Sunday, December 28, 2008

IT’S A WET WET CHRISTMAS IN THE CARIBBEAN





Then the rains came, and the skies weeped and wailed until they finally cried themselves to sleep. I was afraid that Trinidad would flood and I wouldn’t even be able to get TO the airport, much less out of it. Then I watched the weather in the US on TV and felt better, people sleeping in airports while blizzards raged outside. Things could be worse. Still it’s stifling. When it’s not raining it might as well be. At least I got the Suriname visa, multiple entry too, though I had to promise my first-born for it, seems a safe bet, over $100 in ‘reciprocity’ charges, but good for five years of in-and-out privileges. It’s probably raining there, too. That means I can go to French Guiana and return with no extra visa hassles. Who knows? That might turn out to be the highlight of the trip, what with the resident communities of Hmongs and Laos in addition to the Amerindians and ‘Maroons’ typical of the region. I can speak passable Lao and my French is certainly better than my Dutch or my Taki-taki.

Traveling is hard work. Yeah, yeah, I hear you, but it’s certainly not as easy as it used to be, just hop on the bus and wake up somewhere in Mexico. At least I’ve got a couple rooms booked down the line, so shouldn’t have to sleep on the streets. I used to never do that; in the Caribbean region it’s typically required. In Jamaica I had to book before they’d let me through immigration, then the lady from the Health Department actually called a few days later to see if I was OK after my previous stay in a malarial region, i.e. Argentina (?!). Internet makes it easier now, which is good though far from perfect, since these backwater countries can be a bit short on services and logic. I don’t know what a backpacker would do if he got into Port-of-Spain without a reservation. There are plenty of spaces, but how would he find them? This isn’t Gringotenango or Khao San or Freak Street with cheap hotels lining the streets as far as the eye can see. Where I stayed is as close to a hostel as there is, but no one’s there, just a few locals… and me. The prices double for Carnaval.


More and more I see other travelers less and less. That’s what happens when you go to hard-to-get-to locations. Everybody and his brother go to Thailand, Guatemala, Peru, and Nepal. On a regional hostel circuit you might even see the same travelers 2-3 times on a trip. It’s not like that here. Even a place as famous as Trinidad is practically vacant except on cruise ship day. Sure there’s a reputation for violence and crime, but circumstances like that can usually be mitigated with a modicum of effort. I really liked Trinidad until I read an ex-pat’s lambasting indictment of the people, then started seeing the aloofness-bordering-on-rudeness he was talking about. Now I’m not sure. The books say they’re the ‘friendliest people in the world’, but that’s surely an exaggeration. They’re certainly not the quintessential laid-back ‘ey mon’ Caribbean locals a la Jamaica. The place is heavily industrialized. There’s no pervasive skunk smell either; that shit’s very illegal here. What is it about ex-British island-city-states that makes them so uptight? Ahhh, it’s only the ones that dream of industry and capital… I get it now. At least they let it all out for Carnaval. They’re already building little makeshift huts out at the fairgrounds. It’s starting to look like the Neshoba County fair. So why am I so… almost… border-line… depressed?


Maybe it’s because everybody’s drinking and I’m not. There are no Tiki bars or Thai-style R&R joints here like Jamaica, but that doesn’t mean the people don’t drink. Bars are everywhere, but I’m not sure I’d be welcome. There’s nothing worse than drinking alone in a bar full of merry-makers, except maybe being harassed by shit-faced drunks. It’s hard to find a balance. But the taxi drivers seem nice enough. They probably want tips; yeah, right. Maybe it’s the inherent racism of the system here. I’m pretty sensitive to that even when it’s well-hidden, like here, even when it has little or nothing to do with me. You’d have to look pretty hard to even tell the difference between an African and a dark-skinned Dravidian, but they can, you can be sure. “You better get out of here,” a Trinidad Indian I’d previously met told me as I hung out in Congo Square. “They’ll kill you here.” ‘They’ is the key word. Racism is like conspiracy. There’s always a loosely defined ‘they’ and a ‘we’. They didn’t kill me at JSU. They didn’t kill me in Bamako. Why would they kill me here?


Still you gotta’ be careful. They say don’t walk the streets of Port-of-Spain at night. That makes it a little bit hard to drink unless I want to hire a cabbie to drink with me. I’m not THAT hard up, not yet anyway. At least I lucked out and accidentally got a room in the entertainment district. At least looking’s free, and so is music. Alcohol’s not quite the thrill it used to be anyway. The beer’s too strong now. Back when I first started experimenting we’re talking 3.2% THC- I mean alcohol- so plenty of time to build up a head of steam and a bladder full of piss before feeling much of a buzz. But now, with this 6… 8… 9% stuff you find in Amsterdam, it’s like the psychic reverse equivalent of a cheap Red Bull imitation. You gulp one down and by the time you realize what’s happening… it’s too late. You’re on the roof, ready to jump into the swimming pool below. When you finally wake up in ER you’ve still got visions of sugar plums dancing in your head.


Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the idea. I can’t exactly ‘hold my liquor’, though I never get shit-faced. I just stop. What’s so great about ‘holding’ it anyway? If you can ‘hold’ it, then why not just forego it? Getting a buzz is the idea, right? Actually all was fine until I got gout. That hurts like hell, believe me. Not coincidentally I believe, I started having bad reactions to beer, two-day hangovers and such; not wine or whiskey mind you, just beer. Since I decided to forego it, the gout attacks stopped. Problem is, I’m hesitant to drink anything now, and a good red wine is sometimes hard to find anyway in cheap bars. I’m still groping my way through the darkness. But that’s hardly depressing; that’s good news. If I were to drink a six-pack I’d probably be homicidal if not suicidal. I rarely got that far. So why the doom and gloom?


It’s Christmas time, that’s why. Christmas is like candy; it’s sweet but not necessarily good for you. Christmas is for kids, all the toys and free money and unrealistic expectations. I like the Christmastime shows on Nat Geo and the Hitler Channel searching for Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Darwinci code- I even like the Christmas carols- but not all that other stuff. Strangely enough, the symbols are all the same here, Santa and snow and midnight madness at the mall. The Christmas carols are even all the same familiar ones, including John Lennon, like some vast American conspiracy to dominate. The rain lets up enough for the plane to take off finally. Good-by Trinidad. I liked your food at least, even the ‘black pudding’ you tricked me into eating. I was expecting some rich chocolatey local confection and got blood-sausage chitlins; serves me right I guess, being born in Mississippi and all.


Welcome to Guyana. It’s the last link in a circum-Caribbean semi-circle of British intrigue that starts in Jamaica and the Cayman islands. Though the largest of the lot and a full-fledge South American state, it’s probably the poorest also. Georgetown is the perfect picture of a colonial capital going down on itself. In memory of my Thai wife who can’t pronounce the English name ‘George’, I affectionately refer to it as ‘Joshtown’, anything but Jonestown, which happened not so many years nor kilometers away. It still makes the news here. For those of you too young to remember, thirty years ago some nine hundred US citizens committed mass suicide in Guyana under the influence of a bad Elvis impersonator.

At first glance after dark Georgetown reminds me of nothing so much as… Vientiane, c. 1995, though in the light of day I’d say maybe Dakar. Lonely Planet says the market is ‘edgy’; I’d say it’s psychotic. Imagine a bus terminal and a market sharing the same space, accompanied by the sounds of barkers barking and horns honking. Their accents are pretty thick here too. You could almost imagine you’re speaking Creole. You almost are. Sometimes it’s nice to get a decent hotel in a weird place, so I do, complete with wi-fi, though not much cable TV to be had, just some Bollywood stuff, al-Jazeera and some American leftovers. I check out the zoo by accident, but the market’s the real zoo. I walk long distances as is my habit, making notes of cultural anomalies. ATM’s are all the rage, lines stretching around corners, notable considering that as of the latest Lonely Planet there were none. I check out various types of food, similar to Trinidad’s, but coffee’s non-existent.


Two days of that and I push on, straight across the new Berbice River bridge at New Amsterdam on its first day open for business. It was big news, the ribbon-cutting and all. I was expecting some concrete engineering marvel along the wild northern coast of South America. Alas and alack, the damn thing’s made of aluminum, bolted together like a child’s erector set, probably bought from US army surplus, riding about five feet above the water’s surface. I hope it’s low tide. It took ‘em two years to complete; the US Army could’ve assembled it and been killing people on the other side in less than two months, if not two weeks. They seem proud of it, so I suppress all laughter and sarcastic comments. I wonder if it’ll hold until my return.


Looks like I’ll ride out Christmas Day here somewhere in Guyana unless I happen to find easy passage straight through to Paramaribo in Suriname. I only hope I don’t get shut down with nothing to eat or drink. The Chinese should take care of that. So I get stuck at the border with Suriname- Corriverton, Guyana- Christmas Eve… and the place is hopping. They don’t decorate silly trees here; they party. There’s a little carnival midway set up on the main drag through town, and disco speakers are stacked all up and down the sidewalk blasting away at ear-splitting decibel levels. Liquor or beer, choose your weapon. It could be a long night, but at least the place isn’t shut down. Dutch-language TV from Suriname may have all the standard Christmas carols, but the street is different. Borders are the weirdest places in the world; just look at TJ. They run right through a lonely place in your mind. All the world’s fumbling schemers are here, the Indians the Chinese the Muslims and me. I guess I’m home for Christmas. Pray for rain.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

DREAMS OF CONGO SQUARE AND THE TACO THAT ATE TRINIDAD




So I went on to Barbados from Jamaica by Air Jamaica, spent the night, and then continued on to Trinidad by Liat Airlines. I’ll spend a week here total, getting a Suriname visa in the process, then continue on to Guyana for Christmas. I’ll case out Guyana, and then continue on to Suriname, which is a major variable for the trip. It sounds interesting. If I like it, I’ll stay a while. If not, and I get a multiple entry visa, I’ll head on to French Guyana, or back to (British) Guyana if only single-entry the Suriname visa. There are no air connections amongst the Guyanas. From there it’s back to Barbados for a few days, then back to Jamaica mid-January. After three more days there, I go on to Havana. I finally got the $250RT killer deal to Cuba. That’s about half the normal price. That’s what it should cost. That’s why I went to Jamaica. For $6-700 you can fly round trip straight to Cuba from TJ, no need to hip-hop the Caribbean. But that’s a slow way to reach 200 countries. It’s not easy connecting the Caribbean dots without a boat, but with my other killer $250RT from Jamaica-Barbados, I’m doing okay, and that’s a three-hour flight! Havana’s little more than an hour from Jamaica. Guyana’s the expensive leg. Are the hardest places to reach ultimately the most rewarding? We’ll soon find out. I’ve schemed on Suriname for years, even if their language IS called ‘Taki Taki’. I’m battle-hardened linguistically now, and more flexible to boot. Everything’s different now. At least I’m finally vindicated after losing my killer deal from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt last month in Chile.

You can’t tell much about a country from a single night, but I can tell that Barbados is a pricey mother. If the Caribbean as a whole is on US/Europe price schemes with ‘budget’ hotels typically topping $50 and $100 on the horizon, then Barbados is setting the pace. Good luck finding a cheapie there. You don’t see many backpackers in the Caribbean and that’s why. Jumping puddles ain’t cheap and the pipe dream of hopping a boat just doesn’t happen unless you hang in those circles, and regularly… yachts and backpackers are generally mutually exclusive concepts… though not necessarily. More likely, though, you’ll be flying in circles, which wouldn’t be so bad, especially time-wise, if the lodging were more affordable. This is not an unreasonable expectation, given the wage differentials between the Third World and the Western World. Real estate prices are another story. If there’s a phenomenon of ‘island dwarfism’ in relation to body size of islanders, there seems to be an economic ‘island inflation’ operating in inverse proportion. The smaller the island, the more expensive it is, perfect for the Caribbean bedroom community. Welcome to Barbados. The bottom line is: the US is a pretty good deal, really. Costs in many, but not all, Third World countries, are similar. Wages aren’t.


Welcome to Trinidad. Super Burritos Gigantes, look out! You have competition brewing down in the southern Caribbean, down around where the islands meet South America meet India meet Africa. It’s called roti dhal puree. Imagine a Mexican burrito that has everything- no wait- that’s too easy. Imagine ordering Ethiopian food and taking that entire meal laid out on injera bread and fold the whole thing up into a giant four-cornered pie capable of being considered ‘takeout’ with at least enough structural integrity to stay together until you start nibbling away at it. There’s dhal, spinach, chickpeas, mango chutney, two kinds of chicken complete with bone, and of course ‘pepper’ (salsa); just tell them what to put in. Show me a burrito that can compete with that. This is what comes out of ‘roti’ shops in Trinidad, very similar to what goes on in curry kitchens, except ladled over bread instead of rice. ‘Roti’, of course, means ‘bread’ in Indo/Malay, but I’ve never heard the term used with Indian cuisine. The same word got carried to Thailand by the country’s Muslims to describe a sweet crepe-like street food concoction, so I’m guessing maybe some Commonwealth Malays introduced the concept here, too, though the components are unmistakably Indian. You can’t rule out the Chinese, though, considering they make Jamaican food in Jamaica and ‘Creole’ food here. Such are the mutations in the DNA of cuisine as handed down mouth to mouth over generations.


Following in the great tradition of Britain’s colonial island/city/states Singapore, Hong Kong, Penang, Zanzibar, Mumbai, and… oh yeah… New York, Trinidad has an ethnic mix that must be seen to be believed. Almost equal parts African and Indian, Trinidad also has significant proportions of Chinese, Arabs, and Hispanic Latinos. The Indians dominate the economy for sure, but Chinese run supermarkets and restaurants as they do everywhere, and the ‘Arabs’ are probably in fact Lebanese who have been trading (fabrics especially) world-wide even longer than the other two, even since they were Phoenicians and Carthaginians long before they were Arabs. Hanno the Navigator explored the west coast of Africa almost two thousand years before Prince Henry, Marco Polo, Ibn Battutah, Leo Africanus, Zheng He or any of the rest. This is the way the British liked it, ruling from the balance sheet by mercantile principles of economic control and hub-and-spoke monopolies. It worked far better than the French system of direct governmental control, which has spawned an overly dependent and costly colonial system which to this day doesn’t even WANT independence. It also allowed good food to flourish and supplant an otherwise dubious British cuisine, only pies making the transition. Pot of pie anyone?


I’ve often wondered what it was like in Congo Square in New Orleans back in the early 1800’s. At the point in time when Louisiana joined the USA, African practices had long been suppressed by the English and then American settlers with their families and religions and five-year plans, something the French and Spanish in Louisiana Territory had never bothered to do. So when the US headed ‘West’ in the early 1800’s and riverboats began docking in New Orleans, they were treated to an unparalleled spectacle at Congo Square on Sunday afternoons. Eye-witness reports tell of hundreds of slaves and free men of color (a large percentage of the population even then) taking the day off to perform age-old celebrations of music and dance in front of equally large numbers of spectators. This inspired more than a few Homies in the process. Thus almost all forms of American music had their origins right then and there. This golden age of cultural intercourse was as short-lived as the golden age of riverboat travel unfortunately, as trains soon passed them by and southern apartheid tightened its grip on all forms of African expression as a threat to its economic and political stranglehold. It would all be re-born and abstracted and sanitized post-War as minstrel shows, minus the animal skins and voodoo.


Trying to imagine something and actually seeing it are two different things. What goes down when the sun goes down in the pedestrian park of Port-of-Spain is the closest I’ve seen to what I imagine Congo Square to have been like. Mostly its just rival boom-boxes selling pirate CD’s and ensuring that no one will suffer in silence, but somehow it lives and moves and breathes like an organism of which the individuals are only body parts. Liquor lines tables and the brain cells of people dancing with their own ghosts, both aging retirees on the way out feeling it for the last time, and young bucks on the way in feeling it all for the first time. The music is primarily calypso-derived soca, with a thousand hyphens attached reflecting each new generation’s novel input. There’s a heavy admixture of modern American hip-hop of course, but with one important difference- I’m liking it. I think the problem with so much rap is that the music is lost in the background and the ‘poetry’ is so bad. Keep the music up front and good, and the stuff goes down easy, just a few lumps in the gravy. The live bands are even better of course. Even now, long before Carnaval, steel ‘pan’ bands are honing and licking their chops, hoping to win the Carnaval competitions. I wish I were here. I think I like Trinidad more than Brazil. Too bad they speak English.


Trinidad seems to overtly prize its African connection more than any place I’ve yet seen in the Caribbean. That may seem surprising, considering its less-than-absolute majority. Maybe that explains it. I’ve seen people wear true African dress here, but nowhere else in the Caribbean; rasta colors yes, but not real African. I’ve seen shops selling African goods here that would rival those of the US, not just cheap tourist schlock. I can watch the ‘Africa Channel’ on TV here. I’ve never seen it elsewhere, except maybe LinkTV in LA. The ‘Cowheel Soup’ may not be my favorite item on the menu, but there’s plenty else to choose from- oxtail, etc. Yes, there’s a real cowheel in there. Yes, it’s disgusting. Yes, the soup is tasty. But there’s plenty of Indian and Chinese food, and the bakeries aren’t half bad. Street food is second to none. If roti is the Trinidad burrito, then ‘doubles’ are the Trinidad taco. This is fast food par excellence, the same kind of curry thing but smaller and rolled over, ‘doubled’; get it? They come off the line about 5-6 per minute by a guy who resembles nothing more than a DJ wowing the crowd with his mixes. The trick is to eat them before the goop drips all over you and starts to get embarrassing- true fast food; eat it fast. It’s also fart food. Mexican food can’t hold a candle to this stuff. Don’t try that at home.


The music is good and the bars stay open all night on weekends. The food is good and there’s even a local home-grown Starbuck’s-style coffee chain called ‘Rituals’ (yes!) with little Aunt Jemimas cranking out as good of a macchiato as I’ve ever had, for prices at least no higher than US standards. Anything’s better than Nescafe (a menu in Guatemala once translated this as ‘Nescoffee’). It sounds like paradise. So what’s my problem? I’m afraid my trip my climax prematurely. I just started and there’s no return to Trinidad planned. Maybe it’ll just get better. Maybe this is nothing compared to Guyana, and Suriname will put them all to shame. Maybe the dollar will re-gain ground against the euro and I’ll go on to French Guiana also. Maybe ‘Good Morning America’ will invite me on the show to tell all about it. Maybe Trinidad is a revelation. Maybe it’ll be a Merry Christmas just five days from now. Maybe it’ll rain all day and I can just keep on dreaming…

Saturday, December 13, 2008

MONTEGO BAY: FRIENDLY NATIVES, SOUL FOOD, AND THE QUEST FOR (WI) FI





The Caribbean ain’t cheap, but you probably already knew that. Why should a picture-postcard-perfect swimming-pool-to-the-gods only a half day from approximately one-billion North Americans and Europeans sell itself cheaply? If you’re okay with $50 ‘budget’ hotels, then you’re in. That’s the problem with Lonely Planet- ‘budget’ means different things in different countries. Of course if you want cheaper islands you can go to Indonesia. Everybody knows that. But you’d spend it all on the flight to get there, and that would mean missing some qualities peculiarly Jamaican- like reggae, Rastafarians, and rum, the ‘3R’s of Jamaican experience, to which another should probably now be added, i.e. running, as in Usain Bolt, who almost stole the Olympics from Michael Phelps and even broke records while mocking the losers, including his own teammates, a luxury not even Michael Phelps could afford. Given the success and lingering nostalgia for the ‘Cool Runnings’ of Jamaican bobsled and John Candy movie fame, I suspect there are already efforts underway to somehow connect all these runnings and capitalize on Jamaica’s other non-dreadlocked success.

For all its cache’ within my wildest imagination, the reality on the ground in Montego Bay is a bit different. By my standards I’d say that MoBay is a veritable cold bed of activity… which is good. Though it’s long been superseded by Negril as the hipper alternative and Ocho Rios as the slick uptown cousin, MoBay still manages to rock on weekends and cruise-ship days, and certainly functions as an airport terminus far more user-friendly than funky Trenchtown… I mean Kingston. Yet for me it’s still a bit lacking in services… like maybe supermarkets? Anybody here ever heard of those? If you don’t have traditional ‘green’ markets, then you’re supposed to have supermarkets; that’s the deal. Anything else is substandard. Thank God for the Chinese or there wouldn’t be anything in the stores to eat, as the take’s probably too low for a self-respecting Brit. They run the banks.


Put a dozen of the same thing in a box and offer a discount and voila!, wholesale was invented. Take them back out and stack them on a shelf and you’ve got a grocery store. Take that away and you’re back in Africa, people selling along the roadside and out of their trunks. It looks like a Dead show, or maybe Dimanche en Bamako. Chinese scour the world looking for places that need some basic mom-and-pop groceries, and seem to be doing quite well, thank you. This is not ‘yellow peril’ conspiracy mind you, just Xiao Jie Blou and her husband Zhou trying to take care of her family and put food on the table, everybody’s table. They even open on Sunday. They even learn patois. Their stores here look just like the old market districts of Thailand, a mangled tangle of shelves and boxes, whose owners now scream ‘foreign takeover’ as the big fancy European supermarkets move on to their prized turf. NIC citizens now hop in their cars and drive to the outskirts of town, in a world paradigm shift that probably still outranks E-commerce. Half the world didn’t even have telephones until cells took over recently, al-Qaeda and all the rest. My wife’s never written a check in her life, much less received one. No one in Thailand writes checks, because no one will take them, because they’ll bounce until the rubber wears out, because that imaginary stasis of a balanced budget is an abstract concept, something which eludes many people.


But the best thing about Montego Bay is that there’s a real town there, though a comfy mile from the Hip Strip here where all the hotels, bars and Margaritaville are. That’s enough to keep most of the riff-raff out and keep the restaurant prices up. A mile the other way and you’re at the airport. That’ll teach them to overcharge on airport taxis; I’ll just walk. A five minute taxi ride here costs the same as a thirty minute ride at BKK. So MoBay’s not Kingston, but once again, that’s good. At least it’s more of a city than Negril, which I haven’t been to, but I doubt I’ll like it. You can sense those things. If there’s one thing I hate worse than the choking air of dirty degenerate cities it’s the rarefied air of pristine pretentious resort areas. There’s got to be a balance. So MoBay ‘proper’ is okay, funky and frenetic, kinda’ like Jackson’s Farish Street up until the eighties (all that’s changed now), kinda’ like Port-au-Prince, or Dakar almost spitting images. How is that possible, since the African diaspora occurred before the age of modern cities and the commerce and consumption that the Industrial Revolution ushered in?


I finally even found something resembling a real supermarket, so I’m excited. Before that the most exciting thing so far was seeing a buck (butt?) naked woman walking down the street in the early morning as if that were the most normal thing in the world. Maybe for her it is. I wanted to stop her and get her story, but didn’t want to offend her sensibilities or violate any religious taboos. I wouldn’t want to change any of the local customs, no. You’ve got to be sensitive. The Interzone bozos almost got to me the first day with all their little dog-and-pony shows and psychological manips to get me into their shops and their houses and their pants to spend all my money before it’s all gone, stash for cash. They can sense fresh meat like a vulture at five thousand feet. Funny thing is that by day two or three that’s all over and I’m now like part of the landscape, twilight man, homo erectus Montegus, the guy who walks for miles looking for something nous ne savons pas, but never at midday nor midnight. That’s me. Roasting buns in the midday sun was never my vice, nor late late nights.


Most of the beaches are private, so long walks on the beach are not an option. It’s beyond me why anyone would do anything else there besides swim or have intercourse… I’m talking about SOCIAL intercourse, you dirty minds out there, talking and laughing and mutual masterminding, that sort of thing. I wouldn’t mind some myself, swimming that is, but it hardly seems worth all the extra protection for that one sublime moment when you surrender all to the warm wet wildness of nature’s vast womb. Where does the passport and money go? Such considerations are the bane of the independent traveler who long ago forewent the pleasures of tour guides and glossy brochures and pleasure palaces in favor of actually seeing some places, unedited and in the raw, if not le boeuf.


So I quickly get a daily routine together, going to the city in the morning while it’s cool to explore and eat Jamaican lunch for cheap, then head back to the ‘hip strip’ to beat the heat and send out these messages in bottles in the hopes that someone will rescue me. If I want sit-down supper, then I’ll go to the Chinese joint down the street close by. Given the lack of groceries, there’s not much need to bemoan the lack of a kitchen. Half the Chinese eateries in the world operate on that principle- ‘we can do it cheaper and better than you can do it yourself.’ The other half try to capitalize on their exotica Asiatica where the Homies ain’t never seen no slant-eyed stuff (“I wonder what else is slanted, yuk yuk?”) nor pineapples and peppers in the same dish. You get used to it.


The Jamaicans are genuinely friendly people, despite the hustlers, though like all such people they run the risk of running it into the ground and making genuine pests of themselves as has long been the case in Morocco and is arguably in process in Thailand. That friendliness usually carries a price; they’ve all got their hands out. Sometimes it’s nice just to blend in to the point of being ignored. Anything else is a subtle form of racism, however benign. But it CAN be fun, all the extra attention, especially if you’re a novice traveler looking for thrills. Me, I’m past all that; yeah, right. No, me, I’m just looking for a wi-fi signal. What was optional a year ago is no longer so. I’ll pay extra for a wi-fi signal and even go without cable TV. I just opted out of a place a few bucks cheaper WITH KITCHEN because there’s probably no wi-fi; MAYBE a rogue signal, but no guarantee. I’m borrowing it where I am now, and then I’ve only got it on the balcony, drifting in and out of consciousness. Step inside and it’s gone. Such is love. The Information Age is no longer a societal paradigm, but a personal way of life, to have info constantly at one’s fingertips, constantly up-dated and inter-active. I wonder if it’s not the same urge, interpolated and extrapolated, as the primordial quest to control fire, create language, and conquer continents. Outer space and inner space transect right here and right now.


Jamaica’s so-called ‘jerk cuisine’ is not bad, something of a cross between soul food and Indian cuisine, though I’m hardly an expert after only a week’s time and something of a weak stomach, cautious after decades of self-abuse with chiles and derivative products. That seems a little odd with only a handful of native Indians here, they one of the traditional merchant groups who, along with the Chinese and the original peripatetic Semitic Lebanese, keep Jamaica out of the jungle. As Chinese cooks increasingly take over cooking chores, Jamaican food itself may be taking on some Chinese qualities. Curries there are cooked from scratch and piping hot, not perpetual stews simply ladled over and out. The bakeries aren’t bad either, combining the chores of meaty British patties and sweet European pastries, with biscuits both British and American to boot. Too bad there are none of these on the ‘hip strip’. They’d probably do well, since street food is hard to find. Fancy restaurants aren’t. Neither are skunks, the smell of which pervades the atmosphere. I suppose you could eat them too, maybe mixed into brownies. But I’m past all that.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

TRAILS OF TWO CITIES- NOODLE WARS, BUDDHIST DESIRES, HOT SHOWERS, AND THE FREE TEMPTATIONS OF TRAVEL (part 2)



My current considerations for choice between TJ and Ensenada are more basic, like which place is more convenient, with better prices, with cable TV, and especially Internet. Two years ago finding a cafĂ© with free Internet in Ensenada seemed pretty hip, harbinger of great things to come. Now it’s still the same, at a time when wi-fi is fairly standard fare in US hotel/motels, even cheap ones, and fairly easy to find world-wide, especially when you book online. But that’s not the case in Ensenada, with only a few high-end places showing up on my screen. In fact you’re lucky to find cable TV, or a movie channel at all. They must’ve cracked down on the cable guys. I’ve stayed all over town, moving on when a place renovates and raises its rates. I’ve only got one bottom line- no depression. But the blanket at my regular place is now getting holes, the water only gets hot for about three minutes, and the second-storey railings are dangerous. Cable or wi-fi wouldn’t matter much if I were still drinking y/o single, but… yeah, I’m gettin’ older 2. So it’s time to say good-bye to my trusty third home. I’ve already waved off Chiang Rai and Flagstaff this year, so it only seems fittin’. Everything’s different now.


So I get a room on the Revolucion strip in TJ with free wi-fi, scalding showers, morning sun, and plenty of room to work out, all for $22 Sun-Thurs. I’m in cheap hotel heaven. There’s no cable, but local TJ and San Diego’s okay as long as I got wi-fi. Being an Internet couch potato’s better than TV, right? The first night’s rough with the disco across the street going until 4am, but that’s fixable. I’m still nursing a tooth extraction on the #30 molar, so sleep’s not exactly a dream anyway. The doctor’s sixty-five and says it’s the toughest he’s ever done. I tell him that’s why I chose a doctor with experience. He tells me that’s why he charged me fifty extra pesos. The Thai dentist cracked it on a root job; an Arizona dentist x-rayed and diagnosed it; Mexican dentist jerked the mother. First tooth of mine’s ever had three countries and three languages. I thought he was going for the crowbar at one point. But TJ’s okay. There’s only one problem.


Last night thirty-three people were killed in TJ (including nine de-caps, and I don’t mean tire blowouts) as drug turf wars rage on. Two of the victims were children. One of the incidents occurred in a grocery store. That’s getting close to home. Weird shit’s going on everywhere, Mumbai not the least of it, as the world gets crowded. And doing things the much-touted ‘Thai way’ hardly seems enlightened, passivity as philosophy, allowing anti-democracy protesters to shut the country down. These are the same people who protested FOR democracy fifteen years ago, before they found out that idiots would elect sweet-talking ‘big men’ handing out favors every time. The conflict has spread to Thai Town in LA. Oord’s noodle shop makes the help wear red on Sunday. Those are PPP colors. Local PAD supporters say if they don’t wear yellow, or at least stay neutral, they won’t eat noodles there any more. PPP people claim that PAD ranks back home are being swelled by opportunists, reprobates, and prostitutes… but I won’t go there.


What’s a poet/blogger/traveler to do? Travel… and write. Future archeologists won’t believe it. Hopefully they can download the computers they’ll find in middens. The dollar’s stronger than in years and gas prices have been granted a reprieve. That won’t last forever. The US economy sucks… so the dollar is strong. Go figure. Recession is not so bad for us fiscal conservatives who don’t feed on credit. It’s my turn. So with one trip barely over, I plan the next, Caribbean al invierno. The Chilean gypsy’s love potions seem to have worked, so I’ll revolve around my wife in LA. The Caribbean’s still America, right, so close enough? For now I’ll just hang in TJ and listen to Tinariwen on MySpace. The sun sets at 4pm now, but temps are still mild. There’s a parallel reality, a real Mexican city, parallel to the Revolucion strip, just one block away. There’s a cultural center and an annual film festival here. Manu Chao and Lila Downs play concerts here regularly. But where do the people who make fun of TJ go when they visit? The Strip of course. Me in TJ? Or even LA? Who’d’ve ever thought? Life’s weird; you can quote me on that.


I almost feel guilty, that so many people are undergoing economic hardship right now and I’m traveling the world, but… naah. I’m just doing what I always do. Others spend denarii like it’s going out of style when times are good; now they cry when the credit’s gone. I never ask for credit, though I certainly could. It’s just not my way of life. People usually call me a tightwad when they’re not calling me a wastrel traveler. But I don’t spend that much and still manage to enjoy. The numbers are finally in from this last South American trip, $17-1800 for fifty days in four countries over thirty degrees of latitude and probably half that of longitude. That includes every thing but the flight from North America to South America, which was a freebie from points. Even for a paid flight that would have been only fifty dollars a day, not bad for some righteous travel. I don’t sleep in bunk beds either. You can’t live in LA on that, not like a human at least, and you wouldn’t see much if you did, just some pissy streets and lots of attitude. At least the food is good, and the music. Though immigrants can certainly do it for less, they’ll eventually upgrade or go home. They’ll live better later. That’s what I’m doing. We’re all immigrants here, or used to be, at least. I still am.


If the goal is to visit every single sovereign nation in the world, then I’ve still got a long way to go. I’m not a flight attendant, and doing mere airport stops wouldn’t account to much anyway. If someone’s been to them all already, then I haven’t heard about it. The guy who gets all the press and the ‘Good Morning’ gig for ‘most traveled person’ works from some list of 692 ‘significant places’ of which he’s covered maybe ninety percent. But I don’t know who compiled that list or what makes those places so significant. I’m looking at the UN list. At least maybe I’ve got as many countries as I’ve got years now. That’s a start. Europe’s got a quarter of them, of course, so that’s gravy, since you don’t even need visas for most, just the old USSR. Hopefully you won’t pass through one in the middle of the night unbeknownst to you. Europe’s got lots of cheap flights now, but flyovers don’t count. You have to stand on solid ground; that’s the rule.


For now the Caribbean Basin is the project. There are lots of little countries there and they’re scattered around. Any increase in flight fares could be disastrous. So I’ll start in Jamaica and take it from there. Barbados and Trinidad and Guyana are already booked, and some others should fall into place, Surinam at the least. That’s one of those back-water plums of international travel, a back-packer’s wet dream of cultural, linguistic, and sensory masala... or not. That’s the gamble. I’d like to go to Cuba of course, but that would be wrong. Uh huh. It’s a good time to use those frequent flyer miles. They’re cracking down on unused accounts. The trick is to work from your computer anywhere in the world. Or better yet, work from your world anywhere in the computer. The clock’s ticking.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

TRAILS OF TWO CITIES- DRUG WARS, CATHOLIC DESIRES, COLD SHOWERS, AND THE THREE TEMPTATIONS OF EVE (part 1)




Tale of two cities, TJ and Ensenada? This must be some kind of joke, right? Tijuana and Ensenada are a joke, right, just cheap kicks for the Homies, though as close as many will get to a foreign country? I consider such slights to be misplaced, not only out of consideration to the million souls who call the area home, but for the fact that the area is truly unique in the world. The entire US-Mexico border is; never has a line divided so much, Latino-Germanic, control-freedom, centrality-sprawl, pessimism-optimism. But beyond the Roman sandals, red tile roofs, and Latin language, Mexico is essentially an Indian country, more than any other country in Latin America, with the possible exception of Guatemala. While Peru and Bolivia may have large percentages and the official ‘Indian’ languages of Quechua and Aymara’, they also have large purely white populations who dominate the country, at least pre-Evo. Such is not necessarily the case in Mexico, where populations have long mixed freely and cuisine, appearance, and custom are arguably more indigenous than European. The ‘rez’ in Arizona looks uncannily similar to Mexico, from populations long separated by a border.

The first time I visited the Mexican border was back in the old days of donkey shows, Boys’ Town, and choc-a-block whore houses. They closed all that down long ago. Now the girls stand on the sidewalks not a hundred yards from the silver arch, wearing cheap make-up like neon signs for cheap hotels where they line the entrances. This is a vast improvement over discreet internal goings-on, girls in Catholic-school uniforms now selling sex on sidewalks. That’s not fair. Somebody’s downloading my subconscious, not that I would prey on their youth mind you, but I might pray on their religion. My tastes in women are Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish, anything but Muslim. But I’m married now. Still back then I was enthralled at the possibilities for sex, drugs, and r&r. The food was wild, the gas smelled weird and the taxi drivers were eager to please. I was hooked, and the rest is history. I was convinced this was the weirdest place in the world. Now I know why. It is. I quickly moved on to more exotic and far-flung locations, from whose lofty vantage the US-Mexico border seemed quaint at best, hardly the ‘real thing’, maybe even a perversion.


After traveling and dealing handicrafts from many countries for many years I finally re-visited the border about a decade ago as a tax maneuver. Now that I have a foreign ‘tax home’ (how’s that for a misnomer?) complete with foreign income, to avoid paying taxes on it in the US I need to stay out of the country. Though Thailand was/is the ‘tax home’ of record, the Mexican border certainly qualifies as another country, so is useful for killing some time in and around the US. Welcome to Ensenada. It seemed pretty nice, especially a decade ago when I was still single and anxious to compare it tit-for-tat with Thailand after a couple years there. I also needed to revive my use of Spanish language, in serious atrophy after being displaced by Thai, though never a problem before, like linguistic civil wars. Ensenada was rockin’ back then in several bars I liked, ranchero, salsa, and jazz for the price of a beer. That was when I could not only drink every night, but drink in several different places every night, just like Thailand but better music and fatter girls.


All that’s changed now. As Tijuana degenerates into drug cartel turf wars, its party scene is going south, mostly to Rosarito but also Ensenada. Hardly more than a stop sign ten years ago, Rosarito Beach is now party central, less than half an hour from TJ and open for business, complete with double-decker discos and border-blaster boom boxes. Ensenada is not immune. Though larger and better able to maintain its original identity, it’s under increasing assault, mostly self-inflicted. Hussong’s, formerly a funky cantina with a far-reaching business plan, has long since one-upped itself with ‘Papas ‘n Beer’ and ‘Mango Mango’, lines stretching out the door. What’s the big attraction anyway? Aren’t California bars good enough? Not if you’re eighteen years old, they’re not. In Mexico teen-age American girls can dance on the bar and do all the other things that drive the local boys crazy, especially the ones who’ve seen ‘Girls Gone Wild’. What will happen if and when new passport regs are applied to the border areas is uncertain, but the likely economic impact is real enough that special consideration was given at the last minute, and implementation was postponed.


The two cities themselves long represented divisions as real as the border itself symbolized- TJ the cheap and tacky, Ensenada authentic and self-sufficient. The same symbolism has long defined other cities of my consideration, including LA-San Fran, Chiang Mai-Chiang Rai, Sedona-Flagstaff, all representing a fundamental difference in lifestyle. Sedona people don’t DO Flagstaff, and vice-versa, generally speaking. Even though the two are only thirty miles and thirty minutes away, that three thousand foot difference in elevation seems to speak volumes. If nothing else, the age difference is palpable. Falling on ice probably isn’t much fun over sixty. San Fran’s more romantic and intellectual, while LA’s more physical and image-conscious. Chiang Rai is the ‘real’ Thailand; Chiang Mai is Interzone. Well Ensenada’s changed a lot in the last ten years and not just with the TJ party scene. Cruise ships land now with regularity and have come to define the town. Chinese walk the streets in throngs, but I suspect they’re investment tourists. They’re not snapping photos; they’re snapping up opportunities. Chinese restaurants have vastly improved beyond the chop suey fare of yesteryear and buffets are down to $3 a head. Elsa’s pollo con mole is still $2 a plate, with tortillas made creamy only by the use of lard, pure lard. Loosen that belt.

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