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.


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.


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.

Melissa From the Bank Hates Me (But Really She’s Projecting and Hates the Bank)

bank teller oneI loathe calling the bank. Despise it. Of all the things in life that I have to do, calling the bank is one of the worst, right down there with filing taxes or taking a dump in a public restroom. I try to avoid these things as much as possible. But sometimes emergency situations arise, and the dirty deed must be done.

A few days ago, I dialed up First Niagara Bank, ready for the frustration and disappointment that I normally encounter when talking to them. A friendly voice pranced from my phone, cheery and feminine and clearly adept at customer service.

“Thanks for calling First Niagara Bank,” it said. “I’m Melissa. To start, can I please have your name?”

“Hello Melissa,” I said. Years ago, I used to have a roommate who was in sales, a businessman, and he told me to always repeat the person’s name during calls like these. And then to say the name again every time you speak. Because that way, you’re slyly communicating that you remember the name, and can rat the person out to their supervisor if need be. Yes, on the surface, it seems friendly, personable, to say, “Hello Melissa.” But what you’re really saying is, “I know your identity, sucker, and will criticize you to your boss in a heartbeat.”

The beginning of a bank call is sort of like a game show. Some kind of trivia challenge. They ask you a billion questions and you have to shoot back the answers with the kind of authority that implies you haven’t memorized facts after a long night of hacking and identity thieving.

“What’s your date of birth?”

“Phone number?”

“Last four digits of your social?”

I passed the test and, wiping the sweat from my brow, proceeded into the reason I called in the first place. “See, Melissa, I’m going to be doing some traveling, and I wanted to let First Niagara know, so that if I use my card in another country, you guys won’t think it’s stolen and block it.”

First Niagara loves doing this. They’ve blocked my card so many times in the last five years, I’m beginning to think they just like talking to me.

“Ooh,” Melissa cooed, her affect suddenly darkening. “You’re asking me to create a travel itinerary, but unfortunately I can’t do that. We would need a driver’s license or passport number to verify your identity, and we don’t have those things on file.”

“Well, okay, I can just tell you my passport number if that’s what you need. Melissa.”

“No, no, no. I would need a scanned document, like a pdf.”

“Really? Why?”

“To prove your identity.”

“But didn’t I just answer five minutes’ worth of questions to prove my identity?”

“Yes, but in this case, I would need to see photographic proof.”

“So let me wrap my head around this, Melissa,” I said. “The concern is that I stole William Panara’s credit card. And now I’m planning on doing some traveling, so I called the bank ahead of time because I don’t want the stolen card to get blocked. Is that about right?”

Melissa was not pleased with my attitude. I went on to complain for two or three more minutes, and as I did, Melissa’s tone got more and more fed up, changing from ‘how can I assist you today?’ to ‘go fuck yourself, a-hole.’ In all honesty, I kind of delighted in this. If I have to call the bank for ultimately no reason, at least I can make myself feel better by ruining someone’s day.

bank teller two

After the call, I got to thinking: Was I wrong for giving Melissa a hard time? I mean, she’s just doing her job, right? It’s not her fault that First Niagara has bizarre policies. She probably doesn’t even agree with those policies. My school has lots of bizarre policies that I don’t agree with. What if someone, a parent or another teacher or something, started forcing me to defend those policies? I wouldn’t be too thrilled. Then I wondered what percent of the policies of any given company or institution its employees agree with. Maybe 40%, 50%. The rest of the time we’re forced into defending crap that we, like the angry customer, also find ludicrous.

And that’s why I decided it was right to give Melissa a hard time, or to give any employee a hard time. When her tone became bitter and contemptuous, it wasn’t really me she was angry at; it was really First Niagara and their asinine policies. Melissa was just projecting. After the call, she probably started thinking about things, questioning her life at First Niagara. She probably said things like, “Jeez, they really make me work long hours. And the pay, oh dear God, the pay. So crappy. And this phone, it gets so sweaty, and then the side of my face breaks out. I have a date on Friday and now I have asymmetrical acne. You know, I can probably get a better job. Yeah, I can. And then I would make more money and the different sides of my face wouldn’t look like the before and after pictures in a Proactive commercial.”

bank teller three

That’s probably what she said to herself. So I did her a favor. A service. Melissa should thank me, and then she should create me a travel itinerary in a display of gratitude.

I guess the point of all this is to say when we dislike our jobs, as I assume Melissa does, it’s the responsibility of whiny customers to kick-start a change. I put my phone back in my pocket proudly, somewhat looking forward to calling the bank again, later, when they inevitably block my card for buying a t-shirt in Cape Town.

The Rats are Coming! The Wine is Here! (Or My Dinner at V & A Waterfront)

Li Li with wineFang Deng wanted to get a bottle of wine. Actually, that’s not true. I wanted to get a bottle of wine. Because I like to drink and dinner, sometimes, is a good excuse to do that.

“White wine goes well with seafood,” I said, giving some rationale for the boozing I planned to partake in. In truth, I didn’t much care if the wine and the food went together at all. Or if there even was food.

This was our second night in Cape Town, South Africa. We had spent our entire day at the V & A Waterfront and had settled down at the Cape Town Fish Market for dinner. The Waterfront truly is spectacular; the wharf and the harbor is beautiful and clean and the place is hip and trendy and we just loved it. It’s got a swell presentation going on. Case in point: look at the cool ice bag the fish market put our bottle of wine in.

waterfront 1

Anyways, we ordered a big platter of seafood and started drinking the wine, a really cheap Chardonnay that was surprisingly good. I’ve paid more in the past for box wine that was borderline undrinkable. Everything was going swimmingly well. The food was great, the wine was kicking in, and there was this lovely rectangular potted plant next to our table that ran about four feet in length and served as a barrier between the restaurant and the outside world. Things were all fine and dandy, until I glanced over and saw a long tail sliding down the wooden bridge of that rectangular potted plant sitting next to us.

waterfront 2
This picture of the seafood platter sits where logically a picture of a rat should be.

It was a rat. A huge, giant rat. Walking around in chill mode only a foot or two from our table.

I tried to block it out. The thing had disappeared and was gone. I told myself not to say anything to Fang Deng, because she might freak out. The bastard had left and all was safe.

We finished our bottle of wine and then, feeling free with my thoughts, I said, “Hey, did you see anything scurrying around next to us while we were eating?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I thought I saw a rat.”

“Me too! I didn’t want to say anything.”

“Where was it?”

“Right there, next to you. It was enormous!”

We laughed, and then we went quiet. There was a sound coming from the plant, a slight ruffling noise. Then, like a nightmare brought to life, the face of the rat lifted from the foliage. It revealed itself only for an instant, just enough to terrify us, and then was gone. Kind of like how there are images of Satan spliced into The Exorcist for subliminal effect.

Both of us were petrified.

What is it about a rat? It’s not necessarily the ugliest animal in the world; in fact, I find rats quite cute. But put a rat in my vicinity, and I immediately lose my shit. Especially when I’m trying to eat. There could’ve been a severed human hand in those bushes next to our table, and I would’ve waited until I’d finished eating dinner to report it without worry. But a rat? Cause for panic. And panic we did.

Both of us jumped up and moved our chairs to the far side of the table and then stared at the bushes in horror, like Shelly Duvall looking at the bathroom door in The Shining. We quickly summoned the waiter and got the check. Then after, we told him that there was a big ass rat hanging out next to our table. Not to complain. Just to let it be known.

“Well, it is a wharf,” he said, smiling. “We try to keep the rats away, but it’s impossible.”

Later, drinking beer at one of the breweries, Fang Deng would be attacked by a cockroach in the bathroom. From what I understand, she ran out of there with her bladder only half emptied.

Which is fine. Cool. Because no matter how clean and well-presented a place can be, it kind of is what it is. A wharf is a wharf. There are rats and roaches and birds that might take a shit on you. These are things one just has to deal with.

We both staggered home drunk and laughing. The rat had, in essence, spiced up our night, and we were thankful for that.