The Trials of an American Dilettante

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Lithuania and Poland are obsessed with the 16th and 17th centuries. It was their "Golden Age." They built castles and churches and conquered foreign lands. And they love showing off their glorious weaponry from the era: full suits of armor and manly broad swords straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons manual.

Except, if you take a step back, it's not really all that great. I mean, Western Europe had stopped wearing armor hundreds of years earlier when sword technology became light and sharp. Plus, they had started using these things called guns and cannons and were taking to seas. No, what the Lithuanians and Poles thought was impressive was actually archaic. Those slow moving armored hulks would be absolute sitting ducks. It was no wonder that the Prussians, Austro-Hungarians and Russians destroyed them consistantly after their peak and subjugated them for the next three hundred years..

I do have a point. Stay with me.

I was sitting in a bar on my third pint when I befriended three Lithuanians who one would think would never be friends. They grew up together, though, and were bonded in that childhood-friend-I-love-you-like-a-brother-and-would-kill-for-you kind of way. The first was a closeted gamer nerd, the second was a party boy type who spent some time in LA and the third was a very conservative racist asshole. I will say, to his credit, it was a conservative racist asshole who invited me to go drinking with them in the first place. Anyway, over the course of about fifteen drinks, this conversation happened between the conservative Lithuanian and me (add drunk slurring to the dialog if you like):

"Why did you come to Vilnius?" I was asked.
"I was on vacation in Poland and decided to see what Lithuania was like."
"What do think of Polish people?"
"They were really friendly and welcoming for the most part."
"I fucking hate Polish people. They're fucking nationalistic and just keep breeding. There's more of them outside Poland than in Poland. They're like rats."
At this point, his two friends were looking pretty embarassed.
"And Jews. What do you think of Jews?"
"Uh, there are good Jews and bad Jews. People are diverse."
"I hate Jews. They are also like rats."

Now, I don't exactly get how he hated Jews when Lithuania has like four Jews left after the holocaust, but whatever. He then went on a rant about the European Union and how the Germans are using it to conquer Europe.

The point of this little story is that this conservative Lithuanian's opinion on Poles and Jews was not just mean spirited, but useless and archaic. We live in a world with Poles and Jews. They're not going anywhere. The days of genocide or even national isolation are past. We're not going to go back to those days. It's a multiethnic global society. Deal with it. Like that suit of armor and that broad sword, feelings of Lithuanian patriotism (or whatever is driving his xenophobia) may at first appear admirable, but at second glance are completely without function in today's world.

It's all the same as anyone who tries to exploit the charm of "being old-fashioned." I had a prof in grad school who still used only a typewriter. I'm sure he thought himself charming. The cosmetic charm of that typewriter wore off the second the students asked how they were to e-mail him. It was a fully-armored Pole against some quick moving Prussians.

And, of course, this applies to Egypt as well. They're never going to get anywhere until they accept rights for women, rights for minorities and embrace religious freedom, but everyone wants to be old-fashioned. They think its charming, but its really incredibly impracticle

Friday, October 14, 2011


There was a strike at the airport in Cairo. Of course there was - this is post-revolution Egypt. So, now the air traffic controllers wanted a pay raise of 300%. My friends who were heading to Sharm had been delayed 12 hours. Ahamdooleela, I was only delayed a couple hours (albeit at 4 in the morning), so I took it as a blessing.


When I said I was going to Poland, every person I told looked at me puzzled. "Why?" was the usual question, believing Poland had nothing really to offer.

Poland, though, was beyond my expectations. Beautiful churches, charming plazas, alcohol, uncovered women, pork, cars that aren't trying to run me over. Okay, I may just be naming things are not Egypt, but still.

Growing up, the idea of Europe was that it was a relaxing romantic place. Cafes lined the streets and some guy named Pierre read poetry in the park or some shit like that. After going to London, Paris, Barcelona, and Rome, I learned that the European stereotype was mostly a myth. Europe was crowded, loud, poluted, fast-paced and often very uncultured. That is, until you head east. Starting at about Vienna, Europe shifts to everything one imagined. All of a sudden there's cobblestone, violins and traffic laws.

But what about the post-communist ugliness? I certainly remember Prague in 1996. But Warsaw and Krakow in 2011 were mostly lacking the specter of the USSR's influence. The people were clean and healthy. The buses and cars had all been updated. Crowded shopping malls, busy restaurants and other "positive" economic indicators were everywhere. Poland was simply charming in every way. Friendly people, lots of entertainment, inexpensive, great food, wonderful sites.

There had to be something wrong with Poland. Otherwise, I wouldn't have a good story. I mean, walking into pubs and having herring and vodka shots is fun, but that's not a story. I once thought I was buying bread, but instead bought two pounds of smoked cheese. Funny, but not a story. What makes Poland stick out from the rest of the world?

Oh right, the holocaust.

I went to Auschwitz.

So, Yiddish speaking Jews were almost a third of Krakow's population. And now there's roughly 200 of them left in the city (and they're pretty old). The Jewish quarter has a half-dozen synagogues of which only one small one is used. There are a few Jewish souvenier shops, Jewish restaurants, Jewish bands and Jewish history tours. Jews don't run them or frequent them - they're for tourists. For the most part, one would not notice they were in the Jewish quarter. Almost all evidence of the population, like the population itself, has been erased.

As grim as Auschwitz was to see, the creepiness of a Jewish quarter empty of Jews or even the trace of a Jew was more powerful to me. And still, there's anti-Jewish graffiti on the walls of the Krakow (some of it crossed out as well). Maybe they're conflating "Jew" and "Israel." I don't know. Still, when you're only a few miles from a death camp, one would think one would have more tact.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

East Timor

Again, I ended up on the edge of the world and in the middle of nowhere. My plane to East Timor was filled with Timorese Catholic nuns. I certainly wasn't in Islamia anymore. A group of chanting schoolgirls hitting drums met the nuns and I followed the multicolored UN crowd to the visa line. Dili's airport was a backwater place. I seem to remember Rhinelander, Wisconsin, having a bigger terminal. I grabbed my pack and had my prayers met - there was a working ATM. Then, to a taxi. We arrived at the hostel shortly. I could have walked it in thirty minutes, probably, had I known the way.

"Ten dollars,"
"It's five,"
"It's five," I said "Look me in the eyes and tell me it's ten."
"It's ten," he said as his eyes closed involuntarily. I couldn't believe I actually caught him lying. I gave him the ten anyway. Fuck it.

After dumping my pack, I decided to walk the city. After 45 minutes, I crossed the whole thing. I passed the port, which fit about two small ships at a time. I passed the national government building, a white-washed colonial structure. I passed the foreign grocery store, where a Korean gentleman and an Egyptian peacekeeper were in line. That was it. Dili was one long beautiful beach, with Timorese hanging out watching the horizon. Couples snuggled. I few hawkers tried to sell water and coconuts. Some old men played cards. They all stared at the foreigner and smiled shyly like a toddler when I waved.

How on earth was this sleepy, tiny little place the center of violence? And why are there so many UN cars driving around? It's practically a village - it's hard to believe it would fall apart in the UN left. Or maybe I'm wrong. History seems to show that rebel groups cause massacres quite frequently here. It was only 2006 when a thousand people were killed.

I walked further up the perfect beach a few miles to the massive Jesus statue, which had stations for Jesus' walk with his cross. About fifty joggers, both foreign and Timorese, passed me on my walk. Quite a fit place - weird - it's very rare in the third world to see joggers. New, but empty restaurants and bars lined the beach up to the statue. Naked children, without parents, filled the ocean. The only adults were couples, romantically sitting on their motorbikes counting the waves.

After my climb up to the savior, I caught a taxi back. Antonio, my driver couldn't speak English but invited me to get drinks with him anyway. I took his number to be polite, but certainly didn't feel like making awkward broken conversation with him. Instead in the evening, I caught dinner with an Aussie couple.

The next day, I tried to find something new to do. I went to see a graveyard that was the site of a massacre. It was a graveyard. I searched for a museum on independence, but couldn't find it. I heard it wasn't any good anyway. Out of sights, I hit the beach. And another day came to a close.

And that was that... East Timor: low on adventures. I guess its much like my time in any micro-state. I guess that's what the place needs though. A little breather from people dying.

Friday, July 29, 2011


So, Indonesia is not as I expected. I expected something chaotic, something undeveloped, something seedy, something strictly Muslim, something off the beaten track. Alas, Indonesia is surprisingly open, organized, liberal and touristy. Almost disappointing, really. Maybe I need to go back to Yemen. Still, it's frickin' beautiful and friendly so it's hard to complain too much.

I arrived in Jakarta to find the airport bus system shockingly easy to use. Everyone pointed me in the right direction and met me with smiles and thank yous. I hit downtown in the middle of the night and walked the streets for about 30 minutes to my hostel. As it turns out, Jakarta is one of the safest cities on earth. It's a city of millions where robberies and assaults are almost non-existent. Oh, I got hassled. Guys on motorbikes were every ten feet wanting to give me a ride. And there were some beggars and whores, but all-in-all, it was a pleasant enough walk. I mean any city with sidewalks, some greenery and a moderate amount of cleanliness is a way above the Middle East in my mind. And the safety puts it way past any city in Latin America. I guess my standards on what makes a good city are low. Could I live in Jakarta? Yeah, I think I could.

The next day, I hit up some mosques and churches and decided to go to the museum with some British girls I met. By the time we got to the museum at the oh-so-late hour of 2 pm, it was closed. Nonetheless, I found the walk interesting. I think the British girls found it to be a little exhausting and I felt guilty for making them walk so far to see basically some crappy Dutch buildings. Traffic is bad in Jakarta and you have to play chicken with cars to cross the road. I'm just pleased the cars actually stop for people. Another score for Indonesia over, say, Egypt.

After a delicious fish lemon grass something-or-another soup dinner, I caught a night train for Yogyacarta. Yogyacarta had some massively impressive Hindu temples. They would have been nicer if I didn't have Indonesians asking to take pictures with me every five minutes, though. This happened a lot when I lived in China too. Although the typical resident of Jakarta or Yogyakarta has seen a forigner, Indonesian tourists have not. Picture after picture I took with giggling families, schoolgirls and schoolboys. Eh, comes witht the territory I guess.

I made it to Bali, which, oh my god, is a sight. The city of Kuta is an Australian shit show. With a capital S on both Shit and Show. Drunk by 10:30 a.m., they are everywhere, partying, fighting, yelling. Donned with crass t-shirts, neck tatoos, and rosy cheaks, they dominate the place. The Indonesias, in turn are their suppliers offering everyone walking by "trasport, massage, blow, weed, mushrooms, young girl." These Aussies, too, were not the backpacker world traveler types. They screamed at my accent - "oh my god, you're American! It's like I'm in a movie! Say something, say something!" It's so strange to be exotic - to both Indonesians and Australians.

Once you block out the Aussies, Bali is beautiful. They are swimming in their culture with temples, offerings and statues every two feet. You could take pictures of beautiful little things every moment. Young woman preparing offering here, old man lighting insense there. Young man preparing Hindu hanging here, old woman dressing statue there. They must dedicate half their day to rituals.

I escaped Kuta for Ubud, which was a nice change of scenery to see bright green rice terraces and volcanic mountains a pleanty. Stunning place. I get why its so tourist here, but still don't get why any Aussie would go to Kuta and only Kuta, a place that makes Atlantic City look way classy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


For the hell of it, I went to Brunei.

Jeremy and I bought a bottle of liquor from the duty free in Lubuan, Malaysia, and hopped the ferry. (Alcohol has been illegal to sell in Brunei for 20 years, but you can bring in a bottle). We checked into the Empire Hotel, a massive $1.1 billion hotel that hasn't been getting much business. Funny how Brunei hasn't taken off as a tourist destination. We bargained them down and each paid $50 for the fanciest room I have ever stayed in. There was kayaking in the pool, $500,000 crystal camel lamps and a four story lobby with escalators. It had it all, just not that many guests.

It was the king's birthday and the country was having a month-long festival, which, by the way, is right before the month-long festival of Ramadan (do they ever work?). We headed to downtown Bandar Seri Bagawan to see the action and the country's three sites (of which two are large mosques). To our surprise, a fire blazed above the city - part of the water village to be specific. Brunei's 3rd site was on fire. Firefighting boats pumped water up to the blaze as fast as they could as hundreds watched on in shock for some and amusement for others. Tragedy is only entertaining for so long before it becomes awkward, so we moved on.

We hit the festival and were met with nothing but smiles from the locals who clearly didn't get too many visitors to their hermit kingdom. A wave at any given car or any given pedestrian produced an ear-to-ear grin and a frantic wave back. We tried all sorts of weird looking spiny fruits that must have come from an alien planet. Nearly all of them tasted like grapes, the chicken of fruit. Also, I ate fried potato dumplings in at least 64 different ways. It was great food, a lot of walking and nothing really to do. Like any county fair, I guess.

Alas, nothing much more to say about Brunei. Quiet, friendly, and forgotten...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Return to Malaysia

A decade had past, but Kuala Lumpur was the same - clean, green and friendly. I could walk on sidewalks, look at women in shorts and not get run over when I crossed the street. Not to mention, it has the best cuisine in the world and has real Chinese food. It's a brilliant city.

After Jeremy and I enjoyed a celebratory beer and I was cheated on a pair of flip flops, we hit the food stalls where I would try out my long-dormant Chinese. First, pork noodles with a table of school children. Then, I had some curry puffs. Then, some other nameless thing that was delic. Then, peanut chicken kebabs. "What is this?" "Zxqwvoy!" "Sure, whatever, I'll take one - no, two." Food bliss this nation.

We met up with George who I had also not seen in ten years. George, too, looked the same. We got huo guo (hot pot), a favorite of ours from our days in Shanghai. George was last in China a couple years ago and said our old stomping ground had changed. The "barber shops" of prostitutes that lined the streets were gone, Shanghai Finance College had been redone, and the whole area was a neon storm. Nothing was left of our memories. It was weird. After our evening of boiling tofu and lamb in super spicy soup, the owner came our table to see who could have possibly drank all of their beer.

The next day, our Chinese cab driver took Jeremy and me to the airport. He asked if in America one could buy beer for a Muslim girl. "Of course. It's illegal here?" "Yes, it's not in America? What if her brother complains to the police?" I laughed pretty hard at the thought of a young Muslim man entering an American police station wanting an arrest warrant for a a guy buying his sister a beer. But, of course, sharia is sharia. Malaysia had a lot of similarities to the Middle East after all.

Jeremy, this insane French girl Nadia and I caught a flight to the charming city of Kuching on Borneo. By day, we saw some national parks looking for monkeys and toured the city looking for statues of cats (for which Kuching is named. By night we hit the bars. Every time I spoke Chinese, we got free drinks from someone, which got rather messy over time. Come to think of it, Nadia, with no Chinese and bad English got just as many free drinks as I did and was able to crash somebody's karaoke birthday party, so maybe my skills are worthless. Oh, and we ate. I just order blindly and get the best plates of mystery.

We flew to Koto Kimabalu where Jeremy and I decided to climb the tallest mountain in South East Asia. We were forced to hire a guide who simply walked behind us, but he did provide us with an idea of how fast he could get up and down the mountain. "Two hours up and one hour down" he said. It took us roughly seven hours up and three hours down. The sight of other climbers puking from the altitude was bit surreal, but overall it was a fantastic hike. Of course, it was painful and cold, but nothing too bad.

We relaxed on the beach today and plan on hitting Brunei tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


The Indonesian flight attendant walked down the aisle of the quarter-filled flight asking people if they were getting off in Sana'a or continuing on to Djibouti. I told her Sana'a, which gave her pause. All the other Westerners were continuing on, apparently.

After explaining to the immigration guy in broken Jordanian Arabic that my visa was in fact valid, I waited for my luggage nervously at the carousel (a stereotypically rude Air France worker had told me in Paris there was little chance my bag would make it - I want to like you France, I do). One of the luggage helpers, who was very high on the wad of khat in his cheek, stood by my side eager to grab my backpack. Ahamdulila, it arrived just as my ride did. I passed by a line of bearded Yemeni as I exited the airport. Each had a softball of khat in their cheek, an enormous jambiya (dagger) in their belt and a I'm-going to-kill-you stare on their face. Holy shit, this place is intimidating.

Morning came. On the fourth floor on my hotel I could peer over the bomb wall at Sana'a - mountains, sunshine and buildings that can only be described as gingerbread. It was the most beautiful dreamland - only filled with the most extreme religious zealots in the world.

Out the window of the armored car, I saw the city. 95 percent of the women wore niqab and most little girls wore hijab. That was way more extreme than Kabul, where I figured about half of the women were in burqa. And then there was the men. Simply put, all of them looked like bad-asses. Almost all had their jambiya, their huge wad of khat and most looked angry. Many rode motorcycles, weaving in and out of traffic. A fair number had camouflaged jackets like Osama dons in his jihad videos. They all had leathered skin from the harsh sun at the extreme altitude. And they grinned with greenish black smiles - mouths filled with khat stained teeth from a lifetime of getting high.

Besides the inside of ministry buildings, I only got to see a bit of real Yemen twice. The first was lunch at a local hangout. We ate tuna with tomato sauce and some sort of green spicy stuff along with piles of lamb. Circles of Yemeni men chowed around us, sitting Indian style and never releasing their gazes from us. Well, they mostly gazed at the red curly hair of the lone female in our group. On the way out, my companions were making long goodbyes, so I meandered off a little and was offered tea. One of the Yemeni quickly brought up Palestine and told me I needed to do something about that.

"I'll do my best. My heart is with them," I told him.

Of course, if I had that much pull in the world, did he think I'd be sharing tea with him at a Yemeni dive?

My second bit of Yemen was the old city, which amazed me not for the souq, which I've seen a million of by now, but for the old buildings. Again, its like gingerbread. The Yemeni build their houses in brown brick, but fill in white mortar between the bricks in varying amounts to allow the bricks to form designs. It looks like gingerbread and frosting. Above every window is an extra arch with floral design, sometimes filled with stain glass. And the stain glass resembles gumdrops. Over the ages, the mortar even melts a little making the houses look gooey from a far. In actuality its a million times better than a crappy gingerbread house, but still. The mosques are built the same way with thin brick minarets with rounded tops.

With hubris, I say that Sana'a is the most beautiful city in the world, hands down. For a bunch of high, violent, religious zealots, you did good.