Bali: no country for old men?

tegallalang face

     A face from the Tegallalang rice terraces. Lots of girls like this one try and sell postcards to tourists. Last time I took photos of a bunch of them, went down to Ubud to make prints, and returned to give the girls photos of themselves. The looks on their faces when they got them was worth all the world’s gold.

     So I was looking for a place to sleep in Sanur on the east coast. There is one backpackers hostel, but it ruffled my feathers when I read on their website, “PLEASE UNDERSTAND WE HAVE AN AGE LIMIT OF 35 years or younger IN THE DORM ROOMS.”
     Once in a while I see something like this and I always become agitated, probably more than I should be. I think I am less bothered by genocide. I am also confused about the problem. Are we boring? Do we snore disproportionately? Do our dentures keep slipping out and hitting the bunkmate below? (I’m really, really sorry, Mr. Norwegian! Won’t happen again!) Do we sit all day in the common areas and yell at everyone who will listen that it was all better in the good old days? Do we turn off the lights at 10pm and grumble if anyone turns them on? I decided to politely write the hostel:
     Me: Hi, I was wondering why backpackers over 35 aren’t allowed.
     Jackass: “I don’t spend a lot of time asking ‘WHY?’ Instead I focus on what I should do now”
          Jeff Dixon-The Key To The Kingdom
     Me: That’s an answer? I should instead focus on trying to be under 35?
     Jackass: How old are you?
     Me: Too old. I am curious what it is about over-35s that you have that policy.
     Jackass: Why would an old man want to share a room with young 18yr old girls?
     Why can’t we smoke in Restaurants
     Why do we have to wear a helmet on a motor bike
     Why do we have to where seat belts
     Me (biting my tongue): Are women over 35 allowed?
     Jackass: No, I’m sorry thats just our rules, we have implemented them at the request of the majority of backpackers. We initially didn’t have this rule and on 2 occasions we had several complaints from our guests about older guests ogling at the young girls and one occasion where the girls felt unsafe. So to be fair the rules also apply to women. Hope u understand. There are however many other backpackers in Bali that allow older guests. Enjoy.
funky smell

     …and we’re going to need to check IDs.

     I am amused by “young 18 yr old girls”. Are there “old 18 yr old girls?” He might be the one with the obsession. “On 2 occasions we had several complaints”? “The majority of backpackers”? I doubt this, and even if something did happen to one of his precious 18-year-old girls—adults—are they really threatened more by us drooling, senile oldsters than a 19-year-old boy, say? Jackass.
lion painting
     I was in the Sanur market, the only idiot in the midday heat shopping in the inferno of the enclosed space. No one was particularly interested in selling me anything they had displayed. Instead, as I walked around I heard, “Hello, massage? Special massage!” and “Special massage…Bali girl!” I bought some clothes from one stall and I asked the woman what was distinctive about a Balinese girl. As a non sequitur she said the girls are all from Java and that the pimp (i.e. everyone in the market) will take 500,000 rupiah ($40) but pay the girl only 200,000 or 300,000.
kent birds
indo haircut

     Great name for a barber shop. FA-FUNK, y’all!

kuta sunset board

     Sunset on Kuta Beach. It’s so beautiful in this direction but everything behind me is so ugly: masses of people, non-stop noise, endless shops crammed together, horrendous traffic, continual hassle, and darting motorbikes all in heavy, heavy overabundance.

tanah lot sunset

     Tanah Lot, another photo where there are a zillion people off-camera. Absolute hordes of tourists go for the sunset. Traffic is so bad coming back that it took me two hours to go 21km.
     What I will remember more from this day was that I was hitchhiking nearby when two chickens were crossing the road to get to the other side and a passing tourist van hit one of them. The dying chicken lay flailing in the middle of the road while the other ran circles around it in distress and then had to dart to the side of the road to avoid cars. The chicken had to wait, but when there was a moment, he ran back to the suffering one, scratching at it with one foot before scurrying off to the side of the road again. It was touching to watch.

tirta warung

     I was saying last month how accessible Penang felt, but Indonesia is even more open and inviting. I went to Tirtagangga on the northeast coast for no reason at all and these women working at a food stall let me hang out with them in the open kitchen, let me ask how they cook, what ingredients they use, their thoughts on monosodium glutamate, etc. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s a great feeling to have this freedom to get all my stupid questions answered.

tirta nasi campur

     They make this fried rice for 25,000 rupiah (US$2.) Love the tempeh (fermented soy bean cake) on top and on the side. Tempeh is God’s gift to the world, and it’s a mystery to me why it hasn’t taken off in USA, especially when we grow so much of the world’s soybeans.

tirta organic farmer

     After my fried rice I went for a walk away from the village, following a religious procession that one always finds in Bali (A local told me, “It’s easy to be Muslim, all you do is pray five times a day. Being Hindu, much more difficult!”) and I stopped to buy some fruit at this family’s shop. The guy didn’t speak great English, but it didn’t stop him from passionately telling me that organic farming could change the whole community. The problem is that he had trouble convincing his fellow farmers, who blindly want the fastest harvest possible.

water palace

     The Tirtagangga water palace, a relaxing place to beat the afternoon heat. I made small talk with a friendly couple from Shanghai on vacation, but when I asked them their opinion of what is happening in Hong Kong, they suddenly went stiff. I killed the moment.

     I flew on Malindo Airlines from Kuala Lumpur to Bali for US$68 one way and $60 coming back with one free checked bag. Not bad for a three-hour flight. AirAsia was similar, but you have to pay for bags and I tire of AirAsia’s heavy-handedness such as when they announce that you can’t eat your own food on the flight and where they slyly try to help you forget to opt out of insurance and seat reservations.
     Visa on arrival is now $35. The international departure tax everyone must pay at the airport (if you are not flying Garuda Indonesia) is now 200,000 rupiah (US$16.50).
     I met an Aussie guy who came through immigration quickly even though several flights had arrived at the same time. He was just as surprised, but he said a security officer sidled up to him when he was filling out his arrival form and asked if he wanted “express service”, promising he would go right through for 300,000 rupiah (US$25.) He said sure, the security guy took his passport to get stamped, and he buzzed right through.
     Just so you know, there is no such thing as express service. Likewise, when I saw a friend off at the airport, the security guard on the outside of departures whispered to me that I could go inside for $10. My first time to Indonesia I bribed a Bali immigration guy $10 to let me into the country without an onward ticket. (That’s how you know it was a long time ago; it only took $10.)
     Last time I was here I wrote a quick guide to Ubud on $10 a day that was well-received by my fellow bottom feeders. Two changes from that: they fenced up the Monkey Forest Park so you can’t sneak in and a good tip is to check out the Ubud market before dawn to see it busier than at any time during the day. Also, there is something resembling mass transit in the Kuta area now with the Kura Kura bus. Together with the Sarbagita bus, it’s a step, a small one.
     I finally stayed at a Tune Hotel my last night in Kuta. It’s a real hotel that can be had at a hostel price if you book it on the right day at the right time. It’s well worth checking out, but wifi is unnecessarily expensive and you don’t need to buy air con since there is a fan.
     It’s irresponsible to hitchhike in Bali on busy roads by simply throwing your thumb out. The problem is no one is expecting to see a hitchhiker and they stop impulsively without thinking of traffic behind or beside them. I learned that the hard way by almost causing several accidents. I instead picked my spots by extending the thumb only when it was safe for a car to stop.
     Distances are short, but traffic and roads make any traveling time-consuming. Still, it’s fun, and the people are great. A few foreigners pick me up, too. A Belgian woman who had been a diving instructor years ago took me. I said I know a Hungarian diving instructor. “Viki?” she asked. Yes.


     Tegallalang rice terraces

bali garbage

     A common sight in Bali.

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Last gasp from Malaysia—until I visit another 15 times

say huat

     Say huat?

     Another visit to Malaysia in the books. I accomplished nothing I intended to (go somewhere new, see inexpensive doctors for a checkup, check my skin post-chicken pox, etc.) but I’m less bothered than I should be about it. I’m also 300kg now. It was time to go before I ate myself into Bolivia, as Mike Tyson might say.
nasi lemak penang

     Preparing what is arguably the national Malay dish, nasi lemak, literally “fat rice”, that is quite cheap. It’s not enough to say there is Malay, Indian and Chinese food here. There are sub-categories and a broad mixing of cultures, such as nasi kandar which is predominantly Tamil-Muslim food, a simple rice and meat dish that is smothered in a variety of rich curries. Nyonya/Peranakan cuisine is from the intermarriage between Chinese and Malaysians, Chinese spices making subtle changes to Malay/Indonesian dishes. In Malaysia there’s probably a cuisine inspired by the third uncle of one-legged Portuguese who hail from southwest Mongolia.

tandoori chicken set

     In some circles this tandoori chicken and nan set is called flavoursome. It reminds me that every time I leave Malaysia before I get the definitive answer to this burning question: is ghee the devil? (I say yes.) This cost nine ringgit, or about US$2.75. Malaysia is very good value for money, but it’s poor form to say that it’s cheap in front of Malaysians when local wages are so low.
     This was at Sri Ananda Bahvan restaurant in Penang. The food is excellent, but I find my favorite part of going there is when a tall, lithe, dark-skinned Tamil girl with long, shimmering black hair and bewitching eyes, all improbable elegance amidst the din of Little India, lopes in like a gazelle, and all the guys working there, which seems like dozens since workers cost three cents to import from India and Nepal, manage to get a short but solid stare in like they have never seen a woman before.

subway penang

     Subway has opened ominously close to the World Heritage zone in Penang at the end of Lebuh Chulia. I’m heartened that I have never seen it busy. It saves me from not giving foreigners the stinkeye when I walk by. Yes, we westerners can get tired of Asian food after a while on the road, but out of respect can’t we all wait until we get to Kuala Lumpur or Hat Yai, please? Thank you.

mcdonalds penang

     This is even more ominous, that the deep pockets of McDonald’s have been able to renovate historic buildings for their own use. Or, should we rejoice that they are being renovated at all? Is the trade-off worth it?

bread history

     Cutesy names aside, stay far away from western food in Malaysia.

danish briyani

     I don’t know what Danish briyani is, but there is a finite amount of meals you will eat in Malaysia and they are too precious to be used for experimenting.

butterworth hitch

     Hitchhiking from Penang to Kuala Lumpur was easy. I took the ferry to Butterworth where I very quickly got a ride with two Tamil women and then this Tamil couple drove me out to near the highway. The key to hitching in Malaysia is to go from big kawasan rehat (rest area) to big kawasan rehat—also known as “R&R”s with excellent facilities: one or two gas stations, a good-sized food court, and sometimes a hotel or a Starbucks.

red sidewalk

     Malaysian police loves making posters and banners of gruesome photos of accidents to try and scare drivers to go more safely. I accept your gratitude for not having a more close-up photo, especially the lower right one—unless you want to see it, then click here. It’s really bad, I’m warning you.

do not go on stage

     If you tried to put up this sign in the Philippines and karaoke was involved, you would start a riot.

     I don’t have photos of:
     The thief who burst out of a cell phone shop followed by two guys in hot pursuit, so hot that they caught up to him ten meters away, the thief was so slow and clumsy.
     Someone dozing in their car with the engine running in order for the air conditioner to work, a popular pastime, global warming be damned.

Practical information:
     I drank tap water for days until enough people told me not to. My last morning in Malaysia on my way to the airport something hit me from whatever it was I ate or drank the night before, which could have been anything.
     The Penang tourist office is putting out some quality heritage-related maps and information. In one they profile individual craftsmen who do one thing and only one thing like making joss sticks, rattan furniture, traditional lanterns or even just the old Chinese guy who makes 300 coconut tarts every morning, then stops, and that’s it. You walk on over, there is the guy’s store and there he is, like how life is supposed to be.
     They give the same treatment to the itinerant food hawkers. I read about the coconut and peanut sesame ball family, found their usual location where they set up most evenings, and there they were. I like my Penang to be a time capsule where nothing changes.
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My favorite restaurant in the world, Ee Beng Vegetarian

eebeng entrance

     The entrance to Ee Beng! Excitement!

     My favorite restaurant in Penang, and therefore the known world, is Ee Beng Vegetarian Food Restaurant. (The first restaurant that comes to mind when I think of a runner up is Al-Hashem in Amman, Jordan. I also have rained praise on Sri Ananda Bahvan in Penang.) It is a humble mixed rice restaurant that doesn’t put on airs. Three years ago I wrote a blog post about Ee Beng so I don’t need to declare my love ad nauseum, and I still feel the same uneasiness knowing that I have no idea what I am eating—is it soy? Wheat? Reconstituted cat flesh?—but I don’t need to know as taste conquers all.
     Also, I need to be reminded that “vegetarian” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy” as there are some pretty heavy sauces on some of these things. It gives me pause for thought that I eat meat at all. I would be content eating this mockmeat stuff all the time. The texture is a quick giveaway that it isn’t meat, but I’m not bothered by that. Trues carnivores might disagree, but I say it is the sauce, not the substance.
     The next three photos are a few of the meals I had. They all cost between six and eight ringgit. (US$2.75-$3.50)
eebeng queue

     Civilized dining—and no overlapping!

eebeng layout

     The layout

eebeng stortage

     Ee Beng seeks your mercy even though they are the ones suffering through the stortage!

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Penang: greatest city in the history of mankind?

fern building
     Instead of building up to something, let’s start out with it: Penang is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I’m a world city aficionado. It would be cool to visit every country in the world, but I’d like to visit every big city in the world, too. I’m probably Karachi, Chongqing, and Lagos away from the top 25, depending on how you measure.
     Technically speaking, there is no city called Penang; it is an island off the west coast of Malaysia with Georgetown as its major city. Georgetown is what I love, though I will go with the more-commonly used “Penang” which comes from “pinang”, which means betel nut tree. I can barely bring myself to explore other parts of the island, I am so enthralled with it, and just watch: I can express my love without mentioning food once. That will come in the next two posts as I share my favorite restaurant in the known world.
     The challenge is that it’s hard to express my enthusiasm for Penang in a way that would pique anyone’s interest other than for the food. I hesitate to recommend it to friends, as they might not interpret their experience as positively as I do. Many travelers are here just to renew their Thai visas and they saunter around in the oppressive heat woozily, unimpressed by the run down, weather-beaten buildings. The beaches aren’t particularly clean, the water less so, and the sleepy city center’s buildings make it feel like a provincial New Zealand town circa 1988. While most locals are warm and welcoming, some can be by turns taciturn or tetchy, traits that don’t go over well with travelers.

light quote

     In the late 18th century it was decided that Penang Island was going to be a place to develop, so to make space to settle, silver coins were fired from cannons on the ship into the jungle, knowing that everyone who came for a better life would want them. The land was cleared in no time.

     I’m doing a great job selling it, aren’t I? HA! But come on, get up early in the morning and go for a walk before the heat wilts your constitution. Come late afternoon for the same walk as streets can undergo a metamorphosis with a market in the morning and food stalls in the evening, like the area around the Chowrasta Market (short-listed for the greatest market name ever even if the market itself is known for selling the worst food ever: pickled fruit. I just threw up in my mouth.) Few places positively drip with atmosphere like Penang.
     I’d usually rate myself as an average history buff, but here I feel like an avid museum curator sent to chronicle what there is and was before it all completely disappears. Penang feels so palpable and accessible; I don’t need a vivid imagination to conjure up the past. The old town is still well-preserved in both its extremes, the stylish renovated buildings and the ones gone to seed, and there’s a sign on every street detailing its history beyond what you can imagine with names like Lebuh Armenian, Love Lane, Jalan Burmah, Lebuh Acheh (now a province in Indonesia, then a powerful sultanate), etc.
     The historic center is small and compact and in short order you can stumble across busy places of worship for all the different religions, visit Chinese clan houses and clan jetties, smell the flower sellers in Little India before you see them, and, my personal fetish, watch the Malay policewomen in full uniform eating fish curries with their hands across the street from the police station. (Wait, was that my out-loud voice?)
odeon cinema

     The Odeon Cinema at the end of Lebuh Chulia was a Tamil institution that closed this year.

go down houses
islam banner

     I saw this banner on several mosques. Not a big fan of its message dissing other religions, or am I reading it wrong?

     I remember a time when locals commonly wore sarongs and it was less of a stop on the banana pancake trail than a place of great historical interest that warranted a visit on its own merits, but I won’t go into full whine mode because Penang is still a rare bird, just not a bird big enough to handle the biggest rats I’ve ever seen and which are at ease darting around alleys in broad daylight.
     Socially, there has always been issues. Homelessness is omnipresent and I am hard-pressed to think of a place with more transvestite prostitutes. At dark they take over the main drag, Lebuh Chulia, which is also the main backpacker street. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence (cough!)
     I’m still not doing a good job of selling Penang, am I?
dog rickshaw

     The rickshaws are going to disappear someday, so might as well give the dogs a spin around the block.

     I once volunteered here for a couple of weeks at the Penang Heritage Trust, an organization that tried to preserve the historic center of town from the modern-is-good, old-is-bad federal government at the time. Success came a few years later when Penang and Melaka were given UNESCO World Heritage protected status, but one can only hope that Penang doesn’t go the way of Melaka. Penang is lived in. Penang is for Penangites despite the fact that tourists abound. Melaka is like a showcase of what it once was, Disney-fied in garish colors, a tarted up spectacle for tourists. It’s as if the Chinese government were advising Malaysia how to develop it because visiting Melaka feels like you have paid admission to see something.
     Part of the excitement of being here is that it feels like a place on the verge of a transformation because you wonder how it can last. Forces are pulling it in different directions, but is there a tipping point where it will become Melakacized: upmarket, upscale, and a playground for the rich? In the meantime I will enjoy its surprises, like hearing bagpipes coming out of the local high school across from my guest house.
motorcycle mural

     If you haven’t been to Penang in a while, there are new murals and metal wire frame sculptures dotted all around the city. It’s pretty well done with maps to show you where they are, and I love the concept. See the murals quickly as the weather is taking a toll on them.

step by step mural
bruce lee mural

     To counterbalance the rich meals I have been devouring, I went on two hikes, one up Penang Hill (5km and 700+ meters in elevation) and the other was to Monkey Beach in the national park on the northwest coast of the island. On the trail I met this funny local girl who gave me a ride back to Georgetown despite the embarrassment of my super-sweaty body fouling up her car. She introduced me to fried noodle tom yam which I will forever be grateful for.
     I asked her, “What’s your first language?” and she had to think about it, which seemed very Malaysian since there is such a strong mix of cultural pushes and pulls.

     I need someone with a sewing machine to elongate the pockets on some shorts I bought, but in Penang they want to charge me an arm and a leg to do it. The funny thing is that anyone in the world who has a sewing machine, the person will grab the garment from my hand and start working on it before they tell me a price. Must be some sort of secret code among tailors. I tried to get the transvestites interested in fixing my shorts, but I think they thought I was speaking euphemistically.
lewd behavior sign

     I thought we told you foreigners last time to keep your lewd behavior at home!

     Practical information
     I stayed in three different places. Prices for accommodation are going up, but more guest houses are opening than closing. I was told prices are rising because Penang has World Heritage status now, which doesn’t completely make sense, but it is true that you should be careful what you wish for when you want the world to acknowledge something you privately know as special.
     The best cheap place is Red Inn Cabanas (there are several different Red Inns) near the west end of Jalan Muntri. It is well-hidden, but it is in the same building as the Chocolate and Coffee Museum (pure hokum; it’s like calling McDonald’s a hamburger museum) and across the street from where local boy Jimmy Choo learned about shoes. 26 ringgit (US$8) for a bed in a four-bed dorm with real walls, not the paper-thin ones found in subdivided houses where noise reigns supreme. (Someday I expect to read that a consortium of Malaysian guest house owners have contracted with NASA to come up with new, microscopically-thin materials because paper-thin walls simply aren’t thin and flimsy enough.)
jimmy choo
     I also stayed in Old Penang Guest House on Love Lane, which was fine, even though a girl told me two disturbing things right after I checked in: she woke up with itchy bite marks all over her legs and the only other guy in the dorm was awoken at midnight by the police because it was suspected that he stole a laptop.
     Both walks to the beaches in the free national park are excellent and worth doing. Don’t take the boats, slacker! There is a lighthouse viewpoint at Muka Head another twenty minutes or so beyond Monkey Beach. A sign says it closes at 3pm, but I went after hours anyway since this is Malaysia (“Britain ruled the waves, but we waive the rules!”) The compound was open, but the trees are high enough that you can’t see anything, and the actual lighthouse with the great views, is, well, closed after 3pm.
     I went to the flea market in Penang on Lorong Kulit behind the stadium. It was so-so; less than half of the sellers have used stuff. Just as so-so and in town is the daily, late afternoon flea market where Armenian and Acheh Streets meet.
     I hitchhiked from Kuala Lumpur to Penang pretty easily. The place to start is just south of the Rawang KTM commuter train station. Hitchhike the four or five km to the highway entrance, and you will be fine. A big highway gas station rest area is just a few km to the north.
     I prefer to get dropped off in Butterworth and take the ferry over to Penang, but my last driver happened to be going over the (new, second) bridge and straight to Georgetown. He also knew of a guest house that had beds for 33 ringgit on Kimberly Road called On Journey Inn that was empty because it can’t seem to decide if it wants to be open or not, so you will have the place to yourself.
flag in sea

     The Malaysian flag mysteriously poking out of the sea. My lens has a spot on it and doesn’t take good photos any more. I’m suffering with my camera. When I go home I pledge to shop, spend and consume electronics enough to make my countrymen proud of me.

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A quick introduction to the great state of Malaysia

economy rice plate

     Malaysian food is simply the best. This is called economy rice where you choose from a couple dozen trays of food to add to your rice. You bring it to the cashier and they look at it like they have never seen such a combination before and mentally compute it. This cost eight ringgit, or US$2.50 for such a plate of goodness. The meat on the top right is pork, I was told.

caged cats

     I’m almost sure he said pork.

cats in cage

     Umm…why are there cats in cages again?

     I’m back in Asia after a four-month spell in Europe. I must have overstayed my Europe/Schengen visa, but like the requirement for travelers to have onward tickets, I don’t believe this is aimed at the western traveler and the immigration officer in Budapest stamped me out right next to the entry stamp that showed I stayed too long.
     It’s taking a bit of time to acclimate to the heat and humidity of Malaysia, but I will take it over the cold any day. I am not of the persuasion that thinks you appreciate hot weather only after you go through an interminable fall, winter, and spring. Give me the heat. I will take 90F (32C) over 40F (5C) any day of the week. What can you do in the cold? Your options are limited.
panda bass

     Groovy bassist in a street band on Jalan Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur.

licking booth

     The licking booth. Yuck! This was at a Japanese festival outside of Kuala Lumpur. I couldn’t believe how huge the crowd was, but the licking booth? Not so popular.

indecent behavior

     Curb your immoral desires, infidels! Yes we’re talking to you, decadent, depraved Westerners!

roti canai dua

     I intended to have my ugly varicose veins operated on here, but it’s 8000 ringgit, whereas I could also have 8000 of these roti canai.
     You read my mind.

     Malaysia has long been one of my favorite countries in the world and I am constantly in bloody fistfights defending it over Thailand. I love Thailand, too, but I’m partial to Malaysia, and especially Penang, one of the world’s great cities and the subject of the next blog post.
     I do have one beef with Malaysia: the way they treat their foreign workers. Few countries have a proud record, but there has been a spate of Nepali slaves—I mean, guest workers—who have died on the job here. The Malaysian government claims these deaths are from “natural causes” so they don’t have to pay any compensation to the families. It’s absurd that so many young Nepali men in their 20s and 30s are dying of anything, much less from natural causes. But don’t get me started on how badly the Thais treat the Burmese either!
     Practical information
     To go from the airport to the main train station and vice versa there is always a 10 ringgit (US$3.15) bus about to leave. It isn’t necessary to pre-book anything, though you might save one or two ringgit doing so. There is a more convenient direct train that costs three or four times the bus that I’ve never experienced.
     In Kuala Lumpur I stayed with friends, in an Airbnb room, and in a Chinatown flophouse. I guess I can’t literally say a flophouse, but sad enough that my mother might cry if she saw it. There are lots of depressing places to stay with paper-thin walls. I would only suggest keeping your nose to the ground for new places, and it isn’t necessary to stay in the middle of town with such a good, cheap, extensive metro system. Couchsurfing must be pretty easy, I would guess.
     Buried at the bottom here: does anyone want a postcard from Malaysia? The first person to reply below will get it, but my three qualifications are that I have never met you in person, I have never sent you a postcard before, and you will read my blog for eternity.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

A sad Hungarian goodbye to four months in Europe

danke ungarn

     A German poster thanking Hungary for the events of twenty-five years ago. Everyone forgets this now, but the reason the Berlin Wall came down when it did is because Hungary opened the border to allow East Germans into Austria. Traditionally, every summer tons of East Germans came to vacation around Lake Balaton in western Hungary, and in 1989 the Hungarian government allowed them to pass into Austria. They all spontaneously drove to the border crossings and abandoned their cars to get out. Word got back to East Germany, starting an exodus to Austria, and in the drama and madness that followed, it has been lost in history that Hungary provided the first push of the domino.

     In Budapest I met up with a Brazilian couple I know who are traveling around eastern Europe. They wanted to know why Hungarians kept asking them why they wanted to come to Hungary. I had a similar experience when I met a German girl on the bus. We were raving about what a great place Hungary is and then when she asked where I was from, she couldn’t understand why a Californian would come here.
     What Hungarians don’t get about their own country is that travelers want to experience something different. Brazilians don’t need to party 24/365—Well, OK, Brazilians are a bad example—everyone else doesn’t need to party 24/365. We foreigners want to feel something profound and with more depth than we are accustomed to even if you are slow like me and not able to digest what you are seeing and hearing immediately.
     Therefore everything is interesting, even the prosaic. We want to hear about the typically Hungarian, intellectual, complicated drinking games when we come from lands that have only beer pong.
     We are impressed when we discover how well they know their country’s history and the feeling that if history wasn’t taught in school, Hungarians would read about it in their free time to become so well-versed.
     We like visiting the homes and realizing that any Hungarian worth their salt and with space will have a huge personal library. One friend lamented that she had “only” 800 books, but pointed out that she’d read them all. (Garbagemen and skinhead bookworm photos are here.)
     (You have to visit the homes. This is a strong reason why the concept of Couchsurfing is so important and why if you meet someone in Budapest and they invite you to their hometown for the weekend, you don’t hesitate to accept. You also don’t hesitate to accept when a Scandinavian girl asks if you want to see her summer beach holiday photos, but that’s another story. Let’s not get distracted.)
     I suspect Russia is very similar to Hungary in a lot of these respects. I’ve only been once, but a meandering summer through Russia has always been on my list. It wouldn’t be fun, necessarily, but it would be worthwhile.
bread sticker

     Do other countries paste stickers on their bread to show their use-by date?

     Coming to Europe is always eye-opening in how cosmopolitan and progressive-minded everyone seems. All Americans who travel, including me, think we become so enlightened that we must proselytize to get other Americans to travel and experience what we experience. I doubt Europeans think like this. Few Europeans need prodding to travel. (I did meet a young professional Swiss man who was afraid to travel because he didn’t speak any foreign language—other than German, English and French!)
     It helps that Europeans don’t have hangups about traveling. They don’t worry about not speaking the local language or where they’ll sleep or what they will experience in the unknown. It’s all an adventure. For most Americans, the outside world is one big scary place, which is nothing if not ironic. Americans should be the last ones worried about personal safety as most American cities have more serious crime than anywhere in Europe. Statistics might not bear me out, but I can’t think of anywhere I’ve been in Europe—or most of the world, really—where I haven’t felt safe.

     Selfness toilet paper. Pure genius

     Completely out of context thing about hitchhiking that I will shoehorn in here:
     When I was hitchhiking out of Switzerland a couple of weeks ago one of my drivers was about to say something and then stopped himself, asking, “Don’t you get tired of answering the same questions all the time?”
     I’ve read on hitchhiking forums that some travelers make up stories about their lives just to get through the boredom of answering the same ten questions from every driver. I never tire of this just as I never take for granted that by merely holding my arm at a ninety degree angle from my body, someone will drive me a distance for free. Answering questions and gabbing are very, very small prices to pay. Besides, I don’t have the memory to run with fake stories about being an astronaut or zookeeper.
     In the case of the Swiss driver, I said, “The distance you are driving me right now would have cost me $100 on the train. Talking is the least I can do. What do you want to know?”
     End of completely out of context thing about hitchhiking that I shoehorned in here.
     A thank you again to Peter Nagy who let me stay exactly 10 days in his apartment with him. That’s a lot of days, especially if you know the old Italian saying, “Fish and guests begin to smell after three days.” Peter probably knows me better than I know myself, so I don’t need to apologize for being an occasional lump.
     I worry about being a lump because I visited a lot of friends this summer and I’m not sure I always leave a good impression. Here’s my excuse: I am generally a high energy, go-go traveler. I’m rarely napping or lounging around cafes sipping fruity drinks, so when I visit friends, it is sometimes nice to exhale, decompress and do nothing. I can imagine friends looking at me as my body begins to melt into the form of the couch and think, “So this is The Great Traveler! Over 100 countries, you say?”
career ad

     An ad for careers for college students. Call me crazy, but I don’t predict big things from the guy looking at the pamphlet upside down.

     Practical Information
     I did a little dental tourism and visited Dr. Andras Barsi in Budapest. He confirmed that my German dentist in the Philippines did a great job except for one little high point on the crown that he shaved off. He also scraped off some plaque on my teeth, all of which cost the consultation price of 5500 forints (US$23). I had no appointment.
     I have a friend who is a dentist in Romania, too, that lets me sleep in her office. (Photos here.) That’s an experience.
     I bought a one-way ticket from Budapest to Kuala Lumpur on Qatar Airways for US$472. Leaving tomorrow. A cheaper option was from Copenhagen to Bangkok if I was in the mood to hitchhike up there. I kept my eye on Malaysia Airlines from Amsterdam to KL, but for some reason it isn’t cheap.
airport train sign

     Don’t be fooled by this. There is no train to the airport. This goes to the old airport where you have to take another bus. I don’t know if it is faster to take the metro to Kobanya-Kispest and then bus from there, but it is probably cheaper at 530 forint for a transfer ticket.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Going home again to Pecs, Hungary

pecs hitchhiking sign

     My hitchhiking sign, riddled with mistakes, I was told later. (Hungarian is hard! Give me a break!) The sign is working. Even people who don’t pick me up are amused by it. The first driver to take me was flying to Boston the next day.

     I once lived in Pecs (pronounced “paytch”), a provincial capital 200km from Budapest in southern Hungary. I was legal with a contract and work visa, not overstaying a tourist visa like I might be doing now. It was the only time in my adult life that I have lived in one place for eight months straight. (A few years later I worked six months at an internet startup in Silicon Valley and those are the longest full-time jobs I’ve ever had.) I taught English at a private language school despite having no experience, but back then being a native speaker was enough, and when the day came, I literally had a hand on my back, was guided into the classroom, and the door was shut behind me.
     Even though it was a legal job, every pay day I was called into the director’s office where an enormous dusty ledger was lugged out for me to sign. I was paid in cash, then the ledger was put away and I was handed an envelope with more cash that made up the rest of my salary. Whenever I asked why this was so, I was given a vague answer akin to, “Don’t worry your pretty little head.” By the time I left Hungary I learned to not ask too many questions.

     I don’t know what this billboard means or what is it is for, but that’s the quintessential Hungarian word. I can speak Hungarian, enough for simple conversations—hitchhiking Hungarian, let’s call it—which is a feat.

     I first came to Pecs years earlier when I met a girl in Szeged—another great, under-visited college town in the southeast—and she brought me home to meet her family. Her parents were deeply unsure of me. I had long hair and my deep tan spoke of a life of excess leisure and irresponsibility, but they were welcoming nonetheless and her mother offered to wash my clothes. Like many washing machines in Hungary, it was placed next to the bathtub so the machine would empty into the bathtub instead of down its own drain. A while later we were all standing next to the bathroom when the machine grunted and spewed an opaque, deep black effluent into the bathtub for all of us to see. I was mortified, but the mother handled it with aplomb, first staring at the sewage, then, without looking at me, she quietly said we could wash the clothes a second time.

     Homemade chocolate and cinnamon csiga, literally “snail”, from the mother. (I’ve known the family forever now; I’m on good terms.) I forget what these are called in English. Did I mention I have been away for eight months?

     I lived in three different places when I taught in Pecs: once in Uranvaros (literally “Uranium Town”. Yes, I drank the tap water in Uranium Town and yes, I had gall stones removed a year later), once with Robin MacAlpine, and once I accepted an offer I couldn’t refuse. A woman would rent me her apartment in the center of town for something like $75 a month (I earned what a Hungarian teacher earned in those days: $230 a month) but there was a catch: it had no shower and every other weekend she wanted the apartment for herself, meaning I had to sleep somewhere else. There was another issue: she had a baby recently, the father of whom abandoned her during the pregnancy because he was convinced she would never get her body back to how it was. When she did, he wanted to be a couple again and she refused. He was furious and she told me she was afraid he was going to come by the apartment to confront her.
     I agreed to the deal—Young Kent Foster didn’t even think twice about it; blissful ignorance is the best—and then late on the first Friday night there was a knock. My heart pounded. With much trepidation I opened the door. It was the woman with a new boyfriend. There was miscommunication about which weekends she wanted the apartment and it was too late for me to go anywhere else, so she, the new boyfriend, and I ended up sleeping in the same bed, terrified that the hothead ex-boyfriend was coming to slash our throats.
pecs by night

     Pecs’ main square by night with an eight-meter-tall horse in silhouette. Teaching in Pecs was one of the best years of my life, the previous story notwithstanding. It was all very last minute, like most things in my life: I was offered the job and flew over less than two weeks before school started. Knowing myself, if I had more time to think it over, I might not have jumped at the opportunity.

     It was heartening to visit old friends and students. I like to say that I was such a bad teacher that I have to speak Hungarian with my former students these days, but it’s not true, or we can say they learned their excellent English from other teachers.
     I wish I was as optimistic about Pecs’ future as my students’. I am hearing that young people are leaving in the thousands. There is no work. The outlook is grim. Better-off friends in Budapest with good jobs tell me that leaving the country is always in the back of their minds because the present is a house of cards. It’s all anecdotal, but I would say few people are bullish on Hungary right now.

     Practical Information
     The Sunday flea market at the Vasarpiac, especially the first Sunday of the month, is a lot of fun. You’ve never seen so many people drinking brandy and eating heavy food at 10am. Don’t wait until the afternoon to go or people will already be packing up. I almost bought an old Munich, Germany license plate for 500 forint (US$2) but I can’t think of a country where I will be soon where I can mail it home reasonably, and I let it go. So sad. Bus 130 from the station goes there, among others, but Hungary has a system where they punish you for buying tickets on the bus: you pay more and they accept exact change only. You are supposed to plan ahead and buy tickets at kiosks, because good luck finding one open early on a Sunday.
     I stayed at Ananas Hostel on a scruffy street on the east side of downtown run by a very nice couple. It is very literally a family home that has had a couple of rooms converted into a hostel. Nine euros a bed.

ananas hostel bed

     The hostel bed on Hungarian Railways pallets. I found it hard to sleep, but I find it hard to sleep anywhere. It’s a problem.

     I was sent a link to the University of Pecs if someone is interested in studying there. It already has a very substantial foreign student population.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

The perpetual return to good old New Hungary

     I left home eight months ago today. Thank you.
     Greetings from Hungary! Hungary is the kind of place where a girl with understated, smoldering beauty—which is hard to consciously pull off—will passionately and with great depth discuss her place in the world, and then crush you in ping pong all long, long before her fifth gin and tonic. Hungary is so great I am going to leave soon. I plan to buy a ticket to head back to Asia. I’m going home. The long way.

kent budapest sign

     My “California to (Buda)pest” sign worked like a dream. Apparently my irresistible face from the previous stretch of hitchhiking is pretty resistible because when I tried hitchhiking without a sign, I languished. Lesson learned.

rasmus supertramp

     Everywhere I hitchhike I like to check the messages other travelers write on the poles and guard rails where we stand. “Rasmus Supertramp” is an Into the Wild reference, the book of the present traveler’s generation. (If I were a serious blogger/businessman, I would have a link to an Amazon store and I would get 50 cents or something if you bought the book, but I can’t bring myself to do it yet.) The notes hitchhikers scrawl as they wait can seem as desperate as dying in a bus in the Alaskan forest if it’s a bad place to hitch from, such as “Stuck here for 22 f*#@$%! hours!”

french dreams

     Pierre’s dream was to stand in the rain at a Swiss highway gas station. Dreams do come true! Follow your dreams! Next to this another traveler wrote: “Why do only foreigners pick me up in Switzerland?”

     It’s one thing to act out being a hippie while hitchhiking and say to myself that when I get there, I get there, because that’s life on the road, dude/baby, but it’s another to have a welcoming friend who forgives me for arriving at crazy hours, offers to pick me up outside of town in the middle of night, and always let’s me overstay, and that is my friend Peter Nagy (as it has been Robin MacAlpine in the past as well as numerous others over the years that I feel indebted to.) A big, embarrassing, public thank you. I broke his blinds, too. He had to call the landlord over and everything.
     The New Hungary
     I’ve been coming to Hungary since 1986 and I doubt two years have ever passed between visits since. (I wrote something on my last visit 18 months ago.) I’ve been in Hungary more than any other foreign country even if I don’t include the year I taught English or the three operations I’ve had here, but it’s hard to keep knowing a place that’s always in flux. When I arrive I’m always unsettled by the changes, but by the time I leave it feels that the essence of Hungary has remained the same, while wondering how much is irretrievably lost with each passing year.
     On a practical level I have noticed more and more people are speaking better-than-average English. I can ask questions in Hungarian and get answers in English. This never used to happen, but now I get it from the most unlikely source: metro ticket inspectors, who are traditionally far from being multilingual.
     It must be a simple generational change. The Wall Street Journal once called Hungarians “the supreme masters of glumness.” It’s famously pessimistic, always with a high suicide rate (presently #6 in the world.) “Magyarorszag”, the name of the country in Hungarian, is an ancient word emanating from nomadic tribes coming over the Ural Mountains that means “glass half empty.”
     But that joke doesn’t fly any more! Not in the New Hungary! Everything’s changing. I even once thought I detected a slight twinge in a driver’s face as he considered for the briefest of moments to stop for me at a crosswalk, but I could have been mistaken. There are new bike lanes sprouting up in town, cyclists actually using the bike lanes, and I witnessed cyclists stopping at intersections as if this is Amsterdam. It’s all pretty heady stuff. I’m only beginning to process and digest it.
     I might be mislead by my first impressions; I just got here. I’ll be visiting old friends, making a pilgrimage back to the town I used to teach, Pecs (pronounced “paytch”), and trying to get a feel for what’s going on. Then I will keep all the insight to myself and just post photos of envelopes instead. Give the people what they want.
     Not everything changes in New Hungary. It’s still a world leader in public displays of affection. In a city park I think I witnessed a woman conceive.
brutal burger

     Truth in advertising from Burger King.

langos scone

     I feel compelled to apologize to the United Kingdom for this defamation. Langos (deep fried dough) is far from a scone and you have to think twice before eating food that you can hang on a hook all day, as you can see on the sides of the sign.


     Exotic Hungarian sausages, an exception to the no-hanging-food rule. Big fan of all these, especially the horse which has a nice tang. No visit to Hungary is complete without a little spicy horse salami indigestion.


     I like to buy these envelopes used for mourning and funerals. Don’t judge.

     My favorite thing to do in Budapest is helping tourists with directions. If I see someone squinting at a map, I pounce, asking if I can help them find something. Only about two out of ten people look me up and down as if they’ll need to describe me to the police later. I do this all the time, all over the world, even if I hardly know the place. I get a charge out of it.

Practical information
     Though I’ve been on an all-hitchhiking bender lately, I have used Oszkar for rideshare in the past. It’s possible to go from Budapest to Vienna or Pecs for around ten euros, much cheaper than the train.
     I always advise travelers on their first trip to Europe to see a few of the places that resonated with them as a teenager, your Parises, Venices, Londons, etc., leave some space for the Budapests and Krakows, and then stretch yourself with an Albania or an Armenia. I think it’s wise to build up to the less-easy countries, but some travelers just dive head first into a Moldova.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

A hitchhiking day for the ages in Germany and Switzerland

kent in the alps

     The fruits of the labor: hiking in the Swiss Alps in Derborence above Sion in the Valais.

     The day started poorly. I hadn’t shaved, my eyes were bugged out from a lack of sleep, and my new haircut makes me look like a psycho ward escapee; I wouldn’t stop for me either. Plus, there is nothing worse than waiting in the rain for a ride and then seeing two other guys show up to hitchhike.
     Other hitchhikers! I always think hitchhiking is a dying art, but today I saw hitchhikers every step of the way, almost all of them with bad form or praying for a miracle, like Scraggly Mohawk Dude sitting in a dirty corner of the gas station with his dog. Usually when other hitchers appear we make very small talk and wish each other well, giving space. These two came over just to gawk at the freak with the American flag on his backpack. One stared at my “KALIFORNIEN NACH BASEL” sign for uncomfortably long before saying, “Is that a joke?”
basel sign
     I said, no, I am from California, and seeing that he was still flummoxed, I allowed, “No, I didn’t hitchhike all the way here from California.” The expressionless Neanderthal shrugged and wandered off, but the other stayed right next to me while he texted. A precious car approached. It appeared that we were together. I told him so, but he didn’t budge. The car passed, and I was steamed. It was 11am. Dinner in Switzerland was at 6:30pm. I was 550km (340 miles) away. I gave him the stink eye, raised my voice with an “Entschuldigung!” and the inbred finally sauntered off.
     Sascha picked me up, wanting to practice his English. He said he once had 93 points against his driving record, the highest in the state of Hessen. I must have had an uneasy look on my face, because he assured me this was in his reckless youth, but when we came upon a car going 160kmh (100mph) in the fast lane, he flashed his high beams and yelled at the driver to “start moving.” Germany’s the best.
     Then a kind Italian man and his teenage daughter took me into Switzerland. I could have gone another four hours to Milan with them, but I got out on the other side of Basel.
     From Basel, an amazing thing happened. A man with three little kids in the car pulled over and shouted, in German, “Can you drive?”
     “Can you drive?” He had a neck pain and could barely move his head, and in thirty seconds, after shunting the kids to the back seat and stiffly moving to the passenger seat, a perfect stranger was driving the family off into Switzerland. (This happened once in Australia. I was in Warrnambool, Victoria and a drowsy guy asked if I could drive to Adelaide, 500+ km away. Very fun. I don’t think either guy asked if I had a drivers license or whether it was valid abroad.)
     The kids in the back seat seemed amenable to the situation, and by the time we got to the gas station rest stop before Bern, the man’s ibuprofen was working and he could drive again. However, as I took the keys out of the ignition, one of the girls in the back seat reached over to put her hand on the fob to make sure I wasn’t leaving with them, not fully convinced that daddy’s trust was worth giving.
leysin sign

     My signs are working! Who doesn’t love California? What’s not to love, and for rich Europeans—sorry, that was redundant—for Europeans, the dollar is so weak it is like a free vacation in paradise.

     An Algerian-Swiss couple who enjoyed California on their recent vacation as everyone in this cruel and harsh world does picked me up. I could only see half of the woman’s face from the back seat, but her beauty singlehandedly made me reevaluate all things Algerian. It almost made me forget the creepy Algerian-French guy from last week who drove me to Germany. When he asked where I was from, he did some quick word association in his head, saying, “California…sex!”
     Then I had another remarkable ride. I was standing in the rain south of Fribourg when an old man stopped. He couldn’t figure out how to make the car windows go down so I could talk to him. He kept pressing buttons and shouting, “Merde!” (shit!)
     Then he couldn’t unlock the door. “Merde!”
     Then he couldn’t open the trunk. “Merde!”
     I thought he might be just another dotty old man, but he looked dashing and had well-coiffed longish hair. Any old man with long hair has to be famous or up to something nefarious; I knew this would be interesting.
     He said his name was Sylvain Saudan. My blank expression gave away my unfamiliarity, so he said with great portent that he could be found in the Guinness Book of World Records.
     I couldn’t grasp everything, my French is swiftly wilting, but it was something about skiing down the steepest mountains all over the world and others dying while trying to match him. I later discovered that he is the father of extreme skiing, le skieur de l’impossible, un bon vivant avec la joie de vivre.
     You know that beer commercial about the most interesting man in the world? Sylvain is that guy. Watch this funny interview that shows video of him skiing down mountains. In summer. On rocks. Sylvain is the man, the myth, the legend, and he lets you know it.
     Unfortunately, he is 78 now and might not be long for this world because he drives like he skis. The two highway lanes were like a slalom run for him and cars honked at us several times because of near-misses. Merde!
sylvain saudan

     Handsome devil Sylvain Saudan in the flesh

     The only other relatively famous person that has ever picked me up hitchhiking—less than 50km away from where I had been standing, too—was Fernando von Arb, guitarist for Krokus, a Swiss heavy metal band from way back when.
     Sylvain left me at a dangerous place on the highway since he didn’t want to exit, so I quickly scrambled off before the police found me, and then the last ride up to Leysin was with a woman and her baby daughter. Women often give me lifts. I’m telling you, the Kent Foster face is irresistible even in its present, need-to-buy-a-razor, post-chicken pox, molten form. I got to Graydon and Terri’s BBQ fest an hour late, starving. Grilled sausages with sharp mustard never tasted better.
alps with graydon and terri

     In Deborence with Graydon and Terri.

Practical information
     Germany is far and away the best country in Europe for hitchhiking, but Switzerland can be pretty good, too. The secret is to not get stuck in places of questionable safety to stand, because Swiss police will be all over you since they have nothing else to do.
     If hitchhiking isn’t your thing, rideshare is the best alternative. These days is quickly taking over Europe from since it is a free service for both drivers and passengers. I need to update my website about that and 500 other things.
     A quick shout out to the godfather of hitchhiking, Jacob Holdt, who wrote a book about his experiences hitchhiking in USA that has inspired me to no end.
     Speaking of great travelers, as I always say, I am a fraud of a traveler compared to my friend, Graydon Hazenberg, who pledges to blog more this year. He’s also pulling ahead of me steadily in the country count. He’s at 117, I’m somewhere around 105.
     One last thing: lately I’ve seen that some email sent to me through the contact form has gone straight to my spam folder, so I might have missed it if you wrote me. It might make a difference if you include my name in the message. My name is Kent. Say my name! SAY MY NAME!!
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Last one to the party in France

le snacking

     Le snacking, les chewing gums, les chips—France, you are powerless against almighty English! All your base are belong to us!

Let’s get the hitchhiking stories out of the way first:
     Amsterdam to Paris was remarkably easy, the last ride with an Armenian-French guy who wanted to talk politics. He asked what Americans thought about France and my opinion on the brewing Gaza/Israel war. I said that the average American doesn’t think about France and that I thought America is more in the pocket of Israel than the other way around.
     He wasn’t satisfied with either answer, so he prodded and we talked and talked. He was upset at how heavy handed the Israelis have been and said there was a need for humans to be respected everywhere. For a mental and physical rest after this long discussion we pulled off the road at a highway gas station. I pointed to the clumps of people picnicking under trees with garbage strewn around them and asked, “What do you think of gypsies?”
     Reflexively, he blurted, “I hate them!” Realizing this wasn’t in the spirit of what he had been saying, he was quiet for a moment but then, uncontrollably, went on: “They take and take from the state and contribute nothing. Nothing!”
     He left me almost under the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe where he lived and where I coincidentally had an appointment to meet a friend. (It sounds crazy to make appointments that are dependent on hitchhiking hundreds of miles, doesn’t it?) She was with a friend who lives in Japan and, coincidentally, we knew two people in common. This happens more than you’d think; I get around! We had the Tour de France’s last day happening right behind us, but we watched on the TV screen in the cafe, which felt very decadent, very Parisian.
congo hitch
     I hitchhiked from the south back to Paris with a “CALIFORNIE A PARIS” sign to great effect. (It’s all about the font.) I made 675km (420 miles) in eight hours in two rides, both from men with their sons in the back seat. The driver above was Congolese-French. My first question to him was if he knew Bisso Na Bisso, a group with the second best African song I know: “L’Union“. (The best is “Amadamara” by Freddie Gwala. The best French song of all time is Belgian: “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand.)
     It’s not always rosy, but there are strong possibilities for hitchhiking in France. To contrast this with more traditional forms of travel, a friend bought a Paris-Grenoble round trip train ticket for 155 euros, which is about what a Brussels-Zanzibar one-way ticket is going for at the moment.
st lazare piano

     In the St. Lazare train station in the middle of Paris they have a piano for anyone to come along and play. Is it not the most fantastic idea? Then I went to Forum Des Halles shopping center where they had the same thing, but a homeless guy banging on the keys bummed everyone out.

     I feel like the last one to discover France. I’ve been here several times before, but really only in and around Paris. I am hesitant to describe what I see because it is old hat for everyone. Does anyone really want to hear, “Wow, the Eiffel Tower is even better in person!” or “OMG! So many cheeses!”? What about “Every time I tell myself I am going into the supermarket for one thing, I find myself staring at stuff for half an hour?” or “Look at all the town names that are French products/events: Limoges, Le Mans, Cognac, Bordeaux, Dijon, Roquefort, Evian!” No? OK, I’ll move on.
     I’ve been in France long enough this time that my high school French is taking off, slowly but surely, and it’s fun to overemphasize vowels and then be corrected by locals raising their chins and contorting their lips. What other language has trickier diphthongs? I already have a sore throat from all the guttural “r” sounds. Why is the “l” sound in “ville” but not “fille?” How am I supposed to pronounce “Houilles” and “Aout?” “Poubelle” sounds like a nickname I would call my girlfriend, but it means garbage can.
     I was excited to get invitations to go to the countryside. At first I didn’t feel the full impact of the blog of my friend Caleb about the meals his wife’s family was making for him in northeast France until I visited my friend’s foodie family in the south and subsequently, to Caleb himself.
brignon maison

     I went with a friend to her family’s home, just your average 11 bedroom, 11 bathroom little lean to, in the south of France near Nimes in the province of Languedoc-Roussillon, “Roussillon” being a fun word to say. On my first trip to Europe a billion years ago I made a quick tour of southern France, but I was running on fumes and had one eye towards home, so I hardly remember it.
     If you have a million euros or so laying around doing nothing, this place is for sale. A pool is just off-camera to the right.

steak hachee

     My friend prepared for her kids steak hachee cru, nearly-raw hamburger. I might be wrong, but this could more accurately be called “bleu” since “blue” is meat very lightly cooked. I wish I had taken video of how short the meat had been fried. I assured her that she’d be arrested in USA for this.

kids hachee cru

     Let’s say most of them liked it. For the next few days I pestered the kids, “How’s your stomach? How’s your stomach?” There are a lot of raw milk cheeses here, too. I guess the French know how to do it safely. It’s allowed only in a small number of states in America, so it’s the kind of thing that gets you thinking, not to mention the way French eat, what they eat, how much they eat, and in what order they eat it. The French are different from you and me.

quo vadis

     Cartoons? No. Discovery Channel? No. It’s the kids watching for the umpteenth time a DVD of the epic 1951 American film, Quo Vadis. Unbelievable.

     I’ve read about how economically stagnant Ramadan is in the Muslim world where productivity falls because many Muslims take a month off for their religion, but is France any different? August is not the time to be here if you have a choice. Countless small businesses are closed for the month and tourists quickly take over the center, primarily sullen Chinese tourists.
     I suspect a French person would shrug that off, unapologetic, and declare that they don’t live to work, but work to live, and it’s humane to take a month off—plus the many holidays throughout the year, the 35-hour work weeks, the strikes…maybe that’s why the Chinese look miserable: they’re envious.
     We all know the Paris metro is convenient, reasonably priced (1.70 euros a ticket including transfers, cheaper than most big-name European capitals—Hey Budapest, explain yourself, please!) and drips with atmosphere, but it can also be hot, crowded, and stuffy. (I witnessed a woman pass out; I was about to take her wallet but then bystanders began murmuring their disapproval. Killjoys.) It’s underrated to go by bus in Paris. There are no boring stretches, it’s usually uncrowded enough to have a seat, and you see the city from a different perspective.
     For cinephiles, this is a dense, interactive map of Paris where movies were shot.
     I can’t resist giving hitchhiking tips despite no one caring. (One guy cares. I got an email last week from an American asking for my phone number so we can discuss the best way to hitch out of Tapachula, Mexico, where he had been stuck for days.)
     I’ve always hitched between Amsterdam and Paris via Brussels and Mons, but I found it better to go through Gent and Kortrijk. More through traffic.
     Twice in France the police stopped to tell me not to hitch on the highway, which I had no intention of doing. I half-expected them to come back and tell me to floss after brushing my teeth. This may come from the fact that I read a lot of people recommending to hitchhike at the “peages” (toll booths) which is difficult, dumb, and dangerous. You want to be left at the bigger highway “aires” with gas stations, otherwise you can be seriously stuck. The exit signs make clear what is there which unfortunately can contradict the highway’s official website. Yes, I do waste my time checking out highway websites. Information is king!
     You still with me? Last bit: to hitchhike eastward from Paris, since you have to pay a good chunk of change for the suburban train to go way out of town to the best starting point, instead I went to and found this well-decorated woman who was driving that direction and left me at a highway gas station for a few euros. This is her band. She plays the theremin.
     Flea markets
     In Paris there are marches aux puces (flea markets in a fixed place; Clignancourt is for pros, Montreuil is a waste of time, Vanves is the best) and brocantes (mobile flea markets), but both can be burdened with too many professionals. There are also vide greniers, literally “empty attics” where people want to get rid of stuff. I bought a couple of expired French passports for four euros each last time I was at the Vanves flea market, adding to my formidable passport collection. Everyone thinks I am a spy for the CIA anyway, so I may as well play the part.
     I’m a huge fan of Decathlon stores, a French sporting goods chain found in many countries. I now have my backpack, day pack, shoes, sandals, shorts, swimsuit, shirt and hat from there. In sum, France is a wonderful place to have everything stolen. #travelskills

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