January 29, 2009


Made it to Chile after so much airport craziness. Went to sleep with shivers from the ice storm in Washington and woke up to the heat from the South American sun through the airplane window. After long lines and taxis and stamps (Latin American governments love stapling stuff into your passport, don't they?), I immediately ditched my things and headed into the city. Saw the Cathedral, ate a real life empanada and checked out the Pre-Columbian art museum, where they had very eerie black mummies. I am most happy to simply be here. I finally made it to South America, even if it is under dubious circumstances (more on that later). I snapped this photo exactly one hour ago--two friends hanging out on a stoop. It's kind of how I feel now: content, unassuming, but a little bit exposed.

January 28, 2009

¿A Dónde Va Ahora?

Off to the airport, and heading to . . . Patagonia. The time has come to switch hemispheres. I'm excited on so many levels, not least of which is the fact that Patagonia is kind of the ultimate proving ground for travel writers. All the greats have come and tried to put this on to paper. Stay tuned for more adventures in Chile.

January 26, 2009

That Doesn't Count!

As the world becomes smaller and smaller; as airplanes zip us across the globe's dizzying distances; as we keep track of our countries like golf scores or savings account balances; as we compare and contrast our life's maps with others; as places all become more similar and international airports in Africa and China and the Caribbean all use the same floor cleaning fluid and/or German architecture firm, it all reopens the question of where we've actually 'been.' In the very male contest of "I've been to more countries than you" I'm presented with countless variable standards of what counts (spent a night there, got your passport stamped, set foot in the country, ate a meal) and what doesn't count (passed through the airport, saw it from the sky, had a nice dream about it, went there as an incognizant child). Until country counting becomes an Olympic event, I assume the rules and regulations are up for negotiation.

Personally, I reject the whole concept of contest. Counting countries carries very little meaning as it only represents the one-dimensional physical relationship between person and place. I know people who've traveled to over a hundred countries but confuse Guinea, Conakry and French Guyana. Their modus operandi is the travel equivalent of sleeping around--playing passport Cassanova whilst never finding true love.

Wow, listen to me preach and pontificate! Ah, but I know I'm right on this one. I see some fundamental problems with country-counting:

First off is that most of the real country counters are outrageously wealthy men (always men) who turn travel into an unhealthy compulsion of going further, longer, and more remote, thereby reverting the concept of adventure and voyage to its Victorian concentration camp from which we liberated it long ago with the invention of budget airlines. For such, travel becomes a lifelong shopping trip and they win because they can always shop more. Plagiarizing the Sermon on the Mount, "They Have Their Reward."

Secondly, how exactly does one begin to count countries when they are such a man-made construct? Apparently, there are 757 "places" in the world (countries, territories, itty bitty islands, etc.), while the "official authority" on the subject, the (ahem) Travelers' Century Club counts 319 countries with the explanation that "THIS LIST IS RECOGNIZED BY THE WORLD AS THE STANDARD OF COUNTRIES AND DESTINATIONS THAT ARE POLITICALLY, ETHNOLOGICALLY OR GEOGRAPHICALLY DIFFERENT." Oh, really? I didn't see Brooklyn's Flatbush or the 20th Arrondissement of Paris on that list. And by that definition one might say that you can only count countries that don't have the same chain restaurants as your home nation. Borders also pose a tricky counting issue and all kinds of irregularities. My Facebook "Where I've Been" application claims I've covered some 30% of the globe. And yet had I never been to Moscow or St. Petersburg (two cities that you could easily squeeze into Belgium) then the number drops significantly.

Thirdly, what counts as "being in a country"? Consensus is that airtime and airports don't count, and I get it, but still. Last week I flew to and from Asia on Korean Air. All together I spent some 41 hours on a Korean airplane, with about 80% Korean passengers, eating Bibim Bap for breakfast and lunch, watching Korean subtitled-movies, and tracking my journey on the SkyMap in Hangul. I watched from the window as we passed the never-ending gray mountains and rocky Korean coastline. I circled over the city of Seoul for 15 minutes and watched Koreans commuting to work on long bridges. I spent 4 hours in Seoul's Incheon airport and watched Korea outside the gigantic windows. Have I been to Korea? My passport says no, but from now on, whenever I hear the word "Korea", I have a fairly rich well of memory from which to draw (for the record, the very same Travelers' Century Club DOES count airport stops as having been in a place).

My response to all of this is to focus on memories. Don't tell me how many places you've been. Tell me what it was like; what you remember. Every place holds meaning, and some of the worlds most well-traveled people miss that meaning again and again. Even national tourist boards often miss out on the meaning of the very destination they are trying to sell to others.

Ok, I think I'm done preaching, but watch out. I could talk about this forever. Lucky for you, I need to go pack for my next trip.

January 15, 2009

Bollywood, Interrupted

Strolling the speedboat-laden shores of the Gulf of Siam I happened upon this happy movie happening. I couldn't believe my stroke of good fortune! With my very own eyes I witnessed the magic of Bollywood in the making (in Thailand, go figure). Not unlike my own experience at show choir dance camp in the 7th grade, this Hindi lip-synching duo went through take after take after take trying to get it together. I think they got better around take thirty-six. By the way, the quality of my filming is just fine--Bollywood actors are grainy in real life and I discovered that they get a little sensitive if one keeps bringing it up.

January 11, 2009

Buddhist Big Brother

Blaring Buddhist chants from a loudspeaker at the Temple of the Dawn in Bangkok. Perhaps it was the red star, perhaps it was the fanciful yellow sash meant to decorate away the cold technology--either way, I was simultaneously mesmerized and made uneasy.

January 9, 2009

English as a Second Language

In Bangkok and loving every over-the-top minute of it. My attempts to be a bona fide blogger have failed miserably. I am too enchanted to take time to go back to my room and 'blog'. I'd rather just sit on a street in this, the craziest, most harried of Chinatowns and just watch and smell.

I'm well aware of the whole hilarious concept of Thailish and the silliness of Asian translations of our tricky Anglo-Saxon tongue. I've always thought it a little mean-spirited to point such things out, until I actually came here and got to experience such unintentional poetry for myself, e.g.:

+ "We want to welcome guests, so we spray our lobby to smell like Frankenstein" (translation: Frankincense)

+ "I hate Sky Crappers" (Said to me while staring out at the dazzling night skyline, and yet, what a perfect word!)

Of course, in my atonal attempts to count from one to ten in Thai, I sound all kinds of hilarious and inappropriate. Everyone smiles and praises, "You know Thai so well, good for you." But then you meet someone honest who points out that you didn't just say "Four" but that you said "scrub" and that when you try to pronounce "Nine", you are actually saying something a little bit naughty.

So, how about we all laugh at one another and call it a day?

January 6, 2009

Like I Said . . .

Unexpectedly, for the next 25 hours of so I will be en route to Thailand, that forever flowering lotus of a country in southeast Asia. Maybe this once, I shall attempt to be a traditional blogger-type blogger and actually post loads of deep, meaningful thoughts while I'm on the road. So daring, so edgy. This will be my first of many firsts, including taking a direct flight to Asia from special, local Washington Dulles airport and the first time actually leaving Bangkok airport once I get there. I suspect there exists some single-word German-language psychological terminology equivalent to "the shock of traveling to Bangkok for the first time" but I have yet to be diagnosed.

January 3, 2009

Oh, the Places We'll Go

A new year is here. For me, the new year did not come in with a bang. I spent most of it in bed with a sore throat, a cup of hot ginger tea and some long-winded Icelandic sagas, which are great books because they keep going on forever. Now everyone is asking me where I'm going this year and the answer is I do not know. I never really know in advance. I plot trips in my head all the time and then they don't happen but then other ones unexpectedly DO happen. On New Year's Day I spent three hours with my trusty atlas, scanning borders and roads, place names and islands. Will any of us see any of these things in our lifetimes? Probably not, but there is no harm in trying.