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.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     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.
     Hitchhiking:
     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 blablacar.com 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

     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+ where we will follow each other for eternity, I promise.

Wrestling with feelings of inadequacy in Netherlands

     I’m like a broken record when it comes to how I feel about the Netherlands: I’m always surprised by how progressive it is and therefore, how backward I must be because I have this surprise. There are so many issues where they have taken the lead: gay marriage, euthanasia, age of consent, legalization of drugs, prostitution, abortion, flopping soccer players—the Dutch are showing the way. In at least one instance, prostitution, I read that there has been a rethink about the effectiveness of the controlled red light districts, but the point is that the Dutch are at least trying something where most everyone else is burying their heads in the sand.
     I have a foreign friend living here who says learning to speak Dutch is a waste of time and he doesn’t even bother asking people if they know English; he just starts with it. I was thinking that might be a little rude, but I found over and over that when I asked, “Do you speak English?” I got a haughty, “Of course!”
     OK, relax, Ubermensch, I get it. You can do it all.

for weed

     Seen in Vondelpark, Amsterdam. I’m ready to go into rehab from all the second hand marijuana smoke I have inhaled.


dutch poster

     Take that, you prudes!


dutch cookies

     White chocolate and date cookies, plain evidence that my bachelorhood is the mystery of the century.


i am amsterdam

     Hanging out with friends by the iconic “I am amsterdam” sign.


playground king

     It took longer than I thought to fight off the kids for one of the big tricycles.


twerking deer

     I overheard one little girl say to another, “This is a deer twerking.”


nijntje

     I like Nijntje, what can I say? In Japan she is known as Miffy.


Semi-practical information
     Netherlands is so progressive that it can be bad for travelers passing through. Since two weeks ago all train stations sell single tickets with chips in them, and if you don’t have a prepaid OV chipkaart travel card, then you must pay a one euro fee every single time you want to buy a ticket to go anywhere. The OV chipkaart costs 7.50 euros empty(!) and if you want a refund you have to find the right place that will accept it and you lose 2.50 euros in admin fees. Not a big fan.
     BlaBlaCar is becoming more and more popular for rideshare in Europe, spreading out and away from it’s French-speaking roots. I’ve used it maybe five times in the last few years. Big fan. It’s moving to other continents, too.
     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+ where we will follow each other for eternity, I promise.

The official 2014 World Cup Preview

     Note: I get a lot of requests to write on my website, mainly from people who want to promote things like hotels in Barcelona or a new website about forming a travel community. They usually start, “Dear Dromomaniac Team…”. This is the first guest post on my website from a friend of mine, Peter Nagy, whom I reached out to since I appreciate his analysis when we are watching soccer games on his couch in Budapest at 2am on a work night. It’s long, and it might be a bit much for those not passionate about soccer, but give it a chance. I edited out the British English (shudder).

     Last night I watched the first half of Game 3 of the NBA finals again for the third time because there were all kinds of things you expect from a great sporting event. I am a fan of football, so why did I do that? What I saw there is the reason people sit down and watch way too many games of this year’s world cup. We will definitely bump into a few classics among the many garbage games that you can only sit through because you watch it with friends and a lot of beer.
     But the classics will be great.
     So this is a world cup preview from a Hungarian who likes football. Not a crazy person, just a fan. I am not pretending to be an expert, but I do know what I am watching for my own entertainment. I’m not a writer either. These thoughts and impressions are random, just throwing them out there, not to start conversations or to find things to agree or disagree with.
     So here are a bunch of games for a month, and we all have different viewing habits. I usually do not watch all the games there are, but if I find one while surfing channels, I always end up watching it.
(“Rarely…but always.” – Peter Esterhazy)

     The games begin today, and I don’t even know what time kick-off is. Sometime late, that’s for sure, but I don’t really need to know. The match will be there, it will find me. Some friends, for whom a game is just another reason to have a few drinks, will probably be calling before, so I will know where and when I have to be. (Can P’s terrace with the jacuzzi and the projector enhance viewer experience? We’ll have to test.)
     Who’s playing tonight? It’s always the host nation, this time against… oh, yeah, Croatia. This could be a great matchup in cold weather and a cool, sharp Croatian side doing what they can. Strong, tall, skinny Croatians with a good fighter’s mentality and good skills, built like the Germans but less disciplined. They have it in them to cause an upset against any team, but in Brazil the atmosphere might be very different and they might just be overwhelmed and blown out of the stadium. I wish for an upset, as always, but the first 30 minutes will tell who is worthy of my sympathies.
     So, will it be a great world cup of classic games, a few upsets, the best winning in an epic final? Who can provide the excitement? Who are the contenders? The dark horses? Will there be hysteria? Drama? Stars on the rise? Stars falling?
     No answers here. All I care about, personally, is good matches. What are the new tricks to fight possession defense? Who will impress me? For the fun of it we should run through the list.

Contenders: Brazil
     Even those who are not into football adore team Brazil’s energy, their carefree presence, the fluency of the movement. Yes, they are professionals, but judging by the expressions on their faces, they are having more fun then anyone. If they were a tattoo, they would be bright colors, organic, flowing lines. Like this:
tattoo brazil
     Their system is like the organization of the whole world cup. “We’ll be fine. Everything will be ready on time, don’t worry, we’ll pull it off.”
     They might, it is possible, but it requires superhuman effort from everybody on the team, and there is no room for mistakes. Can you imagine a Brazil team with no mistakes? I can’t.
     The good thing is, we can rely on their inability to not have fun, and that is a guarantee for fun games. Everybody is in attack mode on that team, and that raises your pulse if you are watching. Ruiz and Silva make the highest risk passes at the back and frequently take part in bringing the ball up midfield, which makes it more exciting to watch, especially if you are their coach. They are incredibly tough in one-on-one situations and are a threat at set pieces.
     The two wing defenders Alves/Maicon and Marcelo are a huge part of every attack, drawing defenders to the sides and creating space in the middle for some quick changes of pace, dribbling, getting past defenses. Too bad Alves has not had a decent cross all season at Barca. Not for 2 or 3 years, in fact, but his passing is impeccable in tight little triangles to keep possession and to have a flick of a pass to Fred or Hulk to explode into a tight lane.
     Scolari is working hard to make them play with discipline, he does not punish, might not even discourage the higher-risk moves, and they will enjoy themselves taking those risks. There is no way around it. It will be best in those small things they do: a flick of the ankle, a spin on the ball that you only see in tennis, an unexpected, off-rhythm turn that makes a whole defense shift the wrong way for one second, and that wrong shift will create a small opening on the defense for someone to step into and it will end in something that makes the Brazil players wink at each other, and the opposing players to lose some confidence and be more hesitant on the next possession. Be ready for those.
     That same thing could be the reason they will not win it all. Any of those moves are higher risk moves. If they work, they are fun, they will bring the house down. If there is a mistake in the execution, then the whole effort was not carefree but careless, may result in a bad turnover and a counter attack. And if they lose, their fall will be spectacular. The intensity with which they enjoy themselves is the same as the anger and frustration when they go down. Look out for that, too.
     Any team with a half decent defensive scheme should stifle this side. Neymar is a genius, but he is a coach’s nightmare. For a neat turn he will sacrifice the simple pass and that takes the momentum out of the attack, probably frustrate a few teammates and cause them to put in less effort at the next possession. If an opposing team has a strong identity with players who know their roles and know what to make of Brazil’s flashy clowning around, they can crush Brazil.
     Have I mentioned Scolari is overrated? He is a buffoon. If his players can pull this off, like in 2002, it will be a miracle, and he will claim all the credit. Pathetic.
     Back then he had a more solid, sober bunch of with Cafu, a real leader at the back, and Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho in front, plus only in the final did they play a stronger team, and they beat Germany on Oli Kahn’s errors. OK, just one error. But this year’s team in not as strong as 12 years ago, and the opposition is stronger than ever.

Who else is great? Germany
     The Germans are massive with a beautiful flow like this:
germany tattoo
     Germany has changed from being the Star Trek BORG of international football to being one of the entertaining teams. They used to have a fail-safe system: no risks, precise execution all performed by great athletes who are executing well-defined tasks to perfection. They destroyed everything that was good and lovable in football. They went creative and remained effective.
     Being German, they are having a ball just by being effective, but there is more to it now, the culture has changed. The German kids realized over the years, that it was not cool playing the German anti-style any more. Following some bitter tournament victories, they were left with ambivalent feelings, being internationally hated for destroying the game of football (something about which Jose Mourinho should have long conversations with his therapist).
     It started with winning the 1990 World Cup with the most boring performance in the history of football. Instead of a country exploding in joy, there was probably a modest hum. The bier-drinking part of the country cheered in oblivion, but the minority of real fans had to feel the shame.
     The 1994 rule that forbid goalkeepers to handle the ball if it was kicked back to them by their own team kind of started the changes, but my guess is they started to feel jealous of players with style and grace and all kinds of energy other than being content with systematic destruction. The internet must have helped young kids in learning about how to be appreciated by fans, how to become a star, and a product for sponsors, and they are the ones playing on the Nationalelf now.
     They stuck to selecting the tall, athletic players with solid fundamental skills to win 90% of all 50-50 situations, but they allowed the system to take some calculated risks, and designed a choreography that was intrinsically entertaining.
     They have become a team with exciting geometry. They designed neat triangles and squares where fast, skilled strikers end up making cuts and get witty through-balls from witty midfielders who twist and turn to slice a defense and move them in ways that create openings. These midfielders have awareness and vision that is reminiscent of Zidane, Laudrup and other greats.
     They are most dangerous with a play that every team tries but very few can execute properly. 3-4 well-timed passes with in a triangle at the right or an Özil/Schweinsteiger long ball from the middle after lazy spacing on defense puts Lahm through on the right one beat ahead of the guy covering.
     This is when he takes it to the baseline (a lot depends on his first touch), and the strikers’ first wave rushes at the goal to be in a position where only a slight touch – a shave of the ball – is needed to put the cross past the keeper. At the same time (if at the time of the through-pass the defense was pushed against their penalty area) 2 or 3 tall, pouncing midfielders as a second wave move into their spots around the collapsing defense, who are trying desperately to close down the lanes for the cross in the penalty area. This opens up at least 3-4 passing options and if all those lanes are covered somehow, then there are 1 or 2 more options for a lob and a header at the far side, because the keeper is watching the near corner of the goal.
     With their height advantage and ability to occupy positions in the area, this is very difficult to stop. They might easily score with this play against lesser opposition, but good defensive teams will stop such attacks at the side before the wingers get behind their men.
     This effort to contain the sides will stretch the D more, forces them to shift, and open up a little more space in the middle, of course, and such an advantage Brazil would more freely use, but Germany will be more conservative with that space and not try anything risky there. Kroos or Schweiny will sooner take a good shot then try to beat a defender one on one, or try the triangle with the striker moving up. Maybe… We’ll see.
     They have learned timing, but in preparation friendlies we have seen players like Özil, Schweinsteiger and Reus think faster than their strikers and decent defenders might be able to take up a good positions on the play.
     Breaking news: Reus is out with an ankle injury which is sad, sad news for Germany and people who like football over the world. One would think that the German midfield is strong enough without Reus, but he will be sadly missed.
     He is as strong and fast as anybody around, and has rhythm and vision, which would have given Germany a badly needed option from the side on offence, while he is moving smartly as a defender, as well. He looks slender, but he is a very tough defender for a skinny guy. Kroos and Schweinsteiger are both strong two-way players with Khedira a brick wall of a stopper and Özil doing magical stuff on offence, but he is streaky and gets discouraged easily.
     So we have to wait two more years for Reus to make his breakthrough at an international tournament, but we have to say a few things about Schweinsteiger. He is every bit a German: ginger hair, pale face, athletic build, great work ethic, schooled moves, disciplined play, great timing, great positioning. Everything about him says he is the most German of all players on that team, and still, the guy is so different. He has a soul. He is sensitive, fragile, but he is in control, remains tough and fights through it all. Do you look at faces? You should. Read his. He really is affected by a good or a bad play. If there is a person to feel for, that’s him. He might just be Hungarian.

     You know who else run a different version of the aforementioned play to perfection? Spain. The key agents are Alba, Iniesta and Pedro on the left side. They are surrounded by safety options behind them. Busquets has such great awareness of where everybody is that he can shift from defender to midfielder and back in an instant. Their ability to pass the ball around with their eyes closed is amazing.
     No other team can spend the amount of time practicing defensive schemes as what Barca-based Spain had put into perfecting the possession game. Remember: the best defense is not turning the ball over.
     You have to admire what they can do to keep possession and work the defense to create that one opening. This is always the juicy part. They do not usually make room around the outside like the Germans, but through the line of defense with one striker moving up into a gap. There should be a switch with the defenders at this point, but the striker (let’s say Villa) comes up from behind the defenders who would all have to see each other in order to be able to synch their movement and contain the play. Since the Spanish all see each other facing from the corners of a square, and the one defender facing Iniesta always has his back to his teammates, there is a weakness to exploit.
     The moment Villa gains two square meters of space, the machine is in motion. Villa takes his position, Pedro makes the cut inside, Alba makes the run down by the sideline behind Pedro, and Iniesta follows his pass up to Villa. With the pass Iniesta does a few quick changes in direction as the spacing of the defense dictates and that usually puts his man off balance.
     The defense has to switch on Pedro to take on Iniesta and follow Alba, but that requires a shift from the inside. If the spacing is a bit off, there is enough space for Pedro or Iniesta to move into, or Villa to make a turn with the ball. If any of them is a beat off, or defenders do a good job of containing the move, Villa will make a safe pass back to Busquets, who will work the ball around to Martinez or Pique, and the possession continues. The safe pass is always there (only Villa’s defender could go for the steal, and that means taking off early which leaves an empty space on the collapsing defense) and Villa, or the attackers facing the goal will see and punish that.
     If the Spanish timing is just right, and one defender with no sight of which way everyone is moving misses a beat, then Villa has four good options, all of which will cause an opening for the shot, the cross, the cross to the second wave of finishers, or to the far side attacker closing in from behind the collapsing defense.

Italy, the great hair and beard team
     They will never disappoint on that front.
     Always solid on D, physical and edgy on O, often just a big balloon of empty threats, an over-confident bunch of stars, and they are rarely graceful in losing. They do, however, have history to build on. That is important for their whole culture and for the players’ mentality as well. They have great role models and those behavior patterns and footballing know-how soak into them early.
     It starts with solid fundamental skills and strong will. Almost like passion, but they are not Argentina. They want to win badly, they want to have it all, but that is not passion yet, It is just selfishness with a lot of emotion. If they are content with the roles they are given, and trust each other, they can be lovable team, but the always sky-high expectations from the Italian public tend to bring out the worst in them.
     Somehow they always play classic, conservative football even in trying new stuff. They have not done anything revolutionary in their game for decades; there is no evolution, only different degrees of being Italian. There are good and bad sides to being Italian, and the collective proportions of the two will determine their performance at a tournament.
     They used to have the hardest working players in Gattuso, Totti, Cannavaro, and now Rossi and Chiellini are just as inexhaustible.
     They had the icons of football IQ in Baggio, Del Piero and Totti (they say football IQ was the only kind Totti had), and now they have Pirlo. The problem with him is, that he is not as fast and strong as the predecessors. He can be taken out of games, and than Italy is a rock solid defense with not much else to go on.
     Of course the richest history they have is with psychopaths starting back with Caligula and Nero, followed by Gentile and Gattuso and now the evolution has produced the ultimate in… Balotelli. Take away the psychopathic aspect, and this team is not nearly as strong as teams of the past, but the massive defense can take you a long way. Can it take you to the semis, though? Not likely.
     How about a tattoo picture to illustrate Italy?
tattoo italy
Uruguay are great, but Chile…
     Chile is like a bottle of Hungarian palinka (brandy): raw, clear, unsophisticated, but it hits you hard. Chile has a good-looking blitzing offense. They do not stop to think for one moment. If a teammate is running for possession, then he is getting the ball. No hesitation, no cute moves, just rushing through midfield and playing the first thing that comes to mind. Make the defenders chase you, and minimize their chances of putting you off balance, off tempo.
     They try to be just as edgy on defense, and forwards will play two ways. They all cram the area and hope to do the counter attack.
     They have to do that. They are skilled and short, with low center of gravity but have no chance against big forwards or defenders at either end. So they have to run them in the ground. They do need one midfielder other than Vidal to be the link after gaining possession and throwing the ball into attack. Someone like Zidane in ’98.
     It is tiring for both teams, but Chileans must think they have the legs. Still, this game is designed for one elimination game but not the group stages. And not for the Brazilian weather. The team with the highest chance to cramp up by game two is Chile. If they do get through, they are a threat to any team, though.

Who will underachieve?
     The Netherlands are always a good bet. Talented, physically and technically sound, tall, strong, and bitterly conceited players.
nl peter
     Somehow they always beat themselves. Not many teams can beat them, but they can lose to any. Cruyff pointed that out in the 2000 home European Cup against Italy, but it has been true ever since. Holland were so strong that Italy had zero chance, but they came through on penalties, because Holland were too Holland. They missed 2 penalties in the game and another few in the penalty shoot-out.
     They have everything but some of the most important stuff. Humility is one. “I am bigger than this game, this team, this world cup.” If they get lucky and find some rhythm together, they can do anything, but they won’t. That would be too “Belgian” for them, probably. The Dutch are too pragmatic, too logical, too selfish.
     Playing for each other just does not suit them either. Having unity, a team identity, being disciplined would be giving up too much of themselves. They each have their personal identities, but they do not gel, they are too cool to have that.
     Sometimes they have something close to, but not quite what you call passion. That strange language has words very similar to English, but they always mean something slightly different. “Brutaal” for example does not mean “brutal”. They use it to describe their national character as in straightforward, honest, outspoken, tough. They must have the Dutch equivalent for the word “passion”, but whatever the little difference is in the meaning, is the biggest thing missing.

     You know who else can beat themselves? Argentina. As a default they are a disciplined, sharp team with the Serbs’ mental frame (this means strong, very strong, with the aptitude to snap), Brazil’s capacity to entertain, plus some tango, plus Messi. This is the plus side, but there is a huge minus with about 60% of the players being capable of snapping mentally any time. Leading the way is Di Maria with an 80% chance of being sent off in a close game, Mascherano is a distant second with 40%, but if he has to take the role as the last defender standing at a fast break, and he is pissed at a mistake by a teammate, it jumps up to 99%.
     When they play as a team, and they are all happy in their roles, they are a joy to watch. They have so much more energy than any other team. They just sweep through the pitch with fast runs and precise passes of sometimes 20-30-40 meters to start with and shifting the weight of the attack never missing a beat. Messi and Aguero are killer finishers, I expect so much of these guys, that I can not really put it into words. They have passion. The real thing, but if they turn on each other, that is the end of it. It is amazing how easy it is for them to become a bunch of angry psychopaths.
     The problem is their roster is not as strong as four years ago. The defense is shakier without Zanetti, who was not only a solid defender with great contribution on the side to the offense, but also the real leader. The midfield is also weaker, but they have the best strikers to chose from. Too bad they can’t all play at the same time.
     Messi? This could be his big tournament. He is at his prime, but Barca is beaten. Nothing worked for them all year, Messi loses the Ballon D’Or to arch rival Ronaldo, a poster boy, a fashion model, a contender that believes himself to be just as good.
     He is stronger, faster, taller, but Messi owns him. Messi has better control, better vision, better awareness of the teammates, better rhythm, but Ronaldo is so strong and fast, that if he gets a little space, he gets his momentum and is deadly.
     Messi is convinced he is the best, and he is, but he wants the whole world to know.

A few footballing principles
     It is not enough to be the better team. Being better by at least a goal is more difficult than in other sports. Spain in 2010 beat almost every opposing team 1-0. They were several goals better, but their offense, which in actual fact is possession defense (focusing on minimal turnovers) depends on such delicate plays that they only go for it 2 or 3 times a match. If they tried it every five minutes, the opposition would learn to adjust. You have to be patient, wait for the mistake and then strike. It is a beautiful process to see just how finely tuned all the moves are, how they are waiting for a tiny mistake.
     Having the best player on the team does not help. You have to have the ten that work together best. Scoring a goal is probably the most difficult in football when you have evenly matched teams. This is why the best teams usually play low scoring games. It is not because they play badly. It is because they do not make mistakes.
     The beauty of these games is not in huge spectacular plays, but in the way the ten move together not making mistakes, keeping the spacing, shifting the defenses precisely so that it takes big risks from the other team to try to get close.
     You have to jeopardize a lot to be able to score. As in every team sport, it leaves you vulnerable to fast breaks. How do you score and not concede a goal? In a tournament you risk a lot less than usual, that is why football is boring to most who like the flashy kind of action and not the refined, skilled kind.
     Since football is all do or die games, every mistake can be fatal and teams will take fewer risks. Therefore, you have to watch for the little things that lead to the mistakes on the other side. Spain are the masters, but can they pull it off again? It would be more difficult now than ever before. Why? They have been doing their thing for too long, and teams have had time to learn to play against it. Will they come up with something new? There are only so many plays to work the depth of that 30-meter-zone into which they cram the opposition, and the world has come up with the spacing solutions to most of the depth plays so far. Is there room for more? That is the question.

Flopping
     First of all, if you have not played soccer, I mean real soccer, then you can not judge a person rolling around on the ground. Saying things like “basketball is a physical game and you don’t see them roll around on the floor…” does not make you clever.
     What if the soccer player gets up a minute later and continues to play? Was he just acting to get the ref’s sympathies, or get an opponent ejected? Well, yes, sometimes…but more often he just gets a kick in a bone, which will hurt for a minute before pain-killing hormones rush through his system, and let him play on. This happens, this is normal. Have you ever kicked a curb, or bumped your shin in the side of your bed? It hurts like crazy, you think something is broken, but two minutes later you walk on, don’t you? That simple. Later, of course, when you go home and take a shower, it will hurt like hell again, but nobody can see that.

One more important thing: defenders in soccer play dirty. Always.
     Their job is not to play the ball, but to ruin the attacking player’s chances of playing the ball. They will shove you, bump, pull, elbow and kick you just to get you off balance at all times so that they can take away your speed or skill advantage and stop you from doing what you are there to do.
Is it fair, physical play? Hell no. Is it illegal? Hell yeah. Do refs call those? No.
     The people who have made a career being dirty are all defenders on any Italian team, and each defender on any Real Madrid team. Even decent, football-loving Real Madrid fans blush and lower their heads when they think of their own defensive players, and would probably have an urge to slap Pepe if they came face to face. (I know I would.)
     Those players are also arrogant enough to get in the refs’ faces when they are called for a foul. They act like they deserve special privileges in kicking small team strikers.

So what can you do?
     One is to do the Zidane head-butt when you are fed up, and call it a career. I loved him for it. Yes, there had been some trash talk leading up to that moment, but believe me, that was just the last drop, and for a moment the football-loving part of the world felt joy. Then sorrow a moment after, because they knew what was coming, and what was coming to an end.
     So this is one way to deal with the frustration of not being able to play fair, and another is take every chance to show the refs what is happening, and exaggerate every contact so that the ref has no chance but to call it. I prefer the Zidane way, but don’t you dare criticize players until you have played against sneaky defenders.

So, who’s best?
     Can a feisty small team with a little luck beat great footballing nations? You have to adore them for trying. Just remember some of the small teams that surprised us in the past. They were always the best to root for. Denmark in ’86, Holland in ’74, who will it be in 2014? The climate is an important factor, and we have never had conditions like those expected, but even in Mexico you had three European teams in the final four. (Argentina did come out on top, though.)
     For casual fans, do not fall for ignorant rhetoric like: “why don’t they shoot more or score goals?” It is like saying why don’t they dunk more in basketball? Why don’t they hit more home runs in baseball? Why not set more world records in track and field? The answer: they are working on it in many great ways. That is what you watch and like. If you know what is happening, you witness great things from great players. This is the only reason to watch sports, anyway.

Predictions (I asked Peter to make a prediction for the finals and was rebuffed:)
     I don’t like predictions, I like teams to deserve what they get.
     Chile deserve to go far and cause upsets.
     Holland deserve to win it one day after being runners up three times. They deserved to win two of those. Can they hold it together till the end?
     Spain have to do the most to prove they deserve it. They have to reinvent themselves because what they had been doing to perfection is probably not enough any more.
     Brazil will get all the calls and all the support, so what they have to be to deserve it, is humble, and they should not try to play on those calls. It would be awful to see a controversial host nation win.
     Germany are right there, you can not hate them, they are not giving you reason to, but this is South America, who knows.
     I think Messi deserves it most, but will the team grow up to his standard and maintain it? Can he make teammates better? Can they play with passion and brains at the same time? It is possible. Those have to happen and then I will be happy for them.
     Whoever wins, it has to be in a fashion that makes me say “Yes, they deserved it, I am happy for them.” I hope at least a few teams will play in a way that makes me say that. Then it will be a great world cup.
     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+.

The Pre-World Cup Soccer Mailbag

nerja girl
From Paduga in Philippines:
     I saw you in Malate, Manila. You and your backpack. Hehe. I wasnt sure. then i saw your blog. You look younger in the picture.

     This isn’t starting well.

From Irum in location unknown:
     26th of may 2014 i need residence

     Uhhh…OK…and?
corner no
From Marisol in Netherlands:
     Hola Kent,
     I’m Peruviaan living in The Netherlands. I like your site. Thanks. Just something i couldn’t find here an would be really great for travelers. Do you have a list of website’s (links) refering holidays “pirates” tickets? It means a site that informs when an error price ticket appears or an extremely sale ticket. There are a few in Europe.
     Somebody posted on Couchsurfing this list:
http://www.holidaypirates.com
http://www.viajeropedia.com
http://www.piratinvolo.com
http://www.urlaubspiraten.de
http://www.travelpirates.com
http://www.the-exbir.com
http://vakantiepiraten.nl/
http://www.mydealz.de/category/reisen/
http://www.loter.pl/
     It will be nice if somebody can consolidate a day offers of all the pirate sites, so I only would need to enter to one site everyday…

     (By the way, only the first is in English. Use Google Translate for the others.) That does sound like a good idea. These websites do have interesting stuff if you can quickly take advantage of them, and even if the website isn’t in English, sometimes the error fare website is.
     You know another website someone needs to start? www.whichsideoftheplane.com! Travelers need to know which window seat to get for the best views for takeoff and landing! Kathmandu is right side for arriving, Los Angeles is right side both arriving and departing, Istanbul is right side for landing depending on the approach, etc. See? We need to know this stuff! Someone get on it, another FREE business idea from The Dromomaniac!
omg cheap
From Redwaan in Kenya:
     Hi kent. how u doin. am writing to once again but this time i need ur help. in a months time al be travelling to bahamas . you are the most suitable person who can assist me with the information about the cheapest package because my funds is limited and i don want to be overcharged by the travelling agencies. am in nairobi, kenya and and bahamas is visa free for a kenyan passport holder. plz i wanna see this piece of jewel called bahamas so check for me the cheapest hotels and airline. i feel that one day we gonna bump into each other somewhere in this world. thanks you so much.

     Redwaan had written to me before asking about how to get into USA, and this time I razzed him for his backdoor attempt at getting in via Bahamas, but then he wrote back:
     hi. not really but i got some piracy money to spend and i thought this paradise island will be the perfect hideout. by the way i wanna invite you to come over. cheers
     Look, it’s none of my business how he gets his money! I don’t want to be nosy. It’s rude.

From Ashkan in Iran:
Subject: “Life is too short to be shy”
     Hi Kent, I found your website on Couchsurfing. I appreciate your tremendous effort on sharing unique information to us. Unfortunately your tips and tricks do not work for me because I am from Iran. You know, the world zoned country, where boycott is going meaningful there, where you can be a billionaire in a night or versus it.. You can taste the real poverty everyday!..I’d like to travel to know if there’s any place like my country but you may know poverty has been increased these years and along that, there are too many problems such as Visa, Face detection/Finger print on visa processing, lowest currency, global politics and even social warnings
     HUH! You know I am a Terrorist ! Gosh, what a close similarity …I scrimmage with this appointment at any time, particularly abroad. But who bombed Hiroshima, who asked about Nagasaki…Don’t mind, people are used to follow Fox News and BBC…Forget about it. I am getting older and I am losing the best years of my whole life. Voluntary work, traveling abroad, communicate to other cultures and making friends are really more difficult than being a billionaire! I just want to know how I can get out of this marsh, when do my dreams come true? I am a convincing person, I do not want nothing more. A small dream which it’s possible for everyone in Europe or America.

     Every time I am feeling down about traveling so much for so long—and you show me the person who has done it more than me. Go ahead, I can wait—I have to remember all those people in this world who would kill to experience my privilege. My eloquent answer to Ashkan’s predicament is that it sucks, plus the irony here is Ashkan can’t leave Iran to go where he wants and Iran is the last country I want to visit, but can’t (independently.)
travel store
From Tanya in location unknown:
     Kent, I realized I must leave a comment since I have been in a blissful trance reading practically every page, no scratch that, nearly every word on your site for the last 4+ hours. It is now dark for goodness sake…where did my day go?!
     Anyhoo, I am a soon-to-be-female-solo-traveler embarking on a multi-year around the world trip. Although I’ve traveled solo before, it’s great to be reminded about how doable it really is even when I have people telling me I’m crazy. I leave in May for Cancun to swim with the whale sharks and then off to Brazil for the glorious month-long World Cup. No, I’m not riding a whale shark to Brazil, but I will be the one chanting U-S-A or Viva Espana, depending on which game I am at! Then…to wherever I desire at that moment and for however long.
     Thank you, I have learned so much and wanted to send a bit of gratitude for “TheDromomaniac.com PhD” you have bestowed upon me. I almost feel like you have knighted me in my very own living room, “I dub thee Solo Traveler Knight…arise…go forth…Travel!!” You have provided oodles of traveling tips (I had NO IDEA about the fake onward ticket thingy) and thank goodness I was near a bathroom because I nearly peed my pants after laughing so hard from reading your “Another 100 Word Story.” I will enjoy reading more as you write about your adventures. Thanks again and perhaps we will cross paths in this small world of ours.

     I show this email just to demonstrate that some people like me in this cruel and harsh world—even if I reply to them and they never write back, which happens all the time.

WORLDCUPWORLDCUPWORLDCUPWORLDCUPWORLDCUPWORLDCUP!!!

From Sepp Blatter in Zurich, Switzerland:
     Dromo, O Wise One, O Knower of Truths, O Great Seer, I prithee, giveth me some insight into the World Cup while I count my money.

     Thank you, Sepp, I do have some thoughts (and if you hate soccer, you should stop reading now. No hard feelings, I promise):
     Last World Cup I predicted Netherlands would win the World Cup, and I wasn’t far off. This time I expect big things from their neighbor—and I ain’t talkin’ ’bout Germany. The match of the tournament will be Belgium vs. Argentina in the quarter-finals. Belgium is the team to watch, but they are stuck playing either Argentina or Germany to get out of the bracket.
     Ivory Coast is finally not in a Group of Death unlike the last two cups. They should be the first African team to make some serious noise. Let’s not forget that many of these matches are being played in intense tropical heat and humidity that Europeans aren’t used to. I don’t know why so many teams have waited so long to go down to Brazil to get acclimated. They will wilt after a few games.
     I have no idea how USA will do. They can lose all three matches and it wouldn’t surprise me. Neither would quarterfinals. The best quality I expect from having Klinsmann as coach is that we won’t play scared, especially the defense, which drives me crazy.
     Tonight’s prediction: Brazil 1, Croatia 1, setting off a series of events: the Brazilian nation descends into panic, unnerving the team, then they’ll lose to sneaky Mexico (I hate Mexico. Ever since I saw USA tie Mexico at Azteca Stadium with 100,000 others and being hit in the shoulder with ice thrown from the upper deck, I can’t forgive them) followed by prices for acai berries falling to all-time lows and thus, my emigration to Brazil, which has always been my secret plan.
     I don’t feel strongly about this, but I think this is Argentina’s year. I don’t trust Brazil’s defense nor their mettle. Spain might be the San Antonio Spurs of the World Cup where we conveniently overlook them for flashier teams while they play the best all-around game.
     I think I just changed my mind. It’s Spain’s year and decade.
     What are my soccer bona fides to even have an opinion? How would an American(!) possess any chutzpah, any moxie, to offer predictions? I like soccer, what can I say? I witnessed the Olympic Final (France vs. Brazil) in Los Angeles, Brazil vs. Russia in Moscow, Peru vs. Colombia in Bogota, saw matches at the Bonbonera in Buenos Aires, Maracana in Rio, Bundesliga, La Liga, Hungarian, Turkish, Bulgarian, Danish, Syrian, etc. league matches, World Cup in USA, European Cup in England, a tournament in Rotterdam, UEFA Cup match in Yugoslavia, even Vietnam vs. Thailand in Bangkok, and in Oslo I had Norwegian Cup Final tickets that I sold to try and survive there, which I couldn’t, providing a valuable life lesson that soccer is more important than surviving.
     Coming tomorrow or Saturday, the first ever guest post on my blog from a yet-to-be-renowned soccer scholar about the World Cup with some rigorous in-your-face analysis. It might cause a few fights.
man on side
     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+.

The False Curse of Morocco

     Are people from Tangier called Tangerines?

morocco stamp

     It’s always good when you get a stamp on your endorsements page. It means lazy immigration officers in other countries will also stamp it and you get that one extra page in your passport. Americans used to get extra pages for free, but now they cost $100.


     Sometimes I am asked what my least favorite countries in the world are and Morocco always makes my Bottom Three, but I realize I have been unfair to it. Lots of bad things have happened to me here (details at the end), but only one is Morocco’s fault.
ziani

     Some people say you don’t absorb the true magnificence of Ziani until you see him live.


Last minute medical tourism
     Not long after I landed in Casablanca I noticed spots on my body, then more and more. I kept thinking I had a heat rash or allergic reaction to something, and I got on a train to Marrakech. Normally, taking a train to Marrakech would get me humming “Marrakesh Express”, but I was a lifeless blob by the time I arrived and it hadn’t occurred to me to check the weather forecast: 40C (104F). Brutal. Worse, I was staying at a cheap Airbnb place in a hot room with a rock-hard bed. BRUTAL!
     The spots were multiplying, so I shuffled over to the Polyclinique du Sud where I had a consultation for 200. “Dirhams, not euros,” the receptionist joked to me. (8.1 dirhams = US$1) It was late in the day and the doctors were jumpy for some reason. I had two of them. The younger came at me with a thermometer. I opened my mouth and he yanked down my shirt and shoved it in my armpit. He studied my face and said, “Varicelle?” seeking confirmation from me.
     “Varicelle?” I was struggling with French. I still had Japanese in my brain, but at least by now I had stopped saying, “Arigato!” to everyone in Morocco. The other doctor came in, also as if he was late for something. He looked in my mouth. He looked at the bottom of my feet and my palms for spots and when I gestured that there weren’t any, the younger doctor slapped at my hand and pointed to one I had missed. The older doctor also pronounced me with varicelle. What the heck is varicelle? We changed to Spanish but “varicela” didn’t help me. I didn’t know what I had until I checked the internet later. I was shocked—and I’m not easily shocked—to have Google Translate tell me varicelle was chicken pox.
chicken pox

     At just about the apex of the pox.


     There was one funny thing. The older doctor asked if I was with a woman. A woman? I didn’t understand the context of this until the doctor began punching the palm of his hand repeatedly, then wagging his finger in my face and saying, “No!”
     Ahh, I see, no intimate relations. I could only think that if I knew such a depraved woman in this world who would lust for my decomposing body, she would already be Mrs. Kent Foster.
     I can’t say I felt ill, just very run down. My scalp felt like a golf ball when I ran my hands through my head, all pockmarked. Worse was going out in public to buy stuff in full Elephant Man mode. My head was down and I avoided eye contact as much as possible. It was humiliating, though Moroccans didn’t seem to care; you see all kinds of deformities and illnesses on the streets.
     Morocco may not seem like the best place to come down with chicken pox, but where is? USA? Without health insurance? No. Europe? Same same. Their gruffness aside, many Moroccan doctors have probably been educated in Europe and it wasn’t like a needed brain surgery—well, I probably am due for it—I just needed a decent place to rest.
marrakech station

     Marrakech train station: beautiful, but money well spent?


maillot de bain

     A very modest muslim swimsuit shop


asilah sea

     Asilah


asilah graffiti

     In a small alley in the Asilah medina.


cinema rif

     I saw a movie here in Tangier at the very retro and grand Cinema Rif, “Only Lovers Left Alive”, by Jim Jarmusch. It was filmed in Detroit and Tangier, so it was very fun and surreal to see it and then step outside and be in it, so to speak. 20 dirhams ($2.50) for a ticket.


tangier square

     This is just outside the Tangier medina, which is the labyrinth of winding small streets of the old town. Tangier has a relatively modern, new part of town where everyone and everything looks different and you get the feeling the two worlds don’t intersect much.


tangier sunrise

     In Tangier I walked into the Vectoria Hotel (the signs outside say “Vectoria”, the business cards say “Victoria”) in the medina and said to the guy working there, “I have a photo of you from nine years ago.” I opened my laptop and showed it from my last visit. He was duly impressed and gave me the best room for only 50 dirhams ($6), he said with a flourish, but the Vectoria has gone downhill and it was a crumbling room of infinite sadness. Boss also forgot to mention that the entire hotel didn’t have a functioning shower. At least I had a nice sunrise over the port as compensation for being unable to sleep.


vectoria graffiti

     Written on the back of my door in the Vectoria Hotel. I don’t get it either, but I like that they don’t bother to clean it. Maybe the management approves this message?


mcflurry

     Should Filipinos be honored or offended by this in a Moroccan McDonald’s?


The false curse of Morocco
     I was in Morocco nine years ago. Everything went wrong. I flew from Paris to Marrakech. At Charles de Gaulle airport I noticed that the gate next to mine had a flight going to Montreal. Guess where my bag went? Montreal. It took three days of wearing the same clothes to be reunited with it.
     Then from Marrakech I took a bus to the coastal town of Essaouira where I had the most excruciating bus toilet trauma in my life. I was going to write a whole blog post about long distance bus toilet trauma, when the bus leaves earlier than your internal bowel clock is prepared for and your stomach is already feeling shaky as you wonder, “What did I eat last night that is doing this to me?”
     The short story is I was on a bus to Essaouira when the bowels starting rumbling and I knew I didn’t have much time to deal with it. I had few options. The toilet on the bus was locked as if to taunt me, there was no village in sight, no trees to hide behind, nothing but a barren desert landscape and a driver not wanting to stop since we were only 30 minutes from our destination. I was mulling how much I would have to bribe the driver when I felt it coming and I ran to the front of the bus and in a panic made him stop. As he slowed down I looked at the back of the bus to see if there was a window so I could go right behind if there wasn’t, but there was, and the curious kids in the back row would have been very entertained. Miraculously, when I rushed off the bus and around the back there was a heretofore unseen thicket of thin trees and a small hill I could hide behind. I did my business as the driver was honking his horn and slowly pulling away to show his irritation, and I ran back on the bus a new, very relieved man.
     Once in Essaouira, at the port I slipped down a flight of stone stairs and went straight into the sea, completely submerged, avec passport, avec camera, tout. After pulling myself back on to the ledge and trying to get my valuables out of my pocket before they became more soaked, I had to perform the walk of shame back to the hotel, through the main square, leaving a trail of sea water behind me.
     In Fes I was ready to go on a killing spree against the endless touts who ruin an otherwise fascinating ancient town by their relentless opportunism. It has my vote as the worst city in the world for hassle, closely followed by Luxor, Egypt. I could write a blog post about this, too, as it destroys any enjoyment I can have when I am constantly having to deal with hostile hangers-on who don’t take the first 17 times you say “no” for an answer.
     Then in Chefchaouen I became sick…you get the idea by now, so I didn’t look back at Morocco fondly even as I was buying my ticket ($580 one way from Tokyo on Etihad, $555 if I could have left three days later) but I was ready to give it another chance. All I wanted to do was to go out in the desert by the Algerian border and relax, but by the time my flight landed in Casablanca, after twelve hours of flying to Abu Dhabi, nine hours in transit and then nine hours to Casablanca, I had full blown chicken pox—and you know the rest. I think I am over it, my semi-spotty body aside. I can’t blame Morocco. I’ve had take-me-to-the-hospital-now food poisoning in Spain, too, and I keep giving Spain chances, so maybe Morocco is still in my future.
rabat

     Sorry for this super-boring photo of the main drag in Rabat, the capital. Last time I was in Morocco I bought some stuff from a guy on the street in Rabat that I resold in America and paid for half of my trip here. I don’t want to say what it was since someone else might do the same—you will have to wait for it in my book/movie/screenplay/spoken word performance—and no, my backpack wasn’t half-filled with hashish. But this time I couldn’t remember exactly where it was and I couldn’t find my guy.


Practical Information
     Thanks to Emmanuel at Raw Safari for giving me info that would have been very useful if I made it to the desert!
     When I posted on Facebook that I was in Marrakech, a friend I hadn’t seen in ten years noticed and said she was also in town with her mother. She found this fantastic place on Airbnb where the proprietor gave them two rooms for the price of one, which essentially meant they had the whole place to themselves with a caretaker for $50, including a nice breakfast. Incredible deal. It is deep on the south side of the medina, which might be an up and coming area, a lazy assumption based on this hip cafe and art space that recently opened there.
     In Rabat I looked at the youth hostel but I ended up paying double (120 dirhams at the Hotel Central) to not stay there. I don’t recognize myself these days with my newfound standards, but it’s good to know there is a bottom to avoid. It’s been a long time coming.
     In Tangier I also gladly paid double to move to the Hotel Manama for 100 dirhams on a quiet side street with bathroom. Look at The Dromomaniac throwing the money around!
     Did you know that Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize USA in 1777? No, no you didn’t, you didn’t know that. Students, that’s why you should drop out of school and walk the earth with me to get a real education. Say “Amen”, somebody! Let’s go! Let’s do this! (Moroccan medical students get priority.)
     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+.

A dozen times in Japan; it doesn’t get any less weird

window cleaners

     Cleaning the windows at a fashionable address in Ginza, Tokyo.


mitsuyopic

     This is a semi-famous Japanese friend I met 17 years ago in the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She is Mitsuyo Kakuta, a professional writer, by now having written over a dozen books. She also writes a serialized novel for a major newspaper where every day a new chapter is published. I asked her how far in advance she has it written, and she says she doesn’t write it in advance at all; the day before she makes it up on the spot! She was very calm about it. That’s what I call a professional writer. Creative writing on deadline doesn’t even inhibit her unhumanly prodigious drinking. She’s incredible.


shibuyasign

     Yes, yes, and yes. Every time I see gibberish like this I both laugh and become agitated that they didn’t go to the trouble of getting a native speaker to proofread this. If they had gone to any backpacker and said they’d buy them a few plates of sushi if they would look over a few signs before the spent good money manufacturing them, any foreigner would do it in a snap. But no…


highwaymapsign

     This is pure Tokyo. It is a map showing traffic jams on the elevated highway system—which by itself is pure Tokyo as the whole thing has been plopped down on top of the city; none of it touches the ground other than the entrances and exits. Look at that detail you are supposed to digest while careening through skinny lanes at high speeds.


passenger injury

     When I took this photo “passenger injury” was a problem on three different train lines. This has to be a euphemism for someone jumping on the tracks in front of a train, as this happens all the time; Japan has a very high suicide rate. At one “popular” place for passenger injuries, blue lights were installed on the platform. A university had done studies that showed its effectiveness, and it has helped.


deer collision

     …and then sometimes a deer collision is just a deer collision


jhitchspitz

     One moment I am standing in the highway rest area with my thumb out, and the next moment I am sitting in a convertible Volvo with this couple. In our small talk I told them I had been to Japan twelve times, and the girl then asked what my favorite Japanese song is. I said anything by Spitz, and she quickly poked around on her phone, attached it to the car stereo, and soon we were chugging down the highway singing “Cherry.” Good times ONLY to be had when hitchhiking (and traveling light).


jhitchnagoya

     This couple also picked me up hitchhiking


jhitchfamily

     This family also picked me up hitchhiking


Obscure, semi-useful practical information for budding diehard Japanophiles:
     Did you know that Japan is now the cheapest country in Asia to send stuff home if your home is called California? It costs 1080 yen (US$10.50) to send a small packet (max two kgs) by sea. The next cheapest, Hong Kong, is HK$83 for 2kgs, which is US$11. Everywhere else I know is much, much more. Malaysia used to be my go-to place, but I threw up in my mouth when I saw their latest rate increases.
     Did you know that if you want to fly between the capitals of the two biggest economies in Asia, Beijing and Tokyo, it’s cheapest to buy two separate flights on AirAsia.com, where each flight is over 6 hours? The fact that I didn’t do that means I am getting old. I did the next cheapest, which was still ridiculous: I flew via Manila, a solid 4+ hours from either place on Cebu Pacific Air.
     I have flown Cebu Pacific Air maybe five times by now and every time they are sharks about checking onward tickets. Last time at the check-in counter they even had a proclamation printed and laminated from some government official declaring that it must be shown. You might want to look into a fake onward ticket.
     There’s a new place to hitchhike from Tokyo’s Narita airport to town. The only highway parking area between the airport and Tokyo is Shisui, which has become a behemoth since the Shisui Premium Outlets opened up in the same parking lot. There are 200 yen(?) shuttle buses straight from the airport, but if you are just going to central Tokyo, you’ll have to balance that 200 yen with the 1030 yen, 80 minute, Keisei train. There are now JR express trains that cost 1500 yen to Shinjuku and take one hour (The train costs more in the reverse direction.)
tsukiji foreign fish

     Well, well, well, what do we have here behind the scenes at the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo? Fish from Russia, Chile and USA (the bottom box)! Scaaandalous! Speaking of globalization, Japan announced that they are going to give Filipinos, Vietnamese and Indonesians free visa on arrival. In the Philippines this wasn’t the kind of news that went unnoticed. They send so many of their citizens abroad already that I can imagine a lot of people will try and work under the table. I would.


Sleeping in or near airports
     Tokyo airport police are now very lenient about letting people sleep in both of Tokyo’s airports. I didn’t have to show a ticket to prove I was flying out. The place to go in Narita is the staff area upstairs in Terminal 2. There is a staff area in Terminal 1 that is less secluded. Both are just a few rows of seats that have potted plants and signs saying they are for staff, but I didn’t notice any obvious staff on the long, soft, armrest-less benches. I slept well, and I am poor sleeper in the best of times.
     The best place to sleep in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport is anywhere you can find space because everyone is sleeping there; AirAsia’s flight arrives after public transport has finished (whose fault is this?) I saw a pack of 15 people sleep in a row using their bags as a kind of bunker. Only in Japan would you not worry about someone stealing your bag. Otherwise, Haneda is either drafty or there just isn’t good hidden space. The other place to try is the edge of the terminal on the ground floor before you get to the parking lots. You might get some bench space.
     If you don’t mind paying 2000 yen you can stay in the so-called Airport Hostel that is about eight km from the airport, but Yama-san will pick you up for free. I did all three: I slept in both airports and I stayed with Yama-san, which I wrote about last time here with the bonus of the greatest Japanese music video ever. For Japan it’s a very good deal, though I was ready to kill the idiot sleeping next to me. Let’s hope there’s a special place in hell reserved for those who type on their phones at 6am with the keypad volume on high. There has to be, right? What kind of inbred would do that? Same with the retards who have their incoming message tone on high. Once or twice, OK, but over and over? Have you gone deaf from your keypad volume?
     Since when have so many travelers been raised by wolves? Traveling sucks, I’m telling you. Morocco, where I am now, is hearty confirmation since I came down with chicken pox, which is but one of a long line of curses I’ve endured on my visits here. That’s the next blog post.
shinkansen seats

     How comfortable are shinkansen seats? Pretty comfortable, it appears. This guy was fast asleep until I took the photo, and then he was fast irritated.


     I forgot to add this: conveyor belt sushi with even more automation than I was used to. The link is here if you can’t see it below.

     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+.

How to Spend Ten Miserable Days in the Philippines

roadside circumcision

     “Honey, stop the car!”


     The first way to ruin your ten days in Philippines might be a roadside circumcision (1500 pesos = US$33) but the main thing is to have Easter be in the middle and a dental visits on both ends of it. I only realized when I landed that I was coming right before the biggest holiday of the year. Is there a more Easter-loving country on the planet than the Philippines? There aren’t many. Everyone was on the move, and most stores were shut down for days.
     On Good Friday I was lamenting to the owner of a 7-11 convenience store that everything was closed. Normally garrulous, this Filipino went quiet for two beats before saying with pity, “You aren’t Catholic.” I said no, leaving out that not only am I not Catholic, I don’t even know what the significance of Easter is. If I confessed to him that I also went to a catholic high school for four years and made a graduation speech, his head might have exploded.
     It was hard to find decent food to eat over the holiday, but truth be told, it’s a problem any time. I have to say it: the food is horrible in the Philippines. Last time I was here a friend took me out to great food meal after meal, but they weren’t “regular” places “normal” people go. The food that is most accessible is a nightmare of fatty, greasy, and fried with sweets, sweets and more sweets.
     The preponderance of junk food is absolutely incredible. (As an American I’m uniquely qualified to judge.) Every mall has exactly the same chain stores, the supermarkets have whole aisles devoted to packaged cupcakes, and anything at a bakery tastes like a sweet hot dog bun. It’s unbelievable. In the “wellness” section of one supermarket I saw pancake mix, brownie mix, boxes of condensed milk and cream, and baking chocolate.
jollibee locations

     Jollibee is a horrendous Filipino fast food chain but I love this list of locations, particularly the deep drop-off after New York. Daly City is a suburb of San Francisco that had long been a first destination for fresh-off-the-boat Filipinos and is therefore a place a surprising number of Filipinos here know, whereas I don’t think people who live 30km away in the East Bay can find it on the map.


     When I arrived at Manila airport I went to the shuttle bus (there is finally a shuttle bus! It took only six years to organize a ragged old bus to take passengers to the nearest train station—”You go, Manila!”) sat down, and heard the radio blasting “When Smokey Sings” by ABC. Now that’s a welcome, Filipino style! It’s a pretty obscure 1980s song, but you can’t faze a Filipino by saying that for they are at the vanguard of resurrecting classic songs. (I’ve always claimed this: the singers of 1980s power balladeers, Air Supply, can declare tomorrow that they are Filipino citizens and want to run for President, and they will get 95% of the vote without trying.) It’s one thing I deeply love about the Philippines. In the most random of places I will hear old nuggets. I was in a mall trying to distance myself from video game white noise when I suddenly came across someone on a karaoke machine passionately belting out “Lying Eyes” by The Eagles (no link—I hate The Eagles, and it’s the worst band name ever) and it’s like that anywhere you go. Rock on, Pinoys!
hitchhiking philippines

     That’s pretty good form, I must say. This is in Malvar, one exit away from Lipa City, about 100km south of Manila where I spent the Easter holiday. The hitchhiking went OK. It’s not commonly done here, but Filipinos are all-time gracious hosts and are usually happy to help the weirdo who is smiling awkwardly on the side of the road with his thumb out for some reason. An Aussie family drove me back to Manila. Speaking of which, I was surprised to see that the land down here reminded me of Australia: rust-colored soil, haphazard vegetation, and what looked like gum trees from afar, none of which are evident in this photo. Thank me later.


hitchhiking lipa

     These two women picked me up hitchhiking and insisted on driving me straight to the hostel.


hitchhiking paranaque

     These two women plus a thirteen-year-old girl picked me up hitchhiking in front of my dentist’s office in the dark in Paranaque, a southern suburb of Manila.


lipa rental

     Think about this: it’s 44 pesos to the dollar, so you can have your own apartment for 3500 pesos ($80) a month! (“CR” means “comfort room”, or bathroom.) My parole officer—I mean, anyone’s parole officer—will never ever find you!


uniforms kings

     Another thing unique to the Philippines I like are the basketball jerseys always being made or repaired by small mom and pop shops.


uniforms heat

     Dubai Heat. That’s a good name.


g dorm

     This is a great idea America desperately needs: cheap temporary accommodation. This is called G Dorm. The men’s dorm was empty over the holidays so I had my own room for 150 pesos (US$3.30) a night. These places are meant for transient workers, in this case the call center next door. Since it isn’t a hostel per se, they don’t supply sheets or even a pillow. Finally my sarong shows its usefulness! Another boarder let me use her pillow while she was away. There is camaraderie, safety, it’s cheap, central, and it facilitates the movement of workers to where jobs are, which is a problem in America.


     Any time I meet call center workers I apologize for past rudeness, explaining that it makes me berserk when they read off a script instead of listening to me. One girl at G Dorm said that they focus on a list of keywords they have to help them move to the next step in case their English is lacking. She said her present company was better as it dealt with Australians, saying that Aussies were “less mean” than everyone else.
     The day before I met a policeman who moonlights in a call center. He wasn’t bothered by the negativity he has to deal with every day. Besides, he said, some people just hang up the minute he starts talking. I said, “That was me. Sorry.”
     I’m not sure what to say about my dental tourism here. It was cheap: US$380 for CAD/CAM (aka Cerec) restoration on a back molar by a German dentist(!) but it took 11 hours in total over three visits. It might not be the end either as I have something called a “balanced contact molar” which is not as benign as it sounds.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     All hostels in Manila are awful. Trust me on this. Don’t waste your time looking at reviews on TripAdvisor or whatever. It’s all rubbish. Every hostel will have the same tired, worn look to match its faulty plumbing, filthy rooms and flimsy beds. Even if they advertise themselves as “new”, find out how new because newness dies quickly and irrevocably in relentless Manila.
     I like a place I often stay, Pension Natividad, in the heart of the hell of Malate (don’t ever go left when you walk out of the hostel, even in daytime) because it’s hardcore Catholic, meaning it’s clean and austere. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t show up on any hostel search engines, too, because they don’t take reservations. Unless I am mistaken, the oasis is only first come, first serve.
     I moved closer to my dentist in the southern suburb of Paranaque at Green Mango Hostel where a dorm bed is only 250 pesos but where I woke up with weird, bright red spots on my legs. I’m pretty sure this is a hot sheet hotel, too, judging by the number of people who avail themselves of the “12 hour rental” with no luggage. I moved to a 12 hour rental room after I had an “incident” with a Japanese boxer staying in the dorm. I had to wear headphones. And use two pairs of gloves to touch the remote control.
     There are two miserable people staying an indeterminate time at the hostel. Make no mistake: there’s nothing sadder than a foreigner staying long term in a cheap Manila hostel. Nothing. I see them, I know them, and I strenuously try and avoid becoming one of them.

     If you were into this blog post there are more from my visit last year:
     If I wrote for the Filipino version of The Onion…
     Palawan, Philippines, the Last Frontier (of Mister Donut)
     Narrowly Avoiding Death (from Obesity) in Davao, Mindanao
     Camiguin and its bubonic plague-free lanzones festival
     Cagayan de Oro, best (ping pong) city in the Philippines
     Malate + Makati = Manila?
     A mild defense of Filipino food
     And this is a Philippines section from my old website, a very retro-looking thing that still makes me smile when I see all those ebullient faces. I show a place where you can get a free circumcision, too, if you are curious.
     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+.

Beijing and Xian, China in 15 breezy, easy to digest photos

age discrimination

     Let me state for the record that I am against age discrimination in all forms. Thank you.


five jiao

     This might be my favorite banknote in the world that is currently in mass circulation, and my photo doesn’t bring out the purple in it. China used to have the most beautiful currency, a mix of socialist ideals and ethnic minorities. I just happen to have a link to my old website here for a photo of some of it.


terracotta warriors

     Xian’s terracotta warriors, a view from the rear.


uighur cake

     Three Uighur guys in Xian’s muslim quarter side by side selling cake…


uighur fried tofu

     …deep fried tofu…


uighur tofu

     …and grilled tofu.


pancake sign

     Precisely.


laddies

     One little letter can make all the difference, mate.


boil dumpings

     Ditto.


chinese communal toilet

     Chinese communal toilet for those boil dumpings.


chinese dentures

     In front of a dental practice that I chose not to patronize.


facebook hostel

     Unlike.


forbidden haze

     Heavy pollution in front of the Forbidden City. It’s hard to see, but the flag of Trinidad is waving in the background as the president was on a state visit.


great wall hitch

     These guys gave me a ride hitchhiking to get to the Great Wall. They didn’t understand the concept, but they figured I needed help and stopped for me.


exquisite snacks

     Exquisite indeed!


     PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     Did you know there are about ten cities in China at this point that allow visa-free entry if you stay less than 72 hours? It’s not so practical unless you are flying through China on different airlines or have a long stopover. If you are going through the effort to go to China, it’s likely you want to stay more than 72 hours.
     There are fast trains that go between Xian and Beijing as well as nonstop overnight trains, but it costs about the same to fly. That said, Xian’s new airport is way out of town. Contrary to that, I find it’s easier buying plane tickets than train tickets in China, and you can’t buy train tickets beyond 20 days in advance, I think it is.
     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+.

A Long March to the Great Pall of China

chinese lesson

     Hey, kidnappers need to improve their English, too. Let’s not be all high and mighty and discriminate.


huge load on highway 99

     You never see scenes like this in California any more, but driving to Los Angeles to get a Chinese visa, the roads become sinicized.


     Visiting an embassy or consulate to get a visa can be such a great introduction of what the country is like. (My most memorable embassy visit might be getting a Yugoslav/Serbian visa in Tirana, Albania, just after the war, but I can’t talk about it now because I can’t be wasting valuable blog space telling good travel stories. You understand.) The Chinese consulate in Los Angeles didn’t disappoint. Normally a consulate is a near-reverential place, subdued, quiet, all business. China’s visa section is a zoo. It’s noisy, crowded, people are yelling, fidgety kids are coughing in my face: it’s all China right there. If you want a whiff of China without paying $140 for the privilege of getting a visa, just hang out in the consulate all day.
     I used to live a few blocks away from the consulate in what is called Koreatown, but has since been subdivided into another more distinct area, Little Bangladesh. Add that to your melting pot, Mister! Los Angeles is not only totally underrated, it is one of the world’s great cities. No one believes me when I say it. I will argue this point another time, but again, space constraints. Would you rather have a well-thought out, passionate, articulate manifesto or photos like this:
Floor plan on the back!

     Knew it! This is from a magazine at the consulate: floor plans on the backs of women. I don’t know what to think of this—it’s more than a little demeaning, isn’t it?—but I’m now offering billboard space on the sides of my nose.


classic sign

     Classic Chinese sign at the consulate. Don’t waste time!


fgdf dfgfd fgsfdg
     I flew a motley combination of Virgin American and Hainan Airlines to go from San Francisco to China via Seattle. It was my first time flying both which is saying something. Virgin was something different. At SFO you pass by drab check-in counter after drab check-in counter before suddenly coming across the mellow feel of Virgin’s velvet ropes, its inviting deep reds, its subdued lighting, their relaxed agents greeting you like it’s a soiree—I felt hipster, yet looked dumpster.
     It’s all so inviting, a breath of fresh air, but their policy of disallowing frequent flyer miles if you don’t book your flight through their website—impossible on my route—is unforgivable. Death to Virgin!
     They do have the safety video of the century, which is any safety video that makes me pay attention. The link is here if you can’t see it below:

travelex

     When you see Travelex in an airport, you know the airport sucks. They are the equivalent of the rapacious Chequepoint moneychangers in big European cities with deceptive exchange rate boards (“$10,000 minimum, Sir”), poor rates AND commissions, the unholy trifecta of everything I hate about changing money. Can someone start a website/app where they can show what the airport exchange rate is before we get there? Another free business idea from The Dromomaniac!


     (Quick tangent: I thought Vienna was going to hold the championship belt for Worst New Airport for years until Bali snatched it quickly and decisively: no place to change money, no water fountain, flooded toilets, not enough seating, poorly placed signage and layout, and so many garbage boutiques that one has to walk from immigration through the duty free shops, which isn’t a path with the shops on both sides a la Bangkok, but actually weave your way through the displays which is pure cynicism. It’s like they closely studied Singapore’s Changi Airport and then consciously did the opposite. I will only concede that the remodeling isn’t 100% finished. End of tangent.)
Hainan Airlines

     Hainan Airlines is said to be a rare “5-star” airline, which is hokum. The only memorable things about Hainan were these biscuits and a flight attendant’s name badge that said, “CHILLY”. which might have simply been a warning of her temperment.


tiananmen haze

     I happened to be in Beijing during record bad pollution. When a storm finally came and the measurement went all the way down to merely “unhealthy” it was cause for joy. Look at how murky the air is at Tiananmen Square.


     PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     I got a multiple entry, two-month Chinese visa good for one year for $140, a better deal than the $240, single entry, one month Chinese visa I got in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan last year. It takes four business days to get. I made a fake onward ticket for the application.
     I paid $570 one way to go to China—I’m not happy about it either. Flying cheaply around the world has this one stumbling block: crossing the Pacific. However, someday before I die I will buy a decent video camera, stand in front of a big map, and make a video called, “How to Fly Around the World For Less Than $2000.” Even with $570 flights it’s doable, and I won’t make the dates far into the future to kill the popular myth that you need to book far in advance. Who wants to help me? I just need video, a map, and good looks.

     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+.

Ten photos from Hong Kong lacking any deep meaning

McDonald's tray

     “Images are for reference only.” I think this was from a McDonald’s tray. Coincidentally, it’s also what my mail order bride said when I first met her.


tired panda

     Quick quiz question: according to the government-run China Daily newspaper, what is the only country in the world that has pandas that China doesn’t own? (China rents out their pandas to zoos around the world but retains ownership, except in the case of this one country.) Answer at the bottom.


asses glue

     I can’t explain everything I see. Sometimes I can’t explain anything I see.


very good seafood restaurant

     If you had a place called “VERY GOOD WIFI RESTAURANT” there would be a line out the door.


sai kung seafood

     Very fresh seafood in Sai Kung


cough manners

     Cough manners indeed. There are anti-spitting signs, too, which point out a big difference between Hong Kongers and mainlanders. In Hong Kong people get fined for spitting. In China they are feted.


underqualified

     Filling that neglected niche for underqualified pharmacists.


hong kong police
do not scream
bonsai orange tree

     Miniature orange tree


     PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     When searching for cheap flights on the likes of Momondo and Kayak, the problem is the unfamiliar website they send you—aside from the fact that they don’t always have English versions of their websites—is that they can try and charge you an extra 15%(!!) of the ticket cost just to use your credit card.
     Another trick is when you buy a ticket in euros, say, and then at the end they “helpfully” ask if you want the amount charged in dollars to your credit card. It is always much more than if you let the credit card make the conversion itself.
     Anything that makes you opt out rather than opt in is also scumbag sneaky, meaning that the website will automatically add something like insurance or a reserved seat fee to your flight unless you click a box wanting out, and sometimes it isn’t as easy as clicking a box to get out—yes, I’m talking to you, AirAsia.
     The answer to the panda quiz? Mexico!

     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+.

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