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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Hangzhou Photoglut: Experimental Gloomtography

Hangzhou Title Pic

Behold glorious Hangzhou, city of a very nice lake, some cool pagodas, and actual woodlands! I can barely stand all the nature. Alas, like most weekends of late this particular weekend was shrouded in dark clouds and a hazy mistglob that covered all the lands in grey. Well, being China: greyer. Luckily, the Hangzh’ was still very pretty in its own dreary, spooky way, and I have collected a day’s worth of photography for you to point your oculoids at. Continue beholding.

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Visions of Sickness From Faraway Places

Friends, Romans, and countrymen and -women, I have fallen ill. It has been a gross several days of torturous hot-and-cold, toss-and-turn, binge-and-purge grossness, the details of which I will spare you. Well, mostly. I went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with tonsillitis. He helpfully described the pus forming on them as a “cheese.”

You will be proud of me in that I totally did not barf on his shoes at this description.

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Seeking Lonely Mountain Peaks for Companionship, Fun, Nothing Serious

So Long Huangshan

If this mountain is cool with being alone, why not you?

The bus from the hotel to the Huangshan transport depot was brief. The other teachers from the school had risen early with visions of a hearty hike before them. According to guide books and a thorough wiki-ing, the steep walk could be evaded by cable car, and one could be treated to the splendours of a half-dozen mountain peaks and hours of trudgery without ever having to climb up one long, bleak side of the mountain itself.

A few of the others balked as I purchased the single ticket to the alternate destination. They were a posse of eight, forging up into the wilderness and the unknown of China, while I was one, alone. I would be solo on a mountain for hours, with no real knowledge of my companions or when I might meet up with them. I had a decent, though vague, reconstruction of a Google map imprinted on my brain which I would consult along with my compass. I had a good book, a nice camera, and money to purchase water and goods on the mountain top.

I had no companions and no one to talk to. Cell phone reception would probably be spotty at such altitudes. I would definitely be on my own. I waved my goodbyes, shouldered my backpack, and soldiered on.

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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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Transpacific Laments for Starry Skies

Private Beach

Always looking for the right patch of sky.

I was always a terrible sleeper.

Anxious and constantly thinking by nature, my childhood mind was a churning furnace of thought and story and all the many possible futures. I remember lying awake and thinking of any number of things – of possible futures, of stories I wanted to tell, of places I wanted to go. I was socially awkward for many years, so I remember sometimes lying away, my scalp sagging into my tiny pillow, planning out possible conversations I might have with peers the following day. Turning my brain off was never something I could fathom, never mind attempt. A mind, in my experience, was a tire fire, an oil slick, a great uncontained thunderstorm. Turning off my constant thinking would mean, almost certainly, that I had simply expired sometime in the night. Sleep usually overtook me only when I became so exhausted with thinking that a fuse shorted somewhere in my brain and the systems took a break.

Childhood insomnia meant I spent a lot of time staring out my childhood window into the night sky. Being unable to sleep anyway, I hated the idea of blinds or curtains, of casting myself in a caul of black, of throwing my eyes into darkness and giving myself nothing to ponder on. I always asked for the blinds to be up, for the curtains to be drawn, for the windows to be slid open to let the night in.

I needed night sounds and night skies. The sound of city buses has always been the perfect white noise to me, a loud parking brake the closest analogue I’ve ever had to soft rain or the aquatic songs of blue whales. A choir of crickets and the soft pat-pat of the few walking the roads late at night, looking up at the same dark skies.

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Flight of the Douchebag

“I heard that Christmas in Germany is lovely,” one of us murmured, his or her mouth pursed, as though brimming full of caviar and Zinfindel and self-satisfaction. “The Germans just know how to truly celebrate. I think we should all holiday in Europe next winter.”

The Peak of Mt. Popa

Let’s weekend in Burma, shall we? I hear the spring there is divine.

What a horrendous, decadent assemblage of words. What a cock-eyed, over-privileged, obscene collection of phonemes, ordered in such a way that their construction seems pornographic and vile. I cringed internally, even as I think I probably said it.

That we could even fathom to use the word “holiday” as a verb seems to galling and horrific that our tongues should probably be taken into custody by government officials. That all of my articulators, my teeth and my cheeks and my vocal chords, should excise themselves from my body and escape to Tijuana. People didn’t say things like that, nor did they squint and primp just so. We barely qualified as humans anymore; no, we were douchebags, anthropomorphic pond scum from another planet far away.

Reorienting myself to view travel so cavalierly has taken time and effort. As a child I watched documentaries about people jet-setting around the world, I sat through countless seasons of the Amazing Race. I envisioned the kind of people who took wing and journeyed through the skies: they always wore scarves. They purchased insanely expensive bottles of cognac, used the contents as mouthwash, and spat the leavings on the people who flew coach. They slept on beds made of chilled Alaskan salmon and cashmere puppies, soft and rhythmic and alive. The people I thought of were not so much people as they were personified luxury, walking and talking chequebooks with no personalities and a constant, burning desire to wear berets and eat large baguettes.

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Adventurrhea: The Eternal Battle Between Splendour and My Intestines

Jantar Mantar I

How lovely! Do you suppose there’s a Port-o-potty at the top?

Fireworks rocketed heavenward, fizzling and popping, exploding into colour and light. They shone across the curvaceous roof of the Golden Temple, out across the nearby streets, and all throughout Amritsar. Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim alike were celebrating the festival of lights under a blanket of stars, walking barefoot in the night, necks craned back to scoop up so much of the fiery sky.

It was beautiful and serene and majestic. At least, I’m pretty sure it was, as I mostly watched through my hotel window.

A day before I had ordered something called “stuffed potatoes” at a restaurant, assuming that it would be maybe one potato, jammed full of spinach and curd and curry paste. In fact it was a half-dozen potatoes, stuffed with this and other such delicious detritus, and also possibly rocks and moustachio trimmings and shaved gold, and I felt duty-bound to at least make some sort of valiant attempt to consume the mighty offering placed before me. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea at the time.

 

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Wear Your Beanie This Arvo, It’s Cold Outside: My Growing Pan-English Accent

Have you filled a bucket today?

Sometimes it’s pretty, but I’ve been taking pictures of language stuff just so I can have stock images for language-related posts.

There are times when my mental world grinds to a halt after something I have said. A phrase so particularly and enigmatic that I must stop and consider the universe; a trick of words so hilarious or stupid or amazing that I must marvel at my own tongue’s ability not to fall out of my mouth in horror. At other times I stop because I am not sure what has happened, how the words have emerged from me. I wonder at how it is that I have just said such a thing, as though my mandibles were possessed, as though some ghost was in the machine of my articulators.

Sometimes, it is a menu-item so amazing my life halts: “Multiflavoured razor clams.” At other times, it is something that emerges naturally from a conversation, a perfect, globule summary phrase that tickles me beyond comprehension: “Porcelain dildo artisanry.” When the words finally tumble free into the ether, my existence seems to take a sharp inhalation, as though the world has started to rotate in alternate directions.

Never has this been so apparent as when I am picking up Australian lingo.

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Ambient Language Acquisition

Elephants III

If you’re around elephants often enough, it’s not that hard to pick up elephant language.

There were five people left in the van: the driver, three backpackers in rapidly deteriorating dress, and a young Thai woman in business attire. All of the other passengers had long since disembarked, calling their stops to the driver, who would nod his assent and help unload their burdens.

Periodically, the driver would nervously gaze into his rear-view mirror. As always, we had been shoved into the farthest back seats, where our bulk seemed less menacing, where they put all the cargo no one knew what to do with. We loomed, cramped and ungainly, into petite-size seats atop our travel towels and toothbrushes. His gaze would pass over us indirectly, and he would cough gruffly in consternation.

“Hey,” he said to the woman, after a long moment of anxious glances. “You speak English?”

“Yeah, kinda,” she murmured, already not liking where this conversation was headed.

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