A Brief, Wondrous Time Shared with Wes Nations

I met Wes Nations on a cramped, dusty bus in northwestern Vietnam, somewhere between Sapa and Dien Bien Phu. That was the time he saved me from peeing my pants.

We foreigners had been packed into the back of the bus, with luggage and linebacker-sized sacks of rice separating us from the Vietnamese riders (and the door) up front. Out the window an endless, muddy construction zone rolled by, like the backdrop to an old cartoon. It was the Vietnamese wild west: hastily-built replacement villages for those doomed to be flooded when the Ron River was diverted. Half-built shacks with tin roofs and tarp walls and bricks piled high in the yard. Chickens chasing under laundry hung across dank puddles. Kamaz earth-movers temporarily blocking the road. Our bus bucking like a bronco.

Ten hot, slow hours later, I was desperate for a wee. The bus stopped briefly in a small town to let off some passengers, so I asked the driver if I could hop out for a minute and find a place to squat. He waved his hand as if to shoo a fly, avoided eye contact, and shook his head. “No time!”

“I’ll just be a minute,” I pleaded.

“No time.”

Whether it was my furrowed brow, the fear of sitting in a hot bus next to a woman wearing urine-soaked trousers, or just innate Southern gentlemanliness, Wes stepped in and convinced the driver to let me go. I don’t remember now what he said, but I was struck with his simple, no-nonsense reasoning. The gist was: Dude, don’t be a jerk. Just let the woman go pee. It was very Jedi-mind-trick.

“Go ahead, darlin’,” Wes said, turning to me. “I’ll watch your bags.”

My memory insists that he nodded and tipped his cowboy hat at me. Except there was no hat.


I got to know Wes Nations while riding motorbikes together around central Laos. I was to rendezvous with him and Stu, an Aussie Wes had met along the way, in the sleepy village of Tadlo. When I arrived, I found them on the little balcony that their rooms shared, with their feet up on the railing, drinking beer and watching a wide, gentle waterfall slide into a lazy river.

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Wes and his Macbook on the veranda in Tadlo.

The next day we set out for Sekong, a small town up on the plateau. Wes and Stu were experienced riders, and I was nervous about being a burden. I needn’t have worried. We took things low and slow.

Wes was good-natured, patient and self-deprecating without being obsequious. He was about 6 foot 1, 40-ish, bald on top with very close-cropped grey stubble in a half-ring in back. Then there was the light grey soul patch, which not very many people could pull off as naturally.  He was a photographer and travel blogger with a great talent for telling stories – he called them “lies” – and capturing moments beautifully on camera. He had that slow, thoughtful calm of certain American Southerners – an ideal disposition for traveling in Laos, whose unofficial official quote is “Please Don’t Rush.”

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Wes toppin’ up at the the petrol station.

Stu was a slightly grizzled Australian on his way home after spending 8 years working and traveling around Africa. He was shorter and more muscular than Wes, with a thick pile of straight grey hair that was receding slightly at the forehead. His demeanor was slightly intimidating in the way of cowboys and old-timers with experience etched into their faces. It took about a day, but once Stu realized that I wasn’t going to be a squealing, high-maintenance pain in the ass, we both relaxed and got on great.

For 5 days we three rode over red earth, under blue skies, and through the relentless green hills of the Bolaven Plateau, avoiding ruts in the dirt road and waving at energetic children shouting “sabaidee!”  The inconsequential but colorful events of those days – when we took a wrong turn, got caught in the rain (twice), danced to karaoke in an ill-camouflaged brothel, saw a half-dozen or so remote waterfalls, had my flip-flops stolen, nearly broke a leg riding down a near-perpendicular hill of scree, searched for The Ancient Stone, found and stole back my flip-flops, ate one of the top-5 meals of my life (for about $2 per person), rode to a town called “Buffalo Shit,” laughed about the proprietor of one of the hotels offering them (not me) “massages,” and…well, it was five days filled with the sort of moments that are typical while backpacking, while slow-traveling, while doing something as simple as riding bikes between tiny, remote villages.

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“Mysterious Nature’s Heritages”, including the Ancient Stone.

These moments seem more vibrant, more critical, more important than most of the others during my 17 months on the road. Perhaps it’s because many of those months were spent traveling alone, and moments shared are somehow seared more deeply into memory.

But I think that these moments are more meaningful because they were shared with Wes and Stu. Their travel mojo meshed well with my own: There was something unassuming in the way we all traveled – drama-free, yet still adventurous and worthy of late-night storytelling.

It’s a testament to Wes, who was the magnet that brought the three of us together in that time and place.

And now he’s gone.

Some evil, lightning-fast disease struck its target with terrible efficiency, and carried away that Southern gentleman before I even knew he was sick. He’s just…gone.

I can’t ask him to help me remember our travels more clearly. We can’t trade lies and laugh. I’m left with my personal version of the story, unembellished by his wry grin, and duller for it.

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Wes in the mist.

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Coming Home (pt 2)

Home. Andrassy 19. My last flat in Budapest. Searching for the familiar old creaky door – I hope I can sneak in – I find in its place a glossy black replica, thrown wide open, flanked by potted lollipop topiary and a doorman in a dark suit and earwig. György Gattyán, who made millions on a popular porn website called LiveJasmin, has transformed my building into an impossibly posh clothing store – Giorgio Armani, Bottega Veneta, Valentino and Oscar de la Renta. He named it, quite cheekily, Il Bacio di Style (the Kiss of Style). At least it’s not il Eiaculazione di Style.

I pass through the perfumed air pumped onto the street and cross the threshold. I am sweaty and red-faced and wearing shorts and Tevas. I expect to be escorted out immediately, but the muscle only nods.

What was once dark and soot-covered is now brightly lit and painted a creamy white. All the cracks in the stucco have been smoothed over. In the courtyard two impeccably dressed attendants sit behind a glass case filled with designer sunglasses. The walls emit soothing Euro-style easy listening.

I take the elevator to the fourth floor, where I once lived. Inside the car, there’s a small flatscreen display and more perfumed air. The doors glide open and I step out. My neighbor’s flat – the one facing Andrassy – now sells men’s apparel. Two murmuring young attendants in dark suits smile and nod “hallo” to me. I remedy my slaw jaw and nod back, passing through backlit displays of crisp suits towards my front door.

My apartment now houses a pair of escalators. The “down” escalator starts in my bedroom – where, on their first mission, thieves once stole my beloved but not particularly valuable currency collection – and passes through my living room on its way to the 3rd floor. The “up” escalator starts in my teeny kitchen – where the same thieves, on their second time in my apartment, stole Tupperware, for lack of anything else of value – and crosses through my living room on its way to the top floor, where there is now a chic café/restaurant with views of the Basilica. And that’s it. No longer a place to live or linger, it’s a place from which you must move either up or down.

I return to the wide stairway and start down. After two flights I realize that muscle memory has kicked in. My legs know precisely how many stairs per flight and how high the risers will be. Descending the last flight I pass another patron, on her way up. She’s about 40, maybe 45, but her leathery face betray a tougher life than my own. Her hair is cheap bleached blonde. Tight, short, white cotton dress, with a peephole at the neckline from which protrude freckled, size FFF watermelons. I suspect she is a former, not current, employee.

On my way out, I take a picture of the Pink Panther statue.

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The next day’s walking tour of the 6th district finds surprising reminders of things forgotten: metal frames from broken window shades protruding awkwardly from a concrete-block building. Signs advertising Dréher, Borsodi, Soproni. The sharp, spicy aroma of a TV paprika. The 12-foot wide sidewalks on Andrassy, and the 2-foot wide sidewalks along cobbled side streets. The electric hum and rumble of the villamos along the körút.

For the first time in years, I’m gripped by a sudden compulsion to write…and don’t stop!

The crumbling, grey walls are painted with street art, with graffiti. Cafés, photography shops, kerts, and quality – it all add up to a tension and electricity that inspires creativity and seems almost…well, optimistic. My memories of Budapest are of dark cellar sörözö pubs, choked with cigarette smoke, packed with young people hunched over pints of beer. The pints remain, but now they are being drunk at ground level, outside, in “ruin pubs” (aka kerts) that have been tastefully and quirkily decorated to thoroughly out-hipster Brooklyn. By kilometers.

I wander the boiling streets compiling a list of things same and different. Same: air quality. Different: ability to buy “emergency chips & salsa”. Different: little to no dog shit. Same: crumbling walls, soot, graffiti. Different: very cool street art. Same: see-through dresses (though not so many), short skirts, cleavage. Different: an abundance of Thai, Mexican, Indian restaurants. Different: a fair sprinkle of brown-skinned people. Same: strip-tease bars, “szex” shops. Same: acrid cigarette smoke everywhere.

There’s a new modernity, a level of style, that was absent when I lived here: rare or unavailable comforts  like yoga studios, salad bars, well-made clothing. All this has been sprinkled on top of the same old city, fixed into place with a coat of clear varnish.

Behind every window, in every courtyard, lit up along the river at night, live possibilities, stories to be invented and told. Perhaps these ghost-stories are what attracted me to this place so many years ago, and still do.

I find myself checking listings as I pass real estate offices: 24 million HUF for an 80-m2 flat? I quickly convert that to $100k for an 800-ft2 apartment. Not bad, but not exactly cheap. I can swing that if I sell my place in Brooklyn. Would I live in the 7th district, which is the center of all the nightlife but also all the packs of drunk Brits on lads’ weekends? Or else maybe the 6th, or 5th. Certainly not Buda again! Actually what would be nice would be a view of the river. Someplace on the top floor, of course, to avoid stomping neighbors.

The next day I keep walking, in the other direction, down Dohany utca, then on Kossuth to the rakpart along the river. I feel like I’m searching for some lost thing that I can’t define until I find it. Jégbufe, where it takes expert Hungarian and 4 bouts of standing in line in order to get a cake and coffee. The Astoria Café, delicately restored with chandeliers and red velvet, which should feel majestic but somehow remains dusty and lost in time. The way Kossuth ut seems to splinter apart as it approaches the rakpart.

It’s as if I’m exploring a city from a recurring dream, familiar yet foreign. Any moment now, the world will stop spinning for the briefest millisecond, everything will come into focus and I will know, wholly and completely, precisely where I am, my unique place in the universe.

But that never happens. Not really, anyway. Instead I rediscover a regular city, one dancing with the ghosts of memories.

I no longer become teary-eyed at the sight of a zöldség gyümölcs. I just go in and buy strawberries. It is now quite normal for me to see Tamás (or Tamás) for a coffee. The voice on the radio saying things like “következö” no longer elicits shivers. I get csokolom’d, and it’s all good.

Home.

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Coming Home (pt 1)

It begins at the gate, straining to pick out the familiar combination of ö and ú and cs and zh from the babel in the airport corridors. But this is a Greek airline, flying from Athens. All I hear is ψ and λ and η.

It’s at Ferihegy that I get my first taste: Üdvözöljük! I wander the arrivals hall gathering snippets of conversation, seeking not to overhear or understand but to absorb the music of ë and ői and gy. I examine the faces of the baggage handlers, in their red and green jumpsuits, for telltale signs of Hungarianness. I don’t even know what I’m looking for. Try as I might, I find nothing.

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From the back seat of the sweltering taxi into town, I crane my neck and scan for familiar landmarks. The road has changed a bit, and my memory is hazy. Everything looks new, different: large structures of tinted glass, advertising space for rent or lease; a stadium that may have been there before, but must have been renovated. I’m frustrated, seeking the payoff of a burst of familiarity, love.

But this is not my Budapest, this no-man’s land of industrialness surrounding the airport. I ease off looking for specifics, and again listen for the tune. Signs: Csemege. Nonstop. Sörözö. Cukrázda. ABC. Each of these simple words constitutes a new layer of delight. I realize my hands are clasped tightly together and I am grinning hard. Never before have I been so excited about a convenience store. Üllői ut. Müemlék. Szigony utca. The buildings are as grand and soot-grey and crumbly as I remember. The sidewalks are cracked, dimpled by tree roots.

Múzeum. The grand staircase leading to the Hungarian National Museum. I finally know where I am. “I never went to the museums as much as I should have while living here,” says my brain to itself. We’re in heavy traffic. It’s stifling in the back of the cab. I can barely breathe. Károly körút. Deák Tér – jaj! I don’t recognize it. There’s a new greenway dotted with evenly spaced trees that have been manicured to resemble lollipops. The old bus station – long a humongous boarded-up pit of nothingness, is now a green space with cafes and young people lolling. And bike lanes! Are those really bike lanes? My brain reels with the possibilities, still just wisps of thought, of the gritty, edgy Budapest of my memory overlain with modern conveniences like bike lanes and green spaces.

At last, the taxi pulls over and the driver delivers my bag to the curb in front of a building on Andrassy, where I am meeting an old friend. It’s just a few doors down from my last Budapest address. Standing on the wide sidewalk on the grandest boulevard in Budapest, my heart races, swells, leaps into my throat, all at the same time. I want to embrace the buildings, to kiss the pavement, to press my face against a Hungarian structure. Instead I pay the driver, and tip awkwardly – I have forgotten how it’s done; you’re supposed to tell the driver the amount you want to pay (including tip) and he gives you change. I am deliriously flustered. My eyes tickle and well up. I take some deep breaths, a moment to compose myself.

Coming home.

Ode to Eressos

I’m walking along the narrow streets of ‘pano Eressos late one Monday morning. Chatting with cousin Fani, I’m overcome by some strange yet familiar sensations. My throat feels more open, and more air can flow through my trachea. There’s also more room in my chest – room for my lungs to balloon and stretch, as if waking from a long hibernation. 

The muscles around my mouth relax and feel almost buoyant. They draw my cheeks and lips upward, causing the corners of my eyes to crinkle. 

My heart wriggles and then creeps out from its cave along my spine and into the great room of my chest cavity. Its quadrants expand away from each other, like those polymer toys that quintuple in size when placed in water. 

I feel larger yet much lighter, floating across the cobblestone alley.

Oh right. This is joy. 

 

Personal business plan: zooming all the way out

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on my personal business plan, I realized something awful. One of the main pillars of the plan – finding a part-time consulting gig “just to pay the bills” – was wrong.

I could tell it was wrong because the plan contains few details about it – I’m not excited about it, so I didn’t care to fill in the gaps properly. (Also, I woke up at 4:13 am, thinking about it with a sense of dread.) I didn’t want it in there. I didn’t want it to be part of my plan. Ugh. Now what?

This is the second time this has happened. The first time was last year, when I was doing research about “how to be a successful (i.e. money-making) travel blogger.” I read blogs, listened to podcasts, talked to people, started planning…and realized that I don’t want to be a travel blogger – at least not one who earns money primarily from blogging.

“Well, Koukkos, how do you want to make money, given that your lottery tickets never seem to win?” That’s the question that led to my personal business plan.

In other words, I had to zoom out. And now I have to zoom out again.

Think of it this way. Imagine that I’m trying to take a photo. I’m in the forest. I’ve got my 300mm camera zoomed all the way in, slowly panning across the thick green of the trees. I’m doomed – I’ll never get the right shot, because I don’t even know what I’m looking for, never mind where to aim.

That’s where I was with my vague “how to make a good travel blogging site” research. I had my equipment and a vague idea of what I wanted to accomplish, but no real goal.

So I let my camera hang around my neck and just listen. I hear something calling from above. I look up, and through the thick greenness I notice a spot of red. “I want to take a photo of that bird!” I say to myself. I reposition myself so that the light is behind me. I stand on a fallen tree to get a better angle. I contort myself to compose the shot, zoom in, focus. I’m about to take the photo when I realize…that red thing is just some mundane cardinal in a mundane setting. I definitely want a photo of a bird. I just don’t really want this photo of this bird. That’s where I found myself at the end of my personal business planning.

What I needed to do is to zoom all the way out – all the way into myself. I had to ask myself some fundamental questions. Continuing my hypothetical bird-pic, I asked myself things like:

  • Why do you like taking photographs?
  • Do you particularly like taking photos of birds in forests? Or animals in their natural environment? Or just birds? Or just things with contrasting colors?
  • Is it that you like forests – not necessarily taking photos in the forest?
  • Is taking photos (or walking in forests, or birds) something you want to do for a living?
  • If yes, how can you make a living from it?

…and on and on.

This exercise, guided by online “career coaching” resources and some material from The Five O’Clock Club – materials I got thanks to the disaster of my last full-time job – has been extremely useful. It’s helped me see my options more clearly, and given me a grounded, thoughtful strategy on which to zoom in to everything else – my personal business plan and eventually the specifics of executing that plan.

I don’t think I could have gotten here without all the struggles, diversions and failures of my life so far. And I definitely wouldn’t be here without my successes and achievements. So once again: Here’s to The “f” word!

Just to finish off the photo-taking metaphor…it will take all that work (and more) to find myself in the Central American rainforest, new Nikon D800 in hand (drool drool), tracking a Quetzalcoatl for National Geographic Traveler.

Metaphysical range life

Holy crap, what a week this has been.

It all started Tuesday. That’s when I embarked on my new part-time consulting gig with She Writes, an online network that helps writers connect with each other and gain access to professional services and guidance. So far it’s been terribly exciting and overwhelming. Another startup web company, full of ideas and promise, determined to get it right, collaborating with idea-a-minute founder Kamy Wicoff and our CTO consultant on how to get it all done, funding, design, social media, marketing….this scrambles my brain as well as any drug. It’s so nice to be back in a “let’s do it!” culture, instead of “that sounds good. but let’s check to hear what these 12 people think first.”

While I was getting buried under the nor’easter of She Writes on Tuesday, little did I know that another storm – let’s call this one a tropical monsoon – was sitting in my inbox (and on Facebook). Everyone I know at Matador Network was trying to get in touch with me. “URGENT! Do you want to go on a press trip to dive Papua New Guinea?” they asked. Um, WHAT? Is the pope Catholic? Does a bear shit in the woods? Does a manta ray eat plankton? Suddenly I had about a day to come up with a compelling story idea or two. Good thing I wasn’t busy or anything. (I’m not officially in yet – fingers crossed!)

And the editor of another publication wanted a revised story pitch. And another story of mine was published on Matador Trips. And I met a terrific fellow travel writer at a mediabistro networking event.

It’s as if just stepping onto the island of Manhattan makes things start to happen.

Last night I related all this craziness to my amazing friend Andrea DiCastro McGough (over lots of drinks and a little dinner). She quite astutely pointed out that all this chaos, my triple life as freelance writer and online product consultant and member of a family that requires lots of attention at the moment, not to mention my lack of fixed address, is simply a different face to my Range Life. Maybe it’s not so much about stamps in my passport, but about always trying something new, or at least different.

Is that a metaphysical range life? Or am I soothing my nerves at the prospect of staying put for a while?

Brrrrr

I’m actually cold – cold! – for the first time in about a year. And I love it. I’m in Dalat, the honeymoon and kitsch capital of Vietnam. I decided to skip the well-traveled coastal road and go north via the Central Highlands. Which explains the cool weather: we’re about 1500 meters above sea level.

Most people travel the highlands by hiring an Easy Rider – a loose collection of Vietnamese tour guides who sling you onto the back of their motorbikes and drive you wherever you want to go. Many people do 4-6 day trips with these guys. I opted for just a one-day tour around Dalat, for two reasons. First, I don’t have the time – I want to save enough time to explore Sapa, northwest of Hanoi. Second, the going rate is around $50-100 per day – pretty reasonable, if you consider that you get a personal tour guide, transport, meals, accommodation, etc. But I wanna save that money for Sapa.

The first thing I noticed about Dalat is that people smile a lot more here than they do in Saigon. I suppose that’s a big city/town thing, but I suspect it’s also the weather. I did the Dalat tour with Mr. Hung (I kid you not), a charming 50-something Dalat native who’s been an Easy Rider for about 5 years. It’s hard to see much of interest around Dalat in just one day, but just the ride along winding roads through the pine-forested hills made the $25 for the day worth it. A perfect, sunny day.

So, Vietnam. I have to be honest – I thought I’d hate it here. I heard people are rude and money-grubbing in the same way that I experienced the Chinese in China, but for the most part it’s been surprisingly pleasant. Traces of the Vietnam war are everywhere, from the museums, to the trinkets sold by hawkers, to conversations, to the still-denuded countryside. There are Vietnamese flags everywhere, as well as banners with a gold-on-red hammer and sickle. And of course, the likeness of Ho Chi Minh is omnipresent, on patriotic banners and as statues in town squares.

It’s hard to get past all that, to the new Vietnam. I guess it’s all about making money…this is what I read in the guidebooks and online. And just like in China, I’m having a hard time finding any funk or soul. The hastily built homes are utilitarian and boring, except for the grand mansions of government officials and police, which are faux-opulent and tacky. The shop signs and billboards use more text than pictures, and so far I haven’t seen many ads with sexy young chicks holding up product. Maybe sex doesn’t sell here? Even the motorbikes and helmets – everyone’s got one – aren’t tricked out, like you’d expect. There’s just no personality.

The south Vietnamese – the only ones I’ve met so far – talk openly about how they hate the corrupt government. As a corollary, they mistrust the north Vietnamese, who were resettled here after the war, purportedly as an attempt at reunification but really to lock in control of the whole country. It’s the same tactic the Chinese government is using with Han Chinese and ethnic minority areas, and similar, I suppose, to carpetbaggers heading south after the US Civil War. I’ve also been told again and again how poor most Vietnamese are, but so far I haven’t seen poverty in as stark a form as I’ve seen elsewhere in SE Asia. I suppose it’s early yet, and I haven’t seen much.

To my ears, all this talk of corruption, suppression of civil liberties, poverty and ethnic division sounds like counter-propaganda. I suspect the south Vietnamese are telling western tourists what they think we want to hear. [As an aside, this is an affliction throughout SE Asia: if you don’t know the answer, or even if you do, tell the tourist what you think she wants to hear. It’s some weird attempt to make us happy, but ends up frustrating us.]

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I didn’t post this yesterday, as I didn’t have the chance. Today spent 11 hours on a bus to Kon Tum, a little-touristed town between Dalat and my next destination, Hoi An. I’m hoping to do a two-day trek/motorbike trip around the hill-tribe villages in the area. Stay tuned!

The bottom line is, so far I don’t hate Vietnam. But I don’t love it, either.