Wednesday, December 28, 2011

time and time again

Time is entirely what you make of it; it’s the same as a glass that’s half empty or half full. One week in a new country is however much or little you want it to be. And for me, one week is full of far more experiences and observations than conceivable back home in the States.

I’m not sure why but I was born an incredibly lazy person. I also have a lot going through my mind constantly and realize that no matter what I will never become bored with myself. I might go crazy and need to exit my own head, hence supplemental escapism, but I’ll never run out of things to think about. What this translates to is my ability to travel alone and remain content with just myself.

Since I’ve arrived, I have spent much of my time only with myself and have yet to feel dissatisfied. True, I have a lot to sort out right now and also I understand this time is both limited and important. But it allows me to wander markets, discover vegetarian restaurants, and shop as I see fit, without any pressure or expectations from someone else. I realize not everyone is capable of this as the need to share experiences is inherent in human nature. But true explorers and wanderers seek adventure for their own sole appreciation, and I am not an exception. My safety may be a concern for some, but nothing will change my intense desire to discover every random corner of the world one village at a time.

While I have only been in Mexico just over a week, I have been observing their culture for much longer. Working in various restaurants, I’ve had many experiences with Mexican people, mainly though men of the lower economic class. While it may seem unnecessary to mention, I do this because class status has a lot of influence on how a person acts or how they view the world.

For example, the men I work with are infamous for catcalling and wooing women, to the point of discomfort. Here in Mexico I have had experiences with a variety of classes and it has been noteworthy that middle to higher status males do not participate in this behavior. The Mexican women of higher status simply do not tolerate this behavior as they see it as rude and uneducated. Education is the key here in dividing the classes.

The poorer you are, the more necessary it is for you to work and not attend school. The richer you are, the more important it is to receive a higher education and have interaction with various cultures. Studying, traveling, or au pairing abroad, meeting foreigners, and being fluent in English takes precedence over immediate income as it will help them in whatever white collar career they choose.

I’m not sure why the endless sexual harassment exists in the lower class, but I know it isn’t exclusive to Mexicans. All over the world men try to prove their manhood by hassling women, although it is predominant in Latino cultures. I wish I understood what they were trying to accomplish: do they think we like this? Does it make them look good to their comrades? Or is it just something they’ve witness since they were children and think is both normal and appropriate? If I had to take a wild guess, I’d go with the last and I can only hope through education this will change over time.

I flew into Cancun because of the cheap ticket, not for the intense partying (despite what my past history might insinuate). So instead of hostelling I couchsurfed with a Brit who had been living there for a long time to get a more authentic experience and better understanding of what to expect from Mexican culture. I spent the first few days laying low and figuring out my plan of action. I lazily soaked in the sun on the beach all day and had mellow evenings with my host sharing good conversation and getting inspired. My main focus was creating a travel plan and trying as much delicious Mexican food as I could fit into my stomach.

And then, as it always does, it happened oh so quickly. I already had conflicting plans with different cs (couchsurfing) hosts and fast decisions to make. And for anyone who knows me well, you know that decisions are my kryptonite. Despite my desperate attempt to make faster decisions and let them go from my mind once they’ve been made, I still struggle with them everyday. From meals to new places to travel, I have trouble in creating my own destiny.

But sometimes, I can hear a whisper from the Universe and I know in my soul where I'm supposed to go. And that’s what matters most I suppose; to be able to read signs and let the Universe be your guide. And that’s exactly how I ended up in Mexico.

In allowing myself to accept whatever offers came my way, I have already found confidence in knowing I am exactly where I am supposed to be. The Universe has given me several coincidences that I use as bench markers and reminders that I am right on my path.

So I decided to go to the cs party in Cancun being held at a hostel trusting I would meet someone or hear something that would guide me to where I was supposed to be; I knew in my heart this would lead to something good. But in the meantime I had one day to kill and I’d had enough of the Cancun beach; it was time for another.

So I set off for a quick ferry ride to Isla Mujeres, a beautiful island with one of the most clear blue tranquil beaches around. I needed a bit of adventure and was ready to challenge myself to meeting new people on my own in a hostel. And after another lazy day on the beach and strolling the town, I set in for an evening at a fun and full hostel. The first person to really talk to me was an Argentinean who spoke no English. I realized my Spanish was going to have to improve quickly so I went out for both food and booze. First I purchased bottle of rum and then I found a chilled out taco stand that most definitely would churn my stomach. The old men running it were sweet enough so I sat and joined them for a long while, practicing my Spanish and drinking my rum. For anyone who has struggled with learning a second language, they understand just how much inebriation helps you both speak and understand a new language.

So when I returned to the Argentinean and his friends I was both confident and fluent, and I had some rum to share so they loved me even more. The night rolled on and I knew I was getting into trouble but I loved it. Eventually I met others and we set out from the hostel bar on the beach into town for some legitimate troublesome fun.

I used to think trouble found me and not the other way around, but lately I’m beginning to realize I have a real knack for attracting it. Really though it’s the people I choose to spend my time with. I like characters; not boring people. I won’t talk to the people who sit in lounges all day on their computers or go everywhere with their Lonely Planet. I’d rather meet the people doing cartwheels off palm trees or who are clearly on binges that are over 24 hours. These people have stories to tell and the lives they lead are far more interesting, if not dangerous. But these are my people and I’ll be damned if society dictates that I should avoid them.

Anywho, my new group was clearly on an intense and long binge to which I was invited to join. I politely declined most of their offerings but liked the fact that I had been taken in as one of their own. The night crept on and soon became morning and I was the last into my dorm crawling into bed with extremely dirty feet as I decided to roam the street without any shoes. (I suppose I look like a bit of trouble myself most of the time.)

The next day passed quickly as I got a bit more beach time in and said goodbye to my new friends and sailed back to Cancun for the cs party. I had just enough time to shower and sort myself out before we had to arrive at the hostel to set everything up. It wasn’t just any party; it was a posada, which is a Christmas party that involves traditional food, songs, and piñatas. And for us, alcohol. The large group involved a mix of both Mexicans and foreigners, all excited to meet the other and practice their languages.

Salsa was danced, piñatas were beaten, and alcohol was consumed. By the end of the night I had received an offer to work at the hostel as the manager desperately needed help and some time off. I considered it and promised to return for at least New Year’s Eve, although I knew in my heart this was a gift from the Universe. And so my plans once again created themselves.

But first I needed to explore a bit of Mexico and so I set off the next day for Merida where my next cs host awaited me. She was Mexican but had lived in both Paris and New York for extended periods of time and was extremely fluent in both languages. She had obviously grown up in a family that valued both education and traveling and the outcome was this energetic, outgoing, and open minded woman. I only had a few days to spend with her though as she had just purchased another ticket to New York and much like my own travels, didn’t know exactly when she would return but knew it would be months. She was more then generous to offer me to stay with her in her final days at home (that also happened to be her birthday) and it was a whirlwind of meeting new people and going places. While I was proud my Spanish came flooding back to me rather quickly, it also challenged me daily and made me super tired at night.

Being on my own allows me the luxury to observe people constantly, which in turns creates a natural flow of thought. I ponder questions and come to conclusions about both the world and myself and am constantly seeking more. I look into windows and see homes and families, celebrations and daily life. While this blog will chronologically follow my trail, it will be more or less the observations I make about society that I prefer to share. These are the things that matter most in the end.

One thing I have written about before but cannot express enough is how similar we all are as human beings. More often than not, we focus on the differences: our religion, political preferences, skin color, etc. But the truth is we have more things that unite us together than divide us apart. We all go to the bathroom, eat and drink, listen to music, need to sleep. We all have friends and enemies, opinions and preferences (although different, we still all have them). We all have emotions, whether we suppress them or not, and we all have the capacity to love. We feel sorrow and happiness, longing and content. We have family and friendships, and relationships that hurt and help us. We make connections with other human beings, or we choose to avoid them. We are all alike and not alike at the same time and we should celebrate this fact alone because it is what makes us human. The more I travel the more this is made clear to me. No matter the language or skin color, I see families singing songs, couples in love, and everyone laughing. I may not always get the joke, but I smile because I am happy to witness these things. To be exposed to as many cultures and experiences as I have has made me an extremely lucky girl and I do not take this for granted. And what I take from it all is that we as human beings have no natural reason to hate one another, but instead to love. And in the end love is all we have, all we need. The sooner we realize this as a collective society the sooner in harmony we can all live.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Chaos entangles me in a web of heat, people, and Spanish. My pack is heavy, I’m without any sense of direction, and I stick out like a gringo sore thumb. I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing or where I’m going.

I’m back baby!!!

Most people travel when they take a sabbatical. I, on the other hand, leave the long winding road from time to time to take a taste of the “real world”, to see what it’s like to work a vast majority of your time. Like most sabbaticals, their time is fleeting. Last I left this blog I was in Indonesia being doted upon by my family. Since then I spent 3 more months between Thailand and Malaysia volunteering at an animal refuge and sterilization clinic, couchsurfing with families, and celebrating the Thai New Year with the world’s largest water fight. To be fair, I could (and should) have written some catch up blogs about my final months in Asia. But I found myself preferring to enjoy my time and writing specific articles rather than working on my blog. And home provided me with zero inspiration for reflection.

And so here I sit, on my first day on my next big adventure, trying to play catch up with my past. So I won’t. Instead I’ll focus on the moment, and possibly how I’ve come across it.

Americans are the first to spout the benefits of freedom although they very rarely understand what it is to be truly free. Most people are tied down to mortgages, car payments, relationships, and the inevitable pile of stuff they simply cannot live without. They become stuck; caught in a hamster wheel only few truly yearn to be free of. And even fewer make the escape. Me? I never joined. I took one look and ran the other direction, even though it involved a huge cliff and a jump down a dark rabbit hole.

I don’t know how to describe myself other than someone who yearns to be free; always. To explore the world at my own pace and never feel forced into a life I wouldn’t create on my own. My only guide is the Universe and I trust it to give me wonderful experiences, as it usually does. I believe so strongly in the Universe that if I notice a few signs, I will take the first exit. I know when I’ve stayed my limit anywhere and I’m fully capable of bowing out at any time. The fact that I bought a plane ticket to Mexico without any plan or forethought isn’t a surprise, certainly not to me.

I’ve been backpacking many times. I have the gear, the knowledge, and the fearlessness which enables me to be ready to go literally at any moment. And so I did. In the matter of 24 hours I bought a plane ticket, quit my two jobs, and prepared myself for an adventure I hadn’t planned on in less than 2 weeks. And I couldn’t be more excited.

I am home here. Not Mexico (and certainly not Cancun). But on the open road guided by my intuition and curiosity. Meeting new people and trying new things. This is what makes me alive, this is what makes me me. I don’t expect people to want the same for themselves or to even understand it. But I will give you a window to my world so you can enjoy it from the safety of your own home, wherever that may be. But I do hope you find your own inspiration to create your own wealth of happiness in your world, whatever that may be. We are all free no matter the shackles that entangle us, there is always opportunity. You just need to listen and look for the signs that tell you what to do. The Universe is always there, but it’s up to you live your life.

So what is the plan then you ask? I’m planning on no plans currently. I’ll explore the southern bit of Mexico for a couple of months; relaxing on the beaches drinking margaritas and exploring beautiful Mayan ruins. Eventually I will head towards Belize, Guatemala, and the rest of Central America in no particular order. I will hopefully get some Spanish school in, volunteer somewhere, and ride a moto recklessly without a helmet or license. I will enjoy everyday, take every chance and explore every opportunity. I will be happy going wherever the signs may point and following the long, winding, and unpredictable road I’ve come to adore. And I will share all of it with you. Thank you for reading, joining me on my journey, and for being apart of my life. I appreciate you all. <3

Saturday, January 15, 2011

the good life


Often throughout my travels, people have taken me in as treated me as family. This is the only time I’ve stayed with people who actually are related to me, despite never having met them previously. But by the time I left, there was no question about it: we are family.

My first full day in Jakarta was merely a tiny eye opening introduction to this crazy world I was entering. After some running around, I was indulging in a much needed nap only to be woken by my father asking me to join him at the whorehouse for a drink. I thought he was kidding at first, but he wouldn’t let me go back to sleep and insisted I join him, my stepmom, and uncle for a beer with some nice classy hookers. And in this house, no never means no.

As Ping had loaned the money to build this brothel, he was given unlimited free access to anything he wanted, and I really mean anything. He also has a coupon book (not a joke) he can use whenever he wants or give out to friends. And you better believe this book is good for any number of girls he wants. Luckily for me, no one indulged in anything that would later traumatize me, but I did have to remind myself a few times that this actually is my life.

What’s interesting about this place was that it was set up as nightclub so you could easily forget it was 4pm on a Tuesday, yet all the girls were piled into a back room lit disturbingly bright with numbers tagged on all of them. They simply sit there altogether chatting, not doing much, as the men stand outside watching them creepily and taking notes on which numbers they want. Later, the numbers are given to “Momma” and she will fetch whoever you choose. They come out for a drink, a chat, and then you can head upstairs whenever you’re ready. I think I might have been the first person to ask these girls what they want to be when they grow up, because trust me, they weren’t all grown up yet.

What makes this experience so great is that since Ping knew the owner, the Momma came and not only chatted to us for a bit, but gave me a necklace as a present. (I’m fairly certain young white females are not common there.) When we left we tipped the few girls who sat with us and needless to say, it was a most interesting start to this vacation.

Something I learned within a matter of days was not to mention any needs or wants unless I’m very serious about it because it will happen in an exaggerated manner. Say you like lychee (a fruit) and in comes 20 pounds of it. Wish I was kidding. I never expressed hunger because even when I showed slight interest in food, 10 plates of it would make its way to me. Still not kidding. Even after I’ve been given three breakfasts, somehow they think I can eat more and offer copious amounts of fresh, delicious food. This wouldn’t be so awful if it weren’t for my stepmom whose favorite thing to say is, “finish it”. (Thankfully after she left no one has told me to finish anything.)

Truly though, if I dared touch something it could soon become mine. I quickly became afraid to touch anything as if I were Midas. When purse shopping I was only interested in one purse, but since it was the most expensive one there, I insisted I didn’t want it. I reassured them many times and told them not to go back and get it. Low and behold a few days later it magically made its way to my room. To be honest, I really wasn’t surprised (or upset…I love my new purse).

What I love best about this family though is how unpretentious they are. Despite their ability to design any number of houses they want or eat constantly at fancy restaurants (and they do both), they love their near dilapidated warehouse and eat at hole-in-the-wall noodle shops. It’s truly not because they’re cheap; they have no problem spending money. It’s because they want what they want and it’s as simple as that. My favorite example of their unpretentious attitude lies in the Kobe beef steakhouse story.

The one and only night Ping decided to stay out late was to take us to the best steakhouse in Jakarta to sample Kobe beef, the best in the world. Located at the top floor of an exquisite building with a fine view, we strolled in this classy joint with beer bottles in hand. (Ping goes absolutely nowhere without a couple of beers in the car and in hand, grocery store included.) He also brought his own whiskey bottle and had no problem cracking it at the table. Was he trying to save money? No, he just wanted his whiskey, the best $120 bottle he could find to match the best steak. Now for the best part…

He didn’t want to bring the whole bottle so he simply poured some into another smaller bottle. But this bottle was for some cheap as dirt Malaysian crap. So despite the dime he dropped on dinner, he looked like a weirdo strolling in with beer bottles and cheap whiskey in pocket. He just doesn’t care what people think of him, and that’s what makes him the Godfather.

Despite not visiting much other than Jakarta, we still ventured to neighboring areas. One of the best day trips we took was to Bogor, the lush, green, mountainous region hours away from pollution. Sure the botanical garden was great, even the shopping was fun, but what made this full day adventure so fantastic was our trip to Jurassic Park. Or at least the closest thing in the world to it.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this park is set up nearly exactly how it is in the movie, minus dinosaurs. Instead, substitute lions, bears, hippos, giraffes, ostriches, and every other animal you can imagine. Yes they’re all free and yes they can wander right up to your car. Luckily the dangerous animals don’t usually do so, although I’m not entirely sure as when we were in that particular section it was raining pretty badly and they couldn’t be bothered to do much of anything other than sit under shelter.

But when it was clear, the zebras and camels did all they could to nearly poke their heads into our car as we fed them carrots and bananas. Before you enter the park, it’s up to the individual to load up on snacks to feed the animals and attract them close to your car, despite the warnings not to do so. (The joy of being in a country without crazy lawsuits.) Does this park sound crazy? Yes. And was it fun? Absolutely. As an animal rights advocate I hate zoos, more than you can imagine. But I loved this place. Here, the animals roamed free and could stay as close to people or far away from them as possible. Is it entirely natural? No, but it’s a hell of a lot better than being in a concrete cage behind bars with asinine children taunting them.

One interesting fact about Indonesia I’ve neglected to mention is that fact that there are no laws. Well, technically there are, but nothing a bribe can’t get you out of. The price of the bribe must be in direct proportion to the size of the law you’re breaking, but everything is negotiable.

For example, there are no extensions given to the one month tourist visa. Unless of course you have an Uncle Ping who knows someone in the government he can slip some cash to and an extension stamp will magically appear in your passport. (The immigration officer at the airport was a bit surprised how I got it, but I was clearly not someone to be questioned as evidently I knew people.) The bottom line is, don’t break the law in Indonesia…unless you have the cash to back it up.

While the massages, shopping, drinks, and delicious food was absolutely fantastic, it was never the best part. By far what makes this place so special in my heart is how welcome and loved I felt. They took me in and without question I was family. Over time we grew closer; I stayed up late chatting with Aliu, went to Wei’s home in the country no one had seen before, and soon they were all able to predict my preferences. While I might have glorified all the material blessings I’d been given, that’s not the reason I stayed so long. Feeling welcome and appreciated is a priceless gift never to be ignored. And being given a family in Indonesia is by far the most valuable thing I’ve ever received.


My first two weeks in Indonesia was spent vacationing with my dad and stepmom aka being ushered around constantly meeting new people and sharing pleasantries over meals out. It seemed everyone knew my stepmom was in town and had to schedule an appointment with her and her bule family.

One of the families we met had three daughters, all near my age, and spoke perfect English as they go to an international school. We hit it off on our first lunch and we were all promptly invited to their house in Bandung the following weekend. (I actually remained close with them my entire time in Jakarta.)

Bandung is a breath of fresh air compared to Jakarta. Sure the traffic and malls have followed, but there is a chance to escape up the volcano, go for a hike, and receive at least some peace and quiet. After only a couple of days it was time to leave, but somehow I knew it wasn’t goodbye. Final farewells do not exist in my book and I’m always liable to return.

At first it was only for one night, but somehow I stuck around for a week and a half. It started with meeting Jasmine at a birthday party for one of my friends here. She was half Indonesian and half British, but had lived in America for nearly 10 years. Being that she was still in high school, that’s enough of her life to consider her American. She was on two week holiday with her father and invited me to stay for the weekend for a couple good nights out. (Since arriving in Jakarta I had been deprived of any nightlife and after a month I was itching for it.)

Our first night was a prelude to the new absurd world I had entered. Entirely different from that of my family in Jakarta, this one was still crazy and unreal in its own way. Cloud 9 is the only way to describe the first night; it’s also the name of the bar up in the hills we went. With live music, good food, and a spectacular view, this place is the perfect place to swig cocktails all night. So that we did.

The following day was Christmas and while I was concerned I was impeding on some family day, her dad told me to get ready to really party. Breakfast consisted of guacamole, apple streusel cake, and every other western junk food you can imagine. We didn’t even see her dad all day until we went out at night dressed to kill. Jasmine had a hair straightener, little black dress, and heels for me to borrow so I could escape the backpacker I had been for so many months.

Being that I had never spent the holidays away from home, I was hoping for something good. I didn’t care what; I just didn’t want to completely ignore it as I had Thanksgiving, Halloween, and my birthday. And thankfully it was the best Christmas I could hope for as drinks were heavy all night long and the bill footed by her father. A far cry from backpacker’s budgets, I drank everything from shots on fire to tequila, and you could tell at the end of the night.

By the time the weekend was over it was clear I needed to come back for New Year’s Eve, but as lazy days stretched into long nights, it became obviously stupid to leave for just a couple of nights.. Besides, Jasmine’s dance on stage and vomit on the table antics were reminiscent of me a long time ago. (A month could be considered a long time to some people.)

The week was spent sleeping in, watching Sex and the City, eating dinner out, and if we weren’t partying, we were still hanging out with friends. Luckily for me, her group there could speak English and while it took some time for them to use it regularly, they always made me feel welcome and I loved hanging out with them. From adventures in hot springs to late night movies, I had a great vacation away from my vacation.

New Year’s Eve was a whirlwind of a night as we were ready to go out by 5 (even though I only had 45 min to get ready). The traffic in Bandung on the weekends is epic and nothing to be trifled with. We all wanted to be well drunk by midnight and that meant not only an early start on the bottle, but on the road. Starting with classy martinis at a 5 star hotel, we then bought some flashing devil horns and were ready to find trouble at the North Sea.

The North Sea is the little bar Jasmine’s father has taken as his own, where he and his gang of friends hole up every night owning the place. They’ve acclimated to only buying bottles as single drinks is just ridiculous. Luckily for me, their drink of choice are gin and tonics. And I never thought I’d meet anyone who likes a stronger G&T than me, but her dad’s is lacking in the T department; pretty much entirely.

While Jazz and I planned on venturing to other places all night long, we somehow drank our way through the evening without ever switching venues. At midnight the horns blew, everyone cheered, and then my memory started going. I know I was loud, saying stupid things, and acting a damn fool. But in the end, I had heaps of fun, made it home safely, and didn’t have too bad of a hangover the next day so it was a roaring success.

Early Sunday morning it was time to bid farewell. Jasmine and her dad had a plane to catch back to reality, and I scored a seat in their car back to Jakarta. Despite having so much fun, I was tired, sick, and in dire need of recovering my body before I got back on the backpacking trail. While this blog doesn’t give too many specific stories, it’s for a specific purpose. Things that happen in Bandung should stay in Bandung, and out of respect for others I’ll keep these stories to myself. Or I’ll tell them to you in person after I’ve had some wine. The very least I can say is that Jasmine can turn a gay man straight and a straight girl gay.

Monday, January 10, 2011

lifestyles of the rich and famous


All my life I’ve wanted a sugar daddy, just without all gross older man stuff I’m not actually into. It’s been a life dream I assumed impossible, until now. Turns out, the whole time I should have been wishing for a sugar aunt and uncle. It’s rare you make it to 26 years of age without knowing all of your family, but somehow I did. Ok, so they’re not blood family, but if I’ve learned anything from my time in Indonesia, family is family.

My father has been with his Indonesian born wife for well over ten years, yet I never knew a whole lot about the life or family she left behind long ago. I had the vague impression she came from money despite her being the biggest coupon clipper I’ve ever known. She also always encouraged me to visit Indonesia and when the chance for my backpacking trip to collide with their vacation here, I jumped on the opportunity to join.

After a few solid months of being a dirty hippie scavenger, I was ready for some indulgence and vacation. I arrived quite literally penniless and in need of both a meal and shower (I had been stretching my money my last few days in Cambodia and making a bag of chips last as two meals. A joke the family likes to now tell.) I was rescued at the airport and promptly brought to one of the many malls in Jakarta. After being stuffed with food we went shopping and I was told if I wanted or needed anything just to let them know. At first I appreciated the gesture, and after some time I learned that they literally meant anything.

But before I can get into the absurdity and amazingness of my situation here, let me introduce the cast of characters.

First and foremost is The Godfather. He’s my stepmom’s brother (aka my uncle) and very clearly the head of the family, the main breadwinner, and the official decision maker. His name is Ping and when he says “jump”, you say “how high?”. Well, I don’t. In fact I don’t know what he says most of the time because he doesn’t speak much English. For the most part, I can tell he enjoys having me around though and likes to show off his bule (white foreigner) niece to others. He insists I join him at lunches, 5 am jogs, or afternoon karaoke just so I can be introduced to his circle of friends.

And I do it dutifully too; it’s the least I can do for the roof he’s put over my head, the food in my belly, and the clothes on my back. And accessories, massages, and plane tickets. Yes, Ping is The Godfather for the reason that he makes a shit ton of money and loves to spend it on his family. And by the grace of God I am his family.

Yes it’s true; somehow I’ve slipped into a world where money has no value, mostly because there is a seemingly endless amount of it. At first I could tell they had money. It’s only after living with them for over a month I get just how much of it they have, and who they lend it to. Because that’s pretty much what they do, lend people money. It’s as simple as that, yet Bank of Ping lends out hundreds of thousands on a regular basis to government officials, oil drilling companies, and God knows who else. Over time he’s collected favors from every business you can imagine: jewelry makers, whorehouse owners, and senators; and I’ve met them all.

But the best and most absurd part of all of this: Ping lives in a shack of a warehouse. Despite his huge financial success and ability to buy several properties a year (and he does) he prefers his 30 year old deteriorating office building as his castle. He is a man who likes simple comfort and is unwilling to change, even if this makes him the butt of jokes amongst his class.

Ping loves routine and sticks to his regimented schedule of waking at 4 am, exercising, and then commencing his day. There is no specific daily work schedule; he comes and goes as he pleases; but mostly people come to his office to ask for money. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere as the room is small, no frills, and filled with yelping dogs. The walls are covered with countless photos of Ping with various high ranking government officials and military and one of him with the infamous Indonesian major mob boss. Because he wants you to know who his friends are if you decide not to pay him back.

If Ping weren’t a big time loan shark he’d be a bartender because he won’t let anyone pass through his doors without a drink. And when he says “one for the road”, he really means three or four. While he starts asking me early on in the day if I want a drink, he respects my ‘no’ answer; that is until 4 pm. Whenever 4 o’clock rolls around, if I’m anywhere near Ping I’m destined to have a drink in my hand. First he offers beer, then whiskey, and when I’ve declined both, he just gets me whatever he is drinking. No doesn’t mean no to Ping. (And this refers to all aspects of life.)

If Ping is king of his castle, then his queen is Alio. Or indentured servant, I’m not quite sure which anymore. Otherwise known as Auntie ATM, she handles the money and loves spending it. It took some time to get used to, but whatever I wanted, I would not pay for, no matter how hard I tried. And I did try. It honestly became a mission and I did everything I could to buy my own earrings and I failed over and over again until the one time I succeeded, only to discover she let me pay because she ran out of cash.

In the end though I still wasn’t paying because since the day I arrived my pocket had been stuffed with their cash. I felt uncomfortable with this at first, but after one month it’s become routine. And my biggest fear is that I’ve become far too comfortable with having other people pay for everything for me. I’ve been fiercely independent for as long as I can remember and take a certain pride in paying for all my own travels, despite what other people assume. This is the first time someone else has footed the bill. And to be honest, I kind of like it.

Alio is by far my favorite person here as she is my interpreter and protector. She speaks English, although not entirely perfectly, but always has a sense of humor and kindness about her I adore. As a good Christian, she goes to church regularly and prays often and I can tell it’s her faith that is her fuel in life.

The truth is Ping has worn her down. He is most demanding on her, requesting her schedule stay similar to his, that she only rarely goes out at night and with his permission, and is at his beck and call. A dutiful wife, she feels she has no other choice, but doesn’t complain. But I can tell it wears her down, physically and mentally. Whenever questioned about the irrationality of a situation, she simply sighs and says, “This is Ping”.

On the bright side, she can call the masseuse and beautician to come to the house whenever she pleases to try and relax. And since money is no object, she purchases anything and everything “for health”, no matter the cost. Eye mask for $100? Yes please! Bird’s nest soup for $300? Why not?! As long as it’s beneficial to her health, she’ll invest.

As for Ping’s investments, he loves watches. His collection in the hundreds are sprawled everywhere and their value range from $1,000-$50,000, although I’m not sure where he wears the expensive ones to since he never goes at night. Because of his self-imposed 4 am wake up, he goes to bed around 6-8 pm. He won’t leave the house past 4 pm because it will infringe on his schedule; another reason he might be the butt of jokes.

One more of my favorite characters has to be Wei, otherwise known as Uncle Wei Wei the tour guide. Tall, thin, quiet, and patient; my other uncle is also at the beck and call of Ping and has played tour guide and driver since my arrival. He drives us anywhere and everywhere, the mall or overnight trips, and I’m curious as to what his life is like outside of here. More evasive than anyone else, he lives far away despite Ping’s offer to house him next door (he owns the surrounding houses yet does nothing with them; he just doesn’t want neighbors. I think Wei likes his personal space. But he always has a smile on his face and a pleasant demeanor.

What really makes Wei’s driving skills exceptional is the legendary traffic of Jakarta. Unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, I’m fairly certain I’ve spent half of my time here sitting in a car. Not joking. It’s not as chaotic as Hanoi or death defying as Cairo, but far more infuriating than even LA traffic. It’s nonstop, everywhere, at all times of the day, and what keeps me from venturing out on my own more often. If there is any place on Earth that has worse traffic than Jakarta, I don’t want to go there, although I’m afraid I already have. And that place is called Bandung.

Roughly 2-3 hours outside of Jakarta, Bandung is the mountainous fresh air escape from the city everyone needs. And since everyone needs it, they go there on the weekends bringing their cars, pollution, and traffic along with them. Once in Bandung a drive that should take 20-30 minutes without traffic, took 2 ½ hours. Two and half friggin’ hours sitting in car going out of my mind. (It was New Year’s weekend. More stories of Bandung to come.)

If there were two words I’d use to describe Jakarta it would be ‘traffic’ and ‘shopping’. This whole place is a clusterfuck of both and I’m surprised it hasn’t sent me out of my mind yet. I suppose free shopping takes the edge off though. I’m not sure why my family here assumes I need to go shopping so much, maybe it’s the holes in my clothes, but it’s pretty constant. I resisted at first, only getting one shirt here, a pair of earrings there.

Really though, they’ve encouraged me to do a lot worse damage and a tiny voice inside of me is screaming to do so. But in the end, I have a new wardrobe, new accessories, toiletries, and set of DVDs to keep me very happy. I even have to be careful not to ask for things. If I even touch something and ask what it is, rather than an answer I get, “do you want it?”. Anything I look vaguely interested in and it’s assumed I want it. And since no doesn’t mean no here, sometimes things get bought I don’t really need or want. The shopping situation here is so absurd that all I can do is laugh.

At least when my father was here I had someone to laugh with. We were the two bules together and I think explaining who I am was a lot easier when he was here. No one knows why this family has a white niece (or nephew as my aunt sometimes introduces me. Her English isn’t perfect). This was my dad’s second trip here and as I’m told he’s done much better this time around.

Adjusting to a strange new world can be surprisingly difficult for most people. Particularly when you’re thrown into another family’s schedule and habits which can be vastly different from your own. My father is a man that shows up not on time, but early. He doesn’t like to wait or make others wait. He makes a schedule for the day and sticks to it. This family couldn’t be more opposite.

First they’ll say we’re leaving at 9 am. Then we’ll leave at 10:30 and we won’t know where we’re going. When we get there the plan will change and we’ll go somewhere else. For a go with the flow person like myself this is fine, exciting even. But for someone like my father, this is infuriating. Apparently last time he became incredibly frustrated. But now he knew what to expect so he didn’t make a big deal of it. In fact, he laughed a lot about the ridiculousness and I think appreciated having me to laugh along with him. I’m sure the endless whiskey helped as well.

In a nutshell, this house runs similarly to a fire station. You pretty much sit around, relaxing, chatting, eating, and suddenly at the drop of a hat they’ll tell you to go-go-go and you have to be ready. You never know where you’re going or what for, but when they start walking out the door, you better follow. If I ever say, “let me grab my purse” they answer with, “what for?”. In reality I’m not sure since I pay for nothing, and can buy anything I need.

As I couldn’t possibly begin to fit all of the tales and observations into one blog, it had to be split into two. But now that you’ve been introduced to the cast of characters and have a basic understanding of this strange world, you might be ready for some actual events. Stories include prostitutes with my father, free range rhinos, and how to cheapen the best steak in the world. Don’t worry, none of these tales are related.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

here i go again

Opportunities to find bar work in Sihanoukville are abundant, pretty much because every bar in town wants to hire Westerners. While the accommodation and food situation varies from place to place, there’s always one guarantee no one will work without: free alcohol. It is the fuel that keeps the town vibrant and what bartenders need to get through the long nights. True, this kind of offer can get messy but if you can’t handle yourself, I’m fairly certain you wouldn’t last very long in one place.

That doesn’t mean you’re not granted some leeway and allowed to go on a binder every now and again. Even if it’s your first night working, you can get so black out drunk you full on disappear halfway through your shift, only to be found sprawled out on your bed, passed out with the lights on and hopefully your clothes on. This may or may not describe my first night working. (Well, it could have been a lot worse you know.)

While I had the option of working at a couple of different places, I didn’t really search around too much as Jam’s seemed like the kind of place I would enjoy. The staff was friendly, the vibe was chill, and it was literally right on the beach. But the real selling point was that Jam’s closed a bit earlier than other bars, which meant I could have a social life after work. As if it were really work.

Let’s be honest folks: anywhere that not only provides the means but encourages you to be drunk while “working”, is not work. Bars back home do not condone such behavior; but in Cambodia they sure do.

You’re probably wondering what I got in exchange for working, because it certainly wasn’t money. Free unlimited booze, naturally, a room to call my own, and some food. Sounded pretty sweet at first, but soon I realized nothing is quite what it seems. My private room isn’t anything to complain about for a week or so, but the roof leaked which created a God awful moldy smell, plus the fan was jenky which meant with the intense heat the room was unbearable during the day. Sure I had a private bathroom, but there was no door, a shit cold shower, and another God awful untraceable smell.

And the food? Well, if it did show up it was awful and full of meat. Did the manager know I was vegetarian? Yes, but his response everyday was to “pick it out”. Never mind the fact he bought six pizzas one day, six, but not one without meat. I swear he was testing me. And this is even if there was food provided. After a few days I stopped looking for food. Instead, I was the only bartender who took advantage of the fully stocked kitchen and cooked myself brunch everyday. Every day the Cambodian staff watched with curiosity as I created new Asian Western fusion kitchen sink dishes. Ultimately, it was a decent trade but not possible for more than week or so. Had I any real intention of sticking around town I’d quickly seek out a new bar. But for the time being it would due.

While working at Jam’s did not turn out how I expected, in the end I quite enjoyed it. The first couple of days were a bit rough as the shift started at 7 pm but no one really shows up until at least 9. And since I was new and not encouraged to be behind the bar at first, that meant I was sitting alone out front handing out flyers and trying to get people in. It wouldn’t have been so awful if there actual people to hand flyers to.

To briefly describe the location, our bar wasn’t on any main walking drag which doesn’t allow for a lot of foot traffic. Also consider it was dinner time and most people want to relax on the beach and enjoy a quiet beer. No one starts looking for a bar until much later (I told you this is a party till dawn town); thus I spent several hours contemplating my life’s mistakes and staring at the water. That, and smoking my early shift spliff, just to get through it, you know.

By far the most interesting characters at the bar were the owners, Mr. and Mrs. So. I’m still not entirely sure why this Korean couple well in their seventies/eighties decided to move to S.ville and run a Western bar. They don’t speak English or Cambodian and if it weren’t for the temporary help of the Korean-American manager, there would be zero communication between the owners and staff. Besides the practicality of it all, they made great characters.

Mr. So, my favorite, is super tiny, super bald, and super smiley. He walks around in white linens observing everyone constantly like the all knowing Buddha I think he is. Kung-fu Buddha that is, as he really does practice martial arts and can break nearly any piece of wood in half. Bad ass. As for Mrs. So, the bipolar afro haired lady, well, she can be fun or frightening, depending on the day. While she loved me because of my appreciation for Korean culture, she is constantly suspicious of her staff and demanding massages from our on staff Cambodian masseuse/dancer/screamer, Charlie.

As the Western staff is constantly filing through new people, there needs to be some constant and that need is filled out by a few locals who can speak decent English. My favorite is Charlie and before I even started working there, I knew we’d get along famously. Charlie is rarely working, instead dancing his ass off behind the bar, and I was in need of a fabulous new gay boyfriend. Of course within days Charlie was near raping me and groping my boobs whenever he could. Not sure why I encouraged such behavior, but it made bartending during lulls vastly more entertaining.

Another entertaining part of the job was getting hit on constantly. It was entertaining in the fact that I was never interested but loved watching these silly old men make awful advances. From buying me drinks (even though I got free ones) to facebook friend requests (ummm, no????), it was an endless parade of uninteresting offers. Perhaps I neglected to mention this was a bar filled with DOMs (dirty old men) and prostitutes. I consider this good people watching.

The best/worst DOM, hands down, goes to the Russian. A slimy, rail thin old man who didn’t speak a word of English came in night after night making it blatantly obvious he was interested in me. I was nice at first, then evasive, then downright rude. From refusing tips to showing him my “boyfriend”, he never really got the hint. I partly blame my co-worker who gave him information about me in exchange for tips, even though he knew this man was creepy as fuck. (Thanks Sam.)

But the culmination of this near week long episode was when through an unnecessary to explain series of events, he had to remove his blood soaked shirt. He then put his arms around me from behind and breathed into my ear, “Stephanie….you….sex…”

Ummmm….FUCK NO.

It’s at this point I threw up a little in my mouth and made it a point to pretend he no longer existed. I also realized I had to be more defensive with men at this bar as I was the only female staff member and whiskey buckets were $1.

Luckily at the end of each shift I had enough booze and friends to head next door to JJ’s, the paint ridden, heavy drinking, dance all night party I couldn’t resist. Trouble can be found in all corners of this bar; I’ve had spliffs, made out, and even been vomited on (thankfully none of these are connected). Basically this is to say that as a nightly routine I was destroying my body. This is how I knew I couldn’t stay in S.ville forever.

During the beginning of my time here I did feel a tinge of loneliness. I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms from being surrounded by my alcoholic bullshitting friends from Laos/Thailand and was not liking having to make “new” friends. On a low day I went to lay on the beach alone and basically wished, hoped, and prayed someone from Laos would randomly show up. And as always, I got more than I bargained for.

From Rob the ballsack sharing legend from Manchester and his saint of a girlfriend Helen, to Hoover the shirtless American with his love of motos and randomness; it was an endless parade of friends from past adventures. Every single night a new familiar face randomly popped up and I couldn’t have been more grateful. The only ones I expected were four of my favorite boys from Mama Rasta’s/Vang Vieng/Pai. They were coming to celebrate Jack’s birthday, although they showed up earlier than I anticipated. It seemed the Universe had overloaded on my wish.

By the time Jack’s birthday rolled around, we were armed and dangerous for an entire day of inebriation. The day before the big 2-0, we ventured out without Jack to pick up the supplies. A full day of beach bar hopping was the only scheduled event and we planned on making total fools of ourselves. An absurd outfit for Jack was selected consisting of skin tight female booty shorts and cami, arm floaties, a gun, goggles, and a huge bucket to be filled with various types of alcohol throughout the day. (Did I mention the Viagra we drugged him with?) The remaining four of us got airplane floating tubes (meant for children) and decided to wear them the entire day. To say the very least we looked ridiculous, and I couldn’t have been more excited for someone else’s birthday.

It started normally enough, playing some pool and drinking beers. Then some girls showed up and tequila shots were promptly ordered. (Did I mention I skipped breakfast?) The rest of the day was a blur of laughter, buckets, various bars, spliffs, and Cambodian children swarming us for our airplane tubes. We probably shouldn’t have taught them beer bucket pong but they loved being around us so we couldn’t help it.

Day shifted to night at some point, tubes popped or lost, memory blurred, and only pictures can tell the tale of what happened, even though that’s questionable as well. In the end, it was the best birthday ever, even if it wasn’t mine.

It was so good that while I was supposed to leave the next day and said all my good-byes, I was too hungover to function and missed all the buses. So I agreed to one last bar shift so I wouldn’t have to change to a hostel and then had to live down the shame of all the questions, “I thought you were leaving today?”. Not the first (or probably last) bus I’ll miss due to hangover. In fact, it’s the third one I can blame on these specific boys. Luckily it’s usually worth it.

In the end, I believe everything is meant to be. If I had caught that bus I wouldn’t have run into my favorite couple Ban and Death for one last good laugh and to have a proper girly catch up. The people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had in all of Southeast Asia are entirely based on buses I’ve caught and missed.

The following day, I caught the bus to Phnom Penh and spent a half day being a semi-tourist and went to bed early to catch my flight to Indonesia. I was in dire need of a real detox at this point. A luxurious vacation with an abundance of sleep and good food was exactly what I needed. And once again, I got more than I bargained for.