Getting Good at Having No Clue: The Traveller’s Journey

No Lying

Always look for local advice.

Never do I feel quite so self-satisfied as when I enter a Chinese subway.

As you exit Shanghai Central from the intercity trains to the metro, there is a long, horrible corridor coated in sadness and human suffering. There are banks of ticket machines for the subway, each bracketed by greasy aluminum barricades to hold in the masses. As each train lets out, hundreds and thousands of people flow through this hall as they move to the subway. Almost every machine is constantly utilized by people who have absolutely no idea how to work such a machine, nor how to use money, or possibly even their own fingers.

For months I huffed and grunted and tapped my feet, waiting desperately as dozens of people tried and failed to use the machines that worked so simply. I grew frustrated even as I knew that I could cast my speedy technological gaze over the device and have my own tickets and theirs produced in several seconds. Worse yet, experience meant I could probably manage to use the hulking brute in English or Chinese and still get in and out in just a moment. In recent months I have taken the extra step of self-congratulation and have purchased a reloadable metro card, which allows me to bypass the line and feel deeply, undeservedly metropolitan at the same time.

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Media Delirium Tremens and the Missing Ocean of Crap

It was strange to be the 194,563,906th person to see Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” on YouTube. Stranger still was that I had never heard of the song before.

A friend linked me to a remix which I found infinitely charming, and it struck me that I had not heard the original. I sought it out and gawped blankly at my screen. This was obviously a popular song, a hallowed member of the current cultural zeitgeist of the homeland. This was something that had already become an assumed fragment of cultural heritage, a shared globule of media experience to which all North Americans, and many other global citizens, had already absorbed. In fact, Happy was beyond the saturation point when I came across it. It had already surpassed osmotic spread, whereby every human in that hemisphere had long since realigned their neural networks to simply include the song’s existence. It was something everyone already knew, had talked about, and gotten over.

And I had never heard of it.

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Hey Guy, Check Out This Sick Prayer

Overall, most of the people assembled for the Hindu self-mortification ceremony were very into Will’s dancing.

Rooftop Party

Sorry. Was this a private function?

We had stumbled, as we often did, into something rare and special and probably not meant for us. Boisterous and expanding across a rural roadway, we heard loudspeakers and shouting and joyousness, and we buzzed closer like moths driven to a technicolour flame. We had taken the ferry away from Yangon to Dalla for the day, and each rural roadway so far had proved fruitful and interesting and unexpected. We were drunk on sackjuice and adventure, and the sound of a party lulled us in.

I spied the goddesses long before we saw the hooks. I pointed out Lakshmi surrounded in parasols and bright orange petals, and then I pointed out the gentleman on the rickety wooden kitchen chair. Iron crescents slid in the skin of his broad, dark shoulders, and he grit his teeth and stared into the distance. Maybe he was on sackjuice as well. We realized instantaneously that this was probably a private religious ceremony, something sacred and honourable. Our baboon presence, with our flip-flops, DSLRs, and SPF-60, was at best ancillary to the nature of the celebration. We turned to go.

Hands grabbed at us, dabbing paint on our faces, smearing our palms with ruddy brown and red. Everywhere townsfolk reached out to shake hands, ask how exactly we managed to stumble into a Hindu religious festival in Myanmar. We shrugged, as while this situation was kind of becoming a custom for us, it was probably not for the residents of Dalla. We motioned towards the exit, which was the dusty road from whence we had first walked, and the people around us scoffed and waved. A pshaw, as though saying, “So soon? But you haven’t even seen the best parts!”

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A Beginner’s Guide to Bourgeoisie

La Valenciana I

Shellack it in gold and ship it to my summer home, will you?

The massage cost the equivalent of 4 Canadian dollars. The young Indonesian man who provided it – sprightly, pleasant, deserving more in life than my tepid fleshy torso – smiled pleasantly as we met, not looking me in the eyes, in case either of us were ashamed of what was to come.

I had never had a massage before. I knew, theoretically, that they were pleasant affairs, and was curious to experience one. However, they occupied a place in my mind that was reserved for people far richer than I. Massages were for the wealthy, for people who swam in Scrooge McDuckian pools of gold, for people who sampled caviar and spat it into their crystal spittoons once their palates had been stimulated.

And indeed it was pleasant: a thorough kneading, ambient south Asian muzaak, the humidity of the tropics. Our masseuses and masseurs even did us the solid of wiping down all the oil and grease we had accumulated so that we left the spa relaxed, refreshed, and even less slick than when we first entered. I was so mushy that my deep, writhing awkwardness, the uncomfortable knowledge that I had paid someone else to massage me and that it was really weird, was a distant emotion, like an anxious sunrise on a faraway shore.

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Dalla Days: Hey, Check Out This Self-Mortification

Tromping Dalla

Time for fun, sun, and sackjuice.

Burma. It occupied a special slice in my mind, one murky with half-remembered news headlines and foggy recollections of local military history that had been looked up and forgotten. Other travellers talked about Burma as though it were a secret hidey-hole, a hidden place accessible only with great cunning and with great effort. The ability to enter Burma required the cleverness of the djinn, the swiftness of the Pegasus, the strength of the minotaur. According to backpacker legend, controls on tourism had only recently been relaxed, and entry past the border necessitated unmarked, non-sequential US currency in a pristine leather valet case, several hidden bottles of high-quality foreign whisky, and the rights to your unborn children.

In actual fact, going to Burma involved booking a ticket, then talking to Jane, the nice lady at the travel agency, and handing her a neat stack of yuan for my visa.

My feet hit the ground and still I felt a tiny swell of pride, the surge of self-assurance that I was achieving something. Sure, our plane was packed full of Korean tourists and missionaries, but wasn’t I still something of a ground breaker? Forging into new lands? As always, the myth is more endearing and enduring.

As we woke on our first day in Yangon, our friend declared that he had already seen much of the city, and wondered if we might explore what lied across the river on the opposite banks. The journey was simple: bypass Sule Paya, veer through the verdant park just beyond, and ride the ferry to bucolic quaintness.

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Winter is Coming: Cold Wimps

Kite Lady 1

Time to bundle up, children.

The first snowfall in Korea was always heralded with whoops and celebration. Many of my friends – Californians, Australians, South Africans – had so little experience with snow or cold that they found the novelty thrilling. White crystalline shards of joy were falling from the sky! They would run out from their buildings in weather-inappropriate clothing, mouths agape, ready for the cinematic experience of winter. A single snowflake would flutter down and land on their noses, and they would shiver, and then Santa would arrive, and also everyone would be wearing fashionable red sweaters and drinking cocoa.

Within a week the reality of the season would set in like so much semi-frozen street slush. Heavy coats and thick boots, a constant ritual of dressing and undressing as one moved between vastly different temperatures like drifting through biomes on a gale of wind. They grew acquainted with scarves and knitted caps, with bitter chapped lips, with the feel of black ice slamming directly into your face as you topple off your feet. Scores of temperate people were doused in chill, and had to try to understand what longjohns were, why they existed, and how quickly they could acquire as many pairs of them as humanly possible.

Confronted as they were with these bouts of cold, their endurance was tested and they had no available coping skills. They veered directly from plaid shirts and summer shorts into heavy wool sweaters and goose down parkas the second the leaves began to change. They shivered in fur-lined caps and warm mittens, and hugged themselves against mild-to-moderate gusts, the kind that might cause a Canadian or a Norweigian to remark that the weather had finally started to turn pleasant.

A good winter coat is a nuclear weapon, and it must be deployed with care and discretion. Firing it too early leaves one unprepared for the war to come, for the battles still to be fought, for the rising stakes and the falling temperatures. Swaddled completely from head to toe as soon as the thermometres dipped below 10, my friends were completely horrified and utterly shattered as we went below freezing. Wind chipped at their delicate, sun-shaped features, brutalized their hair and their knees, wore their skin open through frigid erosion. With only one coat in their arsenal, they employed their heavy weapons too early, and were left unarmed when the real fight began.

I never feel quite so studly or Viking-like as when I can lord my cold-resistance over my daintier coworkers and acquaintances. While I swelter and melt through-out the summer months, a pool of slovenly sweat-stained dress shirts and damp hair, winter is the time I am allowed to shine.

My childhood in Canada often sounds like a harsh, bitter sort of experience, the way people might describe their arduous training regimens for astoundingly difficult barefoot decathlons. Pounds and pounds of protective gear, bottles stuffed with electrolytes to bolster my fragile young self from the bitterness and difficulty I was to endure. Howling winds carving crenels in my flesh while horrendous cold tunnelled down into my lungs and shredded my alveoli with sickly icicle fingers. Snow monkeys attacking all the while, wolves howling from the deep and the dark. Days with thirty-seven hours of darkness, marked only occasionally by the fires of roving snow bandits, who came to steal your stewed venison and the warm blood from the core of your abdomen.

I wasn’t even from a particularly cold part of Canada, but when I describe the kind of gear necessary to function as a child in Canadian winter, people from elsewhere look horrified. “Snow pants? Parkas? And what exactly is a ‘toque’?” They couldn’t fathom the idea of being subjected to such extremes, for the need of such preventative measures, for the casual, laissez-faire acceptance of the risk of frostbite. Things might just go brittle and fall off of you when it gets cold enough? People live in such places? Do they know that Florida or Thailand exists, and are places you could go instead?

It was hard for them to fathom the joy of a good toboggan, shredding down a wooded hill, the uncontrolled careen and the constant risk of flying into a tree or a patch of brambles. Hours spent constructing a snow fort and chiseling away at its perfect white carapace—the euphoria of sitting inside matched only by the bliss of kicking the structure down with a heavy, rubber-soled boot. Snow angels and dropping an ice puck in the drooping, dangling hood of a childhood friend. Stripping sopping gloves off of your tingling frozen-wet hands and wrapping them around a mug of hot chocolate.

Not that winter is easy or always pleasant. Living in a place with snow or a cold climate means expensive, heavy winter apparatuses to keep the body from freezing. It means getting up to shovel four or five times a day, and cursing the name of the plow driver who piles the inky slush from the road into the end of your drive. It means constantly risking wet socks and trying desperately to step on the parts of the sidewalk that bring the safe, comforting sound of rock salt crunching below your feet. It’s a harsh season, and from a distance, or from the breech of your first real winter, it can be difficult to see through the cold.

But really what winter has always reminded me of is the warmth. The kindled fire in the hearth or the pair of worn slippers waiting just inside the door. Hot cocoa spiked with Irish Crème, or a stout winter beer shared with a friend in a cozy pub. Writing your name across frosted glass, watching the dew form at the tip of your finger, the crystal cracks etching out through the ice. Long journeys in the cold to make it to a warm home, a warm friend, a warm smile. Celebrations that turn the dark and the cold into the light. Most can’t handle winter because they don’t know that the summer and the spring are just a drive away to your mom’s living room, to your best friend’s couch, to two pints or three with a hot bowl of soup, steaming and sweltering in your ungloved palms.

Crash Positions and the Bag Boy

Straight razor

“I’ll have a little off the top, please.”

I entered the salon prepared for battle.

Years of terrible Korean haircuts meant a trove of neuroses as dense and fibrous as the mop of hair I was then sporting. Every excursion to a hair stylist meant almost certain doom and failure, a horrific exchange of miscommunications and dire proclamations of woe from both customer and merchant. It meant dismay and misfortune, it meant a furrowed brow and a trembling hand, and it meant a series of really dumb haircuts.

Over time my defences grew strong and I tried to mitigate the destruction rent upon my scalp through readiness. I knew vocabulary in Korean, as I now do in Chinese, to describe vaguely the kind of haircut I desire. I photos of myself from multiple angles with an approximate coiffure goal. I can draw myself in comic form, present a rule to give exact dimensions, and even guide them physically if necessary. A bad haircut in the latter days of Korea was a hard-won failure, but at least the fault was entirely upon the barbers, and not on me.

And so as I entered the salon in China, I was similarly clad for war. I had my pictures and my words, my sternest expression, my exact specifications and the blueprint for my head, the support beams and the girders and the gridlines required to sculpt my scalp into something vaguely like what I desired. My lip was curled, and my fist was around my phone, which was already scrolled to a picture of me, shorn-headed, with a similarly scornful sneer spread across my face.

“Sit down over there,” the barber said, rivulets of tedium pulsing through his voice. “I’ll shampoo you in a second. What kind of haircut do you want?”

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