Songs to Sing While Your Plane Crashes

planeThe woman sitting in front of me had the face of a rat. She appeared to have no top lip, her front teeth sticking out of her mouth like a rodent’s. Her eyes were completely black and her skin was pulled tightly over her skull. It was like looking at some Dorian Gray portrait of a regular person; she looked to only be about forty, and forty-year-old people aren’t supposed to look deceased. This was on the airplane, on my flight back home from Myanmar; the rat woman stood up every ten minutes or so, lazily examining the plane as though it was a maze she was stuck in.

I was in a bad mood, to say the least. I’ve always had a fear of flying, but on this particular flight, I was terrified. I’m not sure why, really. The turbulence wasn’t much worse than any normal flight and the stewardesses were above average looking. I should have been fine. Maybe it was the shear amount of flying that I’d done in the past few weeks that had finally worn me down. Traveling between Africa, Myanmar, and China, I had taken a whopping twelve flights over the previous three weeks. That’s an average of four flights a week. For a person with a fear of flying, that schedule is brutal. It’s kind of like being afraid of clowns and then getting gangbanged by an entire circus. By the midpoint of the flight, I was covered in sweat and my stomach was knotted up like a balloon animal.

Everything about the flight got on my nerves. The people sitting in the row in front of me – the rat, its husband, and their offspring – kept standing up constantly and talking loudly. A few times the plane hit patches of rough air and the stewardess would come over and tell them to sit, but they’d just keep standing up and yelling to each other. I couldn’t take it. Behind me, there was a little girl, five or six years old, who had formed a hobby out of kicking the back of my seat. I stared out the window and imagined the plane going down in flames.

“Only about an hour left,” my girlfriend, sitting next to me, said. Her words were supposed to make me feel better. The intended effect was for me to go, “Great. Only an hour.” But instead I thought, “Shoot me. I’ll never make it through an hour of this. I might as well give up and try my luck jumping out with a parachute.”

Nothing in life can be perfectly easy, I suppose. I love to travel – I really love it, more than anything else. But to do what I love, I am forced to fly, which I hate. And I’m getting worse on flights, disintegrating from the somewhat irritating paranoid doofus that I used to be into the intolerably whiny little ninny that I am now. I know I’m being silly, sweating and shaking and cursing through the flight, but I just can’t stop myself. I guess it’s like having Tourette’s. I tell myself to be cool, and then the plane hits a dip and I explode with expletives.

A couple hours earlier, during take off, there was an unfortunate incident with a group of foreigners a few rows behind us. They had been told to turn their cell phones off during take off, and they refused. Flat out said no. The stewardess kept being polite and asking them over and over and they were so argumentative before finally giving in. The entire ordeal pissed me off. I couldn’t understand why they were so rude, especially since they were told they just had to wait fifteen minutes and then they could turn the phones back on. Looking into the darkness outside the window, less than an hour left to fly, I thought about them and let myself be filled with venom, the brash bravado of those foreigners – what kind of monsters were they?

Didn’t they know that their cell phones could cause the auto pilot to shut off and send us all spiralling down towards earth?

I felt so disappointed with myself. Because I really felt anger, and because I really truly believed their cell phones would kill me. Then I thought that if the plane actually did crash, would it really be a bad thing? For the rest of world, I mean. In a selfish way, of course it would be – none of us want to die. But those people…the family in front of me unable to sit and be quiet, the crazy little girl kicking my seat like a lunatic, the cell-phone addicted foreigners…maybe the world would be better off without them. Even me, actually. No one likes a neurotic weirdo wishing death upon people. So, yeah. Although the death of my girlfriend would be a real loss for the world, the net result of a crash would be overall positive. Mankind would benefit from the subtraction. The idea calmed me a little.

Wanting to distract myself, I turned on my MP3 player. I chose to listen to the song “Death” by White Lies.

I love the feeling when we lift off/

Watching the world so small below/

I love the dreaming when I think of/

The safety in the clouds out my window/

I wonder what keeps us so high up/

Could there be love beneath these wings?/

If we suddenly fall should I scream out/

Or keep very quiet and cling to my mouth as I’m crying/

So frightened of dying/

Relax, yes, I’m trying/

But fear’s got a hold on me.

I turned the volume way up. My heart beat. It’s kind of like being in on a joke. A crash can’t be that terrifying, right, not as long as you’re so amazingly self-aware.

 

 

 

The Man Who Traveled the World and Ended Up Boring

It’s just after five pm, and I’m sitting on a hotel bed in my boxers, staring out the window into downtown Yangon, Myanmar. The window is but a thin barrier between me, my person, my body and legs and ears, and the outside, the concrete of the streets and the tip of a high reaching steeple that faces me, its peak culminating in a small golden cross that would look more fitting on a Christmas tree than here on this old green and white building surrounded by hotels. And while the barrier of the window is thick enough to keep the hot air and the bugs out, it isn’t so impenetrable as to keep out the music, the bizarre choral singing that has overtaken Yangon for the last two hours.

“Do you think that’s real?” my girlfriend asks. “Are people really singing? Or is it a recording?”

I don’t know. Neither of us do. We’re like children watching a movie and thinking the CGI effects are real. There might be people out there chanting away, but it seems so much more likely that this is something prerecorded and played loudly, probably daily, for reasons only the people here understand. I ask my girlfriend if she wants to take a walk and find out, see if there are crowds of people circling the pagoda or if instead there is one great enormous speaker, a choir replaced by a basket and cone the size of a jet engine. She declines the invitation. We continue to sit in the hotel room and eventually the music stops.

I get to thinking. Tomorrow I will be returned to my familiar setting, my home in China, away from all the weirdness of Myanmar. I will see friends and I will, as they are friends, speak to them. The conversation will likely go like this:

“Hey man! How the heck are you?” “How was Myanmar?” “Gee, you’re really red, man! Ever heard of sunscreen?”

Or something like that. We will talk about the different countries we’ve gone to over break. The conversation could last anywhere between two minutes and two hours. It’s hard to say. I adjust my boxer shorts, pulling down the fabric that is suffocating my scrotum like someone might smother a person with a pillow, and I try to plan out my answers.

Myanmar.

How was it?

There are things I need to pluck out. Extract. I can’t ramble on endlessly about everything I saw or that I did. I need to locate the interesting stuff, and so I start going through my memory with a highlighter. Entire passages end up getting omitted during this exercise; full days snipped out and dropped onto the editing room floor.

This is what you do when you return from traveling. You truncate everything. Somewhere along the line, after I’d been bouncing through different countries for awhile, I realized that my travels lacked the kind of narrative arc that I wished they had. Putting together a short synopsis of any certain place was tough because there was no concise beginning, middle, or end. In a literal way there was – starting with arrival and ending with departure – but that seemed arbitrary. What I had to work with was more a series of images, sounds, tastes, and feelings; not a group of events that formed a coherent sequence that moved forward with any kind of logic.

This is what describing one’s travels becomes. It’s difficult. If I were in a college course and the professor asked me for a descriptive essay, man, I would ace that. I could describe and describe, go into vivid details recreating temples or sunsets on the beach. But that’s not really what people want. People want narrative, and if that fabricated college professor asked me for a movie script or something, I would have to hand in a real test of audience patience, a clumsy group of scenes in which not much happens.

Because, really, there’s not a great deal of excitement when you travel. Not excitement another person can appreciate through you. The things that stick with you are actually pretty mundane. The food you ate on the street. The argument you had with your travel buddy about taking the bus. The guy you met at the bar who was alone and latched on to you, talking about the people he knew back home, maybe imagining you’re them.

To the average listener, this would be kind of dull. This is what I decide, sitting on the bed in the hotel. That I will keep traveling, and when it’s all over, I’ll end up being incredibly boring, because all I’ll talk about is food and hostels and quirky conversations I had with strangers. People will dread asking me about the places I’ve been, worried that I’ll lull them to sleep with a detailed travelogue about public transportation and tipping in the Philippines.

Oh well. If I live an exciting life but end up boring, so be it. The sounds on the street are more common now, car horns and the white noise of the city. My girlfriend pulls down the window shade.

We’re just two people, in a room, and we could be anywhere.

Adjust Me Like I’m Your Poseable Doll, Baby!

yangon good threeYesterday, I made a quick post about my first night in Yangon, Myanmar, and how my girlfriend and I had been somewhat overwhelmed. The lack of English, the sheer amount of people and cars on the street, and the general unfamiliarness of everything had our heads spinning. Today I waned to write something short about adapting, and how everyone, I believe, should get dropped into Yangon for two days at some point in their lives.

Fang Deng and I headed out this afternoon with a renewed sense of invigoration. We weren’t going to be moron tourists wandering awkwardly through the streets again, nervously chewing on street corn in a lame attempt to blend in. No, that was not going to happen again. And we weren’t going to be so damn snobby about things either, not like the previous day, when we tried to diminish our poor performance by blaming Yangon itself.

“It’s confusing!”

“It’s chaotic!”

“The street kids are persistent!”

yangon good twoThere would be no more of that. We made a plan and did some touristy stuff like visiting Kandawgyi Lake and revisiting Shwedagon Pagoda, which we had run away from the night before, frightened by the kids and their plastic bags. But today we had our own bags and we brushed the kids aside easily. Today we wouldn’t be afraid. Today we talked to people and bought pineapple chunks from street vendors and, you know, enjoyed ourselves.

It was a good day. Turns out the people in Yangon are cool; they even understood my charades when language was an issue (although, truth be told, I’m a pretty damn good charades player). Walking back to our hotel, I turned to Fang Deng and said:

“You know, I feel comfortable. This place is fine. It’s not disgustingly hot and dirty and impenetrable like we thought it was. I could hang out here for awhile. I could like it here.”

Fang Deng stared at me.

“You don’t feel that way?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

Understandable. She doesn’t like earthy things like dust and sun. Given a few more days and I think she would start to change. I think she would grow comfortable in time. I wondered how most people would do here, or anywhere that isn’t their home. It took me about a day to get the hang of the place; maybe it would only take a cloudy day for Fang Deng to feel at home.

yangon good oneThe ability to adjust to someplace – or something – that one is not comfortable with. It’s underrated. Although Yangon isn’t as nearly as uncomfortable as, say, being lost somewhere in Pakistan might be, it’s not a bad test. If you spend, I don’t know, more than two days in Yangon and want to get out of there before the burning hot sun scorches your neck one more time, maybe it’s time to reflect on who you are. Cause really, what’s so hard about applying sunscreen and eating some fried noodles on the street?

If I ever have a kid, I’m sending it to Yangon on its 18th birthday. Just so it will know how long it takes to adjust to things.

“When can I come home, daddy?” my offspring will say.

“When everything seems beautiful,” I’ll tell it. “Or they deport you.”

Yangon: First Impressions

yangong 1The sun was already setting when Fang Deng and I arrived at our hotel in Yangon yesterday evening. During the cab ride from the airport, Fang Deng had this look on her face. It was not a pleasant look. It was a look that said, “What the hell is this?” It said, “Please tell me this isn’t where I’m going to be staying for the next few days.” It was a look that said, “Life, I’m not happy with you at the moment.”

The first views of Yangon were not what she was expecting. Our cab pulled up to our hotel and we paid our driver and went to check in. The hotel, tall and grand and modern, was like a building beamed in from somewhere else. It didn’t mesh with the rest of the neighborhood at all. To give a quick visual representation, here’s a picture I took from the hotel window this morning of the apartment complex that faces us:

yangong 2

“This place is just like Nepal,” Fang Deng said. By that, she meant it was, well, ‘developing,’ I guess. Soon after, we were walking the streets, checking the place out. We stumbled onto a street market, stalls selling rice and meat while people sat on small plastic chairs and ate. The scene was hectic. There were people everywhere, most in motion, and cars zoomed down the street honking their horns constantly at pedestrians. It was loud and chaotic and so we bought some street corn and I ate it furiously.

yangong 5

The entire time, we walked in the direction of the Shwedagon Pagoda, whose high reaching tower stood strong in the sky and acted as our North Star. But the closer we got to the temple, the more we began to get swarmed by people trying desperately to sell us stuff. We were the only tourists around at this time and my foreign face drew attention to us like an infant walking by itself through a shopping mall. We could not be left alone. Soon a group of kids were gathered around us, trying to sell us flowers, even attempting to shove their long stems into Fang Deng’s pockets.

“Don’t buy a flower,” Fang Deng’s friend had told her before the trip. “That’s how they mark you. The others see the flower, and they’ll rush over to you.”

And so Fang Deng beat the children off of her. “No! No flowers!” Next came the plastic bags. See, one cannot wear shoes in a temple, and so the kids wanted to help us, right, by selling us plastic bags to put our shoes in before going into the temple. About six of them entrapped us, cutting off our path, waving plastic bags in our faces like they were trying to fan us.

“We’re not going in!” I shouted, attempting to reason with them. Then I saw a plastic bag on the ground and scooped it up. “Look – I already got one! I’ll use this one. Thanks for your help though.”

“Dirty!” a little girl shouted. “Clean bag! Clean bag!”

We just turned around and got out of there. The plastic-bag-children were too much for us to handle after ten hours of flying. We found a restaurant with Chinese characters on the sign and went in. The lady running it was Chinese and Fang Deng talked to her comfortably in Mandarin. She served us fried rice and we ate it enthusiastically.

yangong 4

Our stomachs full, we decided to call it a night. Tomorrow will be better, we decided. Our first night in Yangon was not much of a success, and I think my girlfriend would jump for joy if I told her I’d booked a flight returning to China tomorrow. But we will return to the street of Yangon later, determined to find the enchantment we thus far have missed.

And next time, we’ll have our own plastic bags with us.

 

The Random Myanmar Trip

Maybe I would write about penguins on the beach, if I was not distracted by Myanmar.
Maybe I would write about penguins on the beach in South Africa, if I was not distracted by Myanmar.

Last night, after a full 24 hours of flights and sitting-around-airports, Fang Deng and I finally got back to my apartment in the boonies outside of Beijing. More accurately, we got back this morning (it was 2 am). We were exhausted and disgusting, covered in sweat and grime. It was horrible. On the plus side, during the walk to my apartment, I taught Fang Deng the term ‘swamp ass,’ so at least her English improved a little bit.

Now is the time I should be writing about South Africa. After our two weeks there, I have so much to say. I want to write about climbing Table Mountain, or getting extremely drunk in Stellenbosch, or the weird hotel we stayed in that had previously been a train station (we slept in one of the former train cars). I’ve wanted to write about these things as they’ve happened, but everything has been so hectic it’s been impossible. Anyways, now is the time I should be writing about Cape Town and, as you can conclude, I’m not.

I’m writing about Myanmar.

See, I have about a week of vacation time left before the students come back and life reverts to being awful again. So instead of sitting around the apartment and relaxing, Fang Deng and I have decided to take a random trip to Myanmar. We will leave at 5:30 am tomorrow morning to go to the airport. We hardly have anything planned besides some flights I booked, taking us across the country in as short an amount of time as humanly possible. Neither of us knows anything about Myanmar. Except that it’s not hard for a Chinese person to get a visa to go there, which is why we picked it.

And with that, I might as well wrap this post up. I’ll have my computer with me and will do my best to make on-the-go Myanmar updates. What will they be? No idea my friend. It can be a surprise for the both of us.

Cheers!

Booze, Poverty, and Sheep Heads: A Quick Peek Inside a South African Township

township first picTownship (noun) – (in South Africa) a suburb or city of predominantly black occupation, formerly officially designated for black occupation by apartheid legislation.

Going into a township was something I both did and did not want to do. On the ‘did’ side, it’s always fascinating to take a look into a world one knows nearly nothing about. And the remnants of apartheid, made real by large communities of small shacks that pop up sporadically around Cape Town, was certainly a world I wasn’t familiar with.

But then, on the ‘did not’ side, it’s weird and pretty exploitative to barge into someone’s home with your camera and your tour guide and start staring at them in disbelief. It’s uncomfortable and not cool. Just imagine how you’d feel if a hop-on-hop-off bus company stopped at your house and a bunch of tourists in over-sized sunglasses and salmon colored shorts began snapping endless photographs of your messy bedroom.

I had a talk with a friend from South Africa, and she assured me that taking a township tour was okay, because the people in the townships have turned these tours into a source of revenue and thus welcome strangers.

“They’ll try to sell you things,” she said. “Be nice and buy something. Then you can tell yourself that you’re there to help them, and not just there out of morbid curiosity.”

She had a point – morbid curiosity really was my main motivation, and a noble excuse was perhaps needed to put me somewhat at ease.

So, our decision to go made, two days ago my girlfriend and I signed up for a tour and about thirty minutes later, we were on a van heading into a township. I was uncomfortable doing the township tour to begin with, and was made even more uncomfortable when our tour group turned out to be just the two of us, nobody else. Me, my girlfriend, and the tour guide. It felt wrong and embarrassing, like we were two peeping toms. At least if there were more people there, our faces might get lost in the crowd and wouldn’t be so easy to identify, staring wide-eyed in through open doorways.

Anyways, the remainder of this post will basically be pictures from the township, with a few descriptions. Let’s start with a couple images to try and establish what a township looks like:

townships buildings four

township buildings three

One thing I learned is that there are different degrees of quality in the townships. Some portions of the townships are actually not that bad. The houses have been renovated and at least seem stable. As in they’re not in danger of falling over at any second. There are businesses and shops all over the place. These areas don’t seem hopelessly desperate, and the people appear to be running their own insular city with apparent success.

township buildings two
One of the nicer township communities.

But then there are the other portions of the townships, and they are awfully depressing. These are the portions where houses are literally pressed up against each other. I didn’t see any of the people living here, and I can only imagine how heartbreaking the conditions are.

township buildings

A few interesting things: First, there were satellite dishes all over the township, and we were told that even the worst homes have TV. Secondly, we learned that water and electricity are free in the townships, provided by the government; our guide strongly suggested that people will not consider moving out of the townships until the government stops this. Thirdly, people don’t really want to leave the townships. This is where their homes are. Their friends and families. They have their jobs and their roles here. What is there for them outside of the townships? Just people they don’t know and jobs they wouldn’t be qualified to do.

townships buildings five

I was not surprised to learn that there’s a lot of drinking and drug taking in the townships. Our tour guide brought us to one of the township pubs, and for 30 rand, we were able to enter and drink. They don’t serve beer in the township pub – they serve some kind of thick porridge elixir that’s made in a big garbage can. Below are pictures my girlfriend took of the, um, brewing process, and finally me drinking township booze out of a bucket.

township booze bag

township making booze

township bucket of booze

township drinking bucket

Another thing that caught us by surprise were the sheep heads. Apparently sheep heads are something of a delicacy in the township. The sheep heads are cooked and then the meat is eaten directly off the sheep’s face. Heads littered the streets outside one particular house (or restaurant I suppose), bloody and horrible looking and covered in flies. We were offered the option of going inside to try a little sheep face ourselves, but we politely declined.

township sheep heads

townships sheepheads cooking

Finally we did come upon a shop where we were asked if we’d like to purchase something. My girlfriend decided to buy a little painting, which turned out to be 380 rand. Way, way more than we were expecting township art to cost. We paid it, though, and were subsequently laughed at by the tour guide.

There’s a thin line, my friends, between helping out and getting suckered.