personal essay travel

Mon frère habitera à Paris. Or, Expatriating with grace.

My brother has a "phobia" of looking like a foreigner. (He told me so himself.)

Now, I can almost understand. I hate looking like a tourist. I get self-conscious with my accent echoing in my own ears and all the wrong currencies falling out of my pockets.  I feel single-handedly responsible for over-turning all the stereotypes about loud Americans. I refuse to patronise international chains and I've been known to duck into a doorway to surreptitiously peer at the directions that I've discretely scrawled on my hand. I don't carry a guide-book in public. (Actually, I don't carry one at all.)

My brother takes "not standing out" to an entirely new level. He takes my simile and turns it into a metaphor. He is dignity and assimilation.

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travel

“… culture… is an ensemble of texts…

…which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong.” – Clifford Geertz

—-

I ate dinner last to the Muslim call to prayer, heard in surround, from the roof of the Pyramid Hotel. The calls came from three different mosques. They started on a slight delay, one after another; out-of-sync, nearly harmonizing. Ascents and vibratto wrapped around each other. The crackling bull-horn speakers turned the male voices into horns – deep trombones and lilting saxophones playing minor, off-key, beautifully. They grew in strength and more seemed to join in – there may have been more than three to start with, it’s hard to say; there seems to be a small neighborhood mosque on every third corner – until they washed out, receeding, drawing back to fade away. I missed the last notes, only realizing it was over when the dogs and laughing children returned to the foreground.

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Nakwenda Tanzania

I have not seen Africa. There are few gross generalizations as odious as the Western simplification, amalgamation, of an entire continent’s cultural plurality, socio-political diversity, ethnic multiplicity and historical discrepancy to a single noun. I have not been to Africa; no one has; there is no Africa.

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poem

Retrospective Premonition

– Read this, – she says.
– I thought of you immediately, –
she says by way of explanation
for the magazine she’s placed in my face.
So I obediently murmur through the first
few paragraphs as she continues,
– Burma,it’s horrible, just tragic! –
And I nod, yes, yes it’s (unspeakable,
intangibly tracing patterns a tattoo
outlined repetitively; just twitching;
a lizard tail still moving; a beaten dog)
–Yes! – she interrupts,
– That’s it, that’s what they say, exactly!
Just less poetically than you put it, and –
(the place I had visited, the people I had met,
they had been past pain)

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poem

Said the men of Babel

Syllables
have drifted loose from
words – which lacked the
weight to hold them
in, having themselves seceded
from the hierarchy
of syntax (forsaking
the patriarchy of phrases).

They float
to my ears and my brain
reassembles them
to my Mother Tongue – nearly,
a dialect close enough for
incomprehension.

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travel

Cast Adrift

A white haired man with a mane and careless beard, dressed in a crisp white shirt and red tie clasps his hands together before his face; the large rings on his knuckles catch the light and antique aviator sunglasses obscure his eyes. Billy Holiday shifts to Miles Davis. I’ve ordered what is, for South East Asia, an altogether decent glass of red wine and I have, at least, run a few errands today before sinking into this chair.

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travel

The Slow Boat of Archetypes

It was the second day down the Mekong and the God of Thunder was asleep on the back of the boat. The Three Graces were getting sunburnt on the bow before returning inside to play cards. Apollo flicked his cigarette ash into the river in synch with his twitching foot. Huckleberry Finn, who’d been sent home from the war in a body bag of opiates, looked as if he might jump. Assorted prodigaals wandered the deck, passing wooden bench to wooden bench, comparing travel routes and swapping near-death experiences while cheerfully swigging Beer Lao. I was perched on the railing – one foot outside, one inside, left arm crooked behind me to grab the pillar for balance, right hand clutching someone else” ipod – watching the river pass us by.

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travel

“Maybe you’re just meant to be in Chiang Mai…?”

I saw the dentist yesterday who verified that my wisdom teeth were indeed coming in (had come in) and that they were problematic; I have a "very very very small jaw" and the teeth are "quite large" and coming in "transverse" - "very problematic". There is no question that they have to be removed and, given that I'm going to have a series of infections until they are removed and suffer the pain - the sooner the better. Normally, the dentist told me, he would be able to do the extractions - but my case was "so difficult" that he referred me to a dental surgeon.I saw the dental surgeon for a consultation this afternoon. The dental surgeon took a look at my mouth and winced. He looked at the x-rays from the dentist and winced some more.

"Will you be staying here a long time?" he asked.

It turned out to be a rhetorical question.

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travel

Excuses, excuses; no drinking during the election & other interesting causes

So there’s two more days worth of Burmese adventures I meant to write up… Highlights involve an intense trek (for me, and my weak lame lungs – it was only six hours of hiking while I was sick) to several Hill Tribe villages, a water buffalo market, and a waterfall outside of Kengtung, and managing to find a movie theatre in Kengtung (wooden shack showing Die Hard 3 – it was weird).

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travel

DAY THREE: Border Run to (and into) Burma

Having lost my towel in Pai at the Reggae Festival (no, I can’t explain how that happened; I didn’t touch the inside pocket of my bag all evening and it was securely nestled inside – nothing else went missing from my bag, not my wallet, not my camera, nothing but the towel – and it simply vanished) and thereby broken the ultimate Rule of Backpacking (see: Douglas Adams) I’ve begun to pay more attention to the Maxims of Travel…

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travel

DAY TWO: Border Run to (and into) Burma

I woke the next morning before my alarm - and hit snooze for several hours.

For the first time since I’d left home I had absolutely no desire to go out and explore the town I was in; no compulsion to wander the streets and no wish to meet people.

I went out to the balcony and watched the street below, trying to rally myself. I was alienated, not threatened. Lonely, not in danger. Under-the-weather, not truly ill. I couldn’t remember why I’d come to Burma (I went back through the reasons that I had given my family and friends, what the grad students and aid workers had told me: friendly chatty locals - no; exotic good food: no; an inside look at an isolated region of an isolated country: not yet, really; supporting the local economy: at least) but, given that I was here already - I ought to at least do it properly. I’d have a walk through the market, find at least one temple and a tea house and a restaurant at which I could try some of the Burmese dishes I’d been recommended.

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DAY ONE: Border Run to (and into) Burma

Tachilek is the sort of town where the architecture far outshines the furnishings.”It’s a border town,” I’d been warned, “don’t expect too much.”

I’d pictured a Tijuana, full of embroidered sarongs rather than piñatas, tinsel Buddhas rather than dayglow Christs; when I arrived I felt more like I’d stepped onto the moon. It was, fittingly enough, gray and overcast without as much as the suggestion of a breeze. Not only were the people and the cars mysteriously missing (the roads were more than wide enough but in two days in Tachilek I saw perhaps ten cars – most of those parked) there was no sense of desperate fervor. The buildings were too large for the inhabitants, the clothes too big for their wearers. Tachilek resembled a colonial ghost town – faded derelict colonial architecture and rusty motorbikes with no review mirrors.

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travel

Common Denominators: Soy Sauce and Chillies

I wake at dawn to do yoga on a mountain top. Mist rises in the valley below as the clouds float into the sky above like a curtain peeling back. I sleep in a mud-and-straw hut with a thatched roof. Orange curtains, the same color as the monk’s robes, hang in front of the fine blue netting which covers the windows.

Cooking classes commence once we’ve all gathered in the Coffee Shop each morning. The Coffee Shop has, technically speaking, neither walls nor corners. There are a woven mats covering the floors, two long low benches molded from the same earthen clay as the floor and counter, shelves of books in both Thai and English, bamboo curtains, pillars made from whole logs (bark intact), dozens of pillows, and - somewhere (I can’t manage to spot it though I’ve tried) - an espresso machine. The cappuccinos are wonderful but the fruit shakes are amazing - as is the homemade bread, still hot from the oven that we eat for breakfast each morning.

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travel

Regaining my Equanimity at You Sabai

[Various excerpts from my journal… Bit fragmented, sorry!] 

I can’t manage to slip my gaze past the valley without it getting caught. I find myself staring off into the view, which is nearly omnipresent. (I find the other guests – even the other residents – doing the same on a regular basis; to say that the view is distracting would be an understatement.)There are more shades of green on display than I had imagined existed.

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The fat lady has yet to sing…

I was so, so, so very close to having a passport this morning.

Woke up at 6:40 to catch the 6:45 truck to town, threw on some clothes, stuffed my sleeping bag away, and set off to run through the rice fields to the road (toothbrush in hand, Theresa-style); ran into Caroline who told me the truck wasn’t coming due to the Chinese New Year; ran into Theresa who told me the truck was waiting. Due to the confusion I was the only one (of what should have been a large group of us from the farm) ready to go into town – but I went – managed to communicate with the driver, even, get off in the right place and orient myself in Chiang Mai. Found one of my favorite cafes (tiny place on a side street – amazing coffee, painfully-slow but ever-so-free internet, friendly dog) and settled in.

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uncategorized

Tee nai Tourist Police?

“Hey Noelle, yee’alright?”

Ruben starts all conversations this way – he says it’s the Isle of Man’s equivalent of “What’s up?” (He also says that he’s Manx, not British and not Irish) but it still startles me each time I hear it. Particularly this time, given that I’m calling because I’m not all right.

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Who are you with? Are you a journalist? Why are you here?

Playing solitaire for two hours accross the street from the US Embassy makes the guards incredibly nervous.

It wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and it was, indeed, one of the two days of the week that the Embassy was open to the public – but when I arrived the Embassy was, nonetheless, closed.  I’d slept later than I’d intended to, slowly pulled myself together, asked around the hostel for directions (no one knew how to get to the Embassy or even the river, but I did get 100 baht – after having dinner the night before I was down to 60 baht – from two Canadian guys who took pity on me), tried to walk it, gave up and got a tuk tuk (50 baht).

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travel

Mistakes I’m not going to repeat on this trip

besides falling off the top of a Land Rover in the Serengeti. Sometimes I think that’s the only part of my trip to Tanzania that any of my family or friends remember and it’s certainly the only part that they tell others about. I’ve been introduced to friends-of-friends only to hear them say “Oh! You’re the one who – !” Yes, I am that one; yes, I’m fine, but I have to tell you, it’s beginning to get old.)

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travel

The emerging plan

So I was talking to a travel agent – actually, I was going to talk to a travel agent – when I realized that, in order to do so, I would have to chose dates. As in real, final, actual dates relating to when I intended to travel. (With a three day window to either side, of course.) So I did. (And I talked to the travel agent and she’s going to get back to me and I should probably talk to a second one to get a comparison and – long story short – no I do not actually have tickets yet. But I will soon.)

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