Face The Sun: Let There Be Light!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are exclusively those of its author, and are not in any way meant to reflect the opinions or policies of the US Government.

Past Travelogues.

Finland, Estonia, Petersburg

Kirovograd, Ukraine


Tirana, Albania

Macedonia & Romania

Budapest to Bucharest

Balkans and Poland.

Christiania, Copenhagen.

Northern Norway

Northern Finland


Kashgar, briefly

More to come, Inshallah, as I go through old paper travel journals.

The DC experience, archived.

July '05
June '05
December '05
October '04
More to come should interesting things happen to me. Ever.

Blatent Plagiarism

The nation's largest chain bookstore has indicated that, due to lack of consumer interest, it has stopped selling books.
--Frederick Raphael, The Glittering Prizes

I feel this is the equivalent of a surgeon, skipping through a radiology department singing, 'I don't have cancer, I don't have cancer!'
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

Mum is crying with her faced turned away from me, gulping and honking like an injured seal. And I'm rolled up in the back seat wishing the old man would stop the car and make her walk. That or buy her a fish.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

I love it when well-educated women sweaar -- the words regain their original power and meaning when delivered unexpectedly with so much poise.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

She lived with her mother, who looked like an old labrador, and an old labrador.
--Will Self, Great Apes

When I was small and would leaf through the Old Testament retold for children and illustrated in engravings by Gustave Dore, I saw the Lord God sitting on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Quality is merely the distribution aspect of Quantity.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

...In the frank brilliance of the bright sun, which, as we all know, is the friend of heroes.
--Jose Saramago, All the Names

He stuttered so badly that you could go out and buy yourself a chocolate bar while he was wrestling with an initial p or b; he would never try to bypass the obstacle by switching to a synonym, and when the explosion finally did occur, it convulsed his whole frame and sprayed the interlocutor with triumphant saliva.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

To Stand on Jericho's Walls and Face the Sun.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Chuuk is an odd place.

It's often ranked among the best places in the world for diving, easily top ten and almost always number one for wreck diving. It was a massive Japanese base during World War II and was subject to one of the most intensive American bombing campaigns in the Pacific theater, and as such it has over fifty intact sunken ships (boats tankers, airplanes, the whole deal) from the World War II era alone, as well as ships from other eras, like the one I dove.

But despite the mond-blowing potential of it all, there's nothing -- nothing -- on Chuuk. To say tourism is in its infancy would be a generous statement, implying a future growth that isn't certain on Chuuk. There are basically only three hotels on the island, as well as a fistful of stores aimed exclusively at the local market and all selling more or less the same staple goods at identical prices: canned fish and spam, long cotton dresses, fifty pound sacks of rice for $16.95. There are a few places under construction, a small fruit market, a post office and a bank, and more or less nothing else. The island is covered in ramshackle houses made of corrugated iron and scrap wood, and there are rusted abandoned cars everywhere. The nicest building by far is the airport, refurbished with money from the People's Republic of China.

The entity of the Federated States of Micronesia is something of a political construction, and aside from a rough association by geography, there isn't much in the linguist, historic or cultural sense that links the four states together. Chuuk is the outcast amongst them, seen as a drag on the collective economy. Unemployment is at 36 percent -- more than one in three Chuukese people do not work. Despite this, the manager of the dive shop (an American, and one of multiple within the last year -- turnover amongst foreign staff is high) told me that it's not uncommon for people to skip work for several days, and then show up as if nothing were out of the ordinary. "If Chuuk had a motto," he lamented, "it would 'half-assed is good enough.'"

Alcoholism is rampant. I was instructed not to tip the dive guides directly, but instead to give money to the dive shop to prevent them from immediately using it to purchase alcohol and then skipping work for several days, incapacitated; the dive shop distributes the money when the guides aren't slated to work the next day. As I was out walking the island after my dive, two different groups of boys -- literally boys, probably 16 or 17 years old -- asked me if I had any alcohol I could give them.

And the Chuukese are known for being violent, a problem that doesn't mix well with alcoholism and is no doubt compounded by poverty and underemployment. Both the guidebook and the hotel warn against going out at night. When I was walking around, I was greeted with friendly hellos from the very young and the very old, but the vast majority of people I was were young men in their twenties, staring hostilely. Even historically the island had this reputation: the heyday of European colonization in the Pacific began with Magellen, who first visited in 1565. But the Chuukese had a reputation as being too violent and too hostile to deal with, and no European presence was established there until well over 300 years later, in 1886, when the Spanish finally established an administrative capital in what was then called the Caroline Islands.

Even then Chuuk was largely ignored as too hostile to be worth it, and was administered from the Spanish capital on neighboring Pohnpei. The Spaniards introduced guns, and the island descended into an ugly family-on-family civil war that continued until 1904, five years after the Germans bought the Carolines from the Spaniards. It took a deployment of armed troops and a policy of mandatory gun collection to finally establish peace.

On the day of my departure, I rented a car and driver and spent the morning puttering around the island. The road is mostly washed out stonebed, paved only in small stretches, and maximum speed rarely gets above ten miles per hour. The Chuukese tend to have large extended families, and my driver spent the time honking to cousins, aunts and uncles throughout the island, calling out "aurrek!" which is apparently how you greet family members. At one point we picked up a hitchhiker (I was excited to trot out the Chuukese I had spent the morning pestering the driver to teach me), and it was only later that I learned he was the driver's brother-in-law.

He took me to the Xavier School, the best high school in Chuuk. It currently has 181 students, including a fistful from Yap and Kosrae, two other Federated States. The building was a Japanese communication center in World War II, and there's still a gaping hole in the ceiling of the gym from when a US bomber scored a direct hit. They have a display of huts in the yard the shows off the the varied thatching styles from all the nearby islands, and inside the school there's a massive display case for trophies. "They always win at the basketball," my driver tells me. There's a foreign teacher with curly red hair reading in one of the lounges, but he didn't look up from his book when he responded to my hello.

As we drove back to the hotel, the driver pointed to the rusted chassis of a flipped car, and with schadenfreude in his voice told me that the owner, drunk at the wheel of his exciting new purchase, had flipped it just one week after buying it. We stopped briefly to go into a cave with a massive WWII gun inside. Next to the gun was a mattress, where the ostensible owner of the caves sleeps, exacting a five-dollar fee from tourists who come to see it. He wasn't there when I went to visit, which the driver took as a blessing. "He's completely crazy," he told me.

The only other stop on the island tour was a memorial the Japanese built to themselves. It was dated 1980, and memorialized Japanese and Micronesians who "sacrificed their lives" during WWII. It blew my mind that they had the audacity to build a monument -- the Japanese were atrocious to all the indigenous people of the Pacific during the war -- but my driver was only three years old when they built the monument, and didn't know if there was an outcry.

And that was it. We finished up, I thanked the driver (his name was Pisander, and he was a good guy), and set some money aside as a tip to have the dive shop give him when he wasn't working the next day, and then headed out. I shared a ride to the airport with the Brit I went diving with, and that was that.

Posted by Dakota on 1:34 AM link |

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The wreck you are about to dive is the Sgt. Mjr. J. Pugh.

When Ferdinand Marcos was smuggling all the gold out of the Philippines, this ship was mysteriously abandoned in Truk Lagoon by its captain and crew while on a return trip to the Philippines from Tinian. Because the ship was learned to be a Marcos ship -- a feared man -- no one would touch it, and it rusted at anchor until years later, half sunk, it was towed to its present location just off the reef that juts out from the Blue Lagoon resort, and sunk there. (No one took the ship, but it was thoroughly looted). The gold that Marcos was running was taken from the Philippines to Tinian, two islands north of Guam, and then on to Switzerland on a chartered plane. This ship is a mysterious casualty of that gold running operation.

So, wreck diving is awesome beyond any speaking of it.

I showed up at my hotel (Chuuk was formerly called Truk; my hotel was called the Truk Stop, and whoever thought of that name deserves a medal), and told them my story -- 24 hours to spend in Chuuk, relatively new and inexperienced diver, any chance I can go see a wreck? Two hours later I was in a boat cruising out to the lagoon. I was tagging along with a British guy who was just finishing up a week in Chuuk, logging four dives a day and trying to see as many wrecks as possible.

As far as diving goes, I'm a true greenhorn: I learned in January of '06, went diving again in Belize in August of that same year, and haven't been since. If you were to count the number of dives I've been on, you would run out of fingers well before you ran out of dives. I could barely remember how to set up the gear (which shoulder do these hoses go over?), and was generally very stumbly and unsure.

Technically speaking, wreck diving requires a special certification, an advanced PADI course. I was very upfront about lacking all of this -- I'm not trying to bluff anyone when approaching 60 feet underwater. I figured at best they'd take me out to a wreck let me swim around it and see the outside, but definitely not go inside it.


My guide was Chuukese, and keeping in mind that I was inexperienced and haven't been diving in a while, he was asked throughout the dive if I was ok (I was!), if I wanted to keep going (I did!). I was underweighted (for my own record keeping, I require 10, not 8 pounds of extra weight), and thus couldn't descend very easily, so there was one steep staircase into a lower hold I had to skip, but aside from that I got the full tour -- the engine room, the dining room, the main hold, the bathroom, still with intact toilet. I felt like Indiana Jones, less handsome and more waterlogged. It was, as previously stated, awesome beyond any speaking of it.

So, wreck diving: it's a heck of a way to spend an afternoon. I have terrible fin-skills, so I kicked up an awful lot of sand and had to touch the wreck several times to navigate through the tighter spots on the boat, a big no-no that resulted in decently cut up hands. (The guy who came along with me, an amiable Brit on his second trip to Chuuk, advised that if I need a handhold in the future, it's best to grab clams, as they clamp shut, are unhurtable and won't cut your hand).

The way flight schedules worked out I could either spend one day in Chuuk or four days. It was an expensive place (although much less so than I was anticipating), but the reality of the situation is that I had neither enough time nor enough money to stay in Chuuk and continue diving. But going to an underwater shipwreck is truly enthralling -- I haven't even come close to capturing it here, nor did I really try (doing so would require far too many exclamation points, a punctiation mark of ill repute) -- and after my dive I found myself wishing I'd taken the four day option instead of just the one. I'm sure I made the right choice (onward!), but still: my god it's captivating.

Posted by Dakota on 5:01 AM link |
Administrative sidenote: There are going to be some out-of-order posts during this vacation. The way I'm writing things down is different than I normally do, so instead of carrying a notebook, writing down bullets and then typing out one massive blog when I find an internet cafe, I'm actually writing bullets and then typing full blogs into my blackberry, whcih I'm basically just using as a very small word processor. Once I do find internet, all I have to do is retype it (or, very rarely, bluetooth it, although that hasn't happened yet). As such, I've got several things written that haven't been posted yet, but will be eventually. I'll flag the out of order posts with a time or date (or more likely, place) stamp to signal where they fall in the vacation.

The next post remains in order.

Posted by Dakota on 4:57 AM link |

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Don't go to Guam, my boss told me -- it's horrible. He used to live in Indonesia, and the cheap flights home routed through Guam from Bali, so he's actually been. This shatters my whole I don't know ANYONE who's been to Guam! rationale for coming here.

Why is it horrible? I asked him. It's horrible, he replied. Seriously, don't go there.

Other people warned me that it's just like America (so they'd heard -- aside from the boss, no one else had been), only more remote, harder to get to, and for some unknown reason, unpleasant.

So of course I came determined to come away from Guam saying sure, it's got some things in common with the States, but there's this whole other level underneath! Or, better -- you're CRAZY, it's nothing like the States at all! Or something on that order. I was willing to overlook the fact that the first ad you see coming off the plane is for the Outback Steakhouse, and the fact that Guamanians -- that's the correct noun form, which is pretty kickass, if you ask me -- were at one time the number one consumers of KFC on the planet and (according to the guy from the hotel who picked me up at the airport) are in possossion of the world's largest McDonalds.

I asked that same guy from my hotel how long he thought it would take to walk to the main downtown strip area, called Tumon. "Ahh, Tumon," he replied. "You wanna go to the Hardrock Cafe, don't you!" I wasn't aware that there was a hardrock in Guam and I asked if it was legit, affliated with the other hard rocks -- my time in China has led me to assume that everything on the planet is in violation of intellectual property rights or copyright law. He took offense a little bit, I think, and promptly informed me that YES, it's the REAL DEAL, a GREAT PLACE where I should DEFINITELY GO during my time in Guam. He, a portly fellow, also informed me that it was completely unwalkable to get to Tumon, it would take hours, don't do it, it's just not feasible.

It took just over half an hour.

Here's what Guam has that the United States doesn't: Japanese people. A heck of a lot more of them then we've got in the States. And strip clubs! They're everywhere! And an awful lot of shooting ranges, which they call gun clubs, which I kind of like because it makes it sound like such a benign hobby. I passed one called the Hafa Adai Gun Clun, which utilizes the one word of Chamorro I know and means Hello Gun Club. Sweet.

As I was walking around, I passed a quartet of soldier types, with freshly shaved heads and that look in their eye that said they were on the prowl. I asked them where they were headed and if there'd be any place busy on a Sunday night. They told me they were heading to a strip club, and it usually isn't too busy on Sundays, no.

Shortly thereafter a rented van chock full of military gentlemen drove past. It screeched to a halt and the driver leaned on the horn while the passengers shrieked with great enthusiasm for a pair of breasts that were walking by, attached to a bikini-clad girl on the opposite sidewalk. We don't really have many soldier types in downtown DC, and cheering on breasts is an activity that I think we as a city have kind of grown out of, so I guess that makes the Guam experience a bit different than the America I know.

Aside from that -- I arrived in the late afternoon, didn't rent a car (terrible public transportation here -- welcome to the United States) and don't really have a feel for the place yet. Sure, the strip malls and chain restaurants are out of control -- there's a Tony Romas, a TGI Fridays, McDonalds by the dozen and what have you -- but I'm sure there's something charming here. I'm back in a week or so and have another full day and night in Guam, so once I'm back I'll be renting a car and sussing thing out while continuing my ongoing quest for an English-Chamorro/Chamoro-English Dictionary.

And of course, having not made it this time, I've still got a date with the Hardrock Cafe.

Posted by Dakota on 9:00 AM link |

Saturday, January 26, 2008

First impression of Manila: on the ride from the airport to my hotel, I passed what appeared to be a high-class fast food joint named The House That Fried Chicken Built. This place is awesome.

I'm only here for a couple hours -- basically just an overnight before I begin a series of short-hop Pacific flights. I'm out in two hours to Guam, where I hang out for a day (which by all accounts is enough. It's remarkable how many people I've met who haven't been to Guam who went out of their way to tell me, oh, I've heard Guam is horrible). When I was booking my tickets, the good people on the booking line told me -- you know, it's the same price if you stop for a day in Chuuk. Do you want to stop for a day in Chuuk?

I responded: Do I!? I do!

So the day after tomorrow I'm off to Chuuk (formerly Truk) in the Federated States of Micronesia. For some reason, I've always wanted to go there; it was one of those places I saw on a map when I was like 12 and ever since have been determined to get to at some point, although I never actually thought it was a possibility. Anyhow, hopefully there'll be wreck diving since I went clean shaven for this. Although as of now it's slated to rain for my one day in Chuuk, so we'll see if it happens.

Cross your fingers for an English-Chuukese/Chuukese-English Dictionary.

Posted by Dakota on 7:25 PM link |
I had been under the impression that Tagalog, the Philippino language, was a pretty close relative of Indonesian. They're both part of the massive Austronesian language family that stretches throughout the Pacific, from Hawaii to Samoa to Fiji, bouncing off Malaysia, through Indonesia to as far away as Madagascar. With that in mind, on the plane I tossed on some Madagascaran music I had (ahem) borrowed from the Georgetown radio station during my tenure there as World Music Editor, and started looking over the intro to Tagalog grammar in the front of the phrasebook I bought.

I was thinking that Tagalog and Indonesian would be about as close as Spanish and French -- that is, some slightly different grammar but still with enough in common that there's no major curveballs coming out of it. I had figured I'd be able to get 15 to 20 percent of a newspaper off cognates. And even though I don't plan to bury myself too deeply in Tagalog -- the Philippines is one of those nations with terrifyingly high rates of true fluency in English -- I was nonetheless to excited to be heading back to a place where the verbs would, I assumed, be an intricate dance between active and passive, formal and informal, transitive and intransitive.

I was pretty much wrong on all counts.

I can't understand anything! Tagalog grammar is nothing like Indonesian! It's bracingly complicated! The verbs dance, yes, but not like they dance in Indonesian!

So, it's got these funky infixitive verbs that appear to be full-on shapeshifters with at best a barely discernible pattern. It's (unexpectedly!) an ergative-absolutive language, which means there's an exciting shift in how you mark your direct and indirect objects that depends on what flavor of verb you're using. And perhaps most excitingly, it's a VSO language. VSO, Verb Subject Object! Which means that in any given sentence, the very first thing you bump up against is usually the verb! Subjects come next and your object is tagged on at the very end! Bites the dog the man!

I recognize that to most people, the verb coming at the beginning of the sentence wouldn't warrant exclamation points. But I've never been up close and personal with a VSO before, except for that one time in Santiago when I got two Irish backpackers at the hostel I was staying in to gibber at each other in schoolbook-rote Gaelic (the Celtics are the big verb-initial holdouts in the Indo-European family).

A lot of this trip was planned (loosely -- I'm really not a planner) around bumping into some awfully obscure languages. But I had written off Tagalog entirely as just a slightly more complicated Indonesian, and once I started looking it over, it basically left me bouncing in my chair in excitement at the rest of this trip.

And now let's be honest: if you've made it this far in the blog post without pooping out from all that grammar talk, congratulations. Because you're the only one.

Posted by Dakota on 7:08 PM link |

Friday, January 25, 2008

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, there was a fearless blogger named Dakota. Here he is, in all his blogging glory:

And here he is in another photo, which is blurry and sort of makes Dakota look angsty, as if though he were in an independent rock band. (He isn't).

Dakota had a problem. Specifically, Dakota was planning a vacation, and part of that vacation involved diving. The problem is right there on Dakota's face: facial hair. If you're truly married to your facial hair you can work around the diving issue by coating your face in vaseline before you dive. But Dakota isn't all that married to his facial hair, even though he's had it for almost two years now and in reality feels pretty naked without it.

Long and short of it: this vacation provides an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast the many different facial hair options available to our pal Dakota. Let's take a look, shall we?

Here we go: the Goatee.

Could be worse. A survivable facial hair.

I'm in China. What's appropriate? The Fu Manchu!

I'm chuckling at the ridiculousness.

And now... the 'stache.

THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO THINK THIS IS ATTRACTIVE. Seriously. I don't know who they are, but they exist. Weirdos, honestly.

And then -- the end.

And of course -- the progression from what have I DONE? to ...what have I done?

Posted by Dakota on 9:53 PM link |

Friday, January 18, 2008

I've got seven flights booked. I think I'll keep mum on the destinations until I'm actually there. Leaving next Saturday, the 26th.

One brief moment of panic: my ATM card expires 02/08. You might know 02/08 as taking place in two weeks. It seems very likely that there isn't going to be time for my bank to get me a new ATM card before I leave, which means about halfway through this trip, my ability to withdraw money will completely dry up. Which means next week, I'm gonna have to tromp around Beijing until I find a place to get some traveler's checks. Traveler's checks! This makes me feel very old school, like I'm taking an extended vacation back in the 1940s.

Regardless, it's all very annoying, since I think this might be an expense-heavy trip -- lots of potential for exciting side trips and whatnot -- and while I've got plenty of money set aside for this vacation, I'm gonna be mighty annoyed if I end up having to not do something because my money has become unaccessible.

Posted by Dakota on 10:06 PM link |

Thursday, January 17, 2008

I had been laboring away here in the salt mines of Beijing under the impression that I was going on vacation next Friday. Tragedy struck when I realized I had incorrectly counted the number of days in a week (seven), or perhaps had somehow incorrectly added when I combined the current date with the number seven (carry the one). Regardless, I was truly devastated (I mean, truly) when I realized that (oh god) February first, the beginning of my vacation, is not next Friday, but the Friday after it.

I am currently in negotiations to add a week to my vacation, on the basis of shoddy arithmetic. It is unclear how much progress is being made, because I am for some unknown reason terrified of actually coming out and asking my boss if I can tag an additional week on to the beginning of my vacation: it seems like it would be somehow overstepping my bounds. Instead, I'm resorting to dropping massive hints that I'm considering extending my vacation, to sort of soften my boss up before the other shoe actually drops. You'll note that passive-aggressively intimating that one would like to take some extra time off was (shockingly) not included in the list of seven habits of highly effective people.

In related news, Beijing was blanketed in a light dusting of snow today -- perhaps an inch -- which promptly froze into ice on the streets and sidewalks. I wasn't exactly planning a bare-all vacation, nor do I know if the Philippines even has such facilities available, but any possibility of my tromping around a nude beach on my upcoming trip has now been precluded by the gigantic bruise spreading across my tail from when I bit it hard on an icy sidewalk shortly after exiting the Korean restaurant next to my apartment.

Posted by Dakota on 8:46 AM link |

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Part of the reason for all this travel -- the bounce from Seoul to Vietnam, two long weekends in a row -- is because I've started to panic about Asia. Asia.

This tour in China was supposed to be operation Go To All The Asian Nations I Haven't Been To. And it hasn't been. I made it to Taiwan (the province of Taiwan) during language training, and went to a few places in China proper that I haven't been (Manchuria, Henan and Hunan and Qinghai provinces), but I haven't been sprinting around going to all the places that I haven't been, like I'd planned to. It's partly a money thing -- being a Property Owner means that extra disposable income goes directly to the knee-breakers over at Bank of America. It's also partly a time thing: China's far from everywhere, except Japan and Korea (and Mongolia, but come on: it's the dead of winter), and five, six, seven hour flights to get anywhere start to seem awfully daunting and definitely remove weekend jaunts as a possibility.

So I've started to panic. I've only got a year and a half left, which seems like a lot, but the summer is entirely blocked out as a no-leave period (Olympics, moving to a new Embassy), I'm probably going to go home for Christmas (no new countries then), my parents will be here in May (leave to go places I've already been), and my planned month during Chinese New Year has been scaled back to two weeks. Panic.

There are, as of now, 15 countries in Asia I haven't been to. There're a few obvious no-gos: I ain't going to Afghanistan on vacation, and North Korea won't let me in the door, so they're both out. I'm willing to scratch Bhutan, since the visa is 200 bucks a day and the only flights are from Calcutta, which isn't exactly close by or easy to get to from Beijing. And the Maldives are out too, since I'm not made out of rupees and sitting on pristine white sand beaches surrounded by absolutely NOTHING isn't something to do without a partner in crime (and god knows: I believe in flying solo when it comes to international travel).

So, let's set aside those countries and the other four nations that end in 'Stan besides already ruled-out Afghanistan and the two I've already been to (Pakistan and Uzbekistan) and see where that leaves us:

Bangladesh, Brunei, East Timor, Mongolia, Myanmar (Burma, if you will), Nepal and the Philippines.

Seven nations. A year and a half. Can this be done? I'm going to say: maybe. The thing is, these are not easy places to get to. Brunei? I don't know ANYONE who's been to Brunei, and Brunei is easy when you compare it against East Timor -- which has flights only from Bali, occasionally from Jakarta, and from Darwin, Australia.

But now comes the waffling. I'm almost definitely going to the Philippines for Chinese New Year. I've never been, and my buddies here from the Philippines Embassy are all hilarious and fun, and I'm looking forward to it. But then I find out that for 200 bucks roundtrip from Manila, I can go to Guam. Guam! A U.S. territory! The world's largest K-Mart! A freaky indigenous Austronesian language called Chamorro that's an internal agglutinizer!

So I decided: I should go to Guam. And I might, depending on how hard Philippines Air makes it for me to get a ticket.

But THEN I found out that for only about 350 bucks, I can go roundtrip from Manila to Brunei, and suddenly I can't help but think -- I should go, shouldn't I? But if I go to Brunei (and then either back to Manila or on to KL for a one-way flight home), I won't exactly be spending a whole lot of time in the Philippines -- which is the whole reason for going to the Philippines in the first place.

So now it's a conundrum. I need to buy plane tickets approximately tomorrow, but in the mean time, I've somehow got to decide -- am I chasing this "Go to all the countries I haven't been too in Asia" thing too hard? Do I really need to drop an extra five hundo to go to Brunei Dar Es Salaam for two days, to see what the capital city (Bandar Sari Begawan!) is like? Is it at all worth it? Am I wasting not only money but also an awful lot of precious time just to go to places more or less exclusively because I've never met anyone, ever, who's been to them? Is the checkbox and the blog post that important?

I'll let you know in mid February what I decide. (Although now that I've mentioned the blog, it cements my resolve a little bit: god knows I'm always looking for stuff to blog about, and the world's largest K-mart might just be it).

Posted by Dakota on 9:33 AM link |

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

I'd move to Hanoi tomorrow if they gave me the chance. It's perfect: ungodly green (Beijing has been experiencing record-breaking pollution for the past few weeks, so green means more to me these days), set on a small fistful of two lakes (two), with a spectacular old town, great food, low prices and cheap beer. And even though I don't speak any Vietnamese beyond phrasebook pleasantries, I still found the Vietnamese people whom I met to be friendly and outgoing and eager to communicate, albeit often with only waving hands.

Vietnamese, in the mean time, is one of those uber-boutique languages that, while not particularly useful in a pan-global sense (the vocabulary is largely Chinese; the grammar feels more like Thai) can only impress people: the phonetics of it are so other-worldly bizarre that it sounds like an alien language.

Things accomplished: visited Uncle Ho. Of the three preserved world leaders (four if you believe dicey rumors of an embalmed Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang), I've now checked the boxes next to two of their names, having viewed Mao in 2000 but having missed Lenin during my two brief sojourns in Moscow. With only Mao to compare with, I can say on good authority that Ho Chi Minh has a pretty sweet set up.

Mao's got a box seat view of Tiananmen and hundreds of adoring visitors who toss flowers at him (the flowers are plastic and are continuously collected and wheeled back out front to be resold in a never-ending capitalist loop that would make the world's biggest communist spin in his so-called Mao-soleum if he knew). Ho Chi Minh, who ostensibly just wanted to be cremated and get on with the afterlife, has so much more than just a mausoleum. The actual is box is a staid columned affair done in marble and protected by fresh-faced Vietnamese guards in ceremonial white uniforms, who look bored and enforce the rules: no talking, no photos, and no hands in pockets. You can't carry a bag, but they provide a bag check under a sign that reads "Keep luggage: free. No gold or jewels."

I got yelled at for attempting to write down the quote in the entranceway of the mausoleum, to have someone translate for me later; apparently there's no taking notes either. Subsequent googling reveals that the quote -- khong co gi quy hon doc lap tu do -- apparently means 'nothing is more valuable than independence and freedom.'

Uncle Ho himself is pretty much as you'd expect: waxy.

The House of Mao stops at the box containing him, but the Ho Chi Minh compound continues for days. For a small entrance fee, you can walk past the presidential palace, to a small exhibit of Uncle Ho's Used Cars (his Peugot and a Russian car were being sulkily examined by a pair of Americans wearing -- rather distastefully, I thought -- camouflage cargo pants). There's a mock up of his bedroom, including his twin bed -- Uncle Ho never married, although he urged people not to follow his example in this regard, just as he urged them not to smoke; he was chimney-esque, apparently. And there's a house on stilts where he ostensibly spent quite a bit of time, although probably not as much as the museum claims, since he would've drawn American bombers like moths to a flame.

The compound itself is lovely, covered in flowers and carp ponds, and thronged with tourists and young Vietnamese soldiers who feed the fish and applaud when they eat. For another 10,000 dong -- 70 cents or so -- you can tag through the Ho Chi Minh museum, and I promptly ponied up the money to do so. The first floor is primarily long quotations in Vietnamese and pictures of speeches being made or listened to and didn't do a whole lot for me, since I don't speak a lick of Tieng Viet. The second floor, though, is a modern art representation of the life of Ho Chi Minh and modern Vietnamese history. It's amongst the oddest museums I've been to, and lacking a guide or a guidebook I can't say that I fully understood it -- lots of sculptures of heads with the eyes both on one side and stylized rifles and hand grenades, with the lighting done primarily in muted red. Very strange; it inspired me to buy an ice cream cone, although that probably wasn't the intended effect.

So, Uncle Ho: check. I feel compelled to finish the Trifecta (the quadrumvirate if I can somehow swing a ticket to North Korea, but I can't help but think there's a zero percent chance of that in my future), but Lenin's going to have to wait: there's an awful lot of Asia waiting to be seen before I go back to Moscow.

Posted by Dakota on 9:18 AM link |

Friday, January 04, 2008

I’ve always declared myself to be afraid of motorcycles, ever since I was in an accident when I was 19 in the tiny beach town of Pangandaran in West Java, Indonesia. I'm generally unwilling to ride any sort of two-wheeled conveyance that I'm not powering with my own legs.

There was a brief moment in Greece when I decided I needed to 'get over it,' and attempted to rent one of the scooters that everyone on the island, Greek and foreign, sober or otherwise, drives everywhere at all hours of the day. But the gentleman behind the counter saw my license ("class c," which he assumed meant "class: car" and not motorcycle) and my general trepidation, and refused to rent one to me, allowing me to explore the island exclusively on foot without so much as a pang of guilt at my own cowardice and inability to get over it. (I am, to this day, haunted by the face of the other person involved in the accident in Pangandaran, and don't really have any desire to overcome this particular fear of mine).

But now I'm Hanoi -- having left Korea on New Years Day, stopping in Beijing only long enough to wash the smell of bar smoke out of my jeans and wrap up what little work was on my desk to pass off to someone else. The streets here are choked with mopeds, and there's not really any other option when it comes to getting around. I was content with walking, and headed out into the streets this morning starting at about six, well after Hanoi was already awake and bustling. I keep a compass attached to the bag I always carry, but it froze during a winter trip to northern China and hasn't given an accurate estimation of north since then; once day was fully set and the sun was no longer in the east, I found myself without any idea where I was or which direction I should be heading.

No cabs. No choice but to hail a moped.

Mind you, I delayed this for hours, stopping at roadside stands for yet another unneeded snack (snacks cost pennies and are ungodly delicious, so they served the dual purpose of delaying my getting on a motorcycle while providing me with an important avenue for the ingestion of pork). But further delay eventually became untenable, and I had no choice but to stop one of the guys muttering "moto?" on the outskirts of Hanoi.

My mental criteria: I wanted an old guy -- old guys have been around a damn long time, and if they'd driven a moto for this long, there was less likelihood that I'd die in tow. I wanted a new looking motorcycle -- the newer the ride, the less likely the guy would barrel into oncoming traffic and risking denting his means of conveyence. And I wanted a guy who wouldn't rip me off, and would take me downtown for less than 3 bucks.

I found all three, about eighteen seconds after I started looking. Hanoi is basically an all-you-can-eat buffet of moto drivers.

Here's the thing that maybe all of you people who lack my motorcycle fear already know: riding a moped is kinda fun. My driver (he told me his name, something impossibly Vietnamese which I promptly forgot; I wanted to introduce myself as 'Nguyen,' but my boss, an old Vietnam hand, had told me that Americans in Vietnam don't take local names) handed me a helmet, which I put on. The fact that everyone wears helmets to me indicates that they're required by law -- these are people who do arc-welding while not wearing a shirt; if safety isn't mandatory, it's not a consideration. My helmet lacked a chin strap, which means it was useless as far as concussion-prevention goes, but it made me feel safer and (I can only assume) made me look fantastically dashing.

The ride took much longer than I was expecting -- I had been walking for about 6 hours, in no particular direction, only branching when one street looked more interesting than the one I was on. By the time the morning fog had burned off, I was (apparantly) in the middle of nowhere, since the ride went on and on.

I didn't realize there were pegs for my feet, and by the halfway point my thigh muscles were aching from keeping my legs from dragging on the ground. We stopped for gas. The driver saw my foot-pedal problem, pointed out the pegs, and everything was smooth sailing from that point forward. He didn't even seem to mind my death-grip on his waist, and seemed expert at adjusting for the fact that I was bizarrely weighted (small pack slung on my back, messenger bag dangling at my side): I assume this is because I picked an old guy. I silently applauded my criteria.

We arrived at my destination; I gave him a few bucks more than we had agreed as a thank-you for getting me home alive (I was grateful, and told him such in my politest Vietnamese. He responded, but god only knows what he was saying: this language is impossible).

He drove off, and a few seconds later I sprinted after him yelling "hello, hello!" because I don't know the Vietnamese for "I still have your helmet." But he happened to glance back as I was waving the helmet at him, so driver and helmet were reunited. Which is kind of a shame: it made me look so dashing!

Posted by Dakota on 7:08 AM link |
Current Location:
The People's Republic of China.

Stop by any time: everyone's welcome.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem to Be Born

Comments and requests for dates should be directed to email.

And here I am.

And for all you random folks out there whom I don't know, for the love of god, email me. I'm abroad, know no one, and look forward to hearing from you. I'm especially looking at YOU, whomever YOU are who's Facing The Sun all the way from Kenya. And Sweden. And Canada. And whatnot.

Books Tackled, 2006:

1. Jarhead, Anthony Swofford
2. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, Dennis Covington
3. A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
4. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, Anonymous
5. Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, Dawn Prince-Hughes

This year's movies, in chronological order:

1. Kung Fu Hustle
2. A Wrinkle in Time
3. Pi: Faith in Chaos
4. My Big Fat Independent Movie
5. The Winter Guest
6. Voices in Wartime
7. What Dreams May Come
8. Farewell My Concubine
9. The Ring
10. Like Water for Chocolate
11. Sahara

Foreign Service Officers by day, Bloggers by day as well.

The Diplodocus
(Islamabad, Pakistan).

The Permanent Mission of Joshie
(Zagreb; Libyaward).

Prince Roy
(Chennai; Taiwanward).

Sue and not You
(Tbilisi, Georgia).

Life on the Mekong
(Vientiane, Laos).

FSO Globe Trotter
(Lahore, Pakistan).

Vice Consul: Diplomatically Transformed
(New Delhi, India).

Adventures in Good Countries

Our Man in Tirana
(Tirana, Albania).

Anne's Blog
(Kazakhstan; Greeceward).

(Bogota, Colombia).

Furnish Worldwide

Tasman's World
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

(Lome, Togo).

World Adventurers
(Seoul, Korea).

Aaron Martz

A for Adventure
(Chennai, India).

The Excellent Adventures of Nickie P
(Paris, France).

Permanently Disco
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

Consul At Arms
(Kingston, Jamaica).

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