1. Dame cinco if you are Latino

    A little Vermentino from Sardinia, a little Flying Lotus playlist via Spotify: my Friday night alone in Costa Rica. I can’t imagine going out tonight totalmente sola. If I have some women to go out with, and watch my back, I’ll be more confident. Even on the sailboat today, a tour guide guy fixes me a drink and my spidey senses go off when I take it. I make the rest of my drinks myself. I know he’s an employee of the tour company but I can’t help but be suspicious and quietly refuse drinks unless I see where it came from, and even then I wouldn’t really accept them.

    Staying in seems like the right thing to do. I feel like the men would swarm like mosquitos with the merengue, salsa, cumbia and soca tunes blasting. I would rather sit outside my room amid mosquitos, writing this next to the families silently eating their dinner next to the pool, looking slightly bored and very sunburnt, with the sputtering wifi connection.

    This morning I wake at 06:45 and am still 2 mins late for my tour pickup. People always say Costa Rica has lots of things to do. Many activities means no chance for boredom. I love the way Costa Ricans say, “act-tee vee-tees.” So cute. The tour van with the TURISTAS sticker on the side is soon packed with an American family from North Carolina and another family from North America somewhere. Makes me think of the story my Creative Director imparts before I left: in the ’90s, someone he knew is held up at gunpoint in Belize. This guy turns to his then girlfriend when they are facedown in a ditch, and says, If we get out of here alive we are getting married. They’re still married. Best story ever, bur not good for me. Joe’s not here and I miss the lug.

    We are dropped at the campo: a combo of ranch/ATV parking lot/zipline mega adventureground. Not feeling the zipline/canopy, so instead I fulfill my cowgirl fantasies and hop on a horse. First time in probably 20 years. They are weird, like giant ungraceful cats. My horse Apache and I don’t really click. I don’t think he even noticed me up there. He knew the route so well he could have gone with his eyes closed. Apache didn’t even care that I had to leave my very cool Argentine cowgirl hat at the campo.

    The tour was just the campesino guide and I, slowly loping along trails the horses take 3 times a day. Trabajeros. We talk about what his kids want for Christmas, his wife’s fear of horses, his pets, his 9 brothers and sisters, his job. The boss of the ranch came from Florida and barely speaks Spanish. I ask him if it is difficult to communicate when there is a problem, and he responds, “A veces.” We commiserate over the evils of ATVs and how much damage they wreck on the land. It’s as bad as a Jet Ski. Who needs a coral reef or wildlife. And who needs natural land, flora and fauna.

    After my sola aventura caminando el caballo, I am on the food trail via a hot tip from the North Carolinan dad who says, “Set down” instead of “Sit down.” A lunch lady parks on the corner in town, serving homemade food out of aluminum pots from the back of a Toyota truck.  She raises her own chickens and pigs. It’s a $4 giant portion of lunch special, and the people working the stores come out on their lunch break to dig in. I bide my time at a smoothie stand and case the joint. When she parks, I head over and am fifth in line.

    I get the pork with everything, and bring my styrofoam container to the tour stand to wait for the sailboat pickup. I am asked by a few locals, “Oh, food from the lady with the car, right? Buena provecho.” I finish everything and am told by a tour booker, “Que buena appetito.” Uh, he just said I have a healthy appetite. Just like that Bond movie where they’re on the train! I smile, but I should have said, Faking the cowgirl lifestyle makes you hungry.

    When the boat sets sail I am entertained willingly by the crew: Jimmy, Chute, Gerardo, y Jonathan. They dance like champs - of course, they’re Latinos. They make nonstop drinks and get us tipsy, but are very good watching out for us while we snorkel and kayak around the boat.

    Announcing our jumps (cannonballs, backwards/forwards flips and can openers) with another 5 year old passenger off the boat makes me miss Italia. When snorkeling, Chute swims with me through the hundred of tiny, silver fish, and then deeper to the brighter blue, orange and black fish, down to the rocks. Even though I get the vibe that he wants to see my bikini top slip, in a weird way it is nice and kind of heart warming, since swimming alone gets boring fast. 

    After lunch and on the ride back, Jimmy and I have a heart to heart about relationships, philosophy, careers, but mostly I listen to his Spanish. He asks for boyfriend photos, and high fives me when he sees Joe looks Latino. The boat patrons get more rowdy, and more drunk. The crew’s iPod plays the song I heard in Italia: mueve la cabeza. Still, I’m surprised to see very little dancing from the other passengers. Just me!

    I run into the owner of the hotel again, this time with a shovel in hand, digging a ditch to provide irrigation runoff from the hotel. What a cool guy. We talk about Brooklyn, where his mom grew up next to the Brooklyn Museum on Flatbush Ave. I tell him he needs better photos of the hotel, and we talk about marketing, then timelines and budgets. Weird how my job translates. 

    Could I ever run an inn? It’s crossed my mind. Buying property here in Costa Rica isn’t that much cheaper than the States. Still, I have this thirst for travel. This year alone I’ve hit: Vietnam, Hong Kong, Brazil, Italy (Olbia, Sardinia, Rome, Naples, Amalifi Coast, Sicily), Sweden, Denmark, Costa Rica. Next year I’m thinking Uruguay, Argentina otra vez, Spain, and my family’s home of Vietnam.

    Tomorrow I will attempt to wake up early and beach it until the 11th hour, when I have to get back on the road. Perfect length of a solo trip: 2 full days, 2 half days. I am returning culturally enlightened, full of rice, beans, and vitamin D.

     
  2. Shorty Got Low

    Today I take a surf lesson from a slew of Argentines at 9AM. One wears a shirt, “All we do is surf and fish.” His shirt forgot to mention they also have a lot of sex and smoke a lot of weed. Everyone looks half awake, like their eyes could close and they could fall asleep at any time.

    My surf lesson is shared with a Korean senior in college, from Pennsylvania. We ride pretty big swells, no whitewash. Unces, the teacher, points out that the waves are not beginner waves. I’m not convinced but he shows us the kidlets surfing the white wash, and keeps us off the giant ones.

    I am amazed how the surf teacher can see the start of the wave coming from so far away. He teaches me technique that I never thought about, leaning forward more, carving the wave more with my body. This was all documented by the videocamera screwed onto the board.

    My timing is getting better, my technique needs work. I think my mistakes have been basic beginner errors - paddling when the wave was too close, for example. I see so many people wiping out from that. Even the way I was paddling out to the waves wastes energy.

    On the way back from the lesson he tells us he’s getting his breakfast and then going back to surf those waves, they were huge. I ask some 10 year old surfer kid where can I get good food. He asks me, What kind of food do you want? I told him, eggs, rice, beans. He responds, that’s all we eat! Don’t you want something good?

    I get breakfast with the college kid and am bored out of my mind trying to talk with him. Offer him some of my green mango with salt - so awesome. But instead of embracing boredom, I grab the 800 page tome Game of Thrones book (left by a hotel guest) and high tail it to the beach, where I lay on the sand, down two coconuts and read a few hundred pages before I realize, it’s just not my kind of book. I don’t have to force myself to slog through the goofy language describing princesses with silver hair and violet eyes, wildebeasts, cloaks of night and sword talk. I’ll just watch the tv show.

    Tomorrow: horseback riding at 6am. Nice and early, before the sun is fuerte. I saw two poor girls sweating on horses at 1PM and they looked like they were frying in the heat. Then, a sailing lesson. There’s open bar on the boat which makes it sound a little less like a lesson and a little more like a booze cruise. Actually, it kinda sucks because I think I’m developing an allergy to alcohol. Either that or I drink too much.

    Something large, wet and revolting just landed on chair, bumped into my leg and then flew away. I don’t know what it was but it also landed on an easily startled lady dining at a table next to me. At least I didn’t scream. Which reminds me, while buying my bread today at the mercato I heard a song with a chorus like, “Shorty is a screamer.” Funny because I was singing Shorty got low when I was trying to get lower on my board.

    I’d better post this quickly before we lose power again and the wifi dies. Power goes out about every 8 minutes in this town.

     
  3. Con los Ticos En Costa Rica

    It’s only an hour behind NY here but it feels a million miles away. A direct 5 hr flight was so easy breezy, made me think I should do this more often. I’m internetting right outside my hotel room on my stone patio, which has 3 beds. Maybe I’ll switch off every night to mix it up a little.

    The owner just came over and chatted with a saw in hand.  Nice guy with a nice life. I heard him speak to the staff here and knew immediately he was El Jefe.

    This little hotel is just far enough outside of town to avoid the throngs of tourists and tacky stores selling “basura” - the word the airport shuttle driver Jose used, as he gave me the drive through tour of the town. Jose and I talked about music, dancing, mostly the basics. Feeling comfortable with practicing Spanish is a feeling I need to get used to more. In Spanish I told him that I have work to do: improve my accent, and improve my dancing.

    This town feels like a little beach community with lots of Norte Americanos pumping dolares into the economy. I didn’t even check out the exchange rate until just now. Funny how prepared I am with certain things, and other things, I figure, will work out. But being at the ATM and not knowing how many colones to take out made me feel a little silly.

    Along the same line, I couldn’t exactly walk to the beach after an ATM trip and go swimming. Who’ll watch my bag. I walked out to the sand but didn’t hop in the ocean, yet.

    The bugs are vicious here. I’m covered in OFF and can feel the mosquitos waiting for their chance to swoop in. They’re a bug halo, inspecting me. Circling to find a part of my skin that isn’t doused in Deet.

    Hit the grocery store today to make sandwiches and the cashier had to count my money out of my hand, it is annoying when I don’t know the currency just yet. 

    Surf lesson tomorrow with Santiago. Tonight, reading by the pool and going to bed super early after I eat at the hotel restaurante.

     
  4. Foods of Brazil

    Trying to think of all the traditional Brazilian foods upon which I chowed down. I know I must be forgetting some things. I can’t remember the name of that grits-like goop, heavy on the garlic, that is served with Mocqueca.

    Mocqueca
    I make this at home in Brooklyn! Had it in Cabo Frio with shrimp and dorada, it was delicious.

    Coxinha
    Greasy, deep fried, chicken croquettes. Not my favorite - among street food - but I had to try.

    Farorfa
    Cool, grainy texture like dry sand, or wet sand when there’s a sauce with it. Strangely I really liked it. More like a filler.

    Pão de queijo
    I saw two people in line ordering these so I gave it a try. The cheese is questionable and kind of gnarly when it is room temperature, with a not so pleasant, snot-like consistency. These are hugely popular, I learned.

    Arroz de griega: white rice with raisins, some other stuff, and pink meat chunks. I can’t get down with pink meat. 

    Pasteles
    More deep fried treats. I had a cheese one and a shrimp one. Pretty awesome when fresh out of that deep fryer. You wrap a paper napkin around it to keep your fingers from greasing up.

    Chopp
    Fresh and refreshing, unfiltered/unpasturized draft beer. It’s served at the Botequins, which are bars open to the street all around town. I was originally excited to go into them and grab a drink, but after observing the crowd I thought better of it. They are not places for women. It’s a man-scene in there.

    Brazilian Sushi: yikes. Limited options, best to stick with sashimi because they don’t quite have the hang of sushi rice.

    Sandwiches for breakfast: pink meat party.

    Acai and guarana shake: icey, sugary antioxidant power sold on the street and ingested like coffee.

    Brazilian Espresso: badass and delicious. Strong, as they say.

    Picahna: a different cut of meat than I’ve had. Brazilians slice their cows differently than we do.

    Still didn’t get Churrascaria - but I can get that here. And I had tons and tons of fresh coconuts. My favorite.

     
  5. April 11: I know the end before the story’s been told.

    Am I really that nostalgic that I am listening to, and quoting, Sade? Every time I return from a trip overseas, I think of that headline from The Onion - and I’m paraphrasing here - "Tourist on Vacation Thinks, ‘Hey, Maybe I Could Live Here!’" The trip, like any, was eye opening, beautiful, inspiring, very reflective and alone at times, and jarring.

    While driving through a favela in a cab, I resisted the urge to take my camera out. I don’t want to contribute to misery tourism. It’s exploitative and feels like one of those episodes of Vice TV. We were driving through, so it wasn’t that bad of a favela. They’re located far from the south side of Rio, outlining the hills. This favela was in Cabo Frio, right next to the posada (inn) where we stayed. Perhaps this was why the rooms weren’t fully booked.

    It was nice to get out of Rio - although I can never get my fill of Ipanema Beach (post 11 was my favorite), seeing the countryside and the way a different town operates was what I really needed. 

    The trip back from Cabo Frio during was particularly beautiful. So many amazing colors from that strong Brazilian sunshine, behind the outline of Jacaranda trees.

    Nothing is described as “weak” in Brazil. Everything is described as “strong.” Strong coffee, strong men, strong football team. The word “weak” is barely ever uttered - very telling of Brazilian attitudes.

    I left Rio last night. Travel-nervous and American, I couldn’t help but be slightly panicked before the 2.5 hour ride back. A helicopter pilot gave us a ride, and he was behind the wheel of a very fast car. He drove like a pilot, too. We sped into Rio with time to spare.

    In Charlotte, NC I was stopped at security and felt up by a TSA official. They really get in there! The security chick mumbled her canned speech that she was going to use the front and back of her hands. I agreed to everything quickly. Just get it over with, like a scoliosis test.

    Two creepy TSA dudes afterward dug through my panties and swabbed down my new Havaianas. They asked me all about the beaches in Brazil, my tan/sunburn, what’s cool in NY, and if I worked out. The bald one grilled me, “Nice arms! Do you do Zumba? Core Fusion?” No, Tracy Anderson. Ugh. 

    They asked what the giant plastic bag was in my luggage, so I showed them the records I bought: Sade’s Modern Love (I can’t believe I didn’t own it), A Festa Do Bolinha - Trio Esperanca (some early 1960s samba), some awesome 1960s band called The Terribles, and a compilation of Italian 1960s go go songs. I didn’t tell them about the Joao Gilberto record I almost bought for 80 reais - which is about 50 overpriced US dollars. I don’t need vintage records that badly.

    Tracks, the record store where I bought these wonderful pieces of plastic, took up most of my afternoon on my last day in Rio. While I was flipping through the stacks in the windowless upstairs area of the record shop, sitting crosslegged on the carpetted floor, I thought about seeing Christ the Redentor, or Sugar Loaf - two of the more famous tourist attractions. It was an amazing afternoon, with perfect weather. But then, I figured I could always come back to Rio. And I will. But in the meantime, I’ve seen City of God.

     
  6. April 08. Last day in Rio.

    So, today my plan is to hit the Botanic Gardens, the record store Tracks with my fingers firmly crossed for Bossa Nova treasures to fill my empty record-sized duffle bag, Sugar Loaf, and perhaps the Copacabana boardwalk.

    Yesterday afternoon I spend on Ipanema beach, thong-clad like a real Carioca. In the shop “Secret Woman” - love that name, I crack up at the teeny bikini. The shopgirl has braces and laughs at my laughter. But I also cracked up at the name Secret Woman. As in, everyone thinks I’m a dude, but Secretly I’m a Woman. Must be a foreign appropriation of Victoria’s Secret.

    Perhaps it’s my buttcheeks a-hanging out on display, but several people ask me to translate for them to the beach sellers. Mistaken for a local! Sweet. I tell myself, it’s because I’m rocking the Fio Dental - aka Dental Floss. Unable to communicate but at least my butt makes it look like I could. They move on to get real Brazilans to help translate.

    I walk up and down the beach, chatting with a new Turkish pal - it’s nice to speak English. I can see why travelers bond when they’re away from home. We pass the gay beach, and then hit the Posto 11 where soccer balls are bopping into the air and off peoples’ heads. God, they are all so freaking good at football. “Even the women,” the Turk says.

    The air here is permeated by the odor of deep fried food, and wafts of garlic. Smells better than it tastes.

    Tonight we head to Cabo Frio. Supposed to be the more chill version of Buzios, which is the Saint-Tropez of South America and has a creepster statue of Brigitte Bardot. Pretty sure everyone touches that statue’s boobs.

    So yeah, Cabo Frio is the anti Saint-Tropez. As in, where Beyonce and Jay Z go to chill on their boat and not walk on the land (I’m guessing). I’ll finally have some unlimited Brazilian steak action at a Churrascaria. OMG I CAN’T WAAAAAAAIT. Getting ready for some Meat Madness.

     
  7. April 07. Santa Teresa Tram.

    Glad I left my watch at the apartment. In addition to being afraid that it will be pickpocketed (although it’s a counterfeit purchased at the Ben Thanh market in Saigon), no one is in a rush here. Even the way Cariocans speak. Fast sometimes, but certain tones are drawn out and slow, as if they will finish the phrase after a good long thought and breath.

    Currently I’m smack at the front of 25 tourists speaking at the top of their lungs, clad in an over-the-shirt tied on jumper that brightly identifies them as a singular group. It’s a bit Special Olympics style. Don’t wander off! If they wander off to a candy store, you know you should direct them back.

    As if we couldn’t tell when they were together - they clap and cheer when the tram starts up, and when we go over bumps on the tram they yell as if it was a freaking roller coaster. First time on a tram? I take back the slightly Special Olympics comment. Looking back, I think they may have actually been retarded. In which case - live it up.

    Something about this country reminds me of Puerto Rico. The people, the sunshine, the attitudes, the mix of cultures, the food, the diets, the hyper sexualized sexuality. People are a bit more exercise conscious here than in PR.

    Their agenda at the top of the hill diverges from mine: street side record shopping, eating mocqueca (fish, lime and tomato stew) at the awesome seafood restaurant Sobrenatural, and reading my Kindle in an cafe. But instead of sitting, I decide to take my espresso standing up like a Caricoa (or an Italian). The Germans, Portugese and Italians all split up Brazil so there’s such a mix of cultures that you can still see.

    My foray into street food is in Sta. Teresa: Coxinha. Deep fried chicken croquettes served with a sticky sweet Guarana kool-aid juice in a tiny plastic cup like at the dentist. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coxinha

    It was super unhealthy and only aiight. I eat about half, sip a tiny dribble of the jungle juice to wash it down, and chuck it.

    In a little shop next to the tram stop, I buy some water, sem gas. Out of the corner of my eye I spy old boxes of Havaianas, maybe 50 in a stack. I snap a quick photo, and then grab another photo of a row of bottles marked Bom de Coco. Suddenly I’m whirled around by a crazy banshee - the store owner. She’s yelling at me to stop taking photos. I try to smile. “English?” This really sets her off and she tries to grab my camera.

    I just bought this camera before I left NYC. I had to deal with the pushy sales people at J&R. Bitch is not taking my shit. I will fight her and her orange hair that is one giant tangle to the death. She tells me to delete it - all in Portuguese - or pay her money for the photo. Shaken, but remaining polite, I try to walk around her. I hear her say the word POHA and thinking she just called me a Bitch, I repeat her.

    Oh no she din’t.

    Getting that ghetto neck in there, I look her in the eyes and say, “Poha?” It’s the only Portuguese word I remember from that fated exchange.

    After a narrow escape, I scribble it down to ask my friends later. The literal translation is ejaculate, but the colloquial usage is Fuck. Think she told me to fuck off! Well, I did. I fucked off with my camera and kept the photos. So she can suck it.

     
  8. April 06, GIG Airport. We land.

    I press my face against the small, dirty airplane window, and check out the city in the valley, green jungle surrounding, mountains in the background with clouds dotting the tops. I take a deep breath, feeling weirdly hopeful. Filled with that feeling you get from a solo adventure. Also inhaling a slight smell of sulfur from 9 plus hours of non stop farting from my seat neighbors. Planes are basically a locked fart box.

    A cab driver Pao takes me to Ipanema. As he zips between 2 lanes at a time, I grip the seats and tell myself plenty of people are worse than NYC cab drivers. We stop at two ATMs with no luck. Both places reject my ATM card. My fear is slowly mounting, when I realize I’ve only ever gotten money from HSBCs or Citibanks whilst traveling. Relief. And cash.

    My Portuguese is non-existent. I speak three words total, and no one speaks English. One of the few places I’ve been in the world where I have felt unable to communicate. My advanced intermediate Spanish is borderline useless but I speak it anyway as Cariocas can understand. I can understand about half of what they say, but the Cariocan accent draws out certain tones in words. Instead of “dois” (two) it’s “doihhssssj.”

    I drop my stuff and walk only a block to the famed Ipanema Beach. Approaching the water, my jaw drops. It’s so blue! 

    It’s a beachy town and people move slowly, with not a lot of clothes. They must have a shirt shortage, because men mostly don’t wear shirts. Why would they, it would cover their ripped abs and manboob muscles that they work so hard for.

    And the thong thing is true. Thongs as far as the eye can see, encased by a variety of sizes of buttcheek meat. Thong tha thong thong thong.

    My day is spent walking and wandering down Ipanema beach, to the neighborhood Leblon, getting fancy (pricey) food (is there any good, healthy food in Rio that isn’t fancy? not really) at the crowded and slightly douche chill establishment Zuza. The burata cheese comes out deep fried. If my partner in cheese Hanna was here we would shake our heads and say, What a pity.

    Good food is not cheap here, and the street food options are limited. Hot Dog, or Hamburger? At least there are fresh juices and smoothies, and my favorite: fresh coconut stands where a machete wielding man hacks an opening in your natural juice box.

    I buy two sarongs with zippers that roll up into bags, and successfully bargain in English with the beach seller. Greased up, I park myself on the sand next to a group of kids from Austin, some gays from Miamis, and a few other Americans. Mostly tourists are on the beach during the weekday, and Brazilians are working.

    With the hot sun blasting, I snooze with my bag under my head, like a pillow, and wake up to overhear a frenzied voice screeching, “They stole my bag! I was sleeping and someone just took it!” Yuck. That’s a horrible feeling. Relief that I put my bag under my head, paranoid NYer style. There’s a lot of petty crime here. To quote the weird movie Super, which I saw right before I left, Shut up crime.

    It’s not odd to walk around at my normal city dweller pace. It’s odd to stop.

     
  9. Even the Rain: favorite movie of 2011 thus far.

    Even the Rain: favorite movie of 2011 thus far.

     
  10.  
  11. I wake up with the chilly Hong Kong fog creeping in from the open window. Our bed, a pull out couch, overlooks the South China Sea.

    We get into the HK airport yesterday at 9am, which means we leave HCMC at 6am. Preferring partying to sleeping, I bust out my most awesome moves at the most popular gaysian and ladyboy club in Saigon, Q, in the basement of the Opera House, with my bestie who moved to Asia a few years ago. My preeminent dances include baking a cake, the lawnmower, the grass sprinkler, picking up loose change, and there’s nothing on tv.

    Chicks get done up to sit at a sidewalk bar and be accompanied by their GBFs: lashes, nails, extensions, blowouts, all these treatments are so cheap in Vietnam and hard to resist. And the style on the boys leads me to believe they bought their shirts at a Uniqlo, ten polo shirts for 100,000 Vietnamese Dong sale. They look like little boy band members with their waxed brows, seconds away from breaking out in synchronized dance.

    Brian choses sleep instead of oontz oontz music, in the Hotel Continental room I book across from the Opera House. It’s truly an abomination of a Saigon Grande Dame, with years of history. The lighting and decor are horrendous, the furniture is a conjugal jail cell flavored disaster. The avocado colored minibar fridge reminds me of something you’d see in the USSR.

    Everything begs for an upgrade that would send the hotel into 2011. I’m sure the line is a mile long to give this faded glory a makeover. George Aquino, please save this place.

    Another thing I learn from this trip: Don’t allow communists to design. They can’t be trusted. The style politburo needs a lot of work to make it work.

    The HK airport has a few people organizing the luggage coming down the carousel, straightening the handles on suitcases to line up. This ensures ease in lifting off the conveyor belt. What is this ridiculous level of convenience?

    It’s good to be back in a fully modern place that gives NYC a serious contender for most convenient, developed, and civilized city - even with the loogie hocking. Frankly it kicks NYC’s ass. Even the skyline here gives you that nostalgic feeling when you head out to the equivalent of Brooklyn, like the NYC skyline when you approach from Jersey.

    Last night we wander around Wan Chai. Hit the unnervingly claustrophobic Computer Center and then walk a bit to stumble across a Spanish tapas place. Kind of cute to walk in and be greeted with a weak, Buenos Noches, from the Asians that work there. They lack the spicy Latin emoción I’m used to.

    We head under the bridge for the famous Under Bridge Spicy Crab that HK is known for. The entire block is taken over by the typhoon crab craze, with multiple restaurants. It started as one dive joint and slowly took over the street like a delicious crabby virus. The mounds of deep fried garlic that is spooned over everything are intensely spicy and good.

    Our beers are refilled by a San Miguel girl who goes from table to table in white go go boots and a cheerleader outfit. This is probably the sluttiest kit I’ve seen in HK, although I’m sure I haven’t seen the sluttiest. At one point we look for go go boots and she disappeared. We guess that she’s taking a smoke break with her friends the Absolut girl and the Marlboro girl.

    After dinner, shit gets real. The plan is to first pick up pirated goods, and then who knows where the night takes us. Sadly the DVD shop has been replaced by a noodle joint, which we briefly consider trying. Instead we get segoe: mango and sweet soup desserts, with mochis, coconut milk and black rice all mixed in. Hard to find dessert only spots in NYC. I think the bubble tea places should start serving it.

    We roll ourselves down a flight of stairs and into a basement foot massage place decorated to look like a Balinesian spa. The great indulgence of a foot massage after a meal is borderline hedonistically gross, and also so relaxing and typically Asian that I just go with it. Their favorite foot massage place was raided and since closed.

    Today we put the top down on the car, and check out the fishing village of Sai Kung. The variety of seafood is bonkers, and also bonkers is the amount of dressed up dogs. We’re talking bows, parkas with shearling, studded leather jackets. The dogs are done up more than Vietnamese girls going to a sidewalk bar. The area is a little more in the country, with a national park nearby for the over accessorized dogs to trot around in.

    Tomorrow marks my last day in HK. I want to avoid malls (nearly impossible here) and get my eat on. Dim sum breakfast, back to the JW Marriott noodle bar for lunch, fancy trendy Chinese spot Bo for dinner. And a few other treats along the way. Really going to miss being here.

     
  12. Hanoi Hanoi big city of dreams

    In the Phu Quoc airport I grab some disappointingly weak kim chee flavored crisps to fuel us on our Hanoian expedition. Once we arrive, we do the requisite bathroom stop and Brian notes a guy in line donning a beret, undoing his belt and trouser zipper, dangerously close to the guy unloading at the urinal. Brother was ready to roll. Welcome to Hanoi.

    Arriving in Hanoi at night feels so different than Saigon. I’d read about the French-Viet vibe and architecture but being here is completely remarkable and beautiful. Foggy, misty, chilly in that romantic way, we see why the French didn’t want to leave.

    I’ll skip the boring meal at Hanoi’s “best” restaurant Verticale. It was served in a gorgeous, 1930s colonial home, but if I’m not sitting on little plastic chairs, the food is probably over priced and not so tasteeee, bro.

    We’re staying on the fourth floor of a serviced apartment, and it’s the coolest, best-designed place we’ve been. The building across has French steeples and a little lady sweeps the balcony when I wake up. I space out, hoping she can’t see me, and I just stare at the beauty until it’s time to hit the street.

    Fueling up at Highlands Coffee, which seems like the Viet Starbucks, we discuss the plans. Pasa lubong? (Filipino phrase which means, small gifts you bring back from travels.) Go big or go home with some expensive textiles for our new-ish home back in NYC? Spa afternoon? We take on all three.

    Breakfast first, our premier attempt at pho. So different than pho in the South of Vietnam. Subtle, less chilies. We eat overlooking the Catholic cathedral. I forget, then re-learn how to say “Fresh Milk” rather than the thick condensed milk from a can that Viets like. They like their business cavity-sweet, and I can’t roll with that.

    The center of town is a great place to wander with the exception of a sprinkling of backpacker $5 hostels in the area. We see Aussies with a donut box and are hot on their trail. In the shop we ask the dudebro behind the counter what’s his favorite.

    I am useless at translating this question, so a tall Italian film maker (we learn) appears out of no where. I think he’s going to bust out with his Viet translating skills, but instead he asks the dudebro very slowly, If you had to PICK, WHEEECH ONEEE you LIKE? JUSSS pick ONEEE? Dude at counter points to the almond.

    Not even a full block later, we hit a Coffee Boy: Malaysian buns shop. Intrigued, we ask again what their fave flav is and are recommended the salted butter. Let’s just say we now plan on franchising these amazing hot buttered buns and starting the chain in the States. Ima gonna be rich like Jay Z when he bought Beyonce every Birkin bag. People will flip over these salty, buttery, fresh bunz.

    After requisite banyan tree pics (they’re everywhere in the middle of sidewalks), we hit a famous place with bun cha, basically spring rolls and pork patties with noodles and tons of herbs. It’s so fresh and delicious. Black shiso is popular here. Makes me want that drink at Angel’s Share in NYC with gin and shiso.

    Then we have a spa afternoon. The cab we hop into to go to the spa takes us about 2 blocks, before he stops the car and nods. He took us for a ride. Ignorant Americans! He could have told us to walk, but he took our fare instead. Whatever, he can have his fiddy cent USD.

    Asian spas, man. It’s awesome and easily addictive here. Cheap as hell for way better service than the west. I get a blow out from the Vietnamese Heath Ledger. Not complaining. It’s a look.

    We head out in the drizzle for dinner at Cha Ca la Vong, the famous joint that serves turmeric grilled fish and dill. I am waiting for this moment. I love this dish. Never even had it until about 2008 when our pals opened their restaurant, An Choi, in the Lower East Side.

    This dish has been prepared basically the same way for over a hundred years. A server shows us how to put together the ingredients from a small clay pot with a frying pan. On it, the turmeric fish was already being cooked in hot oil. Cilantro, mint, onions, rice noodles, peanuts and fermented shrimp paste (Belacan) mixed with water goes on the table. Rice noodles go in your bowl, top with the grilled ingredients, add in the peanuts and the sauce and then you’ve got your Cha Ca.

    I’ve been calling it CHACA VONG and making it sound like Chaka Khan. A favorite SBL.

    The owner ceremoniously takes a dropper full of something that looks freaky, and gingerly puts a single drop, with his pinky out, into the fermented shrimp paste mixed with water. The shrimp paste smells funky enough but this gives the food a kick beyond all weird, stinky smells imaginable. Sewer, rotten Durian, just awful smells. I think it is the juice of a beetle which is supposed to sexify you and make you whip off your clothes.  Or just pair the whole with a slightly bitter but perfect Bia Hanoi (Hanoi Beer).

    Tomorrow we head to Hoi An, which has great reviews from my Danish friend. She tells me that she had some clothes made, but they were just too Vietnamese to wear everyday. I think they must have been a little busted.

     
  13. All sarong, all day rong

    Finally, a full quiet beach day, where I can sit silently and listen to the waves of the bay… And the Russians, Swedes, Aussies and Brits around me. Some tourists are definitely kinder on the land and the workers here than others. Need to learn how to say “inside voices” in Russian. And if there’s broken glass and cigarette butts strewn in the otherwise pristine white sand, we know the guilty culprit.

    I am more entertained talking to the people who work here, practicing my Vietnamese, making struggling attempts at jokes. I still can’t speak much more than small talk, but I can order food and have the basic Viet conversation which strikes at all ages:

    What your name?
    How are you doing?
    Why you speak Vietnamese?
    How old are you?
    What you do?
    Do you have boyfriend?
    So pretty!
    So skinny!

    This is all said in Vietnamese of course. People here love to make jokes. Other phrases I know that people drop into conversations go with other things you say to kids:

    Get over here!
    Shut up!
    You’re lazy!
    You’re handsome!
    You’re fat!
    So tired!
    Go to bed/work/market/eat/school/home/get ice cream!

    So that extensive list (hardly), combined with all my animals and numbers exhausts my Vietnamese skillz.

    Hard to believe, but I am told I speak softly when I speak in Viet. Me? Have I ever been quiet - after the age of 13? Impossible! Unaware of this, I’m definitely trying to speak louder. It helps. Even if I fuck up they know where I’m going with it.

    The language is like the food, full of subtle accents and nuances. Someone will say what they think I mean, and when I repeat it, I can tell the slightest, tiniest difference. Can’t point it out beforehand though.

    It’s been good to spend the first week here with my mom. She’s back in the countryside with a fever, sore throat and lost voice. Poor ma oi! When I insist on ordering in restaurants, the servers always look at her, if I get it wrong or right.

    Today we grab cafe sua da and waters at our favorite sidewalk café after Brian gets a straight razor shave and head massage for $2. I’m getting good at the imitation of a Viet saying “massaaaaah?” We watch the indigenous ridgeback dogs take naps in the sun, and watch the shirtless men playing a Viet version of dominos. Checkers? I dunno. They slam down the tiles: boo-ya, in your FACE.

    We pay the woman owner when we leave - chicks are in charge here. At Ben Thanh market in Saigon almost every vendor is a woman, busting her ass either cooking or taking the money and bussing tables, with only a sprinkling of dudes. Cafés are full of middle aged men, drinking iced coffee or beer. Not to say men don’t work, the market last night was full of them. But maybe it’s a city thing.

    We walk to rent mopeds, and wait for the guy to bring the xe om around. There’s a puppy and a crowd of local boys around him, so cute. One guy grabs his son, six years old, and says to me, Teacher! Teach him English? Ugh, my heart sinks. I wish I could stay forever and teach them. Vietnamese people teaching English is like an American teaching Vietnamese: so much gets lost.

    Our Yamaha LX pulls up and Brian takes it for a spin around the corner to make sure he remembers how to ride. I turn to the boys and say, Where’s the puppy? I mistakenly thought it belonged to someone. They tell me the puppy left.

    Ok, holy shit, a Wonder Girls video is on and Bobby Lee is starring in it. I love him. He’s definitely outshining these blowup dolls. The song is 2 Different Tears. It seems like K Pop are the only people spending money on videos. A lot of green screen and tons of roto. Only a couple sets that I can see. Commercials are atrocious over here, too. I have no idea how Brian could clock dollars here - more feasible in HK.

    Tomorrow: the hunt for sea urchin is on, from the back of the LX. I hear you can eat it right out of the shell in the north of the island. I’m so there.

     
  14. Oh Saigon, you’re my heart, you’re my soul

    Today’s taxi driver to Tan Sun Nhat Airport busted out one of my favorite jams: Modern Talking, You’re my heart, You’re my Soul, with double decker synth keys and electric drum pad. It might have been his “American Tourist CD collection,” thinking he also has Japanese, Korean and Aussie cd mixes for each tourist group. (Even though MT is German, i think.)

    Looking out the windows, I think I’d be crying if it was leaving day. Saigon is really a city you fall in love with and I’m glad we went to the countryside first, I appreciate the city more. Writing this from the airport where we unwrap our perfectly packaged and rubber banded 1 dollar banh mi for breakfast (they were out of fresh homemade yogurt). This airport will probably be torn down in three years and replaced with something much larger. Vietnam Airlines had their most lucrative year in 2010, and it just keeps growing.

    The chicks can be super styling here. We see 2 on brand new Vespas, in matching high heels, one in crisp all white, one in all black, both with pricey bags and shades park their rides among the long line of scoots and head into work.

    During the day, girls cover absolutely everything up when they ride. Face mask, hoodie sweatshirt over that, elbow length gloves over that, long pants, sunglasses, and a neck scarf around it all with a helmet on top. It’s both a crippling fear of a tan (tans implying working class in Asia and also skin protection), and a filter from pollution.

    At night they ride on the back of the moped, sitting side saddle, their legs casually crossed at the knees, skirts too short to sit regular, with super tall heels, bare arms and legs, still rocking the face mask. Doing that slight toe tap/kicking in the air. Texting or chatting on their phones. Or not even holding on.

    It is almost unreal to see such dangerous sitting, but they grew up riding since they are babies here. I’ve only ridden a few times in NYC and Brian sold his Stella scooter long before he met me. We drool at the vintage Vespas. If I lived here I’d have a turquoise or yellow one. Or red. The new ones are sweet too - and they’re even made here.

    Before a 25 kilometer ride along country roads, my 19 year old cousin Han takes one look at my bare arms and hinted, Wouldn’t I want to bring my jacket? Feel like such a poser in my motorcycle jacket, but not riding up front. I ride on the back and hold on with a white knuckle death grip for my life. My family laughs when I stretchs my fingers after the hour long ride.

    My mom gets on the moped for the first time and says, Whoa, whoa, whoa! My uncle cracks, You sound like a Walker Texas Ranger.

    As long as there are no buses or cars, just step off into the sea. The mopeds move slowly and creep toward you when you cross. Make eye contact with the riders and they move in what feels like slow motion around you. This is the opposite of Hong Kong, where they do not stop or slow down, and they WILL hit you.

    Last night I got scared and hopped back on the curb, as a guy scooted a little too close for my usual uber safe USA comfort level. My friend said to just keep moving slowly into the sea, the driver saw me and would move around. It’s in my nature to think they’re going to hit me, I’m still not used to it. Nighttime is even more crazy and crowded, but really not crazy at all. No road rage here, for the most part. Hong Kong is going to feel so boring when we’re back, so sterile and clean in comparison.

    Kind of like how I see open, unattended, white hot charcoal fires at knee level everywhere, perfect bumping into lawsuit bait in the States. Or how a long pinky nail isn’t for scooping drugs, it’s a nose picker, toenail scraper, dental floss, hammer, lock picker and screwdriver.

    The plan now is to hit the island of Phu Quoc, the art and government centered Hanoi (with 1 of my favorite dishes cha ca or turmeric grilled fish), and now Hoi An, famous home of hit or miss tailoring.

    My favorite shirt (bought for $9, used, in NYC) turned pink in the wash in HK. During a foot massage yesterday I realized I can get a new one made custom in Hoi An. I wanted to turn to my pal to tell her this, but my head was shoved into a pillow and the masseuse’s knee was deep in my kidneys with my arms pulled behind my back. That little lady was working out all the fun we had at four different bars, including one with lots of hookers and ladyboys called Apocalypse Now (irony is lost here) the previous night. That massage was intense.

    Think I’ll get ten shirts made - just in case.

     
  15. Into the steamy Saigon air

    We reluctantly leave Vung Tau after the fishing boats come putting back from their morning catch at 10AM, via an old Soviet vessel used as a ferry. Tons of mopeds are parked at the dock. It’s a popular commuter route and rich peeps come on the weekends from the city.

    She’s a creaky old thing, with curtains and furniture that are relics of the 1960s, and her hull has never been cleaned.  We go up the Saigon River, sweating into the bolted down fabric chairs. It’s better than taking the route along the roads, with some parts paved, some not. A quick lean on the horn is the universal “I’m passing you, buddy” signal and the whole 2.5 hr ride is so jerky with guaranteed traffic. Eff that noise.  Maritime travel it is.

    In Vung Tau, a beachside town with manicured parks containing entirely too many tacky sculptures - like one giant set of boobs, what? - we walk along the promenade next to the sea. My mom is into the slow stroll and lags behind us, but the mood is so chill there’s no need to rush her like in NYC.

    She loves that town and shows us where her brothers would race, by swimming out to the fishing boats and back, when they were kids in the 1960s. They had to move from house to house during the war, after each house was burned down by Communists. Taking the bus to the beach was her favorite thing.

    We walk down Front Beach, past teenagers on dates sitting super close but not making out (PDA is not cool in Vietnam) and picnicking families with no AC, to find a restaurant that is an outdoor grillathon. Grilled meats are perfect with the super light, pissy 333 Vietnamese beer. Grilled anything on sticks, Viet style. Awesome.

    After dinner we hit the stands under the cable cars for some <i>kem</i> - ice cream. A boisterous guy from Turkey selling ice cream waves us over. He tells us he’s Kurdish.  My mom sees his stand and says, “Oh, must be Breyers!” 

    He worked for Toyota in Japan, and hated it. Now he sells kem on the beach, same way that his dad made money. My dubious mom gets a scoop of durian and talks excitedly to the guy about business, Vung Tau, money, more about business. She can’t believe he makes his own ice cream. I don’t think Breyers has ever made a durian flavor, but if they did it would blow my simple mind.

    On the way back to the hotel, we stop to see a moped load up with 8 huge sacks of wriggling shrimp, fresh from the fishing boat. Two barefoot guys hop on in back of driver dude, holding 1 giant basket of shrimp each. And they’re off to the market, or a restaurant, for that night’s meals. People eat at all times here, cafes are open 24 hours for factory workers.

    Today is my first time in Saigon in 17 years. The area I’m in is a little too touristy, hoping to go to some local joints tonight with my insider friend who has lived in Asia for about a year. The tiny raindrops hitting us as we walk into our hotel turn into a crazy tropical storm seconds later. And I thought it wasn’t rainy season. Welcome back.