2007 Country Experiences and Impressions
Listed below are just a few of the numerous memories and impressions that I've picked up from countries/regions explored during the past 12 months.
The land of steak, wine, and perpetually harassed women.
My general feeling is that Argentina is an over-hyped destination for people not interested in damaging their liver every night. The Irish love Buenos Aires—I've never seen so many in one place. They get stuck inside a bottle there, and wake up several weeks later to realize they've spent only a handful of hours sober during daylight hours. Try as they might, not even the young Israelis can keep up with them.
A return to Argentina would find me avoiding the entire northern reaches of the country. Instead, I'd only be interested in getting the gear and people together necessary to camp and explore Patagonia at my own pace, by car.
Vivid memories from the final 30 days in Argentina include: New Years Eve, and the two weeks following spent partying with an old friend who flew out to see me from the U.S.; protesters in the streets; Oracle employees; stencil-graffiti; lounging on a roof-top pool; cheap sushi on "China Street" (…not town); getting a Tazer suck in my face by an angry taxi driver; and days of paper raining down from Buneos Aires skyscrapers.
Although I only spent a week in the country, I intensely regret not getting out of Argentina faster and into Uruguay sooner. Calm, clean, and generally affordable, Uruguay is the kind of farming country that makes me want to ride a bicycle or motorcycle through it for several weeks.
I would return to Uruguay in a heartbeat.
Vivid memories: A beach full of locals clapping in appreciation at the last rays of a setting sun; riding a rusting bicycle around Colonia del Sacramento; a rather boring capital, where 44% of the country's population lives; and a man with a pair of megaphone strapped to his motorcycle.
An impromptu trip into Paraguay from the Brazilian side of the triple-border town shared with Argentina was long enough for me to feel some sort of confirmation that I wouldn't be missing much by skipping out on the rest of the country. There's an excessive visa fee that must be paid for U.S. citizens entering Paraguay, and visiting the country required that I do so unofficially, slipping past the immigration officials on their side of the border. I received no stamp in my passport, and took no photos—as a border town of this quality was not the place to advertise that one is carrying a camera.
Vivid memories: A chaotic line of cars at the immigration checkpoint that reminded me of the Tijuana/USA border; feeling refreshed upon hearing Spanish instead of Portuguese; bypassing customs and immigration; and accidently wearing clothes that day that screamed "stab this guy for his money."
Brazil was an emotional rollercoaster. I was intensely happy one day, only to find myself revolted by the country the next. It was an absolutely exhausting place to travel in, and easily most expensive of 2007. I don't care who tells me that Portuguese and Spanish are similar—they're not when spoken, and traveling economically through Brazil without a command of the language can be a miserable, frustrating experience.
The biggest mistake I made with Brazil was not buying an "air pass" to move about the country, and consequently, my time there was all that more displeasing because of it. Overland travel is so expensive, it's actually cheaper to fly about it—and it's not because the flights are cheap, it's just the cost of a bus ticket is upwards of US$5–6 per hour of the journey. Brazil is a big country, and the outrageous cost of traveling (a typical) 25 hours on a bus is actually more than a flight across the United States.
My itinerary suggestion to future travelers: Fly from Foz do Iguazu to Rio, to Salvador, to Belem, float up the Amazon, and then bus into Venezuela (or fly out of the country) from Manaus.
I honestly hope to never return to Brazil, unless it's with a group of very close friends for another Carnival experience.
Vivid memories: Violence, and the perception of it around me; the amazingly overhyped Jesus statue of Rio; slapping the face of a young child pickpocket; the smell of Carnival: sweat, beer, urine, and dirt; fighting with fists; tanning naked on the beaches of Tambaba; a week on the Amazon River with a boat full of Brazilians; three-course breakfasts; language problems; brain-dead bus drivers; a cloned army of men on beaches wearing the same black thong; eating piranha; fuel made from sugarcane; and expensive everything.
Venezuela, the country that just won't let me do anything short of hate it.
But this is an oversimplification of a more identifiable problem: Caracas. In a previous travelogue post about the capital, I said: "May I live the rest of my days without ever setting a foot in the city again." And I meant it. It's my hope to never see Caracas, or its airport, again.
I received a very pleasant e-mail, and likewise articulated comment left on that particular travelogue post, from a Venezuelan living in the United States. And though I've completely lost hope of ever moving past the bad experiences Caracas has bestowed upon me, messages like this give me hope that I just might consider sampling the country again one day.
Vivid memories: A teenaged military; sleeping in a hammock to save money; repeatedly getting harassed, and ultimately robbed, by police in broad daylight; black-market currency negotiations; the best outdoor play I've ever seen; and the most fear felt of any country I've traveled in.
The United States
Traveling in the United States is my vacation. It's an oasis of predictability and pleasurable excess, where I don't have to fight for accommodations, Internet, food, and transport on a daily basis. Life is easy in the United States, but complicated.
Vivid memories: Silence; a car stopping to let me cross the street; theme park visits on both coasts of the country; my wild 27th birthday celebration in Arizona; steelhead fishing with my brother and father in the Pacific Northwest; being given a 100-year-old pocket watch that was used daily by my great-grandfather; hugging friends and family; hunting for, and modifying a new backpack; and driving again for the first time since 2005.
All roads in SE Asia lead to Bangkok. It's a wild, wacky, and depraved convergence of business and pleasure that is unlike any other place I've seen on the planet. It would seem that any food, any delight, and any vice can be had in Bangkok—so long as you know where to look for it.
Most every backpacker who travels the world will eventually walk down Khaosan Road, regardless of his or her nationality or age, and stare at the oddity that is the center of the universe for this region of the world. Stand still long enough, and sooner or later you'll meet many of those you encountered along the journey to get there.
For each of Thailand's faults, there seems to be two strengths waiting to make up for it. Many of the Thai people may loath foreigners, but they're often passive, respectful, and courteous to your face. The 'Land of Smiles' is one of the easiest in the world to travel in for greenhorns, and equally rewarding for veterans, who can just as easily step off the tourist trail and into a unique experience.
It's an inexpensive, fascinating, and delicious, mystery of a country that I've had no problem going back to time and time again. And with flights originating out of Bangkok bound to most any destination in the world, it's assured I'll be back to check out the NW region of the country—something I still haven't gotten around to seeing.
Vivid memories: Khaosan Road; ladyboys, and straight men with ladyboys; squat toilets; yellow shirts and big amulets; phuket prostitution; attending a celebrity wedding reception; watching a friend throw a girl's digital camera out the window of a taxi; mango sticky rice; sweetened Indian Pennywort juice; nearly loosing every photo taken in SE Asia; an ignorant girl making a mess of an old friendship; cheesy love songs; and Patpong ping-pong shows.
Malaysia was my first exposure to a Muslim nation—and though diluted in intensity because of the large Chinese and Indian populations that live in the country, it was enough for me question if I'd enjoy traveling in regions of the world where the overtones of the Islamic faith were any more extreme.
Although more progressive than other Islamic states, I didn't care for the obligatory headscarves the Muslim women wear, and found myself wondering if the women of this faith are more prone to be overweight than other religions, on account of the loose clothing and feature-concealing garments they're expected to wear.
The level of chauvinism that I thought so wild in Latin America was blown away by the acts and attitudes of Islamic men in Malaysia. My heart truly goes out to the mothers and daughters of that repressive faith.
Tensions between ethnicity groups are still omnipresent, decades after the 1969 race riots. I found Indian men to be most outspoken on the subject, and have little doubt that problems will only worsen as Malaysia continues to grow as a destination for vacationing Saudi's (who can't travel anywhere else because they're deplored by so much of the American and European communities).
All things considering though, Malaysia has some of the best food, buses, roads, and island escapes in all of SE Asia. It's an intersection of cultures that I've only seen the equivalent of in Singapore.
Vivid memories: A green sea of tea bushes; being hosted at a five-star resort; the quality of the water and sand in the Perhentians; roti canai, Indian iced tea, and Malaysia's foods in general; sleeping in a barracks built by the British in the 1930s; purchasing a laptop; and realizing that the Petronas Twin Towers are in Kuala Lumpur, not Hong Kong—oops.
Laos felt like a mixture of Central and South America, with a wonderful Asian twist. The breadth of town types encountered was intriguing, ranging from rural village, to war-torn town, to hippy outpost, to World Heritage site. The Lao countryside is equally remarkable, making the arduous overland travel by bus a joy.
I love how there is no visible prostitution in Laos, as romantically consorting with foreigners is illegal.
I would happily return to this country, and continue exploring rural, landlocked Laos (before the tourism gets out of hand).
Vivid memories: A lack of corrugated steel in home construction; an overabundance of Thai pancake vendors in Vang Vieng; agro-subsistence farming; vast fields of rice; tractor transport; vegetarian meals; civilians with automatic rifles; tubing down a lazy river; being adopted by communists; and mythical serpent-beings.
In an attempt to have a comfortable beach getaway with Tatiana in a finite 2.5-week span of time, we made the mistake of never leaving the tourist bubble. I know that had I been traveling alone in this country of islands things would've been a lot different—although I'm not sure the lackluster food choices would've improved with independent travel.
Since then, I've been reminded many times by a buddy of mine who says that the Philippines is not a place for guys who like girls to go with a spouse or girlfriend in tow. And though I have no recollection of any cute Filipino girl sightings—he assures me they're there.
A visit to this country in the middle of the typhoon season is not recommended if you're looking to lay out on a beach and get tan. But, if you're looking to lay out on a beach and get sand blown into your face by seasonal winds, it's your place.
Vivid memories: Wristwatch/fake Rolex peddlers; off-key Karaoke; brothels; skewered chicken heads, and a country full of inedible terrestrial animal-based foods; children street beggars; South Koreans; sunless skies; interesting Jeepneys and annoying tricycles; cock-fights on TV; living inside the tourist bubble; boats fitted outriggers; Tatiana's surprise; quality prenatal healthcare; massive barriers made of plastic and bamboo; a double x-ray policy at airports; the Chocolate Hills, and tiny Tarsiers.
With 238 million inhabitants, Indonesia is the largest Islamic nation in the world, comprised of 17,508 islands, forming the world's largest archipelago. It's a helluva lot of land spread over a ridiculous amount of islands, with an even more ridiculous tourist visa policy to go along with it. Few travelers are going to get far beyond the islands that now serve as tourist traps.
Jakarta is surprisingly modern when looking up at the buildings, but exhibits the same dirty, pushy chaos of men that 'Muslim Malaysia' suffers from.
Bali is an absolute mess that should be avoided at all costs.
Little information seems to be published on the beaches of Indonesia—though lots of surfing destinations—which has since lead me to the conclusion that there are no good beaches in Indonesia. Don't go to Indonesia if you're looking for warm, turquoise water; it isn't there.
Vivid memories: Bali's hedonism; Borobudur; a freezing ocean; mosque loudspeakers pumping out wailing prayers; sweet soy sauce; narrow bus seats; Bali's fixation with wooden penises; soliciting screams from Indonesian men; tree snails; seaweed farming; punching in the hood of a taxi on Kuta Beach's Poppies Gang I, and general pedestrian misery along that alley; Canang Sari; sunsets; a week of cold, saltwater showers; and camouflaged crabs.
Singapore is an oasis of logic and order in an otherwise illogical and chaotic region. The cost to live and travel within it is second only to Brazil, but is the kind of surreal place that can best be described as the Chinese vision of a utopian city/society. I have a desire to return to Singapore to find the seedy underbelly of the country, where the pedestrians jaywalk, and the people don't seem like repressed robots.
Singapore is one of the cleanest places on Earth.
Vivid memories: The architecture; (caning-enforced) fines for everything; lack of media piracy on the streets; next-generation electronics everywhere; overpaying for a horrible hostel; upscale shopping; and a wide diversity delicious foodstuffs.
I don't think Cambodia knows what to do with itself. It's a country full of children—over 60% of the population is under the age of 24, and 40% under the age of 14.
It's a rural country that seems to have taken too many queues from Vietnam, and not enough from Thailand and Laos. Present in Cambodia are the tall, skinny buildings; persistent, pushy sales pitches; and crafty scammers—all very Vietnamese.
All the cities I visited in this country reeked of tourism, and abuse/manipulation of tourists. Yes, a failing on my part not getting off the trail, but then again, I was in the company of a woman with a five-month pregnant belly (and a travel time limit). Hunting around the outback of rural Cambodia for a village where people didn't want to take their cues from their neighbors to the east was just something I didn't feel like doing.
Vivid memories: The saturation of a dirt colored brown, everywhere; sappy, Thailandesque love song music videos, complete with karaoke sing-along subtitles, playing on most every TV channel; amazing fruit shakes; death chanting; the amount of French spoken; Tatiana revealing that she speaks French, while receiving a prenatal ultrasound from a non-English speaking technician; inner-city transport stress, and being harassed for tuk tuk and motorbike rides everywhere; hotel staff repeatedly entering our room without permission; Battambang's over glorified architecture; happily cooking my skin on the roof of a boat for eight hours; traveler names sold to tuk tuk drivers; the crumbling (yet interesting) temples of Angkor; busing on an unimproved road towards Bangkok; and Tatiana's simple order of chicken and rice, which contained no chicken meat, but the tip of a wing, chopped liver, gizzard, two small pieces of rib, and the bird's bladder.
Although the notion of an American traveling in a country that the U.S. was so recently at war with was fascinating, I will never again return to Vietnam by choice. Ever.
Vivid memories: Constant lying; the traffic nightmare for pedestrians; haze; noise; (ugly) language; popularity of the pith helmet; crooked taxis; climbing countless flights of stairs; tiny street stools; mutant prawn/lobsters; overhyped food; the street vendor that returned money to me, insisting that I was accidently overcharged two days earlier; the little meat barbeque/frying outfits on the street; the lovely dinner with a Vietnamese friend; and the inept Hanoi pharmacist that handed a Tatiana a box of birth control pills instead of anti-itch cream for her seven-month-pregnant belly.
Peru: The land of Machu Picchu; excessive desert; earthquakes; neon-yellow soda; fried guinea pig, and furry lamas.
For my encore experience in Peru, the Fates have placed me in the capital city of Lima, inside Tatiana's family home. The collection of crumbling concrete homes and buildings in the metropolis is reminiscent of Cambodia. It's strange how so many things are alike between developing countries around the world, but all uniquely different.
Peru is poor, but just a different kind of poor than some countries in SE Asia. The lifestyle differences stand out the most, such as large urban supermarkets, and people deathly afraid of having their belongings snatched away from them with overt displays of aggression.
How long my sojourn in Peru will last is a mystery—as is the predicted extent of my exposures outside of the Pueblo Libre district of town. But with the New Year will come new paths, opportunities, decisions, and destinations. I may just not be done with Peru yet.
Vivid memories: House slippers; Inca Kola; building the Travelvice Compendium; home-cooked meals; baby preparations; and Tatiana's prenatal examinations.
The Freedom of Choice
I have the freedom to travel wherever I want, limited only by financial and political complexity. When I'm in a country, I decide daily whether I want to keep investing in an experience in that place or not.
I'm accustomed to having the luxury of choice. Every day I choose my home, my neighborhood, my city, my country, and my continent. With 673 countries, territories, autonomous regions, enclaves, geographically separated island groups, and major states and provinces in the world today, why would I waste my time in places that I don't want to be?
That being said…
- Countries that I'd have no problem revisiting: Uruguay, Thailand, Laos, and Singapore
- Countries that would take some convincing: Argentina, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Peru
- Countries that I have little to no desire to revisit again: Paraguay, Brazil, Venezuela, Cambodia, and Vietnam