Travel Advent Dec. 12: Mid Morning Chivito

You meet the most memorable people in the middle of the night. My mom always said “Nothing good happens after midnight,” and while I agree I say the best stories happen after midnight.

Sometimes, these moments in the middle of the night feel just a little bit too perfect. Those moments when it feels like all the stars have aligned to form a constellation of success, directing a cosmic beam straight at your chubby little unsuspecting face that’ll blow you into the next dimension. For me, that happened late at night in eating Chivito in the Montevideo bus station.

I was trying to catch the last ferry of the day from Montevideo to Buenos Aires at around midnight. There was a long line, but eventually, I made it to the counter, where the small mouse-like man shriveled behind the counter told me the ferry was full. I would have to go take a bus to another city in Uruguay and take the ferry from there, and he pointed at a woman walking out the door and said, “Just follow her, she’s doing the same.”

I waved him away, pissed off by how late it was and how complicated my journey had now become. The street, lit only by the dim lamps lighting the budding dew, was not as welcoming as I was hoping. I stood by the side of the road, looking for a taxi that could take me to the bus station. But no taxis came. It felt like there was no one alive at all, no one awake at this hour, and my panic began to set in. Where would I go at this hour? I had no clue where I was. Then I reached into my pocket and realized, I had no money left either. I was fucked.

Just at that moment, a tall dark-haired woman seemed to approach me out of thin air. “Excuse me,” she said in a creamy Porteña Buenos Aires accent. “Are you going to the bus station?”

“I am!” I replied in my North American Spanish drawl.
“Great! We can share a taxi.” Just at that moment, it seemed as if the world was full of taxis. I stuck my hand out and countless taxis materialized like phantoms shining their lights through the fog.

We got in the taxi and shared some small talk — the kind of small talk you make when you just want to fill the silence and seem polite. In my head, I was preparing my speech to tell my new companion that I had ran out of money, and if we could just get to an ATM I could pay her back. When we arrived at the station, I had the words ready on my tongue, and as I turned to spill them she put her hand on my shoulder and said as if reading my mind, “Don’t worry, I’ll pay for this if you buy me a beer.” She was my savior, getting me to the bus station.

We entered the gigantic bus station, filled with people milling around to stay awake, and others who had given up to an uncomfortable few hours of sleep. “Let’s get some food, I want some Chivito.” Chivito is one of Uruguay’s best contributions to the world. A gigantic sandwich with steak, cheese, ham, and an egg. Even at this late hour, a small restaurant was open for us to fill our stomachs with a final Uruguayan chivito before heading back to Argentina.

“So who are you. What are you? My name is Julia.” She said with a certain suaveness as if she were perpetually holding a lit cigarette. I gave her my little life story. I was a tall American boy, still disgruntled with the world and not confident in my long gangly body and pimply little face. She listened carefully and shared her story back. A therapist from Buenos Aires with a past that only therapists can have. Therapists always seem like the people that need therapists the most, just judging from every therapist I’ve ever met.

Once our pleasantries were up, we shared a brief silenced that was sliced in half with her question “So have you ever fucked a guy?”

I was taken aback, surprised at her question. “N-No.” I stammered. “That’s a bold question to ask a stranger.”

“Never?! It’s fun!” She asked with a grin. “We should share our deepest selves with strangers, we never have to see them again so why not open your heart up and show them everything?”

I thought this over for a moment. She wasn’t wrong. “I guess because if you show everything up front, there’s nothing else left to show if you do see that person again.” I threw back her way.

“That’s true. But I guess if you show it all upfront, the person knows immediately whether or not you’re worth seeing again. And besides, you should fuck a guy. Why not? You’re young and tall and handsome. It’s fun.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I looked down at the grease left from the chivito on my plate and wished I still had a sandwich I could hide under by eating. Sensing my awkward response, she smiled at me and said, “You know, marijuana is legal here right, I’ve got a joint if you want to share.”

“I’m alright,” I said, still a bit perplexed where to go from there.

“Suit yourself. Well, Carter, it was a pleasure to meet you. You really saved me back there at the ferry, I didn’t feel safe in that neighborhood, and for some reason, I knew I could trust you.” She got up from her seat and walked into the shadows from where she game.

I still think about this moment. It taught me a lot and broke me out of my shell. My least favorite part about our North American upbringing is the masks we’re taught to put on from an early age. We’re always supposed to be happy, perfect, friendly. We have to ask how people are even when we don’t care, and when they ask back we have to say “Oh I’m doing just fine,” even though we are certainly not doing just fine. Sometimes we aren’t fine, sometimes we’re just feeling shit and there’s no shame in that. Sometimes we just want to suck dick, sometimes we just want to share a joint with a stranger, and sometimes we just want to tell a stranger that we appreciate how they shared a midmorning chivito with us and cracked us out of our think Anglo-American shells.

Who have you met in the wee hours of the morning?


Travel Advent Dec. 11: When Will the Next Dalai Lama Get Their First iPhone?

I’ve been reading the autobiography of the Dalai Lama these past weeks, and my mind has been filled with a litany of thoughts. Perhaps it’s in bad taste to discuss the next Dalai Lama already, but since his Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama himself has discussed it publicly (as it will likely prove incredibly controversial), why not talk about it here?

Without delving into the whole conundrum of where the next Dalai Lama will be reincarnated; and if he’s born in Tibet, how the officially atheist Chinese government will handle the reincarnation — let’s just talk about a best-case scenario where the reincarnated 15th Dalai Lama has been chosen and is safely in the care of his tutors.

For us raised in Western cultures, the concept of being reincarnated and born with a destiny and already well-established soul is still a bit foreign. I can get behind the process of reincarnation, but it’s one thing to be the reincarnated soul of your uncle versus the reincarnated soul of a spiritual leader. I find it hard to imagine how a child would be able to take such a reality, and how unfair it must feel at the time to be stuck inside this gigantic white palace in the Tibetan plains learning holy scriptures while everyone else your age runs about outside herder yaks and being young. I was struck by how much of a shock this all must feel, to have a destiny and an entire congregation of people you’ve never met somehow claiming to know you — and on top of that having access to the items of your past life.

There was a humorous scene of this early in the book, where the young Dalai Lama is rummaging through the possessions of his predecessor. In it, he finds some of the most technologically advanced devices in Tibet at the time, such as film reels and some of the only automobiles in the country. This must have been such a shock for the young Dalai Lama, having the access to these technologies that no one else in the country had access to. He must have felt powerful, as displayed in a scene where he took one of the cars out for a joy ride and ended up getting in an accident.

In the same vein, the 14th Dalai Lama was also a bit lucky that there were few tangible examples of his former self available to him. He probably only had stories and several photos of his predecessor and was thus allowed to create his persona and follow his destiny rather than base himself on the representations of his past life. The 15th Dalai Lama will have quite a different upbringing. The 14th Dalai Lama has devoted much of his life to raising awareness about the freedom of Tibet and has had the chance to meet the highest echelons of society around the world. The 15th Dalai Lama will come into a world where he, at a young age, will have Lady Gaga and Obama and countless other celebrities visiting and banging down his doorstep. He’ll be born, and he’ll already be one of the most important people in the world.

The 15th Dalai Lama will no doubt want to be a child, and just like his predecessor, he’ll have a thirst to explore and tinker with new technologies. Which got me thinking: when will the 15th Dalai Lama get his first iPhone? It’s sometimes a shock for us Westerners to go to Asia and see serene saffron-robed monks walking around then suddenly taking out a cellphone for a call. But we forget that these monks have families and friends outside of their monastic lives. The next Dalai Lama will be very much the same. What will his tutors do when he rummages through his predecessor’s items, finding computers and iPads and all sorts of pieces of technology. He’ll have this thing called YouTube, where he can watch thousands of videos of his predecessor.

This is certainly not a bad thing, as the 14th Dalai Lama is a wonderful teacher, and I’m sure the 15th Dalai Lama will be in the best of care to complete his spiritual training. But I wonder how his upbringing with technology, with the ability to access his former persona and hear his former voice, will affect how he grows up and forms his own identity. Will he be so influenced by the access to his former self that he essentially becomes a copy of his former self? Or will he be able to take the good of the teachings from his former self, and be able to create his own identity beyond that. If the wisdom of his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is any indicator, I’m sure his successor will be just as caring and inspirational as he is. What do you think?

Travel Advent Dec. 10: The Best Unconventional Way to See a City

My favorite way to see a city is by collecting bottles. In Denmark, and in fact most of North-Western Europe, you pay a deposit anytime you buy a drink and can then return those bottles and cans to receive the deposit later. You can do so in any supermarket, and it’s a great way to encourage recycling and serves as a nice micro-economy for people down on their financial luck.

For me and one of my best friends from Berlin, it was the perfect way to see Copenhagen. On a rainy day, we had several hours without a plan. It started quite playfully with me seeing a still unopened bottle of beer and stashing it in my bag. Then it turned into her grabbing the next bottle, and placing it in a plastic bag. Then we made a game of it: whenever we found a bottle, we would travel in the direction the bottle was pointing until we found a new bottle, then we would continue in the direction that one was pointing.

Several hours later we had amassed a healthy $12 worth of recycled bottles, and seen the parts of Copenhagen left off the guide books. For me, those are the best parts of a city: the parts where people live, where people moved there because they could afford the rent or they liked the nearby school or it’s close to their favorite cafe. This is the best way to see a city and to collect enough money to buy a six-pack afterward.

Travel Advent Dec. 9: Shallow Travel Writing

I’m a bit angry with the travel writing industry. When brainstorming ideas for these advent stories, I Googled up some travel writing prompts. Every site I found was more conceited and vapid than the last. “Tell a time when you missed home.” “You’ve landed in Fiji. What do you do?” I don’t know, maybe these are fine and as always I’m being a bit too harsh, but I just don’t know how much we need all these travel writers if all they’re going to do is write the same stuff. I’m guilty of this as well, and my content certainly isn’t necessary as I just throw more content at the giant toilet that we call the internet. But I like writing, and I’ve got 2 more years lease on this domain so may as well bake as many biscuits as possible.

But what I’m getting at is, so much of travel these days is so shallow. We go to new places, talk about how good the food is, how nice the locals are, how a particular custom really took us off guard, and how we’ll “Always have X country in our hearts, and carry these experiences with us always.” If we’re all doing that, then we don’t have to write about it, do we? Where’s the experimentation, the craziness, the Hunter S. Thompson gonzoing out and seeing lizard people in a hotel lobby? We need more bat country these days, a bit more depth in our content to keep us from turning into the same shallow travel blogging zombies. So many travel narratives I read end with something along the lines of “I love this country, I’ll never forget it.” And my posts are guilty of this too. I am sometimes guilty of looking at travel as something shallow, as another country to check off my list. I’ve been guilty of venturing to a country simply to say that I have been there (my fascination with small countries is to blame).

But how many unique, untold experiences am I getting from these encounters? How many crazy tales do I need to tell? Not enough, but it seems to attract you lovely followers here for some reason. Half of the views I get on this site are probably other travel bloggers, liking my articles to get me to go to their articles and like/follow/subscribe to their content. Like everything, it’s just become another machine that occasionally creates a legend while churning out and spitting a boatload of sub-interesting content. We need to start telling more interesting stories, and if we don’t live them, then we’ve got to start making them up — don’t we, fellow travel writers?

Travel Advent Dec. 8: Love of Markets

Markets, bookshops, and the tallest spot in the city are the three places I go to first in a new city. The tallest spot gives me a layout, a view of how people perceive the city. The Bookshop gives me a perspective on what the population is interested in, and what their desired fundamentals are.

The markets give me a look into their soul — telling me how, what, where they eat, and who they choose to eat with. It’s something we do three or more times a day, and certainly finding out where food comes from and how it fills its residents is one of the best ways to know where a city is coming from.

Western European markets, aside from the gorgeous boutique weekend markets that sell polished and expensive delicacies, are quite sterile. They are well organized, well-stocked, and often quite healthy while being reasonably priced. They ooze rationality, a character trait I associate most of Western Europe with, and a trait Eastern Europe wishes to enforce by building newer cleaner supermarkets while turning away from the markets of Babushkas selling their garden vegetables.

North America is everything extravagant. The size, the portions, the enormity of it all overwhelms the senses and makes everyone entering the shop feel like royalty. They immediately give you a gigantic shining cart to push around and fill, making sure it’s big enough to stock up with enough food to last any disaster with. There is always a border between have and have nots. Canned tuna sits for several dollars, then in the fancy section that only certain “high class” people venture down sits the extravagant caviar and smoked salmon that the “lower class” wouldn’t even know how to cook. It reads everything that the United States wishes to be: overly big, extravagant, showy, and prepared for anything the world has to throw at it.

North African and Middle Eastern markets are a delight. They are quite hygienic with food, and even though the food is not refrigerated, it is most certainly clean and of excellent quality. The meat section is separate from the fish section, which is separate from the fruit section. The salespeople take pride in their stalls and make sure to compete by keeping a clean stall and having the lowest costs. These markets are the best bang for your buck, and most often served by a friend of the family that gives you a discount.

South Asian markets are the most difficult for me to navigate. It is organized chaos, like most Chinese and Southeast Asian cities, with no distance between any of the products. I was often amazed by walking around markets in Hong Kong. The pigman is butchering a pig in a small stand, letting warm pig bowels flow on to the street as he stacks pig meat into mounds to sell to customers. Right next to pig man’s stall is the mango lady, not half a meter away, chopping up overly ripe mangoes and letting juice spill onto the hot cement. Next to the mango lady is fish-man, who also happens to sell live frogs his cousin caught kept in a tight cage. He holds a fish up for a customer, and since it’s still alive it wriggles and splashes salty fish poop water out onto the street. The scents of this scene are heightened by the moist Cantonese heat that clings to your face like a warm towel. I honestly don’t have a problem with it and love the bright reds of blood, yellow of ripe mangoes, and sea blue associated with this chaos. And as long as people are getting food and turning it into deliciousness, I don’t give a fuck.

But it’s tough for me to put it into my own body after seeing this. After visiting a market in Hong Kong just like this, I went to a noodle shop starving after along humid walk. Still a bit queasy from the mixed smell of pavement steaming with pig blood, rotten mango, and fish water, I order the cheapest bowl of noodles — one I hoped would be just noodles in broth with maybe some bokchoi or seaweed. What came was certainly noodles in broth, topped in a slew of unidentifiable mashed pork giblets small enough to fool you into thinking you could flush it down the drain but requiring a lot of force to squeeze it down the fucking drain. In my mind, I saw the chef emptying delicious noodles into a bowl, pouring the slow-cooked healing broth over the top, and then taking a shovel, running it up the sticky bloody streets of Hong Kong’s market, and emptying into the bowl. I paid and left, quite rudely. But once the image came into my mind, it was impossible to take it out. I still love Chinese markets — I’ll just usually order the vegetarian option afterward.

What’s your first spot when exploring a new city?