Sunday, March 3, 2019

Southeast Asia: Hanoi

Mike was less bald when we landed in Vietnam four days ago. The two of us, along with Mollie, Josie, and Michelle are traveling through Vietnam and Singapore before meeting up with Matt, Colacci, and Danielle in Thailand. It's a Chicago Treehouse reunion of sorts, save for Mac and Halsey who unfortunately couldn't join.

Hanoi is a city unlike any I've been to. Motorbikes and taxis zip around with no regard for traffic law, knock-off merchandise is sold everywhere, and vendors cook food over small sidewalk fires they've ignited directly on the pavement. A meaningful share of economic activity could be classified as misdemeanors.

The best way to feel like a local is to look like a local. So our first order of business was, as it always is when traveling, to find a barber who could style us in the fashion of the modern Vietnamese. 808 Barbour Shop Men's fit the bill. 

English isn't widely spoken among the people here and Vietnamese isn't spoken among Mike and I, which is how Mike's hair came to briefly look like this:

I believe I've pinpointed the key moment of confusion: 

Mike had pointed to the barber's slick fade to signal that he'd like the same length haircut that the barber had. The barber said he understood, but after one swipe of the clippers it was clear that he did not. "Very short" Mike said, baldly and a bit worried. "This is the same as my haircut," the barber assured. "Got it one month ago," he clarified. Ah.

Thankfully the 19 year old wunderkind knew his way around a pair of shears and turned Mike into a handsome looking doctor after all. Very cool!

We spent the day perusing fake North Face and Nike stores that were, like everything here, cheap. For example, bahn mi's and beers are a dollar each (20,000 Vietnamese Dong) and "North Face" backpacks marginally more. Shirts from street vendors provide the best bang-for-your-dong:

On our way to dinner we turned down a street that was oddly quiet, a sharp contrast from the normal beeping and whir of motorcycles. On-lookers lined the street. Babies perched on their parents' shoulders and elderly stood in the front row. The people held flags or flowers or both. We realized why a minute later -- Trump was driving through on his way home from meetings with Kim Jong-un. The crowd ooh'd and ah'd and filmed the moment they had been waiting for with their phones. Although Attend a Trump rally was not on the original itinerary for our Southeast Asia vacation, it was heartwarming and even sweet to see the support for peace.

We explored a bit more of the town before ending the night with what would be our first of many group massages. While most of the massage was relaxing, the end of the session focused on removing knots in our heads. Chop after chop percussed against our foreheads until finally the "knots" relinquished. Woozy from either the relaxing massage or a mild concussion, we went up to our bunk beds and fell asleep. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

United Kingdom Day Trip: Pip pip!

I had a day and a half in the UK to kill before a work conference tomorrow and so figured I’d find some sort of adventure. Michelle agreed.

Michelle picked me up from the London airport in a rental car. I put my luggage in the back and hopped into the driver's seat, which had no steering wheel. Michelle put the car into gear from the passenger's seat and drove the lefty car on the wrong side of the road all the way to London. 

Our first goal was to find a typical English place of drink and we partly successful. We walked to a nearby bar called Gibson, whose menu starts:

How to use the menu: Choose a season that you feel like visiting. Then look at the months in that season and select a drink from those months. The drink will then set the coordinates of your destination.

So of course when we walked in, a grown man was licking an enormous, colorful lollipop as his cocktail. The woman next to him was eating a pine cone. 

Michelle's cocktail integrated a mouth-numbing Szechuan button flower. Mine had an envelope on it, inside of which were Pop Rocks meant to be eaten as the cocktail is sipped. Across the bar, the bartender lit a piece of paper on fire and put it in someone's drink, which was garnished with a slug. All around us, people were eating tree parts and drinking trash. I could get used to this!

We met a rambunctious trio of Brits at the next bar (a proper pub called Craft Beer) who taught us Cockney rhyming slang, which is a funny way of talking around these parts. The way it works is you take an expression that rhymes with a word and use that expression instead of the word. Instead of “stairs” you’d say “my room is just up the apples and pears”. Not "having a laugh", but "having a bubble bath" (or "having a bubble" for short). How splendid! Pip pip! 

Our home was a well-decorated flat. It had many quirks. My favorites were the door-handle-styled toilet flusher and a red fire extinguisher that was the size of our radiator (see the phone charger next to the extinguisher for reference).

The next morning we had a fresh cup of coffee hit the frog and toad. To Stonehege! 
An hour out into the countryside we stopped for brunch at the Leather Bottle, my favorite stop of the trip. The cozy, grassy tavern had four fireplaces and felt like a living room that served beer. They also had fruit-based gambling, which I enjoyed:

Balance a coin on the lemon to win a free pint
For the remainder of the drive to Stonehenge we wondered how big the rocks would be, seeing as neither of us had ever seen a picture of people next to it. The only thing we did know about Stonehenge was everybody we spoke with wondered why we would drive so far just to look at rocks. But I'd be damned if we didn't lay our eyes on the oldest rocks on the island!

Our visit to Stonehenge had the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of quenching our thirst for looking at old rocks, our desires were heightened. So of course we had to pencil in an additional stop to the Avebury stone circle, a megalithic circle that is not only larger than Stonehenge, but also has a tavern in the middle. And was only an hour's drive away! We made it to Avebury and walked the magnificent circle, which was littered with magnificent sheep, before heading into the tavern to warm up with one of those warm and flat cask ales that Brits like.

Inside the quaint tavern an old pooch lay next to the fireplace. A handful of older lads sat at the bar. They looked to be in their mid-fifties. The oldest was maybe seventy. 

Michelle and I sat with our ales as the barkeep came out from behind the bar. “Pete,” he said, talking to the seventy-year-old looking lad, “I found your drinking glass”. He held up a glass that had 80th Birthday etched into the side. The others had a laugh. One of them piped “but that was from free years ago, wuddin it!”. They laughed again. “Bastards,” Pete muttered to himself. They all had a bubble. I smiled too, and sipped my gross flat beer. Pip pip.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Cuba Day 1: Introspection 

Dear Reader,

Greetings from Havana, Cuba!
Last week I booked an impromptu flight to Cuba. This morning I took it. I'll be joined happily by Big Mike on Friday and joined begrudgingly by Dickie on Saturday. But until then I explore Cuba alone.

I'm spending the night here in Havana before driving South tomorrow morning to the small sugarcane town of Trinidad. On Friday, the crew will meet up back in Havana, where we'll fritter around until flying back home on Tuesday.  The theme for the solo leg of my trip will be introspection. The last time my roommates left me alone for a week, I lost my marbles and started printing rapper puns on pillowcases. I'm hoping a focus on introspection will keep my marbles in tact while I venture alone for four days. 

So here goes... Cuba: so close to the States but so different. The trade embargo has made the 90 miles separating Cuba and Florida feel like a chasm, deep and wide. This is obvious to anyone once in Havana, where '57 Chevy's rule the streets and wifi is mostly unavailable. But the careful observer (me) notices the outdated character of the country long before the wheels even touch down in Cuba -- the immigration form they pass out on the plane says it all. Cuba, it seems, requires first-time visitors to announce their arrival in song. How charmingly outdated!

I must have done something right, because with a scowl and a nod, the customs agent granted me access to CUBA!

 After the applause died down, I shared a cab with two Americans to downtown Havana. I checked in to my Airbnb then left to explore the ocean-side boardwalk, peeling my eyes for food, cerveza, and above all, introspection. I found a lovely outdoor restaurant whose waiter said that, today being Valentine's Day, they had a lobster special I may be interested in. "I'll take it" I told him, knowing that nothing is more introspective than Valentine's lobster alone. A closer look at the menu prompted my first introspection, denoted henceforth with parentheses.
(...Ordering solo Valentine's lobster is sad, but what kind of menu advertises solo Valentine's lobster? I wonder if lonelies are a highly profitable segment...)  To kick things off I ordered one of their cocktails -- the one the restaurant was famous for -- carefully avoiding blended drinks as the ice and water here isn't safe to drink. (...Can Cubans drink the water here? Do they know I can't? Do they think that's strange? I suspect they do think it weird -- what would you think if Germans got diarrhea if they ate something mundane like Wonder Bread when they came to America?...)

My drink came out chock full of ice. Time was ticking. As the ice melted, it was slowly poisoning my carefully crafted cocktail. Thinking quickly, I slammed the damn thing at lightning speed, unfortunately catching my waiter's eye as I did do. No quicker had he set my drink down than it was gone. He gave me a look saying (probably in Spanish), "I know we cater to lonelies but get a grip."

My lobster came with a choice of light or dark beer. I wasn't in the mood for something Guiness-like so I chose the light. The waiter came back with a frosted mug and my beer. Hand behind his back, he presented the beer, explaining its Cuban origins. He cracked the beer and served it with vigor, shaking the beer out of its can as if it were a Shakeweight. After the dust settled, I had the foamiest beer of my life. "Enjoy" the waiter said, before returning to the kitchen, presumably to shake up some beer cans for the next customer.

 I capped off my meal with the dark beer option, which is clearly the same as the light beer option, before retiring home to rest up for an early trip to Trinidad tomorrow. 
 ^ in case you missed it, that's the dark beer  -__-

* Writing from my iPhone -- please excuse any sloppiness

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Cuba Day 2: Trinidad

Two honks. "Amigo!"   My taxi driver waved up to me on the balcony.

Yesterday I arranged for a shared "taxi collectivo" to take me to Trinidad. Because the collectivos didn't know, when I booked, who I would be sharing a ride with, and because I don't have phone service, my driver told me to just wait outside my apartment from 8-9am and somebody would pick me up eventually. This manual Uber Pool has no GPS tracking and no messaging system. "Different world," I didn't say aloud to myself, but might have had I known then that I'd be writing about it now.

I jumped into the '50s 6-seater -- it was old but so very sweet, much like an over-ripened banana. The engine fired. Its diesel fumes reminded me of my dad's old pickup. As did the seats, which were black and overly squishy, like an over-ripened banana. I was sandwiched in the back seat between two Italians who were nice if not prickly. To my right, Matteo had shaved his arms, though not recently. His tricep stubble was irritating my naturally hairless shoulders. Up front sat a German couple who, after meeting on Tinder just a few months ago, was now traveling the world. (Mila, if you're reading this, that could have been us!)


Along the ride, the Germans gave me lots of tips for what to see in Havana. I never worked up the courage to ask them if Wonder Bread gives them diarrhea.  They told me the $50 I paid for the four hour, door-to-door taxi was far too much even though it seemed like a good deal to me. (... I guess I'm just not used to haggling for everything. Should I be haggling more in the United States? At what point in a country's development does haggling fall out of vogue?...)

 As I was dozing off the car came to a sudden stop, a maneuver I thought impossible for these old American yank tanks. An elderly woman was selling bananas on the side of the highway and our driver apparently loves bananas. He shared the delicious bunch with the whole car and we were quickly back on our way.  Once in Trinidad I moseyed about for a bit and then caught a ride to the picturesque Ancon Beach. A lot of Speedos, I noticed, astutely, and stripped down to my skivvies so as to blend in with the locals.

The ocean was surprisingly warm. I took a sip. "Soy Cuba!" I didn't exclaim, as the Cuban waters coursed through my veins.  I spent the rest of the day reading The Old Man and the Sea, delighting in the fact that the waters Hemingway wrote about were somewhere inside of me, like a perfectly-ripened, roadside banana. My mojito dried up as the sun set between two cans of trash.  

My rumbling stomach reminded me that I had eaten just once since arriving in Cuba. Maybe that was for the best -- I don't know the Spanish to ask if it's okay to flush toilet paper down the drain. (There are garbage cans next to many of the toilets, but I'm too scared to peek inside to see if it's supposed to be for toilet tissue.)

 The taxi I caught back to town picked up, without explanation, many many hitchhikers before dropping me off in town. There, I found an outdoor restaurant playing good music and serving bad pork, and settled in for the evening.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Cuba Day 3: Horsepower

I sat for breakfast and was content, but I didn't savor it as I should have. The sitting, that is. By day's end, a horse's bumpy and powerful galloping would be more than my bottom could handle -- sitting on my tender cheeks and thighs is unpleasant.

It started at 9:00 this morning when my guía (guide) picked me up and took me to our horses for an old fashioned tour of the countryside. As I was mounting my horse, Taquito, my guía grabbed me. "Momento," he said knowingly. A second later Taquito unleashed the urinary equivalent of a truckload. "All clear," he nodded and I jumped into the saddle.

It took just one horse step for me to realize that a horseback ride was a mistake. Taquito's gallop was bouncy and his back was hard as a rock -- riding him was like driving down the worst road in Cuba in the worst car in Cuba, but the wheels are made of concrete and your seat is a tree trunk and all the other passengers, even the driver, are all rubbing you with sandpaper. My guía pushed our pace by jingling some bells, bells Taquito seemed to fear (... I wonder if Taquito thought the bells meant he was about to get whipped or if he just understood that the bells mean "faster"...). Taquito grew bouncier and more powerful as he picked up speed in response to the bells. By the end of the ride I, like the beast, feared the bells and what they meant for my bottom. Taquito and I were in it together.

We made a few stops en route to our final destination, the watering hole. The first was a sugarcane plantation that served fresh-pressed cane juice with lime juice and rum. (... What's the difference between a farm and a plantation? Is my mom's vegetable patch a plantation? Pepperidge Plantations has a nice ring to it...)

The second stop was a coffee outpost that was grinding and serving coffee from beans grown on the nearby mountain. I got two cups, one for me and one for my guía. It was good. On the way out the coffeeman shouted to me. "Amigo!" He tossed me a cigar, "A present, for taking care of your guía."

"Cuidado," I answered, not knowing the Spanish word for "respect".

More Speedo's. We had definitely arrived at the watering hole. I knew the drill.

I stared into the water and it stared back -- it gave me a menacing look and I wasn't having it. I climbed to the highest point in the nearby rocks and prepared to give the water the whooping it was asking for. "Sayonara" I didn't mutter. I engaged my karate stance and leapt, attacking the water below. My training took over as I soared gracefully down towards my enemy. I gave a double kick outwards, prepared to disarm any airborne foes. None came. I turned my attention back to the water now 15 feet beneath me. With one mighty yelp, I shifted all of my weight into my palms and karate chopped the crap out of the water.

I plummeted half a league into the water and when I beached the surface for air, a small crowd had gathered. They stared, puzzled, silent. I nodded as I waded to shore, then sat on a rock by myself.

The horseride back to town was brutal. Battered and tender, I walked to a restaurant next to the Casa de la Musica. I was determined not to let a sore rump get me down, and gave praise. "The sun is shining on me!" I exclaimed.

I hadn't seen my waiter approach from behind. "Te gusta el sol, eh?" he said, cautiously.

Later, at a shop downtown, I bought a painting of that restaurant. Something to remember the waiter by, I told myself.  

Both the Old Man and the Sea kept me company for the evening. I sat on the steps of the Plaza Mayor, book in one hand, beer in the other. Couples danced romantically on the landing below. The sun set. I ordered a Cafe Erotico. The bartender did a double take. "Como?" she asked. I showed her the menu. She examined it closely. She furrowed her brow. She shrugged and began making the drink. It came with more sugar than coffee. It wasn't much good. 

That night, returning home, I ran into my first American -- Jess Levy. Hi Jess!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Cuba Day 4: Big Mike

Mike appeared from around the corner as I hopped out of my taxi, back in Havana. The two of us were united and Dickie, the final member of the gang, would arrive tomorrow. Then we three would begin consumption. The plan is to ingest Cuban food and drink continuously, gaining mass and becoming The Round Trio, a name we fell into while planning the trip:


But until tomorrow, Mike and I explore Cuba alone.

A quick note about money in Cuba: There is a 10% government-imposed fee when converting USD to Cuban CUC ("kook"). Therefore, it's best to convert USD to something like Euros or Canadian Dollars at home, then convert those to CUC at an exchange in the Havana airport (exchanges outside the airport are tough to come by, especially without internet to help find them). Mike kindly volunteered to be in charge of exchanging money for the three of us for the weekend, but unfortunately understood just one stage of the two-stage conversion process.

"WHATSUPMAN!", he shouted as I hopped out of my taxi. "WHATSUPMAN!" I hollered back. I asked to divvy up the CUC he got us and he proudly flashed several hundred Euros with a smile that said "I bet you thought I wouldn't come through", unaware that he hadn't come through. Smh.

Luckily, I had a few remaining CUC from my solo stint, so with that we went looking for lunch and now a currency exchange.  We stopped by a convenience store to buy water. A quick note about money in Cuba: There are two separate currencies here. There is the CUC, used by tourists and pegged 1:1 to the USD. Then there is the CUP, used by locals, and valued at 25 CUP: 1 USD. Stores will sometimes display prices in both CUC and CUP, but never in Euros, the currency that Mike brought, because Euros are used mostly in Europe which is several thousand miles away from the store we were standing in.

No mention of Euros unfortunately. 

We got lunch at El Aljibe, known for their delicious, Cuban-style, all-you-can-eat chicken -- a great opportunity to gain some mass. We emerged from Aljibe rounder than when we had entered.

It was the early evening and friendly strangers told us the currency exchanges were now all closed except for one in the Hotel Nacional, the premier hotel on the island. The banking services were technically for guests only but we were told they would be happy to exchange currency for anyone. Welp, not us. They curtly refused. I was upset at first but then noticed everyone else in the lobby was dressed to the nines and looking great. We, on the other hand, had spent the afternoon tacking on mass and taking pictures with trash and looked like this:

Back at the Airbnb, warnings about Zika and Dengue Fever plastered the walls of the apartment complex. But just shuttering the many doors and windows to outside wasn't enough to keep us safe from the mosquitoes. Holes in the apartment wall needed a pluggin' as well. Luckily Mike had some old black socks that, after a day's wearing, had become impenetrable

With the apartment locked down we hit the town. The first place we tried, a softly-lit bar with a balcony overlooking the city, denied us entry. We were rejected next door too. Out of other options, we went into a nightclub for which we were under-dressed.

"Two of your biggest beers please," I asked at the patio bar. The bartender complied. We walked inside with hilariously large bottles, and I was glad the darkness hid the fact that we were under-dressed.

"At least here they can't refuse us service because we look like we've been taking pictures with trash all day" I thought, as the black lights came on. I looked down. Splotches on my jeans glowed ominously under the UV lighting. I sipped my beer and sighed.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Cuba Day 5: Get Rich

There are basically three types of taxis here: good-condition vintage cars from the fifties, mostly-broken cars from some point in the past, and modern cars. The mostly-broken cars and nice modern cars are for the birds. We were on vacation and planned to ride in style. 

Everybody else was clearly thinking the same thing because all of the vintage cabs were full while the others were hungry for passengers, which meant we had to sneakily signal to the passing vintage taxis without letting other taxis see. However, if you're not well-hidden, the broken cars slowly slink on over while you're not looking. When you turn back, a driver in a rusty box on wheels will have appeared from nowhere. "Taxi?" he'll ask.

Sure enough, a slinker caught Mike and I and took us down to Old Havana to both explore the neighborhood and finally exchange Euros for CUC. Only thing is I forgot our Euros at home so the exchange, well it didn't go too well. With the little money we did have, we grabbed a coffee and then walked over to a small stand selling refreshing delicious coconuts in one of the plazas. We didn't order the "Coconut Smilch" because we didn't know what it was but we certainly weren't in the mood for smilch at 9:30am, coconut flavored or otherwise. Coconut water would be just fine. 

We drank our coconuts next to a baby holding a big fork riding a chicken, and then searched unsuccessfully for bug spray (for Zika and Dengue Fever protection).

Dickie was planning to meet us at the AirBnb at midday, and midday it was so we returned home to fetch the final member of our crew. 

Getting Rich from downstairs!

"Good news boys!" Dickie came into the apartment hot. He unloaded his backpack on the couch and plucked out a small bottle of bug spray, aware of the mosquito-borne epidemic. No ordinary spray, he explained. While most sprays are little more than fifteen percent deet, this spray was chock full of it -- 98.25%! How rare!
"No Zika or Dang-Goo here," Dickie said, using his preferred pronunciation of "Dengue Fever".

We headed back into town and worked up an appetite walking around the plazas. A small restaurant had a few tables set up on the side of the cobblestone streets and live music was playing softly nearby. We started with a few beers, catching up on life and enjoying the sun. When our waiter came back to take our appetizer orders, he told us "No pizza today because the oven is broken." No problem -- we ordered the bruschetta and toast. "No bruschetta or toast, the grill is broken too." No problem -- we ordered olives. "No olives". 

On the way back home, we found what we three always find when we travel internationally -- a game of ball. And we did what we always do, lost to a bunch of kids, three games in a row. For those keeping track at home, we're 0-8 in international play. Team USA doesn't travel well I suppose.

For dinner, we found a place with both an oven and a grill, unlike some restaurants we know. We ordered a round of appetizers, some ("pastry basket with tuna and cheese") more adventurous than others. Dickie took a bite of one of the more adventurous, authentic appetizers. "Wow," he said, surprised. He ejected his bite out of his mouth, through the humid Cuban air, and onto a napkin on the table. "Good," was his evaluation, 100% serious. Mike and I laughed hilariously. Dickie did too.

A round of drinks later, and with the apps and our individual entrees polished, we were rounder than ever. But not round enough. The waitress came to clear our plates and asked if we wanted the check. "Actually, we'll do another pasta entree and fries, por favor." The Round Trio was back!