"All the time I'm not writing I feel like a criminal." -Fran Lebowitz

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


I was concerned. Over the previous twenty hours on the bumpy, fatigued journey from Hanoi, Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos, our bus driver had stopped more than once, but each of the previous times it was usually just to smoke by the side of the road and chatter on his cell phone, waking us all up. This time, however, he was darting back and forth between the open door and the back of the bus, joined by his “staff.” When they were out of sight, I could hear banging where I imagined the engine was. They seemed unconcerned. I was concerned.

After ten minutes, the passengers who were locals filed out of the bus - THEY each took the stop as a chance to smoke; they were unconcerned - then finally the foreigners followed them, concerned. For fifteen more minutes, we milled around the grass in front of a what could best be described as a “mini-market-tent”, trading advice on hostels while we watched the road with passing cars that worked, and the impromptu mechanics work on a vehicle that didn't. They seemed to be following a pattern: one of them would climb into the rabbit hole of an engine compartment, we would hear grunting and banging, the driver would trot back into the bus and try to start it, he would fail, everyone would sigh, repeat.

“How far are we from Vientiane?” I asked one of the local passengers. College-age, with bushy black hair and a green t-shirt slightly too small for his pudgy frame, the kid looked annoyed to have his flirting with a female foreign backpacker interrupted. “What?” he asked.

“How far are we from where we’re going?”

“Eighty kilometers.”

Jesus, I thought. I watched the bus, listened to the banging. “What happens if they can’t get it started?”


I pointed at the bus. “What happens to us if they’re not able to fix the problem, get the bus started?”

He smiled at me. “You just have to believe it will be fine,” he said.

I almost laughed in his face. Five minutes later, back on the bus, the engine running, I almost apologized.

I’ve been on this trip for nineteen weeks. I’ve learned several things, including:

-I’ve learned that you can never drink enough water.

-I’ve learned that the first day you arrive in a new city, you just walk around for a few hours and you’re guaranteed to find cool things.

-I’ve learned you can walk all day long.

-I've learned that most people walk just fast enough to stay in your way.

-I’ve learned that the first day you arrive in a new city, you buy postcards and write them out that night.

-I’ve learned the first night you’re in a new city, you figure out how to get to wherever you’ll need to go when you’re LEAVING that city.

-I’ve learned that podcasts are better for killing time during overnight bus or train trips, but music is better accompaniment during walking.

-I've learned that the National is a great band to score a visit to Halong Bay, that Vampire Weekend is a great band to walk through Singapore with, and that Jay-Z is a fantastic soundtrack while walking around rural China.

-I’ve learned that once you spend years in restaurants where smoking is forbidden, sitting in one at a table next to smoking French tourists is a real eye-opener (and eye-waterer).

-I’ve learned that the bullet trains in China are amazing and that the United States needs to get on that, pronto. Please. Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Please. This is Day-One shit.

-I’ve learned that the baguettes in Hanoi are amazing, that hot pot in China is still the best way to eat dinner, that as long as you’re cool with beef, chicken, or pork, pointing at a picture will get you fed well most of the time.

-I’ve learned that in most countries in Asia, tipping is unnecessary. But apparently the trade-off is, whenever you ask a waiter or waitress for anything, there will be a brief moment where you’re convinced they’re going to just walk away from you without doing anything.

-I’ve learned that, collectively, the service industry really resents giving out the free wi-fi password.

-I’ve learned that most of the time, a recommendation from someone whom you meet on a train or bus or whom you chat with in a hotel lobby or bar will beat the recommendations in the guidebook. But-

-I’ve learned that just because the person you’re talking to speaks English, it doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.

-I’ve learned that if you don’t like littering you might have to carry a water bottle five miles to make sure it winds up in a garbage can. I've learned it's worth it.

-I’ve learned that there’s a ceiling for how high China can rise until they learn how to fucking line up properly. Learn to queue, yo.

-I’ve learned that in southeast Asia, there is no such thing as a sidewalk. Between either side of the road and the buildings bordering the street, there is a concrete area meant not for walking, but for motorbike parking, food stalls, motorbike DRIVING, old people sitting on tiny, blue stools, and children sitting on tiny, blue stools.

-I’ve learned you can fit a family of four on a motorbike.

-I’ve learned that there are no concepts so foreign to Asia as “yield,” the “right of way,” or “defensive driving.” It’s often said in sports that “the best defense is a good offense.” Drivers in Asia, in that case, are trying to desperately emulate Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagle offense combined with Loyola Marymount’s basketball offense in 1989 all at once, then combine it with a gigantic swarm of bees each trying to get inside a honeycomb. The resource on this continent that promises to never run out is brake fluid. Using one’s brakes here is considered a failure.

-I’ve learned you’re allowed to every now and again read or watch something that reminds you of home without feeling like you’re cheating.

-I’ve learned that “NewsRadio” doesn’t quite hold up but Phil Hartman undeniably does.

-I’ve learned I can spend four months not watching football games or highlights and still pick NFL games better than my friends.

-I've learned that those stretchy, semi-pajama elephant pants that 98% of female backpackers in southeast Asia wear lose their novelty pretty quickly. I've noticed the locals don't wear them.

-I’ve learned that a woman on a motorbike, wearing an accessorized helmet (be it styled with a tartan pattern, in pink, or with some floral print) coordinated with her business suit and skirt, with her high-heeled shoes resting on the pedal, is a pretty damn sexy sight.

-I’ve learned I should’ve been smiling and holding eye contact with people for the last thirty years.

-I’ve learned you can be open to and respectful other cultures and their histories but also more patriotic than you would’ve thought your cynicism allowed. I’ve learned that all it takes to realize you love your country and understand that it’s great despite its faults is to walk through a desolate Aboriginal neighborhood in Alice Springs, Australia, to stand on an empty street in Tiananmen Square, China, to be warned not to let anyone on the mainland catch you with that protest leaflet you just put in your wallet in Hong Kong, or to walk through the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam.

-I’ve learned that for the most part, people all over the world see you smile and they smile back at you, want to learn more about you when they can, and are looking to help and not scam you.

-I’ve learned that, with the previous thing I’ve learned, taxicab drivers are not people. Enh, some of them are.

-I’ve learned that even though it’s not a scam, you’re not going to beat street urchins in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at “rock-scissors-paper”.

-I’ve learned that people may lose 75% of their body heat through their head, but I lose 90% of my sweat through my back.

-I’ve learned that my body odor is somewhat inoffensive. It’s debatable, anyway.

-I’ve learned (re-learned) that my foot odor is. It’s not debatable.

-I’ve learned that you’re allowed to say, “I don’t feel like going to any temples today.”

-I’ve learned that there are all the temples in southeast Asia, and there’s Angkor Wat.

-I’ve learned that you shouldn’t make any decisions until you’ve gotten out of bed in the morning.

-I’ve learned you should get out of bed the moment you wake up in the morning.

-I’ve learned that two cups of coffee or two bottles of beer are, for better or worse, reliable antidepressants.

-I’ve learned that a conversation over drinks with a stranger beats walking around a museum, that walking around a city with a travel partner beats walking around a city alone, and that when you tell someone you met to “keep in touch,” be prepared for that touch to change your trip in the best possible ways.

-I’ve learned that you need to adapt, and that’s how you wind up making things more memorable.

-I’ve learned that Australia is a donut.

-I’ve learned the beaches in Bali are an even better antidepressant than two cups of coffee.

-I’ve learned that autumn in Beijing, China feels just like autumn in Manhattan, and that the foliage surrounding the Great Wall of China changes colors just like the foliage in New England.

-I’ve learned that every day is a short story.

-I’ve learned to believe - or at least try to believe - that it will be fine.