cafe because the internet told me it was a great place to get work done, and I think the internet lied. I was the only one working there--all the other chic people were merely lunching. I went to the second because it was around the corner and up the stairs from the first, and it ended up being steampunk themed. Electroswing all afternoon.

I can never decide if I'm pro- or anti-steampunk. I want to like it, but the people who really like it are so--well. Nevermind. If you can't say anything nice...

I spent most of the next morning in bed as well, and later Erin and I did some mild sightseeing. A hot-and-humid-and-sweaty trip to Gardens by the Bay, where we witnessed the awesome majesty of the Supertrees. A cocktail (virgin, in my case) to cool down at the tippy-top of the Marina Bay Sands, where we witnessed the awesome majesty of a thunderstorm rolling in over the skyscrapers. A meal at Maxwell Road Hawker Center in Chinatown, where we both witnessed and consumed the awesome majesty of Hainanese chicken rice, along with other dishes--too many dishes. Yum.

And that's about all we had time for before we had to head back to the airport to catch our respective flights. I'll have to return to Singapore sometime when I'm not half-bedridden.

On the bright side, I think all the rest was good for me--I'm feeling a lot better now. The cold is definitely still there, but it's manageable.

As for my current location: I arrived in Bangkok late last night, and I conked out the second my head hit the pillow. My hostel, The Yard, is essentially what would happen if graphic design-obsessed Tumblr users were allowed to create a hostel. Alarmingly hip. Hip to the extent that upon check-in, they give you a glass bottle for water because they want to discourage you from using plastic, and the bottle says that's what it's for in a charming font, and they give you a small burlap bag to carry the bottle to and from the water machine, also printed with its purpose, also in a charming font, because these are the things you need to live an Instagram-worthy life. But hey, there's free (Instagram-worthy) breakfast!

I suppose the super-hipness makes sense, as it's in Bangkok's Ari neighborhood, which is also super-hip. Plenty of little cafes, many of which I've worked in today while taking it easy--I need my strength to catch the train and go sightseeing this weekend. I shouldn't make fun--it's a very nice place to stay for a very low price. Not quite as low as some of the other hostels I've stayed in, but still more than reasonable. I need to laugh at it a little, though, since it makes me feel old.

What will I do during the rest of my stay? Not sure. Bangkok is rather large, and I am but one human. Food tour? Perhaps. Palace and temples? Definitely. Bamboo hand-poked tattoo?

Just kidding, Mom.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Wonders of the Ancient World; or, my trip to Angkor Wat

Having spent a few days here, I can understand why my friend who was so adamant about my skipping Cambodia entirely didn't like Siem Reap. It's a town that caters solely to tourists--especially young backpackers looking to get wasted. The tuk-tuk drivers are relentless in their efforts to whisk you away. And it's honestly easier to find Western food here than it is to find traditional Khmer food. I had tacos for dinner last night.

Tacos.

Pub Street Siem Reap Cambodia
Even so, there's something authentic about Siem Reap's commitment to inauthenticity, its desire to be either stereotypical Southeast Asia or anywhere but Southeast Asia. Back in Phnom Penh, Rosemary compared Siem Reap's famous Pub Street to downtown Las Vegas, and she had it absolutely right. It's crowded with foreign tourists, the restaurants feature a wide variety of global cuisines, and every sign is lit up in neon.

Of course, it's a lot cheaper than Vegas. Draft beers are $0.50 each!



The reason so many tourists flock to Siem Reap is that it serves as the gateway to Angkor Wat. Or more specifically, to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Angkor Wat is merely one temple of dozens--though it is the largest and most famous of the bunch. One of the more popular times to visit is at sunrise, when the glow brightens from pink to orange over the temple's iconic towers. I hadn't planned on visiting at sunrise, because I'm just not a morning person.

And then I visited at sunrise.

I didn't have much of a choice. I arrived at my hostel in the evening after my long bus ride from Phnom Penh, and a chatty Australian woman, Jess, invited me to sit at her table for dinner (ACYE vegan BBQ for $5!). She was with a less-than-chatty English woman who introduced herself as Mina. After staying mostly silent during the meal, Mina suddenly asked whether I was planning on going to Angkor Wat.

"Yeah, probably tomorrow?"

"Okay, I'm going at sunrise. Let's split a tuk-tuk."

Fortunately, Mina was a wonderful traveling companion. She became less quiet over time, and she's actually quite funny, in a subtle way. We got up at 4 a.m. (ouch) to meet our driver, who took us first to get our tickets, and then to the park. It's a good thing we decided to split the cost of the tuk-tuk, because admission prices to the archaeological park doubled in February, so it's nearly $40 to go for a single day.

Angkor Wat Cambodia sunrise
Angkor Wat itself was the first stop. We stood outside at the reflecting pool with gazillions of other tourists to watch the sunrise--I eventually walked several feet back and sacrificed capturing the reflecting pool just so I could get a photo without another person's head or phone in it.

After oohing and ahhing over the picturesque vista, we headed inside the giant temple, which is remarkably well-preserved. All (or at least most?) of the temples in the archaeological park were built as Hindu places of worship, but later became Buddhist places of worship--and they remain so to this day. They let visitors explore pretty much the entire site--they even let you climb up into one of the towers via some very steep stairs--and it took nearly two hours to get through it. Lots of opportunities for pictures of course. We watched a monkey steal a woman's bag of food. Her fault, obviously. The monkey was just being a monkey.

When we got back to the nearby parking lot, our tuk-tuk driver was gone. He was supposed to stay with us the whole day. We couldn't ask another driver--they were all waiting for other tourists as well. While we were discussing our options, a different tuk-tuk drove in and pulled up next to us. Turns out the pregnant wife of our original driver had gone into labor, so he had to get back to Siem Reap ASAP. But he'd kindly sent his brother to pick us up and finish our tour--which is sort of amazing! If I were about to have a kid, I'd probably forget about everything else.

Mina and I were on the small circuit of the park, which brings you to three major temples, along with a few smaller ones, and takes around half a day to complete. The second temple we visited was Bayon, known for the huge faces carved into its stone towers. They were everywhere, calmly smiling down on us--and the tourists were everywhere, too. Bayon is a lot smaller than Angkor Wat--still big, of course, but cramped in comparison. It was hard to squeeze around everybody else, but we managed it.
bayon temple cambodia

After that it was a few much smaller temples. At one of them we climbed an enormous flight of stairs only to be confronted with ANOTHER FLIGHT OF STAIRS. By this time it was very hot outside, so we agreed to skip the second flight and find ice cream instead.

Ta Prohm is the third major temple on the small circuit, and as our tuk-tuk driver pointed out many, many times, it is where they filmed Tomb Raider. I've never seen Tomb Raider, and all I know about it is that it's based on a video game and stars Angelina Jolie. But I've got good news for those of you who are equally out of touch with pop culture: they could have filmed nothing at Ta Prohm, and it would still be equally stunning. It ended up being my favorite of the sites we visited that day.

ta prohm temple cambodia
While many of the other sites are in clearings or open plains, Ta Prohm is set further back in the jungle--it took about eight minutes to walk there from where the driver dropped us off. It's also in greater disrepair than many of the other temples, which only adds to its charm--gigantic trees shove and twist through its mossy, blue-green stones. I wish I could have camped there for a few days--and this is coming from a person who hates camping.*

I can't remember the name of the final temple we visited, but it was awfully large for a minor site. Architecturally it was more like Angkor Wat, but it was in the same kind of disrepair as Ta Prohm, and it had one long hallway that ran straight through from one side to the other. An unofficial guide attached himself to us and showed us a few things we wouldn't have found otherwise--an elaborate carving of an elephant, a cracked stone door that hadn't collapsed or been removed. We ended up having to pay him, of course, but it was probably worth it, as we would have missed a lot of that stuff on our own.

We arrived back in Siem Reap sweaty and dehydrated. Fortunately, Mina knew of a hotel down the street that would let you swim in their pool as long as you bought something to eat and drink. We bought spring rolls and beer, and I got a comically bad sunburn in these incongruous patches that don't make sense based on what I was wearing. Story of my life. I am the palest human, after all.

Later that evening we had a drink on pub street, and we picked up some souvenirs at the night market. I bought a krama, which is a traditional Cambodian style of scarf. I found a pretty one for a good price, and there's no such thing as too many scarves. This is an objective fact.

Today I was exhausted, so I mostly just relaxed--went to a nonprofit cafe called Fat Panda's and worked on my novel, drank a ginger-lemongrass mojito to fight the cold that's tickling the back of my throat. And tomorrow I leave Cambodia altogether.

Where is my next destination, you ask?

Singapore! My cousin Erin will be there for a conference, so she invited me to stay in her fancy hotel room. How could I resist? I've enjoyed all the hostels I've stayed in so far on this trip, but it will be nice to have some relative privacy for a few days. And it will be even nicer to catch up with Erin, who I haven't seen since we parted ways in Amsterdam in December. We are quite the jet-setters.

*We built cities because nature is trying to kill us. Why would I willingly go spend the night with the snakes/scorpions/sinkholes/quicksand/flash floods/tornados/etc.?